Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Sweet Life in Paris: just delicious enough

Thank-you for the encouragement on David Lebovitz's bacon and blue cheese cake, which I took to last night's dinner party at my friend Debra's house. This was like a yummy, tidy, sliceable frittata, very successful and elegant.

We give Europeans a lot of credit for being disciplined when it comes to diet. But maybe they're not restrained -- maybe it's their food that's restrained. I've said this before, but I think the wisdom of (some) traditional cuisines is that their food is delicious, but not too delicious. You eat one or two biscotti and then go read a book. You can't eat one or two Toll House cookies without superhuman effort. You end up eating 27 and have to join Weight Watchers.

There was no way anyone was going to eat more than a slice of the bacon and blue cheese cake. I had a piece and thought, well, that was nice, but now I am sated. I wish more of the food in my world was like that.

I wish less of it was like Lebovitz's spiced nut mix which I made in case the cake wasn't any good. This spiced nut mix is something you might get at a spectacular Super Bowl party; it's the kind of thing my grandmother used to send in big tins at Christmas. But way better. Nuts and pretzels tossed with melted butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, smoked paprika, and cocoa, then roasted. Almost tacky, how delicious this was. Uncivilized. I sat there at the party trying to focus on the conversation and was completely distracted by the sweet-salty-crunchy nuts. And I wasn't even hungry! This defines too delicious. 

Has anyone ever been driven to distraction by a little bowl of olives? Or tapenade? Or marinated artichoke hearts? Or Spanish tortilla? I think not.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Sweet Life in Paris: a sweet read

I read David Lebovitz's The Sweet Life in Paris* cover to cover this morning. Plot summary: San Franciscan and Chez Panisse pastry chef loses his longtime companion, falls into a depression, decides to shake up his life, moves to City of Light, acquires a funky apartment with a tiny kitchen, and slowly comes to understand and even embrace bizarre French mores. We learn that coffee in Paris is horrible, that you must always greet shopkeepers formally and politely, jogging shoes are now cool especially if they're purple, "preservatifs" are not "preservatives" but "condoms," and that Lebovitz is a big fan of Daniel Craig. 
Very cute book. I enjoyed it thoroughly. 

Now, I have a dilemma. We're going to dinner at a friend's house tonight and I'm supposed to bring an appetizer. Lebovitz has a recipe for a cake aux lardons et fromage bleu that intrigues me. I typed the French name first because it sounds better than the translation which is bacon and blue cheese cake and does not make me hungry.

Here's a description: "A departure from their sweet American counterparts, these savory quick breads are welcome served as an hors d'oeuvre before dinner, thinly sliced, with glasses of cool Muscadet or a snappy Sauvignon."

That sounds kind of good, right? Or does it just sound weird? Thoughts?

*I've been calling it "Living the Sweet Life in Paris" because that's title on my galley copy. I apologize for the error. 

A story about lasagne

This is a great, mad piece of writing.  Can you see that I linked? I feel my colors need some tweaking and will tweak, but meanwhile, that first sentence is a link.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Living the Sweet Life in Paris: je suis triste parce que je n'aime pas le chocolat

I tasted a single crumb of David Lebovitz's chocolate cake the other night and thought, I'd rather just eat the whipped cream plain. Meanwhile, my family was hacking at the cake like a bunch of starved trolls. 

They said it was stupendous. No reason to doubt them.

I want to love chocolate. I keep trying. Trying works with everything else. I hated Breaking Bad until episode five, but now have a rich appreciation for a thoroughly sick TV show. I worked on my coffee aversion and was able to become addicted by age 19. My innate detestation of alcohol, another rousing success story!

Why not chocolate? 

To be continued.

In other news:

-For years I've idly suggested to my father that we go to Vietnam together and he said no. A few weeks ago I idly suggested to my father that we go to Vietnam together and he said yes. July. Booked the tickets yesterday. This is almost unbelievable.

-I'm starting to hate our insane Ameraucana chicken who (I imagine) infects all the other docile little birds with Big Ideas. She's striped with wild, malevolent eyes and weird chalky greenish legs and would rather dive beak first into a snake-infested blackberry bramble than be carried lovingly by Isabel to the hen house. Owen named her Arlene after the pink cat in Garfield. I call her by other, unprintable names.
-I'm making  the spicy potatoes from the January '09 issue of Cricket as requested by Owen. Recipe calls for a staggering quantity of paprika, cayenne, and chili powder (YES! All three) given that this is a kiddie magazine. I'm hoping Owen will feel some obligation to eat them, but doubt it.

Chickens run faster than I thought

Chasing chickens around the yard at the end of the day is a complete drag. I can see how this might eventually end: You want to stay out all night with the skunks and raccoons, Ms. Ameraucana? Fine. Have it your way. Eggs are cheap.

As Owen put it, "I think they have a little too much energy."

Twenty-five minutes it took us to herd them into their house tonight.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Living the Sweet Life in Paris: Playing ketchup

I keep falling behind on the cookbook reviewing, the ostensible reason for this whole blog.

Living the Sweet Life in Paris: so far excellent. I need to spend an afternoon reading David Lebovitz's memoir cover to cover, because I think it is meant to be read as much as cooked from. The bits I've read have been amusing and kind of raunchy, though it might be my imagination. I'll get back to you on that.

The recipes seem to be equally divided between twists on French standards (chocolate chip cream puffs) and sentimental favorites from back in the States (ribs) that Lebovitz cooks to show snotty Parisians what they're missing.

The other night I made his pork ribs, the sauce for which contains ketchup, much sneered at by the French. Maybe a little too much going on in that sauce. In addition to the ketchup: rum, molasses, soy, ginger, chili paste. The ribs couldn't quite decide if they were Asian or down home, but everyone enjoyed them, especially Owen, who likes anything on a bone. 

We ate the ribs with Lebovitz's yummy, crunchy peanut slaw, which I made with red cabbage. I asked Husband what he thought of the cole slaw.

Husband: Not as good as cole slaw.

Tipsy: But it IS cole slaw.

Husband: No, coleslaw is white cabbage with mayonnaise.

Monday night for dinner we had Lebovitz's carnitas which were fabulous, albeit not quite as fabulous as Jennifer McLagan's carnitas on account of the cinnamon stick. Don't like cinnamon in carnitas. Still, shredded caramelized pork shoulder is shredded caramelized pork shoulder and it's hard to beat. I hope the French people to whom Lebovitz serves this are suitably awestruck. (His recipe is here; I tripled the cumin.)

Dessert: Breton buckwheat cake. Heidi Swanson featured this smashing recipe at 101 Cookbooks, and I agree with everything she says. As it turns out, we didn't have any buckwheat flour, but I did have a brand-new bag of teff* flour, so I used that instead, per Swanson's suggestion. If I could get away with writing things like "this cake made me swoon," I would. But I can't. I loved it a lot. Breton teff cake -- buttery, dense, redolent of cinnamon and rum**-- would be on my list of top twenty cakes, if I had one. 

I asked Husband what he thought of the cake.

Husband: Not as good as cake.

Discussion ensued. Turns out my whole family believes that a cake, by definition, has frosting, even if it comes from a can.

I worry that I make my husband out to be a pill. I do. He is. But he does have a few good qualities. He shouts during sporting events even on TV, looks for my glasses when I lose them, hates the chickens (he calls them "the turkeys") but has cheerfully taken over the job of building their future nesting boxes. He buys people (including his mother-in-law) the most thoughtful presents and never buys anything for himself. Which is sad. He calls Isabel "Freckle-face Jones," has gracefully accepted that Owen will never be an athlete, and makes them both waffles when I would give them cold cereal. Like right this second. I completely trust him to do the right thing when it matters because he always has. He's also really funny. He just doesn't like to eat. 

*Teff is a grain common in Ethiopia and often used to make injera, the sour, spongy flatbread you get at Ethiopian restaurants. I've been working my way through the flour and sweetener section at Whole Foods. Everyone needs a hobby.

**Husband also objected to the rum content of the cake. Though it only contains 2 tablespoons mixed into the batter, he could taste it. He told me I had to write this; he's proud of what he calls his "princess and the pea" palate. Personally, I do not count this among his good qualities.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's harder to name a chicken than a child

The kids have cycled through many names for our chickens: Angel, Dusk, Lydia, Ingrid. When I suggest mildly humorous names like "Goofball" or "Runt" they become indignant and tell me how mean I am. 
The trouble is, pretty names don't stick. It's hard to see the "Ingridness" of a black Australorp who eats flies (and worse) and uses the communal water bowl as a latrine. 

However, we have had one great naming triumph. She is perhaps the least gifted, most timid chicken in the flock and that's really saying something. Owen named her Einstein on account of the white head feathers, then we added Alberta for femininity. Totally stuck. When my kids run through the yard calling for "Alberta Einstein" they mean it in the most genuine, loving way. Obviously, if you're old and mean you can see the irony. Name works for all of us!

Some definitions

My mother, my husband, and a friend have all chastised me for throwing around too many terms they don't know over the last few days. Specifically, matcha, kombucha, and horchata
I will try not to make so many assumptions in the future.


matcha: Japanese green tea powder. Its has the consistency of baking powder (a white leavener often used in biscuits), the flavor of green tea (antioxidant drink made with dried leaves and water, typically served hot; extremely healthy although it makes some people, like me, feel ill), and the color of wasabi (a fiery bright green paste served with sushi. Sushi? It's this raw fish, dried seaweed,  and cold rice thing they do in Japan and though it sounds nasty, it's really great, trust me.) You can buy matcha at the supermarket in a tiny canister and use it to make green tea ice cream.

kombucha: Ancient fermented tea drink with roots in Asia and Eastern Europe that has recently become trendy. Many health benefits are attributed to kombucha, though few, if any, have been supported by scientific studies. It's quite tasty, tart and spritzy, though it takes getting used to. If a bad batch doesn't send you to the E.R., I'm quite sure it's healthier than a Pepsi (dark, sweet, carbonated soft drink. According to legend, if you put a baby tooth in a glass of Pepsi, it will dissolve in 24 hours! Would be interesting to put a baby tooth in a glass of kombucha.)

horchata: A Latin American beverage you will often find at taquerias alongside those fresh fruit drinks that are so yummy. I think horchata is yummier. It's thin and milky, though it doesn't contain milk, and is made (variously) with ground rice (ok, I'm done), cinnamon, sugar, vanilla, and almonds. 

Happy Memorial Day, everyone. 


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Make it or buy it: kombucha, part 2

Yesterday, my friend Debra came over to finish making the kombucha we started a week ago Friday. We lifted the cloth covering the bowl. After eight days, there was a glaucous film floating atop clear, golden liquid.

Debra lifted the skin and it split into two layers.

On the left is the meaty, brown original "mother." On the right, her thin, white daughter. Not pretty, but this is what was supposed to happen.

We put the two mothers aside and gazed at the copper-colored kombucha tea. I wish I could supply more drama at this juncture. Neither of us hesitated to sample the liquid, and it was delicious in the way that kombucha is delicious, which is to say, refreshing and tangy and sour. Ours tasted a little of apples. No one had to call 9-1-1.

We doctored the kombucha with a tiny amount of ginger (grate ginger, squeeze in a cheesecloth) and some cherry juice. Might omit the cherry juice next time; ginger was all it needed.

Then we ladled it into Deb's empty Synergy bottles with annoying labels that I have to peel off asap. We didn't fill the bottles all the way to the top for worries that they might explode. 

It was altogether satisfying and extremely cheap, if not a project for the squeamish. I'm working on a price breakdown. 

I don't know what to make of the kombucha health claims. I don't know what to make of the kombucha horror stories. Both probably have some merit. But I doubt I'll ever drink so much kombucha that it starts harming my liver, because I don't believe kombucha will cure cancer, make me skinny, prevent arthritis, or give me beautiful hair.

That said, it really does taste like a tonic. I've had a punk week and yesterday told everyone I was taking the night off from cooking. I made a giant bowl of buttered popcorn and ate it all by myself, stretched out on the bed with some light reading material. It was selfish and it was restorative, except that after consuming a giant bowl of buttered popcorn you feel greasy and sick. So I drank a glass of fizzy kombucha. It was like adding some vinegar to an overly oily salad. All better.

Kombucha: You know what bugs me?

The snake-oily Synergy Kombucha label. 

Here's my (least) favorite bit: "G.T.* Dave began bottling Kombucha in 1995 after his mother's success from drinking it during her battle with breast cancer."

First thought: wow, bad writing. Country really is going down the tubes. A split second later, duh, not bad, shrewd. The label doesn't say, "kombucha cured mom's breast cancer," because there are probably rules about that. She had success from drinking it.  The web site promises to provide more details, but so far doesn't.

Deb and I had success from making our own kombucha yesterday, so I can enjoy this refreshing probiotic beverage without having to read irritating marketing claims. 

*Gin & Tonic? A half-hearted internet search didn't reveal what "G.T." stands for, but did turn up this fawning profile in which the author describes him as "gym toned and sleek as an otter." I think he looks like Alex on Grey's Anatomy. Maybe G.T. stands for "gym toned."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Living the Sweet Life in Paris: Some experiments

My mother doesn't cook, but she loves buying kitchen gear and a few years ago she gave me a very cute pan that's similar to a mini-muffin pan, except the depressions are in the shape of hearts. 

I finally found a use for this pan: untraditional financiers. A few days ago I baked David Lebovitz's chocolate-almond financiers, which were easy and wonderful and seemed like they would lend themselves to flavor variations. 

On the left is a green tea financier. On the right, an horchata financier. How were they? They were heinous. But interesting!

I know what went wrong:

a. didn't grind the almonds finely enough, which made them rough 

b. didn't compensate for the omission of cocoa powder from Lebovitz's recipe by adding extra flour, which made them sticky and gummy

More specifically, green tea financiers are just a crummy idea. Matcha may have a place in sponge cake, which is airy and fluffy, but not a dense, chewy, nutty sweet. While these didn't taste at all like seaweed, something about the color makes it impossible not to think about kelp. Altogether unappetizing. Won't proceed with this line of research.

Horchata financiers have possibilities, although these did not taste at all like horchata. They tasted like cinnamon. Is it even possible to reproduce the delicate, elusive horchata flavor in a non-liquid? Or is cold, gritty rice milk essential to the experience? Thoughts? Further research required. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

Living the Sweet Life in Paris: chicken & financiers

Cooked from David Lebovitz's Living the Sweet Life in Paris last night. Good chicken tagine; excellent chocolate-almond financiers. I was unfamiliar with financiers, but am now a fan and planning to bake a non-chocolate, non-almond variation as soon as I'm done typing this post. These particular financiers were like chewy brownies, but much tidier because you don't have to cut them, just pop them out of the mini-muffin tin. Sadly, all gone now.

Living the Sweet Life in Paris: David & David

I just realized how much David Tanis and David Lebovitz have in common. Both are gay men who worked at Chez Panisse, moved to Paris, dislike Beaujolais Nouveau, and have written cookbooks. They're also friends. But I think the similarities end there. 

Tanis says things like, "I'm not much for rich, gooey cakes. . ." and "I scoff at the early asparagus that arrives around Valentine's Day. . ." and "You are probably not surprised to learn that I am not a fan of fusion. They can keep their wasabi aioli, thank you very much. . . ."

Lebovitz says things like, "You can't miss with a crisp disk of meringue topped with a scoop of coffee ice cream, warm chocolate sauce, and candied nuts. . ." and "How can you not love mole?" and "I always find myself eating more than one would think prudent. . ." He has invented recipes for Altoid brownies, and (fusion) green tea madeleines.

I have to make Altoid brownies.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

My life flashed before my eyes and it looked like Whole Foods

Yesterday, it was just Owen and me doing the grocery shopping. It's been a lousy week. I have no idea why. I was slumping in front of the crowded meat counter wondering whether to defer to pushy people or risk being perceived as pushy myself, and decided this was a "defer" kind of day. You need different strategies for different moods.

Owen: "Can we have clams for dinner?"
Tipsy: "Clams? You don't like clams."
Owen: "Yes I do. I love them. Steamed clams."

Tipsy: "We're having chicken."

Owen: "Then I won't eat any dinner."

Tipsy: "So, don't eat dinner."

Owen: "Okay I won't. Pleeeaaase?"

Tipsy: "No."

Owen: "Pleeeasse."

Not cute. Not appealing. I decided to teach him a lesson. I bought a handful of clams just for him. Came home, dinner rolled around, I steamed the clams. At first I was going to serve them plain -- gray and chewy --  but I softened and made some garlic butter. I do actually like the boy. I intended to sit and watch him eat them so he'd have to look me in the eye when he admitted he doesn't like clams. 

And I was right, of course. He doesn't like clams. He said these particular clams tasted "weird," and stopped after two. Which was great! All the more for me. I was too busy eating the clams myself to impart any lessons. They were fantastic, dipped in that garlic butter, so much better than the chicken. 

Terrible week.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Homemade Life: Earnest Summation

It would be hard to write anything unkind about A Homemade Life with Molly Wizenberg gazing at me like that.

Not that I want to! I can't think of anything negative to say about A Homemade Life, which is beautifully written, smart, soulful, and gently funny. Do I like a little more vinegar in my reading material? I do. But that's a taste preference, not a critical judgment, and probably reflects poorly on my character. Objectively speaking, Wizenberg has written an almost perfect book, one that transitions smoothly from a wrenching account of her father's death into a sweet love story, and somehow manages to integrate toffee recipes, wacky friends, and trips to Paris, the wide-ranging narrative held together by Wizenberg's quirky sensibility and calm, lovely voice.

You don't need to cook to enjoy this book. But if you tackle the recipes, you'll find them clearly expressed and excellent. I made 31 recipes from A Homemade Life and here's the breakdown:
Worth the price of the book: 1 (cream-braised cabbage)
Great: 7 
Good: 18
So-so: 5
Bad: 0
There were some standouts -- the cabbage, the macaroons, Doron's (incredible) meatballs -- but Wizenberg's recipes are much more concentrated in the middle "good" range than other collections I've worked through. I think that might be a given with the culinary memoir where the recipes make the cut by virtue of the role they played in someone's life rather than how they perform in a blind taste test. Wizenberg's father's potato salad, his French toast, her husband's Indian chickpeas -- all dishes I very much enjoyed, but would I make them again? Probably not. If I wrote my own culinary memoir it would include my late grandmother's raisin-spice cookies. I love them because they were hers. You'd like them. You wouldn't bake them twice.

By the same token, there were no outright flops. The recipes that make their way into the fiber of another person's life tend to be reliable and pretty delicious.

It's a terrific book. I've decided to do another culinary memoir that should take me through the end of May: David Lebovitz's Living the Sweet Life in Paris

A Platter of Figs: Feels like old times

Sometime during the winter, I decided to review David Tanis' Platter of Figs, but since his book is based on seasonal menus I stopped when I'd executed all the winter menus. I had some problems with the book, but decided to hold off before issuing a final judgement until I'd cooked at least one menu from  another season. 

Which brings us to last night and Tanis' so-called Supper of the Lamb:
-Warm asparagus vinaigrette
-Shoulder of spring lamb with flageolet beans and olive relish
-Rum baba with cardamom

First, a shopping challenge. I could not find "shoulder of spring lamb" in any local market, so I bought the tiniest leg of lamb I've ever seen. I don't remember the weight, but it cost $9.90 at Whole Foods. If you buy much meat, you know that is one petite leg. I roasted it, sliced it up, and served it on a bed of flageolet beans. 

Now, a shopping question. What is the deal with flageolet beans? One pound cost almost $7 at Mill Valley Market. Are flageolets that much better than Great Northern White beans that they merit paying three times as much? I know, I know, they're incomparable, pale-green, delicate, French, etc. etc. but the price galls me.

And yet another shopping issue. Asparagus. Here's Tanis on asparagus: "Ask any cook who has worked with me -- they'll tell you I'm a fanatic about asparagus. I've driven kitchen apprentices half crazy making them go through entire cases to choose only the the most perfect spears. I adore asparagus but it must be freshly picked or I'm not interested."

He goes on for two more paragraphs. I appreciate the information. I will feel very privileged when/if my asparagus seedlings mature next spring and I, too, can savor "only the most perfect spears." Meanwhile, the asparagus at the supermarket comes in a bunch held together with a fat rubberband and it is not, I suspect, "ultrafresh." Tanis' preparation -- boil, dress with a very light vinaigrette -- did nothing to enhance this particular bunch. The way I usually cook asparagus is to roast it with a little olive oil in a very hot oven until it shrivels and turns dark brownish-green, a procedure that makes even tired, middle-aged asparagus delicious.

It's not fair of me to hold Tanis' ingredient fetishes against him. He has exacting standards for his ingredients, and this is important. We should all be a little pickier. It's just that the barriers to entry for some of these dishes are rather high for an ordinary American cook.

Unanimous verdict on the lamb, beans, and asparagus: fine, nothing special.

The rum babas, on the other hand, were divisive. These are eggy, yeasted cakes that you bake in a muffin tin and then drench with a sticky rum-flavored syrup. 

Husband: "Anything with rum in it, I don't like."

Isabel: "I'm not going to have one because I don't like things with rum in them." 

Owen: "I would have tried one, but everyone said I wouldn't like it. "

Tipsy: "Sometimes it's depressing, cooking for this family."

This was a crazy good dessert. I have eight babas left and I don't know how I'm going to stop myself from eating them all for lunch. It occurred to me to feed them to the chickens, but I worry the rum would make small creatures drunk. I could swear that after I give them scraps of green tea cake they start squawking more and running around. 

I have not forgotten about the green tea cake.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Not a sky in the cloud

I've been listless lately, unable to motivate myself to start a new cookbook or cook anything at all. I  blame the weather. First it was hot and I was out there happily throwing money into holes planting in the garden. Now: foggy. 

Growing up in San Francisco, I experienced summer as the most alienating season of the year on account of the fog. The rest of the country is hanging out at the community pool, playing in sprinklers/fire hydrants, waiting for the ice cream truck. But you -- you special bohemian San Francisco kid, you -- are living inside a giant, lonely cloud. 

Of course, you're not allowed to wish you could hang out at the pool because that's just so bourgeois and suburban. You're lucky! Don't you know that? You're growing up in freaking San Francisco. You can take Muni down to Haight Street and buy yourself a vintage pea coat or nurse a cappuccino at the Blue Danube while writing sad things in tiny print in your journal. Or check out the groovy poetry books at City Lights! Or smoke clove cigarettes at Coit Tower! Or watch a documentary about an avant garde porn director at the Roxie! With such cultural riches who needs the sun? 

I hate it when I get sarcastic. I like San Francisco, just not in the summer. 

Just checked on the kombucha. It has a translucent skin all across the top like Jell-O, and there are no foul odors emanating. This is good news.

Tonight: David Tanis' Supper of the Lamb.

Melvil's Egg Man

In a recent comment, Melvil Dewey mentioned the "egg man" in which is his mother served soft-boiled eggs. Several of you wanted photographs, and here they are. Thanks, Melvil. 

What do we think, hot or not? 

That's a stupid question, the egg man is awesome. Or is it a woman? Is that a bucket or a purse?

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Homemade Life: Cherry salad

The cherries came to the market in time for me to make Molly Wizenberg's bread, cherry, arugula and goat cheese salad. You don't need a recipe, just those ingredients, plus some balsamic vinegar and olive oil. And try to mash some of the cherries so the juice becomes part of the dressing. I took her advice and threw it together my own way -- didn't remove crust from bread before toasting for croutons, didn't measure anything, forgot about the miniscule quantity of chopped garlic. A terrific dinner for a hot Sunday night. Also, cherries in a salad are just an excellent idea. I'm going to try to remember that.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

We should have gone to a movie

Had an amusing experience last night. Alright, sixty percent amusing, forty percent annoying. Actually, maybe just plain annoying, but with amusing elements.

I've recently started reading this fascinating blog about urban beekeeping, and decided to work down the list of links to see if I could discover some other interesting beekeeping sites. Anyway, I was reading one of the links when I got to a section where the blogger rants about a Slate story in which the author argues that gardening is actually expensive. I got the tiniest bit agitated when I realized she was talking about a story I wrote. She refers to me as "honey" in a sarcastic way. Otherwise, nothing about bees.

Speaking of gardening, here's our new curry leaf "tree": 

I ordered it back in February from a nursery in New Jersey and it finally arrived on Thursday, wrapped in wet newspaper. I'm sure I will find a way to kill it before ever harvesting a mature leaf, but I had to try. Curry leaves are a fragrant herb used in Indian cooking (they're unrelated to curry powder) and I've had a hard time finding a reliable source, what with periodic quarantines. As you can see, the plant is startlingly petite, but it has potential. On the other hand, check out this second "tree" I ordered to give to my friend Lisa:

I can not give that to Lisa. Thing is not gift material. Note how the toothpick towers over the "tree." If the nursery weren't in New Jersey, the people so unfriendly, and it had cost more than $9, I would ask for a replacement. 

Yesterday, I also bought a Kaffir lime from our local nursery, but that was a proper tree and cost considerably more than $9. See? Gardening = expensive. At least when you have no self control. 

Friday, May 15, 2009

Make it or buy it: kombucha, pt. 1

I take back the mean things I said about kombucha. Debra brought over a bottle this morning and I actually tolerated -- even enjoyed -- a small glass. It was fizzy and tangy, much tastier than remembered. Maybe my early bad experience was due to the the shock of kombucha when I was expecting Snapple. Deb pays less because she buys in bulk, but a 16-oz bottle of Synergy Kombucha costs $3.99 from Organic Direct, a price I'm sure we can beat with homemade. That is, if it doesn't kill us.

We made kombucha according to Robin's recipe. First you boil 4 quarts of water, mix with 1 cup of sugar and 4 tablespoons of loose tea and steep for 15 minutes. (We used green tea, although Robin recommends black.) Strain. Cool to room temperature. 

At this point, you add 1 cup of prepared kombucha (bottled or homemade) and a so-called "mother" to the cooled tea. The "mother" may also be called a "scoby" which is the acronym for "symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast." I don't know how I feel about that. There's a video here about how to grow your own mother from scratch; now I'm worried because we used tap water in our kombucha and these guys say you shouldn't. So does this story. Shoot. Anyway, we were lucky enough to have a mother donated by Robin,  which was flat, shiny, and slippery, like a large squid without tentacles.

 Here is the mother lurking just beneath the surface of the cooled tea:
We covered the whole bowl with a cloth, put it in the back of the pantry,  and will reconvene next Friday to see what has developed. If we did everything right and the tap water didn't screw us up, the tea should be "tart and zingy" and there will be two mothers in the bowl. 

Here's the ingredient list on the Synergy Kombucha bottle: 95% G.T's. organic raw kombucha, blueberry juice, fresh pressed ginger juice, and 100% pure love!!!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

You'd have to be crazy to date the movie Spock instead of Kirk

Seriously, Uhura needs glasses. Otherwise, Star Trek was swell, entertaining to both sentimental grown woman and excitable 8-year-old boy.

I made a slightly altered, slightly inferior version (see above) of the green tea cake the other day. I asked husband if he'd try it and tell me his thoughts. He said, "No. I've already tasted green tea cake and it's not as good as real cake." 

Funny husband. There's one more version I want to attempt before posting a recipe. 

Meanwhile, my friend D.* is coming over this morning and we are going to make kombucha using a "mother" given to me by Robin, a longtime kombucha-maker and fermented foods expert.

I do not drink kombucha. A few years ago, I was searching for a zero-calorie, non-water drink at Whole Foods when I saw this juicy-looking beverage that appeared to be as close as I was going to get, barring the miraculous appearance of diet Dr. Pepper. I bought it, took a sip, experienced the terrifying shock of kombucha, and have never gone back for more. 

Not everyone feels this way. D. drinks a bottle of kombucha every day and Robin has long extolled the health-giving properties of fermented foods like kombucha, which supposedly help repopulate the gut with "good" bacteria.

D. kept talking about the price of kombucha (high) and wouldn't it be interesting to make it, and I agreed it would be interesting to make it. If not drink it.

I've postponed wrapping up Molly Wizenberg's Homemade Life because cherries have appeared in the market and she has a recipe for bread salad with cherries, arugula, and goat cheese that I want to try. Four of my favorite foods are mentioned in the name of that dish. 

*I can't imagine she will mind being mentioned by name in the blog, but there are lots of things I have failed to imagine.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Some worries

I worry that this chicken is going to get picked on 'cause she has dumb hair.

I worry that this chicken is a bantam because she seems to be getting littler as the other chicks get bigger. Actually, I'm sure she's a bantam and I didn't want a bantam on account of their  tiny eggs. Clearly someone at the chicken store goofed. Now we're stuck with pygmy girl. Maybe she can be friends with silly hairdo.

I worry about this chicken because I think she's a he. I'm focusing on the comb, which is very pronounced and red compared to the other Buff Orpington combs. Should my fears bear out, I will have to send this poor bird away to die, or kill him myself. If you know me at all, you know what I'm going to do, but let's not count our chickens.
I worry that my "office" looks like this and smells like barnyard compressed into a very small space where the windows can not be opened because of the bee hives right outside. 
I worry that it doesn't worry me that my son's bedroom looks like this. At least the cat is there to keep back the vermin.

Also, I worry that I get overly involved in television shows. Aren't you supposed to be, like, fourteen when the impulse to hang a poster of Tim Riggins on the bedroom wall strikes? I still wonder sometimes about Angela and Jordan Catalano. Did her parents work things out? Did Ricky find peace? And Jim and Pam, Derek and Meredith, the Sheriff and the Widow, all my old pals in the O.C. . . .

These days I just want to be a Dillon Panthers rally girl.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Green tea cake

It doesn't look much, but that is a green tea cake, invented by me. It actually tastes like green tea and is very buttery.

I'm almost as shocked as if I'd written a song or run a 6-minute mile. I'll post the recipe, but must bake it again and make sure I'm not hallucinating its loveliness. 

A Homemade Life: Whatever you call it, we like it

Molly Wizenberg calls it a "Dutch baby" pancake. When I was growing up, we called it "hot oven pancake," which is boring, but probably what I will call it forever. I had forgotten how easy this breakfast is, easier than making pancakes on a griddle. Wizenberg's 2-minute recipe is right here, plus the amusing story of how she acquired it. She recommends topping the puffy popover-like item with lemon and powdered sugar, which I also endorse. Owen however complained that it was "wet" and "not sweet enough."

I said he could have some maple syrup if he wished. 

He replied, "That's what I was hoping, but doubting." 

I think this is it for A Homemade Life, which has turned out to be sweet and wonderful company in the kitchen.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Farm Report: We have three bushes and two berries

That is our first gooseberry. I want to make the world's tiniest tart in celebration.

How hard could it be?

Although it is one of my favorite foods, I've never wanted to learn to make sushi because: 

a. expensive
b. dangerous, what with the scary raw fish

Instead, I eat it in restaurants where it is:

a. incredibly expensive
b. perfectly safe, because sushi masters know magic and restaurant workers are cleaner and care more about food safety than I do.

Logic worthy of one of my chickens.

We went to a "chic" sushi restaurant last night where the average price for two pieces of nigiri was $10. We ordered sparingly, ate nervously, and judged the sushi mediocre. I looked at our tiny plate of tuna maki -- vinegared rice, seaweed, maybe half an ounce of fish -- and thought, I could do this better and cheaper.

Well, maybe, maybe not. But I'm going to try. 

Happy Mother's Day everyone. I've been up for hours but hear stirrings that suggest I need to return to bed for my annual breakfast in bed, which, for reasons I don't entirely understand, always involves Twinkies. 

Saturday, May 09, 2009

I like batter too, but not this much

I've been reading Michael Ruhlman's new book Ratio, about which I have many thoughts, chief among them that memorizing the ratio for consomme seems a lot harder than looking up the recipe in Julia Child. Here's my favorite passage so far. You have to read the whole excerpt to get the full effect:
How is a crepe different from a muffin? In the exact same way that it's different from a pancake, which is a muffin batter cooked in a skillet. How is a crepe different from a sponge cake? The ingredients are similar in proportion, but instead of milk, butter is used, along with 1 part sugar. If you understand the creaming method versus the foaming method, you can begin to intuit what makes a cake, versus a muffin, versus a pancake, versus a popover, versus a crepe. They're all part of the same tree. And I think that people who are gifted pastry chefs have simply seen the crepe-cake continuum more clearly for longer, rather than seeing crepe equaling one set of instructions, cake another, and so have been able to improvise; they understand how small adjustments in fat, flour, egg, and sugar can result in satisfying nuances of lightness and delicacy or richness in flavor and texture. It's all one thing.

Which is why I love cooking. It's all one thing. Which is the ultimate comfort in a life fraught with uncertainty and questions. Which is why I don't fear dying. Which is what I'd put on my headstone if I thought being buried in the ground mattered: "It's all one thing." Which is why I love batters.

Friday, May 08, 2009

A Homemade Life: Custard-filled cornbread

This custard-filled cornbread is splendid. Molly Wizenberg gives Marion Cunningham credit for the recipe and says it is sometimes called "spider cake." You make a rudimentary cornbread batter and pour it into a buttered pan, then pour a cup of heavy cream over the top. Bake. When you cut into it, the the top and bottom layers are grainy and cornbready, the middle is creamy and warm, like pudding.
Wizenberg recommends serving with maple syrup, as do I. (Omit the frozen corn kernels, halve the quantity of salt and this is virtually the same recipe.)

Alas, custard-filled cornbread did not go over well with my children. Isabel couldn't get her mind around putting syrup on cornbread, and she couldn't get her mind around cornbread that was not exactly like every other cornbread she's ever eaten. "I don't like the moist part," she said. 

A hard case, that one. I ate what she left on her plate and what Owen left on his, and now feel very lovely and slim. 

Thursday, May 07, 2009

A Homemade Life: I waited in vain and made spaghetti

I spent all of yesterday waiting for a version of the table above, ordered for the large, odd space between our kitchen and dining areas. I hope it fits. My mother is skeptical, sister enthusiastic, husband swears I never told him anything about it. I swear I did.

The delivery company called to say I had to be in between 10 and 3 to receive said table, so I arranged my busy schedule accordingly. Didn't go to spin class or the supermarket or the library. Such sacrifices. Didn't meet my father at our favorite Chinese restaurant in San Francisco for lunch. Instead I made him come here while I waited for the truck. I served him leftover Ed Fretwell soup from Molly Wizenberg's Homemade Life.

It's essentially minestrone and really yummy, though the backstory to how Wizenberg came to have this recipe is sad and it feels ghoulish to make the soup once you know it. (Her family ate a lot of this soup while her father was dying. Mmm.) The orange item on the side is a leftover bouchon au thon, a delightful snack that Wizenberg learned how to prepare in France. Here's a better, if not Saveur-ready, picture of bouchons:
You mix canned tuna, tomato paste, onion, Gruyere, and some other things, put them in buttered muffin tins, bake, unmold, and you have these tidy, ladylike patties. I served them night-before-last to my mother and grandmother and yesterday to my father and would eat another right now if there were any left.

Aside from serving my father leftovers, all I did all day was lie on the sofa reading Giulia Melucci's memoir, I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, while waiting for the table. Finally, I called the delivery company at 2:45 and said, what's up? 

Dispatcher: We're running late. The truck won't come for at least another hour. 

I told them I was going out for 20 minutes to collect children from school. Did so, came back on schedule, the phone rang: I'd missed the truck. I got the manager on the line and threw a small fit. I told him I'd "stayed home from work" to wait for this table. I consider that a white lie.

Then I finished Melucci's book. Why are all stories of single women in Manhattan compared to the utterly fantastical Sex & the City? I relished that show/movie/cloud of cotton candy as much as the next girl, but it's about as realistic as Star Trek. We all know this, yes? I was single in Manhattan in my 20s and it was nothing like Sex & the City. My sister was single in Manhattan in her twenties and much of her thirties and it was nothing like Sex & the City. It was a lot more like I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti. For the good of the species, you convince yourself to fall for a self-absorbed, not-that-hot male who even on the first date hesitates to pick up the check. (I'm not old school -- I'm new school -- but picking up the check is such a tiny, simple gesture of grace, generosity and good faith.) Then, just when you've overcome your qualms, the self-absorbed, not-that-hot cheapskate breaks your heart. You aimed low -- and missed! Melucci's memoir is this archetypal story told and retold with great brio until the bittersweet final pages. I loved it. Finished the book and made my kids spaghetti for dinner.

Still waiting for the table.

Platter of Figs: Going back into the bat cave

I'm a sucker for cookbook recommendations, and this list would be more tempting and problematic but for the appearance of Platter of Figs, which makes me inclined to dismiss all of her other tips.

A few months ago, I cooked every dish in the "winter" section of Platter of Figs except the persimmon pudding. Expectations were high for this elegant, much-praised book. Results: stunningly mediocre. Only two dishes (celery root remoulade, octopus salad) would I go out of my way to make again, and the food that didn't work out was not just meh, it was, in some cases, curiously hateful.
One of my darker theories is that David Tanis feels contempt for his bourgeois American audience and this book is his passive-aggressive way of delivering the message. Exhibit A: The menu featuring pig's ear salad and chilled prunes, which was even more revolting than it sounds.

On the other hand, it's both foolish and wrong to assume evil motives without powerful evidence, which I don't have. You can't cook at Chez Panisse for 20+ years without being a brilliant chef. Tanis may be a lovely man and culinary genius who simply wrote a lame cookbook. 
Also, to be fair, maybe winter isn't Tanis' season. I'm forcing myself to execute two spring menus before I can finish with this book. But which ones? These menus are punishingly expensive, strangely untempting, or both. I could mix and match dishes, but the whole volume is built around purportedly "harmonious" menus. As Alice Waters puts it, "each a little masterpiece."


Can't afford the lobster risotto. Ditto the veal with morels. I could do the "five spice duck with buttered turnips and fried ginger" except the starter calls for two pounds of fresh crab. Even one pound is too spendy. A side of wild salmon is out of the question. (I agree with Tanis that there are compelling environmental reasons not to buy farmed salmon, but then he makes one of those statements that drive me beserk: "Farmed salmon are as bland and flavorless as factory chicken." This, alas, is not true. The farmed salmon from Safeway is repellent, but I find the Atlantic farmed salmon from Whole Foods delicious, neither "bland" nor "flavorless," words that, incidentally, mean exactly the same thing. Food that is bad for the world does not always taste bad, though it would be convenient if it did; there should be a name for this fallacy.)
Anyway, this leaves me with the following two menus:

How to Cook a Rabbit
-spinach cake with herb salad
-mustard rabbit in the oven
-parsnips Epiphany-style
-apple tart

Can't get revved up for parsnips, unsure about spinach cake. But I'm okay with bunny; I'll just tell the kids it's chicken. No, no more fibbing. I'll tell them the truth, just won't expect them to eat it.

Supper of the Lamb
-warm asparagus vinaigrette
-shoulder of spring lamb with flageolet beans and olive relish
-rum baba with cardamom

This actually sounds amazing.

If these menus turn out beautifully, maybe I'll try one of the splurge menus. If they are innocuous or worse, I'm officially done with Platter of Figs.

I'm still not done with Wizenberg. I love A Homemade Life, especially after the funny dinner we cooked last night, which gets its own post. I got up too late to make the Dutch baby pancakes and I also want to make her custard-filled cornbread. 

After that: back to Tanis, however briefly.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A Homemade Life: some cabbage, some cookies

Won't win any beauty pageants, but Molly Wizenberg's cream-braised cabbage is my favorite dish from her book. You cut cabbage in eighths, brown well in butter, then braise in cream for forty minutes. Since my kids are silly and my husband moderate, I ate almost the whole bowl. As Wizenberg puts it: "Cabbages may be homely, hard-headed things, but with a little braising they're bewitching. Cut into wedges and cooked slowly in a Jacuzzi bath of cream, they wind up completely relaxed, their bitter pungency washed away and replaced with a rich, nutty sweetness. My stomach coos like a baby at the thought of it."

My stomach coos like a baby at the thought of it. Only a very few writers can get away with lines like that. Wizenberg totally does, but I get uncomfortable even typing that sentence in quotations. 

Isabel helped make Jimmy's pink cookies, a plain buttery dough that we cut into hearts and topped with kirsch-spiked icing. Jimmy is the "gay husband" of Wizenberg's friend Rebecca who also has a "straight husband" named John. It's a cute story. Jimmy is the source for Wizenberg's recipe for Dutch baby pancakes, which I intend to make tomorrow for breakfast.
Jimmy's pink cookies are delicious. My stomach coos at the thought.

See? Not me. Like red lipstick and the pencil skirt, I just can't pull it off.