2017: Project Soup

Well, I didn’t do too well this year, did I? Apart from the all-too-frequent rain checks and odd missed posts, I only made it through – what – five months of my 2016 project? And not even consecutive months! There were some good candidates among search terms, some I even had ideas about – “how to plate your benedict with coleslaw” was particularly rich for play: I wasn’t sure what the recipe would be, but the images would include famous Benedicts, well, plated… somehow… with coleslaw. You know, Arnold, Cumberbatch; it would be an amusing commentary on male objectification as well as fulfillment of my monthly quota.

Somewhere along the line, though, I couldn’t sustain. Some of the phrases were just too weird. Some would involve too much research, and frankly, time was a too-precious commodity this past semester. Most problematic, though, and also most concerning, was a simple creative block. I’m not going to say I got tired of cooking this year, but I did get a little stymied in creating new things. I found myself planning dinners that went back again and again to old, comforting favorites. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s hard to go on with a food blog when what you find yourself craving is breakfast burritos again, and then pizza again, and then tacos again. I have a list of food ideas, and I would scroll through them and think “these sound really good!” routinely, but when it was time to plan the week’s menu, somehow none of those dishes made it on.

Clearly, I want to do better this year. I thought for a long time about what this year’s project could be, since I think having a category to hem me in helps a lot (and was one of the difficulties with the “search terms” idea – no large, anchoring genre of food). I thought briefly about a year of cookies or a year of desserts, and then I got home from our holiday travels feeling amazed my clothing still fit, and decided that wasn’t a wise direction.

Ultimately, it was one of my Christmas gifts that made the decision for me: I’ve been making sourdough loaves for a while now, but haven’t done much else with naturally yeasted breads. Unwrapping Chad Robertson’s beautiful hardcover Tartine Bread presented an exciting challenge though, weirdly, what I’m choosing is not bread at all. Rather, as I leafed through the pages, I found myself thinking about what kinds of things I would make to go with bread, and the one that kept coming up – perhaps because Northern California, where we were, was chilly and damp – was soup.

Soup presents a good challenge for several reasons: first, and most glaring, summer. There are a few classic cold soups I can rely on, but it will take some creativity to get through the warmer months when curling up and letting the steam from the bowl swirl around your nose isn’t quite how you want to approach dinner. But soup is also both comfortingly fundamental and infinitely variable. It starts the same way – some kind of broth or other liquid fortified with a few choice aromatics and seasoning – but can go in so many directions twelve months won’t be nearly enough to investigate everything. The different sorts of broths alone that are readily available at the average grocery store present at least five or six directions. Soup is easily adjustable to most diet plans – gazpacho satisfies the urge to go raw – and can work as a light starter or a hearty main course, depending on how it is enriched. It is also, with only a little effort, an exercise in eating seasonally, not only in terms of heartiness, but in terms of vegetation: whatever produce is most recently tugged from the ground or snipped from the stem can easily become inspiration for a soup.

There it is, then. The idea was really consummated when I watched a recent episode of Top Chef, though, and one of the contestants made consommé (see what I did there? Consummated? Consommé? I could have gone with clarified too… words are fun). The clear broth and the simple, fresh elements he added appealed to me more than some of the fancier, heavier dishes put out by other contestants.

I have a few ideas for what I’ll make us as the months progress: there will definitely be some fiddling with cold soups, there might be a chowder or a cioppino – something fish or shellfish based – I’m contemplating a lighter, brighter split pea and ham (to dip fresh, warm bread into, of course), and I had reasonable minestrone with barley in it a few weeks ago that I might try to elevate. We will start with broth – certainly not the most innovative or interesting recipe (and to tell you the truth, barely a recipe at all), but a requirement and, I think, a secure starting point for our project.* I’m also happy – in fact I’d welcome the challenge – to entertain your ideas or requests, if you want to offer them up! What kind of soup do you want a recipe for? Feel free to leave an idea in a comment, or send me an email (I’m trying to be better about checking that this year too).

Welcome to 2017: Project Soup.

 

*And, if I’m honest, a tiny chance for me to get ahead of things before the semester starts…

Rolling in Dough

Okay, 2013, here we go.

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This year, I have a few changes to announce.  First, you may have noticed that we’re at a new address.  Update your bookmarks, if I’m lucky enough to be there, to http://blackberryeating.com.  As I understand it, the old address will still work, it will just redirect you here.  As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been wanted to upgrade to an address that makes more sense for what I’m doing here.  Blackberries, their mystery and decadence, remind me of all that is good about food: what is sweet, what is juicy, what is challenging, what is delicate, what is persnickety and strong.  The Galway Kinnell poem from which the title of this blog is taken celebrates juxtaposition and excess, likens these jeweled fruits to words and the consumption of those fruits to the search for meaning and significance.  This is a little piece of significance for me – this collection of words thrust with crossed fingers and squinted eyes out across the internet – and so I wanted to make it more connected, more applicable, but really, more mine.

Who ever thought so much consideration could go into a new address?

With the Bittman project over and a new address settled, it’s time to submerge myself in a new challenge.  As you know if you’ve been reading for a while, dough – particularly pie dough and yeasted dough – is one of my big fears.  What if it doesn’t rise?  What if it crumbles apart?  What if it tears or burns or collapses or comes out tough or doesn’t bake right?  What if it’s (gasp) imperfect?

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I decided I need to get over this.

This year, each week, I will make something out of dough.  It might be pie crust.  It might be cookies.  It might be pizza or foccaccia or flatbread.  It might, as terrifying as this is to me, be a real, honest-to-goodness loaf of bread, bloomed and kneaded, baked until crusty in a loaf pan.  I have a crazy notion that I want homemade bagels.  I have a yen to make doughnuts, and not just cake doughnuts, but the beautiful puff and chewy crumb of a good yeasted twist.

I don’t – and this is important to note – promise absolute success.  You’re going to see what crumbles along the way.  You’re going to see the scraps and scrapes and disasters I produce.  I think this is an important part of learning, and that’s part of what this blog is for me.

I have a few guides in this project, one hoped for and long awaited, one unexpected but delightful.  From my in-laws, I received Michael Ruhlman’s genius book Ratio.  This isn’t a cookbook.  It’s more than that.  It’s more exciting, it’s more foundational, and ultimately, I think, it’s more useful.  It doesn’t tell you how to make cherry pie, it tells you the essential equation of pie dough.  Three parts flour, two parts fat, one part water.  That will always equal pie dough.  Suddenly, you can use any kind of flour – more than one kind, if you want.  You can use lard instead of butter.  You can make one pie or you can make thirty-five pies, and you don’t have to think as hard about multiplying or adding or fractioning.  You have a ratio, and it is always going to work.

That’s the theory.  And I believe it, but I haven’t tried it out just yet.

From my parents, I received a bread machine.  I’ve never used a bread machine before, and while my immediate thought is that to really master dough, I will also have to make it by hand so I understand the kneading and the cycles of rising, and so I will come to know the feeling of the right kind of stretch and the windowpane test and the knowledge beneath my fingers that yes, this is bread, having a machine help me along the way is going to be nice.  The idea of dumping, in pajamas at 10pm, a series of ingredients into a pan, plugging in a machine, and telling it I want a fresh, hot loaf of bread at 7am, delights and astounds me.  I want to understand, but I also want the magic.

So that’s the plan.  If all goes well, it will mean more of this:

Food blog 2011-0097It will certainly mean more of this:

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It may even mean some of this:

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I don’t expect it will mean all dough, all the time, just as the past two years were not exclusively Bittman concoctions.  If something amazing comes along that doesn’t involve flour or eggs or butter, I will still report on it.  But the goal this year – the resolution, if you will – is to conquer this dough thing.  I want to have conversations with you about it.  I want your feedback and advice and experiences.  And I hope you enjoy.

Of new blogs and backyard berries

Prince Harry and Falstaff banter about blackberry picking and blackberry eating in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part I. Alchemically, blackberries have properties of promoting wealth and protecting the eater from evil. Galway Kinnell’s poem Blackberry Eating, from which this blog’s title is taken, remembers the propensity of swollen, shining black blackberries, overripe and almost frozen on a cold morning, to fall unbidden to the speaker’s tongue. Then he curiously likens this involuntary offering for digestion to words, especially “certain peculiar words” that sometimes emerge. Now that September approaches, now that several substantial harvests have kept me in blackberries through the summer, I know that those small clusters of berries only beginning to flush red today will come full and ripe at the end of next month, and perhaps I can experience Kinnell’s comparison.

For today, however, the likeness between late September berries and unexpectedly summoned words will have to suffice as an analogy for this, a blog focused on sharing my culinary and gardening adventures. Welcome. Enjoy.