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 springform pan, 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 a buttered springform 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.