Fading light. And bourbon.

My home office – the room where grading, blogging, photo editing, and general work happens – has the most wonderful light in our house.  A huge sliding glass door lets sunlight pour in during the morning hours, and in the afternoon I get brightness mediated by the roof of the house.  Even when it’s overcast, there is still so much natural light that it makes for wonderful food shots.

But winter is a problem.  I’m discovering that if I make a dish for dinner, I’m not going to be able to photograph it from my office because it’s too dark by 5pm.  And wedded to this blog and this project as I am, there’s no way we’re having dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon just so I can get the best light in the house.  So I’m trying out new angles, and new placement, and new adjustments.  I’m learning more about artificial light: which arrangements I find glaring and which I find acceptable.  Bear with me, and look forward to the return of Daylight Savings Time!

“17. Sauté chopped onion in butter, then chunks of sweet potato and stock or water to cover. Simmer until the sweet potatoes can be pierced with a knife, then add chopped kale and cook until wilted.”

This was easy, and quick, and tasty.  I made a few additions to Bittman’s recommendations and think the soup really benefited from them.  I used:

4 TB butter Food blog 2011-0133

½ a medium onion (mine was yellow)

1 big sweet potato, peeled and cut into small chunks (the smaller the chunks, the faster they will cook, so make your decision based on how much time you have and what size is most pleasing to you)


Salt, pepper, ground nutmeg to taste

4 cups broth – vegetable or chicken, depending on your preference

6 oz. kale

1 tsp red wine vinegar

Heat the butter in a pot over medium heat.  When it has melted, add the onion and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent but not bronzed.

Add the sweet potatoes and seasoning, stir to combine for a minute or two, then add the broth.  The quantity of liquid you need will depend entirely upon the size of your sweet potato.  You may need more or less than the 4 cups listed here.

Let the soup simmer until the sweet potatoes are tender but not falling apart.  Mine took about 15 minutes.

Add the kale and stir to combine.  You will be bewildered by how quickly it collapses on itself, wilting from smoky green to a brighter, more vibrant hue as it is immersed in the liquid.  Cook just until it reaches the texture you like against your tongue – I let it simmer for about 5 minutes, because I like my kale to still put up some resistance and retain its bright color.

I tasted and thought this needed something.  Extra salt to heighten the flavor of the kale, certainly, but there was a kind of dullness about the whole concoction.  Remembering my soup lessons from Alton Brown, I sprinkled in just a hint of red wine vinegar, and the difference was amazing.  The whole thing was brighter, somehow, even though you couldn’t taste anything harsh or stringent.

We consumed this happily with freshly toasted, garlic-rubbed slices of pugliese.  It was good, but could have been stuffed with even more flavor: I’d consider adding garlic, ginger, maybe even rice or ramen noodles.

Food blog 2011-0137

“4. Onion jam with bacon and bourbon: Thinly slice red onions and cook in olive oil with chopped bacon until soft. Add a little bourbon and brown sugar to taste and cook until the jam thickens.”

Bourbon is new for me.  N. has been enjoying the occasional scotch for a few years now, but we recently acquired a bottle of Knob Creek and I’ve been appreciating the floral notes of it – so much less musty and boggy than its British cousin.

4 slices thick-cut bacon, halved lengthwise into long strips, then sliced into small rectangles

½ large red onion, thinly sliced

¼ cup bourbon

2 TB brown sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small sprig rosemary

Food blog 2011-0144

I used about a tablespoon of olive oil to start the pan, but I don’t think you really need it.  Just toss in the bacon slices over medium heat and let them work for about 5 minutes.  You will get a shimmer of fat across the bottom of the pan that is more than enough to start the onions sizzling in.

Add the onions and cook over medium or medium-low for at least ten minutes, until the onions soften and the bacon is mostly cooked.  Stir with some frequency to ensure even cooking.

Off the heat (especially if you are using a gas stove) add the bourbon and the brown sugar.  Stir to combine, then return to medium heat and simmer slowly for about 20 minutes, to let the flavors mingle and the bourbon soak into the onions and bacon.

After a few minutes of cooking, I added pepper and rosemary for additional flavor components, and I think they were a good choice.  The rosemary’s woodsy flavor was a nice contrast to the fatty bacon and sweet onions.  Everything cooked down into a sticky, caramelized jam that I draped across some baked rounds of polenta.

Food blog 2011-0148

This was delicious, but misplaced.  The meaty, smoky bacon was intensified by the bourbon, and the brown sugar and onions had a nice note of molasses.  It didn’t belong on polenta.  It belonged, I think, on a freshly toasted piece of crostini, possibly smeared with a thick slice of brie.  The funkiness of the cheese could stand up nicely to the sweet smoky strength of this jam.

We paired our misguided polenta with green beans, lightly blanched and then seared in a hot pan and deglazed with a bit of red wine.  These, too, were delicious, but not the ideal pairing for the sweet saltiness of my jam.  Apples, maybe, or red grapes would make better pairings.  Regardless, we ate with joy and returned to the pan once or twice for a final sweet chunk of sticky, gooey jammy bacon to sweeten our palates, even though dessert was still to come.


“91. Pears in Red Wine: Simmer 2 cups red wine with ½ cup sugar, 2 cloves, a cinnamon stick and a few slices of ginger in a pot for a few minutes, then gently poach peeled and cored pears (use a spoon to hollow them from bottom), until soft. Cool or chill, and serve with a bit of the poaching liquid.”

This is supposed to be one of the most sophisticated desserts you can offer: not overly sweet, laden with mulled flavor, perfect for a gourmet adult party in celebration of autumn.  Pears, with their temperamental habits and signature grainy texture, are perhaps the same kind of acquired taste as wine or coffee or any of those other “adult” tastes.  As dessert for our onion-jam-crusted dinner, I decided to attempt these.

Food blog 2011-0140

I used 2 pears, but followed the rest of Bittman’s quantities exactly.

Food blog 2011-0142Well, one exception to note: I thought about getting fancy and adding things like citrus peel or rosemary (apparently I’m hooked on the stuff these days).  But in the end, I just splashed in a bit of bourbon to link the flavor profile back to our dinner: red wine from the beans, bourbon from the jam, and this dessert would fit right in.

After the first simmer, in which I stirred gently to let the sugar dissolve and the spices mull gently into the wine, I prepared the pears.

The issue with pears is that inside their tender skins they are slippery little beasts.  You can’t grasp them too firmly or they sigh into bruises.  You can’t hold them too delicately or they slide out of your hands and threaten to slip from the edge of the kitchen counter.

I dove into my attempt to core the pears only after peeling them.  This, and the attempt to do so with a spoon, may have been a mistake.  The spoon tore through the tender flesh of the pear but was too wide to remove only the core.  Further, I wasn’t sure how much core I was supposed to be removing, so I ended up with two pale, naked, slightly mutilated pears, which I slid into their (hopefully) healing bath of alcohol.

I let them simmer, turning them occasionally to dye all sides a lovely burgundy, for about 15 minutes.  Then I turned off the heat and let them sit a further 20 minutes until we were ready for dessert.

Surrounded by a moat of spiced wine, these were achingly tender and nicely flavored.  I would choose pears that were less ripe if I attempted this dessert again, because a bit of additional texture might have done them good.  As it was, though, much of the graininess disappeared in the poaching, and the soft floral flavor was really nice against the wine and assertive spices.  A scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side would have made this a richer endeavor, but I think the creaminess would have matched well with the fruit and the wine.   Or maybe I just need the extra comfort as we roll into December…

Food blog 2011-0150


I can’t remember the last time Labor Day was a holiday for me.  I mean, I haven’t worked on Labor Day in a long time – perhaps ever.  But I spent the past eleven years or so attending universities organized around the quarter system: school starts in late September and ends in mid June.  That means when this magical Monday hit and working stiffs got to switch off their alarms, I was still on summer vacation.

Boo hoo, you say, poor thing!  You had to suffer through a non-holiday because you were on holiday!  But I’d remind you that for a graduate student, even allotted holidays don’t read as such.  A Monday is another toil-on-the-dissertation day.

And yet, today, with one week of class behind me at my new job, I did not have to make the pilgrimage to Burbank.  I did not have to spend the weekend lesson planning.  Ahead of me spans a week with one (one!) day of class.  It’s enough to make a girl sob with joy!

And then there are onions.  Which are enough to make a girl sob as well, though the accompanying emotion differs a little.

These are two Bittman “recipes.”  I realized recently that, as usual, my Bittman project has fallen by the wayside.  A brief count reveals that, of the list of 82 with which I began (the whole collection has 101 items, but I knew there were some N. and I would just never eat), 34 still remain unmade.  Most are soups.  That sounds like decent progress, until I remind you that I began this project 2 years ago.  But this year, beginning for me – as for every eternal academic – at the end of summer, is a year of renewed possibility.  It’s a year of everything refreshed: new home, new jobs, new opportunities.  It’s a year to relish.

3. Red Onion with Red Wine and Rosemary: Thinly slice red onions and cook them in olive oil until very soft.  Add chopped rosemary and red wine, and cook until the jam thickens.

I used:

1 big red onion, halved, peeled, and cut into thin half-moons

1 TB olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

2 TB rosemary, finely chopped

1-2 cups red wine

1 TB brown sugar

Onions take a long time to cook down the way I suspected they needed to for this recipe.  High heat makes for crumpled, browned, crispy-edged rings.  Delicious in their own right, but not for jam.  I baby-sat the onions over medium-low heat for at least half an hour.  Their pearly-white interiors turned fragile gold as if stained by the olive oil, and their textures changed, gaining an unctuous flexibility.

I added the salt and pepper, the rosemary, the red wine and the brown sugar and stirred together carefully to dissolve the sugar.  This simmered for another half hour until the wine, sugar, and onions came together into a sticky heady mahogany swamp in the pan.  As the wine reduced, I lowered the temperature to prevent any burning.

The finished jam slumped wonderfully over baked squares of polenta, providing contrast in all the best ways: the colors were sharp, the textures played together, the flavors were rich and lovely.  The onion jam was sweet with the tang of wine and the pine-forest warmth of rosemary.  The polenta was comforting and even flavored, and it needed the sharp sweetness the jam provided.  Steamed asparagus finished out the meal.

It sounds crazy, but the next morning I had the urge to drape some of this sticky, savory jam over a piece of whole-grain toast smeared with cream cheese.  It would also, I suspect, serve well spread over a turkey burger.

1. Onion-Pumpkinseed Relish: Roast thick slices of red onion with olive oil until softened and nicely browned.  Chop, then toss with minced chives, toasted pumpkinseeds and a little more olive oil.

A number of circumstances divide these two onion concoctions.  One was made in Oregon, one was made in California.  One was made in the cold drear of an oppressively long winter, one was made on a day of endless sun as August closed.  One was slowly reduced over an electric stove, one was browned in a gas oven, and though both were shot with digital cameras, you’re seeing one through the lens of an everything-automatic Canon PowerShot, and the other through a Nikon DSLR.  Changes to relish.

½ a huge red onion

3 TB olive oil

3-4 TB pumpkinseeds, toasted in a dry pan until they are flushed with brown and starting to pop

2 TB fresh chives

In a 400F oven, I roasted the olive oil coated onion slices until they collapsed, taking on a lovely burnished crispness.  This took probably 10-20 minutes.  Check often after 10 minutes, depending upon how hot your oven runs.  Liberate the toasty onion slices and let them cool.

When onions are cool, chop them finely and toss them with the other ingredients.  I had plenty of olive oil in my baking pan to coat all the ingredients so the relish glistened, but if you need it, feel free to add another glug or two.

I served lovely little spoons of this mixture over black bean cakes.  We traded tastes, taking in the relish in one bite and an avocado tomato salad in the next.  It was a nice pairing: the relish was moist and crunchy and savory, with the right kind of nutty richness to complement the dense potential blandness of the beans.

But I don’t think this relish ends as a condiment for beans.  It would be a spectacular topping for lamb.  Spiced with a little chili powder, it would fit perfectly atop pumpkin enchiladas.  It might even be a good garnish for butternut squash soup: a small heap of confetti in a velvet orange sea, interrupting the endless smoothness with a well-oiled crunch.

Will I finish this Bittman project by the end of the calendar year?  I don’t know.  But I’m enjoying it again, whereas during the last few months of dissertating I was finding it burdensome.  The thrill of guessing quantities, rather than being annoyed by lack of specificity, is returning.  The intuition about temperature and time is audible again.  And now, on this holiday that has never felt like a holiday before, I’m relishing it all.