Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It wasn't me that started that ol' crazy Asian war

so proud of making her laugh
Someone is home from college with a cute nose piercing and a copy of Freud’s The Uncanny that must be read in the next 6 days and she is very, very tired and has been very, very sweet, apparently newly charmed by her folks and laughing at her younger brother’s antics for the first time ever, unless you count the fleeting moment captured in the photo at top some years ago. My favorite photo ever. 

It was delightful watching our children tell stories and laugh together at the dinner table last night. I thought, this is how family dinner was supposed to be and never, ever was. Really, guys, it wasn’t. All those years, it was tense. Much bickering and sighing and baiting. I think there was something semi-disastrous about our kids' difference in age, gender, and maturity level and now there isn't. Mark and I were so happy we didn’t even mind listening to Owen’s records, which he played all through dinner and which occasionally. . . grate. He's accrued an eccentric collection of vinyl that includes almost every album ever made by ABBA, plus some Steely Dan, Kenny Rogers, Linda Ronstadt, and The Many Moods of Christmas. Owen is so blissfully uncool he is totally cool.
Have you listened to Kenny Rogers lately? A lot of self-pity and impotence in those songs. I'd never really noticed before. Just listen to Lucille or Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town some time.
We ate Marcella Hazan’s spaghetti with tomato and butter sauce about which more than enough has been written (but in case you haven't read it -- make this sauce!) For dessert: Hazan's coffee cake with winter fruits which I’d been wondering about for years, a very plain, pale cake full of chopped apple, chopped pear, and thinly sliced banana. I am wondering no more. Not the best thing I've ever made, but here's the recipe if you're curious.

Today Isabel took Owen out for lunch, a first. Later, he told me they mostly talked about "how you and Dad are getting weirder and weirder."

True dat. 

Below is one of the waffle cupcakes I made for Owen over the weekend, fulfilling my end of a bargain.
needs no syrup
First, you bake cupcakes using yellow cake mix, reserving some of the batter. Once the cupcakes are baked, heat a waffle iron. Pour some of the reserved batter on the iron then place a baked cupcake face down in the batter. Let the waffle cook. The top of the waffle (now the top of the cupcake) will be nice and crispy, the underside slightly raw, and the whole production quite handsome, as you can see. It didn't taste like anything special, but taste wasn't the point.

I'm not hosting Thanksgiving this year and for that, among many other things, I am extremely thankful.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Be careful what you resolve

Pumpkin caramel tart from Bon Appetit -- I was going to write about this, but something fascinating happened in world news, can't remember what, and I got distracted. It was tasty, but I would stick with regular pumpkin pie.
About two months ago, I started listening to a time management book called Getting Things Done that the writer Atul Gawande had once mentioned liking. It's an earnest, sort of dorky organization manual intended for harried business executives, which I’m most definitely not. But I absolutely loved the book. If you’ve spent time with me recently, you’ve heard my infomercial. The book has changed my life. I really did just type that. I have more to say about Getting Things Done, but of relevance today is the fact that it got me to start reading the newspaper. 

To be clear, the book itself isn’t pro-newspaper. The book simply encourages you to take inventory of everything that you want, must, or should be doing and “capture” it all in writing. Everything. This can take several days and my list was unbelievable. But the author was correct -- once my 10,000 item to-do list was captured on paper and things properly filed, I felt unburdened. And somehow, without even really trying, I started getting things done. 

Like reading the newspaper. It always bothered me that I didn’t read the newspaper very carefully. I could not have told you with full confidence what ISIS was a few months ago and I felt bad about that. I felt ill informed because I was ill informed. But one day not long after I finished listening to Getting Things Done, I started reading the New York Times, pretty much cover to cover.
Delicious marionberry pie milkshake from Shari's, a chain restaurant, that I was going to write about until I got distracted by something in the news. They put a whole slice of pie into the blender with the vanilla ice cream. Highly recommend. 
Soon I could tell you not just about ISIS, but about the election in Myanmar and Bernie Sanders and Paul Ryan and the unflattering things George H. W. Bush said about Donald Rumsfeld. Oh, I was so proud. Full of newfound self-respect. It was exciting, too. I started having opinions. For a few days I was livid about the overuse of arbitration clauses. Then I was loathing Donald Trump. Feeling sorry for Jeb Bush. Pondering the campus protests. I began looking for more information on my favorite topics online. I start reading tweets and political websites and -- best of all -- comment threads. I love comment threads.
The grossest looking dinner I've ever served. I was going to write about it, but . . . 
I didn’t feel bad about not reading the newspaper anymore. 

Instead, I felt bad about neglecting my blog. 

And how are the two connected? 

I don’t know about you, but there’s always some narrative running in my head. I’m always thinking something through. Earlier this fall, when I wasn’t otherwise mentally engaged, I was thinking a lot about Gabrielle Hamilton, composing blog posts as I drove around or washed dishes or did the rowing machine at the gym. This all changed when I started reading the newspaper. It was hard to focus on Gabrielle Hamilton because I was too busy thinking about riveting topics like the Christakis Halloween email
Oddly, you don't season the lamb before you wrap it in the won ton skins.
This could not go on. I love this blog. I do not want it to die. I decided I could will myself back into caring about food. Monday night I made the manti -- tasty little Turkish dumplings -- from Prune and a strange Pennsylvania Dutch cracker pudding dessert that I’d been wanting to try for eons. It was an interesting dinner. Monday night I thought: I’m back! Tomorrow I’ll do a blog post.

Yesterday morning, I sat down to write, but somehow an hour passed and I was still reading about whether it was bigoted to be more engaged with the carnage in Paris than the carnage in Beirut. Then I had to drive down to help my aunt clean out my grandmother’s house. Ordinarily I would have been writing the blog post in my head as I drove, but all I really wanted to do was find some provocative political radio show where they were talking about Syria, maybe, or Ben Carson, or the resignation of the Claremont McKenna dean.

I am sorry to say this, but there's no way around it: Once you start paying attention, current events are more interesting than cracker pudding. 
I was sure I took a picture of the finished dumplings, but I can't find it. 
But I'm going to try to find my way back. Here goes: The toasted manti from Prune involve cutting wonton skins into quarters and filling each with a lamb meatball smaller than a marble. You toast these in the oven then cook them in canned beef broth and serve with garlicky yogurt and some spiced butter. Owen said they were “too spicy.” Mark said they were “flavorless.” I liked them a lot, but for obvious reasons I'm not making them again.

To make cracker pudding, you cook some milk, egg yolks, sugar, Saltine cracker crumbs, and flaked coconut into a thick custard and then fold in beaten egg whites. Eat warm. Like coconutty tapioca pudding. Good, but not great, and it looked like curdled vomit. (Sorry.) I would not make this again.

As you can see, my heart was not in that account of Monday's dinner. I can't fake it. But I just made a bargain with Owen and holding up my end involves cooking two appalling dishes he found on BuzzFeed. This is one of them. If I can't think of something to say about waffle cupcakes, I really do need to pack it in.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Just a recipe, no blather

way too much blue cheese in this shot
I'd never try to persuade you that the celery and blue cheese bruschetta from River Cottage Veg Every Day is one of the world's great sandwiches because it so obviously isn't. But if you're looking for a tasty new lunch that takes about 3 minutes to make and involves ingredients you might actually have around, here you go. Don't be put off by the centrality of boring celery. This open-faced sandwich is salty, zesty, refreshing, crunchy, a little creamy, a little sweet. Yum. I've been eating it every day.

Celery and blue cheese bruschetta

1-2 inner stalks celery (i.e. not big, stringy ones)
slice crusty bread (i.e. not soft sandwich bread)
clove garlic
olive oil
small amount of blue cheese (I'd say about 3/4 ounce depending on strength of cheese)
salt and pepper

Thinly slice the celery at an angle. Toast bread. Rub garlic over rough surface of bread. Drizzle with olive oil. Pile on celery. Crumble blue cheese on top. Not too much! The recipe as printed in the book calls for far too much. Drizzle with honey. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. You won't think you need the salt and pepper, but it really makes a difference. Kind of messy, but good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The pause that refreshes

I think extreme close-up photos of food will become my trademark.
I od'd on Gabrielle Hamilton and had to go cold turkey. A couple of weeks ago I made her ratatouille sandwich (yummy, oily), dandelions braised in olive oil (pretty good, oily), and the eggplant parmesan (a monumental pain in the ass, delicious, quite oily) and was suddenly tired. Tired of fats, tired of strong flavors, tired of Hamilton's mind games. I took time off from Prune. I'm still taking time off.

Have I turned on the book? Not at all.

But then I've never said Gabrielle Hamilton was pleasant. She's not. She's impossible. One minute she's dictatorial and highly specific ("6 Forelle pears, 1 day short of perfectly ripe") without explaining why or offering alternatives. The next, she is oddly vague, assuming you know what she means by "a rather generous hunk" of salted French butter for dressing the cold tomatoes. Is that two tablespoons? Four? Six? Well, yes, you can make a good guess and things will work out fine. It's the casual imperiousness of it all that bugs me. Her voice is crisp, super-smart and and original, but also snippy, scolding, and verging on contemptuous. I love it. I also hate it. I think she's brilliant and a total bitch.

Random House sent me a copy of Ruth Reichl's new My Kitchen Year and if she is brilliant, that brilliance does not show itself in this cookbook/memoir, which is warm, genial, confiding, and familiar. Reichl writes: "To me, recipes are conversations, not lectures; they are a beginning, not an end. I hope you'll add a bit more of this, a little less of that, perhaps introduce new spices or different herbs. What I really want is for my recipes to become your own."

You will never hear Gabrielle Hamilton say something like that.

Prune is a more interesting, visionary cookbook by far -- and I'm not done with it. But the spinach-ricotta gnocchi and applesauce cake I served for dinner last night from My Kitchen Year were lovely, and cooking from Reichl's recipes was restful. More on both books coming soon.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Like a cold, sticky, semi-solid black jelly bean

I don't know about you, but I think my food photography is improving. 
Prune success, Prune failure. 

Success: roasted onions with onion butter sauce and seeds A good dish with the odd twists I’ve come to expect from Gabrielle Hamilton’s odd cookbook. You trim onions (she calls for several varieties), toss with a little oil and salt, and roast. 

As you would predict, the scallions were done before anything else.
Meanwhile, you use the trimmings to make an onion “tea.” When the tea is dark brown and oniony, you mix some of it with butter to create a superrich, superflavorful sauce that you pour over roasted onions. Sprinkle seeds -- poppy, sesame, flax -- and some millet on top of everything. The idea is to replicate the “uncanny” (her word) flavor of an everything bagel. I didn’t taste that, exactly, but what I tasted was plenty delicious. I'd make this again. If you have a magnifying glass and want to try this recipe, it is here.

Failure: black licorice granita. I don’t love black licorice, but every time I flipped past this recipe I grew more curious. I started imagining how it would taste: intense and tar-black, but icy and refreshing. Yum. Had to make it.

You boil 1 cup sugar and 2 cups water for ten minutes to form a syrup, "flavor with" (quote marks there for a reason) 1 cup blackstrap molasses and a tiny bit of anise extract to capture the “uncanny” (GH's word again) flavor of black licorice candy. Put in freezer, scrape with fork periodically to create coarse, icy granita. 

Well, in theory. This was like trying to freeze lava. The mixture got colder and colder and denser and denser, but it never got icy or even completely firm. Completely smooth. I figured I’d made a mistake. Maybe I didn’t put in the second cup of water at the very beginning? Because it was so easy I made it again right away. This time it got a little bit icy, but nothing close to a granita or even a rough sorbet. It was weirdly sticky. 
Second batch: you can see it was a little icy, but the texture was more like brownie batter. The most disgusting brownie batter ever.
And the flavor was horrid -- way too sweet. Overpowering. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to use the full cup of molasses she calls for? She does say to "flavor" the mixture with molasses and anise extract, so does that mean you shouldn't use the full cup she calls for? Then why specify a full cup? Maybe 10 minutes is too long to boil the syrup? I don’t know. If anyone makes this, tell me what happens. I'm done.

I put the pans from the freezer straight into the dishwasher without rinsing because I figured the goo would rinse right down the dishwasher drain. And it did. I opened the dishwasher this morning and the dishes were sparkling clean but holy hell, the licorice fumes! All the other dishes had to be rinsed in the sink because they smelled of licorice.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Remember SnackWells? Dry baked potatoes? Rice cakes?

I’ve never worked with a more buttery cookbook than Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune. Everything swims in butter, but especially the vegetables. 

This raises some interesting questions. Most of us can agree that it is healthy to eat vegetables but not so healthy to eat huge amounts of butter.  But what if butter helps you to eat more vegetables? (And what constitutes a "huge" amount of butter, anyway?) What if butter makes vegetables so tasty that your son who goes weeks without consuming a plant actually eats a (buttery) tomato and says, “This is really good?”  What if a mountain of butter contributed to a pumpkin dish so indescribably salty/sweet/nutty/butterscotchy and delicious, that you drove home to reheat leftovers today rather than getting a frozen custard for lunch?

Obviously, I'm talking about actual Prune dishes.

Beefsteak tomatoes with warm French butter: Peeled, sliced, juicy tomatoes topped with sizzling salted butter. Not so appetizing when the butter eventually congealed all over the cold tomatoes, but so damned good when first brought to the table. 

Pumpkin in ginger beer with nutritional yeast: You slice pumpkin (I used red kuri squash) in wedges and pour over some ginger beer, sprinkle with nutritional yeast,* top with gobs of butter, and roast. How much butter? A third of a pound for a recipe that serves six. Does that seem like a huge amount of butter to you?  More than a stick? It seems like a huge amount to me. That’s just under two tablespoons per person. So many calories.

But then is that really so bad if it gets you to eat the pumpkin? And then after you eat the pumpkin (and the buttered beefsteak tomatoes and small pork chop) you are completely contented and full and don’t have any urge at all to see if there are Eskimo Pies in the freezer? 

I have no answers.

Ok, I guess I do have an answer. I think there’s too much butter on Prune's vegetables for everyday eating, but there’s probably too little butter on a lot of other vegetables. Habits of the fat-phobic1980s die hard.

 *Gabrielle Hamilton uses the terms “nutritional yeast” and “brewers yeast” interchangeably, but I have read they’re not the same thing. I used nutritional yeast.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Mastic fondant

The dish I most wanted to make from the minute I got my copy of Prune was the mastic fondant in ice water. The photo is so mysterious: a plain glass of ice water containing a blob of white paste and a spoon. Here’s a lovely picture of some fondant that resembles the shot in Prune. Can you see why it was intriguing?

Gabrielle Hamilton's vision for Prune didn't include headnotes explaining her recipes, so I had to turn to the internet to learn about mastic fondant. Mastic fondant comes from the apparently vast world of Greek spoon sweets: intense, sugary confections that are served in tiny portions with a glass of ice water.  Spoon sweets can be syrupy preserved fruits, eggplants, nuts, even olives, in addition to the fondant, which comes in different flavors. Mastic, in case you were wondering, is the resin from a Mediterranean evergreen tree; it emerges as sap, but by the time you buy it will look like very small, beige chunks of rock candy. Its flavor is faintly piney.

The other day, I made the mastic fondant. You grind your mastic, cook a syrup of sugar and glucose to 240 degrees, add the ground mastic, cool the syrup to 110 degrees, pour it onto a cold countertop and push it around with a bench scraper for a minute or so until it turns opaque and becomes so stiff that you can’t move it anymore. You then maneuver it into a jar for storage. When you want to serve it, you scoop up a spoonful and put it in a glass of ice water.

It all came off perfectly. I wasn’t going to serve this to anyone in my family so there was no point in waiting. I scooped myself some mastic fondant immediately, for breakfast. It was supersticky and dense with a barely discernible piney flavor. Mostly it tasted like the fondant you might find on a wedding cake, except wet and creamy.  Eating it is fun -- you sort of nibble at it and lick it and dunk it back in the glass where it softens a little more and every tiny bite comes with a refreshing film of cool water. Irresistible, though it wasn’t exactly delicious. It was more like having a delightful new toy.  I couldn't stop eating it. I ate mastic fondant all day and little else, pausing every few hours for another scoop of glucose.
just so you know I'm not making this all up
I felt like bloody hell by 5 o'clock.

Obviously, I love mastic fondant. I knew I would the minute I saw that photo of the white goo in the glass. You can probably tell from what I've written whether mastic fondant is your thing or not. I'm guessing it won't be.

I have to say, I love that Gabrielle Hamilton just threw this super-weird dessert in there between recipes for lemon panna cotta and pear tarte tatin, no context or explanation. Seriously, I love it. It makes the book more exciting, somehow.