Category Archives: Things I Make

Ms. Dalloway’s Party

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.”

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Mother’s Day Meringue

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.

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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

Serves 8

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.

Meringue

  • 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

Topping

  • 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.

Pham’s Deli

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.

Isn’t it always like that, though? You cater to your idiosyncracies long enough and go changing someone else’s perfectly good thing. The deli serves a few different kinds of banh mi, so I’m eager to get another one the next time I go to the market, one of my favorite spots in the city.

Pham's Deli on Urbanspoon

Oeufs en Meurette

The following post ran in the February-March issue of my Column The Sense of Taste. Readers coming to this site from the link in the column, please see the post before this one for many additional poaching tips.

* * *

Although we’ve spent many hours together in the kitchen, the humble little egg still hasn’t given up all of its secrets. This isn’t to say that eggs are difficult to cook. They’re challenging only in that they provide an entire curriculum of cooking techniques. Eggs are both casual and refined. You can have them with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. They take you to France, Italy, Spain, Asia, and a diner in a small American town. They satisfy your teeth both savory and sweet. With minimal cost, they elevate other ingredients or take up a starring role in breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With a little dedication, cooking with eggs can become one of the most important techniques in your kitchen.

With Valentine’s Day upon us, I’d like to suggest a romantic morning recipe from classic French cooking repertoire, Oeufs en Meurette, or poached eggs in red wine sauce. If you make eggs for someone for breakfast, it means you care about them. If you make this egg dish for someone, your hearts might permanently join together right there at the table. With the first bite, the egg yolk oozes into the rich red wine sauce and the crevices of the crisp, garlic-laced bread. By serving it, you’re tapping into a vault of sensual French cooking and saying that you want to experience more of the world together. Poached eggs with red wine sauce is a sensual and beguiling gift of your affection.

It helps to view this recipe as the glorious sum of its parts: 1) red wine reduction, 2) sautéed bacon and mushrooms, 3) poached eggs, and 4) slices of toast rubbed with garlic—cooked in that order, but assembled in reverse. I wish you a most wonderful and romantic meal.

* * *

Oeufs en Meurette

Serves 2

For the sauce:

  • 2 cups stock (beef is preferred, but chicken or onion will do)
  • 2 cups red wine (go for an inexpensive pinot noir)
  • 1 thinly sliced small onion
  • 1 peeled and coarsely diced carrot
  • 1 coarsely diced celery stalk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig of fresh thyme
  • 10 peppercorns
  • dash of cayenne
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the rest:

  • 6 slices bacon cut into lardons (or tempeh bacon)
  • 12 to 15 crimini or button mushrooms
  • 2 to 4 very fresh eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • 2 to 4 slices dense white bread (I prefer sourdough)
  • 1 clove of garlic, halved
  • fresh thyme for garnish

Put all ingredients for the stock in a saucepan except for the flour and butter. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced by half. Drain the mixture through a colander and into a bowl, discarding the vegetables. On your chopping block, work the flour and butter together and then add it to the sauce, whisking with a fork until thoroughly mixed. Return it to the saucepan and bring to a light boil for 30 seconds. Turn the heat off, cover, and set aside.

Bring 2 inches of water to a boil in a deep saucepan for poaching the eggs. In a separate skillet, fry the bacon until crisp and set aside. Without cleaning out the pan, add the mushrooms and fry until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside with the bacon.

To poach the eggs, make sure the poaching water is at a gentle simmer, bubbling as lightly as possible. Add the vinegar. Crack one of the eggs into a small bowl. Place the lip of the bowl in the water and gently tip the egg into the pan. Repeat this process for all the eggs. Use a small spoon to fold the white back over each egg. Cook until the whites are set and the yolk still moves slightly inside the egg, about 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel. Trim off ragged eggs with a butter knife if you’d like. (If you aren’t serving the eggs right away, you can keep them ready in a bowl of warm water, or return them to the warm water in the saucepan for 30 seconds just before serving.)

Just before serving, re-heat the sauce as needed and toast the bread. Rub the toasted bread slices with the open the half of the garlic clove, putting one slice on each plate. Place a poached egg on the bread (I did this carefully with my bare hands). Pile the mushrooms and bacon on top of the egg and bread. Pour just enough red wine sauce on top, sprinkle with fresh thyme, and serve immediately with a fork and knife.

How to Poach an Egg

“One of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.”

— M.F.K. Fischer

If I’ve ever been ambivalent about eggs, it was due to the immaturity of youth. I used to think they were too weird for me, and too . . . well, intimate, in an animal kind of way. But I’m past that now.

Eggs have become one of the most important ingredients in my kitchen. Like a dog that will do any trick to make you happy, eggs can be your best friend. They’re a wonder ingredient. I would put a little cape on these things if I could. If I haven’t yet convinced you, here’s a survey of wisdom from my cookbook shelf.

Auguste Escoffier, French chef born in 1846 and author of The Escoffier Cookbook (complete with 2,973 recipes!), says, “Of all the products put to use by the art of cookery, not one is so fruitful of variety, so universally liked, and so complete in itself as the egg.”

Doyenne of domesticity Martha Stewart says, “The egg is a food that lets us perform magic in the kitchen.”

Mark Bittman, everyone’s favorite minimalist, says, “No other ingredient has the power to transform itself or other dishes as does the egg, perhaps the most important food in our kitchen.”

Deborah Madison, famed vegetable enthusiast, says, “Eggs are often described as the perfect food. Simply put, eggs do things in the kitchen that other foods just can’t do.”

Curious as I am, I decided to commit myself to the curriculum of eggs. Scrambled, turned into an omelette, boiled, half-boiled, fried, or baked, I look up information about every preparation whenever I make it. One technique I’ve learned tons about is poaching, which can seem intimidating even to the surest hand.

A few things about poaching eggs make the heart race a little bit, but don’t let any of it get to you. Nothing messes up a poached egg more than your own fear of it, so relax and have fun. Once you have a bit of confidence, get out a saucepan and poach 4 of them all at once. That’s how to really show ’em who’s boss.

To poach an egg, crack a very fresh raw egg into a bowl (or many raw eggs into individual bowls), dip about a half inch of the bowl into a simmering saucepan of 3 inches of water, tip the egg out, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the white becomes a firm pillow to carry the still-soft yolk to the plate.

One of the challenges of poaching a raw egg is that the whites fly around the yolk like the arms of a simmering octopus. To help fix that, add a tablespoon of vinegar (“acidulate” the water, says Alton), which keeps things together. Lots of people also suggest creating a whirlpool (Martha says, “technically a vortex”) in the water before sliding the egg in, as the momentum traps the whites close to the yolk. This is a cool trick, but for a long time it led me to think you can only poach one egg at a time — and that’s just not true. If you’re poaching an egg for yourself, go for the vortex. If poaching for a group of people, you can cook up to 4 eggs in the same pan. In this case, skip the vortex. To avoid the octopus effect, after you tip the eggs in, simply push the whites back over the yolk with a wooden spoon and hold there for about 3 seconds.

The most useful thing I’ve learned about poaching eggs is their durability. You can put them on a plate covered with a paper towel and trim off the messy edges. If you’re using them in a dish that’s still cooking, put the poached eggs in a bath of hot water until you’re ready to use them. If you really like planning ahead, Alton Brown says poached eggs can be refrigerated in ice water for up to 8 hours and reheated in hot water.

In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child offers lots of tips of perfect poached eggs. Especially if your eggs aren’t fresh, cook the shelled egg for half a minute to firm the white slightly, then crack it into the water to finish poaching. Alternately, Child and Bittman agree — a good substitute are medium-boiled eggs. Child says to boil an egg for 6 minutes, peel it, and use it in place of poached eggs. Bittman says, with a safety pin, poke a hole in the top and bottom end of a raw egg. Boil gently for 4 minutes, cool under cold water, and peel. (Beware: I personally find it more challenging to peel a medium-boiled egg than to poach a raw one, so experiment and find what works for you.)

I can’t begin to tell you how many things are improved by a poached egg. Maybe that’s what the Internet is for. But in my humble opinion, the crowning glory, the poached egg pièce de résistance, is Oeufs en Meurette, a sensual French dish I stumbled on and fell in love with immediately.

I wrote about this dish for my column with Valley Natural Foods. As soon as it’s in circulation, I will share the full recipe here. For now, here’s a hint of all its glory. If you’re lucky enough to wake up next to someone you love on Valentine’s Day, make this for both of you. You’ll be happy you did.

A Beet Lover’s Confessional

I must admit, I rang in 2010 tucked away in the outer boroughs of New York City with R and a large tub of fresh artichokes, which he taught me how to cook based on his grandfather’s old recipe.

R adores artichokes. He lights up every time he talks about them. When he was a kid, he wouldn’t let anyone talk to him if he was eating one of the artichoke dishes his large Italian family would put in front of his face. Given how full of life he is, I think they started to use it as a strategy.

You can see why I was surprised when R claimed I have an equally passionate relationship with beets.

“Your beet is my artichoke, Obry,” he said, going so far as to claim I have a fetish for them. It’s hard to describe just what it is about them. Beets make me sigh. Of all the stuff in the produce section, they’re the most fun to bring home. They’re so awkward, with their and crazy tall greens and peculiar long tails so animated it looks like they could scamper away.

I roast beets at least once a week and eat them with any combination of greens, grains, and cheese — or just straight on their own. I rarely buy bare beets, as the greens are delicious to eat with nothing but sea salt, shaved raw garlic, and a swing of olive oil.

And what else can you do with that beet meat? I had a loaf of Rustica’s whole grain bread and homemade hummus in the fridge, which led to this lovely combination — a roasted beet and hummus sandwich.

R, just so you know, the beet lover in me honors the artichoke lover in you. 😉

Eat, Pray, Poach

What with one thing or another, this weekend went by without a moment to spare. My column for the co-op was due, which in itself is enough to keep me blissfully engaged for 72 hours. For every column, I develop a new recipe, test it 2 or 3 times, write my heart out, and take a bunch of pictures. In this case, I made a wonderful French dish, which I won’t say more about until the article is out in February. However, the detail crucial to the arc of my weekend is that I must have poached, medium-boiled, and soft-boiled about 82 eggs.

Food photography is not yet my strong suit. I went to Ace to get a flood light, hoping it would help me take salacious pictures, but it only threw a red-orange light on everything, and it certainly didn’t get better when I knocked it off its makeshift ledge and broke the bulb on the floor. C’est la vie! Julia Child, if you were born in the digital age, what would yooooouu have done? After you mastered the art of French cooking, would you have mastered the art of blogging about it? In the end, I scored best with those pictures taken in natural sunlight. (Click on it. You know you want to.)

 

In addition to making a infernal mess in the kitchen, I also met my favorite gals for our short fiction discussion, attended back-to-back holiday parties, and went on not one, but two dates. Remember those?

I ended up at a strip-mall cafe in a suburb I don’t recall sipping Ethiopian coffee with a computer systems analyst. My philosophical disposition was already understood, so he asked me a ton of questions about my understanding of relationships. I responded with even more questions, deconstructed the whole yin/yang affair, and felt like I applied the Socratic method to dating as we reached the limits of our provisional knowledge. I suspect I wasn’t so graceful, though, when I stepped out of the cafe, looked around, and asked, almost incredulously, “Now… where are we?”

Better yet, I also ended up drinking tea at cozy and dimly lit Uncommon Grounds with an intelligent, curious, and curly-haired psychologist with a PhD. He had read my blog before we met, and one of the first things he said after we sat down with our tea went like this. “I told my friend I was meeting Carrie…” (pause, given that this is my name), “like Carrie from Sex & the City. She might write about me!” It was clear he was being playful, although I also decided then and there that his statement would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. (wink)

We had a nice, slow volley of a conversation and I liked his habit of alternately looking at me or staring pensively out the window at Hennepin Avenue while he spoke. Before I knew it, we were done talking and he was kicking my butt in a board game I had never played before. If dating isn’t enough to keep you on your toes, trying playing a breakneck game of Bananagrams while you do.

I suppose there are some things in life, like poaching eggs, snapping pictures, or playing board games while dating, that a girl’s just gotta learn how to do.