Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tokens of Gratitude

Sometimes, when your significant other goes out of town for a long period of time, things around the house run so smoothly that his or her absence is hardly noteworthy. At other times, everything in the book that can go wrong does go wrong. Although nothing calamitous has occurred, I would still say that the Greek's current absence falls more into the latter category than the former. 

There was the moment three weekends ago when, after attempting to preheat the oven, I discovered that the pilot light had gone out. I quickly realized that not only did I have no idea how to fix it (raise your hand if you have a gas stove and you actually know where your pilot light is), but that, in attempting to preheat the oven, I had also released so much gas that the very thought of lighting a match or using a lighter made me scared that the dog and I would die in a fiery explosion. While this scenario may strike you all as terribly unlikely, the simple truth is that I think the gas fumes had started to go to my head at that point, which is why I called PG&E and reported a possible gas leak. The good news is that, in such potentially dire situations, they respond; however, the bad news is that, although they read you a long list of things that you should absolutely not do in these situations--using a phone and buzzing somebody into your apartment are both on this list--the PG&E man called me to announce his presence and requested that I buzz him in. Somehow this behavior didn't seem terribly up to code.

Then, when I had to move--that ism to arrange for the moving of--the car this past week because of street sweeping, Maria, the Greek girl currently staying with me and helping with Elektra, and I discovered that the battery was dead. This led to my having no choice but to go and ask our neighbors for help at 9:30 in the evening. Because they are both good people and good neighbors, they kindly came down in their pajamas, accepted the fact that I could tell them neither how to open the hood nor where the battery was located (my own ignorance about cars became glaringly, embarrassingly apparent) and rescued our car with their jumper cables. It is thanks to them that I baked cookies this past weekend--my first true weekend without work since July 12-13 (yes, I've been counting).

It has, dear readers, been a glorious experience. You really don't realize how important the weekend is until you don't have a full one. But suddenly I again had two (two!) whole days to do not only whatever I wanted, but to catch up on some much needed sleep as well. I read some of my now slightly outdated food magazines, I took the dog to play, I cooked a Greek risotto that I love (I find that I eat a lot of Greek food--ouzo, feta, oregano---when the Greek is in his homeland; I think it's my way of not being left out of the experience) and caught up on both my current favorite TV shows and the majority of the blogs that I read. Blogging feels different these days, but this is a subject for a different post and one that I promise I will return to. 

The fact that blogs and blogging seem to have changed so much aside, the beauty of reading food blogs is that you get a tiny glimpse into how others cook and eat and into what inspires them; food, I think, can tell you a lot about a person--his/her life philosophy, habits and preferences. I love this moment of revelation--what you can observe from a post or a photo; I often find that the things that resonate the most with me are the most mundane things: praising the simple act of roasting vegetables, making a salad with what's left in the fridge or even just taking a few minutes to enjoy a meal with no distractions (i.e. cell phones and computers at the table). 

This was the case when I caught up on Casa Yellow this past Saturday morning; Sarah's latest post focused on the Lemon Honey Macaroons from Nicole Spiridakis' new book, Flourless. The cookies looked like the best kind of comfort food, and even better, Sarah, in describing both the cookies and the book, mentioned that most of the recipes are simple to make, but pleasingly complex in terms of texture and flavor. Always thorough, Sarah also included a few links to other articles that Nicole had written about flourless baking and, while reading one of them, I decided I just had to try--and immediately--the almond butter cookies. Not only did they seem low maintenance (only 10 ingredients and the cookie dough can easily be mixed by hand. I used a regular spoon and it worked beautifully), i.e. my favorite kind of cooking or baking these days, but also, to a lover of nut butters and nuts, they seemed like the kind of cookie I would naturally reach for if it were set before me on a platter of randomly assembled cookies. 

My cookies instincts, as it turned out, were right; these almond butter cookies are crispy and light, with just the right amount of chocolate. It feels like a virtuous, protein-filled snack and a bit of a step up from my occasional snack bag of almonds and bittersweet chocolate. That said, I will admit that after my first bite, I did have a moment when I lamented the absence of that chewy, pillowy softness that all-purpose flour gives to cookies, but, after my second, I realized that I nevertheless liked what this cookie had to offer. And then, after I had wrapped and set aside the dozen intended for the neighbors, I ate another one...Tokens of gratitude can go a long way.

Almond Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

yields almost 3 dozen

1 cup almond butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark or light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup almond pieces (slivered, sliced, or roughly chopped)
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

-Preheat oven to 350F and line two to three baking sheets with parchment paper.
-In in medium bowl, stir together the almond butter and sugars, mixing until well combined.
-Add the egg, baking soda, salt, vanilla and maple syrup and mix until well combined. Then, stir in the almonds and chocolate chips. 
-Using a teaspoon, scoop out a spoonfuls of dough and roll them into small, evenly shaped balls. 
-Place on the prepared cookie sheets, about 1 inch apart (NB I think I was overly ambitious and tried to squeeze too many cookies onto one sheet. I would say it's best to bake only 12 cookies per baking sheet because they will spread out and bake into each other, becoming misshapen).
-Place in the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes or until lightly browned.
-Remove from the oven and place the cookie sheet(s) on a rack to cool for at least five minutes.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Groundhog Day

Despite both my promise and hope to return to this space over the weekend, reality intervened. And when I say reality, what I really mean is work. It seems that although we've been working towards filing this motion since my very first day in the office, we're still not quite there yet. Last week we were optimistic--so optimistic that there was even talk in the office that we would all have a real weekend!--but then discovered on Friday morning that we had to shuffle things around yet again. This, of course, led to another Saturday spent in front of the computer redoing the citations that both my colleague and I had already updated 3 times in the last 3 weeks. But I was at least working from home, which was a plus. Then, yesterday we actually filed the motion only to be rejected by the court this morning for having forgotten something essential (to all the past, present and future dissertators who will find and read this blog: Filing a dissertation is easy; try getting something through a court clerk). In a way, we were all relieved that we had a little more time, but as we started checking the documents again and having the same conversations that we had been having for the past month, there was this moment when I looked over at the other paralegal and couldn't help but ask her, "Didn't this all happen yesterday? Isn't it starting to feel like Groundhog Day around here?" Two hours later that question was again asked when the legal secretary shouted to us from the other room, "Gosh, doesn't it feel like Groundhog Day? I can't take another day of this." We all laughed, but let me just say that I don't really think any of us thought it was terribly funny.

Things got even less funny--or downright hilarious; it really depends on your sense of humor and perspective--this afternoon when we filed the motion again and managed to send the court runner (this is the person who waits in line with the documents and schmoozes with the court clerks; it turns out that a good runner who can work the system is essential to success. Note to legal dramas: you need to write runners into the script to make things real) off with our documents. Then, when we were preparing the copies we would be sending to opposing counsel, I discovered that something that was supposed to have been redacted hadn't actually been redacted and, though it pained me to have to break the news to my smiling, relieved and exhausted colleagues, I really had no choice; this find, while depressing to discover at this stage of the game, may have prevented a lot of unnecessary unpleasantness for all involved parties.  This meant we had to figure out how to withdraw our just-submitted motion and that tomorrow we'll be on what, in legalese, we would call our "Third Attempt to Submit the Amended Motion." I'm simply banking on the fact that the third time really is the charm and that we can all go out and have a celebratory lunch afterwards.

Needless to say, with work as demanding as it has been, there has been little time for anything else. Dinner has started to embody Alice Waters' culinary wisdom and, truly, my meals have become nothing if not testaments to the "art of simple food." Bread covered with thick slabs of feta and thinly sliced tomato, then sprinkled with oregano and drizzled with olive oil and, finally, put under the broiler for 5-7 minutes. A pot of pearl barley tossed with arugula and slices of avocado, eaten with salsa verde and crumbled feta or mixed with lemon juice, tahini, Greek yogurt and garlic. Fruit, from nectarines to melons, suddenly makes the best and easiest dessert. But these things, as simple as they are, still happen only on the good days. 

I realized this past Friday how essential the weekends are to getting things in order. After a long day of reworking the motion,  I got off Bart only to discover that my dreams of making a somewhat fancy dinner--therapy cooking, really--were dashed by the business hours of the butcher shop I pass by on my way home. Then, when I got home and opened the bread bag, I discovered my Favorite Default Dinner, the aforementioned Feta on Toast, wasn't going to happen, either; moldy bread does not a dinner make. This, my friends, is how cereal came to be eaten for dinner.

While I like cereal as much as the next girl, it nevertheless felt a little depressing. It seemed such a far cry from my first week on the job, when there had been leftovers from my pre-work cooking fest to see us through: soup, casserole, braised meat. I think I realized what life was going to be like (there is a Groundhog Day-like quality to commuting and walking down the same exact street every day, which is not to say that there is no comfort in a well-oiled routine. I have favorite moments: greeting the sidewalk sweeper on my office's block, looking into the fancy Italian restaurant whose wood-fired oven seems never to go out and through whose windows I can see perfectly round balls of pizza dough lined up on baking sheets each morning, smelling the coffee wafting out of the hipsterish coffee shops popping up in the Financial District) and wanted to be prepared for it. Even now, although reality seems to be telling me something different, I want to believe that people can work and live well, too. Maybe what I really want is that impossible thing--having it all. But then I think that I'm too reasonable for such a thought and that what I want is something simpler: that working--enjoying your work and doing it well--doesn't have to mean that other essential things in life are relegated to the realm of the quick, easy and convenient. But perhaps that simply circles back to the issue of having it all...?

What we both can and can't have is a discussion for another day. Today is a day for something far less complicated: Diana Kennedy's Zucchini Torte (Torta de Calabacita) from The Art of Mexican Cooking, which is honestly one of the most simple and downright delicious zucchini recipes I've made in years. It calls for only 8 ingredients, or 9 if you, like me, decide to sprinkle cilantro leaves on top (this is recommended). Like everything Diana Kennedy touches, the recipe is written in a clear, matter-of-fact manner; she's not a woman to mince words (listen to this podcast and be prepared to fall under the spell of her life story and achievements) and, more importantly, you know that she's giving you an authentic taste of Mexico in every bit of information she shares.

 On my own, I would never have thought to combine grated zucchini with rice flour, butter, baking powder, eggs and sugar, but believe me when I say that the combination works. At first I was dubious since the batter, because of the rice flour, looked grainy and unpromising (I don't have much experience with gluten-free baking and this recipe is gluten free); once baked, however, it was green-flecked and golden with gently browned and slightly crisped edges. Even more surprisingly, despite the addition of sugar (it's a minimal but noticeable amount), these ingredients create a savory dish that can be just as easily served on its own, topped with creme fraiche or sour cream mixed with salt and pepper, as it can be paired with chicken. Regardless of how you choose to eat it, one thing should be clear: it should be made and enjoyed often--at least while the zucchini lasts.

Zucchini Torte (Torta de Calabacita)

From Diana Kennedy's The Art of Mexican Cooking
Yields 4-5 ample pieces or 8 small ones

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the baking dish
1 pound (3-4 medium) zucchini, trimmed and grated
1 cup rice flour
2/3 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup creme fraiche or sour cream, whisked with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
a few stalks of cilantro, roughly chopped

-Preheat oven to 350 and place rack in top part of oven. Butter a 1-quart baking or souffle/casserole dish.
-Squeeze the grated zucchini dry in a cheesecloth or place the zucchini in a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and squeeze it until about 1/3-1/2 cup liquid comes out. Set aside. 
-Sift or whisk the flour with the baking powder and salt and set aside. 
-Beat the butter until creamy, then beat in the eggs one by one, mixing well after each addition. 
-Beat in the flour mixture and then stir in the zucchini and sugar. 
-Pour the mixture (it will be thick and grainy) into the prepared dish and bake until the torta is firm, springy to the touch and golden on top--about 45-55 minutes.
-Serve with the salt-and-pepper cream and a sprinkling of cilantro or another fresh herb of your choice.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Food for Thought

As much as I've tried, it's been hard to sit down and find the time to write lately. Work has continued to be a little bit crazy, but the good news is that not only are we about to file the motion that has required me to go to the office for the past three weekends, but also my coworkers are telling me that I will now be prepared for anything that comes my way at the firm since what I have experienced in the past four (!) weeks has been nothing short of a baptism by fire. I assume that it's true that things will probably only get easier from here on out (this, at least, is the hope), especially because currently, in addition to my busy work schedule and commute, I'm a single puppy mother. This is the first time Elektra and I will have been on our own for a month, but there was no way getting around it; the Greek had a combination of research and visa issues to attend to and he is now enjoying the many fruits (literally and figuratively) of his homeland while I watch the fog roll in on a nightly basis and try not to be too jealous. And, fortunately, with the help of friends, I have managed to arrange for Elektra to be taken care of while I'm at work. It's really true that it takes a village to raise a child/dog (parents of real children, please forgive me for equating dogs and human beings, but I honestly believe that our struggles are incredibly similar and the depth of our emotional investment perhaps even the same). 

Because I didn't want this space to be empty for too long as I try to balance everything, I decided that it might be time for a "food for thought" post with links and ideas. It also seemed the right space to share the Blueberry Poppy Seed Butter Cake I baked this past Saturday. Quite simply, I fell in love with this cake. Maybe it's because blueberries have always been one of my favorite fruits, but I suspect that even without my love of them, this recipe still would have appealed to me. Full of tart lemony flavor and a whole lot of crunch, the cake makes a lovely vehicle for showcasing sweet summer blueberries. A generous dollop of creme fraiche doesn't hurt either. 

Although I'm still enjoying the spoils of summer, thanks to the Buvette cookbook, I currently have one eye on all of the the tomatoes, squash and stone fruit I can eat and the other on fall and on all of the Brussels sprouts and apples I plan on eating.

A few of these links are perhaps outdated now, but the beauty of the internet is that articles are always waiting to be rediscovered. These are two that I enjoyed immensely in June: the first is a meta-journalistic look at the ever more ridiculous forms that comments on blogs and online publications take (I laughed really hard; I hope you do, too) and the second is a study on unobtainable standards of beauty. A journalist asked 40 individuals from over 25 countries to use Photoshop to transform a photo of her to reflect that country's ideal beauty standard. The results are eye-opening; in particular, the American standard of beauty really surprised me.

Before the Greek left, he and I enjoyed an evening out at the Noir Lounge in San Francisco. For any reader who is a local or who ends up passing through town, I highly suggest that you stop by this place for a wine flight and a screening of a classic movie with live music accompaniment. We were lucky to be there on a night when Casablanca was being shown, but I imagine the other featured films would be just as good.

In the Greek's absence, I've started watching The Americans and would recommend it to anybody who enjoys a little espionage. 

These days I think a lot about BART etiquette; to be completely honest, I spend a lot of time getting annoyed about BART etiquette. Not only have I always seen the system as flawed (how can a major urban area not have commuter passes?!), but I've also always been curious why San Franciscans and other Bay Area-ns think it's a good idea to line up for the train and block the doors. This video attempts to explain it, but I'm not convinced.

Speaking of BART, I've been trying to read Nadine Gordimer on my commute, but am finding it really difficult to enjoy her prose style. Are there any Gordimer fans out there? If so, any favorites? Sport of Nature isn't quite doing it for me (the New York Times review I just linked to, however, makes me think I ought to reconsider), so I'm now reading this and am truly looking forward to this. Is it just me or does it suddenly seem like I'm already looking beyond summer...?

I promise I'll get back in the summer spirit this weekend with a zucchini recipe I've been wanting to share here.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The New Normal

"Ifemelu, can I just say how happy I am that you're not an academic? Have you heard his friends talk? Nothing is just what it is. Everything has to mean something else. It's ridiculous...A good education isn't the same thing as making the whole damn world something to be explained! Even Shan makes fun of you formation and topography of the spatial and historical consciousness..." -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah)

Since I last updated this blog, I have become a person who "goes to the office." Along with said office, which offers a stunning view of the Bay Bridge, I now have my very own work desk and computer, access to legal documents of all kinds and, most baffling of all (at least to somebody from academia who pretended for many years that teaching a class and grading papers takes only twenty hours a week), billable hours that I have to track carefully. Although so much of this feels foreign to me, the thing I've come to realize in the past two weeks is that the legal profession isn't all that different from academia. It relies on its own form of close reading and linguistic analysis--of everything from testimonies to court rulings--in order to build a legal argument. It also, much like academia, has its own language, "legalese," which I am slowly learning to speak. You would think that my love of legal dramas (The Good Wife, Law and Order, Ally McBeal) would have prepared me for this world, but the simple truth is that legal dramas keep it awfully simple (they also, quite frankly, spend way too much time in court; the law is nothing if not slow and a tad tedious). Characters on these shows may talk about depositions, but they leave out declarations, Points and Authority, Separate Statements of Undisputed Facts and First/Second/Third Set of Interrogatories...Also known, respectively, as depos, decs, P&A, SSUFs (sometimes SUFs) and rogs. Quite frankly, it's enough to make one's head spin.

That said, I have to admit that I think I like the law. It combines everything I love(d?) about academia (minus the teaching, although I suppose if I were actually to practice the law, performing would again be a part of my life) with the real-world applicability that I started to long for in my final years in grad school. It's nice to be doing work that has an impact, and it's also refreshing to be at a place where I feel like a real employee. Because of the small size of the firm, the projects we work on seem like team efforts; while the two lawyers are certainly making all of the major decisions, research responsibilities and documents are shared and discussed. This means that you not only learn a lot, but also get to feel like you're really contributing. Although before I started I didn't know what to expect and was nervous about the job, I can honestly say that, even after two weeks of spending Saturday at the office, I feel lucky. Everything about it feels like a good fit.

Of course, that doesn't mean that I can say that I've completely adjusted to the new schedule (I'm not naturally a morning person, which means rolling out of bed at 6:30 a.m. will probably continue to be a little painful), but I'm not doing too badly. While I find BART to be a crowded battlefield of people seeking seats and/or space to stand, I enjoy the commute because it allows me not only to read, but also to see what other people are reading (this can sometimes be as much fun as reading itself; in case you're curious about what "Bay Areans" are reading, I've been impressed to see The Grapes of Wrath, Don Quixote and some David Foster Wallace in the hands of the paperback reading crowds). I've also discovered that, after a day of sitting in front of the computer and intensely reading, I'm much more active in the evenings. Ideally, this would translate into going to a gym or back to yoga, but for now all it means is that I'm less likely to waste time on the computer and much more likely to play around in the kitchen--I've been spending a lot of time with Vegetable Literacy again (the eggplant recipes are real winners) and making different desserts, from Greek rice pudding (rizogalo) with saffron to mango chipotle crumbles-- do some house chores or take the dog for a walk. Time seems to be awfully limited these days; depending on when I go to bed, I have only 4-5 waking hours at home. As grueling as the new schedule is, I have to admit that I like having a job that I find engaging, as well as one that takes me out of the house. To me, it simply allows for a better balance; there's something comforting about being busy.

And when I say inconsequential I mean things like what kind of cake I might bake for a friend's birthday. A few days before the new job started, this was the very thing on my mind. Up until the day of this friend's birthday, I wasn't even sure I would be baking anything since I had been a little under the weather that week and, when all is said and done, he's not really what I would call a dessert person. But when I called him with birthday greetings and asked if there was anything I could bring to the party, he suddenly seemed unsure of what to say. I prodded him, asking if there would be a cake--in my mind, a person can't turn 30 without cake of some kind-- and if I could maybe bring one. He responded by asking me if he could be honest. While these are never reassuring words (panic-inducing is more like it), I assured him that I could take survive his honesty. It turned out that both he and his partner were thinking that I would have offered to bring a cake when I RSVPed, but since I hadn't, they were uncertain of their plan. Quite frankly, that was all I needed to hear; cake it would be. Although I know this friend has a soft spot for Amanda Hesser's Almond Cake, I had a bowl filled with red plums sitting on my kitchen table and a strong memory of the barely sweet German Yeasted Plum Cake (Pflaumenkuchen) that Luisa Weiss described in My Berlin Kitchen.

When the book first came out in the fall of 2012, I quickly read it from cover to cover and became obsessed with the thought of visiting Berlin (this will finally happen one day, I hope). Like a lot of other bloggers who had just read Luisa's book, I had fallen under the promising spell of yeasted German baked goods. But whereas I opted to make and write about the Poppy Seed Whirligig Buns, most bloggers, from Sassy Radish to Sweet Amandine, went straight to their kitchens to recreate this particular yeasted plum cake. Now that I've made it, I can see why, too. The dough is yeasty and speckled with bright bits of lemon zest and, after it rises and is pressed into the pan, maintains its pillowy plumpness. The plums are gently pushed into the dough and are sprinkled with sugar and spices (Luisa's recipe calls for cinnamon only, but I like the addition of nutmeg and think that candied ginger could also go a long way here). What emerges from the oven is a golden tart-like cake whose top is covered by the softened plums and swimming in their juices. In all honesty, it's a cake that reminds me of toast, but the absolute best kind of toast: a chewy and crisp base of bread with a flavorful and textured jam mixing with tiny pools of melted butter. It was a big hit at my friend's birthday party (even he said that he actually liked the cake) and I made it again this past Saturday and took it with me to the office for our Saturday SSUFs session. There, too, it received a lot of compliments. Given how addicted I am to its texture and flavor, I think there will probably be a few more rounds of pflaumenkuchen gracing my kitchen table before the summer is over and the plums disappear. 

Pflaumenkuchen (German Yeasted Plum Cake)

Adapted slightly from My Berlin Kitchen
Yields 8-10 slices  

For the dough
Unsalted butter for the pan
1 1/2 cups, plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus an additional tablespoon or two for kneading
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup whole milk, slightly warmed
3 tablespoons granulated sugar 
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
pinch of salt
zest of 1 lemon

For the fruit:
1 pound (or slightly less) red plums or Italian prune plums, pitted and sliced thinly
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled 

-Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan and set aside. 
-In a small bowl or measuring cup, stir together the yeast and half the milk. Stir with a fork and then let sit for 5 minutes or until the yeast has dissolved. 
-In the meantime, place the flour in a medium bowl and create a well in the center. Once the yeast has dissolved, pour it into the well and stir a little, incorporating some of the flour into the liquid.  Then cover the bowl with a towel and let sit for 15 minutes or until foamy. 
-Stir in the remaining milk, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, egg yolk, 3 tablespoons melted butter, salt and lemon zest. Once shaggy, dump the mixture out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for a few minutes, adding extra flour if the dough is too sticky. Be careful not to add too much, though; the dough should be smooth, soft and slightly tacky. 
-Form the dough into a ball and put it in the buttered springform pan. Cover with a dishtowel and put the bowl in a warm place (I used the oven) for an hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.
-Remove the dough from the oven and heat the oven to 350 F. 
-As the oven is heating, gently deflate the dough with your fingertips, pushing it out to fit the pan and giving it roughly 1-inch-high sides. Make sure that the dough has been pushed out as evenly as possible.
-Starting at the edge, push the plum slices into the dough at a 45-degree angle, making concentric circles and putting in as many plum pieces as possible. Sprinkle the cinnamon and sugar (brown and granulated) over the plums and drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter. Let sit for 20 minutes. 
-Put the pan in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the plums are juicy and bubbling. 
-Remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool. After about 20-30 minutes, release the sides of the springform pan and continue cooling the cake. 
-Serve with unsweetened whipped cream, Greek yogurt or creme fraiche.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lush and Balmy

Tomorrow is the big day, the first day of work, the first truly non-education, 9-5 job I've ever had in my life. Although this is undoubtedly a good and very adult step (high time I join the real world) I feel like a high school student about to start school after the summer break. Even the strange turn of the weather--it's now hot and humid, especially in my third-floor apartment--has conspired to take me back in time to those late August southwestern Pennsylvania nights when I would stare at the bright red numbers on my electric clock and, with only the sounds of chirping crickets and the occasional train whistle interrupting the rural hush, wonder what would be in store for me come the morning. Now, just like back then, I have baby butterflies in my stomach and, while I know that I have to get up bright and early tomorrow morning, I'm not at all interested in going to bed. It's as if I've stubbornly decided to hold onto my freedom for as long as I can. 

To that end, I've spent the past few days cooking like I might never cook again (we could also call this proactive blogger behavior since I now have no less than five recipes to tell you about), reading, watching the World Cup, walking the dog and reminiscing about a summer that isn't even halfway over. If I had to pinpoint the highlight from my short-lived summer, it would unquestionably be the trip the Greek and I took to Southern California in late June. Everything about this trip offered the best of the season, from the necessary lush and balmy weather to a feeling of freedom and spontaneity.

While our final destination was Pasadena, where we would be attending the baby shower of a dear friend, we had also decided to make the most of our trip, driving along the coast and spending a night in Santa Barbara. Because of our route on the way down, we ended up stopping in San Luis Obispo for a coffee break. Let me just say that this was the best possible coffee and leg-stretching break that we could have hoped for. Although San Luis Obispo is a stunning town (the rolling hills, the sea air  and the misty sunsets all reminded me of Greece) with its own tourist-worthy Mission, it has absolutely no ego. Instead, it's the epitome of a friendly and quaint small town. Because it was a Thursday night, we got to experience its many charms firsthand at one of the most amazing farmers' markets I've ever been to (I mean no disrespect to Berkeley or Oakland, but the vastness of this market, as well as its status as a real community event, puts ours to shame).

The many offerings of the market were not only gorgeous examples of California's bounty, but also so reasonably priced that it made me sad that we were two people just visiting and without a refrigerator or stove. That said, we still did quite well for two people on the road. At the Greek's urging, we ended up having dinner at a few different food stands at the market (he made a beeline for the tri-tip, while I waited in a very long line for roasted corn that was more than worth it) and, afterwards, beckoned by a combination of their fragrance and obvious perfection, we bought a crate of Blenheim apricots and strawberries, as well as a boysenberry crumble pie for breakfast in Santa Barbara. 

When we finally made it to Santa Barbara, we were delighted to find that the Airbnb we had chosen was as nice as we had hoped. It was just a room in a house, but everything about it was bright, welcoming and colorful. There were a lot of nice touches: freshly cut flowers in the bedroom, two outdoor patios and the breeze from open windows. The breakfast nook, however, was my favorite; there was something about the aqua table, white chairs and peachy-orange dishes that appealed to me. Not to mention the fact that I finally got to eat a slice of that buttery berry pie (it tasted even better than it looked).

From that point on, we pretty much stayed in motion. We stopped at the Old Mission Santa Barbara and took a tour; although it was my second time in Santa Barbara, it was my first visit to the Mission. It was the perfect day for a visit, too; the sky was deep blue and generally clear, and though hot, the weather still managed to be pleasant and mild. I enjoyed touring the grounds and seeing the unusual vibrancy of the altar and the Spanish and Mexican artwork, but but these places also always remind me of how much has been lost: lives, knowledge, artifacts, simplicity...I found it so strange that when I took a few photos in the courtyard outside the mausoleum with my cellphone, a window popped up to ask if I wanted to join the Mausoleum Network. Or that we couldn't go in to see the church until a funeral service had ended. As soon as the body was carried out, we were ushered in. Both reminded me that even in holy places, there is no escaping either modernity or the capitalist drive to constantly move forward.

I was able to leave these thoughts behind once we got to the beach. There it was just blue skies, swaying palm trees and endless swaths of burning hot sand. I will also confess a sin: experiencing dog-withdrawal since Elektra stayed with a neighbor in Berkeley, I allowed another dog, a beautiful golden blonde beach beauty named Nayla who had just finished a swim, to cuddle up next to me on my blanket. In my defense, the Greek enjoyed Nayla's company too.

When we finally reached Pasadena, it was a lovely reunion with friends. We had a dinner of tasty Asian fusion on a street-side patio (excuse the constant talk about the weather, but to somebody who is used to muggy East Coast summers, this was nothing short of heavenly; trained by the Bay Area, I always had a sweater or scarf, but I didn't need any of it. Not once!), complete with the kind of long meandering conversation that takes place when people haven't seen each other for a long time: various conversational threads are begun, but not completed until the next morning or evening since it feels like there's all the time in the world to work out the details. This was pretty much how the weekend went.  I'm sure there were important things that were abandoned and even more that was left unsaid due to a lack of time, but it was jubilant and that is precisely how reunions should be. 

The time went by quickly in Pasadena--too quickly, really. There was the shower--map-themed and elegant in a sun-kissed backyard--and endless games of hide-and-seek with the hostess of the shower's adorable twin girls. For some reason, I was a big hit with them (it may have been my lavender sundress), but that's not to say that there weren't a few rough moments. One of them did such a good job at hiding during hide-and-seek that I couldn't find her; when she eventually emerged from the back of a closet, she told me that she thought I had forgotten her. I quickly explained that she was just too good at the game and a true hide-and-seek champion; this prompted her twin to say she was the champion...Things were about to get ugly when the wisdom of a food blogger and sweet-toothed individual prevailed and I assured them that there was a chocolate cake waiting for all hide-and-seek champions in the kitchen. Let it be noted that even I, the designated hide-and-seek Loser (I even got a loser necklace), got to eat cake. Thank goodness, children can be merciful.

And then, after counting to a hundred no less than 15 times, there was pizza and a trip to Vromans, where the Greek bought me the second Tana French mystery, i.e. soon-to-be my BART book.

It was sad to leave Pasadena and our friends the next morning, but the weekend was pretty much over. We did have one more stop planned, though: Santa Monica. The Greek and I each had a mission; his was to swim in the Pacific, while mine was a less exercise-oriented and more palate-oriented mission: a trip to Huckleberry, a bakery and cafe that I follow on Instagram, which essentially means that I'm always hungry and sad that I don't live closer to Santa Monica (fortunately, a Huckleberry bakery book will soon be published, which means that I can go to Santa Monica in my own home....It won't be the same, though).

While I had been to Santa Monica before, I hadn't really gotten to explore it during the day, which was a real loss. As phenomenal as the sunsets are, there is a lot of pretty, old architecture to see, as well as a lot of fun people watching to do on the beach. Unfortunately, we didn't get to go on any rides at the Pier, but the Greek had his swim and I got my blueberry cornmeal cake and we were both content on the way home.

With this trip, I feel like we just touched the tip of the Southern California iceberg. There is still so much to see and do, things that we didn't manage to cross off our lists on this trip. I think the Greek was smitten, though; he's always said the Bay Area reminded him of home, but I think the trip south, largely because of the beaches, felt even more like Greece than either Berkeley or San Francisco does. As for me, I'm looking forward to my next vacation, wherever it shall be (I wouldn't say no to Southern California, either.) But for now, I'm going to have to make myself content with daily trips to San Francisco and trips taken vicariously through novels. You'd better believe The Vacationers is on my list....

Speaking of which, a Google employee we met in Santa Monica told me that reading was a useless act, but I beg to differ (and I always will): through The Vacationers, I will travel to Mallorca this summer.  Given this small act of magic, how could reading ever be bad?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Celebrating Summer

Alas, the summer’s energy wanes quickly,
A moment and it is gone.  - John Ashberry

Earlier this year I had been eagerly planning a trip to Mexico City. I would check airfare on a weekly basis, search for places to stay and question whether there would be time for a little side trip to Oaxaca, the home of what is said to be the world's best mole. But even without the added bonus of this culinary mecca, there were so many other things I wanted to experience: the flavors of the San Juan Market, a hike through the ruins of Teotihuacan, the colorful treasures of the Bellas Artes Palace...This trip was going to be one of those whirlwind sightseeing vacations that both exhaust and invigorate you. We were planning on going in late May as a way of celebrating both of our birthdays, but we neglected to take one very important thing into account: the weather.

It turns out that starting in late May through October, Mexico City can be rainy and humid; while I'll admit I've always felt there's a certain charm to thunderstorms and light drizzles, we ultimately decided that we didn't want to spend our trip running to and fro with umbrellas and soggy shoes. The only option was to postpone. While this was certainly disappointing, I've been tracking the weather in Mexico City since mid-May on my phone's weather widget and the forecast headers have consistently ranged from smoke to ash. In short, I think we made the right call.

Plus, there are other ways to get to "travel" to a place. Although it may not be as good as the real thing, I've always been a big believer in the power of imagination, as well as in my own ability to (re)create certain experiences at home based on things I've read or eaten. Given my collection of Mexican cookbooks (I realized recently that, besides books devoted to Greek and Californian cuisine, the next biggest section in my collection focuses on the flavors of Mexico...and I do include Tex-Mex in this number, although I do realize it's its own cuisine. If you're curious, this article by Pati Jinich really illuminates the differences between the two and also explains the prevalence of cumin in Tex-Mex cuisine, which has always mystified me), I realized that I could go a number of ways. For a number of years now, my heart has been set on making a mole negro (think chocolate, chiles, nuts and spices), but I've always been daunted by the process, as well as by the list of ingredients and Diana Kennedy's precise, no-nonsense instructions (this woman, the authority on Mexican food, is also its greatest champion. She's both feisty and steadfast in her belief that there's a certain way a dish should be prepared and, more importantly, a certain way it should taste; she may be slightly terrifying, but she's also inspiring). I would also like to make my own tortillas and sopes and spend my days drinking horchata on a sunny patio. When we eventually make it to Mexico, I clearly need to visit a cooking school or take a few classes. There are, after all, some things that books simply can't teach you.

For now, however, I decided to keep things simple and sweet with paletas, Latin American ice pops that are typically made from fresh fruit. On a recent trip to the Berkeley Public Library, where I sometimes go just to wander and see what I might find, I stumbled upon Fany Gerson's slim volume on paletas and other frozen Mexican treats. I knew of her from her first cookbook, My Sweet Mexico, and from a trip to the High Line a few summers ago when I was lucky enough to find one of her paleta stands on a particularly hot New York day. 

I was immediately taken in by the various ideas for frozen desserts--Queso Fresco Granitas with Syrupy Apples (come October in the Bay Area, this may be just what I want), Lime Pie and Apricot-Chamomile Ice Pops, Cantaloupe Seed Horchata--so I decided to check it out. This is a book that features my favorite kind of dessert--the frozen kind. And because I tend to prefer creamy desserts to entirely fruit-centric ones, as well as the occasional boozy little kick in my sweets, it's no surprise that I went straight for the Sour Cream, Cherry and Tequila Ice Pops.

There is nothing hard about this recipe or about making paletas in general. Besides the required patience to allow everything to chill properly, all you'll need is a set or two of ice pop molds (I like the plastic ones since they don't require wooden sticks, but some people swear by the silicon molds. Know that you have options). It just so happens that I have three sets in different shapes and sizes--stars, rockets and "groovy" (i.e. grooved)--which may sound excessive, but not only do I keep one in Greece (the summer there screams ice pop), but also, depending on the kind you buy, you really get only 6 molds per set. If you consider that most recipes make at least 8-10 ice pops, you'll want to have at least two--that or prepare to halve a lot of recipes. And, trust me, you won't want to do this, especially with a recipe like this one. The sweetness of the cherries, the tart creaminess of the sour cream and the ever-so-slight hint of tequila combine to make this a true summer treat, the kind that   feels like a celebration of the best the season has to offer. 

It's a day early, but I'm wishing you all a Happy Fourth of July! If there's ever a day to pull out the star ice pop molds, this is it. 

Sour Cream, Cherry and Tequila Ice Pops (Paletas de crema y cereza con tequila)

Yields 8-10 ice pops

I liked the sound of the recipe as it was written, so I didn't think that there was any need to make any major changes. The biggest one I made stemmed from the lack of blanco tequila in my liquor cabinet; I used a darker reposado tequila instead. I didn't feel that this created any kind of noticeable imbalance in the flavor, so my advice would be to use what you have.
     I also ended up using some water--less than 1/4 cup--when I was making the cherry syrup. It didn't seem like the confectioners' sugar was dissolving and I was worried about scorching it, so I decided to give it a little help by diluting it. Perhaps because of the additional water or just because the syrup has to thicken to the consistency of maple syrup, the first step took about 25-30 minutes. 
        Finally, although I loved this flavor combination, it got me thinking of other possibilities for a similar tangy and creamy base (yogurt or creme fraiche instead of sour cream)--strawberries and basil brandy, tequila and peanut butter (think the frozen dessert equivalent of a torito), apricots or peaches and Metaxa. Maybe there's even a combination that would be ouzo friendly; if so, I may just make it my summer project to find out.

8 ounces stemmed and pitted cherries (fresh or frozen)
1/3 cup confectioners'/powdered sugar
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons silver, blanco or reposado tequila
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sour cream (full fat)

-Combine the cherries and the confectioners' sugar in a small saucepan with 1/4 cup water and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. Once the mixture comes to a boil and the sugar has completely dissolved, lower the heat and stir in the lemon juice.
-Bring the mixture to a slow simmer. Stirring often, continue to cook until the syrup has thickened and taken on the consistency of maple syrup, about 25 to 30 minutes.
-Once ready, remove from heat and stir in the tequila. Pour the mixture into a small bowl and let cool for about 10-15 minutes before placing it in the refrigerator to chill completely, from up to a few hours to overnight.

-In the meantime, combine the milk, granulated sugar and salt in a medium saucepan. Stirring constantly, cook over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has come to a boil.
-Remove from the heat and add the sour cream. Using a whisk, stir until completely smooth. Whisk in the teaspoon vanilla extract and then pour the mixture into a small bowl. Let cool for 20 minutes and then place the mixture in the refrigerator to chill, from up to a few hours to overnight.

-Once the mixtures have chilled completely, remove them from the refrigerator and prepare your molds.
-Drain the cherries, reserving the liquid for something else (Gerson suggests a raspado, or shaved ice; I like using it as an ice cream or yogurt topping).
-Put a few spoonfuls of the sour cream mixture into each of the molds (I set off using 8, but ended up using another one, which was pure sour cream mixture with no cherries mixed in) to a height of about 1 inch. Place in the freezer until the mixture begins to set, about 30 minutes.
-Remove the molds from the freezer and continue assembling. Dividing evenly, add the drained cherries to the molds and then pour in the remaining sour cream mixture. Be sure to leave about a half inch at the tops of the molds so as to be able to snap on the lids.
-Freeze until solid, 3 to 4 hours or overnight.

-When pulling the ice pops out of the molds, dip them into a container of warm water for about 30 seconds. If the ice pop still resists coming out, repeat this process. Success will eventually be yours.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

More than a Little Inspired

 Change, or maybe luck, has a funny way of creeping up on you. Maybe you have to feel completely hopeless before it will swoop in to save you, or maybe all it really takes is making other plans before something unexpected magically works out.  Whatever it is, it feels like the perversity of the universe at its finest. 

A few weeks ago, I randomly decided to click on the legal/paralegal section of the classified ads on Craigslist. There was no rhyme or reason to my decision; I simply felt I didn't have that much to lose. I was tired of looking at the writing/editing jobs and of seeing the requirement for a California state teaching certification hidden at the bottom of the descriptions of most education jobs. Plus, none of the food or teaching jobs I had applied to--positions I believed I was and am generally qualified for--had come to anything and any admin position I sent in a resume for seemed set on ignoring both me and my current admin experience. It's not breaking news to say this, but it's a tough market out there, which is why I started to think I needed to do something to shake things up a little (don't they say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?). So I sent in both my resume and writing sample to the email connected to the ad and then promptly forgot all about it. Truth be told, I wasn't all that optimistic, so I instead started thinking about the World Cup, Mexican food, the Greek's and my upcoming (now past) trip to LA and the trips we would take to Greece and Pennsylvania later this summer. And then the call came.

While this may seem fairly insignificant to most job hunters who get hundreds of interview requests, to me just getting a call seemed like an important step. It was like I was halfway there. It turns out my instincts were spot on, too. To make a long story short, after the requisite panic about what I should wear, I had the interview and was asked for my references; then, after a weekend of simultaneously biting my nails and frolicking in Southern California, I got the job. Let me repeat that with the appropriate enthusiasm and punctuation, I got the job!!!

But now I'm scared--scared of all the change that is coming and worried about work-life balance and maintaining my creativity, as well as asking myself--with the infamous imposter complex hard at work whispering in my ear--how I will do at this kind of work. Of course, on the other hand I recognize that I'm just being silly. This is an exciting and wonderful opportunity (I now know that my obsession with The Good Wife this past year was just training for future employment) and I wouldn't change anything about it (well, except for the fact that I now won't be going either to Pennsylvania or Greece this summer). It's only natural that with change comes doubt and worry.

 I think the doubt really stems from the fact that I'm finally, after 31 years, entering the world of 9-5 employment. I'll commute to San Francisco and, like so many in the Financial District, briskly walk with a coffee in my hand and a scarf wrapped around my neck to ward off the chill from the fog. I guess you can say that this is, for a former academic/lifetime student like myself, yet another step into adulthood. Maybe even a definitive step that will push my life in a new direction. I'm sure that I'll gain and learn a lot--isn't that, after all, the point of trying something new?--but now that I've accepted, I also can't help but think of all the things I'll lose.  

On weekdays there will be no more long morning walks with the pup or fancy breakfasts of yeasted waffles, eggs or anything else that I might dream up overnight. That's not to say that I'm not okay with toast or yogurt with granola, but somehow I think the loss of a leisurely and hearty breakfast is  the thing I'll mourn the most in the coming months. It's funny that I should say that because I really don't know when I became a "breakfast person," but there's something about the meal that has become indispensable to me and my morning routine. Whether savory or sweet, it sets the tone for my day; it's the quiet time when, fueled by the all-important cup of strong coffee with half-and-half, I mentally sketch out my list of things to do. 

The person who has been shaping my mornings recently is April Bloomfield, the chef and co-owner of New York's The Spotted Pig and The Breslin, as well as San Francisco's Tosca Cafe. Given Bloomfield's focus on using all parts of the animal in her various kitchens, the food media has deemed her The Queen of Meat, although something tells me she might lose this title once her second book, A Girl and Her Greens, comes out. Maybe because I had a memorable brunch at The Spotted Pig a few years ago, when I first got my hands on Bloomfield's debut cookbook, A Girl and Her Pig, I immediately turned to the chapter devoted to breakfast. I've since found that my memory of that meal was not mistaken. With Bloomfield, simple breakfast staples like eggs and oatmeal become something special and more than a little inspired (her porridge is remarkable; milk, water, steel cut and rolled oats and a hefty teaspoon of sea salt may be the humblest of ingredients, but Bloomfield turns them into a luscious and textured affair). 

As much as I crave her porridge on a grey Bay Area morning, I really have a weakness for her Baked Eggs with Anchovies and Cream. While I know that anchovies are one of those divisive ingredients--you either love them or hate them--the truth is that there's nothing fishy about these eggs; the anchovies are just a flavor booster, working together with fresh rosemary and lemon zest to make this dish as bright and flavorful as possible (in fact, if you, unlike me, actually take the time to fillet them as Bloomfield suggests, you'll never even notice they're there). To soften and balance these ingredients, Bloomfield also uses heavy cream for depth, red pepper flakes for heat and creme fraiche for a hint of tang. While on paper it may not seem like these ingredients should be combined (I felt the same way about the sage, cilantro and tahini in her lentil salad), they come together in a surprisingly harmonious way. I'm happy to say that although weekday breakfasts will no longer be such a decadent and pitch-perfect Bloomfield-ian affair, these eggs and other breakfast recipes from A Girl and Her Pig will be waiting for me as a weekend treat. 

Baked Eggs with Anchovies and Cream

Yields 4 servings (or 2 for the hungry and gluttonous)
slightly adapted from A Girl and Her Pig

As I mentioned above, I didn't fillet my anchovies, nor did I use salt-packed ones, which are April's preference. I usually buy oil-packed anchovies and, considering that the bones are fine, I just leave them in. I also don't rinse anchovies before I use them since I find that some of the flavor can be lost. But depending on your level of comfort with their flavor and the general presence of bones in fish, you can and should consider both removing the bones and rinsing off the oil and/or salt. 
      Also, in hindsight, I realize it was a mistake to use two different sets of ramekins, but, ever since one of my smaller ones broke, I've had a mismatched set. Because I used two large ramekins and two smaller ones, I should have removed the larger ones first (as the Greek told me, the law of heat transfer says that that heat transfer is proportional to surface area, which, in non-engineer speak means that things in bigger dishes cook more quickly than things in smaller dishes. To me, this seems counter-intuitive, but I suppose this is why I've never excelled at science), but I didn't. To avoid such problems, I would recommend using identical ramekins or dishes, so that everything cooks evenly. You want the yolks to be creamy, rather than tough. 

1 large garlic clove, crushed and peeled
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 salt- or oil-packed anchovies, rinsed, soaked and filleted (or according to your preference)
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon fine lemon zest
4 large eggs
a few pinches of red pepper flakes
flaky sea salt
4 teaspoons creme fraiche (or, if you don't have this, sour cream or even plain whole-milk yogurt)

-Preheat the oven to 400 F.
-Using 1 tablespoon of the butter, grease 4 ramekins (preferably, they should hold eight ounces) and place in a small- or medium-sized baking dish. Then, set aside until ready to use.
-Chop the garlic with the rosemary until the combination starts to resemble blue cheese.
-Put 1 tablespoon of the butter in a pan (I used a large cast iron skillet) set over medium-high heat and let it start to froth.Then, add the garlic and rosemary and, using a spatula, gently stir.
-Once the garlic starts to brown, after about 1 minute, add the anchovies and stir again. Turn off the heat and keep stirring the anchovies until the break up. 
-Pour in the cream and add the lemon zest, then stir. Turn the heat back on and up to medium-high and bring to a boil (it should look like a thin cream of mushroom soup). Remove from heat. 
-Split the cream mixture as evenly as possible amongst the 4 ramekins and then crack an egg into each one. Sprinkle on the red pepper flakes and add a dash of the flaky sea salt, as well as a teaspoon of creme fraiche (or sour cream or yogurt), to each ramekin.
-Then, carefully pour water into the baking dish until it is slightly higher than the level of cream in the ramekins. 
-Place the baking dish onto the middle rack in the oven and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the whites have set completely (depending on your oven, I would start checking the eggs at 18 minutes and anticipate letting them cook for as long as 22 minutes). Just be careful not to overcook the eggs.
-Once the eggs are cooked to your liking, remove the baking dish from the oven and leave the ramekins to sit in it for an additional 2 minutes.
-Use either tongs or a silicon oven mitt to remove the ramekins from the water. Serve immediately and preferably with freshly toasted bread.

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