Out of Season but Inspired

Yet again, I’m late to the party. 

For at least a couple of years, now, I’ve been hearing fleeting mentions of recipes involving pea shoots–not peas themselves, but leaves and tendrils clipped from the vines of a pea plant.  The recipes always sounded interesting, but heaven knows I’d never seen a pea shoot for sale in the grocery store.  It was an ingredient that interested me, but which I ultimately decided that I’d have to taste in a future-indeterminate meal at a fancy restaurant.  In the spring.

Last week I checked out a new cookbook (Molly Katzen’s latest: Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without) and discovered yet another recipe for pea shoots–this time simply sauteed with lots of fresh garlic and a little salt.  I would never have remarked it more than usual, but for one thing: I found pea shoots.

Saturday morning Teacherman and I went to one of the special winter farmer’s markets, intending to buy root vegetables, and maybe some apples.  (The apples may be old and ugly at this time of year, but they’re still miles better than the best store-bought, even at fancy organic stores).  We ended up spending scads more than we expected, on organic lamb and pork (and a Christmas ornament, but that wasn’t my fault), and it seemed like we had barely enough cash left over to cover our vegtabular bounty. 

At the very last stall, Teacherman was some parsnips when I spied a basket of tangled green somethings.  A tiny lightbulb lit up in my brain.

“Are those pea shoots?” I asked the stallholder.

“Nope, those are sunflower shoots,” she said.  “But we have a basket of pea shoots right here!” and she pulled a big basket of nearly identical tangled green things out from under the counter.  (And honestly, who has ever heard of sunflower shoots?)

After a rapid consultation about the state of our wallets, Teacherman and I scraped together enough loose change to cover a quarter of a pound of pea shoots, then whisked them home to eat for lunch.

I followed Katzen’s recipe almost exactly: I threw the pea shoots and a large quantity of chopped garlic into a blazing hot saute pan filmed with oil.  I added a big pinch of salt and then tossed the whole mixture until it was bright green and wilted.  (Katzen’s book suggests 5 minutes for this, but it only took me 2). 

We served the little garlicky tangles with Thai salmon cakes and sweet-and-sour red cabbage with cranberries (another Katzen recipe), but the pea shoots were unquestionably the star of the meal.  It’s hard to explain why this is–we weren’t ravished and moaning, and the flavor couldn’t be described as anything remotely intense, but its very simplicity was compelling.  Every time one of us took a bite there would be a quiet “Wow.”   

In trying to come up with a way to describe the flavor, all I can say is: it’s like spinach, except. 

Except it doesn’t have that awful metallic taste that so many people object to.  Except it isn’t heavy and compacted together.  Except that there’s an elusive extra flavor–like the breath of an almost-forgotten rememberance of peas.  I know that this sounds hyperbolic, but the flavor actually made me happy

I don’t know when I’ll get to eat pea shoots again–they’re usually a spring specialty, and I’ve wondered if my finding them at the farmer’s market was a fluke–but the next time I see them, I’ll definitely buy them. 

Published in: on December 3, 2007 at 8:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Things Which Are Not Good Even When Famous Chefs Say They Are

Avocado Ice Cream.

Honestly. 

I love avocados.  Unreservedly love them.  I make guacamole every week or so, throw avocados into salads, salsas, relishes, casseroles, gloopy dishes of leftovers, anything.  I’ve never met an avocado I didn’t like. 

Until now.

There’s a new ice cream cookbook out this year with which I’ve had tremendous success.  Every recipe I’ve tried (especially the chocolate ice cream recipe) has been, if not earth-shattering (though many of them were), at least Extremely Excellent.  I’ve churned my way through almost half of the ice creams, sorbets and granitas and even dabbled among the toppings with nary a failure. 

Now, though–now I have been arrested by the aforementioned Avocado Ice Cream.

Some of you may wonder why on earth anyone would use avocados in sweet applications anyway.  And it’s true; in America they’re mostly used in savory ways.  I have it on good authority, however, that in the South and Middle American countries where they  grow, avocados are used as what they really are–a fruit.  Avocado milk-shakes are apparently one of the most popular ways of eating the things, period–guacamole notwithstanding.

AND, it must be admitted–I’ve made an avocado dessert before.  More than a year ago I made a chocolate-espresso-avocado mousse.  It was quite good.  The texture was creamy and as smooth as butter; the flavor was more chocolately than unadulterated chocolate–presumably the fat content of the avocado heightened the richness and aroma.  The color was a little grey-ish, but it light of its other, more positive attributes, the dish was counted as a success.  I knew then about avocado ice cream and avocado milkshakes–I’d even been planning to make one of those before I tried the avocado-chocolate combination.  Somehow I didn’t, though, until this year.

So.  I made avocado ice cream.  It’s really very simple: you blend the ripe avocados into cream and/or milk and/or sour cream, add sweetener, lime juice, a little salt, and you’re done.  Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker and you have avocado ice cream.

The problem, though, with the avocado ice cream that you have (or at least with the avocado ice cream that I have) is that it tastes bad.  It’s funky and off and even kind of, well, rancid.  It tases faintly of the smell of nuts gone bad, away in a forgotten cupboard.  It’s not so bad that it can’t be eaten, but frankly, I can’t figure out why anyone would want to make this. 

I tasted each of the ingredients individually, while I was making it–each one tasted fine.  In was only in combination that the unfortunate, dank overtones appeared.  They were present in the unfrozen mixture–I tasted it and thought: “Somehow this will be different when frozen, surely!”  Alas, no.  It stayed just as it was–faintly wrong, perplexingly dubious.  Off.

Avocados, though, are expensive.  So we ate all of it, gradually working through the batch as the week went on.  I made a spiced ginger syrup to pour over the top, which obscured the odd flavor somewhat, but I can’t see making a dish that I’d know I’d have to work to disguise.

I will definitely not make avocado ice cream again.  The chocolate-espresso-avocado mousse?  Maybe.  I may go back to just eating guacamole.

Published in: on November 30, 2007 at 9:53 pm  Comments (4)  

Sans Spice

My spice rack can be a bit overwhelming. 

When I say ‘spice rack,’ what I really mean is ‘spice cabinet.’  My spice collection takes up an entire 3-shelf kitchen cabinet–the savory herbs and spices on one shelf, the sweet spices on another, and salts, peppers, and pickling spices on a third (along, it must be admitted, with some pickling equipment, but not much). 

I don’t just have the basics (though honestly, these days who knows what The Basics are?) I’ve got things that most people haven’t even heard of.  Long pepper?  Check.  Grains of paradise?  Yes, indeed.  Worse, I don’t believe that I could get along without almost everything I have.  I really do use all the different individual chile powders and juniper berries and green and red peppercorns.   I really do USE all three varieties of paprika–weekly, even!

Last night, though, I made a meal without any spices at all.

As you might remember, I spent two weeks of this summer in Germany.  Since then, I have made more traditionally German (or at least Germanic) food than I ever have in my entire life.  Most of the dishes I’ve making are not even ones that I ate when abroad, but for some reason I feel compelled–happily compelled–to make them. 

Last night I made a very unusual stew that I found in a couple-of-decades-old German library cookbook.  The stew originally interested me because it contained enormous quantities of leeks–not as a substitute for onions, but as the major component of the dish. 

The stew starts out as most German stews do, with bacon.  I have rarely seen a stew recipe that did not begin with an instruction to crisp some bacon in a pan, remove the bacon, and continue with the soup using the bacon drippings as the cooking fat.  I could have used leftover bacon fat from the jar I keep in the back of the fridge (yes, I really do.  It’s excellent for searing salmon in), but I wanted bacon bits to sprinkle on top of the stew, and thus followed the recipe directly.

The stew continued in a familiar way, with a saute of aromatics–in this case, an onion, two carrots and two celery root, all cut into 1/2-inch cubes.  After they were browned (a difficult task, given the constrast between the sheer quantity of vegetables and the relatively modest size of my Dutch oven), I added 4 cups of beef stock and brought the whole thing to a bubble.

Now for the fun part: bockwurst.  Bockwurst is one of the eleventy-million varieties of sausage produced in Germany, and one of my favorites.  It’s an emulsified sausage, meaning that the insides are smooth and almost fluffy.  Teacherman describes them as “like a meat marshmallow,” but I don’t find that description particularly appetizing.   (He also prefers wiesswurst to bockwurst, which is a conflict).

In spite of my weekly practice of sausage-making, I have never made an emulsified sausage.  Luckily, there are two places in Chicago where I can purchase phenomenal sausages, almost as good as the ones we had in Germany.  Thus, I had easily procured one pound of bockwurst, and I had it at the ready.

I placed the bockwurst on top of the bubbling vegetables, turned it down to a simmer, covered the pan, and left it to stew for 40 minutes.  When I checked it after 20, I discovered that all of the sausages had split, exploding out of their skins and leaving yawning canyons all down one side (one sausage actually managed to split in a spiral–I’m not sure how that happened).  I understand that some people find split-skinned sausages to be an abomination impossible to be tolerated, but I have never minded it.  On a grilled sausage, a split skin just means there’s more surface to caramelize, and on a braised sausage like this, it means that it was easier for the juices of the stew to flavor the meat of the sausage (and the juices of the sausage to add body to the flavor of the stew). 

When 40 minutes were up, I added 2 pounds of leeks, quartered, cleaned, and sliced into 1/2-inch curves.  The lid went back on for 15 minutes, just long enough for the leeks to become crisp-tender, but not long enough to become limp and unfortunate.  I added a little salt at the same time as the leeks, but the stock, bacon and sausage contributed salt of their own, and I barely tipped in more than a pinch.

Voila.  A leek and bockwurst stew.  Given my love for Thai curry and southwestern green chile, can such a spiceless dish garner any praise from me at all?  Aren’t such dishes usually characterized as bland?

Yes, it’s true.  German food is often considered bland (along with “heavy,” a word which I’m beginning to believe means only “makes the speaker feel guilty for enjoying it”).  And it’s also true that this dish didn’t have any screamingly herbal top notes or sparkling, acidic touches.  What it did have was depth–the deep background flavor of the sauteed onions, carrots and celery root, which was mellow and earthy without being in-your-face.   The bockwurst was almost sweet in contrast to the vegetables, and the softness of the meat was comforting. 

The leeks, though, were what really made the stew.  They were cooked just enough to have given up their raw crunchiness, but still seemed fresh.  The soft but firm give of the leeks provided textural contrast and a giant hit of flavor.  Even without spices, it was a delicious, satisfying dish.

Published in: on November 5, 2007 at 9:52 am  Leave a Comment  

Fresh and Strange

Well, I suppose I can’t really call it fresh.  The peas are frozen, after all.  But it definitely strange.  And it’s even more definitely good

The other week I checked a new cookbook called The Breakaway Chef out of the library.  Some of the recipes were a little too esoteric for me, but I marked several and those thus far tried have produced good results. 

I took note of one recipe in particular–Baked Peas with Yogurt, Tarragon and Pistachios.  I grow oodles of herbs every summer, and I never use as much of them as I would like, mostly because very few recipes are ever written for the more unusual ones, like tarragon.  (I can’t eat tarragon-chicken-salad EVERY day, and it turns out that I don’t really like tarragon in devilled eggs, and it kind of gets lost as part of a salad).  In any case, this recipe calls for mixing frozen (thawed) peas with chopped tarragon, scallions, salted pistachios, olive oil and a little Greek yogurt, then baking it at a very high temperature for 15 minutes, until the top of the mixture starts to brown.  I couldn’t really taste the imaginary result, but the use of tarragon made me remember it.

I planned to make the peas for dinner some night, as a side dish, but today I found myself alone for lunch, with an unexpectedly small meal planned.  Greek yogurt and scallions are staples in this house, and frozen peas can usually be found lurking in one of the freezers, so I kludged together a much reduced version of the original recipe and threw it in the oven while I worked on something else.

It was really very tasty.  I can’t describe the finished dish evocatively because it isn’t like anything else.  BUT: the sweetness of the peas and the pistachios went very well together, with the salt on the pistachios making them seem almost sweeter.  The yogurt made the dish creamy without making it rich, and the scallions and tarragon provided a subtle, grassy layer next to the falvors of the peas and nuts. 

It was nice; I wish I’d made it for more people than just me.  (And hopefully Richard Wilbur will forgive me for quoting his wonderful poem in the title of an essay about frozen peas).

Published in: on September 2, 2007 at 1:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Gang Aft Agley

It was not my intention to begin my much-anticipated two day weekend with excruciating allergies and a bum leg, but there I was.  I lurched around the farmers’ market, honking and breathing with difficulty, trying not to step down hard on my right leg, all the while carrying far too many bags of fruit at once.  (So many bags, in fact, that I pulled some of the muscles in my left shoulder).  I got back home at about 11:30, shoved everything into the fridge or freezer and went back to bed with a book.

I don’t think I ate anything that day besides farmer’s market samples, broth and lots of tea. 

Sunday morning I woke up absolutely ravenous, but still with a raw throat and useless nostrils.  When I stepped outside to walk the dog, it hit me: it was already in the 80’s and the humidity was near 90%.  I wanted something cold for breakfast.  I wanted something really cold.  I wanted ice cream.

I did not, however, have any cream.  Nor, truth be told, am I very good at making ice cream without Teacherman around.  Our ice cream machine is a modern frozen-cylinder deal, but it’s a hand-crank, and I don’t often have the stamina to force the dasher around for more than five minutes at a time.

BUT.  These two things were the case, and I was still determined to have ice cream.  I had mountains of frozen fruit.  I had yogurt.  I had a food processor.  There would be ice cream.    (All right, technically it was frozen yogurt, or even a very thick smoothie or something.  Shut up, she explained).

The first bag of frozen fruit I saw when I opened the freezer was filled with black raspberries.  My sluggish brain sparked.  There was a recipe for black raspberry-rose geranium ice cream in Local Flavors, a Deborah Madison cookbook I bought at the library’s last booksale.  I’d remarked on it when I first read the recipe (I love black raspberries.  I have a rose geranium), but then forgot about it amid the joys of less esoteric ice cream flavors. 

On the way back into the house with the dog, I grabbed a few rose geranium leaves.  These were washed, then pulverized in the food processor.  I poured a heaping cup of frozen black raspberries over the geranium leaf powder, then pulverized them, too.  I emptied a small container of Greek yogurt into the processor, added a few tablespoons of simple syrup, and pulsed until it was completely amalgamated.  Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream.

In fact, it really was like ice cream, and not frozen yogurt.  The tang of the yogurt wasn’t obtrusive, it just made the finished product taste fresh and light.  The main flavor was that of the black raspberries, with the rose geraniums as a tiny floral breath in the background, muting the raspberries’ somewhat piney aggressiveness.  It was smooth and frozen and perfect for my ravaged throat. 

Thus fortified, I spent the rest of the day cooking, making various things for my upcoming breakfasts (cherry-plum-almond crisp), and lunches (Spanish-esque meatloaf, roasted cauliflower), even finding enough inspiration to start a raspberry-rose geranium liqueur infusing away next to the nascent cassis.   

My last spurt of industry created my dinner–an arugula salad with blue cheese, peaches and walnuts, with a vinaigrette of white wine vinegar, walnut oil and grainy mustard.  Just as I sat finshed tossing it, though, the tornado sirens started.  I spent the rest of the evening sitting in the (empty) bathtub, eating my salad out of the mixing bowl and reading a silly novel, while the cat and dog cowered on the floor nearby.  This wasn’t how I intended to end my weekend, either, but the salad was certainly very good.

Published in: on August 6, 2007 at 6:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

More Cheese, Please!

In twenty-six days Teacherman and I leave for our honeymoon: two weeks in the German Black Forest and in Alsace (which, in spite of Teacherman’s pseudo-naive assertions, is in FRANCE).  We are both far too excited about the food.

Sure, we read all the guidebooks and marked down the museums and castles and natureparks and picturesque towns that we wanted to go to, but in the midst of this genteel cultural orgy there would inevitably come a shout from whoever was in the other room:

“Do you think we’ll be there during asparagus season?”

“Look at the website for this cheese shop!”

“Strasbourg geese!  That is all I’m going to say: Strasbourg Geese!”

I think our most extreme moment of glee came when we realized that the farmer’s market in Freiberg is held Every Single Day on the square directly out the front door of our gasthaus.  There was some imperfectly-suppressed joyous leaping. 

And, because I always like to know what I’m getting myself into, I’ve been trying to read cookbooks from the region.  For the most part, this was a futile excercise.  Hearty Germanic cusine is not remotely “in” right now, and both regions, Alsace in particular, tend to be slighted in books of recipes meant to represent the entire country (whichever one that happens to be).

I was elated, therefore, when I discovered Black Forest Cuisine by Walter Staib on the New-Book shelf at the library.   I won’t give a review of the book here–I don’t actually know enough about the subejct to be a reliable auditor–but I will say that I loved the recipes, the traditional salad recipes in particular.  They hearken back to the self-created salad recipes of my childhood (meat, cheese, dressing, ancillary vegetables), but are so far above them in quality and inspiration that they really can’t be compared thereto.

My current favorite is for something called a Camembert Cafe Frei.  A whole round of Camembert is broken into pieces and mixed with a finely chopped amalgamation of chives, onions, caraway seeds and paprika, then served on top of lettuce and sliced radishes. 

I made the recipe last Sunday night, as part of our travelling cooler-fodder picnic.  The cheese I used was not a Camembert, but a something-without-a-name-I-could-discern, from Normandy.  It was runny and pungant, though, so runny that it couldn’t be broken into bits.  Instead we sprinkled the oniony mix-ins over the top and ate it bite by bite, chasing the chives around the plate and dipping the cheese into them. 

Wow. 

I know that the taste of the final dish had everything to do with the quality of the ingredients (the amazing cheese, the chives and shallot [because I had no onions] from the farmer’s market) , but it was still a revelation.  It was incredibly rich, but not so rich that I wanted to stop eating it.  The radishes and the lettuce provided a contrasting spicy crunch that worked well as an alternate bite with the gooey cheese. 

This is a recipe worth saving.  And, more, worth hoping to find in Germany itself.

Published in: on June 1, 2007 at 6:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Little Bit Jumbled and Jivey

I have been on an oat kick recently.

After a few years of ignoring the grain, I recently rediscovered the joys of hot oatmeal in the morning–it is still early spring here, no matter what the calendar says–and oats have become a staple freezer item.  (I treat oats like nuts and store them in the freezer, to prevent any oils from going rancid).  I’ve purchased many different varieties of oats for my experiments: mostly ordinary old-fashioned rolled oats, but lately also steel-cut oats, those little nubbins that most would be unable to identify as oats at all.  They make a wonderfully rustic and grainy oatmeal, but since it takes half the amount of steel-cut oats to make the same finished quantity of oatmeal as that made from rolled oats, I always miscalculate, overbuy, and end up with uncooked steel-cut oats that languish in the freezer while I finish my overabundance of leftover breakfast.

As part of my search for perfect oatmeal, I checked out Lorna Sass’s new cookbook Whole Grains: Every Day, Every Way.  I certainly enjoyed her recipes for hot breakfast oatmeal, but what really intrigued me was a recipe for a Tex-Mex turkey soup with steel-cut oats stirred in at the end, instead of rice or pasta.  It seemed a perfect use for the leftover steel-cut oats in my freezer and a perfect Sunday night dinner–warming enough to cut the chilly wind, but not so stodgy as to repulse, given the vaguely spring-like tendancies of the weather. 

The stew is simplicty itself, the only deviation from the norm being the presence of the oats.  Sweat an onion and a stalk of celery in oil, add stock (or water) and that beloved southern staple, a can of diced tomatoes and green chiles.  Plunk in some turkey thighs (boneless and skinless in my case, though the recipe calls for bone-in) and various spices, simmer for a short while, then add a measure of steel-cut oats and simmer again until the oats are soft.  Finally, add in some corn kernels, diced avocados, lime juice and chopped cilantro.  The result?  A deeply flavorful bowl of tomato-y stew, enriched by the turkey and stock, spiced by the green chile, and thickened by the addition of the oats.  The oats serve the same purpose as barley in a beef-barley soup, but add a toasted flavor that deepens and enlivens the dish. 

I would definitely make this stew again, and am excited to try other oat recipes from Sass’s book.  If I can get my hands on some whole oat groats, her oat pilaf might be in the offing.  But wait–whole oat groats?  I wonder what kind of hot cereal that would make. . . ?

Published in: on May 7, 2007 at 8:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Easy is a Relative Term

There is one cake recipe that I make over and over again–in fact, it’s one of the few dessert recipes I’ve made more than once, let alone more than ten times.  (It’s not that I don’t like the desserts I make, just that I’m continually interested in new things).  This cake, though, is supremely easy to make, and usually sends people into transports of delight.

I first noticed the recipe in my mother’s copy of The Good Fat Cookbook, renowned for including copious amounts of nuts, avocados and/or coconut in most recipes.  This recipe, for a coconut-orange-almond cake, struck me because of the wet ingredients: aside from the eggs, the only moist things in the cake were two oranges, simmered for two hours and then ground whole.  The entirety of both oranges, pith, peel and all, went into the cake.  At the time that I first made the recipe, I knew nothing about culinary technique or baking chemistry or anything like that; I just thought the recipe sounded neat.  The cake itself–just ground almonds, coconut, sweetener, baking powder and eggs mixed with those pureed oranges–was a dense, moist round that tasted like it had been soaked in orange syrup.  I was hooked from the first bite, but each bite after the first revealed more depth: the cake got better for every day it sat in the fridge.

I made the cake several times after that, both for my family and once I’d moved out on my own, but it wasn’t until I saw a similar recipe in Nigella Lawson’s first cookbook, How to Eat, that I thought of changing the recipe up a bit.  She makes her cake with clementines instead of oranges and uses only almonds instead of almonds and coconut.  Further still, at the end of the recipe she notes that she sometimes makes the cake with lemons instead of clementines.  Instantly attracted, I made the cake with lemons and no coconut; I liked it even better than the orange version.  (Lawson also acknowledges that she’d noticed that her recipe–which wasn’t original to her, and the discovery of which she has forgotten–is so very similar to a cake invented by Claudia Roden that she assumes that her own recipe is derived from Roden’s). 

Soon after discovering the lemon version of the cake, I began to see variations of the basic recipe everywhere.  They ran through every citrus fruit in existence–grapefruit, ugli fruit, key limes, kumquats (the last of which must be agonizingly fiddly to time)–and, astonishingly to me, moved into other fruits as well.  I’ve seen the cake made using stone fruits, pommes and berries, all cooked down and blended into a thick puree.  Even Lawson presents a very similar apple-based cake in her latest cookbook, Feast. 

Inspired by a plum version I saw online, I once made a sour cherry-almond cake.  It was quite tasty, but a rather terrifying shade of dull magenta.  In the end, I’ve decided that though the many-flavored versions of the cake are delicious, lemon is the very best.  No other flavor causes my guests to look at me in shock when they taste their first bite. 

Whenever anyone asks me for my favorite easy cake recipe, I try to give them this one.  I never manage to make it past the first instruction, though: Take two lemons, cover them with water, and simmer them for two hours, until soft.  “What?!” people shout.  “Are you kidding?!”  “You want me to put that in a CAKE?”  Everyone thinks I’m trying to trick them into making an awful, sour, pithy cake.  Even if recipients believe my tales of softening and sweetening, they balk at the timing: “Two hours?  You think I have that kind of time?”  Yes, two hours in which you don’t have to do a single thing but occasionally walk by and make sure the water is still blooping, after which you spend approximately five minutes grinding the oranges and whirling the ingredients together in your food processor.  In spite of what I consider the criminal easiness of this recipe–all the more so because of the transcendant results and how far ahead one can make it–I have not managed to successfully pass this recipe on to a single person.

I made the cake again for a potluck party this last Thursday.  I was a little worried about it, since the only lemons I could find were rock-hard and extremely thick of skin (the boiling might soften the pith, but the flavor is still there).  The batter tasted slightly off to me, no matter how I tweaked it.  Finally, even after I screwed my courage to the sticking point and put the pan in the oven, I managed to overcook it a tad, leaving the outside shiny and almost hard instead of its usual near-stickiness.  With an ordinary cake it would be easy to disguise any shortcomings with lavish accompaniments.  This cake doesn’t need, and really can’t take any.  I threw up my hands, wrapped the cake in foil and stashed it in the fridge for the few days before the party. 

As we walked up the steps to the house I made Teacherman promise to abet me in quietly pitching the cake if it turned out to be terrible.   He agreed, but was confident that things would never come to such a pass.  And lo, he was correct.  The main portion of the meal was over, the cookies and cakes and potent potables came out, and almost everyone took a slice of cake.  It was a loud party, everyone talking to everyone else at the same time, all crowded into a small space (there was a much larger space we could have been in, but you know how parties are).  One by one, everyone took a bite of cake, then stopped short in complete silence.  “Oh my god,” they each said, astounded, staring at their plate, the rest of the conversation swirling around them and covering their words.  The rest of their pieces of cake were inhaled before another word was spoken.  I thought it was pretty fabulous cake, too. 

Published in: on March 30, 2007 at 7:32 pm  Comments (2)  

The Last of the Buttermilk

Admittedly, two big loaves of soda bread does use up a fair amount of buttermilk.  It does not, however, use up as much buttermilk as comes in the very smallest container a body can find in the entire metropolitain area.  It doesn’t even use up half of that. 

As previously mentioned on this blog, I have a horror of wasting food.  After a week of opening the refrigerator to a glowering bottle of buttermilk straining for its expiration date, I gave up waiting for a dairy-based miracle, and baked.  Or rather, I forced Teacherman to bake.  Right around the time that I determined that the buttermilk MUST be used, I came down with the latest iteration of the cold I’ve had all winter (very irksome when the temperature has finally reached 70).  I didn’t have the strength to knead two loaves worth of the whole wheat buttermilk bread* that I’d decided to make, so I measured the ingredients, called Teacherman away from his computer and bade him roll up his sleeves. 

That man can knead dough like no one I’ve ever seen.

It is a fact that he is well-muscled, due to intense bouts of weekend fencing, but more than that, he seems to have unlooked-for skills.  The Touch, even.  When I knead bread dough, the goopy mixture crawls up the not-inconsiderable distance to my elbows, I need to add extra flour and stop for breaks to catch my breath, and I never get the dough to the consistency that I truly want it.  Teacherman added no extra flour at all.  None.  He spent only slightly more than half as much time as I do to knead the dough 600 strokes, and the dough was beautiful–soft and elastic, springy to the touch and not remotely sticky on the outside.  And, due to the lack of extra flour, not at all dry, some thing my own loaves are prone to.  The bowl he’d kneaded in was clean on the inside–it didn’t even need to be wiped before we set the dough to rise in it.

And rise it did.  It rose so much that I was worried that it would over-proof and turn sour, so I gave the dough its second rise in the refrigerator (something I like to do anyway, since it allows the yeast to develop an almost sourdough-like flavor).

The next morning I took the dough out of the fridge, punched it down and formed it into four small half-loaves.  They whooshed up into almost straight-sided tuffets on their baking sheet, and might have risen more if I hadn’t been too nervous to let them.  Into the oven they went, where they browned (but not as appreciably as white-flour loaves would) and became crusty. 

Teacherman took the first loaf for lunch today, thereby, he tells me, inciting the envy of all the Teacher’s Lounge denizens, who covetously watched the fall of each crumb.  Maybe if they’re lucky, he’ll bake for them sometime. 

*(The bread, I must point out, is from The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, a tome that I basely stole from my mother when I left for graduate school.  It is the only book that I really trust when it comes to 100% whole wheat or other-interesting-grain bread, and I’ve never had a failure.  Some other favorite loaves therefrom are the Loaf for Learning, a yogurt-based yeast bread, and Fruited Loaves, for which one steeps dried fruit in tea before adding the tea-infused fruit [and the fruit-infuseded tea] to the dry ingredients).

Published in: on March 26, 2007 at 7:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Going Soft

When I was a child, I drove my parents crazy by insisting that any egg dish I was served be completely and thoroughly cooked. Any hint of jiggle was met with shrieks, revulsion and, usually, tears of betrayal. (My own mother was trying to POISON me!) My fried eggs were rubbery, my omelets were cremated and my scrambled eggs, in spite of the copious amount of cheese my family adds to said dish, crumbled off the fork in little pellets and fell to dust. I ate eggs like this for years, the yolks so dry that they were practically colorless and the whites shriveled up around the edges. To my shame, I can even remember making a bit of a scene in a diner in Texas when I was served eggs that I deemed ‘over easy’ when I had ordered them ‘over hard’. “You know,” said my mother, “MOST people do order their eggs over easy, so it was an understandable mistake.” My glowering look of scorn and petulance would be less retrospectively embarassing if it wasn’t for the fact that I was twenty-one at the time.

Enter Teacherman. He adores soft-boiled eggs. Even though by the time I met him I had mellowed slightly when it came to the dessication of my breakfast, I had never tried such a thing. It is true that I had read about soft-boiled eggs in many cookbooks, and even thought wistfully of how nice the recipes sounded, but concluded that I could never stomach the eggs themselves. The desire to please the one you love, however, has a powerful effect. And Teacherman already owned two egg cups, which I had to admit were pretty adorable.

So last spring, with great trepidation, I made soft-boiled eggs for the first time. We had them for a late Sunday breakfast with the season’s first asparagus, steamed and ready to dip in the liquid yolks. I followed the instructions for a 6-minute egg in How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, taking some comfort from the fact that the timing was supposed to produce fully cooked whites, at least. I cooked them, ran them under cold water to stop the cooking, dried them on a kitchen towel, and plunked them into the egg cups. We carefully cracked and peeled off the top half-inch of the shells and broke through the yolk. The whites were, in fact, cooked through. The yolk was molten and, once salted and peppered, extraordinarily tasty. The asparagus made an excellent dipper, and the combination called up memories of asparagus in hollandaise. I was definitely a soft-boiled egg convert.

In the past year I’ve made soft-boiled eggs several times, often exactly how I made them the first time, with asparagus to dip in. Once I tried a recipe that called for tipping in a bit of caramel syrup and mixing it into the egg yolk. It was a bit like a deconstructed custard; not bad, but a bit too rich without the mitigating presence of a dairy product. A few weeks ago I was looking through a new Asian cookbook and discovered a chapter entirely on eggs, mostly softboiled. The lead picture showed a soft-boiled egg, completely peeled and split on a plate, sauced with a mixture of soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil, and sprinkled with scallions and chiles. This was immediately appealling.

For this past Sunday’s breakfast I prepared the recipe, liking the idea of Asian flavors after the previous night’s meaty Irish excess. It was a qualified success. Qualified because though the flavors were perfect and exactly what I wished, I took issue with the eggs’ cooking time. I followed the recipe exactly, plunking room temperature eggs into boiling water and letting them bubble for 4 minutes. I removed them, ran them under cold water for a second, and, with Teacherman assisting, began to peel.

“Ack!” he shouted, halfway through his first egg. His careful fingers were still too violent for the egg, which, just as he finished peeling it, split down the middle. He hurriedly tranferred it to one of the waiting plates. I was horrified to see that the egg was essentially raw in the middle. The membrane holding the yolk was intact, but surrounding it was a thick layer of gelatinous, near-transparent egg white. I wouldn’t say that I felt faint, but I was definitely non-plussed (and, admittedly, a little ill).

We finished our peeling and looked at the eggs. Given that two of them were split, we couldn’t put them back in the hot water, and even if we could, we wouldn’t have known for how long. I sighed and cheated: we stuck the plates in the microwave for a few seconds. The whites remained translucent, but at least they stopped being so jiggly. We poured over the sauce, sprinkled on the garnishes, and dove in. It really was extremely good. The sesame, soy and ginger both cut and blended with the richness of the egg yolk, reducing the ultra-creaminess that is sometimes too much early in the morning. The raw scallions and chiles perked up our tastebuds and cleared our palates for the next bite. It really was quite enjoyable, even if I did have to occasionally avert my eyes. Sadly, I’m not completely reformed from my egg tyranny; I will definitely make this dish again, but next time I plan to cook the eggs for six minutes.

Published in: on March 21, 2007 at 8:41 am  Leave a Comment