Saturday, December 19, 2015

TV dinners and tea lattes

Today had its ups and downs. 


Ever since Isabel left for college, our family has felt very, very small. This has completely changed how I cook. Producing dinner went from staging a theatrical production for four to providing three dummies with stuff they want to eat, usually in front of the television. 

Yes, friends We eat in front of the TV almost every night now and I’m not hanging my head in shame. We did this on special occasions for years, but now it’s routine. There’s no lovelier moment in the day than when I sit down on my side of the squishy old sofa next to two of my favorite people in the world with some home-cooked food and we turn on the TV. Judge away!

Here’s what we eat: a lot of pasta and soup. Both can be eaten in bowls and neither needs to be cut with a knife, which is tricky when you're balancing your meal on your lap. 
before the disaster
I got a copy of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s mighty Food Lab from the library and I’ve so far tackled two very solid recipes. The pasta with garlicky broccoli, anchovies and bacon is delicious. You've probably seen a hundred recipes for just such a dish, but Lopez-Alt's little twists (lemon zest and juice, combining the pasta and sauce in the pan) made a noticeable difference. The sauce was saucier, the flavors brighter. 

I’ve also made his white bean soup and while it wasn't exactly original, it was tasty and easy. Canned beans, boxed broth, a little doctoring and it's time for Fargo. You could do worse. You could also do better. I recently revisited the spinach soup from Fields of Greens that I used to make regularly circa 1999 and it's terrific. If you try this recipe, bear in mind I have never used the fenugreek and omit the coconut garnish because the soup is better without. This is the kind of healthy recipe you will see a lot of in about two weeks. Ugh. January.
Cheeseburger cups also appeared on our plates last week. Owen sends me a lot of recipes these days and if they look easy and not too disgusting, I make them. It's fun. Biscuit dough from a tube, ground beef, ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, cheese, a muffin tin. Not totally wretched. Recipe here. 

That about exhausts my recent cooking, though I did try another pie from Patty Pinner's Sweety Pies: Ava Joy's peanut butter cream pie. Unlike most peanut butter pies I've run into, this is a baked pie. Like a pecan pie with peanut butter instead of pecans. Rich and sweet. We liked it. Didn't love. Recipe here.

You really want the tea latte in a mug, not a to-go cup.
In closing, I have fallen in love with a San Francisco cafe called Fifty/Fifty. I would go to Fifty/Fifty every day I lived closer, so it's probably good I don't. Except why did I just type that? It would be great if I lived closer. Expensive and fattening, but great. I'd be so happy.

Fifty/Fifty is a bright, spare storefront on a humble stretch of Geary Boulevard with a few austere tables, typically occupied by students. The atmosphere is mellow and pleasant, but the reason to come is the tea lattes.

not cheap
Everyone knows about chai lattes by now and perhaps you'd figured out, as I had not, that you can make lattes with all varieties of tea. Duh. Of course you can. And they're wonderful.

I'm currently hooked on the lavender earl gray, which is fragrant and floral, just slightly sweet. There's something exotic about this warm, milky drink. It's like something a seductive, evil queen might serve to cold, lost children in a fairy tale before throwing them into the dungeon. That's praise, in case you were wondering.

Anyway, if you come to San Francisco or live here, check out Fifty Fifty and tell me what you think.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Egg Lady and her oatmeal pie

No, we didn't like that pie at all.
At some point in the 1960s, a gaunt farm wife used to drive around Saginaw, Michigan in a rattletrap station wagon with her developmentally challenged daughter in the front seat next to her and deliver eggs and pies to people like the grandmother of Patty Pinner, author of the cookbook Sweety Pies. According to Pinner's grandmother, the so-called "Egg Lady" was married to "one of those kinds of husbands who leave the house and head for the corner store and you don't know whether they'll be back in six minutes or six months."

Pinner's grandmother was black and the Egg Lady was white, but unlike other white woman who visited the neighborhood in their fur coats, carrying themselves with the "poise of entitlement," the Egg Lady wore tattered housedresses. One day while the Egg Lady was transacting business with Pinner’s grandmother, her daughter got out of the car to play with Pinner. Unsettled by the girl's "slow, backward manner," Pinner refused to play with her, one of those trivial decisions you regret forever. All these decades later, Pinner wishes she could go back and apologize to the Egg Lady’s daughter. I have a few Egg Lady's daughters in my own past, shocking to say.

Anyway, that’s the gist of the 2-page headnote to the recipe for The Egg Lady’s oatmeal pie and it's a poignant standalone story with vivid characters, a glimpse of period race/class dynamics, a little drama, a moral, a conclusion. Headnotes like this are one reason I like Pinner's book so much. The Egg Lady's oatmeal pie is another. You wouldn't think that oatmeal could make an exquisite pie, but a lot of exquisite things have been made from very little -- Shaker chairs, Depression-era quilts, New Mexican tinwork -- and this pie is one of them. Three of us demolished all but one slice of the pie in about 20 minutes the other night, and the person who could least afford to finish it off the next morning did so. (For the record, I baked a half recipe in a 7-inch pan, so we weren't quite as piggish as that makes us sound.) 

It's hard to describe this pie. It's a lot like chess pie -- with oats. Alternatively, try to imagine a very thin, pale pecan pie made with white sugar instead of brown, oats instead of nuts. 

Or maybe just bake the pie and see for yourself. It could not be easier, cheaper, or better. 

Egg Lady's oatmeal pie adapted from Patty Pinner's Sweety Pies.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and have ready an unbaked 9-inch pie crust. In a bowl, beat 2 large eggs, 1/4 cup melted unsalted butter, a pinch salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 2/3 cup sugar, 2/3 cup light corn syrup, and 2/3 cup old fashioned oats (not quick cooking.) Pour into crust. Bake for  35-45 minutes until the crust is golden and the filling fairly firm to the touch. Not too firm, though. You’re looking for a delicate crust over a tender jelly-like pudding, not a cookie. Cool. Serve at room temperature. 

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

I'm mostly in Mama's camp

Two of our seven Thanksgiving pies (brownie peanut butter and apple streusel)
Isabel came home from college and went back to college, pies were baked and eaten, Jessica Jones watched in its entirety, and then the Thanksgiving break was over. Now it’s December and all hell is breaking loose in the world, but my tiny corner of it remains as placid as ever. The worst thing that’s happened to me lately is that I got a parking ticket and the goats broke into the neighbor’s yard. I guess Mockingjay was kind of disappointing, too. Into every life, some rain must fall. 

Two things:

*The easy 'Bolognese' sauce from Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year is terrific, much more exciting than its everyday ingredients would suggest. Or maybe I’d forgotten just how satisfying a big, meaty red sauce can be. 

Here’s the recipe: Chop 1 large onion and soften it in olive oil in a wide skillet. Add two smashed cloves garlic and pinches of red pepper flakes, salt, and black pepper. Cook until onions are translucent. Squeeze 1 pound Italian sausage (I used half mild, half spicy) out of its casing and add to the skillet. Break up with a spatula and cook until it’s no longer pink and raw looking. Add a 28-ounce can good-quality canned tomatoes along with most of the juices, crushing the tomatoes with you hands. (I followed the directions and bought expensive San Marzano canned tomatoes for the first time ever and I regret to say I think they actually made a difference.) Cook hard until the liquid evaporates then turn the heat down, add the remaining tomato juice, and cook slowly for 2 hours or more, adding a bit of water whenever the skillet runs dry. Stop replenishing water as you approach serving time. You want the sauce on the dry side, the tomatoes caramelizing on the bottom of the pan. Cook 1 pound pasta. When it’s done, toss with a couple tablespoons unsalted butter. Toss with sauce. Serve with Parmesan.

*I pulled Sweety Pies by Patty Pinner off the shelf at Thanksgiving like I do every year, but instead of just browsing through the recipes as usual, I sat down and read this charming and eccentric cookbook cover to cover. Pinner, the jacket bio notes, is "an employee of the U.S. Postal Service." I don't know what kind of a cookbook I'd expect a postal worker to write, but it wouldn't be this one, no offense to postal workers. 

As you might guess from the title, the book is a collection of pie recipes. Accompanying each pie is the story -- often a long story -- of the woman who provided the recipe, or just inspired it. The stories have little to do with pies except insofar as the pies further a woman's goals of getting and keeping a man. This is book is about feminine wiles.

A headnote to a recipe might begin like this:

“When I was twelve, Frida, a wonderful matronly neighbor, taught me a tremendous lesson on how to handle womanly setbacks. When Frida’s handsome flirtatious husband Garfield left her, even though she was heartbroken she did not sit at home with a bottle of gin. . .” (lemon chess pie)


“According to a tale often told in my family, Sister Bernice Brock, a tall, plain-looking church woman who was as sweet as cherry pudding, had her sight set on Brother Varney, a confirmed bachelor, who got a kick out of entertaining the single ladies. . . ” (grits pie)


“Growing up there were two camps relative to catching a man - the ‘if you don’t chase after your intended some other woman will' camp, to which Mama’s friend Annabelle belonged, and the ‘if you start running after a man you’ll always be running after him’ camp, which Mama embraced. . .” (golden squash pie)

I could go on. Limiting myself to just three passages was hard. Men are presented here as philandering rascals who need to be tricked and tamed by cunning women, and invariably are. The tools of conquest range from tangerine-colored slips to chocolate meringue pie and if that makes you roll your eyes, Sweety Pies is not the book for you. Given that my grandmother thought everything could be solved with a little lipstick and that her last words to me concerned my weight, I am accustomed to this kind of talk and enjoy it.

As to the recipes, you’ll find the usual suspects (apple, pecan) but a whole chapter is dedicated to "cereal pies" and there’s wacky stuff like grape juice pie, orange Tang pie, and white potato pie. The recipes I've tried are solid: For Thanksgivings past, I've made Frankie's coconut pie (Frankie has quite a storyand Aunt Betty Jean's lemon pie and both were good. The other day I baked Pinner's mile-high lemon meringue pie and while the meringue wasn’t a mile high, it was still a lovely pie. The Egg Lady's oatmeal pie is cooling on the counter as I type. I just know Mark is going to swoon.
It does not appear to be a joke.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It wasn't me that started that ol' crazy Asian war

so proud of making her laugh
Someone is home from college with a cute nose piercing and a copy of Freud’s The Uncanny that must be read in the next 6 days and she is very, very tired and has been very, very sweet, apparently newly charmed by her folks and laughing at her younger brother’s antics for the first time ever, unless you count the fleeting moment captured in the photo at top some years ago. My favorite photo ever. 

It was delightful watching our children tell stories and laugh together at the dinner table last night. I thought, this is how family dinner was supposed to be and never, ever was. Really, guys, it wasn’t. All those years, it was tense. Much bickering and sighing and baiting. I think there was something semi-disastrous about our kids' difference in age, gender, and maturity level and now there isn't. Mark and I were so happy we didn’t even mind listening to Owen’s records, which he played all through dinner and which occasionally. . . grate. He's accrued an eccentric collection of vinyl that includes almost every album ever made by ABBA, plus some Steely Dan, Kenny Rogers, Linda Ronstadt, and The Many Moods of Christmas. Owen is so blissfully uncool he is totally cool.
Have you listened to Kenny Rogers lately? A lot of self-pity and impotence in those songs. I'd never really noticed before. Just listen to Lucille or Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town some time.
We ate Marcella Hazan’s spaghetti with tomato and butter sauce about which more than enough has been written (but in case you haven't read it -- make this sauce!) For dessert: Hazan's coffee cake with winter fruits which I’d been wondering about for years, a very plain, pale cake full of chopped apple, chopped pear, and thinly sliced banana. I am wondering no more. Not the best thing I've ever made, but here's the recipe if you're curious.

Today Isabel took Owen out for lunch, a first. Later, he told me they mostly talked about "how you and Dad are getting weirder and weirder."

True dat. 

Below is one of the waffle cupcakes I made for Owen over the weekend, fulfilling my end of a bargain.
needs no syrup
First, you bake cupcakes using yellow cake mix, reserving some of the batter. Once the cupcakes are baked, heat a waffle iron. Pour some of the reserved batter on the iron then place a baked cupcake face down in the batter. Let the waffle cook. The top of the waffle (now the top of the cupcake) will be nice and crispy, the underside slightly raw, and the whole production quite handsome, as you can see. It didn't taste like anything special, but taste wasn't the point.

I'm not hosting Thanksgiving this year and for that, among many other things, I am extremely thankful.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Be careful what you resolve

Pumpkin caramel tart from Bon Appetit -- I was going to write about this, but something fascinating happened in world news, can't remember what, and I got distracted. It was tasty, but I would stick with regular pumpkin pie.
About two months ago, I started listening to a time management book called Getting Things Done that the writer Atul Gawande had once mentioned liking. It's an earnest, sort of dorky organization manual intended for harried business executives, which I’m most definitely not. But I absolutely loved the book. If you’ve spent time with me recently, you’ve heard my infomercial. The book has changed my life. I really did just type that. I have more to say about Getting Things Done, but of relevance today is the fact that it got me to start reading the newspaper. 

To be clear, the book itself isn’t pro-newspaper. The book simply encourages you to take inventory of everything that you want, must, or should be doing and “capture” it all in writing. Everything. This can take several days and my list was unbelievable. But the author was correct -- once my 10,000 item to-do list was captured on paper and things properly filed, I felt unburdened. And somehow, without even really trying, I started getting things done. 

Like reading the newspaper. It always bothered me that I didn’t read the newspaper very carefully. I could not have told you with full confidence what ISIS was a few months ago and I felt bad about that. I felt ill informed because I was ill informed. But one day not long after I finished listening to Getting Things Done, I started reading the New York Times, pretty much cover to cover.
Delicious marionberry pie milkshake from Shari's, a chain restaurant, that I was going to write about until I got distracted by something in the news. They put a whole slice of pie into the blender with the vanilla ice cream. Highly recommend. 
Soon I could tell you not just about ISIS, but about the election in Myanmar and Bernie Sanders and Paul Ryan and the unflattering things George H. W. Bush said about Donald Rumsfeld. Oh, I was so proud. Full of newfound self-respect. It was exciting, too. I started having opinions. For a few days I was livid about the overuse of arbitration clauses. Then I was loathing Donald Trump. Feeling sorry for Jeb Bush. Pondering the campus protests. I began looking for more information on my favorite topics online. I start reading tweets and political websites and -- best of all -- comment threads. I love comment threads.
The grossest looking dinner I've ever served. I was going to write about it, but . . . 
I didn’t feel bad about not reading the newspaper anymore. 

Instead, I felt bad about neglecting my blog. 

And how are the two connected? 

I don’t know about you, but there’s always some narrative running in my head. I’m always thinking something through. Earlier this fall, when I wasn’t otherwise mentally engaged, I was thinking a lot about Gabrielle Hamilton, composing blog posts as I drove around or washed dishes or did the rowing machine at the gym. This all changed when I started reading the newspaper. It was hard to focus on Gabrielle Hamilton because I was too busy thinking about riveting topics like the Christakis Halloween email
Oddly, you don't season the lamb before you wrap it in the won ton skins.
This could not go on. I love this blog. I do not want it to die. I decided I could will myself back into caring about food. Monday night I made the manti -- tasty little Turkish dumplings -- from Prune and a strange Pennsylvania Dutch cracker pudding dessert that I’d been wanting to try for eons. It was an interesting dinner. Monday night I thought: I’m back! Tomorrow I’ll do a blog post.

Yesterday morning, I sat down to write, but somehow an hour passed and I was still reading about whether it was bigoted to be more engaged with the carnage in Paris than the carnage in Beirut. Then I had to drive down to help my aunt clean out my grandmother’s house. Ordinarily I would have been writing the blog post in my head as I drove, but all I really wanted to do was find some provocative political radio show where they were talking about Syria, maybe, or Ben Carson, or the resignation of the Claremont McKenna dean.

I am sorry to say this, but there's no way around it: Once you start paying attention, current events are more interesting than cracker pudding. 
I was sure I took a picture of the finished dumplings, but I can't find it. 
But I'm going to try to find my way back. Here goes: The toasted manti from Prune involve cutting wonton skins into quarters and filling each with a lamb meatball smaller than a marble. You toast these in the oven then cook them in canned beef broth and serve with garlicky yogurt and some spiced butter. Owen said they were “too spicy.” Mark said they were “flavorless.” I liked them a lot, but for obvious reasons I'm not making them again.

To make cracker pudding, you cook some milk, egg yolks, sugar, Saltine cracker crumbs, and flaked coconut into a thick custard and then fold in beaten egg whites. Eat warm. Like coconutty tapioca pudding. Good, but not great, and it looked like curdled vomit. (Sorry.) I would not make this again.

As you can see, my heart was not in that account of Monday's dinner. I can't fake it. But I just made a bargain with Owen and holding up my end involves cooking two appalling dishes he found on BuzzFeed. This is one of them. If I can't think of something to say about waffle cupcakes, I really do need to pack it in.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Just a recipe, no blather

way too much blue cheese in this shot
I'd never try to persuade you that the celery and blue cheese bruschetta from River Cottage Veg Every Day is one of the world's great sandwiches because it so obviously isn't. But if you're looking for a tasty new lunch that takes about 3 minutes to make and involves ingredients you might actually have around, here you go. Don't be put off by the centrality of boring celery. This open-faced sandwich is salty, zesty, refreshing, crunchy, a little creamy, a little sweet. Yum. I've been eating it every day.

Celery and blue cheese bruschetta

1-2 inner stalks celery (i.e. not big, stringy ones)
slice crusty bread (i.e. not soft sandwich bread)
clove garlic
olive oil
small amount of blue cheese (I'd say about 3/4 ounce depending on strength of cheese)
salt and pepper

Thinly slice the celery at an angle. Toast bread. Rub garlic over rough surface of bread. Drizzle with olive oil. Pile on celery. Crumble blue cheese on top. Not too much! The recipe as printed in the book calls for far too much. Drizzle with honey. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. You won't think you need the salt and pepper, but it really makes a difference. Kind of messy, but good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The pause that refreshes

I think extreme close-up photos of food will become my trademark.
I od'd on Gabrielle Hamilton and had to go cold turkey. A couple of weeks ago I made her ratatouille sandwich (yummy, oily), dandelions braised in olive oil (pretty good, oily), and the eggplant parmesan (a monumental pain in the ass, delicious, quite oily) and was suddenly tired. Tired of fats, tired of strong flavors, tired of Hamilton's mind games. I took time off from Prune. I'm still taking time off.

Have I turned on the book? Not at all.

But then I've never said Gabrielle Hamilton was pleasant. She's not. She's impossible. One minute she's dictatorial and highly specific ("6 Forelle pears, 1 day short of perfectly ripe") without explaining why or offering alternatives. The next, she is oddly vague, assuming you know what she means by "a rather generous hunk" of salted French butter for dressing the cold tomatoes. Is that two tablespoons? Four? Six? Well, yes, you can make a good guess and things will work out fine. It's the casual imperiousness of it all that bugs me. Her voice is crisp, super-smart and and original, but also snippy, scolding, and verging on contemptuous. I love it. I also hate it. I think she's brilliant and a total bitch.

Random House sent me a copy of Ruth Reichl's new My Kitchen Year and if she is brilliant, that brilliance does not show itself in this cookbook/memoir, which is warm, genial, confiding, and familiar. Reichl writes: "To me, recipes are conversations, not lectures; they are a beginning, not an end. I hope you'll add a bit more of this, a little less of that, perhaps introduce new spices or different herbs. What I really want is for my recipes to become your own."

You will never hear Gabrielle Hamilton say something like that.

Prune is a more interesting, visionary cookbook by far -- and I'm not done with it. But the spinach-ricotta gnocchi and applesauce cake I served for dinner last night from My Kitchen Year were lovely, and cooking from Reichl's recipes was restful. More on both books coming soon.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Like a cold, sticky, semi-solid black jelly bean

I don't know about you, but I think my food photography is improving. 
Prune success, Prune failure. 

Success: roasted onions with onion butter sauce and seeds A good dish with the odd twists I’ve come to expect from Gabrielle Hamilton’s odd cookbook. You trim onions (she calls for several varieties), toss with a little oil and salt, and roast. 

As you would predict, the scallions were done before anything else.
Meanwhile, you use the trimmings to make an onion “tea.” When the tea is dark brown and oniony, you mix some of it with butter to create a superrich, superflavorful sauce that you pour over roasted onions. Sprinkle seeds -- poppy, sesame, flax -- and some millet on top of everything. The idea is to replicate the “uncanny” (her word) flavor of an everything bagel. I didn’t taste that, exactly, but what I tasted was plenty delicious. I'd make this again. If you have a magnifying glass and want to try this recipe, it is here.

Failure: black licorice granita. I don’t love black licorice, but every time I flipped past this recipe I grew more curious. I started imagining how it would taste: intense and tar-black, but icy and refreshing. Yum. Had to make it.

You boil 1 cup sugar and 2 cups water for ten minutes to form a syrup, "flavor with" (quote marks there for a reason) 1 cup blackstrap molasses and a tiny bit of anise extract to capture the “uncanny” (GH's word again) flavor of black licorice candy. Put in freezer, scrape with fork periodically to create coarse, icy granita. 

Well, in theory. This was like trying to freeze lava. The mixture got colder and colder and denser and denser, but it never got icy or even completely firm. Completely smooth. I figured I’d made a mistake. Maybe I didn’t put in the second cup of water at the very beginning? Because it was so easy I made it again right away. This time it got a little bit icy, but nothing close to a granita or even a rough sorbet. It was weirdly sticky. 
Second batch: you can see it was a little icy, but the texture was more like brownie batter. The most disgusting brownie batter ever.
And the flavor was horrid -- way too sweet. Overpowering. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to use the full cup of molasses she calls for? She does say to "flavor" the mixture with molasses and anise extract, so does that mean you shouldn't use the full cup she calls for? Then why specify a full cup? Maybe 10 minutes is too long to boil the syrup? I don’t know. If anyone makes this, tell me what happens. I'm done.

I put the pans from the freezer straight into the dishwasher without rinsing because I figured the goo would rinse right down the dishwasher drain. And it did. I opened the dishwasher this morning and the dishes were sparkling clean but holy hell, the licorice fumes! All the other dishes had to be rinsed in the sink because they smelled of licorice.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Remember SnackWells? Dry baked potatoes? Rice cakes?

I’ve never worked with a more buttery cookbook than Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune. Everything swims in butter, but especially the vegetables. 

This raises some interesting questions. Most of us can agree that it is healthy to eat vegetables but not so healthy to eat huge amounts of butter.  But what if butter helps you to eat more vegetables? (And what constitutes a "huge" amount of butter, anyway?) What if butter makes vegetables so tasty that your son who goes weeks without consuming a plant actually eats a (buttery) tomato and says, “This is really good?”  What if a mountain of butter contributed to a pumpkin dish so indescribably salty/sweet/nutty/butterscotchy and delicious, that you drove home to reheat leftovers today rather than getting a frozen custard for lunch?

Obviously, I'm talking about actual Prune dishes.

Beefsteak tomatoes with warm French butter: Peeled, sliced, juicy tomatoes topped with sizzling salted butter. Not so appetizing when the butter eventually congealed all over the cold tomatoes, but so damned good when first brought to the table. 

Pumpkin in ginger beer with nutritional yeast: You slice pumpkin (I used red kuri squash) in wedges and pour over some ginger beer, sprinkle with nutritional yeast,* top with gobs of butter, and roast. How much butter? A third of a pound for a recipe that serves six. Does that seem like a huge amount of butter to you?  More than a stick? It seems like a huge amount to me. That’s just under two tablespoons per person. So many calories.

But then is that really so bad if it gets you to eat the pumpkin? And then after you eat the pumpkin (and the buttered beefsteak tomatoes and small pork chop) you are completely contented and full and don’t have any urge at all to see if there are Eskimo Pies in the freezer? 

I have no answers.

Ok, I guess I do have an answer. I think there’s too much butter on Prune's vegetables for everyday eating, but there’s probably too little butter on a lot of other vegetables. Habits of the fat-phobic1980s die hard.

 *Gabrielle Hamilton uses the terms “nutritional yeast” and “brewers yeast” interchangeably, but I have read they’re not the same thing. I used nutritional yeast.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Mastic fondant

The dish I most wanted to make from the minute I got my copy of Prune was the mastic fondant in ice water. The photo is so mysterious: a plain glass of ice water containing a blob of white paste and a spoon. Here’s a lovely picture of some fondant that resembles the shot in Prune. Can you see why it was intriguing?

Gabrielle Hamilton's vision for Prune didn't include headnotes explaining her recipes, so I had to turn to the internet to learn about mastic fondant. Mastic fondant comes from the apparently vast world of Greek spoon sweets: intense, sugary confections that are served in tiny portions with a glass of ice water.  Spoon sweets can be syrupy preserved fruits, eggplants, nuts, even olives, in addition to the fondant, which comes in different flavors. Mastic, in case you were wondering, is the resin from a Mediterranean evergreen tree; it emerges as sap, but by the time you buy it will look like very small, beige chunks of rock candy. Its flavor is faintly piney.

The other day, I made the mastic fondant. You grind your mastic, cook a syrup of sugar and glucose to 240 degrees, add the ground mastic, cool the syrup to 110 degrees, pour it onto a cold countertop and push it around with a bench scraper for a minute or so until it turns opaque and becomes so stiff that you can’t move it anymore. You then maneuver it into a jar for storage. When you want to serve it, you scoop up a spoonful and put it in a glass of ice water.

It all came off perfectly. I wasn’t going to serve this to anyone in my family so there was no point in waiting. I scooped myself some mastic fondant immediately, for breakfast. It was supersticky and dense with a barely discernible piney flavor. Mostly it tasted like the fondant you might find on a wedding cake, except wet and creamy.  Eating it is fun -- you sort of nibble at it and lick it and dunk it back in the glass where it softens a little more and every tiny bite comes with a refreshing film of cool water. Irresistible, though it wasn’t exactly delicious. It was more like having a delightful new toy.  I couldn't stop eating it. I ate mastic fondant all day and little else, pausing every few hours for another scoop of glucose.
just so you know I'm not making this all up
I felt like bloody hell by 5 o'clock.

Obviously, I love mastic fondant. I knew I would the minute I saw that photo of the white goo in the glass. You can probably tell from what I've written whether mastic fondant is your thing or not. I'm guessing it won't be.

I have to say, I love that Gabrielle Hamilton just threw this super-weird dessert in there between recipes for lemon panna cotta and pear tarte tatin, no context or explanation. Seriously, I love it. It makes the book more exciting, somehow.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Longest, foodiest post ever

pizza rustica
There are four categories of food in Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune
  1. food I would never make because it sounds revolting 
  2. food I would never make because the recipe is too complicated and/or the ingredients a huge hassle to find
  3. food I would happily make make because it looks tasty in a familiar way and the recipe seems manageable 
  4. food that looks so fascinating and weird that I absolutely MUST make it even though there’s a strong possibility I won’t love it. I don’t care how hard the recipe is.
The dishes in Prune are fairly evenly spread between these four categories, which is rare. Most cookbooks have a lot of dishes in categories #2 and #3 and few, if any, in categories #1 and #4.  Categories #1 and #4 are fellow travelers with vision, boldness, and arrogance, all qualities GH has in abundance.

I should say here that category #4 has always been my favorite category. There are category #4 dishes that I've been wondering about for decades, like Marcella Hazan’s tonnarelli with cantaloupe.

Here's a more detailed breakdown: 

I put GH’s recipes for veal heart, tripe, tongue, et cetera, into category #1. 

Category #2 is larger than it should be. Maiale tonnato -- thinly sliced pork blanketed in tuna mayonnaise -- looks great, but GH directs you to braise the pork in octopus broth. Not happening.  Likewise, a rice dish calls for duck stock and another dish for duck cracklings. Nope. Suckling pig is a nonstarter and I’m not asking the butcher to special order me pigeons. Also in category #2: banana bread. GH gives restaurant-scale pan measurements for the banana bread. So irritating and imperious. Screw that.

I’ve worked my way through Category #3 with fairly good results. I made her basic pork chops and oven-roasted cauliflower last winter and wrote about it. The fennel baked in cream was unbelievably rich and delicious.  I made her pancakes and that is one very obnoxious recipe. Hamilton has nothing to teach you about pancakes unless you want to be told to “measure out the dry ingredients and sift through a tamis” or “crack the eggs into a china cap set over a large metal bain.”  

I’ve made the spaghetti carbonara (good) twice and the dreamy kouign amann between five and ten times.  The poached peach with toasted almond cream was fine. I wouldn’t make that one again. The burgers were great, but I probably won’t make them again either because you can do good burgers without GH's time-consuming, cheffy twists. The smoky eggplant was lovely, but the accompanying sesame flatbread didn’t work. There’s a bona fide error in the recipe (the "1 1/4 cups water" should be 1/4 cup water), but even after I adjusted for that: problems. 

Her pan bagnat -- a version of the classic Provencal tuna-tomato-olive sandwich -- is insanely good. I made it twice in September. Recipe at end of the post.

But category #4 is the true glory of Prune. A cold pate sandwich on white bread slathered with mayonnaise and mustard? Never had one, but I’m on the case. Nor have I ever eaten bread heels and pan dripping salad. You roast two garlicky, lemony, mustardy chickens, tear them apart in the pans so they give up all their flavorful juices. Then you “put a few leaves of torn Bibb lettuce in a wooden salad bowl and slightly overdress. Set in a hot spot on a shelf above the grill until the salad looks sad and wilted. Set a couple of torn heels or crusts of bread on top of the salad in the bowl and spoon over a generous soaking of chicken pan drippings and a spoonful of vinaigrette.”


More category #4 dishes I haven't made, but plan to: Fresh Jersey tomatoes dressed with melted French butterMastic fondant -- a mysterious blob of sweet white goo that you serve in a glass of ice water. Fried mascarpone with fennel sugar. Black licorice granita

Of the category #4 dishes I've actually cooked, most have been sensational. Braised lamb shoulder with lemons. Peaches on buttered toast. Strawberry milk. Bacon and marmalade sandwich on pumpernickel. Grape Nuts with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup. I blame that last dish for at least three pounds of weight gain in 2015.

I don't think I got the salt-packed cold roast beef with bread crumb salsa quite right; I might have to try that again one of these years. The slushy frozen milk punch was too sharply alcoholic to make again, but was definitely category #4, as was a short-dough pizza rustica that contains nothing but flour, egg, butter, mozzarella, salt, and pepper. How could that possibly be anything but bland? It couldn't be. It is bland. Buttery, cheesy, floury, white, and bland. I liked it the first time I made it, but not all that much. And yet as the months passed I kept thinking about it. I made it again last night and it was exactly as remembered and I was so happy. I love this dish. The right kind of floury, buttery bland can worm its way into your heart.

I put the zucchini with green onions and poblano peppers in category #4 because I couldn’t imagine how poblano peppers (Mexican) would marry with a whole mess of sweet butter (French). The dish started to preoccupy me. The other night I made it and it was amazing. 

In conclusion, there is a lot of amazing in this cookbook. There is definitely some annoying, but there is more amazing.

I have now told you about every single dish I have cooked from Prune.

Two recipes for you. Banner day.

Zucchini with green onions and poblanos, slightly adapted

Slice 1 1/2 pounds firm, smallish zucchini into 3/4 inch rounds. Slice 1/4 pound scallions (yes, that's a lot) into 1/4 inch rings, using all of the vegetable -- don’t stop when you get to the dark green part. Thinly slice 3 cloves garlic. Chop 1 poblano into 1/2-inch pieces. Melt 3 tablespoons unsalted butter in a dutch oven over moderate heat. Add scallions, poblano, and garlic, season with salt, and let sweat for a few minutes with the lid on. Add the zucchini, season again to taste, add 3 tablespoons unsalted butter. Stir to coat the zucchini with butter and let cook for a minute or two. Add 2 tablespoons unsalted butter and cover tightly. Cook 20-25 minutes until soft and almost falling apart. This needs to be served with bread to soak up the juices, which are delicious. As you have probably surmised, it is not a diet dish.

Pan bagnat isn’t a diet dish either, but if you omit the bread and eat it as a salad, it works on almost every diet I can think of. I highly recommend trying it at least once with the bread.

1 pound fresh tuna 
2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (I use fancy kind per GH’s instructions) 
1 pound ripe tomatoes cut into 1/2 inch dice (she says to peel and seed; I haven’t and wouldn’t)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 lemon, supremed and chopped
2 tablespoons jarred capers 
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup pitted, sliced kalamata olives
1 red bell pepper, chopped 
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced into half moons
salt, black pepper

4 ciabatta rolls (Safeway carries them, though you can improvise with a loaf of ciabatta.)

Lightly brush tuna with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, sear in a very hot cast-iron skillet until medium rare. (Or grill the tuna -- that’s what she says to do.) Use your hands and tear the tuna into 1- or 2-inch hunks and strips. Combine all the other ingredients except the bread and nestle the tuna hunks in the mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Slice ciabatta rolls horizontally, hinging, without cutting all the way through. Set on a sheet pan. Fill with the tuna -- really heap it in there and make sure you use plenty of the liquid. (You’ll have extra tuna so you could make another sandwich or two, but the tuna is good the next day on its own.) Cover the sandwiches with some parchment and weight down in the refrigerator for a few hours with something heavy, like an unopened box of kosher salt. Flip after an hour if you remember. These are messy, wet, and absolutely great.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Perfectly bent

English muffins spread with parsley butter await big, fat, grilled Prune burgers. 
Ok, Prune. Ouf. I have really dug myself into a hole with this one because instead of writing about it piecemeal the way I’ve written about other cookbooks, I got to know Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune on the sly, cheating on whatever I was doing with the blog to cook a dish from Prune every now and then. I did a lot of this over the last year and in the process all my feelings about the book changed dramatically. When I first got my copy of the cookbook I hated it with the fiery passion of the disappointed fan. Now I think it’s a masterpiece. And now I have to explain why all at once. Ouch.

Prune is not easy to love and not easy to cook from. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, Prune is a cookbook by Gabrielle Hamilton, a famous badass New York chef who runs a tiny, fetishized downtown restaurant. The book has no index, no introduction, and no headnotes. It is modeled on the massive recipe binder used at the restaurant and contains a multitude of scrawled, scolding notes from Hamilton as well as underlinings and fake stains.
The burgers -- made with beef and lamb -- were delicious. It looks like I didn't quite get that cheese melted.
The book isn't warm and friendly. It isn't charming. That's the point. You might well hate Prune, but the things you most hate about it are the very things that make it great.  It’s as if Hamilton looked at a sweet, pretty, puffy contemporary cookbook, read a few cloying headnotes, and said: No fucking way. Her book is tart, precise, bitchy, opinionated, uncompromising, personal, tight, and totally original. In my view, it was the best cookbook of 2014.

I love reading the recipes in Prune. They have a real voice and rhythm. (They also work, but more on that next time.) They can be funny. They can be sensual. Sometimes both in a very short space. Here's a segment from the recipe for sweetbreads (which I will never make):

"Thoroughly and neatly peel the membrane -- the thin, slippery, translucent 'skin' that encases the gland -- which will come off in a rather neat sheet. Trim off any waxy fat clusters which tend to cling to the underside of the gland, and gently tug out any egregious muddy brown veins. Try to pull out the tubular looking arteries as well. If you've made it this far and are not retching into a garbage can, leave the minor little capillaries intact in order not to have the lobe fall apart into nuggets. Portion into 4-ounce pieces, as possible.

Hamilton is wonderfully acerbic on the subject of organic produce, farmers' markets, and the like. From her Bloody Mary mix recipe:

"Be sure to inventory properly midweek to keep the house fully stocked so that we are not having to make Bloody Mary mix over the weekend with some crappy organic tomato juice or 'artisanal' 'small-batch' Worcestershire handshopped in an emergency at Whole Foods."

God forbid.

And here's a favorite passage of mine from the spaghetti carbonara recipe (which I have made and which is very good):

“Pay attention to the toothsomeness of the pasta -- don’t get lost in your timing and let this just boil away in the pickup until it is flabby and bloated and disgusting. . . . Ideally we want the strands slick with yellow, eggy egg yolk and smoky, salty, uriney pancetta fat, with all the granules of sweet, nutty grated parm clinging to the strands. You want to see the black pepper, taste the floralness of it, and feel the warm heat of it in the dish -- but don’t obliterate.” 

It looks tossed off and maybe even sloppy, but it's not. It's vivid. It's loose. It's great.

In the first episode of her run on the PBS series Mind of a Chef, Hamilton says that she’s a perfectionist, but that her idea of perfection is is different from others people’s. She says that she likes things “perfectly bent.” 

Prune is perfectly bent. 

Tomorrow: some food.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Eat, eat, read

Maui is pretty.
I’ve been having fun. Last week I went to Upcountry Maui on a magazine assignment and ran around looking for cool things to do and eat and found them in abundance. Meanwhile, I was also reading and reviewing two new self-helpy books by Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic) and Cheryl Strayed (Brave Enough), so all these inspirational lines about being generous and bold and receptive to inspiration and grateful and tackling life like a motherfucker* were floating through my head as I toured pineapple vodka distilleries and ate Spam musubi on the lush slopes of a tropical volcano. It was basically the ultimate high. I felt so energetic I started wondering if I was bipolar and having a manic episode.

Then I came home. It wasn’t a manic episode. I was just happy. Now that the homemaking/parenting years are drawing to a close, I wonder whether by embracing domesticity with such ardor I was simply making a virtue of necessity. I think I love my cozy nest of a home with the high-maintenance farm animals and 1000+ cookbooks, but I feel so much more alive when I’m racing around with my notebook trying to find the best bento box in Upcountry Maui and sleeping in a room I do not have to clean.
This was my only glimpse of beach. I was supposed to stick to inland Maui and dutifully did so. 
There are two categories of Hawaiian food and they could not be more different.  First, there is the slab of $42 macadamia-crusted ahi that you get at tourist restaurants. It is fresh, local, and good, though I always find myself struggling to finish fish like this because after few bites it becomes monotonous. The crust is delicious, but the inside of the fish is fish, bland fish. I finish, though, because it is so expensive I can't bear to waste it. Also, an ahi or an opah or a mahi mahi gave its precious life for me and I'm going to leave it on the plate? 

Then, there is the food that local people eat. For the most part, it isn't very fresh or local, not by Alice Waters standards. The plate lunch, the shave ice, the manapua, the warm $2.19 Spam musubi that you find under a heat lamp at Foodland. I was revolted by the idea of Spam musubi until last week when I finally tried it. I sat there in the supermarket parking lot eating Spam musubi and wondering what I was going to do when I got back to the Mainland and had to live without Spam musubi. Are you familiar with Spam musubi? Imagine a piece of nigiri sushi the size of a Twinkie, but warm, and instead of fish, it's topped with a slice of salty, delectably fatty, sausage-like meat. It is the best thing I ate in Upcountry Maui and I ate a lot of great stuff.

The second best thing I ate was the loco moco at a divey restaurant located in a trailer. Loco moco is a hamburger topped with fried egg and smothered in gravy, served over sticky white rice. The huge serving of loco moco I got at this dive also came with some macaroni salad and when you mixed that creamy macaroni salad with the rice and the salty brown gravy? I know how déclassé and gross that sounds, particularly when you consider that the gravy likely came from a can, but it was heaven. I had to physically push the plate away and ask for the check in order to stop myself from finishing every last bite. I needed to be able to wear my clothes home.

The red thing is a Surinam cherry from the Kula farmers' market. It was the fourth or fifth best thing I ate on Maui. It's got a super thin skin, sweet-tart juicy flesh, and a pit like a standard cherry. I couldn't figure out how to photograph it to best advantage, as you can see. If you ever have the chance to eat a Surinam cherry, do, but be sure it is really soft and ripe. 
Anyway, if you go to Hawaii, be sure you get out of the tourist restaurants and give that local food a chance. It may not be your thing, but I personally would always choose the $12 loco moco over the $42 macadamia-crusted ahi.

About those two books I reviewed. Strayed’s Brave Enough (it comes out later this fall) is a short collection of quotations from her previous work that apply to all kinds of profound life quandaries, like losing your mother or ending a romantic relationship. I’m not currently facing a profound life quandary but I still find myself flashing on her counsel ten or twenty times a day to solve the most trivial problems. Two I like especially:

"You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself not to feel jealous. I shut down the Why not me? voice and replace it with one that says Don't be silly instead. It really is that easy. You actually do stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person."

Don't do what you know on a gut level to be the wrong thing to do . . . It's hard to know what to do when you have a conflicting set of emotions and desires, but it's not as hard as we pretend it is. Saying it's hard is ultimately a justification to do whatever seems like the easiest thing to do -- have the affair, stay at that horrible job, end a friendship over a slight, keep tolerating someone who treats you terribly. There isn't a single dumbass thing I've done in my adult life that I didn't know was a dumbass thing to do while I was doing it."
The incredibly sweet pineapple in Hawaii might have been the third best thing I ate. 
As to Big Magic, it's imperfect, but warm and inspiring. I love Elizabeth Gilbert. You may feel differently; we can still be friends. I think she’s open-hearted, smart, and a force for good in the world. She helps me shut down the mean drill sergeant in my head who constantly yells at me for not keeping my boots spit-polished. 

I liked both the books a lot and my review is here

Speaking of drill sergeants, I’m going to cook from Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune for the next week or so. I was just flipping through the book trying to figure out what to make for Sunday dinner, resenting yet again the lack of an index. Gabrielle Hamilton is such a jerk. I wish her recipes weren't quite so good.

*Update: Cheryl Strayed word. Allusion. My father emailed me about it within 2 hours. 

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

We didn't inhale

Isabel's new home
Boy, is it hot out here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hot and dry. Did I ever mention that our mulch caught fire last month on a day just like today? A day just like today except about 20 degrees cooler. A workman was reinforcing some concrete near the road and a warm piece of rebar he’d just sawed through fell into the fluffy, dry, redwood mulch. Whoosh! Instant fire covering about 20 square feet of the front yard. The workman came and banged on the door and I ran out barefoot and we extinguished the blaze, but it took 10 minutes or so of me spraying with a hose and him beating down flames with his shovel. We killed a lot of plants and broke some of the watering spigots. No point to this story, except: mulch? And: lucky.

California is ready for you, rain. 

I’m really betwixt and between right now, hence the lack of much interesting cooking or any posting at all. Life should straighten out next week. For real.

Here’s what’s been happening in the kitchen and out:

I've served several batches of the easy, delicious bread-and-tomato soup from Viana La Place's Verdura. According to my margin notes, I've been making this since August 1999, a year before Owen was born. That's the definition of a keeper. The recipe is at the end of the post and you should try it before the sweet summer tomatoes disappear.
almost effortless
I baked yet another kouign-amann from Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune. I love this cake madly, despite the fact that it always comes out looking burnt. 

it's all about the French butter and orange flower water
I think next week I have to write about my extensive and rewarding experiences with Hamilton's cantankerous cookbook. I've been putting this off.

One night for dinner I made the hearty riso al forno  (Arborio rice, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, olives, capers, provolone) from a recipe posted by The Wednesday Chef and it was really good. Recommend.
the kind of dish that is sometimes called "lusty"

That's about it for food.

At the very end of August, we went up to Washington and installed Isabel in her dorm at Whitman. Mark and I spent a few days observing the other kids (Birkenstocks, more bros than I’d expected at a little liberal arts school), listening to uplifting faculty speeches, traipsing from Home Depot to Walmart to Macy’s to Walgreens, buying fans, towels, sheets, et cetera. All is good. 

No. All is great. I'm not sad anymore. Not even a little. There’s a certain lightness you feel watching a very competent, composed child venture out into the world where she can grow in ways she no longer could in your care. I’ve been trying to explain it to people and this is the best I can do: Imagine you’ve spent 18 years teaching a kid to ride a bike, running alongside, encouraging, looking out for potholes, worrying she's going to fall and break her collarbone or get hit by a car.  You've really given it your all and she's gotten better and better and needed less and less help and finally you let go and now she’s disappeared to ride around the block, pedaling like a pro.

How do you feel? You feel lost for a few minutes, but then you sit down on a bench. You look around. It's a beautiful day. You gradually notice there are birds singing and there's a pleasant breeze and maybe you should wander over to that cafe and have a celebratory affogato while you wait for her to return some months from now. (It's a really big block.) You have that affogato. It is delicious. Where should you go next? So many options. Hmmm. Strange. What is the word for this bizarre feeling? Is it freedom? 

Suddenly you and your spouse start going out more, doing silly stuff you haven't done since you brought that first baby home from the hospital. You can't wait to hear what the girl has to tell you when she gets back from her ride and it dawns on you that you might have some new stories yourself.

I don't actually say all that to people. It's what I would like to convey without having to resort to a dumb bike metaphor.

Ok, speaking of silly stuff you might do with a spouse as your kids grow up, Mark and I went to a legal recreational marijuana shop while we were in Washington.  Is that what you call them? Marijuana shops? We were curious to see what it's like to buy cannabis in a store. In case you didn't already know, this is what it's like to buy cannabis in a store: You pull up in front of a nondescript building just off the freeway near a McDonald’s. You walk in and read signs telling you to put away any cameras. At a pharmacy window you show someone an ID. They admit you to a bland-looking back room with glass display cases that contain, among other things, cool little pipes. Other than the wares, it resembles a room where you might buy a cell phone. There is a United States map into which customers stick pins to show where they're from, and the whole country is dotted with pins. You somehow manage to squeeze another pin into the dense blob of pins on the San Francisco Bay Area. A friendly clerk hands you a menu with lists of marijuana products (cookies, joints, candies) and asks surreal questions like:  “Are you looking for something exhilarating? Or more relaxing? ”

I can’t remember what we said. We bought a caramel. Why not? 

surprisingly creamy and yummy
Anyway. Legal, guys! It was 100% legal. As legal as a bottle of Snapple. As legal as a Starbucks scone. And yet. I went to lunch with some casual friends the other day. I’m very fond of these two friends and we meet every few months for lunch, but I don’t know them that well -- which is a nice category of friend, the people you don’t know that well and may never, but are always pleased to see. I told them of my field trip to the marijuana shop because it seemed like a moderately interesting story. Not one of those great, urgent stories you tell when you first get together with casual friends, but the fourth or fifth story you bring out, when there’s a lull in conversation. I thought there was a lot to discuss, but my friends basically fell silent. One of them politely asked if I had a prescription for the pot and I explained that recreational pot is legal in Washington. Then there was silence again. I felt mildly embarrassed and wished I hadn't said anything. It occurred to me that some people probably still think marijuana is wrong, even if it's legal. Like abortion or gay marriage, I guess. On some level, I must think that too, given that my kids have seen me drink, but I would never smoke a joint in front of them.

Then again, I'm completely ok with them reading this post. The mental image of Mom and Dad buying a pot caramel is probably enough to turn them off drugs forever.  

Here's the soup recipe from Viana La Place. I feel like I've posted it before, but no. It's fantastic.

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, chopped
a few basil leaves, coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves
kosher salt and pepper
pinch sugar, if needed
2 heaping cups crusty bread, cut into chunks or torn. (A stale baguette works great. Even if you have to break it with a hammer, it will come straight back to life in the soup.)
shredded sharp cheese (Parmesan, Pecorino)

1. Combine olive oil and onion in a soup pot and cook over low heat until onion is softened. 

2. Add the tomatoes, basil, and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes over medium-low heat. 

3. Add 2 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Add the bread, stir, and turn off the heat. Taste. It might need a pinch of sugar. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Serve with cheese. Serves 4.