Sunday, April 25, 2010


When I got my driver's license at age 16, my horse was no longer my only ride. Now, I inherited the family truck, a red 1974 Jeep Wagoneer in which the previous owner had installed glass packs. There was no sneaking home past curfew, but I loved it all the same. I loved its noise, its heft, its color. I loved that the entire beast was made from steel, and I could crawl up on its roof for a better view at a parade or just to catch some sun for a picnic. The blessed heater of the Jeep warmed the entire cabin in seconds, a miraculous feat in subzero Minnesota winters, and when my parents gave me sheepskin seat covers that I could sink deep into in the few moments the Jeep's cabin took to warm, I had comfort, noise, and freedom on wheels. I named the truck Scarlet. Graced with a bullet hole on her rear end, she wasn't pretty, but I loved her madly.

Scarlet got me to and from the barn, school, and work at the garden center. I drove kids I babysat to their myriad lessons, and I took truckloads of people to football games and movies. Sometimes during lunch, I would hop in Scarlet with a pack lunch and drive around Lake Minnetonka. I would make it all the way around and back just before class started. During the deep of winter, my brother and I drove across Lake Minnetonka. Scarlet was old, but still reliably ran, especially since I knew a couple gearhead teenage boys who could repair her when things went haywire. For a while, she wouldn't turn off and it wasn't a simple case of engine run-on; nope, I had to pull the distributor cord to get her to shut down. Once, while doing so, I shocked my hand so badly my thumb bounced and danced for hours afterward. But all of her quirks and flaws were, if not repairable, at least put-up-with-able. I trusted her.

I didn't go to many parties in high school. Teenage anxiety exacerbated the way I always felt new and foreign to Minnesota, even after I had lived there a couple years. But, one party I did attend—no alcohol of course, I was never cool enough to be invited anywhere were rules were being broken—was on the other side of the lake and through some pretty deep woods.

The party was a bust. I remember not feeling comfortable and wanting to leave as soon as I got there, but I stayed for a bit, tried to connect to people, talked and smiled and felt exhausted. I left.

About a third of the way home, in the deepest dark of the woods, Scarlet's headlights began to dim. As we progressed, they grew dimmer. Then she began to slow in a way that was hardly noticeable at first, but grew more and more pronounced the further we went. She stopped. I tried restarting her, and we rolled another couple feet before she died. She didn't start again.

Ah, the days before ubiquitous cell phones. I was a teenage girl on a lonely road alone in the woods. Terrified, I got out of the car to start walking back towards the party, a couple miles away.

Every rape scenario I had ever heard ran through my head. I moved off the road and into the trees and walked parallel to the road, figuring that at least I would not be visible to a rapist who might be prowling around in his car at night looking for teenage girls walking alone down the side of the road in the woods. Of course, that also meant I wasn't visible to anyone who might be able to help me.

The road was quiet. For the most part, the only sounds I heard were the night animals scittering away from my crackling foot steps. When I heard a car approaching, I ducked deeper behind the trees. One car slowed as it passed, slowing to a near stop—at this point, I was sure the rapist not only knew I was in the woods, he could see me from his car. But the car picked up speed and continued past. Walking wasn't good enough anymore, so I began to run, and I ran and ran faster as I got closer to the party. I cried and ran and hiccuped for breath.

I was met back at the party with warm sympathy and lots of hugs and back patting. I had been a lot more frightened of dying then I was of people I didn't know well, and any guard I had up towards those around me tumbled out with my snotty tears. Someone gave me a glass of water. Someone else, someone who became one of my closest friends for life, drove me home.


Everything lately has happened slower than it seems like it should; maybe it is part of my aging, maybe it is just being exhausted by all that happens in a school in the springtime; maybe it is that this time of year, the garden needs so much attention all of the time. I don't know, but I do know that I feel like I'm trudging away in leaky fishing waders against a fast current. Even as I work at moving faster, I just get slower. I feel like Scarlet on that last road, the last time I trusted her.

Though this time, I'm not alone in the woods.


Seven Hour Lamb
Adapted from the best meat book ever, All About Braising, by Molly Stevens.

The slowest roast ever is worth it. It's easy: it only takes work at the beginning, so after you get it started, you can sit back and wait for goodness. And the meat? By the end it is a perfect velvet mountain of silky lambyness. The vegetables, and I use more of them than what the recipe originally calls for, miraculously hold their shape and turn into tender explosions of sweet meat juices. This is one of those recipes that I'll hang onto forever. I wouldn't mind being known by it. I want someone, generations from now, to say, "You should have known Christina. What that woman could do with a leg of lamb . . .." Too bad I didn't come up with this dish all by my lonesome.

You will need:
An approximate 6 pound bone-in leg of lamb
Salt and pepper
1 cup (plus extra, if needed) white wine or vermouth
2 cups of any good stock you have on hand
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
15 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 cups chopped canned tomatoes and their juices
Lots of root vegetables, chosen to fit your taste (I used 1 1/2 pounds each of shallots, fennel bulbs cut into shallot-sized wedges, shallot length skinned carrot chunks, and small (you guessed it, shallot-sized) rutabagas (which is what I usually end up growing, but you could cut big buggers down to shallot size (hooray for parentheses))).

To prepare the lamb:
Using a slender knife, cut off excess fat and any remnants of the fell (dry, white, papery membrane) left on the leg. Place it in a large roasting pan and shake salt and pepper generously all over it.

Place the roasting pan in the oven under a high broiler and broil until the top surface of the lamb is sizzling and sprinkled with tasty browned spots, about 8 minutes or so (depending on how hot your broiler is). Carefully remove the pan from the oven and flip the leg over; you can do this with two large forks, with a silicone oven mitt, or with folded over dish towels. Return the lamb to the oven and repeat the browning process for another 8 or so minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and turn the heat to 275 degrees Fahrenheit.

Using your trusty large forks, oven mitts, or dish towels, place the lamb on a large platter or pan. If there is much fat left in the pan, pour it off, leaving only a tablespoon. (I had very little fat left in my pan, so I left what was there.) Set the roasting pan on the stove, straddling two burners, and set the burners to high. Pour the wine into the pan, scrape up any browned bits and stir them into the wine, and let the wine reduce to a syrup. Once it is well-reduced, add the stock, bay leaves, thyme, garlic, and tomatoes and their juices. Bring the mixture to a boil and let it cook down a couple minutes.

Using caution (because now you've got hot pans and hot meat and hot juices everywhere!), place the leg of lamb in the middle of the roasting pan, settling it into a bath of yummyness. Set the shallots and shallot-sized vegetables evenly around the meat, cover the pan as well as you can with foil, and place it on a rack in the lower part of the oven. Don't forget to turn the burner on the stove off now that you have the roast in the oven.

The meat will cook for two hours; every two hours, remove the roast from the oven and use your meat-turners (whatever you were using earlier) to turn the roast over. The longer it roasts, the harder it will be to turn over, for the meat will becoming more and more tender. Don't worry about keeping the leg pretty. Stevens recommends turning the oven down to 265 Fahrenheit if you worried that your oven may run at all hot; I'm not sure mine is hot, but I turned it down anyway, nearly guaranteeing perfection at the full seven hours of cooking time.

After seven hours, remove the pan from the oven and carefully transfer the meat and vegetables to a large platter; wrap the foil over the platter to keep the meat and veggies warm. Using caution, pour the juices from the pan into a gravy separator. Let the juices sit for a few minutes to allow the fat to separate out, then pour the good juices into a small saucepan over low heat. Taste the juices, and add salt, pepper, a little white wine, or whatever you need, if you need anything at all, to balance the juices.

Remove the foil from the platter, pour some of the juices over the meat and vegetables, and pass the platter around the table with a large spoon and fork to serve.

I served eight adults and one young child with this dish and had plenty to spare. The next day, I followed Stevens' suggestion and made homemade pasta to toss with the shredded meat and vegetables with some olives added for sharpness. Silky meat, silky pasta. Delicious.

Since I have no pictures of the lamb for you today, here are some gratuitous springtime garden shots.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

A Gentle Bite

If my last post was naughty, I promise this one will be nice, all springtime and wildflowers and sweet, creamy, innocent goodness.

With the warmth of the year vining up our lengthening days, every cook should have a foil to the fruit that follows us home from the markets or shows up hanging like jewels on our bushes and trees. While there's always tarts and jams and vanilla ice cream, there is something more subtle and yielding on which to settle the berries or poached apricot halves.

Panna cotta. Cooked cream. How sweet, how gentle, how dairy and farmgirls milking and bees buzzing and birds chirping in a blue, blue sky.

It's an infinitely adaptable dessert. If you want soft creamy elegance, make it with only cream and the innards of a vanilla bean. If you want something country and lip-smacking, use buttermilk, no vanilla. To take yourself to Provence, add a bay leaf while heating the cream for a haunting woodsy note. Or, if you're married to or otherwise involved with a sour cream addict like I am, use part sour cream, part cream and lash with vanilla extract or a smidge of ginger or grated citrus peel or a combination thereof. Recently, I served the panna cotta below with a generous spooning of strawberries macerated in brown sugar.

Also, I'm a lazy cook and never unmold my panna cotta; I just don't think it is worth the time and wear on the nerves. I just make sure I pour it in pretty ramekins, and that is the last work I have to do before putting it in front of people and watching them devour it.

Sour Cream Panna Cotta
This is straight off of Lynn Rosetta Casper's The Splendid Table. I've made lots of different recipes lots of different ways, but I like her proportions of gelatin to liquid because it guarantees a barely set, custardy cream. It is not at all jello-ish, like other panna cottas I've had. If you'd like to use something other than sour cream and cream, play away. This recipe is quite flexible.

You will need:
1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons cold water
3 cups whipping cream
scant half cup sugar
generous pinch of salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream

To make the dessert:
In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water and set aside while you prepare the cream. Place a large saucepan over medium heat and pour in the cream, sugar, salt, and vanilla. Heat, stirring frequently, until the cream is quite warm, but not boiling. Remove the cream from the heat and stir in the gelatin until it is thoroughly incorporated into the cream and there are no lumps. Let the mixture cool for a few minutes.

Spoon the sour cream into a medium bowl and ladle in a half cup or so of the cream mixture. Stir vigorously until completely combined, then repeat the action with another half cup or so. Continue adding the cream a bit at a time until it is completely combined and the mixture is silken.

Choose your prettiest ramekins, arrange them in small roasting pan to allow you to carry them, and carefully pour the mixture into the ramekins, the same portion in each. The number of servings varies on how large your ramekins are and how full you choose to fill them, but you can make six full ramekins or stretch this as far as ten. I like to leave a generous lip of space under the rim of the ramekin so I can spoon on some fresh fruit when I serve the little sweeties. Cover the whole pan with tinfoil and place it in the refrigerator to chill. Chill for at least four hours.

Go kick up your heels in the grass; frolic and play and pick flowers and laugh. It's springtime. Make dessert.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Salty Balls

The perfect ending to a delicious party: melty-chocolatey-burnt-sugary-goodness.

Salted Caramel Dark Chocolate Truffles
I found the original recipe here on Epicurious and adapted it, following some of the reviewers suggestions to double the caramel for a deeper flavor. They kind of look like turds or animal gonads, but if turds or animal gonads were this delicious, we'd have both depleted soil and depleted animal populations. E calls these "Salty Balls" and keeps poking around the refrigerator looking for more. These also led E and I straight to the computer to watch for the hundredth time Alec Baldwin talk about his Schweddy Balls. Do yourself a favor and watch it again.

Though this recipe made 26 truffles, I wish it made more. You will too.

You will need:
20 ounces high quality dark chocolate, divided into 8 ounce and 12 ounce portions
2/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons water
2/3 cup whipping cream
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

To make the truffles:
Place 8 ounces of chocolate in the top of a double boiler, add water to the bottom, place over low heat, and melt the chocolate melt slowly (stirring occasionally) while the water below simmers. Once the chocolate has melted completely, remove the top of the double boiler from the bottom and set aside, away from heat.

In a medium sauce pan, stir together the sugar and the water, but do not worry about trying to get the sugar dissolved; just make sure it is wet. Place the pan over medium heat and do not stir. Boil the mixture until it bubbles madly and turns medium brown. You should smell a little smoke from the burning sugar. Carefully pour the cream into the sugar mixture and laugh a little as it bubbles and hisses. Turn the heat to low and stir the lumpy mixture together until the cream and sugar have smoothly combined. Stir in the salt. Remove the pot from the heat, pour the sugar-cream-salt mixture into the melted chocolate and stir until it is thoroughly mixed. Cover the pot and place it in the refrigerator overnight, or at least three hours.

Place the cocoa powder in a small bowl, remove the truffle filling mixture from the refrigerator, and prepare to get your hands dirty. Line a baking pan with foil. Using a spoon, dig out about a tablespoon of filling at a time and roll it between your hands until it is approximately ball shaped. (Yes, it will be sticky. Yes, it will look like you've been gardening. Yes, you get to lick your hands once you've finished.) Drop the ball into the bowl of cocoa powder and roll it around to coat with cocoa. This will help the coating stick to the filling later. Repeat the process with the rest of your mixture. Cover the balls and chill overnight, or at least three hours.

When you're ready to finish the truffles, line a large baking sheet with foil. Follow the directions above to melt the remaining chocolate. Once the chocolate is melted smoothly, remove the top of the double boiler and place it in the counter where you'll work. Working quickly and using a sharp-tined fork, stab a truffle filling shallowly and dip it into the melted chocolate. Drop the coated truffle on the foil lined baking sheet. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Repeat the process with the remaining truffle fillings. When you're finished, if you like, sprinkle a smidgin' of fleur de sel or finely ground salt over the fresh truffles. Cover the pan and place it in the refrigerator.

Technically, these can last a week in the refrigerator, but they won't. You'll eat them all long before then.