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lamb rite of spring

By on May 21, 2013 in dinner, experimenting, fail... or not, roasting | 0 comments

One day it appeared. Spring. A warm breeze gently breathed through the windows, comfy tendrils of air wrapping themselves around bare arms. Carpets of green appearing where brown was two days earlier. Pollen flying willy nilly through the air, digging deep into the sinuses of many an allergy sufferer, causing a spike in the stock of facial tissue suppliers. So one fine day in the fresh light of spring, I decided it was time for lamb. Deciding to cook up a young, fresh animal may seem a macabre reaction, but there are some rituals of ancient times that require a lamb sacrifice. A sacrificial lamb, offered up so the seductively balmy breezes wafting through the window would be assured for a few months more. Granted, far from being a sacrificer, I was getting this from a small supplier, neatly ground and packaged, but surely that is a modern device for the old tradition of a sacrificial lamb? Surely?   This was no thought out recipe. There were no careful notations in notebooks. There was merely the heady rush of experimentation as ingredients were pulled hectically out of the fridge, making what was initially to be a simple preparation far more elaborate. A pound of ground lamb. A fistful of fresh parsley and mint. An onion, half slivered for sauteeing, the other half chopped for pureeing. A plump, heavy lemon, promising an extra burst of sun in citrus form. Parsley, mint, onion, and lemon zest were whirled in the magical food processor with a touch of olive oil until a verdant puree was made. The puree was added to the ground lamb, the whole slowly and thoroughly mixed with bare hands, herbaceous fresh scents drifting up with every knead of the hand. Meatballs so wet they were on the verge of falling apart were formed and carefully laid out on a greased cooking rack. They slid into the oven, in the ways of meatballs I have become so obsessed with. This would later prove to be problematic, but we’ll get there later. For now the rush of experimentation was overriding any form of common sense. Cumin and coriander, toasted in a small pan and ground, releasing the most delicious aromas. A single red pepper, slowly roasted until the skin bubbled and burst, then tucked away under cover to steam the charred bits away, leaving the silky sweetness only a roasted pepper can give. Pungent kalamata olives were pitted and sliced. The sliced onion was slowly reduced in olive oil to a pungently sweet stew. A pound of mushrooms were cleaned, sliced, and dropped in, salted so as to call forth their juices. The ground cumin and coriander were dropped in, making the whole pan release the smell of spice markets in far away lands. Pearl couscous was set to boil with a touch of onion and bay leaf. It was at this point the reverie was disturbed, for you see… if you did not already know it, lamb is quite the fatty little meat. I don’t mean that in any sort of denigrating way. I love fat. Used well, it tends to make the whole world taste delicious. But when you have lamb meatballs in a 400 degree oven, releasing their grease onto the hot pan below, so much that it begins to smoke intensely, you start to get billows of smoke coming out of the vent of your oven. And if you live in an apartment, you have no such thing as a hood or any sort of ventilation. You are generally lucky to have a stove from this century. The whole apartment was a little smoky, my glasses ever so slightly glazed with a film of smoky grease. Windows were thrown open, the smell of smoking fat, which is not actually that pleasant, growing larger and larger. The meatballs were left to finish, and notably shrank to half of their original size. A hesitant nibble at one of these brave explorers revealed that it had not actually absorbed any of the fatty lamby smoke that had been issuing forth earlier. It did take 12 hours to get it out of my lungs. Totally worth it, even though it took two scrubbings later on to clean the oven, that had been entirely coated in the intense spatter of the sputtering lamb fat.   After the lamb meatballs were spoken for, the rest came together swiftly. The couscous was tossed with the red peppers and kalamata olives into the skillet with the onions and mushrooms, along with a little extra of the cooking water that would hopefully help pull things together as it simmered down. An entire lemon was squeezed over the couscous and left to simmer for just a moment, just until the liquid disappeared. At the very last moment, another fistful of chopped parsley and mint were thrown in and the whole tossed about, the toasted spices mingling with the fresh green, the sharp olives getting entangled with the sweet red peppers, the venerable onions and mushrooms carrying it all. A dish was procured, a generous pile of the couscous ladled in, followed by a few choice meatballs and a few more sprinkles of freshly chopped mint. It was delicious. Especially the next day after the smoke had cleared out of my apartment and lungs.     I don’t really have a recipe for this. It really was...

springy spinach awakening

By on Apr 7, 2013 in dinner, experimenting, for one, love, vegetarian | 0 comments

  It is unclear to me how January 1st became some marker for a brand new year, particularly living here in the Midwest. All those resolutions, made giddily (or ponderously) the night previous, just inebriated enough to not notice the freezing temperatures outside. All these grand plans, fueled by this energy found solely in the idea that the year has flipped from 2012 to 2013. And then in the quite literal cold light of dawn, what you really want to do is curl up under that comforter on the couch with a cup of tea and watch reruns on television. Which is pretty much what you did the day before. You might get roused again around Groundhog’s Day, along with that lying rodent who relies solely on the random chance of sun being in the sky to tell us if we can look forward to a time sans bleak grey skies and naked brown trees. In recent winters with so little pretty blanketing snow, it just seems worse. But now… now… it is April. In the city as I walk along, there are sprigs of green pushing out from the layers of brown detritus that have been slowly decomposing all winter. Crocus are springing free, brazenly waving bright purples and yellows at the weather that still dumps into freezing at night. The tighter unfurled blooms in the middle are a floral middle finger to the cold. They are here. And with that, I say… spring is the time for resolutions, for fresh starts. And so it goes with this blog. It is spring. To put it bluntly, I want this to become something more. When I figure out what the specific definition of “more” is, it’ll be great. But for now I’m just saying “more” as in “more than once a month. The new calendar widget I installed has shamed me. So here it is. The first entry of an increasing deluge, using a brand new interface (that still bears some functionality tweaking). On the subject of spinach, so verdant, green, and full of life. Just ask Popeye. He burst with superpowers every time he sucked down a can of it. Of course, I could never go near a can of it. EW. I just like it fresh. So now the Patsy Cline is playing, the coffee is steaming in a mug next to my keyboard, and here we go. Spinach. Eggs. Two ingredients foreign to no one. I’m sure this could somehow be the opening to Eggs Florentine or some such thing, but this is far, far simpler. I have a lovely little book written by Judith Jones, the editor for the original “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It is called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” Some out there might find this a depressing thought, but don’t. Why? Sometimes you find yourself alone. Does this mean you deserve inferior food? To spend the evening meal with a beer and a bag of potato chips, noisily sucking the excess salt off your fingers, bemoaning the state of your solo moment? Absolutely not. Unless you really want that beer and potato chips. This cookbook kicked off a wave of inspiration and variations on things I could cook for me, toute seule. Simple things that felt fancy and complicated, deserving of a placemat. Enter the baked egg. I had never in my life encountered a baked egg. Having now eaten many, I feel a bit cheated. There is an absolute perfect smooth texture, the yolk elevated to the status of culinary velvet, that feels completely luxurious. From an egg. A standard egg. I could always bake an egg on its own and eat it, but that doesn’t seem a full proper meal, or any basis for experimentation. So I decided to bake the egg on a bed of spinach. Fresh spinach, cooked down into a brilliant green mass, ready to impart its green goodness. The first time I did this, I was merry, triumphantly smug in cooking down and devouring an entire bunch of spinach all by myself. How self-righteously healthy! Except for that part where about a quarter of the way in the inside of my mouth began to feel like a chalk mine. If there are chalk mines. It felt dry and tacky while eating juicy greens. What the hell? I engaged my nerd glasses (which happen to be my normal ones) and discovered that spinach has this element to it known as oxalic acid, and that particular acid is what makes solo spinach taste as if you have ground some fine sidewalk chalk into your dish. But of course, there are ways to alleviate the dry ways of this sly little acid. Lemon. Or bacon. Oh yes, that fetishized ingredient of the moment, it had more than a cosmetic purpose. On the day I discovered this, it was in one of those endless long streaks of grey that plagued Chicago this year. I wanted that comforter on the couch. Lemon just seemed like it would mock me with promises of sunshine. So of course I went with bacon. And cream. And romano cheese. Because dammit, it just needed to happen. The bacon version:   For one dish… a single slice of bacon is cut into small dice and cooked until it has become sizzling crispy red bits of porcine tastiness. They are removed to rest for...

bork bork bork

By on Jan 3, 2013 in dinner, love | 0 comments

Some place wealth, power, and fast cars upon altars of worship, bowing to the cold and sleek shiny lines I imagine such things to have. Well, fast cars have those lines literally, so that didn’t take much imagination. I digress. I’m sure these things make some people swoon, but I’m fairly sure those people who swoon at this have hired other people to swoon for them in a very fashionable style while they sit back and sip impossibly expensive martinis, unable to smile due to their recent botox injection. Or is that too judgmental? Likely. I, too, have altars of worship, which I’m sure can be just as harshly judged. But ask yourself… who would harshly judge a Muppet? You heard me. A Muppet. A fuzzy denizen of crazy hope and imagination. And then you glance at the picture above and ask yourself… and what the hell does this have to do with food? Well give me a moment, and in a long stretchy way, I will get to it. So here it is. I love the Muppets dearly, and have since childhood. I love their zaniness and effervescent hopes with that twinge of nihilism you just know Kermit the Frog has. And I love the lessons of experimental “cooking” from the most incomprehensible of Muppets, the Swedish Chef. He who always approaches his cooking with joy and singing, even when it is trying to run away from him. Is this starting to make sense? What if I told you that the object of my lens you see above was… Swedish Meatballs? Does that help? Let me erect the next altar right next to this one. America’s Test Kitchen. I love the bow-tied surliness of Christopher Kimball, and was forever enamored of him when he declared boxed cake mix to be a sign of the downfall of Western civilization. And so enters the next part of the story… the science of the meatball. I stumbled upon a recipe for their spaghetti and meatballs for a crowd, that of course laid out the science of glutamates and the plumping effect of gelatin, had a trick for not spending hours frying meatballs in a pan, and of course after making their recipe faithfully, I had to try and adapt it to a childhood favorite, Swedish meatballs. What followed was a round or two of rashly mashing up concepts of a few recipes, and veering a little to the less beige side of the Scandinavian traditions I know of (but I am telling you now, I will never ever experiment with the pallid quivering palette that is lutefisk, since it is just not right… sorry, Aunt Linda.) What resulted was a giant pot of plump, gently spiced meatballs swimming in a succulent earthy sauce, each bite deeply satisfying and warming, taunting the cold snowy outdoors. Swedish Meatballs, a variation Serves… a lot, roughly 12. Less if you have 25 year old cousins eating them, insisting that more taste testing needs to be done. The meatballs: 1 1/2 lb. ground beef 1 1/2 lb. ground pork 3 thick slices bacon, chopped fine (it helps to freeze slightly first, you want this to be a fairly small dice) 2 1/4 c. panko bread crumbs 1 1/2 c. buttermilk 1 1/2 tsp. unflavored gelatin powder 3 Tbsp. cold water 3 eggs, lightly beaten 1 tsp. salt 1 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom 1 1/2 tsp. allspice 1 tsp. cloves, ground a quantity of fresh ground black pepper (I like a lot, some people do not, I leave it to you) 1/2 c. chopped parsley Combine buttermilk and panko bread crumbs in a medium bowl, combine thoroughly, and set aside for 15 minutes until the buttermilk has fully soaked through all the bread crumbs. It will be like a dense paste. In a small dish, sprinkle the gelatin powder over the water (do not stir it) and set aside for 10-15 minutes, until the gelatin has fully bloomed (for those unfamiliar with this process, it is basically the powder absorbing all the water, creating what looks like a translucent version of non-colored jello… this is the thing that helps the meatballs feel a little plumper and happier, because who does not love a plump happy meatball?). Preheat the oven to 450. Line two jelly roll pans with tin foil. If you have wire cooling racks for cookies with absolutely zero plastic or rubber on them, lightly grease them and place them on top of the sheets. Set aside. In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients, including the now fully soaked bread crumbs and gelatin. Mix thoroughly. I just like to dig my hands in (freshly washed, of course) and just mash the whole thing up, letting it squish between my fingers, pretending for a second that I am a kid playing with Play-do. You know you wish you still did that on a regular basis. Once everything is completely and evenly mixed, grab up chunks of it and roll between your hands to form 1 1/2″ diameter balls. They do not have to be perfect, but they should be relatively even to ensure even cooking. As you form them, place them on your prepped baking sheets (or on the racks on the sheets, if you have them). Slide the racks into the oven and bake for 30 minutes, rotating and flipping trays halfway through. On...

noodling around

By on Dec 16, 2012 in dinner, experimenting, for one, love, vegetarian | 0 comments

It has been a while, hasn’t it? I was reminded of this by a few friends the other day over beer, who encouraged me to get at it again, and where the hell have I been? Many, many months ago, I embarked upon a freelance job that involved the election in November. Slowly, slowly, I watched the summer slip away while I remained indoors parked in front of dual 24″ monitors, the unnatural blue glow helping me to maintain the look of a pale fish in the middle of a summer of record heat. As a part of my increasingly vampiric existence, food became something scooped out of tin foil pans and shoveled in mindlessly with plastic forks. My favorite season wherein I could giddily run around a farmer’s market and buy obscene amounts of fresh veggies, and I was spending it eating scads of starchy takeout, because even my staunch home-cooked-dear-sweet-christmas-not-out-of-a-box food ethos was no match for marathon hours and never-ending days. On one of the days off somewhere in August, I attempted to make a pot of rice, and as it turns out I was so far gone from having normal human skills, I could not even do that simple task. So I began to take up a weekly roost at a local bar on my one free day where I could at least slowly drink a couple glasses of magnificent beer and quietly suck down one of their delicious ham sandwiches. But then… it ended. Time began to realign itself into sensible chunks. Having become accustomed to takeout, I kept on in that vein for a while, unable to break the chain. And then, one day, I had an urge. It involved vegetables. Fresh ones. And noodles. A simple pile of things I could cook myself and pile steaming into a single ceramic bowl and eat with a fork made of metal, things I would actually wash later. It’s a simple thing I had concocted a while ago, something that doesn’t have a formal recipe, but just involves a lot of zen slicing. Udon noodles boiling in a pot with a strip of kombu. Then there is ginger, red peppers, shitake mushrooms, onions, jalapenos, snow peas, bok choi, garlic, anything I could get my hands on, sauteed up in whatever order I saw fit in some peanut oil, just until the veggies cooked, glistening brilliantly and bursting with their own flavors, then tossed with the cooked noodles and soy sauce and tossed into a bowl. This is no fancy presentation, no refined recipe, just… veggies and udon noodles, piled unprettily in a bowl. It was delicious. And slowly, bit by bit, I inched back into my kitchen. There are veggies to saute, meat to sear, and dough to knead. And of course, a few blog posts to photograph and write. Until the next...

blackberries and basil

By on Jul 29, 2012 in baking, dessert, dinner, experimenting, fruit | 0 comments

I am deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to know exactly what they want. Is it what they want right then? What they think they are supposed to want? What they wanted ten years ago but never got and are still telling themselves they want it? Does it take into account the myriad situations life throws at you that might make you reconsider everything you know? And if you achieve exactly what you want… what next? And what do you do if you can’t get what you want? Do you listen to the Rolling Stones, who sing that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need? In the fluidity of our everyday existence, there is always uncertainty. And uncertainty is an excellent pairing for food. Yesterday morning I found myself finally with the time and means to go to the farmer’s market proper (a big one with multiple vendors, not the single farmer that shows up on Sunday mornings a few blocks away who is always appreciated but somewhat lacking). This is my candy store, and I have sorely missed it this summer. I wandered slowly through the aisles, drinking in the sight of piles of fruits and vegetables, hunks of cheese, the giant paint buckets filled with brilliant flowers. I made a lap, even being so lucky as to encounter a dear friend I had not seen in a while, and we made another lap, chatting and soaking in the rarely beautiful summer morning. I had come in search of peaches, one of my favorite summertime finds. I craved the soft orange fruit, the fresh ones off the tree so juicy you have to eat them leaning over a sink. And then my eyes lit upon the darkly glistening rows of blackberries, softly sleeping in their little boxes. At the urging of the farmer, I tried one. You know those moments where something dramatic happens in a movie and there is a quick cut or zoom in to the eye where you see the pupil contract in this act of awe and wonder? It was like that. One bite through the subtly sweet and tart pillow of juiciness that was that blackberry, and I was done. I close my eyes briefly to enjoy and raised up two fingers. “I’ll take two boxes of those, please.” I had recently read this article on NPR and was intrigued. The idea of a foccacia with these coquettish berries was appealing. But of course I couldn’t follow the recipe exactly. So I wandered around the market until I found a few flavors I thought would work with it, and excitedly went home. Sadly, after a triumphant return from the market, laden with summer-warm fruit, that day was still filled with more work, frustration with technology surrounding work, and the nagging sensation of nauseating uncertainty that has been a part of my daily existence as of late. I sat down and perused the NPR recipe again. The dough had to be made the day before. I almost called it off. It almost never happened. But good things can arise from patience, and the part of my brain that is made giddy by the sight of rising dough kicked through the rubble of angst and demanded that I give it a try. And so at 11 o’clock at night, I made the simple slack dough, exactly as prescribed, and shut it away to slowly rise and ferment in the refrigerator. Then the morning came. There were other distractions to be had, like a glorious french press of coffee, and the making of a large quantity of dill pickles (another consequence of wild abandon at the market and a markedly good stress reliever), but eventually it returned to the foccacia. It was made during a time of day that doesn’t know if it should be early or late afternoon, it was uncertain of whether or not it was lunch or a substantial afternoon snack. And then there were the ingredients in question. The article had called for blackberries and rosemary, creating a dish that was neither sweet nor savory. I wanted more. I wanted something that couldn’t decide if it was sweet or savory, and demanded that you listen to its conundrum. Out went the rosemary. In went the basil and goat cheese. It made no sense. Fruit and herbs are not a foreign combination, and that article even had a gin drink using blackberries and basil, but goat cheese? I will eat it on anything, but blackberries? Really? I shut my eyes, breathed in the imagined flavors, and there was a flicker of “well maybe…” and so I tried it. Foccacia born of uncertainty. If worse came to worse, I could pick the toppings off and devour the airy dough. And there it was, a savory golden pillow of foccacia dough pocked with air pockets, gently laiden with fruity olive oil, the sweet yet tart blackberries, heady basil, and gently salty goat cheese. Salt and sugar topped the whole bit off. It was delightful. I sat quietly, enjoying the quiet sourness of a dough risen long and slow, the complex fruity song of the blackberry, the hit of basil that always seems to sneak up into my sinuses, and the welcome creamy salt of the goat cheese. I tried to listen to it, but I...

meditative pasta

By on Mar 6, 2012 in cooking, dinner, experimenting, love | 0 comments

Cooking. The act of peeling, chopping, sauteeing, stirring, whisking, etc. never fails to be a source of meditation for the likes of me. My whole brain shifts into another state where time becomes more fluid and scent comes to the forefront of my senses. Without cooking, there is turmoil. Unhappiness born of the constant struggle to make a living as a creative professional and coming to terms with how often that means failure, whether it be my own fault or the simple and persnickety circumstance of timing. Cooking is just for me. No one stands behind me to tell me to turn something red five seconds after they tell me they are not a visual person. There are no committees of people lurking over my shoulder, yammering as I feel my entire being turn into plastic and look down to realize I have become a very tall computer mouse with brightly colored sneakers. For several weeks I have not cooked, have not sunk into that state of meditation where the knife cleaves garlic cloves cleanly and swiftly, where the giddily aromatic scent of a sauteed onion reaches up and tickles my nose. And so today, with no recipe, only the idea of a recipe born of the tastes of a takeout meal eaten quickly and without relish while hovering over my keyboard at work, today I took the time to reclaim that meditative state, to rule over my small, 15 square foot kitchen where I alone call the shots and am free to fail from decisions that were mine. It began with a bottle of wine. White. Dry. A pinot grigio, a wine I only know to be consistently of the drier variety I prefer in a white wine. Then came the bag of rigatoni, a variety so over-sized as to be almost comic. A few locally sourced Italian sausages and delicately thin slices of a pancetta-esque bacon. Then came the beans, soft, creamy, and white, slowly cooked to perfection in the simple modern wonder that is the CrockPot. A large onion, a red pepper, a few cloves of garlic, and a large verdant bunch of Swiss chard, ruby stems ablaze in the rare sun that occupies the day. These ingredients were assembled and pondered, images in my head whirling around as I considered which pots and pans would best fit the purpose, and how few could I use, seeing as how I only have so many burners and no counter space to park random pans. The Italian sausage made it into one shallow skillet and was soon swimming in white wine. As soon as the scent of this poaching marriage hit my nostrils, time entered that fabulous liquid state, and the cooking began in earnest. The sausages burbled along in their private fermented grape hot tub, the pancetta was crisped, onions thinly wedged and slowly cooked until sugary soft, red pepper deveined and sliced even thinner than the onions, a long quiet moment was spent slowly ripping the Swiss chard apart by hand and leaving it to soak in a tub of cold water, and hovering in the background was the kettle boiling with water, waiting for the rigatoni. All other thoughts and worries fell away as I cooked. Even when the attempt at a creamy white wine sauce almost met epic failure, there was no panic. A work around, however imperfect, was found, and the results were still tasty. No one is here to tell me otherwise, although I’m sure I would have been shamed off any cooking show worth its salt. Finally, time started to solidify again as everything finished cooking. And then came the best part of all. The part that has been lost through weeks of eating out of plastic containers over keyboards. A plate, an honest ceramic plate, a real fork, a pile of luscious food, and the rare time to sit quietly and enjoy every bite. A subtly perfumed and lightly salted white wine “sauce” (remember, it was almost an epic fail) merrily flowed along the ridges of the al dente rigatoni which played host to the soft, creamy white beans playing hide and seek within. Sweet onions and red peppers piled gently on top, adding a counter to the salty sauce below. The deeply green heft of the Swiss chard held hands demurely with the peppers and onions. A few choice slices of the sausage, fragrant from their hot swim in white wine, perched high above, and on top of that, a sharp salty crisp bite of the cooked pancetta. And overall, a fresh, brilliant chiffonade of basil with a scent that swam up the back of the throat into the sinuses, causing a sigh of pleasure. With each bite it was something new. Salty, sweet, earthy, green, soft, toothsome, crispy, deeply aromatic. It is not often one can cook like this. Whether it be for a crowd or for one, however, it is always worth it. And occasionally necessary for sanity. No recipe for this one, folks. I will try it again and see if I can write it down. For today… it was pure, sanity-restoring meditation. Which I guess means I should say namaste. And bon...