Needless to say, it’s been a while. Why, you may ask? Well, I no longer look out my window to the gray-green world of Vancouver, British Columbia. I open a door onto a battered old deck facing what may pass for a small orchard.
In June we moved back to my hometown of Mariposa, California, a small Sierra town and gateway to Yosemite National Park. We are slowly adjusting to…everything. The heat, the driving, the sounds at night. Living with family (my parents), in my grandparent’s old house. Looking for work. Looking to work structure into our structureless days…
In addition to the physical move, I have made a virtual move. Thank you for following my exploration of Italian cooking, and cooking and baking generally. I invite you to now follow me at The Seasoned Table, a new blog that I am collaborating on with two other women. At The Seasoned Table we plan to explore home economics–in the fullest sense–not only according to the seasons of the earth, but also the seasons of church year. It is a blog about feast and fast, high season and low, the extraordinary and the mundane…the extraordinary mundane and the extraordinarily mundane. In this effort we join the many who are rediscovering ancient ways of work and prayer, and who are seeking to cultivate a spirituality characterized by attentiveness and gratitude. We are newcomers to both scenes–contemporary and ancient–and we hope that this new blog will be one little way of connecting with others who are walking this path, or are seeking a path to walk. Most recently, I wrote about our move, transplant shock, apricots and eggplant.
I hope this little word from California finds you well, wherever you are. Outside my window there are very light clouds on the horizon, and there are tall bull pines, and hazelnut trees (which we only recently identified as such), and it is already very, very warm.
I hear from my family in California that they’ve finally had some rain and snow. This is good; when we were in Mariposa for Christmas, I learned that they had had only one day of rain from May to Christmas. Surely drought is a frightful thing, but I must admit that as we look toward moving to California at the end of May the perpetual sunshine sounds oh so good.
I shouldn’t complain, we do live in a rainforest after all. And one of Jacob’s many first words was “moss.” “Mossy moss,” to be precise, which is exactly right. Here, even the moss is mossy.
But spring in Vancouver is vibrant and colourful and so very welcome. We’ve had a handful of sunny days over the last few weeks (including a three day stretch during which I sat in the sun in only a tee shirt, at least for a little while, while holding a cup of hot coffee) so the cherry trees are beginning to burst with blossoms, and the daffodils and hyacinth are up; the crocuses and snowdrops have been here for a while now and are already beginning to make their exit. Still, it is chilly and each day’s weather is utterly unpredictable, moving from sun to clouds to hail to rain to sun again in a matter of hours or even minutes. I find the weather a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation. And so are biscuits for that matter, yes, a delightful topic now that I think of it.
Though born in New York, my husband has southern roots, and the majority of his extended family live in and around Atlanta, Georgia or in Mississippi. His late grandmother on his father’s side lived in Morehead City, North Carolina. I have one of her old cookbooks on my shelf: “The Chapel Hill Cookbook” put out by the Junior Service League in 1964. (There’s a pretty hilarious introduction on page 3 called “How to Cook a Husband,” that begins, “A good many husbands are utterly spoiled by mismanagement in cooking and so are not tender and good,” but that’s for another post). Perhaps this newly acquired southern (albeit distant) presence in my life is why I have been striving to make the perfect biscuit for the past few years now. I’ve tried out a few attempts on southern friends of ours who currently live in this mossy mossy rainforest with us, with marginal success. Let’s be honest: I just want to be that west coast in-law who can make a biscuit with the best of ‘em.
Here’s the thing: I can’t shake my health-conscious, whole-wheat obsessed, west coast sensibility. I know a light, fluffy biscuit is due in good part to the white flour used, but I just can’t get my hand to direct the copper cup measure into the all-purpose flour canister more than once. It obstinately travels to the whole wheat canister despite my best intentions. And follow up all the butter in the dough by dipping the biscuit in melted butter before baking to then, at the table, slather on more butter? My spirit is willing but my flesh is weak!
So. Here is a recipe that doesn’t even try to be traditional. It is, yes, made partly with whole wheat flour. And in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get more vegetables into Jacob and to satisfy my impulse for altering recipes, there’s a whole lot of other stuff in there, too. Green stuff. Veritable spring green. You might even call these “Northwest Coast Rain-Induced Mossy Biscuits.” Look at that: weather and biscuits in one conversation. And the sun has come out here to boot.
“Northwest Coast Rain-Induced Mossy Biscuits”
or, Spring Green Buttermilk Biscuits, adapted from James Beard’s Buttermilk Biscuits in American Cookery
Yield: 9 biscuits
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
5-6 cranks of freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup cold butter (I used unsalted), cut into small pieces
2 green onions, chopped
a cupped handful (as in, the amount your two hands will hold) of spinach leaves, washed, dried and chopped
a handful of cilantro or parsley leaves, washed dried and chopped
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese, plus a bit to sprinkle on top
3/4 cup buttermilk (I use about 1 TBSP lemon juice or white vinegar and combine with whole milk to make 3/4 cup)
Preheat the over to 450F.
Make your buttermilk first and allow it to rest while you work. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the butter and mix with your fingertips until well combined. Add all the vegetables/herbs and cheese and toss to coat in the flour mixture. Add the buttermilk and mix until the dough comes together. Knead lightly in the bowl to combine all the flour, but do not overwork the dough. Add more flour only if the dough is very sticky and unworkable. A key to fluffy biscuits is lightly-worked dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured counter top and pat into a circle about 1/2″ thick. Cut your biscuits. Repeat with dough scraps.
I like baking on a stone, with parchment paper. You may use a buttered baking sheet or pan. Whatever your preferred method of baking, arrange your biscuits so that they are quite close–almost touching–and sprinkle with a little more cheese. Bake at 450 for 12-15 minutes (or a little longer if you are working with a cold stone). Note: I find that baking on a metal baking sheet at 450F is too hot; the bottoms of the biscuits get too dark before the biscuits are done. Reduce oven temperature to 400 or 425 after you’ve loaded the biscuits, if baking on metal.
Excellent with soup or salad.
It was a very, very delicious birthday weekend.
It started Friday evening, the night before my actual birthday, which I suppose is sort of the Sabbath-begins-at-sundown approach to celebrating a birthday. I know people who celebrate “birthday week” or even “birthday month” (!), but adding the celebration of Birthday Eve to the festivities is enough for me–at least for now.
Birthday Eves are celebrated, in case you didn’t know, with soupe à l’oignon, a simple green salad, some crusty bread, a heavy-handed pour of a nice red wine, and later, an achingly rich and perhaps overly generous portion of mousseline au chocolate. It is celebrated with your nearest and dearest, in my case, my husband, my son, and my best friend, Johannah. If you are as lucky as I am, you may even receive a new pair of earrings on your Birthday Eve–made of delicate shell and brought from Spain, no less. Thank you, Joh.
How your Birthday Eve unfolds from there is up to you. We watched a few episodes of Parks and Recreation…while we overdosed on mousse. (You will note that the bowls I put the mousse in are…ah-hem…soup bowls. Espresso cups would have been about right).
Then of course, there is your Birthday Morning, which may include the luxury of sleeping in (even Jacob had a present for me!), a cup of coffee made from the best, most freshly roasted beans around, cheesy scrambled eggs, a strip of happy hog bacon and salsa rolled into corn tortillas, and then a jaunt to the nearest thrift store where, if you are lucky, you will find a new outfit to wear to dinner later, including a new (mustard yellow) handbag. As for Birthday Afternoon: The sun breaking through, and the spending of birthday money from generous in-laws on books. All the while you are thinking about Birthday Night, namely, what you will order for dinner sometime around 9 p.m.–a late dinner, very French of you–and the glass of wine you will order to enjoy with it, and the lovely friends you will relish your meal (and uninterrupted conversation) with.
This, at any rate, is how spent my 32nd birthday. As I said, delicious.
Now, I may have mentioned elsewhere that one of the major differences between Italian and French cooking is the standardizing of French cuisine–as Waverly Root quotes Enrico Galozzi, “French cooking is formalized, technical and scientific. Order Bearnaise sauce in 200 different French restaurants and you will get exactly the same sauce 200 times. Ask for Bolognese sauce in 200 different Italian restaurants and you will get 200 different versions of ragù.” Perhaps this is why a title like Mastering the Art of French Cooking is accurate, and an effort to do so possible. While my sensibilities in the kitchen are in every way given to a more Italian approach to cooking, I must say I enjoy the challenge of learning to make soupe à l’oignon and mousseline au chocolate just so. I will confess, though, that on Friday I couldn’t keep myself from improvising here and there, and making a few substitutes, in part because I did not plan enough ahead to have stocked the necessary items, and in part because I am cheap: I have not yet sprung for Vermouth and Cognac and Orange Liqueur, though I do have aspirations to fill out my cooking alcohol pantry. The recipes below reflect my twists on Julia Child’s recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Soupe à l’oignon (adapted from Julia Child’s recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking)
Yield: 6-8 servings
This soup epitomizes the fact that a soup is always better the next day. So if you are able, make it the day before you wish to serve it, or as I did, make it early the day you plan to serve it so that it has a few hours for the flavours to develop. Julia says to count on 2 1/2 hours at least from start to finish, though most of that time is unattended simmering.
5 cups thinly sliced yellow onion
3 TBS butter
1 TBS oil
1 tsp dried thyme [my addition to Julia's recipe]
5 cranks freshly ground black pepper [my addition to Julia's recipe]
Cook slowly in a covered, 4-qt. saucepan or a soup pot for about 15 minutes. Ensure that whatever pot you use is heavy-bottomed.
While the onions are cooking, bring 2 quarts of beef stock (or combination of water and stock) to a boil in a separate pot. I used 8 cups of water combined with 6 tsp of Organic “Better Than Bouillon” Beef Base.
Uncover the onion pot, raise the heat to moderate and add:
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp sugar (helps to caramelize the onions)
Cook for 30-40 minutes stirring frequently until the onions have turned a deep, even, golden brown.
Add and stir for three minutes:
3 TBS flour
Add and simmer partially covered for 30-40 minutes, skimming occasionally if necessary:
Boiling beef stock
1/2 cup red wine (Julia calls for dry white vermouth or white wine–I’ve tried both white and red wine and I prefer red)
Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
If you have it, Julia calls for 3 TBS cognac to be stirred into the soup just before serving. I have not done this, but of course it could only be delicious.
Pour soup into individual serving cups, top with a round of toasted French bread, and top with grated Swiss and Parmesan cheese. Place cups on a cookie sheet and put under broiler until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown a bit. Warn your dinner guests that the bowls–and the soup!–is very, very hot.
[Note: For the toasted bread, I slice my rounds about 3/4" thick, spread on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil on both sides and bake at 350F, for about 20 minutes, turning half-way through, until the rounds are deep golden brown and very crunchy. Julia notes the option of basting the bread with beef drippings. Whatever you do, don't forget to rub one side of each piece of toasted bread with a garlic clove.]
Mousseline au chocolate (adapted from Julia Child’s recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking), OR “Honey and Cardamom Dark Chocolate Mousse“
Yield: About 5 cups, or 6-8 servings [Not five servings, Sarah!!]
You will need a 3-qt. stainless steel or porcelain mixing bowl, a wire whisk and an electric mixer.
Also, prepare a small pot of simmering water you can place your bowl over, and a basin of cold water.
4 egg yolks (reserve your whites for later)
1/2 cup honey (my variation; Julia calls for 3/4 cup finely granulated sugar)
1/4 cup brandy (my variation; Julia calls for orange liqueur)
Beat the yolks and honey together until the mixture is frothy (if you use sugar, Julia says to beat the yolks and sugar until it is “thick, pale yellow, and falls back upon itself forming a slowly dissolving ribbon”). Beat in the brandy or liqueur. If you use honey, set the bowl over the pot of barely-simmering water and continue to beat for 4-5 minutes until the mixture thickens to the consistency of mayonnaise, then beat over the cold water to cool down. If you use sugar, Julia says, “Beat 3-4 minutes until the mixture is foamy and too hot for your finger. Then beat over cold water for 3-4 minutes until the mixture is cool and again forms a ribbon. It will have the consistency of mayonnaise.” I take it, whatever sweetener you use, the goal is “the consistency of mayonnaise.”
6 ounces of fine, dark chocolate, chopped (I used 72% Belgian dark, plus a couple of squares of unsweetened baking chocolate to bring me up to 6 ounces)
4 TBS strong coffee (If you have a stove-top espresso maker, use that)
6 ounces of softened, unsalted butter
1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom (optional; my addition)
In a bowl or small saucepan, melt the chocolate and coffee over the simmering water. Remove from heat and mix in the butter a bit at a time to make a smooth cream. Beat the chocolate into the egg yolk mixture and add the cardamom if you like. My resulting mixture looked a little gelatinous, so if yours does too, don’t worry!
4 egg whites
pinch of sea salt
1 TBS honey or sugar
In your electric mixer, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks form; add the honey or sugar and beat until stiff peaks are formed. Stir one-fourth of the whites into the chocolate mixture. Gently fold in the rest. Turn into serving dishes–I recommend going with the suggested 6-8 servings!–and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or overnight.
Top with whipped cream (I added a bit of honey and ground cardamom to my cream), a sprinkling of shaved dark chocolate and a pinch of fine sea salt–fleur de sel if you have it. I used a pinch of Trader Joe’s sea salt with edible flowers–fun!
There’s an infamous story in my family about my early and unparalleled affection for beets. I was three years old…maybe two…and my parents had a garden in which they grew beets. There are some pretty fantastic pictures of me in the garden, eating carrots from the ground, walking around with a chicken caught in a headlock under my little arm, me standing next to the coop with my finger up my nose. Priceless.
The story goes that one day my great grandmother “D” came for a visit. She had heard how much I loved beets, so when my parents offered to share some of the yield with her, my grandmother asked me if she could have some of the beets.
“You were normally a very generous child,” my mother will recount.
But on this occasion my little face hardened and my jaw set. “No!” I cried. “They’re MY beets!”
My parents sneaked a little bunch to Grandma D when I wasn’t looking. Good for them.
Now, I realize that not everyone shares my love of beets, though I think it’s safe to say they’ve recently made culinary waves, especially among those who are increasingly conscience of eating seasonally and locally. Up here in Vancouver, we can grow beets pretty easily, or purchase local beets in the winter, which make them a staple January vegetable in our house, along with winter squash and potatoes. We’re coming up with new and wonderful ways to eat them–roasted with other roots; shredded and tossed with feta, sunflower seeds and a vinaigrette as a salad; steamed and then roasted and tossed on top of a baked potato, and, our current favourite: burgered.
This could easily become a go-to recipe for you vegetarians out there, but I think even you fellow omnivores will find these burgers deeply satisfying, especially with a side of perfectly golden-browned oven fries. And, if you are a parent and have children who are anything like I was as a toddler, or who are like my 18-month old who devoured an adult-sized burger (sans bun) the other night, I recommend making up a batch of these and freezing them for easy, on-hand toddler meals.
3 cups shredded beet
2 cups shredded carrot
1 cup shredded cheese (cheddar is nice)
1 small onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 TBS tamari soy sauce
1/4 cup oil
3/4 cup bread crumbs
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped parsley (optional)
Mix thoroughly, and allow the mixture to rest for 10 minutes or so (this gets the bread crumbs and flour working with the moisture to bind the mixture together). If it is still impossible to shape patties that hold together, add a little more flour. The burgers will bind and set up in the cooking, so don’t worry too much if they seem a little fragile. I like to make them on the thick side.
The best way I’ve found to cook the patties is to preheat my cast iron griddle in the oven at 425F, then fill up the griddle with burgers. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the burger is nicely browned on the griddle side, then flip and bake for another 10-15 minutes. Alternatively, place the patties on a baking sheet and bake at 400F for 25 minutes, flipping halfway through the baking once the sheet side of the burger has browned nicely.
Serve with whatever you like to top a burger with, on whatever bun you fancy. We went for Portuguese rolls this time.
I’ve made this salad for myself for lunch two days in a row now, and I suspect I could eat it every day for the next month with, perhaps, a slight variation here and there. I like it that much. I like salad that much, which, I figure, is a good reason to write about it.
I remember the first time I saw someone make a salad dressing from ‘scratch.’ It was the summer after my sophomore year of college. I was 20, and I was visiting my friend Rachel in France. She was teaching English at a high school in a suburb of Paris as part of her own French language study. I was watching her prepare our lunch in the dusky little kitchen that was shared by the several resident foreigners who were teaching their own languages to French students. An entire leg of cured pork was hanging on the closet door behind her; the Spanish teacher’s family had just visited from Spain and brought their daughter a gift.
Rachel was pouring olive oil and apple cider vinegar into a little bowl. Then a dollop of Dijon mustard, then a bit of honey, a pinch of herbs de provence, salt and pepper. Whisk, whisk. It was a delicious salad, and I would now call that experience a turning point in my own culinary journey…or at least a benchmark in learning how to make a real salad. Since learning to make my own vinaigrettes, I’ve never looked back.*
One of my favourite words of Italian kitchen wisdom discovered in this past year of Italian cooking has to do with salads: “…it takes four persons to make a salad properly: a wise man to season it, a miser to put in the vinegar, a spendthrift for the oil, and a madman to mix and toss it…” (from The Food of Italy by Waverly Root, p.88). My friend Amanda used to say, “Dress to coat not float” when we catered together, and I would say that’s a pretty good translation of the Italian proverb. I would add my own salad imperatives:
1. Wash your greens well–there’s no excuse for a gritty salad.
2. Dry your greens well–there’s no excuse for a soggy salad (a salad spinner is my most frequently used kitchen gadget).
3. Dress your salad in a bowl large enough to accommodate real tossing before you bring it to the table–I loathe trying to properly toss my little portion of salad on a plate full of other foods, or in a bowl far too small to get the job down properly. If you fear your eaters will not do their part in partaking of salad (resulting in leftover, already-dressed salad which will wilt toward oblivion by the next meal), then toss a portion of what you’ve prepared and return to the kitchen later to dress a refill if it is needed.
As for this particular salad…
A mixture of green leaf lettuce (torn or chopped) and red kale, stemmed and chopped into rather small pieces
Toasted almonds, chopped
A few Black Mission figs, chopped
A modest crumbling of goat feta (or chevre)
A Hard boiled egg (1 per eater), quartered
(I will say here that bacon or pancetta would be a delicious addition for the omnivores out there)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4-1/3 cup balsamic vinegar (depending on how tangy you like your dressing)
1 TBSP Dijon mustard
1-2 TBSP honey (depending on how sweet you like your dressing, or how bitter your greens are)
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
a few cranks of freshly cracked pepper
a dash of sea salt
This is a great vinaigrette “template”–try it with different vinegars (I recently did part balsamic and part apple cider) and different sweeteners (maple syrup is very nice), or with the addition of herbs (a pinch of herbs de provence is lovely).
*With the possible exception of Annie’s Goddess Dressing which is straight-up delicious. And the occasional plunge of a slice of pizza into good ol’ Hidden Valley Ranch dressing.
This recipe goes out to my father-in-law John, who undoubtedly has more home-made pesto from home-grown basil in his freezer than he knows what to do with. Simultaneously, this is a recipe for my mother-in-law Patty, who shares with me a deep fondness for risotto. Ah, risotto. It’s become one of my go-to meals, and all the more so in the chilly months that are upon us now. Plus, I recently made a sizable batch of chicken stock from surprisingly meaty bones from a local butcher, as well as one of the five (!) hot sauce-injected, deep-fried chicken carcases leftover from a late American Thanksgiving celebration. Yes, you read that right: hot sauce-injected (there were syringes involved), deep-fried chicken (a turkey wouldn’t fit in the fryer). Our host was from Georgia. He knows about hot sauce and deep frying. It was scrumptious.
So with a few quart-sized mason jars of stock in my fridge, I couldn’t help but make risotto. And because I too, have more home-made pesto from home-grown basil in my freezer than I know what to do with, the pairing was a natural. Now I know this dish doesn’t have that white creamy appeal that most risottos have, but that was more the result of an error in judgment on my part: I added the sun-dried tomatoes way, way too early. Plus, I reconstituted dried tomatoes myself, rather than using oil-packed tomatoes, which means their color was more brown than red. And I used some of the soaking water in the stock. This resulted in flavorful but brown risotto. Maybe not what you want to set before your holiday dinner guests. One does eat with his or her eyes first. Yes, I believe that. But. I think this has the potential to be a beautifully festive dish, all decked out in green and red. See my notes below on how I think one might accomplish this and let me know how it goes.
This one’s for you, John and Patty!
Pesto and Sun-dried Tomato Risotto
(Serves 3-4 as a main dish)
7 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
olive oil to coat the bottom of your pot
1/2 yellow onion, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
generous pinch of salt and several cranks of freshly ground pepper
2 cups Arborio rice
6-8 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped, plus a few pieces for garnish (oil packed would look prettiest, but if you reconstitute your own, make sure to soak them in water for several hours before making the risotto)
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan or Grana Padano, plus more to garnish
2-3 generous tablespoons pesto, plus more to garnish
Combine the stock and wine in a large pot, cover, and bring to a simmer. Keep hot. In a separate pot or large saucepan, saute the onion and garlic with the salt and pepper until tender and translucent. Add the rice and cook for a few more minutes. Add the stock/wine to the rice one ladleful at a time, as it is absorbed. Stir the rice very often, if not continually. Your risotto is ready when the rice is tender and creamy but still has a bit of a bite; 7 cups of liquid seemed just right to me. Turn off the heat and add the tomatoes, pesto and cheese. Taste and add salt if necessary. Top with a spoonful of pesto and a handful of freshly grated Parmesan…and perhaps a few slices of sun-dried tomato. Toasted pine nuts would be a nice addition…just a pricey one. If you follow this order of cooking, I imagine your finished risotto should be a lovely pesto green studded with tomato red…instead of, well…brown.