Saturday, October 29, 2011

Just Beyond the Pumpkin Patch

I will be the gladdest thing
     Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
    And not pick one.
I will look at cliffs and clouds
   With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
   And the grass rise.
-Edna St. Vincent Millay ("Afternoon on a Hill")

Some days you just want to do something different,
go somewhere new, breathe different air and surround yourself with colors and smells that go beyond the norms of your daily life. That's the feeling that I woke up with today, happily bouncing out of bed at 8 a.m. to turn the alarm off. While that may seem early for a Saturday morning, the Greek and I were going to Sonoma (clearly, given our trip last October, this is becoming a fall tradition for us).  For most people, the goal of a trip to Sonoma is wine tasting and, although we planned to do some of that too, our real mission was to have a nice breakfast at the Fremont Diner.

Despite my love of reading any and all things about food, I found out about this place the old-fashioned way--through word of mouth. My building manager, you see, is one of the best food resources around, having himself worked in several restaurants in California, as well as having owned a catering business for many years. The thing he's been planning for many years, but sadly can't quite manage right now due to real estate costs, is to open his own breakfast place. The man loves breakfast and, if you ask him (hopefully with a pen in your hand) for suggestions, will rattle off a list of places. And his opinion is usually spot on. So, when he told me about this place, I knew we had to go. Even better was the fact that our conversation about food (ranging from prunes to Jacques Pepin) coincided with a timely monetary gift from my father, who, due to all of my work troubles and worries over the last few months, told me to take the money and to treat both myself and the Greek (clearly, he was traveling Tom Haverford and the fine people at "Parks and Recreation" without even knowing it).

Certainly, brunch is a simple way to go in terms of treating yourself, but it just so happens that I love brunch. It means I start the morning with a nice meal and there won't be any dishes to wash. Plus, because in recent years I've expanded my own breakfast repertoire, making lots of pancakes, trying my hand at waffles and even attempting the oh so scary poached egg, I try to make it a rule that I'll order only things that I would most likely never make at home. This is how I ended up with a plateful of scrambled eggs, bacon, oysters, fried potatoes, arugula and remoulade. In short, nothing short of heaven on a plate.

The Greek also did well for himself, ending up with a big plate of shrimp and grits with a fried egg. It was a lovely little roadside place--nothing fancy, but well worth the drive. Everything was fresh (they have a garden in the restaurant's backyard), flavorful and, despite being "rich Southern food", was not overly heavy and cloying. I left full, but a happy full, not an "I'm never eating again" full. It also didn't hurt that we sat in the sunshine, at a cute little picnic table, and that Sonoma's charm surrounded us from every angle.

Our next stop was a winery, but we let inspiration strike us on the road. The Greek had seen something about a state landmark, so we headed in that direction, ultimately ending up at Buena Vista Winery. The property was lovely--well manicured and inviting--and, much to our delight, offered a compelling historical narrative as well.

The winery, which was established by a Hungarian Count (Count Agoston Haraszthy) in 1857, employs an actor/historian to act out and tell the story of its founder. The act includes a Hungarian accent (the man who plays this role is even learning Hungarian to perfect his act), as well as jokes about the strangeness of history (this act will be taken on the road in the next year when the "Count's Wine" is released by Buena Vista. It's worth seeing if it comes to a city near you). The Count's story, you see, ends with him trying to salvage his fortune by sailing (phylloxera infested his vines; I should note that when the "Count" asked us why we thought his crops failed, the Greek was the only one to offer a guess and, naturally, that guess was right. Men of science are truly knowledgeable; never fails!) to Nicaragua to invest in a sugar plantation. This plan never came to fruition because the poor Count fell into alligator-infested waters and was no more.

Once we left the Count behind, the actor playing the Count resumed his own identity, a man who has been working in the wine industry for 35 years. And it was truly a pleasure to listen to him; he covered all kinds of ground: why screw caps are better than corks (corks change the taste of the wine) and also told us about how, after the movie Sideways came out, several makers of Merlot were put out of business because people stopped buying it (apparently, in the actual novel, Paul Giamatti's character refuses to drink Merlot not because it's a bad wine, but because it's his ex-wife's favorite wine. It's amazing how one tiny detail can change a scene). While letting Hollywood dictate your purchasing decisions is certainly absurd, I can't say I blame them, though. It was a wine movie--and one that seemed to offer sound wine advice and opinions. And, most importantly, while I like wine, I am, like many others out there, far from an expert and will often blindly take the recommendations of others. This isn't to say that I don't know what I like, but ask me what it tastes like and I'm hopeless. Cherry? Hints of nutmeg and cinnamon? Sorry, my palate just isn't that developed. But it's nice to take these opportunities and to try to absorb whatever wisdom I can.

After sampling the good life at Buena Vista, we headed to Sonoma proper, the quaint little town that is full of pumpkins, shops and, at this time of year, groups of tourists from all over the Bay Area and beyond. We found ourselves staying away from the crowds by walking down a side street that led us to a hidden treasure: The Depot Park Museum. We played with the stereopticon and looked at the ads on the side wall. I must confess that I was most intrigued by one called "The Princess Bust Developer" for those women "not favored with nature's greatest charm." Part of me couldn't believe that such a thing existed back in the nineteenth century (it's hardly the concern of an Austen heroine, after all!)! Part of me was, geek that I am, intrigued by the language used; believe me when I say that it was basically one big walking euphemism.

The rest of our time was just spent walking around, talking and snapping pictures. It shouldn't amaze me (yet it always does!), but, whenever you find yourself doing something a little out of the ordinary with somebody you've known for a long time, the whole nature of the conversation changes. Suddenly, you're talking about random things--travelogues and TV dinners, cartoons from your youth, people like Descartes, chicken pot pie. There doesn't even have to be any rhyme or reason to the whole thing; you just find yourself feeling a bit more free.

Good food doesn't hurt either. A stop at Sonoma's Best proved that. Olive bread and mozzarella with tomato and pesto. Or a surprisingly good meat loaf sandwich (the Greek is the carnivore in this relationship). They only add to the conversation.

Our final stop before returning to our normal life was Anaba Winery. And mainly because, after we tried to go there on my birthday and were turned away since we arrived five minutes before closing, we've had two vouchers for a "2 for 1 tasting." Clearly, as I've now been 28 for about 6 months, it was high time we use them. The Greek has always said this is one of his favorite wineries. As soon as we arrived, I could see why. The view captures the best of Sonoma and the turbines outside also give it a unique look and feel.

I really liked the Turbine Red, but the white port and Viognier dessert wine really stole my heart. Especially the latter. I said earlier in this post that I usually can't capture the individual taste of any of the competing flavors in the wine. This, however, was different; I could taste the lavender. It was both subtle and sweet. And when I saw that this was the perfect accompaniment to a pear tart or to a cheesecake, I started imagining the possibilities.....Which is exactly what a day away is supposed to do: it should make you excited about your return to the prosaic.

 It's nice to feel restored. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cookies and a Movie

Chow Mo-wan: In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn't want to share... you know what they did? They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.
-Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love)

Last week I went to my class and saw 17 exhausted faces looking back at me. And although it was hardly a heartening experience, I really couldn't blame them; their faces reflected my own feeling.  I decided that measures could be taken to lessen our mutual fatigue (such is the power of a teacher; I get to make all the decisions!); I decided then and there that, instead of jumping right into the next novel (the lovely, compelling San Francisco novel, The Story of a Marriage), we needed to do something relevant, yet fun. Clearly, a movie screening was in order--I was thinking In the Mood for Love, And, best of all, a movie wouldn't be a movie without snacks, so I also promised baked goods to make the viewing more festive. Both easily transportable and always a crowd-pleaser, cookies emerged as the obvious choice.

As these days I spend a not insignificant amount of time flipping through The Essential New York Times Cookbook (and mainly because you can get lost in that book; look up potatoes and you've got the potato world at your fingertips. Go to the cookie chapter and you may find yourself knee-deep in flour, sugar and butter, spooning out cookie dough for the better part of an evening), I knew the exact cookies I was going to make: Chocolate Quakes. Why Chocolate Quakes? Living in California, I couldn't help but feel that the name was appropriate (especially given the amount of little earthquakes we've had recently); you see, the powdered sugar surface of these cookies cracks as it bakes, thus looking like an earthquake-ravaged mountain of chocolate. Plus, the sound of dutch-process cocoa, pecans and chocolate chips appealed to my chocolate-loving nature. If I can eat chocolate, I will. This has always been one of my essential comfort foods. My grandfather is fond of telling the story of how, when I would cry as a child, a chocolate covered peanut-butter bar would always do the trick. Maybe times have changed, but not much else.

I had a feeling my students would like them, too. It seemed like just the thing to jolt them awake and fill their little hearts with joy; that may seem like a dramatic statement, but I kid you not, these cookies are strong. And not just in terms of flavor; holding a plate of them--even one covered with tin foil--can send you into a chocolate-induced swoon (one student took a cookie from the dish I passed around and held it in front of his nose and, before taking a bite, inhaled deeply with a tiny smile on his face). They also seem to contain more than a little caffeine; I had two after they came out of the oven on Monday night and I couldn't fall asleep until 2:30 a.m. Then, on Tuesday morning, the day I took them to campus, I didn't have time for any morning coffee, but two cookies later, I was good to go.

All in all, it was a positive experience. I was happy. My students were happy. The cinematic interlude and the cookies did us both a lot of good. The wisdom I have gleaned from this experience is simple and clear: when in doubt, bake cookies. Everything else will work itself out.

 Chocolate Quakes

Slightly adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook (preferring a crunchy cookie to a crunchless one, I didn't grind the nuts)

Yields about 4 dozen cookies

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
6 Tbsp. Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup Ghiradelli Chocolate Chips (60%)
1 cup powdered sugar

-With a mixer, beat the melted butter, granulated sugar, egg and vanilla on low speed until pale yellow and thickened.
-In a medium-sized bowl, sift the cocoa powder, flour, baking powder and salt.
-Then, carefully sift these ingredients into the wet mixture.
-Mix on low speed until incorporated.
-Fold in the chocolate chips and nuts with a spatula.
-Chill the dough in the refrigerator for an hour (N.B. I should add here that, while I followed this step, it was still impossible to work with the cookie dough. To make it workable, I put it in the freezer for about 5-10 minutes. If there was a lull between baking, I'd put it back in the freezer until I needed it again. This worked really well and produced the desired consistency.)
-Heat the oven to 350 and line 3 cookie sheets with parchment paper.
-Take small chunks of the chilled/semi-frozen dough (about a tablespoon each)  and roll them into balls (about 1 inch).
-Place the balls in the powdered sugar and roll until the dough is covered completely.
-Line on a cookie sheet (I could fit 12 per cookie sheet) and then bake for 12-14 minutes, or until the cookies have become puffy and the powdered sugar surfaces have cracked (this gives them their "cracked" look). Ideally, the centers should look a little gooey and underdone.
-Remove from the oven and let cool on the cookie sheet for about 5 minutes and then transfer to a cooling rack.
-Repeat until the dough has been used up (I doubled the recipe, so this should yield about 4 dozen cookies).
-Inhale their chocolately aroma and enjoy their sweet crunch! Believe it or not, these are best when cooled.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Many Faces of Fall: From Pumpkin to Marinated Mushrooms

What is sometimes called a  
   tongue of flame
or an arm extended burning  
   is only the long
red and orange branch of  
   a green maple
in early September   reaching
   into the greenest field
out of the green woods   at the
   edge of which the birch trees  
appear a little tattered   tired
   of sustaining delicacy
all through the hot summer   re-
   minding everyone (in  
our family) of a Russian
   song   a story
by Chekhov...

-Grace Paley ("Autumn")

This post is my tribute to fall. I sometimes can't help but feel that this season--a season during which life, despite our wishes to the contrary, inevitably slows down--is full of so many treats. Pumpkins.  Pecan pumpkin butter pancakes (just add pumpkin butter to your favorite pancake recipe). Butternut squash. Fennel. Apples. Apple cider. Not to mention time for reflection (a la Chekhov), mulled wine, quiet nights in huddled under blankets, fleece and, if you're as silly as me, a former East Coaster who shivers like a fool when the fog rolls in, maybe the occasional moment with your feet hanging off the bed next to your little heater.

In the spirit of this favorite season of mine, I bought a butternut squash last weekend and all week I was wondering how I might use it. I turned to the Food Bible, aka The Essential New York Times Cookbook, and, lo and behold, there was more than enough inspiration to go around. While I really would have loved to have tried Thomas Keller's recipe for Butternut Squash Soup, I took Amanda Hesser's warning about the care required to make it quite seriously; while I was sure that the end result might be worth it, I knew that I'd lose a whole day's labor to the process. And on a day when laundry was calling my name, I had to say no to Keller. Fortunately, however, the great thing about this cookbook is that if one recipe is overly labor intensive, you can simply flip a few pages and find yourself with yet another take on almost the same recipe--and one that, though much simpler to prepare, will still please your taste buds. In this case, I decided to go with the Butternut Squash and Apple Cider Soup. Besides the tedious job of cutting and peeling the squash (the Greek rose to the challenge beautifully), it was easy to make: a little chicken broth, a shallot and garlic meet the cubed squash. The softened vegetables then go into the food processor. Sour cream and apple cider are added; some sliced apples serve as a garnish and, voila, you've got the beauty of fall in a bowl. Although I will say that I liked the soup better the second time around--with sour cream swirled into it and topped with walnuts.

Plus, inspired by the above link, I made some vegetable stock with the squash skin and innards, as well as some bay leaves, carrots and pepper. And as there was more than enough squash to go around, we also roasted it with olive oil, the other half of the apple that was used to garnish the soup and another shallot. I've come to hate waste in the kitchen; if I can think of a good way to use something, it's going nowhere near the garbage can.

This fine season has also inspired some great Slavic department gatherings. This past weekend, the majority of the graduate students assembled at a second-year's house to learn the art of making khachapuri, or "Georgian Cheese Bread." It was a lot of fun to stand around with my friends and colleagues, diligently taking notes while the evening's master chef taught us the art of his native cuisine. As we had all enjoyed Georgian food at some point or another while we were in Russia, this was a real treat; I plan on sharing the recipe here (I've been given permission to do so), but I'm going to have to test it first--to see if I can do it myself (so many family recipes seem like they work only within the family; give them to an outsider and strange things can happen). But just knowing that I now have the tools for making khachapuri will help me sleep more soundly at night. Yes, that's just how I feel about cheese bread.

The other activity that's been keeping me busy is thinking about the spring. Ironic, isn't it? But, you see, yours truly is planning a research trip to Helsinki for March...Not only will this be my first trip to Europe since 2008 (and does Russia really count? That's half the point of my whole dissertation, although, let's not kid ourselves, the question has already been asked many, many times), but it will also be the first true vacation I'll have had in years. There will be time to relax and sightsee; I'll see a dear friend whom I haven't seen since 2006 (we write letters to each other, however. Somebody has to keep the postal service in business). And I've been reading a lot about Scandinavian food: Scandi Foodie has a great blog (who doesn't like the sound of Cauliflower and Goat Cheese Soup?) and so does Scandilicious. Trust me when I say that, although I'll be spending a lot of time in the archives reading old newspapers and hopefully finding something that will make my dissertation seem exciting again (both to me and to my readers), I'll also be taking some kind of a cooking class; I'm not returning home until I've learned the secret of Hot Spiced Blueberry Juice and Mackerel with Plums. In short, I'm excited. I think it will be good for my work (culinary and academic alike) and also just plain good for me--to leave Berkeley for a bit and to breathe different air. Best of all, the Greek is even thinking he might join me for spring break. And I haven't even told you about the reindeer races in the Lapland yet.

I recently made a recipe that the friend I will be reunited with in about 6 months (where does the time go?!) made back in my first year of graduate school for our marathon viewing session of the bad adaptation of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. I baked cupcakes (lemon blueberry) and she brought marinated mushrooms. I can't say the two went terribly well together, but since the movie was about 6 hours long, there was more than enough time to balance out the tart and sweet cupcakes with the tangy, garlicked and herbed mushrooms.

Marinated Mushrooms

barely adapted from U.H.
Makes about 3-4 servings

I recommend eating the mushrooms as a side dish for fish, or even to mix them into a salad. If you like salty things, they're also good to eat while standing in front of the refrigerator.

230 grams of mushrooms, cleaned and chopped

For the marinade: 
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 Tbsp. chives, chopped
2 Tbsp. freshly chopped dill
2 Tbsp. freshly chopped parsley (you can also use basil)
1 Tbsp. honey (I used buckwheat honey)
1 1/2 Tbsp. Balsamic Vinegar
3/4 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. sugar

-Clean and chop the mushrooms.
-Add the garlic, chives, dill and parsley to a large bowl.
-Add the salt, pepper and sugar and stir to mix.
-Add the honey, Balsamic and olive oil and mix well.
-Cover and refrigerate--either for a few hours or overnight (overnight tastes better, but for those of you who are impatient, a few hours will work, too).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Friday Night--A Time for Cracking Coconuts

Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important /
calls for my attention -- the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage /
I need to buy for the trip./
Even now I can hardly sit here /
among the falling piles of paper and clothing, the garbage trucks outside/
already screeching and banging. /
The mystics say you are as close as my own breath. /
Why do I flee from you? /
My days and nights pour through me like complaints /
and become a story I forgot to tell. /
Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning /
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.
-Marie Howe ("A Prayer")

By the time Friday rolls around, I usually feel like a big blob of lethargy. The week passes by both quickly and slowly; there are snippets of activity--teaching and meetings with students--and moments of intense thought about the academic task at hand (I am no longer referring to it as the dissertation; instead of thinking in terms of a ginormous final product, I'm now thinking about itsy-bitsy sections: Oh, this week, I'm writing on Blok, but next week will be Merezhkovsky madness! Yes, I have reached the stage where psychological trickery is essential, but coping mechanisms exist for a reason). If I could pick only one thing to represent each day of this past week, it would look a little something like this:

Friday: Taking a hammer to a coconut
Saturday: A salted chocolate chip cookie
Sunday: An illicit trip to Mrs. Dalloway's Bookstore to order a book that I didn't need, but am having a fabulous time reading (it's fascinating to read about people's food confessionals)
Monday: Trader Joe's Mushroom Risotto for dinner
Tuesday: A cloudy afternoon spent reading a dissertation on masks from my alma mater
Wednesday: Verdi's Requiem
Thursday: Evening yoga--shoulder stand meets earthquake 2 of the day
Friday: A wild swordfish dinner in Rockridge.

While I sometimes worry that I don't spend nearly enough time working (keep in mind that for the average graduate student, weekends are not a period of respite; instead, they're about catching up on everything and anything you didn't get around to doing the previous week. If you're lucky, they can also be used to plan ahead so that you can stay afloat), I also feel that self-care also has to have its moment or the whole carefully constructed house of cards (the guise of organization and productivity) will collapse. This message was driven home during Thursday night's yoga class. As we stood in tree pose at the beginning of the two-hour session, the instructor asked us to close our eyes and think about "what we wanted for ourselves in that evening's practice." The first thought that came to mind was "no pressure." I just wanted to do my downward-facing dogs, my lunges and plank poses without feeling that I had to push myself. I didn't mind doing the poses themselves, but I didn't want to have to care if my dog pose wasn't as good as it could have been...if my lunges weren't as deep as they ought to have been.

After many poses--and some that were more painful than others, despite my claim that I wouldn't push myself--class ended and the instructor again asked us what we wanted for ourselves, but this time over the next few days and the weekend. What most surprised me was that this is not a question that I often ask myself; usually, my wants and wishes come last. Instead, I often find myself on auto-pilot, thinking about my students and my class, about the Slavic Library, about my Greek homework,  about the dissertation (yes, at this moment, its ginormous nature asserts itself over my subconscious), about my friends, about my family, about the Greek, about the long list of things to do....And I suspect I'm not the only one. While I would hardly categorize myself as a 100% selfless individual (to be a little selfish is not always a negative, although the word is hardly ever used or perceived positively), the reality is that people often put themselves last, viewing their wants and needs as secondary--as the very thing that can be sacrificed.

But even though I generally follow this belief, there are moments when auto-pilot fades away. These days I don't return my students papers to them as quickly as I used to; my belief is that they can wait. I also, even when I tell myself I'm going to come home on a Friday night and write perhaps brilliant things about Blok's poetry from 1904-05, realize that there's something a little crazy about that self-imposed expectation and instead find myself doing things like cracking coconuts. Turing off my mind and getting my hands (and making my floor) really, really dirty. Denting my kitchen table (oops, that was unintended). And all for the sake of green beans.

Ever since my friend kindly sent me The Essential New York Times Cookbook, I've been reading it and marking recipes that I want to try. Only after my accidental green bean instead of snap peas purchasing fiasco did I stumble on the recipe for "Green Beans with Coriander-Coconut Crust." Obviously, given my love of coconut and coriander (cilantro), I was intrigued. I thought about them frequently, wondering when and if I would have the time to make them. Then, when the Greek and I were at The Bowl (i.e. Berkleley Bowl) a few weeks ago, he and I saw the coconuts, looked at each and knew what we had to do: we ended up buying not one, but three coconuts. I then headed over to the bean aisle and gathered a pound plus of green beans. I recognized that the moment had come.

They didn't disappoint either. The coconut was toasted to perfection and the beans, thanks to the cayenne pepper, tingled a little on my tongue. Granted, after I made them, I was a bit sorry that I had relied on dried coriander instead of toasted coriander seeds (once I had the hammer in my hand, there were no way I was heading to the supermarket), which I'm sure would have made the dish more fragrant and spicy. But the whole experience did allow me to crack my very first coconut ever (surely, a milestone! It was with the help of this handy youtube video) and also to make ghee on the stove top (if you don't have cheesecloth, I propose that you use a coffee filter; it worked beautifully for me). For a Friday night--my day of fatigue--it was quite the undertaking, but when I plopped down on the sofa with the finished product to watch an episode of Parks and Recreation, I felt like I had not only well and truly sung for my supper, but had done something nice for myself. And, in that moment, a new and green possibility for comfort food was born.

What foods do you make when you want to treat yourself? Do you stick to old favorites or branch out into uncharted-recipe territory?

Green Beans with Coriander-Coconut Crust

If eaten as a side, this recipe yields about 5-6 servings. If eaten as a main with rice, it yields about 3-4.
Slightly adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook

1/4 cup yellow split peas
3 Tbsp. dried coriander (or, as the original recipe calls for, roasted coriander seeds)
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. cumin seeds
4 whole cloves
2-inch piece of a cinnamon stick
Kosher salt
6 Tbsp. ghee
1 lb. green beans, washed and trimmed
1 1/2 cup coconut puree (I pureed the big chunks I peeled with the water from the coconut)

-Combine the yellow split peas, dried coriander, cayenne, cumin, cloves and cinnamon in a small skillet and, continually stirring, toast over medium heat until they are golden brown and aromatic (this should take about 3-5 minutes).
-Stir in the salt (about 1/4 tsp. kosher), along with 1 Tbsp. ghee.
-Remove from the heat.
-Heat the remaining ghee (5 Tbsp.) in a large pot or skillet over medium heat.
-Add the coconut puree, spices and beans and stir occasionally for about 15 minutes.
-Once the beans are tender and the sauce has thickened, remove from heat and serve.
-The beans can be eaten plain or can be served with brown rice; they would also make a lovely side dish for chicken.

Monday, October 17, 2011

For the Love of Matcha...and Lists

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.
-Mary Oliver ("The Journey")

 Given my schedule, I sometimes don't know why I persist in blogging on Monday nights (oh, if only the world were ideal and time would open up and stretch eternally before me!), but I really can't help myself. Especially on days when I wake up feeling excited and refreshed, bursting with things to tell why Matcha Pots de Creme may just be one of the easiest and most elegant desserts you could whip up on a Sunday evening. Yes, matcha notwithstanding, the weekend clearly treated me well. I finally finished The Lost Books of the Odyssey (a worthwhile read, particularly if you read the Odyssey and imagined the many possible paths Odysseus' remaining years could have taken), which has given me room to start salivating over all the other gazillion books I want to read. Currently at the top of my list: Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot (a novel that engages with a concept that has fascinated me since I took a class on Adultery as an undergraduate) and Haruki Murakami's IQ84 (a post-modern and Japanese take on 1984 since Q--kyuu--is 9 in Japanese)...Is the semester over yet? For now, fantasies will clearly have to suffice.  

I also, on Saturday afternoon, went with a friend to San Francisco's Omnivore Books (I biked there with the Greek over the summer), where the chef from Kokkari, Eric Cosselman, was talking about the new Kokkari cookbook. While I haven't yet been to the restaurant, I've heard wonderful things from the people who have. And, clearly, it's on my list of places to go, especially after the food that we got to sample on Saturday: fresh feta, taramosalata (roe dip, essentially), fresh pita and marinated octopus. It was a mini-feast and one replete with wine. A Saturday afternoon that involves a glass of white wine from Santorini is nothing to be scoffed at. Not to mention the fact that my companion and I avidly looked through the cookbooks before the talk (or, really, a question and answer session that involved asking the poor chef about his favorite restaurants and what he thinks of the Greek yogurt that American grocery stores sell). Several highlights were Melissa Clark's new book, which was beautiful and seemed full of the kinds of doable and creative recipes she provides in her weekly column, "A Good Appetite" and I also found a cookbook that I could barely restrain myself from buying: Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume by Silvena Rowe, who is of both Bulgarian and Turkish descent. I don't know if it was the gorgeous pictures or the fact that most of the recipes involved rose water, pistachios and coconut, but it literally skyrocketed to the top of my "most coveted cookbooks list." Is it Christmas yet? And can I wait that long? 

While these things were all good, another weekend highlight was the fact that I worked. I wrote paper topics, I graded a written assignment, I studied Greek vocabulary and, *drum roll please*, I went to the Elmwood Cafe with a friend, yet another one of my dissertation buddies, and wrote a few pages. Granted, they're not very good pages, but it's a start. I think there's something about the Elmwood Cafe that inspires me to work. I wonder what they put in their lavender soda. Or maybe they put something extra special in their citrus curd that I more than liberally slathered on a buttermilk biscuit (writing makes me ravenous). An even better theory is that happy people produce results. Happy people work well, which is why taking a day off every now and then is a good thing.

And since I left the cafe both happy and feeling like I had accomplished something, I allowed myself the sheer joy of making pots de creme when I returned home. I've always had a thing for pudding (although pots de creme are surely one step above pudding)--creamy, melt in your mouth, pillowy pudding. Because I had heavy cream in the refrigerator, I decided it was time to indulge one of the many weaknesses of my sweet tooth. Matcha, given my love of the slightly bitter dark green powder and the fond memories it always evokes (my year in Japan often haunts me, but only in pleasant and happy ways), was the obvious choice for the dominant flavor. It's been a while since I baked matcha cupcakes (a favorite of mine) or cake and even longer since I actually whisked the powder into a cup of hot water to drink it in the traditional way (as traditional as an American kitchen can get). I was amused a few weeks ago when I was flipping through Bon Appetit and they were talking about the matcha trend. It was one of the few times in my life when I well and truly felt like I had beaten a fad to the finish line. The only difference is that for me it's not a fad--it's a memory that calls to mind quiet Japanese temples and changing leaves. Fall and Japan are inexorably linked in my mind. It was nice both to celebrate and recreate that in my own kitchen, whisking the sugar and egg yolks, heating the cream and, finally, topping the pots de creme with dark chocolate shavings before refrigerating them. Of course, I had half of one before I went to bed (the Greek, who triumphantly returned from Seattle/Vancouver last night, ate the other half) and then read a preview of a cookbook on my Kindle. 

No wonder I woke up happy today. That, my friends, is a weekend. 

Matcha Pots de Creme

Yields 4 ramekins (or, if you broke one of yours, 3 ramekins and one glass jar) of green tea goodness

1 1/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup 1% milk (depending on what kind of milk you're using, adjust for maximum creaminess potential)
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 heaping Tbsp. matcha powder
1 piece Ghiradelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight Chocolate (72%), cut into small chunks or, even better, shaved into curlicues

-Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and prepare your ramekins in a water bath.
-In a small saucepan, combine the heavy cream and milk and heat the milk (it should not come to a boil). 
-Add the vanilla and then whisk in the matcha powder (for optimal results, you should either whisk or sift the matcha powder in advance).
-In the meantime, whisk the sugar and eggs together in a large bowl. 
-Once the milk/cream mixture is hot (but not boiling), slowly add (pouring it through a small strainer--I used a tea strainer) it to the eggs and sugar, vigorously whisking as you pour. 
-Divide the mixture evenly amongst your ramekins and/or jars. 
-Bake in the water bath for about 30-35 minutes, or until the center is set. 
-Remove the ramekins/jars from the oven and water bath and let them cool on the counter. 
-At this stage, add the chocolate shavings/curlicues. 
-Once they've cooled off, place them in the refrigerator, where they will set completely. 
-In 2-3 hours, complete joy will be yours! Enjoy!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Happily Frittered, or Why Split Peas Aren't Just for Soup

When we eat alone we often break all the rules surrounding not only what to eat but when to eat and even where. And this is true regardless of what we know about cooking or about what makes a proper meal...Solo meals can be all corn and tomatoes if that's what you like. Solo meals are different, surprising, and they can also be funny, but sometimes predictable.        -Deborah Madison (What We Eat When We Eat Alone)

It's not often that I present a recipe to you that I've had not one, but two opportunities to make in one week. In fact, since I started this blog, there are few things I've had the chance to make again and again. Then again, as it's impossible for me to update this blog on a daily basis, there is much about my culinary life that doesn't quite make the cut. And especially when I eat alone. There's something about the ritual of eating alone, of cooking for one, that seems both inherently private and slightly sacred. For me, when I'm "cooking" for one during the workweek, I'll often combine crackers and hummus with a filling salad packed with garbanzo beans, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, walnuts or almonds. I'll eat on the couch and often in my pajamas.  While perhaps a bad habit, the kitchen table seems to be reserved for my meals with the Greek, or when I have guests over. On my own, I usually can't be bothered with the (false) formality. But there are also other nights when I'll pour myself a glass of wine, light a few candles and set about making myself what many would consider to be a decadent meal (like when I cooked on Friday night and not only cracked open a coconut, but cracked open a coconut while ghee was forming in a saucepan on the burner; yes, stay tuned!). While I'm not quite sure these split pea cakes (or fritters) qualify as a decadent meal, they're certainly a nice alternative to the crackers I typically favor.  Even when cooking for one, variety is key.

I found this recipe in Authentic Greek Cooking and, given my love of split peas (particularly split pea soup--as I've mentioned here before, Alton Brown's curried split pea is a favorite of mine), I knew I had to make it and soon. Opportunity struck last Saturday--the same day I baked the fateful cake--when the Greek and I decided to have a simple, yet somewhat elaborate dinner at my place since he would be spending the week in Seattle/Vancouver for a conference. While he made mackerel (one thing I like about the picture below is that it's all about the eyes, from the fish's eye--a sad sight, to be sure--to the dog's eye--where I keep my glasses; an object I inherited from my great-grandmother and namesake--that peeks out from below the Pyrex dish), I set about making what I knew could only be a richly flavored--fresh dill and parsley guarantee this-- and textured fritter. In short, the perfect accompaniment to fish with tomato sauce and lots of fresh herbs.

The recipe was simple and straightforward, although I will say that I was a bit perplexed by the fact that it said to cook the split peas until they were firm and then to mash them with a spoon. I took not only a spoon, but also a lemon juicer (one of the firmest objects I have for crushing things; sadly, I lack a mortar and pestle) to the firmly cooked peas and they were not giving. Not one to be easily deterred, but also not one who wants to injure one's hand in a losing battle, I decided that firm peas would do just as well and that they could actually lead to something better...Why not embrace the split pea--both yellow and green; I was in a colorful mood--in all of its glory?

Luckily, my instincts didn't fail me. The cakes were crispy--not overly chewy. And they held together beautifully despite the weight of the unmashed split peas.  The mixture of lemony parsley, earthy dill, spring onions and garlic transformed the somewhat grainy flavor of the split peas (personally, as much as I love split peas, I often feel that they're a bit like tofu--they'll generally taste like what you mix them with. It's their texture that really stands out) into something both surprising, yet easily recognizable. That's when you know you've done something right in the kitchen; despite the presence of strong supporting "actors," the integrity of the main ingredient is on full display and remains the highlight of the dish.

Best of all, I had boiled so many split peas--enough for a double recipe--that I was able to return to the recipe and try it again later in the week. The second time around, I decided to grind the split peas in the food processor first, which led to more of a pancake/vegetable cake-like texture (the photo from Round Two is below). Also, having been too lazy (it was a Tuesday night, so the fatigue of rising at the crack of dawn was still with me) to chop up a clove or two of garlic for this batch, I can safely say that you don't want to skip the garlic. It really adds something. But with or without garlic, I was more than thrilled to discover this recipe. It keeps well, it provides leftovers and, with minimal work, it takes my weeknight standby salad to the next level. And that's enough for little old me.

What do you eat when you eat alone? Do you splurge and make something decadent? Or do you stick to your old favorites? 

Split-Pea Cakes

Adapted from Evie Voutsina's Authentic Greek Cooking

Serves 4-6

2 cups firm cooked split peas (I used a mixture of yellow and green split peas-- one cup each--which gives you enough for a double recipe)
3 spring onions, chopped finely
1 clove garlic, chopped finely
4-5 stalks fresh dill, chopped
3 Tbsp. freshly chopped parsley
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 egg
3 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more for frying

-Cook the split peas in salted water until they are firm, but chewy.
-Set aside and let cool slightly.
-Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and lightly saute the onions and garlic.
-Once they've softened, add the parsley and dill and saute for a few minutes on low heat.
-Remove from heat and let cool.
-Mix all the ingredients with a spoon in a large bowl until you have a thick mash (N.B. The first time I made this, the split peas were too firm to be mashed by hand. The cakes, however, still held together and I enjoyed the chewy texture. When I used the rest of the split peas a few nights later, I put them in the food processor first, which broke them up and led to a thicker mash.)
-Heat more olive oil in the frying pan and fry the cakes until they are lightly browned on each side.
-Serve alone or with a small salad. They're delicious with feta and tomatoes and a balsamic vinaigrette.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Goin Bananas, Part III: Morning Madness and The Joy of Hotcakes

Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.
- Edith Wharton

Ever since I started teaching (way back in August of 2008), I've generally had the early bird shift. My first ever Reading and Composition class was at 8 a.m.; I taught that section for one whole academic year. Then, my second teaching gig in the academic world---teaching Russian I and II--was at 9 a.m. (and again for the whole year). Following those crazy years, there were two joyous moments of respite in my life: a semester in which I taught an afternoon class and, best of all, one teaching-free semester. These were the moments when you could say that life really began to change for me. I would wake up and slowly enjoy my coffee. Some days I would wake up and make 2 or 3 pancakes, saving the remaining batter for the next day. In general, I felt calmer and, if I were to wake up early, I would bask in the the quiet of the morning and marvel at the possibilities for my day. It was such a contrast to everything I had known. My whole rhythm of life changed.

You see, the mornings when I taught would pass in a blur of activity: I would wake up and move quickly from the bedroom to the shower to the kitchen to the closet and back to the kitchen....I would make my coffee in a to-go cup (moments of leisurely sipping cannot be a part of this kind of lifestyle) and quickly eat a bowl of cereal with a banana. Or sometimes even less, depending on what I had in my cabinets. After gulping down the last drops of cereal, my main objective would be to grab my coffee cup and run so as not to miss the bus. Some mornings I would even have to run with my coffee cup in hand and my heels click-clacking on the sidewalk. I even got on the bus once to the clapping of the other passengers (that may seem crazy, but be honest with yourselves; it's not every morning you see a person do a mad sprint in heels with coffee in hand).

And, lo and behold, here I am again in the midst of this lifestyle. But these days, there's barely enough time for cereal. I've even had to skip the coffee a few times so as to ensure a timely arrival on campus. This past Tuesday my class was being observed by my supervisor, which meant that, on that morning in particular, I could take no chances. I had to abandon my morning "fix" and go into the classroom on adrenaline alone (sometimes a force greater than caffeine; the observation went well). Interestingly enough, it's not even that I'm sleeping in; the real difficulty is that the bus services have been drastically cut in the past 3 years. A bus that used to run every 10 minutes now runs every 20-30. It's as if the whole game has changed; on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, habit isn't even a possibility. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are a little easier--at least I can drink my coffee and eat something that isn't cereal. But pancakes, pancakes have again become a rare treat, rather than the breakfast norm (2010 will go down in history as my great love affair with pancakes).

 The weekend is when I can splurge--in terms of both cooking and savoring. And pancakes often make their way onto the morning menu. After a week of cold cereal, there's something so refreshing about measuring out the flour, stirring the batter until it's just moistened (and generally still lumpy) and then watching each cake fry to golden-brown perfection. There is comfort in this act; it's like you're throwing off the chains of the workweek and settling into the relaxing promise of the weekend. At this point in my life, I both know and love many pancake recipes (some of which have been featured on this blog), but, after I bought The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook, a certain recipe caught my eye for yet another take on banana-oat pancakes: Banana-Oatmeal Hotcakes with Spiced Maple Syrup. Both sweet and spicy, they're the kind of thing you want to smell in the morning when you get out of bed--cinnamon, cloves, gently simmering maple syrup, frying bits of bananas. And then you want to eat them, bite by bite, ever so slowly...just because you can.

Banana-Oatmeal Hotcakes with Spiced Maple Syrup

slightly adapted from The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook (I substituted buttermilk for 1% milk, coconut oil for canola oil and whole milk yogurt for nonfat yogurt; in short, I added a few calories and grams of fat to the recipe. Such is the privilege of youth)

Yields enough breakfast joy for 6

For the syrup: 

1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves

For the pancakes:

1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup water
2 Tbsp. firmly packed light brown sugar
2 Tbsp. coconut oil
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup yogurt
1 banana, peeled and mashed, plus one banana for topping
1 egg, lightly beaten

-Combine the maple syrup, cinnamon stick and cloves in a small saucepan.
Place over  medium heat and bring to a boil.
-Let the maple syrup simmer for about a minute and then remove from heat.
-Let steep for about 15 minutes and then remove the cinnamon stick and cloves.
-Then, combine the oats and water in a large microwavable bowl.
-Place the oats in the microwave and cook for about 3-4 minutes, or until the oats are tender and the water has been fully absorbed.
-Stir in the brown sugar and coconut oil and then set aside to cool slightly.
-In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and ground cinnamon.
-Mix the buttermilk, yogurt and mashed banana in with the oats and stir until well blended.
-Beat in the egg.
-Add the flour mixture to the oat mixture and stir until moistened (don't overwork the flour!).
-Place a nonstick frying pan over medium heat.
-Once a drop of water sizzles when it hits the pan, add a small amount of coconut oil.
-Then, start spooning the pancake batter into the pan.
-Cook until the pancake's top is covered with bubbles and the edges are lightly browned.
-Flip and cook until the bottom is similarly browned.
-Carry your breakfast treasure to the table, top with the spiced syrup and banana slices and start your (weekend) morning off right!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Baker, Foiled

I have a Castle of Silence, flanked by a lofty keep,
And across the drawbridge lieth the lovely chamber of sleep;
Its walls are draped in legends woven in threads of gold.
Legends beloved in dreamland, in the tranquil days of old.
-Daniel O'Connell

 Although I enjoy cooking, baking is my true passion. Cookies, cakes, breads, cupcakes, muffins, scones, sweet bars, cream puffs (the first thing I ever baked on my own), souffles, cobblers...These are the things that send me into the kitchen in a frenzy of excitement. I approach the whole process with something bordering on reverence: I measure with precision and I use quality ingredients. Most importantly, I'm never unwilling to sacrifice a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday morning if it means that something sugary, crumbly and delicate will be waiting for me on the other side.

Which is why I was so excited when I saw a cake recipe of the Greek's grandmother's in the cookbook his aunt had sent for me. The whole recipe--from the tahini to the brandy--suggested baking gold; even though it was a fasting cake intended for Lent (essentially vegan), I figured that due to all the liquids going into the cake, combined with the addition of orange zest and juice, cloves and nutmeg, this cake couldn't be anything but moist, softly spiced and rich. On some level, I think I was envisioning a cake-like halva  (since my favorite Russian candies are the sesame-paste ones dipped in chocolate, you can hardly blame me for having this fantasy). I even had the brief idea that I should add chocolate chunks to the cake, but, after I tasted a little bit of the sugar-tahini mixture, I decided that dried fruit, particularly the much-despised and mocked (but nevertheless elegant) prune was the way to go. Especially as it preserved the cake's essence--to be eaten during a period of Fasting.

But I should mention that I was a bit flabbergasted when I did the conversions for the recipe (it was in metric) and saw that it took no less than eight cups of flour and four of sugar, but only 1 tsp. baking powder. I had the brief thought that I should maybe triple or quadruple that amount, but assumed that if the recipe called for such a small amount of baking powder, then maybe it really did take such a small amount of baking powder (who am I, a mere American girl, to question a recipe for Greek cake written by a Greek woman and published in a bonafide cookbook?). After all, I've questioned a recipe's instructions in the past only to be pleased and smitten with the final result. Why should this have been any different?

I should also mention, however, that this particular cake pan appears to be cursed. Several years ago after a haircut in Emeryville, I stopped by William and Sonoma to buy a bundt-cake pan. In the midst of preparing for my Master's Exam, I had gotten it into my head that I was going to make a Pound Cake when the whole ordeal of reading Pushkin, Gogol and every other Russian author out there was over. That day quickly came, I passed the exam (as the majority of us do) and I set about using the loveliest cake pan I've ever known. When I went to take the cake out of the oven (that is, after the fire alarm went off), I saw that it had literally exploded from the pan. Half the cake was being scorched at the bottom of my oven; half was still in the pan, a gorgeous and fluffy yellow--much like butter that has been creamed with sugar, just a little more spongy. Naturally, I was devastated; although I am nothing if not a modest, humble individual, I take pride in my baking; it's where I'm at my most creative. Plus, due to my neurotic care and attention to detail, most recipes I attempt to make turn out. Clearly, just not when I bake them in this pan.

The above cake, the Greek's grandmother's recipe, was no exception to this rule. Although you would think, based on the pictures I've posted, that it came together somehow, you'd be wrong. I used a cake tester; it came out clean. I sniffed the cake; it smelled heavenly. I gently turned it out of the bundt-cake pan and it held together. I was so tempted to cut myself an itsy-bitsy little sliver after it came out of the oven, but decided to wait for the Greek and to eat something healthy--like a salad--for lunch instead....So, after dinner on Saturday, when we went to cut into the cake, the first sign of trouble appeared when the knife didn't seem to want to go in. I felt like I was trying to cut into a rock. I gave my slightly "I'm nervous, but a little-brute-force-never-hurt-anything (non-living) smile" and forced the knife through the cake. And I was faced with a half-done cake: a perfectly solid exterior masking a soggy, alcohol-reeking interior (the recipe called for one wine glass of brandy). In short, what had once seemed like baking gold became my baking nightmare (I always worry when I'm taking a cake to somebody's house that this will happen...but there's no way around the fact that an already-cut cake is like spoiled goods). My face fell and the Greek started talking about another try and the need for more baking powder/soda and expansion rates...And I will try again (when my baking pride recovers), especially since the few solid, fully cooked bits (the top and bottom layer only) were truly delicious. Next time around, I'm adding chocolate, and enough baking powder and soda to make the cake potentially explode in my oven. Best of all, I'm buying a new bundt-cake pan; the curse must (and will) be broken.

And, because I won't be providing you with this recipe--or any other-- just yet (it will resurface on the blog at some point), I'm instead giving you some photos from yesterday's adventure at a Serbian Orthodox Church in San Francisco (it was quite the experience; I had never been to an Eastern Orthodox service before) and from our drive across the (always foggy) Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, where we enjoyed what may very well have been one of the nicest fall days we've seen in the last week. Flowers and pumpkins galore...And Fleet Week, too! If there can't be cake, then let there be sunshine!


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