Tuesday, September 30, 2014

This is where I tell my stories

ingredient of the week: blue cornmeal

Yesterday, I fixed a ticket at the police station, mailed a present to Owen’s “friend who is a girl” in Wausau, Wisconsin, bought groceries, unloaded groceries, received a press release suggesting I sample and write about camel’s milk (!), turned in a story I wrote about ramen restaurants, inspected the chicken coop for mites (still there), and sewed a button on one of Mark’s shirts. I also made a batch of tofu that wouldn’t coagulate and decided to change the ingredient of the week from soybeans to the blue cornmeal I brought home from Santa Fe last spring. Didn’t have a choice.

I was feeling glum (tofu, mites) when I picked up my sister and we headed off to an open mike storytelling event, part of a long-running San Francisco series called Porchlight. Dark, pleasantly and intentionally grungy bar in the Tenderloin. Hot peanuts and shells all over the floor. I ordered a diet Coke because I was driving, though I could have gotten away with a glass of beer. As I said to Justine, “Too apathetic even to drink.” 

Impossible to be apathetic about the storytelling, though. I didn’t know what to expect and the event was both wildly uneven and completely magical. From the minute the first guy started talking, I was rapt. I think everyone was. These stories had the rough edges of real life and real feeling that have been sanded off almost everything you see on TV or in a movie theater. One big, deadpan guy in his 50s told of losing his wife and trying to find romantic partners on Tinder. A wild-eyed younger, man spoke about kicking drugs in his late 30s, meeting a woman, and timing their first kiss to the lyrics of Don’t Stop Believin’. A girl shared her tale of a bad crush. A kid told of the night when he bought a prostitute a donut.

If you’ve been to storytelling events, you probably already know this, but there’s a primal satisfaction in listening to ordinary live humans tell their unmediated stories. It took me by surprise. Porchlight  doesn’t need my plug, but if you’re ever in San Francisco and the stars align, give it a try. 

This morning I picked up the bag of blue cornmeal and said to Owen, “Tomorrow we’re having blue cornmeal pancakes.” 

He said, “Maybe you are.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

Figs, fights, coconut sugar, drama queens

I almost gave up on figs, but all three trees are going crazy this year. 
I bought a treadmill desk yesterday. I’d been wanting one and talked myself out of it for years (expensive, unattractive, Mark’s sardonic smile), but my lower back and legs now ache so much when I sit for long periods that I can’t write, read, or research coconut sugar for as many hours per day as I want to. One solution was to pursue another line of work and find new hobbies. I ordered the desk. It should be here in a few weeks. I can not wait.

The coconut sugar has been fairly unexciting. I used it in vanilla ice cream that tasted like ordinary vanilla ice cream. I put it in this Bon Appetit kale and tiger celery salad, which turned out to be one of those lean, acidic, Asian-style salads full of fish sauce and herbs with just a bit of (coconut) sugar for balance. If you like that kind of salad, you’ll love this and if you eat it every day, you’ll live forever. I used coconut sugar instead of cane sugar in cornbread. No one could tell. See? Boring.

The other night at dinner Owen was wolfing down his food (vadouvan mac n’ cheese), scooping it up rapidly, face almost on the plate, which means he really likes it. I started worrying that he’ll eat this way at a job interview or on a date one day and it will be my fault. This led to a reprimand which led to Owen moving his face even closer to the plate, like a dog, which led to Isabel, a poised and dainty eater, leaving the table in disgust and returning to her room, probably to work on applications to colleges as far away from home as possible. Family dinner, the teenagers edition. 
 The right caption eludes me.
Later, Mark and I had the usual evening disputes with Owen during which you invariably hear the words Minecraft, homeworkYouTubeand unfair. Sometimes it gets loud. That night it got loud. Poor Isabel is never, ever loud and occasionally comes out of her room and in her tiny voice says, “Guys, I’m trying to work!” 

I started cleaning the kitchen and worrying that once Isabel goes to college she won’t even fly home for Christmas, she’ll be so relieved to be gone. At some point she came down to rinse out her hot chocolate mug and I said to her and Mark, “Are other families like this? I think we’re really dysfunctional, all this discord. I mean, look at the way we can’t even get through a nice dinner!” Isabel shook her head and said she thought we were pretty normal, that I was overreacting. Mark said that when he was a teenager he never said a word to his parents, what was I talking about? This is life with adolescents!

Apparently they never read this.

Later I went up to apologize to Isabel for the Owen-related noise and she said, not without affection, “Has it ever occurred to you that you’re a drama queen?”

Drama queen? Moi? Never!

I insisted that I wasn’t a drama queen and she raised her eyebrows and smiled her sphinx-like smile and I went back downstairs to my computer and looked up “drama queen.” Those online dictionaries really need to get their acts together so people can quickly figure out whether they’re drama queens or not. Having studied all the various and conflicting definitions and read an appalling story about drama queens in Scientific American, I will say this: I’m occasionally a very small-time drama queen around the house. Many humans are. But a true drama queen? Courtney Love is a drama queen. Blanche Dubois is a drama queen.  On a bad night, I’m an overemotional, slightly volatile pessimist.

In a few weeks, I’ll be able to conduct this kind of vital research at my treadmill desk.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ingredient of the Week: Coconut Sugar



Surveying my overstuffed pantry the other day, I realized there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there. Asian condiments, teff flour, stone-ground grits, strange sugars, maybe 10 varieties of dried chili. If there’s an earthquake, we could live for days on Chinese sesame paste and black treacle alone. In the interests of finishing the pantry clean-up, I've decided to highlight one unusual ingredient per week and find ways to use it up. 

Ingredient of the Week #1: Thai coconut sugar. 

I have no idea why I bought this, except of course I know exactly why I bought it: coconut sugar. It sounds like the most delicious thing ever. One day when I was wandering the aisles of the Richmond New May Wah I must have put this can in my basket because it looked and sounded so magical. Brought it home. Years passed.

The image on the can made me expect coconut sugar to be white, pressed from the snowy flesh of a coconut. Not so, as I discovered yesterday when I finally opened the can. Coconut sugar is derived from the sap of the coconut palm and my can contains an alluring caramel-colored goo that separates into a translucent syrup and a thicker, sugary paste. It’s delicate, a little nutty, a little fruity, and very delicious. It would be fantastic on crepes.


I went online to learn more about coconut sugar and discovered that this tropical sweetener has recently become trendy in the West, as some people believe it's healthier than cane sugar. I’d completely missed this trend, but lo and behold, Whole Foods does indeed carry bags of granulated coconut sugar that sell for five times the price of cane sugar. Is it five times healthier? Or is it the next agave nectar?
Why is the packaging so hideous?
I considered buying a bag to compare to my creamy Thai coconut sugar, but that’s how my pantry got so full in the first place. No new products! Especially not ugly ones.

Also, I learned that there’s a problem associated with our growing appetite for coconut sugar. As David Thompson writes in Thai Food: “To make this sugar, the coconut tree is ‘bled’ of its sap; this depletes its nutrients and, as a consequence, the coconuts themselves are of inferior quality, or sometimes do not form at all.” 

In other words, the more coconut sugar we eat, the fewer coconuts. Booming demand for coconut sugar could means more expensive coconut oil, coconut milk, and coconut water, at least in the short term. 

The recipes that call for Thai coconut sugar are few and far between. Today I made this vanilla ice cream, which I chose because it looked simple and I wanted the flavors of the coconut sugar to have a chance to shine. That's tonight's dessert. There will be no dinner unless I stop typing right this second.
library haul

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Unhinged by Dermanyssus gallinae and in love with Bon Appetit

chicken house of horrors
Where have I been? I've been cleaning.

 Mostly, I've been cleaning and cleaning and cleaning the chicken house where a few weeks ago we discovered an almost biblical plague of red mites living in the walls by day and feeding on the hens by night. If you're squeamish, scroll down to the next picture.

The chicken saga is an integral part of the blog so I feel compelled to share, but I haven't exactly been aching to write about this horror show, the hours of sluicing the coop with Clorox and watching the unsettled mites swarm out of the woodwork, the compulsive strewing of every surface with diatomaceous earth and picking scores of arachnids the size of this . off of my arm and showering multiple times in a day and worrying that these bugs will somehow come to infest our human home. And then there was the unforgettable morning last week when Owen, who'd come straight from feeding the chickens, was kicked out of the dentist's office because some mites on his T-shirt found their way onto the chair. The hygienist wouldn't even have noticed if he hadn't pointed them out, but I don't blame the dentist for asking us to reschedule. Later they left a message saying they'd consulted an exterminator, which was an overreaction and thoroughly mortifying. I'm not sure I can show my face there again. Do you know any good dentists in southern Marin County?

 I've been so rattled by the whole mite situation, so creeped out, obsessed, and frustrated that I'm ready to condemn the coop and call it a day with the chickens, but Owen says, "We can beat the mites, Mom, we can do it!"

 We shall see. Enough about that.

 Compared to cleaning the chicken coop, cleaning the pantry has been a pleasure.
must go
A few weeks ago, I bought concord grapes to make sherbet, but couldn't find the ascorbic acid, which I use in my grape sherbet. I searched and searched and ended up paying $14 for a new jar. Several days later I found the old ascorbic acid right there in the pantry, hidden behind, I don't remember exactly what, but let us say a bottle of expired hoisin sauce, an unwanted box of strawberry Jell-O, and a few dozen splits of dessert wine inherited from my mother.

This kind of nonsense happens all the time and I decided it must stop. I took everything old or oldish that I didn't know what to do with out of the pantry to use up.

 At least they can be friends.
A number of boring dishes (Jell-O, pumpkin bread) have resulted from the pantry project, but also some strange, fantastic meals, all thanks to my new love, Bon Appetit, which I picked up one morning while waiting in the lobby of the vet's office.

I hadn't looked at the magazine in years and don't know whether it's dramatically improved or whether I'm just seeing it with new eyes, but when the receptionist finally ended her phone call, I flourished the copy of Bon Appetit and said:  "I have to subscribe to this!" I wasn't even hinting and she said, "Oh, take that. No one here wants it."

 It was as if the September 2014 issue had been written for me and my pantry. That night, I made the pork sausage with coconut-chile sauce and lychees, a recipe I never would have considered if I hadn't been trying to get rid of expired coconut milk and a can of lychees. It sounds bizarre, but is the most fabulous thing I've cooked in ages. Easy, too. There's so much going on in this dish -- salty bits of pork, creamy coconut, crunchy peanuts, fiery pepper, herb, lime. But the critical element is the lychee, which adds juice, sweetness, and a wonderfully fleshy textural element. You must try this. Here are my suggested amendments:

-serve it on rice
-you can substitute any small hot chile for habanero
-you don't need 1/2 cup of oil to brown the pork -- I'd go with 1/4 or 1/3 cup
-unnecessary to cool the coconut milk
-if you don't have shichimi togarashi just skip it or improvise with some other red pepper (flakes, a little cayenne)

The next night I made crushed cucumbers with lime pickle and coconut milk, another intriguing dish from Bon Appetit that enabled me to move one of two jars of lime pickle from the pantry to the refrigerator. (Everyone should have such a stimulating hobby.) Cucumbers aren't the sexiest vegetable, but that lime pickle-coconut sauce was unique and delicious and a creative cook could easily find other applications.

The recipe for chestnut coffee cake, which Bon Appetit took from Nico Osteria in Chicago, used up a small sack of Chinese roasted chestnuts that had been hanging around the pantry forever. The cake was lovely, although, as is always the case with streusel-topped confections, I wished it was streusel all the way through.

The tuna melts? Solidly good. Two aging cans of tuna gone, plus some bread-and-butter pickles, which have been lurking in the fridge for years. We don't eat a lot of bread-and-butter pickles.


I also made some odd, wonderful anise-almond meringues, which made a tiny dent in my egg white collection. They're chalky-gooey in the way of ordinary meringues, but taste like licorice. I have to say, though, that the sprinkling of anise seeds made me think of red mites. I may need an exterminator for my psyche.

Back tomorrow. I have a plan!

Thursday, September 04, 2014

A short tribute to my grandmother


 more beautiful in real life
There’s a lot of enticing British food in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, which I’ve been listening to in the car. So far: Jam roly poly, trifle, Yorkshire pudding, roast beef, and homemade Madeira cake, pronounced Madeera cake by the narrator. 

Because Madeira is an exotic island and produces a rich, dark wine, when I hear Madeira cake I envision something exotic, rich, and dark. I've known for some time that Madeira cake is none of the above. Madeira cake is a plain, pale loaf cake that acquired its name after someone decided it was a nice accompaniment to Madeira wine. Essentially, its poundcake. And yet it still has this mysterious allure for me on account of the name. When will I learn?

After my copy of the River Cottage Cakes Handbook arrived the other day, I was flipping through its handsome, matte pages and decided to make the Madeira cake, thanks to Major Pettigrew. I whipped it up in a matter of minutes and popped it in the oven. Some time later, a petite yellow brick emerged that I blanketed in a lemon icing as glossy and white as Elmer’s glue. Very easy cake. Only moderately tasty. We ate about half of it and then I took a few dryish slices down to my grandmother on Sunday. She deserved better.

Have I ever mentioned how much I love my grandmother? Oh, I love my grandmother. Shes the most constant person Ive ever known. If she loves you, she loves you forever, without conditions, youre in, and when I was a child, no one made me feel more secure. Everyone in our family has cursed her stubbornness at some time or another (just ask my poor aunt about trying to persuade her to take her pills), but everyone knows they can count on her. I don't think you can be steadfast without also being stubborn.

I would add that my grandmother is what used to be called a character,” though she probably wouldnt take this as a compliment. She loves convention and certainly doesnt try to be eccentric. She just is. In the days of manual car locks, she used to drive around with a long stick on the dashboard that shed wrapped with a pretty textured ribbon (everything has to be pretty) so it wouldnt slide back and forth. While she was perfectly able to lean over and unlock the passenger door by hand, she preferred to wield her wand from a dignified upright position, unlocking the door with its tip. Watching her do this was delightful. She was quite an engineer. Her house was always full of strange, ingenious little contraptions and gizmos that allowed her to avoid ever having to call (or, heaven forbid, pay) a handyman. Out in the world, she was a tiny, sweet, very proper lady. At home, a caution.

On Sunday she was full of energy, but still in her robe when I arrived at her house. She said she’d get dressed and we could go out “to luncheon.

“Are you sure?” I asked. It takes her about 30 minutes just to put on shoes.

“Absolutely!” 

Then she insisted I leave her alone in her room so she could change out of her robe, which she had accessorized this morning with a red cotton sash. She has always been a snappy dresser, and wearing lipstick and fixing oneself is part of her ethos. Now that she sometimes spends her days in a robe, she accessorizes those robes. Scarves, earrings, pins, sunglasses.

This photo from about a year ago gives the flavor:
also more beautiful in real life
I wandered around the living room, looking at my late grandfathers books and the shrine to my mother on the table across from where my grandmother customarily sits. The shrine consists of a 1950s studio portrait and a fresh bouquet, the flowers regularly replaced by my aunt. I dont know how people survive the death of a child and my grandmothers grief was painful to behold. I thought her spirit had finally broken. But then after a year or so she rebounded. Stubborn. 

About twenty minutes after shed gone to dress, she made her way back down the hall, still in her robe. She said, Jennifer! I feel awful! It is terrible that you came down here and I am such bad company. We might have to call the hospital. Why do I feel so awful? I really feel awful. On and on she fretted.

I suggested she sit down, offered to make tea. 

She said, Which do you think will make me feel better, tea or rum?

Ah. That was easy. I found a miniature bottle of Ron Botran and poured two teaspoons into a tiny glass (she loves tiny things) with a chip of ice. She sipped the rum while nibbling at the mediocre Madeira cake, musing about who in the family should take which pieces of furniture when she dies.  
pretty accurate representation
Then, a few minutes after she started sipping the rum, all talk of bequests and hospital ceased. She started reminiscing about her mother’s vol au vents.  I don’t recall ever hearing of her mother’s vol au vents before, and wasnt even sure what vol au vents were. Like cream puffs? I asked. No, she replied, theyre like croissants. Her mother used to instruct the maids in the preparation of the loveliest vol au vents with layers and layers of butter rolled into the dough. Then the maids would cut the dough into little containers, bake them, and fill them, though with what my grandmother could not recall. 

The maids are a recurring motif in stories of her Guatemalan childhood. She seems to have been raised by Indian maids and speaks of them as of angels. The world of her youth has always been a complete mystery to me. I can not picture it at all.

Once wed exhausted vol au vents, she started telling me about the wonderful trips she took to India and Africa back in the day. This was an interesting turn in the conversation because my grandmother has never been to India or Africa. She was so dreamy and happy, though, that I just nodded and agreed. Of all the things one might remember” after two teaspoons of rum at age 102, you could do a lot worse than wonderful trips to India and Africa.

When I left, she insisted, as always, on getting up and walking me to the door. And, as always, I begged her not to because I worry shell fall the minute Im gone. She ignored me. This is our routine, as is her request that I call her as soon as I get home to let her know I’ve arrived safely. She never closes the door until Im out of sight and reminds me two or three times as I walk up the stairs that I must call. I smile because its funny, but I have to confess that it also makes me feel safe and loved, like Im still someones treasured child. This isnt something to be taken for granted at any age, least of all mine. 

Next visit, Im bringing vol au vents, though I do wonder if her mother ever actually made them.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Durio zibethinus

my durian
I’d long been curious about durian, the famously smelly Southeast Asian fruit, but never quite curious enough to taste one. David Quammen’s description in his book Spillover pushed me over the edge. He eats durian with a bat researcher when he’s visiting Guangzhou and describes the experience with relish:

“It is a large spiky thing, a durian, like a puffer fish that has swallowed a football; pried open, it yields individual gobbets of glutinous creamy pulp, maybe eight or ten gobbets per fruit, and an unwelcoming bouquet. The pulp tastes like vanilla custard and smells like the underwear of someone you don’t want to know. We ate barehanded, slurping the goo between our fingers as it oozed and dripped. . . .”

I could not get to the Chinese market fast enough. 

More about the durian from The Oxford Companion to Food

“'Duri' is the Malay word for spike, and the tree takes its name from the hard, spiky shell which the fruit develops. A full-grown fruit may weight 2 kg (5lb) or more. Since the tree may be as high as 30 meters (300') and the fruit drops off when ripe, it is wise to take care when walking near such trees in the durian season. Death by durian is not uncommon. Another hazard at this time is the appeal the fallen, split fruit has for tigers. . .”

I paid $35 for my durian at the Richmond New May Wah and the cashier wrapped it in some Chinese language newspaper. It was already cracked and appeared fragile, so I carried it carefully in my hands to the car. According to The Oxford Companion, people have compared the aroma to “sewage, stale vomit, onions, and cheese,” which is why the fruit has been banned from trains and buses in places like Singapore. 

Exciting! But in my small car on a hot afternoon I could smell nothing but a faint, fruity perfume that wasn’t at all unpleasant. Was something wrong with my sense of smell? I held the durian up to Owen’s nose when I got home. He didn’t smell anything either. I googled “odorless durian” and read that scientists have figured out how to breed the aroma out of the fruit. I must have ended up with one of the odorless durians. So disappointing. Like getting a bottle of mezcal without the worm. 

I pulled open the durian with my hands along the cracks in the shell. It’s divided into sections, each one with its lobe of soft, sickly yellow flesh. How did it taste? “Vanilla custard” is too kind, not to mention off the mark. My durian was sweet, but there was something in the flavor that kept it from being entirely fruity. Something assertive, sour, and vegetal. Slightly fermented. It was reasonably tasty and the texture was pleasantly creamy. The only thing I found off-putting -- and I found it very off-putting --  was the larval appearance of those pale, wet lobes. The word that kept springing to mind was “grub." 



Having read a bit about durians, I now know that there are different breeds and flavors and mine may not have been of the finest quality or at the optimal ripeness. Having tasted just one durian, I’m not a hater, but I’m not a fan. Not yet, anyway. According to The Oxford Companion, the 19th century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace loved durians so much that he wrote: “To eat durions (sic) is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but it was well worth $35 and the fifteen-minute drive in to San Francisco.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What IS my cooking?

happy homework days are here again
On our last night in Wales we were sitting under an umbrella in the garden of a grotty pub waiting for our fish n’ chips as hundreds of shrieking sea gulls wheeled overhead. (“We’re not responsible for what the gulls do,” the dour barman had said before suggesting we sit under that umbrella.) Looking anguished, Isabel said, “I really can’t wait to get home so I can eat food I like.”

 “Aha!” I said. “So you do miss my cooking!”

She studied me for a moment then replied, “You never make the same thing twice. I don’t even know what your cooking is.”

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth. Isabel wasn't being 100% fair, as I pointed out to her. I make the same green salad almost every night and the same kale salad every couple of weeks. Same pesto, same brownies, same popovers, same carnitas, same cole slaw, same cornbread, same pancakes, the list is long. But there was truth in her words. When I started this blog, I became obsessed with trying new recipes. And it's been big, big fun.

Since returning home from vacation, I’ve cooked only recipes that I've tried before. As an experiment and to silence critics. Is it a coincidence that I’ve only written one blog post in two weeks?

Here’s what I’ve learned:

A lot of the dishes I tried once and chirped about in recent years didn't sit well on second making. A short list of recipes that didn’t survive round two: Ed Lee’s piggy burgers from Smoke and Pickles, Smitten Kitchen’s gnocchi in tomato broth, Smitten Kitchen’s red wine velvet cake, Smitten Kitchen’s Mexican-style eggs. There were no outright failures here, but for whatever reason, we changed our minds about all of these dishes.

A few recipes held up beautifully. Smitten Kitchen’s immense and cheesy eggplant calzone was even more popular the second time than the first. Also great: The cocoa-cumin tri-tip from Eat Good Food and Dorie Greenspan’s chocolate gingerbread

You don't really know a dish until you've made it a few times. I didn't really know any of these dishes and it makes sense that some of them lost their luster on closer acquaintance. It was only when I started mining the deep past that I began consistently digging up treasures. Pre-blog, I had what some people call “a rotation.” Easy, reliable dishes that I made again and again. Unsurprisingly, everything from this pool of recipes has been fabulous. Roughly once a week I used to serve Marcella Hazan’s famous chicken with lemons. How did I live without it all these years? I made it last week, I’m making it again tonight, and if you've never had it, you must try it. Rub a roasting chicken all over with kosher salt (under the skin, on the skin, in the cavity) and let it sit in your refrigerator overnight. Then proceed with Hazan’s recipe

I also took another pass at Hazan’s messy, time-consuming eggplant parmesan, a dish I loved in the 1990s. I reminded everyone in my family of how much they enjoyed Smitten Kitchen's eggplant calzone and referred to this as "eggplant lasagna." Despite my efforts, it didn't go over well. I sat there crowing about how good it was while they all tried to separate the eggplant from the cheese, which is like trying to enjoy an omelet without consuming any egg. The recipe is excellent, you just need the right audience.

More popular was the mulligatawny soup from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. No complaints from any quarter, despite the fact that it contains parsnips and lots of curry powder. Last night we had Yunnanese pork from The Seductions of Rice. That was a big favorite back in the day and I would say it's a big favorite today. Try it. There are few easier dinners. 

So why haven’t I felt compelled to post about any of this? I'm not sure. Maybe it's that I find it a little boring. Where's the adventure? Where's the learning curve? I like novelty and excitement and growth, which is great. But on some level my relentless kitchen experimentation over the last eight years has been very selfish. This is part of what Isabel was saying and why it made me defensive. What I need to do in the future is find a better balance.