Thursday, April 26, 2012

Elemental

My child eats dirt. Also wood. And sand. Small pebbles and gravel dust as well. Oh, and mulch. I don't just mean he puts it in his mouth. This kid chews and swallows.


If you walk around our apartment and look closely, chances are you'll see one of two things: bite marks or duct tape. The latter's where we've tried to cover up a favorite gnawing spot. Unfortunate revelation about this strategy: Owie eats duct tape, too.

The nadir of my life as a parent of a dirt-eater occurred about a month ago. I was in the early weeks of courting a new mom friend whose child, I hoped, would become Owie's first pal. I had begun to fear that the fledgling relationship was in danger due to sporadic unnecessary roughness on the part of Owie, put down for so long by his own brother that he now seemed to smell blood when in the company of the slightly younger child. But the true test of friendship would not come in the form of a poke or a push. Owie had something more ghastly in mind: a Fear Factor-esque display that would strain the mettle of all who witnessed it.


The question: How much grossing out could our new friends take before they fled from us in horror, all hope of future playdates dashed?

The scene: A nature center on a cool March day, along a paved woodland path with, naturally, a grate.*

(*Note: On to the Official Toddler Fascination Index, grates easily trump all lichen, turtles in tanks, and stuffed squirrels, as well as most playground equipment and even certain heavy machinery.)

The moms chat while the boys contentedly toddle around the grate, slipping first mulch, then pebbles through the narrow openings. They revel in the satisfying plop their treasures make as they drop into the dark puddle below. Next it's dirt they're sprinkling into the grate, and then Owie's clutching a big clump of it in his fingers. I think he's going for the grate, but instead he brings his fist up to his mouth and casually takes a bite. It is as natural as if there's a blueberry muffin nestled in his little hand. I think to myself, Don't react. He won't take another bite. He takes another bite.

"No, Owie, NO!" I hurtle to his side, brandishing crumpled, possibly used, jacket-pocket tissues. "Spit it out! PLEASE Spit It Out!"

Our new friends look on in what I can only imagine is a mixture of bewilderment and revulsion. I myself feel a bit dizzy as I realize that the bites of dirt have mixed with saliva and turned to mud in his mouth. We all watch in horror as the substance oozes from his lips, his little chin obscured by dark, thick mud. It drips down his neck and pools on his jacket. His eyes are a mixture of delight and dismay.

He dutifully spits a few times, and I splutter and wipe and try in vain to erase the troubling image from my mind: little, cherubic Owen gushing mud the way guys in the movies do blood after a blow to the jaw.

*

The doctor pronounced Owie not sick, just curious. Our friends just laughed and called again the next week. And I began to think about cravings and oozy things and the right balance of comfort, curiosity, and creativity. And I kept coming back to eggs.


Amidst fears that my child is weird or, worse, ill, there is something calming in an egg. Eggs are quiet, simple. M. F. K. Fisher said that there is nothing more private than an egg before it is cracked. They are basic, unitary, and--not unlike dirt--elemental.

Time transforms moments of crisis into mere frames in the slideshow of a childhood--pebbles tossed into a grate. On a plate full of disparate piles and dollops, eggs do the same: they bind, meld, smooth.

And so it is in the spirit of cravings, and things that ooze, and comforting things like understanding friends and the laughter that succeeds revulsion and perhaps a little fear, I bring you: The Poached Egg. I have had a bit of a craving myself lately, you see. And I am not above reveling in a good ooze, but I prefer mine golden and on toast, or, better yet, leftovers. With a proper napkin beside me for dabbing errant drops of yolk.

I like my chin clean.

*

Poached Egg on ... Anything
If the act of cooking elevates a meal, making it special, the egg allows us to do that perhaps more quickly and easily than any other food. Lunch lately has consisted of a poached egg perched atop whatever leftovers appeal. (It helps to strategically make leftovers, a.k.a. ingredients, on Sunday, as detailed here.) My favorite combo so far is detailed in the recipe below. Any combination of leftover vegetables and/or starch will do. A splash of red wine vinegar might not hurt. Or a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. And when no leftovers are present in the fridge, a golden, crisp piece of toast will never disappoint. What follows is a compilation of tips I've encountered in my continuing quest to master the art of egg poaching. If you want a great tutorial, with photos, click here.

1 tsp vinegar
pinch of salt
1 egg
leftover vegetables (optional)
leftover starch (optional)
buttered toast (optional)

Heat a pot of water almost to a boil. Ideally, your water should be several inches deep to keep the egg from sticking to the bottom. Crack your egg into a little ramekin and set it by your pot. Once the water is just beginning to simmer, salt it and pour in a splash of vinegar. Use a slotted spoon to create a little whirlpool in the almost-boiling water. Gently slide your egg into the whirlpool. Don't worry if it spreads out. The whirlpool and the vinegar will do their best to keep it mostly together. If the egg seems to be sticking to the bottom, gently nudge it back into the water after about 30 seconds of cooking. Watch your egg cook. It will take about 3 minutes. If you think it's done, pull it out and touch it. Look at the white. If it's still clear in parts, then it needs to cook longer. With a poached egg, you want to err on the side of undercooking, however, as there's nothing more dissatisfying than a poached egg with a yolk that doesn't run. Sprinkle your egg lightly with salt before eating.

*

Poached Egg over Polenta and Garlicky Greens
> Serves 2-3

1/4 cup olive oil
6-8 polenta rounds (I used a store-bought roll, but you can make your own), approx. 1/2-inch thick
1/3 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

2 tbsp olive oil
2-3 cloves of garlic
pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
bunch of swiss chard or spinach
lemon juice (optional)

2-3 eggs for poaching (see recipe above)

Set a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, and heat until the oil is very fragrant and little bubbles are starting to form. Carefully plunk polenta rounds into the pan and let them fry until a golden crust forms, 4-6 minutes on each side. (If you have a splatter screen, it will probably come in handy here.) While the polenta cooks, grate the cheese, chop the garlic cloves, and wash and chop the greens. Heat up your broiler and place a rack several inches from the broiling element. When the polenta is crusty and golden, you may drain the rounds on paper towels to get rid of excess grease, but this is optional. Next, lay the rounds on a foil-lined baking sheet and sprinkle each one with parmesan. Broil until the cheese melts and begins to turn golden in spots. (At this point, set your egg poaching pot of water on the stove over high heat.) While the polenta is in the broiler, add a bit of olive oil to your hot saute pan if necessary, reduce the heat to medium-low, and saute the garlic for 30 seconds to a minute. Lightly sprinkle in the red pepper flakes, if using. Add the chopped greens, raise the heat to medium, and cook, tossing frequently, until they are wilted but still bright in color. Remove from the heat and squeeze a lemon wedge over them, if desired. Set polenta and chard aside and move on to egg poaching (see recipe above). When the egg is ready, situate a couple of polenta rounds next to a little pile of greens on your plate. Add any other leftovers you think might go well. Gently lay your poached egg over top, sprinkle with salt and pepper, poke the yoke, and enjoy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Queen of Time

It is 4:15. I sit at a long, polished dining table, a teenager by my side, thinking about Odysseus. My trusty text splays open on the table, its wings loose from use, its pages covered in notes layered atop one another in blue, black, red, a record of understandings deposited year after year like layers in sedimentary rock. His text is practically unmarked, its spine tight; it's all I can do not to reach over and bend it back, circle stuff, dog-ear pages. We puzzle over the teacher's questions. I have ideas about the best answers but try to help him arrive at his own. Sometimes there are long silences. This is good practice for me.


Why does Odysseus remain on Circe's island for so long? What does this reveal about his character?

Silence. I wait, fight the urge to let my words fill the air. Usually if I remain mute just beyond the point where I think I might erupt, he will speak, tentatively releasing an idea into the space where before there was nothing but the boring certainty of my ability to supply an answer.

So, why is this book so famous?

Now it's my turn to pause. I can conjure a boilerplate answer for this one, but I don't want to, because it's his question, not his teacher's.

Well, it's one of the oldest stories in existence. I guess the fact that it is still around must mean that it has been important enough, over time, for people to want to pass it on. It's about a person who is lost and needs to get back home. He has to wait and endure and overcome great obstacles, his own ego included, before he can rest and see his family again.

One thing about getting older: talking like this makes me choke up. I cough to cover the unexpected surge of emotion. Later I will ponder why Odysseus, Master of Landways and Seaways, leaves me verklempt. I will realize that it's not Odysseus at all. It's that I've made space for my student. I've let him in a little, not with any personal confessions but by giving the moment over to him, by slowing down and letting him control time for a while. I don't do this enough.

*

It is 9:00 and we are late for school as usual. Gabe has discovered a big, branch-like stick by the front walk. The stick is fascinating, overwhelmingly so, and he is deeply given to the moment, to the designs he is making in the dirt just outside the car, where Owie sits patiently, still tractable (though that clock is ticking fast), already strapped into his car seat. I pause, say nothing, breathe, noticing tension in my chest as I restrain the impulse to clutch his arm and sternly insist that it is time to get into the car Now or we will be Late.


*

Alex and I keep working through the study questions. My usual practice has been to end a session at exactly an hour, whether or not my student has finished the assignment. For some reason, I don't feel like doing this anymore. If the hour is up and the work is not done, I stay. It's 5:45 when I stand up to leave, gathering a scarf around my neck.

I never saw it this way before. I read the pages, but I didn't think about any of this stuff. Thank you.

*

After I half-sincerely admire the designs he has traced with his stick, Gabe agrees to put it down and get into the car.

Mommy, maybe when we get back, we can see if the stick is still there.
Sure, honeybun.

*

Maybe what I'm reading is helping me loosen the reins a bit. In An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler assures me that it's okay to let foods just be themselves, to let their natural flavors speak. Adler is a proponent of simply boiling food, among other things, and reminds us, in an age of Top Chef and Iron Chef America, that cooking is nothing more than applying heat to food.


It is 6:30 and I am in the kitchen, staring into the fridge. I grab a container full of the weekend's slow-cooker pork and a packet of queso fresco we bought two weeks ago for a recipe we never made. I reach into the vegetable drawer and rip off a few handfuls of kale, slide tortillas from their top-shelf hideout. Salted water boils in a pot on the stove. I plunk cubes of sweet potato into it. When they're tender, I'll remove them with a slotted spoon, tear the kale leaves from their thick stems, and toss them into the still-boiling water. I'll mash the sweet potatoes, squeeze out the kale and chop it, and shred the pork. I smear sweet potato on a tortilla, crumble cheese on top, sprinkle on some kale and pork, grind on some sea salt and pepper, and add a bit more cheese before covering it all with a second tortilla. I transfer this package onto a hot skillet slicked with olive oil, where three minutes or so on each side produces a golden, crispy tortilla surrounding warm, softened, slightly gooey filling.


This meal is like teaching, and parenting, and writing. And probably lots of other things. If I just set my agenda aside for more than a moment, be quiet, and allow my subjects to express themselves, what results is eminently more fulfilling than what I can force if I try to be the Queen of Time.

In the kitchen, it's easier to give the moment over to the ingredients when you actually have good ingredients on hand. Instead of cooking discrete meals each night, Adler spends Sunday roasting and boiling whatever veggies and meats look good at the market. During the week, she mines this already-cooked bounty, parking poached eggs on top of one combination, tossing another into pasta or a frittata, or serving some of her already-cooked, ready-to-use ingredients on toast or in a salad. When everything's looking tired at the end of the week, she throws the remainders together in a soup.

I've done some limited testing of this technique, and I love it. Not only does it encourage me to be a more creative cook, but it also means that dinner is mostly made by the time I get around to donning my apron. Best of all, it requires less brain, more hands.

And that means more time for my creative endeavors. Here's a little something I've been working on:

Sing in me, Muse, of the quesadilla that sprang
Nearly formed from my two hands' work on Sunday.
Of dirt sketches unfettered by the minute hand's tyrannical tick.
Of letting learning happen in its own time. Inspiration, too.
And to-do lists that flutter quietly away while you savor the breeze.


Forget the Great American Novel. I've got epic aspirations. Call me Lis, Master of Cheesethings, or Lis, the Great Pot-tender. Or, hmmm... Maybe just Lis, the Good Woman, as a sleepy Gabe labeled me tonight after I kissed him and told him he is a good boy.

Yes, I like that. Much better than the Queen of Time.

*

Sweet Potato and Kale Quesadillas
The meat is optional in this recipe. I had pork in the fridge, but we often have the remains of a roasted chicken, which would go just as well. We didn't use salsa, but it would only add to the deliciousness of this combo. Choose any that you like. Quesadillas can be prepared in advance and stored in the fridge until you're ready to cook them. They can also be cooked in advance and gently reheated in a warm oven. Enjoy!

1 or 2 sweet potatoes
bunch of kale
salt
pepper
tortillas (I use flour)
shredded or chopped meat (optional)
queso fresco (or another cheese you like)
olive oil

Set a pot of water on the stove to boil. Peel your sweet potato and chop it into 2-inch pieces. When the water is boiling, salt it well and carefully add the sweet potatoes. Begin checking for tenderness after 8 minutes. Once the sweet potatoes are tender enough to mash, scoop them out of the boiling water with a slotted spoon. Place them in a bowl and mash them with a fork when they are cool enough to handle. Around this time, place your skillet over medium heat and give it plenty of time to get hot. Meanwhile, rip a few handfuls of kale leaves off of their stems and drop them into your boiling water. Let them cook until they appear tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Scoop the kale out with a slotted spoon and place it on a plate to cool for a few minutes. When it's cool enough to handle, squeeze the water out of it and chop it as finely as you like. (I chop it very finely so that my children cannot easily pick it out of the quesadilla!) Arrange your tortillas on a work surface. Smear sweet potato all over one side of a tortilla, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Crumble cheese on top. Sprinkle kale and meat (if using) on top, add a few grinds of pepper and a sprinkling of salt, and top with more cheese. Close the other tortilla over it. Slick your pan with just a bit of olive oil, and when you can smell the oil and see it shimmering, carefully transfer the quesadilla onto the pan. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Treat Cure

I occasionally, um, lose my head. Motherhood has done this to me. I used to be so calm, so in control, so cool (not cool as in hip, mind you, but cool as in, shall we say, unperturbed). I used to answer every email and return books to the library on time. I did yoga and jogged and sometimes even tried on several outfits before deciding on one, considering all angles, lingering in front of the mirror. I had time and space and--Ahhh....just thinking about it makes me feel relaxed.


Certain things were predictable before I became a parent. In the same way snow once fell every winter, I used to dependably face challenges with composure and optimism. Now it's not unusual to see confused bulbs blooming in January, while on a daily basis I seem to utter something straight from the script of those moms I used to judge in the grocery store, barking irrational, unbecoming threats at their children in a vain attempt to win cooperation.

Time was, my temper rarely approached even a simmer. And now...well, sometimes I fume. Sometimes I yell. Occasionally, a spoon gets torpedoed into the sink with a good, satisfying clatter. Once, I even broke a bowl, sort of by accident. (N.B.: Don't empty the dishwasher angry.) On good days, I just sigh a lot, and Gabe asks, "Mommy, are you VERy FRUStrated?"

I have read that I am supposed to count to ten when I feel my fuse begin to spark. But here is the one way in which the angry me resembles the always-cheery Owie: I can't get past two. For me, there is a better solution, which restores peace and contentment in less time than it takes to take a deep, yogic breath. If I had to sum up my strategy in one word, that word would be: cupcakes.


Of course, homemade cupcakes themselves take some time, though not very much. In this case, it's the mere word--spoken like a mantra, a promise, a sacred vow--that changes the game. The kids' ears perk up. My heart rate slows. As if a cosmic wand has just come down and smoothed us each with a dab of buttercream, we all get a little bit sweeter.

I discovered the Treat Cure in my teaching days. When struggling with a problem--a troubling class dynamic, an ill-conceived assignment--the best thing to do was to return my focus to the kids, to ask them for help, or just to give them something they would love. I needed to conjure and commune with their best spirits, thereby restoring my own. The treat for them might be a creative assignment lacking the strictures of traditional academic writing, or perhaps a game, an outdoor expedition, or a day to just put our feet up and read quietly. (I was also not above just bringing in a pan of M&M brownies. This worked, too, big kids being no less susceptible than preschoolers to the charms of sugar.) Whatever form it took, the treat would always succeed in restoring a frayed relationship and reconnecting the class to its root purpose: joy.


Now before you suggest that I reread those parenting manuals full of admonitions about counting to ten and speaking softly, let me assert that my technique is validated in one of my favorite books for moms: Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children by Sarah Napthali. You will have inferred from the scenes noted above that I am no Buddhist, at least not yet. But the book contains wisdom from which parents and non-parents alike can benefit. When faced with a problem, she explains, Buddhist teachings encourage us to "train our minds to be flexible and supple," searching for new perspectives and alternatives to our negative thoughts. Instead of dwelling on what troubles us, she writes, we must ask ourselves questions like "What is required of me?" and "What opportunities does our problem provide for us?"

As you can see, I have discovered some very tasty ways to answer these questions, and to transform negative energy into positive, sugar-fueled fellowship. When all my instincts are telling me to lock the boys up in time-out for the next six years, the better answer is always to kill them with kindness--by which I mean cupcakes. Or cookies. Or a walk in the park. Or whatever it is that will make all three of us smile at each other again.

So if you happen to be walking by and hear a clatter, or a shout, or perhaps just a very loud sigh, don't be deterred. Wait a few moments, and then come on inside and join us. Chances are we'll be sitting at the table, licking frosting-crusted fingers and dwelling in a rare and welcome moment of quiet, the calm encircling us like a smoothing winter snow.

*

Apple Cupcakes with Lemon-Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Leite's Culinaria
> Makes 12 cupcakes or one loaf
If you prefer something less sweet, try baking this in a buttered loaf pan for 50-60 minutes. I have substituted whole wheat flour for half of the all-purpose flour with good results, and I suspect a handful of rolled oats would produce a pleasing bite and reduce the guilt factor just a tad. If you don't want to use the frosting, make a topping by blending softened butter with brown sugar, flour, and perhaps some rolled oats until you get a crumbly texture. Sprinkle this on before baking. Or just go topless, as we often do (ahem, with the cake, that is, er, well, you get the idea).

CUPCAKES
2 eggs
3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups (12 oz.) unsweetened applesauce
1 stick butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place cupcake liners in a 12-cup muffin tin, or butter lightly. In a small bowl, whisk dry ingredients, and set aside. Combine eggs and sugar in a mixer and beat until pale and thickened, 2-3 minutes. Add the applesauce and beat until blended. Scrape down the bowl and add the butter and vanilla, beating until thoroughly combined. Add the dry ingredients and mix just until the batter is relatively smooth. Don't worry if there are a few lumps. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. I prefer short cupcakes, so I fill up each cup only a little past halfway. (This means I often have enough batter left to fill a mini loaf pan, which I bake for 15 minutes longer than the cupcakes.) If you like something with more stature, fill the cups 2/3 full. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cupcakes are lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the center of one comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes. Carefully remove the cupcakes from the pan and let them finish cooling on the rack.

FROSTING
8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 stick butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 1/2 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt

Using a standing or handheld mixer, combine all ingredients until smooth. Spread on cupcakes using a knife or small spatula. You might have some leftover frosting, which will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ripple Effect

How many lonely cookbooks do you have? You know, the ones in pristine condition, with spotless pages and stiff spines? The ones that look on with envy as their grease-kissed, dog-eared, and (my favorite) steam-rippled brethren get taken down from the shelf and spattered time after time. I feel for those neglected ones. They remind me of animals at the pound who keep getting overlooked as fuzzier or younger or better-named companions parade out the door to start a new life with loving owners.

But compassion has its limits. In our small space, cookbooks have to earn their keep. If they don't, they're out. (Steve jokes that one day I'll decide that he's no longer useful and toss him out during a clutter-clearing frenzy. This is not entirely unrealistic, given the increasing, at times blinding, zeal with which I battle the encroachment of stuff on our precious few square feet.)

With this in mind, I've found a good way to keep our menus fresh while getting better acquainted with the neglected tomes. Actually, two good ways. And they both involve collaborating with other cooks, a welcome bonus.

In late fall, a cookbook bonding opportunity arose when my mother-in-law, sister-and-law, and I formed a small soup-cooking society. Our muse is Betty Rosbottom, neighbor to Gramma and author of a cookbook called Sunday Soups. We prepare one soup each week from the book and email each other about how it went. This has been a great chance to learn from other cooks by swapping tips and substitution ideas, and it's forced me to engage with recipes I would otherwise have ignored due to my tendency to gravitate toward certain flavors and ingredients. Perhaps most important of all, it has opened a channel, albeit via email, for the kind of small talk about cooking and life that goes on when we're all together at holiday time.


The second arrangement was born when Steve and I realized that in our determination to accustom the boys to family dinner, we were losing out on time to connect and converse with one another, just the two of us. (Family dinner conversation with a two year-old and a three year-old consists largely of: (a) requests for more milk, (b) every request's accompanying reminder to say please, (c) threats to take plates away in the futile quest for basic zoo-animal-level awareness of manners to be displayed, (d) attempts to get Gabe to tell us what he did in school today, (e) Gabe's standard reply, "I can't tell that right now because I'm [insert currently accurate participle here].")

As life stands right now, the only opportunity for sustained adult conversation (to the extent that we are still capable of it) comes after the boys are asleep. Remembering the lavish feasts we used to cook together, sipping wine and listening to music amidst sizzling and warmth and good smells, I proposed that we attempt to recapture those halcyon days by instituting a weekend date-night-in. An added challenge: a rule stipulating that every course must come from the same cookbook.

It's been fun and educational to work within a particular chef's approach to recipe writing and food preparation. I enjoy paging through our cookbooks (it is not unheard-of for this to happen at the playground on Saturday morning), dwelling on whole sections I would otherwise ignore. We choose the courses, divide tasks, get as much done ahead as we can, and do a quick burst of cooking once the boys are asleep. If all goes smoothly, by 9 p.m. we sit down to a multi-course meal we've both had a hand in creating.*

On the menu for tonight: thinly sliced apples, buttered, spiced, sugared, layered, covered, and weighted in ramekins, baked in a low oven for four hours. Not your typical Saturday activity in our household, but one habit I'm hoping will take hold.

I dream of a cookbook collection swollen with steam-rippled pages. Neglected recipe stats at all time lows. Romance rekindled. Distances bridged. I can't promise world peace, but if these apples turn out as well as I hope, there might be a chance, at least in our little corner.

* One tip if you decide to try the one-cookbook date night: This approach works well with a comprehensive, hefty cookbook. So far, we've enjoyed using Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan (twice), Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, and Simple Pleasures by Alfred Portale. It might be interesting to try a blog or other cooking web site some time (at risk of losing that cohesive experience of one chef's sensibility).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Easy Now

Poor aging. Birthday parties aside, this is one process that's hurting for advocates. So I'm stepping up to make the case that it's not so bad. Now, I will admit that I have limited experience with getting older. But after exiting the 18-34 demographic advertisers so adore and finding myself on the other side of two pregnancies, relying on a slightly worn body to wrangle two hefty kiddos day into night, well, I began to feel my age. And sometimes relish it.


Sure, your skin sags with the decades. You amass more things than you can possibly use. You become more responsible, less spontaneous. Your mind works more slowly and you forget stuff. Your wardrobe evokes nostalgia for previous decades. (I speak only for myself, of course. Perhaps you have become less bogged down and more pert, spontaneous, stylish, intelligent, and so on. If so, I would like your secret.)

But there is one thing about getting older that I've come to appreciate. I call it passive practice. This is my term for the kind of practice you do when you're not really thinking about practicing.

It's not the kind of practice I did as a child, clicking open my flute case and screwing together the dank parts a few times a week so as to not get in trouble at my lesson. It's not lugging your tired bones out to the playing field every day regardless of rain, shine, heat or cold to hone plays, ball skills, field sense. No. For better or worse, I don't seem to have much time for that sort of practice these days.

The kind of practice I do now is the kind I don't even realize I'm doing until all of a sudden something that used to be hard is easy. Take biscotti. When I first began making it for holiday gifts several years ago, the process tired me out. There were late, flour-dusted nights, last-minute dashes to the grocery store, recipe failures, at worst, and uneven results, at best. Frequently, as I divvied up the goodies I would find that I didn't have quite enough.


I was remembering those early days last month as I surveyed a neat set of biscotti-filled gift bags ready to be delivered to neighbors and friends. It was afternoon, not midnight. The counters were clean, the cookies were colorful and crisp, and I had enough and then some. Making them hadn't been hard; it was fun. The process required a little forethought, some organization, familiarity with the recipe, a certain touch and quickness with the tools and ingredients. The fruits of experience, ripe at last. Huh, I thought to myself, I guess I've got this process down.

Whenever I find I'm getting to know a recipe well, I think about writer Daniel Duane's common-sense recommendations, which I wrote about last year. With my annual biscotti binge, I'm not exactly following his intensive plan to recipe independence. Making it once a day for two weeks would surely yield faster and perhaps more substantive results. But that would not be an example of passive practice, the results of which are pleasing precisely because of the lack of exertion involved.

If you think about it, I'll bet you can come up with all kinds of things for which this principle applies. For example, I once marveled at the sensitive way a friend helped her young son resolve a problem, and I remember telling her I'd never know what to say in her situation. Now? After spending most of my day talking with toddlers, I find that answers to tough questions often dribble out in pretty good form if I just open my mouth. It's just practice, the kind you have to do, the kind you don't realize you're doing because it's living your life.

The only catch? You have to be getting older to reap the benefits of passive, slow accumulation of skill and wisdom. In this way, it's very inclusive. So the next time you forget your phone number or yank a gray hair, just think about all the things you know how to do well, and be glad you're not twenty anymore.

*

You can find the recipe for cranberry-pistachio biscotti here. To include and please the aforementioned three year-old, I'm working on my own nut-free version and will post it once I get results that pass the family taste test.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Reconciliation

What better way for Pan & Ink to surge forth from out of the dark creative silence of this summer than with a post on a food I've only recently learned to love? And I know the timing is right because I keep coming across my new flame in news stories of late. Seems like everybody wants to talk about how broccoli is healthy and cheap. What I'm here to add: Aside from being nutritious and economical, this crucifer is also darn good! It's zippy, easy to cook, and purty to boot.


I have not always felt this way. Broccoli and I are working on a new relationship. I have said mean things in the past. I have ignored and excluded. I have wrinkled my nose. Time was when I was a vegetarian, but it had more to do with rejecting meat than appreciating veggies. I preferred meals of the one-pot supper variety. Green food in that pot? Fine and dandy, but let there be a sauce or starch or long cooking time to flatten potent veggie flavors.

The past year has awakened me to all that I was missing. First, Christmas came, and I received a wonderful cookbook in Susie Middleton's Fast, Fresh, and Green. I read with interest, dog-eared some pages, and then put it on the shelf. As the weather warmed, my maternal guilt turned its lens on the lack of green on my children's dinner plates. Summer found me with an overabundance of guilt, farmer's markets galore, and a great cookbook unbaptized on my shelf.

I began to wonder about veggies, to be interested in them Just As They Are. Could I make them taste good? Would they let me back into their lives after so many years of scorn and neglect? There was only one way to find out. I took the book off the shelf, passed a few bucks to the perky college kids at the market, and introduced my kids to the cabbage family. (Yup, broccoli is a member.)


The greatest strength of Middleton's book lies in the methods she encourages you to master and the limitless options those methods offer once you learn them. Through practice with her "foundation recipes," I have assimilated the following bits of advice, which I now happily pass on to you:

- Butter, oil, salt, lemon, herbs: Pick three, or use all five--whatever you have on hand--and you will be on your way to veggie heaven.

- Don't crowd the pan, and don't overcook. Veggies taste best when still bright in color. High heat will give you some tasty caramelization without turning the veggies to mush.

- Learn a method and then experiment. Veggies are easy to prepare, cook quickly, and taste good without much embellishment. You can afford to play a bit. As long as you don't overcook them, they are hard to mess up.

Below, a very basic recipe based on Ms. Middleton's "hands-on" sauteing technique, which I find is not so hands-on that I can't be rushing around preparing several other dishes at the same time. And in the sub-basement (below the recipe), you'll find links to a few good articles, some exclusively focused on broccoli, others mentioning our star as one of many economical, delicious foods that will make your household happy. Enjoy!

*

ZIPPY BROCCOLI SAUTE
Adapted from Susie Middleton's Fast, Fresh, and Green
You can do this preparation with half broccoli and half julienned carrots or asparagus. Throw in chopped garlic or crushed red pepper flakes if you like. Pine nuts, almonds, or walnuts would also be nice additions. I like to pair this with dishes where the broccoli's beautiful color will "pop," as Food TV stars like to say. It's great with Torta di Pasta and this, or perhaps as part of an antipasto platter, or alongside sausages, crusty bread, and a nice cheese. The only thing I don't like about this recipe: If you adhere to my advice and don't crowd the pan, there will, sadly, be no leftovers.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter, divided
2 heads broccoli
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. lemon juice (one good-sized wedge)
chopped herbs such as mint, basil, or parsley (optional)

Set a large saute pan over medium heat. Chop the broccoli florets and upper stalks so that you expose as much flat stem surface area as possible (slicing florets in half, for example, and stalk crosswise). This will encourage quicker cooking and yummy caramelization. Create evenly sized pieces according to your taste. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil and 1/2 tbsp butter in your pan. Once butter has melted and oil is fragrant, add broccoli to pan with 1 scant tsp salt. Toss to coat and combine, increasing heat to medium-high. Cook, tossing with a spatula every two minutes or so, for 7-10 minutes, until broccoli is caramelizing in places but not losing its vibrant green. Add the second 1/2 tbsp butter and toss until butter is melted and coating the veggies. Add lemon juice, toss, and remove from heat. If you have chopped herbs, toss them in now. Add salt as desired (I usually don't).

*

Have you been looking for more to read about broccoli (or "brockee-brock," as I am strangely fond of calling it when serving it to my boys)? Of course you have. Who isn't? Well, let me get you started with a few pieces featuring our nubby-headed friend:

Mark Bittman in the New York Times, challenging the notion that it's cheaper to feed a family on fast food than it is to cook Link

Susan Gregory Thomas, also in the New York Times, on creating a garden in her Brooklyn backyard in order to feed her family on a super-tight budget Click

And from NPR's food blog, "The Salt," two articles here and here on broccoli's nutritional qualities

Oh, and here's one more from NPR, on the real person for whom the brand Chef Boyardee was named, featuring a tasty-sounding recipe for pasta with broccoli... Yum

Thursday, July 14, 2011

When the Cat's Away

Steve is not here. As a matter of fact, he is 7,000 miles away toiling in an office where blog-reading is expressly verboten (blocked, in fact). This means that he can't see our little cherubs on the family blog. And, more seriously for the family finances, he has no way of finding out what wickedness I've been up to here in his absence.


Yes, not only have I been sleeping in the middle of the bed and forgetting to check the mail, but...
(Note: If you have a heart condition and especially if you are extremely frugal, you may want to stop reading here and skip to the recipe.)
... I have also been forking over wads of cash to the perky college kids at the farmer's market. Once I spent, like, twelve dollars on one visit! And get this -- I had to borrow most of it from the friend I came with, because I had, like, NO cash in my wallet!!

My combined broke-ness and extravagance would most certainly provoke hyperventilatory sighs of exasperation from my careful husband, were he here. But he is not here. And we have a tacit agreement that while I endure the many hardships of his absence, I may spend money as needed to make myself feel better.

This makes me feel better.


There are many summertime pleasures that are free. Think sunshine, warm evening breezes, dandelions, fireflies' glow, cicadas' song, thunderstorms, and that sweaty sheen that reappears minutes after you shower. Farmer's market goodies, on the other hand, are not free. In fact, around here, I can get a better deal on produce at pricey Whole Foods than I can from the aforementioned perky, cutoff-clad youths.

But for me even the pleasantest grocery store cannot compete with the open-air market, where you shop from cardboard boxes, corn silk and smashed berries underfoot. The closest you get to climate control is the occasional dewy cooler full of goat cheese and fresh eggs. No airplanes or loading docks or automatic doors are involved in the process. It's just a farmer and a truck and a road that leads to a little corner near our home. Having listened to Terry Gross's interview with Barry Estabrook, author of the book Tomatoland, I am all the more eager to make sure my children and I know what pure food tastes like.



So I stand up for my right to indulge at the farmer's market. I proudly proclaim that I have a refrigerator full of berries. In fact, from this point onward, even after Steve returns and austerity regains its former place on the windshield of my conscious mind, I pledge to continue splurging on real, good food.

So what if the bank account's a little thirsty? I already know where the kids can work to pay the college bills... They're right perky, those two.

*

So who is the mysterious beauty featured above? Meet Ms. Cherry Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake, who came into my life from Epicurious via Smitten Kitchen. Now, let me say upfront that this is not a cake you whip up in five minutes and one bowl. The process includes some fussy steps like pitting cherries, briefly cooking the tangy-sweet topping, separating eggs, and whipping egg whites. Your kitchen may appear blood-spattered, and your sink will be full of dishes when you finish. But let me tell you...your work will be worth it! The combination of the tart balsamic-brown sugar-cherry topping with the sweet cornmeal cake is unusual and richly satisfying. I served it with a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, but it really doesn't need anything.

You can find the recipe here. The only change I made to the procedure as written was to use a 10-inch cake pan in place of a 10-inch oven-proof skillet, only because I don't own one. I simply buttered the cake pan, lined the bottom with parchment paper, buttered the parchment, and then dumped the cherry mixture into the pan after cooking it. As Deb of Smitten Kitchen says, this is a cake you can't mess up. It's just that good. Enjoy!