Monday, July 23, 2012

It's GOING to take a village

The wrong day to wear the Anthropologie tank top.
On Saturday as Owen and I were leaving for the cob oven-building workshop, my husband said, "I hope it isn't too much fun. I really don't want you to build an oven in our yard." 

He said it kindly. I think he knows he's playing a thankless but necessary role in the sitcom of our marriage. I think he deserves an Emmy. 

The workshop was held in a mysterious new art/garden/sustainable living center a mile from our house. I don't understand the business plan at all, but they now have a fabulous new oven courtesy of our workshop. Is that the business plan? People pay for workshops in which they build the center's infrastructure? Shrewd! In a few days the clay will be dry, they'll scoop out the sand, coat it with plaster, fire up the oven to 800 degrees F, and start baking phenomenal pizzas.
The plank-topped platform in back is what we started with.
The workshop was fascinating on many levels, starting with the people who teach and take cob oven building works. Let me assure you, the dream of the '60s is alive in cob oven-building workshops. Two beverage stories to illustrate my point. 1. A gentle young man was drinking a "smoothie"(his word) that consisted of crushed blackberries and plums he'd foraged from around town. That was it: mashed up fruit he'd picked on the side of the road. In a Mason jar. 2. Midafternoon when an older man in the class asked whether there was anywhere around he might buy a cappuccino, there fell an awkward silence. It dawned on me that the coordinator didn't want to mention that there's a Starbucks right across the street. Finally, after saying there wasn't really any place around to get coffee, he almost apologetically mentioned the Starbucks. The older man -- maybe the only participant there who was older than I -- happily went off to to procure his cappuccino.

As to the oven, "cob" is the old English word for durable, sustainable earthen material that was once widely used in construction. I dislike the word "cob." I don't know why. What to call a cob oven if you dislike the word "cob?" "Earth" sounds sanctimonious. "Mud" sounds dumpy. Clay?

In any case, we mixed a lot of cob, stomping to a Pandora station that played folksy songs in Spanish.
Owen and some other cats mixing cob.
The teacher sort of danced on his tiptoes in the cob, but everyone else just shuffled.

We made a round, hollow base for the oven that we filled with empty Jim Beam and kombucha bottles.
I dutifully opened a bottle of wine last night to use in our oven.
It was subsequently packed full of a perlite-earth mixture, topped with a smooth layer of sand, and then the brick floor went down. Sorry for the scant photos; I had to wash my hands every time I took out the camera.

Over the brick floor, we mounded a dome of damp sand.
We smoothed it out a lot after this photo was taken.
Then we shaped the oven itself out of cob, over the sand. No photos of this process whatsoever. I should be fired. But I was living in the moment!

Somehow, by the end of the day, we had this.
Just like my mother, Owen has a passion for clay.
As I mentioned, when the cob is dry all the sand will be scooped out and you will see just a domed oven. It needs some prettification and plaster and I personally favor a brick arch to define the door (the teacher showed us how to do this.) Also, I don't love the beehive coils; I prefer a smooth dome. But I do think it's a beautiful little oven.

There are many, many details I couldn't write down because my hands were covered with cob and just a day later I can't remember them. What ratio of sand to clay for the base? For the dome?  How much? Mix it until its the texture of oatmeal? Or a milkshake? Etc. I wish I had a recipe, but I guess I'll figure it out as we go along. I have a lot of regular work this week, but Owen and I are going to forge ahead, try to get something done on the oven, however small, every day. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

It took a village

I have a talented friend.
A couple of months ago my friend Hilary (an artist, see pretty montage above) and I preserved some lemons using the recipe from Mourad,  the large, handsome and daunting book by Mourad Lalou, owner of Aziza, a Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco. It is the kind of book in which every recipe seems to include a seasoning mix that incorporates 15 spices, including one obscure, essential peppercorn that you need to mail order. To finish the recipe, you might require a tablespoon of chicken jus which starts with a chicken and ten pounds of onion and involves cooking them down all night under a parchment lid. Or something like that.

We decided to do a Mourad dinner and divide up the dishes. I don't want to speak for her, but I had my doubts, especially late Thursday afternoon when the dishes were stacked three feet high in the sink. I came around to thinking the book is well worth struggling with. If you have any interest at all in the book after reading this post, go to the library and check it out. I'm not copying any recipes because they are all very long and, as I said, many of the fold in equally long sub-recipes. Also, I've only made these recipes once.

I'll go dish by dish.

French 75s. Not from the book, but essential. Made by Hilary's husband's John using my cheap brandy rather than cognac. Even so, excellent.

fresh cheese. Made with goat's milk, but you could use storebought cow's milk. This requires no special starters or cultures, just acid, time, and biscuit cutters to shape the cheese into cute hockey pucks. They were bright and fresh and delicious. Excellent.

tomato jam. Served with the cheese. Made a lot. You cook down cherry tomatoes with sugar, spices, champagne vinegar, lemons, and butter, then puree. Excellent.

The cherry tomatoes really do look like cherries.
grilled flatbreads. Make dough, let rise, shape into balls, let rise again, flatten a bit, top with sumac, sesame seeds, oregano, and salt, grill. Topping: essential. The ones you don't burn will be excellent.

squid salad with Thai-style harissa sauce. Hilary made this refreshing starter of calamari and Napa cabbage and it was definitely more Thai than Moroccan. But not quite 100% Thai. I loved this. Excellent.

short rib tangia with aged butter and preserved lemons. Unlike anything I've ever cooked before. You brine bone-in short ribs then braise for four hours. The meat fell off the bone, which I don't think it was supposed to given the way the dish looks in Mourad's picture (mahogany beef on beautiful frenched bones), but who cares. You boil down the sauce and rub the meat with "aged butter" which is actually just ordinary butter beaten with some blue cheese. I thought this dish was incredible, like pot roast but with the texture of pulled pork and the zesty spice of pastrami. It was a bit salty and next time I'd only brine for 6 hours, not overnight. I will definitely make this again, with adjustments. Excellent. Possibly worth the price of the book.

chard with preserved lemons. What it sounds like, but much prettier because of the finely chopped colorful stems. Jewel-like. Hilary's contribution. Excellent.

orange-and-olive salad. Hilary's contribution from Arabesque by Claudia Roden. Super-refreshing. Excellent and necessary with the rich meat.

That meat does not look pretty.
fig leaf ice cream. While I have never harvested figs from the five trees I planted over the last decade, I have now proudly harvested leaves. Stupid fig trees. You grind the leaves with sugar and use them to flavor a very sumptuous, velvety ice cream, pale celadon green and with the flavor of coconut. Excellent.

almond cookies. Like amaretto cookies you buy wrapped in tissuey paper at Italian delis. Excellent.

chocolate-ginger cookies. Dark, chocolatey, intense, spicy. Confused. Not excellent.

Our one lingering question was why very little of this tasted Moroccan. Maybe if we'd made the basteeya? It will be a while until I'm ready to tackle Mourad's basteeya, but I want to revisit this book sooner rather than later. I probably need a week or two more of Clotilde's Dusoulier's salads, though.  Yesterday morning I couldn't get my rings off. Today I stepped on the scale. Fortunately, I will be spending the day at an oven-building workshop, far, far away from leftover fig leaf ice cream.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Baby, I'm a firework

rustic beauty
I'm cooking from Clotilde Dusoulier's Chocolate and Zucchini. It's the right book for right now with lots of sandwiches and salads and small, simple meals, exactly the kinds of things I want to cook for the three of us this summer. (Isabel stays in New England until August.) I already know I love this book and have baked the yogurt cake a half dozen times. I'm not planning on critiquing, just exploring and enjoying for the rest of July.

Sunday night my father and sister and her family came over for dinner and I made Dusoulier's tuna mousse for an appetizer. My mother was famous for her tuna mousse, which was a silky, putty-colored melange of tuna, mayonnaise, and gelatin that you chilled in a mold and then presented on a platter surrounded by Club crackers. Very theatrical. She used a big copper fish mold and put pimento olives where the eyes would be and it was sort of kitschy but it was hard to make fun of the kitschy tuna mousse when your mouth was full of tuna mousse and Club crackers. That tuna mousse was delicious.

So is Dusoulier's, but in a totally different way. Hers is a puree of tuna, green apple, shallot, ricotta, cilantro and cayenne and it's fresher and brighter, earthier and easier (no need for a mold). It's a bit homely; it would be hard for even a professional to style that mousse. I'd definitely make it again, but I think I have to revisit my mother's recipe first.

For dessert, I baked Dusoulier's ricotta cake with apricots and pistachios. What a robust and beautiful dessert! Make it before apricots go out of season; the recipe is here. (If you don't have a 10-inch pan, 9-inch works fine.)  Unfortunately, it was over cake that I shared with the guests my plans to build a cob oven in the backyard over the next few weeks. Certain members of the party let me know they found this very foolish and naive. Tempers briefly flared.

After cake/conflict, I tried to teach little children how to milk a goat.

Then everyone went home and my husband and I watched the season premiere of Breaking Bad and I told him about the cob oven conflict. I suspect he secretly agrees with the naysayers.

To prove everyone wrong, Monday morning I signed up for this.

Monday night I made Dusoulier's spinach and chicken salad with peaches and toasted hazelnuts. It took about five minutes, which I loved. I also loved the salad and you can find the recipe here. (In case you don't know, which until recently I did not, this is the only way you should ever skin hazelnuts.)

I was going to make Dusoulier's curried turkey sandwiches last night, but for lunch Owen and I went to Cafe Colucci in Oakland on a nominally work-related excursion and gorged ourselves. It was a dinner-obliterating lunch. We consumed several pounds of kitfo, lentils, greens, Ethiopian cheese, and injera and then waddled off to see the Katy Perry movie, which was not even nominally work-related.

a very lucky indentured servant
Apparently, I'm still on vacation from grown-up life, if not blogging.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

My indentured servant is back

My mom made that mushroom. 
Without meaning to, I took a vacation from the blog. I wasn't doing any cooking or cookbook reading and I got involved in a bunch of other projects and weeks slipped by.

I have not cooked since mid-June, when my kids went to New England to visit their grandparents. One night I put steaks in a skillet and turned on the stove to produce dinner for my husband and me. My husband looked at the steak on the plate and said, "No salad!"

No. Salad would have meant washing lettuce.

Here's what I've been doing instead of cooking:

Milking Natalie twice a day. Six quarts daily since her babies left. 

Making cheese with that milk. Have made camembert, taleggio, ricotta, chevre, a tomme that used up 16 quarts, St. Maure, and Neufchatel.

That gray matter isn't mold, it's ash, and the cheese is great.
I'm getting more confident, getting better, becoming less fearful about experimenting, less fearful about eating the cheese, although there have been a couple of cheeses so monstrous I wouldn't even feed them to the chickens.

Speaking of chickens, a raccoon killed Sally, the sole survivor from our first batch of Buff Orpington chicks. That was sad. A few nights later, the raccoon came back and tried to kill another chicken, but we ran outside with a flashlight and scared it off. The raccoon slithered over the fence and I went down into the muck and found the mangled bird.

I nursed Sprite back to health, although she now staggers when she walks. Sprite used to lay eggs in our kitchen window box.

I don't ordinarily like impatiens, but these look like little roses.
Which has never looked better!

I've revived the garden in a big way. There are now tomatoes and squash, but mostly I just planted or transplanted perennials and citrus trees and vines. The irrigation is finally all in place so maybe this time everything won't die. I want some of the things I do around here to actually stick so I can be living in a functional and adult house by the time I qualify for AARP. No more overambitious plans and half-assed false starts.

With that in mind, I finally gave in and bought an Oriental rug. This sounds mundane, but it was a huge move for me. In buying this dirt-camouflaging Turkish carpet, I gave up once and for all the dream that I will ever live in an airy and darling home full of florals and charming vintage white furniture from the flea market. I wasted a lot of years on that pretty dream and it was a relief to let it go. I wish I'd never heard of you, Rachel Ashwell.
Now I just need to repaint.
The dark, complicated, quietly vibrant carpet replaces an insipid, totally filthy pink cotton rug which I had come to hate. I am so happy with this rug. I plan to die with this rug.

Owen came home a few days ago. It is good to have him back to help with the animals and also because he is nice. Not sure what or from what book, but tonight I am going to cook.