Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Whine Cake (Fall Equinox '11)

Dear Mouse,

There's almost nothing that makes me feel more at peace than the almost visible glow that pervades my home after people come over and allow me to feed them. I'm glad you could take a short break from seating charts to join the annual Fall Equinox dinner Chez Boo.

Of course, given everyone's wild schedules at the moment, there wasn't time for a big feast. This year's table sported black plums, chevre, hummus, crackers, and glasses of prosecco. But I still
wanted to make something particular to the occasion.

Wine Harvest Floor Picnic Setup, Urban Pagan Style.

Right up front I want to say that the cake was not my idea. This year, I chose to celebrate the Fall Equinox, also known as the Wine Harvest, by stealing a recipe from a food blog we love. I feel ok about it because the author admits to taking the recipe from a reader, and after all Pete Seeger called stealing the "Folk Process", and, whatever, this cake is really special.

At the wine harvest, we honor the notion of fermentation... the last stage before decay, before out with the old and in with the new. We drink in the lessons learned from the old year before the new is quite upon us, blah, blah, spiritual justification for booze in your dessert.

The truth is that Wine Cake has been on my mind since the summer, when our friend Titania (aka Mrs.Mighty Hunter) brought her sensational, signature "Aunt Marilyn's Wine Cake" to our waterfront picnic and I pretty much consumed the whole thing over the course of the afternoon.

Aunt Marilyn, you saucy minx. Trust me, there is no one who would not love this if you brought it over to their house; I dont care if they plant-sit for Michael Pollan.

Dangerously light AND moist AND crumby AND not too sweet AND kind of boozy but just a little, like maybe there was a glass of wine sitting near your cake. We're not talking tiramisu here. You're not going to get tipsy - - but it's there to lend an innocent, retro confection a kind of adult wink. It was everything I felt that summer day - sunshiny, casual, laid-back and just a little bit up to no good.

Although I had to respect Mrs. MH's wish to not betray Aunt Marilyn's recipe, I did pester her for some key ingredients and then googled recipes to match. (It's the FOLK PROCESS.) It seems that the traditional 'wine cake' involves yellow or white cake mix (MIX), instant vanilla pudding (INSTANT PUDDING), eggs, vegetable oil, and white wine. Delicious. Believe it. Resist the urge to fancy it up in any way as I believe it would ruin the charming, wonderfully unpretentious end result. I think this recipe would probably come close.

Fast-forward to this week, when I see this recipe online and find that I cannot get myself to the store fast enough for red wine and cocoa powder. Because if Aunt Marilyn totally nailed my summer afternoon, devil-may-care, I'm-0ff-to-the-O'Neill-conference mindset in July, only this deep, dark, For-Serious

Red Wine Chocolate Cake

-!!!! -

- could capture where I'm at now as we slide into Fall.

Sparing the details, it's been a rough week. Disappointment. Loss. Heartbreak. Chagrin. Nouns like that.

There are times when you really learn the meaning of powerlessness. As in, sometimes s*t really does just happen and there's nothing you can do about it. Bad things happen to good people. Bad news comes without warning. You can't always get what you want, and you can't always keep what you think you have. One minute everyone's basking in the beautiful summer; the next minute it's, well, over.

At times like this, it's possible to go to a really dark place.

If you're lucky, it'll look like this:

Fall Equinox Red Wine Chocolate Cake via Smitten Kitchen

This dark, refined (yet fluffy!) chocolate cake does not involve mix or pudding (remember, we're going for beautiful gothic melancholy here). However, it is still an EASY one-bowl affair that takes only 25 minutes in the oven. You have GOT to make this, heartbreak or no. (You'll see that Smitten Kitchen's version calls for a mascarpone cream topping; I prefer without. To each her own.)

6 tbsp butter
3/4 C packed dark brown sugar
1/4 C white sugar
1 egg + 1 yolk (I only had one egg and it was still delicious)
3/4 C red wine (I used Cupcake Vineyards' "Red Velvet"... pretty much because of the name)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 C + 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 C dutch cocoa powder (I went with Hershey's Unsweetened)
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp table salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon (I might actually have liked less)

Preheat to 325. Spray 9-in. round cake pan with baking spray (or line with parchment... ? I used Pam...) In a large bowl, cream the butter. Add the sugars and beat til fluffy. Add egg and yolk and beat well, then red wine and vanilla. Add all dry ingredients right in the same bowl (you can sift them if you're more patient than me, or have a sifter). Mix til 3/4 combined then fold the rest in gently. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 25-30 min or until a cake tester comes out clean. "The top of the cake should be shiny and smooth, like a puddle of chocolate."(SK). (If you're making the topping, do it while the cake is baking.) Let cool 10 min. Eat. It looks very pretty dusted with confectioner's sugar.

This cake, like the human spirit, is very resilient. Like, say, if you forget to add the chocolate, and have to stir it in at the last minute. Still good!

Welcome Fall.


The Boo

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Food Block, Part II

Dear Mouse,

I just put a chocolate cake in the oven





The Boo

PS. Fetched it out after only seconds and madly stirred it in (oh, and the EGG that I forgot also). Hoping for the best. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Last Bite of Summer

Dear Boo,

Here's how it went. All of a sudden it was labor day and I had eaten nary a lobster roll nor ripe peach nor heirloom tomato salad, and I was in a panic. So, I sent this email:

dateThu, Sep 1, 2011 at 1:52 PM
subjectholy crap, it's already labor day!

Hi friends!

are you in town this weekend? do you have plans? do you feel the way I
do, that summer has gone by entirely too quickly and we must cram in
every second with fun and seasonal experiences? Well, great!

We're thinking of doing a potluck picnic (or just potluck, if our
apartment is easier) to declare our need to hang on to summer, and
take a break from godforsaken wedding planning to see our wonderful
friends. Here's what I'm thinking: bring anything (a dish, an item, a
beverage) that embodies the essence of summer for you. Something that
when you take a bite or a sip, places you smack in the middle of a
warm summer afternoon, feeling lazy and relaxed, and altogether happy.
It can be a raw tomato, or a whole clambake--your choice. if there's a
story that goes along with it, even better.

Are you in?

xoxo The Mouse*

And because my friends are awesome and funny, I got emails back saying they were (mostly) all in, and making snarky comments about gazpacho and fantasy football drafts.

Then, they came. Bearing the loveliest, most abundant armfuls of summer tastes of all shapes and sizes. And I thought, WHY DON'T WE DO THIS ALL THE TIME? Potlucks get a bad rap in our apartment, with thoughts of casserole pans accidentally smashed on a subway platform, six potato-based dishes, and 12 items that need heating up all at different temperatures, all in our tiny oven. But this was heaven. I couldn't have planned the menu better myself--there was plenty of food, enough for everyone to take leftovers home, plenty of variety, and fewer dishes for us to clean. People even had the good manners to come color-coordinated!

This was not planned. And makes me look like I belong to some kind cult (see: baby doll in picture)

Jeff came early, bearing our wedding gift, my newest babe, A VITAMIX! For those of you who don't know what this is, I have two words for you: Two. Horsepower. Jeff set to work making frozen margaritas to greet our guests. Summer in a plastic cup, I tell you.

David brought creamy, unctuous, zingy gazpacho, which we gobbled up as our appetizer. He took some heat for omitting the avocado garnish, but there was an elaborate story about getting locked inside his apartment and having to call a locksmith who, with a captive audience (forgive the pun), charged him an arm and a leg to let him out of his apartment so that he could buy groceries for the gazpacho oh and CONTINUE TO LIVE HIS LIFE AS A FREE MAN for lord's sake, so we all forgave him. Also it was yummy.

Emily brought delicious corn salsa and tortilla chips which was a relief, as I had sent her an urgent ESP message that we had neglected to buy more than one bag.

I used email instead of ESP to communicate to Abby and Jeremy that we needed some ice cream to go with the cobbler I made, and they brought that, along with a decadent heirloom tomato caprese salad (thank the lord I could check that off my summer to-eat list), beer (for what is a summer afternoon gathering without it), and watermelon.

Abby told us about how her mom always used to buy a whole watermelon, made a horizontal cut along the top to remove the lid, and then carved that lid into a tail which came spouting out of the center of the melon, with an etched grinning face and eyes to complete the watermelon whale. How terrifyingly adorable is that? Then there were stories about other abominations done to watermelons in the name of college summer drunkenness and the finer points of melon carving were discussed.
There was a summer squash salad from Kerri and Matt who did us the honor of re-creating the recipe off our blog! It was very thrilling, and very tasty, and turns out to be perfect for potlucks as I inexplicably wrote the recipe to feed about 10. oops.

There it is, on the left. Okay, so we've got some things to work out in the
setting-of-the-potluck-table department. Nobody's perfect. But that salad was.

There was a watermelon salad made by Kate, with mint and feta and a light dressing that made me eat any words I've uttered in the past against fruit in salads. I lied.

There was a sort of Fideua-esque dish that Grill a Chef Josh "threw together" and brought over and which was positively addictive with chicken and sausage and noodles slick with oil and spice.

Josh was exhausted from working five days straight prior to our get-together, but is absolutely incapable of showing up at a dinner without some sort of offering. Also, it turned out, he mis-read my email and thought we didn't have any starch or protein on the menu, when in fact, I had made Red Beans and Rice after having my arm twisted by the Fiance, that despite the fact that it was out of keeping with the theme of the party, we really needed to make something with the andouille sausage brought to us by Chef Josh and Kate direct from New Orleans which has been languishing in our freezer for oh--I don't even want to say how long.

Did I worry I might be poisoning my friends? Was this trepidation met with a dramatic eyeroll by the Fiance? Did we serve it anyway? Was it freaking DELICIOUS? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. The recipe is below, and you should make it just as soon as the weather cools off and all those delicious summer items that you'll find elsewhere in this post are off the farmstand shelves. Really. It's so good. And so easy.

I also made (or, rather, assembled) a corn on the cob bar with fixing including: butter, sour cream, mayonaisse, cayenne, limes, queso fresco, green tabasco sauce, salt and pepper.

I made some face-meltingly hot pickled peppers, which I should probably have made with jalapenos, but instead was seduced by the colorful and shapely medley I found at the market. I also made some pickled onions, which together with your standard toppings, constituted the Hot Dog bar. Dogs off a George Forman Lean, Mean, Grilling Machine is not quite the same as dogs off a charcoal pit, but what can I say. We live in Manhattan.

And there was dessert: this mixed berry cobbler from Bon Appetit, which for me, is summer incarnate, and a surprise addition from Josh D., of a key lime cheesecake. It just so happens that my favorite pie is key lime, the only time I like to eat it is in the summer, and as it turns out, when combined with cheese is even better.

Then there was storytelling, and even a dramatic reading:

Sam shared her summertime food memory which involved a blueberry pie eating contest, vomit, and that moment when you suddenly realize sometimes your parents really DO know best, and that they don't actually make arbitrary rules just to torture you. And then, she told us about the sometimes shorter-lived moment when you suddenly realize your parents might actually be the coolest people ever, which for her came when she realized that while her mom let her pull the guts out of the inside of the pumpkin with her hands, because who can be denied that delicious feeling of being elbow deep in slime and tendons?, her friend's mother made her use a SPOON. For shame.

And then Josh D. congratulated her for bringing things full circle right into fall, and we started talking about what we'd miss about the summer but what we love about fall and then everyone got another plateful and some of us maybe took a nap.

So that's it, I suppose. The last of the summertime hurrahs (and what a hurrah it was). Sure, there'll be corn in abundance for the next few weeks, and it was, after all, in the upper 80s today. But you can already feel the change in the air, the cooler breeze that comes through in the late evening hours, the rain that when it comes, leaves you more chilled than refreshed. So, I didn't eat all the tomatoes I would have liked, and maybe I missed out on the pleasure of a lobster roll and fries on a sunny afternoon with a glass of rose, and maybe my summer saw not one single cherry pass these lips. Next year. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to cozying up on a cloudy fall day with a pot of red beans and rice on the stove. Apple pie ain't so bad either.


The Mouse

*Okay, I didn't sign it that way, as you and our parents are the only people on this planet that actually call me that IN PUBLIC AHEM

(Our BFF) Emeril's Red Beans and Rice

8 servings


1 pound dried red beans, rinsed and sorted over
3 tablespoons bacon grease
1/4 cup chopped tasso, or chopped ham
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onions
3/4 cup chopped celery
3/4 cup chopped green bell peppers
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1/2 pound smoked sausage, split in half lengthwise and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound smoked ham hocks
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
10 cups chicken stock, or water--I would use less than this, as it turned out rather soupy.
4 cups cooked white rice
1/4 cup chopped green onions, garnish


Place the beans in a large bowl or pot and cover with water by 2 inches. Let soak for 8 hours or overnight. Drain and set aside. Or, if you're me, and never think to do this ahead of time, quick soak them. Instructions here.

In a large pot, heat the bacon grease over medium-high heat. Add the ham and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the onions, celery and bell peppers to the grease in the pot. Season with the salt, pepper, and cayenne, and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, about 4 minutes. Add the bay leaves, parsley, thyme, sausage, and ham hocks, and cook, stirring, to brown the sausage and ham hocks, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the beans and stock or water, stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender and starting to thicken, about 2 hours.

Using an immersion blender, or by removing about 1/5 of the contents of the pot and blending in a processor, puree some of the beans until desired consistency, which should be thick and creamy, with lots of bean and sausage chunks. Continue to cook until the beans are tender and creamy, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and remove the bay leaves.

Serve over rice and garnish with green onions.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Food Block (Help me, Julia Cameron)

Dear Mouse,

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mojo.

Cookingwise, that is.

Wild stinging nettles picked by my friend KG for a delicious pasta. She recommends gloves.
(All pix in this post will, of necessity, be of other people's food.)

I dont know how it happened but it's no longer possible to ignore. It started, I think, this past spring with the Great Coffee Collapse of 2011 , where I realized that I had completely lost the ability to make a decent cup of joe. I tried everything. Different makers (drip and french), different brands, even the $16 Illy Coffee our cousin J swears you can't ruin. I consulted experts and applied all techniques faithfully. I poured the hot water in a circular motion. I waited for the "bloom". I timed everything to the minute. I measured. Blech. Dark, bitter, weirdly consistent sludge. In the end, I threw out my press in despair and have been shamefacedly stockpiling Via Instant Coffee packets from Starbucks. At the moment I see no end in sight.

Flooding in NJ, post-Irene. ie, An actual disaster, just so we can all keep perspective here.

That was just the beginning. The downward spiral has involved ordering in, storebought sandwiches, pre-grilled chicken breasts, 'heat and serve' london broil in a packet (yech-who am I??), and indian masala "simmer sauce" in a jar. A simple beans-and-rice dish? Ruined by failing to, oh, COOK the beans after soaking and before "simmer sauce". (Crunchy lentils anyone? I have two containers full.) A beautiful blueberry/spinach salad? Ruined as I artfully dumped in kalamata olives' marinade before remembering about the blueberries. Even my tried and true, go-to stuff is failing me. Muffins? Come on! My bread and butter (and sugar and chocolate chips)? The foolproof, perfect recipe of summers past? Black bottoms. Failure to fluff. Whole batches left out overnight to become gummy and stale.

Pizza made (for me!) by a guy who makes pizza, dough and all. Mushrooms and red onion.
Cracked egg and truffle oil to finish. Yes.

It's gotten to the point where even the idea of chocolate chip cookies fills me with fear. I'm eating buttered saltines, brown rice cakes with peanut butter, carrots with hummus, raw kale, fake parmesan straight from the can (the can!), anything I dont have to prepare or think about. It's not good.

Still Life with His and Her whiskey bottles: possibly part of the problem.
Whatever. It was a gift. Also, I admit nothing.

The worst part, though, is the total lack of ideas. I think to myself, come on, Boo, now's the time. You're between gigs. Let's make ...

I have Food Block.

Time to bring in Julia Cameron.

You might recall this exercise from the Creativity tome The Artists' Way. I use it all the time for, you know, Art, and I see no reason why it can't get me (literally) cookin' again. I give you:

Blasting Through (Food)Blocks
The Boo, via Julia Cameron (author, The Artists' Way)

1. Write down any and all FEARS you have associated with the project.
OK. I'm afraid I never really was good at cooking anyway, just eating. I'm afraid that my new gentleman friend is a better cook than me. Ok, he is, and I'm afraid when he finds out he will leave me for a saucier. (A saucier what? Haha, ok focus.) I've been losing my balance a lot as well as my ability to balance flavors, and what if it's an inner ear thing. I haven't worked since early July and I'm afraid that I'll never get another acting job.


2. Write down any and all ANGER, or resentment, you have associated with the project.
I'm angry that I totally wasted a stick of butter on that batch of muffins. I resent that bag of beans for not having more explicit instructions on it. I'm mad at that agency for rejecting me after I totally thought they would sign.


3. Is that it? Write down anything you haven't said.
I think that's it.
Oh, also there was that giant roach. I'm afraid of attracting another one to the kitchen.
Let's not even get into the THREE FOOT RATS in Brooklyn.

4. Make your deal. 'OK, Creative Force, I'll take care of the QUANTITY of this endeavor. You take care of its QUALITY." Date and sign it.

So I'm getting back in with my most go-to recipe of all which I can't believe I haven't posted yet ever. Make this before summer is completely gone. (I often halve the recipe).


The Boo

Chase's Tian of Just Picked Vegetables

3 medium zucchini, sliced ¼-inch thick
3 medium summer squash, sliced
¼-inch thick
1 large eggplant, sliced ¼-inch thick
5 ripe medium tomatoes, sliced
¼-inch thick
¾ cup olive oil
2 large yellow onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced

Topping: 1 bunch fresh parsley, minced, chopped zest of 1 lemon, 1 C grated Parmesan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the zucchini and summer squash in a bowl, sprinkle lightly with salt, and toss to combine. Let stand 1 hour. Repeat the process with the eggplant and tomatoes in separate bowls. Meanwhile, heat ¼ cup of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes.

Stir in the garlic, reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes longer. Remove the onion mixture from the heat. Stir in the breadcrumbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle half the mixture over the bottom of a 12-inch round or oval grain dish. Drain the zucchini and summer squash and pat dry with paper towels. Repeat with the eggplant and tomatoes. Alternately layer the vegetables over the bread mixture in the dish. Sprinkle each layer with salt and pepper and drizzle with the remaining oil. Top with the remaining bread mixture. Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Combine the parsley, lemon zest and Parmesan cheese. Remove the foil from the dish and sprinkle the parsley mixture evenly over the top. Bake uncovered until the top is nicely browned and the vegetables are tender, 20-25 minutes.

Let stand several minutes, and then serve. Serves 8-10.