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Love and baked goods

Ben has moved on from breakfast pancakes or oatmeal on weekend mornings, and has discovered the connection between organized personalities and the joys of baking. In addition to churning out no-knead bread for his lunch sandwiches, he has recently started baking biscuits.

Our downstairs neighbor, Jean, is a lovely lady who hails from North Carolina. At her annual pre-Christmas tree-trimming party, she serves about as much food as a table can hold, but the highlight is the delicious ham accompanied by basket after basket of tender buttermilk biscuits. This year we asked for the recipe, and not only did she e-mail it to me, she brought us back a bag of biscuit flour from her holiday trip down South! Now that is neighborly.

Ben and I made the biscuits together the first time, but since then he’s been making them before I wake up on the weekend, including Valentine’s morning. I strongly equate love with baked goods (don’t we all?), so it was a wonderful start to the day!

BEST BISCUITS
(From Jean)

Cut together 2 cups self rising flour with 1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter (I use unsalted) until well blended. Add a pinch of salt if you want. I do this step in the food processor, then dump it into a bowl to add the buttermilk.

Add 3/4 cup buttermilk and gently mix until moistened. Do not overmix

Turn out on a floured surface and knead very gently a few times (pat it, really) until the dough forms a coherent ball. Do not knead vigorously like you would knead bread.

Pat out to about 3/4 inch think, cut with a round cutter, and bake at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

The biscuits will be better if you use Southern Biscuit or White Lily flour –something about soft wheat, I think. But they will be good anyhow.

This was the first batch, a bit raggedy because we were so careful not to overwork the dough. It does need (ha!) a few kneads to pull together.

One of Ben’s finished batches, complete with lovely presentation!

Topped with my mom’s raspberry jam, they are unspeakably good. Sadly, we used up the last of the jam in the biscuit mania.

Not bad, right?

Now, as if waking up to fresh biscuits weren’t the way to a girl’s heart, Ben made me dinner for Valentine’s day. But not just any dinner. I ordered him to take photos, but I had no idea what he was making, and he recreated the meal I always always order at my favorite restaurant in NYC, Inoteca. At least, what I always ordered: On my last visit it came to light that they have changed the fantastic romaine-raddichio-ricotta salata salad that I’ve loved for years. Good thing we started making it at home a while ago.

Ben’s perfect salad (he added a couple drops of truffle oil for good measure):

TRUFFLED EGG TOAST!!

I have meant to make that at home for years but never did. There was a slight mis-reading of the recipe (you’re not supposed to use whole eggs, just egg yolks), but on the whole it was a swoonily romantic and delicious gesture. Best Valentine’s ever! (He even got cupcakes for dessert.)

Here’s what he made Sunday morning:
french toast

He’s making meatballs again as I type. I think Ben has spent much more time in the kitchen than I have lately, and I’m not complaining.


Stay tuned for brussels sprouts (and creative use of leftovers) and an epic mess.

Simple dinner trick

Ugh, I have barely been cooking lately. Ben’s been working or at meetings a lot of evenings, and we’ve only been averaging a real dinner about once a week. Not good. I miss the casual “come on over for dinner” atmosphere of Hanover, which motivated me to try new recipes!

Anyway, one night last week we grilled some frozen tuna that I wanted to get out of the freezer, and since I hadn’t really grocery shopped in ages (aside from picking up coffee and milk) I pulled together sides from what I had on hand. I made my old carrot salad again, but this time with an asian-inspired dressing of rice vinegar, sesame oil, plain oil and a bit of chili sauce. I thought it was a great change of pace, but Ben wasn’t an enormous fan the first night. When he ate leftovers a couple days later he loved it and asked if I’d made a new batch, so who knows.

Ben requested israeli cous cous as a side, but I was bored just thinking about serving it plain. (Can you tell I have cabin fever and a terrible case of ennui?) I dug around in the freezer and found a bag of frozen shelled edamame, which I threw in with the cous cous to cook. After those were cooked and drained I dressed the whole pot with more sesame oil, salt and pepper, and was delighted by the combination. Crazy easy–no more trouble than the plain cous cous, but a bit of added color and protein.

cous cous edamame carrots

I am unnaturally obsessed with vegetables, but even I know that most people don’t get too wound up about the root vegetables that locavores in northern climes are working their way through this time of year. I also think we should all give up on the word Rutabaga altogether, and follow the Euro lead in calling it Swede. No wonder no one cooks the poor thing; what an awful name. But my Bubble and Squeak didn’t use a fraction of the vegetables I’ve got in cold storage, so prepare yourselves for a few more entries on how to use The Other Root Vegetables.
(Alternative slogans:
We’re not sexy but we sure store well!
Lumpy but delicious!
Off your feed? Try some Swede!
)

(Oh my god, someone help me.)

ANYWAY. Look, turnips!

I tossed them with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted for….a while. A long while. I kept tasting every so often once they looked cooked, and by the time Ben had grilled [more] steaks they were wrinkled-looking but tasted awesome.

Now for the really photogenic stuff. Go get some swede. Seriously, go. It’s a huge wax-covered lump in most grocery stores, though mine were much smaller than normal since they came from the CSA. I used two small and one medium; a normal-sized large one would do all by itself.

Peel and cut it up into smallish pieces so it will cook quickly and evenly. Be careful while cutting it and keep in mind that before pumpkins were common in the British Isles, the original jack o’ lanterns were made from swede. These things are tough. Cover the pieces with water, add some salt, bring to a boil and cook until soft.

Drain, add butter and get out your trusty masher (I found an Oxo one
that resembles Jamie Oliver’s, and I like the design a lot.)

Mash. Add salt and pepper to taste. Do a little dance to celebrate how tasty this nutritious vegetable is (wiki tells me it’s a cross between a turnip and a cabbage! I love cabbage!). Serve with something good: in this case, crispy pork cutlets and corn from the farm that I froze in August.

Oh, and by the way. While this is what winter looks like in these parts (snowier, actually; it’s snowing as I type)…


(The beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA in mid-January)

…I have to celebrate our wonderful annual visit to our friends Josh and Keren and The Amazing Adley in Florida. This is their reality:

Here I am, baffled by this “sunshine” and “warm weather” of which I’ve heard so much:

It was hard to come back to this:

But I have pretty tulips this week and I know spring will come eventually.

You know, if I were to write a parody of Real Simple and other magazines aimed at over-scheduled upper-middle-class suburban moms (and those of us who will no doubt be OSUMCSMs (catchy) in a few more years, heh) I would probably focus the food section on how rotisserie chickens are The Answer! To Everything!

And I’ve never bought one.

But last month I was down in CT visiting Greta and Jack, along w/ our friend Ann, while all the husbands went skiing for the weekend, and Greta turned out a series of awesome meals while also chasing after a toddler, and one night she pulled out a rotisserie chicken and we pretty much just ate it while standing around the kitchen counter and pulling pieces off with our hands, and I thought “Genius! Ready-to-eat meat, plus leftovers!” as if I hadn’t read that exact tip 9000 times.

So I had Ben pick up a rotisserie chicken, and when he got it home I looked at the weight and thought “good lord, a pound and a half? It’s minsky!” but then I got three meals out of it and still had leftover shredded meat, which I never did use because I’m a mess.

Anyway. Night one: Chicken w/ fried polenta cakes and cavalo nero slow-cooked with garlic. Oily and delicious, just the way I like it.

Night two: Shredded chicken quesadillas. (I shredded the chicken and heated it up in a bit of broth with taco spice from Christina’s spice shop in it, but I don’t think I used enough spice mix.)

BTW, I use greek yogurt instead of sour cream. My mom always used plain yogurt and you don’t really notice the difference, especially w/ greek yogurt, since it’s so thick.

Night three: Nachos! It was Friday.

Once again Trader Joe’s impressed me: I used their “longboard” corn chips, which were delicious, and the mild salsa that isn’t chunky, from the refrigerated section. That was *awesome*.

—-
I’m in a funk, guys. I miss NYC and I’m kind of lonely in Cambridge. I don’t leave the house enough, especially when the weather is bad. I feel like there are art projects or something exploding inside me, but I can’t seem to actually do anything. I am excited to work on updating my downstairs neighbor’s apartment: He has loads of great antiques and things, but needs a hand picking paint colors, rearranging the rooms, and paring down. I already found him a leather chesterfield sofa on craig’s list for a song, which was satisfying. And yesterday I amused myself drawing a floorplan and playing with furniture placement. But what am I to do with all the inspiration pictures I just put in Domino Deco File books last week? Sigh.

Woe is me

Domino Magazine is folding? *Weeps*

It seems awfully short-sighted to me, but I shouldn’t be surprised. The rumors have been swirling for months. I do hope Condé Nast keeps the website up, since it’s become a great repository of cool images and home tours, and I love the My Deco Book function.

A real entry will follow soon. About food. And decorating, maybe–I’m helping a neighbor redo his place!

Bubble and Squeak

I’m obsessed with Jamie Oliver‘s show Jamie at Home, and have saved nearly every episode on my DVR (messy!). This might sound ridiculous, but this is the only modern cooking show I’ve seen that captures a bit of Julia Child’s spirit: Jamie is having so much *fun* and is so relaxed and human on camera (not to mention so free with “tablespoons” of salt or butter that look more like quarter pounds!). Anyway, I usually just watch it for technique ideas of how to use my CSA vegetables, since the whole show is based around seasonal cooking using what’s in Jamie’s garden. I haven’t looked up many of the recipes, though I did give my mom the show cookbook for her birthday.

But considering that my fridge is fairly packed with rutabaga (or “Swede,” in the UK), turnips, carrots and cabbage, I couldn’t resist giving the Bubble and Squeak recipe from the “Winter Veg” episode a try. And it ACTUALLY SQUEAKS. I stood in the kitchen giggling, no joke.

[I didn’t make the onion gravy, and we just grilled some sausages. I want to try again and make the gravy; this was delicious but could have used an extra boost of moisture and flavor.]

Basically you peel and trim and cut up a one-to-one mix of potatoes and assorted winter vegetables; a bit more than a pound each. I used white potatoes, white and red turnips, rutabaga and a bit of cabbage:

Cover with water and boil until fully cooked. My vegetables cooked at really different rates, and I’ll play around with cutting the denser ones into smaller pieces next time. Jamie says 15-20 minutes to cook, but I think I needed about half an hour since some things wouldn’t soften!

Drain the vegetables and heat olive oil and butter in a large nonstick pan; add the vegetables and mash them together (add salt and pepper now) to make a giant pancake/hashbrown sort of thing:

Then all you do is cook it on medium heat for about 30 minutes. Every few minutes, when the bottom gets golden, you flip the pancake piece by piece and mush it together again. Eventually you get the delicious crispy bits all through the pan, not just on the top and bottom. And meanwhile, listen for the squeaking! I think it’s air escaping from within the smushed-together pancake.

This was a great side dish with sausage, but would also be good with pork chops (and apples, for some juice), or with a stew.

Embarrassment of riches

So here’s a problem I’ve never had before and doubt I’ll ever have again: We are the owners of too much steak. We received generous and delectable assortments of steak from two sources in the last six months, and our small freezer drawer was beginning to get a bit unruly. We gobbled down two of the NY strips at Thanksgiving with my parents, and by mid-December I thawed a couple filets for a randomly fancy weeknight meal.

I’m not a fan of filet mignon, to be honest. It’s a bit mushy and bland for me; I like strip steak or, better yet, hangar or flank. But who am I to look a gift cow in the mouth? I almost never buy any beef except the stewing kind, so grilled steaks are always a treat. I dug through the CSA bounty and emerged with some parsnips:

And a head of bok choy that needed to be used ASAP:

I pureed the parsnips. It’s the second time I’ve pureed parsnips, but the first time they were in a 50-50 mix with potatoes. I didn’t love that, and I definitely hated this; they are just too sweet for me. Next stop (I still have *more* in the fridge): roasting.

I sauteed the bok choy, stems first, and dressed with with a bit of sesame oil and soy sauce. Not bad for a Tuesday, right?

But I was bothered by that sickly-sweet parsnip puree. The next week, for Christmas Eve dinner with Bridge and Ben, I thawed two more NY steaks, and tried again. This time I made celeriac puree and a wilted spinach and bacon salad. Success! Without the nauseating sweetness of the parsnips (ahem. I hated them.) it was the perfect simple meal, requiring very little time in the kitchen and thus allowing more time spent with Bridge’s superior eggnog concoction.

For the celeriac I followed a recipe from Alton Brown, roughly. I had two heads of celeriac–celery root, for the uninitiated. They’re funny, knobbly, muddy things, and the hardest part was scrubbing them clean and peeling them with a paring knife.

After softening the sliced celeriac with garlic and oil, cover it with chicken stock and simmer until it is soft; about 20+ minutes. This part smells ridiculously good and will bring everyone into the kitchen to investigate.

Once the celeriac is soft, add in a bit of butter and cream and whizz it with a stick blender, making really weird sucking sounds and splattering it around a bit:

Appetizing! But trust me, it’s awesome.

Once that was ready I put it in a serving bowl, covered with foil, and put in a warm oven until we were ready to eat. I had saved about 3 tablespoons of bacon fat from breakfast the previous weekend, along with a giant freak-slice of bacon. That saved me cooking any specifically for the salad; I cut up the freak-slice, melted the fat in a big pan, and threw the bacon back in to crisp up a bit, along with a finely-sliced shallot. When the shallot was soft, I added some mustard and red wine vinegar, and a pinch of brown sugar. Mixed it around a bit to create another unappetizing mess:

But once I wilted the spinach in the warm dressing (I pulled the pan off the heat almost as soon as I put in the spinach, and I was using hearty, mature leaves–with baby spinach I’d pour the dressing over the greens in a bowl to avoid the hot pan)… Magic. It had been years since I’d had a warm spinach salad but I can’t imagine why. The bite of vinegar with the richness of bacon is so perfect. The celeriac puree is a great substitute for potatoes, with a nice mild vegetable flavor that keeps it from being too rich with red meat.

Bridge had brought a lovely bottle of wine, and it was, I have to say, one of my all-time favorite meals I’ve cooked. And so easy!

In other news, I am very flattered to say that there’s *another* tour of our apartment up online today, this time at Apartment Therapy Boston. Check it out!

Since my cooking was pretty patchy and my posting even patchier as the end of the year drew nigh, I’m just going to post the last three mondo Winter CSA Share allotments all at once. Most of this stuff stores well; I have loads of potatoes, onions, garlic and squash in the pantry, and the veggie drawers in the fridge are stuffed with turnips, rutabaga, beets, carrots, etc.

#2 arrived right before Thanksgiving:

-Salad greens
-Kale
-Butternut squash
-Celeriac
-Red and yellow potatoes
-Turnips
-Rutabaga
-Cabbage
-Parsnips
-Carrots
-Garlic

#3, from early December:

-Bok Choi
-Leeks (used on the pizzas for the Christmas party)
-Carrots
-Onions
-Potatoes
-Kohlrabi
-Butternut squash
-Chili peppers
-Garlic

And the fourth and final share, from the week of Christmas:

-Salad greens
-Spinach
-Potatoes
-Celeriac
-Daikon radishes
-Onions
-Popcorn
-Garlic
-Rutabaga
-Carrots
-Beets!!

I’m saving those beets for next week, but I can taste them already!

By the way, last night I thawed out a frozen portion of the beef, leek and barley soup I made a couple months ago. I thought that recipe was really bland, and recommended searing the meat next time, at the very least. Well, it was just as bland upon reheating (shocking, I know), so in addition to salt and pepper I added a ton of grated parmesan cheese. It made the difference; the soup was delicious. Just a nice reminder of the power of umami… If you’re cooking something and it tastes bland, add soy sauce or parmesan, depending on which one seems logical, to get a nice flavor boost.

New Year, new goals

This doesn’t have much to do with food.

I’m not one for resolutions; my attention span is far shorter than a year, and Back to School always feels more fresh-startish than January, to me. But I feel like I slipped into a bit of a funk as the year wrapped up, and I am at a bit of a crossroads in terms of work and health and so forth, so I do want to take the New Year as a chance to re-set and try harder.

For the blog: I did much better in December, but during the fall I really let the blog slide, and only posted a handful of times per month. I want to try putting myself on a schedule (I’m a journalist; without deadlines I can procrastinate until the cows come home), posting on Tuesdays and Fridays at a bare minimum. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s worth the effort, right?

I also want to work on the quality of the photography… Enough with letting the terrible kitchen lighting serve as an excuse, I have little studio lights and a lightbox/diffuser thingy, and I just need to be more consistent about taking stuff into the pantry and shooting it. Not sure what can be done about things I’m actively cooking, but I’ll get there. One day.

Finally, I want to be more specific with recipes. I’m lazy and tend to just say “eh, an onion or so, some olive oil, blah blah blah,” but when I think about the blogs I find most useful, they isolate the recipe so it’s easy to follow, in addition to writing about the process.

For me, I mostly want to figure out if I can freelance full-time for a while, or if I need to go back to an office job. I like working from home, but obviously it’s not the most stable thing. If I stay home, I need to make a major effort to, um, leave the house. For exercise, for socialization, for fresh air.

During the fall I took a drawing class at the MFA’s museum school. It was rigorous and challenging and I learned a ton, but I can’t justify doing something like that right now, so I want to make sure I also keep drawing, get back to painting, treat photography more seriously, etc. I am also hoping to help a few people with some interior design advice. Finally, while I write for a living I’d also like to write something different, for pleasure. Fiction, maybe? I doubt it but I’ll try, perhaps.

sketches
[For my class, we worked on a final project consisting of a series of studies and drawings on one topic. I chose ballet, and used a couple books of photos of the New York City Ballet as my subjects.]

The greatest lesson I learned in my drawing class was how to relax. At the beginning of the semester all my drawings were in pencil, mostly of interiors, very literal, very precise, not very dynamic or interesting. I never expected to enjoy figure-drawing and I never thought about charcoal one way or the other, but those two things brought me tremendous joy. Charcoal is messy and it didn’t let me stick to my precise lines. I couldn’t really use a ruler. And drawing the figure made me want to explore movement. I want 2009 to be like that. I’m feeling closed in and limited in a few ways, and I want to break out and try things I hadn’t considered, even if it means I have charcoal-stained fingernails.

Or hands that smell like garlic. I’ve never minded that!

Happiest of Christmases

I hope everyone else had a Christmas as relaxing as mine. My dearest friend came to stay (before flying out this evening) and we got to visit with another good friend—complete with much-delayed arrival and impromptu sleepover—on Tuesday night. We ate a delicious dinner Christmas Eve (more on that later) and slept in late this morning. Santa blessed us many times over.

Before Christmas is 100% over, a few shots from our holiday party earlier this month. I think about 30 people ended up coming; I focused on food that would let me enjoy myself for once, so I made a couple things in advance and the only hot food was a giant pile of mini pizzas that I’d par-baked in the afternoon and reheated during the party.

I made one dip with butternut squash, a bit of crème fraîche, roasted onions and garlic, lots of parmesan, and sage. That was ok but not something I’d make again. Another dip/spread was basic white bean spread like we’ve always made, but dressed up with a little rosemary and lemon. Easy and so good:

I sautéed the garlic and onion until soft, then added in two cans of organic white cannellini beans and some very, very finely chopped rosemary. Chop as finely as possible; that texture is not good. They are technically already cooked but I find that they always need quite a while to take the canned edge off. I added a bit of chicken stock every so often to keep things from drying out, and cooked uncovered for a while, then covered until the beans tasted good.

I mushed them around a lot with the spoon so that it turned into a chunky spread instead of a pile of beans.

I stirred in lemon juice (about half a lemon) and topped with a bit of zest. I’d seen a Bittman riff on a Marcella Hazan recipe for a bean spread (canned beans uncooked, but pureed in the food processor) that included lots of lemon, and I will definitely add it from now on. It brightens up the beans and really offsets their earthiness and the rosemary flavor. Yum! I could have kept this a little wetter; next time I’ll do a bit more broth towards the end. Still, very very good.

The mini pizzas were a bit of an ordeal but fantastic as party food–easy to eat, no mess, hot and comforting and tasty. I used dough from Trader Joe’s; four bags divided into six little pizzas each. I topped them with sautéed leeks and sausage.

(I cooked them until just golden; during the party I heated them up so they were nice and crispy and cut each one in quarters.)

The living room, ready to party:

Ben’s chocolate chip cookies top the dessert offerings:

A crowd in the dining room:

And, just because I promised, here are Ari and Alex from Ben’s office (they’re not a couple, ladies). Alex is a faithful reader of the blog and likes to inspect Ben’s lunches when I send in leftovers. I hear he’s quite a cook, too!

Now we’re off to our friends’ wedding in CT, then a visit to Long Island before coming back to Boston for New Year’s. Enjoy the weekend!