Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Anything But Bland

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

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

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

Vinegar Chicken with Rosemary and Garlic

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

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

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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

On Choosing Simple

How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be. -Jenny Offill (Dept. of Speculation)

If I was so bold as to call last week a doozy, I'm not really sure what word I can use to describe this past one. Tortuous comes to mind, but since I'm trying to curb my inclination towards the melodramatic, I'll instead opt to say that it was incredibly long and as slow as Moses is often purported to be. It wouldn't have been so bad really, had I not been asked to work on the rainiest and gloomiest Sunday we've had in some time. What had been promised to be a short three-hour day quickly turned into what was clearly going to be a nine-hour affair; in that moment, I saw my hopes of a semi-normal Sunday, i.e. marmalade making and reading on the couch, fade into oblivion.

To be fair, it was a matter of some urgency. We had a mediation brief due in Hawaii (in a remote location on the island of Maui that, if you can believe it, is called nothing other than Haiku) on Tuesday and, to get to tiny poetic Haiku, where mediators work only with paper and for such vast sums that they never need to leave their dreamlike lives and locations more than 5 or 6 times a year, the brief needed to be Fed-Exed by Monday afternoon. No matter that I valiantly offered to hand deliver it myself (surely more trustworthy than any mail service) at least twice! Since that escape was denied me, all that was left at my disposal--and really, all that I had any energy for most nights this week--was the sheer pleasure of coming home and watching YouTube videos of Nigel Slater making impossibly good-looking food in his kitchen and garden (Nigel asks, in an accent oozing with charm and good sense, "Why buy apples when you can pluck them from your own tree?" If only it were truly that simple). At moments like these, I realize that I've become one of those people--someone who fantasizes about manicured kitchens, rustic gardens with pluckable apples and, most importantly, enough time to effortlessly throw together deliciously offbeat meals on a nightly basis--but then I wonder if there's really anything wrong with seeking the simple pleasures in life...? I can tell you that contemplating the ephemeral delight of poached pears is a lot more satisfying than wondering if you're working for the good guys or the bad guys. Food, even if the most complicated recipe in the world or the slimiest piece of okra, is so much simpler than untangling the motivation, memories and moods of people.
This is why, at the end of a long and hard week or six-day stretch, I have to remind myself that, even when times get tough, I choose simple. Call it my slogan for the year or a new rule to live by, but it can't get any better than this: no fuss or unnecessary negativity (minus the occasional public transportation rant). While I realize I sound like a yoga instructor, I think there's value in both my words and the wisdom of yoga instructors; why complicate things and exhaust ourselves when it's so much easier to embrace simplicity?

 This is why I like to bake, as well as why I will often reach for an apple and a jar of peanut butter for a snack. When I sit there with the spoon in my hand and can smell the overwhelming scent of peanuts mixing with the tart fruitiness of the apple, I recognize that I'm probably as close to nirvana as I'm ever going to get. But when I discovered that Ben Mims, a Southern baker with a serious sweet tooth, had taken my favorite snack and turned it into a tart, I realized two things: 1) sometimes it's okay to complicate things, especially if buttery pastry is involved, and 2) I had to have his book because he and I clearly were in agreement about most things in life. When I put his book, Sweet and Southern, on the cookbook Christmas list that the Greek had asked me to prepare for him (he can't keep track of my weekly obsessions; to that end, sometimes neither can I), I was really hoping that it would be the one he picked. Non-spoiler alert, my boyfriend, genius that he is, chose well. On Christmas Day, I pored over this book, dreaming about Southern layer cakes, Reversed Impossible Chocolate Flan, cantaloupe upside-down cake, Ambrosia pavlova and corn bread pudding. It's an incredibly unique book, with creative takes on classics (from Key Lime Pie to île flottante) and with so many brilliant and fun recipes that it's hard to know where to begin. Melissa Clark went with Reversed Impossible Chocolate Flan, which nearly convinced me that I should go that route too, but, for me, the choice was simple: apples and peanut butter were the only way forward. I was a goner as soon as I saw the words peanut frangipane; whereas frangipane, a pastry cream consisting of nuts, sugar, butter, eggs and flour, is usually made with almonds, Mims uses both peanuts and peanut butter to create a rich, nutty base on which the apples can rest.

I made this dessert in Pennsylvania for New Year's Day dinner with my family and, given that we are peanut butter-eating people, it was a huge hit. There was only one naysayer amongst us, my aunt, who found the tart to be too rich. While I polished my piece off without blinking (in another life, I'm convinced I was southern), I will say that I'm not convinced that, given the combination of peanut butter and peanuts, two sticks of butter are really necessary in the filling. In fact, if the butter were to be cut down to a stick and a half, I don't think anybody would notice the difference. Even one stick might suffice, but it could also be taking it too far; after all, if you're baking from a southern baking book, don't you have to give into its excesses? That said, Mims is all about cutting down on both sugar and fat where possible, but without sacrificing flavor. There is only one other improvement I could see being made to this tart: Mims has you cut the apples and mix them with lemon juice before pressing them into the frangipane base. It seemed to both my grandma and me that the apples might benefit from being tossed with sugar--Muscovado, light brown, granulated--which will help to caramelize them. Otherwise, this tart, which has become my favorite apple dessert of all time (no hyperbole), is nothing but sheer sweet and salty perfection. I recommend you make it and soon.

Peanut Butter-Apple Tart

Adapted slightly from Ben Mims' Sweet and Southern
Yields one 11-inch tart (8-10 pieces)

For the pastry, you can use your favorite recipe, but just in case you want Ben's, which, after a few pastry disasters, I've decided is as foolproof as he claims, here it is:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/4 cup ice water + more if needed

-Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a medium bowl, then add the butter. Using your fingers, work the butter into the flour, pinching and rubbing the mixture until it forms small pebbles.
-Make a well in the mixture and pour the ice water into it.
-Using a fork, slowly incorporate the flour and butter mixture into the water, stirring from the outside. Keep flinging the flour and butter mixture into the center until evenly moistened. Add more water, one ice-cold teaspoon at a time, if necessary.
-Dump the dough onto a clean work surface and push and knead until it just begins to stick together.
-Form into a rough ball (some bits will be shaggy) and shape into a disk about 1" thick. Smooth any cracks at the disk's edges, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to one hour or overnight (the dough can be frozen for up to one month).

For the tart:

 1 disk pastry dough
12 ounces roasted salted peanuts (2 1/3 cups)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter (I used Jif; natural would be too oily)
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tart green apples
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar (your choice) for sprinkling on the apples

-Preheat the oven to 375 F.
-Roll the dough to a thickness of 1/4" and press it into a 10- or 11-inch tart pan with a removable bottom (we used a 10-inch tart pan, which resulted in extra dough; so as to sample the tart before serving it, we lined a mini-tart pan with it and filled it with some extra frangipane and apples). Refrigerate until ready to use.

-Place the peanuts in a food processor and pulse until very finely ground.
-Add the flour, brown sugar, cubed butter, peanut butter, eggs, vanilla and salt, then process until a smooth paste forms.
-Transfer the frangipane to the chilled pastry shell and spread it evenly with a spatula or knife.
-Peel, core and chop the apples into small 1-inch cubes. Toss them with the lemon juice and sugar,  then arrange them evenly over the frangipane, gently pressing them into the surface.
-Place the tart in the oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden, the frangipane has thickened and the apples have caramelized.
-Let the tart cool completely before slicing into it. Know that your patience will be rewarded.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Food for Thought

It has been a doozy of a week. It all started off nicely enough--a really fun Spanish cooking class at 18 Reasons in SF (I cannot stress how refreshing it is sometimes to go out and dine with strangers!) on Sunday--but come Monday morning it was back to the grind. And, by grind, I mean wading through thousands and thousands of pages of documents in the hope of finding something that will be solid enough evidence to win us this case. You cannot even imagine how tired my eyes are (add to this the fact that I finally finished Bleak House! To be sure, it was, despite its legal theme, much more pleasant than legal production), but this is the kind of fatigue I was trained to handle. It's no wonder than humanities majors often find themselves moving into the legal profession; they share a similar skill set and can treat what essentially amounts to 8 copies of War and Peace like it's light and easy reading.

The real fatigue, however, comes from the commute. I know I sound like a broken record when it comes to public transportation, but you have to understand that, for me, the daily commute is my Hunger Games, a Darwinian test of survival. On Monday, I decided to squeeze my petite frame into an open space; the man who had been occupying this space seemed to be affronted by my savvy use of the space and basically spent most of the ride with his elbow in my face. On Tuesday, I was basically inhaling the scent of of a man's backpack after said man wouldn't scoot up so that I could crowd in behind him. Oddly enough, today was fairly tame in terms of BART offenses; the worst thing that happened was that every time the train would come to a stop, a lady's braid would gently whack me in the face. I coughed once, hoping she would move away, but subtlety is lost in the morning battle between the small and meek and the large and backpacked. I thought I was in the clear, but as I sped through the streets, trying to make up for BART's eternally lost time, I was basically body checked (body checked!) on Sansome; when I turned around to see who my offender was--I'm ashamed to say that I expected it to be a man; after days of being the victim of manspreading, could one really blame me for coming to the obvious conclusion of manslamming?--I saw a tiny Asian lady with a backpack running to catch the bus. Let me just say that it's days like today that I arrive at the office simmering like a well-seasoned stew. Filled with righteous indignation, I walked more briskly than before, but, before I made it across the next street, I could think of only one thing: the scene in Notes from the Underground when the Underground Man contemplates the various indignities of modern urban life: 

"'Why must you invariably be the first to move aside?' I kept asking myself in hysterical rage, waking up sometimes at three o'clock in the morning. "Why is it you and not he? There's no regulation about it; there's no written law. Let the making way be equal as it usually is when refined people meet; he moves half-way and you move half-way; you pass with mutual respect.'

But that never happened, and I always moved aside, while he did not even notice my making way for him. And lo and behold a bright idea dawned upon me! 'What,' I thought, 'if I meet him and don't move on one side? What if I don't move aside on purpose, even if I knock up against him? How would that be?' This audacious idea took such a hold on me that it gave me no peace. I was dreaming of it continually, horribly, and I purposely went more frequently to the Nevsky in order to picture more vividly how I should do it when I did do it. I was delighted. This intention seemed to me more and more practical and possible."

The very same idea tempts me and sorely, but I would never execute it. I do, however second the need for people to pass with mutual respect! While the need to articulate this fine sentiment is perhaps what drove me to blog tonight, I will end my rant here and instead send you to happier places than the public need for mutual respect and common courtesy: 

If my last post was any indication, I am all about citrus these days, so much so that I ordered the Greek and myself a 25-pound box of grapefruit and oranges. Now I am trying to figure out what to do with all of the citrus in my fridge! In the hopes of getting some inspiration, I started reading Claudia Roden's Book of Middle Eastern Food on the way home this evening and I am now determined to make her orange and almond cake, which seems like a cross between a cake and a pudding. I am also fantasizing about Grapefruit Negronis.

Given all of the talk about measles and vaccinations the past few weeks, I was interested to discover, after reading about the dangerous illness one of the characters in Bleak House comes down with, that Charles Dickens was an advocate for vaccinations.

Yet another article in the New York Times by my old college crush--this time on relationships, literature and the movies.

I've long decided that edible gifts are the way to go and was recently looking at the Anson Mills website for inspiration. Maybe I'm just a food geek (snob) or easily swayed by a pretty description, but don't you want to be using Artisan Fine Cloth-Bolted White Lamas Cake Flour? Or maybe that's too much of a mouthful?

Tell your friends you appreciate them on Valentine's Day, Leslie Knope style. Don't we all deserve to be told, at least once a year, that we're a "beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk ox?"

  I sometimes covet strange and useless things, but I think that wreaths, especially aromatic ones, have to be at least somewhat practical. 

An interesting look at a potential presidential candidate.

Some recipes I've enjoyed lately: Braised Onion Pasta (even an onion naysayer like myself found a way to love this one), Spiced Carrot, Almond and Pistachio Cake and, last but not least, the most amazing brownies ever: bittersweet and topped with a salted peanut butter frosting.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bright and Bitter

But I don't think it matters what my darling said. She was always merry. -Charles Dickens (Bleak House)

I've written this post no less than a hundred times in my head. Back in mid-December, it was going to be about a family recipe for a deliciously tangy braised chicken, but, by the time the sauce turned into a sticky sweet glaze, the lighting was all wrong and I couldn't snap a photo of the final product. A blogging fail, in other words (I will try again and soon, though; the recipe deserves to be shared)! Then, in Pennsylvania, I planned on writing a recipe-free post--musings for the new year--but my family's Mediterranean tempers and occasionally mafioso-like behavior (I sometimes truly feel that the family history is told in such a way that we might as well be in either the Naples or Sicily of the 1950s, nursing the wounds of the past and plotting the demise, Corleone style, of our biggest enemies, who, much like dear Fredo, turn out to be on the inside) pushed me out of the calm zone in which writing takes place and into a position that felt more like a harried diplomat trying to satisfy two deeply obstinate parties. Though I can remain fairly composed in the most trying of circumstances (the one perk of years of training), there was a moment when, pushed almost to the brink, I exclaimed to the Greek: "I think I'm going to need a vacation from my vacation!" By the time we made it back to California, the new year had taken yet another unexpected twist, which left me struggling to regain my footing. In short, I was never supposed to be away this long, but life, as the cliche goes, simply got in the way. 

Although I was away for longer than I would have liked, I have to say that I'm glad I waited to return to this space. While I have no problem addressing the bittersweet side of things and going beyond the studied prettiness of food blogging, I spent the first few weeks of the year really despising 2015 and believing that it might contain nothing good. I swore that my preferred flavor of the year was bitter;  to show my seriousness, when I was out I found myself ordering Campari and soda or something made with Amaro and, every day towards the end of my lunch at work, rather than reach for something sweet, I would pull out a bag of kumquats and, while reading Bleak House, slowly eat them, simultaneously relishing and wincing at their strange mixture of bitter, sour and sweet. I'm happy to report, however, that both my inherent optimism (yes, the Dickens quote from Bleak House with which I began this post was not meant to be ironic. It is more so aspirational) and sweet tooth have triumphed in the end. 2015 is beginning to look more bright and miniature peanut butter cups have made it back on my desk (admittedly, they are the dark chocolate kind, so bitterness has not been entirely dispelled, but we all know that bitter can definitely sometimes be better). In part, this change of heart is due to handful of happy things--a baptism, the surprise engagement of a friend, a few evenings out with friends, going here, here and here--and the beginnings of an outline of our, the Greek's and my, future. Since nothing is decided yet, I don't want to speak too soon and jinx anything, but needless to say, there has been some cause for excitement. 

I also have to say that, though I've been missing blogging, there are moments when I can't help but appreciate the quiet. The internet sometimes seems so noisy, like everybody is jockeying to be heard, that all I want to do is close the computer and curl up with my Dickens (at age 31 and 1/2, I am finally reading Dickens--not A Christmas Carol Dickens, but Dickens at his lenghtiest, plot weaving best; naturally, I opted for a novel about the law) or something as comforting and inviting as Elizabeth David's Italian Food. At moments like these, I realize that I'll forever be hopelessly old-fashioned, made giddy by descriptions of both foggy legal procedure and the joy in making a pot of beans. This was never more apparent than when the Greek and I were in Pennsylvania. I had made the bold decision not to take my old and heavy laptop with me, which meant that my days passed in a strange, yet welcome way: no glare from a computer screen, lots of time to think and lots of doing--truly, lots and lots of doing and making. There was homemade spaetzle, a pizza night with my grandma and even a bûche de Noël! My next post, which I am committed to producing at least one week from this one, was also a Pennyslvania project. But the crowing achievement was the grapefruit marmalade that we made on New Year's Day. Not only was it the exact thing I had had in mind when I ordered my grandparents 25 pounds of citrus and canning jars for Christmas (I've decided that the best gifts have an edible element) but it was also a strange precursor to my preference for bitter things. Truly, the beauty of this marmalade rests in its brilliant pinkish-orange shade, in its almost overwhelmingly sweet taste, which is followed by a welcome hint of bitterness that makes the marmalade taste nothing but perfectly balanced. 

The recipe comes from Diana Henry's beautiful Salt, Sugar and Smoke, which I've written about before. I turn to this book often--so often that it might just be my favorite preserving book. It's both comprehensive and inviting; the photos draw you in and the simplicity of the recipes makes you feel that you might be able to take anything out of your fridge and, with a little effort, transform it into something that will brighten and enhance your pantry. This is precisely the case with Henry's grapefruit marmalade, which, unlike most marmalade recipes, can be made in one afternoon, rather than the classic three. While there is something to be said for slowly cooking things and for giving the flavors time to rest and blend, Henry's marmalade is made none the worse by its being a somewhat speedier process than most. Truth be told, it's not even a speedy process; the grapefruit must be peeled, juiced, thinly sliced, boiled, reboiled and then heavily sugared. I cringed at the 10 cups of sugar measured out in a large bowl, but the amount ended up being just right. Always remember when canning that not only will each fruit taste somewhat different from the next, but also people's preferences will also differ, which might mean more or less sugar. That said, if you're going to go the trouble of making grapefruit marmalade, you want the grapefruit to taste like grapefruit: bitter, bright and bold. The goal should never be to clobber and mask the grapefruit with sugar, but, ideally, to nudge it into a subtle and reluctant sweetness. There is, after all, a season and a flavor for all things.

I'll be back soon with something sweet to balance out the bitterness. The new year's goal, besides remembering to be merry, is to be here, to be creatively engaged, at least once a week. Because I find that the food world is noisier than ever these days, I've been planning, in addition to recipes, some "Dining with..." posts that will involve different authors and that will satisfy a different kind of hunger; I believe Dickens will be the first on the menu. "Food for Thought" will also be back come February 1. A belated happy new year to you all!

Pink Grapefruit Marmalade

from Diana Henry's Salt, Sugar, Smoke

yields 8 (1/2 pint or 1 cup) jars

4 large pink grapefruit
juice of 1 lemon
9 1/4 cup water
10 cups granulated sugar

-Quarter the grapefruits and squeeze their juice into a large and deep saucepan or a dutch oven.
-Scrape the membranes out, making sure to catch all of the seeds, and place both in a square piece of cheesecloth. Tie and secure the cheesecloth (a sanitized kitchen clip might be necessary) and add it to the saucepan. 
-Stir in the juice of one lemon and add the water. Set aside.
-Cut the grapefruit peels into thin (1/4 inch) shreds and add them to the pan with the other ingredients.
-Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for up to 2 hours (my peels were soft after 1 1/2 hours), or until the peels have completely softened.
-At this point, remove the cheesecloth bag with the membranes and seeds and set it aside. Stir in the 10 cups of sugar and, while stirring frequently, cook on a low to medium low heat until it has completely dissolved.
-Squeeze the remaining juice from the cheesecloth bag into the pan. 
-While the mixture is coming to a boil, take the time to prepare the jars: preheat the oven to 250 F and wash the jars and place them on a cookie sheet. Once the oven has reached 250 F, place the cookie sheet in the oven.
-Once the marmalade starts boiling, prepare a candy thermometer, hooking it to the side of the pan (make sure the tip doesn't touch the pan's bottom). Start checking the temperature of the marmalade once it has reached a roiling, fast boil. 
-About 12 to 15 minutes after the candy thermometer reaches 220 F, or when the mixture takes on a glossy sheen, start testing for a set using the wrinkle test (place a small dish in the freezer and, when you think the jam looks ready, remove it from the heat, spoon some onto the cold plate and put the plate in the refrigerator. After a few minutes, remove the plate and gently push your finger into the jam. If it wrinkles, it's ready; if not, put the pot back on the heat and keep cooking and repeat until it has thickened to the desired consistency). 
-Once ready, remove the pan from the heat, skim any scum that rises to the top (both leftover cheesecloth and a small mesh strainer are good for this) and let cool for about 10-12 minutes. While the marmalade is cooling, remove the jars from the oven, but leave the oven on.
-Spoon the marmalade into the jars, leaving a headspace of 1/4 inch from the top. If any should spill on the rims of the jars as you're filling them, wipe it off with a damp towel. Cover with the lids and screw on the rings until snug. Place the filled jars back in the oven for 15 minutes to process. 
-Remove and set on a rack. The sound of the jars sealing should be music to your ears.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Like They Do

If you live and cook the same way your grandmother did, you’ll probably never open a cookbook. Cookbooks, and everything they symbolize, are for people who don’t live the way their grandparents did...Once upon a time, food was about where you came from. Now, for many of us, it is about where we want to go—about who we want to be, how we choose to live. Food has always been expressive of identity, but today those identities are more flexible and fluid; they change over time, and respond to different pressures. -John Lanchester ("A Foodie Repents")

I never realized just how strongly my mother felt about cake--what she considered to be proper birthday cake--until this past July. It was a day or two after I had posted about the pflaumenkuchen I had made for a friend's birthday, and she and I were on the phone talking about the various things that mothers and daughters talk about: dogs, clothes, life, food. Then, there was a pause before she said in a voice that I had come to know throughout my life as half genuinely curious and half mildly critical ("No lipstick? Don't you think some color would be nice?" or "Why do you carry such small bags? Don't you want something roomier?"): "I saw your blog and that plum cake was beautiful; it really looked delicious. Don't you think it was a bit plain for a birthday cake, though? There wasn't even any icing!" I was about to become a little defensive and to explain to her that this friend, though I adore him, is one of those strange people who doesn't even like dessert. I was going to add that I was 100% certain that, had I shown up with a chocolate frosted cake made in his honor, he would have expired at the sight of it. I also wanted to explain that, icing aside, I had topped each slice of the pflaumenkuchen with a more than generous spoonful of creme fraiche. But before I could say any of this though, she asked me, "Why don't you cook the way that we do?"

To say I was caught off guard by her question would be a lie. It was a thought that I had had many times myself, the kind of thought that gnaws a little at your insides and makes you feel guilty, like you've pretended not to know somebody in the street who was once near and dear to you. Not out of any malevolence, but more out of a sense that there might not be anything to say and any attempts to overcome the distance might be too painfully awkward. I suppose you could say that I recognized the truth in my mother's words. I would never dream of making Sloppy Joes for dinner (I wasn't even much of a fan when I was a kid, although they eventually grew on me), it's been years since I've craved broccoli and cheese casserole and, personally, I would like to forget that chipped ham (it's a Pittsburgh thing; have any of you ever had it?) even exists. But for every dish that I've eclipsed, there are things that I still long to eat, foods that remain the hallmarks of my childhood: my grandma's sour cream chicken and mashed potatoes, crispy cauliflower fritters, homemade noodles and my mother's wedding soup with the perfect little meatballs that melt practically melt into the rich chicken broth.

After that conversation, I started thinking more about how and why I cook the way I do. While there are certain things you learn about cooking and eating during your formative years, from creaming butter and sugar to how to fry an egg, there are also experiences that you can't anticipate. 

I was always the person in my family who loved to read and cookbooks, though it would be years before I would both use and collect them avidly, were an early passion of mine. My grandma kept her slim collection in the squeaky third drawer of a cabinet in the dining room and I would always sneak in there (or so I thought; the squeaking gave me away) and pull them out, finding recipes that appealed to me and suggesting dishes that we could have for dinner.  I should mention that, at that point in time, I wasn't interested in the actual preparation of the food; I cared only about the the way it sounded and looked in books, the promise of the final product. When I look back now, I realize that all of this searching stemmed from a desire to be different from what I was. I sought the unknown, answers and foods that could be found either in far away places or in books.

This is why, if I look back at myself through the prism of Lanchester's recent article in The New Yorker, I would almost call myself a "foodie" before the word even existed. That is, if I didn't object to the inherent silliness of the term itself (nosh and nom nom are right up there in my list of hated "foodie" terms). But even as a lot of my food choices and cookbook purchases have been geared towards exploring the world from home and learning to appreciate new flavors through the words and palates of virtual strangers, there are ways in which all the places I've been and lived (Russia, Japan, Greece, France, Italy, New York, Berkeley) have left their indelible mark on me. In some cases, I cook from memory, hoping to recapture flavors from the past and, in others, I think of what I want to eat and where I want to be that night. By the next day, I may have changed my mind completely. Some nights I even think I'm happiest just eating toast. This is the privilege of living and eating in the twenty-first century; we, unlike our grandparents and, to some extent, our parents, travel widely and eat daringly and the world invites us to do both. 

In short, I don't know that I entirely agree with Lanchester's overarching conclusion about today's food-obsessed population. While, yes, I concur that everything has gone too far in that we all want to be cultured devotees of Ottolenghi, worshipping at the altar of fresh and local vegetables, as well as knowledgeable practitioners of the latest food fads (sous-vide, I'm sorry to say, is truly having a moment), we also all have our own personal food baggage that we will carry with us for all of our lives. Being a lover of food, at least to me, means that balance can be struck between the desire for novelty, an adherence to tradition and an appreciation for simplicity. Everything, as they say, in moderation.

I was again thinking about my mother's words this past weekend when I was baking the White Rice Chiffon Cake from Alice Medrich's wonderful new book, Flavor Flours. What I like about this book (and it's been causing quite the stir around the internet here, here, here and here, so it's not just me) is that in its focus on gluten-free baking, it's not attempting to approximate the texture or flavor of all-purpose flour; instead, it asks the hypothetical question, "What if wheat flour did not exist?", and  uses it to explore the various baking possibilities that would exist in a world without wheat. Medrich experiments with different flours, from buckwheat and coconut to sorghum and white rice, in order to maximize and showcase their individual flavors. When flipping through the book, I was immediately intrigued by both the sound and photo of the White Rice Chiffon Cake; it promised to be light and airy, perfectly golden and dramatically high--all things that one should seek in a cake. An added bonus was that Medrich described the flavor of white rice flour on its own as soft and "floral" and suggested that the cake be topped with a halo of thick, white frosting. This alone meant that my mother would have no choice but to approve. Of course, it wasn't quite the same kind of cake that my family would make (not suffering from any food allergies, gluten-free baking remains largely uncharted territory in our baking repertoire) for Sunday dinner or the like, but it combined my personal need to try new flavors and ingredients with my family's love of traditional American desserts topped by the all-important frosting.

The cake comes together quickly and its texture, when you cut into it, is smooth, fluffy, and delicate, with none of the graininess that sometimes plagues gluten-free baking. Upon seeing it come out of the oven all pale and soft gold, I started fantasizing about how pretty a pink frosting would look on top of it and decided to play around with mascarpone, whipping cream and pomegranate molasses. While the pomegranate molasses lent a welcome tangy and sweet note to the frosting, one tablespoon sadly didn't do much for the color. No matter, however; I had a pomegranate on hand and decided both to accentuate the pomegranate flavor of the whipped cream and to brighten up the cake with a handful of pomegranate seeds and, for contrast, a handful of chopped pistachios. The final product was vivid and seasonal, as well as utterly delicious. 

I had given my neighbors, a couple, some cake of this cake on Saturday evening since they had helped me fix my bike tires a few weekends ago; though always friendly, when the guy and I met in the hallway early this morning, he was positively effusive: "That cake, that cake was A-MA-ZING. The texture and the frosting..What was in that?" More than happy to share, I told him and walked out of the building smiling. I was remembering my mother's obsession with marbled cakes piled high with frosting from when I was a teenager. Everybody who would try them always wanted to know what was in the frosting. It suddenly seemed that I might cook just like my mother after all.

White Rice Chiffon Cake

from Alice Medrich's Flavor Flours
Yields 8-10 ample slices

Medrich's cake is fairly easy to make, although, just like with this cake, it's important to proceed carefully when separating the eggs and then whipping and folding the egg whites into the batter. I've found that many online videos and tips suggest that, when folding egg whites into a batter, you cut through the whites before you begin scooping and folding the batter over them, but my grandma taught me that you should work from the outside in, starting from the edge of the bowl and scooping batter over the whites instead of cutting through and potentially deflating them. No matter what way you fold your egg whites, the final product will look somewhat streaky--a mix of buttercup yellow and creamy marshmallowy white. 

In her book, Medrich suggests using a 10-inch tube pan with a removable bottom, but, not having one of these, I opted for my 9-inch springform pan, which worked well. Medrich also says that the cake pan should not be greased or lined with parchment paper and, while I had no trouble removing the sides of the springform pan, I did find that a thin layer of the cake's bottom stuck to the pan's base when I sliced the cake, which was then difficult to remove (rice flour in this sense acts like rice that sticks to the bottom of a rice cooker or pot; it's stubborn and sticky). Next time I might try parchment paper to avoid this.

For the cake:
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (224 grams) granulated sugar
1 1/3 cups (200 grams) white rice flour 
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
5 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/2 cup flavorless vegetable (canola, safflower, corn) oil
3/4 cup cool water
8 egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

-Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 325 F.
-In a small bowl, set aside 1/4 cup (50 grams) of the sugar to use when whipping the egg whites.
-In a large bowl, combine the rice flour, salt, baking powder, egg yolks, vegetable oil and water. -Whisk until thoroughly combined. The mixture should look yellow and somewhat grainy, with oil slightly pooling at the sides of the bowl. 
-In the bowl of a stand mixer (a hand mixer and large bowl will work just as well) beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar with the whisk attachment until they are creamy. When you can lift up the whisk attachment and the whipped whites stuck to the whisk plop down into the bowl and loosely hold their shape, you will know they are ready for the sugar to be added to them. 
-While beating the whites on a high speed, slowly add the sugar. The whites are ready when they remain firm and resemble whipped cream. When you remove the whisk, run it through the whites and, if the indentation remains and the whites hold their shape, they are ready to be folded into the batter.
-Scrape roughly one quarter of the egg whites into the batter and fold them in with a rubber spatula.
-Fold in the remaining egg whites, being careful not to deflate the whites. The batter, when ready, should look slightly streaky, both yellow and white, but with the egg whites having been almost entirely absorbed into the batter. 
-Gently scrape the batter into the cake pan and spread it evenly.
-Bake for 50-55 minutes. The top of the cake should be golden and a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the cake's center should come out clean.
-Set the pan on a rack to cool and, while the cake is still hot, carefully run a knife around the sides of the pan to avoid tearing the cake (remember that it's fragile).
-After about 20-30 minutes, remove the sides of the springform pan and let the cake cool completely. 
-Once cool, the cake can be removed very carefully from the base of the springform pan with a cake lifter and transferred to a cake stand. Once the cake is in its final position, it is ready to be frosted. 

For the whipped cream:

4.5 ounces (130 grams) mascarpone  
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
6 ounces (3/4 cup) whipping cream
handful of pomegranate seeds, for decorating
handful of roughly chopped and unsalted pistachios, for decorating

 -While the cake is cooling, whip the mascarpone, confectioners' sugar and pomegranate molasses together in the bowl of a stand mixer until creamy.
-Scrape into a small bowl and, after cleaning the bowl of the mixer and the whisk attachment, add the whipped cream to the bowl and whip until soft peaks form. 
-Fold the whipped mascarpone and pomegranate molasses mixture into the whipped cream until well combined.
 -Top the cake with the frosting and sprinkle with a handful of pomegranate seeds. Repeat with pistachios. Serve and enjoy.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Food for Thought

China bowls and glass vases held small collections of flowers from the garden: hyacinths, lily of the valley and narcissi. The smell of them, miraculous, with wax furniture polish and blue wood-smoke, went all through the rooms and in the air of the halls and stairs, too. A person might walk from a cool corridor full of the scent of lit fires into a bedroom to find the smell of damp flowers from a pot of wild violets and hot starch from the fresh sheets and flat-creased pillow cases. -Sadie Jones (The Uninvited Guests)

Thanksgiving brought many flavors and tastes my way--leek bread pudding; carrots covered by a thick forest of dill; feuerzangenbowle!--but none was so sweet as the taste of freedom. It was the first time I had enjoyed a five-day weekend in what felt like forever and I savored every minute of it. With the rain pouring down outside (could this be the end of the drought?), I spent most of the weekend indoors; there were books to be read, sleep debt to be paid and even a foray into the sheep and rock-trading world of Catan. It was one of the most relaxing weekends I had enjoyed in a long time, so three cheers for the holidays! 

Since I'm still in the process of planning and executing posts for December--besides a few desserts that may require a little effort, I think the theme of the month is going to be elegant and effortless simplicity--I thought it would be a good idea to share some "food for thought." If nothing else, this helps me to organize and record the many interesting things that I read and come across online; I hope there's something inspiring for you too.

Before there was so much turkey that I thought we'd never stop eating turkey (I am happy to report that, thanks to tonight's delicious Turkey Curry Soup, a true leftovers game changer, the end is nigh!), there was a wish to eat nothing but vegetables to prep our stomachs for the cream and butter overload awaiting us. Given my Roman/Italian obsession, we went with a recipe from Emiko Davies' Regional Italian Food column on Food52 for Braised Endive with mint. There may be no better way to usher in the holiday season.

Lately, I've been obsessed with Rome and there's no better blog for peering into a Roman kitchen than Rachel Eats. Her latest post on how to make cacio e pepe, a classic Roman dish, is a pleasure to read and a tutorial that I can't wait to use come the weekend. That is, if I don't make her recipe for meatballs first.

A story about a Stone Woman that blurs the boundary between reality and myth.

I'm still waiting for the New York Times to tell us its list of favorite books for 2014, but for now the Washington Post's will have to do.

Buzzfeed is not always my favorite news site, but I concur wholeheartedly with its assertion that, "There is no need to be delicate here: If you’re not watching The Good Wife, you are missing out on the best show on television."
I'm intrigued by this beautiful kitchen art

I saw The Homesman this weekend and not only was the story haunting, but the cinematography was gorgeous and stark as well. Although it continues my Thanksgiving trend of choosing to see violent films about America, it nevertheless felt like the right kind of movie to see on a weekend that both celebrates and mythologizes our nation's past.
The protests that raged across the country in the days leading up Thanksgiving show us that America's criminal justice system is truly damaged. In The New York Review of Books, this problem is explored in depth in an essay that not only reviews a story of the triumphs and failings that occur in our justice system, but that also attempts to offer a tentative and hopeful solution.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Whole Grain Casserole for Thanksgiving

Last year, on the night before Thanksgiving, I was suddenly struck by the mad desire to make something real for dinner. Never mind that I had a cheesecake to bake and egg whites to whip, all I could think about was removing some of the excess food from the fridge and cluttered counter tops--Delicata squash from the CSA box, kale from a trip to the market, the remaining cranberries from making the cranberry jam for the Cranberry Margaritas--to make way for the turkey and the onslaught of leftovers to come.

As I considered the ingredients before me, I began to see the makings of Thanksgiving casserole. The combination of sweet squash and tangy cranberries immediately appealed to me and I could see them working nicely with sautéed kale. I just needed something to hold it all together--something both chewy and creamy. Looking in my cupboard, I settled on Emmer Farro, which retains its bite while it cooks; for the creaminess, the answer was simple: only a Béchamel would do and one that, true to Thanksgiving, would contain shallots and sage. Although I knew what I was envisioning would take some effort to prepare, the healthy promise of a vegetable-laden dish seemed worth it, especially before a big feast.

Although I wanted to see my kitchen inspiration through to the very end and taste a dish that embodied what I consider to be the best of Thanksgiving, I also think that making this dish was my way of "easing" into the holiday. There's such chaos on the actual day itself--are the potatoes ready to be mashed? Did I forget anything on my shopping list? Will the turkey be ready in time?--and, on some level, such fatigue by its end (blame the turkey if you will, but apparently it is really dessert's fault!), that I just wanted to sit and celebrate quietly: Just me, Elektra and the Greek; no feeling of running a culinary marathon; no worries; only a few dishes in the sink; and, most importantly, good food and plenty of gratitude.

Don't get me wrong; I love hosting every year, planning a menu and cooking for my friends. I also know that, at the end of the day and despite all of the fuss, Thanksgiving really isn't even about the food. Cliché that it is, it's about the companionship, the meeting of different traditions and the creation of new ones. 

Although hardly old enough to warrant the term "tradition," this casserole has managed to earn its place on my short list of Thanksgiving musts and traditions. With its roasted cranberries and squash nestled against wilted kale and plump farro, the casserole is not only striking--maroon, emerald and a soft shade of pumpkin orange, or as I like to call it, fall on a plate--but it also layers competing flavors and textures in a way that can only help to elevate the meal. It's the ideal companion for the turkey; that is, if it doesn't manage to steal the show itself. 

Farro Casserole with Cranberries, Squash, Kale and a Sage Béchamel

yields about 6-8 servings

        This casserole is quite filling on its own and, because it's full of fruit and vegetables, makes an excellent Thanksgiving side dish for vegetarians. That said, it can also easily become vegan by holding the Béchamel sauce; in this case, I would suggest not sautéeing the kale and, instead, tossing it with the still-warm farro and roasted cranberries and squash so that it wilts a little. The whole dish can then be drizzled with a simple dressing of olive oil (1 tablespoon) and lemon juice (1/2 lemon) and will be more like a grain-filled salad.

        While I like having this dish be almost equal parts fruit, vegetables and grain, it would be simple to double the recipe. Rather than doubling all the ingredients though, I would recommend cooking two cups of farro and using the same amount of cranberries, kale and squash. There will still be balance, but the casserole, thanks to the additional grains, will have a little more substance.

        Although I haven't tried it myself, there's no reason to believe this couldn't be prepared a few days in advance and then popped into the oven shortly before your feast. For those who like to pace themselves, the cooking process could also be done slowly, so as to be less intimidating: on Monday, you could make a big pot of farro (some could even be frozen for later use); on Tuesday, the cranberries and squash could be roasted and the walnuts toasted in the still warm oven; on Wednesday, you could sauté the kale, make the Béchamel and assemble the dish.

For the casserole: 

-Preheat the oven to 400 F, butter a medium-sized casserole dish and set aside. Then, line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

1 cup Emmer Farro, rinsed, soaked overnight and drained
5 cups water or broth (vegetable or chicken)

-In a medium saucepan, combine the drained farro and the water or broth.
-Bring to a boil and then lower the heat.
-Cover the pan and let cook for 50-60 minutes. The farro is ready when it has plumped up and softened, yet retains a somewhat chewy texture. The farro won't absorb all of the liquid, so be sure to drain off the excess.  

2 Delicata Squash
a sprinkling of salt and pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil 

2 cups (6.7 ounces) cranberries 
dash of salt and a sprinkling of pepper
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil

While the farro is cooking, halve and seed the squash, then cut it into half moons. Quarter the larger half moon slices into small cubes and cut the smaller ones into thirds. Spread the cubes on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
-Lightly sprinkle the squash with salt and pepper, then drizzle the olive oil over it.
-Toss to coat.
-Place the cranberries in a small bowl and add salt, pepper and brown sugar. Stir.
-Add the olive oil and toss to coat. Spread the prepared cranberries out on the other parchment-lined baking sheet.
-Put the two baking sheets in the oven (cranberries on top rack, squash on the bottom) and let the cranberries roast for 20 minutes. Remove the cranberries from the oven, then toss the squash and leave it roast for another 10 minutes.

10 ounces Tuscan (or Dino) kale, roughly torn from the stems
1-2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
enough olive oil to coat a large frying pan
salt and pepper, to taste

-While the squash and cranberries are roasting, soak the kale for a few minutes in a large bowl filled with cold water and 1 tablespoon of distilled white vinegar.
-Massage the kale,  softening it and helping to remove any insects that have latched onto the leaves.
-Drain the kale and, if necessary, soak and drain again.
-Dry the kale by spinning it in a salad spinner.
-Heat a large frying pan (preferably cast iron) on medium heat, add enough oil to coat the bottom and add the kale.
-Saute for five minutes or until the kale has wilted and become tender.
-Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

1/2 cup (2 ounces) walnuts

-After roasting the cranberries and squash, toast the walnuts in the preheated oven for 5 minutes.
-Remove from the oven, let cool for a few minutes and then roughly chop and divide into two even piles.

-Place the cooked farro in the grated casserole dish and add the cranberries, squash, kale and walnuts. Stir to combine, then sprinkle in half of the chopped walnuts. Stir again. Now that the casserole is assembled, turn to the Béchamel.

For the Béchamel

1 shallot, finely chopped
6-8 sage leaves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
a few dashes of ground nutmeg
sea salt and freshly ground pepper,  to taste
3 ounces grated Gruyere cheese

-Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until it melts.
-Once the butter is sizzling, add the shallot and chopped sage and cook until the shallot has softened and become translucent.
-Add the flour, stirring it in with a wooden spoon. It will become a smooth paste.
-On low heat, slowly whisk in the milk, adding a little at a time. The sauce will gradually become thicker.
-Once thickened, remove from heat and sprinkle in both the nutmeg and salt and pepper.
-Then, stir in the grated cheese until it fully melts into the sauce.
-Pour the Béchamel over the assembled casserole and top with the remaining chopped walnuts.
-Place in the oven for 25-30 minutes and cook until the sauce is bubbling.
-Remove and enjoy!
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