Friday, December 01, 2006

Custom Cooking for XMAS

Some suggestions for items you might want to have prepared for you for gifting or just for endulging yourself over the holidays. Prices quoted on request. Delivery and gift packaging can be included too. Everything is negotiable and am open to suggestions from your family recipe file. Inquire here or email me directly. Cheers!

Biscotti Rustica
Mary's Sugar Cookies
Chocolate Truffle Assortment
Individual Free Range Fruit Cakes
Mom's Cinnamon Cake
French Apple Tarte
Black Olive Tapenade
Dried Tomato Tapenade
Potted Cheese
Country Pate
Betty Crocker Cheese Straws

My seasonal rant on pumpkins

If I were Queen of Dallas for a Day, there should be a contract attached to each pumpkin obligating the purchaser to boil, bake or compost each purchase. I’m talking pumpkins - hundreds if not thousands of them- stacked on the porches of Dallas for harvest season decor.

Current trends seem to require clusters of 2 or 3 or even more pumpkins and even exotic squash piled on the front steps or posed artistically in stacks next to the front door. Some of the displays involve bundles of corn husks, life size scarecrows and enough potted mums to decorate a small cemetery. Occasionally there is a single orange pumpkin sitting straight up on a bare concrete step, a minimalist display.

At the minimum, we should all be required to pause for a moment at the time of purchase to ponder the hugely abundant world we live in, one where beautiful healthful food is a seasonal display.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Practicing pies Up North

I'm running a little behind last year however. This is only about my third pie this summer. Made in honor of son's visit. Peach. Still, when sugar adverse son comments on it's perfection, all is worth while. On the other hand, he may have appreciated it most as a prop for his retro looking photos of the kitchen.

Pies are now company food. A generation ago, oops, make that actually in my own childhood, dessert was expected for family dinner. My Father, the Depression child, expected to be offered dessert of some kind, even on weeknights. (When there were cherry pits left in the pie he accused my Mother of somehow ensuring they showed up in his piece....)

Cooks of the last generation made enough pies to do them by rote. I keep hoping that I will memorize a crust recipe, but always have to re-confirm with Betty Crocker. 2 cups flour for a 2 crust pie, that part I'm sure about. But 2/3 cup shortening or 8 tablespoons? I can't remember and have to check. The amount of fruit I can eyeball accurately. In this case, 8 peaches. But had to check that 7/8 cup of sugar would be about right, plus some flour. A little cinnamon. Bake. Voila, a pie.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Cracking the Art of Food Writing

Just forced myself to put down Art of Eating (#71) after read the first story. Same as only allowing myself one chocolate Easter egg at a time. Ed Behr is the founder and editor of what looks and reads alot like a scholarly journal about food and I've been getting it for a couple of years. Each issue has 2-3 really long stories like the one I read about Olympia oysters, and long book reviews on food books and very odd photos. Sometime's there's also a full photo essay, all in black and white. Oddly, the contributors seem mostly men, including my Food Writer Hero John Thorne, and all credentialed. Intimidating but draws me like a magnet. I guess as a reader I'm part of SOME inner circle anyway.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Visiting Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian

"You must have the courage of your convictions," trills a black-and-white Child as she pan-flips a large potato pancake. Losing half of the contents onto the electric range cooktop, she scrapes up the errant potatoes with her spatula and puts them back in the pan, assuring me, her momentary confidant, that it's OK to make a mistake -- no one sees us alone in the kitchen anyway. As an adult, I find this reassuring. I, like Child, am not a natural born cook." - Kathryn Killinger, , August, 1999
Seeing a biography on Julia on PBS recently brought back many of the images I have been carrying since first visiting her kitchen at the Smithsonian. I was there twice. First and most movingly, when they were still installing the exhibit and you could watch the curators actually unpacking the boxes that had come straight off the truck and just a few days removed from the house in Cambridge. The second time was about 2 years ago on a snowy afternoon in DC after my sales appointment had been suddenly cancelled due to the weather. The completed kitchen was there and also a large foyer area with a small video monitor in the wall that was running her early cooking shows. Obviously it had become a prime attraction.

There are three portals into the kitchen. Each one is floor to ceiling plexiglass on three sides, but only enough square footage for one person to stand in at a time. When you step into this space you are isolated from the crowd in the foyer space outside the kitchen and it would not be inappropriate to say “beam me up Scotty”, the feeling of being transported into another time and space is so strong.

This kitchen has been reconstructed at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History from Julia's own kitchen at her home in Cambridge, MA. It’s not LIKE Julia’s kitchen was. It IS Julia’s kitchen, but without Julia in it. It’s her kitchen cabinets, her pots and pans, her cutting board, her sturdy table with mis-matched wooden chairs they bought in Denmark and shipped through multiple moves, her bookshelf with a worn copy of Joy of Cooking and amazingly her own multi-line telephone with hand written explanatory notes for each button (but darnit, too small to read through the plexiglass). It’s like she just stepped into the living room for a minute and will be right back. It’s eerie.

I read in one of the newspaper stories about the exhibit that all of her knives didn’t come with the kitchen, presumably they went elsewhere as a bequest, lucky recipient unknown. Surprisingly, straightforward and practical Julia had a fetish for acquiring knives and towards the end of her career almost never met a new knife she didn’t have to have. So in addition to the basics, there must have been a large number of exotics, perhaps with fancy handles or highly specialized uses or (hard to imagine) merely decorative.

Because the kitchen itself is not very decorative. Utilitarian would be a good word, and not demeaning at all. Dated, but only in the way that it’s not a shiny, oversize type of kitchen you find in new home models and Food Network TV shows these days. There’s a black & white photo of Julia in her “French kitchen” on the wall of the foyer and in it she is literally stooping over a pot on a gas stove which she is stirring. She’s stooped over it and obviously inconvenienced by her height, but the stove is also very short and primitive and only two burners. The rest of the kitchen looks like a dark movie set for an underground hideaway during the French occupation. And maybe it was since another surprising fact about Julia is that she worked for the United States OSS during World War II, about as close to real spy work as you can get. What gumption it presumably took to get oneself into such a situation back in those days. What an interesting life she had before she even became interested in cooking.

Another major revelation was the level of participation her husband Paul had in her career. When they met in DC and married she was in her 40’s and he was older and she had no real career direction. She followed him on assignment to Paris and used her Veteran’s benefits to pay the tuition at the Cordon Bleu. But he soon retired and she became a celebrity and his passion for words as a poet and his eye as a photographer were put to good use in editing her books and staging her presentations and shows. He seems to have been an exceptionally liberated husband for the times and especially for his generation. One note at the exhibit said he was such a humble and ever present helpmate that he even on occasion washed the dishes after those first Boston Public Television productions. Those were the ones that the Science Guy produced so there were a lot of people wearing multiple hats back then.

And she was so tall. Six feet, two inches is tall even for a man. Her husband was shoulder height to her. Yet they looked rather physically well matched in the photo of them on their wedding day, except for the large bandages on her arm, said to be the result of an auto accident just the day prior. She looked long legged and well bred in her ordinary but classy dress. He looked savvy and well traveled and the photo captures him standing to her side but definitely looking slightly upwards rather admiringly at her laughing face. Perhaps she is re-telling once more the story of her accident. When they moved into the Cambridge house, she had the kitchen counters raised. In later life when she was stooped from old age, she seemed as cheerfully unaware of her curvature as she seems to have always been of her height.

The fact that things slid out of her hands and onto the floor on the cooking shows made Julia endearing. But the fact that Julia was never a pretty face seems to have been a large part of her charm, as does the way she worked far into old age, apparently oblivious to her lack of glamour. Finding out that she also had a rather ordinary kitchen magnifies the extent of her accomplishments somehow.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Feasting Goddesses

I recently saw a refrigerator magnet that said "A Good Cook is Never Lacking in Friends." This gives me pause as to my motives in giving dinner parties. Yet there are few moments of gratification as simple as when a guest praises your food.

I also recently caught a piece of a personality quiz somewhere that asked "Would you rather be a host or a guest at a party?" I'd rather be a host, by a long shot.

Speaking of which, these are the Goddesses enjoying my cooking during my hiatus at home in late September 2005. Since it was immediately post hurricane, we had murky dark gumbo (delicious I might add) in honor of New Orleans and our collectively fond memories of the place...mine anyway. It's really amazing how much noise 8 middle age women can make while also eating and drinking voraciously.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Comfort Food, A Comfort Tool

Christmas before this one I asked for and received an electric skillet. Mostly it has set on the bookshelf in the utility room, but I have used it occasionally, and several times recently for pancakes, for which it is fabulous. I still miss my late 60's wedding gift electric skillet and I can't think why I ever got rid of it. I especially and fondly remember it sitting on my orange formica kitchen counter slow stewing chicken cacciatori. It had a large domed aluminum cover which made cooking large hunks of meat possible and I used it most regularly for pot roasts.

Last Saturday I made a renegade run to Whole Foods (shopping usually a joint excursion) and although intending to get some short ribs, bought a really nicely marbled 3 pound chuck roast in anticipation of slow cooking on Sunday. Thank God, the weather finally turned and Sunday was indeed a grey rainy day, something we have been desperately in need of to break the drought (32 days). Late Sunday I invited Friend Bonnie to join us Sunday evening for dinner.

In the old unenlightened days, I always dumped a packet of Lipton's Onion Soup Mix on my pot roast prior to adding liquids. Shunning such shortcuts and packages of convenient anything these days for many and complex reasons, I still used boxed beef broth this time after searing. Plus carefully arranged a bed of lots of onions and laid 3 perfect carrots and 3 lovely Yukon Gold potatoes in peaceful circumference around the roast. A glug of red wine and a big glug of Wouscestershire sauce went in also. After squishing down the roast slightly since this cover is not as large as the previous one, the electric skillet seemed difficult to regulate down to a slow simmer, although maybe the old one cycled on and off equally but I was unable to see through the old aluminum cover. About 90 minutes later it was done. Perfectly. Gorgeously.

We ate in front of the fireplace, on the coffee table and sitting on the floor, watching West Wing all together. Although my husband did not rave about the pot roast as he is not a fan of "soft meat", Bonnie and I raved. And for me, this is exactly how Sunday night should be.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What's the point he asked?

While bragging to my son that I had made pizza at home from scratch last Sunday, he said incredulously "I really don't get that, Mom", ie when you can buy it so easily. My answer was/is "because I can".

I was using a recipe I ran across recently in - of all places - the Wall Street Journal, advocating the simple pleasure of Pizza Margherita (nothing but tomato sauce made from scratch from canned tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil and mozarella cheese). As I had also recently seen an old Cooking with Julia Child at Home show where she makes the same pizza with another modest but genuine Italian chef, I decided this was a concurrance of information to be acted upon. Also, I'm very not busy now that all the holiday cooking is over. And I like learning about basic foods, which pizza is, kinda. Primarily, I do just want to know if I can.

And also you get to make a big mess and mix with your fingers. At least that's what I did. Both chefs advocated mixing the flour and yeast and water with your fingertips in a big bowl and kneading sensually by hand - no food processor or dough hook. Ah, the pleasures of kindergarten fingerpainting and playing with clay, re-visited. Both chefs think waiting through 2 risings is important (contrary to other hurry up recipes I found later), although I think 2 hours the second time made my dough a tad too elastic. It was really hard to roll out into a circle without the edges constantly springing back, rubberband-like, but I couldn't remember the remedy and didn't want to spend any more time than was already committed - about 4 hours start to finish. I did (privately) attempt twirling the crust in the air. Much harder than it looks on TV. More holes, but finally a rough circle created.

Both chefs said a conventional home oven would work. But there was also a lesson here re having the other right equipment. Shortly before baking time and while waiting out the second rising, I remembered we had leftover stone tiles in the garage and dug one out and put it on the bottom rack of the oven as Cook's Illustrated advised (having searched my cookbook library for a tad more advice during the first rising). But alas, no "peel" to schooch the pizza onto the tile. Also my pizza pan was not of the type recommended by the WSJ guy who used perforated pizza pans, no tile. So borrowing from both recommended options (use tile OR use perforated pan) and because I couldn't get my holey and elastic pizza off my pizza pan even if I had a peel, I put the pan on top of the tile for the first half and then after it had dried somewhat, schooched it semi-successfully off the pan and onto the tile, where the crust broke and the cheese made a little puddle of burned stuff which is still there waiting for clean up. I think I need to spring for a wooden pizza peel. Only $20 and a very cool rustic type tool.

Served in front of the football game on the coffee table in the den, the first half of the pizza was a C- for texture but a B+ in flavor (I thought). The pieces left behind on the pizza pan continued to crisp up and when their turn came, were better than the first, I would say it was almost commercial quality, at least a solid B overall, or maybe an 8 out of an Olympic 10. Or was it the beer influencing my evaluation. Not bad for a first try anyway and I did it all myself. Because I could.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Doesn't everyone eat like this?

God, I'm good. At throwing together meals I mean. I wish they still had that TV show on the very early Food TV Network where one chef and one audience member who were contestants were given X number of ingredients and 20 minutes to do their best thing. I think I could win, maybe, I might.

Late Sunday I cooked a pork loin roast and although rushing it, it came out very nicely. Seared then tossed into high heat, but on a bed of apples and onions. So last night (Monday) I needed something quick before I left the house. Sauteed the lovely Oyster Mushrooms I could not resist at Whole Foods last Saturday (OK an indulgence - it was $5 for 1/2 a pound), added the leftover bits of onion and meat juice, plus green peas. Looking more like a soup so making a mid-recipe decision to go that direction, I added a couple of frozen cubes of turkey broth, soy sauce, hot pepper flakes and voila: Asian pork soup (or something). Quite nice, I thought, and such a great "diet" dish.

Unfortunately, by 9:00 was starving so indulged in a bowl of popcorn.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Me at Rio Grande Gorge near Taos last week.

One finger in the pie today

"All I know is that writing is the only thing I do that doesn't feel like I should be doing something else." - Gloria Steinem

Entering the world of blogging today. All I know is I want to write about food. Custom Cooking is the name I chose for my on-again, off-again semi-serious catering business. I may have permanently discouraged myself after baking 18 dozen biscotti for Lyssa this Christmas. Not to mention tthat the first double batch was sans sugar. May have accidentally invented Doggie Biscotti (entrepreneurial alert!).

My hero of food writing is John Thorne who write the Simple Cooking newsletter and has apparently made a living of it, in addition to writing cook book reviews - talking about getting paid to do something you love. Would that I could.