Sunday, February 26, 2006

Use a recipe?

Sorry, friends. Where have the last three weeks gone? Here in my kitchen I've been using these February days to dust off some old cookbooks and get to work in the kitchen. I'll admit it, I have a tiny little problem with collecting cookbooks. I have dozens and dozens of books and can't stop myself from getting more. I don't actually cook from most of these books, mind you, but I do use them as a barometer of current food trends and as inspiration. As my mother wrote in a recent card she sent, thanking me for the gift (yes, OK, it was a cookbook) I gave her for her birthday, "the reading is as much fun as the cooking." Indeed.

But lately I've been feeling a little guilty about all of the books that pile up next to my bed, patiently waiting for their turn. And while I can make a decent meal for myself without consulting any of them, I have to admit that my repertoire was getting a bit stale. So in the last three weeks I finally tried out a whole host of new recipes. I began with the stuck-pot rice recipes that Mark Bittman wrote for the Times (see my post about Indian food for the link)--except that I didn't have all of the required ingredients for either of his recipes, so I made a little amalgam of the two, using the basic technique he describes and adding some toasted almonds and currants because, well, why not?

Then we had some friends over for supper, and I pulled out the Zuni Cafe cookbook and actually followed a recipe for roast chicken, accompanied by a fine bread salad. Since one of the guests was a vegetarian I dusted off my copy of the Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook and made a fine little twice-baked green garlic souffle. Except that I couldn't find any green garlic (why aren't the farmer's markets ever on the days you really need them?) so I made a leek-scallion-plain old garlic twice baked souffle. Decent stuff.

Buoyed by the new things coming off my stove, I then made some vanilla bean cake, using a recipe from Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte (ugh) by way of Rene Becker, the owner of Hi-Rise Bakery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I dream about this vanilla cake, and not having the opportunity to eat it at least once a week is a significant drawback of living in San Francisco. Though I've had the recipe clipped and ready to use for some time now, I was afraid it wouldn't taste as good as the original and discouraged because it requires 5 whole vanilla beans--an expensive proposition. But it does make two loaves, and now one is happily resting in the freezer, awaiting our next brunch invitation.

Tonight, because I bought some fresh ricotta at the local Italian deli and had no plans for it other than eating it straight from the container, I made some ricotta gnocchi. Despite my slavish attention to the recipe (another from Zuni Cafe) these little puppies were, to put it mildly, rather tempramental. While I was at the stove making them, my beloved Sarah was practicing the music for her weekly choir rehearsal. She mumbled her way through the music while I fumbled my way through the gnocchi, each of us cursing from time to time before finally figuring it out. In Sarah's case this meant replaying the same bars over and over on her practice CD--in mine, I decided it was time to deviate from the recipe and add a little flour to the mixture.

So these last weeks, my silence, have all been a result of an old dog being taught some new tricks. Accept my apologies--and let me know when you're coming to dinner. I'll make something from one of these books.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A list of things

My dear friend and fellow blog-keeper Amy has respectfully requested that I follow through on a tag--a list of questions to be answered that will offer you, the reader, some greater insight about me. But since this is a food blog--and I'm really, really trying to keep it that way--I'll answer the questions that are somehow relevant to that subject. Here goes:

Four Jobs I've Had:

1. Clerk at a health food store. Even today, if I walk into a crunchy grocer (like, say, Rainbow Grocery, the crunchiest of the crunchy--a collective, even) the smell of nutritional yeast and bulk foods takes me back to my high-school days.

2. Cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen. You don't know the lengths you will go for a job until you are covered in the stinky rind that has rubbed off of a wheel of Italian taleggio.

3. Receptionist at an art museum--the high point of that college work-study gig was the opportunity to cook a dinner for Sally Mann, one of my favorite photographers. What did I make, you ask? Lemon tart, and chicken.

4. Private chef. Not as glamorous as it sounds, folks.

Four Places I've Lived:

1. Woodstock, Vermont

2. Cambridge, Massachusetts

3. Burgundy, France

4. San Francisco

5 places I've vacationed:

1. Rome and Tuscany, where we ate, and ate, and ate

2. Montreal (Don't leave that city without trying the smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz's)

3. Provence, where the markets overflowed with goat cheese, olives and lavender

4. Playa Negra, Costa Rica

5. St. John, USVI

5 of my favorite dishes:

1. Grilled Niman Ranch Fearless Franks

2. Sarah's Chocolate Chip Cookies

3. Anything my mom makes

4. The Hoffman Farm chicken and polenta combination at Universal Cafe in San Francisco

5. Shanghai Soup Dumplings--someday, I hope someone will challenge me a soup dumpling eating contest. It will be a great day, particularly if it is a rainy and windy winter day at Joe's Shanghai in New York City. Watch out, challenger, my appetite for soup dumplings is boundless.

Four places I would rather be right now:

1. In a palapo watching the waves roll into Playa Negra.

2. Back East.

3. Trolling the aisles at the Grande Epicerie in Paris, a cook's paradise, awaiting the first bite of a little French macaron.

4. On a nice hike in the Marin headland with Olie and SP.

So, there. Now you know.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Treacle Time

On January 15, 1919, 2.5 million gallons of molasses exploded from a tank on Boston's harbor, cruising down the streets of the North End at 35 miles per hour, crushing everything in its path. By the end of the day, 21 people had died in the flood, an elevated railway had collapsed and dozens of buildings were filled with sweet treacle.

I only mention this because today I was thinking about the era before refined sugar, when molasses was the preferred sweetner for cakes and pies. My grandmother used to butter a slice of bread and then drizzle it with molasses, and as I age I find that I, too, have a penchant for the iron-rich syrup, which I keep on hand for gingerbread but sometimes spoon out of the jar. There are three types of molasses: unsulphured, which is made from the juice of ripe sugarcane, sulphured molasses, made from the juice of unripe, or green, sugarcane, and blackstrap molasses, the liquid that remains after nearly all the sugar has been boiled out, which has a strong, bitter flavor and is used primarily in animal feed. (I once made a cake with blackstrap molasses, which wasn't a good idea. The resulting moist cake, beautiful in appearance and nearly black in color, was acrid and most unpleasant to eat.)

Even in our sugar-obsessed culture, molasses has fallen out of favor. While artisanal honey is all the rage, there's not much clamor about molasses. The Southern Colony that eventually became the state of Georgia promised early settlers 24 pounds of molasses for every man, woman and child should they survive their first year America--imagine, molasses as a bargaining tool! And while once all sorts of sweets and cookies were once made with molasses, now it's the province almost exclusively of gingerbread, molasses cookies, and baked beans.

For those of you who are interested in a molasses recipe:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sift together the dry ingredients, then beat in the egg, sugar and molasses. Stir in the vegetable oil and the boiling water. Turn into a greased 8 inch square pan and bake for 30 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve with whipped cream.