27 September, 2006

Tropical Scrounging

I imagine “The Pantry Forager,” an essay by Pete Wells for Food and Wine, could spark a mean Food Network reality show. Tonight: four chefs, four kitchens, four hungry families. What will they whip up with just an onion, a jar of peanut butter, a box of spaghetti, and thirteen cookbooks?

Yesterday, I faced my own Mother Hubbard moment. I had three mouths to feed and nothing but two questionable chicken breasts. Rather than walk a block to Safeway (and deprive the already open beer on the counter of my company), I played Pantry Forager.

I used to think it the mark of a bad book when the reader stopped, mid-paragraph, to write something of her own or, worse, cook a meal. But page after page of Best Food Writing 2005 is mouth-watering, and I realize now that a good book should make you hungry. I am seduced by a syrup of fresh oranges and vanilla bean whisked with oil. I am tempted by a box of spaghetti and a jar of peanut butter. I am challenged by two old chicken breasts and a one-pound bag of brown salad.

One whose home is stocked with fresh oranges and vanilla beans needn’t worry much about foraging. But a few fancy staples in your home can make any cucina povera elegant. Don’t leave the grocery store without a bottle of nut (roasted hazelnut, macadamia nut, walnut) or avocado oil. Keep a small bag of unsweetened, grated coconut around. And you can’t go wrong with a spare vanilla bean.

This made-for-summer recipe was adapted from one on a low-carb forum I frequent. Original credit goes to a poster named Cristeen, whose innovative combinations have been making my family’s tongues happy for several years. Like every recipe in a cook’s repertoire, this one has been diddled and tweaked to perfection for our particular palates.

Cristeen’s (Mostly) Tropical Chicken Salad


2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, boiled, torn apart, and chilled;
1 lb. bag of salad (preferably not wilted);
assorted sweeter vegetables (grape tomatoes, red peppers, spring onions), diced;
1 banana;
1/4 cup cashews (or peanuts, almonds, pecans, or walnuts—in that order of preference);
2 T coconut (optional).

1/4 cup toasted hazelnut oil (or avocado, macadamia, walnut—olive as a last resort, don’t bother with vegetable oils);
1/2 cup white vinegar;
1/2 cup (scant) Splenda or sugar.


This is a salad, so throw the whole shebang in a bowl. Whisk the dressing in a measuring cup, pour it over the salad, and toss gently, taking care to preserve the fragile state of the bananas, especially if they are as left over as ours. Serve immediately.

This is a filling meal appropriate even for the child who hates salad, as mine does. It’s twice as delicious with fresh ingredients as it is with old ones, but it’s still tasty, especially in summer months, when cooking can make you cranky.

21 September, 2006

Happy Noodle Year

When I first met my husband, he was not initiated in the ways of the Jewish princess. He had a lot to learn, but it was mostly about family and holidays and food. For me, Jewishness is more of an ethnicity, a heritage in the way that someone is Italian or Hungarian. Most of us come from a people about whom a funny movie could be made; My Big Fat Greek Wedding is just as easily about the Turkish or Irish or Jewish.

All talk of Zionism and anti-Semitism and war and even religion aside, I’m proud to be Jewish for the important reasons: family, education, history, strength, and food.

Friday is Rosh Hashanah. Dinner is usually brisket—which isn’t dry and stringy when your Jewish grandmother is a terrific cook—and and sweet things: apples in honey, mandel bread, and kugel. When I first met Marty, he called it COO-gle. Whatever you call it, it’s delicious. Hardly any variation tastes bad.

These instructions are taken from a card in my Grammy’s hand; in some places, I kept her instructions intact. When my grandmother died, my aunt inherited nearly all of her hand-written recipe cards; no one is sure why, since my sister and I were more sure to follow in her footsteps and make these goodies. But there’s no room for sour grapes on the Jewish new year, only sweet ones.

Noodle Kugel

1/2 lb. wide noodles
1 stick of butter, divided
1 C light golden raisins
3/4-1 C sugar
1 stick of butter
1 t vanilla
1 can apple pie filling
1 C sour cream
5 l eggs

1. Preheat oven to 350° for metal pan, 325° for glass.
2. Boil noodles until soft; drain, and return to pot.
3. Add 3/4 stick of butter and all the ingredients except eggs.
4. “beat eggs in apple can + add to mixture”; mix well.
5. “grease long pan. Pour in.”
6. “cut up remaining butter in pieces and put on top.”
7. Bake for 45-60 minutes, “longer if necessary.”

My favorite thing about Judaism, though, is getting two starts to the new year. All the things I’ve screwed up in January are suddenly forgiven. And once school has started anew, and the air is full of delicious smells of burning leaves and morning dew, I’m better able to find my niche among the nooks and crannies of my life.

Happy New Year!

Braided Challah

My dear friend, Maya, over at Chai Time not only created this amazing challah recipe, but she starred in her own video that teaches you how to do a lavish, intricate braid! Get the recipe, then do it!

17 September, 2006

Lick Your Chops

Before hitting the bathtub with my copy of Best Food Writing of 2005, I set four two-inch-thick pork chops in the fridge to defrost.

I’d used Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Killing Dinner,” a piece that ran a year ago in The New Yorker, as an example of a killer intro in my class the other day and even wrote about it. But I’d never gotten a chance to finish the short essay until last night. It didn’t end as I’d expected—with some great plea to the masses to get physical with animal protein, despite the encouragement to go barehanded up a chicken’s ass.

I spent the remainder of my Saturday night in a soggy, sobbing heap on the guest bed, swearing off chickens and pigs and cows based on Hamilton’s account of her first slaughter, badly botched and vivid. In a dream later, my proposal for a new cooking show was accepted in Poland; I took my friend, Rita, to document the event. On the first show, we made pork chops.

I was afraid of pork chops for a long time, worried I wouldn’t cook them long enough, that people would get sick, that I would overcook them. My neighbor is the poster child for food safety and always has me sticking a thermometer in them. Blech. The chops turn to shoe leather before the mercury reaches PORK.

Now I wing it, and they’re what I serve to guests, who can’t help but make seductive grunting noises with every bite. I make them for just us, too, since the dish is mostly hands off.

This recipe for the crust and sauce is adapted from Fran McCullough’s Low Carb Cookbook, and it is one of the finest combinations of flavors and colors ever to hit a sauté pan.

I like to fork-poke the pork to tenderize it (and also to think of the phrase “fork-poke the pork”).


Pork chops, thick cuts (Costco’s are perfect);
dry mustard;
coarse salt;
1/2 cup Dijon mustard;
2 T soy sauce;
1 T rosemary;
1 t minced garlic (jarred is nice);
1 T olive oil plus more for pan.


1. Salt the chops on both sides and cover with dry mustard; let sit as long as you like (in the fridge if truly long!).
2. Heat a deep, lidded sauté pan; add olive oil to coat the bottom. Turn up the flame!
2. Mix a sauce of the remaining ingredients and cover the pork chops, top and bottom.
3. Add the chops to the hot pan, and sear them, both sides.
4. Put the lid on and cook on the lowest heat possible for about 45 minutes or more, depending on your stove.

It’s easy to overcook the chops, so don’t. After 45 minutes, cut into the smallest one. If it’s done, turn off the pan and tend to your sides: Brussels sprouts and whipped cauliflower (whip a steamed head of cauli in a food processor with half a stick of butter, an ounce of cream cheese, salt, and garlic).

The first bite brought back a long-absent appetite. I declared them glorious. My daughter agreed. “You made them, Mom,” she said. My husband, who contributed steamed, buttered potatoes, laundry, and made beds, ate two.

03 September, 2006


The end of the summer finds gardens in a hurry, as if our basil and squash know this month is their last on earth. Some of them return as volunteers next year—surprises that, unmaintained, will yield a fistful of grape tomatoes sometimes even before your planned crop has set fruit.

My tomatoes are ecstatic. The ground below them hosts my daughter's favorite dog, a couple of birds, and a long-lived goldfish—a recent addition. I'd swear those well-loved souls tend our plants better than I do, though my husband helps them along with his Man Facing Northwest, a long daily meditation with hose.

I recently brought in a bowlful of a grape variety called Juliet, which are far too big for salads; they are smaller than a Roma but bigger than a cherry, and they're just not as sweet as I like my grapes. I had decided to make the quick version of sundried tomatoes (slice them in half lengthwise, lay them on a cooling rack, salt them, and place them in a low oven (180°) for about eight to twelve hours), but my husband talked me out of that idea. Sundried tomatoes may be expensive, but the energy to bake them is probably moreso. (Truth is I haven't had eight hours at home without him, or I'd have done it by now.)

A few of the Better Boys (they're big and beefy and sweet) have escaped my notice in the forest of tomato greenery, and they've plopped to the ground below, heavy with overripeness. But we salvaged a few of them today, many of them with deep splits and gashes but without the bugs usually attracted to them.

It's always to our delight that we revisit Tomatoland. In the coming weeks, we'll have homemade chili, spaghetti sauce, and/or Kitchen Shack-atoré (our daughter's baby pronunciation of Chicken Cacciatoré). And there will be thick sourdough sandwiches of sliced tomato, a thin smear of mayo, and three strips of just-done bacon (I hate it dry, but wet doesn't work on BLTs).

But tonight, it's our favorite of them all: pizza bread. Always trying to keep my carb count low, I put mine on a low-carb wrap. So many grocers are carrying them in so many different brands, and they get better all the time. (They get soggy, though, so you have to toast them in a pan.) The rest of the clan uses sourdough bread, which we usually have on hand.


a loaf bread
butter or olive oil
some ripe tomatoes
sprinkle of salt and pepper
handful of grated Parmesan cheese
pinch of garlic powder
pinch of oregano
pinch of basil


There's no way to write a recipe this casual using exact measurements. This is fun in the kitchen. Make it your way.

1. Preheat the oven to 180°.
2. Slice the tomatoes and the bread thin.
3. Drizzle some olive oil or smear butter (my husband's preference) on the sliced bread.
4. Lay the tomatoes on top. Cover the bread, but don't overlap tomatoes.
5. Salt and pepper the tomatoes to taste. (I don't do pepper.)
6. Throw on some cheese.
7. Toss a pinch of garlic powder, oregano, and basil (more basil than oregano, and forget about the fresh; you're not cooking this stuff long enough).
8. Bake in the oven about 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted.

Of course, there are many ways to make pizza bread. You can even put your tomatoes on a store-bought pizza crust, toss on mozzarella and Jack cheeses, add some pepperoni. But why? Your garden is here to make your life easier, not send you shopping for extras. You have bread. You have olive oil. You have the basic spices. Live like a happy peasant.

02 September, 2006

The Cake Life

When I showed up on my neighbor's back porch this morning, looking for a #80 tip so that I could pipe chrysanthemum petals on my girlfriend's birthday cake, she said, "You're just in time!"

"It's the other cake lady," said Jim, and he and Ann welcomed me in to see and taste the latest experiments.

"I'm quitting my job," Ann told me. "I'm thinking of turning Abbey's bedroom into a baking room, and I'm going to quit my job and do one wedding cake a week."

That's fine for her. She has the personality trait one needs for cakes, a trait I lack: patience. I can blame everything that's wrong with my life on that character flaw. It's a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

I spent my entire Friday baking. I should have stuck my head in the oven instead. Don't get me wrong: I usually love helping my kitchen to sound like a kitchen should, with whipping and beating and all kinds of verbs, noisy and sometimes violent. It reminds me of my grandmother's kitchen. She was messier and noisier than I, with onion skins in a clear bag on the counter and liver grinding and things boiling over on the stove and mixers whirring.

Baking is altogether different from cooking. Oh, give me a houseful of company, and I can serve them salmon chowder and mustard and rosemary-encrusted pork chops, Brussels sprouts with garlic and butter, and rich, mashed cauliflower as creamy as potatoes. You can hide a multitude of sins with a sauce and a garnish and a fancy plate and some wine. It's dessert that jangles my nerves and unsteadies my hands.

I tasted Ann's test cakes—one from The Cake Bible, which we both decided wasn't very good, and another from a Southern-style cookbook. I tried an amaretto buttercream that was too cold to be tasty but too yellow for her needs. Frankly, I am the better baker. She is neat and patient, though, and you would choose one of her cakes over one of mine based on their appearance.

Ann followed me back to my messy kitchen to test my meringue buttercream and the fudgy chocolate frosting. She tasted with a thoughtful expression, as if she were rolling it all around on her tongue to pinpoint every ingredient. "Good," she said. "Very good."

She gave me a few ideas for covering up my less-than-smooth buttercream, which was a little too sticky to finish with parchment, and then we compared ways to make a basket weave. I showed her the stroke I gleaned from an episode of Martha Stewart, and she showed me what she learned at the Cake Cottage (I took the same class but missed that night). In far less time, Ann made a perfect basket weave. She took the extra second to prepare the pastry bag, twist up the end, feel the weight of it in her hand. When she squeezed, the frosting was released in a uniform strip; nothing splurted; no icing oozed up out of the top of the bag. Next to hers, my basket looked as though it had been nibbled by rodents.

Before she left, Ann told me about another pattern—one I'd never tried—that would be easy, even for me. I didn't practice it first; I just went for it.

Frosting does not, alas, cover many sins; it is a sin itself. So when you make a mistake, it's easy to make several worse mistakes on top of the first. This is my specialty. Though the Cornelli lace looked OK as it was, I couldn't leave almost-well- enough alone. So I piped an unpracticed chrysanthemum in the center, the #80 tip jamming several times and leaving sloppy spurts of malformed petal on my would-have-been-beautiful-if-I- had-taken-my-time birthday cake.

I wouldn't have made this cake at all had I not decided, in a panic, that my two cocoa buttercream cakes would not be enough to serve 35 people. And so at 5:30 this morning, I found myself standing in the same spot in front of the Kitchen Aid mixer, where I had stood from 11:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. yesterday, baking layers of cakes and wiping my hands on my clothes. (At dinnertime, I made good on my promise, despite my exhaustion, that my daughter could help me make chocolate chip cookies.)

And now it is 2:00 on Saturday. The cakes, all three of them, are rotating from countertop to fridge (I only have room for two). My kitchen is clean and peaceful. Rain has been falling since yesterday, remnants of tropical storm Ernesto, and the air is crisp as an apple. The house smells sweet. I remember my grandmother at the end of a long day of cooking for a holiday, the crumbs of her sourcream apple cake swept up, the dishes put away, leftovers divied up and doled out and sorted by the front door. My most vivid memories of her are from the back, as she took each step in slow motion, her spine crooked and hunched over, her shoes and apron off. I can still hear how she moaned with pleasure when she sat down, at long last, on the edge of her bed.

I know what you mean, Grammy.

28 August, 2006

From Grammy to Google

When your grandmother dies, especially if she was a baker and a cook and a knitter, you suffer so many kinds of loss. When you can’t remember how to pick up a dropped stitch or how much mayo goes in her chicken divan or how many extra-large eggs you need in a recipe that calls for large (four per five), you get a pang. We used to discuss important matters like these during midnight phone calls.

For my girlfriend’s fortieth birthday party Saturday night, I plan to make Martha Stewart’s Cocoa Buttermilk Cake, but, as she’s not a graduate, and rectangular cakes seem a bit youthful (I’d like to make her feel older, since I’ve got three years on her), I’m trading the two 8x12 pans for two 9-inch rounds. But will it work?

While Google can never replace your grandmother (it doesn’t notice when you’ve gained weight, never tells you it liked your hair better another way, and can’t make chopped liver or love you, for instance), it sure comes in handy when you’re looking for cake pan size conversions. The answer is yes.

But the bigger problem is that this recipe serves just 12-15 (ten, if the guests are all me), and this party has more than twice that. Looks like I'll be making another of Martha's cakes (two layers, though, not three).

Friday and Saturday will be messy days in my kitchen. And I will miss my grandmother a hundred times.