Jan 31, 2010

A Snowy Pilgrimage to Pub & Kitchen

Yesterday afternoon the Dream Kitchen family drove in to First Presbyterian Church at 21st and Walnut to a Musicopia Concert. It's a youth orchestra. The concert was beautiful and the acoustics of the big old stone church were resonant. Afterwards, we walked just a few frigid minutes, through a lightly falling snow, to Pub & Kitchen at 1946 Lombard, to meet friends. It was about 17 degrees, and there was not a small amount of complaining performed by both boys, but we made it. Our friends were running late, but the host let us sit down with just the four of us. There is an up side to eating dinner at 5:00: an almost completely empty restaurant. And thank goodness for that silly hockey game on my iPhone.

The other family came, and we all decided on what we would eat. These days I'm always thrilled when there's no kids' menu and they have to spend more time figuring out what to take a chance on. They split a luscious cheeseburger with great-looking fries. (I don't eat French fries so I can only comment on their appearance.) I ordered a creamy artichoke-leek soup, steamed mussels with tomato and chorizo, and an IPA. John got meat loaf and mashed potatoes. It was all just heavenly. A beloved neighborhood pub called Chaucer's used to be at the site. It had famously wonderful cheeseburgers and a reliably folksy, comfy atmosphere. The other couple and I had lived in Center City Phila. in a previous life (not together), and we recalled Chaucer's fondly. Pub & Kitchen is trendy, with a much more sophisticated menu. Which is totally OK, really. The server was great. Everything was copacetic. A child--who shall remain unnamed--fell down the stairs to the loo but was fine. Not even embarrassed. It was that good a place. I don't know why there's a pig with rabbit ears on the building and the website. Some kind of joke,I don't know.

Anyway, we all proceeded to walk to our friends' condo.


Now we know where we shall live when our kids have graduated from high school. A condo in the Fitler Square neighborhood. With 12-foot ceilings. With its own parking lot. With a ton of architectural integrity. Near so many cozy little restaurants. General fabulousness all around. It will take us nine years to get rid of enough stuff to fit into it. I've already started, though; yesterday I gave away some baby blankets.

Pub & Kitchen, we'll be back. Save us our regular table.

Jan 26, 2010

The Loaf and The Fish

“A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move ... And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.” --Woody Allen's character, Alvy Singer, in Annie Hall, 1977.

Ha ha. Has Alvy's comment been quoted knowingly to you as many times as it has to me? Maybe I should worry. Actually no one has ever quoted the last sentence to me, just the first part. It was back when my friends and I were mostly single and someone was trying to break up with someone else for no specific reason other than boredom. I have spent many hours of my life, if you add up all the idle moments, wondering just what moving forward means. For Woody Allen perhaps it meant expanding the stepdaughter relationship in creepy ways. Maybe for him the shark metaphor is apt. As for me, I prefer a metaphor that doesn't involve flesh-eating predators.

So here's the new metaphor: sourdough. "A relationship, I think, is like sourdough starter, you know? It has to be fed constantly. And I think what we've got on our hands is a smelly blob of rotten flour and water."

OK, work with me here. My friend Julie--of Fertile Plots but also fellow basketball-soccer-baseball mom of two boys in my little town --gave me some sourdough starter last month and I'm amazed at this miraculous stinky-delicious, messy-wonderful, sour-forgiving viscous goo. Something primordially human lives in this stuff. My neighbor gave me some starter a couple of years ago but between my sister in law and me both making separate mistakes in proportions, the sourness diminished and then I put it in the back of the fridge and it died from neglect. But so far Julie's sourdough starter is still vital, because I have been faithfully feeding it. It didn't hurt that Julie gave me her simple recipe that she perfected after much trial and error. The recipe follows shortly. I rarely ever have to refrigerate it, because I make the bread almost every day. I keep it in my grandmother's blue and white striped Cornishware canister, already helpfully labeled FLOUR. If there is a backlog I just give a loaf away and whoever receives it is very surprised and grateful.

When I make bread, it is always Julie's and my bread. And if you live nearby I can give you some starter, and then it will be your bread, my bread, and Julie's bread. Sourdough. It lives, but only if it's fed. It multiplies. It takes time. I've often thought that love is like that, not a zero sum game, but bountiful and endless. We just need the starter, the patience to let it grow while we attend to other things, daily commitment, and a little generosity. And if we have some bread left over, we can cast it upon the waters. Do sharks eat bread?

Julie's Sourdough Bread (The "I" in the recipe is Julie.)

1 1/2 c starter*
1 c whole wheat flour
1 2/3 c white bread flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. to 2/3 c. water

Put all ingredients in bread machine on the dough cycle. When the cycle is finished, shape the dough into a rough ball and place in bread rising basket. Allow to rise until about double in size (anywhere from an hour to five hours, depending on the weather). Preheat oven to 420 degrees, placing a pan of water in the bottom of the oven to create a steamy environment. Invert basket over a baking stone; slash top two or three times diagonally with a razor blade. Bake for 33-35 minutes on baking stone.

After removing the starter to make bread, feed the starter with 2/3 c. bread flour and 1/2 c. water. (I sometimes need to adjust the water – if the starter seems really soupy, use a little less water.) Cover and let sit on the counter for a day or so. Then feed again and put in refrigerator until ready to use again. I’ve read that you should allow your starter to come to room temperature before using it, and also that you should use room-temperature water that has been sitting for an hour or more to let various things evaporate out of it. I try to do both these things, but if I’m in a hurry, I’ve skipped these steps and the bread and starter have been fine.

*Julie bought her starter from King Arthur Flour. There are recipes for starter out there. Or I will be glad to give you some if you live near me.

Jan 21, 2010

Cracking the Black Walnut

We like nuts. So my inlaws sent us some at Christmas--five bags. One bag contains black walnuts, a real treat. They have a deep winey, earthy flavor--"truffly" as a friend says--stronger than English walnuts. They tend to cost more, but maybe that's because harvesting them is difficult. A neighbor boy where we used to live in Virginia would collect all the neighbors' black walnuts, shell them himself using equipment loaned by a farmer, and sell them back to us for $5.00 a bag.

There is no such enterprising youth up here, so the nuts falling on our heads and littering the autumn lawn in the years since we moved up to Pennsylania tend to be a nuisance more than a blessing, big hard green balls raining down. We have a pile in the back corner of the yard that grows bigger every year. Ignoring the nuts seems sad and wasteful. We did see a black walnut crusher at an Amish store in Indiana, but buying one would be a grander back-to-the-land gesture than we want to make.

So. What to do with these beautiful nuts? John's birthday was coming up, so I decided to make Walnut Spice Cake with Lemon Glaze. I toasted the nuts before adding them to the batter. It's a lovely use for black walnuts; their strength is tempered by the spices and lemon. We still have a lot left. Any other ideas?