Friday, January 19, 2018

Literary Inspirations: The Address

For this post I made my most ambitious recipe yet.

A common literary trope today is the story of two or more women (and occasionally men) from different time periods who are somehow linked together through a particular location.  Usually the character from the present finds some kind of artifact from the past and decides to look for clues as to what it's all about.  The story then shifts to the past where the reader learns the story of what happened.  Usually the character from the present needs to deal with the mess of her current life and finding out these clues gives her focus and purpose.

The Address by Fiona Davis fits this formula nicely. The story takes place in one of New York's most famous residences, The Dakota.  The story shifts between a young English girl who leaves her job as a hotel maid to help manage the newly-built Dakota building, and an interior designer in the 1980s who is a recovering alcoholic trying to salvage her life and career by taking a commission to redecorate a friend's Dakota apartment.

I was hoping the book might provide some descriptions of fine dining in NYC in the 1880s (or even the 1980s), but like every other book I have read in 2018, it failed to bring me any direct inspiration.  I imagined chapters that would feature dinner parties at the Dakota or meals eaten at Delmonico's.  To my dismay, this book decided not to put any focus on what the characters were eating.  I have learned some authors don't think food is important.  What is wrong with them?

I decided to do some research once again and see what was commonly on fine dining menus from 1884-1886 (the years the historical parts of the book took place).  I found the New York Public Library has an archive of menus from clubs, restaurants, and private parties from almost every era.  I looked for common elements throughout the different menus offered.

The food on the menus was rarely anything interesting or unique.  The most most frequent dishes were roast meats and fish along with vegetable accompaniments, all made to sound fancier by writing them in French.  I had to run some of the options through a translator.  I often found once I was beyond the French name, I was looking at an ordinary dish.  I'm sure many of these fine cuts of meat were considered fancy enough as they were.  The average American most likely couldn't afford the kinds of cuts of meat offered in high-end restaurants. There were also more adventurous cuts that tend to be overlooked by Americans today such as rabbit, offal, and  terrapin.  At first I thought I would not have to work very hard to create the kind of meal the characters in The Address might have eaten at a dinner party.  I could cook a leg of lamb and a side of peas and call it a day.*

After reading way too many menus, I began to notice that timbale was a popular method for presenting food.  I saw meat themed timbales (or should I say timbali?) and vegetable timbales, but the one that caught my eye was one called Timbale Ris Milanese.  Ris Milanese?  Would that be like risotto milanese, the arborio rice dish flavored with saffron?   What if I made a molded risotto and filled it with a delicious meat filling?  How about a duck ragu`?  Duck, including duck timbale, was featured regularly on the retro menus.

My usual brain mushing ensued as I came up with how I would do this.  I made a basic risotto, but without the onions (for the sake of texture).  I flavored it with wine and saffron.  I mixed it with eggs and parmesan, molded it into a baking dish, and filled it with a duck ragu´

I made the ragu´ with store-bought duck leg confit (even though I had to bite the bullet and pay $12 per leg).  I started with slow-cooked some onions.  I layered that with mushrooms and garlic.   I add some Worcestershire sauce and tomato paste for a deeper, richer, and more intense flavor.  Finally I added brandy to give it a kick.  I simmered it all together and nestled it in with the rice.

I didn't want to waste the skin, so took the skin off and made cracklings in the microwave to sprinkle over the finished product and the greens beneath it.

I had a little bit of an issue getting the top and bottom out in one piece when I sliced it, but it didn't look too bad.

How did it taste?  The duck ragu` was delicious (although the brandy taste was a bit strong).   I want to use the recipe again.  Maybe the next time I make duck ragu` pasta, I will use this recipe instead of my previous one.  I think the rice coating made a nice presentation, but made the dish unnecessarily starchy and heavy.  It tasted fine, but it was a bit too filling.  I think Kevin might disagree.  He loves his starches and he loves risotto, and I think he probably would have eaten a cake made entirely of risotto.  (Maybe I should make the dish again as is and eat the duck myself and have him eat the rice?)

Risotto Timbale with Duck Confit Ragu`

  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
  • 5 cups chicken stock
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • 2 Tbl butter
  • 2 cups arborio rice
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
  • 2 cloves of garlic minced
  • 1 Tbl tomato paste
  • 2 Tbl Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 duck confit legs,** skin removed and meat shredded
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup grated parmesan
  • Salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Heat a large frying pan or saute` pan over medium heat and add the oil when hot.  Add the onions to the pan.  Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes.  Watch them carefully.

Place the duck skin on a paper-towel-lined plate.  Microwave on high for 5 minutes.  Remove from oven and set aside.  Try not to eat it all.

In a small saucepan, heat chicken stock. If it is low-sodium, add a pinch or three of salt to taste. Crush the saffron into the stock and keep it all warm on the stove, just at a simmer.

Melt butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven.  Add the rice to the pot and stir to coat.  Cook 2-3 minutes or until you start to smell the rice toasting.  Add the white wine and stir until it is absorbed into the rice.

Keep watching and stirring those onions in other pan.  Turn down the heat if they brown too quickly.

Add a ladleful of hot stock to the rice.  Stir until absorbed.  Taste and adjust salt as needed. Continue to add stock and stir until absorbed until you have used all the stock.

Are you keeping an eye on those onions?

Once the risotto is done, spread it out on a cookie sheet to cool.

Increase the heat to medium and add the sliced mushrooms to the pan with the onions.  Cook until softened.  Add a little more olive oil and the garlic letting it cook until fragrant.  Stir in the tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce and make sure the onions and mushrooms are evenly coated.

Stir in the duck pieces until well combined with the onion-mushroom mixture.  Add the brandy and let it evaporate a bit.

The risotto should have cooled by now, so place it in a bowl and stir in the eggs and parmesan.

Pour the risotto into the prepared pan.  The rice should cover the bottom of the pan and go about halfway up the sides.  Place the duck in the middle of the pan.  Top with more rice so it is completely covered.

Bake for 20 minutes.  Allow to cool 10 minutes and unmold carefully.  Give it another 5 minutes before you cut it.

Serve over a bed of lightly dressed mixed greens and sprinkled with crumbled duck crackling (assuming you haven't eaten it all).

*And I would have eaten all the lamb and my husband would have eaten the peas and neither of us would have been satisfied.

**I might have liked a fourth leg, but duck confit is so expensive, I decided I could do with three to stay in budget.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Literary Inspirations: Before We Were Yours (Instant Pot Recipe)

When I decided to take on the project of creating a recipe inspired by every book I read, I didn't realize just how difficult it would be.  It seems I have two problems.

I read too much.

I don't read the right kinds of books.

I am not the first book-and-cook blogger out there.  A quick internet search showed me bloggers who devote their entire blogs to edible literature.  They seem to do a much better job of finding books with a strong food focus.  It seems logical to me that writers would be foodies.  Readers are foodies aren't they?  (Where did I get these stereotypes from?) I make this strange assumption every book I read will somehow be about food. This hasn't happened lately and I come up empty.  Then I struggle to find that food connection in all everything I read.

It's also a difficult project because I devour books with the same passion I devour my meals. I finished three books just last week.  That meant I had to create three blog posts (including this one).

In that spirit, I don't think I will be creating a recipe inspired by every book I read.  I read too much to ever be able to put all the books up on this blog (and since I deleted Facebook, I read even more).  Since not every book automatically inspires a recipe, I shouldn't have to work so hard to push out posts for all of them.  I will be making posts with my current reads, but in the future, I won't be posting a recipe for every book.  I will only post recipes from books that truly inspire me.  Don't worry.  That doesn't mean the project is abandoned.  I simply won't have quite as many.  I will also make non-book food posts.

Now let's get down to business and talk about my recent book.

Before We Were Yours is the story of a family of shantyboat people in Depression-era Tennessee who live happily on the river until the mother has a complicated delivery of breech twins.  The midwife refuses to get involved and the mother is rushed to the hospital.  Unbeknownst to the children, the parents sign away the rights to their remaining five children in exchange for payment of their hospital bill.  Police raid the boat, round up the children, and bring them a miserable orphanage where children are starved, beaten, and sexually abused.  We learn they are part of a covert baby selling ring.

Although the book is fiction, it is based on real-life events.  For three decades Georgia Tann ran the Tennessee Children's Home Society.  She used many unethical practices to take children from poor families.  She bribed nurses to tell poor parents their babies were stillborn.  She had police officers take kids off the street and tell them their parents had died or that they no longer wanted them.  She enlisted the help of a family court judge who would deem parents unfit to keep their children.  The children were sold to rich families for outrageous adoption fees.  Tann covered her tracks by changing the names of the children once they were taken so they could not be traced back to their parents.  She made up histories of these children to make them sound more appealing to their adoptive parents.  The children starved in her orphanages while she made millions for herself.  (How many other book lovers out there are now making comparisons to Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre?)  Officials were bribed to stay silent and even aided her efforts.  Tann died of cancer before she could ever be brought to justice.  It is a sad piece of American history that few of us know much about.

The story, like so many other novels these days, alternates between two points of view.  Part of the book is narrated by eldest daughter, Rill Foss.  The alternating chapters focus on a modern-day senator's daughter who is trying to establish a connection between herself and a confused elderly woman she meets in a nursing home.  The search for answers and the need for secrecy illustrates the aftermath of the horrible practices of the TCHS.  Families have a strong desire to find each other after being torn apart, but they also feel a sense of shame and want to hide their pasts. 

The book provides a happy ending, but no inspiration for recipes.  The shantyboat chapters of the book talk about foraging and fishing in the river, but don't provide too many specifics (and I'm not going to be cooking fish anyway).  Once the kids were pulled from the river, they ate nothing but cornmeal mush at the orphanage.  I considered making cornmeal mush, but that didn't sound too appealing.

The shantyboat moves through the rivers of Tennessee and the Children's Home Society is based in Memphis.  In the modern day chapters, our history-hungry senator's daughter lives in South Carolina.  What are some of the specialties of these areas?

Well, when I think of Tennessee, I do think of this.

When I think of Memphis, and the south in general, I think of barbecue.  I also think of grits and biscuits.

I decided to do a mock barbecue (since I don't have the necessary smoker).  I would make a pulled chicken sandwich cooked in a Jack Daniels sauce and serve it on biscuits.

The Instant Pot makes a great shortcut for pulled chicken.  Just make the sauce, throw some chicken breasts and some sauce in the pot, and 15 minutes later you have tender chicken breasts that shred easily.

I refined my biscuit recipe a bit lately.  I think it's pretty good.  These biscuits tasted the most like what I feel biscuits should take like (in other words, kind of like canned biscuits).  They are also good with fried chicken sandwiches.

The coleslaw on the side was a bit sweet and sour with cider vinegar, honey, a bit of mustard, and some finely diced onion.

How did it all taste?  I liked the chicken despite my using a bit too much hot sauce.  I had to make the sauce a bit on the thin side so it would create steam in the pot.  I would have liked it a bit thicker.  I tried reducing a bit while the chicken rested, but it never quite got to where I wanted it.  That's the trade-off when working with a pressure cooker I suppose.

My literary inspirations are all over the place lately.  We went from the Italian countryside to the American south.  My next recipe will go in yet another direction.

Jack Daniel's Pulled Chicken in the Instant Pot

  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 Tbl oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 cup Jack Daniels
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1Tbl Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 Tbl dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 Tbl hot pepper sauce*
  • 2 tsp salt
Mix together the whiskey, tomato paste, sugar, vinegar, mustard, and spices.  Heat the olive oil in the Instant Pot on saute´ mode.  Add the onion and cook until transparent.  Add the sauce ingredients and add them to the pot with the chicken.

Close the pot and set the valve to sealing.  Set it on manual to cook for 15 minutes.  Allow pressure to go down naturally for 5 minutes and then quick release the rest. 

Remove chicken from the pot and allow to sit for 5 minutes.  Keep the sauce in the pot warm so that the liquids reduce a bit more.  Shred the chicken with two forks and mix with the sauce in the pot.  Serve over biscuits.

*I used sriracha because that was the only hot sauce I had.  I also thought the heat was a bit too aggressive.  If you have Frank's, use that and perhaps scale back the amounts a bit.

Buttermilk Biscuits

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1 Tbl baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
6 Tbl cold butter, cut into pieces
1 cup buttermilk

Heat oven to 450 degrees.  Mix the dry ingredients together and place in a food processor with the butter.  Pulse until the butter is integrated into large crumbs.  Place the dough in a bowl and gently stir in the buttermilk.

Turn out onto a floured surface and gently pat to 1/2" thick.  Fold dough over 5 times and then pat to 1" thick.  Cut to your desired size.

Place on cookie sheet and bake 10-12 minutes or until browned.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Literary Inspirations: That Month In Tuscany

I'm a sucker for anything Italian.  If I could only travel to one foreign country for the rest of my life, I would choose Italy.  I have been to Italy three times in my life and each time it revealed a new face to me.  It never fails to surprise me with what beauty it will present.  Italy has beautiful cities filled with dazzling architecture, charming countrysides, and stunning coastlines.  In the past I explored the Roman ruins and Florentine art.  I galloped a horse through the vineyards, olive groves, and cypress lanes of Chianti.  I hope to return sometime so I can  explore the south and experience more of that gorgeous Mediterranean coast I was only able to witness briefly.

My most cherished Italian memory, and perhaps my most cherished travel memory, was my 2011 trip to a Tuscan agriturismo.  What could be more magical than a restored nineteenth century farmhouse, horses, gorgeous countryside, homemade food, and plenty of local wine?

With this in mind, all I needed was to see the title to make me download That Month in Tuscany onto my iPad.  Anything that would remind me of Italy, and remind me of that special region of my favorite foreign country, was enough to make me want to read it.

The book is hardly grand literature.  It's a Mary Sue fantasy (in the sense that it seems to be a manifestation of the author's wish fulfillment).  Our heroine Lizzie is a frustrated housewife who books an anniversary trip with her disinterested husband in hopes of saving her marriage.  Her husband decides at the last minute he can't go (or doesn't want to go) and asks her to cancel.  Instead she surprises everyone and goes by herself.  She meets a rock star who is trying to hide out from the world to recover from burnout and battle personal demons.  The two of them have an adventure evading her angry husband.  Unfortunately, tragedy strikes at home and she has to make some tough decisions about her life. If the book were a romcom, I would likely have never watched it unless I was home sick and curled up on the couch with a cup of Baileys-spiked hot chocolate and a box of tissues.  Reading the book wasn't much of an intellectual exercise.

I can't believe anyone would write a book about Tuscany and not spend any time at all discussing the food.  Occasionally the narrator would mention a delicious pasta dish or a salad, but the reader never learns what is in that pasta or that salad.  It was frustrating for me because I had hoped a book about Tuscany would have to contain references to food. (I guess I should have tried Eat Pray Love).

That left me with trying to decide for myself what would be an appropriate Tuscan meal. I wanted a dish that would reflect the simple, homemade nature of Tuscan cooking and be seasonally appropriate.

I took my inspiration from this book.  My mother bought it for me after hearing me talk so longingly about the food we ate on the farm.

It's all about local and seasonal cooking from the Tuscan countryside.  It is about as appropriate for this post as a book can be.

Some of the ingredients are hard to source (what's local for Italians isn't always local for those of us in the US) and some contained ingredients from another season (and that seems like the antithesis of Italian cooking).  I needed something with accessible ingredients that was easy to make on a weeknight.

The book contains a recipe for Gnudi.  These are ricotta dumplings.  They are called gnudi (literally naked) because they are like ravioli without the outer wrapping.  I swear I made them on this blog before, but I couldn't find the post.  I used that as an excuse to make them again.  The recipe from the book is a spinach gnudi recipe.  Spinach is not exactly in season this time of year, but I rationalized it that I can still get hothouse spinach at the farmers' market, so it's not technically not in season.  I used frozen spinach anyway to save time.

I made a basic tomato sauce to go with them.  The one element of my sauce that is a little time consuming is that I put whole tomatoes in a food mill.  I read recently that whole canned tomatoes have the best flavor and it's best to crush or mill them yourself for maximum deliciousness in pasta sauce.  The difference is subtle though.  If you don't want to bother crushing your tomatoes yourself, use crushed.  Just please don't ever use sauce from a jar.

Because this is a copyrighted recipe, I will not provide the actual gnudi recipe on the blog.  Email me if you would like to know it.  It's a simple mix of flour, spinach, ricotta, egg yolks, and parmigiano-reggiano.

I will provide this simple tomato sauce recipe.  I know I put a lot of tomato sauce recipes on the blog, so you probably saw a version of this before, but I won't make you search for a past recipe.  This is my simplest version.  It's a really good basic sauce that takes little time to make (so no excuse to use a jarred sauce).  One of the issues I have with jarred sauce is that it contains too many ingredients.  True Italian tomato sauce isn't filled with a dozen spices and onions and garlic.  It is meant to make the tomatoes the star and simply enhance them with a few complementary flavors. 

Basic Tomato Sauce

  • 1 28 oz canned whole plum tomatoes put through a food mill
  • 1 Tbl olive oil
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1-2 cloves minced garlic
  • 3-4 fresh basil leaves cut in chiffonade
  • Salt to taste
Heat the oil in medium-low pan.  Sprinkle in the pepper flakes.  Stir in the garlic and watch it carefully so it doesn't burn.  Gently cook until fragrant.  Add the tomatoes and cook for about 30 minutes, allowing the sauce to thicken and the flavors to meld.  After 25 minutes, stir in the basil.  Taste and adjust seasoning with salt.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Literary Inspirations: The Rules of Civility (Instant Pot Recipe)

I think I read the work of Amor Towles in the wrong order.  The first novel of his I read was A Gentleman in Moscow earlier last year.  That would have provided me ample ideas for a blog post.  The book takes place in a high-end hotel and its protagonist is always dining in one of the hotel's fine restaurants.  At one point in the story his companion is a little girl who eats mounds of different flavored ice creams.

Unfortunately for this blog, I read the book before the Literary Project.  It would not count as current inspiration.   I set my sights on a new book.   I enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow, so I would try Towles's earlier work, The Rules of Civility.

The Rules of Civility is about a young American woman with Russian immigrant parents (Towles had to get that Russian reference in there somewhere).  She is a working class girl in New York City in 1939, but her life is not unlike a young single woman in New York today.  She likes to drink and barhop as much as an Sex in the City character (or Girls character, or a character from whatever single-in-the-city TV show is popular right now).  On her travels across the seedier side of the city, she meets a wealthy young man and befriends him and he introduces her to the upper echelons of wealthy New York society.  (There is way more to the story than that, but we won't get into it here.)

I had hoped a story of a woman making her way through wealthy New York society and dining at parties in elegant homes and eating at fine restaurants would contain a wealth of food inspiration.  Sadly, this was not the case.  Our heroine Katie seems to care more about drink than about food (she loves her gin) and she eats a lot of seafood when she does mention her meals.  There was little in the book that made me want to head to the kitchen and recreate the experience.

I finally found my inspiration when I reached the end of the book.  There was one scene where Katie attends a dinner party at a posh New York apartment and one of the courses served was a black bean soup with sherry that the guests seemed to find remarkable.  At the time I didn't think much of it.  What's so special about black bean soup?  At the end of the book, Katie is reminiscing about that dinner and mentions the black bean soup again.  Obviously there can be something special about black bean soup.  I realized the only way I would know what would make a black bean soup so memorable would be to make one myself.

There are so many black bean soup recipes out there that have a Mexican or other Latin American flair.  They are seasoned with tomato and hot peppers and cilantro.  The characters in The Rules of Civility would never eat a Mexican soup.  Such a soup would never even be on their radars.  My soup would need to reflect the food sensibilities from another era.  Besides, I don't see sherry combining well with hot peppers.  My soup needed garlic and fresh herbs.  If I was going to simmer any meat in it, I would avoid hot sausage like chorizo.  I needed something traditional like a good old-fashioned ham hock.

I made my soup in an Instant Pot.  If you want to make it in a slow cooker, cook the beans on high for 8-10 hours.  If you want to use the stovetop, just soak them overnight and bring them to a boil and simmer two hours.

What did my literary recipe look like?

It wasn't much to look at, but it was tasty enough.  The ham hocks gave it a smoky richness and the sherry and vinegar gave it a savory tang.  It was a bit too salty though.  As hard as I tried to make a memorable black bean soup, I'm not sure if dinner guests would remember this a year from now if I served it tonight.

Civilized Black Bean Soup

  • 1 bag of black beans, sorted and rinsed
  • 1 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 6 cups of chicken broth
  • 4-6 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh tarragon
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 smoked ham hock
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  • 1 Tbl red wine vinegar
  • Salt to taste
Set your Instant Pot in saute mode and heat the olive oil.  Soften the onions and then add the pepper and cook until soft.  Add the garlic and cook another minute or two until fragrant.

Add the beans, broth, herbs, and ham hock to the pot.  Put on the lid and seal it.  Cook your beans on manual for 25 minutes.  After they have cooked, let the pressure release naturally (about 20 minutes).  Carefully remove the lid and add remove the bay leaves, thyme springs and ham hock.  Remove the meat from the ham bone, discard the bone, and return the meat to the pot.  Stir in sherry and vinegar and season with salt as needed.

Optional Step (if you prefer a smoother consistency):  After you remove the bone and herbs from the pot, remove one cup of the beans.   Blend the remaining soup with an immersion blender until smooth.  Add the whole beans back to the pot along with the meat.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Playing with Vegetables

"Eat your vegetables.  They're good for you."  We have heard this phrase for our entire lives.  First we heard it from our parents and other authority figures.  Then we heard it from the nutrition police in the media.

We all know we should eat our vegetables for optimum health.  The problem with eating more vegetables is the way vegetables taste.  Vegetables have a tendency to not taste good.  Some vegetables do taste better than others, but there are too many foods out there that taste better than vegetables.  Chocolate tastes better than carrots.  A steak tastes better than eggplant.  A cookie tastes better than squash.  Barbecued ribs taste better than kale.  Spaghetti and meatballs tastes better than asparagus.  Just about anything tastes better than peas. 

What do many of us do when we want to get more vegetables into our bodies?  We often opt for something called a salad.

What comes to mind when you hear the word "salad"?  Do you think of a pile of lettuce and tomatoes drowned in a vinegary dressing?   That doesn't sound exciting does it?  We put some effort into making it more palatable, but the stuff we pile onto that lettuce, such as meat, nuts, cheese, and fried onion, tends to negate the health benefits.  If we're trying to push more vegetables down our gobs for health reasons, we need to make them the main event, don't we?

One of the most enlightening reads I ever had on the subject of salad was in Tamar Adler's book An Everlasting Meal  (reviewed here).   She has an entire chapter devoted to salads.  Adler describes a salad as any ingredient, hot or cold, cut up and dressed with fat and acid, and nicely presented in a bowl or plate.  Adler describes the different iterations of salads around the world, whether it's a Greek platter of lightly dressed cucumber and mint, or a French bowl of celery root in remoulade.  Salads should not be a pile of multiple ingredients all competing for your attention.  It should be one or two star players dressed in a way to complement their flavors and textures. Adler suggests we find an ingredient we are passionate about and then working with it to make it taste as good as it can.

I am likely preaching to the converted here.  Many of my food blogging buddies create beautiful salads from a few simple ingredients without resorting to iceberg lettuce and tomatoes.  It's not as if Adler told me anything I don't know.  What she did do was help me think in new ways.  What am I passionate about?  How can I play with the vegetables I find most palatable and make them shine?

In the past few months I have been experimenting with salads, attempting to keep the dishes to one main ingredient with some complementary flavors.  Here are my favorite ones I came up with.

My entire life I have loved raw carrots.  They were one of the few vegetables I would eat growing up.  As I grow older, it does feel a bit unsophisticated to just gnaw on raw carrots like Bugs Bunny.  If I publicly snack on baby carrots, I come off looking like a neurotic dieter.  I needed a new take.

My answer was a salad of shaved carrots tossed with crispy bacon bits (from Stone & Thistle Farm) and a dressing made of red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and maple syrup.

Fennel is another favorite vegetable.  Not everyone likes that licorice-like flavor, but a long slow roast mellows that flavor perfectly.  I roasted my bulbs with lemon, olive oil, and fresh thyme.  When I was ready to serve them, they got a topping of fresh goat cheese.

I made no effort to stage this photo.  Some days you just get lazy.  Here it is right out of the oven.

I also love roasted parsnips.  I can cut up the biggest parsnip and stick it in the oven with plenty of olive oil and when they come out of the oven, I can probably eat the entire thing (granted there is a large amount of shrinkage happening). Iroast at 425 degrees for about 40 minutes.  How did I jazz up a perfect snack?  I added Parmesan and rosemary.  I like them nice and brown!

A quick one:  Broccoli steamed and tossed with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sesame oil and tossed with sesame seeds.

Happy Veg-ing out!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Literary Inspirations: Girls on Fire

My literary inspired project is harder than it sounds.  Some books are so full of descriptions of food you feel hungrier with every chapter.  Some books just put you off your dinner.

One of my recent reads Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman was one of the latter books.  It's a dark story of a twisted friendship reminiscent of Heathers and Poison Ivy.

It is the early 1990s. The protagonist, Hannah is a quiet, unattractive, and lonely teen who is drawn to Lacey, a rebellious and self-destructive classmate.  Lacey comes from a troubled background and finds her salvation in listening to Nirvana and by manipulating those she cares about.  Hannah is drawn into her world, never questioning her motives or her choices.  It is frightening to see what Hannah will subject herself to both in compliance to and defiance of Lacey. As the story comes to its conclusion, we learn the truths behind the tragic events in the book.  The details are shocking and meant to make the reader uncomfortable.  Do I feel relieved or horrified the characters got away with their horrible misdeeds?

How can I even begin to find inspiration for a meal from this book?  This is little mention of food anywhere.  The only references to food come from Hannah saying her mother is a terrible cook.  At one point they have Lacey over for dinner and the mother makes lasagne - supposedly the one dish she can make well - and it's burnt and inedible.  Another time Hannah mentions her mother's bad meatloaf.  I'm not inclined to cook either dish when the book turns me off of both of them.  Besides, meatloaf has been done to death on this blog and lasagne has been done to death everywhere.

So that left me with what foods this book would inspire.

The story is rooted in the early 1990s.  If you lived through that era, you will recognize the fashion, the news events, and the pop culture.  While I'm not a Nirvana fan, I think the early 90s were a great time for music. They were the last years for rock to made a stand on the airwaves and in popular culture before record-company-manufactured pop and hip-hop* took over at the end of the decade.  When I read the book, I felt as I were back there.

My goal for this post then was to create a dish that paid homage to the 90s in the same way this book does.  (Well, not the same way.  My food will not be associated with rape, murder, and domestic violence.)

I had to do a bit of research as well as call upon my own memories to think of a 90s inspired dish. What did people eat in the 90s?

I think of the 80s and 90s as the time when American cuisine reinvented itself and came into its own. During the mid-twentieth century, canned and convenience foods were beloved by most American households.  First and second generation Americans might still be cooking their own classic recipes from the old country, but they weren't sharing them with the rest of the community.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who appreciated fine cooking were sticking with the French classics popularized by James Beard or Julia Child.  Until the late 20th century, it seems you were either eating meatloaf with mashed potatoes and canned green beans or else you were eating boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, beef wellington, and sole meunière.  You might have had a fondue party here and there for variety.  In any case, there wasn't a whole lot of creativity or heavy ethnic exploration.

In the 80s and 90s the country broke out of its food rut.  We discovered more ethnic cuisines.  We also began to explore the depths of more familiar cuisines.  For example, we learned that Italian food wasn't just lasagne and spaghetti and meatballs, but encompassed a broad range of regional specialties. Asian cuisines other than Chinese began to emerge such as sushi, Thai, and Indian.  Chefs also began experimenting with new ideas altogether.  "New American" became a cuisine of its own. The innovation and creativity that the USA is famous for was applied to our cuisine.  Fusion cuisines, where multiple ethnic foods were combined in one dish, also took root in this time period

I was lucky to come from a family filled with foodies who never stopped encouraging me to enjoy fine cooking and ethnic cuisines despite my picky eating.  I remember the late 80s and early 90s as a culinary awakening.  I discovered I didn't hate Indian food.**  I discovered Thai food.  I began cooking myself and experimenting in the kitchen.

The Nineties, like any other decade had its share of food trends.  This was the decade of the coffee bar, where the cast members of Friends sat around sipping lattes, and Starbucks made its permanent mark on the country.  Tiramisu` became a popular dessert along with molten chocolate cakes.  Pesto sauce coated everything.  Goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes were dominant toppings.  In the junk food category, the English muffin pizza was upgraded to pizza bagels or pizzas made with Boboli crusts. (In the 21st century that morphed into "gourmet flatbread".)

I'm home often for the holiday season, so I decided to use that time at home to create a hot lunch that would pay tribute to the 90s, and thus pay tribute to Girls on Fire.  How did I do that?  I did it with pizza.  I didn't start making dough and heating up cast iron pans.  I did it 90s style with a pre-made bread product and all manner of popular 90s ingredients.

I started with a whole wheat pita and smeared it with the following:

Pesto sauce - no recipe needed. I decided to use a somewhat lighter pesto.   I just took a few handfuls of basil, a clove of garlic, a glug of olive oil, some lemon zest, and some sliced almonds and gave it a whirl in the food processor.

Goat cheese

Sun-dried tomatoes

Arugula - another ingredient that pushed its way onto American menus in the 80s and 90s.

I gave it a 5 minutes under the broiler and I had a light and tasty lunch.

This is best enjoyed dressed in a babydoll dress topped with a lumberjack shirt and accessorized with Doc Martens and a black choker.

If only Lacey and Hannah people in their lives to cook for them like this.  Hannah's mother was not just a terrible cook, but was never able to hide her disappointment in her ugly and unremarkable child.  Lacey's alcoholic mother neglected her until she married a husband who abused them both.  If someone cared enough to cook them a proper meal, would their lives have gone differently?

*I want to say I don't think it's a bad thing.  I believe the marginalized and overlooked artists in popular culture deserve their day in the sun and the cultural shift that has put hip-hop at the top of the charts is a positive step forward to our society.  I just don't personally enjoy listening to it.

**I had Indian food for the first time sometime around age 12 or 13 and there was only one Indian restaurant in my area.  Everything I ate tasted like cardamom.  It wasn't a flavor I was used to and the chef made it a dominant flavor in every dish I ate other than the bread.  Even the vindaloo I ate was dominated by cardamon.  I was sure I hated Indian food because of that.  Years later, in my early twenties, I joined some friends at Mitali East in lower Manhattan.  Had a great meal.  I realized it wasn't the fault of the cuisine, but the restaurant.  To this day I am a bit hesitant when trying a new Indian restaurant because I fear another experience like my first one.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Live Blog 2017

Thursday, December 21st

2:30 PM

I'm not spending any more money this Christmas.  I'm finished with this whole spending money thing.  Christmas is expensive.  It's not even about the gifts.  I have to buy food and alcohol and decorations and utensils.  It never ends.  

Welcome to the 2017 Christmas Live Blog.  This is where I narrate, vent, and otherwise tell the tale of putting Christmas dinner together.  I update my readers as much as possible on how successful I am at feeding my family a feast.

I know I complain, but after every Christmas dinner I make, I can't wait to do the next one.  I have been waiting two years to have this chance again and I have been planning the menu for just as long.  It takes time, money, organization, and a few headaches to put together a three-course dinner for a large number of family members, but I don't want to do it any other way.

Actually, I would like to do it another way.  I'd like a house  - a decent-sized house - with a bigger kitchen and a real dining room and an attic and basement for storage, but that's a subject for another post.

Today's agenda is about spending the last few dollars I still have left in my account.  After extracting my Christmas tableware from my storage locker, I headed to Kohl's.  I needed glassware.  I break glassware all the time.  Almost twenty years ago I moved into my first apartment and my friends Mike and Sean gave me a 40-piece glassware set with the intention of giving me plenty of glass to break.  Well, I have broken most of those glasses.  I needed glasses for non-alcoholic beverages.  Kohl's has decent housewares selection, so I headed there.  

I don't really need a centerpiece, but this year I felt I just had to have one.  I want my tables to look more festive.  I scoured Home Goods for something that would look nice on the table.  It was a tea light holder, so I had to buy tea lights.  

My final stop was at Party City.  I needed the clear plastic mugs to serve the hot apple cider. I have nothing at home that would look nice for the cider.  The clear plastic mugs are attractive enough and I don't have to keep them.  I do hate the idea of waste though.

Next I'll be at the liquor store buying brandy for the hot cider and at the Italian specialty store for panettone and some fresh mozzarella.  

I started out with a leisurely morning, but that will be my last leisurely morning for a long time.

7:50 PM

Closing out the day with a Baileys-spiked hot chocolate and my beloved copy of Paul Theroux's A Christmas Card.  This is a time-honored Solstice ritual for me. 

Friday, December 22nd

8:21 AM

I just got back from the gym.  I may let my healthy eating habits fall by the wayside a bit during the holiday season, but I am determined to keep up my fitness.  Exercise keeps me sane and I think it helps me eat better.

When I left the house at 7 this morning, I saw a small school bus waiting outside my building.  I was still under the influence of reading A Christmas Card and was in fantasy mode.  I had a hope that bus was there for me and that it was a magic bus ready to take me on some kind of Polar Express-type adventure.  Alas, it was not to be and I had to go to the gym.

Today is the least fun day of prep.  This is cleanup day.  This is the day I make my apartment shine from top to bottom.  I dread it, but I have to get through this.  I go one room at a time.  I start at one end of the apartment and work my way from room to room until I get to the other end.

The first order of business is trash removal.  I am emptying every receptacle so I have room for all the trash I'll be generating during the cooking and setup process.

I have to take these boxes to the compactor room before I do anything else.  These are the by-product of gift shopping and supply shopping.  This is what I mean about not wanting to spend more money.  Look at all this stuff!

11:15 AM

My order from Fresh Direct arrived.  I don't have to worry about Christmas dinner not making it here.  I do have to go back to the compactor room now to dispose of the boxes.  Grrrr...

There was nothing in that small top box except two lemons.  That is what I call monumental waste!

2:00 PM

Finished cleaning the master bath, bedroom, and living room.  I am not sure if I want do any further cleaning of the living room floor.  It's vacuumed, but I didn't mop it.  I did that last week and it still looks okay and it's only going to get really dirty again anyway. Maybe save that for after Christmas. I'm saving the kitchen and the guest bathroom until the end of the day on Sunday when we are closer to the big day.

So while I have this lull in my duties, I should talk about the menu.  What am I serving?

Every year I do a different theme for Christmas dinner.  In 2014 the meal was what I would consider classic American.  I made roast beef, mashed potatoes, turkey breast, green bean casserole, and a layer cake.  In 2015 I decided to take a virtual trip across the pond and had an English inspired dinner with goose, ham, roasted parsnips, and trifle.  

This year I decided to go Italian.  When I say Italian, I do not mean the kind of traditional Italian-American dinner so dear to my readers with the requisite lasagne or other heavy pasta dishes, and finished with struffoli.  I did my research and decided to try to emulate a dinner that would actually be served in Italy.  This is no small feat considering that meals in Italy are going to vary from region to region.  Still, an Italian Christmas dinner is going to follow the same format as most formal Italian meals: antipasto, primo (rice or pasta), secondo (meat and vegetables) and then dessert and coffee. One popular dish for the Christmas pasta course is tortellini in brodo and porchetta is a popular meat course.

Keeping that in mind, this is my menu for Christmas Dinner.

Antipasto (I have two kinds of dry sausage, prosciutto, mozzarella, provolone, roasted peppers, and olives, with grissini and flatbreads)
Tortellini in Brodo (tortellini cooked in homemade chicken stock)
Porchetta (I ordered one from Heritage Foods USA)
Whole chicken breasts cooked with grapes and white wine (adapted Melissa Clark recipe)
Parmesan roasted cauliflower
Spinach sautéed with raisins and pine nuts
Pandoro (store bought)

The remaining dessert will not be Italian.  I was planning to make a chocolate ricotta cake for dessert.  In addition, my mother is making one of her monster cookie trays.  When I was growing up she always made a tray of various types of cookies at Christmas.  They were a major part of my childhood Christmas memories.  Mom stopped making them years ago, but she decided to go back to it this year.   A few days ago my sister-in-law said she is bringing cookies too.  I decided we didn't need more dessert.  I bought the ingredients for the cake, so I have to make it eventually, but I won't be making it for Christmas dinner.

While I have been cleaning all day, I have also been making a pot of homemade stock.  I always keep veggies bits and bones and carcasses in my freezer for stock-making.  I save whatever I can from the chicken every time I roast one.  It comes in handy when I want the perfect stock for a special meal.  I put that thing on to simmer in the morning and at the end of the day I hope to have a rich and hearty stock for my tortellini.

5:17 PM

This is why I want a house with a big kitchen that can hold a big refrigerator.  There is nothing else that can go in here.  

We're going out for any meal that can't already be obtained from what's already in here.  No leftovers either.

Saturday December 23rd

8:30 AM

This is going to be as close to a day off I'll have this weekend.  If I were doing any baking, today would be baking day, but I'm not baking, so I'm taking it easy.

One of my few cooking tasks today was to dry brine my chicken.  The original recipe doesn't call for it (and uses a whole chicken instead of breasts) but I wanted to try it and see if it would keep my chicken crispier after roasting.  I used a mixture of salt, lemon zest, and fennel seeds and rubbed it all over the chicken.  This will go in the fridge until it's ready to be roasted Monday afternoon.

What is my plan for the rest of the day?  I am going to spend the day with my horses.  It will be my only day this weekend to do so.  I will have to do laundry as well as pick up some necessities from CVS.  It's a mix of business and pleasure.  

11:43 AM

Wrench, meet works.

Just received a call from Mom.  She was starting in on the Christmas cookie baking when she discovered her oven wasn't working properly.  No oven, no cookies.  Two of her cookies are no-bake, so she will still bring those, but otherwise, we're a tad short on desserts.  It looks like I'll be baking that cake after all.  So much for spending the day with the horses.  I don't have time to ride now.  

It's a miserable day out.  It's not the kind of day I want to make a 70 mile drive, so I guess it's a blessing in disguise.

I joke with Mom that she always manages to get out of making requested dishes for holiday dinners.  

So let's talk about the cake.  What exactly is this cake I'm baking?

I went to my Number One resource for dessert recipes when looking for the best ricotta cake recipe.  That would be Emily's blog.  She provided me with exactly what I needed.  She always does.

In other news, I just got an unexpected and lovely gift from my BFF.

I adore Penzey's.  I think my cake might have a little extra orange in it.

I removed them before I took the photo, but this box was filled with cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, and whole nutmegs.  I will be using those cinnamon sticks for my hot spiced cider.  

4:00 PM

Cake is baked.  Nothing else to do today.  Just dinner, Netflix, and bedtime.  Lots to do tomorrow though.  I need to do more major cleaning and some minor food prep.  Also Star Wars.  

Here is the cake.

I don't know if there was any way to prevent the center from falling in a bit.  I followed Emily's recipe mostly.  I added a bit of that new orange extract.  I also baked it in a springform pan rather than a regular cake pan.  I just felt the cake would be easier to unmold if I used a springform.  Most cheesecakes use a springform after all.  Since a springform is a little bigger than a regular cake pan, I shaved 5 minutes off the minimum baking time. 

The cake seems so quintessentially Italian with the almonds, citrus, and ricotta, doesn't it?

Sunday December 24th

7:30 AM

Rise and shine!  Happy Christmas Eve morning.  This morning's agenda consists of breakfast and yoga.  Then I have to get serious again.  

Today I'm prepping anything that can be prepped in advance.  I'll be cutting vegetables, assembling a spice blend for my hot spiced cider, toasting nuts, and taking inventory of all necessary pots, pans and serving dishes.  Then I clean the kitchen thoroughly and give a good cleaning to the guest bathroom.  Finally I will set up my tables and chairs.  Tomorrow I'll set them.

But first, breakfast.  

2:00 PM

I probably spent way too much time procrastinating this morning, but I managed to be productive in the end.  I even put off cleaning the kitchen by saying I didn't have enough kitchen cleaner and needed to go out and buy some more (so much for not spending any more money).

My first goal was food prep.  I cut up a large head of cauliflower so I can easy coat it with olive oil and pop it in the oven tomorrow.

I toasted some pine nuts so they would be ready for the sautéed spinach.

I made a gremolata for the pork.  This is made of a bunch of arugula, the juice and zest of a lemon, four cloves of garlic, about a half a cup of toasted almonds, and a good glug of olive oil.

I also put my spices together for the hot spiced cider.

I realize as I write this I forgot to grate the parmesan for the cauliflower.  Do I do that now, or do I wait until tomorrow since the morning will be relative quiet?  Hmmmm...

The bathroom is next.  Luckily it's a smallish bathroom and won't take too long to clean.

What comes after that?  Star Wars!

Monday, December 25th

10:05 AM

The big day has arrived!

It was a busy morning.  I got to bed late last night after seeing an 8:00 movie and then a late night dinner at the diner, but I could't sleep in this morning.  There was just too much to think about!

I was still trying to keep up my fitness so before breakfast I did a Kinect Zumba workout and ate what will probably be the last healthful meal of the day.

Next it was time to set up my tables.

I never seem to have enough linens or glassware and often my stuff is wrinkled or ill-fitting.  I have a round (and wrinkled) tablecloth on a rectangular table.  I only had 8 Christmas themed napkins and there are 9 people having dinner tonight.  I also have two different sets of water glasses.

I think I'm the only one who cares.  It only distresses me because I read so many food blogs and I see so many beautifully set tables where everything looks so smooth and perfect.  I want my tables to look like that and not like everything was thrown together.  I guess that's the problem with apartment living.  I am so limited with how much stuff I can have and can store and can put out.

True story.  One year I had more guests than I had place settings with my "good" china.  I was serving a salad course and each place setting had a bowl matching the plate.  I took the bowls into the kitchen to dish up the salad and family members came into the kitchen to help me distribute them.  When I came back to the table, I saw the bowls were not all matched to the corresponding plates.  I had a hissy fit while my family hadn't even noticed the green bowls were now sitting on top of the blue plates.  Yes, I truly am the only who who cares.

Now that I am set up, I don't have a whole lot to do for the next two hours.  Everything else needs to be done closer to guest arrival.  At noon I'll be taking my pork out to bring to room temperature.  I can actually relax for a bit.

Relax?  What's that?

4:08 PM

Pork is having a nice slow roast.  Even though it's a little early, I put out my antipasto tray.  Let's hope I don't eat it all before the guests arrive.  I have sweet sorpresata, hot salami, prosciutto, mozzarella, aged provolone, and olives and cured peppers.

I always clear the mail off the front hall table to use as a drinks table.  Guests can pour one as soon as they come in.

I know there isn't much on it, but wine is the one thing I assign my guests to bring.

In addition, my hot spiced cider is in the slow cooker getting nice and warm and spicy.

Lights dimmed, tree and candles lit.  We are ready for company.

10:09 PM

...and just like that it's over.

The meal was a roaring success (if I do say so myself).  The pork was perfect.  The chicken was tender and tasty.

Here is a shot of the buffet.

The porchetta is sliced up and displayed front and center.  To right right are the vegetable dishes of cauliflower and spinach.  At the upper left is the gremolata.   The far left is the chicken.  I cut the meat off the bones to make it easier for the family to eat.  The gravy boat contains a mixture of pan juices and roasted garlic.

Before the buffet we had our tortellini soup.  These are Rana tortellini I bought from Shop Rite.  They were delicious.  They were just as good as the fancier kinds you buy at gourmet pasta shops.

After dinner we opened gifts and ate from the dessert buffet.  We had my cake and my mother's rum balls and cornflake wreaths.  We had panettone and pandora.  My brother brought chocolates as well.

But the best part of Christmas dinner is the company.

I hope everyone had as happy Christmas meal as I did.