Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It May Be 80 Degrees, But It Isn't Summer Yet

I'm not minding the unusual warmth because the octagon is happy. Momotaro says hello.

So does Matt's Wild Cherry.

My Spanish lavender smiles.

And on my walk home today, I saw the first of the passion vines, growing feral along an untidy fence, blooming passionately away.


But, it isn't too summer-y yet for a good dose of homemade macaroni and cheese. I've been making this recipe for the last couple of years, and it is so good, that I had to share it with you, even if it is "no longer in season." Hey, out on the other coast of this fair continent, I hear it is still raining. Perhaps it isn't too late.


The World's Best Mac and Cheese
Slightly adapted from Epicurious

You will need:
1 package of elbow shaped pasta or another shape of your choosing (I like trottole)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups coarse bread crumbs
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
2 3/4 cups milk
3/4 cup cream
5 cups coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar (about 1 pound, 4 ounces)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives (Mine were from the octagon--my first crop! Hooray!)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

To make the macaroni and cheese:
Start a large pot of salted water to boil and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a large (3 quart) baking dish with butter. When the water boils, add the pasta. While the pasta is cooking, complete the following steps.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and mix it with the bread crumbs and 1 cup of cheddar cheese. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, melt the remaining butter. Add the flour and red pepper flakes to make a roux. Cook, whisking, for three minutes, then stir in the milk. Bring the sauce to a boil, stirring frequently to keep it from scorching on the bottom of the pan. Stir in the cream, mustard, chives, cheddar, salt and pepper.

When the pasta has reached "al dente" stage, pour the pasta into a colander, retaining a cup of the pasta water. Return the pasta to its large pot, along with the cup of pasta water and the cheese sauce. Stir to combine, then pour the pasta-cheese mixture into the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture evenly over the casserole, and stick the whole thing in the oven for 25 minutes.

Serves six (or two, with two days of yummy leftovers).

P.S. A couple of posts ago, I asked for "fennel pollen" ideas. I tried Susan in Italy's first--an arugula, sliced fennel, parmesan, and blood orange salad, tossed with fabulous olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt and fennel pollen. The salad came together as sweet, crunchy, and fragrant--overall, very nice, and a perfect accompaniment to the rich mac and cheese. I haven't tried Susan from The Well Seasoned Cook's gratin idea yet, but it is definitely in the foreseeable future. If any of y'all have more suggestions, I'll gladly take them.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Love Bundles for the Predators

This Tuesday afternoon, I walked to “the octagon” (the cheerfully donated plot of land which I’ve turned into a vegetable garden). I walked down a busy boulevard, passing coffee shops, Vietnamese and Persian diners, thrift shops, and the best looking community college I’ve ever encountered. A block from the community college, a white pickup pulled along the sidewalk. The mustachioed driver, someone I had never seen before, rolled down his window and shouted a hey at me. As I turned to look, he reached across his passenger seat and grabbed at his door handle, starting to open it. He yelled, smiling like an alligator, “Do you want a ride?”

Hell no, predator.

I glared at him and moved to the far side of the sidewalk. “No.”

“Okay.” He pulled the door closed and drove ahead. I saw him turn right at the next intersection. Hoping that JCC was home at the house where “the octagon” resides, I picked up the pace.

********

I used to run more regularly than I do now. I kept a three-mile route that led me through both urban diversity and established homes of old Pasadena money. (I live in the urban diversity part of this route, by the way, clearly not in the old Pasadena money part.) Before I had even hit my stride in a midweek evening jog, at a corner only a few blocks from my house, ugliness happened.

It was beautiful at first. A shiny silver Mini, hopped up with racing stripes and chrome extras, stopped at the light, left blinker on. Oh, how I wanted a Mini then. I jogged in place, waiting for the light to turn and admiring the car. The near-setting sun caught every metallic fleck in light and turned the windows into golden mirrors. The wheels glowed with Armor All and pride. Blink blink went the turn signal. Beat beat went my heart.

The window opened and bright white teeth flashed me. “Hey baby. Why don’t you shake that ass a little more for me, won’t you?”

I looked away and stopped moving. He yelled at me again: “Oh come on, sugar. Take that top off. I know it’s hot.” He continued, practically singing, “Start bouncin’ again baby. You’re boring me.”

My male friends tell me that men like the Mini-driver set out to make women mad. They tell me that I shouldn’t respond, that guys like this one just get off on it. But, sometimes, I just can’t help it.

“Asshole,” I growled, hoping for that little white man-shaped light to appear. I never wanted to cross a street more in my life.

“Oooooh. I’m pissing her off. I like ‘em mad. Come on baby, yell at me a little more and shake that fine ass.”

The light finally turned, and I had to run right in front of his perfect Mini. He shouted at me the whole time, and I ran away with a hard stride. A few blocks down the road, a thought entered my mind: I shouldn’t have called him an asshole; instead, I should have politely inquired if his vehicular choice was, in some way or another, representative of the expanse of a particular bodily member. Ah, but then I’d just be stooping too low.

I no longer want a Mini.

********

Spring is usually a gentle breeze of floral kindness in Washington, DC. On this type of day my junior year of college, listening to The Smashing Pumpkins I was humming in my head, I walked home from classes, enjoying the explosion of bulbs and buds. A fence circled the flowers around my dorm, and as I walked towards it, I noticed a man leaning against this fence. He looked at me and smiled. I smiled back—why wouldn’t I? Still smiling, teeth bared, he nodded downwards with his head.

Unfortunately, I followed his nod’s suggestion and looked down. He had pulled up one edge of his short shorts, and stood there with his dick in his hand.

I may have thrown up a little in my mouth.

Struck into robot-mode with fear, I crossed to the other side of the street and had to make a wide circle around him to get into my dorm. After I entered, I went straight to the security guard and told him what I saw. I still can’t believe I smiled at him.

********

There are many more: the time my friends and I were followed for blocks and blocks; the period when the uncle of a former employer used to call and leave vaguely menacing messages on my machine; the time in junior high when I got off the bus on my rural road and a man pulled over and got out of his car to “ask me directions” (luckily, my eagle-eyed mother saved me). I could keep going, but you’ve probably all experienced these times too. As you know, there are too many to recount, and I’ve been one of the lucky ones. Others have experienced far worse.

********

I have thought long and hard about why some people behave they way they do. I know there are quite a few possible reasons: emotional damage, mental illness, lack of self-respect. I’ve read my share of feminist theory, abnormal psychology, and the like, but I have never found a complete answer for this sort of predatory nature, a point of view in which others are simply targets for sexual use. How do folks get to the point where they lose all respect for others?

Although I became a teacher to teach people to write, being a teacher has given me the opportunity to model respect. I respect my students and they respect me. I swear; it is a little respect party going on all the time in my classroom. I’ve been teaching for ten years, and I can’t imagine any student I’ve had thinking it is okay to be such a predator. I’m probably being far too optimistic about the kids I know and love in my classroom, and maybe I’m missing some glaring indicator that would tip me off, or maybe some change in attitude occurs later. Where does the breakdown happen?

I don’t know why this breakdown happens, but I do know how it affects me. Many emotions flood me when I encounter predators. First, I feel fear, lots of it. Then I get angry. When I first started thinking about writing this entry, I pictured myself including some kind of recipe that required chopping phallic vegetables with very sharp knives. I can’t do that though, because in truth, I don’t believe in that kind of response. Fear and anger don’t lead to positive change. Fear and anger lead to more fear and anger. I am not de-valuing these very important emotions, but I don’t believe that they can move us towards healing.

On the other hand, as John Lennon and millions of other music-makers, poets, theologians, and thinkers have told us over and over, love is pretty powerful stuff. So, predators, I’m offering you something, a recipe that you will love, one that is so perfect and easy, cheap yet still remarkably elegant, you’ll wish you’d always known it. And, I offer this to you with love, with the hope you will heal and stop hurting others. It’s remarkably Pollyanna of me, I know.

At least I’m a Pollyanna that eats well.


Love Bundles (Parmesan Stuffed Dates Wrapped in Bacon)
I don’t recall for the life of me where I read or heard this, but a couple years ago I came across the mention that Suzanne Goins serves these at AOC. This is how I ended up making them, and they’ve been such a hit, I’ve served them as amuse bouches for nearly every party since I first discovered them. This is a simple recipe, so its excellence depends entirely on the quality of the ingredients—shop wisely.

You will need:

Dates (I use the Empress variety from my farmers’ market)
Parmesan, cut into approximately 1 inch by ¼ inch batons, as many batons as you have dates
Bacon, strips cut in thirds lengthwise, as many thirds as you have dates.
Toothpicks

To make the “love bundles” (I know it is a cheesy name, but can you really think of anything better for this particular recipe?):

With a sharp knife, pit the dates, discarding the pits. Insert a piece of parmesan into the cavity of the date, and press the fruit back together. Wrap a third-length of bacon around the date and secure (as best as you can, it won’t be perfect) with a toothpick. If you need to, use more than one toothpick as I often do.

Place the bacon wrapped dates on a broiler pan, or other utensil you may prefer for broiling, and broil under high for a couple minutes. You’ll need to watch carefully, as the dates will brown quickly. When the bacon on the top as browned, use kitchen mitts to remove the pan from the oven, and use tongs to turn the dates over to brown on the other side. Return the pan to the oven to broil until browned all over.

Wear oven mitts to remove the pan from the oven, and using tongs, place the dates on a dish lined with paper towels to drain a bit of their fat and cool enough to eat. Don’t wait too long though, as they’re best when they’re still quite warm.

(Sorry, no pictures. Does anyone know how to make photographs of dates look like anything other than pictures of small turds? Believe me, I tried.)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Your Input Needed Here

I'm working on a much longer post--one I promise will include a recipe you will want to use immediately--but in the meantime, I wanted to glory in the abundance of citrus at the farmers' market, citrus that allowed me to make a ruby-colored carafe of grapefruit-blood orange-tangerine juice to go along with breakfast.

All this Vitamin C got my mind working, leading me to a question for you. Fennel pollen is the hit spice in the food world lately, so when I saw it at a shop in Washington, DC, I had to buy it; I opened it right away, and as soon as I broke the seal, a flutter of sweet-licorice-y goodness floated by. I'm excited to play with this, but I don't know quite what to do with it. I've got ideas, but instead of working alone, I'd love your input. If you send me recipe ideas, I will try at least one of them and post the results.

Thanks! I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Congratulations, Man!

I didn't know a food critic at an independent newspaper could pull it off, but Jonathan Gold has done it. He's won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Nice work.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Good Thing About Going To Work Tomorrow

I get to tell my students about this. Ha!

Two Springs

School resumes tomorrow. Argh. A vacation is never long enough, is it?

ECG and I had the opportunity to visit my brother, my college roommate KRO, and her husband this week in DC. For me, the trip was a return to well-remembered sidewalks and Metro stops, but to ECG, it was entirely new. We balanced our interests: the four day trip included visits to the Smithsonian's Air and Space museum, Cowgirl Creamery, the National Building Museum, and the DC Fish Market.

Unfortunately, the weather was gray, occasionally spitting cold mini-drops of rain, and sharply windy. The freezes of the week before had chased the cherry blossoms from the trees and slowed some of the other early blooms. It was not the lovely spring of my memories.

That didn't stop my brother and I from showing ECG around some of our favorite places.



And, though the flowers were shy, I still managed to find a few, proving once again, that spring can't be stopped, no matter how hard winter tries.



We enjoyed ourselves despite the jetlag and cold--how could we not with such good company?

After returning, I couldn't help but visit the garden as soon as possible. A few days away makes growth gloriously evident, and I was greeted by tomato plants already a few inches taller than when planted, herbs that had settled happily into their new homes and were beginning to send out their first spreading branches, and seedlings that had sprung from their cages.

Also after our return, Bulgarini opened, making local food news. Foodies from across LA County joined the WWs and I in line for free gelato, and judging by the satisfied smiles and gasps of delight, I'm sure no one was disappointed. I sampled the chocolate-rum, coffee, and pistachio. The first two were great, the last, spectacular. I've never tasted something as intensely pistachio (not almond--many folks supplement weak pistachio flavor with almond extract) as this. What a great addition to our 'hood.


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Easter

For the past three years, I have been making the same dessert for Easter: a fragrant almond cake with an orange-scented custard filling. It’s lovely and dramatic; the cake is a tasty golden square, sealed with a crusty edge of almond, and each bite contains a whole range of textures, from crunch, to a dense chew, and into a soft pillow of custard. I usually host Easter, but this year ECG and I planned to take a redeye out to DC that night, so we accepted the invitation to join friends at their home. I volunteered to bring my Easter dessert. I also toyed with the idea of bringing a spring-y strawberry-rose sorbet—something lighter for those who may want it.

Saturday morning I hit the farmers’ market to get ingredients for both the cake and the sorbet. I made the sorbet base as soon as I got home. Mundane weekend chores filled the rest of my morning, and I spent most of the afternoon working on the cake. Because it requires mixing the dough, chilling the dough, rolling the dough, filling the dough with the custard (which you’ve hopefully remembered to make before this step), and chilling the whole thing again before baking, it’s a terribly time consuming (and therefore a once-a-year) recipe. I finished the cake in the evening, and let it cool to turn out before going to bed that night. After working for a few hours to get my house into some semblance of order before leaving the next day, I pulled out the cake plate, set it over the baking dish, and flipped. Did I not wait long enough? Did I hesitate? Did I shake the baking dish just a little too hard?

You know what is coming.

Shit. I dropped the whole thing.

Custard. Crust. Curse words. It was messy.

Wracked with fat snotty tears, I accepted ECG’s hug of comfort, tried to calm down, then set out to clean up the disaster. Slopping custard up in big spoonfuls and scrubbing it out of the grout between the tiles just made me cry again, so I gave in to the tears and wept while I cleaned. I felt like a sponge absorbing frustrations: the dessert was ruined, it was a bitch to clean up, it was late and I was very tired, and I had no idea what to do for Easter dessert the next day. I felt stupid and angry at myself.

I did the only thing I could do in such a state; I went to bed.

If it were the movies, I would say next that in the morning, the sun shone brightly, birds sang, and a whole cake, free from disaster, waited for me downstairs. It was Easter after all. I mean, resurrection is expected. But alas, all that waited for me downstairs was a messy bowl of mushy cake remnants in the refrigerator. I woke spitting angry invectives at myself, but realized it was Easter and I better practice the whole point of the day. I forgave myself. It sounds so cheesy to say that, but it isn’t nearly as easy to do as it should be. I did it though. Once I was no longer angry, I felt flexible and able to conquer the challenge ahead of me. As we all know (it is no new lesson here) being angry takes a lot of mental energy and letting go of it allows one to apply that mental energy to much more productive tasks. Short on time—two hours before church, after which would follow the Easter lunch—I had to figure out something to do. Making the cake again was impossible since I had neither enough time nor enough eggs to pull it off. The sorbet, once a backup plan, now would have to be central to the dessert. I’d need to make something to complement it. I thought of the crust of the previously planned cake, and figured that I had just enough time to throw that part of the recipe together and turn it into cookies or bars. I added a little extra Sauternes to the batter to make it even more fragrantly delicious, pressed the batter into pie pans, and voila, created a perfect Easter dessert. The combination of crust and dense interior of the bars (if any one knows a prettier term for “bars,” please let me know, as this recipe could certainly use it), along with the undeniably wonderful flavors of almond, Sauternes, and vanilla made them irresistible, while the strawberries and rosewater melded together into gorgeous true-red scoops of perfumed perfection.

Forgiveness sure is delicious.

Strawberry-Rose Sorbet and Sauternes-Almond Bars

For the sorbet (from April’s Sunset), you will need:

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 pound fresh strawberries, rinsed, and stems removed
1 ½ tablespoons of rosewater
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt

To make the sorbet:

Bring the sugar and ½ cup of water to a simmer over medium high heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then remove from heat and set to cool to room temperature.

Purée strawberries in a food process until smooth then pour through a sieve into a mixing bowl. The sieve will catch the seeds, but you’ll have to press the fruit through. It will take a few minutes of scraping the solids with a large spoon against the side of the sieve to get most of the fruit through. Toss the seeds.

Into the mixing bowl with the fruit, pour the sugar syrup, rosewater, lemon juice and salt. Remember to taste the sorbet base before chilling: as with all frozen desserts, it should be a little too sweet because the cold will dampen your taste buds' ability to taste sweetness. Stir well, then place the bowl in the refrigerator to chill completely before following the directions from your ice cream maker to freeze into a sorbet.

For the bars (adapted from Martha Stewart Living, April 2004), you will need:

2 ¼ cups flour
½ cup ground almonds
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 ½ cups sugar
3 egg yolks
¼ cup Sauternes
1 teaspoon almond extract
The seeds scraped from one vanilla bean*

*To do this, place the bean lengthwise on a cutting board. With a short, sharp knife, cut the bean along its length. You will end up with two long halves. Hold one end of the bean half tightly against the cutting board and scrape out the tiny seeds with the knife by dragging it forcefully along the beans interior. Do the same to the other side. You will end up with about ¼ teaspoon of seeds. Do not discard the bean shells, but instead, place them in a small jar, fill the jar with sugar, and let sit in a dark place. After a few days, the sugar will be perfumed beautifully by the bean shells. Use the wonderful vanilla-scented sugar to flavor whipped cream, your coffee, or anything else in which you’d like the flavor of vanilla.

To make the bars:

Whisk together the first four ingredients and set aside while you work at the electric mixer. Into the bowl of the mixer, place the butter and the sugar. Mix on medium until the mixture is pale yellow and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, making sure that the sides of the bowl are scraped down to thoroughly incorporate the yolk. Once completely combined, add the Sauternes, almond extract, and vanilla bean seeds. Beat on medium thirty seconds or so to mix completely. Add the flour mixture in two additions, beating until the ingredients just come together.

Place the dough into the refrigerator to firm up for at least a half-an-hour. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 375 and grease two pie pans. After the dough has firmed up a bit, remove it from the refrigerator, divide it into two portions, and press each portion into one of the pie pans. Flatten the dough against the bottom of the pans with your fingers. If you’d like to prettify this, you could use a fork or another implement to press a design into the batter.

Place the pans into the oven, and bake about 25 minutes, or until the edges and top of the bars are toasty-golden. Remove from the oven, let cool completely, then cut into wedges. Serve with a dusting of powered sugar and a scoop of sorbet.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

To Be Outdoors

It feels so good. Nothing cures Seasonal Affective Disorder like working in the vegetable garden on a temperate afternoon. What makes it even better? The smell of a street lined with lacy-blooming camphor trees, good friends who chat with me as I stick my hands in the dirt, and a friendly cat who wants to hang out too.

My melon seeds have not arrived yet, but I planted my eggplants, peppers, some Spanish lavender, and of course, my tomatoes. I followed advice from one of my favorite gardening books, The Year I Ate My Yard, and "planted" an egg with each tomato plant. The egg decomposes slowly, providing the plant the phosphorous, calcium, sulfur, and other essential minerals as it grows. Unlike most traditional fertilizers, which give the tomato too much nitrogen too early, it encourages more flower and fruit growth, rather than massive leaf growth.

The Year I Ate My Yard is a quirky text--part narration, part philosophy-rich rambling, and part process analysis. It's funny and helpful and a great introduction to healthy, thoughtful gardening. A couple of years ago, I read it, loved it, and later went to see Tony Kienitz read at Vroman's. Totally enchanted by his humor and natural approach, I asked him to sign my book. He did, writing "To Christina: Eat your own yard! Best of luck, Tony."

On Monday, when I bought my tomato plants at Burkards, I saw him there, shopping for a client. I did not go up to him and praise him yet again. Instead, I smiled to myself, remembering the command he gave me at the signing. No, I am not eating my yard this year Tony, I'm eating a friend's yard, but I think it may still count.

Grilled Spicy Steak
Adapted from Epicurious.

When we have nights like this, soft and sweet smelling, happy with the song of LOUD crickets, being outside is a moral imperative and grilling is mandatory, even if it is on a balcony. This dish makes the night smell (and taste) even better, with it's warming spices and depth of garlic.

For each pound of flank steak (delicious) or skirt steak (beyond delicious) you will need:
1 teaspoon of chili molida
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chipotle Tabasco
1 large garlic clove, mashed to a paste with 1 teaspoon of coarse salt*
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon raw sugar
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

*I mash the garlic and salt together with a mortar and pestle, then use the mortar as a bowl in which to mix the rest of my ingredients.

To make the steak:
You will have the best grilling luck if you plan ahead enough to bring the meat to room temperature before grilling.

Stir all ingredients together, except the meat, until smooth. Cut off the extra fat from the skirt steak or flank steak, and if you're working with a flank steak, using a sharp knife, create very shallow scores, about an inch apart, on each side. The "stripes" will help the spice mixture permeate the meat, and will keep the muscle fibers from tightening up to toughness as you grill.

Light the grill, clean off the grates, and let it heat up until hot.

While the grill is heating, place the steak in a large shallow dish, smear half of the spice paste over one side of the steak, turn the steak over, and smear the rest on the other. Let the meat rest for a few minutes as the grill heats. When the grill is ready and very hot, toss on the meat. Let it cook on high 3-5 minutes for each side, or until the meat is the level of "done-ness" you prefer.

This is wonderful as a main dish, served with beans and a crispy salad, or sliced thin as the filling for tacos on warm corn tortillas with good guacamole.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Too Excited to Think About Much Else


As some of you may know, my friends J and ECC have offered me the use of a the garden plot in their back yard, just a mile down my street. Tomorrow, I plant. Today, I shopped.

What I get to dream about until harvest (and hopefully after):
Tomatoes: Black Krim, Momotaro, Missouri Love Apple, Matt's Wild Cherry
Chilis: Chili Arbol y Chili Ancho
Melons: Collective Farm Woman, Tigger, Boule D'Or, and Charantais
Two Japanese Eggplants
Herbs and edible flowers

I'll keep you posted on how my garden grows.