Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Winter Feast

I've spent the last few weeks wondering when life got so busy. Between a new job, a consequent renewed interest in keeping up professional relationships, a desire to catch up with friends after the hectic holiday season and an unusually high number of birthday celebrations this month I've been out far more than I've been in. And I'm worn out.

Luckily my week ended with a relaxed dinner at my apartment with a group of lovely ladies. The food was, thanks to my dinner party savior the River Cafe Cookbook, incredibly easy to prepare...the Spaghetti al Limone and the pork braised in vinegar are just about as low maintenance as you can get, and the salad, based on one I tried at Bouchon a few months ago, is probably the only Thomas Keller recipe that requires the use of less than four dishes (it uses one).

And dessert was particularly easy because I didn't make it. Vivian, who I'm slowly learning is a deceptively talented cook, made an amazing flan, and Rachel was kind enough to come bearing Crumbs cupcakes. I will be spending the rest of the weekend indoors, away from the cold, nose in a book, snacking on the remains of the feast. Particularly the sweet stuff.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Honor Thy Ancestors

When I was in grade school, I had a fascination with my family history. I suppose Paul, coming from a country with a considerably longer history than America, would say that was me searching for a past. Perhaps. But regardless, I loved learning about where I came from.

As it turns out I'm a European mutt, drawing an identity from no one particular country. Which I suppose makes sense. Whenever I travel in Europe people seem to think that I am from whatever country I happen to be in (until I open my mouth of course).

My sheepherding German relatives (who abandoned animal husbandry in the mid 19th century for the land of the free) gave me my last name but I don't consider myself "a German". I have Norwegian blood from my seafaring great grandfather, but am the least Scandinavian looking person you could ever find. I don't particularly identify with my Scottish ancestors (minor nobility who left for America once it became clear the family money wouldn't trickle down far enough to reach them) either.

But I do have a certain affection for the idea of my hardscrabble Polish (or Ukranian, depending on who you talk to) great grandmother who was sent to America as a young adolescent to live with family, presumably to avoid the poverty of her homeland. My sister once visited Poland and said she felt that she had somehow come home...everyone looked just like her.

So perhaps that is why at the age of eleven or so, at Christmas I absolutely insisted on making cabbage rolls, the food of my ancestors. After much blanching and rolling and braising, the result Not exciting. I was disappointed in the food of my ancestors.

So when I received the latest issue of Martha Stewart Living, one of the many magazines I just signed up for using air miles I figure I will never get to use for an actual flight, I didn't focus too sharply on her recipe for Stuffed Savoy Cabbage initially. But something about it lodged in my mind, so I eventually felt compelled to come back to it and made a batch.

And it was a true revelation. I should probably mention as a disclaimer that I used some insanely expensive outrageously good meat from Dickinson's Farmstead Meat at Chelsea Market, but the flavors were bright and clear and really made me sit up and take notice. I can now take pride in the food of my eastern european predecessors...or at least in Martha Stewart's version of it.

Stuffed Savoy Cabbage With Beef, Pork and Rice in a Spicey Tomato Sauce
From Martha Stewart Living, January 2010

Serves 12

Tomato Sauce

28 ounces of whole peeled plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped (1 cup)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
coarse salt

For the Stuffed Cabbage

coarse salt
1 large head Savoy cabbage
12 ounces ground chuck
12 ounces ground pork
2 cups cooked brown rice (from 1 cup)
1/2 medium onion, chopped (1 cup)
1/4 cup flat leafed parsley, chopped
1 tablespoons hot paprika (I used regular and threw in a pinch of cayenne)

1. Make tomato sauce: Pulse tomatoes with juice in tomatoes in food processor until finely chopped. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring constantly, until onion is tender, about 6 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes and juice. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thick, about 20 minutes. Season with salt. Let cool completely.

2. Make the stuffed cabbage: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add cabbage head, and cook until outer leaves are just tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon. Peel outer layers of leaves, and drain. Return remaining cabbage to water, and repeat until all leaves are cooked and removed. (I just peeled off a few leaves and blanched them independently of the remaining cabbage head). Pat each leaf dry with a kitchen towel. Select 12 large light-green leaves. Reserve remaining leaves for another use.

3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using 2 forks, gently stir together beef, pork, rice, onion, parsley, paprika, and 1 tablespoon salt.

4. Working with 1 leaf at a time, trim thick part of rib with a paring knife, leaving leaf intact. Arrange about 1/2 cup filling (less for smaller leaves) in center of each leaf. Fold stem end of cabbage over filling. Fold in sides of cabbage. Carefully roll cabbage over to form a package, overlapping ends to seal. Transfer each, seam side down, to a large, shallow baking dish.

5. Spread sauce over stuffed cabbage leaves. Cover with parchment-lined foil, and bake until cooked through and cabbage is tender, about 1 hour.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Long, Long Lists

I love a good list. Not a to-do list...those I rarely make unless I'm going on a trip and simply must get certain things done to avoid disastrous consequences while I am away. Otherwise I find them incredibly oppressive and in the normal course, unnecessary. I do like to start my work day by writing down things that should be done in the near future, but more as a way of organizing my thoughts than than as a scorecard. I almost never get through my whole list in a day, and life continues apace nevertheless, which confirms my suspicion that terribly prescriptive lists are in fact inessential.

Rather the lists I love are those which provide possibilities, a plethora of enchanting choices at one's fingertips. My Netflix list, for example, currently stands at 500 films, most of which I'm looking forward to seeing. Scrolling through it is a bit like reading the pages of a history book, as I started the list when I was 23 and have been building on it ever since.

The early additions to the list are mostly classics...I was in an unfulfilling job when I joined Netflix and had a brief flirtation with the idea of working in the movies. I figured that in order to do so I should brush up on the oldies. So for ages I was watching only black and white movies...Sorry, Wrong Number...All About Eve...frankly the vast majority of them I found to be a bit overrated, with the exception of course of Sunset Boulevard which was fantastic...Gloria Swanson is undeniable after all...and Roman Holiday which I still daydream about (the chemistry between Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck totally riveting, as are the visages of these two lovely actors).

And then I moved on to the golden age of movies that was the 70s and early 80s. Five Easy Pieces (a young Jack Nicholson, be still my heart!),

The Year of Living Dangerously (a young Mel Gibson, be still my heart!),

Three Days of the Condor (a young Robert Redford...well, you get the picture).

All revelations in their own ways.

And now that a few years have passed I've happened upon a weird mix of mediocre movies that I apparently missed in the 90s and odd foreign films (go rent Nathalie immediately!). I think this indicates that I am now at the part of the list that was compiled after I found my career calling and realized that it was actually not the movie business and I felt more free to choose movies that wanted to see rather than thought I ought to see.

My library list is my other treasure trove. The fabulous New York City Public Library system upgraded its website not long ago to allow patrons to maintain not only a hold list (no more than 10 books you wish to have delivered to your local branch when they are available) but also a wish list of sorts...a self-created canon seemingly unlimited in size. Or at least I haven't hit the limit yet.

I add titles that catch my eye in the New York Times Book Review section, cookbooks I read about in the press, volumes that I fall a tiny bit in love with at various bookstores (but not so deeply in love with to actually purchase right then and there). My moods seem to shift and sway with the seasons.

One day I'm feeling whimsical and add Nigel Slater's Eating For England: The Delights and Curiosities of the British at Table, one day I'm feeling raunchy and go for Chelsea Handler's My Horizontal Life. Other days I fancy myself an intellectual and simply must put Justin Fo's The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward and Delusion on Wall Street and Richard Overy's The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars at the top of my list. Sometimes I like a bit of gossipy dirt and turn to Michael Gross's 740 Park: The story of the World's Richest Apartment Building.

But mostly I just want to know about people and eras and events that came before me, so I add all manners of autobiographies and biographies like Kenneth Whyte's The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, T.J. Stiles's The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Diana Vreeland's D.V. I add memoirs like Christopher Buckley's Losing Mum and Pup and Douglas Rogers' The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe. And brief histories like D.J. Taylor's Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age and Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939.

Will I ever get through 500 movies and 236 books before I leave this fine earth? Probably. But I enjoy adding to the lists too much to stop, which thankfully means I will never reach their ends. Shrinking lists would mean that I had lost all interest in art and literature, which would certainly signal that it was indeed time to call it a day. Permanently.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Beginning of a Long Friendship

I confessed to a new obsession with tahini last week, and I assure you that it is not a fleeting affair. After making some absolutely addictive tahini sauce with which to anoint any and all meats, vegetables and grains, I simply could not get that jar of sesame paste out of my mind.

I pored over my cookbooks, searching for a dish showcasing tahini that wasn't a sauce. Despite my obscenely extensive collection, a fair few of which are books devoted to Middle Eastern cooking, I could not find one recipe that fit the bill. I was momentarily stumped. Clearly I would have to forge a new path on my own.

I started breakfast, my favorite meal now and forever. I took a page from my dad's book to begin. He brilliantly pairs toast and peanut butter in the early hours, so I replaced one nut butter (or seed butter?) for the other. But tahini alone seemed overly austere, so I paired it with marmalade for tiny bit of luxury.

But even that was perhaps not enough of a counterbalance? Ah yes, honey.

Honey was it. Perfection. The marmalade was not bad, but the honey and tahini combination was utterly delicious.

I had dipped my toe in, and was ready to take the plunge. Tahini had worked so well in place of peanut butter in one instance, I had to assume that it would work in another. So I set about making tahini cookies.

After much googling and page flipping, I had settled upon a proportion of tahini, butter, sugar and flour that I felt confident in. I was then free to play around with the flavorings. Orange appealed, but I came across some lovely Meyer lemons at Chelsea Market so could hardly resist those. And after some very dedicated dough-tasting, I deemed the cookies in need of some spice, so a bit of cinnamon was enlisted for duty. After a bit of stirring and rolling and baking, I ended up with a stash of light, nearly flakey, tahini cookies.

A successful experiment indeed.

Tahini Cookies

yields 18 cookies

1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons (100 grams) tahini
7 tablespoons (100 grams) softened unsalted butter
zest of 1 Meyer lemon (or mix lemon and orange zest)
juice of 1/3 Meyer lemon (substitute orange or lemon or some combination)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups (200 grams) whole wheat pastry flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. With an electric mixer combine sugar, tahini, butter, lemon juice and lemon zest until smooth. Sift together remaining ingredients, and add to tahini mixture. Once combined, the mixture will look a bit crumbly.

Roll the dough into balls approximately 1 inch in diameter. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and flatten slightly. These cookies will spread out a bit, so leave some room between them.

Bake for 15-18 minutes, until the cookies are slightly browned at the edges. Let cool for a bit on the sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Saucier...Of Sorts

I believe that it is vital for one's mental health to eat well at dinner during the week. After a long day at work, a (possibly) uninspired lunch and a commuting experience which resembles that of a sardine in a can, one must treat oneself.

And although take-out certainly has its place, and when I crave the yook gae jang from the Korean place in my neighborhood I won't deny myself, in general I don't find eating out of styrofoam containers on my living room floor to be particularly soul satisfying.

So what's a busy working girl to do? How to elevate a quick weeknight dinner above the merely pedestrian? Sauce, that's how. On anything from meat to broiled chicken to fish to pasta. You will not recognize your forlorn little chicken breast once anointed.

I have recently become rather obsessed with tahini, perhaps because I finally found a brand that I like? I'm telling you, I love it almost as much as I love peanut butter, which is saying something. Mixed with some grated garlic (I like a lot), salt, lemon juice and as much water as necessary to get the consistency that you prefer, tahini sauce punches up lamb, chicken and just about anything else it comes in contact with.

My mom turned me onto Mark Bittman's sauce for swordfish (but really, put it on anything you like) recently, and I've been a fan ever since.

A 1/4 cup of olive oil, 3 tablespoons of Dijon mustard, 1/4 cup minced shallots, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, 2 tablespoons lemon juice combined with salt and pepper to taste will have even the most avowed fish haters chowing down. And do not neglect your potatoes...they benefit greatly from a drizzle (or more) of this lovely concoction.

If all of this chopping and mixing and juicing is more than you feel up to, I have another option for you. A perfect fried egg. Once you cut into the yolk the beautiful golden matter will adorn whatever you are eating with the most perfect sauce in existence. Nature has been good to us, no?

(bulgar with tuna sauce and harissa)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New(ish) Beginnings

I'm not one for New Year's resolutions. I've never been particularly attached to the idea of New Year's Eve (something about being told that you must be festive is off-putting to me), so I suppose my ambivalence towards the other traditions surrounding the holiday is no surprise. It just doesn't seem natural to me to embark on new life-changing endeavors in the midst of the dark and the cold. Perhaps Easter would be a better time? The weather is certainly more encouraging and the holiday is, after all, premised on the idea of a rebirth.

However, there is something I like about the change from the old year to the new. The focus seems to change...we begin to look forward to spring rather than to holidays, we spend weeks reconnecting with friends that we have missed during the last few weeks of December and there is a feeling of purity of sorts that comes with writing the new year on documents and checks and such.

And although I'm in no mood for vast lifestyle changes, I do love the idea of slight tune-ups, which perhaps will engender effortless positive evolution in time. Sort of a "fake it 'til you make it" philosophy.

For instance, my lovely new coat will hopefully result in an effortlessly chic wardrobe,

my new delightfully warm gloves will perhaps encourage a renewed dedication to good grooming habits,

and my new grown-up version of a lunch box will presumably encourage healthy meals and more frequent visits to one of my absolute favorite stores, Kiosk, which carries this charming (Portguese, I'm told) contraption.

And so far my little scheme seems to be working. As I write this I'm sitting in a clean, organized apartment listening to the great growler Mr. Tom Waits with my beloved on a cozy winter's eve. And, after a restorative brunch with some long lost friends earlier today, I'm happily anticipating a robust pasta dinner. Delicious. All of it.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Men in My Life

Someone once observed that I tend to talk a lot about how my mom has influenced my views on food, and what about my dad? It's an excellent question, and as I mulled it over I realized that my dad has had a particularly important food influence upon me: he instilled in me a profound love of breakfast.

(Dad's famous mushroom and cheese scramble with tea, Acme bread and bacon, 2009)

My mom is often content with a bit of cereal or toast in the morning, but my dad prepares what often amounts to a multi-course meal. Orange juice, always. Tea, nursed lovingly for (now that he is retired) hours on end. Often a dish that includes an egg or two. Or, and I think this may be his greatest innovation, toast with hippie peanut butter with wheat germ mixed in. It is the most amazing won't be hungry for hours. And he is a dedicated preparer of the Sunday Morning Breakfast, a meal to which I always looked forward growing up and a tradition I have (semi-faithfully) maintained as an adult.

But his food philosophies are not confined to the morning hours, rather they apply throughout the day:

- a dinner is not complete without a salad
- parmesan cheese makes everything better
- white rice is repugnant but brown is sublime
- a day without hummus is not worth living

I can't say that I've wholeheartedly embraced all of these, but I do keep a hunk of parmesan in my fridge at all times and am rarely caught without a stash of brown rice...

While I'm on the topic of the men in my life and their food views, here are a few of my grandpa's gems as well. The man (also a dedicated and very talented breakfast maker/eater...he has absolutely perfected the fried ham/tomato/egg combo) still has brown hair at the age of 90-something so you'd do well to listen up:

- a martini a day keeps the doctor away
- Pinwheel cookies are a pantry staple
- do not fear bacon fat
- include an avocado in all dinner salads
- dinner plates should always be warmed prior to use

And Paul's contribution to my culinary evolution? His closely held belief that whatever the question, Indian food is always the answer.

So there you have it, my varied and wonderful Y chromosome food heritage.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Family Home

One of the things that I love about going home is, well...home. My parents have lived in the same house since 1981, and over the years it has come to reflect who they are and what my family holds dear. Each time I come in the front door after being away (as I did just a few weeks ago) I feel as though I'm walking into a familial embrace.

The kitchen is probably where I spent most of my waking hours at home growing up. The day always began with a fortifying cup of tea

(Mom and Dad's tea stash, 2009)

which I suppose explains my enduring dedication to the morning ritual of the teapot.

There were always recipes to try out and ingredients available to make them,

(the dry goods and cookbook wall, 2009)

and plenty of implements at hand, ready to be employed in culinary service.

(the most highly trafficked kitchen countertop, 2009)

The nightly family dinner was a tradition that was adhered to faithfully,

(Christmas roast, Christmas 2009)

to which I attribute my family's general functionality and affection for one another. And accommodations were always made for whatever food regimes my sister and I were trying out at the time (although my sister has been vegan for more than a decade now so I suppose she's past the "try out" phase).

(Christmas tofu, Christmas 2009)

Fauna have always been welcomed, from the ever-present cats

(Zazie and Abby, 2009)

to the birds which my parents feed religiously (with three different types of bird feeders, meant for three different categories of bird),

(Mom and Dad's front yard, 2009)

to the butterflies they attract through strategic choices of flowering plant in the garden.

And of course the fauna is no less important, not only outside (and there is a lot of outside), but inside as well.

(an amaryllis and Christmas Cactus, kitchen, 2009)

(an extraordinarily prolific vine, kitchen, 2009)

Music was always encouraged,

(my sister's cello and sheet music, 2009)

travel was always endorsed,

(spare bedroom bookshelf, 2009)

and the mementos from such travels are kept at hand, to serve as reminders of adventures past.

(an oil lamp from Turkey, standing in as a mistletoe holder, 2009)

Nostalgia for earlier days is appreciated,

(my Sassy magazines from the 1990s, which my mom has kindly retained, 2009)

and above all, family. Relatives of today,

(Mom and Dad's dresser, 2009)

relatives of yesteryear,

(Mom and Dad's hallway, 2009)

and the things that they treasured

(holiday table set with grandma's linen and silver, embroidered and engraved with a "K" for her married name, and with great grandma's china, 2009)

are never far from mind, eye or heart.

Here's wishing you all a new year filled with the love and happiness of your families.
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