Monday, July 28, 2008

How Compulsive Moms Have a Lemonade Stand

This morning, my boys decided to have a lemonade stand. The impetus for the idea was a plan they found in a library book that provided schematics for a lemonade cart. It used, among other things, a bicycle wheel and a great deal of lumber and hardware, for the price of which I could have taken my kids down to the chi-chi Sundance Cinema Cafe and treated them to an entire meal capped off with glasses of frosty fresh-squeezed lemonade while Robert Redford himself fanned us with palm fronds. I had a very hard time letting go of my paradigm of the lemonade stand as a profit-making venture. If we had used generic concentrate we might have broken even, but I would be embarrassed to serve it to my neighbors (some of whom I am related to). I am surely delusional in thinking that I have a rep to protect. But we made a simple syrup on the stovetop and went to buy some lemons to juice. They cost 79 cents per (why don't computer keyboards provide you with the "cents" symbol? so wrong) and we had to buy ten. Round up the price to account for sugar and ice, and conservatively this was an eight dollar pitcher of lemonade. The kids wanted to charge a dollar a glass, which would have actually been reasonable, but one always assumes one is surrounded by culinary philistines who DON"T UNDERSTAND what goes into a fine product such as ours. Deciding to take a loss, the price was set at two bits a glass (notice my end-run around the lack of "cents" symbol by retreating even further into antiquity) and our inventory snapped up by neighbors, our stand hastily dissassembled before we were shut down for health code violations.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

One Pie To Rule Them All

I'm cooking again. Yesterday this blueberry pie was produced from our kitchen. I had been discussing the topic of blueberry pie earlier in the week with the husband, because I had never made one. My apprehension about blueberry came from both my perception of it as sickeningly sweet, even unctuous, and as a sort of Pu-235 of pies, radiating a deep blue tincture, staining everything that comes within its orbit a permanent, regal purple, including but not limited to teeth. Caleb's principle objection was the cost of blueberries, overcome when his uncle presented us gratis with a large box of said berries. So - pie.
Two of my nieces came over for the pie-making, and while Eileen and Helen cheerfully participated in the rolling of the crust and the gentle folding of the lemon zest into the berries, my own kids industriously watched a Power Rangers video (Ike) and replaced the batteries in the toy light saber (Oscar). The girls were splendid. They embodied all of my early-motherhood fantasies in which my kids would calmly but enthusiastically help with every cooking project, adding an ingredient here and there and listening with rapt attention while I pedantically share my knowledge of cooking factoids both obscure (use vodka to moisten your pie crust!) and painfully obvious (the more you handle the dough, the dirtier it will get!). We even rolled out the extra crust dough and made cinnamon-sugar cookies. And then I smacked them all around a bit and lit up a Vantage Light.
Photo credit: fabulous husband Caleb.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Hold Steady!

Last night, I got to see The Hold Steady live. There was a ten-year-lull in my once-active concertgoing after getting married and having kids, but recently I've started going to live shows again (thanks, JLK!). I had forgotten how invigorating it is to see live music, and how the chemistry in the air can change in an instant when a group of musicians all of a sudden meshes together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. The communal experience of a live show fills me with what can only be described as joy. My ears are still ringing, though. The venue had an upper balcony with comfy seating and tables, perfect for an oldster like me for whom the mosh pit is no longer a viable or dignified option, but as it turned out the acoustics were radically different upstairs - muddy sound, vocals much lower in the mix. I dragged my recalcitrant husband down to the floor for the encore and discovered that the sound downstairs was MUCH better. Good to know for future shows at this particular venue. I don't have a whole lot of profundity on the subject of the show except that the unlikely frontman gave an EXTREMELY animated performance dressed in what looked like Dockers and a polo shirt. He looked less like the lead singer of a hipster band than the IT guy who has arrived to stop your computer from freezing up.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Imaginary French Dinner

Heat and several nights of work in a row have temporarily derailed the grandiose summer cooking plans, but what's really hanging me up is this: the next two recipes in a row provide the framework for a lovely, delicious, intimate French dinner party with fresh seasonal ingredients, and there is no configuration of guests in my life to whom this meal can be served. The recipes I want to cook are: a warm goat-cheese salad with fresh greens; and a cherry clafoutis. I have a great Provencal tomato tart recipe that would serve as the main dish for this hypothetical menu, which remains, alas, solely in my imagination. It would be a great meal to serve to four adults without kids. Who might these adults be? One possibility would be to cook this food for myself, husband and two kids, with the result being two plates of uneaten salad (the kids') and my ending the dinner feeling (1) like I had just busted my arse for very little gratification and no good reason, and (2) intensely depressed. The special brand of depression I reserve for recipes that flop or are insufficiently appreciated. Another scenario involves inviting a childless couple over to consume this meal after the kids go to bed. But we don't know any of these. Having kids has this affect on one's social life: your friends are entire families, not individuals or couples. The last possibility is to invite a family and serve the "nice" food to the grownups and make macaroni for the kids to eat. I can't put my finger on precisely why this seems not-fun to me. The public and official abandonment of my childrens' potential to eat adventurous food? The specter of a pot of Kraft mac bubbling on the stove while my tart bakes beneath it in the oven only a foot away? The macaroni silently making a mockery of my fancy cooking? Feh. Stay tuned for the solution to this dire and globally-significant dilemma.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My House is Mobbed With Children

I am currently in charge of three of my sister's four children in addition to my own two. The grand total, in case you didn't major in math, is five. Five kids + ninety-degree heat= ok, I can't do this any more. They are installed in front of a Harry Potter movie, all thoroughly wilted. The culinary angle on this - there always is one - is the snack I have been preparing them for the past hour straight. Apple slices, trimmed of seeds and any evidence of core, spread with peanut butter and sprinked with miniature chocolate chips. Plate after plate of apple slices. I feel like I'm catering hors-d'oeuvres for a wedding reception attended exclusively by kindergarteners. Because I am compulsive, the slices are arranged in a nifty pinwheel on the plate, but my design lasts for less than fifteen seconds. Every time I think they can't possibly consume another apple, the plate comes back to the kitchen empty. My kids are as culpable in this mass consumption as their cousins are, if not more so - the addition of chocolate chips to an otherwise-healthy snack is a real novelty to them. I'm sure there is some way to add chocolate chips to, say, cauliflower, that they would love. Maybe Jessica Seinfeld plagiarized something like that in her annoying cookbook.

Having many kids around the house is not that unusual. Some configuration of the four cousins is over here from time to time as payback for all of the times my sister and brother-in-law have provided child care for my own maniacal and often-destructive kids. I would feel less guilty, in fact, if the cousins were over here more. BUT while I was spelunking the interweb for an amusing picture of a large group of children, I stumbled across the most car-wreck-fascinating blog I have ever encountered in my entire life. It is called "Lady of Virtue" and is illustrated by the picture above with the gal cheerfully feeding the horse with its head in her kitchen. When I first saw this picture, I thought, HA! Somebody else has a super-dry and sarcastic sense of humor and is blogging about their family. But no. This is a dead-earnest blog by a woman who is homeschooling her FOURTEEN children. Now I feel like a real whiner. I think I'll go cut up another apple.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Mother (F&*%ing) Sauces

This demented-looking chappy is Careme, famous dead French chef and codifier of the four sauces upon which frog cuisine is based: Allemande, Bechamel, Espagnole, and Veloute. (There are accents sprinkled throughout these sauce names, but after spending the last 45 minutes wrangling with sauce no.2, I can't be bothered.) These are called the Mother Sauces, and I've made a mini-career writing-wise of avoiding writing a heavily-metaphorical essay combining the subjects of cooking and motherhood and speculating as to whether success in the kitchen is necessary for nourishing, maternal parenting, blah blah blah. The point being that in my own decades-long kitchen career, I've only had occasion to make Bechamel (many times) and it NEVER goes quite the way it's supposed to. It would be easy to blame this on my stove, which has gas burners labeled "Maximum Output" but seem in reality to have only two settings - half-dead Zippo Lighter and SCORCH. According to the make-and-freeze lasagna primavera recipe I'm making, the white sauce that serves as its base should thicken up after only 2 or 3 minutes of simmering. Like fun it will. I've had the same experience making custard (lemon curd, specifically) but those recipes at least provide a temperature to shoot for, allowing me to hover obsessively over the pan with my digital instant-read thermometer reassuring myself that breaking, curdling, burning, or any other of the horrors that can befall a sauce will not happen to mine.

There is something very wrong with the fact that I can make my own snowflake-shaped marshmallows to float in my hot cocoa and yet am so bedeviled by this simple sauce. I will not be present when this particular lasagna is served - I'm working through four dinners in a row this week, so while guilt is not listed in the recipe, it is definitely among the ingredients. I will have to hear second-hand whether the lasagna is creamy and cheesy and holds together as it ought, or whether the removal of the first piece causes the entire rest of the thing to slump despondently into the hole.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Deal-Breaker.

In the same way that I will cook, order or consume almost anything that contains peanut butter, there is conversely a deal-breaker: an ingredient that will put me off an otherwise-appetizing dish for no good reason. Or at least, reasons that only seem reasonable to me. That would be DRIED FRUIT in any savory application except for salads. (In a salad, I am perfectly thrilled to encounter a dried cherry or cranberry or blueberry, but oddly, not a raisin. Blergh.) If there are sultanas or currants in, say, a delicious curry, I will leave them out. It's mostly a texture thing. Fruit that has been dried and then reconstituted in a liquid or sauce skeeves me out. The skin is sort of baggy and the fruit is flaccid, like the miniature internal organ of some wee disgusting creature. The sac bursts disconcertingly in one's mouth, releasing a frisson of discordantly sweet glop amid an otherwise perfectly-enjoyable meat dish. Plus, there is the whole logic breakdown involved in drying out a piece of fruit only to re-moisten it later on. I could understand this if refrigeration were not widely available. And intellectually, I suppose I get the idea of dessicating the fruit and then REPLACING its fluids with whatever liqueur or what have you that you've decided to macerate it in.

This is also one of those realms in which the sweet-savory boundaries are more strict for me. When I was dating my now-husband and trying to impress him with my mad cooking skillz, I made him a dinner of pork tenderloin with an accompanying compote-type sauce made of Italian plums despite my sister Catherine's dire warning: "Guys don't understand fruit with meat." She thought that my presenting my man with pork and plums together, I would make his head explode with the incongruity of it all, he would be unable to wrap his head around the illogic of my creation, and then he would dump me, none of which happened. However, I still won't eat creepy little raisins. You can't make me.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Peanut Butter Closes the Deal.

I think everyone who cooks - or eats, for that matter - has at least one particular ingredient that he or she can't resist in any form. Whether it pops up in a recipe or on a menu, something that gives you the gustatory equivalent of tunnel vision, like in the movie of "West Side Story" when Tony and Maria spot each other across the dance floor and everybody else becomes all blurry and they start playing that song "Maria." For me, I am embarrassed to report, peanut butter falls into that category. Surely this is to some extent because of repetitive childhood brainwashing - "here, have a peanut-butter sandwich" - but I've been an adult making independent menu choices for some time (or so I like to tell myself) and still I keep coming back to peanut butter. Obviously, it represents comfort and familiarity, but I think it's also incredibly versatile, and as I've gotten older, its savory applications have revealed themselves - particularly in Asian cuisine. One of my darkest times food-wise was my college semester abroad in a country (Italy) where peanut butter could not be found in any grocery store. I finally located a jar of the all-natural variety that requires stirring, which was a poor substitute for my beloved Jif or Skippy. I finally located a jar of American-style PB in a Swiss grocery store and sat in a park in Lausanne eating it straight with a plastic spoon. Yum.
My latest recipe was a batch of triple-chocolate peanut butter sandwich cookies. The cookies themselves were flavored with Dutch-process cocoa powder and a bar of Ghirardelli 100% cacao chocolate, with wee chunks of milk chocolate mixed in, and a peanut-butter filling was squished between them. Sort of like the artisanal analog to a Reese's peanut-butter cup. My kids did not participate because I permitted a Power Rangers DVD to darken our doorstep yesterday, and they could not be torn away from the television to participate in the cookie project. The cookies themselves were a smashing success. The addition of confectioner's sugar gave the peanut butter that dryish, amost doughy consistency that the filling of Reese's has. After the Biryani Fiasco, I was ready for a good, solid, hit-it-out-of-the-park recipe, which this was.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In Which Steph Falls Off A Skateboard.

So my kids are into skateboarding right now, for which I am to blame, having provided them with a trilogy of Tony Hawk's Trick Tips DVDs from the library and then hooking them up with a freecycled skateboard. Said skateboard is very much a children's model, decorated with the Cat in the Hat and featuring a deck and hardware much smaller than standard. I used to skateboard circa 1987-88 and was frankly not very good. My big trick was Going Down The Sidewalk, with the occasional Turning The Corner thrown in when I was feeling flashy. But my boys kept veering off of the sidewalk and onto the grass and I finally grew frustrated enough watching that I decided to show them my (limited) skating chops and demonstrate the way you can steer the board from side to side.

A thirty-five-year-old woman who gets onto a skateboard has no right to complain when she gets what's coming to her, namely road rash and possible sprains of wrist, elbow and shoulder. Particularly when that woman, setting a HORRIBLE example for her kids, was not wearing any protective gear. The last twenty-four hours have revealed to me that (1) my body is not as resilient as it once was when it comes to recovering from calamities, and (2) even at my relatively advanced age, there are still unplumbed depths and dimensions of my own idiocy to be explored.

In a totaly unrelated moment of pop-cultural endorsement, I am recommending the DVD of Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis biopic "Control", which is all about the lead singer of Joy Division, shot in stunning B&W and completely required viewing for anybody who has ever admired either the music of the band or the album photography of Corbijn, who is probably best known for shooting the cover of U2's "The Joshua Tree" and a great many videos for that band, for Depeche Mode and numerous others. Everybody go put "Control" on your Netflix queue. Except for my mom, who reads this blog and would absolutely hate every single second of it including the font used for the credits.

Boys: "Biryani - blechh!"

Above you see the first actual picture of a dish I cooked for my kids, who absented themselves from this project as soon as they grokked the amount of vegetables involved. You can see the saffron and cashews and, on the right side, all of the tasty herbs and spices - garlic, ginger, cumin seeds, coriander, ground cloves and cinnamon sticks. The frozen peas didn't make it into the glamour shot because they just weren't photogenic.
Here is a verbatim transcript of the conversation that took place in my kitchen while I was sauteeing the vegetables and spices:
OSCAR: (suspiciously) Something smells odd down here.
IKE: (impassioned) Let's get out of the room!
OSCAR: (more suspiciously) Is that the biryani?
IKE: Cough! Cough! (Imagine the kind of stagy, exaggerated cough a vehement non-smoker might emit if somebody sat down on the other end of a park bench and fired up a Parliament)
Exeunt boys.
So despite the fact that the final result of the project was a healthy dish comprised of layers of saffron-infused rice and gently, aromatically spiced vegetables topped with a tangle of caramelized onions, the kids were having none of it. While my fabulous husband enthusiastically scarfed down about half of the recipe, the boys were willing to forego dessert in order to avoid eating my vegetable biryani. I liked it - cooking with saffron is always a revelation. A tiny half-teaspoon turned the entire dish canary-yellow and perfumed our entire house with its aroma. It is as much a scent as a flavor, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the boys failed to appreciate a dish that featured saffron as its primary spice. So I won't be cooking biryani again, because I have a primal aversion to sitting at the dinner table and watching my children reject my cooking. Bah! Humbug!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Doing Things In An Orderly Fashion

The higher-than-usual intensity of the cooking at my house this summer springs from my determination to work my way through a stack of recipes I've photocopied or torn from various foodie sources over the past five years or so. And by "work my way through" I mean ACTUALLY COOK. Some misfiring synapse in my brain will not let me actually throw away any of these recipes until they have been attempted - a synapse which is probably nestled right in between the one that forces me to leave a single bite of food on every plate, and the one that won't let me wear brown shoes, ever, and somewhere in the neighborhood of the bit of DNA helix that makes me think that the cover of "Macarthur Park" by The Negro Problem is a work of genius.

So I have a compulsivity problem that manifests itself in certain things needing to be done a certain way, in a particular order, and that causes me a deep satisfaction when things are done to completion, preferably while following a set of numbered instructions. Like following recipes, or knitting sweaters, or engaging in the other great project of the summer: listening to every one of the currently 6,000+ (and growing!) songs on my iPod in alphabetical order, carefully curating and editing as I go along. This started about four days ago and we just listened to "All The Young Dudes" by Mott The Hoople, just to give you an idea of the magnitude of this Project. I feel like the guy who is carving the Crazyhorse statue must feel.

This is not the first time I've done something like this. As a kid, I used to listen to all of my cassettes in alphabetical order all the time, usually over the course of a rainy weekend, beginning with ABC and working my way through Huey Lewis and the News' "Sports" album and the Duran Duran oeuvre all the way to Weird Al Yankovic, who is to twelve-year-olds what Robert Benchley is to subscribers of the New Yorker. I don't know what compels me to do things like this, but they are enjoyable in an itch-scratching way that only fellow possessors of this urge can understand. It should come as no surprise, then, that my professional destination is the public library, where things are shelved according to a beautiful and time-honored system that, even though it was invented long before the advent of many of its subjects (computer science, skateboarding, hip-hop, string theory) is flexible and capacious enough to include them all and more every year. The library is a splendidly orderly place. The flip side of this is that if an item gets misplaced, it as much as winks out of existence entirely. Whoever said that matter can neither be created nor destroyed had obviously never encounterd a mis-shelved library book, which disappears as thoroughly as if it had dropped through a wormhole into another dimension. And that's all I have to say about that.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Missing Picture.

Here it is, the cake which most wonderfully combines The Grotesque with The Buttercream.


It is my freaking, J.C.-on-a-popsicle-stick, tapdancing birthday. I am 35 today, a number that feels at a total disconnect to my age. On the one hand, one feels as if one has been alive FOREVER, and on the other, 35 is too old by far to still be worrying about (1) acne (2) what people I went to high school with think about how I look and (3) making perfectly-curated mix tapes for people upon whom I want to force my taste in music (The Handsome Family! Bill Monroe! "Teenage Kicks" by the Undertones overandoverandover!). No cooking for me tonight - I am working through the dinner hour in a passive-aggressive maneuver that prevents my birthday from being underwhelming before it even starts. BUT because I am pathetic, I told the lifeguards at our swimming pool to give me the Tootsie Pops that the three other birthday-celebrants were getting, even though all three of them were in the single-digits, age-wise.

Additionally, my husband has come across something called The Compact - a group of people organized through the Interweb and swearing to spend money on nothing for a year besides food and medicines. Well, "food" constitutes a fairly continent-sized carve-out in my book, encompassing everything from Taco Bell on up to things like 6-year-aged Manchego cheese and, you know - crab legs. Keeping the grocery bill down in These Hard Times is a massive issue in my house nowadays. I managed to spend $300 more on groceries last month than the month before, with nary a truffle or a cave-aged cheese to show for it. The only way I imagine this could have happened is if the budgeting software has accidentally categorized Anthropologie as a grocery store.

And no, it is not Ronald Reagan's birthday. I just think this is a hilarious cake, and I want it. I actually share my birthday with Ringo Starr, a.k.a. The Worst Beatle - the one who didn't write any of the songs and plays state fairs.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Hey, Baby, It's The Fourth of July

Independence Day is my hands-down favorite holiday of all time. Here's why: to start with, it's nicely inclusive. If you are within the borders of the U.S.A. you can celebrate it regardless of things like, say, religion (I'm looking at YOU, Christmas). It's nice to have a day when I can feel patriotic without nasty partisanship inflecting it. It's in summer. It centers around delicious food - coolers full of ice and drinks in glass bottles, barbecue, pie, whatever your variation on Flag Cake might be. It's sort of a second-tier holiday that your in-laws probably won't get too het up about your choosing to spend it with friends. And it has superb music. In addition to all of the stirring patriotic music involving fifes, which get their place in the musical sun precisely one day a year, there is the BEST holiday song ever recorded. I am speaking, of course, of Bruce Springsteen's "Fourth Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)." Which just ties it all together like the rug does to The Dude's room in "The Big Lebowski." Good on ya, Bruce.
As if all of this weren't enough, there are fireworks.
And my own local bit of treasured hokum: at the branch library where I work, the neighborhood marching band assembles for their one and only annual practice sesh right on the sidewalk, treating us to lovably amateurish renditions of "You're A Grand Old Flag" and such in preparation for the parade. This year, they added "So Happy Together" to their repertoire. It feels Mayberry-ish in the best possible way. So happy fourth to the three people who read my blog.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Falling on the Sword

Tomorrow night, I will be working through the dinner hour. Because I'm feeling martyr-ish today, I'm spending my evening cooking and freezing baked stuffed shells for the boys and their dad to dine on in my absence. That is the kind of long-suffering mother I am: I'm going to be cooking them dinner FROM A MILE AWAY.

Baked shells are incredibly putzy. I know my mother made these for us when we are kids, but it's hard to imagine any Seventies mother, even my own incredibly handy and capable one, piping ricotta cheese into pasta shells. The only think I remember her using her pastry bag for was decorating a Wilton R2-D2 cake. I filled mine by putting the cheesy glop (ricotta, eggs, mozz, parm, basil and garlic) into a clear Ziploc with a hole stipped in a corner. A clear plastic bag of cheese filling just looks demented. The temptation to take it to the top of a tall building and drop it on somebody's head just proves how far I am from being a genuine grownup.

One tries to be a good mother. Loving, accepting of the kids' flaws, giving of oneself without expecting anything in return but the joy of parenting. But I suspect myself of the bottomless capacity for setting up crazy guilt trips such as the one I will be laying down tomorrow night as I slave away at my job while my children dine joyously on my homemade baked shells with marinara sauce.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

We Make Our Own Pizza

Tonight's menu is pizza. We make our own. This does not entail pouring sauce from a jar onto a lilypad of premade dough. It's all from scratcheroo. If I sound like I'm both crowing and looking down my nose at you simultaneously, you may be right. As much as I love all of the varied types of commercial pizza out there, from high (wood-fired with prosciutto at a sit-down restaurant) to low (frozen Pizza For One), I can't bring myself to spend money on something that I know how to make myself for a fraction of the cost.

The mystical Pizza Knowledge was bestowed on me at a cooking class I took at Orange Tree Imports
before I had kids. The flour is a special high-gluten stuff from an Italian specialty store that makes the dough marvellously elastic and well-behaved. The sauce is straight 6-in-1 ground tomatoes from a can. I cook the end result on a scary-looking pizza stone that is splotched with the charred remains of Pizzas Past. The pies are always a bit misshapen, or as I call it, "rustic." I get tired of my own pizza sometimes but ordering in would feel like a deep, personal failure. This is probably something appropriately worked through in therapy.

On the horizon: homemade chocolate/peanut butter sandwich cookies; vegetable biryani; mushroom lasagna.