Monday, April 29, 2013

The people are never wrong

pretty celadon plates by my momma
Per your unanimous instructions, I made the Momofuku bo ssam for book group on Friday and it was a huge hit. I detected mild shock when the blistered 10-pound chunk of meat appeared on the table because, well,
Ugly. But mild shock soon gave way to professions of gratitude. Everyone ate the salty, sugary, fatty bo ssam, everyone said nice things, everyone drank lots of water, everyone drank wine, everyone who had read Nothing to Envy loved Nothing to Envy and I went to bed happy, so happy. Thank you.

Three lessons from Friday night:

1. Fussbudgets make a lot of noise, but most people just like good food and if you serve it to them they will eat it.

2. Strangers read my blog, but no one in book group does.

3. Book club spent more time talking about these gluten-free pecan cookies than we usually spend talking about a book. The cookies look like brown lumps and are dense, intense, and chewy. I was pleased with how they turned out, but the ecstatic reception, which included one woman suggesting I supply a gluten-free bakery, surprised me. Was this because gluten-free cookies are ordinarily awful? Because everyone was drunk? Because these cookies are in fact the best cookies in the whole history of humankind, maybe even the best dessert? I don't know. I do know they're easy and delicious and I will make them again.

Next month we're reading Lean In. How would one plan a theme dinner around that? Not my problem!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

It seemed like a good idea at the time

cute little time-wasters
To make Jamie Oliver's Amalfi baked lemons you cut lemons in half, scrape out the flesh, stuff the shells with mozzarella, cherry tomato, and anchovy, then bake. Scoop the melted contents of the lemon  onto bread and eat.

How was this dish? Not as delicious as it was conceptually cool -- that would be impossible -- but quite tasty. Jamie writes that the mozzarella "absorbs the lovely lemon flavor when it bakes" and I was curious to experience this flavor, but all I picked up was a slight, not unpleasant bitterness. Verdict: They were a lot of fussy work and while they double as a conversation piece, once you've had the conversation there is no reason to ever make them again.

I served the lemons for our regular Sunday family dinner with my father and my sister's crew. Mark did his manly duty and grilled steaks (more on manliness and red meat below) and I made roasted sweet potatoes with a k-town kick from Debbie Lee's Seoultown Kitchen. There's a story behind the decision to cook sweet potatoes "with a k-town kick" and that story involves a dilemma and that dilemma has been stressing me out. I'm going to tell the story right now even though it interrupts this riveting narrative of a family dinner:

I'm hosting my all-female book club on Friday. We're discussing Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, the most engrossing and altogether excellent book I read in 2012. Nothing to Envy is about North Korea and in a fit of exuberance a few months ago, I announced I would serve a Korean dinner as a backdrop to our discussion. I had in mind to prepare the only Korean dish I have ever prepared: Momofuku bo ssam, a monumental pork shoulder cooked in salt and sugar for hours and hours and served with chile sauce and rice and wrapped in lettuce leaves. It is delicious, insanely, insanely delicious, and surprisingly easy.

But as the date approached, I began to have qualms. The vegan in our group had a prior engagement, but what about everyone else? Something felt wrong. I sent out an email inquiring about dietary restrictions. The replies were evenly split between "I eat everything" and "I'm dairy/gluten intolerant, but whatever you cook, I'll work around it."

No one said they didn't eat red meat. Yet the misgivings persisted. Finally, one book group member, a lovely person, wrote: "I don't eat gluten, but don't worry about me. I'll fill up on veggies!"

She didn't write, "I'll fill up on the meat!" or "I'll fill up on everything else!" She wrote, "I'll fill up on veggies!"

I knew exactly why she wrote that. She wrote that for the same reason I've been uneasy about the bo ssam menu. Women, including me, assume that other women will feed them veggies. Or fish. Maybe chicken. But not meat, never meat. The first time I made bo ssam I made it with my friend Lisa, but we were having dinner with our husbands, which made it acceptable to serve and eat large portions of fatty pork. Our husbands didn't even know what bo ssam was; Lisa and I were the enthusiastic instigators. But if it had just been Lisa and me, or Lisa and me and two other women, we would not have cooked bo ssam.

Why is this? Why is meat for the men and sole for the ladies? Is it because women are supposed to be dainty and meat is primal and bloody? Because meat involves violence and women are supposed to be gentle? Because women are more health-conscious than men? Because women are always on diets? Because we pretend we're health conscious and on diets even when we're not? Because we find meat "too heavy?" Because we pretend to find meat "too heavy?" Because meat is historically too precious to be wasted on women? Is it about not wanting meat or is it about not deserving meat?

I can barely look at this picture.
Anyway, I decided to try to find some Korean vegetable dishes from Seoultown Kitchen to serve alongside the bo ssam. I started with the aforementioned sweet potatoes and ended with the aforementioned sweet potatoes. You roast them with sugar, spices, soy sauce, and a boatload of sesame oil and they were salty, unctuous, cloying, and sugary. I hated them. No one else hated them, but I hated them so much that I lost all enthusiasm for testing more Korean vegetable dishes.

Here's my question:

Do I forge ahead with the bo ssam and serve a big, substantial salad alongside? Or do I explain that I couldn't pull off a Korean dinner after all and serve black bean chili? I should add that everyone in the book group is great and that no one will complain. I just don't want the evening to be weird. Thoughts?

End of Korean interlude.

Back to Sunday dinner. If you've lost your bearings, it's now time for dessert:

A year ago I saw a recipe for raspberry shortbread in Elizabeth David's Summer Cooking and it sounded magical, like something Mary Poppins would serve. I've wondered about raspberry shortbread ever since and decided to give it a go. I pictured hard, buttery shortbread embedded with juicy berries, but this was not what I pulled out of the oven. What I pulled out of the oven was a raspberry crisp with a very sandy topping. It was delightful served hot with vanilla ice cream, if not exactly what I'd been hoping for. The recipe is here, posted by someone who had the same expectations and results that I did.

Why would anyone think this pistol can subsist on cucumber sandwiches, poached eggs, and blueberries . . . 
but that these two clowns require meat?

Friday, April 19, 2013

What is the fashion equivalent of a FRUITCAKE?

They were having more fun than it appears, or so we like to think.
First we were in Japan, then I was exhausted, now I am trying to remember how to write a blog post.

We chose Japan for our vacation because it looked like an easy flight from San Francisco. Eleven hours in the back of an aged United jet is not easy. It is hellish. But it was the hellish with the payoff of a fantastic vacation.

Impressions of Japan, in brief: Everything you might have read about Japanese good manners is true, as is everything you might have read about Japanese toilets. Also true: the Japanese really do eat a lot of raw fish. We ate a lot of raw fish, we ate a lot of noodles, we ate a lot of sticky rice, and Mark took Isabel to TGI Friday's the first time they escaped my clutches. Although few Japanese people speak English, it is easy to communicate with smiles, rapid nodding, and a calculator. The Japanese are agreeable and deferential with strangers, as am I, so I felt right at home. Kyoto was lovely, especially the Nishiki Market, where we bought sashimi-on-a-stick, and the Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Tokyo was flat-out thrilling. We stayed in a hotel overlooking the incredible Shibuya Crossing. None of us wanted to leave.

I think I've already told you everything we ate: fish, noodles, rice. That was about it. Here is my one moderately interesting and nominally food-related story:

In Tokyo, Isabel and I visited a mall that was populated almost exclusively by girls between the ages of 15 and 20. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of girls. I didn't have my camera and would have felt creepy taking pictures of these particular girls, anyway. I've scoured the internet for photos, but have found none. Get with it, fashion bloggers! Meanwhile, I'll have to use my words.

A typical girl in this mall (a Japanese girl, remember) had long red or blond tresses carefully worked over with a curling iron to resemble Jessica Chastain's hairdo at the Oscars. She had blue eyes, thanks to tinted contact lenses (see the girl on the right? like that), and wore false eyelashes, a lot of rouge, towering platform shoes, bare legs, and either a tiny flouncy skirt or short shorts. Really short shorts. Shorter than the shorts Jodie Foster wore in Taxi Driver, which is what I thought of.

But on top a girl might wear a pink blazer, which was part of the contradiction in the whole get-up. Short shorts, platform shoes, and a pink blazer? The look would have been straight-ahead streetwalker, except the girls favored blazers and infantile, innocent colors and accessories: pink, pale green, lace, bows, pearl buttons. Also, all these girls were immaculately turned out, not a false eyelash out of place. It was as if they had been airbrushed en masse. By contrast, Isabel, no slouch in the grooming department, looked like she was heading out to dig some ditches.

Later, I found myself standing in front of a Japanese bakery looking at the desserts. The Japanese love delicate, fussy European baked goods: napoleons, mont blanc cakes, tarts, cream puffs. You would be hard pressed to find a chocolate chip cookie in a Japanese bakery and if you did it would look all wrong, so brown and lumpy and coarse. Their desserts are pink or pale green, adorned with perfect rosettes of whipped cream, strawberries, melon balls, candied flowers, translucent gels. They are seductive and dainty. They are unabashedly artificial, precisely decorated, and every detail is impeccable.

You see what I saw, don't you? The desserts were edible versions of the outfits. The outfits were wearable versions of the desserts.

(I should note here that most women in Tokyo don't dress like those girls in the mall, but they do dress very, very neatly and well, with far more polish and flair than American women.)

I got to thinking about the baked goods-fashion connection. Here in Northern California, where we still live under the long shadow of the hippies, the rustic pastry remains in favor. We like a free-form galette, a flourless chocolate cake, a chocolate chip cookie. There are exceptions to this, like the cupcake, but rustic is the general flavor. Foods should appear natural and unaffected; too much artifice is untrustworthy; a little disarray and imperfection are considered charming.

And of course you also see this in the way we dress. Or, to compare apples to apples, the way teenaged girls dress. They wear jeans and t-shirts, shorts (though not as short as the Japanese shorts!) and Ugg boots. Makeup, but they spend an hour making it look natural. They want a few rough edges. Intentional imperfections. "Matchy-matchy" is an insult. You could say the teen look is the sartorial equivalent of scones and chocolate chip cookies, with a few cupcakes thrown in for diversity. Pleasant. Maybe a little drab.

I'm not saying that one way of dressing, baking, or being is better than the other. I don't have an opinion on that, though I'm definitely more comfortable with what I'm used to. If you hadn't already guessed, I wasn't so keen on the sexy baby doll look, but there are teenaged girls in this town who wear pajama bottoms to school, which is a serious downer. That is beyond scone. That is the clothing equivalent of a misshapen vegan muffin. Gluten-free and raw and sweetened with grated beets.

Feel free to tell me I'm full of baloney. Isabel already has.


I'm not cooking from just one book right now as it makes me monomaniacal. In a few weeks I'll get back to that, but for now I'm cooking whatever looks good from whatever book I pick up. I made meatballs with fava beans (we have several tons growing in the backyard right now) from Jerusalem the other night and they were passable. I would not make them again. I said to Owen: "What do you think of the meatballs? Say something about the meatballs."

Owen: "Something about the meatballs."

That was another thing about the trip to Japan: a solid week of 12-year-old boy humor.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Hey Nineteen

I think Jamie Oliver is adorable. I'm not old enough to be his mother, but I'm old enough to be his mother's younger sister and I would be proud to be his aunt. I'm training myself to think and say "I would proud to be his aunt" and "I would be proud to be his mother." It is time. Not in every situation -- please! -- but where age appropriate. Do you remember when everyone was talking about cougars? I'm glad they stopped.

I've been choosing random recipes to cook before we leave for Japan and since there was a cauliflower in the refrigerator, made Jamie's cauliflower risotto last night. The recipe comes from Jamie's Italy but is also here.  Unless you are on a diet, MAKE IT. As Jamie writes at the end of the recipe: "So, so good!"

He is so, so right! And so, so enthusiastic!

His section on risotto begins: "You're going to absolutely love this chapter," but he often saves his loudest hurrah for the last line of a recipe.  He ends his recipe for eggplant parmigiana: "You'll love it!" Flash roast beef: "Tasty, tasty, and very gorgeous!" Grilled and marinated rabbit: "Simple, honest, and bloody good."

Owen declined to taste the risotto: "I don't like risotto, it's all gooey and unpleasing." I declined to care.  Since Isabel had late dance class and Owen was dining on yogurt, Mark and I watched the finale of Girls while eating the risotto.

A few words about Girls: I have come to hate this show. I'm going to have to think hard next season about whether my desire to know what people are talking about outweighs my dread of watching Lena Dunham stick sharp objects in her ears and Adam Driver do that thing he did in the penultimate episode. In every episode there are at least five moments when I want to bury my head in the sofa cushions and cover my ears. This is not counting my aversion to seeing Allison Williams do anything at all. Am I old and falling out of step? Or is the show in fact depressing and needlessly grotesque? Either is possible. When you fall out of step you don't know it. That is part of falling out of step.

We're leaving the house sitters detailed instructions and a bottle of iodine in case Natalie kids while we are on our trip. She's due on May 2, but is already big as a cow. Japan should be fun so long as North Korea doesn't drop any bombs. Thank you for all your suggestions. They are printed out and tucked in my bag. I will report.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Again and again the same situation

Shakshuka as cooked from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi is a melange of red bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, cumin, and harissa (North African chili paste) that you simmer until melded and delicious and in which you then poach eggs. Serve with bread and yogurt. BUT! Before you serve this magnificent yet simple dish, snap at your husband when he jovially (though not jokingly) wonders if he could have his eggs on toast as this looks "unconventional" and how does he know he's going to like the sauce? Tell him he has to try the food before criticizing. Glower. About 15 minutes later snap at your son when he says, neither jovially nor jokingly, that he's tired of the "weird" things you cook. When his father (ahem!) tells him to stop complaining your son says: "If I don't complain, how am I ever going to make change?"

How could anyone object?
Make change. Brood over those words. Eat in stony silence. Feel angry and disappointed and bitchy and deep down sure that this ongoing mealtime discord has to be your fault. Retire alone to the sofa to watch Circumstance, a movie about teenaged girls in Iran who like each other more than teenaged girls are allowed to like each other in Iran.

Back to first person now:  Circumstance was moving and disturbing. I recommend it. By the time it was over I wasn't mad anymore and no one was mad at me because we all basically like each other when we're not sitting around the dinner table.

Last night we didn't. We dined in front of The Walking Dead. I made Jamie Oliver's pasta carbonara with sausage meatballs which consists of linguine, olive oil, sausage, pancetta, cream, Parmesan, egg yolks, and lemon zest and tastes exactly like you would expect. I prefer shakshuka, but Owen ate the pasta carbonara like a walker with a fresh. . . no, that is rude. Owen ate a lot. He did mention that the pasta was "all lemony tasting," probably so I wouldn't get a swelled head. I wonder if he thinks that he is finally making change.
For about 10 beautiful minutes every afternoon the kitchen gets natural light.
How do we go forward in peace and harmony and food that isn't pasta?

There's no need to try to answer that. Isabel is getting her driver's license and Owen sounds like James Earl Jones and the question is almost moot. Disappointing eaters. Good kids.

Don't let my dismal story scare you off shakshuka. It's delicious, easy, healthy, and not "weird" at all. The recipe from Jerusalem has been published here on Food52, though they've cut the quantity of harissa to 1/6 the original amount. I approve; my shakshuka was fiery. This is a totally different version of shakshuka and looks excellent too.
Pride of Madeira