Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Not going to win prizes in the looks department....

The other day I made a soup that was oh so tasty but pretty damn ugly:

Let's face it, the inside of an eggplant is not exactly attractive and that's the main ingredient. If you take away the artfully scattered drops of lemon olive oil and the sprinkle of za'atar, then you are left with something that looks like sludge.  

But it's really tasty sludge. So this isn't a recipe that you are going to make for its looks. And looks aren't everything, right? The soup is makes up for it by being smokey, silky and piquant in every spoonful.  Did I also mention that it is ridiculously easy to make? I've made it three times in the last month and the recipe has been filed in my recipe binder--this one is a keeper, even if it isn't very pleasant to look at.

Smoky eggplant soup
adapted from this recipe in the New York Times

2 lbs eggplant(s)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups sliced yellow onions
Salt and pepper
6 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of cayenne
6 cups mild vegetable broth (I used this Better than Bouillon stuff and it works great here)
4 T lemon juice
1 tablespoon za’atar (Middle Eastern blend of thyme, sesame seeds, salt and sumac)
  • Poke a couple of holes in the eggplants with a paring knife, then place on a baking sheet under a hot broiler, about 2 inches from the flame. Cook until the skin has blackened and charred. Turn and cook on other sides until eggplant is soft and the skin is charred all around. This took me probably 10-15 minutes, keeping an eye on the eggplant and rotating it with tongs.  Set aside to cool, then remove and discard skins, scraping away any flesh that sticks to the skins (that's where you get the nice smokey flavor) then roughly chop the eggplant flesh.
  • Put the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, season generously with salt and pepper, and cook until softened and beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, cayenne and eggplant flesh and cook 1 minute more, then add broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes. 
Either use your immersion blender and blend until smooth, or blend in batches in a regular blender. Add lemon juice to puréed soup and taste again, adding more as necessary. Soup should be well seasoned and rather lemony.
Top each serving with about a teaspoon of za'atar. 

(If you want the pretty lemon olive oil droplets to detract from the dinge, then mix a teaspoon of finely grated lemon zest with two tablespoons of olive oil and dribble a little over each serving. I thought it made a negligible impact on taste so I wouldn't make the effort, unless you are really worried about the sludge-look. And if you are really worried about the looks because you have some judgmental diners on your hands, then you probably also want to follow the original recipe and put some chopped parsley on top, too.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Perfect book for the perfect place

While off on our canoe camping trip to Georgian Bay in July, I had the perfect book to read.  This has not always been the situation: I have problems in my hum drum daily life when I don't have a worthy book and, even worse, get very anxious about running out of reading material entirely while on a trip. In particular the memory of a camping trip to Isle Royale where I was an 8 hour boat ride away from the main land and any reading material replenishment opportunities haunts me. I read and re-read everything I had with me, including an insipid children's book that I brought for my kids.  When I don't have a story to occupy my mind, even when I'm not actively reading, it's like I can't track where I'm going, like I'm out of balance and even things that have nothing to do with reading are harder to do without the undercurrent of an in-progress story to keep some part of my mind going.

One move I made was to buy a Nook. I'm a big fan of paper and don't really enjoy the feel of reading on the screen, but I do like the security of having a whole lot of books at my fingertips when I am away from home (and all my New Yorker issues are uploaded to it automatically so even after I've recycled them or passed them on to my dad, I still have access!) I went for a basic black and white screen, not one of the color ereaders because battery longevity is a primary concern for me. When you are camping out on an island, hours away from the nearest electrical source, you want that battery to last as long as possible.

I am not the ideal ebook customer because I am a tightwad and what with how much I read, if I had to purchase each book I'd be broke. I am a BIG library supporter so the other clincher in the decision to buy an ereader was that the library now has a way for you to borrow ebooks. The website is tedious to navigate and their classification of lots of trashy romance under "literature" makes searching for titles an exercise in practicing calming breaths, but there are some decent titles buried in there that are available to borrow for 2 or 3 week periods of time, including some books that my kids want to read. My daughter has inherited my book-dependence and gets pretty crabby if she doesn't have something good to read so this ensures a basic level of happiness for her on camping trips, too. The only problem comes when we both want to use the Nook at the same time.

I did make an exception to my tightwad principles to buy the ebook version of Neil Gaiman's latest book The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Barnes and Noble had a special which made it half off, which helped with the decision, but the book was so good that paying full price for it would be fine.  I'm not a rabid Gaiman fan--I didn't really like American Gods and I'm not a big fan of the Sandman graphic novels that brought him a lot of his early fame and while plenty of people love the tv show Dr Who and his contributions to it, it just hasn't clicked for me. I enjoyed his novel Neverwhere, but it didn't capture me as much as his last two books. It may have something to do with the age of the main character's in both Ocean  and The Graveyard Book. The perspective of a child is a natural fit for books where the prose is elegantly simple while the story is fantastical. I love this combination. Florid prose would detract from the story content and but the "clean" style that Gaiman uses in these stories makes wacky ideas (like a vampire guardian for Nob, or a hole in a boy's foot serving as a doorway to another world) seem completely plausible and even natural. There's a bare minimum of "explaining" any of these things--they just are. And that lends the stories a sense of wistfulness and it feels as though I am remembering something like this from my past, a time when reality was less solid and the world contained more possibilities.

This was the book that I had when we were out on Big McCoy island, a 6 hour paddle from the mainland, a quiet and beautiful place where this book was the perfect companion. I read it once and then, despite all the archived copies of the New Yorker available to me, I went back and read it again. It's magical when book and place line up so well and I'm pretty sure that when I think back on this camping trip, among the islands and water and swimming, I'll remember this story, too.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Summer Refreshment

I recently returned from one of the most beautiful places on earth:

Ah, Georgian Bay, how I love you. (That's Little McCoy Island pictured above. We canoed out and camped on nearby Big McCoy Island last week.)

Now that we're home I'm trying to prolong that vacation feeling and a nice cold drink seemed like the most efficient way to do so. I also may just be attempting to avoid the reality of the coming week in which my better half and I attempt to put up all the trim in the addition that we have learned (quite happily) to live without due to severe construction-fatigue. Luckily, alcohol is a multi-purpose sort of thing! While cracking a cold beer is always pleasant, I've rediscovered an old summer drink favorite:

The Pimm's Cup (variation #2)

It seems particularly appropriate to write about it today since, according to Wikipedia, it is one of the staple drinks at Wimbledon which just had the first British male singles winner in 77 years--so I raise a glass (well, a mason jar) to you Andy Murray!

There are lots of different recipes out there for a Pimm's Cup so I'm trying out a few of them (research, you know...). All include Pimm's No. 1 (duh), cucumber, ice and some sort of fizz. But after that you find plenty of other stuff thrown in: lemon, orange, strawberries, extra gin, and mint are some of the players. I'm game to try them all except for the mint. I'm saving my mint for mojitos and mint sounds like it would compete with the juniper in gin (even if you don't use extra gin, Pimm's No. 1 is gin-based. The other numbers have different bases like Pimm's No. 3 is brandy-based and No. 6 is vodka-based but most of the other numbers are hard to come by or have been phased out.) I think I might be too much of a lightweight to substitute champagne for the soda mixer but if anyone out there tries it (and can remember after trying it...) let me know what kind of a taste sensation it provides!

So far, I like my variation #1 best:
cucumber, orange slice, Pimm's and ginger ale.

#2 was pretty tasty too:
cucumber, lemon slice, sliced strawberry, Pimm's and 7-Up.

Next to be tried will be the #1 with extra gin and maybe extra cucumber.
UPDATE: extra gin is good, particularly if you don't have to go anywhere anytime soon! Adding double lemon and double cucumber makes it almost like a salad so you can pretend it is healthy, too.

The basic method is the same:
Take a mason jar (or a high-ball glass for those of you who have appropriate bar-ware) and drop a thick slice of cucumber in the bottom. Add a thick slice of orange or lemon. Then muddle the hell out of them (I use the handle end of a wooden spoon and find it quite therapeutic). Then add lots of ice, pour over 2 oz of Pimm's (you can add another 1/2 oz of gin now if you want to amp up the flavor and potency of the drink), and fill up the glass with your fizzy sweet soda of choice (or use sparkling water, agave nectar and extra lemon juice if you are adverse to purchasing commercial soda. Or the afore mentioned champagne if you are up for it). Use the end of the wooden spoon to stir it all up and then top with any accoutrements or garnishes you desire: a sliced strawberry gives you fun little boozy snacks to fish out while you are drinking, another slice of un-muddled cuke would look nice too since the muddled one is mush now.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Goodbye old friend

My old toaster finally died. This toaster has been something of a minor miracle in toaster-dom: I inherited it from the previous tenants when I sublet an apartment in the summer of (drum roll please) 1990. I have no idea how old it was then, but it survived some period of time in an apartment with 3 men in their 20s and then went on to have 23 years of toasting bliss with me.

Of course, it died the day I made 12 jars of strawberry jam. Which meant that I was thrust into a toasting emergency.

My first move was to see if I could find the same toaster. And apparently I'm not the only one who loved their Maxim one-slot toaster. It seems that they are now only available in Australia. The only American result for Maxim is the trashy men's magazine which is not what I want to look at when toast-deprived. Actually, even when toast-satiated, I could do without Maxim-the-magazine's images.

Then I spent way toooo much time researching toasters. I read reviews at Cook's Illustrated, Consumer Reports, BHG product reviews, Amazon reviews, etc. I complicated the matter by considering regular toasters and toaster ovens, particularly once I saw the price of new standard toasters that got good reviews. If I'm going to drop over $100 it would be nice if the thing did more than just toast. The kids are still kind of intimidated by the big oven and with a summer of lunches at home looming on the horizon, the idea of them making their own tuna melts was a big plus. 

Finally I couldn't stand thinking about it any more and, after shoving some stuff around in the kitchen to figure out counter space, I bit the bullet and bought this baby:

I bought it because it has the word "smart" in the title, because who wants a stupid toaster? No, seriously this is just about the only toaster OR toaster oven out there that gets pretty universal rave reviews. And it is Australian, too. (I must investigate this Australia/toast correlation further.)  

It cost $149 at Bed Bath and Beyond and unfortunately, they don't let you use their 20% off coupons on Breville products. There are bigger versions of the oven too, but since I have no need to toast 6 pieces of bread at once or any inclination to shove a whole chicken in the thing, I figured the mini one would do me fine, and gobble up a few inches less of counter space.

So far, I've toasted three kinds of bread: sliced wheat, Zingerman's paesano bread and a half a frozen sesame bagel and I have to say, this baby makes damn good toast. The dark setting really is dark! The light setting really is light! And it has a little snowflake button to press for when you are toasting stuff straight from the freezer that produced a beautifully golden bagel. And I'm looking forward to trying out the oven-ish stuff soon.

Monday, May 27, 2013

new(ish) toy

It'll be salad season soon and that means salad dressing. For someone whose favorite food is salad, I have a conflicted relationship with salad dressing. I had a basic formula that usually turned out pretty decently, but I still hated it when the last drops were used up and I had to make some more: chopping the shallots was fiddly, the garlic press would sometimes just smoosh the garlic so I'd have to pick that out and rechop it, and all of it had to be crammed down a funnel and usually poked with a chopstick to get it into the glass bottle in which I made my salad dressing. And sometimes (almost always) I was too lazy to measure the stuff and would end up with a dressing that was too acidy or too blah and the thought of getting out the damn funnel again and adding to it was so unappealing that I wouldn't do it and we'd just suffer through the inferior dressing until it was gone.

But no more. For Christmas, I got a new toy:
(except mine is silver instead of white.)

It's great for the expected stuff: blending soups in the pot instead of slopping stuff back and forth to the blender; the little chopper does a great job on onions which is particularly good when I either have a lot of onions to chop, or am cooking with a kid (eliminates the complaints about slipperiness and eye stinging).

The whisk thingy isn't so useful for me. I used it once to whip some cream when the mixer bowl was sitting in the sink waiting to be cleaned and it was ok, but I'd always choose the stand mixer if both were available.

But the real revelation has come in the making of salad dressing. This thing does an amazing job making emulsified dressing with almost no effort. And I can taste as I go so I don't make a jar-full-of-blah. And no chopping. And I can make it a slightly creamy vinaigrette with some yogurt with no clumps or lumps which never worked with the shaken kind. And it never separates (well, maybe if you left it for a month it might, but it never sticks around that long around here.)

There's a measuring beaker that I can make it in, with a rubber cap, but I usually prefer a wide-mouth mason canning jar because the lid stays on nice and tight and there are people here who sometimes shove stuff into the fridge without looking where they are shoving. Anyway, back to the dressing.

I toss in a whole garlic clove and about three wee peeled shallots (I grow these and they don't come out honkin' huge like some that you get at the market, and that's fine with me because I like them small) and some salt and pepper.

Then I add dijon mustard, plain yogurt and a little something sweet--honey or maple syrup--just enough to round out the flavors.

Then I glug in some sherry vinegar and maybe a little lemon juice and give it the first buzz with the hand blender.


Add the oil (olive or canola and almost always some roasted walnut oil)

Then it's the second buzz buzz time and in seconds I have perfectly blended and emulsified salad dressing (that also doesn't separate so no shaking necessary).

I don't yet have real "recipe" proportions; I'll try and remember to measure the next time I make it. And I'm very excited to try some new variations--I have plenty of mason jars! I'm thinking a soy mustard vinaigrette is in order, maybe one with miso and rice vinegar and ginger and orange juice, maybe another with avocado subbing for the yogurt and some fresh basil.

Stand by for updates!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Soup to soothe the stir-crazy soul

It is April 20th and there is (albeit a light dusting of) snow.  This is not welcome when I'm at the "ugh" stage of the year in relation to preparing dinner.  Spring may have officially come, but I'm sick to death of root vegetables. I'm even sick of my favorite winter comfort dinner (homemade mac and cheese, lots of kale with garlic and lemon, and roasted beets).

I was digging through my recipe binder and came across this soup and there's something about the abundance of spinach and the saffron in the broth that keeps it from feeling like another damn winter soup. It's still pretty hearty, but it gives some hint that seasonal warmth may be coming.

The original recipe is from the New York Times and, in my view, it is unnecessarily complicated. There entire first step seems unnecessary to me: they have you blanch all the spinach, save the water that it is blanched in for the broth, and then add it back in at the end. Maybe their soup ended up a little brighter green in color than mine, but I chucked this advice and instead just added the (fresh) spinach to the soup at the very end. It cooks in the broth and you get rid of one finicky step. And as you can see below, it doesn't produce spinach the color of mud.

That's green enough for me.

The other thing I changed from the recipe was their instruction for the baguette and cheese. They say sprinkle the cheese on top of the egg and serve with baguette. I say, layer some baguette in each bowl, top with the gruyere and then ladle your soup over the top.

That way you get surprise gooey-cheesy bread under your top layer of soup which, along with the saffron in the broth, was probably my favorite thing about this recipe. This also means that if you only have slightly stale baguette around (or other farm/rustic-type bread) and don't want to go to the store, no one will ever know!  Next time I make it, I plan to rub these slightly stale bread pieces with a cut garlic clove before plopping them in the bowl because that just sounds like it would make it even better.

Spinach, Saffron Soup with Egg 
adapted from this recipe in the New York Times
(they said served 6, I thought 4 was more realistic)

1 pound baby spinach, rinsed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, cut in half lengthwise and rinsed of all grit, then sliced thin OR 1 C of Trader Joe's frozen leek slices, thawed
Salt to taste
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, cut in thin slices
A bouquet garni made with a bay leaf and a couple of sprigs each thyme and parsley (and if you have it, a fennel sprig)
Generous pinch of saffron
Freshly ground pepper
4 eggs (unless you are going to serve small portions to more people, then one egg per person)
3 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated 
thin slices baguette or other rustic bread, rubbed with a cut piece of garlic

1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion and leek. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and the garlic, stir over medium heat until the garlic smells fragrant, no more than a minute, and stir in 2 quarts of water, the potatoes, bouquet garni and salt to taste. Bring to a boil, add the saffron, and turn the heat to low. Cover and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender but still intact and the broth is fragrant.

2. Stir in the spinach, cover and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes. Add pepper, remove the bouquet garni, taste and adjust seasonings.

3. Keep the soup at a bare simmer. Break each egg into the soup. Cover and continue to simmer until the eggs are set, about 5 minutes.

4. At the bottom of each bowl put a couple of pieces of baguette and a generous sprinkle of cheese. Serve the soup, with an egg in each bowl. Sprinkle the egg with a little more cheese if you are so inclined.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

New Cookbooks

It has been a long time since I bought a new cookbook but today I splurged on two:

 The Sprouted Kitchen by Sarah Forte
and Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi

My reasons for purchasing these two are completely different: the first book reminds me of what I already do well and the second pushes me to extend my thinking. I checked both books out of the library before buying them. That's what I always do with cookbooks to make sure that it isn't just one recipe that I've seen featured on a blog that I like.

I didn't learn anything radically new in The Sprouted Kitchen but leafing through the recipes, I kept getting jolts of "Oh yeah! I haven't made something like that in a while!" It looks like a perfect book for when I'm too tired to try anything particularly challenging and can't think of what to cook.  Recipes like walnut crusted salmon with edamame mash, honey mustard broccoli salad and toasted millet salad with arugula, quick pickled onions, and goat cheese all sound pretty easy and like they'd get me out of a rut when I'm burned out. And I like that while the recipes are healthy, they aren't excessively so--there's no scolding or preaching and plenty of recipes include cheese or a small amount of meat and suggestions like "grilled flank steak would go well with this salad."

Yotam Ottolenghi's book pushes me a little out of my comfort zone. The only recipe that I've actually cooked from the book was a delicious spice cookie at Christmas time, but I've made some of the recipes from his previous book, Plenty, and from his Guardian column like this parsley, lemon and bean salad and this herb soup, both of which produced intensely flavorful dishes. I don't know if I could eat Ottolenghi's food everyday but his recipes are a great shake up for when I'm really sick of what I usually cook. In Jerusalem, I'm looking forward to trying the hot yogurt and barley soup, pureed beets with yogurt and zaatar, lemony leek meatballs and saffron chicken and herb salad.

If you've cooked from either of these books, let me know your favorites (or duds!)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

An inconvenient craving

Apparently, I am not the only person in my area who craves Zingerman's lemon scones. The last few times I attempted to obtain one, they were already sold out and that left me feeling a little grumpy. So rather than face disappointment at the store again today, I decided to try to make them at home.

I've had plenty of lemon zest in scones over the years, but other than the Zingerman's scone which I am craving, all have had shards of raw zest in the dough. This is fine when the zest is just there as an enhancer, say to make a cranberry scone taste a little brighter. But it has never been enough to make the citrus flavor the star of the scone. The Zingerman's lemon scones rely on copious quantities of candied lemon zest. The zest is in the same quantity that you'd add currants or dried cranberries and this lends them a powerful, floral intensity.

Texture-wise, these are more delicate than the scones I grew up on, which used milk and egg to bind together the flour-butter combination. These are cream scones (with no egg) and are more ethereal than my regular tasty-but-sturdy variety. They are amazing when freshly baked, though I think they dry out quickly and are less palatable when day old (if you have enough self control to have any left the next day). Next time I make them, I may try and freeze a couple to see whether they could be thawed and then refreshed in a warm oven and keep their tenderness.

Instead of an egg wash or brushing the scones with milk and sprinkling them with demerara sugar, these get a little dusting of powdered sugar once they've cooled. Normally, I'm not a big fan of powdered sugar. But the treatment here is minimal: they are still recognizable as a scone, and the touch of sweetness makes them kind of magical.

Making the zest is a bit of a pain--it's easy enough to do, but an extra step. I'm thinking that maybe I'll make a big batch of candied zest and then freeze it in 1/4 C portions, so I can churn these out quickly. Then again, they're pretty decadent so that might be a bit of a dangerous proposition...

Lemon Scones
recipe adapted from this one for Zingerman's Currant Scones

for the candied zest:
1-2 lemons (or double the recipe and have some left over to freeze for future batches)
1 C sugar

Use a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife to slice off the top layer of the lemon's peel--try to get as little pith as possible. Fill a small pot with cold water, chuck in the strips of zest and bring to a boil. Drain then repeat two more times (this gets any bitterness out and softens up the zest). After draining the third time, put 1 C sugar and 1 C water into the pot and heat until the sugar dissolves. Toss in the blanched zest and turn the heat down so it is just simmering. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the zest is tender and looks a little translucent. Cool, then fish it out of the syrup and put on a chopping board and chop it into medium-fine pieces (about the size of a raisin, if a raisin was flat).

for the scones:
1.5 C all purpose flour
2.5 T sugar
1.5 t baking powder
.5 t salt
1/4 C cold butter, cut into 1/4" cubes
1/4 C chopped candied lemon zest
3/4 C heavy cream
2 T powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 400.
Put all the dry ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to mix. Add the butter and pulse until it is partially incorporated. Dump into a mixing bowl and rub the bigger butter/flour lumps between your fingers to flatten (this makes the scones flakey). Add the candied zest. Then stir in the cream and turn out on a floured surface. Knead a few times and pat into a circle 1/2"thick. Divide into 6 large, pie-shaped wedges (or make 12 smaller scones, just bake them for a shorter time).

Put on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 15-18 minutes until delicately golden brown around the edges. Cool for a few minutes then dust the tops with powdered sugar.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Let us celebrate the return of cake to this home!

We had a birthday here last weekend and for the first time in five years I made a cake for my family*! I should explain that the cake boycott has not been of my choosing, but of the critters. My strange children have expressed distain for cake in just about any format. They are ice cream kids all the way. So usually birthdays involve make-your-own sundaes.

The boycott may also have a teensy bit to do with my holding a grudge. At the girl-critter's 5th birthday  party I knocked myself out, making Mexican chocolate cake with swiss buttercream frosting (yeah, the kind where you are handling boiling sugar syrup and which results in the best frosting ever) and she wouldn't even taste a tiny crumb.

So I was a little bit dubious when she asked for a specific cake this year. Last year, her class studied Panama for their school-wide multicultural fair and one nice parent brought in a Tres Leches Cake to the class. I credit the positive side of peer-pressure for the fact that the girl critter was willing to taste it. And surprisingly, she loved it. When I looked up the recipe, I dragged the critter over to the computer and, with a voice laced with incredulity, said "Really? That's what you want?"

I know I've kvetched here and on my blog solely devoted to their food-weirdness about all the normal things they won't eat, but I don't know if I ever mentioned their aversion to whipped cream. How can you hate whipped cream??? But every time they have been confronted with it, they have diligently scraped off every offending bit (and I, just as diligently, scoop it into my mouth). So when I saw that all the recipes for this cake dictate topping it with copious quantities of whipped cream, I was a little dubious.  The girl critter squinched up her nose when she heard what the cake topping was, but was game to have me make it.

So I did and didn't even stock up on ice cream in case she got cold feet.

Oh my god, is this ever good cake: light and rich at the same time, and super, super creamy.
 Not visually impressive...
 But very well received!

I think only one kid at the party totally turned it down and one more complained that it was "wet" which is an accurate description.  Essentially, you make a cake that is like a big dry sponge and then soak it with the three milks of the title: heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk.
Then you frost the whole thing with lightly sweetened whipped cream. The traditional topping is a little half of maraschino cherry on each slice, but my critters hate cherries so I grated a little bit of bittersweet chocolate over the top. I expected it just to look nice, but the little touch of chocolate was surprisingly (and in my opinion, welcomely) prominent.

The recipe I used was this one from The Pioneer Woman Cooks blog. The only change I made was the aforementioned chocolate gratings rather than cherries and I added 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract to the whipped cream topping. Otherwise, I recommend going and following her very entertaining directions.

I am a little bit proud of my idea for what to do with the leftover three-milks cake-soaking stuff. You'll have anywhere between 1 and 2 cups leftover (depending on how much your particular cake is willing to soak up) so instead of throwing the stuff away, I stuck it in the fridge and made french toast with it a few days later. Left over milks + two eggs = really good, sweetened from within (no syrup necessary) french toast.

*I've made cakes for other people since then--it isn't as though I've been in a cake-less wilderness--but my critters have never chosen to sample them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


A good book in Winter is satisfying in a way that a good book in Summer just can't compare. So I feel very  lucky that I just finished reading Jo Baker's The Undertow now and not, say, in July. It would still be good then, but this is the perfect book with which to curl up on a couch on a chilly gray day and sink in.

The book follows four generations of a family from WWI to 2005 and I couldn't pick a favorite character, there were so many who won me over, even if, later in the story, they were shown from another character's perspective to be seriously flawed. I think the moment that will stick with me most is the one in which Ruby in WWII London takes what could have been a completely traumatic experience and reshapes it so that "even though it is now over, things had been, for just a little while, how they should be."

It's such a relief to find an author who doesn't want to convince you of the crumminess of the human race. The characters in this novel are all flawed, but rendered so sympathetically and with such kindness that I understood and forgave all of them their weaknesses. There were many places where a different author would have made choices that would have brought more dramatic crises into the plot and I was relieved each time that Baker did not--the worst possible outcome for each segment would have been flashier, but also easier. And though one character does die in a horrific way, it turns out that this is not the worst possible outcome for the rest of the characters: that possibility looms later in the book and still, Baker doesn't succumb to the temptation to throw her characters off the deep end. I think it is harder to make the non-extreme choice and still make it compelling and interesting.

I really hope that this book is successful enough to get the publishers to issue all her previous novels in the US. They have issued The Telling  and plan to issue her next book, called Longbourne (a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servant's point of view) later this year. Based on the popularity of the subject matter for the latter book, it will probably sell really well. So I have hopes of someday getting to read The Mermaid's Child, and Offcomer. Though if they drag their feet, I might just have to order copies to be shipped from the UK.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

knitting, or not!

The other day my girl critter checked out a book from the library that had a load of knitting patterns for her kind of creatures, namely bugs, squid and other creatures that creep most people out. At first I anticipated many hours of fiddling with tiny needles trying to craft these creatures, and then I took a look at the patterns and realized that it has been so long since I knit that I honestly could look the kid in the eye and tell her I couldn't make heads or tails of the instructions.

So I dodged that bullet. But it did get me thinking, what the heck happened to that sweater I started, oh, about 2 years ago?

I dug around a little bit and at the back of a closet in a knitting bag I found this:

That looks to me like a sweater that is totally done except for one cuff. Maybe 8-10 rows of knitting max and a few buttons to sew on.

Seriously, if I had made just a tiny bit more effort I could have been wearing this thing for the last two years. Pathetic.

I know my knitting decreased dramatically when I stopped attending a whole lot of meetings, meetings in which I knit so that I didn't go crazy. I decided that those meetings, while excellent for my knitting productivity, were not so good for my mental health so I stopped going to them.

But hey, one of those evenings when I'm skipping a meeting (yes, I still write them on my calendar in case I have some burst of happy-Kate-ness that I decide to expend not on my family but on attending a meeting...) I think I should probably finish up that cuff. If I can remember how.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Heat through spices

We've been having painfully cold weather lately and that has made me crave Indian food. I know some people turn to hearty, meaty stews and roasts. I see the benefit of having the oven cranked on if just to open the door occasionally to check on what's inside and enjoy the blast of heat that surrounds your face, but I find that the warming spices in many Indian dishes do a great job of thawing me out.

Tonight I made my lastest favorite Indian dish: chana masala with mushrooms. I also made my stand-by (and possibly the easiest Indian dish ever) spinach simmered in yogurt (into which I also chucked a little cubed tofu aka cheater's paneer), rice and raita. The chana masala is pungent from three types of whole seeds that are toasted in oil at the very beginning of cooking. Unlike ground spices, which flavor a dish more uniformly, the whole spices keep each bite interesting with little kapows of flavor when you bite into a few fennel seeds, then a contrasting intensity when the next bite contains a cluster of mustard seeds. It's my way to stay toasty warm in winter.

Chana Masala with Mushrooms
adapted from this recipe on Herbivoracious

  • 1.5 C cooked chickpeas (home cooked will be firmer, which I like, but use canned and rinse them if you're short on time)
  • 2 T canola oil
  • 2 t black mustard seeds
  • 1 t fennel seeds
  • 1 t cumin seeds
  • 2 cloves of garlic, pressed or minced fine
  • 1 small onion, diced small
  • 1 medium tomato, diced (or use about 1/2 c canned diced tomato)
  • 1 C button mushrooms, quartered
  • 2 t dried tumeric
  • 1/4 t cinnamon
  • pinch ground cloves
  • 1/4 t cayenne pepper
  • 2 T lemon juice (or maybe a little more depending on how juicy/acidic your tomato is)
  • 1 t salt
  • cilantro (optional)
In a saucepan, heat the vegetable oil and chuck in your whole seeds. Cook until the mustard seeds start to pop (watch out, they can fly high!) Then add the onion, garlic and tomato and cook down until the liquid is gone and maybe the contents are browning a bit.

Add the mushrooms, chickpeas, tumeric, cinnamon, cloves, cayenne, lemon juice, salt and about a cup of water so it is a little soupy.

Simmer for at least 15-20 minutes so the chickpeas soak up a little of the spices and the mushrooms are cooked through. Honestly, you can probably turn the heat off once it is cooked and then re-heat the whole thing hours later and no one will be able to tell the difference.

If you have some cilantro on hand, chop up a little and sprinkle on top for a garnish, though the dish is fine without it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Waking up

I think (hope) it's time to wake up this blog again. Since I went dormant here*, we have mostly completed a major construction project which doubled the size of our previously wee home. I love the new space, but can't say I loved the process. It took over my life and not in a good way.

But rather than attempting to summarize the ups and downs since I last posted, let's just jump right back in with a lovely event that took place last year and which includes both a good book to recommend and a terrific recipe: the November meeting of my book group. Yep, 12+ years along and we are still meeting pretty regularly! I think there are only three of us who were there at the beginning but in the past year we've welcomed two new wonderful women readers (and cooks) into the fold.

In November we read what turned out to be one of my favorite books of the year, Memory Wall by Anthony Doer. It's too late of a recommendation for you to make any use of for this Christmas (I gave it to two people on my list) but keep it in mind.  It's a book of short stories and while I enjoyed all of them (not a stinker in the batch) there were two that will never leave me: the title story and one titled "Afterworld." Both made me choke up and feel tender towards the human condition with all its flaws and foibles, which, given that I tend more towards bitterness and negativity in the winter months, is quite a feat. The stories are simply that good.

The theme for our book group dinner was food that are supposed to be good for your memory, which made for an easier task than actually trying to craft a meal from foods mentioned in the stories.  We started with a wonderful carrot orange soup with cashew nuts (a real winner: recipe below).

Then we moved on to a plate piled high with maple mustard salmon, roasted brussel sprouts, spinach/beet/walnut/blue cheese salad, a rice dish and quinoa with roasted red grapes.

Just looking at that photo makes me feel a tiny bit resentful toward tonight's dinner which can't hope to measure up.

For dessert I made chocolate pots de creme with raspberry whipped cream. Because why not end a big meal with a whole lot of butterfat and richness?
As always, it was an amazing feast; way better than Thanksgiving in my admittedly-not-so-enthusiastic-about-the-culinary-content-of-that-holiday opinion.

Now back to that soup. I know there are a thousand pureed carrot soups out there, but this one struck me as something different. There's no ginger and no curry powder in it, which I found a refreshing change. Instead the carrots are paired with orange juice which gives it a brightness that makes the carrots taste more carrot-y. In many carrot soups I feel like the carrots just serve as a base: something to be pureed to support the spices. But not here. And the toasted cashew nuts that are sprinkled on at the end give it a bit of buttery richness that is most welcome.

Carrot-Orange Soup with Toasted Cashew Garnish
2 T butter
1 large onion, chopped
4 C chicken broth
1 T honey
1.5 lbs carrots, peeled and chopped
2 T tomato paste
2 T uncooked rice
zest from one orange
1 C fresh orange juice
1/2 C cream or half and half or whole milk
dash of cayenne pepper
1 T brandy
toasted cashew nuts, chopped (1/2-1 C depending on how enthusiastic you are about cashew nuts)

In a saucepan, melt butter. Add onion and saute until soft. Add broth, honey, carrots, tomato paste and rice. Bring to a boil then turn down and simmer 30 minutes until the rice is soft.

Time to puree: add the orange zest and juice, cream, cayenne and brandy then use an immersion blender, if you have one, or transfer to a regular blender and puree in batches until very smooth. Strain if you really want it velvety (I've made it a couple of times and the second time I didn't strain it and thought it was fine).

Return to the pot and heat gently. Season with salt and pepper.

Top each serving with toasted cashew nuts.

*While this blog was taking a rest, I did write occasional posts for The Picky Eater Chronicles and kept my annual reading list with comments going (2012 here, and just started 2013).