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!

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.

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