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.