Monday, July 30, 2012

a girl, an egg, and a whisk

The first time I made mayonnaise, it was breathtaking. Creamy, fluffy, pale yellow, perfectly salted, and scarfed up within 10 minutes. I dreamed about this mayonnaise, the delicacy and deliciousness, prideful in my amateur chef-ly skill of completing a complex sauce with ease.

The next time I made mayonnaise, it was a disaster. Slimy links of yellow swirling around with olive oil that would simply not mix.  I tried to fix the broken mayonnaise, plumbing the internet for tips and tricks. Boiling water didn’t work. Neither did an extra egg yolk. I threw the sloppy mess out, glum and tummy-sad.

My personality doesn’t really allow for failure, however, so I got back on the proverbial horse and tried again a few weeks later.  Same deal.  A gross liquid that wouldn’t turn into solid no matter how hard I whisked and what sad eyes I gave it.  There was a good deal more anger this time, possibly a little foot stomp, and a minor tantrum in the egg yolk’s general direction.  I threw the sodden thing in the sink.

Everyone knows third time is the charm.  Except when it isn’t. The third time was the worst failure yet, a smelly, slimy, sloppy mess that was watered with tears of frustration. I was doomed to never make mayonnaise again, time to hang up my imaginary chef's cap.

Fast forward several weeks, and I was reading a cookbook that mentioned emulsions, an act of forcing two liquids together to form a more solid cream. Drops of oil and vinegar, substances that traditionally do not mix, are forced to co-mingle, improving one another. In mayonnaise, the egg absorbs and further improves the goodness of the mix, turning it into a creamy spread.

Understanding a thing from the molecule up lights a spark of pleasure and confidence in my gut, and in this case, it sparked me on to one more mayonnaise attempt. This time, I mixed the mustard (which is made with vinegar) and the egg yolk first, instead of adding it after I'd tried to mix egg and oil. I painstakingly poured the oil droplets as slowly as my wrist allowed, while whisking gently and steadily with my other hand, transfixing the oil and vinegar molecules into a more solid state.  And this time, the mayonnaise behaved, following the principles of science and nature and taste. Pure triumph and a happy stomach on the complete satisfaction of successful creation.

And my very simple recipe follows. 

Organic, free range eggs are the best for this recipe – the yolks are more muscular, whisk in to the olive oil much better, are a bright orange-yellow, and (in my opinion) have a richer taste.  Since you’ll be eating these raw, high quality eggs are a necessity.

The mayonnaise is very pretty with its mustard seed dotting, and I like to serve it with roasted vegetables, particularly sweet and white potatoes. Doubling the recipe is definitely possible, but the oil to yolk ratio will vary.

1/2 tablespoon whole grain mustard
Pinch of salt
Egg yolk
1/3  to 1/2 cup of olive (or canola) oil

Step 1:
Take the egg out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature, also allowing the bowl and whisk to come to room temperature.  The egg is easier to whisk if it's not super cold out of the fridge. It’s still possible to go from fridge to mayo, but to be completely foolproof, let the temperature rise a bit (approximately 45 minutes out of the fridge, depending, of course, on your kitchen's temperature).

Step 2: 
Plop the mustard, salt, and egg yolk in the bowl. Begin mixing gently. When the yolk and mustard become more solid than their original state (about 10-15 seconds), start pouring in the olive oil in a very steady, slow dripping trickle. Do not stop whisking. The amount of oil needed really does vary by egg, but once you see the solid forming, you can add a little more oil, but the egg-oil combination will become oily goop if you add too much. It should take about 1-2 minutes, depending on the moodiness of the egg, the quality of the oil, the time of day, etc. Mayonnaise is finicky. 

Two steps. That’s it. And once you've had homemade, you'll never go back! The taste, the color, the simple ingredient list, the absence of possibly harmful chemicals (google calcium disodium EDTA...) - all are good reasons to be a believer in the homemade alternative. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

the Boo Radley next door

Boo Radley lives next door.  And he gardens.

One of the selling points of my urban apartment was that our soon-to-be-bedroom overlooked the scraggly patch of grass and one sturdy tree that our real estate agent optimistically termed "the garden." It appeared untended, weeds in pots, nothing coming to fruition in the pale early May sunshine.  The back gate had a broken lock, there were remnants of trash, and I looked forward to putting up light-and-sound blocking curtains.  But when we moved in in late July, our "garden-view" was a leafy greenery of tomatoes, brave flowers, and pungent herbs, and the curtains remained in the box.

I've looked out at the garden countless times, wondering who tended it.  At first, I thought it was the realty company.  Upon further dealings with my misers-known-as-landlords, images of my landlord paying for apartment-ly improvements, such as a working buzzer or a kindly gardener, become laughable.  A tenant then, I presumed, but a tenant that I never saw.  No one had ever appeared in the garden to tend to the crops; they seemed to grow magically, rural accidents staking out their urban property.

Until today.  I still don't know his name.  I'd seen him sitting peacefully on a bench across the street from my building, smoking a pipe, arms contentedly crossed.  He'll nod to me, occasionally, as I come in after work, and after almost a year of the occasional head bob, we've progressed to shy smiles and a raise of the hand. 

I was sitting in the garden with my gent, sipping red wine and reading an intoxicating combination of The Omnivore's Dilemna and Julie and Julia.  We were getting up to leave when Boo came in, filled a watering can, and started on his crops.  I smiled tentatively, but he was engrossed in his work, coaxing leaves and fruits and flowers out of the old pots in our backyard.  

But I couldn't leave.  I'd seen Boo, seen him tending the garden unseen, and I had to thank him.  

"You make this garden, this backyard such a beautiful place."

He stared up at me, a little startled I think.  People sometimes ignore old ones, or the funnily dressed; maybe he hadn't heard a voice in a while.

"Thank you."

And with those two words, Boo came to life, piling my hands full of tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, and three kinds of basil, as much as I could carry, after I told him I loved to cook.  He told us about his life working for "Sam" (the government, we got, after a wink and a joke about working for his "uncle"), and asked timidly about ours, why we were Philadelphians and what we were doing in his city. 

Smiles and thanks and ten minutes later, I'm inside, gratefully smelling basil and so touched by this unassuming urban farmer, a man who showed us the best place to cut the herbs so that they'll keep growing, and encouraged us to come and take of the plants, as the taking will only lead to more growth.  A lesson in life, I think, as well as a lesson for my hopelessly black thumb.  Giving out what the plant will take, sharing your small wealth of smells and tastes will only multiply into more for everyone.  It's unselfish to the extreme, shyly growing sustenance for everyone in the apartment building, slipping away unnoticed and leaving behind a climbing, brimming tomato vine as the only evidence of your presence.

Thank you, Boo, for gardening the small things, tending to your quiet, green realm, and looking out for us "kids" on Spruce Street.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

come to my table

My love of food is an established fact. Look into my eyes as I'm describing homemade mayonnaise, or kohlrabi, or dark chocolate with sea salt, and you'll realize that I'm a fanatic, a taste-sensationist, an enthusiastic eater and judger of texture, flavor, composition.

Food vividly dots my memories as well, as do the experiences that coincide with them. An Oreo cookie the day my sister was born. Eating chewy alligator in South Carolina with lemonade that gave me a sore throat. Drinking a glass of whole milk after only having non-fat in the house, and thinking I'd just drunk pure, heavenly cream. Trying steak tartare just before my 23rd birthday at a swanky bar with one of my best friends, sensing I was finally a grown-up. A terrible beer on the first date with my dear man.

But it isn't just the act of masticating my food that puts a twinkle in my eye. It's the essence of the culture of the table. The simple act of eating something delicious is only the first part of the overall sensation of shared experience, connecting with food and voices as spoons dip into the bowl of berries or forks devour the chicken. 

The intimacy of breaking off a hunk of the same piece of bread, twirling pasta on to your plate, slurping the chocolate off the spoon, looking up to see a friend covered in sticky barbeque sauce. Friendship is made up of these little intimacies, verbal and non-verbal, and the table is an immediate source of closeness, of pleasure. It's a level playing field, stocked with an abundance of food, dishes, and smiling faces, an arena that satisfies our desire for sustenance of the mind and body. 

Sharing food, sharing ideas, sharing a space creates a bond, a joint memory that lasts a lifetime. I am beyond lucky in friends, in love, in family, and everyone I've ever shared a meal with. As the years before have been, I hope the years to come will be filled with gathering at the table.  Thank you all for the birthday wishes, and may we meet at the table soon!