Thursday, October 23, 2014

An Elixir for a Sick Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig Elixir with Lemon, Cinnamon and Honey

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Act of Excavation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Food for Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Learning Curve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honeydew Seed Horchata

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Food for Thought

Lately, life has been just a touch too busy, but busy in the best possible way. Last weekend, after the Greek returned from his month of traveling, we took a trip to Carmel and Big Sur and, though it was lovely to have a moment to catch my breath, the long days spent looking at the computer at work hardly inspire me to come home and open my laptop. The need to escape the glare aside, there's also the small issue that there are only 24 hours in a day and if about 12 of them are spent working and commuting and 8 are ideally spent sleeping, there are few hours left for everything else. Time has become the most precious commodity.

I have several posts planned--from a refreshing summer drink to a hearty soup--but I just need to find the time to write them! Given that I'm going to New York this upcoming weekend for the wedding of one of my dearest college friends, exactly when all of this writing will happen continues to elude me. But for now, I've decided that I'm going to have one monthly "Food for Thought" post, which, much to my surprise, tends to be pretty popular; I think that people like brevity (admittedly, not my strong suit) and also to be pointed in the direction of articles they may not have ever stumbled upon otherwise. Whatever the reason, I wish you all happy reading and I hope you find something of interest in this spread!

On Friday during my lunch break at work, I read the "Room for Debate" column in the New York Times and I was shocked to discover that 4 in 10 American workers allow some of their paid vacation time to go unused (if you don't want your days, I will take them! Please!). It's disturbing how negatively vacation is viewed in this country and how much guilt and anxiety vacations inspire in employees. While the Germans are off discovering ways to "end the tyranny of 24/7 email" during vacations, most employers and employees in the US are still figuring out if they can even afford to go on vacation.

Thanks to my biweekly CSA box, I've spent a large part of my summer thinking about how to cook eggplant. The photo above is of a favorite eggplant dish that I make, a riff on Nigel Slater's eggplant with cream and thyme (I make mine with basil and I like to caramelize the onions or, better yet, shallots or leeks), but eggplant is endlessly versatile and I like to experiment. Another recipe that I found myself making recently was eggplant caponata, which combines eggplant with cocoa powder (!), cinnamon, balsamic vinegar, pine nuts and raisins (or currants); it's a spicy, sweet-and-sour dish that can transform thickly sliced and toasted bread into a very fancy dinner. Next stop on the eggplant train, however, is Claudia Roden's eggplant fritters with honey; not only does this dish seem to treat eggplant like the fruit that it is, but, by soaking the eggplant in milk, it prevents the eggplant from absorbing too much oil--definitely a worthwhile kitchen tip!

I had never heard of "herb jam" before, but when I saw this post from Tasting Table, I was really excited by the possibilities--especially because herbs sometimes go bad in the fridge and, with this kind of recipe in your arsenal, that won't have to happen ever again. 

Maybe it's because I have an itch to travel, but I've been thinking and reading a lot about Spain lately. In particular, I've been thinking about Spanish cuisine, reliving my trip there in college when I ate more than my fair share of patatas bravas, tortillas and chocolate con churros....Both my nostalgia and desire to eat have led me to several articles on the fascinating Claudia Roden (her great-grandfather was the chief rabbi of Aleppo; need I say more?) and her cookbook, The Food of Spain: you can read here about Catalan cuisine, here about how cuisine functions as memory and here for a medley of tantalizing Spanish recipes. I was so tempted by all of the descriptions that, on the evening the Greek returned home, a Spanish lemon ricotta pudding was waiting for him.

If you follow food blogs, you can easily identify certain trends. For example, more than a few years ago everybody was abuzz with versions of this (Rasp/Straw/Black/Blue)Berry Buttermilk Cake. Last year, it was all about Martha Stewart's One-Pan Pasta (it was good and definitely convenient, but not the best one-pan pasta I've ever had. That honor belongs to this dish). This summer, however, it's all about cake again and I would say that it's this cake, or torte, in particular that has everybody running to turn on their ovens. I will confess that I'm not at all immune to the hype and torte baking plans are in the works. 

This article outlining one woman's quest to help women achieve control over their own bodies--and her savvy understanding of the law--is worth reading. Three cheers for any kind of progress on this front!

Although I started off strong this summer in the reading department, I recently found myself in another rut. I thought that Gabrielle Hamilton's chef memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter would be the answer to my reading problems, but I initially found myself trudging through it. Maybe it's just me, but I find reading about somebody's kleptomaniac and drug-addled youth to be a little dull. But when you get past the first section and find yourself thrown into her catering adventures, youthful travels through Europe and Asia, graduate school experiences and marriage to an Italian, you can be nothing other than hooked on her every word. The writing is raw and her attitude to the current twee nature of cooking and eating--basic parts of the human experience--is nothing short of refreshing.

I have only a few more pages to go in Hamilton's book, but, as soon as I finish, I'm ready to devour the next book in the Italian series (for Ferrante fans, good news: it seems the trilogy has been expanded to a tetrology) that has been some of the best fiction I've read in a long time. After that, it's onto New Finnish Grammar because, clearly, I'm really into the Italians these days.

Speaking of Italian things, I found an inspiring article, Eat Your Verdure, about cooking Italian-style vegetables on Diana Henry's wonderful blog recently. Although I've been a fan of hers since I bought her beautiful book on preserving a few years ago and discovered just how literary her approach to cooking was, I was only inspired to revisit her site after seeing the feature The New York Times just did on her latest cookbook, A Change of Appetite. Let me just say that, if you're looking for a meal that's both simple and a little off the beaten path, her roasted tomatoes and lentils with dukkah-crumbled eggs makes for a hearty and healthy dinner. I may never cook tomatoes any other way again (on toast with goat cheese, they are heavenly); having some extra dukkah in the cupboard is hardly a bad way to begin the week, either.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tokens of Gratitude

Sometimes, when your significant other goes out of town for a long period of time, things around the house run so smoothly that his or her absence is hardly noteworthy. At other times, everything in the book that can go wrong does go wrong. Although nothing calamitous has occurred, I would still say that the Greek's current absence falls more into the latter category than the former. 

There was the moment three weekends ago when, after attempting to preheat the oven, I discovered that the pilot light had gone out. I quickly realized that not only did I have no idea how to fix it (raise your hand if you have a gas stove and you actually know where your pilot light is), but that, in attempting to preheat the oven, I had also released so much gas that the very thought of lighting a match or using a lighter made me scared that the dog and I would die in a fiery explosion. While this scenario may strike you all as terribly unlikely, the simple truth is that I think the gas fumes had started to go to my head at that point, which is why I called PG&E and reported a possible gas leak. The good news is that, in such potentially dire situations, they respond; however, the bad news is that, although they read you a long list of things that you should absolutely not do in these situations--using a phone and buzzing somebody into your apartment are both on this list--the PG&E man called me to announce his presence and requested that I buzz him in. Somehow this behavior didn't seem terribly up to code.

Then, when I had to move--that ism to arrange for the moving of--the car this past week because of street sweeping, Maria, the Greek girl currently staying with me and helping with Elektra, and I discovered that the battery was dead. This led to my having no choice but to go and ask our neighbors for help at 9:30 in the evening. Because they are both good people and good neighbors, they kindly came down in their pajamas, accepted the fact that I could tell them neither how to open the hood nor where the battery was located (my own ignorance about cars became glaringly, embarrassingly apparent) and rescued our car with their jumper cables. It is thanks to them that I baked cookies this past weekend--my first true weekend without work since July 12-13 (yes, I've been counting).

It has, dear readers, been a glorious experience. You really don't realize how important the weekend is until you don't have a full one. But suddenly I again had two (two!) whole days to do not only whatever I wanted, but to catch up on some much needed sleep as well. I read some of my now slightly outdated food magazines, I took the dog to play, I cooked a Greek risotto that I love (I find that I eat a lot of Greek food--ouzo, feta, oregano---when the Greek is in his homeland; I think it's my way of not being left out of the experience) and caught up on both my current favorite TV shows and the majority of the blogs that I read. Blogging feels different these days, but this is a subject for a different post and one that I promise I will return to. 

The fact that blogs and blogging seem to have changed so much aside, the beauty of reading food blogs is that you get a tiny glimpse into how others cook and eat and into what inspires them; food, I think, can tell you a lot about a person--his/her life philosophy, habits and preferences. I love this moment of revelation--what you can observe from a post or a photo; I often find that the things that resonate the most with me are the most mundane things: praising the simple act of roasting vegetables, making a salad with what's left in the fridge or even just taking a few minutes to enjoy a meal with no distractions (i.e. cell phones and computers at the table). 

This was the case when I caught up on Casa Yellow this past Saturday morning; Sarah's latest post focused on the Lemon Honey Macaroons from Nicole Spiridakis' new book, Flourless. The cookies looked like the best kind of comfort food, and even better, Sarah, in describing both the cookies and the book, mentioned that most of the recipes are simple to make, but pleasingly complex in terms of texture and flavor. Always thorough, Sarah also included a few links to other articles that Nicole had written about flourless baking and, while reading one of them, I decided I just had to try--and immediately--the almond butter cookies. Not only did they seem low maintenance (only 10 ingredients and the cookie dough can easily be mixed by hand. I used a regular spoon and it worked beautifully), i.e. my favorite kind of cooking or baking these days, but also, to a lover of nut butters and nuts, they seemed like the kind of cookie I would naturally reach for if it were set before me on a platter of randomly assembled cookies. 

My cookies instincts, as it turned out, were right; these almond butter cookies are crispy and light, with just the right amount of chocolate. It feels like a virtuous, protein-filled snack and a bit of a step up from my occasional snack bag of almonds and bittersweet chocolate. That said, I will admit that after my first bite, I did have a moment when I lamented the absence of that chewy, pillowy softness that all-purpose flour gives to cookies, but, after my second, I realized that I nevertheless liked what this cookie had to offer. And then, after I had wrapped and set aside the dozen intended for the neighbors, I ate another one...Tokens of gratitude can go a long way.

Almond Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

yields almost 3 dozen

1 cup almond butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark or light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup almond pieces (slivered, sliced, or roughly chopped)
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

-Preheat oven to 350F and line two to three baking sheets with parchment paper.
-In in medium bowl, stir together the almond butter and sugars, mixing until well combined.
-Add the egg, baking soda, salt, vanilla and maple syrup and mix until well combined. Then, stir in the almonds and chocolate chips. 
-Using a teaspoon, scoop out a spoonfuls of dough and roll them into small, evenly shaped balls. 
-Place on the prepared cookie sheets, about 1 inch apart (NB I think I was overly ambitious and tried to squeeze too many cookies onto one sheet. I would say it's best to bake only 12 cookies per baking sheet because they will spread out and bake into each other, becoming misshapen).
-Place in the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes or until lightly browned.
-Remove from the oven and place the cookie sheet(s) on a rack to cool for at least five minutes.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Groundhog Day

Despite both my promise and hope to return to this space over the weekend, reality intervened. And when I say reality, what I really mean is work. It seems that although we've been working towards filing this motion since my very first day in the office, we're still not quite there yet. Last week we were optimistic--so optimistic that there was even talk in the office that we would all have a real weekend!--but then discovered on Friday morning that we had to shuffle things around yet again. This, of course, led to another Saturday spent in front of the computer redoing the citations that both my colleague and I had already updated 3 times in the last 3 weeks. But I was at least working from home, which was a plus. Then, yesterday we actually filed the motion only to be rejected by the court this morning for having forgotten something essential (to all the past, present and future dissertators who will find and read this blog: Filing a dissertation is easy; try getting something through a court clerk). In a way, we were all relieved that we had a little more time, but as we started checking the documents again and having the same conversations that we had been having for the past month, there was this moment when I looked over at the other paralegal and couldn't help but ask her, "Didn't this all happen yesterday? Isn't it starting to feel like Groundhog Day around here?" Two hours later that question was again asked when the legal secretary shouted to us from the other room, "Gosh, doesn't it feel like Groundhog Day? I can't take another day of this." We all laughed, but let me just say that I don't really think any of us thought it was terribly funny.

Things got even less funny--or downright hilarious; it really depends on your sense of humor and perspective--this afternoon when we filed the motion again and managed to send the court runner (this is the person who waits in line with the documents and schmoozes with the court clerks; it turns out that a good runner who can work the system is essential to success. Note to legal dramas: you need to write runners into the script to make things real) off with our documents. Then, when we were preparing the copies we would be sending to opposing counsel, I discovered that something that was supposed to have been redacted hadn't actually been redacted and, though it pained me to have to break the news to my smiling, relieved and exhausted colleagues, I really had no choice; this find, while depressing to discover at this stage of the game, may have prevented a lot of unnecessary unpleasantness for all involved parties.  This meant we had to figure out how to withdraw our just-submitted motion and that tomorrow we'll be on what, in legalese, we would call our "Third Attempt to Submit the Amended Motion." I'm simply banking on the fact that the third time really is the charm and that we can all go out and have a celebratory lunch afterwards.

Needless to say, with work as demanding as it has been, there has been little time for anything else. Dinner has started to embody Alice Waters' culinary wisdom and, truly, my meals have become nothing if not testaments to the "art of simple food." Bread covered with thick slabs of feta and thinly sliced tomato, then sprinkled with oregano and drizzled with olive oil and, finally, put under the broiler for 5-7 minutes. A pot of pearl barley tossed with arugula and slices of avocado, eaten with salsa verde and crumbled feta or mixed with lemon juice, tahini, Greek yogurt and garlic. Fruit, from nectarines to melons, suddenly makes the best and easiest dessert. But these things, as simple as they are, still happen only on the good days. 

I realized this past Friday how essential the weekends are to getting things in order. After a long day of reworking the motion,  I got off Bart only to discover that my dreams of making a somewhat fancy dinner--therapy cooking, really--were dashed by the business hours of the butcher shop I pass by on my way home. Then, when I got home and opened the bread bag, I discovered my Favorite Default Dinner, the aforementioned Feta on Toast, wasn't going to happen, either; moldy bread does not a dinner make. This, my friends, is how cereal came to be eaten for dinner.

While I like cereal as much as the next girl, it nevertheless felt a little depressing. It seemed such a far cry from my first week on the job, when there had been leftovers from my pre-work cooking fest to see us through: soup, casserole, braised meat. I think I realized what life was going to be like (there is a Groundhog Day-like quality to commuting and walking down the same exact street every day, which is not to say that there is no comfort in a well-oiled routine. I have favorite moments: greeting the sidewalk sweeper on my office's block, looking into the fancy Italian restaurant whose wood-fired oven seems never to go out and through whose windows I can see perfectly round balls of pizza dough lined up on baking sheets each morning, smelling the coffee wafting out of the hipsterish coffee shops popping up in the Financial District) and wanted to be prepared for it. Even now, although reality seems to be telling me something different, I want to believe that people can work and live well, too. Maybe what I really want is that impossible thing--having it all. But then I think that I'm too reasonable for such a thought and that what I want is something simpler: that working--enjoying your work and doing it well--doesn't have to mean that other essential things in life are relegated to the realm of the quick, easy and convenient. But perhaps that simply circles back to the issue of having it all...?

What we both can and can't have is a discussion for another day. Today is a day for something far less complicated: Diana Kennedy's Zucchini Torte (Torta de Calabacita) from The Art of Mexican Cooking, which is honestly one of the most simple and downright delicious zucchini recipes I've made in years. It calls for only 8 ingredients, or 9 if you, like me, decide to sprinkle cilantro leaves on top (this is recommended). Like everything Diana Kennedy touches, the recipe is written in a clear, matter-of-fact manner; she's not a woman to mince words (listen to this podcast and be prepared to fall under the spell of her life story and achievements) and, more importantly, you know that she's giving you an authentic taste of Mexico in every bit of information she shares.

 On my own, I would never have thought to combine grated zucchini with rice flour, butter, baking powder, eggs and sugar, but believe me when I say that the combination works. At first I was dubious since the batter, because of the rice flour, looked grainy and unpromising (I don't have much experience with gluten-free baking and this recipe is gluten free); once baked, however, it was green-flecked and golden with gently browned and slightly crisped edges. Even more surprisingly, despite the addition of sugar (it's a minimal but noticeable amount), these ingredients create a savory dish that can be just as easily served on its own, topped with creme fraiche or sour cream mixed with salt and pepper, as it can be paired with chicken. Regardless of how you choose to eat it, one thing should be clear: it should be made and enjoyed often--at least while the zucchini lasts.

Zucchini Torte (Torta de Calabacita)

From Diana Kennedy's The Art of Mexican Cooking
Yields 4-5 ample pieces or 8 small ones

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the baking dish
1 pound (3-4 medium) zucchini, trimmed and grated
1 cup rice flour
2/3 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup creme fraiche or sour cream, whisked with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
a few stalks of cilantro, roughly chopped

-Preheat oven to 350 and place rack in top part of oven. Butter a 1-quart baking or souffle/casserole dish.
-Squeeze the grated zucchini dry in a cheesecloth or place the zucchini in a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and squeeze it until about 1/3-1/2 cup liquid comes out. Set aside. 
-Sift or whisk the flour with the baking powder and salt and set aside. 
-Beat the butter until creamy, then beat in the eggs one by one, mixing well after each addition. 
-Beat in the flour mixture and then stir in the zucchini and sugar. 
-Pour the mixture (it will be thick and grainy) into the prepared dish and bake until the torta is firm, springy to the touch and golden on top--about 45-55 minutes.
-Serve with the salt-and-pepper cream and a sprinkling of cilantro or another fresh herb of your choice.
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