Reflecting

The Bittman project is done.  I did it!  I took a list of 101 side dishes conceived to accompany a Thanksgiving turkey, whittled it down a bit into dishes N. and I would actually eat (this left us with a total of 82) and, over the course of two years, made and ate each one.  Before moving on to my next project, I wanted to stop and consider a bit.  This project was valuable in many ways and I don’t think it should be pushed aside like a last gasping bite before launching into the next thing.  I learned a lot about cooking, I think, both from the mistakes I made and from the little triumphs and successes I achieved.

 

The Mistakes:

Measuring is important.  If you don’t measure, if you don’t have the correct ratios, things don’t bake up the way they are supposed to.

Follow directions.  Roasting can’t happen with waterlogged ingredients, and adding items in the wrong order produces unintended results.  Of course, this is challenging with Bittman’s suggestions because they don’t always have exact directives.  But it has taught me a lot about how a recipe fits together, and how to organize and present information in a way that works – at least for me.

Pairings matter.  Learning how to cook a dish is one thing.  But you’re probably always going to be serving it to someone (or multiple someones) as part of a meal.  Crossing flavors in strange ways – Italian sausage with soy-glazed vegetables, Southwestern spices with Middle Eastern preparations, too much sweet with too little savory – doesn’t produce a very satisfying eating experience.

I just don’t like yellow curry.  I can tolerate it, but I’d much rather have garam masala, or tumeric, or cumin, or just straight black pepper.

Give yourself time.  Charging headfirst into an unfamiliar recipe with only twenty minutes until dinnertime is almost always going to lead to frustration, mistakes, and unsatisfying results.  This sounds very preachy, but read the recipe beforehand, make sure you understand what it is asking, and budget your time accordingly.

WRITE THINGS DOWN!  This isn’t the first – or the only – time I will make this mistake.  But I’m trying.  If you don’t write it down, chances are good you won’t remember it.  And then that perfect amount of nutmeg, or salt, or the temperature you used, is lost.  And that makes it unrepeatable.

 

The Triumphs:

Repurposing works.  If something doesn’t come out right – or to your liking – there is no sense in throwing it away if you can imagine transforming it into something better.  If that means adding booze and wrapping it in pie dough, then so be it!

Acid saves.  If your dish is missing something but you don’t want to add more salt and you’re not sure about upping the spice quotient, try a squeeze of lemon juice or a dash of red wine vinegar.  There’s something about the brightness and verve this brings to a dish that really changes it.  (Hell, it even tones down the overbearing sweetness of buttercream. )

I can, if I take my time and don’t freak out, make a successful dough.  It’s not pretty yet, and it’s not error-free, but it comes together and rolls out and tastes pretty good too.  That’s something.  That’s more than I expected.

Soup is easy.  I grew up on two kinds of soup: the overprocessed, condensed kind that came in cans, and the long-simmering stew and chili kind.  This led me to believe that homemade soup was a time consuming process.  Watching cooking shows that talk about extracting flavors from bones and babysitting a stock for hours furthered this assumption.  But since I’ve started making my own chicken stock from the carcasses of roast chickens, and since I realized that Bittman’s soup recipes mostly go the same way (sweat vegetables, add flavoring, add broth and heat through), soup became a quick and simple venture.  Onions, garlic, carrots, celery, and chicken broth, and you’re 75% there already.  During the year I even invented my own, which N. and I will be having again next week with the addition of ramen noodles.

 

The Favorites:

As seems inevitable with a project like this, there are some ingredient combinations N. and I will never have the desire to return to.  But there are some that we will crave again and again.  Some, in fact, have already graced our table on multiple occasions.  I just want to point out a few of these.

Sweet.  This combo of sweet potatoes and green onions, roasted until caramelized and perfectly salted, is an achingly beautiful side dish still in search of the perfect accompaniment.  But it dances solo just fine.  I’d have these for lunch any day.  I’d have them for dessert too.

Sausage, kale, and white beans (and cheddar cheese or Parmesan rind, too, if you really want to comfort it up) are a beautiful combination that deserve revisiting.  This soup is warm and satisfying and should be eaten at least once per winter.  Nicely spiced tempeh crumbles might make an adequate substitution for the sausage, if you aren’t into pig.

Herbed buttermilk biscuits, especially with the addition of lemon zest, are all I want in the biscuit world right now.  They are crisp and tender and have just the right crunch.  They are breakfast ready.  They would accept cream gravy.  They would mop up a savory sauce.  They would provide the perfect vehicle for jam or honey or sweetened goat cheese.  They freeze perfectly and, frozen solid and plopped onto parchment paper, require only a few extra minutes in the oven to cook.

Ginger-Apricot Chutney.  This spicy-sweet condiment would be a suitable topper for the Herbed Buttermilk Biscuits I just got weak-kneed over.  But it also pairs well with grilled or roasted chicken, and would probably be delectable as a fresh take on a Christmas ham glaze.  Or, you know, on sandwiches with lunchmeat or cream cheese, or as an interesting filling for chocolate truffles.  Now I want to make this again immediately.  I wonder if I have any ginger in the freezer…

Perhaps the crowning glory of the whole project, the beer-y cornbread stuffing laced with tomatoes, green onions, and corn kernels is a genius combination I have already revisited on multiple occasions.  My sister has used this as a Thanksgiving stuffing alternative for her celery-hating boyfriend (seriously, almost every stuffing I’ve ever made has a base of onions and celery.  Hit the shelves.  Look for one without that notorious stringy green stalk).  It’s yeasty and deep and golden and glorious, and it gives you an excuse to toast and taste a few cubes of cornbread along the way.  It is, even if you don’t like beer, not to be missed.

 

The News:

I have a few things planned for the year on which we’ve just embarked.  First, we need a new project.  I’ve decided.  It’s going to be bad for my waistline but good for my confidence in the kitchen.  I hope you’ll like it.  I’ll get to that next week.

Second, I think we need a new place to meet each week.  I started this blog intending to write about fancy things I’d made.  I didn’t know how much I would enjoy sharing even my mistakes.  I didn’t know how much I was going to learn about cooking and photography and writing about food.  “shornrapunzel,” a moniker picked up from my last days in college when I went from three feet of hair to less than one (I’m back in the three feet range now), was the username on my first blog – a livejournal I used as a writing exercise and an attempt to stay in touch with friends pre-Facebook.  Eventually, all I was posting there were long, drippy descriptions of food I had eaten or wanted to eat, and I decided to start this little venture as a more appropriate way of addressing this obsession.  So “shornrapunzel” was an easy name to saddle a url with because it was familiar and connected with me, but it never really had any relevance to this blog or its topics.  Blackberries, given their literary suggestions of adventure and unexpectedness, still seem to fit well the kind of cooking and sharing I’m doing here.  So they get to stay.  In this next week, I’m moving this little kitchen corner to a new domain for continued blackberrying.  I hope everything transfers over okay.  I’ve never done this before.  But then, that’s nothing new.

See you on the other side!

Trick or Treat

Halloween is easily in my top three holidays.  I have to give the prize to Christmas, because it means family and love and sweaters, but Thanksgiving and Halloween chase each other in circles to gain second place.  Despite that love (overwhelming in some cases, especially if you, like N., are not invested in costuming yourself at every possible occasion), this is the first year in almost a decade that I’ve done nothing to celebrate.  No costume.  No party.  No decorations.  We bought candy for the six kids that showed up (only six!  The whole evening!  Was it just because it was a Wednesday, or do kids not trick or treat like they once did?) and I definitely listened to the Halloween party mix my friend D. made for me a few years ago, but it felt a bit like a lost holiday.

I did embrace the season, though, the following day.  Having Thursdays off gave me the opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do for years: pillage Target’s day after Halloween sale for leftover clearance items (read: treats!).

The tricks began when I began work on the evening’s dinner.  It was, I realize in retrospect, a bit of a Chopped style enterprise: appetizer, entree, and dessert, each made with ingredients I’d not expected to meld.  In each case, however, the “trick” aspect of the dish was my doing, not the recipe’s.

“12. Garlic-Rosemary Figs: Soak dried figs, stems removed, in warm water until plump; drain and halve. Heat rosemary and lightly smashed (and peeled) garlic with olive oil on medium-low heat, until softened. Add figs, along with some fresh orange juice. Cook until saucy.

Pairing figs, garlic, and orange juice seemed odd.  Nevertheless, I collected enough for one portion (this was not N.’s kind of dish):

6 dried black mission figs

1-2 tsp fresh rosemary

2 smashed, peeled garlic cloves

1 TB olive oil

juice from 1 small orange (⅓ – ½ cup juice)

I heated some water in my teakettle and poured it over the figs (which I’d halved prematurely.  Apparently paying attention to the directions is kind of important), which I let stew on the counter for half an hour.

Figs vaguely plumped, I drained them and set them aside, then put the garlic cloves, rosemary, and oil into a cold pan.  I heated it over medium for five minutes or so – just until the rosemary started to sizzle and the garlic turned a little blonde.  Then I added the figs and orange juice, and simmered for fifteen minutes or so, until the orange juice had reduced considerably.

I plated, I ate, and I considered.  This didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t marry absurdly well either.  The rosemary and the figs were lovely.  The orange juice and figs were fine (though the orange was a bit overpowering).  The garlic and figs were… unobjectionable.  They just weren’t my favorite.

I must say, though, I recalled while I was cleaning up after dinner that this entry was in the “Sauces and Relishes” category.  I had eaten it straight.  This was, perhaps, why I wasn’t enamored of it.  Therefore, I’d recommend spooning this over lamb chops, or pork tenderloin, either of which would add some savory notes to make the garlic feel less anomalous.

Though this “appetizer” wasn’t fantastic, I ate it with a fantastic grain-salad-turned-hash inspired by Smitten Kitchen.  I want to revisit this hash, because I think it could use some additions, but here are the basics:

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Set it in the oven and preheat to 400F.  Yes, you are preheating the pan along with the oven.

Peel and halve a butternut squash.  Seed half of it and cut that half into small cubes.  In a bowl, toss the cubes with salt, pepper, and olive oil, then tumble onto the baking sheet (where they will sizzle immediately – this is a good thing) and stow back in the oven for 35-45 minutes, or until they have golden edges and creamy soft middles. 

During the last ten minutes of squash roasting, push the squash to the sides of the pan (or just grab another pan, if you aren’t invested in avoiding dishes, like me) and stack 4 cups or so of trimmed, cut kale that has also been tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper.  The kale and squash will cook down a little more together, and you will be left with something not quite like kale chips, but a bit more textured than if you’d boiled or steamed it.

While the squash and kale roast, cook 1 cup of bulgur wheat in chicken (or vegetable) broth.  When done, fluff gently with a fork and toss with squash and kale.

During the last few minutes of roasting time, toast 2 TB pumpkin seeds in a dry pan until they begin to snap and crack.*  Be careful not to burn them.  Toss with bulgur and vegetable mixture.

In the pumpkin seed pan (again, avoiding dishes), heat an egregious quantity of butter until foamy and crack in an egg to fry until the edges frizzle and brown and crackle.  Despite a few careful taps, on this egg of all eggs – the egg I wanted to photograph quivering atop my hash, the egg I wanted to show just cut and lusciously runny – I somehow shoved my thumb through the yolk and it broke all over the pan.  Nasty trick, egg.

Nevertheless, I piled my hash up on my plate, carefully laid the fried egg over it, and dug in.  It was a hearty, pretty, perfectly autumnal dish.  It needs some tweaking before I’m thrilled with it – perhaps some sautéed leeks folded into the bulgur, or some light spices on the butternut squash – but this was a delightful start.

I turned to dessert:

“96. Sweet Autumn Gratin: Combine cubed pumpkin or sweet potato with cranberries and hazelnuts in a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with brown sugar and toss. Drizzle cream all over, dot with butter and bake until soft, bubbly and browned, 50 to 60 minutes. Re-warm before serving if you like.

I’m going to give you a list not of my ingredients and procedure, but of what I should have used and done.

1 big sweet potato, peeled and diced

½ cup dried cranberries (I didn’t have fresh, so I don’t know what they would be like.  Presumably more successful because they would emit, not swallow, liquid)

½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (I couldn’t find hazelnuts anywhere – who would have thought this would be the food item I would miss most from Oregon?!)

¼ – ½ cup brown sugar, depending on how sweet you like it

¼ cup heavy cream

¼ cup butter

Preheat the oven to 400F.  Butter a 9×13 inch pan (my round, much smaller dish was a poor choice).

Toss the sweet potato chunks, cranberries, and walnuts with brown sugar.  Spread them out in the pan in an even layer.  Pour on the cream, then pinch off pieces of butter and dot them over the top.

Bake for an hour, or until the sweet potato pieces are fully cooked.

I did few of these things.  My sweet potatoes were in bigger-than-they-should-have-been chunks, piled up in a small casserole dish, starving for cream (I only had a tablespoon or two) and shorted on sugar.  As a result, at the end of an hour they were hot but still resistant in texture.  I think what you want is melting, creamy softness.

Tricked again.

To remedy this problem, I tried several things.  First, I made a bourbon hard sauce (equal parts sugar and water, stir to melt.  Add ¼ cup butter, stir carefully until it melts.  Add a shot or two of bourbon, cook just a minute or two to take the edge off) to pour over the top.  This helped, and I willingly ate a serving, but it was lacking whipped cream or ice cream or, bizarrely, pie crust.

 

I didn’t figure out the pie crust thing until the next day when I was making empanadas for dinner.  As I pressed my fork into the edge of the dough to crimp it, I was flooded with the right answer: tiny hand pies stuffed with my sweet potato mixture!

This was clearly the right thing to do.  Saturday afternoon, I unrolled a pie crust on my counter, cut out 3 inch circles, and proceeded to fill them with a teaspoon or two each of the gratin, which I’d mashed with a fork to make smoother and therefore more manageable.

Once filled, fold in half, press and then crimp with a fork, and brush with egg wash (1 egg yolk + 1 TB water).  Sprinkle with turbinado or other raw, chunky sugar, and bake in a preheated 400F oven for 15 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the dough is flaky.

These make lovely, tiny snacks.  The craisins give a punch of tartness to the sweet, earthy, almost heavy sweet potato and walnut pairing.  There are subtle floral hints in there, because before putting it away that first night I admit to dumping the bourbon sauce over the whole thing, but this adds a flavor I wouldn’t change.  The dough is buttery and flaky and collapses easily around the filling, and it’s difficult to prevent yourself from standing over the pan as it comes steaming out of the oven and eating four or five in a row, scalding your tongue and not caring at all.

Perfect November treat.

 

* You could, I suppose, use butternut squash seeds, if you are the sort of person with the forethought to save, rinse, and dry the seeds while you clean your squash.  I, clearly, am not.

Swing

Summer into fall into summer.  Salads and grilled vegetables into casseroles dabbled with cream into fresh raw dips.  Luxurious stretches into curled legs under blankets into stressed grading sessions into sampling new half-fizzed white wine.

Sometimes this is called Indian Summer.  I like to think of it as Swing Season.

Two Bittmans for you this week.

77. Trim and dice fresh tomatillos; peel and julienne jicama (or daikon or kohlrabi). For dressing, combine lemon and lime juices, olive oil and chopped cilantro. Pour over salad, top with toasted sesame seeds.

This sounded like a good late summer/early fall salad.  I found tomatillos at the grocery store, but no jicama, no daikon, and no kohlrabi.  And then we went to our Farmers’ Market, and I found all three!  Huge daikons, alien baseball sized kohlrabis and, hidden between stacks of beets and the tiniest fingerling potatoes I’ve ever seen, a pile of grubby little tubers with vine-y stems still attached.  Eureka, jicama!  Back at home, I assembled the troops:

1 TB toasted sesame seeds

2 small jicama

6 medium tomatillos

(really, the number of jicama and tomatillos isn’t super important as long as the quantities are roughly equal once you’ve cut them up.  Start with maybe 1 cup of each, see what you think, and then add more if that’s what makes you happy)

2 TB chopped cilantro

1 lemon

1 lime

Olive oil

Salt

I’ve tasted jicama, but it has been a long time.  And I’ve certainly had tomatillos, but mostly only after they were roasted and processed into salsa.  I wasn’t sure how they would be raw.  This – a lovely fresh slaw/salsa/salad hybrid – sounded so bright and tart and lovely that I wasn’t too nervous.

Before anything else, I toasted the sesame seeds and set them aside.  They give off such a lovely roasty scent when they are just browned and starting to release some oils.

I peeled, then sliced the jicama into rounds.  Then I stacked up the rounds and made thin slices across until my two little aliens were a pile of matchsticks across my board.  Into the bowl with you.

Next I quartered and diced the tomatillo.  Because they are still underripe when green (apparently they can turn purple and get very sweet when they ripen, but I’ve never seen them in that state), their skins were quite resilient – it took some pressure to get my knife through them.  Carefully chunked into miniscule cubes, they joined the white confetti in my bowl.

A quick squeeze of lemon and lime, a whisking pour of olive oil, and a handful of chopped cilantro feathers later, and the dressing was done.  And then a sprinkle of salt, and it was perfect.  It was a little more than needed to moisten the salad, but it’s hard to know how much juice citrus will have secreted away inside it, so it’s always going to be a guessing game.

I mounded the white and green on my plate, then added a generous scoop of Mexican rice and a quartered cheddar cheese quesadilla.  Simple simple.  At this point, you should ideally sprinkle the sesame seeds you so carefully toasted atop the salad, but I forgot until after I’d already subjected it to a photo shoot.

I was surprised and pleased by the flavor of this dish.  I can’t imagine eating it as a Thanksgiving side dish, but it was a bright burst of summer on a day that began in drizzly autumnal terms.  Jicama is crisp and juicy with the barest hint of starchiness, and its flavor reminds me most closely of an Asian pear.  The tomatillos were very tart, but the pairing tamed them.  Imagine a granny smith apple crossed with an underripe tomato and you’re approaching the brightness we experienced.

This was good as a salad, though its tartness necessitates a small portion.  It was also good heaped atop our quesadillas, like a raw salsa.  It contrasted nicely against the melted cheddar and the just crisped corn tortillas.  But where it would really shine, N. and I agreed, would be as a kind of mirepoix for guacamole.  Dicing the jicama instead of leaving it in strips and folding the whole salad gently into chunks of ripe, buttery avocado would make for the perfect chip dip.  Tart, creamy, crunchy, with the right kind of salty sourness from the dressing, and all you’d need was a frosted Corona and a pool to dip your toes into.  Summer.

But things never end there.  At least we hope not!  Days of sweating and hiding inside and waiting till after sunset to go out always, inevitably (even if it’s taking FOREVER, Los Angeles…) relax and cool and crystallize into Autumn.

35. Pumpkin-Noodle Kugel: Cook a half-pound of egg noodles in salted water until not quite done; drain and put them into a buttered baking dish. Whisk together 4 cups milk, 4 eggs, 1 cup pureed cooked pumpkin (canned is fine), ¼ cup melted butter and a pinch each of cinnamon and salt. Pour over the noodles and sprinkle with bread crumbs (or, for added kitsch, corn flake crumbs). Bake 45 minutes to an hour, or until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.

I had no idea how to serve this dish.  I’ve heard of kugels, but I’ve never even eaten one, let alone made one.  I wasn’t sure, as usual, what to serve it with, so I asked a few friends and did some research on the good ol’ internet.  At the point that I read Smitten Kitchen’s version (okay, so this one is written by her mom, but seriously, that woman has cooked everything, and all of it sounds and looks outrageously delicious), this sounded more like a dessert than a dinner side dish.  It would be, I decided, dessert and weekend breakfast.  Sweet, autumnal, nicely spiced, and custardy.  “It’s going to be like a rice pudding but with noodles.  And pumpkin,” I told N.  He still wasn’t sure.

8 oz. egg noodles 

4 cups milk

4 eggs

1 cup pumpkin puree (I used Libby’s)

¼ cup melted butter (I put this in, but I’m not sure it was really necessary)

¾ cups sugar

¾ cups golden raisins

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp salt

2 cups corn flakes, well crunched (who am I to pass up added kitsch?!)

It wasn’t until I had collected ingredients that I realized Bittman’s recipe doesn’t call for sugar.  But I was already on the dessert/breakfast kick, and I couldn’t quite envision this as a savory dish, so I dumped in my sugar estimation anyway, along with the golden raisins that aren’t part of the original.

I cooked my noodles for 5 minutes and then let them cool for 10.  They probably needed to be cooked for only 4 minutes, because they keep on cooking not only while they are in the oven, but on the counter as they cool as well.

Yes, I take these photos from the floor. But it’s a nice wood floor, and the light is so good, and I promise Lucy stayed on the other side of the room the whole time…

With the custard whisked together and the noodles evenly spread in a buttered 9×13” glass baking dish, I preheated my oven to 375F and assessed the corn flakes situation.  Whenever an ingredient needs to be crushed, crunched, or pulverized on Chopped, I yell at the chefs for using their hands, knives, or a rolling pin instead of just bringing over the food processor.  But they don’t have to wash all the dishes they make, and I do, so my pretty little scarlet processor stayed on its shelf.  I crushed up the cereal with my hands, feeling a kind of satisfaction as the flakes became bits and then powder.  I topped the noodly custard with a generous layer of crumbs and carefully slid it into the oven.

An hour later, the custard had set and the smell flashed me forward to Thanksgiving.  I’m convinced we as a society don’t really know what pumpkin tastes like, because what we experience is texture and spices.  If this kugel didn’t have a sprinkle of cinnamon in it, I’m not sure I would know it had pumpkin either.

Dinner came and went, the kugel cooled a bit, and I dug out a too-big portion for myself, and neglected to feel any kind of remorse about it.  It was too good for that.  The noodles had melded together as the pumpkin infused liquid cooked, making a solid, scoopable, sliceable custard.  The corn flakes on top were perfect: aggressively crunchy against the soft interior.  I wouldn’t omit the golden raisins either; they were a really nice textural contrast to both the softness of the noodles and the crunchy crumbs, and their complex sweetness added some depth to my dessert casserole.  It was warm, and sweet, and perfectly comforting as I tucked my feet under me on the couch and waiting for the approach of Project Runway (don’t judge, every girl needs a little reality TV now and then).

The leftovers are delicious too, though the dish does lose something in relinquishing its crunch to the microwave.  In another universe where I’m a Southern cook, I could see doing crazy things like frying squares of this in butter and then drizzling hot maple syrup over the top.  But I’ll refrain.  Because from my window, I can see my basil wilting beneath the curiously, cruelly hot-for-mid-October sun: back to summer, so it seems!  And here I was considering making soup…

Swing season indeed.

Bars and Biscuits

Thyme for our herbed biscuits

Last week’s reflections were a bit morose: the thoughts of a person overwhelmed and trying to settle into some kind of groove.  Because while too deep grooves can become ruts, no groove at all just leaves us… squares in a hipster-filled world?  Not just squares, but squares tipping and zig-zagging confusedly over an unfamiliar landscape trying to dig a corner in here and there.  New home, new job, new routine, and no chances to explore yet.

All that has changed.  Shallow wheel marks dig in behind us.  Our adventures have begun, and they began (don’t be offended) with booze.

Last Friday, our dear friend J. appeared at the door, bearing duty-free Japanese whiskey from his time in Tokyo, and a phone full of bar recommendations from an associate.  After a quick tour of our new digs (you guys have a backyard?!), we set off into the night and ended up at Oldfield’s Liquor Room on Venice, where J. bought me a pre-birthday cocktail called the Blonde Comet.  Bourbon, crème de peach, fresh grapefruit juice, and angostura bitters.  I’m not much of a bourbon gal, but the name was too good to pass up.  I like to think of myself as something of a blonde comet every once in a while… The drink was tasty.  Strong, but tempered by the freshness of the grapefruit and the stem of fresh mint they plunged in as a garnish.

We caught up over this first round and then decided to explore further.  A quick amble down the street brought us to Bigfoot West, but it was so crowded and loud inside that not even the promise of creative whiskey cocktails could entice us.  We were back in J.’s car and rolling toward Santa Monica.

We ended up at The Daily Pint, where it smelled like peat and old shoes and yeast, and the impressive chalkboards full of beer options and the seemingly endless whiskey and scotch menu made J.’s and N.’s eyes shine suspiciously.  I got (don’t laugh) a pint of Spiced Caramel Apple Ale that was neither as sweet nor as fruity as it sounds.  J. and N. got something peaty and boggy and fiery, and I only needed a whiff to know I wasn’t interested.  We settled ourselves in at a tall table next to the pool and shuffleboard stations.  You must know this: I don’t like beer.  When I have to, I will settle for the fruitiest, sweetest, most un-beer-like option I can find, and when I do, I like it to be ice cold so it doesn’t have a chance to taste as much like beer as I know it’s going to.  As we sat and chatted and laughed, time passed and my beer warmed.  Where it tasted like yeast and carbonation to begin with, as it came to room temperature the flavors got rounder and deeper, and by the time I was sipping the last half inch or so in the glass it did have some spicy apple flavors to it.  I’m not sure I would order it again, but it wasn’t a bad beer, and the company and high energy atmosphere made it a good experiment.

It was almost midnight when J. asked if we wanted a snack.  He was thinking, he said, hot dogs or pastrami.  I’ve been experiencing some cognitive dissonance when it comes to our new location – scoffing when I see patrol cars that say LAPD on the side: what are we, in a movie or something? – grinning with disbelief as I pass Warner Brothers studios on my drive home from work – but something about that night made me remember where we were.  I just knew he was thinking of Pink’s.  Did I want to go to the little stand with the most famous hot dogs in the state?  Yes.  Yes I did.

At almost 1am, as my contacts screamed and the almost-responsible-adult inside me withered and gave up, we were standing in line with at least 30 other people, waiting for a hot dog. 

 

 

 

I got a New York dog – traditional hot dog topped with a sweet onion sauce – and added shredded cheddar cheese.  N. and J. got Chicago dogs, loaded with lettuce, tomato, and pickle.  We sat at a crooked little table and took in the space: dozens upon dozens of signed celebrity photographs who had visited Pink’s, some of whom had given their names to a hot dog.

 

Well, N. and J. took in the space.  I took in my hot dog.  It was fantastic.  The skin was taut and crisp and snapped between my teeth.  The onion sauce was thick and sweet with hints of caramel, like the best sweet and sour sauce you’ve ever tasted, and the cheese, though it could have been melted more, added a nice mellow counterpoint to the meat and the sauce.  Delicious.  And it made me feel like a kid: I was back to the nights in high school when, after band competitions, we used to go to Denny’s and order chili cheese fries and chocolate milkshakes.  Those were the days before we knew heartburn was real…

There really is no logical transition I can make to this week’s Bittman, aside from the lame play on the White Stripes song I provided as the title of this post, so let’s stop pretending and just talk about biscuits.  And let’s not take our sweet little time about it.

85. Herbed Buttermilk Biscuits: Combine 3 cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 4 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon thyme leaves.  Use your fingers to rub in 1 ½ sticks of butter until the mixture resembles small peas.  Add 1 cup buttermilk and stir until just combined.  Drop large spoonfuls onto a baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees until golden, about 15 minutes. 

With measurements and oven temp clearly provided, I had very little to guess about or change in this recipe.  Because I was using lemon in other parts of dinner, I decided on the spur of the moment to add a teaspoon or two of lemon zest to the dough to see what would happen.  You could probably change up the herb used, add cracked black pepper or flaky sea salt, or even add finely chopped raisins.  I wouldn’t change the buttermilk, though, as the tang it adds is entirely necessary.  I even got excited tasting the raw dough, with a slight crunch from the salt and a suggestion of sweetness from the tiny bit of sugar.

The bowl of dough produced 15 biscuits.  I put nine on my greased baking tray and the other 6 on a plastic-wrap-lined plate in the freezer for another occasion.  After 15 minutes in the oven, they were browned on top, slightly crunchy around the outsides, and knee-waveringly fluffy inside.  Quash your fears about the amount of butter here: it really makes a worthwhile textural difference.  It doesn’t hurt the flavor either – these were rich but light, and the buttermilk and lemon zest added intriguing sourness that brightened the mixture and made them more interesting than your standard dinner biscuit.

We ate these – no, that’s not right – we wolfed them down alongside grilled chicken sausages and grilled planks of zucchini wrapped around a mixture of goat cheese, lemon juice, thyme, parsley, and pepper.

It was delightful.  And here’s the delicious secret: if you end up with some leftover goat cheese mixture, and you whip in some honey, and then if you happen to split one of those fluffy delightful biscuits down the middle and perhaps toast the open sides in a toaster oven or under the broiler for a moment, and dollop a hefty tablespoon of the sweetened goat cheese on top, and eat it, you have the most delightful little end-of-summer breakfast biscuit you’ve had in years.  And if you’d been out late the night before and perhaps chased some whiskey with a hot dog, a sprinkle of extra salt in the goat cheese filling would make this a quite decent hangover breakfast too, as a cure for excessive adventuring.

Next week we settle more comfortably into this lovely little groove we’re making for ourselves: another restaurant, another Bittman, another decade(!), of our new little lives.

Snakes and Ladders

It’s a classic children’s game.  Climb a ladder: advance!  Land on a snake: tumble backwards.  And so it goes with most ventures.  Last week newness delighted me.  This week I’m plodding a bit, experiencing not setbacks, exactly, but settling for lackluster(ness?)(ocity?).  I’m discovering things I don’t love about my syllabus.  I’m wading through class prep.  Students are still (still!  The third week is about to start!  Papers will be due soon!) adding my classes, which means I am overenrolled and there are new faces every day.  And though I’m mostly inspired in my kitchen, not every dish is a triumph.  Some slip a little.  Some slither into lackluster.  But it’s our job, as cooks, as experimenters, as eaters, as humans – and pardon me while I get a bit metaphorical – it’s our job to take this as a challenge.  Make it work, as Tim Gunn continually reminds us.  So we squirm ourselves around and push back toward the ladders.  And sometimes, even after a devastating slide, we climb a few steps.

70. Blanch, shock in cold water, then julienne green beans, daikon and carrots, chill. Whisk soy sauce with honey and lemon to taste; pour over vegetables.”

The most important thing to note about this particular Bittman combo is to leave yourself enough time, particularly if your knife skills are not perfect.  It is not possible to concoct this dish in anything but a zone of utter frustration and simmering disappointment if you only have twenty minutes until dinnertime.  Here’s what I did:

3 carrots, peeled and cut into thick sticks

1 6-inch chunk daikon, peeled and cut into thick sticks

½ lb. green beans, rinsed and stemmed

3 TB soy sauce

2 TB lemon juice

1-2 TB honey

I dropped the carrot and daikon sticks into a big pot of boiling, salted water and let them cook for 2-3 minutes, until they had give between my teeth but still put up a bit of resistance.  I plunged them into ice water and put the tailed green beans into the boil.  This was the point at which I ran into trouble.  Performing a nice julienne on a pile of veg takes some time and some patience, and on this particular day I lacked both.

Nevertheless, cut each thick stick of carrot and daikon into thin slices (Food Network calls them panels), then turn those slices to cut long, thin vertical strips.  You want uniformity but also thinness, since these are only partially cooked, and you want even quantities of carrot slivers and daikon slivers.

At this point the green beans were overboiled and the sausages – the other component of our meal – were almost done on the grill, so I shifted into I-don’t-care-how-it-comes-out-just-get-it-done overdrive.  It happens.  You should julienne the green beans.  I just sliced them into strange vertical halves.  You should chill the whole salad until nice and crisp – probably at least half an hour – after lovingly tossing the thin sticks of orange, white and green together.  I shoved the bowl in the freezer for five minutes while I made the dressing.

I whisked the soy, honey, and lemon together and was satisfied with the flavor.  Were I making this again, I would definitely increase the quantity of lemon juice and maybe even add some zest, but I say it’s up to you.  Play with the combination until you like the ratios.

Dressed, the vegetables had a pleasant texture and tasted well seasoned, but the salad as a dish was missing something.  N. and I agreed that the dressing was a little one-note, and that note was soy sauce.  Flavorwise, things were also a bit on the dull side.  Red pepper flakes or raw garlic, we decided, or more or different acid, would have helped things along.  Maybe some chives or lemongrass or ginger or cilantro, and certainly pairing this Asian-flavored dressing with something other than Italian sausages, would have been the right move.

And so, in my attempts to slither back into success, I considered the leftovers.  They weren’t stars, but they could perhaps be supporting players.  In fact, though they were not the traditional combination, they seemed not so different from the vegetables that go into a bahn mi sandwich.  Setting off to work a morning or two later, therefore, I slathered a crisp roll with mayonnaise, piled up a good portion of drained veggie slivers and, lacking lunchmeat, topped the whole thing with slices of pepperjack cheese.  I know.  Cheese is not part of bahn mi either.  But jalapeño slices usually are, and the vegetables were crying for spice anyway.  It wasn’t the best sandwich I’ve ever had.  But it wasn’t a disaster either.  It was a few steps forward.  Keep moving forward.  On to the next ladder!

Emptying the Fridge

Big news, oh friends: come July, N. and I are moving.  We’re leaving Eugene, OR and heading south for Los Angeles, where N. landed a great job.

I’m sad about this, of course.  I love Eugene.  I love its beauty, and I’ve made some of the best friends and eaten some of the best food of my life here.  I don’t love the way the weather lately has been playing winter/spring/winter/spring/summer/winter on us, and I’m terrified it will pour on graduation day in a week or so.  But mostly I love it.

Yet this move presents the potential for plenty of new delights.  LA is a foodie paradise.  A quick search on Yelp for our new area revealed restaurants serving every kind of food I could possibly crave, and some I’ve never tried before.  Ethiopian will be new to me, as will Caribbean (outside of the ubiquitous and usually inauthentic jerk [insert your protein of choice here]).  The idea of being back in a place with excellent Chinese and Mexican food is overwhelming.  But it’s not just restaurant food that I’m looking forward to.  The Willamette Valley in Oregon boasts great growing conditions for lots of foods, including berries of all kinds, hazelnuts, and plenty of local produce.  But Southern California has so much, given its balmy temperatures year round, that buying and eating local food will suddenly become much easier – not even from farmers’ markets and farm stands, but even from the grocery store.  Avocados, citrus, grapes, all no longer destroy the locavore dream.  Even the backyard of the house we will be moving into has a lemon tree.  A lemon tree!  This excites me almost more than anything else about the whole situation!

Our upcoming relocation also presents a challenge.  N. and I have lived in our current home for four years.  We have lived in Eugene for six.  Over that much time, things accumulate.  Not just house things, like forgotten books and extra sweaters and skillets I shoved in the back of that cabinet N. hates when I replaced them with Circulon non-stick wonders.  Food things.  We have so many half-empty jars of condiments.  So many bags of frozen vegetables bought on a buy-one-get-one sale.  Blackberries from last summer and cranberries from Thanksgiving, carefully preserved on the shelves of my freezer.  Canisters of rice, and brown rice, and millet, and dried beans, and barley, and noodles in the pantry.  It’s a lot of stuff.

So here comes the challenge: interspersed with regular food posts and wedding cupcake practice and the occasional, still-kicking-because-I-can’t-bear-to-abandon-it Bittman dish, I will be instituting a new project.  I’m calling it “Emptying the Fridge.”  Each week when I make our menu plan, I’m going to try to incorporate at least one dish that requires the remnants – or a good quantity – of at least one refrigerator, freezer, or pantry item.  I’m not talking about things we use all the time, like yogurt or bread or eggs.  I’m talking about the minimal use items, like anchovy paste, or capers, or champagne honey mustard, or chili garlic paste.

This week, I have plans for several items, and though I may not eliminate them, I will at least make a dent in several jars.  After a barbeque a few weeks ago featuring a peanut noodle side dish, I decided I want to make Ina Garten’s Szechuan Noodles.  This requires a whole cadre of ingredients including peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and various vegetables.  It also, of importance to this project, requires hot chili sauce and tahini.  Both of these items currently languish on my refrigerator door, awaiting stir-fries and hummus.  But this week, they will shine and diminish simultaneously. 

Other plans include a white bean puree I will invent (and post the recipe for, if it turns out well) to work on using up the four cans (four?  How can I possibly have four?) of white beans in my pantry, and peanut butter energy bars, which will help eliminate the giant canister of oats I’ve gotten too stubborn to turn into oatmeal.  At a certain point, you have to eat like it’s summer, even if the sky says it isn’t, don’t you?  But snack bars are a worthy and not-un-spring-like application.

This project is, I think, a combination of homestyle Iron Chef and Chopped.  Not only are there feature or star ingredients, but after a while the pairings of available options will become unusual and require a certain amount of ingenuity to use up.  I like this, because it prepares me for the Food Network show I will never have, which I would call “Empty Fridge.” EF would consist of me trying to use limited pantry and refrigerator items to create something delicious without having to make an extra trip to the store, so in essence it’s Chopped-at-Home.  The difference with my current project, though, is that I am not prohibited from shopping, and am in fact planning ahead based on the contents of my condiment collection to determine our dinners.

Come August, you can expect an abundance (after a short hiatus, most likely – moving and blogging don’t necessarily mesh well) of drooling and groveling over our new location and its diverse and numerous highlights.  But until then, you can look forward to quarter jars of mustard, forgotten marinated artichoke hearts, and hidden canned peaches in various applications.  Hopefully, in this case, not in the same meal…