Friday, December 24, 2010

Airport Reading

On Wednesday, I spent nearly ten hours at LaGuardia for reasons I still don't quite understand. I made the best of it by reading, among other things, David Foster Wallace's `Consider the Lobster' from the essay collection of the same name. It's a brilliant piece on the annual Maine Lobster Festival that not only reports on its attractions (or, more likely, detractions) but reflects more generally on the practice of lobster preparation and eating--something unavoidable when the festival boasts of having the World's Largest Lobster Cooker:
Since [...] the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions. 
And so, DFW asks: "Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?"--while quite cognisant of the groans that such a question is bound to elicit: "A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does `all right' even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice?"
What I like best about this piece is its honesty. DFW--like most of us, probably--is genuinely confused about cooking and eating lobster. And so, with his usual bite, DFW asks questions that are astute and Socratically penetrating.
After thorough consideration of lobster physiology (lobsters, it turns out, are rather tactilely sensitive and cannot easily be rendered unconscious because of the distribution of their nerve bundles, and the fact that they produce no natural opioids might mean that their experience of pain is not at all like ours or that it is, and they just aren't as fortunately equipped to cope with it--in short, the data on lobster pain is inconclusive), DFW goes on to reflect on his own lay reaction to the lobsters awaiting their fate outside the World's Largest Lobster Cooker and finds it difficult not to see their frantic and impotent movement as an expression of their unhappiness or fright, even if of a more rudimentary sort than our own. "... and, again, why does rudimentariness even enter into it? Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in?"
But, after comparing aspects of the MLF to a "Roman circus or medieval torture-fest," he reels back, saying:
My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.
DFW is visibly torn, and this leads him into a final barrage of questions, genuine questions:
Given this article’s venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I’m curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet?
Seriously Socratic. When do you ever get something so self-examining in a food magazine?
Yes, best of all, Gourmet, which gave DFW the assignment,  actually published the piece in their August 2004 issue. I know that the magazine was reputed to be the more substantive of Conde Nast's two culinary monthlies, but really, DFW is no feel-good food writer--he sets out to challenge his reader, intellectually and morally. I never did hold a subscription, but I can lament the loss now.
Photo credit: Clarita Berger via Gourmet.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

End of Quarter

Flowers on the roadside
Last night I had a dream of us both dangling from the same tree--you, me, and a cell phone. Speaking the lost tongue of flowers. Unanswerable questions, godlike indifference. My how you shine, lucky tango! You have merged with the world, taken its will within you, some would say fallen but we know plucked. All is aphrodesia. Bring on the Apocalypse! You are my found object. - Lemon, Lawrence Krauser
Papers are in, the Quarter for me officially over. It feels good. I've been catching up on fiction--most recently, Lawrence Krauser's first novel, Lemon. I'm really not sure what to say. It's strangely solipsistic, or maybe claustrophobic, just a man and the lemon with which he's in love--at close quarters, too close quarters. There's not enough of a perspective from which one can resolve just what it is that one is witness to or evaluate what's going on. But maybe that's part of the point. It's beautiful regardless, strikingly poetic. My favourite bit is towards the end, where Wendell takes his lemon-love to a gallery, and the reader is treated to a short history of lemons as they have appeared in art throughout the ages.
But all of this closeness has me ready to break out into the world again, beyond books of any sort. A walk through the wintry neighbourhood is a good place to start.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Eating New York

Roasted Chestnut Doughnut
In all seriousness: what does one do in New York City? I am lucky enough to be able to make trips twice a year, and just about every time that my boyfriend's parents pick us up from the train afterwards, they ask us what we did, and all that we can say is this: "We shopped a little, but mostly, we ate," and then offer them each a pretzel-croissant from City Bakery or whatever other tidbits we thought were worth toting home. And, of course, they just look at us quizzically, as though we should have gone to the MoMA or at least seen something on Broadway--we just spent the day in Manhattan, for crying out loud!
Call me a philistine if you'd like, but after a string of late nights writing on something like `Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind', I would far rather sit down to a lovely lunch at Prune than brave the crowds at the MoMA. (Why is everyone who visits possessed by the urge to photograph the art? Do they plan on contemplating their pictures of it when they get home from their trips? I don't get it, and all of that jostling just makes me want to leave.) And lunch at Prune was lovely indeed. I really like the atmosphere there. It's a small place--probably seating no more than twenty--with a charming old bar, vintage mirrors lining the walls, penny tile on the floors, plenty of stools, tables, and cafe chairs salvaged from another life, and an open kitchen for the curious to peer into. It's a place with a sort of quiet, unassuming sophistication. And, the food, of course, was fantastic: skate wing in a brown butter-lemon sauce with capers, kale with parm and olive oil, poached pear in vanilla creme, and espresso mousse. So much so that there were actually leftovers from our much anticipated trip to Doughnut Plant, like the roasted chestnut doughnut pictured above. I assure you that it made for a well-balanced breakfast this morning.

Monday, November 29, 2010

New Traditions

Bread for Thanksgiving!
Thursday was my very first American Thanksgiving. I'm sure that if someone had peered in through the windows, the scene would have looked almost pastoral, evocative of an America that now exists only in oil on canvas--a trestle table set for at least twelve, a crackling fire, a sumptuous spread, turkey and all. But, of course, we weren't conversing about quaint, old-timey things--we were laughing over zombie movies and Thompson-isms and ornery male turkeys. It was a grand old time.
I never really got Thanksgiving back home--apart from stuffing and mashed potatoes, I always thought it was a pretty ho-hum holiday. But this, I get--cooking all afternoon with a glass of wine in hand and then eating around a table full of friends and new faces. I could get used to this.
The bread, pictured above, was a hit with the Thanksgiving crowd. Potato, cheddar, and chive torpedoes from the BBA. I think I'm starting to get the hang of hearth baking.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Sourdough Boule
Late last week, I connected with someone else in the department who bakes bread. I had heard that he had started making sourdough during the summer, and unless you bake really frequently, maintaining your "mother" starter involves discarding some of it when you do get around to feeding it--so I jumped on the opportunity and unabashedly offered to take some discarded starter off of his hands.
On Tuesday, he kindly passed along a tupperware container of happily bubbling starter--so happy, in fact, that it popped off the lid with a modest boom in the middle of the class we have together. Oops.
But this starter, as you can see, isn't all mischief. By early afternoon today, even with the decidedly chilly temperatures in my apartment, I was in the good company of two lovely, burnished, mildly sour loaves.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Continuing Affair

Rosemary Potato Bread
My love affair with bread started in high school, when my biology teacher, Ms. Quinn (bless her heart!), decided that since we were studying microorganisms, yeast being among them, our homework for the next day would be to bake some sort of yeasted bread by hand--no bread machines, no stand mixers, just good old-fashioned muscle. Now, to this day, I'm not entirely clear on what the value of this experience was as far as biology went, but I was thrilled with the process, craft, and feeling of it all--I loved the way that the plush dough squished beneath my palms, the yeasty aroma of the dough after proofing, the transformation that happened in the blaze of the oven. I baked regularly through my senior year of high school, supplementing my school lunches with crusty slices of French bread and wedges of focaccia. I couldn't get over just how good fresh bread was.
And to this day, I still can't. I bake at least a loaf a week, usually two. It helps that grad-student life is very amenable to the rhythms of regular bread baking. I can start a loaf in the morning, read an article or two while it's proofing, de-gas and shape it, read some more, bake it, and then read until I can't wait any longer to cut into it. I lead a charmed life, I know. (Hah).
Poached egg
My favourite bread as of late is the Potato-Rosemary Bread from Peter Reinhart's BBA. While it baked, the kitchen smelled irresistibly lemony and sweet. And fresh from the oven, it was plush and herbal on the inside, crusty and golden on the outside. It makes for lovely toast in the morning, and I imagine that it would be sublime with a generous smear of lemon curd--Meyer lemon season, after all, is almost upon us. And, still thinking wistfully of summer barbecues, I'm sure that divided into smaller rounds, this bread would make great burger buns. A bread for all seasons.

Find the recipe with Deb at Smitten Kitchen.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

All the wine

Last night, a couple of friends came over with an abundance of chanterelles. We sauteed them in garlic and white wine, laid them in beds of arugula, and tucked them into crepes dressed with tarragon cream. And then we drank two bottles of wine and contemplated holding a two-day-long bourbon-tasting interspersed with trips to Shedd and the Oriental Institute. Lately, things have been somewhat unreal and utterly perfect.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sweetness never suits me

At the ripe old age of twenty-three, I find myself increasingly unable to enjoy particularly sugary things--and with seventeen and a half ounces of sugar having gone into the batch, these brownies were definitely far too much for me after the first few nibbles. Though they are certainly not your run-of-the-mill, grade-school-bake-sale brownies with their gooey pockets of bittersweet chocolatey goodness, satisfying chew, and shiny, crackly tops, for all that, they are just too sweet. Achingly sweet. (And, though the vegetable oil called for is what makes them so wonderfully chewy, no amount of Scharffen Berger disguises that slick, oily taste that only vegetable oil imparts.)
For what it's worth, Cook's Illustrated, I salute your efforts, but I'll leave these brownies to those youngsters and their bake sales from now on.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Quick and Adaptable

Phyllo cups
Having recently moved to a new city and met a whole crowd lovely people to call my friends has been exciting in a number of ways, one of them being the chance to get to know all of them better over a good meal and a few pints. I've had more dinner guests and get-togethers at my place in the past two months than than I've had all year. I can only hope that it keeps up. There's really something to feeding the people you care about.
One of the challenges of feeding this crowd in particular has been keeping things vegan (and by extension, inclusive). Though this has ruled out a lot of approaches and flavours that I really enjoy, I've relished it and taken it as an opportunity to be more creative and adventurous in the kitchen. Last week, for instance, I freely adapted one of my favourite quiche recipes into mini phyllo cups filled with tender slivers of braised leek and port-laden slices of mushroom. Though the resulting hors d'oeuvres were a little lacking (namely in butter and silky custard), I won't be discouraged. Some recipes are just eminently more adaptable than others.
Skillet Cornbread
Take this cornbread, for instance. Pictured here, this particular incarnation involves butter, eggs, milk, a generous helping of scallion and jalepeno, coarsely ground yellow cornmeal, and finely ground blue cornmeal. However, it also does wonderfully as originally intended, i.e. vegan--just swap out the butter for corn oil, and the eggs and milk for water. Either way, you'll end up with some very satisfying cornbread--crisp, golden edges, a tender, jalepeno-flecked crumb, and subtle, corny sweetness. And, maybe best of all, it comes together quickly--unlike, say, my other favourite cornbread, which needs a bit of head start. I can't always be expected to plan for cornbread a whole day in advance, now can I?

Skillet Cornbread
Adapted from Peter Berley's The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen

Note: for a vegan version of this cornbread, replace the two eggs and milk with 1 cup + 1 tablespoon of water and the butter with an additional 2 tablespoons of corn oil in the wet mixture; do not use whole grain coarsely ground cornmeal--for one reason or another, this stuff never quite softens up, and you will end up with very chewy nubs of cornmeal in your bread.

1 cup unbleached white bread flour
1/2 cup coarsely ground yellow cornmeal (not whole grain, see notes above)
1/2 cup finely ground blue or yellow cornmeal or masa harina
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 eggs
1/2 cup + 1 tbsp milk or buttermilk
2 tablespoons corn oil
2 tablespoons cold butter
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 jalepeno pepper, seeded and minced
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch cast-iron skillet, 8-inch square baking dish, or 9-inch pie pan.
In a bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeals, and baking powder. Add butter to dry mixture and rub into pea-sized flecks with fingertips.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, corn oil, maple syrup, scallion, jalepeno pepper, and salt.
Using a rubber spatula, fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture. Be careful not to overmix, a few lumps won't matter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the corn bread comes out clean.
Cool in the pan for 15 minutes before serving.
Serves 4 to 6.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

All in a Day's Work

Yesterday, I spent the better part of the day debating over, getting to, or returning from brunch. I am not entirely sure if eating stuffed brioche french toast with roasted pumpkin and dulce de leche makes for an accomplished day, but it was a damned good one nonetheless--crisp fall air, afternoon sun, and four friends with whom to switch plates when the sugar became too much. Lula: so good and so far away.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Capital-R Romantic

Yesterday, we biked along the lake and found ourselves wrapped in a sudden fog. Standing out on the wind-swept shore with the deep turquoise of the water stretching before us and the fog rolling off its surface, we were the mere mortals of a Friedrich painting, in the thrall of Nature.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Beginnings of a Ritual

Potato Pizza
I could not have hoped for more when it comes to how things are turning out here in Chicago. I simply cannot get over how lovely this place is. One of these days, instead of going to class, I might just lie down in the green grass of the quad and drink in the bright stretches of blue sky and the spires and the gargoyles and the bells, oh the sweet bells, before it all fades into winter dreariness.
And then there's the people. I can't get enough of them either. Last Saturday, all eight of us newbies squished into my living room, listened to Bill Evans, and snacked on Jim Lahey's pizza patate--the beginnings of a Saturday night ritual. Tonight, it's Mozart and apple crumble.
I like this pizza for a number of reasons. First, it's incredibly simple--paper-thin slices of potato, diced onion, and a sprinkling of rosemary on a thin crust with just the right amount of chew and crunch. Admittedly, it takes a bit of planning, since the potato slices need to soak in brine and the dough needs to proof, but the results are well worth it. The potato slices are creamy and soft in the centre and prettily caramelized and crunchy at the edges. The onion adds a bit of sweetness, and the rosemary plays off of both. And though you might be tempted to add a little crumbled blue cheese or a dusting of parmesan, I think it's pretty much unnecessary. This pizza is perfect as is. Just crack open a beer and let that jazz piano wash over you.

Pizza Patate
From Jim Lahey's My Bread via Gourmet

Note: the recipe below calls for a mandoline, and I'm sure that using one would really expedite the process, but I've had great success without one--with a good-quality vegetable peeler, it's quite possible to just peel slices of the right thickness directly into the brine. My slices probably aren't as shapely as their mandolin cousins would be, but no one has complained so far.

1 quart of lukewarm water
4 tsp (32 grams) table salt or fine sea salt
2 lbs yukon gold potatoes, peeled
1 cup diced yellow onion
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
about 1 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 recipe of pizza dough (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F, with a rack in the middle.
In a medium bowl, combine the water and salt, stirring until the salt is dissolved. Use a mandoline to slice the potatoes very thin (1/16 inch thick), and put the slices directly into the salted water so they don't oxidize and turn brown. Let soak in the brine for 1 1/2 hours (or refrigerate and soak for up to 12 hours), until the slices are wilted and no longer crisp.
Drain the potatoes in a colander and use your hands to press out as much water as possible, then pat dry. In a medium bowl, toss together the potato slices, onion, pepper, and olive oil.
Spread the potato mixture evenly over the dough, going all the way to the edges of the pan; put a bit more of the topping around the edges of the pie, as the outside tends to cook more quickly. Sprinkle evenly with rosemary.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the topping is starting to turn golden brown and the crust is pulling away from the sides of the pan. Serve the pizza hot or at room temperature.
Makes enough for one 13 x 9 inch pizza.
    Basic Pizza Dough
    From Jim Lahey's My Bread via Gourmet

    3 3/4 cups (500 g) bread flour
    2 1/2 tbsp instant or active dry yeast
    3/4 tsp table salt or fine sea salt
    3/4 tsp sugar
    1 1/3 cups (300 g) room-temperature water
    extra-virgin olive oil for the pans

    In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, yeast, salt, and sugar. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until blended, at least 30 seconds. Turn out onto the countertop and knead for 5-8 minutes. Return to the bowl and cover, letting sit at room temperature until the dough has doubled in volume, about 2 hours.
    Oil two 13-by-19-inch rimmed baking sheets. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape half of the dough onto an oiled pan in one piece. Gently pull and stretch the dough across the surface of the pan, and use your hands to press it evenly out to the edges. If the dough sticks to your fingers, lightly dust it with flour or coat your hands with oil. Pinch any holes together. Repeat with the second piece (or put it in an oiled freezer bag for up to 1 day in the fridge or up to 1 month in the freezer, thawing the dough overnight in the fridge and bringing it to room temperature before using).
    Makes enough for two 13 x 9 inch pizzas.

    Friday, September 24, 2010

    A Cake in Progress

    Apple Graham Coffee Cake
    This cake was promising--tender, barely sweet, apple-studded, and with just the right amount of rustic, wholesome, whole-grained goodness--but for a reason or two that I just can't put my finger on, I just wasn't quite happy with it. It might be that it wasn't quite rich enough or that it could have been more moist, and it's most likely that this was my fault and not Kim Boyce's. I'll have to try this again with full-fat yogurt, like the recipe calls for, and not whatever happens to be in the fridge (in this case, 2% m.f.), and hopefully I'll be more comfortable with this new-(very)-old oven by then. And maybe a dash of nutmeg in addition to the cinnamon and ground ginger wouldn't hurt either. I'm convinced that with a few tweaks this cake could be perfect with a cup of tea on one of these lovely fall afternoons of late.

    Friday, September 17, 2010


    I am, by all counts, a terrible vegetarian. My thoughts are never far from the prosciutto, duck fat fries, and skirt steak I can't have. This week in particular I've been thinking a lot about how much easier it would be develop the patina of my new cast-iron skillet if I could just fry up a little bacon or maybe a couple of bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. There really isn't anything quite like animal fat to get cast iron up to snuff. But, even if I can overlook the occasional chicken-stock-based soup when I'm eating out, it would be a little more difficult to pretend that I wasn't rendering pork fat in my own kitchen (for the sake of the patina, of course!). On that front, then, I'm out of luck.
    But as for my other longings, there is this bourguignon--this seitan bourguignon. It is rich, earthy, and utterly satisfying, with the sort of thick, unctuous broth that you must sop up with a bit of good bread. And it doesn't leave you wishing for something meatier.
    Seitain Bourguignon

    Seitan Bourguignon
    Adapted from The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen
    Note: I recommend holding back on the salt a bit before tasting, especially if you're using store-bought seitan--while tasty, store-bought meat substitutes tend to be pre-seasoned and somewhat sodium-heavy. I used Upton's and found that the stew could have been just a little less salty.

    8-10 modest garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
    1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
    3 sprigs fresh thyme
    1 sprig fresh sage
    2 sprigs fresh parsley
    2 cups medium-bodied, dry red wine (preferably from Burgundy)
    4 tablespoons naturally brewed soy sauce
    2 tablespoons mirin
    a generous grind of black pepper
    1 tsp sea salt
    2 bay leaves
    2 strips fresh orange zest
    1 pound seitan, drained and cut into one-inch cubes
    1 large onion, roughly chopped
    1 carrot, sliced into bite-sized chunks
    1 large celery rib with leaves, cut into one-inch pieces
    2 tablespoons tomato paste
    1 1/2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
    1 pound cremini or white button mushrooms, left whole if small, halved or quartered if large
    chopped fresh parsley for garnish

    In a small pan over medium heat, combine the garlic and oil and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and poach the garlic until it turns pale gold, about 20 minutes. Strain the oil into a clean glass jar. Reserve the garlic.
    Make a bouquet garni by tying together with kitchen twine or wrapping in cheese cloth the thyme, sage, and parsley.
    In a large bowl, whisk together the wine, soy sauce, mirin, 1/4 cup of the garlic oil, pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Add the bouquet garni, bay leaves, and orange zest. Add the seitan, cover the bowl with a plate, and set aside to marinate for 1 hour at room temperature, or for up to 8 hours in the refrigerator.
    In a heavy four-quart flameproof casserole over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons of the garlic oil. Add the onion and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and saute until the onion softs, about five minutes. Add the carrot, celery, tomato paste, and flour. Cook for five more minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking.
    Pour all but 1/4 cup of the seitan marinade over the casserole. With a wooden spoon, scrape up any browned flour stuck to the bottom of the casserole. Raise the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 40 to 50 minutes.
    Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
    While the vegetables simmer, toss the mushrooms with the seitan, leftover marinade, and the remaining garlic oil. Spread the seitan-mushroom mixture in a baking dish large enough to hold it in a singe layer. Roast in the oven for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until the mushrooms are well browned.
    Remove the bouquet garni, orange zest, and bay leaves from the vegetables. Add the seitan-mushroom mixture to the pot and stir to combine. Add the reserved poached garlic and a bit more water if the stew is too thick. Simmer gently for 10 minutes to meld the flavours.
    Serve garnished with chopped parsley.
    Serves 4 to 6 people.

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010

    A Good Start

    It feels fantastic to finally live in a place where things are happening. The Renegade Craft Fair on Sunday was amazing--so many lovely things and talented people...if only I weren't between stipend cheques. We limited ourselves to this very cute clock from UrbanPosture and a few whimsical prints from Raw Toast Design and Arcane Arts

    Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    Tuesday, August 17, 2010

    A Pair of Realisms

    In Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie writes of a woman whose life's bitterness seeps into the food she makes. Today's focaccia was dry, dry, dry. Was it because I've poured myself, every last bit, into this wretched master's thesis of mine (final draft still pending) and hadn't the moisture to spare, or just because I kneaded too much flour into the dough yesterday? Oh magic realism, so much more inviting than your philosophical cousin.