One of the first things I do on Saturdays is try to choose a subject for my blog.  This morning I didn’t have to think very long about it.  As so often happens lately, there was a song stuck in my head and I just had to find out what it was.  You see, I’ve been taking a zumba class for a few weeks and the catchy tunes as well as the dance moves seem to have grabbed hold of my subconscious.  And there it was: the topic I was searching for!

What is zumba, you might ask?  Well, it’s a workout first created in 1986 by fitness instructor, Alberto “Beto”Perez, when he forgot the music for the aerobics class he was teaching  in his native Colombia.  Luckily, in his backpack he had a tape of salsa and merengue music which he then used to improvise the class.  Dancing to the lively tunes really caught on.  Around the year 2000, he and his collaborators (also both named Alberto) licensed a company and brought zumba videos to the U.S.  Today this worldwide phenomenon encompasses a variety of fitness levels which range from Zumba Gold and Aqua Zumba in the pool for older populations to Zumba Toning which uses toning sticks—whatever that might be!  Our class, taught by an upbeat and encouraging young woman named Tina, consists of a fairly wide range of ages.  As for ability, you’re moving so fast trying to keep up with the instructor that you don’t notice how you or others are managing!  It’s a whirlwind of an hour, fun and quite tiring.  Just the right thing for a calorie-burning, cardio workout.  A bonus: you really sleep well after all that exercise.

Music for the class comes from many different countries and styles: salsa, flamenco, mambo, chacha, to name but a few.  In our case, English-language songs are represented by the likes of American pop artist Katy Perry with Firework and also LMFAO's Party Rock Anthem.  For a cool down we dance to I've Had the Time of My Life by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes.  And there’s Dynamite by British singer/rapper Taio Cruz.  From the French music industry comes Rock This Party (Everybody Dance Now) by Bob Sinclar (born Christophe Le Friant in Bretagne) and Marseille’s DJ Mam who performs Zumba He, Zumba Ha which combines Spanish, French, and creole lyrics.  Another favorite of mine is Zumbanessa's merengue tune El amor, even if I don’t understand all of the words.

Just click on one of the above links and see if the music doesn't get your toes a-tappin'!  Zumba is a great way to get in your exercise and have fun while you're moving and sweating.

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A Few of My Favorite Desserts

‘Tis the season for food excesses of all kinds.  Woohoo!  As for desserts, most Americans have already indulged in the apple and pumpkin pies that normally accompany the Thanksgiving feast.  My preferred sweet courses consist of, but are not limited to, fruit- and chocolate-based goodies which are often heavenly rich and satisfying.  There are so many good ones to choose from, many from France, bien sûr : crêpes, mousses, clafoutis...  Although I can’t possibly discuss all of my favorites, I thought I’d concentrate on three today which are so good and not too difficult to make. 

From a much-loved cookbook I’ve mentioned before, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, comes Pépin’s recipe for a rustic fruit tart.  This pie combines two great qualities: it is delicious and easy.  You begin by making the crust which is practically fail-safe.  Put 1½ cups of flour into a food processor with a pinch of salt.  Add in 1½ sticks (or 6 oz.) of cold butter a little at a time and pulse until the mixture resembles small peas.  Sprinkle 1/3 cup of ice water into the processor and mix until moistened.  Then knead the dough a few times on a lightly floured board and roll out to about ¼ inch thick.  Put the dough on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil.  Mix together 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1 tablespoon of flour and scatter it over the top of the dough.  Peel, core, and slice 4 Golden Delicious apples (or a mixture of any fresh and dried fruit you like) and overlap the pieces on the dough, starting 3 inches from the edge, going in concentric circles.  Fold the dough up over the fruit in an unsystematic way (hence the word rustic).  Brush the fruit with 2 tablespoons of melted butter and sprinkle with 1½ tablespoons of sugar.  Refrigerate for 10 minutes and then bake at 400 degrees for about an hour till the crust is golden.  Brush the tart with 2 tablespoons of melted, strained apricot preserves for a beautiful tasty glaze.  Yum!

The following recipe does not normally contain either chocolate or fruit, but it does have heavy cream in it, so it’ll do just fine!  We had a somewhat non-traditional meal at Thanksgiving this year which included crème brûlée for dessert.  The making of this French custard is not too hard and the results are terrific.  First, preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Bring a quart of heavy cream and a split, scraped vanilla bean to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat.  Remove from the burner and let the mixture sit for 15 minutes.  Whisk together ½ cup of sugar and 6 large egg yolks in a bowl.  Then comes the only tricky part: slowly add the warm cream mixture to the beaten eggs, about a ½ cup at a time, constantly beating.  Pour into 6 8-oz. ramekins and place in a large Pyrex baking dish.  Fill the dish with hot water so that it comes half-way up the sides of the ramekins.  (One good idea is to put a clean kitchen towel at the bottom of the dish to prevent movement).  Bake 40 to 45 minutes till the custard is still jiggly but set.  Refrigerate the ramekins for at least 2 hours.  What makes the dessert brûlée is burning some kind of sugar on the top of the cream mixture. Professional chefs use a small hand torch for this purpose, but the broiler setting of the oven is much safer for us mere mortals.  Remove the ramekins from the fridge 30 minutes before placing them back in the oven.  Sprinkle about a ½ cup of brown sugar evenly and broil to form a crispy top.  Let sit 5 minutes before serving.

The final dessert resembles the previous one but it is the chocolate variety, much like a mousse: the simple but lovely pot de crème.  We first tasted this unbeatable French treat years ago in a restaurant outside of Boston.  Preheat the oven to 375 while melting 3-oz. of bittersweet chocolate in a double-boiler.  (You can, of course, improvise by setting a pan on top of another that has simmering water in it.)    Meanwhile, scald 2 cups cream with 1 cup of milk, being careful not to let it boil over.  Beat together 5 egg yolks with ¼ cup of sugar, and a pinch of salt.  As in the previous recipe, very slowly add the warm cream to the egg mixture so as not to have scrambled eggs!  Pour the egg/cream mixture through a fine sieve into the melted chocolate.  Whisk until smooth.   Then proceed as in the above recipe: fill ramekins, put them in a baking dish, fill ½-way up with hot water.  One difference is that you cover the dish with aluminum foil before baking about 35 minutes or until firm.  Refrigerate 2 to 3 hours and serve cold with whipped cream if the dessert itself is not rich enough for you!

There you go!  Hope you'll try them.

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The Cheese Traveler in Albany

Do you want to see the world?  Is your idea of fun visiting a new place and tasting the local cuisine?  While your budget might not allow you to go touring the planet, you might at least get a hint of the flavors from another country not far from home.  Capital District residents should consider stopping by The Cheese Traveler at 540 Delaware Avenue (between The Spectrum Theatre and the Bethlehem town line).  Cheesemonger Eric Paul, who set up the cheese counter at Honest Weight Food Co-op, worked briefly at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass.  His new shop is unique in the local area and has much to offer the frustrated, wannabe tourist. 

Despite its name, this specialty shop is not just about cheese.  All kinds of fine foods from close to home and the four corners of the world can be purchased at The Cheese Traveler.  For one, Eric has partnered with Joanne and Dany Tilley of nearby Tilldale Farm which offers certified organic beef, pork, and dairy products.  One also finds a wide array of cured meats (like prosciutto di Parma and saucisson d’Arles).  Lining the shelves of the shop, there are delicious Marcona almonds from Spain, François Pralus’s chocolates made of cocoa beans from faraway places like Madagascar, foreign honey, jams, pasta, and the newly-arrived nougat from Montélimar in the South of France.  You can get taste treats for yourself and pick up a few gifts for friends and family at the same time.

Naturally, the pièce de résistance in the shop is the cheese.  Eric and his family are experts who will guide you in finding products that suit your taste.  Artisanal American cheeses like Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery in California and several from Vermont’s Consider Bardwell Farm and Twig Farm (which I have written about on this blog before) are among the one hundred choices in the cheese case.  During the “soft opening” over the past month, we have sampled and purchased several different cheeses.  We bought a slice of a wonderfully creamy cow’s milk Stracchino from Italy.  Two of our purchases have been from Switzerland: Chällerhocker (a silken new Alpine cheese from Saint-Gallen in the northeast) and Scharfe Maxx (a wonderfully sharp cheese from Lake Constance in the north).  As Francophiles, we’ve tried several from France: two from Auvergne (a firm, earthy Saintalin and a semi-soft, nutty Saint-Nectaire), and two from the Loire Valley (a blue Fourme affinée au mœlleux and a good goat cheese called Galette du Cher).  But our hands-down favorite so far was one we got last week: an aged goat’s milk Couronne de Touraine.  From French maître affineur (specialist in aging cheese) Rodolphe le Meunier, this gray, moldy, crown-shaped “brainy rind” cheese wouldn’t be the first choice of the majority of Americans because of its appearance.  But if you are in any way adventurous, I encourage you to try this!  It is, as food writer Janet Fletcher from San Francisco put it, simply sublime.

Tomorrow November 18th is the grand opening of The Cheese Traveler.  From 1:00 to 6:00 p.m. there will be a variety of activities to celebrate the official inaugural of the new shop: cooking demonstrations, speakers and poetry readings, food from Mingle restaurant next door, and, of course, cheese tastings.  Check out the schedule and drop in!  You won't regret it.

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Serving on a Jury

Most Americans have seen episodes of Law & Order or old re-runs of Perry Mason television shows and think they know what it’s like to be a juror.  However, unlike most fictionalized accounts, nothing seems so cut and dried in a real courtroom.  In my experience, at least, there was no crying admission from the guilty party being questioned on the stand.  (In fact, the defendant didn’t testify at all in his defense.)  No one rushed in toward the end of the trial with information that proved what actually happened.  There was not even any plea deal in the works.  No, in the second degree burglary case in Albany a few weeks ago, there were many unanswered questions in the mind of the jurors when we were asked to deliberate.  Here you have twelve people of differing ages, from all walks of life, who don’t know each other being ushered into a deliberation room after the closing arguments.  The foreperson, who will eventually read the verdict, is not actually in charge; no one is.  There is necessarily, I suppose, that awkward moment at first and the question: “Where do we begin?”

Before the trial started, we jurors had been instructed by the judge to try to assess the accuracy and credibility of the witnesses.  We weren’t allowed to take notes at any time, mainly so that we could concentrate on the words and demeanor of the witnesses to see if they appeared to be believable.  During deliberations, we were permitted, even encouraged, to have testimony from any or all witnesses re-read in the courtroom by the court reporter.  We were reminded, especially by the defense attorney, that police officers are human and may make mistakes.  Their testimony was not to be considered more trustworthy than other witnesses simply by the fact that they came from people wearing uniforms.  Two of the main witnesses in the case—one for the prosecution and the other for the defense—are felons serving time for the burglary in question. These two individuals, each led into court in their prison clothing and in shackles, had conflicting versions of who was present and what occurred on the night of the crime.  I believe the jury was unanimous in believing that neither was telling the whole truth.  One juror had the idea of using a white board to list the statements by each of these witnesses so that we could try to determine which one was more credible.  

Another charge from the judge was to examine the evidence presented during the trial.  Two types of evidence exist in criminal trials: direct and circumstantial.  From what I understand, direct evidence is based solely on fact; examples include reliable witness testimony,  audio or surveillance tapes.  With circumstantial evidence, on the other hand the jury is left to infer the defendant’s guilt or lack thereof.  Unfortunately, in this particular case, much of the evidence was circumstantial.  For instance, police had collected a pair of latex gloves found at and near the scene of the crime which contained the defendant's DNA, but also that of others.  Not being experts in genetic material, our group decided to have the long and somewhat complicated report by the DNA expert re-read to us in court.  Some jurors were convinced of the defendant’s participation in the crime by this evidence while others were not. Verdict: a hung jury resulting in a mistrial.  I suppose this conclusion was unsatisfactory for all involved, but I believe that we all sincerely tried to come to a decision and that this was the best we could do given the facts of the case.

Serving on a jury was a very valuable experience for me.  I think everyone should want and have the opportunity to be a juror at least once in their lives.  Don’t get me wrong; nothing about it is easy.  Deliberating someone’s fate, challenging and at the same time respecting fellow jurors’ opinions, hearing the judge’s nearly continual admonitions not to discuss the case outside of the deliberation room, seemingly interminable waiting…all are most taxing.  But you do feel a certain satisfaction in having performed your civic duty.  You also feel respected by the judge and attorneys for your role in the justice system.  And just maybe, you might not ever second-guess the final verdict of a jury again.

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