It’s that time of year, full steam ahead. We’re heading into the holidays and, in short order, the end of the year. I’ll be honest, I’ve never really understood when people talk about how crappy a year was and how ready they are for a new year, a fresh start. Until now. This year has been challenging.
I haven’t been in much of a mood for writing, or cooking for that matter. Aside from some canning, which in my mind doesn’t really count as cooking since it’s really more of a project than a meal, I haven’t spent much time in the kitchen. My blog has sat untouched for the better part of the year and, for the most part, my meals have been rather uninspired.
It’s funny, whenever someone I care about is struggling, I just want to cook for them and feed them. It’s how I can show I care. But when I’m the one struggling, I just want to have cheese and crackers and jam and wine while binge watching Criminal Minds or Ellen or Antiques Roadshow. Cooking means dirty dishes and I simply haven’t had the energy to invest. That’s hard to admit. The weakness and imperfection that being human sometimes involves. But I think that oftentimes when we are struggling we feel so alone in our battles – like nobody else could possibly understand. Maybe, just maybe, admitting it out loud and talking about it can start to crack the facade and pull back the curtain. Being human isn’t always pretty and that’s ok.
But just as the days get shorter and darker, I’m finally starting to feel stronger and lighter. I’ll confess that I’m happy to be in the season of comfort food – even if I don’t personally love the cold and dark of winter. So, a few weeks ago when I saw a flier for a chili cook-off at one of my go-to breweries, I decided to have some cooking fun.
I’ve previously made a Cincinatti inspired chili. It’s different, but pretty darn good. I immediately knew that I wanted to re-work that recipe to include one of the breweries signature craft brews, Koffee Kream Extra, a coffee milk stout. It’s not quite as thick as many milk stouts but has a nice, toasty coffee flavor. I’m quite sure that any coffee stout or even porter would work just as nicely in this recipe.
I wasn’t ‘in it to win it’ but rather just to put myself out there, try something new, and have fun. (The free beer for participating didn’t hurt either!) I didn’t win (neither, unfortunately, did the Broncos that day) but I did have fun and even had a few people come over to compliment my chili.
And, in the few weeks since, I’m happily cooking more (and less happily doing more dishes).
As I mentioned in a previous post, I found a new hobby last summer. It started with blueberry chai jam and continued from there. The bottom shelf of my china “cabinet” (it’s really just a bookshelf we’ve repurposed to hold the fine dinnerware) is starting to fill with jars. At this point, I’ve done more research and recipe browsing than actual canning. One resource I’ve enjoyed perusing is Food in Jars. Marisa has conceived a great idea – the idea of preserving something in a different way each month. When I saw the February project, I knew it was time to try an idea I had tucked away.
February was salt preserves. There are some fun ideas including DIY herb salt and salt cured duck egg yolks. (I have actually tried salt cured yolks, after hearing that it was a surprisingly good dairy-free substitute for Parmesan. Turns out is weird, but awesome. You should definitely try it the next time you’re making a recipe that calls for whites only. But, I digress) Once I saw gravlax listed as an idea, I was hooked (pun intended).
I have a running list of recipe ideas and I knew it was time to pull one of them out: gin spiced gravlax. Now, my original idea was to try a vodka cured gravlax – only with gin. But, in staying true to the spirit of the challenge, I decided to deconstruct the gin into its spice components. There had to be juniper, obviously but it turns out that the other botanical ingredients/flavors of gin vary wildly. After some research, I decided to take a bit of a shortcut and use an herb blend, as well as juniper.
I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. While I used a skin-on salmon filet, you could use a skinless filet for a shorter curing time and more pronounced gin flavor. Remember that whenever you are curing or serving raw protein, make sure you’re using a high-quality product from a vendor you trust.
This would make a great addition to a brunch. While you have to plan ahead, it’s not very labor intensive – just make sure to set ‘flip the fish’ reminders in your phone! I omitted the dill fronds simply for convenience (I was being lazy and didn’t want to make another grocery store run) but you could certainly use the traditional approach.
Gin Spiced Gravlax
Adapted from Serious Eats The Elements of Great Gravlax
1 lb fresh, wild caught salmon filet
1/4 c. salt
3 cups water
2 tsp. juniper berries
5 whole green cardamom pods
1 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. sea salt*
1 Tbsp white sugar
2 tsp Herbes de Provence**
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup gin
* Note: You should use a fine, dry sea salt. I use La Baleine French salt.
** Note: Herbes de Provence is a traditional French herb blend. While the ingredients can vary some, typically the blend includes savory, rosemary, marjoram, thyme, and (the hallmark ingredient) lavender.
Directions: Place the filet in a rectangular glass dish, big enough to hold the whole filet comfortably. Mix 1/4 cup salt with 3 cups water. Pour over the salmon, the water should completely cover the filet. Soak the salmon in the salt water solution just while you prepare the herbs, 5-10 minutes.
With a mortar and pestle or small spice grinder, crack the juniper berries. Add in the cardamom pods and crush together slightly. Mix in the salt, sugar, and Herbes de Provence.
Remove the salmon filet from the water and pat dry. Dry out the dish. Place a long sheet of plastic wrap in the bottom of the dish – you’ll wrap the filet in the plastic wrap. I find it’s easiest not to rip the plastic wrap yet. Put the salmon filet on the plastic wrap and evenly sprinkle all of the herb salt mix over the top of the filet. (If you’re using a skinless filet, reserve half of the salt for the other side of the filet.) There will probably be a thicker side of the salmon, you may want to press a bit of the mixture onto the side as well.
Tightly wrap the salmon filet in plastic and put the wrapped filet back into the glass dish. To ensure the salmon cures evenly, I suggest weighing down the filet with a heavy pan (cans of beans inside a bread pan worked perfectly for me).
Every 12-ish hours, flip the filet. You can cure it anywhere from 24-48 hours, depending on your preference. I like it slightly firmer (more cured) so I let mine go for about 48 hours.
When the gravlax is cured to your preference, remove from the plastic. Place the filet on a cutting board and use the dull edge of a knife to scrape off the herbs. It’s fine if you don’t get all the tiny bits, but you’ll want to make sure to get any big pieces of juniper berry or cardamom pod off.
Slice and serve. It’s best if eaten within a few days.
Post Script: Turns out, it’s actually kind of challenging to adequately describe the process. It’s easier than it sounds but there are plenty of directions out there, so if mine don’t make sense to you, just google a few other gravlax recipes!
One of the perks of having a test kitchen in the office is that, under the right hands, it turns into something of a gift to the office. Our test kitchen is managed by someone who is as talented as she is considerate. And, in much the same way that the kitchen is often the heart of the home, once a month the entire office gathers for a little celebration. The intercom summons everyone to drop their work and enjoy a few moments of delicious fun. We ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and then sing happy birthday.
When I said she is considerate, I wasn’t overstating it. Some people make flavor requests (coffee, lemon, maple, cornbread) while others want a specific type of treat (I’m partial to anything ice cream). She’s creative too. One fellow employee doesn’t really like sweet treats, so we’ve also enjoyed cupcakes made from cornbread, stuffed with pulled pork, and “frosted” with mashed potatoes. There was a chicken and waffle trifle and a ‘meat cake’ (which, I assure you, is much more delicious than it may sound). There are almost always multiple birthdays which means multiple treats, each made specifically to honor one of the birthday people.
So you’ll understand that I simply had to make a cake when it came time for her birthday. Now I didn’t want to spoil the surprise but I know that she appreciates a good cocktail and that one of her passions is tea (check out her blog Tea Foodie), so I had a pretty good idea of what direction I was heading.
I found a recipe that looked both promising and adaptable, then set about selecting flavors. I settled pretty quickly on Earl Grey, since it’s a tea that holds up well to milk and sugar and figured the citrus notes would work particularly well with a botanical liquor; so, gin it was. I wanted a quick glaze that I could whip together at work, so settled on the most basic: powdered sugar + liquid. Grapefruit seemed the perfect tart, citrus flavor and I boosted the floral notes by adding Tahitian vanilla (instead of the more conventional Madagascar or woody, spicy Mexican) – though if you wanted it a bit more boozy, a splash of Gin probably wouldn’t hurt.
The cake recipe is infinitely adaptable and turns out a finished product that is the perfect balance of light and dense, moist and crumbly. You can bet I’ll be making this again (and again, and again…)!
Gin & Earl Grey Tea Cake
Adapted from Better Homes & Gardens’ Rum-Vanilla Bean Bundt Cake
1/2 cup milk
1 Tbsp. Earl Grey tea*
1 vanilla bean (or 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract)
3/4 cup salted butter** + more for greasing bundt pan
2 eggs + 1 egg yolk
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour + more for flouring bundt pan
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup gin
* Note: Bagged tea should be ground finely enough to use (that’s what I did), but if you’re using loose leaf tea, you may want to crush/grind the tea a bit – as you’ll be using it in the cake too.
** Note: You can also use unsalted butter + heaping 1/4 tsp salt.
Directions: Combine milk, tea, and vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat and cover; let steep for 30-45 minutes on counter.
Meanwhile, set eggs and butter on counter for 30-45 minutes to bring to room temperature. This is especially important for the butter, as you want it softened. Alternatively, I’ve heard that you can bring a bowl of water to a boil in the microwave, dump out the water and invert the bowl over your ingredients. As the bowl cools, it will warm the ingredients. (I haven’t tried it myself but it sounds awfully clever!)
Once your tea/milk mixture has steeped and your butter and eggs are at room temperature, you’re ready to move forward.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Prepare bundt pan by using additional butter and flour to grease and flour. Tip: use more butter than you think you need, it’ll help the cake come out easily.
In a large mixing bowl, beat butter for about a minute. With mixer running, slowly add sugar. Cream butter and sugar for about 10 minutes, until light and fluffy.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together flour and baking powder. Remove vanilla bean from milk mixture and add gin to milk mixture.
Turn off mixer and add about 1/3 of the flour/baking powder to the butter. Beat until combined. Add half of the milk mixture, beating until combined. Repeat with remaining flour and milk, alternating and beating after each addition.
Pour batter into prepared bundt pan. Bake for 45 minutes or until top is golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Set bundt pan on a cooling rack for about 15 minutes before turning cake onto serving platter. Cake can be made a day ahead, cooled, and wrapped loosely with foil.
Before serving, pour glaze on cake.
Grapefruit Vanilla Glaze
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup fresh grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon Tahitian vanilla (or your vanilla of choice)
Optional: 1 tsp. gin
Directions: Place powdered sugar in a small bowl. Mix grapefruit juice and extract. In a small stream, slowly pour juice into powdered sugar, while mixing with a fork. Pouring the liquid in slowly as you mix will help prevent lumps in your glaze. When glaze reaches desired thickness, stop pouring juice in. To thicken, add more powdered sugar.
After a blogging hiatus and a year that has felt busy, intense, and changing (heck, the last week has felt that way!), I’ve spent some time thinking about this little project of mine. Why I started it (to write more and cook more), why I’ve tried to continue it (because it feels challenging and worthwhile), and what happens next. The truth is, I’ve stretched myself in other directions and begun to use my time in other ways since the inception of this blog. It’s been a few years and, as I reflected on the changes in my life, I came to see that a lot has happened.
- A few years ago, I started a (now defunct) beer blogging project with my best friend.
- We started a monthly dinner party, affectionately named “Bitches in the Kitchen” that has proven a great way to build stronger relationships and has, on occasion, proven that scheduling is tough when you have so many cooks in the proverbial kitchen.
- While “Bitches in the Kitchen” is on hiatus, I’ve started a ladies-only poker night. The first (of many, hopefully!) was small, but fun – and it’s been requested that I keep it up.
- My family has grown! I now live with my boyfriend, my sister is married, and we welcomed my first niece this summer. I’ve realized just how much these relationships matter and how important it is to me to make time to be present to the moments –big and small–that matter to them.
- I found some new hobbies. After taking an English paper piecing class, I’ve begun hand-quilting. It’s a laborious process but incredibly gratifying to create in a different way than I am used to. I also started making things – jams and candles and dryer balls. These new diversions are quite enjoyable to me and I’m finding that I can even make a little money.
- Last summer, I joined a choir. It has the beautiful mission of creating a place for foster children and at-risk youth to see and find (musical) excellence…and it has begun to mean more to me than I could have ever imagined.
- There’s also professional growth and development. I wish I had a crystal ball and could see where this road is leading, but I have new challenges at work too…and find myself content to come home, turn on music or the tv, and sew rather than create a beautiful mess in the kitchen.
And it’s easy to get so caught up on the day to day that you simply can’t see the forest for the trees. So, where does all of that leave Spirited Bites? Well, it’s my blog and my life is changing, so it’s going to have to change too. I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t some part of me that is still trying to believe that I can do the same thing, better, and that I can make my grand plans happen instead of “giving up” on what this blog has been about – cooking with alcohol.
But here’s the thing…change can be really hard but it can also create something even more beautiful and meaningful. So, with a deep breath, I’m stepping forward.
From Merriam-Webster: You may see spirited used to describe a conversation, a debate, a horse, or a campaign. And it often shows up in such words as high-spirited (“bold and energetic”), mean-spirited (“spiteful”), and public-spirited (“generous to a community”), all of which reflect the original meaning of spirit, a notion much like “soul” or “personality”.
The definition of spirited is full of energy, personality, or courage. But I like to think of it more as “imbued with meaning,” full of spirit, if you will.
I’m still planning on keeping this a food-driven blog; but instead of just boozy cooking, there will be other dishes. There will be family recipes, my favorite ‘lazy’ recipes, and maybe some stories about food (sans recipes). I am reaching out more, building connections and relationships; this blog will continue to be an expansion of my life and passions, those are just changing a bit.
After all: Change is the only constant in life.
“Life is flux.” -Heraclitus of Ephesus