Sunday, March 21, 2010
Thursday, January 28, 2010
When I was growing up, I had a lengthy list of dislikes based primarily on the idea of a food rather than the actual taste. I did not take into consideration the variety of methods for preparing an ingredient, and declared something awful after just one bad experience—and very often, no experience at all.
I had harbored a loathing for green beans since at the age of seven I sampled one at my uncle’s annual pool party. It was brownish green, cold, and rubbery after sitting on a platter under a beach umbrella all day. I gagged, spit it out, and never touched green beans again—until last year. Last Thanksgiving, I decided to try a simple recipe for green beans sautéed with salt, pepper, and garlic. And to my great surprise, green beans weren’t the rubbery bits I had recalled with horror for more than twenty years. They were bright green and had a little crunch to them. What a revelation! It led me to wonder: What other foods have I always “hated” without due cause? What surprises does the grocery store hold for my emerging palate?
Most of my revelations have been about vegetables: carrots are all right after all and broccoli is divine. And there are hitherto unimagined varieties of lettuce. I had always thought salad was resigned to wilted bits of leaf and chunks of bitter tomato. But the leafy varieties! The textures that can be incorporated with walnuts, pears, dried cranberries, seeds, red—or green or yellow—peppers! Even the humble, earthy beet lends a distinctive character to a bowl of what I had previously considered mere roughage.
With my mind newly opened to the wonders of the culinary world, it was time to give prunes another try.
Owing to an embarrassing childhood ailment, I was forced—once a morning for months—to down a full glass of prune juice. My grandmother challenged me to prune juice races, which she always let me win. I still remember the bitter, cloying syrup and its awful aftertaste and I vowed, once I had weathered my ailment, never to let a prune or its foul juice touch my lips again.
I broke my vow last month. I was making a recipe for non-fat gingerbread that called for prune purée in place of butter, so I bought a full tub of prunes. When I opened the lid, the prunes glistened in a moist heap and smelled sickly sweet, just the way I remembered their juice. As I puréed the shining, sticky fruit, I became curious. Would prunes live up to my most distressing gastronomic memory? I unglued one from the mound, and bit into it.
In what was perhaps the most shocking moment in my life, I enjoyed the prune. With finality, that one taste devastated the entire foundation on which I had based my appetites. If I liked prunes, what wouldn’t I like?
ParsnipsI don’t like parsnips. I am pleased to discover this fact because after the prunes, I realized with equal measures pride and dismay that I might just like eating anything and everything. Where once I couldn’t think of a vegetable I liked, now I couldn’t imagine a food I didn’t like. Until Monday, when I made parsnip soup.
I had tried parsnips roasted and crisped and whipped, and they had left me unimpressed. I thought I just hadn’t yet discovered the ideal method for preparing them. Soup seemed like a logical progression in my parsnip experiment, so I found a lovely seasonal soup recipe that paired the parsnips with potato, celery, salt, pepper, and paprika—a combination that sounds creamy, sweet and a little spicy. I made eight servings, so I would have enough soup to keep me warm for nearly two weeks in my chilly cubicle.
I tasted the soup while it simmered on the stove and added more seasoning. And a little more. And more salt. And a dash or two of extra paprika. And a few more pinches of salt, until the soup was as good as it was likely to get. I thought it might improve by resting overnight in the fridge. So with hope and good intentions, I divided the soup into eight Tupperware bowls and put it to sleep.
When I heated my lunch in the office microwave the next day, a pungent, bitter scent filled the kitchen and clung to me as I headed down the hall back to my cube, which immediately filled with the aroma. I hadn’t even removed the lid.
The soup was sickeningly bittersweet. I liberally added Parmesan and crackers. The cheese helped to mask the bitterness and make the soup barely edible. The crackers added texture to the otherwise watery mixture, but they didn’t stay crispy for long, and drowned in the mess. I nearly cried when I emptied seven Tupperware bowls into the sink that night.
I say never again to parsnip soup.
Monday, January 18, 2010
“I did! At least, I tried to relax, but I ended up baking bread all day on Sunday.” I replied, arranging slices of challah next to the office kitchen sink.
“That sounds relaxing. Wasn’t it?” she asked.
“Not really.” I sighed. “I must have done something wrong, because the dough was so runny that it spread across the counter and started dripping on the floor.” A motherly sort of person, J would sympathize with my culinary crises.
“Maybe I used the wrong flour.” I pondered.
“Is there a wrong flour?” she asked. I didn’t know. The recipe calls for “strong white flour,” but I have five different types of flour, and I wasn’t sure which was the strongest.
Or maybe I shouldn't have used my hand-held electric mixer to mix the ingredients. Mrs. Beeton instructs us to “Rub in the butter or margarine. Beat the eggs into the yeast mixture and stir in the flour mixture. Mix to a soft dough.” As I mixed and beat the ingredients, the flour clumped into pebbles and the runny dough splashed the cabinets. It was at this point that I began to panic.I gave up the mixer and began squishing flour clumps with my hands. This was truly a labor of love. I mixed and mixed and mixed with my hands, the mixer, a spoon—but the liquid never transformed into “a soft dough.” I don’t know why I thought it would be a good idea to turn it out onto a floured surface. But I did. And that’s when the dough made a run for it across the counter.
“Did you start over again?” J asked. I paused. I had never considered that option. I finish what I start. That’s how I ended up with a C+ in Latin my freshman year of college. If only I had dropped that class when my professor said, “I know you’re trying very hard, but I don’t think this language is for you.” But it never occurred to me to give up.
So, approaching hysteria on Sunday afternoon, I tore F from his book and made him cup his hands around the quickly spreading dough as I added handful after handful of flour, kneading and patting the dough, scooping flour until I had added a good cup and a half to the mix, moaning all the while, My challah! My challah!
“I probably should have started over,” I answered J, “But I just added more flour until the dough held together.”
When the dough had finally risen for the second time, I divided it into two equal portions and rolled them into strands for braiding.
The dough was still so soft that the strands melted into each other as I wove them together. I added a few more heaps of flour until the strands rested against each other without melding. I carefully transferred the loaf to a baking pan and brushed with egg. I let it rest for 30 minutes before baking.
“But the bread turned out OK in the end?” J asked.
“Yes." I replied sheepishly, "It’s actually pretty good.”
To my great surprise, the bread turned out beautifully, after all.
“So you saved it! That’s impressive.” J squeezed my shoulder and I smiled self-consciously.
“Did you pat yourself on the back?” J asked.
“Um… no.” I replied.
“You should pat yourself on the back more often.” J said as she took a slice of challah and ambled back to her desk.
As J turned away, I remembered something another J—Julia Child—once said, “The measure of achievement is not winning awards. It's doing something that you appreciate, something you believe is worthwhile. I think of my strawberry soufflé. I did that at least twenty-eight times before I finally conquered it.”Feeling just a little bit silly, I quickly patted myself on the back and smiled.
I’ve got twenty-seven loaves to go!
Fat for greasing
800g / 1 ¾lb strong white flour
10ml / 2tsp sugar
25g / 1oz butter or margarine
Flour for kneading
Beaten egg for glazing
Grease 2 baking sheets. Sift about 75g / 3oz of the four and all the sugar into a large bowl. Measure 400ml / 14fl oz lukewarm water. Blend the fresh yeast into the water or stir in the dried yeast. Pour the yeast liquid into the flour and sugar and beat well. Leave the bowl in a warm place for 20 minutes.
Sift the remaining flour and the salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter or margarine. Beat the eggs into the yeast mixture and stir in the flour mixture. Mix to a soft dough. Turn on to a lightly floured surface and knead for about 6 minutes or until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky. Return to the bowl and cover with cling film. Leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in volume—this will take up to 2 hours, or longer.
Knead the dough again until firm. Cut into 2 equal portions. Cut one of these into 2 equal pieces and roll these into long strands 30-35 cm / 12-14 inches in length. Arrange the 2 strands in a cross on a flat surface. Take the 2 opposite ends of the bottom strand and cross them over the top strand in the center. Repeat this, using the other strand. Cross each strand alternately, building up the plait vertically, until all the dough is used up. Gather the short ends together and pinch firmly. Lay the challah on its side and place on the prepared baking sheet. Brush with beaten egg. Repeat, using the second portion. Cover with lightly oiled polythene. Leave in a warm place for about 30 minutes or until the dough has doubled in volume. Set the oven at 220 degrees C / 425 degrees F / gas 7.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Makes two 1 ¾ lb loaves.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
And then I will make something that F does enjoy, so he can come home from work to a nice snack. I shall make him cupcakes. From a box. With icing from a tub.
When F and I first started dating, Moist Deluxe Duncan Hines Classic Yellow Cake Cupcakes were the extent of my baking expertise. I wooed him with cupcakes. I seduced him with Betty Crocker Whipped Chocolate Frosting. He would leave my little Hyde Park apartment with a cupcake in each hand--and he always came back for more.
Monday, January 11, 2010
Salmon with White Wine Mustard Sauce and asparagus:I've got a good man, indeed.
Sunday, January 3, 2010
The figs at the grocery store had intrigued me for weeks. Although fresh figs are no longer in season, the dried figs resting side-by-side in a snug little wheel promised to impart the essence of a warm, spiced Middle-Eastern desert breeze to my cold Chicago apartment. So, in what might have been an ill-advised decision, I made an entirely fig-themed dinner.
The Chicken with Balsamic-Fig Sauce was fine. I tried to convince myself throughout the meal that I didn’t mind—and even appreciated—the gritty texture of the fig seeds in the sauce. But on the whole, I found this recipe a little strange and unappetizing.
And for dessert—Spiced Figs in Red Wine. I chopped three dried figs in half and dumped them in a saucepan with a cup of red wine, 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract, a dash of cinnamon, a sprig of rosemary, a spring of thyme, three peppercorns, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 1 tablespoon of honey, and 1/3 cup sugar and brought the mixture to a boil. I left it to simmer for 35 minutes, as directed. It smelled wonderful—much like I would imagine the inside of a desert caravan would smell as it trundled across the desert on a hot night.
I will pause here to say that Cooking Light should in no way be held responsible for the utter failure of this dessert. I assume all responsibility for the recipe’s disastrous consequences because I made two very silly mistakes: Cooking Light tells us to let the spiced fig syrup cool and then chill for an hour. I thought this dessert might be nice warm—and I didn’t want to wait for my dessert. So when the 35 minutes were up, I strained the solids and filled two ramekins with vanilla frozen yogurt. Then I poured the steaming wine mixture over the yogurt and placed three chunks of fig on top of each.
Upon further reflection, I should have let the syrup cool. And I should have followed the instructions to scoop the yogurt over the syrup, instead of pouring the syrup over the yogurt. Before I even reached the living room to present this dish to F, the frozen yogurt had melted into a lukewarm, pinkish soup garnished with half-submerged fig chunks. The figs, balancing between the hot liquid and the cold yogurt, had hardened. My glorious, Middle-Eastern desert dessert was overwhelmingly winy, spicy, and gritty—and barely edible.
F politely declared himself full after two bites. But I had made this elegant, delectable dessert and by God, I was going to finish it.And I ate it all.