Dec 13, 2008

Night at the Improv: Vegetarian Chili

I could have called this post "Night at the Improv: Chili," because almost all our meals are vegetarian any more, but I love the sanctimonious ring of "Vegetarian." However, the word "flexitarian," like the word "webinar," does not attract me. Even though "flexitarian" describes me, I eschew it.

Here is what you do. In the morning at breakfast, think, "Tonight will be a good chili night!" Retrieve about a pound of dried beans, red or black would be best, from your cupboard. Possibly they are in a bag slumped behind the oatmeal container. Soak them all day in a whole bunch of water; it should cover the beans at all times and the beans will swell.

About an hour and a half before dinner, drain the beans and cover them again with water, and cook them until they seem done. This will be at least 40 minutes. Meanwhile, heat up your cast-iron Dutch oven. You don't have one? Ask for one for Christmas. I use mine three times a week, at least. In the mean time, a big pot will do just fine. Put a little olive oil in. Dice an onion and add it to the hot oil. Celery or carrot is nice if you have it. If only I had had one fresh jalapeno (take out the seeds if you're going for moderate heat) and a fresh green pepper last time I made it, alas. Add a couple tablespoons chili powder, a teaspoon of cumin if you like that. I do. Coriander? Another possibility. A little cocoa powder adds depth, and a blob of jarred mole will add depth as well as a more complex heat. That would probably already have a touch of chocolate. And if you don't demand depth or complexity from your chili, I can only say--how sad for you. Saute the vegetables and spices until soft, 5-7 minutes.

Drain the beans when they're done and add them along with a can or two of diced tomatoes, tomato paste if you love that tomato flavor, which my husband doesn't, and some corn, perhaps, especially if you're cooking black beans. Corn is controversial in my family. A chipotle in adobo sauce would be daring, wouldn't it? Now might be a good chance to get rid of one of those cans of dull beer that lurk unwanted in your fridge, something like that Shiner Bock from your friends who developed a taste for it at Rice University (Hi, Bob and Nikkola!). So just open the can and pour some in. Let the chili simmer gently for 30 minutes or more. Cornbread and a salad top off this simple meal. It is frighteningly easy to make cornbread, please don't even tell me that you buy it.

Chili is even better the next day and just marvelous for the rest of the week.

Oct 15, 2008

Third Grade International Food Meltdown

Help me. Please.

On Oct. 25 the third grade will have an International Lunch. That's all very well and good. But then they put us hapless parents into culinary straitjackets that we just cannot wiggle out of. Here are the restrictions primly listed on the memo, in which the lunch sounds less and less fun the farther down the list you get.

Our contribution must be . . . Asian. You know, like the wontons my Irish ancestors always fried up in a pot with the kelp, or hmmm, how about that pretty mean Pad Thai that John's Swiss German Mennonites made . . . a little melted Emmenthaler on the top. Yum.)

No refrigeration is available. Forget the vegetarian sushi from Trader Joe's.

No oven or microwave is available. Forget any main dish that isn't sushi.

Bring enough for two to four children. OK, nothing large, not a big problem.

Nothing can be packed up and brought home with the children. Nothing large. Again.

We're supposed to list the ingredients. That may not be possible if I get it from Shere-e-Punjab.

Nothing can be cooked or prepared with peanuts. Fair enough. We're pretty used to that one. But I don't want to inspect Shere-e-Punjab's kitchen.

At least we get to pick which course. Hmmm. Asian desserts don't do a lot for me. So not that. Jack likes gulab jamun, there's a thought. But that sticky syrup might spill . . . I think I'm going to pick up four samosas at Shere-e-Punjab. Usually I like to cook something for special meals like this, but all these stipulations have whittled down the universe of delectable dishes down to almost nothing but fortune cookies. And no one makes those.

Any suggestions?

Sep 22, 2008

A Visit to Brasserie Perrier, Special Bourgeois Version

This is what passes for a restaurant review on my blog, my first ever, really.

Last Friday, John, otherwise known as the resident husband in the Dream Kitchen, met me at the 17th and JFK entrance to Suburban Station. We walked on over to Brasserie Perrier, where we had reservations. It was Restaurant Week, which meant that many Phila. restaurants offered economical fixed-price meals. Regional rail was free after 6:30, too. We decided to go to Brasserie Perrier because we can't afford its pricy sibling restaurant, Le Bec Fin, and wanted to go French. Plus I love the word "brasserie," which I imagine describes a small restaurant, a little noisier than one would like, intimate and friendly. Low warm lighting with a lot of brass. I don't know, it's just a cool word, and the word "brass" is already in it.

So we go in, and it's hopping by the bar area and beyond to the small tables in just the atmosphere described above, pretty much. We had early reservations, for six o'clock, just because we are creatures of habit from Stepford, and we always eat then. But the place is, as I said, really hopping. The hostess suddenly whisks us--where?--upstairs. Hmm. To a banquet room. A banquet room! What kind of brasserie is that? It had no windows and wall to wall carpet and bizarrely high ceilings and the kind of chairs you sit on at conventions. My heart sank. Perhaps we had been relegated to sit with all the other second-class Restaurant Week people, the chubby tourists and oldsters. Ew, I said "oldsters." I was feeling that what we were going to get was going to be a not very convincing simulacrum of a "normal" BP meal, away from the thin well-dressed, sparkling crowd below. Oh, and the dull department-store wattage lighting didn't make anyone look any more glamorous than we actually were.

All right, well, let's soldier on, we thought. I ordered a Caesar salad, a dish appropriately boring to the atmosphere, but in my defense, I wanted to get a vegetable appetizer if I was going to have fish for the main dish, and they didn't have any vegetarian entrees, how overly French of them. They don't have to be that French. But it wasn't French enough to have organ meat. Anyway, the Caesar salad. It was good, not enough anchovy flavor, just good in an ordinary way. But it did come with a delectable round crisp made of Parmesan, similar to something we had at Tinto in May. John ordered escargots because he had them once in his youth and fancies himself an escargots man. They were quite tasty in their buttery sauce.

John had scallops for his main course and I had salmon with brussel sprouts and bacon. The waiter asked me how I wanted my salmon cooked, and maybe I don't get out much, but I've never been asked that about fish. It was perfect, just barely done. Really a great dish; the brussel sprouts were "baby" and balanced out perfectly with the bacon and a littl mustard in the sauce. John's scallops were fabulous.

A word about the waiter. I found him a tad robotic. They bring out the robots for Restaurant Week? I had a question for him, "What is that lemony herb on my husband's scallops?" He said, "I don't know, but maybe it's chizzo." Now I've looked up "chizzo" and can't find it, so maybe he said something else. John suspects that the server got confused with an earlier version of the Restaurant Week menu, in which the scallops were served with "chorizo orzo." That would be a heinous error. So the hapless server goes on to say, "Or, it could just be something the chef threw in." Now this is the moment when Mr. Robot should have said, "Let me find out what it is," returning in a minute with an answer. But no. Not for the Restaurant Week people. We are left to wonder in perpetuity.

Dessert? We both got apple galette with caramel ice cream. It was a flat perfectly circular disk of pastry with razor-thin apple slices overlapping perfectly, topped with amazingly caramel-y ice cream. Real caramel has that addictive burnt taste. When I was child I used to make caramel by melting sugar in a spoon over a gas flame, and pouring it into a glass of cold water. This ice cream tasted like that. I may not be making it sound good, but it was. The galette itself was quite tasty, but you should know that I like desserts to be voluptuous, not thin disks. A galette, especially, should be free form.Leave it to the pies and tarts to be circular.

Finally, and I see that I'm sounding cranky, we were rushed along by the server, each course being brought promptly after we had finished the previous. We even had to order the dessert when we ordered everything else. We finished dessert at 6:55, which is pathetic on a Friday night. I think the moral of this is: Restaurant Week is Restaurant Week.

Sep 19, 2008

The Beauty of the Bean

With with all this talk of financial troubles, contaminated meat, an obesity epidemic, and the need to eat sustainably, it's time to consider the lowly bean.

It's beans and more beans here in the Dream Kitchen these days. They're cheap, very good for us, have no packaging if bought dry, and are generally liked by the whole family. I recently made Black Bean Chili with Butternut Squash and Swiss Chard. I used delicata squash and kale, and it worked very well. It was better the second day, as the spices "married" the other ingredients, as my mother used to say. Even Mr. Picky had seconds.

This weekend I'm making a double batch of Chipotle Pinto Beans from Simply in Season; we'll take it to a brunch for Swarthmore College students that my church has every month, hosted by members of the church. I'm hoping there will some left over for our family. Next on my bean agenda? I want to feed the organizers and volunteers at the Obama campaign office in Chester one of these days. Vegetarian chili sounds like a good idea for them. I can just send the crockpot along with my boarder, one of the Chester organizers. He works extremely hard but I fear he exists on a diet of pizza and Coke.

So, beans. What else? Every so often I use chickpeas to make hummus, zesty with fresh garlic and lemon juice. I will say that when I go through the trouble of soaking and boiling up a bunch of beans, I always make extra to have on hand. They're fine on a salad, or you can whip up a bean dip or make soup with them.

It's actually quite difficult to overpraise the humble bean. Have I succeeded?

Aug 28, 2008

Manayunk, at Last

I finally went to Manayunk.

How many years have I known about Manayunk's renaissance? Twenty years? Sad. Anyhow, John and I needed an excuse, and so we found one. We need a doorknocker. And a new mailbox. So we thought we'd check out Restoration Hardware, which happens to be located in Manayunk. Our babysitter was available on Saturday so we tooled on over.

Manayunk is fairly funky if you ignore the Pottery Barn. And the Restoration Hardware, which did have predictably acceptable door hardware. I fell in love with Artesano Iron Works, just under the big bridge on the west side of Main St. In fact, I have a terrible crush on a copper-topped table and chairs there. Their furniture is made of reclaimed lumber from Colombia. It's very heavy and square but has ornate ironwork on some of it, so some of the pieces look like treasure chests. The big old bridge, resplendent with arches, looms over the shop.

The best thing about Manayunk isn't the shops or the restaurants but the edginess of it, real edginess, not manufactured by a "loft" condo developer. The Manayunk Canal drifts dankly by, as you sip your California Dreamin' IPA at Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant. You can see people walking up on the railroad trestle high above the Schuylkill River next to the canal. A couple of kids jump into the river from that height, which surprises you.

After supper you walk along the Schuylkill River Trail, narrowly avoiding getting slammed by bicyclists. Across the canal, young men play a pickup game in a weedy city basketball court. Beyond the river, cars rush by on the Schuylkill Expressway. The sky turns pink and gray as you walk along. It's a Saturday night in late August. You walk in towards Main St. , where two tired women sit on a bench. There are more "For Rent" signs at this end of town than there should be. You see a sign for the SEPTA station and so you look for it. The tracks are elevated, and rise above the length of Cresson St., dwarfing and dominating the shops. Under the tracks you find The Cresson Inn, "Where the Real Yunkers Drink." All two of them. Edward Hopper, where are you now?

You could be "down the shore," but no, you're in Manayunk. It's hard to think of a more bittersweet place to be at summer's end.

Aug 24, 2008

Did You Know Vincent Price Wrote a Cookbook?

Why yes, he did. Of course he did, or I wouldn't have asked you if you knew that he wrote one. Silly!

Here is a lovely review of it. I don't know why we should be surprised that a scary person wrote a cookbook. I mean, look at Rachael Ray--she has written several, much to the dismay of these people. I know I've put that link on this blog before, but I just can't help myself. Whenever I'm a little down in the dumps, I like to get my fix from the "Rachael Ray Sucks Community." Seriously, there are some fine epithet-hurlers on that site.

You ask, "What's been happening in the Dream Kitchen lately?" Right now we are awash in peaches. I made Peach Crumb Cake the other day for a playdate, the kind of playdate where you want the mom to come over too, not the Please Drop Your Kid Off and Go Away kind of playdate. Everyone liked it. Then we've been just slicing the rest and eating them with waffles or mixed with melon. Will eats them whole with the fuzzy skin, which he doesn't mind. He's very fussy about food, with certain notable exceptions, peach fuzz and now ants. Yesterday he squashed an ant, washed it, and ate it.

I've been saving watermelon rind in the freezer with vague plans of making watermelon pickle, but now I'm wondering if freezing the rinds first will be disadvantageous in some way . . . I don't want to sweat over a hot stove making a condiment that has the texture of leather. Any thoughts out there?

And the answer to my last blog post's stumper is "sregoob ergo."

Aug 20, 2008

Okra Alert

Hello dear faithful readers and those just stumbling upon the Dream Kitchen accidentally in the middle of the night in your far-flung Scandinavian countries and rural Asian outposts. I've been soooo busy with my MFA, laundry, kids, and compulsive Facebook status checking, that I've neglected this blog for months.

BUT it looks like I'll be advertising on here, details of which I can't reveal right now, due to a confidentiality agreement I just signed, so I'm trying to revive my readership before that starts. I was approached by (NAME OF ONLINE ENTITY HERE) just as I was thinking of throwing in the towel. I can always use a little cash to pay my tuition, after all.

So. We got okra in the CSA last week, which is historic. Never before in the history of our various CSA memberships, have we been graced with this quirky veggie. Should I make gumbo or fry it, I asked myself? That's all I could think of, but neither seemed satisfactory. I don't make much soup in the summer, and I don't really fry anything, ever. After consulting the vegetable goddess, Deborah Madison, I learned that it's very tasty grilled, which is exactly the permission I needed.

I grilled them whole on skewers, and also grilled some mild onions and green peppers. I cooked some basmati to go with the veggies, and added a little lemon juice and sesame oil to the rice. My boys always like to put some tamari on rice, so we had that on the table as well. You're wondering, "Come on. Did the children actually eat okra?"

Not really. I wanted to put as attractive a spin on the okra concept as possible, and for boys their age it's paradoxically best to make it sound as gross as possible. The soup my sister in law made two weeks ago had "pond scum" on it (pesto) which they loved. I'm not even going to tell you what I called these slimy treats, but maybe you can guess.

Mar 27, 2008

Politics and Dessert Mix Just Fine

I like the words Nigella Lawson makes up, or perhaps they're just English slang, like "whinge." Whatever they are, "wodge" is a fine example. It so perfectly describes the dark damp slab of her Chocolate Gingerbread. In fact, I'd be lost without the word "wodge" to describe it. I cut several wodges to take to a meeting at my friend R's house, where, apparently, CBS will be interviewing "Delaware County Moms" about the election. (How I hate the word "moms." Oh well.) I am going to get a word in for my candidate, and call my dessert Chocobama Gingerbread, just for the evening. See, I can make up words too. Except I've seen the word "chocobama" before, now that I think of it. Somewhere.

Even Hillary fans and--shudder--Republicans will love this unity (get it?) of gingerbread and chocolate.

Mar 25, 2008

French Connection: Our Daily Habit

My bread machine is in semi-retirement lately, only being hauled out once a week to make pizza dough. The paddle kept getting stuck in the bread and I had to help it too much with the initial mixing. It sulks most of the week in the garage next to the recycling.

My latest bread obsession is the baguette, not a fancy just-like-the-French kind, but a good-enough-for-us kind. I make it every couple of days. I found the recipe in Gourmet about ten years ago, and here it is. It's so easy and delicious, great for sandwiches. I bake it on a pizza stone. Use a serrated break knife to make the three slashes; otherwise you will squish the dough. If you want it extra crusty, brush the top with ice water just before baking. You can put the kneaded dough in the fridge overnight, if you wish; just let it get to room temperature before shaping into the loaf. I slice the bread parallel to the slashes, to get bigger pieces for sandwiches. The other thing is I use 2 teaspoons salt, not 2 1/2.

I buy ten-pound bags of flour at BJ's for $4.99, so we're saving some money, too. Of course, my family is totally spoiled now, and I must remind them frequently how good they have it. Sigh.

Happy baking.

Mar 22, 2008

Best Chocolate Cake Recipe is . . .

the one on the Hersey's Cocoa container. Apologies to Richard Sax and Nigella Lawson. I did add a rounded teaspoon of espresso powder to the frosting, which always adds a nice kick. Next time I will sift the cocoa and confectioner's sugar, too.

It was for my father-in-law's 80th birthday. I made Corned Beef and Cabbage, and the cake was accompanied by Maple Walnut Ice Cream, total overkill, you don't even have to tell me. We used the last of the Grade B syrup we got in Vermont in June. This year we'll get two jugs of the stuff.

Urf, I'm full and tired. Time to walk the neglected dog. Fortunately, I knew I'd be tired of cooking for the inlaws for a week and so we are going to Roux 3 for brunch tomorrow. Aaaah. Then on to Longwood Gardens to walk it off.

Oh, why are my inlaws here for nine days, you ask? It could be because we sent them Amtrak tickets for Christmas? Yeah, that's it. And because life is short and we want to spend it with people we love? My mom kicked the bucket a bit early and surprised the heck out of us, when I was pregnant with Jack. It gives me a little perspective.


Thought for the Day: This from my mentor in my MFA program who was an editor at the Atlantic for a few decades. I asked him if he had ever read any blogs. He said, "One." So I said, "And?" And he replied, "They're either a waste of effort, or not enough effort, I'm not sure which."

Mar 17, 2008

I'm Wearing Green Plastic Beer Mug Earrings, What About You?

Whenever St. Patrick's Day rolls around, I always realize how sartorially challenged I am when it comes to green clothes. But I did unearth the abovementioned ugly earrings and wore them, the good sport that I am. Jack and Will wrote in green gel pen all over their forearms. Did you know that gel pens rinse off with only water?

Since my inlaws are here, as you all know, we didn't drink any St. Patty's Day beer. They're teetotallers. Right now I'm writing this in the sunroom and drinking a very tannic red wine, but they are elsewhere. Not that they would mind all that much, but it just feels weird to drink beer in front of them. It's not as fun as usual. Oh, and Holy Week puts a bit of a damper on a drinking holiday and all that. I heard that St. Patty's Day only occurs during Holy Week once in a lifetime so it's good to have gotten this unfortunate coincidence out of the way.

Anyways, I did make a jolly brilliant attempt at a St. Patty's Day Dinner. No meat, in keeping with the Lenten spirit. Also because I ran out of time; you need hours for corned beef and cabbage. We had the patriotically named "Pride of Erin" Soup, spinach salad with bits of bleu cheese, bagels (a desparate last-minute add-on) and Parsnip Spice Cake with Ginger Cream Cheese Frosting (only with a teaspoon lemon juice instead of ginger in the frosting, and no vanilla).

I got to use my immersion blender to make the soup. You must understand that I LOVE my immersion blender. I should have a job selling only immersion blenders. The Immersion Blender Lady. It makes me sad, though, to think of the years I spent schlepping scalding hot cups of soup into and out of a blender, spilling it and burning myself. The soup was mainly cabbage and a little potato, some chicken stock, milk and mace. Not the medieval weapon or the modern spray used to deter attackers, merely the spice.

The cake, which I made last March for the first time, was assertive in spice and parsnipness, but not in a bad way. Will didn't touch it because he "hates parsnips," even though he has never tasted one. My mother in law frosted it and I drew a huge sloppy shamrock in green frosting and voila, a St. Patrick's Day Cake. Then we grownups were treated to a special dance show, in which the boys danced wildly to "The Mesopotamians" by our family's favorite band, They Might Be Giants.

So all in all it was the most pleasant Mesopotamian Irish Mennonite St. Patty's in recent memory.

Mar 13, 2008

What's Hot, What's Not

What's hot and what's not, in the mind of Lauren. Here's the top twelve. I don't have time to write complete sentences today. My very clean inlaws are coming tomorrow and staying here. For nine days.

Giving things away/shopping
CSA and local market/supermarket
Using the library/buying books
Making bread/buying bread
Gray hair/colored hair
Working out/ making excuses
Reading classics/reading chick lit
Collies/golden labs, retrievers, doodles

I sound disgustingly self-righteous. Better rectify that--
Dust bunnies/the floor

Mar 12, 2008

About Last Night

Hello long lost readers,

Last night I went bowling with various bloggers noted here (thanks for doing all the work, Domestic Goddess), so I thought, better write a blog entry so they have something to read should they ever wander into the Dream Kitchen. We are all fans of Bossy, who is going on a road trip soon to meet many of her blogging fans. (Saturn, can you send me $10 for that?) Bossy got the highest score, an amazing 113, so no wonder she wanted to go bowling. What a show-off.

I got the low score of 40, but at least I didn't get my thumb stuck in the ball or throw the ball up in the air several feet and have it land with a huge thud. But I did need a ringer to bring my score up from zero (see last link, thanks, R!). Whenever anyone got a gutter ball, huge white letters spelling GUTTER would drift across the screen at the speed of a tortoise. I hate that screen. And whenever you ate a tater tot, it would say HAVING ANOTHER,FATSO? But heck, we were there for the people, and what a great bunch of gals. All women who bowl are gals, you know that? Just for the evening, as long as you're wearing the shoes. Even if you're at the hipster North Bowl in hipster North Liberties, serving its hipster irony-drenched tater tots, it's still a bowling alley, with gals. Gals and fellas.

Before I go, because I promised myself I wouldn't obsess about this entry and edit it a zillion times and write too much and fiddle with the paragraphing when I should really be writing my manuscript (or cleaning my house, or something) I just want to present an award. Nothing to do with bowling bloggers.

It's the award for Best Headline Ever Written About a Politician's Disgrace. This entry received the highest scores ever for brevity, economy, humor, and, for extra credit, rhyme. Please join me in congratulating the New York Post for yesterday's headline, "Ho No!"