Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Generally speaking, there is not much danger in being an Australian abroad.

Unlike Americans, who run the risk of being dragged into all a manner of unpleasant discussions with regards to their president, their politics, and their culture, Australians can escape with just a few potshots at their drinking habits - and if those firing the volleys are British - the performance of their cricket team. No-one has a bone to pick with the Australians. They're quite content to make silly references to Crocodile Dundee.

Unless Vegemite comes up. Then all bets are off.

Vegemite, for the uninitiated, is a dark, sticky sandwich spread that looks like engine grease and tastes like concentrated soy sauce. It is apparently rich in Vitamins B1 and B2. Its television jingle is bested only by the one for Aeroplane Jelly in sheer irritation quotient.*

Consumption of Vegemite involves generously buttering two slices of bread, and then applying the thinnest layer possible of Vegemite to one slice before putting the two together. (If you are an Australian schoolchild, you might also add a slice of cheddar cheese.) Applying a layer of Vegemite to each side, or applying anything other than the thinnest layer possible, is... inadvisable.

As you might guess, Vegemite is an acquired taste. As you might also guess from my description, I never really acquired it. I'll eat Vegemite if there's nothing else available (or if I'm suffering a severe Vitamin B deficiency), but otherwise, I'll pass. And so when it comes up in conversation, I will either cheerfully join in the mockery, or offer an apology - whichever seems most appropriate.

I've heard many people recount their first encounters with Vegemite. As far as I can tell, they fall into three categories:

The Lemming. In which a friend wants confirmation that Vegemite is, indeed, just as awful as he or she thinks it is. Catchphrases: "This is the most revolting stuff I've ever eaten", "I'm not sure this qualifies as food", "You have to try this stuff to understand just how disgusting it is."

The Practical Joke. In which a friend, thinking that Vegemite must be something Australians like to feed to unsuspecting foreigners as a practical joke, decides to pass on the favor. Catchphrases: "I brought you this amazing stuff from Australia!", "No, you need to spread it on more thickly", "I know it looks terrible, but it tastes great."

The Unknown Horror. In which an unsuspecting foreigner doesn't experience Vegemite for him or herself, but gifts it to a friend anyway. Catchphrases: "I got you this stuff from Australia - I'm not quite sure what it is, but the natives love it", "They say it's a sandwich spread", "It's very popular. It must be pretty good."

The best (worst?) story I've heard belongs in the third category.

As Isobel tells it, she was five years old when her father came back from a business trip with an individual-serving container of Vegemite that he'd picked up on the plane. He had no idea what it was, and she, having never before encountered any sticky brown foodstuff that wasn't chocolate-based, assumed that Vegemite was similar. She took a generous spoonful. Her reaction, as you might imagine, was traumatized.

Stories like Isobel's make me think that a mere apology for the culinary atrocity created by my crazy compatriots may not be sufficient. I think it probably does take chocolate - and quite a lot of it - to compensate.

Which is why I'm going to invoke Nutella, the glorious Italian hazelnut-chocolate spread, as a sort of anti-Vegemite. I don't know that I can say anything about the marvels of Nutella that hasn't already been said. Like Vegemite, it's brown and sticky, but unlike Vegemite, it's chocolately and delicious, an absolute culinary joy. The simplest way to eat it is to slather it - thickly - on plain white sandwich bread, but it's quite happy in the company of butter and sugar too, as the pound cake below will attest.

If you've had an unhappy encounter with Vegemite, consider this a peace offering. If you haven't... well, if anyone tells you they brought you a present from Australia of the edible variety, and it's not a package of Tim Tams... you won't eat it, right?

*YouTube at your own risk.

Nutella Swirl Pound Cake

I found a reference to Nutella swirl pound cake on another blog when I was trying to figure out if anyone else had written about pound cakes and bumps. Nutella is a dense substance, however, so this pound cake contains a little baking powder to help with the rise.

(Serves one. Cake may be wrapped and frozen.)

Preheat oven to 325F. Ready a two-cup loaf pan.

Place a stick of salted butter in a large mixing bowl and let sit at room temperature until the butter is easily squashed with a fork. Add half a cup of white sugar, and cream the mixture together with a fork until smooth.

Stir in a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla essence, and a quarter-teaspoon of salt.
Crack in one egg, and beat until smooth. Crack in a second egg; beat until the mixture is thick and smoothish (it will look slightly curdled.)

Fold in a scant cup of flour and one-eighth of a teaspoon of baking powder. The batter should be smooth and creamy.

Spoon one-third of the batter into the baking pan. Add a generous dollop of Nutella, and use a spoon to spread it out. (Resist the urge to lick the spoon.) Spoon another third of the batter into the baking pan, and add another generous dollop of Nutella. (Keep resisting the urge to lick the spoon.) Spoon in the remaining batter, and run a skewer through the mixture to swirl it together. Give the pan a gentle shake to smooth out the top. Transfer the pan to the oven.

(Okay, now you can give in to that urge. Lick away.)

Bake for an hour, or until a skewer stuck in the middle comes out with only Nutella on it. Remove the pan from the oven. Let the cake cool in the pan for five minutes, then carefully turn it out on a wire rack. Allow to cool completely.

To serve, cut into generous slices. Skip the fork and lick your fingers.

Monday, December 21, 2009

an evening in the life of a minor demon

"Avarice needs to get moving in five minutes!"
"Someone get me more baking trays!"
"Where are the paper towels?"

According to Milton, Lucifer said that it was better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. He never said anything about serving in Hell.

Probably just as well. From what I can see, it involves a lot of heavy-duty baking trays and swearing at a cabinet trolley. I suspect it probably wouldn't make for great literature.

I'm in the kitchen prep area at O.N.C.E in Hell, the ten-course dinner theater extravaganza based on Dante's Inferno, presented by Cuisine En Locale and Oberon. This is my third O.N.C.E, but it's the first time I've ever been present as a kitchen minion (or should that be minor demon?) Tonight's service is well under way: Gluttony (beans and slow-cooked pork ribs) has just left; Avarice (turnip flan with celery root mash) is coming up next.

The baking trays aren't for baking. We're using the baking trays - slotted into cabinet trolleys - to transport plates between the kitchen area and the backstage area. My task for the night is to stick with Jen, JJ's assistant, and help her get the food from one point to the other without any mishaps. Between courses, I'll be conscripted into doing whatever else needs to be done - like collecting and cleaning the baking trays as they come back from the kitchen, so that they're ready for the next course.

Oberon is a club, not a restaurant. There's a kitchen area with a sink and bar fridge, but not an actual kitchen. Instead, the O.N.C.E team has brought in steam cabinets, coolers, electric burners, microwaves, toaster ovens, fans and even a fryolator, to create one.

We have folding tables set up end-to-end to create a counter for plating. For Avarice, I help lay out trays of red-and-gold bordered plates; Trevor moves down the line with a piping bag of chocolate ganache, tracing dollar signs, and JJ and others follow with individual flans, tipping them out of the molds.

(No photos. My hands were full enough without a camera. But you could try the writeup here.)

I scramble for the paper towels so that we can wipe off any stray drips, help Jen move the trays of completed plates to the cabinet trolley, and take one end for the trip down the long, twisty, bumpy corridor to the backstage area, praying we'll make it without any mishaps.

Unfortunately, prayers don't count for much when they come from Hell. The trolley is old, and one of the wheels comes off its track when we're halfway down the corridor, causing the cabinet to tilt at an alarming angle. There's considerable cursing as we half-drag, half-carry the trolley to the backstage area, and we hold our breaths as we pull the trays, hoping none of the finished plates suffered any mishaps.

Thankfully, we're spared that fate. The plates are fine, and once they've been handed off to the serving staff, we lug the trolley back to the kitchen area, where Annabelle manages to get it back on its tracks.

Now I just have to unload the trays, wipe down the trays, and start laying out plates (navy blue borders with gold edges) for Heresy while the rest of the team fills mugs with jasmine-scented kale salad for Wrath.

Our kitchen area isn't equipped to handle the kind of power a commercial kitchen demands. Tech has fiddled with the power so that we can theoretically run everything we need, but the circuits keep blowing. Trevor has been baking off the last of the pastry coffins in between blowouts, and the final batch has just finished cooling when we start to plate Heresy.

As Jen frantically communicates with front-of-house through her headset, we decorate plates with swirls of pumpkin puree, top them with pastry coffin vol-au-vents, fill the vol-au-vents with lobster salad, and add a final sprinkling of spicy dried chile powder.

Jen and I fill the cabinet with the trays of finished plates, and once again drag the trolley down the long, twisty, corridor, trying not to curse too much when we hit the bumps. We hand off the plates to the serving staff, and I drag the trolley back to the kitchen.

I'm starting to hate that trolley.

Violence is cold beet soup: the glass goblets are transported backstage in crates (no trolley!) and the serving staff pour the soup from pitchers. Our prep is thankfully minimal, giving me extra time to collect and wipe down baking trays for Fraud.

For Fraud, the menu indicates that we're serving Beef Wellington with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables. While there is puff pastry and duxelles, it's been wrapped around firm tofu, not beef. (That's the fraud.)

Out come the plate-covered baking trays, and we move down the tables with pots of mash and pans of vegetables, following with slices of Tofu Wellington and saucing with mushroom gravy. The trays go into the cart, and we're back to the long, twisty corridor.

Back in the kitchen, we're experiencing technical difficulties: the electrical circuits are not playing nice with the fryolator. In fact, it might be more accurate to say they hate the fryolator almost as much as I hate the cabinet trolley. They're blowing every ten minutes. Heresy is supposed to be a mini beef slider with French fries; JJ makes the decision to eighty-six the fries.

The burgers are fine, however, and we wipe down the folding tables and lay out sheets of greaseproof paper. We set out buns, and JJ gives quick tutorial on how to wrap a burger for those of us who never worked in fast food. The patties come out of the oven, and we start wrapping as quickly as we can.

The burgers are served in paper bags with a pamplet from "Beelzebub's Burgers"; they leave the kitchen on two big trays, sparing us the task of dragging the trolley back down the corridor again.

The final course is Heaven: a dessert of creme anglaise topped with a meringue, garnished with basil-blueberry sauce. We set out wide-mouthed glasses, floating meringues atop creme anglaise and adding dollops of sauce. Once dessert leaves the kitchen, JJ ducks out to catch the Heaven performance, and the rest of us take a break.

By which we mean "nibble on the leftovers." After all, there are some perks to serving in Hell.

There are plenty of extra vol-au-vents, and I snag a spoonful of creamy lobster salad to eat with the flaky, buttery pastry. There are also extra turnip flans, which sound odd, but have a light, custardy texture, and a sweet, delicate flavor.

Peering into the steam cabinet, we find a bowl of beans and ribs, and extra slices of Tofu Wellington, gravy, and sides. The beans and slow-brined ribs are fantastic, but it's the Tofu Wellington that surprises me. Disturbed as I am by the concept, it's actually quite delicious. The tofu texture works well with the flakiness of the pastry, and the duxelles and the gravy are flavorful enough to make up for its blandness.

When snacktime is over, cleanup begins. As Jennifer, Trevor and Bee ponder ingredients and logistics for the next evening's show, I make my way to the much-despised cabinet trolley. I have yet another stack of baking trays to clean before my night is over.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

things that go bump

It's that time of the semester again.

My frenzied, deadline-heavy weeks are over, and now I have just the low-level stress of a research paper to contend with. My desk is piled high with books and papers, and I am chipping away at the page count in a slow and painful fashion. This is when I find solace in my mixing bowl, returning to variations on the basic mixture of butter, sugar, and flour.

As much as I long for a KitchenAid mixer, I prefer the meditative process of hand-mixing when I'm stressed. Lately, I've been fascinated with pound cake, the old-fashioned kind.

Classic, old-fashioned pound cake uses no chemical leavening. The rise depends entirely on the tiny air bubbles created by creaming together butter and sugar, and beating in eggs. A well-beaten mixture produces a cake that forms a bump on top. Part of the pleasure of baking a classic pound cake is peeking in the oven at the forty-minute mark and seeing if the cake has "bumped."

I know that some add a little baking powder for a lighter texture, but I like the dense, rich, eggy results of the classic proportions. Using the classic proportions in full is a hefty undertaking, however, which is why I prefer to bake it in quarter-pound quantities using a mini loaf pan. (It's easier to achieve a well-beaten mixture when you're working in smaller quantities, too.)

Vanilla is the basic flavoring of pound cake, but I like it with lemon zest and a sticky, tangy lemon glaze.* Add a cup of tea, and paper-writing is almost bearable.

Almost. Whether I end up measuring my page count in pound cakes remains to be seen.

Glazed Lemon Pound Cake

(Serves one. Can be cut into slices, wrapped and frozen.)

Preheat the oven to 325F. Ready a 5.75 inch by 3 inch loaf pan (two-cup capacity).

Place a stick of salted butter in a mixing bowl and leave it to sit at room temperature until it is easily squashed with a fork. Add half a cup of white sugar to the bowl. Cream the butter and sugar together until smooth.

Add a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla extract, a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and the zest from one large lemon to the bowl, and give the mixture a quick stir. (Hang on to the zested lemon. You'll need the juice for the glaze.)

Crack in one egg. Beat with the fork until the mixture is thick and smooth, then beat a little more. Crack in another egg; beat until the mixture is thick and smooth-ish; it might look a little curdled.

Gently fold in a scant cup of flour (four ounces or so). The resulting batter should be thick and creamy. Spoon the batter into the pan, and give it a gentle shake to smooth out the top.

Place the pan in the oven. Bake for an hour, or until a knife or skewer stuck in the middle comes out clean. Let the cake sit in the pan for five minutes before turning it out on a cooling rack.

While the cake is cooling, prepare the glaze. Take the lemon you zested and juice it into a small saucepan. Add a tablespoon or two of sugar, and heat the mixture just to the point where the sugar dissolves - don't worry about bringing it to a boil. Let cool.

Once the cake has fully cooled, brush the top and sides with glaze, allowing it to soak in between applications. Cut into slices. Serve.

*Lemons courtesy of Virgin, who returned from Thanksgiving break with a bagful from the tree in her parents' yard at home.

Monday, November 30, 2009

eaten by papers

This is my paper-writing semester, and my various assignments are hell-bent on devouring my life. Blog on hiatus until mid-December, so that I don't have to cringe every time I see how long it's been since I last posted a new entry.

Friday, November 20, 2009

not telling our mother

My mother does not approve of sweets.

In her eyes, sugar is dangerous. Cake is suspicious; candy is a menace. Special occasions aside, dessert is unthinkable.

As you might imagine, it had rather predictable effects on me and my sister. We each developed a sweet tooth (sweet teeth?) with a vengeance.

We grew up delighting in classmates' birthdays; we were masters of the art of smuggling candy from bowls and dishes at banks and doctors' offices when our mother's back was turned.* Despite, or perhaps because of our mother's policies, sweets were the one thing my sister and I never squabbled about. Our unexpected windfalls were always shared.

When I went off to boarding school, I returned on holidays with American confections: maple sugar candy and Jelly Belly jelly beans. (She hid them in her jewelry box.) She went to Europe on a school-sponsored trip, and brought me a tin of Baci truffles. (I kept them in my sock drawer.)

The summer I spent as an apprentice in the hotel kitchens was also the summer Lucille was stressing about college applications. I took the bus to work each day, and the quickest way to get from the stop to the hotel was to walk through a shopping mall. The most direct route took me past Mrs Field's Cookies. Because Lucille was stressed and unhappy, whenever they had them, I'd buy toffee walnut cookies, her favorite. I'd smuggle them home, and we'd bond over not telling our mother.

It wasn't until after I'd brought home toffee walnut cookies several times that Lucille told me I was only half right: her favorites are plain toffee. She doesn't like walnuts at all. (She had been picking them out.) Unfortunately, Mrs. Fields never seemed to have plain toffee cookies, and so I switched to picking up boxes of Maltesers from the newsagency next door instead.

Now that we're both living away from home, Lucille and I can each indulge our sugar cravings to our hearts' content. She keeps a stash of gummi bears in her room; I sometimes eat chocolate cake for dinner. But when I was sketching out my baking list for my latest trip to New York, I thought of those toffee walnut cookies, and picked up a few Skor bars to test out the idea.

These are decidedly American cookies - very sweet, rather chewy, and possibly more appealing when they're baking than they are when baked.** They're richly buttery, and the toffee adds a satisfying crunch. I'd say that you can't eat more than one in a single sitting, but Lucille has proved me quite wrong.

The last time our parents called, they were delighted to hear that we'd had an nice visit. But as far as the cookies are concerned, we're still not telling our mother.

English Toffee Cookies (With or Without Walnuts)

I maintain that these are better with walnuts, but if you're of the same mind as Lucille, they'll work fine without. Cookie base is loosely modeled on this recipe from the New York Times.

(Makes two dozen. Dough will freeze.)

Get out a big mixing bowl. Cream together one-and-a-quarter sticks of softened butter, one cup of white sugar and two-thirds of a cup of brown sugar until evenly blended.

Beat in one egg, one teaspoon vanilla extract, and half a teaspoon of coarse salt.

Stir in half a teaspoon of baking powder and half a teaspoon of baking soda.

Fold in one-and-three-quarters of a cup plus one tablespoon of flour until just combined.

Fold in five ounces (roughly three-quarters of a cup) of Skor bits, or four bashed-up regular-size Skor bars. If you've opted for cookies with nuts, fold in three-quarters of a cup of chopped walnuts.

Cover the bowl with cling wrap and chill in the fridge for several hours.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Line several baking trays with parchment paper. (Avoid wax paper - the toffee will stick.)

Scoop the dough into lumps a little smaller than golf balls; arrange them on the baking tray at least two inches apart. (Dough may be shaped into lumps and frozen.)

Bake for fifteen to eighteen minutes, or until cookies are golden at the edges but still a little pale in the middle. Allow to cool on baking trays for five minutes or so, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. Cookies will keep for up to a week in an airtight container.

*I still do this as an automatic habit, which is why I'll inevitably find stray mints or Jolly Ranchers whenever I clean out my purse.

**I like the aroma of baking chocolate chip cookies, though I don't particularly care for the cookies themselves.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

vegetable makeovers

Winter vegetables, on the whole, are not a glamorous bunch. It takes work to dandy up a cabbage or turnip. Heaven knows parsnips aren't going to win any awards for being pretty. And don't even get me started on Jerusalem artichokes.

But some winter vegetables are seriously in need of a makeover and a better publicist. A prime example: celery root.

(Not my photo. It's from Wikimedia Commons.)

Poor celery root. It's one of those vegetables that garners puzzled looks at the farmer's market, and produces utter bafflement when it shows up unidentified in CSA boxes.

Its name is potentially misleading ("I didn't know celery had edible roots!"), but its other names are worse: celeriac, which sounds like a sneeze, celery knob, which sounds like a disease, and turnip-rooted celery, which is just plain awkward.

Frankly, the only winter vegetables that might be faring worse are kohlrabi and mangle-wurzel.

Celery root is undeserving of such an ignominious fate. Though it can be grated for slaw (as in the French salad celeri remoulade), or diced for soup, it truly comes into its own when cooked and pureed with a little butter or cream. As a side dish, celery root puree makes an interesting change from mashed potatoes (it goes particularly well with fish), but for something a little different, I like it as a filling for ravioli.

The original inspiration for the following dish was the ricotta cavatelli with celery root puree and sauteed spinach that I ate at Eastern Standard several months ago. The ingredients have been tweaked and rearranged: now it's the pasta that contains celery root puree, and the ricotta serves as the sauce. Swiss chard is more seasonally appropriate than spinach, and the walnuts add texture and a little extra richness. It's a dramatic transformation for the poor celery root, and quite a satisfying dinner on a cold night.

Celery root makeover: check. Next up: does anyone have any ideas for dandying up a mangle-wurzel?

Celery Root Ravioli with Swiss Chard, Ricotta, and Walnut Sauce

This recipe, like all ravioli recipes, is fairly straightforward, but time-consuming. You can spread the preparation out over two days if you like.

(Makes a lot of ravioli to freeze. Finished dish serves one, with leftovers for lunch.)

Take one celery root, about a pound in weight, and cut off each end so that the root sits flat. Use a knife to pare off the rough outer skin, then chop it into cubes or slices.

Place the celery root in a small pan and add enough vegetable stock to cover. Simmer, uncovered, for forty to fifty minutes, or until the celery root is tender. Stir in a tablespoon of butter. Once the celery root has cooled, puree with a stick blender or a food processor. Salt to taste. Transfer to a bowl; cover and refrigerate.

To make the pasta dough, dump two cups of all-purpose flour on a clean countertop. Make a well in the middle. Crack in four egg yolks. Pour in a tablespoon of olive oil and two tablespoons of water. Add a dash of salt. Use your fingers to break up the eggs and swirl them around to pull the flour in, little by little. (More detailed instructions can be found here.)

Once you have a rather shaggy mass of dough, start kneading. Wet your hands if it seems very dry; continue kneading. Knead until you have a stiff dough that is very smooth to the touch. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge for at least an hour.

Once you're ready to assemble the ravioli, pull the dough out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Set up your pasta maker, and roll out batches of the dough to the second-thinnest setting. (Probably about 5 or 6 on the dial, depending on your model.) Cover the sheets with a damp tea-towel.

Cut the dough into rough squares, about one-and-a-half inches wide. Take one square of dough, put a heaped teaspoon of filling on it, and lay a second square on top. Push down firmly with your thumbs around the filling to create a tight seal between the two layers of dough. Use a ravioli stamp or trim the edges as necessary. Set your finished ravioli on baking trays, and either cook immediately, or freeze for later use.

To prepare the sauce, begin with a bunch of Swiss chard, well-rinsed to get rid of any grit, and cut it into wide ribbons. Pour a little olive oil into a large, heavy-bottomed pan, and throw in several cloves of garlic, cut into halves. Once the garlic starts to smell fragrant, add the Swiss chard and cook until lightly wilted. Turn the heat down low, and add half a cup of ricotta, blended with enough water to make it pourable. Add a generous handful of chopped toasted walnuts. Give everything a good stir; salt to taste. Turn off the heat.

Put a big pot of salted water on to boil, and drop in half the ravioli. When they float to the surface, they're cooked through. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, and toss them gently with the sauce.

Spoon onto a plate and top with plenty of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve immediately.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

when you assume...

Of all the pleasures involved in procuring food, I find that one of the greatest is going to a bakery. (I dearly love bread in all its forms, and am fully capable of polishing off, say, an entire full-size baguette by myself in a single sitting.)

By some quirk of geography, I live within walking distance of four or five bakeries, all with very different specialties, and thus I am rather spoiled for choice. I admit that I sometimes go for a walk and stop by one of these bakeries, not because I am in any particular need of bread, but just because I enjoy breathing in the warm, fragrant air and contemplating the selection of baked goods on offer.

So it should come as no surprise that I've chosen a short story about a bakery for the Fall 2009 edition of Novel Food. "Witches' Loaves," by O. Henry, a turn-of-the-century American writer known for his clever writing and twist endings, is a wonderful cautionary tale of the danger of making assumptions.

Miss Martha Meacham is the owner of a small bakery. She is forty, has two thousand dollars in the bank, and possesses "two false teeth and a sympathetic heart." Adds the narrator: "Many people have married whose chances to do so were much inferior to Miss Martha's."

One of Miss Martha's regular customers is a middle-aged man with spectacles, a brown beard, and a strong German accent. His clothes are worn and darned, but he looks neat, and his manners are good. He comes in two or three times a week, and his purchase is always the same: two loaves of stale bread. "Never a cake, never a pie, never one of her delicious Sally Lunns." Just stale bread, every time.

After a few exchanges with her customer, Miss Martha decides that he must be a struggling artist. She longs to add something else to his purchase, but lacks the courage. But then:

One day the customer came in as usual, laid his nickel on the showcase, and called for his stale loaves. While Miss Martha was reaching for them there was a great tooting and clanging, and a fire-engine came lumbering past.

The customer hurried to the door to look, as any one will. Suddenly inspired, Miss Martha seized the opportunity.

On the bottom shelf behind the counter was a pound of fresh butter that the dairyman had left ten minutes before. With a bread knife Miss Martha made a deep slash in each of the stale loaves, inserted a generous quantity of butter, and pressed the loaves tight again.

When the customer turned once more she was tying the paper around them.

I won't spoil the rest (you can read the whole story at the link above), but suffice to say, there's more than one use for stale bread, and as Miss Martha discovers, not all of them mix well with butter.

Stale bread and butter are a better combination in a Brown Betty, an old American colonial dessert. It consists of spiced fruit (typically apples), butter and sugar, layered with cubes of stale bread to produce a sort of pared-down bread pudding that combines the pleasure of baked apples with that of cinnamon toast. It's a quick weeknight dessert, and good comfort food - even if it may only be cold comfort to poor Miss Martha.

Apple-Maple Brown Betty

White sandwich bread is the usual choice for this dessert, though bread with dried fruit or nuts also works well.

(Recipe for one, or several, depending. I'm sure Miss Martha would like it best if it served two.)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Decide how many servings you'd like, and generously butter a glass or ceramic baking dish of the appropriate size. Sprinkle the bottom lightly with brown sugar.

Take two slices of good-quality stale bread per person, and cut them into very small cubes. Set aside.

Peel, core and slice one small apple per person. Take half the apple slices and arrange them in the baking dish. Season with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. Drizzle lightly with dark (Grade B) maple syrup. Cover with half the stale bread cubes. Sprinkle with more brown sugar.

Take the remaining apple slices, and arrange them over the bread cubes. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg. Drizzle with more maple syrup. Cover with the remaining bread cubes.

Dot the bread cubes with slices of butter, roughly a tablespoon per person. Sprinkle with more brown sugar, and a little more cinnamon.

Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until the top is slightly browned. Serve warm, preferably with whipped cream.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

come to the dark side. we have cookies.

I have never been a cookie baker.

Oh, I've made certain exceptions, and I might have a bit of a shortbread problem, but classic American cookies have never held my interest. Let Cook's Illustrated tackle the problem of the perfect specimen of chocolate chip; let others rave about peanut butter and molasses; I've owed my allegiance to biscuits, clinging firmly to my beloved Tim Tams, Jaffa Cakes, and chocolate digestives, with the occasional foray into shortbread variations.

Or at least I did. Never say never, as the old expression goes. A few weeks back, I woke up with a hankering to bake oatmeal cookies. Granted, I find oatmeal cookies to be the most tolerable variety of typical cookie, and I suppose I couldn't expect to make it through ten years in New England with my culinary tastes unchanged. Nonetheless, it was something of a shock.

Still, I couldn't let go of my characteristic ways, even when producing uncharacteristic baked goods. I looked at several recipes for dense, soft oatmeal raisin cookies. And then I proceeded to develop a recipe for something entirely different.

The raisins were the first victims of my tinkering. I turned out the initial batch in Tom and Isobel's kitchen, and Isobel does not like raisins in her baked goods, so I substituted dried cherries instead.* Next, I decided nuts would also make a good addition; in went flaked almonds. Then it only made sense to tweak the spicing: equal parts vanilla and almond essence, and a little nutmeg to keep the cinnamon company.

Subsequent batches tweaked the cookie texture: more flour, less of the oats, and in a bit of inspiration lifted from ANZAC biscuits, a little golden syrup. The finished result is a cookie with a hard, faintly chewy texture. The golden syrup adds caramel notes, and the cherries provide a pleasant tartness. They may be oatmeal cookies, but they're not typical.

I'm staying firm on this: I'm not changing sides. I'll visit the cookie camp every once in a while, but you'll get my Tim Tams when you pry them from my cold dead hands, and I'm still not about to bake any cookies with chocolate chips.

You might, however, talk me into considering chocolate chunk.

Cherry-Almond Oatmeal Cookies

If you would prefer softer, chewier cookies, use half a cup of flour and one-and-a-half cups of oats, rather than a cup of each.

(Makes approximately two dozen cookies. Dough may be frozen.)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line two large baking trays with parchment paper.

Get out a big mixing bowl. Cream together one stick of salted butter and a packed-down two-thirds of a cup of brown sugar. Beat in two tablespoons of golden syrup, one egg, half a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and half a teaspoon of almond extract until smooth and glossy.

Stir in half a teaspoon of baking soda, one cup of flour, half a teaspoon of cinnamon, half a teaspoon of nutmeg, and a generous pinch of salt.

Stir in one cup of quick-cook oats, three-quarters of a cup of dried cherries, and half a cup of flaked almonds.

Scoop heaped tablespoons of the mixture onto your baking trays. Bake for fourteen to sixteen minutes, or until cookies are golden. Allow to cool before serving.

*Tom, as you might recall, is one of the law students; Isobel is his SO. I'm thinking that it might be time to write up a cast page for this blog.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

conversations at the farmer's market

If Boston weather has a motto, it must be "carpe diem." Despite Sunday's freak snowstorm, this week's weather has been beautifully mild, and I've been using the clear afternoons as an excuse to spend extra time at the farmer's market. (I've decided that my writing assignments can wait - there will be more than enough nasty grey weather to keep me indoors in the coming months.)

I love the farmer's market for all the typical foodie reasons. I like the quality and seasonality of the produce. I like the variety, and I like knowing exactly where it comes from. But what I like best are the conversations.

Yes, I'm That Girl, the one who strikes up conversations with complete strangers about what they're going to do with the produce they're buying, and pipes up when someone wonders aloud what to do with kohlrabi or husk cherries. I also like to ask the farmers questions, because they're knowledgeable and excited about the produce they're selling. It's a welcome change from the supermarket, where the usual produce-related conversation is limited to explaining the difference between leeks and scallions to a bewildered cashier.

Apparently I'm also making the farmers hungry. I asked for a bunch of kale at a Copley Market stand the other day, and got into a discussion of the merits of dinosaur kale versus curly kale. I was told that the curly kale was excellent, very sweet, but I already had a specific dish in mind.

I explained to the farmer that I was making buttercup squash gnocchi, and that I was going to saute some sliced dinosaur kale until crispy, and then toss it with the gnocchi in a brown butter sauce. The farmer remarked that he'd picked up some great recipes from people shopping at the farmer's market, but what he really had to figure out was how to get invited to dinner.

I didn't have any ideas on that front. But I did pick up some pears for dessert. If I bring him a slice of pear tart, do you think I might get a discount on my squash next time?

Buttercup Squash Gnocchi with Brown Butter, Crispy Kale, and Caramelized Onions

These gnocchi are also good when made with sweet potatoes, though they won't be quite the same spectacular shade of yellow.

(Recipe for one. Makes enough gnocchi for four main course-sized portions; uncooked gnocchi may be frozen.)

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Take a buttercup squash weighing roughly two pounds, hack it in half with a big knife or cleaver, and scrape out the seeds. Lay the halves cut side down in a baking dish, and pour in a little water (just a quarter-inch or so), but don't let it seep underneath the squash into the seed cavity. Put the dish in the oven. Bake for forty to fifty minutes, or until the squash is soft when you poke it with a fork.

Remove the baking dish from the oven, and move the squash halves to a cutting board. Allow to cool, then scrape out the flesh. It should have a fairly dry, floury texture. (If it's wet, you're going to need to put it in cheesecloth or a clean dishcloth and set it in a colander to drain before making the dough.)

Measure out three cups of the baked squash into a big mixing bowl. (You can have any extra squash as a snack with maple syrup and butter.) Mash with a wooden spoon until the texture is smooth, then beat in two tablespoons of olive oil and one large egg. Stir in one cup of flour. The dough will be soft and quite sticky. Resist the urge to add more flour.

Sprinkle two baking trays with flour. Clear off a section of counter space, and sprinkle it generously with flour too. Take a spoonful of the gnocchi dough and drop it on the floured surface. Roll it around to form a ball, and use a fork to press it on each side. Set the gnocchi on one of the baking trays. Repeat until you run out of dough.

(At this point, you can either cook the gnocchi immediately, or freeze them on the baking trays. Once they're fully frozen, they can be transferred to Ziploc bags.)

When you're ready to cook the gnocchi, clear off all your counters and ready several pans. This is a fairly straightforward recipe, but there is some assembly required.

Start with the brown butter: melt two tablespoons of butter over low heat and cook until golden brown and delicious-smelling. Transfer to a small bowl or heatproof measuring cup; set aside.

Cut a small onion into half-moons, and cook in a little olive oil in a large pan over low heat until soft and caramelized. Set aside. (Read: move the pan to one of your back burners. Leave the burner off, of course.)

Set a big pot of salted water on to boil.

Take a few leaves of lacinato (dinosaur) kale, washed to get rid of any lingering grit, and cut it crosswise into ribbons. Heat a splash of olive oil in a hot pan and add the kale. Sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the kale darkens and turns crispy. Set aside.

Once the pot of water hits a rolling boil, drop in your gnocchi, ten at a time, and cook until they float to the surface. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, and put them in the pan with the caramelized onions.

Once you've cooked however many gnocchi you feel like eating, put the pan over low heat, and pour over the brown butter. Add the kale, and give the gnocchi a gentle toss to mix everything together. Tip the contents of the pan onto a plate. Top with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve immediately.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

a sweet in search of an occasion

When I have writer’s block, I like to bake shortbread.

I've probably mentioned it before, but during senior year of college, whenever my thesis and I got into a disagreement, I’d pull out the flour bin and fetch another pound of butter from the freezer. There's something very soothing about the process of creaming together butter and sugar, working in flour, shaping a round and baking it to a perfect shade of pale gold. Suffice to say, my housemates ate a lot of shortbread that year.

Two months into first semester, I tired of plain butter, and started experimenting with other seasonings. Saffron caught my eye somewhere around the time that I was fighting the third draft of my second chapter. The problem with saffron, however, is that it needs to be “bloomed” in water or other liquid in order to release its flavor, and water encourages gluten development. Adding water to the shortbread would have made it tough.

I tried working the saffron into the butter and letting it sit before creaming it with the sugar, but there wasn’t much saffron flavor in the final product. Then I developed an obsession with salt caramel, and saffron shortbread fell by the wayside.

I'd almost forgotten my experiments with shortbread when I came into contact with someone else's culinary experiment: a homemade saffron liqueur, a little too strong to be palatable as a beverage, but perfect for cooking purposes. I used it in sauces to serve with fish, and then, one day when I found myself face-to-face with a legal writing assignment I had no desire to complete, the bottle of golden liquid caught my eye as I was getting butter out to bake shortbread.

I thought of medieval cooks using saffron and egg yolks to decorate pastries. Adding egg yolk to a basic mixture of butter, sugar, and flour produces dough for sablés, the Norman cousins of shortbread. Saffron gives them a deeper yellow hue, like tiny golden suns. Even before they were baked, I had a feeling that they were going to be cookies worthy of a special occasion.

Fortunately, the food blogosphere has that special occasion covered: October’s Monthly Mingle has a theme of High Tea Treats. In all honestly, I will probably eat my sablés at my desk while I work on that writing assignment I've been avoiding, but they needn't be limited to such humble surroundings. I think they'd be quite at home on a silver salver with a pot of Earl Grey, don't you?

Saffron Sablés

Regular good-quality butter is fine for these cookies, but if you can get your hands on European or European-style cultured butter, they'll be even better. I recommend mixing the dough with a fork: I will concede the use of a food processor if you’re making multiple batches, but for a single batch, it’s nonsense to say you can’t achieve a fine, sandy texture by hand.

(Makes approximately three dozen two-inch cookies.)

To make a saffron infusion, measure out one tablespoon of vodka and one tablespoon of gin (or use just vodka if you don't have gin; it's not essential), and place in a small bowl with a generous pinch of saffron threads. Cover with cling wrap and leave in the fridge overnight.

For the sablés, get out a large mixing bowl, and use a fork to cream together one stick (four ounces) of unsalted butter with a quarter-cup of white sugar. Add one egg yolk, a generous quarter-teaspoon of salt, and the saffron infusion (with the saffron); stir until smooth.

Gradually work in one cup (five ounces) of all-purpose flour until fully incorporated. The dough will be quite soft. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 300F. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Lay out a sheet of wax paper and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Place the dough on it. Cover with another sheet of wax paper, and roll out to a one-eighth-inch thickness. Remove the top layer of wax paper, and use a two-inch cookie cutter to stamp out rounds. (Dough scraps may be gathered, re-chilled briefly, and rolled out again.) Place the rounds on the baking tray.

Transfer the baking tray to the oven. Bake for sixteen to nineteen minutes, or until very slightly browned at the edges. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before serving.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

quatre friandises

prologue: long weekend

Friday morning. I wake and get dressed while it is still dark. I have an early train to catch; I am going to Washington DC for the weekend to visit my friend Anna. As Bella was my partner in crime during my semester in Rome, so was Anna during my semester in Paris.

Photography students, we explored the city with cameras in hand, ferreting out culinary delights that could be eaten on foot. Falafel pita in the Marais. Egg-and-cheese crepes at a stand by one of the Metro stops in the Latin Quarter. Viennoises and palmiers from the city's countless bakeries.

Four years later, Anna has a graduate degree and gainful employment, and I am struggling with the alarming notion that I will be a juris doctor in May. The cameras lie dormant. Neither of us has the time to spare for the darkroom.

Some things, however, do not change.

i. red velvet cupcake

The sky is overcast as we walk down the brick-paved sidewalk of Georgetown's M Street. A light rain begins to fall as we wait in line outside Georgetown Cupcake, a bakery where, as the name suggests, there is just one kind of baked good on the menu. The shop is small, and the line moves slowly. Every time the bakery door opens, the scent of vanilla wafts out.

Inside, the glass-fronted display has the air of a jeweler's case. The cupcakes are carefully positioned on tiered cake stands - concentric rings in ruffled paper cups, topped with swirls of frosting. The flavors are varied and tantalizing: mocha, coconut, pumpkin spice. I opt for red velvet, a classic. A bakery box is deemed unnecessary; we take our cupcakes in capes of greaseproof paper, and duck under a wide doorway to consume them immediately.

The red velvet cupcake has a deep red hue, well befitting its name. Its cap of cream cheese frosting is adorned with a dusky pink sugar heart. The first taste: dense, moist cake with the solid flavor of cocoa, a contrast to the salt-sweet of the cream cheese. We take generous bites, licking frosting from our fingers. Such greed. Such pleasure.

ii. strawberry cupcake

The clouds have begun to disperse, and there is faint sunshine. We seat ourselves on a flight of brick steps by the C&O Canal, and I remove a strawberry cupcake from a white paper bag stickered with the logo of Baked and Wired.

The cupcake has been baked in a folded cup of wax paper. I unwrap the pleats, and we break off pieces with our fingers. The pale yellow cake has a soft, moist crumb, flecked with tiny pieces of fresh strawberry. The frosting is pink, and agreeably thick and sweet. It puts me in mind of strawberry-flavored Pocky, and the thought leaves me smiling.

iii. criollo chocolate, 100%

Late afternoon, and we wander down 18th Street in bright sunshine. Inside Biagio the atmosphere is hushed, almost reverent. The shelves are stacked with bars of fine chocolate, tins of drinking powder, and various cocoa curiosities. Customers peer at labels and talk with the staff in quiet tones.

There are samples laid out in china bowls, thin wafers of chocolate arranged by ascending cocoa content. I begin in the sixties, but I am drawn to the darkest. One of the staff notices and offers me a sample of hundred percent, single-plantation Criollo from Francois Pralus. The taste is deep and wonderfully bitter. It has a texture that isn’t creamy, but positively unctuous, coating teeth and tongue. Once the last traces have melted away, I move a single bar from the shelf to the counter.

iv. chipotle-cinnamon hot chocolate

Evening. We have ventured outside to pick up groceries; we decide to meander a little before we make our return journey. On 14th Street, we pass ACKC, a chocolatier with a "cocoa bar." The night is just cool enough to contemplate the thought of hot chocolate; we push open the glass-paned door and walk inside.

The store is decorated for fall, with Halloween displays in orange. Though we glance briefly at the chocolates, the cafe area is our ultimate destination. The concoctions are named for old-time movie stars; I briefly consider the Ginger Rogers (ginger and wasabi), but finally opt for the Lucy (chipotle and cinnamon.)

We sit at a table decorated with images of Audrey Hepburn, cradling our mugs. A tall crown of sweet whipped cream demands to be spooned up before approaching the liquid beneath. The chocolate is rich and fragrant, just spicy enough to require slow sips. A comforting warmth settles in my stomach as I finish the last mouthful.

We head home to sleep, perchance to dream of sugarplums.

Friday, October 9, 2009

basically, I put it in my own mouth

Wednesday, 10:30pm. I’m curled up on my bed in a fetal position. There’s a sheen of clammy sweat on my forehead. My whole abdomen feels like it’s on fire. I am on the verge of wishing myself dead.

I am experiencing an excruciating lesson in the anatomy of the human digestive system. The stomach is connected to the duodenum, the duodenum is connected to the jejunum, the jejunum is connected to the ileum, and if I were a cartoon, each portion would be lighting up red as everything I’ve eaten tonight passed through.

It’s not food poisoning. I haven’t eaten bad shellfish, or dubious hamburger, or even poorly-washed salad greens. I’ve just exceeded my culinary stupidity quota for the year. Maybe even for the next two years.

I went to Hell Night at the East Coast Grill. And I ordered the Pasta from Hell.

"The Pasta from Hell is made with the Naga Jolokia, or Ghost Chile. This is the hottest pepper in the world, with a Scoville rating of over 1 million. Caution! Contents Hot!"

The first time Matt mentions Hell Night, I am somewhere in the welter of first-year, first-semester misery, and while it sounds entertaining, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are hell enough for me. It’s almost two years later when I find an e-mail in my inbox with the subject heading “Hell Night: Harvest of Pain.” This time, my response is “Hell, yes!”

Which is how Wednesday evening ends up looking something like this:

5:40pm. Arrive at the East Coast Grill. Am running slightly late. Can’t help but notice that the door has been spray-painted with the slogan “Freaks only!” in black. Matt has already arrived and been seated. Our table is near the kitchen. Some of the chefs are wearing gas masks.

5:45pm. Between the loud music and general rowdiness of a crowd getting high on capsacin, the noise level is impressive. We almost have to shout to place our orders: a round of Russian Roulette Deviled Eggs, a basket of Hell Fries, spicy blackened swordfish for Matt, and the Pasta from Hell for me. The server tells me I do not want the Pasta from Hell, which, at nine bombs, has the highest heat rating of all the dishes on the menu. I assure her that I do.

5:50pm. The Master of Ceremony hands me the Pasta from Hell release form, which is printed on dark red paper and contains a full paragraph of synonyms for “regurgitate.” By my signature, I am absolving the East Coast Grill of all responsibility for anything stupid that I might do after eating the Pasta from Hell. The party at the next table over asks if they can read the release form. I can't tell if they're eyeing me with awe or horror.

6:00pm. The Russian Roulette Deviled Eggs arrive. The roulette involves their heat rating: they could be anywhere from three bombs (healthy kick) to eight bombs (incendiary.) One is garnished with a very dark sauce; one is garnished with a bright orange sauce. Matt offers me first pick. I choose the deviled egg with dark sauce. The egg is smoky and savory, but I suspect it's only five-bomb at most. I've eaten spicier Szechuan cuisine.

6:15pm. Server arrives with fries and entrees. The Hell Fries, it turns out, are regular potato fries, light and crispy, dusted with some sort of super-chile powder. They have kick, but they’re not particularly torturous. In fact, they’ve got a salty-sweet flavor that's rather addictive.

The Pasta from Hell, on the other hand, looks every bit as intimidating as its menu description. It’s not a particularly large plate, but it appears to contain as much sliced chile (red and green) as it does pasta, and the sausage sauce is reddish-orange in color from all the chile oil.

6:17pm. I pick up my fork. Here we go. I can't help but notice that I'm getting one or two glances from the next table over.

The first bite tastes good, full of fresh pepper flavor. The second bite offers tomato and the suggestion of sausage. At the third bite, the burn begins.

My nose is running. My eyes are watering. My ears are ringing. I am feeling light-headed. I take a few enormous gulps of iced water and try to catch my breath.

6:20pm. Matt is curious enough to try a bite. He develops a nosebleed a minute later. I think it might have something to do with the capsacin-laced smoke coming from the kitchen, but he’s blaming it squarely on the pasta.

6:50pm. I've accumulated a pile of crumpled paper napkins from wiping my eyes and nose. And I may be experiencing some difficulty breathing. I decide that I should take a break.

7:20pm. A long break. I am still feeling light-headed, almost drunk.

7:30pm. Scratch that. I've made it two-thirds of the way through the plate, and I am quite done. I could probably finish the pasta, but the amount of water I'd drink afterwards would make me sick - and that is an experience I could do without.

I try a bite of Matt's swordfish and eat some more Hell Fries. Matt is impressed that my tastebuds are still in working order. I admit to being somewhat surprised myself.

7:50pm. We decide that we are too full for dessert (though I do note that the dessert menu is free of chiles), and leave the restaurant. We start walking, and I discover that I am still troublingly light-headed. We decide to detour at Christina's Ice-Cream, which is located two doors down.

8:00pm. I discover that malted vanilla ice-cream is a highly effective way of cleaning the last traces of chile from one's mouth and throat. It occurs to me that it might have been more effective as a pre-meal measure, however, as a way of coating the lining of my digestive system.

8:30pm. "Detour" has turned into "extended stay." My stomach is on fire, and I've broken out in a cold sweat. I do not feel well enough to walk anywhere. We decide that I should take a taxi home.

9:00pm. Return to comfort of my own apartment. Pull the trashcan up near my bed, make sure the path to the bathroom is clear. Curl up in fetal position. Wait to see if the worst has passed.

10:00pm. I may have dozed off. Stomach seems to have settled. Has the worst passed?

10:30pm. Worst has decidedly not passed. Recall something about chile seeds and the risks of diverticulitis. Contemplate looking up diverticulitis on Google. Decide that I can contemplate painful death without the aid of Wikipedia. Curl up more firmly in fetal position.

11:00pm. There has been much joking about the aftereffects, as it were, of consuming very spicy food. I am nonplussed. Compared with the digestive effects, they're really quite anticlimactic.

1:00am. Here we go again. Through the haze of pain, I can't help but notice that the skin on my abdomen is hot to touch.

5:ooam. The worst is finally over. I decide that I am never, ever going to do anything quite so stupid again. And I will eat my diet of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast quietly and gratefully for the next few days.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

soup, beautiful soup

It has been soup weather in Boston of late.

Biting cold may be the province of stew, but intermittent rain and chilly evenings leave me in the mood for soup with bread and butter, perhaps with a wedge of cheese and crisp apple slices to follow. Now that I've mostly finished stockpiling fruit for the winter, my trips to the farmer's market are an exercise in finding vegetables to turn into soup.

It is dangerously easy to make bad soup. Thanks to institutional dining services, I have eaten corn chowder so alarmingly thick, a spoon would stand up in it. (Or rather, I ladled it into a bowl, and didn't actually consume it once I realized that it was the approximate consistency of wallpaper paste.) And yet the foundation of a bad soup and a good soup are frequently one and the same: the cooked butter-and-flour mixture, used for thickening liquids, that the French call roux.

Roux combined with milk produces béchamel; roux combined with white stock produces vélouté. Seafood chowders frequently begin with béchamel, but vélouté keeps perfect company with fresh vegetables. (The word is French for "velvety,"and it's a lovely description of the smooth, rich texture of the finished soup.)

Sorrel produces a tart, lemony broth. Carrots, seasoned with ginger and nutmeg, make for a bright, fresh puree. Cauliflower gives a finished product with a gentle nuttiness and pale, creamy color. And if you combine roux with both stock and milk, (which, to be honest, I have no idea what the French have termed), and get hold of some fresh corn before it disappears from the farmer's market for the year, you can make corn chowder that will put your college dining hall to shame.

(Not Your College Dining Hall's) Fresh Corn Chowder

Recipe based on instructions given in the chapter on roux in Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio."

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Take two or three ears of fresh corn, shuck them, and cut the kernels away from the cob. Place in a bowl and set aside.

Melt one tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add one-and-a-half tablespoons of flour, and cook, stirring steadily, until the mixture starts to bubble and colors very slightly. Add one small yellow onion, finely diced, along with a generous pinch of salt. Cook until it turns soft, but does not color.

Stir in one cup of chicken or vegetable stock (if vegetable, make sure it's pale and mild in flavor - not too much carrot) and half a cup of milk. Bring to a low simmer and stir until the mixture begins to thicken.

Add the corn. Cook at a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the corn is tender. Add more stock if the mixture starts to look too thick. Check for salt, adjust to taste. The mixture can be cooled and blended to produce a smooth soup, but I've always thought of chowder as having whole bits in it, so I prefer to serve it as is.

Ladle into a bowl. Garnish with diced red pepper and a sprig of basil, and a swirl of cream, if you like.

Note: If reheating, do so over low heat, and do not bring to a boil.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

squirrel thoughts

As September draws to a close, I find myself both anticipating and dreading the full glory of fall in New England. As much as I love its pleasures (mulled cider, pumpkin soup, popcorn balls for Halloween), my animal brain knows that with the turning of the leaves also comes the distant whisper of winter. Even the knowledge that snow is still months away is not enough to soothe me, for winter and I have never been at ease with one another.

At the farmers' market, the stalls are setting up with squash and celery root and bitter greens, and the raspberries seem almost too bright, like embers that flare scarlet just before they turn to grey ash. When I gaze at the produce, I am seized by a sense of craving that has nothing to do with appetite. I wonder if the red squirrels I see in the mornings on my way to class feel the same way when they look at the acorns scattered beneath the oak trees.

I have been provisioning for the winter. Every trip I have made to the farmer's market in the past month has included purchases for future consumption. A second pint of raspberries, an extra pound of plums. Buying the promise of brightness, of sweetness to break the dead whiteness in the winter to come.

I lack the knowledge and equipment for canning. I doubt I could eat so much jam, anyway. But raspberries can be frozen just as they are, and stone fruit will freeze in a light bath of sugar and liquor. Yellow nectarines with dark brown sugar and amaretto. White peaches with light brown sugar and vanilla essence. Dusky, blue-skinned prune plums with white sugar and apple brandy.

My freezer space is limited, however, so I have been on a quest to remove everything that does not have to remain frozen. Last year's beef stock has finally found a home in carrot soup. Mediocre cake has become the base for luscious fruit trifle. And my "bread bag," an accumulation of odd bits of stale bread, has been emptied to make strata.

Like French toast, ribollita, and pappa al pomodoro, strata belongs to the family of preparations intended to prolong the life of a loaf of bread. It's the savory answer to bread pudding - a dish of stale bread cubes soaked in a mixture of eggs and milk, seasoned with whatever is handy, and baked until the center is agreeably soft and the top pleasantly browned.

Though strata is usually considered a brunch dish (and it does make for a satisfying meal late on Sunday morning), I find its warmth and softness comforting on chilly evenings, and so I like to prepare it as a light supper. Leftovers become breakfast the next day, and I find that they only improve after a night in the fridge.

The only downside is that I won't be making any more for the next few months. Not until I've made more room in the freezer, at least.

Sundried Tomato and Caramelized Onion Strata

The ingredients for strata are by no means fixed. Consider this recipe a starting point: feel free to add bacon or sausage if you would like meat, or black olives and artichoke hearts if you'd like something more Mediterranean.

(Serves one, with leftovers that are good for breakfast or lunch the next day.)

Take a small ceramic or glass baking dish, about seven inches or so in diameter, and rub it well with olive oil. Set aside.

Saute one finely sliced yellow onion in a little olive oil until soft and caramelized. Season with salt, dried mint and oregano, and deglaze the pan with a little water or white wine. Add the onion to a mixing bowl, and toss well with two or three handfuls of stale bread cubes (roughly two cups). Transfer the mixture to your baking dish.

Beat together two eggs, one cup of milk, and a generous pinch of salt. Add a handful of dried tomatoes, cut into strips. Give the mixture a good stir, and pour it into the baking dish. Set the baking dish in the fridge for at least an hour to give the bread some time to soften.

When you're ready to bake the strata, preheat the oven to 350F. Grate half a cup of strong cheese (Parmesan or sharp cheddar are good choices), and sprinkle it over the contents of the baking dish.

Bake for forty minutes or so, or until the top is nicely browned, and a knife stuck in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for five to ten minutes before serving. Green salad is a nice accompaniment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

can haz lobster plz? or, crashing the O.N.C.E afterparty

I don't usually do internet memes. To be honest, I never quite understood why LOLcats became so popular. But when an e-mail announcing O.N.C.E. LOL (Lots O' Lobster) arrived in my inbox last week, the first thing that came to mind was that someone needed to create a LOL-lobster. (LOL-ster?)

(Above image pulled from Wikimedia Commons, and run through a LOLcat generator.)

Of course, the second thought - "I need to make a reservation!" - rapidly followed.

And so it is that when Friday evening rolls around, I find myself in a repeat of last winter's comedy of errors, trying to find a street near Union Square that seems to be missing a sign. Eventually, a helpful cashier at a pizza place points me in the right direction, and I'm only twenty minutes late when I arrive at the right address.

Once I'm inside, and up the stairs, I find myself in a high-ceilinged space that looks a little like a living room, and a little like a funky cafe. (I later learn that it's part of a community center.) There are several tables clustered together to create a dining room, but as I said, I've arrived late, and there isn't an open seat at any of them. Instead, I end up sitting in a sort of lounge area where couches and armchairs are arranged in a circle, paired with fold-out tray tables. It's off to the side, but it's right next to the open kitchen, so I have an excellent view of the action.

(No photos, as per my usual policy when dining out. But JJ has a few over on her blog.)

I settle in and make myself comfortable. My immediate neighbors have already struck up a conversation, so it's easy to join in. I make the acquaintance of JJ Gonson's mother, Dorothy, and chat a little with Annabelle, a nutrition student who also blogs (she's the mind behind Wholesome Cuisine.) Another of the guests seated at our "table" opens a bottle of cava, and offers everyone a glass. I gladly accept. I've brought a bottle of Vouvray, and I'll share later.

A few more latecomers trickle in, and then one of the servers starts to bring around platters of the "world's tiniest surf-and-turf:" toothpick skewers with cubes of garlic scape-marinated steak, and morsels of lobster with butter and lemon. They're just enough to whet our appetites, a promise of more good things to come.

Conversation revolves around - what else? - food. We discuss cookbooks and CSAs, and I admit that while it sometimes frustrates me that I can't find CSA boxes for one, I'm also relieved that I don't have to figure out what to do with mountains of squash and kale when fall gets underway.

Speaking of squash, the servers start to come around with big bowls of something that is probably pumpkin risotto, if the menu on the blackboard in the corner is anything to go by. We're served generous ladlefuls, and I eagerly set to work with my fork. The risotto is pleasantly creamy and faintly garlicky, with just a little bite left in the cubes of sugar pumpkin. When JJ (cheerfully clad in a bright pink apron with cartoon cat appliqué) comes around with another big bowl and offers us seconds, I eagerly accept.

We've been advised that it's going to be a long, leisurely meal, and so we settle back on the couches, relaxing before the next course arrives. When it does, however, we're all quick to sit up, attention fully seized by the sight of panko-crusted fried green tomato rounds topped with lobster salad. The combination is inspired: warm, soft, faintly sweet tomato in a crunchy coating, contrasted with cold creamy salad full of generous chunks of lobster. I hear one of my tablemates say that she's stealing the idea. I think I wouldn't mind stealing it myself.

We have lobster ravioli coming up next, and the conversation turns to pasta. I describe my own adventures in ravioli-making, and Dorothy asks me if I know anything about preparing Chinese dumplings. The answer is decidedly "Not much," though I know plenty about eating them. I tell her about xiaolongbao, and promise to get back to her with the name of a restaurant that serves them in Boston.

JJ appears once again with a big bowl, and carefully spoons lobster ravioli with vanilla butternut squash puree onto our plates. This is a dish I remember from the winter O.N.C.E. dinner, and I'm glad to see it making a reappearance. There's not quite as much lobster in the ravioli this time around, but the squash puree is excellent - sweet with vanilla, and wonderfully silky.

We settle back on the couches again, and at least one member of the table curls up for a brief power nap. It's starting to get late, but we've still got three courses to go.

Next up: we have to eat our vegetables if we want dessert. JJ has decided that our vegetable tonight will be a wilted arugula salad with apples softened in bacon fat, lightly seasoned with cinnamon and dressed with vinegar and olive oil. One of the servers calls it "apple pie salad," which isn't a bad description. It is a little odd, but I rather like the sweet-sour effect of the apples with the bitterness of the arugula.

A new arrival shows up in the lounge area after the salad. Apparently one of the tables in the dining area was set up for a solo diner, and he decided he wanted more in the way of dinner conversation. He's brought local wine to match the local food - a chardonnay from Turtle Creek Winery in Lincoln, MA - and offers it around the table. The Vouvray I came with has worked well enough with all the dishes so far, but I'm curious to try more local wine, and so I suggest that we switch bottles for a glass. It's a good move - the wine is faintly spicy, a little minerally, and when the Goan lobster curry shows up, it makes for a rather effective pairing.

The Goan lobster curry is the work of a guest chef, Arun, and it's the show-stealing dish of the evening. It's tomato-based with hints of coconut, assertively spicy, wonderfully complex, and completely unlike any curry I've ever eaten before. Odd as it might sound, the closest comparison I can think of is crab gumbo. I am regretful but unsurprised to hear that there will not be any seconds.

To cool things down after the curry, we have lychee ice-cream with fresh yellow watermelon for dessert. The lychees, explains JJ, are definitely not local, but they're a generous gift from a tiny grove in Florida. Lychees usually fall somewhere towards the bottom of my list of tasty fruit (too much unmitigated sweetness), but the ice-cream is lovely and subtle, with faintly floral overtones. The watermelon is also excellent, sweet and juicy.

It's now definitely late, and people start to call it a night. I'm not quite ready to leave yet, however, so I wander over to the kitchen area to see if any of the O.N.C.E. team would like a glass of Vouvray, and fall into a conversation with the crew. I learn how and why they each got involved with O.N.C.E, and I discover that the recipe for Arun's lobster curry, while not a secret, does call for a lot of spices that are difficult to find in this corner of the country. (Alas.)

It turns out that the pace of the post-dinner cleanup is largely limited by the dishwasher cycle, and so the crew moves over to the lounge area to put up their feet. The conversation continues as JJ does the books for the evening, and when the cleanup resumes, it only seems natural for me to stay and lend a hand.

I collect dirty silverware and used napkins, stack empty wine bottles in the recycling, and tackle some of the dishes. There's weird music on the stereo, and everyone's exhausted, but the mood in the kitchen is cheerful, even celebratory. I am crashing the O.N.C.E. afterparty, and having a blast doing so.

By the time midnight rolls around, I'm trying not to curse out the hot water supply, which has been on and off and frustrating my ability to clean the big stack of dirty pots and pans in the sink. (It's ultimately declared a lost cause, and JJ takes them home to be washed.) But I've heard JJ tell some of the stories behind the items on the menu, and I've even managed to snag a container of leftover uncooked panko-crusted green tomatoes to take home.

I can only conclude that while dining at a O.N.C.E. dinner is fun, being behind the scenes at a O.N.C.E. dinner is even better.

Monday, September 14, 2009

the memory of blueberries

During our weekend in Vermont, we mark time through blueberries.

i. friday evening

We leave Boston in the late afternoon, arriving in Vermont mid-evening. Bobbie Sue has held dinner for us, putting hot dogs on the waiting grill as we move our bags to the house and settle in. We eat a salad with fresh lettuce, garden tomatoes, kidney beans and diced avocado, scattered with cubes of sharp cheddar and sprinkled with sunflower seeds.

Once the dinner plates are cleared, Bobbie Sue presents us with blueberry buckle, a dense cake studded with blueberries, rich with cinnamon struesel topping. We portion out generous squares and demolish them in eager forkfuls, licking cinnamon sugar from the corners of our mouths.

ii. saturday morning

There are fresh blueberries with yogurt for breakfast, sweet-tart and deliciously chilled. When breakfast is over, Bobbie Sue takes the remaining berries from their Tupperware container and leaves them in a brown earthenware bowl on the kitchen table. Throughout the morning, we return to the bowl time and time again, seeking handfuls of sweetness at each pass.

iii. saturday night

The kettle on, the teapot ready. Mugs anticipating tea, strainer and tea-cosy awaiting use. We cut pieces of the remaining blueberry buckle, transfer them to plates. Time has intensified the sweetness, deepened the scent of cinnamon. It cries out for the fork to be discarded, for fingers to seek out the errant crumbs.

iv. sunday morning

I wake late, the sun streaming through the windows. I can smell coffee in the air, and so I roll out of the high-framed, crisp-sheeted bed and pad downstairs to the kitchen. Bobbie Sue is at the stove in a flannel dressing gown, and she is keeping a watchful eye on the contents of two cast-iron skillets. There are blueberry pancakes to be had.

She hands me the spatula and tells me to take over while she mixes up another batch of batter. I ladle generous spoonfuls into the skillets, dotting each round with fresh blueberries from another earthenware bowl. The batter spreads; small bubbles form on its surface. The edges turn golden brown. Later, the pancakes swim in rivulets of dark maple syrup, bathed in pools of melted butter.

v. sunday afternoon

The blueberry bushes are ready to be picked again. We pile into the car, a cooler and a stack of plastic buckets at the ready. I hide my hair beneath a hat, sunscreen coating my neck and face and arms.

The stand of bushes lies in sun-dappled shade. There is some conversation at the start, but soon we settle into a meditative silence, broken only by the soft thud of berries falling into our plastic buckets, a patter like gentle rain.

There is an art to finding the ripe blueberries, the ones that have lost their purple tinge and are a true, deep blue beneath their pale bloom. It requires peering into the branches and looking up, because they hide in clusters beneath the leaves. Soon, the world narrows to the branches, the leaves, my hands. There is little eating as we pick. We have already eaten our fill; today, the blueberries are work.

vi. return to boston

I leave Vermont with a plastic bag filled with berries, ready to be frozen and carefully rationed through the winter. But first, I read through a copy of Bobbie Sue's recipe for blueberry buckle. I think of fresh blueberry pancakes with maple syrup. And I find myself in the kitchen, measuring out flour, creaming sugar and butter, and tinkering, just a little, to produce a soft, moist blueberry coffee cake, fragrant with maple and cinnamon. Something to mark the close of summer. Something to mark the memory of blueberries.

Maple-Blueberry Coffee Cake

Adapted from Bobbie Sue's modified version of the blueberry buckle recipe in the King Arthur Flour Cookbook.

(Recipe not for one.)

Preheat the oven to 375F. Grease a shallow ten-inch cake tin or cast iron pan.

In a small bowl, combine two-thirds of a cup of flour, two-thirds of a cup of white sugar, and two teaspoons of cinnamon. Rub in one stick of chilled butter, cut into pieces, until the mixture is fine and crumbly. Set aside.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together two cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, and a half-teaspoon of salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together half a stick of softened butter, half a cup of sugar, a quarter-cup of Grade B maple syrup, one egg and a teaspoon of vanilla until light and fluffy. Measure out half a cup of milk.

Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture in batches, alternating with the milk. Once everything is just combined, fold in two cups of fresh or frozen blueberries.

Spoon the batter into the pan and smooth it down. Sprinkle with the cinnamon mixture. Transfer the pan to the oven.

Bake for forty to fifty minutes, or until a knife stuck into the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool. Cake may be served warm or at room temperature, preferably with coffee.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

the dangers of vermont

I have it on good authority that should you ever visit Montpelier, Vermont in the summertime, you should never leave your car door unlocked.

This has nothing to do with the safety of the car itself. The chances that you will return to find your car damaged or vanished are low. Instead, locking your car door is a safeguard against returning to find your car exactly where you left it - but with several enormous, torpedo-size zucchini piled in the front passenger seat. This is apparently common knowledge to the point where there's even a stand at the farmers' market that advertises its squash with the slogan "Worth leaving your car door unlocked for."

Being a non-driver, I did not have worry about any drive-by zucchini-gifting when I went with Bella to visit her family in Montpelier this past weekend. However, Bella's family has a large vegetable garden, and the zucchini has been producing like, well, zucchini.

I love zucchini, but I usually encounter them when they're on their best manners at the farmer's market. I can choose young slender specimens for ratatouille and risotto, and I've (thankfully) never needed to dream up ways to use the ones that are almost the size of baseball bats. Still, when Bella's mother, Bobbie Sue, planned a gathering of friends and family for Sunday dinner, and asked us to come up with appetizer ideas, I felt strangely compelled to put a dent in the basket of zucchini set out on the porch. And so I declared that I could make zucchini fritters.

Fritters are one of my favorite appetizers for informal gatherings, the kind where everyone congregates in the kitchen before dinner begins. Like all fried things, fritters are best eaten as soon as they come off the stove, so they're perfectly suited to in-kitchen noshing. And even when we reach the point in the season when everyone is heartily sick of zucchini, they're quite appealing when enveloped in light, basil-fragrant batter and fried to a crisp golden brown.

So maybe you can leave your car door unlocked after all. I have it on good authority that what you really have to fear isn't drive-by zucchini-gifting in the summer, anyway. The real danger in Vermont is someone forcing you to take their extra homegrown squash at gunpoint in the fall.

(The photography is Bella's, and that this recipe works at all is thanks to Bobbie Sue, who helped troubleshoot the frying process.)

Zucchini Fritters

The number of zucchini required for this recipe depends on their size. If you are trying to get rid of monster torpedo-size zucchini, you'll want two. If they are large, but not monstrous, you'll want three or four. And if they're small zucchini, you'll want six or seven. It may seem like a lot of zucchini, but there's not much to a zucchini once you've drawn out all its moisture.

(Recipe not for one. Deep-frying really calls for an audience. Makes two dozen tiny fritters.)

Grate your zucchini. Place them in a large bowl and sprinkle a tablespoon of salt over. Allow to sit for half an hour, then transfer to a colander and press to get rid of as much liquid as you can. The goal is to get the zucchini dry as possible; if you have cheesecloth, wrap the zucchini in it and squeeze. If not, take handfuls and squeeze.

Once your zucchini shreds are as dry as possible, measure out two cups' worth. (If you have a lot of zucchini left over, it can be sauteed with onion and used to fill an omelette.)

Get out a big mixing bowl and whisk together half a cup of flour, half a teaspoon of baking powder, half a teaspoon of salt, one egg, and half a cup of milk. Stir in fresh torn leaves of basil (be generous), and a little fresh thyme, if you have it.

Pour the batter over the zucchini shreds and stir gently to mix. Now we're ready to start frying.

Set a cast iron pan or other deep, heavy-bottomed pan on the stove over medium to high heat. Pour in a generous amount of canola or peanut oil. Watch the oil. Once it starts to shimmer or tremble, you're ready to fry. (The oil shouldn't be smoking, however - turn down the heat if it is.)

Drop a teaspoon of the batter into the pan, and flatten it gently with the back of a spatula. Cook on one side until the edges are golden brown, then flip it over and cook the other side.

The first of a batch of fritters is the test run, and like the first of a batch of pancakes, will probably not come out perfectly. That's fine. If it comes out pale, your oil probably isn't hot enough; if it browns nicely but is still raw in the middle, your oil is probably too hot. Adjust the temperature accordingly.

Cook the fritters in batches of three or four, depending on the size of your pan. Transfer them to a paper-towel-lined plate as they cook, and sprinkle them generously with coarse salt. Serve immediately.

Friday, September 4, 2009

when life gives you peas, make risi e bisi

When I first started blogging, one of my greatest fears was that I'd run out of things to write about. I worried that after a few months, I would have told all the amusing anecdotes I could think of, and that I'd be reduced to writing facile musings on the pleasures of dark chocolate and the fear of dining alone.

If only I knew.

I've gone from "Oh! I can blog about this!" to "Oh dear. I really should blog about this." I'm still getting pleasure out of writing (the day that stops is the day I turn out the lights on the blog), but my to-do list is looking just a little... unwieldy.

My corkboard is papered with Post-Its on which I've jotted ideas and recipes. My recipe bookmark list is longer than the credits for the Lord of the Rings movies. My drafts folder should probably be labelled "Here be dragons." And I have ten to fifteen posts languishing in various states of unfinished at any given time.

Sometimes they languish because they weren't all that great to begin with. Sometimes they languish because something new and more exciting came up before the blog post could be written. And sometimes, they languish due to technical difficulties, like being unable to procure crucial ingredients.

For two years running, I have tried to make risi e bisi for the feast day of St. Mark, patron saint of Venice. For two years running, I have failed, because I couldn't get my hands on any English peas when the day rolled around. For whatever reason, it is virtually impossible to find fresh English peas in the pod in the Boston area in late April - or in any other month, for that matter. Either the English pea farmers have all retired, or Green Giant has poached them all to produce frozen peas out on farms somewhere in the Midwest.

And risi e bisi is not a dish that will accept substitutes. Risi e bisi means "rice and peas" in the Venetian dialect, and it is just that: a sort of soupy risotto of rice and peas, with a little onion for flavoring. The rice is there for body; the dish is all about the sweet, green flavor of the fresh peas. No peas? No point.

If there's one thing I have learned from blogging, though, it's that you take your chances where you find them. On my last trip to Haymarket, I wasn't there to browse. It was pouring, I was freezing, and I just wanted to get in, pick up my lemons and limes, and get the hell out. And then a heaping pile of green pods caught my eye. They were too fat to be sugar snaps. Could it be?

It was. I had finally found English peas in Boston. Though it was nowhere near the feast day of St. Mark, it didn't make the risi e bisi any less delicious. Being able to clear one languishing blog post from the docket might have been even better.

As for the other fourteen... well, maybe it's time I put the delete button to use?

Risi e Bisi

The traditional preparation of this dish calls for the pea shells to be simmered in the stock to give it extra flavor. If your peas are organic or homegrown, it's not a bad idea, but if you're uncertain of their provenance, it's better to skip that step.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

You'll need about a pound and a half of unshelled peas: a pound for the pot, and half a pound to snack on as you shell, for an end product of roughly two cups of shelled peas. Substitute frozen peas only if you wish to go to that circle of culinary hell reserved for those who make French onion soup with canned broth.

Put a pot on the stove and add two cups of stock (either chicken or vegetable) and one cup of water. Bring to a simmer.

Heat olive oil (or a mixture of olive oil and butter) in a heavy-bottomed pot over low heat and add one finely chopped white onion. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent, then add one cup of arborio, carnaroli, or other risotto rice to the pot. Stir the rice until the grains are warm to the touch, then add a ladleful of chicken or vegetable stock. Once the liquid has been absorbed, add the peas and another ladleful of stock. Keep stirring.

Repeat this process until the rice is tender, but still has a little bite. (If you're running low on stock, top it up with water.) The mixture should be thick, like risotto, but a little soupier. Check for salt; adjust to taste. Turn off the heat, and let the risi e bisi stand for five to ten minutes before serving. You can serve it with Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it's quite optional.