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!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

To Bohemia and Back

"Each of us narrates our life as it suits us." -Elena Ferrante (Those who Leave and Those who Stay)

A little more than two months ago, for Labor Day weekend, the Greek, Elektra and I took a weekend trip to Carmel and Big Sur. Although it will sound incredibly hyperbolic, the trip was ten shades of glorious: sunny, peaceful, simple. Up until the very end, when we stopped at a hazy beach in Monterey, it was one of those picture-perfect weekends with the bright blue of the California sky gracing our presence wherever we went and, when the sun would set, transforming itself into a soft, yet electric pink that recalls the finest sunsets in the Greek islands.

During that long weekend, I felt truly content. This break felt both hard-won and deserved, a rare combination. It was my first official day off work and it arrived at the exact moment when I needed it most. In hindsight, I realize that I had been approaching my breaking point; the breakneck pace of preparing all documents related to our motion was getting to me, the glare of the computer screen causing my eyes to ache and the need for a few days away from deadlines, train schedules and desk lunches was strong. Carmel--dog friendly and quaint--was just the place to be. I wanted to dip my teal-for real-colored toes in the chilly water and then walk down streets so eclectic that one minute you feel that you're in southern France with leaves climbing up the walls and, the next, that you stumbled into an Italian or Spanish garden.

Escapism was the name of the game and I wandered around the town with my camera, feasting on the sights. My eyes, tired from the sheer monotony of routine, were hungry for something different. This, in fact, was the exact impulse that drove me to write this post yesterday evening: work has been a little intense lately with a few late nights, tight deadlines and weekend assignments. Even if you find the material to be compelling (there was a lot of time spent last week both figuring out and memorizing bits of evidentiary code; I must say I enjoyed the challenge), there is still the potential for burn out. My recent experience with bronchitis has shown me that, in such scenarios, it's best to take a few steps back and, no pun intended (really!), just to take a breather. 

Because I couldn't take a trip anywhere this past weekend (I've discovered that in the "real world," Veteran's Day is not considered a holiday), I've opted to place myself back in Carmel and Big Sur through this post. Call this creative traveling or mere daydreaming; it's all the same to me. Who could blame me for wanting to go back to a beach where, somewhat surreally, when the sun finally set in all of its majestic pinkness, the people started to clap in awe? Or to return to La Bicyclette, one of the coziest restaurants I've been to in California?

Although quite stunning in its own right, I'm not sure that Carmel can really compare to Big Sur. Perhaps I ought to say that there's really no way to compare them; one is polished and chic--its beauty has been tamed--even shaped--by tourism, while the other is wild and sprawling. Looking at the landscape of Big Sur, it's no wonder it became a place associated with a bohemian and artistic lifestyle. You can't help but be amazed that the land was ever cultivated; all of it, from the steep cliffs to the Bixby Bridge, seems somehow impossible--the stuff of fairy tales, paintings, novels, rather than of real life.

After sadly being turned away from both the Big Sur Bakery and Nepenthe due to Elektra's presence (note to dog owners: Big Sur is not the most dog-friendly place in California), we ended up having lunch at a dog-friendly cafe and art gallery in one. The food was tasty, the views spectacular and the garden, with its prominent erotic sculptures, gave the place a Henry Miller-esque feel.

Since there's only so much marveling one can do, even in the face of abundant beauty, we finally got down to business and went for a short hike. While we had wanted a trail that would have taken us to a cliff with a view, Elektra's presence again limited our options since there is only one dog-friendly trail in Big Sur. That said, I wouldn't have had it any other way. The "pack" was together and our trail, while not as scenic as it could have been, was nevertheless lovely and quiet.

Since my favorite post-hike activity is to eat a pastry (otherwise, what is the point of hiking?), we stopped at the Big Sur Bakery afterwards. It was already late afternoon and a lot of the day's offerings had been picked over, but there were still Berry Brown Butter Bars and Peach and Apple Turnovers.  I also don't mind the thought of going back next summer for the Peach Brioche and maybe even for lunch in the bakery's idyllic garden.

There was a tiny part of me that was sad to leave. Not only had so much had been left unexplored, but there was also something so appealing about being tucked away in those cliffs. Although probably a trite observation, Big Sur struck me as a place a bit cut off from the external world, a natural haven where one could get lost and push against the boundaries of tradition. I'm hardly what one would call a bohemian, but even I felt the pull of its heady promises: solitude, nature and endless inspiration.

Once home, I continued to find myself thinking about our trip, Big Sur and its colorful history. Wanting to know more, I pulled my copy of Romney Steele's My Nepenthe from my bookshelves and sat down to read. Sixteen pages in and my curiosity hardly sated, I decided that the only way forward was to bake a cake. And not just any cake, but a cake that had first caught my eye as early as 2010, when I first got this book. This cake is the Torta Caprese, otherwise known as "uno dei pasticci piu fortunati della storia" (one of the greatest blunders in history). Stories say that, sometime between 1930 and 1950, the Torta Caprese was created by mistake when either somebody forgot to add flour to an almond chocolate cake, or an exhausted baker managed to mistake cocoa powder for flour when baking an almond cake. Whatever its origins, it's a simple cake with a big reputation and a lot of flavor.

Comparing the recipe in Romney Steele's book (this recipe was given to a friend of her grandmother by a Russian cook) to one featured on Epicurious shows a few differences: namely, the addition of orange zest (when I think of Capri, lemons come to mind more readily than oranges, so I used lemon zest instead) and vanilla, but also more eggs. It is in the separation of and beating of the egg whites that that the recipe becomes tricky. While the egg yolks are beaten with the sugar until pale yellow and fluffy, the egg whites must be whipped separately until they form stiff peaks. This step is essential and must be done properly; otherwise, the cake won't rise (this is its only rising agent ). No matter which method you choose for beating your egg whites, I would also recommend using whites that are at room temperature.

Interestingly, when preparing to write this post, I came across a recipe for a traditional Calabrian Walnut torte on Emiko Davies' blog (minus the addition of chocolate and melted butter, Emiko's cake is not all that different from this one; both are flourless and rely largely on nuts and eggs. She also recently wrote about the same recipe for Food52) and she advises that, when whipping egg whites by hand, you use a glass or metal mixing bowl since fats tend to stick more to plastic surfaces. In a rare move from my preferred way of doing everything by hand, in this case I would go so far as to err on the side of modern conveniences and allow the standing or hand mixer to do the work for you.

Even though this cake relies on a careful whipping of the egg whites, the truth is that it's also highly forgiving. Unlike a lot of cakes, it manages to strike the balance of being high on the crunch factor thanks to the texture from both nuts and its crackly meringue-like surface, while also retaining a dampness reminiscent of the best kind of brownies--not quite gooey and sticky, but soft, toothsome and with just the right amount of crumb. Topped with creme fraiche and served with a cup of tea, it's rich and lightly citrusy, an ideal afternoon snack.

The Torta Caprese is not at all a traditional choice for Thanksgiving, but it's worthy of being a contender. Should you want to play with the flavors, it has the potential to move away from its Italian roots and become something else entirely: pistachios and rose water could easily replace the almonds and vanilla and become something verging on Middle Eastern,  hazelnuts and a mashed banana (in place of one of the eggs) could give it a French edge and perhaps even the presence of peanuts in the midst of so much chocolate could create a cake fit for an American sweet tooth. While I like the sound of all of these variations, there's something about the classic simplicity of this cake that I like even more. And that, in and of itself, is saying quite a lot. 

Torta Caprese (Chocolate Almond Torte from Capri)

yields 1 9-inch cake 
adapted, largely in method, from Romney Steele's My Nepenthe

6 ounces fine-quality (60-70%) dark chocolate
1 1/2 cups whole almonds with skins
1 cup granulated sugar
5 eggs, separated
zest of one lemon
Pinch sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) butter, melted and cooled
Creme fraiche or whipped cream for serving

-Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch round pringform pan, then line the butter with parchment paper. Butter the parchment. 
-In a food processor or with a large knife, chop the chocolate coarsely, transfer to a bowl and set aside. 
-Grind the almonds finely with 2 tablespoons of the sugar, but be sure to leave some texture (the almonds and sugar should not resemble almond meal). Add the ground nuts and sugar to the chocolate.
-Using a mixer, beat the yolks with the remaining sugar until pale yellow and fluffy (this should take roughly five minutes). Then, on the lowest speed of the mixer, beat in the vanilla, lemon zest and pinch sea salt.
-Add the melted butter slowly and beat until combined. Add the chocolate and almonds and mix until incorporated. 
-In another bowl, preferably glass or metal, beat the egg whites until they hold firm, but not overly stiff, peaks (they should have some texture and not be at all watery; make sure to check the bottom of the bowl for traces of liquid before attempting to fold them into the cake batter).
-Gently fold a third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it and then gently fold in the remaining 2/3. 
-Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out fairly clean (it's a damp cake, so there will most likely be a few crumbs stuck to the toothpick). When ready, the top of the cake will resemble the crackly surface of a meringue and the sides will have started to pull away from the sides of the pan.
-Cool on a rack for 10 minutes and then release the sides of the springform pan and gently remove the top. 
-Let cool completely, then slice and serve with whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Food for Thought

Since I last updated, I have

 1) eaten my weight in soup,
 2) recovered from bronchitis,
 3) investigated the (unlikely) possibility of obtaining Italian citizenship, 
4) worked both on a Sunday and my first 10-hour legal day (exhaustion!),
 and 5) voted in a dismal midterm election. 

Clearly, it's been a bit of a mixed bag around here. But fortunately these things, although the highlights, aren't entirely representative of my life. There have been crisp fall mornings--the kind that I love--spent wearing thick wooly socks to keep the chill away, several nice meals with the Greek and his parents, who are here visiting from Greece, and even an afternoon trip to the movies. In addition to all of the hustle and bustle of the season (which always seems so misplaced), there has been a lot of online reading and link compiling for what has become one of my favorite blogging traditions: the monthly "food for thought." 

Without further ado, here are November's offerings: 

The photo of the leeks at the beginning of this post demonstrates my love of braising vegetables in cream; it's truly one of the most foolproof methods I know.  If people were iffy about the eggplant I posted about a few months ago, there can be no question that leeks were made to be braised in cream (with or without tarragon; fresh thyme is just as nice and, should you not have the fresh stuff, dried herbs will work nicely, too). Molly at Remedial Eating calls them "Divine Revelation Leeks" and they are exactly that.

To go along with my recent Italian obsession (I blame Artusi, Elizabeth David, Elena Ferrante and Emiko Davies), I decided to follow Rachel's advice and "Eat Like the Romans Do" (you won't regret it; it's both surprisingly easy and delicious).

Thoughts on Modern Society, Fomo (the Fear of Missing Out) and Jomo (the Joy of Missing Out). I'm pretty sure I suffer only from the latter; consider this a perk of the Facebook-less life.

I suppose you could also say I've been on an Elizabeth David kick; there's something endlessly inviting about both her blunt opinions and meticulous research, which this collection in The Guardian illustrates nicely.

It's not easy being a pet owner in this day and age.

I'm currently reading Tana French's wonderful The Likeness, which tells the story of a female cop who infiltrates a community of English Ph.D. students to track down a murderer. It appeals to me for the obvious reasons (it's always been more interesting to read about grad school than to be in grad school).

Speaking of PhDs, here's the Halloween Costume that Never Should have Been: the Sexy Ph.D.

I'm ashamed to say that I read several articles on the "What happened to Renee Zellweger's face?" question that has been sweeping various news sites during the last few weeks, but only in The Guardian did I find something substantive about the unfair beauty standards that females in the public eye are held to.

And, last but not least, the million-dollar question: would you sell your privacy for a cookie?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

An Elixir for a Sick Day

Greetings from the land of the sick. Although I'm not the kind to go to the doctor--a fear of being poked and prodded makes me more than a little reluctant--this time I started to sense that something wasn't quite right: no decongestants were working, too many tissues had been used and, although I had done nothing but rest this past weekend, my breathing had started to resemble a fine wheezing followed by spasms of coughing. Not even the occasional bottle of fancy vegetable and fruit juice or a steady diet of soups, from old favorites like Melissa Clark's Red Lentil with lemon to Ottolenghi's Spicy Chickpea with Bulgur and Herbed Feta, were helping. Instead, things seemed only to be getting worse. What had initially felt manageable, possibly the combination of a bad cold or a bad reaction to the flu shot that I had gotten a few weeks ago, had not only overstayed its welcome, but also appeared to be settling in for the long haul. And as my mother ordered me over the phone, "You're getting checked, Kathryn. GO," I figured it was time to give into modern medicine (one also does not argue once Kathryn has been used). 

So I wisely took the day off and went to the doctor. Within 10 minutes of being questioned and examined, I was asked if I had ever used an inhaler before. While my first thought was asthma (years of congestion explained!), the doctor instead informed me that I had viral bronchitis. She also told me no work, minimal movement and lots of rest--in short, all things that are antithetical to my very mode of existence. I'm also now taking steroids, using an inhaler and consuming a disgusting cough syrup, but one becomes surprisingly amenable to trying anything when the very act of breathing--what we often take for granted--becomes complicated. 

But there's always a silver lining in these situations. Although I suspect that I caught this bug on BART (I can't help but wonder: did I rub my eyes after touching a sneezed-/coughed-upon pole? Was it the day that a lady sneezed behind me, perhaps even on my hair, that my fate was sealed? Was it in the aftermath of the Giants game, when the train was so packed that we were all breathing in each other's faces? Yes, I do sincerely believe that 75% of the evil in my life stems from BART), I also can't help but philosophically suppose that, to some extent, this is also my body's way of telling me to take a rest. My first three months working in the law were busy--busier than I had been in a while and it takes time, mentally and physically, to adjust to so much change. 

There is an additional, culinary, silver lining in this situation, too. This past weekend, trapped (i.e. "resting") at home and feeling restless (how much TV can one girl watch?), I began looking through a few of my older cookbooks. While I put Elizabeth David's French Country Cooking aside for the moment, I gave my full attention to the late Evie Voutsina's The Cookery of Lefkada: tastes, narratives and customs in the cycle of the seasons. In her books, Voutsina, one of the grand dames of Greek cooking (sadly, she is simply not as well known here as she is in Greece) approaches people and places through a distinct culinary and cultural lens; her writing is both scholarly and folkloric. Sometimes, instead of providing precise recipes, she'll quote her sources directly since she believes that "the object of [her] research is the cookery of the agrarian sector, where cooking with local produce, according to the seasons, was created and preserved. Traditional cookery is folk art, or better, a mix of folk art and techniques. It is consequently handed down orally from mother to daughter and executed by women principally." While this can lead to some of her recipes being a little beyond your exact grasp, so much of cooking is about trying to recapture experiences and flavors and coming to terms with the fact that you may never be eating the very same meatballs that your grandma makes or vegetables that taste just like they did in the south of France. Some things simply can't be approximated and who can trust the slipperiness of memory, anyway? 

Her books make for pleasant reading and some of my favorite Greek recipes (leeks with prunes and cinnamon and herbed split pea fritters) come from them. In my reading on Saturday I discovered another fast favorite, which Voutsina simply calls "fig drink." Obviously, I was immediately drawn to this section because it was called, "Medications from the Kitchen," but when I read the short description of the fig drink: "A very soothing drink for a cold was made from dried figs, boiled with some cinnamon sticks and sometimes with a tisane of herb tea," I knew that it was made for my condition. Given the absence of instructions, I took a few liberties with Voutsina's "recipe"and added some lemon peel during the simmering stage and some lemon juice and honey just before drinking it. Although it didn't quite prove to be the magical potion I had hoped it would be, it was still incredibly soothing, fragrant and softly spiced (if only cough syrup tasted as good as this). Since it turns out that people with bronchitis are supposed to consume 8 ounces of fluid per hour (!), this drink is now my faithful companion.

The good news is that that you don't even have to be sick to enjoy it; even the still healthy Greek was more than happy to have a cup with me on Saturday afternoon and again last night. Despite being labeled "medication from the kitchen," the truth is that this drink is ideal for anybody looking for a little comfort and warmth on crisp fall nights.  

Fig Elixir with Lemon, Cinnamon and Honey

Adapted and inspired by Evie Voutsina's The Cookery of Lefkada
Yields 2-3 servings

Although I like the simplicity of this drink, I imagine that if you wanted to dress it up with a vanilla bean or even a splash of brandy, it would be just as good. That said, I don't recommend any strong herbal flavors. My guess is that fresh mint or mint tea would overpower the subtle flavor of the figs, whereas this drink calls for nothing more than an herbal tea--Greek mountain tea is preferable here, but chamomile would work nicely as well--that would happily play a supporting, rather than a dominant, role.
       Also, feel free to play with the proportions. This kind of recipe can easily be adapted to one's tastes.
        As a final note, the figs, once infused with the flavors of the tea and cinnamon, can either be turned into a thick paste in a food processor, eaten on top of a bowl of steaming oats or thinly sliced and placed on thick slabs of toast covered in cream cheese. The last way is currently my favorite.

105 grams dried figs (6-8 figs)
two cinnamon sticks
2-inch piece of lemon peel (about 1/4 of a lemon)
1 sachet mountain tea or other lightly fragranced herbal tea
3 cups water
honey and lemon juice, for serving

-Put the dried figs, cinnamon sticks, lemon peel and sachet of tea in a small saucepan. Cover with 3 cups water and bring to a boil.
-Once boiling, reduce to a gentle simmer and cover with a lid. Let simmer for 20-30 minutes.
-Pour into tea cups and add a softened fig and cinnamon stick to each glass. Flavor with honey and lemon juice to taste.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Act of Excavation

 "Why?" asked Strike heavily.
"Why what?" said Robin, looking up at him. 
"Why do people do this?" 
"Blog, you mean? I don't know...didn't someone once say that the unexamined life isn't worth living?"
"Yeah, Plato," said Strike, "but this isn't examining a life, it's exhibiting it." -The Silkworm (Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling)

When I read these lines in The Silkworm a few weeks ago, I felt a flash of recognition. Strike's question is one I've asked myself a thousand times, maybe even more.  Although I like blogging, I long ago realized that I'm the kind of person who is going to question the why of things--the driving impulse behind certain behaviors, the attachment to authors and hobbies, rather than be satisfied with the status quo and merrily prance along (you can take the girl out of the Russian major, but not the Russian major out of the girl, I suppose).

Truth be told, I haven't entirely felt all that inspired by this space lately, or maybe a better way of putting it is to say that I haven't felt compelled to be here in the same way that I often was in the past. I'm sure that this feeling partly stems from my more limited free time (it's true that a Ph.D., even during the dissertation years, affords a certain freedom that doesn't exist in the "Real World"), but if I go beyond the changes that have taken place in my life over the past several months, I know that there's more to it than that. For a long time now, I've been noticing that the internet has been undergoing a transformation and has increasingly started to resemble a virtual shopping mall. No matter where you turn, something is being sold; you're bombarded by advertisements, book promotions, pictures of products you can't possibly live without! While I recognize that a lot of people make their livings off of these books, products and advertising campaigns, it's still a lot to swallow, especially when you think that people first came online to escape these very things.

Maybe this is why the internet's atmosphere has begun to feel different, too--at least in the world of food blogging (technically, this is a food blog, but sometimes I'm not so sure). It now seems that  everything is about buying and branding, instead of about real people, real food and real conditions of daily life. Whereas once food blogs, at least to me, were about weekend baking projects and the eternal question of "what to have for dinner?", what currently appears to exist is a world of endless hashtagging, constant (self-)promotion and styled images. It can all become a little daunting, especially considering that in this world both the image and "curated" experience reign supreme. As somebody who puts more stock in words and stories than in images (substance over style, if you will), there's something truly off-putting about the rise of Pinterest and styling food until it almost looks too pretty to eat. While my grandma always told me that food should look appetizing and should appeal to the eyes, I think maybe the internet has taken it all a bit too far. Never forget that behind every beautiful shot of a platter of vegetables or a perfectly frosted cake lurks a stack of dirty dishes and a whole lot of effort.

Having said all of that, I think it's only fair to address why I keep blogging. The simple truth is that I like the challenge of turning the pristine whiteness that each post begins as into an organized mess of words. There's also something to be said for the discipline of writing--of having a space to think through your experiences and to keep track of your life through different flavors, cultures and scents. And, when we get down to the heart of the matter, this is also where I get the chance to keep my researching teeth sharp. I've always enjoyed the hunt for information, the "excavation" of facts or moments of cross-cultural exchange found in old books that could potentially be lost. It's both the search for and promise of new--really, old--recipes that keeps me coming back.

The recipe that I'm about to share, Persian Cream of Barley Soup (Soop-e Jo), is a fine example of this. When I first found it in Margaret Shaida's The Legendary Cuisine of Persia (1992), I was drawn not only to the short list of ingredients (which included a whole grain), but also to its back story. In her headnote, Shaida, a Brit who married an Iranian and lived in Iran for 25 years, wrote that she "...suspect[ed] that this soup entered Iran in the early part of the this century, along with the White Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution. It's Persian name soop implies an alien background."

Considering the ingredients (pearl barley, leeks, onions, carrots and lemon juice), I couldn't quite figure out which Russian soup this could be, but I was determined to try it and see if its taste would trigger memories of my time in St. Petersburg. My host mother wasn't a person who enjoyed cooking, but even so, she took pride in her soups. She knew they were hearty, soothing and essential on cold winter days. While I found the steady diet of meat patties, hot dogs and fried pasta to be more than a little depressing, I always welcomed the first course, a soup, which I knew would be the best part of the meal.

When I finally made this soup one day last fall and took my first bite, I expected not to know what it was. But, thanks to its bright and tangy flavor from an ample amount of lemon juice, my recognition was instantaneous. I could have been sitting at my host mother's tiny red-checked table in Petersburg as I exclaimed to the Greek that this must be a Persian adaptation of Russia's national soup, shchi (as the saying goes, "Shchi da kasha, pishcha nasha" [Shchi and kasha are our food]). For those of you who have never had this soup, shchi is traditionally made with cabbage or sauerkraut (the kind made with sauerkraut is often called kislye, which means sour), although, according to Anya von Bremzen, an authority on Russian cuisine, shchi has historically been made with a range of ingredients, from fish to sorrel. I immediately imagined that this must have been the recipe that a beautiful White Russian lady in her one remaining fur coat came up with when she found herself far from home and in search of its familiar taste.

As a friend and fellow Slavist pointed out to me, how hard could it have been for this lady to have found some cabbage in Iran? It's a thought that I myself had had, but it turns out that the answer to our question could also be found in Shaida's book. Shaida explains that, "Cabbage does not have a long history in Iran" and that white cabbage ("Turkish cabbage") is more common in Iran than green cabbage (when you consider that, in Russian, white cabbage literally translates to cauliflower, the soup's adaptation to Iranian ingredients begins to make more sense). I suppose this shows that what is ubiquitous and taken for granted in one culture is completely alien in another. 

Although I love Russian shchi with its sour and rich cabbage flavor, I also find that the Persian take on this recipe, perhaps because it features the always subtle yet elegant leek, is just as good and equally comforting. Both soups are sharp and acidic, but in a way that is pleasant and not at all bracing. I would suggest that, if you've never tried either of these soups, you rectify this culinary mistake immediately. Believe me when I say that you're missing out on something unique. It's discoveries like these that still make me, despite all of my misgivings, want to blog.

Cream of Barley Soup (Persian Shchi or Soop-e Jo)

Adapted from Margaret Shaida's The Legendary Cuisine of Persia
 Yields about 6-8 servings

When you first look at the recipe as written by Shaida, you worry that you might never get to eat dinner. She first asks that you soak the barley for thirty minutes, which is easy enough since, while the barley is soaking, you can wash and chop all of the vegetables. But then things get a little more complicated: Shaida says that you should let the soup simmer gently for two hours; on a weeknight, this is next to impossible and, on a weekend, less so, but only with careful planning. If this seems as daunting to you as it initially did to me, let me assure you that the soup can be ready--the barley tender and the broth flavorful--in an hour and 15 minutes; I often let the barley soak for 45 minutes, sometimes even for an hour, which I find helps it to cook faster. 
         Also, while Shaida recommends using a good chicken stock for this soup, I've used vegetable stock (both homemade and Better than Bouillon) several times and haven't been at all disappointed with the final product. The same can be said for the ingredients; although the combination of leeks, onions and carrots make for a fine soup, all leek and carrot is just as good. That said, I wouldn't recommend sacrificing the leeks for an all onion soup; the leeks provide a nice textural balance to the mix. 
         The measurements I've provided below are rough estimates; a little more or a little less won't hurt. Such is the beauty and simplicity of soup.

189 grams/6 ounces pearl barley
3 tablespoons olive oil 
1 medium or large onion (7.5 ounces/213 grams)
2 medium leeks (260 grams/9.2 ounces)
salt and pepper, to taste 
6 cups (3 pints/1 1/2 liters) vegetable stock
2 small or 1 large carrot (123 grams/4.3 ounces
juice of two lemons (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup)
sour cream or Greek yogurt, for serving
chopped parsley or dill, for serving

-Rinse the barley and let soak soak in a small bowl for 30-45 minutes. 
-Cut the dark green parts from the leeks, remove their outer layer and wash well, submerging in a bowl of water if particularly dirty. Once clean, dry and chop finely. Then, set aside. 
-Roughly chop the onion, then heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (I prefer a Dutch oven) and add the chopped onion, frying for about 10 minutes, or until soft and golden. 
-Add salt (at this stage, about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt) and pepper (1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon) and stir.
-Drain the barley, then add it and the leeks to the pot. Stir until coated with oil, then add the stock and stir. 
-Cover, bring back to a boil and then simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour, or until the barley has softened.
-Grate the carrot and add to the soup with half of the lemon juice. Continue simmering until the carrot has softened, about 10-15 minutes more. .
-Stir in the remaining lemon juice, making sure to adjust the sourness to your palate.
-Ladle into bowls, stir in a tablespoon of sour cream or Greek yogurt and garnish with parsley or dill.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Food for Thought

I had been hoping to find a quiet moment to sit down and write--really, write--before September faded away, but luck wasn't on my side. Between trips to Carmel and New York, a bad respiratory virus mid-month and my grandpap's not being well in Pennsylvania, September simply passed by too quickly and I couldn't quite find either the time or the energy to write. But now that things have stabilized on all fronts, I'm hoping to be appearing here more regularly, producing at least one new post a week. While this may seem optimistic given my track record of late, what I've always found appealing about fall is the promise that, with the changing colors of the leaves and the gradual cooling of the air, things might slow down...even if just a little. 

For now, I've got some links and various food for thought for you all.

As you can see from the picture above, I've been on a real dumpling kick recently. Or maybe that's a lie; the simple truth is that I never say no to dumplings (is this even possible?). Only recently, however, did I start making them at home. It's been a real learning curve, too, but both Andrea Nguyen's book on dumplings and blog are wonderful resources. I decided to start with a seasonal dumpling to use up the pumpkin that we got in our CSA box and Nguyen's recipe for Roasted Squash and Vegetable Dumplings is out of this world good (proof: I've made about 4 batches already). Even better, dumplings are versatile and very substitution friendly.

My other recent culinary preoccupation has been revisiting my collection of Ottolenghi's cookbooks (Plenty and Jerusalem), which always inspire me to go to the kitchen. In part, I've gone back to these books because I've been excitedly reading about his forthcoming Plenty More, his second ode to vegetables. The preview in The Guardian was so good (the extremely styled photo of Ottolenghi at the top is a minor masterpiece unto itself) that I immediately decided to cook something from it for dinner last week; I opted for the baked orzo, which is Mediterranean comfort food at its best. But if apricots had still been in season, the apricot, walnut and lavender cake would have easily been dessert. 

If an Ottolenghi recipe proves to entail too much chopping and too many ingredients for a weeknight, I highly recommend a simple and pleasing Italian dinner; there are many charms to cucina povera, especially a dish that combines chickpeas, tomato sauce and tagliatelle.

On the State of the Selfie. (Confession: I'm really posting this because the photo of the dog at the top of the article is adorable). 

We've been doing a lot of redacting at work recently, which is the kind of task that requires listening to music or to a good podcast to make the time pass more quickly. While I haven't always been a huge fan of short stories, I think I've started to understand their charm in the past few years, especially because of The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. My two recent favorites were Akhil Sharma reading "The Night in Question" and Nathan Englander reading "The Enormous Radio."

A glimpse into the decadent (and sometimes austere) world of Scandinavian baking.

I've recently been reading a lot of Italians: Elena Ferrante (I've mentioned her before on this blog and I will continue raving about her, too--possibly forever. Whenever I read a new book in her Neapolitan series, I vow that vow to learn Italian so that I won't have to wait for the next installment to be translated into English), Francesca Marciano and now, thanks to a friend, Diego Marani, who writes what The Guardian has called "linguistic mysteries." I think this explains the attraction. 

Although my heart, in my post-Slavic studies world, seems to currently belong to the Italians, I'm also really looking forward to Hilary Mantel's new collection of stories. If I can't have the conclusion of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, this will have to do.

The (secret? not so secret?) truth about blogging--a topic that I think about a lot. In fact, I've been mentally writing a post on this very topic for the past few months and, in light of this article, I think it's finally time I had my say (if nothing else, it can be my blogging manifesto for 2014-2015). On that note, I leave you until the weekend!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Learning Curve

“If there is a hell to which disputatious, uncivil, vituperative lawyers go, let it be one in which the damned are eternally locked in discovery disputes with other lawyers of equally repugnant attributes.” Dahl v. City of Huntington Beach, 84 F.3d 363, 364 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Krueger v. Pelican Prod. Corp., No. CIV-87-2385-A (W.D. Okla. Feb. 24, 1989)

In a lot of ways, this past summer has been one of the strangest of my life. A part of me feels like I've gone nowhere and everywhere, gotten nothing done and yet have accomplished much, have seen my friends more than usual, but then also not at all... Time seems to be playing tricks on me as well; at certain moments, it has seemed to move terribly slowly, but, when I look at the calendar and walk by the vegetable grocer on my way to work and see the winter squash replacing the summer melons, tomatoes and corn, I realize that it's speeding by me more quickly than I can even comprehend. It's just as the adults always warned me when I would complain about the slow passage of time as a child: "All you have to do is blink and it's gone."

I suspect that this summer has felt more fleeting than usual because of my now not so new job (I've been in the office now for about 9 weeks; today is my first sick day. I'm rather impressed that it took 9 weeks for my immune system hit a bump in the road) and my preoccupation with learning all of the things that are now asked of me. The learning curve has been steep, but in my time at the firm, I have continued to absorb the lingo of the law and now refer to things like requests for production, motions to compel and motions for summary judgment accordingly: that is, RPD, MtC and MSJ. I have also been asked to write legal letters, which, much to my surprise (I always thought the sass on legal dramas was the fabrication of the show's writers to add dramatic flair to the bland and repetitive legal procedures), invite more than their fair share of cheeky phrasing. 

What has most surprised me, however, is the fact that the law, despite its rituals and veneer of civility, seems to be all about thwarting the other side (the nineteenth-century novel's aversion to characters that are lawyers has become more clear). I discovered this when I was examining responses to our RPD (these are the documents that allow you to build your case in the period of discovery--i.e. the period when documents are exchanged and "facts" are discovered) and realized that not one response was either usable or actually responsive; I then learned this again when I was tasked with sorting through production that numbers over 30,000 pages and found that most of it could be categorized as blank and empty. But the beautiful thing about the law is that, unlike in academia, the fury that builds when you feel that your time is being wasted can be channeled into saltily-phrased letters that address, point by point, everything that is wrong with what you've been given. The law is a place of thick skin--perhaps too thick. Dealing with seasoned lawyers who are immune to your verbal blows means that things that should and could take a few months can be dragged out interminably.

But any form of verbal sparring pales in comparison to the reality of commuting. While on the one hand I consider myself fortunate-- I don't drive to work and I also happen to live within walking distance of a BART station--I also find that the battleground of commuting by train leads to its own kind of learning curve. After a few trips, you understand which car will be the least crowded, where a petite person like yourself ought to stand so as not to fall over or be pushed, which car will put you closest to the exit you want in the station of your final stop. It's all about developing a certain savvy, even something akin to shrewdness, so as to navigate the experience with the least amount of difficulty. But even with these skills, the truth is that it's a miserable journey--people push and shove, it's hot and crowded and you think thoughts about your fellow passengers that might make you feel the need to ask a higher power for forgiveness--and, just when you think you can't take it anymore, the train grinds to a halt and you get off feeling like you escaped from a tightly packed jar of anchovies with your lungs burning. You would think that the pleasure of escaping into the fresh air might wash away the grossness of the morning ride, but as soon as you can see the foggy sky as you rush up the stairs, you're hit by the acrid combination of urine and body odor in the air...Oh, San Francisco, 1 part fancy, 3 parts grunge.

Although this cycle repeats itself almost on a daily basis (fortunately, there are days when the trains are less crowded and the air more pure) and commuting will never quite make it in my list of Top 5 Ways to Spend Your Morning or To End Your Day, I'm still happy to have my job and really like what I'm doing. That said, I'm no different from most people: weekends--sleeping in, nursing one cup of coffee for 45 minutes, going to yoga, walking the dog in the East Bay sunshine, cooking without any time constraints--are my benediction. 

This past summer in particular I've used my weekends to "travel." When the Greek was in Thessaloniki, in my own kitchen I was right there with him and his parents eating braised lamb with potatoes and green beans; I've also "been" to India and Sri Lanka with other friends and have had more than one Mexican evening this summer, imagining the heat, vibrant colors and various flavors that I hope to find in Mexico City next year. I've written a lot about Mexico and Mexican food this summer, both dessert and savory sides, and although I keep finding more and more things that interest me about it, I promise I'm going to take you to other places with this here blog very soon.

But before I do that, I just wanted to say that, though I realize that this recipe for Honeydew Seed Horchata might be a little late for the season depending on where you are, it's worth bookmarking for next year. When I found this recipe in Fany Gerson's Paletas--she calls for cantaloupe, and all I had was honeydew; either will work--I was immediately intrigued. After all, how often do you find recipes that use melon seeds? Have you ever even eaten a melon seed (it turns out that they, like pumpkin seeds, can be roasted)? I like recipes that not only eliminate unnecessary food waste, but also use unexpected ingredients in new ways. When I was invited to a Mexican dinner at my friends' place, I decided I would take this, as well as Diana Kennedy's Zucchini Torta, as my contributions to our feast.

As far as horchata goes, this one is incredibly easy to make, although you do have to build in some time for refrigerating the ground seeds and almonds, lime zest and lightly sweetened water. Beyond the time in the refrigerator and the need to strain the mixture twice through a cheesecloth or fine metal sieve, the recipe requires almost no effort at all. Its payback, however, is large; it's refreshing, light and creamy with hints of tangy citrus. I can't say I can really put my finger on what honeydew seeds taste like, but their presence is unmistakably there. In fact, using them in this way has inspired me to make a similar fall-themed horchata with squash seeds, a cinnamon stick and some nutmeg and ginger. I like the idea of different seasonal horchatas--especially in a place with as mild a climate as the Bay Area.

Honeydew Seed Horchata

Inspired by and adapted from Fany Gerson's Paletas
Yields about 9-10 servings

Horchata has the reputation of being overly sweet, but Gerson's recipe calls for only a minimal amount of sugar: 1/2 cup to 8 cups water. This seemed like so little to me that I worried that the drink wasn't going to be flavorful enough and decided to add a full cup instead. To me, this amount seemed just right, but you're welcome to go with Gerson's original suggestion or even to add more, although I would caution against using more than 1 1/2 cups. This horchata is supposed to be light and refreshing; weighing it down with sugar will ruin it. 
         Two other important notes about the recipe: 1) Gerson calls for 5 ounces of dried melon seeds, but I didn't weigh mine. I simply used the seeds from the 1 melon that I had, although I suspect that the more seeds you use, the more the horchata will taste of the seed's flavor; 2) the recipe asks that blanched almonds be used, but all I had was a bag of raw almonds. As far as I can tell, this affected neither the flavor nor the color of the drink since the nuts and seeds are strained. 

8 cups water
1 cup sugar
seeds of 1 honeydew, cantaloupe or hybrid melon
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons raw or blanched almonds
zest of l lime

-The night before making this, scoop the seeds out of the melon and rinse them thoroughly, removing any clingy bits of melon flesh. Spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven at the lowest temperature possible for 4-6 hours (if you have a gas oven, the temperature should automatically be about 100 F; just leave the seeds in there overnight and they will dry nicely).
-In a large saucepan, combine the water and sugar and, stirring often, bring to a boil. Once the sugar has completely dissolved, remove from the stove and pour the mixture into a bowl. Let cool to room temperature. 
-In the meantime, put the honeydew seeds and almonds in a food processor and pulse until fine; the mixture should resemble flour. Add the lime zest and stir, then add this mixture to the water and stir again. 
-Refrigerate for as little as 4 hours or overnight; the longer the mixture steeps, the more flavorful it will be. 
-Remove from the refrigerator and stir. Then strain the mixture into a pitcher through a sieve or colander lined with cheesecloth. Repeat the straining process to remove all of the grainy bits and, this time, squeeze with your hands or press the solids with the back of a wooden spoon to extract as much liquid as possible.
-Serve over ice and store in the refrigerator.

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