Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Bird is the Word

For the last week and a half, my sister's family has, perhaps ill-advisedly, left me in charge of their menagerie of pets. I've developed an intense, personal philosophy on the subject of "companion animals," driven partially by my aversion to the handling and disposal of their spoor, and also by my firm conviction that there is no animal alive whose lot would be improved by living under my roof. I lack the selflessness required to devote myself to the care of a creature that will never grow up and be able watch "Monty Python" episodes with me - and get the jokes. The occasional pet-care gig allows me to reinforce my views, which I like to think are solidly pro-animal but are probably just pro-laziness. Included in my temporary zoo this past week were the clutch of fowl pictured above. The photo was taken at the request of my lovely niece Helen, who is the birds' devoted mistress. She was so bereft while on vacation that she asked me to email her a picture.

My personal experience with these birds is that their personalities, such that they are, are insufficiently magnetic to cause any real bonding to take place. I've fed them chicken feed (looks like grey Grape-Nuts cereal), cracked corn (and I don't care...), organic greens and ground-up oyster shell. I've interrupted the same snowy-colored bird in the middle of the egg-laying process more than once, an experience not unlike opening the bathroom door when the biffy is already occupied. The chicken eyeballed me with just that sort of a look, with accompanying remonstrative clucking: "Shut the door!" I have also discovered the one rooster in flagrante with each and every member of its avian harem. The rooster is named Jesse, but I have determined to name him (privately, in my head) either Uday or Qusay, whichever of Saddam Hussein's sons was the more perverse. He does not relent in his vigorous lovemaking even when I gently nudge him aside to top off the water tank - just scoots aside a bit, nonplussed. He is one determined pecker.

The culinary silver lining here are the eggs - three a day, like clockwork, as fresh as they come. I already have a source for sustainable, fresh eggs free of all the crud that is found in the factory-farmed variety, so the additional bounty has got me scrambling (HA!) for recipes that consume copious amounts of egg. Spanish tortilla is a strong contender, as it uses the whole egg. Many egg-heavy recipes tend to use lots of whites (meringue) or lots of yolks (lemon curd, the most delicious substance known to man), but not both. I love a soft-cooked egg on toast for breakfast, but it's not the most efficient attack, egg-consumption-wise.

As of this evening, the little cluckers will no longer be my responsibility, but we'll be enjoying the eggs for a while yet. Although I don't find them to be compelling conversationalists, even in their native tongue (beak?), I have to respect their ability to produce one of the more delicious, versatile foods extant. Human eggs, by comparison, are microscopic and have no gastronomic potential at all unless fertilized, incubated for nine months, nurtured for eighteen years and then subjected to a stage at The French Laundry. So chalk one up for the chickens. And another, if you count coq au vin, which I do, but Helen most emphatically does NOT.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Team Pie

My niece Helen turned eight recently. She's hands-down the most appreciative diner who passes through my door nowadays. Not only does she effusively vocalize her appreciation for food, she backs it up by taking seconds and cleaning her plate. What's more, she will specifically request certain dishes in advance, which to me is the ultimate proof that Helen is not just being polite (unless she's a gastro-masochist of some sort and likes to intentionally subject herself to food she dislikes in order to boost the cook's self-esteem). When her mom asked her what she wanted for her birthday dinner, Helen's chosen menu featured chicken and dumplings followed by peach pie - both dishes I feed her family regularly. I go way back with chicken and dumplings. My mom used to make a pot of it on top of our wood-burning stove during the many epic wintertime power outages of my Connecticut childhood and deliver it to one of our elderly neighbors. I've found a recipe I like and serve it to my sister's family because it's one of the few things in my repertoire that reliably serves ten. The dumplings are highly coveted, and I've considered making this dinner in a wider, flatter pan to create more liquid surface area, thus accommodating a greater number of dumplings.
What you see above is a sequential photo-tableau of the dinner - the pot of chicken and dumplings, served at the table right off of the stove and usually as hot as magma. Afterwards, my niece Eileen lit candles on the pie (frozen back in August when the peaches were at their sweetest and most delectable) and I played the "Happy Birthday" song on my ukulele. You see Helen in the next-to final picture, radiant in all her rosy-cheeked ginger-haired splendor, preparing to tuck into peach pie in November. The pie itself retained its shape famously, not slumping into the hole created by removal of the first piece the way fruit pies do so often and so frustratingly. We all went home stuffed with sugar and carbohydrates and pleased with Helen's choice of a home-cooked meal over a pizza at some establishment that also features a video arcade. What can I say? The kid has good taste.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On The Importance of Pictures in Cookbooks

I dislike cookbooks without pictures. Perhaps this is indicative of a lack of imagination on my part, but if a cookbook lacks illustration I'm likely to just pass it over entirely. A perfect example of this is Bake Until Bubbly, an enticingly-titled casserole coookbook from last year that seemed right up my alley: an encyclopedia of one-dish comfort food retooled for the 'oughties with an elegant package and not a Frito topping in sight. The cover featured a baked something-or-other in a posh Emile Henri dish with a blanket of brown-speckled cheese on top. But inside? No pictures. Feh!
I carve out an exception for Joy Of Cooking, my oldest and most-battered cookbook. That one does feature useful diagrams (its schematic on how to remove the wishbone from a chicken was a particular boon), but its recipes are by an large picture-free. However, just about everything in Joy is so standard-issue that an explanatory image is unnecessary. I know, within a certain margin of error, what meatloaf, or guacamole, and banana bread are meant to look like. It's the new stuff, the exotica, about which I need a visual hint. I encounter the same obstacle while ordering food at Asian restaurants. The menu descriptions tend to be workmanlike lists of ingredients, many of them almost indistinguishable from one another: basil, garlic, ginger, onions, etcetera. Obviously, the dishes are very different, but without knowing the proportions of the flavors, amount, color and consistency of sauce, I'm at a loss, and order with the precision of throwing a dart at a dartboard. Pictures would help. Is this dish going to be brown, or green, or some shade of red or orange?
Because I attack the preparation of a recipe the way a model enthusiast assembles an airplane kit, I'm always thrilled when something I make looks exactly like the photo. I recently found myself in possession of a number of long, bright-red peppers and no idea as to how they might be prepared. In one of those pleasing instances of serendipity, I found a simple recipe for a mezze involving the grilling of said peppers on a day lovely enough to fire up my grill. The book was called Vefa's Kitchen, a gorgeous compendium of Greek recipes almost entirely unuseful to a person whose food budget rarely accomodates the splurge of lamb or seafood. The peppers came out just precisely the way they were supposed to, and what's more, the bowl I served them in, a much-used wedding gift from our friend Zoe, echoed the graphics on the cover of the cookbook. Happiness. Here's the recipe:
1. Roast some long, sweet pointy Italian red peppers - you can throw in a spicy green one or two if you like. I grilled them until the outsides were charred, but you can do this over a gas stove by spearing them with a long fork and turning them over in the open flame of a burner (remove the thingamabob that holds your pots off the burner first) until they are evenly blotched with black. Immediately, put them in a container with a lid, a bowl covered with cling wrap, or a paper bag closed with a rubber band. This steams the skins. Once they're cool enough to handle, scrape off the skin of the peppers with a knife. They will be red and flaccid.
2. Dress the peppers with a dressing made of a 2-to-1 ratio of olive oil and red wine vinegar, seasoned to your taste with pinches of salt, pepper, and/or oregano. Use as much or as little as you please. These are supposed to be better the next day, but I couldn't resist eating them right away. Serve them on a lovely plate or dish.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Brown Food; Or, The Answer to a Hypothetical

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time pondering hypotheticals that would never, ever come to pass. How would I survive if I were trapped in an avalanche? What would I do if (and WHEN, darn it, WHEN) a magical time-stopping amulet came into my possession? And given the choice to eat only one color of food for the rest of my life, what color would I choose? This last one was a real conundrum, even though of the three I've just mentioned it's certainly the least likely to come to fruition. Nonetheless, it's been good for a fair number of amusing dinner-table conversations over the years. What would you choose?

Red is usually high on the list for me. Cherries, berries, strawberry ice cream and shakes on the sweet side; tomato anything on the savory side (including, I think, pizza), spicy soups and curries swimming in rich, spicy sauce. Red foods are full of zest and life. Apples are red, but only some and only with skins on. Which brings one to white foods: bread, all dairy, mashed potatoes (a HUGE plus in the white column), bananas, pizza bianca, fettucine alfredo. Do apples count as red or white? What about a sandwich on white bread without any visible filling? And with visible filling, which color rules? Is all varicolored food off the table in my hypothetical, or is the dominant color dispositive? And did law school truly and permanently alter my brain chemistry? (the answer to this last one is a likely "yes")

Brown food wins. I heard on a food podcast recently that to the American palate, "caramelized" is the most-favored flavor of anything and everything. And caramelized food is brown. Almost anything worth eating can be made brown and, in the process, delicious. Apple pie? Brown. Lamb rogan josh? Brown. Chocolate ice cream, beef stroganoff, baked potatoes, roast chicken? All brown. Beer! Mexican coca-cola! Sole meuniere! The list goes on and on. Maybe if I lived in a warmer climate with better year-round access to the full Roy G. Biv of fresh produce I'd feel differently, but when the temperature drops below, say, 50 degrees and stays there for eight months of the year, you want food that is warm and tastes warm. Creme brulee is totally brown, if you do it properly.

The above poorly-lit photos represent an entirely brown meal I served my family this week. The overall brownness was a combination of serendipity, seasonality, and sales (on chuck roast, which I use to make beef stew). Beef stew was my number-one favorite meal as a kid. When I asked my mother later in life for her recipe, she simply said, "I just use beef Soup Starter [pictured above]." That doesn't help me. They no longer make Soup Starter, for one, and I'm not a "starter" type of gal. My beef stew takes about four hours to make and tastes pretty darned good. As does my pumpkin pie, with crust made from scratch. Canned pumpkin, though. There is a quorum among experts that canned is in fact superior to fresh pumpkin where pies are concerned, and having done it the hard way once I'm inclined to agree. My pie above is cracked. You wanna make something of it? It tasted AWESOME and, like the rest of the meal, was well camouflaged on my brown tabletop; we had to just grope around for it.
Next post: some VERY red food.

Monday, November 2, 2009


No excuse for the lag in blogging. I have a half a summer's worth of lovely pictures of fruit tarts and salads that have not been dissected and analyzed and transformed into pop-culture-referential blog posts. Tonight we made nuggets. I'm reading a book called "Too Many Cooks: Kitchen Adventures with 1 Mom, 4 Kids and 104 Recipes." Even though this woman has clearly stolen my concept, I'm reading it and finding it less unbearably smug than I thought. The author, Emily Franklin, clearly has her shizz together. Her complement of kids outnumbers mine by 100% and she still manages to cook with flair and a sense of adventure, if her book is to be believed. Oscar spotted her "Mom Nuggets" recipe, which is provided in its early pages as an example of an uncharacteristic capitulation to kid-friendly cooking (her swell kids bravely eat curries and tofu and what-have-you for the entire rest of the book), and that was what Osk wanted us to have. He rarely weighs in with a specific meal request, so when he does, it is taken seriously. I'd like him to cultivate some joie de manger as well as relieve a little of the neverending freaking burden of figuring out what to make for dinner, a mental millstone that is ten times more onerous than the actual cooking.
So the nuggets. Photo One here is Ike's illustration of a Swissair passenger jet being loaded with a supply of "mom nuggets" for, he says, "a whole year and more." The second picture depicts the meal itself, which looks gratifyingly (to me) like we dumped a Happy Meal onto his plate. However, our nuggets are accompanied by roasted turnips from the veggie box; I should say roasted turnip singular, since we served our entire family from a single 'nip the size of a baby's head. The honey-mustard sauce we also made ourselves, although we could have probably called my sister across the street and dipped (literally) into her personal collection of scrounged McDonalds nugget sauces. The dinner was a smashing success with the under-10 set (except for the turnips, natch) and yielded enough leftover nugs for tomorrow night's dinner, when I'll be working. Here's the recipe, adapted from Emily Franklin:
2 lbs boneless chicken, white OR dark
1/2 c whole-wheat flour
4 eggs
2 1/2 c panko bread crumbs
olive oil
Cut the chicken into nugget shapes. Do not use dinosaur cookie cutters, because there is something seriously demented about a dead animal formed into the shape of another extinct animal. Dredge in flour, dip in beaten eggs, roll in panko. Set them on a plate to get them all racked up for frying. Heat the oven to 300 whilst you heat a goodly amount of olive oil in a nonstick skillet at med-high. Brown the nuggets in the oil, flipping once. As they are done, put them on a cookie sheet in the oven to keep warm. When they're all done, raise the heat to 375 and leave them in there for a few minutes, or as long as you think they need to be cooked through and/or as brown as you like. Depending on the bulkiness of your nuggets, they may be entirely cooked through straight out of the pan, but you may not want to serve them that way to your family, who will scorch their tongues on the molten-lava-hot chicken.
You can freeze the extras and reheat them on a cookie sheet. Screw you, McDonalds!!!!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Madison Mini Marathon!!!

Another digressive, non-food-related blog post. This morning, my better half and I ran the inaugural Madison Mini Marathon (which was, in fact, a half marathon. Thirteen miles and change). It was our big race for the summer, and only the fourth foot-race I've ever run. It was quite chilly for August, and overcast as well - almost ideal running conditions. But as you can see from the way I am cheerfully snuggled into my sweatshirt in the photo above, it was VERY cold once the running stopped and the resting began. The explicit purpose of this post is to crow about my 1:43:47 finish, which was well within both my stated personal goal (less than 2 hours) and my actual personal goal (less than 1:45). I felt like I was going to purge my breakfast onto the pavement at the end, which is a sign that one has given until one could give no more, running-wise, and my legs felt like two wooden planks. By the time I was able to locate Caleb in the crowd so that he could use our gear-check tag to get my sweatshirt, I was halfway between shivering and teeth-chattering. One decontaminating shower and restorative nap later and I'm feeling pretty good about the whole episode, but unsure whether a full marathon is in my future. Running is such a mentally demanding sport; I'm not sure if I have the toughness above the shoulders to take it to the next competitive level.

Food-related posts will resume with the beginning of the Two Dudes' school year, hopefully. Fall is nearly upon us, and with it some of my favorite cooking of the year - one-pot, slow-cooked dinners that spend all day developing big flavors on a small budget. Example: anything with the word blanquette in it. How great is it that a food that gets you satisfyingly warm is called, well, a blanket? I wish I would have had one on me this morning after the race. A stew OR a blanket, either would have done nicely.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Caleb and Barack Obama!!!

Today is not only the birthday of Our President, Barack Obama, it is also the birthday of my really quite wonderful husband of ten years, Caleb. Even before there were Two Dudes to cook for and with, he was the first Dude in my kitchen and has put up with a wife who is inclined to flights of fancy in the kitchen with general good humor, perhaps because he usually likes to eat what I'm cooking. A brief food-based history of my husband and I:

When we were dating, before they met him, my family suspected he was gay because of his willingness to go to the Farmer's Market with me and shop for fresh herbs, and more so when they heard of his appreciation of my pork tenderloin accompanied by plums ("Men," my older sister warned me, "don't understand meat with fruit.") He did a convincing imitation of enjoying cooking with me until we got married, at which point he abandoned the kitchen altogether. He learned to cook absolutely nothing from his mother, and spent his bachelor years eating frozen dinners and dried pasta with Newman's Own sauce, despite what is in fact a pretty discerning palate. He's a very private dude - this blog post is quite possibly his worst nightmare. I became very upset with him one summer when, after an entire month's worth of half-eaten pastries, he finally confessed that he "doesn't like pie after the first day." (this has changed, thank goodness.) He can actually cook anything he puts his mind to, including lasagna, but doesn't like to share the kitchen. He is also, as you can see above, cute as a sackful of puppies.

The dish you see my birthday-celebrating husband eating above is called Beef In Barolo, one of those recipes that transforms an inexpensive cut of beef into a delicious entree by cooking it for hours submerged in a pricey bottle of wine. Barolo, which I have never actually sipped from a glass, reportedly sells for $30 a bottle everywhere except for Trader Joe's, where it can be had for $13. Sadly, this is still on the spendy side for me when it comes to wine, but whenever they have it in stock at T.J.'s, I pick up a bottle to keep in reserve. If you have a bottle of Barolo in the pantry and a chuck roast in the freezer, you have a really lovely and presentable falling-apart-meat-and-sauce main course for your family or a cozy winter dinner party. If there is enough interest in this, I will post the recipe and then you can all rush down to Trader Joe's and ask for their $13 Barolo, which will create demand and subsequently a more consistent supply of cheap Barolo at all of their locations, hopefully including the one I shop at. Everybody wins!!!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Steph Is The Grillmistress. Bow Before Her.

I have a long-standing love of kitchen gadgetry. Marriage, in addition to uniting me for all eternity with a really swell husband, also provided me with the opportunity to register for an entire kitchensworth (yes, this is a unit of measurement. I just invented it.) of gadgetry, from austere German cutlery to useful whimsies like truffle shavers and ice-cream machines, all of which I have put through their paces over the years. The grill in my backyard has historically not been one of these gizmos. Maybe because grilling is such a male-associated skill, I've taken a hands-off attitude towards the whole thing, hoping in vain that the aforementioned swell husband might someday take up apron and tongs in order to supply me with tasty charred meats during the brief Wisconsin summers.

That has not happened. Thus, I've decided that this is the Summer I Learn To Grill. We have a gas grill, which has the benefit of ease but lacks a quality I'll call keeping-it-realness. I learned how to change the tank of gas on the fly over Memorial Day weekend, and the episode emboldened me, grillwise. The above shots represent my first attempt at grilling this year, a compromise between the forces of Eating Healthy and Grilltasticness, an ineffable quality that my health-conscious better half believes to be highly carcinogenic. The tasty blackened bits on grilled food, he contents, will make us all rotten with cancer, as crispy and delectable as they are. In a concession to ever-present health concerns, I decided to troll the produce section for anything vegetal that I thought might be grillworthy: corn, Vidalia onion slices, red peppers, portobello mushroom caps and asparagus. The mushrooms were, by my lights, the most delicious. I read somewhere that affixing the asparagus spears to bamboo skewers raft-style, as you can see I did above, would help avoid losing precious green shoots into the fires of Mordor and also make for ease of flipping.

I refrained from brushing these veggies with olive oil until the end, at which point there was some drizzling (I picked this tip up from the Mario Batali/Gwyneth Paltrow "Made In Spain" series, about which my beloved Anthony Bourdain has asked the pertinent question: "Why did you [Mario Batali] go to Spain with the only bitch who doesn't eat ham?"). The kids thought this was a pretty poor excuse for a grilled meal, as no pigs or cows were sacrificed, chopped into bits and either formed into patties or crammed into casings in the process. Caleb and I thought it was just dandy.

I'm a little behind in my posts, to the point where I have pictures of food that I have only vague memories of cooking. This is a good weeding-editing method, as it turns out, and remaining Summer Cooking posts will contain only Highly Memorable Meals. Including - wait for it - The Night I Served My Family Liver and Onions. Coming soon to an obscure, seldom-read blog near you.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Pie vs. Cobbler: Cage Match!!!

It's been a while since I last posted; summer vacation is in full swing, and it began with a whirlwind of local-Midwest travel and a lot of work. I spent the first few weeks working lots of evening shifts at the library, which has meant not a lot of cooking dinner for my family. Hence, no cooking, no blog posts. I'll be trying to remedy that in upcoming weeks as our CSA season has (finally) begun and I'm doing a little vegetable-cooking experimentation with the stuff we've been getting - e.g. kohlrabi and more leafy greens than you can shake a stick at.
Summer also means, for me, PIE. Although there are scores of pies that can be made year-round and are delicious (apple, for one, not to mention all of the tasty chocolate/cream-type pies), their constant availability makes me take them for granted. The fact that you can always make an apple pie means that you can just, you know, get around to it. But summer fruits have to be seized on quickly, in-the-moment, or you lose your chance at making the pies. This year, I embraced strawberry-rhubarb with great gusto. What you see above are the cobbler and the pie that I made using the aforementioned filling. The pie was a particular hit. I served them side-by-side at two sequential cookouts and both were devoured in their entirety. The reception of these two desserts was inconclusive in re: superiority of pie vs. cobbler. It's now the tail-end of the strawberry season and I'm moving deeply into peach-pie making. However, the issue of strawberry pie is one I've been grappling with.
America's Test Kitchen has been my go-to for quite some time, and while they provided me with a swell strawberry-rhubrab pie recipe, their straight-up strawberry-pie recipe was disappointing. There seems to be a school of thought that strawberry pie involves a prebaked pie shell filled with halved fresh berries, which are then entombed in a gloppy, gelatinous glaze like the dinosaurs at the La Brea Tar Pits. I am Against The Glaze. It can be bought pre-made in horrifying red-tinted clear-plastic pouches at the grocery store, a shudder-producing product if ever their was one. If your fresh berries are lovely and not super-firm grocery-store ones (which produce the Worst Pie Ever when combined with the premade glaze - rock-hard berries in unctuous artificial spoo), they can just be eaten plain with some ice cream and good on you. But I've been wondering whether there's a good cooked-strawberry pie recipe out there - one that combines the berries with a bit of sugar, maybe a zest of some sort - underneath a top crust, the juice of the berries creating an oozy compote inside with nice pie-filling texture and no disturbingly anatomical gelatinous globs within. Anyone? Anyone?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Recently, for the first time ever, I hosted a family cookout in my backyard. Because I lack some of the prerequisites for cookout-hosting (namely, seating) it was BYOC. The "C" stands for "chairs." This was not a highly premeditated event. Until the last minute, it was unclear how many of my family members were going to show, and the cloudy weather eventually gave way to intermittent rain. Despite these factors, the cookout was a raging success, due in no small part to the grill-masterly contributions of my sister Anna's boyfriend, Phil.

The grill is a bit of a blind spot for me. I don 't have a whole lot of experience grilling meat, although grilled meats number among my favorite foods under the sun. Grilling involves mastery not just of cooking technique (marinating, direct vs. indirect heat, lid up vs. lid down) but also of a whole new apparatus, one that lacks the ease of use and technological gee-whizzitude of my fancy gas stove. I know vaguely of things like chimney starters and smokers but haven't the first notion how they are put to use.

Phil is a Marine and Ultimate Fighting enthusiast (not just as a fan - AS A PARTICIPANT) who lives with my sister and her numerous lizards and her pit bull. No flies on him, as they say. He showed up at my house on the day with coolers full of spice-rubbed and marinated meats as well as three grills to add to my one. You can see the array of grills pictured above. The low quality of the photos reflects the poor light - cloudy day, remember? Phil manned all four grills for at least six hours, cranking out two flavors of wings, two flavors of ribs, regular burgers and turkey burgers with feta and spices mixed into the meat. The magnitude of the grillmastery cannot be understated. You can see some of the glistening trays of pork above.

Besides the venue, I provided dessert (more on this in Cookout! Part 2) and my sister made a scrumptious salad featuring chives from her garden, and bottled drinks were procured from the Carniceria Guanajuato. SIDEBAR (if I were David Foster Wallace, this would be a footnote): In case you didn't know, Mexican Coca-Cola is made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup, it comes in glass bottles that say "Refresco", and it tastes better. The new "Pepsi Throwback" is just a Mexican Coke wannabe, although I admire the sentiment behind it. That and a bunch of Jarritos in an ice-filled cooler are my new Essential Cookout! Ingredient.

My grilling learning curve is steep. Midway through the Cookout! I had to replace the gas tank on my grill, which I had never done before and figured out how to do under the proverbial gun without anything exploding. Emboldened by the success of the Cookout!, I am hatching still more grilling adventures for the summer, all the while trying to eat healthy per husbandly request. How will these two seemingly-dissonant desires collide? Stay tuned, intrepid CWTD reader(s).

Monday, June 1, 2009

First Pesto of 2009!

The tableaux you see above depict our family's first pesto feed of the year. Sadly, the basil is from neither our yard nor the farmer's market, but from Whole Foods. However, there is something indisputably springy about a big-ass green bowl of noodles with garlicky pesto all over it. Usually, spring-type pasta recipes turn me off a little; they seem naked, just pasty white noodles with a pea or piece of lemon zest here and there, but pesto definitely sauces the pasta. With some really good Parmigiano-Reggiano grated on top, there is just about nothing better.

I have a history with pesto. It's the first thing I learned how to cook that didn't come out of one of my mother's cookbooks. When I was fifteen, I spent a few weeks living with my aunts Eileen and Jean in Washington, D.C., soaking up every little detail of their relatively sophisticated and citified lifestyle. I listened to all their old vinyl records and ate their delicious cooking, which was (and still is) simple and based on fresh ingredients. This was a bit of a revelation to me. One day, Eileen showed me how to make pesto with basil she had growing in her own yard. I'd never had any pasta sauce besides Prego, and the flavor was like nothing I'd ever tasted before - fresh, bold, and addictive. The recipe came from her own wee paperback edition of Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook, and that summer Eileen bought me my own copy, which you see above. It's still my go-to pesto recipe and as you might expect, the cookbook automatically falls open to that page.

For a while, I used to make and freeze the "base" for pesto every summer when the basil was fresh and dirt-cheap. I could then thaw it out in the winter, add cheese and butter and have fresh-tasting pesto all year round. Once when I was in college, some disgruntled roommates encountered my frozen dark-green bricks in the communal fridge and, not knowing what it was, thawed it all and washed it down the drain. I have not forgotten this. Vengeance will one day be mine.

Marcella Hazan's Pesto Recipe:

2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic
2-3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/2 tsp salt

Combine the above ingredients in a food processor. In a separate bowl, put:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons Romano

Add the contents of the food processor to the bowl and mash it all together with a fork. That is your pesto! This is enough for one pound of pasta. Mess around with the amounts if you like; I usually use a little extra basil and cheese and skip the Romano unless I have it on hand, and sometimes go easy on the garlic (it's VERY powerful in this recipe). To make freezable base, make this as far as the butter-and-cheese part and stop.

LE SECRET: Pesto turns pukey brown pretty quickly after you make it. Avoid processing (or blending) the ingredients until the last possible moment. If you want to use my SPECIAL TRICK, buy some vitamin C powder from your local natural pharmacy or Whole Foods and add a half teaspoon to the recipe. This is referred to as "citric acid" on ingredient labels; it can be used to keep pureed bananas or cut apples from turning brown and doesn't change the flavor if used in small quantities. A jar of it is a bit pricey but lasts for-freakin'-ever and will keep your pesto greener longer.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Inspiration for the Day: WWJJD?

Yes. It is Joan Jett. In a flight suit. That is all.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Oh, Chauncey, The Ramps Are In Season!!!

Ramps are, to me, the quintessential food-snob vegetable. 99% of Americans think a ramp is what you use to get on and off the interstate; the other 1% resides entirely in New York, Northern Calfornia, and Farmers Market-blessed Madison, the Berkeley of the Midwest. When the ramps are in season, we are all supposed to descend on the market, trilling and clucking like guinea hens as we snap up the ephemeral veg. I've resisted ramps precisely because they seem like such a food-dork thing to seek out. This year, I got over my damn self and bought some ramps. What followed was RampFest 2009, which will become an annual event if I can stand my smug food-snob self when the dust settles from the Fest.

When I describe this meal as a "Fest," what I mean is that I cooked two ramp dishes and served them in one meal. Both were from Bon Appetit. You see above the ramp and cracked coriander biscuits (during and after) and the ramp-and-sausage risotto. The meal was a bit starch-heavy but good. Ramps are part of the onion family, of which every member is adored by me. Leeks, garlic, onions sweet and spicy - each hold a special place in the culinary pantheon. To go with the "Family" analogy, not the Jacksons (one obvious favorite, Janet) but the Redgraves (so much talent, how do you pick?). Onions are my favorite veg, and the ramps did not disappoint. Their presence in the biscuits was too subtle to make me want to repeat the recipe again. The risotto was delicious and even better as a leftover, a lovely balance of rampiness, Parm-iness and sausagocity. I've found risotto tricky in the past but this one was texturally spot-on. If anybody knows a better way to showcase ramps, hook me up. In the meantime, I am done for the year with both the ramps and the bourgeois ramp-related self-loathing.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I've Got A Luvverly Bunch of Coconuts

The whole coconut is one of the few high-maintenance gourmet items I remember seeing in the IGA growing up in the culinary wasteland known as the Seventies. The little pile of hairy balls (YESS!) in the produce aisle was a perpetual source of fascination and mystery, an item so beyond the pale of my mother's grocery list that the purchase of one was as likely as my getting a pony for my birthday (THANKS FOR NOTHING, mom and dad). It's difficult for me to imagine any Carter-administration housewife, even one as industrious and skilled in the kitchen as my own mom (ponyless childhood notwithstanding), doing anything with a whole coconut aside from using it as part of a centerpiece at a "Trader Vic's" party. Maybe they cracked them in half and served blender drinks in them? I doubt there was a secret authentic-curry subculture fomenting in suburban Connecticut that I was unaware of, and which the Danbury IGA was supplying.

So I'm trying to be the coconut-buying type of mom, if not the pony-buying variety. My kids usually request a small treat in exchange for good behaviour at the grocery store, which is only fair. The grocery store was the site for many of my long dark midnights of the mothering soul when the boys were babies/toddlers, so the stress-free trips we now enjoy are worth a little lagniappe for the dudes. I love it when they choose something food-adventuresome. We recently brought home this coconut and dismantled it according to the useful and detailed instructions in my battered copy of Joy of Cooking. You can see the many implements of destruction involved in its demolition. The boys were far more intrigued by the process than by the slightly-lame end product you see in the bowl above. Unsweetened coconut is. . . meh. It tastes best consumed on a ramshackle barge in the West Indies along with copious rum drinks. If I had been feeling WonderWoman-ish I could have gone on to make my own coconut milk by grating the meat, boiling it and squeezing the results out of the gratings with cheesecloth and blah blah blah. . . coconut milk from a can is one of the best pantry items there is and one of the only canned goods I do not begrudge the Watergate-era housewife one whit. Perhaps I will crack a coconut for non-experimental, non-child-amusement reasons when Barack Obama and his family come to my house for dinner and I make them an authentic Thai meal, an event my boys are dead certain is going to take place any day now.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Taste 10, Looks 3*

The dish you see pictured above, that mound of mystery-meat-looking brownness sitting in a puddle of its own leacheate (a dandy term learned in Environmental Law class, and which my ignorant spell-checker does not recognize) is in fact one of the most delicious things cranked out of my kitchen in many a moon. Vegetarians can skip this post. It's a slow-cooker barbecued beef brisket, and the juice in the bottom is the delicious sauce, two cups of which were served on the side and are not pictured here. Now, I have a notorious and snobbish dislike for any type of cookery that includes the word "country." I lump it in the same category as cookbooks full of reader-submitted recipes, most of which tend to include canned cream of mushroom soup or are topped with a crunchy layer of breakfast cereal. And don't even get me started on mayonnaise.

That said, the latest arm of the America's Test Kitchen empire (namely "Cook's Country" magazine and the affiliated show) is an endeavor for which I'm willing to carve out an exception. The basic gist of CC combines the exacting, scientific approach of "Cook's Illustrated" with a more, for lack of a better term, family-friendly approach. The thing is, CI recipes are usually intensely delicious, faultless and reliable versions of familiar but perhaps slightly fancy foodstuffs - nothing terribly outre - but CC takes a simpler, "weeknight meals" approach to comfort food and dishes appropriate for a potluck. I still avoid the reader submissions - they strike me as sketchy - but I had to try this recipe for brisket.

The grill is my Achilles' heel, and I don't mess around with smokers (hoping to change that this summer). This brisket was rubbed with various red spices and canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (my new favorite ingredient), sat twiddling its meat-thumbs in the fridge for 24 hours, and then took a day-long sauna perched atop an inverted mini-loaf pan inside my slow cooker. Beneath said loaf pan was a tasty little mound of sauteed onions and more of the aforementioned adobos. At the end of the process, the recipe assured me that I would have two cups of liquid with which to gin up a sauce. At first, it looked like I had only a meager puddle, but raising the inverted loaf pan resulted in a mini barbecue-tsunami. The resulting liquid measured PRECISELY two cups. And THAT is how America's Test Kitchen ROLLS.

The meat was so tender that it essentially fell apart. The mess you see above is what happened when I attempted to cut it into slices. It was just about too spicy for the boys but perfect for me and the huz. I am considering making a few of these and serving the meat on buns at a Fourth of July bbq - what else, if anyone cares to suggest, would you put on such a sandwich? And since I have no patio furniture, would it be socially awkward to host a BYOC party, the "C" standing for "chair?"

*Mini- CWTD contest- name this pop-cultural reference! Prize: bragging rights. Maybe I will bake you something.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Letting Them Eat Cake

Making a birthday cake is the second-most high-pressure baking assignment there is, second only to the wedding cake (which is once-in-a-lifetime, as opposed to annual). To those who think birthdays are important, the cake is the esteem in which you are held by friends and family expressed in pastry form. If your loved ones buy you a Wal-Mart cake and write your name on it with the ossified candy letters they sell at the grocery store, well, you might as well just curl up and die. I realize that my moral universe vis-a-vis baked goods is warped, but when I step up and offer to make a b-day cake it's going to be PROPER.

Above is the cake I made for my niece Nora's fourteenth, on somewhat short notice. Her desire was for an intensely chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, which was delivered as ordered. Unfortunately, her expectations for greatness have been permanently and unfairly raised by the replica Titanic cake we designed, built together and delivered to her class at school several years ago, a flour-and-butter monstrosity that was heavy enough to have served as an anchor on the ship in whose image it was baked. Compared to that one, this cake was fairly pedestrian in appearance, but it tasted OK. I always beat myself up over the gulf in textural moistness between scratch cakes and box cakes. The latter tend to be designed for pure deliciousness rather than the ability of the cake to stand up to vigorous decorating. Box cakes taste awesome but tend to tear and fall apart if you try to spread real buttercream on them. What can you do? If we can put a man on the moon, you'd think this troubling conundrum would be solvable. Maybe Obama can throw some TARP money at cakes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pizza: Homemade vs. Delivered

I've been making my own pizza for a long time- more than ten years. This isn't because I'm a crazy-ambitious home cook who makes everything harder than it needs to be (I am) or because I like to look smugly down my nose at others with less time and kitchen-savvy as they funnel their dollars into the pizza-industrial complex (I do). It's because I took a cooking class at a local shop on the subject of pizza, a class that empowered me to DIY the pie from then on. This is principally due to cheapness. Pizza is one of those foods that is, I suspect, marked up astronomically, and that orderers are charged a premium for the alchemical combination of flour, yeast, tomatoes and cheese and the subsequent delivery of same. Factoring in travel time, homemade pizza (with dough made from scratch) doesn't take that much longer than delivered.

Over the years, my recipe has acquired a few tweaks, most notably the substitution of specialty pizza flour for bread flour (which works fine, but yields stiffer/less elastic dough). But it's essentially the same recipe I scored over a decade ago at Orange Tree Imports. I use 6-In-1 ground tomatoes straight from the can as my sauce and top it with whatever appeals - here, pepperoni. I had to splash out for a baking stone and wooden peel which paid for themselves very quickly in conserved 'za expenditures. It makes for a very easy and interactive dinner party at which guests are easily impressed by homemade dough. All would be dandy in the pizza department chez dudes if only the dudes themselves would abandon their fixation on "delivered pizza", their conviction that it is superior in every way and that the sight of a beat-up 1992 Accord with a light-up delivery sign on the roof pulling into our driveway is cause for delirious celebration.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Vegetables On Parade

When I was a kid, a "balanced meal" included one of each of the following:

A Meat/Protein: some of my mom's standards included oven-baked chicken, filet mignon wrapped in bacon (watch out for the toothpick!), meat loaf, burgers, kielbasa, and the occasional beef stew.

A Vegetable: salad, or some frozen or boil-in-bag. When fresh, broccoli or brussels sprouts (which I liked as a kid - SO???), corn on the cob, nothing too exotic. And the final and most controversial category in my household:

A Starch. That would entail some kind of rice or noodles or potato, generally. My husband insists that this is NOT a category of food, but I think that most kids growing up in regular Seventies families are familiar with the notion of the Starch Course. His own parents were quite young and hippie-ish and he actually got to eat things like fresh beets as a kid. I've recently been trying to re-calibrate my meal paradigm so that the meat is not the main event, for nutritious and environmental reasons. I'm finding myself preparing meals like the one pictured above, in which one or two fairly elaborate vegetable dishes take center stage. What you see here is a cabbage gratin made with Gruyere cheese, shown on the plate alongside some sauteed kale, a standby in our diet. My kale is not perfect - I make it with two slices of bacon - but I like to think the overall result is more halo than devil-horns from a dietary standpoint.

I'm actively looking for good vegetable recipes. It's all too easy to just saute or roast with olive oil and salt and just let the variegated flavors of the vegetables stand out in their delicious simplicity. Okay, that doesn't sound so bad, right? But a little variety never hurt anybody, and my CSA box is going to start arriving one of these days. So if any of my numerous readers have good veg recipes to share, please do. I'm particularly looking for a vegetable curry that will rock my socks off.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Easter Baking: The Only Acceptable Use for Pastels

The poorly-focused snap above depicts the cupcakes I was requested to bring to my in-laws' family Easter gathering. I have a well-documented (by me) love-hate relationship with the cupcake. I love it as food, I hate it as pop-cultural phenomenon replacing chocolate/kitty cats/painful shoes as the go-to emblem for Things That Make Women Act Irrationally. When assigned the cupcake project for Easter, I naturally made things more difficult than they needed to be by (a) making the cakes from scratch, (b) frosting them with a cooked Swiss meringue buttercream, and (c) decorating them in a floral theme with lots of colors. Frosting flowers get a pass from me when it comes to my general dislike of food that's been manipulated to look like something else. Maybe because one is exposed to the icing flower at such a young age that it seems only natural that sweetened butter should be extruded through a metal tip and made to look like the sexual organ of a plant. Why not?

Pastel colors are one of the spring phenomena that irritate me. Notwithstanding the fact that the brown of mud and earth is the real predominant color of spring, clothing and other retailers seem to think that rising temps will cause us all to take leave of our senses and want to wear things like pale-yellow pants and baby-pink sweater sets. For the love of Pete, I just want to wear grey and aubergine all year long. Is that so much to ask? That said, pastel makes a dandy color scheme for cake frosting. A light touch with the food coloring is, I think, leaps and bounds more appetizing than the alternative, and has the added advantage of not discoloring one's teeth. These cupcakes were a modest hit. The centers of the sunflowers are made with wee chocolate chips. Only one guest REFUSED A CUPCAKE, claiming she "doesn't like chocolate cake." What next? She doesn't like puppies and sunshine? Puh-leeze. I've got your number, great-grandma Lois. You WILL eat one of my cupcakes. (cue sinister laughter)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Being An Adventurous Eater

When I was about nine years old, my parents took our family to a restaurant in Boston called Durgin Park. As the story goes, I asked if I could order the leg of lamb off the menu. My mother said, "Absolutely not. She'll never eat the whole thing." And my father, probably with some sort of twinkle in his eye, said, "Let her order it. She'll eat it." And so I ordered it, and ate the whole thing. This anecdote is trotted out as proof that I've always been an adventurous eater, eager to try new things. My memory corroborates this; I recall being taken to the Candlewood Inn for our annual fancy dinner out, at which I invariably ordered a lobster, and requesting Perrier with my meal. Why? Because it had an aura of chic glamour about it. The word, "Perrier," with its French pronunciation, and the drink itself in its distinctive green bottle.

I'm trying to raise Oscar and Ike to have curious palates, or at least to be game to try just about anything. Oscar is being conditioned like a child in a gustatory Skinner box to have a slightly broader food-horizon than most kids his age, but Ike seems to have a genuine gourmet streak. At the grocery store recently, he spotted a display of enormous globe artichokes on sale and immediately seized one, requesting it as his "treat." When asked if he had ever eaten an artichoke before, he responded, "Yes! You dip the leaves in melted butter and scrape off the white part with your teeth!" I think he may have even pantomimed the consumption of an artichoke leaf right there in the produce section. (I suspect he was given one on a recent trip to visit my mother, who likes a good 'choke.) So we brought the thing home.

I had to consult the helpful diagrams in my ever-more-warped copy of "Joy Of Cooking" to dismantle the thing preparatory to steaming it. An artichoke, as it turns out, is a type of thistle. It has to be extensively defanged before you can even think of ingesting it. This one had a lot of fight in it. Once the beast was trimmed and de-choked, I steamed it and served it to the boy with a teacup full of melted butter. He was happy. This will likely become the incident we talk about years from now when we are discussing the early indications that Ike, the James Beard Award-winning chef, had an innate interest in food. We hope.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


The not-terribly-picturesque tableau you see above is the top of my stove (known by, I think, elderly women as the "range") on a typical weekend afternoon. I usually spend the first day of any weekend trying to undo the chaos that has entropically overwhelmed the house during the week, and the second day cooking all manner of random foodstuffs to make up for neglecting my family over the course of the previous five days. Particularly during the winter months I hole up in the kitchen, giving myself an excuse to stand next to a hot stove. From left to right you see: the dough for the loaf of whole-wheat bread that's meant for the evening's dinner; a pot of chicken stock for the evening's soup; and a batch of pretzel dough for my second attempt at replicating the soft pretzels one buys from carts and stadium vendors. My house was warm and smelled good all day. I haven't posted in a couple of weeks for no real good reason, but I'm going to try and catch up soon. I have a mental queue of cooking projects, much like a Netflix queue but with food. My projected lineup includes dishes featuring squid and rabbit (not at the same time), something with a moleh sauce (I don't know how to do accents, so that's my phonetic spelling), chicken doro wat (an African dish), etc etc. If you asked my kids, they might consider these things more threats than menus. I apologize for any typos in this post - I was chopping collards for dinner this evening and nearly took my right index finger clean off. Not to get into too much graphic detail, but the fingernail is hacked just about in half. The entire bloody business is now mummified in three foamy "sport" bandages, creating a blunt instrument with which to tap out hy rapier-sharp prose. Hah! (yes, this was a boring post. mea culpa. better ones to follow.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Taco Fiesta! Ole!

Last weekend, a criminal called The Parka Bandit caused me to have a taco party for twelve people at my house. See, this junkie in a black parka was on a crime spree in Madison, so my husband Caleb got some lucrative overtime that took his workday through the dinner hour. The problem was, I had just purchased a bag of five perfectly ripe avocados the day before in anticipation of making a big-arse batch of guacamole and having Family Taco Night. The avocados would not wait. Now, my husband is a bit of a solitary dude. He enjoys himself at parties but having lots of noisy people in our house gives him the howling fantods. So when he's working, I have dinner parties. For this one, I called up my sister and her family (6). One of her daughters had a friend over (7), so in addition to myself and my guys, that made (10). So I called up my friend Sarah and she came over with her son Josiah (12). Spontaneous party!

When I was a kid, my mom made tacos using a kit from Ortega: seasoning, packet of taco sauce and hard shells that could be heated in the oven. Perfectly serviceable tacos. Turns out, I'm a soft-taco lady. I cook the meat with lots of seasonings - cumin, oregano, chili powder, cayenne, etc. - as well as garlic, onions, a little homemade chicken stock and a couple of other bits and bobs. In addition, I made some pico de gallo (with help from Sarah, whose ninja knife skills make me look like Jack the Ripper cutting up veggies). Sarah brought greens. My sister brought cheese. There was fresh cilantro and refried black beans. And for dessert: a selection of authentic pastries from a Mexican bakery called La Concha (also Sarah), each one the size of a small head of cabbage, as well as the lime sugar cookies I made using the zest from the limes I juiced for other taco-related purposes. I wish people were more relaxed in general about having people over on the spur of the moment; a decent time was had by all (I think). Muchas Gracias, Parka Bandit!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Moodily-Lit Soft Pretzels

The above dramatically-lit pretzels were created as a result of a Facebook post by the superlative writer-friend Nick Lantz, chronicling his own homemade soft pretzel project. I solicited his recipe and took a crack at it myself. I love cooking the type of foodstuffs that are heavily marked up when purchased retail. The raw materials from whence soft pretzels come are cheap, cheap, cheap. The actual cost of producing them must be pennies, yet they cost so much more from a cart on the street, and even more from a kiosk at a stadium. So making them at home is like a big F-you to the craven forces of commerce. My ersatz Cinnabon recipe serves the same purpose: seizing the power from the great baked-goods conglomeration and returning it to the people! Cue "The Internationale."

My pretzel project had mixed results. I think I was a bit cocky. Like, dude, if Nick Lantz, who is a poet, can turn out a rocking perfect batch of pretzels, I should be able to nail this one, right? So I think I let my dough rise for too long, making it overly elastic and difficult to stretch into the requisite long ropes. My ropes kept springing back into a shorter and more-squat shape, which produced difficulties in producing the pretzel form. The boiled (but not yet baked) pretzels were, as Nick had promised, slimy and disgusting, but he had reassured me that I should not fret about this. You can see from the picture that the end result looked puffy and golden and lovely, and tasted precisely like a soft pretzel ought to taste, but maybe a little better because HOMEMADE, beeyotches! I dipped mine in melted cheese. They are now called Nick Lantzels in my house and will be made again multiple times as I refine my technique. I will never be skeptical again about a recipe provided to me by another writer.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Annual Lemon Squares

Here are my lemon squares. I make them once a year. This annual event is the result of my husband's finally responding to my constant demands that he name his favorite dinner/dessert/whatever of ALL TIME so that I can replicate it and thus cement his undying love, a love which one would not be out of order in thinking was already wearing concrete boots after ten years of marriage and two children. I love lemons almost beyond reason. If I were inclined to perform pagan ceremonies praising the gods for creating specific foodstuffs, lemons would be on the short-list (along with garlic, potatoes, and especially onions). So why are not lemon squares processing constantly out of my kitchen year-round? I suspect it's precisely their year-round availability that makes lemon desserts easy to take for granted. There are always more evanescent, seasonal fruits demanding to be carpe'd before their brief diem elapses, thinks like peaches, Italian plums, or crispy fall apples. There is, however, one lemon that presents the same sense of urgency as the seasonal peach or berry: Meyer lemons, those vivid thin-skinned citrus that can only be bought in springtime around these Midwestern parts.

An article about these lemons in the New York Times several years ago sparked my interest in the lemon that is Meyer, and I suspect the general public's interest as well, because that was the year the Meyer became widely available in markets (at least as far as I noticed, and I'm not one to overlook specialty produce). Its skin is more tender and easily torn and it's smaller than the pithy, horny monstrosities one customarily uses to garnish one's gin and tonic. This year's batch of squares also compelled me to finally add a microplane grater to my kitchen quiver, years after that particular tool became de rigeur. It makes me want to divorce and re-marry my husband all over again, simply to update my kitchen with a fresh Williams-Sonoma registry. So above you see the squares, nothing more than golden ingots of fat. The crust is butter with the smallest possible amount of flour and sugar required to transform it crustwise. The curd is made with youdon'twanttoknowhowmany egg yolks. I stray from the recipe insofar as I do NOT strain my lemon curd before pouring it into the crust. That curd is flavored with lemon zest, which I want to keep in my bars. I don't think the texture of the little zest-shreds is off-putting at all, and adds a bit of lemonsimilitude to the bars. Same time, next year.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Plastic-Bag Cookery

I have a love-hate relationship with slow-cookery. Don't get me wrong: I LOVE slow cooking, that is to say, taking an entire day to gradually build flavor in my Dutch oven on my stovetop, taking a low-rent cut of meat and braising it until it falls apart. But the slow cooker itself. . . meh. It's essentially a way to leave something simmering on your stovetop all day without worrying about the house burning down in your absence. I see more slow cooker-oriented cookbooks at work than you could possibly imagine, and most of them are a bit scary, concerned more with time-saving than with actual flavor. You know the kind of cooking I'm talking about. Characterized by the use of canned soups. Topped with crushed potato chips. The kind that's euphemistically labeled "country" or "homestyle." I tend to go for the kind of slow-cooker recipe that requires some actual cooking of ingredients before putting them into the cooker, in which the appliance is just a stand-in for the pot/stove combo and the recipe is something you'd objectively eat absent the conveniences involved. The idea of conjuring recipes with that specific appliance in mind feels very cart before horse to me. Because I am a snob, I label one type of cuisine "slow-cooking" and the other, "Crock-Potting." Nothing against the Crock-Pot corporation, which makes a fine product, but against people who say "Crock Pot" whether or not they mean an actual trademarked product made by the Crock-Pot company.

So above is a meal I made in my slow cooker. It was a sort of Moroccan-style dish with beef, sweet potatoes, chick peas (canned), tomatoes (also canned) and spinach (fresh, thankyouverymuch). It caught my eye in a magazine because it touched on so many of my husband's stations of the nutritional cross. The canned ingredients were things I generally use canned as a matter of course. The spinach and peas were added at the end. It was awfully good and only used a pound and a half of meat, so also recession-friendly. Why, then, does it look so disgusting in the photo above? Why might you confuse this picture of a wholesome family meal with a snapshot of a backwater Ukrainian pit toilet?

Because I use a plastic slow-cooker liner so that I don't have to spend hours scrubbing out the ceramic "crock" element in the sink. Yes, they sell these, yes, I am being non-eco-friendly in my use of a plastic sack where none is technically required. But come on, people. I compost, I biked to work today in 40-degree temps, I hang my laundry in the summer, mea culpa. I also kind of like how disgusting it looks. Whereas presentation is normally something I dig, I fantasize about presenting a dinner like this to my family IN THE CLEAR PLASTIC BAG. Just plopping it onto the table and saying, dig in! Meal-in-a-bag!!!!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cabbage Rolls . . .

. . . until it gets to the bottom of the hill! HAR!

So the thing you need to know about my husband is that he is a devotee of Eating Right. Lately, he has been taking the lead in the grocery-shopping department, but his purchases are usually motivated by (1) What's on sale, and (2) what contains a wonder-nutrient he has recently read about. Which is how we recently ended up with a long-in-the-tooth head of cabbage in our fridge, taking up precious tiny-fridge real estate with its spherical, nonstackable self. Hence the cabbage roll, a recipe unlike anything I'd ever made before. The filling was made with ground turkey, minced onion and some rice. The recipe involved hucking the entire head of cabbage into boiling water and removing each individual leaf with tongs as it blanches. Each leaf was then rolled around some filling and nestled neatly in the pan as you see above. Ike was deeply involved in the process. Despite the recipe's dire warnings that we should expect a high attrition rate throughout, with leaves accidentally tearing and rolls falling apart willy-nilly, we lost NOT A SINGLE ROLL. We're like the Marines that way. Leave no cabbage roll behind.

The rolls looked creepily like big chrysalises but Ike and I were very proud. Until we had to cover them with tomato sauce, float a clove-studded onion in it, and then simmer for an hour and a half. At some point during the simmer, a perfect HEART appeared in tomato-foam on the surface of the sauce, shown above. Aww. The rolls were beautiful and nutritious both, and the kids, shockingly, wolfed them down. I even got over my dried-fruit-in-cooking issues and included the optional raisins in the sauce. I felt like a glorious Eastern European babushka cooking up this recipe. I even used brown rice instead of white, for that extra-healthy kick. However, I do have a bag of Flamin' Hot Doritos hidden in the house, so I am not completely reformed. Yet.