Previous month:
December 2010
Next month:
February 2011

Zuni Cafe's Chard and Onion Panade

DSC_5728

I had a dinner party a few months ago in which everything sort of felt wrong. Not in the way you'd think - my guests ate everything I cooked (two chickens! multiple pounds of vegetables! an entire cake! a whole liter of whipped cream! six poached quince!) and there were no leftovers. But - has this happened to you? - when I sat down to eat dinner with our guests I looked down at my plate and thought, "I don't want to eat any of this".

It wasn't that the food didn't taste good, I guess. It's just that - and I'm having a hard time expressing just exactly what I mean, so bear with me here - it all felt so...strained, my relationship with what I'd cooked, I mean. I'd expended a lot of time and energy on planning the dinner and cooking the dinner and then once the food was in front of me it just felt so foreign, so far away from what I actually wanted to eat, from the things that make my mouth water. It was a sort of upsetting moment - to be surrounded by nine other people kindly devouring all that was laid before them and to feel so estranged from their experience and from the very food I'd spent all day working on.

Does this sound totally trite? I actually wrote a whole long post about that evening, so long that I thought about turning it into a chapter for the book, but in the end I couldn't figure out just exactly how to work it in or how to express myself, really. I mean: I threw a dinner party! The guests loved it! I wished I could have had a peanut butter sandwich instead! What?

For as long as I've been cooking in my own home, when time came to plan a dinner party, I'd spend days poring over cookbooks, trying to put together a menu that made sense (as old-fashioned as it may be, I adore cookbooks that include menu suggestions) and that would be a step up from the usual stuff I eat. But after that fatal dinner party I decided that I needed to approach menu planning differently. I needed to think about what I wanted to eat, first and foremost, when I had guests over. Does that sound like the most obvious thing ever? To me it wasn't.

DSC_5719

After the dinner party that made me lose my appetite, I decided that, actually, we eat pretty darn well around here when it's just the two of us. Why, when you get down to brass tacks, should we change that winning formula just because we have people coming over? In fact, wouldn't that be just the moment to stick with the greatest hits that make us happy, dinner guests or no dinner guests?

And so, to celebrate my mother's birthday last week, along with several of her closest friends and my dad, we threw a dinner party with food so good, and so familiar, I wished I could have had thirds.

Instead of wracking my brains to come up with a special menu, I decided to stay simple. I'd made Judy Rodgers's chard panade many times before just for the two of us and fell in love with it a little bit more each time. When I thought about my mother's birthday, I couldn't stop thinking about that panade. It felt like the perfect January meal - meatless yet still full of richness and flavor, shot through with dark greens for our mind, a little cheese for our soul. Simple yet celebratory.

I decided to eschew an appetizer and serve a salad on its own, as a second course, so to speak. Soft butter lettuce and mâche were tossed with cubed avocados and slices of juicy oranges, bound together with a shallot vinaigrette from the Zuni Cafe cookbook, which is where the panade recipe is also from. We had a few good bottles of red wine to pass around and then, for dessert, a simple chocolate mousse from Dorie's new book.

The dinner was a huge success. People took seconds, thirds, licked their plates, and - thrillingly - I joined in. It felt so easy, so effortless. And my mother, a tough critic, was still raving about the celebration days later.

If you haven't yet had the pleasure of knowing panade, it's a cross between a gratin and a bread pudding, but only sort of. You cook a whole mess of onions until meltingly soft and amber-hued. You cube stale peasant bread and toss it with salt and olive oil and a little bit of chicken stock. You sauté Swiss chard until barely limp and still vibrantly green. You grate a tiny mountain of fragrant Gruyère. And then you get to work, layering all four elements over and over until the baking dish is entirely filled. You soak the whole thing with good chicken stock (seriously, homemade stock pushes this dish into the sublime) and then bake it very slowly in the oven until it's plush and satiny, almost wobbling, the top crusted perfectly.

Peasant food for the gods, if you will. And just the thing to make a hostess who, in truth, really does love throwing dinner parties, feel like a million dollars again.

Chard and Onion Panade
Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a side dish

1 1/2 pounds thinly sliced yellow onions
Up to 1/2 cup mild-tasting olive oil
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Salt
1 pound Swiss chard (thick ribs removed), cut into 1-inch-wide ribbons
10 ounces day-old chewy peasant-style bread cut into rough 1-inch cubes
Up to 4 cups chicken stock
6 ounces Gruyère, coarsely grated

1. Place the onions in a deep 4-quart saucepan and drizzle and toss with oil to coat, about 1/4 cup. Set over medium-high heat and, shimmying the pan occasionally, cook until the bottom layer of onions is slightly golden around the edges, about 3 minutes. Stir and repeat.

2. Once the second layer of onions has colored, reduce the heat to low and stir in the garlic and a few pinches of salt. Stew, stirring occasionally, until the onions are a pale amber color and tender but not mushy, another 20 minutes or so. If at any point the onions look as if they may dry out, cover them to trap some of the moisture in the pan. Taste for salt. You should get about 2 1/4 cups cooked onions.

3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees (or as low as 250 degrees, if it suits your schedule to stretch the cooking time from about 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours 45 minutes; the slower the bake, the more unctuous and mellow the results).

4. Wilt prepared chard in batches: Place a few handfuls of leaves in a 3-quart saute pan or a 10-to 12-inch skillet with a drizzle of oil, a sprinkling of water (if you've just washed the chard, it may have enough on the leaves), and a few pinches of salt. Set the pan over medium heat until the water begins to steam, then reduce the heat and stir and fold leaves until they are just wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Leaves should be uniformly bright green, the white veins pliable (the veins will blacken later if they are not heated through). Taste. The chard may be slightly metallic-tasting at this point, but make sure it's salted to your taste. Set aside.

5. Toss and massage the cubed bread with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a generous 1/4 cup of the stock and a few pinches of salt, to taste.

6. Choose a flameproof, 3-quart souffle dish or enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Assemble the panade in layers, starting with a generous smear of onions, followed by a loose mosaic of bread cubes, a second layer of onions, a wrinkled blanket of chard, and a handful of the cheese. Repeat, starting with bread, the onions and so on, until the dish is brimming. Aim for 2 to 3 layers of each component, then make sure the top layer displays a little of everything. Irregularity in the layers makes the final product more interesting and lovely. Drizzle with any remaining olive oil.

7. Bring the remaining 3 3/4 cups stock to a simmer and taste for salt. Add stock slowly, in doses, around the edge of the dish. For a very juicy, soft panade, best served on its own, like a soup or risotto, add stock nearly to the rim; for a firm but succulent panade, nice as a side dish, fill to about 1 inch below the rim. Wait a minute for stock to be absorbed, then add more to return to the desired depth. The panade may rise a little as the bread swells.

8. Set panade over low heat and bring to a simmer; look for bubbles around the edges (heating it here saves at least 30 minutes of oven time; it also means every panade you bake starts at the same temperature, so you can better predict total cooking times). Cover the top of the panade with parchment paper, then very loosely wrap the top and sides with foil. Place a separate sheet of foil under the panade or on the rack below it, to catch drips.

9. Bake until the panade is piping hot and bubbly. It will rise a little, lifting the foil with it. The top should be pale golden in the center and slightly darker on the edges. This usually takes about 1 1/2 hours, but varies according to shape and material of baking dish and oven. (You can hold the panade for another hour or so; just reduce the temperature to 275 degrees until 20 minutes before serving.)

10. Uncover panade, raise temperature to 375 degrees, and leave until golden brown on top, 10 to 20 minutes. (If you aren't quite ready when your panade is, re-tent the surface with parchment and foil and reduce the heat to 275 degrees. You can hold it another half hour this way without it overbrowning or drying out.) Slide a knife down the side of the dish and check the consistency of the panade. Beneath the crust, it should be very satiny and it should ooze liquid as you press against it with the blade of the knife. If it seems dry, add a few tablespoons simmering chicken stock and bake for 10 minutes longer.


Cauliflower Soup

DSC_5677

In winter, Berlin's vegetable offerings can be bleak, but cauliflower is one of the few things for sale at green markets and grocery stores that stands proud and tall, creamy white within its tightly furled green leaves. I like it steamed and served with a lemon vinaigrette or cloaked in a creamy mustard-dotted béchamel, roasted in the oven with capers and parsley or stewed on the stove-top with anchovies and mashed into a silky pasta sauce. But I'd never really thought of it for soup the way I do when I see a squash or a leek. Then a single spoonful of an ethereal cauliflower soup at a restaurant in Paris made it difficult for me to concentrate on anything else, so a few days after getting back from our holiday, I got to work.

Now, a word about appearances. Cauliflower soup will never win a beauty award. It will never enchant you with its looks. Unlike a glowing squash soup, for example, or a vivid spinach one, cauliflower soup is the quieter, younger cousin tending towards having bad posture. But that's kind of its appeal, too. It's quiet and unassuming, but deeply comforting and creamy (despite having nary of speck of dairy or animal fat in sight) and, actually, if dressed up in the right way - a sprinkling of Espelette pepper here, a pretty china plate there - it can be rather elegant.

DSC_5694

Like all puréed vegetable soups, it barely requires a recipe. You stew a leek in olive oil until soft and translucent, though you could use an onion instead. You wash and slice your cauliflower roughly, tip the creamy florets into the pan for a little while, then add water and boil quietly until the cauliflower is soft and tender. What's important, I find, with cauliflower soup is that you must really lean on your immersion blender. You want the soup to be impossibly silky, free of the tiniest of lumps (unlike that little one lurking up there in the lower righthand corner). Purée until the soup takes on a gentle sheen and drips from the spoon like oil.

Turn to your seasonings, which are nothing more than salt and half a lemon squeezed into the soup. For color, you can sprinkle piment d'Espelette on each serving, but it's hardly necessary. I like a few homemade croutons, chewy peasant bread that you've roasted with a little slick of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt in the oven for a while, floating on top. The crunch and toast are a nice contrast to that sweet, vegetal purée.

Cauliflower Soup
Serves 4 to 5

1 leek or 1 onion
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cauliflower, green leaves and trunk removed
Water
Salt
1/2 lemon
Piment d'Espelette, optional
Homemade croutons, optional

1. Peel and clean the leek and cut into thin slices, discarding the tough green tops. Warm olive oil in a heavy pot and gently sauté the leek in the olive oil until wilted, 5 to 7 minutes. In the meantime, wash the cauliflower and slice thickly. Add the cauliflower to the pot and stir to combine. After 2 to 3 minutes, add enough water to cover the vegetables.

2. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and, using an immersion blender, purée until smooth and creamy. Add salt to taste and the juice of the 1/2 lemon.

3. Serve dusted with piment d'Espelette or homemade croutons.


Shopping and Eating in Paris

Shopping in Paris. Do you also have visions of impossibly chic little bags or dainty, bebowed shoes right now? A gossamer scarf or patent leather sandals? That used to be what I thought of when I thought about shopping in Paris. But then you start a food blog and write a book and spend most of your time at home in jeans or sweatpants, which makes shopping for clothes sort of lose its appeal at some point, and anyway, aren't French toast spreads and baking equipment so much more interesting than filmy blouses or St. Tropezian sandals? Aren't Monoprix, G. Detou and E.Dehillerin more thrilling than any Colette, Isabel Marant or Bon Marché? I thought you might agree.

DSC_5632

I first heard about this spread that looks like peanut butter and tastes like molten Speculoos cookies from David and, to paraphrase him, holy cow, it is good. Buttery, toasty, not too sweet. Move over Nutella, indeed. You can find this at any chain grocery store for just a little over 2 euros. Expats in France! I have officially found your Christmas gift to all the members of your family and friends for the rest of your life.

DSC_5636

G. Detou is one of those stores I had to move away from Paris to find out about - I think Chocolate & Zucchini was where I first read about this emporium for bakers, cooks and anyone in desperate need of industrial-sized packages of Valrhona chocolate. I bought a vial containing eight very plump, very fresh and moist vanilla beans for a whopping 6 euros and 40 cents, which - if you know your vanilla bean prices - is beyond a steal. They're practically giving them away! I'm going to use these for a fun project coming up soon that I can't wait to tell you about. One word: video.

DSC_5642

I love weird packaging, I really do. This baking powder looks like it hasn't had a redesign since about 1951. And that pink! (Anyone know why the "Alsacienne" is in quotes? Is this levure meant only for Kugelhopf?)

DSC_5640

At E.Dehillerin, I did an admirable job of performing restraint. Don't you think? I mean, I could have come out of there armed with more pastry rings than City Bakery could ever need, whisks for every size bowl I own, paring knives for an army, a vinegar vat, mustard crocks, not to even get started on the perfect copper bowls. Instead, I got a metal bench scraper and then, because Kim Boyce said so, a little plastic dough scraper. She uses them for scraping batter out of bowls or getting sticky dough off a counter and says she loves them more than fancy handbags or shoes. Isn't that sweet?

DSC_5644

And a tapered rolling pin. Because. It is beautiful. And smooth. And tapered. And beautiful. I was warned about the unfriendliness of the E.Dehillerin sales people and lo, they were indeed unpleasant. But a few minutes after leaving, beautiful rolling pin in hand, I'd mercifully forgotten all about them.

DSC_5641

At Fnac, where I could have spent hours poring over the cookbooks (Germany's cookbook sections in chain bookstores continue to be, for the most part, a demoralizing wasteland), I scored a cheap paperback copy of Christine Ferber's jam-making classic, Mes Confitures. There are so many recipes in this thing that I, quite possibly, may never need another jam book again. Shall we make a winter jam very soon? Yes? Yes.

DSC_5656

And then, as I was leafing through Atelier Tartes by Catherine Kluger, my eye caught something wondrous: a rice pudding-rhubarb tart. Oh yes. Sweet tart pastry, fresh rhubarb filling, rice pudding on top. Rice pudding pie! Sold. It is killing me to have to wait until spring for rhubarb to try this. What do you say, is this an occasion to buy frozen rhubarb and give it a go? Yay or nay, folks? Are you as impatient as I am?

Finally, because you cannot go to Paris and not buy tea, I braved Mariage Frères (insane, as usual) on an errand for my mother and spent a blissful hour at Le Palais des Thès (quiet, friendly, personable) browsing and sniffing teas to my heart's content. It's my favorite tea store, that place. Such a treat.

DSC_5517

There were only a few meals worth mentioning, in case you're going to Paris anytime soon. First of all, we had a very, very good lunch at Cafe des Musées on Rue de Turenne in the Marais. It's the kind of place where the waiter plonks a big crock of cornichons on the table for you to help yourself when you order the terrine to start. There was a gossamer cauliflower soup that made me want to go home and cook nothing else, and a French version of shepherd's pie (parmentier) made with delicious ground pheasant and topped with the most wonderful mashed potatoes.

The ever-reliable Chez Shen on rue au Maire in the 3rd arrondissement is a good place to stop in for a bowl of Chinese soup and noodles for lunch if you're watching your budget and/or simply can't handle another rich meal. I have an emotional attachment to it since I used to come here all the time all those years ago. It's a little cleaner and brighter than it was ten years ago.

If you happen to find yourself in the 19th arrondissement, near the Jaurès or Bolivar métro stations, Boris Portolan's bakery on Avenue Secrétan is worth a visit. His chausson aux pommes is a buttery wonder and it's filled with just the right amount of perfectly puckery applesauce.

DSC_5535

But, really, best of all is if you find yourself in Paris with a kitchen. Then you can go to the grocery store, buy a can of pale green flageolet beans and a can of peeled tomatoes and stew them together with some olive oil, garlic and salt for a while until you've got something savory and spoonable and perfect with that crusty baguette you bought just before dinner. Or you can make a whole meal out of a little salad you put together at the market and a bunch of cheese you bought from the affineur (St. Marcellin, I miss you!). You can buy a sack of incredibly flavorful, boiled crevettes rose from the fishmonger and make a mayonnaise at home for dipping. You can go to the market and buy great boiled beets, slipping out of their skins, to dice up and dress at home. You can buy a hot roast chicken from the boucherie and ask for a portion of the tiny football-shaped potatoes that have gone all brown and crusty below the rows of birds, soaking up several chickens' worth of juice and fat.

Shopping for food in Paris is a treat far better than any restaurant, I find. It's hard to be disappointed by a green market or a grocery store in Paris, besides the fact that it keeps your budget down and allows you a wide variety of wonderful meals. And, nicest of all, it makes you feel, just for a little while at least, like you're a part of the glittering city, not just a tourist with a map in her pocket.


Happy New Year!

DSC_0814

I'm not big on New Year's Eve. I mean, I'm happy to have an excuse to drink Champagne and it's fun to yell down the countdown to midnight together, but I've never really felt that you need to have a big party to transition from one year to the next or that if you find yourself in pyjamas in front of the television on December 31st, you've somehow failed as a human being. (Which was convenient last week in Paris since that is exactly where I found myself, throat swollen beyond comprehension, medicated with powerful French antibiotics and just barely able to sauté some of the most flavorful pink shrimp with tomatoes and garlic for a celebratory dinner while we watched a French talk show. Huh. Max valiantly drank the entire bottle of Champagne by himself as I looked on sipping a verbena infusion. Double huh. He got the better end of that deal.)

It is no surprise, then, that my most magical New Year's Eve moment, exactly a year ago, didn't involve a party or a sequined dress, but played out in our car in the moments when 2009 passed into 2010. In Berlin, New Year's is a big deal. Fireworks aren't illegal and the whole city truly explodes at midnight (depending on what neighborhood you're in, this can be rather thrilling and fun, or a total terror trip: Kreuzberg, I'm looking at you). Incidentally, if you like celebration, come to Berlin for New Year's. Seriously. I always think the Berlin tourism board should feature it as one of the reasons to visit this city.

So we were in our car, driving from one party to another, when we realized or, actually, admitted to each other that instead of being at yet another loud, anonymous party, we both fervently preferred to be at home. Were we brave enough to ditch our plans? We were! And just like that, with a gentle u-turn on snow-covered streets, we slowly drove home. It was 11:50, and then 11:55, and then suddenly, as we found ourself in the narrow, residential streets of leafy Wilmersdorf, it was midnight. The city, so dark and quiet and empty just moments before, exploded in light and sparkle. People flooded the sidewalks, setting up empty Champagne bottles to launch their fireworks, striking matches, preparing the show. As we drove, gliding almost, on the thick ice layer, our car barely made a sound. Street after street, we saw children's beaming faces, staring upward into the black night, fireworks gleaming in their eyes. We saw their parents and other adults dancing on the sidewalks, with the night sky lit up, the colorful explosions reflected in the snow. I sat in the passenger seat, mouth agape, looking out at sweet Berlin transformed into a pink! gold! silver! green! blue! movie set, watching in slow motion as 2009 - as painful and as joyous a year as I've ever known - ended and 2010 - so unknown then! so unfamiliar! - opened its first pages. It was a stunning couple of minutes. And I felt so... lucky to have had those minutes. They were like a gift, like someone drawing open a heavy velvet curtain on the secret machinery of humanity and letting me have a few minutes watching it all unfold. You know? Pretty darn special.

DSC_0837

I'm not quite sure how to sum up 2010 in words. I guess, at the root, it was a year full of learning experiences. Learning to live without New York. Learning to be a Berliner again. Learning to work at home full-time. Learning to make new friends. Learning to stay close to my friends far away. Learning to function outside of my comfort zone, learning to be my own boss, in so many more ways than just the one.

But I also became a tourist in New York, walked along the canals in Venice, picked olives from my mother's trees, felt the sand of the Baltic sea under my feet. I wrote three chapters of my book, then six, then eight. Hated all of them, learned to like some of them. Wrote some more, had more sleepless nights than I can count, wrote more and more and more. I stood at the top of snow-topped mountains in Austria, walked familiar streets in Paris, met my girlfriends for a pedicure in London. Celebrated Christmas in a wood-oven-warmed living room in Bavaria, walked along the swollen Elbe in the dog days of August, picked wild plums where the Wall once stood. I made my own sauerkraut, roasted my first goose, canned my own applesauce. I started a new blog, wrote my first article for a national magazine, learned to call myself a writer. I was confronted, again and again, with the funny fact that life can be glorious and infuriating at the same time. It always is. It always will be.

And, a few months ago, in this year full of firsts and second chances, we started planning our wedding. This summer, in the shadow of my favorite fig trees, we'll become a family. Though really, as Max said just the other day, we already are one.

DSC_0842

So, happy new year to you, dear readers. May 2011 be full of wonderful moments that make you happy to be alive, strength for the difficult times, bravery for the big steps, love to keep you going. I hope you have enough hot sauce to make your lips curl and the promise of drippy fresh peaches in summer to make you smile. Thank you for reading, for being my loyal audience, for your patience through the long silences I left here this year, for inspiring me every day (truly) to be a better writer, better cook, and better observer of all those little things that make life worth living. You continue to be the reason why starting this blog over five (!) years ago remains one of the best decisions of my entire life.

Thank you!