Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Notes from far away

When you've had a peripatetic childhood and have had to leave many friends, the ones you make as an adult are so dear to you that you wish you could just buy a gigantic apartment complex in a fabulous city and offer everybody a place to live rent-free, so you could see them every day. I suppose that's no different than people who have lived in one spot their entire lives -- everybody wants to keep their friends close. But when you've moved a lot, you always have the feeling that saying goodbye might mean goodbye for years and years, or forever. And when that turns out to not be true -- when your friend who left for points elsewhere comes through town, or you go visit -- you feel like everything in the world just clicked into place.

The next best thing to having a visit is having a letter. And I mean an old-fashioned, hand-written, post-office-clearing, stamp-needing letter. There is nothing like a Good Mail Day when you can't see someone you miss in person. Email, texts, Facebook messages just don't compare. And calls, while nice, feel like an approximation of the real thing, what with the delays and static and stilted way people talk on the phone. I would have never thought to trade letters with anyone if it had not been for my lovely friend Tallie, a far-away mail art artist who is great all around. Her most recent letter was in response to my quandary of being hungry all the time. Her suggestion: add meat bits to beany stews. She is so smart. I will try this and report back.

On the back of the envelope is Meat, an eerie and wonderful poem by August Kleinzahler, that makes me think of the way food production was industrialized many, many years ago, and how we're just now shaking off the constraints of that system. It starts...

How much meat moves
Into the city each night
The decks of its bridges tremble
In the liquefaction of sodium light
And the moon a chemical orange

That opening gives me shivers. And the moon a chemical orange. I don't think I'll ever look at the orange autumn moon the same way.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Progress, and leek, sausage, potato soup

My writing workshop recently tackled a short story I wrote, and the professor said, "You know, I think you have a book here." I don't know if that's the case, but can you imagine? What an encouragement. I've been in a good mood since that class, and have been trundling along this week, trying to figure out how the book would be structured, how many chapters it would have, how...to go about such a daunting project. 

But when I sat down to write tonight, it wasn't the normal face-the-blank-page drudge, and my spirits and energy level didn't plummet like they sometimes do when it's nearing the end of the week. It could have been the encouraging word from my professor; it could also have been the humongous bowl of hearty, delicious, rich soup I had before getting down to business. 

I made this soup over the weekend to trade with my food-exchange friend (she made potato cheddar soup, so we were on the same page) and I squirreled away some for myself, too. The leeks are creamy and flavorful and the kielbasa gives the broth a smoky spiciness. It's a quick soup to make, and even quicker to heat up -- a fortifying coda to the workday before starting a project you hope will turn out. 

Potato Leek Soup with Kielbasa
Adapted from Cook's The New Best Recipe

5 big leeks, tough, dark green portion removed and the rest rinsed well and sliced thin
6 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon four
5 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 pound small red potatoes -- I used fingerling potatoes and cut them in half, but you could also use larger ones and cut them smaller
1 pound kielbasa -- I used smoked, and it gave the broth a fuller flavor

1. Heat the butter in a large pot over medium heat until it foams, add the leeks, turn down the heat, cover and let cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Stir now and then, and don't let them brown.

2. Add the flour to the leeks and stir for about 2 minutes until the flour dissolves into the butter.

3. Turn up the heat to high and while stirring, add the broth gradually, along with the bay leaf, sausage and potatoes. Cook until you can easily pierce the potatoes with a fork, about 5 minutes. (Also, if you'd like the make this soup now but eat it later, cook the potatoes separately, and add them to the soup when you serve it. That way they won't get mealy and weird on you.)

4. Remove the pot from the heat and season with salt and pepper.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

From HK to BK

Scott came through town a few days ago from Hong Kong and brought with him the spiciest sauce in the world and fermented bean paste. They are the greatest gifts, satisfying my spice tooth and my salt tooth, as well as my curiosity to know what other people eat in the world. Normally you have to travel to find that out, but when you have little time or money to do so, and the food comes to you...heaven. At home, Scott eats the fermented bean curd spread on toast, so that's what I tried this morning.

And holy crap, it is salty, salty, salty! My tongue felt a little dessicated after about three bites. But it's also addictive, like a cheese that initially feels like it's so stinky it's singing the inside of your nose, or durian, which smells like a different disgusting thing to different people but is impossible to stop eating once you've had a piece. I don't know if fermented bean paste will make a regular appearance at breakfast, but I do know that I'll put a little on some toast the next time I have itchy feet but have to stay put. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teff! I'm glad I didn't throw you out in a fit of frustration

I came across a mostly-full bag of teff flour in the cupboard today, left over from a disastrous attempt to make injera many months ago. I had tried to recreate a fantastic meal had at Fasika, my favorite restaurant in Saint Paul, ended up with a big gooey mess of failed injera, had a temper fit, calmed down, ordered takeout, stowed the remaining teff in the cupboard and forgot about it. I pulled it out today and noticed a muffin recipe on the back of the package -- Bob's Red Mill always has an interesting idea or two on their flour packages. I needed a break from homework and figured I'd give them a shot, with a tweak here and there.

Within 10 minutes, the apartment smelled like cinnamon and toasted grains, and within just a few more, there were muffins. Tasty, warm, light, comforting muffins. Not too sweet, but not heavy or too healthy-tasting either, the kind of thing that could start your week off right. I'll have one or two with coffee tomorrow morning before work...and maybe another one right now.

Teff and Wheat Germ Muffins
Adapted from the back of the Bob's Red Mill teff flour bag. 
There's a peanut butter cookie recipe on there too!

3/4 cup teff flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup white flour
1/2 cup potato starch
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1/3 cup olive oil
2/3 cup water
3/4 cup currants

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees and line a standard 12-muffin tin with muffin papers. 

2. Mix together flours, potato starch, baking powder and cinnamon. 

3. Mix together brown sugar, eggs, oil and water and add to dry ingredients. Add currants. 

4. Fill lined muffin tins and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean from the center of one of the muffins. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sometimes your batteries are at 0% by Friday

Do you ever have that day where you work hard and think you're making good progress, and then look up at 5 p.m. and realize that the whole premise of your project is irrevocably flawed? I had That Day at work today. My number was up. Usually when That Day happens, I just go home at the end of it and start again the next day and it's no big deal. The difference today was that I thought I had a really great story idea for our next issue, and it just wouldn't come together. I really, really liked the idea. But it wasn't happening. I could feel myself wilt.

But during a diner dinner with a very funny friend, I remembered that not all my ideas fall apart, and that I'd had a pretty good one earlier this week. I had been making oxtail stew and thought, Why not add more meat to this meat? I included about a pound of beef stew meat, and otherwise kept the recipe that I like to use the same as always. You could leave it out if you like, but including a bunch bone-free meat to oxtail stew makes eating it a little less fiddly when you're starving. You can slake the hunger a little bit before getting on with the bone gnawing.

Braised Oxtail and Beef Stew
Based on Tom Valenti's Braised Oxtail and Cipolline Onions, from Soups, Stews and One-Pot Meals

4 pounds oxtail
1 pound beef stew meat, cut into cubes and patted dry
Coarse salt
Black pepper
Big glug of olive oil
Big pinches of marjoram, thyme, oregano and rosemary
1 large carrot, diced
2 onions, diced
2 stalks of celery, diced
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and left whole
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 bottle of red wine -- about 4 cups
2 quarts beef broth (This time around, I also added about 2 cups of mushroom broth that I had in the freezer, and it gave it a deeper, earthier dimension. If you do the same, just reduce the beef broth by the same amount)
2 bay leaves

1. Turn the oven to 325 degrees. Salt and pepper the oxtail; pat all the stew meat dry and season that, too.

2. Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven or large pot over medium-high heat until it's hot enough to make a cube of meat really sizzle when you set it in. Add the oxtail and brown on all sides. Transfer to a plate and do the same with the beef cubes.

3. If there's a lot of fat in the pan, pour some of it off until there's just enough to cook the vegetables, about two tablespoons. Add the carrot, celery, garlic and herbs, and cook until the vegetables start to get soft.

4. Add the tomato paste, wine, broth and bay leafs, and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and pop into the oven. Cook for one hour. Remove the cover and cook for another hour.

5. Check to see that the stew meat is tender and the oxtail is falling off the bone a bit. You can eat this right away, like I did, or you can stick it in the fridge and let all the fat rise to the top and harden, which makes it easy to remove in the morning. Either way, the stew is finished, ready to do your bidding and cheer you up, especially if you've had That Day.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Baking In The Night Kitchen

I'm reminded of Maurice Sendak's wonderful In The Night Kitchen whenever I bake anything late at night, as I did Saturday night while taking a break from Swann's Way. The apartment was quiet and I had just read the passage about asparagus: "tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet -- still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed -- with an iridescence that was not of this world." 

When I looked up, I had my own Proustian moment of memory: reading and rereading Night Kitchen as a kid after I should have been in bed, while my mom made bread or cookies. The warm comfortable smell of whatever she was baking would radiate down the hall, and I'd keep reading until I fell asleep. One memorable winter night, she made something with plums -- I don't remember what -- but the jammy, sweet-sharp smell has stuck in my head as a favorite. I decided to set Mr. P down, even though I was far from the end, and make something plummy.  I needed a little espresso boost later on to continue powering through 606 pages of someone else's memories, but it was worth it to have that familiar aroma floating around me again. 

Late night plum cake
Adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours

1 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
Big pinches of cinnamon and nutmeg
5 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Five plums, cut in half and with pits removed (You'll have an extra half left over)

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees; butter and flour an 8x8 square pan.

2. Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside.

3. Cream the butter and the sugar with an electric mixer, then add the eggs one at a time, followed by the oil, zest and vanilla. On medium speed, incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.

4. Using a spatula, scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Arrange the plum halves, cut side up, on top of the batter in three rows of three. Nudge them into the batter a bit and bake for about 45 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean from the center of the cake. The area around the plums will be a little custardy -- that's good!

5. Let the cake cool for at least half an hour in the pan, then invert it onto a plate and serve it right-side up, or cut into squares around each plum. If there's any leftover cake the next day, it'll be jammy and soaked in the plum juices. Delicious.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

First day of school

Oh gosh, here we go. I have my first class tonight: a writing workshop taught by Zia Jaffrey, author of the absorbing book The Invisibles. Without thinking much about it, I volunteered to submit a piece I wrote over the summer about working in Cambodia for the first round of critiques. But now...I'm so nervous that my teeth are aching. Oy!

Before I go, I wanted to share a few food-related items and a few non-food-related items that I've collected over the last couple of days.

1. A great column by the author of Victory Over Ourselves: American Food in the Era of the Great War in yesterday's New York Times about the importance of knowing how to cook. I cut it out and sent it on to my gran, who was a home ec teacher for many years. Here's hoping people take note!

2. Here's hoping they also take note of this bad behavior, reported in the Times on Tuesday. Sure, it's not the end of the world, but don't these PR smartiepants know that nobody likes to be embarrassed?

3. And, best food item for last, they (THEY!) found a pancake recipe tucked away in Rosa Parks' papers. A PEANUT BUTTER pancake recipe! I love that she jotted it down on the back of an envelope, just like we non-heros do. I'm planning to make them on Saturday, and will think about how lucky we are that such a brave woman existed. She made the world better for everyone.

On to non-food topics...

1. The co-op I'm a member of lost power Monday, the night before my 6 a.m. shift. I was the first person to arrive from my squad, and was greeted by this, um, missive taped to the cheese cooler door. The shadow was cast by my hand in front of the headlamp I had to wear to get around in the dark...

2. This is a lovely solution to the tension between analogue and digital, as invented by a new friend. He razored an iPhone-sized depression in his Moleskine notebook, and uses that as a cover. It strikes the balance so much better than, say, this! What can this new invention be called? iSkine? iMole? (It strikes me now that both of these non-food items have skeletons in them. That was unintentional. But the second one is kind of sweet, no?)

3. And finally, I heard A.O. Scott speak last night about the reason critics are important. He was thoughtful and warm, and altogether different than the scary, snarky, please-don't-make-fun-of-me kind of critic archetype I have in my head. It was extremely affirming, and reminded me to not be so judgemental and snarky myself. There is always much to learn.

Ok, I'm off! Wish me luck! I hope you are nearing the end of the week with great anticipation for a wonderful weekend.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What a weekend!

I had been worried that a Labor Day weekend in the Catskills might have been painful, or rainy, or both, but if you didn't know Irene had struck just a few days earlier, you might not have noticed her aftereffects. The flooding had receded, the sun was out and the farmers' markets were in full swing. It turned out that the only painful part was having to leave, knowing that work and city living and school would be on the other side of the long weekend. 

There were oysters, steaks, sausages of all sorts -- and the wonderful thing about vacationing with food-industry people is that there is no pressure to impress them, because they're going to do it all. There was blue cheese in the eggs at breakfast and an insistence on perfect tomatoes that were so ripe they looked like they would split their seams. There were more sausages and meats than we could finish -- we didn't even get to the pork chops. There was a hike around a lake whose name I have now forgotten, ghost stories in a thunderstorm, which I have NOT forgotten, and an illicit swim in a closed park. If ever you have a chance to go to the Catskills, go! 

Thinking I should do more than laze in the hammock and eat other people's cooking, and since nobody had claimed the task of making dessert, I made peach pie one night -- though my cousin, who works in the front of the house here and here had swoop in and rescue the crust -- and a berry tart the next night. What's better than fresh raspberries and fresh blackberries, with a couple big spoonfulls of black currant jam? It's bittersweet, like the final days of summer.

Farewell Summer Tart
Crust is adapted hardly at all from Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef

For the crust, which makes two crusts and needs at least two hours total before you can get down to baking it:
1 cup and 2 tablespoons of butter
1 3/4 cup powdered sugar
a bit of salt
4 egg yolks
1 pound flour
1/4 cup chilled cream or milk

For the filling:
2 pints of raspberries
1 pint of blueberries
1/4 cup currant jam (or you could use any other jam, depending on your mood)
1/4 cup brown sugar (or more, or less, depending)

1. Make the crust first; cream together the first three ingredients, then quickly work in the yolks and flour until it comes together. Add the chilled cream and form into a thick log. Wrap with saran and pop in the fridge for an hour.

2. Remove dough from the fridge; it should be very firm and easy to slice with a knife. If it's not, put it back and wait a bit longer. Otherwise, slice as thinly as possible, and with the rounds, line your tart pan and press together the seams. Put the lined pan into the freezer for an hour. Then bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

3. Make the filling by placing the berries in a saucepan and turning the heat onto low. Add the jam and stir; add the sugar.

4. When the crust is baked and the filing has simmered into a delicious amalgam of berries, fill the crust and serve right away, while it's still hot, or later on, after it, and you, have had a little rest.

And now it's 11:23 p.m., time for a second almond cookie and some hot tea, time to grind the coffee to speed caffeine delivery to the veins tomorrow morning, and then it's time for bed. Goodnight!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Subversive granola and a trip out of town

I was still antsy last night after all that fried deliciousness, so thought I should even it out by making some healthy (healthy-ish) granola bars. But the decadence switch had been flipped on in my brain, and the wholesome granola quickly became subversive granola. It started as an effort to make snacks for the school year -- class is finally beginning this Thursday, after Irene scrambled the schedule -- and I learned the hard way last year that an 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. class necessitates snacks. Awesome snacks. Or else you realize at 9 p.m. that your batteries are at 30 percent and your discussion contributions are steeply dropping in quality.

Last night's granola bars started out as a take on Ina Garten's, with more nuts, more salt and different, and less, dried fruit. But shortly before midnight, it struck me that I had more chocolate than I would need on our trip to the Catskills, so why not just melt the remainder and spread it on top? That's what I did, and subversive granola was born.

(I mean subversive granola in the sense that it is no longer healthy; I just did a Google search for "Subversive Granola," to make sure I wasn't stealing the name of someone's granola business or something -- it doesn't look like I am -- and it seems that phrase only turns up anti-left propaganda. Is granola still considered a food of the ultra liberal? I thought everybody ate granola.)

The extra nuts make this bar hearty and sustaining; the honey and chocolate are punctuated by the crunch of Maldon salt. Besides how good the bars taste, they are also so enjoyable to make: the smell of warm honey and roasting hazelnuts is still on the air this morning.

After finishing the bars, I headed to bed and read a few pages in a biography of Proust for school. And this morning...my rolling pin is packed, balls of dough are ready and refrigerated, bottles of wine are stowed in the back seat of the car. All I need to now is another cup of coffee and a second granola bar, and I'm off!

Subversive Granola Bars 
Adapted from Ina Garten's Handmade Granola Bars

2 cups oatmeal
1/2 cup wheat germ
1 cup whole blanched almonds
1 cup whole hazelnuts
1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup dried pears, diced
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Several big pinches of Maldon salt
About half a pound of semisweet chocolate

1. Heat the oven to 350 degree, butter a large baking dish and line it with parchment. 

2. Place oatmeal, nuts and coconut on a baking sheet. Toast for about 15 minutes. If your wheat germ is untoasted, as Bob's Red Mill is, sprinkle it on a separate baking sheet and toast for about 10 minutes, or until it's golden. Careful with this one -- it can go fast. Combine oatmeal, wheat germ, nuts and coconut in a bowl. Mix in the dried pears. 

3. Turn the oven down to 300 degrees. 

4. Combine butter, honey, sugar and vanilla in a pan, bring to a boil. Pour over the toasted ingredients and mix well. Add a few pinches of Maldon and mix again. Pour into the prepared pan, and use a damp spatula to press it into shape. It's hot, so if you use your fingers, be careful! 

5. Bake for half an hour, or until it's toasted to your tastes. Let cool for 3 hours or so, or until it's firm and holds together. 

6. Melt the chocolate and pour over the granola. Let the chocolate set, then cut into bars. 

7. Snacks! 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday night KFC

The prospect of fried chicken focused my brain like a laser today. I had been struggling -- it's so hard to concentrate the day before the long weekend, and I've been looking forward to this one extra, because my husband and I have rented a house in the Catskills with my cousin and her three chef friends. There has been talk of oysters, kielbasa, pie, barbecue...ahh!

With so much to look forward to, it was hard to focus. I promised myself that if I could get through my to-do list, I could rush home make a batch of Korean fried chicken to eat with my husband before he took off for his gig at Brooklyn Winery. If I couldn't get through the list, dinner would be scrambled eggs. It was magic motivation. (Scrambled eggs isn't actually a bad dinner. It just doesn't hold up to KFC.)

Korean fried chicken is the kind of fried, savory tastiness that is so crave-inducing that you'll risk a burnt tongue to get at it as soon as it's lifted from the hot oil. I used to make it by just marinating cubes of chicken in soy, mirin, ginger and garlic, then dredging the cubes in cornstarch and frying them in oil at some indiscriminate temperature until they seemed done. For me, this was a passable technique. All I really wanted was a delivery system for ginger-y, soy-y, fried chicken. But then I read an exhaustive effort to recreate the flavors of classic fried chicken hof style at ZenKimchi, and I had to try their way. I used the Two Two Chicken recipe, with potato starch, and I marinated the chicken for about 30 minutes in enough soy to cover the cubes, a glug of mirin, two cloves of garlic, minced, and a thumb-sized knob of ginger, grated. The crust fell apart on my tongue almost like pastry, and it had that grit of salt and pepper that makes you want to lick your lips. The chicken was tender and bursting with juices. It was just what I'd hoped for.

Now it's 11 p.m. and the smell of hot oil has finally filtered out of the apartment. The neighborhood is eerily quiet -- usually there's a horde of teenagers who play a game of tag/catch/hide-and-seek well into the night on Fridays. Perhaps they're at home with their families, getting ready for their own weekend getaways.

Besides the fried chicken, there were lots of other One Really Good Thing contenders today. Two of the best: sitting in Bryant Park on my lunch break, eating a puckeringly tart Fuji apple and reading the last three pages of Rick Moody's latest: The Four Fingers of Death. Rush out and get this book! You'll be glad you did, especially if you are, like me, simultaneously sarcastic and sensitive, skeptical and sentimental. Dark, funny, heartachingly-touching. I loved it.

And, reading -- bear with me -- the Time's obituary for the co-inventor of the colonoscopy, Dr. William I. Wolff. Check it! This guy invented a tool that amounted to "a quantum advance in abdominal surgery," because it so successfully saves people from dying of the second most common type of cancer. If that's not enough to love him, the end of the piece described him as someone who "delighted in veering from conventionality." Once, the story said, "a patient from Chinatown could pay only in homemade dumplings, and that was fine with him."

That made me very happy.