Saturday, October 24, 2009

Soup Season: Come and Peel It Tonight

Dear Mouse,

I have fought a formidable enemy, and won.

                                                                                   You should see the other guy.

There's something about this season. Pots, pans, simmering, bowls of savory goodness. I'm fixating.

It's not just me. The Date has informed me twice in one week of exploits with carrots and ginger. I have a Stew dinner plan with a playwright friend. And I recently logged on to a social networking site that shall remain nameless and irritating, to find my friend Helena's status update:

And She said, "Let there be sexy vegetarian pumpkin chili"; and there was sexy vegetarian pumpkin chili. And She saw that the sexy vegetarian pumpkin chili was good; and then she roasted the sexy pumpkin seeds.

Mmmmmm. It is Fall, the Season of Soup. (/Stew/Chili).

On Saturday I found myself at home in Sunnyside, a whole rainy afternoon spread out before me, all signs pointing towards my recently-neglected kitchen.

The night before, lured by the status update, I'd gone up to Heavenly Small Town to visit Helena and her Roomies. As I've mentioned, our friendship began in the kitchen and we always cook/eat together. This time, the Household was preparing a Pumpkin Party Extraordinaire for Saturday night, and because I couldn't attend, I came to participate in Pumpkin Eve cooking. My task: mixing a batch of corn muffins with maple butter which H planned to serve with the Chili (recipe, I hope, forthcoming).

Roomie #1 was busy creating a tomato vinegar he found in an all-Vinegar Cookbook ("I got this for a dollar!"), and Roomie #2 was bravely attempting her first pie - double crust!! You would have been proud of me. I had already climbed into bed (foolish, foolish Boo) when R2 asked, "Do you think I should make the crust tonight? Any tips? Oh - No, I dont have a rolling pin. Why?" Bang - I'm in the kitchen in my PJs, up to my elbows in butter & flour, providing what I hope was sage advice such as "remain calm", and "yes, always READ the whole recipe to begin with, but I think we'll be fine without the shortening" (we were).

You know your friend has forgiven you for missing her party when she ends the evening of manual labor by drawing you a bath and handing you a glass of maker's mark.

So it was with these festive thoughts in my head that I came back to Sunnyside in the morning, looked in my fridge and realized I had the following, nearly all from the farmers market:

* 1 voluptuous butternut squash
* 2 yellow onions
* bag of cortland apples
* curry powder
* apple juice
* Recipe for "Butternut Squash and Apple soup" from Her Majesty Ina Garten

Now if I didn't know better I'd say there was a small conspiracy in the food world around this sunny root vegetable. WHY does no recipe EVER cop to the difficulty of peeling butternut squash? They all innocently begin "Peel and seed a butternut squash", without so much as an asterisked acknowledgement that the skin of this thing is so tightly welded to the fruit that it might as well be a coat of paint. I imagine home cooks everywhere, like myself, putting their peeler to this task and giving up.

Yes, I cut myself. But you don't have to. (Remain Calm). There IS a way to do this, and it's worth it. Because like a cheap date, once you get the outer layers off this baby, the rest is easy. (And warm and delicious.)

Take your skinny vegetable peeler in one hand. Look at it, shake your head, and throw it over your left shoulder.
Pick up your squash, and with a Big knife, cut it crosswise in half (or 3, if it's really big). Just plunge it on in and wrestle it through.
Then, holding a piece cut side down, just make slices down the sides with SMALLER knife, slicing off skin in big strips. It's ok if some flesh comes off with it. Better its than yours. Don't get crazy trying to skin it flawlessly.
Then, chop up squash into chunks, retrieve your skinny peeler and use it on the apples.

On a related note, the Peeling Issue came up at Helena's while R1 was struggling with his bag of tomatoes. The vegetable peeler was doing more harm than good and each tomato was a project unto itself (1 min or more). The solution: Boil a pot of water. Drop each tomato in, count to ten. Remove with a slotted spoon and, under cold running water, slide the skin off easily with your hands. Trust me on this.

Oh and the Pumpkin Party? From Helena:

missed you last night! corn muffins were devoured
Jesse put the maple butter into the gravy
around 11pm i was finishing the turkey with men 3 deep around the oven
turkey came out at 11:30 and disappeared completely-- people sucking on bones-- by midnight. this morning i made pumpkin pancakes and drenched them in maple butter. goodness. your food was put to good use.


The Boo

PS I just found this picture online. Talk about seasonal!

Monday, October 19, 2009

We Be Jammin

Dear Boo,

You know what they say: When life gives you a graduate program with impossible amounts of reading, an emotionally and physically exhausting internship, three midterms, a role in a play that opens in a few weeks, a tutoring job, and that pesky need for sleep....make jam.

Specifically, Concord Grape and Habanero Jam.

Last Sunday, the Boyfriend and I packed up our Sunday Times, a few bell jars, a large pot, picked up some bagels and fixings from Murrays, and headed over to our friend Chef Josh and his lovely Lady Kate's apartment for some jam-making. It was a gorgeous day and the sun splashed cheerfully across the enormous mound of concord grapes that greeted us, nestled in a plastic tub that will soon be employed for a much cuter task, that of bathing Chefbabygirl, coming soon.

When the four of us plopped down on the floor to begin the job of separating the grape skins from the fleshy innards, I must say I felt a bit like Sisyphus facing the mountain. But, get a spicy glass of Bloody Mary, a bite of bagel with whitefish, and some great company, and the pinching and squeezing of a billion brilliant purple grapes takes on the feel of a group meditation. Or commune living. The sun was warm, the grapes smelled divine, and I couldn't have thought of a more pleasurable form of manual labor. Also, if a nine-month pregnant Lady Kate could sit on the floor for an hour of grape separating, I could do it.

There she is. Fastest skinner this side of the Mississippi.

Grape: two ways. Incidentally, dunk your hand in the peeled grapes. Unlike any sensation you've had.

pureeing the skins with a bit of sugar

From start to finish, the process really is a day-long event, but well worth it. You know of my recently-discovered fondness for jam-making, and this could not be simpler or more delicious. It really tastes nothing like what you'd buy off the supermarket shelves, and because you're doing it by hand, you can adjust the sweetness, the heat, the texture and viscosity to your liking. And like it you will.
simmering the skins and insides separately

The final mix before the last simmer

Bring brunch. You'll need the sustenance.

But more than anything, I can't begin to describe how after weeks of feeling like my only social contact has been in brief looks up at the Boyfriend's sweet face as I turn yet another page of my textbook, how lovely it was to sit quietly, working at a slow pace with great friends just for the pleasure of it. And the eight jars of royal purple gold are a beautiful addition to the apartment.

Yep, we filled em all.

Play your cards right and I'll set aside a jar for you. Boo: I'll be right over. A little crusty bread and butter and you'll be smacking your lips with delight. It's sweet but not too sweet, hot but not spicy. The habanero comes at you more like an afterthought to keep you on your toes. It's grape jam dressed up in its best pair of sassypants.


The Mouse

Concord Grape & Habanero Jam

Recipe courtesy Joshua Stokes of Grill-A-Chef - “Advice from Scratch”. You can find Joshua giving free cooking advice every Wednesday afternoon at the Union Square Greenmarket.

* 2 Qts Concord grapes, stemmed

3 Cups Sugar

* 1 Habanero Chili Pepper, lightly crushed

* Ingredients seasonally available at your neighborhood Greenmarket

Separate the pulp/seeds from the skins.

In a food processor, chop the skins with one cup of sugar. In a large pot simmer this mixture over low heat.

In a separate pot, simmer the pulp with the remaining sugar until completely broken down. About 20 minutes.

Strain out the seeds, pushing the pulp through with a ladle. Add the strained pulp to the skins.

Boil this mixture, stirring often, and carefully, until thick and jelly like.

Kill the heat and toss in the habanero to steep, it will quickly give off it’s great aroma and some of it’s heat. Lightly stir, monitoring the heat by tasting, remove the chili when the spice level is to your liking.

Tip: You can test the jam on a cold plate in the refrigerator. It gives you an idea of what the final product will be.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Malatesta-ing The Waters

Dear Mouse,

Dating. The final frontier. I'm giving it a shot. If I don't come back, you can have my ill-advised long sleeved romper from Free People. (Actually, it's been getting inexplicably rave reviews, but I digress.)

A friend of mine said recently that Google has killed the first date.. in other words, since two people interested in each other usually scramble for all basic stats on the internet prior to the actual ritual, gone is the 'So where did you grow up?' conversation of yesteryear. Or, if it happens, its kind of a flirtatious sham, since the research has already been done.

However, one early Fall evening recently, it so came to pass that The Date and I had each independently made a decision to forego the web when it came to each other. (A little sad, no? That this is revelatory?) "Right! I'll just ask you what I want to know", we practically said at exactly the same time over dinner at Malatesta. Which is what brings me to the focus of this post: Malatesta. Oh, and getting-to-know-you rituals, in-person, hands-on (hee hee), and, of course, via the magic of shared food.

Instructions for An Early Fall Date:

* 630PM - meet @18th St and 10th Ave, at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the Highline.
* Climb stairs. Ooh, the Highline looks awesome in the twilight. Oh look it just got dark and the lights came on. And the cityscape is all bright across the water. I guess we should just take a walk down to the end.
* Walk down to the end. Disembark @Gansevoort.
* Walk to Washington & Christopher. Oh look anItalian joint with outdoor and indoor seating, menus handwritten on cardboard (ok that always is a little too hipster for me), and reasonable prices. Note: Cash Only

*Order a bottle of Nero d'Avola. I chose it as a result of my patented, painstaking wine selection method --it was not the most or the least expensive, it was red, I recognized the word 'Nero' from somewhere in my past - and it is now my favorite. Mmmmm. Medium dry (I'm gonna say 'taut'), dark cherry and plum, medium body (someone said), dark and mysterious. Delicious. In order to save you from being the person drunkenly trying to surreptitiously take a picture of the bottle towards the end of the meal, I've transcribed the blurry image from my phone for you (not that I did that)

Pietragivana Monrrale Nero d'Avola
You're welcome.

I believe this is Italian for "one bottle of me and you will find yourself explaining the history of American Method Acting in what is probably a much too loud tone of voice". Charming.

* I think you will agree with me that, especially if it is your first time at Malatesta, there is no excuse at all for ordering anything other than The Steak Thing.
I found a picture of it on flickr. I was too busy eating to take one.

Honestly, I have eaten this every time I've been there, and I never remember the actual name - I can't read the menu scrawl. For your convenience, I have googled it (!) and it is Tagliata Al Casale.

It comes on what looks like a wooden cutting board with legs. Sliced, delicious steak in mouthful-size pieces, on a bed of wilted arugula, with thin, wide shavings of really good parmesan all over the top. I ordered it medium and it came medium rare, kinda red in places which turned out to be perfection. Salt crystals in the meat? I dont know; something is crunchy and delicate. Get meat and cheese and green on your fork, bite into soft charredness, make bedroom eyes.

Because it is kind of all too much for one person, allow me to suggest that you order both this and one pasta dish (gnocchi or rigatoni) and just reach into each others' plates. Hot. Trust me.

Dessert = Meh. I've never been into Italian desserts, honestly. But we got the creme caramel and it was creme-y and caramel-y. And it does allow some extra time for non-Google research; ie, conversation. Whatever you get, share it.


The Boo

Monday, October 5, 2009

RIP Gourmet!!

Dear Mouse,

It's the end of an era.

Oh, Ruth. Whither thou goest, I will go.

Remember this cake?
From the September 2007 issue. Coconut Rum Cake. You baked it for my birthday upon request.

Conde Nast, how could you? No More Gourmet Magazine????? Sure, to be truthful, I stopped subscribing a while ago. But I was a loyalist for YEARS and I still always read the issues lying around at the Mouse House. And while our food-obsessed family may have paved the way for my culinary enthusiasm, I have to say it was Gourmet that really started the ball rolling for me personally. Cast your mind back to a time (college and just after) when I did not cook. At. All. When I had roommates, I was always the one doing dishes or accidentally making butter when someone asked me to whip a bowl of cream (true story). In Los Angeles, in the late 90s, I was at the end of my tether. I was living alone in an awful apartment, my first band (and the rest of my personal life) had fallen apart, I hadn't been involved in theatre in 3 years!! and I was completely disillusioned with music and with Hollyweird. Somehow, an issue of Gourmet fell into my lap. In between bouts of angst and flip-flopping about leaving LALA behind, I somehow decided that cooking something might keep me calm and provide some reminder of my creative abilities.

The first thing I made on my own from Gourmet: Harira, a Moroccan soup:

It was a step forward. Flavorful, interesting, and risky, yet simple and inviting to the home cook just starting to get her hands dirty. While stirring, I entertained myself reading the more complex and tricky recipes I would never try, the articles about faraway hotels, and the moving, close-to-home cooking/life epiphanies. I still remember this great article about a woman traveling through Appalachia with her husband's clothes after his death, on her way to have them made into a quilt. Along the way, she ate tomato soup in a diner which the waitress freely admitted was Campbell's with some butter and cream, and fruit cobbler with ice cream for breakfast (apparently common in that part of the country). Her quip, "The cuisine of grief: High in fat, low in pretension", has stayed with me. It wasn't "about" the food, but the food painted a picture of her life at that moment. It was the first time I realized that writing about food was a way to write about life, a shortcut to the heart of experience. I went on from that to Peter Mayle's novel "A Year in Provence". I also went on from interesting soup to interesting cakes and breads, and the rest is history.

Well, thanks to you Mouse, I'll always have the big yellow cookbook with so many of the great recipes. I JUST made the turkey meatloaf YESTERDAY. And Ruth Reichl's autobiographical books
, which are truly precious. And I have my Bon Appetit subscription. But I couldn't let this bit of news go by without raising a metaphorical glass.

I'll leave you with this, which was really my very first tiny tentative food experiment in that same California kitchen, also from Gourmet: Vanilla Sugar. I remember the sense of wonder and fun at this simple trick. Try it - it involves NO effort and it's magic. Just last week, in an Indian grocery on the lower east side, I impulsively picked up one long fragrant vanilla bean, in a small plastic bag. I must, somehow, have known.


The Boo