Thursday, August 30, 2012

in a peachy jam

I made jam.

I have written and sung and emphatically pounded the table while speaking those three words over the past few days.

It's not perfect, this jam of mine.  Floating on peach-rosemary fumes, my nose couldn't criticize what my mouth later would: too much sugar, not quite the right amount of pectin. Pectin, the ingredient that brings fruit from a liquid state to a more solid state, was temperamental, clumping itself together before I expected it to.  Or maybe because I hadn't read the instructions for dry pectin as opposed to liquid pectin, that was, in some sense, responsible for the minor texture imbalance. The sugar content, sworn up and down as correct on three recipes, was a little too sweet for my taste, the rosemary a little too strong.

But somehow, the imperfectness of my creation doesn't matter in the overall picture.  In life, oftentimes, I wish I could just fast forward to the end result without the tediousness of the steady path: couldn't I just have a higher salary, a nicer house, a better brain, a healthier body, a villa in the south of France, and skip the grunt work? 

In the act of concocting food, though, I find myself taking time to revel in the boiling fruit bits. Watching the peaches go from whole fruit to simmering, succulent stew, I kept skipping around the kitchen, bearing witness to my creation as it perfumed the apartment.  Time slowed down as the fruit cooked, and I felt myself breathing slowly and fully, joyfully, even, as I watched the pot.

I think I'm a little surprised, too, by the depth of my happiness at creation. I can't stop smiling, and my jam, while admittedly not perfect, tastes so sweet not only because of its sugar content, but because of the entire creative process.  The success of creation is sometimes in the process itself, more so than in the result.

Friday, August 24, 2012

the joy of cookies

I was three years old when my little sister was born. I skipped down the hospital hall, excited to see my mom and my new sister, buoyed by a secret my dad had told me.  Hospital food, he'd said, was gross.  And that's why he had a pack of oreos hidden under his labcoat, a secret I knew, but wasn't allowed to tell, as we walked in to my mom's room.  Clutched in my little fist, the packaging on the oreos grew warm.  I showed my mom the cookies, furtive and proud, and her laughter confirmed that this was an awesome gift. We tore the packaging and shared a cookie, getting crumbs all over the bed. My perception of food transformed in that moment: it went from mundane to mystical, the cookies imbued with the joy of feeding my mom, sharing a secret with my dad, and meeting my sister.

I've never lost that joy. So happy birthday, Mom, and thank you for loving cookies.

Almond-Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches

The ingredients of my recipe are fairly standard chocolate chip cookie proportions, but the way to put them together is a little off-beat. Because the almonds are ground into flour and the chocolate chips are chopped up, the cookie texture is uniform and holds up well for sandwich cookies.

8 oz (1 cup) almonds, slivers or slices or whole
2 cups flour
1/2 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 cup softened butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 package of chocolate chips

Food processor
Baking sheet

Use a thin spread of either peanut butter, nutella, or powdered sugar mixed with water between two cookies to form a sandwich.  To make extra special cookies, use whipped cream as the filler, and freeze for 30 minutes before serving.

1. Preheat the oven to 375.

2. Put the almonds in the food processor, and pulse them until they create a coarse almond flour.
3. Empty the almond flour into a bowl, and mix in the baking soda, salt, and flour. 
4. In the now empty food processor, cream the butter.
5. Add the brown sugar, mix it in well, then add in the granuated sugar and mix again. 
6. Eggs and vanilla come next, and once it's all mixed, add in the chocolate chips. Whip them into a coarse paste, and add the dry ingredients. Mix. 
7. Grease the cookie sheet, and then add quarter-sized dollops up and down the sheet. 8 minutes in the oven for soft cookies, 9-10 minutes for crunchier ones.
8. Let the cookies cool, then spread a thin layer of your favorite filling.
9. Enjoy with your mom.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cook for Julia

When I was a kid, my mom and I used to watch Saturday afternoon cooking shows on PBS.  One afternoon, as we watched the chefs dice and saute, a funny looking lady with a funny sounding voice was making things with funny names that looked funny and delicious.  I remember watching and getting hungry, seeing the food go from raw form to finished product with enthusiasm, vigor, and laughter. That’s how Julia Child first imprinted on my brain.

With such a strong first impression, I’m hesitant to admit that before this week, I’d never cracked open Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I had a variety of feelings towards the epic tome, as I thought the recipes were finicky and precise, and I was intimidated. I love to cook, but I don’t love following recipes: I cook on sensation and taste, and get irritated when I’m told to cook in alternate fashions – my  independent streak rears its giant head. And piling on to my independent streak, my pot and pan collection is eclectic and not always sufficient (what, pray tell, is an "asbestos mat" and where would I find one?). My spice drawer and liquor cabinet are miniscule. And, icing on the cake (!), I am a twentysomething with an entry-level-job-income and all of the limitations on foodstuffs and cookware that that imposes.

But it’s Julia’s birthday. She'd have been 100 today, her image fixed in our minds as one of the first chefs to become a pop culture icon, book and television star, her hooty voice brimming with adventure and good cheer as she whipped up her creations. She is historical and contemporary, a balancing act through the decades.  Her Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a staple of aspiring chefs and great home cooks and wannabes. And what better time to celebrate an iconic chef and conquer my fear of the book than by actually hiking through a recipe or two?

So I was flipping through the recipes, trying to find something that took under 24 hours and wouldn't break the bank or overly tax my basic cookware capabilities. And then I stopped flipping, started reading the recipes, and began falling for Julia. The woman could write. The recipes were serious, poetic, witty: instructions where the warmth of a generous personality beamed through. I was smiling as I read her recipes - have you ever done that? Read an ingredients list, and grinned? It puts you in the mood to cook, like a friend in the kitchen with you, lending a helping hand when necessary, and pouring you a glass of wine when things go more seriously awry.

Saturday's dinner menu was Coq au Vin, brown braised onions, and sauteed mushrooms from Julia (green beans and roast potatoes were my own basic recipes). I overcooked the chicken, but the sauce was a revelation. I’d never made a butter-flour paste and whisked it in to a boiling wine/chicken stock/bacon bits reduction, a method that seemed too complicated. But watching the elements meld together, thickening into a burgundy richness that I wanted to consume by the bucketful, I mourned for the sauces I’d missed. And the brown braised onions? Meltingly good. As were the mushrooms, buttery, woodsy, juicy silver-brown nubbins. All from following Julia. I've been cooking mushrooms and onions for years, but these techniques, quite frankly, elevated my cooking, making me rethink my exclusively DIY modus operandi. 

Dessert was clafouti, another Julia classic. A pancake-y batter encases cherries and blueberries: simple, stunning, bursting with sweetness, in an eggy shell. 

Julia encouraged innovation and a fearless attitude, accepting mistakes and incorporating them into her cooking. And from her letters, she revealed her own mile-wide independent streak, blazing past societal barriers to create the French golden-standard cookbook.  But it’s not just the laboriously tested, glorious tasting recipes that make us return: I think it’s the can-do attitude, the idea that food can be a fulfilling creative process, imperfections and all, with room for both a template and variation. And I liked it. I liked listening to her directions, putting in my own additions when I thought it would improve a dish to my taste.  And so my resolution is thus: keep experimenting, and learn from Julia. Happy birthday, Julia Child, and bon appetit!

Friday, August 10, 2012

flower power

If we were to divide the world into edible and non-edible, into which category would flowers fall?  My eyes, grateful for their beauty and elegance, say the latter, generally speaking, but I have to make an exception for squash blossoms.  Orange, green, yellow, ephemeral and delicate, the blossoms taste like zucchini, but milder, sweeter.  They are a rarity as well; supermarkets don't sell them because they'll wilt within a few hours. This summer, I've found them at the weekend farmers' market, sold by only one vendor, so keep your eyes open for the flowers.

It's an unexpected bliss, discovering a treat like this: eaten just hours after the gathering, the flowers radiate a nuanced, delectable taste of the earth and the sun.  The blossoms can be eaten raw with a little olive oil and sea salt, baked into eggs, paired with cheese, the possibilities are endless.  A classic, however, is stuffing them with cheese and frying them, and this is my spin on the recipe.  Enjoy!

to start:
8 squash blossoms
Olive oil for frying

1/4 cup ricotta cheese (or other curd based cheese)
handful of shredded basil leaves
1/2 egg
teaspoon of melted butter
pinch of sea salt

2 generous tablespoons flour
other 1/2 of the egg
3 oz medium temperature water
small pinch of sea salt

*Note: for a heavier batter and texture, add more flour so that it has a sticky, thick consistency.  The current proportion will give a very light batter that allows the squash blossom flavor to shine through.

1. To make the filling, melt the butter. As the butter melts, crack the egg, separating about half each into two different bowls.  Put one bowl to the side, as you'll be using it for the batter.  Swirl the butter and egg together, and then add the ricotta, basil, and salt.

2. Grab the bowl you put aside.  Mix in the flour and salt, then the water.  The batter should be more liquid then sticky for a lighter taste, and stickier if you'd like a heavier batter.  Keep both bowls within arms reach.

3. Heat a generous covering of olive oil in a frying pan on the stove.

4. As the oil heats, prepare the blossoms.  Open the delicate petals, reach inside the blossom and pull out the stamen (the mini-matchstick inside the flower).

Hand model credit goes to an accommodating (ie hungry) gentleman

5.  Stuff about a teaspoon of the filling inside the blossom, put the petals back in place over the stuffing, and twist the petals together at the top so that the flower stays together.  Dip the cheese stuffed blossom in the batter, then gently place it in the now hot frying pan.

6. After about 2 minutes on one side, flip the blossom over to the other side.  Cook about 2 more minutes.

7. Drain blossoms on paper towel, and then pop directly in your mouth.