Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Earnest Summation

Melvil Dewey has shamed me into following through with my long overdue report on Andrea Nguyen's Into the Vietnamese Kitchen

I made 52 recipes from this superb book.

Here's how they broke down:

Worth the price of the book -- 4*
Great: 11
Good: 23
So-so: 12
Flat-out bad: 3

Here's my favorite line, which comes from the (amazing) recipe for stir-fried beef with french fries: "Carefully add the potatoes to the oil, which will suddenly boil and sound like falling rain."

That's inspired recipe writing. Andrea Nguyen has produced a smart, lavishly illustrated, wonderfully accessible and occasionally even poetic introduction to an extremely exotic and challenging cuisine. You can't appreciate the staggering range and vibrancy of Vietnamese cooking unless you go to Vietnam, but working your way through this book is a start. Definitely a shelf essential. 

*minced pork with lemongrass and shrimp sauce, p. 132. If you make nothing else from the book, make this. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bayless & Kenndy: Some little white lies

Sometimes I wonder why I am not skinny anymore. And sometimes I wonder why I am not much fatter. 

That is a chicharron from the Azteca market in San Rafael. Diana Kennedy translates "chicharron" as "pigskin," but I think "pork rind" is more appetizing, if not much. The bright orange pork rinds you buy in bags, like potato chips, are foul, but the kind they sell hot and fresh at Mexican delis are satanically delicious. You can get big, crunchy sheets of pure skin or thicker pieces with hunks of meat attached. Yesterday, I asked a woman at Azteca which type she prefers and she gestured with tongs to the meaty variety, glistening under a heat lamp. I took her advice and bought some.

But I now think I should have gone with the skinny skins. I suspect the effect Diana Kennedy was after in her chicharron in green sauce was that of limp, soft bits of rind swathed in thin, tart salsa. I had something like this once on a torta five years ago, and have never forgotten. What I produced with my meaty chicharrones was hearty and tasty, but not what I remembered and not what I had pictured. I have not pictured it for you because pork rind taco filling makes a poor advertisement for itself.

We'll see if anyone in my family reads the blog, because I did not use "rind" in the description of the tacos last night. Not a lie, an omission.

Now for the lying. 

Do these look like pumpkins?
When you puree them with brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves and cream and bake in a pastry shell as for Rick Bayless's spicy plantain pie they do.

So I called it pumpkin pie. I served this comforting dessert warm, with whipped cream, and Husband was uncharacteristically enthusiastic. "They really know what they're doing with pumpkin pie in Mexico," he said. He's from New England and considers himself an expert on pumpkin pie, popovers, pancakes, potato salad, milkshakes, and grilled cheese sandwiches. All other foods are suspect or pretentious. Plantains? Don't be silly.

Isabel, who eats like a hummingbird and hates bananas, consumed a large slab.
After I'd finished my slice, I reached and took a little bite out of the pie plate -- you know, to neaten it up --  a habit that Husband finds irritating. "You want seconds of the pumpkin pie?" he asked as he slid the whole pie plate onto my placemat and handed me a fork. He and Isabel both laughed. It's sweet that they have this bond.

Tipsy: Pumpkin pie? You mean PLANTAIN pie.

Isabel: I just ate banana pie? Gross. 

Tipsy: No, you ate PLANTAIN pie.

Husband: You lied to me like I was 2-years-old.

Tipsy: And I'm not sorry!

Really, they should thank me. It was amazing pie.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Lemon verbena chiffon cake

Lemon verbena chiffon cake, recipe from the San Francisco Chronicle. Doesn't it sound lovely? You chop up lemon verbena leaves (my leggy little plant thrives on minimal water, no attention) and steep them in syrup for flavor. Good cake. But cakes that are just "good" don't get baked again. Poor cake!

Here it is again, uglified for children:
Children were not fooled. Even with the addition of sour candy worms, both Stella and Owen understood that this was not their kind of birthday cake. Where are the Transformers and ballerina barbies? Where is "Happy Birthday" written in electric blue gel? Where are the buttercream roses?

They will live, I know, but they would have been so much happier with an overdecorated Safeway sheet cake.

Back to Mexican tonight.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

All's well that ends with mayonnaise cake

In the end it was a delicious cake, however diminished in size and conventional beauty, and we were all happy. I'm still holding a grudge against the mutant white mountain frosting, but the cake itself -- cocoa mayonnaise cake, page 149 of Philip Schulz's As American As Apple Pie -- has been forgiven. Writes Schulz: "This is an all-American state and country fair winner that was invented when bottled mayonnaise replaced homemade and a woman's urge to be creative was most often executed in the kitchen." Is he saying that a bored 1950s housewife invented this moist and tender cake? Or can we still assume that it came out of the Best Foods marketing department? I'm not sure, but whoever dreamed up the weird-sounding but super-tasty cocoa mayonnaise cake, thank-you!

I also recommend the meatballs on page 513 of the new Joy of Cooking.

I wanted an easy meatball recipe that didn't require veal or rehydrated porcini mushrooms or raisins or smoked paprika and this was that. A very suitable meatball for 9-year-old boys. Birthday party: big hit.

For the family celebration tonight I just baked the lemon verbena chiffon cake from this morning's San Francisco Chronicle. For some reason, I'm not finding it online. Hmm. I probably should have gone with chocolate again, since I don't see lemon verbena as a big child-pleaser, but what's done is done. My sister is hosting because Owen and his cousin Stella have birthdays one day apart. The year I don't get invited to THIS party, make room on the psych ward.

You're always on a white mountain when you fall

Reasons today stinks. I would use a more forceful "s" word, except I am trying to expunge it from my daughter's vocabulary and must lead by example.

1. A layer of Owen's birthday cake cracked.

2. Which would be fine, if it had not subsequently calved, glacier-like, a mini-cake under the weight of the freakazoid white mountain icing.
3. That freakazoid white mountain icing! It started out firm and fluffy as usual, but then, over time, spread like Elmer's glue, for which I blame this very hot weather. Even my pathetic one-layer salvage job is a catastrophe.
4. This very hot weather. 

5. Evening forecast: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in the company of five 4th grade boys. 

6. This afternoon, someone assumed I had been invited to a party to which I had not been invited leading to a moment of awkward silence followed by hours of rather severe dejection.
One is never too old to feel like a rejected and pitiful 2nd grader. 

This day really su .  . . bites.

Smug, smug, smug

With the homemade mozzarella, we made pizza. What else? I used whey, a cheesemaking byproduct, in the crust. The tomatoes and basil: from the garden. 

For dessert, brownies that contained eggs from our sweet chickens. 

Brownies were (clearly) popular with the local baboons, but I don't think it was the free-range, fresh eggs. I think it was the Baker's chocolate and C&H sugar from the Miller Ave. Safeway. 

Oh! I almost forgot. The vanilla extract. Homemade. I am going  to post about homemade vanilla soon, but want to run a taste-test first. This week.
We have a party to throw today. Four boys are coming over tonight to celebrate Owen's 9th birthday. I'm going to bake a cake, preferably one that does not involve a trip to the supermarket. Not because I'm a locavore, but because I'm lazy.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Homemade Mozzarella

In all my cooking life, never such a triumph. 

About 6 months ago, I ordered the mozzarella "kit" -- some rennet, citric acid, and a dairy thermometer -- from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. I learned of this outfit, as of so many things fascinating and troublesome, from Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

I put the "kit" (in quotes because it's not much of a kit) in the pantry. Time passed. Making mozzarella seemed overambitious, tiring, impossible.

Yesterday, looking for an after-school project that could be executed with an 8-year-old fan of How It's Made, I thought, whatever, mozzarella.

I wanted to do one of those excellent Pioneer Woman photo essays, but didn't quite pull it off. 

There are warnings about trying to use ultra-pasteurized milk to make cheese, so you start with a gallon of fancy milk:

I understand the irony of calling milk that has been minimally processed "fancy." I guess a better description would be "real." Or "real and expensive," because both are true and relevant. You can also use powdered milk, which I am going to try,  just to see how cheaply this can be done. 
You pour your "real and expensive" milk into a stainless steel pot, add a spoonful of citric acid. Heat to 90 degrees. Take off heat, stir in a tiny quantity of crushed rennet. Let rest five minutes and when you look again, you will have a large pot of  custard, which you cut (you don't take it out of the pot) into large, tofu-like squares.
 Heat and slowly stir, stir, stir. The large, soft, blobby curds will shrink into tight, firm little clusters.

When you drain off the whey, you will be left with a heavy, clotted mass.

Submerge this mass in a hot water bath for a minute or two. Really hot, so wear rubber gloves as you massage the cheese.

When you pull the cheese out of the bath, it will be bouncy and elastic.

You are now supposed to stretch it like taffy until it becomes shiny and supple,

Salt is meant to be incorporated at this stage, which I didn't quite figure out how to do correctly. But I did it, sort of, incorrectly. You then shape the cheese as you wish, and you are done. See mound of cheese at top of page.

This whole business took us about 45 minutes. I did not weigh the finished cheese, so I don't knowhow much we actually got, and how all this compares to the price of fresh mozzarella from the supermarket. I will calculate with my next batch.

And there will be a next batch. This cheese was one of the most incredible things I've ever made. Not just ever made, ever tasted. I happened to have a tub of Whole Foods mozzarella that I sampled side by side with homemade. I used to love this WF cheese, but by comparison with ours, this was mushy and flabby and stale. I wanted to throw it to the chickens.  I have been ruined for storebought mozzarella, and you could be too. Proceed with caution.

So many more thoughts on this, but I have to go fill lunch boxes.  

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bayless: He sure loves to dance

Author: Rick Bayless
Book: Mexico, One Plate at a Time 
Recipes cooked: quick fried shrimp with sweet toasty garlic

I feel cruel when I do this, but I can't help myself. I'm going to quote Rick Bayless again:
"Garlic, that most outgoing member of the onion family, is for those who love living life to the fullest. That's not to say it's just for daredevils, though. Sure, it can be the Stone Cold Steve Austin of the flavor world, but if you know how to coax it along, you'll have the simple, elegant strength of Pierce Brosnan. "

He also likens the flavor of garlic to "the musk of white truffles or the sultry sway of a dance partner on a summer night."

And: "Neither seafood nor garlic is irresolute, but they sing together joyously. Courageously simple and luxurious."

Was his editor drunk? 

Bayless's prose may be purple, but his recipes are meticulously written and seldom fail. To make his delicious shrimp in mojo de ajo you bake the shellfish in a hot skillet then top with a mountain of poached garlic. This decadent dish didn't taste Mexican to me, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It was sweet and rich -- oily in the best sense of the word. I wouldn't say Pierce Brosnan -- more Daniel Craig. Isn't garlic a blond?

I mock, but I do in fact love Rick Bayless.

To go along with the shrimp, I made the spicy stewed chard out of Diana Kennedy's Art of Mexican Cooking.
Stewed chard. Just saying those words makes the mouth water. It was actually quite tasty.

Obligatory chicken reference: I want a nifty egg scale like the one Susan Orlean uses at the end of this video.  I also want her house. And her career. And her haircut. I need to get a copy of the New Yorker asap to read her new essay about keeping chickens. 

Caroline, shunned

I have read about chickens rejecting a new addition to the flock, but I did not credit it, as we have effortlessly incorporated two new birds. The chickens were a little hostile at first, but both Marlene and July understood how to play meek and ingratiate themselves. They run with the hip crowd, now.

Not this little hellcat. She goes straight for the other chickens' throats. A bossy hen comes up to investigate and Caroline flies at her in a fury. It's hard to know where the cycle of violence starts -- was she picked on as a child? did they tease her all night in the henhouse? is she just a psychotic chicken? This morning I had to break up several hen fights with the hose. Eventually the others backed C into a corner facing the wall. 

Then we did what I knew we were supposed to from the start.

 We put her in a cage in the middle of the yard. This way, supposedly, everyone can get used to each other without bloodshed. Whether this will actually work, I have no idea.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A boy and his chicken, a nonagenarian and her Lasix

Bye-bye ugly bananas, hello ugly bird. I mean, hello sweet Caroline! Owen had the name picked out and could not be swayed. I think Caroline is a name for a human child, not an electrocuted turkey vulture, but no one asked me.

She's an extraordinarily unattractive, unfriendly bird. We'll see how this works out.

So, yesterday morning, Owen and I were speeding home from the feed store with Caroline when my mother rerouted us to my grandmother's house. She needed someone to escort her to the urgent care clinic and since we were within thirty miles, tag.

My grandmother: "I always say, look your best when you go to the doctor, even when you feel like you are dying, because if you look good they will want to keep you alive."
It turns out, she was not dying, she just needs to be more diligent about taking her pills. Many hours later, we were released into the blazingly hot evening and went straight to a greasy dive much loved by my grandmother. She made me order a beer so she could have a single ounce, which she poured into one of the plastic containers more typically used for catsup.
Back at her house, she spent fifteen minutes constructing for Caroline a Rube Goldberg carrying case out of a milk crate, duct tape, newspaper, and the plastic packaging from a jumbo pack of toilet paper.
My husband says that's not a flattering picture of her, but I disagree. Any doctor who saw her building that nest for a scraggly, angry frizzle chicken would want to keep her alive. 

It wasn't how I would have chosen to spend the day, but it had its moments.

Kennedy: Bad, vinegar, bad

I will not let this photo linger long at the top of the blog.

You know how when you have some overripe tomatoes or peaches and fruit flies suddenly appear, then when you get rid of the offending produce they just as suddenly vanish? 

It does not work like that with vinegar flies. The hideous, rotting, sea-slug bananas have exuded much charcoal-colored fluid that smells sour and seems to have a scummy vinegar mother floating on top. This is exciting. They have also attracted hordes of tiny flies. This is embarrassing. 

We had company last night and took the banana vinegar-in-progress and its cloud of flies outdoors. But an hour later we were sitting there in the living room conversing and all I could see were the several dozen insects helicoptering over the coffee table. I felt like I was entertaining in a barnyard. All I could do was apologize and take a big swallow of wine.

Fortunately, they're tiny, feathery flies, not like the big, crunchy ones infesting Colin Beavan's apartment in No Impact Man. Owen and I saw this new documentary yesterday and it gave us something to talk about besides poultry. In case you missed the publicity blizzard, it's about a New York City family that decides to live sustainably for a year, which means no elevators, electricity, toilet paper, shopping, non-local food, etc. It's an excellent film for kids, as it forces them ponder how much they'd be willing to give up to save the planet. It's a riveting, irritating, inspiring movie for adults. Dana Stevens' funny and sharp review in Slate nails it.

Anyway, I am not giving up on the vinegar, since it seems to be working. I just think Diana Kennedy might have offered some more generous warnings about what to expect. She mentions the flies, but does not describe the extent of the problem. She's a withholder, that Mrs. Kennedy.

We are leaving for Morgan Hill, Owen and I, and when we return will have a frizzle chicken. I hope we do not also have rabbits, quail, and a pig.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Chicken fanciers take a field trip

There's a visible, if not dramatic, difference between the fresh eggs from our hens and supermarket eggs. The fresh yolk (at the bottom) is brighter orange. It's also firmer. Is it technically a better egg? Probably! How could it not be?

But I'm not a food scientist, and I can't taste a difference because I don't eat eggs. What I can say with complete authority is that it's thrilling to go into the yard and collect eggs. Like Easter for grownups. Like magic. Which is, I suppose, how another generation felt about supermarkets.

I don't want to become one of those people who burbles on about animals, so I won't burble on, I will just burble briefly. It gives me immense satisfaction, every day, to watch the chickens pecking around, taking dust baths, chasing the squirrels. They are beautiful, funny, inquisitive birds, and they run to see me whenever I emerge from my castle. I  feel like Ozma of Oz. They adore me and bring me tribute. 

And I adore them back, bringing them choice scraps from our table, the soggy leftovers at the bottom of Owen's cereal bowl and sandwich crusts and scraps of salami from his lunchbox. I feel sad for all the chickens that do not get to live the happy lives of our hens.

I have become a chicken fancier. Owen is also a chicken fancier. The others in our family, not so much. Owen and I talk about chickens constantly -- about breeds, behavior, the composition of an ideal flock --  and if this sounds pathetic, it's so much better than me pretending to listen to stories about Transformers.

Last night, the others in our family had plans, so Owen and I drove to Oakland to have dinner at Pizzaiolo, a restaurant that has recently garnered much publicity on account of the chicken coop out back. From the Los Angeles Times: "Diners will be able to wander over, Barolo in hand, to commune with the creatures that might contribute to their dinner." 

They're talking about EGGS. Not tenders. Just to be clear.

We got to sit on the patio near the chickens, with whom we communed, Barolo not in hand. Sorry for the lame picture.
There were only four chickens, and the Polish hens alluded to in the newspaper story were not in evidence, which was disappointing, since we are fans of the Polish. We thought these chickens seemed a little blue about their tight quarters, unable being able to run around quite as freely as our lucky hens. And they didn't adore me. Hmph. 

But we found their proximity delightful. We decided we prefer chickens with feathered legs and that we would someday like to acquire a naked neck to freak everyone out, and a white silkie, because they are cute. Like I say, chicken fanciers.

Now the food. What is wrong with this pizza?

I get that a full, leathery coating of cheese is inauthentic, aesthetically unappealing, and one reason Americans are fat while Italians are skinny. But there was not enough cheese on this pizza. There were several slices that contained no "hand-pulled" mozzarella whatsoever. Two more chunks would have been perfect. Even just one.
Otherwise, it was a stellar pizza and we deemed this an altogether excellent field trip.

Tomorrow, Owen and I are going to buy his birthday present: a frizzle hen. 

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bayless: Next year more tomatoes, no pumpkins

Author: Rick Bayless
Book: Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen
Recipes cooked: smoky braised Mexican pumpkin 

Used pumpkin from garden. Peeled, chopped, made it into a pumpkin stew that I served to my mother for dinner last night. Children did not touch, which was silly because everything tastes okay slathered in Mexican sauce, topped with avocado and wrapped in a homemade tortilla, even pumpkin. 

Homemade tortillas, by the way, were kind of a thrill. I didn't have time to go to the Latin grocery store, but had a bag of Maseca, so we made them. Masa flour, water, flatten, bake for a minute in a hot, dry skillet. Easier than finding the car keys and better than anything you can buy.

The dessert you could not buy if you wanted to.

"When I tasted Huguenot torte, a recipe that ran in The Times in 1965, I had but one thought: Why isn't everyone making this weekly?" Amanda Hesser wrote in the NYT Magazine on Sunday.

Last night, I baked Huguenot torte and had but one thought: What she said.

The recipe is here. It's a one-bowl cake made with humble ingredients, and it's ugly, ugly, ugly
but unless you are on a diet, you will thank me. This torte is easy and gooey and chewy and nutty and moist from chunks of apple and has a candy-like meringue-like top crust that shatters when you cut it. Four of us ate almost the whole thing, picking at it in a way that drives my husband bananas, except he wasn't home.

My story about killing a chicken is here. As a postscript, I would add that there is not another chicken in our flock that I would be comfortable slaughtering, except maybe whichever one is eating the eggs. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Kennedy v. Bayless: Solid Gold soup

Here's a straight up-and-down comparison in which I prefer Diana Kennedy. 

I made Rick Bayless's tortilla soup on Friday night (Book: Mexico, One Plate at a Time.) The recipe and florid preamble stretched to four pages and included this: "My favorite tortilla soup dances salsa in the bowl. While swaying with deep, sweet tones, it surprises with colorful flourishes. It gently slides its hand around your waist, then does an unexpected turn with the muscle of herby epazote. It tickles you with the tangy fresh lime, then nudges you gently with fresh cheese and creamy avocado. And then comes the whirlwind of turns. .  ."

Et cetera. He goes on, but it seems kinder to look away. 

Diana Kennedy's recipe for sopa Tarasca barely fills a page (Book: Art of Mexican Cooking) and I made it last night. It tastes just like Bayless's (spicy, delishcious) and contains almost precisely the same ingredients. But fewer trees had to die.

This round goes to Mrs. Kennedy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kennedy: Udderly delicious

Author: Diana Kennedy
Book: The Art of Mexican Cooking
Recipe: scrambled ricotta 

Scrambled ricotta with chopped onions, serrano peppers, tomatoes.  One of the few dishes from this particularly scary Diana Kennedy book that I can actually bring myself to attempt.

Some choice excerpts:

blood sausage: "If you are not using commercially packed blood (which will come strained), you will need to pass the blood through a coarse strainer. Discard stringy blood tissue and fat and break up the coagulated blood. . . "

brothy beef stew: "Put the meat, bone and udder into a large soup kettle. . . "
Scrambled ricotta seemed do-able, was actually stupidly easy, very yummy, and reminded me of South Beach breakfasts, which I sort of enjoyed. I also baked a raspberry streusel coffee cake from Dorie Greenspan's Sweet Times.

Can you see it's actually pink? From raspberry jam.

What a domestic goddess. Ha! Lie. Owen came downstairs and sat playing with a Transformer at the table instead of eating coffee cake, dawdled, fussed, eventually made himself tardy. I got so frazzled and impatient that, to quote my friend Stephanie, if I had had a nannycam, I would have fired myself. A Pop Tart in the car would have been preferable to this morning's well-catered circus. The symbols of domestic happiness are not domestic happiness. I need to write that on an index card and tape it to the refrigerator.

The banana vinegar: not looking so hot. The bananas have turned completely black, collapsed upon themselves, and are growing mold. Can anything good come of mold? Aren't we supposed to avoid mold at all costs? 

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bayless: Guacamole

Author: Rick Bayless
Book: Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen
Recipes cooked: Tomatillo-green guacamole
Score: 10

I cooked so much for our Saturday night party that I'm going to break the report down into a few posts. Guacamole is a good place to start because that's how we started and because there's a tiny debate not-raging about whether tomatoes belong in guacamole. 

I'd never given guacamole any much thought, but Rick Bayless's tomatillo-green guacamole was so superior to the usual that I had to pause for ten seconds to figure out what made it so. Without weeping chunks of tomato, this guacamole was suave, rich, handsome, entirely green. PERFECT. I'll let Rick Bayless describe it:  "This is my favorite twist on guacamole -- a little zippier than the tomato version, a little more unctuous because the tomatillos that replace the raw tomatoes are roasted."  

I just opened one Diana Kennedy's books and see that she, too, has a tomatillo guacamole recipe. Mrs. Kennedy's headnote is as (characteristically) chilly as Bayless's is chipper: "I have eaten this guacamole on rare occasions at homes in the state of Mexico bordering on Morelos. Although it's not my favorite, it makes an interesting change from the more popular version and is particularly suitable when tomatoes are not at their best."

There are some other noteworthy guacamoles in the collected oeuvres of Kennedy and Bayless. On his web site, Bayless features recipes for mango guacamole and sun-dried tomato guacamole, neither of which . . . well, shouldn't knock 'em till I try 'em. Kennedy has a recipe for guacamole that contains pomegranate seeds, chopped peaches, and grapes. I'll make that one this week, while there are still peaches. My hopes are not high.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bayless: He's definitely lower maintenance

Much culinary activity to report. Let's start with Friday

Author: Rick Bayless
Book: Mexico, One Plate at a Time
Recipes cooked: green tomatillo salsa, classic guacamole, tortilla soup, mushroom and cheese quesadillas, rustic cajeta apple tarts with berry salsa
Score: 7.5

Only one complaint: Tomatoes, get out of my guacamole. You may be vine-ripened and heirloom and FROM MY VERY OWN GARDEN but your presence is not always welcome. You don't belong in green salad either. Your proper place is beneath a slice of fresh mozzarella, or in a BLT with lots of mayonnaise. 

Mushrooms, on the other hand, do amazing things for a quesadilla.
That pretty item at top is the rustic cajeta apple tart, one of Rick Bayless's friendly Mexican-inspired desserts, as opposed to the scary authentic Mexican desserts preferred by Diana Kennedy. 

I already know who wins this contest between Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless, and probably so do you, but I'll proceed with testing for a few more weeks. It's not exactly a hardship, and the kids are really happy. 

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Snapshot of semi-functional marital behavior before hosting party

Tipsy Baker: Do we have any cocoa powder?

Husband, glancing in cupboard: No. I'll have to buy some.

Tipsy Baker, glancing in cupboard: We have cocoa powder right here. 

She issues a colossal, contemptuous sigh. 

Long silence. 

Tipsy Baker: Sorry. I'm tense.

Husband: I know you are. That is why I am going to stay as far away from you as I can all day while trying to everything you want me to do.

I am proud of us.

Moore Home Cooking

I promise this is the last post about Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, which I've finished, which made me cry, which still seemed vaguely off-key.

Two passages to share.

On cookbooks: "I would study their notation, their confident sorcery, their useful busyness. They were the opposite of poetry, except if, like me you seldom cooked, and then they were the same."

They are still the same.

And then there's this, with which I absolutely don't agree, but also do: 

"A baby destroyed a life and thereby became the very best thing in it. Though to sit gloriously and triumphantly in ruins may not be such a big trick."

The novel is actually very sad and soft-hearted about children, despite flinty and sometimes discordantly flip observations. 

We're having a taco party tonight that includes only people who are not related to us by blood. Do you know how rare this is? Rick Bayless calls a taco party a taquisa, which is a swell word.
I just wish Mexican desserts were more enticing. 

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bayless: stirring, stirring, stirring

Author: Rick Bayless
Book: Mexico: One Plate at a Time
Recipe: cajeta

I got prodigious amounts of work done this morning by heeding the wisdom in this piece by Laura Miller, the book critic at A certain writing project, over which I have agonized and intermittently labored for months, was almost completed in under two hours just by forbidding myself email, Facebook, and online shopping for a duvet cover. I imposed other restrictions: no snacks, no fussy tidying chores, no visits to the henhouse to look for eggs. The increase in productivity has been shocking. I should have done this years ago. I should do this every day. 

But the two hours off-line are up, I've earned my screen time, and am also making cajeta -- Mexican goat-milk caramel sauce -- because I bought the goat milk a few days ago, it needs to get used up, and my mother and grandmother are coming to dinner. This cajeta recipe takes an hour during which you are supposed to stir the simmering milk, sugar, and cinnamon stick "regularly." Here's Bayless on cajeta: "Perfect cajeta is like perfect wine: silky smooth, balanced and complex."

The wine comparison -- not the most vital simile. But I love the long, impassioned, scholarly preamble about his collection of antique Mexican cookbooks (in which he has found recipes for desserts containing jicama and fava beans) and the history of cajeta. I like Rick Bayless. He's friendlier than Diana, who can be very starchy and severe.

The plan is to read and stir. I'm no longer sure A Gate at the Stairs is working for me. Specifically, I don't feel that the narrator's voice is that of a college-age Midwestern farm girl. It's the voice of a nervy, worldly, middle-aged woman, i.e. Lorrie Moore. It's one of my favorite voices, but an underage virgin who grew up on a potato farm and has never flown in an airplane just doesn't know this much about Bartok, and marriage, and race relations, and the semiotics of food, and she probably doesn't use words like "verklempt." 

Though maybe Moore will convince me that she does. Maybe all will be redeemed in the end.

Must finish now.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kennedy: There may be maggots

Author: Diana Kennedy
Book: From My Mexican Kitchen
Recipes: banana vinegar, pineapple vinegar 

I've always wanted to make vinegar, but the recipes have made it look harder than I was up for, requiring trips to a winemaking shop, mothers, jugs, airlocks, crocks.

Diana Kennedy, however, offers several recipes for vinegar that involve no special materials. They also look like recipes written by an insane person, but I have now started both. 

Banana vinegar. You slit the skins of overripe bananas, put them in a colander over a bowl, drape with cheesecloth, leave in a "very warm" place until the fruit emits all its juices. "Turn the mass over from time to time and gently press down to extract the liquid," Kennedy writes. "Lots of little flies will swarm around because of fermentation." Within several weeks there will be a cloudy fluid that you mix with crushed piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) and continue to ferment. Kennedy insists it is delicious. 

Pineapple vinegar. This involves placing the peelings of a pineapple in a jar with water and pounded piloncillo. Macerate. This seems more reasonable than the banana vinegar, until: "If things don't go according to order, small white maggots will float on the top (they may anyway.) Strain the liquid, and if it doesn't become acidic within a month, throw it away and start again."

Rick Bayless would never write recipes like these, and despite their obvious grotesqueness and the fact that I doubt they will work, I love these recipes. I hope they work. I can always bake banana bread, but a way to make use of pineapple peel is on a par with watermelon rind pickle.

Bayless: Apologies, Rick, we're talking about Julie Powell today

Author: Rick Bayless
Book: Rick Bayless' s Mexican Kitchen
Dishes cooked: Chipotle shrimp, spicy corn, black rice
Score: 7.5

It was all generically tasty, like something you'd eat at a posh Mexican restaurant where they serve $10 margaritas and the guacamole comes in an actual molcajete. I don't like those molcajetes; how do you ever get them truly clean? None of the pictures were appetizing, so I'm just skipping all that today.

Something else is on my mind. 

I saw Julie & Julia a month ago and I appreciated it as the airy, toothsome confection that it was. I didn't give it much thought, but yesterday, I stumbled across this blog post harshing on Julie Powell and decided to offer my own two cents. Because I know how very much it matters.

Julie & Julia has pitted Amy Adams against Meryl Streep, but also Julie Powell against Julia Child. Neither is a fair fight, particularly the latter. Were we meant to compare Child's monumental, hard-won achievement with Powell blogging her way to a book deal? Did Nora Ephron deviously engineer it so people would? Or was it just how the movie shook out?

I was probably one of the few people who went to see Julie & Julia more interested in Julie than Julia. I revere Julia Child, etc., etc., what everyone else says. But I also think Julie Powell is a crazy good writer. Undisciplined and self-absorbed, but she cops to all of it and usually manages to make it amusing. She was miserable and lost and living in New York City, she wrote herself out of a hole, and watching her do it was like seeing a fantastic piece of performance art. I don't begrudge her a thing.

Amy Adams was an ethereal fairy in Enchanted, but she played this saucy, earthy, slightly manic young woman by getting a dowdy haircut and throwing tantrums. SUCH tedious tantrums. Ephron and Adams convey the selfishness and hysteria of Julie Powell, but none of the vitality and charm, none of the kooky intelligence, disarming candor and wild humor that made her blog great. The book was not great, but yes, I thought her blog from which it sprang was great. 
I sometimes cringe at the honesty in Powell's work, and she makes choices that strike me as reckless. I don't know how a marriage can survive the excruciating (ouf! trust me) essay about sex that she contributed to Behind the Bedroom Door. (That whole book brought out my inner Victorian, which, to be fair, isn't that hard.) I'm equal parts worried and fascinated to read Powell's forthcoming Cleaving, which I fear will be an expansion of the painful material in that essay. Still. Her writing crackles. She's not a towering icon of our culture like Julia Child, but neither is she a boring drip. 

Lorrie Moore is so awesome. Oh wait.

I'm reading A Gate at the Stairs, her new novel which is much loved by many critics, and rightly so.
The narrator is a college-student, and here's a characteristically sharp passage:

"'Awesome,' I said, in that peculiar way, I knew, our generation had of finding that everything either 'sucked' or was 'awesome.' We used awesome the way the British used brilliant; for anything at all. Perhaps, as with the British, it was a kind of antidepressant: inflated rhetoric to keep the sorry truth at bay."

Yesterday, we went to Parents' Night at the middle school. Isabel's 7th grade Language Arts teacher -- a peppy, veteran taskmaster who cowed even me -- told us about her list of "garbage" words that she absolutely does not want to see in her students' work. These  include "got," "stuff," and "said." 

"I don't want kids using words like this," she lectured.

"This is bullshit," I cried.

"No it's not!" she ejaculated. 

"Yes it is," shouted my husband.

That didn't really happen, of course. We're very meek, grateful parents. But I hate that rule. "Awesome" should be avoided; "said" is essential. 

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

This is why we need turkeys!

The local farm that sells good, grass-fed beef and such has emailed out another reminder to order your heritage turkey for the holidays. Should I? The price is $6.59/lb if you order now, $6.89 if you order after September 31, and I know that's a lot more expensive than Safeway, but it's a pretty good deal for free-range protein. I've never tasted a heritage turkey and they have quite a reputation. Still: $180 for two good-sized turkeys. It got me thinking.

Let's say I bought two turkey poults in the spring. They cost about 9 bucks a piece from most hatcheries and they're VERY cute. At least for a week or two. How much feed would they eat? The chickens have almost completely gone off feed, they are so amply supplied with forage, table scraps, and kitchen mistakes. I can't imagine two turkeys would consume $162 worth of feed  in the months it would take to fatten them for the table. 

Clearly, I'm trying to rationalize ordering turkey poults next spring, which is a ridiculous idea. I know that. When I mentioned it to the guy at Feather Haven, he told me turkeys are so dumb they drown in their water bowls when they try to drink.


a. we have known predator issues 
b. we have neighbors who might not approve
c. I would have to slaughter them
d. my husband gets a grim and stony look when the subject comes up

But still. Turkeys. Just once. It would be so great. 

Incidentally, this same farm that sells the heritage turkeys also sells free-range eggs for $7 a dozen. I don't want to denigrate the hard work of our local farmers or suggest that they don't deserve it, but that's a lot of money for eggs.

Kennedy: She loses the tinga throwdown

Author: Diana Kennedy
Book: My Mexico
Dishes cooked: tinga de pollo
Score: 8

Behind on my posting. On Monday, I made Diana Kennedy's chicken tinga: "This recipe is an interesting version of the better-known pork tinga of Pueblo," she writes. 

As some of you may know, a tinga is a super-spicy, rich melange of meat, tomatoes, chorizo and chipotle chiles that you eat with tortillas and/or rice. A week ago I made a killer pork tinga from Rick Bayless, and I chose this Kennedy recipe to compare. Not a fair fight. Kennedy's tinga rocked, but pork -- especially pork shoulder -- always wins. The only meat pork shoulder can't trump is aged ribeye.

Owen: "This is hot sauce with little sprinkles of chicken. I want chicken with little sprinkles of hot sauce."

I've started making Kennedy's banana vinegar, but I think that bizarre procedure deserves its own post.