Sunday, March 27, 2011

Vanity scones

Pie and ice cream? Focaccia and whipped butter? Chicken and mashed potatoes?
I dislike the word clotted and it almost ruins clotted cream for me. But not quite. I made scones this morning to serve with the clotted cream of the other day and it turns out I can get over clotted. So very delicious.

I made the scone recipe I've been working on for months. This was to be the last testing of this recipe for the book, a recipe that involves candied ginger, dried pears, whole wheat flour and heavy cream and makes a great and buttery scone, though I decided this morning that the dried pears need to go (not plump enough) and will be replaced by dried apricots. So I guess this wasn't my last testing of the recipe. And then I began doubting the whole enterprise. I'd wanted a scone recipe that was unique -- my very own! -- just like every other cooking person. But why? As I was eating my delicious vanity scone I started thinking maybe we've gone overboard with scone personalization here in the U.S. Because what I really craved with the clotted cream was a chalky white scone with currants -- a generic British scone -- and when was the last time I saw one of those?

And then my husband ate a scone and said, "Thanks for making these great muffins, honey."

But my scone is good. I'm not going to talk down my scone.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Clotted cream!

I wouldn't be me if I styled the photos.
If you were reading my blog a couple of years ago, you know I have tried to make clotted cream. I have tried repeatedly since then with equally dismal results.

Then, the other day, I saw a recipe in the brand new and very appealing One Block Feast by Margo True, an editor at Sunset. The recipe goes like this: Pour a pint of heavy cream into a pan and put it in the oven. Turn the oven to 175. Ignore the cream  and the oven for 12 hours. Take the cream out and turn off the oven. Cover the cream and put it in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, you will peel off a thick layer  of the most incredible clotted cream I've ever eaten. I ended up with a cup and quarter, exactly what the recipe promised. I am beside myself with happiness.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Plenty of ceramics and china finger bowls

I started cooking from a new book last week, but have been so overwhelmed with cleaning out my mother's house, plus taxes, plus euthanizing chickens, plus watching the entire first season of Community, that I haven't had any energy for posting. I'll do better.

The cookbook I started was Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. This was the cookbook that Gabrielle Hamilton chose over Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table in her infamous Tournament of Cookbooks review last year. That review caused me to start cooking from Greenspan's book, which I adored, and also caused me to become obsessed with the writing of Gabrielle Hamilton. I'm not sure I'm going to adore or become obsessed with Plenty, but it completes the trifecta. Did I use "trifecta" correctly? In any case, it's a cool sounding word.

To decide what I think of Hamilton's review is one reason I chose Plenty. The other reason: it's a vegetarian cookbook and lately the dishes I make again and again are all vegetable dishes. Like this, and this, and this. I subsist on these three dishes and I want more like them in my repertoire. Will Plenty deliver?

Last week I made the sweet potato cakes with yogurt sauce.

You steam sweet potatoes and then mix them with chopped scallions, soy sauce, flour and hot pepper and form the batter into patties that you fry and serve with a delicious yogurt-olive oil-cilantro sauce. The cakes themselves tasted quite lovely, but were gummy. Were I truly dedicated to making a fabulous sweet potato pancake, I would play with this recipe and improve it, but apparently I'm not dedicated. Grade: B+.

I also made the cacophonous saffron cauliflower. Too much going on in that melange -- raisins, saffrons, olives, onions, cauliflower -- with nothing to bring everything together. I ate this dish, but did not like it, nor feel any interest in ever eating something like it again. Grade: C+.

Last night, I made the chickpea and chard stew with tamarind. It was sour and contained caraway seeds and I've had better greens and beans preparations. I'm pretty sure I could make better chickpeas and chard without a recipe. Grade: B-.

It dawned on me last night that my kids now accept everything I serve them without complaint. This takes some of the comedy-drama from the blog, though it it certainly makes my life more pleasant.
And after. Back to the old house for more china and Christmas ornaments today. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Nippin' on tequila and suckin' on limes

We had 15 people at our maiden barbecue feast, and apparently it was too much excitement -- or maybe just too much tequila -- for me to remember to take a single picture of the meat. Instead, I took a picture of the onion dip. Margaritas make me stupid. Happy, but so stupid.

Producing the barbecue was an all-day endeavor, though not actually difficult. Early in the morning you light the coals, drop them in the belly of your Weber kettle grill, top with some hardwood, insert the grill, place you meat on the grill, put the top on the kettle and try to maintain the temperature at 200 degrees. To accomplish this, you only need to make finicky adjustments to the vents and wood every 20 minutes or so for 12 hours. I thought the results were quite great -- two big, shiny, mahogany chunks of pork shoulder that practically fell into shreds when I put them on the cutting board. After the pork was "pulled," I doused it in a sharp vinegar sauce. The meat was a little too spicy and smoky, which I will adjust for next time. Otherwise, I was proud.

About that onion dip. For an appetizer, my sister challenged me to make onion dip from scratch to see if it could possibly outperform Lipton soup mix stirred into a carton of sour cream. The verdict: It can't. There was unanimous preference for the dip made from the Lipton box. I think Alton Brown's recipe could be improved with the addition of a crushed beef bouillon cube and some MSG, but if you're going to start adding crap to your dip, why not just use the mix? Use the mix.

In other news, the tests on three dead chickens I sent to the state lab indicate that they died of three different conditions: leukosis, Marek's disease, and peritonitis. I feel cursed. Marek's was a fluke. Peritonitis may be a fluke as well, depending on the cause. But leukosis is a scourge that may kill all of our chickens -- and may not. You can't vaccinate against it and you can't treat it. We will watch and wait. Big sigh.

We have/had a big vacation planned next month. To Japan. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I am trying to make barbecue

6:30 a.m.
I had a theory about making Southern barbecue at home that went something like this: Yeah, you can probably do it, but it's never going to be like eating pulled pork with a bunch of rednecks in Holly Hill, South Carolina or buying ribs from an old black man in a one-room shack in Arkansas or ordering brisket in Texas or mutton with a side of burgoo in Kentucky. Any barbecue you produce in your non-Southern backyard is going to lack mystique and context. This is what I wrote in the most recent draft of my book.

But it was bugging me because:

a. I did not really know this.

b. Once I got started thinking about pulled pork, I began to crave it. I really did eat pulled pork with some rednecks in South Carolina once, and it was a highlight of my 20s.

In fact, the amount of time and preparation required to make pulled pork on my deck is providing plenty of mystique and context. I may not be an old black man, but I was out there in my robe at 6:30 a.m. spilling lighter fluid everywhere and trying to get the coals to smolder and I know I looked like a "character" because Isabel refused to make eye contact with me when I came inside and asked her about her plans for the day. I may or may not be serving delicious barbecue tonight, but either way we're "makin' memories," to quote my boyfriend Tim Riggins.

Too much red chile.
I put a very heavy, spicy, dark red rub on the meat -- which is supposed to smoke for 12 hours -- and I'm thinking that was a mistake and it's going to take the pork in Mexican direction, which I don't really want. At this point, no choice but to go with it and make margaritas.

In other news, our chickens are dropping like flies. Three down, two sick. I sent a corpse to the state lab for a necropsy last week and await results. But our chicken scourge is a depressing story for another time. Today, I just want to focus on the barbecue party.

Except. Damn it. Now it looks like it's going to rain.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Nothing in its place and no place for anything

Uncomfortable, but it's been there since 1969.
Cleaning out a house inhabited for 42 years by a super-organized woman who never threw anything away, including her ex-husband's Army towel and a popcorn popper that stopped popping in 1973, takes time away from cooking and blogging. Especially because I come home after each visit to my mother's house with boxes of sentimental treasures that I now must incorporate into my own much smaller house.

This has inspired a flurry of reorganizing. I should reword: This has inspired a flurry of organizing. I've always been "relaxed" about housekeeping, but suddenly, overnight, I want an orderly home just like my mother's, where I can actually find the Scotch tape and the hammer, the Christmas cookie cutters and the tax returns. The disorder has become agitating and intolerable. A few weeks ago, I bought a label maker and an ugly little shelf to hold the label maker and I love both of these purchases inordinately. I lie in bed at night fantasizing about shopping sprees at the Container Store.
Pathetic, the joy this brings me.
A few people have suggested it was silly to keep stuff the way my mother did -- all those books, and old jackets, tote bags, candle stubs, kid gloves, Easter baskets, bits of decorative ribbon, the electric typewriter on which I wrote papers in high school. I've thought so in the past. But that house, it's like the Smithsonian of our family. It reminds me that everything actually happened, that we used to squeeze orange juice with that antique juicer and pop corn before watching Wild Kingdom with that kettle popper, that I once wore a pink mohair sweater dress and covered a wine bottle in yarn and that our great grandmother collected Japanese knicknacks and our father served in the United States Army. It all happened and that my mother thought it all mattered, makes it matter.
The very sofa on which we watched Wild Kingdom.
Decluttering is very fashionable and there's nothing I enjoy more. But while even just a few weeks I could see no downside, now I can. While throwing things away may unburden your psyche and leave your house looking cleaner and your basement emptier, sometimes you do throw away more than stuff.

I miss cookbook reviewing and will get back to it soon. Most of the cooking I've done lately has been scattershot or related to my own forthcoming book. Two recipes I highly recommend:

The last oreo. Thank goodness.
-Joanne Chang's recipe for oreos from Flour is worth the price of that beautiful book. (You can also find it here.) These are perfect cookies and dangerous to have around the house.

-But the kale-quinoa pilaf from Food52 is even better because it's not just insanely delicious, it's also easy and healthy. Leftovers are fabulous cold, for breakfast.

Every drawer neatly packed, very full.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Cleaning out the childhood home and thoughts on packaging

Eleven months after our mother died, Justine and I are finally facing up to cleaning out her house. I was 3 when we moved into that house and I remember curling up on a shelf of the empty linen closet and thinking this was going to be such a good hide-and-seek house! And it was. I cleaned out that linen closet on Sunday, and it is empty again for the first time since 1969.

Justine and I have to divide up the "treasures" and so far have been accomplishing this peacefully, even happily, remembering our mother. Justine let me have the glass flour and sugar bins with the cracked yellow lids. These are truly prized possessions. Thank-you, Justine.

Our mother always decanted flour and sugar into these bins and stored metal scoops inside. What a shock when I went away and had a kitchen of my own and tried to pour flour and sugar out of bags into measuring cups. So stupid and messy. Could this be one reason cooking is in decline -- bad packaging of staples?
Good design

Take baking powder. The old-fashioned Clabber Girl baking powder container is both beautiful and useful. You scrape the spoon on the straight metal lip attached to the top and it completely flattens the baking powder, which is the kind of precision you need in baking. My mother showed me how to do that when I was about 5 and I've enjoyed doing it ever since.
Bad design

Notice how Whole Foods baking powder -- a relatively new product -- lacks that lip for leveling your measuring spoon. It's a tiny, tiny flaw, but it irks me every time I use this baking powder. Is this intentional? To discourage us from baking and make those 365 cookies all the more appealing?
Doubt it. Though it's always more fun to imagine malevolent conspiracy than boring incompetence. 

Back to sugar and flour. As an adult,  I went my mother one better and got wide-mouth bins for my sugar and flour. I especially love this flour bin, purchased at the Alameda flea market.
Perfect design
Sometimes I worry it contains lead, but I've been scooping flour out of this for eight years so the horse is long out of the barn. You can scoop your flour into the measuring cup over the bin and spill not a grain on the counter. Very tidy and frugal.

Labelmaker -- fair design
And now I have my mother's bins -- for the bread flour and the high-gluten flour.

We go back to the house today to proceed with our task. If you are a thief,  there are hotel soaps, Fisher Price toys, petite Talbot's jackets, tote bags, spools of thread, shower caps, ancient containers of mace, old copies of Martha Stewart Living, cracked Pyrex bowls and half a bottle of Canadian Club for the taking. There are also hundreds of photographs of me at all stages of life, as well as early finger painting projects, beautifully framed. Please. Take.