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.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Things They Did (and Ate) with Photos

(My apologies to Tim O'Brien and his wonderful story "The Things They Carried" for the shamless rip-off of the title of this entry...)

What I wrote:
The first evening and day, I worked on the Valeska material—wrote a new opening scene, did lots of editing of existing material, tried to do some global chapter organization and mapping. No great epiphanies, but solid work.

Second day, I wasn’t in the mood to spend more time with The Gert—she’s pretty intense and kind of exhausting to be with all the time (which does not bode well for my ever being able to finish the book nor for my expectation that a reader would want to spend a chunk of their time with her story…). I beat myself up about this for a little while, then looked out the window at the exquisitely blue sky and yellow leaves and decided to forgive myself for being weak and lazy and instead turned to ideas for some articles that I want to write for a local rag that are about food and yarn. I had a lovely time sketching out these ideas and realized that I'm much better at it than fiction...

Ami worked on a story I can't wait to read, set in Rome. And Sarah worked on both a short story and started three new poems; one in particular is about a dog, and smoke and sleep that I'm hoping she'll share.

Sarah, looking appropriately poetical.

What I read:
I re-read most of Rosina Lippi’s Homestead and just loved it to death again for its subtlety, its grace and forgiveness, its inner turmoil and outer peace. I didn’t bring any books with me that I hadn’t read yet because I know how easily I can get sucked into a new story and not be able to pull myself away from it. But I did read some new stuff thanks to the books that Ami brought with her. I read some poems from Carl Dennis’ Ranking the Wishes. Really wonderful poems and the perfect finite way to remind my brain about the concentrated power of language. Also I read a few stories from the short story anthology You’ve Got to Read This, a lovely book in which 35 contemporary writers introduce stories that they love. My favorite was Alice Munroe’s story “Labor Day Dinner” (which can be found in her collection The Moons of Jupiter.) The introducer was David Leavitt (whose novel The Lost Language of Cranes and short story collection Family Dancing I have read and enjoyed) and he drew my attention to Munroe’s effortless shifts in point of view. I love Munroe’s stories anyway, the characters are complex, everyday life is made significant without resorting to the contrast of catastrophe, and the endings of the stories are graceful. But it was great to be encouraged to look at the craft of her writing too. I also read a Lars Gustafsson story (introduced by Charles Baxter) “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases” that I loved and I’m going to have to track down the collection it came from called Stories of Happy People.

What I ate:
This is the point at which people are going to hate me—that is, if you have a jealous streak you might start feeling a little green right now. And if you don’t feel envious, well, you are a bigger person than I am.

I’ll go chronologically. The first evening we opened a bottle of Azagador red wine ($9 at Morgan & York, my favorite affordable bottle from their wine sale last year) and laid out the following to eat in front of the fire in the wood stove:

Sliced sourdough bread, shards of amazing parmesan (Morgan & York again), a round of aged ash-coated goat cheese which we combined with orange-fig preserves, and green olives marinated in citrus and fennel.

Saturday breakfast was leek quiche (leeks from the garden, eggs from the chickens on the farm), orange date muffins, baked apples with maple syrup and pecans and fresh oj.

A benevolent chicken.

Saturday lunch was some lovely salami studded with fennel seeds, bread, cornichons, more olives, and some fresh fruit (kiwi, strawberries, blackberries and pineapple).

For Saturday dinner, we roasted a boneless leg of lamb (obtained at Trader Joe’s frozen and marinated and pretty damn good especially for the price), roast red-skin potatoes, salad made with the last of my homegrown lettuce and the last of Sarah’s home grown tomatoes, a bottle of appropriately titled Ars Poetica red wine and then, after a significant pause and some time outside rocking on the bench swing and taking in the night air, a desert composed of outrageously rich Mexican Chocolate brownies with hot fudge sauce and ice cream.

Oh my. I'd like to dive in and roll around in this...

Sunday breakfast was fresh cooked eggs from the aforementioned chickens (over easy) and a still-warm brioche loaf (mmm—more eggs and butter), with a fresh fruit salad and more oj.

Just look at that yolk! No color enhancement has been done to this photo.

Sunday lunch was another salami/cheese/olive/cornichon/tomato grazing combo.

A plate of pleasure.

And then we had to return to the real world, albeit with very full and happy tummies, and quite a few leftovers.

What I knitted:
Nothing. I resisted the urge to bring any knitting along so that when I wasn’t writing or cooking or reading, I was still. I need to practice being still though my fingers got a little itchy at times, especially when I was watching Sarah knit a-sweater-that-I-covet with beautiful leaf-green silk alpaca blend.

Sarah, looking poetical even when she isn't writing poetry.

Bad Coffee Machine Karma

Ahhhhh. That would be the sound of a well-rested, revived mind.

Stress makes my brain feel like a hot air balloon that has sprung a leak—there’s a hiss in the background of the air escaping and my thoughts are in panic mode trying to prevent a catastrophic crash If I can just get the damn balloon down to land, I’ll be ok. But unfortunately we’re flying high (yes we, you didn’t think I went up in a hot air balloon by myself did you? Oh no, one must compound the stress by bringing along your nearest and dearest all of whom are under the mistaken impression that you are a capable balloon pilot, or flyer, or floater, or whatever) and while I’m trying to figure out how to control a vehicle that has no steering mechanism, I’m simultaneously having that urge I get whenever I’m in a high vulnerable place to throw myself over the edge like a lemming.

Sounds like fun, eh?

It is high praise for all the elements of this weekend (company, place, task at hand, food) that rather than leaking hot air, my mind feels like it is doing the kind of deep yoga breathing where you inhale through your nose (noisily, as I remember, Mr. Snuffaluffagus-style) and fill up your lungs, poofing your belly out, and then slowly, completely without a panic-y leaky feeling, let the air out.

It is quite telling when the only thing that started the hot-air-hiss in my head was a small kitchen appliance.

The "I-hate-Kate-coffee-machine"

It looked like an innocent coffee maker. New-ish, impeccably clean (the entire kitchen here is so clean it looks like no one has ever used it—no burnt grease spots or mysterious crud around the burners, a bright white fridge and microwave, etc), holding the promise of early morning coffee and a few hours of productive writing before breakfast (which was an amazing leek quiche, orange date muffins, baked apples with maple syrup and pecans and fresh o.j. all delivered by the gracious proprietor to our kitchen. Burp.)

Morning is without a doubt my best time to write. Sometimes I can get a post-tea afternoon buzz going but at dawn I am much less self-critical and rigid (take one guess when I’m writing this?). But I am not a pure enough soul to be able to write without one cup of morning coffee, preferably half a cup of strong brew (or two espresso shots) with half a cup of hot milk. If no hot milk is available then I’ll take it black, thank you.

My first attempt at making the required beverage wasn’t dramatic, it was just weak as dirty dishwater, a substance Sarah’s husband calls “burnt water”. I have some difficulty adapting to new coffee makers and different grinds and types of coffee—I know how to make what I like with my own equipment but don’t know how to get what I want when faced with anything even slightly different. This one was a basket rather than a cone and the coffee was from a bag of Starbucks pre-ground house blend that the B and B owner left for us (bless her again for not leaving Folgers—one of the dangers of venturing into rural Michigan is the coffee that passes for acceptable—Starbucks was far better than what I had expected) so I wasn’t that surprised when my first attempt was undrinkable. First I dumped a ton of coffee into the filter, and then figured I was overreacting so I scooped half of it out again, started the machine and left it to go start a fire in the wood burning stove in living room. (Side note: loved the stove. Want one.)

The "I-love-Kate-and-Kate-loves-me" wood stove

The resulting coffee was weak and disgusting so down the drain it went. I refilled the water reservoir, emptied and re-filled the basket and tried again with a hell of a lot more coffee. Started it up and went back to the stove to admire my excellent fire-karma.

I was so pleased with the crackling wood that I didn’t hear the sputtering machine, but when I went back I saw that something was seriously wrong—a black puddle oozed over the countertop, there were eruptions over the side of the basket dripping down the (formerly) pristine white exterior of the machine, and there was the sour smell of coffee boiling and burning on the hot plate. I hadn’t jammed the pot under the basket quite hard enough so while a bit of the oily brew made it into the pot; the rest had backed up in the filter basket and overflowed.

In my own house this would not have been such a big deal, but then in my own house the contrast would not have been as stark due to the fact that nothing in my kitchen ever looked so clean before I came along and ruined it.

I managed to salvage a half a cup of barely drinkable coffee (it was chewy coffee since a quantity of the grounds had found their way into the pot) and made myself drink it before attempting to clean the evil machine. It was pretty clear that this machine hated my guts by then because what should have been a relatively basic clean-up kept getting worse and worse as I tried harder and harder. I managed to get coffee grounds into the damn water reservoir which, unless I could get them out, would mean that I had plugged up and effectively broken the machine.

Thankfully Ami and Sarah were still asleep and I didn’t have witnesses to the absurd wrestling match that ensued. Half a roll of paper towels and a good deal of anxious sweat and quiet swearing later, I was able to leave the coffee maker in approximately the state I found it.

The next morning I didn’t dare tamper with the damn thing. I removed its basket, boiled water on the stove and used it like a cone drip to make one half cup of strong, non-chewy, and acceptable coffee, and only poured boiling water on my hand once...

Next time I’m bringing my little one-cup cone filter (which has never misbehaved).

But hey, if that is the only stress one has experienced in two whole days it has been a pretty damn good weekend.

More to come soon on the 4 Obsessions details (what I wrote, we read, ate and knit).