Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The dictionary is your friend

We all loved the chicken with salami and olives from Donald Link's Down South. It’s the kind of hearty Mediterranean braise that food writers often call “lusty.” I’ve always resisted the adjective “lusty” to describe dark, overtly sensual things like flamenco dancers, Zorba the Greek, and chicken with olives and salami. Was there any proof that they were truly “lustier” than refined, pale things like ballerinas, Ingmar Bergman heroines, and filet of sole? After all, the birthrate is higher in Sweden than it is in Italy. 

Dummy. It turns out I’ve been using the word “lusty” wrong all my life. As I learned just this morning, lusty doesn’t mean “sexually passionate,” it means “robust and full of vigor.”

Lustful is another story.

Anyway, this dish is very lusty. I liked Kim Severson’s line in her New York Times piece: “The olives and salami offer backbone unachievable by simply seasoning everything from the salt box.” To make this excellent stew, you brown chicken pieces, then take them out of the pan and in the residual fat cook onions, fennel, garlic, green olives, tomato, oregano, rosemary, and chopped salami. Some wine goes in there, too, as well as some chicken stock. Put the browned chicken back in the pan and bake for 90 minutes. You’re supposed to baste, but I didn’t because it usually doesn't matter. It mattered. The top got charred and some of the salami cubes resembled tiny charcoal briquets. So baste. You should also serve this with a starch -- rice, quinoa, potatoes, bread -- to soak up the delicious sauce. The recipe is here. Highly recommend.

How is chicken with salami and olives a Southern dish?  Donald Link: “New Orleans has a sizable Sicilian population.”

Ok, I will accept that. But barely. I’ve decided that Down South isn’t actually a Southern cookbook. A short list of the dishes that support this view: Uruguayan baked cheese, Uruguayan chicken sandwiches, spaghetti carbonara, turkey noodle soup, Milanese pork cutlets with brown butter and sage, cauliflower and gruyere gratin, Italian broccoli, chocolate chip cookies, Heath bar brownies. . . .

I would describe Down South as a conceptually muddled grab bag that was published to capitalize on the success of Real Cajun, Link’s previous book.

The best cookbooks have a unique and coherent vision that they present with force and clarity from beginning to end. Real Cajun is such a book. Down South says it’s doing one thing, then does whatever it feels like. But since pretty much every recipe I’ve tried from its pages has been straightforward and very good, I don’t really care that much.  

Monday, April 28, 2014

Stuff I've been doing right and wrong

picture of the picture of the carbonara from Down South
I wasn't even going to cook dinner on Wednesday night, but idly flipping through Down South found we had all the ingredients for Donald Link spaghetti carbonara with deep-fried poached eggs. Link: "Instead of tossing the pasta with a raw egg yolk, I thought it would be cool if the egg yolk could run into the pasta at the table. It's blown a lot of people's minds since then."

I had to try this immediately.

Here's how it works: First, make an easy sauce with cream and some cured pork jowl. No pork jowl? Good lord, what is wrong with you? Ok, you can use bacon, prosciutto, pancetta, or, like I did, ham. Now poach some eggs and chill until firm. Shortly before you eat, cook the spaghetti, warm the cream sauce, and heat a pot of oil. Dredge the poached eggs in flour, then buttermilk, then breadcrumbs, deep fry for a minute until golden brown, and put one egg on top of each serving of spaghetti.

I wasn’t born yesterday so instead of poaching 4 eggs as Link suggests, I poached 8 to have extras to work with when the yolks broke. Which they did. Out of 8 eggs, I ended up with 2 deep-fried eggs. Those eggs were adorable, resembling little crispy brown hedgehogs, and the pasta was delicious. If I could master the art of deep frying the eggs, I’d make this often. 

Saturday night: Michael Ruhlman’s spaghetti carbonara from Egg, just to compare carbonaras. In this more traditional version, you toss hot spaghetti with cured pork (this time, pancetta) and its rendered fat, then add 8 egg yolks, half-and-half, and a lot of Parmesan. It was much easier and very tasty, but super-eggy. I'd cut back to 6 yolks next time.

We caught up with Game of Thrones while eating the Ruhlman carbonara. Mark and I don't love that show, but it's something we share with the 13-year-old boy in the household, and that's not something to give up lightly. We were either going to rush through dinner so we could go watch Game of Thrones, or we were going to eat at leisure while watching Game of Thrones. Perhaps we weren’t honoring the food, but I’m the only one who honors food anyway and I'm a great multi-tasker. 

Or so I like think. Perhaps not.
Isabel now does her own laundry. I wonder why?
I have no idea how the books ended up in the washing machine. I'm definitely the one who put them there. When I saw them, I flashed on that scene in Away from Her when Julie Christie tries to put frying pan in the freezer and it turns out to be an early harbinger of . . .

One of the books was the library copy of The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, which was recommended to me in the comments of this blog. I'd read it a long time ago, but it's a novel that bears rereading and I was enjoying it immensely. I'll get back to it when the library acquires a new copy, paid for by me.

The other book I was happy to lose. I was struggling through it and now have an excuse to bail. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A classy drink, a trashy cake

When I started this blog I was what you'd call an “enthusiastic” drinker. These days I’m an occasional drinker, which is only a problem when I’ve got my hands on a book as full of seductive cocktails as Donald Link’s Down South. I want to taste them all. I feel blue and headachey just thinking about it. 

But Easter, hosted by my sister, needed a drink and I went straight to Donald Link. I was most tempted by his deer stand old-fashioned, which Link describes as a "wintry cocktail made with local ingredients like Louisiana honey, coffee bitters, and pecans. This drink ends up a tan milky color (like swamp water form the Atchafalaya Basin), and it’s rich and strong. . . “

Wonderfully strange and enticing, but all wrong for April

I went with the St. Edwards No. 1 and it was an excellent, pale, Eastery choice. The recipe: Into a shaker pour 2 ounces gin, 1 ounce St. Germain, 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice, and 2 dashes grapefruit bitters. Shake with ice, strain into a martini glass, and garnish with an edible flower. Beautiful, as you can see.

What you can't see is how delicious it was. Donald Link describes this as a “cold, austere” cocktail, which to me sounds like a martini. But where martinis are steely, the St. Edwards No. 1 is delicate, crisp, and floral. These drinks were such a hit that my brother-in-law made a second round. Two drinks on Sunday and all I could think about on Monday was how tired, depressed, and grimy I felt, and how ready to go back to coconut water. 

I also contributed this Food52 s’mores cake to the Easter meal. It was kind of trashy looking and I wasn't bursting with pride when I put the 9x13 pan down on the dining table and struggled to slice through the sticky top layer of bottled marshmallow fluff. It was a big slab of goo, sort of like a s’more, sort of like a deconstructed marshmallow egg, and I wasn’t all that keen on it at first. I might even have apologized. Only the next day did my kids and I start to really fixate on that big slab of leftover goo, as the marshmallow, chocolate pudding, and graham crackers started to melt together. It got better with age. Monday, we all picked at it. Yesterday morning I decided to throw away the last scraps for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who isn't built like a pipe cleaner.

Owen came home and said, “Where’s the leftover marshmallow cake?” 

I know that kid. If I admitted to throwing it away he would wail and accuse me of violating Earth Day. I said, “I ate it.”

He replied waspishly, “Well, I guess it’s time for you to start a diet, now."

I would have been pissed off too. It was one of those desserts you can't get out of your mind. If you do decide to make this cake, the recipe's a little funky. I don't know why you have to put the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl if you're not going to melt it in that bowl. Also, I ran out of pudding before I'd coated all the layers. I just quit layering at that point and all was well.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

That’s not what you say to a budding hoarder!

It’s been boring around here. How's that for a lead sentence? I spent spring break alone at home while Isabel and Mark toured eastern colleges and Owen visited his grandparents. I fed and watered our 20 animals, cleaned Owen’s impassable bedroom, cut a lot of grapefruits in half, and typed. 

I spent one long, perfect afternoon lying on the sofa reading Blake Bailey’s memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned. It’s been years since I did something like that and it was a total joy. The book is about Bailey's profoundly troubled brother, Scott, who was . . .  well, what wasn't Scott? As depicted by Bailey he was infuriating, loving, lovable, repulsive, dangerous, self destructive, sexually predatory, pitiful, and more. It's strong stuff and not for everyone, but if you have the stomach for it, the book is brilliant.

Here's the cookbook connection: When he was young and living in New York City, Bailey once got toweringly drunk and brought a pregnant prostitute back to his apartment. The next day his best friend, Michael, walked in on them. It took me a while to figure out that the Michael in question was Michael Ruhlman. 

I love that.

The day after I finished Splendid Things I went out and bought Ruhlman’s new book, Egg, which is dedicated to Blake Bailey. I haven’t read or used this incredibly handsome book yet, but with 127 eggs in the refrigerator, there's no question that I will.

Everyone flew in last night and I collected them at the airport and the joyful reunion lasted a solid hour. Then, when we were about 4 minutes from home, Owen asked suspiciously, “Mom, did you clean my room?” 

Jennifer: “Yes.”

Owen: “NO!”

Mark: “All I can say, buddy, is you’d better go through the trash.” 

Jennifer, pulling the car to the side of the road: “Mark, would you like to walk home?”

And just like that, life wasn’t boring anymore.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The great and the really good

Owen and a famous person. But who? 
So many things I wanted to post about -- this charming story on the legacy of the food writer Laurie Colwin; whether it’s possible to eat 7 servings of vegetables per day without feeling like a lawn mower; the delectable, tooth-breaking caramel Rice Krispie treats from Sweet; the extended absence of the bobcat from our chicken yard and (related) return of the rats -- but somehow it hasn’t happened and now tackling it all feels overwhelming, like writing a term paper.

So I'm just going to shelve those topics for now. Two great things and one really good thing happened in the kitchen over the past week:

Great thing #1: parmesan-bacon gougeres from Donald Link’s new book, Down South. My sister likened them to carbonara in the form of crispy puffs. Absolutely fantastic. Adults, kids, everyone loved these cheesy little appetizers.
You can find the recipe here. They’re easy and I can't recommend them more enthusiastically. Some suggestions in case you try the recipe: I wouldn’t bother straining the bacon fat. I grated the Parmesan on the coarse blade of the box grater and ended up with gooey strings of cheese in the gougeres. Desirable -- to me. But if you want a more delicate, elegant gougere, grate the cheese finely. Finally, after putting the hot dough in the mixer, give it a minute to cool off before adding the eggs.

Great thing #2: Donald Link’s peas with feta and mint. Fresh, crisp, and bright, like a pea salad. Have you eaten cold, cooked peas before? I hadn't and it didn't sound appetizing, but since Whole Foods was promoting the hell out of English peas the other day, I decided to give it a shot. So glad I did. 

To make this dish, shell peas, cook them in boiling salted water until they start to float -- just a minute or two. Drain, plunge the peas into an ice water bath and let them cool completely. Drain again, pat dry, dress with olive oil and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper, toss with some sliced fresh mint, and top with a crumbled, tangy cheese, like feta or goat. Everyone in my picky family enjoyed these peas and that's saying something.

Really good thing: Donald Link’s caramel-peanut butter ice cream with peanut brittle. Since the recipe made more than my ice cream machine can handle, I halved the recipe. I halved the eggs, cream, sugar -- and then forgot to halve the peanut butter. I almost cried when I realized what I’d done because this recipe was a big old headache and not something I was willing to do over. I froze the ice cream anyway and it was way too rich and moussey from all that peanut butter, but still very delicious. Made properly, it would have been spectacular.

I got a little bogged down with Momofuku and my goal is to make only five recipes from Down South, but if the next two recipes are as good as these three, I maybe unable to stop.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Dropping beggar's chicken

Those were the days.
Do you dread hearing your voice on a recording? Or watching yourself on video? That's how I feel about reading things I wrote in the distant past. The other day I opened my own cookbook to consult the recipe for bagels and wouldn't let my eyes wander over the headnotes or anything other than the recipe itself lest I come across a stupid or awkward line it's too late to change. 

This morning I thought, shoot, why did I mention dropping a beggar's chicken? The only way to explain is to link to posts from the start of this blog when the only people who read it were blood relatives. And that means I have to reread them.

I'm so glad I did. They're like sweet, sweet little time capsules. I'd forgotten what my life was like in 2008. It was very different.

Beggar's chicken is a classic Chinese dish and at some point I decided to make it. My mother was still alive and since she was a potter, she created the clay "container" in which you cook the chicken (see photo above.) That's how elaborate beggar's chicken is. I'm not sure I would have written about what happened later, but the lone commenter, thanksalot/sassy Isabel, forced the issue,

What happened was, I dropped and broke the beggar's chicken while pulling it out of the oven.

Later I took Owen out to eat proper beggar's chicken in a restaurant. He was so little! I didn't realize how little my kids were when they're little. I feel like he's all grown up now that he's 13 and has giant feet and a baritone, but in a few years I bet I'll see pictures and be shocked at how young and innocent he looked in 2014.