Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Jittery nerves after a long day

It was an unexpectedly late night at work yesterday. Just before I was about to publish the issue and walk out the door at 5:30 p.m., I noticed a big, glaring error on page 8 that had to be fixed. It would have been a stop-the-presses moment, except that it's an online publication. (A stop-the-coding moment? Not very dramatic.) Nonetheless, three people had to be bothered at home to fix the mistake, and I didn't roll out of work for another three hours. It would have been OK if it was just me who was kept late, but bothering other people is such a terrible feeling. Ugh. 
When I got home I was a little jittery — the problem had been fixed and everything was fine. But sometimes nerves are hard to calm. I decided to make biscotti. It helped.
And I can take some to the people who I had to bother yesterday.
Spicy biscotti
(Adapted from The New Best Recipes)
1 cup sugar
2 eggs and 2 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cloves or powdered cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
Several grates of fresh nutmeg, or a pinch or two of ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, yolks. Whisk in vanilla.
3. Whisk together dry ingredients.
4. Add dry ingredients to wet and gently incorporate without overmixing.
5. Divide dough into two parts and roll into two foot-long, narrow logs. Place on the baking sheet and smooth the top of the dough. Bake until the dough is golden, about 30 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Using the parchment paper, transfer the dough onto a counter, and using a very sharp knife, cut diagonal slices of biscotti to your desired thickness (New Best Recipes recommends a serrated knife, but that's always caused my cookie log to tear).
7. Turn the heat down to 325. Rearrange cookies on a baking sheet, cut side up. Bake another 20 minutes, or until the raw edge of the cookie is golden. For thicker biscotti, increase the time by about five minutes so that the center doesn't get weird and chewy.

Makes about 25-30

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Practicing

In an effort to cheer me up after a discouraging day, my mom once told me a story about Jun Kaneko, a ceramics artist born in Japan who makes gorgeous, gigantic sculptures out of his studio in Omaha, Nebraska. Mom said that as a student new to the U.S. in the early '60s, Mr. Kaneko had spent the night after his first class working on an assignment to make dozens and dozens of ceramic pieces — not realizing that the number of pieces he was attempting to finish was the total number required for the semester, not for the next day of class. He finished all the work for the entire term that night, then continued to work just as hard until classes were over. Mr. Kaneko is now one of the world's most respected ceramics artists, with public commissions in the U.S. and Japan, and shows around the globe. The lesson, mom told me, is that doing something well often has nothing to do with sparkling, instantaneous talent. It has to do with constant, consistent effort, plugging away at your intended goal over and over. 
I've been trying to remind myself of that as I've thought about and worked on my thesis project. On Friday night, I needed a break, and decided to do something easier for a while: a quick and simple gluten-free muffin recipe I'd spotted on the back of my package of Bob's Red Mill rice flour. Attempt Number One: not so good. My first batch was bland and weird, with too little batter per muffin, which each had the density of a hockey puck.
Attempt Number Two: much better! I doubled the recipe, added more sugar and ground almonds, and changed the flavoring to lemon poppy seed, with the added zing of lemon zest. It's remarkable how much better you can get with the second try. Keep that in mind, self. 
So now it's Sunday night. Rus has gone off to a rehearsal, the apartment is silent, and there's still enough of the day left to take another crack at writing. Onward! I hope everybody had a good weekend and is looking forward to the week ahead. 
Gluten- and dairy-free lemon poppy seed muffins
2 cups rice flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons  ground almonds
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
Zest of one lemon
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons water
2 eggs
1 teaspoon lemon extract
4 tablespoons oil (Any higher-heat oil will do. If you don't mind dairy, you could use butter.)

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Grease or paper a 12-muffin tin.
3. Whisk together dry ingredients, make a well in the center.
4. Add wet ingredients. Mix well.
5. Pour batter into tin. Bake 20 minutes.

In other news, my friend Leigh wrote a book! A real life book! It's excellent. If you're in need of a good story, rush out and get it. And...
...this granola recipe is tasty. I added cinnamon, dried dates, dried apricots and dried cherries. And an aspirational graffito appeared in the neighborhood overnight.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Do-overs, deep thoughts and the last hours of vacation

OK! FINALLY! I got new monkfish and made that Rick Stein dish I'd hoped to make for The First Dinner of 2012: Vietnamese fried fish with turmeric and lemongrass. The fish is marinated for an hour in tamarind, lemongrass, fish sauce, tossed in turmeric powder and rice flour, then deep fried with scallions until everything is golden. The marinade has that spiky smell of lemon, but because lemongrass has none of the bitterness of lemon, the flavor is complex, salty-sweet, with just a flash of bright citrus.
My favorite thing about this dish is that it's a choose-your-own-adventure kind of meal. The fish is served on top of thin rice vermicelli, and then you decide what else to add on top: fresh herbs, roasted peanuts, hot peppers, lime. Eating that way, even if it's by yourself, turns dinner into such a festive meal. If someone else is there too, all the better.
I've been thinking a lot lately about why there has been such an explosion of American interest in food and food writing within the last few years; it goes way beyond The Frugal Gourmet and The Silver Palate and all of the other famous chefs and food writers and culinary thinkers whose cookbooks were in the kitchen of my 1980s childhood. Now, there's a whole TV network devoted to food and a new word to describe people who like to cook or eat or both: Foodie.
One of my professors even commented several weeks ago that an aspect of Occupy Wall Street that struck her as particularly Of The Times was the fact that many of the protesters were eating very well, because there was an area set up for caterers, chefs and restaurants to make donations of delicious-looking food. Some people associate the interest we have in food with fall-of-Rome-type predictors, as if we are too gluttonous for our own good. And certainly, as Mark Bittman points out, we Americans have a lot of room to eat more healthfully, thoughtfully and ethically.
But at the same time, I find it heartening that many of my contemporaries, people in their 20s and 30s, as well as those younger and older, are more interested in cooking and eating and thinking about ways to enjoy good food and good company than they are in, say, shopping. It makes me hopeful that in this small way, some of us are rebelling against the focus on the warped reality of reality TV and the false sense of connection given by Facebook, choosing instead an activity and experience that's real. With that, on to fried fish!
Vietnamese Fried Fish for Two
Adapted from Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey
2 tablespoons of tamarind pulp, soaked in 1/4 cup of hot water for about 15 minutes
2-inch piece of fresh turmeric, peeled and roughly chopped
2 large lemongrass stalks, stripped of the tough outer leaves and finely chopped
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 pound monkfish or john dory, cut into bite-sized cubes
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/3 cup rice flour
Vegetable oil
4 scallions, cleaned and sliced lengthwise into thin ribbons
Accompaniments
1 packet dried rice vermicelli, cooked, shocked in cold water and drained
1/4 cup toasted peanuts, chopped 
Handful of lettuce leaves, ripped into small pieces, washed and dried
Several sprigs of mint, cilantro and Thai basil, washed and dried
Half a lime, quartered
Vietnamese dipping sauce (the recipe is below)


1. Squeeze the tamarind pulp with your fingers, helping the meat dissolve in the water. Strain out the pulp and retain 3 tablespoons of the liquid. 

2. Place the tamarind liquid with the next four ingredients in a small food processor with a tablespoon of water, and blend. Place the fish in a shallow dish and cover with the tamarind/turmeric/lemongrass slurry, turning the pieces so they're covered on all sides. Put in the fridge for at least an hour. 

3.  Whisk together rice flour and turmeric powder in a dish. Toss the fish cubes into the flour so they are coated on all sides. 

4. Using a frying pan that's large enough to accommodate all the fish cubes without crowding, pour the vegetable oil so it's about an inch deep, then heat over a high flame. Test one cube to see if it's hot enough; if it sizzles in a strong, satisfying kind of way, it's ready. Fry the cubes until they're toasty on all sides and cooked through, about four minutes. Halfway through, add the scallions and allow them to wilt and get crispy here and there. Use a slotted spoon to take everything out. Drain on paper towels. 

5. Divide the noodles onto two plates, then place half the fish and scallions on top of each mound. Serve with all the accompaniments in their own bowls, and have at! 

Dipping sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon sugar
Minced ginger and garlic to taste; I used about a teaspoon each
One hot Thai pepper, sliced thinly

1. Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl and serve with the other accompaniments. 
In other news, it's freezing cold out after 60 degree days and someone has dressed the trees on 13th Street in little knitted sweaters. I love them. But will they get saggy when it rains tomorrow? Maybe the tree clothier has little tree rain slickers at the ready. We shall see. 
And...it's the last few moments of my lovely long vacation. Oh time, there is never enough of you.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Lucky beans and a change of plan

I was going to make Vietnamese fried fish for the first dinner of 2012: a glorious, fresh-turmeric-tinted dish with jasmine rice and fresh herbs. The black-eyed peas were just going to be a little side dish, done with herbs and lime, flavors that would go with the fish but still (hopefully) hold their good luck. But when I opened the parchment packet of sea bass I had bought the day before, I was taken aback by its weird, ever-so-stomach-turning smell. It had gone bad. 
Since I had nothing else at hand, the beans were thrust from side stage to center stage; perhaps their good luck was already at work, because I had most of the ingredients to make a Hoppin' Johnesque sort of stew. Or maybe the good luck was that I didn't get completely bummed and order a medium pie with anchovies and olives. Or maybe luck had nothing to do with anything, and it was all the power of bacon.
But whatever it was, our New Years black-eyed peas had never tasted better. I was so relieved! The peas were creamy and the Holy Trinity of onion, green pepper and celery, along with oregano and spicy green chili, evoked that cozy Southern cooking style that seems to say, Don't worry. Just relax. Home cooking is on the way.
 My left brain knows that it probably doesn't really matter what the first dinner of the year is. But it feels significant, as if it sets the tone, somehow, for everything that comes after. Like Byron says, "I will not dwell upon ragouts or roasts, albeit all human history attests that happiness for man —the hungry sinner! — since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner." (!!!!)  
If this is the kind of luck that the peas have decided to bring this year — the luck to rescue a situation, even if it means drastically deviating from my original plan, then bring it on. I'll be ready!
Lucky Beans
2 large, thick rashers of bacon, or 4 conventional pieces, sliced into 1 cm. pieces
1 medium onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
Hot green chili pepper minced, or red pepper flakes, to taste
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
black pepper to taste
1 14 oz. can of black eyed peas
3 tomatoes, diced, or 1 14 oz. can of diced tomatoes

1. In a skillet with a lid, fry the bacon over medium heat until the fat renders and the meat is as crispy as you like. Remove the bacon using a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Add the onion, pepper, celery, hot pepper and spices to the bacon fat, and gently saute over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Everything will start smelling delicious right about now.

3. Add the black eyed peas and tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and put the lid on the skillet. Turn the heat down as far as it can go, and gently cook everything for about five minutes, allowing all the ingredients to get to know each other. If the beans are too soupy, remove the lid and cook for a few minutes longer to drive off some of the liquid. Otherwise, done!

Grits
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup corn grits, also sold as polenta
A tablespoon or two of butter, if you feel like it

1. Bring the broth to a boil in a saucepan with a lid.

2. While stirring, sprinkle in the grits and turn down the heat. Clamp on the lid, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Some people say that corn grits and polenta must be stirred constantly to be smooth, but I think it works just as well to stir now and then and break up any lumps if they form.

3. Stir in as much butter as you like, and serve.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mary's Fishcamp, then Applewood.Yes!

Oh Mary, how I love your camp of fish. I have never met you. I don't even know what you might look like. But if we were ever introduced, I'd say this: I really, really like your restaurant.
Rus and I had our last dinner of the year last night at Mary's Fishcamp, and we went a little bit wild with the ordering. There were New Zealand cockles, three kinds of raw oysters, Guatemalan shrimp in spicy garlic sauce, crayfish hush puppies, peekytoe crabs in cream sauce and grilled lobster.
There was a chocolate sundae and a steamed lemon pudding with candied lemon zest. At one point the waitress looked at us like we were nuts for ordering so much, but everything was so flavorful, and there was such a wide variety of dishes on the menu, and it was New Years Eve, after all.
If it's important for the last meal of the year to be spectacular, it follows that the first meal of the year should be, too. Right? (Convenient logic...) So while Rus rested because of a sore throat, I went down to Applewood, sat at the counter and had a less crazy but still delish meal: grilled cheese with bacon, fries and coffee, and read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. YES on all counts.
 I don't know if it's socially acceptable among bloggers and blog readers to lavish praise on restaurants and cookbooks and other bloggers, instead of being measured and casting about with a critical eye. (I was going to say gimlet eye, because I LOVE GIMLETS) But there's just so much criticizing floating around, I know I'm too critical, and I just want it to stop already. Which brings me to my list of 2012 resolutions.

Pledges for 2012
1. Be less critical! Quit squalling, worrying, nitpicking. 
2. Pay attention to the good stuff more often then the bad stuff, externally and internally. 
3. Have better focus. Real focus! Sustained focus, even when it's hard or the task is tedious.  
4. Have a steadier supply of handy snacks. So that when hunger strikes at work or while studying, it doesn't spiral into a grouchy mood. 
5. Hang the second set of Venetian blinds (BLINDZ), instead of looking at them for weeks and wishing they would hang themselves. 
6. Eat good luck blackeyed peas ASAP, then spend the rest of the year recognizing all the good luck flowing my way, even when it's hard to see, or isn't exactly what I'd wanted. 

Happy 2012 all! Here's hoping it's a great year for everyone.