Saturday, July 30, 2011

Blueberry Jam Gin Cocktails and the Joy of Cooking--with Friends

Food for pleasure, and not just nourishment, is best cooked in one's own kitchen and eaten with the feet under one's own table.
-Nicolas Freeling (The Kitchen Book)

While the meal I'm about to share was not prepared in my own kitchen, I think it's safe to say that Mr. Freeling would nevertheless have approved of how I spent last Saturday night. The Greek and I, you see, were invited to a friend's for dinner. But keep in mind that it wasn't just dinner; it was an evening of communal cooking. Blossom Dearie played in the background, while we chatted and munched on olives and bread slathered with Tzatziki, which the Greek had made in advance... In my oh so humble opinion, this is pretty much one of the best ways to spend a Saturday (or really, any) evening.

We all had a role to play. In one corner of the kitchen, the Greek and the hostess were chopping vegetables for a delicious Chicken Couscous recipe from Dorie Greenspan's beautiful new book. Turnips, chicken, zucchini, onions, saffron and harissa...believe me when I say that it tasted every bit as good as it looks! Everybody should find time to cook (or bake) with Dorie. Looking at the cookbook, I wanted to jump into it, buy the lifestyle and never look back. Clearly, I am capitalism's dream child.

Meanwhile, in the other corner of the kitchen, I was mixing up creme fraiche, cream cheese and goat cheese to reproduce a velvety cheesecake (yes, the recipe description had me at velvety) that was featured in one of Melissa Clark's recent columns. Best of all was that, rather than spend $6+ on overpriced creme fraiche, I decided to take matters into my own hands and "make" my own. Amazingly, it's really quite simple: 2 cups heavy cream + 1/4 cup buttermilk left sitting by a window or in a hot spot for 24 hours and, suddenly, the taste of the French countryside is yours...Well, kind of yours. I'm not convinced that the mild California summer can produce the same results as summer in Provence, but it tasted both good and authentic to me.

And it created quite the cheesecake as well. Granted, I was a bit disappointed that the cheesecake cracked (and so dramatically; we couldn't quite decide if it was a star--my secret hope--or, as the hostess suggested, a turtle...?), but I feel that, despite all the eggs it required, it was ultimately a very delicate recipe. There's a part of me that thinks that maybe the creme fraiche should have been thicker, or perhaps I should have monitored the oven temperature more closely, but, regardless of all these factors, it still tasted pretty darn good. Good enough to want to make it again, although I think that refrigerating the cheesecake before eating it vastly improves the texture.

Last but not least, there was a cocktail! Before I describe said cocktail, I would just like to say that I'm deeply ashamed as, according to my New Year's resolutions for the blog, I was supposed to do a weekly/bi-weekly post on fun things to drink. Things started off right with the Hot Nun
and there were also a few other goodies along the way, but, somehow, this resolution fell to the wayside. It's fair to blame the dissertation and the need for clear thinking, although, on the other hand, one might think that a dissertation would be a reason to keep the cocktails coming. In any case, I have rediscovered both my New Year's resolutions and writing schedule in these past weeks, which means only good things for you. The night of cooking seemed the perfect thing to celebrate with a cocktail.

I should also mention that I had spent the morning of this lovely day talking to my good friend and fellow blogger in Maine, which made me think of blueberries. Back when I visited Portland a few years ago, there had been talk of an island cruise to a place where they make Blueberry Martinis (we didn't make it to the blueberries, although we did manage to go on lovely cruise)...and then, a few weeks ago in the NYTimes, an article about traveling to Maine and blueberry beer. Blueberries, one of my favorite fruits, was very much on my mind.

And armed with some stored knowledge from a GOOP newsletter, I suggested Blueberry Jam Gin cocktails...Clearly, these adorable matryoshka glasses--in mama bear, papa bear and baby bear sizes--were not only thematically appropriate, but photographically fun.

Maybe it's cheesy to say that we toasted "за дружбу" (to friendship), but that's exactly what we did. Say what you will, but cheese tastes good. And it's a healthy part of any diet.

Blueberry Jam Gin Cocktail

Makes one sweet and tangy cocktail
From GOOP, courtesy of Madam Geneva NYC

2 oz Beefeater Gin
1 oz lemon juice
1 oz simple syrup (I used an orange sugar syrup--a birthday gift from a friend--that was left over from one of her many delicious chocolate-covered orange peel undertakings)
Crushed ice
Spoonful of blueberry jam

The nice thing about this cocktail is that it can change based on your jam preference. Also, it's nice to think of giving this cocktail a seasonal update--maybe Yuzu in November and December, Persimmons or Quince in the fall, Strawberries in May....The possibilities are endless.

-In a shaker, add jam, gin, lemon juice, simple (orange) syrup and several ice cubes.
-Shake briskly, and strain into a rocks glass half-filled with crushed ice.
-Float a spoonful of jam on top of the ice, and gradually stir it in to taste.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Casa Flores Yoga (Re)Treat

...If I had another life
I would want to spend it all/
on some unstinting happiness.

I would be a fox, or a tree
full of waving branches.
I wouldn't mind being a rose
in a field of roses.

Fear has not yet occurred to them,/
nor ambition.
Reason they have not yet thought of.
Neither do they ask how long they/
must be roses, and then what.
Or any other foolish question.
-Mary Oliver ("Roses, Late Summer")

Last Friday, when my alarm started ringing at 6:30 a.m., I wondered why in the world I had ever thought going on a yoga retreat would be a good idea. It was early, I was more than certain that the whole experience would result in serious pain come Saturday morning and, most importantly, I was wondering if I deserved to take a day off...These thoughts kept racing through my head as I scrambled around the apartment doing many unrelated things all at once: looking for my yoga pants, packing my lunch and making the all-important cup of coffee.

But as soon as I was certain that my ride had not left without me (somebody was so preoccupied with getting the last drop of coffee that she left her yoga mat in her apartment and had to go back for it) and we were on our way to Sebastopol, I could feel myself beginning to relax and settle into the journey. Suddenly, it felt like an adventure; I didn't know what to expect, but I was excited. I remembered that I had made these plans right around the time I finished the draft of the first chapter. During that time--a time of optimism and frantic writing--I remember feeling incredibly attracted to the idea of doing something, anything, that would get me away from a desk! In the midst of these thoughts and conversation with the two women I was driving up with, we arrived at Casa Flores...And while I recognize that I'm perhaps just easily smitten, can you blame me?

It was just a stunning place: flowers everywhere, interesting decorations, kind and hospitable owners, sprawling property and a cute dog (paradise would be incomplete without a canine; of that I'm more than certain!). And my first glimpse was just a precursor of the things to come. The day was fantastic; surprisingly, despite doing yoga for at least 6-7 hours, it was relaxing. There was no pressure; it was just a day about taking care of ourselves. There was time for reflection, to enjoy the scenery, to do many, many downward-facing dogs, but, most importantly, there was time (and space) to let go of some of the things that I had been holding onto inadvertently...and perhaps even somewhat stubbornly. Though we may like ourselves as we are and feel that we're set in our ways, there's always room for improvement. Or maybe just the possibility of improvement; play with that possibility and, who knows, maybe you'll end up with a whole new habit?

I mean, I never thought I'd be the kind of girl who would do yoga or consider going on a yoga retreat. Seriously, back in college when the yoga instructor at Columbia would tell us to imagine we were floating on a cloud, I became angry. I had no time for clouds--real or imaginary--when I needed to change clothes and get to my next class. Yoga was not for me. But after I started grad school and went back to Columbia to see one of my favorite professors, I've never forgotten the two bits of advice she gave me: "Don't stop baking. You might also consider yoga. It's good for the body and the brain." I thanked her for the advice, but decided that, for the time being, I'd stick with the former and do my blood pressure a favor by avoiding the latter. But it wasn't long before, due to the "third-year slump", I found myself buying passes to try out the local yoga studio. I wasn't immediately sold, but after I found the right class and the right teacher, it became something that helped me get through writing field statements and taking quals. It really became my little escape from life. Despite myself--or who I thought I was--I liked it. And as I discovered, developing one hobby didn't mean I had to abandon another. As my very wise professor had suggested, food and yoga could be two sides of the same coin.

And that's how it's been for me. While I've embraced many healthy ways of living, I'm still the kind of girl who will go on a yoga retreat and, as everybody else is munching on fruits and vegetables, happily eat Eggplant Moussaka, which is covered in bechamel sauce. I'll then follow up my oh so healthy lunch with a trip to the most amazing local bakery, Wild Flour, where I'll buy and devour a marzipan cranberry scone. Granted, it was vegan, but a scone can maintain its integrity only by being soft and crumbly. If not through butter, then clearly through almond paste! We live in a world in which all the rules can be broken: scones can be dairy free and yoga lovers can live for baked goods Sometimes, it's a good place to be.

There was, however, plenty of health to go around. Dinner was a picnic in the yard as the sun set behind us. There was all kinds of salad, good bread (also courtesy of the excellent Wild Flour) and wine. After a day of intense exercise, did we or did we not deserve it? I'm also not ashamed to say that when the ice cream and fresh berries came out for dessert, I went back for seconds.

That's how I feel about the yoga retreat, too. It was so good--delicious for both the brain and the body--I may just have to do it again. Just call me a woman restored. Or a convert. Either will do.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Cake Fit for a Sugar-Plum Fairy

The concept of stairs in the traditional sense was also something the world no longer needed. Stairs represented a teleological view of the universe, of one thing leading to another, whereas now everyone knew that one thing didn't lead to another but often nowhere at all.
-Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex)

Maybe things can sometimes lead nowhere, but, in my world, they often lead to cake. For example, a few weeks ago, right after I returned to California, the Greek and I went to San Francisco to a free symphony performance in Golden Gate Park. It was a slightly planned, but spontaneous outing (keep in mind, this is when I was battling the cold that seemed like it would never die, but how can you say no to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony when the sun is shining? Exactly; it's pretty near impossible). We ended up driving and, as always happens in San Francisco, parking is just plain hard to find. After about 20-25 minutes of circling the same neighborhood looking for that oh so elusive spot, we turned up an obscenely steep hill and struck gold. That is, if you consider gold a hillside spot a mile away from where you're trying to go. Like any reasonable individual, the Greek didn't and, as he turned to me, he jokingly said: "You owe me a cake." And as I'm never one to turn down a challenge (or a baking request), the game was on. Cake there would be.

Granted, it took me a little time to fulfill the request. I would have happily done it the day the request was made had I not been so stuffy and had we not gone out for tapas and paella in the Mission at Esperpento. Even sick, I can never say no to paella! And then life, as they say, just got in the way.

But once mentioned, cake often sticks in your mind (much like it can stick to your waistline) and the thought just won't go away. Before you know it, you've got the mixing bowls out, you're waiting for butter to reach room temperature and the kitchen, due to the pre-heating, is getting hot (this final detail reminds you of what summer is supposed to be like if only the fog would take the hint). And if, in your search for the perfect summer cake, you decide on something with, let's say, plums, you might also end up at Whole Foods. That's how summer baking glamour is achieved.

To fulfill the Greek's fantasy, I decided to use a recipe from Vefa's Kitchen. Ever since Greek Easter I'd had my eye on walnut cake, but, as soon as I saw the recipe for plum cake, I knew my plans had changed. I just didn't expect that I'd take Vefa's recipe and feel so inclined to change it. Four cups of white flour in one cake seemed a bit excessive to me; similarly, I wasn't so into the idea of two cups of sugar. So I went a little wild with the flour combination--one cup of whole wheat, whole wheat pastry, cake flour and, last but not least, all-purpose. Did it work? I think so; it was nutty and thick, but thanks to the cake flour and all-purpose, fluffy and moist--and erred on the side of caution with only one cup of sugar. I was banking on the sweetness of the gloriously juicy black plums to do their magic and fruit never fails. Some vanilla bean also seemed essential to my inspired baking moment and, last but not least, since I didn't have a 14-inch cake pan (who does besides Vefa or professional bakers?), I went with my trusty springform pan...

What did I end up with? A gorgeous, yet crumbly concoction that is vanilla ice cream's true love. Forget pie! Plums in a cake. It's so simple and so right.

Greek-Style Plum Cake
Inspired by Vefa's Kitchen (Fresh Plum Cake)
Yields thick slices of plum-flavored joy

I truly believe the more plums the merrier; the next time around, rather than adding plums only to the top of the cake, I would also line the bottom of the cake pan with them before pouring in the batter. I also think that whatever your flour preference, go for it. The combination I used works nicely, but, for those of you who love white flour and won't bake with anything else, there's no need to change your habits for this recipe. And, as for sugar, 1 cup, 1 1/2 cups, 2 cups; do what your sweet tooth tells you. Mine was clearly on vacation for this baking endeavor; next time, though, who knows?

1 cup butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
5 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 1-inch piece of a vanilla seedpod with the beans scraped out
1/2 cup mik
2 Tbsp. grated lemon zest
2 lb. plums, pitted and quartered (but not peeled)
Powdered sugar, for sprinkling

-Preheat the oven to 350.
-Grease either a 14-inch cake pan or a 9-inch springform pan and dust with flour.
-Beat together the eggs and sugar in a bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until thick and pale.
-In a large bowl, add the flour and then either whisk or sift it.
-At this stage, add the vanilla bean to the flour and whisk to combine.
-Lower the speed and, beating constantly, add the melted butter and milk, a little at a time, alternating with the flour.
-Fold in the lemon zest.
-Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly. (N.B. to achieve this, I like to either hit my pan a few times or to lift it a few inches from the table and then drop it down; trust me, it works.)
-Arrange the plums on top, cut sides up.
-Bake for 45-60 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
-Set on a rack and let cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and enjoy. The cake is best served warm.
-N.B. Vefa recommends that the cake be eaten the day it's made or to freeze the leftovers. I did a little of each; I'm saving one half of the cake for a rainy day when the plums have left us.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

An Oat-Induced Swoon

Emotions, in my experience, aren't covered by single words. I don't believe in "sadness," "joy," or "regret." Maybe the best proof that the languages is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, "the happiness that attends disaster." Or: "the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy." I'd like to show how "intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members" connects with the "hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age."
-Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex)

The narrator of Middlesex (Cal, Callie or Calliope--they all blur into one) makes an interesting point about emotions. When I think about my own life, the emotions that I feel in certain situations or even on a daily basis, it's never quite as simple as I'm happy, or I'm sad. There are the days when I get an email from my dissertation adviser and I'm overcome by immense horror at the prospect of reading it...So, to delay the process, I'll open each and every email surrounding it. We could call this a mild form of panic, but I like to think of it as self-preservation; something like "calming the nerves so as not to go into cardiac arrest." It may seem weird, but, come on, you must do it too...right? It's totally normal, especially in my line of work.

There's also the cloud of doom that you carry around for a few days after getting any kind of feedback. To go on--to know that you must return to and fix your work--seems like a herculean task. Maybe a cold makes it worse. Or the fact that you had to have your pupils dilated because Health Services insists on such foolishness on a yearly basis. The thing is, though, that people are funny that way. We insist that our work isn't good enough, that we shouldn't have done this or that, but, when somebody suggests the very thing that we ourselves suspect, we get worked up into a tizzy about it. Suddenly, we're brimming with confidence and anger. Even injustice! And then, poof, just like that, it's gone. Nobody has the emotional energy to maintain that kind of intensity. Give it a day or two and it's back to business as usual. It's like my grandpap would always say whenever I found myself involved in some silly teenage-girl squabble with friends: "Maybe she's mad now, but, don't worry, she'll be glad again." Those words have never failed me.

I often also experience the need, after a rough day, to get a good night's sleep and to start the next day off right. Coffee, of course, is key; as I like to say, it's my life-blood. There's also the desire for a nice breakfast--something that will stick to my bones and propel me into the day. It's odd that this has become a source of comfort for me because, when I was in high school and college, I would often snub breakfast, thinking that I never had the time for such luxuries...But for the past few years, I've embraced it: pancakes, waffles, banana bread, oatmeal! You name it, it's most likely been on my menu. However, nothing could have prepared me for Heidi Swanson's Baked Oatmeal. We could call my first whiff of it baking in the oven "the tickling sensation of a soon-to-be blossoming love." My first bite--"a cinnamon- and berry-induced swoon." And just like that, I too was glad again. By glad, I mean "pacified and, with the delicious taste of oats, protein and berries lingering in my mouth, certain that things couldn't really be as bad as they had seemed." And when, bolstered by the oats, you return to the very source of your agitation, you often discover that it wasn't even worth an ounce of angst. But when it brings you to a breakfast as good as this, you know you'd relive it all for just one bite.

Baked Oatmeal
Ever so slightly adapted from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day
Yields 6 servings of one of the best breakfasts you may ever have (N.B. no exaggeration)

The changes I made were minimal: I didn't have walnuts, so I went with pecans. I had only one banana instead of two. Seasonal berries were also a no-brainer. Also, since I have yet to make a proper trip to the grocery store, I didn't have much maple syrup and agave seemed like a healthy and reasonable alternative. Even with only 2-3 teaspoons of maple syrup, I didn't feel cheated on the maple front. In short, this is so good that it could probably withstand all kinds of modification and its integrity would still be intact.

2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup roughly chopped pecans (I used salted pecans because of my love of salty-sweet things)
1/3 cup agave nectar, plus 2-3 tsp. maple syrup
1 tsp. aluminum-free baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. fine-grain sea salt
2 cups 2% milk
1 large egg
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 large ripe banana
1 1/2 cup raspberries and strawberries

-Preheat the oven to 375.
-Generously butter the inside of a square (or, as I used, rectangle) baking dish.
-In a bowl, mix together the oats, half the nuts, the baking power, cinnamon and salt.
-In another bowl, whisk together the agave, maple syrup, the milk, eggs, half of the melted butter and the vanilla.
-Cut the banana into slices and arrange them in a single layer in the bottom of the baking dish.
-Arrange 2/3 of the mixed berries over the top.
-Cover the fruit with the oat mixture.
-Slowly drizzle the milk mixture over the oats.
-Gently hit or shake the baking dish so that the milk is spread evenly throughout the oats.
-Scatter the remaining berries and nuts across the top.
-Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the top is golden and the mixture has set.
-Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes.
-Drizzle the remaining melted butter on the top and serve.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

No Sugar, Lots of Spice and Everything Nice

And what were they, all, all those torments of the past! Everything, even his crime, even his sentence and exile, seemed to him now, in the first impulse, to be some strange, external fact, as if it had not even happened to him. However, that evening he could not think long or continuously of anything, could not concentrate his mind on anything; besides, he would have been unable to resolve anything consciously just then; he could only feel. Instead of dialectics, there was life, and something completely different had to work itself out in his consciousness.
-Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment)

Rereading this quote tonight--something that I've read many, many times--I couldn't help but feel how pertinent it was to my own situation. Not that I've committed any crime (certainly not! The only "crime" I could be said to have committed is having a blog when there's a dissertation to write). It's more that after an illness, any illness, you feel this surge of life. It creeps up on you slowly, but it's there. The sniffles may still be present, but your energy returns, you want to work, you schedule meetings, plan projects...and, particularly in my case, you have the urge to make something for dinner (also equally pleasant: you have an excuse to use the pretty new tablecloth your mom presented you with and that you miraculously managed to squeeze into your suitcase; thanks, Mom!).

Oh, it's good to be back!

It was lovely to pull a cookbook from the shelf, rather randomly, and, after flipping through a few pages, to alight on the perfect thing. I wanted spice, I wanted sauce and I wanted simplicity. Thankfully, the gem of a cookbook that I had stumbled on last summer could deliver on all those things. And all through the clever conceit of savory baking.

I would say that only in the past few years have I learned to appreciate crumbles; there truly is, despite my cake loving ways, something to be said for the combination of oats, butter, spices and fresh fruit that will, upon baking, slowly ooze into something delicious. Somewhat surprisingly (or even unsurprisingly; I can't quite decide), the formula works just as well when you transform the crumble into an entree instead of a dessert. Maybe my crumble philosophy will forever be changed by this experience, but who needs fruit when you've got a base of tomatoes, kalamata olives, garlic and pepperoncini, topped with oats, panko, fresh sage and oregano...not to mention the oh so necessary chunk of butter.

Are you with me?

Should you be afflicted with a summer cold, barely able to taste any and all food and are desperately in need of something to clear the nasal passages, then this is for you. It will penetrate your deadened senses and let you know that your taste buds are alive and well. And even if you don't have a summer cold, but have a hankering for something a little out of the ordinary and just plain good, remember that tomatoes are your friends. And that the summer is their time to shine.

I'll also add that, if you're feeling a little ambitious, you can also wake up the next morning and attempt to top this crumble with the perfect poached egg. It may take you a few tries to get it right, you may disagree with your cooking partner in crime about the way in which the necessary whirlpool should be formed. He may disagree with you about the necessary amount of vinegar to get the proteins to congeal (it's hard to argue with scientific logic). You may both, after the perfect egg has been achieved and it's clear that there are enough perfect (and imperfect) eggs to go around, agree that the other one was right all along.

When it comes to certain things, the heart and stomach just can't help but agree.

Spicy Tomato Crumble
Yields 4-6 servings, depending on whether it's a meal unto itself or a side
Adapted from Mary Cech's Savory Baking

This recipe called for dried spices, but I instead (save for the basil) went with fresh. Also, due to my own preferences, I opted for panko instead of regular bread crumbs; I like things a little crispy. My love of salt led to Pecorino-Romano instead of Parmesan and I also couldn't resist adding smoky sun-dried tomatoes. I wanted flavor and that's what I got. These ingredients worked well for me, but there's always room for more tinkering. Garden-grown tomatoes (if you have some) would probably make this even better than the canned; it would certainly change the texture!

For the topping:

1/3 cup panko bread crumbs, plus extra for a pre-baking sprinkle
1/4 cup rolled oats
1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Pecorino-Romano cheese
1 tsp. chopped fresh oregano
1 tsp. chopped fresh sage
1/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
black pepper, for sprinkling

For the filling:
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp. capers, rinsed, drained and roughly chopped
2 Tbsp. finely diced pepperoncini
1/4 cup smoked sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 tsp. clover honey
1 tsp. dried basil
1/2 cup dry red wine
one 28-ounce can whole Italian tomatoes with juice, roughly chopped or crushed
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped

-To prepare the topping, combine the panko, rolled oats, flour, Pecorino, oregano, sage and salt in a medium bowl.
-Add the butter and work it into the flour mixture with your fingertips until crumbly.
-Set aside.
-To prepare the filling, put the garlic, capers, pepperoncini, sun-dried tomatoes, honey, basil, red wine, tomatoes and olives in a medium saucepan over high heat.
-Stir and bring to a rapid boil.
-Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 15-20 minutes to reduce the filling slightly.
-Preheat the oven to 350.
-Pour the filling into one 1 1/2 quart (6-cup) casserole dish and sprinkle with the topping.
-At this stage, I chose to add some more panko, both for additional crunch and to cover up some semi-bare spots.
-Sprinkle mildly with black pepper.
-Place the casserole dish in the center of the oven.
-Bake until the topping is golden brown and the filling is bubbling, about 15-20 minutes.
-Serve hot!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Random Scenes from Summer and Lemon Chicken Soup

Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quite in droves, unable to adopt the speed of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we've all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds.
-Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex)

It's taken me about two and a half days to actually write this post. To a certain extent, I suppose you could say that my assembly line has temporarily come to a stop. It's weird. When I stepped off the plane at SFO (the above shot was taken about 45 minutes before we landed and all electronic devices had to be turned off; the skyline was particularly striking at that moment), I was a ball of energy, full of goals and ambitious work plans. Revising my paper was my top priority, although I was also somewhat distracted by my rather spontaneous desire to clean out my closet. What can I say? Objects in motion tend to stay in motion and, after NYC, the South and what some might call the midwest (I respectively disagree), I guess I just wasn't ready to stop. That is, until, as Newton's laws of motion predict could happen, an external force got in the way of things. Just call it the oh so diabolical common cold. The kind of thing that, especially in the summer, seems like the saddest thing in the world. Even if you have somebody who's more than happy to make you comforting lemon chicken soup.

The agitation of not being able to breathe almost makes me want to rewind time and, despite the joys of being back in my own space and seeing friends again, pause on Pennsylvania, where the days were simple, breathing was possible and the sun made its proper summer appearance instead of hiding behind a shield of fog. Did I mention that that's also where the world's cutest dachshund just so happens to live?

While the loss of my best canine friend is quite sad, there were things that needed to be done. Things that, even in light of the common cold and sounding and feeling like an elephant had taken residence in my nostrils, just couldn't wait any longer. Mainly, the renewal of my driver's license! And I can't even complain that much about the horrors of the DMV. Somehow, I made it out of there in 25 minutes. The Greek and I had even managed to have a nice breakfast at Bakesale Betty beforehand. Ginger pear scones go a long way to making the unpalatable palatable.

Also, distance makes sending postcards possible. Three lucky people will be receiving these cards (don't worry, I've been using hand sanitizer like it's going out of style).

Guess who's keeping the tissue companies in business these days? The cold medicine companies should thank me, too!

Fortunately for me, when I made this red lentil soup (a shining example of Melissa Clark's culinary genius) back in late April, I decided to do an experiment and freeze some of it for a rainy day. Upon feeling the first sensation of scratchiness in the back of my throat, I got it out, defrosted it in a big pot and marveled at how good and fresh it still tasted (I act as if the freezer is the enemy!). After the DMV and in between appointments, I was rushing to eat lunch and, to make matters worse, I dropped my cell phone in the container of leftover soup!! Though you'd never believe it, luck must have been on my side because, the phone is still working...even if the soup was rendered inedible (think of how many times you drop your cell phone and ask yourself if you really want it floating in your soup?). Let's not even talk about how, in trying to clean out the lentils, I almost fell down the stairs. Just call me Calamity Jane. I took a photo as a cautionary tale.

The day drastically improved, however, once I began arranging a present for a friend who had had her birthday while I was on the east coast. Birthdays, even if celebrated belatedly, should be fun, colorful and contain some secret surprise. Beautiful packaging doesn't hurt, either.

Our meeting place was a cute new ice cream place on Solano, IScream, whose name pretty much encapsulates my own sentiment on the topic. The store is very elegant and simple, just like the flavors on offer. I was excited to order blueberry and doubly excited to discover that the rich taste could still be enjoyed by my waning senses. The ice cream was like a bowl of blueberries and rich cream; based on the softness of the ice cream, I think it's Philadelphia-style instead of French-style. I do enjoy me some egg-less ice cream.

But after the ice cream fun and the very busy day, I was more than happy to return to my clean and humble abode, where the leftovers of this lemon chicken soup were waiting for me. The day before the Greek, upon hearing that I was sick, had kindly offered to come over with the essential ingredients and, even better, to make it for me. So, while the chicken boiled and the broth came into its own, we combined soothing and lemony Greek cure-alls with the best of American aimlessness by watching The Graduate. Between the comfort of chicken soup and the strange steaminess of Anne Bancroft's seduction of a young (and cute!) Dustin Hoffman, I automatically felt better...something even resembling normal. Both Hollywood and chicken soup will do that to you; too bad it's a fleeting sensation.

Lemon Chicken Soup (Avgolemono)
Yields 4 bowls for the congested soul
The recipe you're receiving below is partly the Greek's (made from memory) and partly Vefa Alexiadou's from Vefa's Kitchen (for precision)

I should mention that, as much as I love this soup, each time I have it, I contemplate adding either carrots, spinach or onions to the broth. According to custom, only carrots and onions are technically allowed, but I can't help but think that spinach and lemons mix well together. Or maybe some kale. Maybe I just long to add something green to everything. In any case, should you decide to make this (summer cold or no summer cold), feel free to experiment with the flavor. Otherwise, it's a minimalist chef's dream come true with a rich taste that can easily hold its own.

1 small chicken (about 4 lbs)
salt and pepper
3/4 medium grain rice (we use risotto; orzo would also work)
2 eggs
freshly squeezed lemon juice from 1-2 lemons

-Remove and discard the skin from the chicken (according to Vefa, this removes the majority of the fat).
-Rinse the chicken under cold running water, then put it in a large pan and pour in water to cover.
-Bring to a boil over low heat.
-Season with salt and pepper and cover.
-Summer for about 40-45 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.
-Remove the chicken and set aside to cool.
-Bring the stock back to a boil, add the rice and stir.
-Cover, reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender.
-Meanwhile, beat the eggs in a bowl with the lemon juice.
-Slowly beat in a ladelful of the hot soup, then stir the mixture into the soup.
-At this stage, you can start shredding some chicken to be added back into the soup.
-Remove the pan from the heat.
-Sprinkle with more pepper and salt.
-Add in the shredded chicken.
-Taste the soup and adjust the flavors: add more lemon juice if necessary, more salt, pepper, etc.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Blueberry Wheat Waffles and American Justice

The resultant internal conflict is nowhere more clearly seen than in Crime and Punishment. The characters seem drawn from an imagined hell and yet...'We have never met them, but they are mysteriously familiar to us. We understand and love them, and finally we recognize ourselves in them. This is because they are no more abnormal than we are. In fact, they are what we do not dare to be, they do and say what we do not dare to do and say, and they bring to the light of day that which we keep buried in the darkness of the unconscious.'
-Constance Garnett

Dostoevsky has been on my mind; it's as simple as that. The deadline for the article submission of my old graphic novel paper was July 1 (fail! Alas, how's a girl to write a paper while driving up and down the coast?) but, due to the kindness of two friendly Dutchmen, is now July 15. *sigh of relief* As I was reading through my "virtual stack" of books on comics and trauma, Dostoevsky and the 1950s and other things that I had scanned into my Kindle on the airplane back, I came across the above quote.

What struck me most about it was that it seemed to encapsulate everything about the Casey Anthony trial, which I'm only slightly ashamed to admit I followed quite actively while in Pennsylvania. Maybe it was the availability of a television, maybe it was the media frenzy that made the case basically inescapable, but, like a large majority of Americans, I found myself intrigued by the mystery surrounding the case. I wanted to know what would happen (and now I know: not guilty. A lack of solid forensic evidence just wasn't there) and would there be, as reporters kept repeating, "justice for Caylee"? After all, nothing made sense--we really were, as Jeff Ashton, the prosecutor, said, "expected to suspend our reason and follow Alice down the rabbit hole." But, honestly, what really drew me in was that the whole trial could have passed as a live enactment of a modern Dostoevskian novel. Dysfunctional family? Check. An unbelievable and strange series of coincidences/events? Check. Psychological instability? Check. Long monologues and unnecessary digressions? Check. Even knowing what I know about Dostoevsky himself, this could very well have been the subject matter of one of the many clippings from the paper about murders and crimes that so fascinated him and on which he based some of his novels and stories...And so, in the morning, I would put the kettle on, make my extra strong cup of coffee and make breakfast with the trial on in the background...These very waffles were the product of one such morning as I avidly listened to the closing statements and tried to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable.

Let me assure you that measuring flour, blueberries and walnuts is infinitely easier than attempting to work through circumstantial evidence and bizarre, impossible to prove theories. I'm pretty sure I made these on auto-pilot mode; my fingers knew how to do all the right things even as my brain was elsewhere...Just like with reading books, watching movies, tv shows or live trials involves you in the action; regardless of how you respond-- emotionally, logically, rationally, indifferently--you somehow write yourself into the "text." You judge the characters/people, you take a stance and you often talk about "what you would have done", making yourself either a would-be author, script writer or, in this case, a juror. I certainly fell into the final category since, somewhat amazingly, I didn't even notice that the waffles were sugar free until I had cooked them! Yes, my attention was that torn between the television and the mixing bowl. I also probably let a few of them overcook--and probably much to their benefit; my impatience usually leads me to want to remove things from the skillet, griddle, etc. too early-- due to my need to catch every word of recorded conversations and family photos that, if we're to trust in images, tell a story far different from the one the media laid out for us.

In any case, the trial is now over and we can all stop taking part in a family tragedy that, regardless of how it speaks to us and our need for that special brand of American justice that makes us all guilty until proven innocent (in my graphic novel paper, this is a topic I discuss, so, though this post may to some extent seem a tad crude, Dostoevsky, Casey Anthony and waffles seamlessly combined in my mind), was never really ours to begin with.

Blueberry Wheat Waffles
Serves 4, providing either 4 extra large waffles or 16 mini-waffles
Slightly adapted from Self Magazine via Epicurious

Vegetable-oil spray
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup oat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup 2 % milk
1 pint blueberries
2 eggs
2 handfuls walnut halves
2 tablespoons butter, melted

-Heat waffle iron; coat with cooking spray.
-Whisk flours, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon and salt in a bowl.
-Add remaining ingredients; mix until lumpy.
-Spoon batter onto iron (2-3 teaspoons makes about one waffle, albeit an imperfectly sized one); cook 3 to 5 minutes.
-Repeat with remaining batter.
-Lightly butter and drizzle with maple syrup.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Spinach Pie and Flying on the Fourth of July

You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.
-Erma Bombeck

Growing up, I always loved the Fourth of July: the fireworks, the food, the family gatherings. It's a time when the heat starts to intensify and the flies are out in full force, but, somehow or another, a picnic always seems worth it. These last few years, however, I've been trapped in airports on this fine holiday...I tell people that I don't mind--and I don't; this is, after all, a choice--because I get a free fireworks show up in the sky, free from the crowds. But the one thing I can't help but miss, at least a little, is the accompanying holiday picnic. Let me assure you that, unlike Bombeck's quote, where I come from the potato salad is never iffy. See sample A below if you don't believe me:

My grandma is an artiste in the kitchen; I like to think that I've inherited a small fraction of her talent. I remember watching her make this potato salad, year after year, for many summer picnics...I think the flower art out of green peppers and hard-boiled eggs emerged in response to my questions about why the potato salad always had to be yellow; you see, I wanted it to be pretty. From ages 7-12, I think my ideal potato salad with have been pink and purple, but I was told that "food should always look appetizing." Those colors clearly weren't going to make the cut, particularly in the realm of potato salad. But I quickly saw how, with a few creative adjustments, the food could be both pretty and appetizing and all through the help of its own essential ingredients. It was a lesson well learned.

The good news is that, due to my travel arrangements and the Greek's visit, I guess you could say that, this year at least, I really didn't miss out. We simply chose to celebrate the holiday a bit early. While it wasn't a true Fourth of July picnic, It was instead a multi-purpose party that covered my being home, my grandparents' 55th wedding anniversary (!!!) and Independence Day all in one...minus the fireworks. But who needs fireworks when you've got a spread of deliciousness?

There was a wonderful and festive blueberry tart--one of my favorites-- made by my grandma. When I say that this tart basically melts in your mouth, believe me; the crust is flakey and buttery and contains a hidden surprise in the shape of chopped pecans or walnuts. While I'm certainly not even close to being a pie lover, if faced with chocolate cake and this dessert, I'd have a hard time choosing which I wanted to eat. Seriously.

The Greek and I also decided to whip up some spinach pie, or spanakopita , for the occasion. Partly because he wanted to cook authentic Greek food for my family (he was spoiling both my mother and brother with pancakes and the like!) and partly because, after a month of almost eating out exclusively, I wanted to cook something! To get back into the kitchen--it had been too long-- and prepare and eat some of the things that I love...

While spanakopita might seem like a difficult thing to make, it really isn't. Though a cheesy and silly joke, it really is as easy as pie (between me and you, I've never quite understood that saying since it's much easier to ruin pie crust than a made-from-scratch cake recipe, but perhaps my cake allegiance just makes it seem easy?)!

Any difficulty stems from the phyllo--both handling and stacking it in the baking dish. One lesson I learned from this experience is that it's important to have a baking dish that doesn't require that you either cut or crumple the dough. It should lay flat and be amply brushed with melted butter or olive oil....Yes, that just might be why it tastes as good as it does!

And what you choose to do for the filling is a matter of taste. While I prefer good quality feta that is both moist and adequately salty, my mother is not a huge feta fan. To make the dish more palatable to her tastes, we used a log of goat cheese and half of a large chunk of feta; the resulting combination was creamy and flavorful. Some recipes also call for ricotta cheese, but mixing and matching can do wonders.

The finished product, I'm happy to report, was a huge success. I love the way the crispy texture of the phyllo combines with the creaminess of the spinach and cheese. Whenever I eat this, I can't help but think that Popeye would be both proud and slightly envious of all the spinach alternatives that now exist for the average man. With something like spanakopita, canned spinach is simply left in the dust.

Yields 10-12 pieces of savory delight

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup freshly chopped dill or dill weed
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds spinach, rinsed and chopped (we used a mix of frozen and fresh spinach, mainly due to time constraints)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
8 oz. crumbled goat cheese
4 oz. crumbled feta cheese
8-10 sheets phyllo dough
1/4 cup melted butter or olive oil (or a combination of the two)

-Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
-Lightly oil a 9x13 inch square baking pan.

For the filling:
-Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
-Saute onion and garlic, until soft and lightly browned.
-Stir in spinach and dill, and continue to saute until spinach is limp, about 2 minutes.
-Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
-In a medium bowl, mix together eggs, crumbled goat cheese, and feta. (I like to add a little more dill at this stage, but that's because I'm a dill-aholic. I blame Russia.)
-Stir in spinach mixture.

For the pie:
- Lay 1 sheet of phyllo dough in prepared baking pan, and brush lightly with olive oil or melted butter.
- Lay another sheet of phyllo dough on top, brush with oil or butter, and repeat process with two more sheets of phyllo.
- Line the exposed sides of the cake pan with small strips of cut phyllo. Brush with butter or oil and stack at least 2-3 sheets of phyllo on each side of the rectangular pan.
- Spread spinach and cheese mixture into pan and fold overhanging dough (if any) over filling.
- Brush with oil or butter, then layer remaining 4 sheets of phyllo dough, brushing each.
-Tuck any overhanging dough into pan to seal filling.
-Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden brown.
-Cut into squares and serve while hot.


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