Monday, December 3, 2012

raisin relocation

A Raisin & A Porpoise can now be found at

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Friday, November 30, 2012

a moving account

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

squash court


I came into possession of some gorgeous poblano peppers, which have been looking mighty fine in the market even as all the produce around them begins to show signs of jet lag.  So I set out to make my friend Julie's "Three Sisters and One Spicy Brother" squash soup, which is some mighty soup, but when I unearthed the recipe in my bin of scraps and magazines, I found I lacked a few of the things required to produce it.  The principle missing ingredient was time: one of the sisters is white beans, and I did not have time to soak and cook them.  There was no big, looming deadline, really--I just wanted this soup for dinner. 

Right behind her recipe in the bin was an old squash soup of mine that was pretty tasty, as I recall.  But sitting there on the counter next to Julie's recipe and the peppers, it started to take notions into its head.  A hybrid version resulted.

I've made it a couple of times now, because the poblanos continue to wink and sparkle at me as I troll the store wishing it were still summertime (only from a produce standpoint), and each time I forget how I did it the time before and still end up with something that makes the consumers pretty happy, so my net opinion is that you cannot go very far wrong combining these ingredients. If you are curious, the main difference is that sometimes I leave the bulb end of the squash whole and roast it, and then mash it, and sometimes I dice the whole squash and cook half of it with the aromatics in the soup pot, and then puree it all together with my trusty stick blender.  No obvious difference is apparent.  I gave you the half and half method below, because it spares you peeling and chopping the peskier bulb end while it is raw, but it's your call.

There's some grunt work involved.  Can't lie about that.  

Butchering a butternut squash is aerobic work, and you have to get a pan and the oven involved.

And there are the peppers to roast, and otherwise attend to.

Plus some mincing around, and further chances to practice your knife skills.

But once all the prep work is done, the soup itself comes together in a snap. 

And then you get to eat it.

two sisters and one spicy brother soup

2 or 3 poblano peppers
1 large butternut squash
3T olive oil, divided
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1" of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped (not too fine)
2-3t ground cumin
3/4 t salt
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (see note), finely minced
10 oz frozen corn kernels
1 c chopped fresh cilantro, or basil as an alternative

Roast the poblano peppers over a gas burner flame or under the broiler until well charred all over.  Plop them into a small bowl and cover it, so the trapped steam can loosen the skin for you.  Once they are cool enough to handle, do the messy work of slipping their peels off, seeding them, and chopping them up into a quarter-inch dice.  Try to resist the urge to rinse them, as they lose roastiness when you do. Stray bits of charred peel won't harm the end result. You can do this a day or two in advance if you like.

Heat the oven to 425.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and also grab a medium baking dish. Hack the bulb end of the squash off the neck end.  Stand the bulb end on its cut side, halve it, and scrape out the seeds. Place the bulb ends, cut side down, into the baking dish with a little water and slide it into the oven while you continue to wrestle the rest of the squash into submission.

Slice off the stem end and stand the neck section up on the cutting board.  Slice vertically from stem to stern, into half-inch slices, and then go about peeling those and chopping them into cubes that will fit nicely in your soup spoon.  Toss them with a tablespoon of oil, and spread on the baking sheet. Roast the cubes about 25 minutes, until just golden and tender.  Keep the bulb ends in there all this while, and when they slump a bit, they are ready to come out, too.  Set all of this aside to cool.

Heat the remaining oil in a large, heavy pot.  Saute the onion until it begins to soften and lightly brown, then add the garlic, ginger, salt, cumin and chipotle and keep cooking until it is all nicely fragrant, about another minute.

Now scrape the cooked flesh from the bulby parts of the squash into the pot, and thoroughly mash it around with your spoon until it is pretty smooth.  Add about 6 cups of water, the roasted squash cubes and the corn, and mix everything very well. Bring it to a simmer, and let it cook for about ten minutes.  Stir in the cilantro, and taste for salt and heat.

The promised NOTE on the chipotle peppers: little cans of these are sold in the Latin or Spanish section of most every grocery store.  I buy a can about every six months, dump the contents of the can into a small tub, jar or freezer bag, and use it as I need it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Monday morning: I am a quarter back

It's come and gone, and here we all are in recovery mode, with plenty to digest on all levels.  I read lots of articles and blog posts in this last week about the murky and shameful historical origins of the holiday, and I think good citizenship demands being aware of those.  I also think the opportunity to gather and be grateful is one worth hanging on to.  I'm all ears if you want to weigh in on this one.

In terms of less weighty lingering questions, I rank at the top of the list "what to do with the leftover consequences of a crucial miscommunication regarding mashed potatoes?"  See below for the answer.

My breezy Thanksgiving report: I am glad I brined the turkey, but sad I overcooked it (not before undercooking it first!  I am nothing if not thorough).  I am woefully sad about the gluten-free gingerbread recipe that snookered me into buying a $9 bag of weird flour that will languish in my freezer for eons.  I am happy about my gravy, and about that ginger-carrot sauce I told you about (thank you, Marisa!).

The gingerbread misstep aside, in general the meal's successes belonged to the sweet table.  I made some whoopie pies (more on those later) that were a hit.  And my kiddos batted their contributions right out of the park.

First, the ever-popular and vastly underrated Zebra Cake, once the province of our oldest child and now bequeathed to her sister. I am sure there is a way to replicate it without buying a box of cookies and supporting Nabisco, and thanks to my mad Google skills, I have been led to what was under my nose all along.  Next year!  Meanwhile, she made it the standard way, to grand applause as usual (it is a staple of our holiday table):

The oldest and the youngest collaborated on some hedgehog cookies that will definitely make an appearance from here on out.  Said one early adopter, "these are definitely in the top five of all desserts I have eaten in my life." 

If you would like to make these yourself, and I urge you to consider it, head right over here for the recipe.  We used toasted pecans in place of the walnuts, because pecans are vastly superior to walnuts in every way in our unhumble and unsolicited opinion, especially inasmuch as they are way more woodlandy in appearance than walnuts are.  A chopstick with a pointy end makes a fine tool for painting facial features, if you plan to take action on this information.

The other culinary home run of the weekend comes courtesy of my sister, who pointed out, correctly, that the highest and best use of the leftover mashed potato is unquestionably what we have come to call the potato burger. 

It's hard to give you something that resembles a recipe.  The essentials are: re-mash the potatoes with an egg (per two cups of potato, say); a few tablespoons of finely grated parmesan or other dry, aged cheese; some minced aromatic (thyme was lingering around here, after making the turkey brine, but a case could be made for any other fresh herb, or a scallion, e.g.--whatever it is, about a tablespoon of it); and a tablespoon or two of something savory and pungent and exotic, like (in our case) capers, or (in our imaginations) ham or bacon, or preserved lemons or olives, or so forth.  Depending on how seasoned your potatoes were to start with and how flavorful your additions have been, add a little fresh pepper and perhaps a little salt.  Boost your holiday recovery with a quarter cup of flax meal, or don't--we made one batch each way, with no obvious differences.

Form patties, and fry them up in a well-seasoned skillet using a good amount of butter or butter and oil mixed, until nicely browned on each side.

I hope you all had a peaceful and plentiful holiday.  

Finally, if you are Amanda or Melissa, please send me an email!

Monday, November 19, 2012

reasonable FAQ simile

Sometimes the best defense against looniness is a fertile imagination.  Of course, sometimes looniness and a fertile imagination look a lot alike, so you have to be careful.  

When I was single and living in New York City and kind of tired and perhaps it's fair to say a little bit lonely, I took a page out of my preschool pupils' book and conjured up an imaginary friend for myself.  Unlike the little girl in my class who spent a good portion of the morning sitting in her coat cubby having an animated conversation with her pal, I kept it kind of discreet.  What works when you are three begins to look a little silly when you are in your mid-20's (this rule of thumb applies to more than just social skills).  But I got full mileage out of my mental companion.  Though companionable, he was really more of an imaginary valet or personal assistant--more Jeeves than Pooka.  Racing from teaching to graduate school, I would think of all the little tasks I could slough off to Gustavo (he looked kind of like Raul Julia), like picking up my laundry or ironing my clothes or shopping for groceries or getting me a plane ticket to Paris (double imaginary points).  I took the time to imagine he would always pick up fresh flowers while he ran these errands, but let the record reflect my assertion that I never once actually spoke out loud to him or left him a note.  I swear.

No more graduate school in my life now (there are days I wish I was in school, but far more of them when I thank my stars that I am not).  No more lonely.  So Gustavo has retired.  As I move from roasting to chopping to whipping, from the holiday parent assembly to the holiday floor-mopping, my defense against any encroaching looseness on the grip of the sanity controls takes the form of the imaginary mailbag.

Dear Raisin,

What are you making for Thanksgiving?

Dear Raisin,

Thanksgiving this, Thanksgiving that.  What do I feed everyone between now and Thursday, and still have time to make Thursday happen?

Dear Raisin,

Congee is nice, but do you ever wonder about all that whiteness being good for you as you eat bowl after bowl of it?

Dear Raisin,

Am I better off simplifying things as much as possible in order to preserve the time, energy and sanity necessary to have a pleasant, lucid, seated conversation with friends and family, or should I give in to temptation and make all 7 kinds of brussels sprouts that I have bookmarked?

No one outside of my head has actually asked me any of these questions.  But the answers are so easy to provide that the mere act of answering them will give me all the lift I need to sail through the next few days like a float in the Macy's parade (thank goodness for stretch pants).

If you really want to know what I think I may make for Thursday, head over here, where I have a handy list.

If you, like me, face the predictable and unpredictable caloric needs of groups of humans ranging from two to seven (in number) and 7 and three quarters to 88 (in age), then questions two and three, above, have one answer: brown rice congee, which is demystified below.

In answer to question 4, the market is probably out of brussels sprouts anyway (such is the present demand), so you are better off sticking to the one type and safeguarding all your faculties for a confab with your Aunt Matilda.  Heaven help you selecting which recipe, though.  I am still weighing my options.  There is so much I wish to sit still and be grateful for, though, that I will force myself to choose.

brown rice congee

You are going to get a monster headnote here, but the recipe is easy as can be, especially if you have already made the white rice version and consequently do not have to spend any mental energy wondering if this is going to work despite how weird it sounds.

The main differences are, not surprisingly, more water and more time.  Despite the hours of cooking, it basically cooks itself, so can be left to its own devices on a back burner while you make tracks to Turkey Town on the front ones.

Just like its paler cousin, the brown rice version is equally happy made plain, or with tiny slivers of fish or chicken.  It is particularly happy as pictured above: with a tangle of dark greens or broccoli, stir-fried with plenty of garlic and ginger and tamari, and maybe some of this (or whatever equivalent you have handy) on top. Its grainy simplicity is a nice ramp-up to (or recovery from) the digestive olympics on Thursday.

I doubled the batch, which produces a metric ton and will mean that any time anyone is hungry or you are called upon to feed your family in the present despite the peeling and chopping you are doing for their future nourishment, you can just grunt and gesture with your elbow to the pot of congee, from which they are welcome to help themselves.  But you can halve it if you like, in which case you can probably add all the water at once (it wouldn't all fit in my pot; had to cook down for a while first).

2 c short-grain brown rice

24 c water
2t kosher salt

optionally: 1 whole boneless chicken breast, partially frozen (really--makes slicing enormously easy)
2t cornstarch (optional)

Put the rice and water (as much of it as will fit) into a large, heavy pot and bring it to a boil.  Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook and cook and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 4 hours.  While the white rice version requires focused stirring at the outset, to get the grains in good suspension in the water, this one doesn't really demand that until the last hour, when you will want to stir at shorter intervals so you don't scorch the bottom.  This is when I added the last four cups of water, as well, because they would not fit before then and because the increasing thickness demanded it.

When the mixture looks like soupy oatmeal, you are done.  Stir in the salt, and serve it with something delicious on top.

If you'd like to add the chicken, use a very sharp knife to slice the breast very thinly cross-wise, and then stack these slices and cut them into thin ribbons.  Toss the chicken slivers with the cornstarch, and stir them into the hot congee.  They will cook almost instantly.  If there is a reason that you don't want cornstarch, just omit it; no substitution is necessary.

You can also sliver up some fish to add similarly, or get your protein another way by adding some crumbled-up firm tofu to your stir-fried greens.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

in which I roast to the occasion

When I took my son for his riding lesson yesterday, one of the horses at the barn was getting his hair clipped in such a way as to accommodate his snappy winter jacket.  In order to calm this jittery horse for said procedure (buzzing clippers!  touching of personal areas!), he had been fitted with a twitch, which is an item, not a symptom, and is intended to calm the animal by encouraging a release of endorphins.  

Take a look at this picture and let me know how many of your personal endorphins you think would be released if you were outfitted similarly:

Yes, that is a large metal clamp on his nose, or lip, depending on how you view such matters.  Were I to take a tip from the animal kingdom in the management of my own jitters, I think I would lean more towards the Thunder Shirt, a snug vest I have seen in use on several dogs of my acquaintance, which takes them, in one press of the Velcro, from "HOLY GREAT GOOD GOD I THINK THAT MAN HAS A HAT ON AND I AM CERTAIN THAT MEANS HE WANTS TO KILL ME" to "oh, what, is that, like, the doorbell?  Missed it." 

photo by tales & tails
I am not being paid to promote their product, but if as a result of this post, the good people over at ThunderShirt decide to send me a case of same (size Large, please; not fussy about the color) to pass around the holiday table, I am prepared to conduct a human trial.  I think it is the correct season for that.

Now that we have led the conversation about stress around to the dining room, let's talk about soup.  

I think I have nattered before about the cookbook from Greens Restaurant, which I admire, and its tendency to list among the 17 ingredients for a dish "one batch of X, p. 138," which turns out to be a 3 page recipe itself, with numerous ingredients and various stages of preparation.

Generally, I try to avoid preparing (let alone exhorting you to prepare) anything that has a preamble of this nature.  But I am not sure we can go on like this if you don't throw together a batch of vegetable stock concentrate.  It's the backbone of winter soups, and I go on and on about soup once the temperature dips below 64 degrees.  Vegetable stock concentrate has an enormous potential for making you feel like the heir apparent to the Rock Star throne of the universe, given its ease-of-preparation-to-usefulness ratio.  And I am reminding you of it now, when you may be abusing yourself about the need to bake for holiday giving.  Hint: no one will mind not receiving more cookies.  And no one will mind AT ALL being handed a jar of this stuff in place of a cookie basket.  Instead of cursing you as they heave onto the Stairmaster in early January, they will build a little altar to you in their home, and keep it stocked with incense and orchids and tropical fruit at the peak of ripeness.  Maybe.

If you do not have a copy of the River Cottage Preserves cookbook, then thank your lucky stars that Laura posted the recipe for this stuff on her blog.  When I make it I add a couple of stalks of celery as well as celery root, and I use thyme instead of cilantro, because it seems more one-size-fits-all.  But it's hard to go very far wrong, I think.

If you don't make the stuff, you can still live a happy and fulfilling life, because you can leave your comment here and possibly be the person I send a jar to.  Go ahead. It's not a Giveaway exactly, not another excuse for me to go all Ryan Gosling on you.  I've sworn off those, because they are deeply demoralizing.  So this is something entirely different.  You don't even have to say anything.  You can make an empty comment, in the spirit of the political season.  Or a full one, in gratitude for the thin margin by which we avoided certain doom.

So you might receive a windfall jar, if you do that.  

You can also just salt your soup.  You will still have tasty soup, but if you are wondering if it will be that much tastier if you take the (minimal) trouble to make the paste, you will be right.  It will be that much tastier.

Are you not convinced yet? Should I mention that for your (minimal) trouble, you will end up with several jars of the stuff, and it keeps forever (roughly), so if you don't give any away, you will be rolling in the stuff for months to come?  Did that do the trick?

Meanwhile, thanks to historic levels of personal tension, I seem to be stuck on two settings in the kitchen: 'Bake For Comfort and Distraction' is one, and 'Leave It Kind Of Late To Get Dinner Together; Punt and Roast Something' is the other.

So here is some roasted soup.  I made this the other night and my middle child said, "well, thanks a lot.  You have ruined me.  I can't ever eat any other soup than this one."

Enough said, in my view.

forsake all others tomato soup

1 medium bulb of fennel, trimmed of stalks and thickly sliced

2 large carrots, peeled and cut in chunks
1 large or 2 medium leeks, white and light green parts, quartered and cleaned
1 medium onion, peeled and thickly sliced
2T olive oil
coarse salt and fresh pepper

2 T butter, or more olive oil

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
28 oz canned tomatoes (whole or ground or puree)
2-3 T vegetable stock concentrate, or salt to taste
1/3 c half and half, optional but worth it

Heat the oven to 400.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment (or live dangerously and go commando), and spread the prepared vegetables on the tray in a single layer.  Drizzle them with oil and sprinkle a bit of salt and pepper over them.  Roast about 15 minutes, until starting to brown, then switch the oven off and leave them in there to soften up a little more in the residual heat.

Heat the butter or olive oil in a large pot, and sauté the garlic in it for about a minute.  DO NOT LET IT BROWN, or you will experience a nasty flashback to the late 80's when everything was flavored with "toasted" (a/k/a 'burned') garlic.  Feh.  Add the tomatoes and heat them through. Now add the roasted vegetables, two tomato containers full of water, and the stock concentrate (or about a teaspoon of salt).  Attack the soup with a stick blender, or process in batches in a regular blender, observing all common sense precautions regarding hot liquid and expansion, until you have a thick, smooth purée.

Stir in the half and half, and taste to correct the seasoning as you like it.  Go all restaurant and garnish with a drizzle of lemon oil or minced fennel fronds or some creme fraiche swirled in pretty patterns or casually rustic crumbles of goat cheese, or just eat it.

And don't forget to leave a comment if you want a shot at a jar of redemption. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

bait and switch

I don't have anything for you to eat today. Life is a little full. I am stockpiling things for the moment (and it is bound to present itself) when things calm down a hair: vegetable soup with dumplings, cranberry muffins, and other delights.

But I won't leave you entirely hungry until then. 

I have been teaching a food-writing workshop for adults with special needs, and it is more fun than anyone should be allowed to have (for me, anyway).  Each week, I bring in a poem to read aloud before we begin, and this is the one I'll be reading to them tomorrow.  It speaks to the same nodding mechanism as Michael Ruhlmann's wonderful essay, but is much easier to learn by heart, to have at the ready when anyone dares question why you make such a fuss over food

The Clean Plater

Some singers sing of ladies' eyes,
And some of ladies lips,
Refined ones praise their ladylike ways,
And course ones hymn their hips.
The Oxford Book of English Verse
Is lush with lyrics tender;
A poet, I guess, is more or less
Preoccupied with gender.
Yet I, though custom call me crude,
Prefer to sing in praise of food.
Yes, food,
Just any old kind of food.

Pheasant is pleasant, of course,
And terrapin, too, is tasty,
Lobster I freely endorse,
In pate or patty or pasty.
But there's nothing the matter with butter,
And nothing the matter with jam,
And the warmest greetings I utter
To the ham and the yam and the clam.
For they're food,
All food,
And I think very fondly of food.
Through I'm broody at times
When bothered by rhymes,
I brood
On food.

Some painters paint the sapphire sea,
And some the gathering storm.
Others portray young lambs at play,
But most, the female form.
'Twas trite in that primeval dawn
When painting got its start,
That a lady with her garments on
Is Life, but is she Art?
By undraped nymphs
I am not wooed;
I'd rather painters painted food.
Just food,
Just any old kind of food.

Go purloin a sirloin, my pet,
If you'd win a devotion incredible;
And asparagus tips vinaigrette,
Or anything else that is edible.
Bring salad or sausage or scrapple,
A berry or even a beet.
Bring an oyster, an egg, or an apple,
As long as it's something to eat.
If it's food,
It's food;
Never mind what kind of food.
When I ponder my mind
I consistently find
It is glued
On food. 

--Ogden Nash

Monday, October 29, 2012

a tough old bird

tomatillo husks make lovely flowers, if you have both time and tomatillos on your hands

A while ago our pal Tommy brought us some frozen chickens.  He raises chickens like we do, in the sense that we both have chickens.  We differ in scale (by a couple of powers of ten) and in that his birds retire to the freezer when their egg-laying days are concluded, rather than reclining on a bed of free room and board like ours do.  His is the practical approach.  Ours is the ridiculous approach.  There's no vegetarian moral high ground for us to speak from; we eat chicken, just not our own.

“These are stew birds,” he told me, and I thanked him profusely and stowed them in the freezer and promptly forgot that little tidbit of information.  So the first one that I cooked I roasted, producing something with a texture that pretty well approximated a hot sneaker, or so I imagine.  I have never actually chewed on a sneaker.  But now I have come as close as I need to get to that experience.

Chicken Two was oven-braised, and that was absolutely the correct course of action to take.  I am not congratulating myself for thinking of it, because it happened pretty accidentally as I was whirling around trying to get my house in order for a week away.

Being far away from my family for an entire week is what you might call pretty unusual for me, if 'pretty unusual' is how you might describe a flying octopus.  My family is a stalwart bunch and will be fine while I am away—fine, you hear me, fine.  On a last-minute grocery run before I left, my younger daughter rattled off a number of very practical items she might desire for the making of her lunch while I am not on deck to do the usual nineteen runs to the store that normally occur during the week due to the fact that I shop like a dimwit and always forget something (usually it is my list) so I am perpetually circling back. Then she plunked, with a degree of defiant sass, a large package of mint Newman-O’s into the cart.  Have a nice time away, Cat, said the Mousie. 

Even with a large package of cookies to eat for breakfast or whenever else the mood strikes, any lingering anxiety my kiddos might feel around any departure of mine is generally held in the stomach region.  So I tried to bung a good selection of dinners in the freezer.  They may not eat them, but they were more content to see me go knowing they had something in the bank.  Or maybe that was me. Anyway, the oven-braised chicken thoughtfully supplied four meals—two while I was home, and a matching set that I tucked away.

I can’t show you a picture of any of these things, because the pictures that I may or may not have taken are (or aren’t) an ocean away from me.  Maybe I can rectify that later.  In the meantime, while I watch someone sleep, I will just talk to you about chicken.

You don't have to start with a retired egg-laying chicken, or even a whole chicken.  Parts would work, too.  

salsa in smaller quantities makes less of a mess, don't worry

You can make some green salsa (I did, with my canning pals, and it is heaven to eat and simple to make), or you can buy a jar of salsa and treat this like housewife food.  

It's all sounding kind of vague, I realize.  In recipe terms, I am not sure how useful this will be to you.  But writing it out sure is useful to me at the moment.

I set out to make chicken stew, the kind with chunks of chicken and potatoes and maybe a carrot or a dumpling.  Something Almanzo might have eaten in Farmer Boy.  I took my vintage bird, put a whole, peeled onion and several garlic cloves and a bay leaf in its cavity and set it into my big dutch oven.  I added water to about halfway up the bird, and I rubbed a little olive oil, paprika, salt and ground cumin on the exposed parts.  I brought it all to a low boil on the stovetop, then covered the pot and stuffed it into a heated 350 degree oven, which I promptly turned down to 275.

I went on about my day, which was a full one.  About three hours later, I recalled the chicken.

It resembled a roasted chicken when I looked at it, but a single poke revealed that I had pulled chicken on the menu instead of stew. The moisture in the covered pot had softened it to shreds, but the exposed part had browned and gave the whole pot a nice roasty aroma.  In a matter of minutes, using what my son used to call the "cooking tweezers" (these are tongs, to the rest of you), the bones and gridgy bits were separated from the meat.  The broth was pretty liquid, so when I threw the tidied-up meat back into it, I added the potatoes, since I had cut them up already, and I baked it some more, until the potatoes were done.  It was dinner time by then, so we ate some of it just like that, bland as it was, and were happy enough.

The more memorable thing happened with the second half: a green chile enchilada that was devoured as by a pack of wolverines (notoriously fond of enchiladas).

I think this is how I did that:

12 corn tortillas
3T oil
16 oz tomatillo salsa
1/2 cup chopped roasted green chiles (roast some poblanos if you feel jiggy; buy a can if you do not)
2 to 3c of coarsely shredded jack or cheddar, divided (half to 3/4 #, depending on your fondness for cheese; the cheesy bits are the most sought-after bits in our house)
about half a roasted, shredded or pulled chicken
optionally, 3 or four boiled, steamed or roasted potatoes, cubed

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a small, heavy skillet until it ripples. Using the cooking tweezers, lay a tortilla flat in the oil, count to four, flip it and repeat.  Raise it up to let the excess oil drip off, and fling it on a plate.  Repeat with the remaining tortillas, adding a little more oil as needed. Do not let them crisp, just seal them in the hot oil.

Spread about half a cup of salsa on the bottom of a 13 x 9 (or thereabouts) baking dish.  Lay one tortilla down, put a glop of chicken, a few bits of green chile, a small bit of cheese and a teaspoon or so of salsa inside.  Fold it in half loosely, informally and with a devil-may-care attitude, and shove it to one end of the dish.  Repeat this process until all the tortillas are filled and lined up more or less in two rows in the dish.  Pour half the remaining salsa down the center of one line of tortillas, sprinkle half the remaining cheese on top of that, and repeat for the other conga line.  This is where a picture sure would be worth several hundred words.  The idea is that the edges of the tortillas remain exposed to crisp a little in the oven; the salsa is a wide stripe in the middle, and the cheese goes on top of that to melt and be sought after.

Wrap it and freeze it and leave the house in peace; alternatively, bake in a hot oven, 350 to 375, for about 25 minutes, until hot and bubbly and the cheese is nicely browned.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

what you can rely on

[A quick aside: comment-making on this site, which may have been tricky for some of you before, has just had a makeover, so please give it a try and let's see if it works now.]

Certain things in life can be counted on.  For example, if you forget your umbrella, it will rain very hard.  If you are running late, there will be traffic.  If you are early to meet someone, they will be late, and vice versa.

This is known as Murphy's Law.  Murphy was a real guy, it turns out, and pretty cranky about the "commonplace" interpretation of what he set out to posit as a serious principle of defensive design.  We regular old nimrods who do our thinking outside the field of aeronautics take his law to mean, simply, than anything that can go wrong, will.  Apparently there was some more nuance to it.  Nimrod, you may as well know, was also a real guy (the great-grandson of Noah), and he did not live long enough to see our feeble-minded culture sully his good name with insulting associations, perishing as he did long before Elmer Fudd came along, and so probably he was not cranky.

If you would like to read an excellent piece of writing decrying the low-down, dirty practice of name-calling, look no further than here.  Take that, snarky Ann Coulter.  Take it and get back on your broom.

If you would like to know why I am prattling on about Murphy's Law and restored faith in humanity when I meant to be talking about lentils, all I can tell you is that it traces to my having attended the Parent Education Night event that was the concluding element of the driver's ed process for my oldest daughter.  Commonplace interpretations of the Murphy legislation were all over the place.  If you are tired, and slightly freaked out by life's recent twists and turns, and are among the few who are more or less on time to class, it will follow that several people will prance in up to half an hour late and suffer not even the slightest reprimand, and that the instructor will have--through no fault of his own--both a tendency to trip over the same spot on the carpet every time he paces across it (which is often, as he favors a mobile and frisky lecturing technique) and a set of odd habits (weird coughing!  repetitive phrasing!) that once you notice them, make it impossible for you to form a coherent thought about anything but this.  It will follow that you will run out of yarn on the project you brought along about 45 minutes into the 2 hour class, and that after he shows you the petrifying video about the bereaved parents of honor students who brought a smile to the face of everyone they met before their untimely and preventable, grisly ends, the instructor will say not once, not twice, but seven times, "imagine you are one of those parents!"

And there is nothing for it but lentil soup.  Lentil soup sends you off into this dark night fortified, it waits patiently at home for the staggered and staggering arrivals of the rest of your family, and its tiny leftover amounts morph magically the next day into lunch for three. 

Once cold weather sets in, we eat some permutation of lentil soup, cheese, bread and roasted squash at least once a week.  I develop passionate relationships with lentil soups of various types.  I love one with fancy little green French lentils and olives and greens.  I love one with red lentils and lemon and carrots, one made with whey, and a spicy coconut one.

Presently I love this vaguely Indian one, and if precedent is anything to go by, I'll make it until everyone begins to groan and it is time to branch out again.  The slightly exotic lentils in play here (urad dal and moong dal) require soaking, which is unusual for a lentil.  But I do not grudge them the little bit of fuss that they demand, because their texture is so delightful.  Really any old lentil will do.  Stir some slivered greens into this soup, or don't.  Load it up with grated cheese on top, or don't.  Consider taking some plain yogurt and mixing in a little garlic, smoky paprika and lemon zest to dollop on top.  Call it dal, and serve it over rice, with pappadums to dip into it and a little cilantro on top. Or don't.  It will bear up, and bear you up, regardless.

lentil soup

3/4 c whole urad dal
3/4 c split green moong dal

1/4 c coconut oil, ghee, or olive oil
1/4 c minced garlic
1 T ground cumin
2 t ground coriander
1/4 t ground fenugreek (not essential, but very tasty)
pinch of ground cayenne
1/3 c tomato paste

salt to taste

Soak the lentils in water to cover overnight, and drain.

Heat the oven to 250 degrees.

Heat the oil in a heavy, lidded dutch oven, and sauté the garlic for a few minutes, until fragrant.  Watch carefully, stir constantly and keep the heat low, to prevent browning.  When the garlic is softened and nicely aromatic, stir in the spices.  Now add the tomato paste, letting it mingle and sweeten a moment as you stir.  Dump in the lentils, along with 7 cups of water.  Bring it to a low boil, turn off the heat, and cover the pot.  Slide the covered pot into the oven, and leave it there for a good long while.  About two hours ought to do it, depending on how old your lentils are, but longer will not harm it.  Stir it and test for doneness and salt to taste.  Like all lentil soups, it will improve if it cools and then you reheat it, at which time it may require thinning with a little water.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

my roving eye

We didn't go hungry here, last week.  But nor did we eat a lot of thoughtfully prepared, photogenic food while there was light enough to take its picture.  Well, it was thoughtfully prepared--in advance of a trip I did not end up taking.  Postponed at the last minute, after a whirlwind cookscapade.  Which of the five dinners I made would you like tonight, I asked my kiddos yesterday after school, and as a result my son asked tentatively, at dinnertime, "is this for tonight?" as he eyed the green salad in front of him.

Speaking of food ideas banked against future needs, here are a few morsels I am tempted to try, when the dust settles.

First off, the smashed potato, which in fact we did try, and it was delicious.  I boiled some not-very-large taters in salted water with a garlic clove until they were tender, cooled them down and flattened them between two cutting boards (quite satisfying).  I had just roasted some cauliflower so I had a nice oily, parchment lined baking sheet handy, and I plopped them on there, drizzed more oil over top of them, sprinkled on a little cumin and paprika and sea salt, and baked them at about 400 until they were golden.  Flipping was a fail for me, but you could try it if you feel brave and you have not, in your zeal, over-flattened (which makes them fragile--trust me).

I'd like to make this dukkah, though with almonds, because sadly I can't eat hazelnuts.  I think you couldn't go too far wrong putting it on the potatoes.

These grape tarts, with their custard and thyme, make me drool, and I'm fiddling with a gluten-free pastry crust that will behave enough to adapt to it.

I don't mind the look of these pumpkin doughnuts one bit, especially since they are already gluten free.

I'd like to eat this bibimbap, possibly more than I'd like to make it myself, but enough that I am willing to try.  Some day.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

quince essential

Are you a quince resister?  We shall overcome.  

Here are a few points in their favor:

1. One of the greatest poems ever written, "The Owl & The Pussycat," by Edward Lear, features a quince:

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
  And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
    They danced by the light of the moon,
      The moon,
      The moon,
  They danced by the light of the moon.

Need more? Really? I thought the poem would do it.  Okay:

According to Plutarch, who ought to know, ancient Greek brides would sweeten their breath by nibbling on quinces before entering the bridal chamber, "in order that the first greeting may not be disagreeable nor unpleasant." Plutarch may have overlooked some of the contributing factors to disagreeable encounters, but he was right on the money about the quince. Awesome dental refresher. 

How about its other ancient pedigrees?  The legendary golden apple of Hesperides that Paris gave to Aphrodite (remember that one?) was really a quince. You know the apples in the Song of Solomon (best bible section EVER--come on!  totally!  "Strengthen me with raisins"!)?  Well, you guessed it. They were probably quinces.  Quinces were originally cultivated in Persia, and if there is a more poetic and enchanting ancient culture to think about (and connect your meal to) than that one, I am all ears to hear about it.

A quick trot through historical quince lore also turns up the belief that pregnant women who eat generous quantities of quinces will give birth to industrious and highly intelligent children. Probably not much of a stretch to extrapolate that eating quinces will make anyone brighter and more capable. Worth a try, anyway.  Painless, to be sure.

If lack of historical grounding was not what was holding you back, but instead you have resisted eating them because you had a bad quince-chopping experience, or because you can't think of a single thing you'd like to do with them, I am about to put all your cares and woes behind you with a little nose-to-tail quince primer.

First and foremost, never approach a raw quince with chopping in mind.  Before you and your knife get involved with the blessed items, roast them.  The benefits are unlimited.  Not only do you get a compliant fruit to attack with your knife, you also get (a) a house perfumed like ancient Persia, and (b) roasted quinces, which are my son's hands-down favorite thing to find in his lunch box.

Second, make this chutney.  Make it in place of cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.  Make it and put it on some meat or vegetable that you have grilled or roasted.  Make it and use it for chutney's highest and best use: the cheese and chutney sandwich.  

Actually, in the case of this chutney, I think the highest and best use may be eating it out of the jar with a spoon, but a piece of toasted whole grain bread, some sharp cheddar and a glob of it on top will do you no harm. 

Third, with the trimmings and tailings of the quinces, make some quince elixir (this sounds complicated and Persian, but really just means: boil stuff and then strain it). Tuck the jar in the back of your fridge.  When the next sore throat comes around, and you know it will, warm this up with a little hot water.  Thanks to all their pectin, quince seeds have a wildly demulcent quality that was used, way back when, to make lotion, and with good reason.  The sore throat you are tending (which may not be your own) will thank you.

My canning coven makes this chutney in giant batches and then we can it, but you can make a small batch and refrigerate it (it's very acidic, so it should last quite a while), or eat it right up. The instructions are long because I am chatty, not because they are complicated.  Chopping and stirring is what we are talking about here. 

quince chutney and all its collateral benefits

about 12 medium quinces
2 cups sugar
juice of 2 lemons

1 cup water or apple cider
1 T minced fresh ginger 

1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2  tsp ground coriander

With a towel, rub the fuzz off of your little yellow pals.  Place them whole in a baking dish and into a 350 oven for 20-30 minutes, or until they are light brown all over and just soft to the touch and your house smells like heaven.  They may require turning halfway through if they are crowded in the pan. You may want to stop here and just eat them all.  I understand.

You can either peel them while they are whole and cut the bulk of the flesh off the core, or quarter them like you would an apple and then peel and core the sections.  Some will be very pithy in the center. Cut them up not very carefully (it's a slippery business, but trust me, way better than trying to deal with them raw) into chunks of 1" or less. Don't fret over stray bits of peel, which will cook away.

Whichever method of butchering you use, save the cores and peels and pithy bits into a separate pot as you go, and when you are done coring and peeling (cut the cores open so the interior, seedy part is exposed, if you have not quartered them as you went), fill the pot with water and set it to boil, then simmer.  Let it simmer a few hours, then strain off the now pink, thick (from the pectin) liquid and sweeten to taste with honey (preferably raw). You can add ginger root to this if you want--and I urge you to want that--just throw a few coin-slices of it in with the peels and cores. Use a very clean (rinse it with boiling water) jar to store this and it ought to last a while in the fridge.  For an epic healing concoction, prepare Alana's magnificent garlic lemonade and mix it with a shot of this elixir.

Meanwhile, throw the quince pieces, the lemon juice and 1.5 cups of the sugar into a heavy pot with the water or cider, and bring to a simmer, stirring.  Watch carefully and stir attentively to prevent scorching the bottom. Add more liquid if you need to, to keep things moving. When the quinces have softened entirely, mash things a bit with a potato masher and continue cooking until you like the consistency (it will thicken considerably as it cools, thanks to the pectin).  Now add the ground spices, stir, and then after a minute or two more of simmering, taste to see how you like it. Add more sugar or spices as you see fit.