30 March 2008

Tasting Notes: Alone in my kitchen with an eggplant

I've been reading Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant over the past week, and though I'll do a post with a review and a recipe from the book after I finish, I felt a need to share my own thoughts on eating alone with you. Though there are certainly some alone-positive stories in the book, quite a few of them are about overcoming being alone, or how eating alone is a poor substitute for eating in company, or a similar theme – in other words, being alone is being lonely. What?

I was a bit baffled, maybe two or three years ago, when someone heard that I lived alone (and alone at the time meant a single in a dorm room where I shared a bathroom with three other people) and said "wow, I'm so sorry." I kind of stared at her – come again? But I've come to realize that a lot of people really do view living alone as a bad thing, a sad thing, a thing to take pity on. That blows my mind. For me, living alone is absolutely joyous! Anytime I consider doing something that involves spending a night or two (or longer) with a roommate, I cringe a little. I feel like after all these years, I've earned the right to be alone.

Now, that may seem a little odd once you hear my background. After all, I didn't exactly grow up with a house full to the bursting that I needed to escape. My parents were typical baby boomers, my Daddy with two brothers and his parents making your typical American Storybook Family of Five and my mother with her brother and two sisters. I was born in the eighties, and they were into the whole zero population growth concept (as am I), and so for eight years we were a family of three, and then once they divorced we became two families of two, so to speak, though my parents remain best friends to this day and we still do holidays together.

Clearly, I wasn't lacking in alone time. I used to spend weekends with Daddy, and for a big chunk of my childhood and teenage years he was a very quiet person. We had great conversations, but we also spent a lot of time together, but silent, staring at the walls and lost in thought. When I was about fifteen I went on a trip to DC with a high school club, eight of us in a fifteen passenger van so that two could sit on either side of a bench seat and spread their legs across the middle. The group of us became intimate friends for the space of the six hour drive back to Raleigh, as happens on late night van trips, and we started asking each other the ultimate secret question – what do you think about when you're alone? I started into a monologue about how I imagine new lives for myself and what I do and who I'm with and where I go, and then realised everyone was staring at me. I suppose it isn't normal to have such a well-developed relationship with yourself.

Though I had plenty of chances to be alone as a teenager, most of these were alone with one other person in the house – alone but not alone. There was something thrilling, at first, about traveling by myself when I got old enough. By now I yearn for a friend on airplane trips, instead of the inevitably weird seatmate, and it's a bit depressing sometimes when you arrive at the airport and walk by all the hugging and kissing people and straight for the taxi queue. But even though this is clearly a world meant for groups, couples, friends, and family, I still like being alone.

When I lived in Ireland, I went on a weeklong trip to the south of France. I had lived before in Montpellier, and so I went back, along with my housemate who wanted to visit a friend who was studying abroad in the city, but from there I trekked on, doing my own little three-day tour of the southwest. It was the ultimate in indulgence. Not that I spent a ton of money, but I definitely did what I wanted to do. I ate when I wanted to eat, I saw the things I wanted to see, I had an extra glass of wine and didn't feel guilty. When I returned to Montpellier the night before my flight back, I walked through the city square at sunset, munching on my cheese and herb gauffre and feeling utterly at peace. Street food, I think, is made for single people. (I took this picture, incidentally, after I got back to the hotel, showered, and got ready for bed. Only alone could you pull off eating your second gauffre, slathered in Nutella, in bed, and then going to sleep at eight pm just because you feel like it. The first picture was taken that morning in the Bordeaux train station. Another single person indulgence is eating two pastries for breakfast because you can't pick just one.)

I should point out that being alone to me isn't just being single. I'd be fine having a girlfriend or a partner or whatever the politically correct term is these days, but I wouldn't want her living here. When I was a teenager, my mom said that if she remarried she'd want to live in separate houses and I thought she was insane. Now, I completely agree. There's something about having your very own space that is absolutely marvelous, even if you aren't doing much with it.

So that brings me to what was ostensibly to be my topic – cooking and eating alone. Reading this book, I'm appalled by some of what people eat when they're on their own. I don't think I ever really thought about it before, but now I realize that my mom has really good taste. Before I went to college I was familiar with couscous, pierogis, knishes, falafel, and several types of fancy cheeses. Daddy is big on fresh vegetables and balanced meals, so Saturday suppers were simple but always delicious. When I come home, I literally salivate when I start thinking about how I'm going to get to have tofu lasagne and kale for supper. Really.

When I was a kid, I had a lot of friends who ate EZ Mac and Spaghetti-Os, and I wondered if their parents were taking care of them. I felt a certain amount of pity. Reading about adults who really enjoy eating that kind of thing makes me wonder. I know I sound like a snob, but it isn't that I'm eating gourmet meals all the time. I have a lot of different ways to make simple pasta and casseroles. It's just… Spaghetti-Os? Really?

When I'm alone, I like to eat a variety of things. In the summer, I do spinach salad a lot with a fruit, a nut, a cheese, and a dressing. I tend to really cook one or two big dishes a week and then eat them for the next meals (another benefit to living alone). If I'm in a hurry, I'll make the world's easiest quesedilla (dump cheese on tortilla, fold, toaster oven, add sour cream and salsa). Most of my guilty pleasures are store bought – ice cream, mozzarella sticks or fried mushrooms, and lots and lots of chocolate. Also, I love to bake, but it takes a long time to eat a whole cake.

Obviously, this blog has made me experiment more, but I love it. Living with my mom, I couldn't wait for the chance to buy what I wanted and try all the recipes in the cookbooks I used to read for fun. The sad thing is that I'll never get through the thousands of recipes I have typed up in a file, but it's a lot of fun trying.

On a final note, though, I realize perhaps the greatest pleasure these days in eating alone is that no one's watching. Friday night I went with a friend to my favourite Chinese delivery joint. I've never actually been there in person, and I realised there are a number of downsides. When you get ten cream cheese wontons, if you're in a restaurant, you'll eat all ten. You'll never be able to wait for the box to come. You'll be a little embarrassed when the waitress arrives to bring extra plates and you're sitting there with a pancake in one hand, shoveling moo shoo vegetables onto it with gusto. You'll be a little more embarrassed when your friend sees how long it takes you to calculate a twenty percent tip in your head. There's just something wonderful about sitting in your own kitchen, by yourself, eating your food however you want to.

Alone in the kitchen with an eggplant, frankly, sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

(Pictured: some favourite alone foods)

28 March 2008

From the Pantry: Cheesy Pasta with Cheese (and Basil)

After the pizza excitement last weekend, I realised two things: one, I needed something to eat for the rest of the week and two, I had a ton of fresh basil lying around. The thing that I absolutely hate about fresh herbs is that they cost two dollars a pack, you usually need about a teaspoon, and they last about two days. My windowsills aren't wide enough to grow any, and if even if they were I'd be paranoid about bugs. I don't have a yard. So, a lot of times my "leftover recipes" revolve around an herb. My first thought was some sort of simple pasta tossed with olive oil. I realised I needed to hurry the hell up and use an onion I had lying around, though, and some garlic, so I chopped up the onion and a few cloves of garlic and threw them in a tupperware with some olive oil. The good old three-minute microwave method worked for that, and I boiled some fettucine for the pasta. Then I decided to use up some cheese. I diced up the rest of the smoked Swiss I'd been using on sandwiches and threw that in with the hot pasta, onions and garlic, and basil. I love the way cheeses like swiss retain their shape, but still get all melty and delicious, if you do it that way. Last, I added probably three ounces of four peppers goat cheese. I realised that it worked sort of like sour cream (read: cheater sauce) because it's so creamy, but it also made my pasta very cheesy. And delicious!

The Bottom Line

Taste: ****
Appearance: **
Ease: **
Cost: $$$
Overall: ***

26 March 2008

Blogging By Mail!

Monday afternoon, I got a great surprise when I arrived at home. A huge package was waiting on my doorstep! I was a little confused: I expected a BBM package soon, but since the theme was "small" this round, the great big box confused me. It turned out that I was right - it was BBM, but Stephanie of Dispensing Happiness, our BBM host, really outdid herself! As she put it in her note, she made the rules, so she could break them - and I'm so grateful that she did! Stephanie was one of the first people to welcome me into the foodblogging community, and her Blog Party is one of my favourite monthly events. When I first came to foodblogging, I knew it was something I'd enjoy (I've always wanted to be a food writer) but I had no idea how to break into the community that I saw, with people always posting about meeting blogging friends or receiving foodie packages. Well, I'm still a bit on the fringe, but I feel closer and closer to being a real part of the community, and getting my first foodie package made my week.

First, there are some "girly" things. A Wonderwoman compact to go with the superhero stationary my note was written on, a tea candle (with a lovely wooden candleholder pictured in the next photo), a lipstick holder with a Burt's Bees lipstick, a Burt's Bees hand sanitiser, and a wonderful-smelling soap.

Next, a number of helpful items for Blog Parties. There are cute little forks, mini umbrellas, bamboo picks, elephant napkin rings, mini salt and pepper shakers, a "woof" glass (gift from the dog, hehe), cocktail themed napkins, and these great rainbow bowls. I especially love the bowls, as I'm a fan of rainbows and I only had four bowls until now. They're a perfect size for tasting, snacks, and of course - ice cream!

Now, onto the food! We have some "HOT" popcorn (I love this guy's face) and a Moroccan dinner kit that I can use for stir frying veggies, yum. Then some mixed nuts, which I tried yesterday and I love. They're tossed with a great seasoning mix that is a little spicy, but only just, and includes little bits of dried mango and papaya. And Annie's dijon mustard - how was Stephanie to know that my dijon recently expired and I had to toss it? This is now enjoying a happy home next to my Annie's honey mustard in the fridge.

Here we have several different brands of "fruit leather," which make great snacks. They're only 70 calories and have a serving of fruit each, which is good for me since I'm always pigging out during the day. There's a purple and white candy stick (her wedding colours) and a box of vegan gummie bears. Mm! I may have to save these for when my vegan friend and former roommate visits.

And last, but never least, CHOCOLATE! A couple of Vosges bars, which is one of my favourite brands, some mini Schaffen Berger squares, a brand called New Tree that I've never tried but can't wait to taste, a Chuao brand bar (another one I haven't tried but mmm, caramelized cacao nibs and nutmeg!), Godiva and violet mints (okay, not chocolate but I had to put them somewhere), and of course this adorable little to-go Nutella pack. For Nutella emergencies! I love it!

Thank you Stephanie, for my awesome package!

23 March 2008

Taste & Create: Finger Licking Food

I decided to sign up for this month's Taste & Create event, and I was paired up with blogger Finger Licking Food. I had some trepidation when I noticed that a lot of the recipes were Indian, because of the whole ingredient-finding qualm and my lack of a car, but then I noticed a recipe for pizza! I've been wanting to make my own pizza dough for some time now, so I tried it. I used her idea for Mini Pizzas, though I chose my own toppings. I also invited a friend over, so I'm not entirely sure I could do the kneading on my own. Hmm.

First, I did a little special prep because I wanted caramelised onion on one of my pizzas. I used two big sweet onions and sliced them into very thin rings, then melted 2 T butter into 1 T olive oil over medium heat. The onions pile up very high in the pan, but they do reduce a ton, so it's not a big deal. Add a wee bit of salt and pepper, and keep stirring them around, getting them all nice and coated, for about five minutes or until they're starting to soften and reduce. Then add a couple of scant teaspoons of sugar to the pan, stir it all around, and cook about twenty minutes, stirring every now and again and scraping the pan, especially if it's not non-stick. Your onions should have a nice caramel colour like this when they're ready to go.

I'm not a hundred percent sure about this dough, but it was pretty good for a first attempt. It's more like a flatbread than a pizza I think, and I might like a pizza crust that's either a little chewier or super thin and crispy. I do like, however, that you can use the food processor at first, so you only have to knead a few minutes. The recipe for the dough can be found linked on the blog post above, and I followed it more-or-less. I have a small Cusinart, so I started with only a cup of flour, pulsed a bit, added another cup, and then just scraped the (very sticky) dough out onto my surface to add the rest of the flour by hand while kneading. Here you can see Liz's awesome kneading technique.

I preferred to roll mine out quite thin, though they did puff up a little in the oven. We were able to bake four at a time, on two cookie sheets. Above you see Liz's pineapple pizza, which she deemed quite tasty. I am not a tomato sauce lady, so I went with several sauceless versions. Pictured are the caramelised onion pizza with olive oil base and pizza cheese on top, and my tomato basil pizza (olive oil, minced garlic, four peppers goat cheese, chopped tomato, lots of fresh basil, and pizza cheese). I also did a pizza with ranch dressing as a base, thawed spinach, pineapple, a bit of caramelised onion, and cheese, which was quite good.

The Bottom Line

Taste: ***
Appearance: ***
Ease: **
Cost: $$$
Overall: ***

22 March 2008

Cooking for Our Rights

I know, I know. I need to quit coming up with new features and start cooking things. I get it, I do. Tomorrow, I promise, I'll be posting an actual recipe.

But, for the moment, I digress, because I've been a bit inspired. I noticed lately that several food bloggers have posted a list of 100 cooking tasks or foods they want to try, and are checking them off one by one. I was planning on doing that, but I honestly couldn't think of 100 foods on my "to attempt" list. But then, I got an idea. Instead of foods, why not do 100 cuisines?

I encounter international food a lot. In my own fictional writing (much of which is historical or contemporary multicultural) I'm always having to do a Google to find out what people actually eat in the region where my characters are living. When I read, I often am intrigued by descriptions of food in memoirs or novels or historical accounts. And of course, when I travel, I can't help but eat a ton, pick up as many cookbooks as I can carry, and immerse myself in the local foodie culture as much as possible.

As some of you may know, I am an avid student of and activist for human rights. I'm studying law, but I don't plan to practice; instead I want to be a human rights worker in some capacity. I think one of the biggest challenges when it comes to human rights is cultural misunderstanding. People resent it when another culture gets thrust on them, and when people from other cultures make assumptions about their own. Modern international human rights and its enforcement mechanisms often seem like a Western invention for those from non-Western cultures - and who could blame them? Treaties are often written in the language of Western human rights scholarship, according to Western priorities, and enforcement/activism/education is frequently done in Western ways. But human rights, I believe, is an international concept. It can come up in any language, in any culture. The key is respect, and recognising that at as individual, with a cultural background of our own, none of us can truly understand where another person is coming from - but we can learn from them.

To me, this is the beauty of food, and all it stands for. Companionship, welcoming, community, culture... so many aspects go into the sharing of nourishment. Sitting down for a meal with someone different from yourself and just listening can be an amazing experience. And of course, with the conversation, there is the food and drink, which can be a point of connection, a means of cultural transmission, a very strong association in memory, and of course, the material that sustains life. What could be more powerful?

So now, I'll get off my soapbox, and explain the damn feature! Below is a list of one hundred different countries, and a few regions stuck on the end. I wasn't exactly sure how to make the adjective of every country I chose, or how to spell some of them, so feel free to make corrections! Also, I wish I knew how to do tables in Blogger - big apologies for the long string of text! But anyway, I'm going to try to make a dish from each of these countries and regions, in no particular order, with no particular time limit. When I post a recipe, I will try to include a little bit about the country and its cuisine, as well as where the recipe comes from. I'll also be linking to places you can learn more about human rights activism. If you have any recipe suggestions, especially if you hail from one of these countries, let me know!

1. Tunisian
2. Rwandan
3. Zimbabwean
4. Congolese
5. Madagascar
6. Algerian
7. Egyptian
8. South African
9. Nigerian
10. Libyan
11. Kenyan
12. Yemeni
13. Jordanian
14. Lebanese
15. Iraqi
16. Iranian
17. Israeli
18. Saudi
19. Afghan
20. Pakistani
21. Kashmiri
22. Kuwaiti
23. Turkish
24. Azerbaijani
25. Armenian
26. Turkmen
27. Kazakh
28. Krygyzstan
29. Uzbek
30. Georgian
31. Russian
32. Finnish
33. Swedish
34. Norwegian
35. Icelandic
36. Polish
37. Ukrainian
38. Belarusian
39. Lithuanian
40. Latvian
41. Estonian
42. Hungarian
43. Romanian
44. Macedonian
45. Serbian
46. Croatian
47. Albanian
48. Kosovar
49. Greek
50. Cypriot
51. Czech
52. Slovenian
53. Dutch
54. Belgian
55. Danish
56. Swiss
57. Welsh
58. Scottish
59. Portugese
60. Bangladeshi
71. Burmese
72. Nepali
73. Sri Lankan
74. Mongolian
75. Chinese
76. Taiwanese
77. Vietnamese
78. Cambodian
79. Laotian
80. Korean
81. Japanese
82. Malaysian
83. Filipino
84. Indonesian
85. Fiji
86. Australian
87. New Zealand
88. Tahitian
89. Haitian
90. Cuban
91. Jamaican
92. Bahamian
93. Chilean
94. Panamanian
95. Brazilian
96. Bolivian
97. Argentinean
98. Venezuelan
99. Costa Rican
100. Columbian

American Indian

ps - I know Kashmir is a region, but I've made Indian food before, so I put it in instead :-)

19 March 2008

From the Pantry: I don't wear green, but I eat it.

A belated happy St. Patrick's Day to you all. I was too tired to post this Monday or Tuesday, but I thought I'd make something green to be semi-festive. I dug around my fridge and came up with a number of things that I decided would make a fairly convincing spinach dip. I think it was a little too mayonnaisey, so instead of eating it cold I dumped a ton of cheese in (this is becoming my trademark, isn't it?) and microwaved to neutralise the taste. The "recipe," if you could call it that, is about a third of a bag of frozen spinach, thawed and drained, a big spoonful of sour cream, a smaller spoonful of mayonnaise, a few squirts of lemon juice, a big shake of garlic powder, a big shake of pepper, a handful of grated parmesan, stir, refrigerate a little while, dump a handful of mozzarella on top, and microwave until warm. Stir. Enjoy with toasted tortilla, torn into pieces. Yum!

The Bottom Line
Taste: ***
Appearance: ***
Cost: $$
Overall: ***

14 March 2008

It's Like Grits! But Yellow!

Yes, this was my gleeful cheer when I tried a stripped-down version of Emeril's Polenta with Mushrooms recipe. It may sound sad to you, but my little Southern heart was ready to bathe in buttery goodness, and it was not disappointed.

There's really nothing to this "recipe," so there may be little point in trying to convey it, but nonetheless I will give you a quick blow by blow. Bring three cups of water to the boil with a tablespoon of olive oil. I would suggest doing it over medium heat, because when I chose high, everything was just a little too happy (aka, wanting to escape the saucepan). When the water is boiling, add 3/4 cup polenta and salt and pepper to taste. Admire its lovely yellow colour. Whisk it around a little. Partially cover (I used aluminum foil), lower to a simmer (it didn't take much heat at all), and let it go for 20-25 minutes. I thought it was ready before it was - make sure you check to see if the grains are tender. Even if it looks like all the water is absorbed, it won't hurt to cook it till tender.

In the meantime, chop your mushrooms. I used the leftover shitakes and a pack of creminis. I was going to add onion, but I had enough mushrooms for a nice full pan, so I didn't bother. Heat up some butter and olive oil (eyeball it depending on how many mushrooms you're cooking) and saute about ten minutes or until the pan is pretty much dry. Season as you like - I used salt, pepper, and thyme. I also deglazed the pan with sherry. I have this thing about sherry and mushrooms, to the point that when I couldn't get my cooking sherry open I actually got out the wrench. (That worked.) Now, add a couple big spoonfuls of butter to your polenta, and serve with the mushrooms on top. Very classy grits!

The Bottom Line

Taste: ***
Appearance: ***
Ease: ***
Cost: $$$
Overall: ***

12 March 2008

Feqqas: Morocco's answer to biscotti

Or is it the other way around? Well, either way, I'm in love with this crispy, not-too-sweet, nutty, orange flavoured Moroccan cookie. I became a big fan of Moroccan desserts two years ago when I was living in Cork, Ireland, and improbably for the four-day St. Patrick's Day Weekend a band of North African and French vendors descended upon us. The occasion was the St. Patrick's Day Festival, and it was by far the best food Cork ever had to offer. There were cookies from Brittany, crepes from Paris, jams and honey from Provence and the Languedoc, and (my favourite) Moroccan pastries. I ate so many of these honey-drenched sweets, and I really need to learn their names so I can re-create them.

However, this cookie was a great introduction to a different sort of Moroccan treat, courtesy of fellow blogger Paprikas. She got the idea from a publication (available online though I don't have the link on hand) called "Saveurs et Cuisine du Maroc." I've reprinted the recipe here for English-speaking blogger convenience, but if you speak French feel free to follow along on her post. I have to admit, I was a little hesitant about creating a cookie that seemed a lot like a pastry, but I love biscotti and the ingredients were easy enough. I keep all of them on hand, with the exception of the orange marmalade and orange juice. My only alterations to the original recipe were that I used olive oil instead of plain cooking oil (which I used up on the red velvet cake in the previous post) and sea salt instead of plain salt, just because.

Anyway, you want to start by making a dough. Mix together 100 g brown sugar, 50 mL olive oil, 50 mL orange juice, and two eggs. Then sift in 360 g sifted flour (really you should shift before measuring but I don't have a proper sifter and this just isn't feasible for me) plus a pinch of sea salt and 2 t baking powder. Mix until incorporated. This makes a lovely smooth, sticky dough, and I recommend using your (well floured) hands - otherwise it'll just stick to the spoon and get too heavy to really mix well. Divide the dough into four balls. Flour your work surface, and keep the flour tin nearby. You'll want to keep adding flour to your rolling pin, the surface, the dough, and your hands, which means you don't want to be carrying handfuls of flour over your camera like I did. Oops.

The directions say to roll each ball to 3 mm thickness - this was pretty generous. From the pictures, it looks like Paprikas managed a lot larger a sheet of dough per ball than I did, but it didn't really matter. The important thing is just to get it even, and essentially a rectangle in shape. Remember, dough is forgiving, so you can keep pushing and pulling around until you're satisfied. For each sheet of dough, drop a couple of small spoonfuls of orange marmalade on and spread into a thin layer, leaving room on the edges. Crush 100 g walnuts (I used the put it in a Zip-lock bag and pound method) and sprinkle over the marmalade.

You want to roll into a baton, and be careful not to have any marmalade oozing out one end. I accomplished this by rolling almost to the edge and then lifting it up, pressing down lightly with my fingers to seal. Carefully transfer each baton seam-side down to a baking sheet lined with wax paper and brush with a beaten egg. I assume you're supposed to do the whole thing, but I only brushed the tops and sides. It didn't seem to matter. Bake 15 minutes at 325, then take out of the oven and drape a damp kitchen towel over the whole thing. Let rest for an hour.

Note, by the way, that the batons will spread a little in the oven. You should be able to get them all on one cookie sheet but try to space them fairly evenly. That said, they don't spread much while they "rest." After an hour is up, remove the towel and get out a nice, sharp knife. Cut on a nice, long diagonal, about a centimetre apart. You'll discard the ends, and don't worry if it starts to come apart a little in the middle. Just re-cut your diagonal and throw out the excess - you'll still have plenty! Bake another fifteen to twenty minutes at 350, or until they're all nice and crispy and golden brown. They're delicious warm, but still good once they cool. I'll definitely be making them again!

11 March 2008

Great Success!

Finally, a red velvet cake that tastes like red velvet cake. My mom's cousin suggested after my last post that I try her mother's red velvet recipe, and so I looked it up in our family cookbook, a project that came together on the occasion of my great grandmother's hundredth birthday and includes a lot of tasty Southern recipes. I had to tweak the recipe a little based on what I had on hand, and I used canned frosting because I was out of cream cheese, but it was still really tasty. It's moist and fluffy and yeah, you can definitely taste the oil, but no one ever expected a red velvet cake to be a diet recipe.

This is for a two layer, nine inch cake. If you want something a little fancier and storebought looking, I imagine you could increase the amounts and make a three layer cake. I ran out of icing part of the way through, so I didn't ice the sides all the way around. Also, I didn't let the layers cool *quite* all the way, and so as you can see from the first picture a thin layer on the bottom didn't come away from the pan. For the bottom layer, I just got it all out with my fingers and pressed it on, but that made icing more difficult. For the top layer, I left it alone.

So anyway, I recommend you start with dry ingredients. Sift together two cups of flour, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of baking soda, and two tablespoons cocoa. It helps to sift the other things through the flour (on top of it) to blend well without stirring. I also just shook the bowl around a bit. Next, cream 1-1/2 cups sugar and two cups oil. I actually ran out of oil and so I used about a cup and a third of oil and maybe half a cup of margarine. It worked fine but I'd just go with the recipe next time. Use an electric mixer if you have one and don't be afraid to blend thoroughly, until it gets fluffy and the mixer starts leaving patterns.

Next, beat in a couple of eggs. Again, don't be afraid to spend a little time on this step. Add a teaspoon of distilled white vinegar and about half a bottle of red food colouring (the recipe says two bottles, but I didn't find that entirely necessary). Blend that in, then drop your mixer speed down to low. Alternate the dry ingredients and a cup of buttermilk (I used low-fat and it was fine). Start with flour, then buttermilk, flour, buttermilk, flour. Make sure to blend the dry ingredients all the way in before going to the next addition. Finally, add a teaspoon of vanilla, blend it in, and then pour your batter into two greased 9" round cake pans. Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes or until it tests done. Cool completely on racks before turning out and icing. Enjoy!

The Bottom Line

Taste: ****
Appearance: ***
Ease: ***
Cost: $$
Overall: ***

07 March 2008

Foodie Bookshelf: Garlic, Sapphires, and Microwave Risotto

This post is brought to you by a combination of events, each of which I will briefly try to describe for you. First, there was the blogging event I read about earlier in the month for which foodbloggers are encouraged to make something with leek to celebrate St. David's Day. My (very English, really) close friend Kate is very proud of her Welsh heritage, and I really like leek, so for some reason those two things came together to convince me to participate. I planned to make a leek dish this weekend, but unfortunately, by the time Thursday rolled around I realised I just wasn't going to make it to the grocery store for my leeks.

But then Thursday afternoon I went to the library to check out Claudia Roden's New Book of Middle Eastern Food and May Bsisu's Arab Table and I discovered that someone had plopped a brand new grocery store in the middle of the Ped Mall when I wasn't looking! The Bread Garden Market and Cafe is very much like the Fresh Market in my hometown: attractively lit, rather expensive, and always tempting. I noticed their produce is a lot spiffier looking than some of New Pi's, and I like the little cafe and the salad bar (though my wallet approves of neither). Also they're in a better location, which is a big plus for me. In the library, I got out my computer and decided to find a leek recipe after all. I settled on something called "Saintly Mushroom Risotto" that I'd copied down from a vegan recipe community, which is not only vegan and features leek but is made in the microwave.

Okay, so I was sceptical. Who wouldn't be? But especially after reading Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires this week, in which she waxes poetic about several risottos and is very insistent on how difficult it is to get that creamy texture but retain the proper bite, I didn't really believe that a microwave recipe would work. Still, the book had given me a risotto craving, as it's one of the few meat-free things she talks about, and I didn't feel like making "real" risotto. I went back to the new store and picked up a bag of Arborio rice, a leek, and a pack of shitake mushrooms. I realised that there wasn't really enough leek in the recipe to justify submitting it to the leek event, though. Then I remembered that I wanted to enter the Novel Food event, and thought this might qualify. And finally, I wanted to start the new "Foodie Bookshelf" feature here with a book review. So here I am.

First, the book. As always, I loved Reichl's writing. She has not only a passion for food that really resonates with me, but also a gift for telling a good story, and there were plenty of stories to tell. In Garlic and Sapphires, she highlights some of the experiences she had as the New York Times food critic, many of these in disguise. Along with all the food, she manages to sneak in a healthy dose of compelling memoir and also some observations about what it's like to find different women inside yourself. Interestingly enough, I wasn't so hot on the writing in the reviews themselves, some of which she includes. She does have a tendency to use extended metaphors and cliches that get a little old, and I prefer her straight descriptions of the food itself to hearing about how it transported her to a French country villa, etc., etc. Also, almost all the recipes are meaty, or at least have some meat element. That said, I highly recommend for a quick, funny, food filled read. I even got inspired by the stars to do something I've been meaning to for a while. At the bottom of each recipe post from now on, you'll see "The Bottom Line." Recipes will get one to four stars for taste, appearance, and ease of preparation, and one to four dollar signs for cost. I may go back and add this to older recipes as I have time.

Now, onto the risotto. I modified the recipe a bit so I'll post it here anew. First I washed and chopped my leek into rounds. I was a little suspicious of how clean this particular leek is, but maybe I'm just being silly. I put it in my nice big Tupperware container with a healthy splash of olive oil and tossed to coat, then microwaved for two minutes. Next, in went a cup of Arborio rice (the Italian short grain rice used for risotto) and a dash of salt and pepper. Tossed it around a bit, back in the microwave for two minutes. Next, three cups of veggie stock, a good stir, and two sheets of plastic wrap over top. Don't forget to slit to let steam escape! Microwave another eight minutes. While that was going, I took the stems off about six shitake mushrooms, rinsed them thoroughly, and chopped into good-sized chunks. They went into the Tupperware next, and the wrap went back on. Now here's where I'd do it a little differently next time. I think it would have been smarter to leave the wrap off and do the next five minutes without it in order to let some of the liquid cook off. Instead, I put it in five minutes, realised it was more like risotto soup, and had to zap it a total of four minutes without the wrap to cook the liquid off. The risotto was creamy but had definitely lost its "bite" at this stage, and the mushrooms were very soft.

That said, I found this to be a very tasty dish! I let it sit a little while after it was done to thicken, and it reached a very nice consistency. Also, I added salt and pepper at the end and followed my "this recipe would be vegan if I hadn't dumped a pile of cheese on top of it" tradition by blending in about half a cup of Parmesan. That improved the taste exponentially, and where at first I was sceptical I definitely think I'd try this again when in the mood for risotto and pressed for time. Might just use regular onions and mushrooms, though.

The Bottom Line

Taste: ***
Appearance: ***
Ease: ***
Cost: $$ (The ingredients were expensive individually, but I had leftover rice and mushrooms and this made about four to six servings with a veggie on the side)
Overall: ***

05 March 2008

Tasting Notes: Creating a Spotlight

I've decided, to go along with my book review feature and the "In the Pantry" focus on leftovers and simple cuisine, to throw a third feature into the mix. "Tasting Notes" will be a series of food-related essays, done in a memoir style, that are something of an outlet for my life-long desire to be a food writer. If you really don't care about my past experience with food, feel free to skip over the posts with this heading, but some of you may be interested, especially as I've been sharing the link to my foodblog with some real-life friends.


Creating a Spotlight

It's 1997, and the digital revolution is still a few years off. My family never picked up on the eighties craze of home movies, and so my childhood is documented in still photographs only, but I've been fascinated with the medium of video for as long as I can remember. The middle school video club is my chance to play with it for the first time, and so I enthusiastically join three other seventh-grade students in a little room off the media center in the afternoons, learning from a wiry old assistant principle with thick-framed glasses how to operate the school's two camcorders. Our principle occupation in the club is taping football games for practice, and the field is hot (North Carolina Septembers don't really qualify as autumn), the tripod and the stepladder we stand on inducing a strange sort of vertigo even in those of us with no fear of heights. I don't last long in the club, maybe a month or two, but the ultimate joy comes when I get to take one of the camcorders home for a weekend to practice my new-found skills.

It doesn't take much thought to hone in on a topic. I've been watching cooking programmes on PBS since I could sit still for more than ten minutes at a time, and I have the odd fantasy of becoming one of my heroes, masterfully stirring sauces and baking pies as I keep up a constant, witty narration. I like Jeff Smith and Julia Child, and I'm fascinated by Jacques Pepin (already at that age, everything French was intriguing and delightful) though I can't stand his annoying American daughter. My favourite is Justin Wilson and his Louisiana Cooking. Long before high budgets and "bam!" and the man who disconcertingly prepares gumbo with a Brooklyn accent, Justin Wilson captured my attention with his constant calls for Louisiana hot sauce and "more wine!" The studio audience would cheer as he poured half a bottle into almost anything, and he'd explain with a thick accent how Southern cooks don't need to measure. I'd tell Daddy, when the camera took an arial shot of his hand-measured salt dumped into a teaspoon, that I could see the contour lines, but in college I heard myself saying to my roomate as I prepared a pie, "oh hush. Southern cooks don't measure!"

When my precious weekend comes, I show up at Daddy's apartment on Saturday morning with the camcorder in its hard, heavy case, ready to go. He is making apple fritters, and he shines on camera, in his element somehow despite his normally-reserved personality. Even with the camcorder, clunky on my shoulder, zooming in on his face, he is undeterred, and comes out as the Daddy I know - a brilliant, hilarious man who always has an explanation or knows where to find one, patient and sure with a chef's knife. He details the process concisely but with enough explanation to make the fritters easy to replicate, and I concentrate on keeping the camera still despite the lack of a tripod, zooming in on the sizzling fruit and working as best I can with the cramped alley kitchen, not enough room to stand over his shoulder (and I am too short to do so, even if there were enough). The finished copy isn't perfect. Some of my transitions are shaky, and the sound isn't right. But I feel a tremendous sense of pride in my father, and in myself, at our creation. Unfortunately, the tape isn't mine, and so I have to return it to be copied over with next week's football game, but the memory will remain throughout the years.

Daddy serving Thanksgiving dinner, nine years later

04 March 2008

Birthday Dessert Failures

So I turned 23 on Sunday, and despite my decision to cancel my planned tea party due to extenuating stress circumstances, I planned to mark the occasion with some baking (like you do). Unfortunately, both attempts were at least a moderate failure.

My first experiment was a recipe for Tangelo Creme Brulee that I borrowed from Epicurious. I had high hopes for this recipe, as we often would receive a box of tangelos from one of my Mom's sisters, both of whom have a part-year residence in Key West, and they were always tasty. When I found tangelos at New Pi, I was thrilled, but it didn't live up to expectations. Then again, to be fair, I didn't quite go by the recipe. First, I cut it in half to suit my tiny ramekins. Second, I actually didn't get enough tangelos the first time, so I had to go back and they didn't have any the next week. Instead, I used one blood orange (and three tangelos). The problem was that the ingredients didn't mix properly, so as you can see, there were little bits of cooked egg white all over the skin on top. Gently whisk? I think not. It might have worked better if I'd really beat those eggs into submission. I tried to salvage them by scraping off the skin and sprinkling sugar over what remained, but this was pretty much a failure. It was like eating citrus-flavoured pudding with caramel on top.

Next, I tried red velvet cake. I had a bit of a red velvet cupcake disaster when I tried the absolutely attrocious Duncan Heinz mix version, and I'd been craving real Southern red velvet cake ever since. I tried this recipe and was again unimpressed. Again, I did half the recipe to use my nine inch loaf pan, so that could have made a difference. It wasn't nearly as moist as I expected, and the taste was thoroughly unremarkable. That said, the icing is a real keeper. I just used all cream cheese instead of bothering with mascarpone, but I love the texture you get from whipping in some heavy cream, and the coconut topping was also a winner.

In other news, I've discovered the joys of Iowa City Public Library for the first time. I really have no excuse for the delay, but I was searching the catalogue on the off chance that they have any Alton Brown, and not only do they have Alton Brown books AND DVDs, but I tried doing a search just on the off chance, and... they have Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant! I've been wanting to get this one ever since I saw it on Not Eating Out in New York, a favourite blog of mine, and I immediately put a hold on it. Eep! Anyway, the point of all this is, I'm thinking I may start trying to do some food writing/cookbook reviews on this blog, maybe once a month. I may review some of my old standbys when I'm too busy to try something new, but I thought that would be fun, and I'm trying to get some more "theme" type stuff going here to supplement the more cost-heavy fancy recipes.

And finally, may I just say that Gourmet has really been making me happy lately? This month's issue makes me miss France so badly, but I can't wait to try the Meyer Lemon Cake with Lavender Cream Sauce and also that Alsatian almond tart. Also, I'm adding the Jura to my Much-Too-Long-Travel-List-of-Doom.

01 March 2008

From the Pantry: Linguine Leftovers

I was talking with a friend a few days ago about how frustrated I've been with not being able to post as often as I'd like to this blog, because I'm trying to stick to a budget. The Catch 22, I explained to her, is that I have a ton of food in my kitchen, but nothing that I can cook for the blog, so I keep having to run out and buy fresh food to make, which costs a lot of money. Her (very reasonable) response was pretty much, "what on earth do you have in your pantry that you can't cook?" Well, rice and beans and pasta, I said. No one wants to see how I cook those. Well *I* do, she replied. And thus, this idea was born. For vegetarians on a budget, or those who simply have well-stocked kitchens and don't want to buy a ton of ingredients every time they cook, I'm starting a new instalment on this blog called "From the Pantry." If this phrase appears in the subject of a post, then the post will either be a recipe made with whatever I have lying around, or a dish made with leftovers from a previously-posted recipe.

This week's recipe is another attempt at "mommy pasta" blown all to hell. Mommy pasta is my name for spaghetti with cheddar cheese, sour cream, mushrooms, and onions, which was a favourite as a kid. You may recall my last variation with canned mushrooms and broccoli, and this time I actually did intend to do straight mommy pasta, but then I realised I had all these leftovers in the fridge from the quinoa cakes last weekend. So I threw together this variation. I chopped up half an onion and minced some garlic, and sauteed those in olive oil until soft while my half package of linguine boiled. Along with the onions and garlic, I tossed in half a package of cherry tomatoes (some of them halved until I got impatient), a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley, about a cup of shredded mozzarella, and a few tablespoons of sour cream. It was oh-so yummy. The tomatoes and parsley give it a nice fresh taste, and the onions and cheese enough of the "mm fried food" guilty pleasure to make it not too healthy.