Wednesday, November 21, 2007

4 oranges, 4 greens, 1 red, and 1 recipe

I've been tagged again for another meme, and although I'm not much of a meme-r, I can't say no to Wendy, blogress extraordinaire at A Wee Bit of Cooking. Since she's a fellow teacher, gardener, and cook (as well as animal and nature lover, traveler, and reader--we have lots of shared interests, you see), it is impossible for me to ignore her request. She asked that I list four things in four different categories, but I'll modify it to write four things in two categories, with two extras just for kicks.

List Number 1: Oh, how I love orange.
Not one to have favorites, I can't claim a favorite color, just as I can't name one perfect food, one ideal place to be, or the one band that I have to hear all the time. So, although it isn't my favorite because I "love every color just the same," orange has a special place in my heart.

1) Orange is the color of my living room, a place where I curl up on the couch with the animals for a nap, to watch TV with ECG, or sit in one of the old barrel chairs and read. When ECG and I have parties, the orange room is where the crowd congregates, even sitting on the floor to be surrounded by the warm glow off of the walls. The color of the room flatters everyone.


2) Nearly eight years ago, I went to the swap meet at Pasadena City College for the first time and found a glass casserole dish, glazed with a glowing orange luster. I fell in love. Since then, I've collected orange luster-ware from swap meets, yard sales, and antique shops I've stumbled upon; someday I may have enough with which to serve a complete meal. At this rate of collection, that should happen when I am about 73 years old, give or take a month or two.

3) This weekend, I made Clementine-Meyer Lemon marmalade, a treat that is delicious with the recipe that will end this post.

4) The middle of November means it is time for hachiya persimmons. They hang on the trees like splatter-bombs disguised as early Christmas decorations.


My friends S and RWW have a persimmon tree behind their house. This year, I helped them harvest, hoping to collect as much just-unripe fruit as possible before they ripened and parrots got to them or before they splatted into sweet, sticky sugar puddles all over the yard and roof. We weren't early enough to completely beat the seasons: some fruit fell as we used the long-poled fruit picker. We had to dodge orange explosions that fell from random parts of the tree.


The payoff was worth the mess. We collected bags and bags of the fruit, many that we gave away, many that we kept.


If you haven't had a hachiya persimmon before, you've missed out on their slippery sweet goodness. It's important to eat them when they are completely ripe, soft and fragile as water balloons, otherwise the fruit is astringent and gives one a wicked case of cotton-mouth. But when they are ripe, they are intensely sweet and cool, a tree-given pudding, a dessert to slurp out of hand or attempt to tackle with a spoon. They are also wonderful to use in the kitchen. In the weeks to come, as the piles of fruit in my house ripen, I'll post recipes that show off its wonderful qualities.


List Number 2: Green Goods
The winter vegetable garden is coming into its own. I've been bringing home a gallon bag of green, leafy vegetables almost every day, the source of the salads we eat for dinner and the braised greens I sometimes have for lunch. The arugula I planted in the beginning of October has already peaked and gotten too hot to eat, even sauteed; as a result, I pulled it out and will be trying a different variety, Seeds of Change's Sputnik Arugula.

Here are four crops that haven't matured quite yet, but that I'm happily anticipating:

1) Sugar Snap Peas: They're now taller than waist-high and growing so quickly I feel like I can see the tendrils curl in front of my eyes, but no flowers yet.


2) Garlic: All the varieties are up now, some more vigorous than others, but it looks like, come harvest time in the late spring, I'll have plenty.


3) The first Windsor Fava flower-bud is here. It will open to be black and white and fragrant.


4) And so close I can taste it stir-fried, steamed with butter, or roasted with garlic--here comes the broccoli!


Another Garden Good, not Green
The beets--in this case Detroit Dark Red--are beginning to swell.


And to round this out, a recipe: Homemade English Muffins
When the marmalade bubbled on the stove this past weekend, the whole house filled with the smell of sweet citrus, and ECG asked how we'd eat it. He claims not to like marmalade. I told him that I could taste it smeared on hot English muffins, each cavity filled with melted butter and topped with a marmalade glaze. (I just made myself drool a little bit as I wrote that last sentence.) He grimaced and said, "I guess I have to try it." Ah, the gauntlet was tossed to the ground and I took the challenge. Yup, if I wanted to make sure to prove that marmalade is delicious, I better make the means of delivering that marmalade as delectable as possible, so that meant that those English muffins had to be spectacular. Making them at home considerably increased that possibility, but I had never made them before. Unfazed, I consulted Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible and set out.

Although The Bread Bible is a phenomenal resource, I can't stand the layout. It drives me crazy to see so many numbers on a page. (A few years ago, I directed my school's self-auditing process--called WASC in this area of the world--and authored a report on our academic, demographic, athletic, and financial statistics. Each page included at least one table or chart. By the end of this endeavor, I was a basketcase. I dreamed in charts instead of pictures, figures instead of numbers. I spoke in acronyms and brainstormed in jargon. It took hundreds of miles of meandering walks, hikes in the local mountains, and a few trips to parents' very rural New Mexico home to put my head back together again. Never again will I put myself in such a position.) So, here I've written the recipe in a way that works for me. This way, I can share it with my readers and keep it in a place where I can refer to it, over and over, without having to suffer through a chart.

Plan ahead: this recipe straddles two days. Plan the ferment and the chilling around your schedule. I will make these again, but only when I have plenty of time, perhaps on vacations or summer break.

Step 1.
For this step, you will need:
1 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons of organic all purpose flour
3/4 cup of organic nonfat or 1% milk, scalded and returned to room temperature
1 tablespoon local honey
1/2 teaspoon of yeast

In a bowl of your stand mixer, stir these ingredients together, incorporating as much air as possible. The mixture will be very thick, but keep stirring for two minutes to dissolve the yeast, oxygenate the mixture, and blend everything together well. This mixture will serve as the sponge for the dough.

Step 2.
For this step, you will need:
1 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons of organic all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon yeast

Stir these ingredients together and sprinkle on top of the other ingredients from Step 1. Do not mix the dry flour into the sponge, just leave it on top. Cover the bowl. Leave it on the counter for an hour, then place it in the refrigerator overnight, or up to 24 hours. The chilled environments leads to a slower ferment, and more flavorful final result.

Step 3.
For this step, you will need:
3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 teaspoons of salt

Insert the dough hook in your stand mixer and place the bowl underneath. Dump in the butter and mix on very low speed to incorporate it into the other ingredients. The resulting mixture will be very rough looking. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes or so to the let gluten relax a bit. Sprinkle the salt into the mixture, then turn the stand mixer on to the kneading speed (on a KitchenAid, #3 or 4 work well) and knead for 10 minutes. You may need to add a splash or two of water to make sure that there is enough moisture to form a smooth dough--I had to add about two tablespoons. The finished dough should be very smooth, firm, and a little shiny.

Step 4 (the easiest step).
Grease a bowl and place the ball of dough in it. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise for an hour and a half, or until the dough doubles in size. Once it has doubled in size, press the dough down to deflate it, and knead it gently for a bit in the bowl. Cover the bowl again and place it in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to 8.

Step 5.
For this step you will need:
1/3 a cup of organic cornmeal
a 3 1/2 inch biscuit cutter, a clean and empty tuna can, or other means of cutting the dough into circles (I used the ring for a wide-mouth canning jar with the help of a sharp knife)

Sprinkle a baking sheet with most of the cornmeal. Flour your work space and roll out the dough into a rectangle 8" by 12". The dough should be about 1/4 inch thick. Use your biscuit cutter (or replacement) and cut out 6 rounds. They will shrink a bit as they're cut. Place the rounds on cornmeal-covered baking sheet, about 2" apart. Sprinkle the rounds with some of the remaining cornmeal. Cover the baking sheet with oiled parchment or another baking sheet, placed upside down. Let the rounds rise for about 45 minutes, or until they are between 1/2" and 3/4" high.

While the first rounds are rising, knead together the dough scraps, press them into a disk, and place them in a covered container in the refrigerator for an hour to relax the gluten. Then, roll out the dough on the floured work space into a 7 1/2" square and cut out 4 more rounds of dough. Follow the directions for the first batch for these as well.

Step 6.
For this step, you will need:
Butter
Your favorite skillet--I used my cast-iron skillet for this.

Heat a skillet over low heat until water sizzles when dropped in the pan. Spread a bit of butter around the bottom of the pan with a spatula, and add a few muffins to the pan. Cook for 10 minutes, or until browned underneath. Flip the muffins and cook until the bottom is browned. Transfer the muffins to a wire rack to cool and continue cooking the rest of the dough rounds.

Step 7.
Use forks to split the muffins. Toast them until lightly brown, then smother them in butter and marmalade and prove to your man that marmalade is some darn good stuff. Listen to him moan happily.

Smile in satisfaction.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Trompe L'oeil

What does this look like to you?


It's creamy and mousse-like. The buttery crust frames the rich, custardy interior, cradling it as gently as a nest holds its prized golden egg. Is it a lemon pie? A crusted cheese-cake? A seasonally appropriate pumpkin pie?

Close, but you're barking up the wrong tree. This isn't a dessert. Nope, this is the fall brunch or luncheon dish of your dreams, something your friends will rave over and plead with you for access to the recipe. Simple, silken, and sophisticated, you will find this recipe is easier than you expect, but you don't have to tell anyone that.

Winter Squash Quiche

You will need:
A pre-baked, savory, flaky pie-crust--use your favorite recipe
5 eggs
2 cups of winter squash puree from that huge squash you roasted last night and have leftover today (make sure to puree well for the smoothest texture in the final product)
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup cream
1/4 teaspoon ground chipotle chile
1 scant teaspoon salt (or to taste)
4 tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese

To make the quiche:
Make sure your pie-crust is baked through. Your oven will probably still be warm from baking the crust, but preheat, or leave heated to 355 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs until they are thoroughly mixed. Stir in the squash puree, mascarpone, cream, chipotle, and salt. Whisk until all ingredients are mixed and the whole combination is a pale gold. Pour the mixture into the pre-baked pie-crust.

Place the quiche in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, after which time, open the oven, slide out the quiche and sprinkle on the parmesan. Slide the quiche back into the oven and bake for another 10 minutes, or until the quiche is just set in the middle.

Serve with crisp fruit slices and a fluffy green salad, dressed with a zingy vinaigrette.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Camping, a Cold, and Finding Comfort

Every Veteran's Day weekend for years, a group of friends and I have taken a camping trip to Leo Carillo State Beach. I look forward to this weekend of camping each year, especially since November always finds me exhausted, tired of grading papers, and up to my ears in the least favorite parts of my job. However many papers come at me, however many meetings I have to attend, and however short the hours of daylight may be, I can always count on this long weekend of camping each November.

This year, all the things that weigh on me in the fall have succeeded in dragging me down: I've been struck by a hell of a cold. By the time Friday rolled around last week, I knew I was sick, but I refused to believe that I wasn't well enough to go camping, so Saturday--in an attempt to deny the reality of my sickness--ECG and I packed up the car with our gear and goods for a top-notch camping barbecue. This decision, as optimistic as it may be, was not a wise one.

I'll stop complaining for a moment and be honest. Low tide Saturday was worth many colds, a hundred times over. The sea grass, kelp, and rocks merged to create a green, gold, and russet backdrop for the oranges, purples and turquoises of starfish, urchins, and anemones. I spent an hour crawling out on the rocks in the afternoon, just before the sun set, poking around in the tidal pools. I once read that to become marine biologists, candidates must participate in an unofficial "rite" of initiation: they must french kiss a sea anemone. I've never had the guts to do that (guess that's why I'm not a marine biologist), and I certainly didn't feel like giving any sea anemone my cold this weekend, but I followed my regular routine of sticking my finger in them and feeling their gentle little suckers attack my fingers. Don't worry--we don't have dangerous anemones in our local waters.





I've been trained well not to take anything from protected environments, but that doesn't stop me from handling the beautiful objects I find. I just make sure to put them back where I found them.





The next morning, I walked along the beach with some friends and their spunky Chihuahua, Tonya. The sky sputtered briny mist at us, but it was peaceful and eerily gorgeous just the same.



Tonya is a digger. So convinced is she that a treasure lay just below where she is, that she will dig up the entire beach looking for it. We egged her on just to watch how fast she could make the sand fly and how much sand she could get all over herself. According to her dog-parents--my friends R and SWW--she eats so much sand when she goes to the beach that she poops sand castles for days afterwards.


Skirting the edges of the shore, Sacred Datura bloomed (Datura wrightii) sweetly, belying it's poisonous and invasive nature.


As Sunday wore on, the poor camping sleep and wood smoke aggravated my already troublesome cough. My head pounded. I couldn't stay for the whole weekend. I needed to sleep in my own bed and focus on getting better, even if it meant leaving the long-awaited camping trip. ECG, beginning to feel the niggling beginnings of a cold himself, took down the tent, and we loaded up the car again.

Back in my car on the road, I fell asleep as ECG drove. Once home, we didn't even bother with unloading the car, but crawled straight upstairs, showered, and fell into bed. We napped for a couple hours, got into our pajamas, and moved downstairs for the ultimate movie-induced comfort that we could find: Trading Places. Is it just ECG and I who find watching well-worn movies as soothing as chamomile tea when sick? There's almost nothing better for a tired brain and body in this house than plopping on our leather couch and laughing along with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy as they work their comedic wonder and prove both theories--nature and nurture--wrong.

When we finally rallied enough to feel like eating, I rummaged through my refrigerator looking for something soothing and easy, but alas, there was nothing that fit the bill. I had to invent something. And so I did: Parsnip Soup with Marsala.

Goodness this was easy. And goodness, this was good. Simple, smooth, and pleasantly creamy--but not too much so for already phlegm-filled sickies--this soup hit the spot for us last night. The marsala plays with the citrus-y notes of the parsnip and makes the whole dish feel a lot more elegant than it really is.

Parsnip Soup with Marsala
Serves four.

You will need:
1 small onion, diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 pounds of parsnips, peeled and sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
4 cups of your favorite broth (I used beef, but vegetable, chicken or any other would work equally well here, each adding its particular perfume to the dish)
1/4 cup marsala
1/4 cup cream
salt

To make the soup:
In a large, heavy pot (I used my orange, well-worn dutch oven), melt the butter and add the onions with a 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cook on medium-high heat until the onions are translucent, but not brown. Add the parsnip coins and stir to toss them in the glaze of onions and butter. Cover the pot, turn the heat down to medium, and let the parsnips and onions cook together for about 10 minutes. Check periodically to make sure that they are not browning, but cooking slowly in the butter and their own steam. After the 10 minutes, and once the parsnips are beginning to get tender, add two cups of the broth. Cook for another few minutes, until the parsnips are tender all the way through, then turn the heat off.

Using an immersion blender or working in batches with a food processor, puree the mixture until completely smooth. (Be careful! The mixture is very hot and can splatter and burn you! Hold the lid down on the food processor or make sure the immersion blender is fully immersed before you blend.) If you used the food processor, return the mixture to the pot once you've blended it. If you used the immersion blender, it should still be--hopefully not splattered across the back of your stove--in your pot.

Return the pot to low heat. Add the remaining stock and the marsala. Bring the soup to a simmer and taste for salt--add more if necessary. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the cream, stirring until completely combined.

Serve immediately for immediate comfort.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Too Good to Last for Pictures

It sat there waiting for me, so flesh-colored and phallic, standing straight up on the counter. It had waited at attention for two weeks, waiting for me to lavish some culinary attention upon it, but I know its type, and therefore understood that it could stand straight and tall for weeks, even months at a time. Each time I entered the kitchen, I eyed it, wondering if its time was now.

I don't know what happened today, maybe I was just looking for the perfect side-dish, or maybe that tall, erect promise of sweet moist flesh finally got to me, but today I broke down and got to some serious butternut squash lovin'.

C'mon, what did you think I was talking about?

Although I had already hit the kobacha, delicata, and acorn squashes this fall, I had yet to prepare this year's first butternut before tonight, and although it may be sacrilege to admit a favorite in the winter squash world, this cucurbita moschata tops my list. Since it is so special to me, I try to find the perfect way to prepare it for its first trip to my kitchen of the season each year. I had considered a winter squash and pomegranate salad that KCRW's Good Food sent me in its weekly emailings, but a simpler preparation, one that celebrated the fruit's remarkably sweet squashiness, seemed most appropriate for this year's inaugural butternut. So, following the simplest of directions, modifying them to fit my needs, I grilled the bugger.

It was--sorry for the clicheed superlative--a revelation.

You know how roasted squash gets the browned caramelly edges that beg to be slathered in butter and sprinkled with salt--no need for extra brown sugar? Imagine that, except even more caramel-ly, with the addition of smoke.

Did I hear you just fall out of your chair and into a swoon? If you did, you're just repeating my behavior of a couple hours ago. While ECG and I were disappointed in today's main dish (so much so it ended up in the trash instead of our bellies), this gorgeous grilled side more than made up for what would have otherwise been a debacle. We were so happy with the squash that between the two of us, we nearly ate the whole thing, and therefore, we have no pictures to share. It is that good.

Grilled Butternut Squash
Adapted from a larger dish in The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook, by Amelia Saltsman.

You will need:
1 large butternut squash
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 healthy tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
1 chili arbol, crumbled
1 clove of garlic, crushed
salt to taste

To make the squash:
Heat the grill to medium. (On weekends, ECG and I use his kettle barbecue to slowly sink lovely smoke into the very essence of what we cook, but on weeknights like tonight, I roll out the little gas grill on the big balcony. I soak some smoker chips for a few minutes in water before wrapping them in tin foil and placing them in the grill, under the grate. The smoker chips help me "cheat," adding much more flavor to the quick gas grilling. If you are going to use smoker chips, place them in the grill before you light it.)

Back in the kitchen, in a small pot on the stove, heat the oil, thyme, chili, and garlic over low heat just until the herbs begin to sizzle. Toss in a generous shake or two of salt and let the oil infuse while you prepare the squash.

On a cutting board, carefully use a sharp knife to cut the butternut lengthwise (from stem to tail) in half. Scrape out the seeds and strings, then liberally douse the cut edge with the flavored oil.

Put the squash, cut sides down, on the grill and cover. After 15 minutes, remove the grill cover and flip the halves over. There should be some dark-brown to black grill lines. Cover again, and let grill for another 15 minutes, after which, check the squash for tenderness. If it is not completely tender, move the squash to the cooler edges or turn the heat down, and grill for another 10-15 minutes, skin side still down on the grate. When the squash is done, the exterior should be largely near-black and crispy all around.

Sprinkle more infused olive oil over the halves, shake with some good salt, and cut the halves into whatever serving size fits the stomachs of those who are dining. (I think that one large squash could happily serve as a side dish for four eaters.) Serve the remaining oil alongside for diners to add as needed, or just break down and place the butter out on the table too.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Pretty Darn Local

My super-awesome friend Sarah, a fellow Pasadena blogger, did much of the organizing (read people herding), some of the picking (read blackened fingers), and all of the websiting (read this) for Caltech's First Annual Olive Harvest. I had to work today--sometimes having a job, as we all know, gets in the way of having a life--so I couldn't volunteer, but I stopped by this afternoon after work to get an idea of how a prestigious science school harvests olives. Here's what I gleaned: they harvest olives like scientists would. Imagine that!

After volunteers harvested the olives this morning, they sent of the majority of the fruit to Santa Barbara to be milled and pressed; the happy workers milled what remained with this specially-designed contraption:


video


After milling, volunteers pressed them in another Caltech-designed machine, then sent the collected fluid off to the Bio lab to hit the centrifuges for quick separation, allowing them to taste the oil the same day they harvested olives.

To highlight the availibility of other local foods, organizers had set up tables of yummy local samplings and posted maps of the campus's "grazing spots," many of which hosted some remarkably delicious-smelling mints and geraniums.





Volunteers--hundreds of them--worked hard, but they celebrated their accomplishment at the end of the day in a grand, olive-themed feast.


The very local Caltech olive oil hits the bookstore in a few weeks. I'm counting the days to taste the product, and I've decided that next year, no matter what, I'm volunteering: it looks like far too much fun to miss out on a second time.