Of tomatoes and love

victoria  —  August 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

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The cliché phrase “Life is funny” is, as it happens, overused for a reason. Life is funny and more often than not, not exactly what one expected. While we are piling on with the stock lines let’s also use “nothing is wasted on a writer.” The last week and change has been an exercise in observation of things I didn’t really expect.

Let’s begin with the tomato.

I would really like to be a gardener. When I have gardened, it’s gone rather well and I could pick things for eating with regularity. I’ve also moved house (a lot) and putting in a garden is always something I want to do but we move in at the wrong time of year and I never quite get to it. There are always excuses. The thing is, I know if it were important enough to me, I would do it come rain, shine or another house move. Clearly, I am either too lazy or it just isn’t important enough to me to overcome the admittedly low hurdles to make it happen.

So, I buy tomatoes in the summer (fresh tomatoes in the winter are wet, cottony wastes of money and time and not the subject of this post). I buy them at the farmer’s market most usually on Saturday morning. When my schedule precludes the farmer’s market, I go instead to Whole Foods and pay the convenience fee for my local tomatoes, organic pasta, and other pantry staples all being in one place.

Yesterday, when I wanted a tomato that I did not buy at the farmer’s market, I knew I would pay a premium. But it’s August and hot and now is the time to eat a tomato. I thought the sign said $5.99/each, so being slightly greedy in my tomato choosing, I chose the biggest, heaviest, orangest tomato on the pile. At the register, I learned it was $5.99 a pound and, well, not being keen on sheepishly taking the platinum-valued, $10 tomato back to the table with its brethren, I swiped my card and went about my business.

Now, how to honor this very dear tomato? I’m a firm believer in buying the best ingredients you can afford (or, in this case, splurge on) and doing as little as possible to them to honor their essence. I cut the core out of this giant tomato and then into three portions following its natural lobes, sliced one lobe into manageable slices and laid it out on a serving platter. I drizzled some California olive oil over it and scattered the slices with some crushed white pepper corns and black Hawaiian sea salt. I also dug out the beautiful, horn tomato fork my sister bought me for my birthday a few years ago. That was the salad to go with our pasta dish composed of orecchietti, sliced leftover brats, caramelized onions, a red pepper, and a glug of cream. Not too shabby for 20 minutes from walking in the door to sitting down at the table together. The tomato was perfect.

After dinner, I sliced the remaining tomato lobes, covered them in more of the olive oil and set them in a low oven for an hour to poach. We’ll have those tonight or tomorrow night as bruschetta with some local goat feta. I feel I will have honored my platinum tomato to the best of my ability.

All this cooking and thinking about food doesn’t happen in the vacuum of the Internet, of course. I have a job and a family, friends and two feline rulers. It’s a pretty good life all told. There’s a lot going on in it right now. My boychick, who is now a young man, leaves for college on Thursday. Keifel and I both have elderly parents in declining health. We have jobs that for the most part leave us fulfilled but are by no means perfect. We have friends who are experiencing their own griefs and transitions. Life is funny and messy sometimes. And then just when you think you’ve got a purchase to ride the wave you’re currently on, Poseidon, or Ursula the Sea Witch or whatever you believe controls the universe or leaves it to chaos, ramps up the machine and sends a rogue wave right at you.

My rogue wave brought a surprise invitation for the boychick to meet his birth father. I can speculate all afternoon and into the wee hours of tomorrow about why it finally happened, but I have no idea what the catalyst really was. It’s something I’ve always hoped would happen because I think knowing where you came from can be important to knowing who you are. It went well, as best as reported to me by Keifel and Jules. My son is the glassy surface of a pond when it comes to these things and he’s of the let’s-wait-and-see-where-this-goes mentality.

I do wish I had that seemingly magic ability to be unruffled by the unexpected. Okay, sometimes I do and I have learned as I’ve gotten older, it’s all unexpected. But being in my own transition with Jules’ departure for college, that rogue wave smacked me right in the face. There’s nothing like a mouthful of metaphoric seawater to startle you.

It stirred up some of the emotions that wisp around old wounds, wounds from which I fully believe I have long healed. I guess the scar still itches and maybe that never quite goes away. I’ve talked it out and gazed at my belly button and even had a couple new epiphanies about things I thought I’d finished thinking about. I’m fine as it turns out and the water is definitely calmer now.

You might be asking yourself what the hell tomatoes have to do with personal history and the turns life can take. I thought I knew what I was doing both in buying that tomato and in a long ago relationship. The costs were higher than I imagined but I regret nothing; the tomato was and life is delicious (even when messy). Also, if something is really important to you, apparently you will do it, eventually.

[edited because I always find mistakes after I hit publish]

Very small batch canning

victoria  —  July 13, 2013 — 1 Comment
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A very small batch

I haven’t had many Saturdays lately that were just Saturdays – days without real plans, made for puttering and experimenting and maybe daydreaming. Today, this Saturday, is pretty much all mine. I drove Keifel to work very early for a weekend, dropping him about 7:45am. It was too early to go to the market but silly to drive all the home so I popped into Provence on 21st. I’ve been disappointed the last few times I’ve been there, the service has been off or the floors have been really dirty. Things seem a little improved today and I got an almond croissant, my favorite, and a latte and scrolled through some social media while the other early birds flocked in.

By the time I got to the market, the day was in full swing. I got milk and fruit. There were some gorgeous eggplant but no one at my house will eat them but me and as much as I love it, I don’t want to eat leftover eggplant for three days. The Peach Truck is still going strong so I picked up a bag of peaches and traded dollars with a couple other farmers for some huge blackberries and some tiny red plums I had never seen before (I wish I had thought to take a picture…).

The house was still quiet when I got home, so I dragged out the laundry baskets and made some coffee and set about making a batch of plum jam. I bought Food in Jars last spring with grand dreams of making Christmas presents of jeweled summer fruit in jars after a Saturday spent making some iffy strawberry jam with Andrea. Since purchasing the book I have perused its pages many times and made exactly zero things from it. I have actually made (so much better) strawberry jam a couple times and some devilishly good pickled onions but nothing from the book. I even bought a Kuhn Rikon pan with a rack insert big enough for exactly one pint jar… still nothing from the book. With my bounty from the market laid before me on the counter, I was determined to make something. I settled on the recipe for Small Batch Mixed Stone Fruit Jam thinking the plums wouldn’t equal the three cups of chopped fruit required and I would need to throw in at least one of the peaches.

The plums were exactly three cups. I grated in the zest of one lemon, pouring its juice in after and sifted the desiccated vanilla bean pods out of my jar of vanilla sugar (Ms McClellan had suggested adding a vanilla bean) and topping it up to two cups from the sugar canister. The sugared, lemoned plums hung out in the fridge while I started laundry, put the dishes away and had lunch with Julian (his breakfast). Then, on to serious jam making.

The recipe says the batch should be enough to fill three half-pint jars. Apparently I don’t have any half-pint jars. Apparently I have a whole box of wide-mouth pint jars (no idea), a couple small-mouth pints and two 1/4 pints. I set everything up best I could as I have not invested in a canning pot proper but use my pasta pot with a steamer in the bottom. This is not ideal as the pint jars are actually a little tall on the rack. The directions in the book are pretty spot on though it took a lot longer than I thought it would to reach the temperature suggested for a good set since there’s no added pectin. My batch made one full pint and one 1/4 pint of deeply purple jam. Of course I tasted the slick of jam left in the pan. I am always amazed at the natural spiciness of cooked plums. If it sets it’ll be wonderful.

As I typed the last line I heard the favorite sound of all home canners: the ping of a sealing jar.

Cherries in the sun

Cherries in the sun

It’s not every day that I get to wallow in what is now my avocation (vs. when it was my vocation – however poorly paid), but I have done so today. Thoroughly. And now I feel compelled to share.

I dropped Keifel at work this morning early and then wended my way over to Crema on Hermitage Avenue to have breakfast solo. A small group of travelling friends was ordering in front of me telling their story of being directed to Crema for latte art. Crema’s lattes are art but I would say more in the drinking than the deftly done heart in the silky foam. I got a latte, too, and a tasty lemon-raisin scone from Dozen Bakery, found a sunny window and enjoyed my quiet breakfast looking out over one of Nashville’s newest “it” neighborhoods. I ordered a coffee soda to go and bought a half pound of Yemeni coffee that smells like perfume in the bag and headed out the door to my next foodie adventure for the day. By the way, if you haven’t been to Crema and haven’t had the, seasonal, coffee soda – go now. It’s worth the drive over. I promise.

My next stop for the day was a class on food styling for food bloggers. I think calling myself a food blogger is slightly aggrandizing considering the (in)frequency of my posts, but we’ll roll with it for our purposes. Teresa Blackburn, food stylist and food blogger, taught the class assisted by Lindsay Landis.

Teresa had laid out several different table top looks for staging a picture and then mixed and matched a new one to put together a beautiful salad with figs, blackberries and preserved lemons. The new wrinkle in my brain on that score was using cold, pre-made mashed potatoes as “ice” under the leaves to keep them cold and act kind of like a flower frog to support the leaves. Some strategically placed figs, a couple blackberries on toothpicks and some pipette-drizzled dressing later, the salad was ready for its closeup.

The class was great but by far the best part was chatting with other local food bloggers, including Teresa, and meeting some incredibly talented, passionate women and men. Hence, part of the reason I felt compelled to step it up for the day, at least, and post. I’ve been chatting with Keifel about reskinning the blog. The purchased “harvest” theme is wearing thin on me and I’d like to clear up the clutter and pull in some of the info from the currently on extended hiatus supper club site, arsculinaria.net. I’d like to hope the fire will burn for a bit but it’s summer and there’s a lot going on, including but not limited to Nashville’s growing number of farmers’ markets and the abundance of beautiful local produce to enjoy.

As it’s the weekend and there are two young adults in the house with hearty appetites burning through the contents of the cupboards and fridge, a shopping trip was due. I missed out on my usual Saturday morning downtown farmers’ market run so had to hit Whole Foods a little harder than I usually do. There was a sale on cherries prompting clafouti (recipe from the Joy of Cooking with a slash of Trinidadian rum) for tonight’s dessert after a dinner of baby potato, leek and ham hash.

So wrapping up my foodie porn kind of day will be dinner surrounded by the lovely faces of my family, preceded by this blog post and some summery baking. I snuck in a photo, though I don’t think it stands up to the photos out of today’s class. I’ll get there, maybe. As much as I love playing with my food and taking pictures, I really prefer writing and that’s why there’s this giant block of text then my sunny picture of cherries at the top.

I’ve become a little obsessed with the idea of making lots of things from scratch one would normally buy at the store. I mean why not make something with a handful of pronounceable ingredients rather than buy something with twenty scary things you can’t pronounce and would need a child lock for if it were under your sink?

I’ve wanted to make cheese for a while but was a little intimidated by it. I have no idea why as I made much harder, more complicated things in culinary school and several times since. Ricotta seemed less intimidating and I do love it with a drizzle of honey and some toasted almonds.

You can find the recipe I used on The Martha’s website. It’s pretty straight forward. Heat milk and cream. Add lemon juice. The milk makes curds on its own. Strain. Chill. Eat. Most likely repeat. Is there anything you’ve wanted to learn to make from scratch?

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Using local, non-homogenized milk is a bonus.

 

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Need to invest in a real cheese cloth. This part was a little messy.

 

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And now I know exactly what I’m having for breakfast.

After making crazy big meringues last weekend I found myself with an unsightly number of egg yolks to use up. I hate to throw food away and would usually make some kind of eggy bread with the glut. But… we already had bread, bagels and a pan of cornbread. What’s a woman to do?

Trawl the internet for “recipes with ten egg yolks” and light upon lemon curd with exactly that many yolks and the need for the zest of three lemons and a cup of fresh lemon juice. I also had a bag of lemons that were going to shrivel on the counter.

Lemon curd duly made. A scone would be a beautiful conveyance for said curd, but that takes us back to the “we have all this bread” issue.

Lemon curd is very good on warm toast.

 

Moving, again

victoria  —  September 9, 2012 — 1 Comment

We’re staying in Nashville for now but the new place is smaller – though better laid out. It’s giving me the opportunity to think about what I should hold onto and what I should let go of. I went into this thinking I would be very emotional about it but I have not. I read something fairly recently – I apologize for not noting the source – that when one keeps everything nothing is precious. It stuck with me and has guided my decision making as I go through boxes in the attic and  cupboards that the items have not left the shelf since we moved in almost two years ago.

Kitchen things – dishes, pots and pans, gadgets – have always been my sticking point but I have been ruthless. I’m not catering anymore and if I did go back into the food business it would be something entirely other. This made it easy to part with multiples of things and giant pots and pans that I wouldn’t even use to cook for a big party at my place. I also got rid of things that had not been used in at least a year. Pared down serving pieces, including a heavy punchbowl with two many cups. I have moved it four times and used it two, time to go. We sold it on eBay with the proceeds going to purchase a new couch for a smaller living room, as did a few other things that we thought might be worth the hassle of shipping. Most has just gotten packed carefully and piled dutifully into the car to go to Good Will. I know it sounds hokey but I do feel lighter.

I am hopeful that by releasing these things into the world with whatever emotional baggage they contain, I am opening up space in my life for new, positive things. I’m not down with The Secret or abundance theology, but I do believe you can’t accept a new thing – job, adventure, whatever – if you are clutching things to you that don’t fit who you want to be anymore. I don’t know that I’ll have my life down to a suitcase – for more than a week or three anyway – but I’d like to have it light enough that I can go wherever the wind takes us.

One sign you might be raising your boy right :

Julian's first pie crust

Heat be damned, I have cooked more in the last week than in the last two months. I’ve tried to carve out time for both shopping and cooking and I have to tell ya, it feels much better. I don’t mean to sound all Suzy Homemaker superior (the universe knows Saint Martha would be appalled by my baseboards) but it’s really that I get sick of restaurant food quickly. And with the heat, all I’ve really wanted to eat was fruit and more fruit. Sadly, the local batshit crazy weather has made even seasonal fruit crazy expensive but we stocked up anyway. I am convinced that it might be possible for me to become a fruititarian. Not to worry about my sanity though really; my family would desert me for the siren call of cow and pig flesh inside a week. In light of that we’ve had brats in beer, a yummy blackberry cobbler, salmon cakes, stir-fried bok choi, teeny marble-sized new potatoes, and ribs and a coffee and ancho rubbed shoulder roast. I won’t my dryer because of the heat but I did crank up my oven. Insanity thy name is hunger.

And for the usual non sequitur, the aforementioned weather and my own laziness prevented any real gardening aside from a leggy thyme plant on the kitchen sill. However, I have been watching Britains of the 1980s re-enacting gardening of the posh Victorian and starving WWII eras. The Victorian Kitchen Garden, The Victorian Kitchen, and the War Garden & Kitchen are fascinating and strangely addictive in that way that can never be fully explained by the anglophilic addict. If you find yourself somewhere loathsomely hot (with electricity and the intrawebs) and some time to kill, you could do worse than watching someone toil in the gray British summer and stifling smoky kitchens of yore. Bonus points added for an adorable ’80s professorial presenter with a spindly mustache in Peter Thoday (I can’t believe he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia article; he really is fun to watch).

Best of luck to you on the weather crap shoot this summer and safe and happy 4th.

Late Saturday Lunch

victoria  —  March 3, 2012 — 1 Comment

Due to March’s decision to take that whole “in like a lion” thing a little too literally, I found myself unexpectedly home today – a Saturday – having not driven to Chattanooga last night. Keifel’s work schedule and my sleepiness precluded a fancy pants breakfast so I decided a fancy pants lunch was in order. Have I mentioned that I consider crêpes a food group?

I spent part of the morning planning two upcoming cooking events (not catering = not getting paid) and came across this recipe in my perusing. I had almost everything on hand.

Buckwheat Galettes with Gruyère Cheddar, Onion and Bacon Filling

Makes 12 – requires some type of pan suitable for making crêpes (and requires scales – sorry)

  • 75g buckwheat flour
  • 75g all-purpose (or plain) flour
  • 2 medium, local eggs, lightly beaten
  • 250ml whole 2%, non-homogenized milk
  • 1 Tbsp veg oil (safflower is my go to)

Filling:

  • 2 large onions, sliced
  • 200g American-style smoked bacon, local, cut into thin strips (crosswise)
  • few thyme sprigs or teaspoon dried
  • 2 garlic gloves, minced
  • 100g black wax, extra sharp Cheddar, grated
  • 100ml crème fraîche ricotta cheese

Mix the flours together, sprinkle in a little salt, mix 100ml water with the beaten egg and whisk mixture into the flour, add milk slowly until batter is smooth. Cover and chill 2 hours to let the flours hydrate. Not doing this will make you curse the pan, me, whoever first thought buckwheat was edible and probably your mother for you having been born. Recipe doesn’t call for it, but I think they would brown better with a teaspoon or two of sugar; mine were a little on the not-browned side.

An hour and a half later or so, make the filling, sauté the bacon until crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan and drain on paper towel. Remove all but a tablespoon or two of bacon fat from the pan and add the onions. Sauté until lightly golden brown, add the garlic and thyme and sauté a few more minutes. Add back the bacon and set on the back burner, on low, until you’re done making the galette part of the recipe.

When your batter has hydrated for two hours, heat a crêpe or similar pan on medium heat. Dip a paper towel into the veg oil from the crêpe part of the equation and rub the inside of the pan with a very thin even layer or oil. Place 1/4 cup of batter and twirl around the pan until evenly distributed, it’s fine if some goes up the sides a little, in fact it’s good and will help you tell when your super skinny pancake is done. When the lacy bit at the edge pulls away from the side of the pan flip your crêpe over with a large palette knife, wooden crêpe spatula or whatever is handy (I use my fingers a lot for this) and let it cook on the other side for about a minute. Place on plate in very low oven to keep warm until you’ve finished the others. Do not be discouraged if the first one is a disaster. It is traditionally referred to as the dog’s pancake and is not a moral failing on your part. Finish your crêpes, oiling the pan as needed. You’ll get between 12 and 10 depending on the severity of the dog pancake. Stir the grated Cheddar and ricotta into the onion mixture on the back burner and heat through. Fill crêpes by putting a large tablespoon of filling on one quadrant and folding over the crêpe in quarters. Two per person is pretty filling especially with a little astringently dressed spring mix on the side for the green stuff. Recipe in the mag recommends serving with hard cider as this is practically the national dish of Brittany. Drink it if you got it.

 

 

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Pumpkins not included

In culinary school one of the things I loved best and hated most was mystery basket days. They weren’t attached to winning a million or your own restaurant or your face next to Guy Fieri (shudder) on the Food Network or even not looking like an idiot on the Food Network; they were attached to grades. For this type-A, it was a struggle between this has to be perfect and oooh fun. Stress can kick creativity in high gear and occasionally my team and I would get the blue ribbon for the day.

Fast forward five years.

I am not currently cooking professionally. I work a workaday week and have to get dinner on the table. Life is currently filled with obligations, desires and some tragedy. What’s a girl to do with a fridge full of farmer’s market whim, some staples and some things that just need to get used? What is said girl suppose to do if she is also slightly comatose from too many sleepless nights and extra braining at work?

Enter Whole Foods’ Recipe app for iPhone On Hand feature. If you ever played with Google Cooking you’ve got the basic idea. In the app you choose three ingredients you have in the pantry or fridge and touch search. The magical Internet elves sift their recipe cards and give you a list of what you could make with those three items. Obviously, the app is more limited than Google Cooking and you can’t add things like birds’ nests and unicorn horn to your larder list but it does offer some tastier options, many with healthy eating considerations.

My adventure tonight yielded white beans and sausage over polenta with kale. I didn’t have beans but I did have a red pepper. It also didn’t say add a splash of cream and the grated end of some cheese to the polenta, but, hey, I needed to use them up. Recipes are a map and I encourage detours. As always, your mileage may vary, but I like the app and the type-A in me is still challenged enough with the tweaking and tasting even if it is cheating.