A mother-daughter conversation on food and cooking (mostly)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Southwestern food

I wish I could eat some Patagonia tamales! Last Christmas I made green chile and pork tamales and froze a bunch; if I have time at New Year's, I may do the same thing.

It's been a Southwestern cooking frenzy here for the past 24 hours. We had huevos rancheros for Christmas brunch. I made a surprisingly good recipeless salsa using broiled tomatillos, a few soaked New Mexican red chiles, a can of diced tomatoes, half an onion, cilantro, garlic, and lemon juice from Lawson's very bitter Meyer lemon tree. My egg-frying skills mysteriously abandoned me, but salsa is good for covering up messes like that. We had some excellent pineapple on the side.

Then, because the border foods cookbook you gave me is so inspiring and because Lawson gave me a tortilla press for Christmas, I made red chile sauce and homemade corn tortillas and assembled some stacked New Mexican sour cream enchiladas for dinner. We ate them with Anasazi beans (my last bag). The tortillas were not quite thin enough, but that was fine for stacked enchiladas. They had wonderful corn flavor.

For lunch today I made some flour tortillas, and we ate them with melted cheese and the rest of the salsa.

I love a lot of things about that Peyton cookbook, but I especially like that he confirms many of my own cooking methods. I never presoak beans, and he says most cooks he interviewed don't either. I always use the blender to puree soaked red chiles for enchilada sauce, so there are tiny flecks of chile skin in my sauces; I tried a food mill once, and it was messy and inconvenient. The book says my way is standard home technique. I use olive oil to make the roux for red chile sauce, something you taught me, and that's what he recommends as a substitute for lard in that particular instance (not all -- he says tamales require lard, and I agree). I never realized how New Mexican my cooking is -- I always figured I'd just adapted and bastardized things, but actually my red chile sauce recipe is completely identical to his.

I also like how well he describes the profound craving for Mexican food that he experienced when he moved overseas -- some need for the combination of chiles, corn, and cheese that no other cuisine can match. I felt much the same thing when I moved out to South Carolina, and it's only in my own kitchen that I can satisfy it. In no restaurant outside of New Mexico can you get proper New Mexican enchiladas.

Tonight I'm going to use my beautiful new Le Creuset casserole. The Peyton book has a recipe for rabbit stewed in red chile sauce; I think I'll use chicken parts.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Annual Tamale Hunt

I was bored with the turkey idea after Thanksgiving this year. Often we have had turkey at both holidays, but this time I couldn’t get excited about it.

So tonight we’re having a variation of the traditional Scandinavian Christmas Eve supper of lutefisk and Swedish meatballs. I’m making a dish called Capilotade--salt cod stewed with red vermouth and onions--which is traditional on Christmas Eve in Nice and Provence. We are keeping the meatballs (otherwise I think Dad might revolt), and Grandma Oty’s plum pudding.

Tomorrow it’s tamales! We had our usual struggle to extract the tamales from the Catholic church in Patagonia. After many confirming phone calls we drove down there last Tuesday, and the office and church were locked up tight. The waitress at Santos Restaurant made several calls on our behalf, but couldn’t rouse a soul. We found a message from the priest when we got home empty-handed, saying the secretary had been sick. Dad drove down again on Thursday and mostly succeeded: that is, he paid for three dozen but only got 30 tamales.

Now, I know we could buy tamales right here in Tucson, or even make them, but this is sport, like hunting or fishing. By the way, it snowed hard on us returning from Patagonia, reminding me of the time we took Lawson and you there last year.

I’m concluding the Mexican Christmas Day feast with mince pie. I bought jars of mincemeat from England this year, and doctored them in my customary way with chopped apple, raisins, and rum. I continued Dad’s family tradition of making a pie vent in the shape of “M” for Moore.

Friday, December 22, 2006


This week I've eaten all my meals at work, and aside from the general camaraderie of proposal writing, it hasn't been fun. Usually around noon and again around 7 someone will offer to make a run to somewhere like Cracker Barrel or Schlotzsky's, and I will stop working long enough to pull up an online meanu and give them my order (chicken and dumplings with greens and green beans; an Asian wrap; etc.) When the food arrives, we all gather briefly in the conference room and eat quickly, then return to work. I drive home around 9:30 or so, drink a few beers and talk to Lawson, and then go to bed.

I got home at 7 tonight, and I wasn't hungry for dinner, so I sat down and ate the most labor-intensive food there is: a pomegranate. It was slow and messy and there is red juice on my jeans and keyboard, and I feel a thousand times more relaxed and grounded now. Cooking and eating are like meditation when done right.

I imagine you're pretty busy with Christmas preparations. On Christmas Eve I'll be baking gingerbread and a lemon meringue pie for the meal with Lawson's family's. On Christmas I'd like to have huevos rancheros like you always make. It's supposed to rain all day, so that should make it seem a little cheerier and more festive.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Tilapia File

Grandma cooked some tilapia last week and raved about it. She had first bought it in Mazatlan, and Dad had tried it in Saipan where it was fished in lagoons.

So—I bought some. It was firm and nice. I looked in my first fish cookbook: “I avoid this fish and you should, too.” The new white Joy of Cooking: “Poor quality fish.” Not very encouraging, so I did what any rational cook would do in the circumstances, and made a really hot green curry with it. We enjoyed it, although I had the sensation of looking over my shoulder at the likes of Elizabeth David and Irma Rombauer while I ate it. It was as firm as many Mexican snappers and groupers, and did not have the muddy taste I’d been warned of. I’ll experiment again. It’s only about $6 per pound while our beloved swordfish and halibut swim ever higher.

We had dinner at Grandma’s tonight. She made scalloped oysters and Italian scalloped potatoes with garlic, tomato, and onion. I made sweet and sour leeks and lemon curd bars. The lemon bars are somewhat like last week’s Classic Lemon Bars, but with a thicker pie-like lemon custard layer. You can find them in the new Joy of Cooking.

I was feeling sorry about your not being able to cook this week because of your hellish work schedule, and musing about why it’s so important. First, it’s a positive use of energy, the polar opposite of sitting in front of the television eating a doughnut or a frozen dinner, which is negative piled upon negative. We have to eat, so why not make it an adventure, healthy, intellectually satisfying? For me it’s such an important creative outlet. I absolutely get a buzz from making the best possible meal with what I have on hand. And don’t forget Grandma’s maxim: “Cooking is a way to show someone that you love them.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bad Cooking

I made dinner last night for the first time in almost a week, and it was pretty bad! I had a bunch of broccoli rabe that I needed to use up, and looking through cookbooks and online I found several mentions of a traditional recipe involving broccoli rabe, orecchiette, red chiles, garlic, anchovies, olive oil, and sometimes sausage. And lo, I had all those things, including a small amount of Italian sausage I also needed to use up.

The problem wasn't in the recipe; it was in the execution. I added way too many anchovies and red chiles-- I didn't know such a thing was possible, but the dish was far too salty, and the chiles blocked the other flavors. I think sweet Italian sausage would have been better, too -- broccoli rabe is so intense and bitter that it needed something else for balance. The broccoli rabe soaked up all the anchovy salt and was almost inedibly bitter and salty. I managed to finish off the dish at lunch today, but it was not very good.

Fortunately, I made your lemon bars to go with it, and they were phenomenal. That is a perfect recipe. I used up the last two Meyer lemons you sent, and tried to use one off our sad little indoor tree, but it was large and bitter, not at all sweet.

The proposal I'm helping write at work has gotten huge and scary, and today I found out I might not have any weekends off for the next month -- just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. That means I won't be cooking much. That makes me sad.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Cinnamon Beef Noodles

I've been working on a term paper, so I haven't been cooking for the last five days or so (or doing much of anything besides writing and thinking). But Lawson made his wonderful cinnamon-beef noodles. They are the perfect winter food -- lots of broth, slurpy noodles, thin slices of beef, spinach, and lots of spices. I keep meaning to give you his recipe...it's mostly from a Nina Simonds noodle book, but he makes it in the crock pot:

Saute very briefly (15-30 seconds):

6 green onions, coarsely chopped and smashed
6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
4 big slices fresh ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons sambal
2 cinnamon sticks
a few star anise

Throw the sauteed spices in the crock pot along with:

8-9 cups water
1/2 cup shoyu
2 pounds beef (use fairly lean beef -- it should be a light broth, not greasy)

Cook for 5 to 12 hours in the crockpot or 1.5 hours on the stove. Just before serving, throw the spinach in for ten minutes, and make a batch of noodles -- any kind of Asian or egg noodles will do. Put noodles, meat, spinach, and broth in each bowl. It's best to only add as much spinach and make as many moodles as you plan to eat for that meal, as over time the spinach tends to get slimy and the noodles soak up all the broth.


Italian Cravings

We planned to take Grandma to our favorite Italian restaurant on Sunday night, but it wasn’t open! The yen for Italian food didn’t go away over the weekend, so I tried to make up for it a home. First we sat outside around the chiminea and had a margarita—okay, that’s all Southwestern so far—but when it got dark, we came in for our first course of prosciutto and melon. It’s rare to get a great honeydew melon, but we were lucky. “Monica’s Pride” from Mexico, the label said. There must be something wrong with me, because that label always makes me think of boobs. With it we had whole wheat focaccia with walnuts, sage, and parmesan.

Our main course was chicken breasts stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes; penne with pesto; and broccoli. Dessert was Meyer lemon bars. I have tried to make a lemon tart with this recipe, but the 9x9 Pyrex works better.

Here are Classic Lemon Bars:

1 cup flour
¼ cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
Pinch of salt

1/2 cup butter, cut in cubes

Butter a 9-inch square baking pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Process first four ingredients to mix. Add butter and process until mixture resembles coarse crumbs, then begins to come together into a dough.

Press into baking pan. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until light golden brown. Set aside to cool slightly while making filling.

1 ½ cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon baking powder

3 eggs

3 ½ ounces lemon juice
(7 tablespoons, about 2 large lemons)

Mix dry ingredients and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat eggs at high speed for about 2 minutes. Add dry ingredients, mixing just until combined, and then stir in lemon juice.

Pour over crust and return to oven for about 20 minutes, or until the filling is just set in the center.

You may sprinkle with more powdered sugar before cutting into squares to serve.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Bad Cookbooks

There are some bad cookbooks out there. Grilling cookbooks are probably the worst overall, but tonight I finally made dinner from a Filipino cookbook (whose author shall remain nameless) that I got for Christmas a few years ago. Now, I’ve had excellent Filipino food in Hawaii--especially lumpia, those wonderful little fried taco things served with vinegar and chile sauce—but these recipes were surely written by a non-cook. I suspected it, and I should have trusted my instincts. The pictures were beautiful.

First, there was Fish Adobo, basically poached in garlic, vinegar, and bay leaf. This combination managed to make a mild Mexican snapper taste really fishy. Then a noodle dish very similar to Pad Thai, but inexpertly explained: the snow peas went in the skillet long before the carrots, so they were pretty slimy by the time everything else was done. The only seasonings were salt, pepper, and soy sauce.

Dad liked the meal well enough (that’s the kind of audience a cook needs—ultra-appreciative but not ultra-critical), but I was mad at myself for trusting the cookbook.

On a much happier note, I made Sonoran Enchiladas last night. We had tried them at two Mexican restaurants, and it made me curious. Instead of a corn tortilla, you make a plump masa cake and bake it on a griddle, and then cover with good red chile sauce, cheese, and green onion, and put it in the oven just long enough to melt the cheese. Mmmm.

It dropped below seventy degrees by the cocktail hour tonight, so we fired up our new chiminea.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The 100% Cauliflower Solution

Slice it and roast it! I read this recipe in the Thanksgiving issue of Bon Appetit magazine and, of course, modified it.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut a small head of cauliflower in half and then slice it thinly—less than ½ inch. Place it in a rimmed baking sheet which has been brushed with a little olive oil. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon coarse salt.

Roast for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together:

2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon mustard (Dijon or brown)
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

Drizzle butter mixture over cauliflower and roast about 10 minutes longer. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature.

I confess that I ate about a third of this as soon as it emerged from the oven. I liked it later at room temperature, but Dad said he would have preferred it warm. It was dynamite, though, with the brown edges and lemony flavor. Maybe we could set up a Roasted Cauliflower booth at the state fair, and compete with corn dogs.

Instead of a beautiful picture of my cauliflower dish, I offer a picture of our kitchen after dinner.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Caribbean Pork Chops and Acorn Squash

Sunday night we made grilled porkchops with a mango, basil, and bean salsa. It was good, but the whole meal was kind of ill-planned and untrustworthy. The beans were supposed to be black beans, but we realized too late we were out, so we used blackeyed peas instead, the Southern US being closer geographically to the West Indies than is either the Middle East (garbanzos) or the Mediterranean (cannellini).

The recipe was from a grilling cookbook Lawson gave me for my birthday, and we had to correct several ingredients and amounts. For example, the salsa part of the recipe called for 1/8 teaspoon of chile powder. Why even bother? We added quite a bit more, plus some minced habanero. The recipe called for 1/4 teaspoon of salt, which I more than quadrupled. 1/4 teaspoon of ground cumin was not nearly enough, either. The rub recipe called for granulated garlic, which had to be replaced with fresh...and so on.

Last night Lawson made pantry clam pasta. We have been joking about starting a band called the Pantry Clams.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

The Recipe Proselytizer

Writing this blog has helped me with a personal problem: I’m a hopeless recipe-pusher, insisting that people try things and blabbing about the wonderfulness of various foods and recipes. Right now it’s collard love, a condition I caught from you, sort of like cooties. I’m bringing the side dishes to dinner at Grandma’s tonight, and I am pressing collards upon her. The menu will be beef stew and homemade bread by Grandma, and collard greens and lemon meringue pie by me.

We had turkey broth-based minestrone for dinner last night. We had a late Italian lunch, so that’s all we needed. At lunch I split two dishes with Juliana—stuffed eggplant (grilled, not fried) and a shrimp scampi salad, and Dad had mixed grilled things over polenta. Red wine. Delicious, and we didn’t get much else done that day.

I made one of our favorite breakfasts this morning, Tomato Cheese Toasts, which I think I invented. First, toast a slice of bread; spread with mustard; add a slice of mild cheese, then a tomato slice or two with salt and pepper; and top with sharp cheese, like bleu or parmesan. Broil for five minutes or so, until browned and bubbly. I have a picture here, but it’s not as beautiful as it tastes.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Not Fancy / Fancy

Last night I made a legume-y one-pot meal of the sort I used to make when I lived alone and was a vegetarian: lentils, sauteed carrots and onions, a can of stewed tomatoes, bay leaves, cinnamon, a lemon rind, and cumin seeds. I added some pasta stars at the end to soak up the extra liquid and because I was feeling silly. It had a vague, comforting flavor, unidentifiable as belonging to any particular cuisine but reminiscent of many.

I used to make things like this several times a week before I made any money and had someone else to cook for regularly. My standard 15-minute meal was adapted from a Joy of Cooking recipe: toast cumin seeds, then add oil and saute some sliced garlic and fresh ginger. Add curry powder and whatever vegetable or vegetables are on hand (really, anything -- I've used yellow squash, tomatoes, spinach, chard, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and more, one or two at a time, and with varying degrees of success) and saute that for however long it requires. Add a can of garbanzo beans and water and a bouillon cube or some vegetable stock. Let it cook down for 5 or 10 minutes. Take it off the heat and add some nonfat yogurt with a tablespoon of flour to stabilize it, plus any of the following: chopped fresh chiles, any kind of nuts, and green onions. In grad school this would often be my only meal all day.

I still make that dish sometimes. And it's good to be with someone who appreciates such simple, one-dish, pantry-based meals. Lawson sometimes makes his own single-person standard meal for us, which involves pasta with canned clams, canned tomatoes, and whatever assortment of canned beans, tuna, capers, olives, herbs, lemon, anchovies, or leftovers he happens to throw in. He happily took the leftover lentil hash to work for lunch today.

Tonight's meal was quite different. I bought a boneless leg of lamb...I've never cooked lamb, and haven't even eaten it very many times in my life, but I love buying something new and reading up about how to handle it. It was from the yuppie health food store, so it was grass-fed Australian organic lamb, and it looked quite lovely, but when I got it out of the package, it was the ugliest, most ragged cut of meat I'd ever seen. It looked like I had deboned it rather than someone with training in such things. So my plans for a neat rolled-up butterflied little leg roast had to be slightly recalibrated. Once I'd removed most of the fat (sheep fat is weird! Waxy and crumbly and firm!), I made a sort of tapenade -- oil-cured olives, capers, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice, but with a bunch of dried figs as well, because I have a big bag I'm trying to use up -- and kind of clumped it in the frayed crevices of the meat, then tied the whole thing into sort of a tube with cotton string. It looked surprisingly presentable. While it roasted, I made saffron rice with onions and almonds...Mireille Johnston (Cuisine of the Sun) and Claudia Roden (A Book of Middle Eastern Cooking) have very similar recipes for it.

The meal was wonderful. I can still taste the brassy, strong lamb and the musky saffron and the sweet roasted figs. I was amazed -- I've never made anything that tasted like it. The lamb was too dry at one end, and had bits of gristle throughout, but the good parts were incredible -- tender and pink and very lamby. And the kitchen still smells so good.

In other news, I bought a can of venison cat food for Ronnie, partially as a joke since it cost $.20 more than the more plebeian cat food flavors, but fully expecting her to adore it, and she turned up her nose.

Back to Morocco

Tonight we had a Moroccan meal: braised and browned lamb, Moroccan bread, and eggplant salad. I could live without the lamb. I braised it first with saffron, turmeric, ginger, paprika and so forth, and after it was tender I removed the bones and gristly parts, reduced the liquid, and browned it in the oven. Once my fingers get coated with lamb fat, I am pretty much finished with the experience, even if I like the flavor.

The bread, however, is something I make again and again. It’s a whole wheat loaf, very little sugar and no fat, with sesame and anise seeds, baked in a flat round. It smells better than any other bread.

And eggplant salad is a discovery. Our family visited Morocco in 1981, to see Aunt Betty and Uncle Mario, who were Peace Corps trainers in Rabat (you were about two years old, I think.) We stayed a week, and it was Ramadan. It was remarkably like the pictures of Iraq we see now on television, without the gunfire—such a desert, not softened by the landscaping we are used to here in Tucson. I was uncomfortable with my first experience of Muslim culture, wearing a caftan and needing to be escorted by one of the younger male cousins when I walked out of the apartment.

Later in the week, after a few days of austerity—no alcohol, that is—we went along with Betty and Mario to an expatriate picnic, and there was food and wine in wonderful abundance. We had many different eggplant dishes, and since everyone was speaking French, I was pleased to know the beautiful word aubergine.

Tonight’s salad, and most other Moroccan things I make, was inspired by Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, which is worth reading even if you don’t use a single recipe. The foreword notes that Wolfert made the ultimate sacrifice in the research for the book—her gall bladder.

This salad has eggplant cubes roasted with olive oil, fresh tomatoes, garlic, onion, cumin, paprika, lemon juice, and cilantro.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Tarrrrrrte au Citron

I love Thanksgiving leftovers, especially when they involve giant vats of collards, but it's a little sad not to cook for days on end, and anything gets boring after five days. Fortunately, I think tonight we might finally finish up the Thanksgiving food.

I just made a lemon tart. Ever since you gave me that tart ring last year I've been searching for the perfect lemon tart recipe. Julia Child's is too difficult, involving a layer on top of paper-thin lemon slices boiled in sugar syrup, and too little filling underneath to skip that step. The Joy of Cooking's uses 8 eggs, which I think is too many. Gourmet insists on using two 8-inch tart shells instead of one regular 10-inch one, and the tarts are too puffy. Other recipes I've seen call for only egg yolks, and I would like to avoid the waste. So tonight's recipe is from the old Silver Palate cookbook, one of Lawson's favorites. It called for 6 eggs, which made too much filling. It also called for butter...we'll see if I like how that tastes. The tart is beautiful -- quite brown around the edges, and fairly firm for what is basically a big custard. I think it'll chill nicely. I buried a few thin lemon slices in sugar and will put them on top tomorrow.

The tart is for my coworker's birthday tomorrow...she likes good food.

Update: The tart was a bit tart, but it was lovely. Next time, less lemon juice and one less egg.

And here it is.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Panic!—I couldn’t find my Lemon Curd recipe—which I got from Raymond, who got it from the back of a sugar box. What’s important about this recipe is that it’s incredibly simple, made in the microwave instead of a double boiler. I want to make some today with our abundant Meyer lemon crop.

I did finally find it filed under Sauces in my recipe box, printed out from an old e-mail (“old” as in “before the last computer crash”). This illustrates how badly I need to organize my precious recipe collection. I have a large card file—I use 5x8 cards so that I can tape clippings to them instead of copying; a computer file with many subfolders; a five-foot shelf of cookbooks; and a binder of typed recipes from twenty years ago. And a messy pile of magazine and clippings that are “current.”

How do you organize your recipes? I have a kind of system. If someone asks for a recipe I write my own version on the computer and save it there, and a couple of times a year I back the file up to a writeable CD. If a recipe from a magazine or newspaper clipping is a keeper, I tape it to an index card and file it in the card file. I have written little cookbooks for you and Russell and Grandma, but they’re from older computers and I don’t have copies. Besides, my cooking has evolved so much over the years that many ten-year-old recipe versions don’t reflect how I cook now.

But enough organizational talk! Here’s that Lemon Curd recipe for posterity:

Lemon Curd

½ cup butter
Microwave 45 to 60 seconds to melt.

1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
1/3 cup lemon juice
Whisk into melted butter.

1 egg
Add to butter mixture and whisk again.
Microwave 2 to 4 minutes longer, stirring twice during cooking, until sauce thickens slightly.

Also, you can find that Chicken Tagine recipe from Parade Magazine here:
Dad made this, using the last few tiny eggplants from this year’s plants and two zucchinis, and leaving out the almonds. It was wonderful, and even better the next day.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Cold Leftovers

So Thanksgiving dinner is over, and it was wonderful. I have to confess I missed Russell a lot yesterday—I am getting used to your having your own life far away, but his absence is newer. Besides, he always mashed the potatoes and made the gravy, and quietly did a lot of butler duties.

Do you remember this turkey roasting pan? I’ve had it at least 35 years. Once when we lived in Alaska I brought it in my suitcase to Tucson to cook turkey at Grandma’s. It got badly dented, which shows you how your luggage gets treated. I like to smear the turkey with a paste of olive oil, salt, and paprika, then pour half a bottle of white vermouth in the bottom of the pan, and bake at 325 degrees, covered for the first two hours. This method yields really good gravy.

Our complete menu was quite traditional:

Pesto Appetizer Torta with Crackers
Chile-Roasted Macadamia Nuts
Several bottles of wine
Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat for piano duet
Turkey, Bread and Herb Stuffing, Gravy
Baked Sweet Potatoes with Olive Oil and Chile Powder
Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Corn Pudding with Green Chiles
Cranberry Chutney
Port Wine Cranberry Sauce
Green Beans with Balsamic Vinegar
Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream
Apple Pie with Ice Cream

It was the warmest Thanksgiving I’ve ever experienced, in the low eighties, and we were able to sit out on the patio before and after dinner. Now I’m looking forward to turkey soup and turkey à la king—but first and best of all, cold leftovers.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Traditional Food

Last night I made meatloaf using Grandma's recipe, plus baked buttercup squash (I'm really excited about squash right now) and steamed green beans tossed with olive oil and zest from those Meyer lemons you and Dad sent me. The lemons are wonderful! I'm going to make lemon meringue pie with some later today.

We're having Thanksgiving on Friday with Lawson's family, including a lot of older extended family -- a very conservative, unsmiling bunch who ignore us for the most part, though there are some fun younger cousins. Like last year, Lawson and I have been delegated the task of preparing everything but the turkey and dessert. Right now we're in the middle of menu negotiations. I would happily forgo stuffing and white potatoes and such, but we have to keep it pretty traditional.

So far we've decided on: mashed sweet potatoes (butter, orange zest, rum); some kind of stuffing with pecans and sausage; cranberry-orange relish (I can't have Thanksgiving without it...don't know if anyone else likes it); scalloped potatoes; and collards cooked for many hours with a ham hock. We want to make green beans...Lawson was looking at a green bean casserole recipe with added sausage, and I suggested we find a simpler, fresher recipe, but he didn't think that would fly. So we're still working on that one. I just want one dish without cream, butter, sugar, or meat.

I think cooking and eating this meal will break me out of the traditional American food phase I've been in lately. I didn't grow up eating things like meatloaf and pot roast very often -- I remember some Kraft dinner and hamburger hash early on, but for the most part you always cooked homemade breads and garden vegetables and wonderful light ethnic foods. Also, being a vegetarian from ages 11 to 25 meant I never ate things like sloppy joes or corn dogs. I think it's been partly living in the South, partly eating meat again, and partly curiosity, but for the last year I've been making and eating very classic American foods. Lawson excels at making Thai and Vietnamese and Chinese and Indian stuff, so I've been making pies and hamburgers. But after tomorrow's looming cholesterolfest I will probably be done with traditional foods for a while.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Moroccan Food Three Nights Running

Last night we had Moroccan Salmon in Tomato Sauce, tonight Dad made a Chicken and Eggplant Tagine (excellent!), and tomorrow it’s some kind of Moroccan lamb stew.

We must be inoculating ourselves against the blandness of turkey and accompaniments. Every year I try harder. I put a whole head of garlic in the mashed potatoes. I rub the free-range turkey with spices after I brine it. I make cranberry chutney, not cranberry sauce. My stuffing is made with leftover homemade bread and fresh herbs, my sweet potatoes are roasted with olive oil and chile powder. We have live music, and ethnically diverse guests! (Well, okay, one of my Chinese students.) We have our pumpkin pie outside on the patio with coffee made from freshly ground beans. Still the meal remains overly rich and indigestible. It must come down to the amount of butter, what do you think? Or maybe that’s the whole point of feasting.

One aspect of Thanksgiving that I adore is that after Thursday, no more cooking is done for at least 48 hours. We get to rest from the orgy.

I exaggerate anyway. Kathy is bringing pies, Raymond is making his port wine cranberry sauce, and Grandma is in charge of the corn pudding with green chiles and the applesauce.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Sandwich for One

Tonight Lawson and I both worked late. He opted for cereal for dinner. I made myself a grilled sandwich with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, parmesan, fresh basil, and salad greens (and plenty of olive oil). On the side I am eating a whole avocado.

The rainbow trout last night was kind of a fiasco. The bacon grease dripped into the grill and the trout caught on fire...we had to squirt the flames with the little water bottle I use when I cut Lawson's hair...and the bacon unraveled in mummy tatters, half of it burnt and half still pale and chewy. And then after all that drama the trout was bland with hints of ammonia -- not as fresh as it looked. But the acorn squash was excellent.

Thin Pizza

Whew. Yesterday’s second performance of the orchestra concert went really well. Grandma and Dad were there in the audience, and they enjoyed it. This one was at Saddlebrooke, which is a planned community north on Oracle Road just a couple of miles before the Biosphere. Planned or not, I saw a big fat javelina eating someone’s landscape plants in broad daylight. I am a little bit favorably impressed with Saddlebrooke because in addition to the inevitable golf and tennis clubhouses, it had a performance center and a library.

We didn’t cook after the concert, but instead ordered fashionable pizzas. That means they had a very thin, cracker-like crust and scant toppings. They were also little, so we ordered three: portabella and artichoke, sausage and carmelized onion, and tapenade with thin-sliced potatoes. The salads were chopped, which is trendy here. (There is even a restaurant named “Chopped.”) Everything was tasty, but it wasn’t a real pizza experience, which to me involves gooey cheese and a certain amount of breadiness.

The name of that Southwest cookbook? It’s a secret.

Please don’t make cat food. I’ll send you some money to buy it if necessary. Imagining the smell is making me very unhappy, and I might not be able to visit you ever again. On the bright side, I really enjoyed that cat nutrition website.

My Portuguese labor-intensive marinated pork chops weren’t very good. The pork was too lean for that treatment, and it was dry. It was to be served with bread dipped in the marinade and then fried in butter and olive oil—now THAT was good!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Fish Course: Cat v. Human

That border foods cookbook sounds amazing. What's it called?

My best bread cookbook is The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. He has a book called Brother Juniper's Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor that's supposed to be excellent and covers more whole grain breads than the one I have.

The new vet says Ronnie is starting to gain a bit too much weight (though she still weighs 9 pounds...the lightest cat I've ever lived with!). The vet is a big proponent of all-wet, low-carbohydrate cat foods, so he gave me some reading material and suggested I get her off the Iams hard food and half-pouches of Whiskas. I've done a bunch more research, and he's probably right. Veterinary opinion these days is that dry food is worse for cats' teeth, not better, and that commercial cat food with all its grains and fillers is responsible for the cat obesity epidemic. Anyway, in the course of my research I found this recipe for cat food. It's funny: cooking for humans is wonderful, but cooking for my cat doesn't appeal to me in the least...I suppose because I wouldn't want to sample the Whole Bone-In Rabbit & Organ Meats Tartare.

So today I went to the natural foods store to buy Ronnie some fancy cat food: a can of Petguard Savory Seafood, and a can of Fish, Chicken, & Liver. And there I bought two whole trout for me and Lawson. That store always has relatively cheap whole fish for some reason -- it's where I bought the sardines we had a few weeks back.

For dinner tonight I'm making grilled, bacon-wrapped whole trout with a rosemary twig and some lemons stuffed inside them -- I decided to give the Gourmet cookbook another chance after the mushroom sauce success. I'm also baking acorn squash -- you inspired me -- and making a salad with plain old vinaigrette. It should be a good start to the week.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

I Love Cookbooks

Ah, cookbooks! I bought a new Mexican cookbook about border foods, namely Tex-Mex, Arizonan, Californian, and New Mexican recipes and their derivations. The real margarita, the authentic sauce for enchiladas specific to each state, the historically accurate way to make chile verde and posole along with excellent modern recipes for each. I’m vibrating with chile thoughts. We had chicken enchiladas with green chile sauce last night. The sauce was so simple, just simmered chiles, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. And the tortillas were softened in oil, with no attempt to cut calories. I’m still smiling.

Tonight I’m in a Portuguese frame of mind, and we had bacalhau (salt cod) the traditional Azorean way with fried potatoes and onions. For tomorrow evening I’ve been marinating pork chops for “carne de vinha e alhos.” They are soaked in white wine, cider vinegar, bay leaves, and garlic for a couple of days, then boiled, and browned just before serving. It’s the same marinade that I use for Portuguese turkey. Jean Anderson’s “The Food of Portugal” is excellent. I notice that she has written a couple of books about preserving.

What is your best bread cookbook? I am looking for better methods and recipes for whole grain breads.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Two pies

Last night I baked pies for my office Thanksgiving party. The event is like a massive potluck; every year, the Thanksgiving committee posts sign-up sheets with Southern Thanksgiving food categories: green beans, greens (usually collards), stuffing, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, turkey legs, pies, etc. There are about 100 of us. Multiple people sign up for each category, so any one person is making food for about 20 people. This means you get to sample five different pots of collards from five different family recipes (if that's your thing) (and it's very much my thing). Then the committee buys and cooks some turkeys and hams. And my coworker from Puerto Rico makes this amazing stewed turkey with green olives. I have no idea what's in it, but it is consistently incredible.

So, I spent the evening making pies. First, though, I had to install a new bake element in our oven. The old one caught on fire and cracked (or cracked and caught on fire -- not sure which, though it was exciting in any case) a month ago, and it took us a while to track down the part. It was surprisingly easy to change except for getting the rusted screws off, considering it was nighttime and I was working by flashlight because I had to cut off the breaker. Anyway, the oven works beautifully now.

I started with a pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie is not especially popular at my office; people there say they prefer sweet potato pie. The differences are so slight -- same seasonings, same color -- but I don't particularly like sweet potatoes with sugar added, so I stuck with what I know. It was the only pumpkin pie there, and about 4 people out of 100 had a slice. The four sweet potato pies disappeared. So I brought over half the pumpkin pie home.

I also made a chocolate pecan pie. The recipe is pretty much the same as for a regular pecan pie: toast some pecans, and mix them into a custard made with eggs, butter, Karo syrup (Norwegians represent!), sugar, and rum. This just happened to have 6 ounces of bittersweet chocolate in it as well. It was wildly popular. I was pleased. The Joy of Cooking came through yet again.

Did I mention that I buy prebaked pie shells? Yes, after making my own crust a few times, I finally came to agree with you that it's absolutely unnecessary.

This year's Thanksgiving party was a little slim on the vegetable categories, but I did have some wonderful homemade mac and cheese, excellent collards, and a good slice of coconut cream pie. I was disappointed to find that the slice of ham I got was spiced ham. It tasted like Captain Morgan's. Yeccch.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Swordfish and Polenta

French copper pan

Swordfish and Polenta

I love those round tubes of pre-cooked polenta!--“shelf-stable” and a nice change from other starchy things. I am taking Andrew Weill’s advice to heart lately and try to eat a rainbow of foods, especially carbohydrates. Previously I ate mostly wheat—bread (I was proud that it was always homemade and whole grain), pasta, wheat tortillas—but have broadened out to sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, whole rye crackers, occasional white potatoes, acorn and butternut squash. I put 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a cookie sheet, lay the slices of polenta in and turned them over once so each side would have some oil, and baked at 425 degrees for 20 minutes, turning once.

Dad was also cooking tonight, so he made the fresh (uncooked, that is) tomato and herb topping for the polenta, and the sauteed yellow squash.

I cooked the swordfish our favorite way in my favorite pan, pictured here. We bought it on our twentieth-anniversary trip to Paris, at the Dehillerin shop. Dehillerin had pans like this ranging from mini to restaurant-sized, literally three feet long, and every other kind of cooking implement in every size. It was a wonderland of whisks and copper things.

What is so glorious about this pan? Well, it’s copper lined with tin and can withstand any kind of heat—broiler, hot oven, stovetop—and is a perfect thickness. And it looks French.

Favorite Swordfish

Make a paste of these ingredients and spread on swordfish steak or fillet:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon sherry
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Put in pan and pour a little white vermouth or wine around. Bake at 500 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Creamed Mushrooms with Chives

I found the perfect recipe for all those mushrooms. It was from the big yellow Gourmet cookbook, the one I talked you out of asking Grandma for. Very few things I've made from that book have been as good as I think they should be. It's got design flaws -- the recipe titles are printed in pale yellow on white paper, so they're really hard to read -- and is huge but not authoritative; it's just a bunch of recipes, not a reference book. But tonight's recipe was pretty wonderful, so it's partially redeemed.

Here's my version of Creamed Mushrooms with Chives, adapted for two people and the stuff I had on hand:

- 1 pound cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced
- 2 tablespoons butter

Saute over medium-high heat for 10 or 15 minutes, until most of the liquid subsides. Add:

- 1 small onion, or half a regular onion

Saute another 5 minutes or so. Add and simmer for 10 minutes or until it thickens slightly:

- 1/3 cup half and half (I never have cream on hand but we always have half and half for coffee)
- 1/3 cup chicken stock
- 1 or 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Add salt and pepper. At the end, stir in:

-1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

I served it on your whole wheat biscuits. Because the oven is broken I baked them in the toaster oven, which seemed to work fine.

It tasted like essence of mushrooms and was not too creamy. And oh, I ate such a big pile of sauteed spinach.

Chicken and Dumplings on Two Continents

Tonight I made chicken with dumplings. I used to make this dish in the Azores 25 years ago; I was a less experienced cook then and the only cookbook I brought in my suitcase was the small paperback edition of the Better Homes and Gardens (red checkered cover). The chickens I bought there included the feet, which I dutifully boiled to make stock. The market in Ponta Delgado, on the main island Sao Miguel, was fresh and interesting: it had no imported goods, only what was available in season right then and there. I bought round slices of firm white fish and cooked it only to find it was conger eel (tastes like chicken, only snowy white and tough, with lots of little bones). We could buy big cabbages and cauliflowers, and excellent sausages. On a sad note, Dad was stuck there once for Thanksgiving when the rest of us were back in Colorado, and he had liver for Thanksgiving dinner. This story depresses me every time I hear it.

This time I used boneless skinless chicken thighs, my current favorite for any long-cooked chicken dish. First I browned onions, carrots, celery, green pepper, and then the chicken in a mixture of butter and olive oil; I deglazed with white vermouth; added chopped fresh parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme (really); then added water, salt, and pepper, and simmered for 45 minutes. I made dumplings from my Whole Wheat Biscuits for 2 recipe:

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 tablespoons milk

and dropped them onto the simmering stew. Cooked covered for 10 minutes and uncovered for 10 more.

With it we had collard greens and a plate of sliced tomatoes with chopped basil, olives, sliced green onions, and a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

Pianists for dinner

We had a dinner party Friday night—not the best timing, since I had an orchestra job for the next two Sundays.

The walking-around course:
--honeydew slices with lime wedges and chile powder for dipping
--plain fresh cherry tomatoes
--a little molded appetizer with layers of pesto, feta/cream cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes/Kalamata olives, served with Ak-Mak crackers. I thought this was kind of overdone, like a magazine recipe, but people fell on it and devoured it.

The party included four piano teachers, so for entertainment Ron and I played Schubert’s Variations on an Original Theme (op. 82 #2) for piano duet and Nancy played a Scarlatti sonata.

The Main Course
--Pulled pork with Carolina vinegar mustard sauce
--spicy cole slaw
--baked sweet potato sticks
--corn bread (with stone-ground cornmeal we bought at a state park in Georgia)

And then, Baked Alaska Pie, which I learned from Grandma Oty. I used a graham cracker crust which included ½ cup crushed pretzels and ¼ cup ground pecans; one quart of coffee ice cream; and a three-egg white meringue. Lots of ice cream flavors are good in Baked Alaska, but coffee and coconut are our favorites.

Dick grew the basil, the cherry tomatoes, and the limes.

Tonight we’re having king crab legs, homemade whole wheat bread, and a salad with blue cheese dressing. Here’s the recipe for the simplest and best salad dressing you’ll ever make:

1 cup mayo
1 cup buttermilk
1 clove minced garlic
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese
Mix. Serve.

We went to the Mexican grocery store near us this morning and bought bags of fresh produce—tangerines, pears, leeks, collard greens, yellow squash, a pineapple—and 8 pounds of fresh-roasted green chiles. It’s our third batch of chiles this fall. I let them cool and then peeled them and portioned them into little ziploc baggies, and tossed them in the freezer. I use them instead of cans of green chiles.

We had our favorite Breakfast of Champions this morning—quesadilla made with a whole wheat tortilla, cheese, and a fresh roasted green chile. Canned green salsa. Tomato garnish. Banana, leftover honeydew slices. Lots of strong black coffee. Sunday paper.

Then, off to the orchestra concert. The first piece went well, with very little trembling of fingers or missed entrances. We had a few problems in the second, but since it was a contemporary kind of amorphous piece, the audience noticed nothing. Unfortunately the composer was present and he probably noticed plenty. I enjoyed it. I like playing when the group experience is more important than wondering what the audience thinks.

Beef stew and pie stewing

On Sunday I made my first pot roast. I browned the meat, then sauteed some small whole onions and chopped carrots, then deglazed the pan with a can of High Life and transferred everything to the crockpot. There I added some stock, fresh thyme, a bay leaf, salt and pepper, and sliced mushrooms. I let it cook on high (which in a crockpot is not very high) for about four hours. We had it with egg noodles. I ate it for lunch the next day, too.

Tonight, at long last, I will eat spinach. I almost squealed when I saw it back in the grocery store this week. I plan to saute massive amounts of it with a tiny bit of garlic and a small dried red chile, then sprinkle it with balsamic vinegar. I have lots of mushrooms, too (they were 2-for-1), so I think I'm going to make some kind of mushroom-y light cream sauce and put it on wheat toast.

Right now I'm worrying about Friday, when my office has its annual Thanksgiving party to which everyone must bring food. I signed up to bring pies. However, I have band practice the night before. Am I going to stay up until 4 in the morning making pies after practice? I don't even know what kind to make...surely someone will bring sweet potato and pecan; I adore lemon meringue but don't know how it will survive a day at the office; my Mom's French chocolate tart might not be Thanksgiving-y enough. I suppose this could all be easily remedied by a trip to the grocery store bakery, but yuck!