Thursday, December 21, 2006

Hey there, sugar!

In general, I love Christmas, the trees and the gifts and the food and even some of the music (though not that awful “chestnuts roasting” song, which makes me crazy). Last year, I was feeling down and kind of skipped the holiday, which made sense to me at the time, but left me for a whole year feeling like something was out of whack. This fall, I was feeling some trepidation about the whole holiday season. I lost my best friend this year, and the holidays were just sort of looming there ahead, threatening. From Thanksgiving I hid. But sometime just after Thanksgiving, the Christmas spirit kicked in with a vengeance. M. had always loved Christmas inordinately, going overboard with baking and gifts, and suddenly it seemed like the only way to get through the season was to treat it as she would have. I shopped like I have never shopped before. And this weekend, I made cookies. Lots of cookies.

I sent cookies to my aunt and uncles. I brought packages of cookies to work. I left plates of cookies for the neighbors. I spent the entire weekend baking and singing Christmas carols. I discovered that Christmas cookies have healing powers; I really felt much better after my baking extravaganza than I have in ages.

Okay, I’ll put the personal stuff aside now and talk about cookies.

I’ve noticed that people who improvise wildly when cooking are nervous about making even the slightest adjustments in a baking recipe. They shouldn’t be; there are lots of things you can do to change cookies without the slightest risk.

It’s important to think about flavor and texture separately. Flavor is easy to play around with; texture is more problematic. Texture defines a cookie – shortbread is shortbread whether the flavor is vanilla or ginger or even chocolate, as long as the texture is crumbly. The texture of a cookie depends largely on the following factors: ratios of major ingredients (eggs, flour, sugar, butter), method of combining (is the butter melted, are the eggs separated and whipped, is the flour sifted), temperature of dough (chilled or not), temperature of oven and baking time, and even a little on temperature of the cookies sheets. In some cases, ingredients affect texture if they are structural, intrinsic to the dough – cake flour versus a.p. flour can matter quite a bit, and ingredients like molasses or peanut butter make a big difference.

But flavor is a whole other story. For one thing, you can add things to cookies with abandon; unlike cakes, which can fall under the weight of too many extras, cookies will pretty much bake up just fine as long as there’s enough dough to bind all the bits you’ve added. So you can add nuts, coconut, all kinds of dried or candied fruit, or chocolate chips to almost any cookie. You can also swap out extracts – use a little less lemon, almond, or orange extract than you do vanilla. You can add spices or grated citrus peel. Before baking, you can sprinkle cookies with sanding sugar or pearl sugar or cinnamon sugar. After baking, you can glaze cookies or dip them in chocolate. You can also swap dark brown sugar for light to deepen the molasses flavor or swap light for dark to lighten it. (Don’t swap white and brown sugars, though, unless you want to change the texture).

This year I made a few cookies straight from the recipe: the lime meltaways and chocolate crackles from Martha Stewart’s holiday cookie supplement last year. The chocolate cookies were good, but the lime were a bit dull. Not bad, but I won’t make them again. I made butter cookies from the Cook’s Illustrated Best Recipe Cookbook recipe, with only a minor adjustment. I added a little orange oil, because I like a hint of orange in my sugar cookies. I also decorated them with royal icing. I made the Russian tea cakes from Stars Desserts straight, and they were good, as always.

I used The Best Recipe cookbook for several starter recipes. My chewy walnut cookies are a variation on the chewy chocolate chip cookies. I use dark brown sugar, add natural walnut flavoring, and replace the chips with toasted walnut halves. I made their spice cookie, but replaced their cinnamon-heavy mix of spices with a hearty teaspoon of clove and ¾ teaspoon of allspice, used light brown sugar so the clove flavor would come through, included ½ teaspoon of lemon extract, then glazed the baked cookies with a lemon/powdered sugar glaze and topped each one with a little candied lemon peel. These were winners, tart and spicy and sweet all at once. I turned the anise biscotti recipe into orange-cardamom-fig biscotti with the addition of ½ tsp each dried orange peel and orange oil, 1 teaspoon of cardamom, and chopped figs soaked in Triple Sec (dropped the anise and vanilla). I liked these very much as well.

Less successful were the oatmeal cookies from the Best Recipe. Clearly, not the best recipe after all. I made no changes except substituting dried cherries for the raisins, but these just weren’t very good oatmeal cookies. Oh, well, live and learn.

I don’t like the Best Recipe peanut butter cookie recipe, so I used the one from the Wooden Spoon Dessert Cookbook, another good source for dependable American-style baking recipes. Again, I replaced the light brown sugar with dark to increase the molasses flavor, then I added 2 teaspoons of ginger, and garnished the top with a piece of candied ginger. My favorite saltwater taffy was always the peanut-molasses; I think a lot of people are surprised as how comforting and familiar the peanut-ginger-molasses combination is. And, yes, I used natural peanut butter; the idea that only preservative-laden peanut butters can be used in cookies is a myth, and a silly one at that.

I wanted to make some meringues, but I seem to have lost my big star tip, and Verna’s Cake Supply on Mass Ave has tragically closed its doors. Still, a solid selection of cookies, which made for nice plates. I was wiped out by the end of weekend, though, what with the baking and the glazing and the decorating and the packing and the tying of the bows. I’m all rested up now, so it’s time to start thinking about Christmas dinner.

Here's hoping you make some great cookies this year. Don't be afraid to improvise - oh, and be sure to write down your changes, just in case someone falls in love with your cookie and you have to make the same recipe every Christmas forever and ever.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


It's the holiday season, and I've noticed a distinct downturn in the number of postings on cooking blogs. This is not surprising: there are cookies and fruitcakes to bake, special candies and liqueurs to shop for. The food-obsessed are damned busy this time of year. And some of us are starting up websites.

I've not been posting a lot in the last month or two, because I've been involved in a project now ready for unveiling. It's a website called NewEnglandGrown, devoted to New England agriculture and food. Each month, we will be publishing new articles on some theme, some aspect of NE farming, as well as directories of resources related to that theme. We're hoping to build up a useful resource, as well as providing some interesting reading. We intend to focus on some of the less-explored aspects of the food/farm world, not just the apple orchards and the CSAs, but the farm summer camps and the llama breeders and the heirlooom seed growers and the farm inns and the people who sell Maine seaweed and the people who grow and dry herbal teas. We've also got an extensive events listing, because as far as I can tell, there's no one place to go to find information on all the maple festivals, open farm days, country fairs, cheesemaking workshops, and other great stuff going on.

Anyway, the first issue is up, and I would be thrilled if you took a look. Unfortunately, the first issue is a little light on writing - we're hoping to up both the quantity and the depth of the reading content next month. We spent a lot of time getting some of the resource material ready and didn't focus as heavily on the writing as I would like, but that will change. In the meantime, we've got a local food guide and a farmers' internet guide, directories of farm B&Bs, Christmas tree farms, and wineries, a holiday gift guide, some book recommendations, recipes, and the events listing, so there's plenty to check out.

If you have any recommendations about thing you think the site could use, do let me know. I'll read your messages between batches of sugar cookies and research on bison farms in New England for the January issue.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

France, Part II (Or, No One Will Ever Make a Mini-Series About This)

Part II

The cheapest flight we could get went from Logan to JFK, then JFK to Paris. Except we had been waiting at Logan for hours. Snow. We were going to miss our NY flight. We waited. And waited.

When we got to JFK, we found that, yes, indeed, we had missed our flight. We waited some more, for instructions. The airline was going to put us up for the night, and then we were going to take another flight the next afternoon. I called Josh, who was supposed to meet us at the airport.

“What do you mean? I need you here. You shouldn’t have left so little time between flights [As if I and not the airline had determined the length of time between the legs of the journey, which was a generous two hours anyway]. At least if you’re going to be late, you can do me a favor. Buy me some mineral oil.”

It was very, very late at night in the hotel at JFK. Where the hell was I supposed to get mineral oil? Why did he need mineral oil?

I promised to try.

The next day we spent a long, long time waiting around the airport. We looked in every shop for mineral oil. Nothing. We flew to France and arrived exhausted to find no one waiting for us. We tried to call, but no answer. We waited for over an hour. Finally, Josh appeared and the first words out of his mouth were: “Did you find the mineral oil?”

He was angry that we had failed. He seemed to have decided to take his anger out on his vehicle, an early-type SUV that was about five times the size of every other car on the road. He flew, going easily 90 miles an hour, and driving erratically, swerving and jerking the car around the road. Even my ex, who was generally a fast driver, was a bit alarmed. The whole trip out of Paris was a blur of words from Josh on the usual themes – France is beautiful, the French are annoying, can you do the job – with a few new additions. For example, he told us his wife came out on Friday nights and stayed “until we fight, usually on Sunday morning.” In New York he had claimed she came out Thursday and stayed until Monday. He asked if we remembered the sheets, because that’s all we’ll need. He pointed out an open-air market.

“What do you think of that? Americans think it’s quaint! That’s one of your New England words, “quaint!” But, really, it’s filthy! Why would you want to eat food that sits out like that?”

He was practically spitting.

We got to the villa, and from the outside, it was everything he promised. The factory is in one wing, his home in another, our apartment in the third; there’s a courtyard and huge windows with shutters. He took us into the apartment.

It was empty.

He was right about the sheets; there were no sheets on the bed. Also, no blankets. Or pillows. Or any other furniture. Or pans, pots, utensils. No fridge. No anything really, just a bare bed, and a few coathangers in the closet. The closet which, by the way, had those folding mirrored doors. To match the gold wall-to-wall carpet. He had a 15th century French villa, and he was remodeling it to look like a Holiday Inn in Jersey.

He made me go to work that afternoon, making brownies. He informed me that he wanted chewy brownies. Then he informed me that there was no mechanism for melting the butter. Also, the butter couldn’t be warmed in any way. The factory was in a stone building with limited heat; I would say the room temperature was about 55 degrees.

As anyone with the slightest knowledge of baking will understand, this was a problem.

I was told to work with the French head baker, who doesn’t speak any English. We muddled through and made a few batches of brownies. It was clear the cook thought that Josh was crazy. It was also clear he was a little afraid of Josh. Meanwhile, Josh was cooking lamb in a pit in the courtyard, occasionally throwing his arm to the sky and yelling, “We’re the only people from Spain to Belgium barbecuing!”

After the brownies were baked, Josh invited me and my husband to have dinner with him and his wife. The kitchen was vast, like a storybook kitchen, with an old hearth. Dinner was the lamb, plus a strange fish soup made from a powder; that was all. The room was freezing cold; his wife, still silent, wore a hat, coat and mittens indoors. Josh explained some of his business decisions. For example, instead of buying cloths for cleaning the factory, he stole towels from expensive hotels. Then, he offered these towels to his employees in exchange for their old home towels. That way, he got both free rags and improved employee relations. He had become disenchanted with this method, however, because the employees’ towels weren’t, to his mind, of high enough quality.

I got the next day off to settle in. We needed food, badly – the lamb and broth were all we had eaten since New York, except of course for some brownies. We decided to go into the neighboring village, since my husband had taken a walk around our tiny village the day before while I baked and found only a drugstore and a sausage shop. Josh warned us that it was too far to walk, and offered to let us borrow his car. We declined. At this point, all we want is to be away from him. He insisted that we couldn’t walk. Unfortunately, a car appeared in the road at this point. Josh ran into the road, waving his arms madly. The car stopped, and Josh told the terrified driver that he had to take us to the next town, opening the back doors and pushing us in as he did so.

The driver took off with panic in his eyes, and once he was safely out of view, I used my limited French to end his misery. “Arretez, s’il vous plait! Ici, c’est bien! Merci, merci!” He let us out, and we started walking.

Josh was right, it was too far. We walked and walked and walked. Finally, a car pulled over to pick us up – one of the workman who was rebuilding the wall in front of Josh’s property. We spent the afternoon in a nice little French town, and that was the high point of our trip to France. We had to take a taxi back. It was very, very expensive.

The rest of the week is a bit of a blur. Among the things I remember:

Finding out that the local children throw rocks at Josh’s windows – and at my ex-husband, presumably because he was Josh’s guest
Finding out that the American electricians left in the dead of night after wrecking the apartment
Josh mentioning how he likes to go to Amsterdam to get cocaine (that made some things make lots more sense)
Josh mentioning how nice it will be for him to be able to go away now that we’re going to be there to protect the house from the angry neighbors
Josh setting us up with furniture: dirty old pillows from some lost couch and a small exercise trampoline as a “table”
Josh admitting his wife rarely stayed even one night at the villa (forget that Paris apartment)
Eating sausage and brownies and wondering how we would ever find real food
Catching Josh looking in our windows first thing in the morning (no shades, of course, and he complained if we closed the shutters, which we did anyway)
And, most of all, trying to make brownie batter that didn’t break with cold butter in a cold factory while Josh stood right behind me saying over and over, “but what I want to know is, can you do the job?”

I broke after one week. I don’t get angry with people very often, and I rarely lose my temper. But, my god, did I lose my temper.

The French baker was back, the first time in a week. I had tried every chance I could to explain to Josh that we needed to at least warm the butter, or the batter would keep breaking. The brownies came out just fine, but there was a crusty top that didn’t cut cleanly, and that was the inevitable result of the cold butter. Needless to say, I never got that many words out at a time. He never seemed to notice that I was talking, let alone what I was saying. But now, with the French baker standing next to me as I mixed the batter, he suddenly noticed the broken batter.

“What is this crap? I’ve never seen batter look like that, have you?” He turned to the French baker, pulling him into his disgust with me.

That did it. I remember literally throwing in ths towel – flinging the rag I was holding across the room and turning on Josh with fury. I remember saying something like this: “Everyone hates you! Your employees hate you, the neighbors hate you, the village children hate you, even your wife hates you, and I certainly hate you!” I know it’s not nice, I know. But that’s what I said.

I told my husband we were leaving. He was happy. As I repacked my bags, Josh offered to drive us to Paris, an offer we unfortunately had to accept. A taxi, the train, would have been too complicated and expensive, and he was going there anyway. Something to do with his wife.

The ride back to Paris was very unpleasant, to say the least. Josh tried to convince me to stay, tried to convince my husband to make me stay, and still kept asking (you know what’s coming) “but what I want to know is, can you do the job?” and I will confess, part of me thought that if perhaps I just had a night or two away, I could go back with a clear head, draw some necessary boundaries=, and get to stay in France.

But then he was interrupted by a phone call on his cell. He said hello, then okay, I’ll be there soon, then he hung up. Then he said to us, in the exasperated tone of voice a man might use to say that his wife says she has nothing to wear, and with that closet of hers!: “My wife just had a miscarriage.” He actually rolled his eyes.

That was the point at which I actually thought I was going to throw up. The exhaustion, the madhouse ride at 90 miles/hour, the diet of sausage and brownies, and more than anything the utter disgust at this strange and horrible life I had just spent a week looking in on. I remember thinking that all I had to do was get to Paris without throwing up, and then everything would be fine.

Everything was fine, of course, and yet not fine at the same time. We went home to the worst Christmas I can remember. I was demoralized on my return; I felt like I carried the stench of bad luck and bad decisions. I knew I should have trusted my instincts and stayed home. But I was afraid of my instincts – my instincts were also saying: don’t become a cook, despite all the time and money you just dropped on your education. My instincts were saying: leave your husband.

It took time to pay off the costs of the tickets, of course. I did get a job in a bakery and worked there for a while, but ultimately I left the culinary world. I also left my husband. And life has been better since. I have not often looked back at that week in France, which wasn’t even the bottoming-out point, which came two years later, in another questionable job I should have known better than to take - one that lacked even an entertaining story. But there’s only one real regret I have.

I wish I still had that brownie recipe. By the end of the week, it was really good. So, yeah, I think I could have done the job.

The France Story, or, Why My Life Isn't Like Peter Mayle's, Part I

I don’t know why I suddenly feel like telling this tale. Frankly, this episode was part of my life I would rather forget. It’s been almost ten years, and I still have a hard time finding it funny. I still feel hot embarrassment at my own foolishness, anger at myself and the other people involved. I still tend to tell the story only after a nice, fortifying martini. Or two.

But it was funny, really. And vaguely culinary. And it took place around Thanksgiving.

I was in my last month of culinary school, the 1 year baking and pastry arts program at the CIA. I had figured out one thing after about the second month – I didn’t like professional kitchens. I had done an internship at a bakery, which was supposed to prepare me for the world of professional cooking, but the bakery was tiny. It was just the owner, the baker, two ever-changing Guatalmalan teenagers, and myself. The whole feel was pretty easygoing.

At the CIA, I learned what real kitchens were like – fast-paced, a little macho. (I later found out that bakeries and restaurants have a very different feel, and I spent most of my brief professional cooking life at bakeries as a result). I was older than my classmates by several years. I was interested in aspects of food they couldn’t care less about – I was just starting to learn about heirlooms and sustainable ag and all that stuff and I was excited, but I couldn’t find anyone else who cared, even among the instructors. I liked learning how to do new things, but I hated the performance aspect, the sense of having to do things perfectly on the first try, not being able, essentially, to write drafts.

So I was trying to figure out what to do with this new degree I was about to get, that qualified me to do something I had no interest in doing. Who was going to want an English major with a pastry certificate? I sent a few resumes to some cooking magazines, but no bites. I was starting to panic.

At the same time, my marriage had hit the rocks. My (now ex-) husband was suffering terribly from a depression he refused to treat with medication. Depressives make bad workers. He had left one job to avoid being fired, then was fired from the job that followed. He had found a new one, and then, just a few weeks before my program ended, he was fired again. It was a bad, dark time.

So, there I was, in the career office of the CIA looking at notices for something that would read, “Wanted: English major with culinary degree to write interesting food articles, maybe do a little research. High pay, no experience necessary.” Not surprisingly, there were no such notices. But there was a notice that ran something like this:
American baked goods company in France looking for recipe developer to improve recipes for cookies, brownies, etc. Room, board and small stipend. Factory located in villa 1.5 hours outside Paris.

Well. Huh. Recipe developer? I liked the sound of that. Careful, slow work, testing and retesting, applying scientific principles. Sure, I had never done anything like that, but I thought I probably could. How hard could it be? Of course, there was no chance I would be hired, but it can’t hurt to fax over a resume, right?

I did. The next day, I get a call from, well, we’ll call him Josh. This call seemed to be my job interview, but it was hard to tell. Josh was pure New York, with a heavy accent, a loud voice and an aggressive manner. He alternatively wanted to sell me on the wonder of this job and to ask if I thought I would be good at it.

“So, let me tell you, the place is beautiful! I mean, you’ve never seen a place like this. It’s a 15th century villa. Of course, the French people who owned the place never did anything with it. They think it’s charming to have outdated plumbing. But I’m fixing it up. My wife has an apartment in Paris, and you could use that on the weekends. We have this great machine that bakes bars in boxes, and cuts ‘em and wraps ‘em, but these French bakers don’t understand American cookies, you know? They wanted to bake chocolate chip cookies in rings! So I need an American baker. But what I need to know is, can you do the job?”

“Well, I have never done any recipe development, but I am just finish-“

“You would have your own apartment, in a villa! And you could go to Paris on weekends – there’s no way for you to work over here for a French company, you know. They’ve got all the jobs protected. If you stay the whole six months, I’ll pay for your airfare. But not if you leave before then! I had these electricians...but you’ll want to stay, it’s beautiful! Do you speak French?”

“I’m afraid not really – I took French in high school, and I of course can recognize most culinary terms, but I-“

“The French workers will work overnight anyway, to save money on electricity. You’ll be all alone. But it’s beautiful, you’ll love it. You won’t need to bring anything, just sheets for the bed. I don’t have extra sheets. But what I need to know is, can you do the job?”

“Well, I think-”

“The apartment in Paris is …”

You get the idea. It was like standing in oncoming traffic. I tried to be honest with him, tried to make him understand that I was just out of school, I would love to try, but I could give no guarantees. It was a little subtle for him.

“So, when can you be here? Can you be here by Saturday?”

It was Tuesday. I thought, he’s offering me and my husband a place to live in France on the basis of a twenty minute phone conversation in which I spoke less than one hundred words? Is he insane? Well, obviously, he’s clearly insane. But he’s offering me a job in France!

“I don’t think I could be there on Saturday. Classes finish next week, and I would have to pack all my things, put them in storage, get a flight. I could probably do it all in two weeks, at the earliest.”

He was annoyed. Really, he wanted me there on Saturday. Or maybe not, because do I really think I can do the job? Maybe we should meet first. He’ll be in New York for Thanksgiving (one week away). Could me and my husband meet him and his wife for brunch and talk things over? But he would really want me there in two weeks. From now. Which would be one week after the meeting at which he is going to, apparently, determine if I have the job.

I hang up the phone confused. Am I moving to France? Why not – I’ve got nothing here, neither does my husband. We also have no money. How will we get to France? Books. The ex-husband worked in publishing; we had tons of books. We sold enough to pay for one flight, the other we put on a credit card. I pack all our stuff in boxes. My husband went through the notes for the novel he thought he would have time to write. We put everything we own in our parents’ basements. We told everyone we were moving to France. Maybe.

The day before Thanksgiving, we were in New York, meeting Josh and his wife at a small breakfast place. The conversation was exactly the same one we had one the phone. I said almost nothing; Josh talked incessantly – the villa is beautiful, the French are awful, bring sheets, can you do the job? I was beginning to hate him. He noticed a woman sitting at another booth with unusually long fingernails. He told us to look, we all looked, and then he called out to her, “We’re admiring your fingernails!” She smirked. I was afraid she was going to come over and scrape his eyes out with the nails. I wished she would.

His wife was French and almost completely silent. I wondered how she liked his constant put-downs of France. I wondered how she could stand being married to him.

I should have stood up from the table, thanked him very much, and moved back home immediately. But when your life is falling apart, you’ll grasp at anything. Even if you’re grasping at a maniacal American businessman with a sketchy job offer.

So, we went home, celebrated Thanksgiving, and got ready to move to France.

Friday, November 24, 2006


I am thankful for the farmers that provided the good food on my table. I am thankful that the Democrats won majorities in the House and Senate. I am thankful for my friends and my family. I am thankful for Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Richard Thompson. I'm grateful that I live after the invention of ibuprofen. I'm grateful that I live in the good Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where my gay friends can marry. I give thanks for the Siamese cats that cuddle with me while I sleep, for the bus that takes me to work each day so I don't need to drive, for the woman at the local cafe who remembers not just my order, but my name. I am thankful for the books that line my walls and my Constitutional right to read them. I am deeply thankful that I am healthy and that I am loved. I am thankful, believe it or not, for my job, complain though I might, because it keeps me in pork chops, red wine and kitty kibble. And I am thankful for all of you, my imaginary internet friends, for taking the time to read my ramblings and for adding your intelligent comments and for giving me access to your own wonderful writings on your blogs. I feel like I have found a community of people who care deeply about food and where it comes from, about farms and communities, about the environment and about tradition - and for that, I am profoundly thankful.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Taking Stock

I've been sick this week and not really up for posting, despite having made a really nice Polish hunter's stew this weekendwith a walnut-date-rum strudel for dessert, and having drunk several interesting local wines with it and tasted some amazing cheeses my friends brought over. All that should have made for decent posting fodder, but I was too sick to think about it, and now I have nothing to say.

Except this: two chicken backs from free-range chickens (saved from cutting apart whole chickens for parts), plus the leftover picked carcasses of two chickens and one duck (from the stew) with the necks from all, will make the best poultry stock you've ever tasted. I've never been so pleased with a stock. The flavor was intense AND it was well and truly gelled. Too often, I end up with one or the other, a good gel or a good flavor. This was perfect, and I've got two quarts of it. There is simply nothing more satisfying than getting something for nothing, and stock made from trimmings and carcasses is the best example of that.

Also, good when you're sick. A-choo.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Make soup

Here’s my advice, and I speak from experience. If your soul is weary; if your Friday night and Saturday have flown and your boss is expecting you back at the office on Monday; if you’ve eaten nothing all week but pizza, toast, grilled cheese and eggs; if you’re desperate for your life to change, but nothing seems to be changing; if you’re facing a birthday that will place you exactly at the midpoint of your Biblical threescore and ten – under these conditions, do not decide that you are going to improvise a wonderful dinner, damnit, particularly if you aren’t getting started until 6:30 on Saturday night. The lamb will lack savor. The sauce, even if it includes mint and pomegranate molasses, won’t taste exotic. The kale will overcook. The potatoes might work, because even you can’t mess up roasted potatoes, no matter what mood you may be in. But the whole exercise is misguided and should not be undertaken.

If you ignore my advice, here is the cure: On Sunday, you must make something simple and savory and foolproof, something that will soothe your soul. I recommend onion soup. The process itself is satisfying; the slow, patient stirring of the onions will calm your nerves. Using the nice homemade beef stock from your freezer will make you feel organized and dependable and frugal. The smell of the soup simmering will scent the house. You’ll remember that next weekend is a long one. You’ll look forward to taking a walk around the neighborhood in the lovely November evening, with the full moon rising. You’ll feel better, really. Make some soup.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Kitchens (a post that has been properly aged)

I found this unposted post sitting in my files...

I have lived, by my estimate, in at least fifteen different places in my life, including all my college apartments. That means I’ve had over fifteen kitchens. But here I am, fast approaching my 35 birthday, and I still don’t feel like I’ve found my kitchen.

The important thing to realize is that I still feel like my kitchen is out there to be found, or at least to be built, which speaks to the importance of the kitchen as a symbol of home. I have no sense that someday I will find my bathroom or bedroom or hallway, but my kitchen exists in my imagination like my garden, my studio.

My first home, in which my family lived until I was eight, had a tiny kitchen. We usually ate in the dining room, because to eat in the kitchen required pulling the table away from the wall and carefully easing ourselves into the chairs that just barely fit around it. Once all six of us were seated, there was no space for anyone to get up. If you needed the ketchup, the person seated next to the fridge had to perform contortions to get it for you.

One of my strongest memories is of my mother, not a woman prone to ebullience, spinning around in her brand-new and much larger kitchen the day of our move, like Julie Andrews in the opening of Sound of Music.

That was the kitchen I leaned to cook in, and it was serviceable, but unattractive. There was plenty of counter and cabinet space, and a pantry with its own lightbulb, which I found very intriguing at the age of eight, and two lazy Susans, which were more exciting still. But the walls were covered in a particularly hideous seventies wallpaper of green and brown plaid, and the cabinets were a dark wood, the floors an ugly beige linoleum.

That kitchen was never the sort of warm and pleasant place my grandmother’s kitchen was. Her kitchen was wallpapered with the same paper that had been in my mother’s old kitchen, a pattern of sepia butter churns and spinning wheels I found very comforting. She also had one of those tall steel stools with the stepstool beneath, which was my particular place in her kitchen. I think the woodwork was white, which I suspect is the source of my fondness for white paint in kitchens, though elsewhere I dislike it.

My kitchens in college were for the most part small and utilitarian, until my senior year, when I shared a large apartment in an old house with three friends. That kitchen was big and warm in a very “children of hippies” way, and, given the excess of time college students have, usually filled with cooking projects, rising bread or sprouting beans. My post-college years in New York were characterized by kitchens so small two people couldn’t stand in them at once, and my cooking suffered a long lapse as a result. Since I moved back to Massachusetts, I have lived exclusively in apartments in the older double- and triple-decker houses that provide the cheapest apartments in this overpriced housing market. (I have not lived in a house built more recently than 1875 since I was an undergraduate.) These kitchens have generally had a few things in common:

1) Old appliances. Landlords don’t replace stoves and refrigerators until they absolutely have to. Exhibit 1: my rusting stove.
2) But those old stoves are, thank ye gods, always gas. I had no idea until very recently that gas is considered upscale in some markets, and that the majority of Americans suffer through electric stoves.
3) No dishwasher, though. I have no idea how to use a dishwasher.
4) The nicest of my apartments had a disposal, very lux. The rest haven’t.
5) Landlord linoleum. The advantage – it never looks really dirty. The disadvantage – it never looks really clean. Oh, and it’s ugly.
6) Lack of cabinet space.
7) But a decent amount of overall footage. I haven’t really had a small kitchen since NYC.

I have deep ambivalence about my current kitchen, which is typical of these kitchens. I hate the ugliness of the dark, faux-wood-panelling walls, the mismatched backsplash, the stove that’s too old to ever really get clean. But I love the fact that I have enough space for both a deep-freeze and a wine fridge, that I have a pantry, that the stove and fridge and sink are arranged in a reasonable order to facilitate actual cooking. It’s not lovely, but it’s a very functional space, and for that I am deeply grateful.

And it has no granite countertops, which is good.

Not that there’s anything wrong with granite countertops. But those triple-deckers that have served as reasonably priced housing for working-class families, new immigrants, and young people for all these years have been bought in huge numbers in the last few years by people who want not homes, but profits. The first thing they do to raise the value of the apartments they want to turn into condos is gut the kitchens and install islands, granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances. These things are all fine as they go, but they serve to artificially increase the value of the space. It’s the same size apartment in the same neighborhood with the same lack of yard, but now it costs three times the price, because it’s been given a veneer of luxury materials. Now everyone making less than six figures is locked out of the housing market, which pisses me off.

Also, I don’t care for the aesthetic. All these remodeled kitchens look the same to me, the industrial edge hinting at the underlying message of status and power, so far from the warmth and security I want from a kitchen. My favorite kitchens, in my homes and others, have all fallen into two categories – hippie kitchens with lots of wood and plants and old-fashioned kitchens with gingham curtains and white paint. Stainless steel anything would look out of place in either (though I have a friend whose stainless steel stove looks charmingly bright and shiny in her red, casual kitchen). But, beyond knowing that, I am not entirely sure what my eventual kitchen will look like. As far as purchasing kitchen items goes – a table and chairs, a hutch, and so forth – I suffer from a not-unusual form of paralysis. Since I don’t really believe that my current apartment counts as my HOME (that’s someplace in the future, with a garden and walls I can paint), I don’t dare buy anything permanent for fear that the real place will require a different choice. Until I see the kitchen of my heart, I am not sure how I am going to reconcile the warm wood of the hippie kitchen with the bright white and red of grandmother kitchen. So I don’t invest in anything, though my current kitchen chairs have all been salvaged from street trash, and my sideboard is a salvaged desk with a piece of granite on top (a gift from an old housemate) and a skirt around the bottom to hide the pots and pans beneath. Someday I want a real kitchen, but I also worry about living in somedays, as if my real life is something I’m preparing for, not living.

I have been moving beyond that feeling in the last few years and have actually invested in some things for my kitchen – a few really good pots and pans (my wedding gift pots came from just before the kitchenware market exploded, when Revereware was still the standard), the deep-freeze. But my kitchen is still not my kitchen, and I don’t know that it can be until it’s mine, until I can paint the walls, replace the cabinets, pull up the linoleum. Maybe the next one…

What do you do with gorgonzola and red wine ravioli?

I mean, it sounds great, right? but then what? What can hold up to all that flavor - hold its own without making the whole too complicated? I decided on roasted red peppers for a little sweetness with a hint of smoke. The red peppers were to be dominant, but I don't have the skill of making things taste perfect with just two or three ingredients. I have to fiddle. So first I put the peppers through the food processor with few spoonsful of chicken stock for a bit of depth and a handful of almonds for a bit of nubbly bite. I cooked a little minced shallot in a bit of olive oil, then added the pepper mixture and cooked it down, spiced with a little sweet paprika, a tiny touch of tomato paste, and of course salt. In another pot I cooked down some nice local heavy cream (a real waste of non-ultrapasteurized cream, cooking it like that, but what can you do) until it was thick and syrupy. Both sauces were poured over the ravioli, like so:

Now, I was pretty damned proud of this dish, because it came out just as I had imagined it. The ravioli stayed front and center, but the sauce didn't get lost, and the two sauces gave each bite a different balance, which kept it interesting. Also, I felt like the almonds made all the difference, adding some necessary texture to what could have been too soft a dish. But J. thought that it wasn't "restaurant-worthy" because he thought people would be put off but what seemed like a disconnect between the extremely refined, smooth ravioli and the slight rough, peasant feel of the pepper sauce. Hmm..... Nope, still not buying it. In my imaginary restaurant, we serve this. Posted by Picasa

Monday, October 16, 2006

Table for one

In The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (the follow-up to the Moosewood Cookbook and one of the first cookbooks I ever owned), Molly Katzen encourages single eaters to treat themselves as they would company, offering this example:

I once knew an old woman who had lived alone for many years and had really mastered the fine art of eating alone.She would never eat while standing half-way into her refrigerator, poking her fork into random jars. She always set a place for herself, sat down, and dined elegantly, if simply. She wouldn't even munch on pickles without first arranging them on an attractive little serving plate.


I can't say that I've achieved anything like that woman's elegance in living alone, though on some level I do admire it. But when I eat alone, and I often eat alone, I tend to eat odd, disjointed meals, often spread out over an hour or two, particularly when it comes to dinner, a meal I'm never hungry for when I should be. Workday night dinner might be a pile of greens, steamed, then toast. A little later, an apple. A bowl of Grapenuts, a pear, two handful of walnuts, a piece of chocolate. Sometimes the meals are terribly imbalanced: toast and crackers and a roll; or cheese and ham and a yogurt. I figure it doesn't matter much, since my diet overall is fine. But I would never serve another person a meal like that.

Mollie Katzen would no doubt tell me that I don't value myself enough. She was a hippie, after all. But I don't think that's it. Generally, I like living alone, like spending time alone. I disliked being married in part because I never had any time to spend alone. I imagine being that old woman who has lived alone for many years without fear or sadness. But dining, versus eating, still does seem to me a social act. You can eat alone, and there can be great pleasure in that. John Thorne opens his great book Outlaw Cook with a description of the secretive pleasures of food consumed alone, out of sight, in bed at night or in the kitchen while the rest of the family remains at the dining room table. Regular meals, when you live alone, can have a touch of that transgressive appeal. You can eat your pasta from the pot. You can eat a whole pickle with your fingers. No one is watching! But go too far down this road, and things become depressing. You're left standing in your bathrobe, eating ice cream from the tub. So you try to maintain a degree of decency, sit at the table, eat from a plate.

But pulling out the crystal relish dish for solo pickles has its own pathos. To serve oneself as company feels like playacting. We cook ultimately for each other, as a way of nurturing each other, giving our loved ones pleasure in what is after all a bare necessity. Our need to cook is bound deeply to our need to nurture, to take care of those we love. I am not what one would call nurturing - I haven't a scrap of maternal instinct - but even I feel that.

All of this is by way of saying my boyfriend has been out of town, and I haven't cooked a proper meal in a week. I've made beef stock; I took a nice trip out to the great Armenian markets of Watertown; I cleaned out the fridge; I've eaten many excellent honeycrisp and mutsu apples, the first good pears, and some lovely market Brussel sprouts. But no real cooking, no meals to report.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Pumpkin lasagne, evolution of a dish

AKA, Recipes? I don't need no stinkin recipes?

So, about two years ago, I had an experience I think other cooks will understand. I starting craving a dish I had never tasted. Nothing outlandish or even unusual, just something I had never happened to make or eat. I wanted pumpkin lasagne.

I knew just what it should be. Pureed pumpkin, mixed with egg and milk to enrich and improve the texture. Browned Italian sausage, with fennel. A little bechamel. Mozz and Parm. And pasta, of course. And, lo, I made it, and it was good.

The next time I made it, I skipped the mozz and really piled on the sauce. I also spiced the pumpkin with lots of nutmeg and a little cinnamon. That version worked, too.

This weekend, I wanted to make it again. But I wanted the flavor of sage, not fennel, because I had had a nice sage-butter sauce over squash ravioli in recent weeks and the sage had lingered in my mind. No problem, sage and plain ground pork. But when I went to buy the cans of pumpkin,* I hit a snag. The masses must have been out in force, making the curried pumpkin soup every magazine features in their October issue. No pumpkin in the store. Okay, I'll use squash. And no mozz this time. A little Parm on top will do. Then I hunted through my freezer to find I had used the last of my ground pork. Ground lamb? Ground beef? The Afghan restaurant down the street makes a nice pumpkin dish with a ground beef and yogurt sauce. Ground beef it was. But sage and beef and squash is a lot less sweet than fennel and pork and pumpkin. I wanted a little touch of autumnal sweetness. Caramelized onions. There we go. And it was good.

So, do I have a recipe for pumpkin lasagne? If I have a knife, and I replace the blade every odd year and replace the handle every even year, what is...

Well, here's the recipe that's working right now:

Caramelize two large onions in 2 T of butter. (You can cheat and do this overnight in the crockpot. I wouldn't for something really highlighting caramelized onions, because the liquid doesn't evaporate, so you don't get the same depth of flavor you can achieve with the hard-working method. But the onions play a supporting role in this dish. The crockpot is good enough for government work.) Mix 2 cans squash with one egg and 1/2 cup milk, season with salt and nutmeg and set aside. Brown 1 pound ground beef and season with black pepper (be generous) and salt and set aside. Mince sage (I used most of a package, two large sprigs, maybe 1/4 cup?). Mix together onions, sage and meat. Make a simple white sauce by cooking together 2T of butter and 2 T of flour, then whisking in 2 cups of milk and cooking until thick. Cook lasagne noodles. Layer, starting and ending with sauce, alternating between squash and meat with sauce layers. Sprinkle some Parm on top, and bake about 50 minutes on 350. Makes on big dish of nice-looking lasagne, and one of those messy "lasagne leftover" trays as well, about 1/3 as large. I suppose you could make the odds and ends tray look beautiful, if you don't mind messing with tradition. It's your call.

*Yes, canned pumpkin. As far as I'm concerned, there are only a handful of canned products worth buying. Canned tomatoes for sauce, coconut milk, chipotle chilies in adobe, Goya chickpeas and beans, and One Pie pumpkin. Real pumpkin is lovely for stuffing and whatnot, but for pumpkin puree, ease wins out every time.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Focus group

About once a year, I get paid $75 for giving my opinions to marketers. Given that my opinions aren't usually what they're looking for, I consider this "infiltration." Also, $75 for 1.5 hours work. My real job doesn't pay nearly that much and isn't nearly as fun either.

So tonight I got a screening call from the market research company. The topic of the survey was going to be something to do with sausage, and I had to answer a long list of questions about what I had cooked EVER:
"Fresh or uncooked chicken parts"
"Fresh or uncooked whole chicken"
"Fresh or uncooked turkey"
"Fresh or uncooked beef roasts or steaks"
"Fresh or uncooked pork roasts or chops"
"Fresh or uncooked duck or venison"
"Fresh or frozen vegetables such as sweet corn, peppers, onions or broccoli"
"Um, I'm sorry? Did you just ask if I have EVER cooked a vegetable, any vegetable ever?"
"Yes, ma'am"
"Well, sure, but can you tell me - has anyone ever said no to this question?"
"Oh, yeah, lots of people."
"Fresh or uncooked Italian pork sausage"
"Hotdo- oh, that's yes, everyone's cooked hotdogs."
Sigh again.
I didn't make the cut. Apparently you had to have bought and cooked "pre-cooked pork or breakfast sausage" or "pre-cooked turker or chicken sausage" or "pre-cooked beef sausage" and it's never occured to me to buy pre-cooked sausage.

Sorry I haven't been writing lately. I've not been cooking - a touch of the fall blues, a lack of inspiration. But this weekend is a long one, and there's a chill in the air, so I'm feeling the cooking itch. Maybe by Sunday I'll have something to report.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

In heaven, there ain't no beer, That's why we make it here

I have a thing for guys who brew. Or at least, I think I must. Why else would I keep giving guys brewing equipment?

You see, I gave my ex-husband a homebrew kit for Christmas one year, because he had said he wanted to try brewing. I should have know that wouldn't work out - he wasn't exactly the sort of guy who was interested in following through on hobbies that take time and effort. The box moved with us unopened through four apartments. Anyway, my boyfriend J. decided last year that he wanted to brew, so I toddled off to the homebrew store conveniently located just a few blocks away (Modern Brewer in Cambridge) and bought the man a brew kit for Christmas. Which then sat, gathering dust, in a corner of my apartment. Every once in a while I would roll my eyes and say something under my breath to the effect of "here we go again," but generally I tried not to bother him about it. God knows there are enough projects of my own sitting around the house, not finished or not even started. Shall we discuss watercolors? Or the sewing machine?

Moving on.

Finally, this weekend, J. decided it was time to brew. We were surprised that the initial part of the process went relatively quickly and easily. Of course, we're using a kit here, so there's no measuring or complications. Like a first time baker, we're learning the process before we start in on recipes. So we read the directions, sanitized the equipment, steeped the grains, added the malt, boiled the wort for a while, added the hops, boiled a little more, cooled as fast as we could, added the yeast and put the brewing bucket in a warm corner to do its thing.

Which it did not.

No bubbling in the airlock Sunday morning. Or Sunday night. By Monday morning, I had become convinced that the yeast, having aged in a corner of my living room through this summer's hellish heat spell, was dead-dead-dead-as-a-doornail-dead. So J. hauled over to the brew shop, got some more yeast (once given the blessing from the nice brewer-man to do so), added it to the bucket, and this morning.

Well, still no bubbles.

But look at what's going on tonight!
(Note: it's hard to get a photo of bubbles)

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Bubble action! The beer, she is alive!

*Disclaimer - I don't actually like beer. Really. I like wine, and hard cider, and calvados, gin, tequila, rum, and sometimes bourbon, and I really think that's enough. I could learn to like beer, I'm sure, but I can't see a good reason to. But I love the idea of making it. I am pretty much in favor of learning how to do everything myself, so when the apocalypse comes - which George Bush is doing his best to make happen ANY DAY NOW - I will be deeply valued for my skills and knowledge. It could happen.

Monday, September 25, 2006

One step at a time

Good news from the Boston Globe about dairy.

Good read

The New Yorker has a great article about the Food Network up online. I don't have cable, and my exposure to the Food Network has been mercifully limited. I'm always amazed at how interested the online food community seems to be in these shows, which don't really appeal to me at all. But I do love the recent DVD sets of the French Chef.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Saturday's dinner

Well, this is a "cheese sandwich" kind of post.* So be it. The roast is from Simca's Cuisine, and some of the directions seemed a little off to me (I think the final cooking shoudl have been uncovered, for example), but the flavor was great. She calls for a pork loin roast larded with ham or tongue. I couldn't find a larding needle in any of the four stores I visited, including China Fair, which has such niceties as a spaetzle maker and a croissant-cutter, from which I restrained, but with delight that someone in Boston is making spaetzle and croissants. Anyway, the larding started to seem overwhelming, and the loin was so expensive, I just bought a pork sirloin roast, which comes with its own damned fat, but doesn't look as nice when sliced (see above). I followed her instructions to paint with mustard, then roll in brown sugar, and then brown - at least, up until the browning part. A roast covered in lots of mustard and brown sugar doesn't so much brown as simmer. After the "browning" you add a little bourbon, then light it, which was great fun, if a little scary. Foot-high flames from the pot! Exciting cooking adventures! Bouillon, cover, into the oven, cook cook cook, turn, salt, pepper, cook some more, then add prunes which have been soaked in more bouillon, cook just a bit more, remove meat, more whiskey into the sauce and a little arrowroot and voila! Deliciousness. Even without browning. Prunes and pork, always a winner.

*For those of you who don't read a few dozen cooking blogs a day, somebody wrote a piece a while back about how bad most food blogs are, characterizing the great number of them as "I had a cheese sandwich for lunch today" sort of affairs. In response, the food blogger community posted an enormous number of essays about cheese sandwiches, which I found charming. A "cheese sandwich" post has come to describe a post that lacks any sort of thinking or interest, just a quick description of something someone ate for lunch or, as in this case, dinner. Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Boston Mycological Society

In the fall, when the air in New England becomes crisp again, when the twilight falls early, I can feel nostalgia for the dream of academia I once held. You see, I remember when I believed that college would be like the old books I would read set in Oxford, anywhere between the early 1800s and the Second World War. There would be late nights of deep intellectual conversation, fascinating characters, professors with passion and wisdom and devotion to the great thoughts of man. People would sip sherry and quote in Latin. I would walk with the spirits of the great minds who had walked the ivy-edged paths before me.

Well, college wasn't so much like that, but there were some late nights, and some quoting (if not in Latin) and some places that were magical, like the observatory or the book-filled attic office of my favorite professor, a man equally devoted to poetry and opera. Wesleyan had enough of the old spirit to let me retain a romantic attachment to the idea of academe.

What ruined things for me was Harvard.

I work at the School of Public Health, and a less romantic place has never been found on this earth. The building was thrown up in the great ugliness-construction efforts of the 60s and 70s. It is charmless. The people are intelligent and earnest and do good work for the world, but the idea of the passionate intellectual, the man or woman devoted to ideas, the Renaissance scholar who may specialize in one field, but reads broadly and deeply from across the body of human knowledge, the professional scholar who remains an enthusiastic amateur naturalist or gourmand or musician, Nabokov with his butterflies - well, that is gone, my friends, dead and buried by the pressures of publication and specialization. The brilliant scholars watch American Idol with everyone else, read Tom Clancy, eat from the cafeteria, and churn out work with an eye to the next conference, the next publication, the next award, the next research grant. Eccentricity can not thrive in this environment. It is tiring and dull.

But even at Harvard, the slickest academic institution around, there can be little places, little moments, in which the ghosts of older academe whisper again. Tonight, I went to the Harvard Herbarium for a meeting of the Boston Mycological Club, and I heard them singing.

The Boston Mycological Club is not strictly a Harvard organization, but its links to Harvard are strong, and they are permitted to meet on Harvard grounds. The club is the oldest amateur mushroom society in the country. They get together for walks in the woods to collect mushrooms, then they use their collective expertise for identification. I signed up for a four-night course of lectures on mushroom identification, their recommended introduction to the world of mushroom gathering.

The room was not an elegant one. I had hoped the Herbarium would be located in the lovely old building that houses the Peabody Museum, but it was next door in a much later, less attractive structure. No matter. The interest of the people there, their obvious pleasure in learning more about a subject they care about passionately, was a thrill. I was, not surprisingly, one of the youngest people there. About half of the attendees, and nearly all of those pointed out as good sources of information, were in their fifties or sixties of beyond. Many wore unfashionable moustaches. One expert looked like a white-haired Johnny Fever, an aged hippie who probably became interested in mushrooms for reasons best left ignored; another seemed the embodiment of the research scientist, enthusiastic and a little nerdy. The older woman who watched the door was delicate and birdlike, with lively eyes. The thirty- and forty-somethings generally had European accents.

One exception, besides myself, was a couple in their late thirties who had just come back from a trip to Italy. They clearly had food on the mind, which naturally was why I was there as well, but something about such a straightforward desire felt almost unseemly. Other people showed great interest in spore patterns and so forth; a real amateur naturalist would surely not look at the fascinating variety of colors, forms, and growth patterns laid out on the table of specimen and think only "dinner." But that doesn't mean the love the real mushroomers had for mushrooms was cold and intellectual. They stroked the gills, smelled the caps, took one bunch into the closet to see if it still glowed (!), and, yes, rhapsodized about the pleasures of the best eating mushrooms.

I walked out into the chill air with dual dreams: of afternoons spent wandering in the woods, comparing notes on species with quirky characters, consulting field guides and making very serious noted in a special leather-bound journal, and of sautéed wild mushrooms over pasta with thyme and cream. A proper Renaissance gal would want no less.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Whisper in his ear all her favorite fruits and the most exotic places they are cultivated...

I like nearly all fruits. Even my exceptions I don't actually believe to be exceptions - that is, I am convinced that if I lived somewhere where guavas grew, I would have the opportunity to try an excellent guava and would come to love them as much as I do pretty much every other fruit. That said, I have a fresh fruit hierarchy, like anyone else. Someone blogged about his or her fruit favorites list sometime in the last week (but I've forgotten who, so I can't credit.) At any rate, all things (like ripeness and peak-of-season perfection) being equal, my fruit ranking would be thus:

The top, the top, Tower of Pisa:
Black cherries, blackberries, red raspberries, blueberries, figs, pomegranates, pears, apples, passionfruit.

Still excellent, but not quite as adored:
Plums, peaches, mangoes, Concord grapes, strawberries, pineapple, lychee, melons.

Very nice and all, but I won't go out of my way for them:
Green or red grapes, guava, papaya, starfruit, grapefruit, rhubarb.

I expect the most surprising thing in this list is the relatively low placement of those two universally adored fruits, strawberries and peaches. It's not that I don't like them: I do. But I don't get the same thrill from them that I do from the "A" list fruits, except under the right circumstances.

The right circumstances for peaches have been coming fast and furious in the last few weeks.

Some years are better for one fruit or another. Last year was a great year for pears. This spring was lousy for strawberries, but this year's peach crop has been fantastic. J. brought me three beautiful peaches this weekend, so juicy I had to eat them over the sink, sweet and perfumed. And last weekend, I made these little peach cobblers. There's something about having your own individual serving of cobbler that is particularly satisfying. Nothing special to the recipe, just a standard drop biscuit dough, unsweetened, over peaches lightly sweetened, thickened with a small amount of tapioca, and flavored with just a squeeze of lemon juice. I like to bake the peaches for about 15 minutes before covering with the dough, which gets sprinkled witha little sugar. As you can tell from the picture, these spilt over a bit in the oven, but they were plenty juicy anyway.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Reader, let's talk.

I don't know if anyone has ever successfully found a job lead through a blog, but it's worth a try. I am looking for a job, and I would be thrilled to hear about any possibilities my brilliant readers might know of.

A little background: I am a graduate of Wesleyan University ( English) and the Culinary Institute of America (Baking and Pastry Arts). I spent some time working in kitchens, but have spent the last six years at Harvard as something of a factotum for a research group. My official title is "data coordinator," but that involves some research, some writing, some database development, some website management, some project management. I would like to find a job that would allow me to pursue my passion: the promotion of sustainable agriculuture, the development of relationships between farmers and consumers, the building of strong and healthy communities through the remarkable medium of our meals. I am ready to leave the city and would ideally be interested in a job somewhere in Vermont, NH, Western Massachusetts or southern Maine.

If you think you know of a job to which I might be suited, please email me at kjweldonatyahoodotcom. Thanks.

Tomato-Leek Tart

Everyone's doing it, the tomato tart. But how can I resist? This is classic late summer food. I don't follow a recipe, just work with what's around, but I might want to remember this version, because it worked out particularly well. I roasted some excellent local cherry tomatoes and plum tomatoes in the oven along with two leeks. No spicing but salt at that point. The next day I made the cornmeal crust from Nick Malgieri's How to Bake (3/4 cup each white flour and cornmeal, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp baking powder, mix, use food processor to cut in 6T butter, then bind together with one beaten egg and chill). I lined the pan with the crust, brushed the crust with beaten egg white (helps keep the crust from getting soggy), threw it in the freezer for ten minutes, then baked it blind for about 10-15, while I prepared the filling. I had about half a package of cream cheese to use up, so that went into the food processor, then two eggs and some milk. Maybe 1/2 cup? And lots of thyme. Poured this into the partly-baked crust, lay the leeks on top and the tomatoes on top of that, and baked until the crust was browned and the filling set. I used some more of the Gray's Grist Mill cornmeal, which made the crust actually taste like corn, and of course roasting the tomatoes concentrated their flavor, so the result was very nice. I would like to try a corn on corn tart before the summer is out - cornmeal crust and fresh corn filling, but I'm not sure about the compliementary flavor. Bacon? Can't go wrong with bacon... Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 28, 2006

Maine Report Part Five: Bartlett Winery

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On the final day of vacation, a few of us went to the Bartlett Winery in Gouldsboro for a tasting. And we ended up buying, um, a little wine...

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That was just what came home with J. and myself (minus a bottle that's already been given to a friend). Another in the party bought a case on her own.

I think some of the others thought we had gone a little crazy. The Bartlett winery is a fruit winery, you see, and the wines we bought were made from blueberries, pears, raspberries, blackberries, apples and peaches. The reputation of fruit wines is humble to say the least. At best someone might have a fond recollection of a grandparent's elderberry or dandelion wine. At worst, people think of Boone's.

Bartlett's wines are real wine. The dessert wines are sweet, but not syrupy, with bold clear fruit flavors. The dry wines are genuinely dry and crisp, with varying degree of fruit. In some of the whites, the pears or apples could pass for grapes; in the blueberry wines, the blueberry flavor comes through, but with the complexity of a grape wine. These are not souveniers for tourists; these are serious wines, and I was thrilled to try them. To me, this represents the best of the locavore impulse: the creative, intelligent use of locally-grown materials to create a fine product that tastes of the place of its origin.

Also, the woman who was pouring was very nice, and the winery itself is lovely. If you're ever up in that area, do try to visit.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Maine Report Part Four: The Goats

The place we rented was a cottage owned by, and located on, Painted Pepper Farm, a maple syrup and goat farm in Steuben, Maine. The farm is owned by a lovely couple who raise chickens and goats (and daughters), as well as tapping maple syrup, growing some vegetables, making maple-syrup nuts and granola, and picking berries. They sell their products on the honor system from a farm stand attached to their house. The maple syrup items are inside, and outdoors there's a refrigerated case for the eggs, goat's milk yogurt and an odd watermelon or pint of blackberries.

We were surprised to learn that they do not make goat cheese. All their milk is used either fresh or in yogurt - amazing, rich, sweet yogurt. Their herd is made up exclusively of Nigerian dwarf goats, which produce a lovely milk, but not much of it. The milk makes great, but prohibitively expensive, goat cheese, so they focus on the yogurt. Actually, the yogurt was pretty pricey, too - I don't know if that was entirely due to the price of the milk, or if the elegant glass containers pushed the price up significantly. In any case, the quality of the yogurt justifies the price, and apparently their herd has quite a following. People drive several hours up the coast to stock up.
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The goats were charming animals, very interested in our comings and goings. They loved to have their heads scratched, and one would respond to attentions by making a noise deep in his throat very much like a purr. There were one-week-old babies that left us weak-kneed. (Okay, they left ME weak-kneed).
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We city-slickers also learned a few things about goat-raising. First important lesson: the billy goats will start to smell - the stinkiest goat-cheese smell - just before breeding time, and if you pet them at that point, your hands will smell for days. We avoided the petting, but we can verify the stink. Also, the vigorous headbutting that was going on in the new mothers' pen occurs every time a new goat is added to the group. The structure of dominance needs to be determined. Sadly, Peppermint Patty, the new goat to the group the first night of our vacation, ended up clearly at the bottom of the herd. She failed to headbutt with proper vehemence.

So far, none of these goats have ended up in goat stew. The farm is expanding its herd, so females kids are welcome to stay. The boys are sold as pets - apparently, their size make them popular for 4H club members, and some people like to keep them as company for horses. Learn something new every day.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Soda - An interruption

I interrupt the ongoing Maine report (oh, yes, there is more!) to bring you this article about soda making people fat. Okay, so this is hardly news. But my favorite part is this line, which seems to have been the pull-quote for almost every media outlet:

An extra can of soda a day can pile on 15 pounds in a single year.

I love that "extra." Don't worry, it's not your normal allotment of soda that's the problem, it's extra soda. Somebody should have spent a little more time working up the press release.

Maine Report Part Three: Roadside Stands

I lost my copy of the Jane and Michael Stern's Roadfood in my divorce, and it still makes me bitter. I have the new version, but I was attached to that copy that had travelled with me to so many drive-ins and clam shacks, diners and hot dog stands. I love road food, love the simple, strong flavors, the sense of joy and freedom of eating with your hands at a picnic table next to your car. Lobster fettucine has its place, but so do clam rolls. Particularly clam rolls made with fresh, big-belly clams.

Here's a plate of fried seafood to make you weep. Scallops, clams, shrimp, and under all that, a big slab of haddock. All fresh and local. All amazing.
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All that fried deliciousness was bought here:

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Notice the locally-made blueberry pies and cakes on the table in front of the menu. I dare any foodnik to drive by without stopping.

Sometimes, though, you just want a hot dog. This one, from a different stand, was rather alarmingly red:
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I saw the same hot dogs for sale at the fish shop later in the trip. J. asked the woman behind the counter what made them so red. In her heavy Maine accent, speaking very slowly, she replied, "They just come in that way." The mystery remains...

Maine Report Part Two: Seafood

"That don't have this in Austin." That was the review of a Texan in our vacationing group.

The blueberry may mean Maine to Mainers, but to out-of-states, lobster means Maine and Maine means lobster. And it's true that if you've only eaten frozen or pre-cooked lobster, or even lobster from a tank at a supermarket, the lively, just-out-of-the-ocean seabugs you can get in Maine are a revelation.

We took a lobster-fetching trip to Jonesport, about a half-hour ride up Route 1 from where we were staying in Steuben. Jonesport is a working fishing town, small and picturesque. To buy lobsters, you go down to the fisherman's co-op dock at about 5 at night when the boat comes in. You call down your request to the lobsterman, soft or hard shell and the number of pounds or number of lobsters. Then he takes the lobsters out of the underwater holding crates, weighs them up, puts them in a bag, and drags himself with his delicious bundle across to the stairs on a float. We paid $7/pound for hard-shell.

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Once home, the water should be put on the moment you walk in the door. Once you have a full boil, you're just six minutes away from seafood perfection.


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We bought more lobsters than necessary for that first dinner, because nothing feels better than knowing you have leftover lobster in the fridge. All the carcasses, minus the liver, were put back in the pot to make stock. I simmered the shells for over an hour, then put the stock in the fridge and went to bed. The next day I removed the shells and simmered the stock down a bit more, until it was rich and condensed. We had enough shells to get two quarts of very flavorful stock.

For the second lobster dinner, I made sausage and lobster fettucine, a surefire winner. I'll try to give a recipe here, but really, I winged it, so this is not very precise:

Lobster-Sausage Fettucine
1.5 boxes fettucine (cook usual way)
Three lobsters-worth of meat, in large chunks
About a quart of rich lobster stock (if you don't have tons of extra shells from an earlier lobster dinner, you could use some shrimp shells to increase the flavor of your stock)
About eight sweet Italian pork sausages
1 tsp thyme
A shallot (I didn't have this, but have used in the past)
1 pint light cream
1 Tb. butter
1 Tb. flour
A little white wine or sherry
Pepper, salt, a pinch of sweet paprika

Crumble the sausage and brown in a little oil (or do as I did and use the butter in which the lobster had been dipped). Remove and drain. Pour off fat. Melt butter, add thyme, (add minced shallot briefly if using), then add the flour and cook roux to remove raw flavor of flour, about 30 seconds. Whisk in stock and cook until slightly thickened. Add cream and cook a few minutes more. Add lobster and sausage and heat until warmed through. Add wine, salt and pepper to taste, and paprika if the color needs improvement. Taste, make adjustments, pour over fettucine and serve.

Lobster is of course not the only seafood available in Maine. The last night of vacation, I used the last of the lobster stock in a chowder - J.'s favorite chowder, in fact, beating out clam.

Crab and Corn Chowder, roughly (all measurement are estimates)

1 pound crab meat (can use body meat)
6 ears corn
1 quart lobster stock
2 bay leaves
1 tsp celery seed
3 strips bacon
1 1/2 very large white onions
About a dozen smallish potatoes
1 pint light cream
1 tsp smoked paprika
Lots of black pepper, a little salt

Remove the kernels from the ears of corn. Put the cobs into a pot with the lobster stock and simmer at least 1/2 hour.
Brown the bacon, remove. Use the fat from the bacon to cook the onions. Add the potatoes and give them a few turns in the fat as well, maybe two minutes. Add the celery seed and smoked paprika and cook about thirty seconds more. Then add the stock and bay leaves and simmer on low until the potatoes are cooked. Add the crabmeat and corn kernels, plus the cream and allow to heat through. Taste and season with salt, pepper.

Both recipes serve about eight normal people, or six who have spent all day hiking up a mountain.

I served the chowder with Nigella Lawson's watermelon-feat-mint salad, some grilled vegetables, grilled scallops simply prepared with olive oil and pepper, and crabcakes. The crabcakes were pretty straightforward, just leg and claw meat bound together with a little egg and bread crumbs, spiced with Penzey's Northwoods seasoning, browned in butter, then topped with avocado, lime and red onion. The scallops were from Nova Scotia, not far away in those parts and the best source of scallops in the world. They were marvelously sweet.

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One member of the group had a piece of swordfish, but it's worth noting that in Maine, seafood mostly means shellfish and haddock. Other fish are caught in the local waters, including salmon, but scallops, lobster, shrimp, crab and even mussels, quahogs, and winkles seem to dominate over finfish, except for the ubiquitous haddock and the occasional cod.

That's fine by me. Despite the efforts of Beyond Salmon, I'm still a shellfish girl at heart.

Maine Report Part One: Blueberry Land

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Washington County, Maine produces something like 90% of the world's wild blueberries. If you hit the season just right (we were off by a few days this year), the fields along the road shimmer blue. In the fall, the berry bushes turn vibrant red. It's a lovely place.

Wild blueberries, in case you're unlucky enough only to have had the big, cultivated type, are tiny, a pain to pick (though they can be raked with a special device that catches the berries in a pan) and incredibly flavorful. They are also really good for you. They're high in antioxidants, I assume in part because they have such a high skin-to-flesh ratio. The good people at Wyman's, the major player in wild blueberries and a big employer in Washington County, have realized health benefits make for a good marketing opportunity. In recent years their wild blueberries have been made available frozen in the supermarket year-round, as well as in the form of juice, and of course the canned pie filling they have always sold retail. This is altogether a good thing, but, given the ease of acquiring wild blueberries in the last few years, I thought I would be less excited than I used to be about being in the wild blueberry capital during the peak season.

I was wrong.

The people of Washington County have embraced the blueberry. The blueberry represents Maine as much as the moose or the lobster - maybe not to people "from away", but within Maine, there is no question. Blueberry pancake breakfasts are offered at every church and lodge. There's the big wild blueberry festival in Machias, with pie-eating contests, the blueberry musical, a blueberry run, and the annual raffle of a blueberry-themed quilt made by the women of the town. And then there's Wild Blueberry Land, a fantastic piece of roadside kitsch selling all things blueberry.

What I found particularly charming about Wild Blueberry Land (besides the building itself, of course) was that the blueberry items were all pretty good. Sure, there were some nationally sold brands that just happened to have offerings in blueberry flavors, like a blueberry iced tea. But there were locally-made blueberry pies (excellent), scones (also very good), muffins (average), truffles (the chocolate was high-quality and the blueberry fondant filling was bright and fresh in flavor), as well as very good blueberry ice cream from Giffords, a Maine brand.

In case you think that's all the blueberry products anyone should expect to find in Washington county - well, think again. Our group of vacationers decided to have a contest the last night to determine who had consumed the most blueberry items. I blush to declare myself the winner, the blueberry queen, as it were. In order to achieve such heights, I had to consume (or at least taste) raw blueberries, a blueberry scone, a blueberry muffin, French toast with blueberry compote, blueberry wine, blueberry ale, blueberry milkshake, a blueberry truffle, blueberry jam, blueberry soda, blueberry ice cream, blueberry banana bread, and blueberry coffee cake. But I did not even get a chance to try chocolate-covered dried blueberries, blueberry pancakes, blueberry tea, blueberry liqueur, blueberry sorbet, blueberry whoopie pies (!), blueberry mimosas and blueberry cheesecake. Clearly, I have goals to reach in my next visit.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Party food

This weekend my siblings and I hosted a 45th wedding anniversary/70th birthdays party for my parents. I catered, so that meant all the cooking I’ve done since the end of the Eat Local challenge has been party-related.

For financial and logistical reasons, I knew I was not going to be able to buy locally for this event, but I found that I was mostly unable to bring myself to purchase regular supermarket meat or eggs. So the produce was Haymarket (not a farmers’ market, for you non-Bostonians, but a big open-air market of regular commercial produce of mixed quality but rock-bottom prices), but most everything else came from local Italian markets or Whole Foods. Strangely, though I wanted to use organic pork, I still couldn’t bear to use my great heritage, pastured pork on people who were unlikely to appreciate it. (“I am large, I contain multitudes.”)

I’ll give ya’ll the menu, because it was actually one of my best-planned parties. I fed about 45 people at a reasonable price; everyone ate a lot and seemed to really enjoy the food; the food wasn’t too scary for a conservative crowd, but was not so cliché-ridden as to bore me; and everything was done and in place when the first guest arrived without any last-minute craziness. I think the mix of purchased and homemade items was just about right - enough homemade to give flair and warmth, enough purchased to make things easy.

Cheese plate: Generously provided as far, far below wholesale price by my friend A., the cheese salesman. There were about a dozen lovely cheeses.
A basket of breads, including a large whole wheat Tuscan loaf, a long crusty white, some soft rolls, a ring loaf, and a multigrain.
A tray of cold, sliced roasted meats: a boneless pork rib roast, a pair of beef eye or round, and a half-turkey. I rubbed the pork simply with black pepper and salt, the beef with black pepper, salt, and celery seed, and the turkey with Penzey’s fabulous Northwoods Fire Seasoning.
An assortment of condiments, including (semi) homemade artichoke/caper spread, fig/caramelized onion spread, and horseradish spread, plus purchased tapenade, mustards, and mayo.
A vegetable platter made up of steamed green beans in basil oil, steamed asparagus, roasted tomatoes, roasted peppers, and a ruffle of prosciutto slices.
Purchased olives and pickled onions and homemade marinated mushrooms.
A fresh fruit tray with grapes in three colors, cherries in two colors, cantaloupe and honeydew slices, and some fresh figs, sliced in half and hit with the torch,
Devilled eggs. (Why do people love these so much? They were the first item gone.)
Two 12 inch cakes: one raspberry-almond, the other chocolate.
Purchased ice cream and homemade berry compote.

People ate pretty much everything. The spreads, which I hoped would elevate the simple cold-cuts-and-bread arrangement, probably were used the least. I think part of this was logistic: people circled in the opposite direction from what I had expected, so they hit the spreads before the meats. The fig and onion, which was simply a matter of caramelizing onions and folding them into purchased Dalmatia fig spread, was the most popular, and with good reason. It was delicious. But I think overall, people are more afraid of mixing together flavors than I expected. They weren’t sure what meat went with what spread, or if they were supposed to use the spreads with the meats at all, or just on the bread, so they skipped over the spreads entirely. Lesson learned. Next time I do something along these lines, I’ll either make the sandwiches myself or include suggestions on the labels for the spreads.

People ate less fruit that I would have expected, too. But they ate more vegetables – the roasted tomatoes were gone in a flash, and the asparagus and peppers soon after. There were beans left over, but I had made an awful lot of beans. The three meats seemed to go over equally; no distinct preferences were shown. Everyone ate the meat, but not with the excitement I think they would have had the crowd been younger. For the under-forty set, home-roasted meat is a comparative rarity, but for these folks it was nothing particularly special, though still a definite step up from deli cold cuts. The cheese was a big deal, though. Some people just stood there and noshed.

The raspberry almond cake was a huge hit. I used the Martha Stewart wedding cake recipe from Baking with Julia, brushed with amaretto syrup, then filled with raspberry jam, raspberries, and a plain traditional buttercream. People went back for seconds and thirds, which was gratifying. The chocolate cake was not ignored, but in the end, about a third was left – the raspberry-almond had been annihilated. The ladies loved the marzipan flowers and bees, a comparatively simple decoration that always goes over well. I like it because I do the marzipan work ahead and just place the flowers on the cake that morning.

My sister took pictures, but I forgot my camera, so I’ll post when she forwards hers along. That probably won’t be for another week – I’m off on vacation to Maine, where I expect to eat local vegetables and seafood and all sorts of good stuff. I’ll be renting a cottage from a goat/maple syrup farm, so I intend to take lots of pictures and come back with all sorts of food tales. See you then.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Reinventing the pig

This story is a little frustrating. I mean, I'm glad they want to breed some fat back into pigs. That's great. But Tamworth, Berkshire, and other heritage breeds already have enough fat. Of course, some of them won't thrive in a 2 foot by 4 foot cage, so we better rely on technology to avoid having to change our system...

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Organic at the bodega

There's a really interesting article in today's Salon (you have to do the day pass thing to read it) about programs designed to bring fresh produce into inner cities. It's a hard battle, but there's some progress showing.

The farmers' market I go to with the most regularity is the tiny, two-stall one in Mission Hill, just down the block from my office. Although most of the people that use the market seem to be employees of the hospitals around the corner, many shoppers do seem to be local residents, some of whom pay with food stamps. Although some of the items (tomatoes, fruit) are more expensive than their grocery-store equivalents, the big bunches of greens, beets, squash and so on are very reasonably priced and provide a lot of nutrition to the dollar.

My mother works for a food pantry at her church that receives donated fresh produce from a local farm. Unfortunately, a lot of it goes to waste. It's not that people won't take fresh vegetables; it's that they won't take fresh vegetables they don't know how to cook. Many of the people who use the pantry are from South America or the Carribean. The farmer is Italian. The fashionable arugula and fennel he grows for his upscale clientele are completely foreign to the people at the pantry (and to my Irish mother for that matter, who calls me with questions: I've got this thing that has long frilly leave attached to a white stalk that kind of bulges at the bottom like a garlic, but flat - what do I do with it?). The cultural disconnects are as problematic as the logistics. But both can be overcome.