BLT: The Sandwich of Summer

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One of my brother's just moved for a job. The middle one. And although we too are planning on moving, his departure has gotten me down more than I had imagined. Maybe it's because he's the most involved of the uncles and I love watching him interact with Viggo, or maybe its because he's become a hilarious and consistent fixture in our friend group, but either way, I already miss him randomly dropping by after his "floating in the dark tub" sessions.

But, this post is not about brothers. It's about bacon sandwiches, which we happened to eat last time my brothers were over for brunch. BLTs are great anytime, but they are especially good with ripe summer tomatoes. 
I cook my bacon in the oven, since that requires less hands-on time on my part. And when building my sandwich I like lots of lettuce, and mix my mustard with my mayo, slathering both sides of the bread. If you happen to have avocado around, that's always a nice addition as well.

 Here's the bro and Viggo, being pals. 


Baby Octopus and Growing Babies

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Many years ago, our friend hosted a party. It was memorable for several reasons: 1) She never hosts anything 2) It was for her 33rd birthday, which seems like a century ago and 3) There was this special octopus. 

I've been thinking about this grilled baby octopus for the last six years. When I saw that Super King was selling frozen packs of already cleaned baby octopus, I went for it.

Because this party happened sooooo long ago, my friend couldn't find the recipe she used, so I found my own. It was Greek-inspired and easy. And it didn't require any boiling, just marinate and go straight to the grill. So, we invited ourselves over to said friend's house and brought along the octopus. It took a lot longer to grill up, but it was fresh and delicious. We spent the afternoon watching our babies (she now has two!) and drank wine leisurely in their backyard (as leisurely as is possible with three kids around). 

It was nice watching the kids gobble up baby octopus and play together. Her daughter patiently helped Viggo buckle his seat belt on her bike and they were being all cute and very grown up, which made me feel sad yet content at the same time. And I guess I realized that's pretty much how the last few months can be summed up for me. It's been fun to watch Viggo grow, with everyday there's something new and funny to witness, but it also breaks my heart a little to see my baby disappear. Oh man, was he a great baby!

A few weeks went by and we saw more octopus at Super King and decided it was time for round two. I was determined to find the original party recipe and casually brought up my search to another friend who attended the evening. And lo and behold, she had it! Being smart enough to get the recipe the day after the party, it was saved in her Gmail, just waiting for someone to use it. This time we invited friends to our house, and sat out in our backyard (which has gotten very little attention this summer), drinking champagne cocktails and rosé, watching Viggo trying to get into all kinds of trouble.

This recipe was much different. It required boiling the octopus for 45 minutes in wine and broth and then marinating in balsamic vinegar overnight. This version was sweeter tasting, and only spent a few minutes on the grill. 
Version one.
Version two, simmering away.
Eleni enjoying the octopus. We're lucky we don't have picky eaters. At least not yet!
The kid is obsessed with bubbles. And we're kind of over it. But he does look adorable parading around the block with his bubble mower.
Viggo recently learned how to smile when asked. It is not a pretty sight! He strains his face and does a funny squint. We can't get enough of his fake, ugly grin. 
My baby looking like a boy. 

I'm going to share both versions here, for whichever suits your mood.

Version one (I added fresh oregano and savory to my recipe, along with preserved lemons).


Maui in April

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So I realize this post is a little late, but as I stress out about moving to a different state where I have no job, or a place to live, it's nice to think back to our week in Maui. Although traveling with a kid (and your parents) is also stressful, in a different way. The husband and I reminisced about our trips to the islands on our own, and how magical and carefree things used to be. 

Despite having three (extra) people in tow (along with ALL THEIR STUFF), we managed to drive the Road to Hana, sort of chill on the beach, see many a waterfall and even sneak off to a nude beach. 

Viggo didn't really get the whole sand thing, and was teething for a good part of the trip, but he ate a a ton of gold fishes and bananas. He also decided he would walk the absolute bare minimum, insisting to be carried 85% of the time. And I destroyed my phone at the Seven Sacred Pools. This all sounds like fun, right? It was. A new reality of fun, where you always carry a diaper bag and lots of snacks.

Below are a few photos from the trip, enjoy!
All the trouble makers.
The Seven Sacred Pools. I don't think I've ever seen my dad happier, swimming around 
and grinning like a kid. 
Goldie locks
We almost ditched him here. But then he decided to be cute and charming again.
Viggo ate a LOT of tiny bananas on this trip. 
My little beach babe and sand hater.  We'll see you again Hawaii, in like five years!


Sad Sardine Story

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Dear Readers,
Sometimes life disappoints. Today’s post is about such a disappointment. Who would have thought buying five pounds of sardines would be a bad idea? Me, kind of. But, as the husband mentions, they were such a steal, it was hard to pass up. What the husband doesn’t mention below, is the worst part about the entire cooking experience, the sardines were not cleaned in any way. So, I spent the better part of an hour, scaling and gutting these tiny, stinkers. I had pretty much lost my appetite before they went into the oven.

But, there’s a lesson to be learned here, some things are better in a can, or a restaurant. Smell ya later, sardines.

I hope you enjoy the husband’s story of sardines. And I've added some photos of Viggo to balance out all the fishiness.  

- KK

I eat sardines. Lots of canned sardines. Smoked, in water, tomato, mustard, or harissa sauce; purchased from Trader Joes, the Mexican market, wherever. When they’re deboned and placed in a tin, it’s nice, but I’m just as happy saving the extra 50 cents to a dollar for such luxury, and picking out the boney spine myself. According to most marine researchers, my taste in these non-predatory fish helps eco-balance the ocean, since they’ve been flourishing as a result of our overfishing of tuna, salmon, and sharks for the past 50 years. I take a minor satisfaction in that.

Eco-consumption aside, it’s probably my fascination with Italian recipes—sardine pasta particularly— that peeked my interest in seeking out fresh sardines. Not long after this resolution, all the food magazines were talking about the noble sardine, displaying several recipes that used fresh ones. I was inspired by the articles, until I discovered that no stores around me sell them fresh. So I kept to the can, doing my part to save the world by eating at least two tins a week.
One day, on the front page of a mailed advertisement from Super King (the mega pan-ethnic supermarket near us), the wife noticed a deal for a box of frozen sardines. They weren’t fresh, per se, but flash frozen was close enough for me. The price was even more enticing at five pounds of fish for only $4.50. Fearing they’d be sold out, we rushed over and purchased a box. At home, the wife and I split the five pounds into separate freezer bags, noticing that even in a frozen state, they were supremely odorific. With so many frozen fish packed away, we dreamed up a future sardine party that only a select group of friends would be invited to. But before getting too far ahead of ourselves with party planning, we prudently thought we should try out a recipe.

The wife found a warm fennel and carrot slaw that’s roasted with sardines for our trial recipe. After the prep work, the pan went into the oven, and an intense aroma started spreading from the kitchen, like a slow moving fog. Now, I’ve become inured to the smell of canned sardines. Because I can tell it disgusts others, I normally exile myself to outside corners to eat sardines. There was no escape here. Once this dish was in the oven, it began to perfume the house in what I can only describe as the aroma of pier sink. You know, those sinks where anglers gut their catch. Or maybe the far corner of a lake where fish go to die and decompose. Despite the olfactory intensity, I prepared myself to the sardine stink by comparing it to ripe cheese. 

When we finally sat down to the meal, the sardines looked appetizing on top of the slaw. While the wife snapped a photo of her plate, it looked similar to many of the recipe pictures I had seen, which was a good sign. And, the roasted slaw was great. But then we got to the sardines. Or rather, we tried to get to the sardines, but were prevented by an impenetrable network of bones. Bones caught in my throat, got stuck in my teeth. Dinner became a chore, and the already strong tasting fish became less and less enjoyable with the amount of work it took just to get a decent bite. The meal didn’t work.  I barely finished my plate, the wife picked around the fish to get at the vegetables.
Still, part of me doesn’t even want to blame sardines in general. Just these sardines. Maybe real fresh sardines that cost more than a dollar a pound might have changed the course of the meal. Although, the plus side of paying $.80 per pound for fish is that throwing them out isn’t terribly tragic. And perhaps, if justified correctly, I’m still helping the ocean maintain its balance.

(And now, here's Viggo, doing little Viggo things that makes us smile.)
 Cake inspector.
 Loves to yell, "DONE!" after finishing his food. And he now takes his plate to the kitchen, which is seriously cute.
 Cooking at the library.
Wine tasting pro. Two wine trips before two.

And just in case anyone is interested in recreating this recipe, you can find it here: www.saveur.com/article/recipes/olive-oil-braised-sardines-with-fennel



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I am a sucker for Kitchen Vignettes on PBS. It's so beautifully done, it makes me want to move to the countryside, find a husband who can hold a video camera and make pretty food videos all day long. 

We are big fans of kimchi, so I was excited when I saw a video for this recipe. It looked easy and fun to make. And it was both, I knocked this out in no time. I love leeks and I knew I would enjoy this, but one thing I didn't expect was for the husband to really NOT enjoy it. After one try, he refused to eat my leekchi, and so I've slowly been making my way through the jar all by my lonesome.

I find this great over rice and on morning potatoes, but you can eat it on anything, and it keeps in the fridge for months. If you're into leeks and kimchi, this might be the thing for you. Or not. 

via www.pbs.org/food/kitchen-vignettes/leekchi/

6 cups thinly sliced leeks (about 1 1/2 pound or 3 large leeks)
2 tsp sea salt (pickling or kosher salt is ok but do not use iodized table salt)
2 large cloves of garlic (about 1 Tbsp, minced)
1 Tbsp finely grated ginger
2 tsp hot red pepper powder (ideally Korean kimchi pepper, but a mix of cayenne, paprika, or dried chili flakes is fine - for a really hot leekchi, increase the amount accordingly)

1) First, rinse the leeks very well. Also, wash your hands well before starting this recipe because you’ll be using them to mix everything together.
2) Place the thinly sliced leeks (including some of the green tops) into a large bowl. Sprinkle the salt on top. Use your hands to massage the leeks and salt together until the juices begin to release (about 5 minutes). Cover the sliced leeks and allow them to rest for about 45 minutes so the juices continue to release.
3) Add all of your flavoring ingredients: minced garlic, grated ginger, and hot pepper. Mix well until fully incorporated.
4) Press the leek mixture into a clean 2-quart mason jar or crock, or a 1-quart jar if using a clamp-down Fido or Le Parfait jar. In order to ferment vegetables properly, you must keep them submerged under liquid. You’ll want to compress the leeks down to remove all air pockets and to encourage their juices to rise to the top, really packing them down. If you don't have a wooden tamper, you can use the back of your hand or the end of a wooden spoon or rolling pin to press down. If you've pressed the leeks down but there is still not enough liquid to cover them, you can add a bit of homemade brine. Stir 1 tsp salt into 1 cup water until the salt has dissolved. Pour just enough of this brine on top of your leek mixture to cover it.
5) The fermentation process will push the leeks up out of the brine so you may need to weigh them down, depending on the vessel you’re using. If using a mason jar or a crock, top your leeks with a follower and weight combination or use a simple weight made out of a quart-sized ziplock bag. Press the plastic down onto the top of the ferment, then fill it with water and seal. For a jar, screw the lid loosely on top. Do not seal so that gases can escape during the fermenting process. Clamp-on jars such as Fido and LeParfait do not need a weight to keep the vegetables submerged because they can remain closed until the ferment is ready to eat. However, if using this technique, be aware of the small risk that a jar can shatter, as explained in my write-up above.
6) Leave your leekchi at room temperature, away from direct sunlight for about 1 week. The contents may bubble and seep out so you may want to keep your jars on some newspaper. Unless you are using the clamp-down jar option, you should check your ferment daily to ensure the vegetables are still submerged under brine. Scoop out any scum that develops on the top. Your leekchi is ready when it has turned yellowish, the leeks have softened and developed a nice sour aroma.

After about 7 days, the active part of the fermentation should be complete and you can move your jar or crock to the fridge where they will keep for about 6 months.


Easter: Starring Lemon Lavender Cake

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Dear Readers,
When I was growing up in Turkmenistan, there were no churches. Being a communist nation, mostly made up of Muslims, and part of the USSR, religion was a private affair, which my very religious grandmother took seriously. But for us kids, religion never really left the house, and as we grew older, and came to America, where religious freedom was a thing (in theory), it was easy to spot the circus show that is organized religion. And that really turned me off. But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy my holidays, like Easter. Mostly because I get to eat delicious meals with loved ones and remember traditions like dyeing eggs with my grandma.

Another thing about growing up in the Soviet Union was that you didn't really have access to things, like egg dye. So being resourceful and doing things naturally wasn't just for hipsters, it was how you lived. I recall my grandma and mom boiling onion skins and beets so we could color our eggs, because that was the only option available. 

So last year, the husband and I started our own egg dyeing tradition, with natural dyes, and plants from our garden. It was our first Easter with the little guy, and even though he won't remember it, it was a great one for our family. And this year, we were at it again, dyeing a few eggs to be pickled, having an impromptu egg hunt on our way to Easter dinner and making a delicious spring cake. 

I doubted this cake. The husband's track record with cakes is terrible, but in the end, his matured baked skills and love of all things lavender, helped to make this a cake (and Easter) to remember. He writes about it below.

I never thought it could happen, but I think my cake curse is lifting. Last weekend my entire cake was eaten up and actually enjoyed. On top of this, I heard that people on the wife’s “social media” liked it and even wanted the recipe. 

This Easter, I wanted to make something light and lovely. I wanted a white cake without it being too vanilla. I wanted people to take a first bite and think “this tastes like a spring day.” I had visions of lavender paired with lemons growing in our yard and brought all together with blueberries (the blueberries were actually part of the wife’s vision, but when you’re married, visions are stolen and shared).

Fortunately, as I was searching for white cake recipes, I chanced upon Maurine Dashney’s cake blog. A wealth of flavor pairings for cakes and icings, I found just the right recipe that spiked white cake with lemon zest and a subtle lavender touch. I also discovered cake instructions that might be responsible for dispelling the cake curse that’s plagued me for years.

She describes her cake making techniques in a simple fashion, easy to follow and replicate. What caught my attention was how she divided the cake ingredients into wet, dry, and butter/egg components and how she treated them. The butter and eggs should be mixed at high speed to incorporate air, but when the flour was added, mixing should nearly cease. As a bread baker, a chief concern is to develop gluten. It's why we knead until our hands are sore. But, as a cake baker, one must do everything to inhibit that. I can’t say I understood that concept concretely before it was explained so straightforward by this blog.

Once I beat the egg whites and butter on the highest speed, I shut off the mixer. For the first time in my cake making history, I took out a mixing spoon and alternately poured the sifted flour into the mixture and then the milk, gently stirring it all together. I poured the aromatic batter in the pans, made sure to lick the spoon clean, and threw the pans in the oven for 30 minutes.

Once the cake cooled, the wife and I made a simple butter cream. We set to work decorating the cake, spreading blueberry jam between the cake layers and then iced it. Fresh lavender was placed on top and blueberries circled the edge. Once the wife put her icing knife down, I could only hope that the cake inside tasted as good as it looked.

After Easter dinner we anxiously sliced into it. The jam set perfectly between the layers, and a wonderful lemon and lavender aroma wafted over the dessert table with the first slice. I took a bite and was confounded by the taste of success. It was light, fluffy, and flavorfully moist! Before I could get a second helping, the cake had all but vanished. The only thing that was left were the cake compliments I received from the dinner guests, which was nearly as sweet as the cake.

With this curse behind me, on to rose and earl grey cakes.           
Viggo received all kinds of Easter baskets, but was obsessed with a pack of ducks. We spent hours taking turns and hiding ducks for him to find around the yard, which he did tirelessly and happily. 

And then, at the end of the evening, the poor little guy fell, and hit his head, and we spent the last few hours of our day at Urgent Care. Luckily, he was in good spirits, as you can see below, despite having a staple gun come at his head. Poor dude turned 18 months yesterday, and is already a regular at Urgent Care. But, in other news, he LOVED this cake. 
Lemon Lavender Cake
via http://www.maurinedashney.com

Makes 12 cupcakes or enough batter for one 9" round cake pan, so if you plan to make a two layer cake, double the recipe. (Note that a typical cake involves doubling the recipe and baking two pans' worth of batter.)

1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, cut into pieces
1 cup sugar
2 egg whites, slightly beaten
3/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
zest from 2 lemons
2 tsp culinary lavender

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a medium-sized bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a larger bowl, beat the butter at a high speed, and gradually beat in the sugar. Then, slowly beat in the egg whites.

Now you will gradually be adding the dry mixture and the milk to the butter-sugar-egg mixture. To do this, alternate mixing in some of the dry mixture, followed by some milk, followed by some dry mixture... You get the picture. Do that until you've incorporated the dry mixture and the milk completely. Just don't over-mix here.

Finish by incorporating the vanilla, lemon zest, and lavender. (Bonus points if you grind up the lavender a bit in a mortar and pestle first.)

If you're making cupcakes, pour the batter into 12 greased or lined cupcake wells and bake for 16 to 22 minutes. If you're baking a cake, pour the batter into a greased 9" round cake pan and bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Rely on the toothpick test here for a perfect cooking time—a toothpick inserted into the middle should come out with some crumbs on it.

Basic Buttercream Frosting 
Makes enough for 12 cupcakes or for half of a standard double-layer 9" round cake.

3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temp
2 1/2–3 cups powdered sugar
2–4 TB milk or cream
1 tsp vanilla
a pinch of salt (optional)

Cream the butter for a good few minutes. Gradually beat in some of the powdered sugar. Incorporate the milk or cream and vanilla.

Finish by incorporating the rest of the powdered sugar. The more you add, the stiffer your frosting will be. (Just be sure to test along the way, since your frosting can quickly become too sweet!)
Apply frosting to completely cooled cupcakes or cake.

Note: A cake with this frosting can sit out for a few days, actually. Woohoo!

Another note: You may have some frosting left over. Freeze it in a plastic baggy, and the next time you need to frost something you can just let it thaw, snip off the corner of the bag, and frost to your heart's content.


Shrimp Etouffée

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I made this shrimp etouffée back in November for a Southern themed brunch at a friend's house and I still think about it (AND, its only taken me 4 months to post, that's all). I have shrimp in my freezer, so it might be time to revisit this simple, but comforting dish.

Once you have everything chopped, the recipe comes together quickly, especially if you purchase your shrimp stock.
I can't believe how little Viggo looks in the photo below from November! Also, I am still trying to play catch up with the blog posting. It's getting harder and harder to turn on my computer after getting home from work. But, I want to make an effort to document our kitchen adventures, especially now that little guy is making things more exciting for us in the kitchen with his enthusiastic outbursts, animal magnets thrown about the floor for easy tripping, and sneaky little fingers trying to get into every nook and cranny he's not supposed to.
Shrimp Etouffée
Serves 4 to 6 via www.thekitchn.com
(I made this recipe as is, increasing only a few of the spices)

1 1/2 pounds head-on medium shrimp, or 1 pound medium shrimp, unshelled
1 1/2 cups shrimp stock, chicken stock, or water
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Rice, for serving

Remove the shrimp shells, tails and heads if you have them, and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover and refrigerate the shrimp. Pour the stock over the shrimp shells and place the saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring it to a rolling boil, and then lower the heat to maintain a lively simmer. Cook for 20 minutes and then remove from the heat.

While the stock is simmering, stir the thyme, salt, pepper, cayenne, and paprika together in a small bowl, using a fork to combine them. When the stock is ready, pour it through a wire-mesh strainer into a measuring cup. Add a little water if needed to make 1 1/2 cups.

Place a large heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the butter. Swirl to coat the pan as the butter melts. When a pinch of flour blooms on the surface when added to the butter, scatter in the flour and stir quickly and thoroughly, combining the butter and flour evenly into a thick, smooth roux. Continue cooking, stirring often, as the roux turns from white to golden-brown, about 2 minutes.

Add the spice mixture, onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic and stir quickly, mixing the vegetables into the roux. Cook until everything is fragrant and softened, 1 to 2 minutes more.
Slowly add the stock, stirring and scraping to mix it in evenly. When the sauce is bubbling and boiling gently, lower the heat and cook, stirring now and then, until the sauce is thickened and smooth, about 15 minutes.

Scatter in the shrimp and let them cook undisturbed until the sides are turning visibly orange or pink, about 1 minute. Toss well and continue cooking, stirring often, until the shrimp are pink, firm, and cooked through and nicely flavored by the sauce. Add the green onions