Saturday, September 10, 2016

Life with food, and cookbooks

The pantry

September's book club topic is food, but rather than read a book about food, I thought I'd just really pay close attention to the experience of food in my life, and write about it.

Like everyone, I experience food every day, several times a day. For the most part, I love food. I've got the time now to really enjoy planning menus, going to the market, creating, serving and eating beautiful soups, stews, salads, breads, casseroles, cookies, cakes, jams, shrubs and anything else that I think up to make.
My very-
pared-down cookbook nook

And that's where books come in. I almost always consult cookbooks as an integral part of this life with food, unless I already have a recipe written down and saved on paper or ... unless I have a recipe saved on the Internet.

The stash of often-used
slips of paper with jotted-down recipes

If I don't have a recipe already written down, and I don't think any of my cookbooks contains a recipe for something I want to make, I Google it. Et voila! My other cookbook, the Internet.

People have posted recipes for just about everything you can imagine, and so, it's no exaggeration to suggest that there might not really be a need for anymore cookbooks, and yet I don't know a single cook who's given them up, or stopped buying them. And according to some publishers, well-curated collections illustrated with eye-catching photos, and authored by celebrity chefs, innovative cooks and well-known food bloggers are doing very well indeed.

Well, I'm agnostic about it all. I just use whatever makes the most sense for whatever it is I want to make. Here are some of the sources I've consulted and things I've made this month.

Grand City granola

Grand City granola
This one has as its source a melange of real-life experience as inspiration (a divine smell), a borrowed photocopy of a page from an out-of-print cookbook as the how-to, and my own variations on the theme.

It started with a stay at the Briar Rose, a B&B in Boulder Colorado. I walked into the kitchen there one afternoon, drawn by the most heavenly smell. It turned out to be the next day's granola, baking. I was hooked.

My tweaked version of
Grand City Granola

When I got home, I mentioned my newfound motivation to make my own granola to my friend, Emily, and she shared a recipe with me from a Starbucks cookbook, A Passion for Coffee, that looked great. I tweaked it a bit to suit my own nut and seed-centric preferences, and I've never gone back. Haven't bought granola in years. It's fabulous -- it tastes just as good as it smells!

Avocado-quinoa breakfast bowl

This one was pure Internet search. I was craving something totally different for breakfast, balanced, not the usual, and I don't recall how I phrased the search, but the online photos of this breakfast drew me in, totally.
Avocado quinoa breakfast bowl

It had everything I was looking for, I had all the ingredients already on hand, and it was completely unlike anything I typically have for breakfast. Sometimes I just want new and different. And another plus: it makes up in about 15-20 minutes, the time it takes to cook the quinoa and boil an egg. And with avocado and feta cheese, how can you go wrong?

Deb Perelman's mom's and
Jane's and the NYT's apple cake
Apple cake

I saw this recipe in Deb Perelman's cookbook, Smitten Kitchen, and it reminded me of a recipe I hadn't made in decades, one I came by in the early 1970's from Jane, an old friend of my first hubby, John. I found my copy of her recipe and compared hers and Deb's and they were indeed the same basic recipe. In fact, I went online to look up other examples of this kind of cake and found that there had been one published in the New York Times in 1973, still available online in the Times' archive. Same recipe. For my attempt, I cut the recipe to 1/3 and used a 7" spring-form pan.

1970's era apple muffins

My apologies to Deb, her mom, Jane, and the NYT, but this didn't turn out all that great. It takes forever to bake so the outside is a bit overdone, it was a tad too sweet for me, and the recommendation to use Macintosh apples was, for me, a miscue. It's probably just me and my weird tastes, but really I am much more the apple muffin type -- think about making them on a moment's notice and 30 minutes later you're eating one hot out of the oven. I'm sure I've got that 1970's era recipe in my file too. Oh, yes, here it is. And you just throw all the liquid ingredients, including peeled and cored apples, into the blender and whiz for a few seconds. Too easy!

Heirloom tomato and berry salad

This one came to me just 2 days ago (Sept. 7), on the recommendation of a colleague from the University of Texas Libraries, now retired, Robert Foster. He sends me things to read all the time, including links to recipes like this one, from The Guardian. I saved it right away and have been looking for an excuse to make it since. Today I prepared it for lunch for me and Dennis, along with a BLT on honey whole-wheat sourdough (below). The recipe is Nuno Mendes' and it's super-simple: you just slice and chunk a couple of heirloom tomatoes into a bowl, and toss in some berries (whatever you've got), sprinkle some of your garden herbs on top, again, whatever you've got, and top with a tossed-together dressing of 1 part tamari, 2 parts balsamic vinegar, and 3-4 parts olive oil. Scatter toasted breadcrumbs over the top just before serving.

Tomatoes, blackberries and a BLT
The breadcrumbs were genius: pulse a couple of slices of, in my case, homemade bread in the food processor, turn them into a hot frying pan and toss a little every few minutes until they start to brown, then add 1 T of butter and continue stirring/tossing every few minutes as they continue to toast up nicely. Turn off the heat, salt and pepper to taste, and let them cool. Wow, what a nice crunchy touch on the tomatoes and berries!
Toasting breadcrumbs for the
tomato/berry salad

Honey whole-wheat sourdough bread
Honey whole-wheat sourdough

This recipe came from Bon Appétit, originally, "Country-Style Sourdough," but I found it on the Internet. It's one of Alton Brown's, and I've got it printed out and it's in my stack of frequently-used recipes, covered with my own variations on the original, including this honey whole-wheat sourdough.

Actually, I owe this variation to an old, old friend, Beverly Leathers, who introduced me to sourdough 45 years ago when we were both in college at UT. I still have her recipe for making 4 loaves in 24 hours, but I adapted it to Alton's quicker loaves (and only 2 at a time), well, not quicker by much, but a little. We use this bread for sandwiches, morning toast, french toast, and even breadcrumbs, like the ones that topped the tomato and berry salad, above.

Beverly's sourdough bread, front of card

And, the sourdough starter I used for these loaves is the Mexican plum sourdough I made earlier this summer, from the plums that fall to the sidewalk in front of our house in late July. I wrote about that in Camp Plum, in August.

Blueberry ricotta pancakes with lemon-butter and maple syrup

One morning for breakfast, Dennis asked for pancakes. I happily obliged with a batch inspired by a local restaurant, Cafe No Se, at the South Congress Hotel. We love this place and eat there often. Their pastry chef, Amanda Rockman, makes the fabulous croissants and kouing amann that are our go-to french viennoiserie when we want a Paris fix. But the Cafe also offers ricotta pancakes, which are heavenly, served with pecan butter, bananas and maple syrup.

I didn't have a recipe for these, so I Googled them, read a few for comparisons, and decided on my own variation, which I wrote out on a slip of paper. Really, you can use your favorite pancake recipe and just adapt it with these suggestions:

Blueberry ricotta pancakes with
berries, bananas, lemon-butter and maple syrup
Ricotta pancakes have an interesting distinction, from my butter-loving perspective: they have no added fat in the recipe. I used whole-milk ricotta (1/2 c) and whole milk (1 c), so they're not fat-free by any means, but still. Well, it gives me a good excuse to insist on butter on the finished pancake, which I'd normally forego if there's butter in the pancake. This is just fine in this recipe, because lemon and ricotta seem to be happy together. i just grated some zest into softened butter and stirred it a bit. Perfect.

The other thing about these is their lightness. They've got two eggs (to a cup of flour), but the whites are separated from the yolks and whipped to stiff peaks and folded in at the end, right before baking on the griddle. The resulting pancakes practically float off the plate.

I noted on my recipe that these were fabulous, so I'd remember as the years go by. I've got lots of slips of paper with pancake variations on them. These, and biscuits, are some of my favorite things to make. In fact, I'd have to say that breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. So bright and cheerful a way to greet your brand-new 24 hours!

And while we're on the subject of breakfast, I couldn't omit a reference to my waffle iron. This one's got a nice story to it too.

Pecan waffles

Long, long time ago, I had a friend named Jim Sherrill. He had a place way out in the country, a very rustic little cabin sort of thing, built inside a barn-like structure, all of which he'd made himself. I used to go out to visit him and hang out for a few days at a time. That's where I first saw his waffle iron, sitting on top of his wood-burning stove.
The Jøtul waffle iron

He said he'd used it, but that "it didn't make good waffles" because the batter would run out the sides. Well, I figured there was an easy fix for that problem -- a thicker batter. And you know, I was right. It wasn't the waffle iron at all. You just had to warm it up, medium heat, a few minutes on one side and then a few minutes on the other, and back and forth like that until it's just barely starting to smoke a bit (oh, and it's been buttered and stayed seasoned forever -- you never wash it). Open it up, pour in about 1/2 c batter and close it down and a few minutes later you've got one very yummy waffle. Repeat.

Well, a short time later I was shopping at Le Cadeau, a fantastic gift shop we used to have here in Austin, filled to the rafters with cool imported kitchen stuff. Searching through Le Cadeau's treasures, I found some of my most favorite possessions, among them, my Sabatier carbon-steel knives, and a Jøtul waffle iron, just like Jim's. I found it shortly after seeing his, snapped that baby up, and I've been making heart-shaped waffles ever since. These days, they're all over the place, grace à l'Internet.

The 1989, 'first computer' version of my
basic pancake recipe, marked up way
more than makes sense anymore
The recipe I use has its origin in my earliest teen-aged cooking. I'm guessing I learned it from my grandma, but I'm not really sure anymore. She always made me honey buckwheat's. This recipe makes a really great pancake, and it's amenable to infinite variations, of course.

For waffles, it's simple. You just increase the eggs to 2, and decrease the milk a bit (2/3-3/4 c). A thick batter. But, if you want to use buttermilk instead of sweet milk in your pecan waffles, the amounts of milk in the original pancake recipe and the tweaked waffle recipe are the same (but you want to decrease the baking powder a bit and add in some baking soda). Somehow or another, buttermilk makes a thicker batter. Oh, and add some cinnamon, a little vanilla, and 1/3 c. chopped up pecans.

Heaven on a plate.

And then there are biscuits and scones

As I mentioned above, biscuits are one of my favorite things to bake. So quick and easy, infinitely variable, and always sooooo delicious, hot out of the oven. I usually bake them at least once each week. This week's batch was a take-off on a scone recipe I got from Cook's Illustrated. This is a really special recipe, because the author incorporates a few steps borrowed from the process for making croissants: 1) keeping the butter and other liquids and the dough itself ice-cold (by, among other things, freezing the butter and grating it into the dry ingredients), and 2) rolling out the dough, folding it into thirds (twice), popping it in the refrigerator before the next rolling and folding and then cutting for the final shape.
Breakfast biscuits

I decided to use the recipe to make plain biscuits, following all the special steps except that I used all plain whole milk yogurt instead of the sour cream and milk, and, of course, I didn't include the blueberries and lemon zest. Since I didn't have those to roll my dough around for the final shaping step, I just repeated the layering from the first step after I'd let the dough rest in the freezer 5 minutes as directed, and then patted the dough to a size from which I could cut the biscuits. These were fabulous! The layers that the extra-cold butter and the rolling out and folding give the finished biscuit really distinguish them, but then, most biscuits are fabulous to a biscuit lover.


Deb Perelman's
meatball meatloaves
Meatloaf was one of my mother's comfort foods when I was growing up. She taught me how to make it when I was a kid, and I've made it the same way ever since. But for this month's focus on books, I used Deb Pereleman's meatloaf recipe. She makes large meatballs instead of making an actual loaf, as she explains in her recipe prelude. Though her recipe isn't all that simple -- it's not my mom's 1-bowl recipe -- it's well worth the effort. It requires sautéing some finely processed veggies, making breadcrumbs and simmering the sauce for the top. All of these enhance the flavor. We loved the brown-butter mashed potatoes she serves her "meatballs" on as well.

Roast Chicken

Deb Perelman's roast chicken
with olives, shallots and grapes
Using another of Deb Perelman's recipes, I roasted chicken this week to make dinner two nights: Roast chicken with wild rice and a salad, and chicken tacos. I've had her cookbook, Smitten Kitchen, for a couple of years actually, but really didn't get into it until this month's book club's focus on food. I'm really enjoying her sense of humor, the context she provides for her recipes, and the often-serendipitous way she ends up creating what becomes a family favorite. I like that. That seems to be what happens with me too. Things just seem to come together in interesting ways. That's what she says happened to create the roast chicken recipe.

Well, all I can say is that it was wonderful. We loved it. And the leftovers made a great excuse for tacos a few nights later.

Homemade corn tortillas

Homemade corn tortillas
I learned to make flour tortillas ages ago, but corn tortillas seemed too hard, until I really set my mind to it, and I bought a tortilla press. Oh, and I asked people who made them all the time how they did it, and I got them to show me how. This is magic. Really.

There isn't a recipe, a photo, even a video that can really replace being in the same place at the same time with someone who knows what they're doing and who's showing you how to do it. There were some key points about making corn tortillas that you have to feel, like the consistency of the dough, the amount of pressure to apply with the press, how hot to have the griddle. I have two wonderful women to thank, Maria Solis and La Señora del Taco Bar at Güero's. And that griddle! Another "old Austin" find -- 1970's, Davis Hardware, which used to be on Congress Avenue, around 3rd street, if memory serves.

And then I practiced. A lot. We now have tacos once a week, just so I can practice making corn tortillas. I've finally gotten good enough at it that they puff up on their own! And, they are delicious.

Grilled salmon and pear salad

I finished out the month with a salad from a cookbook I bought on one of my trips to Boulder, Colorado, when I was studying at Naropa. Colorado Colore was published by the Junior League of Denver, Co. Filled with great recipes, it really does try to convey something essential about Colorado cuisine. I'm not sure it succeeds, but I've found that whatever I've chosen from the book to try always turns out good.
Colorado Colore - Salmon
Pear Salad

This week I bought Concorde Pears and Coho Salmon and put together this beautiful, quick and easy salad that we just gobbled up. The dressing, the pears and the salmon seemed like they were just made for each other. Truly delicious.

All the other things...

This recollection of a month of focusing on books about food only describes a fraction of what I read, cooked, baked and discovered. Among the other old favorites and new discoveries were Joy of Cooking's Pecan Puffs ("rich and devastating" the authors accurately describe them),  a couple of lasagnes with homemade sauce from The Figs Table, a Fruited Chicken Salad from California Cooking, several batches of Spiced Caramel Pear Jam from recipes I found on the Internet, my favorite of which was Southern Cooking's, Corn and Cheddar Chowder from Vegetarian Epicure, Book One, and 'Pie Apple' Scones, made from the recipe I described above for Blueberry Lemon Scones. Nice month!

And I'm already into October: I'm taking on croissants and pain au chocolat this month -- after reading extensively about them online, watching videos, and practicing the basic technique with rough puff pastry (the french version of pie crust), I've got my recipe figured out and I start on them tonight. They take 3 days to make...

Friday, September 09, 2016

Amazing august

Inca Doves: No hope; no hope; no hope.
CC*BY J. Labrador

Normally one of our driest and hottest months, August usually brings to mind the mournful cry of the Inca Dove: "no hope; no hope; no hope."

But not this year!

It was cooler than usual and rainy (rain! in August!), so gardens that normally do no more than simply hang on until Fall thrived. We experienced a magnificent renaissance of branches, leaves and blooms. September has been a bit dryer, but still unusually cool, so the exuberance of August continues. No doubt we'll pay for this later on, somehow, but for now, we're celebrating.

One day a week or so ago I counted no fewer than 35 different kinds of flowers blooming in my relatively wild garden. This very nearly rivals the peak of spring bloom here. Just amazing.
Schoolhouse lilies

Mornings are cool and shady, easy to enjoy in the garden, whether just sitting and marveling at the abundance, or puttering around with the typical garden chores, snipping something here, propping up something there, watering a parched pot, cutting some flowers for the kitchen table.

Hibiscus Cecelia with Tritonia
Even from inside the house, the views out the windows to the garden are a delight with the sunshine lighting up the reds of the caladiums, magnifying the intensity of the different greens of the understory foliage plants, or dappling the deck or the paths through the overgrown borders.

Front porch pot
Now to a lot of folks, this will seem like much ado about nothing, but either those folks don't care much for gardens, or they're probably used to beautiful luxuriant gardens in August. It's all relative, I know. And here in Texas in August, this August is special.

Rock rose

Rock roses, begonias, torenia, Mexican petunias, impatiens, tritonia, turk's cap, bind weed, lantana, widow's tears, wadelia, all putting on a show...

Begonias and torenia

Well, I could go on, but I'm sure you've got the point. I just want to remember it. August, 2016.

Monday, September 05, 2016

65 turns around the sun

Birthday at Amy's: Mexican
Vanilla, Dark Chocolate,
and Whipped Cream
For me, birthdays are getting less and less exciting. But, still, it's a birthday, and though the celebration might not be exuberant, or widely announced, I'm still celebrating. This year, Dennis and I went to San Francisco for a long weekend. We thought we'd be escaping Austin's typically hot, humid and dry August, but actually, August has been a real delight this year. But, it's no San Francisco!

It would have been really hard not to be excited about, and happy to be in San Francisco. We lived there briefly, towards the end of the time during which I worked for Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro as a brand new attorney. It's always a nostalgia thing to visit again. But this time, it was like a whole new experience, because things have just changed a whole lot! Us and San Francisco.

Streetcar 1040, J Line, from Telstar Logistics

We stayed on Nob Hill, so every single trip anywhere included as a free bonus, a super-uphill climb to get back to our hotel. Nice! Oh, admittedly, we got Metro passes as soon as we could and took a Cable Car or a bus a lot of the time, but not every time. And then there was that nice long ride on the F Line Streetcar!

San Francisco has a fantastic collection of 1930's and 40's streetcars from all over the country, and even from Mexico and Canada. All of them are refurbished and look almost like new, but they're not. They're the real deal!

Dennis planned and executed the whole trip, as his present for me, so I just got to sit back, relax, and be amused! Naturally, we ate at wonderful restaurants and had great cocktails.

Boulevard's interior, with Bay Bridge
lights through the windows
Our first night, we visited Boulevard, which calls a Belle Epoch building, perfectly refurbished with gorgeous period aplomb, its home. Abe, our bartender, made us absolutely perfect drinks, and dinner was a delight. Off to a great start.

Boulevard is right down by the water, across the street from Ferry Plaza. The Oakland Bay bridge starts its span across the Bay right there, and through the front windows of the restaurant I could see a light show the bridge puts on throughout our dinner. So, after dinner, we walked across to the water and watched for awhile. With a full moon above, quite a scene.

The next morning, we returned to Ferry Plaza, but this time to visit the Farmer's Market. There's no mistaking where you are inside this market's covered section (Rancho Gordo, Blue Bottle, etc.), and outside, you're right along the Bay of course. I could have spent the whole day there.
Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market

Dinner Saturday night was totally different. We ate at Al's Place. It was a bit like Odd Duck, in Austin, but with a Michelin star, so wow! Lots of small plates to share, all fantastic. It was in the far south of the Mission District, and sort of like a NY hipster place. Well, we knew it was San Francisco hipster when our waitress told us that the chef suggested we eat our salad with our fingers. We did, of course, and you should have seen the look on the guy's face who sat at the table next to ours. He'd already confided in us that he was totally out of his element, that he was actually from New York, just not the hipster New York...

Sunday morning we hiked a few blocks down the hill to Taylor Street Coffee Shop for breakfast. This place always has a line, but we were lucky to arrive at a time when it didn't extend outside the very tight entry-way. Our wait was only about 15 minutes.

Taylor Street Coffee Shop, Roy Gregorio, Google Maps

The cafe seats about 20 people, and it couldn't be any more than about 12-15' wide, about the width of taco truck, and not a whole lot longer. Apparently run by a family of food stylists, Taylor Street turns out all the typical breakfast dishes you'd expect, tout suite, but presents them as gorgeously as if they were being offered on the cover of Bon Appetit. And they were just as delicious as they were gorgeous. Dennis went back the next morning, while I had a rendez-vous with my friend, Sandee, whom I'd met in April in Paris, where we both were studying French. More on that meeting, at Tartine, in a minute.

We spent the afternoon in Golden Gate Park, walking most of its length, visiting among other things the sweet little Japanese Garden. We came upon a delightful celebration of Hungary's 1000th anniversary as a country at a bandstand, and felt mysteriously compelled to eat hot dogs and ice cream while we watched the performances. And then there were the roller-skating folks with the capes flying. Not something I've seen lately in Austin. But, I haven't looked for it. Who knows?

Japanese Garden
Sunday nite we were back at Ferry Plaza, for another drink at Boulevard (Abe graciously obliged us) and dinner at Slanted Door, a sort of nouveau Thai place that really impressed! Totally modern, upscale interior, attentive waiters, and gorgeous appetizers and entrees. Unfortunately, we were too totally satisfied to try dessert. They're known for a gingery cotton candy affair.

Monday Sandee picked me up at the hotel and we drove down to Tartine for brunch, and to speak french for awhile. We've been meeting virtually to chat in french each week since we returned from France. Helps us keep up at least some of what we learned while we were there.

Tartine is famous for its artisanal loaves, as well as croissants, tarts, pizza and quiche. It's another place that seems always to have a line.

Tartine, photo from Shared Appetite, where Chris Cockren
posted a really nice piece about his visit to Tartine
This one was long when we got there, and only got longer during the time were were there. It was, as everyone says, well worth it. Perfect croissants. And a lot closer than Paris. Well, not close enough though. I doubt I'll ever have another. At least I've got No Se in Austin. Pastry Chef Amanda Rockman totally nails the Paris croissant, to say nothing of her fabulous Kouign Amann!

Monday evening, we headed to the airport and returned home on the red-eye. Nice trip! Nice birthday! Thanks Dennis.