28 March 2010

Pie Season: No-Pare Pear

I don't know about you, but in my circle, we hibernate from November-February, hiding indoors from the grey and rain, ducking out for meals at our standby, close-to-home comfort-food restaurants, and, well, merely survive.

But once the hyacinths sprout, tulips poke through the damp clods of dirt, and the clocks jump forward an hour, the veil lifts. We emerge, jubilant, trading our wellies for flipflops as early as possible, recklessly forgetting our raincoats in favor of shirtsleeves. And, we start making plans -- filling our dance cards -- to finally see things other than our spouses and cats.

Spring has officially sprung around Seattle, meaning we're hightailing it into dinner-party and backyard bbq season. On Saturday, we headed jauntily up the street toting pie and cookies and rose. We sipped wine and nibbled on cheese amidst freshly-shorn grass, budding plants, and flitting mosquitoes -- so pesky in summer, but surprising in late March. Everything screaming for life.

Sockeye steamed and sizzled on the grill, herby potatoes roasted in the oven, and a scrumptious salad of greens and blood oranges -- harbingers of spring -- awaited us at the table.

The conversation never ceased (nor did the flowing wine; good thing I was walking home) and we kept nipping in to second (and third) helpings of the food -- both sure signs of a successful dinner party.

Capping any good dinner is, of course, dessert. I'd brainstormed for several days about what to make -- it had to be simple and tasty and without chocolate (Nate had given it up for Lent). A pear pie recipe courtesy of my mom perfectly fit the bill.

It's so simple to make, it's actually silly. And it's a showstopper.

Slice a few pears in half, coring but not peeling them, and arrange in an unbaked pie shell. Blend a custard and drizzle it over the top of the pears, letting it nestle and ooze around the fruit, whose plump hips teasingly poke through the voluptuous blanket.

Bake at a low heat. The recipe calls for 40-50 minutes at 325. Not brown enough for my liking, I kept adding minutes to the timer; all told, this pie stayed in closer to 55 minutes -- the last 10 on the convection setting. It still didn't look quite done, so I took a chance and turned the broiler to low, leaving the pie on the middle rack. The oven door gaped ajar and I literally squatted in front of it, not turning away an eye. We stayed like this for a few minutes, the oven and the pie and me, until the top hinted toward brown and the pears bubbled and glistened.

As it cooled, the pears settled into the pastry below, etching an echo of themselves in the now crisped top. I fretted that this looked unfinished and accidental but, to my chagrin, the guests loved it.

As we took our first bites, contented sighs emerged from around the table. The custard melded perfectly into the still-warm, soft pears; the toasty top spoke of meringue and fortune cookie. The fillings paired perfectly with the simple, crisp oil crust (another wonder in its own right that I'll have to post about soon!).

This was my best attempt at this pie yet, which I credit to the use of a finer sugar (Baker's) and those few minutes under the broiler -- just enough to add a delicate crunch to an already sultry pie.

I would show you a photo of a slice of the pie so you could see how it stacks up. But I forgot to bring my camera to the dinner party and there was literally not a bit left -- not even a speck of crust -- after dinner. My grandma always called it a sign of good luck when nary a scrap of dinner was left after a meal. I'll take this as a sign of a lovely season ahead.

No-Pare Pear Pie:

1 9" pie shell - unbaked
2-3 firm Bartlett pears (make sure they're not too ripe or they'll cook into a mush)
1 C. sugar (I recommend Baker's sugar)
1/4 C. flour
1/4 C. melted butter
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla

Cut pears lengthwise, coring but not peeling them, and arrange cut-side down in the pie shell. Blend custard ingredients and pour over pears. Bake on the middle rack for approx 50 minutes at 325 (If you have a convection oven, use it for the last 10 minutes). Switch off the oven and turn on the broiler to low; leave the pie on the middle rack and slightly toast the top for a few minutes. Watch it carefully.

Can be served warm or cooled. The rich custard filling doesn't really call for ice cream or whipped cream. As we discovered, it goes quite well with a rich, buttery chardonnay.

24 March 2010

Flavors of Puerto Rico

Last week, Nate and I celebrated our 7th anniversary (a few days early) with a week in Puerto Rico. The sun shone hot, an Atlantic breeze providing an occasional respite from otherwise heavy, sticky air. We spent the first couple days wandering the blue-brick streets of old San Juan and admiring pastel-washed facades.

We strolled along the water up to El Morro, ausing for breaks from the heat under smartly placed trees.

And, finally, rested atop a grassy knoll to watch kites lift up, up, up.

From there, we spent much too long in the car and much too little in the pool/at the beach. Our trip strategy is usually the same: fly into the major city, spend 48 hours max, then head out to glimpse smaller-town life and escape the bustle. But for a small island - some 130+ miles long by 40-some wide - it required a lot of driving.

We spent a couple days poolside in a teensy, tiny B&B somewhere near Ceiba; met some Bay Area rockers in town for the Metallica show (the band's hadn't played the islands in nearly 20 years; it, apparently, was epic); hiked La Mina trail in El Yunque rain forest and took a dip below the crashing waterfall. We missed out on the trip to "el Hippy" - a local watering hole where the B&B owners and rockers went to jump of boulders into the water. I regret this and publicly apologize to Nate for not taking his lead and going with the gang.

Next up were two days devoted to Ponce - the island's second-largest city and home to a renowned art museum. Like Panama City last year, Ponce was stiflingly hot. After checking in to the lovely yet quaint, historic Hotel Melia, we hopped back in the car toward the museum. And proceeded to drive 15 minutes only to find it closed. Remodeling. For an indeterminable time. This is the first time I can recall being shut out of a planned vacation spot - and it's clearly our fault for not researching first. Still, a bummer. We instead headed back to our hotel for a scoop of "natural" ice cream (mine tasted like Strawberry Quik), took a siesta, filled out our NCAA basketball bracket, and headed out for a dinner at the swanky restaurant Lola in the adjacent Ramada (yes, Ramada. It's alot different than the ones I remember on roadtrips in the US).

After that, we were done with Ponce and ready to head back to San Juan a day ahead of schedule. En route, we tried to find a local beach on the Caribbean side. We found a speck of public beach that was enough to dip our toes into the bathwater-warm sea, but not large enough to stretch out and relax. So, back to the car, where we drove another hour or more on the main highway that parallels the sea, hoping to see a turnoff for a great playa. A few pitstops for food and sustenance later (including a roadside stand, where I prepracticed reciting my order in rusty Spanish and bravely ordered my food, only to have no idea what the vendor was saying back to me; their Spanish is so different from my gringo version!), plus a failed attempt at finding a local beach reco'd by the B&B owner (the place looked dodgy as all get-out), and we gave up. Back to San Juan for a couple more nights - including one fabulous day of nothing but swimming in the crystal blue ocean and sitting by the pool drinking Medalla and watching basketball.

Post-trip, our checkbook is a lot lighter (It's an island; most everything is shipped there, raising the cost). We are not. Puerto Ricans are known for frying much of their foods. What they don't fry is doused with a heavy hand of sugar. In some cases, like the quesito pictured below, it's both sweet and fried. Yesterday, I split my pants while crouching down to get a book off the lower shelf. Better head back to the gym after typing this.

Some sights of what crossed our palate over the week:

Tres Leches:

Flan de Queso:

Towers of fried stuff:

Post-dessert; very happy:

Swanky dinner at Lola; too bad the fish was, well, so fishy:

Delightful starter at Lola: baguette done up proper with a balsamic glaze:

Mofongo - a traditional Puerto Rican dish of mashed plantain served in a vessel then topped with meat or veggies. This one is pollo:

A heavenly bit found at Starbucks: A "quesito" - a local delicacy of flaky, crispy pastry filled with sweetened cream cheese:

Asopao - a rice stew - with a side of sangria:

11 March 2010

New Website, New Twitter

Hi all,
If you're already here, then you've found me. Just a quick note, though, to update your bookmarks and/or spread the word (thanks in advance!) that I have a new website: www.amydishes.com. I also have changed my twitter account to @amydishes.

Thanks for following, and more posts soon!


01 March 2010

Crab Apple

It snuck up on me slowly and quietly. A sigh here, a growl there, an occasional flippant comment.

I didn't even notice. But poor Nate, who lives with me and is witness to all facets of my personality (read: my moodiness) was noticing a trend. Ever since I started eating poultry again, I've been in a foul -- or is that fowl? -- mood.

Truth be told, I haven't really felt all that well, either, which I know is contributing to my surly disposition. The food itself tastes pretty good going down. Satisfying, even. I tried to convince myself that the indigestion and sour stomach and bloat (sorry if it's TMI) was just a side effect of too much coffee or stress or otherwise. It's been a busy period at work. But I think Nate's on to something. I think it's the chicken.

So this week we'll do a little experiment. If I go cold-turkey on the pollo, replacing it with another bird (or, perhaps, more plant-based proteins), will my mood improve?

Tonight, in honor of all things scientific, I'm spontaneously changing up the dinner menu. We're going back to The Way We Used to Eat. My dear friend Colette's lemon risotto is now on the docket, and I couldn't be happier. I'll report back soon to let you know if my post-meal-mood aligns.