Sunday, September 30

Salted Caramel Oatmeal Cookie Bars

These Salted Caramel Oatmeal Cookie Bars came into existence one day out of sheer desperation for an oatmeal-butterscotch cookie.   Since I have yet to come across an oatmeal cookie recipe which works here at high elevation without melting all over the cookie sheet, I thought, Why not contain the whole mess in a pan and make oatmeal-butterscotch cookie bars instead.  With the plan in order, and the oven preheating, I sadly realized that there were but a mere tablespoon of Vermont Nut Free butterscotch chips left at the bottom of the bag.  Enough for garnishing a bowl of ice cream, but certainly not for adding to my cookies.  And since virtually all butterscotch chips in the grocery stores are processed with peanuts (actually I haven't found one that's not), I had to improvise. 

Butterscotch and caramel are essentially the same thing - butter, sugar, and cream cooked together to varying degrees of doneness.  The only technical difference being that caramel is generally made by caramelizing white sugar while butterscotch is made with brown sugar.  I, however, have always made caramel with dark brown sugar and prefer its deep, molasses-y bite.

I decided to douse my oatmeal bars in a thick, salty layer of caramel.  Indulgent?  Yes - but I had high hopes of combining the two classic flavors into one supremely decadent dessert.  It was clear after one bite, however, that "decadent" was an understatement.  These are sinfully rich, lusciously chewy, and satisfyingly salty.  The ultimate oatmeal cookie to transcend all others.  Cook the caramel to the 'soft ball stage' and it will stay creamy for days stored in the refrigerator.  The caramel recipe is an adaptation of the caramel layer used in these Espresso Caramel Bars, and calls for cream; however, more often than not I use half and half which works just as well.  The oatmeal bars are a cookie recipe that I've been following for years.  You'll want to cut these small - they're an intensely satisfying taste of happiness in just a few small bites.  An 8 x 8 pan should make between 16 - 20 bars.

Kitchen notes:
- if you don't have a candy thermometer carefully drop a bit of the caramel syrup into a glass of ice water.  Remove the cooled caramel with your fingers.  It should form a ball but still be malleable when pressed between your fingers.

- choose a small sauce pan so that when you insert the candy thermometer the syrup rises to the 'immersion point' (this should be marked on the thermometer).  If the level of the syrup doesn't  reach the immersion point, cook the caramel until it is just under the 235 F degrees.  Otherwise the caramel will be overcooked and hard (like toffee).

- insert the candy thermometer into the pan while the mixture is relatively cool and stir very carefully and gently.  Otherwise you risk breaking the thermometer.  There's nothing worse than throwing out an entire pot of caramel with shards of broken thermometer in it.

Friday, September 28

A Lake

A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. 
Henry David Thoreau

Is there anything more peaceful than a quiet, pristine lake?  Anything at all?  A sapphire mirror which, upon closer inspection, reveals a treasure trove of jewel-like stones, darting rainbow fish, ethereal ribbons of aquatic leaves, and the unsearchable depth of our own nature dancing just below the surface.

Here in the middle of the city, in a bustling, crowded coffee shop,  with my laptop and a cup of peppermint tea, I'm dreaming of the lake we visited last weekend.  It's along the Dragonfly Children's Trail in Mueller State Park, tucked deep into the eastern folds of the Colorado Rockies.  I should be working; writing recipes, editing photos, but I'm feeling a bit dreamy this morning.   Are you?  

Wishing you a peaceful, serene weekend.   May you have the opportunity to contemplate the depth of your own nature at a lake near you.    A new recipe is coming soon.

Tuesday, September 18

In Praise of the Onion

Life is like an onion.  You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.
Carl Sandburg

Onions are one of the most under-appreciated ingredients in the world of cuisine, are they not?  Like salt or water, we add them to everything; and yet they have a way of disappearing into all we cook, adding such a fundamental dimension that their absence leaves an insatiable void of flavour.  However, do we ever take a moment to recognize the onion as an onion?  The treasure of the garden and the true culinary hero.  A vegetable with a depth of sweet and savory that is unmatched.  One which harbors a multitude of antioxidants, phytochemicals, minerals, and antimicrobial properties within its dense and hearty layers.

Today I'm paying homage to this invaluable member of the vegetable world with a dish that features the simple onion as star.  My Maple-glazed Caramelized Onion Tartine is sweet but utterly satisfying.  Top it with creamy goat cheese or with a mild, soft cow's milk cheese (such as Laughing Cow), and with fresh sage from the garden.  It's the ultimate autumn lunchtime treat, and I hope it does the humble onion justice.  After all, what other vegetable has the uncanny ability to make us weep for joy?

Friday, September 14

Harvest Four Bean Salad

“Let us dance in the sun, wearing wild flowers in our hair...” 
Susan Polis Schutz

Whenever I return home I'm captivated by the gardens of my past.  This is where I spent my summers.  Barefoot and tan.  It's where the passion for all things green, fresh, earthy, and organic was etched into the fiber of my soul.  It's where I wove wildflowers into my hair and journeyed deep into the innermost realm of my young imagination . . .

It was a magical world, where we ate dainty flower petals on china saucers for lunch and had sweet nectar in our tea.  Where fairies lived under the deep green canopy of squash leaves, and goblins hid in the cavernous hole at the base of the western plum tree, heavy with fruit in late August.  Where we chased each other through the verdant, leafy tunnels below ancient, gnarled grape vines.  Where ripe apples fell like rain from crooked, old trees.

As summer comes to an end I wanted to pay one more visit to the abundant gardens of my childhood, and I thought you'd like to come along.  Before the onions are harvested and set in the sun to dry.  Before the last of the carrots and beets are pulled, and the flowers wither and fade one cool fall night.  Before the entire bed is covered over with a thick layer of hay and leaves to rest the winter through.  Goodbye summer - à la prochaine.

I hope you've enjoyed nature's bounty as much as I have this summer.  It is short lived.  This year we've harvested a bumper crop of green beans, so I will share with you one of my favourite bean salads.  This is my adaptation of a recipe I found deep in my grandmother's recipe box after she passed away years ago.  The card was tattered and stained - a sign it was much loved.  And my breath catches in my throat whenever I see her familiar, antique cursive scrawled across the card.  This bean salad was one her step-mother frequently prepared, and I've written my version on the back of the old card.  Don't you just love those recipes?  Family treasures, passed from generation to generation.  I use fresh green and wax beans whenever possible, but canned work just as well in a pinch.  I almost always use canned kidney beans and garbanzo beans.  Garnish it with whatever edible flowers you have available.

Monday, September 10

The Journey Continues with Oral Challenge #1

The last, lazy, blissful week of summer we spent traveling in the mountains. It was a much-needed, successful trip.  And by successful I mean that Eve didn't have an allergic reaction, because, as we all know, allergic reactions are the means by which we, as allergy parents, measure success.  No?  I'm excited to share the trip with you; the photos, the food, the steps we took to keep Sweet Eve safe, but first I wanted to tell you about the day after our return.

If you've read my story, you know the details of Eve's first anaphylactic reaction.  I felt sure it was caused by walnuts hidden in an oatmeal cookie.  (Though I now know that there were peanuts hidden in that detestable cookie, and a minefield of peanut butter cookie crumbs strewn across her plate.)  The results of her first skin prick test showed a very severe reaction to peanuts, and mild reactions to most tree nuts.  Still we've avoided both for most of her life.  Her most recent skin prick test showed no reaction to all tree nuts except walnuts, a moderate reaction to all shellfish, and a still severe reaction to peanuts.  We chose to have the RAST (blood) test preformed to confirm the results.  That test concluded, with double negatives, that she shouldn't react to most tree nuts or shellfish.  Still, you can never be too sure with food allergies. 

What does this mean?  It means that we've embarked on the next stage of our journey.  It means that, under her doctor's strict supervision and guidance, we can begin oral challenges to tree nuts and shellfish, which is the only sure way to determine whether a reaction will occur.  Her doctor suggested we begin with almonds, which I've read is the least allergenic of the tree nuts (though don't quote me on that).

So, at 8:15 am on Wednesday morning Eve and I walked into the doctor's office with a jar of Barney Butter, and I confronted, face to face, a monstrous fear that has haunted my nightmares for the last two and a half years.  I allowed my little girl to eat something that we've avoided like the plague her entire life.  The apprehension kept me up throughout the night, yet I tried not to let my fear show, and Eve was cheerful as the challenge began.

It started with a dab of almond butter on her lips.  Just a tiny dot.  The nurse set a timer for 15 minutes and we waited.  I was nearly sick as the minutes ticked by in a painfully slow, taunting cadence.  My eyes didn't leave that angelic face as I searched for the look of horror which has been branded into the recesses of my mind since her first reaction - that awful look of helpless, silent panic that tells me something is very, very wrong.  Still Eve played happily on the floor. 

When the timer finally rang the nurse placed a tiny bit on her tongue, and gave her a glass of water to wash it down.  I don't think I took a single breath the entire fifteen minutes that followed.  Though I love almonds, the smell on my little girl's face made me nauseous, and I kept reminding myself over and over that we were in the safest place.  The minutes dragged on, still Eve played happily. 

The next dose of almond butter was twice as much as the last - nearly 1/2 teaspoon, and fifteen long minutes later Eve was contentedly playing.  My apprehension morphed slowly into tentative elation as the amount of almond butter doubled every fifteen minutes.  Could it be that she'll be okay? 

Three hours later I held back tears as we left the office.  Eve was officially not allergic to almonds, and I felt as if a massive part of the weight which has been anchored upon my shoulders for the last two and a half years had just been lifted.

Many people have asked me: Why put her through that?  Why not continue to avoid tree nuts altogether because of the very serious risk of cross contamination?  My perspective on food allergies is a little different from others' - rather than focus on avoidance, I focus on inclusion.  I focus on the foods she can eat and I want my my daughter's diet and palate to be as well-rounded as possible.  I feel it's especially important for people with food allergies to eat a variety of foods, as many as they can tolerate. 

Due to her severe peanut allergy, her risk of developing an allergy to tree nuts is significantly higher if left unexposed.  I don't want to take that chance.  Nuts are "hidden" in foods much more frequently than peanuts. Be it almond flour in macaroons or marzipan, ground hazelnuts in baked goods, or pine nuts in pesto, and I feel there's a much higher risk of accidentally ingesting them than there is peanuts. 

Nuts are so healthy, such a good source of protein, and they are important to a balanced diet.  If my daughter has the ability to eat them, by all means I want her to get all the nutritional benefits from them.  Kids' diets should be as varied as possible to ensure an optimal balance of the nutrients needed for growth and development.  Every bite needs to count.

Please know that I take food allergies very seriously, and an oral challenge is not to be approached lightly.  It should only be conducted under the recommendation and supervision of an allergist in the proper medical facility.  And only after all the necessary tests have be performed, and your allergist concludes that a challenge is appropriate.  Every case is different.  An oral challenge should never, ever be preformed at home.  However, if your child's doctor approves, I would highly encourage you take the next step on your journey.  Just knowing that there is one less food out there waiting to kill my daughter is liberating beyond words.