Thursday, December 30, 2010
The following conversation, while not actually made up (mostly), was edited. The dialogue at the time was stilted and improbable, possibly even more so that what I write here. If my life were a movie, the script would be sent back for serious revisions to the self-indulgent dialogue. Most of my friends are just as bad. Some of them are worse.
The Tall Guy and I are walking down one of the residential streets in South Anchorage near the Bluff. I'm in my gigantic black parka. The Tall Guy is pacing along crane-like beside me looking meditative*.
"We look like cultists."
The Tall Guy's look of meditative inquiry became more inquiring.
"We could knock on doors. 'Excuse me, ma'am, have you heard the good news about George MacDonald?'"**
"Have you let the Lord Peter Wimsey into your life?***"
"Good one, if I had one of my omnibus editions with me it would look like a Bible. 'Can I interest you in twentieth century literary modernism? If you have any questions, we'd be glad to come back and talk with you about W.H. Auden.'"
We've been friends for a long time.
*The Tall Guy's default expression seems to be meditative inquiry. My default expression looks a lot like a scowl. Some people might suspect that this was indicative of our characters.
**A nineteenth century Scottish fantasist. I'm outrageously fond of some of his stories, and in the same breath driven to argue myself blue in the face with them. MacDonald being dead, I tend to direct my arguments at The Tall Guy, who bears patiently with my flights of literary criticism. If The Tall Guy and I were going to go around handing out literature that we found important, we would get in fights on people's doorsteps about which MacDonald we ought to be handing people.
*** If you read fiction, and suffer from a touch of Anglophilia, you ought to do so. I would suggest starting with Strong Poison or Murder Must Advertise.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
It's Christmas day here, and Christmas brunch at the Ervine house consists of too much coffee, and Grandma Ervine's coffee cake. Suddenly, I realized that I was restless (probably a result of the four or five cups of coffee). I needed to be moving, doing, I could not sit still one more minute. I announced that I was going for a walk. No one wanted to come, even though it's warmed up to six degrees above zero -- and the sun hadn't set yet. (Anchorage in winter is a land of austerities and you take your luxuries where you find them.)
Before I left, Dad asked me to go out into the back yard, and shake the lilac tree* which was bowed under the weight of the week's snow fall. I went and did exactly that. Unfortunately, the best way to shake the lilac tree is to stand right under it and shake the main trunks. Truthfully, I knew exactly what I was in for, but I shook the tree anyway. It took five minutes or so to get all the snow out. Much of the snow ended up down the collar of my silly looking "Help, it's the dead of winter in Alaska" down sleeping bag... er, parka. As long as I was outside that wasn't so bad. The snow was cold, but it was frozen. It was when I came inside to change from my pack boots to a pair of heavily insulated hiking boots (more comfortable for walking) that I realized the extent of the problem. The snow melted and ran down the back of my shirt in my own personal Niagara. Apparently carrying with it a multitude of dried lilac blossoms. Which itch.
I then went for the long walk, and watched the sun set. If I were a good blogger, I would have taken pictures. You'll just have to take my word for it that even though winter sunsets in Anchorage occur at 3:30, they are still some of the finest sunsets in the known world. I alternated thinking "it's freezing, why does anyone live here?" and "It's so beautiful, why do I live in Seattle?" Good questions both of them. Occasionally punctuated with "why does my back itch?"
*Yes, tree. It's almost as tall as the house. The house is two stories tall.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
I served the salmon cakes, along some bean soup and salad, to friends who came over for a Scrabble game.
Salmon Cakes with Feta
1 cup finely chopped onion (or one medium onion)
1 1/2-ish pounds salmon "burger meat" -- that is the skinned trimmings from filets and steaks. One could use a filet, but that seems like overkill. If you don't happen to have a pound or two of salmon odds and ends, I would definitely explore the canned option. Or one could use cheaper fish (and a different cheese).
3 slices of bread, crusts cut off
1/2 a cup of milk
OR a cup and a half of leftover mashed potatoes (Which is what I used -- making these cakes friendly for people with wheat issues)
2 tsp dried dill or 2 Tbsp fresh
a dash of garlic powder
A squeeze of lemon juice, salt, ground black pepper, cayenne to taste
Chunks of feta
Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sauté untill golden, stir them every few minutes to prevent burning. This will take somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen minutes.
If one does not have leftover mashed potatoes, tear up the bread into small chunks and place it in a small bowl with the milk, and let it soak for five minutes while you're doing other things.
While the bread is soaking and the onions turning golden, you will be breaking up the fish witha fork. When it's the consistency of tuna salad, wring out the bread, and add it along with the onions, the egg, the lemon juice, and other seasonings. (If you aren't using bread and milk, obviously you just skip the whole rigamorale and dump in the mashed potatoes.)
Form the salmon mixture into patties roughly four inches across. Layer on a large plate using waxed paper to separate the layers, and refrigerate for an hour to give them time to set up. (I think I ended up with eleven cakes last time.) In an emergency one can skip the chilling, but the cakes are more annoying than necessary to work with.
Preheat the oven to 350. (Or not, these are nice fried.)
If one is going to bake the cakes one ought to bake them for twenty five minutes, turning them at the mid-point and sprinkling them with a layer of feta.
Or one can fry them in oil at four minutes a side. Or one can bake them half way and finish them by frying.
Either way, they are tasty either by themselves, or as part of a sandwich.
Two apiece for adults seems to be the right number, if one is not serving them as sandwiches. If I were serving them as sandwiches, I would serve them in pita bread with tomatoes, lettuce, and tzatziki, or tahini and humus, or mayo if I didn't feel like making the former, and didn't have tahini and humus in the house.
After the night of Scrabble and salmon cakes, I had a cake left over. This evening I was rummaging through the kitchen in search of dinner for my parents and I. I found the salmon cake and some whole wheat pasta and the feta again. The result was uncommonly tasty.
Baked Penne with Salmon and Tomatoes
1 cup-ish whole wheat penne pasta or other suitable pasta, which is to say that members of the fettucini and spaghetti families are out.
2/3 cup milk or cream (I used 1%, but it would have been better with whole milk, and decadent with cream)
1 or 2 eggs (I used 1, but in retrospect I wished I'd used 2, especially with 1% milk)
1 1/2 - 2 tsp dried dill -- it so happens that I really like dill, if you don't-- a mixture of tarragon, oregano, and parsley, or any of them singly would be delish too. Mint also has its possibilities if one is feeling adventurous.
a couple of drops of hot sauce -- optional
a dash of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
2 tsp tomato paste (tomato paste in tubes is one of the better inventions of the twentieth century)
1/2 c minced onion
3/4 c finely diced tomatoes
1 leftover salmon cake (or other deck of cards sized piece of flavorful fish -- one could use rather less smoked salmon if one had that on hand)
1 c grated extra sharp cheddar -- may I recommend the Tillamook?
1 c feta
Preheat the oven to 350
Prepare the pasta according to the directions, especially if it's whole wheat pasta. I like normal pasta al dente. Whole wheat pasta al dente is like unto sawdust. This dish is not liquid enough to cover any pasta deficiencies, so go ahead and cook the whole wheat pasta for 13 minutes.
While the pasta is cooking, butter a medium size gratin dish.
Mix together everything on the ingredients list from the milk to the tomato paste. It will take some concerted beating to get the tomato paste to incorporate. Oh well.
Chop up the tomato and onion. You might mix them together, or even mix them together with the crumbled fish. Yes, you want to crumble the fish. There is not a lot of fish in the dish and you want the flavor to get around.
When the pasta is drained, spread half of it in a thin layer across the bottom of the baking dish.
Cover that layer with the tomatoes, onions, salmon, and half of the cheeses. Cover this layer with the other half of the pasta. Spread on the rest of the cheese. Pour the milk and egg mixture over the mound of goodness.
Bake for forty minutes, or until everything is bubbly and not too liquid.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
I'm home, which is to say that when I was doing dishes at eleven this morning the sun had just barely topped the southern mountains. (At this latitude in the winter, the sun rises in the south and sets in the south, and any other directional formulation is wishful thinking.) Last night we celebrated my brother's birthday. A delayed feast, he waited until I could be home to share it (or possibly cook it).
The menu featured a bone-in beef rib roast (if I could remember the proper name for it, I would tell you), mashed sweet potatoes (which have been discussed here ere now), Yorkshire pudding, gravy, and a big green salad to balance the enormity of our indulgences.
I have some philosophical opinions on salad-- namely a good salad should include a balance of sweet and savory, with some protein in it to give heft. I am inexplicably anti-creamy salad dressings. Last night's salad was butter crunch lettuce, apple, pecans, onions, and extra sharp cheddar with a port-pear vinaigrette. (One nice thing about cooking in my parents kitchen instead of my own: a better class of provender. A second nice thing: my parents have a dishwasher.)
I went for simplicity in the beef. I allowed it to sit out for a couple of hours, warming up to something resembling room temperature. I rubbed the seven pound monster with a bit of butter, and sprinkled it with an herb mixture -- the Tongass Blend from Summit Spice and Tea. I preheated to oven as high as it would go -- in this case 500 degrees. I placed the carcass on a rack in the smallest practicable roast pan (in order to minimize burning the drippings beyond use), and popped it in to the oven. I immediately turned the temp down to 350 and allowed it to cook unmolested until it achieved an internal temp of 150. (Some members of the family, including the birthday boy, inexplicably prefer their beef cooked past medium rare.) This took somewhere in the 2 and a half hour neighborhood.
On retrieving the gigantic hunk of beef from the oven, I made Yorkshire pudding, which I had never made before. I strongly suspect that I shall make it again. AND I shall share my recipe with you. While the pudding was baking I made a small vat of beef gravy.
1 heaping cup flour. (All purpose is probably the canonical choice, but I used a finely milled whole grain product that they sell at Costco, which if I recall correctly somewhere contains the words "super grain". It functions more or less or exactly like all purpose white flour, but has a richer nuttier taste and is theoretically better for us. I am clutching at any straws of nutritional respectability in the meal I am describing.)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
1/4 cup rendered beef fat (or other liquid fat, preferably with a high smoke point)
Combine the flour, salt, milk, and eggs in a blender or food processor, or a large bowl. Beat until smooth. Stick in the fridge for an hour to chill.
Preheat the oven to 350. (Assuming that you aren't cooking a roast of unusual size in it)
Pour your liquid fat of choice into a 9 in pie plate, or some other suitable receptacle. Place in the oven for 10-15 minutes. It needs to be really hot. Some recipes say smoking. I did not let it go that long on this outing. Next time...
Carefully pour the batter into the hot grease. It may spatter. Bake for 15-25 minutes,until puffed majestically and golden brown. Use it to sop up gravy. There should be lashings of gravy.
I suspect that in days ahead, I may just make up the pudding and some gravy (using stock) and skip the roast entirely.
Friday, December 17, 2010
1. Do not fry bacon with your shirt off, even if you have a job interview and you only have one clean shirt left. Eat a peanut butter sandwich instead.
2. When straining chicken broth, do not pour boiling broth on the hand that is holding the sieve.
3. Even if you're in Alaska, and fresh fruit costs the earth, even at Costco -- do not eat the apricots that are beginning to turn black. Projectile vomiting will ensue.
I'm thinking that it might be time for another safety rule.
Do Not Deep Fry Gnocchi.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
One can romanticize the depression. Goodness knows that creative artists have a long history of glamorizing their dysfunctions, or having their dysfunctions glamorized. But at the end of the day glamorous or not, it's still there. Everyday, and much worse in winter. Depression is exhausting, and managing depression is exhausting. It's hard to see glamor in something that if I am inattentive leads to being knee deep in squalor, with no idea how I got there and a deep conviction that even if I begin to improve things, I will just fail, so why bother? To say nothing of the fact that the wolves are going to eat the sun any minute now, so even if I succeed, it won't matter.
This year the frost giants are not so bad. They stomped through a couple of weeks ago, brought on by a week of rain and finals stress. But they left again. I hate to admit it, but not being in Alaska really helps. Longer days and milder weather mean more exercise. Exercise is one of the things I can do that actually helps. Frost giants hate long walks*.
Did you notice the silly word game I'm playing -- equating mental illness with a fragment of Norse mythology? It is intentional. If I think about depression as depression -- it becomes overwhelming, and something best treated with medications I can't afford. If I frame it in terms of frost giants, it is still a threat to all I hold dear, but it's something that can be fought -- something that I am bound to fight. This helps more than I can really believe.
*Frost giants also hate clean kitchens, baking, laughter, making things, singing, made beds, and friendship. Frost giants = no earthly fun at all.
Monday, December 13, 2010
Cheese puffs (or gougères, if one is a francophile) are simple, but also work. Totally worthwhile though, and your friends will be so impressed if you take them to a potluck, or serve them at a party. Further, they are based on what the French would call pâte á choux or cabbage pastry, because of the resemblance of cheese puffs to little heads of cabbage (if you're like me and eschew pastry bags whenever possible). Pâte á choux is a mindbogglingly useful skill if you want to make Swedish Coffee Cake -- and why wouldn't you? It's the best breakfast pastry in the known universe if you are an almond -- ahem -- nut. Or one could make profiterole, eclairs, or cream puffs. I'm a bit too basic and usually stick to cheese puffs.
Read everything, then read it again. No. Really. It won't take long and you'll be prepared for when your arm wants to fall off.
1 c. water
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 t. salt
scant 1/2 t Dijon mustard
1 c. whole wheat flour (or all purpose, either works)
1 c. grated Swiss cheese
heaping 1/2 c. grated Cheddar
1/4 t. nutmeg
loads of fresh ground black pepper, or to taste
Heat oven to 375
Place racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.
Butter two large cookie sheets.
Combine water, butter, mustard, and salt in a sauce pan of reasonable size (but not a huge one). A large cast iron skillet is not an awesome idea, trust me on this. Even if it seems like it's deep enough, it won't be.
Bring the mixture to a full boil over high heat. Measure the flour while you are waiting and read ahead in the recipe.
Reduce heat to moderate and dump in the flour all at once.
Stir vigorously. Use a wooden spoon. Vigorous stirring will not be easy, because the flour and water will form a very thick paste. Stir until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan -- about 30 seconds.
Keep stirring for another minute and a half to cook off excess moisture. This is not easy because of the cementlike quality of the dough. Persevere. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly -- 3 minutes or so. (I actually skipped this part by accident, which made the next step more harrowing than it need to be, that and the large skillet that I was using had lots of exposed hot surfaces, perfect for quick cooking eggs. I don't know how I didn't end up with the worst scrambled eggs ever -- probably force of will.)
Add the 5 eggs one at a time, beating well with each addition. Your arm will hate you. Just be glad you've got your trusty wooden spoon. It will be worth it. Excelsior.
The batter will appear to separate, but become smooth once beaten. It should be glossy and just stiff enough to hold soft peaks and fall softly from a spoon. Or that's what the Gourmet Cookbook says. My batter was stiffer and more opinionated than that (probably because of the whole wheat -- their recipe calls for all purpose flour).
Stir in the cheeses, nutmeg, and pepper.
At this juncture one could pipe the little darlings on to the cookie sheets. I have no truck with pastry bags, so I used a teaspoon measuring spoon and made little roundish heaps an inch apart on the cookie sheets.
Bake for 30 minutes, switching positions of cookie sheets at the fifteen minute mark. Or just bake them until they are puffed, golden, and crisp. Either way everyone will be very impressed.
Design school is the most difficult academic type thing I have ever done. This is speaking as someone who sailed through the upper division classes for her major and minor in college. I sometimes got stressed out or managed my time badly, but I never doubted my essential ability to do research and write a readable paper or draw interesting conclusions from my data. Academia holds very few terrors for me, but I do not love it enough to spend the rest of my life teaching and writing about 17th century literature, even though John Donne occupies a central place in my shrine to Dead White Guys I Have Loved.
Introduction to Design on the other hand makes my blood run cold. I think I might be in love. I have taught myself daunting computer programs and figuratively beat my brains out on my desk trying to do better. My self definition as a competent artist* is in tatters at the moment, and I would care more if I were not so determined to work my way to mastery at this. So far my efforts have met with far less success than another paper about the male gaze in the poetry of Elizabeth I's court.
So I have a standard of perfection that I am aiming at, and I keep missing it. It is frustrating. I want to get an A on my final. No, not just an A, I want a 4.0 on it. Losing that Saturday means that I lost a day of elaboration and thought. Even knowing that I had no choice -- I could not have physically got myself to the studio**-- does not help as much as I wish it did.
I want to be perfect, and knowing that I am not going to be calls up the insidious spirit of perfectionism. It says, "Why bother if you know you won't succeed?" There have been periods in my life when I would rather not turn in anything at all, than turn in what I thought was bad work. It doesn't help that this is the dark time of the year, and I always struggle when the days grow short. The voice of perfectionism says, "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." And I chime in with the chorus, "if I can't do it well, I won't do it."
This is not helpful. Somethings are too important to be held hostage to an unrealizable perfection. A couple of years ago, I heard someone I respect said, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." It took me a moment or two to work it out. I know her writing and art. From my point of view she does not do things badly. It occurred to me that maybe things worth doing are worth doing as well as I can whether or not I think that "as well as I can" is terrible. This was revelatory.
Unfortunately it's a lesson I have to keep relearning. Oh well.
From the commonplace book:
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft [or final project in design]. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it." -- Ann Lamott
“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” -- Samuel Beckett
*My self-definition as an artist has never been in doubt. If I can't paint well, I shall paint badly. If I can't paint at all, I shall write. If you take my pen and paper away, I will cook. If you take my kitchen too -- I will sing my head off, even if I have a sore throat. But really, why is this hypothetical "you" so determined to stop me making things?
** I managed to run a load of laundry on Saturday. I had to take a nap after I took the hamper down the hall. Walking a mile, or even just walking to the bus stop, was right out.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
It's hard being interested in the world on a day like today. I want to go back to bed and stay there -- even though I crawled out of bed on the early side this morning because ten hours horizontal is about all I can take. However, I have things that need doing. Rather a lot of things actually. I have finals to work on. I have an apartment to clean, which needs it rather desperately. So I must get on with it, even though my everything hurts, and I could quite reasonably start singing baritone.
Obviously under the circumstances the best choice is to write an exceedingly whiny blog-post.
In an attempt to redeem myself and justify the self-indulgent whining, I offer my favorite recipe for when I'm sick,. It's pretty tasty when I'm healthy too.
Savory Rice Porridge
1 cup or so good quality chicken broth, homemade is best, but not always available. In any case it should be something that actually tastes like chicken and vegetables were implicated in the creation of it.
1/4 cup rice
a sliver of butter (approximately a tea spoon) or an equivalent amount of chicken schmaltz (which you might be lucky enough on hand if you don't skim the fat off your chicken broth before you freeze it)
1 clove of garlic chopped in half
a smallish chunk of ginger root, or 1/2 tsp of powdered ginger, or to taste
salt and black pepper to taste.
Combine everything except the salt and black pepper in a sauce pan, bring to a boil.
Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the rice has broken down to a porridge consistency (an hour or more).
Discard the garlic.
Add the salt and pepper.
Eat while maintaining a pose of listless ennui. This may be difficult because it actually tastes good if you can deal with the texture.
In some cultures this is juk or congee, and a normal breakfast food, garnished with various exciting things.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
We watched Helvetica today in History of Design. Helvetica may or may not be the typeface of the Establishment. It may or may not be responsible for the Vietnam war. It may or may not be socialist. It is definitely a darn entertaining documentary, even if you're not a type geek.
Erik Spiekermann is one of my new favorite people. (The interview begins around the two minute mark, and really you should just go watch the movie.)
More Erik Spiekermann being awesome.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
I will confess straight away that the recipe I give here is not what I actually did. I was using leftover sweet potato coconut soup** as the liquid. If you want to make sweet potato coconut soup and then use that (and why not? sweet potato coconut soup is awesome) go right ahead.
I got the idea because as I was pouring a cup of cream into the scalloped sweet potatoes, I realized that only bringing that dish would exclude the aunt who is not on speaking terms (let alone eating terms) with lactose. I contemplated and decided to use the leftover soup as liquid and mash the rest of the sweet potatoes (I massively overbought sweet potatoes as I am wont to do).
Mashed Coconut Sweet Potatoes
3 lbs sweet potatoes
chicken or vegetable broth
ginger, paprika, black pepper, garlic, salt to taste
Fill a largish kettle with water, add a tea spoon of salt or so, and bring to boil on the stove
Peel and thinly slice the sweet potatoes.
Place them carefully in the boiling water, trying not to splash oneself. Wait for the water to reboil.
Boil for five minutes.
Transfer to a mixing bowl and add liquid using approximately three parts broth, to one part coconut milk. One might also employ the butter at this time if one is doing so. The amount of liquid and butter used is left to the personal taste and good judgement of the person doing the mashing. Just as the requisite amount of mashing is also left to their taste and judgement. Me? I like my mashed root vegetables a bit lumpy.
Add the spices to taste.
Transfer to a serving dish. Feed to an impressed crowd.
The attentive will notice that this leaves one with most of a can of coconut milk. May I suggest a coconut cinnamon latte while preparing the feast? Or one could make soup. Or piña coladas. Or a smoothie.
* I usually bring sweet potatoes if I tactfully can. I have very strong feelings about the use of marshmallows in non-combat situations.
** It's basically my coconut squash soup recipe with the addition of some smoked paprika and cayenne.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Friday, December 3, 2010
Yesterday afternoon, I walked home around 2:30. The sun had already begun the drop to the horizon. The low-angle light had the ineffectual pinkish quality that I associate with mid-Winter. My brain insisted that the cloudless sky and the thin sunshine meant that the temperature ought to be somewhere around zero. Even though I was only wearing a sweater and a vest, and did not feel in danger of losing body parts.
I checked the thermometer when I got to Chez Sarah and the instrument insisted that it was forty degrees in the sunshine. My eyes and brain insisted that they were Alaskan and, as such, knew better.
The picture above is not Seattle, that's the view from my parent's house a couple of days ago. My mom took it. The temperature in the picture is ten below. It's that quality of light that tells me that I need to go grab my warmest clothes. My bones knows that clear days are cold days.
Even when they aren't. Even when I spend the day hauling around coats I don't need. During the recent snow storm and cold snap, I spent a lot of time fighting with that instinct. I didn't pack my heavy parkas or snow boots. I didn't even need them. But on a dark night with the wind blowing, even though I knew the wind chill was only fifteen, I could not bring myself to sanguinely go to the grocery store. Too many English classes hashing over Jack London's "To Build a Fire."
Teachers would ask, "What is the conflict in the story?"
Alaskan kids always came back to not "man vs. nature" but "man vs. stupid." Always pack a hat and gloves. Always prepare for the worst. Don't leave shelter when the weather's marginal and you don't have gear.
I went to the grocery store anyway. I did not fall through the ice in a river. I didn't attempt to build a fire under a spruce tree and have the warming spruce dump it's load of snow on the embers. I came back. It was fine.
The next morning a couple of kids were skating on the reflecting pool in Cal Anderson Park. That at least was exactly like home.
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
I said, "I have a baking problem."
I still need to remember to buy flour, although that can possibly wait until after I get back from the wild north.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
The painting is Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Joachim Beuckelaer. This worthy Flemish master took great delight in mounding his paintings with foodstuffs. This panoply of roasts and fowl is rather restrained. I cannot remember the name for the genre of painting that has a scene of ordinary life in the foreground, and a scene from the Bible as a vignette in the background. There is such a word. I wish I could remember it. At any rate, this is one of them, and one of Beuckelaer's favorite subjects, since it gives him an excuse to show the uproar in the kitchen that prepares to feast an unexpected guest.*
But enough self-indulgent noodling about art, lets talk about food. Thanks to the magic of some really sharp scheduling, I managed to attend three Thanksgiving dinners taking in both sides of my family as well as my friends' families. My weekend did not feature enough snoozing in a turkey induced coma, but it had laughter, fat babies, happy toddlers, and enough good food that I don't think I actually need to eat again until I fly home to Alaska for the holidays. Not that I am going to let that stop me.
Despite the good times, I did miss my immediate family fiercely. At home Mom and I collaborate on Thanksgiving dinner. I usually make the sides, and Mom deals with the turkey, the stuffing and the gravy. Dad gets the short straw and potato mashing duty. It's chaotic, loud, and the Ervine family kitchen can't actually comfortably hold four full sized adults (my brother may or may not cook anything but he definitely wanders through to snitch tastes). Then the guests start arriving.
I usually end by making elaborate plans for how it is all going to be different and sane next year.
This year I wanted the crazy, the off-key singing, and the squabbling over oven space. To say nothing of Mom's stuffing. Mom makes the best stuffing, and I don't have her recipe. However I think I have figured out the secret to the excellence of her stuffing and consequently her gravy. Judging from the evidence before me, most people do not cook the stuffing in the turkey. An understandable choice-- turkey cooks faster and theoretically more thoroughly without stuffing. The secret to Mom's stuffing is a bunch of fruit, and apple juice to moisten the bread crumbs before it goes in the bird. The stuffing is good whether it was the in-bird stuffing or the large casserole that is cooked on the side to meet demand. However, the in-bird stuffing flavors the juices from the bird. Hence the best gravy ever.
Gravy is extremely important. The entire Thanksgiving meal is an excuse for the gravy. You may ask my grandmother if my word is in doubt.
Without my mom's stuffing recipe, you and I have no hope of making a truly superb gravy, but despite this good gravy is within easy reach.
The secret is making a proper roux**.
Take all the rendered juices from the turkey and pour them in a glass container. A Pyrex measuring cup of appropriate size is dandy. This is a tricky operation, if you're a klutz like me, you may want to get someone else to do this for you.
When the liquid separates, you should have at least a couple of tablespoons of fat floating on top. Pour the fat carefully into either the pan you roasted the turkey in (if it's suitable for stove top use), or a shallow, not non-stick skillet. Reserve the rest of the turkey juices.
Place the pan over medium heat and add an equal volume of flour. Stir constantly with a fork or a spring whisk as the paste forms. Attempt to squash out all the lumps. Keep stirring as the paste turns golden and begins to smell of toasted grain. It's not an altogether bad thing if the roux gets a bit burned. This takes five -ten minutes depending on your burner temperature.
Pour in the turkey juices. If the result is too thick, add some water, wine, or broth. The result should be fairly thin. Continue stirring and bring the proto-gravy to a boil. Allow it to reduce to the desired consistency. Check the seasonings. If it's too salty add more water, wine, or broth (assuming that the broth is low or no sodium). Resist the urge to get fancy. Keep it simple. Good gravy is zen gravy.
Pour it into a pitcher, a gravy boat, or -- if all other containers are in use -- a candy dish. Pour it on everything and jealously guard it from all comers.
One might also make chicken gravy and pour it over a casserole dish of leftovers, and bake for half an hour at 350. Serve it with lingonberry jam if you've already run out of cranberry sauce.
*The story is here: Luke 10:38-42. It's one of those stories that makes you wonder about how the Puritans came up with their famed work ethic.
**a cooked paste of fat and flour. The language of cooking is often French and "roux" sounds better than fat and flour paste.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Maybe I will get to writing about some of this stuff tonight while I'm making scalloped sweet potatoes.
Monday, November 15, 2010
As previously discussed I am incapable of following a recipe exactly, but I do fall into patterns. Kitchen Sink Cookies are one of them. They began as the recipe on the inside of the lid of a Quaker Oats container and stayed that way for about three minutes, before I decided that they needed browned butter and brandy and fruit and nuts and chocolate. The exact constituents of the fruits and nuts have varied. I have used different flours (a quarter to a third whole wheat flour is brilliant). I am considering adding some bran to the next batch as a substitution for either the flour or the oats.
Kitchen Sink Cookies
14 T unsalted butter (1 and 3/4 sticks)
3/4 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 c white sugar
1-1/2 tsp vanilla
1-1/2 tsp brandy
1-1/2 flour (consider subbing in some whole wheat for white)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt (if you use salted butter you can skip the salt)
3 cups uncooked oats
1 cup dried cherries or raisins or dried cranberries
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350.
In a heavy bottomed sauce pan, brown eight tablespoons of butter over low heat. This will take a while, and you need to keep an eye on it. Sorry about that.
Cream together the sugar and butter. Beat that sucker for at least three minutes. Then add the eggs, vanilla, and brandy.
Add the rest of the ingredients in order.
Drop heaping tablespoons on ungreased cookie sheets and bake for 9-11 minutes, until they are puffed and golden brown.
And having baked two loaves of bread and big batch of cookies in the course of the weekend, I need more flour.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Saturday, November 13, 2010
I'm baking bread tonight, using my grandmother's KitchenAid mixer for the kneading. I have always done my own kneading, but when I moved to Seattle Gram'ma offered me her big stand mixer because she couldn't lift it anymore. I didn't know where I would put it, but when someone offers me a heavy duty stand mixer, I feel there is only one possible response -- YES! PLEASE! -- even if it is going to have to be stored in the middle of the kitchen table.* (Really, one of these days I will write about tools.)
Despite my enthusiasm for good tools, it was hard to take my grandmother's mixer. I don't want my grandmother to be subject to the whims of aging flesh. This summer I buried my other grandmother, I am not ready to face losing the woman who writes me wonderful emails about books and cooking.
Anyway, I am down to my last slice of bread, and I have promised to bring a meal to new parents of my acquaintance. I had vaguely been thinking of bringing them bread as part of their meal. Currently the largest mixing bowl I have is the bowl for the big mixer. So tonight, I pulled the mixer out of its cupboard, and decided to experiment with using it in bread making.
I flipped through my trusty Joy of Cooking, and found a likely recipe, read it, and in an act as characteristic as anything I have done in my life, decided that it was clearly and irreducibly wrong about how to structure the rises. One of my friends contends that I have never entirely followed a recipe in my life. (I keep trying to prove her wrong, and I usually end up admitting that I'd tripled the vanilla, or added a splash of brandy, or browned the butter first because the recipe on the page is clearly not right, and everyone always skimps on vanilla.) I got out my even more trusty Tassajara Bread Book and looked up my normal bread recipe, which I was not using because I wanted to do something different and a little bit richer. I chose Edward Espe Brown's rise times, because that's what felt right. Incidentally, if you want to teach yourself to bake bread, and you are congenitally incapable of following recipes (which I apparently am), you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of the TBB by the aforementioned Edward Espe Brown. He doesn't give recipes, so much as parameters with enough information that you get a fairly good idea of the consequences of your experimentation.
I discovered** bread baking after college, during the painful summer after graduation when I was trying to figure out why the hell I was back in Alaska, and what was I going to do with myself now that I was there. Part of the answer was learn to bake bread. Or rather learn to make sourdough cinnamon rolls. I cannot now really explain why I was suddenly seized with a need for sourdough cinnamon rolls. (Possibly it is obvious. I still think it's obvious, but I don't want to maintain the starter.) But making a batch of sourdough starter lead me to the mundane pleasure of baking bread, after the intense craving for cinnamon rolls wore off.
This is the first bread I have baked in my new home. I have had this nagging sense that I am not really at home in a place until I have baked bread in it. Baking bread satisfies me on a level that seems entirely disproportionate to either the effort or the outcome. When the outcome is something as altogether splendid as fresh bread that says something about the level of satisfaction involved.
I like the work of kneading***, the way that my hands and shoulders feel the effort of pressing into the dough again and again. One loaf's worth of dough is fairly trivial, but when you make a larger batch of bread, it becomes work. That ten minutes of lifting, turning, and leaning into the dough becomes an eternity. The dough itself transforms under the constant movement and pressure. It metamorphoses from an unconsolidated glop which sticks to everything into a coherent springy ball. It is a sensuous process, not judgeable from a strictly intellectual standpoint -- the classic description of well kneaded bread is that be the texture of an earlobe, which is true enough to be moderately useful.
Kneading provides space for prayer or meditation if one inclines that way. Since a normal batch of bread for me is two loaves, one to keep and one to give, I often ponder my relationship with the recipient, working it out as I work the dough. I don't think I have ever baked bread for someone and remained angry with them. I have been known to bake bread for people, whom I am angry with, for this reason. Not that I am angry with the eventual beneficiaries of my efforts tonight (there will be a second batch tomorrow). Homemade bread is love made edible. A tangible blessing for a time when we have very few rituals of blessing left in our cultural vocabulary. An appropriate way to welcome my friends' child.
The bread is in the oven now, and the smell is intoxicating. When I was in high school, I couldn't sleep through the smell of baking bread.
I contemplated giving the recipe here, but I've tentatively decided that there is so much to talk about on the subject of bread baking, that simply giving a recipe is not enough. So rather than give the recipe, I reiterate my suggestion of the Tassajara Bread Book. Eventually I will feel confidant enough of my subject to do it justice.
*My mixer does not live on the kitchen table but I was afraid it might have to. Instead, it lives in the cupboard under the sink, which may or may not be better.
** Or rather rediscovered, when I was little Mom often baked our week's bread. The smells and the process were deeply familiar to me when I began to bake, even though I had not been paying attention -- I'd been more interested in skating around the kitchen with my feet in the loaf pans.
***I probably will go back to the pleasure of doing the whole thing by hand.
Friday, November 12, 2010
But this is not what this post is about. This post is about community, and hunger, and people bringing me bacon.
I said good-bye to my parents on Monday, and embarked on a week of banging my head on design problems that would not behave (many of these involved vegetables in clothing -- no, I don't really want to discuss it). Tuesday I called up my friend Jess hoping to gain a new perspective by hanging out at her place and doodling. I figured that it probably represented an improvement over what I was doing just then, namely walking in the cold rain in Volunteer Park. (I was taking the long way to the library.)
She was not available for hanging out and doodling because she had choir practice at 6:30, but she said, "I could come by and you could feed me." Jess knows me. Has known me for upwards of a decade and she knows that of all the things I can do that fill me was warm and bubbly personal satisfaction, feeding other people tops the list.
Not Tuesday, Tuesday I wanted to be somewhere other than my tiny apartment, where the walls -- despite some fixed staring on my part -- did not magically display The Answers. I'm sure Jess' apartment walls have The Answers at least some of the time. I was able to stifle my inward groan at the destruction of my plans for The Answer seeking, because I knew that I really do love feeding people.
I hadn't gone grocery shopping, and none of my leftovers were friendly to someone who can't do chiles. That left buckwheat pancakes, because I have buckwheat pancake mix in the house**. Jess made noises about maybe bringing some bacon and fruit. I dropped off my library books. I came home and cleared off the kitchen table, which had somehow gotten obscured again by a pile of post cards, books, and the drawing tools that seem to appear spontaneously when I'm not looking. I did the dishes. I made pancake batter. Jess meanwhile got stuck in traffic on I-5. I kept tidying and got the kitchen chairs cleared off. I worried. I tried not to grumble about inviting a guest over when I have nothing spectacular to cook and attitude problems.
Eventually traffic parted and allowed Jess to come to the hallowed corner of Cap Hill that is Chez Sarah. She admired my drawing table and the fleeting tidiness of the apartment. I made pancakes and fried bacon. People, I am here to tell you that frying bacon takes forever, especially when the recipient of the bacon is in a hurry.
We exchanged news of the small excitements of our weeks. I made tea, lapsang souchong*** to be precise. We ate pancakes with homemade raspberry jam, yogurt, and maple syrup. It was not a fancy meal. It was not expensive. But it was a kindness in the middle of a rough week.
Too soon, Jess had to run off to choir practice, and I faced the washing up with a braver heart. I had thought to write a little bit about community and the virtues of the practice of hospitality. But in this context it seems obvious, and this post has rambled on more than it probably needs to. So I leave you with this thought: You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you get bacon.
*I will not go so far as to say that some of my best friends are dead birds.
** When the end of the world comes I will probably greet it with buckwheat pancakes. They are infinitely comforting when all other attempts to make sense of the universe have failed.
***Redolent of pine smoke, it is the thing to drink during fall and winter, when you do not have the option of sitting in a rocking chair with your feet up on the fender of a wood stove. I do not have a wood stove. I do have a quarter pound of lapsang in my tea cupboard.
Monday, November 8, 2010
More Pieter Bruegel for you. "The Fall of Icarus" immortalized by W.H. Auden in "Musee des Beaux Arts" (in case an oil painting needed to be any more immortal). I only include it because it is probably my favorite of Bruegel's paintings. I love the skewed perspective which warps the landscape, and the distinctly un-Flemish mountains shining in the distance. It's an exercise in artifice which is grounded by the ploughman stolidly ignoring the mythological boy disappearing into the sea.
Onward to food. Beans and rice with cheese and tortillas are comfort food for me (I am told by other friends that this is not a universal condition, but for me it works), this casserole is a particularly brainless way to cook them. Especially when one is so tired that she can't remember that she needs sour cream before she puts the casserole in the oven.
I am in fact presenting the version of Bean and Rice Casserole that I made tonight. This is not it's cheapest incarnation, but for tonight it was very nice. The quantity made will make four or five meals for me, especially if I round things out with salad or fruit. If you feed other people it won't go as far, but you'll have more fun.
Bean and Rice Casserole
1 15.5 oz can of S&W Santa Fe Recipe Beans
3/4 cup water or chicken broth
3 boneless skinless chicken thighs chopped up into bite size chunks (mine came straight out of my freezer -- frozen chicken thighs are very useful things to have on hand, and you can use them in the recipe still frozen but it does add about half an hour to the cooking time).
1 large tomato, or a double handful of grape tomatoes, chopped up
eight or so corn tortillas chopped up
A bunch of cheese, (a generous half cup or more, grated or chopped) your choice on what kind (I used cheddar and pepper jack this time)
1/2 cup brown rice
Preheat oven to 350.
In a heavy 2.5 qt casserole dish with a lid (I use a souffle dish, actually) combine almost everything. Reserve a third or so of the cheese. Use the water or chicken stock to rinse the last bit of sauce out of the bean can. Stir everything together.
Bake covered at 350 for 45 minutes. Uncover and top with the remaining cheese, and bake uncovered for another fifteen minutes or until the cheese is appealingly toasty, and the rice and chicken are cooked. Allow to stand for at least five minutes, definitely until it is no longer boiling.
Serve with sour cream, salsa, or whatever else you would ordinarily stick in a burrito. It keeps well too.
I waved good bye to my parents this afternoon, and then went back to banging my head on a design problem which had nothing to do with food for several hours. I won, sort of. Mostly I wondered what in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's psyche caused him to choose to impale fish on trees in a picture allegorically representing anger. (I know enough about Bruegel to know that there is a reason, and also that possibly no one knows what it is.)
Coming home in the dark, I noticed that Christmas decorations are already going up on the main drag near my apartment. Worn out and missing my family, I needed to spend an hour sitting in my comfy chair catching up on blogs and being passive. Finally my body quietly let me know that I was going to be hungry someday. (It was a really good weekend, I think I mentioned that previously, but it bears repeating. So good that I am utterly wrung out.)
I had planned on posting a Bean and Rice casserole recipe this week, so that's what I decided to make for dinner. It isn't the fastest recipe in my repertoire, but it is simple. It's based on one of the perennial favorites at the PLU cafeteria: Chili Frito casserole. Working against me: I am really tired. Strange things happen to my cooking when I'm tired. I forget ingredients. My sense of proportion gets unreliable. Just now I realized that I had forgotten a key ingredient, and when I added the chopped up corn tortillas discovered that my cooking time calculations were off by probably half an hour. See what I mean?
At this point I think I will wait until my dinner comes out of the oven for me to decide whether I will give you all the version I normally make, or the half asleep version which lacks sour cream, but makes up for the lack in tomato-ousity. Stand by for developments -- the smells are very promising.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
I grew up in Anchorage, Ak which to put it mildly has a very different driving culture than Seattle. Anchorage drivers are, ahem, assertive drivers. They are assertive with each other, and any one else who happens to encroach on their space. Encroaching on their space can include such offences as walking on the sidewalk, or crossing an intersection in a cross walk, when it is legal to do so. I've never particularly liked driving, and I have spent the first thirty years of my life preferring to walk or ride my bike when it's practical. I've been hit, cut off, and yelled at. Mostly I've been ignored. It's scary being effectively invisible when I'm crossing the street, and how a very tall woman in a bright red jacket can be invisible is one puzzle I've never solved. I've made eye contact with drivers who then have rolled forward and nearly hit me.
It is unpleasant, but it is predictable. An expected danger is one I can plan for.
What unnerves me every day in Seattle is the upsetting of my protocols for surviving as a pedestrian in my hometown. Drivers respect cross walks at lighted intersections. They respect crosswalks at unlighted intersections. But the really weird thing they do? If I'm at an unlighted intersection without a cross walk and I look like I might be contemplating thinking about crossing? Someone will still stop.
Culinary news is thin on the ground just this instant. My parents were down, and we passed a lovely weekend in a most familial fashion: we went to IKEA and ate meatballs. Which are both cheap and comforting, but not really discussable except to say that a plate of meatballs and potatoes warms the cockles of my Swedish heart, especially if there is gravy. Later this week however you can look forward to me being opinionated about cheap wine, tools, and probably a recipe for a halfway decent bean and rice casserole.
Edit to add: One of my friends reminds me that, in his words, "Anchorage drivers are famously friendly to unicyclists." Personally I feel that Anchorage drivers are merely giving the unicyclists the latitude that one would give any potentially dangerous lunatic.
Friday, November 5, 2010
In a startling conjunction of two of my reigning passions, my aunt gave me a copy of The Art of Cuisine by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Joyant for my birthday. One doesn't think of great, if syphilitic, artists cooking. Possibly because they are too busy starving.
Henri apparently cooked in addition to ornamenting the Left Bank, and not only that, he passed his recipes around. Toulouse-Lautrec's blog probably would have been more interesting than mine. A lowering thought -- I shall try not to dwell on it. Instead have a taste of this most peculiar and delightful book.
From "Woodcock with Port"
Having autumn and winter woodcock, which have spent some time in our region -- not migratory woodcock from the seaside, which are often detestable and taste fishy -- let them hang by the beak in the pantry for from ten to thirty days, according to the temperature; woodcock demands to be eaten when it is very high -- fresh woodcock just do not exist.
One sentence, how many dependent clauses? But who cares? Instead contemplate the nicety of a mind that considers coastal woodcock both detestable and fishy, not merely detestably fishy. A mind that holds the existence of fresh woodcock in contempt. Supposedly this monomania is necessary for the life of a great artist. Not all the recipes are equally riotous but all of them are interesting if exquisitely unconcerned with such flourishes as measurements and cooking times.
I'm thinking that I'll have it toasted and slathered with cream cheese for tea.
*Fougasse is apparently French for foccacia. The in-browser spell check does not like either of these words.
I started making a variant of this soup years ago when I decided that I needed to confront my life long aversion to winter squash. It was too sweet, and the texture... fibrous and slimy at the same time. The Joy of Cooking recipe for squash soup seemed like a nonthreatening place to begin: it had leeks and ginger. I adore leeks and ginger. Actually my relationship with the entire genus Allium verges on the unnervingly enthusiastic. Anyway, the soup turned me into a raving squash nut. So I guess I succeeded in my initial goal.
Recently I've been tinkering with my basic squash soup to make it a bit more substantial. As a result the soup has drifted in a fashionably Asian fusion direction. The coconut adds a rich nuttiness, the rice gives the soup a nice body. As a nice plus this can easily be a vegan friendly recipe.
Squash Coconut (and sometimes Shrimp) Soup
4-5 pounds of winter squash, butternut is best
1.5 Tablespoons vegetable oil or butter
3 large leeks, just the white parts chopped; or an assortment of alliums equal to the volume of 3 large leeks chopped up. I suggest either staying away from, or being very light handed with the garlic -- it's a bit too aggressive.
1 tsp ground ginger or 1 tablespoon, peeled and chopped fresh ginger. (Fresh ginger is to be preferred -- the flavor is more complex, however ground ginger is more concentrated.
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock and a can of coconut milk
1/4 cup of rice
Optional: 1/2 pound U-50 peeled shrimp (preferrably raw)
salt, pepper, and fish sauce to taste. (I only use the fish sauce if I'm adding shrimp)
Preheat the oven to 350. Halve the squashes, and place cut side down on an oiled pan with sides. Jelly roll pans are a favorite for this operation. Using cookie sheets will result in squash juice running off the sides, burning on the bottom of your oven, and filling your kitchen with smoke. Why on earth would you think this was the voice of experience?
Sauté the leeks in the bottom of a large soup kettle until they are translucent. Add the ginger, chicken stock and the flesh of the roasted squash.
Simmer covered for thirty minutes or an hour, if you are using brown rice. Anyway, until the rice isn't crunchy. Stir occasionally.
Puree the soup. I prefer using an immersion blender for this operation (I've also used a regular blender and a food mill -- both are much messier). If you are putting shrimp in, add them after you puree and return to heat until the shrimp are cooked. Correct the seasonings.
Serve with a dry-ish white wine, buttered toast, and a spinach salad.
I'm nobody, who are you?
Are you nobody too?
...How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a blog
My apologies to Miss Dickinson. I'm starting this as an experiment and as the heading says, a confessional. Experiment, since probably every blogger since the advent of blogging has wondered, "will anyone read this? Am I really a good enough writer to be interesting to people besides my parents a couple of times a week?" Confessional since this is intended to be a meditation on the domestic life (with sidelines into art, design, books, and cheap food in the Seattle area.) I suspect that all too frequently it will be a meditation on my failures at domesticity.
My qualifications? I told one of my fellow design students, "I'm a good cook and I'm not even bothering to be humble about it." Currently, I'm a really good cook on a really tight budget. It lends itself to a certain amount of creativity. On the other hand, I am a less than stellar housekeeper, and that is seriously understating the case. Life is school, friends, my own projects, and books. Vaccuuming doesn't make the list. Apparently this week, taking out the recycling didn't either. A tidy apartment and a neatly made bed are among the comforts available to me. I ought to take advantage.