Monday, November 29, 2010

This Little Piggy....

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
- J.R.R. Tolkien

Ever since I was a little girl, I've had a special place in my heart for Thanksgiving. Each year I would get up ridiculously early to watch the Macy's Day Parade, check to see if it was snowing and then run around the kitchen, poking my nose into each and every dish that my grandma was preparing, seeing what I could do to help (the answer was often "nothing") and claiming that I needed to sample the majority of know, just to be sure that everything was going to turn out all right. I loved not only how the day would usher in the holiday season, but also how it was essentially so simple--good food that was thoughtfully prepared and good company.

This year didn't disappoint either. Though I'm a little sad that I have yet to do the whole ensemble myself, from appetizers to turkey to stuffing and dessert, I'd be lying if I didn't say that I think the true communal quality of Thanksgiving is one of the best things about it. I love trying things people make, exchanging recipes (I got a recipe for Flan from a new friend I made at the dinner and I'm really looking forward to trying it...once I again have the desire to eat dessert) :), meeting new people and spending quality time with the old. In short, the dinner at the "I-House" (the nickname for the Greek's residence) was lovely and quite fun. Beyond that simple description, the only other thing I can say to do justice to the meal is that it was a complete and utter feast. There was a turkey. There was lamb. And, my oh my, there was a 50 lb. roasted pig! It's almost enough to make a girl say, "What recession?", but I'd hate to sound anything like a Republican. :)

And what were my contributions to this feast of feasts?

Well, if you look above at the lovely display of desserts, I suppose you could technically say that I was responsible for one and a half of them. Though I wish I could lay claim to the beautiful Cranberry Pie (made by a certain cellist) and the Caramel Apple Pie (made by the girlfriend of one of the Greek's roommates), the Pumpkin Bourbon Cheesecake was all me and, please excuse the blatant display of pride, was, in addition to everything else on the table, pretty darn tasty. :) As a rule, I like things with texture and the crust, consisting of graham crackers and pecans, delivers. Plus, I've long made it clear on this blog that I love all things pumpkin and the center of this cheesecake is smooth, flavorful and slightly spicy. Let me just say that the bourbon (or Jameson Whiskey, which is what I used) doesn't hurt either. I'm a big fan of cooking with alcohol. The greatest thing about this cheesecake, however, is that, as you can see from the picture, it was dented. Since I've been a disgusting perfectionist since about the age of 6, this really should have upset and horrified me, but, you know what, it was Thanksgiving. Wine bottles will occasionally be dropped on desserts by dear friends. Meat will sometimes end up burning or drying out in the oven. Pie crust will look ugly or be tough. That's life. And it doesn't affect the taste one bit. [NB: Since starting this blog, I've stopped slavishly following recipes and now I'm ok with dents. I'd say I have about another 5,000 neuroses to conquer, but the list is slowly dwindling. =p] I also had the chance to make this again for the Slavic Thanksgiving and I've captured it in its original, undented glory, with a full display of its layers; it would be wrong not to share.

The other half dessert I'm responsible for is the Galaktoboureko, which is basically a phyllo dough base with semolina custard in the center, topped by more phyllo. The mastermind and chief preparer of this was, naturally, the Greek. But I did help stir the custard and deal with the phyllo dough. Plus, without my mad butter-melting skills, that phyllo dough was going to remain unwieldy. As a cool fun fact, the recipe that we followed appparently hails from the kitchen of Greece's version of Paula Deen, Vefa Alexiadou (apparently, she has a cookbook and would it be wrong of me to say that I want it?). All this really means is that we used a lot of butter, more than enough sugar and, ultimately, we were rewarded for it. Custard is one of my favorites, so, clearly, once crispy dough is added to the mix and is drizzled in a lemony syrup, it becomes one of my super-favorites.

To balance out all of this gooey sweetness, I would now like to share something with you that will clearly be a part of many Thanksgivings to come: Savory Bread Pudding with Mushrooms and Parmesan Cheese. I was just browsing, hoping to find something savory that would catch my eye. As I've been fantasizing about baking bread recently (and will quite soon; stay tuned!), especially due to my Tartine adventures, bread pudding seemed like the obvious choice. And it was quite successful--so successful that when I went looking for some the next day, I discovered that there was nothing left! Fortunately, it's easy to make...and worth the effort of all the chopping. It also yielded the base of the next blog post I have planned for you (tis the season of soup!), which I will write later this week after finishing grading these so-called revisions, a hair cut (to be bold or boring?), a tutoring session in the city and hopefully some prospectus editing. Only time will tell if all of this is within reach, but I'm currently feeling optimistic.

After all, Thanksgiving and the holiday weekend left a good taste in my mouth, both literally and figuratively. :)

Savory Bread Pudding with Mushrooms and Parmesan Cheese
Slightly adapted from Bon Appetit (Nov. 2006)
Yields 10-12 servings

1 (1-pound) loaf Italian country-style white bread
1/4 cup olive oil
3-4 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
2 large garlic cloves, minced

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
1 pound assorted fresh mushrooms (such as crimini, button, portobello, and stemmed shiitake), thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced celery
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

3 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream (I did a combination of whipping cream and half and half)
8 large eggs
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup Emmental

For the bread:
-Preheat oven to 375°F.
-Butter 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish, or two 9" cake pans (basically you need something deep and spacious).
-Cut bottom crust and short ends off bread and discard.
-Cut remaining bread with crust into 1-inch cubes (about 10 cups loosely packed).
- Place cubes in very large bowl. Add oil, sage, and garlic; toss to coat.
-Spread cubes out on large rimmed baking sheet.
-Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
-Bake until golden and slightly crunchy, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.
-Return toasted bread cubes to same very large bowl.

For the mushrooms and vegetables:
-Melt butter in large skillet over medium-high heat.
-Add mushrooms, onion and celery.
-Sauté until soft and juices have evaporated, about 15 minutes.
-Add sautéed vegetables and parsley to bread cubes.

For the custard:
-Whisk heavy cream, eggs, salt, and ground pepper in large bowl.
-Mix custard into bread and vegetables.
-Transfer stuffing to prepared dish.
-Sprinkle cheeses over.

-Preheat oven to 350°F.
-Bake stuffing uncovered until set and top is golden, about 1 hour.
-Let stand 15 minutes.

(DO AHEAD Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fresh from the City of Angels

"I wanted to burn her, the wicked witch."
-Fyodor Sologub (The Petty Demon)

I'm happy to report that conference is now over. I would even go so far as to say that it was fairly successful; I chaired a fascinating panel on graphic novels where I met some interesting people, I got to go and listen to several friends and colleagues present some of their latest research and, most importantly, my paper was, it seemed, well received. This was really inspiring because I do find that when you're about to embark on a project like a dissertation, you want to know that your ideas make sense to the outside world and have a chance of surviving there. Beyond this feeling of relief and momentary reprieve from the always present impostor complex , this is also kind of fantastic because it entails crossing off one of the semester's biggest challenges from my never-ending list of things to do (as a lover of lists, I can safely say that there is great pleasure in crossing something off....even if you know that it will soon be replaced by yet another challenge) and also means that Thanksgiving is almost here! I'm sure each and every reader of this blog is looking forward not only to a feast of massive proportions, but to a few days off as well. There is something lovely about the holiday season--the lights that decorate yards and houses, the prospect of seeing friends and family, the hustle and bustle....It's generally a happy, although often busy, time. But you might wisely be wondering why, if life is currently so rosy, I've chosen a rather angry epigraph for this blog entry?

While it's true that I had a good time at the conference and, thanks to things like a random discovery of a pluot-selling farmers market and pleasant co-panelists, it was ultimately one of those Bard-like "all's well that ends well" moments, there are still always moments of frustration, especially when your time is largely dictated by the conference schedule, location, etc. And here's the thing: I've been to Downtown Los Angeles before and really enjoyed myself. Granted, this has usually been in February or the summer and seasons can make or break any trip, but for some reason (maybe the recession?) Downtown LA really seems to have changed. In the few blocks surrounding the famous Westin Bonaventure, a nice hotel (although it looks like some post-modern, space age Jetson-ian establishment; see photo to your left), but one that was a little expensive for the grad student budget, it was difficult to find places to eat and, shockingly, many places were closed on Saturday and Sunday. I understand that the downtown area/financial district are far from the center of LA social life, but, in addition to the lifesaver of the conference, George's Greek Cafe (home of a tasty gyro if you're ever in LA and are oddly craving a plate of lamb, pita and a side salad all for $10), even places like Quiznos and Starbucks--true capitalist establishments if there ever were any--were closed for weekend business. Is that not the epitome of crazy?

Also, interestingly enough, despite the presence of a thriving food culture in LA, I can't say that I had any meal that really stood out (that is, besides the gyro that I was desperately craving the first night I was there and the always pleasing "Perfect Oatmeal" with nuts and brown sugar from Starbucks). A big group of grad students and former graduate students who, in some way or another, had passed through my department, went to Soi 7 for Thai food one night and, while it wasn't awful, it wasn't great either. I can't complain about the papaya salad, but my Green Curry Chicken was way too spicy (however, I recognize that I'm perhaps just a weakling when it comes to the use of chilies). I also went for Japanese food (Asian restaurants never disappoint; they are always open for business) on Sunday, the most dire food day of them all. As much as I love nabeyaki udon, I wasn't all that impressed by what ended up before me at Octopus. Perhaps I'm just getting picky in my old age? Or am I just turning into a GOOP-reading pretentious food snob? It's hard to say, but I'd take old age over the latter any day. :)

Fortunately, the good weather and the fine company of R, a friend who was also on my panel, and Boy C, made up for these food slights. See how pretty my last hours in LA were?

Moods, however, much like the weather, are prone to fluctuate. And as for the other three nails in my good mood coffin, well, let me just put it this way (as in, succinctly):

1) My flight was delayed, which was unfortunate, especially since my panel had been at 8 am and I had sadly woken up at 5:30 (nerves will always get you). In a nutshell, I was exhausted. Plus, Virgin America, in my humble opinion, isn't what it used to be.

2) I returned to my apartment to discover that some neighbor continues to take my New Yorker. Mind you, maybe I don't always have time to read my New Yorker, but it's mine, I pay for it, and I was especially looking forward to last week's magazine since it was "The Food Issue." Just because I disappear for a few days and a magazine arrives for me and is left in the common box where all magazines go doesn't mean that it's begging to be stolen by some cheap chump. In my quest to learn to articulate my thoughts--even if not necessarily nice ones--I have left a note downstairs asking for it to be returned and also reminding the culprit that mail theft is a federal offense. Please keep in mind that I'm 100% serious in this moment. The theft of "The Fiction Issue" this past summer when I was in PA was one thing, but a Thanksgiving-inspired Food Issue is another matter entirely.

3) I'm tired of having my time wasted on Mondays. Last week it was a godawful talk on Russian aspect; this week it was basically all about Italian cinema. There's nothing wrong with being intellectually curious and hearing about unrelated things, but, when you want to get home, clean your apartment, go to bed early and keep listening to somebody give overly wordy and convoluted answers about a topic you have zero interest in, well, the blood starts to boil...or at least reaches a slow simmer. It is always possible, however, that I'm just a bad academic with a sense of misplaced responsibility who should learn to heed her impulse that a yoga class, 9 times out of 10, will always be a better option than colloquium.

In any case, I'll soon be back with happier tidings as I'm excited to be trying more than a few new recipes this year for my Thanksgiving with the Greek, his roommates, one of his roommate's Venezuelan family and some other friends who will be joining in on the fun. I think this vacation is going to serve me well.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Whole Wheat Flour-y Fun

"But when we sit together close, we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory."
-Virginia Woolf (The Waves)

My life is generally all about words these days--finalizing the conference paper, grading assignments and responding to this batch of revised papers. But even though I'm still racing to get everything done (it's amazing how you can cross off everything on your list and then, before you know it, there's a new pile of things to do; such is the nature of the beast known as life I suppose) and my eyes are tired from endless hours in front of the computer screen, I didn't want to leave for Los Angeles without posting. Especially since it seems like I've been spending a fair amount of time in the kitchen...Or maybe it just feels that way since cooking means dirtying dishes and dirty dishes pile up quickly and life without a dishwasher is hard. Magical powers would be appreciated, even if only of the most prosaic kind. However, I digress (surprise, surprise).

Another reason I wanted to blog is that I have a little confession to make--one that I find to be fairly embarrassing. I never thought I would say this, but I decided to subscribe to GOOP. And the thing is that I kind of like it. And, by it, yes, I do mean GOOP itself. As in Gwyneth Paltrow's newsletter, which can, on the one hand, be a bit pretentious and occasionally annoying, but, on the other, can be quite informative and full of interesting recipes, suggestions, etc. When I recently read the newsletter about overcoming sugar addiction , I was a little put off by the tone and in denial. But, after thinking about things more carefully, I decided that I could start making minor modifications to recipes that would allow for a healthier lifestyle. And much to my surprise, I would say that substituting whole wheat flour for your all-purpose white has led not only to an unexpected (and not at all bad) flavor, but also to an improvement in texture. Take, for example, these pumpkin muffins I made (I was inspired by a friend's use of and went searching for a recipe for a Saturday afternoon Dollhouse viewing session with a friend; just fyi, fresh apple cider pairs wonderfully with pumpkin muffins). Flour modifications (1 cup whole wheat, 1 cup all-purpose) made for a heartier muffin and I also decided to stuff them with cream cheese and sprinkle sugar on top. Who said whole wheat flour had to lead to something tasteless? I feel that that's the problem with these healthier options--people automatically associate them with all that's bland.

Not only GOOP, but also my email from Daily Candy led me to the bread from the Tartine Bakery in the Mission District in San Francisco. Both newsletters had featured articles on the bakery and select recipes from the new cookbook, Tartine Bread, which, between me and you, I would not at all mind owning. Who wouldn't want recipes for Savory Bread Pudding, detailed pictures of the bread-making process and also the secret to Baked French Toast? In my mind, it's right up there with an ice cream maker as an ideal gift. But I've always been a little strange, I suppose. :) I was so intrigued by all of this press coverage that, after my usual tutoring session on Wednesday afternoons, I decided to have a little adventure in the Mission and to go and pick up some bread. The funny thing about buying bread at this bakery is that it's so in demand that, as soon as it goes on sale (exactly at 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday) you literally have to wait in a bread line (separate from the usual bakery line). But, if you're really hardcore about getting your bread and not leaving things to chance, you can even call up to 3 p.m. the day of to reserve a loaf or half loaf. Fortunately for me, despite not having taken the necessary steps to guaranteeing that I'd be coming home with bread, I was able to buy a half loaf of the Country and a half loaf of the Walnut. Bread, cheese and prosciutto make for a nice and simple dinner (using only a few dishes doesn't hurt either).

Clearly, when you've got leftover bread, you have several options, but French Toast is by far the best one. I made this recipe from Orangette this past summer and really liked it, so I decided to try it again, but to slightly doctor it. For my purposes, the addition of cinnamon and a teaspoon of almond extract seemed only right. Especially since I sauteed some apples in butter, covered them in cinnamon and toasted almonds to go on top. What can I say? It was a holiday and I believe in honoring the memory of those who have fallen for my country with an elaborate "I love the fact that I have this day off" breakfast. I truly mean that in the most respectful way possible.

The final culinary highlight of the week was a friend's birthday party on Friday evening (she shares the same birthday as my grandpap, so it was a truly celebratory day!)! As she was going all out and making crazy things like paella and Boeuf Bourguignon, the least I could do was bake some cookies. :) As she, like a few of my other California friends, don't really care for overly sweet things, I decided to revisit the salty/sweet cookie recipe I made when my friend from NY was visiting back in September. This recipe is courtesy of Joy the Baker and is basically perfect. But, as per my new rule of experimenting with whole wheat flour, I decided to partially abandon the recipe (can you see how my neuroses are fading away? This, people, is progress!) and combine 1 cup + 1 Tbsp. bread flour with 1 cup + 1 Tbsp. of the whole wheat variety. Honestly, they were chewier and less crumbly, which is exactly what a cookie should be.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mission Cauliflower

Sweetest of sweets, I thank you: when displeasure
Did through my body wound my mind,
You took me thence, and in your house of pleasure
A dainty lodging me assigned.
-George Herbert ("Church Music")

Time is a little of the essence here since I'm a) still in the process of shortening my paper to conference length, b) quite tired since I've had several meetings today about my work/dissertation, worked in the library, graded (supposedly) revised introductions and attended a very interesting, but long talk on Tolstoy, Yasnaia Poliana and Astapovo and c) need to respond to a few emails before going to bed. But I just wanted to check in and fulfill my goal of weekly blog posts (even in the face of academic adversity) since one of the points of this blog is to show that, despite all the deadlines and work, life can and should be enjoyable and full of homemade and fairly healthy food.

...Although, even as I both claim and wholeheartedly believe this, my subconscious, which must have been suffering from a few slight pangs of guilt, was telling me something a little different last night. I dreamt that I couldn't find the book I was supposed to teach and, when I went to get it from a friend in the department, she refused to give it to me, telling me that my delinquency (what delinquency?) had gone far enough and that a letter had already been sent to my committee informing them about my dubious deeds (yes, in the subconscious melodrama clearly reigns; after all, when have I committed dubious deeds?)....

Regardless of my subconscious' silly and meaningless warnings, here I am, recommending to you a surprisingly hearty and comforting combination: Cauliflower + a roux + grated cheese + breadcrumbs + time in the oven. What this equals is a tasty side dish that is sure to brighten up your week. To be honest, when it comes to cauliflower, I've always preferred it in the form of Fried Cauliflower Cakes, a staple of my family's Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, and, before stumbling upon this recipe, I had had my heart set on trying a Cauliflower Souffle (a souffle is something that I've wanted to make ever since I read a Sweet Valley Twins book in which Elizabeth, the overachieving and brilliant twin, found both her type A personality and GPA threatened by her inability to get a souffle to rise properly, but how can a girl make a souffle without the necessary deep souffle dish? It's unheard of! Thus, a Plan B was born). Yet I have no choice to admit a simple fact: even if not a part of the original plan, vegetables covered in cheese can't help but make everything better. :) It's even more wonderful when paired with grilled chicken; really, it's all about simplicity and a dash of decadence.

Cauliflower Gratin
Slightly adapted from Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris
Yields 4-6 servings

1 head cauliflower, cut into large florets
Kosher salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, divided
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups hot milk
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3/4 cup freshly grated Gruyere, divided **(despite the fact that, when I asked for this cookbook, I wanted it for the French recipes, I decided to go the Irish route and use Irish cheddar; I was satisfied with the flavor, but feel free to use your cheese of choice)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

-Cook the cauliflower florets in a large pot of boiling salted water for 5 to 6 minutes, until tender but still firm. Drain.
-Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat.
-Add the flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for 2 minutes.
-Pour the hot milk into the butter-flour mixture and stir until it comes to a boil.
-Boil, whisking constantly, for 1 minute, or until thickened.
-Off the heat, add 1 teaspoon of salt, the pepper, nutmeg, 1/2 cup of the Gruyere (or Irish Cheddar, etc.), and the Parmesan.
-Pour 1/3 of the sauce on the bottom of an 8 by 11 by 2-inch baking dish.
-Place the drained cauliflower on top and then spread the rest of the sauce evenly on top.
-Combine the bread crumbs with the remaining 1/4 cup of cheese and sprinkle on top.
- Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and drizzle over the gratin.
-Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the top is browned.
-Serve hot or at room temperature.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sunday in Sonoma

The thread of gold cordial flowed from the bottle/
with such langour that the hostess found time to say/
here in mournful Tauris where our fates have cast us/
we are never bored--with a glance over her shoulder.
-Osip Mandel'shtam (1917)

To be honest, not only was this not the next blog post I envisioned myself writing (this past Saturday, I was all about "Mission Cauliflower." But due to life's natural spontaneity getting in the way of things, I will have to wait to report the results of this little experiment only after I emerge from a mission somewhat more pressing these days--Mission Conference Paper), I've never been much of a Mandel'shtam fan. And not even because he's rather difficult to understand. It's more the fact that his writing seems to revel in its very difficulty. To me, this smacks of unnecessary pretension. However, I can't deny that, ever since I decided to revamp my syllabus and add in a "Poetry Day!" (what was I thinking? I really hope both they and I are ready for this), I've had this particular poem on my mind. Why? Well, having been written by Mandel'shtam, it's naturally confusing (which fits right into the topic of my class) :), but, more importantly, it perfectly captures the Sunday that I had this weekend when I went on an unexpected trip to Sonoma.

It was one of those perfect fall days when the wind is slightly crisp, but the sun is still shining. And the word that always springs to mind when I think of the wine country is "quaint." There's no better way of describing it.

The great thing about the California fall is that the plants and trees manage to bloom even as they're in the process of dying, which certainly makes for an interesting and colorful landscape...But even as I marvel at it, it's one of those strange things about life here that I'll never ever understand--just like how, on Thanksgiving, the east coaster/Mid-Atlantic-er in me can neither fathom nor bear the sight of palm trees on Thanksgiving (they just don't fit into my childhood conception of Turkey Day and that'll never change).

Part of Sonoma's charm stems from the fact that, no matter where you turn, there's something lovely to see--a little tunnel that leads to shops, murals, fountains or world-class gelato establishments (The Chocolate Cow!), and old buildings on seemingly deserted side streets...

And when you get right down to it, this was just the warm-up. Once we returned to Berkeley, a cooking frenzy began! The Greek's mother (whom, let me add, I like very much) was making dinner for seven--for all the roommates, me, herself and her husband. It was a true feast, including Greek Meatballs in Egg-Lemon Sauce (Youvarlakia me Avgolemono; maybe I don't speak the language, but, let's just put it this way: me + Google = the height of resourcefulness), salad and Greek pastries--honey-drenched and/or otherwise. Since I'm not in the wordiest mood tonight and pictures are in and of themselves an effective means of communication, I'll let them speak for themselves. :)


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