Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mostly resistible meals

not my idea of a thrilling collection
My in-laws, Mary and David, came from Boston for Christmas and during their stay Mary cleaned Owen's room with him and took him to the Container Store to buy a shelf for his collection of Transformers. Until a few days ago, he stored his Transformers under the bed, on the bed, and all over the floor. He sat there one night organizing them on that Container Store shelf and singing Christmas carols and it was one of my happiest moments of the whole season to watch him discover the pleasure of organizing a ridiculous collection. A pleasure I know all too well.

not most people's idea of a thrilling collection
Cleaning Owen's room was a monumental feat. Mary is a hero.

And this is how I repaid her: By cooking a series of one-dish casseroles out of The Best of the Best from California, a book that pays homage to the wonders of condensed cream of mushroom soup and Jell-O instant pudding.

Meal #1: chicken and wild rice casserole.

Could it be any uglier?
I appreciated how easy this hideous casserole was. To make this you basically cut everything up, season with pre-mixed poultry seasoning, scrape into a big dish, and bake. I thought it was inedible -- dry, bland, sagey, soupy.

But Mary and David loved it, as did their son, as did their grandchildren. My kids sat around crowing about how the tables are now turned! That finally I know what it's like to sit down to a meal I don't like! I wondered if bad taste is genetic and whether I could blame Mary and David for this, but then I reminded myself that they do nice things like take Owen to the Container Store and squelched this line of thought.

Meal #2. Lasagna in a bun.

 To me, they look very tasty.
Fry some hamburger and onion then add jarred spaghetti sauce. Hollow out hoagie rolls, mix preshredded cheeses and ricotta. Stuff the buns with meat and cheese, then top with more shredded cheese. Bake. I really think this concept has potential, not that the dish met its potential; no one liked them very much. I could imagine what these tasted like, so didn't actually taste them because I'm on a diet.

Meal #3. Chicken lasagna. You take meat off a rotisserie chicken, make a white sauce, layer the meat and sauce with noodles and mozzarella. Bake. Everyone liked it; Mary said it reminded her of chicken a la king. I knew from her description exactly what it tasted like, so didn't taste it.

Eat your heart out, Norman Rockwell.
Meal #4. Mexican stroganoff. To make this bastard dish, you fry hamburger and onions, season heavily with chili and paprika, stir in mushrooms and sour cream, then pour over egg noodles.  I took a tiny taste for seasoning and it was enough to know that Mexican stroganoff is both absurd and delicious.

By the way, if you're wondering what it's like to cook meals you don't eat, the answer is: not that hard as long as you also make a really good salad that contains enough -- but not too much! -- feta cheese.

Finally, I did make one Best of the Best dessert, a Hershey's Kiss pie for David's birthday. Mary had earlier in the week reminisced about a Cool Whip dessert she loves, chuckling as she "admitted" this. I took that as license to serve a Cool Whip dessert, which is not ordinarily my thing. To produce this pie, you melt the unwrapped contents of a 12-ounce bag Hershey's kisses with 1/4 cup of milk in a saucepan. Then you add an 8 ounce brick of cream cheese and stir until it melts. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 12 ounces of Cool Whip until the mixture is homogeneous. Pour the chocolate cream into an Oreo crust (frozen or homemade) and refrigerate until firm.

I did eat a .75 ounce portion of this and almost fainted it was so good. You don't realize how much flavor is contained in a one centimeter shard of Oreo crust until you go on a diet.

Anyway, I didn't do any holiday cooking this year because we were invited other places. It was very restful .

Mary and David are back in Boston now and we are in Los Angeles. We went to this great restaurant the other night and ordered small plates of pig's ear salad, burrata with tomatillo salsa, veal sweetbreads, poutine with oxtail gravy, hanger steak, pork belly sandwiches, gnocchi with liver sauce, and balsamic barbecued ribs. The kids were game and cheerful and ate more than I'd expected. I tasted everything. 

Happy New Year, everyone.

Monday, December 19, 2011

So who's really slagging who?

They look so innocent.
Have you been following the whole bake sale kerfuffle?

First, you have to read Jennifer Steinhauer's story in the New York Times. If you don't have 7 minutes to spare, I'll offer a brief recap: People are bringing store-bought food to pot lucks and bake sales and Steinhauer is irritated:

"Nothing is quite as depressing as the modern bake sale, where amid the veritable celebration of poundcakes and misshapen cookies are the inevitable Ziploc bags filled with Oreos or perfectly formed bakery bought treats. In the countless sales I have attended over the years, I have been amazed by the number of packaged cookies, high-end cupcakes and impeccably round marzipan-covered confections that people plop down on the table, with no compunction, to be resold."

For the record, I think Steinhauer's tone could have been more diplomatic and I think that some of the people she quotes sound snotty. Moreover, I don't agree with her about pot lucks, another target of her disappointment. In my view, you can bring whatever you want to a pot luck, from a bucket of KFC to a homemade croquembouche, and everyone should say, thank you so much. With feeling. Acceptance and inclusiveness are hallmarks of the pot luck.

Bake sales are different. About bake sales, I wholeheartedly agree with Steinhauer. I don't think Oreos belong at a bake sale and I wouldn't buy them there. I'd rather just make a donation. I don't think anyone should ever be forced to contribute to a bake sale or guilted into it and if we can't drum up enough homemade treats from willing bakers, maybe we should scrap the tradition. I love a good bake sale and where's the fun when the merchandise is just repackaged from Ralph's? As Steinhauer puts it, "Look at it this way: You would not resell socks you bought at Macy’s on the art-sale crafts table. Respect the cookie!"

I saw nothing controversial about this statement.

Well, I am in a minority, at least if noise on the internet is an indicator. Over the last few days I've read many criticisms of Steinhauer's piece. The gist of most of them: she is scolding women who can't find time/can't afford/don't want to bake. And that her piece is sexist. Most critics have made lucid points even when I don't agree with them.

But in another category altogether are the vituperative Twitter and Facebook broadsides of the inimitable Ayelet Waldman, who went on a real tear after reading Steinhauer's essay. Some choice excerpts:

"This homemaker fetish is retrograde and anti-feminist and women like JENNIFER STEINHAUER are just PC, liberal Phyllis Schlaflys."

"When are these women going to figure out that this fetish for raising chickens and baking the perfect bundt cake is retrograde, oppressive, and nothing more than latter-day Phyllis Schlafley (sic) bullshit? You know what you don't have time for when you're obsessing over the candied lavender on your Christmas Cookies? Outrage over the political and economic crisis, that's what."

"Oh, I'm too busy baking and raising my own chickens for the fresh fresh eggs. I have no time to, um, work. Or be politically active."

But here's my favorite --  a real gem -- addressed to Steinhauer:

"Hey, you sanctimonious bitch, I have 4 kids, a fulltime job. I don't have time to bake cookies. Lucky you that you do."

It's not Jennifer Steinhauer who strikes me as the sanctimonious bitch.

First of all, I think Waldman needs to consistently spell "Schlafly" right if she's going to use that dated reference as often as she does. I know, it's a bear. But it just seems like good form for a chest-thumping "full-time job" writer to spell correctly in the same way that it's good form for a retro homemaking fetishist to, say, make the bed.

Second, I think it's hilarious that Waldman, a stay-at-home novelist who tweets endlessly about her weight, Devachan haircuts, and where she buys toilet paper (amazon), is sounding off self-righteously about her super-busy life to Jennifer Steinhauer. Jennifer Steinhauer! Who has 2 children, contributes to bake sales, writes a weekly column for Food52 and in her spare time covers Congress for the New York TimesYes, she really needs to get a life. Good one, Ayelet.

But what really impresses me about these tweets is how Waldman is not just going after Steinhauer's mildly controversial piece. She's going after all us twitty bundt cake bakers and candied lavender fans.

I lost sleep over this for reasons I didn't understand until I got up in the morning and realized I felt personally offended. Baking has now officially been dragged into the stupid Mommy Wars! Great. I don't judge people who do not bake. I hope this is abundantly clear in my blog and in my book and in person. I do not judge people even to the minor degree that Steinhauer does in her article. And Waldman is judging me -- for baking! Except "judging" is too polite a word. "Sliming" is better. Slimed by a professional mean girl for a totally innocuous hobby.

Since then, I've thought far too much about bake sales, baking, the hateful, pointless Mommy Wars and Ayelet Waldman. Herewith, once and for all and hopefully never again, my thoughts:

I've been a parent in the California public school system for 16 child years. Bake sales are few and far between, at least in our district. We are asked regularly for money, rarely for brownies. Would that the two were reversed! In any case, all solicitations are gender neutral so there's no reason women should feel they are being unfairly targeted for bake sale bondage. We're not. No one is ever forced to contribute and anyone can bake those cookies -- Dad, the kids, Mom. You can buy the cookies if you want, though it's sort of a bummer for the customer, at least when the customer is me.

Still, it's true, I have observed, that females do most of the baking and "manning" of the bake sale booth. I've worked the bake sale booth myself. I've brought cookies. My husband? Never.

And yet it doesn't seem terribly sexist or unjust because it is also true that after every school walkathon and fundraiser I've attended, it is men -- dads -- who spend the remainder of their Sunday afternoon picking up grimy half-eaten hamburgers and smashed cupcakes off the basketball court, dragging around Hefty bags, loading dumpsters. You know what I'd love to see? A pissy internet throwdown between downtrodden dads who set up chairs for the silent auction and cool, ballsy dads who tweet that they're too busy with their fulltime jobs and political activism. Maybe Michael Chabon could weigh in.

Honestly. Bake sale duty has taken about 2 hours per year, if that, out of my precious life.  My husband has spent many times that doing the various gross janitorial jobs the men get stuck with. I'd rather bake. Even if I didn't like to bake, I'd rather bake.

But I do like to bake. You don't? That's fine with me. My mom didn't bake unless she really had to, and when she did she used a mix. But baking is a little spot of grace in my life -- which isn't always full of grace. It's how I relax, a way I show affection and share. I truly like to bake for other people, including people who go to bake sales, and I expect nothing in return -- except, I suppose, a modicum of respect. I always thought it was a nice thing about me, the baking, something to value. I still do. So you can shove it, Ayelet Waldman. And you can shut up about the chickens, too.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Who is this harridan and what have you done with Jennifer?

Gretchen Rubin says to "act the way you want to feel." Doesn't work. I have been acting like Donna Reed these last few weeks, and still feel like Medea.

I haven't been very nice lately. I haven't been very happy. Is it the holidays? Is it hormonal? Too many hours spent gazing at the river of time? Too much time cooking things that people make fun of? An innately bad disposition?

Last night I prepared our first meal from The Best of the Best of California, which Isabel chose for me to cook from over the coming weeks. I made the enchilada casserole, which she had flagged. Brown some ground turkey and chopped onion in a skillet. Add taco seasoning from a packet, a cup of yogurt, two boxes of thawed frozen spinach. Layer with corn tortillas, salsa, and pre-shredded low-fat cheese. Bake. It's like something Roseanne would have cooked, except she would have used ground beef, sour cream and full-fat cheese and it would have been better. I, too, used full-fat cheese. I didn't see any low-fat cheese at the market that looked at all appropriate or Mexican.

Everyone was ostentatiously infatuated by this casserole. Owen ate three cups in about three seconds. "This will reheat great as leftovers!" exulted my husband.

I sulked.

I baked for dessert the Milky Way cake.  I can't pretend I wasn't excited about melting six Milky Way bars with a stick of butter and pouring it into a bowl of cake batter.

Let me tell you, that was some delicious cake batter. But the recipe in The Best of the Best of California makes a point of saying not to grease or flour your bundt pan. I read this and thought, no, no, no, this is wrong. But I sighed and obeyed.
I brought this to the table, vengefully.

The broken cake tasted fabulous. I sulked. (Pioneer Woman has a somewhat different, very enticing recipe for Milky Way cake, if you're interested. And you should be!)

Then, yesterday afternoon, I went to visit a weight loss counselor. I never thought I would do this -- losing weight isn't a mystery!, it's all about character, etc. -- but I made an appointment and kept it. I'm glad I did because it was both clarifying and motivating. This nutritionist was sensible and reasonable and her estimate of what I should lose, based on body fat content (sobering), height, weight, and age: 27 pounds. That's not nothing. If I manage to lose it, I will be right back where I was five years ago, except this time I will  actually believe I am thin. Or thinnish. Or only need to lose 5 pounds. Or maybe 10. Okay, ideally 15.

I guess this will probably influence how I blog for a while. I hope not too much, but probably some. Certainly fewer Milky Way cakes for a while. It's a drag in short run, but in the long run for the best.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Christmas parties and happiness projects

Spice clutter
Has anyone else read The Happiness Project? I suspect this is one of those books that everyone has a completely different response to. Here's mine: a slightly prissy, unintentionally funny yet infectious account of a high-achieving perfectionist's attempt to "master" happiness like you master multiplication.

Maybe it is possible to master happiness. I don't know. Gretchen Rubin certainly makes the case and while I resisted her whole premise and approach, at the same time I couldn't help succumbing to some of her recommendations. Which is why, over the weekend, instead of sitting in my pajamas on the sofa posting about what we ate for dinner and then going to see New Year's Eve, I decided to alphabetize our spices.

We have a lot of spices. Imagine all the spices a person could possibly own and then double that because the person is messy and can never find the spices in the disorder of his/her cupboards or pantry and so has to go out and buy more spices. Rubin is obsessed with order -- obsessed with cleaning closets and eliminating clutter --  and I couldn't help but think about my pantry when I read her sermon. The spice alphabetization involved a trip to the Container Store, the labelmaker and consolidating multiple jars of mustard seeds. It took many hours over four days and I finally finished yesterday. Question: would you file Aleppo pepper under Aleppo or pepper?

In any case, I'm not sure I'm happier. I do know that I now feel like master of a very tiny universe and this will continue for a day or two. And then some innocent making cinnamon toast is going to misfile the cinnamon and I'm going to detonate, which will make not just me but everyone else in the very tiny universe unhappy. This is the problem, I feel, with linking control and happiness. This is one major problem, I feel, with The Happiness Project.

Of course, there's more to the book. Rubin also has felt unappreciated by her family the way I did last week.

Rubin: "Whatever the reasons I knew I should get over my need for Jamie (husband) to applaud the nice things I did, and, even more, I should get over my need for Jamie even to notice the nice things I did. So I made the resolution 'Don't expect praise or appreciation.'"

Well, that's one approach. When you don't get what you want, stop wanting it. I'm going to try it out.

The other night I made this dinner:

pork tenderloin with oranges from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table. (Very good, but overly fussy for a weeknight dinner because it involves cutting oranges into segments, ugh.)

contemporary take on creamed spinach from Nigel Slater's Tender. (Wilt spinach, puree with creme fraiche. Easy, grassy green, very delicious.)

crushed potatoes with cream also from Nigel. (Boil little potatoes, smash them, drench in warm spiced cream. Delicious.)
The exceedingly unappealing plate of someone trying to diet. 

poached quince yet again, from Nigel. (Peel rare expensive quinces you bought at Safeway because you never, ever see them and wanted to try them, then cook in butter and sugar in a skillet until soft. Delicious.)

For this fine meal, I got much polite praise and appreciation. Isabel said sweetly and earnestly: "I like quinces a lot; I like them more than I like pears."

It's nice when I get it, but I'm going to try not to want it.

Since then, I've hardly cooked. Sunday night, Owen and I went to a party thrown by my mother's beloved friends who have been throwing the same big, boisterous Christmas party for four decades or more. I have memories of this party from earliest childhood and have attended dozens of times. The hostess, as she always does, served egg nog in a big cut glass bowl, steak tartare, incredible shortbread and cut out cookies with tiny silver candy balls for eyes. My mother never missed this party; she basically planned her year around it and would stand at the grand piano singing carols, hoisting a little plastic cup of nog. We all loved/love that party. Attending last night for the first time since her death was very poignant and my sister stood facing the Christmas tree for a while and wept.

But it was healing, also. Because our mother is gone, but the world -- her world -- goes on. That was one part of it. The other part of it -- which will seem paradoxical -- is that things change for everyone. I had persisted on some level in thinking that my mother was cheated, had been singled out. It seemed deeply unfair that she had to suffer and die while everyone else from her world stayed exactly the same, which is how I imagine people I don't see on a daily or even yearly basis.

This is absurd, of course. There have been divorces and big moves and babies born and other happy and difficult developments that I would have heard of from my mother, but have missed entirely. Her world is the same and it is completely different. One of my mother's closest friends didn't recognize me, just gave me a blank look and a cool smile. I hadn't seen her since my mother's funeral 18 months ago, and I made a joke to a childhood friend: "X didn't recognize me. I didn't think I'd gained THAT much weight." Which is actually what I thought, being the self-conscious ninny that I am.

Then my childhood friend told me there was another reason my mother's friend didn't recognize me, a much worse reason that has nothing to do with me.

That was terrible. But I needed to know it. I talked to people I've talked to all my life, ate the shortbread I've eaten once a year just about all my life, listened to carols lustily sung by men and women drinking egg nog, could feel and hear and see the river of time which is sometimes hard to glimpse. It was poignant and beautiful and made me a lot happier than alphabetizing spices.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Food incompatibility: the Q & A

And her word is law.
Q: Hey, where've you been? Basking in glory of seeing Make the Bread, Buy the Butter chosen as one of the notable 2011 cookbooks by Pete Wells of the New York Times?

A: Actually, yes, I was basking for a day or two. But then I plunged into a self-pitying funk.

Q: Seriously? You couldn't bask for more than a day or two? Anyway, tell me about this funk.

A: Like all funks, it's hard to explain.

Q: Try.

A: Well, the other day I did a radio interview and the interviewer said, more or less, "It seems like you do all these great experiments with food and your husband and family aren't into them at all. That must be hard. I could never be in a relationship with someone who isn't into food. Tell me about how that works. . . "

And I thought, wow, what a bold and intimate question! Can I answer this on the record? I did, though, because it's something I think about all the time.

Q: Well, what was the answer? What is it like?

A: Food incompatibility? It's not a deal-breaker, but it's pretty rough. That very night, with that interview still on my mind, I made this great dinner. Really, it was great. I made the fregola sarda with caramelized butternut squash from Food52. I made Dorie Greenspan's beet salad with "icy" onions (delicious), and I sauteed the shiitake mushrooms left over from Thanksgiving in a lot of butter (ridiculously delicious.) Then, for dessert, I made Dorie's long and slow apples which are AMAZING and to accompany this genius apple dish, I baked the cardamom-honey madeleines from a lovely book called Maman's Homesick Pie by Donia Bijan.

A respectable dinner, no? But to hear the sighs of my family members, you'd think I was trying to pass off roasted toad with hemlock sauce. They were all joking and grimacing over the beets, two of them wouldn't touch the mushrooms, and then no one would eat the cardamom madeleines except me. And suddenly I felt very sorry for myself. Couldn't at least one of my children love food?

Q: I'm sorry, but in the scheme of things, this is a pretty trivial sorrow.

A: And that just makes it worse. Thanks a lot. Because not only do I feel bad about the actual thing, but I feel bad for feeling bad.

Q: It might help if you tried to sympathize with your husband. For someone who doesn't care about food it must be hard to be married to YOU.

A: Hey, who's side are you on? But you're right, of course. Poor him. When we were first dating he told me he would like to take all of his nourishment in the form of a pill. And now he has to eat homemade salt pork and lots of kale.

Q: What're you going to do about this funk?

A: I decided I need more family buy-in. So I'm going back to an old plan, which is to let other people in the family choose the cookbooks. We'll do a rotation. My husband has chosen All About Roasting by Molly Stevens, which I just purchased on Saturday after hearing her speak at Omnivore Books. (She was terrific.) Owen chose The Mozza Cookbook by Nancy Silverton and flagged about 15 recipes. I was pleased with that choice and hold out hope that one day he will be an enthusiastic eater. Then Isabel chose The Best of the Best from California. We bought that book together a few years ago because we both think this series is hilarious.

Q: Why?

A: Let's see, is might be the cake that contains a can of fruit cocktail. Or maybe the chip shot chicken that involves rolling chicken thighs in nonfat sour cream and crushed barbecued potato chips.

Q: That recipe sounds like the worst of the worst.

A: I asked Isabel if she wanted to reconsider the book when I pointed out all the recipes that contain Cool Whip and she said, "Your blog readers will like it because you can make fun of it." I'm not so sure, but I told her she could choose any cookbook, so any cookbook it is. And, to be fair, all the recipes she flagged look quite delicious. I'm particularly excited about the Milky Way cake.

Q:  On another subject, any dishes you've cooked lately that you want to tell us about?

Cheese + chard = very happy marriage
A: Yes. I made the best chess pie ever form Nancie McDermott's Southern Pies (thank you Steven). and it has permanently supplanted my old recipe. The shallow tart of chard and cheese from Nigel Slater's Tender is excellent.  His carrot and cilantro fritters are also tasty, though they need quite a bit more flour than he calls for if you want them to hold together. The cocoa-cumin tri-tip roast from Eat Good Food is superb.

Q: So, have you finally broken free of that enslaving CSA?

A: YES! I'm done. I missed being able to choose my vegetables and I hated the waste. Oh, one more thing -- I'm doing some guest blogging here this week. I can't answer half the questions -- I have no idea how to make condensed cream of mushroom soup from scratch to use in a casserole -- but I'm doing my best.

Owen and friend borrowed my camera. Not sure what this means. 
**Correction. Owen just told me what the photograph means: He is a cereal killer.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Such a happy family

Was this the problem?
I was very pleased yesterday because, thanks to the CSA,  I had everything in the house to make Dorie Greenspan's spiced squash, fennel and pear soup for dinner. (I am into pear soups right now.) That meant I could delay going to the grocery store one more day, but also serve a real meal.

So I made the soup. A basic and super-easy pureed vegetable soup. Very orange. I served it just to the kids and me on the early side, and left some on the stove for my husband.

It was the kind of family meal that makes me think I've botched everything entirely, that it's all been a big bust, that I should have known I could never raise children right because I am myself so deeply flawed. I won't go into detail like I did when my children used to throw themselves on the floor and scream about the chickpeas. But I will say that behaviors on display at the table included eye rolling, sarcastic needling, stern lecturing, humming, teasing, cajoling, bickering, sighing, outright complaining, sniping, whining, near-tearful indignation. Somehow we packed all that into a meal that lasted about 7 minutes, start to finish.

As for the soup: cloying. I don't think butternut squash is well served by the sweetness of pear. I wondered whether if we'd liked the soup a little more we would have gotten along better. I wondered if we would have had such a disspiriting mealtime experience with something we loved to eat in front of us, like, say, pesto pasta or takeout enchiladas or macaroni and cheese. I wondered if I'd forbidden Owen to use his allowance to buy a cinnamon roll at Starbucks at 4:30 whether he would have eaten the soup instead of sniveling. I wondered if I set the negative tone because I was tired and crabby. I wondered how my children will remember their childhoods. Et cetera.

Then I put on my coat and went to meet my friend Debra to see a movie, a monthly tradition. We saw The Descendants. And if you've seen The Descendants you'll understand why I suddenly felt slightly more okay about my own family.


Friday, November 25, 2011

The boots I ordered don't fit over my calves. I wonder why.

Cocktail hour around newly painted hearth
I know the last thing anyone wants to think about right now is Thanksgiving, but in my role as recipe recommender and anthologizer, I need to offer a quick recap of what was cooked at our house and what we thought, as some of it is applicable to Christmas. I'm late with this report; I had a mild case of PTSD over the weekend.


*seasonal cocktail. Brought by my sister. There were two: a negroni and a fabulous sweet-sour-smoky Scotch creation the recipe for which I have requested. I drank three. Strangely, I never became drunk. Adrenaline?
*gougeres (from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table). Excellent, as always.
*sardines rillettes (Dorie again). Excellent, as always. 
*creamy sausage-stuffed mushrooms (Food52) Enormously popular, although there was twice as much stuffing as required for the number of mushrooms. Highly recommend.
salted almonds (Food52) Good. Unexciting
**pear soup with pancetta and blue cheese (Food52Jennifer Steinhauer does not lie or even exaggerate. I'm printing out the recipe and putting it in my binder and will try very hard to remember it next Thanksgiving. This soup really tastes of pear and yet is unquestionably a savory. We had leftovers of everything except this soup, but this is what I most wanted leftovers of. You should bookmark this right now. You could also serve it for Christmas. Or tonight.
roasted turkey   
*ciabatta stuffing with chorizo, mushrooms and sweet potato (Food52) Good! Although next time I would omit the sweet potatoes, which I found incongruous.
*green beans with hazelnut crumbs. The sleeper hit of the party. The recipe came from the Frog Commissary Cookbook, which I pulled out to make the mocha buttercrunch pie. (See below.) I spotted the interesting bean recipe while idly flipping through the book and since I had all the ingredients, made it. Very glad I did. (Recipe below.)
*apple, brandy and walnut cranberry sauce (from Food52) Great. Just be sure to add a pinch of salt. (FYI, the recipe calls for pears, but apples work fine.)
mashed potatoes
*spinach-jalapeno casserole (brought by my aunt, made from Laurie Colwin recipe) Wonderful, as usual. A standby and my aunt's signature dish.
*kale salad (brought by my sister, made from Martha Stewart recipe) Wonderful, as usual.
peas These were supposed to be brought my maternal grandmother, topped with a limp piece of lettuce in an old CorningWare dish with a little blue flower on it. These did not appear. The end of an era? Or just a hiatus?
*chess pie. "My" recipe for this supersweet Southern custard pie calls for a tablespoon of cornmeal, which I forgot to put in. I had always wondered if the cornmeal mattered and now I know: It does. Even without the cornmeal, it's my all-time favorite pie. 
*mocha buttercrunch pieIt was absurd and gaudy and creamy and rich and big. And it was unspeakably delicious. For the last few days I've had trouble passing the refrigerator without eating a big spoonful of cold leftover mocha buttercrunch pie. Today I put the last bit of pie in the sink and ran water over it to stop myself.
*pecan pie. Also hard to resist. I tried the recipe from the Frog Commissary Cookbook and it was excellent.
sour cream apple pie. Also from Frog Commissary and very good. 
peanut butter pie. Isabel made this out of a charming cookbook called Sweety Pies by Patty Pinner. Rather than a cold, creamy peanut butter pie with some kind of chocolate embellishment -- which is what I'm used to -- this was a baked, cakey peanut butter pie. Very unusual, very tasty. 
pumpkin cheesecake. Isabel made this from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion. Quite good.

All in all, a wonderful Thanksgiving with 17 of my favorite people. I missed my mother something awful, though. She would have loved that mocha buttercrunch pie. 

from The Frog Commissary Cookbook

1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned (to the extent possible) and finely chopped
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
1 pound green beans, trimmed (use haricots verts if you can find them)
6 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon minced shallots
kosher salt to taste
black pepper to taste.

1. Mix the nuts and the breadcrumbs. 
2. Blanch the green beans in boiling salted water for 2 minutes, then drain and rinse under very cold water to stop the cooking. 
3. Heat the butter in a skillet. Add the shallots and cook until softened. Add the green beans, salt, pepper, and hazelnut crumbs. Cook for several minutes, turning the beans to coat them with the crumbs. Serves 6.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cranberry sauce down, pear soup, only a dozen more dishes to go

You can guess the mystery ingredient.
Before I get to Thanksgiving, here's my primal beet story: One day circa 1975 my somewhat reproachful and intimidating paternal grandmother set out a bowl of beets on her laminate dining table in Brigham City, Utah, very likely alongside a tiny roast cooked to a charcoal gray, a plate of sliced white supermarket bread, and an iceberg lettuce salad. There is zero doubt that the beets were canned.

"I don't like beets," I announced.

"Have you ever tried beets?" she asked, giving me the cold blue eye.

"No," I said nervously.

"That's very silly."

I promptly tried a beet. It was crunchy, slightly sweet, clean-tasting. It was good enough. Not great, but good enough and certainly not repulsive. She was right; I had been silly. I have eaten beets ever since. Score one point for stern authority.

Clearly, I do not exercise such stern authority over my own beet-fearing family.

The other day I said to my husband, "Haven't I been doing well using up our CSA produce?"

My husband appreciates self-congratulation almost as little as he appreciates beets. He said: "I admire your efforts, but I think a beet challenge is like an episode of Fear Factor. What can we ruin next? Grilled cheese -- with beets! Peanut butter and jelly -- with beets!"

He didn't mention, "chocolate cake -- with beets!" But Nigel Slater has a recipe for just that cake in Tender -- chocolate, eggs, grated beets -- and I baked it. I didn't tell anyone what was in it and they loved this cake. I let my husband ramble on about how it tasted like it was full of "puddin' packs."

Then I announced that it contained beets.

"Interesting," he said glumly. "I wish you hadn't told me."

And I wished I hadn't too. It's not much fun tricking people once you're past the age of 11.

Enough about beets.

It looks like it's going to be a Food52 Thanksgiving. We're hosting 18 people. Here's the menu.

seasonal cocktail (brought by my sister)
gougeres (from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table)
sardines rillettes (Dorie again)
creamy sausage-stuffed mushrooms (Food52)
salted almonds (Food52)
pear soup with pancetta and blue cheese (Food52)
roasted turkey
ciabatta stuffing with chorizo, mushrooms and sweet potato (Food52)
green beans
apple and cranberry relish with brandy and walnuts (adapted from Food52, which calls for pears, but I used apples. It's great, but benefits from a big pinch of salt)
mashed potatoes
spinach-jalapeno casserole (brought by my aunt, made from Laurie Colwin recipe)
kale salad (brought by my sister, made from Martha Stewart recipe)
peas (brought by my maternal grandmother; they will undoubtedly appear, topped with a limp piece of lettuce, in an old CorningWare dish with a little blue flower on it.)
Many pies, flavors tbd, but definitely chess pie and pecan pie. I've already started the mocha buttercrunch pie referred to in this fun story. I was a little upset to realize the it contains raw eggs, but by that time I'd already mixed the crust so I'll forge ahead. Don't mind eating raw eggs myself, but I'm less keen to serve them at a party.

What are you cooking? And are you as exhausted on Thanksgiving Eve as I am?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Some recipes you'll want to make -- and some you won't

1. When I finally and inevitably cancel our CSA delivery, it will be on account of the beets. Every week, beets. What am I gong to do with all these damned beets? One night last week I cooked Nigel Slater's beet-lamb meatballs which you serve with a minty yogurt sauce. They tasted fine, but just look at them. As the saying goes, we eat first with our eyes and while I can't speak for anyone else, my eyes were distressed.

2. Another night I made borscht using the Joy of Cooking recipe. It was tasty -- a big bowl of cabbage and root vegetables with a little beef -- but nothing I'd go rushing to make again.  And even after that mighty pot of borscht, I still have beets to use up. According to the CSA web site, even more will be landing on Tuesday. Maybe farmers should stop growing so many beets? Just a thought.

3. Nigel Slater's apple and courgette cake is really good.
I don't think loaf pans do a cake justice.
Much better than it sounds and much better than it looks and it uses up approximately 2 small zucchini and one apple. It's flat and pale, full of raisins, very sweet. You can find the recipe here if you scroll down to the bottom of the article. Recommend, though you will have to make metric conversions using a calculator like this one or buy a scale that measures both grams and ounces. (I vote for the scale. I bought such a scale a few years ago and use it every day.)

4. Slater's pork with leeks and green peppercorns: UNBELIEVABLE. The recipe is here and you should absolutely make this. Serve it with soft polenta or bread or mashed potatoes as you need something to soak up all the delectable sauce. Also, use the best mushrooms you can afford. I used half wild mushrooms and half cheap white mushrooms and I can tell you we all picked around for the wild ones. This is my number one favorite recipe of the last week. (If you decide to make this and don't want to make the metric conversions, see my footnote supplying the conversions from the American edition of Tender.)

5. That same night I made the amazing pork, I baked the chewy sugar cookies from the Food52 cookbook and we were a happy family. They're soft and have a slightly crispy toffee-like crust and a strong vanilla flavor. Very easy. I will make these again and soon. My only complaint with the recipe is that I think it should be doubled.
My brandy alexander
6. Finally, I highly recommend Slater's pear-pecan tart which is actually more of a cake but whatever you call it, delicious. You make a sweet, thick batter, scrape it into a pan, and drop chunks of fruit and nut on top. Bake. Serve with whipped cream.
All his cakes are flat and homely; only some of them are actually wonderful.
Recipe here. It's very slightly different from how it appears in the book. For instance, in the book Slater uses only 2 pears and slightly less flour and butter. I would actually go with three pears as I felt the fruit was scant. Again, you'll need to make metric conversions.

On another subject, Natalie is back from her breeding. At the farm where the buck resides, they raise both Nubians and Nigerian Dwarves and while I do love a stolid little Nigerian tottering around on stubby legs, Nubians are incredibly lovely and winning. In another life, I want a Nubian.
Nigerian stands in the left foreground. Nubians have the ears.
And, since Deane asked, Peppermint (our Nigerian Dwarf) is fine. She is "overconditioned," which is a goat word for "fat," but fine. According to her breeder, Nigerians are so hearty and disease resistant, they put on weight more easily than other, more delicate breeds. Is this also true of people? I like to think so. We will have to sell some of our goats one of these days -- three is too many -- but I guarantee it won't be Peppermint.
Sweet Peppermint
*Here are some translations: 650 g leeks = 1 1/4 pounds. 40 g butter = 3 TBS. 500 g pork and 500 g mushrooms = 1 lb of each. 500 ml. stock = 2 1/2 cups, 140 ml cream = 2/3 cup. Heat the oven to 300 degrees F. Make this recipe!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Behind the green (room) door

One day I'll stop talking about guacamole and hummus.
On Monday, to promote Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, I appeared on 7Live, a local afternoon TV show. There was no fretting about wardrobe for this television appearance, my second, as I can only fit into one outfit right now: black J. Crew cords, black shirt. I came with props (food) that we set up on a long wheeled table backstage. Then the producer's assistant escorted me to the green room.

For all you mere mortals, I will describe a local TV station green room.

Imagine a tiny, windowless burrow with a television on which is playing a soap opera. There are some out-of-date magazines (but good ones!), a tub of pinkish face powder, a soft sofa, two soft chairs, a mirror, a coffee machine, and a massive tray of food. No straight bourbon such as Michael Ruhlman describes appearing in Martha Stewart's green room. Boo. But there is a wide array of tasty packaged snacks that Martha would never countenance, like Nutter Butters and Teddy Grahams. I eat two Hershey minis and a granola bar. Drink coffee. Take a picture of myself. Read about Kate Gosselin. Hyperventilate. Drink more coffee. Read about Brad Pitt. Hyperventilate.

Other guests eventually join me in the holding cell. I mean, green room. Specifically, the embattled authors of a self-published novel called Tales from Swankville that takes place in Pleasanton, California. Tales from Swankville has, I learn from the very nice authors, infuriated various thin-skinned citizens of Pleasanton who feel they have been depicted in an unflattering light. The uproar is why the authors are appearing on 7Live. I am now tempted to read the book.

There is a lesson here: If someone depicts you in an unflattering light in their self-published novel, don't make a big, ugly fuss. Because if you do, they may go on TV and everyone will suddenly want to read the self-published novel in which you are depicted in an unflattering light.
That was my green room experience. Then I went on air with with Lizzie Bermudez, who was very pretty and wearing what I think might have been Christian Louboutin shoes. Until about a month ago, I didn't know what Christian Louboutin shoes were and then someone told me and now I encounter them everywhere. In Joan Didion's Blue Nights, on The Good Wife, on Lizzie Bermudez.
The appearance was quick and fun. Lizzie got the name of my book wrong and I had to make a split second decision about whether to correct her. Didn't. Don't regret it. No sooner had I made my last witty remark than they had me out on the curb, packing my stuff in the car. Slam, bam thank-you. . . except no one said thank-you. Hey! That's no way to treat an authoress!

Kidding. It was fine. I was giddy for about 15 minutes and then crashed. Came home totally drained, good for absolutely nothing for the next 24 hours except to drink wine and wander glassy-eyed around the internet looking at shoes. Not Christian Louboutin. Neither my style nor my price range,
The authoress in the KGO green room showing off her mad camera skills.  
On another subject, Natalie came into heat today and the instant I noticed the "symptoms" I dragged her into the car and drove up to Split Rail Farms where she reconnected with Kentucky, the sire of Sparkles. She's spending the night and will return tomorrow. Sparkles, meanwhile, is undone by the absence of her mother. It is dark and she's wandering around the yard, crying loudly. Good times.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I miss the babies they were, but I like the people they are becoming.

The Hunger Games, mug of egg nog, fire
Yesterday was Veterans Day, the kids didn't have school, Husband went to work, Owen never changed out of his pajamas, and it poured rain. It was really gray and drippy and cold and I didn't have a plan. Historically, this does not bode well for family happiness.

But I discovered that something has changed, something big and permanent and bittersweet: My children are old. They make their own breakfasts. They pour their own egg nog. They unload the dishwasher when I ask them to and feed the chickens and read quietly for many hours at a stretch.

It was the loveliest of days. In the afternoon, I built a fire and we all sat there reading and I was overwhelmed with gratitude, a rare Soule Mama moment for me. Kind, healthy children, a warm, comfortable house. . .

I made dinner and it was perfect, especially perfect on this particular day. I made a warm pumpkin scone for a winter's afternoon, one of Nigel Slater's many Hobbity dishes. I have never eaten a non-sweet scone, so I was skeptical, but if you have pumpkins from your yard, or if your CSA gave you a pumpkin like mine did, make this now because it is easy and cheap and seasonal and delicious. But more than delicious: it is cozy.

Pumpkin Scone

I've adapted this recipe very slightly. You could use another squash if that's what you have.

pumpkin -- about 11 ounces after peeling and seeding (300 g)
1 large egg, beaten
6 tablespoons milk (90 ml)
2 teaspoons minced thyme leaves
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (140 g)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
5 tablespoons cold butter (70 g)
black pepper
butter for cooking

1. Cut the pumpkin into chunks and steam until soft and mashable. (I put it in a colander which I placed inside a large saucepan with a few inches of water. Covered it and let it cook for about 25 minutes.) Mash. Stir in the egg, milk, and thyme leaves.

2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

3. Whisk the flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Cut the butter into chunks and rub it into the flour like you're making biscuits or pie crust. You're not after a smooth dough; you want a clumpy dough.

4. Stir in the pumpkin mixture. Season with black pepper. The damp dough will look something like this:

5. Heat the butter in a non-stick skillet with a metal handle. (Or, you can use a cast iron skillet, which I did.) Heap the dough into the skillet and then flatten into a thick patty, about the circumference of a dessert plate. Cook until the underside is lightly browned and the cake is firm.

6. Oil a dinner plate. Loosen the underside of the scone with a spatula. Put the plate over the top of the pan, then flip the scone onto the plate. Slide the scone back into the frying pan. (If you are using a cast-iron skillet, unless you are Captain America you will need help with this.)

7. Cook the cake for a few more minutes to brown the bottom, then slip the pan in the oven for 7 minutes to bake through. Serves 4.

Slater says to serve it with bacon and/or cheese. Quote: "I love this with grilled Orkney bacon and slices of Cheddar sharp enough to make my lips smart -- a fine contrast for the sweet, floury 'scone' and its squishy center."

I served both bacon and cheese, but next time would serve only the cheese. I was able to focus on the perfection of the sharp cheese-squishy scone combination, but others were too intent on getting an extra strip of bacon. Bacon is so distracting.

For dessert, we had Slater's deeply appley apple crisp which entails sauteeing apple cubes before putting them in the baking dish and topping with crumble. This didn't redefine crisp for me, but it was very tasty.

I overate. That was the only bad part of yesterday.

Then I went to bed and dreamed that I gave a reading in a bookstore and only four people came. I really did dream that, which was odd because I thought I wasn't nervous at all about my reading today. Don't let my dream come true. If you're in Marin County: Book Passage, Corte Madera, 1 p.m.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Nigel Slater seesaw

worth extracting the retainer for
On Tuesday, I am scraping Nigel Slater's revolting duck, marmalade, and turnips casserole into the garbage and mentally composing my resignation letter from Project Tender.

On Wednesday, Owen and I are eating Slater's braised oxtail straight out of the pot an hour before dinner because it is so hideously delicious. And I do mean hideously.

Trust me: GOOD
His recipe for prawns with limes and leaves didn't work at all.

But his beef stew with onions and beer may have been the best beef stew I've ever made.

His apple marmalade tart was unusual and surprisingly tasty, especially the thick shortbread crust of which I ate far too much.

What is it with Nigel Slater and marmalade?
 But the beet seed cake was a dry brown lump.

Although the batter was pretty. What happened to all that pink?

Slater may in fact be cosmopolitan and polished, but I picture him as a hobbity eccentric in a cardigan and soft-soled shoes who futzes around a thatch-roofed cottage scooping marmalade into his pot of braised duck, currant jelly into his stew, and grated beets into his cakes. He is definitely weird. I like that. Sometimes his freaky ideas work and sometimes they are just horrendous, but interacting with this book is always interesting. I've never had a cookbook experience quite like this one.

I'm sticking with Tender, but I'm also going to start cooking from both the Food52 cookbook and Eat Good Food because they're my other new cookbooks of the season and they're full of appealing recipes. No need to live in a straitjacket.

A reminder: I will be reading and signing Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California on Saturday at 1 p.m. It would be great to see you there.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Thank you, Evey Benjamin. Or do I really mean THANKS A LOT, Evey Benjamin.

She looked a little like this, but older. 
My first grown-up job was as a fact-checker at a business magazine, a position I held for five long years. Everyone knows what a fact-checker is, right? The lowliest members of the staff were responsible for making sure every single fact in the publication was correct; I really did put a little dot on top of every word. This was before the internet, so you can only imagine the phone calls and bulging files of documents and visits to the library. If a single mistake slipped through, the fact checker was scolded and shamed, potentially fired. If no mistakes slipped through, the fact checker was completely ignored. Which is to say, you only got attention if you screwed up, a management model that really messes with your head, at least if your head is susceptible to being messed with, as mine most definitely was when I was 22. I've gone back an forth over the years on whether it was a good and necessary messing, or destructive and stunting. I was rather "mellow" before I had this job, and have never been mellow since. The job made me compulsively self-doubtful and tense. Sometimes I'm sorry about that. Sometimes I wish I'd had the job before I went to college because I would have gotten much better grades.

Evey Benjamin was my first boss. She was terrifying and fabulous, a word (I hope) I use sparingly. She was slender, had long Veronica Lake hair, and was about my mother's age but seemed much worldlier and more glamorous. She wore high, skinny heels, silky shirts, heavy masses of jangling jewelry and lots of perfume. This made it possible to both smell and hear her coming from around corners and run to hide,* because every encounter with Evey was potentially disastrous. I just googled her and I couldn't find a single mention, let alone a photograph to prove how gorgeous she was, or that she even existed. She looked like Patricia Clarkson, but more ravishing. Another word I hope I use sparingly.

She looked a lot like this, except slightly older.
The other day I was working on a promotional piece for my book (all I seem to do anymore) on the subject of  hosting a frugal Thanksgiving dinner. I wrote that among the many reasons you should bake your own pecan pie is that frozen pies contain "almost no pecans." Then I thought about that. Was I sure? Was I one hundred percent sure?
What her tutelage wrought.
A cup and a quarter. That's how may pecans there are in an Edwards frozen Georgia pecan pie. And I'm damn glad I checked because that is exactly the amount I put in my own pecan pie. So I guess I really do mean, thank-you Evey Benjamin, wherever you are, because I was THIS close to wrongly impugning the reputation of the Edwards frozen pecan pie and the world would be an ever so slightly worse place if I had. 

On a related subject, I am concerned about my pancetta. It is not as firm as it should be. My sister tested the recipe for me and had a similar problem a year ago, but I dismissed her issues because she was drying her pancetta in a shower stall, which I deemed potentially damp and incorrect. I have never had problems before. I will unwrap the meat today and see what is happening, and then I will continue my tutorial, probably with disclaimers and caveats. My inner Evey Benjamin is very displeased.

*Actually, I'm not sure you could actually smell her perfume around corners. Thanks to Evey Benjamin, I'm unable to take poetic license without a disclaimer. I do know that once I was in a toilet stall when she entered the ladies' room and I thought I'd just wait her out. But she was freshening up her makeup and stood in front of the mirror for 15 minutes while I huddled in the stall, hoping she couldn't identify my shoes. She was that intimidating. I was that timid.