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Spice Island

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Zanzibar spice nursery

Fresh from a rare side sojourn to Zanzibar—pinch me, Zanzibar!—after a work trip to Tanzania, I can still almost feel the hot East African sun on my face and taste the delectable Swahili delicacies that I could not try fast enough when I was there. Oh, but for more hours in the day—or for the wisdom to take vacation time when I travel.

Still, I did have the presence of mind to sign up for a tour of one of the spice plantations just outside of Stone Town. And I skedaddled home with a glorious trove of ingredients to recreate my Africa experience as well as energize some of the dishes on regular rotation here.

Over the coming weeks, I will be pulling out the stops with fresh nutmeg, cinnamon bark, lemon grass, curry blends, saffron and other lovely flavors as I channel inspiration from one of the world’s original fusion cuisines: Swahili. (First up: prawn curry.) But for now, here’s a little visual tour.

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Just Say No. . . to Snickers Salad

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Contrary to our Midwestern roots, the Three Points cooks will not be adding Snicker Salad to the Thanksgiving table this year (or any year). The New York Times reveals that the top Google searches for recipes in all 50 states this week place Nebraska (Kate’s home state) at the center of the Snickers Salad belt. The ” salad” is composed of whipped topping, apples, chopped-up Snickers bars and, sometimes, pudding mix.

More in keeping with our dinner in D.C. (where the top search was for “corn pudding”), we will be having Mrs. Apple’s Creamed Corn, a traditional Pennsylvania recipe made with dried sweet corn. That ingredient was, of course, purchased via an online search.

Meanwhile, the top searches this week on Three Points Kitchen reveal more diverse global interests:  Cranberry Coffee Cake, Salsa Verde Cruda, Pan de Coco, Tamarind Ice Cream, Allspice Ice Cream, and Povitica.

cranberry coffee cakesalsa verde cruda II

King Me

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King cake It’s Mardi Gras season! Sadly, I am in shivery Washington instead of rollicking my way through New Orleans. At least the oven works here, and I have colorful sugar in the cupboard. My solace for today: Cinnamon-laden, almond-glazed King Cake, warm and sweet and sober.

Mulberry Street

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An update: Walking home from the subway this evening, I caught sight of a father and daughter at the mulberry tree, with dad in his suit jumping up to reach the ripest fruit on the higher branches, ane daughter waiting to grab the bounty. I had to wonder if it was the same pair I encountered a year ago. But at any rate, I grabbed a couple of the darkest berries, which have gotten to their point of sweetness as the crop has peaked and thought it worth reprising this former trip to Mulberry Street.

Three Points Kitchen

I started a trend. After noticing that the mulberry tree on the corner a couple of blocks away was heavy with fruit, I returned with a container.  In the short time spent plucking berries from branches hanging low over the owner’s wrought-iron fence and across  the sidewalk, a parade of passersby stopped, gawked, and even joined in.  Some were horrified at the very thought of plucking berries from a street corner in Brooklyn:  “Mom, what’s that lady doing?” Others had never even noticed the fruit tree growing in their midst: “What’s that, a blueberry tree?”

Then there was the father who launched into a story for his young daughter, about a mulberry tree in the backyard of his childhood brownstone. “Know what I used to do? I’d put a blanket down on the grass and just shake the branches so they’d fall down, and pretty soon I had a whole…

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The Little Fig Tree That Could

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This Midwestern-born girl picked her share of backyard produce growing up, but nothing compares to the bounty I’ve had the luxury of sampling in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I’ve hardly had to stroll past the doorway to do so.  First it was the grape vines that climbed, untended, up the entire back of our brownstone, producing heavy bunches of fruit that I could pretty much pick by leaning out my third-story bedroom window. Grapes vines and fig trees can be found throughout the borough, remnants of the wave of Italian immigrants that once dominated the area.  The plants’ ability to not only survive,  but thrive with little or no care through rounds of subsequent property owners has always seemed a wonder to me.(Grapevines–like the rose bushes that bloom wildly in abandoned yards–betray their delicate and needy reputations.)

A puny little fig tree huddled in the backyard next door for years, fairly swallowed up by the brush and weeds that grew up as the brownstone sat empty in the midst of an extended estate dispute. But the house  finally underwent renovation over the winter, including a thorough cleanup of the yard. And like a princess freed from imprisonment in the tower, the little fig tree burst forth in joy,  reaching up to the sky,  throwing out lush branches and full leaves, and blooming with abandon, as if in thanks those who had rescued it from slow strangulation.

Lucky for me, the brownstone’s owner isn’t especially enamored of figs, and she took up my offer to harvest some, keeping her patio free of splattered fruit in the bargin. Without a lot of time to cook this week, a couples batches have been cleaned, cut up, and frozen for later use. Others will serve well for experiments.  In the meantime, it feels like the lush life to have so many figs on hand that I can grab a handful to snack on plain, or top with some granola and yogurt for breakfast. Ah, summer.

Parm Squad to the Rescue

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I am a member of the Special Parm Squad. Just saying that out loud makes me feel like I’ve taken on superpowers, or become a member of some super-elite security detail. In reality, it means that I’ve been assigned by my local food coop (where all members share in running the joint) to the team that handles breaking down wheels of parmesan cheese (for our most excellent cheese counter).

Still, being part of the “special” squad does make me feel a bit like a superhero, or at a least a Navy Seal. It’s no easy task to wrestle an entire, 80-pound wheel of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano:  the surface is slippery with residual oil; the wax rind, stamped with the familiar markings of its origins, is thick and tough to penetrate;  the size and heft of the wheel is more than one person can handle.

Your mission—should you decide to accept it—is to quarter this wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano (delivered to us straight from the cheese caves of Emilia-Romagna, Italy) and then break the quarters down into chunks of reasonable size and shape, wrap them, weigh them and price them. You have two-and-a-half hours to complete this assignment. You will be expected to leave no trace of your presence, cleaning all surfaces of cheese chunks and flakes within the allotted time, while delivering the necessary amount of cheese to the sales floor. Your time begins: now!

OK, a bit dramatic. But there’s no denying a food lover’s visceral reaction at the first experience of scoring and cutting a wheel down the middle, then separating the halves. There’s a moment, when the waxy outer ring gives way and the halves break apart, perhaps with a slight bit of crumble, that the nutty, fruity, salty aroma of 80 pounds of aged goodness smacks you in the face. On our first mission together, the three members of the squad had to step back in silence,  reveling at the beauty of this man-made marvel.  I had to stop again a bit later after coming upon the hollowed out bit near the surface where the cheese maker had sampled a plug from the wheel during the aging process to check on its progress. Here was evidence of the hand of an individual, half a world away, who was intimately involved in the making of this single wheel of cheese. Talk about knowing where your food comes from.

peachknee (flickr)People have asked me how exactly we go about breaking down a wheel of Parmigianino. Whether we use big, two-handled knives, or mezzalunas, whether we chunk it using the small, heart-shaped parmesan knives you see in gourmet catalogs. Or whether we sample as we go along.  I could share the answers to these questions, but then I’d have to kill you.

Best to go with this advice: if you have never had a truly fresh-cut chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, put down that shaker of powdered parmesan or that pre-cut, pre-packaged wedge from the supermarket and seek out a cheesemonger who can  cut you off a bit from the wheel. After, of course, shaving off a sliver for you to taste. Your cooking and eating habits will change forever and you’ll wonder why you ever put up with that salty, dusty powder from the can or those dry shards of pre-shredded “freshly grated” parmesan in the plastic container. Good, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano can be expensive, it’s true. But the flavor is so much more powerful that you’ll use less to achieve more.

With those words, this superhero’s work is done. Go forth and make pasta!

(photo, at left:  peachknee/flickr)

Carolina on my Mind

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When our friend Angela entertains guests on her home turf–the beautiful and vibrant Charleston, South Carolina–she channels centuries of Southern hostesses and does hospitality proud.  Perchance, on steroids.

Over our three-and-a-half-day adventure through the culinary arts of her kitchen (and the general environs, which are no slouch either, in case you were wondering), we basked in her genial warmth, delighted in the company of her charming parents and reveled in the warm comfort of sumptuous food–both fancy and down-home traditional–while packing on the pounds for winter during the apogee of beach season.

We arrived ravenous after our 8-ish hour road trip from D.C., upon strict orders not to eat after 3 p.m.  Welcomed with a cocktail, we were ushered into the kitchen where home-grown tomotoes were already sliced and final preparations for the Southern chicken pie (the flaky biscuit topping, yum) were under way. But first: a sublime, smokey, silky creamed poblano soup. (I didn’t poll the crew, but this cold-warm slurp of perfection topped the ticket for me, a sucker for smoked chilies.) And dessert? Red velvet cake.

Not an hour into our tenure in South Carolina, and we were in stomach-stretching mode. Over the course of the long weekend, we sampled the glories of the garden, the delights of local restaurants, the ridiculous bounty of farmers’ markets, the marvels of the sea and Angela’s regular one-upping of her own alchemy–to the point that we asked where the Food & Wine camera crew was and whether we should change into sun dresses and floppy hats. I offer, as Exhibit 1, the homemade gazpacho and shrimp salad sandwiches for our trip to the beach, packed into a cooler!

Here’s a taste of the menu:

Chilled Cream of Poblano Pepper Soup

Southern Chicken Pie

Salmon Salad Sandwiches

Bacon and Spinach Quiche

Feta and Green Onion Quiche

Slow-Cooker Mustard Pork BBQ Sandwiches