Friday, July 24, 2009

The song of a drooping buttercup

I’m dragging, feeling rather out of sorts and unsettled. Our usual routine has been interrupted and I can’t seem to find my footing.

I get kind of depressed when I stop to think about how unable I am (sometimes) to take things in stride and how slow I am to bounce back from little upsets. Actually, I already am depressed enough, even without thinking about all my shortcomings. No-no-no, “depressed” is the wrong word—it’s way too strong. I’m just ... draggy.

Really, my life is not all that bad right now; in fact, it’s pretty peachy. I have a free day with nothing going on (I love free days), but it’s dreary (in a nice sort of way) and I have some kids to watch (they’re playing nicely), but I can’t do what I really want to do which is Be Alone.

Oh, this is hard to explain. I’m sounding like a spoiled brat. One of my employers (if you can call the woman who ran the learning center at the private university where I logged my work-study hours an “employer”) used to tell us if we ever got too querulous, “Buck up, Buttercup.” It could be downright irritating, but she had a good point.

I’m probably just tired. It’s true that I haven’t slept well for the past two nights. The reason I haven’t slept well (and this is where the Upset Part comes in) is that Mr. Handsome purchased over thirty pounds of bananas for ten bucks and so the kids gorged on them and now The Baby Nickel is wickedly constipated and has been up for two nights moaning and groaning, tossing and turning, and ailing and flailing, etc. This morning he woke up at six and then fell back asleep on the sofa and slept till ten, which means there won’t be any rest time this afternoon.

It’s the little things like these that mess with my day and render me helpless.

Other happenings that are messing with me:

*It’s raining (like I said) and that makes me feel not only blue, but guilty, too, since we need the rain and who am I to kick a gift horse in the mouth, anyway?
*The rain makes it humid (cool, too).
*Both Yo-Yo and Miss Becca Boo are gone to other people’s houses (another good thing, but it makes the house feel different).
*The Fresh Air Boy (I’ll call him “Diego”) is still a novelty, and with novelties come (for the children) excitability, heightened emotions, and general unsettledness, and for me, simply more responsibility (which isn’t a bad thing—it just is).
*I have a meeting tonight about finances (at a coffee shop), and I hate line items and budget requests, mostly because I have no clue what they are (not totally, but you know what I mean) and feel completely out of my league. I’d rather talk about sex over money any day of the week.

So! All that to say, I’m slightly out of sorts, grumpy, and unmotivated. I ate peanut butter-banana cream pie before lunch (I do weird things like that when I’m feeling unsettled), and then for my official lunch I ate plain sloppy joe meat and potato salad. Now I’m drinking coffee. I’m thinking something’s gotta kick in and give me a boost, sooner rather than later, I hope. If the coffee doesn’t do the trick (and maybe even if it does), I’ll pop some chocolate. I would like to try a nap, but I don’t think that would be a particularly responsible thing to do, considering that the kids might decide to tie together the shreds of Sweetsie’s spit rags and repel out the upstairs windows or something.

I think my period is coming.

There was one soothing part of my day and that was my breakfast bowl of granola. One of the constants in my life—besides rambunctious children, crumbs on my floor (oops, let’s now add a shattered plate), and chocolate—is granola. In our family we turn to granola just about any time of day, for a filling breakfast, mid-morning snack, a last-minute lunch, a silly supper, or a bedtime refueling. After my breakfast of granola and bananas, I had a mid-morning snack of granola and dried sweet cherries. I’m serious when I say that we eat lots of granola.

I usually have two kinds of granola sitting on my counter, one of which is almost always the plain, simple kind, the one that the kids favor—if I don’t keep that kind on hand, I run the risk of ruining everyone’s lives. But I recently discovered a new kind of granola: Brown Sugar Granola.


Actually, the recipe, which hailed from the Amish Cook’s column in our local paper, was titled “Homemade Granola.” I thought the title was kind of funny seeing as it was the title for a recipe, implying, I thought, that it was intended for cooks to assemble themselves in their homes. At least I assume other cooks aren’t making their food in their barns or chicken coops or cars. But hey, what do I know? Maybe there is a whole group of Barn Cooks out there. What with all the oats we eat, we probably belong in a barn.

Anyway, despite the corny title, I clipped the recipe and made it, and then I promptly fell in love. The granola was sweetly oaty, and the texture was perfect, not tough-crunchy as some granolas are, but satisfyingly crunchy in a gentle, soothing way.

Brown Sugar Granola
Adapted from the Amish Cook’s weekly column.

20 cups rolled oats
2 cups pecans, chopped
2 cups coconut
2 2/3 cups brown sugar
4 teaspoons salt
2 2/3 cups neutral-tasting oil, such as canola
1 ½ cups water
1 tablespoon maple flavoring
2 teaspoons vanilla

Combine the dry ingredients in your biggest mixing bowl.

In a smaller bowl, stir together the liquids.

Add the liquids to the oats, stir to combine, and divide the granola between two or three of your largest pans (no need to grease them). Roast the granola at 250 degrees for 2-3 hours, stirring the granola and turning the pans every 30-45 minutes, until it is golden brown and crunchy (to test for crunchiness, remove a piece and set it on the counter to cool to room temperature before tasting).

Completely cool the granola before transferring to storage bags, jars, or plastic containers.

About One Year Ago: Dutch Puff (miracles of miracles, the recipe contains no oats, none at all!)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Starring the bald-headed veggie

Every year I plant a few cabbage plants, just because that’s what you do when you have a garden. I don’t do anything with my cabbage, no freezing or canning or sauerkraut-making, but I like to have it on hand to eat, though I usually don’t end up really eating all that much of it. No one else in my family is crazy about dishes that star the bald-headed veggie, and most days I’m not one to cook extra food just for myself, but for some odd reason I persist in the belief that cabbage must be planted every year, picky eaters or no.

This year my cabbages are looking rather pathetic even though Mr. Handsome sprayed them a couple times—they are riddled with worms, the outer leaves falling away, the bugs spilling out. They look more like something that belongs in the compost pile than something that I would want to bring into the house.

But the other day I went out and chopped off the biggest head. I cut away the outer leaves, and then I cut away some more outer leaves, and soon enough I had a fairly decent firm head of worm-less cabbage. I sliced it up, added some onion and a carrot, chicken broth, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and salt, and then I braised it for two hours, at the end of which my oven element caught on fire so I missed out on the final fifteen minutes of high temperature braising time. But that was okay, since the bottom of the cabbage had already turned all caramel-y sweet.


I know it doesn’t make much sense to braise a cabbage in an oven for a couple hours in July, but the cool weather we’ve been having doesn’t make much sense either. If it’s hot where you’re at, wait a few more months before making this dish, but if you’re having some cool dreary weather like we are, then I strongly urge you to go lop off a head of cabbage, hack it into wedges, cover it with foil, and give it a long, slow bake in the oven. It is so worth it.

As for me, my old oven has a brand-spanking-new heating element and four more mangy heads of cabbage are still residing in my garden. I think I know what I’m going to do.

Braised Cabbage
A Hardly-At-All Adapted recipe from Molly's blog.

This cabbage would be a great accompaniment for any pork or beef dish, but I like it on its own or with potatoes (in any form) on the side. The first night I made this we ate it with mashed potatoes and fresh green beans, and since then I’ve been eating the leftovers with whatever else I’m pulling out of the garden—once with buttered beets and another time with potato salad.

1 green cabbage, outer leaves discarded
1 onion
1 carrot
1/4 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup olive oil
coarse sea salt
black pepper
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Slice the cabbage into 8-10 wedges, leaving enough of the woody stem to help keep the pieces mostly intact. Lay the wedges on their sides, in a single layer, in a 9 x 13 baking pan.

Slice the onion in half from top to bottom and then into thin wedges; sprinkle the onion over the cabbage.

Peel the carrot and slice into 1/4-inch thick pieces; arrange the pieces over the cabbage.

Pour the broth and oil over the cabbage, sprinkle the whole mess with salt and both peppers, cover the dish with foil, and bake at 325 degrees for one hour. Remove the pan from the oven, carefully turn over each piece of cabbage, replace the foil, and bake for another hour, at which point, if your oven element hasn’t burned up, you can remove the foil from the pan, turn the oven up to 400 degrees, and bake it for another fifteen minutes, or until the cabbage begins to blacken in places.

Serve hot.

One Year Ago: Mowing the lawn.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cookie-dough arms and dimpled thighs

How much should a person accept the softening of the aging body, and how much should they fight it?

I’ve been mulling this over for quite some time now, like years. I keep trying to write about it (granted, most of the writing has only been done in my head), but I’m at a standstill, not sure what I think or what to think, let alone with any ability to write about it in a coherent manner (as I have beautifully demonstrated with that horrifically awkward sentence I just wrote).

So I’m turning the question over to you. Help me flesh (ha!) this baby out, will you?

About One Year Ago: The New Deal, in regards to marital disputes and potty-training.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sweating the frittata

Now that I typed that title I realize the phrase sounds less like a description of a tricky dish (sliding a partly raw frittata out of the skillet onto a plate sounds way easier than it really is) and more like the name of an exotic dance (Hey, babe, let’s you and me hit the dance floor and do the Frittata!).


Maybe making a frittata is kind of like a dance, a kitchen dance complete with knife cha-cha--chops, spatula jabs, wrist jerks, pan flips, and the grand finale, the fork scoop-n-slide as you gobble up the savory frittata, moaning contentedly with every single bite.


Yes, now I'm convinced that frittata-making is a dance, in this case a dance called El Baile Frittata de Zucchini. And as if the dish wasn’t already tempting enough, it becomes unbearably so when the title is spoken with a Spanish accent. Ooh-la-la!


Seeing as it’s so irresistible, it’s a good thing this frittata is healthy and economical. If only all tempting things were this guilt-free!


Come on, dance with me! Let’s cha-cha-cha la frittata-ta-ta!


Zucchini-Parmesan Frittata
Adapted from Molly’s recipe

The smaller the zucchini, the better. I used a red onion, but any kind will do.

Use a skillet with sloping sides. Last night when I made this for supper, I used my 12-inch cast-iron skillet and had a lot of trouble flipping it in one piece (which is the polite way of saying that it totally fell apart). This morning I halved the recipe and made it in my stainless steel 6-inch skillet, with much better results (which is the polite way of saying that it only fell apart a little). In either case it was delicious.

Serve this frittata as the main dish for any meal. With a piece of fruit and coffee, it is breakfast; in a pita, or sandwiched between two pieces of toast, it is lunch; and with a green salad and a crusty loaf of bread, it is supper.

1 ½ pounds zucchini
1 onion
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
salt
black pepper
6 eggs
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
olive oil

Slice the zucchini lengthwise into two pieces and then cut each piece into eighth-inch thick half-moons (if the zucchini is small, don’t bother with cutting it lengthwise). Slice the onion in the same manner.

Heat a 12-inch skillet on medium-high heat, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil and the sliced onion, and cook till wilted and slightly brown, about five minutes. Add the zucchini slices and saute for another 10 minutes, or until tender. Add the fresh basil and remove the pan from the heat. Transfer the vegetables to another container, or if they are watery (mine never were), to a colander to drain.

Crack the eggs into a different bowl, whisk them well, add the salt, pepper, and cheese and whisk a bit more. Add the vegetables and stir to combine.

Return the skillet to the burner and turn the heat to low. Pour a tablespoon of oil into the pan. Gently add the vegetable-egg mixture, using your fingers or a fork to evenly spread them out. Cook the frittata for 15-20 minutes.

When the frittata has set up, but is still moist on top, begin the process of loosening the frittata. Gently jab around the sides of the pan with a heat-proof rubber spatula, then, using a metal spatula, run it under the frittata from all sides until the frittata no longer sticks to the pan. Carefully slide the frittata from the skillet to a dinner plate. Position the skillet upside-down over the frittata and using your (hot-pad protected!) hands to hold both the skillet and the plate, flip the whole thing over so the frittata ends up in the pan, uncooked side down. Allow the frittata to cook for another 5 minutes or so before transferring it to a serving dish.

Eat the frittata hot, warm, or cold.

Yield: four servings

About One Year Ago: Salvation's Chocolate Chip Cookies. Last year Molly unwittingly betrayed me; today (as well as many other times) I sing her praises. Harry Chapin speaks the truth: All my life's a circle/sunrise and sundown....

Friday, July 17, 2009

What's it worth?

On Tuesday of this week, I went with my girls on a little outing. Actually, it was a pretty big outing for me, one that involved a hotel reservation and a dinner reservation. The occasion? Simply that Yo-Yo went to camp and I wanted to do something special with the girls, my girls.

I never had a sister, though I wanted one desperately, and ever since Sweetsie was born I’ve reveled in the fact that I have daughters and that each of my daughters has a sister. I have girls in the plural. Life is thrilling.

They are so different, my girls. Miss Becca Boo looks like my maternal grandmother, the same hooded eyelids, but her build is just like her father’s, lean and muscle-y. Sweetsie looks more like her papa, and she has what my mother calls “Marilyn lips” (Marilyn Monroe, of course)—though Mr. Handsome’s lips do not in any way resemble Marilyn’s, capeesh?—but she is built more like me, which is to say without any notable muscle definition whatsoever. Miss Becca Boo is, for the most part, easy to please and eager to please, industrious, and the family peacemaker, which is pretty much a description of Mr. Handsome’s sister Sarah. In fact, I think of Miss Becca Boo as Little Sarah. Sweetsie is, at least right now, downright cantankerous and crotchety, which pretty much reminds me of Mr. Handsome, though she occasionally turns into a little angel, agreeable and spunky, with the ability to charm the socks off the most thickly-heeled, black-buttoned, boot-wearin’ women in all of New England (don't even try to tell me that New England women don't still wear corsets and bustles 'cause I won't believe you), and then she reminds me of myself.

So a couple months ago when I signed Yo-Yo up for camp, I started making plans for our mother-daughter outing. And then Tuesday swung around and we went.

You must understand, this is most unusual for me because I don’t go places. More specifically, I don’t go to new places without Mr. Handsome, places that require me to read maps and find parking and pretend to know what I’m doing when I really haven’t a clue. When I go to new places with Mr. Handsome I take the role of detached observer and Mr. Handsome takes the role of frazzled, impatient, stressed father, crashing into curbs and blowing out his front tire when executing high-speed u-turns (a spiffy stunt he pulled while on DC’s back streets on July 4, 2009). While he fumes and fumbles and frets, I stay cool as a cucumber in my comfy passenger seat, generously pointing out his failings and my golden halo (“you do realize, don’t you, honey, that I have never blown out the car’s tires, ever. Hmm?) Going somewhere on my own would mean that I would be in charge and any finger-pointing could only be aimed at myself.

I was a little stressed and slightly addled, but I kept telling myself it was An Adventure and that helped me to feel a little better. I also vaguely recalled a certain college spring break when I led a work team to San Antonio. Fourteen other students and I crammed into the fifteen-passenger van, we attached a large trailer to the hitch, and then we drove fifty hours, round trip. Once we arrived, we divided into four groups and I chauffeured them around the city, dropping them off at their respective work sites. (The rest of my time, when I wasn’t unflinchingly maneuvering the one-way streets or doing the food planning, was spent missing Mr. Handsome, my then-boyfriend who was, at that same time, on a Catholic pilgrimage to Bosnia. I wasn’t crying because he was in Bosnia though, I was crying because I was back in the sultry city where he and I had met on that fated June day, and I could hardly stand being there without him. Every time I thought of him, I dissolved in a theatrical bundle of snot. I was pathetic.)

In comparison to that spring break trip, my little excursion to a medium-sized town with only two little girls was peanuts, but still... However, it all turned out fine. I only got lost several times, but then I got unlost by asking questions, studying the map, and talking out loud, loudly. We got everywhere we needed to go. We even had fun.

I intentionally did not bring any reading or writing material for myself on the trip. I wanted to be fully present to the girls—the purpose of the outing was to be with them. In case you haven’t figured it out yet from reading this blog, this plan was totally out of character for me as I am forever seeking ways to snatch some alone time, those infamous five minutes of peace. To plan to spend extended time with my children, without getting some of my work done, was not like me at all. But I decided it was the right thing to do—thirty hours without my own agenda wouldn’t kill me, I reasoned. (I only regretted my decision once, when I found myself lying on my hotel bed watching yet another inane “educational” cartoon: Can you help keep the prairie dogs safe? When you see the wolf, yell “hide.” Ready? Yell “HIDE!” Good for YOU! YOU helped the prairie dogs!... Now let’s count the prairie dogs in Spanish: uno, dos, tres,... OH NO! There are only EIGHT and we are supposed to have TEN . How many are missing? That’s RIGHT, we’re missing TWO...! At that point I was seriously lamenting my noble plan.)

The other thing I didn’t take along (intentionally) was my camera. But I did manage to take some pretty spiffy mental snapshots that I will now attempt to convert into words.

At the deserted hotel pool:
*Racing each other, back and forth and back again. After a couple laps I thought I would die; swimming is hard work.
*Both girls lying face down on the hot, white pavement to warm up, then flipping onto their backs for even toasting.
*Sweetsie discovering the cooler of water and the cone cups that are so fun to pull out, one by one by one.

A three-course meal at The Melting Pot, a high-end fondue restaurant:
*Sweetsie lets her displeasure be known, most emphatically, when the main course consists of little piles of raw meat, whole mushrooms, broccoli and wedges of potato.
*Sweetsie accidently knocks over her glass of water.
*The tired-looking middle-aged waitress (with as much personality as a toad) forgets to turn on the heat under the pot of bouillon and I signal to a passing waitress to help us out. “Who is your waitress?” she asks cheerfully, and then we get a chatty visit from the manager herself, and then another waitress gets a head start on our dessert, and then the original waitress brings out the dessert and tells us that the manager is giving us a two-for-one deal on the dessert because “she’s a generous woman.”
*The chocolate-marshmallow fondue is lit on fire and the girls are enthralled. Or maybe it’s me that’s enthralled. Anyway, the chocolate is to die for and I scrape clean the pots and every single pewter plate.
*We are handed fancy mints sealed in black wrapping, and as we cross the street on our way back to the van, Sweetsie’s falls out of her mouth and into some grating. I say, “Yeah, it’s important to keep your mouth closed when you’re eating.” Amazingly enough, there are no tears.

Back at the hotel:
*We go directly to the 24-hour coffee station and I fix the girls small cups of decaf coffee with a cream and a sugar each. Then I fix my large decaf coffee (two creams, no sugar) and we head upstairs where we change into pajamas and then drape ourselves across the beds and watch the food network.
*I turn the TV off and we all climb into bed together. Once the girls are asleep, I move to the other bed and watch “Chopped” (a cooking show, nothing gory) before falling asleep myself.
*The girls are up at 6:30, wanting to watch TV. We pad downstairs, still in our pjs and with bed-head hair, fix more coffee, toast a bagel and get a Danish, and go back to our room where we climb into bed and stay there for three hours of the afore-mentioned inane TV viewing.
*They store clothing and papers in the mini-refrigerator, bounce on the beds (just a little), fiddle with the air-conditioner, kiss the full-length mirror, press their noses to the big window, and splash in the tub. My tongue gets sore from biting it so much.

Breakfast in the hotel lobby:
*Miss Becca Boo eats three yogurts, Fruit Loops, a banana, an orange, a cup of apple juice.
*Sweetsie eats a yogurt, Fruit Loops, an apple (I finish it), a banana (I finish it), an orange (I finish it), a Danish, and apple juice.
*Miss Becca Boo tries to suck her yogurt out of the container like the woman in the TV commercial. She smiles sexily, coyly darting her eyes off to the side and licking her lips. She gets yogurt all over her face.

Self-revelation:
I have two young girls and no wedding band on my finger (my fingers swell in the summer, so I take it off for the hot months)—how do strangers perceive me? Not that it matters, of course, but I’m in a different world with a new role, half my family missing, throwing away money like it grows on trees. It’s fun to see myself through strangers’ eyes. Makes me want to write a novel.

At the ice park:
*After one time around the rink and a couple gentle spills, Miss Becca Boo takes off. She skates with her arms out, her right leg extended behind her. I’m impressed.
*Sweetsie slowly pushes around the upside-down five-gallon buckets they pass out to beginners, her fingers gradually turning purple. She stumbles, the buckets flip over and she lands on top of them, straddling them helplessly.
*We watch, slack-jawed, as the figure skaters (real ones!) do their spins and leaps. We listen in on the private lessons being taught in the center of the rink and then we clumsily practice the moves.

On the pedestrian mall:
*We stop by a table filled with rows of sunglasses. The Asian saleswoman gives us a hand mirror. “For the girls, these glasses they can have for one dollar off,” she says. Miss Becca Boo chooses green ones, Sweetsie some silver-sparkly, cat-eyed ones (regular price because they aren’t children’s glasses), and I get a pair of regular glasses. We traipse down the brick walkway. Heads turn; people smile.
*Pizza by the slice, gumballs from a machine, café Cubano, a quiet, wood-floored, second-hand bookstore, a carousel merry-go-round.
*The girls want to go home; they are tired, and they miss the male half of the family. Miss Becca Boo misses her guinea pig. We head home.


So, was it worth it? It’s hard for me to answer questions like that, pitting an experience against a dollar sign. Did we have to leave home and spend money in order to have that type of experience? Wouldn’t it have been better if, instead of spending money, money that Mr. Handsome has to leave home to earn, he just took a couple days off and we all hung out together, working in the garden, inviting some friends over, reading books, watching a movie?

On the other hand, there is value to be found in striking out and doing something different. Just the act of stepping out of one’s element into a different life not only gives the adventurer a little boost of self-esteem, it also encourages the person to see the world in a different way, to ponder and reevaluate life. And that’s worthwhile.

But I don’t know if it’s worthwhile enough.

Right now as I type this, Sweetsie is lying on the sofa complaining that her head hurts. She says, in a sad, gravely-voiced whimper, “It’s cause of that trip. It makes me sick to go on trips.” Really, hon? We got back two days ago! Do you mean to tell me that last night’s sleepover at your aunt and uncle’s doesn’t figure in to your tired headachy-ness?

But the child does have a point. I feel like I’m still recuperating, craving extra alone time after the concentrated together time, needing space to process, to think, to write, to sleep. Still not back in the swing of things, my house turned into a barn, living on leftovers, I’m trying to make heads and tails of the whole venture, my brief affair with Extravagance.

What do you think?

One Year Ago: The Baby Nickel living life to the fullest, and other matters.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Counting chicks

I’ve never before seen a chick hatch out of an egg. Have you?


First you notice that the egg has a little hole in the shell (sometimes you can see the beak pecking through), and over the course of the next several hours the hole grows slightly larger.


The egg rocks from side to side and you can hear the high-pitched cheeping coming from inside the shell.

As it gets closer to fully hatching (I can’t help but think of transition here) the hole extends into a line, a chasm, that gradually widens.


Bits of shell break off—I saw one piece separate with such force that it cleared the tops of a couple neighboring egg before falling to the floor of the incubator.




Finally, at long last (and with much urging on my part—“push, baby, push!”), the chick spills out, all wet and gooey and stunned.


It lies still, resting, then chirps wildly and flails about clumsily, trying to lurch away from the shell and towards the anticipated-but-not-there mama hen.

It rests again, still as death itself, and then suddenly flails about some more.


After about fifteen minutes of drying time in the toasty incubator,


we transfer the baby to the holding box on the dining room table where it joins its half siblings.

We’re hoping for a decent crop (flock?) of chickies, but since we certainly know better than to count our chickens before they hatch, we’re counting them as they hatch, nice and slow, and egg shell bit by egg shell bit.



One Year Ago: Cooked Oatmeal (I feel like sobbing when I see those luscious, frosty blueberries—next year we'll be sure to get some).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How it breaks down

We are in the middle of zucchini season. In case you didn’t know, zucchini season has three stages. The first stage is marked by obsessively checking on the zucchini plants, followed by squeals of delight when the first zucchini is ready to be picked, hoarding of said first zucchini and the next five or six glossy-skinned precious babes as they trickle in from the garden, and a flurry of favorite zucchini recipes.

You know you are in stage two of zucchini season when your refrigerator crispers—both of them—are loaded with the small to medium-sized green clubs (no longer thought of as “precious babes”), you’re spending extended periods of time chopping the vegetables to get them ready for the canner or freezer, and you’re perusing the web and flipping through cookbooks in search of variations on the zucchini theme.

Stage three is the stage that usually comes to mind when people think of zucchini: country church parking lots full of locked cars, zucchinis the size of small baseball bats that get heaved over the fence to the farm animals, and unabashed relief when the bore worms attack the plants and they suddenly collapse in a yellow-brown heap of stinky foliage. Then, finally, we all heave a great sigh of relief and thank our lucky stars that zucchini season is over for another year.

Right now we are in stage two. I have zucchinis in the crisper, a bag of zucchinis, a gift form my sister-in-law, on the counter (I accepted a gift of zucchini, a sign that we have definitely not reached stage three), and more just-picked zucchinis on another counter. Oh, and there’s one other zucchini on top of the bowl of fresh green beans—a hidden one that I found when watering the plants. (I was watering the zucchini plants—more proof that we’re not yet in stage three.)

What do I do with my zucchinis? I shared the first ones with my mother, and while it was hard, I knew I had to do it—I’ve got to be a good daughter and take care of my mother dearest, you know. I can only hope that I raise up my daughters as well as my mother did me. (How’s that for masked self-adulation?) I’ve made zucchini skillet and I’m preparing to make a big pot of zucchini-sausage-brown rice soup that I’ll (bless my poor nervous soul) pressure can. But, upon assembling my first decent collection of zucchinis, I promptly made a batch of zucchini relish.


Zucchini relish is like pickle relish but with zucchini (obviously) in place of the cucumbers. My friend Amber gave me the recipe a couple years ago and I loved the stuff, especially on hot dogs. In fact, I can hardly bear to eat a hot dog without it. We had just finished up the last of the relish (I only suffered through one or two hot dog meals without it) when the zucchinis made their welcomed entrance.

I searched through my files for my recipe but had to call up Amber when I couldn’t find it. However, her mother Ann answered the phone instead (Amber was out frolicking at some beach, Ann reported), and it was Ann who helpfully paged through Amber’s recipe collection while I waited.

“Hm, ketchup, salsa... I must be getting close,” Ann mumbled to herself, and then, “Okay, here it is!”

She ran through the list of ingredients, explaining the procedure as she went, elaborating on the tricky spots (“make sure to stir it the whole time because it does have a tendency to stick to the bottom and burn”). I asked her where the recipe came from and she told me that back when they had a roadside vegetable stand (I was just a baby then) a customer, a woman from Middleton, told Ann about her fabulous zucchini relish recipe and then upon Ann’s request, gave her the recipe.


“It is good stuff,” I said to Ann. “I like it even better than pickle relish.”

“Oh my, yes,” said Ann. “It’s really very good.”


Zucchini Relish
From Amber, by way of her mother Ann who, in turn, got it from the customer from Middleton.

If using the large, boat-sized zucchini for this recipe, remove the seeds first; otherwise, if the zucchinis are small, use the whole thing.

I shredded my zucchinis and onions in the food processor. I tried to shred my peppers in the same manner, but the processor merely mangled them. Therefore, I tell you to chop the peppers, and it’s really not that big a deal, chopping three measly peppers.

Ann highly recommends using the full five cups of onions.

10 cups shredded zucchini
2 sweet red peppers, small dice
1 sweet green pepper, small dice
4-5 cups shredded (or chopped) onions
5 tablespoons salt
2 1/4 cups cider vinegar
5 cups sugar
1 teaspoon celery salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon turmeric
2 tablespoons Therm Flo (or cornstarch)

Day One, in the evening:
Toss the first four ingredients together in a large bowl and sprinkle the salt over top. Stir to combine. Cover the bowl with a cloth and let it sit at room temperature over night.

Day Two, in the morning:
Drain the vegetables, rinse them well (I put them in a bowl and swished them around in some water), and drain again.

Put the vegetables and the remaining ingredients in a large, heavy-bottomed kettle. Stir them well and bring them to a full boil, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat and simmer for another ten to fifteen minutes, stirring steadily.

To hot pack the relish, put the hot relish into clean canning jars and seal with rings and lids. Allow the jars to cool at room temperature; once cool, check the tops to make sure they have properly sealed before removing the rings, wiping off the jars, labeling them, and transferring them to storage. (Or, if you want to can them in a hot water bath, put the relish-filled jars in the canner, cover them with water, and bring the water to a boil and process for five to ten minutes.)

Yield: About seven pints

One Year Ago: Red Beet Salad with Caramelized Onions and Feta (only read this if you're in the mood for some old-fashioned aerobic exercise).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tangential thoughts

Introduction: I’m in one of my writing dry spells, wanting to write but not know what to say. Oh, I have lots to talk about, but I don’t know how to talk about it. The bigger, more interesting topics (The Sex Talk, Saggy Arms, Marital Issues, etc) feel daunting, like rugged mountains waiting to be climbed by me, a flip-flop clad almost-middle-aged woman with four kids, and all the little stuff just feels like, well, little stuff. Reality can be depressing if you stop to think about it. Let’s move on.

Tangent A: Maybe this word lethargy comes as a result of just finishing my third book by Elizabeth Strout, her first (Amy and Isabelle). Strout writes as though her pen were a scalpel, using it to cut into each conversation, to separate out the head nod, the tissue thrown into the trash can, the fans whirring uselessly over in the corner of the office mill. With each slash of her pen-turned-knife, she peels back the layers, drawing you in to a life that is not yours. It’s exhausting, this being there without being there, and when I finally read the last sentence and closed the book, I felt as if I needed to rest for a couple days while I waited for the story to settle and I could reorient myself to my surroundings. Still, even a couple days after finishing the book, I’m gasping for breath, feeling rather short on both oxygen and reality. I continue to mull over the characters and the plot (Paul Bellows found that blue car way too easily, it seems to me), savoring her phrases in the same manner that I run my tongue over my back molars after eating a piece of caramel candy, searching for the lingering bits of sweet.

Main Point: But life goes on, regardless of what novels I’m reading (or recovering from). Yesterday Miss Becca Boo turned eight, disrupting the odd numbered age streak we had going for the past few months.

Tangent B: When people asked how old my kids were and I rattled off their ages—“three, five, seven, nine”—it gave the impression, I thought, that my children were orderly and predictable, thus making me a Good Mom. Now that they are three, five, eight, and nine, I feel discombobulated; they have fallen out of line and I will have to work extra hard to keep them in their place. I have lots of time to get used to this new feeling because it will be seven long months before they fall into position again, this time in an even-numbered line. (I like the odd-numbered line-ups better since they make me feel bold and daring; the even-numbered ones feel bland in comparison. Is that weird?)

Tangent B ½: Obviously it’s a Sunday afternoon and I have some extra time on my hands, time when I can analyze my children’s ages. It’s nice to ponder and type and ponder some more, especially now that I’ve gotten over my little writing hump. I knew that if I just carved out some computer time and set my fingers over the black keys, then the words would come (I hoped)—it’s The Getting There that’s the hardest.

Main Point, revisited: So Miss Becca Boo is eight. Because her birthday fell on a Saturday, we had her special meal at noon, the table dressed with a cloth, an old-fashioned creamer filled with flowers, and real wine glasses for the ice water (it’s a grand occasion indeed when we put ice cubes in our water). As we ate our lunch of baked macaroni and cheese and her Grandma Betsy’s buttered carrots (the first food she mentioned when I asked her what she wanted for her birthday meal), we retold the story of her birth. (The kids are becoming quite familiar with their birth stories so that when I launched into the part about calling Matt and Crystal to be with toddler Yo-Yo while we went to the hospital, Yo-Yo jumped in and told how I had to impatiently wait while Mr. Handsome made himself a big ol’ breakfast before we could actually leave for the hospital.) We’re all fairly comfortable talking about the details of birth (and sex, but that’s another topic), but when I got to the part about the final gigantic push and how I didn’t heed the midwife’s order to stop and as a result had some tearing, Mr. Handsome said, “Alright, that’s enough. I’m eating.” Of course that got Yo-Yo’s goat and he launched forth on the topic of Gory Births until Mr. Handsome gave him a gigantic hairy eyeball.

Tangent C: Speaking of getting goats, while I was washing the dishes this morning, Mr. Handsome came up beside me and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we just decided to stay home from church? We could hang out and relax...” (We’ve been through this many times before, and while I’m not opposed to skipping church every now and then, I can not handle last minute decisions to opt out—it messes with my fragile brain. As a result, about a year ago I declared a moratorium on deciding to skip church on Sunday morning; if we’re not going to go, then we have to decide that the night before—it’s the rule.) So, as you can see, Mr. Handsome was just trying to get my dander up. (He also has a bad habit of picking fights first thing in the morning because it helps to jumpstart his brain.) But this morning I remained unperturbed and simply stated, “I put my goat out to pasture so you can’t get it now.” He snorted at my joke and then asked, “Where did you hear that one?” And I said, “I made it up myself. I’m a very funny person, you know.” And then we went to church.

Main Point, revisited again: Back to Miss Becca Boo’s birthday: we gave her a guinea pig for her present.



She’s the animal lover among us, and once it occurred to me that a guinea pig would be a good birthday present, I fixated on it, certain that it would be the only acceptable gift.


Tangent D: I have a hard time buying presents for my children. Birthdays are a big deal in our house. Because we don’t buy Christmas gifts (we do the stocking thing though, and I’m just now beginning to figure out that stockings have the potential to be quite extravagant—changes will be made in the near future, mark my words), birthdays are the one opportunity to do it up good. However, I still can’t figure out how to buy good gifts for my kids; it remains a hit or miss proposition. For example, I thought for sure that the two-storied, multi-roomed dollhouse that I found at a thrift store would be just the thing for Sweetsie but she has almost never played with it. Yo-Yo’s poster for his wall is now in his trash can, and his hefty, battery-powered jeep sits silent, both his interest and the jeep's battery having gone kaput. The ballet and karate lessons were taken and enjoyed (mostly), but there were no requests to continue. Sweetsie's tricycle is damaged, but still gets played with occasionally. The butterfly barrettes were ignored, necklaces broken, ponytail holders lost, fuzzy socks never worn. As you can see, finding a gift that provides both a thrill and lasting enjoyment is a tricky endeavor.

Main Point...yup, still going strong: I’m afraid the guinea pig was a little disappointing at first. I mean, there were no bells and whistles and the poor dear was terrified and we didn’t know what we were doing and, well, it was pretty intense for awhile. Miss Becca Boo’s other gifts of guinea pig pellets, a water bottle, and a book on (you guessed it) guinea pigs weren’t that thrilling in and of themselves. But, as Mr. Handsome said last night, it’s the kind of gift that will grow on her—it takes time to make friends with a rodent.

The question of a name remains to be solved. I suggested Miss Piggy, or maybe Porky. Mr. Handsome suggested Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo. Yo-Yo though Sparky. The Baby Nickel suggested Jessie, and Sweetsie said Sally. Miss Becca Boo thought Sandy at first, but finally settled on Sparky, though I hear them saying "Sally” a lot and I still refer to it as Miss Piggy, or sometimes The Rodent (though I try not to say that in Miss Becca Boo’s presence as she’s quick to take offense).

We were all a little worried about Sparky at first. She didn’t eat or drink anything, though we plied her with the best we had—bananas, grapes, cherry tomatoes, broccoli—but it wasn’t till today that she started eating ... and pooping. I bet you never knew guinea pig poop could be so exciting. The kids squeal over each little black turd that appears on the ground, excitedly counting them (“...eight, nine, ten—there’s ten, Mama!”) as though they are prize jewels and not little pieces of rodent crap. She’s also becoming a little more comfortable with all the floor thumping and shrill shrieking and sudden movements that come about as a result of six, highly opinionated, boisterous people living in close proximity.


Miss Becca Boo requested a chocolate cake with rainbow icing. Considering that I’m quite weak in the cake decorating department, I did the best I could.


Photo by Yo-Yo

I made my basic chocolate cake which comes from one of my Tiny Little Brother’s roommates, a boy named Arthur that I never (I don’t think) met; I’ll have to tell you about it sometime. I put a thick layer of peanut butter frosting (ooo, I could live on that stuff) between the layers and then made an extra big batch of buttercream frosting. I frosted the sides with white icing and sealed the top with a thin layer of the white icing. Then I divided the remaining frosting between six bowl, and, with my entranced children watching (only Miss Becca Boo was allowed at the table, the other three were lined up on the kitchen stools a safe distance away), I squirted drops of coloring into each bowl while Becca Boo stirred, transforming the plain white icing into a multitude of colors: blue, purple, red, green, orange, and yellow.


Photo by Yo-Yo

I made up the design as I went along, a rainbow circle on top, tie-dye swirls on the sides, and a blur of colors at the very base, as the children oohed and aahed, told me I was the best cake decorator ever, and tried to swipe tastes of icing.

Conclusion: In a nutshell, that’s what’s been going on.

One Year Ago: Strawberry Cake.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A sauce to crow about

Have you ever heard of tempero?


I hadn’t, not until several months ago when I had that coffee date with my friend Michael Ann and she enthusiastically enlightened me. She said, “All you do is blend up onions and garlic and herbs and leeks with lots of salt and then you keep it in your fridge for months and you can add it to everything—soups, eggs, beans, meats, whatever.

I was dubious. “Doesn’t it make all your food taste the same?”

“No,” she said. “I’ll send you the recipe.”

And she did. I read it and filed it away until last Thursday when I unsuccessfully tried to pull my garlic. The stalks kept breaking off in my hand, leaving the fat garlic heads buried, or worse, only half the bulb came up, so I had to go fetch a shovel and dig the bulbs up (and then I still had trouble—those were some stuck heads). I wove the intact heads of garlic into two braids and set aside the mutilated heads till the following day when I would have more energy to figure out how to deal with them.

When I woke the next morning, I pondered my options (one of which was this, but I read somewhere that this is an excellent breeding grounds for salmonella—is that true?), and it was about then that I remembered Michael Ann’s tempero (pronounced “temPAREoh”). Didn’t it call for a lot of garlic and onions? I flipped through my red, three-ring recipe binder until I found her neatly typed recipe. I noted happily that I had everything but the leeks and scallions; I would increase the onions and call it even.

Out to the garden I again went, this time to pull some of the bigger onions and pick the basil and parsley, and then I commenced to peeling and chopping and processing, all the while basking in the sanctimonious bubbly feeling that washes over me whenever I combine multiple, fresh ingredients in a single recipe. It’s a pleasant sensation indeed when my everyday grind melds with both the practical and the gourmet. It makes me feel like crowing.

Of course I didn’t know for sure if the recipe itself would be any good. I was still a little doubtful, though I certainly had no right to be considering that my friend is an absolute whiz in the kitchen and has a genius for the savory (you ought to taste her killer soups). But still...

I should definitely not have doubted her. In less than a week I have used up over a cup of the pungent green sauce. So far I have used tempero in the following ways: simmered with unsalted, precooked pinto beans; sauteed with zucchini; briefly cooked in hot oil as a base for wilted Swiss chard; mixed into the sausage I was browning (it made the sausage extra salty, but I’ll be adding it to a soup later); and stirred, uncooked, into tuna salad.

In regards to the question I first asked Michael Ann—whether or not tempero will make all your food taste the same—it won’t, at least not any more than adding onions and garlic to all your savory dishes makes them taste alike. It’s like a liquid version of seasoned salt, and while I’m not one for seasoned salt, I do add fresh garlic and onions to most of my savory dishes, and in essence, that’s all this is—instead of having to peel and chop my garlic and onions every time I need them, I can simple dump in a blob of tempero. It’s a marvel!


I did a little research after I made the tempero and found some information that made me fall in love with the sauce even more than I already have, as if that’s possible. Rita says (the post also contains her recipe), “It works almost like your signature flavor that everyone can recognize on your cooking without really knowing where it comes from... that certain something that makes your dishes unique.” Is that not totally classy? Don’t all cooks secretly lust after a signature flavor? (Don’t even try to tell me I’m the only one—you can’t fool me.)

And if you want to read more about the history of the Brazilian sauce and how to use it, click here.

Tempero
From my friend Michael Ann.

Notes from Michael Ann: “Remember that the tempero is made up of raw ingredients and is not intended to be a sauce itself or to be used on its own. The mixture is an ingredient in other recipes and most of the time will be cooked with them. Keep it in the refrigerator to add to other sauces and recipes in small amounts, starting with half a tablespoon and tasting as you go.” All the tempero needs is a quick sizzle in some oil before adding the other ingredients, or it can be added directly to simmering soups and sauces. It also serves as a rub for meats. The options are countless, countless, I tell you.

And she adds, “Warning: It’s hell on the eyeballs with all those onions.” True, I screamed and hollered and jumped about, but it wasn’t all that bad, nothing a brave grown-up couldn’t deal with. The pain was short-lived, and the payoff is tremendous—the stuff lasts for months.

I’m giving you Michael Ann’s recipe as is, but I omitted the scallions and leeks and upped the onions to three pounds. You could also add green pepper, if you wish.

2 1/4 pounds (about 4 large onions) onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
10 ounces (about 9 medium-size heads) garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 cups kosher salt
1 ½ leeks, washed and coarsely chopped
½ bunch (about 1 ½ cups) parsley, stems discarded
2 cups basil leaves
½ bunch scallions, both the white and green parts, coarsely chopped

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Working in batches, add the vegetables to a food processor and process until smooth. Transfer the batches to a large bowl and combine until the entire mixture is smooth. Transfer to lidded glass jars (or plastic containers) and store in the refrigerator (or freezer) for 6-8 months.

Yield: A generous eight cups.

About one year ago: What to do with brown bags.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A sweet tale

I apologize to all of you who have grown weary with my incessant prattling about chard and red beet greens and chicken and potatoes (there was a red raspberry dessert thrown in there, too, but come on, it had a fruit) and have grown desperate for something purely frivolous, like, say, ice cream.


How about it? Are you up for some creamy peanut-buttery ice cream, thickly studded with chopped-up peanut butter cups? Yes?


Okay, but first I’m going to tell you a story.

Once there was a little girl who didn’t get store-bought ice cream very often. Her parents made fine homemade ice cream, but, like white bread and celery, ice cream was a rare treat. The girl grew up and went to college where there was lots of ice cream in the cafeteria, and she ate it frequently, especially the soft serve. But then she got married, and because for the first time she had a fair amount of extra cash, a car, and easy access to the grocery store, she discovered the endless varieties of Ben and Jerry’s and thought she had finally died and gone to heaven (part of that floaty feeling might have had something to do with having just married the most gorgeous man alive). But then she and her husband left their comfortable middle-class existence with easy access to chain groceries that sold Ben and Jerry’s and flew to sweaty-hot Nicaragua where there was no decent ice cream to be found, though there was some fabulous Guanabana yogurt. When they came back to the states three years later they had a little boy and no money, and then the handsome husband caught cancer, found a job, and got cured, and the girl, who was now a young woman, caught another baby in her tummy and developed a fearsome sweet tooth, and then Ben and Jerry’s ice cream went on sale and because they had some money again thanks to the husband’s new job, the young woman brought cartons and cartons of the ice cream home from the store and she ate them every single night and gained forty pounds. After which she pushed out a little girl, rested for a few weeks, and then plunked the little boy and the baby girl into a clunky stroller and pushed them around their hilly neighborhood in an effort to shrink her buns and belly (she stopped eating Ben and Jerry’s, too). Years passed and not only did they acquire two more children and a vasectomy, they also purchased a used hand crank ice cream churn from a yard sale, a country house (not from a yard sale), and some milk shares from a local farm. Today, the young woman, who isn’t so young anymore, though she isn’t quite middle-aged either, has taught herself how to make thick, rich, creamy ice creams that taste just like Ben and Jerry’s, if not better, and even though they have more money than they ever had before and the chain grocery store is just ten minutes away, they hardly ever, maybe even never, buy Ben and Jerry’s. The end.


Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream
Adapted from... oh dear, I don’t know where! Some place on the net, I guess. Sorry.


Do not use the miniature peanut butter cups; use the full-size cups, okay?

And I tell you to reserve part of the chopped candy because I’ve discovered that they don’t mix in evenly—often the ice cream at the bottom of the churn has only a few bits of candy while the ice cream at the top is loaded. Reserving some of the candy allows you to add it at the end when you’re serving the ice cream, or transferring it into freezer containers, creating an ice cream with even candy distribution.

1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 cup milk
3 ½ cups cream, divided
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1 tablespoon vanilla
12-16 peanut butter cups, roughly chopped and divided

Put the sugar and eggs in a mixing bowl and beat with a handheld mixer for about three minutes.

Heat the milk and one cup of the cream in a saucepan. Once hot, slowly add the milk and cream to the egg-sugar mixture, beating on low speed all the while. Then, dump the tempered eggs and milk back into the saucepan and stir over medium-high heat until the mixture has thickened slightly (do not boil). Remove the saucepan from the heat and pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer.

Whisk the peanut butter into the egg-milk mixture. Add the remaining cream and the vanilla. Chill the ice cream base in the refrigerator for 6 hours or overnight.

Churn the ice cream. When it is almost done, add three-quarters of the chopped peanut butter cups and finish churning. When transferring the ice cream to freezer containers (or eating it), stir the remaining bits of candy into the parts of the ice cream that are candy deprived.



One year ago: Apricot Pandowdy. And a year and a day ago: Grace's Vanilla Pudding and Baked Oatmeal. I was a blogging fiend, back in the day.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Sniffing for cake

I don’t know how those kitchen-tester, experimenter-type people do it. You know who I’m talking about, right? I’m talking about the cooks that are behind the scenes of cookbooks and culinary magazines, but specifically (for the next few paragraphs anyways) about those people who work for the magazine Cook’s Illustrated. Those Dudes and Dudettes slave away in the magazine’s test kitchen for hours at a time tweaking and tasting and tasting and tweaking till they find The Perfect Whatever It Is They Are Searching For. And then they tell you what they’ve learned.

No, that’s not quite right. They tell you every little detail of how they learned what they learned, so that you can be sure to appreciate the fact—the fact!—that they have fairly outdone themselves bringing you The Best There Is. They try to be generous and gracious, but you can’t help but hear their behind-the-scenes self-righteous sniffing.

You’re not familiar with the magazine? Okay, let’s take, for example, the question of prepeeled garlic. You didn’t know there was a question about prepeeled garlic? Well, there is, or rather, there was. See, somebody (the editor, perhaps?) wondered what the difference was, if any, between jarred, prechopped garlic and fresh garlic. The question (probably written in beautiful calligraphy on a parchment scroll and bound with a satin ribbon) was delivered (by a thirteen-year-old boy in purple tights) to the Dudes and Dudettes in the magazine’s kitchen. Of course the D and D’s didn’t do a simple taste test, oh no-no-no-no-no! They, the dear souls, got down and dirty in their quest to answer the all-important question set forth before them. As a stringed quartet played Vivaldi over in the corner by the industrial stoves, they spun and twirled around the kitchen making aioli sauce (two batches, of course), sauteed garlic with spaghetti (again, two batches), and stuffed rolled flank steaks (yep, two batches). The tasters (seated in a red-carpeted dinning room) gave mixed reviews, and the final verdict (written on another, slightly larger scroll) stated that prechopped garlic would not store as well as the fresh raw cloves, but that there was not much difference in taste (and with that, the music soared gloriously, and the kitchen staff bowed and curtseyed as we gratefully applauded). The end.

Um, hello? I’m pretty sure I already knew that fresh garlic lasts longer than the prechopped stuff (though I never thought to thunk it), and I can guarantee that it didn’t take multiple batches of flank steak and spaghetti for me to figure that out. (That I don’t even know how to cook flank steak is irrelevant.) However, I do understand that documented—and published!—scientific evidence is worth more than my practical, day-in-and-day-out kitchen wisdom. And so I bow my head in meek submission.

Okay, okay. I’ll stop now. The magazine does hold helpful information (I did check it out of the library, after all), and I enjoy flipping through its pages, gleaning tidbits. But there is something off-putting about the magazine, not because they have a goal to obtain the perfect Whatever It Is because all cooks strive for this, but because they claim that they have. Cooking is such a personal thing and everyone has different preferences, so for them to assume that they hold the Golden Answer strikes me as being a little presumptuous.

But maybe that’s just because I can’t stand to see anyone else carting around more than their fair share of the gold.

Anyway, my point to all this was that just thinking of all that excessive food prepping and testing makes me bone weary. (And besides, who eats all that food? I worry over things like that; I can’t help myself.) As for me, I’m feeling pretty whipped after playing around with a raspberry-lemon buttermilk cake, doing my darndest to grab hold of some of that flashy culinary gold. I made it three times. Three times is about all I can handle, so it’s a pretty good thing that I struck pay dirt on the third try. Or maybe I just gave up and decided it was easier to be content.


I unwittingly started my cake marathon when I made Deb’s Raspberry Buttermilk Cake. To start with, I only made a couple practical changes—I doubled it, and I used frozen raspberries instead of the fresh, plus, I sprinkled one cake with plain white sugar and the other pan with Demerara sugar. Some daring changes, huh? But then we tasted it and Mr. Handsome thought it needed more lemon, so back to the drawling board I went. (And right there is when I started hearing little Cook’s Illustrated voices in my head: “I’m going to make this cake perfect, I tell you, simply perfect.”)

The second time around I reduced the buttermilk by a quarter cup and added a quarter cup of fresh lemon juice instead. I also upped the lemon zest, three times over. The resulting cake was definitely more lemony, but all the berries sank to the bottom and the cake had a more sponge-like texture. (“Drat this cake! Don’t tell me I’m going to have to do something crazy like beat the egg whites. This is supposed to be a simple cake. A simply perfect cake.”)


Round three involved two parts buttermilk, one part yogurt and one part milk (because I ran out of buttermilk, not because I was intentionally trying to be complex), no lemon juice, three-plus times the amount of zest, and fresh berries because they are now in season and I had just picked a bowlful.

I pulled the cake from the oven. I looked at it. I sniffed it. I tasted it. And then I smiled.


And now (drum roll, please) I present you with, a la The Cook’s Illustrated Testing Method (sniff, sniff), the perfect, absolutely perfect, Raspberry-Lemon Buttermilk Cake.


Actually, I think this cake would also be good as muffins, maybe with a layer of streusel hidden in their middles, or with blueberries in place of the raspberries (blueberries and lemon, oh my). See, I’m not really Cook’s Illustrated material—there’s just too many good options out there. Besides, I haven’t the endurance or the ego.

Well, it might just be the endurance part I’m missing.

Seriously, though, this cake is good. It’s simple and elegant, but not too showy. It’s just the thing to have on hand, like at all times. (I tried serving the cake with seedless raspberry sauce and some whipped cream, but I think I like it just as well, and maybe better, all by itself. Sweet and simple, and perfect. Sniff.)


Raspberry-Lemon Buttermilk Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Deb’s recipe made one round, 9-inch cake, but I doubled it. The way I see it, if you’re going to go to all the trouble to measure, mix, and bake you might as well make a fair amount. Besides, the cake freezes well, so I doubt you’ll regret the extra (we whipped through the six cakes I made in less than a week). But if you’re feeling conservative, go ahead and halve the recipe. It will still be sniffably perfect.

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
1 1/3 cups sugar, plus 3 tablespoons for sprinkling
1 teaspoon vanilla
the zest from one lemon, or a minimum of 3 ample teaspoons
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk (or ½ cup buttermilk, 1/4 cup plain yogurt, and 1/4 cup milk)
2 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen

Grease two 9-inch cake pans and line them with wax paper circles. (To make my wax paper circles, I set the cake pan on the wax paper, trace around it with a pencil, and then cut out the circle and press it into the bottom of the greased pan.)

Cream together the sugar and butter. Add the vanilla, eggs, and zest and beat some more.

Measure the dry ingredients into a separate bowl.

Add the dry ingredients to the creamed butter alternately with the buttermilk.

Divide the batter between the two pans. Sprinkle the raspberries evenly over the cakes, and then sprinkle over the sugar.

Bake the cakes at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Allow them to cool for ten minutes before inverting the cakes onto a cooling rack and peeling off the wax paper. To freeze, wait till they have cooled to room temperature before wrapping well in plastic wrap and transferring to the freezer.

One year ago: Angel Bread.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Eggs and Potatoes

Mr. Handsome brought home a friend’s egg incubator and now we have thirty-some eggs cooking in the back hall.


The kids are excited, but to their little, only-in-the-present minds the twenty-one days they have to wait is a forever-long eternity.


They ought to try a 42 week-long pregnancy. Now that's waiting.

***

Why are the insides of my larger potatoes rotten? The outsides of the potatoes are gorgeous and firm, but the very centers are often yucky.

And in the same potato-y vein: Why is it that when I boil my potatoes, the outsides stay firm while the very centers tend to get a bit mushy-slimy? Does it have anything to do with the fact that I test the potatoes for doneness with a fork—do the fork marks allow for the boiling water to enter and sog up my potatoes’ insides?

***

Coming home from church on Sunday I realized that I had no quick food on hand for lunch. If it had been just us, we might have eaten granola and yogurt and called it a meal, but Yo-Yo had a friend along and I felt responsible for providing something a bit more well-rounded.

The day before I had cooked some starches to have on hand for the following week—a pot of brown rice and a large pile of new potatoes that I boiled, peeled, and then stuck in the fridge—so those were the foods I had to work with. Not very exciting, huh?

Once home, the kids ran off to play and I headed to my cookbook shelf to work on the food situation. I found just what I was looking for: a quick variation on scalloped potatoes that called for grated cooked potatoes with cheese, onions, and bread crumbs and then melted butter and milk poured over top. I set to work, adding some chopped ham to the potatoes, and for a side vegetable, putting a pot of peas on to boil. (Dessert was raspberry-lemon cake, whipped cream, and seedless raspberry sauce, all pre-made.)

The verdict? Mr. Handsome and I both loved the potatoes—pure comfort food and better than macaroni and cheese—and Yo-Yo’s friend had three helpings.



All in all, it was a pretty fine solution to a last-minute, no-thinking-ahead meal. In fact, it was almost exciting!

Cottage Potatoes
Adapted from Mennonite Country-Style Recipes by Esther H. Shank

Add sausage or bacon in place of the ham, or omit the meat altogether.

8 cups cooked, peeled, and grated potatoes
1/2 cup minced onion
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
½ cup bread crumbs
½ cup deli ham, chopped fairly small
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1 ½ cup milk
4 tablespoons butter

Heat the milk and butter in a saucepan till the milk is hot and the butter has melted. Stir in the salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the grated potatoes, onion, bread crumbs, ham, parsley, and cheese and stir to combine. Put the mixture into a greased 9 x 12 baking dish, pour the hot milk over top, and bake, uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

One year ago: Fruit Cobbler. (Excuse the dark, night-time pictures.)

To do with chard

So, how about another chard recipe?


The thing about chard is that it keeps growing and growing and growing. Barbara Kingsolver said (in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) that if she had to move to a retirement village and could only grow one vegetable (or maybe it was only one plant), she would choose Rainbow Swiss Chard. I think she might be on to something (actually, I think she's on to a lot of things, but I won't go into that right now): it’s pretty in a leafy, green way, it produces excessively and continuously, and it is downright infested with nutrients.

The other day (there’s that phrase again) I clicked on Epicurious and skimmed through the chard recipes, searching for new flavor combinations. It appeared that golden raisins and chard are a standard configuration, and nuts—pine nuts and almonds, especially—are often in attendance.

First, I attempted a pie with chard, pine nuts, golden raisins, and orange zest, and, right before serving, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. It was good (Mr. Handsome said he though I was on to something) but seemed lacking—I think it might be improved by some ricotta and caramelized onions. Maybe I’ll try it again later.


The second recipe I made was much better, I thought. It was a spin on the chard-golden raisin-nut trio, with some caramelized onions and Parmesan cheese thrown in for excitement. I served it over spaghetti, and the following day the leftovers were eaten atop soba noodles, but it would be equally great over brown rice.

Spaghetti with Swiss Chard, Raisins, and Almonds
Adapted from a recipe on Epicurious that originally came from the February 2008 issue of Gourmet.

The original recipe called for a quarter teaspoon of Spanish smoked paprika. I didn’t have any, so I left it out (and sprinkled in a little regular paprika which did pretty much nothing). If you have the smoked paprika and give it a try, let me know how it turns out. If it’s good, I might have to go out and buy some.

I never weigh my chard; I simply fix a large bowl of the chopped leaves and call it good. If I were forced to measure, I would guess I used about a heaping gallon of leaves, loosely packed.

1 onion, peeled and sliced into thin rings
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds Swiss chard, center ribs discarded and leaves roughly chopped
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup water
1/4 cup chopped raw almonds
1 teaspoon butter
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper, to taste
1 pound spaghetti

Melt the butter in a small skillet and add the almonds. Stir them around until they are golden brown—it should only take a couple minutes. Set them aside.

In a large soup pot, saute the onions in the olive oil for about ten minutes, or until they are starting to brown. Add the chard and toss gently until it has wilted. Add the raisins and the water, put the lid on the kettle, and cook for 7 to 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Season with the salt and pepper.

While the chard is simmering, cook the spaghetti according to package instructions.

To serve, pile a scoop of chard on top of some spaghetti and sprinkle it with cheese and nuts.

Variation: In place of the spaghetti, use cooked brown rice.

About one year ago: Homemade Yogurt.