Saturday, August 25, 2012

Everything I can write in 20 minutes

unavoidable camel ride
Amusing fact: The term shampoo is derived from an old Indian word, and yet in hotels that cater to Westerners today the little bottle in the shower is labeled hair cleanser.

Tedious: analyzing every single item we eat for potential contamination with droplets of tap water. Very insulting to certain waiters when you won't touch the complimentary fruit plate. I can see why, but I'm still not going to eat those pears.

Exhausting: oh, the hateful sales pitches. I've realized at great expense that the only way I'm going to come home financially solvent is to not walk into another Indian store. At the textiles co-op yesterday Owen kept whispering to me, "Please stop Mom. Dad is going to be so mad."

unavoidable shopping
He is right.

Strangely comforting: watching The Walking Dead with Owen at night makes me homesick!

Interesting: You never see an Indian woman's shoulders, but it is considered perfectly ok for women of advanced years to reveal their bellies. And they are clearly not doing a lot of crunches.

Jaisalmer street scene

 I think they look beautiful. Time's up.

Friday, August 24, 2012

If it's Tuesday, this must be Jaisalmer

It's true about the cows in India.
I was going to post earlier about our trip, but before we left I was too busy buying mosquito repellent with DEET and trying to figure out what to pack that was both extremely modest and extremely lightweight (failed! wearing jeans and long-sleeved shirts day after day in mighty heat), and once we got to India my head started spinning and hasn't stopped. This is our sixth day and I am even less certain of what to write than I was on the first when I had a few "clever" observations that now seem completely fatuous.

one of our hotels
A short list of what we have seen: dead cows, live cows, New Delhi, Hindu temples, crumbling mosques, torrential rains, desert sands, magical palaces, sandstone forts, muddy towns, goats, an active outdoor crematorium complete with bone shards, carts pulled by camels, flies, dogs, lovely saris, flooding, donkeys, pilgrims walking barefoot along the highway, bats, peacocks, and bread baking in a tandoor oven.

How hard to build one? 
Of course, that made us think of our cob oven-in-progress back home, as did an old cob house.

The house had a mortar dug right into the floor for grinding spices.

While touring this house, we were photographed by a tour bus group from rural India, all men, who treated us like Brad and Angelina, a surreal experience that I will not allow to be repeated. People stare at us wherever we go. Despite my long sleeves, jeans, and chubby middle age, they stare mostly at me, which feels the opposite of flattering.

The food is amazing except when it is warmed over and mediocre in a steam tray at a hotel buffet. We are eating strictly vegetarian because someone told me it was easier to avoid getting sick that way. I don't miss meat. I have drunk no alcohol or coffee since I got here and, to my surprise, don't miss them either. I drink chai in the mornings. Owen drank some chai, but then felt sick for 36 hours and says he is done with chai forever. Every other conversation starts, "Mom, you know in that game Marvel Avengers Alliance. . . ?" Or, "Who's your favorite superhero?"

Other than that, I couldn't hope for a better, sweeter, more spirited companion.

I miss Mark and Isabel, though. They didn't want to come. I get that and I get that even more now that we are here. India is a challenging place to visit and you really need to be up for it. That said, this trip is a strange, beautiful adventure I wish we were sharing with them.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Just a couple of dishes

The crust on the blueberry almond tart from Chocolate and Zucchini is like a shortbread cookie. The filling has intense blueberry flavor without being at all gloppy, which is sometimes the case with pie. It is tidy to eat; you can pick up a slice with your fingers. The recipe is here and you should make it before the end of blueberry season because it is very delicious.

My meatball gold standard is still the meatball from Nancy Silverton's Mozza, but the Chocolate and Zucchini lamb-and-prune meatballs are also lovely -- sweet, delicate, and Middle Eastern, as opposed to brawny, zesty, and Italian. They're also easy. (Silverton's meatballs are a production.) Recipe is here.
zucchini with olives at left
Interesting that while I'm indifferent to both chocolate and zucchini, I like Chocolate and Zucchini so much. I look at almost every recipe and think, I could make that tonight. And I might not even have to to go to the supermarket! And I can start 30 minutes before we want to eat! The recipes are simple and reasonable and they all work, perfect for this weird phase in my cooking life when I'm more interested in masonry than pastry.

The state of the oven:

People keep thinking the brick base is the oven itself, but it's not. It's just the platform that will hold the oven. The opening in the brick is for wood storage and later we'll bolt molding on so it doesn't look so raggedy. I was hoping to be further along with this by now, but I don't think we'll be baking pizza until September.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I have real kitchen swagger!

pan bagnat
I've now made all the sandwiches from Clotilde Dusoulier's Chocolate and Zucchini cookbook, and it gets an A+ for sandwiches. In my view, any book that reminds me how good homemade sandwiches are, how you can get protein, starch, vegetable, and salad in a single easy, cheap package and call it dinner deserves a gold star.

pan bagnat. Classic Provencal sandwich featuring tuna, tomato, olives, olive oil, and greens on baguette. (Or focaccia.) Wet, zesty, refreshing. Much loved by all. I'll make this again for sure.

curried turkey sandwich. Turkey chopped and mixed with curry powder, goat cheese, and raisins. Yellow and softly spicy. Much loved by my husband and me, but not Owen, who objected to the raisins. He is silly. I'll make this again after Thanksgiving.

cantal cheese sandwich with mushrooms. My personal favorite. You cook cremini mushrooms until soft and broil them on bread with cheese. (She calls for cantal, which I've never encountered, so I used tomme.) Much loved by all. Owen apparently didn't notice he was eating mushrooms. I'll make this again.

And last night I served her sardine club sandwich. You spread toast with tomato jam (she offers a recipe, but I used the leftover jam from last month's Mourad dinner), goat cheese, and mashed sardines. Add some greenery. She calls for an extra slice of bread in the middle of all this, but I skipped that. Very tasty, though I probably won't make it again as Isabel wanted to eat neither sardines nor tomato jam. 

I also baked an excellent ricotta poundcake from Dolce Italiano last week. Ricotta is strange. It's so bland on its own, and yet baked in this cake you could taste it clearly through the sugar, butter, vanilla and eggs. This is a wonderful cake. You should make it. The recipe is here.

It looked like this on the first day:

And like this on the second:

And I hardly ate any! As you can see, I baked it in a bundt pan rather than a loaf pan. I also omitted the vanilla bean and used 1 tablespoon of vanilla, and as I didn't have cake flour,  I used all-purpose.

I also reviewed a book for the first time in ages.

On another subject -- perhaps more exciting than sandwiches and poundcake? you think? --  I cooked in front of TV cameras all day Thursday and Friday. The Food Network was making a so-called "sizzle tape" to see if my eccentric cooking life and mild personality have any TV potential.

Whatever! It was fun. I made Nancy Silverton's pizza dough (the best), pizza, marinara sauce, goat's milk mozzarella (not my best; Natalie's milk was off), chevre, pesto, graham crackers, frozen yogurt, flour tortillas, pork-apple sausage patties, croutons, salad. I also milked the goat, talked incessantly, pretended to collect eggs, applied and reapplied lipstick, ate, opined, served a big dinner to my extended family, wished I weighed 12 pounds less.

 One of the cameramen said I had "real kitchen swagger." That made my week.

Then everyone left. Yesterday morning, Owen and I returned to work on the oven. Props to friends Melanie, Tom, and Isaiah for helping mix disgusting, squelching cob with their feet. Twas no walk in the park.
75% of my crew
I'm thinking everyone is bored hearing about my oven. Well, it will stop soon. We've put down the clay sub-floor, built a cob wall around it for insulation, and today we'll put down the actual oven floor, construct a brick arch for the door, and, if we're energetic, build the sand dome and cover it with cob. Then it's a sprint to the finish line.

I mean, really, what does Nigella have that I don't?
 Oh, be quiet.

Monday, August 06, 2012

I am rushing, rushing, rushing

Owen is master of the level.
I have to walk out the door in ten minutes -- Isabel is coming home! -- so forgive breathlessness and/or grammatical errors.

Lots of progress on the oven this past weekend. We made some mistakes along the way, but fixed them, and fixing the mistakes was extremely satisfying. I will have to say more later about how much I'm loving this project. It's been revelatory, a word I do not use casually.

where we left it
Back at it tomorrow, once I turn in my last work project of the summer.

As I've mentioned, we have a LOT of goat's milk these days. I've been turning it into chevre because cheese takes up less space than milk, But then we end up with these massive logs of cheese in the fridge --  4 or 5 pounds at a time -- and it weighs on my mind. I can not throw away chevre. But how to use up chevre before it molds?

Yesterday, I looked in my cookbooks and baked two chevre cheesecakes. I took them to Sunday dinner at my sister's. It was a showdown. I love showdowns.

Mario Batali's lemon goat cheesecake from The Babbo Cookbook vs. Kate Zuckerman's goat cheese cake from The Sweet Life. 

Both recipes had embellishments (glazes, a brittle to top the cake), but I omitted those. I just wanted to focus on the cakes themselves.


Kate Zuckerman won. It was unaninmous. Mario's cake involved lots of lemon and had a dry, coarse texture. We would have probably loved it on its own, but Kate's cake was so silky and suave, with no lemon to interfere with the more subtle tang of goat cheese. I love tasting dishes side by side. It's the only way to truly determine which is better.

I can't remember which is which.
Neither was quite perfect, though. I resent a cheesecake that does not have a graham cracker crust. I will be perfecting my chevre cheesecake in the near future, and this will be my first fix. Now I really have to leave.

what Sunday dinner looks like

Thursday, August 02, 2012

And I did not lose a single pound

You'll want to keep your distance when you see this.
I was meaning to post a lot sooner, but became busy with work and then got sick. I still don't feel like talking about food, so I'm going to save recent cooking experiences for a subsequent post when I can do them justice.

However, I will happily talk about ovens.

Last weekend, Owen and I chose our oven site. It is the correct distance from the fence as dictated by the county. We put down cement pavers to create a level surface.

You have no idea how hard this was.
It looks like it would be about as complex as setting the table, but took us almost an entire day. Getting cement pavers to sit level on a sloping piece of rocky ground when you have no upper body strength or geometry skillz? Humbling. We ended up using a carpenter's level, which I'd never done before. I assure you, those mothers are now level.

After we were through for the day, Owen and I ended up watching Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. No comment. I bring it up only because I was preoccupied throughout by all the perfectly flat stone surfaces in the ancient world. Humans are so smart.

2. The next day, we mixed mortar, inhaled mortar powder, and started laying the brick platform for the oven.
That is not the vessel in which you want to mix mortar.
What a mess. What a learning curve

A few times I got my hands coated in mortar. If I rub them together five days later it still feels like they underwent some expensive and brutal dermabrasion. We worked hard for a few hours and I ruined my favorite pair of jeans and then it was time to drive Owen to sleep-away camp.

where we left it
Not exactly tearing through this project, are we? It looks good from a distance, very bad close up. But I have kicked it as hard as I could and the structure is solid, so that's what really matters.

We will resume on Saturday, after Owen returns. Isabel comes home on Monday. We have missed her. I'm ready for us all to be under one roof again.

Look what the chickens have done to our rhubarb.

Supposedly poisonous, but I see no signs of illness among the hens.
 I am trying to decide whether to construct more barriers, or clip wings.

In case you missed it, I wrote a review of ice cream books for Slate that you can read here.