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.