Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Food for Thought

Here we are, yet again, in the Emerald Month; it crept up on me this year rather unexpectedly. Truth be told, my sense of time isn't so impressive these days. In part, I blame California and its lack of seasons. It's very disconcerting for a person to live in what essentially amounts to "season-less" time--one day, sunshine, and the next, a heavy cloak of fog. Who can say if it's spring or winter? Does it even matter? 

I also think my dissociation from time runs a little bit deeper than the mere passing of the Californian (non)seasons. Just a few weeks ago, for example, somebody asked me my age and I almost said 25. Where that came from, I really can't say; that such a response would pop into my brain is doubly surprising when you consider that I've started noticing more than a few silvery strands escaping from my ponytail. While I am most definitely no longer a sprightly 25 (and for this I am nothing but grateful), I can't say I feel almost 32 years old or any other specific passage of time either. I wonder if I'll still feel this way in 50 years, just with more aches and pains...

Temporal concerns aside, life continues to be as demanding as ever. On the domestic front, the Greek's parents and aunt are here from Greece, I'm in the final throes of the second and last dissertation filing I will ever be intimately familiar with (hallelujah) and in about two weeks, i.e. a mere drop in time, the Greek's graduation and my birthday will collide in what I'm taking to be the most auspicious way possible. If that weren't enough to fill one's plate, there is work, too. Though there are always new daily obligations and tasks, things at the firm fortunately seem to have slowed down a bit. That said, I sense that this slowness is just as illusory as the passage of time. In reality, one case fades to the background temporarily only so that another can emerge from the back-burner to take its place. Given these shifting demands, my role is never static; and for this I am grateful, since it means that I get to play different roles and experience different aspects of the law. One recent and exciting development was when I got to hold my first phone conference with a client; I expected this to be a one-time thing only, but it now seems that I will not only be the recipient of sensitive Fed-Exed materials, but also a person who is called to the phone to field questions. Let me address this matter head on: faced with my new role, I am as befuddled as Alicia Florrick in season 1 of The Good Wife, yet equally prepared just to "go with the flow" and see what happens. Maybe this is just 32 years of wisdom speaking, but there really appears to be no better way. 

I didn't expect to be so serious tonight, but my thoughts ran away with me. Perhaps May's food for thought links will be somewhat more uplifting?

I've been baking a lot with Alice Medrich lately; her experiments with different flours are endlessly inspiring. I recently made the carrot cake from Flavor Flours, which is pure excellence, and I've baked buckwheat cookies that will be the subject of an upcoming post. If time were endless, I would be baking either her Kamut Pound Cake or Olive Oil and Sherry Pound Cake tonight--and just because, too.

Just to let you know what I, to a certain extent at least, deal with on a daily basis, here's an article about the "'nonsensical' legal theories and 'carnival fun house' arguments" that big firms sometimes use to keep a case going. My favorite line, which embodies the best and worst of the law in one: "It may be entirely true that a magician 'apparently' sawed a lady in half, but proof of that fact will not sustain a claim for battery."

Is it just me or does saffron-infused tomato sauce with vermouth sound too good to be true? Also, and this may really just be me, is anybody else out there interested in incorporating more sprouted grains into his/her diet?

A few fun interactive links: the first calculates your water footprint, which, for any Californian, is quite enlightening given headlines like this; the second offers a glimpse into location and the possibility of social mobility in America (I was pleasantly surprised by home county in Pennsylvania).

I just finished reading Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings for the second installment of the two-person book club I'm in with a close friend of mine. Although we saw certain flaws in the neatness of the parallel narratives that run throughout the novel, we both really enjoyed the story, as well as the education that came with reading about the imagined lives of these characters. Neither one of us had heard of Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina, both feminists and abolitionists, before reading the book and this alone seems a crime in the American education system. When you read a novel like this, you can't help but look around you and wonder what, if anything, has changed in our society--especially when the day after finishing it, your colleague sends you an article about the blatant sexism that female scientists face on a daily basis.

On a happier note, I recently found an interesting website devoted to all things Delaware: first up, Delaware cookbooks featuring all things Delmarvalous.

 In the world of food photography, "low food" meets "high art" with the Instagram account of Jacques LaMerde. Truly, never have corn dogs, go-gurt and handi-snacks looked so appealingly good.

For all the women who loved Anne of Green Gables, this one is for you.  

Back soon with cookies and other good things; this year, the Emerald Month is going to be pure decadence and full of sweets.  

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Pittsburgh and Pi(e) Day

A little more than a month ago, on Pi(e) Day, my baby brother got married on the South Side in Pittsburgh in a gorgeous, renovated train station (in southwestern Pennsylvania, this has become a real industry; although I'm certainly not complaining, I will say that I suppose this is one way of dealing with America's crumbling infrastructure: when in doubt, turn a would-be functional building into a restaurant, gym or gourmet food hall!) It was a blustery day, the kind that I'm always surprised by when I end up on the east coast in the dead of winter, but it was nevertheless lovely to be there--to get to take part in the ceremony, see my family, meet his new in-laws.

As befits my brother's character, the wedding was a small, no-nonsense affair: a short ceremony, hors d'oeuvres and champagne and a generous meal followed by more pie than anybody besides him could ever contemplate eating. The only thing that was uncharacteristically missing was dancing; it may be impossible to believe if you know me and my (pathetic) dance skills, but I happen to be related to somebody who can actually moonwalk. Of course, that's just one of the many differences between me and my brother: he is huge and athletic; I am diminutive and will happily run away from anything that looks like a competitive sport; he is loud and boisterous, whereas I crave the quiet; he is the king of video games, while I live surrounded by stacks of books. To many people, it doesn't make any sense that we're related. This, in fact, became one of the refrains of the wedding: "How can that really be Michael's sister?" To be frank, it got a little weird at times; I started to feel like the alien invader from California (too much sunshine, maybe?). Perhaps it's not immediately apparent, but if you look closely enough, we essentially have the same blue-green and gold-flecked eyes and heart-shaped face; besides that, I think our short list of common interests run to a belief in the superiority of our grandmother's baking, a love of dogs and the ability to quote Zoolander in any situation, appropriate or not. That may not seem like much, but as far as I'm concerned, sibling relationships could be built on a weaker foundation.

I really was trying to be a good sister that weekend. I don't know why, but it suddenly felt like I had one weekend to make up for all the important events in his life I had missed: high school graduation when I was living in Japan; graduation from the Air Force Academy when I was swamped with grad school work; his graduation from nursing school...Call it my increasing morbidity as I get older or call it my realization in the post-academia years that there's so much more to life than worldly achievement and sounding/looking/being smart, but I simply want to do better, maybe just to be present in the ways that matter.

So, besides one breakfast with my oldest friend (27 years and counting!) at a very exciting South Side waffle house, I was exclusively devoted to the wedding. Although I had fantasies of going to a museum or two and having a nice dinner out with the Greek, in one weekend, I was instead a photographer (amateur though I may be), a dog walker and, most importantly, a pie baker. This may not be my natural baking forte, but I did my best to rise to the occasion. I will forever maintain that the saying "As easy as pie" is misleading (cake is by far simpler), but I do think that making the pie dough the way my grandma taught me--that is, with vegetable shortening (her recipe is here) and not with the much touted butter--results in a better, flakier crust, one that can be easily handled and that rolls out beautifully. More importantly, since shortening can't soften in the way that butter can, crust made with it doesn't require nearly as much fuss as one made with butter.
Once I felt I had (semi)mastered the dough and, let's be frank, there wasn't much time to master anything, the rest of the work really was incredibly simple. I had settled on two flavors: one the famous salty honey pie from the Four and Twenty Blackbird Pie cookbook and the other, given the fact that I've been calling 2015 the "year of citrus" since January, a Clementine Chess Pie based on a recipe I found on the Southern Living website (something about that magazine just speaks to me; I suspect it's the southern appreciation for beautiful patterns, pickled things and manicured gardens). Both disappeared within a matter of moments, which, considering the "pie anxiety" I sometimes suffer from (at its heart, it's really a fear of tough crust. My grandma once told me that when she first started baking pies for my grandpap after they were married, he refused to eat them because the crust was too tough. One could say that this is an example of family lore gone wrong), was really heartening. Some people preferred one over the other (the Greek loved the Salty Honey, while my Dad raved--and continues to rave--about the Clementine Chess; the latter does deserve a redo, one that will make an appearance here come the start of the next citrus season when I've figured out a few adjustments I want to make to the recipe), but that's the way it will always be. The important thing was that I got to contribute to the wedding in a meaningful way and make my brother some of his favorite dessert....Even if he did insist on doing his younger brother act and make it seem like my pies were inedible.

That said, one of my favorite parts of the evening was discovering the amazing cake topper his wife had found. As I mentioned earlier, my brother is a serious video game player. The topper feeds into this narrative, showing the bride pulling the groom away from a television that reads "Game Over." Just like he couldn't resist making fun of my pie, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of glee when I saw the poetic justice and beauty of the topper. Ultimately, I suppose that, no matter how good one's intentions are, siblings will, for better or for worse, always be siblings. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Soup Fit for the Spring Table

Deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she would gaze out over the solitude of her life with desperate eyes, seeking some white sail in the mists of the far-off horizon. She did not know what this chance event would be, what wind would drive it to her, what shore it would carry her to, whether it was a longboat or a three-decked vessel, loaded with anguish or filled with happiness up to the portholes. But each morning, when she awoke, she hoped it would arrive that day... -Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) via Lena Dunhan (Not that Kind of Girl)

Our move is still months away, but already I've started feeling nostalgic for Berkeley. To be honest, I'm surprised by how acute this feeling is, but it now accompanies me wherever I go, nudging me forward at each and every turn. On my walks, I somehow seem to be retracing my many steps throughout the neighborhoods of the East Bay. On days when it's almost too pretty to go inside, I find myself drifting along the tree-canopied paths of Elmwood, or across the front lawn and steps of the imposing Doe Library, home of many a lunch during my dissertating days. I swear that in the shadows of that building, both inside and out, I had some of the best ideas I'll ever have; this past weekend, I even went inside, thinking that I might find traces of them in one of the old corners where I used to pace when either the tapping of the keys or the silence would become too much for me (obviously, there was no magical pot of ideas tucked away for me in any corner of the library; whatever was once there has now joined the ranks of library ephemera, just another one of the many books in the stacks no longer in demand). When not walking down a very selective memory lane,  I've also been lingering lately, allergies be damned, by all of the fragrant blossoms on my walk home; my secret hope is that by brushing against and inhaling all of them I'll be able to carry their smells with me. It's strange to type all of this, mainly because I've been swearing up and down for the past year that I'm ready for change, that I'm ready to leave California, that I'm tired of the crowds and the poverty, as well as of the obscene wealth. I guess you can call me either a hypocrite or a creature of habit; both are probably true. I can't help that, when I wasn't looking, I must have been bitten by the California bug.

It's also true that there's nothing quite like knowing you're leaving a place to make you want to savor it. While the Greek and I do have a rather unofficial "Bay Area/California Bucket List" (Yosemite is on there and will be crossed off in May; this was the Greek's contribution. As for me, I want to go sailing in the bay, as well as visit both Santa Cruz and Ojai) to keep us on our toes, it consists mainly of big adventures. I certainly enjoy these kinds of plans, but I also often find that the smaller, more prosaic adventures have a way of sticking with you. For example, since January, when it really hit the two of us that our California days were numbered, we started making a real effort to go to the farmers' market in Berkeley on Saturday mornings. And though it may sound silly, we've been doing a weekly "Farmers' Market Challenge," which means that we each have to buy something neither one of us has ever eaten before--and, who knows, may never eat again. After all, I imagine there may be some markets out there where this game might be difficult to play, but, believe me, Berkeley is not this place (recall Mark Bittman's giddiest column ever from a few weeks ago). In the course of a few months, we've tried cherimoyas (custard apples or the ice cream fruit; personally, I believe the latter description is misleading), bought a stalk of sugar cane, eyed dragon carrots, sampled almost all the bread from the fabulous Morell's and, most recently, purchased both limas (sweet limes) and vanilla blood oranges, which live up to the promise of their name: they're sweet, fragrant with vanilla and, most disconcerting of all for a somebody who enjoys the tangy blast of citrus, acid-less. 

Despite my excitement over all of these things, one of my favorite discoveries of late was sorrel, the bright and lemony green whose very name derives from the old French word for sour, surele. It's a beautiful shade of green and its crisp, large leaves come to a sharp point. As the rules of the game dictate, sorrel isn't something I had ever tried before. In fact, my only exposure to it was through the blog post of an inventive friend and baker who used it in a cherry dessert. I thus decided to do some research, but to keep it simple so as to let inspiration strike. I turned to a trusted friend, the all-knowing The Penguin Companion to Food, which contained the following blurb about sorrel: "[it] is added to salads and used as an ingredient in soups, purees and sauces, as an omelette filling, and as a stuffing for fish where its sharp flavo(u)r is especially good." I could work with this description, especially since my discovery of sorrel nicely coincided with dinner with friends--one of whom had kindly offered to give me her extra copy of Love Soup because she thought I, a true lover of soup in any season, would enjoy it.

She wasn't wrong either. This book is a delight--a fantasy for soup lovers. From cover to cover, it hums with possibilities.  While I could easily cook each and every soup and never complain, I did have a few favorites, strangely all from the fall/winter and deep summer chapters: Corn and Cheese Chowder, Cold Cream of Poblano Peppers with Red Grapes, Caramelized Cabbage Soup and Persimmon Soup with Tamari-toasted walnuts. My eye also, for no special reason save my deep love of the humble lentil, alighted on the recipe for French Lentil Stew with Roasted Carrots and Mint--again, a definitively fall/winter soup. The beautiful thing about soup, however, is that it's like a blank slate; it's very hard to go wrong with it and, most importantly, even if you do take a wrong turn, it's often salvageable: herbs and lemon juice will spruce it up, a potato will absorb too much salt and who would ever turn down a handful of freshly made croutons or a spoonful of pesto to garnish it with? With this in mind, I decided to turn this wintry recipe into a soup fit for the spring table by topping it not with mint, but with a pesto made from the sorrel from the market, some green garlic, preserved lemon and feta (all of the things that I love).  It came together fairly quickly, too--the genius behind this recipe is that you roast both the carrots and onions (or onions and leeks, if you're me) while the lentils are boiling, so your hands are fairly free to prepare whatever topping you might like. Anna Thomas recommends either crumbled feta or grilled halloumi, but I think the combination of sorrel, preserved lemon and feta, either as a pesto or even as a roughly chopped garnish, transforms this soup into something not only warming for those still brisk spring nights, but also bright and zingy--truly emblematic of spring.

French Lentil Soup with Roasted Carrots and Sorrel Pesto

Adapted from Anna Thomas' Love Soup
Yields 5 to 6 ample servings

I should start by stating that I was very fast and loose with Thomas' instructions and suggested proportions. In part, this was because of the offerings of my refrigerator and pantry, but it was also because, when it comes to soup, I taste and test as I go.
      That said, I followed the outline of her recipe and was not disappointed. For example, I liked the fact that she has you roast the vegetables instead of sauteing them; this method allows the carrots and onions to begin to caramelize in places, which deepens the flavor of the soup. The addition of the pesto plays off the roasted vegetables, giving it a welcome lightness.
      I should also add here that we had a lot of pesto left over, even though we were more than generous with our use of it as a garnish. Freeze any remaining pesto in a tightly wrapped container and use it, thinned with a little pasta water, as a quick dinner.

For the soup:
10-12 purple or orange carrots (about 200 grams/7 ounces)
2 yellow onions (595 grams/21 ounces)
1 leek (44 grams/1.5 ounces), white and light green parts only
1 1/2 tsp sea salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons (45 ml) olive oil
1 heaping cup (225 grams) French, or Le Puy, lentils, rinsed
4 cups (1 liter) water
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups (1 liter) vegetable or chicken broth, either homemade or from 2-3 teaspoons Better than Bouillon
juice of 1 lemon
2-3 tablespoons brine from jar of preserved lemons
2 teaspoons harissa 

For the pesto: 

1 stalk green garlic
100 grams/3.5 ounces toasted pine nuts
1 bunch sorrel (40 grams/2.5 ounces)
100 grams/3.5 ounces toasted pine nuts
80 grams/2.75 ounces grams feta cheese
quarter of 1 preserved lemon
salt and pepper to taste
1/3-1/2 cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Roughly chop the onions and leek, leaving the pieces on the larger side; set aside. Then, cut off the carrot tops, peel the carrots and, if your carrots are thin, place them whole on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper; if they are on the larger side, however, chop them into fairly large rounds and spread them out on the baking sheet. Sprinkle the carrots with salt and pepper, then drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Toss gently. Do the same with the large pieces of onion, seasoning with salt and pepper and then drizzling and tossing with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil.

Set the timer for 45 minutes and place the vegetables in the oven to roast. Stir and toss the vegetables a few times during the roasting, checking them at about 30 minutes to make sure that they aren't getting too dark too fast. Remove from the oven when uniformly soft and browned. Once they've cooled a little, turn them out onto a cutting board and chop coarsely (there will still be fairly big bits of onion; this soup is nothing if not textured).

After putting the vegetables in the oven to roast, combine the rinsed French lentils in a large pot with 4 cups (1 liter) water and a teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 25-30 minutes (the lentils should be tender, yet firm). The lentils will absorb most, if not all, of the liquid.

While the vegetables are roasting and the lentils boiling, make the pesto. Remove the rough stems from the sorrel leaves and then soak them in a bowl of cold water for 3 minutes, gently massaging  them with your hand. Pour the water out and place the the cleaned sorrel in a salad spinner, spinning until dry. Set aside. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the toasted pine nuts and green garlic and pulse briefly to combine. Add the sorrel, feta, preserved lemon and a light dusting of salt and pepper; again, pulse to combine, this time for about 15-20 seconds or until the ingredients are well blended. Then, pour in the olive oil, starting with 1/3 cup, and pulse again. Taste and adjust for flavor, adding more salt and pepper as needed. If the pesto's texture is too thick for your taste, add another tablespoon or two of olive oil; do not exceed 1/2 cup oil total. Scrape the pesto into a small bowl and set aside.

Once the pesto is ready, turn your attention back to the soup. Add the chopped roasted vegetables, the stock, the juice of one lemon, preserved lemon brine and harissa; obviously, adjust the flavors--tang, heat--to your taste. Simmer the soup for 10-15 minutes to let the flavors combine and then taste and correct the seasoning, adding more of the key ingredients (salt, pepper, lemon, harissa) as needed. Remove the soup from the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then serve. Garnish each bowl with an additional few drops of olive oil and generous spoonful of the sorrel pesto and gently stir them together. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Food for Thought

Happy Easter, Passover and soon-to-be Easter (Balkans and Slavs, I'm talking to you)! There are so many things to love right now about spring: sunshine and flowers, all the strawberries and asparagus (that is, if you're currently in California) that you could ever want and, most wonderful of all, that hopeful and energetic feeling that accompanies the ever-lengthening days. 

My love of spring aside, I also can't seem to let go of winter--of citrus, really--which is why I found myself today making David Tanis' shortbread with lemon curd and candied kumquats. This recipe is a true ode to the bitter zing of citrus and yields a cookie that is as pretty as cookies can be, but beware: it requires a fair amount of modifications. I don't know if it was just Tanis' chef-y instincts talking, but it's not at all helpful to tell somebody to use a "large pan." What is large, after all? 9x13? Trial and error tells me that small is better (trusting fool that I am, I overestimated the amount of shortbread that the recipe would yield; I got half of what Tanis promised); I would recommend that you use a square (8x8) pan. Also, should you ever make this, be prepared to have lots of extra candied kumquats and lemon curd. Certainly, this could never be cause for complaint. I will also give Tanis this: the cookies are as buttery, crumbly and delightful as their name (and picture) promises they will be. 

I have lots of posts planned for April--a soup with an unexpected herb, a breakfast that borders on dessert and photos from my trip to Pittsburgh in March. Until then, I leave you with April's (can you believe it's already April?), food for thought: 

My coworker makes fun of me for getting the Goop newsletter (honestly, I make fun of myself for getting the Goop newsletter), but, beyond the mockery, the truth is that if you ignore some of the fluff of Goop, there are a lot of good ideas and information in the newsletters. On Friday, for example, I marveled at how easily soup could come together in the office with these noodle pot lunches that are like a more wholesome Cup-a-Soup.

Further proof that Italians take their pasta and culinary history seriously.

Speaking of Italy, I've been obsessed with the thought of going to Rome for many, many months now. This summer, my wish might just come true, which is why I've not only been thinking about where to eat in Rome, but have also been trying my hand at Roman-style gnocchi.

Diana Henry has long been a food-writing hero of mine. In her new book on chicken, she offers every way you could ever think of preparing the bird.

I've been a reading machine lately: first, there was Never Let me Go (for those who find Ishiguro both profound and baffling, this is a really interesting article on the novel and on his prose in general), then there was amazingly fun page-turner, The Discovery of Witches (witches and vampires in one book; can it get better than this?). Next up is Maisie Dobbs and then The Invention of Wings.

Thoughts on the American South: where it begins, where it ends.

A growing trend: choosing to go "childless."

Things are getting tight in California when it comes to water; you now have to ask for it at restaurants, and I assume that other, stricter rules will follow, probably sooner rather than later. There are lots of theories on what, besides the lack of rain, went wrong. Here is only one of them

For those in the Bay Area who just might be dog lovers, in June there's going to be a really wonderful event--a good cause for dogs--called Pints for Paws.

Hulu wins the "Best April Fools' Day joke of the year; when I got the email for the new Hulu Pets network, I believed that there really might be a show called "The Real Pugs of Portland." Deep down, I think I wanted a show called "The Baying Beagles of Boston (Beverly Hills, Baltimore, plug in whatever alliterative city works)."

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Humble Greek Fare

 If I remember correctly, it was during spring break of my first year of grad school that one of my closest friends made "the prophecy." It was one of those whirlwind New York trips I used to take in those days: trips to the theater, an evening dancing at Beauty Bar, enough sugar in two or three days to last for the whole month. This trip in particular was a bit different, though: 1) I wasn't supposed to be there as I was supposed to be in California both establishing and documenting my residency (never mind the fact that "real" Californians travel all the time; this logic didn't count when you were trying to get reduced in-state tuition) and 2) a few of my friends and I got on New Jersey transit for an overnight visit a friend who was working in publishing at the time in Princeton. While the trip was generally fun, I remember emotions were running a little high when we were making our way back to New York. One friend wouldn't go anywhere without getting coffee and, though the train was coming, decided to leisurely debate the many coffee choices at Walla Walla, which caused us to miss the train (the famous Princeton Dinky) and have to take a cab to the nearest New Jersey transit station. No matter. As my grandfather always says, "People get mad and then they get glad again."

This was the mood when we found ourselves at a Mexican restaurant in the East (or maybe the West?) Village that day; because we had gone in there mainly to escape from the brisk winds that can accompany spring in New York and were in no mood to go back outside, we decided to linger over our burritos and chips and salsa by talking, as we inevitably did in those days, about "who we would end up with." We were a gaggle of 23-year-old girls (women?) and we thought we knew each other well--well enough to be able to say with certainty what our romantic lives might turn into (I should mention here that we were all generally single--perpetually single--in these days). We had a lively debate about how things would go: who would be the first to marry would be (we were wrong), who would be a heartbreaker (again, wrong) and who would never marry (the jury is still out on this one). I'll confess here that I was one of the heartbreakers. One of my friends predicted  that I would have a long relationship with a Greek--someone who she claimed could appreciate my femininity and love of frilly things--but would then get cold feet after he proposed...Then, after going "my own way," around five or maybe ten years later, I would find myself with a Spaniard living out my days in some food paradise on the coast of Spain. I think it's pretty safe to say that this isn't going to happen, but still it's funny to think that statements that were once made off the cuff in a so-so New York Mexican restaurant have turned out to contain some truth.

At the time, I vehemently rejected my friends' prophecy, although it did remind me of one of my college crushes, Filippos, the handsome dark-haired, dark-eyed Athenian astrophysicist who lived on my floor sophomore year. He was the kind of guy who treated a crummy urban dorm like it was a Greek beach; he would, much to my horror, run around barefoot (think of the mice, roaches and rats that probably scurried about when nobody was looking) and sit in the lounge and soulfully strum a guitar. Once my friend Chris and I were sitting in the lounge, which was right next to the bank of elevators, and saw Filippos standing there waiting for one. We were both rather smitten with his fine Greek looks and spent a solid two minutes voicing our admiration to each other; it was only when he was getting into the elevator that we saw Filippos give us a bemused stare and began to wonder if we had made a colossal mistake. We looked at each other in horror. I don't know who then told the other to go into the hallway to see if we would be audible from inside the glass-contained lounge, but lo and behold, one of us spoke, was heard by the other and we simultaneously gasped at our utter transparency and died of embarrassment . Until the Greek, this was the only Greek guy I even knew. It's no wonder I wasn't convinced by my friends' words.

[A note on today's form: I realize there's little continuity to this post, but I'm trying something new here. I feel sometimes that, when writing these posts, I leave out the better part of the story. I ask myself, am I writing about food, am I writing about experience, am I writing about my life as it ties into food? I don't think I have a firm answer to this question, although I suspect that it's answer c) all of the above. I realize that this may be unsatisfying to some of you (if you visit this blog, I believe you all come for your own reasons and not every post will tie into those reasons), but I feel that stories are more jagged and splintered than we often allow them to be. Although we often try to condense it, one story inevitably ties into a hundred others. This isn't to say that imposing a form on our stories and memories--some kind of linearity and structure--is a bad thing; it just means that we're often forced to leave something out. Today I'm trying not to leave anything out.]

Years went by and I didn't even think of this "prophecy" again until I met the Greek and decided I liked him. But I still think that my friends, at least in part, got it wrong. I think their need to pair me off with a European (or, as I now understand it, Balkan) guy was not so much the fact that he would appreciate a wardrobe of lacy shirts and flowery patterns, but that I would be kept on my toes by being compelled to immerse myself in another culture. It's been almost five years, but even now I keep learning new things: what a fricassee means in Greece (it's delicious. I will share soon; I promise), how frustrating it can be to deal with Greek verbs (I've studied many languages, but Greek is hard--harder even than Japanese. Or perhaps my thirtysomething brain just isn't as pliable as it once was) and all the different desserts Greece has to offer, from its bracing mastic ice cream to crumbly halva(s).

When Americans think of halva(s), they tend to envision the sweet foil-wrapped candy that you can get from Middle Eastern grocery stores. This is the same halva I was introduced to in Russian in 2004 and consists of sesame paste (or any nut butter) and sugar; it's wonderfully oily and melts in your mouth (I wrote about it before in the context of a Persian loaf cake; in Plenty More, which is largely inspired by Persian flavors and ingredients, Ottolenghi offers a version of this same cake). But there is the other kind, the "Greek" kind; this one, like many Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern sweets, depends on a sugary syrup and toasted semolina. I consulted several Greek cookbooks to get a sense of its history, but in The Country Cooking of Greece Diane Kochilas says only that "stove-top semolina halvas...are pretty standard fare, known to all Greek home cooks as one-two-three (one part semolina, two parts sugar, three parts water). In Vefa's Kitchen, the eponymous Vefa (Alexiadou), whom the Greek calls the Julia Child of Greek cuisine, offers a recipe for halvas with only the briefest of headnotes: "This typical Greek dessert is a taverna favorite all over the country." Because I wasn't getting the answers I was looking for in the Greek cookbooks (where is Evie Voutsina, that bastion of Greek culinary knowledge, when you need her?), I turned to Claudia Roden's A Book of Middle Eastern Food. In a description of a dish (ma'mounia) that sounds no different from the Greek halvas presented by Vefa and Diane, Roden digs into the dessert's history, explaining that it was a "medieval sweet which was probably invented for the Caliph Ma'Moun in the tenth century." She calls it a Syrian and Aleppan specialty that can be eaten for breakfast (this, I can promise, is recommended; it pairs well with strong coffee or black tea) or as a "delicious dessert" (broken up over vanilla ice cream, it's three shades of heavenly) Supposedly, it is also the food that is served to a new mother to help her regain her strength (believe me when I say that, baby or no baby, this is worth eating).

Considering that the Greek has made halvas many times throughout our relationship, first for a Slavic Thanksgiving celebration and then at other moments when we've craved something sweet and fast, I don't know why it's taken me so long to write about it. I suspect it's because "humble" daily fare sometimes doesn't seem to be a thing worth writing about; these days, however, I've come to think  that these are the best kinds of dishes and there will be many more of them coming soon. The beautiful thing about halva(s) is that it comes together in a flash: you make the syrup and set it aside, then you heat the oil and add the semolina; while stirring the mixture, you add the syrup slowly and then cook for another five minutes. Although halvas can be eaten soft and in a bowl (it resembles a more textured pudding) we like to scrape ours into an ungreased Bundt cake pan with an intricate design; this way, when the halva has cooled and been removed from the pan, it will have taken on its  shape and, through really humble Greek fare, will sit as pert and pretty as the finest cake.

Because this is, in a way, the Greek's post more than mine (as most people will tell you, the real substance of my writing occurs in parenthetical asides, so it is here that I will reveal that this post is scientifically celebratory: the Greek got a job offer in Delaware and, come the late summer/early fall, in yet another unexpected life twist, we will be moving to the "First State!"), he prepared a small history of halvas written in the style of a scientific paper--his preferred genre. I'll offer a more "traditional" recipe below for those who prefer more of a step by step layout.

The existence of semolina or tahini and oil-based desserts in Southeastern European and West Asian cultures has been well documented [1] [2] [3]. Herein we present a recipe for the preparation of halva with semolina, according to traditional Greek culinary practices [4].
Traditional mainland Greek cooking requires the use of clarified butter as fat for this recipe, presumably because of the broad availability of milk and butter [1]. However, in later literature, vegetable oil is preferred [5], due to the cost, the ease of handling and the lower saturated fat content [6].
Syrup for the halva was prepared by mixing 720 mL (3 cups) sugar (C&H) and 960 ml (4 cups) water (EBMUD). A cinnamon stick was added to the mixture to impart a cinnamaldehyde flavor, and then the mixture was heated to boiling temperature and stirred manually until all the sugar was dissolved. Then, 240 mL (1 cup) vegetable oil was heated in a 6 L (6 quart) stock pot to approximately 423 K and 480 mL (2 cups) semolina and 100 grams (3 ounces) raw almonds added to it. The mixture was stirred manually with a silicone spatula until the Maillard reaction [7], proceeded to a satisfactory extent, evidenced by the color change of the semolina to golden brown [8]. At this point, the syrup was added to the semolina mixture. This step should be performed with care and appropriate personal protective equipment, as hot oil and semolina might escape from the pot causing injury. After the addition, the halva is stirred for additional 5 minutes and then poured into a Bundt cake pan and cooled down. After cooling, the form is removed and the solid gel deposited onto a plate by reversing the form onto it. The sweet is further seasoned by ground cinnamon and consumed.


V. Alexiadou, Vefa's Kitchen, London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2009.
Ethnographic Museum of Thrace, "Sweets," [Online]. Available: http://www.emthrace.org/ekthemata/zaxaroplastiki/glyka/. [Accessed 1 March 2015].
R. Vered, "Four stops for halvah," Haaretz, 7 February 2008. [Online]. Available: http://www.haaretz.com/travel-in-israel/four-stops-for-halvah-1.238844. [Accessed 1 March 2015].
G. Grandmother, Interviewee, How to make halva. [Interview]. 2005.
Aleksandra, "Halva with perfect proportions," Sintages tis pareas, 30 October 2009. [Online]. Available: https://www.sintagespareas.gr/sintages/xalbas-me-teleies-analogies.html. [Accessed 1 March 2015].
Medline Plus, "Butter, margarine, and cooking oils," National Institutes of Health, 6 September 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000095.htm. [Accessed 1 March 2015].
L.-C. Maillard, "Action of Amino Acids on Sugars. Formation of Melanoidins in a Methodical Way," Comptes Rendus, vol. 154, p. 66, 1912.
S. Everts, "The Maillard reaction turns 100," Chemical and Engineering News, vol. 90, no. 40, pp. 58-60, 2012.

Greek Halvas

Yields about 10-12 servings
For the syrup: 

 3 cups sugar
4 cups water
1 cinnamon stick

In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, water and cinnamon stick. Heat until boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and set aside.

For the halvas:
1 cup vegetable oil (or 1 cup clarified butter)
2 cups semolina 
100 grams (3 ounces) raw almonds (optional)

Using a deep pot (this will help to prevent oil splatter), heat the oil gently (it should not sizzle) and then stir in the semolina and raw almonds. Keep stirring the semolina and almonds with a silicone spatula until golden brown and fragrant. 

Add the syrup slowly, stirring all the while. Once all of the syrup has been stirred in, keep cooking and stirring for another five minutes; the mixture with thicken until golden waves. Scrape into an ungreased Bundt cake pan and let cool. 

Once cool, place a plate or cake stand over the Bundt cake pan and quickly invert the pan. The halvas should slide out easily. Dust with cinnamon and enjoy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Food for Thought

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about recipes, cookbooks and food blogging. Who am I kidding? Whenever I come to this space, this is what I inevitably think about. But, this time at least, it goes a little deeper than my usual interest in these issues. In part, this is because of the Piglet, Food52's annual cookbook competition, controversy--namely, the comic strip cookbook review that "fired a shot heard around the [food] world." The author who was the target of this review accused the reviewer of sexism (for the record, I felt it was more a socioeconomic critique than a sexist one, but that may be because, as a woman, I really like to believe that we're beyond these things...I should, however, know better); Food52 then responded (rather weakly, in my opinion) by saying that cookbooks are about more than their recipes (are they? should they be? When did this shift take place and why? And is it possible that there are now too many cookbooks? Anybody with burning thoughts on these issues, I'd love to hear from you), and now a lot of food bloggers, including little old me, are writing about this issue.

I don't care so much about the specifics of the reviews--ultimately, criticism is a good thing, even though it can be hurtful and, depending on its format, can come across as crass or mean-spirited. I think the bigger issue for me, at least at this specific moment in the food world, is the lack of sincerity. To call a spade a spade: the Piglet is about selling cookbooks. Authors agree to have their books judged in this competition because it exposes them to a wide(r) audience. People agree to write reviews or articles about this competition because it's fun and generally harmless (it's the food world's response to March Madness--pretty much as low stakes as it gets!) and it allows them to, however temporarily, become part of a self-enclosed community with its own inside jokes and language. There's nothing wrong with any of these things: we all like communities, we all want to be part of inside jokes and the point of writing a book is to make a profit off of the book; what is wrong is that these contests and communities take away from independent thought and personal opinion. Of course Mimi Thorisson, the subject of the comic book review, was going to be upset when both her book and very identity were panned; not only did she look foolish, but these reviews, as silly as they are, carry a lot of weight and impact sales. And this is because these days too many of us are swayed by the opinions of random reviewers--by the thoughts and "lifestyles" of people we don't even know (by people who more often than not are getting to sample a product or book for free)--when what we need to be doing is reclaiming the ability to think for ourselves, assessing a book on its own merits and deciding to buy it not because it wins or is nominated for the Piglet (!) or because of what "x or y reviewer" says about it, but because we actually like what it has to offer to us as individuals. This alone would be a huge step in the right direction for social media. It would acknowledge not only that books are highly personal objects, but also that there is life--exciting and diverse life!--outside the echo chamber of kale/quinoa/Ottolenghi cookbooks/white-marble-countertop madness. And in case I sound too preachy, let me just say that I like and own three out of four of the things I just mentioned.

The other reason I felt so up in arms about this issue is that if you look at the lasagna in the photo at the top of this post, you most likely will be thinking that it looks pretty good--like a dish that would probably taste delicious. I felt the same way when I saw this recipe on a blog several months ago: both the colors and the layers drew me in. I thought to myself: "You love squash and sage and lasagna, so why not try this?" It didn't bother me that the "ricotta" was vegan and made out of tofu and cashews; I like trying new things and, though the recipe seemed a little labor intensive, I don't mind having to sing for my supper. In fact, I was really excited about it as I was making it--the tofu ricotta was excellent, as creamy and flavorful as the "real" thing, and the smell of the sage and squash invitingly filled the kitchen as it baked in the oven....And then, once it cooled a little and I took a bite, I felt overwhelmingly disappointed. As a whole, it felt too creamy and too "one note" for me; I like acid, texture, food that has a little pep and bite. When I thought about it, I felt like I had somehow allowed the blogger's enthusiastic review, as well as the look of this dish--its very prettiness (and it is oh so pretty with the spoonfuls of tofu ricotta that decorate the lasagna's top and that have a sage leaf pressed into them)--to trump what I knew to be my flavor preferences. It's not the first time I've been fooled by a pretty food photo on the internet, either. It's hard to know who and what you can trust, or if it all boils down to a difference in personal taste. I believe Polonius said it best: "To thine own self, be true."

Since this is already longer and more in depth than I had planned, I will now give you my remaining nuggets of food for thought in smaller bites: 

I recently saw Leviathan, the Russian film that was just nominated for an Academy Award. It's well worth seeing in theaters if you still have the chance; if not, wait for its release on Netflix. It was all the things that I love and hate about Russia: beautiful, disturbing, tragic and downright human. Besides the stark landscape of the film, the thing I loved the most about it was its depiction of the law--its incomprehensibility and, strangely, the very lawlessness that lurks within carefully written legal code. And I will also confess to immensely enjoying the scene in which a drunker mayor yells at a Muscovite lawyer, informing him that he is no better than a "krysa advokatskaia [a lawyerly rat]." I'll have to use this one myself one day and hope that nobody knows what I'm saying.

 Here's a site that is happy to poke fun at the food world (it's good not to take oneself too seriously).

I saw this article in the Atlantic today and, given how tired Daylight Savings has made me, I would get behind this movement in a heartbeat. 

I recently wrote to a good friend who lives far away and asked her if she would be interested in a monthly long-distance book club. Much to my delight, she said yes. First on our list is Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let me Go.

I don't cook too much from food blogs these days (there's too little time), but recently I've been tempted by both Anna Jones' Kale Chips (via Lottie and Doof)--how can anything with olive oil, miso, maple syrup, lime juice and soy sauce be bad? This may become my new favorite roasting sauce and salad dressing in one--and Sean Brock's Cornmeal-Fried Pork Chops and Smashed Potatoes (via Smitten Kitchen), which make me fantasize about visiting the South again. Really, I just want to eat all the grits and pie the world has to offer. 

Also, if you have the opportunity to try Blue Hill savory yogurt (I recently found it at Whole Foods in Berkeley; it was quite the surprise, too: I hadn't thought it had made it to the west coast yet), I recommend you overcome your fear and embrace the possibilities of flavors like butternut squash, beet and parsnip. They really are a treat and not nearly as cloyingly sweet as most fruit-filled yogurt cups.

Finally, rumor has it that a pink Hello Kitty food truck is making its way to San Francisco for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in April. You'd better believe I'm going to be there...with bells on. I may just splurge and help myself to a Geisha Float, too.

I'll be in Pittsburgh this weekend for a wedding, but I'll be back soon with photos from my travels and a recipe for an authentic Greek sweet that I may just like better than baklava...

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Anything But Bland

This past summer, while having dinner with a friend and her parents, we started talking about the dishes that we would always ask our mothers to make when we were home visiting. For my friend, the answer came quite easily: spaghetti and meatballs. When it was my turn, however, I had to stop and think. It's not that my mother doesn't have a "signature" dish or that I haven't asked her to make various things over the years (high school was all about broccoli and cheese casseroles and mashed potatoes; when I came home from college with what I considered to be a more refined palate, I would ask for her Italian wedding soup or risotto); it's more that my tastes are always changing. After taking too long to respond to what was ultimately a very simple question, I said that my mother makes this wonderful chicken with vinegar, rosemary and garlic. But somehow I felt that I hadn't quite done justice to the dish; through my hesitation, I had made it sound bland when it was anything but.

After that conversation, I found myself craving my mother's chicken constantly, so I called her to get her recipe. The funny thing is that my mother, like a lot of mothers, doesn't use recipes; she cooks from instinct, from memory, according to her mood. Listening to her responses to my questions, I quickly realized that it didn't matter how my great-grandmother had created the recipe (my theory is that, faced with the difficulty of buying alcohol in Pennsylvania--this is real, Californians!--she had no choice but to rework a classic recipe for Italian chicken), how much olive oil my mother used or whether she chopped her garlic or left it whole, I was fully capable of recreating this dish. All I had to remember was to use bone-in and skin-on chicken thighs (if you're going to eat the bird, you might as well maximize the flavor and eat it as nature intended), to add one cup of apple cider vinegar, as well as the all important rule in my mother's kitchen: to use an ample amount of garlic and rosemary, i.e. the more the better. 

 Although I failed to make this dish back in 2006, when I first decided that I would learn to cook by using family recipes, I now see how very simple it is--even foolproof--if you rinse and pat the meat dry before attempting to brown it (this will allow it to brown in all the right places), and give the liquid the time it needs to reduce. Not only will it turn into a sticky glaze flecked with rosemary and cradling softened whole cloves of garlic, but the vinegar will also tenderize the meat, imbuing it with a sweet acidity. Given the minimal amount of work involved--such is the beauty of braising--this chicken yields a lot of flavor. Call it family pride (speaking of which, happy birthday, Grandma!) or simply good taste, but I would say it's nothing short of delectable. 

Vinegar Chicken with Rosemary and Garlic

Yields 4 servings
I've found that the method of braising with vinegar works well with root vegetables too, especially Tokyo turnips. The last time I made this chicken, I added eight turnips to the pan about halfway through the braise; by the time the sauce had reduced, the turnips were fork tender and flavorful. I imagine the same would happen for chopped carrots. 

4 chicken thighs, rinsed and patted dry with a paper towel
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper, plus more to taste
1-2 tablespoons olive oil (enough to coat the pan)
6-7 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed and halved
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary, plus 1 small bunch
1 cup apple cider vinegar
about 2 cups water (how much water you use will depend on your skillet)
6-8 Tokyo turnips, optional and, if large, halved

-Season the meat on both sides and set aside.
-Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, preferably one with a lid, but, if not, parchment paper will do.
-Once the oil is hot, add the chicken thighs, skin side down. After 5 minutes have passed, or once the the chicken is golden brown, turn the thighs over and repeat on the other side.
-Add the garlic and rosemary, letting them cook about a minute. Once they are fragrant, add the vinegar and and enough water so that the liquid reaches about halfway up the chicken thighs. Turn the heat to high and keep stirring all the while in order to deglaze the pan.
-Let the mixture come to a rolling boil, then lower the heat to a steady simmer and cover the skillet with either a lid or parchment paper. If using a lid, leave it cracked a tiny bit so that the liquid will reduce.
-If using, add turnips after about 30-40 minutes of braising.
-When only about 3/4"-1" of liquid remains in the skillet (after about an hour), remove the lid or parchment paper and continue to simmer until a glaze has formed.
-Once the glaze is ready, turn the chicken thighs over so that both sides have been coated with it.
-Place the chicken thighs on a serving dish and pour the vinegary sauce over them.
-Serve with a salad (any leftovers make an excellent addition to any salad; the chicken tastes wonderful cold), some sauteed greens, or a side of bulgur or some other grain.
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