Friday, February 25, 2011

It's 5 o'clock somewhere

Recipe testers
I turned a new age yesterday. My grandmother forbade me to say the number because no lady should ever say her age until she's in her 90s. So I'll just say this: I'm halfway to 90.  My thoughtful husband bought me a little key chain with recordings of Sarah Palin (halfway to 94) saying "In what respect, Charlie?" and "We eat therefore we hunt." My sister gave me some hollowed-out eggs on which she had painted detailed portraits of our chickens and which she is turning into a mobile. (Photo tk of fabulous artwork upon completion.) My father gave me old-fashioned cocktail glasses. My kids gave me. . . nothing?! Can that possibly be? I received many birthday messages on Facebook from people I've known at different phases in my life and I have to say, despite mixed feelings about Facebook, this made me very, very happy.

We went out to dinner at  Poggio and I ordered every weird item on the antipasto menu for the table -- tripe, pig trotter croquettes, octopus, sardines -- which was possibly inconsiderate. Everything was okay, but everything was one degree off -- one squeeze of the lemon, one pinch of salt -- from being truly delicious. Carlos Santana walked by while we were dining. Poggio isn't good enough for Santana.
Left: cookies made with Clabber Girl baking powder. Right: homemade baking powder.
I've been super-busy with work and with cooking constantly from my own book, testing and retesting recipes, which is why I haven't been posting at all. Or should I post about my own recipes? Of course I should. I will. Why am I so dense?

I moved Lydia, our malingering chicken, out to the coop for a few days, but she just huddled in the corner and every time I went outside I thought I'd find her dead so I brought her back inside last night. She's very droopy and I'm feeding her lots of scrambled eggs. I'm still bitter about that vet bill.

It was supposed to snow here today, but the sky is blue and the sun is out so I guess we're out of luck.

Friday, February 18, 2011

My drug of choice

I was crazy busy for most of last week and then I got my hands on this book and fell into a trance-like state of complete reading happiness such as I haven't experienced in ages.

 I haven't forgiven Gabrielle Hamilton for her smart but mean little review of Dorie Greenspan's big and generous Around My French Table last fall. Her review was a great read, but there were a few too many gratuitous barbs. But then Hamilton isn't nice. She doesn't pretend to be nice. You don't read her new memoir Blood, Bones & Butter and think, golly, I'd like to meet that nice Gabrielle Hamilton and be her best friend because she's just such a warm and lovely person, especially when she's having one of those low blood sugar tantrums/breaking furniture/telling employees they "f****** s***/ stealing/snorting coke/turning a cold shoulder on her septuagenarian mother/criticizing her husband's Italian family/et cetera.

 You think, I will read anything -- anything -- this woman writes and I hope she writes something else very soon.

 A+, as I would have said in a previous life.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Shield your eyes, ugly things ahead

I cut down the prosciutto I started curing many months ago and hung in my crawl space. It is the most horrible thing I've ever created, covered in gray-green mold and cracked peppercorns that resemble dead beetles. I've read East of Eden and I know about botulism. I've seen House and I know about trichinosis. What should I do? I am scared of this prosciutto.

On another sad subject, one of our chickens keeled over and died a few weeks ago. My father recommended doing a necropsy to be sure there's no pestilence in the flock, but I did not heed his advice. A couple of days ago another chicken began to look very sickly and became unable to roost. We call this chicken Lydia. She was one of our first chickens and therefore has a name. More recent acquisitions go  by: "one of the brown ones" or "the little spotted one."

Anyway, yesterday, concerned about the possibility of an epidemic, I made a terrible mistake: I took Lydia to a pet hospital. Not just a pet hospital, but a "rare and exotic" pet hospital in San Rafael, which is the only place I could find within a 30 minute drive that will see chickens.

Chickens are wonderful, but they are not rare and exotic pets.

It was a little bit tricky, the way this worked. First, I met the glowing and lovely assistant who took notes and called Lydia "sweetheart." Then I met Dr. Bacon, with his beard and chunky class ring, who asked all the same questions his assistant had and unplugged Lydia's pasted vent. (Look it up if you must; it put me in his debt.) He said he wanted to x-ray Lydia and I asked, "So, how much will that cost?" He looked annoyed and said, "I don't have it at my fingertips." Then he went out and sent his office manager in with a treatment plan, prices attached. Just like when you go to buy a car.

The diagnostic and treatment plan recommended for the droopy hen: $662. The biggest line item, of course, was the x-ray.

Look, I like Lydia. She's a fine hen. But $662 is 220 times what I paid for her. I would like to say I smiled tightly and said, are you deranged? That's more than the average Burundian earns in a year!

But I am so easily shamed. I am ashamed of how easily shamed I am. They made me ashamed of not wanting to spend money to fix my chicken, and there were three of them. The business manager did not like it at all when I nixed the x-ray. She sighed and the corners of her mouth turned down and she explained that the vet really needed to see what was going on inside Lydia. I held my tiny bit of ground on that x-ray. Then I committed myself to an obscene amount of money to provide Lydia with antibiotics, fluids, and a blood test.

Driving home I was ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of devoting resources to pumping an Australorp full of fluids. Decadent. Wrong. UGH. Can't think about it. Must put it out of my head now.

In future, I only take livestock to livestock hospitals, even if that means driving to Cotati.

Found object, 2/10/11.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Graduation party

Hot homemade donuts.
The girls got to pick what they wanted to cook for their last day of class, and they chose donuts and bagels. My friend Melanie said hopefully, "I wonder if seeing how donuts are made will affect how they feel about eating them."

I would say the answer was . . . no.
Hot homemade bagels.
Here's the lesson I repeatedly tried to impart during yesterday's class: When you nervously drop a doughy object from a height into very hot liquid, it will splash and burn you. But if you move your hand very close to the hot liquid -- a centimeter or so away -- and gently release the doughy object, all will be well. Closer is safer. I must have said and demonstrated this fifty times but it was almost impossible for most of the girls to do it. Too fearful. It's one of those "tricks" they never mention in books and even when a wise instructor repeatedly explains, you only really learn through experience, later, on your own.
Newspapers. Wouldn't teach another cooking without them.
Here's the lesson the girls repeatedly imparted to me over the weeks of this class: Everyone wants her own mudpie. Everyone wants to craft her own beautiful bagel -- her own tiny donut, her own heart-shaped pizza, her own extra-fat dumpling -- and then keep track of it through the entire process, admire it, show it off, and eat it.

Great, great girls. Fun class. I'm sorry it's over.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Strawberry buttercream shrimp

Photo hoisted from Trip Advisor.
While Fresno is  a bit depressing these days, what with the shuttered shops, yard sales on every other block, 17% unemployment, and all-around disspirited vibe, I can't complain about the food.

Best Chinese dinner in memory on Thursday night at the Hunan. I was going to go somewhere and have a salad, but then I read about buttercream shrimp. Sounded like a joke. Sounded disgusting. Sounded too good to be true!  I was in the car before I'd finished arguing with myself about whether this could possibly be a wise diet choice. I already knew the answer.

Hunan is an unlikely restaurant to find in Fresno. There's a story to this restaurant. The upshot: lucky Fresno. I ordered dan dan noodles, which were hot and red and crazy delicious, and had the shrimp for "dessert." I left some of both on my plate, which was a feat.

How to describe those shrimp. . . warm, firm and crunchy, sweet, suave, buttery. I know this dish sounds weird and questionable, but I'm telling you: it is magnificent. I'm considering returning tonight for more and if you are ever within 30 miles of Fresno, go.

Yesterday I spent some time looking for a Hmong restaurant, as there are a lot of Hmong people in Fresno. But all my leads petered out, the places I'd read about had been closed.

Not just closed -- abandoned, defiled, gutted.  I gave up on Hmong food, which is how I ended up at the well-regarded Lao Cafe 2.
I met some real charmers in front of the liquor market.
Excellent restaurant. I ordered nam khao. Here's a factual description of how it's made. Here's how I experienced it: sour and crunchy, salty and meaty, spicy, addicting. I would rather have this than any cake and I could not stop eating. I intended to eat about 1/3 of what they served me, but ate more like 4/5. Skipped dinner.

I've been to Fresno before and really liked it. But while I've had some pleasant experiences here these last two days, met a couple of lovely people and gone to several interesting museums, they feel like tiny islands in choppy and cold waters. I've written a lot of travel stories about unlikely places, but this time I'm having trouble seeing it.

If anyone has any ideas, please send.

Today: Finish coffee. More museums. Historic house. Armenian bakery. Tower district. Zoo. Strawberry buttercream shrimp?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Around My Skinny French Table

Not one of my favorite things. Not at all.
I have to move on from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table fairly soon, but it seemed unsporting not to see if the book contained a few low-calorie recipes. It does. More than a few. I've now tried two.

1. Night before last I made Greenspan's creamy cauliflower soup sans cream.

I was not looking forward to this. I was not looking forward to this all day long.

But the soup was superb -- rich and flavorful and hearty. My sister and Isabel, who are not on diets, will back me up on that. The boys did not try any; they ate leftover Outback Steakhouse chicken wings. Foolish boys.

It's an easy soup -- one pot, not much peeling and chopping. The recipe as printed here is slightly different from what appears in Greenspan's book -- she calls for 6 cups of broth, and this recipe calls for five. I'd go with six. I used 2 cups of broth because that's all I had, plus 4 cups of water. To compensate for the missing broth, I added  5 garlic cloves instead of two, and I did not stint on the freshly ground white pepper, which is crucial. (I bought white peppercorns for the first time a few months ago and I don't know why I waited all these years.) Greenspan suggests pushing the soup through a sieve, but I say no: More work, a sieve to wash, and the soup is great as is, slightly rough. I didn't add any of the fattening toppings. Doesn't need any. Please make this soup! You will be so happy. And slender.

2. Last night I made Greenspan's chicken breasts in foil packets with curry and peas. Again. Not looking forward to this. Not looking forward to this all day long.

But all the same adjectives apply: Superb. Rich and flavorful. Easy. You just cut up some chicken breasts, mix with curry powder, sliced bell pepper, onions, frozen peas, and the tiniest bit of olive oil (4 teaspoons, total). Season with salt and pepper. Wrap in foil packets and bake for 20 minutes. You will be astounded at how moist and delicious are the contents of those dumpy foil packets. I might in future add a little more curry powder and some cayenne, and I would probably try to come up with a precise amount of salt, as it's hard to season raw chicken to taste. But these are details. My husband, who is not on a diet, said, "You should make this once a week, every week."

Recipe is reprinted here along with a very pretty picture of the dish using orange peppers.

I love non-diet food that actually is.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Here I go, bragging again

I just turned in draft #2 of my book. I ran down the clock without actually getting everything in perfect order and it was very hard to turn in work with so many obvious problems still to fix.

Question: Is this a variant of the "humble brag" where, by announcing that it is hard for me to turn in imperfect work, I am actually pointing out that I have very high standards and usually turn in perfect work? I've become preoccupied with humble brags lately, as they are rife on Facebook and Twitter. The other day I realized that if I ruthlessly edited out all humble brags, I would have to shut down Tipsy Baker. As in, I write a story about a fight with my kids, but the point is not the fight but the fact that I've made it sound funny because I'm funny. Could that be construed as a humble brag? Possibly!

But this way lies madness. I like writing my blog and will proceed as usual with my bragging, humble and otherwise.

As to the manuscript issue, it reminds me of how I present myself in public. I don't usually look all that great, but never do I go out with both slip and bra strap showing and the back of my hair uncombed. I like to think my manuscript has inner beauty, and I will continue untangling her hair  over the next few days and weeks.

Speaking of how I go out in public. I recently saw a picture of myself holding my handsome 1-year-old nephew, Ben. I am wearing a long-sleeved dress, but even under clingy jersey knit one might suspect that I am a professional swimmer, hurler, or shot putter. Never has a baby looked more secure than Ben does, supported by those burly arms. Hay-baling arms. Steer-wrestling arms. Big, solid, baby-holding arms. And I don't even work out!

It's sort of wonderful, watching ancestral genes express themselves in your physique. Someone long, long ago in Wales or Switzerland or England or Spain had such arms and I hope they were very useful to that someone. They are not so useful in my life. They are not my ally in a sun dress. Or, lately, any dress.

But I am much fonder of them than I used to be. I seem to be as incapable of truly disliking my body now as I used to be incapable of truly liking my body. Something changed when I watched my mother dying. I realized that any healthy body is a perfect body. Chubby legs that walk are perfect legs. Hefty arms that can hold a baby are perfect arms.

The upside of thinking this way: Inner peace.

The downside: Weight gain. What is the motivation to eat undressed salad for dinner when you have a perfect body?

But while my body may be perfect, I still really need to lose some weight. For my long-term health and so I can wear my clothes. I've gained seventeen pounds in the last year.

While I do realize this is an unpopular topic and a downer on a food blog, I am going on a diet. I haven't figured out how this will feature in the cookbook reviews, but I wanted to get it out there.