Thursday, October 23, 2014

My lost Wednesday


There are lots of big, juicy cookbooks on the shelf (and horizon) this fall: Plenty More, Prune, Flour + Water, Bitter, Heritage. I want to cook from them and write about them and am resuming my cookbook reviews.

I was going to start small. I was going to start yesterday by whipping out a review of a new cookbook sent to me by a publisher. It's a low-profile cookbook that you probably haven’t heard of, but I was intrigued because it used up a lot of an ingredient I was trying to get rid of. I read the book cover to cover (earnest, inconsistent), studied the recipes (some appealing, some appalling) and cooked five dishes (just ok) from its pages over the weekend. I thought this review might take an hour, maybe two, from my morning and then I could move on to another project. I expected to be done by 9 am. I started typing.

At four in the afternoon, I was still typing. I had long ago migrated from the treadmill to the sofa. I kept moving sentences around, struggling to establish the right tone -- friendly and appreciative of the merely adequate dishes I’d made, but also gently baffled by some of the super-weird recipes and several other serious glitches in the book's concept. Shouldn’t be so hard, should it? What was wrong with my brain?

Seriously frustrated, I took a late afternoon break and went to the library, hoping to find Lena Dunham’s book on the “lucky day” shelf. Instead I found Lila, which I had thought I wanted to read, but realized the instant I saw it that I actually didn’t. While wandering through the stacks, it hit me the way things do when you step away from a problem: I had spent the whole day trying to bullshit my way through a post. I had tried to review a cookbook without saying what I actually thought. 

It seems like bullshitting would be easy, but it's really, really hard. Once you decide to tell the truth, everything just flows. But I couldn’t tell the truth. The truth was that I thought the book was amiable, confused, misguided, full of outlandish things I’d never want to eat, and, basically, a failure. I’d spent eight hours trying not to say this. 

And I was right not to say it. Unfortunately, I couldn't write around it, either. I came home from the library and erased the file. A small book like this one needs to be left in peace. If Prune or Plenty More disappoints, I wouldn’t hold back. 

Today I got up and wrote this post. It’s not much, but I had to squeeze something out of my lost Wednesday.
 instead of Lila 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

This is NOT where I tell stories

I wish I'd bought this a year ago. 
I apologize for my absence. The minute I started thinking of this as my storytelling space, I was in deep trouble. Instead of the Blogger template into which I've been merrily typing for years while drinking coffee on the sofa, the blog became a platform for storytelling, like I think I'm Ira Glass or Jonathan Ames or something. It froze me right up. I wrote some blog posts. They weren't good enough. Every day it got a little harder. This morning I was lying in the dark in bed thinking, how am I ever going to post on the blog again? 

Type type type, press publish, go buy yourself a frozen custard. That's how. That's the plan, anyway.

Have you read this excellent piece by Sarah Miller about why she decided to stop cooking?  In the growing body of cooking backlash literature (see this and this), it’s the smartest thing I’ve read, mordant and full of truth, though not quite as much truth as I thought on first reading. Miller has such a crisp and decisive voice that it took me a few days to disentangle her truths from my own. I’ll limit myself to this pretty big difference: I do plenty of stupid things trying to get people to notice and love me, but cooking isn’t one of them. 

I also liked this essay by Miller and have found myself thinking about it hourly.

Here’s a little anecdote. Not a story. Definitely not a story. Last week I made banana blondies with brazil nut toffee from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet, a gem of a cookbook. I’ve made these blondies a bunch of times before and they are, in my view, outstanding -- sticky, golden, a little crunchy, perfumed with banana. As with about half the things I bake, no one in the household touched them but me. There was even some jesting about Mom's banana blondies. I expected this. I'm used to it.

On Saturday, Owen spent the day at his friend Max’s house. On Saturday night, Max’s father dropped Owen off while Mark and I were out. Max’s father doesn’t like to drive up our street, which is extremely narrow and steep, so he leaves Owen at the bottom of the hill. This is totally fine with me. I mention it only because no one in his right mind would choose to walk up our hill without a really good reason.

When Mark and I came in later, Owen said, “Mom, Max really liked your blondies.” 

I said, “Max was here?”

Owen: “Yeah, he walked all the way up the hill in the dark and made his dad wait just so he could see what kinds of cookies we had. I told him the blondies were weird and really bad and he probably wouldn’t like them (emphases mine). But he liked them.”

I was starting to glow. I said, “So he came up just to see what we had in the cookie tin?”

Owen: “Yeah, he’s always searching around to see what kinds of things you’ve baked.”

I couldn't care less what Max thinks of me and I don't want him to love me, but it's gratifying when someone actually eats the stuff you bake. I was so pleased! I told Owen how pleased I was and he quickly tried to paint Max as selfish, greedy, and rude, referring to his behavior with indignation as "making raids on our cookie tins." 

Does he think I care? The idea that Max might one day walk up the hill and find the cookie tins empty is now unthinkable. 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Fun with blue cornmeal

The Navajos should object.
Over the past week I've discovered some ways to use up a bag of New Mexican blue cornmeal, most of them bad.

To start with, you can use your blue cornmeal to make the unappealing triple corn Navajo muffins from Blue Corn and Chocolate by Elisabeth Rozin. These squat, super-sweet muffins call for yellow cornmeal, blue cornmeal, and canned creamed corn. Why all three? I'm guessing because "triple corn muffins" sounds sexier than "corn muffins." But sexy these jaundiced midget muffins were not. I imagined I could detect the mucilaginous creamed corn in every bite. So yucky.

A very slightly better use of your blue cornmeal would be to whip up a batch of the blue corn pancakes from Culinaria: The United States.
I don't know what Owen was doing with his hand -- some kind of wizard move to make the leaden pancakes go away?
Thick, stiff, heavy, and gray, drenched in maple syrup these pancakes weren't inedible.

Another alternative: the worst chocolate chip cookies in the world!

Mark: "These are going to be around for a while." 
Crumbly, sandy, cakey, gritty, and sickly looking, the blue cornmeal chocolate chip cookies were baked from a Bob's Red Mill recipe. Thanks, Bob, for keeping things real. There are so many recipes for amazing chocolate chip cookies out there these days, I'd forgotten it was possible to make bad ones.

After three bummer dishes, I gave up on recipes calling specifically for blue cornmeal. I used the last of the blue cornmeal in these lovely and inspired pancakes  from the Essential New York Times Cookbook. 

To make these pancakes -- formally known as Kathleen Claiborne's hot cakes -- you cook your cornmeal (blue or yellow) into a sort of mush and then mix it into an airy batter and fry. What you end up with are beautiful, crusty pancakes with a soft, cornmeal mush center. Mark raved about them. Owen didn't rave -- complimenting me is against his principles -- but requested seconds. All the pancakes were eaten before I thought to take a picture.

And with that delicious breakfast, the blue cornmeal was gone.

I'm not sure how much longer I can continue this little pantry-cleaning series, because it's not turning out to be as inspiring and rewarding as I'd hoped. I'll give it a few more weeks. At the very least need to tackle the dessert wine.

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!