Thursday, December 30, 2010

a sated appetite

My family is utterly boring when it comes to celebrating New Year's Eve.

Admittedly, we're boring about celebrating holidays in general, but the closest we've come to a New Year's tradition is a habit of nodding off before the New Year is actually rung in. Sometimes we watch the fireworks, but mostly, we're dead to the world when the clock ticks over. New Year's dinner is only noteworthy for its complete lack of noteworthiness: we eat a perfectly ordinary meal, or else we opt for (vaguely dissatisfying) takeout.

It's quite clear that if I'm ever going to have any New Year's traditions worth mentioning, I'm either going to have to make up my own, or appropriate someone else's. The latter is easier than the former, of course. There's no shortage of food-related traditions, so it's a question of choosing one that appeals.

Lentils and other legumes play a part in the New Year's dishes of countries all over the world because they look like coins and represent wealth. I'm not terribly intrigued by the symbolism, but I like lentils, and they are reliably available at the supermarkets here.

Which brings me to lentil stew - a simple mixture of lentils, olive oil, mirepoix, herbs and water. It may not sound like much, but when treated with care, these unassuming ingredients produce an end result that is startlingly flavorful. This year, New Year's Eve may still be boring, but at least I'll ring in the New Year with a sated appetite.

Lentil Stew

This stew is completely meat- and dairy-free, but you'd never guess it from the flavor. The key tricks: be generous with the olive oil and seasonings, and make sure the vegetables are properly browned before you add the lentils.

While this stew is perfectly good on its own, it also makes a nice side dish for pork or fish.

(Makes about four portions if eaten plain, and six portions as a side. Will freeze.)

First, the mirepoix. Start by finely chopping one large yellow onion. Rinse one celery heart. Peel two cloves of garlic. Peel three medium-sized carrots.

Heat a generous splash of olive oil in heavy-bottomed pan with lid over very low heat. Add the onion. Stir briefly with a wooden spoon.

Dice the celery. Add it to the pan. Sprinkle over a fat pinch of salt. Sprinkle over dried rosemary, thyme, basil and oregano. (A herb blend also works.) Add one bay leaf. Stir.

Mince the garlic, add it to the pan. Grind over a generous quantity of black pepper. Stir.

Dice the carrots; add them to the pan. Stir. The mixture should smell fragrant; if it doesn't, add more herbs.

Keep the pan over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables start to go dry. The pan will develop a rich brown coating on the bottom; this is exactly what you're looking for. Continue giving it an occasional stir; pay close attention once the onions have browned. When it looks as though your vegetables might scorch, add a splash of water, scraping up any stuck-on browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.

Add one pound of cooked lentils (or half a pound of soaked dried lentils). Pour over enough water to cover. Cook at a simmer, covered, until the lentils are tender, then uncover and reduce until there is only a little liquid in the pan. Check for salt and pepper; adjust to taste. Serve warm.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

this landscape in winter

In winter, Beijing is a city of street vendors.

Perhaps they are not quite so common now as they were a decade ago, before the Olympics and the city's efforts at beautification, but the roads still sport pushcarts and makeshift stalls, and their owners continue to ply their trade.

Walk along any major thoroughfare, and you'll pass vendors selling baked sweet potatoes out of big metal drums pulled on pedal bikes. Turn down a side street, and you'll find hawkers with bing tang hu lu, bamboo skewers of candied hawthorn berries sold out of pushcarts with glass cases. Stand at a street corner in an older corner of the city, and you might catch the scent of smoke and charring sugar that marks a stall selling tang chao li zi, sweet roasted chestnuts.

The chestnut sellers come out in late autumn, after the trees have shed their leaves, becoming part of the landscape in winter. Sometimes these stalls evolve to sell a variety of snacks, and then remain as permanent fixtures.

There is one such stall near my office, a small space with a counter that opens onto the street. It sells all kinds of snacking nuts by weight: whole almonds and walnuts, peanuts and sunflower seeds in the shell. The draw, however, is still the roasted chestnuts.

The chestnuts are roasted whole, tumbled with hot charcoal in big metal pans. Even when it is bitterly cold outside, queues form when a new batch is being prepared.

The vendors stir the nuts, testing them as their shells begin to turn dark. When they are judged to be ready, the vendors pour them into big mesh baskets, and weighed them out into sacks fashioned from coarse brown paper.

Shelling these chestnuts is a two-handed process, so there's no eating them out of the bag on the street. Instead, I cradle the paper sack in my hands, warming my fingers in the chilly air. Returning indoors, I place the bag on a flat surface and set to work.

Chinese chestnuts are smaller than the European varieties, with a fine, papery skin and creamy yellow flesh. The shells are thin, easily cracked by breaking open their flat sides with the edge of a thumbnail. There's a pleasure to the process, like that of eating boiled shrimp or picking over a whole crab, each chestnut its own reward.

The last time I stopped at a roast chestnut stand, I bought more chestnuts than I planned to eat and shelled the rest for use in culinary experiments. My first thought was Mont Blanc, the classic French dessert: a meringue base topped with sweet chestnut puree, decorated generously with whipped cream. Much of its charm lies in effective presentation, however, and I lack the equipment necessary to form the chestnut puree into fine threads.

Instead, I opted for a different preparation. After turning my roasted chestnuts into sweet puree, I combined them with custard and folded in gelatin and whipped cream, spooning the mixture into decorative glasses. The French call this dessert crème bavaroise (or just bavarois), and it's a lovely finish to a holiday meal.

In this city of street vendors, it might even become part of my culinary landscape.

Chestnut Bavarois

If you're not in a place where roasted chestnuts in the shell are readily available for purchase, don't drive yourself mad trying to track down fresh chestnuts to roast from scratch. Vacuum-packed, jarred, or tinned chestnuts will all work just fine - just make sure they don't have any sugar added.

(Makes a lot. It's very rich, so a little goes a long way.)

Take seven ounces of shelled chestnuts (about eight ounces in the shell) and place them in a small saucepan with two tablespoons sugar and enough water to cover. Cook, stirring frequently, over very low heat, until the chestnuts start to soften and break up easily when pressed with a spoon. (Keep an eye on them. Chestnuts are like beans, and will burn on the bottom if they catch.) Set the mixture aside to cool.

When the chestnuts have cooled to lukewarm, use a stick blender or food processor to blend them into a smooth puree. Measure out eight ounces of chestnut puree, and set aside. (Any extra is nice on toast.)

In a small bowl, cover two sheets of gelatin (four grams) with a quarter-cup of warm milk.

Separate four egg yolks into a heatproof bowl. (Save the whites for baking.)

In another saucepan, combine half a cup of milk with two tablespoons sugar and half a teaspoon of vanilla. (Optional extra: a tablespoon of brandy or rum.) Heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar dissolves.

Carefully whisk the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks, beating well to incorporate. Transfer the mixture back to the saucepan. Add a fat pinch of salt. Cook over low heat, whisking steadily, until the mixture thickens and the whisk starts to form trails. Remove from heat, and whisk in the gelatin mixture. Stir in the chestnut puree. Set aside to cool.

Beat three-quarters of a cup of heavy cream until it forms stiff peaks. Gently fold into the chestnut custard.

Spoon the mixture into glasses, and chill in the fridge overnight. Decorate with whipped cream (and marrons glaces, if you like) before serving.

Monday, December 20, 2010

the bells of st clement's

I developed a taste for many things in defiance of my mother.

My mother, as I've mentioned before, has an aversion to sugar. Butter, too, was verboten in the household where I grew up. (In the unhappier recesses of my memory, there are recollections of box mix cake made with margarine.) We ate soft, cottony bread - the sort that doesn't so much have a crust as it does a skin. And my mother held to a few other fierce and somewhat eccentric rules: no food coloring of any sort, no cinnamon, and absolutely no citrus peel.

Most recollections of teenage rebellion involve secret experimentation with drinking or smoking (or both.) The culprits in my stories are somewhat less typical: sticky cinnamon rolls, packages of unnaturally bright candy, and baguettes with crackling crusts, consumed secretly and delightedly without my mother's knowledge or permission. The sense of getting away with something forbidden, however, is much the same.

I grew up to keep sugar and butter as pantry staples. Margarine does not darken the threshold of my kitchen. And I delight in the baked goods that mark Christmas, revelling in stollen and panettone and fruitcake of the really boozy variety, in all their spiced, citrus-peel-filled goodness.

For all that I love a good baking project, however, I am not quite ambitious (or mad) enough to make my own versions of these delicacies. Instead, my oranges and lemons flavor pound cake and all a manner of cookies, joining my purchased delicacies in a selection ready for holiday nibbling.

The following chocolate orange shortbread is another of my many variations on a basic shortbread recipe. Dark with cocoa, flecked with chocolate, and perfumed with orange zest, I like this for last-minute baking - it's a quick, simple way to round out a cookie platter. I admit, too, that I enjoy it for another reason: while I'm really too old for teenage rebellion, zesting the orange still fills me with delight.

Orange Chocolate Shortbread

(Makes two dozen. Will keep for a week in an airtight container.)

Put a stick of butter in a mixing bowl and let it sit at room temperature until soft. (Not just softened, but soft.) Use a fork to cream in a quarter-cup of white sugar. Grate over the zest of one well-washed orange (preferably organic), and add half a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a quarter-teaspoon of salt.

Stir in a quarter-cup of cocoa powder until you have a smooth, dark mixture, then work in a scant cup of flour, little by little, until you have a soft dough. Stir in two or three ounces of finely chopped dark chocolate.

Turn the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper. Form into a log roughly one-and-a-half inches in diameter; wrap and chill for at least an hour.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Remove the dough from the fridge and cut discs, about quarter of an inch in thickness. Lay them on the baking trays. Transfer the trays to the oven.

Bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, switching the position of the trays halfway through. Allow to cool for five minutes on the trays, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Serve with tea or coffee.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

stewing about it

According to Shakespeare's logic, if a rose went by the name of " garbage bin," it would still smell just as sweet.

Shakespeare, though, must not have been very well-versed in cooking, because that's decidedly not the case when it comes to naming dishes. Even after figuring out ingredients and proportions and writing up a method for a recipe, there's one last, crucial step: giving it a name.

The chefs of haute cuisine had it easy; for them, it was enough to name the main ingredient, and tack on an a la So-and-So. Name the dish for a refined aristocrat, a famed beauty, or even a revered chef, and voila, an instant hit.

Not so today. Now, the trick is to be descriptive without being excessive, to be accurate without being a bore. The recipe name has to hit the sweet spot between "yes, I know what that is," and "mmm, that sounds good," preferably in under six words.

This brings me to the problem of stew.

The words "vegetable stew" are cheerfully wholesome, evocative of big bowls of rough-cut vegetables, healthy and nourishing. "Beef stew" suggests something slow-cooked with red wine and plenty of mushrooms, or maybe a hearty goulash fragrant with paprika and sour cream.

"Stewed," though, tends to have decidedly different connotations. It carries overtones of something overcooked, limp, and possibly malodorous. Stewed cabbage, however delicious, doesn't sound it. Stewed apples could be a crime against fruit. And even for someone who genuinely likes prunes, a stewed prune sounds more like a remedy for digestive issues than an appetizing dessert.

So, by rights, I shouldn't be writing about stewed fennel, or at least I shouldn't be calling it stewed fennel. Still, it's the best way of describing the low, slow cooking that turns slices of tough older bulb into softly slumping tangles, mellowing its aggressive anise flavor into something sweeter and subtler. Stewed fennel might be an exception to the usual rule.

Cooked with garlic and orange zest, and simmered in tomato sauce, it's a nice accompaniment to plain-cooked white fish. It might be even nicer, though, when spooned over homemade gnocchi. Which brings me to the final name for this dish. 

I think it sounds pretty good, even if it isn't under six words.

Potato Gnocchi with Stewed Fennel in Tomato Sauce

(Makes four to six servings, depending on your appetite. Uncooked gnocchi may be frozen. Sauce may be frozen.)

To make the gnocchi, take a pound of boiling potatoes (Yukon Golds are good), peel, cube, and cook in salted boiling water until tender. Drain and allow to cool.

Put the cooled potatoes in a mixing bowl and mash with a fork. (Or put them through a food mill, if you have one.) Beat in one egg until the mixture is thick and creamy. Stir in one cup of flour and a half-teaspoon of salt. You should have a soft dough that is still a little on the sticky side.

Put a quarter-cup or so of flour on a clean countertop. Pinch off rounded teaspoon-size lumps of dough and roll them in the flour. Press on each side with the tines of a fork to create a grooved pattern. Place the gnocchi on baking trays. Gnocchi may be frozen at this point.

To make the sauce, heat two tablespoons butter and a little olive oil over low heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with lid. Add two finely sliced cloves of garlic. Once the garlic starts to smell fragrant, add one large sliced fennel bulb (or two small.) Sprinkle over a fat pinch of salt, give everything a quick stir, and pop the lid on the pan.

Wait ten minutes, then give everything another stir. Put the lid back on the pan. Repeat this process every ten to fifteen minutes until the fennel starts to soften and take on color.

When the fennel starts to look browned around the edges, leave the lid off the pan, and grate over the zest of one orange. Add one six-ounce can of tomato paste, and enough water to thin it to a saucy consistency. Stir well to combine.

Bring the sauce to a low simmer, and put the lid back on the pan. Cook for thirty to forty minutes, giving it an occasional stir. Turn off the heat; keep warm.

To assemble, cook gnocchi in simmering salted water (not boiling water; they'll fall apart) until they float to the surface. Spoon into a bowl and cover with sauce. Serve with Parmigiano-Reggiano or Gorgonzola.

Monday, December 13, 2010

cake on its day off

I am very bad at winter.

More precisely, I never really got the hang of winter. Despite my decade in New England, I never quite learned to navigate an ice-glazed sidewalk, never quite figured out the correct combination of outerwear and underwear to withstand freezing winds, and never went a single December without wishing for the ability to hibernate.

While many of things I never got the hang of – rollerblading, the one-loop method of tying shoelaces, applying mascara without threat of injury – are entirely avoidable, or very occasional irritations, winter is a more intractable problem. My plan to move south having changed, winter is still on my calendar this year, and in much the same form. After moving several degrees in longitude, but not much in the way of latitude, there’s less ice, but more biting wind, and I still find myself wishing for the ability to hibernate.

I have grudgingly accepted that the closest I may come to hibernation is sitting in a warm kitchen, bundled up in an unflattering woolly cardigan with a very large mug of tea in hand as I wait to take something out of the oven. Of the many possibilities for that something, I have a soft spot for apple slump.

Slump is appropriately named: it's like cake on its day off, lounging at home in a fuzzy old robe and slippers. A quick assemblage of sliced fruit and basic batter, it's dished out of the baking pan rather than cut into neat slices, more like cobbler or crisp than a traditional cake. Slump is neither glamorous nor photogenic - it also goes by the name of "pan dowdy" - but it's agreeable and thoroughly comforting, an excellent winter tea treat.

This version builds on the basic idea, opting for browned butter rather than plain melted, and offering the option of brandy-soaked dried apricots to liven up the apples. It's still very much on its day off, however. Maybe it's not lounging in a fuzzy old robe and slippers, but it's sitting in a warm kitchen in an unflattering woolly cardigan, at the very least.

Apple-Apricot Brown Butter Slump

(Serves one for a few days. Leftovers will keep in the fridge; warm them up for breakfast.)

Melt three-quarters of a stick of butter (three ounces) in a nine or ten-inch ovenproof pan. Cook until butter foams and deepens in color; stop when butter is golden brown. Transfer to a mixing bowl.

To the same pan, add three or four apples, cut into eighths, plus a handful of dried apricots (soaked in Calvados or brandy, if that's your fancy.) Season with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook over low heat until the apples start to soften.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Stir a quarter-cup of sugar, three-quarters of a cup of flour, a scant teaspoon of baking powder and a pinch of salt into the melted butter. Beat in two eggs. Add enough milk to make a pourable batter (think pancake batter.)

Pour the batter over the apples. Place the pan in the oven and bake for thirty to thirty-five minutes, or until golden and faintly browned on top. Allow to cool for ten minutes before serving.

Serve warm, preferably with custard.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

appetize me

I have a weakness for appetizers.

This is partly the legacy of the hotel kitchen: you have to enjoy turning out mini roast beef roulades and finger sandwiches and tuna-stuffed cherry tomatoes if you want to keep your mind when preparing canapes for a cocktail party of two thousand. This is partly the legacy of one too many law school social events: if you're bad at social chatter and unnerved by large crowds, you'll find that the safest place is by the refreshments, because you can't talk with your mouth full.

But this is mostly the legacy of cooking for gatherings of hungry guests: appetizers buy you time. Even the simplest of appetizers - cheese and crackers, chips and dip - can take the edge off, and keep people from venturing into the kitchen to ask when the meal will be served. Done right, appetizers can cover everything from a roast that needs an extra fifteen minutes in the oven to a full-out kitchen disaster. 

I made the following chicken-and-onion phyllo turnovers as part of a menu for a wedding dinner this past August. I didn't originally plan to use them as appetizers, but I had a need-to-do-everything, could-really-use-four-hands time crunch. The triangles had been made ahead to be baked from frozen, and dinner was a buffet spread, so I had the leeway to rearrange the menu a little. I had unwary volunteers, and so I put one in charge of baking turnovers and sent another out to meet the horde of hungry guests with a heaped platter and a stack of cocktail napkins. The move bought me a much-needed half-hour of breathing room. 

These turnovers are loosely inspired by spanikopita, the classic Greek phyllo pastries stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. Generously buttered and filled with a mixture of sauteed chicken and caramelized onions, they're an excellent way to greet hungry guests. Make up a few bags for the freezer, and they'll buy all the time you need when cooking for holiday gatherings. 

They're worth having on hand even if time's not an issue. You see, there's one more reason why I have a weakness for appetizers: as long as the oven's on, a few of these on a baking tray will tide over the hungry cook. 

(Not my photograph. I definitely didn't have time to be fighting with my camera that day.)

Chicken and Onion Phyllo Turnovers

If you're in or near Vermont, I highly recommend Misty Knoll chicken.

(Makes about sixteen appetizer-sized turnovers. Suitable for freezing.)

For the filling, take one pound of boneless chicken thighs and cut them into small chunks. (Use kitchen shears if you have them - it's easier than cutting them with a knife.) Set aside in a bowl.

Cut one small yellow onion into half-moons. Finely chop a handful of fresh thyme - enough to come to about two teaspoons.

Heat a little olive oil in a medium heavy-bottomed saute pan over low heat. Add the onions to the pan, then add the chopped thyme, a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and a quarter-teaspoon of ground cinnamon. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and caramelized.

Turn the heat up a little and add the chicken. Stir occasionally until the chicken is browned and cooked all the way through. Add one tablespoon of brown sugar and a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. If there is a lot of liquid in the pan, turn up the heat a little further and let it reduce until thick and a little sticky. Season with a sprinkling of black pepper.

Transfer the chicken to a shallow pan to cool, then refrigerate until you're ready to assemble the turnovers.

To assemble the turnovers, start by thawing an eight-ounce package of frozen phyllo dough. Melt half a stick of butter in a small bowl. Set out a large cutting board or other flat, clean work surface. Set out a baking tray. Pull the chicken mixture from the fridge.

Carefully unroll the package of phyllo. Pull out one sheet and lay it on the work surface with the long side horizontal. Brush the phyllo with melted butter. Lay a second sheet of phyllo atop the first, and brush with more melted butter.

Use a knife to cut the phyllo into thirds horizontally, so that you have three strips.

Place a heaped tablespoon of the mixture at the end of one strip. Fold up the corner to make a triangle. Fold the triangle over on itself until you reach the end of the pastry strip. Trim any excess with a knife. Set the finished triangle on the baking tray. Repeat with the remaining mixture until you run out of either phyllo or chicken.

Finished triangles can either be baked immediately, at 375F for twenty to twenty-five minutes or until golden, or they may be placed in the freezer on the baking tray, and transferred to freezer bags once fully frozen.

Frozen triangles will keep for up to a month in the freezer; they should be baked at 375F for thirty to thirty-five minutes, or until golden.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

gingerbread, or, the witch speaks on all hallows eve

The Brothers Grimm would have you believe that I was a bloodthirsty crone. That I built a cottage of gingerbread in the woods to lure small children, that I emprisoned Hansel and enslaved Gretel and died a terrible death in the flames of my own oven. That the children were cruelly mistreated and escaped only by their own cleverness. That I deserved my fate.

I don't begrudge the storytellers their livelihood; let them tell their tales as they will. For all I know, there lived such a witch, and such children, and all received such a fate as they deserved. But that is their story, not mine.

There was no gingerbread cottage in the woods, nor famine in the land. It was a time of plenty, and I lived in a fine, prosperous town. Mine was a dwelling of timber, with rooms upstairs and a shop below.

No potions, no charms. I dealt in sweets, in candied pleasures. Sugar mice for the children. Turkish delight and cocoa-dusted truffles for the lovers. Jordan almonds for the brides. The closest I ever came to a cauldron was a copper panning kettle. The only herb I kept was a pot of horehound, used in comfits to soothe a sore throat.

Perhaps it wasn't seemly for a woman with an unlined face and no grey in her hair to keep a shop alone. Even if I wore a band of gold threaded on a silver chain about my neck, and told those who asked that I had lost my husband to the war. The ring was my father's, the chain my mother's, and both of them long in the ground.

So I lied about being a widow. What of it? There are worse sins.

They weren't children. Gretel may not yet have been of marrying age, and Hansel still seeking a bride, but their days of short trousers and pigtails were long gone by the time they came to town.

Their father, a wealthy merchant, had been a widower. For his second wife, he chose a woman young and fair and vain. A fall from his horse made her a widow a bare month after the wedding feast. She had left her hometown to marry him. Upon his death, she chose to return, and her dead husband's children had no choice but to follow.  

She had a weakness for crystallised violets. Her lady's maid had a wagging tongue. I knew of Hansel and Gretel well before either set foot in my shop.

Hansel came to me for a lover's tokens, the same as any young man of courting age in town. Boxes of marrons glacés tied in bright ribbons. Silvery coffrets of blackcurrant pastilles. Curls of chocolate-dipped orange peel, nestled in golden paper. His manner was gentle, his coin generous. I was glad for his custom, and so I took the time to listen when he spoke.

He told me of his sister Gretel, trapped in a household with a stepmother young enough to be her sister and too vain to treat her with anything but scorn. Sometimes, his gilded boxes of calissons and mendiants would be joined by a paper sack of sugar mice, though he ruefully admitted that Gretel preferred to steal crystallised violets from her stepmother out of spite.

In midwinter he brought me roses. Not a bouquet of blushing long-stemmed blooms sheathed in fine paper, but an untidy bunch of full-blown crimson blossoms wrapped in canvas. I asked them as a favor of him, for he had spoken of his family's hothouse, and my supply of rosewater had waned. I would have paid him, but he wouldn't accept my coin. Instead, I gave him a parcel of candied gingerroot, for he mentioned that Gretel had fallen ill with a cold.

Gretel came to me some weeks later. I knew her for who she was without asking her name. I read it in her clever, curious eyes. She told me she liked candied gingerroot better than sugar mice. She insisted that her brother had no sweetheart, that his boxes of buttered caramels and sugared figs became the servants' spoils. She had come to see what secrets I might be hiding.

At first I only spoke to her of my craft, describing the tricks of cutting toffee, explaining the art of whipping marshmallow sap. Later, I taught her to form rabbits and pigs from marzipan, fingers quick and light. She helped me crystalise violets in the spring, carefully turning the fragile clusters on their drying racks. She stole out early on summer mornings and I showed her how to choose the brightest, plumpest berries for pâtes de fruits.

She didn't speak of her father or her stepmother. I never asked.

With autumn came pressed cider and bonfires of crackling leaves. The streets were bright with lanterns, and spirits high. The townsfolk had coin in their pockets, and were eager to spend it. My days were busy, and I dreamed of sugar at night.

I had promised to teach Gretel to make candied apples once they were plentiful at the market, but she remained absent, even when the stalls were piled high. Hansel, too, had vanished, and I wondered if perhaps his courting had borne fruit, if a match had not been made. I could have asked the lady's maid when she came for her mistress' crystallised violets, but I chose to hold my tongue. I would hear soon enough, should there be call for Jordan almonds.

In the days before All Hallows Eve, I fashioned a house from gingerbread. A house with a steep gabled roof and wide eaves, embellished with scrolls of royal icing and silvered dragées. A house with windows of poured sugar, a chimney of mixed glacé fruits, and a harvest wreath of marzipan on the chocolate-painted front door. I made the house for my shop window: a beacon to draw young lovers on evening walks, a wonder to entice children to marvel and press their noses against the pane. A proof of my craft, to bring them inside.

The night before All Hallows Eve, Gretel knocked upon my door.

In a voice like stone, she told me Hansel had joined a merchant ship sailing for foreign lands. Her stepmother sought to betroth Gretel to a man both rich and cruel, and without her brother to stay her hand, the match would be made. She swore that this was my doing, that I had driven him away and doomed her to a hopeless fate. Did I not see that the boxes upon boxes of sweets were his excuse to speak with me, the winter roses a lover's offering? What good did it serve for me to pine for my lost husband as he rotted in the ground?

She left without waiting for an answer. As she passed through the door, she turned back briefly - to warn me that I would be sorry.

Gretel's words were mad fancies, bred of fear and sorrow. Hansel had made his escape, and had Gretel asked, I would have offered her a way to do the same. I would have told her that I was no widow, that the falsehood kept me free to practice the craft I loved. She had learned my lessons well. She could find her own way.

Let it be known that I did not spurn Hansel, for if he thought well upon me, he never said a word. I admit I would have turned him away had he asked. Though he spoke kindly, I had no love to spare for a husband.

I candied apples that night, dipping each fruit in molten sugar crimson with cochineal. Rows like a regiment of soldiers lined up along my workbench, awaiting an onslaught of teeth and tongue. When I set the last apple on the bench, shining in its sweet shell, I thought a full night of sleep well-earned.

Late in the night, a crash startled me awake.

In my workroom, I found candied apples tumbled all over the floor. Gretel stood at the bench with a mallet in hand, the house a wreck of crumbled icing and broken gingerbread. I came up behind her too quietly. Surprised, she turned and swung the mallet at my head. When I came to, the room was ablaze, the air filling with smoke and the scent of scorching sugar.

I don't believe Gretel lit the fire. More likely that she knocked the panning kettle into the fireplace and scattered the burning embers in her haste to flee. Whether she found her betrothal to a cruel and wealthy landowner punishment or penance, I couldn't say. I know nothing further of Hansel, either.

As for my fate, I will let you decide if it was deserved. I escaped the fire with my life, but lost my craft. Burns left my hands scarred and trembling, too ruined for delicate work.

There is still no cottage in the woods. I started afresh in another town. No sweets, no candied pleasures. I deal in bread, a plain trade of yeast and flour. No iced buns for the children, nor brioche for the lovers, but boules and baguettes for ordinary folk. Now that my hair is completely grey and my face fully lined, I no longer lie about being a widow, for no-one cares to ask.

And if on All Hallows Eve I should make biscuits studded with chocolate and candied gingerroot, in memory of the craft I lost, that is no-one's business but my own.

Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

Mars and Hershey's might do for the trick-or-treaters, but these make for far more pleasant nibbling if you're waiting to hand out candy at the door.

(Makes one dozen. Dough will freeze.)

In a mixing bowl, cream together one-and-a-quarter sticks of unsalted softened butter and half a cup of brown sugar.

Beat in one egg, one teaspoon of ground ginger, half a teaspoon of vanilla, and a quarter-teaspoon of salt.

Stir in one teaspoon of baking powder, followed by one cup of flour.

Stir in one cup of dark chocolate chips, and one-third of a cup of finely chopped crystallized ginger.

Allow the dough chill in the fridge until firm, then divide into a dozen balls (dough may be frozen at this point.)

To bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place the cookie dough balls on the baking sheets, and flatten them slightly with the palm of your hand. Bake the cookies for twelve to fifteen minutes, or until golden brown.

Allow cookies to cool for five minutes on baking sheets before transferring to a cooling rack.

Serve cool.

Monday, October 25, 2010

dreadfully detailed disclaimers

I am always surprised when people tell me they cook from my blog.
I know it sounds ridiculous. It is, after all, the ostensible purpose of this whole enterprise. I should be delighted to know that I'm not sitting on the stage in an empty theatre, monologuing in the dark. Indeed, I am delighted to know that I'm not sitting on the stage in an empty theatre, monologuing in the dark. I'm glad to have an audience. But - to push the metaphor further - I'm a little unsure of my lines.
There's a difference between inviting people to partake of a meal and offering advice on how to prepare a meal. The idea that people trust my taste in food without having tasted it, that they're willing to believe that what I think is good is, well, good, is just a little scary. Knowing that there are people out there who trust my ability to give directions, to the point where they'll prepare food accordingly, is still a little unnerving. Two hundred entries and counting, and I still have the faint urge to write a dreadfully detailed disclaimer disavowing all responsibility for anything that could or might go wrong.

(The fact that I can write dreadfully detailed disclaimers disavowing all responsibility for anything that could or might go wrong is unnerving on a whole other level.)

Even more surprising, perhaps, is discovering that people not only cook from my blog, but learn to cook from my blog. There's nothing like being asked for a recipe for such-and-such (and discovering its marked absence) to cue the urge to write an entirely different dreadfully detailed disclaimer - one that explains that the collection of entries is by no means a complete or comprehensive overview of culinary how-tos.

Granted, I'm not setting out to write my own version of the Joy of Cooking. I have my particular areas of interest, and barely touch on many others. Still, this doesn't explain some of the gaps in my recipe index. For example, I don't know how I managed to go three years without ever posting a frittata recipe.

A frittata lies on the egg continuum, somewhere between omelette and quiche. A mixture of eggs and whatever's on hand, it's a way of making a respectable dinner out of odds and ends, particularly good if you have unexpected guests. In terms of difficulty, it's not all that different to making an omelette (no rolling or folding, even), and nearly as fast.

All of which is excellent news. Thinking about dreadfully detailed disclaimers has made me hungry, and I believe there are eggs in the fridge calling my name.

(No photos. It always gets eaten before I think to get out the camera.)

Chicken, Potato, and Onion Frittata

This particular version is my way of using up leftovers from a roast chicken dinner, but you can vary the fillings as you please.

(Serves one for two, perhaps three meals.)

Shred one leftover chicken breast into bite-size pieces. Cut one leftover roast potato (three or four baby potatoes) into rough dice.

Heat a decent splash of olive oil in an ovenproof pan (nonstick is useful, but not essential) over low heat. Slice up one white onion or a few shallots, and fry until sweet and caramelized. Sprinkle with coarse salt and a few teaspoons of chopped fresh thyme. Add the chicken and the potatoes, and give everything a stir.

Beat three or four eggs in a bowl with a splash of milk, enough to turn the mixture pale yellow. Pour the beaten egg into the pan.

Cook until the frittata starts to look set around the edges, but is still wobbly in the middle.

Transfer the pan to a broiler on low heat. Cook until the top is set and has those tasty-looking golden brown spots.

(For faster cooking, you can treat the mixture as you would an omelette, lifting up the edges as they cook to let the uncooked mixture flow underneath, in which case you'll only want it briefly under a broiler on high heat.)

Remove from heat. Serve with green salad, and a dollop of tapenade or other olive spread on the side.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

world enough and time

Someday, when I have the time, my blogging to-do list will be organized. I will no longer have fifteen to twenty unpublished posts in various states of completion. I will delete the half-formed thoughts that were never going to go anywhere. And I will reorganize the bits that might be a starting point for a post sometime in the future.

Someday, I won't leave restaurant reviews to languish for so long that they'll no longer be worth finishing when I get back around to them. I'll recognize passing fancies for what they are, so that I don't have random notes about syllabub and earl grey sachertorte staring at me every time I open my "idle thoughts" Word file. Someday, I'll be disciplined enough that I won't need an "idle thoughts" Word file.

Or so I've been telling myself for the past two years. It's all become rather moot in the past two months.

Lately, I haven't had to worry about finding the time to blog. I haven't been scrambling to get posts published so that they don't get lost before I start the next round. I haven't been trying to keep abreast of everything I've cooked. I haven't been doing much cooking at all.

I've been sidetracked from my plans to move to Sydney. My parents aren't quite willing to let go of their dream of having a lawyer in the family, and so everything's been up in the air. I'm not really in a place where I can cook new and interesting things, but I've got a lot of empty space in my schedule.

"Someday," it seems, is now. A tentative glance at the disaster that is my drafts folder reveals that I have no shortage of material. Even if I can't cook, I can certainly blog. So until I get back into a cooking space, I'll be going over some of the dishes from the past three years that I just didn't have time to write up the first time around.

Let me begin with a recipe from the I-really-meant-to-write-about-this-honestly-I-swear-it-just-got-away-from-me list.

Tarte Tatin was supposed to be the logical follow-up to my puff pastry tutorial. It's a French classic: an upside-down tart with a puff pastry base and a topping of caramelized apples. Of all the things you can do with homemade puff pastry, it's one of the simplest, and possibly the most delicious.

When I made this, I remembered to take photos and I wrote up the recipe, but the blog post got lost somewhere between my retelling of Peter Rabbit and my first O.N.C.E. dinner. I think this dates from winter of 2008, so it's a belated post by well over a year. I'm consoling myself with the fact that I rediscovered it in time for this year's apple season, at least.

Tarte Tatin

Instructions for homemade puff pastry may be found here.

(Makes one seven-inch tart.)

Set a seven-inch, oven-safe pan (cast iron is good) over very low heat. Place a quarter-stick of salted butter in the pan and let it melt, swirling to coat. Sprinkle over a quarter-cup of white sugar and a generous pinch of salt.

Take two large apples (I like Granny Smith, but any tart cooking variety will do), peel them, and core them. Cut the apples into eigths and arrange them in the pan in rings. Don’t worry if they don't fit quite properly – they're going to cook down. Bring the heat up to low.

Keep the contents of the pan at a steady simmer. The apples will soften, and the liquid in the pan will thicken and darken. (If you're using a dark-colored pan, like cast iron, dip a spoon in the liquid every so often to check on the color.) Once the liquid turns deep caramel, turn off the heat.

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Roll out a square of puff pastry to a size a little larger than the pan. Place it over the apples. Cut five slits in the pastry, radiating outwards. (This helps the pastry to rise.)

Place the pan in the oven with a baking tray beneath, just in case the apple mixture bubbles and drips. Bake for forty to fifty minutes, or until the pastry puffs and browns.

Remove the pan from the oven, and turn the tart out on a serving plate. If any of the apples get stuck, use a fork to rearrange them. Serve immediately with whipped cream or ice-cream on the side.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

saga of the delicious red

According to an old Italian expression, se non è vero, è ben trovato. "Even if it's not true, it's well-conceived."

With that in mind, let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a law student named Virgin. (Her name is neither accurate nor true, but that’s beside the point.) Virgin, like most law students, was stressed and rather unhappy. And like most students, she had developed various coping mechanisms.

Virgin’s coping mechanism was alcohol. Top-shelf bourbon. Imported beer. Red wine.

One day, Virgin, after a long day of reading, briefing, and reviewing, went to her fridge for
a drink. (Or several.) Unfortunately, she was out of beer, out of wine, and the top-shelf bourbon in her liquor cabinet was not something for a night of heavy drinking. Virgin grumbled, for it was cold outside, but she shrugged on her jacket, put on shoes, grabbed her keys and wallet, and trudged down to the liquor store.

No lights were on in the liquor store. “Closed For Inventory” read the sign. Virgin sighed, uttered a few words that are best not repeated, and turned to make her way back home.

But what was this? Across the road from the liquor store, sandwiched between the 7-11 and a laundromat, stood a dimly lit package store. Virgin crossed the road to investigate more closely. Perhaps there would be beer.

There was beer. The options were dismal. She found something else: a box wine by the name of Delicious Red. Virgin knew that box wine was a dicey proposition, but decided to take her chances. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Sadly, the Delicious Red, though very red, was not delicious in any way, shape, or form. Even the European trick of mixing it with Coca-Cola didn’t help. And the hangover the next day was brutal. Virgin was left with four and a half liters of red wine she had no intention of drinking.

(Maybe Keystone Light would have been the wiser choice.)

What does one do with four and a half liters of dreadful red wine?

The same thing one does with any wine that isn't fit to drink: use it for cooking. And so Virgin went to class with the red wine hidden in juice bottles, and passed them on to a friend who had plans for braised pork.

Or had plans, at least. They only lasted until said friend tasted the wine.

Cloyingly sweet, unpleasantly sticky. Echoes of Welch’s Grape in the body. Overtones of Jolly Rancher candy in the nose. The Delicious Red had all the character of Manischewitz, albeit slightly less viscous. Not a wine for braising pork, unless one wanted candied stew.

Instead, Virgin's friend poured a bottle of the Delicious Red into a pot and added sugar and mulling spices. Reducing the liquid, she added quartered pears and hoped for the best.

After a long, slow simmer, the pears turned a lovely shade of deep red, the syrup, spicy with cherry notes. They paired remarkably well with chocolate souffle, and were good with ice-cream too.

Thus were mulled-wine pears born.

Mulled-Wine Pears

Don’t use a wine you’d drink for this. Instead, use the sweetest, most awful cheap red wine you can find.

(Serves one with leftovers, if one likes pears. They’ll keep in the fridge for a week.)

Set a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan on the stove. Pour in four cups of sweet red wine. Add a teaspoon of mulling spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, orange peel). Bring to a boil, and allow to reduce by half.

Meanwhile, take four firm pears, peel them, core them, and cut them into quarters.

Stir two or three teaspoons of sugar into the poaching liquid. Gently slide the pears in.

Cook at a simmer until the liquid reduces to a light syrup (about an hour or so), then turn off the heat. Allow to cool.

Serve warm with something soft and chocolately. Leftovers are also good over ice-cream.

Monday, October 4, 2010

a cookie for Bobbie Sue

I'm not much of a specialty baker.

For all my meddling and reluctance to follow a recipe directly, I don't do much in the way of adaptations for dietary restrictions. Tinkering with seasonings and proportions is one thing, but making wholesale substitutions is quite another. I know where I am with whole eggs versus egg whites. When it comes to egg replacer, all bets are off.

I play it safe, seeking out recipes for given restrictions that don't use (or need) the problem ingredients in the first place. Gluten-free cookie? Try a delinquent macaron. Vegan tea treat? Have a slice of banana bread. Sugar-free baked good?

Er. Did you try Googling for "nearest specialty bakery?"

I carried out a few experiments in sugar-free baking during college. There was a lot of Splenda involved, and the results were terrible. (File under "youthful stupidity, in the name of." Blame the Atkins diet. Lesson learned: don't date anyone who doesn't eat pasta.)

Even after I gained more experience in the kitchen, I had no need for sugar-free baked goods in my repertoire, and so I never bothered revisiting that particular dark chapter of my culinary endeavors.

Then I met Bobbie Sue.

Bobbie Sue, Bella's mother, is a spectacular baker. From rich, moist blueberry buckle, to flaky snickerdoodles, to tangy rhubarb pie, her creations defy guests to not go back for seconds. Unfortunately, Bobbie Sue can't eat sugar for health reasons, and while she looks on with good grace during the dessert course at holiday gatherings (and urges guests to take seconds), it still seems unfair.

My chance to remedy that came at a Fourth of July potluck. Short on time, I decided to bake shortbread. Casting about for seasonings, I came across a package of Trader Joe's cranberry, pecan and rosemary snack mix. Lining up all my ingredients on the counter, it struck me: sugar isn't essential to the structure of shortbread.

The rest was easy: skip the sugar. Throw in an egg yolk for extra binding. Add vanilla to enhance the sweetness of the dried cranberries.

The result? Delicate, buttery cranberry-pecan rosemary sandies. Cookies that Bobbie Sue could eat. A decent sugar-free recipe for my repertoire.

And not a Splenda packet in sight.

Cranberry-Pecan Rosemary Sandies

If you live near a Trader Joe's, you can use one package of their rosemary cranberry pecans in this recipe, instead of buying the ingredients separately.

These work well as part of a cookie assortment, and also make an interesting addition to a cheese tray.

Appended note: These are technically sugar-free, in that the recipe doesn't call for sugar, but as one of my commenters points out, dried cranberries are sweetened. Double-check with your dietary restrictions as necessary.

(Makes two dozen. Dough may be frozen.)

In a mixing bowl, combine one stick of softened unsalted butter with one egg yolk, a half-teaspoon of salt, a half-teaspoon of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of dried rosemary. Work in one cup of flour, a quarter-cup at a time, until you have a sandy dough. Mix in half a cup of toasted salted pecans and half a cup of dried cranberries.

Turn the dough (it will be quite crumbly) out on a sheet of wax paper. Form the dough into a one-and-a-half-inch log, roll it up in the wax paper, and chill in the fridge for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 325F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Cut the log into two halves. Cut each half into a dozen slices, and arrange the slices on the baking trays. (Dough may be frozen at this point.)

Bake for fourteen to fifteen minutes, or until browned at the edges. Allow to cool for five minutes on baking trays before transferring to a cooling rack. Cool fully before serving.

Monday, September 20, 2010

omreeh. omreeht. omelette.

"There are no Japanese restaurants anywhere in the world outside Japan that serve [okonomiyaki], so terribly evocative, both simple and subtle, down-to-earth and sophisticated. I was five years old again, I had never been out of sight of my Nishio-san, and I was screaming, broken-hearted, my tastebuds in a trance. I devoured my okonomiyaki and my eyes glazed over as I uttered faint little cries of delight.

Only when I had eaten everything on my plate did I notice that the others were staring politely, embarrassed.

"Every country has its own table manners," I muttered. "You've just discovered the Belgians'."  

Owing to my most recent geographic upheaval, the concepts of home and belonging have been on my mind of late. Like many third culture kids, I waffle when I'm asked where I'm from. I can't point to any fixed place on the globe and say "This is home." I know that it is sometimes easier to live someplace where you don't fit in at all than someplace where you fit in just well enough to make your quirks and missteps all the more prominent. 

And so I've turned to a book by a TCK for the Fall 2010 edition of Novel Food. Ni d'Ève ni d'Adam (titled Tokyo Fiancée in English) is an autobiographical novel by Amélie Nothomb, a French-language Belgian author whose parents were diplomats. Born in Japan, Nothomb spent her childhood living in various Asian countries, re-entering Belgium only when she began her university degree.

Tokyo Fiancée describes Amélie's return to Japan at the age of twenty-one, and the unconventional relationship she embarks upon with Rinri, a Japanese student she meets through a posted ad for French-language tutoring. The story is a wry commentary on identity and belonging, a quietly subversive non-love story.

Cuisine is a recurring theme in the novel, used to illustrate the fascination that Amélie and Rinri each have with a culture not their own. Amélie is charmed by the delicacy of Japanese cuisine; Rinri delights in preparing fat-laden Western-style dishes because they are the antithesis of meals with his tradition-bound family. In one scene, Rinri sets the table with a selection of Japanese delicacies ("sesame spinach, a chaudfroid of quails' eggs with chiso, and sea urchins") and urges Amélie to eat. He then produces for his own repast a plate of mayonnaise-slathered salami.

Food also marks key moments in the development of the relationship. The major breakthrough in Amélie and Rinri's first French lesson is moving from "omreeeh" to "omreeeht" in the pronounciation of "omelette." Amélie's Proustian rediscovery of okonomiyaki is followed by a charmingly ridiculous dinner of cheese fondue, Japanese-style, which involves "polystyrene cheese" and "imputrescible bread." And there's the chawanmushi ("flan made with seafood and black mushrooms in fish fumet") that Amélie - trapped at the dinner party from hell - never gets the chance to taste.

I toyed with the idea of making chawanmushi, but it's a finicky dish that requires practice to perfect. Okonomiyaki - stuffed pancake with shrimp, cabbage, and ginger - is more forgiving, but I've never been a fan of the plum sauce that is poured over the finished dish. Instead, I decided to go with an "omreeet" made with some of the key ingredients found in okonomiyaki, aiming for a dish that would be acceptable to both Eastern and Western tastes.

The finished dish is quick and simple, consisting of shrimp stir-fried with ginger, garlic and green onions, lightly seasoned with sesame oil, and rolled in a thin sheet of egg. I imagine that Amélie could eat it with plum sauce if she liked. Rinri, if he insisted, could douse it in ketchup.

Shrimp Omelette with Ginger and Garlic 

Owes some inspiration to this recipe. Adding rice to the stir-fried shrimp will produce shrimp omurice.

(Makes one.)

Beat two eggs with a pinch of salt until light and slightly foamy. Set aside.

Heat a little vegetable oil (canola or grapeseed is good) in wok or a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add two finely minced garlic cloves and a half-teaspoon of grated ginger. Cook until the garlic is fragrant, then add four to five ounces of cleaned, peeled shrimp, either fresh or frozen. Add a sprinkling of salt, and stir well with a wooden spoon. Once the shrimp are pink and firm, add a drizzle of sesame oil and stir in a handful of finely chopped green onions. Remove the pan from heat. Transfer the stir-fried shrimp to a bowl.

Set the pan back on the burner. Add a little more oil to the pan. Pour in the beaten eggs, and swirl to cover the pan in a crepe-thin layer. Cook until the omelette starts to look set in the middle, then add the stir-fried shrimp to the pan. Remove the pan from heat.

Fold the omelette over in thirds, the way you'd fold a letter. Transfer carefully to a plate. Garnish with extra green onion. Serve immediately.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

tell me a recipe

I like seeing how people tell recipes.

I like written recipes for their ideas. A recipe in writing is about possibilities, the promise of a dish I might or will make. Oral recipes are something else. When I ask someone "How do you make this?" I am often seeking more than just the directions for a marbled bundt cake or a pork roast. Sometimes, the directions are almost superfluous. I am waiting to see what kind of narrative unfolds.

Not all people tell recipes. There are times when I have to content myself with the name of a cookbook, or the promise of a weblink. And not all people who tell recipes realise that they are offering more than method and instruction.

At times they offer context: food chemistry, food history. Other times, it's family history, or food as Proustian memory. And sometimes, it's a glimpse of personal history, of the way someone thinks about food.

I make salsa from a recipe Virgin told me. It isn't particularly complicated - more method than recipe, really. But she told it easily and vividly, punctuating the directions with references to farmstands and cooking outside on the grill, a brief gripe about being unable to find decently spicy food in Boston, and a digression about the joys of potato tacos.

A whole story lay in those details: a Californian who had had more than her fill of Northeastern winter, a longing for summer and sunshine, and some decently spicy food. Above all else, the desire to return home.

Perhaps it's not just the simplicity of this recipe, or its cold and refreshing appeal on hot sticky evenings, that drives me to prepare it by the half-gallon. The stories we find easiest to love are those that tell us something about ourselves.

I may not have encountered salsa of any variety until my mid-teens, but I grew up in a climate not all that different to that of California. I remember the dry heat of summer, the threat of drought and wildfire. Above all else, I know the desire to return home, and it remains unthwarted by the fact that "home" is no longer any point in fixed geography.

Tell me a recipe, and I will tell you mine. Home is where the kitchen is.

(No photos. Show me someone who can photograph a bowl of chunky red puree without making it look like a horror show, and I'll show you someone whose photography skills far outstrip mine.)

Decently Spicy Salsa

Miles better than anything out of a jar. To quote Virgin: "You could make your own salsa, for fuckssake."

(Makes about two cups. Will keep in a covered container for a week.)

Produce list: you'll need six Roma tomatoes, two red bell peppers, one large onion, four cloves of garlic, two jalapenos (or one, if you're not up for a really spicy salsa), and one lime.

Cut the tomatoes in half. Remove the seeds and the membrane from the red bell peppers, and cut into wide strips. Peel and quarter the onion; crush, but don't peel three of the garlic cloves. Leave the jalapenos whole.

Arrange everything except the fourth garlic clove on baking sheets. Put them under the broiler until everything chars and blisters. Allow to cool.

Put the tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and garlic in a food processor. De-stem the jalapenos and add those too. Throw in your fourth uncooked garlic clove. Squeeze in the lime juice, and add a generous pinch of salt. Pour in a glug of olive oil. Blend until you have a thick, chunky puree.

Pour the salsa into a bowl. Attack with tortilla chips.