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Archive for March, 2010

There is just something about that old chestnut, the school bake sale. Something that is missing, that is. Home-baked goodies. The 21st century bake sale has been transformed by the 21st century lifestyle: Lack of time to bake, germ phobia, a desire to consume only what is recognizable. When I peruse cookbooks like The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, which will recommend a particularly homey and quick treat as “nice for a bake sale,” it seems quaint. Many bake sales now display Costco-size boxes of chips, cookies and candy and flats of cokes and bottled waters.

The bake sale is a humble way to raise money for a good cause. A little flour, eggs and sugar yield cozy morsels gobbled up by community members who toss their coins or bills into a jar. Not to mention the fun of trying other families’ favorites and even sampling a taste of another culture. The exchange of money for treats has become less personal with the re-selling of store-bought goods, although certainly efficient. Re-selling cheap, pre-packaged products turns a tidy profit.

NYTimes recently published an article about the changing landscape of the school bake sale with an emphasis on the battle against obesity. How do selling pre-packaged products help make headway against the epidemic? I understand that some children have allergies and serious intolerances but I think the concerns can be addressed by thoughtful bakers rather than resorting to a table full of processed junk food.

I am an advocate for the old-fashioned bake sale. It is an opportunity to gather around a community table and share a bite for a good cause. The time and care taken to bake something homemade makes it a pleasure for me to donate funds. A bake sale is a chance to make an intimate and meaningful exchange, an antidote to our teched-out, super-busy, fragmented way of life. Perhaps, if we all learn to bake one thing well – simple vanilla cupcakes sprinkled with sugar or killer oatmeal cookies – bake sales can still live up to their billing.

Remember the musical Oklahoma! when at the church picnic fresh-baked pies were auctioned off and love was found? Could the bake sale be the new J-date?  Support the cause!

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I’m not an advance-planner of meals. I fly by the seat of my pants to call of the hunger in my belly. Only when I’m entertaining or aiming to impress do I marshal my culinary forces and construct a plan of attack. As it happens, my work/life schedule tends to be unpredictable, so it helps if my cooking and shopping are, if not predictable, then at least thought through to the best of my ability. I’ve been working on it.

I’m fascinated by people who strategize their cooking week. I’ve found, when I take the time to plan ahead, bellies get filled with minimal stress. A pot of soup that I doubled and threw half in the freezer is welcome on the night I work late and can’t stand another meal on the run. A bunch of root vegetables roasted and tossed with balsamic vinegar on a Monday night make a fabulous salad to nibble throughout the week.

Do you strategize your week food-wise? How do you execute your plan? I want to know!

When I have failed to meal plan having the following foods on hand ease my week considerably:

1) SEASONAL MIX OF PRODUCE: For this, I rely on my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). I pick up a box of fresh organic vegetables and fruits biweekly. This box provides the base for the week and gets me cooking with produce that I might not choose on my own. This week I received:

Parsnips (pictured below)

Carrots

Strawberries

Cilantro

Rosemary

Lettuce

Chinese Cabbage

You can see a picture of my CSA summer loot here.

2) FROZEN WILD SALMON – I order frozen wild salmon filets from Vital Choice. This source of wild seafood is recommended by Oceana – an organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans. So, my frozen salmon is sustainably caught and all that. I ignore the sticky fact that my shipment is flown in from Alaska and that I live a block from an ocean, which is chock full of seafood; I never promised moral perfection. The good news: I can come home, put the salmon in some water to defrost, and by the time I’ve changed into my comfortable clothes, the fish is ready to cook. About 10 minutes later – delicious wild salmon for dinner. And I mean delicious.

3) FROZEN BROWN RICE –  Thanks to my mother-in-law for this suggestion. I buy the above version at Trader Joe’s but this guy says you can also find frozen brown rice at Whole Foods. Microwave for 3 minutes and you have enough rice for two-plus people. I’ve been making a brown rice and leafy greens combo for a quick, healthful lunch or a great dinner side. See my “recipe” for 3 Minute Brown Rice and Greens (co-created by my husband, Mr. Order Envy) at the end of this post.

Coming soon…..”Planning” Breakfast – Or, My Attempt Not to Eat Dessert for Breakfast.

EASY RECIPE: 3 Minute Brown Rice with Greens

1 package frozen brown rice

1 bunch of dark leafy greens (Kale, Chard, Mustard Greens etc…), rinsed and tough stems removed.

1 clove garlic, sliced thin

1 chile de arbol or a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)

Salt and Pepper

Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat until hot. Add garlic and chile de arbol or red pepper flakes. Let sizzle 30 seconds. Do not let the garlic turn brown. Add greens to the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Saute greens until wilted to your taste.

Serve over cooked brown rice.

Any ONE of the following you may enjoy sprinkled on top of the rice and greens, but this hearty, healthy side is delicious by itself:  hot sauce, squeeze of lemon, soy sauce, left-over peanut sauce from last night’s Thai food take-out dinner.

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I must admit that it’s not all it seems. Yes, I entertain fairly often. Yes, I’ve been known to do an intimate dinner for 40. Yes, I bake my own bread.
But then there’s the salad.
Each week from my CSA box I receive a head of lettuce so beautiful that I want to photograph it or turn it in to an elegant centerpiece. Lettuce so amazing that it deserves a vase in a central location. Instead the precious leaves are slated for the most degrading of spaces as to be tucked into the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Most humiliating of all… it then sits there, neglected. Though, in principle, I believe in serving a simple salad with every meal… I envision myself doing so, yet rarely do. Not because of the time it will take to clean the vibrant ruffles but because of the conflict of what to put on it.
Yes, my friends, I’m scared of that little condiment known as salad dressing.
I know the most economical answer is an easy one made here on my counter and I’m determined to find it. So, bottles of the pre-made stuff are out in my book. That, and, the idea that if I can master execution of complex recipes, I should (blindfolded) be able to drum up something to slather on a salad. I’ve been known to throw on a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar at the last-minute. I’ve followed recipes both straightforward and involved… but I’ve never taken joy in the outcome. Persevere though I may, I’m still really lacking. Most salad nights, I wait until the very end to make a dressing, and if I’m lucky Amanda will show up and, while filling me in on the contents of her day, effortlessly put forth something delicate and delicious. Those nights when she doesn’t show I am left to my own devices. Yes, I know that mustard is a great emulsifier and that shalot is lovely and that, and that, and that, and that…
YET, I failed again tonight. My vision was to serve the lasagna with a huge bowl of lightly lemoned greens, I referenced a cookbook for a simple vinaigrette. It emulsified beautifully with the addition of a small bit of warm water (thank you Mark Bittman) and looked stunning: glossy, healthy looking greens in a deep wood bowl. Eagerly served onto my plate, I was deflated after the first bite. The lemon was too sharp in a way and the olive oil tasted somehow green. Theoretical Erin makes a jar of dressing a couple nights a week and confidently drizzles it on the salad. Real Erin fears the salad and opts not to serve one at all. So, I say to you: I am weak, help me. That’s the first step, right? Knowing that you have a problem.
My name is Erin and I have a problem making salad dressing.
I plan to start my recovery by speaking to my mom, who is known in the potluck world for her salads (and their dressings), then to read up on Evan Kleinman‘s recent workshop on the topic of mixing ones own salad potions… after that, I’m lost. Can you help me? Comments welcome.

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Just read Lydia K. Bundtzen’s article, “Lucent Figs and Suave Veal Chops; Sylvia Plath and Food,” from the 10th anniversary issue of Gastronomica. Gives a peek into the daily life of this mysterious and controversial woman. Bundtzen quotes from Plath’s journals in which she outlines a potential story. Plath notes:

“…woman at end of rope…lost sense of order of universe…. stayed by need to create an order: slowly, methodically begins to bake cakes, one each hour, calls store for eggs etc. from midnight to midnight. Husband comes home; new understanding. She can go on making order in her limited way: beautiful cakes…”

There is something about baking cakes that is alluring. When I get the bug it is intense and unshakable. I must bake a cake…now! Sometimes it seems easy and fun. Setting the mise-en-place, allowing the eggs and butter time to settle to room temperature and letting my inner pacing draw down into that which is best suited to home baking. But there are those days when the cake baking is more desperate. Like I am trying to create order out of the chaos of each moment. Each ingredient an obstacle to calm. I rush, uncomfortable in my skin. By the time the cake comes out of the oven, I’m annoyed with the mess I’ve made and that I now must make a frosting which will prove no-doubt impossible to keep smooth and free of crumbs and I want to toss the warm cake into the trash and wonder if I will be able to taste the stress in the final product. If I can hold on through these moments and resist the urge to demolish the whole enterprise, I know that no matter how harried and difficult the process is – I end with a cake on the counter. Something whole and recognizable made by me. The magic of baking is that in the end there is order.

Until it’s time for dessert.

The cake pictured above is a white cake with strawberry buttercream filling and a chocolate ganache frosting. All from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum. You can find the recipe for a Yellow Layer Cake and many other of Rose’s recipes on her website by clicking *here*.


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The Nest

My parents have this thing about their nest:
it’s empty.
Not empty of love or of social activity or belongings… It’s empty of children. And children, no matter how old, can cause a centric force when present. Being void of that has allowed them to pursue new frontiers. For my dad, that’s cooking.
Tom had exactly three dishes in his repetoire up until about three years ago. They were: oatmeal (that he would leave by the vat for us on cold mornings with butter and brown sugar sitting on the counter), fried eggs with toast (that I still crave today, soaking with butter) and an interesting dish called Martin Spaghetti (named for his home town). Martin Spaghetti consisted of browned ground beef, tomato sauce and a little sugar to give it a strange but comforting sweetness. Growing up, my mom handled the main dish casserole department though Tom always came through with the grilling. Sides were still my mom’s responsibility. (His grilling, however, was quite spectacular.) This is what I knew of my parents, what I understood of them and their relationship with one another. Dad- meat, mom- everything else. Until three years ago.
Now, Tom is known to decide on a recipe and dedicate a whole day to it’s preparation. While my mom seems to prefer her recent liberation from the obligations of the ravenous children Tom has found something new between the stove and even the oven… that the confines of an interior kitchen seem to agree with him.
Last weekend he put in the request for a beef sautee (that includes broccoli, which I thought until now to be a forbidden vegetable to my father). My mom dutifully shopped buying such exotic things as snow peas and hoisin sauce. The production even involved an emailed photo to yours truly (with the caption “your dad wants to be on your blog”) from two people who up until now professed to not understand how the whole uploading-downloading of photos actually occurred comes this:

And all I have to say is: Go, dad, go!! To all those that think that cooking is for people that “know” something more than those that don’t cook… have a look here and know that anything is possible for those that want to pursue something beyond what they already “know”.

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I will try anything with chorizo in the title.

If you haven’t made this Mark Bittman recipe from the NYTimes yet, do! I’ve made it twice in the last two weeks. A good easy, quick, hearty and DELICIOUS meal. Quick enough for a weeknight but I think the idea of snuggling down to watch a movie this weekend, especially in places where it is still chilly, with this meal on your plate would make a perfect night.  Catch up on those Oscar-nominated films before Sunday!

Tips:

1) Recipe calls for spinach but I used kale and other leafy winter greens I had on hand.

2) Use the hard Spanish chorizo, rather than the fresh Mexican kind. Although if you do try the Mexican, let us know how it turned out.

3) Use fresh breadcrumbs or Panko (what I had on hand) for the crispy topping.

4) You can make a fresh salad for an accompaniment or just the dish itself. If you have leftovers, save them for a great Monday lunch.

5) Don’t forget the Rioja! Open a bottle of Spanish wine and enjoy the weekend!

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A year and a half ago (or could it be two?), it was summer- a rare hot night. After a festive dinner at a friend’s house their neighbor Bob stopped in. Wine was flowing and the neighbor Bob went home to get some of his [get this] homemade limoncello. It’s not that I’m Italian like Bob (though I do very much like Italy), it’s not that I have an especially strong affinity to the potent, syrupy citrus digestif but I am in love with the idea of this special, boozy something meant to be shared. It represented to me long, savored, summer meals with friends that feel like family. So, I chatted poor Bob’s ear off about it for the rest of the evening.
Still feeling the buzz of excitement the next morning (well, something was buzzing in my head anyway), I began to research limoncello recipes and save the miniature glass bottles that I envisioned would hold my sunshine yellow deliciousness when it was ready. That’s the other thing I learned from Bob: making limoncello takes a really long time. The longer the better. I liked it even more: it took a winter time fruit (lemon) zest paired with vodka to marry in a cool place for 45 days, add simple syrup, wait another 45 days. Then, just in time for summer, strain, bottle and throw in the freezer. So, essentially, it’s a process that transforms winter into summer without heat or an oven or a blender… just with time. Which, as always is the only thing that can bring the seasons forth.
With all this enthusiasm, how could I wait? Well, I waited… and the project lost steam. I recycled the glass bottles… I lost focus.
Then, about a month ago I saw neighbor Bob! Immediately my limoncello questions began flowing again (poor Bob). What was his secret ingredient? Were Meyer lemons really better? He reminded me of the importance of using organic, unwaxed fruit. That was easy, I could picture the face of the farmer at the market who would have just such a thing. Next question: How many lemons do I need?
Bob: A lot.
Me: How many is a lot? A box?
Bob: Yes, a box.
Me: A big box?
Bob: Yes, a big box.
Okay, I didn’t want to jinx my momentum with research or intention as I had the time before- it was time for action! I went right to the farmer on Saturday and made my request for “a really big box of Meyer lemons”.
Farmer: How big of a box?
Me: Well… a big one. Maybe the size of this crate here.
Farmer: A case?
Me: A case, yes, of course. A case! I’ll take one of those for next week.
Farmer: [writing diligently] Great! One 25 lb. case coming up!
Me: [to self] 25 lbs!?!
Home from the market searching recipes lead me to this one. This guy spares no detail and has obviously made a lot of limoncello (he has a spreadsheet listing different batches, their variables and outcomes). I like it. If you go to his recipe, you will see it calls for 17 lemons. Seventeen and I have 25 pounds! It turns out that 25 pounds is actually a quadruple recipe, in case you were wondering.
Fortunately reinforcements were on their way in the form of my mother coming to visit. We picked up the lemons (which, thankfully was a smaller box than I had pictured), raided the vodka section at BevMo for 100 proof bottles (eight of them) and went to town washing and drying the fruit. Then… zesting. We took our zesters and lemons outside in the sunshine to sit while zesting chatting away like two old Italian women. We lamented the one sub-standard zester, complained of elbow pain, scrutinized any hint of pith attached to the lemons (apparently the limoncello kiss of death is pith!). Her zests with the microplane were tiny and potently colored, soft with oils. Mine were large, curly and fanciful made with a potato peeler.


We opened the vodka, did some mathematical equations to determine how much zest went into each portion (in the future I will buy one large container to put everything in). Stuffing zest into the mouths of vodka bottles is, in fact, time consuming and messy. So far we only have one variable which was the size of the zest, hers vs. mine but I have some other surprise variables to introduce into the next step.
It’s underway now, the bottles have been capped and put under the stairs awaiting their seasonal transformation. Outside though, I can already feel it happening… zest breaking down and giving its color to the alcohol, motherhood giving way to friendship.

Oh, and if anyone is in need of a few gallons of lemon juice.  Let me know.
Also, some people prefer the spelling lemoncello, any input on authenticity would be appreciated… until I can get the lowdown from neighbor Bob.

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