Sunday, March 16, 2014

Chicken Potpie from Ad Hoc

Fair warning:  tonight's entry will read more like a journal entry than a recipe reminder--you have been warned.  
It's simple.  Really, it's just chicken pot pie.  However, it's a pot pie from Thomas Keller via Ad Hoc.  So, while it is simple, it does take many steps.

Simple seems nice these days.  I just finished teaching a two-week course on yoga and stress relief for teenagers.  Wonderfully, we talked about mindfulness, growth mindset, and reducing judgments and negative self talk.  We went to a zendo and sat for a meditation and drank tea. We practiced yoga outside in Briones Regional Park (where two cows ambled into our field after we were finished with our practice).  We brought in someone who studied Sanskrit, another who gave us an overview of the nervous system and its connections to restorative yoga, a counselor who talked students through some basic dialectical behavioral techniques regarding Wise Mind, and a dear friend of mine who led a yoga class in heart openings.  It was a sweet two weeks filled with reminding myself and students to simplify, something that I sometimes struggle to do.  Who am I kidding--sometimes?  Let's rephrase, something I often struggle to do.

Today, I went to yoga at my studio with another good friend--it was a beginner's class.  Keeping in the theme of simplification, we entered into Warrior I and stayed there a while.  Usually I come in and out of this pose so quickly through a sun salutation that I don't often have time to readjust my back thigh or to square my hips properly or to drop my tailbone toward the floor.  It only got better. Late in class, my Marichyasana was elongated, my outer hip released to the floor.  Oh, it was a sweet class, and the final Supta Baddha Konasana was delightful.  Something simple to take with me to the next yoga class.

The weather has been wonderful here this past week.  After the yoga class (it was still morning, mind you), the husband and I walked through the farmer's market, gathering victuals for tomorrow's corned beef and cabbage dinner, followed by a mulching of the garden (which we spruced up yesterday with a thorough weeding and watering).  A summer dress and brunch came next.  Then I read student journals, graded papers, and then off to the store for salad fixings for the week.  Nothing was complicated today.  Everything was simple, but it had many steps.  

The husband and I have been cooking for the past couple of hours--he makes the pie crusts in this family and I ignore the recipes for the fillings (okay, not ignore, but I did put more chicken, less carrots, and no pearl onions (none found around these here parts) with the substitution of shallots).  Now the pie is finishing as I write this, we are listening to some Trampled By Turtles (best band name in a while), and George Saunders' The Tenth of December calling me to finish the last two stories.  I think that can be arranged.

As for the recipe, some further simplifications are in order:  Keller requests that you cook the potatoes, carrots, and onions in separate saucepans.  Bah.  I cooked them all in one pot and added the celery during the last few minutes of cooking.  Also, put the bay leaves, thyme, and peppercorns in a sachet.  I did not, and I was not pleased to pick out the peppercorns-especially since I threw all of them in the pot.  That was a lot of peppercorns, people.  I also did not strain the bechamel sauce.  Everything turned out just fine.  I kept it simple even if I had many steps.  Not a bad adage for the weekend.

Edited to add:  Okay, the potpie is finished and we just cut into it.  Whoo boy.  This is comfort food at its best.  The crust is perfectly flaky, the filling is herby and just right, and the veggies (particularly the celery) are just the right crisp-tender texture.  (There was a part of me that pooh-poohed the vegetable parboiling.  However, that step is the most important step of all.)  Finally, we just may have to think about this as a homey family dinner.  Add mushrooms?  Perhaps...

One Year Ago: Paparot--Spinach and Polenta Soup
Two Years Ago: Seared Lamb in Swarthy Pasilla Honey
Three Years Ago: Carrot Cake (Joy of Cooking)
Four Years Ago: German Apple Pancake

Chicken Potpie
Adapted from Ad Hoc

Serves 6-8

Pie Crust
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 1/2 sticks of butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces and chilled
About 5 tablespoons of ice water

Chicken Filling:
1 1/4 cup 1/2-inch pieces Yukon Gold potatoes
1 cup 1/2-inch pieces carrots (cut on the diagonal)
3 shallots, sliced in chunks (Keller calls for 12 pearl onions)
1 1/4 cups 1/2-inch pieces of celery (cut on the diagonal)
3 bay leaves
3 thyme sprigs
24 black peppercorns

2 cups shredded cooked chicken

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
Pinch of cayenne

1 egg, beaten


Pie Crust:
1.  Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Then add the butter and toss to coat with flour. With your hands, work the butter into the flour, tossing and incorporating any pieces of butter that have settled at the bottom of the bowl, until the butter pieces are no larger than a pea. 
2.  Drizzle 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) of ice water over the top and, using a fork, mix the dough until it holds together when pinched: add the remaining tablespoon of water if the dough is very dry. Knead the dough until it is completely smooth and the butter is incorporated. 

3.  Divide the dough in half, with one piece slightly larger (for the bottom crust of the pie). Shape each half in a 1-inch-thick disk. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour, or up to a day. (If the dough does not rest, it will shrink as it bakes.)

4.  Remove the dough from the fridge.  Lightly flour the work surface and rolling pin. Lightly dust the top of the large disk with flour and roll it out to a 13 to 14 inch round about 1/8 inch thick: roll outward from the center, rotating the dough frequently and adding a little flour to the work surface or dough as needed to prevent sticking. Transfer dough to a 9- to 10-inch pie plate, gently molding  the dough into the corners and up the sides.

5. Roll out the second piece of dough in the same manner, to a 12 inch round, about 1/8 inch thick. Place on parchment-lined baking sheet. Refrigerate both doughs for 15 minutes.
Makes one 9 to 10 inch double crust pie.

Pot Pie:
1.  Put the potatoes, carrots, and onions in a saucepan with water to cover and add bay leaves, thyme sprigs, and peppercorns to the pan (a sachet is nice). Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and simmer until just tender, 8 to 10 minutes.  Add celery for the last 1 to 1-1/2 minutes. 

2.  Drain the vegetables, discard the bay, thyme, and peppercorns.

3.  Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for 2 to 3 minutes; adjust the heat as needed so that the mixture does not brown. Whisk in the milk, lower the heat to keep the bechamel at a gentle simmer, and cook, whisking often, until the sauce has thickened and reduced to about 2 cups, 40 minutes; move the whisk over the bottom and into the corners of the pan to be sure the bechamel doesn't burn.

4.  Position the oven racks in the lower third and center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

5.  Season the bechamel with salt, pepper, parsley, thyme, and cayenne.

7.  Remove both doughs from the refrigerator.

8.  Scatter the vegetables and chicken into the pie shell. Pour the bechamel over them. At this point, if the top crust is too hard to shape, let it rest at room temperature for a few minutes. Moisten the rim of pie shell with some of the beaten egg. Cover the filling with the top crust and press the edges of the dough together to seal. Trim away the excess dough that overhangs the rim. Brush the top crust with the egg. Cut a small vent in the center of the dough with a small cutter or the tip of a paring knife to allow steam to escape.

9.  Bake on the lower oven rack until the crust is a rich golden brown, 50 minutes to 1 hour. If necessary, move the pie to the center rack during the last 10 minutes of baking to brown the crust. On the other hand, if crust is browning too quickly, cover with aluminum foil. Transfer to a cooling rack and let rest for 10 minutes.

10.  Cut the potpie into 6 wedges and serve warm.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Celeriac and Lentils with Hazelnut and Mint

I have a habit I cannot kick, and it is Ottolenghi's cookbooks.  This is the sixth recipe I have cooked from either Plenty (2011) or Jerusalem (2012), and for Valentine's Day, the husband bought me Ottolenghi (2013).  In the past three years, Ottolenghi's prolific cookbook writing has only fueled the fire. Now if only Ten Speed Press or Chronicle Books would recognize how much I love Ottolenghi and send me advance copies of the cookbooks gratis.  I wait patiently and without expectation.

Here's what I have made from his cookbooks (and I'll have this one and even one more after this entry to add.  Clearly I have a serious problem.): 

I love these cookbooks mostly for their vegetarian fare.  In fact, the only recipe that I have made that includes an animal is the salmon, which was divine.  Perhaps someday I'll branch out to his lamb or poultry recipes.  I wait patiently and without expectation.

Part of the reason for the vegetarian focus is that from time to time I like to eliminate meat from my diet.  It's a throwback, yes, to the decade I was a vegetarian, but it also just makes me feel if not a little lighter, at least a little more aware of my food choices.  Further, many of Ottolenghi's recipes are gluten-free: again, a choice I make not because I am intolerant of gluten (indeed, far from it.  I love sourdough bread, and should I ever truly or seriously think about leaving the Bay Area, I would probably have to rethink such a relocation for I would miss the bread).  It is a choice I make again just to be a little more aware from time to time about how much bread I can consume if given free rein.  Which turns out to be a lot.  And what I don't consume, I take over valuable real estate in the freezer with frozen slices of bread to be popped into the toaster when need be.  This is a point of contention with the husband. He believes such real estate be reserved for the best bacon on earth.

The husband is wrong.

Nonetheless, I carry on with my love of all food Ottolenghi with this little recipe for a lentil and celeriac salad.  Celeriac is one of my favorite vegetables--it has all of the glorious pungent taste of celery (a taste I really do enjoy) without all the fussiness of the celery strings and an added earthy, nutty taste.  While the root isn't pretty--what, with all its knobby ugliness--it is really quite a solid vegetable to take you through the winter, especially when it appears spring will never spring (even I am getting antsy for spring, and I haven't been buried in snow or been forced to withstand sub-zero temperatures).  

Bonus, this recipe is just as good the next day as a satisfying cold lunch.  (Ah, an at-work lunch.  A lazy weekend repast.  Picnics, anyone?)

Finally, I have returned from my week in the cabin.  I have one more Ottolenghi recipe to report back on that I made while I was up there.  Next entry, I will tell you all a little about what I learned will alone for a week.  Mostly, it's that I like to talk.

My mother will tell you that she knew that already and didn't need me to go away for a week to find that out. 

One Year Ago: Blood Orange, Goat Cheese and Beet Salad
Two Years Ago: Chicken with Cauliflower and Red Peppers
Three Years Ago: Celery Root and Wild Rice Chowder
Four Years Ago: Swiss Chard Flan

Celeriac and Lentils with Hazelnut and Mint
Adapted from  Plenty
You can also find the recipe straight from Ottolenghi's website.  

Serves 4

1/3 cup hazelnuts, skin on
1 cup puy* lentils
3 cups water
2 bay leaves
4 thyme sprigs
1 small celeriac, about 1.5lbs, peeled and cut in to 1/2 inch cubes
3 tbsp olive oil**
2 tbsp hazelnut oil**
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 tbsp mint, chopped
Salt and pepper
4 tbsp chopped fresh mint

*I used red, and they were very tasty but mushy.  If you care about appearances puy or any other firm lentil; if you don't care, use whatever lentil you have on hand.

**I find that Ottolenghi uses a lot of oil for my taste.  I reduced the olive oil to 3 tbsp from 4 and the hazelnut oil from 3 tbsp to 2.  Feel free to add it back.

1.  Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Scatter the hazelnuts on a baking tray and roast in the oven for 15 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let them cool before roughly chopping.

2.  Place the lentils, water, bay leaves and thyme in to a small saucepan and bring to the boil.  Let them simmer for 15-20 minutes.  Drain and set aside.

3.  Meanwhile in another saucepan cook the celeriac in boiling, well-salted water for 8-12 minutes, or until just tender.  Drain and set aside.

4.  Place the hot lentils in a large bowl (hot lentils will absorb more of the dressing).  Mix them together with the olive oil, 2 tbsp of hazelnut oil, the vinegar, salt and pepper.  Add the celeriac and toss it all gently together.  Taste and adjust seasoning.

5.  To serve, stir in hazelnuts and mint (and save a little of each for garnish).

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Roasted Cauliflower with Hazelnuts Salad

No one told me that allspice could do this to cauliflower.  Well, nobody until now.  And let me, via the wisdom of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, be the one to tell you that allspice can do this to cauliflower:  not only is it a surprisingly sharp burst of flavor, especially when paired with  said cauliflower, it is a remarkably good one, particularly when added to little vinegar and maple syrup.

As detailed in my previous entry, I am spending my days holed up in a cabin in the woods, where I am reading, grading, running, gathering wood, doing yoga, grading, cooking, making fires, grading.  Thus far, I have graded 20 papers, which given that I average 3 an hour (I do wish I were a faster grader—I thought when I first entered teaching that the grading would somehow become quicker. It has not.), well, let’s not do the math.  Good news:  only 44 more to go.   

When I am not reading about who is to blame for the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, I am taking care of business with another of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks.  (Seriously, I have an Ottolenghi habit.  More on that next entry.)  I put together this wonderful cauliflower and hazelnut salad—enough for a solo dinner and lunch to boot.  It's sweet, savory, crunchy, and soft.  Consider it texture and flavor heaven.  It is a paradoxically light but robust meal.  It’s light in that there’s not a lot going on: we’re talking cauliflower, nuts, celery.  But satisfying because of this spice combination and the roasted cauliflower, a veggie I always find more pleasing in its roasted state.  Ottolenghi recommends this be served with chicken or fish, but I found it to be delightful all on its own. 


Actually, scratch that—not entirely on its own.  I had been aching to reread Island of the Blue Dolphins.  This comes inspired by a long walk I took about a month ago along the headlands of Mendocino.  Posted along most of the cliffs around here are signs decrying the poaching of abalone.  I remember my first introduction to abalone through Scott O’Dell’s little book, where Karana and Ramo hunt them.  As I walked in the wind and fog, I longed to return to this little book, which I have distinct memories of checking out from the local library.  Thus, I trekked from the headlands to the delightful Mendocino bookstore (the Gallery Bookshop), where they did not have Island, neither then nor the time I returned last week.  Thanks to the modern miracle that is Amazon Prime, I had a dinner companion last evening. 


Now go mix some allspice with your cauliflower, pronto!

One Year Ago: Cioppino
Two Years Ago: Chicken with Cauliflower and Red Peppers
Three Years Ago: Butternut Squash and Sage Risotto
Four Years Ago: Frakh Ma'amra (Mediterranean Pigeons or Squabs Stuffed with Couscous)

Roasted Cauliflower and Hazelnuts Salad
Adapted from  Jerusalem
Serves 1-2 (main dish), 3-4 (side salad)

1 head cauliflower, broken into small florets 
2 tablespoons olive oil 
5 tablespoons hazelnuts/filberts 
2 medium to large celery stalks, sliced 
1/3 cup flat leaf parsley leaves 
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds (I didn’t have any, so I substituted blueberries) 
generous ¼ teaspoon cinnamon 
generous ¼ teaspoon allspice 
1 tablespoon sherry or red wine vinegar 
1 teaspoon hazelnut oil 
1 ½ teaspoon maple syrup 
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 
2.  Mix the cauliflower with the 2 tablespoons of olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and some black pepper.  Spread out in a roasting pan, and roast for 25-35 minutes, until the cauliflower is crisp and parts of it have turned brown.  Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool down. 
3.  Decrease the oven temperature to 325 degrees.  Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and roast for 10-15 minutes, until they smell nutty.  Be careful not the burn them. 
4.  Allow the nuts to cool a little, then coarsely chop them and add them to the cauliflower, along with the rest of the ingredients.  Stir, taste, and season with salt and pepper.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Green Pancakes with Lime Butter

This week, I am spending my time in Fort Bragg—or to be more precise, about four miles north of Fort Bragg—where I am watching sunsets, grading, and prepping for my spring classes.  This weekend came at just the right time, as I was feeling the perennial Funk of February.  For as long as I can remember, every February, I descend into The Funk.  The days feel too short for the too many things to do. Thankfully, I now teach in California, where most schools are granted what is often abysmally entitled Ski Week (I call it pedestrianly “February Break,” for I would never have been one of those students, nor am I truly one of those teachers, who could afford to take a week off just to ski). February Break not only coincides with The Funk, but it also marks the end of our second term, so I am often holed-up grading final papers and writing comments.  However, I get to perform such activities in my pajamas, and this week, in a cabin in the woods. 

Two nights ago, the husband and I saw the most spectacular sunset, another five miles north of where we were.  Not only was the sunset flaring with colors, but the waves.  Oh, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Shelley.  I hear you.  This, this was the sublime. The heart-racing thrill of seeing something so beautiful that could kill you.  The husband and I sat on a cliff for about an hour and a half watching waves crash with loud booms and then shoot 30 feet into the air.  The remnants of the waves roiled and foamed.  We grew cold.  We stayed well after the sun went down.

After the husband and his parents returned to the Bay Area, last night, I made these little green pancakes from Plenty, Ottolenghi’s cookbook and my go-to recipe maker.  Before cooking up the spinach or making the infused butter, I started a fire in the iron stove, took a few sunset pictures from the back porch, and settled in for the evening.  That meant more pajamas, a quick sweep of the floor, and the turning on of music (this time, a mix of French songs). 

I cooked, taking my time, chopping, slicing, mixing at my leisure, trying to push that February Funk away.  The cabin kitchen is without many of the instruments that I have, perhaps erroneously, come to rely upon at home.  No zester:  thus, I had to rock the knife through the lime peel many, many times to make it fine.  No baking soda or baking powder: thus a return to street clothes and the grocery store.  What I thought I needed, I really didn't (read: zester) or it was a simple fix to get (read: baking soda and baking powder).  I felt resourceful.  Simple, but resourceful.

The spinach, as is usual, went from feeling abundant (I had halved the recipe, and even four cups seems ample until you cook it down to ½ a cup) to being surprisingly scarce.  The butter, which smacks of late 90s, early 00s cooking, reminded me why cooks once embraced it so fully: it really is quite tasty.  (Indeed, there will be some butter left over after this recipe, and Ottolenghi recommends saving it to slather atop a warm sweet potato.  I think that can be done.)  The pancakes, themselves, are quite tasty, if a bit cumin-y.  I might halve the cumin next time. 

I paired these little discs of green yumminess with a simple handful of arugula tossed with some olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt.  The evening had fully descended.  I had a book club book (At Swim-Two Birds) to read, a stack of papers to gently ignore for another day. It is truly vacation.  There may be light at the end of this Funk.

One Year Ago: Cioppino
Two Years Ago: Chicken with Cauliflower and Red Peppers
Three Years Ago: Butternut Squash and Sage Risotto
Four Years Ago: Frakh Ma'amra (Mediterranean Pigeons or Squabs Stuffed with Couscous)

Green Pancakes with Lime Butter
Adapted from  Plenty

Serves 3-4

Lime Butter
8 Tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
grated zest of 1 lime
1 ½ tablespoon lime juice
¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
1 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
½ garlic clove, finely chopped
¼ tsp. chile flakes

½ lb. (about 8 cups) spinach, washed
¾ cup flour
1 scant tsp. baking soda
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 egg
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. cumin (Ottolenghi calls for 1 teaspoon, which I found too heavy)
2/3 cup milk
6 medium green onions, finely sliced
1 egg white
olive oil for frying


1.     To make the lime butter:  Put the butter in a medium bowl and beat it with a wooden spoon until it turns soft and creamy.  Stir in the rest of the ingredients.  Put onto a sheet of plastic and roll into a sausage shape.  Twist the ends of the way to seal the flavored butter. Chill until firm. 

2.     To make the pancakes:  Wilt the spinach in a pan with the water still clinging to the leaves from washing.  Drain in a sieve and, when cool, squeeze with your hands to remove as much moisture as possible.  Roughly chop and set aside.

3.     Put the flour, baking powder, whole egg, melted butter, salt, cumin, and milk in a large mixing bowl and whisk until smooth.  Add the green onions, chiles, and spinach and mix with a form.  Whisk the egg white to soft peaks, and gently fold it info the batter. 

4.     Pour a small amount of olive oil into a frying pan and place on medium-high heat.  For each pancake, ladle 2 tablespoons of batter into the pan, and press own gently.  You should get smallish pancakes, about 3 inches in diameter and 3/8-inch thick.  Cook for about 2 minutes each side, or until you get a good golden-green color.  Transfer to paper towels and keep warm.  Continue making pancakes, adding oil to the pan as needed, until the batter is used up. 

5.     To serve, pile three warm pancakes per person and place a slice of flavored butter on top to melt.  Serve with a salad of seasonal lettuces or herbs.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Crunchy Fruit Drops (Spice Cookies)

This has not been the best of weeks.  A week ago on Saturday my aunt died.  My mother called early in the morning to tell me, and such an announcement was not a surprise; my mother's oldest sister had been diagnosed with cancer a while back, and this past summer, I said my goodbyes.  That July, my thin aunt declared that she hoped to make it to August, when her granddaughter got married, and once she made it to that late-summer wedding, we all dared to hope that she would make it through Thanksgiving.  Once early December came and she turned 81, we all pulled for her to make it through Christmas and New Year's.  My aunt had determination.

About a year ago, my aunt discovered that I loved to cook--something that probably startled her, given my mother's own anti-cooking stance.  She asked my mom to give me her recipe box, which my mother mailed to me.   The box is full of cake and cookie recipes (peanut brittle, pumpkin cookies, coffee cake, powdered doughnuts)--at least 2/3 of this little box is a testament to my aunt's (or perhaps her five children's) sweet tooth.  However, let it be noted that the following can also be found: Fruit Cocktail Pudding, Tomato Tuna Treat, and Stuffed Hot Dog Wonders. I don't remember these seventies dishes on my aunt's table, but they were ones she felt the need to tuck away in hopes of remaking.

The recipe cards are typed, stained, and sometimes a little hard to follow.  She knew these recipes well, so she just needed reminders, not instructions.  Others are handwritten (sometimes there is a different, more modern handwriting) or clipped from ladies' magazines.  Some come without names or have "grandma" written in the corner.  Was that her grandmother (my great-grandmother)?  Or her children's grandmother, my own grandmother?  How far do these recipes go back?  I am not sure. 

On the day of her death, I tried to think of every memory I had of her from when I was growing up.  Given that she lived three doors down from us, I had quite a few.  Indeed, my sister was far closer to my aunt (once we found our dog (J.J., short for Jesse James) camped out in my aunt's garage because he didn't realize that my sleeping sister had been carried from aunt's living room to a waiting car and driven back home.  Ever loyal to my sister, J.J. refused to budge until my sister walked back to my aunt's to retrieve him the next morning), and she spent most of the summer under my aunt's and one of my cousin's watchful eyes.  If we couldn't find her or the dog at home, we need only call my aunt; she would be there.  However, my aunt, as well as her rambling ranch home down Susan Drive, was instrumental in my childhood as well, and I am sad to know that she is gone. 

It was in her basement from a pocket-sized collected works of Shakespeare, I read Macbeth for the first time--or at least I started it multiple times.  I never really made it past act three (come on, I was like ten), but I loved the witches and tried to memorize act 1, scene 1.   Indeed:  "When the hurlyburly's done, When the battle's lost and won."  And in her basement, I remember my brother and I fought our own battle:  there I learned of the birth of my sister.  That May night back in 1981, my father dropped my brother and me off at my aunt's house, and my brother and I argued as to what  that alien lump would prove to be--a brother or a sister.  Oh, how I wanted a little sister.  The phone rang, and I remember getting the good news while I sat on my aunt and uncle's free weight bench.  I may have even done some bicep curls with the five-pound weight in celebratory glee. I then may have gloated.

My aunt was an artist, and in the back of her basement, behind the ever-so-alluring pool table, she had a painting studio.  My uncle, an avid woodworker, would make bookshelves and cradles, and my aunt would stain them and then paint flowers and designs along them.  Very eighties--very central Illinois.  But I loved watching her dip her brush into paint to make petals and stems.  She would let us watch Bob Ross and then try our own hand on blank paper.  But beyond painting, she made quilts, one of which I was gifted, and she played the organ.  She could sew and make clothing, and she altered my first fancy dress for senior-year Homecoming (up until then I had gotten through high school by borrowing friends' dresses).  This purple and green floral dress was the first I bought with my own money (oh, how many nights of babysitting that took!), and while it had straps, I wanted to wear it strapless.  She put boning in, tightened up the bodice, and added a new zipper.  Just to be safe, she kept the straps intact (although tightened), and made it so I could tuck them into the bodice.  I still have that dress hanging in the back of my closet.  (For the record, I wore the straps.)

But more than anything, I remember my aunt making cookies.  Whenever she had some extended time when we visited (and out visits were frequent, if her extended time was not), she would whip up a batch of cookies:  thumbprint, chocolate chip, oatmeal, sugar, it didn't matter.  She would bring out her silver kitchen-aid mixer, and we would be allowed to help her.  She had a big butcher block island, and my brother or my sister or I, or sometimes all three of us, would pull up a chair to stand on, and we would mix and make a mess and "help."  She would let us lick the beaters, and she allowed us to use the spatula to lift the still steaming cookies from the sheet.  Thus, when it came time to remember my aunt, I made a batch of her spice cookies, straight from that little yellow recipe box.

The last time I saw my aunt, my mother and three of her other sisters, my own sister, my niece, my nephew, and three of my cousins gathered around her kitchen table.  We all brought our own lunches so as to not tax my aunt with the duties of entertaining.  Because the table was overflowing and there was hardly any elbow room, my sister, her children, and myself were all relegated to the living room table (to be fair, we were the four youngest in the room, thus our perennial banishment to the kids' table).  After lunch, we nosed our way back to the kitchen table, where the talk began in earnest.  Whenever the sisters got together (and for this event there were five of the six daughters), there was a lot of nodding, some sharing of and taking of photos, a lot of family catch-up and gossip, and a few moments of biting one's tongue.  My sister and I had to leave early, so I came around to the head of the table, where my aunt sat hooked to her oxygen tank.  I knelt down to hold my aunt's hand as she remained in her chair.  We hugged.  I said goodbye.

One Year Ago: Cioppino
Two Years Ago: Turkey Meatloaf
Three Years Ago: Brine-cured Pork Chops with Warm Red Cabbage
Four Years Ago: Four-Cheese Pizza

Crunchy Fruit Drops
Adapted from my aunt

Makes 40 cookies

1/2 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar, loosely packed
1 egg, well beaten
1-3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup nuts (chopped)--I used almonds and pecans, but walnuts would be good, too
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup buttermilk

1.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2.  In a medium mixing bowl, using a mixer, whip the butter until it is smooth.  Add sugar slowly and beat until light.  Beat in egg.

3.  In another mixing bowl, sift flour, salt, cinnamon, cloves and baking soda. 

4.  Add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk to the sugar mixture (add 1/3 flour, 1/2 buttermilk, 1/3 flour, 1/2 buttermilk, 1/3 flour) and mix to form a stiff batter.

5.  Add the nuts and raisins to the batter and blend well.

6.  Drop by teaspoons on a greased cookie sheet.  Bake for 10-15 minutes.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Chocolate Pots de Crème

At the end of 2013, the husband and I packed our bags and headed north.  The husband’s family acquired in August a vacation-cum-pre-retirement home about four hours north of our humble Oakland abode.  Said home is nestled, and yes the verb must be nestled, in the redwoods, tucked in on all four sides.  There, the husband and I have been appointed a room wherein we have begun to nest with big, furry blankets and a quilt from my aunt.  The house is in no uncertain disarray with the kitchen having recently been torn out and reinstalled and boasts not a lick of solid furniture on the main floor save that of the white-plastic-lawn-chair kind and a dining table.  However, when we come up, we do so with his parents, who in their generosity have made us feel as if this place has become our own as well.  

On the 28th of December, the in-laws invited over some friends from the area, and the husband and I prepared the first official dinner in the new kitchen.  In a sweet, overheard phone call to those friends, the father-in-law declared that the “kids” had safely arrived at the house and informed the friends of the expected prandial time.  The husband and I are forty or nearly forty, so it was delightful and dear to hear ourselves referred to as the “kids.” I suspect that the husband will always be the “kid.”

We “kids” had spent the morning on the haul road (the former train tracks turned asphalt road which was once the redwood haul route from the forests to the lumber yards) that runs along 10-mile beach—the husband walked and I ran (read: shuffled for 2.5 miles).  The view was incredible, and it provided the backdrop for an inspiring end of the year.  After such a gentle start of the day, we had to launch into high gear, and we “kids” took on the dinner-making responsibilities.  The husband whipped up a supplementary batch of chile verde to augment the remains of one we had cooked for Boxing Day, and I zeroed in on the pots de crème from the Zuni Café Cookbook.  Given that one of the guests was gluten sensitive, I knew I needed to avoid all of the fabulous and certainly tasty tarts that called with their sweet siren song from this favorite of favorite cookbooks.  Avoid them I must.  Usually, I would have steered clear of this recipe, as it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, and when serving guests, I admit to liking a bell or whistle or two.

However, don’t let the seeming simplicity of the recipe or even the presentation throw you off.  These pots de crème are quite lovely.  I used Ghirardelli chocolate, as that was the only bittersweet offering in the local grocery store.  Ghirardelli is a solid choice of chocolates—neither too high end nor too pedestrian—and it produced a sweet yet slightly acidic pudding that was divine.  Judy Rogers (another of the celebrated chefs who died in 2013) also recommends (although because I didn’t use it, I didn’t list it below) a “splash of Cointreau or Frangelico” to be added after straining the milk mixture into the chocolate; had I felt so inclined to purchase the $15 Frangelico for a one-time use, I think it would have been a fantastic addition to the glorified pudding.  If you have either on hand, I recommend its addition; however, without it, the pudding is still quite wonderful.

It’s nice to think back over this past year and where it has meandered in its serpentine course.  A year ago, my dear friend had only been recently diagnosed with lymphoma; come late summer she was in remission, but she spent a trying year in chemotherapy and radiation (in addition to having her house robbed).   Ever inspiring, she has signed up for her next half marathon, and I am doing my best to join her at the end of March.  This November, my best friend forever and ever (as in we’ve known each other since I was four and she was five) experienced the loss of her father (a man who could not imagine what two fourteen-year-old girls who had spent the last 48 hours together could possibly have to say to one another on the phone a mere fifteen minutes after their parting yet nonetheless tolerated their incessant chatter); I at least had the ability to fly back to Illinois to spend some time with her, going though his clothes, looking at old pictures—a memory I do not count as one of the pleasurable ones but I do count it among the good ones.  I was lucky enough to spend the summer and then again just before Thanksgiving among the nieces and nephews, who never fail to delight and amuse--what with their giant squirrel head masks and their One Direction full body cut outs, their surprisingly good clarinet playing, their declarations that I am indeed a good tickler, and their sweet insistence that I should not live in California given that there are no children out here.  I have been on the phone bi-weekly with both parents, I have eaten sushi with dear friends who have returned from Guam, I have brunched with yoga friends, had coffee and trips to CVS for holiday cards with dear friends from work, and have bemoaned the writing of Hesse and celebrated that of Barnes with my book group (of course, their ill-begotten opinions may differ from mine).  The good and the bad, we’ve put 2013 to bed. 

And these lucky “kids” did so with pots of fancy chocolate pudding among the redwoods of Northern California. 

One Year Ago: Cioppino
Two Years Ago: Turkey Meatloaf
Three Years Ago: Mushroom Soup with Kale and Potatoes
Four Years Ago: Chicken Legs with Wine and Yams

Chocolate Pots de Crème
Adapted from The Cuisines of Spain: Exploring Regional Home Cooking

Serves 4

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
¾ cup heavy cream (separated into 1/2 cup and 1/4 cup)
¾ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons sugar
4 egg yolks

1.  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

2.  Melt the chocolate with ½ cup of the cream in a small pan or bowl poised over simmering water (a double boiler), stirring occasionally.  Remove from the heat.

3.  Warm the remaining ¼ cup cream, the milk, and sugar in a small saucepan, stirring just to dissolve the sugar.

4.  In a medium howl, whisk the yolks, and then slowly sit in the warm milk mixture.  Pour the mixture through a strainer into the melted chocolate and stir to combine.

5.  Pour the mixture into four 4- to 5-ounce ramekins and place at least an inch apart in a baking dish.  Add hot water to come to barely ½ inch beneath this lip of the cups.  Bake until the custard is just set at the end edges but still soft in the center, about 45 minutes.  To check, life a pot and tilt; the center should bulge.  The eggs will continue to cook after you pull the custards from the oven and the chocolate will harden as it cools.  Cool, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Pork Loin Braised in Milk, Bolognese Style

In September the great Marcella Hazan died, and like most cooks, nay eaters, I was saddened to hear of her passing.  I have been known to cook from her cookbooks (yes, here and here and here).  Many others have written about her death, with much gratitude surrounding the way that she taught them to cook among other things.  I add my tribute to her as well.

While I have said a lot about her background in some of those earlier posts, one thing I haven't yet written about is the night we almost saw Marcella Hazan.  She's of such celebrity status that the almost sightings are as elevated an experience as the actual sightings, so celebrate we must.  Many years ago, Oliveto's, an Oakland retaurant within walking distance, held a night of cooking with Marcella Hazan.  She apparently consulted on the menu and I imagine did a little bit of bossing around in the kitchen--actually I suspect that's mere fantasy.  She was far too much of a fan of Olivetto's to do any bossing around.  In fact, she had this to say about the restaurant: 
"My test of a restaurant’s food is to ask “How soon after having a meal there would I want to go back?” If I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, I could eat at Oliveto in Oakland every day. Paul Canales, Oliveto’s chef, has found and taken unfailing command of what everyone who cooks struggles to discover: the straight road to pure, sincere, deeply satisfying flavor. I could choose from one of Paul’s menus by throwing a dart at it, knowing I could never make a mistake."  

Wow, I stand corrected.  Nope, she certainly did no micromanaging.

Anyway, those many years ago, a dear friend of ours was down from Seattle, so we marched right up to Oliveto's where we ate our fill.  However, more importantly, we were introduced to ribollita, something we had not yet known was what would make our lives feel complete.  And when I speak to you of ribollita, I am not speaking of the soup, which is itself good, but of the two-to-three day old ribollita that you pour over a slice of good bread in a skillet and cook until the liquid has been cooked completely out of it, and all you have left is a heap of pan fried, broth- and tomato-soaked, bean-smeared bread that makes you wonder why anyone would eat it as a soup. 

We did not meet Marcella, nor did we even glimpse her at one of the nearby tables, despite the rumors that she was in the restaurant that night.  Yet we ate knowing that she had given her approval to our meal.  That was thrill enough.

When I turned to celebrate the divine Ms. Hazan, it was not the ribollita or the Bolognese sauce (one of my favorites) that I reached for, but for one of comfort food that is easy to make.  Given that this recipe needs only seven (yes, seven) easy-to-procure ingredients and one pot, this was an simple one to choose.  While it is not a pretty little dish, it is a comfy one.  It's a tasty pork shoulder braised in milk, which curdles into these golden, chewy, salty nuggets that lift a simple meat dish to a new level.  

And the bonus:  the meat and curds are equally tasty the next day (or even the day after) on toasted bread for lunch.  A sandwich worth raising in salute to one of the great chefs we lost in 2013. 

One Year Ago: Prawn and Ginger Dumplings
Two Years Ago: Duck Braised with Red Wine and Prunes
Three Years Ago: Sweet and Sour Pork with Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Pork Loin Braised in Milk, Bolognese Style
Adapted from  Marcela Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking

4-6 Servings

1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 1/2 boneless pork shoulder butt
Freshly ground pepper
2 1/2 to 3 cups whole milk
2 to 3 tablespoons water

1.  Choose a heavy-bottomed pot that can snugly accommodate the pork. Heat butter and oil on medium high.  When the butter foam subsides, brown the meat, fat side down first, then all sides evenly. If the butter becomes very dark, lower heat.

2.  Add salt, pepper and 1 cup milk. Turn heat down so that milk simmers slowly. Cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar. Cook at a lazy simmer for approximately 1 hour, turning the meat occasionally, until the milk has thickened into a nut-brown sauce. The exact time it will take depends largely on the heat of your burner and the thickness of your pot.

3.  When the milk reaches this stage of being thick and nut brown-- and not before (Marcela cautions)--add 1 cup milk. Simmer for 10 minutes, then cover the pot. After 30 minutes set the lid ajar. Continue to cook at minimum heat, and when you see there is no more liquid milk in the pot, add another 1/2 cup of milk.

4.  Continue cooking until the meat feels very tender when prodded with a fork and all the milk has coagulated into small nut-brown clusters. Altogether it will take between 2 1/2 and 3 hours. If before the meat is fully cooked you find that the liquid in the pot has evaporated, add another 1/2 cup of milk. Repeat if it should become necessary.

5.  When the pork is tender and all the milk in the pot has thickened into dark clusters, transfer the meat to a cutting board. Let it settle for a few minutes, then cut it into slices about 3/8 inch thick and arrange them on a warm serving platter.

6.  Tip the pot and spoon off most of the fat. There may be up to a cup. Be careful to leave all the coagulated milk clusters. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of water and boil away the water over high heat using a wooden spoon to scrape brown bits from the bottom and sides of the pot. Spoon all the pot juices over the pork and serve immediately.