Getting back into it…

I tell my students that it’s important to be specific when they write.  I tell them to be careful with pronouns – to be sure the subject they refer to is clear – and to add description and make their vocabularies work for them.

And yet, as a self-proclaimed word nerd, I do enjoy a little ambiguity when it comes to titles, lines of text, phrases, something to, shall we say, chew over.  Maybe this means I like poetry after all.  So let’s take on this title together.  It could mean “getting back into being in Oregon for the summer.”  This could certainly be true.  My vacation was phenomenal and I didn’t want it to be over, and even though summery weather has finally come to the Northwest, returning home means certain other, less welcome truths.  My title here could also mean “getting back into my dissertation.”  Yet again, a necessary activity I’m not quite wholly invested in yet.  I need to be.  We’re almost a week into July and I’ve only read one short scholarly book and one chapter of another, and though I’ve thought a bit about my work, I don’t have much to show for it yet.

Finally, and perhaps most applicable, my title could refer to this blog, Bittman, and cooking in general.  I didn’t take my laptop with me on vacation, and I hoped to sustain you on those limited – but admittedly lip-smacking – shots from my week at the beach, but now I’m well back and well behind.  Going out to eat and sampling masterworks from my various relatives made me at once anxious to return to my kitchen and, strangely, resistant to actually going in there and producing anything.  To top it off, because this week’s Bittman was not my favorite, I’ve been having trouble mustering the inspiration to write about it.

Because my cooking urge has been beaten back a bit, perhaps by the heat, or perhaps because all I want to eat is grilled food (hear that, N.?), I thought a raw salad would be a good choice for us.  Then, trying to be ambitious, I thought I’d throw in a bread-y accompaniment, and check two recipes off at once.

“66. In a blender, whip olive oil, lime juice, a little red onion and a stemmed and seeded jalapeno.  Toss with lots of shredded raw sweet potato, diced red bell pepper and chopped cilantro.” 

In theory, this sounded fresh and healthful and good.  Zesty.  I collected

2 medium sweet potatoes (actually, I used the orange ones called Beauregard yams)

1 large red bell pepper, diced

2 TB chopped fresh cilantro

juice of one lime

¼ – ½ cup olive oil, depending on how much lime juice you have

¼ cup red onion, roughly chopped

1 jalapeno, or to taste (I used half a large, green jalapeno and the dressing was only mildly spicy)

I also added a handful of thinly, diagonally sliced sugar snap peapods, because they were swelling almost out of their skins in my garden.

Before making the dressing, I shredded my sweet potatoes and submerged them in cold water in an effort to lift free some of their starchiness and make for a more pleasing mouthfeel.  I left them alone for almost an hour while I made the dill-Cheddar puffs (see below).  When I finally lifted and drained the tatters of potato, I squeezed as much water as I could out of them, and they looked and tasted almost exactly like a pile of carrots.

As Bittman directs, I whirred the dressing ingredients in my blender before tossing it with the vegetables, and that was that.  Easy!  I knew we were in trouble, however, when N. turned to me and asked “so what do you think?”  He never asks this!  In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, he rarely opines positively about food.  I knew he didn’t like it.  His assessment was of dissonance: he said he kept expecting either the flavor of carrots, or something that had been cooked.  What we were eating instead was a mildly flavored, slightly starchy crunch with bright, zesty-green-spicy notes. 

I thought the flavors were nice, but thought it wasn’t sufficient as a main dish salad.  This was a dish to be consumed in small heaps, not a giant, plate-filling mound.  My new challenge, then, consists of repurposing the leftovers, since N. is not interested.  I’m thinking a take on latkes, or a stuffing for a pita alongside some falafel or spiced ground lamb, or maybe even players in a spinach salad.  What this tells me, in all cases except the third, is that apparently I wanted some fat in this dish.  Good thing, then, that this wasn’t the only thing we ate that night.

“Dill-Cheddar Puffs: Combine 1 cup water with ½ stick of butter and ½ teaspoon of salt in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil.  When the butter melts add 1 ½ cups flour and cook, stirring, until the dough forms a ball, about 5 minutes.  Turn off the heat, then add 3 eggs, one at a time, beating well until the mixture is glossy.  Stir in 2 cups grated Cheddar and 2 tablespoons freshly chopped dill.  Drop teaspoons of the batter on greased baking sheets and bake at 425 degrees until lightly browned, about 10 to 15 minutes.”

This doesn’t need much comment, either in terms of ingredients or procedure, since Bittman spells it out pretty specifically.  Basically these are savory, filling-less cream puffs.  My mistake, sadly, was ignoring the meaning of “teaspoons” when it came to the size of the batter droplets.  I did more like tablespoons-on-steroids, and as a result they were undercooked at the end of 15 minutes, and overcooked after I’d plunged them back in for another 10.

I ate them both ways, and both ways the flavor was excellent, but at 15 minutes the insides of each puff were still quite sticky.  Even overcooked, while the puffs were still warm they were tasty – crisp, dry, craggy exteriors with an eggy, cheesy middle, and the strong, pleasant grassiness of dill keeping them feeling much lighter than they were.  Either way, N. went back for a refill of puffs even after he’d replaced the salad on his plate with some leftovers.

With slightly better size management, these would have been a monumental success.  They’d make lovely canapes at a party, either whole as little pop-in-your-mouth bites, or split and filled.  If you did want to fill these, cream cheese or smoked salmon might hit the right tone.  Or, if you were feeling adventurous, perhaps both! 

And so with this, I will try to put myself back on schedule.  Back to gardening, back to reading, back to cooking.  Back to feeling excited about it all!  I hereby banish the summer slump of boredom-because-I-don’t-feel-like-doing-what-needs-to-get-done, and the let’s-go-out-again-because-none-of-my-recipes-are-exciting-tonight, and the too-lazy-to-snap-pictures-while-I’m-stirring blues.  I’m back, friends.  I’m back and back into it.

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