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.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The kids are alright

I think we are done now.

The local middle school cut Mandarin this year and because no amount of pleading would get them to restore it, Owen and his orphaned Mandarin classmates now take classes twice a week at someone’s house. As of a few days ago, our house. I didn’t know how I’d feel about this, but I love it.  There are two girls in the class and twelve boys, half of whom are enormous, the other half, elfin. They're unbelievably fun to watch. 

There's a tendency among some of my friends to grumble about how kids in this town don’t have manners. I don't think it's true and I really don't think it's true after hosting the Mandarin students. They're polite, they're just not naval cadet polite. I'd say they're imperfectly polite. Clearly no one has ever told them to answer “yes ma’am” or rapped them on the knuckles with a willow stick for not looking you in the eye when they say hello. But someone has taught them to say thank you and to take their dishes to the sink and to try to be considerate, whatever that means. You can see them trying to figure out the details for themselves. It’s hard! About 15 seconds after they possibly should have said please, you can see them thinking, oh, wait, maybe I should have said please. And they say please. Or if I try to take a dirty glass out of their hands to put it in the dishwasher, they hesitate. Do they let me? Or do they insist on doing it themselves? What are the rules? Maybe it’s the decline of civilization, but I find this touching in a way that impeccable manners learned by rote at age three are not. 

Since they come straight from school, a parent supplies a snack. Monday, a parent brought bananas and pretzels, which is what I would have brought as it is healthy and unobjectionable. This snack didn’t go fast. It didn’t go at all. But we had these store-bought cookies someone had given Isabel and Owen that had been sitting in the car, bag open, getting stale for a few days. I asked if anyone wanted one before I threw them away and in about 90 seconds the stale cookies were gone. Dumb, stale cookies trump bananas and pretzels.

Yesterday I put out granola bars and some banana bread I’d made using the uneaten bananas from Monday. Moderately popular. Only Owen got excited about the granola bars and I think there was one boy who really liked the banana bread. Stale cookies trump bananas, banana bread, pretzels and granola bars.

I was downstairs when I heard class ending so I came up to say good-bye to the teacher. I found four of the boys looming over the plate (like I said, imperfectly polite) on which sat the unappetizing remains of Owen’s John Gore birthday cake that I'd hidden in a corner of the kitchen.  The frosting was drying out and family members had been shaving off tiny pieces with butter knives for the last few days. Not a pretty cake. I heard one of the boys say, “Owen, why were you keeping the red velvet cake from us?” 

 “You don’t really want that do you?” I said. 

They really did. A feeding frenzy ensued. I got more compliments on that cake in five minutes than I’ve received on everything else I’ve baked for the last month. Frosted four-layer red velvet cake trumps all. 

Another boy came into the room and saw the cake, now just a shadow of its former self. He said, “You made banana bread AND a layer cake!” 

I said, “Oh, the layer cake is from Saturday, I didn’t just make it for this class.” God forbid anyone think I have time to custom bake Mandarin snacks, even though I do.

He said in wonderment, “Still, you made them.” 

Sweet kids. Good job, parents. 

I’m pretty much done with Smoke and Pickles. Monday night I cooked the piggy burgers which I loved because they were so easy and tasty. You make pork patties (flavored with hoisin sauce), fry them, put them on buns and dress with a sun-dried tomato ketchup that sounds hard, but takes about 5 minutes. The recipe makes way too much ketchup, of course, unless you want to use it on your sandwiches every day for the next month. 

Tuesday night I made lamb rice bowls which were tasty but not easy. You make a lamb meatloaf that involves pureeing your meat mixture until it becomes a repugnant paste and then packing this weird paste into a loaf pan, baking it, cutting the cooled meatloaf  into slices, frying the slices, and serving these on top of rice with a yogurt-tomato sauce. Tasted likes gyros. Owen did not like the rice bowl, but he was mistaken. It was delicious and I will never make it again

Last night, I served Lee’s spare ribs with sauerkraut and horseradish cream.  Lots of bones, lots of liquid, soupy sauerkraut, horseradish. Yuck. Not my thing at all, but maybe I was mistaken. Owen loved it and cleaned his plate.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Watering the blog

 I am a bad cake decorator.
Sorry. Another long absence. I’ve spent many hours pondering the comments on the last post, comments that -- taken as a group -- have made me radically rethink personal grievances and long-held assumptions about cooking. Radically. I thought I was the only enthusiastic, ambitious home cook serving “deadbeat” eaters. Clearly not so. It’s a trend, a syndrome, a blight. I have thoughts!

But I’ve been laboring over a post on this topic day after day, day after day, and I’m stuck. Maybe because it's argument driven rather than anecdote driven and apparently my brain doesn't want to do that anymore. It’s driving me crazy. Meanwhile, I've been letting the blog wither and that's also driving me crazy.

So I’m just going to tell you what I’ve been cooking and shelve the dissertation for now.

I’ve now made all the rice bowls in Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles except the version with lamb, and I bought the ground lamb for that today. We love rice bowls. They’re great because you can customize based on your likes and aversions. We dislike rice bowls because you have to make fussy, fussy remoulade. We will probably never eat rice bowls again because of that, but it was fun while the remoulade lasted. 

Unfortunately, it's impossible to find the recipes for the following rice bowls on the internet and I think I know why. You have to type out the remoulade recipe, then the rice recipe, then the recipe itself. This will deter even the most ardent plagiarizer, including me. But, if you have Smoke and Pickles, here are the last three rice bowls I've made, listed in order of preference. The salmon rice bowl and beef rice bowl described in earlier posts were also terrific.

-The lovely tuna rice bowl (raw tuna, avocado, pork rinds, hearts of palm, jalapeno remoulade) was crunchy, cool, spicy, and creamy. I love anything -- novel, movie, song, rice bowl -- that brings together such different and seemingly discordant elements and then reconciles them. The seemingly discordant elements here were not just textural, but cultural. The world seems momentarily whole when you're presented with a dish that contains sashimi, hearts of palms, and pork rinds. Make this. Don't skip those pork rinds, no matter how gross you think they are. 

-The pork rice bowl was also fabulous. You make delectable pork sausage patties and fry. Serve atop rice with jicama sticks, and kimchi remoulade. It's been decades since I bought a jicama and I wonder if I will ever buy one again.

-The chicken rice bowls were not my favorite. You make chicken sausage patties and fry. Serve atop rice with orange segments, peanuts, and miso remoulade. Sweet, refreshing, burstingly juicy orange segments in a savory context? Blecch. All the other rice bowls I've made were much tastier. Tomorrow we'll have a verdict on the lamb rice bowl.

I also made Lee's cinnamon-honey roast leg of lamb. I marinated the expensive lamb for a day in a spiced buttermilk mixture and then glazed it with honey and cinnamon as it cooked. Not as good as it should have been given the special treatment and it brought me just a little closer to going off lamb altogether. 

Per his request, I made Owen a John Gore (see photo at top) cake for his birthday party on Saturday. I told him I didn’t think I could pull this off artfully, but he insisted. I was right.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The particular sadness of apple cake

R.I.P. Marcella Hazan. If you don’t own any of her books, you should change that. They’re all excellent except Amarcord, her memoir, which made me dislike her a little bit. But you don’t have to be a warm, big-hearted person to write excellent cookbooks. If you only buy one of her books, I'd buy Essentials of Italian Cooking and make the pasta with tomato and butter sauce. Perfection.

I apologize for the long absence. I’ll explain. But first, some recipes, most of which I served at a family party:

-chai pickled grapes from Ed Lee’s Smoke and Pickles. Wonderful. Easy. You should buy some crispy red grapes and pickle them today. I served these with manchego cheese (Lee’s suggestion) and this might be the most memorable dish I’ve prepared from his book. The recipe for the grapes is here. I cut it by two thirds because I don’t own a restaurant; as I've mentioned before, Lee doesn’t always scale for the home cook.

-Lee's oysters on the half shell with rhubarb mignonette were nothing special. Raw oysters, thin vinegary sauce. I could not taste the rhubarb. Almost stabbed myself while shucking oysters. 

-Lee’s pulled lamb barbecue was expensive and a fair amount of work and had the gamy, funky lamb flavor that I enjoy only in very small portions. I worry I'm on the brink of not liking lamb. An interesting experiment, but I prefer pulled pork. Also, the recipe calls for boneless lamb shoulder and then instructs you to cook it until the meat “falls off the bone.” That’s a challenge. It leaves you unsure what meat you're supposed to buy. I went with boneless and it worked fine. The recipe is here and if you love lamb and have a day to devote to cooking it, give this a shot. 

-Cheesy broccoli casserole came from a book called Real Cajun by Donald Link and it’s a hearty, rich casserole in the hallowed American tradition that relies on Campbell's cream of mushroom soup. But instead of opening a can, this recipe has you make your own. Your kitchen will look like it was hit by a tsunami and you’ll be scrubbing pots for an hour, but the casserole is worth it. The perfect dish to bring to a potluck or someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner when you don’t have to cook anything else.  

-For a weeknight dinner I made Lee’s habanero-lemongrass marinated steaks. Confusing because on the plate was something that looked like an expensive T-bone steak but tasted like stir fry. I’m conditioned to want expensive steak to taste like steak. You might feel differently. If so, give these a try

So that’s the cheerful cooking wrap-up. Now I'll tell you why I had to take a break from cooking and blogging.

About 10 days ago I baked Smitten Kitchen’s mother’s apple cake. Believe it or not, this cake was even prettier than it appears in Deb Perelman's photo. It was really delicious. It wasn't weird or healthy or gluten-free. Just a beautiful, fattening, old-fashioned cake full of sugar, cinnamon, and apples. 

No one except me ate it. My children did not even taste it. 

A day or so after baking this cake, I flew to Las Vegas for a magazine story I’m writing about thrill seekers. For research, I rode the XScream, an instrument of torture atop the Stratosphere. Have you ever ridden the XScream? My hatred of the XScream is boundless. I would like to say you couldn’t pay me to ride the XScream, but apparently you can. The next day I did a zip line and after the XScream I could have napped on that zip line.

I thought everyone was as freaked out as I was until I saw the photo. Red t-shirt and jeans.
During the 30 hours that I was gone, Mark decided to bake a tube of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that he’d been keeping in the refrigerator. He and the kids gobbled them all up. When I came home from Las Vegas, exhausted and maybe the tiniest bit strung out, I found an untouched apple cake and an empty cardboard tube that had recently held Pillsbury cinnamon rolls. 

Oh boy. Bring on the crazy. 

Tearfully I told Mark that Pillsbury cinnamon rolls were redundant when there was a homemade apple cinnamon cake on the counter, that he and the kids didn't appreciate me, that I'd wasted years cooking for this family because all anyone ever did was make fun of me or complain, that he’d turned the children against my cooking with his jokes and Pillsbury cinnamon rolls. That our children don't eat vegetables because he made hating vegetables seem cool and funny. Because he is cooler and funnier than I am! And why did he refuse to eat homemade jam? Et cetera. I told him I felt like I’d been living for the last 17 years with Ronald McDonald. 

So much ire and sorrow over an apple cake, but of course this wasn’t just an apple cake. This was the beautiful bundt-shaped symbol of hundreds of dishes I've written about on this blog and hundreds of dishes I made before I started the blog, dishes that no one but me would eat. It’s depressing to cook for people who truly don’t care about food. One hand clapping, year after year. Over time it makes you feel stupid and lonely. Occasionally, furious. 

It’s also a drag to face the wrath of a weeping wife when all you did was bake some dumb cinnamon rolls. 

I was pretty nuts. He was pretty nice about it. You don't have to like food to be a decent person. Steam was let off. Peace restored. 

Sunday, I told my aunt about the apple cake conflagration and she said, “Did you ice the apple cake?”


She said, “Just a little powdered sugar icing drizzled on any cake and I bet they’ll eat it.”  

Owen said, “That’s what I keep telling you, Mom!”

Frosted cakes from now on. Easier than finding a new family.