A Year and a Day

What did we eat for lunch on June 23rd last year?

This:

Reception Spread 1
Reception Spread 2
Homemade bread, compound butter, big salads of farmer’s market greens with raspberry-mustard vinaigrette, big bowls of berries, three kinds of cheese (including Gruyere, an aged goat and a tangy Brie-like cheese), a smoked salmon-pink peppercorn tart in an almond crust, and a three-layer fritatta, with a roasted red pepper layer, a spinach layer and a cheese layer.

And for dessert?
Wedding cake

Wedding Cake.

Wedding cake and lemon cheesecake

Specifically, an almond cake filled with mixed fresh berries and frosted with vanilla bean whipped cream and decorated with red currants and a lemon cheesecake topped with lemon curd and black currants.

And what did we have for lunch on June 23rd this year?
Anniversary lunch

Sea scallops wrapped in radicchio and pancetta, then grilled and served with a red lettuce salad from the farmer’s market.

The scallop recipe was beyond simple–sprinkle the scallops with salt and pepper, wrap each one in a radicchio leaf, and then wrap the leaves with a slice of pancetta. My slices were inexpertly wrapped at the butchers, and thus had unraveled. I ended up just wrapping it around and around and around each little radicchio bundle and securing the ends with toothpicks.

Who am I kidding–I used about 3 toothpicks per bundle. I am not good at food-skewering.

The grill caramelized the radicchio and infused the flavor of both the pancetta and radicchio into each scallop. In spite of the fiddly eating required by all the toothpicks, it was delicious, especially from our unaccustomed seats under our lawn umbrella (which we haven’t set up, sadly, since our wedding reception). Teacherman poured an Alsatian wine to drink alongside the meal–it reminded him perfectly of the wines from our honeymoon.

Lunch was wonderful, yes, but what did we eat for dinner? Last year, we didn’t eat anything for dinner. Our reception was still going on, and due to the enticements of the lunch board, we’d eaten too much of everything.

This year, though, lunch was elegant and austere. And so, for dinner:

Anniversary dinner

Chocolate-peanut butter cookies and chocolate-peanut butter ice cream. What’s the point of being a grown-up if you can’t do this sort of thing every now and then?

(I have to admit, though, that I don’t feel remotely like a grown-up. Even though I’m nearly 30, and even though I’m married, I still have to remind myself that I’m not a kid. Thus, of course, the ideal dinner of cookies and ice cream).

If you’ll forgive my sentimentality (and if there’s one day a year when one is allowed to be sappy, one’s wedding anniversary ought to be it): Here’s hoping that we always feel this ridiculously young, and that each anniversary is as lovely–and delicious–as this one.

Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Priznel 2.0

The first dish that my husband (then my brand-new boyfriend) cooked for me was a long-standing family recipe called Priznel. Priznel is a kind of a quiche, made with cottage cheese, grated hard cheese (usually jack, or something else white), eggs and lots and lots of cooked spinach.

What Teacherman didn’t know was that I despised cooked spinach. I’d tried to eat it innumerable times–I’ve mentioned my struggles here before–but no matter what I did, I still hated it. (Why, you ask, did I keep on trying to eat something I loathed? It annoyed me that I couldn’t conquer the dislike, so I tried with all my might to get past the raw-metal flavors and the the slimy texture. And yes, I made sure to have spinach cooked by capable cooks, even surpassingly brilliant ones, but nothing worked. I still hated it–cooked, at least).

In any case, Teacherman made me Priznel. After many hours of cooking (we ate ate 9 pm that night, I believe), he proudly presented me with a dish of the only food that I absolutely hated. And I had to eat it.

I did manage to, and I didn’t mention that I was revolted by every spoonful I consumed (it didn’t help that the Priznel never did get fully cooked through). I smiled my way through the meal, but firmly sent all the leftovers home with him. Unfortunately, this politeness meant that I had to eat Priznel at every family function I attended for the next year or two, as Teacherman and I became more and more involved as a couple.

It wasn’t until we were engaged that my mother off-handedly mentioned my wretched feelings about cooked spinach. A look of horror appeared on Teacherman’s face. “Why didn’t you TELL me!” he said, “I would have completely understood!” This is probably true. But my inner politeness switch had refused to budge, and, as I mentioned, I had been trying to learn to like the stuff.

In fact, I’m still trying to learn to like it. I’ve almost succeeded–at this point I can handle wilted spinach, especially if there are lots of spices involved, but not the fully-cooked type. (I should point out, here, that I enjoy fully cooked greens of every other variety, just not spinach. This, of course, is because no other cooked greens taste like rust).

This year, we spent Easter with Teacherman’s sister and her family–my in-laws had driven in from Detroit, and we all contributed to what turned out to be a brunch of epic proportions. My entries? A raspberry-ginger cheesecake for dessert, and, for the main meal, a recipe so similar to Priznel–but, in my opinion, so much better–that I actually may have converted the family.

Last month, while doing some research on ancient Roman cuisine, I read a lot of cookbooks about food from the modern Mediterranean, in order to become aware of the evolution of various dishes over the centuries. As might be expected, I ended up copying down a lot of recipes, as well as the information I was looking for. In an encyclopedic book on modern Greek cuisine, I found several recipes for egg-cheese-and-greens pies and casseroles. One in particular caught my eye–it seemed almost identical to Priznel, but with a very important exception. Instead of spinach, it used curly endive and romaine lettuce.

Otherwise, the ingredients were incredibly similar. A grateable cheese (kasseri), a soft, creamy cheese (feta), and eggs. The Greek casserole also included herbs–leeks, scallions and parsley, and one extra flavoring: chopped Kalamata olives. I knew immediately that I wanted to make the casserole, and I also knew that I wanted to make it for Teacherman’s family. Luckily, the Easter potluck presented itself, and I set to work.

Saturday night I washed two small heads of curly endive and two romaine hearts, then wilted them in a large pan until they were thoroughly cooked. I drained the greens in a colander, then squeezed them completely dry, and put them into a large bowl. Next, I chopped and washed two leeks and a whole bunch of scallions, then sauteed them in a little oil until lightly browned. I added the aliums to the greens, along with the chopped leaves from an entire bunch of parsley and half a cup of olives, also chopped.

Once the mixture was cool, I crumbled up 10 oz of feta and 7 oz of kasseri cheese (the recipe called for slightly different amounts, but those were the sizes of the cheeses I bought) and mixed the crumbles into the greens, along with a tiny pinch of salt, and several grinds of black pepper.

At that point, I covered the bowl and put it into the fridge. I left it there overnight, but this was for the sake of convenience, rather than any necessary ripening step. I wanted to make the casserole right before we left for brunch, the meal was due to take place at 10 am, an hour’s drive away, and the casserole needed an hour in the oven. I didn’t want to get up at 5 am to cook the greens, so I did everything ahead.

The next morning, I let the contents of the bowl come to room temperature while I preheated the oven to 350, then I mixed in four beaten eggs. I poured the mixture into an olive-oil slicked 9*13 inch pan, then let it bake while I readied myself for the family gathering.

After one hour, the casserole was finished cooking, and I packed it–covered in foil and wrapped in many layers of dish towel–in a conveniently sized cardboard box. Away we went!

I was a little nervous about presenting Teacherman’s family with a bastardized version of their Priznel–understandably, comforting traditions often matter far more than taste–but I needn’t have. The group dove into the pan, taking generous portions, and, in many cases, going back for seconds.

“This is definitely the new Priznel,” Teacherman whispered to me.

“Man, I love anything with cooked spinach in it!” said one relative.

Teacherman and I looked at each other. We didn’t say a word.

Published in: on March 23, 2008 at 7:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Annals of the Overly Involved

May I just point out that I am awesome?

I made corned beef! From scratch! Starting with a raw beef brisket and some salt!

Okay, YES. People have been making corned beef from scratch for centuries, even before they found out about saltpeter (which was quite a while ago, actually — almost a millenium). But still: how many people do you know that have any desire to do it now?

I don’t mean to suggest that I am the coolest person in the entire world. I could stand to be better at almost everything I can think of. And probably “awesome” is taking it a little far.  But I made corned beef from scratch! And it was GOOD! I don’t think it’s too surprising that I’m excited.

Last year we had a St. Patrick’s Day party, and I made corned beef and cabbage using an organic corned beef from a local market. It was really good, probably the best corned beef I’d ever eaten, but for some reason I got it into my head that I wanted to try to corn beef my very own self. I’d actually thought about making it from scratch for that very party, but given that I was going to be feeding 20 people, I didn’t want to make a mistake and possibly doom them all to an Uncomfortable Demise. This year, though, I would only be feeding Teacherman and myself, so I was braver.

About two weeks ago I bought a 3 lb beef brisket from the market, and brought it home to corn. I thought that I had a Tupperware container big enough to cure it in, but when I got the container out of the cupboard I realized that I had been vastly inflating its size in my mind, and it wouldn’t do at all — the Tupperware wouldn’t even hold the brisket by itself, let alone the quarts of saltwater brine that would be necessary for corning. Instead, after consultation with Teacherman about metals and salts and chemical reactions, I hauled out a biggish stockpot and used that instead.

I put six quarts of water, 2 cups of kosher salt and about 1/3 cup pickling spices into the stockpot and brought them to a boil. (Corned beef spices and pickling spices are so similar that, since I already had a big jar of pickling spices, I didn’t bother to buy the more specialized corned beef spices). I simmered the mixture for a few minutes, watching the salt dissolve and the spices dye the water an odd purplish color. After no more than five of those minutes, I turned off the heat and let the brine cool. When it had come down to room temperature (which took more than the 3 hours I had before I went to work–8 would probably be more like it), I put the whole pot into the fridge to chill.

The next morning I put the brisket into the cold brine. It seemed inclined to stay submerged by itself, but just in case, I filled a freezer bag with some more water and salt — in case the bag leaked, I didn’t want plain water diluting the brine — and put it on top of the brisket. I put the lid on the (VERY full) stockpot and put the whole thing into the fridge. (I was petrified that the weight of the water and pot and beef would collapse the top shelf of my refrigerator, the only place it would fit, but my fears were, thankfully, unfounded).

I left the stockpot there for 5 days, occasionally lifting the lid to make sure that brisket was still submerged and that everything still smelled good. On the morning of the sixth day I removed the brisket from the brine, rinsed it off under the tap to remove any lingering salt, and put it into a zip-top bag, then into another zip-top bag on the outside of that. This package went back into the fridge. It was still five days before St. Patrick’s Day at the time, so I wasn’t sure if I should put the corned beef into the freezer or just leave it in the fridge. After considering history, and throwing caution to the winds, I decided to leave it in the fridge.

At about 12:30 today, Teacherman (who, being a teacher, is on spring break and does not have to work All Week) put the corned beef into the inevitable stockpot, covered it with water and brought it to a boil. He turned it down to a simmer, then left it for 2 hours with the lid on. After this time he checked the broth–it was salty, but not unpleasantly so. When we talked about it ahead of time, I’d suggested that if the broth was horrifically salty at this point, he should toss the liquid and use new water for the last few hours of boiling. As it turned out, he didn’t have to.

At this point, he added two carrots, peeled and cut into chunks, and a small cabbage, cut into eight wedges. He put the lid back on and simmered everything for 2 1/2 more hours. He turned the heat off, removed the corned beef to a plate to rest, and let the vegetables and broth cool down a little bit. After about 20 minutes, we sliced the meat across the grain, and served it up in big bowls with broth, carrots and the cabbage, cooked into silken shreds.

It was, in an overused-by-me word, fabulous.

The broth was saltier than I might have liked, but only a TINY bit, and I have to question whether or not I noticed the saltiness because I was expecting it to be overly so. The corned beef, on the other hand, was perfectly seasoned. It wasn’t too salty at all, but beefy and robust in flavor, with added dimension from all the spices used in the brine. Even knowing which spices were used, I was unable to identify what each specifically added to the flavor, but I was in no doubt that every single one contributed.

The texture was also stellar: the corned beef was tender and melting, but not so soft that it dissolved in the mouth It was meaty and muscular, but yielding to the tooth. We each ate far too much — I think I may have consumed more than half of the entire cabbage — but it was worth it. Even better, we have about a pound of meat leftover. If I can wrest some of it away from Teacherman, I may make hash, but I’m afraid that his spring break freedom speaks of unending, indulgent Reubens. I can probably forgive him. After all, now that we know how to corn beef, there’s nothing to stop us from doing it again.

Note: Some of you, those who have seen other corned beef recipes in the past, may have noticed a significant ingredient missing from the corned beef brine: ‘pink salt,’ or nitrates, the modern equivalent of saltpeter. It’s used to prevent botulism (very important) and provide an apparently appetizing pink color to cured meat (not so important). It’s also incredibly toxic in large quantities.

I’ve tried to use pink salt in cured meats before, and every time I’ve tried it the result has been inedibly salty and chemically tasting. After so many failures, I have no desire to use pink salt, and, luckily, I’ve seen a couple of reputable modern recipes for corned beef that leave it out. Given that we were planning to keep the corned beef in the fridge at all times, and use it in short order, I felt no qualms about not using the pink salt.

Published in: on March 18, 2008 at 7:35 am  Comments (1)  

Still Life With Lunch, part one

I’m back.In fact, I’ve been back for a few days, but time-zone adjustment takes time. The wedding was perfect and the honeymoon was lovely, and, what’s more, I actually took some pictures. Herewith, an abbreviated tour of Lunch in Foreign Climes, with a special inclusion of lunch nearer to home.In Heidelberg, Germany, the farmer’s market was tiny, but there were innumerable fruit stands and organic produce stores to browse. GooseberriesIt was in Heidelberg that we fell into our habit of picnic lunches, the first restaurant lunch having been rather disappointing (in contrast to our restaurant dinners, which were universally excellent). Day one: to salve our souls (and stomachs) after a sub-par cafe lunch, we bought The World’s Biggest Gooseberries at a fruit stand. (Note the size–that’s right, gooseberries, not tomatoes. My hand is in the picture for scale reference. Also note the sleeve of the parka–it was about 40 degrees).

The next day we also had a picnic, in the grounds of Burg Gutenberg, a stunning medieval castle with a library of historical volumes we would have given our tastebuds to get into.  We ate just outside the moat, on a little rise above the walkway.  The area was rather infested with shrieking 11-year-olds on a school trip, but it was a lovely meal nonetheless. Gooseberries We’d bought a head of red-speckled lettuce at the Heidelberg farmer’s market that morning, along with a small bunch of ripe tomatoes, 2 pints of red currants and a package of Emmenthaler cheese.  We cut the tomatoes and cheese into chunks and made wraps with the ruffly lettuce leaves.  A little unconventional, but delicious.  The cheese wrapped in the lettuce had all the unctousness of a good cheese sandwich and the tomatoes were so much more tangy than I’m used to.  I stopped putting them in the wraps and just ate them on their own to better savory the spice.  The currants were perfection, as currants mostly are.  In spite of the fact that they are, as Teacherman says, “fiddly,” they were consumed in record seconds.

More adventures to come, I promise. . . .

Published in: on July 12, 2007 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why Yes, Thank You, I AM Crazy

“Are you CRAZY?!”

This is the invariable response when I tell people what I will be doing one week from today.   

On the 23rd, Teacherman and I will be getting married. Next Friday, the 22nd, I will be making all of the food for the reception.

<shrieks of disbelief resound throughout the cybersphere>

No, really, it’s true.  With the help of my best friend, and two more friends who have been to culinary school, all of the food for the reception will be made in this very house. 

When I tell people about this, no one understands why I could possibly want to make the food for my own wedding.  They think I’m doing it because I’m a skin-flint and want to save money. 

No.  I’m doing this because I love to cook, and cooking for my own wedding is delightfully fun.  I can make simple, good food, served exactly the way that I want, and I get the enjoyment of making it all from scratch in my own kitchen. 

It goes along with the aesthetic of the entire wedding–our reception is in our tiny backyard, and there are no ‘vendors’ involved at all; everything is being done by one of us, or one of our friends.  One friend is taking the pictures, one friend is in charge of the music for the service, one friend is bringing music for the reception, my best friend did all of the graphic design, and three friends are helping prepare the food.  Why have a party of any kind, let alone a wedding, if it’s not about having fun with friends and family and if it doesn’t reflect who one really is? 

I should point out that there will only be 34 people at the reception, including the entire wedding party, so it’s not like I’ll be cooking for the usual bridal hundreds.  And the wedding is in the morning, so the reception is a brunch, which means I won’t be sauteing myriad chicken breasts or trying roast anything.  Brunch lends itself very easily to make-ahead cooking and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing. 

There is almost nothing on the menu can’t be made ahead of time.  Et voila, le menu:

1. A three-layer fritatta: one layer of roasted red pepper, one layer of spinach and one layer of cheese.
2. A smoked salmon-creme fraiche tart in an almond-onion crust.
3. An enormous salad with edible flowers.
4. A big bowl of macerated berries and fruit.
5. Three good cheeses, one soft, one semi-aged and one hard.
6. The chef’s amazing bread, with two flavored butters.
7. Zucchini bread, made by Teacherman’s mother.
8. A lemon cheesecake, made by my mother.
9. The Wedding Cake: layers of almond torte sandwiched with sweetened mascarpone cheese and fresh, lightly cooked berries, then frosted with vanilla bean-whipped cream.

Next Friday the four of us will get together in my kitchen and divide up our tasks.  Someone will roast peppers, cook spinach, grate cheese, and make the fritattas.  Someone will grind almonds and onions and make tart crusts.   Someone will whip up a vinaigrette (raspberry–I should tell someone that’s the kind I want).  Someone will stew the berries for the cake and sweeten the mascarpone.  The bread–pre-made by the chef–will go to live in Teacherman’s bread cupboard, and the cake layers–also fruit of the chef’s craft–will slide into the refrigerator next to my homemade creme fraiche and the purchased cheese. 

And then, done.  We’ll smile at each other, clean up, and go off to wait for the next day to arrive.

Admittedly, there will be a FEW things to do on the morning-of, but they’re few enough that our chef-y friend can do them all himself and still come to the wedding.  I’ll be meeting him and his wife at the farmer’s market that morning to pick out the salad greens and fresh fruit (along with the flowers for the bouquets), but then he’ll take the purchased edibles back the house, assemble the cake, fill the tarts, and macerate the fresh fruit, finishing up in time to swing back to the chapel for the wedding itself. 

The wedding is at 11:00.  The pictures will be of the entire assemblage.  By 12:30 we should be back home, eating good food and talking to all of the friends that made the wedding what it was. 

That is, what it will be. 

Just one more week.

Published in: on June 15, 2007 at 8:52 am  Leave a Comment  

Cor, Limey!

And what, one might ask, did I do with those three egg yolks so noticably left over from marshmallow making?  Prairie Oysters?  Mutant fried eggs?  Are they still sitting, forlorn, in the refrigerator?  Were they, <gasp>, Thrown Away?

Fear not, the egg yolks were destined for a much nobler fate.  After considering yet another custard-based ice cream, I decided to make citrus curd.  Not lemon, nor orange, nor even grapefruit, all variations I have made before.  Orange curd, unless made from Seville oranges, is almost always too sweet for me, and grapefruit curd, the few times I have made it, tasted of nothing but the butter.   Lemon curd is the platonic ideal, of course, but after weeks of aggressively putting lemon in almost everything, I needed a break.  There were limes going begging on the countertop, and thus: lime curd.

I scanned various lime curd recipes online and fiddled with the proportions to suit my own taste.  More lime juice, less sweetener, another whole egg instead of 5 yolks, half a stick of butter instead of all eight tablespoons. 

As usual, I criminally ignored the curd during the crucial Stir-Constantly stage, narrowly rescuing it from the brink of curdling several times.  The butter melted in with excruciating slowness (over ten minutes!), making me nearly regret the whole business. 

In the end, though, the curd was perfect: tinglingly tart, but appropriately sweet, unctuous on the tongue, but not too rich.   It was a perfect Easter dinner dessert, along with some fresh strawberries to dip therein.

Published in: on April 9, 2007 at 8:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Marshmallows and Manners

It is only 2 p.m. on Easter, and already there are no marshmallows left in the fridge. 

I have made marshmallows before; in fact, there was a time when I made them almost weekly.  Made by the method I use, they are simplicity itself to prepare, and, because I grossly disregard the advice of most recipes and do not coat them in powdered sugar, they have next to no food value.  This is helpful if one finds oneself eating an entire batch, as I have been known to do.

I don’t know if the recipe I use compares favorably to other homemade ones: I’ve never made the things any other way.  One day about five years ago I happened upon the recipe, made it with just the ingredients I had in my house, loved it, and have never been fickle enough to stray. 

The method is simple–let some (rather a lot, actually–3 whole packets) of gelatin soften for a few minutes in a small amount of water.  Bring some more water and simple syrup to a boil, then add the gelatin and dissolve it thoroughly–no floating globules, please!  Let the mixture cool until it spoons up like maple syrup, then stir in some vanilla (or whatever flavor extract you wish). 

Now the part that might be frightening: egg whites.  Put three egg whites into a bowl and whip them until they reach soft peaks (to me, this stage looks like whipped cream, but we like very floppy whipped cream in my family).  When the whites are satsifactorily mounded and thick, keep beating them, but pour in the gelatin-syrup mixture in a thin stream (not as thin as if you were making mayonnaise, but don’t just slosh it all in at once, either).  Put the empty jug down and keep beating.  In a minute or two the mixture will turn glossy and firmer than before–it will be slightly reluctant to follow the advice of gravity when you turn the bowl, for instance.  Pour the still-fluid marshmallow out onto a plastic-wrap- or parchment-lined jelly roll pan and refrigerate until solid.  Cut them into shapes (I just slice the slab into traditional rectangles, but one could easily get mimsy with cookie cutters) and voila: marshmallows. 

When I was planning our Easter menu (and though it’s just for two people, this is definitely a planned day-long feast), I hadn’t originally thought to make marshmallows.  I was deep into fantasies of spring produce–peas and tender greens were featuring heavily, and strawberries appeared at almost every meal.  Alack for unrealized dreams–the city has plunged so deep into a regressive cold snap that even the birds have flown back south. 

While at the grocery store on Friday, though, crankily buying frozen peas and imported (but at least still tasty) strawberries, I was mildly cheered by the seasonally pastel colors used on the produce signs.  When I got home, I noticed the Easter basket Teacherman’s mother had sent him.  All those little pastel candy eggs and jelly beans.  Out of nowhere (and I speak sooth, for there was no trademarked marshmallowy poultry in that basket) the idea of pink marshmallows leapt to mind. 

And how did I make them?  I could have used raspberry juice instead of water, but I didn’t know the fruit enzymes would react with the rest of the ingredients (a food scientist I am not), and I am also very lazy.  Right in my cupboard is a bottle of raspberry-flavored (and arrestingly magenta) simple syrup, meant for flavoring coffee or Italian sodas.  I have a shameful number of these syrups hanging around–enough that I sometimes worry about the strength of the bolts holding that particular cupboard onto the wall.  I have used various flavors of coffee syrup to make marshmallows before, but never anything that has a color. 

I worked through my recipe in the usual way, using the raspberry syrup instead of the simple syrup, but still throwing in the vanilla extract to round out the flavors.  The mixture behaved as usual–better, even.  It expanded so much during whipping that it threatened to overflow the 4-quart pudding basin and climb up the beaters of my hand-mixer. 

The final color was a pale but vivid pink, exactly what I wanted.  All through the morning, Teacherman and I (though I believe I made at least three times as many passes as he did) would wander into the kitchen, swoop into the fridge, and have a marshmallow.  Or four.  At two-o-clock I paused, mid-swoop, and saw that there were only two left.  I considered being mannerly and taking one of them to Teacherman in the other room, but in the end, greed won out.

I thoroughly enjoyed those last two marshmallows.  Let’s hope he forgives me when he sees that I’ve washed the pan.

Published in: on April 8, 2007 at 2:49 pm  Leave a Comment