Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Bracing for the storm

Not cooking. Not cooking at all. It was my turn to host family dinner on Sunday night and we ordered pizza and watched my sister’s children (small, excitable) decorate the Christmas tree while my children (big, blase) occasionally glanced up from their phones when asked to place an ornament on a high branch. I didn’t even make a salad. I just haven’t been tuned in to the cookbook and cooking channel since Thanksgiving. Not enough bandwidth. 

Did I just mix metaphors? Are channels and bandwidth compatible? I don’t know! Who cares.

Here's what's been up:

-Work. Lots of work, the kind of writing work that never seems to end and may in fact never end, as opposed to magazine articles and blog posts which end quickly and with a satisfying snap. 
-Worrying. About the “storm of the decade” which was supposed to hit 26 minutes ago. School is closed tomorrow on account of this storm and I might have looked forward to a cozy day at home with the kids, popcorn, fire, et cetera, had we not removed all the blackberry vines and their stabilizing roots from the hill above our house last month, leading my father to send a concerned email yesterday that included the word “mudslide.” 
-Reading. Meghan Daum’s new essay collection The Unspeakable is as smart and polished as Lena Dunham’s memoir was smart and underbaked. I compare them only because they’re both by female authors who write unflinchingly about the zeitgeist and themselves. Topics Daum covers in her engrossing, entertaining book: Why, though straight, she dresses butch. Her mother’s death. A dinner party at Nora Ephron’s house. Joni Mitchell. Dogs. Choosing not to have children. 
-Seeing movies. I really, really liked, maybe even loved, The Homesman. It’s a Western starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank and while I’d heard it was tedious, I found it witty, poetic, ribald, sad, dark, and more thought-provoking than Theory of Everything, Birdman, and The Imitation Game combined. 

That's all I've got tonight, friends. I'm quite tense right now, probably because of this stupid storm and our deforested hill. Back soon. I hope.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Roasting, rolling, mashing, reading, resting, raining

our freeway exit
So much has happened since my last post, so much that I wanted to write about but couldn’t because of shopping, baking, roasting, mashing, cleaning, carving, hosting, resting, and, when that was all over, because I’d forgotten how to write. It happens! I was on an unprecedented writing roll before the holiday, barreling ahead on two different projects, keeping up the blog, feeling superhuman. Then I took a few days off to host Thanksgiving and can't get back in the groove. At least I’m warm, dry, and fed. One of these years I'll hit another sweet spot.

Something I've learned about blogging is that if you don’t capture the moment at the moment, you have to let it go and just move on. So I’m not going to tell you about the most affecting piece I read on the terrible Ferguson conflagration nor the essay that explained why I shouldn’t like it as much as I did. I'm not going to even mention the fact that I’m suddenly tempted to block several friends on Facebook because I get so agitated every morning by their political posts and find myself arguing with them in my head for hours and hours. I’ll forego describing the amazing Ottolenghi celeriac with lentils and hazelnuts that I cooked per a suggestion one of you made in the comments. It was truly great, and I don't often say that of lentils, celery root, or hazelnuts. THANK YOU.

Six days have passed now and it's too late to let you know that the New York Times salty pluff mud pie was the one real loser on the Thanksgiving menu, or that the grape salad was weird, but not terrible, and that these brussels sprouts in peanut vinaigrette were the best part of the meal. I bought more sprouts yesterday so I could make them again. 

I’d wanted to write something about Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, a noble meditation on the end of life that I read in one sitting the day after Thanksgiving. The book is full of wisdom and grace, but also snapping femurs and mild symptoms that turn out to be metastatic cancer. Approach this important book with caution and, perhaps, some Ativan. Unfortunately, the moment to recommend/warn you about Being Mortal  has passed. So, too, the opportunity to share my my mixed reviews of the raunchy John Waters Christmas show, which wasn't as clever and funny as we'd hoped, and Mockingjay, the first Hunger Games movie I haven't loved, mostly because I can't understand why anyone would pine for Josh Hutcherson.

Fortunately, life has calmed down now that Thanksgiving is over and the kids are back in school. Plus, we've been hit by some awesome storms and rain is in the forecast for the next few days and I don’t want to leave the house lest I get swept down the hill in a flash flood. I'll have no trouble finding time to keep you up to date on thrilling developments in my mind and kitchen as I putter around in slippers, researching tramp art picture frames on eBay and trying to get my writing mojo back.

Thrilling developments like this: I’ve never seen Owen wolf anything down with such gusto as he did this ground beef dish from Orangette last night. Mark and I made pigs of ourselves as well and there wasn’t a crumb of meat left for poor Isabel when she got home from dance. I’ve decided I’m going to make this every two weeks until Owen goes to college or starts complaining, whichever comes first. So easy and delicious. For the record, I used a pound of ground beef (adjusting the other ingredients accordingly) and added a 5-ounce box of about-to-expire baby spinach intended for a salad that I never got around to making. Other vegetables could be safely incorporated, rendering the dish slightly healthier. I plan to experiment. Also, I omitted the fried eggs. A real hit, this dish. Try it. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

And I'm not even very strong

Owen: We’re out of goat food.

Jennifer: There’s a whole bag in the driveway.

Owen: You know I can’t carry that down.

Jennifer: If I can carry it, you can definitely carry it. 

Owen: Not everyone does CrossFit, Mom.

Jennifer: Owen, you’re 7 inches taller than me and 34 years younger. If I can carry the goat food, you can carry the goat food.  If you can’t, that’s pathetic.

Owen, in his loud, aggrieved voice: Mom, that is SO sexist. Just because I’m a guy doesn’t mean I’m all strong and everything. You never tell Isabel that she’s pathetic when she’s not being all strong and stuff.

Claiming physical weakness and crying sexism to foist chores on his middle-aged mother?

This can not stand.


Here I go, as promised, eating my words on PruneSome of them, anyway. 

Monday night, I made Gabrielle Hamilton’s braised lamb shoulder with lemons, tomatoes, and cinnamon. I’ve never worked from a recipe that was so oddly written, bossy, affected, minimalist, sensual, and vivid. I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

You start by browning lamb shoulder in a “rondeau” (I used a Dutch oven) in “blended oil” (I used vegetable). Snotty of her not to explain these and other terms, but it wasn’t hard to muddle through. Remove the meat to a plate, add cinnamon sticks and 3/4 cup garlic cloves and “stir around in the pan, kind of toasting and picking up the fond in a way.” 

Weird prose, no? And yet I could totally see it as I rarely can when working from a conventionally- written recipe.

After this, add a cup of lemon wedges and deglaze the pan, “loosening and scraping up the fond with the juice of the lemon wedges as you crush them with your wooden spoon.”

I’ve never deglazed a pan by crushing lemon wedges with the back of a spoon and I’ve deglazed a lot of pans. So that was interesting and fun. 

Once the pan is deglazed, pour in some wine and canned tomatoes (“crushing each one briefly in your fist”), add back the meat, put the “rondeau” in the oven, and four hours later you’re ready to eat. Hamilton: “On the pickup, make sure each portion gets a nice soft, cooked lemon, if you can. And take a good look to see that you haven’t given anyone an all-fat portion.”

I dislike “on the pickup” and other lines where Hamilton's pretends she’s writing for her restaurant crew. Silly. But the rest of the recipe was intuitive and visual and fresh and I found myself wondering why recipes are generally so gray and voiceless. Seriously, why?

The meat was dark, meltingly tender, intense, superrich, and delicious. Easy. Six ingredients. A week ago I made a 17-ingredient lamb shank recipe from the New York Times that wasn’t half as good. I served the lamb shoulder with bread and salad. Big hit with the family, though I felt stuffed and sluggish the next day because: lamb shoulder.

I'd barely recovered from the lamb shoulder when dinner rolled around again. Last night, I roasted a chicken and made Hamilton’s fennel baked in cream. You cut up fennel, put it in a “hotel pan” (so tediously annoying, those restaurant terms), then mix a pint of heavy cream and some Parmesan and pour over the fennel, “drenching” the vegetables. Dot with butter, cover tightly, bake for an hour, top with additional cheese, bake for thirty minutes more, eat, marvel at how delicious it is, listen to your husband opine that it would be better if you replaced the fennel with potatoes, feel puffy, stuffed, and sick for the next 24 hours because: pint of cream, butter, Parmesan.

Will all the Prune recipes be this fun to cook? Will they all yield more such superb dishes? Will they all be so rich and stuffing? 

This is spot-on and funny. And this is the only reason I came to a cafe this afternoon to write a blog post rather than lying down on the sofa to sleep off the fennel.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Under the wire

sludge with a generous dollop of kashk
In about twenty minutes a Prune lamb shoulder comes out of the oven and I really want to say a few concluding word about Plenty More before galloping off with Gabrielle Hamilton.

I’ll get straight to the point: I have no idea why Yotam Ottolenghi is so phenomenally popular. He comes across as urbane and amiable. His dishes feature intriguing, seductive combinations of ingredients. The photographs are gorgeous. But the food I’ve cooked from Plenty More fails to live up to any of that. It's possible I picked the wrong Ottolenghi book to cook from, so help me out here, Ottolenghi fans. Which is his best book? What are the classic Ottolenghi dishes? I will happily cook them. I want to understand. 

Unfortunately, I have to end the Plenty More chapter with a downbeat round-up of recipe reports.  I don’t like writing these. I feel like a prig, picking apart dishes that didn’t please her majesty. But since they're integral to my critique of the book, here goes:

-The Iranian vegetable stew with dried limes was a tart, frumpy melange of butternut squash, spinach, potatoes and barberries. I made a pot of this for my lunches and by the middle of of the week it was a struggle not to jump in the car and drive over to the frozen custard shop instead of heating up another bowl of nutritious sludge. It was a struggle I eventually lost. 

-You’ve made dozens of tastier pasta dishes than the misleadingly-named grilled ziti with feta, a tomato sauced pasta that you top with three kinds of cheese and run under the broiler so the cheese gets leathery and the noodles crunchy. Needlessly fussy. Not great.

-The sweet potatoes with orange bitters required too many ingredients and too much work (fresh-squeezed oj boiled down to a syrup, bitters, two heads of garlic, sage, thyme, goat cheese), given the pedestrian dish I eventually put on the table.

-Ok, the halvah ice cream with chocolate sauce and roasted peanuts was delicious, although halvah ice cream isn’t as exciting as it sounds. I wouldn’t make it again. You could achieve much the same effect by crumbling halvah on store-bought vanilla ice cream. 

Here’s the breakdown from the thirteen Plenty More dishes I tried:

worth price of book -- 0
good -- 8
so-so -- 4 
bad -- 0

Shelf essential? No. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sleep apnea is a new low for us

Last night, we celebrated my father's birthday and I took the opportunity to delve deeper into Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty More than the tastes of my nuclear family will generally allow. 

The menu: 

yogurt and kaffir lime leaf spread with pita toasts (Plenty More)  
spiced lamb shanks (last week’s New York Times
roasted red onions with walnut salsa and goat cheese (Plenty More
saffron, date, and almond rice (Plenty More)
pear and chocolate pudding (Laurie Colwin)

Fairly good meal. 


The yogurt and kaffir lime leaf spread was essentially tzatziki, the bland yogurt-cucumber dip you’ve probably eaten before in Greek restaurants, but jazzed up here with minced kaffir lime leaf. Tasted only mildly exotic. The recipe calls for a tiny amount of melted butter to enrich and mellow the yogurt, but knowing what I do about Ottolenghi’s palate, I added more butter than called for. You should too. We liked this, though there was a suspicious amount left over. Recipe here

The superrich spiced lamb shanks used up all the saffron in the house. Expensive. That was strike one. Strike two: 24 hours later I'm still full. Not entirely fair, given the other heavy dishes on the menu, but I blame the lamb.

The roasted red onions were dressed while still hot with a salsa of olive oil, vinegar and walnuts, then served on arugula with chunks of goat cheese. About that salsa: punishingly sour. Three tablespoons vinegar to one tablespoon oil? I sloshed in extra oil until the salsa didn’t make me pucker. Doctored with additional fat, we liked these onions immensely. Recipe here. (But remember about the extra oil.) 

The saffron, date and almond rice was, as the name suggests, a pot of rice (basmati) studded with crunchy fried almonds and chopped dates. As the name doesn't suggest, you can make this without the saffron. I'd used all our saffron in the lamb and was resentful. I resent saffron! It wasn't worth $8 or $15 or $20 to me to render some already delicious rice marginally more fragrant and delicious. You may feel differently. 

I first made chocolate pear pudding in March 1996, according to my note in the margin of Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking. Isabel wasn't even born yet. Last night I mindlessly stuck little candles in the pudding while it was still warm and they were almost all melted by the time my father blew them out. Not the ideal birthday cake, but a truly wonderful dessert. You should try it. Recipe here

Anyway, a sweet family party. We discussed Isabel’s college applications, the catcall video, sleep apnea, my sister’s smashing new GAP cords, and whether anyone at the table could do a handstand push-up. That last sentence sounds like a grim joke and I've tried to remember some zany or profound topic we covered to make this dinner sound less boring, but I can’t. Nothing.

In truth, it wasn't boring. In truth, it was lovely.

Friday, November 07, 2014

She can infuse a recipe for banana bread with hostility

I was all wrong about the Prune cookbook, which I bought yesterday. I don’t have a problem with the recipes, it’s the writing I hate. Hate. It's likely my feelings will change and change again, but we’re capturing the moment, here.

In case you don't follow cookbook news, Gabrielle Hamilton owns a tiny, celebrated Manhattan restaurant called Prune and Prune is her long-awaited cookbook. A few years ago she published a stunningly well-written memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butterwhich I adored. She was clearly an imperious, thorny, stormy, difficult woman, but I didn't care. We weren’t going to be friends. I just loved her writing.

But the relationship you have with a cookbook is, in fact, a bit like the relationship you have with a friend. The author is speaking directly to you and offering advice and instructions. And I really don’t like the way Hamilton talks to me. 

In case you haven’t seen Prune yet, which 99% of you haven’t, the book is supposed to resemble the fat binder of recipes in the kitchen of a successful restaurant, a compendium that has been spilled on (there are fake stains on the pages) and endlessly amended. No friendly headnotes telling you how a dish is going to taste or where you might start looking for, say, caul fat. Just commands and notes scribbled in the margins in black marker. Scolding notes. Needling notes. 
one of the stains and another snotty note
It's definitely original. And you could argue that Hamilton is just showing how it’s done in a restaurant, nothing more, and we should admire her wit, vision, and chutzpah. I'm open to this argument. Please, someone, make it! I want to discuss.
I can't believe how annoying I find this.
Personally, though, I think there’s more to it. She strikes me as a bully to core. The choice to write her cookbook in this way was a choice to talk to the world -- to you and me -- exactly the way she talks to her disappointing underlings at the restaurant. But with deniability.
I think you are a nightmare and it shows.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

A winner, a loser, Lena Dunham

The squash with chile yogurt and cilantro sauce is the best dish I've made from Plenty More so far, by far. Toss sliced squash with olive oil and cinnamon, roast, top with Sriracha-spiked yogurt and a paste of cilantro, garlic, and oil. Sprinkle with some toasted pumpkin seeds for crunch.  Recipe here. The only thing I would change, and I can’t say this loudly enough: PEEL THE SQUASH. Other than that, perfection.

Not even close to perfect: the taleggio and spinach roulade, which is like a too-sharp, too-salty, loaf-shaped pizza full of leathery sun-dried tomatoes. Avoid. 

I’m going to persist with Plenty More, but it will be hard when I get my hands on a copy of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune, reviewed yesterday in the New York Times. I first fell for Hamilton's writing when she explained everything that was wrong and right about Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty in a notorious I Piglet essay. She nailed the problems (too tart, “not quite careful”) that I’ve been finding with Ottolenghi's recipes, but also captured why his books are so seductive. Prune is 576 pages long and while I'm not sure I'm going to love the recipes (broiled grapefruit) I can't wait to curl up on the sofa and read it.

Finally -- and this relates to cooking only thanks to the puerile food diary in which she records the calories in single bites of tofu and lemon tart* --  I read Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl over the weekend. FTR, I didn’t pick up on any sexual abuse of her sister. None. I had other problems with the book, however. I’ll just name one: I wanted to hear more about Dunham's ambition and accomplishments, less about her degrading hookups. All the youthful bad sex with unappealing man-boys started to depress me, mostly because I couldn't figure out why she was doing it. I detected no sexual desire, not a glimmer of real longing, in this book crammed to bursting with sex. Zero. It sometimes read like she was throwing herself into situations for research purposes, gathering up mortifying erotic experiences for her art. Or maybe she thought sexual adventures were expected of groovy 21st century girls? 

I was perplexed. If you’re in your twenties or thirties and shaking your head because you loved and related to Not That Kind of Girl and think I’m dead wrong, please remember that while it would have been a (barely) teen pregnancy, I’m old enough to be Lena Dunham’s mother. Isabel thinks the book is great and hilarious. I can not fathom why she and I have not yet discussed it at length.

Which reminds me: I love how tenderly Dunham writes about her parents.

**Isabel appears to have taken the book to school, so I can’t fact check whether tofu or lemon tart appear in the food diary. I think they did, but the diary was so boring I skimmed and can't remember.