Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Swimming sadly under a small pond of ketchup

I caved and bought A Meatloaf in Every Oven by Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer, not because I wanted a meatloaf cookbook (I so didn’t) but because I’ve always loved Steinhauer’s writing and consider Bruni’s book about colleges essential, sedative reading if you’ve got a kid slogging through second half of high school. The two New York Times writers bonded over meat loaf (“In a given series of emails we’ll toggle from Senate filibusters to sauteed shiitakes, from Obamacare to oregano.”) and I expected their collaboration to be funny and clever. It doesn’t disappoint.

Tasty sample passage: “Perhaps this is your personal memory of meatloaf: someone’s mother’s overcooked, underseasoned, sort of needlessly, unpleasantly crunchy slab of meat, swimming sadly under a small pond of ketchup. Not that we hate ketchup. In fact, we embrace it. We date it. We want to marry it. But we also want it to see other people.”

There are chapters here devoted to lamb meatloaves, classic meatloaves, meatless loaves (tuna melt loaf, kasha loaf), and meatloaf side dishes. In their day jobs, Steinhauer and Bruni report on politics and the penultimate chapter collects meatloaf recipes contributed by members of Congress. Chuck Schumer cooks barbecued chicken in the same pan with his very plain meatloaf, which does not appeal to me at all. Nancy Pelosi makes a bison-and-veal loaf — “and things get mysterious with the appearance of cumin.” Paul Ryan shoots deer, grinds them up in his own power grinder, then desecrates the poor venison with Lipton onion soup mix and Progresso breadcrumbs. I’m sure it’s lousy. Paul Ryan is dead to me. 

Now, if Adam Schiff had a meatloaf recipe. . . 

Last night, I tried out the Swedish meatball loaf, an homage to Ikea’s Swedish meatballs which I have never tasted, though apparently the company sells a billion of these “bouncy” textured meatballs per year. You flavor a beef-pork-onion-bread-egg-cream melange with nutmeg and allspice, bake, top with a creamy gravy and some raspberry jam. The meatloaf required significantly more time in the oven than indicated to reach the suggested internal temperature, but otherwise the recipe worked perfectly.  Isabel (home for spring break) brought a friend to dinner and he complimented the meatloaf. It may have just been good manners, but he seemed sincere and I glowed with matronly pride. In any case, he didn’t get someone’s mother’s overcooked, underseasoned, sort of needlessly, unpleasantly crunchy, slab of meat. 

Although I didn’t really want a meatloaf compendium, I suspect I’ll use this one a lot. Meatloaf is easy, cheap, and satisfying, and flipping through the book this morning I wondered if I could get away with making meatloaf again tonight. (Conclusion: No one would mind but me and I would mind.) 

On another subject, I have mixed feelings about the writer Walter Kirn who can be a sour, contrarian cuss, but he’s never boring and he wrote a big-hearted, sad, inspiring essay in this month’s Harper’s. I urge you to seek it out in print if you can’t get past the paywall. Without listening to the radio or checking the internet, Kirn drives from Montana to Las Vegas through Idaho and the “big and biblical” landscape of Utah, observing and pondering what he encounters in the physical, visible world, from bumper stickers and elderly McDonald’s cashiers, to mules, truckers, and Mexican restaurants. There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in this essay. I would like to have the haunting final sentenced tattooed — or maybe branded — on my forearm so I have to look at it every time my twitching hand reaches for the phone for a quick, agitating, empty Twitter fix:

“In a supposedly post-factual time, deep attention to the passing scene is a radical act, reviving one’s sense that the world is real, worth fighting for, and that politics is a material phenomenon, its consequences embedded in things seen.”

Really, you should read the whole story. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Ruining a Russian Count's Castle

David Plotz, CEO of Atlas Obscura and longtime host of the Slate Political Gabfest, wrote a cracking review of Samarkand and Taste of Persia the other day in the Piglet, but one line stopped me cold:

“I ended up cooking a full meal from each book: A soup, a vegetable, a starch, and a meat.”

Pardon? What kind of “full meal” has a soup course, but no dessert?

I wondered if perhaps Taste of Persia and Samarkand didn’t contain any appealing sweets, but feast your eyes, my friends

That is a photo from the pages of Samarkand of an Uzbek cake called Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle. The very existence of cake called Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle makes me glad to be alive. 

I decided to make one.

I haven’t learned the origins of the Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle cake, nor the source of its name, as research materials on Uzbek cakes are scant, even online. But then I only spent about seven minutes looking. What I do know about Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle: You can use a base of profiteroles, meringue, torte, or sponge cake. Atop whatever base you opt for, heap a mound of cream, stud with meringues (cocoa-flavored or plain), and drizzle chocolate over all. Here’s the range of ways a Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle might look. What a world. 
flat as a pancake, loaded with prunes
I had my doubts about the Samarkand recipe. The base cake was dense and flat, barely an inch tall, and full of prunes and walnuts. The whipped cream topping called for heavy cream and sour cream but no sugar. This felt wrong, so I added sugar (and would do so again.) The instructions have you slather some of this cream on the cake, then crush a few of the cocoa meringues into the remainder of the cream so you can create a stiff mound that will hold the rest of your little meringues. You end up with a wonderful monstrosity of a cake. 

This seemed like a novelty cake, a stunt cake, and I didn’t expect it to taste good. But we loved it. There’s so much going on. You’ve got your little crispy meringues to nibble on, then a layer of cream with delectable bits of sugary crushed meringue. Beneath this you get to the layer of pure, tangy cream and then the dense, nutty torte. As soon as you get tired of any one element, you can move on to another, and they're all delicious. Mark asked if the fruit in the torte was cherry. It’s a good sign when someone thinks a prune is a cherry. I was sorry to have to tell him otherwise.

Total delight this cake, both the idea of it and the thing itself.

I also made an easy sesame-ginger brittle from Samarkand and have spent the last few days trying not to eat it all up at once. You boil honey, sugar, and water together, add sesame seeds and whole almonds, cook for a bit, add butter, candied ginger and baking soda, pour over a cookie sheet, cool, break into shards, eat a caramelly, crunchy piece, try to resist eating a second piece, eat a second, try to resist. . .  and so on. Ten minutes to produce this tasty treat. Fifteen max.

Plotz made a good call on Samarkand.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Spring Cleaning

rose-flavored cronuts, more beautiful than delicious 
Inconsiderate Food52 once again scheduled the Piglet to begin during so-called “Ski Week” when there’s no school and a lot of people go skiing. We dont ski, but I took Owen to see some colleges and wasn’t able to bird dog the competition the way I would have liked. 

Or would I have liked? While I’ve been reading the Piglet judgments loyally, I just haven’t gotten excited yet and have no strong feelings about any of the books. Is it because there have been no rude, controversial, totally lame judgments? Because I’m obsessed with politics, not cookbooks?

A little spring cleaning before moving on to new cooking adventures:

*Alton Brown’s Big Fat Greek Chicken Salad is a great, healthy chicken salad, full of protein, vegetables, Greek yogurt, feta, olives, and flavor. It’s a dream dish if you’re on a low-carb diet which I was for a couple of weeks. I put some of this in a Mason jar to take on the airplane when Owen and I went to look at colleges and it wasn’t half as embarrassing to eat while sitting in the middle seat as I thought it would be. I used rotisserie chicken. Worked great. You should try it.  

*Low-carb diet ended abruptly the first night in Savannah, Georgia at a barbecue restaurant. I made it through the savory portion of the meal without succumbing to starchy sides, but then pear cobbler and sweet potato pie happened. Southern dessert are so generous and sweet and fat and forgiving. I love them bigly. No regrets. The sad thing is (or maybe it’s the happy thing), I didn’t feel any worse after eating all that sugar than I had during my abstinence. I slept fine, plenty of energy, good mood, didn’t balloon overnight, wasn’t suddenly overcome with cravings. The next day: fresh shrimp, boiled peanuts, peach cobbler. Heaven. Continued to feel great. Owen determined that he loved the Savannah College of Art and Design and so we moved on to the next leg of our journey where there were no tempting carbohydrates.

*Rural western Pennsylvania. Terrible food and we saw more Confederate flags than we had in Savannah, where I don’t think we saw any at all. I don’t have much nice to say about our experience of rural western Pennsylvania, so I will be brief. We toured one sweet college and we were supposed to tour another but there were addicts in the hotel parking lot and bed bugs in the bed. I told Owen he could not go to school in a town where this was the highest rated hotel on TripAdvisor. Feel free to call me a snob, but you did not see those bed bugs. 

a "fully-loaded" halo halo.
*So we skipped the second school and drove to New York City instead. Brilliant decision. Cronuts at Dominique Ansel, halo halo at Lumpia Shack, a Monte Cristo sandwich at Shopsin’s, steak at Peter Luger, a grilled cheese sandwich at Marlow & Son. . . . plus some sightseeing, theater, and Pratt. One of my favorite trips ever.

Now we’re home in California and I should probably go back on my low-carb diet before the good fruit starts coming in. 

This is the year of the Big Lebowski sweater.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Shudder Shot or Screamshot?

I saw the jug of unsweetened almond-coconut milk in the fridge the other morning and got this idea that it would be tasty mixed with vanilla protein powder and the cold coffee left at the bottom of the pot. High protein! Low carb! Caffeine!  Like a treat, if not a treat. So I made myself a big dishwater-colored “shake” and sucked it all down in about 20 minutes. What happened next helped me understand how all how those mysterious liquid diets work. My appetite was obliterated. Nuked. Razed. I didn’t feel satisfied so much as blunted and dull, but I did not think about food for the rest of the day.

Ten hours after the shake, I made dinner, and even then I had little interest in eating. I made the lamb chops from Naomi Pomeroy’s Taste & Technique, which I had hoped would be as extraordinary as the salmon from the night before. The method was almost identical: You sear your meat in oil in hot pan, add butter, finish in the oven, basting with the butter. Results: fine. Nothing special.

Last night, I tried Pomeroy’s method for cooking chicken breasts which is — guess what? —  almost exactly the same as her method for cooking salmon and lamb chops. Sear in pan on stove, add butter, finish in oven. A few fussy steps in there, easily eliminated. I think the key to this recipe is that she has you brine the chicken for an hour, which transformed the drabbest meat on the planet into something pleasantly salty and alluring. 

I like this book and its plain, satisfying dishes. As always, once I get started with a book, I want to try everything.


On another subject, you know that hideous moment when you go to take a picture with your phone and it reverses and suddenly you’re treated to the image of your own face from a severely unflattering angle that accentuates double chins and wrinkles? I’ve always thought there should be a name for that moment and when this horrible thing happened to me the other day as I was preparing to photograph lamb chops it came to me: Screamshot. Genius. I told Owen, who was the only other person in the house, about my new word, and he looked at me with utter disdain. He said everyone in the world was already familiar with the phenomenon and “screamshot” was an incredibly dumb name. Why would anyone want to scream? 

There’s a word for someone who asks that idiotic question: sixteen.

Mark prefers “Shudder Shot.” 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Crazy and complicated, plain and simple

bright and crunchy
Just when you think youve licked your addiction, a day like yesterday comes along and Twitter gives gives gives and then gives some more, like a broken slot machine. Mark and I were recovering from a rich dinner and slightly queasy new episode of Girls when I checked my phone one last time and whoa. If you know what Im talking about, great. If not, go read a newspaper! Today I met someone who had no idea what was going on in the world and while this is often sane and refreshing, sometimes I want to say: Dude, you are missing out. 

Anyway, I didn’t sleep well after several hours of Don Lemon and Twitter, but in fact the insomnia had more to do with the rich dinner I served than the news. Pivoting now to cooking.

As cookbook lovers know, Food52 announced its 2017 Piglet finalists yesterday. I own several of the titles (Koreatown, Deep Run Roots, Dorie’s Cookies), know something about a few others (Simple, Sirocco), and hadn’t heard of most the rest. At the library, Naomi Pomeroy’s Taste & Technique was on the new arrivals shelf so I grabbed it. This handsome book will teach you to make aioli, braise short ribs, and saute kale, presumably, hopefully with better results than ever before. After flipping through the book a couple times, I was respectful, if not bubbling over with enthusiasm. After cooking a meal from its pages, I am respectful and more enthusiastic, if not bubbling over. It takes a lot to get me bubbling these days. 

big and strong

The meal I cooked: pan-roasted salmon and long-cooked green beans. Here’s what went on my grocery list: salmon and green beans. It’s that kind of cookbook. 

To make the vegetable, you immerse trimmed green beans in a pint (!) of warm olive oil and let them simmer very gently for an hour or so until they’re drab and almost falling apart. I thought I didn’t like overcooked green beans, but it turns out I do. They required a lot more salt than the recipe indicated and a slightly longer cooking time, but otherwise the recipe was flawless and the beans very, very good. I may re-use some of the oil to try the long-cooked broccoli variation.

drab and soft
The salmon was even better. The salmon was sensational. Probably the best technique I’ve tried for cooking salmon, and I’ve tried plenty. You season your salmon filet then sear, skin-side down, in a hot, oiled skillet for three minutes. Melt a hunk of butter in the pan, baste the top of your fish, pop in the oven for a few minutes, baste some more, and serve. You could add lemon and capers to the butter, I suppose, but it was delicious as was. My one qualm: It was superrich, particularly when served with green beans poached in a pint of olive oil. But we loved this salmon, loved this meal, and I have already decided what dishes to try on Thursday and Friday nights. 

Today I put the leftover salmon into a green salad dressed with the cacao nib vinaigrette from Alton Brown’s EveryDayCook. Salmon and chocolate vinaigrette? I know. But it was fine. I made the dressing a few days ago and have used it on several salads with lovely results. You grind some cacao nibs, infuse into olive oil over low heat, mix with shallots and balsamic, and end up with a unique and tasty vinaigrette that would work especially well, I think, on a salad of spring greens, fresh cherries, and cheese. But it worked great on salmon salad, too. 

Other stuff:

*The fudgy mocha brownies from Dorie’s Cookies overwhelmed me. Too tall, too bulky, too nutty, too much chocolate, too much coffee. I served these bruisers to my in-laws, who are chocolate fiends, unlike me, and even they approached them cautiously. Not a fail, but I wouldn’t make them again.

*The narrative of villainy and greed that unfolds in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money beggars belief. I had taken it on faith that the Koch brothers were evil because that’s what the people I respect and the news media I follow always said. But I couldn’t have told you why the Kochs were awful; I would have muttered something vague and tried to change the subject. I’m only on disc 7 of this audiobook, but I can now tell you why the Koch brothers are terrible in gruesome detail. The narrator mispronounces a word every ten minutes or so, but otherwise does a great job with this informative and enraging book. 

*Finally, I enjoyed this interview with Slate book critic Laura Miller. You should read it for yourself, but here is my favorite passage: “It’s such an act of grace to give someone else ten or fifteen hours out of your own irreplaceable life, and allow their voice, thoughts, and imaginings into your head. I can’t respect any writer who isn’t abjectly grateful for the faith, generosity, and trust in that. I think there’s an unspoken, maybe even unconscious contempt for reading as merely “passive” in many people who obsess about writers and writing.”  

I am abjectly grateful to anyone who has given the last seven minutes of their own irreplaceable life to allowing my voice, thoughts, and imaginings into their head. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Dorie's Cookies

mediocre picture of a great picture in Dorie's Cookies
All cookbooks and cooking this morning. Dad, you don’t need to keep reading.

I want to make every recipe in Dorie’s Cookies and if I were skinny I would do so in an orderly and compulsive fashion starting today. I love this cookbook.

First of all, it’s gorgeous — bright and brash and almost abstract. It really pops in the sea of muted, matte-page books with their scenes of staged rusticity. The close-up shots of cookies depict them not as trivial consumables, but as strange, magnificent objects in and of themselves. It’s a big departure for Dorie whose previous books were somewhat stodgy in their design, as Gabrielle Hamilton pointed out in her unfriendly review of Around My French Table. I wonder if Hamilton’s sharp remarks stuck in the back of Dorie’s head. (I am calling Dorie “Dorie” because she seems to be inviting that with the name of her book and her friendly persona. Calling Gabrielle Hamilton “Gabrielle” would be unthinkable.)

In addition to being lovely to look at, Dorie’s Cookies is a big, heavy book. You can get lost in its 482 pages. Hundreds of recipes, countless variations. Amplitude. Bounty. Generosity. Wonderful qualities in a cookbook.

But is there really anything new left to say about cookies? 

To quote an amazon reviewer:

 “For some reason, I had assumed that it would be more like a "cookie bible"... a source of standard, well loved cookies from all over the world. Not at all! Dorie's Cookies is more like a Senior Thesis on cookies- like Dorie sat around in her kitchen trying out recipes that turn traditional cookie making on it's head.”

Exactly. There are classics here, but there’s a lot of invention too. I usually approach inventive recipes with caution, but I’ve made scores of Dorie’s recipes over the years and can only remember a few duds. She anticipates your questions. She warns you of pitfalls. She tells you that the dough might crack and what to do if it does. She offers alternative ingredients in case you don’t have espresso beans on hand. I would guess that in elementary school, Dorie Greenspan sat in the front row and always did the extra credit. Even though she was the teacher’s pet, everyone loved her because she was truly nice.

She’s not a schoolgirl, though. She’s a total pro. 

I overbaked my coffee malteds (see upper left corner) but they were nonetheless delicious.

That’s a long preamble to a paragraph about a simple recipe, the first I’ve made from the book. The coffee malted is a basic butter cookie flavored with malt powder and coffee. Easy. Unusual. Delicious. I “whipped these up” just before my in-laws arrived for dinner last night. My father-in-law ate about a half dozen, my mother-in-law probably ate three, Mark made an ice cream sandwich with his, I ate two and 2/3 cookies, and Owen, the only underweight member of our party, ate 1/3 of a cookie.

Coffee malteds:  A

The other dish I served my in laws last night wasn’t so awesome. If you’re tempted to try the pork shoulder with pineapple, sesame, and broccoli in this month’s Bon Appetit, I would suggest you don’t. It’s just too tricky. The recipe says to cut a pork shoulder into 1-inch steaks, but doesn’t account for how fatty and ungainly a pork shoulder is. I ended up with these disjointed, floppy, uneven steaks, something Dorie never would have countenanced. I could have really used some advice. The meat required twice as long on the stove as indicated and was still rare in random places. One bite was fatty and tough, the next dismayingly soft and pink. The broccoli and pineapple added little. I was bummed. 

Pork with pineapple and broccoli: C-

But then I brought out the cookies.  

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Grant me the serenity

Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, January 25, 2017:

“He can make you so nuts — he can so vacuum your brains out — that you find yourself slumped on the sofa all day refreshing Twitter, eating a big bowl of your son’s Honey Nut Cheerios, Cheerio by Cheerio, dry, for lunch, with a piece of prosciutto, for dessert as your whole personality drains out through your left heel and you find yourself in an agitated trance 24-7, not to mention fat.”

I took some liberties with the second half of Friedman’s quote.

I’ve written about my addiction before, but I think I finally hit bottom. At least I hope that was bottom. My only goal for January 25, 2017 was to stay off the internet. Because my laptop has been used primarily for monitoring Twitter in recent weeks, yesterday I did not touch my laptop. When I had thoughts that required expression, I wrote them on pieces of paper with a pen. I read stuff on paper. I finished Ian McGuireThe North Water, a novel full of pus, blood, sodomy, and frostbite in which the protagonist shelters in the hollowed-out carcass of a freshly-killed polar bear. It’s gross. It’s great. Leonardo DiCaprio should star. Then I started and almost finished Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House which is one weird, excellent book. 

When I came across words I didn’t know, I walked over to the dictionary and looked them up. Dimity, in case you’ve ever wondered, is a kind of thin fabric with checks traced by thicker thread. The curtains in Hill House are dimity. I wrote down passages I admired in my notebook, like I did in the olden days.
If your handwriting reflects your character, does that mean that by improving your handwriting you improve your character? Asking for a friend.
I read the newspaper, on paper and cut out bits that I liked and taped them into my notebook like I did in the olden days. 
There was a really cool story in the food section of the NYT yesterday about the beauty of burned foods. It included a recipe for burned toast soup, but I am most curious about that kazandibi.
When I felt bad about accomplishing absolutely nothing and started spiraling into a self-loathing existential crisis, I reminded myself that my only goal for January 25, 2017 was to stay off the internet and congratulated myself on how well I was doing. I looked at some cookbooks and remember how delightful that can be. I decided I wanted to make and eat Gabrielle Hamilton’s lamb shoulder with a celeriac remoulade and some juniper sorbet for dessert.That meal is happening tonight. I felt more and more and more like myself. My powers of concentration returned. Everything slowed down. It was wonderful. It was such a relief. 

At the end of the day I allowed myself 20 minutes on Twitter, just enough time to catch up with my boyfriend Keith Olbermann and watch clips of an ABC interview with this sad, bloated old man who was lying about stuff that no one cares about but him. I discovered I had already lost my taste for it. On a food diet, you get hungrier and hungrier. On a Donald Trump diet, you feel better and better. Today, I am positively jubilant.

To quote the protagonist of The Haunting of Hill House, “The warm wind would come down the city street where she walked and she would be touched with the cold little thought, I have let more time go by. . .

Time goes by no matter what, I just don’t want it to go by as I slump on the sofa in an agitated trance, eating Honey Nut Cheerios and reading about our pathetic president.