Saturday, February 26, 2011

Meyer Lemon Friday

I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It's amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.
-D.H. Lawrence

Tonight I went to a jam-making/pickling class with INNA Jam! Needless to say, it was both interesting and a lot of fun. Our focus was Meyer Lemons: how to turn them into a jam (kind of like a marmelade) and how to turn them into a savory pickled topping that could spruce up some asparagus, fish, the works. I first tried this brand of jam back in October when I had gone to the Spice of Life festival; I remembered thinking how good it was--not too sweet and quite textured with lots of fruity chunks--and quickly discovered a favorite breakfast meal of toast with cream cheese and pluot-flavored jam. I liked it so much that I was even compelled to buy it for my family and take it back in my checked luggage for Christmas presents, which, considering TSA will always find an excuse to violate your privacy and dig through your bag, meant that one of the jars--the raspberry one--spilled on my favorite white pajamas. Besides being angry that both my privacy and fine packing were violated, I was largely angry that quality jam had been wasted on stupidity.

So, when I saw, via Facebook (liking a company/product and getting updates and information is one of the only reasons I stay on the site), that this class was being offered, I figured it was a fantastic way to spend a Friday evening, meeting new people, learning some tricks of the jam/pickling trade and being able to bring home one jar of each of the finished products. You see,
despite not being afraid to try most new recipes, I never really strayed into canning, preserving, pickling, etc. Though my grandparents always did things like make their own pasta and bake bread, they never really did much with the fruit from the various trees in their yard--from pears to crabapples--besides bake with them or eat them as an evening snack, unadorned and in the raw. Before tonight, the only occasion on which I was ever even witness to jam-making was when the Greek made Grape Jam back in November. It was such an intriguing process to watch: all the sugar and fruit merging into a thick and gooey substance that was just waiting for a nice loaf of bread!

Based on that experience alone, I knew I wanted to try again (Greek-style jam apparently lacks pectin, which means that it will never be as thick as the jam texture that Americans are used to; this is not to say, however, that it and peanut butter don't make for a killer sandwich) and with different fruit. You know, to test the limits of jam, its textures and its flavors. Now that I've got a little more confidence about how this is supposed to be done--and all through the help of sweet and tangy lemons--I may just be ready to try strawberry or, even better, my favorite blueberry. Clearly, I'll keep you updated; this is just the beginning. And it might also finally be the straw that breaks the camel's back of my resistance to abandoning measuring cups and buying a kitchen scale.

In the meantime, here are some ideas for do-it-yourself jam-making and pickling:
Making Jams, Marmelades, Preserves...
Jam Session with Molly Wizenberg
Pickling Lemons from Tigress in a Pickle

If you'd like to make the beauty I made above, get yourself two-three unwaxed meyer lemons, cut them into wedges and/or tiny pieces, remove the seeds (it'll make life easier) and place them in a glass or plastic jar. When the jar is half full, add one tablespoon of Kosher salt; when the jar is completely full, but not packed, add another tablespoon of kosher salt. Fill the jar up with lemon juice. Put the lid on (if metal, be sure to cover it with some kind of plastic wrap/baggie, so that it doesn't rust) and turn the jar over so that the liquid and salt can do their magic to all of the lemons. Repeat this process of rotating the jar for up to one month. When this month is up, you can finally enjoy the fruits of your pickling labor!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Venturing into Vegan, Part I

To thine own self be true.
-Shakespeare (Hamlet)

For the past few years, every time I've thought of President's Day, I've simultaneously thought of Polonius' famous line from Hamlet. Not really for any particular reason, either. It's just that somehow in February, when I find myself stuck in the middle of a winter that seems like it's never going to end, it always seems like a good idea to check in and see if I'm living up to everything that I promised myself the year would be...You know, this is all once the excitement and optimism of January have settled and given way to the reality of everyday life. Thus far, things are looking good. So good, in fact, that your mysterious blogger has decided to give you her face in this collage of "Where's Waldo Goes to Point Pinole" beauty. Why now instead of before? I am who I am. It just so happens that I like to bake. My advisor has sanctioned the habit by giving me vanilla. More importantly, I do my work. What is there to hide?

Absolutely nothing. Which is also why it's never such a bad idea to take a deep breath, pause and ask if you're actually happy with the way things are going. That may sound hopelessly cheesy, but I, like many silly people before me, used to think that I was a pawn of a sometimes cruel, sometimes kind fate. Then I realized that fate (or the Fates) was a lovely and fascinating thought, but not at all the stuff of happy and healthy living. So, I now pause and reflect. One discovery I made was that I not only make my own luck, but my own decisions.

Sometimes, this wonderful decision-making ability leads to baking chocolate cake and all on a Thursday afternoon. Such is the glory of dissertating! :)

The reason behind this cake was simple: I really wanted chocolate and in the form of a cake. Thanks to the icky, icky rain and thinking through Chekhov's use of Japonisme in the context of the 1890s, I also didn't want to go out and I didn't want to dirty many dishes. A true quandary indeed for anybody in the midst of a sweet tooth attack.

Had the sun been shining and I could have gone anywhere my heart desired, I would have gone to Bittersweet, a lovely, but incredibly small cafe/chocolate shop in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland. They have delicious pastries, make yummy drinks like Chocolate flavored Thai-Iced Tea (trust me, it may sound weird, but it's delicious) and Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate and play good music. The only problem is that even on a rainy day, it's almost impossible to find seating, considering the cafe has maybe 3 or 4 tables. Thus, based on the recipe offerings on their website, my solution to this problem was to kill not two, but three birds with one stone:

1) Make chocolate cake and, at most, dirty two bowls, a whisk and a wooden spoon.
2) Enjoy the experience of Bittersweet from home.
3) Experiment with vegan baking, which, after the Chocolate Avocado Cupcakes I made all those months ago, I was more than eager to do!

The happy result of my endeavors was what might ultimately become my "go-to" chocolate cake. It was moist, it was chocolate-y and it was light. There could be something to vegan baking, after all...Perhaps I'm jumping the gun here, but, after cutting myself a big chunk of cake, the thought that ran through my mind was, "who needs eggs and milk when you've got apple cider vinegar and oil? " All the sifting probably didn't hurt my smitten-ness either.

Amazing Vegan Chocolate Cake

Ever so slightly adapted from Bittersweet
Yields many, many slices

1 ½ C. Cake Flour
1/3 C. Cocoa Powder
1 tsp. Baking Soda
½ tsp. Salt
1 C. Sugar
½ C. Oil
1 C. Water
2 tsp. Vanilla
2 Tbsp. Apple Cider Vinegar

-Pre-heat Oven to 325. Sift all dry ingredients.
- In a separate bowl combine oil, water, and vanilla.
- Add to dry ingredients and whisk together by hand until incorporated and there are no lumps.
- Add apple cider vinegar and stir just to incorporate; do not over mix at this point or the cake will be tough (NB: as I was talking to my mom on the phone--through the help of Bluetooth-- while mixing the dry ingredients, I failed to add the sugar at the appropriate time. So, I instead ended up mixing it in after the apple cider vinegar and, though this contradicts the original recipe's directions, my cake turned out more than fine. I would say the point of this warning is to prevent overzealous beating. In practice, this means that the batter should be slightly liquidy, yet firm. Be gentle.).
-Pour into a parchment lined 9 or 10” cake pan and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.
-Cut yourself a huge slice like I did and enjoy!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gold it is!

"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."
-Virginia Woolf (A Room of One's Own)

It's hard to believe that I've now had this blog for 8 months and also that today's post is my 50th! In the great scheme of things, this isn't all that much time, but still, when you consider that when I started out I had no real clue what I was doing and had yet to find my rhythm (this isn't to say that there isn't room for improvement; far be it for me to be complacent), this is pretty remarkable. I've made scones, granola, pie, bread pudding, vegetable sides, soups, cakes galore, etc. I've braised, blanched and gone through more sticks of butter than I personally feel comfortable even contemplating, let alone admitting.

And, to top it all off, according to my blog's stats, I even have readers! I'm not even sure who most of them are; yes, I know my dear friends and family check here occasionally, but I've got readers in Italy, Germany, and China (and beyond). Thank you for stopping by!

You might even say I've become a more than adept cook and one who is probably overly ambitious on a Tuesday evening when there are more pressing tasks at hand. On the other side of that coin, however, let's not forget that I've also featured a sandwich here. Culinary adventure comes in all shapes and sizes. Unlike the chefs in Barcelona, I have no fantasies of discovering the secret art of hot ice cream. But I'm certainly not above experimenting with hot fudge.

The good news it that there's still time; I'm only at post 50 (!) and going strong. I have many future posts planned (50 is, after all, the new 40!)--some already executed, some yet to be tinkered with and tested--but the main point is that I'm happy I have this blog as place tucked away from the madness of academia, or, even better, as a place where I figure out how to make academia and life work for me.

So, today I offer you a cocktail that you most likely already know and love: a Dark and Stormy. The point is to celebrate both simple pleasures and mini-milestones. The other reason behind this particular cocktail choice is that the past week here was essentially one miserably continuous downpour. Hoping to combat the gloom and doom not only by spicing things up a little, but also by seeking a taste of Bermuda, the obvious choice was a base of ginger beer (Reed's, but of course), freshly zested ginger (my own personal touch; have I mentioned that I have a thing for ginger? ) and dark rum (not Gosling's, but oh well).

I kid you not when I say that, with the first sip, I could almost taste the tropics.

Dark and Stormy

Makes 1 perfect drink for a rainy, dismal day (*can also be enjoyed during periods of sunshine)
Glass Type: Typically a Collins glass, but I wanted something more festive and fun, so I went with martini glasses

2 ounces dark rum
3 ounces ginger beer
1-2 inch piece of fresh ginger, zested

-Zest the ginger directly into the glass.
-Add ice.
-Pour in the rum.
-Then top it off with ginger beer.
-Sip and imagine Bermuda!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Chicken Fun

The forest stands as a shivering pillar for night/
and the silence is a silver cup where moments fall/
echoes distinct, whole, a careful chisel/
sustained by carved lines. . .
-George Seferis ("Erotikos Logos")

I woke up today to darkness and rain. Boo! Needless to say, this weather is beyond depressing. It's hard to believe that exactly a week ago, the sun was shining and it felt like early May. Last Thursday was a truly beautiful day, the kind of day when you want to sit outside and read, which, for the most part, is exactly what I did. My friend Huysmans, his boring anti-hero of a protagonist, des Esseintes, and I went outside and sat and sat and sat. We weren't sitting aimlessly, however. We (well, really, I) were waiting to attend a lecture being given by Joyce Carol Oates that evening! Needless to say, it was worth every minute of the endless waiting (have I mentioned how much I hate waiting? Even if it involves sunshine and beautiful weather and a fortuitous meeting with a certain engineer?).

Oates was witty and charming, immediately captivating her audience with her random observations about literary history, authors' complicated relationships with their parents (did you all know that Hemingway's mother used to dress him up as a girl? Yep, just one of the fun facts I learned in my hour with JCO) and the concept of rejection--by both critics and parents. It was, admittedly, all a little Freudian, but nevertheless was a pleasure to get to attend. I've liked Oates' fiction since I was 18 and freshly graduated from high school; We Were the Mulvaneys was my first and, since then, I've read several others, but, considering Oates has written over 50 novels, I can't keep up. Who can? Something tells me she almost can't keep up with herself; based on her presentation, it seemed that her mind always seems to be two steps ahead of the thought she's articulating. It's impressive. And kind of crazy. I enjoyed myself immensely.

What made the evening even better was the fact that I arrived home to both a cocktail (a Manhattan) and a meal warm enough to take the chill from my bones (in this part of the world after 5, it's almost like the sun doesn't even exist. Instead, the fog reigns supreme) . You see, in my fortuitous meeting with a certain engineer, my keys were handed over and dinner was entirely in his hands. After having had this dish at a Mediterranean restaurant in Berkeley the week before, the plan had been to make our very own Lemon Chicken Soup (or Avgolemono) but, clearly, if you're getting out of a talk at only 7:30 p.m., even to consider boiling a whole chicken by the time you get home is madness....Dinner wouldn't be ready until at least 10 p.m.! And who can wait that long for lemony broth, especially after waiting all day for Oates?!

And once you've cooked a whole chicken for the sake of making broth and shredding some of the meat into a soup, you've got to find something to do with it. Considering chicken's versatility, there were many roads that could have been taken, but the one that the Greek suggested (clearly, yours truly was having an uninspired culinary week) immediately captured my imagination: a Chicken Pie. But not just any chicken pie and certainly nothing resembling Chicken Pot Pie (which I do love; I've always been a sucker for gravy); what he was suggesting was basically a chicken and leek quiche wrapped in phyllo dough. Yes, please! How can you go wrong with that?

All it really takes is time: time to painstakingly clean and chop the leeks, not to mention the onions. After blanching the vegetables, you turn your attention elsewhere and brown the chicken. Once you have things simmering on the stove and creating some juice, you can attack the monster that is phyllo. Truly, I'll never get over it--how delicate it is, how careful you have to be so that it doesn't crumble in your hands and how, after brushing it with enough butter to cause a mild heart attack (apparently, according to the Greek's mother's mother, this is the only way to treat phyllo, to transform it into that melt in your mouth flakey, crispy crust we all know and love...Those who fear butter need not even try to conquer this beast), it yields and turns into something you could never get tired of eating.

It's funny. All those years ago at Columbia, when my friends and I used to go to Symposium (where I even had my graduation dinner!) and order and eat Greek dips, pies and salads, I never dreamed that I would one day be preparing such dishes in my own kitchen. Life would be boring if it were predictable. And, truly, with Vefa's help, any Greek dish is possible. I kid you not when I say that this is the best cookbook ever. It's so thorough, so broad in its coverage, so ready and able to surprise you on each and every page.

From Homer to Vefa, those Greeks are classic. :)

Chicken Pie of the Vlachs (Vlahiki kotopita)

Slightly adapted from Vefa's Kitchen
Yields 12 melt-in-your-mouth pieces

For the phyllo:
Butter, for greasing
1 lb. Ready-made phyllo
1 stick butter, melted

For the filling:
3 onions, sliced
3 leeks, white parts only, cut into short lengths
4 Tbsp. Butter
1 large chicken, skinned and jointed into quarters
10 allspice berries
10 black peppercorns
2-3 bay leaves
salt and pepper (to taste)
6 eggs, lightly beaten

-Blanch the onions and leeks for 2-3 minutes in boiling water and drain.
-Melt the butter in a large pan.
-Add the chicken pieces and cook over medium heat, turning frequently, until lightly browned all over (10-15 minutes).
-Add the onions, leeks, allspice berries, peppercorns and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper.
-Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. (NB: If your chicken, like mine, was already boiled, this part can be cut in half. If, however, you are starting out with a raw chicken, follow these directions).
-Remove the chicken from the pan and discard the bay leaves and allspice.
-Let the chicken cool.
-Preheat the oven to 350 and grease either a cake pan (rectangular) or 16-inch round baking pan with butter.
-Remove and discard the bones from the chicken and shred the meat.
-Return the meat to the pan, together with the beaten eggs, the leeks and onions and mix well.
-At this stage, don't forget to salt and pepper the egg mixture; you won't have another chance!
-In the meantime, melt one stick of butter.
-Then, lay one sheet of phyllo on the base of the pan, scrunching it to fit (NB: as you can see from our picture, we failed to scrunch. Or we failed at scrunching. I say, "Just do what you can."), and brush it generously with butter.
-Repeat this process with half of the phyllo dough sheets to form the bottom of the pie.
-Spread the filling over it and cover with the remaining phyllo dough, scrunching each sheet to fit and then brushing each with butter before placing the next one on top.
-Score the pie into serving pieces with a sharp knife.
-Bake for 1 hour or until golden brown.
-Serve hot and enjoy!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Let There Be Muffins, Let There Be Life

After excitement we are so restful. When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.
-Mary Oliver ("May")

It doesn't really bother me, but I think I worry too much. Or maybe what I really mean is that I think too much. At different moments throughout the day, the following thoughts float through my mind: how will I read all these journals? Do I even have to? How will I write this massive thing called a dissertation? Will anybody ever even read it? Will I make it to the bus in time? How can I justify preparing x dish for dinner? And, yes, I will admit that occasionally thoughts like "why are homemade vegan cookies so tasty?" or "where did that girl get those adorable shoes?" also help to constitute the whirlwind that is my mind.

All in all, you might say it's not a bad life. In fact, I would agree with you. It's not. But even nice lives are marked by moments of doubt. This, however, is the moment when I can't sit still anymore--when flipping through the pages of basically obsolete journals becomes impossible and I have to get up and move. I do find that if I allow myself to sit and dwell on the task at hand, oh, I'll dwell; honestly, I can dwell with the best of them. Which is why I like to think of myself instead as a woman of action. Perhaps of the self-made variety. :) There's a canonical article on nineteenth-century Russian literature, one that I stumbled on in my first year of graduate school: "The Superfluous Man and the Necessary Woman." To apply these terms to my life, I'm your average necessary woman. Although, do let me assure you, there's no superfluous man in the picture. :) To explain my metaphor a little, it's really just a state of mind.

The point is that after a day of reading, of straining my eyes, of contemplation, there's nothing better than arriving home with a project in mind. What can I say? I'm a planner at heart. Some nights it's all about doing the dishes. Others, it's about getting my hands--and the kitchen-- dirty and making something that I'll get to enjoy not only when it comes out of the oven, but that also can either be shared or frozen and enjoyed in the weeks to come: split pea soup, cookies, muffins....Oh, how I love my muffins. I can't think of muffins without thinking of 30 Rock and Jenna's Muffin Top song beause we all know that "the muffin top is all that/whole grain, low fat... " Ok, that last part is a bit untrue, but whatever. Depends on the ingredients. And the ones I'm sharing aren't necessarily not low fat, but, well ok, they're actually not. Wisconsin cheddar cheese, corn meal, buttermilk and almost a stick of butter hardly spell whole grain either. Oh well; we eat to live. Brains need food to thrive. And if I could potentially die tomorrow (in a freak accident of some sort), I'd like to know I died eating the good stuff; cornbread masquerading as a muffin with gobs of grated cheese clearly falls into that category.

To again go slightly beyond muffins (obviously, a leitmotif/symbol in this narrative), it's all about balance. And allowing yourself to be human instead of a page-producing/reading machine. When you're a student, I think you often too easily forget that, although you do have your work (and work that, should you so desire it, could last forever), you also have your life, the books and DVDs lining your shelves, the food that could go bad if you put off using it, your friends, the world beyond the confines of the library walls. Maybe it's a silly thought to voice, but it's nice to think that, in addition to a body of knowledge, we're also building lives.

And I guess that the moral of this particular story is that, because I want to enjoy mine, I bake muffins. And other things too. Coping mechanism? Mayyyyyyybe. Coping is as coping does, but I happen to prefer a happy end to a long end that's shaped like a muffin, tastes like a muffin and probably, in all honesty, is a muffin.

P.S. Fun fact of the day about moi: rainy, windy days make me pensive.

Cheddar Cornmeal Muffins

Adapted from Bon Appetit's Taste of the World
(it falls into the American food category)

Yields 12 happiness-inspiring muffins

These pair well with omelets, salads, Creamy Tomato Soup, Black Bean Soup...and even cherry jam. Remember, muffins are eternally versatile.

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup white cornmeal
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 cup buttermilk
6 Tbsps. unsalted butter, melted, cooled slightly
1 large egg
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
black pepper and sesame seeds (to be sprinkled on the muffins before baking)

-Preheat oven to 425°F.
-Line twelve muffin cups with paper or foil liners.
-Stir first 6 ingredients in large bowl to blend.
-Whisk buttermilk, butter and egg in medium bowl to blend.
-Add to dry ingredients and stir just until combined.
-Fold in grated cheddar cheese.
-Divide batter equally among prepared muffin cups.
-Sprinkle black pepper and sesame seeds on the muffin tops.
-Bake muffins until tops are golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
-Cool in pan on rack 10 minutes.
-Serve warm or at room temperature.
-Don't forget to enjoy!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Not Your Average Pancake

One sentence ends and another always begins, though not always in the place the last one left off, not always continuous with the old conditions.
-Nicole Krauss (Great House)

While I've never been the biggest Valentine's Day fan around, I do like celebrating holidays--and especially ones that lead to massive cuts in chocolate prices at drugstores and other such venues. So, with that fortuitous event in mind, I wish you all a happy, happy Valentine's Day!

And, really, despite the unnecessary hoopla that surrounds Valentine's Day (ok, perhaps my unfair bias really stems from those nasty little heart candies that look like they should taste so good, but, when you put them in your mouth, make you and your childhood self--the only self that will eat them because, yes, knowledge is power-- want to run from such gushy phrases as "Be Mine" and "You are Sweet" forever), there is something nice about it--at least the thought of making homemade Valentine's Day cards, using glitter and glue and perhaps baking--or making--something to show somebody that you care. Then again, who needs a designated day to do such things?

I do, however, recognize that my musings are probably ruining it for the rest of you. So, I'll stop. I'll go back to my happy and low-key Valentine's Day breakfast of Rice Krispies (on this front, my childish delight at hearing them snap, crackle and pop is never diminished) and overly strong, just-how-I-like-it coffee. And I'll also make you all love me again and forget my spoil-sport musings by telling you about what I had for breakfast yesterday, which, frankly, was my version of Valentine's Day this year. It's much easier to be celebratory on a Sunday than on a rainy, "let's all go back to work" Monday.

This is, on an unrelated note, the vanilla that my dissertation advisor gave to me a few weeks ago. I was very intrigued when she told me she had something for me, more than a little scared when she asked in her charming Russian accent, "you are always baking, right?" and then nothing less than thrilled when she pulled this bottle of homemade vanilla out of her bag for me. I did, however, try to talk her into keeping it, telling her that it's never too late to learn to bake or that it would go well in a breakfast polenta if her cooking was limited to breakfast foods, but, finally, after hearing that her cooking was limited to instant oatmeal, I accepted it humbly. And, needless to say, I will use it well.

It even got to play a role in this meal since, naturally, being a woman obsessed, pancakes were on the menu. And not just any pancakes, but healthy pancakes that offer more than the chewy cake-like texture. These were crispy and golden and, more importantly, not at all least not until I drizzled honey on them and topped them off with sweet and slightly tart blueberries (the blueberry gods must be shining on CA a little earlier than usual this year...or these are just a rare February find; in either case, you won't hear me complaining).

But who am I kidding? Honey and blueberries aside, what really made it for me was the heaping cup of pine nuts I poured into the batter. When in doubt, texture is key. It just turns out that pine nuts are the perfect complement to cornmeal's mushiness.

Cornmeal Pancakes With Vanilla and Pine Nuts

From Mark Bittman's now defunct and much-missed "The Minimalist"
Yields 4 servings

1 1/2 cups fine or medium cornmeal (I used white instead of yellow)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk, or more as needed
2 Tbsp. vegetable or olive oil, plus more for frying
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup pine nuts
Honey, for serving

-Combine the cornmeal, salt and 1 1/2 cups boiling water in a bowl and let it sit until the cornmeal absorbs the water and softens, 5 to 10 minutes. (you might want to stir it lightly so that the water reaches the bottom)
-Stir in the milk, a little at a time, until the batter is spreadable but still thick.
-Stir in 2 tablespoons oil, the vanilla and the pine nuts.
-Put a large skillet or griddle over medium heat.
-When a few drops of water dance on its surface, add a thin film of oil and let it become hot. (follow these instructions carefully because, without the necessary amount of oil, these aren't going to achieve the necessary crunch. And, trust me, you want them to be crunchy)
- Spoon out the batter, making any size pancakes you like.
-Cook until bubbles form on the top and burst and the underside is golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes.
-Turn and cook on the other side until golden.
-You may have to rotate the cakes to cook them evenly, depending on the heat source and pan.
-Serve with honey.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Tomato Soup Eclipse

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged.
Missing me at one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.
-Walt Whitman (Song of Myself)

It's funny to think I made this soup almost two weeks ago, but I've just felt so weird about posting it, considering the weather here on the west coast has been going well into the 60s, sometimes even into the 70s (!) for the last several weeks. And, trust me, that's not a complaint (or a west coaster's almost chronic bragging about the weather); it's more that I just find it hard to talk about the soothing quality of a piping hot bowl of a rich Creamy Tomato Soup when I then find myself going outside in a tank-top (don't believe me? Look below!)!

But what's a girl to do? Global warming is here to stay, so clearly such cooking calamities will continue to occur--and well beyond the confines of California. Keep in mind that it's also possible that Creamy Tomato soup transcends seasons and warm temperatures. After all, it goes so darn well with grilled cheese it's almost too much of a temptation.

And when you're in the midst of researching, filling out funding forms for next year, attempting to create an outline for Chapter 1 of the old dissertation and thinking about Big and Important Ideas, you have no strength to fight temptation, which means that you pile the cheddar cheese onto the Ciabatta bread, put it in the oven and hopefully don't char it like I did. Oops.

That possibility is enough for me to say that you shouldn't even think of putting the bread into the oven (especially under the broiler!) without the safeguard of knowing that one portion of your meal will turn out, be the color it's supposed to be and, to boot, taste just right.

Plus, let's not kid ourselves; half the fun in making this soup is pulling out the food processor and watching the whole tomatoes, in addition to all the garlic and onions you so painstakingly chopped and almost wept over, go from complete solids to a completely creamy liquid. One that is just begging for the addition of some cream and a sprinkling of Italian Parsley.

With soup like this, who needs Campbell's?

Creamy Tomato Soup

Adapted from an adapted recipe from "Martha Stewart's Cooking School"
Yields six sufficient cups/bowls

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic (optional)
2 (14-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups chicken stock, or water
1/2 cup half and half
2 Tbsps. fresh Italian Parsley, chopped

-Melt butter in a medium stockpot over medium heat.
-Cook onion and garlic, stirring constantly, until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes.
-Add tomatoes, their juices, and stock.
- Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes.
-Working in batches, transfer tomato mixture to a blender or food processor.
-Puree tomato mixture (cover the lid with a kitchen towel while machine is running).
-Return soup to a clean pot and set over low heat.
-Whisk in half and half.
-Season with salt and pepper to your taste.
-Sprinkle parsley over the soup.
-Serve immediately and enjoy!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Falling for Fennel

"I never change, I simply become more myself."
- Joyce Carol Oates

I have a small confession to make; from that one simple cocktail of Campari and Fennel, a new love affair has come into my life: I am in love with fennel. And when I say "in love," I mean head over heels, wildly crazy about, smitten with, and simply mad for it. I kid you not when I say that it's better than potato chips.

I know, I know; that probably seems like an extreme statement. But if you happen to braise a few bulbs in a lemon and garlic sauce, I promise that you'll see what I mean. I am, after all, not the kind of girl that's prone to exaggeration. Top that off with the fact that 99.9% of the time, when I brush my teeth for the evening, eating time is over; no more food will be consumed. In this particular case, however, when I went back into the kitchen to put the leftovers in the fridge, I couldn't resist just one more little piece...Ludicrous, I know, especially considering that I never would have pegged myself for a lover of anise.

Oh well. Such is the joy of self-discovery.

The absolute glory of my newfound love lies partly in the sheer deliciousness of the dish itself and partly in my delight at figuring out what to do with the bulk of the fennel after the fronds had served their cocktail purpose. Inspired by friends of mine who swear by the site, I did a little search on epicurious for soups with fennel and was surprisingly left uninspired. But then, given my adoration of citrus and the way my hands smell after squeezing a lemon or peeling an orange, when I came to a recipe for fennel with lemon, I knew I had found the one. Just call it love at first recipe sight. :)

It didn't even matter that I was without shallots, which the recipe called for. In and of itself, fennel packs enough flavor, not to mention health benefits, which in my opinion rendered the shallots unnecessary! And I definitely didn't stick to the suggestion of 2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice or one clove of garlic. In some cases, you really can't have too much of a good thing. This recipe just happens to be one of them. It doesn't hurt that it's the perfect side dish for a low-key midweek meal. I paired it with an omelet and was as happy as could be.

Braised Fennel with Lemon

Yields four servings

Adapted from the November 2005 issue of Bon Appetit, courtesy of Epicurious

For the fennel:
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 fresh fennel bulbs, each cut lengthwise into wedges

For the lemon sauce:
the juice of 1/2 of a lemon
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
3 garlic cloves, minced

-Preheat oven to 400°F.
-Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large skillet over high heat.
-Add half of fennel; sauté until deep golden brown on all sides, about 6-8 minutes.
-Transfer to a large baking dish.
-Repeat with 2 more tablespoons oil and remaining fennel.
- Mix ingredients for sauce in a medium bowl.
- Whisk in 2 tablespoons oil; drizzle mixture over fennel.
-Cover dish with foil and bake for 25- 30 minutes.
-Remove foil and bake until fennel is tender (it's best to test the fennel by seeing if a fork will easily pierce it), about 20 minutes longer.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dressing up Dinner with "Red Passion"

I must rejoice beyond the bounds of time...even though the world be appalled at my joy, and in its coarseness knows not what I mean.
-Ruysbroeck the Admirable (from Huysmans' "Against Nature")

It's only February 3 and I've already broken one of my resolutions for the new year: did I not, back when 2011 had just arrived, promise you a cocktail every week or every other week...? I believe I did and, despite my best intentions, have since delivered only one time. But we both know that it was such a good cocktail that it was obviously going to be hard to top.

It's a good thing I'm nothing if not enterprising. And, even more importantly, skilled at doing research. ;)

Even in spite of all that, there's still the issue of time; some drinks just require more thought and obscure ingredients than others. Of course, that doesn't even begin to address the time question and how to balance everything that you have to do--from slowly destroying your eyesight for the sake of scholarly endeavors to making sure to keep up with dear friends both local and thousands of miles away--which can be overwhelming when you get down to the nitty gritty. But perhaps that's even more of a reason for a stiff drink?

So, in short, I finally pulled my act together, went to Trader Joe's and, when I saw the fennel bulbs that I've had on my grocery list since mid-January and couldn't find despite the fact that they're in season now, my mission was clear: A Campari-Fennel Aperitif it would be! One trip to a cute and local store later, and a newly purchased cocktail shaker in my hand, and I was ready to spruce up Tuesday night's dinner. After having read hundreds of pages of archaic Russian font and several nearly back-breaking trips to the library, I knew I had earned it. The goal of an aperitif is, after all, to refresh and to whet the appetite--to help you ease into the meal.

What better than the famous "Red Passion" (the posters from the 1920s ad campaign really were racy, yet elegant!) and its promise of a bitterness that is, despite everything, downright delicious? Given the look of the poster, it's probably the very appeal of a romance that would itself turn bitter, which caught the eye of potential buyers...Tortured romance is, after all, probably the best seller of all time. But we can't discount that the color, too, is fun to look at it; hints of passion aside, Campari just looks happy. Or maybe like it could provide happiness. In any case, best not to over-analyze what is, ultimately, a wonderful aperitif, full of things that should taste bitter, but that are somehow lightened by the presence of dry sparkling wine and simple syrup, the eternal crowd pleaser that puts packets of sugar to shame.

Should you be in the mood for a little pre-dinner pick me up or would just like to dine French style and feel a bit fancy for the evening, this aperitif is the way to go.

Campari Fennel Aperitif

From Neal Bodenheimer's article on "Mad Cocktails" in Food and Wine
Yields 1 drink

For the simple syrup:

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar

-Combine the two in a small saucepan.
-Simmer over low to moderate heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves.
-Let cool.
-This can be refrigerated for up to 1 month.

For the cocktail:

Handful of fennel fronds, plus 1 small sprig for garnish
2-3 lemon wheels
2 ounces dry sparkling wine
3/4 - 1 ounce Campari (this is according to your preferences; for the sake of easy measuring, I went with one ounce)
1/2 ounce simple syrup

-In a cocktail shaker, combine the fennel fronds with the lemon wheels, sparkling wine, Campari and simple syrup.
-Muddle 20 times (unlike when I was following the brownie recipe, I failed to count my "muddles," so I would say that the goal here is just to make sure that things are amply muddled without bringing counting into the game).
-Add ice and shake well.
-Strain into an ice-filled glass.
-Squeeze the lemon peel and add it to the glass.
-Garnish with the fennel sprig and serve.


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