Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Taste of East Coast Summer

The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful. -Harper Lee (Go Set a Watchman)

I can’t place it exactly, but it was one of those long summers in college, the kind that feel eternal and free. A close friend from college was visiting, and we were driving along I-70, a highway surrounded by large swaths of sprawling green farmland, windows down, some unremarkable song from the ‘90s blaring in our ears. Come to think of it, there may have been no music at all; I really can’t say. What I do remember, though, is that this friend, a lover of Romantic poetry and old, vintage-y things, remarked in the breathless way of hers that always makes me feel like I am somehow incapable of experiencing life on the same plane as her: “Oh, Katy, it’s so beautiful here! Look at all these barns; they’re so gorgeous!” I know I gave her a baffled look; I was, most certainly, surprised at her outpouring of admiration. I looked around trying to see what she, a cosmopolitan friend from India who had lived in several countries, saw, but to me, this was just home—boring old Pennsylvania, a place to escape from, not to rhapsodize over. We had plenty of dilapidated barns and livestock (admittedly cute), but nothing along like the lines of the wonders of New York, London, Los Angeles! I decided that she must have felt this way because everything was so new to her and, to indulge her fantasy of country charm, gave a halfhearted shrug. I admitted that, while I had never thought of it that way myself, that, yes, it might actually be pretty.

Flash-forward 12 years, and, though I myself find it hard to believe, on my recent visit home, I found myself staring out of the car window, enjoying the bucolic scene--grazing cows, rundown barns and nothing but green in between--much like Jean Louise, aka Scout, does when she finds herself back home in Alabama. It may be that this was all just a sight for sore eyes (I realized yesterday that last summer was the first time in years I hadn’t been back to Pennsylvania for my annual visit), but I suspect I’ve simply come to see that there’s something to be said for life outside of the loud throb and bright lights of “city living.” On the few mornings we spent in Pennsylvania, I would step outside barefoot and drink my coffee on the porch before the muggy heat set in, and in the early afternoon, I’d wander through the yard all the way to its edges, where black raspberries and blackberries start to appear as the summer heat slowly works its magic (this time we were too early to forage, but next summer all the berries will be mine!). This was summer as I had always known it: quiet, cozy and relaxed; hot, humid and with the looming threat of a thunderstorm that might strike at any moment. Even though my heart is still heavy at the thought of leaving California, for the first time since the move to Delaware became a reality, I understood that I would, with this move, be returning home. At least, in a matter of speaking.

Of course, the trip we just took was really just a taste, a preview, of what our lives will be like once we’re finally settled. On our way to the wedding, we stopped in picturesque Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to stretch our legs; it didn’t look like much at first, but after a few wrong turns and the triumphant victory of rumbling stomachs, we discovered it was the home of Dickinson College, charming alleys where children sell lemonade for 50 cents a cup, a fantastic bookstore and a surprisingly good creperie. I will happily return. The same can be said for Lancaster, which, with its Central Market (supposedly the country's oldest farmers' market), full of Amish-grown and Amish-made treats, and classic east coast red brick buildings, was one of our happiest discoveries and a place that I see us finding our way to every time we set off to visit my family.

Even as the promise of tiny Delaware with all of its beaches (in one afternoon, we traversed the whole state, from green New Castle County to the many beaches of Sussex County. The Greek, who had never had a trip to the beach interrupted by a thunderstorm in all of his life, is not at all impressed with the eastern seaboard’s offerings. A trip to DogfishHead’s brewpub, an establishment that can rival anything we can find in California, improved his mood immensely) beckoned, our time in New York for the beautiful wedding of our friends reminded us of all the friendships we are leaving behind. It's scary to feel like you're starting out fresh in a new place after nine years and several lifetimes in another, but the wedding, with its reunion of past and present Slavs, showed me that, even out in the world doing diverse things and living thousands of miles apart, there's still very much a community.

The whole trip, a whirlwind from Pennsylvania to New York, then to Delaware and home again, was a reminder of what life on the east coast entails. While there is the debilitating heat to contend with, sometimes so thick and heavy that it feels like a cinderblock wall, there are also things that, as I rediscovered, the west coast just can’t provide—namely good sweet corn, peaches that don’t taste like cardboard, restaurant workers that aren’t always singing the praises of micro greens or talking about how everything is made “in house,” seasons (this one is for better or for worse), the proximity to family, cute historical towns. These are, in short, things that I not only can live with, but that I will also welcome with open arms.

Speaking of quality produce, when we were at the Central Market in Lancaster, the Greek and I picked up a ridiculous amount of fresh food: apricots, plums (because, in addition to my cherry butter, I just had to make a batch of Luisa Weiss' spiced plum butter--making her plum recipes in the summer seems to be a thing with me--before getting on the plane and watching the rest of summer pass me by), corn so sweet that it rivaled the delicious corn we ate at the wedding (truly superlative corn), several bunches of Lacinato kale, heirloom tomatoes and peaches! We really did go to town, but it was worth it in every way. 

On our last day and a half in Pennsylvania, we ate so well and so much, mainly thanks to the spoils of Lancaster: bacon sandwiches with slivers of heirloom tomatoes, apricots stuffed with mascarpone, cardamom and pistachios and drizzled with honey, my grandma's homemade pasta and, last but not least, an incredibly simple, but refreshing drink that I found in the Lee Brothers' Charleston Kitchen. This book is not new, but is new to me. A stunner of a cookbook that is part historical, part creative and brings Charleston, a place I would love to visit, to life, it jumped out at me one day with its promise of recipes for kumquat martinis and sparklers (in general, the book has a very fine chapter on drinks, a topic that is sometimes not given its due), sweet southern desserts and all kinds of seafood. 

The Summer Peach Cooler, in particular, does not disappoint, even if you suspect that your peaches are not nearly as juicy and aromatic as those that the Lee Brothers can find in Charleston (recall the great peach rivalry of 2011, when the New York Times reported that South Carolina has long been producing more peaches than Georgia, the so-called land of peaches). It's a simple drink, made by blanching peaches, removing their skin and then blitzing them in the food processor with lime or lemon juice, some sugar and a little kosher salt. Once pureed, you fill a glass with ice, add seltzer water and stir in three tablespoons of the peach mixture. It's sweet, tart and utterly refreshing on a hot summer day. If you're feeling adventurous, it can be spiked with a little Peach Schnapps, Basil Eau de Vie or even some of Dogsfish Head's Festina Peche, but it's also good just as it is. That said, I have a sneaking suspicion that it might work better with a simple syrup, one either infused with thyme or basil, rather than adding sugar directly to the peaches. These same herbs might make for a pretty garnish too, although summer laziness induced by the heat ultimately means that anything goes. 

More peach inspiration: This past week Dogfish Head posted a recipe for a peach gazpacho that looked like the best of summer. Today in the Times, there was talk of peach doughnuts in "Recipes for Health." 

Summer Peach Cooler

Slightly adapted from the Lee Brothers' Charleston Kitchen
Yields roughly 6 glasses

1 pound ripe peaches
1/4 cup lemon or lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more to taste*
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
ice cubes
6-7 ounces seltzer water

Fill a pot with water and set it on high heat to boil. In the meantime, wash the peaches and, using a sharp knife, score their bottoms with an X. Prepare an ice-water bath. When the water is boiling, add the peaches in batches for two to three minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in the ice-water bath for a few minutes to stop the cooking. Once cool to the touch, take the peaches from the water and, working your way from the bottom, remove their skin, using either your fingers or a paring knife. After peeling, quarter the peaches, remove their pits and place the peaches in the food processor or blender.

Add the lemon juice, sugar* and kosher salt to the food processor and pulse until smooth.

Fill glasses with ice cubes, add seltzer water and stir in 3 tablespoons of the peach puree. Add a little extra sugar to taste, garnish with a peach or herbs (basil, thyme), or drink as is. The peach mixture will keep in the refrigerator for at least 2-3 days.

*You could also make a batch of simple syrup (1 cup water to 1 cup sugar) and use this to sweeten the drink.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Food for Thought

For portions of every day, she manages to lose herself in realms of memory: the faint impressions of the visual world before she was six, when Paris was like a vast kitchen, pyramids of cabbages and carrots everywhere, bakers' stalls overflowing with pastries; fish stacked like cordwood in the fishmongers' booths, the runnels awash in silver scales, alabaster gulls swooping down to carry off entrails. Every corner she turned billowed with color: the greens of leeks, the deep purple glaze of eggplants. -Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See)

 Only now, in a small hotel outside of New York City, have I managed to sit down and compose the thoughts that have been swirling in my mind for the past three weeks. I honestly don't know how I have the energy to write (a Thursday "morning" red-eye flight took us to Pittsburgh and we spent most of yesterday driving across Pennsylvania and Jersey, then zigzagging to a little town called Hawthorne in Westchester County), but I suppose that there is, despite the distracting, but gentle hum of the air conditioning, no better moment than the here and now. Back in California, I have not been able to spare a moment; there has simply been so much to do lately: some of it fun, like the trips to wine country we took with my colleague (really, my first real friend after graduate school) and then again when my oldest friend in the world visited en route to the Comic Con in San Diego, but some of it, like collecting and packing boxes--is nothing but tedious and purely logistical. 

It's amazing, though, because, in spite of all butterflies that have been fluttering about in my stomach recently, everything is suddenly coming together. We're here in New York for the wedding of dear friends, while Elektra is spending time with her great-grandparents and their chocolate-colored dachshund in Pennsylvania (this is not to say, however, that watching her howl as we drove away today was anything but heartbreaking). Come Sunday, we're going to Delaware to see the place that will be our home; if pictures are to be believed, it has a fenced-in yard, a patio, a beautiful kitchen with lots of light, counter space and a dishwasher. If this fact didn't make our move real enough, we also, after putting together a to-do list, finally rented a moving van, definitively planned our route and have found places to stay in 5 of the 7 places we'll be staying during what I'm now referring to as "The Great Move East": Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, Amarillo, Fayetteville, Kansas City and Indianapolis. While there are moments when it all feels very crippling or when I feel like the task is so huge that I don't know where to begin, I've also started seeing it as a bit of a crazy adventure...Me, the Greek, a Penske truck and the American South. Minus the Penske truck, it's precisely the adventure I've been craving this past year as I sat at my desk and contemplated all sorts of legalese. Speaking of which, I even still have a job, which is probably the thing that has been most surprising about this whole situation. I'll be keeping my current position, but working remotely and flexibly; that I will not have to ride BART and sit in a chair for hours on end is quite possibly the happiest of all possible endings to my giving notice...So many things seem like they're too good to be true that I've started waiting, as a friend and I used to say to each other throughout graduate school, for the other shoe to drop. The only question is, will it actually--and when? It may just be that there is no second shoe.

Although I'm beyond overdue for my monthly food for thought post, I'm going to ease back into blogging with the various links I've compiled over the last month. Then,  when we get back to Pennsylvania on Tuesday, hopefully I'll get to make something refreshing and sweet with some summer peaches. If not, there's always the recipe for chocolate waffles that I've been wanting to share. Until then, I leave you with July's food for thought:

I haven't been reading as much as I would have liked recently, but what I have managed to read--one collection of essays by the hilarious and incorrigible Calvin Trillin, Alice, Let's Eat, and Anthony Doerr's incredibly beautiful and suspenseful All the Light We Cannot See--has been nothing short of amazing. I read the latter with my long-distance book club buddy and it was one of the best books I've read all year (it joined The Department of Speculation and Bleak House). Next on our list: Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. In the meantime, my current road trip book is Go Set a Watchman; despite the early criticism I read, how could I not return for the adventures of Scout, aka Jean Louise, at 26?

I was excited to learn recently that Jhumpa Lahiri, whose short stories I find as captivating as Chekhov's, wrote a collection of essays in Italian (!)--she has been living in Rome (one of my dream cities) for several years now--that will be translated into English and published in early 2016. One reason I'm interested in this collection is that it discusses what it means to live in another language, how one recreates oneself when given new words and expressions...I often felt this when speaking Russian, a language in which I was known to be a "flirt" (koketka), which seems like the most preposterous thing in the world. The funny thing was that, in Russian, it was essentially spot on, although the word flirt also doesn't do it justice.

Before leaving California, I decided to make cherry butter; call it my way of avoiding the reality of the move, or my desire to take some of California with me, but I spent a good hour one recent Sunday pitting cherries and watching my fingers turn a vibrant red. I also recently tried cherry plums, which are an interesting hybrid worth whatever outlandish price you may be charged for them (my sampling occurred at work, where fresh fruit is a staple snack).

Although a topic that won't affect me for too much longer (not that it ever has since I've always lived in the East Bay), I think this article sums up the San Francisco housing/rent crisis quite nicely. Something is going to eventually have to give.

There's nothing better than fresh herbs: a visual guide.

A meditation on pesto's many charms.

A friend recently sent this to me and it embodies everything I love about the compactness of the Japanese language. I, for example, a person who practices tsundoku, the act of buying a book and leaving it to sit unread with other books.

When we get back to California, I'm going to eat my first ever batch of cheese curds. Any suggestions as to what to do with them besides eat them and enjoy (?) the squeaking sound they make? If not, I have this as a guide.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Sunday Picnic

"And it seemed that, just a little more--and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and hat the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning." -Anton Chekhov (The Lady with the Little Dog)

Back in a college, in a seminar paper that was written during a three-day, coffee-fueled frenzy at the end of a very long semester, I argued that the main dilemma facing Chekhov's characters was that they were eternally trapped in either the fantasy of past or the promise of the future. Even though the paper had its problems (in hindsight, I can see that the main point, while supported by the text, was somewhat buried), to this day when I find myself reading Chekhov, I can't help but think that not only was my nineteen-year-old self onto something central to the texts, but also that A.P. Chekhov himself was perhaps the most insightful of men. He understood that the present, representing varying degrees of suffering and uncertainty, held little charm for people and that, rather than improve that present, it was much easier to focus on temporal periods outside of their immediate control. While on a fairly glib level, I find that most Chekhovian characters would have seriously benefited from some yoga (mind you, I say this while winking at a friend who once argued that anti-depressants would have gone a long way in helping Goncharov's Oblomov to get off the sofa), I also recognize that there's nothing harder for a human than living fully--whatever "fully" may mean--in any given moment.

Both these thoughts and Chekhov's wisdom have been on my mind lately because of the impending move. The past few weekends have been spent going through and getting rid of things: old clothes; books that, given the distance they would have to travel, don't seem worth keeping; shoes whose soles have been worn down to nothing by countless footsteps. One whole Saturday was devoted to clothing alone and, while I understand that clothes are just things, I could trace certain events through these items. There were shirts that, for better or for worse, were bought to entice past crushes, sweaters that had a beachy, Californian vibe to them, as well as blazers bought to make me look "professional" and "grad-school ready" (let it be said that clothing, contrary to popular opinion, does not make the woman, or the scholar; I've seen many a fool in very nice tweed.). I even found a sweater that I must not have worn since Japan since, much to my surprise, the tags from my local dry cleaner were still there. A silly statement, but it was a lifetime, my lifetime, in fabric.

I also realized that, though I've made my decision regarding the academic path, I'm finding it hard to let go of the Slavic materials that have accumulated over the years. While I don't think I'll ever again need them in any professional way, when confronted with folder upon folder of Slavic materials, I ended up sitting on the floor and rereading old papers: essays on Mandelshtam's deliberately murky poetry that were more competent than I recalled, the Tatiana/Pushkin essay that was first scorned and later lauded, the Prishvin paper that meant well, but had no direction. In short, successes and failures in equal measures. What had once seemed so dire to me was now funny: the sad face I had drawn next to the comments from a professor accusing me of criminal scholarly behavior for using a lowly edition of Pushkin, the coffee (breakfast?) stains left on one of my essays by a careless reader, the details of a shipment from France written all over the last page of the Prishvin paper. The greatest shock of all was that, in the midst of all of this, I found myself curling up and rereading my dissertation--just because. A part of me wanted to know how distance would color my perception of it, and I found that I liked it more than I had imagined (!); despite the well-documented dissertation trauma on this blog, it was much better than I ever thought it was. Even more strangely, I could pinpoint certain moments involved in writing it: the act of frantically pounding away at the keyboard before an idea could vanish, where I was when composing certain sentences, how preoccupied I was by the more abstract ideas and how I could support them textuallyI won't lie; I miss that kind of intellectual engagement with my work. But I also don't miss the academic-corporate mentality, nor do I miss the students who think that the point of a class is to receive an A. 

As obsessed as I suddenly am with where I've been, I'm also trying to figure out where I'm going. I have no job lined up, I don't know if I want to work again in the law or if it's time to strike out on my own and attempt to carve out the kind of career I want for myself. Although we have no idea where we will live or what opportunities life in Newark will afford us, I have started to think of ways to make friends and stay busy: a pottery class, cookbook club and possibly even volunteer work involved with food and gardening. Needless to say, all of these things haven't left much time for the present.

Fortunately, some friends recently stepped in and pulled us (maybe mainly me) out of the weird past/future limbo we've been living in by inviting us to a picnic up at Claremont Canyon, where we would not only have a nice walk, but sprawling views of the bay as well. Though the day ended up being hopelessly hazy (hello, Bay Area winter/summer!), a good time was still had by all...and a sunburn was most definitely had by me.

I should mention here that these friends are experienced picnic-throwers. They take their picnics seriously (case in point: they're getting married in mid-July and the wedding will be one big celebratory picnic) and know how to create an inviting spread: bread, cheese, salami, cherries, beer, berries. For me, this was an excuse to step out of all relocation-related thoughts and to get back into the kitchen. I will admit that even most kitchen activities are currently being determined by the move; since early June, I've been running a pretty intense "Clean Out the Pantry" campaign and, I must say, it's going better than expected. The rules are simple: use what we have (flours, grains, canned goods) and no buying any new condiments, etc. Fresh food, of course, is allowed, but no hoarding of goods of any kind, which I personally think might just be my biggest food (and life) crime.

For this specific occasion, I decided to bake a pan of brownies marked by golden puddles of salted caramel (thank you, Anna Jones) and to get creative and tackle the bag of sorghum I bought back in February and had cooked from only once since then. Sorghum, a whole and gluten-free grain, has a long history; it was domesticated in northern Africa thousands of years ago and is unique for being a crop that can thrive in arid areas. What I personally like about sorghum is that it's a little sweet and nutty; not only does it physically resemble popcorn kernels, but it also can be popped just like popcorn. How's that for versatility?

Since sorghum can take a long time to cook and retains its bite even after about an hour of slowly simmering it, I recommend soaking the sorghum overnight to maximize its tenderness. One cup of uncooked sorghum yields about 2 1/2 cups; the final product can be used in salads, in a casserole (as a rice substitute), as a side or base for roasted or grilled vegetables. It's got a lot of potential and lot of health benefits (fiber, protein, iron!). In my current no-frills, use-what's-on-hand approach to cooking, I decided to make a hearty salad with roasted beets, arugula, basil, goat cheese, toasted pine nuts and, because of the addition of just the green parts of two spring onions for a little depth, just a whisper of onion's usual strident tone. While I often consider salads too simple to share here, both the Greek and our picnicking companions insisted that this was a "blog-worthy salad." In part, I think this is because I like salads where opposites seem to collide: creamy and crunchy, piquant and sweet. It's all about building flavors and layering textures. The interesting thing about this salad, aside from its use of sorghum and the way the beets give everything a fuchsia hue, is the way that the pine nuts, similar in size and appearance to sorghum, blend in so well that you almost don't know they're there. Drizzled and tossed with a lemon-sherry-olive oil vinaigrette, the salad is brightened and well-coated, which, according to my personal salad philosophy, all good salads ought to be. This is definitely one for the present and the future alike. 

Sorghum Salad with Arugula, Roasted Beets, Basil and Pine Nuts

Salads are endlessly adaptable and there's no reason that, should your preference be for walnuts, quinoa, barley or feta (just to name a few grain, cheese and nut alternatives), you couldn't adjust this salad accordingly. That said, the sweetness of the roasted beets and the sharp, lemony basil pair nicely with the heat of the arugula, so you might want to try it as is and then make your own modifications.
     As mentioned above, to make the sorghum, I recommend soaking it overnight and then cooking it according to the package's instructions (on a low simmer in a covered pot for 45 minutes to an hour). Once it's cooled, measure it out and you're good to go. 
     Similarly, be sure to roast the beets in advance. Preheat the oven to 400 F and, after rinsing and drying the beets, wrap them in aluminum foil. Place in the oven for 45 to an hour; Depending on the size of your beets, some may cook more quickly than others, so start checking them at 45 minutes. You'll know they're ready when you insert a knife into them and it goes in without any resistance. Once the beets are out of the oven, remove the foil and, while still hot (I like to dip my fingers in a bowl of cool water while performing this task), peel their skin of. Set aside to cool and then place in a medium-sized container in the fridge to store.  
        The dressing recipe yields a lot, but, given the amount of grains in the salad, I think a little extra is necessary. That said, if you like a more underdressed salad, the dressing keeps nicely in the refrigerator. Just bring it to room temperature before using it.

For the salad: 
 2-3 handfuls arugula
2 cups sorghum (cooked according to the instructions above)
1 small handful of basil, roughly chopped and sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent oxidation
Green parts only of two spring onions, finely chopped
3 beets, thinly sliced and cut in half (cooked according to the instructions above)
4 ounces goat cheese, roughly crumbled
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted and cooled
pinch of salt and a dusting of pepper

For the dressing: 
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 1/2  tablespoons olive oil 
pinch of salt, pepper and natural cane (or granulated) sugar

-Assemble the salad, layering the ingredients: first the arugula, then the sorghum, followed by the herbs, beets, goat cheese and pine nuts. Gently sprinkle with salt and pepper. 
-Make the dressing, whisking the ingredients together and tasting it as you go (this is crucial as salad dressing is a hugely person matter). If it needs more acid, add an additional dash of vinegar or lemon juice; if it needs more depth, add a little more oil or sugar. You could also save the finely chopped green onion and whisk it into the dressing.
-About 20-30 minutes before serving, pour about half of the prepared dressing over the salad and gently toss with your hands; taste the salad to see if it requires more dressing. Make the adjustment according to your taste.
-Serve and enjoy! 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Five Years

"How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself." -Virginia Woolf (The Waves

Five years ago to this day, in my childhood bedroom on Fredericktown hill, I sat down at my desk and started this blog. At the time it all seemed like such an inconsequential act--a stab in the dark, a chance to start something new outside of the microcosm of Slavic literary studies. On the surface, starting a food blog appeared to be relatively simple: find something to cook, make it, snap a few photos and then write about it. How little I knew! These things represent only a fraction of the process, which is why, when I look back now I realize how I well and truly had absolutely no clue what I was doing.

But, if nothing else, a blog gives you a reason to learn. Because of this space, I learned the art of  breakfast: the trick of adding a splash of vinegar to the swirling water when poaching an egg, and how to whip up batches of waffles that shatter when your fork cuts through them (the secret is simple: all-purpose flour is a waffle's truest ally). I learned to confront my irrational fear of unmolding precariously jiggly panna cotta, of kneading my way to crackly, honey-colored loaves, of whipping egg whites into glossy, Pavlova-ready peaks. On some weeknights I've eaten meals fit for an Ottoman sultan, and on others I've embraced the rustic simplicity of the Mediterranean diet. I've followed the recipes of my grandma, of perfect (yet somehow knowable and kindred spirit) strangers, of trusted sources that would never lead me astray and even of those who would inadvertently have me do things that, as experience has shown me, would never work in a million years. I've found that to have a food blog is not only to be continuously experimenting--with other people's ideas and my own--but also to be wary of the potential pitfalls that threaten the home cook.

And let's not even talk about the trial and error of taking photos of food, especially when you have a tiny and irremediable astigmatism that fools you into thinking there is a focus when there is, in actuality, the slightest of blurs. One would think food's immobility would work in favor of the photographer, but the light must be just so and the food artfully arranged. I often imagine the act of photographing a beautifully prepared dish is not so different from what a photographer of Annie Leibovitz's stature faces when she photographs a Vogue cover girl: the food must look seductive, yet accessible--moody and "effortlessly" (that is, with the absolute maximum effort allowed) mussed. It's strange to think how a thing so ubiquitous and inherently practical has become a sex symbol for the modern age, but all evidence points in that direction: rock stars now introduce chefs at events, dining out can resemble a food marathon and leafy greens formerly deemed fit only for animal feed have become a coveted restaurant-menu item. At times, this fuss can be overwhelming; at other, it's an amazing spectacle to behold and take part in.

In short, though I have my misgivings about both blogging and food culture, I for some reason persist. This blog, weirdly enough, has become a part of my identity and routine. While five years is but a droplet of time, it's also not an insignificant amount of time, either. It existed before the Greek, before Elektra, before the end of the dissertation, before I cemented some friendships and, due to circumstances, let go of others. It has outlasted a lot of change and I can't imagine moving to Delaware and taking the next steps without it--even if sometimes, as with any routine, I feel saddled by it, neglectful.

It's crazy to think that there are moments when I'm struck by an absolute need to blog (sadly, these moments usually strike when I'm walking either to or from work and can do nothing about them), but I feel like there are always flavors, smells and experiences that I want to savor and share. Here, in this space.  

The recipe for these ice cream sandwiches constitutes one of the moments worth sharing. It's true that I've been selfishly keeping them from you since early April, but given the graduation, the trip and the current virtual hunt for a house in Delaware (please feel free to remind me in the comments that, though I may fantasize about colonial farmhouses with chicken coops and dairy farms and four fireplaces, I would have no idea what to do with 10 acres of land, my very own cow and all of the rodents that would most likely await me.), there has been so little time. And, truth be told, I've really been keeping them from you (and myself) since fall of 2012 when I first received The Sprouted Kitchen cookbook, saw them and immediately wanted to devote my life making and eating them. If this doesn't demonstrate my eternal battle with fleeting time, I don't know what will. 

To put it simply, from flavor to texture, this is everything you could ever want in an ice cream sandwich. Bolstered by a combination of peanut butter, honey and sugar and oat flour (for the gluten intolerant, these ice cream sandwiches are for you!), the cookies are soft and delicate, but not crumbly; they hold up to the noble task of sandwiching vanilla ice cream nicely. The flavor, too, benefits from these same ingredients, resulting in a nutty and toothsome cookie that is made only better by the shards of chopped dark chocolate that decorate it. From start to finish, it may be a bit of a project to make them, but the ingredients alone should tell us that this is a superior ice cream sandwich. What cements it for me is the way the cookie exterior, like that of the best ice cream sandwiches, starts to turn sticky and melt against the heat of your hand as you eat it. This, my friends, is the mark of a keeper and as good a reason as any to celebrate the ice cream sandwich.

Oatmeal Cookie Ice Cream Sandwiches

Adapted slightly from Sara Forte's The Sprouted Kitchen
Yields 15 sandwiches

Before launching into the recipe, I just want to say that I adore both of Sara Forte's cookbooks and cook from them often. Something about them just says California to me and I find Sara's voice to be both humble and inspiring. When I cook from her books, I usually follow her kitchen wisdom completely (really, I trust anybody who learned to cook using the bounty of San Luis Obispo, aka paradise on earth), although her recipes easily allow for substitutions and shortcuts.
     Making these sandwiches, I made a few minor substitutions, using turbinado (sugar in the raw) instead of dark muscavado and using kosher instead of sea salt. There's really no need to mess with perfection.
     One more note since this recipe calls for oat flour: rather than buying a whole bag at the store, you could just as easily make your own using a food processor. To get the amount required for this recipe, pulse 1 1/4 cups rolled (old-fashioned) oats. Also, if you intend to serve these to the gluten intolerant, it's best to buy a bag of gluten-free oats just to be on the safe side and to prevent issues of contamination.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup creamy natural peanut butter
1 1/3 cups oat flour (see note above)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, coarsely chopped

2 quarts vanilla (French, vanilla bean or whichever vanilla you prefer)

-In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the oat flour, baking soda, salt and chopped chocolate chips. Set aside.

-Then, using an electric or stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add the egg, honey and peanut butter and mix on medium speed until well combined. Pour the dry ingredients into the wet mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until just combined. Chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

-About 15 minutes before you are going to remove the cookie dough from the refrigerator, preheat the oven to 350 F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

-Remove the dough from the refrigerator and, using a spoon or ice cream scoop to measure it out, form the dough into 1 1/2-inch balls and place them on a baking sheet at least 2 inches apart. You should have roughly 30 cookie balls; use the second cookie sheet as necessary.

-Bake the cookies for 12-14 minutes (NB: Sara's cookies were done in 8-10, but mine took longer. Given this discrepancy, you may want to start checking them sooner rather than later), rotating the cookie sheets halfway through. The cookies will be ready when their edges are golden and crisp.

-Once ready, remove the cookies from the oven and transfer them to a wire rack and let cool. Once cooled to room temperature, transfer the cookies to the freezer using 1 to 2 cookie sheets (it may be a tight fit, but this is the easiest way forward). Let chill for at least half an hour.

-A few minutes before taking the cookies out of the freezer, remove the ice cream and let it soften. When it's ready, remove the cookies from the freezer. Using an ice cream scoop, place a heaping scoop of ice cream on the bottom of one cookie and gently smoosh the ice cream down with the bottom of another cookie until it reaches the sandwich's outer edges. Repeat until you have filled all of the cookies and then put the sandwiches in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes before wrapping them in plastic wrap (NB: It was warm the day I made these and I found it easier to make a few (2-3) sandwiches at a time and place them in the freezer as they were ready. It slowed the process down a little, but it prevented the sandwiches from melting).

-The sandwiches will keep for about a month and a half.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Food for Thought

"Sometimes I wonder if man was really meant to discover magic," Fogg said expansively. "It doesn't really make sense. It's a little too perfect, don't you think? If there's a single lesson that life teaches us, it's that wishing doesn't make it so. Words and thoughts don't change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart--reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn't care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn't. You deal with it, and you get on with your life." -Lev Grossman (The Magicians)

 From trains that seemed to be waiting for me to hop on them before closing their doors to an abundance of morning sunshine, today was a day full of little fortuitous moments. This moment in front of the computer may also represent yet another happy coincidence, though I suspect it's really just the product of my having "paid it forward" this past weekend by cooking so extensively that I ensured a steady supply of leftovers for the week.  Regardless of what it is, I am not going to question my good fortune, particularly as I've been wanting to write more. In these days of the legal life, one that has made me feel more and more like an extension of my desk chair/advanced reading machine (more on this soon), this just isn't as possible as it ought to be. That said, there are often evenings like tonight (dusky amethyst sky and cool breeze not necessarily included) that simply beg to be seized; I just have to remember that, when they present themselves, I have to summon the energy to latch onto them.

On that happy note, I offer June's food for thought, a prelude to what I hope will be a month full of a mixture of chocolate- and hearty vegetarian-fare-fueled posts:

Currently Reading: Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which feeds my fantasy addiction. Up next: All the Light We Cannot See, and then Faithful Place because summer is the season when Tana French really shines. 

Currently Watching: Although I generally dislike the amount of gore, nudity and unnecessary violence the creators of Game of Thrones squeeze into given season of the show (Ramsay Snow needs to go--consider this my personal chant for the past two seasons), I'm rather addicted to what has become the Greek's and my Sunday night pleasure now that we have finally caught up.

Most exciting food discoveries of the past month: Rhubarb Yogurt Cake, which I made this weekend and loved for its custardy texture and tart little pockets of rhubarb; Joe Yonan's "weeknight vegetarian" column in the Washington Post, which I like so much (black pepper tofu and the secret to perfect brown rice! All about lentils, too! The column is both varied and smart) that I might just become a subscriber once living in Delaware; a Roman breakfast tradition that I could get behind.

Best kitchen tips from the past month: Nancy Harmon Jenkins says to go rogue, embrace the Mediterranean method and not to blanch and peel fava beans; we tried it (the recipe for fava and prosciutto), it worked and we may never peel our fava beans again; courtesy of the Washington Post, how to store bananas, garlic, potatoes and celery to maximize their freshness.

Articles worth reading: a sad account of the academic world and its reliance on (and abuse of) adjunct professors; a crude but hilarious take on one modern woman's transportation woes and the world's need for mutual respect; a portrait of Deborah Madison, the Queen of Greens, with recipes; thank you, Mark Bittman: time to stop fearing almonds and to embrace America's need for a true system of regional/seasonal agriculture.

Thoughts on Current Food Culture: I've long had the creeping sensation that there are too many cookbooks out there these days and that food has become one of the dominant topics of conversation (and, by default, money makers) in this country and perhaps the world. For the most part, as a person who loves cookbooks, I am okay with this, but the mania has really started to reach a new and disturbing level. This realization was driven home recently when I was taking a recent PG&E survey and they asked me if I would want to receive recipes in my monthly PG&E newsletter. My answer was a very clear no; there has to be a line drawn in the sand somewhere and I think rejecting a gas company's attempt to become a monthly food magazine is a fine place to start. Then, yesterday I saw news of the partnership between Williams-Sonoma and Mattel, which will soon be offering a series of cooking classes, baking sets and a cookbook based on the American Girl collection and realized that no market (or child) was safe from the steady advance of Food. While I'm all for teaching children to cook and about the pleasure of food, when does enough become enough and why do all major companies have to have a slice of the pie? 

Then again, given America's capitalist leanings, this is perhaps a silly and naive question. I just wonder when food will stop having a moment or if this is, for better or for worse, the new normal. Thoughts?

Photo: From Sunday's paella feast at home, courtesy of Claudia Roden--the octopi that didn't fit in the paella pan got the Greek treatment, with a glass of ouzo on the side. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Great Escape

The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls. -John Muir (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir)

Needless to say, May didn't quite turn out as I had expected. While I had seen myself having free time to read, write and reflect, I was instead busier than ever. Truly, not a weekend or evening went by when we didn't have something planned with the Greek's parents and aunt, or when we didn't have a cause for some sort of celebration. First, the Greek finished a draft of his dissertation, then he got all of the signatures, and finally he filed (three cheers to a dissertation-free household!)--obviously, all three were noteworthy and deserved to be toasted. Immediately after he filed, birthday madness descended upon us, complete with two fantastic dinners (the first at Frances and the second at Corso), a trip to Yosemite and a 30th birthday/dissertation ph(d)inishing (please forgive the Ph.D. humor) party for the Greek. Oof.  As a person who thrives on quiet time and introspection, there were moments when it was all a little overwhelming, moments when I longed to reconnect with this space and the perfect solitude of blogging, but I also realized that it could wait. There are times in life when you not only have to disconnect in order to reconnect, but also when you have to live and step into the unfamiliar in order to have something to write about.

Yosemite was, to put it simply, pure magic in this respect. It was the first time I had been somewhere new in months and the very act of being there felt restorative--like sloughing off a layer of the invisible hardness that had formed while commuting and sitting in front of a computer every day.  There was fresh air and the kind of silence that vibrates with possibility. Truth be told, it was hard to know what would next appear at our humble little cottage in the woods of Groveland. We were visited daily by a herd of a deer and in our midst was also a crop of the tallest mushrooms I had ever seen.

Yosemite itself was a wonder. When you see its towering cliffs and trees, its careening waterfalls and otherworldly landscape, you recognize the sheer bounty of California's natural beauty. At moments like these, it's easy to see why the state reminded the early Spanish conquistadors of the mythical island paradise Califia.

On our first day there, we hiked past waterfalls on paths marked by thistles and flowering trees; along the way there were horses, ground squirrels and bluejays too, as well as the music hidden woodpeckers were making It was a (welcome) far cry from civilization, but we still managed to find ourselves at a gorgeous luxury hotel drinking overpriced lattes and hot chocolate and snacking on gluten-free cookies (this, sadly, was all that was on offer; it seems that even the valley of Yosemite hasn't managed to escape modern food trends).

Exhausted and ravenous from hiking, we found ourselves back at the cabin that evening ready for a feast. For those few days, I was in charge of the cooking and was quite eager to see what I could come up with. Although we ate simply while on the trail (sandwiches and granola bars), the cabin and its many amenities (gas stove, oven, dishwasher--not to mention a fair amount of cooking equipment. If only I had known in advance there was a waffle maker!) gave us the slight edge of "glamping."  We were well equipped for glamping, too; we had stopped and bought groceries on the way from Berkeley, and I had also decided to bring several of the leftover vegetables from our CSA box that had gone uneaten that week. With this bounty, I was able to let both my imagination and years of cooking experience (thanks to this blog, really) run wild.  Our first night we had a rainbow chard risotto and roasted carrots with a basil and green garlic tzatziki; on our second, my sous chef fired up the grill (another fine amenity of this cabin) and made ribs and burgers to accompany a simple side of roasted broccoli that I threw in the oven while his aunt was teaching me to knit. 

Each morning, in preparation for the hike ahead, I made a batch of April Bloomfield's porridge, a recipe that has been written about so much that it barely needs an introduction, from A Girl and Her Pig. It was the only "recipe" I used while on this trip and this isn't because I had snuck a cookbook in my suitcase. The truth is, it's an easy, not to mention worthwhile, recipe to memorize and keep in your back pocket for either rustic weekend adventures or mornings when you want to eat both well and simply (I like Bloomfield's food, especially her breakfasts). Rolled oats and steel-cut oats are combined in a simmering mixture of whole milk (or, in this case, half and half) and water with a generous pinch of sea salt and left to simmer for about 20 minutes. While this may not seem special, it elevates a simple bowl of oats into a dish that makes you sit up and take notice: it's textured and creamy and downright deliciously filling. Topped with honey, brown sugar or even a spoonful of the strawberry jam that your grandmother gave you at your brother's wedding, it's the kind of breakfast you want to eat before driving up to what feels like the very top of the universe.

Not to be morbid, but at least in this case, should you fall from the dizzying heights of Glacier Point, you will know that you had eaten well. 

April Bloomfield's Porridge

Slightly adapted from A Girl and Her Pig
Yields 3-4 small, but ample servings; when serving more, the recipe doubles easily

Bloomfield, it must be said, likes her porridge on the salty side; the original recipe calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons flaky sea salt. While I don't mind salty porridge, especially if it's going to be topped with something sweet, the Greek looked at me like I was crazy when I once made this for breakfast in its fully salty glory, so, since then, I've cut the amount down more than a bit. It doesn't detract from the the porridge's winning feature (its texture), though, so either salt or sweeten to your (or your partner's) personal taste.
     The issue of saltiness aside, it's best to stick to the other ingredients Bloomfield demands; this porridge won't be the same with any kind of instant or quick-cooking oats (either steel-cut or rolled). Even in terms of the dairy being used, you could use almond milk or a low-fat (2% or 1%) cow's milk, but I suspect that, without whole milk, it might not be as creamy. At the cabin, we had only half and half (we didn't buy any milk at the store), which made for a creamy and decadent porridge.
     By the way, if some of you think it's strange that I'm offering a recipe for porridge at the end of May/beginning of June, come to California and you'll understand why: for us, it's winter. 

1 1/2 cups whole milk or half and half, plus extra for the very end
1 1/2 cups water
1 generous pinch flaky sea salt (I like Maldon)
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup steel-cut oats
To top it off, a few tablespoons of sugar (brown or granulated), maple syrup or jam and/or toasted nuts

-In a medium saucepan, bring the milk, water and salt to a gentle simmer over high heat. 
-Once simmering, stir in the oats and lower the heat to medium. 
-Cook the oats, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes or until the rolled oats have softened completely and the steel-cut oats have just a tender bite. 
-Remove from heat and spoon the porridge into bowls and top with the desired toppings (sugar, nuts, jam, etc.).
-If desired, pour in a little extra milk, half and half or cream to each bowl so that it pools along the edges of the porridge.


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