Friday, September 26, 2008

OK, Mouse, You Win

Dear Mouse,

Happy Fall.

OK. Enough already.

Yes, Mouse, it is true that I make the same dessert every year at summer's end. No, I had not realized it was every year til you pointed it out to me. Aha ha ha.

Yes, it is the "Purple Plum Crunch" (purple plums, cassis, crunchy oatmeal topping) from Sarah Leah Chase's Nantucket Open House Cookbook,
which is the first cookbook I ever owned and read for fun and relaxation, which is now a habit of mine with all cookbooks, which, yes, is totally dorky. AhHAHAHA.

Yes, I have read Ms. Chase's book cover to cover many times and may possibly have committed some of the delightfully evocative descriptions of food and of life 'on the island' and anecdotes about her friends who, yes, I know by name... to memory. NO, not on purpose.

But so what? Without this behavior on my part, you would not be able to enjoy the purple plum crunch, with its excellent use of the late August abundance of Italian prune plums, which I find better cooked than eaten out of hand. The concept of apple crisp soars to new heights in this recipe!

No, no one is laughing as much as you are right now. But I posted it. Happy?


The Boo.

P.S. A few summers ago I tried to take the then-Boyfriend to Nantucket and you betcha the first thing I did was surreptitiously look up Ms. Chase's restaurant, dreams of O.G. Plum Crunch dancing in my head. No dice - it's been closed for a while.

PPS. OMG. While writing this entry, I found ANOTHER Chase BOOK. "Cold Weather Cooking", by Sarah Leah Chase. Just in time for Fall! I must hie myself to Barnes & Noble right now.

Hungry for More?: Especially if you're just starting to cook, get this cookbook, it is great. Our family has made stuff from it for YEARS, like the blueberry-strawberry galette (she made it with wild blueberries as a child in Maine!) and the Buche de Noel for Christmas, which I'm sure has a story besides our Mother yelling "Girls!! The Buche!" in panic every year before almost forgetting to serve it... but that's sure all I can think of.

Recipe - Purple Plum Crunch. I usually halve the recipe but heres the whole.
3 lb prune plums, pitted/quartered
1.5 C packed brown sugar
6 tbsp cassis
1 C flour
3/4 cup oats
.5 C chopped walnuts
1 tbsp cinnamon
pinch salt
1.5 sticks butter, unsalted, cold, cut into pieces.
1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven 375. Plums, half cup sugar, and cassis in bowl. Mix and then turn into shallow baking dish. Flour, walnuts,oats, cinnamon, salt, remaining sugar in another bowl. Cut butter in (whatever, I use my hands) til mixture is "like coarse meal". Add egg and mix til "moist and crumbly". Sprinkle topping over plums. Bake it til bubbling and browned, 40-45 min.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

My Left Arm

Dear Boo,

I really miss my left arm. A wise woman once sang, you don't know what you got til its gone. Well, being a righty, my left arm has always seemed like an inferior appendage. Its only really there to assist the right one, no? I'm ashamed to say this is how I used to think. But all that changed on Monday evening. Or maybe on Friday evening when a guy at a bar told me I was like a young Daniel Day Lewis.

Let me back up.

Monday evening I was on my way uptown to do a reading at New Dramatists. I was looking forward to it and had a little bounce to my step as I walked down to the subway. Perhaps it was this fatal bounce that led me to step directly into the small puddle of NYC gunk that someone had spilled on the platform. Whatever it was, in slow motion I felt my legs fly up in the air in front of me and my body turn midair landing entirely and directly on my left elbow. It hurt so much I wasn't even embarrassed by all the people staring at me, or the huge mess my iced coffee made when it hit the concrete. Or the fact that an old lady came up to me to tell me she does that all the time and then criticize my insubstantial footwear. Shaken, I got on the train and went to the reading, which went well, though I probably looked like an ass, being the only one on stage seemingly refusing to clap for the likes of Marian Seldes.

Afterwards, over a glass of wine at the reception, I was convinced to go to the ER if only to confirm my belief that this was merely a bad bruise. Well, you can probably guess the rest. A sling, some xrays, and a wondrous percocet later, the verdict came in: Radial head fracture of the ulna. Dirty. Arm: out of commission for two weeks. No flying to Indiana the next morning as scheduled to perform my show. No moving. No funny business. And, as the Boyfriend pointed out in the ER, no home cooked birthday dinner for him.

I had already planned a whole menu for the occasion that I was getting really excited about. My plan was to make one of his favorite dishes from childhood that I've always wanted to try--Bistec Empanizado, or breaded steak, served with black beans and rice, and tostones (fried plantains). I was lamenting the plight of my elbow to our friend Chef Josh (of Secret Eats fame--come back to us, Josh!) when he suggested that he could help me cook. I said, "Oh I couldn't possibly ask you to do that" a couple of times before leaping at the tantalizing offer. Of course, "helping" me cook dinner really meant cooking dinner himself while I occasionally offered to to assist in a one-handed task (there really aren't too many. That is, other than tasting, of which I did my fair share).

Our journey began at the Whole Foods in Union Square where we picked up the essentials and rolled our eyes when the produce manager explained they didn't have plantains or yucca because it's too hard to keep them. They do, however, have a full supply of Ostrich eggs at $39.99 a pop. Well thank god for that. Can you imagine how people would take to the street in protest if they were to run out??

Josh picked up some steak which he had the butcher slice thin and pound out--something I'm always shy about asking for though really that's what butchers are there for, no? When Josh informed me he already had some of the ingredients, including some whole trout from the farmers market, sausage, and heirloom tomatoes, I knew this dinner was going to be beyond anything I could imagine whipping up in my sweaty little hot box of a kitchen.

Once home I was set to work slicing peaches and hulling strawberries for a cobbler Josh wanted to throw together. So far, so good. If I lifted my left arm onto the work surface with my right I could hold down the fruit while slicing with my good hand--triumph!

When the cobbler was in the oven and the black beans brought to a boil on the stove, we set out to find some plantains and yucca. With a bodega on every corner, you'd think these wouldn't be that hard to find. WRONG. We tried every food establishment large and small from 14th to 6th and 3rd to Ave B. Nothing, despite the fact that pretty much everyone working in these stores was latin. Finally, as a last gasp on our way home, we stopped at a food emporium in Sty Town and hallelujiah--there they were.

Back at the house, I was put to work slicing and peeling the plantains for the tostones which have to be fried twice.

Meanwhile Josh cut and steamed the yucca which is just such a beautiful bright white that I've always been tempted to buy it long before I ever imagined what one might do with it. I got a great lesson on how to fry something without having it turn all greasy on you (secret is in keeping the oil hot and the object of frying circulating in the pan. That way the moisture inside the food heats up and out, keeping the oil from seeping in) while I crushed ritz crackers for the breaded steak.

Somewhere in the next hour, here's what happened:

The steak got seasoned, dredged in flour, then dipped in an egg wash to create a sticky surface for the bread crumbs which it got covered in next. Here it is frying up to perfection:

Once the oil was hot, the plantain pieces were fried, then cooled slightly, turned on their sides, and squashed into little pancakes by yours truly. Then, back into the oil they went until they were crisp and golden and impossible to keep our hand(s) off. The yucca went in next, crisped up like little squat french fries.

Josh pulled out the fish--two whole fat trout who looked like they'd just leapt out of the river about an hour ago, and happily, at that. He quickly snipped off the head and fins and threw them into a cast iron pan with a couple of sausage links.

My elbow beginning to ache, the birthday boy took over slicing some gorgeous heirloom tomatoes from the greenmarket, and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Then creamy blobs of ricotta were spooned on top and finished with olive oil and a chiffonade of basil (I've always wanted to use that word). Oh, and did I mention there was some leftover pulled pork? Oh yeah. We sat down to what was surely a feast about 500% bigger and more beautiful than my attempt would have been. And man oh man was it good. Here's my plate:

After making myself horizontal on the couch in an attempt to digest faster, I was handed a glass of homemade strawberry infused vodka to help it all go down a little easier. It sort of helped. Enough to allow me a few bites of the cobbler before my body began to shout NO MORE! and we rolled home to bed, our bellies full, and I for one, feeling a little less sorry for myself.
Moral of the story: How do you cook dinner with one arm tied behind your back (or slung across your front)? Get someone else to do it for you. If he happens to be a chef, and also AWESOME, that helps too.


The Mouse

P.S. Special love and thanks to Kate for being an awesome special lady and letting us invade her home :)

Josh's Kickass Breaded Steak: A Prose Poem by Chef Josh

The meat is Sliced Sirloin Steak (ask the butcher to pound it out).
I seasoned the meat with salt, pepper & a little sazon.*

Then to bread it I dipped it in Flour then eggwash (1 egg to 1 tbsp water ratio) then finely crushed ritz crackers.

I did this process twice to make it extra crispy.
to fry i add just enough oil to cover the bottom of a 9-10 inch pan and then added medium (to medium low) heat.
Let it get hot, then add 1 1/2 tbsps butter. Butter should melt easily but not turn brown right away.

drop the breaded steak in and let it go slowly until golden brown. flip it and repeat.

*Editor's footnote: Sazon=Goya Sazon, those little orange packets you can get at the supermarket

Monday, September 15, 2008

Dining In: The Horn of Plenty

Dear Mouse,

Yes, I still write for this blog.

The predictive text feature on my phone will not spell the word "Mango". It doesn't know it. It does, however, seem to know the word "ManHo". Make of that what you will.

Yes, it's been a time of discovery Chez Boo. Another thing I've been (re)learning about lately - the joys and benefits of regular Home Cooking.

I was thinking about something you said about maxing out on prepared foods -- ordered in or eaten out- during busy times. Not only is it bad for the wallet, but you mentioned that it also was bad for you in terms of... just feeling icky. (I may be misquoting here).

Since I, too, had fallen into this pattern over the last few months, my current houseguest and fellow Foodie (we'll call him the Gentleman Caller) suggested an experiment. As we are both, how you say, "between projects" at the moment, we really have no excuse Not to do this. No eating out - or ordering in -- for two weeks.

Like they say, culinary genius is simply Poverty plus Time.

Extremely Sexy Vodka-Spiked Cherry Tomatoes w/Pepper Salt (see earlier rhapsodic entry)

And now, a FAQ Section.

Doesn't it take time to prepare and cook all your own food?
Yes. However, it really, really does not take as much time as you think. (It does help to have a co-chef). Once you get in the groove, meals start assembling themselves.

Is home cooking really that much healthier than restaurant cooking?
Well, I can't say for sure, but #1: Due to extremely satisfying nature of meals, snacking decreased dramatically. We are both slightly smaller (and happier), despite cooking whatever we want. #2: I had a Starbucks Mocha after eating our food for a week (which included a cake). After I came to on the sidewalk (ok, the couch) from the unexpected sugar collapse I began to suspect there is WAY more sugar in prepared foods/restaurant meals than we all want to think.

Homemade Applesauce for the GC's Pork Chops, which took about 20 minutes and did not involve a blender or food mill.(Gourmet Cookbook)

Don't you get bored? Limited?
Turns out, necessity breeds invention breeds more than invention. When one ingredient, out of practicality, resurfaces in several dishes (ie, the cilantro in the strawberry salsa and in the salad... the hot peppers in the salsa that also made infused vodka for bloody marys) it lends a harmony to the whole experience.

Transcendent Wednesday Afternoon Republican Convention Pork Chops w/homemade applesauce and Raw Sweetcorn (Raw. Try it)

How did you grow as an artist during this experience? (Shut up, it's my FAQ section)
Turns out the same rules of collaboration when making good Art apply to making great Food. Specifically, the "Yes, and.." improvisation rule, where one must not say "No" to any suggestions, only "Yes, and-!", building on the idea. For example, the GC suggested a dessert he'd once had: half an avocado covered in salsa, eaten with a spoon. I liked the idea but just couldn't see tomato salsa in a dessert. I suggested strawberry salsa instead (Gourmet Cookbook), and a beautiful summer dessert was born. See?

Isn't the Gourmet Cookbook awesome?
It sure is, Mouse. It sure is.


The Boo

Hungry for More? Try This: Get 1 lb of strawberries. Hull and halve them. Toss in 1 tbsp of sugar, 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar, few grinds of black pepper. Let sit at room temperature for half an hour. Toss once more and eat. Be transported. Excellent with Walnut Spice Cake w/Lemon Glaze from Gourmet Cookbook.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Like a Masochist in Newport, We're Rhode Island Bound"*

Dear Boo,

Last Friday I met that pesky little deadline and decided to celebrate by getting the H out of this GD city. My vacation began first thing in the morning when the Boyfriend surprised me with a congratulatory one hour massage at Graceful Spa. Genius. Let me say that if you need some knots worked out, which I know you do, you should immediately go visit the guy who worked on me. Apparently in addition to being a kung fu master, comedian, and international singing sensation, Jackie Chan also moonlights as a masseur on 14th Street. Seriously, this guy looked exactly like him. AND shortly into my massage I realized he had leapt with the grace and agility of a fox ONTO the table in order to use all parts of his arms for maximum jellification of my muscles. On my way out, slightly woozy and partially blind, I asked what my masseur's name was and was told, I kid you not, "oh that was Jackie". I rest my case.

We had decided to take a trip up to Newport, RI as I've been to visit practically every February for the past few years to perform this show at Salve Regina University and every time I say, I have to come back here in the summer. Also, I'd recently read this post on The Amateur Gourmet which made me nostalgic for my college years in Providence. I got us a room at the really cute Windsome B&B in town for Friday night, and decided we'd stay in Providence, just a short 30 minute drive away, on Saturday. We arrived around 5pm, found our B&B, washed up, and set out for the wharf, taking our host Valerie's advice to walk down Kay Street lined with beautiful old homes glowing in the late afternoon sun.

We wandered around the bustling wharfs and settled into two stools at an outdoor bar for a cold beer and a snack overlooking the harbor sunset. A perfect antidote to the 4/5 at rush hour. Remember the calamari at Paragon in Providence--it was served with spicy banana peppers and lemon instead of the regular old marinara sauce? Apparently this is the way it's done across Rhode Island. Someone in New York should really start doing this. If they have, someone let me know where I can get it, please. It's unbelievably good.

After our appetizer and aperitif we window shopped a bit further down the main drag to the less touristy Waite's Wharf, in search of The West Deck, recommended to me by a local. We fought through the Hamptons-esque drunken throngs of late 30-somethings on the deck to the quiet, romantic dining room where we snatched up the last unreserved table. We ordered a seared tuna salad, sesame encrusted over spinach and edamame with some kind of coconut dressing, pan-roasted salmon with lump crab meat, tobiko, and beurre blanc, and a side of spinach. The salmon, perfectly cooked and buttery, was declared by the boyfriend to be the best he's ever had. Trust me when I say these pictures do not do it justice.

We waddled back to the B&B via the funky Broadway route lined with artsy bars and cute restaurants, but not before buying some homemade fudge. Don't hate--everyone eats fudge when you're in a beach town. Granted, not everyone eats said fudge in bed, after a day of eating to the point of illness and exhaustion. I have a photo but he'd kill me.

The next morning we were greeted with this, courtesy of our hosts:

We'd planned to go to the beach for the day on Saturday, but unfortunately the weather was crappy--spitting rain, in the 60s, and generally gray. Instead we took a gorgeous drive along the coast along Newport's Ocean Drive, and visited the Third and Elm Press. By that time we were starving (what else is new) and we drove over to Flo's Clam Shack in Middletown right near the beach and across from the hotel I'm usually put up at when I visit Newport. Somehow, I'd never explored this little gem, dubbed Best Clam Shack in Rhode Island, and some might say all of New England.

After much debating in line outside, we ordered a lobster roll platter, fried scallops and a flo's combo including clam cakes, chowda, and a beer, all of which we feasted on at a table upstairs with a view of the beach. Next time I'm trying Flo's fiery stuffed quahog. If you have the chance, GO HERE. Here is our lunch in all its glory:

Stuffed and happy, we took a stroll along Newport's famous Cliff Walk, beautiful even in the rain. Since we had eaten Newport out of house and home, we decided to head off to Providence. On the way we got lost courtesy of Mapquest's creative renaming of roads. Naturally the best way to remedy this is to stop for ice cream. I got a coffee Awful-Awful, Newport Creamery's specialty milkshake, but it tasted kind of like burnt marshmallows. The B's pecan caramel turtle was delicious, though.

In Providence, we took a romantic stroll along the canals during Waterfire, and then took a break from seafood for a relaxed dinner at a bar near the water. In the morning, we drove through the crowds of Volvos unloading freshman and their plastic tubs of belongings up the hill to the college favorite, Louie's. It's been cleaned up a bit, but other than that not much has changed since college. The "Poached Passion" I used to order--poached eggs over spinach and tomato on an english muffin, covered with cheese was as delicious as ever. Afterwards, we headed out of the city to the Boyfriend's cousin's home just outside Providence. This is the same cousin who fed me my first taste of the family's Arroz con Pollo, so I knew I was in for a treat. We had only planned to stay for a couple of hours but after spending a few minutes with their adorable family in the sun drenched backyard, and perhaps one or two of these:
we opted to stay the night. Soon after we arrived we had a bowl of Rhode Island Chowder in our eager hands. Apparently, Rhode Island's version differs from the tomato-y Manhattan and the creamy New England. Like Rhode Island, it's rustic, beautifully simple, down to earth, and damn tasty, with a clear broth, plenty of clams and potatoes, and a healthy dose of black pepper. I may be a convert. Sorry, Dad. I still love yours too.

For dinner we had halibut topped with a crab meat stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes, and fresh corn from a farm nearby. Perfect summer meal after a day spent roasting on the deck with a cold mojito in hand.

After a breakfast the next morning of eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and blueberry muffins (I kid you not), we headed out on to the road, sad to say goodbye to the family, and Rhode Island. They were headed to a Labor Day clam bake and I contemplated chaining myself to the minivan. Ah well. All good things must come to an end.

Unless of course, you're a member of our family which means you NEVER STOP EATING. We had to drop the car off at the parents' and figured we might as well have a bbq for the holiday while we were at it. I'll spare you the details since you were there, but here it is:

Did I mention I'm going on a diet?

The Mouse

*Hungry for More?
If you're not already a Family Guy fan, what's wrong with you? And if you are, this is worth another viewing. Emmy Award winning tv, people. And a singing dog. Brian and Stewie present, "The Road to Rhode Island"...