Cool pops for hot days


I never thought much about hot weather before we moved to Portland.  We’d visited many times, but mostly in spring and fall, when the weather was mild.

What a shock it was when the temperature hit 102 degrees in my driveway a couple of weeks ago.  Since then the thermometer has hovered in the upper 80s most days with the occasional spike in the 90s.

These are the days when all I want for dessert is something light, cold and refreshing.  It could be a little fruity and maybe a little sweet, but not cloying.

I’m talking ice pops, adult-style, with sophisticated flavors like the Thai iced tea and agua fresca pops pictured here.  You can share them with the kids but you’ll be tempted to hoard them for yourself. Continue reading Cool pops for hot days

Asparagus before it’s gone


Theoretically, asparagus season should be over, but I still see some in the market.  Thankfully, there’s enough time for one last couscous salad with asparagus pesto before the last stalks disappear altogether from the produce aisles.

I’ve been fiddling with this idea for the last month and it just keeps getting better.  The concept started with samples of asparagus pesto handed out at New Seasons, a terrific local chain of natural food stores here in Portland.

From the first bite, I was enchanted by this sauce, which is a little sweeter and more delicate than pesto made primarily with basil.  It seemed a perfect match with the Israeli couscous that I had picked up on an excursion to Bob’s Red Mill in Oregon City.  Israeli couscous, also known as pearl couscous, is much larger than the more familiar, fine-grained couscous and has a delightfully chewy texture. Continue reading Asparagus before it’s gone

Raise a glass of vinegar


Brace yourself, dear reader.  I’m about to make the case for drinking vinegar.

Not for health – although there are many advocates of that, too – but for pleasure.  And not straight out of the bottle.

What I’m touting is a sweet and tart libation made with fruit and sugar to soften the sharp edge of the vinegar and served with a generous splash of sparkling water.  It’s light, refreshing and sophisticated, just the thing to sip in the shade on a summer afternoon.  Think of it as the cocktail’s non-alcoholic cousin. Continue reading Raise a glass of vinegar

Dressing up asparagus

When the first local asparagus of the season arrives in the market, I’m so eager for the fresh taste of spring that I prepare them as simply as possible.  A few minutes on the grill or steamer, a drizzle of good olive oil, and a little salt and pepper are all that’s required for a feast.

By now, though, I’m ready to experiment.  This year my focus is asparagus and eggs, a traditional French combination.

The classic poached egg over asparagus wouldn’t work, since I can’t bear even the sight of runny yolks.  (There go my foodie credentials!)  So I decided to substitute softly scrambled eggs as a suitably delicate complement to the grassy spears.

The inspiration for this dish is a flan in Jacques Pépin’s capstone cookbook, “Essential Pépin” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).  If your idea of a flan is a sweet Spanish custard, you’re in for a surprise.  This version is more like an easy Gallic version of fritatta. Continue reading Dressing up asparagus

Rhubarb is true mark of spring


Never mind the calendar or even the weather forecast. I know it’s spring when rhubarb shows up in the farmers market.

Those first fuchsia pink stalks are always cause for celebration. After a winter of root vegetables and bitter greens, their tart flavor breathes fresh life into bored palates.

Eaten raw, rhubarb is an acquired taste with a mouth-puckering quality rivaling lemons.  Cook it with a little sugar, though, and it blossoms.  I think it’s best in simple dishes that capitalize on its bright acidity.

Crisps and pies are naturals, but I’ve also made rhubarb into a filling for crepes and substituted it for cherries in a clafloutis.  This spring, I’ve been playing around with a rhubarb upside down cake based on the homey French yogurt cake. Continue reading Rhubarb is true mark of spring

Cauliflower for a good cause


The last weeks before the local asparagus and strawberries arrive may be the most discouraging of the year for those of us who try to cook local.

The sun is shining, the tulips are blooming, and the fruit trees are breaking out in clouds of pink and white blossoms.  But the produce aisles of most markets are still dominated by sturdy greens, roots and cruciferous vegetables.

At times like these, I really welcome new ideas for preparing old standbys.  This cauliflower curry is one of the best. Continue reading Cauliflower for a good cause

A soup for spring


Spring is a fickle season.

One day dawns sunny and warm, spurring an appetite for tender greens in a salad.  The next is dreary and wet, just the sort of weather for a good soup.

Although the calendar says we still have another week of winter, the weather here in Portland has been toying with spring.  The daffodils are blooming and the gardeners have been out in force.

But the skies are gray today and I have soup on my mind – not a hearty, long-simmering recipe, though.  I want something light and flavorful like this easy pot sticker soup.

Inspired by fragrant Vietnamese pho, the recipe comes together quickly with commercial chicken broth and frozen pot stickers.  Fresh ginger, dried shiitake mushrooms, a cinnamon stick and a couple of star anise work their magic in just half an hour.

The broth ingredients are mostly pantry staples.  I like  to add fresh lemongrass which is now available at Whole Foods.  If you don’t have it or can’t find it, though, the soup will be good anyway.  Fish sauce is optional although it adds a depth of flavor.  Sweet sherry, white wine or sake with a pinch of sugar can substitute for the mirin.

For the potstickers, I like to use Ling Ling brand chicken and vegetable pot stickers that I buy at Costco.  But any good pot stickers that aren’t loaded with artificial ingredients would work.

Pre-washed baby spinach straight out of the bag adds color and fresh flavor with almost no effort.

Until warm weather is here to stay, this soup will keep your spirits up.  One whiff of its delicate aroma is enough to brighten my day.

Serves 4 to 6

6 small dried shiitake mushrooms
6 cups chicken broth
6 thin slices of fresh ginger
2 whole star anise, smashed
1 stick cinnamon
8 peppercorns, preferably Szechuan
2-inch length of lemongrass
1-2 tablespoons of fish sauce to taste (optional)
3 cups fresh, pre-washed baby spinach
13-ounce package frozen pot stickers (or equivalent)
Sriracha or other hot chile sauce for serving (optional)

Place mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with boiling water to soften while you pull together the remaining ingredients.  Pour chicken broth into a large saucepan and add ginger, spices, lemongrass and fish sauce if you’re using it.  You could tie up the star anise, cinnamon stick and peppercorns in cheesecloth if you wish, but the small pieces will sink to the bottom and the cinnamon stick is easy to fish out before serving.

Drain mushrooms, squeeze out excess water, and slice.  Add sliced mushrooms to the broth. Simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.  A few minutes before serving, stir in spinach.

Meanwhile, bring large pot of salted water to a boil and drop in the frozen pot stickers, working in batches if necessary to keep them from clumping together.   Boil pot stickers for 5-6 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon from pot to a colander and rinse with cool water.

To serve, place 3 or 4 pot stickers in the bottom of a soup bowl.  Ladle out enough broth to cover, making sure to include spinach and several slices of mushrooms.  Pass around sriracha but be forewarned:  a couple of drops go a long way.

Aleta Watson



Happy birthday, dear Aggie


Today is birthday number 10 for our sweet golden retriever, Sunshine’s Agatha Super Sleuth – better known as Aggie

Normally I don’t do nutty things like celebrate a dog’s birthday, but we’re so grateful to have her still with us after a couple of scary bouts with pancreatitis last year.  Besides, a couple of her youngest fans thought it would be a great idea.

So we threw a little party for her last weekend, complete with a piñata filled with treats and squeaky balls for the dogs.  And a fabulous carrot cake for the humans.

Chocolate cake, usually my first choice, was out of the question since we were pretty sure that the youngest guests would to try to sneak the honoree a taste.  That would have been a disaster. Dogs can’t tolerate the theobromine in chocolate.

This cake was so good, though, no one even missed the chocolate.  Banish all memories of soggy, leaden carrot cake overpowered by an excess of cinnamon and cooking oil.  This cake from Dorie Greenspan’s “Baking: From My Home to Yours” (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) carries a full load of carrots, coconut, pecans and raisins without feeling heavy or soggy.  The flavors are rich and nicely balanced, with just enough cinnamon to make it appealing.

Part of the secret, I think, is this variation uses less oil than most traditional carrot cakes.  The recipe I used for years calls for 1 1/2 cups oil.  So do most of the recipes I looked up in my many baking books before I found this one, which cuts the oil by a third.

Dorie Greenspan always comes through.  Her recipes, written in her trademark chatty and generous style, always work.

I made few alterations to the cake, which Dorie credits to an old friend, Bill Bartholomew. Sunflower oil substituted for canola, which I detest for its lingering aftertaste, and the cake was baked in two layers instead of three.  (I only have two 9-inch pans and wasn’t about to buy a third.)

The layers did sink a bit in the middle, but a generous layer of icing took care of that.  Toasted coconut filled in the slight depression prettily.

With a scoop of ice cream, you couldn’t ask for a better birthday cake.

Too bad Aggie couldn’t have a slice.  But we love her and want to keep her around as long as possible.

Happy birthday, dear Aggie!



Serves 10

For the cake:
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup pecans
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups grated carrots (3-4 large carrots)
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
2 cups sugar
1 cup sunflower or other vegetable oil
4 large eggs

For the icing:
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound (about 4 cups) powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup flaked coconut for topping, toasted (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Butter two 9-x-2-inch round baking pans and dust with flour, tapping out excess.  Using parchment paper and pencil, trace around outside of pan bottoms and cut out circles.  Press parchment circles in bottom of pans and butter lightly.

Place raisins in a small bowl and drizzle with a tablespoon or two of boiling water to plump them up.   Drain and set aside.

Place pecans on a baking sheet in a single layer and slide into oven to toast until lightly browned and fragrant, 5-10 minutes.  Remove nuts from oven, let cool and chop coarsely.  Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt to blend.  In another medium bowl, combine chopped pecans, raisins, carrots and coconut.

In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together the sugar and oil at medium speed until smooth and fluffy.  Beat in eggs, one at a time. When batter is smooth and shiny, reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture.  Mix only until the dry ingredients are incorporated, then gently mix in the wet and chunky ingredients.  Divide the batter between the pans and smooth the top.

Bake for 40-50 minutes until the cakes begin to pull away from the sides of the pans and a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean.  Cool cakes in their pans on a wire rack for about 5 minutes.  Remove cakes from pans by running a butter knife around the sides of each pan to loosen and turning pan upside down onto a plate. Turn cake right side up, paper side down, and slide back onto the rack.  Continue to cool until cakes reach room temperature.

Meanwhile, make the icing in the stand mixer.  Beat cream cheese and butter together on medium high speed with the paddle beater until creamy.  Add lemon juice and beat a couple of seconds.  With mixer on low speed, gradually add sugar until incorporated, then raise speed to high and beat until extremely smooth.

Remove paper liner from first layer and place cake on a large plate.  Spread half the icing evenly over top.  Remove paper liner from the remaining cake and carefully position the second layer atop the first.  Spread remaining icing over top in decorative swirls.  Sprinkle with toasted coconut.


Adapted from “Baking: From My Home to Yours,” by Dorie Greenspan