Sunday, January 31, 2010

Answer: The egg. Obviously.

The age-old question, "Which came first: the chicken or the egg?" supposedly has no answer, and sends your mind reeling in an eternal Moebius strip of confusion. This is stupid. Maybe law school ruined my thought processes forever and I'm trying to effectively get off on a technicality, but the question doesn't specify that the egg in question is a CHICKEN egg. Lots of other animals lay eggs. Insects, for one extremely gigantic swath of the animal kingdom. Reptiles and amphibians. Fish lay eggs that taste yummy on top of sushi. Dinosaurs laid eggs that were then fossilized to provide evidence, eons later, that eggs came first. All of these animals predated poultry by a comfy margin. So let's stipulate that the egg came before the chicken, and also stipulate that law school warps your brain and fills your vocabulary with jargon.
Eggs are on my mind this week because I'm once again caring for the Chickens Across the Street. I feed them each morning, freshen up their water, chuck them a handful of cracked corn or expired green vegetables, and collect their eggs. It being January in Wisconsin, this last task is time-sensitive. There's about a four-hour window in the morning when the hens are laying, and I usually end up making multiple trips to the coop to ensure that no eggs freeze and crack. So far, I've only had one egg suffer this fate. Ike (pictured above, proudly brandishing his haul from one such trip) and I collected a single semi-gelid egg, which I reassured him we could scramble and eat. When we cracked it into the bowl, the white stayed in a more or less oval shape with the yolk suspended and semi-visible nestled in its center. It reminded me a bit of those lamps you can buy at IKEA that feature a lightbulb in the middle of a block of clear glass.
So the 5 additional eggs a day we're getting from the neighboring birds are in addition to the weekly dozen of happy-chicken eggs a local farmer delivers to me and my co-workers at the library. This amounts to a serious surfeit of eggs, and the need to seek out recipes to consume them. Spanish tortilla uses a whopping ten. Lemon squares use two whole and seven yolks, leaving the problem of seven whites. Angel-food cake uses twelve to fourteen whites, which would then leave me with five to seven yolks (can you see how this could go on forever?). The good news is that I love, love, love eggs. They are scrumptious and versatile, buttery-delicious on their own but able to serve as a sort of blank slate for all manner of sweet and savory flavors. And these eggs in particular are guilt-free. The birds that produce them are practically members of my neighborhood association. Nearly blood-related. Sometimes I cook one up for breafast before it has even had the chance to cool to room temperature after being ejected from the relative tropics of the chicken's posterior end. More of our egg adventures are to come, including - wait for it - my first souffle.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Fortunately for me, I have this AMAZING blender. A Vita-Mix. The kind Charlie Trotter tells you might be worth taking out a second mortgage on your house to own. Unfortunately, I broke it last weekend in an incident that now takes a top slot in my very extensive Annals of Stupidity. Here's the story:
So the Packers made the playoffs, an event that registers in importance for me somewhere slightly above the latest election results from Liechtenstein. It matters to me insofar as it provides an opportunity to produce Man Food for an appreciative audience, and Man Food means chili. My chili recipe involves the following: brisket; beer; fresh cilantro; butternut squash; ancho chiles. It does not involve: beans. This is apparently a Texas thing, although my chile-expert bona fides are flimsy. However, I find it tasty. I set out to make my chili last Sunday morning, a Day That Will Live in Appliance-Destruction Infamy. Soaked the dried chilis, chucked them into the blender along with garlic and lots of other spices that are so super-secret that they can only be found listed in the October, 2008 issue of Bon Appetit. Affixed the mixing pestle gizmo to the lid of the Vita-Mix and turned it on.
What happened next is nearly too idiotic to recount. The clear plastic plug that goes in the Vita-Mix lid when the pestle gizmo is not in use was IN THE BLENDER underneath all of the aforementioned tasty chili ingredients, which in my haste I had thrown in without looking first. Because of my persistent, bull-headed pestling, I managed to do real and permanent damage to the blender, which I could replace for the cost of a plane ticket to Liechtenstein.
Unfortunately, later that day, I discovered that my sister and her family were planning to come over to my house for dinner due to a miscommunication worthy of "Three's Company." Fortunately, I had TONS of chili. Unfortunately, my chili is more spicy than the average under-ten-year-old's palate will take. Fortunately, I had justenoughtime to make some corn bread to bulk out the meal with starch and sugar. Unfortunately, only TWO of the ten guests at my impromptu football gathering would eat my chili. Fortunately, lots of leftovers were available for moi. And MOST fortunately of all, my friend Sarah L. recommended a local appliance-repair business that currently has possession of the hobbled Vita-Mix and is bringing it back to life for, I hope, the price of a bus ticket to Chicago. I am now looking for a new chili recipe.
And, unfortunately, the Packers lost.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Cake Time.

I've blogged a lot about pie, but not about cake. The two desserts are pitted against each other, in my mind, much like Edward and Jacob in the "Twilight" movies. Each has its own particular allure. To continue the metaphor, I guess pie would be Jacob - less fancy, more comfort-food-ish, humble but sweet - and the cake would be Edward Cullen - lovely to look at, dressed-up, tasty but not at all redeeming. At least a fruit pie has some nutritional value to it, whereas cake is just sugar and white flour and butter and everything designed to rot your teeth and clog your arteries and make you feel a bit regretful for having consumed too much. I have lots more affection for pie, but can and will bust out a cake when necessary.
That's the thing about cake: there has to be an occasion. I'll make a pie just because some fruit or other is in season, but a cake in my household tends to commemorate an event, usually a birthday. The above cake was produced to mark the last day of a longtime co-worker and Bollywood fanatic named Kjerstin who is departing for a two-month trip to India, requiring her to quit working at the library. The scheduling stars aligned properly to allow baking, frosting and decorating of a cake to be delivered during her final shift, as they must. Pie is a one-shot deal, but cake involves steps. Bake the layers, let them cool. Make the frosting and spackle it on. Decorate (possibly involving the production of another batch of frosting), using my ridonkulous collection of pastry tips and other cake-decorating gizmos. I actually took a course on this once, and can turn out a supermarket-bakery-looking cake if that's what you want, but for this one, I decided to be a bit thematic.
The cake itself was a spice cake (get it? Spices! They come from India!), made with fresh grated ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, ground cloves and cardamom as well as half a stick of brown butter. The frosting is made with cream cheese and is a one-bowl deal, no cooking required. The concept here was a mehndi-design cake, like those henna tattoos Indian women and American hipsters apply to their hands and feet. I printed some patterns off of the internet, tinted my extra frosting in my best approximation of the color of henna, and had at it. You can probably tell I didn't really plan ahead. My mehndi-inspired designs were nowhere near as elaborate as the real thing, but hopefully the cake at least looked sort of Indian-ish. Although now that I look at it again, my paisleys look more like parameciums (paramecia?) with hairy pseudopods sticking off of them. Maybe if somebody I know gets a degree in biology, I can make a cake for that, too.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Cheap Ingredients x (Work + Time) = Tastiness

Today we made ravioli (a preliminary lexicographic note: "ravioli" is plural, like "panini"; no terminal s is required. See, mom, my semester in Italy was useful). This project was inspired by my niece Eileen's newly-minted obsession with ravioli, and by a somewhat-recent trip to visit my aunt Eileen (for whom the niece is named) during which the pasta machine was pressed into service. This is the same aunt who taught me about pesto. She's the kind of cook I'd like to be but will never become: unpretentious, able to improvise, never makes it look difficult. Most of all, she's not show-offy with her cooking. When she throws a dinner party, the food is at the center of the gathering and quality ingredients, prepared simply and well. are at the center of the meal. Last summer when I visited, she made fresh pasta look like something one might just throw together.
For me, it wasn't quite that simple. The location of my pasta machine was the first obstacle. Once the machine itself was located, the handle, without which its dough-flattening drums wouldn't turn, remained elusive. The machine was also in rough shape. At some point, the Two Dudes realized that it could be used to shred paper (a secondary use I've since seen highlighted in Real Simple, the magazine for the type of person who has an extra pasta machine lying around). There was some rusty-looking crud in its undercarriage that made me decide its days in food production were over. I never thought I'd live long enough to purchase a second pasta machine, but there it is in the pictures above, cranking out sheets of dough.
I long thought you had to use semolina flour (not cheap) to make pasta. False. This recipe used two cups of regular old flour, three eggs (from the chickens featured in the previous post) and a tiny tinch of water. Food processor, rest 15 minutes, finished. Through trial and error we were soon producing long, translucently-thin strips of dough. The filling is a mixture of 1 cup ricotta, 1/2 cup each grated mozzarella and parmesan, one egg yolk, some chopped fresh basil, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper, mixed together. You don't need a handy ravioli-frame like mine (last picture) but it helps, and makes for uniform ravioli. Eileen told me that I reminded her of Ma Ingalls from the "Little House" books because I like my food to "look pretty." She has no idea that I also wear a mobcap and eat popcorn with my husband in bed. Heh.