Monday, April 30, 2012

Box of Fun: April Foodie Pen Pals

Last week I was basically housebound, going nowhere and seeing no one but the Greek. I cancelled the majority of my commitments, I settled into the couch to read books that had long stood on my bookshelves ignored and I ate lots of oranges and soup. And then, in the midst of this monotonous desert, came a box--and not just any box. It was my first ever "foodie pen pal" box, from Jenny at Frankly, Fatso. I was immediately excited because a) I love getting mail, b) it was contact from the outside world! and c) since Jenny is from the the D.C. area, who could say what unknown treats were waiting for me inside?

The box was filled with prettily wrapped edible things; honestly, before even getting into the contents, the box itself was a revelation because it was clear a lot of thought and care had been put into it. I'm not the best gift wrapper in the world, so I really admire those who can make any oddly-shaped box or jar look good. As I began undoing Jenny's careful wrapping and silver ribbons, starting with the smallest thing first, I was excited to see what was in store for me and my eternal companion, my sweet tooth. First to be revealed was my favorite combination ever: Milk chocolate peanut butter cups.

Next was a bag of Cranberry Orange Cookies (still unopened; even though sick and not all that hungry, the peanut butter cups didn't last 15 minutes) and Raspberry Jalapeño Jam.  On Friday morning, I couldn't resist opening the jam for my toast; it's really good--more spicy than sweet, but not in an unpleasant way. I'm thinking that, rather than toast, this jam would work well with roasted meats or maybe on crackers with goat cheese...

And last but not least, more peanut butter! This time, however, it's a healthy peanut butter alternative--gluten-free granola. I'm really interested to try this to see what the texture is like, what the flavor is like and even to play around with the card that Jenny included: 5 easy ways to savor our granola. This granola is from PA and it turns out that, like me, Jenny is from the Keystone State. As Tolstoy would say, mir tesen (it's a small, or crowded, world).

I loved my first experience with foodie pen pals, both buying (my recipient was Morgan at Crazy4Oats) and receiving. It was a great opportunity to meet some new bloggers (the blogging world is wonderfully, insanely huge!) and a nice way to get to try some food that I might otherwise never have known. Thank you, Jenny, for the wonderful box and to Lindsey for organizing 600+ bloggers into pen pal pairs! 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

SF Bake Sale!

I was really, really excited about participating in the SF bake sale this year, but April has been full of surprises. This just goes to show you that, while planning is never a bad thing, you sometimes just can't predict what you're going to be doing tomorrow, let alone next month; had I known a little respiratory infection was going to knock on my body's door and stay for a while, I never would have gotten so excited at the prospect of making more Chocolate Pistachio Cupcakes or these crumbly little chocolate pistachio and honey financiers (a teacake whose main ingredients are ground nuts, browned butter and foamy egg whites) that, with the help of La Tartine Gourmande, I whipped up a few nights ago when I actually believed that I was maybe, just maybe feeling better. 

Wishful thinking, my friends, wishful thinking. In any case, if you're in the Bay Area and you're looking to support a good cause--Share Our Strength, whose aim is to end child hunger--this weekend, as well as to try some sure-to-be-amazing baked goods, then head to the endlessly fascinating Omnivore Books from 11-4. If that isn't incentive enough, baker extraordinaire Alice Medrich will also be speaking at the bookstore at 3 (I once made her brownies with browned butter--yes, it all comes back to browned butter!--and haven't tried another brownie recipe since)....As for me, I'll just have to wait until next year. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Five Days of Sandwiches

But there is great dignity in allowing oneself to keep clear about what is good, and it is what I think of when I hear the term "good taste." Whether things were ever simpler than they are now, or better if they were, we can't know. We do know that people have always found ways to eat and live well, whether on boiling water or bread or beans, and that some of our best eating hasn't been our most foreign or expensive or elaborate, but quite plain and quite familiar. And knowing that is probably the best way to cook, and certainly the best way to live.
-Tamar Adler (An Everlasting Meal)

I've always had a not-so-secret crush on sandwiches--on toast lavishly covered with peanut butter and jelly, on open-faced roast beef smothered in gravy and most definitely on the open-faced tartine, decorated with whatever happens to be happily on hand. Recently, this obsession has manifested itself in ricotta and peppery French radishes, speckled with fresh tarragon and with a light drizzle of olive oil. If you put it in the oven, you're in for a real treat when you open the door since the soft scent of licorice will greet you. But it's equally good with some fresh bread, maybe even with a creme soda, a childhood weakness that I still give into every now and then. 

Depending on what you keep in your fridge or picked up at the market, you could have a different sandwich every day of the week and never get sick of them. A novel idea, right? After all, why spend roughly $6-$8 on a subpar sandwich when you could make something tastier at home? If I have avocado, I cover them with lime juice and then mash them; then I spread them on the bread like mayonnaise or mustard and top them with cheese (a Clawson Long Cotswold with chives and onions works wonderfully here). Some cilantro makes a nice accompaniment.

I've also become obsessed with boiling eggs and eating them on toast. Such a sandwich calls for mayonnaise and herbs, spinach that is pleasantly weighed down by the egg and definitely some chopped pickles or cornichons (I eat pickles like they're going out of style). 

But an all-time favorite is definitely the sun-dried tomato (soaked in oil for flavor) and brie sandwich with a tad of mayo and some greens (baby spinach is best). There is a place on Addison Street in Berkeley where I used to buy this sandwich; it was a little farther than the average graduate student would walk for lunch, but I never felt like it was a wasted trip. Since I'm not on campus as often anymore, I've started making the sandwich at home. It's a touch harder to eat this one as a tartine, however, so I stack it carefully and hope not to lose any of the flavorful innards along the way. 

This last sandwich was the product of a perhaps mildly fevered imagination. I've been a little under the weather recently and this past Saturday, I wanted to put something on my toast (I've been following the BRAT diet, as prescribed by my mother, a nurse: Bananas, Rice, Apple[sauce] and Toast) that wasn't peanut butter, banana and honey. I had bought a beautiful fennel bulb with lots of feathery fennel fronds earlier in the week, thinking I would make a salad or braise it like last year, or maybe even repeat the Fennel-Campari cocktails that the Greek and I had enjoyed so much. Since none of that was meant to be, I decided to turn the fronds into a fennel and feta pesto and to roast the bulb (for 40 minutes at 375) with sesame seeds (an odd, but crunchy and revelatory addition), dried thyme, olive oil and salt and pepper.

You see, one thing I loved about the sandwiches I would get at a little cafe in Finland was that they would be topped with a red or green pesto instead of mayo or mustard. I decided to channel that spirit and to decorate these pesto sandwiches with roasted fennel (they are also good with a thin slice of feta and tomato, put under the broiler for a few minutes). Maybe that seems like a lot of work for an invalid, but the Greek was in D.C., I was all by my lonesome and, even when ill, I'm a horrible "rester." I need to be doing things constantly. And is there any better use of one's time than taking care of oneself by carefully preparing a satisfyingly easy meal? 

Fennel-Feta Pesto

Will make enough for several sandwiches, for spreading on crackers, or even for pasta

N.B. Since I was sick, I was a little heavy on the garlic, thinking of its nostril-clearing, medicinal powers. I would suggest that, for the healthy, you could cut back to 1 or even 1/2 clove, depending on your preferences of course.

2 garlic cloves, peeled and with the knobbly ends removed
1/2 cup pine nuts
Fennel fronds and some stems from one fennel bulb (it's all edible, so use what you like; I saved some of the stalks for chicken stock); this is about 1 to 1 1/2 cups, loosely packed
4 oz. feta
Roughly 1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon olive oil
A little salt and pepper (keep in mind that the salty feta will largely take care of the flavor)

-Carefully rinse the fennel and let it dry, making sure to remove all the dirt from the bulb if you plan on roasting it as I did.
-Using kitchen scissors, cut the fronds and some stems from the bulb and add them to a food processor.
-Add the garlic to the mixture and pulse until the fronds and garlic make a paste.
-Now, add the feta and olive oil to the mix and pulse again.
-I preferred that my pesto be a little thicker than the average pesto, especially since my goal was sandwich spread instead of pasta sauce.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Serbian BBQ and a Chocolate British-French Tart


Under the plane tree, near the water, among laurel
sleep moved you and scattered you
around me, near me, without my being able to touch the whole of you...
-George Seferis (Quid πλατανών opacissimus?)

You could say that I spent the weekend feeling much like the lyrical subject of this poem. From the window by my desk, I've watched the sunshine force the fog out and the people cross the intersection with ice cream cones in their hands. I was but a spectator, trapped indoors by a strange viral infection on a few of the loveliest days of the year. But, honestly, despite the slight twinge of jealousy I felt about the things I was missing out on (largely, this was all about the ice cream comes marching by!), this weekend has been well spent and incredibly restorative. Given the busy year that I've had thus far, I think my body was finally telling me it was time for a rest--for both a little reading on the couch with the windows wide open and for watching the Greek movies in my Netflix queue.  One of them was beyond creepy (Dogtooth, or Κυνόδοντας) and not for the fainthearted, so I had to watch another one about a happy-go-lucky prostitute who sings and dances, Never on Sunday (Ποτέ την Κυριακή), to wash the taste from my mouth. And, if that wasn't enough, I had some photos from a lovely Serbian BBQ that the Greek and I were invited to on Wednesday evening--naturally, I had offered to make dessert--not to mention some leftover chocolate filling that didn't make it into the tart shell....

I was a somewhat at a loss as to what to make. When we had talked to the host at the Serbian banquet on Orthodox Easter, I had mentioned pie, but then I was faced with the eternal question that bakers and cooks often encounter: do you make something that was successful again--and so soon after--or do you try your hand at something new?

This is a often a dilemma in my kitchen. While I long ago established that I could eat cheese pie (sweet or Greek-style savory) or pumpkin cake or stout cake everyday, I know that that would be boring in the long run. A girl does have her limits! Plus, as attached as I get to things, there's a time for staple recipes and a time for experimentation. This just happened to be a time for the latter. I had a genuinely difficult time deciding what to make; I had promised pie, but was feeling uninspired by the pie recipes I had access to. Then I thought about pie's pretty fabulous cousin, the tart, and decided a tart it would be. But nobody could offer me the best of both worlds. So I decided to create that world myself with Dorie Greenspan's "no-roll" sweet tart dough (pâte sablée) and Jamie Oliver's simple chocolate tart filling.

In that one simple tart, let me assure you that heavenly proportions were achieved: crispy tart dough and a smooth chocolate filling that should should be so soft that it cuts, in Jamie's words, "like butter."  And, because Dorie's tart shell makes a 9-inch crust and Jamie's filling makes enough for a 12-inch tart, you get a little extra chocolate out of this already more than sweet deal. Put it aside for ice cream, or spread it on toast like you would Nutella and a banana.

It's often dangerous, or at least they say it is, to bake something new for a party. While I did feel the occasional twinge of worry throughout the meal that it wouldn't be good, there was plenty of food to keep my attention on the matters at hand: salad, cheese, bread, wine (lots of wine!), grilled chicken and, one of the stars of the evening, chevapchici--minced meat shaped into little spicy sausages. This was the second time I had dinner in this lovely north-side garden in the past three weeks and each time I've been impressed by both the food and the accompanying hospitality.

Considering we ate and talked and drank well into the night (one of the guests was celebrating a birthday), I guess you could say that I had my weekend early.

British-French Chocolate Tart

A combination of Dorie's and Jamie's best
Yields about 8-10 slices of pure chocolate and buttery goodness

Sweet Tart Dough (Pâte sablée)

From Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From my Home to Yours
Yields 1 9-inch tart crust

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 stick, plus 1 Tbsp. (9 Tbsp. in all) very cold or frozen unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
1 large egg yolk, stirred

-Put the flour, powdered sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a few time to combine.
-Scatter the butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut in (it should resemble a mixture of flaky oats and peas).
-Add the yolk a little at a time, pulsing after each addition.
-Once the egg is completely added, pulse 2 to 3 times for about 10 seconds each; the dough should look clumpy at this stage.
-Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead very lightly until the loose bits of flour and dough are incorporated into the larger dough mixture.
-Butter a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.
-Press the dough evenly over the bottom and sides, being careful not to overwork the crust; you don't want it to lose its crumbly texture. Also, you should save one tiny bit of dough for patching any cracks that might emerge while baking.
-Freeze the the crust for about 30 minutes before baking.
-Preheat the oven to 375 F.
-Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and fit the foil, buttered side down, tightly against the crust. Fill the pan with weights or put a pie plate or cake pan on top of the foil to weigh down the dough and prevent it from shrinking.
-Put the tart crust in the oven and bake for 25 minutes; then remove the foil (N.B. If you decide to use this tart shell and make another kind of filling, you may need to partially bake the crust. If this is the case, you would want to remove it now).
-Bake the crust for another 8-10 minutes, or until it is firm and golden brown.
-Remove from the oven and patch immediately, if necessary. You can simply patch it and leave it as is, or you can put it back in the oven for another 2 minutes (I did the latter).
-Let the tart shell cool before filling.

Simple Chocolate Filling

Slightly adapted from Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef

1 cup, plus 6 Tbsp. heavy cream
2 Tbsp. sugar
a tiny pinch of salt
About 1/2 cup butter, softened (I used about 7 Tbsp.)
14.5 oz. bittersweet chocolate, broken up (I used a combination of 70% dark chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate chips)
1/2 cup just-taken-from-the-refrigerator milk
unsweetened cocoa powder, for dusting

-Place the cream, sugar and pinch of salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
-Once it's reached a boil, remove from the heat and add the butter and chocolate.
-Stir until it has completely melted.
-Allow the mixture to cool slightly, stirring in the cold milk until smooth and shiny (it may separate a bit at this point, but just keep stirring until it's incorporated).
-Scrape, using a spatula, the mixture into the baked and cooled tart shell. If you, like me, end up having extra chocolate, save it and find some other use for it; it's always nice to have leftovers.
-Shake the tart a little to even it out and dust the tart with unsweetened cocoa powder.
-At this stage, even though the original recipe said that you can leave the tart at room temperature for an hour or two for it to firm up, I opted to put the tart in the refrigerator for about 45 minutes. It was quite warm here and, also, to make the tart transport friendly, I felt that was the best way to get things moving in the right direction.
-Remove from the tart pan and cut into its buttery smoothness.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spreading the "Internetical" Love

So this was what artists did: Tamara looked up, looked down, moved her hand, looked up again. Choosing among the many slender, long-handled brushes she kept in a green glass bowl, Tamara dabbed a sheet of white wood with a dozen different shades of an earthy yellow she called ochre. When she hit on a set of shades she liked, she used a different brush for each color, holding as many as four brushes at a time in her free hand, cleaning each frequently with a wet rag.
-Ellis Avery (The Last Nude)

In general, I think there's a lot of uncertainty about what graduate students actually do. Even being a graduate student myself, I'm not always 100% certain what my role is, how I should be spending my time. Things were much more defined for me in my first two years in my program; I took classes, read the canon and wrote a lot of papers. In the third year, teaching was added to the mix of coursework and research; the fourth year included much of the same, but with the addition of preparation for my qualifying exams. And then things changed again. Suddenly, after having jumped successfully through all these hoops, there was a lull: no more classes, more independence and just one big paper (or what some of us refer to as many little papers; the rule of thumb is that you can call your dissertation whatever you want as long as you find a way to write it) left to write.

It was only this morning that I started to realize that, although I'm technically still a graduate student, I no longer feel like a graduate student. I read Bon Appetit and The New Yorker after dinner, and I never do "homework" over breakfast. There is no longer any need for "all-nighters." While I, of course, do work, the nature of this work is decided by me: I choose what books I'll read, I establish the deadlines and, if I need to take a "personal day" (or 20) to get my thoughts in order, I can. Really, these days I see myself more as a writer--somebody who is putting the various pieces together and constructing a narrative. The construction of this narrative just involves a lot of detours; there are Twitter stops, lunch breaks and long moments of contemplation about dinner. There is also this blog and the internet as a whole, which reminds me not only that it's important both to eat and live well, but also that there's a wide and wonderful world of things that aren't Slavic or dissertation related and that I should, when possible, take part in them, even if only as a shadowy spectator.

Which brings me to the point of this post. By nature and training, I'm a researcher (and maybe a consumer) at heart; I like finding things and sharing them, suggesting books, brunch places, bakeries, movies, etc. And so, every once in a while, I'm going to spread the "internetical" love and shower you with things that I find no less than amazing. Pretty pictures, maybe related, maybe unrelated, will be included. Words, also, will not be left behind.

1) Did you know that besides being a pretty amazing poet, Emily Dickinson had a fondness for baking? Coconut cake was one of her specialties.

2) I have no idea how this gluten-free pasta would taste, but, since it's from the wondrous kitchen of Thomas Keller, I was more than a little intrigued.

3) Along with the Joy the Baker Cookbook, the library has been good to me recently. After months of waiting, I've finally gotten The Last Nude, which is about art and painting in Paris in the '20s; the modern-day epistolary novel, The Illumination; and a novel that a friend inadvertently recommended about the Lapland.

4) I maybe haven't mentioned that I'm going to Greece this summer (and Istanbul and New York, too!), but the Greek's mother sent me this lovely video of Greece, which has made me even more excited for June!

5) I'm in love with Tamarind Chocolates from a shop dangerously close to my apartment.

6) When I was in Finland, I was thinking of all the things I wanted to do when I got home. Since baking was at the top of the list, I jumped at the chance to participate in a bake sale in San Francisco for charity--the very same bake sale that I decided not to participate in last year because of my dissertation.

7) On a similar note, I also decided to join the Foodie Pen Pal program, which means that once a month I'll both mail and receive a box of goodies. I've always had a thing for real mail.

8) Ever since our trip to the Ferry Building, I've been dreaming of more Cowgirl Creamery Triple Cream Cheese; it has ruined me for all other cheese--forevermore.

9) Considering the weather has been so gloriously summery here lately, I've been thinking of things like seaweed salad and crab cakes. Oh, and maybe a Banana Tarte Tartin, too.

10) I come across a lot of blogs, but recently I've been especially enjoying two. The first is Kiss My Spatula, whose photography is endlessly gorgeous and inspirational. And then there's the small fact that she can write about Vietnamese Iced Coffee one day and Rosemary Mint Lamb Popsicles the next; let's just say I know a certain couple that would enjoy both. The second is Emiko Davies, who, much to my surprise (remember my own squeamish refusal to eat reindeer blood in the Lapland?), has recently been cooking with pig's blood. Like I said, the internet never fails to amaze.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

'Tis the Season for Strawberry Cheese Pie

A little farther
we will see the almond trees blossoming
the marble gleaming in the sun
the sea breaking into waves

a little farther, 
let us rise a little higher. 
-George Seferis

This is the point in the semester when energy levels start to wane. Each task begins to feel Herculean. The sun makes its presence known and begins to compete with our work for our attention (you can guess which one wins. My dissertation and I, in fact, are taking a break from each other. I've decided that any short-term loss will be offset by the long-term gain of this mini-vacation). We itch to escape, for it to be over, so that we can rest and slowly prepare ourselves for yet another onslaught come the fall. Personally, I choose to combat this particular brand of end-of-the-semester blues with dessert. And, for some odd reason, pie--the dream of a sweet cheese pie with strawberries, coconut and chocolate--has been on my mind. 

Partly, this is because last week, when I was leaving campus after the screening of Iphigeneia in my Greek class, I got an email from the Berkeley Public Library telling me that the Joy the Baker Cookbook I had requested was ready for pick-up. And as I waited for the eternally late and legendary 51, which has been immortalized in the poetry of an alumna of my current department, I began to flip through it, wondering which recipe would grab me first.

Though a sucker for peanut butter and sorely tempted by the Peanut Butter Birthday Cake (doesn't even matter that it's not my birthday), I found myself instead eyeing the no-roll pie crust and remembering the  cherry cheese pies that my grandmother and I had baked when I first started this blog back in June 2010.  While I'm certainly not a woman to get excited about pie, these pies truly did strike me as the embodiment of pie perfection: almost a cheesecake, but really a pie with flaky crust. With the taste of them haunting my memory, I quickly began plotting my next steps, how I would combine Joy's easy pie crust and my grandmother's cheese filling with the pretty strawberries that the Greek had brought home...

And on Saturday afternoon, that's just what I did. Since this was basically the first time I had baked since the Sachertorte and Caramelized Garlic Tart of February, I let my imagination run away with me. I toasted some unsweetened coconut flakes. I took a small square of Italian dark chocolate and shaved it with my zester; sprinkling it on the pie, I liked that the whole thing looked like it had been properly seasoned. Truthfully, it was a well-loved pie, from my first inkling of its imminent creation to my final bite of coconut-covered strawberry cream.

At moments like this, I can't help but ask myself why I don't bake pie more often. After all, do I really prefer cake or do I just tell myself that I do? I strongly suspect, given my unabashed enjoyment of this pie, that it might just be the latter.

The fact that I'm already wondering what kind of pie I'll bake next confirms it.

Strawberry Cheese Pie with Toasted Coconut and Chocolate Shavings

Yields 7-8 generous slices of creamy, sumptuous pie
Both a family- and Joy the Baker-inspired creation

For the Easy-No Roll Pie Crust (from the Joy the Baker cookbook):

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. baking powder
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, frozen
1 heaping tablespoon cold cream cheese
3 Tbsp. milk, cold
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. canola oil

-In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder.
-Grate frozen butter on a cheese grater.
-Add the frozen butter pieces and cream cheese to the flour mixture and use your fingers to incorporate them into the flour quickly. The mixture should look like a combination of a small pebbles and oat flakes. As Joy says, it should look "shaggy."
-Whisk together the milk and oil and add, all at once, to the flour and butter mixture.
-Use a fork to combine the wet and dry ingredients; make sure that all of the flour is introduced into the liquid.
-Dump into the bottom of a nine-inch pie plate (N.B. the recipe was for a ten-inch pie plate; I used a nine. This meant that my crust was a little thicker, which, for a cheese pie, suited me just fine. I also had a little extra dough at the end, which I formed into a cookie. It was delicious).
-Press the dough into the pie plate and up the sides with your fingers.
-Try to create an evenness, but don't worry if it's a bit marked up from your fingers. The baking will take care of those.
-Heat the oven to 350 F.
-Place foil over the pie dough and cover the foil with uncooked beans (I used some old limas).
-Place pie in the oven and bake for 10 minutes.
-Then, remove the foil and baking beans and continue baking for an additional 6-8 minutes (N.B. Joy's recipe said 4-6, but it took a little longer for mine to begin to look golden).
-Remove from oven and let cool before filling.

For the Cheese filling:

1 block of cream cheese
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 pint whipping cream 

-Beat whipping cream until light and fluffy with peaks and then set aside.
-Cream the softened block of cheese and add the powdered sugar. Cream again until they are mixed well.
-Add the whipped cream into the mixture and gently fold. 

For the toasted coconut (optional):

-Preheat the oven to 300 F.
-Line a cake pan with parchment paper and spread 3 tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes across it. Try to spread them as evenly as possible.
-Put in the oven for about 5 minutes; coconut browns quickly and you don't want it to burn!

To assemble the pie: 

-Cover the pie crust with a thin layer of toasted coconut (N.B. depending on your preferences, you could substitute chocolate instead).
-Spoon in the cheese filling, making sure to spread it evenly.
-Cover the cheese filling with the toasted coconut and sprinkle 3/4 of the shaved chocolate (N.B. I used just a small square of a large bar, but you could use as much as you like) on top.
-Wash and dry about 5-6 medium-sized strawberries.
-Chop them roughly--for the outer edges of the pie, I used halves; as I worked my way to the center, I was cutting them into fourths--and spread them over the pie.
-Dust with the remaining bit of chocolate.
-Let chill in the fridge.
-In about an hour or two, remove and begin slicing and eating to your heart's content!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Longed For Tacos and the Food of Home

When we cook things, we transform them. And any small acts of transformation are among the most human things we do. Whether it's nudging dried leaves around a patch of cement, or salting a tomato, we feel, when we exert tiny bits of our human preference in the universe, more alive. 
-Tamar Adler (An Everlasting Meal)

My homecoming this past week has taken many shapes. There was the Saturday morning brunch at the charming Elmwood Cafe, which is literally a hop, a skip and a jump from my apartment. I've been there many times in the past, but never for a proper breakfast. My breakfasts in Finland were pretty simple--toast, yogurt, muesli, maybe the occasional soft-boiled egg with aioli-slathered toast--so you can imagine my delight when I saw a toasted coconut waffle on the menu. Needless to say, this was the breakfast I hadn't even realized I was dreaming about. I can find plenty of complaints to voice about my native land, but you will never hear me say a negative word about the innovative American breakfast.

There was also a much needed ice cream and movie date (Hunger Games!!) with some good friends, which included the hand delivery of pretty artisan buckeyes from the Buckeye State itself. If I ever had to choose 5 things to take to a desert island, a box of buckeyes--that perfect combination of peanut butter and chocolate--might just be at the top of the list. The movie was followed by an evening of painting eggs for Easter, real Eastern European-style pysanky. Beyond decorating desserts with chocolate chips or chocolate shavings and knowing how to wield an eye liner pencil with some skill, I've never been the most artistic person in the world. I deviated a bit from the usual black wax and decided to destroy a candle in the name of red polka dots. The Greek, who went the traditional route, ended up with some nice chemical compound-inspired eggs. It was a fine evening and definitely a nice way to get back into the Slavic spirit of things and to see some friends.

Truly, it's been a week of satisfying various cravings, of absorbing the sunshine, basking in the slightly humid breeze and of finding myself picking up where I had left off on March 1. There have been Greek essays to write, vocabulary words to learn and texts to be read. There was the lovely sensation of falling back into Tamar Adler's food "manifesto" and of feeling inspired to get back into the kitchen. I've even, thanks to various degrees of jet lag, seen the sun rise more than once on a few stunning, fog-free mornings. And somewhere between seeing a few unused taco shells in the cupboard and a trip to the Ferry Building where I bought a few bags of Rancho Gordo beans, I realized just how badly I wanted Mexican food.

So I got to work making pinto beans. I love this process, the thought of knowing that, if I just cover them with water and let them simmer for a few hours, an almost ready meal will emerge from the pot. I certainly had plenty to keep my hands full in the meantime: there was an avocado to be sliced and covered with lime juice, cilantro to be washed and removed from the stems, taco shells to be put in the oven, garlic to be minced for the re-frying of the beans and each item to be put into a little bowl--just like we used to do when my mom would make tacos for dinner. I thought a lot about her and our taco/burrito nights as I was mashing the beans and frying them with garlic. I remembered the way I would scrunch up my nose as she and my dad would cover the beans with a spicy taco sauce and eat them with a fork. Little did I know, just like with lima beans, I would one day come to love all the things I was once foolish enough to hate.

The end result was a meal that elicited unadulterated joy. I could taste the many layers of home--the cheesy and garlicky beans of my childhood and the cilantro- and avocado-infused flavor of my ongoing graduate school years here in California. It was the right meal for my homecoming and, considering I used my dragonfly plate from Finland to eat on, for me it really did combine the best of all possible worlds.

Refried Beans (Frijoles refritos)

Yields enough filling for about 1 1/2 dozen tacos

Adapted from Simply Recipes

I like this recipe because it allows you to make the beans the day of, without the extra step of soaking, which I never have the foresight to do. Also, since the Greek is still observing Lent for the Orthodox Easter, I made them with olive oil instead of bacon fat. I also, because of my love/hate relationship with onions decided not to add them, though it would have provided a little extra flavor and moisture for the beans. Garlic, salt and red pepper flakes with a handful of cheese were enough for me, but these beans, like most beans, can be adjusted to accommodate almost any personal preference.

450 grams (about 2 1/2 cups) dry pinto beans
3 quarts water
1 large garlic clove, peeled and chopped finely
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
Roughly 3/4 cup water, to be added in 3 equal portions
1 handful of cheddar cheese, for sprinkling on top

-Rinse the beans and remove any damaged ones and/or small stones.
-Place the beans in a large pot and cover them with water.
-Bring the beans to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pot and allow to simmer for about 2 hours or until the beans are soft and their skin is just beginning to crack. *Obviously, should you have one, the beans could also be cooked in a pressure cooker.
-Drain the beans.
-Heat a deep skillet and add 2 Tbsp. olive oil.
-Add the beans and 1/4 cup water and stir.
-Then, add the garlic, red pepper flakes and salt. Continue stirring.
-Begin to mash the beans with a potato masher. The beans, at this stage, might begin to stick to the bottom of the pan and dry out. If this happens, add more water (I had to do this twice) and continue mashing.
-Once the beans are generally pureed (the end product should be a bit uneven and slightly lumpy), turn off the heat and taste to adjust the level of salt and spice. I also, at this stage, added an additional tablespoon of olive oil and mixed it through.
-Transfer the beans to a bowl, sprinkle or cover liberally with cheese and begin assembling your own taco feast.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Last of the Last

The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past--the schools and dormitories of its youth, army barracks and tenements, houses razed to the ground and rebuilt, places that recall love and guilt, difficulties and unbridled happiness, optimism and ecstasy, memories of grace meaningless to anyone else--and sometimes this journey will carry it so far for so long that it will forget to come back. For this reason, the living bring their own rituals to a standstill: to welcome the newly loosed spirit, the living will not clean, will not wash or tidy, will not remove the soul's belongings for forty days, hoping that sentiment and longing will bring it home again, encourage it to return with a message, with a sign, or with forgiveness. - Tea Obreht (The Tiger's Wife)

My own journey, although far from that of the soul, has come to an end. For almost three days, I've been back, enjoying the sunshine, the fact that I can go outside without a scarf and gloves and settling back into my own rituals. Needless to say, there's something joyful about returning home after a long journey and something rather strange about how, once you leave a place, it starts to feel dreamlike....

Of course, you have the tangible proof of your journey--chocolates for friends, gifts to be mailed to family, the two Iitala dishes you allowed yourself to buy at the airport since the price of a soup tureen in Scandinavia would have broken the bank. You also have the little things that you find yourself unexpectedly missing--the noontime jaunts with your camera when you would take the wrong street and come across beautiful Gothic cathedrals like St. John's, the general lack of urgency in daily life (5 weeks with no cell phone! This is practically unheard of in this day and age) and the elegant, methodical preparation of things (namely food).

I'll be the first to admit that, while I wasn't always thrilled with the nature of my mission, my misgivings had nothing to do with the location. Helsinki itself was a constant source of pleasure. In the five weeks I was there, I was surrounded by the city's bright colors and, in some small way, magical things that I had barely known existed before my time there: cloudberries, toffee-flavored ice cream sandwiches, buns with huge flakes--not specks-- of cardamom thickly smudged with sugar-coated cream.

I also found myself, in my last days there, trying to squeeze in everything that I had wanted to do, but that, as often happens when you're living in a place, I had failed to since time seemed to spread endlessly before me. I went to the Kiasma, the modern art museum, where there was an exhibition on Finnish comics that I loved. I loved that some artists were using traditional fabrics to feature their work like in the image below.

This one was amazing because, from afar, it looked like some kind of surreal landscape, but, when you looked closely at each tile, it contained a drawing.

There was even a "trippy" unicorn exhibition that questioned the nature of happiness. Given my occasional mindset during my travels, I couldn't resist snapping a picture of "happiness is a slippery thing."

I also finally managed to snap a photo of one of the city landmarks that I found myself endlessly returning to--either to wait for the tram, my faithful number 6 Arabia, or to exchange money. I loved the way the blue of the sky set off the sea green of the building.

And to capture the lunchtime majesty of one of the several places I found myself frequenting: Lounasravintola Raiku, where the soup and salad bar are beyond delicious and filling. Really, I'd go anywhere for pickles and curried-cauliflower soup.

My last day in the library passed by in a blur of microfiche disappointment. The quality of the newspapers was horrible, much too fuzzy to manage to scan anything successfully. I did, however, find one last gem in an artistic review from 1904, "Japanese Theater," and, as I was leaving, paused to capture the library's beauty in a snapshot of the rotunda.

I then went to meet my friend at the fabulous Juuri, which I had found out about in a NYTimes travel article about Helsinki's food revival. I had been searching for a place to take my friend, so that I could thank her for her hospitality and say goodbye in style. It was definitely a celebratory kind of place and a nice way to enjoy various samplings from the Finnish kitchen. We had the "sapas" (yes, sapas, not tapas; Finnish hors d'oeuvres) and they were as beautiful as they were tasty. If pressed, I would say the Fried Pea Sticks with Marjoram Mayonnaise were my favorite, but the salmon, beets and egg cheese were equally good.

It was definitely the right kind of place to end my travel/research adventure. And I fully intend to go back.


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