Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Scent of Home

A potted herb garden

A few days ago, a Wednesday in December, I went to Lowe's outdoor garden center and bought herbs and flowers, tucked them into pots and set them outside onto the little patio area next to our RV; parked for the winter in Palm Springs, California. I marvel still at this flagrant display of disregard for winter, though the calendar confirms the date.
A ball carefully placed by Maggie for my notice

Each morning, I make a big steaming mug of tea, often from herbs picked and dried from my northern Minnesota garden nearly a year ago and sit in the sun with Maggie; me, plotting the day, she, returning the tennis ball I toss to her again and again. She is still perplexed by the idea of a chain, attaching her at a 20' length from the steps, something of a cruel joke to a 10 year old dog who almost never leaves my side. This is her first experience with such a clear assumption of future misdeeds but as long as I am present, she submits to the affront without indignation.

My sidekick

I used to sit with her on summer afternoons, 
reading in the herb garden near our house, 
with the pungent scent of black currant bushes on one side 
and the occasional breeze bringing me the scents of 
peppermint, chamomile and tarragon (long ago known by the 
mystical sounding name 'dragon's wort') on the other.

Contrary to gardening sense, early season herbs are the best to pick and dry for later use, holding the greatest amount of essential oils and therefore, flavor. Early summer was the time of year I would begin to gather and hang bunches of thyme, sage, savory, rosemary and tarragon for cooking and sprigs of mint and chamomile flowers for tea. Just as contradictorily, today I sit outdoors with my cup, just days before the winter solstice, celebrating at once the summers first harvest and the years end.

Cremini Mushrooms
At the end of the day, as I return home, I notice my newly planted herbs have perked up, having drunk in a rare southern California rain. The air is chilly and damp and I peer into our little refrigerator, deciding on dinner. Hmm. Pork tenderloin, mushrooms, a little goat cheese, lemons from a nearby tree, and herbs. I gather, mix, taste and stuff. A quick sear browns the exterior of the meat and I slip it into the oven (along with a handful of sweet potato wedges) until just medium. One taste and I am warmed instantly.

I slice a piece of Ciabatta from the loaf I purchased at the Farmers Market and sit, dog at my feet and after seemingly endless days and nights of sirens and city traffic noise I realize that it is suddenly, wonderfully and unexpectedly, as quiet as the northern Minnesota woods and I relax and enjoy this moment in time. 

Herbed Pork Tenderloin with Lemon and Herbs
This is a quick, easy and hearty dinner, ready in about 30 minutes. Serves 2-3

Local goat cheese and a lemon from a nearby tree

1 whole pork tenderloin – about 1¼ - 1½ #
Olive oil
1# cremini mushrooms, chopped
½ tsp chopped garlic
3/4 tsp rubbed sage
¼ tsp dried rosemary
¼ tsp dried thyme leaves
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
1 medium Lemon, zested and juiced (reserve separately)
2oz chevre cheese

Heat about 2 TBSP olive oil in a medium sauté pan.
Add chopped mushrooms, herbs and garlic and sauté until mushrooms are softened.
Add half of the lemon zest and all but 1 tsp of the fresh lemon juice.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Reduce the juices slightly then add goat cheese. It will melt into the mushrooms.
Place filling into a bowl and cool to lukewarm.
Lemon zest
Cut a pocket into the length of the tenderloin and stuff with the cooled mushroom mixture.
Seal the tenderloin by tying with string or with toothpicks.
Rub the tenderloin with the remaining lemon zest, salt pepper and lemon juice.
Sear the tenderloin in 1 tsp of olive oil until lightly browned.
Place the browned tenderloin in a baking dish and roast in a 350degree oven for 20 minutes or until a meat thermometer registers 140 degrees. Remove from oven and let rest 15 minutes.
Remove the picks or string, slice and serve.
I like to serve pork with roasted sweet potato wedges and a salad.

Recipe notes:
  • Not a fan of mushrooms? Replace them with onions or winter squash. Sauté onions until caramelized, or squash until it begins to soften and continue the recipe.
  • The rules have changed. It is perfectly safe to serve pork medium to medium well. Using a meat thermometer will take the guesswork out of roasting meat. If you are unsure of appropriate cooking temperatures, look for one with indicators of rare, medium and well done, etc.
  • Warm dried herbs by rubbing between your palms over the pan. This releases the essential oils and ‘wakes up’ dried herbs.
  • You can make this up the night before, hold it in the refrigerator, then sear and roast when you are ready the next day. The roast may take slightly longer to come up to temperature once it is thoroughly chilled.
  • Microplane zesters are fabulous for citrus but any sharp grater will work.
  • Make your own tea blend by mixing some of your favorite herbs together and steeping in boiling water for 5 minutes. I like to blend a pinch of green tea leaves with a pinch each of peppermint and chamomile flowers. Lemon verbena leaf is another great 'tea herb' and is prolific when grown in pots. Fresh grated ginger and a dash of honey or a drop of orange oil are great additions, too.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons...

Fresh citrus seems decadent to my Midwestern eyes

Just a dusting of snow so far
The last time I lived in California I was seven years old. It was on an Air Force base in Riverside, just an hour from this year's winter residence. I distinctly remember hanging upside down from the crossbar of a swing set with another little girl and talking about the snowcapped mountains in the distance. Whether we were determining to embark on some future mountain journey or just marveling at the snow, I don't remember but I find it interesting after all these years to be so nearly in the same place.

Only vague memories remain from those upside down years: bamboo growing near the back door, holding on to the back of a chair in front of the television and exercising with my mother to Jack LaLanne, chewing on a piece of raw sugarcane purchased as a treat from the local grocer and riding with my siblings in the back seat of the car through endless fields of citrus trees. 

Sampling oranges at the Farmers Market
Being back in Southern California is a huge mind bender for me. The snow-capped mountains are here indeed. Just past the palm trees. Snow. And palm trees. Farmers market stalls offering fresh strawberries and raspberries, any kind of fresh vegetable imaginable, local breads and things like orange juice squeezed to order or gorgeous orchids in an explosion of color complete the 'wonderland' landscape for me.

A Lisbon Lemon tree, heavy with fruit

Here in Palm Springs, citrus trees grow in nearly every yard, their branches holding the bright orange, green and yellow globes over the ubiquitous concrete walls that separate each small housing development. My Midwestern eyes can hardly believe the sight of grapefruit trees. Seriously. In your yard? In the back yard of my friends Kevin and Steve's home, a Lisbon lemon tree stands bent like a woman great with child. I cannot fathom how the branches, so laden with huge, heavy yellow fruit do not break under the weight. The lemons themselves are larger than any I have ever seen and beautifully fragrant when sliced.

A year round desert resident
Across the street from our place is a little neighborhood bistro, Cello's, where owners Tom and Bonnie Barkley make their own Limoncello from local fruit. In this tiny, warmly decorated space, you can sit at the bar, chat with whomever happens by and have a remarkable meal or a great glass of wine at the same time. A few weeks ago, a woman named Jo recounted to me an unexpected evening spent years ago in Palm Springs in the company of Frank Sinatra and friends. A little graffiti in the bar bears witness to a visit to the restaurant last January by Mike Grgich; signing the wall itself.

Maybe this is the way to really learn about a new place, one story at a time, each visit a new opportunity. Everyone here seems to be from somewhere else, drawn to the rugged beauty of the desert, mild weather and, seemingly central to the history of the state itself, the hope for a new start.


Bonnie Barkley was kind enough to share the recipe for Cello's signature dessert: Lemon Tiramisu, just in time for citrus season.


5 Egg yolks (reserve whites)
¼ C Sugar
½ C Limoncello

Mascarpone Cream
2C Mascarpone at room temperature

5 Egg Whites (reserved from above)
¼C Sugar

1C Limoncello
¾ C Fresh squeezed lemon juice (prefer Meyer lemons)
1C Water
½ C Sugar

74 Ladyfingers

For the Zabaglione: Whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and Limoncello. Over low heat, whisk constantly until the zabaglione has thickened. Remove from heat and cool thoroughly.

For the Syrup: Combine all the syrup ingredients and place in a sauce pot over high heat. Bring to a boil until sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally. Remove and cool completely.

Whip egg whites until stiff peaks form, gradually adding sugar. Set aside.

For the Mascarpone Cream:
Once Zabaglione has cooled completely (this is very important) fold 1/3 of the mixture into the mascarpone cheese until blended. Add the remaining Zabaglione until blended. Fold in the meringue in several additions until blended into the Mascarpone/Zabaglione mixture.

To assemble:
Dip Ladyfingers into syrup quickly (if you get them too wet they will fall apart) line the bottom of a 9x13 pan with a layer of ladyfingers. Top with Mascarpone/Zabaglione mixture and repeat. After the 3rd layer of Ladyfingers top with remaining Mascarpone/Zabaglione mixture cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit overnight.

Serve with an aperitif of Limoncello or drizzle a little on top just before serving.