Tuesday, February 26, 2008

It really is 2008

But I still miss my Wayne Thiebaud 2007 calendar, hanging - as it had the habit of doing - so quiet and cheeky on our kitchen's corkboard.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Call me an orange-woman

I'm overwhelmed. Last week I came down with the usual campus-wide cold. I sneezed. I sniffed. I craved oranges like never before. I was miserably sipping my best Earl Grey and eating sections of oranges, sucking the juice from the ladles in-between my fingers, when I realized that the only two things I could taste – the only two things I wanted to taste! – were both of the beloved citrus. For what would the Earl have been without his dear bergamot? (Never mind that Earl probably stole the recipe from some Chinese he met, and slapped his name on it.) It was my nepenthe.

I went nuts. I scanned my memory for the first time I could remember any inkling of such an “orange crush” – please, oh please, pardon the pun. I couldn’t help myself! It was the orange! It does strange things! Even now, I’m under its spell, just remembering the scent of orange blossoms in a courtyard in Tucson. There I was, thirteen, geeky, and alive – lit with the smell of those flowers.

Since then I’ve had an unforgettable lemonade with orange blossom water at Hampton Chutney in Soho. I’ve toasted to girlfriends with Campari and orange blossom water sodas with slices of orange. I’ve searched for neroli, the oil from orange flowers. I've made candied orange peels with Silvie from her copy of "Fannie at Chez Panisse." And here I am, an orange-woman of the 21st Century.

And happily not one of the 18th. Apparently - thank you, OED.com - orange-women/wenches were particularly fiery, troublesome, and perplexing women to men of their times. The name refers to women who sold oranges on the street and sometimes themselves as well. So wrote, in 1711, one Mr. Addison in Spectator No. 65 ¶4, “He calls the Orange Woman, who…is inclined to grow Fat, An Over-grown Jade.” There’s something interesting here – women, their bodies, gluttony and ripe, nearly rotten, fruit. Like Eve reaching for the apple, there's an enduring, tempting and debilitating mythical affinity between the flesh of women and of fruit.

I think also of Louise Glück's poem, "Mock Orange." The phrase that makes its title refers to a shrub that resembles the citrus plant with mimicked cream-colored, fragrant blossoms. To me, the poem is about the illusion of union - between two lovers, between our myths and the lives we live. There is a bitter recognition as the speaker asks, incorporating the reader, “Do you see? / We were made fools of.”

“It is not the moon, I tell you. / It is these flowers / lighting the yard.”

Thank goodness my babies never do me wrong like that. No, thanks to Jeffrey Steingarten, I scratch and sniff (I know, gasp) at the market and they always turn out ripe and juicy, just like I had hoped.

More about the orange! I learned – thank you, Wikipedia – that the seeds of oranges are called pips. Also, the color orange is named after the orange fruit. Before the (Old) English-speaking world knew the orange, they approximated its respective color’s name as geoluhread or sort of yellow-red. How wonderful we’ve moved beyond that, because the table Anna and I painted for our living room two weeks ago would otherwise be a delightful shade of “Chinatown Geoluhread.” A better name for something you come down with after dim sum.

More and more, I've been able to find a favorite related citrus of mine, the Minneola tangelo. Half grapefruit, half tangerine. They're the ones with the incredible nipple, so tangy and sweet! (Note my woman-fruit conflation.) See here, I even held myself back long enough to catch a picture of one. I'd type more, but my fingers are too sticky.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Banana bread

It snowed all day Friday, and I had three very ripe and willing bananas. It was clear; the time had come to make banana bread. Banana bread is incredible to me – it’s so very much like cake, and yet we call it bread. That means the stuff is as acceptable a breakfast as it is a dessert. Cake in the morning? Ingenious.

This recipe is one of the first I ever tried. It yields a moist inside flecked with bananas and a crisp crust. Just don’t cover it with tin foil while it’s still hot and run off to class for three hours like I did, or the crust will lose its crunch. You can use less butter if you want to, but oh, it is so tasty like this. And Hunter likes it, so you know it must be good.

You’ll see the recipe is in that first picture. If you click on any of the pictures, they get larger. Note that I would add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to this, and 3/4 cup sugar is plenty. One loaf, however, may not be enough.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On tea and scones

I was reading about the rise of small dairy farms that make artisanal treats "like crème fraîche, butter, buttermilk, ice cream, puddings, custards, yogurt, yogurt-based sauces and yogurt drinks" ("The Dairies Are Half-Pint, but the Flavor Isn’t") in The New York Times this morning. My grandpa was a dairy farmer in upstate New York, and so I feel some kind of affinity to them. The article reminded me that I had some leftover cream in the fridge - just Guidas, but hey. Actually, there are some people here at school that organize fresh milk purchases from a local dairy. Maybe I'll try it soon. Anyway, I only had 1/3 cup of cream so I had to cut the recipe down to 1/4 its size. That made two scones, just enough for breakfast.

When I worked at the tea shop two summers ago, Polly gave me this recipe for scones. I would make them in the morning and go to work trying not to eat them all in the car. I loved putting them out with the cakes and tarts, savoring the secret that those plump, little scones - uneven, toppling, creamy scones - were actually my work. I probably ate at least one from every batch I made.

These are not the steroidal, sugar-coated monster scones that abound in megaplex bookstores, but they taste so much better. They're pretty unassuming, and I like it that way. I think of them like that French term for women who aren't classically beautiful, but have an interesting face, une jolie-laide. That's kind of an awful way of putting it. But, there's hope for us all in these scones. Funny looking on the outside; pure joy on the inside. I like to eat them with strawberry jelly and Earl Grey tea.

Polly's Scones:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. I'm so bad at doing this! Do it!

2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/3 cup heavy cream

Sift together the dry ingredients. Then add the cream and mix it in. Knead the dough on a hard surface for a short while, and then spread it out so it's about 1 and 1/2 inches high. Cut scones with a 2 inch round pastry cutter. Put them on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes or until they're golden on top.

Polly's recipe also recommends that you enjoy them in bed with clotted cream, jam and the Sunday Times.

Kitchen scenes

This post was prompted by Emily's comment. You can check out John Huck's breakfast portraits at http://jonhuck.com/breakfast/. Food photography - not, in this case, of food itself, but with the people who eat it, relate to it, obsess over it, are disgusted by it, are content to read the paper with anything in front of them as long as by anything you mean coffee - this sort of photography, is endlessly interesting to me.

The photographs here are the ones that first made me think about food in high school. They are part of a collection published as Elsa's Housebook by Elsa Dorfman, who photographed the people around her while she went to Radcliffe College in the early 70s. My favorites are the ones in kitchen, of which there are quite a few. (Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso at the kitchen table!) You can look at other photographs from her book here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Laudate dominum

I laughed. I cried. Guacamole. Here's my recipe:

2 ripe hass avacados
10 cherry tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/2 small red onion, finely diced
1/4 chipotle pepper, finely diced
1 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 scallions, diced
juice from 1/2 lime
smoked salt

Coriandrum sativum

I bought a bunch of cilantro last Friday thinking, mistakenly, that it was flat-leaf parsley looking unusually fresh at Weshop.

I was not happy. This would not go well on top of my pasta with portobello mushrooms and parmigiano reggiano! This was not the sweet rarity about which I was so elated, fresh - actually fresh! - parsley. No.

I really have not liked cilantro. I'm not alone; there's even a website for sore cilantro eaters. It began with some cilantro-jacked Annie’s salad dressing that left me feeling like Paul Newman egg-beaten à la Cool Hand Luke. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and cilantro was not a friend of mine. But I chopped it all up dutifully that day and saved the stems to make a broth, and minced the leaves for garnish. And cilantro has proved me wrong. Its incarnations have all been lovely. Last night, Silvie and I made meal of mochi that we stuffed with an aduki bean, mint, cilantro stem and arugula salad and broiled salmon in a lime and cilantro crust. Anna used some to garnish her soup, and soon I'm going to make guacamole.

It was enough to make me wonder, just what was this miracle herb I had so long neglected? I consulted The Herbal Kitchen by Jerry Traunfeld. Apparently, it’s an annual umbel, like dill and chervil. Cilantro is the leaf of the young coriander plant, Coriandrum sativum, an herb in the parsley family. My parsley gaff in perspective (at least they’re in the same family), at least I've buried the cilantro hatchet.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

While I'm here

Let me tell you about some foodwriting I really love. Julia Langbein. She's incredible. Google her, and you'll find her work on Gourmet.com. Her self-description: "Writer, performer, eater, and graduate student, she's that girl you saw conspicuously washing down a ham hock with a bottle of Port in the quietest reading room of the Chicago Public Library."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Love thy truffle

It’s Valentine’s Day, and that means we all feel bitter and assaulted by advertising – even those of us who are in that maudlin state, love. This is, of course, no reason not to eat chocolate today. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. There’s plenty of upsetting literature* on how women supplant human love with sweets. Don’t let that stop you either. In fact, here’s a recipe I recently made for Jesse’s twenty-first birthday – truffles that are sensous no matter how many people are at the table, in bed, or in the kitchen at midnight. I also think they make great gifts. I used to make mix tapes as my go-to gift; you’ll see the influence in the name. There used to be a B-track truffle too, but, as always, it just wasn’t as good.

A-track Truffles: Make an almond praline by heating one cup sugar, one half cup water and a drop of vanilla extract in a sauce pan until the mixture is a golden, caramel color and strings.

Pour this over blanched, sliced almonds and spread them out on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Cook in the oven at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes or until they’re toasted. Then grind them to a fine consistency in a food processor with sugar, blood orange rind, cocoa powder and a little bit of instant coffee. Set aside.

In a double boiler (note that mine is make-shift), add small amounts of heavy cream, fresh blood orange juice, vanilla extract, very good quality balsamic vinegar, instant coffee, honey, pinch chili powder, sugar and 12oz. semi-sweet Ghirardelli chocolate chips. I know this sounds like a lot of ingredients, but they really are so lovely all together. Stir until smooth. Then add a few thin pats of butter, and stir until they melt.

Cool in the freezer until you can mold them into little balls in the palms of your hands. Don’t worry about uniformity, because it’s overrated. Put the ground praline you made in a bowl, and then roll the truffles in it until they have a thin crust. Delicious.

*Susan Bordo. “Hunger as Ideology.” Reprinted in Eating Culture. Eds. Ron Scapp and Brian Seitz. Albany: University of New York, 1998.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Crust lust

With remarkable consistency, I seem only to make bread when I find myself with an assignment that I just don't want to do. I'd like to say I make bread every Sunday come winter and its old-fashioned charms/chills. But it's just not the truth. Nothing gets me in the mood more than an analysis of Functionalism. Philosophy of Mind? Dad’s French bread. Reading response? Rye with caraway seed. Unreadable Lacan excerpt? Tough and hearty wheat bran and polenta. I only make bread in these, the most ploddingly obtuse moments at school. What kind of self-respecting baker am I?

I’ve read plenty of odes to bread. My favorite (sorry, Neruda) is Peter Reinhart’s Brother Juniper’s Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor. I even have this charm of a book, a Soviet reader for children on the peasant joys of bread. Or my mom’s recent gift: A Young People’s Physiology from 1889, “To eat or drink what we know is unhealthful, because it tastes good, is not only foolish but wicked. A cook who understands the laws of health, will not feed the family on hot bread, because it makes in the stomach a pasty mass, which cannot be easily digested.” Wicked, indeed.

But my favorite words on bread are recipes rather than rhetoric. Especially in the wake of Atkins, I find that eating warm, homemade bread is pretty much always incredible (and who doesn't love to be a little wicked?). My dad’s recipe is my favorite. Even in the miserable weather we’re entertaining here in Middletown, its crust and crumb are impeccable. Not so with every loaf. Baking bread often takes problem-solving. I think this is why I love to make bread when I feel stuck at school. It feels so good to figure it out. And even when it fails, and I make something more like rockbread than French bread, I tried. Inspiration enough to get back to work. Lacan beckons.

Still, sometimes it's good to stick with the comfortable and familiar. Here, then, is my dad’s time and again bread recipe in his own words. The only thing I change is that I add the salt after I’ve already incorporated the yeast and flour to make sure the yeast survives.