Monday, September 21, 2009

The last night of summer

We were at a friend’s house last Saturday night, where dinner was a fabulous boeuf bourguignon. This Saturday, I am dining with friends where the main course already has been announced to be … boeuf bourguignon. This may well be the autumn of Julia Child’s signature dish, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it makes me wonder whether this tender, fragrant and disconcertingly hip beef stew will become 2009’s version of the 1960s’ impossibly hip shrimp cocktail.
All of which brought me with a fresh state of mind to the pages of “A Platter of Figs.” It’s been one of those months, days spent at the Minnesota State Fair, as both reporter and food demonstrator, then a week of vacation. So it’s been awhile since I went to the book, which is more a reflection on my life than its worth.
Finally, I was going to get at a recipe I’d eyed for weeks: Corn, Squash and Beans with Jalapeno Butter. It’s basically really good mixed vegetables, even prepared in the Birds Eye dice of my frozen childhood, with a great butter.
Actually, I ended up preparing David Tanis’ whole “slightly all-american” (I’m still hating the all lowercase) menu: sliced tomatoes with sea salt, grilled chicken breasts (although mine were pan-seared), and the vegetable dish, stopping only at the blueberry-blackberry crumble. I will have to try one of his desserts before September ends, but not now.
Quick verdict: The vegetables were terrific – of the “make this again” spousal request. I was not surprised. It was one of those recipes that you can taste as you read it. I just knew it would be good, with the right combo of veg – although he promotes playing with the mix – and a butter of hot peppers, lime zest and juice, snipped chives, salt and pepper that will definitely be slathered on the corn on the cob I have in mind for tomorrow night.
It was, I’m learning, exactly the sort of menu that epitomizes Tanis’ approach. I could almost have made it without ever cracking the book. Ironically enough, eh? Slice tomatoes and sprinkle with sea salt. There actually are several paragraphs of recipe/philosophy here, mostly about never refrigerating, mixing heirloom varieties, slicing a half-inch thick. Intuitive, instinctive…but for some people, this may be the first time they grasp how to stay out of a tomato’s way.
Same with the chicken: season with rosemary, heat until done.
The vegetables were the “recipe” of the day, and yet I prepped most of it from memory. The cookbook was open, sure, but did I really need to look at it for directions on the length at which to snap the green beans?
And this – I think – is Tanis’ point. In other words, I think he would nod in approval at my gentle freelancing of snapping at will instead of slicing at a half-inch. He inspires, I get dinner on the table. I did very much pay attention to the proportions for the jalapeno butter, even as he then was saying how it could be adjusted for heat with more pepper (or, I suppose, more butter, which brings us back to Julia………..)
In any case, a true hit, and what proved the perfectly perfect meal for the last day of summer. As I’m writing this, it’s starting to rain. The zucchini plants and broccoli were given last rites yesterday, and most of the tomatoes are in. It’s the turn of the season. Nice to have the hot shimmer of jalapeno still on my tongue.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Trying to like saffron

The garden, so slow to emerge this spring....and this summer...finally is kicking in. If it stays nice until Halloween, I may even harvest an eggplant.
As it is, the broccoli suddenly has attained hedgelike proportions, sporting heads on foot-long stalks. One of them has even burst into a lovely bouquet of butter-yellow blossoms, which of course means that its food value now has morphed into a floral motif.
Why did I plant six broccoli? Because they all sprouted, that's why, and I find it difficult to do the Sophie's choice thing, figuring that Nature or her four (and counting) rabbits of the Apocalypse will winnow the field.
But no. The rabbits went after the green beans - three replantings' worth - and left the broccoli be, which was why I found myself flipping to the recipe index of "A Platter of Figs," hoping that David had an inspiring take on broccoli. Alas, it went from "Bowles, Paul" to "butter, jalapeno."
I don't fault the book. No particular reason it should have a broccoli recipe. (Although what could it hurt?) The Barefoot Contessa came to the rescue, and I WILL be making Roasted Broccoli with garlic again, finished with pine nuts, grated Parmesan and lemon juice and rind.
OK, so what are my other options? Starch always eases a thwarted mind, and I hadn’t even begun to dig into the potatoes yet, so I flipped to “P” to see “Potato(oes) mashed with carrots and saffron.”
By coincidence…or fate, karma, serendipity or dumb luck…I had been exploring the world of saffron for a demo this week at the Minnesota State Fair. “Baking with Saffron” was my topic, a suggestion from the demo host, Klecko, a master baker and founder of the St. Paul Bread Club, which we’ll get to someday.
Saffron had been mildly intriguing over the years, partly because it couples this hyper-exotic image – world’s most expensive spice – with an aroma that I’ve always found, charitably, rank. My research turned up more pejorative terms: bitter, iodine, pungent. It’s the signature ingredient of St. Lucia Rolls, but that’s the Swedes for you, always putting on the dog.
Still, I had some on hand, from past forays in paella and such, and so this seemed an opportune time to harvest some root vegetables, delve into saffron, and put something of sustenance on the table.
Again, I was struck by the utter simplicity of Tanis’s recipe. The method is a paragraph: Boil potatoes and carrots in salted water until tender. Drain and add a little crumbled saffron, butter and grated lemon zest. Mash and thin with milk.
Clearly he has faith in his book being purchased by experienced cooks. And perhaps anyone who owns saffron knows the disaster that lurks within a mere thread too many being crumbled. In my homework for the demo, I’d run across a rule of thumb, that if you can clearly smell saffron in the finished product, you’ve used too much. And so “a little crumbled saffron” seems fraught with peril. Here’s an spice that is sold by the gram – by the 0.04 ounce. A little? Is that a smidge or a skosch? A pinch or one-quarter teaspoon?
I erred on the timid side, rubbing a half-dozen threads into the potatoes and carrots. It was just right for me, perhaps a bit much for my husband, who gamely tasted, considered and concluded: Eh.
To which I responded, “Eh.”
The dish wasn’t bad; it just had saffron in it, which I have now placed in that pantheon of culinary love/hate relationships – a list notably headed by cilantro.
I love cilantro. So the columns are now officially even.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Vietnamese Cucumbers, ala Instinct

So I know what you’re thinking: Who is Edesia and why is her kitchen being put to the test?
No? You’re wondering why the secretaries on “Mad Men” don’t tell those lechy ad guys to shove it? (I’m just getting started with the series, courtesy of Netflix, so don’t tell me anything good, OK?)
Back to Edesia, whether you were wondering or not. Edesia was (is?) the Roman goddess of food preparation, the benefactress of great banquets, and my muse. I happened upon her while developing what has become the Edesia Cookbook Review, a monthly gathering at a local Barnes & Noble. Each month, I choose a topic and invite local talents to review some relevant books or share where they find inspiration. It’s been a blast, and so it seemed right to call upon Edesia to bless this blog.
A muse may come in handy right now, for it’s becoming clear that “A Platter of Figs” is not written by a micromanager, but a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. Which is good, although frankly not what you expect to find in a cookbook.
I mean, several of my bread baking books would have me taking the temperature of my dough at specific intervals, which I’ve admittedly done at times because the mere directive makes me wonder: Am I there yet? Have I kneaded to 78 degrees? Only 76? Slam, slam. 77. Stretch and fold. 78.
So I had to look twice when deciding to make the Vietnamese Cucumbers – or, in the book’s typography – vietnamese cucumbers. OK, we’re going to get this out of the way right now. I work in newspapers, I live by a stylebook, I once was an English major and believe that there is a time and place for capital letters. Such as in book titles, proper names and recipes.
So anyway, I was looking over the recipe for Vietnamese Cucumbers, since the garden is spewing cukes like a Lucy episode, and it essentially is a list of ingredients, the only specificity being 4 large cucumbers and the length of the piece of ginger to be julienned: 1 inch.
Otherwise, it’s a process of tossing the sliced cukes with some fish sauce, salt and pepper, palm sugar, hot peppers, lime juice, sprigs of mint and basil, and some slices of scallions or sweet onion, depending on which way you swing.
I went the baby step route, starting with a few drops of fish sauce – easy to overdo and impossible to undo -- and half a jalapeno. Eh. Then I went back out to the garden to snap off another pepper. The rest was a case of squirting and tasting, tossing and tasting, and then letting it all sit and meld and marinate, which led to another round of dribbling and tasting.
It was a recipe, but far more reliant on instinct than teaspoons. The result was delicious. I will make this salad again
But it will be different, won’t it?

One month, one cookbook

I have a lot of cookbooks from which I’ve made only one recipe. They’re the culinary equivalents of one-night stands, which may be what a woman in her middle years is reduced to – no, wait (slap, slap) aspires to – as kale becomes more attractive and infinitely more forthright than some Dale.
I also have cookbooks I’ve never used. I page through them and read them in bed or on the porch. Intriguing recipes are duly noted, with every intention of cooking them someday, you know, when I have time.
Then there are the cookbooks, fewest in number, to which I turn again and again. Sometimes, the red ribbon is still marking the page from the last time I made clafouti. I can always find my lasagna recipe in Betty Crocker because it’s the rippliest from the way the noodles have dripped water onto the page.
Still, these other cookbooks lie waiting, and in that way we attach feelings to cars and washing machines and computers (mostly varying degrees of cranky), I wonder whether they feel some resentment at being merely reading material, if not wall insulation.
So I’ve decided to delve into them, one book at a time, one month at a time. I won’t cook from them exclusively; I want to make my favorite dishes when I wish, and besides, that’s been done, most famously, by one Julie channeling Julia.
Instead, a chosen book will be my default. On those days when I’m casting about for an idea, it will be my go-to resource. When I entertain, I’ll look here first. And when I try a new recipe, I’ll tell you what transpired.
By the end of the month, I should have a handle on whether this book has a place in my life. Is it in sync with what I keep in my refrigerator or cupboards? Maybe it will change what I consider staple stock. Maybe I’ll learn a new technique that I’ll take with me to the grave. Maybe, at month’s end, I’ll take a particular volume up to Half-Price Books and be done with it.
I’m starting with “A Platter of Figs and other recipes” by David Tanis, the head chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. The title and author’s name are all in lower case, which has always struck me as precious and smirkingly humble.
But I’ve been thumbing through this book on and off for several months, and I want to like the idea that an outstanding dessert may be nothing more or less than a perfectly ripe platter of figs. Except I also know that there lurks a recipe for pig’s ear salad.
I’ve never cast about for dinner idea imagining that as a possible solution.
I grew up on a hog farm. I know where pig’s ears have been.
So we’ll see. It’s Sept. 1. Shall we dance?