Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rice Pudding Update

As I mentioned, I made a mediocre rice pudding last night, flavored with Meyer lemon and cardamom. Well, it wasn't bad so much as extremely minimal and spartan and practically puritanical (yes, I do realize that's mixing my cultures) the sort of thing I imagine a British boarding school might have dished up unsmilingly (sans seasonings, of course.)

But! A twist! Last weekend I made a heart-shaped Pavlova and, to use up the yolks, made a batch of lemon curd. Well, I stirred some of the lemon curd into that rice pudding, and it made a world of difference: the egg yolks (a common addition to more luxurious pudding recipes, after all) added a welcome richness and, of course, the flavors worked. So, salvaged - for the moment. Tagine still bad.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Plane Food

I realized at some point that my mental map is plotted wholly with good things to eat. When I scan in my mind over a neighborhood - say, Williamsburg - I get an impression of vague unease and feel an instinctive aversion. This is not due to the hipsters nor the posturing nor even the inconvenient trains, but rather the lack of treats. There are good restaurants, of course, but until recently a paucity of small rewards with which to fortify oneself in the course of an expedition. I have that initial impression - a sort of color-feeling - and then when I actually turn my mind to it, it begins to turn and process like one of those "loading" circles on a computer. And then the general impression begins to crystallize, and I zero in on the snacks: the lemon bombolini that can sometimes be found at Marlow and Sons; the lavender cake at Saltie; the barren stretch of Bedford; a sudden flicker as I realize that Cheeks bakery has closed. All this inventorying happens in a moment. But it's also why I so often find myself getting off the train at West 4th without knowing just why (Ronnybrook yogurt drinks and date-walnut brownies at Murray's; the squares of thin pizza at Amy's) or why I inexplicably continue to think of Chelsea as a friendly neighborhood (the Market, of course.) Lately, with the advent of the bacon rolls and sugar cake at the Stumptown in the Ace, I've begun to think very warmly of Murray Hill, even though in fact I know I hate it. The treats truck, itinerant as it is, drives my radar crazy.

This is why, for a long time, I have had very ungenerous feelings about Chicago - or at least, Hyde Park, where I went to college. The food is awful. The lone exceptions are the excellent applesauce cake very occasionally available at the coffee shop on the second floor of the Reynolds Club (now called "Hallowed Grounds") and, a good walk away, the Fanny Mae in the 55th Street shopping center. My heart would sink whenever I got off the El or the bus and the same thing happened when I arrived on Friday; I knew I was without allies. Nevertheless, this warred with the general feeling I have for the city, which is Ribs-Deep-Dish-Chicago-Hot-Dog-Breakfast-Skillets and, in any case, I was very eager to see Laura, one of my dearest friends, currently studying medicine.

I had a few hours to kill while Laura finished class, so I took the opportunity to seek out three bakeries and plot a number of possible restaurants. I felt better knowing they were there, and absolutely thrilled when, in a North Side coffee shop that just escaped preciousness, I had as scrumptious and moist a piece of banana bread as I've ever eaten. Sometimes I wonder if this need for food around me has to do with self-medicating; it's certainly true that blood sugar plays havoc with already ungoverned serotonin levels. And I feel a sense of panic when I'm stranded in the house without snacks and know the inevitable despair is coming. And the stupid thing is, I can't be placated with just a Snickers or some other practical remedy; it has to please me mentally, too. As a result, I'll refuse to settle and then go into utter despair, or faint, or get a migraine, and then it's too late. I faint a lot.

The things that make me happy are: good pound cake; eggplant; roasted tomatoes; brown sugar-flavored bar cookies. There are others, but these are the core of the arsenal.

Anyway, having found the banana bread, and knowing Lovely (that coffee shop) was there on North Milwaukee if I needed it, made all the difference. I loved Chicago. It was beautiful, gritty, full of character and sporadic charm. The campus was prettier than I remembered. The sun, and the 40 degree weather, hurt not at all. And having purchased an additional slice of banana bread to carry in my purse, more as talisman than anything, I felt fine.

The visit was wonderful. Besides the conversation and the stories and the wonderful, spacious apartment and the adorable sweet dog, Phoebe, there was much good food: we dined at a place I'd found in Eat.Shop Chicago which, like many things in their thumbnail photographs, seemed to me slightly misrepresented (the book makes everything look sleek and Wallpaper-ish; in fact the restaurant was highly eccentric, a bit frowsy and full of dubious art)but proved absolutely wonderful. Laura had a homemade fettuccini with a rabbit ragu; I had eggplant involtini, in a scrumptious, fresh-tasting tomato sauce, and an arugula salad on the side. They were all appetizer portions but ample and, with a glass of nice wine, festive, too. (I also love small portions and am depressed by huge ones. A Carnegie sandwich can send me into the blackest despair.)

Laura and her boyfriend have a well-stocked, adult and wonderfully accessible kitchen. I felt completely comfortable grinding beans and fixing myself a small French press of coffee and heating a pan of milk; that's saying something, when you've never stayed in a house. We took the dog on a long and vigorous walk and then drove to the Cozy Corner Pancake House whichm far from being burnished by nostalgia, was even better than I remembered, albeit a lot more bustling than in the pre-Yelp era. Just as I used to, I had the "Gypsy skillet," which is a pan of good home fries mixed with onion, mushrooms, cheddar and cured ham and topped with two eggs. Laura had the "Greek" rendition, which involves Feta and a passel of vegetables. The skillet is a marvelous thing, everything one wants in a single dish, hearty but never grotesque, and I don't see why no one has done it back East. I'm sure the pancakes are good, too, given that they're in the name and everything is good, but I can't resist a savory breakfast and when I do I always regret it after the first few bites. I mean, bacon!

Laura went to Lovely to work (I had talked it up) and I went on a many-mile thrift-shopping walk. I'd plotted out a number of food stops, even though I was stuffed; it made me feel good to know they were there. I did seek out a gourmet market recommended in my book and got the fixings for dinner, which I'd offered to cook so as to allow Laura to accomoany me to Shutter Island later in the evening. At length I joined her and had a cup of orange peel tea and a good oatmeal raisin cookie: the dense, raisin-packed kind, which I like slightly less than the chewy sort, but was still very good.

Dinner was simple, things I often put together at home and which I figured I could manage in an unfamiliar kitchen. First, I peeled, cubed and roasted a small butternut squash with a drizzle of olive oil and a scattering of salt and pepper. When the little cubes were browned and soft and crisp at the edges, I tossed them with baby arugula and goat's cheese and oil and Balsamic vinegar. The main was a homely dish from Marion Cunningham's Lost Recipes that I figured would make good leftovers for my hostess. It involves: sauteeing onion and garlic, then adding drained Cannellini beans, cut-up sausage (calls for Kielbasa; I had sweet Italian, which made it less like franks and beans and which I'll use again) a glug of white wine, a little red wine vinegar, brown sugar, salt and pepper. You cook it all down and eat it with mustard and it's very nice on a cold night.

Laura made us some terrific Irish oatmeal the next morning, cooked in milk and served with sliced banana. All I'll say about the rest of the day - because I'm being called away now - is that I obtained a sausage/pepper/onion pie from Pizzeria Uno and brought it on the Blue Line, to O'Hare, onto the plane, then on the shuttle from Newark to the station, then to Penn Station, and then back to Bed-Stuy on the A local. (I'd planned to try to bring a fully-dressed Chicago-style Gold Coast hot dog, but in the end, despitre some valiant with-pizza sprinting, wasn't able to make it to the terminal a mile away from my own to procure it. I had a hunger spell midway through, collapsed on the moving walkway, and had to eat a slice of pizza. Next time.)

Oh, and darn, I forgot to take a picture of the mediocre chicken tagine I made tonight. I am losing my faith in Tamasin Day-Lewis. Also, the lemon-rice pudding, from Laurie Colwin-via-Jane-Grigson (a spartan, milk-and-rice-only affair to which I added a little cardamom) which is pretty dreary. But I don't know what I expected. This is probably my hundreth Colwin failure. Fool me once, etc.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Books:Home Cooking

This is one of my favorite books of all time, full-stop: funny, entertaining, and extremely approachable. While I don't imagine you need to enjoy cooking to love essays like "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant," or "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir", Colwin makes cooking seem easier, more fun and more attainable than any food writer I've encountered. Part of this is because her recipes are notoriously sketchy - lots of "flinging" and "handfuls" and "whenever you get around to it"s - and in any event, are very much to her, ahem, idiosyncratic tastes. (I speak as the unhappy maker of a succotash that she described as "hands down, one of the best things I have ever cooked.") But that's also the appeal: Colwin loves food and, while her kitchen is more eccentric than most, this is indeed "home" cooking - and great writing. The follow-up, it must be said, I like a bit less: while still eminently necessary, it's somehow less humorful, more polemical, and, although it actually has more recipes I've made with success, I reach for it far less frequently as something to read while I eat. Home Cooking, on the other hand, is almost translucent with olive oil. That, I think, just goes to show.

Chicken Soup for the Freelance Soul

My first effort at food photography. The soup, by the way, was fine; I'll add noodles later, to shake things up. I daresay were I Laurie Colwin I would have jazzed it up with Thai chili paste or lime pickle or somesuch, but I'm dull that way. A hunk of cheese (something cheddar-like from the greenmarket) on the side did me just fine.

The State of the Larder
: So-so. I have the formentioned squash;one portion leftover jambalaya (made this for Mardi Gras, of course); about 2 T spinach I felt guilty tossing; leftover eggplant from the Saigon Grill which was kind of bland and greasy. Not sure about dinner; I think I'll walk the 3 miles to Williamsburg and see what catches my eye at Marlow and Daughters - perhaps an intriguing chicken sausage? With broccoli rabe? Oh, wait, there's sausage in that old jambalaya. Life is hard.

Starting Out in the Kitchen

The reason I've never done a food blog, although I've always kept an informal food journal in long-hand, is because I very much feared it could take over. That, and there are too many. And, of course, I'm not one for food photography. But I think it'll bring me too much pleasure not to carry on.

Now, the name. In the grand tradition of Blogspot '10, this wasn't my first choice. But when all was said and done, it was this or "Cold Shape," and while I liked the ambiguous possibilities of the latter, it was simply too unappetizing. Plus, I don't exactly revel in aspic, whereas I do love pudding. The title was, in fact, suggested by an exchange my fiance, M, had with a friend recently. The friend asked what the secret to my happiness was. "Easy," said M. "Sweet puddings when she's sad, and savory puddings when she's happy." And he did mean American-style spoon food, not just "dessert" as the Brits would have it.

That said, "Queen of Puddings" is a venerable British nursery sweet (pictured above) made with jam, sponge and meringue.

This is actually bad timing because yesterday, in an incensed-induced fit of intemperate enthusiasm, despite not being Christian, I decided while at Smoky Mary's of 46th street Solemn Mass to do Lent up right and forswear all indulgences and possibly just have broth for dinner although that part I'm not sure about. Anyway, they're always doing dramatic high-church fasts in Barbara Pym (who loved food) so I figured what's good enough for Pym etc. Besides, I plan on making myself a fantastic Easter basket with which to break the fast. Was already tempted by this huge slab of toffee (with hammer) they have at Carry on Tea and Sympathy. But I resisted, and feel very virtuous. I was undecided as to whether the banana-bran muffin I had for breakfast (with some orange, and coffee, and a soft-boiled egg) counted as a sweet, but I have to use up the batch (M doesn't like banana) and besides, it's pretty leaden and awful so eating it hardly qualifies as an indulgence.

Right Now: I am making some chicken soup. I have good broth left over from a chicken savoyarde I made for a Saturday night dinner (wouldn't do it again, less while ill) so I just sweated some onion and carrot in skimmed schmaltz, added broth and thyme and the remains of a roast chicken carcass, and that's all simmering merrily away. Will add shredded meat soon, and I'm convoinced the only secret is plenty of salt anyway. I'll probably have some for lunch, maybe a salad too involving a little cold roast squash.