Fruits + Vodka + Lard

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

p1030755There is some magic in making a good pie crust.  Even Nigella admits to being trepidatious about anything pastry.  Indeed, I’m always at least a little anxious when making pie crust because there are so many details that could result in flabby, or glutinous, or hard, or flaky crust:  the ratio of shortening to butter must be correct, the fats must be cold, the water must be icy, the dough mustn’t be massaged too thoroughly, the dough must be rested and chilled- but not too much, or it will crack when rolled out…   No wonder nobody makes pies anymore when just the crust has so many potential pitfalls and one can buy a pie so much more easily.

But there’s something to be said for homemade pie.  One earns extra points when serving pie for dessert if it’s homemade, and even more points if even the filling is from scratch.   If keeping score, Marc recently earned extra bonus points for a pie that not only had amazing crust and a scrumptious, sweet-tart filling, but which could be extracted from the pie plate cleanly and without any spill-over.   Of course, there is no human alive that would turn down a slice if, during serving, it comes apart and spills over becoming somewhat unrecognizable as actual pie, but it portends a certain suave genius to serve a piece of  pie that looks like it could be on display.   His creation was of the strawberry-rhubarb variety, my second all-time favourite;  apart from it’s perfect execution, I’m sure part of its deliciousness was owing to the absolutely perfect – truly perfect –  strawberries contained within.  Wow, those strawberries were blue-ribbon quality.   What a difference buying local and vine ripened makes; they were deep red and just the purest essence of strawberry.  The grocery store was selling them right next to a shiny basket of new rhubarb, thus making the mental leap from strawberry to rhubarb to pie that much more obvious.  We happily walked right into that one.


Before this, there was pecan pie, made only because of the surplus of pecans in the freezer.   Those nuts only last so long and Trader Joe’s only sells them in enormous bags, so having bought the enormous bag, we were committed.  Only 475 calories per slice.

The pecan pie was a revelation as it was the first pie crust we made with vodka.  Yes, it turns out, that in addition to cocktails and sauce for penne, vodka can be used in pie dough.   The recipe came from an episode of America’s Test Kitchen and explained the science behind the addition of vodka:

While gluten (the protein that makes crust tough) forms readily in water, it doesn’t form in ethanol, and vodka is 60 percent water and 40 percent ethanol. So adding 8 tablespoons of vodka produces a moist, easy-to-roll dough that stays tender (because it contains only 6 1/2 tablespoons of water). The alcohol vaporizes in the oven.

And now, forever more, I will add vodka to pie crust: partly as a practical step towards good pie, and partly as a superstitious sacrifice to the forces that grant a flaky crust.


Thursday, May 14th, 2009

title1I’m currently reading Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone.   (A particularly poignant read while eating my lunch alone today: a bowl of cereal.)  The writers who contributed to the collection confessed no small amount of loneliness and associated dark humour.  So many eggs consumed by people eating alone, so much pasta;  so many meals eaten over the sink or in bed; so many tables for one by the window, armed with a book.

Reading the stories, I am reminded of food to which I gravitate when unencumbered by anyone else’s tastes, or moods or presence.   Eggs figure prominently; homemade bean and cheese burritos, which, as ingredients get low, devolves into tortillas with melted cheese, and then just cheese; half an acorn squash roasted with butter and a little brown sugar- I could eat that every night for weeks.  It would seem that eating the same thing over and over again for long periods of time isn’t that uncommon: one woman ate asparagus every day for 2 months, one man ate spaghetti for 1973.  I doubt I could stomach any one thing for more than a few weeks, even if it is Nigella’s spaghetti carbonara with bacon and extra bacon.

Before I die, I intend to have one meal like the one I envy Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck.   Wearing a suit and conservative heels, I will go to an Italian restaurant by myself.  When the maître d’ asks, “Good evening, who’s coming?”   I will respond with “Just me. I wanna eat.”  And I will sit at the tableclothed table for one in the middle of the room and order “a martini, no ice, two olives.”

Tastes Green

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

pea_soup_1Made with frozen peas, this soup would be right up Nigella Lawson’s alley.  We added some tarragon to this light, fresh version, and some crisp pea shoots which sat suspended on the surface above the white dollop of creme fraîche.   Perfect with shards of warm, crunchy garlic bread.


The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

If I had lived on a farm in the days or yore, I would’ve lived in savoury anticipation of harvest season. In the pale sun of late morning, after breakfast, I would put on my warm wool sweater which I had knit last spring (in this history, I can knit, too) and my muddy boots to tramp out to my garden to collect ripe squash, onions, and firm, winy apples for a big farm lunch. The air is crisp and clean and smells like earth as I dig up some potatoes and start thinking about all the canning that needs to be done and the root cellar which I’ll soon fill. This morning’s bread is ready to go in the oven. Must think about starting the Christmas cake soon.

I feel I can make this definitive alternate-history prediction because of the way I look forward to fall and its vegetable bounty nowadays. There are certain recipes that I don’t make on purpose the rest of the year because if it’s not fall enough outside, they just don’t taste as good. It’s kind of like Christmas cookies, I guess- one could make them in July, but it wouldn’t be the same, wouldn’t be as special. My fall-only menu includes pretty much anything with butternut squash, rutabaga, turnips, shepherd’s pie, any kind of really dense and sticky dessert, and heavy, hearty casseroles. The weather all but demands it and as a result, I think I eat more during fall than any other time of the year, save Christmas. How can I resist? Not only does the kitchen now feel cozier for the oven, rather than stiflingly hot, the root vegetables are at their peak, the corn is here, the apples are dropping, and the mushrooms are at their musty best.

cimg7136.jpg O, Mushooms! Nothing is more quintessentially fall than mushrooms. Wrinkly, dark, musty and aromatic, I will always favour a recipe in which they are involved. Divine in an omelette, earthy in a stew, dense in a salad; even a portebello can effectively masquerade as the patty in a burger. And my mushroom stems never go to waste as Sammy happily snarfs them up when offered.

On one of our most recent sojourns to the Saturday market, we came upon the an irresistible bargain on chanterelle mushrooms at Far West Fungi. These guys know their way around the mushroom, but I usually feel a little intimidated by the staff, like if I were to ask a question about a type of mushroom, the answer would be preceded with a mild snort of derision as if to say “what- you mean you don’t know?” This time, however, I didn’t hestitate approach the counter and hand over the $5 for an orangey, little basket of these usually prohibitively expensive variety. Immediately, I began thinking that I would use them in an omelette following a Thomas Keller recipe I saw online somewhere. Unfortunately, search though I might, I couldn’t find it again and I don’t yet own The French Laundry Cookbook. cimg7152.jpgHowever, I fortuitously connected with another intriguing recipe in Nigella’s book: Mushroom Ragout. Now this, was going to be outstanding because truly, ragout is all that is fall. This recipe – my mouth waters just thinking about it – is all about wild mushrooms and this is how I chose to honour the chanterelles. Sautéed in butter and herbs, deglazed with white wine, thickened with a little flour, some onions and parsley and then sloppily served over soft, polenta with parmesan. The mushroom were just this side of firm and could not have been better presented or more flavourfully offered than in such a ragout. I should’ve garnished the bowls with newly fallen leaves.

Smells Like Hungry

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

cimg7067.jpgYears ago I read somewhere that of the smells that humans find most pleasing, roast chicken is number one. It beat the smell of bread baking, lavender, vanilla, freshly cut grass, strawberries, everything. I can’t deny that the smell of roasting chicken is divine, but I don’t know if I would necessarily agree that it is The Best; it has to do with context. When hungry, sure, the best smell in the world is probably roasting chicken, but when sleepy, the best smell might be the smell of lavender or of freshly washed sheets. On the same token, I don’t want to be smellin’ chicken when I’m in bed and I don’t want to smell laundry soap in the kitchen, but in the right context, each is equally as pleasurable. Vanilla, in its iced and creamy form, is lovely but doesn’t precisely evoke the pleasure of a summer day, where freshly cut grass would gain more points. Grass + ice cream = repulsive. But if you talk to someone who is allergic to grass, vanilla will rate higher in their book every time. Or what about someone from a non-western culture: cardamom might beat out vanilla; garlic might beat out bread. Smell, it must be acknowledged, is perhaps the most subjective sense of all and as such, how can anyone hope to rate one scent higher than another? Maybe instead of rating smells, it would be better to apply a verb or adjective. What does hungry smell like? What is the scent of learning? How does luxurious smell? (BTW, if you want to know what “cute” smells like, smell a puppy.)

So we roasted a chicken. We have yet to find a butcher here so were obliged to obtain our subject from the Andronico’s market down the street. They actually have pretty good meat- good selection, good quality, less than good price… But the best organically raised, free-range chickens cost good money because they gave up their sweet existence so that we may swoon with content at the smell of their roasting flesh. And swoon we did, especially one of us (the one with four legs) who guarded the oven closely while the bird was in the oven. I was inspired to make this because of Nigella’s description of her roast chicken in How To Eat. The way she writes makes my mouth water; I can practically see her licking the butter off her fingers as she adds it to the gravy. And then she describes the variations on leftovers than can be created from the remains of a roasted bird with words like “unctuous” and “melting” and “relish” that it’s hard to resist racing into the kitchen to cook whatever’s on the page. This was the case with the chicken and it did roast its way to brilliance, with, thanks to her advice, extra crispy skin and extra gravy.

For the first time ever, in the history of my existence, I did not make mashed potatoes to go with roasted meat. Travesty. If there’s any possibility of gravy, mashed potatoes must be on hand to pick up the slack, to sop up the jus as it runs off the meat and threatens to flood the vegetables. However, this time, not only did we not do potatoes, we did not do a traditional veg. Imagine! Instead, we had roasted garlic and shallots and Marc made some bright, chickpea salad. I’m almost convinced that a legume is the perfect halfway point between green and starchy; it went very well with the roasted meat but didn’t encourage gluttony, as a legume cannot hold onto gravy nearly as well as a mass of potato mixed with butter. I am almost convinced. I could never abandon starch.

And so, à propos of nothing, here is my Impromtu Top 10 Subjective List of Best Smells, When Smelled in Context:

10. puppy
9. fresh laundry
8. lilacs
7. peaches
6. sun-warmed forest
5. frying bacon, with coffee in the background
4. frying onions, with garlic in the background
3. roasting meat
2. rain
1. fresh baked bread