Monday, September 26, 2011

Lazy Ratatouille Recap

Digging through e-files today I discovered a long lost post written but never published. So despite the transition from tomatoes to apples and all that autumn entails, here's where I was at for July and August. Plus it seemed to fit with our handy dandy new header (thanks Shea). Love the tomatoes.

Julia Child (JC) is adamant about a number of things. Among them she insists that the elements of ratatouille (tomatoes, onion, garlic, peppers, zucchini and eggplant) MUST be cooked separately before they are combined. It has something to do with integrity of flavor I suppose. I’ve made JC’s version. It’s fantastic, and I must admit worth the extra effort if you have the leisure time.

However, on a Tuesday night after work I’m usually uninterested in the prospect of turning a potentially one pot, quick dinner into a 50 minute labor-of-love-homage to French cooking. Sorry, JC.

And really, while her version is outstanding there’s a million ways of deliciously combining tomatoes, onion, garlic, peppers, eggplant and zucchini. (Or aubergine and courgette if you prefer. Such pretty words.) Add to that the seasonal felicity of all those items and basil appearing at the same time in my CSA haul. With the exception of peppers: when faced with a choice between taking one less heirloom Cherokee purple (unthinkable) and an unexciting green pepper, I made the obvious choice.

Given the Tuesday-state of things I opted to violate JC’s cardinal rule of ratatouille making, and horror of horrors cooked everything in one pot. Hopefully the fact that I used my very best and prettiest pot (Le Creuset to be exact) will help make up for my sins.

And the results, while not strictly traditional, were awesome both hot and cold when incorporated into a pot of Israeli couscous cooked in broth. I don’t usually measure when I’m cooking out of my head but roughly speaking I think I used equal amounts of the aubergine and courgette; an onion; two cloves of minced garlic; most of a large container of grape tomatoes; salt; olive oil; a tablespoon-ish each of anchovy paste and tomato paste; and a sizable handful of basil leaves.

Chop the courgette into bite size pieces, toss with salt in a colander and leave in sink to drain while prepping other ingredients, stirring it occasionally. After chopping all necessary ingredients to give the eggplant time to do its thing (i.e. releasing some of its bitterness) sautée onions in oil. When they're soft add the garlic and cook until just fragrant. Add eggplant and cook until it loses some of it’s resistance. Add zucchini and sauté until crisp tender. I added anchovy and tomato paste here, stirring to fully incorporate. Then tomatoes. Turn heat to low and simmer while couscous cooks (a 2:1 broth to couscous ratio boiled in a pan until liquid is almost entirely absorbed). When couscous is done I turned off the vegetables, tossed in some chopped basil. And mixed the two pots together. Finis. 

It may not be traditional, but it was certainly delicious. This is what I love most about having a csa, the abundance of fresh ingredients that I'm forced to do something with. It's made me very appreciative of how well seasonally symbiotic crops go together. (See above recipe.) Even lacking in one typical ingredient things still taste right. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Evolution of an Eater

I just finished reading a Mark Bittman excerpt about how he learned to cook at His was a largely accidental and practical journey. It’s a path that I would assume resonates with a lot of people. And from the perspective of a child of parents of his generation who had a very similar approach to cooking I think I learned from my parental units the same way Bittman's eldest daughter learned from him. My parents were no fuss, fresh ingredient oriented, aging hippies as well.

My father went through various cooking “phases” where he would become enamored of the cooking styles of his Italian ancestry (kicking off a Marcella Hazan exploration that I was unappreciative of until I was much older) or lavish annual Memorial Day and Christmas Eve parties (which could account for my masochistic urge to host dozens of friends for sit down dinners). In our house however, my father was the “special occasion” cook (although to be fair that has completely shifted in recent years).

When my siblings and I were children my mother was responsible for the day-to-day nourishment of the family. It was a skill she didn’t pick up until she was an adult. It was my father who taught her to cook in the early days of their relationship. My father-the product of a woman who was decades ahead of her time as a working mother in the 1950s and thought that there were more interesting things a woman should do than just cook and entertain (go Gram!)-taught himself to cook mostly out of self-preservation. My paternal grandmother is a spitfire, a fantastic dancer and so vivacious at 90+ that I feel old by comparison, but a stellar cook she is not.

My mother grew up in the exact opposite environment. My maternal grandmother is a fantastic cook, incapable of cooking for a group smaller than 20. Another skill I may have inherited, but in her case a well-justified habit. She fed a family of 10 three meals every day. The sheer logistics involved in that scale of cooking meant my mother never learned how to cook from her mother. My guess is it was easier for my grandmother to delegate care of my mother’s seven younger siblings and household chores to the elder kids than it was to teach them how to use knives and fire safely.

By the time I was old enough to register what was entailed in cooking, my mother was a very proficient cook with an experimental streak that grew as we got older. I don’t remember specifically being taught to cook. I do remember messing around periodically in the kitchen. Our first microwave was particularly entertaining—like an easy bake oven on steroids. In high school my best friend from down the street and I experimented a lot with stir frys for a full summer. And there were a lot of “fancy dinner” parties with my friends that had more to do with dressing up than cooking.

What really launched my interest in cooking were too rather pedestrian impulses: I like to eat and was too poor to eat out as a recent grad living in New York and I hate doing dishes. The first was a rather obvious impetus: survival. The second was a literal cause and reaction. The rule at our large family gatherings is the cooks don’t do the dishes. I hate doing dishes. It seemed only logical to start volunteering to cook side dishes. Which evolved into increasing experimentation, a cooking club with friends, the eventual masochistic urge to take over family holiday dinners and so on. The rest, as they say, is history.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bounties of Spring

It's official: spring is here. Farmer's markets start this week. CSA pick-up kicks off next week. And my tangled bunch of herbs awaits a new patch of earth to make themselves at home in.

Summer in D.C. is a thing to be avoided at all costs. But the fantastic springiness of the transition from winter to summer here makes it all worthwhile. (At least until August hits in all its swampy glory.)

Having grown up in VT where the season between snow and summer is aptly called mud season I revel in the true spring I get here complete with cherry blossom, azaleas, lilacs, dogwoods and all manner of allergy inducing pretties. And best of all: some of the edible signs of spring that I'd only heard tales of before moving here.

We're poised on the cusp of that moment when all the teasing flowers and rain will come to fruition and life will be delicious (and local) again. I've already splurged on early ramps. Now I'm chomping at the bit for more local arugula, early greens, perfect asparagus and the tumble of vegetables to follow.

I have visions of farmers markets dancing in my head. I'm happy to let someone else express it for me.

Today by Billy Collins

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary's cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Embracing My Hippie Roots

What is it about making something with your own two hands that is so satisfying? Why is it so down-deep pleasing to look at something and say: I made that?

The high you get from making things fully from scratch would seem to fly in the face of talk about how Americans don't cook anymore and how the Food Network and its ilk turned food into a spectator sport .

I blogged a year or two back about the idea that cooking is one of the few "dirty" jobs we still do. And I still think that, although I've begun to suspect that cooking is just the tip of the iceberg--the gateway drug. See: recent spate of hipsters learning how to butcher things. And as much as I hate to admit it, I totally get it. I spent the last 6 months looking for posters that show all the butcher cuts. I found them, and now they're taunting me. Isn't the next logical step learning how to break down a cow?

I would not be the first, or only, amateur to take this path. But really, short of ponying up for a class I think my hands on experiments will have to stay on the tamer side for now. (Heads up for the buried lead.)

In that spirit, I made yogurt last week. From scratch, like actually from a gallon of milk! I'm hardly breaking new ground here, I have friends who have routinely done this for years, but I'm still basking in the glow of accomplishment. It was embarrassingly easy, but even that can't diminish my sense of pride. I was dancing-literally-around the kitchen when the texture finally came together. Winner!

The only hitch: there is now a full gallon of yogurt in my fridge. Any suggestions?? It's a lot of yogurt. The obvious short term solution was to embrace my hippie roots, so batch one of yogurt was quickly followed by a massive batch of granola. Yes, I admit my transformation back to the crunchy Vermont hippie roots is nearly complete. I fought it as long as I could, and finally caved. But I still draw the line at Birkenstocks.

But really, despite it's "crunchy" stigma, both the yogurt making and the granola were so. much. fun. Really, you should try it. I'm officially hooked. And ridiculously excited about breakfast every morning. I'm almost as giddy about this as I was about a successful pasta making experiment with LD last month. Another "I made that" moment of euphoria and self-congratulatory back slapping.

I'm feeling quite cocky now. Next stop: cured meat. Now if only I could find saltpeter (which is apparently also an ingredient in some truly frightening explosives-who knew?!?).

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Two days back from a trip to California and I'm still sorting through all the deliciousness. The best food images from part of my trip are most definitely to be found at Shea's blog, I can't even pretend to get visuals close to this. (and yes I have fully lifted one of his pix to catch your interest.) I only wish he'd been there for the rest of the week to catch a few of the other meals we had (I'll get to those later).

There was some amazing food, but what will linger long after I forget the precise taste of the Parkside fried chicken benedict(it was outrageously delicious) or how puckeringly, deliciously, lemony the ice box pie Shea trekked from Lois the Piemaker was (and it alone was arguably worth the price of my plane ticket)was the people all those meals allowed me to connect with.

It was one of the humbler home cooked meals last week that clarified why I love not just the experience of eating well but the conversations and relationships that take place around it. Abby and Paul had two friends over, brothers from Mexico. A and I cooked, one of those "what's in the fridge" meals that turned out surprisingly well.

A, P and I were talking about a New Year's meal from last year when I made carnitas a la Shea, which is a fabulous winner of a meal. LL and I won a sandwich competition based around it earlier this month. Which is all to say I'm kind of proud I've mastered this recipe. Until last Tuesday that is. Martine, the younger of the two brothers schooled me about carnitas. Apparently he's been helping his father cook carnitas back home all his life. Hard to compete with that.

Midway through the conversation (as translated through his brother as my Spanish skills are nonexistent) what struck me about the conversation was less the actual recipe, although it really sounds amazing, and more that we were completely bonding over the "right" way to make the dish. I'm going to concede defeat to the lifelong practice Martine has on me, but in spite of the difference in experience and language we had a long conversation about how you cook carnitas.

It got me thinking about how many times I've done just that, connected with a virtual stranger across whatever barriers might exist around food. Which leads next to how many connections I have with the people I love that are also bound up in and intertwined with food experience.

San Francisco has many amazing food options, but what really made them all memorable was getting to share them with friends and family. As always it's not just about what we eat, but how, where and who we are eating with....of course that won't stop me from dreaming about both the fried chicken benedict and the lemon pie. And saving my pennies for my next flight west.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Resolute Relish

I don't go in much for New Year's Resolutions. I support the notion of goals and self improvement, but the act of making a resolution rings false to me. If you want to do something, just do it. It's possible my personality is more inclined towards contemplation interrupted by bursts of impulsiveness. Yearly goal setting is a tad to regular for my taste. With that said I'm thrilled to bid 2010 goodbye and good riddance and move into 2011. So in the spirit of starting over what I can get behind are some reasonable food and eating goals. So here goes.

1) Learn how to make fresh pasta.
2) Conquer my fear of pie crusts (just in time for what every food paper, blog, smoke signal and what have you calls the year of the pie in 2011)
3) Catch up on my food lit: namely the MFK Fisher compendium and the New Yorker food tome collected dust on my bedside table.
4) Cook more complete meals
5) Eat more vegetables
6) Try more food trucks before the bubble bursts in DC
7) Find more local sources for food to carry through the farmer's market off season
8) Can something
9) Bake something, anything, from the pretty "My Bread" book I've avoided all year
10) Blog more

Happy New Year!