Saturday, October 22, 2005

Southwest-ish Salade Compose

This wouldn't be a salade compose that you'd find in France, but it was damn tasty last night:
That is the last of the late season lettuce from my garden topped with grilled flank steak, cumin roasted sweet potatoes and a corn/red pepper/cilantro/lime salad.

I'm currently having a love affair with Arbor Farm's beef supplier. The old Arbor Farms used to depress the hell out of me--the produce was tired, the bulk stuff always looked dusty, and the only meat they had was frozen. The new Arbor Farms is much better. Their produce quality has improved ten-fold (though the only scallions they had the other day had started to go slimy...), the store is much brighter and cleaner, and they have a terrific grass fed beef provider. The meat tastes great and, this is my favorite part, is vacuum sealed so you can buy it and don't have to use it immediately, nor do you have to freeze it. I bought the flank steak before I had that nasty stomach bug last week and if I had bought it anywhere else, well, it would have gone bad by the time I was well enough to use it.

Arbor Farms is also on my side of town. It does not provide the satisfaction (nor the temptation) of shopping at Whole Paycheck across town--Whole Paycheck can provide the gourmet indulgences and Arbor Farms (wisely) doesn't try to compete with Zingerman's or Big 10. But Arbor Farms does have good food and far fewer of the frustrations of Whole Paycheck (that hellacious parking lot, the snarky checkout workers--though snarky in a "I've been trained to be cheerful so I'll sneer at you and your two pain-in-the-ass kids through my forced smile", and those prices!)

Ami and John joined us for dinner and they brought along three bottles of red wine for us to review--they want to buy a case for an upcoming fire-related event they are hosting so we opened them all and I thought they all were pretty darn good.
My favorite was the Arancio, a Sicilian Syrah. The Altaona was more Cabernet in strength and the Vina Alarba was juicier, more Zinfandel-like. Ami bought all three at Village Corner and I've got to head over there to get some too. I don't know if you can see the number on the price tag in the above photo, but that Altaona was only $6.99!!

There is still a lot of wine left in the three bottles which will come in handy today since Sarah introduced me to the idea of a Pope Joan drinking game.

Every time you find one of the following phrases used
"her white-gold hair"
"his/her malevolent/malicious smile"
you take a drink.

To this I will add my own contribution, every time you find a historical inaccuracy or bit of ridiculousness, take a drink.

By the above rules, I would have been sloshed this morning while in the 140 page vicinity since one of the above conditions was met on almost every page.

Yes, I have started a Pope Joan crimes notebook. It is the only way to tolerate reading it. Rather than gnashing my teeth, I gleefully take up my pen and note down the incident. Petty of me? Oh yes. Fun? Yes indeedy do.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

A long post with at least one good rant

I've finally kicked that nasty stomach bug and can write about food (and other things) now that I'm not huddled in a little self-pitying ball.

Let's start with something pleasant, namely last night's dessert:
That's a modest portion (tummy still not up to gluttony) of apple crumble with homemade Cinnamon Ice Cream. The apple crumble was just a basic combo of apples tossed with a little brown sugar and lemon juice and topped with flour/butter/white sugar streusel, baked until the apples started to caramelize a bit. I purposely left the cinnamon out of the crumble so that the ice cream could provide the punch. And punch it did! This is terrific ice cream (I'm now imagining it in a Mexican sundae sort of combo with dark chocolate and toasted almonds). I modified a recipe so it had less sugar and evaporated milk rather than half and half. And I appreciate that it only has two eggs in it (I made rum raisin ice cream for my dad's 70th birthday last month and it had 8 eggs in it which was too much for me. The raisins and rum were good, but I thought the base was just too eggy.)

I used really good cinnamon in this ice cream-- China Cassia Cinnamon that I ordered from Penzeys which is intense and almost sweet on its own. (And which I will no longer have to mail order since they recently opened up a store in suburban Detroit).

Cinnamon Ice Cream

1 can evaporated milk
1 C heavy cream
2 eggs
1/2 C sugar
1/2 t salt
1 t vanilla
2 t good ground cinnamon

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, stir together the sugar and evaporated milk and 1/2 C of the heavy cream. When the mixture begins to simmer, remove from heat, and whisk half of the mixture into the eggs. Whisk quickly so that the eggs do not scramble. Pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan, and stir in the rest of the heavy cream. Continue cooking over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a metal spoon.

Remove from heat, and whisk in vanilla and cinnamon. (The cinnamon will float to the top in annoying little blobs and refuse to blend. Don't worry about it--it'll get incorporated when in the ice cream maker). Cool to room temperature then refridgerate until chilled.

Pour cooled mixture into an ice cream maker, and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions.

While we are on the subject of food, here is a photo of my favorite main course while in Europe:
Choucroute aux trois Poissions
We ate at a traditional Alsatian restaurant while in Strasbourg and I had a chance to try a choucroute that was loaded with fish rather than meat. The traditional choucroute has chunks of varied meat products (think plain and/or smoked ham, sausages, and if you order the Choucroute Royale, a big old cow tongue plopped in the center. I avoided the Royale version...).

By the time this meal rolled around I was having a bit of a pork overload, so I was interested to try the fish version and it was terrific. On the bed of sauerkraut simmered in wine with a little bacon (so not entirely pork free) were some small shrimp, a piece of salmon, a piece of monkfish and a piece of haddock, and a few potatoes. Then there was a nice puddle of beurre blanc and some lovely garnishes--fresh red currants and a chunk of fresh fig and a few slices of nicely ripe tomatoes. For me the garnishes were what elevated the dish beyond merely pleasant--the bite of red currant really cut through the fat in the dish, and the proportions were perfect. The currant/fig/tomato didn't compete for attention, but provided just enough contrast so I didn't go into richness overload.

I was pretty darn full after consuming that plate of cabbagy fishy goodness though, so I wasn't able to take on any of the outrageous looking desserts on the menu. Instead I retreated to my favorite clean dessert--three scoops of sorbet, which I have already stated, the French seem to be able to way better than we do.
Cassis (black currant), peach and lemon sorbets

Now on to my rant which manages to incorporate books and food--I am loving David Maine's Fallen which is good because I'm hating Pope Joan with a passion. Right now I'm rewarding myself for slogging through 100 pages of Joan with about 10 pages of Fallen, kind of like a book antidote to literary toxin. Pope Joan contains horribly clumsy writing, annoyingly predictable scenes and worst of all, some incredibly sloppy factual errors. Donna Cross has clearly researched the history of the church in this period and knows her Latin, but the woman does not have a feel for the every day life that actually brings a historical novel to life. I present to you a factual error on page 30 that had me reeling when I read it:

"The meal was splendid, the most lavish the family had ever prepared for a guest. There was a haunch of roast salted pork, cooked till the skin crackled, boiled corn and beetroot, pungent cheese, and loaves of crusty bread freshly baked under the embers."

There is one MAJOR and one minor thing wrong with the above meal. This scene is in 822 AD near Mainz in what is now Germany and the family is eating boiled corn. Corn was not introduced to the European continent until after the Age of Exploration to the New World, say the 1400's. I will grant you that the word "corn" could be used in its Old English sense as a "grain with the seed still in". If the book was better written, I'd probably cut the author some slack here and assume that she was using the word in such a way, but since it isn't I'm going to keep my rant as is. The minor wrong? I've never heard of salt pork being roasted much less developing a crackling skin. You need a fresh pork roast to get crackling.

I'm more sensitive to mistakes like these because I've been spoiled lately reading Sara Donati--her research is thorough and brings the past alive incredibly well. While reading her books I have made corn bread (and corn muffins with blueberries) more times than I can count--when a book inspires me to go to the kitchen to recreate a little bit of it in my own world, well, that's effective writing. Yes, when I read Jane Austen I drink a lot of tea and when I read Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, my kitchen smelled of ginger, garlic, cumin and tumeric (it's a long book--1488 pages--so we were eating primarily daal and raita for a couple of weeks) .

Donati researches the hell out of her settings and yet manages to incorporate the research without hitting you over the head with it--something not easy to do. Most people can access accurate information these days if they care to, but getting it into a fictional story without having it stand out as a Self-Consciously-Researched-Moment is much harder and Donati is very good at getting the information in there without making you feel like you are reading a text book. Wondering about how people used to deal with mosquitoes? Bear grease or an ointment made with penny royal. Want to learn crop planting techniques? Use corn as planting support for vine plants like beans and squash (and the beans will also revitalize the soil by putting the nitrogen back). And if you want to know how early vaccinations against small pox were done, just read the third book in her wilderness series, Lake in the Clouds. Not only will you learn the technique, but you'll come away with a feel for the process.

I really liked Lake in the Clouds, even more than Dawn on a Distant Shore (Book 2). I didn't mind leaving Elizabeth and focusing the book on Hannah--it was clear at the end of Book 2 that we were heading that way. Besides, I have a soft spot for fiction that deals with medical techniques (as I mentioned while raving about Saturday by Ian McEwan). There was only one teeny weeny thing that put up a red flag for me (and again, it has to do with food)--after Hannah and Curiosity have spent the night at Kitty's death bed, Hannah returns to her family at Lake in the Clouds with the news and with her she brings Curiosity's fresh baked bread. Bread takes a while to make and I just don't think Curiosity had time to be kneading, shaping and baking loaves while attending the death bed. Maybe if her daughter Daisy had made it, or maybe if they were biscuits, I'd believe it. But this is a pretty minor complaint when compared to all the details that Donati gets right, not to mention a thumping good story (unlike the clumsy prose and contrived scenes of Joan).

On the knitting front, I'm pleased to report that the two-year-old is no longer scared of my gloves:
Shortly after flapping around the house she stuffed the gloves in her teapot and tried to serve them to me as a maybe they are a little fruity.

I'm stuck at the point of dealing with blocking the Ribby Cardigan and then doing the zipper band and collar (roll-neck version for me). I hate blocking so this time I'm going to try the steam blocking method that Bonne Marie describes in her Ribby Cardigan notes. I need to go get some distilled water for the iron to do this and keep forgetting...

I decided I needed a little lower stress knitting so I started a really basic pair of socks to gift to someone for Christmas--no fancy pattern, just some Knitpics Parade self-striping yarn in plum done up in the most basic way. I'd forgotten how relaxing knitting can be when you don't continually push yourself, and since Parade is a bit thicker than most sock yarn, it is going pretty fast too.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The goofy gloves are finally done!

The gloves like the outdoors.
I finally finished one of my many works in progress. And boy are they ever goofy! I tried to get Fiona to model them for me, but they are too scary for the 2 year old--she ran away. They are very, very soft and I particularly like the extra long wavy wrist portion since I hate a cold draft floating up my sleeves.

I managed to finish them because, horror of horrors for a food addict like me, I have a stomach bug that has made me weak and wobbly today. It has granted me time to knit, but that is little comfort for the diet of tea, toast and ginger ale that I'm stuck with. Sorry to say, this is going to delay the posting of those vacation photos of nice food--just looking at them, much less describing them, right now would not be a good idea...

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Pictures are back

and thus so is Brian! Very nice to have the hubby home, of course, but my camera withdrawal was getting pretty serious.

Here is our favorite street sign from Trier:
Yes, there is a place called "Meat Street"

and in France, dog love extends to public dog water bowls outside the bars.
It's nice to know that all the dog shit you step in while in France comes from well-hydrated dogs.

I do promise actual food photos of European food delights soon.

In the meantime, I'll update you on the beneficial effects of jet-lag. I keep getting up at 3:30 am (my body thinking that I've slept in 'till 9:30) and thus I've found more time than usual to read. I polished off Melissa Bank's The Wonder Spot in two mornings. It was a speedy read and I enjoyed it, but not as much as The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing. I think it also would have been better in smaller doses rather than a marathon read. Bank is incredibly good at irony and dry wit, but I enjoyed the early set of stories (all about the same character at different points in her life) more than the later ones primarily because I had a little irony-overload by the end.

I do appreciate that she is able to tell a compelling story without relying on the horrors of modern life to move it along. There are no sudden acts of violence, incidents of incest or other crises of that magnitude. The conflict in the stories is the stuff that we all deal with everyday--what "success" mean both to ourselves and the world, how our self-image can be warped by the presence of other people, and the shock of being considered a "grown up" by the world when you still often feel like a kid.

I'm about half way through Sara Donati's third Wilderness book, Lake in the Clouds, and am alternating reading it with Fallen and the almost completed John Adams. And when I finish one of those puppies, I have Pope Joan to start.

I'm gonna miss this jet lag induced reading spree when my body eventually readjusts. The plus will be not becoming an incoherent mess at 7 pm each evening (that is to say, more incoherent and more messy than my usual state).