Thursday, December 26, 2013

Santa's a funny guy

lumps of coal
How was your Christmas? Did you eat roast beef and yorkshire pudding? Did you go to mass? Did you go to the movies? Did Santa bring you pecan pie Pringles? Aren't they revolting?

Our Christmas was lovely. We saw every member of our extended family living within a 90 mile radius, ate crab, listened to carols, exchanged presents, and spent last night cleaning for the house sitter which always makes me want to cancel a vacation. Today we’re driving to Los Angeles. 

I received three cookbooks: Cowgirl Creamery Cooks, The Model Bakery Cookbook, and Kenvin: An Artist’s Kitchen. I look forward to exploring them when we return. 

But I can’t leave town before wrapping up Soups, which I started out dreading and ended up loving. Not so much the book itself, as the soup experience. Soup still lacks romance for me, but while I have always preferred steak and red wine, I find that I feel better on a diet of vegetarian soups and coconut water. What a shocker.

Let’s rewind: Last Friday, I made “boiled water” soup because it involved little money or time and no trip to the supermarket. Richard Olney excerpted the recipe from a 1977 book called Ma Cuisine Provencale by Josephine Besson and writes: “This Provencal infusion is said to have extraordinary virtues. Nothing can resist it: hangover, illness, childbirth -- there can be no convalescence without ‘boiled water.’” He also writes that it is “delicious and tangy.” I wondered how such a primitive soup could possibly be delicious.  How primitive is boiled water? This primitive:

Salt a quart of water to taste, drop in 15 cloves of garlic and boil for 10 minutes. Add a bay leaf, a sage leaf. and a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Boil 5 minutes more.  Cover the pot and let the water sit for 10 minutes. Pull out the leaves and garlic cloves. Put slices of crusty bread on the bottom of four bowls, top with shredded gruyere, pour the hot garlic water over the bread. (You can add more olive oil at this point, but I forgot.) Serve.

Owen thought it was “too garlicky” and Mark thought it was “too sharp.” Isabel and her friend Juliet decided to go to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, so I don’t know what they thought of boiled water. Or maybe their decision to go the Cheesecake Factory is exactly what they thought of boiled water.

I loved it. I’d make this again in a second.

Saturday, I made carrot soup, the only other soup that didn’t require a trip to the supermarket. (Olney plucked this recipe out of Terence Conran and Maria Kroll’s Vegetable Book.) In the early afternoon I sauteed sliced carrots in butter with some finely chopped onion. Added water and a little rice and simmered until cooked. Turned off stove, put lid on pot, and Mark and I went to see Inside Llewyn Davis, which we did not enjoy. If you were spellbound by the music, Oscar Isaac’s performance, John Goodman, and the Coen Brothers’ dark genius, you are in good company. We can agree to disagree. 

Back home, I pureed the carrot soup with the stick blender, reheated, salted vigorously, served. It was so carroty it practically crunched. Sour cream did a lot to soften the raw rootiness and in the end I was happy with the soup, though I wouldn’t make it again. 

That’s it for Soups. The book is too full of unappealing, archaic recipes (brown rabbit soup, a cream of asparagus soup made with twenty tablespoons of butter) to recommend. But I’m glad I forced myself to cook five recipes from its pages. I would be a healthier, skinnier, happier person if I ate vegetable soup for dinner two or three nights a week. Maybe that will be a resolution.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

When life gives you leeks

not that long ago
I am approximately 80% done with my Christmas shopping. I am exactly 60% done with my required recipe allotment from Soups.

After a solid but uninspiring leek and potato soup and an overly rich black bean soup, I have found a recipe in Soups that I love. It is an Elizabeth David recipe. Every David recipe I've tried from the Good Cook series has been phenomenal. I knew she was revered and now I know why.

This soup is ideal for those of us who have been living on frosted Christmas cookies and the free samples they give out at See's. It is healthy, cheap, easy, vegan, anti-cancer, gluten-free. I think it even works on the Paleo diet, though I'm not sure about peas. Most importantly, it is delicious. Typing out the recipe for this soup felt like an important public service and I hope someone makes it.

Smooth Vegetable Soup
adapted from Soups which adapted the recipe from Elizabeth David's Book of Mediterranean Food

1/2 cup olive oil
2 pounds leeks, white and pale green parts cut into chunks and well washed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper
a big handful spinach leaves (or 1 cup)
1 cup frozen peas
a big handful lettuce leaves (or 1 cup)
5 cups water

1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy soup pot and add the leeks. Season with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes until soft and light gold.

2. Add the spinach, peas, and lettuce and stir for a minute to coat with oil. Add the water. Cook until the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.

3. Puree with Vitamix, food processor, stick blender, whatever. Taste for seasoning and serve. Yogurt or sour cream would make a tasty garnish. Serves 4 as a main course.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Soup is kind of boring food

I like eating soup, but it has no romance for me and I’m going to try to get through Soups as fast as possible. I made a French potato and leek soup last night. As always, I started with the lowest hanging fruit, in this case a soup that goes like this: Boil 2 quarts of salted water, add 5 thinly sliced leeks and 4 thinly sliced, peeled potatoes, cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the stove and stir in 3 tablespoons of butter. Ladle into bowls.

It was surprisingly tasty for something so simple and you could make it even simpler by omitting the butter which amounted to roughly one irrelevant teaspoon per bowl. Everyone ate the soup with satisfaction. Make it and you will be pleased, if not collapsing with joy. I have nothing else to say about this estimable soup.

One soup recipe down, four to go.

On another subject, many thanks to the commenter who recommended Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. I'm at the halfway mark and the book is a delight. Charming, fizzy, casually erudite, thought-provoking. . . Shall I just type a page-long list of gushy adjectives? I could. 

It’s a history of cooking equipment, but that makes it sound plodding and academic and this book is anything but. I don’t look at a wooden spoon the same way, or a pot, or a knife. I've learned why kids today need braces and 500 years ago they didn't and why the French frown on cutting salad leaves. I also now crave spit-roasted meat, which Wilson ate in the kitchen of food historian Ivan Day.

The library only had the audiobook version, not my first choice, but it's a top-notch production. This afternoon I have to ice a 15-layer cake for Isabel’s birthday party and I’m looking forward to the chore because I get to listen to Consider the Fork for 45 minutes. In the unlikely case you haven't figured this out, I highly recommend this book.

This has nothing to do with cooking, but I also highly recommend a movie called The Great Beauty. It's thrilling to watch -- beautiful people, flamingos, Rome -- but it's much more than that. I can’t get the movie out of my mind, but since I saw it alone have no one to discuss it with.  

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Biscuit tortoni and runzas

If I don't convince you to make biscuit tortoni at your soonest possible convenience, I haven't done my job.

As you can see, biscuit tortoni is lovely looking. It's rich and clean-tasting, but also a little rummy. The texture is that of a firm ice cream. Amanda Hesser wrote about it beautifully a few years ago in the New York Times. In Classic Desserts Richard Olney states that the dish was invented in 1798 by a Neapolitan restaurateur in Paris named Tortoni. According to Caroline and Robin Weir, authors of a big, authoritative book on ice cream, this is incorrect. I read their minutely detailed and meandering two-page history of biscuit tortoni from which I gleaned this: Someone invented biscuit tortoni somewhere, probably at some point during the 19th century. It is likely called "biscuit" because it comes from a line of frozen desserts flavored with crumbled breads, cakes, and biscuits. The Weirs aren't really sure about why it's called "tortoni." The end.

There are lots of biscuit tortoni recipes out there. The Weir recipe calls for cream, maraschino, egg yolks, sugar, and kirsch. Into the custard you can crumble shortbread, graham crackers or almond macaroons. They write that the dessert has "the typical, rich, hedonistic flavour of the Victorian period."

Richard Olney plucked the recipe for Classic Desserts from American Cooking: The Melting Pot and it is very different from the one in the Weir book. It is fabulous and I like to think that it, too, has the rich, hedonistic flavour of the Victorian period.

BISCUIT TORTONI, adapted from Classic Desserts

1/4 cup dark rum
2 1/2 cups heavy cream, chilled
1 cup very dry almond macaroon crumbs (I used this recipe and then broke the cookies up with a rolling pin)
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 cup sliced toasted almonds OR more macaroon crumbs
6 candied cherries, optional (but pretty)

1. Put cupcake liners in a 12-cup muffin tin. In a bowl, stir together 1 1/4 cups heavy cream, the macaroon crumbs, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
2. When the mixture is cold, beat the remaining 1 1/4 cups cream until it thickens and forms soft peaks. Gently fold it into the macaroon mixture.
3. Fill the paper liners with this mixture. Do it neatly. Sprinkle with a few almonds, wrap the whole pan tightly in plastic wrap and place in the freezer.  Freeze for a few hours, until completely firm.
4. When you serve them, put half of a cherry on each dessert. Makes 12.

And with the biscuit tortoni triumph, I'm done with my official five-recipe foray into Classic Desserts. It's a phenomenal book. The biscuit tortoni and the syllabub recipes -- jewels! The other three recipes I tried (tea cream, crepes suzette, butterscotch parfait) were all very good. You can buy a copy of Classic Desserts at evil amazon for one penny plus $3.99 shipping. Friends, this is a deal you should not pass up.

We're on to Soups now and I'm not too psyched.

On another subject, I made runzas (yeast dough, beef-spinach filling) using the recipe in the The New Midwestern Table.

They reminded me a little bit of piroshki and a little bit of Chinese barbecued pork buns and they were tasty, but breadier than Owen and I would have liked. Mark said they were "perfect." But I think I'll try making piroshki before revisiting runzas. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

chop suey vs. the salted caramel croissant

The Grand Central Market doesn't look like much from the outside. 
I was in Los Angeles over the weekend reporting an 800-word travel story on the city's scuzzy-fascinating Downtown. There’s a lot of scuzzy in Downtown L.A. There’s a lot of fascinating. There’s a lot of everything. Vagrants, hipsters, check-cashing stores, great restaurants, scary restaurants, a Roy Choi restaurant, urine-scented street corners, lovely Beaux Arts buildings, a Chinatown, a 110-year-old mochi shop, a block with nothing but hookah wholesalers. . . 

Yikes. Only a writer version of Houdini could pack Downtown L.A. into 800 words and that isn’t me. Yesterday, after much struggle, self doubt, and ruthless cutting, I turned the story in. I didn’t hit it out of the park, but I turned it in. Today is going to be cake. I'm going to enjoy today.

My hotel was two blocks from the Grand Central Market, a lively 93-year-old urban market with history, lore, and old neon signs advertising chow mein and chop suey. Every time I took a break from running around, I went back to the Market. I could have stood there watching people all day. About 3/4 of the stalls are hard-core ethnic places selling tacos, pupusas, and chop suey. I was curious about the chop suey, which I’ve never tasted, but I was also suspicious because it cost $4. If it had cost $8 I would have tried it. 

Last December, the market’s owners announced plans for a renovation and in the months since they’ve rented empty stalls to vendors specializing in almond milk lattes, salted caramel croissants, and juices with names like “Purity." There’s an oyster bar coming and a cheese shop. In other words, the market is now split between dirt-cheap ethnic food and delicacies with “local” or “salted” in the name. I bought a tiny, delicious salted chocolate chip cookie from a pretty new bakery called Valerie. Ten steps away an enormous cauldron of pig parts was bubbling and people were shouting in Spanish. I tried some of those pig parts (a.k.a. carnitas) and, like the salted cookie, they were delicious. 

The scene was wonderful. It was also dissonant. Can the two realities coexist under one roof? And if not, why not? If I had to venture a guess, I would predict the market will quickly tilt in one direction or the other. While it seems clear that there’s more money in salted caramel, the vast majority of the people there were working-class Latino. They seemed totally uninterested in the $6 bottles of Purity juice.

Incidentally, it turns out that Valerie Gordon, owner of the bakery where I bought the salted chocolate chip cookie, just came out with a beautiful cookbook called Sweet. The publisher sent it to me a month or so ago, and while it contains no recipe for those salted chocolate chip cookies, I’m intrigued by her tangerine poundcake and rose petal petit fours.

As a few of you may recall, I spent some time cooking from Nancy Silverton's Mozza a couple of years ago. Late Sunday afternoon I had an hour to kill before heading to the airport, so I parked across the street from Pizzeria Mozza, supposedly a very tough place to get a seat. Should I try to walk in? Would I feel dejected and hurt if I was turned away? Stupid! I gave myself a brief talking-to and got out of the car. 

"Absolutely we have room!" said the friendly hostess. She seated me at the counter and almost immediately I felt calmer than I had all weekend. The place was warm, welcoming and totally sure of itself. Totally alive. Some restaurants, very few, have this magic about them. For me, Sunday afternoon, Pizzeria Mozza had it. I ordered the long-cooked broccoli pizza, which was fantastic. For dessert: butterscotch pudding with caramel sauce. Do even need to tell you the caramel sauce was salted? It was outstanding. I sat there and thought: what a treat, I am perfectly happy, remember this. 

Then I had to drive to the airport and the spell was broken. That's spells for you

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Syllabub: definitely a classic

Until week before last I'd never experienced syllabub, the whipped concoction of cream, sugar, and alcohol that was popular in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries. 

There are three syllabub recipes in Classic Desserts and, given that antique desserts with silly/poetic names have always appealed to me, I felt I had to make one. 

I chose the so-called everlasting syllabub, which Classic Desserts editor Richard Olney excerpted from one of Elizabeth David's books. It is wonderfully simple: In a bowl, combine the zest and juice of one lemon with 2 tablespoons brandy and 1/2 cup white wine. Infuse overnight. The next day, pluck out the lemon peel and beat the liquid with 1/4 cup sugar and 1 1/4 cups heavy cream until it forms soft, billowy peaks. Spoon into small glasses and grate a little nutmeg on top. 

I thought, here goes nothing. Another weird creamy dessert. But it was love at first bite. This syllabub was tart, sweet, light, airy, rich, boozy, all the flavors and elements in perfect balance. A recipe for the ages. Even Mark thought so. Make this. It may not be exactly to your taste, but I think you'll have to agree that there is something magical about it. 

I was so crazy about the Elizabeth David syllabub that the following day I made cider syllabub using a recipe from Anne Willan’s Cookbook Library. Willan’s recipe is older than Elizabeth David’s, dating back to 1660 when people still treated syllabub as a drink. Although I served the cider syllabub with a spoon, it was actually a beverage with a thick, foamy head. Or, as Willan puts it, “a feisty liquid topped by a creamy mousse.” I liked it almost as much as Elizabeth David's syllabub. Mark liked it better.

I wanted to know more about syllabub, so I looked it up in The Oxford Companion to Food:

It has often been said that the primitive method of making syllabub, ensuring a good foam, was to partly fill a jug with sweetened, spiced white wine or cider, and to milk a cow directly into it. When this technique was critically examined, and subjected to experiments, by Vicky Williams (1996), it was found to be unsatisfactory; and it began to seem doubtful whether it had ever been a common practice. Ivan Day (1996b) crowned the debate on this particular question by a historical and technical survey of the whole subject of syllabubs, now the locus classicus.

Locus classicus? Sheesh. So much for my American education.

The fact that there are people "critically examining" syllabub and "subjecting it to experiments" interests me more than syllabub itself. And I'm pretty interested in syllabub.

If you have 15 minutes to spare, there are worse ways to waste them than in reading Ivan Day's paper on syllabub. It's scholarly but funny. Day attempted milking a cow into his syllabub and reports: 

Unless your syllabub cow is extremely well-groomed, the congealing milk will also be garnished here and there with cow hairs and the odd speck of bovine dandruff, a most unappetising prospect, at least to our modern eyes. It is possible that a farmhand would have happily slaked his thirst with a rude refreshment of this kind, but surely not an aristocratic banqueteer expecting a “daintie silla-bub” in a delicate spouted glass.

And so on.

Even if you don't read the paper, you should check out Day's web site. For me, it was like falling through a trap door into fantasyland. Pink Twelfth Night cakes, sugar sculpture, jelly moulds. My personal dream.

On another subject, thanks to the reader who recommended Amy Thielen's New Midwestern Table which I picked up at the library. It’s a handsome cookbook, full of dishes I’ve never heard of, like runzas, which appear to be something like Nebraskan piroshki. I have not make those, but did make Thielen's cracker crust pizza. It was easy and very good and I’m not sure anyone but me noticed that the crust was unleavened and totally flat. We are not talking about a discerning audience here. The crust recipe is here.

The other New Midwestern dish I tried was the smoked oyster dip. Hugely popular at my sister’s birthday party. I should note that the recipe contains what I believe to be a significant typo, calling for a 13-ounce tin of smoked oysters when I am quite sure Thielen meant to call for a 3-ounce tin. Anyway, that’s what I used and, as I said, the dip was great. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

The quality of gratitude

quadrant of excellent pecan and the over-spiced sweet potato
My sister, Justine, hosted Thanksgiving this year, bless her heart, and I just brought dessert. 

Isabel made a Milk Bar grasshopper pie (like a mint-flavored brownie) and I made a Milk Bar pink grapefruit pie (stupendous, exotic), plus pecan, sweet potato, and raspberry pies. The pies were all done the day before Thanksgiving, so I dedicated myself to savoring a day of serious leisure, my first Thanksgiving off in eons. Relax. Enjoy. Feel grateful. Let someone else set the table, brine the turkey, have a fit. That was the plan. 

I'm an extremely early riser, but I stayed in bed later than usual on Thanksgiving morning trying to think of everything I was grateful for. Gratitude has become one of those vexing words, not quite ruined by use as an alternative lifestyle slogan, but almost. I wondered whether you have to be grateful to someone or something or whether you can just be grateful without any implied thank you. Would a better word be gladness? Except there’s something smug and unseemly about celebrating one’s gladness. And gladness for gastronomic bounty in 21st century America with our diabetes and junk food and industrial farming is problematic, and ugh, ugh ugh, you get the point, instead of feeling gratitude or gladness I was mired in tortured semantics before dawn.
Got up. After a short time, lay down again to read a book I wasn't loving. Because reading spy novels is what you do on a day off. Thought about going to see Dallas Buyers Club, thought about taking a walk, but those activities required too much effort so instead I got into little quarrels with Mark and Owen. Felt glum because I hadn’t posted anything on the blog in ages, but wasn't about to wrestle with those particular demons on a day of rest. Ditto putting the last swathe of plaster on the pizza oven or the final touches on the hard-hitting magazine story about grilled cheese sandwiches. So I took a nap that left me feeling groggy and even crabbier than when I lay down.
The grapefruit pie was a stunner.
Finally -- finally! --  it was 4 p.m. and we drove to Justine’s. Owen was holding the raspberry pie in the back seat and kept pretending he'd broken the crust and that juice was spilling everywhere because it’s hilarious when your mom shrieks. At Justine's I immediately commenced stuffing myself with bacon-wrapped water chestnuts. My father asked how I was. I said, “Kind of restless and grumpy and at loose ends.” He said, “Well, how about writing another blog post one of these days?”

I sighed and kept eating bacon-wrapped water chestnuts until I discovered the Alton Brown spinach-artichoke dip. That stuff is diabolical. You should make it.
Then suddenly I was feeling it. The Thanksgiving spirit. All these people I love were there in the same room, wearing their party clothes, and my sister had made two kinds of stuffing, two different salads, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, rolls, a magnificent turkey. My grandmother, who will turn 102 in January, looked like she’d come straight from a White House tea. She kept fretting that there were 13 of us at the table, but it wouldn't be a party if she didn't. My cousin and his wife convinced me to watch Orphan Black and I attempted to sell them on Enlightened. I ate so much of my aunt’s signature spinach casserole that I felt physical pain that persists as of this writing, but it was so delicious, that casserole, and I won't get to taste it again until Christmas. The raspberry pie was a soupy mess, but my niece Stella wolfed it down anyway. I'd made it just for her and it was a pleasure to see her pleasure.

Lovely night. You can't will or think gratitude into being, it just comes.
They look wistful. What were they thinking about?

Monday, November 18, 2013

How I learned to stop worrying and tolerate the supermarket

Don't let this be you.
In the last few weeks I've figured out how to enjoy grocery shopping, which I have dreaded and hated for many years. I just go more often. Counterintuitive, but it works. Is this what people are now calling a "life hack?" Can a change that makes you happier but less efficient be a life hack?

I used to try to cram all the grocery shopping into one grim, efficient marathon on a Sunday or Monday. I'd trudge to Safeway for staples and detergent, then to Whole Foods for quality. Recently I added Trader Joe's to the rotation. Wheeling a giant grocery cart around, I slump over the handlebar and feel 10 years older, 30 pounds heavier, and like I have 9 children instead of two. Ridiculous, but we are ridiculous animals.

A few weeks ago I was in Safeway picking up a few things I'd forgotten the day before and it dawned on me that I actually love going to the supermarket when I'm just picking up a few things. Shopping becomes a delightful break in the day, rather than a dreaded slog. Yesterday, I started writing the usual epic grocery list and the cloud of gloom descended. I reminded myself of the epiphany and the cloud lifted. Off I went and bought just what we needed for the next couple of days and was back in 27 minutes. I timed it. It took me less than a minute to put stuff away and I felt no resentment whatsoever that Mark was sitting on the sofa watching NFL Red Zone the whole time. Zero. That in itself is a miracle. If I'd been gone for several hours and come home with 47 bags, my smile of greeting might have been a little forced.

On another subject, I’m currently getting to know Classic Desserts per the new plan I described a few posts ago. The idea is to have short, shallow relationships with more cookbooks, rather than long, tortured affairs with just a few.

Classic Desserts is a volume in the Time-Life Good Cook series, published between 1968 and 1970 and edited by Richard Olney. 
If you’re wondering what constitutes a classic dessert, as far as I can tell it is any sweet that isn’t cake, cookie, pie, pastry, or candy, as there are other volumes in the series devoted to those categories. There are some pretty funky antique recipes in this book. 

appealing recipes in Classic Desserts:

magnolia petal fritters
black forest bombe
French flummery
frangipane souffle
candied chestnut pudding


celeriac custard
macaroni pudding with pears
avocado whip
black coffee jelly
red wine froth

I have so far made: 

-crepes suzette. Crepes spread with orange-flavored butter and briefly warmed in the oven. A real classic and well liked by all. I always thought crepes suzette were supposed to be flamed, but Olney disapproves. Olney: "Although some cooks douse the crepes with spirits and set them afire, purists believe that this ruins the presentation. In the words of one famous chef, flaming crepes suzette are 'operetta, not cuisine.'" 

-tea cream, chosen because it appeared to be the easiest dish in the book and we all love low-hanging fruit. This delicate, milky pudding was a dream. My dream. Probably not your dream. I don't understand it, but a lot of people don't appreciate aromatic puddings. Owen took a bite, pushed it away, poured himself a bowl of Wheat Chex. But Mark and I liked it a lot and I'd make this again if it was just him and me. The recipe is adapted from Mary Jewry’s 1868 Warne’s Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book and the directions are interesting. You should read the recipe, even if you don't make the cream.

If you do try this recipe, you'll need a rennet tablet, as in Junket. (Sorry about the font in the directions. I can't seem to fix it.) 

Tea cream

2 1/2 tablespoons loose green tea 
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 rennet tablet dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water

  1. Combine the tea and milk in a small saucepan and heat to scalding. Let sit for a few minutes. Strain into another bowl. Add the cream and sugar. 
  2. The mixture should feel lukewarm. Add the rennet. Stir.
  3. Pour the mixture into a serving dish (or dishes) and cover.  Leave at warm room temperature for a few hours, until the pudding is set. Serves 6.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Matzo ball soup and Suliman's pilaf

funny, the things we yearn for
A few years ago, Nora Ephron wrote that she was “a Jew with a big crush on WASP food.”

I’m a something-or-other with a big crush on Jewish food. Knishes, blintzes, brisket, challah, kugel, latkes. This is probably because I had a lot of Jewish friends growing up and read All-of-a-Kind Family at least seventeen times. 

The only Jewish dish that has never appealed to me is gefilte fish. I first saw a jar of gefilte fish in some supermarket circa 1975 and was traumatized by the disintegrating vomit-colored blobs floating in a cloudy liquid. Looking at jarred gefilte fish still makes me a little queasy. We all have our triggers. I'm sure gefilte fish can be edible and attractive when prepared at home. I mean, this doesn't quite make my mouth water, but I'd eat it. 

Long story short, I made matzo ball soup last night. Not for the first time, but this was a particularly great version with big, light, fluffy matzo balls. I made a basic chicken soup with celery and carrots then used Wolfgang Puck’s matzoh ball recipe which you can find in this New York Times story. The formatting is crazy, but the recipe really is in there. 

If you choose to make Puck's matzo ball soup, some tips:

a. I didn't clarify the butter
b. used sparkling water, not club soda 
c. used about a teaspoon of thyme because that’s all we had 
d. left the batter in the refrigerator for one hour, not two
e. cooked all the matzo balls at once 

Given that the soup was wonderful, you are safe doing the same.

Here is the Suliman’s pilaf recipe I promised, adapted from LambThe biggest change I made was to cook the rice by the absorption method using Madhur Jaffrey's formula. Supposedly soaking the rice enhances the flavor. I’ve never tested this; I just soak the rice.

Suliman’s pilaf

2 cups basmati rice
1 tablespoons olive oil for the rice
1/4 cup olive oil for the lamb
1/2 pound chopped lamb 
1/3 cup chopped onion
1/3 cup raisins
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tomatoes, fresh or canned, optional
2 tablespoons pine nuts or blanched, slivered almonds
thick yogurt
kosher salt and pepper

  1. Wash the rice well and put it in a bowl. Add 5 cups water  and 1 teaspoon salt. After 30 minutes, drain.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a saucepan then add the rice and cook for a minute, stirring. Add 2 1/4 cups water and 3/4 teaspoon salt.  Bring to a boil, cover the pot, lower heat to the lowest possible setting, and cook for 20 minutes. Lift the lid, mix rice gently with a fork, cover, and cook for 10 minutes more. 
  3. While the rice is cooking, heat the 1/4 cup oil in a skillet and add the onions. Cook until softened. Add all the other ingredients except the yogurt. Cook for a few minutes to heat and let the flavors meld. Season with salt and pepper. Add the rice and gently fold together. Serve with yogurt. Serves 4-6.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two recommendations and a recipe

I opened a canister of maple sugar a few weeks ago to make these superb cookies and since I was on a maple sugar roll (so to speak), this past weekend decided to try the rye-maple danish from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain, a terrific book that won all sorts of accolades back in 2010. If you haven’t bought the book already, Boyce's chocolate chip cookie recipe will convince you to do so. The danish pastries aren’t in the category of the chocolate chip cookies, but little is. They're just very tasty.

Here’s the thing. For me, a danish really needs to be plump, soft, blond, and sweet. These estimable danish are lean, angular, brown, and not very sweet. I envision the ideal baker of these danish as a restrained minimalist who lives in a modernist house decorated with austere textiles and landscaped with gray-green native grasses. That is not me. Owen and I both felt the danish needed more sugar and I kept thinking they would be perfect if thickly frosted with maple icing. But that would be like throwing your grandmother's afghan over the back of the Eames sofa. All wrong. In short, while I liked the recipe, some people are going to adore it and I hope that after my description you know who you are.  

Done with food for now. 

Recommendation #1: Mark and I went to see Captain Phillips on Saturday night and I thought it was stunning. Highly recommend. I’ve read virtually nothing about Captain Phillips, but it made me think about justice, poverty, maritime law, and American military might. I'm still wondering whether the ending was happy, tragic, or intentionally ambiguous. Meanwhile, I’ve read dozens and dozens of articles about Blue is the Warmest Color, which was poignant, but incredibly long and left me wondering about little except why the central character never brushed her hair. 

Recommendation #2: Have you watched Enlightened? I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve searched for reviews that capture its radiance and oddity, its blend of cringe-inducing comedy and transcendent sweetness, but can't find one. I don't think the trailer does a good job of capturing the feel of the show, either. You just have to see it for yourself. HBO canceled Enlightened but there are two whole seasons to enjoy on DVD if you find it is your cup of tea.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Persillade, pistachio cake, new plan

Who was Aunt Sassy?
I don’t currently have the patience or obsessiveness to delve deeply into a single cookbook for weeks or months at a time. Perhaps you've noticed. I don't want to have long heart-to-hearts with a few cookbooks anymore. I want to shake hands and make small talk with lots of different ones. The other day, I decided to start in the upper lefthand corner of my shelves and cook five recipes from the very first book then proceed to the next in line. 

Unfortunately, the first book on the shelf was Lamb from the Time-Life Good Cook series. Lamb. So gamy, so funky, so expensive. So rich and unctuous when hot, so congealed and fatty when cold. I was tempted to skip over Lamb, but couldn't go changing the rules so soon. Six days later, I am done with Lamb.

If you're not interested in hearing about lamb (or Lamb), skip down to the last paragraph of the post in which you will get the details on that incredible cake.

Sunday night, I roasted a persillade-stuffed lamb shoulder for my father's birthday party. This was a $58 butterflied lamb roast that I spread thickly with a butter-parsley-garlic mixture, rolled up, tied, roasted. See how masterfully that roast was tied?  

Sometimes, if only by accident, even I can take an arty picture.
All thanks to the very useful pictures in LambI tied a pork shoulder a few weeks ago and there’s a reason I didn’t post a picture of that. 

It was an expensive roast, or so I thought when I swiped my credit card at Mill Valley Market. But the roast served nine at the birthday dinner, four the next night in leftover form, four again the next night, and there were leftovers of all the leftovers. In the end, it provided protein for approximately 23. Not as cheap as lentils, but on a par with a nasty little supermarket chicken. So I take it back about the costliness of lamb. If you're willing to stretch the leftovers to their limit -- which this book helped me do -- a lamb roast can be reasonable.

Do you know about the Time-Life Good Cook series? It was published between 1978 and 1980 and edited by Richard Olney, a writer whose brilliance I've seen extolled a hundred times but never experienced for myself. Each book covers a category of food (lamb, pork, breads, candy, et cetera) and the first half is dedicated to basic techniques and the second to recipes drawn from a truly vast range of books. Among those recipes, at least in the case of Lamb, are some that call for leftovers. I really appreciated this.

On Monday, I used some of the leftover roast to make Suliman’s pilaf, a recipe adapted from Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food. We liked this pilaf more than we had liked the original roast. You chop your cold, cooked lamb, fry it in olive oil with onions, toasted nuts, and raisins, then toss all of this with hot basmati rice. I made some changes to the recipe and am going to type it up for my recipe binder and if you are interested, I will share. It was super-easy and super-delicious. 

On Tuesday I made a so-called French mousakka using the remainder of the leftover lamb. Richard Olney excerpted this recipe from his very own French Menu Cookbook and I'm afraid it is not a  dish that does him proud. You fry some eggplant and line a casserole with the slices. Then you mix leftover lamb with onions, garlic, tomato, egg, and dry breadcrumbs. Scrape this into the eggplant-lined casserole. Bake. Unmold. Stare. Mark said, "This is grotesque."

I wouldn't have said "grotesque" but it was definitely odd. Fussy presentations like this are totally out of style. I could have embraced and even celebrated its quaint appearance, but the thing was not that tasty. The combination of reheated lamb and dry breadcrumbs made me think at every bite: stale.

I managed to find a recipe in Lamb that did not include lamb. This was a melange of crispy green beans and soft shelled flageolet beans that Olney suggests makes an excellent accompaniment to lamb. I wouldn't go that far. That was recipe #4. 

Recipe #5, which I served last night, was a Greek dish of lamb cubes (fresh) mixed with onion, olive oil and oregano then placed atop squares of tin foil, topped with feta, sealed up, and baked. I wouldn't make this again nor recommend that you make it even once. It sounded lovely, but the lamb (too much!) was strangely grainy and swimming in liquid. You could definitely troubleshoot this recipe and solve its many problems, but that is not my mission in life. As of today, we are on to Classic Desserts

Verdict on Lamb after a mere five recipes: If you don't own it, you don't need to buy it. That Elizabeth David pilaf was incredible, but you should just buy her Book of Mediterranean Food. Or ask me for my excellent adaptation of the recipe.

But to get back to the picture at the top of this post, by far the most thrilling thing I made this past week was the exquisite, perfect, tender, rich, breathtaking, amazing, splendid and so on Aunt Sassy Cake from Baked Explorations. Torte-like layers of pistachio cake iced with honey buttercream. One of the best birthday cakes I've ever baked. The recipe is here. You must try it. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Recipes recipes recipes

Everything that can be frosted is now frosted.
Some of the best dishes to come out of my kitchen in the last year were cooked in the last 10 days. Since I have no stories to tell today, I’ll just describe the food and link you to some excellent recipes: 

-After the flaming bananas foster at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, this "fancy pants" banana pudding is the most delicious banana dessert I’ve ever eaten. I flagged the recipe in Salon a few years ago and finally got around to making it last week for a family party. It was lots of work and monumentally fattening, but worth it. The recipe says it serves four "demurely" so I doubled it for nine. Don’t do this! Francis Lam must hang out with sumo wrestlers. We gave leftover pudding to the neighbors and were eating banana pudding for days and days. Ladies, are you prejudiced against Jessica Simpson’s clothing line? Until I tried on one of her sweater dresses -- flattering, affordable, jaunty, even sort of elegant -- I was a horrible snob about Jessica Simpson clothes. I decided to wear my cherished Jessica Simpson sweater dress today for the very first time. I lay in bed this morning happily thinking, today's the day. I put on the dress. Too tight in the arms. Banana pudding.  

-This pork roast out of Real Cajun by Donald Link is juicy, flavorful, and cheap. My sister said, “Don’t you feel that when you cook a pork shoulder you somehow end up making money?” Yes. Pork shoulder is a magic cut. This isn’t the usual cook-until-it-falls-apart pork shoulder recipe (bo ssam, pulled pork, carnitas) but a bona fide tied-up roast infused with the mighty flavors of garlic, fennel, rosemary, salt, and pepper. My father, who is not a man to use such words, called it “succulent.”

-Isabel baked some Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookies. They're all over the internet and look stupid and gimmicky and they are stupid and gimmicky, but they’re also delicious. And filling. You eat one and you can’t even think about eating another until the next day. I like a cookie with a built-in stopping mechanism. You should try these. Unfortunately, Isabel has been too busy to show me the exact recipe she used. She told me to do an image search for Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookies and the first picture that appeared would take me to the recipe. Maybe that's it, maybe it isn't.

-Last summer in Peru I met a British woman who casually mentioned a Stilton and broccoli soup she makes using her Vitamix. It was one of those concepts that I couldn't get out of my head. I came home and immediately bought a Vitamix. Last week I finally made broccoli and Stilton soup using a Nigella Express recipe and my Vitamix. It's a fabulous soup. Although. Although it really isn’t as good as plain Stilton. I ate bits of Stilton as I was crumbling it for the soup and it seemed criminal to dump this perfect, voluptuous cheese into a big pot of broccoli and broth. Have you eaten plain Stilton lately? Make it happen. And when you’ve had enough plain Stilton, make the soup. I don’t know why Nigella calls for "garlic-infused olive oil" when you can just put smashed garlic cloves into the oil as it heats. Also, this soup needs lots of salt.

-Owen’s Mandarin class got these maple-brown sugar oatmeal cookies for snack yesterday. You need maple sugar to make them and I wouldn't go out and buy it just for these, but if you have some in the cupboard, go for it. They're chewy and hearty and have the icing of a Starbucks maple nut scone. I used maple extract in the icing per the instructions, but next time wouldn’t. So artificial tasting. I used to like that brash artificiality, but am growing up. The Mandarin kids ate all the cookies and they also ate all of our bread. I’ve been hiding everything I don’t want them to eat. It had not occurred to me they would eat a loaf of bread.

-Last night, I made creamy quinoa soup, something I’d tasted in Peru and loved. I chose this recipe  from Barbara Kafka’s Soup: A Way of Life (I can’t see that title without rolling my eyes) which looked about right, even though it's Ecuadorian. Very tasty, rib-sticking, chowdery vegetarian soup. Not as wonderful as the soup I had in Peru, but nothing I make at home is ever as good as what I eat on vacation. 

I don't know what I'm making for dinner tonight or what cookbook I'm cooking from next or if maybe it's time to come up with a new organizing principle for the blog. I'm sitting here at the library wondering if I should work this afternoon or go see Captain Phillips. It seems like a waste of a flexible work life -- or should I say "work" life? -- if I just sit in the library on a sunny fall day when I could be sitting in a pitch black movie theatre. 
This won't surprise you, but the Safeway version of the cronut was dry, stale, bad.