Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pear Soup #1

Oh, gah, don't look! Too ugly.
Looks like a schoolroom accident.
I just dumped this soup into what I thought was a photogenic dish and snapped away, using room light. I thought it was the best you could do, given the hideous appearance of the ingredients.
But look what Béa is capable of pulling off with a similar bowl of slush and peas: beautiful. Clearly, I'm not trying hard enough, and I now vow to try harder. Thanks Béa. I'm not sure if I'm being sarcastic.
Looks notwithstanding, however, it was a very tasty soup.
I sat down with a pen and notepad the other day and dreamed up 10 recipes for pear soup. This was the last one I thought of, and the first one I wanted to try.
I won't bother you with the proportions, but basically it was the milled pulp of about five peeled and cored pears, blended with chicken stock, cream, a little cooked rice, some chicken sausage sauteed in slices, and some onion slices sauteed in the sausage grease. Curry powder. Salt. And a handful of fresh, shelled peas.
The sweetness of the pears was reminiscent of the raisins or apples you might use as a condiment to flavor a traditional (well, Craig Claiborne-traditional, which is "not very") curry. And everything else just worked, in a blessed melange.
So, Pear Soup #1 was a success.
Nine to go, and we aren't even making a dent in the pear harvest.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Spoonful of Silliness

Remember those antique cookbooks with spurious measurements? "Take up some meat and put with it a goodly portion of flour..."
How much is "some"? What is a "goodly portion"?
Remember "a knob of butter"? Or butter "the size of a walnut" (or an egg)?
Very cute. Vivid, even. But just the kind of recipe writing that puts the qualms in an uncertain cook. An uncertain cook brought up in the 20th century.
Because after the loosey-goosey recipes of the antique books, came the scientific purity, the home-economist accuracy of the Mrs. Beetons, the Fannie Farmers, even the Irma Rombauers. Wow. Way to make a cook feel uptight. Get it right, or be wrong!
Are you comfortable with the quantity "a little"? How about "enough"?
The hardest one for insecure beginners is "to taste." As in "salt to taste." Maybe even harder is "correct the seasonings." What? Grade them true or false? Send them to the time out room?
That's what measuring spoons are for.
But jeepers, what a drag to rely on them so blindly.
Finally, I believe, we've gone past the obsessive reliance on mechanized portions. I mean, it wasn't that long ago that cookware catalogs were flogging their scientifically machined measuring spoons, lest we accidentally get one grain too many of paprika in the stew. Aren't we over that yet?
We are.
Now we cook by glugs (thank you, Jamie), dribbles, gloodges, blurps, sprinkles, and the ever-reliable dash, pinch and smidge.
Dr. Biggles invented his own portion, called the "once around" or the "twice around." It refers to how much oil he wants in the skillet, and how you get it in there. Pour, circularly. Get it?
You'd think we were now in a free-for-all zone, anything goes (as long as it's good, moderate, and reasonable).
Well. The tablespoons have turned.
We once again have a tool to measure our madness, it seems.
Zoomie found these measuring spoons on a recent trip back East, and couldn't resist bringing a few home.
She is a consummate host. The spoons were party favors at a simple, sumptuous lunch she held for me and Moonbear a little while ago (and how do you measure "a little while"?).
I know Zoomie meant the spoons as a spoof.
But. Isn't it comforting somehow to know how much of a dash to add?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Cold, Raw Soup for the Soul

I love chilled zucchini soup in summer, but it used to take planning, and time.
I would cook the zukes in a bit of broth (chicken, vegetable, your choice), with some onions and seasoning. Puree it in a blender. Mix it with a hearty splash of buttermilk until the consistency was just right.
Then I would have to refrigerate it, and wait. For hours, really, because no one wants lukewarm cold soup.
Then I came across a recipe for a chilled soup made with raw zucchini and cucumbers. D'oh!
Obviously you can eat zucchini raw; I do it all the time. I just hadn't thought of a raw zucchini soup.
The zukes were in the fridge, so they were already cold, as were the cucumbers and onion. The buttermilk too.
This recipe I found adds some water and rather a lot (in my opinion) of vinegar, and no buttermilk at all. But I figured buttermilk is both wet and tangy, as well as creamy. Therefore, water and vinegar out and buttermilk in.
The method is simple: Chop up zukes and peeled cukes (you really need to peel the cucumbers, I learned the hard way) in a ratio of about 2:1. Chop up a small amount of onion. Toss all these into the blender with salt and pepper (and herbs, if you like, and maybe a spoonful of Dijon mustard), pour in a little buttermilk, and give it a whirl. Once it's all smooth, check the consistency and add more buttermilk if you need to. Taste, and adjust seasonings.
OK, you can eat now.
Or you can pop the blender into the fridge while you dust off the patio table and have another glass of sparkling rosé.
We decorated our soup with toasted, crushed cocoa nibs (uh-oh, a new habit), ground ají colorado pepper and oregano flowers. Because, as you know, chilled soups need assertive seasoning. And it was pretty.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pear Despair

So, I'm griping because my garden isn't knocking me silly with abundance. Last year, by this time, the pear tree was dropping fruit at a rate of sometimes 30 pears a day.
This year (and only within the last week), we've had maybe two, four a day. Yesterday there were five on the ground.
But I kept noticing an odd bulge in the pear tree. An unsightly malformation in its foliage. Probably shoulda hired an arborist, I told myself, and hoo, was I right.
Today we discovered a serious limb was cracking off the main trunk. It had to come down. Hell, it WAS coming down, under its own weight.
So Cranky climbed a ladder with a saw, and I sat below him on the ground, holding the ladder, and got conked in the head by falling fruit and branches (we haven't decided who was more stupid, him or me).
Once the limb was removed from the tree, we could see evidence of previous disaster prunings. This is the sunny side of the tree, and apparently it gets very heavy, often. (It's only our second year of pear ownership; gimme a break.) I wandered around under the canopy of the tree, and discovered at least two more locations where limbs have ripped away, unable to support all the fruit.
We saved all the pears that came off (several of them jumped off the branches during the surgery; the rest were plucked). I think they might actually ripen.
But who wants this many pears at once? I think we got 100 pounds.
(And you don't even wanna know how many are left on the tree.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Cauliflower Steak Meme of 2008

Once I finally learned to roast cauliflower in the oven, I vowed never to cook it any other way.
Then, 2008 happened. The year we learned to slice cauliflower into "steaks" and brown them on both sides. It was suddenly everywhere.
What the hey. Thought I'd give it a try.
So happens we had some spectacular local cauliflower heads (from Swanton), fresh, sweet, young and tender. And we had half a loaf of my primordial attempts at home-baked bread.
Without even bothering to find a cauliflower steak recipe, I just waded in on my own. How hard could it be?
Not hard. They even cooked faster than I anticipated (I was thinking I might have to finish the cooking in the oven after the initial pan-frying; nope!).
When the cauliflower slices were hot and browned (and appropriately salted), I pulled them out and tossed bread slices into the same pan (using butter in both instances).
And then we topped these "sandwiches" with a pseudo-remoulade made from a blend of dijon mustard, mayonnaise, a good shake of hot chile powder, and a pinch of dried dill. Thinned with a spoonful of cream (and the cream really adds some oomph).
Now, I shouldn't rat out my husband. But he was crying. It was so good.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Mid-Summer Middling Gardening

I got no bragging rights this year. My garden is doing terribly.
I don't know if it's because Northern California has been shrouded in weeks of smoky air, but apart from a couple of cherry tomatoes and the ever-reliable squash and zucchini — zilch. Well, no, wait. We've harvested some cucumbers. And a jalapeño or two.
The eggplant might be a dud. The two artichoke plants died in the front yard.
Oh, I just remembered we pulled out some yummy potatoes, so it's not total lameness. There was a little mâche, until it succumbed to sunburn. And we're still eating onions planted last fall.
But, even so!
One whole tomato plant turned yellow and bit the dust completely. Another has (and this is late July!!) only two small greenlings in evidence.
Even the zucchini have been plagued by slugs and some odd blossom-end shriveling.
Ah, but the good old crook-neck squash.
Quite a beauty.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Lady Cookiecrumb's Lover

We had a couple of rabbit sausages in the freezer. Needed to eat them. Last time, they struck us as cookie-sweet, imbued with baking spices; over-imbued, actually.
Cranky thought they'd make a tasty, savory clafoutis (now that we are experts in this technique). Make the clafoutis batter without sugar, then, instead of fruit, stud the batter with gently sauteed coins of bunny bologna (heh), onion, shiitake mushrooms, herbs... AND prunes. I mean, after all, fruit is what inspired the first clafoutis.
Cranky brilliantly chopped the prunes (homegrown) off the pits, and then marinated them in manly whisky. Dang. It was buck.
So this all comes together, and the house smells like Mellors has been hunting and cooking.
The food was delicious, and I swear, I'd serve it in a restaurant. But I'm just wondering, do other people like eating sweetish, gamey "cake" for an entree?
Totally butch, if you ask me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ma-Ma-Ma My Potatoes

Ooh my little pretty one, my pretty one.
When you gonna give me some time, Potatoes?
Ooh you make my motor run, my motor run.
Gun it comin' off the line, Potatoes.
Never gonna stop, give it up.
Such a dirty mind.
Always get it up for the touch
of the younger kind.
My my my ay, ay — Whoo!
Yep, somebody's feeling a little special about her garden. We "grabbled" out a couple of handfuls of small potatoes the other day. I think they might be Yukon Golds; I can't remember what we planted.
Two of the plants had developed yellow leaves. I had no idea when to harvest, but these babies were dying. So we grabbled.
Ended up grabbing enough to eat. Maybe that's how to tell when to harvest.
The remaining three plants are green and robust. That's fine. I can wait. I'm a little full after today's lunch.
Let me tell you about the cooking method we tried. Anita and Cameron blogged about a pan-braising technique for tender little vegetables. You use a smattering of water and a splat of butter. Some salt. Can't beat that. We did this with teensy potato slices, and it was pretty much like the "absorption pasta" we recently attempted. Gentle, nutrient-rich (nothing goes down the drain). The butter really penetrated the taters. It was like eating chocolate (I know I'm weird this way: good food tastes like candy to me, and the smooth-grainy texture of the potatoes was like a hunk of Sharffen Berger).
My, my, my.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Let Them Eat Bread

Yes, Bastille Day, celebrating a revolution over bread.
I've had my own bread revolution, and I think it will bring an end to the ancien régime. I believe I may become a bread baker!
I've been reluctant to make my own bread, though I've tried it many times. Proof the yeast; knead the dough; let it rise; bake it; be disappointed.
Pah. Too much trouble for inferior results.
I wanted to try the famous "no-knead" bread, the one where you leave the dough out to rise for 20 hours. But I didn't really want to leave the dough out for 20 hours. Also, I was a little scared of the super-heated Dutch oven you're supposed to bake the bread in.
By chance, I came across a new book at the library, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. What a dubious claim! This is not the kind of book you'd buy on a whim. (But this is the glory of libraries.)
I read the book. I internalized it. I bought it!
I was still reluctant, but I forced myself to buy a sack of flour and a jar of yeast granules (much more economical than the foil packets, and by buying a whole jar, I was daring myself to USE it all).
Day one: Stir some warm water, salt and yeast together. Don't worry if it doesn't dissolve. Dump in the flour and mix for a minute, just enough to moisten all the dry spots, and leave it alone for two hours. Put this dough into a covered container in the fridge overnight.
Day two: Pull out some of the dough (you will have mixed up enough for two to eight loaves; a little math is required). Form it into a quick ball. Let it sit for 40 minutes. And then bake your bread. This is how I made the mini hot dog buns.
Day whatever (because you can keep this dough in the ice box for Two Weeks!): Make another loaf. Easy as pie... only it's bread.
I will confess mine is not perfect but I'm so-o-o encouraged to keep trying. The crust is shatteringly fantastic; I'm still working on the crumb. The flavor is "bread." Good bread. Artisan bread.
I'm going to be saving $6 on market-bought loaves.
Vive la revolution!
UPDATE: I've got my second batch of dough maturing in the refrigerator, and it looks a lot more successful (hope, hope). I think I didn't do my arithmetic right when I halved the ingredients the first time, and probably got too much flour in the mix.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

We Panned Out

We thought we had found a good gift for our recent anniversary celebration. Williams-Sonoma was selling mesh grilling pans: open-weave metal pots you put food inside and place over a barbecue.
They were kind of expensive, though. Eep.
Ah. What the heck. It was our anniversary. Splurge a little.
First, though, we had to stop at Ross, the discount clothing/housewares store. We were searching for throw pillows for our new blue-suede love seat (OK, fake suede, but true blue). I just about never buy clothes there, but the pillow selection has, on occasion, sizzled. Not this time, though.
Then, we walked by a sale display. Marked-down BBQ junk, cheaper than usual.
Look! See that pan in the picture? Eight bucks. And if you buy it on Geezer Day (in my neighborhood, it's Tuesdays for those of us above a certain age), you get 10% off.
Well, there were too many people in line; we didn't want to wait. Besides, it was Monday.
So we drove over to a local upscale grocery store. It's the only place around that carries a brand of buttermilk I adore. (I know. I'll tell you about it someday.) We walked up one aisle, past some cool kitchen hardware, and there was that Ross pan, for $25 — at least. I can't remember perfectly; it was too shocking.
Needless to say, a return visit to Ross first thing Tuesday morning occurred. Eight bucks, with 80 cents off. Chortle.
Two lessons here: If you don't shop at Ross for kitchenware (Marshall's is good too), you should. If you can. And, this is a really cool tool for cooking vegetables on the grill — you don't lose them down into the coals, you get a little smoky heat, and you can stir them with a spatula.
We never did get over to Williams-Sonoma.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Chocolat et Courgettes

Yesterday I handed Cranky my copy of Clotilde Dusoulier's cookbook (birthday present; thanks, Cranky), and said, "Pick a recipe."
He put three and three together: The book is called "Chocolate and Zucchini." We have cocoa nibs in the pantry. We are growing zucchini in the backyard.
Big, fat bingo!
Cranky selected Clotilde's recipe for pasta cooked by the absorption method (similar to how risotto is done), mingled with thin slices of zucchini and dusted with crushed cocoa nibs. Sounds crazy, I know.
As soon as he got out of bed, he set a pot of vegetable stock to simmer. It was luscious with corn cobs (we'd already eaten the kernels), pea pods (ditto the peas: eaten), and garlic scapes. Oh, and carrot tops, an onion, some lentils and dried mushrooms for depth, herbs, salt... The best vegetable stock I've ever tasted, and I've been making my own for years. Damn, Cranky. It was utterly stellar for absorption pasta.
He couldn't wait to make this meal. Twitch, twitch. (How did I turn him into a vegetarian?)
We had it for lunch today. I thought the recipe was quirky and quaint, but since I'm already in love with Clotilde, I believe she can do no wrong.
It was delightful. The cocoa nibs add a faint chocolate-y flavor, but the main effect is a crisp crunch, like having walnuts on pasta (which we do often). The zucchini was, of course, a natural. The absorption method is brilliant.
Yep. Delightful.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Squash Chagall

A little while ago I ran across a recipe on the interwebz for something called "Zucchini Carpaccio."
It was really cute, and really easy to reproduce. Or, in my case, riff on. I got the basic idea, and built one of my own with mache leaves and walnuts.
The idea is a layer of raw zucchini slices on a platter, dressed with a whitish dressing. Kind of like beef carpaccio is a layer of raw beef, thinly sliced, topped with a whitish dressing. Only this is vegetables, not meat. (I know. You already got that.)
At the end of the article, there was a spate of comments. One person snarked something like "Why are you calling it carpaccio? There is already carpaccio, and it's meat."
A subsequent commenter said that the beef dish was named in honor of an Italian artist known for his works in tones of red and white. In other words, "Carpaccio" is not meat, it's the name of a painter. I didn't know that. But... cool!
However, my Squash Carpaccio didn't come out red and white. It came out yellow and green and white with dribs of red chile powder. I proposed to Cranky that we call it "Squash Chagall." Just for fun.
And then... I discovered that today is Marc Chagall's birthday!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Dog Is My Co-pilot

My friends thought I was just goofing when I said I was planning to make hot dog rillettes. Or maybe they thought I was nuts.
Well, I am nuts. I'm mad, right?
I've been excited about taking leftover cooked meat and converting it into a rustic pate. It's just so easy and delicious.
But for a kick, I declared my intention of making dawg spread. Very Fourth of July, even if we were a couple of days late.
And? It's awesome. If you use the right hot dogs. More awesome than I could have guessed, because I was just goofing. Except I meant it.
I braised slices of dog in beer (beer! not champagne) with a handful of mirepoix for about 45 minutes, until the slices got puffy and juicy. Then I ran the meat through the Cuisinart with grated orange rind, a smoodge of mustard and a pinch of chile powder. Sludged this mess with melted lard, and refrigerated it overnight.
(You're covering your ears! La-la-la-la. You don't want to hear this! Well, ha, ha. You lose.)
The cooked dogs whirred into a rough, granular, state. It was not, as one friend suggested, returning tube steaks into their gooshy, pre-casing state. No, it was a whole new thing.
And I'd serve this to company. You would NEVER guess it was made from hot dogs (if you used the right hot dogs to begin with).
Best of all: the miniature hot dog buns. More on that soon. Ohmagah.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Independence Day

I won't be having to buy onions any time soon in the future.
I'm independent from onion-buying!
Hey. Ooh. Fireworks.
Garden 'splosion.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Corn Flower?

Nope. Potato flower.
But you gotta love that bright yellow, cob-shaped stamen. I've never seen such a thing before, since this is only my second time growing potatoes.
The first time, I was in grad school. I hacked up a couple of supermarket potatoes with eyes on each piece, stuffed them into the dirt, failed to water, went to classes, wrote papers, and: potatoes happened. I never did notice any flowers, and the potatoes themselves were so small and stunted and runty from neglect, they were about the size of marbles. But, oh, the flavor was pure earth. I was enlightened. I learned something about the taste of one's own garden (and that's about all I learned, because I dropped out of grad school as soon as I met Cranky there).
This time, I've planted fingerlings from the lusty eyes of some of David Little's local potatoes. They could hardly wait to be planted, spurting skyward greenishly in the kitchen pantry. So in they went.
But then, what? How do you know when a potato is ready to be harvested?
El, at Fast Grow the Weeds, tells us that new potatoes (the little baby shaggy ones) can be dug up on her birthday. Which is today (happy birthday, El). To further refine, she says "two weeks after they flower," which for my tiny crop will be about mid-July. However, I'm reluctant to dig up baby fingerlings. What if they are microscopic?
To tell the truth, I probably will root around in the earth in a week or two, just to see what's happening down there. (It's called "grabbling.") Then I will wait until the plant tops die back and finally harvest the mature little spuds, when they are as diminutively grown-up as they will ever be.