Archive for January 2010
To waffle: v. British informal; to talk incessantly or foolishly; prattle; engage in double talk.
I don’t know what to say about the American Democratic party these days. Apparently, Democratic politicians don’t know what to say either, so they just keep saying a bunch of nonsense, hoping to sound attractive to someone out there. They definitely don’t sound attractive to me. Why is it that everytime there’s some setback somewhere, the party interprets the political message as “head to the center?” The fools are waffling, I think.
And I wish they would stop it.
Instead, maybe they could just make waffles. It’s easy enough to do and much more productive. So, here’s a recipe for all of the Congressional Democrats (and for those of you higher up the food chain as well). You’ll need to start the night before. Plan ahead.
Waffles for Democrats
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 package of yeast
1 tbs. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1.5 sticks of butter, melted
1 cup of whole milk
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
The freshly grated peel of one orange
3 eggs, room temperature — ahem — separated
In a large bowl, mix together all the ingredients, save the eggs. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel or plate and keep it overnight in a place full of hot air. Like maybe your briefcases.
In the morning, beat the egg whites in a stand mixer until they hold stiff peaks. Meanwhile, gently mix the yolks into the waffle batter. Next, carefully, fold the egg whites into the batter. Don’t deflate the egg whites as you’ve deflated your own legislative prospects with a year’s worth of incessant waffling.
Cook the batter in a waffle iron according to the manufacturer’s directions. This recipe makes enough waffles for five Democratic members of Congress, assuming 2 per stooge. You don’t really deserve that many, so don’t even think of asking for more. Top with butter and maple syrup. Now, sit down, shut up for a bit, and eat.
When you’ve finished, stop all of your tiresome waffling and go pass meaningful health care reform legislation. Hell, even the Senate version is better than nothing (and I can’t belive you morons have forced me to say that).
And, please, please, please Act Blue. Do try to remember that half of American voters elected you people to do so. Instead of waffling around, pathetically trying to appeal to bankers and nutters, you might actually attempt to do something for us — your justifiably angry supporters.
It says a lot about my life these days that my posts for Meatless Monday are written and published on Wednesdays. I assure you, the meals described are prepared and eaten on Mondays, in accordance with my pledge. I’m just not in a position to write anything about them until later in the week.
Inefficiency is one reason; I’ve been plagued by a rash of it lately. For instance, on Monday I forget the diaper bag somewhere and had to track it down with phone calls. Once located, I hade to find time in my work day on Tuesday to retrieve it. The temporal toll of forgetting that one small item? About 45 minutes–a fairly significant amount of time, when you consider it. Add this to the hour and a half I spent at the doctor’s office having my ear drum punctured (yippee! — seriously) and we’re talking about much time lost.
That said, Monday’s meal was a delicious model of efficiency. Ribollita is one of those wonderful Italian dishes that manages to be both thrifty and sublime at the same time. Take the remnants of day old soup — typically minestrone or the old Italian classic, beans and greens — pour it over some day old bread; douse everything with olive oil; sprinkle it with good parmesan cheese; bake at 400 degrees for about half an hour. Hey, presto — Buon appetito!
I followed a recipe from Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando and Vanessa Barrington, although this is a dish that doesn’t really need a recipe. It does require a good quantity of soup though, which I made with some of Rancho Gordo’s delicious borlotti beans.
I suppose I should just accept my addiction to Rancho Gordo beans. These beans are always in my thoughts: when did we have them last? who will notice that we just had them? is it okay to eat them for both lunch and dinner? am I talking about them too much? is it too soon to order some more?
See? These are some of the same kinds of questions addicts ask. At least I don’t have to lurk around in dark alleys to get Rancho Gordo beans, although I would if it came to that.
Fortunately, there is a much more efficient way to get Rancho Gordo beans. Just click on this link and order away. And, I promise you, I’m not on the RG payroll or anything.
Back to the ribollita: it’s a great way to use up leftover soup and bread and it takes no time at all to pile the ingredients up in a casserole dish and bake them. Jim told me that it’s the best thing he’s ever eaten. He’s generous with his praise, but I liked it a lot, too. It’s warm and filling, perfect food for a cold January evening. Sando’s recipe calls for stacking the bread in layers in the casserole dish or dutch oven and then pouring the soup over each layer. I wasn’t wild about the resulting texture though. The bottom layer was a bit mushy. Next time, I’ll make ribollita with just one layer so that all the bread winds up with a nice, crunchy topping.
Here’s a very basic recipe for Ribollita. My own version happened to be vegetarian, in honor of Meatless Monday, but there’s no reason that the soup cannot contain meat if that’s what you have on hand. Also, these measurements and pan sizes are approximate. Adapt the recipe to accommodate the amounts of leftovers that you have.
Ribollita (my riff on a recipe found in Heirloom Beans)
Around 4-6 cups of brothy soup (minestrone, vegetable, etc. Anything with beans and cabbage is nice)
6-8 slices of good day old bread, sliced about 1/2 inch thick and rubbed on both sides with a garlic clove
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Preheat over to 400 degrees. Pour 2 inches worth of soup into a 9×12 inch baking dish with 4 inch sides or other appropriately-sized baking dish. Layer the bread on top of the soup and dunk it in to moisten the slices. Sprinkle with olive oil. Top with the cheese and bake, uncovered for 25-30 minutes (until the ribollita is bubbly and the top is nicely browned). Serves about 4.
By the way, the ribollita itself did not make great lunch leftovers. The bread became gummy and unpleasant from soaking up all of the broth. Microwaving did not help matters. It is better to make the ribollita in small batches than to make a big pan of it and reheat it.
I’ve been preoccupied lately with my health and with getting my daughter settled into preschool, but in the back of my mind has been a word — more — usually used as a modifier to a variety of nouns. Like this: more cooking, more reading, more work, more play, more travel, more music, more conversation, more entertaining, more laughter, more community, more exercise, more writing, more sex, more sleep, more fennel. It’s the time of year, I think, that and the fact that, somehow, another decade of my life has gone by in what seems to have been an instant.
It’s not like nothing happened during that decade. It was an extraordinarily busy time. I lost my father; earned a Master’s Degree and a PhD.; got married; bought a house; and had a baby. I started teaching, wrote a dissertation, and went to conferences. I spent summers in England, France, and Michigan. I made shorter trips to Spain and Italy (with an 18-month old child in tow). I have become a better cook and writer. I started running. Hell, I even read the unabridged version of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Still, I keep thinking of all of those things that I didn’t do or didn’t do enough of, mostly the latter –things like reading, exercising, and sleeping. Unfortunately, most of the things I’d like to do are contingent upon having more time, which is, of course, notoriously hard to find more of.
Even when a bit of time opens up — as it has this week, now that Mimi has started preschool — I can’t easily decide what to do with it. I fear that my new little pocket of time will be frittered away with minutiae, those petty little tasks that are so much a part of life — with maintenance, not meaning.
My friend Amy, who is working to finish her dissertation while living in Rome this year with her husband and young son, recently wrote about the need to balance work with play. It is a hard balance to strike. I struggle with this, being more inclined to focus on things that are pressing instead of things that are important. I fritter away the hours as pathetically as the Democrats frittered away their time in control of the Senate (damn them!).
I’m not sure how to change my tendencies, but over the past few days, I have been struck by the fact that although the words “more” and “less” are typically juxtaposed, in some ways, the words “more” and “better” may be more productively opposed. Perhaps I would be well-served by doing things better as opposed to doing more of them. Better friendships, as opposed to more of them. Better cooking as opposed to more of it.
Of course, becoming better at something often means doing more of it. As the Great Houdini once claimed, magic involves practice. What to do about that?
And, what does any of this have to do with cooking?
I guess it will function as an awkward transition to a good meatless recipe. Speaking of better, the recipe comes from the Steve Sando’s cookbook, Heirloom Beans. Sando is the genius behind Rancho Gordo, an online company that sells the most incredible heirloom beans grown by Sando himself. I’m completely obsessed with these things. It’s tremendously satisfying to eat something that is not only carefully grown and romantically named but that is also food that we should all eat more of. The following recipe calls for a variety of bean called Yellow Indian Woman, which are, as these photos attest, truly lovely. They are also delicious. Jim thought they tasted a bit like pinto beans, which Sando recommends as a substitute.
Making the fritters involves several steps, none of them difficult, and the use of a food processor, but the results are magical. A bit of honest labor for a delicious and healthy vegetarian meal: what could be better than that?
Yellow Indian Woman Fritters (barely adapted from Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando & Vanessa Barrington)
2 cups drained, cooked Yellow Indian Woman Beans (or Pinto beans)
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup small red onion
1 cup yellow cornmeal, more if needed
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbs. sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk, more if needed
1 egg, beaten
2 tbs. fresh cilantro, chopped
Grated zest of one lime
1 1/2 tsp. coarse salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
safflower oil or grapeseed oil for frying
In a food processor, purée 1 1/2 cups beans, milk, and the onion until a smooth paste forms, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides.
In a large bowl, mash the remaining beans with a potato masher or fork. Add the beans from the processor, cornmeal, flour, sugar, buttermilk, lime zest, cilantro, egg, salt & pepper. Mix well. The mixture should look like oatmeal. Add more cornmeal or buttermilk, as necessary.
Heat 1/2 inch of oil over medium–high heat in a large frying pan. Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towels. When oil is shimmering, but not smoking, add one tablespoon’s worth of batter to the pan. If the fritter smokes, turn down the heat. Fry the fritters in batches of 4-6. Do not crowd the pan. Turn the fritters over carefully when they are a nice, golden-brown color. You’ll want to cook both sides.
Drain the fritters on the baking sheet and keep them warm in the oven. You should wind up with around 12 fritters. I served these with tapenade and yogurt — Sando recommends salsa and sour cream — and my favorite fennel salad.
Recently, Jim and I joined our friends John and M’Evie for dinner at Niche in St. Louis. The reviews of the restaurant are uniformly glowing. Food and Wine featured a very favorable profile of the restaurant in an article on the St. Louis dining scene; the restaurant routinely wins “Best of” awards from the city’s media outlets; most impressively, Gerald Craft, the head chef, has been nominated for a prestigious James Beard award, the winner of which will be announced in May. Craft is credited with helping to revive the Benton Park area in St. Louis as well as for practically inventing a farm to restaurant supply chain for the region. Clearly, he’s doing a lot of things right at Niche.
We certainly enjoyed our meal there. By far, the most delicious thing that we ate was the chicken liver terrine served with an orange-date compote, a dish that has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. I can see why. Oh. My. Word. It was truly stunning: smooth and luscious with the perfect amount of schmaltz. And was that shallot that I tasted?
You can tell that we liked it from this photo:
As a first course, Jim ordered farro with roe. It was good, if a bit salty. The waiter mentioned that the farro was cooked in ham stock, which is a good move, but then to pair it with roe, which is also salty, pushed the dish just a bit over the top. The saltiness was somewhat mitigated by the addition of some pieces of sweet buckwheat, which was really the saving grace of the dish.
I ordered the trout duo as a main course: one half of the duo was a delicious mound of trout rillette served atop thinly sliced beets. The other half was a piece of nicely roasted trout topped with the most incredible house made potato chips. I wish I could remember what accompanied the trout. It’s in the photo here and my best recollection is that it was a bit like a potato knish. I think my memory lapse suggests something about that particular aspect of the meal. It was fairly nondescript and seemed to be poorly matched to the rest of the meal in terms of texture and flavor. I think something with a more assertive taste would have worked better on the plate.
And then there was dessert. I ordered only one dinner course to save room for the upside down sticky toffee pudding cake served with orange peel and orange sherbet. Hands down, sticky toffee pudding is my favorite dessert so I had very high hopes for this version. Unfortunately, the dessert was a disappointment. The cake was good, but a bit on the dry side; the caramel nondescript. The sherbet, which is house made (as are all the ice creams and gelatos), was, I’m sorry to say, an utter failure: flavorless and grainy. The problem, I suspect, was age. Our visit was the first night that the restaurant was open after a four night break for the New Year’s holiday. I suppose the sherbet was leftover from the previous week. Some kind of starch — my guess is corn starch — had separated from the cream and flavorings. This was also the case with Jim’s vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.
John and M’Evie fared better with the liquid chocolate cake and peppermint ice cream, a dish that was a wonderful combination of warm chocolate and cool, fresh peppermint.
In spite of the disappointments, our meal was impressive: Jim’s pork was excellent and John and M’Evie’s chicken was well prepared and innovative (which is saying something; it’s hard to be creative with chicken). The ingredients are all locally sourced and in season. Execution aside, it is deeply satisfying to eat this way.
This visit to Niche has prompted some questions about what Americans expect when they eat out. I suppose we expect different things from different types of restaurants, but when we eat in fine restaurants, what, exactly, are Americans looking for? According to Lynn Rosetto Kasper, of The Splendid Table fame, Italians dine out to eat meals that they prepare at home and “heaven help the restaurant that gets it wrong.” I’m not sure what other nationalities expect when they dine out in restaurants, but it seems to me that Americans expect food that is altogether different from the food that they eat at home. However, the American restaurant scene seems to be evolving to meet a new set of customer expectations and this evolution might be an indication of a dramatic cultural shift.
Could it be that Americans are beginning to appreciate quality over quantity and superficiality?
Then again, it might just be a fad. Time will tell.
The food that we had at Niche was prepared with ingredients that American home cooks (or at least those who live in St. Louis) have access to, but Craft does unusual things with them, which is, I suppose, why the James Beard Foundation has recognized his efforts. His restaurant seems to have become an important site in the St. Louis food scene and it’s good to see someone so committed to using local ingredients. We’ll certainly eat there again. I just hope it’s on a night when the ice cream meets my expectations.
I’ve been a bit lax about posting lately because I’ve been rather distracted. I’m waiting for something, you see. I’m waiting for a pop.
For the past two weeks, I’ve suffered from an ear infection that simply will not go away. Meds can’t seem to touch it. All I can do is wait.
At least I’m suffering from an infection of a really impressive body part. Observe:
All of this symmetry and detail is impressive, but it strikes me that there are many places where things could go wrong. Currently, the middle of my right ear is under water, or at least that’s what I like to imagine in there. I can barely hear, which makes teaching a bit of a challenge. It’s unfortunate that in the first week of classes, I came across to my students as a deaf old crone. But I persevere and wait for the pop that will return my hearing and my self.
It’s hard to function without all the senses; I suppose one can only really appreciate that fact when something goes out. Now that deafness has more or less settled in, I feel confused, unbalanced, and on edge. There is not much actual pain right now, just sort of tension — tension that seems equal parts mental and physical. And, as everyone who lives with me will attest, I am grumpy.
I think I’m entitled; these days all I get from my eardrum is the odd snap and the occasional crackle when what I really need is a nice, resounding pop. Something…definitive.
I feel a bit like a did in the waning days of my pregnancy, when Mimi was officially post-term and I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Then, as now, there was an official date when the situation would be forced to end by the medical establishment: in the case of the pregnancy, a date when labor would be induced; now, an appointment to have my eardrum punctured by a professional. And now, as then, I feel like that date cannot come soon enough.
Not being the most patient person in the world, the thought of DIY surgery has crossed my mind — fondue forks are good for all sorts of things — but I’m a mother and I have to set a good example. Still, one way or another, something is going to pop around here. Yes, indeed.
Stovetop Popcorn (adapted from a recipe at simplyrecipes.com and a good recipe for anyone with a persistent ear infection)
Yes, there are all sorts of marvelous machines that can pop up excellent popcorn, but I’m at a point where I need to take matters into my own hands. Call this passive-agressive popcorn popping. What else can I do?
2 tbs. grapeseed or canola oil
1 tbs. truffle infused grapeseed oil
1/3 cup good quality popping corn
1 tbs. butter
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika or cumin
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a heavy skillet with a lid. Put in three or four kernels of popcorn. When those kernels pop, add the remaining popcorn and take off of the heat for 30 seconds. Return to heat, cover, and shake the pan. You will soon begin to hear very satisfying popping sounds coming from inside the pan. Bank down your envy and continue shaking the pan over the heat until the popping subsides. Add the butter and salt and seasoning of choice. Shake some more while the butter melts. Pour popcorn into a large bowl. Popcorn tastes best eaten from a communal bowl kept in the middle of a floor or sofa, preferably while watching something like The Sound of Music, which is, ironically, the current favorite in our house.
POP ON! Please…
Please consider making a cash donation to aid earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. There are several responsible agencies on the ground there. One is Médecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders). Americans can donate though the American website; others can make donations through the international site.
When I was an undergraduate, I took a class in European geography that was interesting in many ways, but frustrating because one of the students, a guy from Greece named Stavros, anointed himself the resident expert in all things European and assumed a kind of guest-lecturer position in the class. He was tolerable at first, but quickly grew tiresome for his overly loud, opinionated, and inconsiderate ways. Worse, he never missed an opportunity to remind the class that his family owned an island in Greece. “Do you understand that we own it ourselves?” he once asked, rhetorically. Day in, day out, this guy held forth. Why the professor, didn’t stop him, I’ll never know. It was excruciating.
But some good did come of this situation. Near the end of the semester, Stavros found himself in a tense discussion with a group of fed-up classmates over the issue of, of all things, baklava. The Greek all but claimed that his own grandmother had invented the pastry, so some clever person challenged Stavros to reproduce his Granny’s masterpiece for the class, which, surprisingly, he agreed to do. It seemed unlikely that he would follow through, but on the evening of the final exam, Stavros produced not one, but two, huge pans full of obviously homemade baklava.
I turned in my exam, took a piece of it, and walked out into the night. Without expecting too much, I bit into the baklava. And then, stunned, I came to a complete stop. I’ve been stalled in that spot ever since.
Oh, Stavros, exactly where is that island of yours?
His baklava was incredible, one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. Distinctive layers of filo dough filled with a combination of crushed and whole pistachio nuts, cinnamon,and orange flower water. It was buttery without being greasy. The sugar syrup was thick and deeply caramel-colored, somehow not as relentlessly sweet as you’d expect but totally luscious. I had only one piece of it, but twenty years later, I still lie awake at night, thinking of that miraculous baklava, the unexpected crunch of it, its buttery flavor, its deep, complex sweetness.
Exactly what made Stavros’s baklava so incredible? It seemed much more than just the sum of its parts. Was it the surprise that he rose to the challenge in the first place? That such a person could be so generous? That someone so utterly objectionable could cook something that so absolutely wasn’t? That he toasted the pistachios?
Eating is such an intimate act. Nothing that we do is so intimate, in some ways, not even sex. Bite; Chew; Swallow; Digest: one must be brave to eat. Few of our activities have such unreflected upon consequences. We ingest and we become what we ingest both literally and figuratively. The literal becoming is acknowledged in the old cliché: “You are what you eat,” but I can’t think of a phrase that captures that figurative becoming. Maybe because it’s more complicated to understand.
Stavros’s baklava is a part of me now, a mental measuring tool. In bakeries and restaurants, I figuratively take out this device and measure a piece of baklava against this gold standard. And Stavros, a person I wanted only to forget, has, through cooking, become part of the landscape of my mind. It suggests something about the power of those who cook. I’m aware of that as I cook for Mimi now. What flavors will become part of her own mental landscape? What foods will she reflect upon as standards of perfection? What other factors will season the meals of her memory?
I’ve been thinking about such questions lately because I’m still suffering from the aftereffects of a cold and cannot taste very well. Oh, how I miss flavor. I miss fully participating in the intimate act of eating. I miss the satisfaction, the pleasure.
But I did have a small breakthrough recently, when Jim’s mom brought me a piece of baklava made by her hair dresser. Somehow, the taste of this little pastry penetrated through my deadened senses. It brought back the memory of the uber-baklava and then promptly sent me to the cookbook archive that I was travelling with, in search of a recipe. And, yes, there was one that looked promising, in Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. I’ll try it in a few days, when I’ve finished unpacking and when my sense of taste returns. Until then, I’ll fantasize about warm Greek islands and Stavros’s baklava, if not Stavros himself.
We’re spending part of our holiday break in St. Louis, visiting Jim’s family and catching up with friends. We’re also eating well. St. Louis is a great food city due, in large part, to the fact that so many Italians settled there in the 19th and 20th centuries. Italian-American enclaves continue to thrive in the city. My favorite of these is a neighborhood called “The Hill.” It is certainly not the most elegant part of the city, with its narrow, crowded streets, unfashionably small houses, and unusual lawn decorations, but it is a haven for food lovers. Every time we come to the city, we make a pilgrimage to The Hill to enjoy great food, drink great coffee, indulge in great gelato, and shop at one of the all-time-great neighborhood grocery stores: J. Viviano & Sons.
The Hill is the place in St. Louis to go for bocce ball, knife sharpening, and spumone. Viviano’s is the place to go for staples of the Italian pantry: cranberry beans, reasonably priced cans of San Marzano tomatoes, anchovies packed in salt, oil, or both, and dayglo bright sugared almonds. When we go there, I stock up on olive oil, Marsala wine, aged balsamic vinegar, dried fava beans, farro, and pasta, just about any size or shape you can imagine. The best thing about Viviano’s is how real it is, how authentic. It isn’t some kind of simulacrum of an old-time Italian grocery store; it is one.
This means, of course, that it’s not much to look at. The floors are warped; the walls covered with kitschy Italian album covers, photographs of the founder’s wedding, and advertisements for Italian foods and films. Prominent among these is a poster that Jim covets: an original advertisement for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the perfect image to preside over this innocent shrine to Italian culinary hedonism.
The aisles in Viviano’s are narrow and uneven, probably no different from they way they were in 1949, when the store opened. There is no traffic flow in the place, no obvious pattern of navigation. You just kind of go to where your eyes take you, shopping in a very natural and human fashion. This makes the place sort of dangerous. The grocery carts are rickety and small, but not small enough to easily steer through the tiny store. Tense stand-offs with fellow shoppers are common. The place is mostly patronized by elderly Italian-American men and women — actual residents of the area — who shop there because Viviano’s carries authentic Italian food at good prices (listen up, Whole Foods!). Those old folks are tough though: they handily best me at grocery cart chicken.
Unlike modern grocery stores, Viviano’s smells like food, mostly of meat. This is because of the deli counter, which is usually packed with customers, especially on weekends and holidays. Throngs of people line up for capicola, pancetta, mortadella, and salami. There are huge buckets of olives — black, green, large, small, pitted, unpitted — and many different types of Italian cheese. Best of all, everything is reasonably priced. Those old folks simply won’t stand for being gouged.
Which is not to say that Viviano’s does not carry fine foods. Last year, when we were there during the holidays, I sampled the most incredible prosciutto, truly luscious stuff, but we were on our way out of town so I didn’t buy any. Oh, how I thought about it all the way home though. Obviously, I still have it on my mind.
A Typical "Grandma Bungalow"
When Jim and I fantasize about moving to St. Louis, we almost always talk about buying a little grandma bungalow on The Hill. The rest of our dream is almost purely culinary. Saturdays would look something like this: we’d walk to our favorite bakery in the morning — there are several to choose from — and then move on to Viviano’s for the day’s groceries, stopping at the Shaw’s Coffee for a cappuccino and grabbing a gelato for Mimi from Gelato di Riso. In the afternoon, we might play a game at Milo’s Bocce Garden. Finally, at night we’d have dinner with our friends M’Evie and John and Grant and Mary at Zia’s or maybe splurge and eat at Dominic’s, a venerable St. Louis institution. We’d enjoy the good food and excellent conversation and walk back to our tiny home together though those narrow, crowded streets.
And, then, maybe then, we’d be living la dolce vita.