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September 2005
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November 2005

Martha Would Be Proud

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Dear reader, I must confide in you a small secret you might not have known about me. For the past two months, I have been using plastic flatware. Gasp! Can it even be called flatware if it's not made of some kind of metal? I don't know. But silverware it certainly is not. The circumstances of how this came to pass are not interesting enough to blog about. Apparently, though, my friends think it's hysterical that even during dinner parties, I have had the audacity to present them with plastic forks and knives to eat with. I admit, it's funny in an appalling kind of way (and appalling in a funny sort of way? Never mind).

But now those barbarian days are over! Thanks to Ebay, I am the proud owner of six gorgeous forks and six gleaming knives - all tipped with a lovely bone handle. I feel all grown up again. I can have friends over for dinner with no shame. I can actually cut a piece of meat, twirl spaghetti, and hear the satisfying clink of metal against china when my plate is empty. But my enthusiasm is dampened (only somewhat) by the fact that the plastic isn't out the window just yet. After all, I have yet to find matching spoons...


City of Light

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I'm off to Paris to eat macarons, stroll through the narrow streets of the Marais, gaze longingly at store windows, and see various members of my family for a few days. I hope to fill my soul with enough joy and light to get me through the following week, in which I probably won't see the light of day. Posting will be sporadic! Will my readers stick around? Only time will tell. I plan to drown my separation anxiety from the blog in a souffle...

A plus!


Cabbage and Potato Gratin with Mustard Bread Crumbs

Gratin

It's sort of difficult to see what's going on under that crispy brown crust, but let me tell you that this unassuming dish was the highlight of a gathering I had for friends last weekend. As one of my friends pointed out, it wasn't the kind of recipe that makes your eyes light up at first read, but the taste was really sensational. And it was, surprisingly, very fast to prepare. The leftovers were good, too (and that's coming from me, who finds most leftovers, no matter how delicious they were the day you made the dish, to be totally repulsive. I know, weird.).

To round out the meatloaf dinner, I came across a recipe that was published in the NY Times almost three years ago, for a cabbage and potato gratin. I don't know what article it accompanied (a lot of my clippings are just that - the recipes cut out with no context, which is annoying when I'm writing about them, but hopefully you'll forgive and move on). For a group dinner, it's a great dish. It feeds a lot of people, and is really hearty and tasty - good cold-weather food. I don't usually cook with butter, cream and bacon, so I was glad to see that the huge amount of cabbage really means the casserole doesn't end up being too greasy.

First, I cooked some chopped bacon in a pan,
Bacononions
then added onions and cubed potatoes and the seasonings, and let those cook down a bit. I sliced and diced my way through an entire head of green cabbage (and just eyeballed the right amount) and added that to the pan to wilt a bit.
Cabbage
The contents of the pan were then dumped into a baking dish, and I poured some cream into the hot pan to reduce a bit and get some of the scrummy browned bits off the bottom of the pan.
Cream
When the cream had reduced, I poured it evenly over the cabbage and put the pan, covered with foil, in the oven. Into the empty pan went then some butter, and then breadcrumbs (I used panko because they end up being a bit crispier). When the crumbs were toasty and golden, I added mustard, salt, pepper, chopped parsley and garlic.
Breadcrumbs
I grated some Gruyere onto the cabbage, sprinkled that with the breadcrumbs and put the whole thing back into the oven, uncovered this time, until it bubbled and browned.

A programming note: I realize that the posts this week have been all-NY-Times-all-the-time and I promise to rectify the imbalance very soon...


Amanda Hesser's Tomato and Bread Soup

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The days of stale bread soups are here in full force, and with a glut of San Marzano tomatoes ripening swiftly on my countertops, I figured there could be no better time to prepare Amanda Hesser's version of pappa al pomodoro. Hesser used to write the Pairings column in the New York Times, which finds recipes to accompany the featured wine in the Wine of the Times column each week (this particular recipe was meant to be paired with a gruener Veltliner).

Pappa al pomodoro, like panzanella, is a perfect example of the kind of food that makes up la cucina povera. It's economical because it uses up old bread and pantry staples like broth and herbs that you don't have to look very far for or spend much money to get. This particular recipe is especially appealing because of how quick it is to prepare. The layerings of flavor (bacon, broth, herbs, tomatoes) give it a much deeper flavor than you would imagine possible after only a few minutes here and there of actual cooking time.

First, you saute some bacon in a soup pot until it's browned. The bacon goes in a small bowl, while the bacon fat gets drained off. Some olive oil is put in the pot, along with sliced onions, smashed garlic and a bit of salt. When this is good and browned, you add some sugar to caramelize the onions.
Onions_2
You add the chopped tomatoes and some chicken broth to cook for a bit, then in goes the bacon and herbs (Amanda calls for fresh rosemary and oregano. I used dried, but here I have to be a bit of a pedant about something: rosemary that comes in little glass jars from the grocery is totally forgettable and tastes mostly of dust, sometimes even soapy dust. While I will not be a pompous ass and expect that you ask your mother to go to your grandfather's garden in Italy and clip rosemary from a large bush there, put it in an envelope and send it to you via aerea, I do urge you to buy fresh rosemary at the grocery store or farmer's market or wherever, and lay it in a single layer someplace cool and dry to store for future use. It is completely worth it.). Boil this for a few minutes longer, while you toast some bread.
Done
The soup gets ladled on top of the toasted bread, then the whole thing is sprinkled with grated Parmigiano. At first you'll be eating soup, but as the bread absorbs the broth, and you get further to the bottom of the plate, it will turn into more of a stew. Amanda says this recipe serves four, by the way, but I ate the whole pot divided between lunch and dinner. By myself.

Tomato and Bread Soup
Adapted from Amanda Hesser

4 thick slices bacon, cut into 1/4-inch slivers
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, smashed
Salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
4 cups seeded and chopped tomatoes
1 can of chicken stock (14.5 ounces)
1 tablespoon chopped oregano
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
4 slices of country bread, toasted
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Spread bacon in a soup pot over medium heat, and brown. Using a slotted spoon, move bacon to a bowl. and pour off fat from pot. Return pot to heat, and sprinkle in the olive oil, onions, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Stir to coat, and cook for 10 minutes. Sprinkle in the sugar and continue cooking until onions are silky and well caramelized.

2. Add tomatoes and broth and bring to a simmer. Cook for a few minutes, then stir in bacon, oregano and rosemary. Season to taste with salt.

3. Lay a piece of toasted bread in each of the four warmed bowls. Ladle soup on top. Sprinkle with cheese, season with pepper and serve.


Troy and Nancy Dupuy's Turkey-Spinach Meatloaf

Meatloaf
There's nothing like the picture of a bowl of raw meat to get people's juices flowing in the morning, is there? Well, to be honest, there's just no way a slice of cooked meatloaf can be photographed appetizingly. At least not within my skill level. I tried, valiantly, I did! But the slices just lay there, grayish and pale. Even a squirt of ketchup did nothing to gussy them up (well, aesthetically, at least). So, I present to you, raw turkey meat. Good morning!

Back in my archives of New York Times recipe clippings, I had a recipe for turkey-spinach meatloaf. I recall nothing about the article it accompanied, nor am I entirely sure why I clipped this particular recipe. I mean, I like ground meat and spices just fine, but meatloaf has never really been something I've aspired to make. A good hamburger is one thing, but meatloaf? Since I was having friends over, I figured it would be an easy main course - lightened by the turkey and fresh spinach - and something everyone would like.

First, I simmered six cloves of garlic in olive oil until they were tender (the garlic oil can be saved and used for pasta sauce or sauteed vegetables, for example). I squashed the soft cloves in a bowl along with the ground meat, chopped thyme, cayenne pepper, salt and freshly ground pepper. I also wilted and drained two large bags of spinach with a sauteed onion.
Spinach
I chopped up the wilted spinach (not finely enough, by the way) and added it to the raw meat mixture.
Bowl_2
This was all squished up together and patted into two loaf shapes. I heated some of the garlic oil in a pan and added the loaves to sear on each side.
Loaves
I think I should have probably done one at a time, instead of crowding the pan. Then I put the entire thing into the oven for a little less than an hour. When the inside of the meatloaf registered 160 degrees, I took the pan out. I also promptly burned my hands (not once, but twice!) on the searingly hot handle of the pan. No, I did not win the Smart Cook Award that day.

I served the meatloaf sliced and with ketchup. My guests ate it gamely, but agreed it was nothing special (other parts of the meal were, but that is a story for another time). And after some deep thoughts and discussion, I've come to the following conclusion: meatloaf is a highly personal dish. It might be from a recipe that your mother or grandmother passed down to you. You could have deep cognitive memories attached to the memories of eating it or the smell of the kitchen as it was being prepared and you were too short to even see the counter. If some upstart comes along and tries to make you a lightened, newfangled version of this dish, with no metaphysical baggage attached its preparation and what it could possibly mean in the context of your family and your shared memories, it's going to be pretty forgettable. Either that, or turkey meatloaf is just plain boring.

My advice is: make your meatloaf your own. Don't follow someone else's recipe unless that someone is related by blood or by marriage to you. And if all else fails, eat the meatloaf with lots and lots of ketchup.


Melissa Clark's Spiced Baked Apples with Maple Caramel Sauce

Baked_3
Although the days have been getting shorter and cooler, autumn really descended upon us this weekend - it was gray and incessantly rainy and the kind of weekend where you just want to stay indoors, watching movies or reading a book on the couch, while the sweet, spicy smell of something baking wafts through the house. Last week, I had gone through some of my older newspaper clippings and found a recipe for baked apples from the New York Times that I meant to make that same evening. Life, however, kept on getting in the way, and I wasn't able to get around to them until Sunday. No matter - they were wonderful; yielding, tender apples, complex spices, soul- and belly-warming in their flavor and simplicity. This recipe is a real winner - it's staying in my little book for a long time.

I bought four Empire apples and peeled off a strip of skin around the stem of the apple. Then, using a small paring knife, I attempted to core the apples, (mother and father, please skip over the next part) superficially stabbing my palm in the process. Yeah, I'd probably buy an apple corer or melon baller before making these again. Gritting my teeth and holding onto the apples tighter, I was able to wrest the cores and pits from the apples, but it was a bit of a pain-in-the-neck procedure. But don't worry, there was no bleeding... Once the apples were cored and slit six times apiece, I put them in a buttered cake pan.
Raw_2
I put a dab of butter and a splash of maple syrup into each apple cavity. Then I mixed together some brown sugar (one half less than actually called for), chopped pecans, and baking raisins, and divided this mixture between the apples. I poured maple syrup (again, less than called for) into a bowl, added white wine, a cinnamon stick, a piece of ginger and some ground cardamom and cloves (whole cloves and cardamom pods were called for, but I didn't have them, so I eyeballed about an 1/8 of a teaspoon, ground, each), mixed it all together and poured this into the pan around the apples.
Stuffed
The pan went into the oven. Every ten minutes or so, I took the pan out and basted the apples with the liquid (alternately using a brush or a spoon) until the apples were tender. It took a bit over an hour. I let them cool for bit before eating one with a knife and fork. It was delicious - the wine and maple syrup had taken on a complexity that was rounded out by all those spices. The sweet pecans tied the whole thing together - pecans and apples go so well together! Using less brown sugar and maple syrup was a good idea - they were sweet but not cloyingly so. And although I had friends over for dinner last night, I didn't share even a single apple with them (lest you think I am totally greedy, don't worry, they got something else). But these apples are all for me.