Friday, December 22, 2006

If it keeps mice away, I don't want it on my cloth napkins...

Brian and I rarely get to eat out sans kiddlets; usually we have to strategize so that a restaurant has something bland and colorless on its menu to satisfy the little people. But one evening we found ourselves liberated from this restriction (kiddos at Granny's house) so we decided to try a new place that would have some spicy food: Banh Na Laos and Thai Cuisine out on Washtenaw.

The meal we had was of a mixed quality: the Tom Kah Kai soup was one of the best I've ever tasted--rich and thick with coconut milk, perfect balance of galangal and and lemon grass and spicy without searing your throat shut. It really nailed the hot/sour/salty/sweet balance. I'd be tempted to drive across town for a quart of this stuff alone. We also had some decent drunken noodles with chicken, basil and red and green peppers. I'm a sucker for big wide rice noodles and they were generous with the basil.

The other two dishes were not of the same quality: the green papaya salad was actually inedible due to someone's extreme enthusiasm for the dried shrimp. Way, way too many. Dried shrimp, like fish sauce, is not something to be enjoyed on its own, but mixed in the proper proportion with other seasonings like lime juice, it can transform a dish. But overload it and you are left with a fishy mess. Brian took one taste and wouldn't eat any more. I tried to extract some threads of green papaya, but gave up after realizing the taste approximated licking the floor of a fish market.

The other dish was just sorta so so--a Musselman curry. It didn't taste bad--maybe a little too much cinnamon in the sauce and not enough ginger or fish sauce to cut through the richness of the coconut milk, but my big gripe was that it was just butt-ugly. Looking at the ingredients (pork, potatoes, onion, red and yellow apples, peanuts, coconut milk) didn't make me expect a beautiful dish, but unfortunately the kitchen decided to use purple onions which did no favor to the appearance--the purple bled into the light brown sauce to make it Puce colored. (Go on, click that link to see puce and also discover that puce is the official color of the Christian Heritage Party of Canada. Those wacky Canadians!)

Would you want to eat something that color?

The atmosphere of the place is sadly lacking--this was heightened by the fact that we were the only customers in the restaurant and Brian pointed out the fish tank behind my head that was empty of fish and had about 2 inches of stagnant algae clogged water sitting in it.

And the final nail in my decision to keep this restaurant (for its soup and noodles) in my take-out menu file but not on my visit-in-person list were the napkins.

I LOATHE fabric softener and the cloth napkins at the table were soaked in the stuff. They left their stinky fumes on my hands and overpowered the pleasant scent of the dishes we had ordered. Believe me, "Mountain Fresh" scent does nothing for Thai food.

I was just doing a little catch-up blog reading and it turns out that a while ago Kitchen Chick reported that Bounce fabric softener sheets have worked well as a mouse repellent in her kitchen! They also work well as a Kate repellent in a restaurant.

Three or four customers came in while we were there to pick up groaning bags of take out. Whether it was the sight of pond scum or the fragrance of the napkins that turned them off to the in-person dining experience, I don't know. But I do want some more of that soup and I think I'll follow suit and pick some up and flee the premises next time.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


Blogger has changed some of their software and I'm now using the "Beta" version. It seems to have a few more tools and a few less annoyances, but the hitch is that switching to Beta seems to have screwed up the feed (at least in Bloglines). You might need to re-subscribe and delete the old subscription.

Of course, if you depend upon Bloglines which can no longer retrieve said info, you probably won't be reading this....

Monday, December 18, 2006

And the winner is...

Maple Almond Cranberry Granola

I did a little recipe testing over the weekend to decide what to give to Ian's (super patient) teachers and the granola kicked ass. I know you are thinking "how can a woosy, hippy food stand up to the decadence of chocolate peppermint bars, or the savory delights of blue cheese pecan crackers?" It might have been a fairer fight if the recipe for the chocolate peppermint bars was decent, but it sucked. They turned out greasy and chewy and I was pissed that I had wasted good cocoa, and plus gras butter and had upgraded their stated chocolate chips for hand-chunked Ghiradelli. The kids each ate one and then wandered away--if the small sugar fiends aren't clamoring for more, there's probably something wrong. We were so underwhelmed with these that we ended up throwing away 3/4 of the pan.

And the blue cheese pecan crackers were tasty, but very crumbly and they just didn't look very special. I think they'd make a good gift if, say, they accompanied a nice bottle of port, but I'm pretty sure that getting your kid's teachers drunk is frowned upon in this town.

I'm further justifying the granola crunch factor with the detail that my kid goes to the "alternative" elementary school in town; you know, the one where you call all the teachers by their first names, there are big squishy couches in the middle of the class rooms and kids are encouraged to work at their own pace, whatever that pace may be. That should be the kind of audience receptive to a granola gift, yes?

Honestly, I wouldn't be giving this if it wasn't so damn tasty. For such an easy recipe, the payback is really high. All weekend we were grabbing a handful of this stuff to munch (while simultaneously averting our eyes from the icky chocolate peppermint bars), and not just at breakfast time.

Maple Almond Cranberry Granola

2 T ground flax seeds (grind in a spice or coffee grinder, or buy pre-ground)
3 C old fashioned oats, organic preferred
1 C sliced almonds
1/2 C hulled raw pepitas (green pumpkin seeds)
1/4 raw sunflower seeds
1/2 t salt
a little less than 1/2 C canola oil
a little less than 1/2 C maple syrup, grade B preferred
1/2 C dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 325.

In a big bowl mix all the dry ingredients except for cranberries.

Stir in oil and maple syrup and stir until evenly coated.

Spread mixture evenly in a large shallow baking pan with sides. Bake for 15 minutes then take the pan out, stir and re-spread and rotate. Bake for another 15 minutes (30 minutes total). If your oven has hot spots, you may want to break it up into 10 minute increments and stir again to make sure none of it burns.

Cool in pan. Then stir in dried cranberries.

Makes about 5 cups. Doubles easily (so long as you have two pans).

Friday, December 15, 2006


I just lost a long post. It was all about how bewildered I am by the NYTimes Book Review naming Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children as one of the top 10 books of the year. My feelings about the book are particularly intense as it uses 9/11 as a plot point and I recently finished reading (with my book group) the excellent Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer which shows the impact of 9/11 on a 9 year old boy.

I'm too damn tired to try and recreate my post, so if you'd like a couple of pithy reviews as to the flaws in Messud's book, I recommend the first two reader's reviews on Amazon, the first titled "A narcissist's view of 9/11" and the second titled "The Emperor's Children have no clothes!" I think most of my problems with the book are shared by these two reviewers.

At some point I'll try and recreate what was so special and moving about the Foer book. Right now I am retreating from the fickle world of blog land to a cup of tea (and a three-year-old girl who thinks she is a tree frog...).

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Help me out here...

I need some advice. The winter holidays are approaching and I want to thank Ian's teachers with something more than just a card with my heartfelt appreciation for everything they do for my challenging boy (they'll get the card, too.). The school district has a policy that teachers can't receive gifts that are more than "tokens", that is to say, gift-cards are out. If I'd been a little more on the ball, maybe I could have knit something for these hard working teachers, but now I'm left with a gift of some sort of food.

Thankfully, I think that I have the kitchen skills to make something pretty tasty. But I'm left with a few ideas and issues to tangle through. Give me your advice:

1. A tin of cookies. Good ones, not crappy ones. I'm thinking of Chocolate peppermint bars, Lavender shortbread and molasses cookies with raspberry jam (my recipe). If I go this route, do I stick with one kind of cookie, or do I go for a mixed tin? I think the former looks nicer, but the latter is more flexible when it comes to individual tastes (for those lavender, peppermint or molasses haters out there). Also one of Ian's teachers has a weight issue. Is it totally insensitive to give her cookies?

2. Homemade maple apricot granola. Here I'm trying to be sensitive to all of the teachers's health and the fact that they may get bombarded with cookies and appreciate something that isn't going to cause a heart attack. But are they going to open it up and think "yuck"?

3. Something savory (ideas welcome)?? I was born with a salt tooth rather than a sweet tooth and would (personally) prefer a savory gift over a sweet one. But I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority here.

Sigh. I'm leaning towards the cookies, just because I like to spoil people with something a little luxurious.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

How to make lentils unhealthy

I've never thought of lentils as being a particularly decadent food, but I recently discovered that it really isn't too hard to make them unhealthy! In the right mood, I like a healthy lentil salad, daal or soup, but on a snowy cold day, sometimes virtuous food just doesn't cut it.

For those days, may I recommend this soup?
Lentil Soup with Pounded Walnuts and Creme Fraiche

I saw this recipe in the NY Times magazine not long ago and, since it was adapted from Deborah Madison whose book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone I love, I thought I'd give it a try.

It is easy to make and kind of impressive in a minimalist way. The earthy flavor of lentils contrasts with the sharpness of garlic and a half a cup of creme fraiche makes it really rich and decadent. So save the healthy lentil recipes for a sunny day and make this one on a day when you need to take refuge from the cold.

Lentil Soup with Pounded Walnuts and Creme Fraiche

2 C brown lentils
2-4 T butter
1 onion, diced fine
1 bay leaf
6 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
salt and pepper
2 large garlic cloves
2/3 C toasted walnuts
1/2 C plus 2 T creme fraiche*
2 T minced parsley or chives as a garnish (optional)

1. Soak lentils in water for 2 hours, then drain.

2. Melt butter in a large pot over low heat. Add the onion and bay leaf. Saute on medium heat until onion has softened, about 5 minutes. Add lentils, stock and 1 t salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Simmer, covered, until lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Using a mortar and pestle (though a small food processor or some persistence with a knife and cutting board would probably work just fine too), pound the garlic with a large pinch of salt. Add the walnuts and work until finely ground. Add 2 T creme fraiche, mixing it in a teaspoon at a time to make a paste.

4. Before serving, stir the remaining 1/2 C of creme fraiche into the soup. Ladle soup into bowls and top each with a large spoonful of the walnut garlic cream, a bit of ground pepper and some chopped parsley or chives.

* To make creme fraiche, take 1 C of heavy cream and stir in 1 T buttermilk. Then let it stand at room temperature for 24 hours until it is thick. If you have a cold house (like me!) you may want to find a warmish place to leave it. My oven has a bread proofing setting that is perfect for creme fraiche. Refrigerate it after it has thickened and cultured.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Sloth bread

I love recipes that require little work and yet achieve impressive results.

Can you believe that this beautiful boule of bread:
came out of my oven and was ridiculously easy to make?

I'm probably the last food blogger on the planet to have tried the No-Knead Bread that Mark Bittman wrote about in the NY Times. It was just hard to believe that sloth-dom could be so incredibly rewarding.

There's a fun video how-to with Bittman that takes all of 5 minutes of your time to watch. (Unfortunately the sound card on my computer has been scrambled, but it is still fun to watch as a mime show!) And really making the bread itself doesn't take much more than that in active time. Zingerman's has got to be bumming about this recipe, since it will certainly cut down on my consumption of their bread. Sure, I'll still go get a loaf when I don't plan ahead 24 hours, but despite my deficits in the organizing department, the reward is so great (house perfumed with hot bread! a steamy hot loaf on which to slather butter!) that it will serve as an incentive to get my act together, at least in the bread department.

Based on the other blogs I've read that commented on the recipe, I added a little more salt (I dislike unsalted bread) and used a smaller 3 qt pot in which to bake the bread. You don't have to have a $200 Le Creuset enameled Dutch oven to make this; my much more humble Emile Henri ceramic covered casserole worked great:
I also found that the recipe is pretty darn forgiving for those of us who need even more than the requested 12-18 hours of rising time to laze around. If, say, you keep your house at a normal temperature, you might want to follow the directions more closely, but as I am part lizard and don't mind a slightly cool house (hey, why do you think I knit sweaters?), bread dough needs more time to rise and cooperate in my chilly environs.

So really, go get out some flour, water, salt and a teeny bit of yeast and mix up a bowl. Then forget about it and come back to it tomorrow and you can have fantastic hot bread with almost no effort. A sloth's paradise!

No Knead Bread

Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1 1/2 hours plus 14 to 24 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. (I added more than 1 5/8 cups, but then I think I over generously scooped my flour.) Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees. (I let mine rise almost 20 hours at cold room temperature--61 degrees.)

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. (I used flour this time; I think I'll try cornmeal next time.) Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. (Again, in my cold house, on my cold granite counter tops, I let it rise for 4 1/2 hours) When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 3-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats (the original recipe calls for a 6 to 8 quart pot, but pretty much all the food blogs I've read say they prefer the smaller pot which gives you a rounder loaf. If you want it wide and flatter, go for the bigger pot). When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1 1/2-pound loaf.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Important Notice

Kate's knitted tampon holder
seems to have been mislaid.
Last seen resting,
quietly guarding its hoard,
with an edging of brown
it's lost in this town-
forty quarters reward!

With apologies to A. A. Milne and the third stanza of his poem, "Disobedience", my favorite poem from childhood.

Sigh. Better get knitting.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Blue burgers

Not that I give a rat's ass about football, but even a sports idiot like myself has heard that the big Michigan-Ohio State game is coming up. So for those of you (Michigan fans) who go all out for these events and are looking for blue foods, and for those of you who are equally indifferent to sports but crave a good burger, I present to you a disturbing sight:
These have got be the most god-awful ugly-ass burgers before they are cooked. I had to shield the view of the stove with my body so the small suspicious people with whom I live wouldn't catch a glimpse of the mashed up blueberries that are mixed in with the beef.

Thankfully, they soon browned and lost the purpleish hue and once blanketed with sharp cheddar cheese, looked pretty normal:

And when presented on a bun with all the fixings, it would take a very sharp eye to spot anything amiss:And the taste? My lord these are good. I took one bite and juice ran down my chin and I was sold on the fruit/meat concept. I buy lean grass-fed beef and it has good flavor, but it can get tough and dry pretty quickly when you cook it. 1/2 C of mashed up thawed frozen blueberries mixed into the meat made such a huge difference. One must also appreciate that (heh heh heh) I figured out a sneaky way to get fruit into the fructophobic kid.

In case you are crediting me for unexpected creativity, I have to tell you I read about blueberry burgers at a fun blog called ACME Instant Food (updated: sadly the site appears to have been taken down but there are plenty of other recipes on the web; just google berry and burger and you get a ton!)

Here's my version:

Blueberry Burgers

1.25 lbs lean, grass-fed ground beef
1/2 C frozen blueberries, thawed and chopped fine, either with a knife or in a food processor.
1/2 t kosher salt
1/2 t fresh ground pepper
1/4 t garlic powder

Squish all ingredients together to incorporate the blueberry mush into the meaty mush. Don't get carried away and over squish it--just enough to get the job done. Shape into patties and cook on a grill, grill pan, or frying pan.

Top with whatever you like--cheese, mushrooms, onions, condiments...

Serve with LOTS of napkins.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Calling all Mama-readers

I just finished one of the best books I've read to describe the stage of parenting I happen to be at right now, with small people in the pre-school, beginning of school years stages.

Margaret, one of the main characters in Eliza Minot's novel The Brambles, is the mother of three young children and the sections of the book that are told from her perspective manage to weave in so many perfect descriptions that I found myself saying "Yes! Yes yes yes!" out loud when I was reading.

Listen to this:

"Nothing manufactured in their brains yet, practically, to hold things in--"I don't like you, Momma!" --to keep it together, the life in them bursting out at the seams, in shambles. "My stupid stupid life!" It was both heartbreaking and hysterically funny to watch. And infuriating. And humiliating."

and this

"But what, meanwhile, was happening to her? To Margaret? Not much. Simply, she is here. In the moment, as they say, behaving like a waitress, a handmaiden, a love slave, alternately ill-treated and then adored, worshipped by the little people. Humiliated and adored. Part goddess, part foot soldier, every day varying, yet every day the same."

I always joke with Brian that I should have a cocktail waitress costume to don to accommodate the number of (non-alcoholic) beverages that I'm demanded to serve each day. I don't remember ever being so thirsty all the damn time when I was a kid. I haven't read any other book that so captures the pleasures and the tedium of being a primary care giver to small kids.

The rest of the book is good too--the stuff from the youngest sister's perspective also hit home a lot. She's single and self-critical and wondering where to find meaning in her life. I can't say I related to the brother's sections because much of his struggle with identity related to his work and due to my strange lack of ambition, I've always been reluctant to define myself in terms of work. I think I define myself more by the people around me, whether they be work compatriots or friends or (now) the small people/tyrants.

All three of the siblings are confronting their identity questions within the framework of the overall story, in which their father is dying. This was handled so quietly. There wasn't a whiff of melodrama about the death, both leading up to it, the actual death scene and then the siblings' responses afterwards. I'm still not sure how she managed to make this scenario so interesting and yet so subtle and unflashy.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Honey, I've shrunk the kibbeh...

Since our Greenfield Village membership expired last year, our frequency of visits to Cedarland in Dearborn has also decreased dramatically. I may have mentioned before that my son, one of the ranking picky eaters out there, has an unusual accommodation for Middle Eastern preparations of lamb. The kid won't eat plain spaghetti or a strawberry, but give him kafta or kibbeh and he'll eat them without complaint.

I'm not skilled enough to make the lovely little football-shaped kibbeh that you get in restaurants (and no, we aren't fans of the raw version), but baked kibbeh in a pan is surprisingly easy to make.

I remembered this last week when perusing a copy of Eating Well at the library. This magazine and I don't have a great track record, since their recipes are too virtuous for the likes of me or my salt and fat-loving family. But I figured I could take their healthy recipe for Turkey Kibbeh and turn it back into a delicious, fatty version with little effort.

I went to Sparrow Meats and bought a half pound of ground lamb (theirs is usually very fatty) and a half pound of mixed lean ground beef and buffalo to substitute for the turkey (if you have access to lean ground lamb then I'd just use that). The only thing I didn't count on was quite how much fat there would be and how this would shrink the kibbeh once it baked.

Here is the kibbeh after I drained off the moat of fat around it--a good inch of so of shrinkage from the sides of the pan.
But it still tasted damn good, especially when served like this:
There are roasted sweet potatoes with smoked Spanish paprika, kale with lemon and garlic, the kibbeh and a yogurt/cucumber/tomato/garlic sauce. I'll include the recipes for the sweet potatoes and kale soon.

Baked Kibbeh
thoroughly bastardized from an Eating Well recipe for Turkey Kibbeh...

1/2 C bulgur
1 T olive oil
1 small onion finely chopped
1/3 C toasted pine nuts
1/2 t ground cumin
1 t kosher salt
1/2 t ground allspice
1/4 t cayenne pepper
1/4 t ground cinnamon
1/4 t ground black pepper
1/2 lb ground lamb
1/2 lb ground beef or buffalo
and if you aren't serving this to a parsley-phobic kid, add in 1 T chopped parsley

Yogurt sauce:
1 1/2 C plain yogurt (low or full fat)
1/2 a medium cucumber, peeled (unless homegrown), seeded and diced
1 small tomato, diced
1 T chopped parsley
1 T of chopped mint if you have it
1 small clove of garlic, pressed through a garlic press
1/2 t salt
ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 450. Coat a 8 x 8 or 6 x 10 inch baking dish with cooking spray. Place bulgar in a bowl and cover it with hot tap water.

2. Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat and add onion. Cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Stir in pine nuts.

3. Drain the bulgar, pressing on it to remove excess liquid. In a large bowl, mix it with the lamb, beef or buffalo, cumin, salt, allspice, cinnamon, cayenne, pepper and optional parsley. Mix until combined.

4. Pat half of the meat mixture into the baking dish. Top with the onion/pine nuts, pressing gently into the meat layer. Cover with the rest of the turkey mixture, pressing gently into the onion layer. Cover with foil.

NOTE: the dish can be refrigerated now until about 45 minutes before dinner.

5. Bake the kibbeh for 30 minutes. Take off the foil and drain off the copious quantities of fat that will have accumulated in a moat around your kibbeh. Notice how much it has shrunk and praise it for its willingness to let go of its fat. Put the kibbeh back in the over for about 15 more minutes UNCOVERED so the top will brown a little.

6. Cut into squares. Serve with the yogurt sauce (which is just the above ingredients combined in a bowl. Duh.)

Sunday, October 29, 2006


6 women, 3 open bottles, and another hiding behind the flowers on the sideboard...
Marilyn, Diane, Sarah, Me and Lea (Meg is taking the photo)

My book group met last week and ate and discussed David Maine's Fallen. If you want to hear what I thought of the book when I first read it, head back over to this entry.

We had a really interesting discussion of the parallels between Cain's and Eve's characters and thoughts and doubts. A few folks didn't like the reverse storytelling (which I love). They felt like each chapter ended with them wanting more and wanting to move ahead in time rather than backwards. I completely relate to this feeling, but I also think that it makes me a more active reader; I have to fill in more and work harder to synthesize the events since they aren't being laid out for me.

Of course, to accompany our discussion there was good food and wine. Sarah started us out with a terrific, and easy, feta appetizer (recipe below):
Then we moved on to the rest of the good stuff:
From top right: Kebabs, buttery rice, pita, Salad with beets/red peppers/cucumber, noodle kugel and chickpea bulgar salad.

After dinner, we celebrated the apple (even though we noticed that the fruit of the tree of knowledge sounds a lot more like a grapefruit in the book) with a Tarte Tatin I made.
It was decent (because how can anything that has that much butter and sugar not be at least ok?), but suffered from being made in the early afternoon. The puff pastry was a little soggy by the time dessert rolled around.

The next book we read is Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Sarah's Excellent and Easy Feta Appetizer
  1. Get a block of good feta--in the Middle Eastern stores around here you can pick from domestic (pass on it), Bulgarian (very good and tangy) and usually one more variety (sometimes made with sheep's milk, also excellent).
  2. Put the feta in a wide shallow bowl, pour a copious quantity of good green extra virgin olive oil over it. Mash with a fork. Grind lots of black pepper over the top and serve with toasted or warmed pita triangles, and mixed olives.

Coming to a preschool auction near you...

I finally finished finishing the two baby sweaters for my daughter's preschool auction. Here we have two sized 12-18 month old baby sweaters:
I found some cute sunshine buttons for the sheep sweater:
but I had the dickens of a time finding buttons that looked good with the lavender sweater. Purple is devilishly hard to match. I bought some pretty abalone shell flower buttons, but they sat too flush with the surface of the sweater and I could tell they would end up being cursed at by the parent of the eventual wearer because they would be tricky to button and would probably spontaneously unbutton themselves. I finally settled on these pearly white hearts. I'm not so fond of the material (plastic) but the seem to do a good job holding the cardigan together and they look decent enough.
Now I just have to wait until November 8th and see how much they go for!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


I didn't make up the cute title of this post--it is the name of a series of photos by Ernie Button. He constructs landscapes made of cereal and then photographs them and they are strangely beautiful.

Cheerios pyramids
Shredded wheat bales and other cerealism photos
Grape Nuts dune

Monday, October 23, 2006

Attempting to be Lea

My challenge last week was to emulate a friend of mine, Lea, and to try and make some of the recipes that she has raved about. I managed to complete three, Daube Provencal, Mushroom Lasagne and Magic Brownies. Unfortunately I was unable to create these dishes while maintaining my composure, the way Lea always seems to do. But the food was pretty good!

The Daube Provencal (from Cook's Illustrated)was a high falutin' beef stew. I liked it--very rich with olives, wine and anchovies boosting up the flavor of the sauce.
But I don't think I'm that much of a beef stew kinda person. Nothing wrong with it, but Brian and I didn't gobble up the leftovers and, sadly, the kids wouldn't eat the stew at all.

A few days later, I made the Zingerman's Magic Brownies (recipe below). Lea found the recipe in a copy of Midwest Living, a magazine she decided to subscribe to shortly after moving here from California. (The magazine also included helpful information for transplants like the definition of Vernors). I don't think the rest of the magazine impressed her much, but we figure the entire year's subscription was worth it for this recipe.
These are awesome brownies. I've been making a pretty decent brownie recipe from one of the NY Times Minimalist columns, but these beauties are fudgier, deeper and darker. With 6.5 oz of unsweetened chocolate and 13 T of butter in the recipe, they damn well should be richer!

The Mushroom Lasagne was fantastic (recipe below).
Question: How much lasagne (in a 9 x 13 inch pan) can two people eat at one sitting?
Answer: A whole lot.
Brian and I were in Happy Tummy land on Friday. There are three different types of mushrooms in this lasagne: roasted portobellos, minced button mushrooms and dried porcinis. One of the best features was the final touch--after the lasagne comes out of the oven you sprinkle on top a small amount of a mixture of lemon zest, raw garlic, parsley and basil. These fresh flavors balance the richness of the lasagne base and give it that final burst of bright flavor.

This stuff even re-heated well, which was surprising as it has a bechemel (not tomato) base which can often become greasy and separated when reheated.

After my week of trying to be Lea (and me with only two regularly-rude kids to her three well-behaved ones) I'm a little tired; God only knows how she does it--sorcery? a build up of good karma from past lives?

We'll be having re-heated frozen Ikea meatballs with ligonberry sauce for dinner tonight.

Zingerman's Magic Brownies
from Midwest Living

13 T butter
6.5 oz unsweetened chocolate
1.5 C cake or all purpose flour
3/4 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
4 eggs
2 C sugar
1.25 t vanilla
1 C coarse chopped walnuts, toasted

1. Grease a 13x9x2 inch baking pan. Preheat oven to 325.

2. In a heavy small saucepan, heat the butter and chocolate over low heat, stirring, till chocolate is melted and smooth; set aside to cool.

3. In a small bowl sift together flour, baking powder and salt.

4. In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer on high speed for 5 minutes or till light yellow and fluffy, scraping side of the bowl occasionally.

5. Add cooled chocolate mixture and vanilla. Beat on low speed until combined. Add flour mixture; beat on low speed until combined, scraping sides of bowl. Stir in walnuts.

6. Spread batter in pan. Bake 30 minutes or until brownies appear set. Cool in pan on wire rack; cut into bars.

Mushroom Lasagne
adapted from Cook's Illustrated

1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
1 C water
2 lbs Portobello mushroom caps, cleaned and cut into 1/4" x 2" pieces
4 T olive oil
2 large red onions, chopped
8 oz button mushrooms, cleaned, stems trimmed
4 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 T plus 1 t)
1/2 C dry vermouth, or dry white wine (I used 1/4 C of each)
3 T unsalted butter
3 T unbleached flour
3.5 C milk (I used 2%)
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 C minced fresh parsley, plus an additional T
1/4 C minced fresh basil, plus an additional T
8 oz fontina, shredded
3/4 C grated parmesan
12 no-boil lasagne noodles
zest from 1 lemon
salt and pepper

1. Cover porcinis with water in small microwave-safe bowl; cover with plastic wrap, cut several steam vents in plastic with paring knife, and microwave on high power for 30 seconds. Let stand until mushrooms soften, about 5 minutes. Lift mushrooms from liquid with fork and roughly chop (you should have about 3 tablespoons). Strain liquid through fine-mesh strainer lined with paper towel into medium bowl. Set mushrooms and liquid aside.

2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spread portobello mushrooms in even layer on rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil, tossing to coat mushrooms evenly; sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and toss again. Roast mushrooms until shriveled and all liquid released from mushrooms has evaporated, about 30 minutes, stirring halfway through cooking time. Set mushrooms aside to cool.

3. While portobellos roast, heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are browned around edges, about 10 minutes. Transfer onions to large bowl and set aside.

4. Meanwhile, process button mushrooms in food processor until uniformly coarsely chopped, stopping to scrape down bowl as needed. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in now-empty skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add chopped button mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and all moisture has evaporated, 6 to 8 minutes.

5. Reduce heat to medium and stir in porcini mushrooms, 1 tablespoon garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add vermouth and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.

6. Add butter and cook until melted. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Slowly add reserved porcini soaking liquid, scraping pan bottom to loosen browned bits. Add milk and nutmeg. Increase heat to medium-high and bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until sauce has thickened and reached consistency of heavy cream, 10 to 15 minutes (you should have about 4 cups). Remove from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons parsley and 1/4 cup basil.

7. Combine fontina and Parmesan in medium bowl. Toss cooled portobello mushrooms with onions in large bowl. Place noodles in 13 by 9-inch ovensafe baking dish and cover with hot tap water; let soak 5 minutes, agitating noodles occasionally to prevent sticking. Remove noodles from water and place in single layer on kitchen towel. Wipe baking dish dry and coat with butter.

8. Using rubber spatula, evenly distribute 1 cup mushroom sauce in bottom of baking dish; position 3 noodles on top of sauce. Spread 3/4 cup sauce evenly over noodles followed by 2 cups mushroom-onion mixture and 3/4 cup cheese. Repeat layering of noodles, sauce, mushroom-onion mixture, and cheese two more times. Place 3 remaining noodles on top of last layer of cheese. Spread remaining sauce over noodles and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Lightly spray large sheet of foil with nonstick cooking spray and cover lasagna. Bake until bubbling, about 20 minutes.

9. While lasagna is baking, combine remaining tablespoon parsley, tablespoon basil, and 1 teaspoon garlic with lemon zest in small bowl. Increase oven temperature to 500 degrees, remove foil from lasagna, and continue to bake until cheese on top becomes spotty brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove lasagna from oven and immediately sprinkle evenly with herb mixture.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Beer Breath

Brian's birthday was this past Saturday and one of my gifts to him was an all-beer dinner for us and a few friends (due to our dinky dining room, we couldn't make it a huge gathering). Every course was made with beer and there were a load and a half of beers for sampling and tasting.

The menu consisted of:
Cheddar Ale Soup
Choucroute Garnie with Parsley Potatoes
Beer Braised Brussels Sprouts
Chocolate Porter Cake

By far my favorite was the soup:
There's nothing fancy about the soup--a base of leeks, carrots, celery and garlic get sauteed in butter, then flour is sprinkled over and cooked briefly to form a roux, then you add milk, broth and ale. I veered away from the recipe and pureed the soup and then set it aside until shortly before serving it, when I added the sharp cheddar cheese. Rather than top it with bacon, I sprinkled on some chives and it was all set--velvety, rich, but with a nice bite from the beer.

The choucroute was hearty and went well with lots of different beers. I took an excursion to Hamtramck to get good sausages--knockwurst, bratwurst and kielbasa--and sauerkraut.

The brussels sprouts were decent, but a little bit weird--braised in beer with whole cumin seeds and a handful of fresh basil...two flavors that don't really go together.
The basil was overpowered by the cumin and beer so it wasn't really noticeable. I wouldn't include it again.

The biggest disappointment looked promising,
but was pretty disgusting. Lesson: Keep beer out of your cake and out of your ganache.

We might have all been a little too buzzed to be dissuaded by the sour aftertaste and dry-as-sawdust texture. Most of us choked some of it down by focusing on the fresh raspberries between the layers and on top, the raspberry ice cream that was on the side and full glasses of Lindemans Framboise Lambic.

The food, other than dessert, was good, but most of our attention was focused on the myriad of different beers to taste. There were some old favorites: Oberon, Bass Ale, and a couple of the Dexter-based Jolly Pumpkin Ales and then there were all the new beers to sample. We put out a lot of small glasses, set some of the beers on a lazy susan and then started tasting.
I have a new favorite wheat beer, Wittekirke:
It has a honey aftertaste that manages to convey the essence of honey without the sweetness--very crisp.

When the party was over, Brian and I dumped the rest of the cake in the trash, packed up the left over sausages to freeze for a hearty dinner once the cold weather really kicks in and then gazed at the vast quantity of beer still sitting in our beer fridge...

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The vegetable that Dr Seuss designed

Just have to share a photo of the two Brussel Sprouts trees that I brought home from the Farmer's Market:
Just lolling around here on my couch.

By God that's a strange and beautiful vegetable. And quite a steal too--only $2 per tree.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Sew it up

I've been knitting a fair amount lately, all of it for small people. It has been a while since I knitted a baby sweater and I'd forgotten how satisfying it is to finish a project in a relatively small amount of time. Now I have a significant amount of sewing and blocking to do.

My daughter's preschool is having a fundraising auction in November and I made this to be auctioned off:
It's the reverse colors from the sweater I made for Jonathan (more of a kelly green than the borderline-tealish color above).

I also made another baby sweater for the auction, but I can't decide whether to donate it or not. Here it is in pieces:
And all that seems relatively well and good. But I was a little spacey when I made this sweater and didn't notice that I was using lavender yarn from two different dye lots. Once I was done I looked at the front and saw this:
Can you see the color break in the bottom lavender row? It shifts from being a slightly bluer lavender to a slightly pinker lavender. I don't have any way of correcting the mistake since I ran out of both the bluer and the pinker yarn. And I just don't feel great about submitting something for auction that has a flaw smack dab in the front right side of the cardigan. I'm thinking maybe I should just gift it to a friend whose sister is having a baby girl in December and knit up something else for the school auction. But I really want to work on my red sweater; now that it is getting chilly again and the days have been so gloomy, I am eager to finish the big cozy, cheery thing.

So it comes down to selflessness vs. selfishness (again...). What would you do?

Friday, September 29, 2006

Before the season ends...

...head over to Makielski's Berry Farm and pick a quart of raspberries so you can make this:
The Best Ice Cream I Have Ever Tasted

Sarah brought some of this over two weeks ago and after tasting it, Brian and I were ready to turn our backs on our previous favorites (mint chip for him, lemon or chocolate peanut butter for me) and crown this the ultimate ice cream experience. On Tuesday, when the sun finally appeared from behind the rain clouds, Fiona and I went and picked a quart and promptly set about our attempt to reproduce Sarah's results.

Last night Brian and I enjoyed some (with Saunder's hot fudge sauce) and hallelujah it turned out great! This ice cream has the intensity of fruit flavor that both Sarah and I remember from our various gelato snarfing expeditions in Italy. Zingerman's fruit gelatos don't even come close--both their strawberry and raspberry are more like a vanilla ice cream with good jam swirled in. Not bad, but not the intense pure blast of fruit essence that this ice cream delivers.

Sarah's Incredible Raspberry Ice Cream
adapted from Emeril Lagasse

2 pints fresh raspberries, picked over
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups heavy cream
1 C milk (whole, 2% or evaporated)
4 egg yolks

In a saucepan, over medium heat, combine the raspberries, sugar, milk and cream. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat. Puree the mixture using a hand-held blender or food processor. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve (you may have to push and stir to get the good stuff away from the seeds). Place the mixture back in the saucepan.

In a separate small bowl, whisk the yolks until smooth. Add 1/2 cup of the warm cream mixture to the yolks and whisk well. Add the yolk mixture back to the cream and continue to cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain again through a fine mesh sieve. Cool until chilled, either in an ice bath, or press a piece of plastic wrap over the custard and refrigerate until cold. Freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer's directions.

Excellent eaten on its own, but it can be truly mind blowing if you top a fresh sliced peach (there are still a few available at the farmer's market!) with a scoop of this stuff, or drizzle dark hot fudge sauce over the top.

Friday, September 22, 2006

What I've been doing...

I have things to say pear chutney and some recent books I've read, but this week my energy has been directed elsewhere because I've been preoccupied with the fact that my kid wasn't eating lunch. The first week of first grade, he ate some of his lunch; by week two he figured out that if he doesn't eat, then he can play outside at recess for the entire lunch period. One day he brought home his lunch box full, except for having taken one tiny bite of a corner of his sandwich. That was it.

Unfortunately he actually needs to eat and not eating has led to some rocky afternoons.

Have I mentioned before that my sin of gluttony is clearly being punished by having a kid who is so indifferent to food?

So this week, I went into food-as-entertainment over-drive.

I made mini pizzas (whole wheat English muffins, Muir Glen organic pizza sauce, non-rgbh Trader Joe's cheese, and totally toxic pepperoni) with flowers and smiley faces:
I cut salami sandwiches into smiley faces,
and made PB&J sandwiches shaped like flowers with little pieces of papaya or raisins as their centers. I sliced apples into hearts and used tiny pig-shaped cookie cutters to cut out a menagerie made of cheese.

I would foresee making the city of San Francisco out of Jello if I wasn't trying to keep food dyes out of his diet. (Really, you have to go click on the link. See the Transamerica building made of Jello. Then watch the video clip of the whole thing jiggling during an earthquake simulation.)

And today, the effort paid off and he brought home an empty lunch box. Not coincidentally, he also had a really good day.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Week 3

This is the third week of school for Ian and I still feel like I'm in the middle of a whirlwind. For anyone else who needs a little Monday morning levity, I send you to this informative explication of The History and Geopolitical Importance of Pie.

Many thanks to Brian Pinkelman for bringing this overlooked piece of scholarship to my attention.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Pear pieces

I'm having some success and some failure when processing the current bounty of pears. I made pear sorbet,
though I would call it more of a granita than a sorbet. It has some Poire William brandy in it (maybe a little too much brandy if you wanted to serve it to small people, though Fiona lapped up the stuff) and whether it is the alcohol or the relatively low sugar content (only 1/3 C) or maybe just my not-so-schwoopy ice cream maker, it never really hardened up. But the slushy stuff was delicious.

Then I made some pear muffins that weren't so great.
They looked kind of pretty and used two whole cups of pear pieces, but the batter was too cakey for my liking (I like a sturdier muffin) and had a weird after taste--like the bitterness of the baking powder was the final flavor on your tongue. Ewwwww. The pear pieces were the best part of the muffins and I found myself picking them out and leaving the cakey bits.

I love the suggestions folks have been sending in but unfortunately, I don't think I'll be able to do any of the whole (or even halved) poached pears which require long stretches of intact fruit. Compared to commercial pears, these lovely little honey bombs are 1) small and 2) likely to have at least one wee worm residing inside.
See the difference?
I like the idea of turning the rest of my lumpy supply into chutney, as one person suggested in the comments section of my previous pear post. I love a grilled sharp cheddar and chutney sandwich, preferably on Zingerman's Farm Bread.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A timely post

This week I made the Calabacitas that Halla brought to our most recent Gluttony Fest and I must report that it is a fabulous way to use up a whole LOT of summer squash in a very pleasant, easy dish.

It drives me batty when (this time of year) magazines or newspapers publish articles on how to diminish the overload of zucchini and summer squash and then include recipes that call for, say, 1/2 of a grated zucchini. People, we got squash coming out our ears this time of year! We need recipes that deal with quantity (quality too, of course). This one fits the bill deliciously.Patience is the secret to this squash tasting so good. Don't cook the onions or the squash over high heat--keep the heat on the low to medium side and let the vegetables become meltingly tender. There is no butter in this dish (ok, there is a sizeable quantity of cheese) but the squash tastes buttery when cooked slowly. I'm sure zucchini would taste just as good, but I'd miss the sunny glow of the summer squash since zucchini can get a bit muddy colored when cooked.

I took Halla's advice and made the effort to roast a couple of poblano chiles which were really great, just a mild background heat. The rest of the dish is so absurdly easy that roasting the chiles didn't even seem like much of an effort, despite the little bits of singed skin that are all over the stove now.

We ate this as a side dish tonight (with Pork and Hominy Stew) but it could make a nice light, vegetarian supper when accompanied by a salad and bread or quesadillas.

Calabacitas (Skillet Squash)

5 cubed small summer squash
1 diced large onion
2 roasted peeled diced poblano chiles or about 1 small can diced green chile
1 tablespoon neutral oil
3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Saute onion in oil over medium heat until soft--do not brown. Add squash and keep the heat medium low, stirring once in a while until the squash is tender (not tender crisp). Add chiles; simmer briefly. Sprinkle on cheese and stir until melted.

Pear Greed

My greed overcame me on Sunday when I went out to Ami and John's house. I brought over a raspberry buckle and came home with a cubic foot of pears. Lest you think I am exaggerating I show the proof:
These were all windfalls from Ami and John's trees--and there are plenty more pears up there that have not let gravity get the best of them (yet). For a free-fruit-freak like me, this is a wonderful way to start a week.

So now I am accumulating pear recipes to manage the bounty--so far I have a pear sorbet recipe and three different pear tarts to attempt (I'll post recipes or links if any of them turns out decent). I'm also planning on a pear/walnut/blue cheese salad. Suggestions for other favorite pear recipes I should try would be gratefully accepted at this time.

Excellent news for the caffeinated among us

If you are a coffee-loving Ann Arborite, there's good news to be had! Amazing Beans, the local coffee roaster who delivered your coffee to your doorstep the next day, has re-opened for business under the new name Mighty Good Coffee Roasting Company.

The former owner/roaster Johann Lee sold the business to two of his customers and today I received the following letter that I thought I'd share:

Dear Amazing Beans Customer,

I am writing to you for two reasons. First, I'd like to thank you for supporting Amazing Beans when it was in operation. I started Amazing Beans because I thought that Ann Arbor deserved and could support a local business that provided freshly roasted coffee using the best beans money could buy. I was, and remain, passionate about coffee, and I am grateful to you for your past support. I closed Amazing Beans because I could not make it work while working full time in another demanding professional job. I was simply unwilling to compromise on the quality of my product, and so I closed up the roaster. I am now headed to a new job out of state.

The second reason I write is to give you some good news. Fortunately for all of us, two of my former customers have bought the operation and will shortly resume roasting. Ann Arbor will again have access to the highest quality freshly roasted coffee delivered to your door. I have been working closely with the new owners. We have been roasting a lot of coffee together and I am convinced that they share my passion for delivering the best possible coffee. They will be buying their beans from the same sources I used. They will be using the same roaster and equipment I used. They will even be using the same roast profiles I used so you can again buy just what I was selling. While I'’m sure that there will be some changes, one thing won't change, a commitment to providing the best coffee you can buy anywhere.

I decided I was too fond of the name Amazing Beans to sell that too. The new business will be run under a name the new owners chose: Mighty Good Coffee. Their web site is simply I hope you'’ll support Mighty Good Coffee. I plan to be drinking it myself, and I'’ll be working with the new owners over the next several months as Mighty Good Coffee starts showing up at your doorstep.

Best wishes,
Johann Lee

As soon as I'm finished with the current bag of Peet's I'll be placing my order!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Where I been

Two weeks ago, my husband announced "Honey, I pulled a cottage out of my ass!" After recoiling in horror that such a structure was to be found up his colon, I realized that he was telling me that we were going on a last-minute vacation.

I spent the last week at a cottage called Snug Haven up at Georgian Bay, just north of Parry Sound.

It was just gorgeous; see, here is my kid looking poetic instead of frenetic:
We canoed or kayaked almost every day:
The last time I was there was when my now-six-year-old son was one. Brian and I took him on his first canoe camping trip out to Franklin Island and we visited the place again, this time for a picnic and a little skinny dipping.
It is a most excellent thing to be the one with the camera when skinny dipping.

The landscape is so beautiful it is hard to take in--there is a lot of mica in the pinkish granite rocks and this means that everything sparkles. You stick your hand into the shallow water and stir up a little sand and it looks like someone just dumped in a container of glitter. And thanks to the glaciers, there are the coolest chains of islands to explore--I found this image on Flickr that gives you a sense of all the little bays and inlets there are to poke around in a canoe. And much of the area is Crown Land so you can pull your boat out of the water and explore the islands and let your kids run around like little mountain goats without fear of trespassing.

The cottage itself was pretty nice--incredibly clean and spacious enough for me to enjoy a week with husband, kids and my mother-in-law (yes, we brought Brian's ma with us and didn't abuse the built-in-babysitter feature too much). However--you knew there had to be a "however" in there somewhere, right?--the kitchen supplies were woefully inadequate. I adjusted to the electric stove quickly enough and it wasn't an evil one like our old "inferno". But I can't understand how anyone is expected to make a sandwich, much less a meal, with one crappy 3 inch serrated knife.

Note to self: things to bring to supplement otherwise-perfectly-satisfactory-rental-cottage:
  • your own chef, paring and bread knife
  • a decent sized cutting board
  • your cast iron skillet
  • a pot wide and deep enough to cook 5 ears of corn on the cob (for one meal I had three tiny pots of water boiling each of which fit 3 halves of a cob of corn)
  • a salad spinner
I did remember to bring my little red Melita coffee cone and filters so I didn't have a replay of my disastrous encounter with an unknown coffee maker from last October.

So I spent last week cooking a lot of food on the grill (to get around the absence of reasonable sized pots), canoeing, kayaking, reading three terrific books--Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Mary and O'Neil, and Small Island (reviews to come shortly)
and mostly managing to stop obsessing about the start of a new school year and whether Ian's new teacher will "get" him or not.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Room to think

Open the door (and please note the pretty glass door knob you are turning), come on in. Welcome to my thinking room.
Yes, folks, after 5 years of weekend projects my office is finally habitable! I no longer have to tap away at my keyboard in a dark unheated corner of the house (though the duct work isn't actually finished in this room either...sigh). Now I have this lovely airy space to call my own:
To the right of my desk is a whole wall of book shelves with the gems from my old collection now accessible and not packed away in my parents' basement, and with the rest (lots of good books, mind you, just ones I don't plan to read again or need to reference with urgency) donated to the Friends of the AADL bookshop.

Is it just a fluke that when unloading and sorting all the stored books I found three copies of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own? Not at all. (Yes, two are now available for sale at the library!)

I was once castigated by one of my grad student officemates for liking such a white, bourgeois treatise, but guess what? I'm white and kinda bourgeois (with a little rebellious bent, I like to think). This officemate mocked Virginia for complaining about the difference between the meals that women at university were served compared to the relative splendor of the men's accommodations and, while I take her point that there are graver injustices in the world than bad food and drafty rooms, I think the essay makes its point and can be extended to people whose live in much more dire conditions. Later she lays it down: "Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?"

I'm not claiming that I'm going to create great works of art in this room, but I do have a new sense of mental freedom to now have a space of my own (and I have plenty of wine!) In a completely unintentional move, this room has also become the most feminine in the house--to start off with there is my pretty doorknob (which Brian picked out), and then there is this curvaceous light fixture on the ceiling:
You can't tell when it is off (or really see it in this picture), but the shades have a gentle pink color which I was surprised by when I first turned it on, but have grown to like.

And then there is the unintentional femininity of the curtains. I had a dickens of a time finding any sort of fabric that would look ok with the (I now realize slightly eccentric) blue paint I chose and serve as half curtains for my five (count em' 5!) windows that look out on the street. I think the blue is the color of the perfect summer sky, but clearly most textiles were not designed to coordinate with the summer sky...I tried hanging rice paper, I bought some raw silk that ended up looking like a Chanel summer suit draped over a curtain rod, and finally I found amidst the chaos of the Joann fabric sales shelf this grass green linen fabric, with what I thought was rather subtle embroidery on it:
Only when I got home and unfurled the stuff I found out that the whole time (including when they measured and cut the fabric for me) I had been looking at the wrong side. When flipped over, it turned out that the embroidery was done in silver and there were a whole lot of sequins too!
Surprise! A little more femininity than I had intended (Brian is not sold on it--though he admits it isn't his office--and complains that the place looks like a disco in the early morning when the sun coming in the East windows glances off all the sequins and makes the room all sparkly.) I would have been way too chicken intentionally to buy sequined fabric, but it is a happy mistake and gives the room a touch of whimsy and reminds me to lighten up and not take myself too seriously.

I have left-over fabric which, for a very brief moment, I thought about turning into a fairy dress for Fiona, but then it dawned on me that sewing the super basic straight seams for the curtains had pretty much maxed out my sewing skills. If anyone with more sewing skill than I have would like 1.5 yards of sparkly green linen, just let me know. Otherwise the cat will claim it as nap spot #58.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Old School

I have to thank Ami for recomending the Tobias Wolff novel Old School.

The book passes through so many moods. In the first chapters, the narrator lays out the atmosphere of his boarding school in the early 1960's and shows us how the boys with literary aspiration mimic their favorite writers. There is a fantastic conscious parody of Hemingway: "Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore." It made me laugh so hard I risked inhaling my coffee.

Then the book shifts into a different section, much more about self-discovery than about the institution, and how a competition reveals what kind of men the boys will likely grow up to be. There is a culminating event (which I'm not going to give away) which in any other author's novel would be The Climax, the do-all and end-all, the tragic moment. But while writing clean, clear prose, Wolff inserts a much more complex view of the world and doesn't stop the story here. Bad stuff happens, characters make stupid decisions, but life doesn't stop there, nor is a life necessarily ruined by a major mistake.

The last section of the book is more reflective, the adult narrator contemplating the institution of the boarding school from afar, how he eventually became a writer, and what he learns about and from his old Masters. It would be very easy to lapse into sentimentality in this section but Wolff touches on innocence, self-awareness and memory so lightly that it never gets bogged down.

I'm trying to think of another writer who manages to convey the balance between masculine desire for power or dominance with the craving for tenderness. I'm not sure what it is about these passages that touches me so much, but the last line of the book (which doesn't give any of the plot away, if you are worried about spoilers) is an example that makes me all choked up when I read and re-read it:

"...he felt no more than a boy again--but a very well-versed boy who couldn't help thinking of the scene described by these old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him."

(Even such a heathen as I am, I managed to recognize the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)--Thanks undergrad "Bible as Literature" class!)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Gluttony fest # 3000 or so....

Book group met on Tuesday evening and this time I remembered to wear shorts with a very loose waist band. An excellent piece of foresight since the evening quickly turned into our usual Gluttony Fest.

We read Louise Erdrich's The Antelope Wife which, I think we all agreed, was not one of her best; definitely not in the class of The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. The story was very fragmented and while Erdrich often shows what tangled family lines are all about, this one felt both more tangled and less subtle than the others. I felt like I was being beaten over the head with family disfunction and intermarriage. It didn't help that I had a first edition copy which did not have a family tree included--clearly the editors received some feedback about this omission and its use-value for readers because the family tree appears in all the subsequent editions of the book.

But back to the food....

We were a bit loose with the food connections to the book with the great exception of Ami and Sarah's contribution (noted below).

I brought an aperitif and canapes consisting of Bellini's made with a puree of local red haven peaches and prosecco sparkling wine. The canapes were a terrific (and really easy) assemblage of baguette topped with smoked trout and then blopped with a sauce made of creme fraiche, mayo, lemon, chives and dill (recipe at the end of this post).
While sipping and nibbling, we watched Ami make frybread (which was mentioned numerous times in the book). Here you see Ami demonstrating the many uses of the spirit hole that is punched in the center of each piece of dough:
Some of the frybread (cooked in pure Lard! Yum!) were popped into a bag with cinnamon and sugar and shaken until coated. The others were sprinkled with salt. Both were damn good. In this photo you can see Halla's nicely manicured fingers making a grab for one.
For the main course, Marilyn shared the bounty of her glorious garden with us in a potato, corn, roasted chile chowder (gotta get that recipe). The corn was so sweet and still a little crisp and the chile gave it a nice kick.
And then there was the overladen plate to go with the chowder. From top and then proceeding clockwise around the plate you see: Halla's cheesy and meltingly tender summer squash dish, Meg's garlicy tequila shrimp, a varied summer fruit salad provided by Diane, some of Marilyn's roasted beets (if she didn't provide them, I probably would have snuck away from the table and been found in the garden eating them raw with dirt smears all over my face, so thanks Marilyn, for accomodating my beet fixation!), and a pasta salad she made with the beet greens, dried cherries and Parmesan, and a salad that Lea brought with toasted pine nuts and sliced pears. Whew!
It was incredibly tempting to go back and get seconds on some of these fantastic dishes, but already I was feeling rotund in the belly region and I knew we still had dessert to contend with, so I stayed put and had another glass of wine instead!

Sarah made a blitzkuchen--a cake which is prominent in the book--and I brought along a quart of raspberries that we picked at Makielski's the other day. Thankfully the cake wasn't over the top rich--Sarah's inspired addition of lemon zest brightened the cake and helped it to not sink beneath the medly of complex flavors that preceded it.
No, we didn't serve it with a candle on the plate; by desert time it was pretty dark and we were eating outside so votive lighting by Marilyn-the-pyromaniac was the way to go.

The next book around which the glutton-group will assemble is:
Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

Smoked Trout Canapes with Lemon Chive Sauce
adapted from the NY Times dining section, August 9, 2006

2 medium smoked trout filets
1/4 C mayo

1/2 C creme fraiche (1/2 C heavy cream with 1/2 T buttermilk stirred in and allowed to sour overnight in a warmish place)

zest of two lemons
2 t lemon juice

1 T chopped chives, plus some extra for sprinkling over the top

2 T minced dill

1 baguette, sliced thin into rounds
  • Peel skin off of trout and discard. Break up trout filets into pieces that will fit on top of the baguette slices.
  • In a small bowl, combine mayo, creme fraiche, lemon zest, lemon juice, chives and dill. Mix well.
  • Place a piece of trout on a slice of baguette and top with a blob of the sauce. Sprinkle with reserved chives.