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