Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Sunday Picnic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Five Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oatmeal Cookie Ice Cream Sandwiches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Food for Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Great Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April Bloomfield's Porridge

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Food for Thought

Here we are, yet again, in the Emerald Month; it crept up on me this year rather unexpectedly. Truth be told, my sense of time isn't so impressive these days. In part, I blame California and its lack of seasons. It's very disconcerting for a person to live in what essentially amounts to "season-less" time--one day, sunshine, and the next, a heavy cloak of fog. Who can say if it's spring or winter? Does it even matter? 

I also think my dissociation from time runs a little bit deeper than the mere passing of the Californian (non)seasons. Just a few weeks ago, for example, somebody asked me my age and I almost said 25. Where that came from, I really can't say; that such a response would pop into my brain is doubly surprising when you consider that I've started noticing more than a few silvery strands escaping from my ponytail. While I am most definitely no longer a sprightly 25 (and for this I am nothing but grateful), I can't say I feel almost 32 years old or any other specific passage of time either. I wonder if I'll still feel this way in 50 years, just with more aches and pains...

Temporal concerns aside, life continues to be as demanding as ever. On the domestic front, the Greek's parents and aunt are here from Greece, I'm in the final throes of the second and last dissertation filing I will ever be intimately familiar with (hallelujah) and in about two weeks, i.e. a mere drop in time, the Greek's graduation and my birthday will collide in what I'm taking to be the most auspicious way possible. If that weren't enough to fill one's plate, there is work, too. Though there are always new daily obligations and tasks, things at the firm fortunately seem to have slowed down a bit. That said, I sense that this slowness is just as illusory as the passage of time. In reality, one case fades to the background temporarily only so that another can emerge from the back-burner to take its place. Given these shifting demands, my role is never static; and for this I am grateful, since it means that I get to play different roles and experience different aspects of the law. One recent and exciting development was when I got to hold my first phone conference with a client; I expected this to be a one-time thing only, but it now seems that I will not only be the recipient of sensitive Fed-Exed materials, but also a person who is called to the phone to field questions. Let me address this matter head on: faced with my new role, I am as befuddled as Alicia Florrick in season 1 of The Good Wife, yet equally prepared just to "go with the flow" and see what happens. Maybe this is just 32 years of wisdom speaking, but there really appears to be no better way. 

I didn't expect to be so serious tonight, but my thoughts ran away with me. Perhaps May's food for thought links will be somewhat more uplifting?

I've been baking a lot with Alice Medrich lately; her experiments with different flours are endlessly inspiring. I recently made the carrot cake from Flavor Flours, which is pure excellence, and I've baked buckwheat cookies that will be the subject of an upcoming post. If time were endless, I would be baking either her Kamut Pound Cake or Olive Oil and Sherry Pound Cake tonight--and just because, too.

Just to let you know what I, to a certain extent at least, deal with on a daily basis, here's an article about the "'nonsensical' legal theories and 'carnival fun house' arguments" that big firms sometimes use to keep a case going. My favorite line, which embodies the best and worst of the law in one: "It may be entirely true that a magician 'apparently' sawed a lady in half, but proof of that fact will not sustain a claim for battery."

Is it just me or does saffron-infused tomato sauce with vermouth sound too good to be true? Also, and this may really just be me, is anybody else out there interested in incorporating more sprouted grains into his/her diet?

A few fun interactive links: the first calculates your water footprint, which, for any Californian, is quite enlightening given headlines like this; the second offers a glimpse into location and the possibility of social mobility in America (I was pleasantly surprised by home county in Pennsylvania).

I just finished reading Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings for the second installment of the two-person book club I'm in with a close friend of mine. Although we saw certain flaws in the neatness of the parallel narratives that run throughout the novel, we both really enjoyed the story, as well as the education that came with reading about the imagined lives of these characters. Neither one of us had heard of Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina, both feminists and abolitionists, before reading the book and this alone seems a crime in the American education system. When you read a novel like this, you can't help but look around you and wonder what, if anything, has changed in our society--especially when the day after finishing it, your colleague sends you an article about the blatant sexism that female scientists face on a daily basis.

On a happier note, I recently found an interesting website devoted to all things Delaware: first up, Delaware cookbooks featuring all things Delmarvalous.

 In the world of food photography, "low food" meets "high art" with the Instagram account of Jacques LaMerde. Truly, never have corn dogs, go-gurt and handi-snacks looked so appealingly good.

For all the women who loved Anne of Green Gables, this one is for you.  

Back soon with cookies and other good things; this year, the Emerald Month is going to be pure decadence and full of sweets.  

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Pittsburgh and Pi(e) Day

A little more than a month ago, on Pi(e) Day, my baby brother got married on the South Side in Pittsburgh in a gorgeous, renovated train station (in southwestern Pennsylvania, this has become a real industry; although I'm certainly not complaining, I will say that I suppose this is one way of dealing with America's crumbling infrastructure: when in doubt, turn a would-be functional building into a restaurant, gym or gourmet food hall!) It was a blustery day, the kind that I'm always surprised by when I end up on the east coast in the dead of winter, but it was nevertheless lovely to be there--to get to take part in the ceremony, see my family, meet his new in-laws.

As befits my brother's character, the wedding was a small, no-nonsense affair: a short ceremony, hors d'oeuvres and champagne and a generous meal followed by more pie than anybody besides him could ever contemplate eating. The only thing that was uncharacteristically missing was dancing; it may be impossible to believe if you know me and my (pathetic) dance skills, but I happen to be related to somebody who can actually moonwalk. Of course, that's just one of the many differences between me and my brother: he is huge and athletic; I am diminutive and will happily run away from anything that looks like a competitive sport; he is loud and boisterous, whereas I crave the quiet; he is the king of video games, while I live surrounded by stacks of books. To many people, it doesn't make any sense that we're related. This, in fact, became one of the refrains of the wedding: "How can that really be Michael's sister?" To be frank, it got a little weird at times; I started to feel like the alien invader from California (too much sunshine, maybe?). Perhaps it's not immediately apparent, but if you look closely enough, we essentially have the same blue-green and gold-flecked eyes and heart-shaped face; besides that, I think our short list of common interests run to a belief in the superiority of our grandmother's baking, a love of dogs and the ability to quote Zoolander in any situation, appropriate or not. That may not seem like much, but as far as I'm concerned, sibling relationships could be built on a weaker foundation.

I really was trying to be a good sister that weekend. I don't know why, but it suddenly felt like I had one weekend to make up for all the important events in his life I had missed: high school graduation when I was living in Japan; graduation from the Air Force Academy when I was swamped with grad school work; his graduation from nursing school...Call it my increasing morbidity as I get older or call it my realization in the post-academia years that there's so much more to life than worldly achievement and sounding/looking/being smart, but I simply want to do better, maybe just to be present in the ways that matter.

So, besides one breakfast with my oldest friend (27 years and counting!) at a very exciting South Side waffle house, I was exclusively devoted to the wedding. Although I had fantasies of going to a museum or two and having a nice dinner out with the Greek, in one weekend, I was instead a photographer (amateur though I may be), a dog walker and, most importantly, a pie baker. This may not be my natural baking forte, but I did my best to rise to the occasion. I will forever maintain that the saying "As easy as pie" is misleading (cake is by far simpler), but I do think that making the pie dough the way my grandma taught me--that is, with vegetable shortening (her recipe is here) and not with the much touted butter--results in a better, flakier crust, one that can be easily handled and that rolls out beautifully. More importantly, since shortening can't soften in the way that butter can, crust made with it doesn't require nearly as much fuss as one made with butter.
Once I felt I had (semi)mastered the dough and, let's be frank, there wasn't much time to master anything, the rest of the work really was incredibly simple. I had settled on two flavors: one the famous salty honey pie from the Four and Twenty Blackbird Pie cookbook and the other, given the fact that I've been calling 2015 the "year of citrus" since January, a Clementine Chess Pie based on a recipe I found on the Southern Living website (something about that magazine just speaks to me; I suspect it's the southern appreciation for beautiful patterns, pickled things and manicured gardens). Both disappeared within a matter of moments, which, considering the "pie anxiety" I sometimes suffer from (at its heart, it's really a fear of tough crust. My grandma once told me that when she first started baking pies for my grandpap after they were married, he refused to eat them because the crust was too tough. One could say that this is an example of family lore gone wrong), was really heartening. Some people preferred one over the other (the Greek loved the Salty Honey, while my Dad raved--and continues to rave--about the Clementine Chess; the latter does deserve a redo, one that will make an appearance here come the start of the next citrus season when I've figured out a few adjustments I want to make to the recipe), but that's the way it will always be. The important thing was that I got to contribute to the wedding in a meaningful way and make my brother some of his favorite dessert....Even if he did insist on doing his younger brother act and make it seem like my pies were inedible.

That said, one of my favorite parts of the evening was discovering the amazing cake topper his wife had found. As I mentioned earlier, my brother is a serious video game player. The topper feeds into this narrative, showing the bride pulling the groom away from a television that reads "Game Over." Just like he couldn't resist making fun of my pie, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of glee when I saw the poetic justice and beauty of the topper. Ultimately, I suppose that, no matter how good one's intentions are, siblings will, for better or for worse, always be siblings. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Soup Fit for the Spring Table

Deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she would gaze out over the solitude of her life with desperate eyes, seeking some white sail in the mists of the far-off horizon. She did not know what this chance event would be, what wind would drive it to her, what shore it would carry her to, whether it was a longboat or a three-decked vessel, loaded with anguish or filled with happiness up to the portholes. But each morning, when she awoke, she hoped it would arrive that day... -Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) via Lena Dunhan (Not that Kind of Girl)

Our move is still months away, but already I've started feeling nostalgic for Berkeley. To be honest, I'm surprised by how acute this feeling is, but it now accompanies me wherever I go, nudging me forward at each and every turn. On my walks, I somehow seem to be retracing my many steps throughout the neighborhoods of the East Bay. On days when it's almost too pretty to go inside, I find myself drifting along the tree-canopied paths of Elmwood, or across the front lawn and steps of the imposing Doe Library, home of many a lunch during my dissertating days. I swear that in the shadows of that building, both inside and out, I had some of the best ideas I'll ever have; this past weekend, I even went inside, thinking that I might find traces of them in one of the old corners where I used to pace when either the tapping of the keys or the silence would become too much for me (obviously, there was no magical pot of ideas tucked away for me in any corner of the library; whatever was once there has now joined the ranks of library ephemera, just another one of the many books in the stacks no longer in demand). When not walking down a very selective memory lane,  I've also been lingering lately, allergies be damned, by all of the fragrant blossoms on my walk home; my secret hope is that by brushing against and inhaling all of them I'll be able to carry their smells with me. It's strange to type all of this, mainly because I've been swearing up and down for the past year that I'm ready for change, that I'm ready to leave California, that I'm tired of the crowds and the poverty, as well as of the obscene wealth. I guess you can call me either a hypocrite or a creature of habit; both are probably true. I can't help that, when I wasn't looking, I must have been bitten by the California bug.

It's also true that there's nothing quite like knowing you're leaving a place to make you want to savor it. While the Greek and I do have a rather unofficial "Bay Area/California Bucket List" (Yosemite is on there and will be crossed off in May; this was the Greek's contribution. As for me, I want to go sailing in the bay, as well as visit both Santa Cruz and Ojai) to keep us on our toes, it consists mainly of big adventures. I certainly enjoy these kinds of plans, but I also often find that the smaller, more prosaic adventures have a way of sticking with you. For example, since January, when it really hit the two of us that our California days were numbered, we started making a real effort to go to the farmers' market in Berkeley on Saturday mornings. And though it may sound silly, we've been doing a weekly "Farmers' Market Challenge," which means that we each have to buy something neither one of us has ever eaten before--and, who knows, may never eat again. After all, I imagine there may be some markets out there where this game might be difficult to play, but, believe me, Berkeley is not this place (recall Mark Bittman's giddiest column ever from a few weeks ago). In the course of a few months, we've tried cherimoyas (custard apples or the ice cream fruit; personally, I believe the latter description is misleading), bought a stalk of sugar cane, eyed dragon carrots, sampled almost all the bread from the fabulous Morell's and, most recently, purchased both limas (sweet limes) and vanilla blood oranges, which live up to the promise of their name: they're sweet, fragrant with vanilla and, most disconcerting of all for a somebody who enjoys the tangy blast of citrus, acid-less. 

Despite my excitement over all of these things, one of my favorite discoveries of late was sorrel, the bright and lemony green whose very name derives from the old French word for sour, surele. It's a beautiful shade of green and its crisp, large leaves come to a sharp point. As the rules of the game dictate, sorrel isn't something I had ever tried before. In fact, my only exposure to it was through the blog post of an inventive friend and baker who used it in a cherry dessert. I thus decided to do some research, but to keep it simple so as to let inspiration strike. I turned to a trusted friend, the all-knowing The Penguin Companion to Food, which contained the following blurb about sorrel: "[it] is added to salads and used as an ingredient in soups, purees and sauces, as an omelette filling, and as a stuffing for fish where its sharp flavo(u)r is especially good." I could work with this description, especially since my discovery of sorrel nicely coincided with dinner with friends--one of whom had kindly offered to give me her extra copy of Love Soup because she thought I, a true lover of soup in any season, would enjoy it.

She wasn't wrong either. This book is a delight--a fantasy for soup lovers. From cover to cover, it hums with possibilities.  While I could easily cook each and every soup and never complain, I did have a few favorites, strangely all from the fall/winter and deep summer chapters: Corn and Cheese Chowder, Cold Cream of Poblano Peppers with Red Grapes, Caramelized Cabbage Soup and Persimmon Soup with Tamari-toasted walnuts. My eye also, for no special reason save my deep love of the humble lentil, alighted on the recipe for French Lentil Stew with Roasted Carrots and Mint--again, a definitively fall/winter soup. The beautiful thing about soup, however, is that it's like a blank slate; it's very hard to go wrong with it and, most importantly, even if you do take a wrong turn, it's often salvageable: herbs and lemon juice will spruce it up, a potato will absorb too much salt and who would ever turn down a handful of freshly made croutons or a spoonful of pesto to garnish it with? With this in mind, I decided to turn this wintry recipe into a soup fit for the spring table by topping it not with mint, but with a pesto made from the sorrel from the market, some green garlic, preserved lemon and feta (all of the things that I love).  It came together fairly quickly, too--the genius behind this recipe is that you roast both the carrots and onions (or onions and leeks, if you're me) while the lentils are boiling, so your hands are fairly free to prepare whatever topping you might like. Anna Thomas recommends either crumbled feta or grilled halloumi, but I think the combination of sorrel, preserved lemon and feta, either as a pesto or even as a roughly chopped garnish, transforms this soup into something not only warming for those still brisk spring nights, but also bright and zingy--truly emblematic of spring.

French Lentil Soup with Roasted Carrots and Sorrel Pesto

Adapted from Anna Thomas' Love Soup
Yields 5 to 6 ample servings

I should start by stating that I was very fast and loose with Thomas' instructions and suggested proportions. In part, this was because of the offerings of my refrigerator and pantry, but it was also because, when it comes to soup, I taste and test as I go.
      That said, I followed the outline of her recipe and was not disappointed. For example, I liked the fact that she has you roast the vegetables instead of sauteing them; this method allows the carrots and onions to begin to caramelize in places, which deepens the flavor of the soup. The addition of the pesto plays off the roasted vegetables, giving it a welcome lightness.
      I should also add here that we had a lot of pesto left over, even though we were more than generous with our use of it as a garnish. Freeze any remaining pesto in a tightly wrapped container and use it, thinned with a little pasta water, as a quick dinner.

For the soup:
10-12 purple or orange carrots (about 200 grams/7 ounces)
2 yellow onions (595 grams/21 ounces)
1 leek (44 grams/1.5 ounces), white and light green parts only
1 1/2 tsp sea salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons (45 ml) olive oil
1 heaping cup (225 grams) French, or Le Puy, lentils, rinsed
4 cups (1 liter) water
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups (1 liter) vegetable or chicken broth, either homemade or from 2-3 teaspoons Better than Bouillon
juice of 1 lemon
2-3 tablespoons brine from jar of preserved lemons
2 teaspoons harissa 

For the pesto: 

1 stalk green garlic
100 grams/3.5 ounces toasted pine nuts
1 bunch sorrel (40 grams/2.5 ounces)
100 grams/3.5 ounces toasted pine nuts
80 grams/2.75 ounces grams feta cheese
quarter of 1 preserved lemon
salt and pepper to taste
1/3-1/2 cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Roughly chop the onions and leek, leaving the pieces on the larger side; set aside. Then, cut off the carrot tops, peel the carrots and, if your carrots are thin, place them whole on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper; if they are on the larger side, however, chop them into fairly large rounds and spread them out on the baking sheet. Sprinkle the carrots with salt and pepper, then drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Toss gently. Do the same with the large pieces of onion, seasoning with salt and pepper and then drizzling and tossing with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil.

Set the timer for 45 minutes and place the vegetables in the oven to roast. Stir and toss the vegetables a few times during the roasting, checking them at about 30 minutes to make sure that they aren't getting too dark too fast. Remove from the oven when uniformly soft and browned. Once they've cooled a little, turn them out onto a cutting board and chop coarsely (there will still be fairly big bits of onion; this soup is nothing if not textured).

After putting the vegetables in the oven to roast, combine the rinsed French lentils in a large pot with 4 cups (1 liter) water and a teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 25-30 minutes (the lentils should be tender, yet firm). The lentils will absorb most, if not all, of the liquid.

While the vegetables are roasting and the lentils boiling, make the pesto. Remove the rough stems from the sorrel leaves and then soak them in a bowl of cold water for 3 minutes, gently massaging  them with your hand. Pour the water out and place the the cleaned sorrel in a salad spinner, spinning until dry. Set aside. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the toasted pine nuts and green garlic and pulse briefly to combine. Add the sorrel, feta, preserved lemon and a light dusting of salt and pepper; again, pulse to combine, this time for about 15-20 seconds or until the ingredients are well blended. Then, pour in the olive oil, starting with 1/3 cup, and pulse again. Taste and adjust for flavor, adding more salt and pepper as needed. If the pesto's texture is too thick for your taste, add another tablespoon or two of olive oil; do not exceed 1/2 cup oil total. Scrape the pesto into a small bowl and set aside.

Once the pesto is ready, turn your attention back to the soup. Add the chopped roasted vegetables, the stock, the juice of one lemon, preserved lemon brine and harissa; obviously, adjust the flavors--tang, heat--to your taste. Simmer the soup for 10-15 minutes to let the flavors combine and then taste and correct the seasoning, adding more of the key ingredients (salt, pepper, lemon, harissa) as needed. Remove the soup from the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then serve. Garnish each bowl with an additional few drops of olive oil and generous spoonful of the sorrel pesto and gently stir them together. 


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