November 25, 2012
Sometimes, the best part of the party is when it’s over. There’s nothing quite like the Friday after Thanksgiving when the house is clean, the refrigerator is full, and you get to do whatever you’d like until Sunday. For those of us that don’t go to the mall, it’s the most delicious weekend of the year.
Of course, the first thing to do is make turkey stock. At our house, there was so much carcass I used two large stockpots, which inadvertently taught me an important lesson.
In one pot, I put the the most juicy bits — the neck, organs, and a few cups full of the Moscato-laden brine the turkey soaked in for 24 hours. In the other, I put the bones and water. In both, I put the usual array of onions, carrots, garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaves. After the course of one James Bond movie, the difference between the two stocks knocked my socks off. The stock with the juicy bits and brine was dark, rich, and unctuous. The other stock was light in color and lacking personality. The first stock tasted like the work of a professional kitchen, and I instantly knew why exceptional stock is so revered in making sauces. Lesson learned: when making stock, I should go out of my way to get and cook with the parts of the animal I usually avoid.
The next day, Argus and I took a long walk in the dog park in the first of the winter snow. Cold, tired, and hungry, we came home and made turkey biryani, following this recipe from the New York Times. I was thrilled when I realized not only did I have all the ingredients — I also had gallons of homemade stock from the day before. I saved the amazing stock and used the lighter one, figuring the Indian spices were all I needed to add flavor to this meal.
This recipe was a joy to make — marinating turkey in yogurt, frying onions in ghee until brown, and following the suggestion of the recipe writer to taste the broth to make sure it’s “well salted and highly seasoned.” To me, fewer words ring more true. Happy thanksgiving. May you turn your all-American leftovers into exotic meals.
August 4, 2012
The best things in life happen slowly and develop their own personality over time, a posteriori, the philosophers would say, reflecting on the experiences they’ve earned. Learn how to throw clay. Eventually, you’ll make something you can drink out of and you can call yourself a potter. Keep hammering away at your keyboard, and when you have enough good material, you’ll be known as a writer. See the same guy for a year and a half, and when your toothbrush is at his house and there’s Hanes in your dresser drawer, you’ll be in a relationship together, and it will be all the more true because you let it define itself over time.
Some things in life you have to be patient enough to learn and curious enough to discover. Definitions aren’t granted, they’re earned. Those who know me well will recognize this as my philosophy on relationships.
The St. Germain is at his house, but the Parmesan is at mine. The privacy and big-screen TV are at his house, but our home-grown, ripening tomato plants are at mine. This weekend, he’s out of town, and unfortunately, the Pinot Grigio and homemade baba ghanoush are at his house, and there’s little good food at mine. If T.S. Eliot measured out his life with coffee spoons, B and I might measure out our life in ingredients and tell time by the recipes we’ve made.
Earlier today, I noticed he left a bag full onions from the farmer’s market here at my place. As if by some ingrained habit I didn’t know I have, I decided to make onion butter. I’d done it before and figured it was no mystery, but looking through my cookbooks from Stewart to Escoffier, I found no mention of it.
If you look online, you’ll see plenty of recipes masquerading as onion butter. The problem is, they all instruct you on how to mix onions and butter together, but that’s not the point at all. The idea is to make a creamy spread out of onions and onions alone.
Onion Butter. Peel and thinly slice 3 pounds of onions. Cook over a low flame for 3 to 4 hours. When they’re “completely melted into a dark caramelized mass,” puree until smooth in a food processor.
March 6, 2011
Although at times it seems a bit foolish, my average weekend doesn’t feel complete unless I find something to bring home from a thrift store. I have high standards, of course, so it can’t be just any old thing. I follow the advice of William Morris. Everything in my house is either useful or beautiful. A mini clawfoot bathtub holds my business cards. A glass soap-holder-thing in the shape of two cupped hands holds my favorite jewelry. A large white serving dish shaped like a dahlia hangs on my wall along with a random collection of beautiful plates and oversized forks and spoons. I love finding woven boxes, candle holders, tea bowls, linens, wire baskets, bakeware, mugs, juice glasses, bowls, mirrors, statuary, and demitasse cups. It’s as though I run a boarding house for wayward objects. I find a permanent home for the lost and the rejected.
This weekend, I found a home for a cocotte, which is pretty funny if you know the word play behind it. When I saw this humble off-white pot, maybe 6-inches wide, I immediately thought of eggs en cocotte. I didn’t have anything to bake eggs in, and this funky little saucepot would nicely do.
I also wanted to untangle this mystery of the cocotte, a charming French word so colorful I wish I could pin it down and dissect it. Cocotte means “little hen,” which explains “coq au vin,” but not poulet. In this case, cocotte refers to a small casserole you’d use to both bake and serve food. In yet another twist, cocotte also means prostitute. An etymology dictionary tells me that cocotte as a cooking vessel was around long before it was applied to a woman dealing in sex — which means that the French used the cooker to describe the hooker, or something like that. In any case, eggs en cocotte is luxurious and remarkably easy — which I suppose takes the definition to yet another unintended level.
Also, can’t you imagine a trollop named Chanterelle? A strumpet named after the mushroom shaped like a trumpet? Or maybe that’s just me.
Eggs en Cocotte
Find a small cocotte in which to heat things up. Coat the inside with butter, fleur de sel, and rosemary. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Steam a handful of spinach in water, sauté chanterelles in a hunk of butter, and grate un petit pile of cheese.
Pat the spinach dry and put it in the cocotte, adding the cheese, a bit of heavy cream, and finally the eggs — however many you please. Place the cocotte in a baking dish with enough boiling water to submerge it halfway. Bake for 15 minutes and remove.
Spray a few slices of baguette with olive oil and place in the broiler until crisp and golden. Put all generosity aside. If you can, plan to be home by yourself, which is always the most pleasurable way to eat eggs, especially ones this sensual.
February 20, 2011
Today’s big snow storm was predicted just as a nasty cold took hold of my senses. Welcome to an ordinary winter weekend in Minnesota. To lift my spirits, I made sure I had good food to keep me company, without having to leave the house to get it. It was preserved lemons and limes that inspired me. The few jars I made early in December have been sitting on my back stairs waiting for me to give them a try.
The idea of making Moroccan chicken is what led me to preserve citrus in the first place, so I pulled up this recipe from Tyler Florence and compared it to the contents of my pantry. Rub cinnamon, cloves, cayenne, cumin, fennel, coriander, paprika, salt, and brown sugar into the chicken. Check. Put lemon, garlic, and herbs inside the chicken and roast for one hour. Check. Add apricots, almonds, green onion, and parsley to the couscous after it steams. Check. The green olive sauce that’s called for looks great, but I only had four green olives on hand, so I figured I would sauté them with the chicken and preserved limes in the end.
Et voila, what ended up on on my shopping list? Simply one whole chicken, which I picked up this week on my way home from work. Instant winter bliss. The chicken goes into the oven a rich, brick red and sputters loudly at 400 degrees as it cooks. When it’s done, the lemons roasted in the chicken’s cavity are so supple the juice darts through your fingers in every direction as you squeeze the rind in your hand. The meat is warm with heat and rich spice, which perfectly matches the earthy almonds and sweet dried fruit.
For a food lover, there’s few things more luxurious than a well-stocked pantry, especially in the middle of winter. In less than three hours, I roasted the chicken, had coffee, and talked to two friends. As the chicken cooled off, I made the couscous, then took off the meat and sautéed it with the green olives and sliced preserved limes. With food like this, some movies, and a bottle of wine, the storm can bring anything my way, and I won’t mind.
February 13, 2011
This Valentine’s Day, I’m more than a little confused. I can’t tell if something important in my life has ended or has just begun. I was going to make oeufs en meurette for someone, but we’re planning to not see each other for awhile, even though everything between us feels so wonderful and right. Some days, the newfound freedom feels exciting and full of potential. Other days, I feel like the 4-year-old version of myself who lost her precious teddy bear named Charlie and wailed at the top of her lungs until my mom had to take me back to the store to figure out where it had gone.
This morning, I did the only thing that felt right. I woke up early, cleaned the kitchen, and made madeleines. I’d been collecting madeleine pans each time I saw them at the thrift store, and I delighted in it, as though I was rescuing lost puppies from the pound. I have five of these beauties now, both small and large, all of them weathered and old.
I’m not sure what I like more about madeleines, their literary history as a vessel for Proust’s childhood memories, or that I find the scallop-shell shape so pleasantly reassuring. Venus was born in a scallop shell, a full-grown, sensuous woman perfectly beautiful from the moment she took her first breath. Madeleines are like that, and I’ve always thought about Venus to remind myself that I am too, no matter what life might take away from me.
I found comfort in madeleines this morning, following Patricia Wells’ recipe, creating the perfect shape, what Proust called “the little scallop shell pastry, so richly sensual under its religious fold.”
I love madeleines because they are so plainly beautiful, so simply and exactly what they are. Maybe I was drawn to them as a reminder. Don’t lose yourself, don’t change for the sake of someone else, and certainly don’t worry about what’s to come. One day years from now, I’ll make madeleines again one morning. I have no idea what kitchen I’ll be in, or who I’ll be with, if anyone. I have no idea what I will think about how I feel now. But I’m confident the madeleines will bring in a flood of wonderful memories, as I’m a person who will always be happy with whatever shape my life has taken on.
August 23, 2010
I spent the weekend kicking around the kitchen with some good books, a bag of rice, and the few vegetables needed to make Indian food — potatoes, cauliflower, and eggplant. I learned the proper ratio of spice to use in making saag aloo and found a recipe for the perfect basmati rice, which just about bowled me over when the 20 minutes passed and I was finally able to open the lid.
In other words, I put the thrill of spontaneous cooking aside and dutifully followed some recipes. It was fulfilling, like mastering a sequence of yoga poses. You just have to put your ego aside and do what the nice recipe tells you to do.
I’m not a natural when it comes to following recipes, but I do have a knack for writing them. Last week, I almost won an award for my recipe writing. The Symposium for Professional Food Writers is an impressive, although expensive conference, so I applied for one of their scholarships on a whim. I was awarded a “special mention” in the Chronicle Books Scholarship for Recipe Writing. I was told the judges loved my writing, I scored consistently high, and my final score was close to that of the winning entrant.
And these wonderful writers have platforms. In my category, the winner was Ivy Manning, author of two cookbooks. The special mentions were 1.) Dede Wilson, author of 12 cookbooks, 2.) Faith Durand, managing editor of Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn and soon-to-be author, and 3.) me.
I was thrilled, especially since I never identified as a recipe writer. In fact, I never identified much as a recipe follower. My pantry is my palette. My All Clad is my canvas. Without recipes, my imagination runs free. I close my eyes and go to some higher place in my mind, seeing the color, texture, and taste of a dish take shape. If I’m creating the recipe for publication, I research the heck out of it and write it so clearly any Tom, Dick, or Harry could step up to the stovetop and give it a go.
I love this process. As a writer and editor, I take great pleasure in bringing order to cooking, a process that’s unpredictable, messy, and subjective by nature.
On any regular day, though, my cooking is whimsical at heart, even literary. Saturday, I read much of Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, specifically the essay “Alone In the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” This title was so compelling I had to do what it suggested. This is what the eggplant and I came up with.
However, like Magritte and his pipe, I would stress “this not a recipe.” A walnut is to pine nuts as feta is to parmesan, and herbs are so universally appealing it’s hard to pick just one. All I can say for sure is this is what I do when I’m alone in the kitchen with an eggplant. What do you do?
Makes about 4 cups
Now is the perfect time of year to eat eggplant, showing up all purple and beautiful at the farmers markets. For just 2 bucks, I got three of them. I used two, which yields a lot of pesto — enough for a big family or a party. I’m going to bring it to share for a weekend at a cabin. It’s great for grazing or for matching up with all manner of main courses.
- 2 eggplants
- one handful of walnuts
- two handfuls of feta
- olive oil
- a few cloves of garlic
- juice of a lemon
- every last leaf on one hearty stalk of basil
- salt, pepper, cayenne
Preheat the oven to 325 while you stab the eggplant all over with a fork. Cup one of your hands, pour in some olive oil, and slather it all over the fruit (eggplant is a fruit, you know). Put the fruit in a glass dish and roast in the oven for 45 minutes, turning once half way through. Put them in the fridge. When cool, cut off the green hat and peel off the skin with your fingers, which will slide right off, then pull out the long sinewy clusters of seeds. When you have nothing but eggplant flesh, give it all a squeeze, in batches, to release the excess water.
Put all of the ingredients except the eggplant flesh in a food processor and give it a whir. Add the eggplant and give it another few whirs while pouring in some olive oil. Add to pasta, slather on crackers and pita, or well, just about anything you’d like.
July 11, 2010
Only once in my life have I acted on a deliciously unethical impulse when it comes to food. I poached a man’s risotto, and I don’t mean in a bath of lightly boiling water. I stole it. A guy made risotto for me and I took it right out from under him and served it to another man.
It was our third or fourth date and this guy and I decided to have dinner at my place. I figured I’d contribute whatever was in my fridge at the time, somewhat wistfully imagining us dividing up a recipe together, chopping and prepping together at the kitchen island. But I guess collaborating is not what he had in mind. He showed up with every last ingredient he needed to make risotto from scratch and a couple cuts of meat to eat along with it. I think he even brought a knife.
With nary a pleasantry, he took the helm of my kitchen as if he had cooked there hundreds of times before. He grabbed a perfectly sized All Clad pan, tossed in some butter and a few turns of olive oil, and sauteed the onions he’d finely diced. He added the arborio rice, patiently allowing it to toast and then slowly soak up the white wine, salt, chicken stock, butter, and parmesan cheese, transforming it stir by stir into the plump, creamy texture it is famous for. He seared the meat and served it alongside a heaping portion of risotto the fine color of a delicate bird’s egg.
Unfortunately, none of his efforts in my kitchen that night did anything for me. We ate this great meal with nothing all that great to say. We eventually ended the evening with a sober salutation at the door and his heavenly cloud of Italian starch cooling in my fridge.
Dear reader, this is where I argue that the risotto entered the public domain. I mean, it’s not as though I sat back with twisted fingers concocting a clever plan for what to do with the decadent offspring of a failed date. An opportunity simply came along.
The following night, I had a date with B, who also loves to cook. In getting to know each other, we talked about the food movies we’d like to watch together, like Mostly Martha, Ratatouille, and many others. That night, we decided to watch Big Night. A smile spread across my face as I flashed from the risotto in my fridge to Primo the chef’s enduring passion for the familial risotto recipe that wends its way throughout the film. B and I burrowed next to each other on my couch with two plates of our bounty and two glasses of wine as Primo passionately dished out plates of authentic risotto from the back of his kitchen.
M.F.K. Fisher says that “sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” Mary Francis, I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I felt a sweet tinge of guilt as we lapped up every last puddle of starch (and maybe even a bit of each other).
Since then, I’ve decided every home chef should be able to make risotto without following a recipe. It’s your ace in the hole, an adaptable base that will convey most anything you’d like to put on it or in it. Risotto is warming in winter and graceful in summer, an easy way to serve hard winter squash or delicate summer finds. Martha Stewart sums it up by saying a well-made risotto is a “culinary feat.” “Small, firm grains of rice float, suspended, in a rich, creamy sauce.” Is that sensuous enough? I would describe the full process, but I couldn’t do it any better than Mario Batali and Mark Bittman in this charming video. Follow the recipe once and try to look at it never again.
I replicated the basic recipe my date made for me that night.
It’s summer, though, so I couldn’t stop there. I mashed up some peas in a bowl and added them in the final step along with the butter and parmesan cheese. I think purists might consider the outcome a bit dry, so I’ll experiment with taking it off the burner faster next time.
The grand results are again sitting in my fridge. I wonder if I’ll be lucky enough to share with someone special this evening.
May 6, 2010
It still amazes me just how much it takes to throw a good party. You have to quite completely throw yourself at it to make it seem as if you did nothing at all — caring deeply to be nonchalant, working all hours to appear effortless, choosing recipes carefully to discreetly impress. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf reported wryly on a boring English luncheon, saying “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes,” as if slipping into the voice of my favorite hostess Mrs. Dalloway whispering into the ear of a well-dressed guest nibbling appreciatively at one of her parties. I see the ladies conspiring in unison before a beautiful party spread, “No, no. Indeed, it does not. Now please serve me more of that beautiful trifle, my dear.”
The lamp in the spine lights on French cheese wrapped in paper and globe-shaped green olives you can pop on each of your fingers and eat one by one, on strange combinations like the sweet snap of peas blended with almonds, and on long-loved ones like squash, nutmeg, and heavy cream. It lights on minor collisions of tastes that contrast with one another, like the piqued tartness of citrus against the reassuring simplicity of bread. It lights on champagne citrus punch with white wine, and always on a simple bottle of beer.
More or less, that was my philosophy behind the food I made for my May Day party last weekend: Cilantro-pea spread with almond butter (from Chocolate and Zucchini). “Les cakes,” French savory cakes with black and green olives, parmesan, roblochon, and pancetta (from Epicurious). Squash bread pudding (from Food & Wine). Cucumbers with four types of roasted peppers, three types of citrus, feta, and cumin (from me). Globe grapes with chevre, crushed roasted pistachio, and mint (from me). Champagne citrus punch with Chardonnay and pomegranate (also from me). And lots of beer.
As I throw more parties, I’m essentially learning how to make the food disappear, even before it is eaten. It should recede quietly into the background among the flowers, plates, linens, and candles, offering a sense of something I can only think to call grace. There must have been about 50 people at the party. Tracing the connections we share would look like the New York City subway map, with many intersecting strands of friends and family, including many people I never met before. In introducing myself to one of these strangers, he said, “I never met you, but I heard the food here would be good, so I had to come.” I’m pretty sure that’s what I meant by grace.
In the end, the best part of a party is the noise of the door closing after the last person leaves. It’s so quiet you can actually hear it click, and you hope you are lucky enough to have that one favorite person there with you on the couch to take apart the evening, to avoid the mess with you, and to fall asleep with you. I wonder what Mrs. Dalloway did on those quiet evenings when all the guests had gone. She had married her husband Richard to be practical. Did she wish it was her lost love Peter with her when she closed the door, the man who saw the whole world in her eyes, who was filled with excitement every time he saw her, always saying, so affirmatively, “For there she was. There she was.”
April 2, 2010
The following post originally ran here, the April/May 2010 issue of my column The Sense of Taste with Valley Natural Foods, the lovely organic foods co-op in Burnsville. Go send them your love! It’s a hard-working co-op with a great community feel. In the meantime, if you would like to make the mothers in your life something charming for Mother’s Day, the recipe is for you.
My dear Grandma Polly left us on Mother’s Day more than 10 years ago. When I was a young girl, I used to call her Gob-a-gee. I still remember her looking over to me, saying, “Like chicken? Take a wing.” She’d put out her crooked arm, lock it into mine, and we’d hop a bus to go shopping on Mitchell Street in Milwaukee. She gave me apples and peanut butter every day after school, and her breaded pork chops hissed loudly in the frying pan. She also made a mean split pea soup so green and mushy my little brain never understood how anyone could eat it.
Over the years, I’ve collected as many things of hers as I can—crocheted afghans, embroidered linens, fine china, and plenty of old pictures. In my favorite one, she and my grandfather, who died before I was born, are sitting together on a wooden pier. She’s wearing overalls and holding an old cane fishing pole, smiling eagerly. He’s rugged and effortless with a pipe casually hanging in his mouth. They are stunning together and, despite time and place, my love for them feels as real as anything I know.
This month, I chose to make something as evocative as the memories of a grandmother. Pavlova, a charming, airy dessert, piques your senses with its ethereal flavors. In Australia and New Zealand, it is so revered every grandmother probably has a version of her own.
One bite and you can see why. Pavlova has a mesmerizing effect. The crunchy, yet soft meringue, silky cream, and tart fruit topping all tug at your attention. To further the effect, I added rose water, vanilla, and a hint of sage at the end. Each bite of this recipe dances in your mouth, much like the delicate ballerina Anna Pavlova who inspired its creation in the 1920s. It’s said that a hotel chef was so enchanted by her tutu laced with green roses that he used meringue and kiwi, Pavlova’s traditional fruit, to mirror her beauty on the plate.
Another wonderful thing about Pavlova is that it’s easy. This spring, put some flowers on the table and take a lovely afternoon to reminisce with your mother or grandmother while enjoying this heavenly homage.
Grandma’s Rosewater Pavlova with Sour Cherries and Vanilla Cream
Your meringue will probably crack in the oven, which is normal and only adds to the patina. You can buy rose water at Holy Land or in the wellness department of most co-ops. You can also use cherry jam or sliced fresh or frozen cherries.
- whites of 5 fresh eggs
- 1 cup caster sugar (synonymous with superfine sugar)
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon rose water
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 jar sweetened sour cherries
- finely chopped sage
Preheat oven to 250°F. Place egg whites in a bowl and whisk with a handmixer until billowy, about 3 minutes on high speed. While whisking, slowly add the sugar and then the cornstarch to the egg whites until the mixture becomes glossy, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the vinegar and rosewater and whisk again to combine.
With a spatula, shape the mixture into eight 4-inch rounds on two baking trays lined with parchment paper or tin foil. Holding the spatula perpendicular to the meringue, turn it in a circle to create a slight indentation in the center so the fruit and cream have a place to rest.
Bake until the crust is pale and golden, about 40 minutes. Turn the oven off and let cool inside for 1 hour or overnight.
When ready to eat, whisk the cream in a bowl until stiff. Add vanilla and sugar and whisk until peaks form. Line the pavlova on small dessert plates. Spoon on a generous amount of cream and then sour cherries and sprinkle lightly with sage. Serve with a linen napkin, small spoon, and herbal tea. You can also take the more traditional route and make one large pavlova. I just think there’s something special about having an individual cloud of meringue served especially for you.
Just be careful, in any case, as those gorgeous sour cherries might ooze all over your plate.
March 27, 2010
Somewhere along the line, Anthony Bourdain described the Twin Cities as having some of the best Vietnamese food in America. I wonder if he has eaten here enough to know, or if he knew just enough to feed James Norton, the hungry interviewer, a good answer. I can see him cooly ambling into Quang, lanky white guy in a tattered black coat slurping it up with the Vietnamese locals.
I’m not exactly an expert in the matter, so I’ll let him form the strong opinions. Last time I went to Jasmine Deli, I awkwardly missed out on the banh mi and I fell for the urban myth of the pho.
After I posted my review of the deli, I got an unexpected email from M, a close friend who had lost touch with me. It was pictures of the ingredients I made for homemade banh mi for a party I threw last year. Bright, snappy, and sweet pickled carrots and daikon radish, which I fell for and gladly ate for weeks after serving them to my friends. I still don’t know why he sent these to me. Maybe my review brought up some good memories, a bit of a Proustian moment among the madeleines, a memory of pain perdu.
Here’s the baguettes Angela insisted we pick up from Jasmine Deli. Someone in the owner’s family (was it a brother or a cousin?) makes them fresh on a daily basis, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.
A couple days later, shopping for food at Midtown Global Market, I spotted this sign. I had no intention of eating anything, but I had to stop and finally order a banh mi.
This charming sign is perched on the counter at Pham’s Deli, a bright spot in the middle of the market near the central tables. Pham’s beckons you in with cheerful signs and a tidy operation. There’s quite a few workers back there, although it’s this guy at the rice cooker who seems to run the show. I wonder if it’s Trung Pham, owner of this family-run operation. Check out their adorable website. “Think fresh, think Pham’s.” I like this place.
He studiously made my banh mi and, with a swish of his hand, twisted it in a plastic bag and delivered it to me with a smile.
All of the needed ingredients came together to make the sandwich every bit as fulfilling as I thought it would be. A mouthful of pickled veggies and bread on the outside, a mouthful of meat and cilantro further in. “This isn’t that spicy,” I thought to myself a moment before I ate a eye-watering jalapeno, seeds and all.
The one thing I’m not sold on is the addition of butter (as described in the sign), which has that characteristic slippery feel in your mouth, much unlike mayo, which effortlessly complements the riot of tastes in a banh mi. If it were up to me, the sandwich would be laced with creamy mayo, Sriracha, and boatloads of pickled carrots and daikon.