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.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Seize the Day

A funny thing happened recently. After all of the chaos of the semester--tutoring, meetings, technological difficulties--and feeling like somebody who had often been spread too thin, I suddenly noticed that life had become awfully quiet again. Possibly too quiet. Although there was a part of me that rejoiced at my newfound freedom, there were also a few days when I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself. Because nothing felt pressing, I would often find myself aimlessly wandering around the apartment, searching the bookshelves for something to read or thumbing through a cookbook and imagining various possibilities. But it was as if all of the possibilities paralyzed me (studies have shown that this can happen; it's one of the perils of the modern age and of the endless number of choices that capitalism affords us); I had no inkling of what I wanted to do or of what activity should be at the top of my list. Fortunately, I soon realized that I was foolishly squandering precious time; after months of running to and fro, my time was suddenly my own again and, rather than spend my time thinking about what I could or should be doing with this freedom, I just needed to be doing things.

This set off a welcome frenzy of activity. While I certainly don't want to be overstate the case, it's amazing to see how far a pinch of decisiveness can go. Suddenly, I was reading again, one book after the next. I started slowly enough, but soon found myself immersed in The Fault in Our Stars (full disclosure: I cried), then The Interestings, a novel that, though it tells the story of a certain generation, feels timeless and pertinent to all generations and, almost before I could catch my breath, I was soon embroiled in the Dublin Murder Squad and the wonders of Tana French's first-person narration and gritty psychological realism (believe me, had Dostoevsky written about the Petersburg police force, I would be calling French the Great Imitator). When I could pull myself away from the stacks of novels, I was whipping up one Tex-Mex delight after another--if time were endless, I would already have written about Lisa Fain's Tomatillo Cheese Grits and Apple Jalapeno Scones--and then switching gears completely and returning to the Mediterranean with flavorful and bright lentil salads. But as good as these dishes were, my crowning achievement from the past few weeks was making David Lebovitz's gorgeously speckled fresh herbed pasta from his new book, My Paris Kitchen (by the way, this book is unquestionably a beauty; it makes me feel like I'm 16 again and in love with all things French).

Although making pasta at home really isn't difficult (especially if you have the proper machinery and/or the ability to roll out and cut the dough in a way that wouldn't make an Italian grandmother shudder), it can be a bit of a project. There is, however, something terribly gratifying about the whole experience; from start to finish, it's seems like you're seizing the day: forming the dough, kneading it, letting the glutens relax and then running it through the machine. For me, not only was it the first time I was making pasta on my own (I've always done this under the watchful eyes of my knowledgeable grandparents), but it was also the first time that I pulled the pasta maker attachment that my grandma had given to me two Christmases ago out of the cupboard to put it to its proper use. I really don't know what I was waiting for, but to be fair to myself, I should say that there was never a moment when I was finishing my dissertation that screamed, "It looks like a good night for making pasta!" In life, there is clearly a season to suffer and a season to rejoice, and needless to say, I'm thrilled to currently find myself in the latter one.

But it's easy to rejoice when time spreads out before you and you have a relatively foolproof recipe to follow. I say "relatively foolproof" because, while I loved both the look and taste of the final product and found David's instructions to be clear, I believe that a recipe for pasta can never tell the whole story. Making pasta goes beyond recipes and requires equal parts intuition and skill. I learned this while watching my grandparents make it over the years; just as when making bread or pie crust, you have to be able to assess your dough. There is a moment when it will be just right--not too moist and not too dry--and only you can decide this. No recipe will tell you, although many recipe writers will give you helpful tips: David says that it's done (i.e. post-knead) when you can "shape it into disk and the sides don't crack." Marcella Hazan, the woman who wrote the book on classic Italian cooking, claims that the dough is ready to be kneaded when you press your finger into the center of the mass and it comes out clean; after kneading, she says only that the dough should be "smooth as baby skin."

Truly, when it comes to making pasta at home, there is a lot of conflicting advice, although the good news is that everybody can at least agree that it's a worthwhile endeavor.  In some books, you will find recipes that call for only eggs and flour (this is David's ideal, but for me it didn't work; I had to add a fair amount of water--about 1 1/2 tablespoons--just to get my dough to form. It's possible that my eggs were smaller than they should have been, though), while others will list water, flour, eggs and olive oil (NB: for what it's worth, this is how my grandparents make theirs and it's delicious). Similarly, the question of which flour to use leads to the airing of a lot of different opinions: the general preference seems to be for the special Italian "00" flour,  which, according to Marcella, will produce a "plump pasta with a marvelous texture and fragrance," but because it can be both hard to find or expensive, most recipes call for either a mixture of semolina and all-purpose flour (David falls into this camp; he says this leads to a more tender pasta) or simply all-purpose (here, we return to Marcella; she argues that semolina is too grainy and should be used in commercial pasta only).

Strong opinions aside, I think that it's pretty safe to say that, regardless of whose recipe you follow or which flour you use, the pasta will be delicious enough that you will want to make it again and again. It may take a little longer than getting a box of pasta out of the cupboard and opening it, but the difference in the flavor and texture is palpable. Even Elektra, my beagle, could taste the difference; whenever a noodle would hang precariously from the baking sheet I was setting them on after running them through the pasta cutter, somebody would make her move and quickly gobble up her stolen treasure. Then, when I would turn my back, she would again start carefully stalking her prey. Who knew that fresh noodles were the way to a beagle's heart?

Another perk of making pasta at home is that you can play with different flavors and noodle shapes. For this batch of pasta, I primarily used parsley, but I added a handful of rosemary as well. I also did two different cuts of noodles: one a thin spaghetti, which I served with olive oil, fried green garlic and Italian sausage, and the other fettuccine, whose thicker shape invited a more elaborate sauce of cream, lemon zest, green garlic and red pepper flakes. Now that I've gotten my feet wet, I'm envisioning many more afternoons spent making pasta. I can firmly say that in my future there is a tarragon pasta that will be combined with salmon and cherry tomatoes and, come the fall, a sage pasta that will be paired with Delicata squash and maybe some roasted cranberries for some tang. It's hard to believe, but by mixing a few eggs with flour, water and herbs, dinner can feel like a source of novelty--a very special affair. It also reminds me that, even after four years of blogging (!), there are still more stories to tell and cooking tips to be shared. 

Herbed Fresh Pasta

slightly adapted from David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen 
easily yields 4-6 servings

The changes I made were slight and mainly based on technique. For example, I know from making pasta with my grandma that after you've run the dough through the pasta roller, it's best to either cover the dough with a towel and let it sit on a lightly floured surface for about 20-25 minutes or to let it hang on a lightly floured hanger (this will prevent sticking; using wax or parchment paper would also work) for about 20 minutes. If you run the noodles through the pasta cutter too soon, it's more than likely that they will stick together--this is more a problem with the thinner spaghetti than with the fettuccine-- even if you flour to prevent sticking. 
     Also, as I mentioned earlier, although David says that water is optional, I had to use a few tablespoons to get my dough to form. In part, this is because I was working with a set amount of flour (Marcella says that you can't know how much flour you'll need in advance; this is always the tried-and-true wisdom that can be found in my grandparent's kitchen) and my eggs weren't large enough to get the dough to stick together. I will give David's measurements below, but, unless your pasta comes together without a hitch, be prepared either to add water or to push some of the flour and semolina to the side and use it only if the dough is too wet. 

1 1/2 cups (270 grams) semolina
1 1/2 cups (210 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (about 30 grams) mixed fresh herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon), roughly chopped
3 egg yolks, at room temperature, beaten
3 large eggs, at room temperature
water (add 1/2 teaspoon at a time if the dough isn't coming together)
Rice flour, semolina or all-purpose flour, for rolling

-Whisk together the semolina, flour, salt and chopped herbs and place them in a mound on a table or countertop. Make a deep well in the center and add the egg yolks and eggs; using a fork, beat the eggs and egg yolks lightly, then gradually incorporate a small bit of the semolina and flour mixture into them. Keep stirring, making sure to be gentle (if you break through the sides of the mound, the eggs will flow out) and gradually incorporating more of the dry ingredients. When the dough becomes shaggy, use a metal pastry scraper to knead all the ragged pieces and  scraps into the dough.

-Knead the dough (push forward using the heel of your hand, keeping your fingers bent; then, fold the dough in half, rotate it and repeat the process) for about 3-5 minutes or until very smooth (it could take as long as 8 minutes). If it's too dry, it will crack while you're kneading it; if this happens, add a few drops of water. The dough is ready when it can be shaped into a disk and the sides don't crack. Pat the dough into a circle and wrap it in plastic wrap. Let sit at room temperature for one hour. 

-Lightly flour a surface and then divide the dough into eight equal(ish) pieces and flatten them into rough rectangles with your hand. Dust lightly with semolina or flour (rice or all-purpose) and pass through the pasta machine at its widest (smallest) setting. Then, fold the dough in half and pass through again, decreasing the opening (i.e. changing the setting to 2 this time). Repeat this step on the third setting and again on the fourth. If at any point the dough sticks to the rollers, dust it lightly with flour and brush away any excess.

-Once all the dough has been passed through the machine, it should rest--either on a lightly floured surface and covered with a towel or on a hanger dusted with flour and/or covered with parchment or wax paper--for about 20-25 minutes before being run through the pasta cutter. 

-After 20-25 minutes have passed, test a sheet of the pasta dough by running it through the cutter on the desired setting. If the noodles stick together, wait for a few more minutes before running another sheet through; if they fall apart easily, run another sheet through and place the noodles on a baking sheet lightly dusted with flour. Repeat process until all of the sheets of dough have been used. 

-Once the pasta is ready, there are several ways to proceed: 

1) If cooking the pasta immediately, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and plan to cook the noodles for about 4-6 minutes (the cooking time depends on the thickness of the noodle, so prepare to adjust accordingly). Drain well and serve with the sauce of your choice. 

2) Alternatively, the pasta can be refrigerated, covered with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap, for up to 24 hours. 

3) A third option is to let the cut noodles dry out--this could take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours; they must be completely dry or there could be mold--before storing them in an airtight container for future use. 

4) If you don't want to dry out the noodles, you can also freeze them; my grandma makes huge batches of pasta and some always inevitably ends up in the freezer in an airtight container lined with wax paper and dusted with flour.

Monday, May 26, 2014

La Agrodolce Vita

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings. -Wendell Berry

When I first read these words--a well chosen epigraph--in Molly Wizenberg's Delancey, I felt like I had finally picked up a book that I could, at long last, sink my reading teeth into. In their own way, both Wendell and Molly were describing the very things that had been on my mind for months: aimlessness, a lack of purpose and the constant question, "where is it all going?" While I realize writing about these issues can, to a certain extent, be more than a little depressing (believe me, there is true melancholy in a continuous stream of rejection letters or, even worse, the radio silence that now indicates rejection in a world where social niceties have been lost), these are the issues that, for better or for worse, informed my 30th year. Although this year began with purpose (to part ways with my dissertation) and success, it quickly descended into not only wondering what my next big challenge would be, but also how to translate Ph.D. skills into a "real world" job. I wish I could say that I got a batch of freshly baked wisdom for my birthday or that, from the safe distance of 10 days into my 31st year, I'm that much closer to figuring out the answers to these questions, but I think these are things that I'll continue to grapple with until I no longer have the time to think about them (i.e. a time when I will be both pleasantly and gainfully employed). Or until I start working on the idea for a book that suddenly came to me on Thursday afternoon (!)--a much needed jolt to my parched ambition and desire for meaningful labor in my daily life.

My job woes and plans for a bigger project aside (excitement must be tempered until I at least draft a proposal), I should stress that life has not been too sour lately. There have been plenty of sweet moments, too: there was the excitement of my birthday and a marvelously elegant--from flavor to presentation--dinner at the Chez Panisse Cafe, a few evenings out and lunches with friends and, rounding things out, the Greek's birthday, which was celebrated at the new(ish) Greek restaurant in Berkeley, Pathos (to enter their restaurant's site, I love that you have to click on an octopus; as T. Susan Chang recently wrote, mainstream food culture is suddenly embracing the octopus in unexpected ways). While all these celebrations mean that we've been eating out a lot lately, there have also been leisurely evenings at home with Midwestern pizza (a new favorite) and early mornings spent preserving spring onions. 

I suspect that, in part, I've recently become obsessed with preserving because of the season; who doesn't want to bottle up a bit of spring for the endless stretch of dark and chilly days that will eventually come (remember that for those of us in the Bay Area, they will be here sooner rather than later)? But I also know that if I were to go deeper into my motivation, this is as much about self-preservation and control--to prepare for the coming months in the only way that I can--as it is about a desire to save the best of the strawberries and spring onions. Given this urge, I've been reading Kevin West's Saving the Season feverishly, perhaps in a way that is not so different from how one who is recently overcome by a wave of faith might read the Bible. If that is too profane a metaphor, let me put it another way: an endlessly wise and useful volume, it proudly sits on either the kitchen or the coffee table and is rarely, if ever, returned to the shelf; also, if anybody visits and notices it, I will only too happily preach its many virtues. While it's true that I have always been a fan of cookbooks and have quite a few favorites, West, for me, goes above and beyond. He manages to craft a narrative that is highly readable and anecdotal and that simultaneously offers a scientifically accurate study of different methods of preserving (the recipes work). I would even go so far as to call him a poet-scholar who maintains a high research and writing standard throughout the lengthy tome and manages to convey a wealth of information, from the cyanide content of apricot pits to a brief history of the Dutch painter Adriaen Coorte.

Rather unsurprisingly, one of my favorite sections of the book is the story of West's growing library of preserving books (As he says, and I have felt this way many times myself, "Books are a vice and never let anyone tell you otherwise."). In it, he tells of his discovery of Helen Brown, a food writer who rubbed elbows with Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and James Beard, and her largely forgotten opus, The West Coast Cookbook, which contains several preserving gems: Bodega Beans, Cherry Olives and Tiburon (shark) Onions. Not only was I immediately curious about Brown's book since, after so many years here, I now feel tied to California and West Coast cooking (the cover, too, makes it impossible not to love this book), but I also felt compelled to make these agrodolce (sour and sweet) Tiburon onions despite my many misgivings about alliums.

Although I'll never be the kind of person who can enjoy raw onions on a salad or sandwich, in recent years I've come to love (braised, roasted, sauteed and all) leeks and to appreciate the transformation that takes place when you soak raw onions in vinegar for 15 minutes. West's reworking of Brown's recipe promised something even better than this quick trick, though: a sweet, spicy and sour treat that could spruce up a simple pizza, salad or sandwich with its rich oil-,  herb- and tomato paste-infused sauce.

From start to finish, it's a beautiful dish to look at it. It begins golden-hued and speckled with mustard seeds and various herbs, but once heat is applied and a little stirring takes place, quickly turns a brilliant and shiny brick red (you have give the tomato paste time to color the wine and vinegar based sauce). It's also incredibly easy to make; besides soaking and trimming one pound of onions (I should note here that mine were generally thinner and less bulbous than I would have liked), the only work is a little bit of stirring and sterilizing a jar. For the most part, you can just sit back and relax as the onions simmer in the bright sauce until fork tender and enjoy the aroma of sweet and sour flavors coming together that will sweep through your home.

Agrodolce Spring Onions, or Tiburon Onions

ever so slightly adapted from Kevin West's Saving the Season
yields about 2 to 2 1/2 pints

As I mentioned above, the original recipe calls for one pound of spring onions that are about 2 inches in diameter. While I had about 4 spring onions that fit this description, most of my onions were very thin and not terribly round; to make up for this, I decided to harvest some of the heirloom onions (Crystal White Wax, a pearl or pickling onion) I've been growing in my window--mainly for the chives since I never expected real onions to materialize--to make up the difference. I used about 4 of these, which means that my jar of agrodolce spring onions comes in a variety of sizes. You should use what you have on hand and know that, for the most part, the recipe will still take the same amount of time--1 hour and 45 minutes. You want the liquid to reduce, at least a little.
      Also, while West suggests a tart Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, because the Greek and I decided to drink some of this bottle, I ended up opening a bottle of a more tropical Sauvignon Blanc (Pongo from New Zealand) to make up the difference. I like the flavor, so again I would stress that you use what you like and/or have.
       Unlike a lot of people, I don't dislike raisins, but I will admit that I was surprised to see them in this recipe. I was a bit skeptical at first, but because the Greek's mother had left us some raisins--a mix of sultanas, currants and dark--I decided to use them up. West calls for only golden, but I opted to do a mix. This just changes the flavor a little, but I find that I like the variety. If you are very anti-raisin, feel free to leave them out.

1 - 1 1/4 pound spring onions
3 cups tart white wine (Sauvignon Blanc)
1/2 cup white-wine vinegar
1/2 cup mixed raisins (sultanas, currants, dark)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sugar
1 dried red chili pepper
1 bay leaf
3 cloves
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns, lightly crushed with a mortar and pestle
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

-Soak the onions in cool water for 5-10 minutes to soften their skins. Then, peel and cut off their stalks. Carefully cut off or scrape away the root, making sure not to sever the base. Leaving this intact will ensure that the onions remain whole while cooking.
-Place the onions in a medium saucepan and cover with wine and vinegar. Add the remaining ingredients and then bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and bring the mixture to a simmer.
-Using a wooden spoon, stir gently from time to time so as to prevent sticking.
-While the onions are cooking wash and sterilize a wide-mouth pint jar (following the Blue Chair Jam method, I like to do this in the oven at 250 F). 
-Cook for an hour and 45 minutes, or until the onions are tender enough to be pierced with a fork or knife.
-When the onions are ready, pack them into the prepared jar (depending on the size of your jar and the yield of your onions, you may have extra, which you can put in a small bowl to be used right away) and, using a funnel, pour the agrodolce sauce over them.
-If planning on using immediately, allow the jar to cool and then store in the refrigerator indefinitely. To process for shelf storage, make sure to leave 1/2-inch headspace and to clean the rim of the jar before sealing. Process in the oven at 250 F for 15 minutes.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Highly Adaptable

The Strawberry receives as warm a welcome in June as does the primrose of spring, and for the same reason. -Edward A. Bunyard (The Anatomy of Dessert: With a Few Notes on Wine)

Lately, I've been struggling to lose myself in novels. I don't know if my mind has been too preoccupied with the ongoing (and officially resumed) search for a job, or if Elektra's trip to the doggy ER last weekend has been weighing on my mind, but traditional fiction just isn't doing it for me these days. I also suspect that, between all of my tutoring gigs and walking to and fro, I'm almost too tired to read by the time I crawl into bed. For an avid reader, it's a fairly unhappy state, but I've been taking comfort in several collections of essays about food--about fruit, actually--while I work my way back to my preferred genre. 

The first of these is The Anatomy of Dessert (1929) by the British pomologist Edward A. Bunyard. While I will admit that it's not the world's fastest read, it's the kind of book that will not only teach you interesting facts about fruit (really, it will make you understand how diminished the world of fruit has become since Bunyard put down his pen), but that also can be savored in 5-page installments before turning off the light. Bunyard, as he takes you from Apples to Strawberries, also proves to be a wonderfully opinionated, highly literate and slyly humorous writer. As he writes about the grape:
The Strawberry Grape is beloved by some, but to me the flavor suggests a cross between a Tom Cat and a Black Currant, and it is to most palates undesirable and happily rare. If, as some think, it is of American origin, it may well explain certain recent developments in that country. Not for such grapes did the Centaurs fight, nor for such wine did Virgil sing (41).

 The other book on my nightstand, Jane Grigson's Fruit Book (1982) is in direct dialogue with Bunyard; she references him several times and structures her study in a similar manner, examining fruit from A to Z and evoking fairy tales, etymology and culinary history all the way through. Unlike Bunyard, however, she explores her topic in broader terms, including fruits like papaya, citrus, mango and watermelon, as well as a host of recipes for the adventurous fruit lover. These alone are fascinating to read. Although it's true that many of the recipes are a bit old hat in our day and age (think Key Lime Pie and Strawberry Fools), there are others that, even thirty years past the original publication date, still manage to tempt and surprise: Poires a la Chinoise, Spinach in Orange Cups and Avocado with Strawberry Sauce. 

It's the last recipe that really grabbed my imagination recently. While I don't often write about salads on this blog (mainly because they're such an ad hoc, everyday affair around here), this one I couldn't resist. The strawberries have been so fine recently--wonderfully fragrant and sweet--and, given that this is California, a good avocado is never out of reach. Although the woman who gave the recipe to Jane Grigson admitted that the combination of strawberries and avocados might seem "bizarre," it somehow seemed right to me: who doesn't like the combination of sweet, slightly acidic and creamy things, after all? 

If you agree with this blanket statement, then I think this is a recipe worth trying. It may even become a spring and summer favorite. We've made it no less than 5 or 6 times in the past two weeks (in part, this is because the amount of dressing the recipe makes is more than you can use in one or two rounds; the dressing keeps well in the fridge and you should feel free to use it on anything that strikes your fancy, although this avocado salad is a good place to start) and I've found that it's highly adaptable: one day we had it for lunch with leftover roasted chicken, another morning I had it for breakfast with toast and we recently discovered that it pairs extremely well with pizza. If you want something more than fruit in your salad (remember, a fruit develops from a flower and an avocado fits the bill), a few handfuls of arugula, lightly peppered, salted and dressed with lemon, make a welcoming bed for the pretty pink and green ingredients.

If this salad doesn't seem like quite your thing, over at the jam blog there's more strawberry inspiration in a different form.

Prue Leith's Avocado Salad with Strawberry Sauce

Yields about 3-4 servings
Adapted from Jane Grigson's On Fruit

Off the bat, I should admit that I made a lot of changes to this recipe. Some changes stemmed from what I did or didn't have in my pantry; others stemmed from my desire for precision, rather than rough estimates, although I do agree that the cook must always adjust the recipe and prepare and serve what tastes good to him/her. 
       About the former: The original recipe calls for sunflower oil for the dressing and toasted almonds as a garnish. Because I didn't have sunflower oil, I looked up appropriate substitutes and found that walnut oil, which I keep around for making bread, would work just as well. Once walnut oil entered the equation, however, I decided it would be silly to use toasted almonds instead of toasted walnuts. But you should feel free to adjust accordingly. My other changes will be explained below. 
        One final thing, however: Grigson says to use ripe avocado and to cut them across a dozen times before transferring them to a serving platter and "fanning" back the slices. Two out of three of my avocados were just ripe, while one was a little soft (see photo 3 for proof; the Greek and I debated this photo--he called it extremely naturalistic (i.e. bordering on the disgusting), whereas I saw it as evidence that the world of food isn't always pretty, though food magazines and blogs would have you believe otherwise); because it was impossible to cut this avocado in a way that would allow it to retain its shape, I opted to cut the avocado into smaller pieces. I say do whatever pleases you aesthetically.

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted 
9 ounces strawberries, washed and hulled
1.5 ounces walnut oil
1.5 ounces olive oil (together, the oils should come to 3 fl oz, or a scant 1/4 cup)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
a few dashes of white or black pepper
3 ripe avocados
1 lemon, halved

-Preheat the oven to 375 F and line a small baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the walnuts on the lined baking sheet and, once the oven is ready, place it in the oven. Let toast for 6-8 minutes, or until fragrant and slightly browned, and remove from the oven.
-Using a food processor or blender, puree the strawberries until smooth.
-If using a food processor, keep the machine going as you slowly add the oil. If using a blender, however, remove the lid, add the oil and then place back on the base before blending well.
-Add salt, sugar and pepper and blend or pulse briefly. Taste and adjust for flavor. 
-Once the dressing is ready, halve and peel the avocados, discarding the stones. Squeeze lemon juice over the avocados to prevent browning and then cut them into small pieces (if cut across multiple times, they can be made to fan out; if cut into multiple pieces, they can be carefully arranged on a platter). Carefully transfer the cut pieces to a platter. 
-Sprinkle the avocado pieces with the chopped and toasted walnuts, then spoon the sauce both around and over them. Serve at room temperature. 

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