Archive for November, 2007

Hummus in progress

Loud music is a rousing cooking companion. Loud music in another language is even better (even when the language and the particular dish are incongruous, as are today’s chansons en français, grâce à Belinda Carlisle, and my current hummus-in-progress). As much as I love cooking with my girls, sometimes a cook just needs to be alone with her KitchenAid — and a little background music (read: not so much background noise).

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I figured out a while back that if I want the kids to occupy themselves, or even just to play nicely, all it takes is a little music, a little soundtrack of sorts to accompany their activities. I’ve no clue why it’s an effective diversion, but you might try it. Any type of music seems to do the trick around here—classical on the satellite, Gwen Stefani or Hot Hot Heat, French preschool songs on cassette.

I came across Belinda’s latest release, the entirely in French Voilà, while searching for French music on Amazon. Having been a girl at just that impressionable age when Belinda, safely cool, and the Go-Go’s were “Head over Heels,” nostalgia piqued my curiosity, and I tossed the CD into my virtual shopping cart.

Her accent is just fine—her vibrato and bravery are enough that I’m not going to quibble. It should be pointed out that Belinda sounds nothing like those Go-Go’s days. But could that be more appropriate? She sounds so grown up, and how grown up do I feel, blasting Belinda in the kitchen, an immense pile of parsley on the cutting board, waiting to be finely chopped and scooped up by handfuls on its way into the food processor, where it will mix with garbanzo beans, tahini, lemon juice and a paste of roasted garlic. (This is my other “calling” of the moment, in addition to that motherhood thing: testing the host of hummus recipes I’ve been hoarding.)

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“Ne me quitte pas,” so the song goes, but honestly, if my Quinn is content to do the opposite, just until the hummus is smooth and the counters are wiped clean, that’s fine by me. I think I can handle the momentary rejection.

 

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Faux-fall foe

I’m feeling the part of the rebel, and I’ll tell you why. Last week, when the outside temperature reached 94 degrees and the sky was an endless blue (mind you, I’m using endless pejoratively, not in the romantic way), and I just couldn’t take it anymore, I roasted sweet potatoes. Phooey on faux Phoenix fall, I said. I hiked that oven to 400 degrees to tell that weather exactly how I felt, that inside I felt like autumn, darn it all. Even if I’m still standing around the kitchen wearing flip-flops.

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Just prior to my sweet potato fit of derring-do, Molly over at Orangette was wringing her hard-at-work hands at her Pacific Northwest November (who but Molly could manage eloquence while at the same time admitting confusion?), while we over here in the Southwest were ruing the month for an altogether opposite reason. This should be the season of the oven, of baking and roasting and all that, when the heat is confined to the one magic space that takes the insides of butternuts and autumn cups and acorns from firm and pale to just-soft and oh-so-bright. Still nearing 90 today, this season is thus far nothing of the sort.

Despite the weather – to spite the weather – I’m going for it. Which brings me to Thanksgiving, a holiday I have to admit draws no effusiveness from my end. I know, I know, and I’m sorry. I promise I’m a thankful person. I regularly burst with gratitude. But to my mind – a mind reared in places where the world has usually dipped to a touch above chill this time of year – it can be difficult to summon appreciative feelings when one’s Thanksgiving dinner companions are wearing their best khaki shorts and leather sandals. I boldly declare that I am thankful for seasons, and when I can’t express that gratitude by donning a sweater, I turn pouty.

However, it’s good to join in the exercise of counting blessings, and perspective tells me there are far greater worries in the world than year after year of too-warm Novembers.

That said, I will be grateful for (among other things) cooking, and thankful for foods that conjure feelings of fall. Like sweet potatoes, which I’ll be bringing again this year to the family to-do.

I’m an ardent admirer of the sweet potato, but its usual Thanksgiving-day treatment (brown sugar and marshmallows? Oh, please, people) causes me much pain. Every year I try to bring justice to this gentle-but-hearty fall staple, and this year, I’ve concocted a dish of sweet potato with various grains and squash. I made a similar dish last month, and tested it again last night with a couple of tweaks.

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It’s a bit on the side of cheat-y, because I use this Harvest Grain blend from Trader Joe’s (although any grain would theoretically work – brown or wild rice, couscous, etc.). In the bag, Israeli couscous and red quinoa buddy up with green orzo and baby chickpeas. It cooks like couscous or rice or quinoa, meaning the absorption way, and last night I cooked it in a broth-y butternut apple soup that uses parsnips, onions, carrots and the like as its aromatics. When the grains were done, I put them in a large bowl and tossed in some roasted and cubed butternut* (about half a squash) and two medium-sized sweet potatoes that I’d peeled, cubed and boiled (this served the four of us, so I’ll make much more for Thanksgiving).

I finished it with some olive oil, half-a-handful of chopped sage and a bit of chopped thyme. Oh, and the rudimentary salt and pepper.

My air conditioner ran the entire time.

 

*A tip I just learned: Microwave your butternut for a couple of minutes first. This makes it so much easier to slice into to prepare it for roasting.

 

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The daily grind

Finally found: the ultimate salt and pepper grinders.

I have searched high and low for this particular tool indispensable to any respectable kitchen – a salt and pepper mill (or, more accurately, one of each). Like the lot of you, I prefer my kosher flakes and my heat freshly ground. But as salt and pepper mills are something of an investment (there are some with the same brand as a car manufacturer, for crying out loud), I’ve found it hard to commit, to actually buckle down and make a purchase.

Most of the mills on the market are too hefty, too unwieldy, too trophy-like. No, no, and no. I’m kind of a lightweight, and the space in my kitchen is greatly reduced when little girls show up to help. The last thing I need when we’re all hungry is to elbow one of my darlings in the eye while attempting to grind pepper on salads they’re going to turn their noses up at, anyway.

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Which is why I was thrilled to find these at Olive and Gourmando in Montreal (there they refer to them en français, les salières et les poivrières). Compact, they can be toted from countertop to table easily, yet they’re still sturdy in stainless. And they are the ultimate in usefulness: a cinch to employ mid-stir, they’re made to be held in one hand, with a punch-down top. One punch with the thumb, and your dish is the recipient of a freshly ground shower of your current favorite sel de mer.

This I can handle.

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Try a new recipe day: Celebratory stew

Today is “Try a New Recipe Day.” This is convenient, as I’d already decided it needed to be get-me-the-heck-outta-the-house day. New recipe = shopping for new ingredients.

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I work from home, and because my kids are small, most days the emphasis is more “home” than “work.” It’s relative isolation, that’s what it is. And let me tell you, it’s not always pretty. That means I’m often compelled to concoct an errand or two, anything to put me smack in the center of human society for a few hours. (Who’s with me? We all know a mommy’s mental health can be secured at market.)

Now, I could find nothing on the Internet to substantiate the validity of “Try a New Recipe Day,” which I read about this morning in the magazine our gym sends in the mail. Maybe it was their marketing department’s or editorial board’s idea. No matter – as you know, I’m not habit-happy in the kitchen, so I’m in.

Consider this a call to join the celebration, however spurious! What new recipes are you keen to try?

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I’m going with a fish stew, because it calls for saffron threads and fennel seeds — two ingredients of the zillion called for in the recipe that my cupboard actually has at the ready. And anything including saffron and fennel seems apropos for an invented-at-random “holiday.”

My recipe selected, I got out of my house and into our favorite market, Quinn in tow.

We chatted up the produce guy as I picked the right-sized fennel bulb and exchanged smiles with another shopper as I waited for the cod to be weighed and wrapped. After meandering the aisles surrounded by other, living, breathing members of humankind, picking up miscellaneous goodies, we finally found tonight’s sanity-in-a-bottle: a bottle of clam juice. For the stew, of course.

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Like her, like me (who knew?)

So, folks, I need to own up to something. I’m a woman without a repertoire.

I know, I know, I’m a grown up, of all things, with husband and kids. But other than our on-again off-again weekly burrito night and my homemade macaroni and cheese (truly an all-around favorite around here, one of those recipes friends always request), I don’t have a set of fall-back signatures, of dishes I can make with my eyes closed and/or my hands tied behind my back.

Oh, sure, some weeks it’s all easy with the penne and basil and lemon zest; or couscous and peas and mint; or salmon and Dijon and rosemary. But that’s just my burgeoning confidence with the more or less permanent residents in my frigo and pantry; that’s just me learning to wing variations on previous themes. All of that doesn’t exactly constitute a formula based on expertise, on the tried-and-true.

I’ve wondered when I’d come into my own, when I’d find my own versions of Meatloaf Night and Sunday Dinner Roast. Now I know that I may never fall into such a cycle, and I even know why: It’s because of my mom.

No, I’m not blaming her, the way so many people blame their mothers for any and everything that’s awry in their adulthoods. It’s simple enough, really, one of those like mother, like daughter things. I don’t have a repertoire because, it turns out, she never really had one either.

There are only a few dishes I remember my mom making with any regularity as a kid: beef stroganoff, oven-fried chicken, and a Chinese-inspired dish that involved water chestnuts (an ingredient I did my very darnedest to pick around without her noticing). But I wasn’t sure if I was just misremembering, thereby doing her a load of injustice, or if she has always cooked the way she does now, always trying something new.

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So when she came to visit last weekend, I naturally let fly a bevy of questions about her cooking motherhood. I was standing at the stove, stuffing acorn squash halves with a wild pecan-rice (just brought from New Orleans by my road warrior in-laws) mixture of dried cranberries and walnuts, the salmon marinating just feet away, and I wanted to compare notes. Mom sat across from me at the bar, my sixteen-year-old sister next to her, mocking the way we both talk with our hands, her own fingers a flurry on her cell phone keypad.

I recounted my memories of the things Mom served when I was little (the beef stroganoff she remembered – “I did make that a lot, because Dad really liked it,” she said – but she wasn’t copping to frequent service of water chestnuts). As we talked, I realized how much of the way I cook is reminiscent of the way she cooks, and that I’ve learned some habits more by osmosis than tutorial (although she did teach me the value of a plate full of color, and that you do no one any favors by serving two starches with a meal).

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For one thing, neither of us is particularly skilled at making recipes from memory. For another, she admits to not having a roster of staple dishes. Like me, she uses cooking as a creative outlet – it’s just one way she employs to prevent life from slipping toward the mundane (she always has thought bored moms were nuts to be bored – she’s great at coming up with intelligent things to do). She’s endlessly clipping new recipes and trying them, but even if something turns out well, she won’t necessarily revisit it. I’m the same way: so many recipes, so few meals.

For a mom of young kids, that way of cooking has a definite appeal. The days can feel both inexorably long and smooshed together, a series of units of time helped incredibly by a little novelty. A constant rotation of the same recipes would only make the routine more routine. When one’s always on the hunt for new flavors, ingredients and preparations, the act of cooking takes on the form of a learning process, of a cultivated hobby.

The question now is, what next to do with that wild rice?

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