Archive for January, 2008

The pucker factor

I’ve just discovered something to like about the Southwest in winter, and of course it has to do with food. But before I disclose my secret (which isn’t much of a secret really, except that for the moment I know something you don’t know), allow me to explain myself. Briefly.

To put it lightly, I’m at odds with this place in which I live. I’m a fan of pronounced seasons, and down in these parts the changes are far more subtle. I realize this may draw some good-natured harassment from some of you winter-weary warriors, but sunshine has grown beyond boring in my book, my book with its faded cover and cracking spine (too much sun and dry air, you see). I want the drama, the change, brought by storm and snow. Instead I’m left to watch my bougainvillea – its leaves ever green and fuschia – wave ever-so-slightly in the cool breeze. But – oh! – I think I spot a cloud (those a.m. forecasters did indicate a chance of rain)!

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And so now to my secret, the thing I’ve found to be glad about (remember Pollyanna?): We are enjoying a veritable profusion of citrus, which is very much in season, and such abundance only bodes well for cooking. We’ve got Meyer lemons on top of Eurekas (or are they Lisbons?), grapefruits on top of tangelos. Not to mention the regular oranges. They all look so smashing, so bold and cheery, congregated in a big, shallow bowl atop my table. And the overflow looks mighty fine for that matter in the produce bin. That’s right, citrus can look good in anything.

We’re getting all this fetching fruit from my husband’s business, which is on a sort of farm, even though he works in finance. Let me shift into explanatory mode again: Brian’s office is in a converted residence on horse property. (We’re in the middle of Phoenix – more of a modern city with very little left that’s actually horsey about it.) When they bought the place, they learned that a couple of geriatric horses were a non-negotiable part of the house purchase. So while inside it’s all number crunching, outside it’s all carrot munching on the part of the horses – and the donkeys and mules and alpacas, which Brian’s partners later added to the family. There are also chickens, who donate loads of free-range, organic brown eggs. And of course, there are citrus trees everywhere.

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Even as the sun does not inspire me, these lemons Brian keeps bringing home sure do, which is how I discovered my Macerated Pears over French Toast. I’ve wanted to experiment with macerating fruit, which may sound rather destructive, but really it’s a gentle, hands-off means of softening and seasoning fruit. And this recipe is a perfect winter recipe, thanks to the warmth of the cinnamon and the savory chew of the French toast. Plus, it’s a respectable vehicle for all these lemons I’m not otherwise putting to use in my weekly batch of hummus or squeezing onto salmon or zesting onto salads or _______ (fill in the blank with your favorite go-to lemon application).

These pears definitely register the pucker factor, that zing that you get from lemon. But that’s lessened somewhat when you eat them on top of the French toast. Brian and the girls enjoyed adding a sweet drizzle of maple syrup, but I preferred the pears alone.

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Macerated Pears over French Toast

For the pears:

2 medium-sized pears (I used Comice, but Anjou would be nice, too)

½ to 1 C freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ to 1 C freshly squeezed orange juice

2 cinnamon sticks

4 tablespoons brown sugar

Thinly slice pears, peeling if desired. In a small bowl, mix equal parts lemon and orange juice with the brown sugar until sugar is dissolved. Add cinnamon sticks and pear slices (you want the pears to be immersed in the juices, so add more juice if necessary). Cover, and let soften for 3 to 5 hours, depending on the pears’ ripeness. Stir and taste the pears at intervals, adjusting seasoning as needed (you may find you want to add more sugar). Pears are done when they are very soft, but not mushy.

For the French toast:

1 loaf challah, thickly sliced

6 eggs

1 C milk

1 tsp vanilla

¼ tsp salt, or to taste

For serving:

¼ C chopped walnuts

1 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest

Maple syrup, if desired

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray or butter. Whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla and salt. Dip challah slices into the egg mixture, coating generously, then place slices on the baking sheet. Bake for 9 minutes, then flip slices over and bake for an additional 8 to 10 minutes until slices are golden brown and slightly toasted. Repeat with any remaining challah slices. (You can make the French toast in batches on a griddle or in a frying pan if you like.)

Serve French toast topped with pears, chopped walnuts and lemon zest. Accompany with maple syrup.

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Ahem de la crème: crêpe cake

I’ve just done away with four hours of my life, having spent them almost exclusively in my kitchen. Once upon a time I’d have considered that a grand waste of time, but these days I’ve decided that’s ok. Nice, even. Part of me thinks I’d be content doing this cooking/baking stuff all day long.

Still, it seems I have a knack for inserting myself into kitchen situations that are beyond my comfort level, where the learning curve appears (at least at first) neck-breakingly steep and time consuming. But isn’t that often what the kitchen experience is all about, anyway?

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This time it was for the noblest of ventures, the daughter’s birthday cake. We’re not talking plain ol’ cake, though. No mere yellow or devil’s food here. We’re talking crêpe cake, layer upon buttery layer of crêpes, stacked and smeared with highfalutin custard. It’s cake as couture, delicate but rich, self-important but too pretty to turn away from.

The idea hit when I turned to a glorious, glossy, magazine photo of a professionally configured crêpe cake (for sale, the price tag in the neighborhood of $75+ shipping and handling). It’s one of those things you see, and immediately think (seized by sheer ambition or the momentary crazies), Oh, I could do that. I sold my impressionable daughter on the confection, and started Googling recipes.

It was then, after the commitment had already been made, that I realized the size of the project. That I would be required to turn out twenty or so presentable – not simply edible – crêpes. That I would be responsible for whipping up the pastry cream filling that those in-the-baking-know (this does not include me) refer to as a crème patissière.

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Not only that, but I would have to contend with an ice bath. Is it just me, or do the words “ice bath” rouse fear in other, otherwise capable preparers of food? An ice bath asks for some serious multitasking. It entails more arms than I have. It means I’m to divert attention away from heavy-handed whisking at one corner of the counter, to cross the kitchen to the freezer, to cross the kitchen again to the sink. And because I’m making something with a French name, I have to do all this with something like finesse. Something like grace.

It’s almost too Martha-esque, so that I can only picture me in a modern-day Lucy Ricardo moment (which I promise would be sad, not a single bit funny). In my vision I’m struggling with my arms around a large and slippery stainless steel bowl full of this so-called ice bath, plunging into it another bowl full of my hot, jiggling custard, and spilling the lot all over my travertine floor, which of course would send me sailing smack into the dishwasher door.

So while my crêpe making past is sporadic, at least I’m familiar with the process. But this pastry cream stuff. Hmm. Not so much familiar with that.

Although, I had to remind myself (because talking ourselves through these things is what gets us through them, after all), I did make the Buche de Noel this past Christmas, chocolate genoise, ganache and all. And it turned out just fine. Quite lovely and tasty, even. So, daunting as it seemed, I knew I had it in me somewhere to accomplish this crêpe cake, too.

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And I did. A third of it is still in the fridge, in fact, and available for tastings.

For those of you anxious to please your next cake-eating crowd (or if you just want to see a more glorious version of the dessert), I used a combination of Amanda Hesser’s recommended recipes (see below) and the crème patissière recipe from Joy of Baking (link also below). I doubled the crème patissière recipe and went with the chocolate variation (I added extra chocolate, because our chocolate taste runs high around here). While Joy of Baking does not mention the ice bath, I was too afraid not to cold-shock my custard, so I did that part à la Hesser’s instructions, anyway.

I layered the crêpes with a smidge of raspberry preserves and the custard, then finished the cake with a dusting of cocoa powder and some fresh raspberries.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/15/magazine/15FOOD.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

http://www.joyofbaking.com/CremePatisserie.html

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Bulgur-ities

I know you’re out there, you people who read cookbooks as though they’re novels. Well, I’m here to report that I’m fast becoming one of you. It’s all thanks to Mark Bittman and his latest, “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” If it weren’t so outsized, so hefty, I’d probably have taken it to bed with me last night.

I’m not new to Bittman; I’m a fan of his The New York Times “The Minimalist” column. But I recently got my hands on this book. What I like is that not only is he precise and pragmatic, he’s also full of inspired variations. And you can tell how much he loves being in the kitchen and pan-searing tomatoes or grilling watermelon. Or stuffing fresh pasta with mashed favas. Whatever he’s doing, you know he’s comfortable doing it, and that gives a cook hope.

My reading is a mix of “a-ha” moments (“You can think of [soup making] as a one-pot course on fundamental cooking techniques,” Bittman says) and head noddings (hooray to the repurposing of leftovers!). I’m meat-free (not on moral grounds, mind you, it’s more of a taste thing) and so I cook mostly vegetarian anyway, with a lot of fish thrown in. But even though I’ve been eating this way for years, there’s a whole extension of my world out there that includes novelties like bulgur and miso.

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In fact, it’s Bittman’s enthusiasm for bulgur and miso that sent me traipsing around town just the other day in search of those two ingredients. I know bulgur from tabbouleh, but little did I know how much I’d love it warm, with Bittman’s recipe of dark sesame oil and green beans and soy sauce. Oh, the nutty rich goodness. I’m going to blow through that $3.49 bag I finally found at the third store (I swear, I thought these ingredients were just left of “regular.” I was astounded at how difficult they were to track down). It was worth it.

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In my kitchen after the war

It happens to moms everywhere: the moment when the patience evaporates, when all attempts at resolve—at playing the grown up, of all things—completely boil over because you forgot to lower the heat. (Right? Am I right?)

I’ve just had it out with Emmie, who was not being reasonable. It’s beyond tough for me to stay patient when my kids drop all efforts at reason, and this in itself is hardly reasonable. I wind up confronting the unreasonable with the unreasonable, expecting too much, and so it goes. (As parents are forever saying in France, “Tu n’es pas raisonnable.”).

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So while Emmie’s done what girls will sometimes do, which is shut herself in her bedroom, I’m alone in my kitchen listening to Stars’ latest, In Our Bedroom After the War (it’s marvelous, I think), with the gangly parsnips and their grubby potato counterparts, peeler in hand. They’re not the cheeriest companions, but they’ll do. I’m back to making soup, again, because times like these call for soup. At first the peeling bit seems too long a process for a measly pot of winter bisque, but as the curls of vegetable skin start to pile up in the sink, I finally start to feel put in my place.

There’s a certain mental space I can only squeeze into while I’m cooking, and this is particularly so when other parts of my day have held a certain ratio of drama or turmoil. Not that my life is high on drama, truly, but everybody has their moments. And while some people deal with their moments by knitting or running or maxing out their credit card, I turn to my produce and my pots. I make dinner, and the process usually just kind of washes the rest of it away, and plops my perspective back where it belongs.

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It’s almost like magic, which is appropriate, given how akin cooking is to magic. It’s taking one thing and joining it with something else and affecting a transformation, an altered, better state. It’s chopping the parsnips and the onions, cubing the potatoes, and browning it all just a touch in a pot with a couple sprigs of thyme. It’s simmering the mixture to softness in stock, then rendering it smooth and silky with a touch on the blender’s purée button. It’s topping it with black pepper just cracked and crumbled chestnuts just browned. It’s serving it to my family, all together again, patience and reason having decidedly returned.

Parnsip Bisque with Browned Chestnuts
(’twas a worthy use for my leftover chestnuts from the Christmas stuffing!)
Adapted from Gourmet

1 small onion, chopped
1 lb parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 large russet potato, peeled and chopped
2 fresh thyme sprigs
1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 to 2 ½ cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth
½ to 1 cup water
8 vacuum-packed or jarred roasted whole chestnuts, coarsely crumbled

Cook onion, parsnips, potato, and thyme sprigs in 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil in a large saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, until just beginning to brown on bottom of pan, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and add broth and water. Simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Discard thyme sprigs.

Puree soup in batches in a blender (be careful; remember hot liquids expand when blended) and transfer to a bowl. Return soup to saucepan, salt and pepper to taste and keep warm.

Sauté chestnuts in 1 teaspoon butter in a small nonstick skillet over moderately high heat, stirring frequently, until browned and crisp, about 5 minutes.

Ladle soup into bowls and top with chestnuts to serve.

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Bread heads: our easiest ever loaf

So far, so good. We made our very first loaf of bread in the new year, the year I’ve resolved to (begin to) learn the ins and outs of this bread-making stuff—and to rescue my kids from the misfortunes beset upon those indolent Little Red Hen characters by getting them to sidle up to the counter with me.

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We started easy enough, with a recipe from the pages of “Cooking with Kids” by Linda Collister. We like this book, because it treats the subject with intelligence—no vegetables in drag or cutesy recipe names here. Just solid, real food, simply prepared but without dumbed-down flavor. Think roasted veggies with thyme and pasta with lemon. Smoked salmon in endive “boats,” anyone?

Then there are the bread recipes. We gave our first go with the Grant Loaf, described as “The best recipe for your first-ever loaf.” It was created by accident by a woman named Doris Grant and involves zero kneading and only one rise—in the pan (Ms. Grant, whoever you are, I fully appreciate this screw-up).

Just as billed, it was easy. Almost too easy, because the dough rose like no other dough I’ve made before. And because the recipe calls for a large loaf pan, and I flouted the “suggestion” and used the regular-sized loaf pan in my repertoire, the dough flowed over the sides of the pan during its brief rising period. We picked up the overflow and flipped it on top of the risen loaf, then baked it, without really smoothing it out. Luckily I wasn’t going for pretty, just tasty. And tasty it was (please note the past tense—our thick slices drizzled with honey are gone, long gone).

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The Grant Loaf (adapted from Cooking with Kids by Linda Collister)

5 cups whole wheat flour

1 tsp. salt

1 packet or 2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast

1 tablespoon honey

2 ½ cups tepid water

Put the flour and salt in a large bowl and mix well with your hand. Mix in yeast.

Use your hand to make a hollow in the center of the flour. Add the honey and water to the hollow.

Mix the flour into the liquid with your hand, then mix well for one minute, moving the dough from the sides of the bowl into the center. Mix one more minute until the dough feels very slippery and elastic and comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl.

Lift the dough into a large loaf pan (I highly recommend this) and smooth the surface with a plastic spatula. Cover loosely  with a clean, damp dish towel. Leave in a warm spot for 30 to 40 minutes or until the dough rises to within ½ inch of the top of the pan.

While dough rises, heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake loaf for 35 to 40 minutes.

To test doneness, remove the pan from the oven and remove the loaf from the pan. Tap the loaf underneath. A hollow sound indicates the loaf is done.

Transfer to a wire rack until cold (or just slice into the thing because you can’t stand to wait, like we did).

Best eaten within four days or freeze for up to one month.


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It’s a love thing

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I’m back in this, my very own kitchen, after a week in Salt Lake City visiting family (dear family) and snow (oh, snow) and snow-covered slopes (yes, the rumors are true: Utah has the best skiing snow on the planet).

During our travels home, as our little family tried to engage each other in road trip chitchat, my oldest, Emmie, got all gung ho about New Year’s resolutions. She urged me to make one, and so here it is: I resolve to learn more about making bread this year. Which will mean actually baking bread. A lot. I know, I’ve mentioned this before on these pages, but my desire is true. So expect to hear more from me about flours and frustration, rise times and how I can’t possibly have enough time to nurture a proper loaf.

Part two of that resolution is to get the girls more involved, to make them (would encourage be a better word?) learn, in the hope that they won’t be half as intimidated as I am by the prospect. And, in the meantime, I resolve to include them more in other cooking tasks. We’ll see how it goes.

But committed as I am to my open-kitchen philosophy, to welcoming Emmie and Quinn to take turns with the mixer and to elbow their way into my sacred stirring space, I’ll still insist on showing them my love by shooing them out of the kitchen from time to time, to urge them to play nicely on the other side of the counter while I do my thing.

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Girls, you need to know that right now I am happy to be zesting a lemon. Please, don’t ask me to play Pollys with you. Later I promise to demonstrate my love by sitting on the floor with you and your toy horses, whinnying my best whinny.

But just for right now let me ever-so-finely chop an onion so that you get the flavor without so much as perceiving where it comes from in this, your most finicky of stages so far. Let me whisk and simmer, stir and braise. Let me show you I love you with fresh herbs and wild salmon. Let me offer you the bite of a perfectly boiled noodle. Let me show you what figs are like paired with goat cheese and wrapped in lahvosh.

Is this selfish, this want to show my love in this way? Heck, yes, it is. But I promise your taste buds, selfish bumps that they are, will someday thank me.

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