Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Queen of Pop

Oh sweet, sweet, summer romance. Readers, I have been seduced........and it was by a frozen dessert.

When hot weather set in for the summer a few months ago (and in Phoenix, it clamps down over the city with a vengeance, not relenting until long after sweaters are on the department store shelves and the rest of the country seems to have swapped ice cold lemonade for steaming hot apple cider), this young girl's fancy naturally turned to popsicles*. It was fate. It was a natural collision of my well-documented love for food on sticks and anything that stands a chance at cooling me down from the boiling point in the middle of a 112-degree July afternoon. It's also something of a wave of nostalgia for the summers of my youth, when my mom always made sure we were well-supplied with homemade juice pops (made in these funky 1980s yellow plastic molds with juice-catchers at the bottom, and little sippy straws for draining every last drop! Remember those? Even back then, I thought they were the greatest invention). Freshly armed with my own brand-new set of popsicle molds, an updated version of our 1980s classics, I was ready to become the Queen of Pop.

( *oh, I know. A popsicle post in August? What's next, a roast turkey recipe in November? Well, just bear with me, sarcasmatrons, because it's worth it. I swear to you. And after all, who doesn't love a popsicle?)

Technically, here is where I should tell you that what I have been making and obsessing over all summer are in fact not 'popsicles,' that term having been trademarked in 1924 by Frank Epperson, the inventor of the Popsicle (which had previously gone by the much-less-snappy appellation 'Epsicles'). In their original form (invented, according to Popsicle legend, in 1905 when an eleven year old Epperson left a beverage and wooden stir stick on the back porch all night to freeze solid), Frank's frozen treats consisted of powdered soda mixture in various 'fruit' flavors and water, frozen to a stick. Sounds tasty, right? Um. Maybe not so much.

In fact what I've actually been making in my own kitchen is less like Epperson's iconic Popsicle and much closer in definition to the classic Mexican treat known as paletas, an ice pop based either on fresh fruit like strawberries, watermelon, guava, mango or tamarind, or creamy, milk-based flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, coconut, and even the rice pudding-like arroz con leche. The pops of my dreams are like this, thick with concentrated fruit and even green glimmers here and there of fresh herbs, or else creamy, smooth, and full of rich flavor. Almost like magic, flavors began to suggest themselves to me. Coconut and lime, with a hint of sweet basil! Tart strawberry and balsamic vinegar with honey and fresh mint! Creamy mango yogurt puree! Inspired, I think, by all the press surrounding the recent success of artisanal ice cream (particularly those in 'inventive' flavors) and wanting to bring a little of that glamour to the world of frozen pops, I began making plans to quit my day job (such as it was) and open a mobile popsicle stand. I kid you not, there was one night I even did have an actual ice pop-based dream. It's safe to say it had become an obsession at that point. A delicious, frozen obsession.

I experimented with many flavors, including the aforementioned coconut-lime-basil, strawberry-balsamic-mint, and mango-yogurt, but also blackberry-lime, creamy lemon curd, and (boldly, I thought) a slightly sweet coconut-milk based spicy peanut curry version. The last, according to my husband, is something of an aquired taste. To each his own. We found that the more watery an ingredient (say, certain kinds of fresh fruit), the harder and 'icier' the pop would freeze. Conversely, denser fruit with less water content like the sweet orange flesh of a ripe mango makes for a slightly softer, chewier pop. Yogurt is a great matrix for holding just about any fruit in frozen pop form, whether pureed or whole. And coconut milk--oh my! Coconut milk was the great discovery. It's tasty, of course, but something about the texture when frozen just makes it perfect. We're still experimenting over here at the Orange & Salt test kitchens. Summer, after all, is likely to be with us until Halloween this year. But in the meantime, I'm including recipes here for our top picks (and if you're feeling spicy, contact me for the sweet peanut curry pop recipe--I think it's an unappreciated winner and would love to share the recipe!), and I'm urging you to try them yourselves. Go on, be a pop star!

Recipe note: I have been using this particular set of popsicle molds, which results in 6 4 oz. pops. These recipes will yield enough for my set of molds, but your mileage may vary. I've been known to drink leftover popsicle mix straight from the bowl, so really, it's not a problem either way, now, is it?

Strawberry Balsamic Mint Pops

16 oz. fresh strawberries
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons honey or sugar (this particular measurement is a very basic guide, your mileage may vary here depending on the ripeness of your strawberries and just how tart you like your sweets, so taste before freezing and feel free to adjust)
2 tablespoons fresh mint

Place strawberries, vinegar and honey into food processor or blender, puree until smooth. Strain through fine mesh strainer into bowl to remove strawberry seeds (this step optional but recommended for any very seedy fruit like berries). Place puree back in food processor with mint, blend until mint is finely disributed throughout, pour into molds. Freeze at least 6 hours.

Coconut Basil Lime Pops

1 can of coconut milk (14 oz.)
1 cup fresh lime juice
sugar to taste (again, this is intensely personal)
2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves

Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender until desired consistency achieved. Pour into molds and freeze at least 6 hours.

Mango Yogurt Pops

1.5 cups plain yogurt
1.5 cups fresh mango pieces (if you're using a larger variety of mango like a Kent, this may be one whole fruit. However, if you're using something like the smaller, sweeter Ataulfo or Champagne mangoes I frequently see at my local markets, it may be more like two)
sugar to taste (you know the drill here)

Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender until desired consistency achieved. Pour into molds and freeze at least 6 hours.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

48 Hours in San Diego

It's Phoenix. It's summer. It's hot here, I might have mentioned that once or twice? A few weeks ago, Mike and I decided we couldn't stand it any longer. No amount of air conditioning or popsicles was going to cut it--this was a problem whose solution required travel. So, we packed up the hatchback on no more than twelve hours' notice, found a room downtown, and hit Interstate 8 for 48 glorious hours of relaxation and fine eating in San Diego.

Day 1, Wednesday: Arrived in downtown San Diego around 1 pm, somewhat bedraggled from the road and positively starving, immediately checked into what must be the world's cutest Motel 6. Seriously. Apparently the entire chain was recently redesigned, and rather than the beige carpet-and-80s-vomit-bedspreads that I remember from my youth, every room now looks like this:

.......Adorable. Still decidedly no-frills, Motel 6 at least now has style. It's got a sort of 'Readymade Magazine goes to IKEA' vibe, very fresh, no more funky carpeting--and best of all, only $60 a night, just steps from the downtown Gaslamp District. But we soon left our orange mod palace in the sky (okay, the second floor) in search of our first San Diego meal. Regrettably, hunger and desperation drove us to a mediocre sort of Italian restaurant/bar, where I ordered a vegetarian calzone that turned out to be the size of my head. I ate a third of it and then, feeling woozy, asked for a box. I gave the remains of mine and Mike's to a homeless man outside who asked me for change, and felt a little better then, though still stuffed with cheese.

4 pm: Mike and I are idling at a red light when the car begins to heave a little. We glance at each other in mild what's-wrong-with-the-car-now alarm, and I happen to notice that across the street, the shop windows are wavering, shimmering like the surface of a pond on a breezy day. It's pretty. It's an earthquake. It's a first for both of us. Welcome to California!

7 pm: Revived from the rigors of the road, tectonic shifts and our enormous lunch by a shower and change of clothes in the orange mod palace in the sky, Mike and I ventured out to La Jolla to what might be our favorite restaurant ever. The mantra over the front entrance of Whisknladle reads, 'You get out of the pot what you put into the pot,' which is an example of extreme modesty on their part, even if technically true. They put a lot of delicious things into the pot at Whisknladle, nearly all of it local, farm-grown, or made in-house.

We first discovered this restaurant on our last trip to San Diego two summers ago, and have been talking about it and making plans to return for another memorable meal almost literally ever since. The bacon cocktail that changed Mike's life is, sadly, no longer on the seasonal & ever-changing menu, but he managed to find one that sounded equally delicious if somewhat daunting: the 'Freebird,' a peach-spiked bourbon and barbeque sauce concoction that burned like fire but went down sweet as honey. I had one called the 'Titania,' a limoncello-based drink blended with grilled watermelon that was sweet and ethereal as cotton candy--until you bit into the garnish, a fiery, sour pickled piece of watermelon rind that balanced the sweetness of the cocktail while miraculously having no pickling effect on the drink as a whole. It took me to fairyland, okay?

I usually skip cocktails and reach straight for the wine list, and I certainly don't usually swoon over bartenders' attempts at being 'clever,' but in this case I think a little swooning is well-deserved and appropriate. These were easily as carefully composed as any dish on the menu.

For our dinner, we shared an order of the rosemary lemon gnocchi with calamari in heavenly, savory romesco (a rich tomato and almond-based Spanish sauce) and crispy capers, as well as an order of local (Carlsbad-farmed) mussels with frites. I'm a desert dweller with a great love of fresh seafood, and a healthy horror of ordering it in a land-locked place like Phoenix, so being anywhere close to the open ocean is always an invitation to indulge in some rare mussels--I can't resist.

These were perfect: plump, ruffly, golden little nuggets of the sea, traditionally poached in white wine with garlic and shallots. I may even have sipped some of the broth straight from the bowl when no one was looking. I wished I'd had a straw. The frites, another traditional choice with mussels, were a little less fulfilling. Maybe I just prefer a fatter slice of potato, but these were not my favorite variety of french fry: string-thin, somehow dry but not overly crispy. They were good dipped in the broth from the mussels, but come on, what wouldn't be? We ended up mostly abandoning them in favor of dipping the slices of freshly baked bread also provided.

Finally, for dessert we shared a scoop of pistachio gelato between the two of us. Why is it that most supposedly 'pistachio' flavored things (including the Jell-o brand pistachio pudding mix of my youth) actually taste more like almonds? If this had been called 'marzipan gelato' I wouldn't even have blinked, and it was tasty, after all. Just didn't taste like pistachios. Oh Whisknladle, you know I still love you, baby, because your mussels, your light and savory gnocchi, your tender calamari and your superb cocktails were all dead-on. All is forgiven, really.

Day 2, Thursday: Grabbed two croissants and a latte from a streetside coffee vendor for breakfast before heading to the nearest Fed-Ex Kinko's to use the public computers (one of several trips we made, because the exciting world of freelancing just never stops). Everyone else seems to have a laptop or an iPhone. Me? I have to use the pay-by-the-minute machines at Fed-Ex whenever I need to do business on the road. Dramatic sigh. I want an iPhone.

12 pm: We head to another favorite spot from our last trip, The Naked Cafe in Solana Beach. A kind of 'global-fusion' breakfast/lunch spot, this bamboo-walled little cafe looks right out on Solana Beach and is the perfect place to grab a casual bowl of quinoa, organic green salad, or local brew. I had a plate of sesame-ginger marinated chicken tacos on whole wheat tortillas with baby greens and Thai peanut sauce, served with coconut-infused brown rice and black beans. It was mind-blowing, but proved impossible to finish because of size (not for lack of trying!). I'm still working on reverse-engineering the Thai peanut sauce for home use, I should have saved some on a napkin.

Mike had a very respectable plate of scrambled eggs and potatoes, and we each had a local Coronado Island beer (Orange Ave Wit and Islander Pale Ale).

Followed by a long walk down on the beach and a brief (knee-high) dip in the freezing waters of the Pacific ocean, this was the perfect lunch.

9 pm: After a long afternoon and early evening of beach walking, slope soaring (Mike's hobby) at Torrey Pines, and boardwalk strolling at Mission Beach (where we caught a few minutes of an artificial-wave surfing competition), we made our way back to the ol' deluxe apartment (motel room) in the sky, then on foot out to the Gaslamp District a few blocks away for dinner. Each of us craving the raw protein buzz that only a good plate of delicious sushi can provide, we ended up at the decidedly unfancy but very friendly Katsu. Okay, the menu might feature such gems of wordplay as 'Jessica Alba-Core Tuna Roll' and 'Eelectric Tempura,' and one of our orders might just have come buried beneath a snowfall of eerily (although not eelectric) bright red tempura flakes, but it's actually a pretty decent place. The sake was chilled, the staff was friendly and helpful, and most importantly the fish was delicious. We shared a plate of spicy tuna rolls, salmon nigiri, and one of those every-living-creature-in-the-sea-crazy-roll concoctions (covered in the aforementioned disturbingly red tempura flurry). Maybe it was the chilled sake, but everything tasted wonderful, and it certainly disappeared, right down to the last tempura flake and shred of daikon garnish. Stuffed like baby walruses, arm in arm with one another and full of sake, we made our way through the darkened streets of downtown. Mike began humming something that sounded vaguely familiar.

'What is that?' I asked. 'It sounds....'

'.....just wanna tell you how I'm feeling...gotta make you understand.......' he sang in a near-whisper.

'Is that....? Wait, I know what that is!'


'Did you just Rick-Roll me??' I asked, turning and trying to simultaneously shake my beloved husband by the shoulders and wipe desperate tears of laughter from my eyes. 'Did you just Rick-Roll person??'

Rick-Rolled indeed. Raw fish and fermented rice wine will make one do funny things.

Day 3, Friday: On our last day in town, we spent the morning strolling around beautiful Balboa Park, taking pictures of the luxuriously ornamented Spanish-style architecture, bizarrely Tolkienesque tree roots, and the world's friendliest squirrel. At the gift shop of the Air & Space Museum I squealed upon spotting (& subsequently purchasing) what would be our breakfast: a block of the chalky, weird striped substance known & recognized immediately by eight year olds everywhere as 'astronaut ice cream.' Man. This stuff is strange. I don't think I've tasted it in about 20 years, and I don't think it's changed a bit since then. Chalky, crumbly-changing-immediately-to-gummy when making contact with your tongue, and always, always Neopolitan. I remember I was very disappointed when I learned that actual astronauts never ate the stuff (I've read that they are, in fact, able to take real ice cream into space); it seems to have instead been designed only to be sold to impressionable kids in the gift shops of science museums across the country. Doesn't really matter, though. It was a taste of nostalgia.

11 am: Back to Solana Beach, back to The Naked Cafe. Why, you may ask, why so many trips to Solana Beach? Well, besides being very pretty and offering many opportunities for expensive-real-estate fantasies (one of my own hobbies, I might have mentioned I'm an architecture nerd?), and besides the very excellent Naked Cafe, it also offers something irresistible to Mike: close proximity to the Torrey Pines Gliderport, where some of the finest remote control glider slope soaring in the country can be found. This may mean nothing to you, but it's Mecca to my husband, so the prospect of another chance at a tasty organic lunch followed by an hour of slope soaring was not to be missed.

We arrived just a touch early for lunch, so while waiting for hunger to set in we strolled around the nearby Cedros Design District, ending up at yet another place I love, Solo. Located in a highly restored old warehouse (and housing a high-end architectural firm in the back 2/3 of the building), Solo sells charming things like old nautical glass buoys, furniture, handmade jewelry, and an impressive array of full-color-photo artbooks and cookbooks. It was here that we finally gave in and purchased the cookbook we've both been coveting for months: the 350-page, gorgeously photographed Ad Hoc at Home by the esteemed chef Thomas Keller. You might remember that I own one of his other volumes, The French Laundry Cookbook? Okay, so I'm nothing less than a Thomas Keller disciple (more on that to come soon, since we've already had the opportunity to road-test some of these ingredients). We were happy, drunk with the culinary possibilities of homemade pastas, chutneys and confits of pork belly to come. We went to lunch.

After lunch (The Naked Cafe delivered a home run once again, this time an egg white scramble with pesto and zucchini, and an excellent house-made roasted tomato salsa), it sadly was time to leave behind the grey, mercifully cool and cloudy skies of San Diego and turn eastward towards heat-stricken Phoenix. I almost cried. I considered even asking Mike to lash me to the passenger seat with good strong nautical rope (like Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship) to keep me from throwing myself out the window. A little dramatic? Sure. But leaving southern California is always like that for me.

6 pm: We pass the usual sign for Dateland (a date plantation in middle-of-nowhere Arizona, a fixture on the drive along Interstate 8), make the usual jokes about 'going there for a date,' etc.

' 'World Famous Date Shakes'? Do those even sound like they'd be good?'

'They sound like they'd, gritty.'

'But they're 'World Famous'!'

Forced to make our last dinner on the road out of sunflower seeds, potato chips, and bottled iced tea from the last gas station we passed, it was maybe the lowest culinary point of the trip (lower than astronaut ice cream? It's hard to say), a far cry from tender gnocchi in romesco sace at Whisknladle, or even the tasty spicy tuna rolls at Katsu. But I had Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home spread open across my lap, and I had big plans, plans for buttermilk fried chicken, leek bread pudding, and saffron rice salad. I feasted on the artistic, full-page photos. And the sunflower seeds, somehow, tasted wonderful. :)