Friday, August 27, 2010

Ricotta gnudi from Stir: Mix ricotta, 2 eggs (book calls for 1, but I used 2 because mixture seemed dry), a little flour and Parmesan. Form into small dumplings, score with a fork as you might peanut butter cookies. Freeze for an hour then boil. Serve with Barbara Lynch's basic marinara sauce (tomatoes, red pepper flakes, onion, garlic). Easy. Stupendous. Not a scrap left over for the chickens.

Speaking of which, the chickens have taken to hiding their eggs. In the last two days we've found 24 eggs hidden around the yard, including a cache of thirteen in the overgrown tomato patch. Later, I found the bantam hen sitting on a clutch of 9 tiny eggs on top of the coop. I know they don't harbor salmonella, but how long have they been sitting out there? Weeks? Months?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Just food, for a change

All summer the fog sat on us like a duvet, and then, out of nowhere, comes this crazy heat wave. Last night's dinner was "light" on account of the weather. I put light in quotes because while its individual components sounded light -- an eggplant salad, some open-faced sandwiches -- this dinner was actually extremely filling.

Everything came from Barbara Lynch's Stir and it was all beyond great. Isabel made fig, ricotta, and prosciutto tartines which were exactly what the name describes, but also included a "drizzle" of honey and "confetti" of fresh mint leaves that you "shower" on top just before serving. I love it when cookbook writers use juicy words like that. Lynch calls for black figs, but the only decent figs at the grocery store were green, so I bought those. The recipe incorporates contrasting flavors and textures -- creamy, salty, meaty, sweet, crunchy, minty -- and I loved these sandwiches immoderately.

We also made the eggplant with dried pear-pine nut vinaigrette and feta.
As you can see, this design-intensive composed salad does not play to my food-styling strengths (or lack thereof), but it's one of the tastiest, most unusual things I've made out of Stir. You melt some feta with cream to make a sharp, rich sauce that you spread on individual plates. On top, arrange some roasted eggplant and over everything pour a fabulous dressing of sauteed shallots, garlic, anchovy, olive oil, sherry, yellow raisins and pine nuts. I had no yellow raisins so used dried pears instead and they worked beautifully. This was another brilliant melding of contrasting flavors and textures, and I think the recipe may be worth the price of the book.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It's all about me, me, me

Today was my kids' first day back at school. My husband and I tried to honor this occasion and bought them school supplies and new clothes. I tried to reflect on the milestone, but couldn't force any epiphanies. They're starting 5th and 8th grades and honestly, today just doesn't feel like a milestone.

Instead, I spent the morning of their first day of school indulging insecurities. Either you will relate, which will make you feel better about being a ninny, or you won't, which will make you feel superior, which you are.

Three incidents:

1. I had a lovely mother, but she was not perfect, and one of her imperfections was her overuse of the word "fine." I don't mean in the Hemingway sense ("he was a fine bull, very strong and very fine") I mean in the deflating way. As in, teenaged daughter is going out and has put immense effort into her outfit and asks, nervously, "Do I look okay?" Mother replies, yawning, "You look fine." Teenaged girl has first perm: "Your hair looks fine." Adult woman writes article and wants editorial commentary: "I think it's fine."

Overuse of the word fine is not one of my imperfections. I say, "You look great!" "These cookies are fantastic." "This is an incredible monster truck you just drew." I say it when asked and I say it unprompted. Perhaps this is annoying, but I learned from my mother's mistakes and think it is better to err on the side of overencouraging.

Of course, I make my own mistakes. I will describe one: This morning I put on a summery skirt I haven't worn in months. I thought I looked sharp. I said to Isabel, who takes an interest in clothes, "Hey, what do you think of this outfit?"

She assessed and replied, coolly, "You look fine. "

Asking a 13-year-old daughter to provide sartorial affirmation: MISTAKE. And one my mother never made.

2. I changed into jeans. Then I drove Owen to school and met my sister whose daughter, Stella, is starting kindergarten at the same school. (Now that's a milestone.) We all walked in together and I took a lot of pictures.
I told Stella I loved her outfit and also her backpack. See? I'm not just an encouraging mother, I'm an encouraging aunt.

We were standing in the hallway of the school and I saw a woman I know well and like a lot, but, for no particular reason, have not seen in 7 months. I know intimate details of her marriage, the insulting thing a guy at Home Depot said to her once, about her sister's problems, about her mother's death. But I could not remember her name. You have to understand, this was not like forgetting the name of someone I've met once or twice. I've never experienced a lapse of this magnitude before and it was freaky. I tried to avoid her so I wouldn't have to introduce her to my sister and betray myself.

Then, this woman and I made eye contact. I smiled warmly and she smiled warily. I kept smiling. Then the third thing happened.

3. She came up to me and said, "I'm sorry, I don't recognize you."

I said, "Jennifer! I'm Jennifer. From Mary's exercise class!"

She said, "Oh sure, Jen. I'm so sorry." We struck up a conversation, I remembered her name, and all was well. . . except, now I was beset with a new anxiety. How could she not recognize me? But instead of thinking, wow, my memory may be going but her memory is shot to hell, I thought, wow, I must look absolutely terrible. Is my face so very bloated that people no longer recognize me? It is true I have gained weight in recent months. . . or am I just not memorable? Gosh. I've always suspected I was boring.

What a basket case. I sure hope all those children starting school today are more mature and secure than I am. Kids, y'all look GREAT!

The mother of all catch-up posts

Should we forbid this comportment at the dinner table? Should we laugh it off?

I never would have worn a box to dinner! I wonder if the kids in ancient Rome started wearing boxes to dinner. I bet it was one of the signs.

A few nights later, I asked Owen to set the table and he did this:
I actually think the newspaper place mat is a good idea.

Okay, food. In the bowl in the photo at top is the tomato soup from Barbara Lynch's Stir. I was not so crazy about this soup, which tasted like spaghetti sauce, so Isabel and I changed it drastically, mostly by adding a lot of sugar and cream. I think the two of us were warped by Campbell's and expect tomato soup to be rich and sweet. Doctored by us, the soup was absolutely delicious, and while it is perverse to use canned tomatoes in August, this would be an excellent soup for January. Here's the recipe:


3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, sliced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 1/2 cups water
salt and pepper
1/2 cup fresh basil (or another fresh herb. I think dill would work well.)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups cream or milk

1. In a soup pot, gently saute the onion and red pepper flakes in the oil until the onion softens. Pour in the tomatoes and add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching.

2. Add water, basil and sugar and simmer for another 15 minutes.

3. Puree in a food processor or blender until smooth. Return to the pot and stir in the milk or cream. Taste for seasoning and serve, ideally with grilled cheese sandwiches. Serves 4.

A few nights later, on the newspaper place mats, we ate Lynch's cheese risotto, which employs, instead of the usual Parmesan, my favorite cheese: aged gouda.
This ugly photo is strictly to prove that I really did make risotto.

The aged gouda was an excellent twist, but the really interesting aspect of this recipe was that Lynch instructs you to fold whipped cream into the cooked risotto. I don't understand the point of whipping the cream, because it melted as soon as it touched the risotto, instantly reverting to its pre-whipped condition. That said, the risotto was incredible.

All caught up.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Catch-up post #4: apple tart

I've lost the cookbook reviewing thread of this blog in recent months and one of my goals of the autumn is to get back on track. I'll do a few more days of Stir and then start something new on Wednesday with a burst of first-day-of school enthusiasm.

This is the Stir apple tart I took to my father's house the other night. Modest hit. At top you can see the tart pre-broiling: paper thin apple slices arrayed atop tangy apple butter spread atop a baked puff pastry shell. The puff pastry is store-bought, per Barbara Lynch's instructions.

Here's the tart a few minutes later
after I ran it under the broiler and wandered away for 30 seconds too long. I had to trim off a burnt edge, but the tart was otherwise, as my sister archly put it, "elegant."

"Elegant" was one of our mother's favorite adjectives, by which she meant something very fine and restrained and severe and admirable and fundamentally antithetical to her own effusive, expressive personality. She sometimes tried to be elegant, but taupe just never came naturally to her. "Elegant" describes this tart perfectly. The crust was thin and flaky, the fruity embellishment minimal and not overly sweet. Some people love desserts that are not overly sweet and they will love this tart. I feel that not overly sweet=not adequately sweet, and while I appreciated and admired this elegant pastry, I won't make it again.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Catch-up post #3: Off the Grid

If you don't live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you probably don't know how cold it has been this summer, how Siberian the evenings, how gray and disspiriting the mornings, how completely isolated we feel from the August rituals of the rest of America -- cookouts, afternoons at the pool, perspiring. Yesterday, I wore boots, tights, and a long-sleeved dress and it was actually one of our warmer days. In the garden, not a single tomato has ripened, though a few have molded and rotted, still green. It is August 18.

But we do our best. Friday night the kids and I went to an event called Off the Grid, which is basically an open-air convocation of food trucks where hundreds of people in Irish knit sweaters and Peruvian wool caps flock to eat Asian tacos and hot dogs and empanadas and other comestibles sold by mobile vendors and pretend they are having a brilliant summer experience. Isabel and I wanted to eat something from every truck. We did not succeed.

Here's what we tried:

-Malaysian crepe with chicken.
The crepe when submerged in sauce was more like a yummy noodle. I gobbled up the "crepe" and picked at the chicken, which was harshly seasoned and not delicious. The children boycotted.

-a taco.

-a gordita

-a cupcake. Owen had to nag a lot before he got this because I believe bought cupcakes are a rip-off. He got a "Twinkie" flavored cupcake and was disappointed that it didn't taste like a Twinkie. Next time I'm just going to buy him a Twinkie.

-some Chinese dumplings

-saffron lemonade

-two creme brulees, one vanilla, one dulce de leche.
I thought these were quite good, Isabel thought they were middling, and Owen disapproved. Owen: "This is one of the foods that you don't want to take a giant bite of because if you accidentally get too much of it in your mouth it feels really gross."

He might have a point.

We were chilly and had to keep scavenging for seats and none of the food was as tasty as what you'd get in a restaurant. Still, walking back to the car I had this feeling that we'd done something incredibly fun, that we'd shared in a communal celebration of the chill of high summer before the chill of autumn and winter sets in. I guess this is a seasonal ritual people require, even when it's completely absurd. We won't go back, but I'm glad we went.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Catch-up post #2: My Waterloo

I do understand the challenges of writing a recipe for a dessert as rococo as a napoleon, but on this one Rose Levy Beranbaum gets a D-.

The napoleon episode started last week when, in an attempt to entice my grandmother to come for dinner, I promised to make napoleons. My grandmother often alludes to napoleons. Based on passing remarks, I would say that her vision of an elegant and delicious meal consists of an old fashioned with a cherry, cheese souffle, and, for dessert, a napoleon. Someone will pay for the meal with a Charga-Plate.

So, last week, using Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible, I made the fondant and the pastry cream that are essential to a classic napoleon. Then I mixed and rolled and chilled and rolled and chilled and rolled etc etc. the puff pastry. All was well and I had a beautiful slab of buttery dough. Beranbaum calls for weighting the puff pastry with a cookie sheet as it bakes and while I suspected a piece of parchment belonged in there somewhere, she's Rose Levy Beranbaum who wrote her master's thesis on sifting flour and who am I to question? I forged ahead. As I feared, when I tried to lift the top cookie sheet off the baked puff pastry, I ended up with torn, buckled shards.
My grandmother came to dinner anyway. We rued the failed napoleon as we ate hamburgers and Stir french fries.

Aside about Barbara Lynch's fries: excellent. In case you are wondering, the Stir fries are on the left, loathsome frozen Safeway fries on the right.
Since I still had the pastry cream and fondant, I made a new batch of puff pastry the other day -- this time using Jacques Pepin's recipe -- baked it up, and assembled the napoleon according to Beranbaum's directions. I greatly admire Beranbaum, but it is wrong to assume that just because her recipes are written in obsessive, maddening detail they will actually work. The pastry cream was soupy. Her formula for making the chocolate drizzle: addled.

That said, just pouring that fondant and watching it harden into a glossy pearlescent shell on the pastry gave me a thrill I don't get anymore from making a rustic fruit cobbler. Tackling an absurd French pastry dessert was exciting, however lame the results. I want to do more of this.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Catch-up post #1: Wednesday night

Dinner 1: My sister, Justine, and her family came over and we made corn dogs. I used a recipe from Staff Meals at Chanterelle that involves, as all corn dog recipes seem to, dipping hot dogs in a raised sweetened cornbread dough before plunging them into hot fat.

Here's what I wrote about this recipe in the margin of the book in March 2003: "Very crispy-- not too doughy. Tasted good. Quality of the hot dog does matter."


Here's what I wrote in March 2006: "Not as great as remembered -- but not bad. Used leftover batter to fry Milano cookies and now those WERE great."

Here's what I wrote in August 2010: "So greasy. Am I over corn dogs?"

Yes. I think we all are. Justine and I used to fetishize corn dogs based on their "treat" status when our parents took us to the rodeo, but at a certain age any food that entails this
becomes vaguely unappealing.

The homemade corn dogs were edible. We ate them. But the frozen corn dogs I bought to compare them to (see suspiciously tidy, symmetrical golden specimen at far right) were repulsive. Someone actually spit out a mouthful, though I won't say who. I tried to get everyone to explain why these were so disgusting and no one could. Even I couldn't. Maybe it's just the concept of a frozen corn dog?

The meal was not all bad. I made a refreshing cole slaw out of Stir, a basic mayonnaise dressed slaw with some carrots. Not worth buying the book for, but very good.
And dessert was fantastic, engineered by Isabel start to finish. She wanted to invent an ice cream and did so: chocolate ice cream with Nutella and marshmallow swirl. I think she froze the Nutella, but I'm not sure.

She also made the cones:A lot of them broke so there weren't enough to go around, but the shards were crunchy and delicious used to scoop ice cream out of a dish. I need to get her to write a guest post to explain how she did it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It's like they were never gone

My children are home from New England, taller and tanner and worldlier than when we said goodbye on July 2. Isabel has started drinking tea and is of her own volition reading Little Women, which may not sound worldlier than reading, say, The Clique, but absolutely is. Working your way through the schlock to arrive at the classics: worldly.

Our conversation on the subject:

Tipsy: "I loved Little Women! Jo was my favorite character. But of course she's every girl's
favorite character."

Isabel: "Actually, I like Beth."

Tipsy: "Beth? But don't you identify with Jo?"

Isabel: "No, I probably identify most with Meg. Or maybe Beth."

Stunned silence. I didn't realize anyone, ever, identified with Meg or Beth. It's a big, crazy world in our little house.

Anyway, we plunged right back into Stir by making Barbara Lynch's potato gnocchi. It's a basic gnocchi recipe: You boil the potatoes, rice or mash them onto a baking sheet, let cool, mix with salt and eggs, then knead the unruly mass into a shaggy dough.After that, you roll out the dough and cut it into ropes
and then into fat bullet shapes.

For a sauce, I made Lynch's butcher shop Bolognese. Lynch: "The secret ingredient in this rich, meaty, creamy, traditional-style Bolognese sauce is chicken livers. Finely chopped and combined with the ground meat, they contribute an amazing depth of flavor without making the sauce livery (which means their addition can be our little secret.")

Oh Barbara, we're way past that kind of Jessica Seinfeld ruse. Everyone knew about the livers; everyone ate the livers; everyone liked the livers. I was pondering the narrative arc of this blog, such as there is one. Two years ago, dinners regularly involved threats, children throwing themselves on the floor and screaming, parents reaching for alcohol, tears. Today, everyone pretty much eats everything.

Moral of the story: You, too, can break your the spirits of your children! Serve enough pig ear salads, Parsi casseroles, octopus, and oxtails stews, and by the time they are in middle school your babies will eat liver sauce without batting an eyelash.

Monday, August 02, 2010

A banana is Burt

Last week, my friend Debra threw a party and I baked this spelt-olive oil-rosemary cake from Good to the Grain for the occasion. Naturally, I worried about bringing a spelt-olive oil-rosemary cake to a party, but reports had been good and I trust Kim Boyce. Plus, this was a crowd -- kombucha-loving females of Marin County, California who met in a spin class -- that might actually embrace an alternative cake. Not that I would EVER stereotype.

The cake was easy to make because you don't have to deal with butter, i.e. no creaming or melting. Two bowls and into the oven it went in about 4 minutes. Cake was unfrosted and firm and traveled well. I brought some creme fraiche for garnish, though I now think whipped cream would have been better, or nothing. As you can see, the cake also contains dark chocolate chunks. I would have preferred it without, but am alone in this aversion.

Although no one at the party took seconds, everyone praised the cake -- which was exotic in flavor, moist, austere, not very sweet. Someone said, "You outdid yourself!" which made me glow. On the face of things, a hit. Certainly not a flop. But for me, at least, there was something quietly wrong.

When I got home I lay in bed and started analyzing what I didn't love about this elegant, arresting dessert. I realized I didn't like this cake as a person . I think I may have still been a little drunk. But it became clear to me, lying there in the dark, that I subconsciously assign genders and personalities to foods. All foods. Steak is an alpha male in his thirties, roast beef is an alpha male over fifty, and potatoes are their brutal, stupid henchmen. Roast pork loin is a pompous bald man, peas are eunuchs, bread is a monk, ice cream in a cone is a fun gay guy, but in a dish is a sensible middle aged woman. Pie is a grandmother, but the kind of grandmother who has too many grandchildren and can never pay specific attention to any one of them. Chocolate chip cookies are tomboys and ginger snaps are great aunts. Dark chocolate is Bea Arthur, milk chocolate is my mother, an uncooked hot dog is Ricky Gervais. Et cetera.

I'm telling you, it was weird! But I don't have to tell you. Here's my question: does everyone subconsciously do this? And if so, do your food personalities match mine at all?

Anyway, I hadn't met this spelt-olive oil-rosemary cake before nor anything like her, so it took me a while to figure her out. And the cake is a her, though that was somewhat unclear at first because she's handsome, angular, and wears drag. I'm fine with all that, but what I didn't like was her hauteur. When I tried to engage with her, she remained cool and contemptuous, perhaps enjoying my bourgeois confusion? I decided I don't want to have dinner with her again, but if you think you might, the recipe is here.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Almost as pretty as Smitten Kitchen

I saw a recipe for rhubarb-rose preserves in Linda Ziedrich's Joy of Jams, Jellies and Other Sweet Preserves and since I have both rhubarb and roses just outside my door, decided to make it.

You simmer fruit, flowers, and sugar and watch as the mixture moves rapidly from beautiful this:
to less beautiful but still beautiful this:And then you put it in jars. Here's what Ziedrich says: "A few minutes before writing these words, I opened a six-year-old jar of rhubarb-rose preserves, and for a moment I thought that the roses were blooming in the garden. These preserves can raise you out of midwinter blues into happy plans for spring."

Hope so!

Our garden is basically a catastrophe this year -- it was an unhappy spring -- but the six rhubarb seeds I planted in the happy spring of 2009 have grown to a lush, waist-high forest. Some people say you should wait until year three to harvest rhubarb, but the stalks are so abundant and thick that I pulled a few anyway. This is the leaf from a single stalk, with a big, fat hardcover book for scale:
Bloggers are always coming up with contests. What contest should I set up so I can send the winner a jar of this jam?