Sunday, October 28, 2012

Notes from the Underground: Week 6

 Once upon a time--and not so long ago--it was fashionable for all lovely ladies not to know how to cook or at least pretend not to know. Today a woman can look like a cream confection, but she has to know how to make one too! Popularity in our modern times is reserved for those who are good cooks as well as those with good looks!...With the way we've worked things out for you on the following pages, you'll be an expert cook in little more time than it takes to roll up your pin curls! If you read our instructions carefully...what treasures will be your to set before your king! -The New Cook's Cook Book, circa 1953

It's been a restorative weekend: one that, given the academic marathon of last week, was more than a little necessary.  Truly, if I had to sum up both the week and weekend in one sentence, it would be quite simple: She cooked, preserved, baked and read several provocative articles about food. This description is no exaggeration. In the course of one week, there were two Greek-inspired spoon sweets (remember my love affair with these while I was there this past summer?), one of which will be the subject of my next post; there was also banana bread (obviously, a practical decision when faced with the overripe bananas on the counter), as well as braised leeks, more Tokyo turnips and a time-consuming, but worthwhile mac and cheese. When you get right down to it, these days I think I manage to fool myself into believing that my real area of research is food. And, considering I just read a really interesting article about female food bloggers and post-feminist domesticity in Gastronomica, this mildly disturbs me. After all, there are moments when I wonder about all of this--food photography, sharing recipes and episodes from my life--and whether I'm simply working pretty hard to put myself back in the kitchen and the domestic sphere. But then I wonder whether this--the space of the kitchen/food blog--really has to be a negative space for women, a dream of 1950s domesticity and returning to the past.

For me, cooking is a release, a way of having life on my terms (or the terms of the writers who wrote the recipes, but this is another worthwhile issue for discussion) in the here and now. I have a bad day at work and I bake to ease my woes. I don't even necessarily have to have a piece of the just baked cake or a sliver of creamy pie to feel better; it's the act of making it that soothes me. Chop an onion and you have a ready explanation for tears that you may feel like shedding (as I always hated chopping onions, this is an idea that first came to me from a former grad school roommate--and he was male). Clean all the grit from leeks and you have a true sense of accomplishment. Crack a coconut and I assure you that you will no longer feel frustrated by the time you've reached the meat. You'll feel too victorious to remember what made the task so appealing in the first place.

Cooking is a wholly creative enterprise. It doesn't matter if you follow recipes to the letter or make up your own, you are taking raw materials and transforming them into something else. Maybe this is what has pushed so many people (both women and men alike) back into the kitchen--this need to create and control, to provide for oneself something both hearty and essential. My opinion on this matter differs drastically from the one expressed by Christopher Kimball of Cooks Illustrated in a recent NYTimes Magazine article. I read the article this weekend while snuggling with the puppy and I could tell from the way she was breathing that she was as incensed as I was by the suggestion (and title of the article) that, "Cooking isn't Creative and It isn't Easy." To reduce cooking to scientific bullet points, which Cooks Illustrated does (I will admit, however, that I've never read an issue, although I have been drawn to the simplicity of the cover and promise of their featured articles while in line at the grocery store), appears to miss the point: choice is a part of the process, from selecting the recipe (either a reflection of the desire to cook this particular dish or the ingredients that one happens to have on hand) to which steps you follow and which you ignore. We all go into the kitchen with a certain level of experience and intuition, and I don't think that it's possible that any one recipe will ever work out exactly the same way in two different households. At best, I feel that recipes are a reflection of best-case scenario expectations, as well as guidelines.

Take for example the Espresso Chocolate Muffins I baked for my class this past week. We started watching a movie on Friday and I wanted to treat them to something nice. There was the usual difficulty of figuring out what to make and whether I needed to make anything special; in this strange age of ours in which baked goods have lost their simplicity and become loaded questions about allergies and health, I wondered if they might be gluten free or vegan. I asked on Wednesday and, amazingly, all 17 would happily consume white flour, chocolate and nuts.  They were prepared to eat anything I might make them...and then one student asked if I could also bring coffee for them since the class meets at 8 in the morning. I looked at him, more than a little shocked at the request, and said no. But then it hit me that a little espresso powder goes a long way. One trip to Serious Eats later and I had my inspiration, as well as the promise of 12 muffins. To be able to feed everybody, I doubled the recipe. Even following the recipe to the letter and amply filling the muffin tins with batter, I ended up with 36 muffins. No complaints here; just proof that a chef hundreds of miles away cannot predict the number of muffins that will come out of my kitchen. And isn't that the unspoken pact between cookbook readers and authors? Neither lifestyle nor oven temperature can be perfectly copied. Let's not even talk about the fact that the boy who requested coffee didn't even take a muffin (since he was going back to bed, he didn't want the additional caffeine; ahh, the fickleness of youth).

The same was true with Red Rooster's Mac & Greens, another recipe that I found on Serious Eats. I was intrigued by this recipe because of my trip to the restaurant's bar two summers ago (the kitchen was closed, unfortunately). Equally appealing was the fact that, thanks to our CSA box, I happened to have collard greens on hand. We must make do with what we have, after all. But when I considered certain aspects of the recipe--bacon, bacon fat, olive oil, butter--I started to worry a little for my (and the Greek's) arteries. So, we kept the bacon fat and butter, but cut the bacon, instead substituting some of season's last bit of cherry tomatoes. Was this entirely creative or was I still eating the Red Rooster's Mac and Greens (or, as I feared, Mac and Grease. Despite this description, realize that it was decadent and delicious with its use of mustard, soy sauce and bechamel. It's just that, even with the presence of greens, it's still a once a year kind of food)? My impulse is to say that it's both; I took an idea and reformulated it. Cooking from a recipe is perhaps the ultimate form of quoting something in your own words. You take what you need and you leave the rest behind.

I find these questions intriguing and could see them one day burgeoning into a future book project. Food, as prosaic as it is, appeals to me in a way that literary studies no longer do and maybe never could; I'm drawn to the practical aspect of culinary life, as well as the endless possibilities of something as seemingly simple as roast chicken. Maybe endeavoring to explore these questions will only serve to put me back into the kitchen, but there are worse places to be. More importantly, my kitchen will not be without some kind of PC and pin curls will be nowhere in sight. It will be all about ink-stained hands and a flour-dusted keyboard: romantic realism at its best.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sweet Tahini Cookies

Sometimes, my Thursdays look like a cookie sheet full of freshly baked cookies. Given my various commitments, this doesn't always make much sense, but let's just call it my way of powering through the madness.

Weekday baking is also something that I try to reserve for special occasions, like when friends come from out of town for conferences. What kind of household would this be, after all, if I didn't have cookies to offer with some afternoon tea? It just wouldn't be seemly.

And hospitality aside, after Ottolenghi's and Tamimi's Jerusalem arrived on Tuesday of last week (yes, another one; call this my gift to myself for grading, grading and more grading--as well as endless office hours), I was itching to make something out of it. This impulse could not be ignored.

As tempted as I was by the various vegetable recipes and roasted chicken with clementines, there was no way I was going to be preparing a miniature feast with all the fixings at 9 in the morning. This was supposed to be my slow day. I soon found myself reading and rereading the description of the Tahini  cookies, which, according to Ottolenghi and Tamimi, were at the height of their popularity in Jerusalem a few years ago. Even better, the friend who was coming over had confessed in the past to a fondness for tahini. Two birds, one stone: exactly how all tasks in life should be.

Soon enough, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table, rolling cookie dough into balls and breathing in the heavenly aroma of the ground sesame paste (a linguistic fun fact: tahini comes from the Arabic verb, tahan, which means "to grind"). Considering that tahini is essentially the peanut butter equivalent of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean diet, I was in my element.

The one catch I didn't anticipate was the time it took to roll the crumbly dough into balls.  Even after kneading it lightly into a smooth mound, the dough remained delicate and was prone to crumble into pieces in my palms. Adjusting myself to the texture of this dough required a little finesse, not to mention patience. It certainly took longer than expected for me to find my cookie dough ball rolling rhythm. But once I did, the cookie sheets filled up quickly and the scent of tahini filled the apartment. The puppy and I were equally tempted. She kept circling the table, never far from the action (in the photo below, you can see her lurking). She even managed to go to town with a small chunk of dough that fell on the floor. Let me assure you that this act was barely noticeable compared to how many cookies her mama consumed. 

Now, a puppy free photo for the cat loving crowd, and a chance for the cookies to shine on their own.

In general, I was really pleased with these cookies. They were handsome little things-- solid, yet crumbly, and with a nutty, slightly spiced flavor. I kid you not when I say that I infinitely prefer them to peanut butter cookies, which, despite my peanut butter love, I often find too dry (and unintentionally so). These simply hit the right balance of savory and sweet; while they were around (they're now long gone), I would eat one before breakfast, one before bedtime and a few as an afternoon snack with tea (iced and hot). I never even felt like I was eating dessert. I'm now contemplating baking them again--and soon--but this time playing with the flavors. Inspired by my summertime hummus experiment, I'm thinking that a few tablespoons of lemon zest might lighten these cookies a little, breaking up their deep flavors. Sumac, instead of cinnamon, might just seal the deal. I even briefly fantasized about stuffing them with a candied red pepper, but this is clearly a dream for another Thursday in another life (obviously, one that is dissertation free).

Regardless of what shape these cookies take, life is just better when a container of cookies is involved.

Tahini Cookies

Yields about 3 dozen (depending on the size of your cookies)
Slightly adapted from Ottolenghi's and Tamimi's Jerusalem

The original recipe calls for both caster sugar and light tahini paste, but in my cupboards, I had only regular old granulated and dark tahini (honestly, until making these cookies and reading this book, I naively hadn't realized there were different types of tahini). These small changes--or big changes, depending on your perspective--led to a tasty cookie.
      Another important note is that, considering that these cookies are supposed to be baked at 400 F for 15-17 minutes, you don't want to make them too small. But if you do aim for smaller cookies, be sure to start checking them at around 12-13 minutes so that they don't brown. A golden hue is your aim. In fact,  if you look at the photos above, you can see that there are seemingly two versions of the final product: smaller, browner cookies and lighter, larger cookies. Both were good, but the flavor of the lighter ones appealed to me more; the nutty notes of the tahini were more apparent.

1/2 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup (150 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
a heaping 1/2 cup of tahini paste (whatever color you have on hand)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 teaspoons heavy cream (25 ml)
2 cups, plus 1 1/2 tablespoon, all-purpose flour (270 grams)
cinnamon, for sprinkling

-Preheat the oven to 400 F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
-Place the sugar and butter in a standing mixer and, using the beater attachment, beat for 1-2 minutes, or until they are just combined. 
-With the mixer still on its lowest speed, add the tahini, vanilla and cream. 
-Then, add the flour and beat for a few minutes. The dough should be grainy, just beginning to come together.
-Working with the dough in the bowl of the mixer, begin shaping it into a ball with your hands. Once it largely sticks together, transfer it to a work surface and knead until a smooth mound.
-Pinch off small bits of the dough and roll into balls between your palms. Don't be alarmed if the dough crumbles; excessive force will lead to cracks in your cookies. Just reshape and re-roll with a lighter touch.
-Once the cookies have been shaped, place them on the cookie sheets, leaving about 1 1/2 - 2 inches between them. Depending on the size of your cookies, you should be able to fit about 15-18 cookies per sheet. 
-Flatten the tops of the cookies with a fork, pressing down very lightly.
-Dust the cookies with cinnamon before putting them in the oven.
-Bake cookies for 15-17 minutes, until slightly golden.
-Once out of the oven, place the cookies on a wire rack to cool. I do, however, suggest sneaking one while they're still hot.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Notes from the Underground: Week 5.5

I felt my heart surge. I thought: I've lived this long. Please. A little longer won't kill me. I wanted to say her name aloud, it would have given me joy to call, because I knew in some small way it was my love that named her. And yet. I couldn't speak. I was afraid I'd choose the wrong sentence. -Nicole Krauss (The History of Love)

Life has been so busy recently that my retreat into the underground somehow evaded me this past week. There was no respite--no time for the activities that I cherish, the moments that I can't help but feel belong to me. Instead, the weekend was taken up by a conference that my department was throwing in honor of a faculty member who recently retired.  It was the meeting of "modernism's extended family." Truth be told, despite my reservations about the affair (who, after all, wants to be at work on the weekend? And especially when one already has work on the weekend?), it was a very nice conference: the papers were interesting, it was a pleasure to see the faces that once roamed these halls and the party that was the culmination of the whole affair was jovial and relaxed. For academia, this combination can be rare.

Although I enjoyed myself, I also couldn't help but feel that the whole experience was somehow testing me. There were two very enthusiastic first-year graduate students visiting from Stanford and they wanted to know how it felt to be on the verge of filing one's dissertation. There were former graduate students who wanted to know if I was "on the market" and what my plans were for the future. In addition to the various questions I was asked, there was also the question that I had to ask myself: am I a part of this extended family and, if so, how does one leave a world that provided, in spite of all of its hardships, a comfortable existence? Was I really ready for something new or am I just tired?

Despite my wavering, I stand by earlier convictions. In a way, this all ties into my nostalgia for Japan that I expressed in my previous post. At 22, there was no question about my future. I was going to graduate school and that was that. Despite the warnings from professors and family alike that this path was not paved in gold, I couldn't have imagined a different path for my twenties. But now, as both my graduate school career and twenties are coming to an end, change seems to make sense. In a way, I feel that I've come as far as I can go with this. I long for a new challenge, for a job that doesn't force me to sit in a chair all day (my own mild case of graphomania/scribomania aside). And perhaps a rough idea of what I want to do, rather than a concrete plan, is the best way to go about taking the next step. As a person, I've found that I can be a bit single-minded in my focus, rather than open to multiple opportunities--to the various shapes that my life might take. My thirties might be the best time to play with this idea and to develop a new path.

I think I've started to let go of the need for an overarching and totalizing vision. I've started to realize that small changes might pave the way for bigger changes. For example, when my mother and aunt were here, they changed the way the table was placed in the dining room. I came home, saw it and immediately wanted to move things back to the way they had been. But a few days and one Ikea kitchen cart later, it suddenly looked right to me. Or perhaps I had simply stopped resisting the need for change.

The room suddenly seemed better suited to entertaining. And we took advantage of this last weekend by having some friends--one of the Greek's lab mates and his wife--over for dinner. These pictures are from that meal. There was leek bread pudding inspired both by Thomas Keller's recipe from Ad Hoc at Home (why cut the crust off? Call me lazy, but I see no need to remove the bits that are sure to provide some crunch) and my current leek obsession, the Greek's favorite toothsome Stout Cake, and pork (not photographed, but dearly remembered). It was a fun evening, with cocktails, wine, conversation and puppy play time (also sadly not photographed)--one that, like this past weekend of the celebration of a career, certainly won't be forgotten anytime soon.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Like Lunching in Japan: Tokyo Turnips with Soba and Miso Butter

I worked on the Invention until my hands shook. When I came home, if the house was empty, I practiced in a panic and, finally, it was almost right. On Wednesday, I went to Mr. Parker's and stood at the doorway, expecting something drastic and changed, but it was all the same. There were cookies and lemonade in the solarium. Mildred took a nap on my coat. My fifteen-minute warmup was terrible; I made mistakes in the simplest parts, in the things I knew by heart. -Laurie Colwin ("Mr. Parker")

I always have such high hopes for Tuesdays. I see myself completing tasks at a superhuman speed, crossing things off the list--and allowing myself to do so with a triumphant flourish. In my mind, I divide the day into segments: breakfast, work on chapter, take dog out, go and pick up vegetable box, tend to vegetables, do more work, make dinner, write blog post, write long overdue emails, watch the presidential debate (that is, when there is one)...Given my expectations for what I can achieve in 16-17 hours, you might think I had arrived on earth only yesterday, with little understanding of how much time it actually takes to get things done. The other side of the coin is that I just might be an optimist's optimist--a dreamer of the best kind. 

Yesterday, I definitely dared to dream. As I walked to the school where I pick up the vegetable box (a new part of my weekly routine, but one that I'm thrilled to make time for; the selection  is really impressive and, best of all, it pushes me to expand my cooking repertoire), I found myself thinking of my old life in Japan. I'd like to say it was thanks to the piles of crimson and burnt orange leaves scattered on the streets, but Berkeley, now caught between an Indian summer and fall, looks like a land being torn in half by warring seasons and, for the past few days, summer has definitely been the victor. The heat didn't stop the stream of memories; instead, it intensified them in a really strange way: warming my legs under the kotatsu (heated table) on crisp fall evenings while balancing a novel in one hand and chopsticks in the other, trying to figure out how to cook with only one burner and a rice cooker, spending lazy afternoons browsing the shelves at Kinokuniya, followed by tea. Considering that, until that year, my whole life had consisted of my being a student and, immediately following my JET experience, I returned to a student's life, it makes sense that I return to this year often, seeing it as a golden time.

Since food has become my comfort of choice, I decided to channel my nostalgia into a dish that would bridge the then and now. And since it's the second time in two weeks that Tokyo (Japanese) turnips have been prominently featured in the vegetable box, I didn't even have to try that hard. Japan had been given to me in the form of small, pristinely white vegetables.

The first time we received these, I was uncertain what I could do with them. Given their petite size, they didn't seem big enough for a repeat of the Turnip Puff that I had fallen in love with earlier this year. I considered a salad, featuring shaved turnips, but, given the deep-seated American dislike of turnips that was inadvertently passed down to me in my childhood, turnips in the raw just didn't appeal to my sensibilities. So, like all people in this day and age, I turned to the internet for help. Epicurious, with its digital collection of old Gourmet recipes, never fails me. One look at Japanese Turnips with Miso and I knew how we would forevermore be using our turnip a matter of speaking.

For round two, however, I just couldn't leave well enough alone. We had had the miso-buttered turnips as a side; I thought that it had the makings of a meal in and of itself. When I'm home for lunch, especially on Tuesdays, I allow myself to whip up whatever strikes my fancy. Sometimes this is mac and cheese, but, more often than not, it's a riff on soba noodles with vegetables and some kind of dressing. I sensed a similar opportunity here: miso-coated turnips and wilted turnip greens meet soba noodles. I would make it the way I make my miso soup, giving it an additional depth of flavor with grated ginger and toasted sesame oil.

The combination appealed to my palate in so many ways. It had salt and it had sweetness; the vegetables were tender, but the meal wasn't lacking in texture. The chewy buckwheat noodles provided it. It's a lunch (or a dinner) worth repeating--and not only because it tastes like the best of Japan.

Soba Noodles with Tokyo Turnips and Miso Butter

yields 2-3 small servings
inspired by and heavily adapted from Epicurious

For the miso butter:
 2 tablespoons white miso
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

6 oz. dried soba noodles

about 1 pound Tokyo turnips with greens, washed and destemmed
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon Mirin (sweet rice wine)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1/8 teaspoon salt

-Stir together miso and butter.
- Cook the soba noodles according to the package's instructions. In case the packages fails to mention this (surprisingly, mine did), when cooking soba noodles, it's important to add 1 cup of cold water after the water and noodles come to a full boil. You must do this not once, but twice; this is what gives the noodles their chewy texture.
-Peel and slice turnips into small pieces (I got about 6-8 per turnip).
-Using kitchen scissors, roughly cut up the turnip leaves.
-Place the sliced turnips into a heavy skillet (I used cast iron) with the ginger, water, mirin, sesame oil and salt.
-Bring to a boil and let cook, uncovered for about 10-15 minutes.
-Once the turnips have softened and the liquid has begun to reduce, add handfuls of the turnip greens, stirring with tongs and adding more as they wilt.
-Stirring occasionally, continue boiling the turnips and the greens until the turnips are tender and the liquid has almost evaporated (you want there to be some liquid to coat the noodles with).
-Stir in the miso butter and cook for another minute or two.
-Remove from heat and add the prepared noodles.
-Toss to coat and serve.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Notes from the Underground: Week 4

Looking at the gloomy sky this morning and the rooftops slickened by rain, it's strange to think that, less than a week ago, the weather was sunny and bright and we were on our way to Half Moon Bay. Needless to say, it's been a long week--one of those weeks that seems endlessly plodding, like you've lived through more moments than a week can possibly hold. 

It wasn't my first time in Half Moon Bay, but it was the first time for my mom, aunt and the puppy. We had breakfast at home and then, after a ridiculous amount of Bay Area traffic, finally reached our destination. The town, which was gearing up for its annual pumpkin festival (this weekend!), was incredibly festive. Given my pumpkin love, I was thrilled to be there, to be surrounded by all the signs of fall. We went back to Pasta Moon, a restaurant I could eat at everyday and never get tired of its offerings. It was a bit uncreative for me to order the same thing I ordered last time, but call me a sucker for the combination of butternut squash and mascarpone cheese. Guilty as charged.

After grabbing dessert from the Half Moon Bay Bakery, we took the dog to the beach. I can't remember when I last laughed that hard: it was pure enjoyment to watch watch her sprint up and down the beach, first following the Greek, then following me, then trying to steal shoes and, finally,  digging in the sand as if her life depended on it.

There are moments in life that you wish you could bottle. For me, this day, with its winning combination of sunshine, family and good food, was one of them.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Leeks from a Greek Kitchen

During the Age of Glass, everyone believed some part of him or her to be extremely fragile. For some it was a hand, for others a femur, yet others believed it was their noses that were made of glass. The Age of Glass followed the Stone Age as an evolutionary corrective, introducing into human relations a new sense of fragility that fostered compassion. 
-Nicole Krauss (The History of Love

It's suddenly quiet in my apartment--that strange, unearthly quiet that comes after company leaves, or after important tasks have finally been completed. In a way, I thought this moment would never come; the past two weeks have been nothing if not a mini-marathon. Before my mother and aunt arrived, I was frantically putting the finishing touches on my article, which is now sitting in an inbox in Kentucky, awaiting the final decision of the journal's editor. As soon as that gargantuan task was accomplished, it was off to the airport. And then things were just busy. In between fine dining and trips to the beach, there were also seventeen student papers that required my attention and, despite my best efforts, hung over the visit like a dark little cloud. As much as I loved having my family here, it's hard to have visitors when your job isn't a simple 9-5 affair. It makes the balancing act all the harder. But the papers have been graded, I somehow lived through this morning's observation of my class notwithstanding both my fatigue and the lackluster performance of my students, and I'm now sitting in a chair in my kitchen, cozy as can be. The sad thing is that I'm almost too tired to enjoy it. Almost, but not quite.

In any case, it seemed like an opportune moment to sit down and update the blog, which I can't help but feel has been somewhat neglected these past few weeks. This blog, after all, is my time, when it's just me, my thoughts, my photos and the computer screen. Maybe the pup jingles by in her constant pursuit of things to chew on, but she usually respects these moments by taking a timely nap.

For the past week and half, all I've wanted to do is tell you about these leeks. It all started when I received an email from a friend a few weeks ago and she mentioned braising leeks as a weekend treat. It sounded appealing, like the ideal weekend comfort food, and I made a mental note that I should buy some leeks and partake in the fun. Before I could propel myself to action, however, I found myself in an article writing lock down, barely coming up for air. As the Greek kindly read over my article and offered a few suggestions for improvement, I allowed myself to relax on the couch with My Berlin Kitchen. For some reason, I immediately perked up when she talked about braising leeks. Call me an impressionable reader, but it suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world--as if, by braising leeks, I might drastically improve my quality of life.

In a way, this turned out to be exactly the case, but not in the way I expected. When I asked the Greek to pick up leeks the next morning on his grocery run, he mentioned a recipe that his mother and father would always make for dinner parties--a recipe that combines leeks, olive oil, tomato juice and prunes (yes, prunes--that most hated and maligned fruit that, however well it does in Europe, provokes something akin to revulsion in the US). Although I fully trust the Greek's culinary taste and have yet to be disappointed by any Greek dish I've tried (the combination of olive oil and tomato juice equals Greek magic), I'll admit that I had my reservations. Mainly because I felt that, by wanting to eat an allium vegetable as a side dish, I  was already taking a big step. It took years for me to come to terms with garlic and, even now, I occasionally find myself turning away from onions, even the caramelized kind. I use leeks, onions, chives, shallots, etc. to flavor my food; it's rarely been one of the main courses.

 But when the Greek called me out, asking where his culinarily adventurous girlfriend had gone, I accepted the challenge. The glowing endorsement of the recipe that his mother offered while we were Skyping with her that morning clinched the deal. Greek-style leeks it would be.

As with all Greek dishes, the flavors are revelatory. The leeks become sweet as they cook, softening their otherwise oniony flavor; the prunes transform the dish, adding a tangy note to a dish dominated by earthy allium vegetables. And the cinnamon stick, with its dash of spice, makes the meal sing. Truth be told,  left to my own devices, I would never think to add tomato juice, dried prunes, a chopped onion and a cinnamon stick to a pan full of sautéed leeks and and let it simmer until the leeks have lost their firmness, collapsing against each other. If you can use the word "compelling" to talk about food, then this certainly made for a compelling side dish--so compelling that I kept on going back for more. We paired it with a roast pork that the Greek made from All About Roasting and the combination seems like it will become one of our fall and winter Sunday dinner staples.

Leeks with Prunes and Cinnamon

Yields about 8-10 servings (as a side dish)
Adapted from Evi Voutsina's Greek Tastes (Γεύση ελληνική) and kindly translated by the Greek's mother

8 medium-sized leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and rinsed
100 milliliters (1/4 cup) olive oil
1 small onion (I used a cipollini), finely cut
8 ounces tomato juice
Salt to taste (be careful when adding salt, especially if the tomato juice you use has a lot of sodium)
1 cinnamon stick
300 grams  dried prunes (pits removed)
-Clean the leeks and cut them into 1- to 2-inch pieces.
-Put the oil in a pan and, once it is hot, add the leeks.
-Sauté the leeks by shaking the pan, so that they don't lose their shape. 
-Once the leeks have begun to soften, add the onion and sauté it as well. 
-After 1-2 minutes, add the tomato juice, the cinnamon stick and about 1/3 cup water, but not the prunes. 
-Bring the mixture to a boil and then, as the liquid begins to evaporate, to a gentle simmer (N.B. the goal is to have most of the liquid evaporate; you may have to turn the heat up to achieve this. However, this will also help the leeks to soften).
-Once the liquid has almost evaporated, add the prunes and shake the pan again.
-The meal is ready when both leeks and prunes have both become soft (following the Greek's father's example, I put the leeks in the oven with the pork--the temperature was 325 F--for about 10-12 minutes) and fully absorbed the oil and tomato juice
-Remove from the oven and prepare to fall in love with leeks (for either the first time or again)!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Notes from the Underground: Week 3

Granted, granted I'm a babbler, a harmless, irksome babbler, as we all are. But what's to be done if the sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble--that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void. -Dostoevsky (Notes from the Underground)

It's been a strange week, dear readers. Strange, strange, strange. 

It all started on Tuesday, when the Greek and I stopped at the beach with Elektra on our way to the airport to pick up my mom and aunt.  It was so weird for us to be doing this completely atypical thing on a Tuesday morning. But it was worthwhile. Ellie loved the beach (at heart, I think she's Greek), although she was a little afraid of the water and stayed close to the shore.

Then, later that night, about an hour after falling asleep, I woke up to fire trucks and ambulances outside my window. Because of the heat wave that was attacking the Bay Area at the beginning of the week, it was wide open and the noise, as well as the fear that something was desperately wrong, drew me from the comfort of my bed. It turned out that a house on the next street was on fire and it was a horrific thing to witness--flames billowing up into the sky, thick waves of smoke, firefighters trying to open fire hydrants and people running up and down the street and yelling. You know that these things can happen and that they do happen, but it's so humbling to see it take place in your neighborhood, to have it happen to people that maybe you don't really know, but you've seen them pruning flowers in their front yard or walking their dog. Fortunately, nobody was hurt; the family escaped the house and, although it took the firemen a long time to put the fire out, there was no breeze to help it spread. 

In such moments, normalcy shatters and you wonder why we spend our days concerned with such silly, inconsequential things when each moment really is precious. It made me think that I need to try--despite the stress and pressure that I can't help but feel as I try to finish my dissertation--to remember to focus on the positive, to look for things to be grateful for everyday. Because reasons to be grateful are there in abundance. I just can't close my eyes to them. 

Here are some of mine from the past week:

For my mom's arrival I made the Caramelized Garlic Tart from Ottolenghi's Plenty. This is not the first time I've made this tart (it was a pre-Finland treat for me and the Greek back in February), but, even the second time around, I can't help but marvel at how the garlic caramelizes with the help of the balsamic vinegar and some sugar. Not to mention how good the sweetened garlic tastes when paired with goat cheese and creme fraiche. Best of all, my mom loved it, which is just what I was hoping for.

I also got to make the Puddingy Plum Cake that I mentioned in my last "underground" post, which was incredibly moist with bits of collapsed and jammy plums in each bite. Making it, I loved watching as the brown sugar, butter and golden syrup melted together. The finished product, especially when paired with ice cream, wasn't so bad either (irony alert; we happily gobbled that cake up quickly).
The next night, we went to the Zuni Cafe, which seemed like the best kind of place to take visitors to San Francisco. It's a quintessential part of the city's culinary landscape and one of the birthplaces of California cuisine. I had gone there last year with a friend and, needless to say, one visit had hardly exhausted my curiosity. We had a really nice and relaxing time; my mom and aunt enjoyed all of their food, from the appetizers to the dessert. The Greek and I also left more than satisfied. Bucatini and ambiance are sometimes all that one needs in life.

Given all the good food we've been eating, I've felt a little sorry for the pupster, who clearly doesn't get to accompany us on these culinary adventures. I did have the idea, while flipping through a pet magazine at the vet, to make her some chicken jerky. What can I say? I love my puppy enough to cook for her and, since chocolate cupcakes are off limits, I can at least keep this in mind for a birthday or holiday treat (and wouldn't it make a good gift for other dog owners?).

Last but not least, there was this beautiful loaf of cheddar bread, adapted from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. It had reach and crunch and emitted that winning hollow sound when its bottom was knocked upon. The other three loaves (the recipe yields four), however, fell flat--literally. I'm debating about whether to blog about this because it was a failure, but, you know, these things happen to all cooks and there are lessons to be learned here. For me, the lesson is mainly that I'm abandoning the no-knead method (this loaf, in fact, was kneaded and, when compared with the other loaves, tells me everything I need to know about making successful bread). Maybe it works for some people, but I don't think it does it for me. Maybe it's a climate thing and the Bay Area just isn't up to the challenge? In any case, considering the great taste of this bread, I think I'll be making a similar loaf very soon, so expect cheddar bread in the near future.

But, before bread, there will be leeks. And before leeks, lots and lots of grading. And enjoying the weekend with my mom, aunt and the Greek. 

Until Monday or Tuesday. Happy weekend! 


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