Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Daddy




I have some sad news to share with you today.
 
My father died suddenly about three months ago, on October 9th. He was surfing when his heart stopped. Just like that, and he was gone. He was in good health to our knowledge, which made it all the more shocking. We know now that he had an enlarged heart, which led to his cardiac arrest. He was only 64-years-old, and incredibly strong. My Dad, John Farrow, was the most wonderful father, the most devoted husband. My mother and him had been married for 30 years. He loved his 'girls' so much. Then the unthinkable happened, and we lost him.

There's so much I wanted to say here, but so little I can say well. It's nearly impossible, as you may imagine, to convey into words how much I miss him.  Living at home, I spent much more time with him on a daily basis this past year, and thus I feel absence even more acutely now. I think about him everyday; almost everywhere I look in the house, I have a memory appear in my mind of him, or of us - of our family. He is everywhere and nowhere all at once. 

Where, I've asked myself, do I go from here? What can I write that won't seem trivial and meaningless? I have tried to start this post so many times, but nothing sounded right. 

The truth is, for some time I felt I couldn't cook anymore, and even thought I wouldn't be able to write again. But as the weeks passed I got to a place in which cooking, or at least thinking about food, felt okay again.  At first, it was difficult to even sit at the dining room table without feeling the familiar pang of grief, arriving, as it does, in cold and heavy waves. It was hard, and still is hard, to make sense of a world without my Dad in it. He was our rock, after all - always there for me even in my darkest hours, and always ready to cheer me up when I was feeling down. He was so good at that. 

Still, I couldn't bear to leave the kitchen for good. In the end, I realized my Dad would've wanted me to stop loving the things that I loved, forever. Once the steady stream of visitors had died down, my mom and I were alone again, and there was space to think about the shape of our daily lives were beginning to take. So slowly, I started baking again, and making dinners. I made cookies to give away for Christmas, and I made bread. We've also been making soup a lot, like lentil and potato-leek, and comfort food like polenta with mushrooms and a poached egg. We began to crave such things that provided lasting sustenance: homemade chicken soup, boeuf bourguignon, pasta with creme fraîche -- rich, yes, but life-giving as well. It was partly the holidays that got me back into making things, and partly just time. 

 Staying warm and staving off hunger has been our main preoccupation these days, and I think it will stay that way for awhile now. Even when it seems ludicrous to think of food giving pleasure, we must eat anyway, and thus think of the best way to take care of ourselves in the most elemental way possible. I think he would want us to keeping finding little joys in life, however which way we can. I know this much to be true. 

Daddy, I love you. I miss you.

This post is for you.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A fine job


Our tomatoes had a rough season this year. Summer wasn’t nearly as warm as it usually is at home, and it’s the sun – strong and in extended doses – which tomatoes need to ripen. But these little ones, the cherries, were a hardy bunch – shiny round beauties varying in shades of red and orange. They persevered through a testy summer and came out ripe and plump, ready to sliced in half and dusted with crunchy salt. When arranged with fresh mozzarella they make for a rather dreamy caprese, or, for one of my favorites, piled high on bruschetta...and, well, I could go on and on.
 
Even better, the red ones, slow-roasted in oven for a few hours, are something divine. The heat concentrates their flavor and they get this winey, jamy sweetness that melts in your mouth, similar to sun-dried tomatoes but with their own unique flavor pop. I’ve been discovering the various ways these tomatoes from our garden are put to good use with pasta, of which I want to tell you about today.

Come September we had enough for several evenings spent over plates of spaghettini with fresh tomato sauce, a meal that’s become a staple in our house in the temperate days that come within the change of seasons. For dinner one night, I pureed a bunch of the roasted ones with a large heirloom from the store, then cooked the mixture in shallots, olive oil with a bit of fat rendered from some bacon. Then, with a kick from some red pepper flakes and a few leaves of basil, it was almost like an earthier rendition of salsa all’Amatriciana, my way. 
Another time, I started with the raw tomatoes. Before, I thought you couldn’t get the right texture or flavor of the sauce without using canned ones, but I now know this is not true. To start, you chop some up and then sauté them with garlic until they relax into a sauce, just to the point where they begin to ‘melt’ and their skin soften. Once they release their juices and thicken a bit, you turn off the heat and toss the mixture with the pasta and a healthy glug of fruity olive oil, plus a few tablespoons of the cooking water to help the sauce coat each strand. So fast! So good! In fact, the trickiest part of the whole affair is getting the spaghetti perfectly al dente (I’m always afraid is undercooking but usually end up slightly overdoing it…in the end, though, no great harm is done. It’s pretty delicious no matter what).
For both, the tomato remained the star of the show, and I find more often than not it does a fine job of playing the part. Even tomatoes with lackluster sweetness will make an acceptable dish. Mario Batali says that one of the secrets to successful pasta is a light hand when it comes to saucing. Too much and the pasta becomes too heavy. This is really the key, I think. I tend to agree with Mr. Batali (who would argue with him?), but I would add that a good rule of thumb is that the more liquidy the sauce, the less you need on your pasta. It’s hard to get it just right, but when you do, you’ll know. 
We just got back from a week-long vacation to the Russian River area in Sonoma county, about 2 ½ hours South of Mendocino. It was a pleasant change of scenery, quiet like our house here but more open. The kitchen, minus the electric stove, was quite spacious as well, and we cooked dinner there almost every night, often eating outside on the deck. Also, to my delight, we had some local ducks that liked to hang on and around this log down by the dock right below our house. I only wish you could’ve seen them quacking away this morning, preening and fighting for a spot on the log. It was quite the sight.

Anyway, the day before we left I picked a whole bowlful of the red cherry ones with a plan to have a pasta night, so that’s what we did. What could be better than tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil, tossed delicately into thin spaghetti? Try it – you’ll know what I mean. It’s simple and unfussy food, but still bursting with the tastes of summer and of Italy, just how I like to eat in September. 
Note (Full Disclosure): These photos were actually from the variation I made with roasted tomatoes, but the end result looks very similar. Plus, those roasted tomatoes are so beautiful, I couldn't resist showing you a glimpse. 

Spaghettini with Fresh Tomato Sauce
Adapted, once again, from Mark Bittman

-       4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (one reserved for finishing)
-       One pound cherry tomatoes, halved (or 1 pound medium, such as roma, cored and chopped)
-       3 cloves garlic, chopped
-       10 leaves basil, shredded
-       1 pound Spaghettini or thin spaghetti
-       Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
-       Grated parmagiano reggiano, for serving (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Heat olive oil in a medium-large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for one minute, stirring often. Add the tomatoes and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes. Fish out the tomato skins once they separate from the pulp, if desired (I don’t). Add most of basil, leaving some for garnish.

Meanwhile, salt the boiling water and cook spaghetti according to the package directions (al dente, of course). Season the sauce with salt and pepper and thin with a bit of the pasta cooking water. Drain pasta and toss with the sauce and basil. Finish with a final drizzle of olive oil, and serve with grated parmesan cheese at the table, if you like.  

Serves 6.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It’s summer, somewhere


So the other day my mom and I were leaving for a trip to the City but wanted to have a quick lunch before we got on the road. To go with a couple pieces of barbecued chicken from the night before, we made the most delicious corn salad using some leftover corn-on-the-cob. I think it might have been grilled. Anyway, after shucking the cobs we added only a few other ingredients to the bowl, but the result was a summer salad vibrant and fresh and truly unforgettable. Having recently discovered a type of French feta that’s softer and less salty than its brinier Greek counterpart, we both thought of it immediately while standing at the counter surveying our lunch makings; I found the plastic tub in the cheese drawer and quickly crumbled a good amount on top of the shucked corn. After that, things just sort of fell into place. I chopped some red onion and added the juice of one lime, salt, and a drizzle of olive oil to the bowl. We sliced some avocado, and had that on the side. It was nothing complicated, but we both sort of gasped when we took our first bites. I say, never underestimate the power of a fine feta cheese. It can do wonders for an impromptu lunch, especially when there is corn involved. 


Let me explain. Until recently, I never could get too excited about fresh corn. I feel sort of guilty admitting this, but there it is. I know that sweeter is usually better with corn, but so often I find it a tad too sweet. Even barely cooked with lots of butter and salt, it’s just too one dimensional for my taste. Plus, the little fibers always get stuck in my teeth, and it’s too messy to try and cut it off the cob. Of course, I am willing to endure minor tooth issues if the taste of such food is unparalleled, but unfortunately I am often disappointed with both white and yellow varieties alike. I’ll still have an occasional ear – since my parents adore it, we have it often during the summer when I'm living here – but isn’t a food I necessarily crave in the middle of August. From peaches and apricots (I made jam!) to wild blackberries, tomatoes, green beans and eggplant, I decided recently that my produce daydream time has reached it seasonal quota, and corn, sadly, didn’t the make the cut.


That is, it was that way, until I had this salad. Again, I have to say, I think it has a lot to do with the feta. I’ve come to think this cheese has a lot in common with bacon: it makes everything taste better, even just a little bit is used. Despite its slightly silly sounding name, it packs quite a punch when used sparingly. The salty, slightly creamy cheese balances the sweetness and crunch of the corn, and the lime brightens up both flavors. A handful of chopped basil adds that lovely, uniquely aromatic complexity only found in fresh herbs, and a few pinches of salt makes everything pop. There’s just something about cold corn that highlights that milky-sweet crunch of the vegetable, a quality that isn’t as pleasurable when served hot. On a warm summer night (which, sadly, we only dream about here in Mendocino, where even August evenings are damp and downright cold) this salad makes for the perfect accompaniment to grilled fish. We had ours with some local salmon for dinner last night, and it was so satisfying we didn’t need potatoes to make it a meal. Even my dad, a strictly butter-and-salt only-on-the-cob man, seemed to be enjoying the salad. And that says a lot, in my book.


Whenever I come up with an original recipe, especially one that began in the spur-of-the moment, I can’t wait to share it with you here. I made it twice just to make sure it wasn’t just a fluke, and it definitely passed the test. The second time around, I used some bi-colored organic corn (a rare find), and it was sweet but not at all cloying, with a cob that secreted that cloudy, corn-infused juice when I pierced a kernel to test for freshness. I’m afraid we’ve had some lackluster, starchy corn lately that might have contributed to my previous snubbing of the popular vegetable, but starting this summer I am ready to revise my views immediately.

Now that I’m officially a corn snob, I will happily have corn, in all its guises, for the rest of the season, but preferably chilled. Perhaps next time I’ll try this one, with farro, maybe with some ricotta salata. Sounds like Tea had a similar experience, too. I remember writing about salad Niçoise last summer, and about eating outside. I suppose I am repeating myself, but I figure its bound to happen at some point. Despite the lukewarm weather we’ve had lately, we’ve been grilling almost every night, and eating lots of green salads with lots of interesting additions. This salad though, is of a different breed, with a milky-sweet crunch that’s light yet substantial. Rather, it’s crunchy with bites of creamy – of a type that’s so refreshing and good it makes a corn skeptic like me have sudden urges to make it again, and very soon. It goes with anything barbeque-esque, or any meal, for that matter, that has the promise of homemade ice cream at its end (here’s looking at you, my trusty Kitchenaid attachment). It may not be sweltering around here, but we can pretend that it is, for fun. It’s summer, somewhere - as my mom says. And judging from all the gorgeous sun-ripened produce we’ve been getting from the farmer’s markets lately, I believe it.


Corn Salad with Feta and Lime

The brand of feta I recommend is called Valbreso. In a pinch, Greek could be used, but it’s worth seeking about the French, as it’s much milder and lighter in texture, qualities that make it more appropriate for this salad. Also, you could try chopped cilantro in place of the basil, or a pinch of cayenne for another variation. The avocado is kind of a creamy bonus that’s not wholly necessary with the feta, but I highly recommend this addition. Oh, and grilled corn is especially nice in a salad - it adds that nice smoky note you get grilled food that is so wonderful cold.

-       3 ears cooked corn, cooled to room temperature (boiled, steamed, or grilled), or raw
-       ¼ red onion, chopped fine
-       ¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled (preferably French)
-       ½ avocado, diced (optional)
-       8-10 fresh basil leaves, julienned
-       Juice of one lime, or to taste
-       1-2 tablespoons olive oil
-       Salt to taste

If you need to cook the corn, place the peeled ears in a large pot of boiling water. Return to a boil, then turn off the heat and cover. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes, then place corn in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Take the corn kernels off the cob by placing the blunt edge of the ear in a large bowl, then, using a sharp knife, carefully slice downwards along the cob, rotating until all kernels are free. Add red onion, half the basil, lime and salt and toss gently. Add cheese, avocado, and olive oil and toss again just to mix. Garnish with remaining basil and a bit feta, if you have any left. Serve at once, or chill until ready to eat.

Serves 6.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lemonade + cookies, from the beginning

I made you some lemonade today. That, and a batch of peanut butter cookies. Doesn't that sound nice right about now? I thought so, too. (I was having a craving).
Lemonade and cookies make me think of a lot of things, like porches and barbecues and Southern mansions with pillared verandas - to name a few. But, perhaps most of all, they make me think of my family's summer lemonade stands, when I was little. 

This is to say, I have a bit of experience in the subject of classic warm-weather treats, going all the way back to my days as a fledgling baker with a business sense. In the beginning, it started with my mother's ancient copy of The Joy of Cooking, and a tried-and-true money making idea that worked. My sister and I started having annual lemonade stands starting when I was about seven and she was eleven, and we continued to have them for several summers after that. Always looking for ways to fill my piggy bank (for I really did have one), it seemed like a good idea at the time, and it gave me an excuse to bake. Somewhere along the way we thought it would be smart to sell  peanut butter cookies to go with the lemonade, and sure enough, they were a big hit with the tourists.
Such old-fashioned traditions still stuck in the quaint small town I grew up in, Mendocino, a kind of New-England style village on the coast of Northern California. We lived right in the village, so we could set up our stand just a block away. Our parents, then, could not only watch over us, but also help us restock when we ran out of supplies. They also did most of the actual preparation of the lemonade, which was a precise mix of frozen concentrate, water and fresh lemon juice, stirred together with some sugar. It was cheaper than all freshly squeezed, but still really good, and no one could ever tell the difference. My mom and I made the cookies, using practically every inch of our tiny kitchen for the cooling sheets and the mixing bowls. My dad had built us a makeshift stand on top an old red wagon, with a big space inside to hold our treats and cooler, and wheels so we could roll it out to the street corner at noon. The wagon was a little bit clunky and unwieldy, but it served its purpose as vessel and counter top, and the setting made it charming. With an ocean view and a steady stream of passerby, I’d still be hard-pressed to think of a better spot to have a lemonade stand, anywhere.
In the peak of summer, it was like Disneyland in the streets, the village ice cream parlor barely able to keep up with the rush of vacationers hankering for a scoop in one of their homemade (and positively gigantic) waffle cones. Our competition was only a block and a half away, but we always did surprisingly well regardless. This was likely in part because we were so cute sitting out there behind our wagon and paper sign, and also in part because we so proud of our tart beverage, served with pride in medium-sized Dixie cups. Our cookies, furthermore, were small enough that they could be eaten after a scoop of ice cream, sans cone. Now, it wasn’t always easy, sitting for long hours in those hard folded chairs, dealing with the occasional grouchy tourist who complained about shelling out 25 cents for a cup, but somehow the making-people-happy part (and, yes, the extra money) was enough to make it all worthwhile.

My family moved to a different house shortly after I started college, which, although it was sad, gave us a welcome respite from the constant barrage of cars and pedestrians and noise. Back when, it was certainly nice to live in a place where I could easily walk to the store or stroll down to the beach two blocks away by myself, without having my parents worry about me. But now that I’m all grown up, I appreciate being able to get some distance from the frenzy of tourist season in town.
I moved back home a few months ago, and I’ve been particularly enjoying the peaceful environment of our house now, tucked away in the woods down a dirt road. We even have a garden now, with vegetables and lots of late spring flowers in bloom. It’s also a rather perfect place to sip lemonade and eat cookies, sitting on the deck in the afternoon. I’d been patiently waiting until the weather got nice enough for such a grand activity, and finally, finally it’s arrived, albeit in fits and starts. The sun has been out but it’s been awfully windy - but then again, this is so often the case with a California June. It teases you with signs of summer, with days made for sandals and breezy white dresses, and then leaves you waiting, breathless, until July.

It's been a long time since I’ve had homemade lemonade, and let me tell you, you are missing out if you haven’t yet made a pitcher of your own. There is a reason it’s iconic: it's nothing less than a refreshing wonder, speaking so clearly of Americana. I like to make it straight up, without mint or some other fancy infusion, just simple and pure, like how we made for The Tourists, but better. No frozen juice here, only lemons and water and simple syrup, always icy cold and mouth-puckeringly tart. Stay with the classic here, and you’ll never go any other way. As for the cookies, well, they speak for themselves. I tried a recipe from David Lebovitz’ new book, and they came soft and moist, with a bold punch of peanut flavor throughout. In essence, though, they are the same cookies I made when I was little, with the traditional criss-cross marks from the tines of a fork on top and a moist, delicate crumb. I’m envisioning a garden party with only hors d'oeuvres and sweets, with summer refreshers served in heavy glass pitchers. Who knows, maybe next week I'll be making sweet tea and benne wafers, since I seem to be set in a Southern frame of mind (did I mention I made collard greens and cornbread the other day?). Anyhow, stay tuned, my lovelies.

Lemonade
Adapted from Mark Bittman

This is not much of a recipe, really, but I thought it was worth sharing because I found it so incredibly good. Feel free to use Meyer lemons, too, if you can find them.

- 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 3 cups water
- ½ - ¾ cups simple syrup*

In a large pitcher, briskly stir the lemon juice and water together with a wooden spoon. Add ½ cup of the simple syrup, then gradually add more, tasting along the way, until lemonade reaches your desired level of sweetness. Serve cold with ice and a thin slice of lemon.

* To make simple syrup, combine 1 cup water and 1 cup granulated sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat until sugar is completely dissolved, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat immediately and cool. Simple syrup can be stored in the refrigerator indefinitely.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

With wild mushrooms and cultured cream


I’ve found the perfect home for a bowl of homemade crème fraîche, and in comes in the form of a 9-inch tart, with mushrooms and butter and a sprinkling of thyme. 

I’m not exactly sure what inspired me to make crème fraîche in the first place, but it seems I thought it'd be useful to have around, for garnishing soups or fruit desserts. Or maybe it was from watching an old episode of The French Chef, when Julia Child goes to her favorite crémerie in Paris. If I remember correctly, the camera shows the shopkeeper dipping her ladle into this huge vat of thickened cream to pour some into a container, while Julia watches over her with a palpable, breathy excitement. I love how she sort of moans at the sight of it, and how her eyes widen as she hovers over the vat. She chats with Madame about the cream in exuberant, accented French, and you can't help but smile right along with Julia. When she serves it with a beautiful but flawed tarte Tatin, it makes for a memorable episode, indeed.

Anyhow, I’ve bought crème fraîche ready-made a few times, but I’ve discovered recently it’s much cheaper to make it at home, and easy. The only downside is that a cup of thick, fresh cultured cream—a tangy concoction chefs covet and adore—can only languor so long in the refrigerator, even when well-wrapped and chilled. It is the kind of ingredient that restaurants can use quickly for a number of things, but it’s harder to consume in a week’s time when you’re just two people. So I wanted to find a recipe in which I could use the entire cup, and soon.
Then it occurred to me that I’d been recently flipping through my copy of the Tartine cookbook, one of my favorites, and I’d noticed that their recipe for quiche called for crème fraiche instead of the traditional heavy cream. The authors Pruitt and Robertson claim, in their notes, that it's the secret to the unique flavor and lightness of their version. I’ve had a piece of their special quiche at the bakery in the Mission and it’s most definitely a swoon-worthy slice. But somehow quiche didn’t seem quite right for my purposes. I wanted something a bit more dressed-up and elegant, yet simple, preferably in which I could use the cremini mushrooms my sister had picked up the other day, to have on the weekend. I flipped through the book some more and suddenly, there I saw it—in the chapter titled “With a Glass of Wine.” It is really the Savory Section, and there’s not one recipe in it that I don’t want to try. I love the concept of a savory chapter in a book otherwise dominated by sweet pastry, but given equal attention. Most of them, too, are French, like gougères, these big cheese puffs made with Guyère. Others are more simple, like spiced cocktail nuts.
In particular, though, the recipe for a Wild Mushroom Tart caught my eye. It also called for a cup of crème fraiche, and it so happened that I had just bought a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom (made in France!) at a restaurant supply store on Clement street, thinking I would make a lemon tart for a special occasion. Well, the imagined occasion never arrived, which means I was still left with an empty tart pan and restless urge to bake. And so that’s what I did, later that afternoon. In stages, I made the crust and partially baked it, preparing to fill it with the mushrooms I had cooked and seasoned. Along with the creminis I bought some chanterelles and some shitakes. Finally, it came time for the final twenty minutes in the oven, until the custard puffed up a bit and set. It looked gorgeous, and I was happy.
That is, for a while. After it cooled and I sliced it, I knew for sure I had under baked my crust, and as a result the bottom didn’t quite reach the golden brown-flaky stage. The flavors were still good, and we each enjoyed a slice for dinner, but I wasn’t completely satisfied. I’d made this mistake before, with tarte tatin, in fact, and I felt silly for having done it again, afraid of overcooking the filling. Still obsessing about it the next day, I had a renewed vigor to salvage what was left; with the rest of the tart leftover, I cut two slices and put them on a foil-lined pan, then slipped them into the toaster oven for another twenty minutes. It was partly an experiment, but sure enough, it didn’t take long much longer for the crust to crisp up and get some color. Kyla and I both agreed that although it was good that first night, it was even better the next day, re-crisped and revived. It turned out even lighter and puffier in the center, and magically flaky on the outside, as tarts should be. The slightly tangy custard gently enveloped the earthy, buttery mushrooms, which were fleshy and delicate at the same time. It was difficult, we thought, not to resist a second sliver, albeit a tiny one, for that all-important last bite. It’s as lovely on its own as it is with an arugula salad, lightly dressed with lemon and olive oil. We toasted ours with a glass of sparkling rosé, then later, watched the Olympics.

In the 2007 film Waitress, the main character Jenna, played by Keri Russell, waits tables and makes pies for a small-town diner, and names each pie-of-the-day after an event from her own life. She hates her husband and dreads going to work because of her boss, but she loves to bake. Even when she is full of rage or sadness, she puts all her energy into that daily pie, which she takes great pride in making. Jenna is charming and sweet, but has this toughness about her too, and I like that. Literally, she pours her heart into those pies, and in return, they give her life, in every sense of the word.

Sometimes, I feel a little like Jenna after a particularly trying day, especially in February around a certain much-hyped holiday. Never mind all the heart-shaped chocolate cakes and pink frosting, which have their place, first I need some real food to get me through the night.* It doesn’t snow in San Francisco, but it does get cold when the sun goes down - that is, if we see the sun at all. From my experience, the best thing to do is such situation is to first lounge about for an hour or so upon returning home, maybe read the parts in the newspaper you neglected earlier, then make sure you have flour, butter, and some ice cubes around. After those steps, it’s time break out the tart pan and get baking already, for there might be a crust in your future just waiting to be filled with mushrooms and crème fraîche. There, in a round pan with a jagged edge, lays a hard shell with a soft center, to be eaten, and loved.
*For the record, I’ll never be one to refuse a truffle or two some time after dinner, when the kitchen is still warm from the oven. There, in the quiet void that takes place somewhere between eating and sleeping, you’ll often find me, looking for a treat. It’s a nice spot to visit, if you haven't been there for a while.

Homemade crème fraîche (French Cultured Cream)
Adapted from David Lebovitz

Serve with practically anything sweet, or find a savory use for it, like a quiche or tart. I also read that it makes a sauce when tossed with hot pasta. Mixed with equal parts whipped cream, it is nice on top of fresh berries, in summer.

- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 ½ tablespoons buttermilk

Place cream and buttermilk together in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place for 12 – 24 hours, or until sufficiently thick (cream will continue to thicken slightly once chilled). Stir once, then refrigerate in a covered container. Use within one week. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Out of our doubt

Butternut squash. Just the name is intriguing, don’t you think? I’ve always loved food names. Sometimes it seems like they have nothing to do with the food itself, and other times, the sound of the word is more than satisfying in its own right. The butternut is not only blessed with a pretty name, but it has a pleasingly solid weight when you pick it up by its handle. Inside, the firm flesh is yellowy-orange, slightly lighter than a pumpkin, with a pocket of seeds inside that you scoop out. They’re not too shabby looking on the outside either, all curvy like giant oblong pears, with a smooth skin peachy-beige in color. When they’re piled high outside in the bins at Whole Foods, you worry if you were to grab one, all the others would come tumbling down—in big, hefty thumps. 

They are somewhat formidable and unwieldy-looking in their raw state, but with a little bit of coaxing and heat, they make a Monday afternoon in late January seem bright and full; autumn blooms bring forth rounded forms of a dense, creamy persuasion - a rare treat amidst the fog of winter. The butternut is certainly part of this tide. Acquiring such a squash is well worth the risk of an avalanche at the market, with thumps and brief humiliation, once you bring it home with you and season it well.

I would’ve taken a picture of the nearly four pound squash I lugged home from the Farmer’s Market over the weekend, but I was already peeling away at half when I stopped to get my camera, and by that time I deemed the scene at the counter much too chaotic for a simple still life. Clearly, I’m returned to soup-making mode in full force, perhaps because it’s been raining nearly nonstop for the last couple of weeks here. Some days have been quite stormy in fact, with breezes turning into rather violent gusts, and I’ve become rather accustomed to the sound of car tires on wet pavement, whooshing past. The magnolia trees outside my window today have been thrashing about every which way, and I’ve been watching people outside shield themselves with flimsy umbrellas - hurrying home, I like to imagine, to their very own pots of soup or leftover stews from the night before.
Lately I’ve been veering towards favorite soups that my mother has made for me at home, one with cauliflower and cheddar, which I always crave in winter—and another, which I made today and was especially proud of, with butternut squash and curry. The spices in the curry balance out the sweetness of the squash, and the addition of apple brightens up the earthiness of the soup’s base. The squash is faintly buttery, I think, and it's a bit nutty, too, but both qualities are heightened with the addition of curry powder. Incidentally, both the cauliflower and squash are soups my mother made often just for the two of us for lunch when my Dad was out, or when it was “fend night” (when we all "fended" for ourselves)—since he didn’t like either of the aforementioned vegetables. He got his pork chop or rib-eye, we got our soup, and everyone was happy. 

So. Finding myself with half of a squash in a Ziploc bag sitting in the bottom bin of the fridge, looking very neglected and sad, I decided this morning that it could wait no longer. It was time to start chopping that very minute, and there were to be no excuses. I considered a risotto, or a warm salad with arugula, but soup just sounded so much easier, and I didn’t need to go and get anything else from the store. I found a recipe for soup by Ellie Krieger from the Food Network and it sounded very similar to mother’s version, so I made just a few alterations and went forth. The amount of curry that it called for sounded like a lot, so I held back a bit at first, but then I ended up whisking in two more teaspoons after tasting it. Turns out it’s not as potent as I thought it would be. Also, I substituted coconut milk for some of the chicken broth, because I had it on hand and because I love, love coconut, in anything. (So much I have absolutely no problem saying it twice in one sentence. If I were to choose any diet, it would surely be The Coconut Diet. Just in case you were wondering).

Anyway, back to the soup, after I had pureed the mixture smooth with our fancy new immersion blender, I let it simmer a little longer until it reduced down and thickened slightly. I liked the idea of garnishing the bowl with a dollop of plain yogurt, since yogurt is indeed lovely on spiced or curried things, so I did that at the end, and I would have up chopped up some cilantro, too, if I had had it. 

Sometimes I’m hesitant about trying my mother’s recipes if merely because I’m afraid they’ll never measure up to the “original” version—that I won’t quite get it to taste like she made it, so I’ll be disappointed no matter how the finished product turns out. However, I’ve been doing some serious thinking about this hindrance of mine, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no use sitting around wishing I could duplicate her versions, I might as well give them my best shot, remembering that there is no such thing as the platonic ideal of a perfect soup. There is only the realization that there are daughters everywhere trying to create their mother’s recipes, worrying and fretting and feeling sub-par, until our sisters or our roommates or our husbands give us that look of gratitude, of satisfaction so deep that it sort of shakes us out of our doubt, for a moment. Then, we settle into that little well of pleasure—almost hoping it keeps raining awhile, just so we can do it all over again, tomorrow.

Curried Butternut Squash Soup
Adapted from this recipe by Ellie Krieger 
Of course, this goes well with some crusty bread, like this choice baguette we had from Acme Bread. I think it would also be great with a glass of crisp white wine, at dinner. Oh, and salted butter is always nice too, with that baguette.
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (2 1/2-pound) butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 medium apple, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (preferably homemade) or vegetable broth
  • 2 cups (one 14 oz can) light coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons curry powder (or to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more, to taste
  • 4 teaspoons plain low-fat yogurt, for garnish
  • a few leaves fresh cilantro (optional)
Heat oil over medium heat in a 6-quart stockpot. Add onions and garlic and sauté until soft but not brown, about 6 to 7 minutes. Add the butternut squash, broth, coconut milk, curry powder and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until squash is tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and puree with an immersion blender or in batches in a blender until smooth. Then simmer on very low heat and reduce, stirring occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 10 minutes longer. Season with salt, to taste. Ladle into serving bowls and add a dollop of yogurt and cilantro leaves.
Serves 4-6.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Chocolate and ginger

Oh, my dear little blog, you must really be starting to question my devotion to you: I can only imagine what you might be thinking: I mean, really, Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone, Thanksgiving long past, and all you have to show for it is a loaf of banana bread?! The state of affairs must have really gotten out of hand! Seriously, though, where are the mountains of cookies and pies and fabulous spreads on bright red tablecloths? 

To which I can only answer: I am guilty as charged. In my defense, this is no ordinary loaf you see up there, but I’ll get to that later. Surely, there were moments I could have shared with you lately, but somehow I couldn’t think of a way to make them blog-worthy, or on a subject that had absolutely nothing to do with cookies, since I think I’ve covered that for the time being. Plus, in the flurry of packing my suitcase with sweaters and warm socks and heading north to Mendocino, I forgot my camera, so I’ve been puttering around at home with only my iphone to document various kitchen travails.* Fortunately, I didn’t have a lot of time to be sad about this mishap because of how busy I’ve been. In the whirlwind of holiday baking—between the rugelach for gift-giving, the pain d’epices (spice bread), and the apple and pear galettes my mother and I churned out for the Party—I’m afraid I’m also a bit tuckered out. Once all the crusts were rolled out and filled with fruit, then baked and cooled and consumed with healthy doses of billowy whipped cream, I just needed a few days to catch my breath. The situation was so dire that my French rolling pin and I decided to part ways for while (even though, I might add, we had just barely met, when I saw something long and skinny peeking out of my stocking). At the very least, a trial separation will ensue until the New Year gets well under way.

In the meantime, I'll make banana bread. I don’t know what everyone else does on New Year’s Day, but I can think of no better activity than waking up early to a quiet kitchen to bake—folding and whisking and measuring until left, finally, with a batter golden and thick and just faintly reminiscent of that soft yellow fruit. Later, you are greeted by a bread flecked with pieces of chocolate chips and ginger, as though it came out the oven already adorned with jewels. I am not talking about the kind of baking, mind you, that requires chilling and Cuisinarts, but of another order entirely, the kind that requires only a handful of tools and a couple of mixing bowls. In my case, while wearing an apron with sunflowers on it, watching the rose parade on TV.
I’ve never been one for resolutions, but I’ve had no trouble resolving to start the day more often in the company of ginger and chocolate and a preheated oven. I’m even thinking of starting a new tradition; instead of an elaborate brunch with Benedict and hollandaise, I say save those eggs to make a lightly-browned loaf that stars the pulp of a soft spotted fruit. Bananas aren't exactly pretty in their ripened, bruised stage; mashed like a potato they look homely at best, but they can certainly do wonders for your average cake. Mixed into a basic quick bread batter, they make a bread with a moist and delicate crumb. In response to a pile of gold and silver presents with bright-colored ribbons, this bread is the brown paper package tied up with string. One look at a slice and it’s no going back: studded with chocolate and flecked with golden bits of candied ginger, it makes a mean afternoon snack and even better breakfast, toasted so that the chocolate gets all melty and the edges all crisped up from the heat. So good.

For years I made banana bread using a recipe clipped from Bon Appétit, which was credited as being “low-fat.” It has buttermilk, but we often substituted yogurt and also added lemon zest, walnuts, and a few drops of lemon with the mashed banana. I still love this recipe, regardless of its nutritional value, but I can’t help but fall for this very grown-up version, still wholesome enough to be considered bread but also undeniably cake-like. I think it’s rather handsome with the deep crevice on the top, quite sufficiently “poofed,” as my Dad would say. 

Anyhow, the recipe is from Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, which I highly recommend for both the prose and for the recipes. I’ve made this one at least three times, and it never fails to please, even if you don’t approve of chocolate for breakfast. Yesterday I only had three tiny pieces of ginger, and I didn’t want to go to the store to buy more, but the flavor still came through. In case you were wondering, Peet's Coffee carries The Ginger People brand of candied ginger that I favor, if largely because of its cute label and rounded glass jar. I also think you can use a bar of chocolate chopped up instead of the chocolate chips, but either way make sure to use a good quality brand; I used Guittard semi-sweet last time. But really, when it comes to bread and chocolate, you can't go wrong. 

You may also find the recipe here, for those that don’t own the book. Molly credits a fellow named Glenn, via her friend Kate, for introducing her to the chocolate and crystallized ginger additions, and although I don’t know Glenn, I am ever-grateful to him for dreaming up a trio that I won’t soon forget.
* As a result, the photos are bit lackluster for this post, but I did my best under the circumstances.