Monday, December 15, 2014

Date


Dates and Figs

 Long, narrow boats of Styrofoam holding dates packed in like sardines, head to toe, back to back, side by side squished into place leaving nary a breath between them. Plastic pulled tightly over them all, stuffed in. There was always a boatful of pretty little dates in my parents’ refrigerator. Dates and dried figs. While the figs, dried and withered, the color of caramel, of autumn leaves, of baseball bats, were tough old things and stuffed with tiny little seeds that crunched, that stuck between teeth, dates were soft and tender, sweet as candy.

 Peel back the plastic and pick off a date, sticky as glue. Packed in as they were, wedged into that boat, and pasted together, tacky, the dates had to be pulled apart, fingers wedged in and around, picked at, tugged out one by one. Sugary sweet candy coating, something syrupy, those dates stuck to fingers, the caramel coating remaining long after the date had been eaten. But how I loved those tender, sweet dates.


Date Night

 We instilled the tradition of Date Night early on when the first baby was born and tiny. And have continued it through the years. Now that the boys are grown, Date Night needs no planning, no organization, the search for babysitter is happily dispensed with. And Date Night now comes more often.

 Date Night. The chance to dress up, slip into a something nice, something rarely worn (what with feeding babies, chasing after toddlers, catering to teens, walking dogs and cleaning house) and high heels, a dab of perfume and slip out into the night. Date night always means a choice restaurant, somewhere ethnic or Michelin-starred, a meal eaten while holding hands, listening to soft words rather than children’s babble or teens’ complaints. Or a movie and a box of popcorn.

 Although Date Night meant working out dates, comparing agendas and calendars, scratching down dates on a bit of paper and taping it to the refrigerator door, nowadays Date Night needs no specific date. Would you like to go out tonight? he asks. Want to do something special? A walk? Cinema? Restaurant? And we put on our shoes, our coats and, hand in hand, head out for our date. An escapade, a weekend away, restaurant and hotel, these dates have been an important part of our marriage these twenty-some years. Keeping our marriage sweet, tender, tasty, as sweet, tender and tasty as dates.


Double Date

 Date: My mother always had a date nut bread, more cake than bread, in the refrigerator. And we knew that it was off limits, only for her, like those single serving fried egg sandwiches, cold canned creamed corn loosened with a bit of milk, frozen Oh Henry candy bars tucked way back in the freezer, and iced coffee. Her private pleasures, what separated her from the kids. Date nut bread from a can; popped out, it kept the shape of the can as she whittled it away, slice by slice. Or date nut bread homemade slathered with cream cheese frosting, white against the deep brown, the color of chocolate cake but tasting of molasses. And dates.

 Double date: What’s this? he asked, holding up a jar he had removed from my sack, scrutinizing its odd, sepia-colored contents suspiciously. Curiously. Oh! That’s Date Mustard! I explained, silently scolding myself for not packing it into my suitcase that I had checked before heading to airport security. You can’t take this in your carry on, he returned. It’s more than the permitted three grams.

 Earlier that morning, before my voyage home, I had accompanied two friends to a shop in the heart of an upscale London shopping district, a shop devoted to dates. But not just any dates, not the dates of my youth. These were exceptional dates, choice dates. Expensive dates. Like rare diamonds, precious gems, exquisite jewels, artisan chocolates, these dates were beautifully arranged, laid out behind glass in a specially crafted display case in the luxuriously appointed boutique. As my friends were offered tastings of each kind of date, I roamed around the shop looking at the other products, condiments, mustards, chutneys, sauces and jams, each made with dates, many blended with other choice ingredients. Each as expensive as the dates themselves. I decided to purchase a jar of date mustard, intrigued by the flavor, knowing that my husband would love it.

 And so I found myself confronted by a man in uniform threatening to take that jar of date mustard from me. But, I tried to reason, to keep my calm, smile pasted onto my face, it isn’t a liquid, is it? And it’s a gift for my husband! You wouldn’t take away this gift to my husband? Desperation had begun to creep into my voice and I found myself perilously close to begging. The haggling went back and forth, he explaining that a paste was the same as a liquid, that rules were rules, that exceptions could not be made, I pointing out again and again that it was a gift, that it was extremely expensive, that I hadn’t been aware, apologizing for anything that crossed my mind. Time was rushing by and my flight would soon be boarding, I was running out of time and he wasn’t budging. He felt sorry for me, apologizing in his turn, even asking his higher-up to weigh in. I was near tears by the time I realized that I couldn’t stand there any longer, my pleading, my innocence only making his own eyes well up. Ah well, I finally, conceded, then you keep it, take it home. If my husband can’t enjoy it, then you do. It’s my gift to you, don't let it go to waste, as I dashed off to my gate, keeping my date to fly home.


Hot Date 

 Our very first date, if date one could call it, happened when I was dating another. The one, the other was away, far away in Africa, and there I was, nose to nose with him, dancing.

 And then there was a second date which melted into a third and a forth and where one date ended and the next began is a blur. Sticky sweet like a box of dates. Simmered and heated up, heated through. Hot date. 

 He introduced me to North African cuisine, soups and stews and gelatinous, chewy loukoum, which left a trail of powdered sugar down my chin and shirt, the sweet stickiness of rose and orange on my front teeth. We would wander through the streets of Paris, the neighborhood of shops overflowing with North African goods, shiny gold hookahs, stacks of colorful baboush slippers and leather poofs, footstools of skins smelling like camels. Traditional filagree lamps, intricate and feminine, that would throw delicate ethereal shapes on the walls in hazy pinks, blues and yellows, the colors of the glass panes. And food shops filled with traditional terra cotta tagine pots in rich gorgeous jade, blue, orange, red next to ingredients and canned foods, spices and boxes of couscous grains.

 And dates. Yes, we could find the small, slender dates sticky with sugar, but not only. I discovered long branches of dull dates, matte brown rather than shiny, dates not candied, withered not slick and glossy. And fat dates, plumper and more tender than even those I knew. Red dates, Chinese dates the color of sundried tomatoes, like odd little olives more than dates. And Medjool dates, the queen of dates, tremendously, astonishingly large. Astonishingly melt-in-your-mouth tender and sweet, sweet as cake. Dates not only to be eaten just like that, like candy, but dates to be cooked, simmered into stews, dates and apricots, prunes and raisins, walnuts and almonds. Simmered and stewed.

 Hot dates.


Well before our first date, my husband spent two years living and working in Morocco; he spent much of his spare time hanging out in the kitchen of the house in which he boarded watching the women cook. Since we married, couscous and tagines have been a part of our repertoire, cooked and eaten at least once a week. Personally, I prefer tagines, lamb, beef, chicken or fish, with some kind of fresh or dried fruit adding sweetness to the dish. Dates, widely used in Moroccan cuisine and commonly found in tagines, pair beautifully with lamb. The sweet potatoes give added sweetness and depth to the dish while the mint perfumes it gently and intriguingly. 

JAMIE’S LAMB TAGINE WITH DATES, SWEET POTATOES & MINT
Serves 2 – 4

 The sweet potatoes can be replaced by large chunks of pumpkin and the Medjool dates can be replaced with any tender, sweet date. If using pumpkin, feel free to add fingerling potatoes or serve the dish over couscous grains.

21 oz (600 g) lamb shoulder cut in large cubes
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic peeled and sliced in half
About ¼ tsp turmeric or saffron powder
1 Tbs ras el hanout or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
8 large Medjool dates
2 medium sweet potatoes (about 21 oz / 600 g), peeled and cut into thick wedges
1 small juice orange
1 Tbs chopped or snipped fresh mint

 In a large, heavy-bottom pot, heat 2 tablespoons margarine or butter and 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Cook the chopped onion and the garlic clove in the hot oil until the onion is tender and translucent then add the lamb, tossing to coat with the oil and onion bits, and cook until the lamb is browned on all sides. Salt and pepper, add the ras el hanout and saffron powder and toss the lamb to coat. Pour about ½ cup water in the pot and stir up to dissolve the spices and deglaze the bottom of the pot. Add the sweet potato wedges and the juice of the orange, add more water to cover the lamb and potatoes about ¾ the way up. Bring the liquid to a boil, lower to a simmer, cover the pot and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, about 30 minutes or a bit more. The lamb should be cooked through and tender. Add the dates, simmer an additional 10 to 15 minutes, stir the chopped mint into the tagine and add a couple tablespoons of slivered almonds if you like. Serve hot.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Black

Black caviar

Little Black Dress

 My friend once dreamed of a black garden, black velvet woven through the green foliage. She planted roses and tulips, irises and dahlias in shades of black the color of eggplants, aubergines of a violet so deep and dark they shimmer like caviar, the color of licorice whips and black pudding, boudin noir. Spring, summer and well into autumn, she waded in black until black flowers turned the color of rust, drooped and scattered black petals in the dirt.

 Black oreos twisted between palms to reveal pristine white cream, sugary sweet, teeth scraped across the surface, licked clean leaving only the black, black cookies to eat. Leaving clumps of black stuck to one's teeth. Black radishes, the surface much like the soil in which they grow, a dusty, rough black, thinly sliced to reveal white, pure creamy white. Black and white like panda bears or Boston Terriers. Sushi, maki rolls dressed in elegant, slick black sliced through to reveal white. Rice. Black encasing white hiding glistening pink and velvety green. Licorice whips; my father loved the black while I would only eat the red, strawberry red, the black much too bitter for me. Good & Plenty fooled me, played a dirty trick over and over again, pretty pink and white candy shells but once bitten through revealing bitter black. Spit it out.

 Black is for death, for farewell, dress in black for a funeral. Black is elegance and sophistication, little black dress for a party. Black beans, rough and ready; black chocolate sinful, the devil (devil's food cake) sparring with our angelic self. Black Forest. Black eye; I'd rather fight than switch.

Black eggplant

Black as Coal

 Early morning. I force myself out of bed, pushing back a jumble of sheets and blankets, loath to leave a cocoon of warmth, feeling blindly around in the dark for clothing, struggling into my robe and slippers. It is pitch dark outside, pitch black, black as sin.

 I stumble into the kitchen and put the water on, scooping coffee into the filter, setting two places for breakfast. I pull back the white curtains and peer out into the starless black. Tree branches stretch their naked ebony arms across the sky like black pencil drawings on black construction paper, deepening the black. What time is it? It seems like the middle of the night, the wee hours of the morning, the witching hour, the sky the color of ink, shoe polish, licorice. A winter morning.

 Black coffee. Espresso.

Black olives

Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie

 It was a splendid September day, certainly not a day for sitting inside, even with the windows thrown open to the blue skies and warm breeze. This was not a day for work, for burying oneself under a pile of papers and a heap of ideas. This was a day for heading out of town, into the country for a walk and a bit of sunshine and fresh air, for liberating body and soul. Black moods cleared, black moods scattered to the winds.

 We drove out of town, circled around and around, somewhat lost, finding ourselves in a secluded spot. The car pulled over to the side of the road, we hiked along the shoulder until we found a dirt path pushing into the trees and we, sense of adventure in hand, followed where it led. Trees and wild turned into farmland, cows grazing placidly behind crude wooden fences and on we pushed. An unexpected hot wind was blowing against us as we found ourselves deep in pastureland, wading ankle deep in dry, prickly grass and sharp, angry flora. And still we walked on. And were rewarded for our effort.

 Coming to the edge of the fields, as far as we could go, discovering a narrow, deep stream edged with thorny bushes thick with leaves. Suddenly he yelped with pleasure and called to me, pointing at great, fat blackberries clinging to the branches in bunches, blackberries ripe and sweet from the heat and sun. Wild blackberries larger, plumper, less savage somehow than those we would find growing along the paths that splayed out from the village where my in-laws, his parents lived, stumpy, hard littles blackberries they were. These were beauties, black pearls flashing in the light.

 Blackberries nestled in the branches as far as the eye could see, miles, it seemed, of blackberry bushes lining the pasture on three sides. But, he chided as I ogled the beautiful berries hungrily, we have nothing to collect them in. Ah, but we do! I exclaimed laughingly as I dug in my backpack, pulling out a large plastic bag and dumping out the snacks I had carried along for the trek and waving it at him triumphantly. And we spent the rest of the afternoon deep in those blackberry bushes, oblivious to the thorns, pulling off blackberries and filling the sack. Fingers and tongue long stained black.

 Blackberries for a pie.

Black squid and ink

Black & White

 Who sees the world in black and white? Bright as day, white light. Dark as night. Stars speckling the inky black, the furtive movement of trees, rustling of leaves in the night wind, black on black.

 Black and white, scattered photographs, black dissolving to grey, white smudged like a blur of pencil lead on paper, newsprint on fingertips. Black and white, images of my childhood, shadowy memories, clouded souvenirs. A dusting of ashes on white sheets. A vain attempt to remember yet conflicting recollections, confused interpretations, nothing is black and white.

 Black coffee and dark chocolate cookies leave stains on white paper, a notebook in which I record my thoughts, capture ideas in black and white, scribble down recipes, measurements jotted down in black. Or blue. Splotches of coffee leaving puckered spots of black. Intertwining, interlocking rings of black like Spirograph shapes done by a kid in pencil, round and round. Crumbs dabbled across the page, black on white, snow in reverse. Trudging black footprints across white carpets, patterned on white tiles.

Black recipe-2

One of my projects that never really takes off is to recreate the octopus meatballs, polpettine di polpo, that we had years ago in a seafood restaurant in Galipoli in Apulia. The whole family remembers them and maybe that is why I haven't gotten around to make a serious attempt; I know that the memory and the expectations will never forgive my efforts. So I have to content myself with spaghetti with squid ragu but I have no problems with that because it is such a nice treat! 

ILVA'S PASTA WITH SQUID RAGÚ
4 servings

400 g/ 0,9 lb pasta, I used black squid ink pasta
400 g/0,9 lb fresh or frozen squid, cleaned
2 ripe tomatoes
1 clove of garlic
1+1 tbs finely chopped parsley
pinch of chili pepper flakes
salt
extra-virgin olive oil

   Chop the tomatoes finely; I often use a mandolin with the julienne part which is a very quick and easy way to chop them. Heat up some olive oil with chili flakes and parsley in a wide pan or a skillet and simmer it for a minute or two before you add the tomatoes. Leave to cook for about 5 minutes.

    Meanwhile, finely slice and then chop the squid, reserving all liquid you can then adding it to the tomatoes; do not throw it away because it adds to the flavour. When the tomatoes have been reduced a bit, add the squid, taste for salt and leave it to simmer for another 10-15 minutes.

   You have obviously cooked the pasta simultaneously so when the squid ragú is ready you drain the pasta and toss it in the pan and serve it straight away!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Cut

The Cut

Mrs. White in the Kitchen with the Knife

 Just a tiny nick, a slice, a cut. One drop and two, a bead pearling on white porcelain, a droplet of red.

 A rush of cool water, a swirl of red, beet red, cherry red, pomegranate.

 Serrated, butcher, paring, cleaver, anyway you slice it; cut against the grain.

 Cut flowers fresh from the garden, yellow roses, pink roses, fat hydrangeas, slender tulips. Herbs freshly cut from the garden, snipped, pinched, clipped. Cut short because of rain.

Cut knife

"The problem with sharing recipes," my husband pointed out, his voice so thick with annoyance one could cut it with a knife, "is that the cuts of meat are not the same. An animal is not divided into cuts of meat in France as it is in the States. And even when the cut is the same, it isn't necessarily called the same name; the name may refer to one cut here and another there."

 He often creates the savory recipes for my blog, the stews, the sauces and the tagines, for he is a better cook than I, a cut above the rest. We are definitely not cut from the same cloth: he cooks and I bake, he ad libs with inscrutable abandon and I follow directions with a scientific scrutiny. He knows his cuts of beef, la queue, l'entrecôte, rumsteak, gîte, onglet, macreuse. Yet I, on the other hand, know my lamb, épaule, gigot, selle, aficionado, lamb lover that I am. And even as he is still better able to handle a cut of meat, be it beef or lamb, rabbit or chicken, so much better than I, neither of us could elucidate, decipher the mystery of the equivalent cut across the pond.

 I follow him around the kitchen, pen and paper in hand, scribbling down his recipe as he cuts and chops and trims and dices, as he does his chefly thing so handily, I tossing questions at him as quickly as he tosses things in a pot on the stove, which he answers, chop chop. Until I get to what cut of meat. Cut off at the pass.

 Vive le French butcher! The French butcher is notoriously knowledgeable about what he or she is selling, a veritable Larousse Gastronomique of cooking times, choice selections, etc. Have a recipe or a craving? They’ll suggest the ideal cut of meat for a particular dish you are yearning to make. Or see a particularly splendid cut in the chilled case, simply point and ask and the butcher will explain how to best prepare it, offering oven temperature and cooking time for that particular cut. No hemming and hawing, no dithering around, that butcher will cut to the chase, offering you his or her own personal recipe for that cut, a dish that will certainly cut the mustard.

cur zest

 I've cut many things in my life.

 I've cut velvet, lace and ribbon, craft and construction paper in shades of red and pink, for so many valentines, years and years of valentines yet it cut me to the heart when such care, my sentiments, those cut-out hearts were not returned. I've cut out snowflakes in white, silhouettes in black.

 I've cut yards and yards, thousands of yards, swathes of fabric during my years as a milliner. Always on the cutting edge of fashion.

 I've cut classes, oh very few but I did, cut classes (most notably the day my girlfriend and I wanted to spend a day watching soap operas). Never a cutthroat student was I.

 I've cut in line (Oh, cut it out! Don't look at me with that judgmental, withering stare. It won't cut any ice with me, for I know you have cut in line, too.)

 I've cut corners. Of course, who doesn't?

 I've cut a fine figure in my day, or I hope I have.

 I once had a pixie cut. Didn't we all?

 I've slipped a slender paper knife in between envelope and flap and cut, carefully. Billet doux. Love letter. I've slipped a slender paper knife in between the pages of a book, separating one leaf from the next. Uncut cut.

 Paper cut.

 I've cut back on sugar and fat, cookies and cake, bread and cheese. And wine. I've cut back and cut out but never for long. Cut me another slice of pizza.

 And I've cut up meat and veg into tiny mouthfuls for my little boys. I've cut up piles of fruit into salad for a little boy who ate nothing but. I've cut slices of cake and I've cut brownies into wedges for those boys. I've cut grilled cheese sandwiches on the diagonal and peanut butter sandwiches into squares. I've cut out holiday cookies for my boys, stars, menorahs, dreidls and reindeer, Santas and fir trees. Dusted liberally, festively with gaily-colored sprinkles and sugar. I've cut teeny tiny finger and toenails, I've cut their hair and not always with the best results.

 I once had a boyfriend who cut off the top of the bottle of Champagne, neck up, with a sword.

cut cookies

 I love to cut. Not chop, not dice. Cut. Long, narrow tubes of maki, knife pressing down through shimmering, pearlescent black nori, cutting through sticky rice and salmon and avocado. Long, plump cylinders of dough rolled around buttery, sugary, cinnamony filling or a jelly roll, a cake roll, a bûche de noël, an eddy of genoise or sponge and fruit or whipped cream cut into even rounds, even thicknesses. Sharp knife perfectly perpendicular to the table, to the roll, and press. Cut.

cut star


 To cut a long story short, these are the best cut out cookies ever, sweet but much less cloyingly sweet than your other butter cookies, the perfect balance of dense and tender, buttery and wonderful. The dough is so easy to handle, roll and cut out, and as long as you are careful when rolling that the dough is of even, uniform thickness, they bake up the dream. And are the perfect base for decorating. Once you try this recipe, you'll be looking forward to your holiday baking. These cut out cookies are really cut above the rest!

JAMIE'S HOLIDAY CUT OUT BUTTER COOKIES

16 Tbs (225 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
2 large eggs
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbs Amaretto, optional
½ tsp vanilla – use 1 tsp if omitting the Amaretto
3 ½ cups (525 g) flour

 In a large mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition just to incorporate. Beat in the salt, the Amaretto and vanilla and then about a third of the flour until smooth. Gradually beat in as much of the remaining flour as possible using the electric beater, then stir in the rest with a wooden spoon or a spatula. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. If you haven’t stirred in all of the flour you can knead in the rest quite easily. Once you have a smooth, homogeneous dough, shape into a ball and wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

 Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

 Working with about half the dough at a time, roll it out to a thickness of not less than 1/8-inch (no less than .3 cm), being careful that the dough is very evenly rolled out. Cut out shapes with your cookie cutters. Gently transfer to a cookie sheet (I use unlined, ungreased cookie sheets with no problem at all).

 You can easily decorate the cookies with finely chopped nuts or colored sprinkles by brushing the edges or entire surface of the cookie very lightly with egg wash and then sprinkling with the colored sugar or gently pressing onto the edges.

 Bake the cookies for about 10 minutes. They will be set and appear cooked but they will NOT brown. You’ll know they are done because they will slide right off the cookie sheet when just nudged with a spatula. The underside of the cookies will be a faint golden color. Allow to cool. You can now frost them or drizzle with melted chocolate.


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Monday, November 24, 2014

Dairy



 I love the cow. The cow gives us milk. And butter. And cheese. The cow goes moo.

 An old bowl of sturdy plastic, the words in a never-ending ring around the rim, round and round, letters and childish drawings covering the bowl in bright primary colors, blue, red, green, black. I love the cow. It was once part of a set, the chunky mug cracked and discarded years ago, when our son was still small, and the plate is long stained with the dregs and runoff of so many plant pots that replaced years of childhood meals.

 I love the cow. The cow gives us milk. And butter. And cheese. The cow goes moo. How many thousands, millions of times have we chanted these words as the bowl, the dish and the mug were set in front of one son and then his little brother? Like mealtime grace, we sang these words over and over again as the first spoon or fork was lifted bringing food to an eager (or not so eager) little mouth.
 Our son loved dairy, so this gift of plate, bowl and mug from his grandma was perfect! Yogurt, petit Suisse, milk and ice cream. But cheese! He was eating cheese like the Frenchman that he was since he could request it and before. Papa's pinkie dipped in creamy, tangy goat cheese or nutty Camembert and pushed between son's lips might very well have been his first solid food. The only photo of him I have at the table was when he first began feeding himself and happy eater that he always was you can bet his face was beaming, a grin from ear to ear. And that photo? Spoon clutched in his fist and fruity yogurt smeared ear to ear.

 He's all grown up now and still ends most meals with a chunk or three of cheese and an ice cream. But the mug is long gone and the plate is now a stand for a planter but the bowl, which passed from one so to second son, is now on the ground, sitting on a mat placed on the floor of the back room and filled with dog kibble. From one son to second son to pup goes the cow. And the dog loves dairy, too, although he was only offered little cubes of cheese when he was small. For the calcium so his ears would stand up and his little front paws would straighten.


Dear Dairy,

 It's common knowledge (it is!) that my mother's side of the family adore ice cream. Adore ice cream? They would live on ice cream if they could and I know that once 80 comes and goes, the diet almost exclusively consists of ice cream. But my father loved ice cream, too. The freezer never lacked for ice cream, large gallon rectangles in one, two, three flavors nestled in the sub-zero mist next to a tub of non-dairy whipped topping. And dad would indulge most every night. My father had a monumental sweet tooth and it was often let loose on a bowl of ice cream.

 He loved Dairy Queen. He would pack his brood of children into the station wagon and treat us all to a chocolate-dipped soft serve cone, picking up a box of Dilly Bars, chocolate-dipped vanilla ice cream on a stick (round rather than the more ordinary rectangle), his favorite of them all, to bring home and keep in the freezer.

 Dad loved Dairy Queen although he never called it that. For some odd reason we never understood he always referred to it as Dairy Dip and we kids laughed and laughed and teased him about it forever.

 Many long years after dad passed away, so did the Dairy Queen, his Dairy Dip, passing away into memory as the building and every trace of it disappeared. But those memories, of dad eating Dairy Queen and laughing, quiet, loving man.


You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.

 I grew up on the fringe of kosher. My parents, both raised in strictly kosher homes, were rather lax by the time they moved to and settled in Florida with three kids in tow. But meals at the synagogue, Bar Mitzvah buffets, snacks after Sabbath services, food for the kids during High Holiday Services, picnics and carnivals, the kitchen itself, were rigorously kosher, saw a stricter than strict division of dairy and meat.

 And holidays meals at the Rosenberg's, whether Thanksgiving or Passover, were kosher, dairy and meat separated.

 Rules relaxed, my parents nonetheless habituated us to some kind of separation of dairy and meat. We never drank milk with a meat meal, for example, and we still don't. But butter and sour cream on the mashed potato that accompanied a steak gradually snuck in. Parmesan cheese sprinkled atop spaghetti and meatballs. Moussaka with both lamb and milky béchamel.

 But dairy and meat never the twain shall meat, could never be served at the same meal when grandpa visited. "Do NOT ask for butter for your baked potato tonight!" my mother hissed her warning to us during grandpa's visit one summer. Dairy does not mix with meat!

 And thus I learned the existence of non-dairy whipped topping and non-dairy creamer for coffee.


 Dairy cows lined up in their stalls, lowing placidly, rhythmically ruminating, seemingly content even as the temperature dipped, even as the afternoon glided into evening misty and damp. Dairy cows in the barn pressed up close to the old stone house. We were living in Italy and decided to take the boys away for a weekend and found ourselves at a gîte ensconced deep in the Tuscan countryside. We were staying in the humble abode of a window and her three sons who together ran the family farm, humble in itself, an old stone structure connected to the barn, the old fashioned way of life. Dairy cows and humans keeping each other warm throughout the bitter winter.

 Nights, we huddled together in one room in an addition along the side of the family's home, falling asleep to the rhythm of the chatting of our own teeth and the lovely music of silence, the stillness of the country. Days, we would bundle up in layers of sweaters, scarves and coats, slip on rubber boots and take our little boys out to roam, an adventure, discovering the beasts of the farm and the culinary gems hidden in trees surrounding the farmland, mushrooms and chestnuts and such. Mealtimes, we would join the family in the kitchen at the long farm table, room enough for the four of us, the mother and her sons, smelling of the barn, straw clinging to sweaters, faces weather beaten and sun browned, hands rough, rugged from farm work.

 Mornings, we would be served milk fresh from the cows. Mamma would pass into the barn and return with the milk, which she would then boil before pouring into bowls, one for each of us. Glasses of farm fresh milk direct from the dairy cows.

 Italy, latticini. Fresh mozzarella and great wheels of Parmeson (cut before our very eyes at our favorite cheese counter), creamy taleggio and gorgonzola (like no French bleu), often layered oh-so decadently, richly with mascarpone, almost dessert. And gelato. Oh gelato (like no ice cream anywhere!).


I have been interested in butter making since I was a child; one of my aunts used to make it on her farm and I would watch her sit in the kitchen working the wooden churn. I eventually discovered that you could do it in a more modern way the time my brother was a little too ambitious with the electric whisk and managed to make butter out of the cream he was whipping. My mother wasn't as enthusiastic as I was as it was Sunday and that was the cream that was supposed to go on the Sunday dinner dessert. Making butter at home is really easy and the butter is sooo good, sweet and buttery. I prefer to make fresh, unfermented butter because it has such a pure flavour. And making butter also means that you get fresh buttermilk so it is really a winning situation!

ILVA'S BUTTERY BUTTER
makes 400 g/14 ounces

1 litre/4,25 cups fresh cream

   Put the fresh cream in a bowl, be it a normal one or the one of a stand mixer which is what I used. (You can use an electrical whisk, whisk by hand or even put the cream in a bottle with something inside it and then shake shake shake.) Whisk until the cream has separated into butter and buttermilk, it takes some time but that obviously depends on how fast you whisk.

   Drain the buttermilk into another bowl (don't throw it away, use it for a cake or something) and put the butter part in another. Now it is time to rinse the butter of all the buttermilk so that it will keep better, I take smaller pieces of the butter and work it with my hands under cold, running water. When you have rinsed all the butter, make a ball of it and and press it until no more water comes out of it. I recommend chilling your hands under very cold water now and then because the butter melts easily.

   Now put the butter into an airtight container and if you don't want to use it all in one go, you can always freeze it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Wet

wet salad

Wet Behind the Ears

 I arrived in France thirty years ago, the decision to leave one life behind and begin a new one impulsive, impetuous. Unprepared, my ideas of Paris, of the country and the culture, were formulated from images in a tattered old high school French textbook, an American fantasy of a culture idealized, idolized. I was wet behind the ears.

 French food, I imagined, was refined, fancy and fussy, too expensive for the likes of me. High end dining, white tablecloths and starched waiters serving tiny portions elegantly dressed upon the plate; or pristine shops serving up creamy white rounds of cheese or tender slices of meat the color of rubies next to the tiny ceramic forms filled with gratinéed scallops or mousse de foie gras, and golden, crispy-skinned roasted chickens, only for the privileged. And pastry shops! Layer upon delicate layer of flakey pastry, unctuous creams, clouds of meringue, paper-thin slices of fruit. Complicated, sophisticated, rich.

 But once I got my feet wet, I saw the fundamentally frugal, humble homey cuisine of the French, the hearty stews and simple desserts. And I finally felt at home.

wet whet

Wet Blanket

 The weather outside is frightful… They talk about April showers but no one mentions November storms. March might come in like a lion but November comes in like a wet dog. Autumn arrives on a blast of cold air, ushered in with rain and smoky skies the color of tarnished silver. Rooms are dim, radiators click on, sweaters and wooly socks are dug out of drawers and cupboards and slipped on, and we begin yearning for soup.

 Blustery, sodden days, wet, wet and more wet, seasonal dishes heavy with potatoes, sweet with pumpkin, dripping with rich sauces are needed to ward off the chill, heat up our bodies and fire up our souls. Stew pots simmering, soups in the making, bubbling up to leave wet splotches on the stovetop, steaming up windows drizzling trickles of condensation.

 As the month inches along and the holidays approach, the dazzling glow of sunshine, bright fall days, are interspersed with the gray and damp. We bundle up in gaily colored sweaters to protect ourselves against the joyful, dizzy drop of temperatures as we head outside to enjoy the crunch of the golden and red foliage underfoot quickly, quickly before it melts into matted, sticky swathes of dead leaves lying like a wet, old forgotten scarf in the gutter and a disagreeable wet rawness seeps in underneath our clothes, into our homes, chilling us to the bone.

 I warm my hands over the steam coming up from a saucepan, lean into the heat coming from the oven. Scents of lamb and carrots intermingle with cinnamon and chocolate; my counter is piled high with citrus and we jostle for the first bite of the bakery-warm baguette. There is some compensation for these wet, wet autumn days.

wet ice

Wet Your Whistle

 I don't know from a wet or dry martini; I've never considered whether a dry rub or a wet marinade is the better thing, thinking, as I do, that both are delicious and have their place in my kitchen. Wet curry or dry? Is the opposite of a dry wine a wet wine? The Great Northwest is wet, the Middle East is dry. But really, all I consider is risotto and sometimes rice pudding.

 Wet or dry? Tender or al dente? Creamy or sticky? Wet or dry.

 Definitely wet. I learned the art of risotto from Nonna Anna, our neighbor, our sons' adopted grandmother, while living in Italy. She cooked for an army, her brood of sons and daughters, grandkids and us and we were so lucky to join them for family meals. I watched her every movement carefully, I observed her choice of ingredients, creating scrumptious meals out of so little. And her risotto. Stirred and stirred, simmered until smooth and creamy, the grains of rice meltingly tender, the whole just wet enough until velvety and lush.

 I learned my lesson and adapted it to my husband's favorite treat, his childhood comfort food, riz au lait. The French version of simple, wholesome rice pudding. Stir and stir making sure the rice, which has been abundantly rinsed (wet rice seems to stick to everything, picking grains off of my fingers, grains sticking to my skin) and pre-boiled for three minutes, is wetter than wet, stir and stir until the milk has been absorbed, or just about, the rice smooth and delicate with barely a bite. Nursery food with body.

 W(het) your appetite.

wet brussels sprouts

Mad as a Wet Hen

 Wet ingredients whisked into dry; dry ingredients folded into wet. Is meringue considered wet? Green, leafy vegetables? I don't always suffer the patience it requires and end up with lumps or worse, the makings of a cake splattered across the counter, spattered up the wall, leaving muddy splotches on the paper which is not quite as washable as they claim.

 Patience has never been my strong suit. When I am in the mood to bake but not quite, when my son requests a dessert or a treat to share with his friends or fulfill his own craving, I turn to a faithful, foolproof recipe for a marvelous one-bowl cake. One bowl. But careful, careful wet to be stirred into dry. All the wet goes into a measuring cup, all the dry in a bowl and if I work too quickly… well, you know what happens.

 A wet meal. Hot chicken soup (with a tender matzo ball or three) or a scalding cup of tea with dry toast, meals for the sick. Or comfort food. A bowl of oatmeal wet with milk and a pat of butter melting into a wet puddle of gold in the center of the heap of steaming oatmeal. Spaghetti tossed with lots of red sauce, too much red sauce, wet with sauce, enough sauce left in the bowl to dunk in chunks of bread, sopping up the wet.

JAMIE'S LEMON CITRUS POULTRY CHICKEN_  I made and served this luscious, flavorful chicken dish for my wedding lunch, so it has a very special place in my repertoire above and beyond the fact that it is easy to make and so delicious, a dish that pleases everyone. The (wet) marinade – leaving the chicken overnight in lemon juice – not only infuses the meat with a beautiful yet delicate citrus flavor but produces super tender chicken. 

JAMIE'S LEMON CHICKEN

 This recipe can easily be doubled – but only fill up your baking dish with enough chicken stock to come not more than halfway up your chicken pieces.

1 chicken, 2 ½ lbs (1 kg), cut into pieces or the equivalent in favorite pieces
1 cup (250 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup (125 g) or a bit less flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup (60 ml) vegetable oil for frying
1 Tbs grated lemon zest
1/8 cup/1 Tbs light brown sugar
¼ cup (60 ml) chicken stock
1 lemon, sliced paper thin

 Clean the chicken pieces and dab them dry with paper towels. Place them with the freshly squeezed lemon juice in a bowl or recipient just large enough to hold them comfortably. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and put them in the refrigerator to marinate overnight, turning occasionally.

 Drain the chicken pieces well. Put the flour, salt, pepper and paprika in a large bowl or platter and blend thoroughly. Roll each chicken piece in the mixture until well coated. Or, alternately, you can fill a large plastic bag with the flour mixture and, working only a couple of pieces of chicken at a time, shake to coat completely. Shake off excess flour and put aside on a clean, dry plate.

 Heat the oil in a large frying pan or heavy-bottomed Dutch oven. (As I fried my chicken in 2 batches, I heated half the oil at a time.) When the oil is very hot, fry the chicken pieces, a few at a time so as not to overcrowd, on all sides, until well browned and crispy. This may take up to 10 minutes per batch.

 Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

 Arrange the browned chicken pieces in a single layer in a large, shallow baking dish or pan (I prefer glass or terra cotta). Pour the chicken stock around the pieces; the stock should come not more than halfway up the sides of the chicken pieces. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice into the stock (just one good squeeze to add a bit more lemon flavor). Sprinkle the chicken pieces evenly with the brown sugar and the lemon zest. Set a thin slice of lemon on each piece of chicken. Bake for 45 – 50 minutes until cooked through and tender.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Tea


Coffee, Tea or Me?

 I have always been a coffee drinker. Not that it didn't take me quite some time to develop a taste for it, bitter brew that it is. I had grown up enveloped in the mystique of coffee, a drink so very adult, so very sexy, deep and rich and dark. Off limits, taboo. I would breathe in the heady fragrance of my mother's morning coffee, a scent sweeter than it tasted; I would sneak sips of her iced coffee, always in a tall slim glass, ice cubes rattling, always tasting like coffee ice cream, a treat.

 Coffee was the everyday drink, the morning starter, afternoon inspiration, a daily elixir, the beverage served to company at the end of an elegant meal.

 Tea, on the other hand, was only kept on hand for the times that we were sick in bed. Headaches, tummy aches, colds and flu and the teabags were pulled out of the dark place at the back of the cupboard, a pot of water put to boil on the stovetop. Bread was toasted and spread with butter or peanut butter, placed on a tray with that mug of tea (a squirt of golden honey from that plastic bear) and a banana. Drunk and eaten snuggled up in bed.

 Coffee the pleasure, tea the comfort.


Having picked some tea, he drank it,
Then he sprouted wings,
And flew to a fairy mansion,
To escape the emptiness of the world....
- Chiao Jen

 Tiny ceramic cups, thick and round to be cradled in the palm of my hand or fingers wrapped around the bowl for warmth. Tea to be drunk with Chinese food, family gathered round the large table in the dim light, a television set turned on to some game show or other behind the bar and I wonder why, my ears straining to hear the answers to the questions muffled by the talking and the incessant hum of noise.

 Tea always tea with Chinese food, tea slightly tannic and bitter which balanced the complex flavors of the dishes, cut the sweetness of the sauce. The elderly owner, never the waiter, glides silently to the table and circles round refilling our cups with tea several times during the meal. The dishes are passed around and we taste each one, washed down with tea. Fortune cookies cracked, tiny paper fortunes flutter to the table, snatched up and read aloud… or silently Be on the lookout for coming events, they cast their shadows beforehand; The greatest risk is not taking one; Wealth awaits you very soon; A dream you have will come true.

 A final gulp of now tepid tea before the scraping of chairs across the cement floor and leaving the restaurant, fortune clutched in my hand, the astringent taste of the tea leaving a metallic trace on my tongue, the fortune a mysterious desire in my soul.


 Tea is a divine herb. - Xu Guangqi

 Teatime. I belonged to a small group of women who would get together once a week to exchange conversation in French and English with the obvious goal of improving the language that was not our mother tongue. We were four, two French women, one British woman and me, the American. The gathering would meet at teatime before the children were released from school, and we would rotate homes, each hosting the conversation once a month.

 As hostess of the week, we would serve up hot drinks and teatime treats, cookies or delicate little teacakes, home baked or picked up special at the local boulangerie. Indulge.

 And it would go like this: coffee, coffee, tea, coffee. Coffee, coffee, tea, coffee. Two Frenchwomen and the American (me) would freshly brew coffee, place the pot upon the table between the demitasse cups, the sugar bowl and the pitcher of hot milk. The Englishwoman would place a tray upon the coffee table, place scoops of loose tealeaves in the pot to steep in hot water and we would have to wait, be patient which we were not. She would then pour hot milk into each mug one by one followed by tea poured slowing through a tiny little strainer perched atop the mug, explaining to the thirsty three the importance of adding milk to the mug first followed by the tea.

 A mug of milky, watery tea does not hold up to the rich boldness, the lively body of a cup of coffee. Some call tea delicate; to an inveterate coffee drinker like myself it is vapid, uninspiring. Submerge a cookie, a teacake into a mug of tea and it seems to disintegrate upon contact. Or simply becomes waterlogged. Immerse a cookie or teacake into a cup of coffee or café au lait and it soaks up the aroma, is imbibed with the wonderful coffee flavor, enhancing the cake rather than making it disappear.

 In short, I would rather a cup of coffee with a teacake.


Fit to a Tee

 He does, you know, fit me to a tee. Tee-shirts and jeans and canvas sneakers in pink or aubergine or cherry red, snuggled up together on the sofa watching a film and sipping red fruit tea with just a splash of milk and half a cube of sugar.

 Tea for Two.

Love and scandal are the best sweetners of tea. - Henry Fielding, "Love in Several Masques," 1727 

Do Re Me Fa So La Ti A Drink with Jam and Bread. A miniature white porcelain coffee cup, rather cheap, the kind espresso is served in, bitter and strong, in every café and bar across France instead used for gentle portions of tea served just before bedtime. For the promise of a peaceful night's sleep, sweet dreams. A ritual in so many French homes, my in-law's, and friends' far and wide after a humble, homey meal or following an elegant, sumptuous dinner, always a tasse de thé, a cup of tea. So very British? So very French.


I, on the other hand, am a tea lover and I drink buckets of it every day; my life would be empty without it. Tea takes you to so many different places: China, India, Japan, Africa, Himalaya; they all sound so exotic and I'm forever grateful for being able to travel with my cup in hand. 

ILVA'S CHAI TEA
1 big cup or 2 smaller

300 ml / 10 1/2 fl oz water
200 ml / 7 1/4 fl oz milk
2 1/2 tsp loose-leaf Indian tea
6 cardamom pods
6 cloves
6 black pepper corns
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 piece of fresh ginger of the size of a lump of sugar
1-1 1/2 tblsp brown sugar

   Crush the spices and the peeled ginger slightly so that the flavours have a chance of dissolving when simmering.

   Put them in a small pan together with the tea leaves, add the water and the milk and leave it to simmer for 30 minutes.

   Strain the tea and the spices, add sugar and enjoy it hot!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Bake


Pat-a -cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can!

 My father loved to bake. Cakes, pies and pastries and although much came from a mix, his passion for the art of baking was evident in each precise gesture, the intense focus and concentration with which he baked. He certainly transmitted the passion, the desire to bake to his daughter. Yes, yes, of course I have a sweet tooth and that does help but the act of baking, the rhythmic, sensual movements, the magical transformation of single, separate ingredients into something so delicious mesmerized me, captured my imagination and I wanted to be able to do the same.

 And my father loved to bake because he was a generous soul. He carried cakes to meetings and events, he baked for bingo at the synagogue and Friday nights for after Shabbat services. He baked for his family, Thanksgiving pies and Sunday morning pancakes. He baked because it made others happy. This could not but fill me with the same desire, bake to please, bake to delight, bake to spread warmth and cheer. He taught me the lesson that a slice of cake made the world a better place.

 Yet my first baking project was catastrophic. A simple recipe it was, for cranberry muffins. I was all of ten years old and had already seen these muffins baked somewhere, in Girl Scouts or Home Ec. I hurried home excitedly, anxious to bake these gems for my family and proud I was. My very first from-scratch, home-baked good. Yet. Three tablespoons of Crisco, that shimmering, slippery white goo, mysteriously transformed into three cups and although I wondered, I suspected that all was not quite right I forged ahead, putting my confusion down to inexperience. The recipe must be right and that is what I read. Three cups Crisco for a mere dozen muffins. But I wanted to bake.

 And what came out of the oven? One dozen red-dotted muffin tops each floating on a sea of melted Crisco. I was shocked and traumatized. I never wanted to bake again. It took a bit of humor and gentle encouragement on behalf of an older brother to bring me back to the task, to want to bake again. Once we understood (and laughed about) my error, I did bake those muffins a second time. To untold success.

 I now bake those cranberry muffins (albeit without Crisco) every single winter to the joy of my family and friends.


The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker

 I bake, my husband cooks. The perfect marriage. He follows no recipe, I am utterly lost without directions jotted down. He ad-libs as he goes, cooking au pif, as the French call it, by the nose, by instinct, from selection of ingredients to spicing and seasoning. He markets with no forethought, no dish decided, just perusing the stalls, basket in hand, looking for whatever is freshest, seasonal, local, gathering them up and carrying them home. He dumps his harvest on the counter and only then decides what best to cook.

 I, on the other hand, panic if I have no list in hand, no idea prepared as to what dish I will make. I must have well made plans even before heading to the market. When I bake, the precision and exactitude of the performance, the science of baking, comforts and infuses my soul with confidence, even if it is I who has developed the recipe. To bake is to concoct along a precise set of rules, to bake, to measure, to weigh, to stir or whisk or beat, to steep or simmer or scald or boil, to bake or poach or griddle or toast. To ferment and rise, to nurture and gently coddle, to pamper and fold just so, just to blend. I feel like a mad scientist, a doctor curing the woes of the world with my concoctions; I feel the satisfaction of working through one measurement, one step at a time and crossing it off of my list. My husband has no such patience, no such desire to follow the rules when in the kitchen. That exactitude of baking only holds his creativity, his spontaneity back. And he ruins every thing he touches. He couldn't bake a loaf of bread or a tray of cookies to save a sinking ship.

 Lucky us for finding each other. Although this discord, the difference of styles may wreak a bit of havoc when we find ourselves side by side in the kitchen, it certainly makes for an interesting, a well-balanced marriage.

 I bake and he cooks. His stews and tagines, sauces and soups accompanied by my breads or muffins, followed by my cakes and pies. I bake and he cooks, savory and sweet, a tasty matrimony, a complete meal.


Half-Baked

 He once called what I do baking therapy. At first, he saw it as an obsession, my passion to bake. Just a crazy woman who needed to knead, had a compulsion to bake. My hands in flour, sifting cocoa, scooping sugar, chopping chocolate were seen as an unnecessary occupation bordering on the neurotic. Nothing to do? Bake! Or worse. An insecure woman (force) feeding sweet confections to her family in exchange for love and consideration, attention craved and nourished with baked goods. Half-baked.

 But then as he watched me bake, throughout the years, he realized that the urge was somehow deeper than that. When I bake…. the movements, the slow, peaceful, rhythmic movements, or the quick, vigorous motions, the scents of chocolate and yeast, cinnamon and apple enveloping me as I bask in the warmth of the oven, as the steam of something caramelizing or melting swirls around my head… fill me with peace and a quiet joy. An escape from the everyday. A zen-like happiness. Beating eggs or butter and sugar zealously, or gently, lovingly folding sugar and almond meal into clouds of meringue or whiskey and grated chocolate into froths of whipped cream, dumping scoops of dough or piping mounds of macaron batter or long, slim snakes of ladyfinger or choux paste onto baking trays, whacking bread dough against a block of wood, calms and centers me, eliminates stress and anger and I breathe more easily, my heart rate slows to tranquil. And then the very act of writing about it, sharing my stories about what I bake is better than hours on the sofa of some anonymous office sharing my innermost secrets to a therapist.

 And when I am happy, he is happy. And, more importantly, when mama is happy, everybody is happy.

 And he sings:

 Mieux encore que dans la chambre j't'aime dans la cuisine 
 Rien n'est plus beau que les mains d'une femme dans la farine

 (Better than in the bedroom, I love you in the kitchen 
  Nothing is more beautiful than a woman's hands in flour…)


 We always have Madeleines in the house, whether store bought or homemade, maybe because the French eat them like Americans eat cookies. I bake Madeleines often, both savory and sweet, and try and change the flavorings each time; they are such a great little treat because the variations are endless once you have a base recipe and it always works the charm. Madeleines are perfect for breakfast, snack time or cocktail/wine hour. With all of the flavors I have tried, my husband really does prefer these simple vanilla Madeleines, although the addition of browned butter and honey makes them anything but ordinary. 

JAMIE'S HONEY VANILLA MADELEINES

This recipe makes about 60 mini-Madeleines (1 ¾ - inch / 4 ½ cm at their longest point) or 24 regular Madeleines

9 ½ Tbs (135 g) unsalted butter
2 large eggs
½ cup less 1 tsp (85 g) granulated sugar
1 Tbs (30 g) liquid/runny honey
Scant ¼ cup (40 ml) milk
1 cup (135 g) flour *
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract

* the flour, baking powder and salt can be replaced with 1 cup (135 g) self-rising cake flour

 Prepare the Madeleine batter the night before baking:

 Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Continue heating until the butter turns a dark hazelnut brown color and smells nutty. Remove from the heat and allow to come to room temperature.

 Whisk together the eggs, sugar, honey and the milk n a large mixing bowl. Using a small, thin-bladed, sharp knife, split the vanilla pod down the center and scrape out all of the seeds. Add the seeds to the egg mixture, or add the vanilla. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt (or the self-rising flour) onto the batter and whisk to blend. Whisk in the melted brown butter: try not to add the dark dregs that have settled to the bottom of the pan. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.

 The following day Preheat the oven to 410°F (210°C). Lightly butter the shell-shaped cavities of a mini-Madeleine mold (the easiest way to do this is using a pastry brush and either softened or melted butter).

 The chilled batter will be thick and easy to work with: simply place about half a teaspoon (if using bigger molds, simply fill each shell no more than three-quarters full) in each shell cavity. Place the Madeleine tin directly on the oven rack and bake for about 8 minutes. Do not overbake the Madeleines or they will be dry: take them out when puffed up and the center forms a large bump, the edges are golden but the center is still pale. Once out of the oven, very gently lift the Madeleines from the molds using a knife and place on a rack to cool.