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.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Digression: Loving Tilda Swinton

Holy crow. As those of you who've known me for a while (the entire reading audience of this blog, I think) might be aware, I have a longstanding, silly obsession with fashion that has very little to do with what I wear on a day-to-day basis. I like to think that if I became a celebrity (when, dammit. WHEN) I'd dress like Tilda Swinton. Envelope-pushing, sort of scary and demented with a real sense of humor. With an intimate familiarity of my own flaws and the bravery to accentuate them until they're art. She's not trying to look pretty, or cute. She eschews makeup - it's all about the architectural and sometimes nihilistic clothing. Sometimes a photo can just make your freaking day. As I write this, I'm wearing a St. Mary's College sweatshirt that was left behind by a law school friend ten years ago (Hi, Ky!) but wishing I was wearing the frock pictured above, with the library-model Kik-Step from my kitchen concealed under my skirt to create the illusion of even more height and willowy-ness. This makes me want to ransack my closet and search for the combination of garments that will make me most closely resemble a confused visitor from outer space. Swintonicity!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Gwyneth Paltrow Has A Lot of Balls

Confession: I am an ironic subscriber to Gwyneth Paltrow's "lifestyle" e-newsletter, unappetizingly entitled "Goop." Its tagline, "Nourish the inner aspect," invariably causes me to silently add, "While malnourishing the outer aspect in order to fit into that size-zero Stella McCartney." Her personal and guru-solicited musings on philosophy are both hippy-dippy and airy-fairy, and her fashion advice can only be described as economically tone-deaf. But once in a while a recipe of hers looks. . . potentially halfway decent. To her credit, she always gives attribution to the many friends and chefquaintances who are the real authors. Recently, I received a Gwynethgram featuring a family Sunday-night dinner with these meatballs as the centerpiece. They seemed.. .maybe. . .kind of tasty. And given my husband's neverending quest for healthy food, in eternal conflict with my kids' desire for kid stuff, turkey meatballs appeared to strike a nice compromise.

Gwynnie's recipe (I feel like we're besties now!) uses only a pound of ground turkey. I had three. So I optimistically made three batches of Paltrow Balls, hoping they'd be a hit and I could freeze some for later. Plus, In These Straitened Economic Times, I was happy to use up all of the pricey fresh herbs I had purchased for the recipe. They rocked. While I'd be happy to rescind the Oscar for the assy "Shakespeare In Love," I'd give her a "Kiss the Cook" apron for the meatball recipe, which filled the house with herby fragrance. The killer ingredient: lemon zest. I browned my two superfluous batches, froze them individually on a cookie sheet, and bagged them up for future tastiness. To be served: during a filmfest-style screening of "Shallow Hall" and that one karaoke movie she did with Huey Lewis.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Cupcakes, Schmupcakes

The pop-cultural fetishization of the cupcake irritates me to no end. Working at the library, I see what seems like scores of lame chick-lit books mercenarily illustrated with food-porn pictures of cupcakes in order to capture that 90s-retro-Sex-and-The-City market. The cupcake has become shorthand for mini-decadence. Cutesy self-indulgence for women whose two battling, powerful desires are to be skinny and to eat chocolate. Of course, the show "Sex and the City" is somewhat to blame. I'm convinced that show was basically a live-action "Cathy" cartoon brought up to date with sex and cocktails. I still likes me a good cupcake, if only for the efficiency and portability the form brings to cake-eating. And I also desire a set of the annoyingly-named "Cup-A-Cakes", pictured above and available at Williams-Sonoma, where I can no longer afford to shop. (Analogy: the recession=the linoleum in my childhood home. Stores like Williams-Sonoma= the orange lozenge-shapes, which=HOT LAVA!)

ANYHOW, the lower picture depicts the dark chocolate cupcakes with vanilla bean buttercream that I threw together for the Madison Public Library Staff Association bake sale. They are the rockingest cupcakes ever. The frosting contains real vanilla beans. However, these cupcakes seem to bring humiliation and effrontery with them whenever they are baked. During my MFA, the not-yet-Pulitzered author Junot Diaz came to visit. I made the cupcakes in honor of my visit. Bear in mind that I offer a baked good the way an arms-trading Afghanistani warlord offers you a cup of tea. You. Take. The. Cupcake. Mr. Diaz SPURNED my cupcakes. DEAD TO ME.

After receiving a personal request from a co-worker to bake something for the sale, ("Who, ME? BAKE something? Don't mind if I do!!!") I proudly brought my cuppycakes into work, only to discover that they were going to be sold for ONE DOLLAR APIECE. The deal of the century, cupcake-wise, but the Staff Association might have done better financially by just having me donate the cost of the ingredients. I felt this way about my son's school carnival Cake Walk attraction. One can only conclude, alas, that baked goods are among the least efficient ways to generate money for a charitable organization. Pennies on the dollar, if that. Which is probably why I feel the way I do about things I bake. They're like handmade sweaters, on a smaller scale. Nobody would pay their real value to have them, in materials and man-hours. So when I bake somebody a batch of cookies with real butter and King Arthur Flour, I am giving real effort. So eat my dang cupcakes, people.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Pech Pie

Peaches might seem like an odd post subject for March, but I wanted to round up the Great Out-Of-Season Turkey Project by highlighting our dessert: peach pie. I have an odd relationship with peaches. Ripe, in-season peaches are one of my top five fruits of all time, and when they are widely available, I'm confronted with utter gastro-confusion. The desire to eat as many juicy ripe peaches out of hand as possible usually overwhelms the motivation to actually cook with them. Peach desserts have never been a big part of my repertoire. The fact that my family inhales every peach that hits the door doesn't enable the kind of contemplative recipe-selection process that usually precedes a hotsy-totsy cooking project for me. Last summer, I tried something new. I bought a few cases of peaches from a local fruit-seller that carries perfect, softball-sized peaches every summer. They are pricey but fail-safe. No hard, green fruit that never ripens, no mealy flavorless blobs. Every peach is perfection, nestled in its little cardboard nest. The sign which advertises these peaches, however, is irritating as all hell: "Chin Drippin' Peaches." Without even getting to that cutesy "n'", the notion of letting the juice dribble freely down one's face is not one I can really get behind.

BUT I bought a couple of ginormous boxes last summer and spent well over a week cranking pies out of my kitchen as if they were Model-Ts. Most of them, I froze, using disposable pie tins and the largest freezer bags I could find. Ike, who was five at the time, labeled them. When cooked, they taste as fresh as if they were made that day. I appreciate the flavor of the peaches so much more in the middle of winter when their lush sweetness is not just delicious but totally out of step with the rest of cold-weather cuisine. Yumminess. More dessert-like posts to come.

Monday, March 2, 2009

New Food-Related Posts Soon!

I just got a shiny new laptop, but the photos of my most recent culinary endeavors are still on Old Bessie, so until my IT guy (to whom I also, coincidentally, happen to be married) helps me switch the photos over, I am a bit hamstrung, post-wise. Will catch up within a day or two, for all of you who are breathlessly awaiting the post-turkey project (hi, Mom!). (Photo by Brett Rogers,