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.