Thursday, December 18, 2008

An arctic blast and the soup that nobody ate

Remember the fresh herbs of last week? They've been hidden under a blanket of snow for the past five days. No more bahn mi until summer most likely.

We get just enough snow for it to be amazing each time, for us to gawk like tourists at snowflakes—snowflakes! Actually falling! From the sky!

But after slip sliding out of my driveway, blatantly disregarding the "chains required" signs, desperate to make it to my final on Monday, I can see how it could get old. Honestly, what's the point of snow if you don't get a snow day? Frozen pipes, a yard coated in ice, snowplowed slush run through with mud—I'm glad we only get this a couple times a year.

As it is, snowy days are the perfect excuse to make cookies, break our cocktails-on-weekends-only rule, and indulge in soup and sandwiches after work. If only my family liked the soup as much as I did...

My husband hates smooth soup. (He also hates parsley, spaghetti, anything with celery in it. I say that's the weirdest thing I've ever heard. He says that because I hate shrimp and lobster, my opinion is completely invalid.)

I can see the soup thing, sort of. I don't like to eat pureed foods as a main dish. No smoothies for breakfast, puddings for snacks. But as the side to a crunchy grilled ham and cheese sandwich, I think a bit of roasted butternut squash soup and cilantro pesto is perfect.

Too bad I'm outnumbered. Tonight's tally was bowls of soup served, 3; empty bowls at the end of dinner, 1. Sigh.

W. says that if it was chunky, it would be great; I say that all that chopping would make the endeavor just not worth it. The whole point of the soup is that it's easy. He says that anything that produces smooth soup is pointless anyway. And I say something unprintable.

I'll let you judge for yourself.

Butternut squash soup

1 butternut, cut into large chunks (like into quarters)
1 apple, cored and quartered
1 onion, peeled and quartered
2 garlic cloves, peeled

Toss the veggies (EDITED TO ADD: and apple) with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast in a 375-degree oven until dark, dark, brown on the tips. Remove peel from squash. Coarsely process veggies in the food processor. (This can be done ahead and kept in the refrigerator. This is what I did so I had an easy, quick weeknight meal on tap.)

Put puree in saucepan with equal parts chicken broth and water, enough to thin the puree to your desired consistency. Bring to a boil and simmer gently about 10 minutes to blend flavors.

I like this soup with a dab of cilantro pesto made with cilantro (stems and all), walnuts, cotija cheese, a small splash of apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and olive oil—all blended in the food processor until smooth. It's also good with bacon, croutons, and fried sage or a bit of curry powder.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I can't decide

...whether our makeshift Christmas tree is clever or just a bit pitiful. But the baby is so delighted by her handprint ornaments and the fairy lights, it makes us feel like Christmas superstars.

I have a lot to say about being a parent, not all of it idyllic. But honestly, I think it's worth it just for the reminder of how amazing the world can be.

A string of lights, a potted plant, paper hands sprinkled with glitter. Beautiful.

A cheap advent calendar stuffed with so-so chocolate, a misshapen snowball cookie, a handmade fleece blanket. Magical.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bahn mi

Again with the winter evening photos, I know...

I chopped all our herbs down a couple weeks ago, anticipating the first frost. I cut everything but a couple small leaves clinging to the thick stumps of basil, sage, oregano, marjoram. I froze pesto and hung the rest to dry. And since then it's been freakishly warm in Northern California. No frost, no rain. My plants burst into green again. To celebrate, we made improvised bahn mi sandwiches with our herbal bounty.

The traditional has some sort of pate and is stuffed into a French-style baguette. Ours had mayo, hot Italian sausages, and were stuffed into ciabatta rolls. But it's a sandwich--you are practically required to mess with the formula. These are versatile and easily made vegetarian, but for me, nuoc cham, shredded carrots, daikon radish, cilantro, and mint are non-negotiable.
Sort of bahn mi

rolls or small baguettes
protein (sausages, roast pork, baked tofu, or whatever)
shredded carrots
shredded daikon radish
sprigs of cilantro, mint, and/or basil
other additions: thinly sliced cucumber, pate, pickled jalepenos, etc. etc.

Toast rolls lightly, split in half, and spread sides with a bit of mayo. Pile bottom piece of roll with ingredients, spoon nuoc cham over everything, clamp down the top, and eat.

Nuoc cham

juice of one big lime or two small limes
1/2 t. crushed red pepper
2 T. fish sauce
1 1/2 T. sugar (preferable a darker "natural" sugar)
1 minced garlic clove

Soak the red pepper in lime juice for a couple minutes, then add the rest of the ingredients. This is usually made with shreds of carrots floating in the sauce, but since I use shredded carrots in my bahn mi, I don't bother. Nuoc cham keeps about a week in the fridge.

Leftover shredded veggies, herbs, protein, and nuoc cham can be tossed with rice noodles and lettuce for a fresh tasting salad the next day.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Goat leg steaks, unexpectedly yummy

Portrait of a Taco in a Dark Room

Can I gush more about our CSA? Cute farmer, sure, but even more importantly, fantastic meat and real enthusiasm for sustainable, local, and healthy ways of eating.

We got a packet of goat leg steaks a couple months ago. I'll admit to some trepidation. I thought I'd have to dress them up with some elaborate preparation involving dried chiles and long roasting or showcase them with a flash grilling.

But finals are looming and energy is short. And to make things even more fun, our up-all-night baby is being subjected to a last-ditch survival attempt at night weaning and really, really pissed about it. Easy meals to soothe our frantic selves this week.

So, a weeknight evening, while we had cocktails and I finished "Wuthering Heights" for my book club, goat leg steaks went into a pan with a freezer bag of green salsa* and cooked a couple hours. The next night, the meat was shredded and served in corn tortillas with pinto beans (Crockpot-ed while we were at work) and local brown rice (the frozen brown rice at Tr. Joes is awesome in a pinch--three minutes in the microwave), crumbled cotija and Turkeytail salad greens.

W. had six. The baby's mantra was "more...try more...try...more."

Goat? Nothing to be afraid of.

*I should have written about this over the summer, when we could still get fresh tomatillos at the farmers' market, but it seemed too facile, too shortcut-y, too not a recipe. But husked and rinsed tomatillos, pieces of white onion, garlic cloves, jalepeno chiles, cilantro (stems and all), and salt, blitzed in the food processor or blender and packed into freezer bags or containers. No sauteeing, no fuss. We pull out bags all winter to make chile verde meats--chicken, pork, now goat--for tacos and burritos. The meat cooks into shreds, the sauce thickens enough to hold it all together. Easy peasy and saves you tons of money all winter long.

If you haven't stocked the freezer ahead, you could use a good-quality jarred green salsa and a little broth to braise your meat and be nearly as happy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cheap eats?

Holy eight-dollar-burrito, Batman! Nothing like a little So. Cal. financial reality check to send us screaming northward again...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Food memories

When it comes to Thanksgiving, I can be kind of, well, eh. Food and family, I know—what's not to love? Well, food and family.

Turkey and mashed potatoes just don't get me going. I think I'm one of the few people who comes home from Thanksgiving a few pounds lighter. (Christmas, now, that's a different story--one that starts with pork and ends with cheese and doesn't consider yams a moral imperative.)

I'm happy to be home, where the air is sharp and the knives sharper, with the baby sleeping off her vacation and me watching the blue jays take over the bird feeder.

Because I went back to my childhood home for Thanksgiving maybe, my thoughts were on the memories of food, the ghosts of meals past. I went to my favorite sandwich shop, the Great Central Hoagie Company, after, as is only right, a morning of doing this:

And the fries were finger-scorching hot, ribbed with potato peel, and piled into a double layered brown paper bag, just like I remembered. The turkey hoagie had more cheese and meat than I like, and an insipid slice of tomato under the finely shredded lettuce, but it was perfectly balanced with those pulled out just like I remembered. The peperoncinis were twisted into white paper, and we rushed to gobble our sandwiches before the olive oil dressing turned the buns to mush, just like I remembered.

But something was off. In my memory of those sandwiches, eaten over and over again in my old Volvo while watching the winter waves, the olive oil was studded with flakes of oregano, not the powdery bits in my sandwich of last week. The peppers were spicier, the fries more crispy outside and softer inside. The bread wasn't blandly white. It was an unexpected perfection passed through the window of a run-down stand on an unlikely corner.

And yet, sort of like I pretended to believe in Santa Claus even after I was much too old, I pretended that sandwich was that magical hoagie of high school, of college, of road trips, of sea salty skin and sunburns. Hoping that maybe, if I pretended hard enough, it would be so.

And you know what? The more I think about it, the better it tasted.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Coq au vin

So, I did it. I cut up a whole chicken--or at least deciphered the instructions from How to Cook Everything while W. wielded the knife. Then I fussed in the kitchen for hours making Julia's coq au vin, which I've heard is the gold standard. I cut little Xs in the bottom of countless baby onions. I sauteed the mushrooms separately. I deglazed and flambed and braised. I even boiled the bacon, which just sounds wrong, and looks even wronger.

Gross, huh? But I had faith--in me, in Julia, in the power of a cold fall afternoon and hours to while away in the kitchen, pretending to be productive.



It was ugly purple chicken, which was fine, but it also tasted, well, eh. Flabby bacon still doesn't get me going, neither does flabby chicken skin. Honestly, I'd rather have a crispy roast over crispy potatoes and served with a crispy salad and crisp-crusted bread.

What went wrong? Why did I fail at making the gold standard of homey French chicken dishes? Are we just not coq au vin people?

Is it because I went around mispronouncing the name of the dish for the last 10 years? Vahn. Oops.

Is it because I used this 10-cent garage sale book instead of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, like any good Juliaophile would have?

Did I fail to sufficiently brown my onions? My mushrooms?

Was it the Charles Shaw? Are we too poor to make a proper wine-braised chicken? (It worked just fine with the lamb.)

On the upside, this was pretty cool:

And now we can do this:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Greens soup

By about December, W. is saying, "Green soup, again?" But I crave it fall, winter, and into the spring. We are getting arugula in abundance from our CSA, and braising green mix is at the farmer's market again--kale and chard and other healthy leafys all in one bag. So Saturday lunch, after we get home from the market with bags of produce, is more often than not a big bowl of salty broth and smooth greens, studded with my concession to childhood--little cheese raviolis. It is especially welcome after a morning whiled away with too many pastries and too much coffee.

There's a part of me that is so absolutely satisfied by this kind of recipe, one that uses up those bits and pieces of kitchen scraps that are usually discarded. Orangette's recipe for tomato soup using up your cilantro stems? All over it. Broth coaxed out of the bones and chewy bits that are left behind after we tear into a roast chicken? Oh yeah. Cheese rind in soup? Yes please.

The above picture is the soup made heartier with chickpeas made in bulk earlier in the week and served with toast and the last of the last of the end-of-season tomatoes, roasted slowly all day and stored in Mason jars with their oily juices and garlic.

Green Soup (serves 4) (inspired by a recipe from Verdura, by Viana La Place)

a splash of olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
dried red pepper flakes

1/2 pound braising greens or mixed dark-green leafys (kale, spinach, chard, mustard greens, etc.), roughly chopped, large stems discarded
several large handfuls of arugula, roughly chopped, large stems discarded

the rind of a small wedge of Pecorino Romano cheese, chopped (about 1/4 c.)
several handfuls small dried raviolis or other small pasta

Put oil, garlic, and pepper flakes into a heavy soup pot. Cook over medium-low heat until fragrant. Add 4 cups water and a pinch of salt, turn heat to high, and bring to a boil. Add greens, then sprinkle cheese over the top. (If you add the cheese first, it will stick to the bottom of the pot. If you dump it all at once instead of sprinkling, you'll have one big clump of cheese instead of nice chewy bits throughout your soup.) Add raviolis, press down a bit to make sure they are partially submerged, and return to a boil without stirring.

When your soup is bubbling, turn heat to medium-high, stir, and let boil gently until your ravioli are done. Taste to adjust seasoning. You can add cooked chickpeas or white beans at this point, letting them just heat through, if you want a more substantial soup.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sunday (lamb) shanks

The baby slept in this weekend, until 7:30, and the grownups in the house felt like new people. We could walk without running into doorways, talk without sniping at each other, contemplate new projects. W. put up and painted crown molding in the kitchen. I spent the day braising meats and finally screwing up the courage to cut a chicken into pieces, a process long in my recipe deal breaker category. (More on that later.)

For Sunday dinner, I turned to The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook again and made braised lamb shanks with Pennsylvania red cabbage and Bavarian bread dumplings. The shanks were from the whole lamb we picked up last week, cooked a good part of the day with wine and onions in the Crockpot. The red cabbage was a mound soft maroon shreds flavored with bacon and cloves and apples and vinegar. The dumplings I made a little too carelessly with bread that was a little too fresh and onions chopped a little too large, and they fell apart in the simmering water. But the pieces we scooped out of the pan? Rich and bread-y and perfect with the lamb’s hearty sauce.

This meal was the kind that makes W. swoon and declare his love anew. The taste of a German childhood on a crisp fall day.

Braised Lamb Shanks (for 2) (based on a recipe from The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook)

2 T. olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced (about 1/2 pound)
1 T. chopped fresh rosemary
about 2 T. flour mixed with salt and pepper
2 lamb shanks
1 1/2 c. red wine
1 1/2 c. chicken or beef broth
1 bay leaf

Put 1 c. wine, broth, and bay leaves into your slow cooker. Turn to high to heat liquids.

Cook the onion in half the olive oil over medium-high heat until browned, about 10 minutes. Stir often, but take the time while the onions are cooking to coat the shanks in the flour mixture. Add the rosemary to the onions and scoop them onto a plate.

Add the rest of the olive oil to your pan and turn heat to high. (Honestly, I never measure olive oil for sautéing, just splash a bit into the hot pan.) Brown the lamb shanks on both sides, about 5 minutes a side. Transfer your shanks to the plate with the onions.

Pour 1/2 c. wine into the hot pan, stirring and simmering a couple minutes, scraping brown bits up off the bottom of the pan. Pour into your slow cooker (with other liquids already in it). Add lamb and onions.

Leave on high for 30 minutes, then reduce to low and cook about 5 hours, until the meat is starting to fall off the bone.

You can let cool, cover, and refrigerate at this point if you are cooking ahead.

Transfer shanks to a plate and liquid to a pan on the stove. Boil liquid until it reduces to a sauce-y consistency. Add shanks to pan, reduce heat, and cook until the meat is hot through.

Easy yum!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Connectivity restored, for now

The election, over.

History, made.

Work, beginning.

Deep breaths everyone.


Our month of DSL hell seems to be at an end. Not in time for NaBloPoMo, which I likely would have spared my few loyal readers anyway. Imagine, an entire month of posts with time stamps of 9:15 pm (bedtime for those woken by toddler at 4:30 am) and content like this: "Hi, I posted" plus a few choice swear words.

I really timed an outbreak of potty mouth perfectly. The newsletter of our CSA just linked to my blog. (Sorry, Cheetah, more than you bargained for!) From now on, fewer four-letters, more food.

(Obamabat courtesy of Jeff Domke.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pad Thai, with or without ketchup

This was our lunch, leftovers. Looks good, doesn't it? It's Pim's pad Thai, old, old news but so, so good. This one with tofu and no bean sprouts (just poor excuses for noodles as far as I'm concerned). We have garlic chives in the herb garden and eggs from the farmers market. And it was just awesome.

That said, I think it's strange that bloggers all over are apologizing for approximating a pad Thai with ketchup before trying this recipe. Sure, that's just not the same. Sure, it's not authentic. But for fuck's sake, sometimes you just want some rice noodles and sauce--salty and sweet and grocery-store easy. I don't see why we all feel compelled to wallow in our previous inadequacy for--gasp!--making something that isn't perfect.

It's fun and satisfying (for some of us) and more often than not very, very tasty to do things the "right" way. I cure my own olives, make my own pasta from scratch, boil chicken carcasses for a full day to produce a rich broth that makes soups jump off the spoon...sometimes. I just as often open a can, shop at only one store, buy things in packets and jars. Because sometimes I just don't want to spend time pressing tamarind concentrate through a sieve, or driving all over town for the tiny Asian market that occasionally stocks the ready-to-use paste. (And we're one of the few rural-ish towns lucky enough to have an Asian market.)

Sometimes I want to throw four servings of noodles in the wok at once and call it good enough.

I love my Nina Simonds recipe for rice noodles with ketchup-and-fish-sauce-based sauce. I've made it a zillion times, and I'll do it again. And I'll even call it pad Thai. Without apology.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sunday dinner

Have you ever seen turnips like these? I didn't know they came in shades of red other than the slightest blush of pink. They were so beautiful I took about a zillion photos of them: radish on cutting board, radish in hand, radish outside, radish on rock... I'll spare you the visual evidence, but I will add that I don't know what I'd do without Al at the Saturday farmer's market.

He's a retired biology teacher turned to farming, and he grows for people who cook. Fava beans, dried chiles for making enchilada sauce, a sweet and mild summer squash as long as my arm, escarole, figs, every herb you can imagine. (Not all at once.)

And these gorgeous turnips. They were less beautiful but very tasty in a gratin with cream and butter and Parmesan cheese. I used sage instead of the called-for savory because that's what I have in my herb beds. I also cooked it half the time called for on the stove early in the afternoon and let it just sit around until our roast chicken came out of the oven. Then I popped the gratin in to brown while the chicken rested.

W., who has a love-hate relationship with bitter vegetables (mostly hate) decided he loves turnips after trying this. I didn't tell him it's likely that it is butter, cream, and cheese he likes. The baby—who is a little weird, I'll admit—gobbled up the crispy, slightly sweet, spicy bits, in spite of the turnip tang.

Here's the chaos of our roast chicken Sunday dinner, guest starring turnip gratin, green beans with tomatoes, and a tiny baby hand waving through my wine glass.

We made our standby easy, foolproof roast chicken this week because we got a fresh little one in our CSA box. No turning, no basting, no adjustments of the oven temp, no fuss.

Easy Roast Chicken

Remove chicken from fridge an hour in advance of cooking. Preheat oven to 400ºF.

Pat your chicken dry and trim of extra fat. I don't need to do this with the local free-range birds we get here (worth every cent), but for a store chicken, it is essential. Stuff the fatty bits, with a generous amount of salt and pepper, under the skin of the bird and inside the cavity. If you have a lemon, stick it with a knife a couple times and stuff it into the chicken. If your lemon isn't organic, scrub well with a coarse sponge or brush and soap.

Put chicken, breast side up, in a roasting pan. For an easy side, set the chicken on a layer of chunks of potatoes and onions and unpeeled garlic cloves tossed with a little salt, pepper, and chopped rosemary. Roast for about 1 hour for a 3.5-pound bird.

(Until 170ºF in thigh supposedly, but we don't have a meat thermometer that works. We just stick a knife into the hip joint area and make sure the juices run clear and the meat is cooked.)

Let rest 10 minutes before carving.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lamb rib chops with potatoes

I used to make, occasionally, lamb loin chops in a red wine sauce thickened with the meaty umami of a demiglace and the sweetness of butter and shallots. I’d roll long strings of potato dough and cut them into gnocchi, to toss with roasted butternut squash and a brown butter, to soak up the dark sauce pooling under the lamb. It was good on cold nights, on special occasions like birthdays and Valentine’s Day, when the plate served only as a prelude to another more naked intimacy by candlelight.

But that was in the era BC, before child.

Now my lamb chops are quicker, less romantic, less rich, but equally satisfying in their own way—a prelude to a fall walk, bath time, flannel PJs, some serious face time with a book, some Scotch, and an insistent cat. The chops dash into the broiler studded with garlic, the potatoes are roasted wedges, and everything is liberally topped with the Mediterranean standbys of salty olives, sweet tomatoes, and sharp cheese.

And later, if the planets are aligned, if the baby stays asleep, if the candles are still burning on the dinner table long into the evening…

This recipe is a mashup of one from an ancient (1998) Bon Appétit magazine and my Grassfed Gourmet cookbook. I made it this week with lamb rib chops. But lamb loin chops would be just as good. I broiled them, but a turn on the grill over hardwood charcoal or real wood would be even better.

(Have I mentioned how much I love my CSA? It’s getting serious. Honestly, when I opened my packet of lamb chops, it smelled fresh, herbal, almost cooked. I can be squeamish about meat, after nearly a decade as a 99%-of-the-time vegetarian, but this? This is just straight-up lovely.)

Lamb Chops with Potatoes, Tomatoes, Olives, and Feta (for 2, easily doubled)

The Potatoes

potatoes, as many as as you think you can eat, cut into wedges (2 large russet, a bag of fingerling or Yukon Gold, whatever you like)
olive oil, a couple tablespoons
chopped fresh rosemary
salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 450°F. Toss potatoes on a sheet tray with olive oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper. Roast in the oven until tender and browned, 30–40 minutes. Ten minutes before the potatoes are done, start broiling the lamb.

The Lamb

4 thick lamb chops
2 cloves garlic, cut into slivers or tiny matchsticks
olive oil, salt, and pepper

Use a paring knife to cut a couple narrow, deep incisions into each side of your chops, stuffing them with garlic slivers as you go. Rub the chops on all sides with olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper. Cook under a hot broiler, about 5 minutes a side for medium rare. (Less for rare—well done is NOT an option here.)

The Rest

scant 1/2 c. halved cherry tomatoes (or chopped tomatoes)
1/3 c. feta cheese, broken into large-ish chunks
1/4 c. chopped black olives (not the Libby kind--Kalamata or other brine-cured. I used our home–salt-cured black olives that mellow in olive oil for months.)

Pile potatoes onto serving platter. Top with broiled lamb chops. Scatter the rest on top.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Moroccan lamb koftas

Another easy meal, this one served with store-bought flatbread, simply dressed arugula, and a sauce made with yogurt, salt, pepper, and a little crushed garlic. My mom made a Turkish version occasionally when I was growing up--kofte.

I made the meat mixture the night before, so all that was left to do when we came home on a busy weekday was to throw the kofta under the broiler, heating the flatbread in the oven in foil with a little garlic olive oil and making the sauce while the meatballs browned.

Ground lamb releases a lot of fat when cooked and spatters like nobody's business, so don't put these on a rimless sheet tray super close to the broiler element. Because that might start a fire in your oven. Fun for toddlers, but not so much so for adults in a hurry to get dinner on the table. Not that we would know anything about that. Ahem.

I based this recipe on one from The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook. I'd recommend this to anyone new to cooking grassfed--the cooking times and temperatures can be different enough to make traditional recipes a total failure, especially beef. But everything we've made from this book has been really good.

Moroccan Lamb Koftas (for 4—or 2 and a baby, with leftovers for lunch)

1 T. water
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 T. cilantro, finely chopped
1 T. paprika
1 t. ground cumin
3/4 t. ground coriander
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
3/4 t. salt
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
1 pound lamb, or about that

Preheat broiler. Mix all the ingredients and shape into 8 oval patties. Put on a rimmed sheet pan and broil about six inches from the element until browned and cooked through, about 3–4 minutes a side.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tired, grouchy, and hungry

I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but as soon as I told a certain company (cough, AT&T, cough) that my cheap-o Internet plan was plenty fast for streaming music and checking my email, thank you, the connectivity problems began. Now, not only is my cheap-o Internet plan not always fast enough to listen to NPR in the mornings, it also just up and quits on us periodically.

So call me occasionally online or occasionally annoyed or something…

When we get home at 6 and the spouse is at school and the baby is starving and I’m tired and we need to get the bath-time routine rolling, like, now, I freak out a little: Why didn’t I make batches of soup and line individual servings up in Mason jars on my freezer shelf for just these occasions? Why didn’t I steam vegetables on Sunday for snacking and sides all week? Why don’t I have fruit cut into baby-friendly bite-size pieces and neatly tucked into the fridge?

Last night, the Turkey Tail CSA and the veggie peeler made me feel totally together, even when dinner was a warmed-up can of lentil soup and bread dipped into a packaged red pepper-white bean dip. Arugula with curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano,* splashed quickly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, kosher salt and pepper—it feels fancy and grown-up and healthy, even if your dinner companion is trying out the soup-on-head thing.

The salty cheese balances the sharpness of the greens, and it’s totally not the same grated finely. You must drag a carrot peeler slowly against the edge of your block of cheese, letting the curls drop onto your salad with a bit of drama. Then hurry, hurry, eat—fuzzy pajamas and a lullaby await.

Easiest Arugula Salad

a handful of arugula, bigger stems discarded
extra-virgin olive oil
balsamic vinegar
kosher or sea salt
freshly ground pepper

Put your arugula in a bowl. Drizzle on a little olive oil and vinegar. (If you need to cut costs, do it with the vinegar. I buy a mid-range balsamic at Trader Joe's, and it works just fine. Although I really don't know what I'm missing: I've never been able to spend $30 on a couple ounces of vinegar. Maybe the heavens would open up, and my world would turn upside down. Better not to know, I say.) Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss a bit. Shave curls of cheese onto your greens with a vegetable peeler. Ahhh, see? You really do have it all together.

*I’ve had friends call me out on spending $15 on a block of real parm at Costco, but I consider it a budget item. We use it sparingly, going so far as to throw the rind in minestrone. And without it, we’d never eat our arugula. Shaking green can grains onto my salad would completely obliterate the joy. (Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the wonders of fake cheese in context. I salivate just remembering the childhood joy licking Cheeto residue off my fingers. But with this simple salad? Just don’t go there.)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Meat and mushrooms

I think I'm in love. We got our first week's half share from the CSA we joined: dried oyster mushrooms, arugula, blossoming basil, flowers, a pound of ground lamb, and over a pound of pork chops. In the future, squash, dark leafys, more lamb and pork, chicken, duck, turkey, and goat. The animals eat the byproducts of local tofu and biodynamic bread, and the mushrooms growing on the farm.

The farmer? Young, cute (not that that matters, of course), and completely passionate about food, especially, our favorite, lamb. Recipes in the first newsletter include lamb and spinach meatballs baked in cream of mushroom soup made from the dried mushrooms above. It sounds good, but I'm thinking kofte. We'll see.

The pork chops, however, are destined for the garlic lemongrass marinade we have in the freezer and a quick turn on the grill. The picture below is the same, eaten last weekend, made with some Niman Ranch pork from Trader Joe's and served with udon noodles, carrots, and red peppers with peanut sauce. (Did you know you can get fresh udon from Costco? I didn't. We refreshed it in boiling water for a couple seconds and had nearly instant udon.) We cut thick chops in half horizontally to make thinner cuts--it was easy to do after popping the chops in the freezer about a half hour.

The peanut sauce and marinade for this meal were made ahead, so it came together in about 10 minutes, not counting the family time in the backyard around the grill. And that doesn't count really--just an excuse to be outside drinking gin and tonics and eating watermelon just one more time before the rain descends on Northern California and our thoughts turn towards stews and braises and next week's meats...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Baked rice pudding

I have friends who have put off inviting me to dinner, self-conscious about their skills in the kitchen. I mourn the meals I'm missing, because there is nothing so tasty, really, than the food someone else cooks for you with utter abandon.

I have a friend who makes pickle calzones. He makes the dough with pickle juice, stuffs them with ham and bacon and cheese and dill, and invites us over for cheap beer and heartburn. In his house, playing darts and listening to Bobby Bare, they are delicious.

My brother-in-law will throw the entire contents of his CSA box into a pot and cook it down into something communal and tasty. We eat seconds and thirds in a little San Francico studio kitchen. If I try that trick at my house, it sits forlornly in the fridge for days while we eat macaroni and cheese or something, anything but the healthy mush.

My grandmother was a terrible cook, I think, looking back on it now, but she cooked for us with so much joy and hospitality that the most happy memories of her have food in them. When my sister and I spent the night at her beach house, we'd crowd into the tiny kitchen to make spaghetti and red sauce. When the noodles stuck to the ceiling, they were done. We loved snapping the wet noodles, launching them far above our tiny heads.

She had us over for dinner regularly; a soggy tabbouleh and some kind of fruit crisp--'70s-health-food-store style--were standards. In my memory, it was all familiar and delicious and we ate and ate and ran around her picnic table laughing.

She also made a baked rice pudding that I've never found a recipe for. It was a made of brown rice, studded with raisins. A vanilla custard layer dusted with nutmeg floated on top. We ate it room temperature or cold, not hot like the stovetop rice puddings are often served. I still crave it regularly. I make an approximation of this not-too-sweet delight regularly for breakfast and afternoon snacks, but it's just not the same without her.

Rice pudding

2 cups cooked brown rice, give or take
1/3 cup raisins (omit or increase as desired)
3 eggs
3 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 t. vanilla
freshly grated nutmeg

Use a 9"-by-9" Pyrex or small casserole dish--whatever you have that will also fit into a larger baking dish. I use a square glass dish tucked into a round Le Creuset casserole, and it works perfectly. Pour water into your large pan. You will be using it as a water bath to sit the small pan into, so make sure it won't overflow when you put your pudding into it. Put pan with water into the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Your water bath will heat a bit while the oven preheats, saving you the trouble of boiling water.

Spread rice into small baking dish and sprinkle with raisins. Whisk eggs in a mixing bowl, then beat in milk, sugar, and vanilla until combined. Pour mixture over rice and dust with nutmeg. Careful set the whole thing in your water bath.

Bake until set but still wobbly in the center. Check by inserting the tip of a knife in the middle. Custard should just keep it's shape--no milky liquid rushing in around the knife. But it will continue to solidify as it cools, so you take it out when still somewhat soft. The time depends on how much rice you used, how warm your water bath got initially, whether your rice was hot or cold, those kinds of things. But mine usually takes about 1 1/2 hours with warmish rice.

Remove from water bath when done and cool in pan on rack. Serve warm, room temperature, or chilled. Store in fridge. Eat for breakfast or with a baby after naptime.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pizza dough

We came out to our small town last week--put a yard sign up on our fence, proclaiming our choice for president for everyone to see. We had some trepidation; we're in the minority in our neck of the (not quite rural) woods. We anticipated some crude gestures from passing cars, a new chill from next door. But our neighbors have taken it in stride and continue bringing us vegetables from their prolific gardens, waving from their cars as they pass our house.

So I have a new bravery and am ready to come clean: I am a name-brand whore. It's hard when you're poor, when you are a public advocate of limiting consumption, living with less, and you dream of Calvin Klein suits and Tanqueray 10. I get my designer jeans and department store face wash on eBay. I go out of my way to make sure my cream cheese is Philadelphia and my pickles are Clausen. And I drool regularly over the latest models of Cuisinart. It's disgusting, I know.

So it pains me to pull out our food processor--that free, reliable, totally functional thorn in my side. We only have one blade, the brutal cutting one. The lid is cracked in so many places that you have to hold it on manually. But the darn thing works, and makes us pizza weekly and focaccia regularly. And when I can get something as pretty as the bread above out of it, it's much easier to count my blessings.
Pizza Dough (based on a recipe from Mark Bittman)

3 cups flour, a combo of 2 cups white and 1 cup white-whole wheat
2 T. olive oil
1 t. yeast
2 t. salt
1 cup water, approximately

Blend first four ingredients in food processor. Slowly add water until it forms a slightly sticky ball. Knead on a countertop for about 30 seconds and drop into an oiled mixing bowl, turning over to coat dough with oil. Let rise in warm place.
This dough is very forgiving and takes about 5 minutes once you memorize the proportions. W. makes it in the afternoon and lets it rise anywhere from 2 to 5 hours. You can also make it in the morning or the day before and let rise in the fridge. We have pizza night once a week, rolling out two pizzas, topping with whatever we have on hand and baking both at once in the oven, set at 500 degrees, switching places after 5 minutes or so. Dinner and leftovers for lunch the next day.

Or we make focaccia, using an entire recipe to make a thicker bread. The one pictured above is topped with olive oil, coarse salt, black pepper, rosemary, and thinly sliced lemons.

(EDITED TO ADD: Don't stress if you don't have a food processor. Just stir everything in a bowl until you can't anymore and then knead it until it forms a smooth-ish ball. Easy.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Flatiron steaks smack of summer

It's that time of year when we suddenly realize, "Crap, summer is almost over and we've hardly grilled!"

So we are making the most of the still warm evenings by breaking out the charcoal. W. and I are tiresomely opinionated about our grilling—no lighter fluid, no gas, mesquite charcoal or real wood only. Quick and dirty, herbs and olive oil and lots of salt.

We are fortunate enough to live where you can pick up two very big flatiron steaks--grass fed, organic, and still marbled--for $12 at the farmer's market. W. sliced tomatoes from the garden and made dinner rolls from scratch, so this truly was the poor man's barbecue, done oh so well.

W. rubbed the steaks with salt, pepper, and fresh marjoram, thyme, and rosemary, then set them out to come to room temperature. The baby played in the sprinkler while the steaks grilled over hot coals, about three minutes a side, then were sprinkled with olive oil. I came home from work ravenous and devoured the last of summer.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Not-so-chunky monkey

: Gratutious baby shot ahead. Advance with caution.

It's starting to feel like fall--school starting, leaves falling. Even the hot days are bracketed by chill. And for some reason, as fall descends, bananas and walnuts seem just right. They've replaced the berries in our ice cream and the peaches in our pancakes.

This is my simple riff on the Ben & Jerry's favorite. Not quite the same, but I served it to a room of Chunky Monkey lovers and haters (something about the way the big chunks of walnuts get soggy), and everyone ate plenty.

I use my basic formula, doubling the berry recipe.
Smooth Banana Ice Cream with Chocolate and Nuts

3 cups milk and heavy cream, in combination
1/2 cup sugar
1 t. vanilla extract

1 handful chocolate chips, chopped
1 handful walnuts, chopped
1 1/2 overripe bananas, smashed into puree with a fork

Mix milk, cream, sugar, and vanilla and store in fridge until cool. Process milk mixture in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions until you have a slushy almost-ice cream. Put the chocolate, walnuts, and bananas in the freezer while you do this, so they are nice and cold. Then add them to the machine and run until you have ice cream that is pretty thoroughly frozen.

I've had problems with slushy ice cream that then hardens into a rock in the freezer. I prevent this by
  • making sure the ice cream maker's bowl( I have one of those small Cuisinart ones) has been in the freezer for at least a couple days,
  • chilling all the ingredients thoroughly,
  • running the machine way longer than the instructions say,
  • and scooping the ice cream immediately into a chilled container and popping it into the back of the freezer as soon as humanly possible.
I resist the temptation to scrape every last bit off the stirring bit while the bulk of the ice cream gets more and more melty. A little haste and waste pays off here.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The library

I work in an institution of higher learning, swayed continuously by the rhythms of the university year, buffeted by the energy--and ennui--of batches of students who seem to get younger every year. I love it. I love interview faculty about non-Newtonian fluids or generational succession within companies or the holy text of Islam or labor laws in Gold Rush California. I continually want to be a physicist or historian or political scientist or microbiologist.

But I hadn't explored the library until last week, in the quiet before the first week of school. I had forgotten what it was like, hurrying up those cement stairs crisscrossed in the depths of a big building full of books. The musty chill and the clang of the industrial door as it opens into a huge expanse of shelves high above the ground floor. That frisson of excitement.

It feels dangerous, illicit somehow, and I always jump when I hear the clang of a stairwell door across the floor. Then footsteps getting closer, stopping, turning, closer again, and my heart starts beating faster. I never see my fellow bookworms in those warrens of shelves, maybe just wandering, like me, with a finger out to move across the spines. But my invisible compatriots always make me want to hurry, like a kid taking a flying leap onto her bed at night so nothing can grasp at her ankles.

I didn't expect to find—there in the TXs—anything but Physical Properties of Plant and Animal Materials and Rheology and Texture in Food Quality and Objective Methods in Food Quality Assessment. Food broken down from sustenance into small bits of data.

But I found a gold mine: cookbooks and commentary and culinary history and two of my favorite opinionated women...

Friday, August 15, 2008

Granola, honey

I read the Williams-Sonoma catalog the way some people pore over Victoria's Secret--furtively, open-mouthed, panting slightly. I fold over pages; fantasize about a hot and juicy night with La Caja China Grill's battery-powered rotisserie. And I realize that, like life with a lingerie model, an electric raclette maker just might not live up to the fantasy.

But Williams-Sonoma has changed our lives for the better with their honey granola recipe, clipped from a catalog while visions of muesli-drenched housewifeliness danced in my head. It was easier than I thought, and yummier, and I've since adapted the recipe beyond all recognition, doubling the oats (it's still plenty sweet) and throwing in whatever combination of dried fruit and nuts we have in the fridge.

I eat a sprinkling of granola on top of plain oats and topped with a peach and rice milk for breakfast. But an unnatural affection (obsession?) with plain cold oats runs in my family, so I'd understand if you sprinkled it on top of yogurt and fruit or just ate it out of hand instead.

Honey Granola

5 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 1/2 cups mixed dried fruit and nuts, chopped if in large pieces
4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) salted butter
1/4 cup honey

Preheat oven to 325. Put a piece of parchment paper on each of two cookie sheets. (You can skip the parchment, but it does make your life easier.)

Mix oats, sugar, spices, fruit, and nuts in a bowl. In the above granola, I used dried blueberries and golden raisins, sunflower seeds and almonds. Sesame seeds, chopped dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries--they all work well. If I use regular raisins, I drop them in after cooking; they seem to get too crunchy and burnt-tasting in the oven.

Put butter and honey in a small saucepan, heat until melted, and mix. (Or combine in a microwave-safe bowl and nuke until melted.) Pour over oat mixture and stir.

Divide mixture between pans. Bake until golden and crunchy, about 25–30 minutes, switching pans and turning 180 degrees halfway through cooking. Stir if the granola on the edges starts to burn.

Cool and store in airtight containers.

Halve the recipe if you don't need granola on hand for regular eating for a week or two.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dutch babies

Blackberries: Part 2

Sunday mornings mean Dutch babies around here, or pancakes, or eggs and bacon and fried potatoes. I make the bed with the baby, shaking out fresh sheets over her head again and again, waiting for the scent of coffee to waft upstairs.

W. does the baking--I don't like to bother with those fussy kinds of things like measuring. Which is funny, since I pretty much make my living being anal.

We set powdered sugar and lemon slices out on the table and make a big deal when the Dutch pancake comes out of the oven puffed and brown. It's good.

These summer mornings sound ideal, and after devouring breakfast we load the baby and dog into the car for a trip to the creek and a morning swim. But we only have time for all this loveliness because babies don't take Sundays off. Believe me, pre-kid, our asses were in BED until at least 10 am.

5:30 wake up call, anyone?

Peach & Blackberry Dutch Baby
(based on a November 2004 Gourmet recipe)

3 T. butter

1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
4 eggs
3 T. granulated sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
1/4 t. salt

1-2 peaches, each cut into 8 wedges (if you have very big or very juicy peaches, use1 or 1 1/2--the more fruit you use, the longer it cooks)
1 handful blackberries
Lemon wedges and powdered sugar for topping

Put butter in heavy 10-11 inch cast-iron skillet and put in middle rack of oven. Turn oven to 450°F.

While butter melts, put milk, flour, eggs, vanilla, and salt in blender.

When butter has just melted in preheating oven, remove skillet. Swirl butter around skillet and pour excess into blender. Blend well.

Arrange fruit in buttered skillet and slowly pour batter on top. Put into the oven and baked until puffed and golden, about 20 minutes.

Cut and serve right away. It will sink pretty much right away--don't worry about it. We're not making souffles here. Squeeze lemon on top of each slice and dust with confectioners sugar.
We switch out fruit based on the season--sauteed apples, as in the original recipe, or pears, or strawberries...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Simple Blackberry Ice Cream

Blackberries: Part 1

They are seedy, messy, and small. And I am obsessed.

Stained fingertips and baby fists. Scratched forearms. Precious hours exchanged for a paltry pint or so. But there is something about setting off down the dusty lane that runs by our house and competing with the blue jays, squirrels, crows, and deer for our share of our neighbor’s wild blackberries.

We’ve made a deal with him: We can pick all the blackberries we want, so long as we give him a share of whatever we make. He’s a beef rib and takeout pizza kind of guy, not one to be beguiled by the rustically interesting character of berries in the morning oatmeal. So clearly, I have to work some magic on these seedy little nubs.

It’s taken multiple cartons of heavy cream, sticks of butter, and pounds of sugar. Rough job, but at the end of the day, I can turn the fruits of our labor into something little resembling fruit.

Progress? Maybe not. But lots of deliciousness to be had along the way.

Very Basic Blackberry Ice Cream

This ice cream is ridiculously easy if you have an ice cream maker. It's intensely purple, a little seedy, and not too sweet--rustic. Our neighbor asked if we put food coloring in it to get that shocking purple.

Mix in a bowl:
1 1/2 cups milk and heavy cream, in combination (I usually use 1 cup cream, 1/2 cup whole milk, but sometimes lighten it up a little)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 t. vanilla extract

Smash with a fork in another bowl:
about a cup of blackberries
2 T. sugar

Chill both bowls in fridge until cool. Process milk mixture in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions until you have a slushy almost-ice cream. Add the berries and let the machine run until you have ice cream that is pretty thoroughly frozen. Eat or store in a container in the freezer.

I've found that if I run the machine a little longer than I think is necessary, my ice cream stays lighter and doesn't turn into a brick in the freezer.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Goleta Peach that wasn't

I got a recipe in the e-mail. Doesn't this sound good?

The Goleta Peach

4.5 oz peach juice (we mashed up some really ripe peaches and strained out the juice)
3 oz vodka
a bit less than 3oz sugar syrup
9-12 mint leaves

Rebecca adds, "It was pretty sweet and juicy, so you guys might want to use more vodka and less sugar." Does she know us, or what?

I came home ready for a Goleta Peach, reminiscing about the good ol' days at UCSB all the while. (Although we rarely drank anything that required more than a bottle opener.)

And our mint plant? Nothing but several leaves dried to a crisp by temperatures over 100 and smoked into inedibleity by the wildfires. Our vodka, always in stock? Nothing but a drop rattling around in the bottom of the Costco-size bottle. Sugar syrup, so easy to have on hand? Yep, nope.

I gave up. The universe had spoken. It was a night for old faithfuls.

Scotch, ice, Haribo...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Secret single spaghetti

I know I'm not the only Sex and the City fan out there (the TV show, and the movie solely for nostalgia reasons). But I am the only one I know who watched all six seasons for the third time while breastfeeding a colicky newborn. Caustic and funny and light and liberally sprinkled with profanity? Just the kind of entertainment I needed after pushing out seven pounds of grouchy.

Tonight reminded me of the show. After W. left to watch the Tour de France at a friend's house, after the baby went to bed, I indulged in my SSB, secret single behavior.

Sure, it revolves around food. A simple spaghetti, with more butter than I would ever serve for a family meal. In the winter, I throw in sausage; in the summer, fresh tomatoes. Then cheese—blue or Parmesan.

I eat at the table with a glass of wine and a book. I take the occasional small bite, trimming a noodle into a small segment, then biting it lengthwise with my front teeth. It's weird and fussy and probably infuriating to watch. But I am alone. I read. I soak in the slight melancholy of solitude and love it, knowing that it's finite.

Solitary Spaghetti in Summer

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Throw in enough spaghetti for one.

While the spaghetti cooks, heat a thinly sliced garlic clove or two with a couple tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan. When the garlic is just this side of turning golden, throw in a cup or so of chopped tomatoes and warm slowly. You don't want them to cook into sauce, just to release a bit of their liquid.

Toss in al dente spaghetti with water still clinging to its strands and some julienne basil, swirl around in the pan over the heat just long enough for the noodles to absorb most of the juice (about a minute).

Top with whatever cheese you have on hand. If it is a particularly lucky night, you will have blue.

Eat with abandon, no one is watching...

Monday, July 14, 2008

How to make sugar syrup

EDITED TO ADD: I changed my mind. This isn't the best way to make sugar syrup. Do this instead.

My sister brought it to my attention that I didn't cover how to make sugar syrup in my previous post. If my syrup was half sugar and half water and hers was two parts sugar to one part water, would that make her cocktail uber sweet? Do proportions matter? Or is one jigger of sugar syrup one jigger of sugar syrup, no matter what?

I have no idea, and it's been over 10 years since my last chemistry class. A good little food blogger would do two test batches and make two cocktails side by side to compare. I, on the other hand, would prefer to drink the one, post my version of sugar syrup, and call it good.

Sugar Syrup

1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Measure into a saucepan. Turn on heat. Stir until sugar dissolves. Cool and store in fridge.

You can steep herbs in this to make all sorts of yummy varieties. We add a sprig of lemon verbena in the summer, strain it out before storing, and use the syrup over pancakes or in lemon drop cocktails.

(Disclaimer: We don't always have sugar syrup on hand. We don't always take the five minutes to make it. Sometimes we toss a couple spoonfuls of sugar into the cocktail shaker and swipe the grainy sweetness out of the bottom of our glasses with our fingers. Very classy.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Another reason to drink

Have you seen this New York Times blog? I love a list that opens the door for a little self-congratulation… “The 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating”? How about “The 11 Fantastic Foods You Do Eat, You Healthy Earth Goddess You”?

Beets? Check—grated raw with carrots and dressed with salt, pepper, olive oil, and Sherry vinegar.

Cabbage? Red, organic, on the menu plan as coleslaw.

Cinnamon and canned pumpkin? On and in pumpkin pancakes Sunday morning. (Extra credit for topped with plain yogurt?)

Swiss chard? Appears regularly in soup and pasta, and to neutralize the nutritional nightmare of boxed mac and cheese.

Pumpkin seeds? Sprinkled over every Mexican meal we eat.

Frozen blueberries? Tossed in pies, pancakes, smoothies whenever we can.

Prunes, sardines, and turmeric? Well, no one's perfect.

And my favorite…pomegranate juice. Every day! In a cocktail! Mixed with gin! And sugar! It’s healthy, whee!

The Deliciously Gin-Soaked Cocktail That You Can Pretend Is a Healthy Choice

--serves two

3 1-1/2 ounce jiggers gin, plus a splash for good measure
1 jigger sugar syrup (or superfine sugar to taste)
1 generous jigger pomegranate juice
juice of one lime or half a juicy lemon (Meyers are especially good)

Put into a cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Shake the hell out it. Strain into glasses.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


Ugh, this photo could be prettier, sharper--look at this. I made Orangette's basil mayo, and it was awesome. But the photo of green mess sloshed in a Tupperware? Smeared all over the baby's high chair tray? On this roll, reflecting the low summer sun outside? Not such a pretty picture--and without the Photoshop skills to polish out the imperfection.

But it was pretty, in a visceral messy way, in real life, where these kinds of these matter more. Basil mayo mingling with smooshed first-of-the-season tomato, juice running down wrists, the crisp of bacon and slight grainy creaminess of blue cheese:

Basil Mayo, Blue Cheese, Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato

No recipe--this is exactly what it sounds like, ya'll. If you can pick your basil and tomatoes from your summer garden, so much the better. (Yes, I have a summer garden, and an herb garden—it's how us financially disadvantaged people afford piles and piles of heirloom tomatoes and summer savory on tap.)

If you can get some Niman Ranch applewood smoked bacon and cheap-ish but good blue cheese from a nearby Trader Joe's, you'll be ruined for those diner-style, three-layered, desiccated bacon mayo bombs forever.

The mayo does take some fussy time and requires the use, and wash, of the blender. You'll have to destem basil, press garlic, juice a bit of lemon. But then you're set—deliciousness for the week. We had leftovers for dipping steamed green beans and carrots from Saturday's farmers' market. The baby dipped her beloved broccoli florets. I'm resisting the urge to scoop it directly from the Tupperware with a spoon.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

^%@$%ing shingles, or what I did on my summer vacation

I got shingles. David Letterman, after a month off work due to shingles, celebrated his return to the "Late Show" with a top 10 list:
#10. There's nothing good about the ****ing shingles. The ****suckers are so ***damn painful, every minute you pray some giant son-of-a-bitch will shove a red-hot poker up your ***.
Um, yeah. And I'll bet Letterman didn't have to deal with a cheap breast pump clamped right over the blistery rash. Or a baby desperate for "mama milk."

I hope you came here for culinary inspiration, because this shit is freaking app-et-i-zing!

On to the next course.

I came home from my trip to visit the baby's grandparents with shingles and a total lack of desire to cook anything. So I decided to make something my sister's been telling me about forever and always sounded kind of unexciting to me. Until I tried it—it is exciting, so good, so easy: Sweet potatoes, baked in the jacket at 375 degrees until tender (about an hour), with butter, salt, a squeeze of lime, and a sprinkling of cilantro. Really, it's awesome. Thank you, Alice Waters.

I looked forward to it all day. And isn't the setup pretty, especially in front of get-well flowers and fruit harvested from my parent's trees? The baby and W. sat in eager anticipation of the soft, sweet, goodness.

And then the bad health-food store produce strikes again. The sweet potatoes (yams?) were hard in some places, grainy mush in others. We missed the farmer's market this week and paid the price. They looked like this:

We ate salad and apricots, put the cilantro away for tomorrow's tostadas, put the baby to bed, and made a pie.

Nothing like pie to ease the pain of shingles and sweet potato disappointment.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Evacuation eats

This isn't exactly what to eat while you are evacuated from your home due to a raging wildfire, but what to eat when you return. When the town is hot and smoky and subdued, and "thank you firefighters" signs line the main streets, and you are thankful to do those mundane house things like mow your own lawn and sleep in your own bed. And guilty too, for that thankfulness, because you know that just down the hill, your neighbors are sorting through ash for their possessions and still grabbing food on the run in hotels and in friend's guest rooms. For a while, life's edges are sharp again.

When we came home this Sunday, from a sweaty weekend away—two adults, one baby, two cats, one dog on the run—we were ready for something simple, something soothing and cooling at once. We were hungry after days spent obsessively refreshing our browser. (Are we evacuated now? Are we evacuated now?) So while the baby napped, I made us all a completely bastardized version of Thai noodles based on a John Thorne recipe I found in an Organic Style magazine recipe booklet.

Ground Meat with Basil & Rice Noodles

12 oz. rice noodles, soaked in cool water until pliable, but not soft
peanut or grapeseed oil for stir-frying
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 red onion, sliced thin
1 t. Thai red curry paste
1 pound protein in small pieces (I like tofu and chicken combined, both cut in small cubes)
2 T. fish sauce
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 T. natural sugar (or regular, if that's all you've got)
1 overflowing cup of packed basil leaves, torn into big pieces

Heat 2 T. oil in wok or saute pan at medium heat. Cook garlic and onions until they start to turn golden. Add curry paste and stir in.
Turn up heat and add chicken. When it starts to brown, add in the tofu and stir it around a bit, until tofu warms through.
Add fish sauce, stock, and sugar. Bring to a simmer and add noodles. Cook until noodles are soft, adding more stock as necessary.
Add basil and stir until wilted.

Serve with sliced cucumbers toss and chilled with a little seasoned rice wine vinegar.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Beets, the easy way

I don’t mind getting messy; in fact, I sometimes like it. Hands in soft dough, fingertips scented with garlic, rare meat resting on a cutting board in a pool of its own juices.

I also don’t mind a little labor in the kitchen; I’m one of those crazy people who find peeling and slicing and shelling restorative. I would go so far as meditative, but am pulled back from the brink of maudlin by a keen awareness that some of you are gagging at the redolent prose already.

Let’s get back into the world I live in now, post-baby. I could be pulled back upstairs by the wails of a mad teether at any minute—no long sautés, no delicate sauces that require painstaking attention. I’m tired (said teether)—hours spent shucking peas and mooning over pans of risotto are replaced by a quick 15-minute workout, a bit of reading, and an early, early bedtime.

So when I find a recipe for a beloved, messy, time-consuming favorite that makes my life easy, easy, easy, it’s a bit of a miracle. Like Jamie Oliver’s recipe for baked beets. No more peeling, cutting, prepping, making of dressing. Just a pile of beets in a foil packet opened steaming at the table or left out all afternoon and served cool in their juices. When it’s just the two of us, we slip the peels off (or not) at the table. Otherwise, it’s short work (really, they slide right off) and well worth the stained fingertips.

Essentially, you scrub small beets and throw them onto a large sheet of foil with fresh marjoram or oregano, smashed unpeeled garlic, salt, pepper, and generous amounts of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Seal up the package, set on a cookie sheet in a 400-degree oven for an hour or so, and you've got lovely beets in a fabulous sauce.

I served them the other night with Nigella Lawson’s easy breaded goat cheese medallions (breaded in advance and thrown in the oven 10 minutes before dinner) from Feast and salad greens with oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. They're also good with chunks of feta cheese.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Cross rib roast

Operation freezer cleanout is in effect. We've got 3 spring chickens on order from the farm down the hill, and a half a pig and a lamb on the way later in the year. And a freezer full of odds and ends: leftover pound cake from the baby's first birthday, saved for the fancy trifle that I'll never get around to making; a few cubes of enchilada sauce, not enough to use for anything much; bread ends; smoothie fruit...

And a cross rib roast, the final piece of meat of a grass-fed, organic beef sampler pack from one of our local heroes. I loved the idea of a selection of roasts and marinating and grilling steaks, but the actual cooking was painful and protracted.

I used to be a vegetarian, until one day the smell of bacon-y goodness lured me back to meat. I'm still picky--and we save up for meat in bulk from farms we've visited. And beef still tastes a little too "beefy" to me most of the time. So I stewed, making amazing winter dishes with onions and red wine and served with thick noodles, until I came to the roasting cuts. What the hell do I do with London broil? Bottom round? Cross rib?

There was some greyness, some toughness, some regrettable stringiness. I started to wonder whether beef was worth it. Whether grass fed was at fault. Until I Googled "cross rib" and found Jim H. and the simplest recipe ever.

I put the roast in a bowl with a generous amount of soy, sesame oil, mustard powder, chopped garlic, chopped ginger, salt, and pepper. We stuck it in the fridge for two days, turning when we remembered. Then into pan for browning and a 200-degree oven. It did take about 2 hours--through bathtime and the grownups' cocktail hour--and we took it out when the meat thermometer read 130 degrees.

I let it rest about 30 minutes while I roasted chunks of potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions with rosemary and olive oil, and boiled some red wine and a chunk of butter down in the pan for a sauce. The meat was ruby red inside, rich and soft and minerally. The way beef is supposed to cook up, I imagine.
W., who has happily and enthusiastically eaten countless veggies and pasta for the past 10 years, said it was the best thing we'd ever made. (I vigorously defended lamb loin chops and homemade gnocchi, a pre-child special-occasion thing. But 15 minutes of actually work for "the best"? I'll take it.)

We cooked a 5-pound roast, which sounded like too much. But the baby loved the well-done edge pieces the next day, and W. ate thin slices in sandwiches with mustard and horseradish sauce. I cut the rest into strips and warmed it with sliced onion and red bell peppers that had been slightly blackened in a dry cast iron. A little squeeze of lime and into a warm tortilla with salsa, cilantro, and sour cream--fajitas. Really good. So simple.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cup of trouble

Our coffee has been a bit posh lately. We've been using beans from Trouble--we just got back from visiting my sister and brother-in-law in SF's Outer Sunset. And for us, a trip to the city means coffee, good coffee. If we can bring a bit of the city back to the sticks with us, so much the better.

W. has decided to switch to the French press, now that we're taking the coffee all seriously and such. A Sunday morning while the baby was napping, he followed, precisely, the incredibly anal instructions for press pot coffee at home given by Stumptown. "Aggressive pouring" and timer and all.

We poured a little cream in, and goddamn if that wasn't the best coffee we've ever made. And now we've ruined it--a standard drip pot early on a weekday morning is just not the same.

Was it worth it, opening Pandora's bag of Trouble? The washing of the French press, the finicky timing, the slight sludge at the bottom on the cup, the sudden pressing need for a burr grinder? One more thing to fuss over in the morning?

It just might have been...

(We've downsized the weekend breakfast to include frozen chocolate croissants from Trader Joe's to allow for the coffee.)

*Cool Photoshop brushes courtesy of Jelena Jovovic.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Dominican chicken

I've got a couple go-to meals, the ones I hand out when friends who don't cook ask me for recipes. They never fail, they come together easily, and everyone loves them. Bonus points for make ahead and leftovers.

Dominican chicken is one of those. It's a versitile basic, more an ingredient than a dinner in itself, so leftovers can be tarted up and feel new again. Most of the accompaniments are staples in our house, where simple burritos or tacos are popular microwaved lunches.

It goes together fast and then cooks by itself for a good long time--while I do the baby bedtime routine or do other necessities outside of the kitchen. The proportions are loose, so you can add more chicken or more onions and still come up with something nice. I don't measure at all--just a couple glugs of olive oil into the pan, some oregano rubbed between palms, a tinge of cayenne...

And you can use still-frozen chicken breasts--no defrosting, no chicken contamination all over the kitchen.

The long cooking melts the onions and chicken together into a rich, shreddy mess that drips from the bottom of a burrito or the fold of taco or down the chin. It's still good warmed over the next day and probably freezes well, although I haven't tried it. No matter how much I make, it always seems to be gobbled up for lunch the next day.I've been making the recipe since I was 18 and got it from my mom. It's based on a recipe from somewhere, but the source has been since lost. I have a feeling it's not actually Dominican.

Dominican Chicken

5-6 chicken breasts, fresh or frozen
4 large onions, thinly sliced
4 peeled garlic cloves
1 bay leaf
1 t. dried oregano
a dash of cayenne pepper (or more if you like it spicy)
salt & pepper
1/4 c. olive oil
2 T. white wine vinegar

If you are using fresh or defrosted chicken, pat dry and cut into 2-inch pieces.

In a heavy casserole dish or pot, combine everything but oil and vinegar. Frozen chicken is easy--just toss it right in--but it will take longer to cook. Pour oil and vinegar over.

Cover and simmer gently until chicken is tender, stirring a couple times to prevent stickage. Fresh chicken takes about 45 minutes; frozen, at least twice that. Uncover in the last 15 minutes or so of cooking if it is too juicy.

Shred the meat with two forks and serve in burritos, tacos, or tostadas with any or all of the following: refried beans, cotija cheese (or whatever you have on hand), radishes, fresh onions, avocado, shredded lettuce, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, salsa...

On this night, we had tostadas, which I make myself (rubbing corn tortillas with olive oil and sprinkling with salt, popping into a 350-degree or so oven until brown). The packages of tostadas from Mexico are good too, but not as healthy or budget-friendly.