Blueberry Dumplings

It’s (technically) Fall now, and that means various group pot-lucks or company get-togethers will be starting, soon. Maybe it’s school fundraisers or church socials, but at some point you’re going to be asked or expected to bring something yummy to share somewhere. Even if it’s not expected, this is a quickly put-together dish that will delight your office, your civic group or just your family one nip-in-the-air morning.

Blueberry Dumplings
serves 16 (or less–depends on how hungry they are!)

1 c boiling water
1 c brown sugar
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, divided
2 cans crescent roll dough (the uncut sheets)
1/2 c granulated sugar
nutmeg
1 can blueberry pie filling
1 pint fresh blueberries (or 1 pkg frozen if not in season)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melt one of the sticks of butter and then combine it with the boiling water and brown sugar in the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish.

Carefully spread out the crescent roll dough on a baking mat or lightly floured surface and sprinkle with the sugar and nutmeg. Spread half a can of pie filling and half the fresh or frozen blueberries onto each can of crescent dough, leaving about an inch clear on both of the long sides. Dot the top of the filling with bits of butter and then roll up the dough, jellyroll-style, sealing the roll with the inch of filling-free dough.

Slice the rolls into 1-inch sections and place each slice, cut side up, in the pan with the water-butter-sugar mixture.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the tops of the dumplings are golden brown.

The sugar mixture in the bottom of the pan makes a delicious sauce for the rolled dumplings. While these are perfectly fine served at room temperature or even cold, they are best when piping hot, served with hot coffee or ice-cold milk.

I made these for a friend’s party, recently (it was a morning get-together) and they were a big hit with everyone who tried them.

Sangria

A fruited wine beverage, Sangria has as many variations as it has makers. The downside, generally speaking, is that to make good Sangria you need time. Namely, time for the fruit to mix and meld with the other ingredients. But what if you want Sangria now, and you’ve got all the parts but you’d rather drink it tonight as opposed to tomorrow? Are you doomed to a passable but not spectacular bottled version? Is there a happy medium between 8-hours and a screw-top bottle?

I think so.

In fact, my theory is that you can “fake” the steeping period by the application of gentle heat to the fruit and any other items you are adding to the wine base (because in addition to a variety of fruits and their juices, brandy, spices or even some flavored vodka could be used). In this scenario, you could then have a very flavorful Sangria in an hour or so, instead of overnight. Plus, you can make just enough for a drink or two (or a person or two) without needing to make an entire pitcher.

Red Sangria for 2

Combine in a small saucepan:

1 lime, cut into slices
2 strawberries, hulled and halved
a couple chunks of pineapple
1 Tbsp white sugar
2 Tbsp hot water
Small cinnamon stick (optional)

Bring this mix to a gentle simmer then reduce heat to low. Use a muddler or wooden spoon to gently break up the fruit. After about 10 minutes, add

1-2 oz vanilla vodka

turn off the burner and let the mixture sit for another 10-15 minutes.

Pour the fruit mix (sans cinnamon stick) into a glass jar or carafe or divide between two tall glasses. Pour in

4-6 oz. red table wine per glass

and refrigerate for 1 hour.  Serve with more fruit, if desired, and enjoy your drink!

Variation: White Sangria for 2

Substitute a handful of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries for the lemon and pineapple in the red version and skip the cinnamon stick. Use Apple Brandy instead of the vodka and a white wine for the red.

Compared to the bottled Sangria I picked up for comparison, both of my versions (actually, all four since I tried each fruit/liquor combo with each wine just out of curiosity) were less sweet than the pre-made. You could add orange juice (red) or white grape juice (white) if you wanted a fruitier, sweeter beverage or add club soda or some other fizzy drink for a bubbly version.

Essence of India, Tallahassee, FL

This is actually one of our favorite local restaurants except for one thing: it’s almost never busy. Now, I know, you might think that’s a good thing but think about it: if a restaurant isn’t busy when you go at 7pm on a Friday night, it might not be there the next Friday night you want to stop by. Plus, being the only couple in a restaurant is like being the only person in a movie theatre: awkward. The waitstaff just stands there (a fair distance away, of course, it’s not like they’re hovering) until you need them again.

But there is hope! This last time we visited there were several tables occupied when we arrived and even more by the time we left. Todd counted 14 or 15 tables being served over the course of our meal: we were astounded. Also, I’ve driven through that shopping center at lunch and seen fairly good business coming from, I’m guessing, the state office buildings and other businesses around it, so that’s a good thing, too.

Now, onto the food. The menu is long, something I usually dislike, but it’s well-ordered and the length is because there are separate sections for each protein style with the various sauce treatments. It’s actually less confusing than other multi-page menus I’ve encountered because of this.

We always start by sharing the Appetizer Platter which comes with samosa, pakoras, papadum and onion bhaji. Pakora are similar to tempura in that they have a light batter and are fried. The chicken pakora is always a favorite, followed by the cheese with it’s spices and the vegetable (potato, onion and spinach). Bhaji are more like fritters, even though the menu’s description almost makes them sound like onion rings and samosa are a mix of potatoes and peas in a pastry crust, usually triangular in shape. Finally, papadum are thin, crispy lentil crackers that generally don’t contain salt but taste like they do–it must be the natural property of the lentils. These come with three sauces: tamarind, red onion  and mint chutneys. Beware: the tamarind is spicy!

When the entrees (most priced $10.95 to $13.95) arrive, there’s a large plate with rice and smaller pots of the individual entrees. It doesn’t look like a lot, at first, but we usually end up taking half of it home. Also, don’t forget to order some naan to go with your meal! We prefer the garlic naan but there are several varieties available.

On this trip, Todd ordered the Lamb Rogan Josh. The meat is always fork-tender here, just amazing in it’s consistent melt-in-your-mouth texture and they’re not stingy with their meat the way some places might be, adding more potatoes to make it look like a fuller portion. Rogan Josh means a yogurt-tomato sauce with garlic, ginger and various spices. It’s not too hot, but definitely well-seasoned. I decided to go veggie this time and ordered the Navrattan Korma which is vegetables cooked in a yogurt sauce and spices that I can only describe as comforting. This is mega-comfort food chock full of potatoes, carrots, peas, corn, green beans, tomatoes, nuts and raisins. So good, I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!

We’re usually too full, even taking half our entrees and bread home, to order dessert but we made an exception, this time (strictly in the interest of a full report, of course). Todd ordered the Gulab Jamun (fried pastry balls in a flavored honey syrup) and I had the Rice Pudding. It’s important to thoroughly dunk the pastry in the saffron, cardamon and rose-flavored syrup, otherwise the first few bites might be rather unimpressive. Most people think of rice pudding as a carb-loaded goo, but in a good goo-way, but this version is actually thinner, not goo-like at all, and flavored with green cardamom which is a nice change from the usual cinnamon.

All told, our meal was $50 and change, before tip, which is an excellent value for all of the food ordered and the very full to-go boxes that accompanied us home and made for a good lunch for each of us the next day. For whatever reason we don’t order alcohol here but they do have a fully-stocked bar and various beverage choices beyond the usual water and soft drinks. One day I plan to try their lunch special, advertised as $7.99 for an entree (choice of 9) with soup, rice, naan, onion chutney and the dessert of the day (no wonder they seem so busy then!).

Why is the Rum Always Gone?

Because there are so many yummy ways to drink it!

When flipping through the index of an extensive beverage reference it became quite apparent that I have many fond memories associated with rum, in one form or another:

When I was just a child, about 4 or 5 I’d say, my Aunt Marie was a big fan of Pina Coladas. My grandmother’s living room was fitted with a well-stocked wet bar and, before she added the rum, my Aunt would pour off some of the sweet, pineapple-coconut smoothie into a mini parfait-style glass so I could be a part of the evening.

Later, growing up in prize-winning strawberry country we’d attend or come back for the Strawberry Festival each April. At this festival would be all manner of strawberry concoctions, confections, crafts and contestants (farmer and pageant alike), including the ever-present Strawberry Daiquiri. In fact, if you ever find yourself in Ponchatoula, Louisiana (now fairly well-known for it’s antiques), stop in at Paul’s Cafe for the most strawberry-laden, smooth daiquiris (virgin or not) ever experienced.

As a newlywed and aspiring baker (pre-Culinary School) I had the ambition to make fruit cakes for our first family Christmas. No, not the brick-o-candied-fruit-and-nut doorstops, an actual cake studded with walnuts and dried apples and soaked for 3 months in dark rum. Of course, they were too good to hold that long and we gobbled them before they were sufficiently convivial.

Rum & Coke (aka Cuba Libre) was an easy drink to order at the bar and tasty without being too strong if you didn’t want it to be. Flavored rums (whether spiced, pineapple or coconut varieties) worked well in this combination, as well. If it was rum, I was willing to try it back during my clubbing years.

More recently, at Trader Vic’s in Atlanta, Georgia, I decided to try the Fogcutter, a tall, tart tiki drink ripe with rum and lime. It was, especially on top of the Mai Tai and the multiple-course meal consumed, impossible to finish but the waiter offered to put it into a go-cup rather than waste it. (We were staying just upstairs in the Hilton, of course, Atlanta does not have the open container laws that one finds in New Orleans.)

So what to make this week to extol the virtues of rum? Since all rum is a product of sugar cane (be it in the form of cane juice or molasses), it’s no wonder that most rum drinks are sweet. As sugarcane was originally an island crop, it’s also no surprise that fruit juices usually play a large part. We’ve discussed the daiquiri, the mojito and even the Trader Vic’s Mai Tai in previous posts so I wanted something a little different for this week. To that end, I bring you two lovely drinks that both happen to use dark rum.

Scurvy Cure

3 parts Pineapple juice
1 part Amaretto liqueur
1 part Dark rum

Pour in a short glass over ice and stir.

This was originally called the Nutty-C in AJ Rathbun’s Good Spirits but both Todd & I felt it was a bit too strong. Not the rum, the amaretto. Also, Todd wasn’t crazy about the color of the drink which, thanks to the pineapple juice, is sort of a murky brown. Adding an additional part pineapple juice mellows the almond out and makes the color more orange though I still think it looks like heavily-lemoned iced tea.

The second drink is also from Good Spirits, and similarly tweaked. Originally intended to be a blended drink, I really prefer drink on the rocks but this required a skewing of the mixers to keep the balance that the blended ice would have afforded. From what was once the Taboo, I give you

The Unspoken

2 oz Dark rum
.75 oz Simple syrup
.5 oz Pineapple juice
2.5 oz Cranberry juice
.5 oz Lemon juice

Pour over ice and stir. Garnish with a chunk of pineapple if you like.

Surprisingly, the Scurvy Cure is sweeter than the Unspoken, despite the inclusion of simple syrup and more juices in the latter.

Incidentally, September 19th is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Either of these drinks (or any other frothy rum concoctions) would be ideal beverages with which to celebrate. So mix one (or more) up, pop in a Pirate movie or three and indulge in a few Arr’s and Aye Matey’s with the rest of the world.

Banditos Lobster Shack, Costa Maya

While on our cruise in January we didn’t eat in port very often–why when, after all, the meals on the ship are already covered and many of the ports featured less than authentic cuisine or bar atmospheres that we weren’t very interested in. Still, while wandering the port in Costa Maya we got a bit peckish and decided to grab a bite in port instead of waiting until we walked back to and up that loooooong pier.

The port’s not that big, mind you, but there were two restaurants right next to each other: Mamasitas and Banditos, the latter looking busier even though they seemed like they shared quite a bit of menu items from the ones we glanced at on a table. Well, no wonder: now I find they are all part of the Coast Maya Food Service, which seems to have locations stretching from Costa Maya to Roatan to Belize. Good to know, as it means the food will be reliable if our experience is any indication.

We started with chips and salsa and a Pai Ai each: a very pink frozen drink of pineapple, orange, strawberry and tangerine with peach schnapps and rum. It was a nice thing to sip as we took in the view from the open-air restaurant. Todd ordered the Shrimp Burrito and it was good, but not quite as good as my Lobster Taquitos Banditos: they were light and flaky, well seasoned, freshly and evenly fried and just down-right tasty. Definitely worth the tourist prices you’re bound to pay in port but something I’d go back for if I ever find my way down that way again.

You know, for those who’ve been thinking about getting away, cruising in the Fall, when school’s in and before the holidays, is actually a prime time for good rates and calm cruises. Too late this season? We had a fabulous time cruising while it was chilly elsewhere (it gets cold, even in Florida) though the sunburn was not the best idea of a souvenir ;-)

No Malaria Here!

This post was brought to you by the letter Q, not exactly an easy one to match in the Alphahol so I went with a tried and true favorite: Tonic Water, which is flavored with (among other things) quinine.

Apparently, the Gin & Tonic habit began as a way for the British of the East India Company in the like to improve the flavor of the strongly flavored Tonic (what we get now has a far lower concentration than the original) which was used as a preventative against Malaria. Now, for those who don’t especially _like_ Gin, you might be thinking that Tonic must have been all sorts of bitter if Gin made it more palatable (which was exactly Todd’s thought). I’m not sure I’d like the full-strength stuff myself, but I’m quite the fan of what I’ve had so far.

When looking up things to serve with Tonic Water, other than Gin or Vodka, I came across all sorts of ______ Tonic–pretty much any spirit plus Tonic Water and there you go. Still, others got a bit more inventive. Take for instance:

Melon Tonic

1 oz Vodka (I used vanilla, of course)
1 oz Melon liqueur
1 oz Tonic water
dash Lemon juice

Stir together in a low-ball glass and sip.

Now, this one, to me, needed a bit more tonic water to balance out the cloyingly sweet melon (and I like melon drinks) but nonetheless tastes like a melted snow-cone with a kick. Definitely one to keep around. I also found a half-gin & [grapefruit] juice, half-tonic mixture that was okay (rather just have the Gin & Juice, personally) but the surprise favorite was this:

Southampton

Tonic water
Squeeze of lime
Several dashes of bitters

Stir lime and bitters (use as much as you like, 3 dashes was recommended and seemed okay for a short glass) into tonic and sip on a hot day in place of a cool breeze.

When I say surprise, Todd even liked this one best out of the three we tried tonight and he’s not a tonic fan. Bitters kinda remind me of Worcestershire sauce (in a good way) and that slightly warm flavor added to the chilled Tonic and lime made for a very tasty drink. Might even be a good brunch alternative for a Bloody Mary for those (like me) who are sensitive to tomato juice in any sort of quantity.

Finally, I know I’ve mentioned this before but I have to again, it just wouldn’t be right not to. Fred and Friends makes wonderfully quirky kitchen gadgets and the Gin and Titonic ice cube molds are no exception. I actually found this, in person, at a local game shop last night and have since sunk an icy Titanic and -berg in both mixed drinks and juice. For the truly surreal experience, I’d suggest dunking them into a blue beverage, but in a nice Gin & Tonic it’s just as fun.

The Oil Can

Pausing in my back-log of restaurant experiences and pseudo-reviews, I want to talk about a neat little thing I picked up for the kitchen not too long ago: an oil can.

No, not the poppa-poppa-sounding one they used to keep the Tin Man from freezing up, a cute little can to store and pour my olive oil when cooking. Vessels like this are not uncommon and I’ve seen a lot of ceramic or porcelain models painted prettily, but this one (found at my local Marshall’s for all of $2.99, this oil can from StainlessLUX is very similar) is stainless steel with a cute little handle, easy flip-up lid for refilling and long spout to pouring easy and mess-free (for the most part).

Like most households these days, we use olive oil (extra virgin, of course) almost every day when making dinner. Sure, pouring it straight from the bottle into the saute pan or stock pot is fine, but what about when you drizzle oil over steamed vegetables? Do you just let it glop on out of the bottle or do you put your fingers over the opening, trying to stem the flow a bit? Or do you try to hold the cap half-on, half -off to keep your fingers from getting oily (which never really works the way you want)? That’s when an oil can or cruet has a definite appeal.

From a practical side, it’s often cheaper to buy olive oil in larger bottles. But those bottles, even if they are molded to afford a slightly better grip, are still unwieldy when full and awkward when nearing empty. And I don’t know about you but I’m usually grabbing or stirring something while I drizzle, so having to maneuver the bottle with both hands isn’t ideal.

Aside from all that, it’s just plain fun to use! The night I brought it home was like Christmas morning playing with the new toy, swirling and swooping the oil can around. It’s almost balletic and you feel a little dainty, a little more elegant, a little more special for using a simple oil can instead of a bottle. Find one and try it and tell me if you don’t agree.

Pomegranate Snark

A while back–maybe a year or so, that’s pretty long in Internet-years–I was part of a conversation among friends which resulted in the following question: If you had a drink named after you, what would it be called?

Now, this was back when I was a bar novice. I stuck to rum & Cokes, Kahlua & cream (or the stand-by Amaretto Sour), avoided vodka at all costs and didn’t know there were more than 3 or 4 types of rum. And by types, I mean regular (white), dark, spiced and 151. Maybe I didn’t even qualify as a novice, yet, come to think of it. At any rate, I did at least come up with a name for my drink: the Snarky Little Tart.

I also knew enough, or thought I did, that the little should signify a shot or some other small portion and the tart naturally led me to think something from DeKuyper’s Pucker line-up. I was on a serious gin kick at the time, so that would be the base and since this was a drink about me, it should definitely be red, so I was leaning towards watermelon or, more appropriately, cherry pucker. That is until I found pomegranate liqueurs at the store and, thus, the Snarky Little Tart had it’s debut.

Snarky Little Tart

1 Ice cube
1 oz Gin
.5 oz Vanilla cordial
1 oz Pomegranate liqueur
splash of Club soda

Build the drink over the single ice cube in a double-shot or cordial glass. Swirl.

This isn’t a bad drink, especially for the first-time mixologist that I was. But, now, a year or two later (really, time flies, all spent online) and several more experiments under my bar towel, I think it’s time to give the ‘Tart a little more room and a polish.

Trying out the different combinations is almost more fun than sipping the triumphant final drink, so I thought I’d go into what changes I made and why. First was the Vanilla cordial, originally made for me by a friend it’s not something that everyone is going to have on hand and not something I’ve ever made myself. The bottle of vanilla vodka never seems to leave the top of the bar these days, so it was a natural first choice when updating the drink. Second choice was to add some pomegranate juice since I wanted a bit of mixer to cut the straight alcohol and I really wanted to get away from the club soda, even if it was only a splash.

Unfortunately, the vanilla vodka didn’t play as nicely with the rest of the ingredients, it was a bit harsh in some ratios and just too bright in others. Then it dawned on me that the Cordial was a brandy base, and I had a wonderful brandy-vanilla flavor tucked away under the bar in the form of a bottle of Tuaca . This turned out to be the magic bullet that pulled together the different flavors (excepting the vanilla vodka, of course, it was just too pointy, even for Snark). So after about 4 different goes, we finally agreed on a winner:

CHF Snarky Tart

1 oz Gin
1 oz Tuaca
1 oz Pomegranate liqueur
2 oz Pomegranate juice

Combine all ingredients in a shaker half-full of ice and shake with a touch of bitter wit. Quoting some Dorothy Parker wouldn’t go amiss, either.

This slightly more mature version of it’s younger shot sibling retains the tartness, the color and the touch of gin but goes down much smoother and is meant for sipping.

PS-Pomegranate Snark (along with a long derivation that led to Snarky Cheerleader) was another potential name for the spruced-up cocktail.