Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Kale?

In theory I am a big fan of kale.

I always associate it with a wonderful soup that my Aunt Felicity used to make on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

I have a very clear memory of my first brush with it. I recall driving up the path to her family's summer home on Martha's Vineyard one Wednesday before Thanksgiving, delighting in the candles twinkling cozily in each window (the house does not have electricity...these things were I'm sure very charming in the 1920s when the property was initially purchased, and I suppose still are for short stays), luxuriating in the laughter of her many siblings and nieces and nephews emanating from the open doorway, and relishing the fact that she met me at the threshold with a heavenly bowl of meat and kale and rich broth spooned over a toasted piece of bread.

I ate it inside by the fire, drinking in the warm, familial atmosphere. I smiled when my Aunt then asked if I fancied going for a canoe ride on the pond in the moonlight, until my cousin informed me that the offer was in fact serious and my smile widened to a grin.

Sadly, this is not the scene that tends to meet me on the average evening in New York when I am trying to figure out what on earth to do with the bushels of kale that end up in my CSA box. Upon my return from work there is no soup that has been simmering away for hours with delectable marrow bones on my stove. No roaring fire, no pond, no canoe. Just kale.

So for a while I braised it, occasionally throwing in a bit of chorizo and potato, but frankly I could never get the leaves to be tender enough to enjoy. I suppose several hours would be required to achieve true tenderness. Plus which I was not coming even remotely close to using up my allotted weekly amount.

But then I discovered the most wonderful thing...kale chips! I have of late been thoroughly engrossed in, a website run by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs. Kale was a theme of the week a bit ago, and several people submitted recipes for crispy kale chips. Intrigued, and with copious quantities of kale on my hands, I gave the idea a try.

I ripped the leaves apart from the stems. I mashed a couple of garlic cloves with a generous amount of olive oil in my mortar and pestle (although I suppose there is no reason that you could not just chop the garlic and throw it in with the oil), and tossed the kale leaves with the oil mixture. Once spread reasonably flat and in one layer on a baking sheet, I rained a layer of Maldon salt down over the kale and threw it in a 400 degree oven for about ten minutes, tossing the leaves about with a spatula at the five minute mark. Et voila, crispy leaves to accompany cocktails.

Of course you could I suppose get fancy and throw some parmesan cheese or paprika or vinegar into the mix, but why mess with such a good thing? And in case you're wondering, I am, for the first time in months, completely out of kale! Two days early!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fuzzy Wuzzy

I didn't grow up with parents that were particularly pro-fur. In fact, they were decidedly pro-animal, pro-conservation, and thus quite anti-fur. Perhaps it is odd then that one of the possessions that I remember with the greatest fondness growing up is a sheepskin.

My mother kept the family sheepskin thrown over the back of my grandmother's love seat in the living room, and my sister and I used to snuggle beneath it whenever the weather became chilly, even after we were far too big to comfortably fit beneath it.

I think at one point the original sheepskin became tatty (my sister and I perhaps loved it a tad too intensely) so a replacement was procured. The second one was loved a tad too intensely by one of our cats who was on the hunt for a furry companion (and who also was not the brightest feline I've ever come across). Eventually sheepskin #2 also went to the great barnyard in the sky and by that point my parents were empty nesters and I suppose had moved on from the pelt-in-the-living-room theme so there was no #3.

I thought that I had moved on as well, but recently as I was browsing the website of TOAST, one of my favorite online retailers, I found myself quite smitten with their reindeer skin.

Such lovely gradations of color, such luxurious looking fur...perhaps for my dainty (or not so) feet as I step out of bed in the morning? Like my parents, I am perhaps not someone that you would assume would have fur in the home, and until now I haven't. But I have to admit that I am now tempted. Seriously tempted.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Changing of the Guard

At a dinner party I attended last week the subject of autumn came up. The weather's changing, I love the crisp air, I look forward to this season, I feel guilty hoping for cold weather, ugh, it means winter is coming...various responses poured forth from my dining companions. My personal opinion? I couldn't be happier.

Fall means that I once again am in the the mood to make chocolate brioche on Sunday mornings and strong coffee to match.

It means lots of sweet, firm root vegetables, hearty greens and sturdy fruit in my CSA box...

and gloomy weather, which provides the perfect excuse to cozy up in my apartment with a good book or movie. Or the impetus to head to a friend's place nearby for a good simmer in his steam room, as Paul (who prefers to call it a schvitz) and I did this past Sunday...

And endless cups of tea at all times of day to fortify against the chill.

It's all starting!

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Power of the Internet

Last weekend I was feeling particularly lackadaisical, so rather than rush around in an effort to complete various tasks that had gone undone during the week, I simply draped myself over the sofa and spent the afternoon, cup of Marco Polo tea at my side, watching old episodes of Nigella Bites on You Tube.

Stunningly enough, I actually came across an episode that I'd never seen before called Nigella's Christmas Bites. A full hour of holiday treats and simple dishes that Ms. Lawson happens to enjoy during the holidays months. Lentil and chestnut soup, pickled vegetables, Indian spiced potatoes, pasta in walnut sauce, pomegranate meringue, macadamia nut all sounded so good! And, as is the case with most of her early recipes, although these dishes aren't hard, nor are they wildly exotic, they tend to be just different and imaginative enough to feel like a series of small revelations.

Although I don't use the one cookbook of hers that I own terribly often (I have Feast, and use it mainly for her granola recipe, pavlova recipe and if I'm in need of some sort of a cake) I was inspired to look into the possibility of purchasing her book Nigella Bites. There were plenty of used copies for sale for less than $4 on Amazon, but as I am both a tightwad and am also loathe to bring yet more stuff into our apartment for fear of causing clutter, it did give me pause.

But then I realized that I had $10 worth of Amazon gift certificates from Swagbucks, which meant that the book would actually be free. And I am not one to turn down free books. Ever.

You do know Swagbucks, no? A search engine that works just like google except for some searches you earn points. And eventually points turn into some sort of merchandise or gift card. That you would actually want to use. This at first glanced seemed a bit to close to those "make $1,000 a week sitting at home!" ads for comfort, but I must admit I've been converted. And now I'm trolling Amazon for something to spend my remaining $6 on.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


It seems that this is a very productive time of year for local farms. Now I haven't stepped foot on a farm since Glastonbury, but my CSA box has been particularly abundant of late, so I can only assume that we have come to the peak harvest period.

While on one hand there is something exquisite about having a full refrigerator, on the other hand I feel a vague but constant pressure to actually use the bounty that has been bestowed upon me. And when I have five eggplants, 8 tomatoes and several pounds of greens (among other cardoons which to this day I cannot figure out a use for), using them up is no easy feat.

So, as my imagination wanes in times like these, I inevitably turn to my cookbook collection for some inspiration. And where better to turn than Madhur Jaffery's World Vegetarian when the raw materials in question are vegetables?

In a recent effort to rid myself of a few Japanese eggplants through one of her recipes, I came across the best peanut sauce I have ever encountered. EVER. I am using it all over the place now.

A tangy/hot/sweet mixture of natural peanut butter (buy it in bulk from a health food store or Whole Foods...delicious and the cheapest way to obtain it!)...

stirred together to make a creamy emulsion to anoint steamed eggplant (Madhur's suggestion and it is a good one)

or just about anything else you can think of. Last night I personally was on a quest to clean out my drawers and cupboards, so threw some glass noodles and various veggies in a bowl and tossed it with the magic peanut sauce. Heaven.

As were the steamed eggplants with sauce a few days ago, and the cucumbers dipped in it a day or two ago, and the boiled potatoes tossed with it the day before. Endless possibilities.

Spicy Chinese Peanut Dressing
From Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian

Yields approximately 1/2 cup

4 teaspoons freshly made peanut butter from a health food shop or 4 tablespoons roasted peanuts ground to a paste in a clean coffee grinder
4 teaspoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon oriental sesame oil
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chili paste with soybean or chili paste with garlic, optional (I use sriracha)
1/2 teaspoon very finely chopped ginger (I grate it on a Microplane)

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Drizzle over base of choice.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Setting the Record Straight

I alleged not long ago that my father's hairstyle has, since he crossed the threshold into adulthood, not changed.

In the interest of completeness, he sent me a photo refuting this claim (he is at the center of the back row).

Based on the fact that I recognize a few of the friends in the photo as his compatriots from graduate school (perhaps the preponderance of thick framed glasses should tip you off to that fact...they were all in the sciences as far as I am aware), I assume that this photo was taken sometime in the mid-1960s. Before the 60s became the 60s. Before Berkeley became Berkeley.

So the addition of the beard occurred sometime thereafter. Following a particularly bad sunburn that my dad sustained on a trip to Death Valley with my mother, I'm told. And thus began an era.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Weekly Roundup

I tend to swoon over Royal Copenhagen China and yet have a conniption fit over the price. Lucky for me the venerable company is holding an online sale as we speak!

While in California I discovered that the beautiful Mariage Freres tea is available in bulk at the taste test mecca The Pasta Shop down on Fourth Street in Berkeley. At $54 per pound I wasn't buying in bulk per say, but rather tiny tiny tastes of many varieties. As I was filling my very small bags a friendly saleswoman came over and recommended the sickly sweet vanilla-smelling Bourbon Red Tea variety. To be polite, I bought a miniscule amount. I brought it home to New York, brewed it, and it was just about the best thing I've ever had. It has officially supplanted Marco Polo as my favorite tea.

Autumn is upon us it seems. How can I tell you ask? Fruitslinger is posting about lots of beautiful apples!

And...I finally bought these frames that I've been loving since the springtime. And you know what? I'm pretty into them. And the quality is really wonderful for the price. So refreshing when that happens isn't it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Linens...and things

I consider myself a thoroughly modern girl, and yet I have some decidedly traditional quirks. My taste for good linens for instance.

I insist on the silkiest 100% cotton Italian sheets (they are insanely expensive but I generally can pick them up at the bargain mecca Century 21 for a somewhat reasonable price), and am happiest when they are freshly laundered (although honestly that only happens once a week).

I also love my fluffy Turkish towels, and to round out my international textile trip, my Irish linen dish towels as well. But frankly, in the context of my linen collection (such as it is), my napkin selection had been sorely lacking. It was, until recently, composed solely of violently colored (although not evenly colored) cotton squares that I had picked up on a very deep discount at Calypso Home a few years ago. Sad, no?

A few beautiful napkin options have caught my eye over the years...the obscenely expensive heavyweight linen napkins at Bergdorf's and Barney's for instance...everytime I step foot in the stores...but as much as I relish the feel of that substantive natural fabric, I just could never bring myself to pay the exorbitant prices (I draw the line at $50 per napkin).

But with a week of vacation in a home with a sturdy old PFAFF sewing machine on my hands (this fabulous machine, which I imagine was quite a splurge for my parents when they bought it back in the 1970s, will hopefully last forever) and a mom to go fabric shopping with, it occurred to me that a bit of DIY action might be in order.

So mother and daughter toodled on down to the textile paradise that is Piedmont Fabric for a bit of retail therapy. Lo and behold, they not only had bolts of heavyweight napkin linen,

but also wonderful cottons and linens perfect for dish towels.

I picked up a few yards of the coveted fabric and headed home to cut, pin and sew. I can't say that the napkins are all exactly the same size, or that the corners are perfectly square, but the outcome was satisfying all the same. Six napkins, the heft and grace of which is undeniable.

Even when strewn about carelessly, as is wont to happen after a particularly excellent meal. Now all I need is a dining room table to match!

Monday, September 14, 2009

An Abundance of Tomatoes

At the beginning of tomato season, the ruby red heirlooms and romas and beefsteaks all seemed so rare and special. They were to be handled with reverence and care. Ah how times have changed.

Thanks to my CSA folks (and those other members who seem to have stopped picking up their shares) , I'm now inundated with fragile, perfectly ripe but quickly deteriorating tomatoes. An entire corner of my kitchen counter is dedicated to them in fact. And as the vast majority of my kitchen is located in said corner, this means that about 80% of my counter space is dedicated to the bounty of the season.

I had my fill of sliced heirlooms with salt and olive oil in California, and frankly, the tomatoes here can't hold a candle to the ones there this year so I can't bring myself to repeat the dish for fear of disappointment. And I can only consume so many slow roasted tomatoes and tomato and goat cheese gratins and my freezer can only hold so much tomato sauce (it is currently at capacity, but I must say these recent batches are many, many times more delicious than those made with canned Marzanos).

So what to do? Make pan con tomate, that's what.
I've had a vague awareness of the dish for years. I've had it before, mainly at Bar Jamon with a glass of cava, accompanied by light conversation with a close friend who lives in the area. But I never fell in love with it. The bread had more of a whisper of tomato rather than a exhortation, so it never felt like much more than a mindless nibble to accompany drinks.

But my mind was changed in Barcelona this summer. Laia and Marta insisted on an order of pan con tomate in the fabulous Cerveseria Catalana, and I agreed, as a guest ought to, despite my vague misgivings. But as you can probably guess, I had no need to be nervous. What we received was bread with some true character, bravely soaked with delicious tomato pulp, drizzled unabashedly with olive oil, and sprinkled with divine flaked sea salt.

So I implore you, do not let your tomatoes go to waste! Toast some good country bread (or if you are feeling quite authentic, grill it), rub it aggressively with a cut clove of garlic (the garlic taste will be much more subtle than you may think at this point, so be brave), rub just as aggressively with the cut half of a tomato (again, have courage, you want a lot of pulp). Then drizzle with a good olive oil (I like one of the less grassy/more buttery ones just to give it a little richness) and sprinkle with salt. I must insist on Maldon or an equivalent here. Trust me, you will thank me later.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Happiness Round Up

It's been nearly a week since I last gushed about Eric Weiner's fabulous book The Geography of Bliss, and I feel the need to do it again. Or rather, since I have just finished it, I feel the need to summarize the man's findings.

Culture - The unhappiest countries (Moldova, which seems to have been a bit at sea ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, is a deeply depressed place) have a distinct lack of culture. Without culture there's no sense of identity, no connection to a country. No literature nor art means no sense of self, either at the collective or individual level.

Nature - Despite the general ennui that the Swiss seem to exhibit (from my brief, superficial observations), the country rates very high on the happiness scale. This is largely attributable to the very deep connection that the citizenry has to nature. Iceland, a stunningly happy (if very dark) country, also has this relationship with the outdoors. There's an appreciation, not a fear, of the land, connecting the people to the most basic thing that humans know.

Belief - It doesn't matter what you believe in, you just need to believe in something. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who believe in reincarnation seem to be happier than those who don't (the Bhutanese for example). And those who worship the (false) god of ambition, you are forever doomed to be miserable.

Boredom - Happiness apparently requires you to be bored occasionally, which gives your mind some time to relax, to think, to reflect. Perhaps somewhat related, don't think so much (according to some very happy folks in Thailand and India, thinking is the root of unhappiness). So quit with the packed schedule and the deep contemplation!

Failure - The ability to try a variety of things and fail at them gives a person more freedom, and thus happiness, than just about anything. Again, Iceland, with its European-style social safety net, excels in this category.

Envy - Envy is the most toxic, unhappy emotion there is. Let it go, do not covet thy neighbor's anything.

Poverty - Don't be desperately poor. Money is not everything, as relatively poor countries like Bhutan show us, but abject poverty will never a happy person make.

And if I had to highlight one takeaway from the book? Move to Iceland. Who knew?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Family Tree

Spending time around family really makes you think. Like how some things, my mother's hair styles for instance, constantly evolve.

And how other things, like my dad's hair style, remain the same.

Certain questions arise, like why is my grandpa

shirtless in 75% of the photos taken of him before 1950?

And why, of all of the decades he's lived through, did he choose the 70s to embrace so unabashedly?

Also, why are photos of my mother as a child

virtually indistinguishable from photos of my sister as a child

whereas photos of me as a child

bear no resemblance to anyone that I am related to?

And why is that my maternal grandmother could wander my sister's college dorm hallways and have someone point her in the direction of Robin's room without even asking who she was looking for, whereas I

look almost nothing like her?

Or my dad's parents?

Or, and I'm really reaching here, my mom's grandparents?

Funny how things work. But my sister and I look, if not exactly alike, related.

Like sisters.

And that I'll happily take.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Time To Go

Yet another beautiful day in the Bay Area. It would be far easier to get on a plane today if it were not quite so glorious.

photo: Dad

Despite the temporary closure of the Bay Bridge (and the heretofore unknown rickety nature of the structure), all seemed to be well in Tiburon yesterday. The boats were zipping about, the sea lions were frolicking, and the pelicans were dive bombing in search of a fresh catch.

photo: Dad

My sister, contemplating the view (or perhaps the coffee house to her right), agreed.

photo: Dad

The day and the company was so lovely that even the worst bread pudding ever created could not dampen our spirits.

photo: Dad

After all, my mom and I were able to salvage a few edible pieces, and that is all one really needs when it comes to bread pudding anyway.

And the walk back to the car along the sun dappled streets provided the perfect excuse for me to try out my "red carpet" pose.

photo: Mom

Or perhaps the "minimize my hips and thighs" pose would be a more accurate descriptor? Either way, my dad proved to be an excellent escort.

I can at least take solace in the fact that the weather in New York is, from what I understand, beautiful. So perhaps that will ease the transition? No you say? I didn't think so either. Sigh.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Summer Treats

Much is being made of tomatoes this time of year. Between the articles extolling their summery virtues and those bemoaning the various fungi that are afflicting many of the crops this year, one can scarcely avoid thinking about these brightly colored orbs.

Which has made the mediocre tomato haul that New York has experienced this year particularly vexatious. A cool, damp summer seems to make for pale tasteless tomatoes, heirloom or not. Or perhaps the good ones have just been delayed? Let's hope that is the case.

But no matter. California, which is experiencing an unusually hot summer and extraordinarily dry conditions, is tomato heaven at the moment. A trip to Wild Boar Farms' booth at the Grand Lake Farmers Market on Saturday yielded this stunning collection.

Can you guess which one they call the "Berkeley Tie Dye"?

These tomatoes tasted so perfectly fresh and sweet that I almost didn't recognize them as vegetables (or fruit, whichever school you subscribe to). It is no wonder that they are a supplier to Chez Panisse.

As my return to New York is imminent, I am currently gorging myself on beautiful fruits (and a few vegetables), taking advantage of the good stuff while I can. As much as I adore New York, the produce (other than apples of course) simply does not compare to what I became used to growing up in California. The fragrant, almost floral melons, sweet nectarines (even the wrinkled up old ones in the refrigerator are phenomenally delicious) and tiny strawberries that are scattered throughout the kitchen, along with the sweet juicy pears from my parents' tree, will have to tide me over until my next brush with perfect produce, whenever that may be.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Back to Nature

I've been spending the last couple of days lounging, eating, shopping, taking in the lovely Bay Area weather and reading, which is exactly how I was hoping to spend my long weekend away. I'm grateful not only for the beautiful setting and the time with family, but also for the time to properly read Eric Weiner's book The Geography of Bliss, which is both thoughtful and hilarious in equal measures.

I have to admit that the the unrestrained buoyancy of the image on the front cover made me a bit wary. Happiness, although pleasurable to experience, is not the most interesting thing to read about for the length of a book. However, I should not have worried. The discussion of happiness is dotted with mirth, self-deprecation, and much more wise introspection and contemplation than I would have imagined. One of the quotes of praise on the book jacket reads "Laugh. Think. Repeat", and I would agree that that is the pattern I have so far adopted.

I particularly enjoyed Weiner's account of his visit to Switzerland. He hypothesized that the main source of happiness for the citizens of this very wealthy, beautiful, orderly, restrained and functional country is their extraordinarily deep connection to nature. Having just spent a few days hiking in the Alps this summer, I can attest that this connection does exist on a much broader basis than I've seen elsewhere. I was consistently passed on hiking trails by Swiss citizens both much younger and much older than I. And from what I understand from a friend who lives there, true blue city dwellers make it out of town to climb the mountains just as much as the granola set (if that exists in Swizerland) does.

The author mused, worriedly, about the fact that he was more comfortable with the idea of walking down an alley at night than with walking outside a remote cabin at night. How could he be truly happy and be so disconnected from nature?

I can relate. Walking through the tiny Alpine town of Murren at 10:30 pm (after everyone had gone to bed and the lights were out) made me considerably more nervous than walking around questionable New York City neighborhoods much later at night does. Why I don't know. The scariest thing in Murren is a herd of cows. The scariest thing in New York? Well, you've seen Law & Order. It's much worse than cows. Have I, the girl who spent her childhood camping all over the western United States with nature loving bird watching parents, become scared of nature?

In response to this somewhat disturbing idea, I'm spending some time outside. In my parents' backyard.

I know, I know. But baby steps.

Sitting under the apple trees...

which for years were overshadowed by a larger apple tree, which my sister and I spent countless hours climbing when we were young. But now that it has gone to a better place, the younger ones have blossomed...

to the point that they are now bending under the weight of their own fruited boughs.

Hanging out by the begonias, which my mother swears save the garden at this time of year when everything else has bloomed and faded.

Walking through the rose garden, admiring the once colorful but now muted blossoms.

This one reminds me of a very sweet woman who is beginning to droop a bit around the edges but still lives her life richly.

And this sultry yet vaguely macabre flower brings to mind a woman who was once extraordinarily beautiful but has succumbed to the decay of a bitter old age.

And perhaps counter to my mission, I'm also wandering around admiring my dad's anti-squirrel devices.

After many different designs, he settled on this plastic awning to keep the beasts from stealing the nuts and seeds meant for the small birds that frequent the garden.

Prior to this installation, squirrels would catapult themselves from trees, grasp on to the cage with all four feet for dear life, and start swinging it in an effort to dislodge the seeds from the central column. I must admit that it was quite a feat to watch.

The persimmon tree also has its share of intruders...the squirrels love the sweet orange fruit just as much as my family does.

So, taking a pointer from the tin man, my dad fashioned a squirrel thwarter.

My dad holds patents on several items from his working years and although I always found the concept cool, I could never understand what devices he had invented. Now that he is retired and his efforts are being redirected to the house and garden, his inventive nature is on full display. And these things I understand.

They allow Nature and my dad to live in (almost) perfect harmony. He's fine with the critters as long as they don't steal his fruit or bother the birds. We should all be so tolerant.
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