Archive for December, 2007

Cook, eat, clean…repeat

Whew… This is a hard thing for me to say, and harder still to believe in my heart of hearts that it’s true, but I am all cooked out. For the moment, anyway. (I promise it won’t last.)

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Christmas Eve started in as festive a manner possible with Oysters Mignonette (an easy, divine combo of shallots, Kitchen Line Sonoma Trio vinegar and parsley) and from that point on it was all cook, eat, clean, repeat. And now what we couldn’t consume rests in our fridge in various Tupperware containers, until it will be creatively repurposed (beyond recognition for my girls) into lunches and dinners for the rest of this year. (For the record, the brioche turned out ok – and made almost-naughty good French toast this morning!)

But when there’s no cooking left to do, there are, thankfully, books good books about cooking food and selecting food and eating food – and I have some gifted ones on just those subjects to crow about.

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My French Kitchen, by Joanne Harris and Fran Warde – By the author of Chocolat, this French-English writer puts to print some favorite childhood French recipes (and some simplified techniques) alongside photography that makes me rue the strong Euro keeping me on this side of the Atlantic.

The Produce Bible: Essential Ingredient Information and More Than 200 Recipes for Fruits, Vegetables, Herbs & Nuts, by Leanne Kitchen and Deborah Madison – Full of good scoop about things that grow, like that bit about sage being traditionally served with eel in Germany, and that counsel to snap up plums with a silver, powdery glow (should you be fortuitous enough to happen upon them). I intend to consult this one a lot when unfamiliars pop up in my co-op produce basket.

Paris in a Basket: Markets, the Food and the People, by Nicolle Aimee Meyer and Amanda Pilar Smith – I’m a sucker for markets. I’m an impossible Francophile. Oh, and I’m kind of into food. So there we go.

Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren – ok, so other than a few food fights, food isn’t exactly this story’s shining star. But it’s illustrated by Lauren Child, the brilliant Brit whose Charlie convinced Lola to eat a to-mah-to.

Read them and eat. Surely we’ll all be hungry again at some point.

 

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December, December

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It seems all the forces are conspiring today, promoting in me an overwhelming need to nest. It’s cold outside, for one (cold being a relative sensation; remember, I live in the southwest). Number two, I’m home with a sick kid – serious cough and drainage happening here – and all I can think about is what can I possibly come up with for dinner?

(Ok, truth: that’s all I can think about other than the fact that Quinn’s blowing quickly through our Kleenex supply and how fetching her brown eyes look when her lashes are all moist like that, and how to use my motherly powers of persuasion, such as they are, to get her to cough in her sleeve and please, honey, just a little Chapstick? Your lips are so red and crackly, and I know they must hurt…)

I’m not sure what it is about being home with a snuffly, barking little one that sends me tripping over the semi-organized jumble of Polly Pockets in a heady rush to get to the kitchen. Is it the knee-jerk nurturer in me, or is it a flight response?

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Either way, it’s a somewhat strange turn of reason that’s brought me here, vis-à-vis with this lone zucchini in my fridge, this December anomaly of unknown provenance that came in the (typically seasonal) co-op produce basket last go-round. I haven’t yet decided what to do with this one—there were three total: one I snuck in a cheesy pasta thing, another I shredded for the obvious zucchini bread – but it’s got to figure in to tonight’s dinner somehow, seeing that it’s only a couple of days until the next produce pick up.

So in planning I’m taking into account three facts: the presence of this zucchini, my youngest daughter’s cold and subsequent atrophied appetite, and my older daughter’s recent orthodontic adjustment, which has rendered the act of chewing an ordeal.

That said, I’m in just that frame of mind to purée many of the contents of my frigo and throw everything into a soup, the way I’ve seen my mother do oh-so-many times before. And so I will. I’ll sauté a bit of chopped onion and a minced clove or so of garlic, dice a potato, cube the zucchini, cover the lot with chicken stock and simmer it all until soft. And when it cools slightly I’ll dump it by batches into my blender, proud finger pressing the purée button.

I’ll heat it up again, then finish it with the itty-est splash of cream (oh, who’s afraid of high-fat dairy?) some kernels of corn (the kids will balk less if there’s corn involved), small slices of avocado, a sprinkle of chopped mint, and one more grind of fresh pepper.

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Once again, friends, in the middle of it all (and with the addition of a quick salad and bread, as Quinn does not believe in a meal sans bread) we have that happy little accomplishment known in these parts as dinner.

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Tricky proposition

I am determined to go all out with this homemade bread thing, and fast. I’ve committed to handling the Christmas brioche, and have therefore been collecting like mad recipes and painstaking how-to’s (what is better, anyway, a fluted pan in ceramic or nonstick? To tent or not to tent?). This will be my very first brioche, and let me tell you, I’m preemptively shaking in my boots.

But I’m putting on a brave face, persistent bits of dough stuck to my palms as I type, experimenting with my first-ever focaccia. Just the fact that I have options – focaccia or ciabatta? Baguette or pain rustique? (as if) – is inspiration enough to get me cracking. We recently visited a living colonial museum in Massachusetts, and I watched the women make their one type of dense loaf, the same they make daily. They let the dough rise in an enormously wide, shallow wood bowl, shape it into four loaves, then bake it in a clay oven outside – in the snow.

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I’m sure it was my mom who taught a less-than-attentive me how to knead, although I can’t recall the specific instruction to gather and push, gather and push. But the muscle memory remains anyhow, and because the cookbook instructs me to knead, I knead away, even if it’s a timid knead, a knead slight of skill. The action is at once familiar and not. I know the basic motions, but I wonder if I’m doing them right. Is my gentle handling rough enough, or am I exerting too much pressure?

I’m not a baker of bread. For one thing, it was on my list of “Things I Will Never, Ever, Ever Do When I Grow Up,” because, really, what was the point (I mean besides the blissful, memory-conjuring aroma)? Bread making was an old Southern church lady thing to do. Bread making meant staying home all day, and that was another thing on my list of “Things I Will Never, Ever…”, well, you know.

These days I’m not a baker of bread because there is too much at stake, what with all the requirements to knead and let rise, to punch and roll, all the attention required to the process, while at the same time being careful not to over handle the dough. Bread baking, I’ve always thought, is for the artisans, for the patient, for the experts out there. Who am I to dare to match, let alone improve upon, the crusts with just the right thickness and crackle, the moist interiors, the crumb that can only result from the love of the process?

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I am to knead for ten minutes. Ten whole minutes? I am a restless grumbler at the tedious, an antsy avoider of repetition. For some reason, I can stand for long periods tending to the risotto – maybe because I love risotto enough that it’s worth it, and because I’ve become quite convincing at coaxing broth into grains of arborio. Bread is a trickier proposition, one I typically leave to my bread maker, now eight years old (at least) and prone to fits. As I stand and knead (and the clock still reads 4:14; I’m not even a minute into my ten) I recall the pounding, rhythmic clatter of the bread maker as it kneads away, loudly proclaiming its hard work on my behalf.

I wonder about the “lightly floured surface” requirement. The dough I’m kneading picks up the light dusting of flour and gets sticky, so that I must lightly sprinkle my surface, again and again. Hence, another worry: Am I over flouring? That seems like it could be a bad, bad thing.

Still, I’m impressed at what the dough is becoming, at what I’m making of it. It started a little dry, almost threatening to fall apart. I’ve rendered it smooth and flexible, a cohesive, malleable ball of, well, dough. It’s at this moment, when I’m so proud of my little ball of dough, that I decide I really want to learn to make bread. I want to know the ins and outs of the perfect loaf, in all its renditions.

I follow the recipe’s directions to let the dough rise, to punch it down and roll it out, and I feel almost giddy, knowing the yeast did what the recipe said it would do. I pat it into a ½-inch round and press fingerprint-sized indentations into the top. Then I give it an unusually generous brushing of olive oil, lightly press rosemary sprigs into the surface, and top with sea salt.

Oh, my Italian aunties (if I had them) would be proud.

 

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How to not impress the in-laws (even for all your trying)

It all sort of came to a head for me when my sister-in-law said, as she assembled pizzas in her cabin kitchen from prepared, vacuum-packaged crust and pre-shredded mozzarella, that she doesn’t care for basil.

Whaaat? I wanted to scream, protective as I am of basil. What’s wrong with you?

I’m guessing the defense of fresh herbs doesn’t really warrant a raised voice — especially when you’re a guest in someone else’s kitchen — so thankfully propriety took over before my kitchen rage actually flared.

Besides, zero tolerance for basil does not a bad person make. I’m pretty dismissive of dill, so who am I to talk? Still, after two days of watching various family members effectively frown on fresh ingredients and cooking methodology by opening cans of green beans and condensed cream of mushroom soup and cranberry “sauce,” I’d had it.

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I’d had it watching my in-laws’ Viking-ed, Bosch-ed , granite-decked kitchen wasted on merely heating things up. I’d had it of being laughed at – not to the point of ridicule, of being derided, but there were uncomprehending snickers all the same – for impetuously crafting homemade twisty breadsticks just because I’m trying to learn to make better bread; for baking my kid’s birthday cake from scratch on the same day I had to make three dishes for the holiday meal; for making my own salad dressing and – heaven forbid – carefully rinsing and ripping up heads of lettuce instead of buying pre-chopped greens (nothing against pre-chopped; the store just didn’t have the variety I wanted for my salad of oranges , avocado, walnuts, chèvre, and maple-balsamic vinaigrette).

Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest and was the last to marry into the family, or that I’m possessed of a peculiar shyness when it comes to manifesting my culinary tendencies, or maybe it’s because I’ve only been really cooking for less than a decade. Most likely I’m suffering from a combo. But despite the regular raves and recipe requests the dishes made at my hand draw, I still feel like I’m regarded as a baby in the kitchen. And I guess I am, in a lot of respects (who can compete with the grandmas of any family? Not I). Even so, it’s a difficult position to be in, having grown up as the oldest, the sage.

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One year – sandwiched somewhere in the years I was refusing to learn to cook – my mother-in-law recommended I bring her signature Jell-O salad to a family function. Everyone else was bringing something, and she thought the Jell-O would be an appropriate assignment for me – a way to contribute that wasn’t overwhelming or (to most minds) actually integral to the meal.

That first time I screwed it up, believe it or not. The Jell-O didn’t set right and flowed around everybody’s honey-baked ham slices (or was it brisket?) to be soaked up by their white, squishy rolls. But for years I remained the designated Jell-O maker, and I was none too pleased. Especially when I started cooking real food, dishes with nutritional and aesthetic value. I wanted to share my newfound hobby with the family, but as my mother-in-law hadn’t noticed I could do anything but dissolve gelatin-laced sugar in boiling water and stir in some frozen berries, the Jell-O remained my familial duty.

Finally one year, my sister-in-law (the basil hater), spoke up for me. She actually suggested to our mother-in-law that I might like to make something else, that I shouldn’t be relegated to preparing the wobbly jewel-toned mass for all my married years. I guess I owe her. Which means I’d best not judge her ongoing relationship-of-convenience with prepared and processed foods.

Dish out what you want to get back, right?

 

 

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