Sunday, May 31, 2015

Strawberry milk forever

good stuff
I gulped down Mimi Pond's delicious graphic novel like a big, cold glass of strawberry milk. Total joy. Read the comments on this blog and you'll glean excellent recommendations for everything from blitz torte recipes to graphic novels. Thank you, commenters.

Over Easy is the thinly-veiled account of Pond’s job at an Oakland, Calif., cafe circa 1978. She captures the fleeting pre-AIDS moment when the hippies were disappearing (“the whole mellow deal was becoming pretty annoying”) and punk revving up (“everyone, suddenly, was pissed off, as though all those years of being agreeable had been just too much.”) She recounts with affection and bemusement the antics and (abundant) romantic entanglements of her co-workers and customers, a group that included sexy waitresses, crabby cooks, chatty drug dealers, and a memorably sweet and soulful restaurant manager. The book is saucy and funny, but also poignant and wise. It takes maybe two hours to read and if you haven't guessed, I highly recommend it.
more good stuff
Gabrielle Hamilton’s strawberry milk is yet more evidence that Prune, for all its idiosyncrasy and bitchiness, was the best cookbook of 2014. This strawberry milk tastes like something a farmer's wife might pour for a rosy-cheeked child in a nursery rhyme. Clean, pure, delicate, sweet. Owen would have drunk the whole batch in two minutes flat if I’d let him. I know the recipe doesn't look like it will produce something magical, but it does. I hope you'll try it. 

Strawberry milk from Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune

1 pound super-sweet strawberries
1/2 cup sugar 
3 cups milk
1 cup buttermilk

  1. Slice the strawberries into a bowl, add sugar, and macerate for at least an hour until very syrupy. Don’t proceed until the berries have exuded lots of juice.
  2. Add milks and refrigerate overnight.
  3. Pour into glasses. Serve with a straw. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Beat up some eggplant mud, baked a blitz torte

not a beauty, but confident
The Chowhounders who cooked from The Hakka Cookbook by Linda Lau Anusasananan back in January had a lot of nice things to say, but the word “bland” did pop up every few posts. The stir-fried chicken with cucumbers I made the other night was the blandest stir fry ever. About as bland as it sounds. This was perhaps the first time I've ever put a Chinese dish on the table and watched everyone reach for the salt. 

Happily, the mashed eggplant and spinach I served alongside was salty, zesty, and delicious. You boil wedges of eggplant until soft, then add spinach and boil for another 30 seconds. Drain. Dry the pot. Heat up a little oil and stir fry the vegetables with some garlic. Finish with a splash of fish sauce. From the recipe headnote: “Mashing releases the eggplant’s earthy essence and creamy texture. The soft pulp readily soaks up the robust spiciness of the garlic and chile. . . . The Ho sisters call this dish ‘Beaten Eggplant Mud.’”

I’ve become a fan of emojis when texting and my first impulse was to insert an emoji right after that last sentence. Do you think emojis will become an integral part of our written culture, like periods and question marks? I hope not, but why do I hope not? What's wrong with emojis? Didn't I just want to use one? Am I becoming an old crank who resists change?

Anyway, the beaten eggplant mud had wonderful, almost fatty quality that makes you think it must contain a gallon oil, which it doesn’t. I ate the leftover mud for lunch yesterday and it was even tastier than it had been the night before. As you can imagine, there was a lot left over. My family doesn’t do eggplant. 

At this point I should probably explain the meaning of the term “Hakka” for those of you who do not know. Until an hour ago, I was not 100% sure myself. I knew it denoted a Chinese subculture with a distinct cuisine because when I was a child some dear Chinese friends of my parents took us to a Hakka restaurant in San Francisco. My sister and I have extraordinarily vivid memories of a salt-baked chicken. 

Thirty-five years later, I can now tell you that the Hakka are a people who were driven out of their homeland in north central China many hundreds of years ago and drifted around the country as a lowly minority. Eventually, they fanned out over the rest of the globe, keeping their culture to some degree intact. Like the Jews, they are a diaspora people. Linda Lau Anusanananan has tried to capture the way their cuisine has adapted to different regions and ingredients, so there are Hakka recipes here that originate in various parts of China, Tahiti, Peru, Malaysia, and on and on. What are the defining characteristics of Hakka food? According to Anusanananan Hakka cooking is "strong flavored, salty, fatty." Lots of pork and soy sauce. Her brother describes Hakka food as "honest, earthy, and rustic -- the simple comforting soul food of the peasant."

I'm not going to take pictures of things like beaten eggplant mud. Sorry! I know how disappointing that must be. Fortunately, I baked a pretty blitz torte the other day and that is what you see in the photo at top. A few of you recommended blitz torte in the comments and so I baked one and loved it. You mix a golden butter cake batter with egg yolks and then you whip up a sugary meringue with the egg whites. Spread the meringue on the butter cake batter, sprinkle with sliced almonds and cinnamon, and bake all at once. The meringue was slightly crispy and crusty, but also light and soft, while the cake beneath was rich and dense. I sandwiched the layers with pastry cream, but I think whipped cream might work better. Or maybe pastry cream with some whipped cream folded in? Recipe is here. Really lovely dessert. Thank you.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Just to be clear!

Although his views on cooking and animal husbandry drive me nuts, Mark is a super-nice guy and when I write about him and our disputes, it's never serious. He's got a sort of sardonic, caustic persona and can come off in the blog as a curmudgeonly character, which he really likes. In fact he's very kind, funny, and considerate. He would never tell me to "fuck off" except when he was joking around. I worried I got the tone wrong in the last post.

I'm so happy I pulled The Hakka Cookbook off the shelf yesterday because last night's dinner was a smash hit. It's been ages since I delved into a Chinese book and it feels like coming home.
"The Hakkas' humble dishes have stayed largely sequestered in home kitchens, rarely appearing on restaurant menus."
More detail on Hakka coming soon. For now, I'll just tell you what we ate:


You can find the recipe for the pork here and the spinach here and the fantastic Dorie Greenspan strawberry shortcakes I made for dessert right here. Everyone loved everything. Best meal I've cooked in ages.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Nichols and May? George and Martha? Sam and Diane?

defunct bee boxes and squalor
Owen now refuses to eat Parmesan as he says it makes his mouth hurt and he picked off all the cheese I’d sprinkled on our pasta last night.


Dinner wasn't worth writing about, but what happened after was most exciting. I decided to see what was up with the bees hovering around our defunct bee boxes lately. The boxes have been mouldering on our deck for several years, waiting for me to cart them to the dump. 

I had to use a chisel to pry off the lid.

a visual in case video doesn't work
Yow! Apparently, a swarm of bees found our boxes and set up housekeeping. I only got stung once last night, which was amazing.

This morning I asked Mark if he wanted to take charge of the new hive, as he was always fascinated by the bees and less scared of them than I.

He said no.

Jennifer: Why not?

Mark: I don’t want to take the time. We already went down that road and the bees died. Are you quoting me for the blog? I think if we want to invest in bees we should give to a bee charity. The other thing is, no one uses the honey. If you got bees that made sugar and flour, that’s something I’d consider helping with.

Jennifer: By that logic, you should help with the chickens because we go through a lot of eggs.

Mark: The chickens aren’t consistent about laying year round. Until they’re consistent year round, I won’t help.

Jennifer: But you thought the bees were so cool.

Mark: I think a lot of things are cool that I don’t do. 

Jennifer, typing: Can you elaborate?.

Mark: Fuck off! I’m going to have breakfast now.

Jennifer: What are you having?

Mark: Cold leftover Domino's pizza.

Good one. Lately, he's been playing his part with real brio.

This Bon Appetit strawberry cake is delicious. You have a layer of rich almond cake, a layer of fresh strawberries, and a layer of streusel made from butter, almonds, and freeze-dried strawberries. Trader Joe's carries freeze-dried strawberries and a 1.2-ounce bag sufficed. I'd make this cake again.

Finally, a book report, nothing to do with food:
"Secrets had the power to kill a marriage, she said. Nonsense, Sylvia said, it was secrets that could save a marriage."
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson is my favorite living novelist, but I wasn't sold on God in Ruins until the final pages when there came a dazzling passage that turned everything that had happened thus far upside down. The passage gave me goosebumps and I read it again and again. This is a brilliant book. Unfortunately the brilliance isn’t spread evenly throughout. To put it another way: the plot (long life of pleasant Englishman) lacks momentum, but if you make it to the thought-provoking finish line, you’ll be amply rewarded.

Verdict: Recommend with hesitation. If you’re new to Kate Atkinson, start with Case Histories

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A room without a book is like a body with out a soul?

Today, some book reports.

"It was hotter than ever now and everyone was thirsty."
*Burmese Days by George Orwell.

Depressing novel about colonialism, unrequited love, self-loathing, and heat.

Verdict: Skip. 
"The way I see it, if we are remotely serious in our commitment to eat less meat and fish, we will want to make plenty of meals -- perhaps even the majority of them -- completely without meat and fish." 
*River Cottage Veg Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

I've been trying to cook through the estimable River Cottage Veg Everyday and it's been a struggleUncle. There's simply not enough in here that I can feed the picky eaters with whom I live.

Fearnley-Whittingstall: "I'm trying to change your life here. The object of the exercise is to persuade you to eat more vegetables. Many more vegetables. And I hope to do so not by shouting from a soapbox, but through sheer temptation. . . "

Does kohlrabi carpaccio qualify as "sheer temptation?" A salad of shredded raw parsnips, cabbage, and datesBeetroot pizza? Even I quail at kohlrabi carpaccio and there's no way Mark or Owen would touch roughly 85% of this dishes in this worthy book and I'm giving up.

Having said that, I succeeded with almost everything I tried, starting with the brussels sprouts salad I've already written about. The book also contains the easiest recipe I've ever found for vegetable stock, though you do need a food processor. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in big pot while you grate 2 onions, 4 carrots, 4 sticks celery, and a few cloves garlic in your machine. Scrape vegetable shreds into the pot and cook for a few minutes. Pour in 2 quarts hot water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain. Done. I've used this to make a number of Fearnley-Whittingstall's soups (very strong, the soup chapter) and they've all been terrific, though the curried sweet potato soup was a bit too sweet. Mark likened it to "warm honey."

I should add that Isabel and I both fell passionately and briefly in love with Fearnley-Whittingstall's carrot hummus. Roast carrots with honey, cumin, and coriander, then puree with tahini and citrus juice. This hummus was fantastic on day #1 and quite tasty on day #2, but on day #3 the flavors had begun to fade and I looked at my little mound of carrot mash and thought: Gerber's. Spell was broken.  Isabel told me she went through a similar infatuation/disillusionment cycle with carrot hummus. If you’re curious, the recipe is here and I do recommend it, though I've done a pretty poor sales job, haven't I.

Verdict: Assess your lifestyle and the tastes of the people for whom you cook and decide whether this book makes sense for you.
"In the Swedish kitchen you can never be afraid of butter." 
*Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall. 

It should be clear by now that I'm a fool for Fika. Love! The recipes for sticky chocolate cake and almond tart underperformed, but the buttercup-yellow coconut macaroons were delicious, along with just about everything else I baked from the adorable little volume. Sadly, I'm running out of recipes to try and it is time to move on to a new baking book. 

Verdict: Buy. 
"Chuck Norris's tears cure cancer. Too bad he has never cried."
*The Truth About Chuck Norris by Ian Spector.

Along with his dirty socks and empty cereal bowls, Owen's "literature" can be found strewn around every room of this house. The other day, I wearily picked up a copy of The Truth About Chuck Norris to throw into his bedroom, then paused to take a peek inside what looked like an unusually cruddy book. Twenty minutes later I was sitting on the stairs in stitches, as people used to say. The Truth was published in 2007 and it's been quite a phenomenon, so if you're hip you've probably heard of it already, but if you haven't, now you have and you are very welcome! The Truth About Chuck Norris is filthy, sophomoric, offensive, absurd, and hilarious. Well, to some of us.

Verdict: Do you find that even slightly funny? This book belongs in your library. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

A good cake, a good TV show, what more could you want?

Obviously, I used raspberries.
*The Fika blackberry almond cake is simple and great. You should try it.

*The new Netflix series Chef’s Table is even better. You must watch it! The three episodes I’ve seen have been intelligent, engrossing, vivid, detailed, and altogether superb. Each installment delves into the psychological forces that drive a single noteworthy chef (in all but one case, a him) to do what he does. It’s more about character than cooking; food is treated as a manifestation of personality rather than the main event. You’ll start to see the way the intricate, precise creations of Los Angeles chef Niki Nakayama, reflect her intensity, integrity, and thoughtfulness. The Argentine cook (and long-ago Piglet winner ) Francis Mallmann is bold and unapologetically sensual, as are the pink chunks of brook trout he pulls out of a remote Patagonian fire pit, the primal slabs of juicy meat he slaps onto a hot pan.

In Mallmann’s case, my feelings about the food actually tracked my feelings about the person. At the start of the episode, Mallmann’s dishes -- succulent, elemental -- made me drool. But the more he talked, the less I liked him (you just have to watch and make up your own mind) and the less I wanted to eat that food. Gradually, the unadorned hunks of flesh and rudely smashed potatoes came to embody Mallmann’s selfishness and unchecked carnality. By the end, I was completely turned off by the man and had lost all interest in his food, which was sort of interesting. Anyway, terrific TV. 

You might like Mallmann, by the way. Each to her own.

*Isabel and I are going to Thailand and Myanmar this summer. Her graduation present. We started with a joke about Iceland and somehow ended up in Chiang Mai. I owe her, after the three exotic trips I took with Owen. Any thoughts or suggestions, please send them my way.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Mjuka pepparkakor and kinuskikaka

Finnish caramel cake
Finally, a couple of recipes from the charming Fika by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall that I can’t rave about, though both were still pretty tasty.

1. According to Brones and Kindvall, soft ginger cookies (mjuka pepparkakorare “nice and thick, most often spread with a layer of butter and topped with a slice of cheese.

Spicy cookies with butter and cheese? Weird! Just my kind of thing.

The batter was easy to mix, rich with molasses and vigorously spiked with black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Baked, the cookies are substantial, dry, and extremely spicy. They aren’t too delicious, which is to say, you can eat one with pleasure, feel satisfied, and stop. It’s a feature, not a bug, the built-in stopping mechanism, one we undervalue here in America where foods are salted, sweetened and/or infused with fat to the point of rendering them totally irresistible. Everyone is always trying to engineer the ultimate chocolate chip cookie, the ultimate burger, the ultimate fish taco. I believe this is one reason we’re a chunky people.

There was nothing ultimate about these ginger cookies. They were middling delicious, if that.  I spread them with butter and added some little slices of cheddar cheese, wrapped them up, and took them with me on my errands yesterday. They kept well for a few hours in the glove compartment of the car and were eaten in a San Rafael, California parking lot at two in the afternoon. Hardly ideal lunch/fika conditions, but those ginger cookies made a very satisfactory, enjoyable, and cheap meal.

That said, I won’t tell you this is a culinary experience you absolutely must pursue because it’s so obviously not. 
Diet food? In a way, yes. 
2. The Fika caramel cake (“sweet and decadent and not for the lighthearted”) is made using a Finnish recipe and I served it for Sunday dinner. The cake itself is a dense, delectable, marzipany confection that you’re supposed to blanket with caramel sauce. To make this caramel sauce, the recipe instructs you to simmer cream and brown sugar for 30 to 40 minutes, but I hadn’t simmered the sauce for 15 minutes before it grew alarmingly dark and seemed on the brink of burning. I took it off the stove and let it cool a bit before pouring it over the cake where it hardened into a granitic slab of shiny toffee that couldn’t be cracked neatly with a heavy knife or at all with human teeth.  Everyone ended up with a mangled slice of cake and jagged shards of rock-hard caramel on their plates. I doubt this is how it’s done in Finland; a few adjustments to the caramel sauce recipe might yield better results. Next time, I’d cook the sauce very, very slowly.

Today’s fika was a peanut butter smoothie from Jamba Juice using the gift card they gave me at the oral surgeon’s office. My poor mouth had a gruesome experience this morning, but I did as I’d resolved and requested the nitrous right off the bat rather than waiting until I was about to have a panic attack. I always go in wanting to seem strong, but real strength means asking for what you want and need immediately. With nitrous, it really wasn’t that all that bad. Like something hideous happened to my mouth, not to me.

They told me I can’t exercise for 48 hours. In every cloud, a silver lining.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

A fika at home, a fika out

It does look a bit like pretzel salt, I guess.
Note: I apologize for the funky typeface lately. I will try to fix.

Friday’s fika: Jasmine tea at home with Martas skurna chokladkakor -- handsome sliced chocolate cookies with a sprinkling of Swedish pearl sugar on top. From a Fika recipe, of course. Such a great cookbook! Not a single recipe has disappointed me yet. These were easy and especially delicious when dipped for a split second into the flowery jasmine tea. Theyre not overly chocolatey, which I like. The kids also approved.

Mark did not. He said, “Do you want the truth? These get a C-. They have no flavor except for the salt on top.

Possibly theres a problem with his taste buds.

Today’s fika: cinnamon toast and a cortado with Mark at a tiny, popular, and really peculiar cafe called Trouble in San Francisco. John Gravois in the Pacific Standard describes Trouble as a “willfully obscure coffee shop with barely any seating in a cold, inconvenient neighborhood” and I can’t do much better than that. Trouble sells whole coconuts, cinnamon toast, espresso drinks, shots of grapefruit juice, and thats about it. Gravois explains the reasons for this kooky and limited menu in a This American Life segment on the shop and its mentally troubled owner. A fascinating story, if you have 15 minutes to spare and want a slice of San Francisco life. 
Baristas here have reportedly yelled at customers who take pictures. No one can call me a coward.
Anyway, Trouble was the germ of the much-mocked San Francisco toast craze but I wholeheartedly approve of this trend. Cinnamon toast is delicious. Better than cupcakes. Easier to eat than pie. Less pretentious than cronuts. Obviously, you can make toast more cheaply at home, but you can also make coffee (and almost everything) more cheaply at home. At Trouble they slice fluffy white bread extra thick, like Texas toast, then generously slather it with butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. I dont want to imply theres any special wizardry happening here. Its cinnamon toast; youve eaten it before. But the magic of cinnamon toast  -- any cinnamon toast -- is potent and Im surprised it took so long for people to start selling it. I wish even more places served warm, buttery cinnamon toast.

Fika-wise, Trouble was a mixed bag. Mark and I agreed that Trouble’s cinnamon toast gets an A+ , but that its ambiance -- loud, cramped, chilly, and dominated by brusque, intimidating baristas -- was totally unsuitable for a proper fika.

Definitely worth checking out, though, if youre ever in the neighborhood

Friday, May 01, 2015

Sweet potatoes, sesame seeds, more Swedish cake, Clouds of Sils Maria

my idea of beautiful
I knew when I read the recipe that the roasted sweet potatoes with yogurt and sesame seeds from this New York Times Magazine story were going to be salty, creamy, sweet, tangy, full of umami, and super-delicious. They were all that and more. Mix yogurt, olive oil, and lemon juice and spread on a plate. Top with warm, thickly-sliced, roasted sweet potatoes. Drizzle with a bracing salsa of olive oil, lemon, fish sauce, minced onion, and sesame seeds. Ignore everything else on your plate.

This is the only way I want to eat sweet potatoes going forward and I think Owen might feel the same way. I had some leftover yogurt and salsa, so yesterday morning I roasted a sweet potato and simply opened it and topped with the yogurt and salsa like you would top a baked potato with sour cream and bacon bits. I wish I could say that this sloppy shortcut worked just great, but the topping smothered the poor sweet potato and threw off the flavor-texture balance. So: assemble your sweet potatoes as directed in the recipe. Highly recommend.

Oddly, although the story is about seeds, I barely noticed the sesame seeds in the finished dish and think they could be omitted.

I’ve continued my exploration of the delightful little book Fika by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall and the other day baked their excellent cream-filled hazelnut meringue torte. I think at this point the authors should put me on some kind of publicity retainer, don’t you? The torte is a fascinating recipe because you pour your rich cake batter into two pans, sprinkle with chocolate chips and chopped hazelnuts, then spread the top of each unbaked layer with some meringue before popping it into the oven. Did you catch that? You bake the meringue layers right onto the torte layers.

That was so cool, but it didn’t turn out quite as I’d expected. The recipe says to remove the pans from the oven when the meringue “looks crispy,” but while the meringue eventually “looked crispy,” it never became crispy. It remained spongy, like the topping on lemon meringue pie. Did I make a mistake? I think crunchy meringue would be better, but the torte was still dreamy, all those textures and flavors -- buttery cake, soft meringue, nuts, chocolate -- bound together with cold whipped cream.

Then Mark gave it a C+. 

Dispute ensued.

Jennifer: “What?! That cake was way better than a C+.”

Mark: “It’s weird and only ok. I ate the whole piece but I could have stopped. It’s not irresistible. I won’t eat any more of it.”

Jennifer, unpleasant edge to her voice: “So what does it take for a cake to be irresistible?”

Mark: “To be irresistible it has to be chocolate cake, carrot cake, or a cupcake.”

With all due respect to the good man I married, this is like saying you only really like movies that are part of the X-Men franchise, star Emma Stone, or requires 3D glasses. I mean, taste is taste but there’s such a thing as developing your taste. 

Sadly, Mark’s desire to develop his taste is about as keen as my desire to develop an interest in the NFL draft, NBA playoffs, or Kentucky Derby, all of which he finds riveting.

I would give this torte an A- and write it a fairly glowing recommendation letter. This torte would definitely get into a good college, at least if your definition of good college is as broad as mine has become after looking at colleges for the last year and reading Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be and the interesting, very flawed Excellent Sheep. 

Which brings me to this: Isabel is going to Whitman College. She just decided. She is on a couple of wait lists, but I think and hope she will end up at Whitman.  Last summer we flew to Seattle to visit the University of Washington and decided to take an 8-detour en route to the University of Oregon to check out Whitman, a small liberal arts school in eastern Washington. Why? I wanted to go to a spudnut shop in the area. Seriously. That was why I thought we should go. There was no way Isabel was actually applying to a school in Walla Walla, Washington! Ha ha ha ha ha. 

But Whitman is magical and we both fell in love and she applied to Whitman and didn’t apply to either the University of Washington or the University of Oregon and here we are.

I did see a downside to Whitman last night when I went to my movie club. One of the women asked where Isabel was going to school and when I said, “Whitman” she replied, “I’ve never heard of it. What’s Whitman?” I briefly explained, but her eyes started to glaze over and I thought, boy, this is going to be a drag for the next four years, explaining Whitman to people who basically don’t care and probably now assume that Isabel isn’t so smart and accomplished because if she was, wouldn’t she be going to, you know, Yale? Or UCLA or Northwestern or the University of Washington or Cal Poly or some school they’ve at least heard of?  

Such is the heavy cross I must bear. 

I don’t know about movie club.  Last night we saw The Clouds of Sils Maria which I had chosen and advocated for strenuously. I was sure that a heady, arty French drama about a beautiful, aging actress would be the perfect movie for a group of women. But I don’t know these women well and it emerged over dinner that the others had been hoping to see Cinderella.  I smiled, nodded agreeably, and thought WHAT???!! I knew then that I had gravely miscalculated and, sure enough, the women on either side of me were sighing and shifting during the film. My companions liked Clouds of Sils Maria even less than Mark liked the hazelnut meringue torte.