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30 Dec 2009

Local Challenges

Posted by annmcolford. No Comments

Lots of cooking this month; not much posting. Ah, well.

I’ve got my bread recipe pretty much down to a science now, and I’ve been baking it regularly this month. I’ve adapted a recipe that I copied several years ago from one of Beth Hensperger’s bread books, changing it from white to whole grain with the substitution of whole-wheat flour and some ground oatmeal. The loaves develop a nice crust, yet not too tough on the mouth, while the interior has the pleasing springy texture of artisan bread. The recipe has no added sugar or fat (other than what’s in the milk used in the sponge), so the multi-grain version is actually fairly guilt-free (unless I eat several slices in one sitting, which I usually do when it’s fresh from the oven).

Just before Christmas, I suddenly developed a craving for ratatouille—a dish I’ve not made before—so I made a quick trip to Rocket Market on Christmas Eve for some eggplant, zucchini, peppers and canned tomatoes. (I had onions and garlic on hand already.) Between my cookbooks and the vastness of the online world, I read through several recipes, finally settling on Julia Child’s ratatouille recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, available as a PDF here. (Short of getting a recipe straight from Provence, Julia’s the next best thing, I figure.)

I knew the recipe would take some time to prepare, so I postponed the adventure until Saturday, the day after Christmas. There’s nothing difficult about the preparation, except for the challenge of staying focused through all the steps. First, the eggplant and zucchini are cut into slices; then all the slices are briefly pan fried in olive oil and set aside. Then the thinly sliced onion and pepper are sautéed, with garlic tossed in at the last minute. Whole canned tomatoes (canned, not fresh, owing to the season) get sliced and layered on the onions and peppers. Then the whole caboodle gets layered together for what Julia charmingly calls “a brief communal simmer.” My ratatouille’s simmer was somewhat longer than brief, thanks to an unplanned nap, but I’m thinking it allowed the flavors to merge even more thoroughly. The resulting dish—halfway between a casserole and a stew—was rich, earthy and even slightly sweet. Each component retained something of its own identity, and yet the mélange was much more than the sum of its parts. And the flavors have only grown more glorious with subsequent reheating.

Now, clearly, I did not buy locally grown eggplant and zucchini—not in December, not in Spokane—but at least they were organic. They came from Mexico, which at least is closer than, say, Brazil or China. And there’s considerable debate about whether food miles or farm production methods contribute more to a food product’s carbon footprint. (For an interesting recent post on that topic, see “The Main Reason to Eat Local” in the Atlantic Monthly’s food blog, from October 2009.) I remain a proponent of generally eating seasonally—I’ve consumed my share of kale, cauliflower and squash in the last couple of months, not to mention veggies that I stashed in my freezer back in September—but I also see the benefit of an occasional splurge. Had I planned better during the summer (and predicted my unforeseen craving for a French peasant dish during the holidays), I could have made a big batch of ratatouille in August, when local production of eggplant and zucchini was at its seasonal peak (and when it was 90-something degrees in my kitchen) and left several servings in my freezer. But I was neither that clever nor that sainted. So I made the best choice I could make at this time—balancing health, environmental concerns, contributions to the local economy, and my own limited resources of time, money and energy—that would allow me to enjoy ratatouille in December.

Damn, eating has gotten really complicated.

Incidentally, the onions and garlic were both local and organic. The tomatoes came from Italy—non-organic, non-local, but a tribute to the dish’s European roots.

In a quick diversion, I see that Michael Pollan’s newest book, Food Rules, hit the shelves today. In it, he outlines a number of rules to follow when purchasing and eating food, rules drawn from the issues outlined in his last book, In Defense of Food. I plan to check it out sometime soon, even though I believe that eating should be governed more by guidelines than by strictly codified rules. Moderation in all things, and all that.

As a footnote… I used a small amount of the ratatouille to create a knockout eggplant tapanade the next day. First, I chopped two cloves of garlic and set it in about a quarter-cup of olive oil. Then I took about a cup of the ratatouille, chopped the vegetables into much smaller pieces (maybe a half-inch square) and added that to the olive oil. Next, I added a dozen reconstituted sundried tomatoes, also chopped. A squeeze of black olive paste, a teaspoon or so of capers, salt, pepper and a touch of oregano finished the dish. I let it sit overnight then served it with plenty of warm, crusty bread to unanimous raves.

I love playing to an appreciative audience.

23 Nov 2009

Solo Spontaneity

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So many meals, so little time to write about them. Actually, I have plenty of time—I’m simply choosing to use it to write about other things. But I had a fun adventure in the kitchen this weekend, and I’m pretty pleased with results. And with myself, for my creativity and efficiency. For once.

I had most of a roasted chicken left over and had to figure out what to do with it, so I faked my way through the creation of a chicken pot pie. After consulting several favorite cookbooks—my vintage 1970s Betty Crocker, plus Joy of Cooking and The Red Lion Inn Cookbook—I decided to take inspiration from all and specifics from none. First, I pulled most of the meat from the chicken bones and put the bones and skin (with a couple of garlic cloves) in a big pot of water to make stock. Then I chopped a medium onion, a couple of stalks of celery and two fat carrots, along with a couple of garlic cloves. I sautéed these in a couple of tablespoons of oil (half peanut and half olive, for those keeping score) and tossed in some dried tarragon and thyme. When the veggies were lightly browned, I poured in a little bit of white wine (half a cup, maybe) and let that cook in. I chopped up the leftover chicken and threw that in, then I added some water (3/4 cup), covered the pan, reduced the heat and let it all steam together. Next, I made a thin white sauce (one tablespoon each of butter and flour, a dash of salt, 3/4 cup of low-fat milk and 1/4 cup of chicken stock) and poured that over the chicken-and-veggies combo. I dumped everything into a casserole dish, topped with the dough for seven whole-wheat buttermilk biscuits, and baked the whole thing for about a half-hour.

The meal was delicious. The sad part is that I invited a couple of friends to join me, at the last minute, but they were either too tired or too busy to come over. So now my leftover chicken is simply in a different form. (But I’ll be able to freeze individual portions and have them ready to go.)

This is the downside of spontaneity, I’m finding. I love both the freedom and the unanticipated pleasures of spontaneous gatherings. Especially that freedom part—by nature, I love to have plenty of unscheduled time; I tend to get cranky if my calendar gets too heavily booked. (Just ask my friends.) But I recognize the limits of leaving everything to whim and serendipity. Often, by the time I know that I can commit to having a meal ready for company at a specific time, it’s too late to have anyone else spontaneously join me.

In an ideal world (for me, anyway), my friends would always be available when I’m in the mood to be sociable—and they would leave me alone when I’m not. (And I wouldn’t have to explain either mood.) Is that asking so much?

Apparently. (Whinge, whinge. Deep sigh. Squaring shoulders and moving on.)

4 Nov 2009

Halloween Wine Time

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Yes, I really have been eating (and cooking) over the last two weeks. I’ve just been focusing my writing energy on other projects. And I really haven’t cooked much that was noteworthy.

And that’s still true, despite this morning’s frittata with poblano pepper and cheddar. I’ve been eating a lot of makeshift meals, just throwing things together without a lot of forethought or preparation. But there have been a few special meals and celebrations in recent days, so I’ll dive in and catch up.

On Monday evening, I returned to the semi-potluck Monday dinner; my contribution was a dish of Indian-style potatoes and onions. This recipe came from Madhur Jaffrey’s World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking, a go-to classic from 1981, but it was pretty straightforward: ginger, black mustard seeds, turmeric and chili pepper (I used part of a jalapeño). Seemed strange to not throw in some cumin, but it turned out to be a pretty tasty dish. Not many people tried it, however—it was overshadowed by a huge pan of scalloped potatoes, not to mention the made-from-scratch tortolloni with tomato-vodka sauce. The splashier carbs won out. But at the end of the night, I traded leftover potatoes for some of Ann W.’s fall salad (romaine, apples, dried figs, feta, walnuts), so we both won.

Saturday (aka Halloween) was Whitestone Winery’s annual fall barrel tasting, at the winery in Wilbur, Wash., about 65 miles west of Spokane on U.S. 2. The weather was unexpectedly delightful (if a tad breezy), following a couple of days of low clouds and drizzle, so Ann W. and I struck out across the wheat fields to sample the latest release of Pieces of Red (their red blend; this one’s just merlot and cab). We also got to taste the 2008 cab straight out of the barrel, along with the six-day-old 2009 cab—as winemaker Michael Haig explained, fermentation is complete; now all it needs is time. They served up plenty of grilled burgers and brats from Eggers to go with the wine—the new Pieces was the best complement to the brats, we thought, although the 2006 cab (the current release) was lovely and smooth. We got to visit with Michael and his lovely wife Terra, plus Spokane tasting room manager Heath Kays, then we drove back in the golden twilight of the last evening in Daylight Savings Time.

Last Thursday I had lunch with my friend Ginny, who’s on sabbatical this term from Whitworth and is working on a book about young women who’ve been adopted from China. (She has two Chinese daughters, so it’s a topic that’s highly personal and emotional for her.) We met at the Maple Street Bistro, a cute little breakfast-and-lunch spot in north Spokane. (I wrote about it in the Inlander’s Fresh & Tasty column in March 2009.) I had one of the flatbread sandwiches (turkey and pepperoncini, a surprising and slightly messy, but tasty, combo) with a cup of rich tomato-basil soup and a Doma coffee. The place was as cozy and comfortable as I remembered, and we had a good visit talking about writing and all sorts of other things.

The prior weekend was chock-full of activities celebrating my friend Cate’s 50th birthday. She and Ann W. hosted an open house at their home on Saturday afternoon, then several of us gathered for dinner at Chaps and toasted her over hearty meals and good wine (and birthday cake).

I was also sold at live auction that weekend, to benefit the Parkinson’s Resource Center of Spokane—but you’ll just have to wait until later for those details.

17 Oct 2009

Cooking With Time

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About that bread starter on my counter: Reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated (apologies to Mark Twain). Turns out that sitting overnight on the counter is the equivalent of Miracle Max’s remarkable bellows. The starter/sponge isn’t exactly thriving, but it’s got a little spark—not enough punch to make bread, but enough to use it like sourdough starter and make a batch of sourdough pancakes for breakfast.

I got the recipe online at a site called Cowboy Showcase (it’s amazing what you find when you Google), along with a good description of how to make sourdough starter from scratch. I used whole-wheat pastry flour but otherwise changed nothing in the recipe. The cakes rose nicely in the skillet (the maiden voyage for my new Calphalon-knockoff skillet), and they weren’t very sweet—they would have gone well with a touch of syrup, except I couldn’t find any without a protracted search of the fridge. I didn’t even have confectioner’s sugar to dust on top, so sprinkled the warm pancakes with a pinch of turbinado sugar crystals. They didn’t match the heights of pancake perfection, but considering that they’re essentially the product of a salvage operation, they were pretty tasty when fresh from the skillet.

Messing around with the starter/sponge has reminded me of the challenge of capturing wild yeast from the air—what could be more local than a loaf of bread risen thanks to native Spokane yeast on the wind? Once I get my bread-baking chops back in shape, maybe I’ll give that a try. The Cowboy Showcase site explains four different methods of making starter from nothing more than flour and liquid—and time.

I think maybe that’s what’s drawing me to the idea: Spending time instead of money was a common way to take care of one’s needs a century ago, but now we’re more likely to use our money to buy someone else’s time. After all, isn’t that what processed food is? It’s a product manufactured with a few raw materials and a lot of time and effort put in by other nameless, faceless people. And machines. But the machines are just stand-ins for people and their time—a machine itself is the result of lots of time by lots of people, so it’s time made tangible, if you will.

Now it’s a bit after 9:30 pm, and I’ve just completed cleaning up from my latest round of cooking. On the docket for tonight was a batch of roasted root vegetables—beets, carrots and parsnips, with mushrooms tossed in near the end. The recipe came from a Thanksgiving-themed issue of Real Simple magazine* from several years ago. Most of the dish is going to a semi-potluck dinner that I’ll be attending on Monday night, but I did have a small plate of the veggies for my dinner tonight. Since I had the oven on, I roasted some potato wedges at the same time and munched on those as well. (My main course was a small serving of cheese and crackers that I ate as I peeled and chopped, chopped, chopped five pounds of vegetables.)

I started the veggie prep a little before 6 pm; the roasting pan went in the oven at 7:10 and came out an hour later. The potatoes were done by 8:30. I sat for a few minutes, finishing my munching, then began the cleanup process. And here I am, done at last, nearly four hours after I began. Sheesh.

According to the veggie recipe, the “hands on time” for preparation is 15 minutes. Who are they trying to kid? Maybe a professional chef could do the prep in 15 minutes, but I’m thinking most home cooks would be hard-pressed to meet that deadline.

I consider myself a pretty speedy chopper, as it were, so I’m flabbergasted that my prep time was so long. In my defense, most of my time went into the parsnips—primarily because my parsnips (two oversized specimens left over from my CSA box, as were all the vegetables) looked like Jabba the Hut’s long-lost cousins (see photo), complete with tentacles and antennae. (OK, really, they were just root tendrils, but they certainly complicated the cleaning and peeling and chopping process. Damn good thing I really like parsnips.)

Jabba the Parsnip

Had the parsnips been more normal looking, I probably would have finished with my chopping in a half-hour or less.

Yeah. I’m not slow; I just need a lightsaber.

Now that I have vanquished my kitchen foes for today, I’m going to bed.

*Footnote: The mention of Real Simple magazine gives me a platform for the tiniest of rants. I’ve always contended that Real Simple magazine is neither real nor simple. Real simplicity is not dependent on consumption, yet a glossy mainstream magazine, by definition, must be. Simplicity is not about $240 shirts, even if they are made of organic single-origin cotton. The “simplicity” preached in the magazine’s pages seems to be aimed at image-conscious upper-middle-class women. And it is a desirable fantasy—a simplified, uncomplicated life that’s filled with beautiful (and expensive) clothes and gorgeous (and exclusive) furnishings.

But the magazine has a lovely aesthetic and good production values, making it a delight to look at. And occasionally it has good recipes.

Justification complete. There. I feel better.

16 Oct 2009

Mostly Dead

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I’m discovering just how long food preparation takes when one strives to prepare three healthy meals a day from scratch—which goes a long way toward explaining why I didn’t do much cooking over the last four years, as my work schedule ramped up to full time and beyond.

This morning I made oatmeal for breakfast, following a scaled-back version of the recipe from the Red Lion Inn Cookbook. (That’s the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Mass., star of legendary Norman Rockwell prints, not the Red Lion Inn hotel chain ubiquitous in the West.) It didn’t take long—maybe 10 minutes—but then there was the cleanup afterwards, as I washed the pan and dishes used. At lunchtime, I realized I had more tofu in the fridge that needed to be used up, so I lightly fried a dozen tofu triangles in peanut oil; when they were nearly done, I heated water and cooked a batch of soba noodles. I made a thrown-together peanut sauce in a soup bowl (peanut butter, hot water, rice vinegar, a minced garlic clove, a frizz of grated ginger and a dash of fish sauce—yes, I really do have all of these ingredients on hand), tossed the cooked noodles into it, and ate it with half of the tofu triangles. It was a filling, satisfying lunch, reasonably healthy, and relatively inexpensive. But preparation and cleanup took at least an hour. (Eating it didn’t take much time at all, especially since I started munching on the tofu as each batch came out of the fry pan.)

Next, I put together a sponge (yeast, milk, flour, water) for a bread recipe I want to try. (A sponge is like a preliminary step in some artisan breads, giving the yeast a head start before mixing the full weight of flour into it; it’s also similar to the creation of sourdough starter, although it generally doesn’t sit long enough to ferment and become sour.) Assembly didn’t take long—if you don’t count the extra time I wasted when I forgot that I left the milk on the stovetop to heat while trying to multi-task. Now the sponge is sitting on the counter for four hours; the rest of the bread assembly and production will come later.

After all that (and knowing I still have bread-making ahead of me), I’m tired of cooking. I was thinking of making a roast chicken for dinner tonight, but at this point I don’t know if I have the get-up-and-go to get up and do it.

Oh, and I also incorporated food shopping into my morning walk—I stopped in at Huckleberry’s to stock up on whole-wheat flour and milk for the bread-making adventure. Add it all up and I’ve probably spent two hours on food prep and acquisition today, and it’s only early afternoon.

No wonder I didn’t cook much while I was employed.

Granted, I now have another meal of fried tofu ready to be reheated, and I’ll have plenty of leftovers from both the chicken and the bread—thus saving time in days to come. But still, that’s a lot of time.

This illustrates one reason why processed foods have become the backbone of the American food business. It’s all because of the Great American Time Crunch. Groups like Take Back Your Time have organized to fight the crunch—and TBYT Day is coming up, by the way, on October 24—but the effort appears to be an uphill battle. More people are working more hours, often for less money and benefits, than ever before.

A recent Northwest Cable News piece reported that Americans get, on average, 13 days of vacation each year, compared with 38 days in France. Other parts of Western Europe come close to the French, meaning that the average European works nine weeks a year less than the average American—which prompted Take Back Your Time Day, marking nine weeks before the end of the year.

Anecdotally, it’s easy to see this time crunch among friends and colleagues. Budget cuts and staff reductions mean that the people who are left have to work longer hours and carry greater responsibilities than before the cuts. People whose jobs have been eliminated often juggle multiple part-time jobs to cobble together enough income to survive; and anyone who’s ever worked part time knows there’s truly no such thing as a “part-time job.”

I’m sure someone somewhere has correlated increased demand for processed food with increased working hours; the closest I could find quickly is a 2008 report on food manufacturing from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The report showed slow but steady growth in domestic demand for processed foods over the last 10 years and predicted that the growth would continue: “There is high demand for convenience food and ready-to-serve products such as snack foods, snack bars, and frozen food that are popular with double-income households and consumers who are generally short on time,” the report states. “The aging U.S. population and rising per capita incomes should cause this trend to continue.”

The report also shows that the largest share of Americans’ home grocery budgets is spent not on meats, produce, cereals or dairy, but on “other”—sugars, sweets, fats, nonalcoholic beverages and prepared foods.

This ’splains a lot, I’m thinkin’.

(The report also notes that 44 percent of household food spending now goes to food consumed “away from home.”)

And now people in the growing economic powerhouses of India and China are following suit: Demand for processed food is rising in both countries. The Commerce Department report notes this as well, concluding, “As developing countries experience income increases, demand for processed food grows, especially for higher valued food products such as meat. In developed countries, increased demand comes for convenience and specialty food products.”

Postscript: I gathered enough oomph to get the chicken in the oven around 5 pm, and now it’s just about done. (And I just added a small squash to roast as well.) But I have a confession to make, along with a mea culpa to the bread-baking gods. My bread-baking efforts today seem to be star-crossed. Or, more truthfully, my good intentions have been undone by my impatience to just get it done despite warning signs.

At the store today, I briefly looked for fresh yeast, as a backup plan to the old jar of yeast that’s been sitting in the back of the fridge for a long time. (A very long time.) I didn’t find it in the first place I looked, and then I promptly forgot about it, because—you guessed it—I didn’t have it written down. After getting back home, I didn’t feel like going out again just to buy yeast that I might not need, so I decided to use the yeast I had.

Now, it’s been several years since the last time I baked bread, and some of the finer points of bread-baking knowledge have floated away on the currents of time. Fine points like how to proof yeast—testing it to make sure it’s really still alive and ready to spring into action. (Not to mention the wisdom of relying on yeast that’s old enough to be in kindergarten.) So, after ruining the first cup of milk that I tried to heat up for the sponge, I just heated another and plowed on ahead with the mixing of the sponge. I was encouraged—duped, perhaps—by the familiar scent of yeast that arose from the sponge mixture as I stirred it. Sadly, that was the only thing to arise in the bowl. A few, tiny, pathetic bubbles appeared on the surface, but now, more than four hours later, my sponge is clearly terminal.

While waiting for the chicken to be done, I searched online (thank God for the Internet) and found a page called Video Bread that’s all about how to proof yeast. (They also offer lots of other helpful tips for newbies and re-newbies.) Although it’s too late to save me from myself, I followed the instructions and proofed the yeast that’s been sitting in the fridge. And it is, to quote Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride, “mostly dead.” Unlike the Dread Pirate Roberts, however, my yeast cannot be resuscitated with a small fireplace bellows. Alas.

I’m now down two cups of milk and two cups of flour (along with some tap water), and I’m no closer to having bread than I was this morning. Deep sigh.

Tomorrow morning, humbled, I shall march myself back to the store and buy fresh yeast. And I will begin again.

13 Oct 2009

How Hard Can It Be?

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Most of my kitchen adventures begin simply, but before I know it I’m on a full-blown quest. Usually, some little event, something innocuous and innocent, piques my curiosity.

Something like a one-pound green tomato.

In my final CSA box two Saturdays ago, among the mostly ripe red plum tomatoes was one giant green tomato. Jean didn’t want it, so I took it. I’ve heard of fried green tomatoes—I’ve probably even eaten them in the past, sometime while traveling through the South—so I thought to myself, “Fried green tomatoes—how hard can it be?”*

This past weekend, I asked Cate, who hails from Arkansas originally, if she had a family recipe for fried green tomatoes. But sadly, she didn’t. “Fried green tomatoes are more Deep South,” she explained. “They’re a Georgia thing. We were more of a Mid-South family.”

Hey, I’m a suburban brat from Boston. What do I know about such distinctions?

I checked in my go-to cookbooks—Joy of Cooking (1978 edition), Extending the Table, even my old mid-’70s Betty Crocker—but I turned up nothing. So off I trotted to the trusty Interwebs to see what I could find.

Two recipes caught my eye. The first was disarmingly simple and came from the “Southern Food” section of About.com. It called for dredging the tomato slices in salt and pepper and cornmeal, then frying them in bacon grease or oil. That sounded pretty authentically Southern to me, but I kept searching and found a batter-coated version on a blog called “Whistle Stop Cooking”—clearly banking on the full title of Fanny Flagg’s book (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café). Turns out the blogger used to own and run the café that had previously been owned by Fanny Flagg’s aunt and that was, perhaps, the inspiration for the café in the book and film. Or perhaps not. (God knows they’re doing their best to make the marketing connection.) Whatever. The batter-style recipe sounded intriguing, so I opted to try it.

I made a small batch of the batter this morning—wheat flour, cornmeal, salt, pepper, and just enough milk to turn it into batter. I cut the tomato in half then cut one half into about six thick (half-inch, as the recipe directed) vertical slices. Luckily, I still had some bacon grease in the fridge from my Eggers bacon splurge over the weekend, so I used some of that combined with a bit of olive oil. (Gotta have some nod to healthfulness, after all.) I heated the fat in a heavy skillet, dipped the slices into the batter, and fried them till brown. The batter was thick but tasty, and the tomatoes cooked up tart and a bit juicy.

After sampling the first one, I decided to hold off on cooking the other half of the tomato—I think I’ll try the first, simpler recipe, along with cutting the tomato into thinner slices next time. But that left me with a dilemma: leftover batter. So I thought, hmm. What’s in the fridge?

First I cut a half-inch slice from a block of firm Small Planet tofu that I had on hand, dried the excess moisture on a paper towel, coated it in the batter, then added it to the pan. I’m thinking that cooking tofu in bacon grease is probably a mortal sin in somebody’s belief system—some Levitical text has got to be dead-set against it—but let me tell you, it was dang tasty.

I still had excess batter, however, so I giggled and thought: What else can I dip in batter and fry in bacon grease? I grabbed a thick carrot, peeled it, and cut it into slices about a quarter-inch thick. Into the batter, into the pan, and voila, another delicious treat.

By this time, even though there was still more batter in the bowl—and I had made a small batch, mind you—I felt my glee diminishing. I was tiring of the cooking process and felt ready to move on. So I cleaned everything up, while munching on the last of the carrots.

Lessons learned:

  1. Just about anything is going to be incredibly delicious if dipped in batter and fried in bacon grease.
  2. The sturdier the substrate (carrots, firm tofu), the better it will adhere to a relatively thick coating.
  3. Green tomatoes are probably better when sliced thin, thus achieving a happier coating-to-interior ratio, so now I want to try the first recipe.
  4. I get bored easily when the cooking process becomes repetitious. Monkey mind takes over. (I really need to practice my mindfulness in the kitchen, as elsewhere.)

* Footnote: “How hard can it be?” is a joke I share often with Cate. Sometime in our murky past, she uttered that line, and I quipped that it was the most dangerous sentence in the language—because it gives fools the justification they need for their latest foolish idea. But upon reflection, I amended my judgment. The most dangerous sentence is actually, “Hey, watch this!”—because that’s the fool taking action. And when you hear them in combination—“How hard can it be? Hey, watch this!”—well, stand back and wait for the flying debris to settle.

11 Oct 2009

On to the Meals

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(October 11, 2009, part 2)

Yesterday was the monthly gathering of the Second Saturday ladies, a loose-knit group committed to regularly scheduled, agenda-free, friendship time. Barb Chamberlain (aka Bike-to-work Barb) started the group several years ago—yesterday, we were trying to recall just how many years it’s been. I think it’s closing in on 10 years. Most months we meet at a coffee place somewhere around town, but this month my friends Cate and Ann W. hosted the gathering at their new home. They provided a baked frittata (more like a strata, with bread, veggies, eggs and cheese) plus coffee and mimosas, and other people brought along dishes to share—apple crumble, pumpkin-chocolate muffins, fruit and cheese, scones.

I decided to bring Grapenut pudding, a baked custard pudding (like bread pudding or rice pudding) made with Grapenuts cereal. I got thinking about it after someone asked me if any restaurants around town serve bread pudding. (Latah Bistro’s pumpkin bread pudding is worth the trip, BTW.) I don’t think I’ve seen Grapenut pudding anywhere around Spokane, so I’m thinking it must be a regional New England specialty. (Oh, those hearty, practical Yankees.) Indeed, the recipe I found online came from Yankee Magazine’s archives.

And it was a big hit—although most people (even those who really like baked custard puddings) said they had never heard of such a thing. So score one for the sharing of regional specialties.

Besides, I had a lot of milk and eggs on hand that had to be used. (Who says I’m not a practical New Englander despite my years of living away?)

Instead of the actual Grapenuts-brand cereal, I used Kashi’s version—organic, made with seven whole grains, etc. But it tasted like Grapenuts.

Since the pudding had to bake for an hour before I left to drive across the South Hill, I took it straight from the oven to the car—so it was still pretty warm when I got there, and it hadn’t had chance to really set up well, meaning it was a little bit liquid-y when people first dove into it. I found myself apologizing for its appearance and offering excuses. Then I heard Ann W. doing the same thing about her frittata—she said she left it in the convection oven for too long so the top got a bit too browned. (I hadn’t noticed—I thought it was supposed to look that way.) Someone else dithered about another one of the dishes, too.

And it got me thinking: Why do we do this? Why do we apologize when dishes aren’t food-magazine perfect? Why do we make excuses for failings that only we can see?

A few years ago when I took a pie-crust workshop with local baker Gina Garcia (formerly of Bittersweet Bakery, and soon-to-be baker at Cake, next to Chaps), she said this to everyone whose pies and tarts didn’t look like the cookbook photos: “Nobody knows what your original intent was. Just bring it to the table with pride.” I’ve always remembered that sentiment and tried to follow it, but obviously I didn’t do that yesterday.

That’s the same approach to cooking that Julia Child made famous when picking up pieces that landed on the counter or stovetop. No one really cares about the process or the difficulties you encounter along the way; the hospitable thing is to simply share the food and enjoy the company.

So I am shutting up now about my procrastination. That’s the process. No one but me knows how long it took me to begin writing, or how profound my original thoughts were and how pale these current ones are in comparison. I shall just present them here with pride and hope that they satisfy.

Postscript: I made myself a deconstructed BLT at lunchtime with some leftover bacon (thick-cut, from Eggers’ South Hill shop) courtesy of Cate and Ann W.—that’s bacon slices plus a side salad of chopped tomato and lettuce mixed up with mayo, and a piece of toast on the side. Then in the evening, I went back over to their house for a dinner with our mutual friends Paul and Stacy. (Stacy makes chocolates and preserves and sells them at area farmers markets.) Ann W. made a fabulous meatloaf (ground beef and pork from Eggers, in a 2-to-1 ratio) with baked russet potatoes, and I brought along a simple salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and green (poblano) peppers, with olive oil and lemon juice. Stacy made a deep-dish crumb-top apple pie, which we topped with both vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. (Ah, decadence.) With dessert, Ann W. opened a bottle of chardonnay ice wine from Chelan Cellars, and it was a marvelous combination. (I’m thinking that the wine would go really well as a topper to a scoop of vanilla ice cream.) Both the company and the food were a delight.

Along the way, I asked Ann W. why she had apologized for her frittata on Saturday. She said, “I always assume that everyone else in the room is a far better cook than me, and that they will immediately notice the deficiencies in what I’ve made. So I apologize first, to beat them to the punch!”

11 Oct 2009

A Sunday at the Keyboard

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It’s Sunday morning (an unseasonably frigid Sunday morning, besides), and I’m sitting here in my sunny and warm living room with the cat snoozing nearby and a cup of coffee close at hand. I somehow dawdled enough again this morning to miss church, and I didn’t even go late for the “Eucharist of the coffee and the donuts,” as has been my habit of late. Or my late habit, if you will. One of these days I will feel compelled to go back again on a more regular basis. Or not. But for now I am reveling in the freedom of not having to be anywhere in particular on a lovely but cold October morning.

My earlier dawdling is one illustration of how strong my urge for procrastination is. Another is my detour just now to check out my Facebook page. (I posted a link this morning to a short New York Times article about NYC’s recent ban on school bake sales, and artists’ responses, and I absolutely HAD to go see if anyone had commented; I then spent 20 minutes responding to a handful of friend requests and updating my profile information.) Before that, I watered the plants, turned on the Weather Channel to get an update on the current conditions (36 degrees at 11 am), even though I could just as easily look out the window or open the door, and checked the cell phone for messages. (There were none.)

I’m not sure why I’m procrastinating this morning—I mean, writing is an enjoyable activity for me, most of the time, and I did feel a pull toward the keyboard earlier this morning. So why the delaying tactics?

Maybe it’s all part of the creative process. Maybe I’m not really procrastinating—maybe I’m actually distracting the critical, left-brained internal editor so that the playful, uninhibited right-brained writer can process a few ideas uninterrupted in the background. All good writing goes through the “staring out the window” phase, and maybe that’s what my puttering is all about.

Or maybe I’m full of shit.

Actually, I think—today, anyway—my delaying tactics are motivated by fear: fear that really don’t have anything interesting to say; fear that it’s all navel-gazing; fear that I won’t be able to take these potentially fascinating thoughts swirling in my brain and transform them into words and coherent sentences.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Lynn posted this quote on my Facebook Wall: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” (The quote is attributed to sportswriter Walter “Red” Smith.) Despite the obvious advances in technology, the process remains the same. I have all these great ideas and leaps of profundity while I’m cooking or eating or washing dishes or driving or walking or doing anything that keeps my body focused on a mundane task, allowing my mind to wander. (And God only knows where it goes to when left on its own.) But when I sit at the keyboard, all those ideas scurry away to the dark corners and hide, like tiny, scared, shy kittens.

And within that metaphor lies the answer, I think. To coax kittens (or small children) out of hiding, it’s not enough to present them with the logic of how safe the room really is. The fearful mind is not swayed by logic. What often works best is to simply ignore the hidden one and go on with the usual routine. Just let the common sounds of everyday living—no sudden, startling movements or big, loud noises—do the convincing.

So that means I’m comparing my creative process to a scared cat. Great.

2 Oct 2009

Going Recluse

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Today was a cool and blustery day—rain this morning, some sun breaks in the afternoon, then a brief squall again about 5-ish this afternoon. After another Friday morning breakfast at Chaps, I spent the afternoon rearranging furniture—moving my computer desk from the sunroom in the far back of the apartment all the way up front into the living room. But before I could move the computer desk, I had to move a couple of bookcases and a filing cabinet out of the way, including moving everything that filled the shelves. Then I had to temporarily move the bed so I could squeeze the desk through the bedroom. By the time I got everything situated, the afternoon was gone, and I was exhausted.

With the damp chill in the air, all I wanted was something warm and comforting for dinner. With a tired body that didn’t feel like standing for very long, preparation had to be quick. I found inspiration in the bounty of tomatoes—I’ve got some from my Tolstoy CSA box and some from my friend Marg’s garden—and made a quick sauce to top the gnocchi that I had picked up a week or so ago. Dinner was ready in less than 10 minutes, and it was filling and fabulous (and pretty healthy, besides).

First, I heated a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a small skillet, then I added one giant garlic clove that I had chopped up, along with a small amount (a tablespoon or two) of chopped sweet onion. While that cooked for a couple of minutes, I cored three Roma tomatoes and cut them in half lengthwise. I put the tomatoes cut side down in the skillet then covered it to let them heat for a couple of minutes; in the meantime, I put water on to boil in a saucepan. I briefly removed the tomato halves from the skillet just long enough to peel the skins off, then returned them to the skillet and broke them up into chunks, stirring everything (onions, garlic, tomatoes, oil) together. I crumbled some dried basil over the sauce and stirred that in, too, along with a dash of salt and pepper, and turned the heat down a notch. By then the water was boiling, so I tossed in a handful of gnocchi (Gia Rossa brand from Italy, made from sweet potatoes and whole-wheat flour). After about three minutes, the gnocchi floated to the top of the water, so I drained them and placed them in a bowl. I gave the sauce one more stir then poured that over the gnocchi, topping the whole thing with a sprinkle of grated parmesan. Delizioso, especially with a little glass of cab on the side (the tail end of the Eliseo Silva cab that I mentioned almost two weeks ago, thus proving that my wine consumption at home is quite moderate, thank you).

The gnocchi was soft but had some oomph to it; the sauce was almost golden orange in color, with a delightfully fresh sweet-savory flavor. Overall, it tasted just like the season: The end-of-season garden flavors sang, but the meal was warm and soothing enough to qualify as fall comfort food.

By staying home and eating this marvelous meal, however, I missed out on the semi-annual Visual Arts Tour evening. (Most of the action is in downtown Spokane, although events are spread across the area.) The fabulous Heather O’Brien was holding forth with her blues trio at the Whitestone Winery tasting room, and there were plenty of other great events on tap as well. But after my afternoon of physical labor, I found I lacked the resources—physical, mental and emotional—to really engage with people. Basically, I was whupped. And I listened to my body (and my mind) instead of bowing to the pressure of the calendar and of social expectations.

Had I pushed myself and gone out tonight, I probably would not have been very good company. (And I would have missed out on that great meal.) Sometimes, I find, the most sociable thing I can do is simply to stay home.

22 Sep 2009


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Today was a day of leftovers. I began with leftover baked oatmeal from Chaps, with a handful of walnuts and a cup of coffee (Americano, double, hot, made in my little home espresso brewer with Chapsgirl Guatemalan coffee from local roaster, Bumper Crop). The oatmeal brought to mind my sociable breakfast last Friday, which was a welcome thought on a morning with some initial anxiety. (My month of freedom is nearly over, and I’m experiencing a few bumps during re-entry.) After a quick visit to Inlander HQ, I came back home to a lunch of leftover red lentils and zucchini with half a piece of whole-wheat naan (a kind of Indian flatbread kind of like pita, available locally at Rocket Market). I drank leftover jasmine tea, cold, with it. (I also tore up a leaf of lettuce and called it salad, then completed the meal with half a peach.) I grabbed a small snack of cheese and crackers before my 5:30 pm yoga class, then had leftover Greek chicken for dinner. (I’ll have to freeze the remainder; I invited friends over to share, but they were busy, sadly.)

I did make one thing new: sautéed zucchini, onion, garlic and Swiss chard (all from the Tolstoy CSA box), with a touch of oregano and a splash of white wine (Twin Vines’ vinho verde, same as landed in my glass). And, yes, the wine was leftover, too — I opened it sometime over the weekend, I think.

I got a phone call from Auntie Jean in Texas while I was sautéing. (I only sauté in the company of close friends and family.) She and my uncle Gordon are heading “up East” — aka, to our hometown of Reading, Massachusetts — for her 60th high school reunion and staying for more than two weeks. She said she was letting me know where they’d be, just in case I needed to contact them. Although we try to stay in touch fairly regularly — say, every couple of months — we both know that at this point in our lives “just in case” is shorthand for “just in case somebody dies.”

Maybe she was remembering what difficulty I had finding her to notify her that my dad (her brother) had died back in 2001. (That was before she had a cell phone.) They were visiting Gordon’s son, whom I’ve never met, at his new home in New Mexico. Luckily, I know some of Jean’s friends in Dallas, so I called around until I found someone who knew where she was and could give me a phone number.

Now, Gordon’s 85 and is dealing with some medical issues, and Jean has her share of aches and pains. “Up East,” other older relatives aren’t doing well either. That whole cohort of people in my parents’ generation is slowly moving on.

After that conversation (and our coded phrases for the exigencies of aging), while eating my leftovers, I got to reflecting. Sometimes leftovers are better than the original meal — flavors have had time to mellow and blend, preparation is certainly easier, and warm memories of the meal’s first incarnation (assuming there are some) flow back.

Leftovers can be wistful, recalling better times; leftovers can be sad and lonely. In part, it depends on the character of the original meal. Soups and stews and casseroles — meals with richly varied complex flavors and textures—generally improve with age. Spices and other sharp flavors mellow; the edges soften and merge. On the other hand, a meal that depends on a single star ingredient is seldom as good when it’s reheated. The glory of a freshly grilled steak, say, fades when the blush is off the rose. And yet, if its character changes — slice up that steak nice and thin and toss it into some fresh salad greens — then it’ll make a nice second meal.

And so it is with aging, I think. A life that’s filled with flavor and texture is going to be still satisfying after the passage of time, as is a life that’s not afraid to make a change and add something new. But trying to re-create and relive the glory of the past is a mistake. Reheated steak can be tough to swallow. It’s all about knowing when to let go and how to savor what remains.

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