Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cookies from a Pen Pal, With a Smile

Dear Lord: The gods have been good to me. For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect the way it is. So here's the deal: You freeze everything the way it is, and I won't ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no sign. OK, deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. Thy will be done. -Homer Simpson (The Simpsons)

For the past two months, I've been a member of Foodie Pen Pals, and I honestly can't say enough good things about this program. It's well organized and the participants are really enthusiastic; you find out your match on the 5th of the month and have 10 days to get everything together and to mail out the package. Then, on the last day of the month (for example, today; I still can't believe that May is basically over!), you get to "reveal" the contents to the Foodie Pen Pal community. It's a lot of fun to figure out what to send to your pen pal and even more fun to receive your box and sample all the good things inside. Really, it's kind of like a game show, but fortunately the kind on which everybody gets to go home with an exciting prize.

When I opened the box my foodie pen pal, Amanda, sent me this past month, I was thrilled to discover the recipe for White Chocolate Chip Craisin Oatmeal Cookies inside. And things didn't stop with the recipe, either; it turned out that Amanda had also measured out all the ingredients for me (minus the butter and eggs, of course) in two separate, ready-to-pour bags.  In short, a triple treat: the joy of receiving mail, the excitement of a new recipe and the pleasure of getting to bake the cookies myself...and to eat a few while they were still warm and gooey.

If that wasn't enough (and it really felt like it was), there were a few other exciting things in the box: iced coffee packets, instant oatmeal in tantalizing flavors like blueberry muffin and dark chocolate, as well as a tangy strawberry fruit peel and hot chocolate mix.

Best of all, when I wrote to thank Amanda, I asked her if I could share the cookie recipe with you all.  Since she doesn't have a blog herself (she's a reader though, which is how she found out about the program), she was more than happy to share the measurements of the dry ingredients. I baked the cookies this afternoon after a busy day of running around campus and an even busier few days of hiking in Lake Tahoe (more to come on that front later), and let me just say that it was wonderful to have a kind of "ready cookie mix." It's been years since I've baked anything from a box (once you realize how easy it is to go beyond the box, there's no reason to go back!), but the appeal of just having to pour and mix in the wet ingredients came rushing back to me. It was nice to know, however, that, instead of a machine, a living, breathing human had thoughtfully done the work for me. And the cookies themselves are wonderful; it's not a recipe I would have thought to make myself since I've always preferred both milk and dark chocolate to white, but the sweetness of white chocolate sets off the tartness of the dried cranberries perfectly. Plus, the addition of oats and nutmeg gave the cookies the kind of texture and mildly spiced flavor that I like. I'm somewhat sad that, due to my summer travel plans, I'm not going to be taking part in Foodie Pen Pals in June or July, but, so as to allow this box to keep on giving, I've put some of these cookies in the freezer--for either a rainy day or a midnight snack for my eventual jet lag.

Amanda's White Chocolate Craisin Oatmeal Cookies

Yields about 3 dozen cookies

1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
 2/3 cup butter, softened
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup white chocolate chips
6 oz. (3/4 cup) dried cranberries

-Preheat oven to 375 F.
-In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Set aside.
-Using an electric or a stand mixer, beat butter and sugars together in a medium bowl until light and fluffy.
-Add eggs and mix well.
-Add the flour and oat mixture into the wet ingredients in increments, waiting until the dry mixture is fully incorporated before adding more.
-Once the dry ingredients are mixed in, stir in the cranberries and white chocolate chips.
-Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.
-Bake for 10-12 minutes or until golden.
-Cool on wire rack.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Seemingly Incompatible: Bacon Meets Chocolate

And so, if we can hang on, it will be in the twenty-fifties that the manners and meanings of the Obama era will be truly revealed: only then will we know our own essence. A small, attentive child, in a stroller on some Brooklyn playground or Minneapolis street, is already recording the stray images and sounds of this era: Michelle's upper arms, the baritone crooning sound of NPR, people sipping lattes (which a later decade will know as poison) at 10 A.M.--manners as strange and beautiful as smoking in restaurants and drinking Scotch at 3 P.M. seems to us. 
-Adam Gopnik ("The Forty-Year Itch")

I can no longer remember whether it was before or after baking the Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies that I stumbled upon Gopnik's piece about Mad Men and the forty-year itch in Talk of the Town, but, truth be told, the timing hardly matters. The more I thought about it, what did seem to matter was that the cookies that had come out of my oven were somehow strangely symbolic of this age's culinary environment. This is an age in which we not only experiment with seemingly incompatible flavors , but also live for the world of artisanal (a much overused word) sweets. In my mind, there is perhaps no better example of this than the combination of bacon and chocolate--in cookies, in cupcakes and, even in some cases, ice cream.

Although it took Gopnik's article to make me wonder what the future generations (my grandchildren--a scary thought!) will think about the movies and TV shows exploring the early 2000s/2010s--will they marvel at our capacity to eat sugar or be disgusted by it? Will they wonder how we ever could have spent $4.50 on cookies and giant cinnamon rolls when so much of our world was starving?--this is far from the first time that I've made these cookies. I first made them for Christmas in 2009 after getting the recipe from my good friend in Maine; after baking them, my mom and I went to the store. When we returned home, we discovered that my brother had eaten them all. The second time I made them was for a visiting scholar from Sweden, who had never heard of such things and wondered what they would taste like. Eager to attract followers to the bacon and chocolate movement, I happily made them for her; she liked them and I sent her the recipe. Why it's taken me so long to share them with you all, I don't know.

But a few weeks ago, with some bacon in the fridge, they simply seemed like the thing to make. I love the way that the smoky-salty flavor of the bacon tastes against the sweetness of the chocolate; somehow they balance each other well.  I will say, however, that as much as I like them and as much as most of the men in my life have enjoyed them (my brother, male friends in the department, the Greek and my Mad Men watching buddy), if you're not a bacon fan, you most likely won't enjoy these cookies. They can, as one friend pointed out, taste kind of "porky." I was thinking that one way to get around this, which would also add another dimension of flavor to the cookies, might be to add 1/3 cup maple syrup instead of sugar. After all, I first realized the potential of bacon and sweet things long ago when a the maple syrup I would pour on Sunday morning pancakes would inevitably work its way to the bacon that would be sitting on the other side of the plate....My thought is that even if the future generations judge us harshly for our bacon-chocolate loving ways, they might still agree that bacon, pancakes and maple syrup make for the holy trinity of breakfast foods.

Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies

Yields slightly less than 2 dozen cookies, depending on how you drop them

Slightly adapted from NPR's Bacon Gets its Just Desserts

5 strips bacon
1 cup, plus 3 Tbsp., all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted

-In a large skillet over medium heat, cook bacon, turning several times, until browned, done and slightly crispy, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
-Chop finely, or cut into tiny pieces with kitchen scissors. 
-Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
-In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.
-Using an electric or a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugars in a large bowl.
-Add egg and vanilla extract, and beat until just blended.
-Add the dry ingredients; beat until just incorporated and the flour is well incorporated.
-Stir in the chocolate chips, toasted walnut pieces and bacon with a wooden spoon.
-Drop one large tablespoon cookie dough 2 to 3 inches apart (as they will spread out while baking; the fully baked texture of the cookies will be slightly thick and crispy on the bottom) on baking sheet. -Bake for 10 to 15 minutes (N.B. Around the ten-minute point, keep checking them; it took mine less time to bake and you don't want them to burn), or until firm and golden brown around the edges, and still slightly soft in the center.
-Transfer to a rack and cool for about 15 - 20 minutes.
-Enjoy while warm and, if you have leftovers, store in an airtight container.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Roasted Burgers For His Birthday

"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." -A Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin)

Last week on my way to a scone making class in San Francisco, I started reading A Game of Thrones. While I realize that scones and A Game of Thrones seem as incompatible as anything out there, the combination made perfect sense to me, a believer that dainty things should always be accompanied by something a little more edgy.  Plus, from a reader's standpoint, it simply seemed like the right kind of book to pick up after Eugenides' very literary The Marriage Plot, as well as ideal for public transportation. I'll confess that at first, yes, I was a little bored and confused; it seemed like this was one popular cultural bandwagon that I wouldn't be joining. I couldn't keep track of the characters and I was becoming tired of the refrain, "Winter is coming." Then, direwolves appeared, somebody fell from a tower and the plot started picking up momentum; in short, I was hooked. Somewhere not very deep inside of me lives a thirteen-year-old boy who thrills at swords, courtly intrigue and the world of fantasy. This past week I've tried to be good and to set the book aside, but it's been hard. The only two times I've managed to leave it behind--in both thought and deed--was on Sunday when we went to see the solar eclipse at Rollins Lake,  and on Tuesday, the Greek's birthday.

The spot for the eclipse viewing was gorgeous and, being as far from the bay as we were, it was also sweltering. There were mosquitoes, dirt paths and a broken water fountain, none of which was all that pleasing to me. While I can't say I took as much joy in the eclipse viewing as the other scientists and the one lone astronomer did (I was much more interested in the apple shake stand we had passed along the road), the experience was eerily beautiful and strange to behold with the distorted shadows and the darkness that fell as the moon moved in front of the sun. But bookworm that I've always been, I was glad to return to the tale of Winterfell when we got home.

My next interruption was much more to my liking and a very happy occasion. I had been asking the Greek what he wanted to do for his birthday and he had but a simple wish: hamburgers, beer and stout cake. A trip to the butcher was in order and then I had to figure out how to go about making these burgers. Although the sun has been shining these past few days, burgers and steak can be a bit more tricky when you lack that most essential of good weather cooking items, the grill.

In the hopes of overcoming this small problem, I decided to turn to Molly Stevens' wonderfully comprehensive All About Roasting, which I had bought for the Greek (the true cooker of meat in this household) for Christmas. And my hope was not misplaced; there were a few pages on how to roast burgers in the oven, using high heat (475 F) and a baking sheet lined with foil, which in turn is covered with a thin layer of salt (to catch and absorb the drippings). On top of this you place a wire rack and, voila, you've got yourself a ready-to-go grill. 

 It was a timely day in the culinary blogosphere, too. Just a few hours before I began assembling the patties, I discovered that Melissa Clark's latest column contained the secret to homemade mayonnaise. Obviously, there was no better time than the present to get down to the painfully slow process of whisking olive oil, drop by drop, into an egg yolk, lemon juice, mustard and ice water. That's how the Greek found me when he came home, with a stiff arm and equally stiff determination. Fortunately, birthday boys are willing to share the joy the whisking and the mayonnaise emerged fluffy, unbroken and ready to receive rosemary and black pepper. We also had some remoulade in the fridge, which, thanks to its chopped pickles, tomato paste and Tabasco sauce, made for an equally tasty condiment.

Once my arm felt up to the task, I approached the meat. I can't help but think that everybody out there has his or her idea of the perfect burger. For some, it's thick and meaty; for others, it's flavorful and stuffed with cheese. Some people prefer adding Worcestershire sauce to the ground meat and some are purists, adding nothing but salt and pepper. My method may be a bit unorthodox since I see the burger as the close cousin of the meatball, and I strongly believe that both benefit from onions and garlic--for flavor and for optimal juiciness. Half an onion and one clove of garlic generally do the trick and, although I perhaps say this only because of my eternal dislike of raw onions, I would swear that the burger is all the better for it. In this case, it certainly made for a happy birthday feast...

And then, yes, my burger-filled stomach and I did go back to Winterfell. 

 Roasted Hamburgers

Method borrowed from All about Roasting
Yields 6 juicy burgers

2 lbs. lean ground beef
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 of a small yellow onion, roughly diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 egg yolks
6 hamburger buns

-Preheat the oven to 475 F. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spread salt over  its surface. Place a wire rack on top of the cookie sheet.
-Place the ground beef into a large bowl and break it up.
 -Add the salt, pepper, onion, garlic and separated egg yolks. Mix gently with your hands.
-Begin shaping the burgers into 6 patties. Ideally, they'll all be roughly the same size so that they roast evenly.
-Arrange the burgers, a few inches apart, on the wire rack.
-Roast the burgers for 10-15 minutes. If you like your burgers medium-rare, Stevens says they should be anywhere from 130-135; if you like them medium, they should be 140, If you don't have a meat thermometer, you can just cut into one of the burgers to test how done it is.
-Remove the burgers from the oven and serve, creating your own burger spread with lettuce, pickles and mayonnaise or remoulade.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Snowy Strawberry Fields

As they aged, they grew more avid of beauty, the royal sea in their eyes in town, the dunes' scimitar shadows, the ever-perishing skies. The two were storing all this--for what? -Annie Dillard (The Maytrees)

This past week, I've felt a little like pinching myself. Between the birthday wishes I got from some of my favorite people and the fact that, on Thursday, when my blog traffic was a little out of control, I discovered that my blog had been mentioned by the New York Times Diner's Journal, it really hasn't seemed like my life. My inner nerd has wondered if I somehow managed to find and inadvertently drink a bottle of "Felix Felicis." My fatalistic side--the one that drew me to Russian literature many years ago--has wondered if my 29th year is perhaps peaking a bit early (the only way from here, after all, must be down). Fortunately however, my reasonable side has trumped the others and I'm now of the mind that I'm just going to enjoy the good things that come my way,  try my best not to over-analyze them and just keep on doing what I'm doing.  And part of that plan involved baking a beautiful Finnish-style strawberry cake for a dinner we were hosting on Friday evening.

I wish I could tell you that the idea for this cake-a cross between an angel food cake and a shortcake, both covered and filled with puffy whipped cream dotted with strawberries-- had come to me in a dream, but that would be a lie. As dreamlike a creation as it is, it actually came from Tessa Kiros' gorgeous cookbook/family album, Falling Cloudberries, which I was inspired to buy when I was in Finland and extremely curious about the secrets of the Finnish kitchen. The book more than delivers on that front, celebrating berries, smoked fish, pickled cucumbers and cream-simmered vegetables. While the savory dishes sounded appealing, I simply wouldn't be me had I not be drawn to the strawberry cake that looked a little wild and magical--something like stumbling upon a field of strawberries in the snow.

It's a fun cake to watch take shape, too. The batter is rather simple and comes together in no time, although I will confess that any time I have to whip egg whites and then fold them into the batter, I get a little nervous; it's such a delicate process and one that will determine the shape and texture of the cake. But with three teaspoons of baking powder, two of which are first added to the whipped egg whites before being incorporated into the batter, it's a forgiving recipe even if your egg whites don't appear to be as fluffy as they might otherwise be. Once baked, the cake itself is golden and crispy; all you then have to do is slice it in half and, while it's cooling, whip the cream and hull some of the strawberries. Believe me when I say that there's nothing more satisfying than piling mound upon mound of whipped cream onto a cake and then speckling the pure white background with red bits of juicy fruit. If you, like me, happen to be on a strawberry kick these days or if you're looking a recipe that does justice to the strawberries that are taking over the markets, bake this cake--for yourself or for friends. It really is a beauty.

Sipi's Strawberry Cake

Yields about 8 generous slices
Adapted from Tessa Kiros' Falling Cloudberries

Recipe notes: I used a little less whipped cream than was called for (2 3/4 cup as compared to 3 cups) and was perhaps stingy with it since I ended up with more cream than seemed to fit on the cake. This also meant I used less strawberries (1 pound, which was 3/4 of a pound short of the recommended amount), but the good news is that there were enough leftovers for a Strawberry Fool. No matter how you go, since strawberries and whipped cream are involved, this is a win-win scenario.

For the cake:
1 3/4 all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 sticks butter, melted
3/4 cup warm milk
4 eggs, separated
1 tsp. vanilla extract

For the strawberries:
1 lb. strawberries, hulled and halved
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. sugar

For the whipped cream:
3 Tbsp. powdered sugar
2 3/4 cups heavy whipping cream

-Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease and flour a 9-inch springform cake pan.
-Put flour, sugar and 1 teaspoon of the baking powder in a large bowl and whisk together (N.B. I was using my stand mixer to make the cake)
-Mix in the butter and then, with a wooden spoon, stir in the milk.
-Add the egg yolks and vanilla and beat until well incorporated.
-Whisk the eggs whites to soft peaks, incorporating the remaining two teaspoons of baking powder when the eggs seem fluffy.
-Gently fold the egg white/baking powder combination (don't be alarmed if it foams!) into the batter.
-Pour the batter into the cake pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean.
-Remove from the oven and let cool for about 15 minutes; then, release the cake from the springform pan and turn it onto a rack (the cake's bottom will become the top).
-Once fully cool, slice the cake in half horizontally and put the bottom half on a serving plate or cake stand.
-Clean, hull and half the strawberries.
-Dice about a third of the berries and sprinkle them with the teaspoon of lemon juice and granulated sugar.
-Whip the cream with the powdered sugar until it forms stiff peaks.
-Take a third of the whipped cream and mix it with the diced berries. Spoon this mixture over the bottom of the cake.
-Place the other half of the cake on top of the bottom half and spoon the remaining (or almost all of the remaining) whipped cream over the top and sides of the cake.
-Decorate the cake with the rest of the halved strawberries.
-Refrigerate the cake until serving time. This cake is best enjoyed within a day since the whipped cream loses some of its fluffy pizzazz as time passes.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Little Birthday Treat

"But then there was a star danced, and under that was I born." -William Shakespeare (Much Ado about Nothing

Today, dear readers, is my birthday; I am officially 29 years old. Most surprising of all is that, contrary to my expectations, I am not in the least disappointed at being--finally, officially-- on the brink of 30. While it's true that I can't say 28 was my best year ever (dissertation woes, anybody?), it did have its moments.

One of these moments came last week on a balmy day when, in between proctoring a Polish final and frantically reading The Marriage Plot, I pulled out my long-neglected ice cream machine and made Maria Speck's fantastically simple and oh so tasty Greek Yogurt Ice Cream. It's the kind of ice cream you can feel virtuous about eating; it's sweetened with honey, full of protein (a perk of Greek yogurt) and has just the right level of creamy tang. In fact, it goes best with fresh strawberries--the ones that are so sweet and perfectly ripe you can smell them from the next room. While this might not be the kind of recipe you would expect to find in a book on whole grains (Ancient Grains for Modern Meals), that's the thing that's so refreshing about the book in general: it's full of culinary surprises that draw on Maria's Greek and German background. 

The only thing I did to the recipe was to intensify its "Greekness." Rather than use limoncello or vodka, I decided to use Metaxa, a blend of brandy and wine, whose life, according to the official website, begins "with the intense Mediterranean sun" and ends with macerated botanicals and rose petals. With a description like that, can you really blame me?

While I can't say that this ice cream is going to be today's birthday treat (I'll be dining Moroccan style this evening in San Francisco), it easily could be and you'd hear no complaints from me.  It's the kind of ice cream that makes for a quick and light dessert on a busy day, but it can also be perfectly, satisfyingly celebratory. Last week when I got the news that the paper on Dostoevsky and comics that I've been writing and rewriting now for several years is going to be published next summer, it had its chance to shine. Ice cream, good news and birthdays--is there anything better?

Greek Yogurt Ice Cream

Yields about 2 pints
Slightly adapted from Maria Speck's Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

Recipe notes: I briefly flirted with the thought of using ouzo in this ice cream, but, after a discussion with the Greek, realized that all that anise might ruin the flavor. Ouzo has its place, but maybe not in ice cream. If anybody were to try this and use ouzo, I'd love to hear about the results.
     Also, I'd be curious to see what this would be like with a tablespoon of vanilla extract or even with vanilla bean. The flavor is so simple and good as it is, but there's always room to play. 

2 cups plain Greek yogurt (you can use whole-milk or 2%)
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup honey
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 Tbsp. Metaxa (or vodka, limoncello, brandy or grappa)

-Place the ingredients in a large stainless steel bowl and whisk to combine. Make sure the honey is incorporated.
-Cover and refrigerate for several hours; Maria suggests two, but, since I had some errands to run, I left it in the fridge for about 6. 
-Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.
-Place the freshly made ice cream in a container and put it in the freezer. You can wait as little as 15 minutes before enjoying the finished product, although the texture will improve with more time in the freezer (I waited 2. My patience was amazing, although, yes, I did lick the spatula when the ice cream was safely in the freezer.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Would-Be Mother's Day Brunch

"A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials, heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine, desert us when troubles thicken around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts. "
-Washington Irving

Brunch has always been one of my favorite meals; there's a small part of me that knows it's ridiculous to pay more than $10 for an omelette, home fries and toast or a short stack of pancakes with a few strawberries and a sliver of an orange, but I've never really been able to resist it. I like the promise of brunch--conversation with friends, a cup of coffee that will be refilled endlessly and the fact that it's exclusively a weekend treat.

So when I saw that Blogher, the blogging advertising company with which I am aligned, and Gourmet were doing a series on Mother's Day and brunch, I immediately volunteered. And, amazingly, I was picked! Perhaps it was luck of the draw or perhaps it was the fact that, since the event was announced when I was in Finland, I was time zones ahead of the rest of the competition, but the point is that I got to write a little blurb about one of my favorite local brunch spots, La Note, in downtown Berkeley. You can read the blurb here.

La Note, a lovely restaurant that represents everything that is good about both simple French country cooking and the French decor, is where I would have taken my mother, grandmother and aunt today if they weren't all 3,000 miles away. We would have had coffee bowls and split a pastry basket, just like the Greek and I did yesterday morning when we woke up so early that not going for Saturday brunch would have been a crime. But, because that wasn't a possibility, I snapped a few pictures with my new iPhone, Priya (one cannot help the name that immediately springs to mind when encountering a new face or object. Some people just look like a Bob and some phones just look like a Priya), and texted them to her with the promise that, when she is next in Berkeley, we'll be turning my Mother's Day fantasy into a reality.

Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

An Abundance of Asparagus

"What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn't alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling. In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants, her hair tied back, her glasses smudged, and eating peanut butter from the jar, Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude."
-Jeffrey Eugenides (The Marriage Plot)

I've been falling more and more deeply into this novel all week long. To those of you who know me well, the reason should be obvious: it's about a girl who loves books and eats large amounts of peanut butter directly from the jar. But it's also about a narrative trajectory that has fascinated me since my last year of college--the role that marriage plays in the novel and what happens when transgressions occur, not to mention the problems that arise when a life is based on literature. Amazingly, thanks to a timely concurrent reading of this novel and a story by Zinaida Gippius, "No Return," I'm again on good terms with my dissertation. The ideas are flowing and I think I can combine everything I found in Finland with questions and themes that have long stood on the periphery of my research. Thanks to this, my committee and I are also enjoying a peaceful spell in which ideas are exciting again and we're all on the same page, seeming pleased with ourselves and each other after our meetings. Yes, it's been a momentous week. Year Six of graduate school officially ended today after I took my last (and only) final! Obama (finally) stopped evolving!  All in all, you might say that things started to take a positive turn last Friday evening when the Greek and I were walking home from campus and I stopped to grab us dinner at the lovely Summer Kitchen Bake Shop.  

It was a hot evening and we had somewhere to be at 9, so cooking was out of the question. At such moments, Summer Kitchen is a lifesaver; if I need lunch and am walking to campus during their hours of operation, I'll pop in there to grab something. They have sandwiches, soup and pizza and, although I've tried almost everything they have, I always gravitate to the vegetable salads at the front--the caramelized brussel sprout salads, the orzo with butternut squash, or the cauliflower and chickpeas. As I was talking to the girl, telling her I wanted the golden beets and the cauliflower, I saw that they had updated their green salad selection to include an asparagus salad with fennel, arugula, feta and candied pumpkin seeds. So I got that, too (when having vegetables for dinner, can you ever have too much?). I took the salads home and, as it turned out, we both preferred the asparagus over the others. And in that moment when we both guiltily reached for the last pieces of asparagus, I knew what we had to do: it was time to get out the bikes and go to the Farmers' Market, where bundles of asparagus would be waiting for us...along with green garlic, ramps, spring onions, too.

So that's exactly what we did. Despite the presence of a lingering cough, I biked 4 miles there and 4 miles back. Getting there, despite a little tire-deflating incident that called for an emergency bike shop run, was easy enough : the weather was beautiful, the ride was downhill and there was such promise to the day. Biking back, however, was another story; it was all uphill and, even as I kind of sensed it at the time, I still hadn't realized quite how much we had managed to buy: two bunches of asparagus, fava greens, several avocado, a giant beet and, best of all, a heavy, thick-skinned pomelo (Chinese grapefruit)! Even at the sweaty end, it was well worth it.

The plan for dinner was fairly simple, at least on my end: While the Greek was making Julia Child's Coq au Vin (a photo of his masterpiece is below), I would be attempting to recreate the asparagus salad, but with a few substitutions. Putting it all together in my mind, I knew I wanted to keep the feta cheese (but of course!) and asparagus combination, but I wasn't going to be adding any candied pumpkin seeds or arugula. Instead, I was going to toast some walnuts and use the fava greens, which, to me, were a novelty. The leaves were thick and dark and the taste a little nutty; really, it's not unlike spinach--it's just more subtle, more mild. These things seemed almost inconsequential since, as we all know, the hardest thing about recreating any salad is making the right dressing; I knew I could taste something tangy in the balsamic-based dressing that Summer Kitchen had provided, so I finally settled on adding a tablespoon of Greek yogurt (and, in fact, I think my recovering taste buds were spot on). My one major innovation was to add a minced chunk of green garlic (what would be about the equivalent of 1 large clove of garlic) because how do you resist its smell?

The end result of both culinary endeavors was one of the most lavish feasts our dining room table had seen in some time (I truly don't think we had been this gluttonous since the February days of Downton). The Coq au Vin was almost indescribably good and the two things that I will say about it are that mushrooms, carrots and chicken should always be cooked in wine and with bacon and butter. The second thing is that this meal, although perfect in and of itself, also politely begs for a salad. So, when your boyfriend decides to make a dinner like this in early May, when it just so happens to be the height of asparagus season, and you, feeling a little tired of the usual thin mustardy dressing, want something that both coats the crunchy vegetables with creamy goodness and has a smooth finish, turn to this salad/dressing combination. Or a variation of it. I always feel uncomfortable about suggesting salad recipes because salad is salad and who really needs directions on how to make a good one? But then I realize that we can be intimidated by our vegetables and unable to see the ability that one vegetable or new dressing has to take a so-so salad and transform it into something wonderful. Summer Kitchen helped me and so I'm helping you. Pay it forward and share the asparagus love. Your body will thank you as you indulge in one of spring's best finds.

Asparagus and Fava Greens Salad with Balsamic Yogurt Dressing with Green Garlic

Yields a large salad for two

Recipe notes: I liked a thicker dressing with this salad, but dressing is a personal thing. Some people prefer more oil, some more vinegar. Just don't cut out the Greek yogurt or green garlic (or good old regular garlic if that's all you have); they're essential!
      Fava greens are one of those rare farmers' market finds and if it comes your way, I suggest you grab it immediately and try it. It's delicious and a nice change from the usual greens. But if you can't find it, any kind of spinach will do.
        One other important thing is the asparagus; I decided, for the sake of time, only to chop off the ends and to use raw asparagus in the salad. Because of both the bright green color and the brief shelf life of fresh asparagus, I think Summer Kitchen had probably blanched theirs. If you go the raw route like I did, I suggest you use only the top third of the asparagus stalk and save the tougher bottoms for a brunch frittata like I did. Asparagus, spring onion and mushroom make for a lovely one, especially when topped with chives, parsley and sour cream; there's a photo below of both it and the fruit salad, which starred the pomelo. There's something immensely satisfying about a meal that keeps on giving. 

For the dressing:
1 Tbsp. Greek yogurt (I use 2%)
1 Tbsp. of minced green green garlic
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
3-3 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Spoon the Greek yogurt into a small bowl and add the green garlic, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Whisk well and again before serving; the yogurt may start to separate. 

For the salad:
1/2 lb. fava greens (3 loosely packed cups)
10 Stalks asparagus, ends removed, the top 1/3 cut off and the bottoms saved for breakfast or for roasting
3 oz. feta, roughly crumbled
1/4 cup toasted walnuts

Assemble ingredients in a large bowl. Spoon as much dressing as you like onto the salad and mix well. Enjoy the taste of spring!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Calzones and Cadillacs

In Saunders' opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isobel Archer's marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup?
-Jeffrey Eugenides (The Marriage Plot)

I've never made it a secret that I love Melissa Clark's weekly column, "A Good Appetite," in the New York Times. There's something homey and inviting about her writing; you inherently trust her kitchen wisdom, sensing that she is a savvy home chef who could--and often does--fearlessly conquer any and all recipe(s). In a way, you get the impression that she's not that unlike yourself. She just has a really fantastic job and a byline. Not to mention Andrew Scrivani, recipe testers and a food stylist. Really, who's counting the differences?

So, when I saw her column back in mid-April about calzones, I made a mental note that I needed to try them. The thought of all that gooey, melted cheese encased in crunchy pizza dough with greens and garlic was too much to resist. Then, of course, I got sick and calzones were the farthest thing from my mind. That is, until the one visitor I had during my "convalescence," a good friend and fellow follower of Clark's column, mentioned that she had made them when she came by one afternoon for tea. She highly recommended I make them once I was better.

Well, that day finally came this past Monday--the most active day I had had in a long time. From my morning walk to campus after the bus failed to show up to the need to fight the Whole Foods crowd at 5 p.m., I was comforted by one fact: there would be calzones for dinner. And you know what? It was not only a wonderful way of not being annoyed by silly, unimportant things, but it was also the most fun I had had in the kitchen in a really long time. Considering I had to use a rolling pin on the dough, that's saying a lot (why I'm okay with rolling pizza dough and desperately afraid of any pie dough that's not "no roll" is beyond me). As a member of the pizza family, the composition of the calzone resembles the act of carefully stacking blocks--one layer at a time, it slowly takes shape--cheese is topped by vegetables, which are topped by sun-dried tomatoes and/or olives--until you pinch its ends together and put it in a 500 degree oven. Rougly fifteen minutes later, you can enjoy cutting the calzone in half and watching as the air whooshes out of it in a poof.  What you're left with is basically not unlike a sandwich, but one that has its own unique, weighty charms.

The first bite of ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan bliss, I suddenly remembered all the calzones I would eat as a child when my grandfather and I would go on our special trips to the car dealership, which I know doesn't sound all that exciting, but it was really code for a place that, in my childhood, I associated with magic: the Monroeville Mall. It was always just the two of us and we would have either a calzone or pizza for lunch and, after I would get a book or two at the bookstore, we would end our days with ice cream before being driven back to the car dealership in the courtesy van that I thought was the coolest thing ever. On these trips, I would often fantasize about the car I would one day drive and get to sit behind the wheel of those that really caught my eye. At age 10, I'll confess that I was a red Cadillac Allante Convertible kind of gal. In fact, recalling these memories, I couldn't believe that it had taken me this long to find my way back to calzones. And while I'm no longer sure I would choose a Cadillac as my ideal car, I'm glad I discovered that my appreciation for calzones is still alive and well.

Cheesy Calzones with Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

I used Clark's method in assembling these calzones--lots of cheese, greens and garlic--but I went with what was on hand in my kitchen. This is the beauty of bready main courses; they're forgiving and allow for most flavor combinations. You get to pick and choose what you like best.
      If you need any other reasons to make this, let me say this: you can make pizza dough (I use Mark Bittman's recipe; sometimes I substitute one cup of whole wheat flour for all-purpose, or 1/2 cup cornmeal for all-purpose. This, however, was all-purpose all the way) and leave it to rise while you go off and do other things. It really is almost too easy and is certainly worth what little effort it takes.

Yields 2 large and deeply satisfying calzones
Adapted from "A Good Appetite"

1 recipe Mark Bittman's pizza dough (will make 2 calzones)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3/4 lb. (about 4 loosely packed cups) fresh baby spinach
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
4 ounces fresh mozzarella
1 1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese (I used a combination of ricotta made from whole and skim milk)
8 sun-dried tomatoes (stored in oil), roughly chopped
5-7 olives (I used a Greek medley), pitted and roughly chopped

-Preheat the oven to 500 F and lightly oil a baking sheet.
-Heat a large skillet and add 2 Tbsp. olive oil.
-Add 2 cloves of the chopped garlic and fry them for about 30 seconds before adding the spinach, plus 1 Tbsp. water.
-Once the spinach has wilted (this should take no more than a minute or two), add some salt and pepper and set aside.
-Roll out (or stretch by hand) the pizza dough on a lightly floured surface until a 12-inch round.
-Spoon the ricotta onto half of the pizza dough, leaving bare a half-inch to 3/4 inch on the border.
-Top the ricotta with the remaining garlic, then cover it with the mozzarella, spinach and the sun-dried tomatoes (N.B. Since I made two calzones, I divided the filling fairly evenly between them. The only difference was that I added sun-dried tomatoes to both, but olives only to one; this combination can be played with, depending on your preferences).
-At this stage, since my hands were oily from the sun-dried tomatoes, I rubbed the bare edges of the dough round with them, spreading the taste and joy of the sun-dried tomato infused oil. For good measure, I also, brushed these same edges with a little bit of water before folding half of the dough over the filling and pinching all the edges together.
-Transfer the dough to the oiled baking sheet (N.B. I found this stage to be slightly difficult because I didn't want my calzone to fall apart; fortunately, I have two bench, or dough, scrapers and, after dusting each with flour, I was able to transfer the calzone easily).
-Brush the calzone with olive oil so that it turns crispy in the oven.
-Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the crust is golden (I baked mine in two batches).
-Cut the calzone into two halves or enjoy it as a solo meal and prepare to be satisfied. Once the other one comes out of the oven, cut it in half and, surprise, there's lunch for tomorrow.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Time of Healing

But this sun--the one over Providence--was doing the metaphorical sun one better, because the founders of the university, in their Baptist pessimism, had chosen to depict the light of knowledge enshrouded by clouds, indicating that ignorance had not yet been dispelled from the human realm, whereas the actual sun was just now fighting its way through cloud cover, sending down splintered beams of light and giving hope....
-Jeffrey Eugenides (The Marriage Plot)

This past weekend was what we might call my "return to the living." In some ways, I wasn't sure my bronchial tubes and I were up to it--the cough that still plagues me when the night falls makes me sympathetic to werewolves and vampires alike--but it was time to see the sun, to engage in human conversation and, most importantly, to celebrate a friend's birthday with a lovely meal. In the last two weeks I've had more than my share of orange juice and Italian wedding soup (recipe courtesy of TheKitchn, which I liked; it doesn't hold a candle to my mom's, though. It's all about the construction of the perfect meatball and meatballs require onions for moisture). It was time for something heartier.

And if this plate of rosemary-scented meat--from a rack of ribs--doesn't convince you that the evening was delicious from beginning to end, nothing will. The host and hostess had prepared the whole meal and each dish--mashed potatoes, asparagus, roasted broccoli and dessert-- was wonderful. I even got to sample some Tarkhun (Georgian tarragon soda; the first picture of this post), which is a fascinating electric green color. Drinking it felt like sampling a "healing" tonic from a faraway land. It also tastes great with a liberal splash of vodka.

There was also, as there always should be on a chocolate lover's birthday, a pretty chocolate cake, made from one Dorie Greenspan's cookbooks. Dorie is a baking goddess and flourless chocolate cake is a fine way of demonstrating that fact.Vanilla bean ice cream and fresh strawberries only enhance what is already a perfectly good thing.

Returning home that night, I felt both very (but pleasantly) full and glad that I had gone out. Sometimes the healing process needs a little nudge...Progress continued on Sunday, too. The Greek asked me what I wanted for breakfast. I had said these carrot cake pancakes, but, since our carrots were not in the best of shape, we had to come up with a Plan B. Joy the Baker's inspiring pancake recipes are endless--two summers ago, I almost lived on the Single Lady Pancake--so we finally managed to settle on another creation of hers:  Cornmeal Molasses Pancakes with a blackberry syrup.  Needless to say, between the chocolate cake and the pancakes, I started to feel like my old self.  I even started working on my dissertation again! More on that next time when I'll also share my celebratory back-to-health meal with you all....Let's just say, for now, that I was inspired by "A Good Appetite."


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