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...