We'll be starting Sunday Dinners again in October. Prepare to be entertaining, because this time, they're for publication.
We'll be starting Sunday Dinners again in October. Prepare to be entertaining, because this time, they're for publication.
Even though it was soggy out, Sweetie and I went to the Broadway Farmers Market for what may be our last trip of the season (it ends right about the time we return from Ecuador). I chatted with my current favorite seller, the Potato Man, and purchased three varieties--some purple ones (slightly wet and very clean, they look like the sort of purple normally seen on the side of a van, surrounding a dolphin), the cutest tiny russets I've ever seen, and some round and sassy Yellow Finns. We talked some about Ecuador and their potato varieties, and he was happily insistent that I must provide a complete report of my Latin American Potato Experiences when we return, even if I have to drive up to the Ballard Farmers Market to find him.
We also got samples of delicious beef stew from the Brothers In The Kitchen cooking demo. The smell was rich enough to cause swooning on such a cool fall day, the portion generous, the brothers professional and chatty, and the stew was great. Little bits of orange rind in beef stew? New to me--and tasty. I'm not sure if they were selling many books (the market wasn't all that busy), but their carafe for donations was stuffed.
I was also happy to find baskets of smooth kiwis, which taste nothing like the fuzzy kind and are about the size of a green grape. A friend of mine has a couple vines (you need male and female plants) and I've snacked on them for years, but they're so soft and perishable I don't think they're very common at all in stores. Nice to see them at a market. (And if anyone has ever cooked with them at all, do tell.)
Yesterday, we went back down to South Lake Union to eat at a place we found a week ago--Feierabund, a German pub. The beer was great, the piles of food were a bargain, the atmosphere is the dark and wooden sort of place that makes me want to drink beer, and, alas, the waiter was a barely-legal dude who spaced (his word) on a few too many things to make me happy. I realized that what I want at a bar like that is a very stereotypical large professional pub man with a handlebar mustache, a generous gut, a zillion years experience in the world of beer and a real love of his job. I do not see many pub men like that, but if you know of one, send me his way. We will be going back, both to taste a whole lot of beer varieties and to try more food. Sweetie especially loved the sweet/sour red cabbage, and I liked the horseradish mashed potatoes.
To wrap up a very food-centered weekend, I spent some quality time with a birthday gift from Sweetie's parents, a cookbook called The Little Big Book of Comfort Food. The recipe selection is impressive--they did a great job combining standards like meatloaf and mashed potatoes with fattening pub food (cheesy potato skins), nursery food (vanilla pudding), old-fashioned veggies (green bean casserole, corn pudding) and crazily rich desserts (whiskey cake). A small portion are traditional regional or ethnic (mainly New York Jewish), and a few are interesting new-to-me versions of basics, like the French toast casserole. I'm also entirely in love with the design--heavy matte paper with crazed images of dancing vegetables, small children slaving away in the kitchen, and ducklings dressed up and out on a picnic. There's even a little ribbon bookmark. While some of the recipes (glazed carrots) are too bland and sugary to compare to my modern version (balsamic glazed carrots), most of the recipes look both tasty and reliable.
The only thing I wish was added to this article about being a picky eater is how on earth some of the folks have survived this long without scurvy, or other less renowned vitamin deficiencies. When Sweetie and I began hosting big dinners for friends (and it's not you, it's us--we stopped back in February when my back went to hell and will hopefully resume after Ecuador), we decided the only way to accommodate various eating issues was to post the menu in advance and let people choose whether they were willing to eat what I wanted to cook. It worked well, and I discovered that most all of my friends are remarkably willing to eat foods they think they don't like, at least if I am the one cooking them (the food, not the friends). It's appreciated, people. If I was going to marry all of you, I would not withhold the ring until you ate a crawdad, like the guy in the article. (And actually, while I will put just about anything in my mouth, I have a problem when prawns still have their eyeballs attached.)
And in the interest of public disclosure, there are things that I do my best to not chow down--I will, with varying degrees of difficulty or dislike, but I guarantee you that my list has at least one thing that is one of your very favorite foods: mussels, clams, strawberries, bananas, lima beans, whole soft-shelled crab, large predators like bear and swordfish, purple grape juice, wax beans, green peppers, canned cherry pie filling, commercially-produced pie of all varieties except TastyKake, cooked raisins, soft-boiled eggs, brown rice, fish-flavored Japanese snack foods, sausages with natural casings, whole grain hippie breads on deli-style sandwiches, ketchup, bright yellow mustard, Pepsi products (I'm a Coke girl, on the rare occasions I have a soda), microwaved pastries of any variety, cantaloupe, tendons, hot chocolate made with water and Brussels sprouts.
I once had a roommate who was a seriously picky eater; it drove her now-husband (another of my roommates) slightly crazy, until he figured out that her dislikes seemed based on texture, rather than taste (she had severe allergies all her life, and a very limited sense of smell). The theory was interesting to me, and we made up some lists of the food aversions in friends we could think of with allergy problems. In an awful lot of cases, the dislikes tended to be grouped around a broad category of what I called "meat-like vegetables"--avocado, mushroom, olive, cooked carrot, banana--and things with similar textures--bland semi-firm cheese and bivalves, for example. And it's not that all people with a poor sense of smell are picky eaters--we came up with plenty that weren't in our circle of friends--but if they were picky and stuffy, they tended to have a strong similarity in their dislikes.
Having a poor sense of smell is a sad thing, even in a world with pulp mills and pig farms, and I have a certain sympathy for these folks. I also have a certain sympathy for real food allergies (I will swell up and die from a few specific nuts), and do my best to accommodate belief-based food issues, like not eating mammals or avoiding beef (although sometimes the illogical mish-mash of what people will eat or not eat makes me crazy). What bugs me tremendously is when someone says, "I don't like X", when it is likely that the person has not sampled any variety of X in some time. I used to not like a lot of things; I still cannot eat a raw banana (a disgusting childhood vomiting incident), but I love-love-love fried plantains. Sweetie thought he hated avocados until about a year ago; now he regularly makes his own guacamole and eats two avocados' worth in one sitting. I used to suck down General Foods International Coffees, for heaven's sake. Sweetie used to never drink any sort of coffee, and now he not only has very specific items he needs coffee with, he has specific preferences for very strong, very sweet Vietnamese coffee and after-dinner decaf, black. Tastes change, people. Except for lima beans--those are just gross.
My work week started with the total collapse of my ability to get online--not just on my own network, but any of the unsecured ones in the area. Or, for that matter, any of the ones in Portland, where I was all weekend--but I just figured there was something wrong with the Portland networks I tried. On Monday morning, I started off with my ISP, who was utterly useless. Next up: Qwest. We all know how that went, right? Finally, I tried Dell. 6.5 hours on the phone with two polite and determined women in India finally resulted in a return to the information superhighway, minus one 64-bit WEP key. It was a good thing I actually have a charmingly old-fashioned wire to plug into; I recommend keeping one around in our new-fangled world. I also had a lot of time to wish I had named my network something less of a very old and inside joke--although hearing the translate-pause-pause-chuckle of both women as they dealt with MattressBackedHo was amusing, it wasn't quite amusing enough to have to cope with the thought pause-oh-god-they-hate-american-women-oh-no-they-just-laughed-whew.
Anyway. Hello. Before I return to my work du jour (French onion, with a side of catalog copy), I must tell you what you are doing this weekend: visiting farms! The impossibly lovely Skagit Valley is hosting its annual Festival of Family Farms again, and again we are tossing the cooler in the trunk and heading up for cider and beef and cheese and free oysters. Not to mention crab races, teen girls in geoduck costumes, goats just made for petting and alpacas to frolic with. (If you've never frolicked with an alpaca, you haven't lived.) Sweetie and I will be visiting all the farms listed in Bow, along with our beloved Skagit River Ranch in Sedro Wooley. Farmer George's organic farm tour is more informative than your typical college requirements for a bachelor's degree. I also see a treasure hunt at Skagit River Ranch called Goodies in the Haystack. Goodies! In the Haystack! A Haystack! With Goodies!
The festival and its participating farms are affiliated with many locally based environmental organizations. They're working to clean up the bay from its poopy sludge mess, conserve blocks of riverfront forest and farmland, and put the brakes on the suburban sprawl that spreads from the outlet malls. Even if you think you have better things to do this weekend than watch crabs race, think about Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and think about whether its worth joining the farmland preserve. Their work with Burlington to encourage density and stop the spread of strip malls is absolutely tied together with all the tasty things you like to purchase at Whole Foods, the Co-op, and every farmers market in a 75-mile radius.
Yesterday I cooked up a couple curries for dinner before a three-hour Bollywood insane movie night (oh, super wow--the director had a run-in with the mafia after the movie made it big!) and made the house smell super-wow delicious from the frying spices (super-wow is my new favorite saying, thanks to the movie). While the curries had a fair amount of prep steps, it was the rice I was happiest with. Supposedly tough things like pie crust, angel food cake and elaborate classic French recipes are no problem for me, but rice...I have had way more rice disasters than rice successes.
The problem arose when I first compared the recipe that is printed on the back of rice packages with the ones printed in a couple of my general cookbooks. Some dump rice in to cold water, heat it up to a boil and then let it steam. Others dump rice into boiling water and boil it hard until the water's gone, and then let it sit for a while to finish cooking. The proportions of rice to water are vastly different for these two methods, and if you are not entirely paying attention and do something like start with the bag's printed proportions, throw the bag away, and switch to what's printed in a cookbook for the technique, you will end up with tons of extra water that will not soak into the rice. If Sweetie then decides to help the rice along by stirring it madly with a spoon, you will end up with a rice version of instant mashed potatoes. You will also have a temper tantrum, especially because you had just told Sweetie that you should only ever stir rice with a fork or it will go all mushy (which I learned the first time I did the spoon trick myself). Even when I manage to stick with one recipe, it's still often a little dry or a little mushy because of poor measuring. Do not believe the common theory that baking is more precise than cooking. Baking is actually pretty damn forgiving in comparison to things like gravy or rice.
The obvious solution to all of this is to get a rice cooker, but because we hardly ever eat rice (because I always fear I'll screw it up), it seems silly to add a one-use appliance to the kitchen stack for a rarely-eaten starch. For a while, when I wanted rice to go with something, I would either go get an order of take-out rice from a nearby joint or I would use boil-in-a-bag stuff, which isn't awful, but also isn't actually tasty--it's just consistent and easy. While we were in Miami, I ate a lot of rice at Cuban restaurants and have not been able to forget just how delicious it was--and since there isn't a place I can buy it, I've decided to get over the Rice Thing and start cooking it.
Instead of trying to find the perfect recipe for a simple pot of rice, I've gone the opposite route and have been learning the rules of rice with risotto and basmati with toasted spices and a sweet-ish Cuban-spice concoction. Funny how following one recipe from start to finish actually improves matters. So far (and surprisingly), the basmati was the closest to the Miami-Cuban stuff I'm craving. I've learned that toasting it in some oil and/or butter before cooking it is important, and so is choosing a nice long grain to begin with. I've learned I like it dry and fluffy and cooked with a little nearly-carmelized onion. I've learned that cooking it with some whole spices is tastier than adding ground spices later, and I've learned that cooking it in chicken or veggie stock instead of water doesn't add as much flavor as I'd expect (and that's with the really rich homemade 'meat jelly' stock I make). I've learned that I'm happier making something a little more time-consuming but much better than the rice cooker stuff I've eaten. I've learned I don't seem to have a subtle enough palate to appreciate expensive specialty rice--I'd rather spend that money on interesting spices to add to the pot.
The other thing I learned yesterday (or actually, re-learned) is that the absolute best spices I've ever found come from Penzey's. There were a couple I needed for the curries (fenugreek and coriander, if you care) that I didn't have in the drawer and grabbed from QF(uckin')C. In one case, I went with a bulk bin purchase, and the other was a small tin from Dean and DeLuca. In both cases, the flavor was nothing compared to every single other spice, all of which came from Penzey's. Part of it, I'm sure, is that I usually buy in small containers and Penzey's has a high enough turnover that they're fresher. I also suspect that the stock is simply better quality to begin with, even though Penzey's has never struck me as being especially expensive. The range and quality blows hometown Market Spice away. Five types of cardamom, people. Plus a nice selection of middle eastern specialty spices, hidden under the "specialty" tab.
Sweetie and I have been making kickass pickles with Sweetie's parents since 2002. Canning is hot, mildly tiresome work--it involves a tremendous amount of scrubbing and peeling and slicing and measuring and burning of fingers, all while there are two large pots of boiling things on the stove, and steamy hot glass jars to handle. If your own family has memories of grannies putting up canned fruit or jam or their own pickles, know that it was a righteous deal of work.
In this case, four adults make it fun and chatty, and we've done it enough that there's a reasonable system, even with variables like missing utensils and overly dirty cucumbers. Last year's Pickle Disaster, which resulted in a total of about 40 jars of inedible pickles, was apparently the result of a mismeasurement of the salt and vinegar proportions in the brine (Sweetie asked the resident Pickle Expert at the cucumber farm--apparently, if the proportions are correct, you don't even have to worry about an unsealed jar. This seems slightly insane, but nice in a remember-when-the-world-didn't-always-put-safety-first kind of way.)
Since we started having homemade pickles around, it is pretty much impossible for me to eat a mass-produced pickle, even the fancy NYC deli half-sours that I find occasionally, and even formerly reliable (and expensive) Klausens. None of them have the proper briny, spicy flavor, and none have the proper extra-crunch. You know how cheap, thin potato chips seem unpleasant and papery compared to good, thick, boutique chips? It's the same thing--you didn't know anything was missing, until suddenly you Praise Jesus Find The Truth In A Pickle.
Two years ago, we sold a few jars of pickles at a bake sale for the MoveOn PAC--I think I priced them at $8 each, labeling them "Pickles for Peace". Now I want to call them Praise Jesus Pickles, but I think I would have to cart them off to a very different town to sell them under that name. Maybe Truthiness Pickles is a better brand identity.
The headline says Seattle is the smartest city in the US. (Miami being the dumbest, which made me laugh; they certainly rank vastly higher in cup size and cologne use and quality of Cuban food, though, which I think evens things out in all areas except per capita income.) In case you can't be bothered to click the link, let me tell you that "smart" in this case is translated as "having a college degree". I am pretty sure that we all know idiots with college degrees (like, for example, your boss. you can admit it. secretly. do not email me your agreement, you college-degree-having dumbass.)
I wish that it was somehow possible to conduct a smart city survey by comparing the number of idiotic (which I would say is some sort of combination of pointlessly expensive, potentially harmful, unkind and shortsighted) things voters had approved over a ten year period, or number of tickets issued for dumb incidents like holding your baby on your lap while driving. Or perhaps it should be accomplished by comparing the number of residents responsible for pointless statistical comparisons.
On a different note that is not related to a dumb article I stumbled across, Sweetie and I got some disappointing information on Sunday morning: the reason the Broadway Farmers Market seems smaller than last year is because last year's sales were not as high as the association promised the farmers and either the farmers dropped out or the association "purposely scaled back" depending on who you happen to chat with about it. That means our beloved Farmer George isn't there, and neither is Belle's Buns, which were two of my favorite stops (we having been hoping that each of these folks were just on a short hiatus, but no--they are gone for the season). A girl who I'm guessing is an association intern suggested we go to the University District market, because it was great, and when I said, "but...we want to go to the one we can walk to" reacted with a very intern-y combination of eye rolling and puzzlement. The woman in charge of the market understood, and was nice enough to go down the list of all the vendors they expected to have at the market throughout the season. Lots of great folk are still there, and will be returning once their fruit is in season. Anyway, oh residents of Capitol Hill, I beg you: Get Your Butt To The Farmers Market This Week and Every Following Week, and Spend Your Damn Money. The in-charge woman said she was thinking that maybe this local crepe maker might be persuaded to come make crepes every Sunday and how when they did that for Magnolia's struggling market, suddenly they had about 300 (!) new customers each week and the struggle, lo, was at an end. I said, yes! excellent idea! crepes! no more struggling!
She gave me her business card. It's nice thinking that I have a direct line on a Person To Bother about Seattle's farmers markets, even though I can't really think of anything to bother her about. If I see no sign of crepes over the next two weeks, I may begin an End To Struggle / Make Me Crepes email campaign. I am envisioning strolling down Broadway in a round, beige sandwich board / crepe outfit, passing out flyers with this woman's email address on them. Save The Market : Demand Crepes.
First Kind of Food:
I've made enough batches to report that making filled cupcakes is, in fact, a piece of cake. And universally thrilling for the people who eat them, which is fun: A cupcake always brings a smile, but a cupcake filled with thick chocolate pudding brings squeals of delight. The technique I've been using is in no way difficult, but on the fiddly side of the dessert spectrum. Because of the extra bits of work, I started cheating with cake mixes (and even instant pudding) with no change in the degree of squealy delight from the eaters. Part of that, I think, is that I add real flavorings to the cake mixes--extra cocoa, instant coffee and vanilla to chocolate cake; lots of extra vanilla to yellow cake; fresh lemon zest and juice to lemon cake. Adding a tablespoon of cocoa to the chocolate pudding makes a great difference, too. (I always use Pernigotti cocoa, by the way.)
So the technique: Let the cupcakes cool to room temperature. Using a small, non-serrated and very sharp paring knife, cut a circle of cake out of each cupcake. Don't cut all the way through to the bottom of the cake, and leave enough cake around the perimeter so it won't tear. Once you've cut all the way around the top, you should be able to gently lift off the section you've just cut. Take the "plug" you've just removed and slice off the center part of the cake, leaving a thin disk of cake. Fill the cupcake's hole with chilled instant pudding or pastry cream, lemon curd or fruit puree, leaving a space at the top that is approximately as thick as the disk of cake you have waiting. Place the disk back on top of the filling. Once they're all done, chill them for a bit before frosting--the filling will set to hold the disk in place (and once you've frosted the cupcakes, the seam isn't visible).
You'll have little knobs of cake left over from all this--the plugs that you removed from the cake and sliced off from the lid. I'm sure you could do something fancy with them, involving custard and cream and fruit, but I have just been pitching them into a tub and dabbing them with bits of buttercream when Sweetie or I want a snack--it keeps us out of the cupcakes, and really, it's the very best bite of cake.
Second Kind of Food:
I just finished a remarkable book called The Language of Baklava, by Diana Abu-Jaber. It's a memoir-with-recipes format, which, when it's done well, is just about my favorite book--and in this case, it's really, really done well. Partly, I think, that's because I know depressingly little about Jordan (where her dad's from) and she manages to politely gloss over my own ignorance and educate me without being bewildering or condescending. As I kept reading and learning and enjoying, I was struck by realizing that the two restaurants I like in my neighborhood that are "Middle Eastern" do not define an actual country (Ali Baba and Mediterranean Kitchen Express)--which, when you think about it, is like having a "European" restaurant instead of a French or Italian one. Yet at last in Seattle, it's unthinkingly accepted.
Perhaps this odd definition is because the borders of the countries are so recent and were all defined by westerners; perhaps it's simply marketing, because people in Seattle know that "Middle Eastern" food means falafel and baklava and hummous and pita and spinach and lentils and lamb, while very few (relatively speaking) would know what exactly Jordanian food or Iranian food or Lebanese food would be. The book talks some about this, indirectly, and has sweet, often hilarious stories about her uncles, that mash up culture and immigration and family issues into one big, delicious stew with rice and tomatoes and eggplant. I can't wait to try some of the recipes--there's a simple marinade for grilled chicken that looks far better that grilled chicken has a right to.
I feel compelled to add that when I was searching for a link to paste in for Med. Kitchen Express, I stumbled across some fairly ignorant user reviews on a few sites; I chose what I thought least bad. Sweetie and I typically share a single $8 entree, which comes with a cinnamony lentil soup or a garlicky salad, a pile of the best rice in town, a mound of hummous and a loaf of pita. It's a bargain--and everything is about half the price for the same portion as across town at the official Mediterranean Kitchen, which is only slightly prettier inside.
As many of you (and your tailors) know, I bake slightly more than a normal person. Over the weekend, and it's not an unusual sample--I baked sticky pecan buns, cinnamon rolls, two personal pan rhubarb crisps, and pain-in-the-ass fancy cookies (scroll way to the end for the recipe). Tomorrow, I'll be baking a big ol' experimental rhubarb thing, and probably another batch of cookies on Friday. The point of this, rather than to make you think "my god, she's a freak" is to say that I don't much get self-conscious about baking--I like doing it and mostly the results are acceptable (and sometimes delicious). Yes, I've fed people overdone cookies (and once some really weird ones where lemon oil infused some peanut butter cookie dough), and yes, the recent sticky buns weren't sticky enough, but no matter. There's always next time.
But next week I've got two stacks of baking-for-others on my calendar--a couple dozen cupcakes for 826, and a fancy chevre cheesecake for the winner of a dessert auction I donated to a few months ago. Neither one is complicated, and not really much of a big deal--But. If I blow the cupcakes, it's a pain because I'll need to make a second batch because they've been promised for months, and the cheesecake is getting taken to some fancy woman's book club and I know women: if it's not great, they'll be all polite about it in front of her and then be mean about it later, and she'll know they're doing it and feel bad instead of all proud she shelled out for the auction and look, bookclub, tra la, a cheesecake!
So here I am, feeling vaguely twitchy about something I do with ease nearly every day. It's dumb, but it also makes me slightly more appreciative about why some people go insane when they have people over: things can go wrong that can't quite be shrugged off. Baking doesn't normally feel like it has a deadline, but right now, it does. Maybe it's just because I'm reading War and Peace, so am generally full of drama. Perhaps if I switched over to Star (yes, that would be Pamela Anderson's bright pink half-nekkid ghostwritten novel, and yes, a novel can be half-nekkid), I would relax.
This morning I read this bit as part of a longer (and fairly pointless) article in the Seattle Times: "Even if something is not doused in oil, you still may not be calorie-safe: It can have added butter or cream. Toasted buns are often covered in butter; even steaks may have butter drizzled on them before they're sent out. And restaurants often finish sauces with butter or cream, even if the words "butter" or "cream" are not in the sauce's name, says Strynkowski.
Health pros' tip: Almost all the chefs agree, if you want it cooked a certain way, tell your server you have an allergy (to butter, or whatever you want eliminated) or a medical issue. This encourages the chef to make up a new batch of veggies, chicken, etc., without those added calories."
"Almost all the chefs" seems to mean "three", as the writer quotes four in the rest of the piece--two instructors, one guy in the test kitchen of a diet magazine, and one NY restaurant chef. My guess is that the actual restaurant chef is the one who disagreed. These are not his arguments; they are mine: If you are on a restrictive diet, you should expect to change your behavior, rather than forcing others (like professional chefs) to change theirs. Call ahead to a new restaurant, explain what types of items you can eat, and see if they can accommodate you. If not, change your venue. If you are on some kind of super-secret diet that your friends or family don't know about, I would say that you have other eating issues to resolve before claiming to be "allergic to butter". And what will you tell them if you manage to lose some weight? "Gee, I don't know what happened, I just woke up and my pants had all grown a size, tee hee!" Plus, you look like a moron when you claim to be allergic. When 20% of diners claim extremely rare allergies that exist in less than 2% of the population, all that happens is that the staff says, "we can't guarantee it won't have butter" and leaves the choice up to you. Restaurants are not actually personal chefs. It's one thing to prefer your steak cooked a certain way, it's another thing to have your eating habits form part of your ethics (such as keeping kosher or being a vegan), and it's yet another to lie to a waiter about having a genuine health problem out of some dumb shame of being on a diet. I think honesty is more likely to result in genuine helpfulness from the staff.
If you are on a diet, don't come to my house--especially now, but "never" is also a pretty good recommendation. Some people go on baking frenzies only during the holidays. I tend to get one about every six weeks or so. Currently, there's pan dulce in the freezer and rhubarb crisp and flan de queso in the fridge. I also made a couple of jars of stewed rhubarb, which I add to the crisp to make the filling less watery without having to put a bunch of flour into it. Tonight's dinner is carne asada, with both the meat and the tortillas grilled outside. One of my next goals is to learn how to make rice like we ate in Miami, where the Cubans make it all fluffy and almost dry (not like Indian rice, but almost), but then tossed with a lot of butter. I am rather terrible at making rice in general, but I think that's in part because it's never been one of my favorite things to eat. New inspiration will probably lead to far too much leftover rice. Which will make Sweetie happy, as chez Boom, leftover rice leads to fried rice, made with bacon and greens and corn and carrots and onion.