Monday, January 31, 2011

Genius in Tomato

Wall of passata at Eataly

When it comes to home cooking, there's not much new and different to discover.  It's all pretty much been done by the many generations that came before.  Of course, the Microplane changed everyone's life for the better a few years back, and the rice cooker was quite a revelation for me once I got over my snobbery and finally took it down out of the cabinet to try it out, but these are rare occurrences.  Usually as a home cook I just go along, happy to find nothing more than a new cheese that I enjoy melting on toast.

But the other day I came across something new and exciting enough (to me) to put a bit of a spring in my step.  Have you heard of passata before?  Usually packed in tall thick bottles, it is essentially tomato puree.  I don't know if the puree is a more pleasing texture or taste than what you normally find in cans, or if I just like the packaging better than a can (love being able to dump out a few tablespoons here and there and reseal), but I'm absolutely obsessed.

A recipe calls for a few ripe tomatoes in the dead of winter?  No matter, throw in a bit of passata.  It gives the color and taste of tomato without having to deal with those hard specimens at the supermarket or that unpleasant texture that canned tomatoes often have if you end up biting the wrong part (am I the only one totally grossed out by the remnants of tomato skin and stems?).  It's like summer in a bottle.  And at this time of year, we can use all of the fortifications against winter available.  

Sunday, January 23, 2011

This Time of Year

I seem to forget each year how utterly exhausting January can be.  After lounging around in California for a week and a half at Christmas, working here and there but by no means all day, and taking a few days off back in New York with my beloved for New Year's, spending a full day in the office and then going out for evening activities is terribly difficult.  And somehow every year the days are busier in January than you ever expected they could be, and everyone wants to "catch up after the holidays" so evenings are booked solid.

But at the same time it's bitterly cold outside and all you really want to do is hunker down in cozy clothes under a cozy blanket, eat cozy food and watch movies or perhaps bad wedding reality shows on the WE channel.  Perhaps emerging only if properly dressed to do some outdoor activity in a pristine location as we did last weekend when we went snowshoeing up at the Mohonk Mountain House.

There's a very unique culinary feeling about January...I'm not in the mood for anything elaborate, just satisfying food with few ingredients that can simmer away, untended, as I snuggle down on the couch.  But at the same time, after the excesses of the holidays I'm not looking for anything as serious as braised short ribs or cassoulet...I want something cleansing and nourishing and light.

It is this unique need that develops at specific times of the year that has made me fall in love with Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries (I have already fallen in love with all of his other books after all).

My parents bought it for me some time ago as a gift and I had periodically flipped through it in a rather cursory way, knowing that I liked the book but not really understanding why.

But now that I have pulled it off of the shelf in a more serious way, I see that Mr. Slater's diary about what he ate throughout one year of his life (and the accompanying recipes) is wonderful to cook along to in real time.  Just as I yearn for something hearty yet easily digested on the first day of the new year, so does he, and he provides just the recipe to fill that yearning (an indian scented pumpkin soup in case you are wondering).

One evening when I was looking for something hot (not an unusual desire at this time of year) but easy and clean, I took his lead and threw together a pot of thai scented mussels and was absolutely sated.

The other night I even transgressed and wandered a bit into February to make some chicken (in my case pork, as I could find no reasonably priced ground chicken) patties in broth (served over rice in my case) which were delightfully easy and delicious and homey.

And this evening, in addition to the bulgar with eggplant and mint that I made for dinner tonight and for lunches this week, I was in the mood for something aromatic and sweet, so I immediately flipped to his ginger cake.

And came out with this

which I will not be, as Mr. Slater suggests, letting mature for a day or two.  Rather, I'll be cutting into it in short order, reveling in it's warmth and spice and January-ness.

This cooking alongside a seasonal cook thing may be a full-year endeavor for me...or perhaps when the sun comes out and the warmth comes rushing in I'll lose interest entirely?  I certainly hope not...I'd be missing out on loads of excellent and appealingly easy recipes.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Holiday Lessons Learned

Well well well, there was quite a bit of snow in New York last week.  I of course experienced next to none of it as I was "stranded" in California where the weather was mellow and warm.  Thank goodness Continental couldn't get their act together and I got stuck there for three extra days.

During my enforced vacation I learned quite a few things:

The Black Swan is actually not a lovely movie about ballet, but a terrifying horror movie.  Still I enjoyed it, despite yelping audibly in the theater.  Perhaps it was the makeup that won me over in the end.  That or Natalie Portman's gorgeous performance.

The King's Speech is just as good as everyone says.  If I was in a poncy movie reviewer mood I would say something about it being an elegant portrait of a troubled but deeply good man, and something about the touching friendship that forms between two strangers.

But I'm not so I won't.  I'll just say that Colin Firth is absurdly good and Geoffrey Rush is fabulous as always.

I also learned that Up is an adorable movie, perfect if you are in need of a pick me up.  Who couldn't be charmed by an old man who attaches thousands of balloons to his house in an effort to move it to South America?

Other lessons?  5 Hour Lamb is delicious for Christmas dinner, although 4 hour lamb might be even better.  4 month old nieces are very cute and lots of fun to play with.  There is nothing quite like a slightly dying fire, when the hearth is warm and the fire is not raging so much that one can't sit in front of it.

But most important lesson learned?  Home is the best place to be for the holidays.
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