Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The "Three Things" Rule

Like many rules, it came from experience. At the ripe old age of 35, I have learned that if I try to bake more than three things in any given day, rather than being the happy, laughing kitchen spirit I like to see myself as, I will end the day grumpy and snarling while I wash the mixer bowl for the nth time.

Well, on Presidents Day Monday (which I had off), I broke that rule, and it was great fun. I am going to try not to do so again cavalierly, because it really does make sense for my life right now, but Monday was just one of those days where everything went right.

I started off with chocolate chip cookies. I know, they're not exactly a stretch for anyone, but I love them, and so does L, so I still make them as often as I can manage to. Yum.

I moved on to a pair of lemon-poppyseed items--Mrs. Fields cookies, and a cake from Cooking Light. I often make these together, because the cookies use two egg yolks and the cake two egg whites. Both of them are yummy with tea. Then it was Lisa Yockelson's Essence of Chocolate Squares, one of the most wonderful things in the world.

For dinner, I made a pizza, and we watched Monsters, Inc. And the whole day was wonderful, and we were all happy. Even after washing the mixer bowl... again.

I won't try to do it again any time soon, though.

Valentines Day 2009 - Providence, RI

The day started early--we had to get the place cleaned up before Grandma arrived, and then I took L out to do the grocery shopping. I tend to forget that the one thing you cannot readily do with a four-year-old in tow is hurry. She wanted to see the lobsters, and look at the toys, and dawdle along poking at the dwindling snowbanks on the way home while I tried to cajole her into moving a bit faster, before my arms broke carrying all the groceries.

Grandma had arrived in our absence, bearing new clothes, books, and cookies as per her usual awesome self. We all had some lunch, and then D and I headed out to the highway. It felt incredibly weird to have no one in the back seat as we drove down to RI. Not one single request to listen to the Muppet CD, either. Once in Providence we found a parking garage without too much trouble and went out to take our bearings.

The first stop was Cellar Stories, where I bought a copy of Toujours Provence. From there we made our way to the riverfront park, where we were the only people in evidence.

It was a bright, slightly chilly day. The park is nice, with public art of varying comprehensibility, such as this blue figure in the water.

It also includes the Irish Famine monument, and on the other side the war memorials. I thought that the contrast between the World War I (background) and Korean War (foreground) monuments was quite striking.

We were suitably impressed by the high-water marker from the '38 hurricane, and then continued on our way. We had no real plan for the day, so we spent the next few hours just wandering. Saw the Brown campus and environs, slightly more lively than the downtown had been, visited their museum, poked along streets of old houses where if you squinted just right you might forget what century it was, stopped for a rest and a browse in the Athenaeum, and around 5 started thinking about dinner.

We had a couple of recommendations, but hadn't made any real plans, which given that it was Valentine's Day, might have been considered pretty foolish. We tried one of the two places we had heard of, found they were booked. Tried another one around the corner, which we had spotted in our wandering. Looked at the hostess' red velvet evening dress, looked at our jeans and sneakers, looked at each other and shrugged; the worst they could say was, "We don't serve ruffians," right? As it happened, they were booked solid, too. We headed back down the street, trying to decide whether we should head back toward where we had parked, and heard someone behind us calling.

It was the maitre d' from the second restaurant, following us down the street to let us know that there had been a cancellation just now, and he could seat us. Once we absorbed that he was actually talking to us, we nodded and followed him back to the restaurant, which was Mills Tavern. I can't say I think much of their Web site design, but dinner was wonderful, the service friendly and attentive without being overbearing (our waitress' name was Michelle, I think), and the bill not too excruciating for a special occasion. They did seat us off in a small side room, for which I certainly didn't blame them (and it was nice and warm) given our underdressed state, and we were far from neglected there.

We went the whole nine yards; D had oysters to start, I stuck with a seasonal salad, and then we went on to rack of lamb for him and braised short ribs for me. Mine had these tiny little roasted beets and onions along with it, and the beef was melting. I could have licked the plate. We split a chocolate mousse for dessert, which was good enough that the only words we spoke were the terse communications required to divvy up the liqueur-soaked raspberries. I think I had a Chilean malbec with mine; forget what he was drinking.

In a satiated haze, we walked back to the car and headed north toward Massachusetts. We arrived to find that everyone involved had a wonderful day, though the kids were a trifle wound up and disinclined to go to bed. Grandma stayed the night, and in the morning we all had pancakes before she headed home.

It was a fantastic day.

Monday, February 9, 2009

February Supper Club - "Stuffed" - Eclairs

More than once on Sunday I found myself thinking, Bloody French and their bloody batteries de cuisine.

Of course, I am given to understand that most normal French people, with a patisserie on every block, would not dream of making eclairs at home. Leave that to those who are equipped for it, and lunatic foreigners.

But supper club time had rolled around again, and with a theme of "stuffed," my imagination leaped straight to eclairs and refused to move. Maybe because they were a much-loved treat when I was small (though heaven knows what sort of provenance those had--a grocery store, Dunkin Donuts?), or because I was sick of bringing bread to every group meeting, or because I wanted to really stretch myself the way I'm always blathering on about here.

Kahlico from the Cooking Light forum answered my plea for advice with her own blogged experience. Check her out for the recipe I used.

I decided to work backwards through the recipe, since the chocolate glaze I could make while keeping an eye on JJ, but I didn't want to be messing around with water baths and stuff with him underfoot; that would have to happen after everyone else got back from church.

So this was my Sunday:

5:00 Get up, check mail, noodle around online doing everything but writing. Lock me in a room somewhere without internet access and I'd finish the damn novel in a week.
7:00 Go to grocery strore for milk, which I forgot on Saturday. It's a gorgeous warm morning, the kind that makes me wish I still jogged.
7:30 Make pancakes for family.
8:30 Start sandwich bread.
9:00 Start chocolate sauce for the eclair glaze.
9:30 Pack baby into stroller and head back to grocery store for the rest of the groceries.
10:00 Make and bake meatballs for later this week.
10:30 Give baby bath.
11:00 Put bread in the oven. Feed self. Feed baby. Make chocolate glaze (utilizing chocolate sauce).
12:00 Make lunch for L (scrambled egg and toast, by request; she actually ate some of the egg this time).
12:30 Make pastry cream for eclairs. I have a deep fear of custards. I don't know why. This one appears to have come off perfectly, looking somehow both demure and luscious in its water bath, but I have my doubts.
1:00 Make notes for this post while pastry cream cools, D gets JJ to sleep, and leaves for BJs with L. Drink half a Diet Coke.
1:30 Preheat oven.

Somewhere in there I also did some laundry and washed every pan and prep bowl I own--twice. (See bloody French, above.) I also realized that I couldn't find my camera. Of all days!!

And then it was time to make the dough. Which meant facing up to the whole piping business. My store did not have any pastry bags, and my cake decorating kit does not have a big enough tip. I have seen plenty of people on Food Network making pastry bags out of parchment paper. I am an intelligent, well-educated woman, and surely I can do the same. I rolled and taped. Prepared my pans. Reread the recipe six or seven times. Measured everything out.

Made the dough. It looked right, even down to taking three eggs to come together. I got out a spoon, and plopped some of it it into my makeshift bag.

I had been warned about the difficulty of working with the dough, but even quite toastily warm it was tough stuff. My bag stuck to itself with the first spoonful, making a second impossible. Of course, I thought, those people on Food Network have been to chef school, where they probably spend an entire week improving pastry bags, just in case they end up in Worcester, MA, and want to make eclairs. Time to stop putting off that King Arthur Flour order, eh? Plan B was a Ziplock bag with the corner cut off, which worked okay. I didn't get 20 eclairs, but I may have been a bit generous with their proportions. For experimentation, I rounded up a few stray spoonfuls and plopped them on the sheet as if they were cookies.

I did more dishes while they baked. I did the propping the oven door thing, felt sick, and wondered what I would do if these bombed, since I was now out of eggs, not to mention time. Why didn't I do a dry run? (As if I would have had the time.) I checked the oven four or five times; were they puffing, or not? Switched the pans around; a couple of them were already starting to look brown in spots. Was that okay?

It was just about 2:30 when I took them out of the oven. They looked just right--puffy and golden.

And they sank almost immediately.

I try not to make a personal thing out of cooking--sometimes things don't turn out, sometimes people don't like your best efforts, and it's not that big a deal. It's just a meal. But I still felt kind of depressed. The good thing is that a) I'm pretty sure what I did wrong and b) the mistake was not due to me being distracted by doing too many things at once, which is where I normally screw things up. I think I made them a tad too large, and should have let them cook a couple of extra minutes (see, if I had done that dry run, I would have known that).

At 3 I started assembly of those I could salvage, which was about half of them, and did some dishes just for a change of pace. I still had the pastry cream, which was pretty darn good all by itself. This is why you should always have a pound cake in the freezer, I told myself.

In the event, due to a nasty bout of pneumonia for P, only three of us came to dinner, so my few straggly eclairs and the leftover cream were a plentiful dessert. K's bread didn't turn out, either, so I guess it was just one of those nights that will occasionally befall any group. We had lasagna rolls and salad at D's house, chatted for a few hours, and called it a night.

Next month we're probably going to do a sort of Irish thing again. Hoping that all of the bad luck got out this time around!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Busy Kitchen Weekend

Of all the times to misplace my camera.

To start the weekend properly, on Friday... it was a long week. So on Friday night I made a chocolate cake. On Saturday morning I iced it, but impatience got the better of me -- the butter wasn't soft enough, and did not mix in entirely with everything else, so my cake has eensy blobs of butter in the frosting, and I wouldn't have taken a picture of it anyway. It was the same cake I made for L's last birthday.

Speaking of L, she got her first haircut on Saturday! Apparently it went reasonably well. Afterwards her dad took her to Barnes and Noble, where Winnie the Pooh was making an appearance, and she got a new Thomas the Tank Engine train. Quite a good day from her point of view.

While they were out, I went to the grocery store. I didn't have much of a list yet, but I figured I might as well go ahead and get the things that I knew I needed. For once, the store was looking pretty good. I bought some bright bell peppers, which didn't even look as if they had been hurled with force from the back of a truck at some point, some salad fixings, and a grab bag of protein-type things, including a 4+ pound pork loin roast. I have never cooked a loin roast before, but I knew I had seen recipes for them that looked tasty.

I got back, put everything away, and decided that I ought to make a batch of marinara sauce for later this week. I have a training class to attend, which means I'll be home pretty late two days, which means that the menu has to be D-friendly (pasta and tacos). The recipe that I use is one that makes the rounds of the Cooking Light bulletin boards and is known simply as "Lindrussos". Some day I might pass this recipe to my kids and they will wonder who Lindrusso might be. The recipe starts by caramelizing onions, and for once I was not impatient, and I did not singe the onions, and I did not make the mistake of turning the heat up too high later on, and my marinara turned out wonderfully, without the bitter undernote it had last time, which D loyally denied being able to taste.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar
3-4 medium onions, chopped
1/2 cup cup dry red wine
6 cloves garlic, crushed with the blade of a knife
3 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (or 2 28-ounce cans crushed and 2 14-ounce cans diced if you want a bit more chunkiness)
2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste
2 teaspoons oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon marjoram
pinch of crushed red pepper or more to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Heat oil in a Dutch Oven over medium heat. Add chopped onions and 1 tablespoon sugar. Sauté onions for 30-45 minutes, or until sweet and caramelized. As the pan dries while onions are cooking, add red wine as needed. Once onions are done, continue to add the rest of the ingredients. Stir until well-combined. Simmer over low heat for 4-6 hours (you can simmer for less, but I would simmer for at least 1-2 hours). Stir often to keep the sauce from burning or getting overcooked. Makes about 9 cups of sauce.

In the afternoon, while JJ napped and the sauce simmered, I played with L. We even went outside and made a little snowman. It was unseasonably warm, a wonderful feeling after the seriously harsh winter we've been having, and the snow was slumping and easy to work with. I made snowballs, and she threw chunks of ice into the puddles to see them start melting.

In the course of his nap, JJ developed a lovely, though fortunately mild, croupy cough. So we called the pediatrician's office, and D went out to buy a humidifier.

There was still dinner, and that pork loin. I did a few recipe searches and came up with Chinese Red-Cooked Pork. Considerably easier than making pie, and almost as rewarding. I will say two things about the recipe, though: My loin took about thirty minutes longer than stated to get to the fork-tender stage, and it would have benefited from more, since it wasn't quite shreddable. But there's that impatience thing... and I was hungry. Second, they include instructions to "brown" the roast.

Umm... in what? A roast is not going to brown in a bath of wine and sugar. So next time I make this I may fiddle with it a bit and see if browning it represents an improvement. I still have half of my loin roast tucked in the freezer, after all. With the pork I made rice, and sliced up some of the peppers and a cucumber. L ate copious amounts of both vegetables, astonishingly, but didn't touch anything else. Perhaps I should include a crudite plate with all meals? Slices of cake made a splendid dessert.

Sunday was supper club, and just as busy a day if not more so....

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Soup and Bread, Part 2

I worked from home on Tuesday, and threw my week out of whack. I generally work from home on Wednesday, you see, and it's funny how these little things become ingrained into your thoughts, so that I spent the next day vaguely out of sorts because my body thought it was a different day of the week than it actually was. Having a cold didn't help.

But on Tuesday we were supposed to get "our every five or six day storm," as the radio meteorologist resignedly (and accurately) called it, and all of my normal meetings had been canceled in favor of a big project review, which is the kind of thing I am regularly grateful I don't have to go to. So I switched my days around.

Working from home not only saves energy and my sanity, it allows me to make things that take time but not effort--like bread, and bean soup using (gasp) dried beans. There's this meme out there right now that dried beans are totally the way to go (Mark Bittman and Rancho Gordo being the prime movers, apparently). I'm not really vested in the argument, since I've always opted for the convenience of canned, but I figured I should give the dried ones a try if the time and inclination ever came together, and Tuesday turned out to be it.

I can't say that I was totally blown away, but I could see a positive difference in the texture between the dried ones I cooked up and the canned ones I normally use, even though I think I overcooked them. The recipe that I used was more or less this one, since I had most of the stuff it wanted. I used a canned roasted chile in place the jalapeno (should I just start buying one every week, just in case?), and added a bit of cayenne to offset what seemed to my virally-impaired palate a lack of resulting heat. The soup was fine and sturdy, the bacon particularly yummy.

To go with it, I made this walnut bread. I went back and forth on whether to add the walnuts or not, went ahead and added them, and berated myself when L noted their presence and refused to eat any of it. JJ, on the other hand, ripped his little piece into tinier bits and ate them thoughtfully.

Today, the gas station sign said 10 degrees when I left Worcester. Itis not supposed to get much warmer than that all day. Along with everyone else I know, I am seriously sick of this weather. February is always the toughest month, I remind myself. I am nevertheless going to venture out of the office today and have lunch with a friend I haven't seen in ages.

Soup and Bread, Part 1

This past Sunday I started coming down with a cold. As usual it was just me and JJ for the morning. I sat down on the couch for a few minutes and watched him play, and thought about staying there; what the hell, I was sick! I could watch a video, or something.... But no, that wouldn't do. I am not sure at what point in my life I forgot how to just sit around relaxing; probably some time after L was born.

Instead of loading up a DVD, I thought about the leeks I had picked up at the store on Saturday. Good-looking leeks are a rarity around here, so when I see them, I tend to buy some even if I don't know what I'm going to do with them. I got some Yukon Gold potatoes, too--organic ones, because their regular ones were all green--with the vague thought that I hadn't made mashed potatoes in ages.

This is obviously leading up to potato-leek soup. But I wanted something to go with it, and it was too late in the morning to start bread and have it ready by lunch time. Suddenly I remembered the existence of Irish soda bread. I first made this for supper club a couple of years ago--we were doing a St. Patrick's day theme--and while it's definitely not something I would make all the time, it does make a nice change of pace once in a while, and it's the easiest thing in the world to make. I even had buttermilk in the fridge. I mixed it up, put it in the oven, and got to work on the soup.

The very good advice in Julie and Julia notwithstanding, I don't use a recipe for making potato-leek soup any more. I put a few tablespoons of butter in a pot, chop up a couple of generously-sized leeks, and let them sit in the butter there over lowish heat while I peel and cut up potatoes (and try to keep JJ out of trouble). I love the buttery color of Yukon Golds. I fell out of reading Much Depends on Dinner as easily as I fell into it, but I was thinking about her chapter on butter while I cooked, and the multiple meanings of its color.

I put in the potatoes and enough chicken stock to cover, and simmer until the potatoes are soft. Out comes the immersion blender for a couple of whirls. I don't generally care if my soups are perfectly smooth; I like them to have some body. At this point the dish looks like mashed potatoes, not soup, so I taste it for salt and add either water or more chicken stock to thin it down, let it simmer a wee bit more, and that's that.

It was ready a few minutes after D and L got home from church. Simple, warm, yummy, and with plenty left over for me to take to work a couple of times this week, breaking me free of the sandwich rut I've grown to heartily resent over this long winter. A thousand times better than cracking open a can, and not all that much more work.