Oct 20, 2009

In Which the Whole Family goes to Distrito in Order to Save on Babysitting

Distrito has been on our list for a while. The "cheapest" (really?) of superstar Jose Garces' restaurants, and the only one with a pink VW convertible you can eat in. So when it looked like yet another birthday was staring me down, we, and by that I mean I, made a reservation for all four of us.

For our birthdays in the past, Mr. Dream Kitchen and I would get a sitter. This time we thought, maybe the boys are ready to appreciate some decent food, and maybe we'll save some bucks? I don't think we did the latter, but the boys loved it, and we all tried a lot of different dishes. My new discovery was pork belly in green mole, the unctuousness of the belly undercut by the sharp green sauce. We ordered a lot of small plates, and our table was also small, so something was bound to end up on the floor. Fortunately it was only a basket of tortillas wrapped in a cloth napkin, and not my perfect grapefruit margarita.

There was a huge TV screen above the landing on the stairs to the second floor, and the boys kept running up to check the Phillies' progress against the Dodgers, which was not so good that one game. We were in our own little area close to the restrooms, which I never like, but it was basically the kids' table, so our isolation was no doubt warranted. The restrooms are disconcerting in that everyone shares the same troughlike sink in the corridor. So no primping with just the gals at Distrito. It seems a shame. Don't women deserve their sanctuary?

We had great soft tacos with marinated skirt steak, and tamales with pulled pork, and flatbreads with forest mushrooms. Everything was wonderful, except I thought the mushroom flatbread had too fungal a taste in about ten percent of the bites I took. The guacamole and the regular fresh salsa were amazing--so complex and warmly spiced. Next time: no pink car and maybe the tasting menu.

Oct 12, 2009

Popcorn, The One True Mennonite Way

Mr. Dream Kitchen's family of origin is Swiss-German Mennonite, going way way back, on both sides. You know those three-way mirrors they have in dressing rooms, and how if you angle the sides close in, and stand a few inches from the center, you can see yourself multiplied an almost infinite number of times? It's like that. There were some Amish too, way back when, and maybe some Amish Mennonite just to add yet more diversity. Thank goodness Mr. Dream Kitchen married Ms. Dream Kitchen to invigorate the gene pool by adding Irish, Scotch-Irish, English, and French. Maybe the next generation will mingle with Italians and Greeks! That would just be crazy.

Anyway, Mr. Dream Kitchen grew up eating popcorn and playing games every Sunday night, as a nice counterpoint to the church ritual in the morning. Occasionally they would watch Disney on TV instead of playing games. I believe that his family is genetically predisposed to not be hungry enough for real food on Sunday nights. And probably that pot roast or ham with scalloped potatoes served after church, along with Jell-O salad and pie, kind of helped as well.

We have carried on this popcorn tradition, without the big Sunday meal earlier in the day. We have waffles, from scratch (of course), sausage, and fruit every Sunday after church. In the evening we augment the popcorn with a big bowl of apple slices. This is the only time we eat in the living room, which is where we watch our Sunday night family movie. So it's a continuation of the (insert 14-letter Swiss-German name here) tradition but revamped.

Now. About the popcorn itself; let's get down to it. It is from Yoder Popcorn in Topeka, Indiana. We either go there ourselves because my inlaws live near there, or we order it. (For the woefully ignorant I must explain that the Yoders are Mennonite. Almost anyone named Yoder has some Mennonite back there in the three-way mirror.) Anyway, Mr. Dream Kitchen prefers Tiny Tender, but the boys like Yoder Yellow. I could go either way. We use Yoder's flavored coconut oil, too. Gasp. Yes, it's fat fat fat, but coconut oil is actually good for you, in small quantities. So you ingest a tablespoon a week, no big deal. And it tastes fabulous. We cook it in a Stir-Crazy, but when it busts, and it will, we're going to return to the old hand-cranked on the stove.

Careful that you don't let the fabulousness of this popcorn tradition blind you to the spiritual message I have for you, my wayward brothers and sisters! Mennonites choose the narrow way when it comes to popcorn, and everyone else should follow and do likewise. When the end times arrive, you don't want to found to be in any of the following compromising positions regarding popcorn:

-Microwaving it (Yes, Yoder sells microwave popcorn, but only to the damned)
-Microwaving it at the office and stinking up the entire floor. It is a noxious stench.
-Using that soulless invention, the air popper. What is the point?
-Buying your popcorn already popped. Please. I'm praying for you.

Oct 9, 2009

Biba on Fire: A Pizza Story

Friday is pizza day at the Dream Kitchen.

Ever since Biba Caggiano's Trattoria Cooking came out in 1992, I have been making my own pizza crust from her recipe. My book got scorched on the gas stove the day I first made pizza for my husband, who was then a nervous date pretending to like zucchini, and I was a nervous hostess setting my cookbook on fire. I think the book got soaked one other time, but maybe that was just Chris Schlesinger's Thrill of the Grill. Strangely, that one hasn't been scorched. And now, apparently, my Trattoria Cooking has been misplaced. I rarely look for these things--it will show up someday and I'll be so happy.

The reason I got this book is I went to "study" aesthetics in Rome for four weeks with the Temple University Rome Program in 1991. I remember sleepily reading Kant on a train for ten minutes, and attending lectures on Bernini while daydreaming about, you guessed it, the next trattoria.

The best pizza I ever had in Italy was on a hasty stop at a respected pizza mecca in Naples, on our way to Capri. We had a train to catch and were bordering on frantic. We got off the train from Rome with our overnight bags, dashed over to this pizza place that started with an M, sat down and ordered. Of course they only had two kinds, margherita and marinara, and the only beverage was a bottle of Coca-Cola. We sat at long tables with lots of loud men, some with gorgeous clothes and others with workers' uniforms.

The walls were blank, except for two things, a recessed shrine to Mary, and a soft-porn picture of some starlet. The pizza margherita was light, crisp, ethereal, with the purest, freshest tomato sauce adorned with basil. Even the cheese was levitating. The Coca-Cola, I'll not call it "Coke," in its wondrous bottle, was bracingly cold and sweet. Then we split for the station, practically running. We made our train.

Now back to my homemade pizza, a completely different genus than the Neopolitan because it's thick and I use a rolling pin and put a whole bunch of stuff on it and five other reasons. Because that was there and then, and this is here and now.

Biba Caggiano's Basic Pizza Dough Recipe (Doubled), Filtered Through Memory Because I Can't Find the Book

I usually put the following ingredients in the bread machine, but you could always knead the dough for about six minutes until the it's soft and pliant. It will take about the same amount of time to rise. But you should proof the yeast in the water for four or five minutes if you're kneading by hand.

3 cups flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
heaping teaspoon salt
1 2/3 tablespoons yeast (actually it would be 2 tablespoons but seems like too much)
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water (I nuke for 30 seconds)

After I push the start button, I set a timer for 7 minutes so I can check it later and make sure it's forming a ball. I often need to add more flour and scrape the sides with a spatula.

When it's ready (about 1 hour and 40 mins. later), I punch it down and take it out. I flatten it by hand at first and then use an oiled French rolling pin. That's the kind that's thick in the middle and narrow on the ends. Then I crush 2 cloves of garlic and put it in my mortar and pestle with a little olive oil and fresh ground pepper. Love to crush stuff in my mortar and pestle. Have no idea whether this is the right thing to do, don't care. It's immensely satisfying. Then I schmear that over the crust with my hands.

Oh, I've preheated my oven to 450 by now. I look in the fridge for provolone, or even cheddar or pepper jack . . . work with me, here, because pizza night is also use-up-the-fresh-veggies and cheese night. Tonight there's quite a bit of sliced provolone in the lunch supplies, also some broccoli rabe from the CSA. I like to caramelize a couple onions ahead of time. Today it will probably be the broccoli rabe, lightly steamed and wrung dry (no soggy pizza!), a finely chopped jalapeno, raw onion in thin rings, and I guess some pepperoni to appease the guys.

I bake it for 14 or 15 minutes.

It's kind of a thick pizza but I need this much to feed us all, and I'm too lazy to make two thinner pizzas. So it's kinda Chicago. I don't preheat the stone, either. Again with the laziness, along with an unwillingness to deal with a peal, or sear my flesh. Plus, it's just great as it is.

Oct 8, 2009

From James Beard's American Cookery: Macaroni and Cheese

"There is absolutely no substitute for the best. Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavor. It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available and to waste nothing."--James Beard,The Fireside Cookbook, 1949


Oddly enough, my mother never made macaroni and cheese. Once, when I was about twelve, I was over at the Gallaghers' house, another Army family near where we lived, in Worms, Germany. Mrs. Gallagher was cubing orange cheddar to make mac and cheese and I felt the sharpest longing for it. Perhaps, like beer, it was deemed too lowbrow by my mother. So I guess it makes sense that when I salvaged James Beard's American Cookery from her library, I made the macaroni and cheese right away.

This cookbook, published in 1972 by Little, Brown, was bought by my mother when we returned from our three years in Germany. Beard loved food, period, but especially American. He traveled the country in search of its regional foodways. So this book, written before the food renaissance, is a treasure. "American" doesn't mean non-ethnic; he champions Italian-American and other melting-pot "cookery" as well. One quirky thing about the book is that he spells "pasta" with an "e" at the end: "paste." In the "Grains and Pastes" chapter, on page 588, is the quintessential macaroni and cheese. It's the baked kind, with a white sauce. I used this recipe back when I was first pregnant, when I craved cheese in all forms, and I've never looked back. I soon memorized it, which makes cooking it so much easier.

Soon I made it my default go-to recipe for families with new babies. And we have it about once a month, with extra sharp white cheese from the local warehouse store. I always, always double the recipe. I may have even quadrupled it once! It's rich and creamy in the inside, crusty and golden on top. There is no other macaroni and cheese.

Here is the recipe, doubled, with my annotations:

American Cookery's Macaroni and Cheese

1 lb. macaroni (cavatappi is fun here, too, but not classic)
6 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup flour
3 cups milk
2 teaspoons salt (you may not need this much)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
Dash Tabasco (I don't do this, I forgot this was here! Guess I didn't memorize all.)
2 to 3 cups grated Cheddar cheese (don't buy pre-grated, the sharper the better)
Buttered crumbs (I rarely bother)

Boil the macaroni in salted water until just tender. Drain well. Prepare a white sauce--melt the butter in a heavy saucepan, blend with the flour, and cook several minutes over medium heat. (Two minutes maybe; don't let it get past golden) Heat the milk to the boiling point, stir in the flour-butter mixture, and continue stirring till it thickens. add the seasonings and simmer 4 to 5 minutes. Butter a baking dish or casserole (13 x 9). In it arrange alternate layers of macaroni, sauce, and cheese, ending with cheese. Cover the top with buttered crumbs. bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and the sauce is bubbly. Serve at once.

Now that I'm reading the actual recipe, I see that what I memorized is really my own adapted version, which is: Blend the grated cheese in with the thickened white sauce, off the heat (instead of layering). Cover until the macaroni is ready. Drain the macaroni well, return to pot, and add cheese sauce. Mix well and pour into baking dish.

Oct 6, 2009

In Search of the Perfect Cannelloni: A Tribute to Gourmet Magazine

My mother was always a good cook. As for any harried mother of her era, the pressure of having to present dinner every night meant the occasional Spam, canned franks and beans, even TV dinners. (We loved our Swanson's TV dinners and their foil compartments.) Her inner gourmand was latent, ready to spring into action, as she meticulously copied recipes from Gourmet for dishes like Osso Bucco, complex time-consuming labors of love. She had lived in Rome soon after college in the early 1950s, working for a cooking show at a TV station. My mother and the rest of the production staff ate the food after the show was done. After six months she got sick and had to come home, but even the food in the Rome hospital, served by kindly nuns, was a revelation to her.

So my mother, as an Army wife trundling about here and there with her recipe boxes and issues of Gourmet, sought to call forth la dolce vita with her Italian recipes. In restaurants she would often order cannelloni. After a few bites, she would mourn the gap between her memory of feather-light, delicate cannelloni in Italy, and their leaden, soggy American counterparts, which were inevitably drowning in a sea of thick sauce. Not to be daunted, my mother spread her wings beyond Italian to French, inspired by Julia like everyone else. When she became an empty nester, she ventured on to Spanish and Portuguese dishes. She and my father began traveling to both countries, and they would order adventurously off the menu at some small family restaurant or inn wherever they happened to be.

Throughout all of it was Gourmet, its thoughtful, intelligent writing a constant source of inspiration and instruction, its photography celebrating the sensuousness of food and capturing the atmospherics of its rituals. When I was in my twenties, living in Philadelphia with a tiny bit of disposable income ($12,000 to $15,000 before taxes), I borrowed my mother's old issues and copied recipes from them. By hand, of course. Finally my mother gave me a subscription in 1989. I was a graduate student in English at Temple, with even less money than before, but a houseful of roommates and a taste for dinner parties on the cheap. At the time Gourmet ran a feature called Gastronomie sans Argent, French for "cooking without money." That was where I learned about the quiet glory and dignity of beans. Gourmet discontinued the feature, perhaps implying that almost all readers want to hold back on the caviar and truffles.

Every year at Christmas, my mother renewed my subscription. We would compare notes and point out recipes to each other. In 1996, my husband asked me to marry him. (I said "OK" instead of "Yes" and I'll never live that down.) The September issue had a recipe for Dark Chocolate Wedding Cake with Chocolate Orange Ganache and Orange Buttercream, which we found irresistible, and we had our caterer's pastry chef make it. Naturally, the groom and I forgot to eat the cake until it was only a devastated mess of crumbs and icing. And delicious crumbs they were. Someday I will make it myself.

By that time, Epicurious was up, which helped me find and collect even more Gourmet recipes. I started recycling my old "hard" copies, because I could save the recipes in my virtual recipe box. I'm not sentimental about the actual paper, except the September 1996 issue. Gourmet has been there for me no matter whether I needed an eggplant fix, an unusual vegetarian lasagna, or a wildly popular apple cake.

For my mother and me, Gourmet opened up a space for us to celebrate the bounty of this world and to share that with others. Beyond the recipes and travel stories, amazing writers like the late Laurie Colwin and the late David Foster Wallace, and the living Jhumpa Lahiri, to just think of three. And of course the indefatigable Ruth Reichl. She embraces food as memory, but also charts new directions. Under her watch, Gourmet has become political in the best way, covering plant genetics, fair food, and the locavore movement.

More than anything, Gourmet showed us how to live la dolce vita, whether we are rich or poor. With the advent of celebrity chefs, interactive websites and food blogs (ahem), food porn TV, and the professionalization of cooking, real food writing recedes to the background, unable to compete with its flashy new stepsisters.

My mother died suddenly at the age of sixty-nine, a week after learning she had her first grandchild on the way. My father has faithfully renewed my Gourmet subscription for the past ten years. Although my mother never found that perfect cannelloni, she certainly relished the search. May we seek la dolce vita the best we can, with wine and food, laughter and friends, and generosity of spirit. Here's to Gourmet, and life beyond.

Oct 5, 2009

One Day, One Cook, and a Bake Sale

I agreed several weeks ago to bake a few things for my church's Fall Fair, a huge endeavor that attracts hundreds of people and also takes a hundred people to set it up and make it happen. I had never baked for a whole day. Would it be exhausting? Would it be energizing? I had no idea. An intense one-day project seemed appealing. Usually I flit between one and the other activity, trying to keep everyone happy and lots of plates in the air. Except I usually end up keeping everyone up in the air and getting lots of plates dirty.

Here is the list of what I made:
Spiced Sweet Potato Cake with Brown Sugar Icing, cut into quarters. This is one of my favorite autumnal cakes. Sometimes I add toasted pecans but I held off this time, for the sake of nut allergies. I thought it would sell more quickly than a whole cake, especially since sweet potato cake wouldn't seem familiar to many people. Two of my friends bought two of the quarters, having asked me what I made, but I wonder how the other two liked theirs.

One-A-Day Baguette, twice the recipe but made into four loaves. This is an old warhorse of a recipe, very reliable and delicious. They call it a baguette but it's a more chewy texture than that; it also has a longer shelf life. You mustn't stint on the salt. I've been baking this for years and it has never failed. I plan to make a lot more next year, since there was no other bread.

Fresh Gingerbread with Lemon Icing, from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. I made this for a Labor Day party and it was a big hit, deeply flavorful gingerbread contrasting with the bright lemon. My grandmother always made a hot lemon sauce for her gingerbread, not possible for a bake sale. Please note Lawson's words of wisdom on bake sales: Brown things don't sell, unless they're chocolate. That's reason #2 for the lemon icing.

Fudgies, which I called "Peanut Butter Fudgies." These are very sweet no-bake cookies, easy to make. Kids love them. I used to have a recipe for bars with a layer of oats and butter on the bottom, and the chocolate-peanut butter layer on top, but I lost it. So I just looked for anything with oats, peanut butter, and chocolate.

Possibly,I thought I'd make Maine Maple Sugar Pie from Richard Sax's Classic Home Desserts, but no. I needed my remaining energy to clean the kitchen, with its counters covered in flour and towers of dirty dishes.

I felt very accomplished at the end, quite satisfied as I wrapped everything in plastic and put it in the car to deliver in the morning. Until I saw, the next day, one baker's tarts, cakes and cookies presented in adorable patterned cartons, tied with ribbons. Until I saw the dozen pies baked by an 81-year-old lady. Until I spied the three dozen small carrot cakes and cranberry orange cupcakes made by a pastry chef with an out-of-commission left arm. Ahem. Humility crept in. As Hillary Clinton used to say in the early nineties, "It takes a village to make a bake sale." Well, something like that. The village came through, with the baking and the buying, and that's a good thing.