Friday, January 30, 2015

We experienced a deep contentedness when feeding

Sean Brock has you impale the cauliflower on a biscuit cutter so it remains upright while cooking. 
I first became interested in Sean Brock, chef at Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, after reading this lively New Yorker profile a few years ago. It began with an account of Brock’s love of pigs and pork, followed by a physical description of Brock: 

“Short and barrel-chested, he wears a baseball cap and T-shirt in the kitchen and keeps a stash of Slim Jims at his desk. He has small, keen eyes embedded in pink cheeks and seems to have absorbed the best qualities of his livestock. There is a placidity and a watchfulness about him, a deep contentedness when feeding, and a braying outrage when his territory is threatened. ‘I feel like this sometime,’ he told me, holding up a picture on his iPhone. It showed an angry Ossabaw hog about to charge.”

Brock is attempting to preserve venerable Southern foodways and to that end only uses ingredients from south of the Mason-Dixon line at Husk. He’s also trying to collect all the American cookbooks published in the 19th century. Fascinating guy. Last year when I heard about his book, Heritage, I promptly ordered it. The book arrived. I admired the handsome pictures, read the polished, generic prose, studied the recipes, and sighed. I wished I hadn’t bought the book and put it on the shelf. 

The rowdy personality from the New Yorker profile is absent from Heritage and the recipes are impossible. I’m not faulting Brock for the recipes -- this is how he cooks. I’m faulting myself for ordering the book sight unseen. There’s almost no dish here for which you don’t need to mail order einkorn flour, Carolina Gold rice, or black walnuts. You require a budget for truffles and foie gras, a stomach for lamb hearts and sweetbreads, a local source for wild licorice, ramps, and pokeweed, plus a dehydrator, juice extractor, immersion circulator, and sous chefs. Even just to bake Brock’s Appalachian grandmother’s apple cake, which you’d think would be one of the easier recipes, you need 27 cups of chopped apples. 

Heritage is pitted against Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune in the Piglet and I had to really rev myself up for this little comparison project. Brock presents his recipes as super-elaborate composites, so the pork chop recipe is actually: cornmeal-fried pork chops with goat cheese-smashed potatoes and cucumber and pickled green tomato relish. The green tomato relish wasn’t happening because it’s January and I nixed the smashed potatoes because I suspected that the cauliflower was going to be trouble enough and I was right.

Stripped of trappings, the pork chops turned out to be a breeze. You pound the chops until thin and supple, like fabric, and soak in buttermilk overnight. When you’re ready to cook, dredge them in cornmeal and fry in a lots of oil. They were fantastic -- crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and really bad for you. They easily trumped the sturdy gray chops from Prune. Unanimous. Point went to Sean Brock on the chops. 

tiny, stackable mise-en-place bowls made by my sister, who really needs to open an etsy store
I haven’t tackled a recipe as absurd as Brock’s roasted cauliflower with Meyer lemon and brown butter, watercress and pink peppercorns in years. Abridged narrative that you should feel free to skip: Cook cauliflower whole on the stove top while basting in butter, then roast in oven. Remove stem, peel, and slice the stem’s tender core. Reserve. Slice cauliflower head into serving portions. Make a puree from cauliflower scraps, broth, and cream. Make a sauce of browned goat butter, lemon, turmeric, and home-pickled ramps. (I substituted capers.) The kitchen is now a heartbreaking mess, but you’re almost ready to eat: Pour puree from the blender onto warm plates, top with cauliflower slices, add some watercress leaves and the reserved pieces of cauliflower stem. Drizzle with brown butter sauce and garnish with lemon zest and pink peppercorns.

Only I could make Brock's dainty cauliflower look like a hearty Asian soup.
The cauliflower was a bit too crunchy and the puree too thin, for which I fault the inadequately detailed recipe.But there’s no denying that on that ugly little plate were delicate, beautiful, evanescent flavors that you seldom experience in home kitchens and never in mine. This dish had hints of greatness. I can’t really describe it better than that without going all purple on you. By comparison, Gabrielle Hamilton’s roasted cauliflower seemed tasty, rude, and workmanlike. 


And yet I feel about Heritage exactly as I did going into this experiment. The needle didn’t move. The book is attractive, way too fussy for a home cook, generically written, and full of opulent dishes that I’d like to eat -- at a restaurant.  Prune is voicy, obnoxious, and sui generis, full of strange, dumpy things I have no interest in making, let alone paying for in a restaurant (canned sardines with Triscuits?), but also eccentric dishes I can’t stop thinking about. Prune engages me, Heritage doesn’t. For me there’s no contest here, Prune all the way.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The word for the day is "plain"


The plastic handle of my spatula melted onto the surface of the stove last night because I was trying to write the previous blog post while cooking dinner. I will miss that nimble little spatula. She was my favorite. If you ever see one of those flexible old granny spatulas with the super-thin, corroding metal edges and half-melted plastic handles at a garage sale, buy it. If you foolishly don’t want it for yourself, send it to me and I will reimburse you. 

As previously mentioned, I decided to compare the pork chops and roasted cauliflower recipes from Prune and Sean Brock’s Heritage in anticipation of the upcoming Piglet. I suspected this might not be the most exciting blog stunt and now, having cooked the pork chops and cauliflower from Prune, I am sure.  But I will stick to the plan.

Alda
Gabrielle Hamilton’s recipe for salt and pepper pork chops is so simple and stern that I couldn’t imagine it would work. This is a recipe borrowed from her revered Italian mother-in-law, Alda, to whom Hamilton devotes a whole chapter in Prune. There’s a lovely paean to Alda and her old-school cooking here, though I can’t promise you won’t hit a paywall. I’ve said it before: Gabrielle Hamilton can really write. 

Do you have your magnifying glass out? 
To make these chops, you heat a dry skillet until blazing hot, season sirloin pork chops with salt and pepper, put them in the pan and cook for five minutes, flip, cook eight minutes more, remove to a platter and smear with soft butter. Hamilton: “Do not garnish.” 

How were they? Plain. Appreciated. No weird spices, no questionable sauce. There’s a lot to be said for plain food served at an old dining room table on a mid-winter Monday night after a long hard day of school, work, and looking at Oriental rugs on eBay. If I ordered these pork chops in a special restaurant like Prune, though, I would be bummed.

Hamilton’s whole roasted cauliflower with fried capers and brown butter bread crumbs was also very easy. The name says it all, but here’s the two sentence blow by blow: Roast cauliflower whole with a lot of olive oil for 50 minutes then transfer to serving bowl. Fry some capers and breadcrumbs in butter and scatter this over the cauliflower. 

How was it? Zingy from the capers, crunchy from those buttery breadcrumbs. Appreciated. If I ordered this in a restaurant like Prune I wouldn’t be overjoyed, but I would be satisfied. It’s a good one.

As a bonus, I “whipped up” Hamilton’s pizza rustica, an Alda recipe that I was curious about because, like the pork chops, it looked so plain I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly be good. You make a dough of flour, egg, and butter, put half of it in the bottom of a pan, top with fresh mozzarella season with salt and pepper, top with the other half of the dough, and bake. You do mess up your counter when you roll out the dough, but otherwise, a cinch.

How was it? Warm, it was plain in the most wonderful way, a soft, unchallenging, buttery, cheesy pastry. Cold, it was plain in a bad way, inert and flavorless. So eat it warm. Recipe here, though again, there might be a paywall.


Tonight: Sean Brock’s version of this same meal, minus the pizza. 

blizzard?

Monday, January 26, 2015

peppermint patties with cold candied lemon?!


January was bad for a while, but now everything is really good again. The bag of freekeh I ordered finally came so I made the Jerusalem spicy lamb and freekeh soup which was tasty and wholesome. I also baked the Ottolenghi macadamia-caramel cheesecake, not wholesome, which we demolished. Few cakes get eaten down to the last crumb around here (and loaf cakes don’t get touched), but this sticky-crunchy-creamy beauty was gone in two days. 

You'll get cavities just looking at it.
The Ottolenghi chapter is closed for now. I came around on him, thanks to all your strong recipe suggestions, though I still don’t feel quite the same passion for his books that others do.

Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune? I feel loads of passion for this one, but it’s passion of the thin-line-between-love-and-hate variety. Im over my initial fiery loathing, though every time I flip through the book’s 570 pages looking for something I know is in there somewhere, I curse Hamilton for omitting an index. It was super-rude and I think that’s exactly why she did it. 

I have to confess, over time I’ve become deeply attached to some of her recipes. I made her braised lamb shoulder with lemons, tomatoes, and cinnamon twice in the space of a month, an intense, dark braise of soft, fatty meat and soft, stewed lemons. Does that sound amazing to you? Or disgusting? I love it, but would hesitate to serve it to anyone outside my family because I can so easily imagine someone hating it.

There are lots of slightly odd, not-for-everyone recipes like this in Prune. For about a week I ate Hamilton’s weird, delicious bacon and marmalade sandwiches on buttered pumpernickel for lunch every day. And her dessert of Grape Nuts with vanilla ice cream cone and cold maple syrup has become a deadly habit. I’ve eaten my lazy adaptation (ice cream in bowl, sprinkle with Grape Nuts, drizzle syrup, don’t bother with cone) so often over the last few months that I don’t even think of it as a recipe anymore. Like pouring milk on cereal, this is just how I eat ice cream now. 

Some other peculiar, enticing desserts in Prune:

cold candied oranges 
mastic fondant in ice water
broiled ruby red grapefruit with Wheat Chex streusel
fried mascarpone with fennel sugar
peppermint patties with cold candied lemon
sliced peaches on buttered toast
strawberry milk
frozen milk punch with sesame biscuits
battered and fried brandied cherries

You’re either going to hate those cold candied oranges or they’re going to be precisely the dessert you’ve been waiting for all your life.

Prune is up against Sean Brock’s Heritage in the Piglet next month and since I own both books, I thought it would be interesting to make some pork chops and roasted cauliflower from Prune tonight, then some pork chops and roasted cauliflower from Heritage tomorrow, and draw comparisons. I wouldn’t have chosen pork chops and roasted cauliflower for the test menu, but this was the only do-able overlap between the two books. So it’s a plan. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Anywhere but here



Iceland, take me away.
I’ve been a ball of anxiety and haven’t been sleeping! I put the exclamation point there to make that announcement sound less doleful because who wants to read about how tense and tired someone else is? We’re all tense and tired. I’m just a little extra tense and tired right now. First thing in the morning I burst into tears because I knocked over a full cup of coffee and had to make more, poor me, and when I went upstairs to do so found that Owen had left his laundry in the middle of the kitchen. Owen is very lucky that he’d already departed for band practice.

Seriously, though, death, grief, burial, college applications, Disneyland, and, yesterday, public speaking. The first 14 days of January were rough. The other night at dinner I startled myself and everyone else at the table by saying that when Mark retires I want the two of us to move to India for a year. Really? I want this? Mark in India? Mark with all those cows? The next day I wrote Isabel a mystifying email saying that if she’d like to go to Iceland with me over the summer, we should discuss. 

Iceland? WTF. She has yet to respond. 

The eulogy I gave at my grandmother’s funeral yesterday went fine. I read a couple of anecdotes from the archives of the blog and I think it worked. Here’s what was really cool about this experience though: while looking through the archives, I found so many stories about my grandmother that I’d completely forgotten, days we spent together, verbatim dialogue, really sweet stuff. I never intended the Tipsy Baker as a family scrapbook, but among other things, that’s what it's turned out to be. I uncovered a trove of memories that would have been lost forever had I not been packing them away like a typing chipmunk, year after year. Not just memories of my grandmother, but of my mother, father, kids, Mark, our life, all of it. Maybe you’re wondering how I didn’t realize this before now. I’m wondering that too. I just didn’t. Now I do.

So that’s happy. 

Cooking.

-This is a very good, healthy, easy, green soup.

-The Ottolenghi macadamia-caramel cheesecake is baking as I write. Full report after tomorrow night, but it smells divine.

-The Ottolenghi marinated rack of lamb with cilantro and honey was intended as an expensive weekday dinner earlier this week, but on the night I was planning to serve it both my kids had theater obligations down at the high school and for various boring reasons I couldn’t postpone the lamb so I cooked it, didn’t bother with salad or vegetables, and Mark and I ate it standing at the counter. Then he went to see the theater production and I stayed home and finished the eulogy. It was a sorry and unceremonious way to serve a luxurious and delicious meat, but hey, the kids have lives of their own now and I have to deal. The recipe is nice because rather than pouring away the marinade you boil it for 15 minutes and use it as a sauce, an extremely punchy, flavorful sauce. This was another great recipe suggestion from the comments. Thank you commenters. I’m almost done with all your Ottolenghi suggestions and then. . . what? 

Interesting, don’t you think, that Plenty More didn’t turn up in the Piglet lineup? Maybe they decided that Ottolenghi's books have gotten enough Piglet play in past years. I couldn’t disagree. Perhaps I’ll explore some of the Piglet titles over the next few weeks. 


Monday, January 12, 2015

You know that place between sleep and awake?

lobster nachos
This will sound like a joke after the last few posts, but I’m writing a story about Disneyland and to that end Mark and I spent the weekend wandering around the happiest place on earth. Decidedly bizarre to be there without kids, but not un-fun. At first we resisted, but you’re sort of forced to roll with the silliness because there's absolutely nothing edifying or high-minded to do at Disneyland. Believe me, we looked. So Mark took his first-ever, last-ever roller coaster ride. We played arcade games at the ESPN Zone. Failed to get scared in the Haunted Mansion. Acquired hangovers from pathetically small quantities of alcohol. Ate fried biscuits, Matterhorn macaroons, cherry malts, lobster nachos, you get the idea. I'm bulging out of my clothes and my notebook is bulging with observations, but I need to save the anecdotes for the story, so I’m going to cut myself off for now. I'll just say this: If Disneyland figures in your near future, send me an email, tipsybaker@gmail.com. I have advice, mostly about what to eat, naturally.
sarsparilla manhattan: clever idea, but undrinkable
Matterhorn macaroon: as tasty as it is cute
Back to cookbooks.

When I failed to “get” the Yotam Ottolenghi phenomenon based on mixed results cooking from Plenty More late last year, some of you shared favorite Ottolenghi recipes. Thank you. I’ve been working down this great list for the past month. The Jerusalem hummus, which included the new-to-me addition of ice water, was excellent. Although I erred in the execution of the lemony leek meatballs, I could see how these would be superb if you didn’t puree the leeks to an army-green mush as I did. The lamb and cannellini bean soup: rich, hearty, delicious. A sweet-salty-leafy-crunchy-sticky baby spinach salad with almonds, dates, and pita made a welcome alternative to lettuce or kale. Another Jerusalem winner and I highly recommend.

I liked the milk pudding, also from Jerusalem, though sadly no one else shared my enthusiasm for this elegant, bone-white dessert. However, we all loved the caramelized garlic tart from Plenty and so will you if you have a taste for tangy, creamy goat cheese, mellow garlic, and buttery puff pastry.

But the standout dish so far has been the stir-fried brussels sprouts and tofu, also from Plenty. Love! Easy, healthy, spicy, lively, Chinese, delicious, cheap, perfect the first time out. I was so happy to discover this dish. My favorite recipe so far in 2015. 

The sprouts and tofu will be hard to beat, but there are a few more of your Ottolenghi recs to try before I move on to a new cookbook or cuisine. On my list today: Mail order freekeh. Buy a rack of lamb. Write Disneyland story.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Lifting a glass to Mrs. L

It's blurry and resembles milk or Alka Seltzer, but is in fact a delicious gin fizz.
Thank you for your sweet notes of sympathy. I promise I’m not turning this blog into a pity party, but I have one more story about transitions to tell. It happened since my last post. After this, it's back to good cookbooks, good cheer, and bad photography. Swear.

Day before yesterday, I called one of my mother’s closest friends, someone my grandmother had particularly loved, to share the news of her death. I hadn’t seen Mrs. L since my mother’s funeral five years ago, though we’d exchanged emails in the months right afterwards. I knocked on her door once last year. No one answered. I let it go.

I met Mrs. L when I was about 8. She was one of those adults who looked you in the eye and said outrageous, hilarious things that you weren't quite sure how to respond to. At first, she terrified me. Roughly five minutes later, I was putty in her hands. Mrs. L. was a character, a force of nature, politically incorrect, opinionated, warm, feisty. She was extremely candid and I loved that about her: you always knew exactly where you stood. She had this unforgettable gravelly voice and wouldn’t hesitate to tell you if you’d put on a few pounds or that she didn’t care for your current boyfriend. Apparently she was down with Mark because she threw us an engagement party at which she served a stupendous aged beef tenderloin with little soft white rolls. If I ever throw anyone an engagement party, aged beef tenderloin and little soft white rolls are on the menu. Get in line, girls.

Mrs. L knew how to do things right and that tenderloin was just Exhibit A. As an adult, if I needed to find a jeweler or a shoe repairman or wanted to know which brand of chafing dish to buy (this never happened, but it would have been the perfect question), I’d call my mother and if my mother didn’t know she’d say, “Hmm, let me ask Mrs. L.” Soon, I’d have my answer, plus instructions on precisely how much to pay, which salesperson to ask for by name, and strict orders to tell him or her that Mrs. L had sent me.

Although she was Jewish, Mrs. L threw a fabulous Christmas open house every year at which she served gin fizzes. I only went to that party once, but my mother attended annually and always wobbled back down the street in an extra-jolly mood. They were great friends, those two. Mrs. L saw my mother through thick and a lot of thin over 35 years, took her side in every fight, remained stalwart right up to the end. 

I set aside some time for the phone call to Mrs. L because she’s a talker. I was looking forward to it. Mr. L answered. He said, “Mrs. L isn’t here.” I pictured her at CalMart, perhaps complaining to a cowed, charmed manager about substandard artichokes.

You can guess where this is going. “When will she be back?” I asked. He said, “Well, Jennifer, Mrs. L doesn’t live here anymore. She’s had some health problems and dementia and I kept her at home as long as I could. . .” 

Mr. L sounded the same as ever, wry and cheerful, and that was heartening. That was the only heartening part of the conversation. 

You lose track of people and this is what happens. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Mrs. L just seemed unsinkable. 

Carpe diem, everyone. That seems like the answer to everything, lately. Unfortunately, I don’t have any idea how to actually carpe diem -- it's so much harder than it sounds -- but last night I decided that making gin fizzes in honor of the inimitable Mrs. L might be a step in the right direction. It does indeed take a village and she was a prominent and beloved citizen of mine. Here’s to Mrs. L.


milk pudding from Jerusalem, next post

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

She was the best

Aida Marroquin Gardner: 1912-2015
My grandmother died on Saturday night. No pain, ambulatory until the day before, fell asleep in front of the Christmas tree, never really woke up. There are worse ways to go. Like, almost every other way.

I’m writing a short speech for the memorial service and while I could tell dozens of stories about her charm, quirks, strength, stubbornness, unnerving intuition, and unwavering devotion to family and friends, I keep thinking about how she blossomed in her 90s.

My grandfather died in 2002 and people worried my grandmother might quickly follow him, as partners in long-married couples sometimes do. Au contraire! They’d been devoted to each other, but he was a towering figure and it was as if she saw a fleeting chance to move out from under his substantial shadow and be more completely herself -- lively, sociable, game -- and she went for it. She had just turned 90.

94?

99th birthday party?
Amazing the light and vitality I see in those pictures from her 90s. My bookish grandfather disliked parties, to put it mildly. My grandmother loved parties and there she is at 92, 96, 99 sparkling at party after party, the last guest standing, dressed like a doll, making up for lost time. I have pictures of her eating “Abyssinian” food in obscure South Bay restaurants with me, photos of her hanging out in my kitchen letting Owen entertain her with his antics (he never found a better audience), shots of her batting around balloons with her great grandchildren. Both my aunt and I noticed that she seemed to actually get smarter in the years right after my grandfather died. It was a true Indian summer. 


95?
That’s what I want to talk about at the memorial, but I'm not sure I can do it without making my lovely grandfather sound like a repressive ogre, which he wasn't. I don't want to imply that their marriage was stifling to her, also profoundly untrue. I'm not sure I can give this speech without short-changing my grandfather's role in her life. In all our lives. I just want to say, and maybe I can only say it here, that these last thirteen years with my grandmother were unexpected and beautiful. I saw her in a whole new light.
94?