Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Scary? Depends who you ask

As of yesterday morning, there was a mighty oak growing out of the hill right outside our front door. The tree listed toward the house and seemed to be getting closer every year and the trunk was now less than a foot away. Whenever there was a storm, I worried, especially after a giant oak crashed into the street a few years ago. Lying out on the asphalt, that tree was a monster. What were the chances this oak would fall and destroy our house and possibly humans inside the house? Modest, but not zero.

before, from the other side
Now the chances are zero.

My husband wanted to keep the tree. It was a beauty and fairly healthy and I can see his point of view, but I couldn't go through another winter lying in bed on rainy nights, waiting for the sonic boom.

Someone asked if I could mention in my summaries of cookbooks which recipes were good and which were great. I should and will.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bread and Chocolate: earnest summation

My people have been in New England visiting extended family at the beach, eating fried clams, playing tennis, and attending cousin Julianna's wedding. I stayed behind to take care of the goats, which is something to think about before you get goats. Believe me, I've thought about it a lot these last few days. I gave away Natalie's babies yesterday and the new owner put the in dog crates in the back of his pick-up and you could hear them bleating piteously even after they'd disappeared from view. Traumatic. For me, but mostly for Natalie, who has been looking for them and crying ever since. She is crying as I type. It is sad and in the middle of the night it is also irritating.  I don't think there's anything to do but keep her milked and wait it out.

In addition to milking, during the absence of the family I've been trying to accomplish writing projects, work projects, hydrangea planting, tree removals, window washing, sewing machine set-up, Moonrise Kingdom. Cooking wasn't on that list and I've subsisted on cantaloupe, grilled cheese sandwiches, Father's Day chocolates, and Gummi vitamins. Blogging wasn't on that list either. Clearly.

I bought Fran Gage's book Bread and Chocolate right when it came out about a decade ago. I read it cover to cover and remember thinking it was a sweet and gentle remembrance of a happy life in San Francisco that revolved around food. She writes a chapter about the greenmarket a few blocks fom where I used to live, and Citizen Cake where I used to buy cookies. I know the places and the vendors she describes and I feel a connection to this book because it captures a world I know, not because she tells me anything I didn't know.

The recipes were solid. The breads most solid of all. I made the rye bread for oysters, the polenta bread, the fougasse and (repeatedly) the country wheat bread. They were all great. Given that Gage is a baker, I was a little disappointed that the dessert recipes weren't more consistently unusual and delicious. A lot of them seemed like boilerplate: chocolate poundcake, lemon poundcake, shortbread cookies, chocolate pots de creme. They were fine, but neither exceptionally good nor unique, which is what I expect from the recipes in a food memoir. I expect a grab bag of highly personal, hand-picked, outstanding recipes I won't find anywhere else. There were a few of these (peanut butter and jelly cake), but in my view, not enough.

UPDATE: In recounting to list the "good and great" recipes (see below) I discovered that I made an error in my initial tally. I must have miscounted, because I only made 28 recipes from the book. Guys, I'm slipping.

worth the price of the book  -- 1 (aforementioned cake)
great -- 9
good -- 11
so-so -- 5
flat-out bad -- 2

I would buy this book again, but it's not a shelf essential.

My husband comes home tonight and I'll probably start cooking again tomorrow, though it is tempting to continue with the grilled cheese. Kids are staying in New England for a while; Isabel won't be home until August.

As requested, here is a list of the recipes that I deemed either "good" or "great:" strawberry ice cream, vanilla bean shortbread, brioches with goat cheese custard, potato salad with sake and olive oil, penne with saffron cream sauce, mushroom appetizer puffs, roast chicken with mushrooms, plum preserves, fougasse, red pepper and olive oil sauce, watercress salad with apples and pecans, salade beaujolaise, ricotta gnocchi, rye bread to serve with oysters, polenta bread, fusilli with escarole, country wheat bread, potatoes baked in parchment, chocolate pots de creme, fresh apple salsa. Bon appetit!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Back where we all belong, however briefly

I'm home from Alaska and Isabel, who was painting a house in rural Tennessee (service project), is home and we are once again a medium size, moderately happy family. There's a lot of roasted salmon in the refrigerator but not many eggs because the chickens have been eating their eggs, which is supposedly a sign that they're seeking the calcium from the shells, but not in this case because they aren't eating the shells. We've started watching The Walking Dead, which is a sick show in at least two senses of the word. I'm rereading some Judy Blume for this online book club and boy does it take me back to lunch hour circa 1978 behind the middle school jungle gym (translation for young readers: play structure.) I want to see Moonrise Kingdom. We are done with Fran Gage's Bread and Chocolate.

Here's what I've cooked over the last few days, all from Gage:

savory bread pudding, served alongside the store-bought sausages and salad. You tear up bread (in this case, Fran Gage's country wheat bread, which I've made repeatedly and am baking again as I type because it is great) and mix with chopped herbs, cheese, ham, milk, eggs, bake. It was tasty, like stuffing, but resistible.

chocolate pots de creme. Extremely dense puddings. I could resist these as well, but my husband could not. My indifference to chocolate disqualifies me as a judge.

chocolate pound cake. Also very dense. Flavored with orange. I can resist this too, but it is more of a struggle.

Last night I brought Gage's brioches with goat cheese custard to my sister's house for dessert. They were beautiful -- I wish I'd taken a picture -- and delicious, but they were not dessert. They were breakfast. This should have been obvious to me just reading the recipe, which produced cushiony, faintly sweet rolls topped with a very scant, lovely custard. Owen and my niece Stella were not pleased and called, not all that politely, for ice cream, and I told them NO ice cream, that we were having goat cheese brioche for dessert. This was commendably stern parent behavior, but mean, grouchy aunt behavior and I was sorry afterward.

A wrap-up of Gage coming soon, plus the new book, which I've already chosen and am starting tonight.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fran Gage by way of Sitka

You can't buy frozen peanut butter and jelly cake.
Fran Gage devotes a chapter of Bread and Chocolate to her food-loving hairdresser, Jerome, who taught her to make tamales. The stories about Jerome are sweet, but the tamale recipes leave something to be desired.  I made his family's classic tamales a few weeks ago and they were glitchy, so I knew there was potential for trouble with "Jerome's" tamales. To make his twist on the classic, you mix the masa with coconut milk and butter rather than lard, use chicken breast and roasted anaheim peppers for filling, and wrap the tamales in big, glossy banana leaves.

Well, the tamales were a mess. The banana leaves kept shredding into thinner and thinner pieces until some of them were but threads. The chicken was dry and underseasoned, the wrapping instructions didn't make sense to me, and maybe I just wasn't in the correct, calm tamale-making space because I had to get up at 4:45 the next morning to fly to Alaska. In any case, I do think tamales require very detailed instructions -- maybe even diagrams -- and this is not the book where you'll find them.

Fortunately, dessert that night -- peanut butter-and-jelly cake -- made up for everything. Gage devotes another chapter to Elizabeth Falkner's now-defunct bakery, Citizen Cake, which was located a few blocks from where I used to work in San Francisco. Like Gage, I was a fan. I used to walk over there sometimes at lunch and buy one minuscule, exquisite cookie, or a tiny cup of ice cream, and eat it very slowly as I walked around Hayes Valley. Nothing was cheap, but it was all so good.

Falkner's cake is wonderful, though you should be prepared for a dessert that really does taste like a lunchbox peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. You make a flat, peanut butter sheet cake, cut it into rectangles and sandwich with jam. Frost with peanut butter-flavored whipped cream. Yummy. Do you want the recipe? It's really easy and I can type it out when I get home.

As I mentioned, I'm in Alaska. Business, but business that is a pleasure. Saturday, I caught a beautiful king salmon.
a "before" picture for the paleo diet?
You know how proud I must be of the salmon that I posted that picture.

Sitka is extremely lovely and interesting, with a rich Tlingit-Russian history I knew nothing about until I got here. Such mountains. Such totem poles. Such lush and colorful gardens.

I like.
Not everything is pretty, though.

I like less.
The Pioneer Bar sits right outside my hotel room window (innocuous beige building in that photograph) and people reel out of there, screaming and sobbing, and I'm not just talking about girls. At 1 a.m. they plop themselves down on the curb to have a smoke and slur out their life stories at the top of their lungs for the next hour. They chase each other. They shout obscenities. I guess there's not that much to do in Sitka at night.

I don't actually mind, although I've heard other hotel guests complaining. I have trouble sleeping in hotels under the best of circumstances and you'd probably find me falling off a stool at the Pioneer Bar were it not for Netflix streaming and books.  In the the last two nights I've watched Girl Cut in Two (B), Marwencol (A-), When a Tree Falls (B), Tuesday, After Christmas (A), and A Very Long Engagement (C+). I finished Gone Girl (A-) and am a third of the way through Buddenbrooks. Hotel insomnia is Buddenbrooks-proof, Ambien-proof, everything-proof. Time to go home to cookbooks and sleep and roasting that gorgeous salmon.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Pasta + pasta + pasta

The blur is caused by my rapid and artful tossing.
I love the grab-bag aspect of cooking from food memoirs. I love that you can find recipes for cookies next to tamales next to Provencal breads next to strawberry jam and they're all tied together with story.

I'm continuing to cook through Bread and Chocolate by Fran Gage. Monday we ate farfalle with the roasted pepper sauce that appears in the chapter about olive oil producers. It was very simple and tasty, this sauce. You char four meaty red bell peppers, peel and seed them, then puree with mustard, a little vinegar and, of course, olive oil. A good recipe to have in your repertoire.

Tuesday, we had Gage's penne with saffron cream sauce, which appears in the chapter on the staff lunches she served at her bakery. Saffron! Lucky staff. This was also very simple and tasty and remarkably expensive.
The saffron you can buy for $6.99.
That seemed like enough pasta for the week. Last night I was going to make Gage's oyster stew, but when I went to open the jars of oysters purchased a few hours previously, noticed that one of the lids was bulging. This led to the discovery that they were a week past their sell-by date. You're slipping, Whole Foods.

So I made pasta again and improvised a sauce, which I do a lot. It can be useful in clearing out the refrigerator. Last night's pasta was spectacular so I'm going to tell you what I did. You can skim the beginning of the "recipe" but pay attention to the end.

I started with a 2-inch stub of dry salami, which I chopped into pieces the size of chocolate chips. Then I chopped up two strips of lean bacon and fried them in a small amount of olive oil. Once the bacon was soft and had rendered most of its fat, I added half a red onion (chopped), and the salami. I let this cook until it was almost impossible to distinguish squares of onion from squares of bacon from bits of salami. I found a half-used tube of tomato paste and squeezed some in and cooked some more. Added salt and pepper. I cooked fusilli, tossed it with the sauce. And now comes the part you should pay attention to: I took some goat's milk ricotta (though any kind would do) -- maybe a cup and a half -- and mixed it into the hot pasta but not too thoroughly. Some of the ricotta melded with the sauce, but most of it remained in big, cool, creamy lumps. You're eating your salty/lusty pasta and instead of getting more salty/lusty in the form of Parmesan, you hit on a lode of cool, sweet and creamy ricotta. It was just fantastic.

This improvised pasta was the best pasta of the week. We ate it in front of the TV while watching Game of Thrones, a show that always makes me want to gulp wine out of a goblet. We don't ordinarily watch TV while we eat, but want to finish the season of GOT before everyone disperses for the summer. It was so very pleasant and harmonious, I'm thinking we should do it more often.

I also made Gage's chocolate brioche with chocolate bits. It's a little dry and severe on its own, but I predict it will make amazing french toast.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Just make the shrimp and make the cake. The end.

Thirteen people tasted 13 ice creams.
Pretty much the only thing I have been making is ice cream, and lots of it, but that's for a larger project so I can't share insights here. All I will say is: curry powder in chocolate ice cream? Not as horrid as you would think. Beet sorbet? Worse.

Beyond ice cream, not much happening in the kitchen, although I made a few good dishes over the last 10 days.

-fougasse from Bread and Chocolate. It's been impossible to stay "on book" lately, though this week I plan to tear through a bunch of Fran Gage recipes. I did make her version of fougasse, the decorative Provencal bread, that was soft, oily and rosemary-scented. I think it was supposed to look like this, but I failed to slash the bread all the way through and it looked like this:
looked stupid, tasted great
 Both loaves were gone within two hours of being baked.

-steak for a Brooklyn backyard barbecue from The Food52 Cookbook. Meat rubbed with chopped garlic, mint, Spanish smoked paprika, salt, and olive oil, and grilled. Contributed to Food52 by Giulia Melucci, author of the memoir I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, but more importantly, sister of our  great friend Matt Melucci. Recipe here. We loved.

-spicy grilled shrinp, also from The Food52 Cookbook. These were even better than the steaks, and that's saying something. Super-easy. Made them twice in one week and that is also saying something. You should try this recipe. They are a bit spicy and some people won't like that. Let them eat hot dogs. More shrimp for you.

-Finally, because I have been making so much ice cream, we've had a lot of extra egg whites. Cups and cups of them. It led me to a chiffon cake from Susan Purdy's The Perfect Cake. I love a lot of dishes that I never make again because they are too tricky, too time consuming, too fattening, too expensive, or maybe in the end we just didn't love them quite enough. I've made this cake twice in ten days. It is not a "special" cake, just a delicious, fluffy everyday vanilla cake with the springiness of angel food, but a little something extra. Something extra that has a name: oil.

Chiffon cake, barely adapted from The Perfect Cake

(Purdy says to use cake flour, but you can use all-purpose. She also says to bake for 65 minutes, but I  would start checking at 45.)

1 cup egg whites at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/2 cups sugar (10.5 ounces; 300 g)
2 1/2 cups flour (8 3/4 ounces; 250 g)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup neutral vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line the bottom of an angel food cake pan with parchment paper.   Do not grease the pan.

2. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. Gradually add 2/3 cup of the sugar, beating until  satiny, nearly stiff peaks form. Set aside.

3. In another bowl, sift together the flour, remaining sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the water, oil, and vanilla and beat until well blended.

4. Fold the egg whites into the batter, gently so as to preserve the volume. Pour into the pan and bake until lofty and golden. A cake tester will come out clean.

5. Cool in the pan. Run a knife round the edges to loosen and invert onto a rack. Peel off the parchment. Slice with a serrated knife.