Thursday, April 30, 2009

A little about bagels, a little about bees

My usual bagel recipe makes chewy water bagels, but last night, for a change, I baked the egg bagels from Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible. They puffed up to monstrous proportions and were soft, pale, and doughy.

Husband: I like these bagels. Not as good as the other ones. Why didn't you make those?

Tipsy: Variety is the spice. . . 

Husband: No. Make the kind that you know are good.

Tipsy: But what if these had turned out to be even better? 

Husband: Make the kind that you know are good. 

I can see both sides.

Farm report:

Much activity at the bee hives. Today I saw some bees returning to the hive with pollen on their legs. I'd been told about this but figured you needed nerves of steel and a magnifying glass to actually see pollen on a bee's leg. But no, you can spot it with the naked eye from four feet away. The pollen is a gaudy orange-yellow, extremely thick, and makes the bees look a little like clowns. 

I'm not sure if they're supposed to be trying to access the hive through every tiny crack like they're doing in the photograph. 
Still uncertain about and around the bees. 

No ambivalence at all about the chicks; they're wonderful. They went outside and pecked merrily at the bricks while I cleaned their room today, which entailed vacuuming up several pounds of sawdust and pulverized manure. I hate to think about mutating interspecies viruses. . . so won't. 

A Homemade Life: And so it is, but you might need a mandoline to make it

Molly Wizenbeg's recipe for zucchini noodles requires a mandoline to julienne squash into long threads that resemble spaghetti. I don't remember how we got our mandoline (wedding present? present present? did I buy it?) all I know is that we've had it since before we moved into this house eight years ago and never once used it. Look at it. Thing is sharp and crazy complicated.

My mother is mechanically minded and manually dexterous with these nimble, bony hands that love to pick wrong stitches out of a needlepoint and assemble a VCR  just for the exercise. She has what my father calls "possum" hands. (He has "pancake" hands, as do I. "Pancake" is the vastly inferior type of hand, but fortunately there's more to life than hands.)

My mother had the mandoline julienning zucchini in under ten minutes. 

You saute the finely cut zucchini in olive oil until soft, then toss with hot spaghetti and pesto. 

Elegant bowl was also made by mother's hands.
The spaghetti was tasty, if not as tasty as traditional pesto-sauced pasta without zucchini. I know it is healthier and makes everything less fattening, but we all felt the watery, flaccid strips of zucchini got in the way.
For dessert: Wizenberg's vanilla bean buttermilk cake with glazed oranges and creme fraiche. She introduces this recipe with a story about buying too many oranges then having a vision of a white cake with poached oranges, "a little like a Creamsicle in cake form." After much experimentation, she finally settled on a buttermilk cake out of Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible as the perfect vehicle for glazed oranges and syrup. Excellent choice. What appealed to me was how the cake itself -- tangy from buttermilk -- tasted like cheesecake but was, in fact, cake cake. Even without the oranges, I instantly loved it.

So, here's the weird thing. I just pulled out my copy of The Cake Bible to see how much Wizenberg tinkered with the recipe (almost not at all) and noticed that I'd already baked this cake once before. On 2-11-01 I wrote: "Fluffy, golden, buttery -- but there IS a tang and I don't like it."

I can not explain.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Milk: The long overdue earnest summation

Anne Mendelson got me started making yogurt and mascarpone; she pointed the way to success with scalloped potatoes and taught me how to make better paneer; her panna cotta recipe is easy and hard to beat. All this comes in the context of an authoritative, opinionated, and riveting history of milk in which every thought is fully developed and crisply (sometimes haughtily) expressed. Is Milk something a casual cook needs? No, but if you're even slightly interested in learning more about dairy products, you should own this book. 

The recipes tend to be basic and impeccable, often borrowed (with credit) from other sources. I have no problem with this; I'd rather have terrific second-hand recipes than a bunch of original recipes only some of which are actually delicious. 

I made 19 recipes out of Milk:

Worth the price of the book: 3
Great: 9
Good: 2
So-so: 4
Flat-out bad: 1

Milk struck a chord with me. There are things you try and you just know you're never going to get all that into them. I suspect I'm missing the sausage-making gene and I may not be cut out for apiculture. But when I started playing with milk, I thought: when can we get a cow?

(Answer: never.)

Fat: The long overdue earnest summation

I didn't get around to half the recipes in Jennifer McLagan's Fat that I'd hoped to try. Never made bone marrow tacos, steak and kidney pudding, or bacon baklava. Never tackled the cassoulet or spiced pork crackling or dandelion salad with hot bacon dressing.

I also never wrote about the most extraordinary recipe I cooked from this book, which was McLagan's salted butter tart. One morning I assembled this handsome caramel tart, put it in the refrigerator, forgot to bring it to room temperature (which McLagan recommends) and served it cold for dessert. We all thought it was heavy and chewy, like a Twix bar without the chocolate. I left it on the counter and forgot about it until a few days later when I idly cut myself a sliver and almost passed out. I think I consumed a third of the ROOM TEMPERATURE salted butter tart in twenty minutes, and it was not just worth the price of the book, it was worth gaining ten pounds. You can find the recipe here. 

The other dish I ardently loved was the carnitas, which will become my go-to carnitas recipe. It's amusing that my favorite carnitas recipe comes from an Australian-born Canadian, but there's really no reason to look further. 

Obviously, Fat is not a book for vegans. You also have to be a fairly unsqueamish, hard-core cook to make some of the recipes, which require special orders from the butcher and a meat grinder. But once you gather your kidneys, liver, and suet and master the techniques (I have a lot of work to do on sausage making) the instructions are straightforward and precise. Fat is a fount of fascinating information about subjects not generally addressed by Rachael Ray, such as how to render lard, salt pork, and roast a kidney. For anyone who wants to delve, this is a treasure trove.

I made thirty recipes from the book, not counting the faggots:

Worth the price of the book: 2 (see above)
Great: 6
Good: 18
So-so: 4
Bad: 0

McLagan has already won the 2009 International Association of Culinary Professionals award for best "single-subject" book. She's up for a James Beard award next week, and I predict she'll take that as well.

A Homemade Life: A happy family dinner

Family dinners like this aren't going to save civilization, but no one burst into tears, which is increasingly how I define success.

To go with last night's roasted chicken, I made Molly Wizenberg's potato salad. Actually, it was her late father Burg's recipe, made with mayonnaise, Ranch dressing, and dill. Burg is one of the great characters in her memoir: "He loved being a doctor. He loved Dixieland jazz. He loved the old Alfa Romeo Spider that sat in the driveway and never ran. He loved crossword puzzles, Dylan Thomas, and Gene Krupa banging on a drum kit on the stereo upstairs. He loved omelets and olives. . ."*

We liked Burg's potato salad. Mark was just happy I made potato salad at all. The potato salad I ate as a child was yellow from ballpark mustard and contained sweet pickle relish and if I have to eat potato salad, that's the potato salad I want to eat. But the truth is, I'm really not crazy for potato salad and hardly ever make it.
For dessert: Hoosier pie, which contains corn syrup, pecans and chocolate chips and is rich, super-sweet, and gooey. Nice! But you've probably eaten something almost exactly like this before -- it is often called Derby pie -- and perhaps even baked it. I have.

I'm jumping the gun with this assessment, but the magic of this book lies in the narrative not the recipes. All the dishes have been swell, but they're distinguished primarily by the fact that they played a role in Wizenberg's life. Which is the whole point; she's not claiming to be Ferran Adria or Julia Child. Her Hoosier pie is attached to a sad, sweet family story and it's about so much more than how it tastes. 

*Anyone can do this, and it's very fun: My father loved being a lawyer but loves being retired even more. He loves sappy country music and Leonard Cohen and a well-pruned peach tree. He loves Ian Rankin thrillers and road trips and insanely spicy Sichuan food, even though he was raised on overcooked meat and potatoes. . .
I could do that all day. You should try it.  

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Homemade Life: I have been neglectful

Got some catching up to do. Those are Molly Wizenberg's lemon-ginger scones which we liked very much, though one member of the family spoke up against candied ginger.
I also made her uncle Arnold's cider-glazed salmon which was lovely and which I served for Sunday dinner with red cabbage salad. Wizenberg dresses this basic shredded salad with lemon and olive oil then tosses it with finely grated Parmesan. I did that and thought it needed a lot more oomph, so added large curls of Parmesan. Very, very tasty with adjustments.

Last night: Wizenberg's tomato soup with two fennels (fennel seeds and chopped fennel bulbs) served with bread and cheese. We ate a lot of bread and cheese. Sometimes the simplest ingredients come together to make miraculously delicious soup, and sometimes everything looks fine on paper, but never quite clicks. Such was the case with this soup, and it had something to do with using canned tomatoes as the base. I didn't feel like I was eating soup; I felt like I was eating hot canned tomatoes. Maybe because I was?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

We now have bees and I need an Ativan

A handle would've been nice.

This afternoon, Owen and I drove to Sonoma County to collect our bees, and found thrumming crates of insects stacked on every available surface of the Beekind shop. Stray bees were shooting around in the air and I pretended to be cool, resisted swatting them away from my face or shrieking. While she wrote up our receipt, the proprietor reached out her index finger and petted a bee that was clinging to the side of her clipboard. I may one day cease to fear bees, but doubt I'll ever caress one. The same woman proceeded to give me a peremptory 30-second course on bee installation, brusquely told me to watch the video I've already seen a half dozen times, and sent us home with our two throbbing 3-pound packages.

Though he disapproves of this whole project, Mark gamely "suited up" and we carefully did all the things you must do to relocate bees from packages into hives. The operation was not that complicated, just the tiniest bit scary, and very quick. I was stung once, Mark not at all. The only truly weird maneuver involved a screw, a cork, and a miniature marshmallow and I would describe it in more detail but am completely shot. 

Anyway, the hives are now filled with handsome Italian honeybees and one day I'll lift a lid and and take a photo to prove it. Not there yet. If you're an experienced beekeeper and see something obviously wrong with this hive set-up, which would not surprise me, I'd be grateful for a note.
Tomorrow, back to cookbooks.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I wish I could put them on the roof

Bought the bee boxes and applied the first coat of paint. I wish it were a tanner tan so as to better blend in with hillside and avoid causing undue alarm, but this is what looked like camouflage at the paint store:

I have quite an eye.

Now we have to situate the hives and while our hill is fairly rangy and wild, it's not all that well screened from the street. I don't want anxious passerby stopping to point. I don't want us to become the freaky people who keep bees and chickens. And you know what? That's exactly what's going to happen unless I plant a whole lot of shrubs and vines, like, tomorrow.

Are they drinks or are they dessert?

Technically, two of them are drinks, albeit drinks that require lots of chewing. The third is a pudding. 

Except when it comes to chicks I'm not a whim shopper, but yesterday at the New May Wah Market I was admiring, as always, the Vietnamese drink/desserts they sell in translucent plastic cups. Went for it. My father came to dinner and we had a tasting. 

From left to right, our thoughts: 

-Pink drink was filled with long, crunchy, translucent "noodles," juicy pearls of fuschia-colored tapioca, and mung beans. Sauce was sweet and milky. Fabulous.

-Green drink contained soft, translucent forest-green "noodles" -- they resemble spaetzle --  and kidney beans. Sauce was the same as with pink but with a different dye. Also fabulous.

-The tan dessert was a firm, astringent and slightly salty tapioca and banana pudding sprinkled with roasted peanuts. Our least favorite by far.
What's wonderful about the pink and green drinks is that they are

a. refreshing, cool, and thirst-quenching but also substantial.

b. playful and pretty
c. textural. There are items slippery, crunchy, creamy, liquid, and grainy all together in one glass. Or dish. I know this isn't to everyone's taste, but why not?

I spent some time at the New May Wah trying to find "oliang" coffee mix (it contains roasted corn kernels, sesame seeds and soybeans) to make the Thai iced coffee recipe in Anne Mendelson's Milk. Failed. Apparently a coffee "sock" is also required. I could just order the whole kit right here, but that takes away the fun. 

Friday, April 24, 2009

Our flock is complete

I feel like the Mia Farrow of chicks. Fortunately, I'm required by county code to stop or I probably wouldn't. It's not so much that they're cute -- the ones we got a week ago have already ceased to be cute; they're almost reptilian -- but they bring out the collecting instinct, which can be a problem. See subtitle of blog.

I'd been planning to get two more chicks to fill out of the boring all-Buff Orpington flock, and had learned that a feed store "near" my grandmother's house had Marans and Ameraucanas. So she and I made a pleasant 2-hour field trip yesterday afternoon. It turns out that the store had sold out of Marans, but had brought in all these other intriguing varieties, including white-crested black Polishes (above), silver crested Polishes, and Barred Rocks. The Polishes are spectacularly strange looking when they grow up and I decided to get two even though (maybe because) I'd read they are often bullied on account of the dopy top knots that make it hard for them to see. Poor girls! We left the store with five new chicks. Mark was not delighted.

Watching the new babies integrate with the older chicks you can see that "pecking order" is no empty cliche. It does not appear to be strictly a matter of age and size. The tiny Ameraucana is pushing all the big Buff Orpingtons around; she rushes right at them and they step nervously aside. The Barred Rock (below), on the other hand, seems to be extremely timid. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Homemade Life: So far, we like this store

Back when I was cooking through How to Cook Everything Vegetarian my sister voiced a complaint about Mark Bittman: "I don't want cream soup with fifty variations. I want him to tell me which is the most delicious so I can make THAT one."

Basically, she doesn't want a department store, she wants a boutique. Molly Wizenberg's Homemade Life is a boutique -- small, spare, exquisite, expressing a very specific and personal culinary aesthetic. I love that kind of shop, and I love this kind of book.

Night One of Homemade Life: big success. Wizenberg's sliced spring salad -- radicchio, endive, avocado, cilantro, feta -- was straightforward and excellent. Elegance and clarity are hallmarks of Wizenberg's prose, and also of her recipes. Here's a strange story. Isabel hates cheese. She picks cheese out of her burritos, barely tolerates it on pizza, and will not touch a quesadilla. While eating this salad she mistakenly bit into a chunk of feta and said, "What is this cheese? I love this cheese!"

Feta. She loves feta but can't stand Monterey jack?

Owen didn't eat any dinner, but that is hardly news and I am willing myself not to care. 

Dessert: yogurt cake. See photo at top of page.  This recipe, first posted on Wizenberg's blog, was how she met her future husband. A friend of his was searching for a French yogurt cake recipe, stumbled on Orangette, etc. "It may be simple, but to me, it borders on the magical," Wizenberg writes. 

It is indeed a lovely cake. I didn't find it magical, but this isn't my boutique.

Night Two of Homemade Life: Owen did eat the dinner, which consisted of arugula salad with chocolate and pistachios.
There was a more substantial meal planned, but stuff happened. The chunks and shards of chopped bittersweet chocolate married surprisingly well with the arugula, though arugula is better alone. Or with feta. For dessert: white chocolate coeur a la creme, which was delicious, but would have been even more incredible without the chocolate. If I ever open a boutique, there will be lots of vanilla and nuts, very little chocolate and it will all be milk.
In other news: 

-I owe wrap-up reviews for Milk and Fat, both of which were wonderful.

-Have completely lost track of our April food budget.

-The bees are coming on Sunday. 

-There is also this Slate piece that I recently wrote about the cost of cooking vs. buying various basic foodstuffs. I don't resemble the woman in the illustration, though I do covet her purse.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Saving myself from myself

For reasons I'll explain later, I'm postponing the journey Into the Vietnamese Kitchen for a few months. Next up: A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg of the elegant blog Orangette. It's a memoir with recipes, part of a supposedly sizzling publishing trend, and I read it over the course of a recent afternoon. Beautifully written, plus it's packed with enticing recipes, primarily for healthy salads and dainty desserts. There's not a single dish in here that is in any way frightening, gross, or overly ambitious, categories I seem to gravitate towards. My family should be pleased.

So, there's that. I also wanted to amend my recent criticism of Laurie Colwin's fiction. I've started reading her early story collection, The Lone Pilgrim, which is everything her novels aren't: tense, sharp, melancholy, ambivalent. Though these tales reflect her perennial, sometimes stifling, obsession with domesticity and a well-laid table, she's coming at it from another direction here -- from the outside looking in -- and hunger, loneliness, and longing are infinitely more interesting, at least in fiction, than cozy satisfaction.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Fat: A complete fiasco

I ran in to the Hing Ling market this afternoon, bought pork liver and belly, rushed back home, chopped them up and threw the chunks into my new grinder along with some onions and garlic to make tonight's -- ta da -- faggots with onion gravy out of Jennifer McLagan's Fat. You may smirk for a minute, children, but then we need to move on. As McLagan explains, "faggot" is an old English word for "bundle." These particular bundles were to be held together by caul fat, which I went to some trouble to obtain a few weeks ago. Here is the caul fat: 

The photo is ugly, but not the actual caul fat, which is kind of lacy and wonderful when you're holding it in your hands, like a giant, tattered, crocheted shawl. While we're at it, here is the handsome pork liver:
McLagan describes her faggot recipe as: "a delicious change from meatballs." I was quite looking forward to it.

Was not to be. As I tried to grind the meats, mingled juices of onion and liver erupted from the top of the machine and spattered my t-shirt. Then the pork belly got caught in the blade despite my best efforts to remove all sinew. But if you must remove every last strip of sinew, what is the point of a GRINDER? Meanwhile, sluggishly squirting from the bottom of the grinder at the rate of a teaspoon per minute, came this sad dun-colored sludge. I kept struggling, forcing meat and vegetable into the machine, cleaning and recleaning the chopper; I tried pre-grinding everything in a food processor to break it down a bit. And then some internal toggle switch clicked. All the meat went into the trash, the machine into the sink. Done. I don't blame Jennifer McLagan, I blame the machine, and maybe myself, though mostly the wretched machine.

Hardly matters. We're having a freak heat wave so no one is hungry and even if they were they wouldn't have been too enthusiastic about my bundles. Just a hunch.

Milk: Unfriendly chocolate pudding

I prefer a dessert that is too sweet to one that is not sweet enough. Anne Mendelson's old-fashioned chocolate pudding calls for 2 cups milk, 2 squares unsweetened chocolate, and 1/3 cup sugar. It was incredibly, almost inedibly, austere. For comparison, I looked at my 1946 Joy of Cooking, which also contains a recipe for chocolate pudding. This one calls for 2 cups milk, 1 ounce chocolate and  1/2 cup sugar. Very sensible! More sugar, less chocolate, almost certainly a milder, tastier pudding.

What is with our weird national obsession with ever darker, harsher chocolate? It's ruining all the desserts! You know what's a good way to eat chocolate? In a malted. Or in a Hershey's bar. Or in a thin layer coating the coconut in an Almond Joy. I'd sooner eat a bowl of boiled cabbage than a big hunk of fancy bittersweet chocolate.

UPDATE: Actually, I'm all wrong. I just saw a copy of the ancient Fannie Farmer cookbook from which Mendelson took her severe chocolate pudding recipe. It is exactly the same. I guess my theory is a bust; people were already going for the extra-dark chocolate in 1948. Maybe it really is just me.

Fat: Salting pork

Did you know anyone who ate salt pork in the USA in the 1970s? I didn't, but it seemed to sustain the characters in all the old-fashioned books I so ardently loved. For protein, people ate hunks of salt pork. For dessert: fried pies or blancmange. What were some of those other enticing long-ago foods? Drawing a blank, but I'm sure if I pulled out On the Banks of Plum Creek or Anne's House of Dreams they would all come rushing back.

As an adult I was thrilled to one day stumble across Hormel salt pork in a little-used area of the supermarket, then crestfallen to discover that it tasted like nothing more than really salty pork. What a surprise. Bacon is much better.

Still, I couldn't resist the recipe for homemade salt pork from Jennifer McLagan's Fat. It's simple: You rub a piece of pork belly with salt and crushed spices then let it cure for a few days. Rinse, wrap in cheesecloth and pack in the covered wagon when you light out for the territories.

I used this salt pork to make McLagan's baked beans. She has a funny little introduction to the recipe in which she reminisces about how her mother used to serve canned baked beans on toast for breakfast, along with some cereal. "The memory of those breakfasts is probably why I don't often eat breakfast today," writes McLagan. See how much baggage two different people can bring to a pot of beans?

These were very good beans, sweetened with brown sugar and molasses and sharpened with mustard.
But my favorite recipe remains the Vermont apple baked beans -- made with maple syrup, a fresh apple, and country-style ribs -- from Philip Schulz's As American as Apple Pie. I've baked a lot of beans over the years and Schulz's have proved impossible to beat. 

Anyway, I'm over salt pork. Salting may have been a useful way to preserve meat on the frontier, but we now have refrigerators. I still wonder about fried pies and blancmange.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hens & neighbors

Today Owen's friend and his father, J, were granted an audience with the new chicks who currently reside in a little cage in the room formerly known as my office. J's face took on this wry expression, half amused, half disgusted. He said, "I'm frankly not much of a chicken guy. I bet your neighbors are going to have some feelings about this."

Well, I bet they are. Like I hadn't thought about this? 

I said, "I called the county office and you're allowed to have up to twelve chickens on a lot of this size."

He said, "Did you ask any of your neighbors what they thought?"

"No," I replied. "They don't ask me how I feel about their dogs." 

I should have brought up leaf blowers. Dogs don't bother me but I absolutely HATE the leaf blowers. 

I did actually consider asking our neighbors if they'd mind if we got chickens. But someone might have said, "Yes, we mind." Then I would have had to say, "Hmm. That's really too bad, because we're getting them anyway."

Better not to ask. Am I wrong? 

Friday, April 17, 2009

All about chickens and egg whites

We got chicks. Six Buff Orpingtons, the only chicks available in the greater Bay Area. I know because I called everywhere and chicks are apparently very trendy these days, probly for the "free eggs." As with vegetable gardens, I think it's going to turn out to be more expensive to raise hens just based on yesterday's starter costs: $55 for feed, dishes, sawdust, chicks, lightbulb and clasp lamp to keep them warm and alive through the night. 

They're very fun to watch scamper around, pecking and scratching and cheeping. Isabel and Owen are ecstatic. Mark: not ecstatic, but putting on a game face, which I appreciate.

Despite distractions, I cooked dinner, made a lovely "Maltaise sauce" flavored with the juice and zest of a blood orange. Recipe out of Jennifer McLagan's Fat. Served it with asparagus and salmon, but sadly no one in my ascetic family is keen on buttery sauces except me. 

Isabel also baked this unintentionally marbled mocha angel food cake that was, contrary to my expectations, delicious.

We used egg whites that had been stored in a jar -- an uncovered jar -- in the refrigerator for two months. I hesitated to type that because, yuck. But why write if you don't write the truth? You don't really have to throw out egg whites until they grow a layer of mold.

The kids are back

To quote the charming food writer and mediocre novelist Laurie Colwin: "Did people create families in order to keep themselves from wondering what the purpose of life was? With children it was a snap. Children were a purpose, and generally there was so much to do in their behalf that you might never stop to think at all."

I can handle the existential stress, but it's definitely restful to be picking up Star Wars figurines and mixing pancake batter after a week of somberly contemplating the horizon. What will I do when my purposes go to college? Is that why I ordered the bees? Why did I order the freaking bees?

Budget matters: 

On 4/15 Mark spent $11 at the supermarket on bread, lunch, etc.

Yesterday, after collecting the kids at the airport we went to Champa Garden, a Laotian restaurant in Oakland, and spent $55.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and haven't been already, you must, must, must go to Champa Garden. Order the sampler appetizer plate, a dish that stopped all conversation for ten minutes while we devoured every last crumb of rice ball salad, sausage, and spring roll. The kids must have been starving because they didn't stop eating long enough to complain that they don't like "Chinese" food. Champa Garden is in a funky neighborhood and looks like a converted corner liquor shop or laundromat, but of course that made it all the more exciting. We staggered out of there stuffed and very happy because of the fantastic food and because we're all together again. Honeymoon should last until noon today.  

Going forward: Two more nights of cooking from Fat and Milk to wrap up and use the caul fat, then I'm going to start Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hived off

I'm panicking about the bees.

It all seemed very doable and simple in the days after the beekeeping class, but a few weeks have elapsed and I started reading up on bees last night, bouncing around on hobbyist web sites, until I finally had to shut off the computer and get under the covers. There were a picture of a woman IN SHORTS retrieving a swarm of her bees that had migrated into a neighbor's yard. Swarm, swarm, swarm, swarm. There is a horror movie called The Swarm.

Our bees arrive in 9 days.

With my coffee this morning I was reading Laurie Colwin's Family Happiness in which the saintly heroine infuriates one of her brothers and his wife. She does something unforgivable: she insists on having them to her place for dinner when they want her to come to their place. Such is the high drama in a Laurie Colwin novel. Anyway, here's some dialogue:

"Geez, you'd think you put a nuclear device in their elevator, Well, they're pretty hived off."

"Hived off?" said Polly. "What does that mean."

"It is a swarm of bees leaving their nest," Andreya explained.

Hived off. If I believed in signs . . .  but I don't.

Abrupt change of subject. Laurie Colwin just isn't a great novelist. I'm almost done with her complete oeuvre, and while I find her fiction very readable, it's painfully tame and cozy. Cookbooks should be cozy -- it's why I love them -- but life isn't really cozy and when I read fiction I want a little life. You know, anguish and loneliness and contempt and sex and dark comedy. Colwin is way too distracted by poached eggs and china patterns. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I do not love nature

We had a windstorm yesterday that blew out a small section of our fence and during the brief period before I noticed the breach, deer entered our yard. Our young pear and apricot trees have both been denuded of their leaves, and the apricot lost its single fruit. The gooseberries were partially stripped. Deer are very sweet and graceful when grazing on remote hillsides, but when they break into our garden I hate them with such vitriol I would have no trouble running Bambi through the new sausage machine. Ok, maybe not Bambi, but Bambi's childless uncle. It would be payback for countless past crimes against the loquat tree (R.I.P.), the grape vines, the ceanothus (which they supposedly do not even like), the roses. 

Sadly, illegal.

Mark is turning over soil as I type. I had to leave the scene to escape the resentment vibrating from his body in squiggly lines, like in a comic strip. The only thing he would enjoy less is to pay someone.  

A new diet trick

Try to eat a smuggled-in turkey sandwich while watching a matinee of The Wrestler. You will have trouble doing so. Moreover, you won't want to eat a turkey sandwich again for a long, long time. I can see why this movie is powerful and special -- acting, tragic antihero, fascinating glimpse into a bizarre subculture, etc., but I had to be ready at all moments to cover my eyes which made it hard to hold the sandwich. There was the stapling scene, the vomiting scene, the bug spray scene, the hand-in-meat-slicer scene, and the degrading sex with skanky woman in public bathroom scene, which was possibly the most upsetting of all. 

Ending this budget stuff at the end of the month, as it is not fun or interesting, but I want to make it until April 30: 

turkey sandwich     $4.99
sushi dinner w. Mark 62.40

total               $67.39

Here is a piece in USA Today about gardening with which I fully agree, having reached the end of my puny soil amending strength. Now I have to enlist/bribe my husband or hire someone. I just don't shovel fast enough or deep enough and at this rate it will be August before the beds are done. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April 13 $$

I've completely lost my cookbook momentum. Without anyone to cook for, why would I? And when I don't cook, what is the point of this blog? 

Kids return from Oregon on Thursday. I collected Mark from the airport last night. We went out to dinner at a Chez Panisse-like (very limited menu, everything restrained and tasteful and super-expensive) restaurant called Camino and spent $110, which is more than you pay for a whole packet of bees. The $25 lamb entree seemed to be comprised of a bunch of scraps. The term "scrag ends" keeps coming to mind but I don't exactly know what it means. Now I do, and it's about right. Tasted lovely, but: scrag ends.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

April 12 $$

Crissy Field, where we had our Easter picnic, is practically in my mother's backyard. Lucky her, and she knows it. I was a lazy bum and only contributed two bags of potato chips to our pleasant lunch: $6. My grandmother isn't supposed to eat salty snacks like ripple-cut Lays, but does anyway.
That's her under the umbrella next to my sister. That's me on the left looking cool and sullen in my new(ish) skinny jeans. The jeans look especially fabulous from a distance when I'm sitting down.
Here's a better picture of my grandmother:

You know why she looks good? Because she's spent 97 years sitting under parasols while simultaneously wearing a HAT, a lesson she clearly imparted to my mother, but not to my cousin Marina. Actually, I think the hat thing is a big hoax. They were all three born with tan skin that wouldn't burn on a scorching afternoon in Andalusia and everyone knows the real secret of graceful aging is not botox or Oil of Olay or hats, it is an olive complexion. Duh.

Thank-you, Dad, for the pallor.
The taxes are almost done. Lots of lavender going in to the garden today because it will make the bees feel at home. I do not even own a hat, but am thinking, hoax or not, I should go buy one. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

April 11 $$

Because the no-photo posts are bumming me out.

I don't cook nice meals for myself when I'm alone. Last night I saw I Love You, Man, bought popcorn and that was dinner. 

popcorn $4.75

Movie was moderately amusing, fairly coarse. Paul Rudd: excellent. Jason Segel: excellent. Rashida Jones: good enough, though I'll always resent her for dating Jim when he so clearly belonged with Pam.

I also read this funny piece, amended a tiny amount of soil, moved some bricks, smashed several dozen centipedes nesting in the bricks, thought hard about whether or not to get chickens, fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon while trying to read Riven Rock, and collected tax documents. I bet the chickens would eat the centipedes.

April 10 $$

Mark bought a chicken sandwich at work  $3.95
I bought some milk             4.39
We all went out to dinner*  61.78

Total $70.12

*We went to The Ark, a Chinese restaurant in Alameda near the airport. Years ago I read something that made me badly want to eat there, but I think the chef might have changed. Even I've made better cumin beef. After dinner, I dropped my companions off at the Southwest terminal to fly to Oregon and I returned to our lonely abode. Plans for the next few days include: taxes, garden, taxes, I Love You, Man, taxes, Easter with my family of origin, TAXES. 

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Milk & Fat: We had a feast and then we watched some TV

That's my mom feeding the meat into the stuffer, that's her friend Kathy easing it into the casing. Sausage was trickier than any of us had anticipated and I sense we made many errors, but it was nonetheless exciting and gratifying. The sausages -- Jennifer McLagan's lamb, red wine and rosemary sausages out of Fat -- turned out beautifully. They were leaner and more finely ground than what you buy at the market, lacking the discrete globules of fat I have come to expect, and/but were very tasty.

Making sausage definitely brings to mind indelicate subjects. Not just one, several. You can imagine, and I will let you.

The rest of the dinner was fantastic. I broke my scalloped potatoes losing streak with the help of Anne Mendelson's elegant and precise recipe. What was I doing wrong all those years? They are so easy.

I can't praise Mendelson's book Milk highly enough. Her crisply written history of dairying, which includes the most sensible analysis of the current raw milk controversy that I've encountered, is riveting. The recipes are all for simple dishes, but they have so far proven flawless.

For vegetable: McLagan's double butter salad. You make the dressing by melting butter until it begins to brown, add cider vinegar and salt, then pour it over some butter lettuce. Tastes like butter, but also like salad, and is delicious.

And for dessert: McLagan's choux paste beignets -- cream puff dough spiked with Pastis (or Pernod), fried in lard, and dusted with fennel-flavored sugar.* Served with hot chocolate

After this, the ladies went home and the children and I retired to the sofa for two episodes of Friday Night Lights. The longstanding Wednesday night DVD tradition (it began when Mark took the Wednesday night shift) may seem questionable because we stay up too late and watch shows with "mature" content. But Isabel and Owen fight so much the rest of the time, this seems to be the only way the three of us can enjoy ourselves together. It's a happy shared ritual and that feels important, more important than bedtime or going to our separate rooms to read worthy books. Plus, FNL: awesome.

*Put sugar and fennel seeds in a spice grinder until powdery 

April 7 & 8 $$

April 7

Bought caul fat at Cafe Rouge butcher shop            $16.75 
bacon cheeseburger at 900 Grayson in Berkeley*  14.00
Mark to Safeway (oil, Cheerios, oj)                         21.73

April 8
Mollie Stone for lamb & sausage casings**             21.07

TOTAL  $73.55

*I had read about this burger and always wanted to try it, but thought the bacon was too smoky. Too-smoky bacon is like too-dark chocolate, overwhelms all other flavors.
**6 ft. of sausage casing = 75 cents. Too bad you have to fill it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A picture even a mother can't love

This post is only to bury the photo of the monstrous sausage. Tonight's dinner was great and I have more to say about everything, but it is time to watch TV. 

Fat: What is it they say about making sausages?

Nice, eh? 

You have to grind the meat a couple of hours before you stuff sausages, so I decided to do that right before I went to pick up Owen from school to drive him to piano lesson. I thought it would take me just a few minutes to run the meat and fat through the grinder and I'd be on my way. (I'm making the lamb sausages from Jennifer McLagan's Fat.)

I eventually called the piano teacher and told her we'd be late. I called fifteen minutes later and told her we couldn't come. You can't leave the house for an hour with a grinder full of half-ground meat. It took close to forty-five minutes, start to finish, as stringy and sinewy bits of lamb and sludgy fat kept getting stuck in the machine and I had to repeatedly disassemble and clean the whole apparatus. My fault. I didn't read the manual before I started, which is a really awful habit. Then my mother called in the middle of this: Aren't you supposed to be at piano lesson? Lecturing ensued, and I almost threw the phone across the room. That is another really awful habit.

She is here now. I just heard a car pull up. She has brought one of her oldest friends, an amazing cook, and I think that despite the rocky beginning, sausages will be fun. I just got a look at the casings and they are slippery and very strange and I like that! We're also having scalloped potatoes, a salad with butter dressing, and homemade donuts for dessert. I've never made good scalloped potatoes, but if anyone can point me in the right direction, it is Anne Mendelson. 

Rethinking Rose Levy Beranbaum

Yesterday, I saw Scate Bakes' admirable resolution to read Rose Levy Beranbaum's master's thesis, "Sifting Flour Affects the Quality of a Yellow Cake." I thought this was a joke until I clicked on the link. It turns out that there is such a thesis* and it's fascinating, not so much for the science of sifting as for what it reveals about the mental processes of the woman who wrote it. If you don't want to read the whole thing, though I recommend skimming it, you should do as Beranbaum suggests and scroll down to her addendum. 

I own Beranbaum's Cake Bible but have never warmed to its stiff and prissy perfectionism. I grow weary even thinking about halving egg whites. But yesterday afternoon I was at Barnes & Noble and, inspired by that strange thesis, pulled out Beranbaum's Bread Bible. The whole tone was different, looser, funnier, more effusive. She still comes across as obsessive and kooky, but in a charming way. I almost bought The Bread Bible, but have forbidden myself new cookbooks. 

Today, I read this Believer Q&A and like Beranbaum even more. 

*I just pulled out The Cake Bible and see that Beranbaum writes in the introduction about showing her master's thesis to her husband on their first date. Oddly, she says she got an A+ on the thesis, when in fact she only got an A. That's a revealing little slip, not something you'd expect from such a perfectionist. Except, of course, it makes complete sense.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

April 5 & 6 $$

Fell behind. 

Sunday was a spendy day. 

Safeway (strawberries, Sure Jell, sandwich)     20.38
Whole Foods (eggs, milk, flour, cabbage, ground lamb, etc.)  80.48
pound of French Roast (bought by me) 10.45
another pound of coffee (bought by Mark) 13.45

Monday was cheap.

Mark bought an It's It  1.50

Total for April 5 & 6        $126.26

Milk: There's a lesson in this

The scones were great, the clotted cream disgusting. It's all my fault because I got greedy.

I followed Anne Mendelson's recipe to the painstaking letter until the crucial last step. To make clotted cream, first you mix together cream and milk and let it sit for a day in a cool room. Then you heat it very slowly on the lowest possible flame of your stove. The cream gradually forms a beautiful, wrinkled, golden crust atop the milk and after four hours, during which time it must not boil, you put the whole pot in the refrigerator for at least eight more hours.

This morning, I carefully lifted off the crust, which is the clotted cream. It was lovely and buttery and smooth. I put it in a bowl. Then I noticed the milk below was filled with lumps. More cream! I carefully scooped those into the bowl on top of the cream. I actually thought: Anne Mendelson might have MENTIONED in her recipe that the milk is filled with lumps of cream. Silly lady.

I should have known better, because as far as I can tell, Mendelson is perfect. Finally, I tasted one of the clumps and it was flabby and grainy, like faintly sour, curdled milk. But by this time it had contaminated all the cream, which I could not retrieve, or even find, when I poked around in the bowl. I tried to eat it anyway, but ugh. 

Monday, April 06, 2009

Actually, it is a manic Monday

Busy, busy, busy today. Fortunately, clotted cream practically makes itself if you just let it sit around. First you let it sit around in a cool room, then on a burner turned very low for four hours, then in the refrigerator for eight.

Interesting fact from my utility company: To heat an ordinary electric oven costs 32 cents per hour. 

Shocking fact from my utility company: The average person spends $1.65 per month to use their gas stovetop. 

How can that be? So cheap. I ran a calculation based on the specifications of my particular stove and the price of energy in our area and it turns out that it really IS cheap. Though my math and logic are always questionable, it appears that it costs me 14 cents an hour to cook something at high heat (boiling pasta) and 9 cents an hour to melt butter. To make the clotted cream, therefore: 36 cents of gas. 

Back to work.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

April 4 $$

Mark hit Safeway yesterday. He spent $51.07 on store-brand cheese, store-brand chicken soup, peanuts, beer, cherry 7-Up, and some other junk. I mean, food. 

Plus, there's a carryover from April 3 when he went out to a goodbye party for his boss and estimates he spent around $25.

Total: $76.07

Bad. But what can you do.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Fat: I'll just have a little of the white meat

I like pork belly. I used to love it, but have cooled as time passes because, like foie gras, it always makes me feel a little sick. Why? Superrich. Once a year is about right, and Cheong Liew's braised pork belly out of Jennifer McLagan's Fat did nicely for 2009. 

You start with the raw belly (which I always buy at a Chinese supermarket where you can get it for less than $2 a pound*) and marinate overnight in soy sauce, wine, spices, and tangerine peel.

Then you braise for 1 or 2 hours, ending up with tidbits of mahogany brown meat clinging to hefty chunks of succulent, velvety fat, all of it cloaked in an extremely delicious salty-sweet sauce. 

I served this last night with some long beans, rice, and green onion pancakes, also from a McLagan recipe. Big success.

For dessert: lemon tart out of Anne Mendelson's Milk. Like all her recipes, it was simple, elegant, and impeccable. A tart tart was definitely called for at the end of a pork belly dinner. Sorbet would have been even better, but I didn't have my thinking cap on.

*Warning: There's the chance that a Chinese butcher will give you the belly with skin attached, which is good, but also with nipples, which is disconcerting. This happened to me once and I won't say I didn't wince when it came time to carve everything up. But we need reminders of where food comes from, however macabre.