Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Milk: Chicken dinner

  My chicken in milk didn't look like the Kitchn's (above.)  It was slovenly and piebald and both wings fell off. Tasted good, though I will probably go back to roasting for purposes of simplicity and spiffy presentation.

The accompanying barley-and-whey pilaf from Anne Mendelson's recipe was just the kind of rib-sticking porridge you imagine people eating at a creepy inn in a Dickens novel. I mean that in a nice way! But it's not something I'm gonna make very often or ever again, particularly as my offspring were unenthusiastic. Whey's highest and best use is probably in bread dough. 

Although. Do I know that? It could be my imagination that all breads and bagels taste better when made with whey. A side-by-side bakeoff is called for but, man, so much work and who do I think I am, Christopher Kimball?

Milk: I want a cow more than ever

Too tired to structure a narrative, so: 

-Whole Foods charges $6.50 for an eight-ounce tub of mascarpone, but you can make it in your very own kitchen using the simple recipe in Anne Mendelson's Milk and it will set you back just over $3. It's a fascinating and empowering process, making mascarpone, a dairy product I had always assumed you had to be either rich or Italian to keep in your fridge. Incorrect. Here are some other mascarpone recipes, in case you don't want to buy Milk. (Though you should because it's brilliant.) Aside from Lynne Rossetto Kasper's unbelievable semifreddo, I don't currently have many uses for mascarpone but it is so delicious I'm going to find some. 

-Mendelson's saag paneer is vastly better than Mark Bittman's slapdash recipe, reinforcing my theory that he's an admirable generalist but whenever possible you should refer to a specialist.

-Why can my neighbors have a screeching leaf blower and we can't have a cow? Alright, I get why we can't have a cow, but why not two mini La Mancha goats? Is bleating anywhere near as irritating as a leaf blower?

-We're having this chicken for dinner which is from neither of my current cookbooks, but sounded so incredible I had to change plans. Also: barley pilaf cooked in whey from Anne Mendelson's recipe. After an hour on the stove it resembles gruel but tastes like risotto. 

-I've been neglecting Fat, but have a full-Fat meal planned for tomorrow that includes carnitas, refried beans, and brown-butter ice cream.  

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fat: Breton butter cake baked & bees ordered

Pretty and delicious cake made from a Jennifer McLagan recipe, but I'm too distracted and nervous right now to focus on pastry. I just ordered our Italian bees -- two 3-lb. packages -- to arrive on April 25. I feel like the person who sold them should have done an assessment to see if I'm actually a fit keeper for thousands and thousands of tiny lives. I'm not sure that I am, but will try to rise to the occasion. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bees: We're getting them

Introduction to beekeeping seminar: huge success. Fellow students were about evenly mixed between hard-of-hearing retired people and scrawny young men with scraggly little ponytails and ear tunnels. And then there was me, the only non-ancient square person. Though I'm not, by instinct, a lover of bees, Doug , our enthusiastic and very entertaining teacher (see left), made me want to install hives not just in my own back yard, but in the yards of everyone I know. So watch out.

It appears we can get completely outfitted for about $300, then spend 30 minutes a week on maintenance, and hope that none of the many sad fates that befall honeybee colonies (diseases, mites, skunks, drought) befall ours. Eventually, if all goes well, we will have a happy garden, happy bees, and absurd amounts of honey.

I'm only worried it's too late to order bees for this spring. Calling tomorrow. Next: chickens.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Will she or won't she?

My grandfather, a cattle rancher, used to let a beekeeper put boxes on his land and one day my family was out riding around and a bee got caught in my hair. I was fifteen or so, definitely too old to be undone by a bee. But I was undone by this bee. It was buzzing in my ear and wildly thrashing to get free of the hair and I began to cry, shaking my head and batting at it and kicking my horse. I behaved about as rationally as the bee; my parents must have been so proud. Eventually the poor bee stung me on the scalp and died. I was very aggrieved because my family seemed to find my panic amusing and uncool.

That was my last close encounter with a bee and it seems doubtful that I'm cut out to be a beekeeper. But I recently read Fruitless Fall*, a beautiful, troubling book about the mysterious decline in the honeybee population and it inspired me to sign up for a free amateur beekeeping seminar. That's today. I like the idea of of playing some tiny role in helping the bees and I like the idea of suburban hives. Good for the bees, good for the fruit trees, good for honey. Plus, the Obamas are doing it.

But liking the idea of something is very different from liking the thing itself, and I remain extremely wary of Apis mellifera. There's the swarming, the tiny, vibrating, hairy bodies, the stinging. I'm going to try to see the beauty and the mystery and master my fear, become an Earth Mother and wipe the knowing smirks of my parents' faces. I'm giving it my all. Will report back.

*highly recommend even if you don't think you're interested in bees as it is incredibly well written and you will soon realize that you are actually very interested in bees.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fat & Milk: Thin is the new impossible

Eating hot french fries showered in salt at your own kitchen table is an ecstatic experience, especially if you allow yourself fries as seldom as I do. A dish of mayonnaise would have made it even better, but I like to be able to see my feet when I look down. 

I fried half the potatoes in lard, which is what Jennifer McLagan recommends in Fat, the other half in peanut oil, then asked the kids to do a blind taste test. 

Owen declared himself a fan of the fries on the left (lard) while Isabel and Juliet preferred the fries on the right (peanut oil.) I wanted to back the lard, but have to side with the girls. Though it wasn't in any way offensive, lard (this lard, anyway) contributes a faint flavor to a fry that I am at a loss to describe. It's just there. I'm sure oil has a flavor too, but we've come to believe, perhaps wrongly, that oil is just the flavor of french fries.

Hardly matters. All fries disappeared in fifteen minutes, lard and peanut oil versions both. No one bothered with subtle distinctions.

I also served mango "milkshake" which was actually mango lassi made from Anne Mendelson's Milk. Like all mango lassis I've made (which is to say, one, thirteen years ago) this one involved blending yogurt, fresh mango, ice, and a little sugar. Delicious. I probably oversold the drink by promising "milkshakes" but 2/3 of the children present ended up drinking all their lassi. This was the vegetable course.

The shortbread: good, but too soft. I've put it back in the oven this morning to see if it can toast up a little bit. Maybe a wedge before spin class?

Speaking of traditionally-built women, this is very exciting.

Milk & Fat: The children have spoken . . .

and we want french fries. Mark is out of town, in Florida, the bum. So we're eating like they did in Mermaids 'cause women only cook balanced to show off for men. Once the master departs the premises, the nutritional gatekeeper takes a break. Why is that? 

Tonight we're having: mango "milkshakes"* (made from Anne Mendelson's Milk), homemade french fries and shortbread (both cooked out of Jennifer McLagan's Fat.) I was leaning toward McLagan's salted caramel tart, the photo of which is one of the loveliest things I've ever laid eyes on, but Isabel was adamant about shortbread.

Gonna cook some of the fries in oil and some in lard, for comparison purposes. I wish I had some duck fat. (Owen just read this over my shoulder and said, "Well, I'm glad you DON'T have duck fat.") 
It's one of those mornings when I feel so lazy I almost want to let him stay home so I don't have to get dressed and drive to the elementary school. Have considered going in my robe, but then how will I ever attract a mate? Oh, wait. . . forgot myself for a moment. Sorry, Mark.

*there's a trick, but I'm not telling until tomorrow when the "shakes" have been drunk.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Milk: Panna cotta

The picture, ugh. Sorry. It was fantastic and really beautiful, trust me. Panna cotta, like puff pastry, is one of those desserts with an undeserved reputation for extravagance. We should all be making panna cotta all the time until the recession/depression ends because it tastes luxurious and isn't. Even using the most expensive local organic milk and cream (Straus), the ingredients to make six servings cost me $4.39. That's roughly 75 cents for a dessert they sell for $12 at glitzy big city restaurants. It'll be plated prettier and gussied up and someone else will do the dishes, but the panna cotta itself won't be any better. Impossible.
Panna Cotta (adapted from Anne Mendelson's Milk)

1. Lightly oil 6 ramekins using a neutral-flavored oil.

2. Put 1 envelope of gelatin in a saucepan and stir in 1 cup milk, 2 cups heavy cream (preferably not ultra-pasteurized), 2/3 cup sugar, and a pinch of salt. Bring just to a boil and remove from heat. Cool slightly. Stir again. Pour into the ramekins and chill until set.
3. When you're ready to eat, bring a saucepan of water to a simmer, dip the bottom of each ramekin in the water for a few seconds. Run a knife around the edge of the cream, invert on a dessert plate, and shake until it comes loose. Serve with a fruit sauce.*

See how easy? 

*I cooked down some frozen strawberries with water and sugar, then mashed it all up, hence inelegant photograph. Tasted wonderful.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fat: Lard, no. . . lardons, oui!

More than any other food, fat is a vehicle for our cultural biases, and no fat is more reviled in the United States than lard. (Ok, maybe tallow. Trans-fats don't count 'cause they're fake.) Lard is what the Deliverance hillbillies spread on their Wonder bread before going out to sodomize city slickers. A big iron cauldron bubbling in a barnyard, a screaming pig, a slatternly woman missing a few teeth. . . that's lard. 

Lardo, on the other hand, is the ambrosial Italian pork fat with which Mario Batali tops his expensive pizzas at Otto. What a difference an "o" can make. And lardons? Succulent chunks of bacon on French frisee salads. Not just yummy but healthy and slimming! Clever French people. Duck and goose fat: also glamorous because they're French. Would restaurants still tout their "duck fat fries" if duck were the preferred cooking fat of El Salvador?
Meanwhile, chicken schmaltz is considered a little icky because Jews aren't as cool as the French. Chicken fat isn't, however, as icky as lard. No one is lower on the social hierarchy than white trash.*

The recent "nose-to-tail" sustainability movement has redeemed many unpopular parts of the pig and maybe soon we'll get over our silly lard-phobia which, as Jennifer McLagan persuasively argues in Fat, is completely irrational. Today I used some of my (overly) bounteous supply of home-rendered lard in a Shaker bread recipe courtesy of Bernard Clayton's invaluable Book of Breads.

Nothing special, perfectly pleasant,  no telltale "piggy" flavor. 

I also made Spanish-style lard cookies from McLagan's recipe, cookies that I will henceforth call by their daintier Spanish name, polvorones, as I do not want to have to eat all of them by myself.
You make McLagan's polvorones by toasting ground almonds and flour, then mixing them with lard, orange zest, cinnamon, sugar, egg, and brandy. Bake for half an hour at a low temperature. I was skeptical of a lard cookie -- I only talk a good game -- but in fact, these were excellent, lightly spiced and shatteringly crisp. It's the lard! Or so I like to think. 

You can read my story about the Obama vegetable garden here

*You also find a lot of lard in soul food and Mexican cooking. I rest my case.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fat & Milk: Food processing

I rendered an 8-pound behemoth of lard on Friday, a peaceful & pleasant all-day process that yielded more than a gallon of liquid pig fat the color of butterscotch. Immensely satisfying, pouring all that lard into little white tubs, labeling and sticking in the freezer. I've rendered lard before, but never this much, and never such expensive (ergo good? I hope? please?) lard. 

What to do with all that pedigreed fat I've no idea, but will figure out. Meanwhile, I put aside a tiny bit to make the lovely, fragile lard pastry from Jennifer McLagan's Fat, which I used for the buttermilk pie out of Anne Mendelson's Milk. The whole thing (see above) was delectable and handsome and, for once, handsomely photographed.

This morning: bagels and cream cheese.

Made the bagels, made the cream cheese. The chewy bagels are baked from the outstanding recipe in Bernard Clayton's Book of Breads. This is the second batch of the week, and I've never made anything more popular with finical children and spouse. I'm not Jewish, I'm not from New York City, and the perfect bagel is not my Lost Chord (that would be the Maddox spoon roll) so I don't claim authority. But I have eaten thousands of bagels over the years, and never encountered any as good as these. More about bagel-making in a future post.

The cream cheese, concocted from Milk, was not so fabulous. You warm up milk, cream, and a little buttermilk, add a crushed rennet tablet (as in Junket) and let sit in a quiet corner for a day where it will ripen into something with the texture of sour cream. You pour this into a cheesecloth-lined sieve, tie the cloth up around the ball of semisolid dairy product, hang it over the sieve to drain for a few hours, then top with weights or heavy cans to press out the remaining whey (which you can use to make incredible bread. . . or bagels.) Sounds complicated, isn't. The resulting "cream cheese" is loose and tart, more suited to topping a baked potato than a bagel. I might try again making some slight alterations. Or not. 

Rendering lard, a tutorial

Almost as easy as boiling water. In the morning, preheat the oven to 250. Start with a chunk of butt-ugly lard that looks something like that, cut it into pieces and place in a wide dutch oven with a cup or so of water that will keep the lard from burning in the early stages and eventually evaporate away. In her fine book, Fat, Jennifer McLagan suggests dicing the lard into small cubes but there's a lot of connective tissue and such that made this too difficult for lazy me, so I just broke off hunks the size of my forearm. All was perfectly well. The pot goes into the oven where the lard gently spatters and melts all day long, filling the house with a mysterious perfume that some might find offensive, but I rather enjoyed.
Midway through the afternoon you take out the pot and ladle some of the luminous golden liquid into a cheesecloth-lined sieve set over a bowl. When you've extracted as much as you can, return the pot to the oven where the diminished chunks of fat will continue to melt and shrink for a few more hours. When you've retrieved every precious drop of rendered lard, throw away the greasy, shriveled bits left in the pan. They look like they might be yummy with salt and lime juice, but aren't. 

Lard goes in containers in refrigerator to solidify, then into the freezer.

Far from grotesque, I found this to be a thrilling and primal food processing experience. 

A riveting garden update

Unlike some people, I've been having mixed luck with seeds this year. There's a tiny, tragic graveyard of onion seedlings out on my deck; I set them there to get some fresh spring air, and they keeled over dead. I was sad.

On the other hand, who cares about onions when you have asparagus? See above. Very intrepid and cute. They were the last seed to germinate and I'd despaired, but then they all shot up a few weeks ago and have been impossible to discourage. Also doing well are the tomatoes, eggplants, and artichokes. The cardoon crop has already failed -- I pulled up one of the corpses and it had an 8-inch root, so I think it was feeling cramped in the little pot. I'm going to try planting cardoons directly in the soil when I have found a place for a dedicated bed. You can hardly ever find cardoons at the farmers' market and they're delicious, though I've never figured out how to cook them right. 

Also, I'm worried about the worm box. Essentially, the seething masses of worms have ceased seething. I have theories about what's gone wrong, but it's too disgusting to describe in detail.  

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fat: Rhubarb is so pretty

Six months ago we were a dual income family with our pride and our busy schedules and our plans. Now, I'm doing a PhD in home economics, and though Mark survived yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle bloodbath, his spirits and ego and morale have been shredded but good. If you ask me, the writing is on the wall for newspapers. This recession/depression is the Dust Bowl for journalists, and I have no idea where we're all going to end up. Mark watched talented colleagues who've given thirty years to the paper being dumped like migrant day workers following a paint-stripping job. It's enough to make you lose your appetite.

But this is a food blog, and that's the rhubarb king's cake from Jennifer McLagan's Fat, a lovely looking thing that I did not execute quite perfectly. You make puff pastry, mix some frangipane (sugar, almonds, rum, butter), cook rhubarb. Roll out half the puff pastry in a circle, top with frangipane and rhubarb. . .
then top with a larger disc of pastry.  I think I overstuffed it, because juices oozed and made the pastry soggy. I don't have a picture of the finished product; it wasn't a thing of beauty. 

But. . . puff pastry! If I have one thought for these dark days, it's that so long as we can afford the butter, we should all be making puff pastry all the time. I'm always put off by the length of puff pastry recipes but when you actually execute one you realize it contains multiple repetitions of motions any chimp could perform: roll out dough, fold like a letter, put in refrigerator. That's 80% of a puff pastry recipe. And while the rhubarb kings cake did not turn out as I had hoped, the scraps rolled into crispy, sugary palmiers were fit for a queen.

This was also, sigh, the night of the braised oxtail. My stout-hearted father kept saying, don't be a ninny, it tastes just like short ribs. Which it does. The meat was succulent, the flavors excellent, and it's not the fault of the recipe that while I can eat liver, tripe, and marrow the sight of a knobby vertebrae on my plate turns my stomach. This is my second attempt to cook and savor oxtail, and probably my last. 

I also made McLagan's buttery pureed potatoes which were indeed, as she puts it, "worth every calorie." I just wish so-called comfort food really could provide comfort. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fat & Milk: Lovin' both of you is breaking all the rules

Though I remain fully committed to cooking through Fat (see how beautiful?) I've lately become obsessed with Anne Mendelson's Milk (see how elegant?)

In my spare moments I sit at the dining room table trying not to think about certain unthinkable subjects by reading one fine cookbook, then switching to the other. I really want to buy a sausage grinder so I can make chorizo. . . gosh, look at this, a recipe for mascarpone. . . mmm, slow-roasted pork belly. . . with panna cotta for dessert? 

Anyway, I've decided to do both books. They make a great pair -- sharp, single-subject books by women who wear glasses. Just like me! Plus, they complement each other, as McLagan is short on enticing desserts once you depart the butter section (though apparently there's bacon baklava in my future) while Mendelson isn't as strong on entrees. 

So, that's the new plan.
A question: While it's nice to live in a world where people can choose "Torn Between Two Lovers" as their ring tone, can you imagine ANY scenario where that would be a smart choice?  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fat: I want a cow

That's a blurry photo of the butter I "churned" yesterday using the instructions from Jennifer McLagan's Fat. Tasted against Trader Joe's butter, the homemade was sweeter, milder, and lighter. Lovely and completely different -- but not better. Both butters were delicious.

Also, unless you own a cow, homemade butter is expensive. A $3.39 pint of cream yields a quantity of butter you could buy for under $2.

Still, a fun kindergarten exercise to repeat every thirty-five years or so.

Here's what Owen thought: 

"You're making so many things homemade. Can't we have just ONE dairy that's not homemade? I don't want to be tasting something different for the rest of my life. I want to stick to the usual way."

As for food expenditures, Mark went to Safeway today and spent $13.94 on Minute Maid fruit punch and Honey Nut Cheerios. As nutritional gatekeeper I strongly disapprove, but they don't let me carry a weapon.

In any case, I'm stacking all our grocery/Starbucks/sandwich receipts here on the coffee table where I can gaze upon them every time I sit down to relax. We're at $230.52 after four days. I'll be interested, almost certainly mortified, to see the number at the end of a week.

Fat: They don't call them FAT cats for nothing

Bad times for my (so far) nonexistent budget.

Yesterday, I drove up to Marin Sun Farms, which sells local grass-fed meat in Point Reyes Station, a town "just up the coast" that is actually a far piece up the coast. Based on the web site, I thought MSF would solve all my Fat requisitioning needs, but it was a big, expensive, farflung disappointment. What kind of a butchering operation doesn't sell suet? The only thing I came away with was lard. They offered two options: a tiny, tidy $4 container of rendered lard and then this gnarled shrink-wrapped $25.69 hunk of unrendered leaf lard the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. Of course I had to have that one. Princess. 

Since lard isn't dinner,  I then went to the supermarket (more milk, beef soup bones, salmon, rhubarb, etc.)  and spent $45.07. 

We ate:

-Roasted Atlantic salmon with Jennifer McLagan's red butter sauce, which was in fact maroon, the color of aged $1.99 Charles Shaw cabernet muted by hunk after hunk of butter. This won't become a staple, but it was delicious. Price of dish: 15.09*
-roasted cauliflower from Orangette, using the new bright yellow variety that has, per Mark Bittman, 25 times as much vitamin A as the white kind. Also, more flavor. I'll never buy white cauliflower again, nor will I ever eat it steamed or boiled. This was incredible and easy: $3.

-miner's lettuce salad. Wild miner's lettuce is in season on our hill, and it makes a salad much loved by my uncouth children. Though it had a little dressing, I'm calling this free.

Total price of dinner: $18.09 

*Does this seem low for salmon to generously feed four? When I looked at the receipt just now I noticed that Whole Foods actually charged me for tilapia, which saved roughly $7. No, this doesn't bother me at all.

Would you call this "setting the table?"

Isabel does, but I don't.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fat: A chicken dinner

I broke my fast and roasted a chicken last night using Jennifer McLagan's recipe from Fat which differed from the norm mainly because it called for slathering the bird with almost a stick of butter. Not strictly necessary to make a tasty chicken, but it was a very tasty chicken. On the side, served maple roasted sweet potatoes and green beans. 

After dinner I went on Facebook. The latest status update was not, as usual, from one of my friends in New York soliciting sympathy because he spilled Jasmine pearls green tea on his laptop. It was from Isabel. She had written "Isabel just had a very satisfying dinner." 

My girl.

Everyone always talks about how satisfying and comforting roasted chicken is, how easy and foolproof. I want to comment on how cheap it is.

Here's what dinner cost, minus cooking fuel which I have not figured out how to estimate, and may never:

-roasted chicken: $9.63 ($8.98 for the chicken; 65 cents for the butter; herbs I got from pot in yard)
-sweet potatoes: $2.30 ($1 for potatoes, $1 for maple syrup, 3o cents for butter)
-green beans:  $3 (a guess, I bought them a while ago)

Total: $14.93

Obviously, you can go lower than that. For instance, you could buy a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket, which costs as little as $6 around here. (Burning question: WHY ARE ROTISSERIE CHICKENS CHEAPER THAN HOME ROASTED? Answer: Economies of scale. Next question: Why roast at home? Answer: Don't know. Maybe "cooking-at-home-is-cheaper" is, in fact, a big lie.) You could also buy a less expensive raw chicken. I bought a "natural chicken" from Whole Foods, which is somewhere between organic and Foster Farms* in price and pedigree. Also, the sweet potatoes were organic and maple syrup is always absurd.
But four of us were fed with leftovers of everything. Mark just made a chicken salad sandwich for lunch; I made broth from the chicken and it will be turned into soup for Isabel's lunch box.

That $28 oxtail is going to have to work pretty hard to justify its bony self.

*do I know for sure that it is healthier to buy "natural" chicken than Foster Farms? No. Do I know that it tastes better? No. Do I know for sure that the chickens are happier? No. Do I trust Whole Foods and the supposedly saintly vendors at farmers' markets? Not completely and no. Do I trust Foster Farms? Hell no. It drives me crazy. I feel like a chump, lacking complete information. One of the best things I've ever did was taste test organic flour vs. conventional. I still don't know if the organic flour is actually healthier, but it made a vastly better loaf of bread. At last, a tangible reason to choose one product over the other. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Eating Down the Fridge: Conclusion

Above is a picture of our refrigerator before a week of no grocery shopping.
Below is the "after" shot.
 Maybe I should just give up grocery shopping altogether. It appears to make little difference in the sheer quantity of food we have available.

That said, all the food my family eats a lot of had essentially vanished. In the last two days, I've spent $160.47 on groceries, mostly staples. We were out of sugar and flour and almost out of milk. Out of yogurt, cheese, mayonnaise, tortillas, orange juice, and olive oil. Plus, I bought some walnuts, dried apricots, spaghetti, juice boxes, bacon, a chicken, and a cup of coffee from Starbucks.

Also oxtail, the single most expensive item: $26.72.

That had better be some good tail.

Not budgeting yet. Just observing. 

Fat: Some preliminaries

I had one Irish great-grandmother who was supposedly kind of bossy and mean, which is fitting because she certainly had bossy genes. All of my life people have stopped me on the street to ask if I'm Irish. Even though I'm (mostly) not, I smile and nod, because they're proud of themselves for making the call and it's a fine thing to be. But then, what isn't?

Last night, to mark St. Patrick's Day, my father had us all up to his house. I was in a dark and reckless mood and consumed, in large quantities:

corned beef
soda bread
Guinness ice cream float (it was actually delicious)
Shamrock-shaped cookies
Bushmill's whiskey

In tiny quantities:

Today, I'm fasting in penance and preparation for launching into Jennifer McLagan's Fat tomorrow. The challenge with this book will be acquiring essential ingredients which include marrow bones, caul fat, suet, kidneys, duck fat, leaf lard. I've found sources for some of this, but not, for instance, caul fat. Another issue: McLagan offers a number of enticing sausage recipes, and I'm considering buying a grinding/sausage stuffing attachment for my mixer. We're not rolling in cash at this moment, but I've always wanted one. Yes or no?

On a related topic, I'm putting us on a food budget. For the next few weeks, I'm just keeping track of what we spend so we have a baseline. It'll be embarrassing, I'm sure. Trying to figure out what a family of four should be shelling out for food is a fraught and fascinating question to which none of the so-called experts have the same answer.

Finally, I finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which petered out in the end but still: great. One of the novel's two narrators is obsessed with something called "gloutof," which she describes as a "rather voracious Alsatian cake." (Can you use voracious that way? I don't think so.) She says, "Everything that is dry and heavy about Alsace is transformed. . . into an aromatic masterpiece."

I had to know more about this incredible cake, started looking for recipes online, and found nothing but indignant French comments on Amazon saying that "gloutof" n'existe pas and what she really means is "koglhopf." For which, as you can see from the poll on the right, McLagan just happens to offer an unusual recipe, one I find not the least bit tempting. 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Because there's more to life than food. . .

The full circle of a reading life:

5-11: read strictly for pleasure, decent books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Beverly Cleary, P.L. Travers, etc.

11-16: read strictly for pleasure and sex education, crappy books by John Jakes, Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, etc.

16-22: read mostly for self-discovery, books of dubious quality by Herman Hesse, Carl Jung, Robert Pirsig, etc. Self remains undiscovered.
22-37: read mostly for self improvement, any book by any moderately serious writer who lives or ever lived. Occasionally read strictly for pleasure (P.D. James, Ruth Rendell) plus compulsive rereadings of the complete works of Barbara Pym. 

37-42: read exclusively for job. During vacations read anxiously and ambitiously to fill holes in reading so as never to appear stupid. Fail. Though not infrequent, pleasure is strictly coincidental.

42: career as book critic over. Valiantly struggle through 2666. Try to read The Dark Side. Try to read American Lion. Try to read Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life. Fail. For several weeks, in confusion, look at the pretty pictures in Jamie at Home and do not read at all.

43: pick up The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Forget everything but funny, transporting, juicy novel. Until further notice, read strictly for pleasure.

What should I read next?

Friday, March 13, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Earnest Summation

First, the stats.

I made 63 dishes out of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

Worth the price of the book: 7
Great: 13
Good: 25
So-so: 18
Flat-out bad: 0

A stunning performance. Although Alice Waters' Art of Simple Food scored a tiny bit better, I prefer How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for its scope, imagination, flexibility, and general friendliness. Mark Bittman's recipes are easy and mostly wonderful. Not a single complete dud out of 63 recipes? Dude.

A few criticisms: There are a number of trivial errors in here, repetitions, discontinuities, obvious goofs. For instance, in the intro to his recipe for cheese shortbread: "After just one of these crisp, melt-in-your mouth snacks you'll never want another of those bright orange cheese puffs (gougeres.)" 

I think he means Cheetos. Particularly because he published a recipe for gougeres in How to Cook Everything where he describes them as "almost perfect finger food."

Significant? Of course not. This is small stuff in a great, fat, generous book. He's bitten off a lot here, which is admirable. He just needs a proofreader.

Other little problems: I don't like his breads. Maybe because he's wedded to his food processor and I'm wedded to my stand mixer, his recipes never work for me. (Question: Is there's a gender divide over processor vs. mixer? I decided there may be after spending a month with Bittman and then reading this. Any smart girl in that boy's situation would get money out from under the mattress, go to Target, and buy a mixer just like her grandma has on the formica counter back in Brigham City. The girl knows it's a lifelong investment; the boy thinks it's. . . effeminate? bourgeois? money better spent on a meat grinder or fancy knives or a Bose radio? Silly boys.)

Back to Bittman: While his breads disappoint me*, I have other cookbooks I can use for baking. And if you really want to delve deeply into a specific cuisine, or a specific dish, or bread, you should go to a dedicated cookbook anyway. Bittman is a generalist. He's not aiming for the most authentic, best-of-show saag paneer, or tamale, or sandwich bread. What he wants is to give you the confidence and know-how to make not so much everything as anything, using ingredients you might find at Stop & Shop. He's an enabling cook, not a prissy standard-bearer, and we need that.

I don't want to leave the impression there aren't spectacular recipes in this volume. Because there are. Just when you think "everything" is pretty good, but never spectacular,  you stumble across some recipe so casually dazzling and scrumptious that you want to write it on your kitchen wall. For me, that was the nut chutney, page 784, one of the most crazy delicious things I've ever tasted. Over a few days, I ate almost the whole recipe myself, which has not helped my slimming regimen. Worth the price of the book three times over. (Though I only counted it once.)

*I don't include his phenomenal no-knead bread in this criticism. I've made said bread, as has half the world, and it's truly a miracle, even though it melted the knob off my dutch oven. The no-knead bread doesn't appear in this book. 

Eating Down the Fridge: I think I've actually gained weight

This Challenge is turning out to be a nonevent in our (apparently) grossly overstuffed house. We're out of sugar and we're running low on milk, but won't even touch the lentils, the canned clams, the latke mix, the evaporated milk, the mung beans, the onions, the potatoes, the green tomato chutney, the garbanzo flour, etc.

As of last night, I'm officially done with Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. It's a masterpiece, though the final meal was a bit weak:

-Tempeh with rice and spinach. Owen likes tempeh, so I bought another 8 oz package last week. It cost $2.79, which, as I've pointed out, is more per pound than ground beef. But tempeh is its own, yummy, crunchy, nutty thing, and it's grown on me. I see the point. It was not, however, at at its best in this dish, a lemony, spinach-laden gruel. That was my opinion, anyway. Curiously, Mark and Owen liked it. 

-Carrots with raisins and dates. Carrots already fall in the "possibly too sweet" category, and don't need gooey fruits to underline the point. 

Summation of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian coming soon. 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Eating Down the Fridge: If we run out of something it will be sugar

A few months ago, I read an inspiring story about the varied flavors of different sugars written by the visionary chef at Coi, a San Francisco restaurant where I ate one of the most bizarre, beautiful meals of my life (it included a savory pistachio marshmallow, about which I had mixed feelings.) Shortly thereafter, I bought a sack of palm sugar and a bottle of agave nectar, put them in the cupboard, and forgot about them.

Now, of course, there's the Challenge

I've been a long-time lurker at 101 Cookbooks, the lovely, lovely, LOVELY  blog produced by Heidi Swanson. I'm fascinated and awed by people who calmly order their diets (and, I nervously suspect, their lives) around a set of wise and rational principles. Swanson appears to be such a one. I'm not going to run myself down -- I'm mostly fine with me -- but my body is not my temple, it's my playground and I sometimes worry that's an enormous mistake. Never more so than when I spend too much time at 101 Cookbooks.  Swanson uses only wholesome foods, like millet and honey and spinach and spelt, and her dishes always look wonderful. But until yesterday I never made any of them. I don't know why. Maybe I suspected my palate might be too crass; would her banana chip cookies or vegetarian split pea soup be fatty/salty/sweet enough for my greedy self?

But I had some agave nectar to use and I remembered her post about black bean brownies that contain no flour, very little butter, a cup of pureed beans, and nectar. Yesterday I baked them.
How were they? Weirdly, I found them far too sweet. Everyone ate them, and, yes, I revealed the secret ingredient. The beans aren't the problem, it's the agave nectar that makes them, to me, at least, cloying and sticky, the syrupy nectar overriding even the usually alpha chocolate. I would be willing to experiment further with agave nectar, but the bottle is now empty. 

On to palm sugar. Sampling it out of the bag, my first thought was: dirty. It tastes of caramel, and coffee, and engine grease, and earth. But funkiness can grow on a person, as with pinot noir, gorgonzola, truffles. I decided to substitute palm for white sugar in Mark Bittman's buttermilk ice cream on the theory that the tart buttermilk would make a great, counterintuitive partner for the eccentric, tropical sugar.

It didn't. Owen took one bite, said, "Nope, I don't like this," and walked away. My mother and I ate ours, and agreed that it wasn't awful, but it wasn't right. Buttermilk just isn't the girl for palm sugar. 

I remain convinced that he can find happiness; I'm trying this recipe next.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Eating Down the Fridge: It would take 6 months to eat down this fridge

I've been remiss in describing our meals since starting the (still unchallenging!) Challenge. I'll stick to dinners.

Sunday: leftovers
Monday: defrosted Kenny Shopsin chili served over macaroni
Tuesday: spaghetti with Marcella Hazan's tomato-butter sauce. I had planned something more elaborate and non-pasta, but schedule did not permit.

Which brings us to Wednesday, when my mother comes over and we always make fresh pasta. Pasta three nights in a row. The children were thrilled.

Isabel has a thing for pumpkin ravioli and while we don't have a root cellar full of pumpkins, let alone a root cellar, we had some sweet potatoes so decided to make sweet potato ravioli using Mark Bittman's recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Personally, I'm not crazy about whipped, yammy things, but can be objective: these were very good for what they were trying to be. Sauce: melted butter and toasted pumpkin seeds.

I'll write about the incredible foraged salad and interesting palm sugar ice cream in separate posts. Since I had one sweet potato left, this morning I made sweet potato biscuits from Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible, which is truly a bible. The biscuits are easy, pretty, and, everyone agreed, fantastically delicious. You can find the recipe right here. 

Eating Down the Fridge: Food Wars, Part XXVII

That's Owen, yesterday, trying to finish his homework and eat the 4-grain pancakes I made out of the Joy of Cooking. According to the notes in the margin, I first made these in August '06 and the kids "loved" them, probably because they are full of honey and cinnamon and taste like oatmeal cookies.  Mark rolled his eyes when he watched me mixing the cornmeal, oats, and wheat flour, but once again Owen "loved" them. Isabel, for whatever reason, did not partake.

So, this morning I pulled out the remaining batter and Isabel said: "I don't like pancakes with oats in them."

I then turned to Mark and asked, "Would you like some?"

He said: "I don't like wheat pancakes."

A vision of loveliness I was, standing there with uncombed hair and mismatched pajamas, holding a bowl of batter and shrilly berating my husband. Betty would never scold Don, nor allow him to see her in such disarray. I accused Mark of "poisoning the well," but I think what I meant was "poisoning the minds of our children." I hadn't poured my first cup of coffee and was not mentally agile.

Lately there's developed a little conspiracy between Isabel and Mark to make fun of me and my cooking. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand: infuriating. It's unhelpful for a grown man (George H. W. Bush is included in this indictment) to boast of narrow food preferences in front of children, pointing out the gory aspect of beets, the hatefulness of broccoli, a distaste for whole grains, etc. 

On the other hand, dissent is healthy in any political regime and I like to think of the kitchen as a benevolent dictatorship with me, naturally, serving as wise and revered president-for-life. I don't want anyone to seriously challenge my supremacy, God forbid, and maybe the best way to avoid that is to give my subjects some freedom. Let the peons doodle mustaches on my image and quietly hum the Internationale so long as they show up at the dinner table and obey.
Plus, if it brings them closer together, cements a father-daughter bond to resist Mother and sneak cans of Chunky classic chicken noodle soup into the house during the Challenge (which they totally did yesterday) then pretend to "find" them on the pantry floor, maybe it serves the greater good. They can chortle about their hijinks for years to come, beside the fire, around the Thanksgiving table, laughing through uncontrollable tears at my memorial service. Yes, I want that for them.

Owen didn't hear the pancake commentary and is enjoying his pancake breakfast as I type. I intend to recruit the little boy to my side. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Eating Down the Fridge: I got creative

Two days into the (so far) unchallenging Challenge, we've been mostly eating as we normally would. Last night I heated some frozen chili from the Kenny Shopsin era and poured it on macaroni. Sophisticated!

For dessert, Isabel and I invented a cake.

A few weeks ago, a friend wrote on Facebook about how she grinds the freeze-dried strawberries from Trader Joe's and folds them into angel food cake batter. I tried her formula and it was tasty, though the flavor wasn't quite emphatic enough for me. Still, the concept had possibilities. Last night Isabel and I were making angel food cake and I remembered the crystallized rose petals someone gave me, and which I have never known how to use.

Now I did. We ground them up in the food processor. . .
and then folded the powder into the batter.

The results were amazing. Not delicious, but amazing. The cake was soft and collapsed when I took it out of the pan so it was more of a fluffy pink mound than a cake.
Also, it was a little like eating a heavy perfume, even for someone as fond of rose flavoring as I.

But all these problems can be fixed! What matters is that I successfully imported rose flavor and color into a cake. Now, I just have to tinker.

The question is, does anyone in the world but me even want a rose angel food cake?

Do I even want a rose angel food cake?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Eating Down the Fridge: Still alive

Day one of the experiment went fine. Little to note except the sourdough bread I baked using Mark Bittman's starter, Beth Hensperger's recipe from The Bread Bible, and whey instead of water. I've always liked the recipe, but this may be the best batch I've made, lofty and handsome and basically perfect. Attributable to whey? Can't be sure. I baked two big loaves and less than 24 hours later, one is gone.

I asked Owen take a neat, careful bite out of his toast before I photographed it this morning. Mark and Isabel made a mockery of my efforts. They think they're so sly.

But teasing is easy, people. It's food styling that's hard. 

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Eating Down the Fridge: Obviously we won't starve


The challenge starts today. I have mixed feelings because I like having split peas and yucky canned clams in our pantry. If there's an earthquake, we will find sustenance. Why compulsively eat it all up?

On the other hand, foodstuffs I thought were imperishable have perished, or become hatcheries for moths. And dried beans have turned into pebbles. I guess it's okay to eat everything up so long as we replenish. 

Saturday, March 07, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Leftovers with benefits

Last night we reheated Indian leftovers and I added a couple of dishes to fill it out, all from Bittman. Thanks to Layne, I used whey to make chapatis, a rustic, tortilla-like Indian flatbread that made a sturdy platform for dal and nut chutney. I don't know if the chapatis were better because of the whey, but they were delicious.

Also made the brussels sprouts with coconut milk, a recipe I'd been eyeing since I first opened this book. It goes to show how food combinations can surprise you. I love coconut, I love brussels sprouts, but they have no chemistry. It was just a wrong marriage, the coconut wanting to be all unctuous and tropical, the repressed sprouts unable to loosen up. And why should they? They're nice and dignified the way they are; everyone doesn't have to dance the samba.

So, we're at the end of our successful How to Cook Everything Vegetarian experiment, though I'm going to make a few more straggler dishes from the book over the next few days. (The summation will come when we're done done.) Meanwhile, there was a piece introducing a new vegetarian column in the New York Times that caught my attention last week. The author writes that vegetarianism is having its moment whether because of "health, ethics, concern for the planet or pure whimsy."

Is it true vegetarianism is having its moment? There are certainly fewer in my world than there were twenty years ago, but that could be age and suburbia. What really stopped me, though, was her list of reasons. She doesn't mention economics. I get bent out of shape when chickpeas cost more than $1.79/pound but think $20/lb. salmon is a steal. I'll never be a vegetarian for any of the reasons she cites, but I think we'll be eating a lot of meatless meals in the near future because of the price. 

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: You're better off with Madhur Jaffrey

Cheese again, another of Mark Bittman's chewy paneers. I brought the children home from school via the supermarket and while I was unloading groceries, like horses to the barn they headed straight for the computer, leaving me to carry everything in. Little pashas, they are. I called them to the kitchen and gave them an embarrassing lecture about hard times and pitching in around the house and how I want them to be the kind of kids who help unload the groceries without being asked.  It went over like a platter of pig's ear salad. Isabel was unmoved and faintly scornful ("We GET it, Mom!") and Owen grew tearful and promptly vowed to help me with all my domestic chores. Which was sad. It turns out he's actually been listening intently to our conversations about jobs and money while pretending to play mindlessly with his light saber. He's a flake, but also a major worrier.

I put him to work stirring the paneer and lest this sound like an episode of The Waltons, he was soon whining that his arm ached and after the cheese was done, disappeared.

It has been frustrating me to pour all the whey from making cheese down the drain. The picture below is of whey. Got that? It's whey.

But what to do with it. The other day I was reading Anne Mendelson's authoritative and engrossing Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk through the Ages and she suggests you drink whey: "It is delicious poured over ice with a pinch each of salt and crushed dried mint. . ." I'm not going to do that, but she also includes a recipe for bulgur pilaf cooked with whey and I am going to do that.

Anyway, we had what may be the final all-How to Cook Everything Vegetarian meal and it included: 

-biryani, the classic Indian rice dish, into which I put the paneer. I crave paneer and bland cheese almost as much as I do spicy food. A cube of essentially flavorless paneer, ricotta, or fresh mozzarella -- so restful, like a white room. 

-dal. The best recipes for dal call for frying the spices, ginger and garlic before adding to the lentils, which softens their pungency. Bittman, in his usual streamlining style, skips the tempering step and has you put everything in the pot all at once, which yields a harshly flavored dal. I often appreciate the way he simplifies recipes, but this is one corner that shouldn't be cut.

-aloo paratha/flaky potato flatbreads for which the recipe was not detailed enough. A diagram of how to roll these out would have helped immensely. I winged it and these were a mess, with mashed potato filling squishing out of the wheaty little discs. They were actually tasty this way because the bits of extruded potato acquired a delectable, crispy crust, but: not quite right.

-nut chutney. Yummy ground cashews and spices, a crunchy sprinkle rather than a jam or sauce. Like I've always imagined dukka

-mint and cilantro chutney. Fiery, damp, green. 

-honey spice cake. The one dud so far in Bittman's astonishing cake section, porous and dry. ((UPDATE: Changed mind. The cake was perhaps too modest to serve after a big dinner, but I just had another piece and it's great. More of a daytime cake. I am trying to resist getting another slice.)) 

I go back to what I said the last time I made an Indian meal from Bittman: you're better off with an Indian cookbook. Everything was fine, but Indian food can be so much better than fine. 

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


I want to try this "Eating Down the Fridge" challenge next week, which I found after following a trail of crumbs from Mark Bittman's blog. Sounds like a fun game and a fine segue from How To Cook Everything Vegetarian because some of the ingredients we will have to "eat down" are items purchased expressly to cook from Bittman's book. Like vital wheat gluten.  

Also, I love the idea of no food shopping for seven days. During the time saved I may write a novel. Should the heroine be a disheveled out-of-work book critic germinating rhubarb seeds* in her living room, or a lithe redhead prowling for a mate in pre-meltdown Manhattan? 

Really. You think?

Another also: I've picked the next cookbook to review, which is Fat by Jennifer McLagan. I flipped through it yesterday and it's irresistible, full of challenges and novelty and humor and delicious-sounding food that is a little weird, but not (to me) off-puttingly so. The first meal I want to make will consist of marrow bones, steak and kidney pudding and brown butter ice cream. McLagan's introduction: "Jack Sprat was wrong!"

My kids will be dismayed. I think crabby Regina Schrambling would approve of my screw-the-kids approach to cuisine. I'm not sure even I approve of that approach, but why change horses.

One more thing: This post about Alice Waters/elitism/food policy is fascinating and super-smart. Especially the last line. 
*they live! I have nine tiny rhubarb plants. I wish it would warm up so we could move this awkward operation outdoors.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Forget Fraulein Maria, I'll take the Baroness

A few years ago I thought I'd discovered the perfect drink. My wicked friend Lisa made me a brandy sidecar and overnight I went from wine-loving innocence to drinking exactly two brandy sidecars every night. Here's how you make a brandy sidecar: 1/3 cup brandy, half as much Cointreau, the juice of a lemon. After you've juiced the lemon, run it around the rim of a martini glass and dip the glass in sugar. Shake the cocktail in ice until very cold. Strain into glass. You'll definitely want another, but must absolutely stop at two or you will behave foolishly, awake with a hangover, and get really fat.

After a year, I decided: enough with this nonsense. I stopped buying brandy so I couldn't make sidecars.

I quickly learned one could make an even better sidecar -- one with a more voluptuous, smoky flavor -- using the bourbon I had in the cupboard. See recipe above, but substitute Maker's Mark. 

Another year passed, during which I drank exactly two bourbon sidecars every night. I even got my mother hooked -- she called them "those drinks of yours" -- though she's the kind of person who can have a sidecar at my house and never import the bad habit into her own orderly home.  

After a year: enough with this nonsense. I stopped buying Cointreau so I couldn't make any sidecars whatsoever.

I quickly learned one could make another marvelous drink with bourbon, sweet vermouth, and a maraschino cherry. The manhattan isn't as flirty and approachable as the sidecar, but it's a lot more interesting. It turned out that the sweet-tart sidecars were just training so I could appreciate this serious, world-beating cocktail.

Manhattans lasted about six months and then, enough of this nonsense, etc. but this time it actually worked. Until I recently got into the "joke" Old Crow which, I have to say, is vile. So I think the story really does end here. I don't want to be fat and get cancer and everything else rotten or just mediocre that goes with hard liquor.

These days, I almost never drink cocktails at home, but having a manhattan out is another story. I met my friend Melanie last night and she just had a beer which made me feel grimy and hardcore when I ordered my second manhattan (I believe in sets) but I'm too old to bend to peer pressure. 

I started thinking about the evolution in my taste in cocktails, which reminded me of my The Sound of Music odyssey. When I first saw it, like all kids, I hated the Baroness and thought Fraulein Maria was the prettiest woman in the world. Her twinkling eyes, her peachy skin, her clear, angelic voice. And her hair -- hair the color of apricots, though so badly cut. Even an 8-year-old can recognize a stupid cut. But still: beautiful.

Years passed, I bore children, they acquired a Sound of Music video which they watched several hundred times, as did I. But it was a completely different movie. Maria? What a simp. Clearly, it's the Baroness who has a soul, who knows life and suffering. She gets one eyeful of Maria and the Captain dancing that Austrian folk dance and realizes there's even more suffering in store for her, even if she does successfully scare off the ninny governess. She's wise enough to know to try, and, later, when to give up. 

Who would I rather have a drink with? Obviously, Christopher Plummer, but if he weren't available, the Baroness. Of course! She is the manhattan. Maria isn't even a sidecar, she's a Shirley Temple. Though to be fair, that was the character. If you read Julie A's memoir you'll never think of her in quite the same way. In life, definitely a sidecar, perhaps even a manhattan with a few extra cherries.

Anyway, today I have a mammogram which always makes me regret all of it, every single lousy drink.