If someone were to ask you to name your earliest food memory, what would it be?
Don’t think long on it. In fact, try not to think at all. Go with what first comes to mind. See where that takes you.
This intriguing prompt at a food writing workshop I attended stirred up an unexpected taste and memory for me: Ginger Ale.
As a young child, I loved Ginger Ale. No matter how I felt, a glass of it always embodied something good. It could have been served over ice in a pretty glass with a maraschino cherry, aka The Shirley Temple, marking a festive occasion. It could have been my birthday or a holiday gathering.
Or it could have been as simple as a visit to my grandparents in Queens, New York.
If I ate a good dinner, and the weather was nice, we’d go up onto the flat tarred rooftop of their apartment, a 5 story walk-up. Nana would gather ice, glasses, and the jar of maraschino cherries. Poppop would grab a bottle of White Rock or Canada Dry and the dessert of the moment. That could have been chocolate chip cookies, or brownies, or a quivery Jello with whipped cream. I’d bring along my beloved stuffed animal, a big curly haired silver-grey poodle that I had named, not surprisingly, Ginger Ale.
We’d sit around a card table on folding chairs amid the upper private world of chimney stacks, pipe vents, and t.v. antennas. We’d drink our special beverages, eat our dessert, and listen to the sounds of cars and people below. I’d ask about the neighbors in other apartments; had they ever used the fire escape? did they have poodle dogs, or parties on the roof?
We’d linger until just past dusk, watching as distant bridges became strands of lights .
It was the best party ever.
But if I was sick and feverish, holed up in my bedroom, Ginger Ale took on another meaning. Mother would bring me a small lukewarm glass, along with a triangle of dry toast. She’d carry this remedy on a tray, and place it on my bed. She’d caution me to sip very slowly. And take tiny bites of toast. Which I did, with diligence.
It always made me feel better.
As an adult, I rarely drink Ginger Ale. But recently, I was asked to make a special cocktail for a Farm Dinner/Wedding Celebration I was catering. I concocted this fresh ginger-grapefruit zest syrup.
Crisp, citric, with refreshing bite, a splash in an inexpensive champagne elevated it to an ooh-la-la cocktail. Stirred into a glass of Perrier transformed it into a sophisticated version of my childhood delight. Worthy of a wedding celebration,
Or of one of those rooftop parties.
GINGER-GRAPEFRUIT SIMPLE SYRUP
2 cups Water
2 cups Sugar
Zest of one large Ruby Grapefruit
2″ piece of Ginger root, peeled and sliced
a few whole Peppercorns
In a saucepan on medium heat, add water and sugar. Stir well.
Add grapefruit zest, slices of peeled ginger, and a few peppercorns.
Bring to a boil, stirring so that sugar is well dissolved.
Remove from heat, and allow ingredients to steep into the simple syrup.
Splash 2-3 Tablespoons into icy fizzy mineral water, like Pelligrino. Garnish with strip of ginger, or slice of grapefruit.
Pour 1-2 T. into the bottom of a fluted champagne glass. Add champagne, garnish and serve.
Pausing, midday, for a cup of hot tea is one of those treats I rarely allow myself. That shouldn’t be the case. Taking time to step away from the stove, or the computer screen, is so beneficial to my general well-being; it should be a natural part of my day. That moment to regroup, restore, and refill the creative well is as easy as bringing water to a boil.
I was reminded of this when I was asked to sample some organic herbal teas for a company, Sacred Rose. I set aside my work, took out the only tea cup left from a set that once belonged to my grandmother, and poured a delicious, heady brew. That bit of self-nurturing was just what I needed–and the non-caffeinated concoction gave me a little boost, without the spike and drop of coffee.
Sometimes, it’s nice to take the pampering a step further.
I follow a blog, Darjeeling Dreams. Here, Joyti has written much about the world of tea: the types and blends, tisanes and infusions, the rituals of steeping and sipping. She also has some wonderful recipes–mostly desserts—many of which are perfect to enjoy with that vibrant midday cup.
One recent recipe caught my eye. It had all the right elements–a pleasing aesthetic, and an intriguing complexity in flavors created in a simple preparation. It is also her friend’s favorite: a one layer, unfrosted, fresh Raspberry Buttermilk Cake.
One day, I decided to make it, although with slight variation. I had just a handful of raspberries in the house, and a couple of very ripe peaches. Peaches and raspberries baked onto a buttermilk cake sounded appealing, too.
It’s the sort of cake that you can whip up by hand. I like that. No need to lug out the stand mixer. There’s a wee bit of preplanning: be sure to have the butter softened, so that it will cream nicely with the sugar. And, have the buttermilk at room temperature–it will more readily blend with the creamed butter-sugar mixture without clumping.
Joyti makes her cake with a combination of whole wheat and white flours. My pantry offered only unbleached all purpose white flour, so, again, there’s a slight variation.
It baked beautifully.
And the taste? Elegant.
This is a barely sweetened cake, and the buttermilk imparts a rich tang. The crumb is soft. The raspberries almost melt into the batter as it bakes. This aspect is what really makes the cake special, and if you have only raspberries–so much the better. The peaches, while pretty, remain sitting on top–their juices don’t influence the cake’s outcome so much.
One night, I served it to friends with a scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with peach and plum sauces I had made.
But now, it’s just me. So, I’ll steep a pot of this grounding tea, and have a slice. If you’re in the neighborhood, come on over. I’d love to share.
RASPBERRY-PEACH BUTTERMILK CAKE
(adapted from Joyti’s Darjeeling Dreams)
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 T. Baking Powder
1/2 Cup Sugar
6 T. Butter, softened
1 1/3 cups Buttermilk, at room temperature
Zest from 1 Lemon
1/2 Cup Fresh Raspberries
1-2 sliced Peaches
2 T. Demerara Sugar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9″ springform pan with parchment, and butter the sides.
Mix dry ingredients–flour/baking powder/salt in a bowl and set aside.
In another bowl, cream the softened butter and sugar together,
Whisk in the buttermilk, lemon zest, and egg.
Stir in the dry ingredients, and mix until well incorporated.
Pour into prepared springform pan.
Arrange sliced peaches around the circumference of the caketop. Place raspberries in the center.
Sprinkle with Demerara Sugar and bake for 30-35 minutes.
Allow to cool 15 minutes before removing .
Enjoy with a cup of tea.
SACRED ROSE ORGANIC HERBAL TEAS www.sacredrose.us
Sacred Rose’s “Mother Earth Zest” (one of their 8 special blends) is a gently invigorating tea. Ginger and spearmint are the dominant notes, layered with fennel and sage. It is designed to refresh and to ground, and is pleasant tea to drink in the afternoon. It has lovely aromatics, too.
Sacred Rose is a planetary-conscious company, whose teas honor the energy and restorative powers imbued by the plant kingdom.
My two weeks in Uvita, Costa Rica were spent in slow, at times contemplative, and liberating ways. No phone, no radio, no television, limited internet: it was a step off my time-space continuum, where the position of the sun and the level of the tides became the markers.
There was so much to observe in the natural world that surrounded me.
The ocean alone was mesmerizing. Daily we visited Playa Hermosa, an expanse of dark sandy beach with large break-causing sandbars off the coast. Waves were surf-worthy, and when not wading in for a cool-off swim, we would sit and watch: the roll and crash, the too-quick surfboard rides, the swift agile visits of bottle-nosed dolphins. Formations of pelicans, lovingly dubbed “the Costa Rican Air Force” by locals, would pass in elegant glide overhead. Sand crabs would amuse with their constant scuttling chase and retreat.
When not on the beach, we were up on the ridge, exploring that world. Over time, some birds became familiar: one large red-orange billed toucan would periodically circle through on his hunt; we called him The Toucan King. I witnessed a pair of Yellow-Green Vireos ( I named them “the Fussy Couple”) who, over the two weeks, did their mating dance, built a nest in a low hanging palm frond by the porch, took turns defending their home, protecting the eggs.
There were beautiful fruit and flowering trees around our house. Fragrant guava, plantain, finger banana. A lime that shocked, its dark green rind encasing a bright orange center. The groundsman, Martin, introduced me to the Jamaica plant.
A kind of hibiscus, its petals are the source of Agua de Jamaica, (pronounced Hah-MIKE-ah) sometimes called Red Flower Tea, also found in the Celestial Season’s Red Zinger Tea.
I have enjoyed Agua de Jamaica, made from the dried red flowers, at a couple of Latin eateries in Nashville. It’s a refreshing beverage with a taste all its own: a kind of citrus-berry combination with a light floral note. But I had never seen the plant itself, the vibrant ruby flowers that packed Vitamins A and C, and all that flavor.
I decided to pick the flowers, and try my hand at making some Agua de Jamaica. If it works with dried petals, I figured, it should work with fresh. The petals from twenty buds—about a cup— comprised my trial.
It was a simple and rewarding experiment. Over a twenty minute simmer, the petals yielded their stunning color and taste to the sugar-water. Allowing it cool, I strained the liquid, now a Jamaica syrup. A splash over ice, with some added water and a squeeze of lime—ah, it became The Beverage.
There was a balcony terrace off our upstairs bedroom overlooking the Pacific. At day’s end, it became part of our routine to make the special beverage–sometimes with sparkling water or tonic, and sip it as we watched the sun sink into the ocean’s horizon.
Now that I’m home, I’ll have to seek out the dried Jamaica petals at a local Hispanic market. Warm days are soon to come, and we can savor the gorgeous drink, and recall our step out of time.
AGUA DE JAMAICA SIMPLE SYRUP
1 Cup fresh Jamaica Petals (or 1/2 Cup Dried Jamaica Petals)
1/2 Cup Sugar
2 Cups Water (increase this to 4 cups, if using dried Jamaica Petals)
Place all three ingredients into a clean saucepan and stir to dissolve sugar.
Simmer for 15-20 minutes, (10 minutes, if using dried) stirring occasionally, until the ruby color of the petals permeates the liquid.
Cool and strain syrup, discarding petals. Refrigerate.
Pour a splash of syrup over ice and add water (or tonic, or Pelligrino, or another effervescent water) and a squeeze of fresh lime.
In part, due to my nature, in part, a product of my times, I spent my younger entrepreneurial years operating under the radar. Stained glass window designer, silk screen printmaker, craft co-op gallery director, gourmet brownie baker…
My bohemian sensibilities, you might say.
In the late eighties, I went legit, opened a little cafe on a shoestring. Called A Matter of Taste, it was a charming spot housed in a old warehouse facing Nashville’s riverfront. It drew as many characters as customers, and was the springboard for some funny adventures.
I wrote a book about the cafe, the intrepid women who worked with me, our fringy downtown community—all on the cusp of corporate gentrification. Entwining tales of offbeat catering jobs and nurturing meals unfold to a larger story of adaptation.
A Comet’s Tail of Chocolate to date, remains unpublished, although I am thrilled to tell you that an excerpt is included in the latest issue (#10) of Alimentum, The Literature of Food. The title of the story is “The Insurmountable Problem,” and has a drippy chicken delivery man as its star…
I confess, seeing the story in print has made me a bit giddy. So I thank you for indulging me in this small piece of self-promotion. And, I invite to check out this literary review of food. Founded in 2005, Alimentum features poetry, fiction, and essays from writers worldwide.
“That chicken man.” I gritted my teeth. “Gives me the creeps.”
But wait! You know how I always like to give you a recipe with a story. So, here’s a quick and easy one: Cilantro infused Lemonade. The herb pairs beautifully with the citrus; the combo seems right for the advancing summer heat—so cool and refreshing.
Lemon zest and fresh cilantro infuse a simple syrup. ( I believe that lemon basil would be wonderful as well–and I shall try that too, once my lemon basil grows a wee bit taller.) Mix the syrup with a little lemon juice, sparkling water and BLING—you have a sophisticated summer drink. Just the right thing to sip on while savoring the Word of Food.
for the Simple Syrup:
1 cup Sugar
2 cups Water
zest of one Lemon, and some slices
1 cup coarsely chopped Cilantro
Place water into a saucepan and stir in sugar. Add zest. Bring to a boil.
Remove from heat and plunge in chopped cilantro. Toss in about 3 thin slices of lemon. Let cool for a couple of hours.
2 T. Infused Simple Syrup
Juice from 1/2 Lemon
Sparkling Water, like Pelligrino
In a tall glass, put in 2 Tablespoons of Simple Syrup. Squeeze in lemon juice. Drop in ice. Pour in sparkling water and stir. Garnish with lemon slice and cilantro sprig. Sip and enjoy.
We all watched as the door closed and a gnomish pink man with long orange hair and beard in a navy blue uniform scampered off, dolly in hand, to his delivery truck. The Music City Egg truck had a big red chicken painted on its side and was illegally parked on First Avenue, straddling the street and sidewalk at an angle. Underneath the chicken was the enigmatic company slogan, “Yesterday’s lay delivered today.”