--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Somehow, I've managed to spend this Tuesday, my day "off," attempting (in every sense of the word) to make homemade ravioli.
Sure I had a million other things to do today like grade, prep for class, run errands. But when the morning is still new and the whole day stretches before you like a freshly paved road, you feel like you have all the time in the world. And besides, how long could it take to make pasta?
I started at 9am with a twinkle in my eye, a spring in my step, and infinite patience for my two-year-old who would "help" me cook today (in my fantasies, he's often a world famous chef and gives me all the credit for initiating him in the culinary delights). To the operatic sounds of the Match Point soundtrack, we made what Deborah Madison calls simple pasta dough. The dough-making part was simple enough; my son and I mixed flour, salt, eggs, and olive oil until a lumpy substance formed. "Knead until smooth and pliant," Madison instructs. So we kneaded. And kneaded. And kneaded (or is it "kned"). The resulting mass was neither smooth nor pliant. But encouraged by her advice to "let [it] rest" because "if your dough is dry and difficult to knead, this resting period will help soften it," we kept our spirits up. Resting. Okay. Good.
While our dough rested, we made the filling, which--if you don't mind my saying so--kicked major ass. I had baked the other half of that pumpkin-like squash last night, so I mushed it in with the following:
3 shallots, chopped
fresh sage, chopped
fresh thyme, chopped (considerally less than the sage)
fresh parsley, chopped (equal amount to the sage)
two red chard leaves, chopped to bits
1/2 c. panko bread crumbs
1/2 c. freshly grated parmesan
Saute shallots in olive oil. Add herbs and chard. Add squash. Mush all up. Remove from heat. Add bread crumbs and parmesan.
This is your filling.
Filling done, my son and I returned to the dough which had not become any more smooth and pliant during the resting period. Still glowing from our filling success, we decided to roll the dough out anyway. Here was a hitch: Madison assumes her readers have a pasta machine that rolls the dough out for you with a simple turn of a crank. I do not own such a device (yet). Undaunted, I determined that I would be able to roll the dough out by hand with a rolling pin, losing only a few more minutes of time in the process. And with the measureless patience I still had, I gave my son a rolling pin too and a small piece of dough.
I'll wait for those of you in the know to stop laughing.
From now on, whenever I hear the phrase, "he/she rolled a sheet of pasta out by hand" I will be overcome with awe and wonder at not only the amazing upper body strength but by the remarkable patience this act takes. I saw in my mind those matronly Italian women with their thin little broomsticks, rolling out wide sheets of dough, and I asked myself, "How hard could that be?"
After three hours of "rolling" out dough, I decided impossibly, from the pit of hell, hard.
With only seven pitiful raviolis to show for my efforts and my son in his third time out, I decided to approach ravioli making from another angle: I began making phone calls to various kitchen supply stores around San Diego, searching for a pasta roller. Finally, after four unsuccessful calls, I located my silver grail. Assenti's Pasta, in Little Italy, had a pasta roller.
Liam and I quickly journeyed to Little Italy. And discovered a little kink in our pasta roller acquisition plans:
Gas to Little Italy: $5
Pasta roller: $50
Store that only takes cash and you only have two $20's: priceless
So, I initiated plan b which was to purchase sheets of pasta dough from Assenti's. The sheets of pasta come in little pre-package stacks. To an inexperienced eye, the pasta dough stack looks very large. So I asked man behind the counter at Assenti's how many raviolis one pasta dough stack would make. He looked me straight in the eye and answered, "Fifteen."
I glanced again at the stack of dough and, completely demorallized from the homemade pasta dough fiasco, figured I really didn't know anything about pasta, so why qestion his pasta stack judgment. I didn't and ordered three packs because I figured I would make about 45 raviolis.
Back at home, I promptly put my son down for a nap and poured myself a glass of wine. I then began laying out the sheets and cutting little circles out of them using a wine glass and a knife. The rest of my time went swimmingly. I ended up with an amazing amount of raviolis, each one attesting to my growth as a pasta maker. There were my Frankenstein first seven with their dark wheat skin and deep tine scars from my poor use of a fork in sealing the edges. There were some middle ones who were squares and triangles from my experimentation with shapes other than a circle. An then there were the thirty or so perfect half moons, complete with tine indentations around their edges. I resolved to place these thirty in a prominent position when serving the pasta.
I then set about making a light sauce for the pasta. "It's about the pasta, not the sauce" -- so claims Babbo chef Mario Batali in Heat by Bill Buford. I now firmly believe this maxim to be true. While there is something to be said about a good sauce over dried spaghetti, if you spend your entire day making pasta, they really should be the feature of the dinner. I loosely based my sauce on Deborah Madison's "Butternut Squash Ravioli with Toasted Pecans and Sage." The following are my tweaks:
8 Tbs butter (one stick)
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 Tbs fresh sage, chopped
2 Tbs fresh parsley, chopped
2 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
Melt butter. Add everything else. Cook over med heat until butter has a "nutty aroma" (according to Madison).
Meanwhile boil the pasta in batches (about 15 per batch) for five to six minutes. Toss the cooked ravioli in the pan with the sauce. GENTLY toss. I've heard that chefs can do this tossing with just flicking the pan, but I had to use a spoon.
I served these with steamed green beans and a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
As my family and friends wolfed down their pasta, singing my accolades, I felt a curious mix of extreme pride and slight resentment. The former because, after all, I had just spent the day making home made ravioli that everyone loved. The latter because I had just spent the entire day making home made ravioli that everyone loved and were eating at an alarming rate. I guess a part of me wanted a few pieces to last forever as a testament to my effort.
As the evening progressed, the praises continued, and the good wine flowed, I got over it. Really, to have an evening with the people you love most is worth many days of effort.
However, I used only one stack of pasta and now have two unopened packages left. I guess I'll save those for beet ravioli. Laugh away, Assenti's Pasta Man, laugh away.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Today was one of those days. Between one thing and another, I found myself at 5pm in the grocery store, picking up that onion which was indispensable (at least in my mind) to tonight's dinner. Now for some of you, 5pm doesn't sound all that late. At one time for me, 5pm was the perfect time to grocery shop in order to prepare a nice leisurely dinner by 8pm. However, times have changed. I now have a toddler who eats between 530 and 6pm every night. If he doesn't, he calls down the fury.
With such a dictator in my life, making dinner can take on stress levels that were unthought of before. As we barrelled through the grocery aisles I a) mentally cursed my CSA for not supplying onions, b) mentally cursed my husband for not reminding me to steal some Vidalia onions from my Nana at Thanksgiving, and c) mentally cursed myself for being such a slave to onions in my recipes. Finally, with onion (and a few other essentials) in hand, my son and I exited the grocery store. He was an angel. He even obligingly put the change in the Salvation Army's red can. The fury didn't come until after we got home . . .
Anyway, made baked ziti, a modification of a friend's recipe. She's Irish Catholic and married a half-Italian. Since their wedding day, she's made tomato sauce from scratch because he doesn't eat jarred. This friend was the source of my epiphany that you can make homemade pasta sauce in less time and hassle than expected. My version:
I make a basic tomato sauce pulled from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
a certain amount of tomatoes
a certain amount of basil
Quarter the tomatoes and toss them in a heavy bottomed skillet/pan/whatever. Add the chopped basil. Cook, covered, on medium high heat for about ten minutes (until tomatoes really start to give up their juices). Don't forget to check the pan periodically to make sure the tomatoes aren't sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Put the whole mess through a food mill. You now have a basic sauce to which you can a) add the olive oil and salt and serve as is over pasta, b) use as a base for soup or other sauces, or c) freeze and then do b.
I chose b and used it as a base for the ziti sauce.
1 medium onion, chopped to bits in the Cuisinart
4 cloves garlic, chopped to bits in the Cuisinart
2 leaves of red chard, chopped to bits in the Cuisinart
x amount of fresh parsley, chopped to bits in the Cuisinart
x amount of fresh Parmesan, grated
x amount of ricotta
x amount of mozzarella, grated
penne (okay, okay, so it's technically "baked penne," but who wants to argue semantics?)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Put olive oil in the same heavy bottomed pan as was used for tomato sauce. When it is hot, add the onions and garlic. Cook until soft (now be careful because since the pieces are so small, they are way easy to burn). Add the parsley and red chard. Saute for a bit. Then add the tomato sauce, white wine, and sugar to taste (sometimes I add none, sometimes a whole tablespoon). Simmer for a while (and I am assuming that this whole time you've been cooking the penne in a separate pot of boiling water). Add the Parmesan. Let it melt.
Take half the sauce and mix it with 3/4 the ricotta. Pour that over the al dente penne in a casserole dish. Mix in some mozzarella. Cut in the rest of the ricotta. Top with the rest of the sauce, Parmesan, and mozzarella.
Bake 350 for about 25ish minutes.
If I were really serious about using up some more of my CSA stuff, I would have served this with a salad. But I just got the newsletter from the CSA today that said, along with the fact we owe them more money, the first frost has already come and killed off the cucumbers. I am also assuming the lettuce too, so I marked these deaths by refraining from consuming any fragile greens.
That's just me. Always sensitive to sudden tragedies.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
Dinner was a haphazard affair but made infinitely precious by the company in which it was partaken. We sipped margaritas and just caught up on what everyone's Thanksgiving week looked like.
I read a book a while ago by William Nicholson called The Society of Others. It was lent to me by a dear friend who manages to read my mind by providing me with books I will love among other things. In this book, Nicholson's narrator reads another book (how's that for a funhouse mirror?) that describes a phenomenon called "the great enough." The great enough is when you are absolutely content with a moment just as it is. It is a perfect moment. This moment will last only a few seconds, but those seconds will be indelibly printed on your brain for the rest of your life. The great enough isn't something that can be sustained. It is fleeting. But we should spend our lives striving to attain those moments because within them is the meaning of human existence. I am lucky in that I have felt this great enough many times in my life: lying on the roof of the family car, watching a meteor shower in a black NorCal sky; feeling the disorienting coldness of the Pacific as I dove over the Marianas Trench; listening to a dusk Latin mass in the Pantheon in Rome; here tonight with my girlfriends. To name a few.
So what inspired both this moment and my (slightly pretentious) explanation of it? Why the margaritas of course. The recipe is from another good friend and is as follows:
1/2 White tequila
1/4 Triple Sec
1/4 Rose's Lime Juice
Do not substitute anything for these ingredients. If you are feeling crazy, add a lime. I took this margarita mix with me to the hospital when I gave birth (no one told me that you really only want to eat donuts after that horrible experience--which I did. A whole dozen, but don't tell anyone).
I served to my friends a recipe of my own making. Inspired by a one-time visit to a restaurant on Park Ave called D'Mood. This restaurant is both expensive and pretentious, but two things really struck me when I was there: a) the belly dancer and b) the dish I ordered. The belly dancer was amazing. In no way a striking beauty, this woman oozed sexiness through her body control. I mean if you can control your abs like that, you can control anything. The dish was some sort of winter squash dish served over couscous. I have no idea what was in it other than squash and raisins but I have craved it since. My son helped me cook. Here is picture of his part in the cooking:
The following is what I thought the squash dish might be like (sans raisins because I hate them. I meant to include craisins, but forgot):
1/2 onion, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 parsnips, diced
misc. baby carrots, diced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 small pumpkin, chopped* (but I don't really think it was a pumpkin; however, it looked like one)
1 mini pumpkin, chopped*
1 small butternut squash, chopped*
1 small really cool striped squash, chopped* (bought it for decoration, but it is really cool)
1 medium small sweet potato, chopped*
some amount of cardamom
some amount of curry powder
1 cup chicken broth
*I am assuming you are peeling all of these things before chopping
Saute onions, shallots, and garlic in a generous amount of olive oil until just soft. Add carrots, parsnips, and parsley and saute another ten minutes (if you are faster than I was, you can add the cardamom here too. It took me freaking forever to shell the pods so I didn't get it ground until the next step). Add all of the squash, curry powder, cardamom (if you didn't add it earlier, you slacker). Saute until just browning (not burning--an important distinction). Add the chicken broth (honestly, I used Better than Bullion (pretend I did a trademark thing here). I love this stuff). Simmer, covered, until squash, etc. is soft.
Serve on a bed of couscous. With a side salad:
some leaves of red leaf lettuce
some leaves of green leaf lettuce
x amount of cucumber, tri-peeled, sliced with slices cut in half
x amount of heirloom tomato (not CSA), sliced into wedges and wedges cut in half
dressing of choice
Not quite D'Mood's but still really good. And who can top the company?
Saturday, November 25, 2006
After I've sworn to eat nothing else for the rest of the year (well maybe excepting Christmas), picking up a box of vegetables is not a heartening experience. The thought of ingesting even one cucumber slice no matter how wafer thin it is makes me want to cry. But I press on and load the car with
two heads of lettuce (one red leaf, another I have no idea)
one bunch flat parsley
one small pumpkin
one bunch red chard
The last thing on the list makes me so sad. From past experiences, I HATE chard. It seems my CSA delights in putting chard of all varieties in the box at least three times a month right now. I was actually caught in mid-fit on the porch of the house where the CSA pickup is by the owner of the house. I was flailing and cursing about the "freaking Swiss chard," and I turned to see a woman standing in front of her picture window in her living room, witnessing it all. She flashed me a smile and gave me a thumbs up sign then turned to go about her business. I don't think she understood the depth of my loathing of chard.
And I do loathe it. I gamely tried cooking it in so many ways: sauteed with a little garlic, in a soup, in a gratin, etc . . . I just can't stand it. It isn't the taste; it's the texture: slimy. And not slimy in the spinach sense (love spinach). Just weird and nasty. I have yet to find a way of serving palatable chard in a way you'd know it was chard. So, I've resorted to finely chopping it in order to hide it in other dishes. Zucchini and spinach soup? Try Swiss Chard and zucchini soup (did some major modifications. Look at San Diego, Wassup's review (I know, I know)). Mexican lasagna? Try Green chard and Mexican lasagna (also used chile in adobo sauce instead of salsa, way way spicy but way way good). Onion and mushroom ragout? Perfect way to sneak in some chard. I've become a master of sneaking chard into dishes that have a strong enough flavor to mask the chard, and I've chopped it so finely that the texture never bothers me now. Sometimes I have wonderful dreams where I find recipes that make me love chard as much as I love kale, but I have yet to find a recipe to make those dreams a reality.
I returned home with the intention of never eating again and composting all produce (especially chard) received from my CSA. However, there is something about returning home from an absence. Maybe I'm the only one who feels this way, but I always need a reorientation back to my home, my life, left behind for however long of a time. Invariably, I find myself in the kitchen either eating or cooking. Something about the act of breaking bread situates me. Which is probably why I eat (and eat a lot) when I travel. Eating is a way of orienting myself. Cooking does so even more. So, I ate when I got home: chips and salsa and a burrito from Jalapenos. I also made my son some popcorn, and we sat on the kitchen floor, he with his "cuppy" of water, me with my beer, and enjoyed a repast together. Truly a serene moment.
So, today is Saturday, and I have to cook something. This semester, weekends are the only times I get to cook at my leisure, and I try to cook for the week during that time. However, I also have 39 ten-page papers to grade over this Thanksgiving break, and instead of grading them in a timely fashion as I intended to do, I have saved them for this weekend. Between grading and and the glut of Thanksgiving leftovers, I haven't had a lot of initiative to actually cook today. It is now 8pm. My son is about to go to bed, and I (finally) have a soup simmering on the stove. It's ostensibly a carrot soup but . . . Here's the recipe:
CARROT SOUP WITH THYME AND FENNEL
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
4 medium carrots, peeled, chopped
3/4 cup chopped onion
3/4 cup chopped leek (white and pale green parts only)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
5 cups (or more) canned low-salt chicken broth
Additional chopped fresh thyme Melt 1/4 cup butter in large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add carrots, onion, leek, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon thyme and fennel seeds; stir to coat. Cover; cook until onion is translucent, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Add 5 cups broth. Bring to simmer. Cover partially; simmer until carrots are very tender, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. Cool slightly. Working in batches, purée soup in blender. Return to pan. Thin to desired consistency with more broth. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly. Cover and chill.)
Bring soup to simmer. Ladle into bowls. Sprinkle with additional thyme. Serves 4.
Bon Appétit March 1999
Epicurious.com © CondéNet, Inc. All rights reserved. <---Note this information
Here are my tweaks (remember, I don't measure anything; and everything bolded is what I used from the CSA): I used both parsnips and carrots. All the carrots and almost all the parsnips the CSA delivered. I also chopped some baby carrots I had in the fridge as snack for my son. Lots lots more garlic. I used about half of the butter and the rest was olive oil. Really, you only need a little butter for the flavor; the rest is just extra fat. Don't have fresh thyme, so used parsley. Not the same flavor, but parsley is so . . . green. It really is an amazing herb to add to recipes. Final tweak, I chopped some red chard and added that (big surprise, I know). The rest is pretty much what the recipe called for.
Honestly? The soup is freaking awesome. I love this soup. My husband loves this soup. My friends love this soup. My son . . . well, he's tried a bite or two, but he was really really tired. With the above tweakings, it is decidedly not orange in color. More of a puke green. But soooooo good.
I am going to enjoy a bowl now. Bon Appétit.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
I love food. LOVE it. The combinations of flavors and smells and textures and temperatures absolutely delights me. I am not a chef. I don't cook for a living. And frankly, until recently, my love affair with food was mostly conducted in restaurants, sampling what others have made. I do have a few staple recipes that have held me in good stead; however, I wasn't one to really branch out too often and cook something completely unfamiliar to me. One reason for this trepidation was that I didn't have a good idea of what tasted good with what; another, I thought I just plain didn't have time. Though I did compulsively buy and read cookbooks and cooking magazines, I rarely made the recipes. It's just so much easier to go out: you can talk to your friends while waiting for dinner to be served to you and there isn't any cleanup involved.
Then I had a baby. When I was pregnant, people would approach me and say, "Oh, your life is so going to change."
I would reply, "Yes, I know."
THEM: "No, you have no idea; it's really going to change."
ME: "O-kay, thanks."
THEM: "You really don't know. Life will never be the same for you again."
ME: (aloud) "Thanks, gotta go." (inside) "Jerk, of course it isn't going to be the same, but if I really don't know, then stop harping on it. I'll figure it out."
You know what? They were right. Still jerks, but right. Life does change, hugely. One of the biggest changes (besides extreme lack of sleep) was that I started to actually care about the foods I put into my body when I was breastfeeding and then what I put into my son's body when he started eating solids. I didn't care about spicy or broccoli or milk products (though many nights I kicked myself for not caring when I was pacing with a colicky baby); I cared about the quality of the food. Was it fresh? Was it organic? Was it farm-raised or wild? Was it pumped with hormones or not?
Part of these concerns were latent ideas from my mom. In the 70's and 80's, we were the family that had a huge garden in the back of our suburban house (and later mountain cabin). We kept goats for their milk and meat; let chickens run free through our yard; raised either a sheep, cow, or pigs a year for meat; butchered our own turkeys for Thanksgiving (not doing this on Thursday, by the way). My mom ground wheat berries to make her own bread (not using a bread machine), made wild blackberry preserves, canned her own applesauce, pickles, and tomatoes, and grew, dried and made her own pinto beans amongst a million other things. Please don't read this and think we were some NorCal hippies, living in a commune. My parents are both SoCal born and raised. They grew up in Anaheim. Our first family residence was in a suburb outside of Perris, CA, and we had the garden and poultry and livestock there. When we eventually moved to the Sierra Nevada foothills, we didn't stop bathing or using electricity. We still maintained ties to civilization. We still ate candy and drank soda on occasion, but my mom was very concerned with our overall dietary health. I still remember her Back to Eden cookbook, dogeared and stained. She made sure that what she served us regularly was something that would not only fill our stomachs but nourish us. Now, get this, my mom hates cooking. She really doesn't like food all that much. She was also incredibly busy with her various roles in life that were not solely "housewife." Yet she cared enough to make good and healthy food for us. With that kind of background, how could I not do the same for my child? I was brainwashed. It was inevitable.
"And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?"
Or you may ask yourself when you are done listening to Talking Heads, "now that Breeann has a child does she suddenly have more time?" Those of you with kids are laughing at that question. No way. Kids are indeed a full time job, and any woman (or man) who stays home with them should get a small tropical vacation island and a month off a year as a reward. However, I found I am not strong enough to survive nonstop contact with my son. As Taylor Mali put it, "I need intellectual simulation." In addition to caring for my son, I teach full time at a private university in San Diego. Though I feel as if I am uber-busy, I have learned that you have as much time as you make. You have to prioritize life, and I am working on that skill (don't quite have it yet).
You may also ask yourself if I've suddenly develop an instinctive feel for what foods go best with others? No. Trial and error continue to be the best way for me in figuring combinations out as well as relying on the testimonies of others who have gone before me. And I do rely on others. The web, cookbooks, and magazines are wonderful troves of culinary wisdom. I love websites that allow you to put in one ingredient (say Swiss chard, the bane of my existence) and search for recipes that feature that ingredient. I get so many recipes off of epicurious.com and Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, that I should take stock out in Bon Appetite and Gourmet magazines as well as in the publishing company that does Deborah's stuff. I intend to share the ones that work the best for me on this blog as well as any other places I might find recipes.
I do have a confession to make for any of you who may want to follow along with the recipes: I don't measure anything. This sad fact is why I am not a good baker. Also, I rarely make recipes as they read. I tweak. Sometimes for the good of the recipe, sometimes not. My logic is that if one clove of garlic tastes so good, then five will be five times as better.
Friday is CSA pickup day. Now that you are well situated in my background, kitchen, and obsession with cooking tools, we can start actually discussing the produce.
Now some tools are indispensable (like a wooden spoon); I'm pretty sure these types of tools have been around since cooking became more than tossing a carcass on the fire. Others are just nice to have (like a Cuisinart); they save time; slice, dice, puree, and chop so much better than I ever could; and make this era of electricity so fun to live in. While still others are just for the sake of having a cool new toy (like a bread baking machine that mixes, kneads, and bakes the bread all in one place); we don't need these things--they probably aren't even used daily--but they are sure fun. I own all of these tools and many more. Finding a place to put all of them in my kitchen proved impossible, so they are scattered about the apartment in various hiding places. Wooden spoon: ceramic vase on counter. Cuisinart: back storage room behind bikes and cat box (it's on a shelf). Bread maker: vacuum cleaner closet. My "pantry" is also scattered around the house. Pots hang above the stove; spices share a cabinet with the coffee cups--well, you get the idea. Finally, counter space is severely limited and we don't have a dishwasher, so the orchestration of cooking and cleaning becomes a delicate ballet that rivals anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote.
Because I love lists, here are some tools I use everyday in my kitchen:
bamboo cutting board that is flat on one side and concave on the other
Parmesan cheese grater
coffee bean grinder turned spice grinder
various wooden spoons and a wooden spatula
heavy bottom, large, flat skillet
heavy bottom pots (small to large)
glass measuring cups
stool (I'm short)
Things I don't use everyday but bear mentioning because I use them a lot:
glass baking dishes
Ingredients that I find to be essential to have in kitchen all the time:
chicken stock (or vegetable)
olive oil (good quality)
frying oil (canola or vegetable)
toasted sesame seed oil
wine (white and red)
vinegar (various varieties)
hot pepper flakes
lemons or limes
cheddar and jack cheese
I could go on forever about spices, but this list is too long. I have a friend who brought me some spices from the Dubai spice market, and these have been an amazing asset in my forced habitation of the kitchen.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Enjoy. Or don't (but don't tell me).