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.