Sunday, October 16, 2011

Anxiety-quelling shortbread

Homework is nowhere near being done, the house is a mess, dishes are piling up, I can feel a cold coming on, and there's a deadline looming when I go back to work tomorrow. The anxiety is on red alert! And until a short while ago, there was nary a sweet to be had! Luckily, there was butter, sugar and flour in the kitchen, and that's pretty much all you need to make some anxiety-quelling shortbread. 

Maybe this is a confessional kind of a post: I shirked duty and made cookies. But even though that sounds like a slacker thing to do, I've got to say, I feel fortified to get back to work now. A recipe that calls for two sticks of butter can go a long way towards calming the craziness. Will now forge ahead. Onward! 

Yay! Shortbread. 

1 3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
2 sticks of cold butter, cut into small cubes

1. Line a 9-inch cake pan and a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Turn the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Whisk the dry ingredients together.
3. Using a pastry knife, cut the butter into the sugar. Once it's blended as far as it will go, rub the small butter bits into the flour mix by hand.
4. Once the dough starts to hold together, dump all the dough bits into the lined cake pan and tamp it down to form a circle.
5. Turn it over onto the cookie sheet. Slap that puppy into the oven, turn the head down to 300 degrees and bake for 20 minutes.
6. Remove the shortbread and cut it into as many wedges as you like — about 16-20 or so. The dough will sort of ooze back together a little bit — that's OK; the cut marks will just score the dough so it's easier to cut later. In order to make sure it cooks through, use a biscuit cutter to cut a circle out of the middle.
7. At this point, you can pierce a little pattern on each shortbread cookie with a chopstick or skewer if you like. Then, leaving the biscuit cutter in the middle of the dough, put the shortbread back in the oven for 40 minutes.
8. Remove the shortbread and let it cool for 5-10 minutes. Then cut along the score marks and let cool fully for an hour or two. While you're waiting, eat the center piece. It's the best part.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Autumnal loveliness just because

It was gray and drizzling and I was thoroughly bummed yesterday morning. But as the subway crossed Manhattan Bridge, I spotted a bicyclist in a skirt suit keeping pace with the train, sitting stalk-straight and riding with no hands on the handlebars. Her blonde hair streamed out behind her, and even though she must have been getting rained on, she had a big smile across her face. She kept riding like that the entire length of the bridge, and by the time my train went back underground, I had forgotten about myself and my terrible mood, and thought, Sometimes, I really love people. I love when people do delightful things, just because they can. We can easily chalk up so much of human behavior to self-preservation and to keeping the social balance or whatever. But when someone does something small and unobtrusive just because it makes them happy — like riding a bike with no hands on a foggy morning — it makes me think there is still a lot of mystery to life. 

There's not a whole lot of mystery to stuffed squash, but it was a recipe I came up with earlier this week, just because. I had read a recipe taken from the fantastic Hell's Kitchen in Minneapolis for bison sausage, and was reminded of the stuffed squash my mom used to make for my birthday when I was a constantly-hungry teenager in need of huge amounts of food. Her version was savory and mild; she used acorn squash and bound the stuffing with loads of Parmesan cheese. My version was spicy, and I added hazelnuts because it seemed like an autumnal thing to do. The end result was cheering and festive, and it tasted great with hard cider — a simple and unobtrusive invention that added a little delight to the day. 

Autumnal Stuffed Squash
Filling haphazardly adapted from The Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook's section on Hell's Kitchen. 

Any kind of tasty winter squash, cleaned out and roasted until tender. I used butternut squash, roasted at 350 degrees until I could easily pierce it with a fork — about 45 minutes. 

1 pound ground bison
1/4 cup minced shallots
1/2 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons fennel seed
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
dash of salt
olive oil

1. Place all the ingredients together in a bowl, and using your hands, incorporate all the seasoning into the meat. You could also place the ingredients into a mixer fitted with a paddle or bread hook, and slowly blend everything together.

2. Heat olive oil over medium-high heat and add the sausage mixture, breaking it up as it cooks. (You could also do as the Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook suggests, and make bison sausage patties.) Bison meat is extremely low in fat, so add a bit more oil if it starts to stick to the pan. When the meat is cooked through, scoop it into the hollowed-out squash.

3. Eat this autumnal loveliness with hard cider.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Neighborly basil

For the last two years I've walked past a growing stoop garden of basil, watching as it went from a couple sprouts in Styrofoam cups to an overflowing bounty. For a typical Brooklyn apartment-dweller, there's not a lot of room to grow your own food, and this garden is a jury-rigged affair of mismatched pots on a baker's shelf. It looks like a wall of green.  

I had never known who was responsible for the plants -- the only guy I'd ever seen come and go from that apartment was a college-aged rotund dude who walks to the bodega wearing only flip-flops and long johns, the full-body red flannel kind with a little flap in the back. But today I saw the basil gardener snipping off some of the leaves, said hello, and told him how nice it has been to walk past his plants every day.

"Oh -- yous want some?" he asked in that thick Brooklyn accent I love. Without waiting for my answer, he lopped off several leaves and told me he was going to wait a couple more days, then cut back most of the plants and make a batch of pesto. "It's for tha wife, you know? She loves my pesto."

I took my neighborly basil home and made a little salad with tomatoes and spinach. I wanted that full, sharp basil taste, undiluted by salt and oil, and it was a perfect treat. Homegrown is always the best, even when it's just grown on the stoop.