Monday, December 28, 2009

The art of understatement

When I was younger, Christmas morning was unlike anything else.

A man, a big, bearded man, would actually climb smack down into my living room, and he’d bring presents, or that was the idea. It baffled me, but I loved it. I’d leave him notes to thank him for so graciously remembering our house, and he’d always neatly take a bite out of the cookies I’d put out, a scant sip from the glass of milk. Every year.

I don’t remember the moment when I realized that logically, the idea of Santa didn’t quite add up, but since then, Christmas has become an entirely different day. Instead of lists for Santa, sleepless Christmas Eves, and being followed around by video cameras, my family became experts at the art of understatement. “Now, don’t get too excited,” they always say, “things are going to be pretty lean this year.” Every year, no fail, they set out to lower our expectations, as if priming us for receiving only the clementines that were always in our stockings, and the pairs of socks that always make it under the tree.

Also every year, exactly the opposite happens. Like when we were kids, and expected a nightly visit via the chimney, the present pile still seems to magically grow, our stockings almost bursting at their knit seams. They truly outdo themselves. This year, they’ve done it again.

Among the stars under my tree this year was a fancy-pants new camera lens, which has about as much heft as the camera itself, and about as much street cred as there is, at least in the world of Canons. There were also books, copious books, and chocolate galore. Oh yeah, there was also the stand mixer.

You should see this beauty. It’s cherry red, and as sexy as a piece of kitchen equipment can be. On Christmas day, it was sitting atop the counter, all seductive-like, begging to be put to work. Naturally, I had to start mixing.

I set aside my hatred for baking, and got to work. Or rather, I threw everything in my new mixer and watched it do the work for me. Several hours, pounds of chocolate, and sticks of butter later, I had an impressive spread. But I think, for today, I’ll share just one recipe, and maybe string you along a bit, much like the days leading up to Christmas do. The recipe below is for a tricked-out version of oatmeal cookies: they’re beefed up with not one, or two, but three different kinds of chocolate, and they have cranberries thrown in for good measure. Stay tuned: I have peppermint bark, macaroons, and scones (that rose!) to tell you about.*

Triple-Chocolate Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies
(Adapted from

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips (The amount here, for the chocolate, is a bit flexible. Whatever you have on hand.)
1/3 cup milk chocolate chips
1/3 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup coarsely chopped dried cranberries

Make sure rack is in the center of the oven, and preheat to 350°F. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, preferably one that's cherry red, beat butter and both sugars in large bowl until smooth. Beat in egg and vanilla. Add flour mixture and oats and stir until blended. Stir in all chocolate chips and cranberries.

Drop batter by rounded tablespoonfuls onto prepared sheets, 2 inches apart. Bake cookies, 1 sheet at a time, until edges are light brown, about 14 minutes. Transfer to cooling racks after a few minutes.

*Thank, thank, thank you so much to everyone this year; you have all sufficiently fortified my library, my kitchen, and my camera bag.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A sort of sneaky, wild card

Sometimes all anyone needs is a good contest.

That is, providing he or she is a sure-fire winner, or at least has some sort of sneaky, wild card to play at the last second. I’ve never been the type to value the experience of a loss, or learn from it, or whatever it is that they say. When it comes down to it, if there’s something to be won, it’s balls to the wall for me. Consequently, my competitive streak seems to debase my vocabulary into short phrases of mild cursing, too. Which is fine by me, because mild cursing has the tendency to intimidate an opponent into submission – and that means I win.

It just so happens that I’m as competitive as they come. I’m the girl that forces the Monopoly game to be put away early because she has gotten so angry she’s started yelling at children, trying to launder paper money, and has stormed out of the room not once, but twice, since her fourth trip past go. I also happen to be the girl who, even though I know better, is a complete and utter sucker for reverse psychology, because it sounds a little too much like a challenge, and, well, I must win. I must. Always.

Growing up, I was a total jock, if you can believe it. I was a sweat-pants wearing, soccer-playing athlete through and through; I’d walk the hallways and tuck up my sleeves in that quintessentially jock way, folding the shoulder seam in just so. (I also probably owe a hearty apology to all soccer officials that ever came within yelling distance of me during the fateful Jock Years. My deepest apologies; I’ve learned some manners since then.)

Now that I’ve taken a liking to a much more feminine discipline, my competitive streak still bares its mildly-cursing, sleeve-tucked teeth every once in a while. Luckily for me, I’ve found a wild card that makes winning that much easier. In the contest of thanksgiving desserts, pumpkin bread pudding will win, every time.

Crusty bread soaked in custard isn’t usually a hard sell, but this one, with its subtle pumpkin and warm spices, ends up tasting like a jazzed up version of cinnamon French toast. In that way, it’s almost nostalgic. It’s simple, and comforting, and it tastes familiar; this dessert feels like a passed-down heirloom from the first time you put it on the table. At this rate, though, it will be one, as long as there are contests to win, and thanksgivings to bake for.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding
Adapted from Gourmet

1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs plus 1 yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
5 cups cubed (1-inch) day-old baguette or crusty bread
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk together cream, pumpkin, milk, sugar, eggs, yolk, salt, and spices in a bowl.

Toss bread cubes with butter in another bowl, then add pumpkin mixture and toss to coat. Put all of that into an ungreased 8-inch square baking dish and bake until custard is set, about 25 minutes. Easy, peasy. Go impress some guests.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On finals, snow, and Christmas-scrambling

Well, oh my. Finals are (finally!) over.

Now that I’m prepared to discuss, in some measure, the African Diaspora, women’s conduct literature, and how our Renaissance predecessors theorized on the ending ends of earthly learning, I’m prepared to start cooking; and more importantly, I’m prepared to start telling you all about it all over again.

The end of finals means, of course, the end of a semester, the end of deep, from-the-core sighs, and last minute cramming. It brings the (exciting!) prospect of one more semester to get through until they release me, adult-style, into the real world for good. Consequently, it also means the good old Christmas scramble: five days (and counting!) until the big day, for which I am totally and utterly unprepared. But, much like studying for college finals, I work best under pressure. Others may squirm and fret and pour themselves into flashcard-making, but I’m all about it. Give me a baking sheet, some canning jars, and perhaps a few rush deliveries from, and I’m good to go.

And, in the spirit of the season, we were just given a ten-inch dusting of fluffy white powder. If that doesn’t make you want to throw on the oven for some holiday baking, string some lights, and dance around the kitchen to Mannheim Steamroller*, well, then, you should stop being Scrooge.

Although I can’t tell you what I’m making for Christmas just yet (my present list may or may not include all of my readers…), I do have some recipes stashed away that I’ve been meaning to share. So, without any better segue than - make this, it’s down-to-your-bones good, I introduce a potato gratin: made rich with mascarpone, and earthy with porcini mushrooms hidden into its layers. It made a fancy appearance on our Thanksgiving table this year, and I would be doing everyone a disservice to keep the recipe all to myself. Once you’ve made it, and I’ve sufficiently unearthed our cars from their heavy, winter blankets of snow, meet me back here: I have all sorts of tarts, and braised lambs, and pumpkin bread puddings up my sleeve.

*Oh, yeah. When I wrote that I was specifically channeling their synth-y rendition of “Deck the Halls,” but any equally cringe-worthy music would do the trick.

Potato Gratin with Mascarpone and Porcini Mushrooms

(Adapted from Bon Appetit)

I’ve made this twice now; the first time, the potato layers didn’t quite cook through, even with an extra half hour added to the baking time. This most recent time I quickly blanched the sliced potatoes before assembly, and that seemed to work. Unless you want yours with a weird kind of crunch, or you want to wait forever and a day for it to bake, that’s what I recommend doing.

4 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups mascarpone cheese
1 cup whipping cream
3 garlic cloves, chopped
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 1/2 pounds russet potatoes (about 5 large), peeled, cut crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices

Pour boiling water over dried mushrooms and let them soak for about 20 minutes in order to re-hydrate. Drain and roughly chop.

Melt butter with oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms and sauté until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Whisk 1/4 cup Parmesan and next 4 ingredients in small bowl; season with salt and pepper.

With the mushrooms and the cheese mixture prepared, blanch potato slices in a deep pot of boiling water for a few minutes, or until their just slightly more yielding than before. (You don’t have to cook them completely, just get their cooking started a bit.)

Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter wide shallow 2-quart baking dish. Arrange 1/4 of potato slices in bottom of dish. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Scatter 1/4 of mushrooms over. Repeat. Spread half of cheese mixture over, shaking dish to settle. (It helps to heat the cheese mixture slightly.) Repeat this process until all ingredients are used up. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons Parmesan over. Place gratin dish on rimmed baking sheet.

Bake gratin until top is brown and sauce is bubbling at edges, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Let gratin rest for a few minutes, and serve warm.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Battling the grand entrance complex

Why is it that after some time away, there is always pressure to return with something extraordinary? This first happened to me when I came back from Europe; I felt an obligation to make impressive, sweeping statements about my experiences, about food, and probably a whole slew of other discoveries, all existential-like. If this pressure went by a name, it would be called The Grand Entrance Complex, and it would occupy a place in the medical books right between OCD and perfectionism, in all likelihood. It’s all silly, though, really. Which is why I’m going to start small.

It’s been about two weeks since I’ve last visited, and since then I’ve plowed through a few novels, an unapologetically dense book on historical theory, and woken up to an SUV sitting cock-eyed, right outside my window. (More on that later.) In short, I’ve had a lot of things taking my mind off of food these days, but I have managed to come up with a few new favorites. So, then, here we go, my November favorites:

1. Pumpkin Spice Tea

Fantastic. Especially when it is served, loose-leaf, in a brand new cute little café where I live. The café bravely sits on our main street, like the new kid in school with the fancy stylish clothes. You see, while I’m sure there was a time when our main street was actually, well, main, its pretty weathered these days. But new-kid-on-the-block status aside, I would go anywhere for this tea. Find some, or visit Willimantic, and drink it with honey and just a splash of milk – it couldn’t feel more like fall.

2. Planning trips to New York with Pete

Fine, this one is sort of more of a year-round favorite. But in my defense, our plans rarely materialize, so the fact that we’re actually going this weekend (this! weekend!) lands it smack in the November favorites category. We’ll spend two and a half days eating really, really good food and trying to walk it off. What more could a girl ask for?

3. Roasted Pears

…Just when you thought my cooking-time this month had been limited to drinking tea other people brewed and dreaming of meals other (New York) people will make. There’s a feature on pears in the New York Times this month, and it inspired me to turn on my oven. I just coated a few halved Bosc pears in sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, and a touch of nutmeg and let them get all slouchy for about 40 minutes under 350 degree heat. I’m still working out the sugar amount, and next time I might try using some vanilla. It’s a work in progress, but it’s also ridiculously adaptable. Until I figure it out, try it, and let me know what you did. Then, eat one or two, while sipping pumpkin spice tea, and daydream about gallivanting in New York: Perfect. Fall. Day.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Too long...

It’s been a while. I’m sorry about that.

I certainly haven’t been holding up my end of the bargain, I know. Today, I got a voicemail from my mother suggesting that I do a blog post on a Portugese kale soup she made yesterday. She is, after all, my perpetual cheerleader. I was thankful for the idea (I take them wherever I can get them these days), but after a brief smile and a bit of stomach rumbling, I realized that it has been a bit too long since I’ve been here.

Don’t be mad – it’s not like I’ve been eating like a queen and hiding all the recipes from you. That’s not it at all. Actually, I’ve been very close to eating my own hand from all the stress of school. And you woudn’t want to read about that, would you? How I ate my own hand? That’s, like, cannibalism. See where my mind is these days? All over the place, that’s where.

I promise to come back, and stay back, soon. Even though I’ve taken a break from spending evenings over the stove, my list of dishes to make has been chugging right along without me, so I’ll have to start back in on it before it gets so big it needs its own room in my apartment, which it can’t have, because we don’t have near enough space.

For now, I’ll leave you with a pretty picture of the sky, which to me, feels optimistic, and carefree, and decidedly not stuck inside writing papers in the library. I hope to be back soon, hopefully with a Portugese kale soup, and hopefully with a clear head.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Small-town, 19th century France

I’m fantastic at procrastinating. Really, I’m one of the best. Like right now, I’m supposed to have my head buried deep inside Evelina, reading about seductive eighteenth century London, but instead I’m here, writing to you. I could also be reading about Dominican border frontiers, but that is beside the point.

The point is, that in the midst of putting things off, I was on track to missing apple season entirely. And that would have been a grave, grave mistake; summer may have all of the tomatoes, and the blueberries, and, well, all of the best produce – but fall has the apples, which aren’t to be missed. Luckily for me, in a battle of apples and scholarly history articles, apples always win, especially if they’re in tart form.

I felt like some sort of Alsatian housewife, save for the flowery-wallpapered kitchen and frilly apron while I made this, organizing my paper-thin apples in concentric circles over a layer of apricot preserves. All very small-town 19th century France, if you ask me. But daydreaming about being a boulanger on sunny Monday afternoons while baking apple galettes is actually quite a nice reprieve from books and papers and tests.

I was intimidated, I will admit, about the crust part of this endeavor. Crust making has always seemed to me a finicky, high maintenance sort of thing – wholly dependent on precision – like a chemistry experiment, but with flour and butter instead of Borax and Elmer’s glue. Plus, people can be downright picky about their crusts.

I once had a table at the restaurant order our apple tart for dessert, and after loving each previous course, pull me aside after they had finished most of the thing, to tell me each one of its shortcomings. It was a major disappointment, they told me, the crust was just all wrong. Now, aside from wondering where most of the tart had gone if it was really that bad, I wondered if they knew we had a French chef making the pastry back there in the kitchen, using his French pastry expertise, which includes being not at all shy with butter. In my mind, if you’re from France, you automatically have a way with pastry, probably by means of genetic predisposition.

Needless to say, if someone could complain about a frenchman’s pastry, I felt I had a very small shot at success. But since the pressures of my kitchen are much less than that of a four-star restaurant’s, and since someone figured out that all we baking-haters really need for good pastry is a food processor, I gave it a go.

Turns out, an apple galette is actually much simpler than you’d think. It certainly looks impressive, but that’s all a front: all it really takes is a food processor, a rolling pin, and a little patience with layering apples. And well, a frilly apron if you’re into that.

I’m not sure if mine would satisfy snobby restaurant patrons, but judging by how fast it got devoured in my house, I’d say I did pretty well. The crust was surprisingly flaky and buttery, and the apples turned a caramel brown while getting perfectly melty from their long, slow stint under the oven’s heat. Make this soon, before all the good apples are gone. Now that I have, I need to get back to Evelina.

Apple Galette
(Adapted from Bon Appetit)

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons (or more) ice water

1 1/2 pounds orchard apples (the more tart the better), peeled, cored, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
4 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel
1/4 cup apricot preserves
Whole milk

If you want to feel super authentic, do this part with your hands. If, however, you’re like me, and crusts scare you, go with the food processor: blend flour and salt in processor. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add ice water and blend just until dough begins to clump together, adding more ice water by teaspoonfuls if dough is dry. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill 1 hour.

Roll out dough between sheets of parchment paper until it is about 1/8in. thick. Don’t be too fussy – it doesn’t have to be a perfect circle, the thickness just has to be even. Rustic is good, too. Peel off the top sheet of parchment. Using bottom sheet as aid, transfer dough on parchment to large unrimmed baking sheet. Chill 15 minutes.

While it’s chilling, preheat your oven to 450°F, and slice your apples. I used a mandoline for this part. Combine apple slices, 2 tablespoons sugar, and lemon peel in medium bowl; toss to blend, being careful not to break the fragile apples. Spread preserves over crust, leaving 1 1/2-inch plain border. Arrange apple slices in concentric circles atop preserves, overlapping slightly. Using parchment as aid, fold plain crust border up over apples, pinching any cracks in crust. Brush crust with milk. Sprinkle crust edges and apples with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.

Bake for 20 minutes, and then reduce oven temperature to 375°F and continue baking until crust is golden, about 25 minutes longer. When you take it out, slide a long thin knife between parchment and galette to make sure it won’t stick later on. Let cool a bit, and then cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dream world

I guess I’m finally ready to talk about it.

It’s been a week of pure denial around here, a full-on textbook display of grief’s notorious first stage. And while I could certainly forge on in my denial-ridden dream world – the one in which, some day, I am a Gourmet contributor, I feel it’s probably best for my mental health that I face this thing head on.

Gourmet is gone. Well, almost. It has one issue left, and then it’s no more. After 68 years. Sixty. Eight.

Gourmet’s tragic demise has been talked about endlessly; people all over the internet are speculating about why it fell, and even having little rivalries over it. Which, to me, all feels kind of like a tease, because there is really no point.

It did make me think, though, of that meeting I had this summer with an editor from Bon Appetit (lucky, lucky Bon Appetit). Remember the sensational magazine editor I mentioned meeting? She was Pat Brown, a former Bon Appetit and Cuisine editor who is perhaps the most inspiring, firecracker-of-a-woman I have ever met. We talked about her personal relationships with Julia Child and Ruth Reichl, among others, but mostly, we talked about how I wanted to do what she did one day, and how I should get there.

I remember her story about how she got started at magazines, just a short while after she had moved to New York; “You’re just going to love the city, you know,” she’d keep leaning over to say, in between bites of her French marketplate. While working at a rent-paying job, she was sitting in a diner one morning, and idly chatting with a man, who asked her what she really wanted to do with her life. Bluntly, she told the man that really, she wanted to work at the New Yorker. A little while later, partly by the good graces of connections, she really was.

I don’t doubt that she would have gotten there eventually without the help of this man. (Seriously, meet her, and you’ll know what I mean.) But her story makes me think of being at the right place at the right time. And in a larger sense, it makes me wonder if this generation is really even the right time for print media anymore. I hope, hope, hope it is, but when things like Gourmet happen, it makes everyone a little uneasy. (Or, it makes the food nerds a little uneasy; I suppose I can’t speak for everyone.)

Anyway, this is all just to say that Pat Brown’s reality of how she got started is actually my dream. I want to meet a magazine man in a diner, too. Of course, I’d be just as happy without the serendipity, and just with working my way up. But I can always dream it – and rest assured I always will – but I want it, by the time I’m old enough, to be my reality too.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Officially up and running

It seems that I've had my head buried in books too long to notice that fall has officially arrived. All of the sudden, the temperature warrants sweaters and most of the leaves are turning that cozy, familiar mix of orange and yellow. I happen to love fall, with its colorful leaves and its colder weather, partly because summer heat gets tiring, and partly because my overgrown collection of scarves has been abandoned for far too long come October. I also happen to love scarves. I'm glad I realized it's here before it was too late, and I missed out on all of the good things about fall, especially the apples.

But, since I've been nose-deep in piles of books lately, instead of much better things like tarte tatins and hot apple cider laced with cinnamon, I have not made it to an orchard yet. Soon, though, fingers crossed.

Speaking of books, today I wanted to tell you about one of my all time favorites. It was the very first food related gift I ever got, and it was given to me not too long ago. Of course, an Easy Bake oven was the object of my affection for many years and I'm sure made it onto the Christmas list more than once, but much to my chagrin, my parents never thought it would be a worthwhile investment. They gave me a Barbie car instead, in which I rode in style, with my hair blowing as much as hair can blow in 2 mph winds, far away from my culinary aspirations.

As you know, these aspirations returned in full force once I started working at the Still River Café. Soon after my inner food nerd had begun to develop, Pete gave me Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook for Christmas that year. And although the Easy Bake will always have a special place in my heart, this gift was a few steps up, you could say, from the pink plastic oven of Christmas past. The inscription on the title page began “For my aspiring chef.” Best. Present. Ever. (Besides the pasta maker, and the Wusthof knife, and…)

This book is truly amazing, and if you don't own it yet, I suggest you pick yourself up a copy before I hoard them all to give as presents. It's worth the splurge, I promise. It's as much a piece of art as it is a cookbook; I often pick it back up just to look through all of the photos. For the longest time, I was afraid to put in on the counter. This is the kind of book so pretty that you want to put it in a frame instead of next to a bubbling pot on the stove. But that would be a mistake. A big, big mistake, because there is so much to learn in there, like how to make French-Laundry-perfect pasta.

This is all a very round about way of saying that the pasta maker is officially up and running. I'm sorry, I know, I could have just led with that.

I made the pasta dough a few days ago, mostly as a dry run. I practiced kneading, rolling, and cutting fresh pasta, and I'm quite certain that it might be my new favorite thing to make if I have a whole afternoon to burn, or a paper to procrastinate. And get this: according to Thomas Keller, you can't over-knead pasta dough. I'm not lying. It says in his book, almost verbatim, that when you think you're done kneading, go for another ten minutes. If that doesn't get you excited about making pasta, then I don't know what will.

I made a really quick shrimp scampi with the noodles I had rolled out, and for a first time go, I thought I did a pretty bang-up job. Unfortunately, it didn't make it into a picture, both because I was too hungry and my arms were too tired from all the kneading. But, I can tell you, the pasta was eggy, tender, and right on the verge of still being elastic - exactly what you want to eat on a chilly, fall night while wearing a big, burly sweater. Actually, if that doesn't get you excited about making pasta, then I don't know what will.

Pasta Dough
(Ripped straight, and not adapted, from The French Laundry Cookbook. Because messing with Thomas Keller's recipes would be pretty close to sacrilege, in my religion.)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
6 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon milk

Mound the flour on a clean surface and make a well in the center with edges tall enough to hold the egg mixture without spilling.

Combine all other ingredients and pour into the well. Use your fingers to break up the eggs a bit, and begin to stir the mixture, slowly incorporating the flour from the edges. Be careful not to let the eggs spill from the well, and also be careful to incorporate the flour slowly enough so it won't get lumpy. Occasionally push the flour using your hands, all the while continuing the circular stirring motion with your fingers.

When the dough gets too tight to keep stirring with your fingers, start cutting the remaining flour into the dough. When most of the flour has been incorporated, it will look shaggy but hold together. At this point, begin kneading by pushing it forward with the heels of your hands. Form it back into a ball, and knead again. Repeat this process until dough is no longer shaggy.

Let dough rest while you clean your work surface. Sprinkle some flour down, and begin to knead again, in the same motion, until dough becomes almost silky. When you think you're done, go for another ten minutes. (!) The dough is ready with it passes the pull test: it should want to snap back into place when you pull a section of it. Double-wrap in plastic wrap and let it rest at least 30 minutes before rolling it out.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Baking haters

Hi again, so soon.

I'm just doing some last pleasure reading before the crunch of the week sets in again, and while I was perusing some other food blogs I like, I came across this.

I think I might need to try this to see if it really stands up to her claim. After all, I am one of those baking haters, remember?

Anyway, if any one of you tries it before I do, be sure to let me know if it's as easy as she says. I, naturally, am skeptical. Plums are probably out by now, but apples? I'm off to bed (I have a guilty pleasure of 10:30 bedtimes), but I will be back soon, with stories of pasta I hope.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Busy spells

Sighs are definitely in order. Big, yawning, from-the-core sighs have been happening around here a lot lately. There’s just so much going on. I find, too, that if you take three times longer than normal to inhale and exhale one breath, you get to slow down for just a moment – think, reorganize, maybe remember to tie a shoe, all the things that you forgot to do while you were running around like a crazy person. Or in some cases, while your brain was running like a crazy person.

For example, the other night I’m pretty sure I dreamt I was involved in some sort of Russian Revolution, 1905 or 1917 I can’t be sure, but I led it, right alongside Marcus Garvey. I happen, coincidentally, to be taking two history courses: Europe in the 20th Century, and Black Experience in the Americas.

Just yesterday, I was given a pop quiz in my British Renaissance lit class, which asked me to dutifully produce the names of the four versions of the Bible we had read the night before. In response, I started sweating, and my mind jumped forward about two hundred years to Absalom and Achitophel – something being covered not in that class, but my British Restoration class. All I could produce was a measly “King James Version;” it was certainly not one of my best pop quiz performances.

When political movements on different continents begin to converge, the lines between centuries begin to blur, and you’re dreaming out the history of interwar Europe, it’s never a good thing. My mind is brimming with revolutionaries and Reichtags and Calvinists and satirists, and at this point, sighing helps a little.

Risotto also helps. During weeks like these, I want dinner to be something comforting, yet easy to make. Risotto is just that. Its preparation is relatively mindless, which is good in times like these, because by the time dinner rolls around, my mind gets plain recalcitrant. But even better is the fact that the end product is pretty darn good, and it’s made even more so with a poached egg on top. And all that stirring can be downright therapeutic.

I made it on Tuesday, when my mind was already at max capacity with things to remember, and the end of the week wasn’t yet in sight. Risotto, combined with a healthy dose of deep, sigh-like breathing is now my go-to treatment for busy spells. I might even say that I would suffer through weeks like this again and again, as long as there’s a big batch of risotto waiting for me somewhere near Tuesday.

Butternut Squash and Leek Risotto

3-4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups Arborio rice
About 4 cups stock, preferably homemade
½ cup white wine
½ large white onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 leeks, light green and white parts only, chopped
1/3 to ½ cup butternut squash, peeled and very finely diced
Large handful grated Parmesan cheese

Put stock in a saucepan and heat it on low. Keep it warmed on the stovetop near your risotto pot.

Heat olive oil in the bottom of a large pot over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, leeks and squash, and sweat for about 15 minutes. Everything should be softened and becoming translucent, but not browned.

Add the rice, and let it toast for a minute or so; stir it to incorporate it with the vegetables and the oil. Pour in a healthy glug of white wine, and stir until this is absorbed. Add ½ cup of the warmed stock, and stir until absorbed. From here on out, add and re-add the liquid in ½ cup intervals, stirring throughout. This process should take about 25-30 minutes. When you’re nearing the end of your stock, start tasting the risotto to check for doneness. It should be just barely al dente. Warm more stock if necessary.

At the very end, add in your cheese, and season with salt and pepper to taste. If you want to be rich about it, or particularly artery-clogging, finish it with a few tablespoons of butter. Serve warm.

This can be refrigerated and it keeps well for a few days; I like to make a big batch so I can reheat it later on.

Note: Though I was tormented in my youth for having hairier-than-average arms, the arms in the second picture are not my own. I had a helper, who was male, and who is decidedly hairier than I am. Just thought I'd clear that up. Clearly, I have a complex.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Waxing sentimental

Now, I usually don’t talk about these sorts of things, but I swear, this has relevance to food: this past week marks the vague point in time that would constitute three years together for Pete and me. (Three! Years!)

Anyway, we never quite know how to go about celebrating, if at all (Carve our initials somewhere? Make a toast?), but we figured, as of late, that we were completely missing out. You see, other couples wax sentimental at least once a year, and shower each other with presents. It didn’t seem fair. We wanted to be showered with presents, too. So we decided, rather unromantically, that we would give it a go – this whole celebrating anniversaries thing.

I say unromantically, but I guess I mean nonchalantly. Our decision-making process made me very happy, and it may have even made my knees a little weak. It’s just our “hey, wanna do presents this year? should we set a price limit?” probably wasn’t the most conventional way to go about deciding. It was wonderfully awkward but entirely comfortable at the same time, much like our relationship is.

Nonetheless, we took it upon ourselves to be greedy this year. For most couples this means jewelry, maybe some flowers, definitely cutesy cards. For us, it means a two-hour drive for one meal, pasta makers, and microbrewery newsletters. (Pasta! Makers!)

Last week we drove the long haul to Cambridge and tried Hungry Mother for dinner. It was fantastic, I would highly recommend it. I would also highly recommend making your boyfriend do the driving. Almost more importantly, as I just mentioned, Pete is getting me a pasta maker!!! I cannot wait. I’m sure I’ll be off to a messy start marked by lopsided ravioli and other pasta mishaps, but we all have to begin somewhere, right? Soon enough I hope, as time tends to fly with these things, I’ll be coming up on three years with my pasta maker, and by then, I’ll be a pro.

**Man, am I going to get in trouble for this picture. If it comes down in the near future, you'll know why.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Homage to the egg

It's so good to be back. My taste buds are finally back in working order, but let me tell you, I was scared there for a minute. I find that when you're sick, you spend more time thinking about what you wish you could be eating. It's not totally abnormal for me to daydream about food, but I was even more taunted this past week. You think about food, and cooking, and then you start fantasizing about food actually having feelings. Weird, I know. Lately, I’ve been feeling sorry for the egg.

It’s always been so trusty, so constant: the ever-humble, adaptable source of protein. It has a way of always making it into the fridge, and sitting there politely, in its brown carton, never asking for anything. But eggs always seem to get lost in the shuffle, overlooked as mere add-ins to a cake or a meatloaf or a dough. The egg seldom gets to play the lead, and when it does, it’s usually not a memorable performance.

What I mean is, scrambled eggs are usually what I try not to fall back on, as tempting as they are, being so cheap and so quick. There are times, yes, when cheap and quick is all I could ever want, but the egg can do so much better than that, and in not much more time. I feel like we owe it to the egg; it deserves a better vehicle than we’ve been giving it all these years. It deserves a tricked out vehicle, you might say, one with leeks and Gruyere.

Last night, I paid homage to eggs with a heartbreakingly simple frittata. A frittata is lighter and simpler than a quiche, and is what you make if you lack the pastry know how of crust-making and feel sacrilegious buying one pre-made. Made with just eggs, vegetables, a splash of milk and a scant handful of cheese, a frittata really lets the egg shine.

Leeks and Gruyere would be the obvious choice if you’re feeling chic and French, I suppose, but you could substitute with any vegetable and semi-hard cheese. I once made a caramelized onion and goat cheese one that worked beautifully. It takes only about ten minutes to do (longer if you’re melting leeks, but isn’t being time consuming the French way?), and you end up with what I like to think of as a gussied up omelet, or at least its grown-up cousin. Either way, it’s something to look forward to making, not to dread falling back on: it’s all egg, all on its own, and it’s delicious.

Leek and Gruyere Frittata

10 eggs
A splash of milk
1-2 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
1 large leek, white and pale green parts only, washed and chopped
1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese, plus a little extra for sprinkling

Melting the leeks is the only real cooking you have to do here: melt the butter in a skillet, and toss in the chopped leeks. Sweat them for about five minutes, and when they’ve started to soften, add enough water just to cover them. Simmer on medium high until most of the water has evaporated, and leeks are very soft. This should take about ten minutes, but taste as you go along: they should be feel “melted,” or rather, they should almost melt in your mouth. Add more water as necessary.

Preheat broiler. Melt remaining butter in a heavy cast iron skillet heat to medium. Crack eggs into bowl with milk, and whisk to break up yolks. Incorporate leeks and cheese, and transfer to the skillet. Let the egg mixture cook slowly for about five minutes, or until the sides and the top are mostly set. Sprinkle remaining cheese on the top, and transfer to the top rack of the oven.

Be careful with this part: it only needs about a minute or two under the broiler, and it cooks fast. When the cheese has melted and the top looks brown and bubbly, it’s done. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Taste buds on strike

I’ve come, in between sniffles and piles of Kleenex, only for a minute today, to tell you that I’m couch-ridden.

True, my current condition does allow for ample laptop time, but unfortunately it does not prove to be very inspiring to my diet. Thus I don’t have much to tell you – other than that I am still eating, slowly but surely, and mostly by the goodwill of my mother and her bountiful casseroles. They stick to your ribs, if you know what I mean.

And even though I’ve watched so many bad sitcoms in the past few days that I think my eyes may fall right out of my head, I’ve got something to look forward to: last week, my parents brought me home a bottle of swanky, grade A maple syrup from Vermont, so I have that waiting for me as soon as my antibiotics have run their course.

I’m hoping to think up something a bit more exotic than pancakes to use it on, but really, right now anything sounds good. So long as my taste buds aren’t still on strike.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Little to no whining

Well, I can say with great relief, that it looks like Restoration won’t be as dry as I thought. It’s a preliminary theory at this point, but if my professor can make 18th Century British literature as enticing as she can make her introduction class, we’ll be in for a decent semester. If not, there is always risqué poetry and Defoe. So that’s good news.

Also on the topic of good news, I plan to make good on my promise and give you a post that includes little to no whining and actually has something to do with food. So, to get straight to it: last week, I finally learned how to cook lobster.

Having a mother who grew up in Maine and living in New England myself, it feels like heresy that up until recently, I knew so little about the crustaceans. And to top it off, in the interest of full disclosure, I was always the kid that asked for steak at our Maine summer lobster bakes, if you can believe it. I cringe to think about all of the lobster I’ve missed growing up as a picky eater. But, I plan to make up for lost time, and in the case of lobster appreciation, as they say, it’s better late than never.

I’ve heard that the actual cooking is not for the faint of heart, but really, it isn’t so bad. The idea of placing a live creature to its death in a large, steaming pot isn’t exactly the most morally sound idea of dinner, but when you think about it, it’s the freshest you can get. And, if you can picture it, the real Mainers even humanely put them to sleep before their deathly plunge. I’m not sure if it really works, but they put the lobsters on their heads and stroke their tails – it ends up looking like some sort of lobster yoga, only without the mat and with an entirely different ending.

If you can get over the morality of the whole ordeal, cooking them is simple. All that’s necessary is bringing about an inch of water to boil in the bottom of a large pot, sticking them in, and letting them steam for a good 5 to 10 minutes. They’re ready when they’re bright red, and when, as my grandmother says, the antennae pull out very easily.

I had to learn how to shell them as well, and so after they were cooked, I stood over the sink with a shell-cracker on one side and my grandmother on the other, who patiently taught me how it’s done. If you want to know a secret from a real Mainer, she swears by the tamale, which is the green stuff in the chest cavity, to flavor any lobster soups or stews.

We just made a simple lobster salad with ours that night, which, aside from eating them straight from the shell doused in a whole lot of butter, is Maine’s second favorite way to eat them. (Drive along the coast and try to count the number of signs for ‘fresh lobstah rolls’ – it’ll drive you nuts. Or at least make you really hungry.) Fresh lobster tastes almost like the ocean: it’s faintly salty, as if someone has already done the seasoning for you. If you’re really feeling authentic, put your lobster salad in toasted, buttered hot dog rolls, and start dropping the “r’s” off your words left and right.

Lobster Salad

Maine lobster is so good that it doesn’t really need a whole lot, thus, the simplicity of this recipe. It’s also hard to mess up, so feel free to experiment: some people like to add celery, for example, and I bet white pepper would work nicely. Just whatever you do, don’t add salt until you taste it; most lobster will taste a bit briny to begin with, so it might not be needed.

2 lobsters, about a pound and a half each
Mayonnaise (I bet this would be even better with homemade)
Celery Seed
Old Bay seasoning

Steam lobsters in an inch of water until bright red and they pass the antennae test. Let cool in a strainer.

Shell, and place all meat into a separate bowl. Coarsely shred the meat, and then add just enough mayonnaise to hold the mixture together, and a pinch each of celery seed and Old Bay. Serve in buttered rolls, or on sliders if you want to get fancy.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Pencil cases and trapper keepers

Oh boy. I suppose I let a lot of time fly by, didn’t I. I really didn’t mean to. You see, the whole summer has been lazy and slowly creeping by, but as of late, August decided to pick up the pace a bit, and slap a bunch of things on my itinerary. Just like that, without even asking.

So I’ve been meeting with sensational magazine editors, visiting relatives, pitching tents and hiking deep into the woods and working rainy weddings – all of which I will eventually tell you about, but for now, I just came to complain about the end of summer. I know, it’s pretty selfish, but if you bear with me for just a paragraph or two, I have a post about lobster in the works you can read next. I promise.

Classes, for me, officially start in about three hours. Yikes.

When we were younger, this time of the year wasn’t so bad. There would always be multiple signs that school was nearing, signs that the summer was waning and your days would no longer be comprised solely of tag and fort-building. Things like pencil cases, trapper keepers, and shiny new clothes gleaned from back-to-school-shopping always served as friendly warnings to ready us all, get us back into the September swing of things.

When you hit college, things change. School just sneaks up on you, and besides dread, you don’t really feel anything until you’re sitting in that first class back. Which for me is Restoration Literature, and I fear it’s dry. Like, really dry.

Anyway, that’s what I’m up to this whole next year, until they release me into the world for good. As I said back in April when I started Rue le Sel, the part that scares me the most is not being able to keep up once classes start up again, so I will do my best - my comment section is always open to some encouragement, too. To anyone else who is going back and got completely ambushed by the end of August as well, god speed, and I suppose you should count your lucky stars you’re not taking Restoration. Here’s to a speedy semester, but an interesting one too.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A catch twenty-two

It’s finally here. What I mean, of course, is that iconic summer heat wave that Connecticut is blessed with every summer, the one that literally melts anything and everything in sight. It has arrived, and it's dreadful.

I thought maybe with all of the rain this year it might now show its face, but I was wrong. Like a dreaded yearly visit from that intolerable relative, it showed up, once again, and it’s stayed for two days already. And I don’t know if it has a long trip back or it’s just lazy or what, but it has invited itself to stay through tomorrow. The nerve. I also don’t know what I’m going to do about cooking until it leaves.

This time of the year is tricky – there are only so many salads and cold soups you can make before you yearn for the stove, or anything cooked, really. On the other hand, it’s so hot your fingers sweat while you eat. It’s a catch twenty-two, I suppose, and I can’t wait until it’s over.

Lucky for us, the same season that punishes us with weather so hot the only comfortable thing to do is stand in the middle of a room, straddling a fan, Marilyn-style, also brings us incomparably fresh produce. So fresh, in fact, that cooking isn’t all that necessary. Come to think of it, we should probably be thankful that this stove-forbidding weather doesn’t come in the winter; there’s not a lot one can do with an abundance of raw potatoes and parsnips.

So, last night for dinner I made a quick and easy corn and tomato salad, and while I did use the stove for just a few minutes, I put my cutting board at a safe distance and armed myself with a big glass of ice water throughout the process. I was sweating by the end, I will admit, but it was worth it. And when doing anything these days will make you sweat, especially this hot computer sitting on my lap, I figured there wasn’t really an excuse not to.

Corn and Tomato Salad

2 ears worth of corn kernels
2 big, just ripe tomoatoes
½ small red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Goat cheese
Good quality olive oil
Fleur de Sel, or Real Salt

Bacon would be a really nice addition to this (unless, of course, you’re a vegetarian), I didn’t have any, so I didn’t use it, but if you do, just cook the bacon in your skillet first, then use its rendered fat to cook everything else in. Yum.

In a medium-hot skillet with olive oil, cook garlic for about 30 seconds to flavor the oil, then add in the red onion. Cook until just translucent, and then add in the corn, stirring every now and then, until it’s sufficiently pan-roasted. (This should take about 5 minutes or less – just taste it to make sure; when it’s just the slightest bit still crunchy, it’s done.)

Set this mixture aside to cool; taking it out of the skillet and onto a cold plate helps. Slice tomatoes into big, thick rounds – I like to leave them whole, but if you’d prefer to roughly chop them, that works too. When the corn mixture has cooled off, scatter it on top of the tomatoes. Finish with just a sprinkling of crumbled goat cheese.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A machine

It came! As these shipping things tend to go, it came a day later than I'd hoped, but in the end, I was patient enough.

I am now the proud new owner of a Canon Rebel Xs. It arrived yesterday afternoon right before work, so I charged up the battery while I was there, and came home to experiment. This morning, I bought some figs (mainly because they're pretty and I thought they'd make a good subject) and whipped up a salad with a goat cheese dressing. It wasn't that great -- turns out I'm not as big of a fig person as I had thought -- but that's not the point. Right now, the pictures are the point. This thing is a machine, I'll tell you, and it knows its stuff.

I'll come with a recipe soon, but for now, you just get pictures. Thanks for bearing with me and my camera experimentation. Below are two pictures of the fig salad; I threw in a picture of my porch and Pete's hand, just for good measure.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A fair warning

I come today with not a recipe, but a fair warning. You see, a new camera is in the works. A new fancy camera. So, consider yourselves warned: this site, from tonight (fingers crossed) or tomorrow on, will be irresponsibly strewn about with my attempts at photography.

I used to fancy myself an artiste, I’d say – toting my Dad’s old 35mm Olympus around our backyard, shooting Black-eyed Susans in black and white, at an angle. I spent a good deal of time with that camera, learning how to proficiently change the film, and playing around with the focus for a good part of an afternoon. Then, of course, came the age of the digital, and I was given a snazzy new point-and-shoot for Christmas one year. It had a whopping 3.2 mega pixels, and in laymen’s terms, that meant I was a big shot.

That camera, like all new age technologies, slowly depreciated, and my love of taking pictures went right alongside. I still have it, of course; it’s what I use for everything on here. But I felt that it might be time to move up. That trusty cannon, bless its little motor, (or chip, or what have you), is no longer pulling its weight.

And so it is, that a shiny Canon rebel will be arriving any day now, ready to make me look like I know what I’m doing. It’s actually refurbished – but newly shiny, I suppose. I’m hoping it will come with a little character and perhaps some well-earned experience in guiding a novice photographer like myself. We shall see. Appropriately enough, this post has no pictures: the old camera is officially in retirement. So check back often, it might be here any minute now, and help me welcome my new camera to Rue le Sel.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The first real recipe

When I was younger, breakfast was by far my favorite meal of the day. Pancakes, waffles – especially Belgian ones with strawberries on top - anything, really, I was up for, anytime of the day. All of the starchiness, I guess, really did it for me.

After a sleepover in a friend’s quaint red farmhouse one night in third grade, we woke up and tackled Sunday breakfast; looking back, nothing could have been more appropriate – we may have even collected fresh eggs for the occasion from her chickens in the backyard. She taught me how to make what was known in her family as “Grandma’s Pancakes,” a sort of crepe-like, thin, buttery flapjack that we rolled up and ate with butter and jelly. I copied down the recipe that day, in a red fancy print that I tried, with a sense of purpose, to replicate, and that became the first real recipe in my repertoire. I cooked those pancakes with reckless abandon from that day on. Grandma remained anonymous, but she, whoever she was, never went unappreciated.

On nights my brother and I were feeling adventurous, or rebellious, (or both) we would pitch a tent in our sprawling backyard to spend the night. As soon as the sun was up, I would give up my dreams of mutiny and scurry back to the kitchen to make us breakfast. Grandma’s pancakes were always on the menu – I would make them, expertly, and bring two stacked plates back to the tent for us to devour.

I am no longer pitching tents in my backyard, but I am still making breakfast. We all have to eat in the morning, and the only thing I’ve found over the years that contends with Grandma’s perfect recipe is one for buttermilk pancakes. And with my recent acquisition of a truckload of blueberries, it seemed like a no-brainer. If you leave the batter nice and lumpy, you’ll get fluffy, faintly sweet pancakes that rival pillows in texture. I like to wait until the batter is set on the pan to add the blueberries, that way I can make sure the blueberry placement is as it’s supposed to be, that is, plentiful. Or I can make shapes if I’m feeling artistic. Make these on a lazy Sunday morning, or if you can swing it, bring them to eat in a tent, preferably pitched in the backyard.

Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes
(From Bon Appetit)

1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for cooking (Note: I used salted, because that's all I had, and it worked out just fine; I used just a little less salt in the batter.)
Fresh blueberries
Pure maple syrup

Preheat oven to 250°F, and stick a baking sheet in the middle rack to keep the pancakes warm as you go. Whisk first 4 ingredients in large bowl. Whisk buttermilk, eggs, and 2 tablespoons butter in medium bowl; stir into dry ingredients.

Heat large nonstick griddle or skillet over medium heat; brush with butter. Drop batter by 1/3 cupfuls onto griddle. After you drop the batter, place your blueberries in the circles of batter, however you like. Cook pancakes until brown, brushing griddle with more butter as needed, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to oven as they are done. Serve pancakes with maple syrup, if you're traditional, or butter and sugar if you're me, circa 1995.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

20 pounds of produce

The tomatoes may be slacking this season, but you can be sure, the blueberries certainly aren’t.

I went blueberry picking with my mom just yesterday, and I can tell you, they are more than pulling their weight around here. The picking made for a small time investment, a lot of sweating, and pretty sore arms the next day, but we made it out of there with just under 20 pounds of blueberries, fresh off their bushes. And making it out of anywhere with 20 pounds of produce is my idea of a great afternoon.

While I think about what to do with all of these (I’m really wishing I bought that ice cream maker a few months ago), I’m freezing about 6 of my nine pounds. That way I’m in no rush, and perhaps I can even reach into my freezer deep in the winter and put some in my oatmeal, but I doubt they’ll last that long.

How to freeze blueberries (thanks mom):

Pick through and rinse all berries, and pat dry with paper towels. Then lay them out on cookie sheets (or even better, cooling racks) until they are completely dry. (This is important, so no ice forms around the berries.)

When dry, place cookie sheets in freezer and freeze for about an hour, or until just hard. Transfer all berries into freezer bags, squeezing out as much air as you can. My mom even suggested sticking a straw into an almost-closed bag and sucking out all of the air before you close it, but I didn’t have any straws on hand.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Anything but turn on the oven

It’s has been hot lately. H-o-t. The kind of sticky-hot that makes you want to stand with your head in the freezer, or compels you, in your non-air conditioned upstairs apartment, to sit smack on a cold pack while watching a movie. This is the kind of hot that makes you want to do anything but turn on the oven. But we all have to eat, and yogurt and salads sure do get boring after a while.

This weekend, I looked to my blender for help.

I have an interesting relationship with blended foods; drinking meals always seemed more of an activity suited to babies. I love the idea of smoothies, but I always find them a distant second to the act of chewing, reminding myself that my teeth are still firmly rooted in my mouth, ready to do their job. I come from the school of thought that believes if you have a sprightly young set of teeth, you should use them. Still, when one is faced with days this hot, there are few appliances as convenient as a blender, and, as I’ve found, no one can argue with gazpacho.

I first tasted real gazpacho only two months ago, on my trip to Europe. I spent a very brief time in Barcelona, and while there my friend Elise and I went to the same tapas place twice in a row. Their gazpacho was a pale pink soup served in what looked sort of like a lowball glass, with a hearty swirl of good olive oil, and it was fantastic. So even though the tomatoes in the Northeast are late this season, or worse, have been tragically wiped out, I decided to go on ahead without perfect tomatoes, and try and recreate this soup the best I could with some pretty good local backups.

This recipe is heartbreakingly simple; the hardest part, I found, was waiting the four hours for it to chill until I could pour myself a big mug. Cold, refreshing, and with the slightest bite of acid from the sherry vinegar, this really is the closest you can get to having august in a bowl, with tomato season in full swing or not. Eat it with a nice hunk of baguette on the side, just to remind your teeth they have a job to do.

(Adapted from

This amount makes enough for about 6, or a generous amount to have for a few days with enough to dip a spoon in it every time you’re in the fridge. If your blender is on the small side, you might need to do the pureeing in two batches.

½ cup tomato juice
1 (1-inch) piece baguette, crust discarded and cut into 1-inch cubes
7 very ripe medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
¾ medium English cucumber, peeled and roughly chopped
1 ½ cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 1/8 teaspoons Real red sea salt (kosher would work fine, too)
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika*
1/8 cup plus 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (plus more for drizzling)

Pour tomato juice over the bread cubes in a small bowl and set aside until the bread has become reasonably soggy, about 15 minutes.

Place bread and juice into blender and puree until smooth; you might need to add a tablespoon or so of water to help the bread blend. Add cucumbers, tomatoes, garlic, salt and paprika and blend until smooth.

If you like chunkier gazpacho, don’t pay attention to this next step, but I kind of prefer a smoother soup that you can almost drink. Strain the contents of the blender through a sieve or a small-holed colander, pressing on the solids to push the liquid through. Return liquid to the blender. Add vinegar, incorporate, and then add the oil in a thin stream with the blender running.

Discard solids, pour soup into a container and chill, covered, for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A few lemony things

First off, I’d like to apologize. For those of you who have been checking back faithfully and have noticed that I’ve been slacking, I’m sorry. Between working all weekend, first beach trips of the season, and wedding receptions complete with 19th century bonnets, I’ve been a busy girl. But I’ve still been cooking, and I have a few things to share with you – a few lemony things.

So last week, my boyfriend Pete and I were invited to brunch where we work on a Sunday that we had off. (Read: We actually called, and subtly pleaded for an invite.) Nonetheless, there we were, happily sitting at the corner banquette table, happily munching on scallops and steak and pickled Wagyu tongue (soo good!), when the dessert arrived. We had ordered the season’s blueberry dessert; a trio of blueberry confections with a new lemon pudding that we were anxious to try. We wasted no time digging into the pudding; in fact, I might’ve even stuck my spoon into it mid-air while it was being put down. It was great, not that I expected anything else: it was creamy and tasted of buttermilk with just the slightest tang of lemon. It’s lightness also made it surprisingly refreshing; it’s something I would invite someone in for, instead of lemonade.

Pete loved it. I mean he loved it. He was having a visceral reaction to the stuff. I reminded him, delicately, of the time I made a first-rate lemon birthday cake. I asked him if he remembered how good that was, clearly digging for some compliments, and also clearly a little jealous of the effect our pastry chef had on him.

When we went home that afternoon, my mind was reeling with what kind of lemon tricks I had up my sleeve. I’m not the jealous type, but I’d be damned if I couldn’t make his taste buds swoon like that. Damned. So I set to work filtering through magazines, ultimately deciding on a lemon bread pudding. But I didn’t stop there – I made lemon curd too, the closest you can get to lemon flavor in a bowl. After an afternoon of zesting, grating, and juicing, I ended up with a couple of very lemony, very delicious desserts, and by god, I finally got my reaction out of him.

Lemon Bread Pudding
(Adapted from Gourmet)

Lucky for me, this bread pudding was in Gourmet’s last issue. I halved the recipe and just used a 1 ½ quart ceramic baking dish; I’d say it would serve 4-5 really famished people, 6 people with average appetites, or 8 people who eat like birds (but we don’t like them anyway, do we?).

3 cups thin baguette slices (Any bread will work, just cut into smaller pieces. If it is overly soft, just toast it in the oven for a few minutes – you’ll get a crispier crust.)
1 ½ whole large eggs
1 ½ large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar plus more for sprinkling
1 tablespoons grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (I doubled the amount of lemon juice and it came out great, but for a subtler flavor, use just 1 tablespoon.)
2 cups heavy cream

Preheat oven to 325° F, with a rack in the middle.

Lie bread, spaced out evenly, in ceramic baking dish. If you’re using baguette slices, you’re going to want to layer it, if you have cubes, just make sure they’re adequately spread out.

Whisk together whole eggs, yolks, and sugar in a large bowl until pale and thick, about 1 minute. Whisk in zest, lemon juice, and cream and pour over bread. Press down with your fingers, or a spatula if you’re dainty, to help bread soak up some of custard.

Lightly sprinkle with sugar and bake in a water bath until custard is barely set and edges of bread are golden, 40 to 45 minutes. (For the water bath, just place your baking dish inside a larger one, and fill the larger one with hot water about half way up the sides of your bread pudding dish.)

Turn on broiler and broil bread pudding 4 to 5 inches from heat until golden-brown in spots, 2 to 3 minutes. Cool to warm, about 30 minutes (pudding will continue to set).

The Gourmet recipe recommended serving this with whipped cream. I didn’t, just because I ran out, but it was just great without it as well. I liked this best served warm, but it was pretty great eaten right out of the fridge, too.

**For the lemon curd, I used David Lebovitz’s recipe for his lemon tart filling. You can find it here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


So baking gets me kind of down, at times, that much has been established. Well, scones get me down. And while I’ll not be jumping to try any recipes that require prolonged baking time and rising all at once, I’ll happily throw things in the oven, carelessly, recklessly even, and collect them when the timer goes off. Oven-throwing is the new baking, in case you didn’t know, or in case someone told you it meant the casual throwing of ovens. And that’s exactly what I did last week, with rhubarb. Now doesn’t that sound much better (and much more foolproof) than scones?

This is so easy it doesn’t even require a recipe. All you have to do is cut up trimmed and washed stalks of rhubarb into 2 or 3 inch-long pieces, toss with enough sugar to coat, and throw them in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes or so. Note: you must throw, or toss gently if the throwing prospect worries you – it is the throwing that lets baking know we really don’t care a lick about it, that we’re unafraid.

Try this the next chance you get: the roasted rhubarb’s tart-sweetness goes really nicely with yogurt (especially greek), and made for bang-up oatmeal the next morning.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Serving, Twelfth Night, and eggplant

I remember the first time I tasted truly divine eggplant.

It was at the restaurant where I work, shortly after I had just started. Those were what I like to refer to as the Early days, but could just as easily be renamed as the Times of Great Embarrassment, or, more generally, just a really naïve time in my life. I was a neophyte to all things food; the menu we were required to memorize was daunting, and probably should have been much more so than it seemed at the time. For some reason, I felt as though it was an exercise similar to what I used to do in 5th grade drama, particularly in The Christmas Story, or Twelfth Night, Abridged. I was too young to know who wrote the work I was performing, but I knew I needed to memorize lines, stage directions, and come off sounding the least bit convincing. Come to think of it, much of what we did in the few opening months there felt like that of a rehearsed play. We knew the lines, the movements, but had not the slightest clue as to the origins.

That, of course, would prove to be a huge problem. We were part of a restaurant that was doing new and unusual things for its area: trio and duo plates, unconventional ingredients, all grown outside the massive dining room windows. As servers, we needed to know what went into every dish in the dreadful event that a discerning diner would ask. Unfortunately, in those few beginning months, anything outside the realm of “I’ll have the duck, please” was uncharted territory.

I first felt the kind of embarrassment fine dining has the ability to land a novice in when I asked a question of my own. As I said, I knew literally nothing at this point, but I was an eager student. I remember that first menu copy they had given us to look over; mine was an ink-stained mess, all covered in notes reminding me how to describe an aioli, what farm the Kobe beef was from. I was looking over this map to my new job late one night after service, and I found a term I was unfamiliar with. Unsure whether it was a cooking technique or some rare cut of meat, I asked the chef what a haricot vert was, making sure to use the hard “t” pronunciation dictated to me in my years of English classes. I was met with laughter.

I wrote that off quickly, eventually laughing about it myself, until one day that embarrassment was trumped. After opening weekend, when people seemed too excited to have a restaurant with a liquor license in a formerly dry town, the customers started getting a lot more curious about the food. We had not rehearsed for this. I could recite my notes to the tables, yes, but when it came to the plate composition, actually seeing and identifying the food I had memorized, I was a proverbial deer in headlights. I had seen those plates twice, maybe, and even then, opening night was such a blur of memory that I could have very well gone the whole night without opening my eyes. For the most part, I navigated like the teen driver with a permit that I was: I still needed guidance, but I could usually figure out, in a stutter, which was the lobster and which was the steak. (The grace came later.)

Then someone asked me what was under the drumstick on the chicken entrée. I had no idea. I couldn’t even make something up on the fly. If they would have said, Excuse me, is this eggplant? I would have agreed thankfully, regardless of accuracy. But they gave me nothing. And I had nothing. After an embarrassing run back to the kitchen, I found out it was eggplant, and I made it my mission to taste it.

When I finally did taste the mysterious vegetable, it was sweet, coddled to caramelizaton, and was right on the edge of melting in my mouth. I loved it. Suffice it to say, my history with eggplant is long-winded (or maybe that’s just me), but I hope that you’ve made it far enough to get to the recipes I want to share. Inspired by a really cute little eggplant last weekend, I decided to try my hand in making it all these years after I found out how delicious it can be. What follows are two made-up, very adaptable blueprints for eggplant dishes. Follow what I did, or substitute to your heart’s desire. Just don’t become a server at any sort of establishment that will be serving it before you know what it looks like.

Balsamic Roasted Eggplant with Mint and Goat Cheese

(Note: I was only cooking for myself, so feel free to multiply these quantities.)

1 eggplant
Balsamic vinegar
Good quality olive oil
Handful of fresh mint, roughly chopped
Fresh goat cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400° F. Halve eggplant lengthwise, with stem still intact, and place in a liberally oiled baking dish. Sprinkle a bit more olive oil over the top, and toss to coat; make sure eggplant halves end up cut-side down in the dish. Sprinkle liberally with balsamic vinegar, and roast for 20-25 minutes, or until a knife glides effortlessly through the flesh.

Let cool (just to the point where you can handle them; this is best served warm). Cut into slices, and toss gently in a bowl with mint, salt and pepper, and a bit more vinegar. Serve sprinkled with goat cheese. (The word “sprinkle” just works for this recipe, ok?)

Mediterranean Wheatberry Salad

This is just a list of ingredients that I found work well together, especially finished
with some good olive oil and sharp feta.

(You want the ratio of wheatberries to water to be about 1:3; the water gets absorbed quite a bit.)
1 eggplant, diced
Roasted red pepper, diced
Kalamata olives, roughly chopped
Fresh cilantro
Good quality olive oil
Feta, crumbled
Salt and pepper, to taste

Start by cooking the wheatberries; they need to be boiled for about an hour, until they yield and are the slightest bit chewy when you bite them. While they’re cooking, get everything else ready: Sauté the eggplant on medium heat until deep brown and very soft, and chop everything else.

Drain wheatberries and transfer back to a bowl. Add everything but the feta and incorporate, tasting and adjusting the seasoning. Add one more good glug of olive oil. Serve topped with feta cheese.