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.