Tuesday, July 31, 2007

You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

Yes, well...

    A person who does not eat or does not believe in eating meat, fish, fowl, or, in some cases, any food derived from animals, as eggs or cheese, but subsists on vegetables, fruits, nuts, grain, etc.
The irony is not, in fact, completely lost on me. For once. But before you embark on what would no doubt be an eloquent and biting criticism of my hypocrisy, allow me a moment to explain how a vegetarian's food blog includes recipes for meat. There will still be a world of things left to criticize. I promise.

I should start by saying that I am vegetarian—I've been vegetarian for years. I don't eat filet mignon or chicken or salmon, and I try very hard to outwit the gelatin and rennet maliciously lurking where I might least expect them. It's not religious, or because I don't like meat, or something I learned from my family, but it is something that matters quite a lot to me. I don't want to take a life if I don't have to. End of story.

When I started living with G, the question of cooking meat really tortured me. For months, actually. On one hand, it makes perfect sense for me to cook for both of us. While I love to cook, G is borderline incapable of feeding himself. When he was an undergraduate, I'm told, he subsisted purely on peanut butter for something like a week. So long that his body began producing acetone, causing his breath to smell like nail polish remover. Not to mention long enough to make him really, really sick.

On the other hand, G and I have, shall we say, a difference of opinion when it comes to good food. I like tofu and artichokes and food spicy enough to make me cry. G does not. Emphatically. He's not just not vegetarian, but more of what I might call an active carnivore. Trying to make him eat vegetarian every night would have been a nightmare beyond what I really want to contemplate at this moment.

I thought about it all the same, though. I hope G will forgive me if he sees this. But in many ways, I think I'm just as culpable cooking meat as eating it. What I'm interested in is the 'not killing' part. And so what I object to is, in fact, not so much eating meat as purchasing it—the point at which (it seems to me) I most actively participate. True, this animal is already dead. But in buying it, I'm paying for that to continue. And in the end, I think that's where the responsibility originates.

It took much internal debate to come to any conclusions. Trying to pick out what I thought was actually true from what I wanted to be true. I decided first that I should only cook for myself, since I didn't think it would ever work to somehow force my belief system on him. But the more I thought about that, the less it made sense to me. It would let me feel like I'd avoided getting my hands dirty, so to speak, but it wouldn't actually solve much. Given the choice between between a two cuts of meat of similar quality, G will almost always choose the less expensive one. I, on the other hand, am more than willing to pay for free range/organic/wild/etc., even if the nominal quality of the meat is exactly the same. So that was sort of it, then. Do I participate in something I strongly dislike, but try to make it a little better? Or do I avoid it entirely?

You can see which one I chose. It prickles at my conscience a bit that I ended up making the decision that I wanted from a purely personal point of view—the one that allows me to cook for both of us. But I do think that the decision was also made with the best intentions, trying to step away from the easiest choice. I think G eats less meat than he would otherwise, and almost certainly less meat from fast food joints and the like.

So did I make the right decision? I don't know.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Beautiful Disaster

I'm feeling rather silly here, having started my blog and being more or less unable to post to it. I had the rationale that I ought to start it now, as I have more time—which I still think is a perfectly reasonable idea. But the difficulty is that, having gone to this much trouble, I find that I really want to post something. I'm working out of the country, living in a small apartment, have no bowls or spatulas or cooking sheets or even an oven... but I want to post about the things I cannot make all the same.

So I thought I'd post one more photograph lurking in my archives, which I didn't put up the first time because it was such a complete and utter failure.

I rather think that they're pretty, but they tasted terrible. I served them at a dinner party and sort of wanted to curl up and die. *sigh* Never again.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Remembrance of Things Past

I don't have many photos of things that I've made in the past. Certainly not really beautiful ones. I never took pictures with the intention of displaying them, only of having for reference. Still, I went through old files and found a few and thought I'd post them here. I even have one or two recipes to go with them.

Fruit Tart with Boysenberry Cream
Not the easiest tart, but really beautiful and tasty. Adapted from a recipe by Epicurious.

Filling and dough may be made 1 day in advance, and need at least 6 hours and 45 to chill, respectively. Tart may be assembled 3 hours in advance of serving.

1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1½-pint basket fresh boysenberries or 1 1/3 cup frozen unsweetened boysenberries, thawed
½ cup sugar
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter

1¼ cups unbleached all purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
Pinch of salt
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel (yellow part only)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 1-pint basket strawberries, stemmed, halved
1½-pint basket fresh raspberries
1½-pint basket fresh boysenberries or blackberries
1 large peach, cut into ½-inch-wide slices
5 tablespoons currant jelly

2 small bowls
Fine sieve
Wooden spoon
Plastic wrap
Food processor
Microplane or similar tool for zesting
Rolling pin
9-inch tart pan with removable bottom
Dry beans or pie weights
Pastry brush

Beat egg and yolks together in small bowl. Set aside. In another small bowl, dissolve cornstarch in lemon juice, then mix into eggs. Purée berries and sugar in blender. Strain purée through a fine sieve into medium saucepan, pressing through wire mesh with a spatula or wooden spoon. From time to time you may need to scrape down the exterior of the sieve with a clean spatula—at the very least, be sure to do so at the end. Add butter and bring to simmer over medium-high heat. Slowly whisk hot berry mixture into egg mixture. Return mixture to same saucepan and cook until filling is very thick and boiling, whisking constantly, about 3 minutes. Transfer filling to small bowl. Press plastic wrap directly onto surface to prevent skin from forming; refrigerate at least 6 hours. Can be prepared 1 day ahead.

Blend flour, sugar and salt in food processor. Add butter and lemon peel and pulse until coarse meal forms, erring on the side of under-processing. Fluff with a fork—the largest pieces should resemble large peas. Add lemon juice and process until moist clumps form. Gather into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate 45 minutes. Dough can be prepared 1 day ahead. Let soften slightly at room temperature before continuing.

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Roll dough out on lightly floured surface to 1/8-inch-thick round. Rotate the dough every few passes to ensure that it does not stick and add more flour as needed. Fold dough over floured rolling pin and transfer to tart pan. Gently press dough into pan. Trim and finish edges. Chill 15 minutes. Line dough with foil and fill with dry beans or pie weights. Bake 15 minutes. Remove beans and foil and bake until crust is golden, about 20 minutes longer. Transfer crust to rack and cool.

Spread filling evenly in crust. Arrange strawberries, cut side down, in irregular pattern on filling. Fill in with raspberries and boysenberries. Tuck peach slices between berries. Stir currant jelly in heavy, small saucepan over low heat until melted. Brush jelly over fruit to glaze. (Can be prepared 3 hours ahead. Refrigerate.)

Serves 8.

Cream Cheese Pound Cake
Simple and delicious.

Cake may be made several days before serving. Keep in refrigerator, wrapped tightly in plastic. Do not dust with powdered sugar until serving.

1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
1½ cups butter
3 cups white sugar
6 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Powdered sugar for dusting

10-inch Bundt pan
Electric mixer with large bowl
Wooden spoon
Toothpicks or wooden skewers

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Carefully grease and flour Bundt pan. In a large bowl, cream butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, scraping down sides as necessary. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well with each addition. Add the flour all at once; stir with wooden spoon until just combined. Add vanilla and mix gently. Pour into prepared pan, scraping sides of bowl with spatula.

Bake at 325ºF for 1 hour and 20 minutes. Check for doneness at 1 hour. A toothpick inserted into center of cake will come out clean. After cake has cooled enough to pull away from sides of pan a bit, invert into a plate and allow to cool further with pan atop cake.

Dust with powdered sugar.

Serves 12.

Cake decorating
My first attempt at cake decorating—chocolate "plastic", a fondant rose, chocolate leaves, and candied rose petals. Judge kindly, gentle reader. I was young and just as foolish as I am now.

Saffron Princess Ring
My first adventure with saffron. Did I pay for it myself? I think not.

Orange Bundt Cake
Taken from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Cookie Refuge

Hair curled just so, red lipstick flawlessly applied and blotted. The smiling, unrecognizable face belongs to a woman in a Spring Green Kitty Foyle, collar carefully starched and pressed to perfection, skirt largely hidden behind a floral apron. The woman holds one hand on her hip, the other held up as if to balance an invisible tray. To her left, a new and overly-white range—both stove and oven—gleams with an impossible shine. "General Electric Speedster Range, for cool electric cooking. Talk about speed! One giant surface unit gets red hot in 20 seconds..."

My mother has spent her life hiding from this. She has never actually seen the advertisement (nine square inches in the lower left-hand corner of page 81, purchased by General Electric for the May 1959 issue of Good Housekeeping), but it does not matter. She knows that this, or something like this, is there. And she hides from it. Not in a way that can be pinpointed in moments, so that someone could watch how the chin meets the chest, to render her person somehow smaller and less obtrusive. This is a more gentle, constant bowing of the head—in passage from room to room, in transition from hour to hour. Nothing overt to those who are not watching. Simply a quiet sense of humiliation, tagging along behind her.

By the time I was born, hiding from such shame had become more concretely an escape—a liberation—from pots and pans. There was rebellion in the purchased or microwaved. As if it might allow her to sidestep whole worlds of ideas. Oppression and prejudice and expectation and years of struggle. Rejecting homemade as a path to rejecting marrying early and to staying away from mathematics and perhaps even schoolchildren proclaiming worthlessness. "Fatty Patty Four-Eyes".

We ate separately, quickly, often dumbly. Distracting ourselves from what might be missing in front of the television, staring and silent.

More the type to mold than to rebel, I too took on a combative stance. Or I tried. But too often I tripped over the wanted-but-unwanted. Beautiful and loving and lovable. It would be so easy to have just a taste of that, however it might constrict me. But then... Don't be like that.

It was years before I allowed myself to seriously contemplate the apron. I cooked infrequently, and told myself I didn't enjoy it. Over time, though, it became more confused. Convincing myself that it was unsafe and safe simultaneously: giving into what is easy—and wrong. Moving beyond the primitive association between self-worth and oven mitts. Or both.

* * *

So, then, here is my confession: I love to cook. I find it deeply satisfying. For many of the wrong reasons, and some of the right reasons. And even more than that, I love my mother's cooking. Sparse and imperfect, and I couldn't care less. I love it more. There is an immediate, absurdist attachment to contentment in the tastes and smells I associate with my childhood. Instant safety to be found in a chocolate chip cookie.

At Christmas, as an exception to the rule, my mother would almost always bake gingerbread. It's not a kind of gingerbread that I've seen anywhere else—harder than the cakes which often get the name gingerbread but softer than that which is typically used to make houses. And to me, it equates seamlessly with home.

Probably as a gift, my mother acquired a wonderful collection of gingerbread cookie cutters. One set to make houses and one for a sleigh pulled by a team of reindeer. In later years it was a tradition to invite friends over for a gingerbread house decorating party. Some years we made more than 30 houses. I don't think my mother had ever baked so much in her life.

I start with this not for any particularly profound reason, but simply because it's where I started. We'll see where I go.

To Be Young and Hopeful...

...about one thing, at least.

I'm getting an apartment in the fall, and for the first time will have my own (very small) kitchen. And I am ridiculously, I would venture even endearingly, excited. It would be far more intelligent, I'm sure, to be jaded and world-weary about the whole thing. Expecting nothing and therefore risking nothing when things work out badly: when I can't or don't make time to cook, when I can't afford ingredients or equipment, when my toasted nuts emerge as blackened ghosts of their former selves, setting off the fire alarm...

But did I ever make claims to intelligence? I think not. And I have plenty of cynicism left over which covers a wide array of places and people. So perhaps all is not lost.

Here, then, is my naïveté. For your amusement. Perhaps even for mine.

There are a number of food blogs out there that I much admire, and I have only a few illusions that this will become one of them. (They will be stomped out in due time. Fear not.) But perhaps I will learn a thing or two, and be able to even improve or something. I probably won't put up too many recipes, but photographs and stories and other bits of useless text. Or if I'm particularly ambitious, maybe I'll even write up the recipe myself so I can post that too. (Did you know that you can copyright the instructions but not the ingredients of a recipe? Just for your edification.) Please feel free to comment.