Monday, November 19, 2012

An Everlasting Read

I'm reading An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Well, not just reading. Devouring. Nibbling. Savoring. 

I couldn't bear to read this book quickly. Slowly doesn't work, either. I take a bite and chew thoughtfully, sometimes a whole chapter in a sitting, other times reading a few paragraphs and then thinking. I just finished chapter three for the second, but definitely not the last, time. 

This is not my usual approach. When I re-read it's usually for the pleasure, not the ponder. I want to remember the plot and characters again. But reading this book has been as much about feeding my soul as it has been about feeding my family. 

I first read How to Stride Ahead in the midst of the neverending summer heat wave, simultaneously inspired and repelled by this Bay Area resident describing her Sunday afternoon ritual of roasting vegetables for the week. At the time, the thought of simply turning on the stove was horrifying. Turning on the oven was a nightmare I just couldn't face. 

The days are cooler now, and for the past two weekends I've engaged in this ritual of chopping and tossing and tasting. 

I've done something like this before, with heads of lettuce. I'll tear up and wash a whole head and then my go-to veg is done for the week. But there's no variety there and I cross my fingers every time I open the salad spinner, hoping the leaves haven't wilted yet.

Roasted vegetables are so much more forgiving. You chop one at a time, throw them in a pan, toss with the essentials (olive oil, salt, pepper) and pop in a hot oven. Adler says they're done not when you wonder if they're done, but when you reach in to taste another. 

We eat them at room temperature. I take them out before I start cooking and put them wherever it's warmest to take off the chill. At dinner, we just pass around the plate (last night it was broccoli, celery root, and cloves of garlic--which you don't even need to peel until they are on your plate!) and take what we want. Easier than a salad.

She also converted me on kale. Legitimately. You roughly chop it, cover it halfway with water and a half cup of olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Let it cook until it's ridiculously tender, then puree (I love my stick blender for this). I boiled off the remaining water, then spread ricotta on a slice of the bread I baked yesterday, plopped the kale on top and was satisfied in a way I have never been with kale.

I love this book and I love this ritual. I must spend more time on this chapter, looking at its different facets. I want to own the jewels within its pages, to have them belong to my soul and not have them just be someone else's ideas. I want to know that there are many ways to get a vegetable on the table each night.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Chopping Block

I have a definite love-hate relationship with the CSA box. I'm really thankful that with this one I get some choice in vegetables, which makes me feel a little less helpless. When I saw that carrots, onion, and cabbage were not optional but zucchini was, my heart leapt a little. There are only two ways I like zucchini, and one of them involves carrots, onion, and cabbage, too:


One of the reasons I started canning was to make my own convenience foods. Yes, I love to cook, but not every night. Also, I'm a fan of being able to pronounce most of what I put in my mouth. That, combined with the frugality of making one's own canned soup, has had me plotting to make minestrone for several months now.

The only problem with minestrone is the chopping. Oh, lordy-lordy, is there chopping! Chop the cabbage. Chop the carrots. Chop the onion small. Chop the potatoes bigger. Buy a can of chopped tomatoes to save a teensy bit of time.

I've actually come to the point where I don't mind chopping too much. When I was little, I was pretty sure that I would go over to my parents' house once a month, have my mom chop up a big pile of onions, and then I'd store it in the freezer.

But now I've come to see it as an inevitable part of life, one that is not necessarily an evil. Sure, I save big chopping jobs for when I know I'll have a good chunk of time to not be rushed into amputating a digit, but I like the process, too. Chopping vegetables is a nice time to think. There's a little bit of distraction from real life as you plot how to get a tapered carrot into even pieces. But there's also that time where you just get to chill. You can tell your kid that you're busy, not because you need to check Facebook, but because you are making something delicious for him to eat. There's no guilt in chopping, just the sound of knife through vegetable on wood.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Ministry of Food

This past week we joined our fourth CSA. I desperately miss our San Francisco CSA, with its dirt-clodded potatoes and jars of local honey. The previous CSAs we've belonged to in Southern California have both featured an abundance of chard and kale, two of my least favorite vegetables. And let me tell you, "abundance" is putting it nicely.

Just so you know: there are a lot of vegetables I don't like. Leafy greens are not the only veggies that I'm hating on. But a CSA gives me the opportunity to see things differently, or at least learn to accept those which I normally abhor.

I'm hopeful about our latest CSA. Silverlake Farms has teamed up with other local farms and The Market on Holly to bring a new CSA to Pasadena--this time with an abundance of choice (and I'm using "abundance" in the best possible way). Yes, I still got a bunch of kale, but it's just one bunch, and I was able to choose between red or purple (purple). I got to choose between cauliflower, broccoli and zucchini, as well as between Japanese turnips, Easter radishes, and bok choy.

Bok choy was definitely the lesser evil.

Looks almost tasty, doesn't it?
Normally, I chop up my bok choy really small and throw it in a bowl of udon. Then I'm eating it and the crunch is only a slight distraction from the slurpy goodness of those thick noodles. This time, however, I wanted something that, well, maybe, I might actually like.

Yay for Epicurious! Salmon with Hoisin, Orange, and Bok Choy was ridiculously easy and ridiculously tasty.

I started with a quick rinse of the bok choy, since slicing it lengthwise revealed some pretty gnarly dirt.

Dip it in a bowl of water so you can swish while the dirt falls to the bottom.

This was a foil-wrapped dish, which made it both easy on the clean-up and elegant in the presentation. First went the bok choy with the salmon on top:

Then I whisked up a quick sauce of a little soy, two generous tablespoons of hoisin (I LOVE hoisin sauce), a healthy dose of grated ginger (I peel a root and keep it in the freezer) and the zest and juice from an orange that was also in the box.

Drizzle that over the salmon, top with chopped cilantro from the CSA box, and wrap up tight.

 Fourteen minutes at 425 degrees revealed this:

The bok choy had practically melted. The orange-hoisin sauce made it delicately sweet and tangy.

It was all right. Everything was all right. The struggle was finished. I had won the victory over myself.

I loved bok choy.

Friday, July 8, 2011


In the beginning, peaches grew on trees. Now the peaches were ripe and ready, but they would not be fresh forever, and the smell of peaches at the farmers market wafted over me. 

And I said, "Let me take them home, fifteen pounds of them," and take them home I did. I saw that the peaches were good, and I separated the peaches from the peels. I called the peaches "tasty" and the peels "fuzzy." And there was dipping of peaches into boiling water then cold water as the peaches were skinned--the first step.

And I said, "Let the peaches be separated from the pits." So I took a knife and carved the flesh from the pits and was thankful these were freestone peaches. And they were separated. I called the flesh "halves." And there was a bowl of halves and a pile of pits--the second step.

And I said, "Let the little one entertain himself." And it was so. The little one called the toaster "fun" and the bag of chips "tasty." And I saw that it was good. 


Then I said, "Let the peaches be heated in an apple juice syrup, and when I run out of that a sugar syrup will do." And it was so. The peaches heated a single layer at a time, according to the directions. And I saw that it was good. There was heat and there was a ladle--the third step.


And I said, "Let the peaches go in the jars--the book says fifteen pounds should make five quarts." But it turns out I filled up seven more pints. I made two layers in my canning pot--one layer of quart jars and one layer of pint jars. I filled the pot with water. I set the jars in the pot as I filled them. And I saw that it was full. There was an an empty bowl where the peaches used to be and a full pot--the fourth step.

And I said, "Let the pot teem with water, bubbling over and onto the stove." So I cranked up the heat and put on the lid and tried to keep the fire from going out. The flame raged, according to its strength, and the water boiled and bubbled, according to its strength. And I saw the flame go out and panicked. I said to myself, "Maybe I should move the pot to a different burner and mop up the water so I don't fill the house with gas and blow us all up." And I slid the pot over and turned up the heat--the fifth step.

And the little one demanded, "I'm bored, according to my kind! Let me into the baking cupboard to play." And it was so. The little one took out the blender and put it together, according to its parts, and emptied out the muffin tins and cake pans according to his desires. He pulled everything out that was interesting to play with.
Then I said, "At least you are out of my way." 

And the little one was a busy as his mommy, just like his mom he kept himself occupied.

I looked at him and said to him, "Have fun and keep out of my hair; make sure you don't burn yourself on the pot. Glad there's nothing sharp in there." And it was so.

And when the timer beeped, I saw all that I had made, and it looked very good. And I took the jars out of the pot and placed them on the counter--the sixth step.

Thus the five quarts and seven pints were completed in all their vast array.

I had completed all the canning I desired; but the seventh step was to tidy the kitchen. Oh well.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bake. Hope. Eat it anyway.

I have only one Finnish cookbook, so it’s good that I’m only a quarter Finnish. One cookbook can get me through three months of cooking; although, by the end of those three months, I had pretty much cooked everything I had wanted to, multiple times. It’s Beatrice Ojakangas’ Finnish Cookbook and it was first published in 1964. It’s stayed in print but I’m pretty sure hasn’t been updated at all. Since finding a Finnish cookbook is not easy, and this is the one I grew up with, it was pretty much my Bible for three months.

Two of the Italian cookbooks I used were older, too. The more I use older cookbooks, the more I understand why so many people feel like they can’t cook. Before I undertook this endeavor, I mostly used the latest edition of the Joy of Cooking and, both of which have very clear, explicit directions.

Older cookbooks, on the other hand, are at once more detailed and more vague. One of the Italian cookbooks called specifically for a “fryer” in the chicken cacciatora recipe. But then it also told me to cook until “done.” I don’t think I’ve ever noticed whether a bird is a “fryer” or not, and if I’m a novice cook, how am I supposed to know when something is “done”?

I didn’t feel that way with Beatrice’s book for a long time. Like I said, it was the Finnish cookbook I grew up with.  There were only a few recipes in it that my mom made, but they always came out great. I had faith in it.

As I started my three month long stint, my faith was strong. I started with my favorites, variations on the piirakkaa, which is a Finnish pasty. Oh, it was wonderful! I moved on to a few meat dishes (you’ve already read about the lamb stew). Things were great.

Carrot piirakkaa with egg butter

Then I found the recipe for patakukko, or fish pot pie. It had a rye crust and three ingredients for the filling: whole trout, bacon, and salt. The recipe called for it to bake for a total of six hours and then to rest for another. Oh, how patakukko intrigued me! The time commitment prohibited me from pursuing it for many weeks. But finally, an appropriate weekend arrived and, with the help of my husband (fish completely freak me out), I assembled the dish, popped it in the oven, and because it seemed wrong to enjoy something that took so long to bake by ourselves, invited a couple of friends over, one of whom also has Finnish heritage.

Bacon + trout = patakukko

It baked and baked. We waited and tidied. Our friends arrived.

Finally, time was up, the table was set, and our appetites were whetted. I took my knife and attempted to slice through the crust. Not quite a rock. Leather, maybe? But more durable. The filling was flavorless and dry. We did our best to find nourishment in the meal, but it was tough. Literally. We came to the collective conclusion that I should have used a deeper dish (the directions said “three quart casserole” but no dimensions).

Six hours of baking does this

And that’s the difficulty with these older books. They were written in a time where assumptions were more acceptable. When people learned from their mother or grandmother or at least from experience. I guess cooks were expected to know certain things that have gotten lost in our convenience-driven society.

The hardest part of the patakukko was the waiting. There was absolutely nothing to be done but to be patient. Cooking has definitely taught me a lot of patience, but that patience has brought success time and time again. This time, though, my patience realized only failure. Not failure of my skills. Just failure that it wasn’t meant to be.

And sometimes, that’s what’s meant to be.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Spirituality of Food

I have this theory. Everybody worships something. And I’m not just talking about God or a deity of some sort. I’m talking about some THING. For everyone, at least as far as my theory goes, there’s an object or idea or activity that  is somewhat consuming and brings some sort of meaning to life. Some people love movies. Others are into figurines. Still others dig Mid-century Modern.

I worked really hard to avoid that. So hard.

I stopped collecting playing cards. I threw out sentimental memorabilia from random middle school events. I even got rid of most of the dust collectors on our shelves. Any “thing” that I have a lot of is only out of necessity: I can’t mooch all of my comic books, so I have to buy them. I have a lot of socks because I’m slow about doing laundry. I have five kinds or rice in my cupboard because—

Oh crap. I do worship something.

I think a lot of people worship food. Food is integral to our lives but also interesting and it’s nice to be dependent on something that is so enjoyable. Our society even has a name for this quasi-religion: Foodies.

Foodies care about their food. They have ideals they try to uphold. Foodies desire creative, good-tasting food that is locally sourced, humanely and sustainably raised, wholesome, unprocessed, and, at least for this Foodie, not horrifically expensive. That’s dogma if I ever saw it.

Since the weather has turned freezing (i.e. low 60s), I have switched to Finnish cooking for the next quarter year. Finnish cooking helps me to uphold several Foodie tennets, at least in theory. Specifically, it’s easier to cook Finnish food in the winter because the vegetables are all cold-weather veggies, and therefore easier to source locally.

Until I made lamb stew, that is. Yes, I have gone back to cooking meat, but trying to uphold my Foodie beliefs while doing so. And here is where I failed miserably and need to figure out which altar to kneel at for penance: My lamb was from New Zealand.

I didn’t even think about it at the store! I didn’t even look at the label, I was just glad to buy my meat somewhere I could be confident about Humane and Sustaining and Wholesome. It wasn’t until I got home that I took a closer look and saw where it was from.

Lamb Stew with Dill was amazing. It simmered for an hour and, with just some dill and salt, created a rich broth that became a slightly tangy gravy when added to a roux of butter, flour, sugar, and apple cider vinegar. We loved it, so tender and comforting but not overly heavy. An amazing winter meal. The Finns really know how to do it.

But what was the cost? Herein lies the problem—at least to me—with adhering to a belief system: Guilt is a huge motivator.  Yes, you’re supposed to do it for the love: because you want to, not because you have to. But breaking free from the guilt of not adhering every minute to one’s values is challenging. Where do you let it give a little without having it all fall apart? How do you stick to your guns without them weighing you down? (Or frightening off people who think they’re way too big to be safe?)

I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why I Make Ravioli

Yesterday was ravioli-making day. Butternut squash. Homemade. Delicious!
Now, I am no pasta-making expert, but I do my best, and when I make fresh pasta, I want it filled. Filled with delicious, delectable things. Which, to me, is not butternut squash. I really do not like the b-nut.

However, 1) everyone else seems to and 2) I love butter and fried sage more than I hate squash.

There seems to be no better medium to convey butter and fried sage to my mouth without feeling gross and getting a little bored (because too much goodness gets monotonous unless there’s something to counter that—that’s why we like grilled food with little burnt bits!), so a couple weeks ago I roasted a b-nut and froze it; today I conned a friend into coming over and helping me. Pasta-making is much easier with three hands. (Don’t know what to do with the fourth, but it’s always nice having an extra around.)

I always read in Italian cookbooks about how easy it is to make pasta, and how it’s an important daily ritual of every nonna feeding her clan. However, that does not jive with my Italian-American upbringing. I stole (only my mom thinks I “borrowed”) two old Italian-American cookbooks to use for inspiration (since Marcella Hazan’s book was causing me to get snarky phone calls from the library about returning it sometime soon) and neither of them have a pasta recipe! Both of my dad’s parents worked and there wasn’t the luxury of cranking out pasta every day. That, and I think dried pasta serves its purpose better than fresh. Yes, fresh is what you need for making homemade filled pasta, but fresh spaghetti or linguine? Not necessary. And making fresh shaped pasta? Not worth it.

And that is why I make homemade ravioli.