Wednesday, December 19, 2007
I'll be back this weekend with a holiday post. I've spent the last few days unpacking cookbooks, and planning what to serve my holiday guests, so I've spent a ton of time thinking about food.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
ALEX: Patrick, what are you doing?
PATRICK: (rubbing cucumber slice over the dining room table) Cleaning.
ALEX: Please don’t clean with the cucumber slices
Brief pause while PATRICK eats a chicken nugget. MOTHER enters the room and sees PATRICK, now with a banana in his hand.
ME: Patrick, please—we don’t clean the dining room table with a banana.
PARENTS exchange a glance, rolling their eyes at one another.
I must have spent 15 minutes scrubbing dried banana crud off my dining room table last night.
Monday, December 10, 2007
So I made a quick stop at the grocery store for fresh vegetables. Leeks and mushrooms sounded nice and fall-to-winterish, so I picked those up. In the cabinet I had part of a bag of polenta, so I thought that might be good with the vegetables.
Of course, with all but three cookbooks packed, I had no recipe for polenta. (And for the record, those three books are Marcella Hazan’s Italian Kitchen, Williams-Sonoma Entertaining, and The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, which it just occurs to me would have the ratio of liquid to polenta, but I didn’t think to look in it; it’s not that any of those books are so treasured and loved, it’s just that two of them were acquired after I packed all the other books, and one of them happened to be in an obscure place in the kitchen and was overlooked). Recipe? I can hear you rolling your eyes, You need a recipe for polenta? Come on, that’s lame. Well not a recipe, per se, I can just never remember how much liquid goes with how much polenta. The generally accepted answer is 3:1, it seems, based on the internet search I did.
And I’d like to wander off topic here for a second and talk about people who rate and comment on recipes on recipe sites. The polenta recipe was on epicuirious.com, and it was for “polenta.” Not polenta with anything in it or on it, just polenta. Cornmeal, water, salt. People made comments like “it was bland,” and “it needed something more.” Um, duh? Anybody who reads cornmeal, water, salt, bring salted water to a boil, add corn meal and whisk until thickened and thinks that’s going to be exciting needs to turn over their spatulas right now. And one woman used what was clearly finely ground cornmeal, dumped it all into the water at once, and got a lumpy goopy mess. The recipe clearly states “coarsely ground cornmeal” although it does go on to say that fine cornmeal could be used. I’m always one to err on the side of caution with substitutions—I prefer to make a recipe exactly as written the first time, because my rationale is that that’s the method that was tested most rigorously. At the very least people who comment on recipe sites need to learn to spell. The herb is marjoram, not marjorim.
Sorry, that’s a subject about which I’ve always felt the need to vent. Back to lunch. I think I got the tenderest, least woody leek in all of North America. It may be a cliché to say I was able to cut it like it was softened butter, but that’s just what I did do. I rinsed it carefully (it was also the least sandy leek in North America, bless its heart), sliced it into little pale green rainbows, and sautéed it in ½ tablespoon of butter and a ½ tablespoon of olive oil until it was just starting to color. Then I slipped some sliced crimini mushrooms in with it, and let that all cook down.
But what, I thought, am I going to do to season this? I was vaguely reminded of a recipe of Amanda Hesser’s from her wonderful book The Cook and The Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings from the French Countryside. My husband got it for me for my birthday one year, and while I was disappointed at the time, I later read it through and found it to be delightful, full of good ideas, and very charming. In what I believe was a Fall recipe, she made creamed leeks on toast. And with creamed leeks on toast, could creamed mushrooms on toast be far behind? I think not. Only we have no bread in the house worthy of creamed-really-nice-fresh-vegetables-on-toast. But since I was already sold on polenta, this was something of a moot point anyway.
And in checking to confirm that I had heavy cream, and that it was still good, my attention was grabbed by the huge jar of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard in the refrigerator. I had been kicking myself, you see, for not buying any fresh thyme at the grocery store, because a thyme-scented creamy sauce is quite a heavenly thing, but one with a little jolt of Dijon would be just as good, I told myself.
I also noticed that there was even some white wine left over. This is so rare an occurrence in my household that I can count on one hand the number of times that’s probably happened. It’s like that old joke that went around the internet many years ago, offering the “real woman’s” response to certain “Martha Steweart-ish” housekeeping and cooking tips. The last one read: “Freeze leftover wine in ice cube trays, then empty into a plastic bag and keep frozen for use in cooking.” And the “real woman” response was “What leftover wine?” Ha! I resemble that remark! (But I confess I’ve always wanted to be the type who had things like stock, wine, and tomato paste frozen in my freezer for any need; and just think—a white wine ice cube would be perfect in a glass of warmish white wine. It wouldn’t dilute it!)
So with those ingredients at my elbow, I slugged a glug of white wine into the pan with the now-golden leeks and mushrooms, scraped up the brown bits (as they say), added a dollop of Dijon mustard, and poured a little heavy cream over the whole, stirred away for a minute or two, then turned my attention to the polenta.
I made the polenta in the usual way, except I made a half recipe (1 ½ cups of liquid to ½ cup of polenta), and I used half milk, half chicken broth. In retrospect, I might have upped the liquid just a tad. I found the resulting product to be just a shade on the crunchy side. To be fair, I did cook it up and then scarf it down, so it didn’t have any time at all to “rest.” Still, another ¼ to ½ cup of liquid wouldn’t have hurt. I also debated stirring blue cheese into the polenta, or draping a slice of it over top of the mushrooms and leeks, but abandoned this idea as being lily gilding.
I dished the polenta into my one remaining bowl, pulled out a spoon, and ate the whole thing in one sitting. This really is enough for two people, especially if it were a side dish. I didn’t even stop to take pictures of it, although there were two reasons for that. First, I didn’t have the camera (my husband has it with him). Second, it’s not a very photogenic dish. The sauce is kind of a grayish-brownish color, and while the polenta is a pretty yellow shade, it’s really just a bowl of undefined mush. However, here’s the recipe for my nice little lunch (which, because I used it in the dish, I did not have with a glass of wine; I had water instead).
Creamy Leeks and Mushrooms Over Polenta
½ tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter, divided
1 leek, cleaned and sliced crosswise
Approx. 1 dozen mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Freshly ground pepper
¼ cup white wine
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons heavy cream
¾ cup chicken broth (or slightly more—1-2 tablespoons additional)
¾ cup milk (or slightly more—1-2 tablespoons additional)
½ cup polenta
Heat olive oil and ½ tablespoon butter in a skillet large enough to accommodate all vegetables comfortably. Sautee leeks for 3-5 minutes over medium heat until just starting to brown. Add mushrooms to leeks and cook down until mushrooms have released their liquid and are coloring nicely. I added salt and pepper to taste right after I added the mushrooms, although you could wait until after adding the mustard, since that may change the amount of seasoning required.
Add white wine to pan, stirring to deglaze. Add Dijon mustard and stir through vegetables. Pour cream into pan and stir to distribute. Do not let the mixture return to the boil after adding the cream.
Bring chicken broth and milk to the boil, add polenta in a slow stream and whisk until liquid is absorbed and polenta has reached desired consistency (I like mine somewhat dry). Add ½ tablespoon of butter to the polenta.
To serve, spoon leek and mushroom mixture over polenta.
This makes two side dish helpings, or one single serving for a somewhat piggish, but hungry, person.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
I love eating in. I actually prefer it to eating out. Josh Ozersky says that magazines like Bon Appetit are intended for people who “have big houses and plenty of time on their hands.” I completely disagree. Bon Appetit (and its brethren) is for people who like to cook and eat. People who like to invite guests for dinner. You don’t have to have a ton of time on your hands (lord knows I don’t), or a big house (ditto), in order to appreciate food magazines like Bon Appetit.
How boring would the world be if everyone entertained in restaurants? How dull would gatherings be if they always took place on neutral ground? Half the fun of inviting people over is welcoming them into your personal space, the other half is feeding them. Food magazines provide ideas for interesting ways to do the latter.
Studies have shown that right after 9/11 people began eating out less and spending more time at home. I still do this, not out of fear, but out of love for my family, my home, and my friends. One of the happiest weekend days I’ve spent recently was a Sunday on which we ran a couple of errands in the morning, then had some friends and their twin daughters over for lunch. The kids ran around and played, while the grownups drank Mimosas, ate a goat cheese and caramelized onion tart, and a green salad. I can’t wait to get moved into my new house so I can do even more of that.
Houses today are even designed for people who want to be able to cook and entertain at the same time. Look at the open kitchen, the kitchen-great room combo that allows the cook to interact with the guests in the great room. Hell, look at kitchens that are big enough to entertain in. While I’m sure there are plenty of highly reflective appliances that never see a drop of grease, I know there are plenty that do.
Adam Roberts defends both positions (the eating out and the cooking in) by saying that while eating in may be warmer and more, well, homey, it doesn’t involve the potential excitement of eating out. While eating out, he says, you may have some really neat unexpected experience (he cites a case in which he saw Maggie Gyllenhaal having lunch with her mom). I’ll give you that, but that assumes that you care about watching celebrities eat soup. I confess I do not. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like eating out, but my reasons for eating out are that I don’t want to do dishes, not that I care about who I might see, or by whom I might be seen. I don’t mean to slam Adam—I agree with him that there’s something be said for both perspectives.
But really, given the choice, I’d far rather eat in. I think it’s much more satisfying. You get exactly what you want to eat, seasoned exactly the right way. You can take as much time as you want; no waiter will ever give you the feeling that s/he wishes you would leave so they can turn your table. The noise level can be whatever you want it to be; if you’re into loud music, no problem. If you want a quiet conversation, it’s easy to arrange. And I love food magazines that bring me a monthly array of choices suited to the season—ethnic, fast, elaborate, basic.
When I read a recipe, I can get a pretty good idea if I’m going to like it or not. If I don’t think I will, I won’t make it, obviously. While I’m cooking, I can then taste as I go along—does it need more salt? More oregano? The end result is what I want to eat, seasoned the way I want it. I’m in control of the ingredients. And if I’m serving it to someone, it’s so much more personal than buying them dinner. The time I’ve taken to prepare them a meal shows that I care—we’re all busy. We all struggle to find time to get things done. If someone uses some of their free time to cook for me, that’s very special. Picking a restaurant is thoughtful, of course—you’re taking the other person’s tastes into consideration and trying to find something they’ll enjoy—but it’s not the same as devoting your own time to preparing a meal for them; thinking about what they'd like, choosing the ingredients, preparing the recipe, then serving it personally and watching their reaction.
Which brings us back to magazines like Bon Appetit. They give me ideas for different things to make for any occasion, and the recipes are tested so I’m fairly confident they’ll work (human error is always a possibility—just look at my muffins). My brother-in-law and his wife are coming for Christmas this year, and I’ve been planning the menu for three months now. This is a food lover’s dream—guests for multiple meals! People who also enjoy food! Bring on the magazines so I can pick fun, new things for us to try!
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Of course, this kind of weather does have some benefits...
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
I made them exactly as the recipe described. The only thing I can think of is that someone (who shall remain nameless, but let’s just say he has the same initials as my husband), put self-rising flour in the flour jar, instead of plain unbleached flour. It could happen, and then there would have been twice as much leavening in the muffins. But we’ve made cookies and other things with that flour recently, and not had this kind of weird rising problem, so I just don’t know.
In any case, the muffins were a total failure, and I was sort of pissed off to tell you the truth, because I had dumped and entire bag of dried cherries in them. Dried cherries, if you’ve never bought them, are not cheap. At my grocery store they go for about four bucks a bag. I was doubly bummed, because they looked so great in the picture that accompanied the recipe, and I was really looking forward to them.
Sorry, but you’ll have to live without a blueberry muffin recipe for today. When I get my New England Cookbook by Brooke Dojny out of its box, I’ll post her recipe for blueberry muffins, which were outstanding.
Monday, December 03, 2007
And what would I do when I got home? Well, read magazines, for one. I have a stack (which includes the last four issues of Gourmet, the December issues of both Sunset and Martha Stewart Living, and the November and December issues of Cottage Living, plus some extras like Dwell and Body + Soul), or I could read one of the four books I have going—“Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age,” “Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and “Marcella’s Italian Kitchen” (a steal on the remainder table for $9.98--I may already have a copy of this that my mother bought in the 1980s, but I wasn’t sure so I grabbed it anyway; if I unpack and find I have it already, well, my sister-and-law will likely be offered the new copy).
I could watch Christmas movies. I simply adore Christmas movies, the sappier the better. Nothing depressing, please—no dark comedy (sorry, Tim Burton, but I really don’t care for The Nightmare Before Christmas). Give me sweetness and light. Give me boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-back. White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Christmas in Connecticut (bonus—this one is food-centric), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Santa Clause, The Year Without a Santa Claus, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated and Jim Carrey), A Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street (Natalie Wood version only, please).
I even love Christmas movies that are only tangentially Christmas movies—Meet Me in St. Louis (Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to that precocious little snot played by Margaret O’Brien), Love Finds Andy Hardy (Judy Garland at age twelve with Mickey Rooney; the only thing Christmasy about it is that they decorate a tree—the events could have taken place any time during the year), Little Women (the first few scenes take place at Christmas, that’s it), Trading Places (again, the events could have taken place at any time of the year, but Eddie Murphy is a scream—“Beef jerky time!”)
What I could not do with any great success is cook. We have, you see, eleven days until we move into our new house, so we’re packing. Yesterday I packed most of the plates, all but one coffee mug (only because it was on a top shelf and I couldn’t reach it), most of the cereal bowls, and a few of the salad plates. I also packed the pizza pan, the broiler pan, several cookie sheets, and the huge aluminum bowl I use for rising when I make double and triple batches of bread. I suspect my kids are going to get a lot of delivery pizza the next few days.
But the more important questions hang heavy on my mind. First, how will I organize the new kitchen, and second, what will I cook first in it??
In mulling the second question, I was thinking of a book I read called “House: A Memoir” by Michael Ruhlman, who is also very well known for his books on chefs and the food world. This one (which I recommend—a fast, interesting read) is about his experience with the renovation of an old house, including the gutting of the kitchen. When the kitchen was done, he said the first thing he made was a roast chicken, feeling that a roast chicken is the homiest thing you can make.
I can see that, and I’ve toyed with roast chicken. Whatever it is that gets made, it must use my new stove (or range, as the appliance people say), and preferably the oven part. So roast chicken is possible, but if I make that, only Alex and I will be eating it. My children wouldn’t touch roast chicken because it’s not ground up, reformed, breaded, and (most importantly) dinosaur-shaped. If I could get a regular roasting chicken in the shape of a dinosaur, I’m quite sure they’d suck it down.
Real estate agents often encourage people to bake cookies before houses are shown to prospective buyers, on the theory that the homey smell of chocolate chip cookies makes the buyer feel like they’ve wandered into an episode of Leave It To Beaver. And there’s something to be said for that. So chocolate chip cookies are a maybe too. Those my kids would eat. But my husband just made chocolate chip cookies this weekend, so I’m feeling a little CCC’d out. However, we are talking about eleven days from now.
Bread presents itself. It’s elemental (as is the roast chicken), the smell is homey, it requires time and effort, but not too much (I do have to get ready for Christmas, after all). My kids might eat homemade bread (if I didn’t tell them I’d made it). But somehow bread just doesn’t tickle my fancy.
Or do I do something a little more complicated, but that my kids might eat? Homemade pizza, for instance. I could make the sauce myself (excuse to use the stovetop), and they’d eat it, I know. But I really want a pizza stone, and so far I don’t have one (Santa). Plus my kids will be coming off a longish spate of delivery pizza as we shut down one kitchen and prepare to open the other, so they may not want pizza by then. We might go crazy and give them hot dogs for their first dinner in the new house (wacky, that’s us).
Some kind of soup and maybe biscuits would be nice. Again, like the pizza this lets me use stovetop and the oven, the soup isn’t terribly labor intensive, and the biscuits are quick. My kids wouldn’t eat the soup, but they’d eat biscuits. The question would be, what kind of soup? It would have be something that used chicken broth, because I have about two gallons of it frozen right now, and I need to use it. I’d like to do a vegetable soup, and I have a butternut squash sitting on my counter. The downside to this is that my husband doesn’t like butternut squash soup. He thinks it’s too sweet. I know—I didn’t find out about this character flaw until after we were married. I might be able to make a nice cream of cauliflower or something, I suppose.
Of course, apple pie would be a good choice too. Or perhaps apple turnovers. We’re in the heart of apple country (well, OK, we live near the heart of apple country—still, apples are a local food by any definition), and I have a wonderful recipe for Shaker hand pies that I’ve been wanting to try. I love the Shakers (more on this in another post), because their simplified way of living was just what we should all aspire to anyway—eating close to home, using the freshest of ingredients to make simple dishes that are comforting and delicious.
Anyway, this is a long debate I’ve been having for some time, and that I will continue to have for the next couple of weeks (or rather, ELEVEN DAYS—not that I’m counting), and I’ll be spending plenty of time thinking of just the right thing to make first in my new kitchen. Something homey, basic, warm, cozy, yet something meaningful. The same kinds of things that suit a rainy day--soup, bread, pie, cookies, a nice roast--are all the same sorts of things to make for a "first ever meal" because they're satisfying, but without being complicated or requiring a lot of fancy tools or ingredients. So this grey, rainy day is the perfect time to give it this subject the attention it deserves. I'm off to surf the internet for ideas.
Saturday, December 01, 2007
The sprouts get roasted with mustard, and then scattered with buttered toasted crumbs and (according to the recipe) toasted walnuts. Since my husband doesn’t like walnuts, and he was the one making the dinner, I didn’t get to try it with the walnuts.
The article recommends quartering the sprouts to ensure that they cook evenly, and that there’s lots of surface area to come in contact with the pan and get nicely crispy and brown. Then they get tossed with a sauce of mustard, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce and caraway seeds. The caraway seeds added an interesting layer of flavor that I’ve not had in Brussels sprouts before.
They get roasted for 20 to 25 minutes, during which time you’re supposed to be making the bread crumb and walnut topping. Since we had no fresh bread out of which to make bread crumbs, we pulled out some crumbs I had made and frozen. They were just fine for the job. The crumbs and the nuts get toasted in a tablespoon of butter until they start to get toasty, then they get set aside on a paper towels to await the roasted Brussels sprouts.
For serving, the Brussels sprouts are scattered with the topping and served immediately, and then, if you’re me, devoured immediately. The only downside I can see to this recipe is that it wouldn’t make good leftovers (not that that’s a problem I have—I can eat a lot of Brussels sprouts in a sitting) because the crumbs would get soggy and probably greasy.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Dijon, Walnuts, and Crisp Crumbs
Serves 6 to 8, unless you’re serving me, in which case it only serves 2
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon caraway seeds, toasted lightly and crushed
¾ teaspoon kosher salt; more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs. Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed, cut through the core into quarters
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs
½ cup chopped walnuts
Position racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment.
In a large bowl, whisk ¼ cup of the olive oil with the mustard, Worcestershire sauce, caraway seeds, ½ teaspoon of the salt, and about 10 grinds of pepper. Add the Brussels sprouts and toss to thoroughly distribute the mustard mixture. Spread the sprouts in an even layer on the two baking sheets.
Roast until the cores of the sprouts are just barely tender and the leaves are browning and crisping a bit, 20 to 25 minutes (if your oven heat is uneven, rotate the pans midway through cooking).
While the sprouts are roasting, make the topping: Line a plate with two layers of paper towel. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil with the butter in a medium (10”) skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter has stopped foaming, add the breadcrumbs all at once; toss to coat with the fat. Reduce the heat to medium, add the walnuts and the remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring constantly, until the crumbs are browned and slightly crisp, and the nuts are golden, 4 to 6 minutes. (The crumbs will start to sound “scratchy” as they get crisp.) Dump the bread crumb mixture onto the paper towels to drain the excess fat.
Transfer the sprouts to a serving bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper if necessary. Sprinkle the crumbs over the sprouts just before serving.
Recipe from December Fine Cooking (issue #89)