Friday, April 30, 2010

It doesn't look that great on his plate

Owen:  "This is one of the best dinners of my entire life!"

Tipsy: "Really?"

Owen: "Well, that you've cooked."

The other night we had an all-Ad Hoc At Home menu:

-sauteed chicken breasts with tarragon
-asparagus with tomato and bacon stew
-mint chocolate chip ice cream

Chicken breasts: Make a curry powder by grinding together 20 spices (17 if your pantry is lacking, which it will be) and use to season chicken. Let chicken rest in refrigerator for 2 hours. Or 1 hour if you failed to read the recipe carefully earlier in the day. Pound chicken until very skinny. Cook in oil in a hot skillet then keep warm in the oven while you make an incredible sauce with tarragon, butter, shallots and wine. Bathed in this sauce, the chicken breasts will be so richly flavored you'll forget you're eating chicken breasts.

Asparagus: Cook slab bacon chunks until they've rendered their fat, remove to a paper towel and occasionally pop one in your mouth while you use drippings as base for a tomato sauce. Keller calls for canned San Marzano tomatoes, but ordinary tomatoes will suffice when you can't find San Marzano tomatoes at the supermarket. Puree half of this sauce then add it back to the pan along with the few remaining bacon chunks. Cook the asparagus in a skillet with some stock, arrange on a platter, and pour the sauce on top. Watch in amazement as your children devour their vegetables.
Ice cream: Steep fresh mint leaves in milk and cream. Strain. Mix with ten (!) egg yolks and sugar and cook to make a custard. Chill. Freeze in ice cream machine and add finely minced chocolate towards the end of this process. Abandon all self-control and eat a pint of stupendous, satiny ice cream before you wash all the dishes. 

And there were a lot of dishes. But it was one heckuva dinner.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Monday Night Ad Hoc Meal

It really is hard to whip up an Ad Hoc At Home dinner without planning well in advance. Yesterday afternoon I surveyed my options and they were few. Many, maybe even most, of Thomas Keller's recipes require some step -- a special order from the butcher, brining, marinating, a blowtorch, homemade court bouillon, chive oil, slab bacon, serrano ham -- that I could not make between 4 and 5 p.m. and have dinner on the table at 7:15.

Don't worry, I'm not going to belabor this endlessly. I'm up for the game! I'm just explaining why last night I made the pan-roasted halibut and sauteed broccoli rabe, among the few Keller recipes that sound very boring, but also require no special ingredients or advance planning. These dishes actually were very boring, and I say that as someone who loves both halibut and broccoli rabe. 

Abridged family response to meal: 

Owen: I don't like fish.

Isabel: You ALWAYS say that about everything. What IS this vegetable?

Tipsy: It's broccoli rabe. I love it. It's bitter.

Isabel: Um, yeah. I noticed.

Husband: My favorite vegetable is celery and cream cheese.

Isabel: I like vegetables that aren't all wrinkled.

Owen: I like carrots that aren't cooked.

It went on like that. You know, discussing ideas, values, Bach. After all, the dinner table is the cradle of civilization.

Let's just hope Alice Waters is wrong about that.
When I was at the supermarket yesterday I bought chives to make chive oil, and parsley to make parsley water, both of which are essential components of Keller's asparagus coins, which I planned to serve tonight. But last night I was too tired to put the chives in the blender and make the oil, which requires 24 hours to steep, so we will not be dining on asparagus coins. I did track down some slab bacon, so I guess I can make his asparagus stew instead. 

Here's why I was tired: 
After a long talk with a bee expert about the fate of our lost bees and the future of our brand new bees, I decided to harvest last year's honey and let the new bees forage. These pictures do not quite convey the sticky drudgery of scraping, crushing, straining and re-straining required to hand-extract several gallons of honey in an ordinary kitchen. 
But it was worth it. Very pretty.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Homemade camembert

Whether or not "my" first camembert will age into something edible remains to be seen, but the camembert workshop  I took yesterday at the Davis Co-op was the most fun I've had this April. You have to enter a lottery for these workshops, and if you live within a 3-hour drive and have any interest at all in cheesemaking, I recommend you do this. When I won the space in the camembert class, I thought, hmm, this should be absurd. Normal people can't make camembert.

Not so. The class was revelatory. We divided into small groups, each with a pot of milk to play with, and three hours and some very simple steps later, we left with our baby camemberts "molded" in small segments of plastic pipe. We also got to eat some of the camemberts made by our teachers who, admittedly, are not normal people, and they were incredible. I wanted to drive straight home and make more cheese.  

I let the camembert drain all night in its plastic pipe. This morning, secured in Tupperware, it went into the basement crawl space, which I suspect may not be cold enough. We shall see. Supposedly the refrigerator is perfectly okay, but I like the idea that our useless crawl space is actually an undiscovered cheese cave. 

I haven't cooked anything lately except this lovely apricot almond bread from Jim Lahey's My Bread, a book that hasn't let me down yet: 
The bread contains almond butter and quartered dried apricots and would be amazing with some camembert.

I'm going to start Ad Hoc at Home tomorrow. I'll do Big Sur Bakery after that.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Moro: The long overdue earnest summation

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I cooked from the Moro cookbook, and it was one of my favorite cookbooks ever. I know I just gushed about Pioneer Woman, but let me leave no room for doubt: MORO IS BETTER. 

Eccentric and personal, Moro is my favorite kind of cookbook, the antithesis to the sterile, test kitchen-generated Gourmet Today. Although the desserts all failed me and the skate wing counts among the most repulsive things I've ever cooked, this Mediterranean/North African/Middle Eastern cookbook by Sam & Sam Clark (above) challenged and fascinated and educated and fed us very, very well for several months. Even after all that time there were dozens of recipes I still wanted to try but never got around to: roasted pork belly with fennel seed, fried liver with chopped salad, crab brik. The I only reason I stopped cooking from Moro was because Isabel became fixated on Pioneer Woman and practically begged me to move on.
I cooked 57 recipes from Moro:

Worth the price of the book: 2*
Great: 14
Good: 25
So-so: 12
Flat-out bad: 4
*the bread, of course, which I have baked a dozen or more times, but also the phenomenal chickpeas and spinach.

Definitely a shelf essential. 

Also, I have a story today in Slate comparing Pioneer Woman and Thomas Keller. His fried chicken is way, way better, but I still prefer her book.

Pioneer Woman: the earnest summation

Since I've already written at length about Pioneer Woman Cooks, this will be short and statistical.

I made 28 recipes out of Pioneer Woman Cooks:

Worth the price of the book -- 2*
Great -- 2
Good -- 15
So-so -- 6
Flat-out bad -- 3

That's actually a very middling performance, now that I look at it, and doesn't reflect the pleasure I took in cooking from this funny book. If I was the kind of gal who called herself a gal and said things were a hoot, I would say this book was a hoot. That's how I imagine PW talks. It would be fun to be able to talk that way, but when you grew up in San Francisco you just can't.

Shelf essential? On my shelf, yes. I wouldn't dare speak for yours.

*sheet cake and meatballs.

NEXT: Big Sur Bakery Cookbook.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Now is the moment for this kind of crazy

Supposedly a small tub or kiddie pool is enough. Supposedly Indian Runner ducks are quiet and lay lots of eggs. (We also got one Rouen, for variety.) Supposedly they coexist peacefully with chickens if given adequate space. Supposedly I am getting bids on a big wooden fence this week so that our neighbors and their dogs won't have to look at our barnyard. I stood there in the dimly lit poultry shed at Larsen's Feed and said, sure, why not.

In any case, we'll do our best, just like we have with the chickens. Poor little ducklings.
We are not quite crazy enough for this:  

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Menagerie photos and my take on Pioneer Woman

That's Emily, an excellent mouser and delicate beauty. She's almost ten. 
Owen is holding Cindy and Linda, or Linda and Cindy, who are roughly 2 weeks old.
We bought them on Tuesday and they're living in a cage in our laundry room. One is a white Plymouth Rock, one is a gold-laced Wyandotte, and I can't wait for them to grow up and move their messy, cheeping selves outside. 

We planted potatoes, carrots and flowers the other day, and when I uploaded these photos a few minutes ago I was startled by how idyllic and wholesome it all looks -- the springy garden, cute animals -- when in fact that day wasn't pleasant at all. The sun kept going behind a cloud, the kids bickered incessantly, and ever since my mother died I've felt like I'm trudging through heavy sand. Even sleeping I feel that way, so you can imagine the joy of amending soil. We'd have been better off at the mall. 
These are Pioneer Woman cinnamon rolls, which tasted just like you'd expect: 
Isabel baked them and they were delicious, but we all agreed they were too much -- too sweet, too rich, too heavily iced, too many. If that sounds irresistible to you, the recipe is here.
I think we are now done cooking from Pioneer Woman, mostly because we're running out of recipes. I cooked a lot of dishes I never posted about, including both of her pizzas (flawed), the mac n' cheese (ditto), oatmeal cookies (great), chicken-fried steak (even better), and scones (killer). The fried chicken was fair, the biscuits so-so, the mashed potatoes a success, the pineapple upside-down cake enormous. Fully tally of how her recipes turned out coming soon. 

Pioneer Woman has been cheerful, easy-going company over these last few months. Isabel, who is 13, has baked extensively, independently, and successfully from the book and now follows the blog. Despite dramatic differences in temperament and taste, to my surprise, I have also come to love Pioneer Woman. 

A lot of cookbooks make me feel slightly bad, like I don't quite measure up, that I'm doing something wrong that the reproachful author is going to help me fix. Alice Waters makes me feel morally lazy and Martha Stewart makes me feel like a slattern. Just holding one of Thomas Keller's books makes me feel innately tacky. Marcella Hazan is a peerless instructor, but a cantankerous, imperious kitchen companion. Mark Bittman has turned preachy. Et cetera.

Nigella Lawson never makes me feel inadequate, and neither does Ree Drummond. Drummond is open-hearted, corny, accepting, and generous, and Pioneer Woman Cooks strikes me as a completely authentic expression of her buoyant personality and unpretentious aesthetic. She isn't trying to correct or reinvent mainstream American foodways however dubious they may be, and cooking from her book has been enjoyable and restful. Maybe I just didn't realize quite how fraught it had all become. Pioneer Woman makes it seem perfectly okay to braise a giant, non-organic pork butt you bought at Safeway and apply an inch of frosting to your brownies and stop trying to get the kids to like squid and chipotle and eat their broccoli raab, whatever the heck that is. Michael Pollan -- who's he? Chicken-fried steak and potato skins made this nation great!

Do I think it's absurd that the only green vegetable recipe in the entire book is an iceberg lettuce salad? Of course. That's very silly. The mountains of butter and sugar she calls for blow my mind. I love squid and chipotle and broccoli raab and will persist in trying to get my children to eat them because I would die of boredom if I had to cook beef and potatoes sprinkled with Lawry's seasoned salt for the rest of my life. Deep down, I will always feel guilty and creeped out buying factory-farmed meat from Safeway, and I believe this feeling is warranted.  I also believe that too many chicken-fried steaks and potato skins have made Americans -- most of whom who do not perform strenuous physical labor on cattle ranches -- fat. 

But so would too many (much?) steak frites. I was always happy to open Drummond's book, much happier than I predicted starting out. I never flipped the page because a recipe was outrageously complicated or required I mail order vanilla paste or search for Little Gem lettuces or acquire a tagine. She's appealing in the way that Ronald Reagan must have been appealing after Jimmy Carter suggested people turn down their thermostats and put on their sweaters. I'm definitely the sweater-wearing type and I'm sure I would've voted for Carter. I will almost certainly acquire a tagine someday and I am dying to lay my hands on some vanilla paste. But I do get why Reagan was elected and I get why Pioneer Woman Cooks has become a best-seller. I would not propose it as a culinary bible for our times, but this book, however reactionary, is a lot of fun. I recommend it. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I'll regret this soon enough

That's Marlboro Man's favorite sandwich, which appears on page 88 of Pioneer Woman Cooks. It's consists of fried cube steak, onions, and butter piled on a giant puffy deli roll and it's pretty tasty. 

This is Pioneer Woman's spicy pulled pork, made by braising meat for seven hours with chili powder and sugar, then tearing it into hunks and threads:
Gross picture, but yummy barbecue/carnitas. I couldn't decide if it belonged in a tortilla or one of the leftover puffy deli rolls so I ate it both ways on different days, and Isabel ate it cold, as a dip for corn chips.
Isabel baked Pioneer Woman's mocha frosted brownies
 which are fantastic, if not as fantastic as Pioneer Woman's sheet cake, which Isabel also baked:

"Please make this cake today. I don't want you to live another day without it," Pioneer Woman writes. Pioneer Woman can lay it on pretty thick, but she's not overselling this cake. Please make this cake today. The recipe is here

Okay, one caveat: I don't like chocolate and I loved this cake. It's one of those mellow, smooth chocolate cakes as opposed to one of the bitter and severe chocolate cakes. If you favor the latter, you may be disappointed.

As I type, Isabel is mixing the dough for Pioneer Woman's cinnamon rolls, the recipe for which calls for more than a pound of butter. I need either a new cookbook or new jeans. 

Monday, April 12, 2010

Out of the blue

Yesterday, we found a blue egg. Today, we found another. The Ameraucana hen isn't a dud after all! They're too pretty to eat, these eggs.

Busy around here. I just finished one onerous task and now there are fifty more. As soon as I'm done with taxes, I'll issue a full report on Pioneer Woman's steak sandwich, pulled pork, and frosted brownies. 

Friday, April 09, 2010

She needs a haircut

I poured a glass of wine, pulled out my wallet, and Owen and I ordered some chicks the other night. What with shipping, you pay a pretty penny for your chicks when you order from My Pet Chicken, but they offer a huge selection, and you can buy as few as three. Most hatcheries require orders of 25. We requested:

-1 blue Andalusian, because Owen likes its looks

-1 Marans, because I still want chocolate brown eggs

-1 Welsummer, again, it's about the chocolate brown eggs

-2 Easter Eggers, because we still want green eggs and our surviving Ameraucana doesn't lay them

-1 buff laced Polish (see photo at top), to attempt to replace the irreplaceable Alberta Einstein

We have a few slots left and are holding out for a Penedesenca, currently unavailable. We would also like a silkie bantam, preferably black. 

Meanwhile, Owen and I have been reading My Fine Feathered Friend by former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes. This sweet, droll book recounts the true story of a bossy Australorp hen that mysteriously turned up in his tiny New York City back yard one day and made herself at home, eating the cat food, roosting in a tree, and laying eggs in a little nest. I've read this book twice before (it's very short) and can't recommend it more highly.

Something else I can't recommend more highly: this toasted coconut ice cream recipe. Serve with chocolate sauce.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The cleaning stage of grief

I've never spring cleaned like I spring cleaned this last week. Focus of mania: the pantry. Loose birthday candles, light bulbs, jars of chutney, kitschy Fire King china bought in thrift shops, precious china bequeathed by deceased loved ones, gag food gifts (canned spotted dick), bags of Chinese mushrooms, rock sugar, bonito flakes, teff flour, vases, fondue kits, and skewers had accumulated in such unruly masses that I often couldn't find things I knew I had. And so I bought more -- more Chinese mushrooms, rock sugar, bonito flakes, etc. 

The other day I took everything out. I sent the kitschy china and much more to Goodwill, and threw out any foodstuff that looked like it might kill us. Then I cooked an enormous pot of ancient beans and rice for the chickens, and put everything else that was remotely edible in a bin. See photo at top. It doesn't look like much, but it is much.  The goal is to empty the bin, and to that end I have been improvising our meals. I've been more creative than usual in my cooking. Also, not coincidentally, less successful.

Here's what I made the other night. 

Pasta puttanesca
The puttanesca was, in fact, very successful. I made it without looking at a cookbook so I can legally print "my" original, totally unoriginal recipe: Saute one big chopped onion and 5 cloves chopped garlic in 1/4 cup olive oil. Add one 28 oz. can of chopped tomatoes, 2 TBS capers, 2/3 cup wrinkled black olives that you have torn into nice, meaty chunks, 5 oil-packed anchovies that have sat in your fridge for several years and which you have roughly chopped, 1/2 teaspoon oregano, a pinch of red pepper flakes, lots of black pepper, and salt. Simmer until it looks like sauce (25 minutes) and toss with a pound of boiled spaghetti. Huge hit. 
Strawberry jam cake. I made many jars of strawberry jam last spring, labeled them prettily, then forgot to give them away. They have been cluttering the pantry and making me sad. It doesn't seem polite or generous to give away year-old jam and as a family we only eat so much jam, ergo: strawberry jam cake.

Here's the mediocre recipe I concocted using spice cake as a rough guide: Cream a stick of butter with 1/3 cup white sugar and 2/3 cup light brown sugar. Beat in 3 eggs until combined. Add 1/2 cup about-to-expire Greek yogurt, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 cup strawberry jam, and 1 cup flour. Pour into a buttered 9-inch pie plate and bake at 350 for 45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. It's extremely damp, sticky, supersweet, fragrant, and a rich, nutty brown -- not the best cake that's ever crossed your lips, but you could d0 worse.

Palm sugar ice cream. Thought this might complement strawberry jam cake. Coarse and gritty, palm sugar has a low glycemic index and an earthy, even dirty, quality that I kind of like. But the bag I bought last year had overstayed its welcome, so I devised this way to get rid of it: Heat a cup of cream and a cup of milk in a saucepan. Whisk 6 egg yolks with 1/2 cup palm sugar and whisk in some hot milk. Pour mixture back into saucepan and, stirring constantly, cook gently until it forms a custard. Strain. Cool. Stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla. Freeze in your ice cream machine. Or, better yet, just put the palm sugar straight into the trash. The putty-colored ice cream had a funky flavor and no one, including me, wanted to eat it.

Fruity teff cookies. My niece Stella helped me create these cocoa-colored mounds of horror.
We started with a standard shortbread formula, then substituted teff flour for some of the white flour. (I've had great success baking with teff, so I was genuinely hopeful.) Stella requested raisins, so we added "tiny raisins" (a.k.a. currants, of which I have several pounds) and, in an attempt to produce a fluffier cookie, an egg and some baking powder. The cakey blobs we pulled from the oven a short while later had a repugnant sandy texture and tasted salty and altogether vile. 

So there you have it. An off-road cooking adventure like this is fun every once in a while, and helps me appreciate recipes.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Numb is the new normal

I never appreciated the variety and loveliness of eggs until our hens started to lay. I keep waiting for a green egg. One young Ameraucana survived the recent massacre, but she has yet to pony up a green egg and we worry she may be one of the Ameraucanas that doesn't. At dusk the other day, I was putting the chickens to bed and this particular pullet stood on the rickety ramp up to the hen house, cocked her head, and, for a good long minute, peered at me sideways out of one glittering amber-colored eye. She has this heavily feathered brow that makes her look fierce and commanding, and standing there, gazing into the eye of this beautiful and elegant animal, I realized . . . well, I don't know what I realized except that for all the heartbreak, if we'd never gotten chickens I never would have known them for the funny, various, and mysterious creatures that they are. 
After everything that's happened in the last few weeks, it seems strange to go back to posting dowdy pictures of what I cook, but that's what I'm going to do. On Thursday, the night after my mother's memorial service, we held a subdued little party with my sister's family and my husband's parents, who had flown out from Boston.
On the menu: Pioneer Woman enchiladas. I was deeply grateful not to have to chop a lot of vegetables, shop for exotic ingredients, or worry that children were going to complain -- the charm of all Pioneer Woman recipes. Filled with hamburger, canned olives, and canned chilies, then topped with canned sauce and shredded cheddar, these enchiladas were exactly like what you get on a combination plate in a Mexican-American restaurant that serves frozen raspberry margaritas and fried ice cream. 
I remarked on this, perhaps in a slightly sour way. "But Mom," said Isabel, "that's a good thing."

She's right, it was a good thing, a very good thing. It just wasn't an interesting thing.  

I made PW's chewy, crusty, sugary blackberry cobbler for dessert
which is as restrained a dish as you'll find in the PW sweets repertoire. (Tasty. Recipe is here.) Anything Ree Drummond can frost, she will frost, but even she can't frost a cobbler.