Food Friday: A Soupçon of Danger

As a enthusiastic home cook, I invest in gadgets that claim to make food prep easier. Perhaps I am just fantastically lazy. I have a drawer full of good intentions. I just love those bright, shiny, time-saving and ultimately, dangerous widgets. I can rummage through that drawer and remember all the blood that was drawn, the toes that were smashed, the knuckles that were scraped, and the fingerprints that were artfully grated. But my prepared dishes were beautiful. I obviously listened to my high school art teacher. When Mr. Preu was instructing us in the proper way to use the paper cutter, he warned us to never get blood on the artwork.

One of my favorite details in the original Jurassic Park film was the car mirror that had a helpful warning label: “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear.” Do the characters in the movie pause to consider this valuable information? Of course not, because then the movie would have ended abruptly and without any teeth-gnashing fun. The show had to go on.

My first brush with kitchen equipment peril came when I was standing in a store, reading the side of a kitchen mandoline box. I had wanted one for a long time, and here I had found quite a fancy one, and it was on sale! A mysterious woman passing by reached out and tapped the box with a long, bony finger. “They are so dangerous! I had to go to the emergency room the first time I used mine!” Heavens! Were perfect waffle fries worth the pain? Certainly. Could I endure exsanguination for wafer thin cukes in a translucent Scandinavian salad decorated with frothy bits of lacy dill? Yes, I could. And so far, except for minor, shallow, and quickly staunched wounds made while fitting the cunningly complicated blades into the apparatus, I have not been seriously scarred. I do use the clumsy “safety food holder” provided by the manufacturer (no doubt at the urging of their liability lawyers) to keep my fingertips protected from the guillotine-sharp blade when slicing. And doubtless one of these days I will learn the double-weave-waffle-technique. It takes a lot of potatoes to master all of the cutting techniques.

I recently bought a microplaner, because I kept seeing it mentioned in recipes and because, unlike the mandoline, it can go in the dishwasher. Last week I used it to grate cheese, garlic and lemon zest. And my right thumb. All for one pasta recipe. But, still. It is dishwasher safe. And the hydrogen peroxide got rid of the blood stains on the tea towel.

Grilling season is almost upon us. It’s time for me to start making shish kabobs and pricking my fingers like a latter day Sleeping Beauty. The skewers are not so dangerous when I am actually skewering the meal and veggies; they are sneaky, and poke me when I am rooting around in the drawer looking for something completely different – like the basting brush or the cork screw.

In the dishwasher there lurk other pointy objects – like the steak knives that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named continues to put in the basket with the sharp tips pointing upwards. Ouch.

Be careful in the kitchen. Don’t perform home vivisections with any of the groovy mod cons. Even slicing a bagel can be dangerous. And since dining out nightly or 24/7 room service are not practical alternatives, listen to my old art teacher: don’t get blood on your creations.

Pasta with Lemon, Garlic and Parmesan Cheese,
with a Soupçon of Microplane Danger

Serves 4 to 6
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Maldon salt
1 large clove garlic, grated with dangerous microplane
1 lemon, zested with lethal microplane, and juiced (watch out for seeds!)
1 pound pasta (I prefer Penne)
2 to 3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated with menacing microplane
Freshly ground black pepper for a flourish
Decorative parsley

Combine in a large bowl oil: salt, garlic, lemon juice and zest. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box, retaining some water. Quickly throw the pasta into the bowl. Toss everything together well, and then add the parsley, cheese, and pepper before tossing again. Yumsters. Add salad, garlic bread and cheap wine. Bliss.

“…Goldfinger could not have known that high tension was Bond’s natural way of life and that pressure and danger relaxed him.”
― Ian Fleming

Food Friday: Raspberry Ricotta Cake

Easter isn’t just about chocolate eggs or marshmallow peeps. Or even jelly beans or chocolate bunnies. Spring is blooming all around us, and we need to revel in it. And in cake. And thrill to raspberries. And whipped cream. And more raspberries.

Mr. Friday happened to look over my should as he passed through the studio the other day, when I was watching a video from the clever folks at Bon Appétit magazine. He immediately longed for this light, spring-y cake. And so it was baked.

It is easy peasy. I only had to shop for ricotta and for the raspberries. (I used frozen, because fresh were prohibitively expensive – $4.99 for a pint of fresh!) I used an 8-inch springform pan, because I haven’t unpacked the other cake pans yet. At least, I hope I have packed the other pans, and haven’t mislaid them. Nothing surprises me these days. This is easier than most cheesecake recipes, and very light. I have been sneaking small slices out of the fridge all week – they have made for a couple of very yummy breakfasts.

Raspberry Ricotta Cake
8 servings
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1½ cups ricotta
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup frozen raspberries or blackberries, divided

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a 9-inch-diameter cake pan with parchment paper. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.

Whisk eggs, ricotta, and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth; fold into dry ingredients just until blended. Then fold in the melted butter, followed by ¾ cup raspberries, taking care not to crush berries. Scrape batter into prepared pan and scatter remaining ¼ cup raspberries over top.

Bake cake until golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 50–60 minutes. Let cool at least 20 minutes before unmolding.

Here is the video which launched our Raspberry Ricotta Cake Experience:

Now, if you have time on your hands, and really can’t think of anything better to do, you could make some homemade marshmallow peeps for your own Easter egg hunt.

No. Don’t do it. You really should get out in the garden instead of rolling confectionaries in bowls of colored sugars. Though I come from the school that believes that the best peeps are eaten a couple of weeks after Easter, when they have gotten a little stale, and crusty. (Hint: you have to poke a hole in the plastic wrap, otherwise I suspect peeps are like Hostess Twinkies and will never degrade by themselves. You have to encourage them.) Plus you can get Peeps on sale at the grocery store starting on Monday. And you can use this time instead to read a good book, and take a nap. Or maybe admire the tulips. Have a daydream. Perhaps even weed. Deadhead the daffodils.

“All gardening is landscape painting.”
-Alexander Pope

Food Friday: Better with Butter!

I am wandering around our new garden this year, playing CSI, Suburban Garden, identifying new shoots and leaves planted by the former owner. I am remembering my mother’s garden, which was complicated and themed, as my gardens will never be, but the early training has paid off in that I can still recognize the plants that herald spring. For example, my mother had a woodland corner, with jack-in-the-pulpits, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, trillium and bluebells she had transplanted from our former little house in the woods. Later in the spring there would be ferns and hostas (and slugs) and bleeding hearts. There was never anything so banal as a hydrangea in her garden. Everything needed to be vetted and researched and carefully chosen. And so knowledge was imparted.

I was a pesky child, because I wanted to pick all her flowers and bring them indoors, and she was horrified at my brutality. She had just spent a long winter, cooped up with kids, waiting for the moment that the jack-in-the pulpit finally emerged from under the layers of wet leaves. Who could want to pick daffodils after their long journey up through the frozen ground, when they blazed in golden yellow triumph? Look at those violets! Aren’t they cunning in their little niche under the lilac bush? Are there any white violets this year? There were some in the corner by the mossy steps last year.

I have wickedly enjoyed picking a few handfuls of daffodils from my late fall bulb planting. Exhibiting adult restraint, I cut only a few at a time, to have in a vase on the kitchen table, where daffodil scent would waft through when a breeze came through the window. I left enough to make me Google Wordsworth and the Lake District, with my modest first year display of 200 daffodil bulbs bobbing and weaving in the back yard. The previous owner had planted a paltry patch of daffodils near the front stoop, but not the impressive sea (small ripple of a pond) of yellow, nodding heads that I proudly surveyed.

I have planted some peonies in a bed near the front door because my mother had peonies, and some day lilies, too, so I tippy toe around looking for signs of growth every morning. Luke the wonder dog despairs. And near the corner of the garage I have found other peonies sprouting near an ancestral (and hopefully vulgar and florid) hydrangea, and yesterday several spears of amaryllis poked through the ground like small green blades. The shoots of what I thought was wandering jew have turned into little mounds of blue flag, and there is an iris bed in another corner of the back yard that is packed and teeming with plants. I guess I will be learning how to thin irises this spring. Mr. Friday takes my word for all these CSI discoveries. His family didn’t garden. Luke just wants to play ball, and so has no interest.

I found lily of the valley rhizomes in the produce section grocery store a few weeks ago! My mother would be amazed. I haven’t figured out where to plant them in this garden yet. When I was growing up there was a lush squeaky and fragrant bed of them on the west side of the house, just under the dripping hose, so that should give me a clue about where to transplant my own. Right now they are nesting in a little clay pot while I get to know the lay of the land.

But it is spring, and we are all finally emerging from out little huts and caves and cottages, blinking in the light and reaching for the sunscreen. Can life on the porch be resumed? And who is bringing the snacks? Thank you, New York Times.

I cannot believe that I have careened through life this long without trying radishes, salt and butter. I have always been a big fan of bowls of icy radishes, scored to form petals (or not), waved under a salt shaker and consumed in loud munching rabbit bites. The addition of butter has been a revelation. This is the perfect snack to enjoy on the back porch, wrapped in a light sweater, as you perch on a damp porch swing, looking out on the back yard, and contemplate all the possibilities that a spring garden can bring.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
-William Wordsworth

Food Friday: Spring Forth with Cake!

Food Friday has gone on a Spring Break. This is one of our favorite springtime recipes for cake – which is the perfect food. We’ll be back next week!

One of the perils of working from home is that I don’t get out much. Some days the only conversations I have are with the clerks at the grocery store. My studio companion, Luke, the wonder dog, and I take a couple of walks every day. Luke is an enthusiastic and charming fellow, but his conversational skills are minimal. I can’t remember the last book he read, and he never minds that I do the crossword puzzle in ink. He might comment that I will never catch a squirrel, or that I don’t sniff mailboxes with gusto. And he would be right.

When Luke and I go on walkabout I usually have my earbuds firmly planted. I listen to several podcasts, and often feel that the folks on these podcasts are my real co-workers. Podcasts are the intimates of solitary freelancers, nursing mothers and the sleepless. Every week Julia Turner, Dana Stevens and Stephen Metcalf charm my socks off. Their Slate Culture Gabfest podcast is full of good humor, insight, wit and bon mots. They merrily discuss popular culture with aplomb; dissecting current memes, television, music, and movies. Where else can I go for brilliant water cooler conversation? And one week, a couple of months ago, Julia (Yes, I do call her “Julia” in my cheeky fashion.) rhapsodized poetical about a recipe she had found in the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook for the perfect cake. I looked up the recipe and filed it away for another day.

And today is the day! It’s time to forget about winter, and move on to celebrating Spring! I have had the delightful television baking experience of The Great British Bake Off to fan my enthusiasm for home baking, and what better way to pay homage to Spring than with Smitten Kitchen’s Best Yellow Layer Cake? While you are poking through the brown oak leaves under the side yard hedge, looking for tender green daffodil shoots, you will be much happier knowing that there will be a slice of cake and a tall cold glass of milk waiting for you in the kitchen. The squirrels have retreated, so Luke has to stick with kibble, which always makes him very happy.

Smitten Kitchen’s Best Yellow Layer Cake

“Yield: Two 9-inch round, 2-inch tall cake layers, and, in theory, 22 to 24 cupcakes, two 8-inch squares or a 9×13 single-layer cake
4 cups, plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (not self-rising)
2 baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon table salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.”

The Smitten Kitchen goes on to suggest that you use a chocolate icing, but I am feeling too cheerful and full of new spring hope. I am making a light, lemon-y icing instead.

Lemon Buttercream Icing

1 stick butter – room temperature
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons half and half or milk

Beat the butter in the bowl with and electric mixer until it is fluffy. Add the confectioner’s sugar just a few tablespoons at a time. Add the salt and vanilla extract. Continue adding confectioner’s sugar, alternating with splashes of cream (or milk) and lemon juice Add more cream (or milk) if you like thinner frosting. You will need to double this recipe if you want to have tidy frosted sides to the cake.

Scrumptious! Thank you, Julia Turner!

You can find more charming intelligent folks on the Slate Panoply podcast network who discuss sports, finance, politics, the Supreme Court and even our friends from Food 52 with a podcast called Burnt Toast:

More recipes:

More of Julia, Dana and Stephen:

“In Britain, a cup of tea is the answer to every problem.
Fallen off your bicycle? Nice cup of tea.
Your house has been destroyed by a meteorite? Nice cup of tea and a biscuit.
Your entire family has been eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex that has travelled through a space/time portal?
Nice cup of tea and a piece of cake.
Possibly a savoury option would be welcome here too, for example a Scotch egg or a sausage roll.”
― David Walliams

Food Friday: The Siren Song of Seeds

Seed packets are tiny perfect jewels of graphic design. On the front there is a romanticized illustration of a freakishly perfect tomato; it is round and looks sun-warmed. So unlike the cardboard tomatoes we have been buying all winter at the grocery store. On the back there are instructions about sowing the seeds after all danger of frost has passed. I can tell you that those frosts are still a danger. I have lost four geraniums to my misguided enthusiasm, and belief that spring is right around the corner. I am ready to hang up the turtlenecks, and get out in the garden.

I have been waiting all winter for this – I admit it. I have been thumbing through seed catalogues and feverishly imagining my new and improved sunny, raised garden bed, fecund and lush and spilling over with cukes, and beans, and sun-warmed tomatoes. I have been thinking about all those tender, fresh, aromatic herbs that I will manage to coax along this year. I have picturthe the extra little flourish and the modest bow I will take when I humbly present our salad greens at the Fourth of July picnic. Envisioning how I will please, delight, and amaze Mr. Friday when I whip out a fresh, homegrown shallot for the salad dressing. I am still considering how I will take revenge on the idiot neighbor who mows his lawn on Sunday mornings – zucchini is the perfect passive/aggressive payback.

So let’s get hopping! These tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, cabbage, beans, lettuce, beets, carrots, and radishes will not plant, water or weed themselves!

It’s time for a little elbow grease action – which is much more healthier than hot yoga. But don’t get so enchanted by the beauteousness of the seed packets to take on more than you can chew. Buy a few easy veggies, and a couple of happy flowers. Marigolds or nasturtiums go well in both a vegetable garden, and in the salad bowl.

I have learned over the years with my sandy back yard, and my short attention span, that I am easily distracted and disappointed. Now I keep my exposure to a minimum. I am happiest (and most successful) with a little container garden. I have fresh herbs and I do a couple of tomato plants every year. I am upping our game with a couple of blueberry bushes I have planted in the ground. We now have a blueberry farm. Maybe if I remember to water every day they will have a real shot at making it to the table.

I had a successful little run with lettuce a couple of years ago. We had a few awfully fresh salads. I doubt if it was very cost effective to wrangle my own little Bibb lettuces, but it felt so good to wander outside with the kitchen shears, and judiciously snip a leaf here, another leaf there, and know the salad was good and fresh, and I was leaving modest carbon foot print. Obviously I do not factor in the air pollution generated from multiple trips to the garden center…

If you do not feel not up to the responsibilities of growing your own vegetable garden this season, now that the snow has melted, and the daffodils are popping up every where, please think about supporting your local farmers at farmers’ markets and farm stands and CSAs. They were cool (and essential) long before Brooklyn and all its mustachioed, plaid-sporting, artisan, organic, heirloom, microcosmically hip farmers, soap makers, tanners, butchers, chicken farmers, bakers and baristas. We like homemade and all the virtues associated with it.

It is oh, so very pleasant to wander outside in your jim-jams on a summer morning, pausing to watch the sun rise, while munching meditatively on a dewy green bean that you have just twisted off a vine, before you ever have a cup of coffee or read the newspaper. Instagram cannot replicate that real delight. Honest.

“From December to March,
there are for many of us three gardens:
the garden outdoors,
the garden of pots and bowls in the house,
and the garden of the mind’s eye.”
– Katharine S. White

Food Friday: A Flock of Muffins

Sitting in a corner of the living room is a large cardboard box from Burpee Gardens, which contains elements of my fantasy summer life: two hydrangea plants, two wisteria plants, and two teeny, tiny blueberry bushes. They arrived last week, back when we thought we were hurtling into spring, flip flops and lemonade on the porch. Brrr.

It’s too early to set them outside right now. I hope next week, when I feel pretty sure that the danger of frost has passed, I’ll unpack them. In the meantime I murmur warm assurances to them as I pass by. “Soon! Soon you will all be knee-deep in rich soil, reaching up to the warm sun, burgeoning with fruit and blooms galore!”

The blueberries are the real experiment. I have never tried to grow berries before. I think it is too early to worry about rabbits and deer, but our back yard is a veritable United Nations of birds.

The round of robins enjoy some crazy rain dances in and around the holly bushes. I have watched the many robins sitting on branches that are already heavy with holly berries and rain, unconcerned that they are the only birds outside in a deluge, as they drunkenly nosh on the gleaming red berries. Sometimes I have watched the birds fall to the ground, only to see them then spring straight up in the air to grab at some more berries from the low hanging branches. Awkwardness and determination have never been so adorable.

An echo of scolding mockingbirds also spends time in the holly bushes. Luke the wonder dog does not avail himself of those bushes. He doesn’t like to getting dive-bombed as he patrols on his doggie missions. Although there are some squirrelly boys who like to hang around an nearby oak tree, tempting him with their rodent wiles…

In the back corner of the yard, tucked up in ivy trailing along a brick wall, a jar of nuthatches call out with their raspy, click-click-clicking sound of veiled threats. I’m sure if Luke ever saw how tiny they were he wouldn’t give them a second glance, but they sound like large machinery ratcheting back before a putsch. They might even have their beady little eyes on our blueberry potential.

Along the neighbor’s wall we have seen a few berry-eating birds: thrushes, cedar waxwings, blue jays, woodpeckers, catbirds, bluebirds, and doves. While they wait for me to plant the blueberries they have finished harvesting the dogwood and the juniper berries. No wonder they are impatient for spring to begin.

Mr. Friday likes berries on his bowl of cereal most mornings. I doubt if we will be saving any money by planting our own blueberry bushes, but as part of my summer fantasy, I will wander out into the back yard, with a little basket in hand, and I will pick some blueberries for his breakfast. Just imagine me bathed in Disney-diffused light, with the friendly birds singing sweetly; me with flowing tresses and a trailing gown instead of my usual Andy Warhol-hair and comfy yoga pants glory.

I prefer my blueberries in muffins or pancakes, which are serious weekend food, because, as you know, Gentle Reader, I am not very likely to get up early to bake. But this could be my fantasy summer vacation, where I would be wont to trail around the kitchen in a leisurely, and dream-like, un-rushed fashion; lovingly cracking organic free-range eggs and sifting dry artisanal ingredients. Instead of the real-life workday, when I am grouchy and harried, and gnawing on a frozen bagel and swigging Diet Coke. No, the Fantasy Me will sip fragrant Lapsang souchong tea from a precious antique bone-china cup, while I peruse the Times of London, and I complete the crossword without a single tempting, cheating, go-ahead-and-look-it-up-on-Google thought – in ink.

The heat just roared on again. It’s time to get cracking. Bake some muffins this weekend, and let me know how your spring garden plans are shaping up!

“Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”
-Wendell Berry

Food Friday: Pie Day

Winter is winding down, or so they say. Though I see there is snow in Friday’s forecast, and the weekend temperatures are supposed to plunge. The long range forecast says spring. Let’s heat up the kitchen another couple of times while we wait for spring to come peeking around the corner, and let’s get ready to celebrate Pi Day.

Pi Day is March 14, and it celebrates the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, which is approximately 3.14159. (Pi Day = 3/14 in the month/date format.) I have a friend, a former math major, who does not count sheep when she has trouble sleeping. Instead, she calculates π digits. The infinite number amuses her and lulls her to sleep, but if I could hold all those numbers in my head there wouldn’t be room for Joni Mitchell song lyrics or English murder mystery plot points.

Instead of whipping out our iPhones and finding the calculator app, let us celebrate another aspect of Pi Day, and bake some pies. March 14 is also Albert Einstein’s birthday, so you can kick up your heels doubly. And you can rejoice that Pi Day rolls around every year, whereas Square Root day won’t happen again until May 5, 2025. (According to Wikipedia, Square Root day is celebrated on days when “both the day of the month and the month are the square root of the last two digits of the year.” I kid you not.)

Sweet or savory, there are pies for just about every appetite, and every level of skill. It is easy to pour chocolate pudding into a store-bought graham cracker crust and slather it with clouds of whipped cream. More complicated are lattice-work pies, which require forethought, and dexterity, and a good hand at pastry. You can be Sweeny Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, and make a name for yourself with meat pies. Or you can be James Taylor, and sing an ode to your own Sweet Potato Pie.

My favorite pie is chicken pot pie. I do a variation on Martha’s – but I buy the pie crust already made. Which is probably why I have never calculated pi since leaving school – I am always looking for an easy way out. Easy as pie, my foot. I can’t roll out a perfect circle, but those wily folks at Pillsbury can. And no one is the wiser. Mr. Friday would never notice if I toiled with butter and flour and sharp knives to make a homemade crust. Martha might, but so far our parallel universes haven’t come close to colliding. My secret is safe…

I also like a nice Key Lime pie. I always use the recipe on the bottle of Key Lime juice, but this is pretty close: It is lovely for Easter, when you don’t want to make a huge and vastly expensive cheesecake, and almost anything with whipped cream is a delight. You don’t have to wait for summer to have a little taste of the Keys. You could welcome Pi Day with a fluffy, mile-high Key Lime pie.

We managed to let George Washington’s birthday get away from us without the ritual and apocryphal cherry pie. What were we thinking? Unless you have Martha’s (Stewart – not Washington!) year-round access to fresh cherries, you will have to use frozen like the rest of us.

If spring is coming, can rhubarb be far behind?

And to hit all the relevant holiday notes – St. Patrick’s Day is next week. Maybe you should be preparing a beer-infused Guinness Chocolate Cream Pie. All of the sweet decadence of whipped cream, combined with dark chocolate and darker beer. Swoon-worthy. Thanks again, Food52 for setting the bar (and the beer) high!

We do a Boston Cream pie for birthdays here. It might not have the celebratory gusto of a pie topped with whipped cream, but the combination of the shiny chocolate ganache and thick custard filling is surprisingly festive. A heady combination of pie and cake, with candles. Albert Einstein would have loved our Boston Cream Pies.

A place in London I would like to visit, and not for the food, is Eel Pie Island. Can you imagine? Henry VIII was overly fond of the eponymous eel pies, but I think I would visit just to see the artists’ studios. Doubtless none of them has though much about pi since school, either.

Happy Spring – it’s coming!

“I went to sit in the bus station and think this over. I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s
practically all I ate all the way across the country, I knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of
― Jack Kerouac

Food Friday: Banana Bread for Procrastinators

It is a struggle for me to get the recycling out in time each week. The dire warning from the town clearly states the necessity to have it out by the curb by 7:00 AM on Mondays. I am up at six most mornings, a combination of Mr. Friday’s ridiculously early office hours and Luke the wonder dog, who just can’t wait to get up every day. And yet, most Mondays I dawdle around, reading the paper, checking Facebook, drinking the first Diet Coke of the day, looking out the window and counting daffodil blooms. And then, suddenly, I remember, and I am running down the driveway in my jim-jams, racing with an unwieldy recycling container loaded to the gills with cheap white wine empties, a collection of rattling Diet Coke cans, and lots of heavy newspaper, just a couple of houses ahead of the approaching recycling truck. I procrastinate. I could just take the recycling out the night before. But where would the fun and peril be in that?

I am always reading food articles, of course, and I fall prey to the ones that exhort us to eat better. Imagine that. Bananas are miracle food! Eat two bananas a day and shed pounds and become happier! Eat fifty a day for life-altering miracles! Reduce your risk of high blood pressure! Or stroke! Or cancer! Gluten-free!

Bananas do contain all sorts of healthy ingredients: flavonoids, ply-phenolics, lutein, beta and alpha carotenes, antioxidant, lots of Vitamin C, potassium, Vitamin B6, fiber, magnesium and copper. But I don’t think that’s why we buy them. We buy them because they are yellow. Bananas smell great – like lunch boxes on a rainy day, with no hope of recess, in elementary school. Bananas are portable. Bananas are fun to peel. They are much easier to open than milk containers or anything in a plastic clamshell. Bananas are deelish.

But after a couple of days you forget that there is a bunch of bananas in the bowl on the counter, over there, way across the kitchen, over by the toaster and the stack of neglected Visa bills. And suddenly, you realize that you have procrastinated and waited too long and soon the fruit flies will start to swarm. And now you need to make a loaf of banana bread, because throwing food away is a sin. This is a salvageable crisis. And one with many solutions. And you can still wear your jim-jams without the recycling guys sniggering at you.

Basic Boozy Banana Bread

3 to 4 overly ripe, brownish bananas, smashed
1/3 cup melted butter
3/4 to 1 cup light brown sugar – it depends on your sweet tooth
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon bourbon (or rum)
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Up to 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of ground cloves
1 1/2 cups flour

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Mix butter into the mashed bananas in a large mixing bowl. Add sugar, egg, vanilla and bourbon (or rum), and then the spices. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt over the mixture and mix in. Add the flour last, stir. Pour mixture into a buttered 4×8 inch loaf pan. Bake for 50 minutes to one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack. Remove from pan and slice to serve. Do not delay. Yumsters.

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”
-Groucho Marx

Food Friday: Fattening You up for Fat Tuesday

Depending on your personal philosophies you might be getting ready for Lent; challenging yourself for forty days of penance and fasting. Or you could be girding your loins for more parties and parades New Orleans-style; tossing back handfuls of King Cake, reaching up to grab another fistful of Mardi Gras beads. You might not have time (or the inclination) on Tuesday to do your full prep for Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday, which is why we have weekends.

Weekends are a natural for pancakes. And if you are trying to remove temptations from your fridge in time for Lent, this is a good weekend to get that task done. Be a hero and make stacks of pancakes, using up the eggs, butter, milk, and fatty delicious Nutella, and chocolate chips. Go through the brown sugar, the ricotta cheese, the bacon and the maple syrup. You will feel so smug and austere come Lent, because there will be no temptations left in the house. (Warning: Do not beg with Alexa to deliver another bag of Ghiradelli 70% Cacao chocolate chips through Amazon Prime Pantry on Thursday. Be strong. It’s only forty days.)

The basic ingredients of pancakes are also Christian symbols: eggs for creation, flour is nourishment, milk is purity and salt is wholesomeness. And what is miraculous is all the different ways to combine these basics into myriad clouds of airy goodness. The popular British cook Jamie Oliver has reams of pancake recipes, which can be sweet or savory, thin and crepe-like, or study and filling. I find when I eat pancakes in restaurants I can never eat a whole stack. I like the idea of delicate crepes, oozing fresh, colorful fruit. They are practically health food.

I will trip along the nostalgia trail here, and am reminded of a great pancake breakfast on vacation in Maine one summer where we tumbled a couple of handfuls of fresh blueberries picked by our own little monkey fingers into the bubbling batter. The children became instant blueberry fans, having shunning them for their six or seven years on earth. This is a song that gets airtime when the family is whipping up batches of pancakes:

When the Tall One came home from college, where he was learning how to cook and fill his own food furnace when he wasn’t studying the intricacies of macroeconomics, we were introduced to his personal philosophy that everything is better with bacon. It is an excellent belief to hold. Bacon on pancakes. Bacon in pancakes. Bacon served on the side of a stack of pancakes. He even put bacon inside the hamburger he would grill, and then top with more bacon. Yumsters.

Another college skill he acquired was flipping pancakes. I do not recall having that much time on my hands when I was in college, but the times are a changin’. The Tall One would very casually take a smallish frying pan, into which he had poured pancake batter, and after the bubbles had stopped bubbling, and the surface of the pancake was no longer shiny, he would grab the handle of the pan, twirl the pancake a little bit, rotate his wrist, and hurl the pancake up toward the kitchen ceiling. And sometimes it came down into the pan. Mostly the dog was an enthusiastic observer, and with her big soulful eyes she encouraged many hours of practice. People who have more than my checkbook math have even found the mathematical equation for the foolproof pancake flip: L = 4×H /π– D / 2
(L = hand distance from inner edge of the pancake / H = height of flip / D = diameter of pancake)

Take a walk around the Garden District before Mardi Gras:

One of our household kitchen gods, Mark Bittman, has an excellent basic pancake recipe: And he even has a cornmeal variation:

Bacon Pancakes:
Garden and Gun has a slightly more sophisticated bacon pancake that will be perfect for an Easter breakfast:

And, of course, Bon Appétit has to do it bigger and better than everyone else – Chocolate Chip Pancakes Cooked in Bacon Fat! Apparently you will not die from immediate heart failure if you use whole wheat flour. I am sure that the Tall One would just audibly roll his eyes at that nonsense, and will reach for the Bisquick box instead:

In case you are not trying to use up whole wheat flour, and Bisquick is what you have on hand, too:

Enjoy the moment.

“My life is always more delicious when I have whiskers on my face, but that might just be because those whiskers tend to accumulate bacon crumbs and scotch, rendering them literally delicious all day long.”
― Nick Offerman

Food Friday: Prepping for Spring

Ah, February. A short month, granted, but one riddled with vagaries and inconsistencies. It’s warm and sunny one day, snowy the next. Then it is sunny and cold, then warm and rainy. So many wags have commented on the weather that I can hardly hope to contribute to the compendium in an original (or amusing) way. February: some days are warm, some days are cold.

Several times this month I have been tempted to make a vat of chili, if only for the warming exercise of standing at the stove and stirring the red mixture around and around in the pot. Those are the days when we will do almost anything to stay close to the pilot light. Chili is such a wintery meal; it’s when we pull close together in the candlelight and shrug on another sweater. We hold the chili bowls in our chilly little hands, hoping the radiant heat will warm our little bird-like bones. Brr. It is dark and freezing on chili nights.

But what about the bright, sunny day, when Luke the wonder dog and I have been walking through the neighborhood, lurking and snooping and scoping out other peoples’ gardens? When the sight of the first crocus can buoy my spirit? That is no night for heavy, winter-y chili – it is a night to celebrate the first hint of spring! It is a night for Warm Chicken Salad, with a big nod to the smart folks at Food52.

We enjoy a summertime staple meal of a BLT chicken salad, with bacon, lettuce and tomato and cool lashings of mayonnaise, but in the winter we prefer something less gauzy and breezy. Our warm chicken salad has heft and crispy potatoes, which warm the gullet and speak to the primal essence of survival. Winter is still here, Jon Snow, but spring is not far away.

We have been tinkering with the basic Food52 recipe, which is very grownup and practical. It calls for leftover chicken, from the bird you roasted in a methodical way on Sunday afternoon. And while I would like to marshal my thoughts enough to cook for a few hours every Sunday, I still have other projects which demand my attention. Soon, though.

We played a little fast and loose with the basic recipe, which is only to be expected. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without. I wanted to be sure that the potatoes were particularly crisp, so I fried up a couple of pieces of bacon and used the bacon fat for frying the potatoes. (I had the perfect excuse for a nice BLT lunch then, too.) We also had some leftover Italian sausage, which I tossed into the mix a few minutes before taking the pan off the stove. The sausage had enough time to reheat and get crispy around the edges, too.

If you want to organize yourself and get prepped for spring I cannot recommend too highly the newest Food52 cookbook: Food52 A New Way to Dinner: A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead. It will whip you into top cooking shape, and you will feel so responsible and methodical that it is possible to enjoy some leisure time for guilt-free snooping into your neighbors’ gardens, too. Or reading another murder mystery. Because why else do we strive for efficiency? So we have some time to savor and delight in the mundane. Go find a crocus blooming, and see how uplifted you feel.

“The true harbinger of spring is not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of the bat on the ball.”
-Bill Veeck