Thursday, April 30, 2009

Americana? Yes Ah Can

"It's a cuppa flour, a cuppa sugar, a cuppa fruit cocktail with the juice, mix and bake 'til gold and bubbly*." "Sounds awfully rich." "It is, so I serve it with ice cream to cut the sweetness."
- Steel Magnolias

*(this recipe does not and would never appear in this blog. fear not. read on.)

Dear Mouse,

I heard someone say recently that Theme Parties are the easiest and best way to go if you are throwing one. I was all set to scoff, lips pursed in a disapproving, "sure, if you like Tupperware" kind of way, when I realized that I've been doing EXACTLY that for the last five years or so on all those Nature Holidays. I'm pretty sure the success of each one is at least partly due to the fact that everything is planned according to the Day/Event itself, or at least the season. And far from making it uptight and weird and restrictive, the Theme sort of sets the party free. People gathered for a common reason immediately have something to talk about, an established connection.

A few weeks ago, on one of those cold & blustery, "Spring, My A***!" days in NYC, when it still seemed like we were stuck in the Longest Winter Ever, I made my way up to Jackson Heights, to meet A-Mac at the the charming top floor apartment that is the home of Coffee Guy/Secret Movie Mogul in Waiting (CGSMMIW) for a special dinner. Recently, an oh-so-NYC revelation took place when I found out that the guy I get my coffee from every morning is a) also in NY theatre, b) good friends with A-Mac!! and c) making this film. (Note from the Mouse: and d) was in a play with the Mouse) AND - the piece de resistance - -he cooks. Like a demon. If a demon were full of indie-art energy, food savvy, and bubbly southern hospitality. The Theme in question was his film, the dinner a part of a series of fundraising efforts to make it happen. Since the film is set in his native Georgia, the menu would be yummy and southern. We were only too glad to be part of this, since it involved supporting the arts AND being fed things.

Theatre folks, I reflected upon entering the apartment, may be really good at dinner parties because we love to set a scene. I knew it was cold and windy outside but as soon as I sat down and was handed a Dark & Stormy ( my fave summer cocktail: lime wedge, dark rum, ginger BEER - never, never ALE), I couldn't shake the feeling that it was August and we were on somebody's porch. A warm yellow glow, either from lamps or anticipation, filled the room. The table had sort of bench seats on either side, like a picnic table, a vibe helped out by the adorable plastic red-and-yellow squeeze bottles filled not with mustard and ketchup, but with BOURBON (brilliant!), to be squirted into your Sweet Tea as you saw fit. Which I did, as soon as my dark & stormy was finished. (Ok, I had them at the same time. Don't judge me.) The Sweet Tea (really sugary iced tea, for our international friends), was poured into tall thin glasses with "Georgia" stenciled on the side. OMG so cute.

But let me not to the marriage of true party elements admit impediments, or something like that (mm, dark&stormy..) There was also food. Serious food.

- Mac n Cheese. But of course. Yes, I will have two helpings.
- Collard greens. Looks like a vegetable, tastes like bacon. Southern genius.
- Fried chicken!!! As in, chicken he fried at home, in his kitchen!! A-Mac & I realized at the same moment that we'd never really had real fried chicken before ("Kentucky Fried Chicken doesn't count, right?" The Texas native across the table's jaw drops in horror.) (Note from the Mouse: What about grandma's fried chicken and corn fritters???)
- Sweet potato pie - Southern genius #2: dessert as side dish. Super sweet, creamy, orange, topped with crunchiness (nuts? I can't remember). The family recipe apparently originally included an extra CUP of sugar. One day, CGMMIW's mom left out the sugar by accident, and that's the version we ate. I and my Yankee tastebuds duly thank her.
- Tomato pie - the STAR of this meal. More on this below.
- Banana Pudding (THIS was dessert):

(I managed to put down my fork at this point and take a picture of something. look, LOOK at the cute tumblers he served them in! Through the glass you can see the layers of banana, crushed graham crackers, whipped cream, what else, I dont know, I'm full. And I hate banana desserts.. but, as he pointed out, this is bananas-IN-dessert, not banana-flavored anything. Big difference.)

There you have it. Evocative set, good lighting, and a great cast (see menu above). This dinner bodes well for the movie. Roll credits:

TOMATO PIE (courtesy of CGMMIW)

preheat oven to 350. filling:4 large tomatoes, or an assortment of roma & grape, sliced fresh basil, chopped, 1/3 cup scallion, chopped. mix with sea salt and a few tablespoons of olive oil. allow to sit in colander over mixing bowl for a few hours so the salt can extract most of the tomato juice. pour mixture into a (homemade!) pie shell. (save the reserved tomato juice 'cause it's goooood.) add some fresh cracked black pepper. topping: 1 cup shredded cheddar, 1 cup shredded mozzarella, 1 cup mayonnaise. combine and spread over top of tomatoes, ensuring that the cheese mixture connects with the outer crust. bake at 350 for thirty minutes, or until top is golden bubbly brown. it goes without saying that this dish is at its most supreme when you can get the freshest, most supple, mind-blowing tomatoes from the farmer's market.

Note from the Boo:
I truly hate mayonnaise, but until I read this recipe i had NO idea there was any in the pie. Upon reflection I can totally understand how it might contribute a certain tangy something or other. However, CGMMIW says he has also successfully used sour cream and cream cheese (either, not both)when serving this to Mayo-Phobes.

The Boo

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's Easy Being Green

Dear Boo,

These days I am wading around with my head slightly above water, at least from the earlobes up. Which is to say that when it rains it pours, and I have suddenly found myself caught in a serious monsoon. Which is to say that I am busy, running between rehearsals for one play (in which I play a Russian mail order bride with one leg: no joke), and rehearsals for a couple of super cool plays in progress with my company, rewrites for my own play, planning a ridiculously huge reception for this, and keeping up with those pesky things called jobs, and laundry (actually, that's a joke--the Boyfriend took that task on long ago), and emailing, and being a good daughter, and friend, and on and on. Which is to say that yesterday, I made soup.

You might think soup is sort of a time consuming choice for someone with none of that to spare, and I might agree with you, except for the fact that this recipe is so simple and most of it involves sitting in the other room, working on your russian accent or staring at a blank page waiting for inspiration while your apartment fills up with a yummy, comforting scent that will give your frayed nerves a foot massage. What? Leeme alone. I'm tired.

It was Earth Day yesterday, so in the spirit of recycling, I pulled out the ham bone left over from Easter and decided it was split pea soup time. A big fan of the split pea, the Boyfriend wondered aloud, 'what soup is actually better than split pea?' 'lentil,' I ventured? 'I feel like lentil is what people ate before they realized they could have split pea,' he countered. Fair enough. Note from the Boo: Um ... they're not the same ? (I have no business writing a food blog). Our Grandma's split pea was transcendent and perfectly salty (often lacking in ones I order), if you'll remember. My tastebuds have sadly almost forgotten the exact flavor, but after making this batch I think I may have recaptured the sentiment at least. Comforting, simple, hearty, and earthy. Make this today before the 80 degree weather hits on Saturday.

Split Pea Soup
adapted from Bon Appetit, by Patricia Murray: County Kerry, Ireland

3 tablespoons butter
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1.5 or so large onions, chopped
1.5 cup chopped celery
1.5 cup chopped peeled carrots (I used a bag of baby carrots we had lying around)
1 1/2 pounds ham hock (didn't weigh mine but it was a good sized meaty bone from a large ham)
2 teaspoons dried thyme (recipe called for marjoram but i don't like it)
3 cups green split peas
12 cups water
Salt and pepper
1 boullion cube (I threw this in but you might do without it, or use stock instead of water, or make a stock first with the ham bone and use that in place of the water)

Melt the butter in a large dutch oven or pot. Sautee the garlic, onion, celery, and carrots until soft, about 8 minutes. Add the ham bone and thyme, stir about 1 minute. Add the peas and water, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, partially cover pot with lid and let it go for about 1 hour 10 minutes. Start tasting. I thought it was a little bland and added some of a cube of boullion. I would wait to add salt until the end since the ham is quite salty and you don't want to overdo it. After the hour had passed, I realized it was too watery for my taste, and I let it go for another 20-30 minutes at a good simmer, with no lid until it thickened. You can do this to whatever consistency you prefer. I turned off the heat, took out the ham bone, and plunked in my immersion blender to puree some of the soup until it was just smooth enough with some tasty vegetable chunks. You can cut the meat off the bone and add it back to the pot, or serve it as is. Since we've eaten enough pork to repopulate a small farm in recent days, we left it out and it was delicious. Serve with buttered, crusty bread or croutons dunked in.


The Mouse

Friday, April 10, 2009

Pesto, Pickles, and Poetry: the Feasts of Spring

Dear Mouse,


Ok, now that that's out of the way...

It's been way too long since I posted here and in that time, SPRING has officially sprung!! Ok, the weather is terrible. BUT YESTERDAY it was HOT and sunny and I bought your birthday present at a Street Fair!

It always makes sense to me that so many Big Feasts take place right around this time. You just naturally feel like celebrating: Go, Earth, Go! Pass the peas! I've also always thought that our multi-ethnic lot in life affords you and I particular perspective on this. And since the notion of Deity played, shall we say, a minor role in our family's Rites of Spring, it was usually (what else) the Food that took center stage.

This year has been no exception. I'll try to go in order.

I. Spring Equinox - Sex/Power/God
(no relation to the annual Brown University hedonistic dance party of the same name)

As mentioned in the Egg Miracle entry a few weeks ago, the usual crew gathered at my place on 3/21 and- with wine, food, flowers, plants, eggshells and paintbrushes - welcomed the season. This ancient holiday celebrates (what else?!) the earth's renewal. It is associated with the pagan fertility goddess Ostara, whose symbols were the egg and the rabbit (hmmm...), whose alternate spellings include Eostre and Eostar (hmm), and after whom I would totally name a pet rabbit.

My slammin' seasonal menu this year: Chase's asparagus vinaigrette (make this, you will NOT be sorry), couscous with feta and chopped veggies, and a baked salmon topped with mint pesto. I hadn't made Mint Pesto before but I had a hunch it would be kind of perfect and I wasn't disappointed. This no-cheese concoction is very simple and fresh -- chopped mint, walnuts, olive oil, lemon zest, salt and pepper. While I think of Basil Pesto as Queen of Summer, the mint version really tastes like spring.

II. Passover - Freedom/Liberation/Plagues/Hors d'Oeuvres
How is this night different from all other nights?
A) Brisket.
Velvety, Gravylicious Brisket.

B) Homemade Freakin' Matzo Ball Soup.

Why, why so fluffy??

C) The Pickle Guys.

Ok. Special Report. If you live in New York, have not had these, and think that you like pickles, run do not walk. I always eat too many on holidays but I'm smiling while the acid eats my stomach. Warning: may cause you to be irritiating and smug when offered pickle substitutes in other cities.

III. Easter (Rebirth/Renewal)
(See Pagan Etymology Above, Add One Cool Guy Coming Back from Death)

One springy aspect this year of both P'Over and P'Easter was having Little People around, which really made both celebrations so much, much noisier. I mean, evocative of life's renewal. For example, at the first, we were treated to the singing of the Four Questions by two F'adorable little girls (our Portland cousins in town!!!) rather than the muttering of them by, say, me, or someone about to graduate college. And on Easter at your place, the Boyfriend's perfect little nieces and gorgeous sister brought on the Attack of the Boo-Must-Make-Magnolia-Cupcakes...Itis.

I dressed in purple and yellow to match them and feel no shame about this.

IV. National Poetry Writing Month, AKA NaPoWriMo - Creativity
Ok while this is not a Holiday per se, I think it perfectly celebrates the season. Each April, writers everywhere commit to a poem a day for 30 days and post online to be held accountable. It's an explosion of creativity. This year, I joined in (with songs) and have been surprised and truly grateful for the exercise - it broke a year-long writers' block and reunited me with the love of composing. Can't nothing, even mint pesto, be more Springy than that.

In the spirit of NaPoWriMo, I'll close with a fantastically appropriate poem I found by dear friend and badass writer EKT.

when I tell you I love to eat
I mean I love to hold the pieces
in my mouth like wet merchants,
each new thing baring some far
away story of salt or blood, spring
or musk to sell to my foolish lord
tongue, who is fat and dancing
with each.

I consider my need to swallow a
handicap. I consider my teeth
wolves. I consider myself chemically
imbalanced at times, but for a
chunk of gruyere and an apple. I
have been so take by the soft pink
sliced from bone, the cracked seeds,
the clotted milk and winking fruit
that has kissed my ugly breath, swelled
my never loved belly, tell me:
what love would die to fill my mouth?
who could ever want me like that?

Gotta go write #20.

The Boo

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

This Just In

Dear Mouse,

Goji Berries?


Looks so harmless, doesn't it?


The Boo

Monday, April 6, 2009

I Eat 14th Street

Dear Boo,

I know I said the next time I wrote I'd include a recipe, because it's been a while. I know, I know. It's not for lack of cooking, it's just that everything I've made recently has been either a standard go-to that you already know, or something I need another couple of goes at to perfect before sharing it. There will be plenty of recipes coming up for passover and easter (we're so multi-faith!), but before all that I just had to share the craziness that was my dinner this evening.

On my way to tutor today, I was walking down 14th Street between Union Square and 1st Avenue. Usually I avoid this street because, well, it's kind of gross, but today I just decided to go through the thick of it. As I walked down this one stretch between 1st and 3rd, something hit me.

14th Street is YUMMY.

There's Chickpea, which I've always wanted to try, although really do I need another falafel place after Taim and Maoz? There's Bite, which I have a special fondness for as the original opened right outside The Culture Project when I worked there and Ami was such a cool guy and the curried tuna salad was so awesome and the bread was so crusty and the black bean soup was so spicy you'd lose your ability to form consonants for about an hour, and they'd even make me a special salad if I asked. Oh and sometimes, the Boyfriend before he was the Boyfriend would meet me there on a sunny day and I'd run down from my office for a quick lemonade. sigh. And there's Beauty Bar, which I know is so 1998 but where you can get a decent manicure and a solid drink for $10, and Crocodile Lounge--sibling to Alligator in Williamsburg, where a free pizza comes with any drink you order, And Friendhouse where we'd order the sushi lunch specials for delivery down at the theater, and Artichoke Pizza, which I've always wanted to try but where the line always deters me especially after I heard our friend K-Fenn's theory that they move slowly on purpose to keep a crowd outside, and there's Curly's Vegetarian Lunch that I want to try simply for the name and the cute yellow interior, and there's Thai me Up, where they make amazing Thai/french sandwiches to order, and, I realized with a gasp, as I tripped down the street, Vanessa's Dumpling's, the same dumpling house as down in chinatown, advertising a "$1.29 recession special."

By the time I finished tutoring around 8:30, I was Hungry. So hungry that I actually let my tutee feed me a forkful of her roommate's specialty--angelhair with parmesan and ketchup. OMG. I decided I'd grab something on my way home and maybe something for the Boyfriend in case he hadn't eaten yet. My plan was to go to Vanessa's, once I realized it was the same as the dumpling mecca down in chinatown, but on my way to Vanessa's I passed Thai Me Up, where through the window I could see big black woks at work stirfrying the filling for their delicious sandwiches. I'd been once before, a couple of years ago, and vowed to come back and oh I'm so sorry Thai Me Up, never returned! Horrors. I had to go in. I ordered a sandwich with chicken and their white ginger sauce (coconut milk, ginger, and lemongrass). Apparently I ordered well since the gentleman behind the counter (quite a tasty dish himself, if I do say so) urged the next two guys after me to follow suit. A live Roots album played as I watched them stirfry my chicken and veggies (corn, cabbage, peppers), add the curry sauce, and then slap it onto a toasted baguette (hollowed out to fit more filling) with mayo, lettuce and tomato. It took a while, since everything is made to order, and there seemed to be a teeny bit of confusion behind the counter (turns out Mr. Tasty Dish is also Mr. Restaurant Owner Assface who waves meal tickets in his employees faces like they're handicapped, though from my personal experience working in food service, I'm pretty sure all restaurant owner/managers are similarly problematic), but everything looked so delicious and fresh and smelled so good, I could hardly care.

(nice nails, Barbie.)

Okay, I should have stopped there. Did I not recognize from the giant bag I had, just how enormous this sandwich was? Was I so far gone that I couldn't tell that at least 30 minutes had passed since I first left my tutoring? Whatever it was, I did not head home. Instead, I went a few doors down and turned into Vanessa's Dumpling House.

Okay, so the logo is the same. And the name. And probably the dumplings are all made in the crazy windowed room in the Chinatown location where you can see people folding and pinching, folding and pinching. But the similarities sort of end there. First of all, the sesame pancake sandwich looks totally different--round and overstuffed like a hamburger bun, and they don't even have duck on the menu. Second, this Dumpling House has sushi--why? And third of all, you know how in the original dumpling house, everything costs like ONE DOLLAR? Well here's everything's like 5 times that much (The $1.29 special was for a single steamed bun). Did this stop me from ordering 8 piece pork and chive dumplings and 8 piece vegetable and then throwing in a sesame pancake sandwich with roast pork? Nope. I sat and waited, wafting the smell of my quickly cooling thai sandwich in my bag. And I waited. And waited. And began to realize just how crazy I was. My stomach hurt. I was past hunger. I have a to-do list about the length of 14th Street that I could have been taking care of. But instead I was sitting there, under the harsh lighting, waiting for my second dinner. Finally it was packaged up, and I was on my way. The people on the bus must have thought I was having a party.

Well, as of this writing I've made it through 4 pork dumplings (not exactly the same as downtown, but really tasty nonetheless), 2 vegetable (why waste your time when you have perfectly delicious pork right there), and half the thai sandwich (SO good: a touch spicy, creamy, cool and crunchy with the lettuce and cabbage, sweet from the sauce and the corn, and (presumably) crusty from the bread which sadly, did not travel as well. Moral of the story, don't wait too long to eat this delicacy. Why torture yourself delaying the gratification anyway?).

I'm full.
Please excuse the sesame pancake sandwich on the left. It was too fat to fit in the picture.


The Mouse

P.S. Am I obsessed with dumplings? Probably.