Sunday, March 31, 2013

How am I different?

I counted my cookbooks this week and there are 1,123 occupying 266 feet of shelf space. I asked Mark how he felt about this and he said, "Fine, although someone with that many cookbooks has no right to tell other people what to do with their s***."

Owen wants you to know: "That's not nearly all of my Transformers."
Mark doesn't have a lot of stuff and neither does Isabel, so I never tell them what to do with their stuff. He was talking about the daily occasions when I tell Owen to take pieces of his Transformer collection to his room. Owen has 83 Transformers and they regularly migrate around the house. After his Transformers movie marathon party, for instance, all 83 had migrated downstairs and I think I gently told him once or twice what to do with his s***.

On Friday, a Devastator (G1) arrived from Hilliard, Ohio. This was Owen's first eBay purchase and I discouraged it. I foresee trouble and I would know.

He wanted to skip his trombone lesson to prepare for Devastator's arrival. I said, "Absolutely not, you have all weekend to play with Devastator." He looked at me as if I'd just tried to put him to bed with a warm bottle and blankie. He said, "Mom, I don't PLAY with Transformers, I collect them. I have to look it over immediately to make sure it's got all its pieces."

He's now saving his allowance for a first-generation Bruticus.

My heart sinks. But what can I say? I understand the ardor, if not the object.


Wednesday. Nancy Silverton's long-cooked greens, poached egg and fontina sandwich. I already wrote about the laborious poaching of the ham shank, parboiling of greens, sauteeing of greens, long braising of greens in ham broth. I counted the cooking vessels: ten, not including cutting boards which also needed to be washed. Mark and the kids didn't like the sandwiches on account of the greens (used kale), which was my favorite part. I would happily eat these sandwiches again, but would never make them again. After dinner Mark said, "What are we having tomorrow? Peanut butter and jelly and tuna?"


Thursday.  Gorgonzola, honey, roasted radicchio, and candied walnuts sandwich. Silverton calls for roasting the radicchio (under plastic wrap, of course) until you're left with a limp heap of incredibly bitter, blackish-purple vegetable. I can eat it, but wouldn't cry if radicchio rolled back into the pit it came out of 30 years ago. You toast walnut bread, spread with gorgonzola, drizzle with honey, top with candied walnuts and radicchio. Components all fine, sandwich bad. Discordant. Tasted like an orchestra sounds when it's warming up.

I might stretch Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book over the last few days before spring break because I don't want to get going on a new book and then stop when we go on our big vacation. A short vacation, but big. We are going to Japan. It is the trip Mark booked and planned two years ago that we cancelled because of Fukushima. I have no idea what we are going to do in Tokyo and Kyoto, which is where we are going. Mark is doing the research. If you have suggestions, I will write them all down and pursue.

Friday. I baked The World's Best Cookies from San Francisco A La Carte. This is a brown sugar cookie that contains crushed cornflakes, coconut, chopped pecans and rolled oats. Recipe here. I used to think these really were the world's best cookies, but now think they are merely good. Book club night so I wasn't home to make dinner. Family relieved?

Saturday. We had friends over and served picadillo and black beans with strawberry cobbler for dessert. Old favorites. Can't think of anything to say about the food, but it dawned on both Mark and me how much more fun it is to have friends over when your kids -- and their kids -- are 12 and 16 as opposed to 2 and 6. Suddenly there are these thoughtful young adults at the table who have opinions on Downton Abbey and don't spill their milk. Overnight they've stopped detracting from the occasion and become the most interesting part of the occasion. It's wonderful and a little scary.

Today. I was going to make a Simnel cake to take to my sister's tonight, but changed my mind. Lots of work and no one will like it as much as Laurie Colwin's nutmeg cake so I made that instead.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

You're with Stupid Now

I baked the potato bread from April Bloomfield's Girl and Her Pig on Sunday. It rose into a magnificent mound of pale dough and then collapsed in the oven to resemble a deflated football and despite sounding hollow when tapped on the bottom, was almost floppy when baked, with a soft crust. Sliced, it was flecked with potato skins and there were whole seams of mashed potato, as you may be able to see with your magnifying glass:

Bloomfield says of the dough: "It's okay to have a few odd lumps of potato."

Did I allow too many odd lumps of potato?

Having said all that, this was a bread you keep eating because it's so tender and salty and delicious, like a good dinner roll. You couldn't make a proper sandwich with it as the loaf was very flat and the slices resembled biscotti and were too floppy to hold anything anyway. I'm pretty sure this isn't how the bread turns out when Bloomfield makes it and whether the fault is in the recipe or my execution I will never know because I'm not going to pursue this bread.

Moving right along, I'm going to be honest with you (as when am I not?) and announce that I resent Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book. Fiercely. First of all, the leftover leg of lamb sandwich that calls for roasting a leg of lamb. I will not be making that sandwich.

Second, the wastefulness. Monday, I made her grilled cheese sandwiches with marinated onions. Marinating the onions in oil and vinegar softens and mellows them and they marry well with the Gruyere and this was altogether a better sandwich than the Smitten Kitchen grilled cheese with jammy onions. Except Silverton has you marinate twice as many onions, maybe even 3 times as many onions, as you can use on those sandwiches. Now I have a big bowl of marinated onions in the refrigerator and if I was a chef I would find a way to feed them to paying customers, but I'm not a chef and they're just one more thing I have to worry about using or worry about wasting.

Third, the carelessness. Feel free to call me a moron like my husband did. Alright, he didn't actually call me a moron, but when I explained why there was no dinner when he got home last night, he looked at me like he does when I spend 10 minutes trying to turn on the TV with the remote.

I was going to make Silverton's portobello, braised endive, and teleme sandwiches. You start by preheating the oven to 400 degrees F then putting halved endives in a baking dish with some cream, stock, herbs, and salt. Then you put the mushrooms in another dish (or two -- these mushrooms were giant) with oil and balsamic vinegar. Cover your dishes tightly with plastic wrap and cover the plastic wrap with foil and bake for 30-40 minutes. At the end of this time, you remove the foil and make holes in the plastic wrap to vent steam and bake the vegetables some more.

I did think as I stretched plastic wrap over the endives and mushrooms that I'd never put plastic wrap in the oven before and wouldn't it melt? I scanned the recipe for mention of fancy, heavy-duty chef's plastic wrap, but there was none and you never know what miracles those scientists have worked with plastic in the last 20 years. I had other things on my mind and forged ahead.

You know what happened, of course. Because you are smart! After 40 minutes, I lifted the foil and the plastic wrap had vanished. Closer examination revealed thin, wrinkled clumps of plastic stuck to the dish and atop the vegetables and I tried to pluck these out so we could eat the endives and mushrooms. Then I decided against it. I'm trying to be less cavalier about eating plastic.

I just now read the warning on the box of Safeway plastic wrap and feel even stupider.

But Silverton should have specified! We're not all brainiacs.

This morning I got up and realized I have to cook a ham bone for 2 hours and then parboil kale, saute just the kale stems with onion and garlic, pick the meat off the ham bone, cook the greens in the ham broth for 30 minutes and then I will have one of the components ready for Silverton's long-cooked greens, poached egg, and fontina cheese sandwiches tonight.

I may not last long with this book.

My friend Hilary turned me on to a blog that I find crazy, tough, funny, and sometimes very useful. You might agree. This is it. ((Note: She has written some posts that I don't care for AT ALL, like this one, which was just brought to my attention by my friend Mary.)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Just so you know, honey, I really don't want to know

lemon bars
I made Nancy Silverton's asparagus, fontina, and prosciutto sandwiches Thursday night. No special alchemy, just a decent idea for a sandwich that I wouldn't have come up with on my own. You roast asparagus and toast some bread. Rub the bread with garlic. Put asparagus on bread, top with a poached egg, top with fontina, melt under broiler for 30 seconds, top with prosciutto, eat with knife and fork, then eat all the asparagus your kids took out of their sandwiches ("Just so you know, Mom, I don't like asparagus,") load the dishwasher, go to bed.

This involved a lot of dishes for sandwiches, but given sandwiches are all we ate, fewer dishes than usual. Recipe is here.

I'm trying to cook one thing a day, no more and no less. On Friday I made Smitten Kitchen's whole lemon bars which involves pureeing a lemon, skin and all, with sugar and egg and pouring this over the shortbread crust. Definitely easier than juicing the lemon and scraping the zest as I've done in the past with Joy of Cooking lemon bars, but how will I ever know which is the better bar unless I test them side by side? I'm not going to do that. There was a day not long ago when I would have, but I've come to value sanity over the scientific method. Smitten's lemon bars are good. Joy lemon bars are good. You won't go wrong with either.

I put the pan of lemon bars in the refrigerator to firm up on Friday night so I could cut them into pretty squares on Saturday morning, but Isabel's two best friends started the job for me after I went to bed. Isabel told me that her friends thought the lemon bars were "too eggy," but I think the pan tells another story.
Teenagers are cute.
I didn't cook anything on Saturday. Does that mean I have to cook two things today? 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Don't cross me today!

oeufs Francis Picabia
I apologize for the disgusting spam that's been popping up in the comments lately. It should stop now and if it doesn't I will take further measures.

A couple of weeks ago I decided I needed to read The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, so I stretched out on the sofa and read it cover to cover. There were a few clever lines, a few recipes I wanted to try, and lots of complaints about servants. Gertrude Stein really bugs me. She was so toweringly smug and with good reason, but still: smug. I'm boycotting Gertrude Stein going forward. That'll take her down a peg. I'm glad I read the book because now I don't feel like I need to anymore.

Anyway, one recipe that fascinated me was oeufs Francis Picabia. I don't eat scrambled eggs, but Owen does and this morning I decided to give him these fancy, buttery eggs, which are named after the painter who provided Toklas with the recipe. According to the recipe, you cook 8 eggs very slowly in a saucepan and whisk in 1/2 pound of butter -- "not a speck less, rather more if you an bring yourself to it." The cooking should take half an hour and the eggs should have a "suave consistency."

I used 2 eggs and cut the butter back proportionately, but could not stretch the cooking process past 21 minutes on our stove. At first the eggs absorbed all the butter and appeared velvety, like custard. I should have taken them off the heat at that point, I suppose, because then they firmed up, curdled, and began to expel the butter. Butter was seeping out of the eggs when I scooped them onto the plate, as you can see if you look closely at the unappetizing photograph. Owen gamely ate about half the eggs and said they were gritty, "like cornmeal." I was thinking I might try again tomorrow, but I just looked up Francis Picabia so I could explain who he was in this post and I dislike his quotations so much that I'm adding him to my boycott list. I'm a regular crank today.

My in-laws were here for the last couple of weeks which was lovely -- truly lovely! -- but I lost my cooking rhythm. Also, I've been in a strange mood for the last month. Just not myself. I did make a few more Smitten Kitchen dishes: The gnocchi in tomato broth was delicious; everyone loved the butterscotch banana tarte tatin; the pork chops with cider and horseradish were dry. That's always a risk with pork chops and I don't blame Smitten. I think I will make her lemon bars today or tomorrow, but am otherwise done with her book and now owe you write-ups of both that and the Homesick Texan.

I'm sticking with my one-dish dinner strategy going forward and the next book I'm going to cook from is Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fantastic, delicious, fantastic, delicious

Every time I sit down to write a post I think of all the dishes I need to describe to bring the blog up to date and decide not to write a post after all. It's hard to describe food without using the same fluffy adjectives again and again and again and sometimes I just can't bear to type "fantastic" or "delicious" one more time and I also can't think of alternatives.

But I've drunk a lot of coffee and am prepared to get this out of the way so I can start with a clean slate tomorrow. Here's what I've cooked from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook since last I wrote and here's what we thought:

red wine velvet cake. Fantastic. Delicious. Coconutty, though it contains no coconut. I don't know why this cake works so beautifully, but it does. Oddly, the recipe Oprah printed is not the same recipe that appears in the book. This is very close, if not identical. You should make it.

gooey cinnamon squares. Yuck. Not fantastic. I must have made a mistake, because they were inedibly sweet and didn't look like the squares in the picture here.
too gooey

broccoli slaw. Delicious. Second time I've made this crunchy salad and I loved it even more than the first. It's my favorite recipe in the book.

blue cheese and black pepper gougeres. Second time for these and again they were flat rather than puffy as gougeres should be. Recipe is here. It appears that the gougeres puff nicely for other cooks, so maybe you should give them a try because the flavor is both delicious and fantastic.

sad little gougeres 
eggplant calzone with three cheeses. Fantastic. I can't find the recipe online and I don't have the book with me.

Now I'm all caught up and it really wasn't that hard.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The internet was too much with me

Beethoven makes it look like someone actually plays the piano.
Note: This post was eaten after I published it this morning yet saved on the computer in an early draft form. I have restored as best I can remember. Mysterious.

I've been out of sorts, to put it mildly. Two changes in daily life seem to be helping the situation:

1. Last week I put the MacBook on the piano and the Beethoven bust on the MacBook and set some rules about my internet use. The internet had started bumming me out on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. It seemed like breast cancer was always "trending" and people were falling into sinkholes and strangers wrote stupid, crass comments on stories I loved and friends weren't emailing me back quite fast enough which was probably because I'm a drip and maybe there was a cheap Oriental rug on eBay that would work in the hall and shouldn't I check even though I always feel like a dupe when I buy anything on eBay? Et cetera.

I haven't missed that place at all. I keep a list of things I need or want to do on the internet and go online twice a day. I can check favorite sites and pay bills an see what movies are opening on Friday and write my blog, but when I'm done with the list I have to stop and put the MacBook back on the piano and Beethoven on top of the MacBook.

It's a little dull and static out here at first and I don't have a new appreciation for daffodils or cherry blossoms or anything like that, but I'm definitely less miserable. The real world is much calmer than the virtual one, which is funny given that it's only in the real world that cancer and sinkholes and almost everything else actually happens.

I'm not preaching about this, by the way. I spent many years merrily bouncing around the internet and there was nothing wrong with that until suddenly there was.

2. As I mentioned, I now cook only one dish for dinner every night. Huge! I can't believe I didn't figure this out 10 years ago, but there are lessons you can only learn in weary middle age. Like many Americans, I grew up believing that a proper dinner meant three different foods on the plate and I was determined to produce such a triangle every night. When I had the energy, which I could sometimes dredge up with a goblet of wine, I aspired to a quadrangle that would include dessert.

What is the shape of my new dinner model? A large dot?

A few nights ago I made Smitten Kitchen's excellent cranberry bean, walnut and feta salad. I messed with the recipe a little (more beans, more walnut, more feta as the dish was a little dressing heavy.) Much loved, perfectly sufficient. It's not like anyone in this household is malnourished.

The next night I chopped up some chard stems and sauteed them in olive oil then put them in the pot of leftover beans and bean broth. I added pasta shells and served with Pecorino cheese and a dollop of cold ricotta. Casual. Improvisational. Elegant. I felt like Tamar Adler. No one asked where the salad was.

Last night I made the soba with walnuts and dipping sauce from Japanese Farm Food. I was tempted to cook some vegetables to fill out the plate nutritionally/texturally/visually as soba noodles are cold and gray and stark, but I willed myself to stop because I really had no desire to cut up cauliflower or peel carrots and then nag everyone to eat them like I've been doing for years and years. We'll eat vegetables another night in soup or pasta or whatever. I was relaxed and the kitchen was miraculously tidy for 7 p.m.

Friends, I don't think I'm ever going back to the triangle.

On another subject, I baked David Lebovitz's famous ginger cake and took it to my sister's house for dinner on Sunday. My father, who is not an effusive man, gasped when he tasted it and has sent me two emails praising the leftover cake he took home. It's crazy how much people love this dark, damp, puddingy cake. I say "crazy" because this is the second time I've baked it and it contains too much molasses for my taste. But it's likely that any molasses is too much molasses for me just as any dark chocolate is too much dark chocolate for me so I'm discounting my own judgement. If my father, sister, husband, daughter, son and half the people on the evil internet all love a cake, it is an amazing cake. The recipe is here.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Oh you again, duck fat

Egg season is here once more.
The Tournament of Cookbooks, a.k.a. the Piglet, is over and a little sparkle has departed from my mornings. One judge was flagrantly lame, but I thought the rest did a pretty decent job even when I didn't agree with their decisions, as I often didn't. People interact with cookbooks very personally and I'm as interested in these idiosyncratic passions and aversions as I am in rigorous criticism and mad recipe testing.

By now the whole world knows that April Bloomfield's Girl and Her Pig trounced Smitten Kitchen in the final round. I didn't even own a copy of Girl and Her Pig and immediately rushed to Barnes and Noble to correct this oversight.

What do I think? Here are some of the ingredients you need to cook from Girl and Her Pig: smoked haddock, veal kidneys, guinea hen, duck fat, octopus, pork cheeks, whole suckling pig, pig's ears, pig's trotters, sweetbreads, ramps, suet, Old Tom gin, Sardinian gray mullet bottarga, young carrots "about the size of your pointer finger," spring garlic stalks, and "beef tongue that has been trimmed of any firm or hard bits."

My personal favorite: "a brain-in, tongue-in lamb's head (3-4 pounds), skinned and split lengthwise by your butcher."

Clearly April Bloomfield hasn't met my butcher.

This list irks me in a way that having to buy fish sauce to cook Vietnamese or sumac to cook Middle Eastern doesn't. It almost seems designed to make ordinary home cooks feel dorky. Like all the cool kids know about this awesome duck fat hook-up, but no one bothered to tell me about it. Outside Provence, what home cook has so much duck fat hanging around that she can casually roast potatoes in it?

No further commentary until I've spent more time with the book.

Meanwhile, I'm still ambling along with Smitten Kitchen, liking it more and more. Maybe her loss in the Tournament made me feel protective? I'm trying to make one dish every night. Just one dish. I've been in a funk and cutting back on the cooking has helped a bit.

Here's what we ate this week, all recipes from Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen Cookbook:

-ranchero eggs with blistered cheese. You make a simple, mildly spicy tomato sauce, poach eggs in the sauce, blanket in shredded jack, bake until the cheese is "blistered." Top with tortilla strips and sour cream. A solid breakfast-for-dinner dish that required no grocery shopping. I would take the eggs out of the oven even sooner than she indicates. Recipe here.

-avocado and cucumber tartine Pretty open-faced sandwich. Entails splitting and toasting baguette then topping with avocado. Make a little salsa of minced cucumber, toasted sesame oil, and rice vinegar and spread over the avocado. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Delicious.

-honey and harissa farro salad You cook farro for 20 minutes, toss with roasted parsnips and carrots, lemony vinaigrette, feta cheese. Superb. You should make this. Recipe is here and I agree with the reviewer's commentary and tweaks. Leftovers make a great lunch.

-eggs with greens and hollandaise Wilt chard (or kale, or spinach), saute with onion and garlic, enrich with cream. Scoop the greens into ramekins, top with eggs, bake. Serve with big dollops of citrusy hollandaise. Fattening, maybe a little fussy, and definitely dirtied too many pans. I liked it, though. Mark liked it. Owen didn't like it and let me know and we had words.

I found this fascinating.

And I loved this movie, which Isabel and I saw when we were in NYC. The trailer itself is beautiful, the music haunting.