Saturday, December 31, 2005

A reason to love my town

There are times I hate this town. The sun has not been out in about a week and the gray is beginning to permeate my soul despite my daily attempt at mood alteration via endorphins at the gym.

But there are also times I love this place and this morning my neighbor helped to remind me of why I stick it out through the dark months.

I looked out the window this morning and saw this:
Let's get a little closer:
Yes, that is a dollar bill embedded in the snow on the windshield of the Fembot (aka the minivan).
Upon even closer examination
one can discern the words:
"Brian and Kate
Keep eye out.
1 week.
Happy Holidays!"
written around the edge of the bill.

This is how our neighbor (Jon) asks us to keep an eye on his house while he's down in Florida. One year when we were doing construction and had a big pit where the front door should have been, he tossed a similar dollar bill note down in the hole.

I think this man is brilliant for this alone. Sure, we'd be happy to keep an eye on his house and make sure there aren't any knock-down drag-out parties going on there while he's away (at least not parties that we aren't invited to) and if he'd come to the front door we would have told him so. But getting the request via dollar bill note is so charming and quirky that I'll actually enjoy the process of keeping an eye on his house.

We aren't particularly close with this neighbor--he's a nice enough guy, but on the private side. But somehow, he gets our sense of humor. And that is why I love this town and that is why I live here--the unpretentious quirkiness of the residents is wonderful to behold. It is nice to be living in a place where eccentricity is more than ok, it is appreciated. Even though the sun doesn't shine here for months at a time...

And Brian pointed out that if we collect enough of these dollar notes, maybe we can afford to go to Florida ourselves someday!

Happy New Year to you all, and I hope the coming year provides you and me both with more odd yet appealing moments, and of course, lots of good food, books and yarn.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


That would be the disgruntled sound I made when I finished reading this book:
I thought this book was unappealing and the ending was gimmicky. I'm still not sure what the point was other than to make fun of middle aged men and their self-involved pomposity. I found particularly annoying the sections in which we have to listen to Clive trying to compose his latest symphony. Writing about music is not one of McEwan's strengths and I think it takes an unique author to be able to write about a very visual or auditory art form and not make it dull as cold toast.

Stella assures me that McEwan's Black Dogs is worth reading and I liked Saturday so I'll give it a try. I also haven't read Atonement yet and a number of people I know have praised it.

And now Grumpy Kate would like you to send me some fiction recommendations so that I don't have to start the New Year off reading sucky books.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

'Twas a goofy British Christmas

You can tell we had a pretty good Christmas since it started off with this fellow:
My very own Were-Rabbit figurine with movable arms. He's sitting on the kitchen counter and is approximately the size and shape of a beer-can chicken. Apparently, he is also fond of Cheerio's...

and ended with scenes like this:
Paper crowns and plastic mustache courtesy of the Christmas Crackers. Half-shut eyes and silly look courtesy of a few too many egg nogs with lots of whiskey...

In between the above photos I made a very British meal for my parents, Brian's mom, his cousin Kent, and Kent's hysterical co-worker, Miss Neffel. (Ok, she has a first name, Diane, but I like to call her Miss Neffel.)

Our plates were groaning with piles of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, green beans, Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes.

I made some little appetizer nibbles of cucumber, dilled creme fraiche and Scottish smoked salmon, which did not stick around long enough to pose for a photograph. And we ended the meal with my mom's mince pies (made with homemade vegetarian mincemeat) and whipped cream (also speedily consumed).

There were a few deviations from the British theme. The salad course was not British: baby greens dressed in a terrific orange vinaigrette (recipe below) with orange zest and topped with goat cheese, walnuts and pomegranate seeds.
And Brian's mom brought over a Buche de Noel from Whole Foods that was more chocolate ganache than cake (No complaints here! Bring on the ganache!).

We were all too full and tired by the end of the meal to indulge in the last course, Stilton, pears and port by the fire. So I'll save these for another evening around my parents' fireplace.

Terrific Orange Vinaigrette

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice
1 T Dijon mustard
1 t maple syrup
zest from 1 orange--use an old fashioned zester here so you get strips of zest, not a microplane zester

Put all the ingredients in a jar and shake really hard!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

robot-y goodness

This robot
is looking forward to jumping into this stocking
so he can greet Fiona like this
on Christmas morning.

I had the dickens of a time finishing this robot (from Jess Hutch's fantastic knitted toys booklet) without Fiona noticing since of late she has been imitating a barnacle in her mommy-attachment.

And for those of you who are into noticing the background items in photographs, yes that is a photo of a monkey hugging a cat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

More than the sum of its parts

Ok, I admit that this Pork and Hominy Stew is not an impressive looking dish. Also, it is so simple to make that you might be fooled into thinking that it would also taste basic too. But somehow it combines to become much more than the sum of its parts.

I've made this recipe for many people and while they don't look thrilled when it is first served, once they taste it they almost always want the recipe. And it is such a pleasure to spread the gospel of a dish that is so damn easy to make. If only all recipes delivered so much flavor for so little effort.

Pork and Hominy Stew with Chipotle
adapted from a Mark Bittman Minimalist column

4 Cups canned white or yellow hominy (one 28 oz can or two 14 oz cans)

1 lb boneless pork (shoulder, loin, country ribs, whatever is on sale that week), trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1 inch chunks

1 t dried oregano

1 chipotle in adobe sauce, cut into smallish pieces (I get a can of these and freeze the peppers individually in little ziplock bags. Then I grab one out of the freezer when I make this and chop it up.)

1 T ground cumin

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1 T minced garlic

juice of 1 lime

1 and 1/2 t salt

ground pepper to taste
2 T chopped cilantro

any additional vegetables--canned diced tomatoes, red or yellow pepper strips, zucchini or yellow squash cubes (optional)

Toppings (any or all of the following):

more chopped cilantro

lime wedges
sour cream

avocado chunks

grated sharp cheddar cheese

1. Combine canned hominy with all its liquid, pork, oregano, chipotle, cumin, onion, garlic, lime, salt and pepper in a big pot or slow cooker. Turn heat to medium high. Bring to a boil then adjust heat so mixture simmers steadily. Cook covered until pork is tender, at least an hour, though you can let it simmer at low heat in a crock pot all day (perfect to throw together in about 15 minutes in the morning and then dinner is ready when you walk in the door).

2. About 15 minutes before serving, add additional of the optional vegetables.

3. Stir in chopped cilantro just before serving. Ladle into bowls and let diners customize their bowl with the assorted toppings (or go ahead and be a dictator and make them all have the avocado/sour cream combo--my personal favorite).

4. Stand back and let the praise for this humble looking and terrific tasting dish rain down on you. Hand out copies of the recipe.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Spaghetti Monster Tree Topper

Last night our home came under invasion.
This Spaghetti Monster flew into our kitchen, circled around a few times and then chose to land
on the top of our Christmas Tree.
There he stayed, waving his noodly appendages and
muttering in Spaghetti lingo about pirates and climate change.

He is not the first spaghetti monster to decide that the top of a Christmas Tree is a good place to put forth his message. But he may be the first of the knitted noodly brethren.

Construction Instructions:

FSM was made from a few miles (exaggeration) of 4-stitch knitted I-cord on size 8 dp needles and Lion Brand Wool-Ease cream yarn. The I-cord was tacked on a knitted stuffed sphere made of the same yarn. His meatballs are knitted stuffed spheres made with Lion Brand Suede yarn (it isn't easy to find meaty-colored yarn out there...). Two google eyes were attached to lightly wired eye-noodles and a few of the noodly appendages also were wired with jewelry wire so they could wave and wiggle effectively.

Friday, December 16, 2005

An Odd Fellow

This "Odd Fellow" is sitting in our living room. He's from Jess Hutch's incredibly fun toy booklet.

Fiona took him for a test flight
and found him flight worthy.

Now here's the predicament in which I find myself: This Odd Fellow would be perfect for my sister, the psychologist, who god knows has to deal with many a less friendly odd fellow professionally. I knit him with her in mind and keep picturing him sitting in a drawer of her desk ready to smile at her after an encounter with a particularly difficult patient.

And the more I look at the cursed sweater, the less I am inclined to send it to her. My dear sister is just not an olive kind of gal and the sleeves of the sweater are very, very olive.

But for some reason I feel like a shit to send her the toy I intentionally knit for her and not the sweater that I intentionally knit for myself but which doesn't fit and which I previously declared I'd give her since it would probably fit her. (There are other things in her Christmas box--the book of the moment, Fallen, a box of dark chocolate covered glaceed apricots, a great T-shirt from Threadless and the socks I already knit for her, so it isn't a question of getting just a little toy or a sweater.)

Here's the thing that will decide it: does anyone think I can salvage the sweater for my own use (as it was intended) by doing some particularly forceful blocking? I already blocked it once, but I'm a half-assed blocker and I didn't tug and stretch the hell out of the sweater. Expert blockers, please chime in on how you'd approach such a problem--technique, tips, or just the painful truth that I should give up while I'm ahead and send it to my sister since it'll never work and I shouldn't go through making the whole damn house smell like a wet sheep again.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

I've fallen for "Fallen"

I finished Fallen today and wowza what a book.

The author, David Maine, chose to tell the bulk of the novel through Cain's and Eve's points of view. Choosing two flawed and troubled characters made the book far more interesting than if characters like Abel and Adam were telling their side of it. There are brief forays into Abel's and Adam's points of view but the bulk of the novel is through the lens of Cain and Eve.

As I've said here before, I'm a sucker for re-tellings of classics whether it be Greek literature and myths or, in this case, the Bible. In both of Maine's books (this one and The Preservationist) he takes a few verses from the bible and expands them into a full novel. And the voice in both books is curiously contemporary in its wit and wry observations, yet it doesn't distract from the biblical setting. Here is one of my favorite scenes--the Temptation of Eve in the garden:

--But I'm perfectly happy with the way things are.
--Are you? Are you really?
Eve hesitated.
--What did you do yesterday? demanded the serpent.
She frowned--I...walked along the river. I was looking for--yes, I was collecting mushrooms, which we ate. Also berries.
Eve brindled.--There's nothing wrong with staying alive.
--Certainly not. And the day before?
The day before yesterday was identical to the one that followed, as they both knew. And the one before that...
The snake watched her mockingly and Eve felt herself growing defensive.--We have all we need here.
--Oh sure, murmured the snake. Somehow, sans shoulders, it still managed a shrug. --There's a great appeal to being comfortable. If that's what you want, I won't argue. Go on then. Keep it up. Off with you! There's a lovely patch of berries just behind this clearing.
Eve didn't move.
--Better get them before the bunnies do.
Eve didn't move.
Suddenly the serpent's voice modulated. It no longer mocked, but spoke in gentle earnest tones.--The power of creation will lie within you, woman. That's what your God fears. What He doesn't want you to know.
Eve didn't move.
--Wouldn't that be preferable to wandering naked all day, plucking fruit and shitting by the river?
She had to admit, the creature had a point.--But it is forbidden.
--Only because of fear. Your God is afraid to treat you as an equal. Who knows what His plans are for you here? Or maybe there is no plan other than your remaining forever just as you are.
The serpent's voice drops to a whisper.--Day after day after day after day.
Admittedly Eve had felt such misgivings before.--The power of creation you say?
--Oh yes, purred the serpent. --You will carry it about with you and it will spring forth from your belly at your command.
Which, in a manner of speaking, would turn out to be the case.

There are so many intense emotions in this book--lust, jealousy, confusion, love, sympathy, regret--and I found the process of reading it to be so rich as to make me have to ration myself to a chapter or so at a time, or else I felt glutted with the intensity of the prose. And the reverse chronology demands that as soon as you finish the book, you have to go back to the beginning and read it again.

Most interestingly, for a work based on the Bible, I felt that the main message was incredibly humanistic--while characters have encounters with God their happiness and misery come down to day to day routines and how they live with the people around them. Their perceptions of each other and what they learn from their interactions left me feeling an affirmation of humanity's basic goodness.

For a book to get "Winter Kate" (who hasn't seen the sun in about 2 weeks and noticed that it is supposed to snow 4-6 more inches today) to say something positive about humanity at this time of year is a major accomplishment though my guess is David Maine will not be putting a quote like this on the paperback edition: "This book even made sun-deprived, cynical and bitter Winter-Kate feel OK about the Human Race for a brief moment of time!"

And now that I'm done with the book, I'll go slink back into my cave of doom....

Friday, December 09, 2005

They are watching me....

Last night nature decided to play a cruel joke on me and dumped 5 inches of snow on us thus causing the schools to call a snow day. I was counting on school to give me a brief break from one of my intense kids on the last full day of what has felt like a marathon of solo-parenting while my better half is off on a 9 day work trip. (I know, there are single parents out there who do this all the time and I think they are saints and can not figure out how they stay sane.)

Despite having three different types of chocolates open and available (still a few dark chocolate covered glaceed apricots left after yesterday's knitting fiasco, some truffles, and chocolate covered English toffee) and two open boxes of cookies (all butter shortbread and some of those little chocolate slabbed LU Petit Ecolier biscuits) I felt the need to make cookies it complete parental burn-out or just a sugar desire that is making up for (ahem) "something else" lacking in my life the past 9 days.

After a small amount of kid involvement (resulting in an inordinate number of poppy seeds hitting the floor) we produced these:
Poppy seed thumbprint cookies

They are pretty tasty cookies, despite the fact that they came from Eating Well magazine which usually has baked goods recipes that taste like cardboard. They aren't that healthy since they still contain a full stick of butter and a cup of powdered sugar, which is probably why they taste pretty good. There's some whole wheat flour in them which gives them a nutty taste (without nuts) and I used some homemade cherry jam in the dents which combined nicely with the lemon zest in the not-too-sweet cookie base. My major gripe about most of the holiday cookies made this time of year is that they are too sweet and make my teeth itch and my blood sugar spike alarmingly (sugar cookies with icing and sprinkles??? AAAGGGG!) These little cookies leave me itchless and (relatively) stable.

But there is something a little creepy about them--take a look at the photo below:
I can't shake the feeling that they are all eyeballs (rabid and bloodshot, at that) and that, like Mona Lisa's gaze, they follow me around the room.

The sharp sighted among you might have noticed the beverage accompaniment lurking in the background of the above photo and maybe, just maybe, I should have been drinking tea instead of wine at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and which presumably wouldn't have resulted in being freaked out by my own cookies. (Maybe the opiates in the poppy seeds combined with the tannins in the wine to create the hallucination--Yeah! It was the poppy seeds fault!)
But it was such a nice wine...and it went pretty well with the cookies!

So if you too feel the need to bake some eyeballs, er, cookies, here is the recipe:

Sorta Healthy Poppy Seed Thumbprint Cookies
adapted from
Eating Well magazine

1 2/3 C whole wheat flour

1 C all purpose flour

2 T poppy seeds

1/2 t salt

1/2 C unsalted butter (1 stick), softened

1/2 t vanilla
1/2 C canola oil
1 C powdered sugar

1 egg

fresh grated zest from 1 lemon

about 1/3-1/2 C jam, preferably sour cherry

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
  2. Whisk together first 4 dry ingredients in a bowl.
  3. In another bowl, use an electric mixer and beat butter, oil and sugar until creamy (mine was still a little runny). Add egg, lemon zest and vanilla and beat a little longer.
  4. Stir in dry ingredients until combined into a sturdy dough.
  5. Make small balls with the dough (about 1 T) and put them on a silpat or parchment lined baking sheet.
  6. Press your thumb (or the thumb of any available kid who has washed their hands since they like this part) into the center to make the dent and put about 1/2 t of jam in the dent.
  7. Bake for 30-35 minutes until firm and lightly brown. Cool on a rack.
  8. Pour yourself a large glass of red wine, eat a couple of cookies and then let me know if the rest of the cookies are watching you as you stumble around the room consuming their brethren. Maybe yours will be more polite and avert their gaze.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


You'd think this would be a day where I'd be giddy with happiness, skipping down the street, singing ditties and indulging in other nauseating displays of joy since I finally finished this:
Instead I'm feeling incredibly pissy since the damn thing doesn't fit. Somehow when planning to make this sweater for myself I forgot that I have really broad shoulders. I picked my size based on my (modest) bust measurement, added a few inches on the sleeves since I have long arms but entirely forgot that my shoulders would need more room than, say, a normally proportioned woman. (Too bad the pattern didn't have a subset of how to alter it for your own freakity freak figure flaws. Say that four times fast.)

So now I present to you:
My sister's Christmas Present!

My sister has a much finer bone structure than I do and she's thinner too so I'm guessing this will fit perfectly. And it'll go great with all the size 8 pre-pregnancy pants I finally admitted will never fit me again and gave her. Of course, they all fit her flawlessly.

However to truly suit my sister, I think I should make this sweater a little more feminine. (This is the sweater I made her last year for Christmas. Note the purpley- pink crochet edging and mother of pearl flower-shaped buttons.) I'm a little on the utilitarian/scruffy side when it comes to clothing, but my sister can pull off stuff that is a bit more decorative. As I haven't yet put in the zipper I bought for it, I'm wondering if anyone has ideas on a different, more feminine fastening. I'm thinking maybe some tiny hooks and eyes running all the way up it might look nice, unless they proved to be a pain in the ass. Or I could cover the seed stitch plackets with some sort of ribbon and attach snaps up the front.

Ideas, anyone?

And meanwhile, to comfort myself on this cold grey day (a perfect day for wearing above cardigan I might note) I'm opening up thebox of dark chocolate covered glaceed apricots that I found at Trader Joe's the other day. (If I eat the whole box, then my sister will most likely get my current size 10 pants too and I'll just wander around pants-less, sweater-less and crazy as a loon.)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Free to a good home

I did some cleaning out of the limited book shelf space in the house and am offering the following books, free to a good home:
The pile on the left is fiction and contains:
The Far Euphrates by Aryeh Lev Stollman
by Carol Shields
The Virgin Blue
by Tracy Chevalier
Around Again by Suzanne Strempek Shea
The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kid
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier
Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey

The pile on the right is non-fiction and contains:
The Mother's Almanac
Your Baby and Child

What to Expect the Toddler Years

and one book that didn't make it into the picture:
Food For Little Fingers by Victoria Jenest

Of the above, the only two I can really recommend are Unless and Eva Moves the Furniture (though I did read the latter when highly hormonal, and thus possibly more whacked out than usual, after Fiona's birth). I didn't read The Far Euphrates or Around Again though, so they may be perfectly decent books that I just didn't warm up to in the first few pages. Food for Little Fingers might be ok for people with toddlers though the recipes didn't work with my kids. Right now I'm fed up with parenting books though I'd say Your Baby and Child could be fine for a new parent who wants a basic reference.

If you are a writer, I think that reading the two Chevalier books and The Secret Life of Bees can be an interesting exercise. I think all three are seriously flawed novels which made it into print, and Bees has been incredibly popular with book groups (for all the wrong reasons, in my humble opinion). As a writer who someday would like to publish some of my fiction work, I learned a lot about what I don't want a book of mine to do by reading these three books.

If you are local and want any of these I can leave them on your doorstep or you can pick them up from mine. If you are far away and want to pay the postage, I'll be heading to the post office to mail x-mas gifts in the next week or so and could shlep it off to you.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Educational Eating

My son has been introduced to educational eating at Kindergarten. No nutritional value, mind you, but his teacher used food as a tool for understanding science subjects, in this case geology.

I present to you,
Jello Sedimentary Rock!
His class has been studying geology in his class (Geology! In kindergarten! They spent 2 months on it and just moved on to studying Kenya) and to get the kids to understand how sedimentary rock is made in layers over time, his teacher made Jello sedimentary rock (the above photo is of our version--the one they did in school had a different top layer). It took a whole week for them to make it which, in Kindergarten terms, is a hell of a long time, though Heidi explained that real sedimentary rock takes a lot longer to make.

On the first day they made the bottom layer--red magma; the second day they put down the middle layer--yellow with chunks of fruit in it to mimic a composite layer (or maybe a granite intrusion with the peaches being feldspar and the pears being the quartzite?); the third day they put down a layer of graham cracker crumbs (sand or sand stone); the fourth day they put down a layer of blue Jello mixed up with Kool Whip to imitate a glacier. And on the fifth day they ate it!

The kids even got to experiment with fault lines (mostly strike-slip type faults) as Jello rock is not terribly stable.

Ian was so excited by this whole project that we had to make it at home too. We couldn't find blue Jello so we mixed up our graham cracker crumbs with green Jello and made a dirt and grass top layer.

It tasted pretty disgusting, but Ian was proud as punch explaining the concept to all of us after dinner so we choked it down.

Monday, November 28, 2005

A curious silence....

I should explain the silence that settled over this blog on the eve of Thanksgiving. Most of the food blogs I read have been hopping with Thanksgiving recipes, discussions of turkey techniques and the like.

The reason for my silence? I dislike pretty much every traditional Thanksgiving food.

See why I kept my mouth shut before the holiday? I didn't want to spoil the fun for all the folks who love this holiday. Hating Thanksgiving foods seems to cast me as a Benedict Arnold sort of person. I think the sentiments of the holiday are lovely, but I don't understand why the blandest, mushiest, sweetest, gloppiest foods have come to be what everyone expects, but alas, as I live with some people who look forward to this holiday as a return to the foods of their childhood and a break from my kinda cooking, I stand back and let them all be happy while I nibble a brussel sprout or two.

Sure I can chew my way through a slice of roast turkey, that's a pretty basic form of protein and in and of itself, inoffensive. But almost every other food that people like to serve I don't care for (and some I downright despise). They include: stuffing in every form (yes, I've tried it with oysters, cornbread, sausage, and/or chestnuts. I didn't like any of them.), sweet potatoes that have been candied or glazed or marshmallowed (I like sweet potatoes in savory forms--preferably with lots of garlic), mashed potatoes (prefer them roasted), gravy (oil slick), green bean casserole (glop glop), cranberry jelly (I do love fresh cranberry relish of which my sister made a superb variety this year--see recipe below), and pumpkin pie (prefer apple pie or some other pumpkin concoction like pumpkin cheese cake or pumpkin bread pudding).

But now that the holiday is over and I won't ruin any one else's dinner with my sentiments, I feel free to vent them. I made roasted sweet potato fries with smoked Spanish paprika and an apple pie, so there were two things that I did like at the dinner (they were not terribly popular with other people, but hey, they had plenty of other food to choose from.)

There was one superstar at our family thanksgiving meal and he is pictured below:
This is Theo the Basenji, a turkey-lover extraordinaire and now known as "Theo my hero"

Theo is my sister's dog and he is a little love. Being a bark-less breed has its pluses but it also means he can sneak around quite effectively without anyone noticing.

We had closed the baby/pet gate that leads to the basement in order to give our cat, Jojo, a little peace since Theo also excels at cat-harassment. But a gate is nothing to a Basenji who smells turkey. My better half brought home an enormous mound of turkey from the family meal (held at my parent's house) and stashed it in the beer fridge in the basement. He had wisely stocked up on two cases of nice beer so that he and Chris could anesthetize themselves against any familial tensions and putting the turkey next to so much beer must have made him a very happy man.

Unfortunately after one basement beverage run, someone left the beer fridge door open a crack and that crack must have allowed the seductive scent of roast turkey to waft up the stairs and be detected by Theo's fine sniffer.

Theo was discovered on the next basement beverage run sitting in front of the fridge burping. He wormed his way under the gate (something our cat can't do--he jumps over the top) and proceeded right to the tray of turkey and ate it all. The crazy thing is his tummy wasn't pooched out even a tiny bit but my sister reported there were stinky turkey farts coming from Theo her entire long drive back to Syracuse.

Oh dear. I tried to make facial expressions approximating sympathy for my crestfallen turkey-less husband, but it wasn't easy.

(For a hilarious story of a Thanksgiving misadventure of a different sort, go to Sara Donati's blog entry.)

And now the recipe for the fantastic cranberry relish that my sister made which most definitely will not appeal to traditionalists:

Martha Stewart's Cranberry Orange Relish
Makes 2 cups (my sister must have quadrupled the recipe since she made tons. And it was terrific the next day too)

2 cups fresh cranberries
1/4 diced red onion
1 large jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
2 T fresh lime juice
2 navel oranges, peeled, sectioned, and cut into 1/4 inch pieces, juice reserved
2 t fresh grated ginger
1/2 C sugar
2 stalks celery cut into 1/4 inch dice
1/4 C fresh mint leaves coarsely chopped
1/4 C toasted pecans chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Put cranberries in a food processor and chop coarsely. Combine with other ingredients in a large bowl and stir. Refridgerate for at least 1 hour and up to a day.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Authorial predicament

I finished Margot Livesey's Banishing Verona last night. The whole way through the book I wanted to like it (and there were parts that were quite good) but something kept me from embracing it. I enjoyed one of Livesey's other novels Eva Moves the Furniture and hoped that this one would prove to be a good read too. (I must confess that I read Eva shortly after Fiona was born and to say that the subject matter--a daughter, a dead mother--and my hormonal state--giddy yet crying at dopey stuff like a lightbulb commercial--combined to make me a highly subjective reader. So I can't say for sure if it was actually a decent book now.)

First the picky little crap of which I may be more unforgiving than most readers (see my rantings about Pope Groan). I'm not sure why inaccuracies or authorial ignorance piss me off so much--it may have to do with my unreasonable worship of certain authors and my hope that each book I read will prove the author worthy of worship, or it may be that I am jarred from a story more easily than many readers when I find factual inaccuracies or improbabilties.

Picky bit #1
Zeke is described as a meticulous painter--someone who channels his obsessive personality into his job--so you believe that he is probably the best gosh darn house painter out there. But then the author ruins it by writing about the painting process with loads of errors.

For example, Zeke spackles at the same time as he paints (gotta wait a day for the spackle to dry), he paints unwashed walls (a no no as far as paint adhesion goes--need that TSP to roughen up the old paint and to get any greasy hand prints off), and he doesn't cut in, just starts painting smack dab in the middle of a wall (you do the edges first, particularly the edges where the walls and ceiling meet or where there is trim). Anyone who has painted a room knows that the incredibly boring prep work--wash, spackle, sand, tape--takes way more time than the actual painting.

Maybe if you choose to make one of your main characters a house painter you should take the time to, say, paint a room in your own house so you know what you are talking about.

Picky bit #2
At one point she says that a minor character has a blue dot on his throat which was the leftover tattoo from his chemotherapy for Hodgkins. However, the tiny blue dot is the tattoo used during radiation treatment, not during chemo, so that the radiologist aims each time at precisely the right spot. If you just had chemo, no dot. If they used radiation on the lymphoma, then you have a dot. This is the kind of thing I expect outside readers (one of whom was Andrea Barrett who I love!) and editors to catch.

Picky bit #3
A moment of complete improbability: When Verona faints in a hotel in Boston, she has an American hotel clerk order "tea and toast" for Verona. That's a totally British thing to do (which reminds me, I must write sometime about the British penchant for toast which goes way beyond the realm of reasonable for such a humble food). It would be ok if Verona (who is English) had asked for tea and toast to comfort herself. But having an American hotel clerk order it is so unlikely as to make me snort.

The Big Complaint and the Author's Predicament
A normal reader might be able to forgive all of the above gripes if the rest of the book was fine, but unfortunately I had a problem in that I didn't believe in one of the main characters--Zeke. The author refers to his "condition" and his "breakdowns" and clearly implies Aspergers Syndrome (a very high functioning form of Autism). But she adopts some of the easier aspects of the syndrome (obsessions with numbers, inability to recognize faces, lack of awareness of social behaviors) but leaves out anything thing that would really make Zeke unappealing. He comes across as quirky and charmingly honest rather than someone who is really struggling with something substantial.

I suspect that the author fell for one of her own characters and that Zeke is shown through the rosy haze of an authorial crush. Unfortunately, this has the effect of flattening his character--I do think that a character's flaws often are what make them interesting.

So what do you think an author should do when they find themselves in this predicament? How do you make a character appealing and still flawed?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A birthday dinner

You probably figured out what the photo of the phlegm colored gunk in the bowl in the last post was: that was my contribution to the pistachio gelato tasting. (We all now know why most frozen pistachio confections add a little bit of green dye...) I made the Southern Italian version (all milk, no eggs), Sarah made the Central Italian version (no cream but 7 egg yolks) and John made the Northern Italian version (9 egg yolks plus a bit of cream).

The gelato tasting was the conclusion to a birthday dinner for John which, other than my kids having total melt-downs near the end, was a lovely evening. For the tasting, we sent Sarah's Brian (Brian P.) into the kitchen to prepare the tasting bowls and only he knew the identity of the different scoops (one scoop was marked with a cookie, one with a little stick of un-cooked spaghetti, and the other was plain--very clever, that Brian).
And then we all dug in and tried to determine which scoop was which recipe. Sarah got all three right and I got all three wrong....As Brian P. remarked, what business do I have writing about food when I can't even determine the presence or absence of a sizeable quantity of egg yolk!?

Seriously, they all were good, but I'm amazed that I mistook my recipe (the lowest in fat--just whole milk in there) with John's high fat recipe. I really thought it tasted the creamiest!

We all decided that we need to do this again, next time with three chocolate gelato recipes (we'll have to standardize the brand of chocolate and cocoa used) since the texture of the pistachio gelatos was a bit bumpy with all those ground up nuts in there. Maybe the mouth-feel of something that is supposed to be smooth will prove to be more revealing of the recipe source. And I think I can locate the three recipe variations.

The rest of the meal was delicious, too. I made the starter, Swiss chard and prosciutto stuffed ravioli with a tomato cream sauce. (The chard and tomatoes were the final produce from my garden--bye bye garden, till next year.)
The recipe was from a recent issue of Gourmet and unfortunately it hasn't been added to the Epicurious recipe site yet. I followed the recipe with one exception--I felt compelled to grate a little lemon zest into the ravioli filling (there was also sauteed onion, ricotta, Parmesan, egg yolk and nutmeg) and I'm glad I added that little tweak because I thought it saved the dish from excessive richness and gave it a little lift. This time I followed the step by step instructions for making the pasta and it turned out much more elastic and springy than my previous (neglectful) attempts. Key to getting the spring in the dough was a much slower incorporation of the flour into the eggs. I've been pretty slap-dash in the past and thus the dough wasn't kneaded as well as it should have been.

Sarah made a terrific Portuguese chicken soup for the main course.
It was served with the fabulous sofrito pictured in the foreground above--annatto seeds, peppers, garlic, etc. Combined with the rich chicken and rice soup, it made for a perfect cold weather meal. Sarah promised to send me the recipe so I will post it soon.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

book thoughts, knitting progress and a food teaser

I haven't done a book or knitting post in a while (I'm thinking maybe I should re-title this blog "One Big Obsession (FOOD) and Three Others...) so here's an update (and for those of you who are equally food obsessed, there's a food teaser at the end).

I'm almost done with David Maine's Fallen--It is a terrific book but something is keeping me from gobbling this up. It isn't just the desire to prolong a good book, instead I think it is the content of the story--the fall of Adam and Eve--and the reverse storytelling that has created a sense of doom. You know that things are not going to get better for the characters because they are going back to the pivotal moment when they get thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Because the story is so familiar, the craft of the writing, how the story is told, is much more pronounced. And the writing is remarkable--the characters are vivid, the writing is lean and there are wonderful moments of humor amidst a very painful story of family strife and the challenges of faith. I will have to go back and re-read the "end" of the story (the first chapter) as soon as I finish the "beginning" (the last chapter).

The reverse storytelling mode has fascinated me ever since I read Charles Baxter's First Light (one of my favorite novels) and I'm wondering if I can try my hand at it with a story that I started long ago, set in rural Michigan in the 1930's that was inspired by a series of snapshots that a friend found in an antique store. Maybe I'll scan in the photos and post them here.

I finished Stories of Happy People by Lars Gustafsson last week and I'm finding the title of the collection puzzling--I can't figure out in what tone it is intended to be read. It certainly isn't the Happy Happy Joy Joy (thanks Ren and Stimpy) mode, but there are moments of beauty and living in the present that make me think the title isn't merely ironic. Most of the stories certainly aren't about traditional happiness so I'm wondering if I'm simply not in tune with the Swedish sensibility to understand all the stories. Some are quirky, some I had trouble focusing on what was going on, but I absolutely loved one story, "Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases" which is the most elegant story I've ever read about a retarded boy. The end of the story gives me shivers every time I think of it.

I also finished Fire Along the Sky by Sara Donati which is Book 4 in the Wilderness Series. She's finishing up book 5 now, so I'll have a bit of a lull before continuing. A thoroughly enjoyable read and I'm beginning to recognize characters and events that will appear in Donati's future novels of the series. I'd bet money on the character of Major Wyndham, who briefly appeared in this book, being a major player in book 5. I'm amazed by the author's degree of planning--this always blows me away in series books. Harry Potter comes to mind as another example of how the author includes small references in each book that she knows will be developed and picked up in future books--how in the hell did Donati or Rowling know with book 1 that there would be other books? Did they set out to write a certain number of books in the series? I'm trying to wrap my brain around the kind of organized series mapping they must do, not to mention all the scene and character mapping in each individual book.

And now for a little knitting--finally, a finished object:
This is a pair of socks I knit as a gift for a special person for Christmas. I like the colors, but I'm pretty annoyed with the yarn. I used knitpicks Parade in the Plum colorway. I love the pair of socks I made with their Sock Memories yarn, but as they must be hand washed, I thought that would make a pain-in-the-ass gift, so I chose one of their washable wool sock yarns.

My main complaint is with the yardage--I don't have big feet (8.5) and I do think that one skein of sock yarn should make one sock. These are pretty short socks, about 4 inches above the ankle, and I barely had enough to finish them. The yarn also had a tendency to split. I won't be buying it again.

And a work in progress:
This is the very promising beginning of one of Jess Hutch's knitted robots. This guy will be poking out of Fiona's stocking on Christmas morning. He's knit solely with stash yarn--Knitpicks Wool of the Andes in Mist (grey) and Fern (olive green) and Elann Peruvian Alpaca (doubled) for the purple and blue. I can see knitting a whole army of these guys.

And now for the Food teaser--today's task is to transform this:
and this:
into an appetizer and dessert respectively. Can anyone guess what they are going to be?

Today is John's birthday and we are gathering at Sarah and Brian's house this evening for a fitting birthday dinner. Photos and details will follow soon.

Friday, November 11, 2005

gelato answers!

Behold! The New York Times has solved my gelato conundrum!

In their November 6, 2005 special magazine Living section (which is primarily about food--a definition of "living" with which I heartily approve) in a one page article titled Molto Pistachio, the writer Jill Santopietro explains the variations of what is called gelato in Italy by demonstrating how the recipe for pistachio gelato varies by region:

"In Italy, gelato varies as much from maker to maker as it does from region to region. Sicilians have long been renowned for lighter gelato made with milk and no eggs. In 16th-century Tuscany, Bernardo Buontalenti, the Medicis' architect, is said to have popularized gelato made with a sweetened milk-and-egg custard. And in northern Italy, where dairy products are more plentiful, gelato tends to be thicker and richer, with more egg yolks and cream."

So there you have it--milk in the South and increasing quantities of cream and eggs appear as you move further North. Why couldn't all the books about frozen desserts that I've combed for an explanation provide such a concise explanation? Thank you, Jill.

I'm going to make the kind that is all milk (no eggs or cream) to see how it compares with all the other frozen desserts I've made which have all had an egg (or egg yolk) custard base. The milk only recipe has two tablespoons of cornstarch in it, which is what many people use to make pudding without eggs or cream (which, if we are on a defining kick, is probably what differentiates "pudding" from "custard"). My friend Deb (Saul, the future chef's mama) has a fine version of chocolate pudding that I've been lucky enough to sample that is made this way and I'm hoping that the gelato equivalent will be intensely flavorful without being nauseatingly rich.

If any other (local) person would like to make the central Italian version (7 egg yolks) and/or the northern Italian version (9 egg yolks and 1/3 C cream), I'd love to do a side by side comparison. Drop me a line if you are interested and I'll e-mail you the recipes for the other versions.

Here's the recipe for the kind I plan to make:

Sicilian (Milk, no eggs, no cream) Pistachio Gelato

Makes 1 quart

4 cups whole milk

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup sugar

2 cups shelled, toasted, unsalted pistachios, finely ground.

1. In a small bowl, pour 3 tablespoons of the milk over the cornstarch and whisk until smooth.

2. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, bring the remaining milk to just before the boil. Whisk in the salt, sugar and cornstarch mixture until the sugar has dissolved, about 8 minutes.

3. Transfer the pan to an ice bath. When cool, stir in the pistachios. Refrigerate overnight.

4. Strain, pressing on the nuts to release all the liquid. Churn in an ice cream maker until thick. Freeze or serve immediately.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Restaurant Review: MisSaigon

I haven't had the opportunity to do a review of someone else's cooking in a while. Hmmmm--why would that be? I suppose I could post my feelings about the various pizzas in town since that has been the only restaurant scene to which I've been exposed of late.

But last night, on a whim (had food in the house to cook, had a good day with the kids so cooking didn't seem like a nail in my coffin, etc.) we trucked across town and went to the new Vietnamese restaurant MisSiagon. (I committed the blogging crime of leaving home without my camera. So sorry.)

I'm a big fan of Vietnamese food--brighter, sharper flavors than the Thai food that can be found around here (the Thai offerings in the area, which have improved of late, rely heavily on coconut milk but ignore the sour end of the Thai food spectrum). Thus far the only place to get Vietnamese food has been the frustratingly inconsistent and distant (from my house) restaurant Dalat, located on Michigan Ave right in downtown Ypsilanti. I've had good bowls of Pho (sorry, can't get the accents to work in Blogger) and Bun there (soup and composed vermicelli rice bowls respectively) but I've also had really sad ones that were not worth the drive.

MisSaigon is located out on Stone School Road just past Ellsworth in the new little strip mall that is (I assume) filling the take-out needs of the South East part of town (there is also a branch of Tio's for Mexican and a branch of Ahmo's and a Mediterranean market for Middle Eastern.) MisSaigon's Vietnamese menu is not as extensive as Dalat's--about half of MisSaigon's menu is standard Chinese fare. But the Vietnamese food that is on the menu and that we tried last night was a step up from Dalat's.

We sampled three Vietnamese classics: a big bowl of Pho, a bowl of Bun (we chose the one with marinated char-grilled pork) and a Vietnamese Crepe with shrimp.

The Pho (noodle soup with thin slices of beef) had an intensely flavorful broth with very prominent star anise flavor. It came with the standard plate of bean sprouts and lime wedge, and a bottle of hoisin sauce to add as you like (I've never had it with the hoisin sauce and didn't think it brought much to the soup). I wish that, like some of the Vietnamese places that I've frequented out on the West coast, it had also come with sliced chilies, fresh cilantro and fresh basil to add, but the flavor of the broth was so good that I didn't miss the additions as much as usual. I foresee sending Brian across town this winter to bring me some of this Pho when I've got a horrible cold.

The Bun was good, but not stellar; on a good day at Dalat I'd say the Bun at each place is equal. Bun should be a deep bowl of goodness--layered cold vermicelli noodles, shredded lettuce, carrot, bean sprouts, cucumber and peanuts with some sort of grilled meat on top. It comes with the standard and addictive Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc cham which is lime juice, sugar, garlic, chilies and fish sauce. At MisSaigon the grilled pork was nicely charred yet still juicy and the vegetables were crisp and fresh. The size of the bowl was moderate--I'm used to more gluttonous servings and while I appreciate that the obesity problem in America (and particularly in my state) should make me pleased that there is a place that doesn't cater to our outsized appetites, I thought this was on the skimpy side. The other big critique is that the nuoc cham was really, how shall I say, Midwestern. I couldn't taste any garlic or chilies in it so it lacked the punch that a good nuoc cham should have. They served it with a bottle of hot sauce so you could boost up the heat, but it didn't have the same effect as fresh chilies.

The Vietnamese Crepe was well executed. If you haven't had one of these, allow me to describe it: the crepe is BIG--not a weenie little appetizer but a plate full of food. A very eggy batter (almost a cross between an omelet and a crepe) is stuffed with sauteed bean sprouts and onions and your choice of protein, then served with leaves of lettuce, fresh herbs and that same lime-fish sauce for dipping. To eat it, you tear off a piece of crepe, fill it with the fresh herbs and wrap it in a lettuce leaf before dipping it in the sauce.

The crepe batter at MisSaigon was nicely spiked with curry powder and the shrimp in the crepe were big, plump and juicy. I had expected tiny (cheaper) salad shrimp and was pleasantly surprised by the appearance of their bigger brethren. The charcoal grilling did not dry out the flesh, something that has happened on occasion at Dalat. (The cook at MisSaigon has a deft touch at the charcoal grill). MisSaigon provided cilantro with the lettuce, though I wish there had also been fresh mint and/or basil and, again, I thought the dipping sauce needed garlic and chilies to brighten up the flavor.

The restaurant is very clean (Dalat is on the dingy side) and the owner/waiter was really friendly and helpful. There was no stress about eating with kids and the waiter brought extra bowls and spoons to dish up food for the kids without our having to ask. Getting the bill took a while but my guess is they didn't expect so many people on a Wednesday evening--I was pleased that there were a decent number of other diners.
I wish the place had a bigger Vietnamese menu--there are a few other Vietnamese dishes on the menu (a few rice plates, chef specials and appetizers) that we didn't try, but clearly they are sticking with conservative fare and relying more heavily on the back-up of Chinese food to pay the rent. I'm hoping that if they stay in business and the Vietnamese food proves popular, maybe they'll diversify the menu a bit more. Until then, I will definitely be back when the urge hits for a big bowl of noodle soup with that heavenly star anise broth.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The gelato conundrum

Sigh. Sometimes the internet provides me with too much information. Thus I find myself with a gelato conundrum: when can I say "I made gelato" with confidence and not worry that what I made was really "ice cream"? (I know, clearly, things must be going pretty well in life if this is what I'm worrying about.)

There are many different definitions of what makes a frozen concoction into gelato rather than ice cream which include:
  1. no cream
  2. just enough cream to make American milk have the fat content of Italian milk (which apparently is a little bit fattier)
  3. no egg whites
  4. no eggs at all
  5. or just special equipment that freezes the stuff with less air mixed in
I can't do anything about #5 since I'm not about to invest in yet another piece of specialized (and no doubt imported and expensive) equipment.

Thus far I've made "gelato" with no cream (whole milk and evaporated milk) and no egg whites (the chocolate orange gelato) and with the just enough cream and no egg whites (pine nut honey gelato--recipe below) combinations. Both were very good and rich and intense. But so was the stuff that I've made that I've thought of as "ice cream"-- the lemon, the cinnamon.

What do you think? Is the term "gelato" merely being used to impress and sound sophisticated while "ice cream" sounds more homey and comforting? Does it imply an intensity of flavor that one does not usually get with stuff called "ice cream"? Is is really about the inclusion of egg whites? Or has the two words become synonymous?

While you are thinking about your response to the above questions, might I suggest you have a scoop of Pine nut honey gelato?

Pine Nut Honey Gelato
adapted from The Ultimate Frozen Dessert Book

1.5 cups 1% milk (that's what I had in the house so I adjusted the cream quantity accordingly to try and mimic Italian milk fat content)
1 C cream
4 egg yolks
1 C toasted pine nuts (you can get these pre-toasted at Trader Joes if, like me, you have a short attention span and a tendency to burn nuts when you try to toast them)
2/3 C honey
1/4-1/2 t salt
1/2 t vanilla extract
  1. In a food processor chop the nuts, salt and vanilla extract until it forms a paste. Add the egg yolks and process some more.
  2. In a pan, heat up the milk and cream and honey until hot but not boiling.
  3. With the food processor running slowly pour 1.5 cups of the hot milk/honey combination down the feed tube. Then add the egg/milk/honey mixture back to the pan and cook gently, whisking continually, until the custard coats the back of a spoon.
  4. Strain the custard through a sieve into a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap and chill until cold.
  5. Freeze in your machine. Then put in a container and freeze until firm.
  6. Serve with a drizzle of honey and a few whole pine nuts sprinkled over the top.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Southern Food by a Yankee

My garden is in its final stages and when your garden gives you this:
A whole lot of green (unripe) tomatoes
and this:
a whole lot of kale (Red Russian and Lacinato varieties)

even a Northerner like me feels the urge to cook Southern. Since the most Southern my roots go is the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn, I called in the advice of two of my favorite southerners--Sarah (Atlanta) and Meg (Memphis).

Of course, fried green tomatoes could start off a Southern meal, and the kale could be treated like collards and stewed up with a ham hock, hot peppers and a little vinegar. But what else should one add to make it a meal? After a number of considerations (biscuits with ham? ham and red-eye gravy? hoppin'-john?) Sarah proposed that magic word: grits.

This past summer, Lynne headed South with her family and got hooked on grits. She traveled with a Southerner who had the pleasure of introducing Lynne to the addictive combination of Shrimp and Grits. As Lynne was generous enough to share the recipe on her blog and I'd been itching to try it, this seemed like a good excuse.

Unfortunately, Meg came down with a cold (as did Sarah's Brian) so I invited a few more Yanks to join us: MJ and Lou and Iris.

I've never made Fried Green Tomatoes and they turned out pretty well. My big concern was getting the batter to stick on something as wet as a tomato and an initial dip in flour did the trick. They were a little bit tart, a little bit salty and quite crunchy:
Here's how I made them and what I learned (in bold):

Fried Green Tomatoes

Green (unripe) tomatoes--any non-cherry variety, at least 4 big ones or many smaller ones
1 egg mixed with a little milk
corn meal
oil for frying (I used Canola because it was what I had in the house though I bet peanut would be better) with the addition of 3 T bacon fat (for flavor!)
hot sauce

1. Prepare your tomatoes. Cut out the stem and then trim off the tops and bottoms so you have flat surfaces for the batter to stick to. Cut the tomatoes into 1-1.5 cm thick slices and
salt generously (the first few I made were not pre-salted and were bland. A green tomato doesn't have much flavor on its own so you have to help it along.)
2. Set up batter assembly line: in one bowl put about 1/2 C flour to which you have added some salt and black pepper (seasoned salt or a little cayenne would be good here too), in the next bowl beat the egg with a little milk till it isn't too gloopy, and finally, on a plate put about 1/2 C of yellow cornmeal (with a little more salt and pepper if you like.)
3. Heat up about 1/4 inch of oil with the bacon drippings in a deep frying pan until hot (I don't use a thermometer but you can drop a little corn meal in and see if it foams up when it hits the oil). Then take a tomato slice and dredge it in flour, dip it in the egg and then drop and flip it in the corn meal before popping it in the hot oil.
4. Cook on one side 'till nicely brown (
beyond golden to really brown--again, my first few weren't cooked long enough.) Then flip the tomatoes (tongs work well) and cook on the other side until equally deep brown; the tomato inside should have lost its bright green color and have turned a light olive--that means it is cooked.
5. Remove from the oil and place on a paper towel or paper bag lined plate. If you have a lot to fry mine did pretty well waiting in a warm oven for their brethren to emerge from the oil bath--they didn't sog much at all.
6. Serve with hot pepper sauce (tobasco or the like).

We managed to eat all the tomatoes while reading stories to the kids and getting them tanked up with kid-food (Mac and cheese, crunchy peas, raisins, banana bread, yogurt, etc.). Then, thanks to a DVD of Harold and the Purple Crayon, the grown ups actually got to sit down and eat this:
Mmmm. Shrimpy sausage-y goodness. Get the recipe here.
with this:
White grits cooked with chicken broth and dolloped with butter.
and this:
Kale masquerading as collards.
which made us feel like this:
This would be the state that Meg's son refers to as "Happy Tummy."

We polished off the evening with peach/raspberry cobbler (yeah for frozen fruit!) served with vanilla ice cream.

While there was only one Southerner to truly assess the cooking (and we softened her up with a good supply of wheat beer), it seemed like a successful foray into food that I didn't grow up eating. And I still have lots more green tomatoes left.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Pope Groan

My book group met last night to discuss Pope Groan, sorry Pope Joan. (Mary Jean came up with the pun after tolerating one of my rants. She's good with puns that way.)

I was relieved that I wasn't the only person who disliked the book, though perhaps I did express my disparagement more vociferously than other, more controlled, members (blame the copious quantity of wine consumed...).

Rather than spend any more time rehashing this unworthy book, I'll move on to what was, yet again, a splendid meal. Much of the book was set in Rome, so we (loosely) prepared dishes of an Italian-ish theme.

Halla brought yummy cheese and bread for us to eat (and to soak up the red wine that some of us were putting away at an alarming rate) before dinner. The group favorite was the drunken goat--a semi-soft goat cheese that is soaked in red wine.
Cheese--decimated by the barbarians

Sarah hosted and treated us to Artichokes stuffed with Sausage and Feta with a lemon-egg sauce:
Sarah demonstrates proper artichoke technique.

The artichokes were served with Marilyn's wonderful Cesar salad and Meg's roast vegetables:
Another groaning plate of bliss.

And then for dessert we had pine nut honey gelato (which I made) and Lea's homemade pizzelle:
See the beautiful bowl? Sarah made a set of these. I have such talented friends.

I'm going to blog more at length about the gelato in the near future after I have leisure to ponder (and research) the nature of gelato-ness.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Honest Pretzels

Last week in the midst of some pre-retreat excitement, I had the privilege of cooking with one of my favorite food-enthusiasts. He may only reach to my sternum, but in sheer excitement for the kitchen, he is a giant. I speak of Saul Vielmetti, the boy who gives me hope for the palate of the next generation.

While pesto is among Saul's favorite foods (and mine) we were cooking with my far less-adventurous-eater son, Ian, and so together we made Honest Pretzels.
Ian and Saul man-handling (aka kneading) the dough while Fiona (paw to the left) experiments with the gravity properties of flour...

How do you tell an "Honest" pretzel from a "Dishonest" pretzel? Beats the hell out of me. But that was the title of the recipe from the terrific kid's cooking book of the same name authored by Molly Katzan (yes, that Molly Katzan. Now that she isn't churning out Moosewood cookbooks, she is cooking with the height-challenged set).

We already own Pretend Soup, her first and most simple kid's cookbook (a gift for Ian from Saul--see how he is spreading the gospel of good eating among his friends?) and we obtained Honest Pretzels from the library. Pretend Soup is to credit for (re) introducing Ian to beans (bean and cheese quesadillas), getting him to try a banana for the first time in 3 years (the title recipe, pretend soup) and encouraging Ian to sound excited about vegetables (his actual consumption of vegetables lags behind his enthusiasm for reading recipes about them, but hopefully the gap will close over time).

Honest Pretzels
is intended for ages 8 and up and is a bit more challenging, both in how the recipes are written (more words, fewer pictures) and in the techniques and coordination required. But with adult help handling the dangerous stuff (knives, ovens, boiling water, etc.) the recipes are quite do-able. And Ian and Saul are (allow me to brag a bit here) both incredible readers who can read the whole book cover to cover. (Ok, now that I've exhibited some of that insufferable parent pride I'll try to keep it under wraps for the rest of this entry.)

First we mixed up a simple bread dough in the food processor, turned it out on the counter top and, (after yet another hand-washing necessitated by my children's fondness for nose picking) allowed the kids to finish the kneading process.
While the dough proofed, there was a break for wrestling/train playing/general mayhem among the short folks, and a flour containment project for me.

An hour later we reconvened in the freshly swept kitchen and started the shaping process. We started with the conventional pretzel shape and then got creative. There was a snail (Saul's mom, Deb), a little person (Debbie Sobeloff, another adult friend attending the dough festivities), some misshapen blobs (Fiona), and two "A"s from Ian and Saul since it is a letter that is in both of their names.

After shaping, the pretzels get boiled for about a minute in a big pot of water, the same preparation as a bagel undergoes. We discovered that pretzels made of one piece of dough (a circle, the snail) survived the immersion bath far better than those pieced together out of little pieces of dough. My teddy bear pretzel lost a few appendages in his bath.

Then the boiled dough was placed on a baking sheet, sprayed with water (to make them crusty rather than squishy) and baked for 20 minutes. Half way through I pulled them out and spritzed them with water again (the kids got to do the initial spraying which, much to my surprise, mostly landed on the dough). We decided not to sprinkle them with salt. Despite my love of most foods saline, I don't quite trust my kids with moderating the salt flow to an edible quantity--if the salt was approached even remotely how they approached the flour, we'd be stuck dumping the finished product out for the birds to consume.
There were a wide array of shapes from which to choose.

The finished warm pretzels made a fine (vegetable free) lunch. Ian and Saul decided to dip theirs in peanut butter, the grown ups enjoyed them smeared with the goat cheese Deb brought with her, and Fiona discovered that cream cheese is a fine interactive art medium:
We'll definitely be making these again, though next time I'll try to sneak in a little whole wheat flour. The unfortunate facet of cooking with two excellent readers is they can tell when you "cheat" the recipe a bit.