Food Friday: The Rabbit Knows!

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Major religious holidays demand ritualistic foods: Thanksgiving demands turkey. Passover seders entail matzo. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day, and eat at night. The Chinese New Year calls for boiled dumplings. Easter requires ham, colored eggs, and chocolate bunnies.

Every family is different. We will prepare the annual lemon cheesecake (sans the spiders-under-the-nasturtiums decoration) and a small spiral cut ham, from which we will make deelish ham biscuits to munch on with some noontime Bloody Marys.

The Bloody Marys are a custom we embraced during the years we held Easter Egg Hunts in our back yard for many churlish children and their parents. When the children outnumbered the adults. We had no idea how cutthroat the competition was for the Easter Eggs. We, poor benighted adults, who thought our helicopter hovering had resulted in happy, sharing, loving, and reasonable children. We didn’t realize that children hopped up on jelly bean rocket fuel would become as vicious as the boys in Lord of the Flies. Even our own. Those sweet little girls in pink Lilly Pulitzer Mommy-and-Me-dresses? Stand back and avert your gaze. Blood will flow. As will tears. And vodka.

So, no Easter Egg Hunt for us this year, but Bloody Marys for sure, with a nod to passing time and practically grown-up children. And we will be happy, for a moment, that we will not have to break up any plastic egg fights. Or dig melted chocolate out from under the sofa pillows. And whose kid was that who persisted in schmearing his boogers on the wall in the hall? Sheesh. Time marches on!

If you still have wee ones, and want to look like the parents with the mostess, Food52 offers up recipes for 10 kinds of homemade candies. I would be very proud of myself if I pulled off a homemade Cadbury cream egg, and I do not think I would share it with anyone. I suppose my children got their killer instincts naturally…
http://food52.com/blog/10191-10-homemade-candy-recipes-for-easter

Easter is quite warm some years, so it is nice to offer cool food, thus our cheesecake. The gentle folks at Garden & Gun have quite a good idea for a dessert that we intend to prepare often this summer:
http://gardenandgun.com/blog/southern-summer-dessert

If you are fellow empty nesters, and are feeling sentimental for the good old days of marshmallow Peeps, here is just the recipe for you – Marshmallow Peep-Infused Vodka. Holy camoly. As a child I used to make my peeps last longer by waiting for them to get a little stale, and then gnawing on the slightly leathery texture of the sugary coating over the course of a couple of days. It might well be a pleasant childhood memory that I can now abandon: http://www.foodbeast.com/2013/03/29/diy-marshmallow-peep-infused-vodka/

And here is a healthy idea for using up those leftover eggs – skip the soggy egg salad sandwiches – have the eggs for dinner: Kale Cobb Salad. http://www.dinneralovestory.com/kale-cobb-salad-or-how-to-turn-easter-eggs-into-dinner/ Yumsters!

The Easter Rabbit and I agree that cooking carrots is a big mistake. You can either enjoy them crunchy, fresh and raw, or gussied up, shredded and baked into a cake, slathered with thick lashings of sweet cream cheese frosting. There are no exceptions. The Rabbit knows.

http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/2008/03/sigrids-carrot-cake-perfect-for-easter/

http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/layered-carrot-cake-50400000111526/

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be,” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

-Elwood P. Dowd (and Mary Chase)

Food Friday: Making Sweet Memories

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Last weekend I scampered out of town to visit with nine dear old friends, for our almost-annual get together of laughter and food. We met in college, and though the years we have kept tabs on each other. What started in freshman orientation at a small college has persisted through boyfriends, husbands, grad schools, world travels, weddings, divorces, careers, children, opening nights, and marathons.

We started gathering steam as we congregated in an airport bar where loud shrieks of laughter and warm embraces greeted each newly arrived traveler. The weekend’s moveable feast commenced in stages. We shared onion rings and fries; then chips and salsa. Then a fish sandwich and a salad. DuClaw Venom Pale Ale, Diet Cokes, Bloody Marys and waters.

After some fun finding our cars in the perplexing parking garage, our designated drivers headed north on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We rendezvoused in a grocery store parking lot to hunt and gather our weekend provisions: Utz Sour Cream and Onion potato chips, pretzels, rotisserie chicken, salad, tomatoes, celery, garlic, bread and Bergers cookies. We also made a stop at a liquor store. Of course. Our host nation greeted us with a bowl of fruit salad, an apple pie and a strawberry pie, freshly cut tulips and open arms.

We were staying in a cottage, perched on a hill that overlooked a picturesque valley of farms, where we could see ambling horses and gamboling goats. The tree next to the scenic overlook was covered in glowing, burgeoning buds, which seemed to swell and grow by the minute. There were drifts of daffodils and clouds of forsythia, and two roosters to keep it real; there would be no sleeping late when there were heartfelt conversations to be had.

At good gatherings, most of the time is spent in the kitchen. This is where we milled and cooked and washed up and served each other meals. There is nothing like spending time with people who think you haven’t changed much since you were eighteen. Consequently we fell back into the behaviors of eighteen year olds, though, of course, we are responsible adults now.

The dependable ones chopped tomatoes and basil and fresh mozzarella for a killer salad. (Here is a real culinary hint: add a little olive oil and chopped garlic to the mixture, cover and let it marinate for a couple of hours. POW! So delicious!) The former RA cut up rotisserie chicken with her customary efficiency and aplomb. A chopped kale salad was uniquely dressed, and a new crowd pleaser was born. Wine was poured. Pies were divided and conquered.

It was a weekend of sweet indulgences. “Yes, thanks. I think I will have a margarita at lunch. With salt.” And, “Yes, I will have a Bergers cookie. For breakfast.” We cherish these reunions, which is why we spent two hours one morning discussing eye creams. Where else would we find an interactive audience for our opinions about the Duchess of Cambridge’s hats? Who else has the skill set for ear candling?

These are people who love you despite your bad boyfriends: they patiently waited for me to get over a poetry-spouting narcissistic actor once. We love each other despite our big hair in the 80s – and have we got the photos to prove it! Many a time, as we tried to master smartphone selfies this weekend, we thanked our lucky stars that there was no Internet – or digital photography – back in the day. Better to have our hilarious memories (without photos) of the rubber cement incident…

How did we know then that we would still love each other now? Warts, toenail fungus, bad perms, and the acres of stretch marks are all there – and up for discussion. We aren’t too sentimental, but for people from such diverse backgrounds, who fell to earth together in a tiny little spot, we feel pretty lucky.

Consequently, we will share the recipe for Bergers cookies with you. Be warned – home baked Bergers will be like bagels outside of New York City, or pizza outside of New Haven; they probably won’t taste exactly like the Bergers you remember from Baltimore, but they will give you some new, sweet memories, and leave you hankering for more.

Cherish the memories. Now go kiss someone. Don’t waste any time.

http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/baltimores-finest-berger-cookies-recipe

http://www.kingarthurflour.com/blog/2008/05/11/baltimores-finest-the-sequel/

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”
― Jane Austen

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
― Bob Marley

Food Friday: Loving Lemons

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Spring! It’s out there. It’s tantalizingly close. Spring! And with it, in come rushing all the cloying clichés: the spring in your step, and hope springing eternal, neatly spring to mind! Now that we have dispensed with that, it is a relief to open the windows, even if just for an hour, and have the breezes billow the wafting draperies over and through the agitated dust bunnies.

This is my house, not Martha’s, after all, and I have yet to eagerly embrace the notion of spring-cleaning. I wait until all the dog and cat fur clump together, and it gets back-combed into black, big-haired, tumbling tumble weeds before I bother to get out the Hoover. There are too many flowers about to burst onto the scene to worry about the mundane and the nonsensical cleaning up after the perpetually shedding animals! Although, perhaps, I should speak with my staff…

It is time for us to start going sockless. It is almost flip flop season, although Easter is awfully late this year – April 20. Not that I am dying to pull out the linen, just yet. I have gotten tired of being bundled up every minute of the day. It would be nice to sit in the yard, with a book, and feel the sun on my face. I was out back earlier this week observing the signs of life in the garden (see the photo of the lettuce) and the birds were swooping with grace and abandon. I watched a twittering band of goldfinches the other day streaking around the back yard. (I just looked up the collective noun for finches, and it is “charm”; a charm of finches scissoring merrily through the neighborhood.) It looked like such fun.

Yellow is truly a springtime color – not a pastel watery yellow – but something with vigor and brass – like a daffodil trumpet. Those perky little goldfinches flashed their yellow bellies. Fosythia bushes will soon burst into yellow flaming clouds. And the crocuses are defiantly gamboge YELLOW, when they are not purple or white, that is.

There are so many variations of yellow, and the names are quite evocative. You can picture each color: goldenrod, jonquil, school bus, straw, gold, day-glo, butter, butterscotch, mustard. Those names lead us to lemon yellow. And to lemons and all the miracles lemons can cause in our cooking and baking. We can make lemon bars, lemon curd, lemon cookies, lemon cake, lemon pie – all perfectly splendid and spring-y.

I like to bake a friend’s lemon cheesecake for Easter. The hoary family legend always demands full disclosure about the first lemon cheesecake I served up for the holiday. That year I prettied it up with some nasturtiums from the garden, being an edgy food experimenter. We all looked askance as a large spider skipped out from under one of the blossoms and trekked across the surface of the cake. The children were scarred for life. From the thought of ever eating spider-infested nasturtiums; not cheesecake. Never that.

http://food52.com/blog/10069-buttery-lemony-lace-cookies

http://www.npr.org/2013/04/08/176577903/preserved-lemons-older-wiser-and-full-of-flavor

http://honestcooking.com/salt-preserved-lemons-recipe/

http://www.ruthreichl.com/2012/03/sorrento-lemon-pie.html

I am looking forward to trying the preserved lemon recipes. The zing of the lemons will add piquance to my more mundane meals. I like a little lemon butter with steak; the light citrus taste elevates the ordinary without taxing my negligible Béarnaise abilities. And lemon butter, continuing with our springtime theme, is quite cheerily yellow.

Adding lemon to our comfort foods isn’t an extraordinary or original idea, but it will add layers of flavor and tone and subtlety. Having a jar with fat preserved lemons is some handy insurance that we can add a little sparkle to our lives, as we leave the drab winter, and head confidently into the spring-y sunlight.

“We live in a world where lemonade is made from artificial flavoring and furniture polish is made from real lemons.”
MAD Magazine

That is a sign – do not give into spring-cleaning! Take off your socks. Go outside.

Here is an encouraging springtime quotation:

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
― Margaret Atwood

Food Friday: Pasta Primavera

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There are tiny, little trace elements of spring green under the remains of snow in the bottom of the garden. If you scape carefully you might be rewarded with a handful of snowdrops or even some gaudy crocus. The first indications of spring are starting to emerge, despite the perverse pleasure winter has had in extending its stay. There is a little corner in the side yard that gets sun, and is sheltered from the wind by the garage, and there you can see some white striped crocus leaves. Ha! Take that, Winter!

Botticelli’s painting Spring (La Primavera) is littered with flowers and symbolism. It is a large, lively allegorical painting with nine figures almost floating in an orange grove. In it Botticelli has painted 500 separate plant species and almost 200 different kinds of flowers. It is a celebration of love and spring. You can see myrtle, oranges, hyacinths, iris, periwinkles, violets, anemone and cornflower blossoms among the many plants depicted. He even wove some strawberries into a head wreath. (These are spring plants that bloom in Tuscany in May, so we still have a little time to catch up.)

http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/la-primavera-allegory-of-spring-by-sandro-botticelli/

As promised last week, yesterday I sowed about three dozen lettuce seeds in two straight rows in an old window box planter on the back porch. I have 464 seeds left. I want to see if I can improve my ROI. I paid about $5 for the seeds, which I am comparing to $4.09 I almost paid for a bag of pre-washed organic salad greens last week. I have planted heat tolerant loose-leaf lettuces, because I probably should have started a couple of weeks ago. If I get two salads out of this experiment I will be ahead of the game!

I was puttering around my humble container garden, having a seed catalogue-induced fantasy about how great it is all going to look in a couple of months. Surely the new hydrangea will be blooming, and there will be lettuces enough for Peter Rabbit. In that dreamy state I thought that a little taste of Italy was just what I needed. Airfares being what they are these days, I opted for a homemade Italian pesto. Luckily, it was time for a basil harvest.

I have four basil plants in a big pot out back, and another smaller plant on the windowsill over the kitchen sink. Sometimes I like to just crumple a leaf and smell warmer weather. This fiction comes to you courtesy of Bon Appétit magazine. Just look at that color. Practically chartreuse! It is an early spring in a mouthful of pasta with garlic and Parmesan cheese.

http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/ligurian-pesto-with-spaghetti

We have just gotten back from a stroll through the Uffizi Museum, where we wandered among the Botticellis and the beauteous Donatellos, and now we need to offset Stendahl Syndrome and feed our springtime appetites. Delizioso!

The photo from the Bon Appétit test kitchen looked so beautiful. And inspirational. But instead of spaghetti or linguine I used some fresh (although I had stashed it in the freezer last week) sausage. Some days I will do almost anything to avoid a trip to the grocery store. Imagine how great it will be when the lettuce plants are ready for harvest!

Here are some other spring-y variations:

http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/pasta-with-pistachio-pesto

And who says that pesto is limited to adorning pasta?
http://food52.com/recipes/5014-grilled-bread-with-thyme-pesto-and-preserved-lemon-cream

And here are some great ideas for freezing pesto! You can keep a few cupsful of Italy on ice, to bring out at whim. Or when you cannot fathom another trip to the store.

http://www.simplyscratch.com/2013/08/homemade-basil-pesto.html

“There is no technique, there is just the way to do it.
Now, are we going to measure or are we going to cook?”
― Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun

Food Friday: Spring into Salads!

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Spring is sprung!

I want to retire the crockpot, stash the Dutch oven, put the lasagna pan out to pasture and start digging into light, healthy, crispy fresh green salads. With crusty French bread and sweet butter and a glass or two of cool Chardonnay. In my bare feet. In shorts.

I am heartily tired of the winter weather and snowy concerns. I am ready to spend some time in my humble little container garden. How about you? The more organized among you have probably thumbed through all the seed catalogues, marked your favorites with Post-its or have cleverly started your salad gardens in tiny peat containers or out in your cold frames. Obviously there was enough time with all the snow days this winter to linger with pleasure over the many tantalizing illustrations and photos of giant tomatoes and mouth-watering melons. I fell into the Burpee catalogue and just placed my order online, so when the seeds arrive I’ll have to get cracking on the Spring Salad Project.

March is a good time to get a jump on cool-season vegetables. You can start the annual competition with the deer and rabbits for the finest lettuces, broccoli and spinach. We are going to try some mixed, loose-leaf, heat tolerant lettuces this year. I want to enjoy the practical, health conscious and economic concepts of growing our own lettuce, with an eye to the decorative. I envision my ecclectic collection of odd terra cotta pots brimming with a array of colorful, wafting lettuce leaves. A veritable cornucopia of renewable crunchy salads!

That is always the best part of gardening, seeing everything in your mind’s eye in the gauzy Technicolor future. Somehow there I am always wearing a float-y white outfit as I drop my bountiful harvest into my antique English garden trug, clipping merrily (and with surgical precision) with the vintage secateurs. Reality won’t elbow that fantasy out of my suggestive and malleable brain for a couple of months…

I was appalled to see that the cheater’s way of buying lettuce at the grocery store has gotten so expensive – $4.09 today for a single puny bag of pre-washed mixed spring greens! I have had enough! Enough of the madness! I am fighting back. I have just spent $5.95 for 500 lettuce seeds. Let’s see what my actual return on the dollar is, at roughly 1.2¢ a seed…

Here is Burpee’s perky and unintimidating video for growing lettuce. http://www.burpee.com/vegetables/lettuce/how-to-plant-grow-lettuce-article10469.html

While I was earnestly researching lettuce seeds I was diverted by the fantasy that I am able to grow hydrangeas, which are my favorite flowers (after violets, daffodils and lily of the valley) but which I can never seem to grow. Maybe this year I’ll be lucky. I have just ordered a Nikko Blue Hydrangea, as well as the lettuce seeds. And pole bean seeds, morning glory seeds and some half price vinca seeds. Obviously, I will have to regale you with some gardening stories later this season, as I watch them all grow. With crossed fingers.

I have just given a self-pollinating blueberry bush. That will be another gardening experiment. I am planting it on the east side of the house, where it can commune with my spindly hydrangea-wannabes.

But back to the matter at hand – salad: as usual, we are hoping that the basil container farm will be busy and bushy this summer, as well as the annual tomatoes, which I hope won’t wither on the vine. We are also considered trying to make our own fresh mozzarella cheese. Maybe it would be easier to just move to Italy. But that depends on the lottery officials, I am sad to say.

My mother was always fond of ordering from the kind folks at Burpee, so give them a whirl. She always had an amazing garden. http://www.burpee.com/

“It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific’.”
― Beatrix Potter, The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies

Here are some tasty salad recipes, which will be all the more deelish if you grow your own this year. Drop us a line, or a photo or two, if you take up the salad challenge. It’s time to enjoy spring, no matter what those naysayers at the National Weather Service say about the storm that is due to hit next week!

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/22/dining/22mlist.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://www.whatsontheplate.com/easy-peasy-romaine-lettuce-salad/

http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/classic-salad

http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/browse-all-recipes/chopped-greek-salad-pita-00100000062832/

Food Friday: Kitchen Literati

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I am reading a collection of Nora Ephron’s work this week. (The MOST of Nora Ephron) She was a remarkable talent: writer, film director and cook. Read her now, if you haven’t already! Her deft hand was apparent in her wry observations and in her flaky piecrusts. And I had her help with dinner last night – she said it is OK to buy something you can’t really cook well at home – and so we supped on store-bought fried chicken. This was excellent advice, which I am please to pass along to you, Gentle Reader.

I took it personally that when Nora Ephron died I hadn’t had a hint that death was imminent. Not that I had a passing acquaintance with her, not even a street sighting, but her words echo in my head sometimes. I have read her books and articles and seen lots of her films. I think of her when I see a nice scarf or a beautifully dressed salad. She is someone I would have liked to have known and then, somehow impressed. (This winter I finally understood how valid her philosophy of turtlenecks has become for me.)

She was smart and she was funny, two rare traits I use as a gauge when judging people. Sometimes I cook and have imaginary conversations with her. (Keep in mind that I work by myself all day and have lots of conversations with a great variety of people. When I was small I am told that Glinda was my imaginary friend, so you can see that my current companions have impressive slippers to fill.) Nora Ephron is the influence that guides the chocolate soufflé.

Julia Child drops by sometimes, too. Mostly because I keep lots of wine on hand for all emergencies, like bouncing the chicken on the floor and snatching it up again before the dog gets it, searing the stew beef into charred chunks, and forgetting to turn the oven on. She chortles and we plunge on, chopping onions with aplomb, trussing up those chickens and smearing butter on everything we can.

Ruth Reichl and Nigella Lawson stop in, and so do Merrill Stubbs and Amanda Hesser from Food52. Merrill and Amanda are far more hip than I am ever going to be, and have imagined and developed their own growing digital empire, while packing imaginative school lunches, mastering e-commerce and merchandising, and researching and writing The Essential New York Times Cookbook. They are practically dancing backwards in high heels on that website, while I am still in my jimjams in suburbia, grappling with laundry and the ridiculous middle class dictates for three square meals a day. I love their website, as you can see by how often I refer to it. They have grown a real food community that I adore. And maybe they’ll swing in for a little wine, too!

The charming Lee Child swans through whenever I bake a flourless chocolate cake. (Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts) I owe him many a birthday celebration success. I have honed my few baking skills with his delightful book. The recipe has never failed me, and it never ceases to impress. That might be because I come from the land of Jell-O lemon meringue pies and boxed tapioca pudding. A flourless chocolate cake, which is basically a chocolate soufflé, is still rather continental. Not much can go wrong with chocolate, eggs and sugar.

Calvin Trillin, though not a cookbook writer, has long written persuasively about food. I waddled through my pregnancies reading long passages from his travel-and-eating-with-Alice books to my poor husband and the captive audience sprog. Never in a million years am I going to eat boudin sausage from Louisiana, or scarf down fresh oysters from the cold water of Nova Scotia, though they all sounded intensely divine when I read about them. When we visited Kansas City we took a family field trip to Arthur Bryant’s, Mr. Trillin’s oft-touted barbeque emporium. Barbecue was a concept we could enjoy. Life is described in books, but the barbeque is in Kansas City.

As soon as I am finished with this column I am going out to the kitchen to bake some shortcake, because the strawberries need a little dressing up. It will make up for last night’s shortcut. I’ll see which of the literati follow me in there.

“I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat next at all times.”
-Nora Ephron

Food Friday: Multiple Muffins

FF_Muffins_March72014_illo

We love muffins! Corn muffins, blueberry muffins, muffins for breakfast, muffins for lunch, muffins anytime!

I wish I had had this recipe back in the day when I was taller than the Tall One, and the Pouting Pescatarian was more agreeable. This handy muffin would have given their boringly repetitive and unimaginative lunches a little more pizazz and variety. Still, they do swoop in for weekends, so to have a little stash in the freezer is probably a good insurance policy.

http://www.nytimes.com/recipes/1014979/blackberry-crumb-muffins.html

Too often I get lazy and pick up pre-fab corn muffins at the grocery store. I really should be ashamed of myself. Good muffins are worth the exertion. To master a new, healthy baked good that isn’t loaded with high fructose or preservatives or an unwieldy price tag is, as one could say, a good thing. Home baked muffins on hand mean we are prepared! And it is always fun to line muffin tins with the little ruffled paper cups – so festive! It reminds me of the glory days of baking birthday cupcakes for the classroom celebrations, way back before they were a staple on “Sex and the City”, when obviously those women ate nothing…

http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/12/the-bakers-apprentice-corn-muffins/

This was a more labor intensive recipe, and thanks to The Bitten Word for some of their warnings. But it would be pretty yummy to have carrot cake-y muffins for a change.

http://www.thebittenword.com/thebittenword/2011/06/morning-glory-muffins.html#more

At Food52 there are always a many, many lively opinions about ways to prepare your favorite foods, so sometimes you can hunt and peck for hours on end, falling down the delightful rabbit hole that is their website. It makes me feel sad and inadequate sometimes. I do not stock turbinado sugar. What is wrong with me?

http://food52.com/recipes/10665-blueberry-muffins

I could handle the Orange Scented Blueberry Muffins, because (for once) I actually did have everything in the kitchen – no zero dark thirty trips out to the grocery store, or nervously tapping on the neighbor’s front door, waiting to be judged for my threadbare jim jams…

http://food52.com/recipes/9841-orange-scented-blueberry-muffins

Now the orange scented muffins could evoke a full breakfast – if someone else thoughtfully fried up some bacon and ironed the newspaper and summoned Maggie Smith to the breakfast table. Realistic? Hardly. But we thrive on whimsy!

The next recipe just sounds like so much cheating: Blueberry Oatmeal Muffins with Flaxseed? Really? Seriously? My kids, who did not benefit not by growing up in proximity Williamsburg hipsters, would not have fallen for these sneaky birdseed cakes in a million years. I might as well have offered them a voluntary slug of castor oil on the side while I was at it!

http://shine.yahoo.com/shine-food/blueberry-oatmeal-muffins-flaxseed-132100400.html

Apparently you can adapt this recipe depending on what fruit is available. You can get your children to hate you through every season.

In the end, we always find that simple is best. It is perfect. And these are self-proclaimed so: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/PERFECT-BLUEBERRY-MUFFINS-50176835

“How you can sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.”

“Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.”

“I say it’s perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.”

― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Food Friday: Stewing in Your Own Juices

FF_StewingFebruary28

Let’s hunker down together for the last few weeks of winter. March will be here on Saturday, and I am hoping there has been enough leonine weather behavior lately that we can just segue into a mild and picturesque spring. Let the lambs gambol! Let the robins gather and sing their springtime anthems. In the meantime, let’s eat.

There are many schools of thought (and even more recipes) about beef stew. Every family does it differently. It is a good and hearty meal to have bubbling away on the back burner; fragrant and fortifying. Julia Child’s famous Boeuf Bourguignon might be a little daunting, as can be seen in the fey (and much admired) Nora Ephron film, Julie and Julia. Lots of steps, lots of prep work, lots of cooking time – for a meal that gets consumed in a flash! You have barely ladled the chunky, meaty morsels into a pretty antique porcelain soup plate, just scraped the knob of sweet Irish butter across the hunk of artisanal French bread, and had your first sip of perfumed red wine – when the meal you have labored over for two days is but a memory. Poof!

My mother watched Julia Child on The French Chef on PBS, back in the old days, on the black and white Zenith console TV in the living room. She kept many little three by five notecards to remind herself of some Julia witticism or a helpful kitchen technique. This must been the time when my mother suddenly decided to add red wine to her stogdy winter staple: beef stew. Otherwise, the fanciest she had ever gotten, cooking-wise, was when she bought a garlic press and introduced her WASP-y family to the flavors of Continental cuisine. Julia Child then brought us into the vibrant 20th century world of the global kitchen. Good-bye Jell-O molds! So long to Velveeta! Howdy, La Tarte Tatin. My mother never got to level of Pâté de Canard en Croûte, probably because the butcher she patronized up the street would never have stocked duck, but her curiosity and appetites were whetted and our meals certainly became more flavorful.

I haven’t had a chance to recreate many of Julia Child’s recipes. I dip in and out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking from time to time – when I want something ceremonial or mind-blowingly impressive. Boeuf Bourguignon is not a recipe to be entered into lightly. However, given a couple of snowbound days and a well-stocked kitchen it is a good way to while away the hours.

Be sure you have wine, bread, a small salad and then whip up a batch of Julia’s favorite brownies while waiting for the snowdrops to bloom. Spring is just around the corner!

http://www.food.com/recipe/best-ever-brownies-from-baking-with-julia-child-99113

http://www.tablespoon.com/recipes/julia-childs-beef-bourguignon/f7e0a6c5-710d-4c83-89a6-2a4936fec81a

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/beef-bourguignon-recipe.html#

http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/boeuf_bourguignon/

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2014/feb/27/beef-stew-bread-dumplings-bowl-no-potatoes?CMP=twt_gu

And if you would like to addle your sad winter-tinged brain with more possibilities and permutations – here are 42 recipes from the clever folks at Food52, who had a contest for the best beef stew recipe ever. This should keep you in the kitchen and away from onerous snow shoveling duties for a little while!

http://food52.com/contests/109-your-best-beef-stew

“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew, just go right along and you’ll start happening too.”
-Dr. Seuss

Food Friday: Cheers (and Cherries) for George

FF_GeorgeWashington

Yes, the official celebration of George Washington’s birthday was last Monday, but I felt we needed to explore his kitchen and larder and dining room for old times’ sake. The man we revere was more interesting than the saccharine tale of the boy chopping down that cherry tree would lead us to think.

Sometimes we don’t think beyond those spurious tales we heard as children: the cherry tree, the wooden teeth, the dollar thrown across the Potomac… While I was reading about the culinary habits of the Washingtons I learned that perhaps George Washington damaged his teeth because he loved to crack open black walnuts with them. Holy smokes! The father of our country liked nibbles! He also liked bacon – something of which we are inordinately fond ourselves; he is beginning to take on some human characteristics.

Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s home and plantation, was a bustling, self-sufficient place which was visited by hundreds of people a year. George himself referred to Mount Vernon as a “well-resorted tavern.” To feed and entertain these folks in the days long before Whole Foods and Acme, the Washingtons availed themselves of their kitchen gardens, groves of fruit trees, home grown meats and dairy products. (http://www.mountvernon.org/exhibitions) They imported much wine, many spices, and teas and nuts.

The Washingtons presided over a gracious table for their many friends and diplomats, and folks who just dropped by. The larder was always stocked with victuals, in case a neighboring farmer stopped by for a chat and subsequently, a meal. Many were wined and charmed in the gaudy Kelly green dining room at the main mid-day meal.

From The Presidents’ Cookbook: “Washington said: “My manner of living is plain, and I do not mean to be put out by it. A glass of wine and a bit on mutton are always welcome. Those who expect more will be disappointed.” This, however, is an example of the “plain living” offered guests at a Presidential dinner: There was an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkey, ducks, fowls, hams, etc.; puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, and a variety of wines and punch.” (The Presidents’ Cookbook, Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks [Funk & Wagnalls:New York] 1968 [p. 8-9] )

The stores of fruit and vegetables would have been plentiful. Mrs. Washington called vegetables, “the best part of our living in the country.” They raised potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, leeks, parsley, parsnips and cabbages.

Washington and his gardeners kept meticulous annual records and plans complete with drawings of the various gardens: a kitchen garden, a botanical garden, the “Upper” garden which was a greenhouse with lemon and orange trees, and young trees not native to America. George Washington was a scientific and painstaking farmer.

The famous cherries were ingredients in pies, tarts and breads, jams and jellies, cherry preserves, cherry wine, and cherry paste. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery has a recipe for preserving cherries, something necessary when the days of electric refrigeration were decades away. Nowadays you can saunter out of the grocery store almost any time of the year and make these: http://thehistorykitchen.com/2011/07/01/martha-washingtons-preserved-cherries/.

You should wait until this summer to prepare your own store of preserved cherries, when the farmers’ markets will have loads of fresh organic, locally grown cherries. And then you can bake a pie and give a toast to Martha, as well as George. Her birthday is June 2. Mark your calendars.

http://www.fourpoundsflour.com/the-history-dish-washingtons-birthday/

Washington Cake

Adapted from The Cook Not Mad, 1831.

2 cups sugar
2 cups flour, sifted
2 sticks butter, plus 1 TBSP for greasing
4 eggs
3 cups raisins (or 1 1/2 cup raisins and 1 1/2 cups currants)
¼ cup brandy
½ cup cream
¼ tsp each: cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg (all finely ground)
1.Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan and set aside.
2.Cream together butter and sugar until mixture is light and fluffy and the color is light yellow, about 3 minutes on medium high speed.
3.Continue to beat mixture on medium high speed, adding in eggs 1 at a time. Add in remaining wet ingredients (brandy and cream).
4.Fold flour, by hand, into cake batter in three batches. Add in spices. Add in raisins and mix well to fully incorporate all ingredients.
5.Transfer batter to loaf pan and cook for about 80 minutes, or until a cake tester (or knife) inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
6. Let cake sit for 15 minutes before removing it from pan.

A little more modern: http://food52.com/recipes/23452-cherry-pie-filling

http://www.mountvernon.org/

And interestingly enough – President Washington’s recipe for beer! Thanks, George!
http://www.history.com/news/the-new-york-public-library-raises-a-toast-with-george-washingtons-beer

“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
-Henry Lee

“It could be argued that there is an element of entertainment in every pie, as every pie is inherently a surprise by virtue of its crust.”
― Janet Clarkson

Food Friday: Breakfast in Excess

FF_Breakfast_February142014

I blearily observed this towering creation last weekend, as I dug into my humble bowl of museli twigs and sticks and pencil shavings, which was slightly moistened with paint water (1% milk). The Tall One was home, and his furnace needed stoking. Allow me to describe this initial fueling of his day: one homemade biscuit, two thick-cut slices of apple wood smoked bacon, two eggs (scrambled), and one sausage. In the background, the Gentle Read might glimpse another platter of eggs; three (scrambled). Also, there were four more biscuits, and a plate with a plump pristine bar of Irish butter. Coffee, skim milk, juice. Eventually, I refrigerated the reduced pile of butter and two leftover biscuits. He had moved on to the gym.

Breakfast is a very popular event around here. The ancient cat starts howling for her gravy-laden can of wet food at about 5:57 every morning. (Really. She is partly Siamese, but I swear she has Swiss watch cogs inside that tiny little brain.) Luke, the wonder dog, happily waits for his bowl of kibble. He is agreeable, and low key; the perfect breakfast companion. I crack open a Diet Coke and suck in some caffeine while scanning the morning paper. I warm up the coffee machine and set out a spoon and a bowl for cereal for my husband, who is equally low key. That is on a normal workday.

Weekends with visitors or temporarily needy children are another story. When the children are home we tend to make elaborate productions of the meals. We relish the time spent hunting and gathering, buying the slightly more exotic and expensive foods we hope will tempt their finicky tastes. Who cares if the blueberries are from Chile with dodgy pesticide rules, and cost $5.99 a pint? The Pouting Pescatarian is only going to be home for a couple of days! She’ll love them! Apple wood smoked bacon at $8.99 a pound? Let’s get two pounds, you know how hungry he always is!

The elaborate breakfasts are a ruse for time to be spent together. We tend to tippy toe around the kitchen, because the young ‘uns are still asleep. They do not heed the siren song of the howling cat. When they are finally roused it is by the rising crescendo of plates and pans and NPR, combined with the heady aromas of coffee, maple syrup and bacon wafting up the hallway. They eventually stumble out of their rooms, ten-ish, to have their coffee poured by the doting parental barristas. Dishes are passed, towering infernos of smoked meats are constructed, and expensive imported fruits are inhaled. And then, whoosh! They evaporate and the kitchen is as decimated as if we had had an elaborate dinner party, minus the wine. Pots, pans, newspapers, dishes, glasses, butter knives, coffee spoons, and paper towel-lined plates litter the kitchen. Suddenly some wine would be nice.

I spend a good amount of time looking at the magazine covers in the grocery store check out lines. I am always eager to read about royal scandals, but occasionally I do flip through food magazines. The current Food Network Magazine has devoted the entire issue to bacon. I can only imagine: The Bacon Issue “108 Amazing Recipes”.

I could do their waffle recipe for a brunch, but I think I would leave out the fried chicken. Forget Mildred Pierce. There is not enough Diet Coke to get me frying chicken in the morning. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/food-network-kitchens/chicken-and-bacon-waffles.html

When the children were little, and I was hard pressed for creative dinner ideas, we would sometimes enjoy a “Breakfast for Dinner” night. I think our friends at Food 52 have some swell, adult crepes that would satisfy the urge for breakfast decadence at night. We could use those Chilean blueberries and the crepes would even be fancy enough to serve with apple wood smoked bacon at $8.99 a pound:
http://food52.com/recipes/16985-crepes-with-lemon-curd-blueberry-compote

It is just about lunchtime as I am finishing this. I think I am going to mosey into the kitchen and fry up a couple of slices of bacon, slice a tomato and toast some rye bread. I have heard my stomach distinctly growling as I have perused the Food Network photos. I think a nice BLT will hit the spot.

“There has never been a sadness that can’t be cured by breakfast food.” Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation