Monday, July 1, 2013

Guilty Pleasures

“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”
 – Jack Torrance, scary dad from The Shining.

When I pick up a Mrs. Pollifax or Harry Bosch story, I know I won’t put it down until I’ve gobbled it up. Banksy’s hair drifts into the corners, mapping the currents of air along the floor boards of my little apartment.  Lewis flares his gill flaps and tries to get my attention. The dishes in the sink receive a quiet, watery plunk from the not-quite-truly-leaky faucet with the calm equanimity of ceramics everywhere, since the dawn of kilns. And I read and read, immune, swaddled in story. Until….Until the sharp prick of guilt goads me from the sofa and I sigh, bookmark my adventure, and get back to work. 

Ah, guilty pleasures, such delicious treats. 

My number one guilty-pleasure song is that one by the Goo Goo Dolls. You know the one. And “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, which I’m listening to RIGHT NOW. I have a mile-wide soft spot for musicals, especially “Chess.” As I spent a few formative years in a book and record store with a bunch of jerks who believed there is an absolute right or wrong, good or bad, in taste, I listen and warble along alone, not wishing to invite criticism. To a certain extent, the jerks have a point: Some of it is trash. But as my Sommelier friend Guy says about choosing a bottle of wine, “It doesn’t have to be hard. Pick what you like.” (He is the Unsnob in a snobby field, a tall glass of water in a room filled with sand.) But what holds true for wine – if you pick what you like, and figure out what it is about that particular wine that grabs you, you’ll expand your palate and next thing you know, you’ll be telling people they’re unrefined bumpkins, absolute Cretins, for liking Merlot – is also true for music, maybe. I'm not sure my fondness for the Goo Goo Dolls has unlocked any secret rooms of musical understanding. I am still annoyed with those arbiters of taste. For me, music evokes time and place. “Boys of Summer” (and every musical, ever) reminds me of working at Boulder’s Dinner Theater in the late ‘80s, my youth, my fledgling years in kitchens, my early association with poker and Luck. Maybe the real guilty pleasure here is over-indulgence in nostalgia.

Indulgence seems to be the key definition to a guilty pleasure. Picking up a Stephen King, a Michael Connelly, or a Dorothy Gilman book will not, past a certain point, push my boundaries of human understanding. But reading is a very private indulgence. I can simply open a door, step through and vanish. Maybe the guilt comes from knowing I am not hammering out 500 words, or sweeping, or doing the dishes, but the pleasure far outweighs the pain of ignoring chores.
With food, the pleasure (and the guilt) is usually in direct correlation to the number and type of calories.  An extra dollop of mayonnaise in my rabbit salad. A spoonful of whipped cream, just because I happen to be visiting Cold Side. Another helping of spaghetti,and another, until I am logey and bloated, nursing a semolina hangover. I love sandwiches. I eat them in corners of the kitchen, or hidden upstairs behind the hot water heater; my wolfish manners are embarrassing. Also, the pastry cooks need to hide the spiced pecans. And the candied pistachios. Cheese is a problem.

But right now I am in the grip of a new indulgence:

I am hooked on a medical drama. I’ll admit this is not the first time – “ER” held top spot on my Must See TV list, back in the day – but living as we do in the days of Netflix, I can stream whole seasons at a time, I can indulge in the joys of a show that takes place in Seattle, makes me cry occasionally, and features actors with really nice hair. To hell with homework. To hell with chores. I’m spending my evenings with Meredith Grey and her dysfunctional friends.

Not only does a “Grey's Anatomy” bender bring a little perspective to a Chef’s freakishly stress-filled world (“The customer got wheat toast!” “CODE BLUE! CODE BLUE!” “He’s going into de-fib…where’s that white toast?!” “Push two of epi and charge paddles to three-hundred…CLEAR!!” “We just 86’d white bread!” “We what?! Send Paulo to the store! Stat! We’re losing him….” “Chef, his wife is Yelping on her phone…can you come talk to her?” “Not now! Where’s that toast? Charge to four….CLEAR….!” “Chef, we lost him. He’s throwing his napkin onto his plate.” “No! Try again! Fire white toast!” “Chef….he stiffed the server…” “*Sigh* Time of promo: 14:23.”), but I also get a small dose of science with every episode.

While it’s not quite as good as working in a medical bookstore, or even renewing a subscription to “Discover” magazine, “Grey’s Anatomy” makes me feel as though I’ve kept a hand in. As it takes place in a teaching hospital, the doctors are doing a lot more than sewing up lacerations. I’ve seen a couple of very interesting clinical trials, learned way more than I’ll ever need to know about post-procedural fistulas, and hey, remember stem cells? These cats are actually growing organs in dishes! Neat! Wait'll you see what they do with a three-dimensional printer!

Possibly as a way of tempering the guilt, as I watch I draw corollaries between cheffing and doctoring. The white coats, the fondness for sharp blades, the long hours, the drinking, the clogs, the shenanigans. Huge differences, of course, hats off to doctors, that’s a long, hard haul, a road I didn’t take. But I’m glad I don’t have to hire a medical billing specialist, even when a ten-top requests all separate checks. I’m glad people come through our door when they are hungry and reasonably happy, instead of scared and possibly dying. Watching television doctors lose patients on the table underscores my sense of career satisfaction.  Is a nine-year-old with cancer going to bleed out on my prep table today? No. 

But it would be a mistake to think that kitchen stress is all for naught. The life of the restaurant is at stake, which provides the livelihood to dozens of people. To keep a restaurant healthy and thriving, a Chef must teach discipline, diligence, and instill in his or her crew a definite sense of urgency. We must teach and watch, remind and correct, all day, every day.

I’m almost caught up with “Grey’s Anatomy.” And then I don’t know what I’ll watch, or how I’ll set fire to all those hours when I could (…should?...) be doing something else. Maybe I’ll dive into “Game of Thrones.” And I’ll tell you what – after what happened to George and Izzy in Season Five, the Red Wedding will be no problem, no problem at all.

Rabbit Salad Sandwich
This method is a good way to use up any rabbit left-over from the last braise, just adjust the quantities of the gear to work with how much protein you have. This will also work with fried tofu, left-over turkey, and chicken.

Picked rabbit hindquarters
As much mayonnaise as you can handle
Chopped tarragon (or chervil)
Halved red grapes
Toasted walnuts
Maybe a little celery. Maybe.
Salt and Pepper
Some nice bread. I prefer a slightly sweeter loaf. Get what you like, though.

Combine the action. Put it on the bread. Find a corner. Devour your treat.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Tea & Cookies

“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,
 lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
They left the house at half past nine...
The smallest one was Madeline.” – Ludwig Bemelman

I’ve decided it’s time to read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past

And while you might assume this decision coincides with a long convalescence, or incarceration, in fact, the decision to pull the two hard covers off the top of the bookshelf, blow off the dust, and begin what may be the longest slog in my reading career, was a result of wanting to find the oft-quoted madeline scene.

I also decided to actually make the cookies today, which required a trip to the Market for a pan, a trip that ate into my reading time. I may have been able to stave off the napiness of my “Sunday afternoon” (that’s Wednesday to you) long enough to find the paragraph, which occurs within the first 100 pages, but the walk to Pike Place, the time spent browsing through the giant bouquets, the decision to bring home a trout for dinner (Lewis stared at me the whole time I ate), the light chores, the chat with Mother, the fiftieth episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” the re-reading of a Connelly: all conspired against settling in with Marcel.

But I think that’s okay. I spent some time looking at Wikipedia pages and the handful of blogs devoted to Proust and I’m running the risk of losing my original point. Which was simply that there are certain phrases, certain thematic elements running through a handful of books which were so crucial to the collective brain as to obviate the actual book.That is to say, there’s no sense in sitting down to a tasty read if the read in question has been read so often, taught so often, misquoted, plagiarized, and dissected to the point where you believe you have the full story, and so, contrariwise, I wanted to actually read the damn thing instead of flipping through the collective brain's wacky card catalog, I wanted to read a paragraph that may encapsulate the meaning behind food writing, the impetus to evoke. 

But what I learned today was that the “Madeline moment” as I’d come to think of it, was really much more of a neurological function of the hippocampus, and much less an evocation of past through taste and smell. You see, I had thought that when Marcel tasted the bit of soggy cake floating in lime-blossom tea (um, what?), he was reminded of something, which is what I think we all tend to use the madeline moment to mean, but a closer reading of the passage, and the helpful words of a Proustian scholar-blogger, indicate that rather than simply being reminded of a simpler time, as I am when I smell Countrytime Lemonade (once the coughing stops), Marcel was transported. As though he existed in both times at once. I also found out that translations of the story more recent than mine are called In Search of Lost Time. Very different than Remembrance of Things Past.  The active verb suggests a certain tension, as when at work, trying to make the flour mixture for the fried chicken bits, we were searching for lost thyme, not idly remembering where it was wrongly put away in dry storage.

In any case, the sensation is called Involuntary Memory. And like most brain stuff, it’s cool, and complicated. Not just evocation. More like time travel.

But I need to focus if I’m to bake these cookies.  

There is that other thing though – the evocation, the welling-up, the oral tradition of food stories. Food writing is jam-packed with vignettes recalling the “first time I tasted something tasting like something”, or “how my life changed because I ate something slippery.” Bourdain, Aschatz, Fisher, Hamilton, the 40,000 plus food bloggers out there, ALL write about those firsts. Not because it’s bad or boring (sometimes it’s really boring), but because those moments DID change their lives. I’m staggering down memory lane right now, working on a food memoir, not because sharing the ways in which tasting macerated strawberries on my third birthday set me on an unwavering course to a career in food  (it was a wavery course), or because those strawberries are a landmark in my cognitive development, but because sharing stories about food, since food is something we all have to relate to, provides a truly profound sense of commonality.

(A somewhat major digression: I’m a big fan of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an outfit that provides a haven for elephants and rhinos orphaned by poachers. They recently shared a study measuring the survival rates among herds which had lost the older matriarchs to ivory hunters. Apparently, younger herds suffered greater mortality during times of drought and stress because they had lost the memories of the matriarchs, who, as tiny baby girl elephants, had been led by their mothers and aunties to remote watering holes. Now, I’d bet my incisors that the food-writing tradition, the recipes shared through story, shared kitchens, community cookbooks and the rest of it, is a spoke on the same evolutionary wheel.  This may be obvious, given the predominance of women in the food-writing blogosphere, but what I just said about commonality? Well maybe we should think about those shared stories as a way of bridging the vast divide between species. Maybe thinking about old lady elephants as grannies with battered old gnocchi boards would lessen the world market’s demand for ivory. Just a thought. Okay, back to Proust.)

One of the problems with food writing, with writing in general, actually, is the fatigue one feels with one’s voice. Proust had to lock himself into a house with cork-lined walls in order to channel his voice long enough to write his masterpiece, but you can bet there were days when he must have longed for a moment of cerebral silence. In food writing, as you sit down to write about tea (not lime-blossom) (and yes, it’s actually a teasane), you cannot help but slightly loath the tone, the voice, the perky food writing chatter prattle, when beginning a sentence with “The first time I tasted rooibos…”

So instead, I will tell you about the fifth or maybe sixth time I tasted rooibos. And then we will bake cookies.
October, 2004. I had rented a car in Cape Town, driven north up the coast, turned onto a mere squiggle of a road that took me through the Cedarburg Range. Unpaved, uninhabited, steep blasted reddish rock landscape on the edge of the Great Karoo. At the time, I was trying to escape feeling sad. Or, at least to give the sad a larger seat so it didn’t seem so big. Stepping off the side of one’s known world is a good cure, or maybe only a tonic, but I do recommend it. After hours of driving, of mastering the stick shift with my surprised left hand, I arrived at the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein, a faded relic of a time during which sick whites took their tubercular lungs into the middle of nowhere for “the air.” After dinner and trifle, I had a pot of rooibos, which was my routine while I was in South Africa, because the taste of the tea, the smell of it, took me back to the south-facing, ponderosa pine spotted hillsides of my childhood. The taste was not Proustian in intensity, I was not transported the way I am when I smell blanched fin herbes and recall the verbena tea(sane) I foisted on the younger siblings. Simply reminded. The smell and flavor illuminated a landmark in my sensory past, helped me see my origins, which was the reassurance I needed at the time. If you know where you come from, you might have a better chance of figuring out where you’re going. Or at least more informed. 

Rooibos is delightful. Iced or hot, with lemon, or with milk and sugar. There is no caffeine but there is a robustness to its flavor which makes it seem almost like a black tea. In South Africa you can buy it in a can, like our Nestea Brisk Tea™ (a taste that would evoke tennis lessons and hot tar), but I preferred the evening ritual of a hot pot of tea. The name means “red bush,” because, get this, it comes from a red bush. Not really. It’s green and then dries to red. I just read the Wikipage and guess what?! It’s a legume! The legume thrill-ride continues! Also, rooibos has about a million cancer fighting, antioxidant, cure-what-ails-ya compounds. As it only grows in one place, however, climate change will probably cause its extinction within a century. I’m going to start hoarding.

So where are we? We explored the differences between my idea of what a Madeline Moment was and what the big brains say it is. We talked about the importance of sharing stories about food and also confessed to a claustrophobic sense of self-natteryness when writing about it.  We revealed our love for hot beverages made from spiny bushes. Nothing left now but to bake some cookies. This is a food blog, after all.

Lemon Lavender Madelines
This recipe couldn’t be easier. Could. Not. Be. Easier. So the next time I try baking madelines, I will use ground nuts in place of flour, change the way I add the butter, maybe experiment with savory (jalepeno-cheddar? Bay-leaf and black pepper?), or adding fruit. The fun thing about madelines is the shape – the cookies are the perfect size to slip right into your face. There are conflicting stories about the origin of the name but I’ll let you do the foodwork, I mean foot work. Look in the Gastronomique, or The Professional Pastry Chef.

2 large eggs
2/3 c sugar + ¼ cup for post-baking dusting
1 Tbsp lemon zest + 1 tsp to combine with post-baking dusting sugar
¼ t lavender (be sparing or your cookies will taste like soap) + ¼ tsp for post-baking
Pinch salt
1 t vanilla extract
1 c cake or all purpose flour
10 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus 1 Tbsp for the pan
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Generously butter and flour your newly acquired madeline pan, ignoring the fact that you couldn’t quite get the goo from the price tag scrubbed off, even though you know this will bother you for years.

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until a lifted fork/whisk/beater drips mixture resembling ribbons. Add the lemon zest, lavender (or don’t), and vanilla extract. If you want to use orange zest and almond extract instead, that’s fine, just means a different name at the top of the recipe. Sift in the flour and mix until barely combined. Drizzle in the butter, mixing until again, it’s just combined (you’re trying to avoid stretching out the glutens in high-protein flour – if you use cake flour, you’ll have less of a problem in this department).

Spoon one Tbsp into each declivity.

Bake for about 14 minutes, turning the pan half-way through, or until the edges are brown and the cookie “springs back” to the touch.

Gently remove the darling baked goods and sprinkle some lemon lavender sugar over them.

Repeat. This recipe gave me about 20 cookies – two pan’s worth.

Brew a cup of your favorite tea.  Sit, sip, taste, relax, remember.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Quickened Pulse

"After the sugar snow had gone, spring came." - Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

By the end of February the plum trees were twirling their skirts while the cherry trees ironed their frocks for an early March debut. The winds coming up from the south kicked up the Sound, and white-capped waves, a relative rarity, smashed themselves against the rocks lining the path where I walk the dog. The air, the water, and the plants filled with life and the birds were singing about nests and the joys of flying on windy days.

March was a long month of tumultuous weather, in like a lion, out like a, well, lion, but a really wet, sulky one. If I hadn't been outside every day, I would have missed those tiny signs the plants hang from their leaves, missed the sage-blue unfurling of the buds on the long red arms of the bushes by the water. The Passover Seder, the Easter Brunch, the birth of new babies were all social confirmations of the seasonal shift, and meals moved away from slow-roasts and long-braises to grilling outside and shivery picnics on the beach.

All this walking with the dog, all this watching the budding world stretch and yawn and wake around us, has given me time to think. Most of this thinking is about work, of course. And about the various “isms” I encounter daily in the kitchen – racism, sexism, and alcoholism are the Big Three, and each are perfectly juicy topics for a clog-blog.

But instead, I’m going to continue my legume thrill-ride with a few words about lentils.

I think I was reading a David Lodge novel the first time I came across the word “pulse” as a descriptor for a dried legume. He described the jars filled with pulses along a kitchen counter….this may have actually been in an Elizabeth George, and it’s possible that it was Inspector Lynley who noticed the jarred pulses…no matter. When I came across the word used in that sense, I figured it out based on context cues and a suspicion that the British were just using a different word. But it isn't just the British, and it isn't limited to lentils.

The list of pulses used by the Food and Agricultural Organization includes some of the usual suspects – black eyed peas, pigeon peas, lentils, kidney beans, to name a few – and the more obscure, like vetch. Vetch is one of those pulses used solely for forage and green manure these days as it isn't quite digestible for non-ruminants – basically, vetch comes to the table at the end of a very long winter, when every other extremity is exhausted. Should someone serve you a salad made with vetch and nettles, you should make sure you have water and batteries put by. 

Lentils and a few other legumes have been cultivated by humans for thousands and thousands of years. I've written before about the ways in which legumes and humans seem to have co-evolved, and lentils are a great example. Anyone who has read The Clan of the Cave Bear can imagine Ayla cooking up a pot of lentils du puy to go with her ash-roasted ptarmigan, foraged greens and rosehip compote. 

Another surprising fact about lentils is that the name comes from the shape of the pulse – a lentil looks like a lens. I would have guessed the name came from some derivative of Lent, as the legume is a humble food that supplies a lot of protein, perfect for the long haul between Fat Tuesday and Easter Sunday when some of those given to Lenten sacrifice forgo meat.  

When Escoffier writes about lentils in the Gastronomique, you can sense the exclamation points as he raves about the small legume’s big nutritional whallop, and his dry wit comes through when he goes on to say: 

“If lentils are soaked for too long, they begin to germinate, which renders them, if not actually poisonous, at least more difficult to digest.”

That guy. LMAO.

The different kinds of lentils around the world range from the red to the black, the yellow to green, but they all resemble pebbles and gravel, not seeds. Hard coats and bright colors, the shiny black beluga, the slightly mottled green lentil. It's easy to imagine the red and yellow lentils on the shelves in the aquarium section at the PetCo, easy to imagine the darker varieties pulled from the bed of a country stream.

We prepare black lentils at work, starting with tiny cubes of bacon, onion and carrot, adding the legumes, adding stock, and cooking over medium heat until tender. Salt, a splash of sherry vinegar, and a capful of Worcestershire™ sauce finish them off and they are served with either duck or salmon. One of the funny things about lentils, and I mean really hilarious, is their relatively short cooking time – white beans take half a year to cook, but lentils are a brisk fire – about 20 minutes or they turn into dimpled, muddy mush.

April in Seattle is still pretty chilly, so there’s room for a hot dish like lentils-n-kale in a repertoire of salads, tacos, and pastas. And, hey, let’s leave the bacon out, give the pig a break, and still feel satisfied.

Spring Sweater Lentils:
1 c small dice leeks, whites only, rinsed thoroughly
1 c small dice carrot
1 generous knuckle of butter
3 c black lentils
2 qt cooking liquid, maybe a little more
Salt, pepper, splash of vinegar

For the kale:
One bunch Lacinato kale, rinsed and chopped roughly, butter (or olive oil), garlic, a splash of white wine or whatever you’re drinking while you cook.

For the denouement:
Fried eggs, some large-crystal salt, perhaps a couple shavings of Parmesan or Reggiano. Also a hunk of warm crusty bread, some butter and the usual table accouterments: salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper.

In a large sauce pan, start the leeks and carrots in butter over medium-low heat. When the leeks are soft and beginning to caramelize, add the lentils and stir them around for a couple minutes before adding the stock. Add liquid and turn the heat up slightly. Cook very close to a boil for 20 minutes, test for doneness, add liquid as needed. Wait until the end before seasoning.

When the lentils are about six minutes out, sauté the kale with minced garlic, deglaze, set aside. In this sauté pan or another, start frying eggs. Get the table set, shave the cheese, warm the bowls, warm the bread. Get the eggs off the heat. Taste lentils, correct, taste. You want some liquid in the lentils.

In a warmed bowl, spoon up some lentils, nestle in some kale, top with a fried egg, finish with salt and cheese shavings. Serve immediately. Serves between four and six.

This dish is cozy and comforting, but also evocative of tiny hamlets in the northern Italian alps. 

Up here, we’re still three months away from the scorching summer days of 72 degrees, so bundle up, wear your sunscreen, and enjoy your meals in shared company.