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10.31.2005

Joining the club: Seattlest

Sometimes details escape me, such as when I’m engaged in heated battle with a virus. For example, I have—until today—completely forgotten to announce, dear hungry reader, that you can now also find me and my writing over at Seattlest, a sibling of New York City’s illustrious group blog Gothamist, San Francisco's SFist, Paris's Parisist, and the rest of the -ist gang.

I'll be contributing weekly food pieces focused mainly on seasonal recipes and cooking, broadcasting from my kitchen, as usual. In my first article, I extolled the virtues of caramelized cauliflower, one of my favorite fall standbys and the recipe to turn to when you want to watch a sworn cauliflower hater literally eat his words. This week I turn to yellow split pea soup with winter squash and kale, a warming brew that, along with cacio e pepe and my old faithful buttered toast with honey, recently sustained me through several flu-fraught days.

I hope you’ll come visit.

10.26.2005

The semantics of stewing

In the English language, there are only a handful of phrases that come with their own built-in laugh track, and sadly, “stewed prunes” is one of them. Witness the following exchange, tearfully recorded by yours truly during a phone conversation earlier this week:

Molly: I’m thinking of making stewed prunes.*

Brandon: [Giggle].

Molly: Why are you laughing? Have you ever eaten a stewed prune?

Brandon: [Giggle]. No, but it just sounds funny. I mean, steewwwed pruuune! [Giggle giggle].

It is a dark, dark day, dear reader, when you learn that the man you love—and whose genetic material you would like to help perpetuate, even—is a prune skeptic.

In his defense, Brandon claims that he dislikes all dried fruits, the unfortunate result of being forced to eat too much “hippie trail mix” as a child. Now, it’s bad enough that the delicious prune—or, to use its new, marketing-friendly name, the dried plum—has to work an unglamorous side-job as a laxative, but for it to be discriminated against on the basis of childhood trauma is simply unfair. And anyway, if we really get down to semantics, stewed prunes aren’t dried fruits anymore. They’re soft, swollen, gushy pockets of heady, sweet-tart juice.


I like to think of prunes as plums that have been bettered by hardship, plums made wiser by old age and wizening, and I consider myself lucky to have been schooled in the simple art of stewing from an early age. My father, a fan of cook-while-you-sleep breakfasts, used to load up a late-night saucepan with prunes, water, and thin slices of orange and lemon, bring it to a boil, cover it, turn off the heat, and let it sit until morning. The Food Safety and Inspection Service would likely look askance at such a method, but it did make ours a relatively happy, mainly healthy, pro-prune household.

Today I prefer a method that’s a little more conventional but every bit as effortless: a short, gentle simmer over low heat, with no stirring, poking, or prodding required. You’ll know that your prunes are properly stewed when an almost liqueur-like aroma wafts out of the saucepan. The fruit should slump on the spoon, and its skin should yield to the tooth with a gentle, dainty pop. Its silky, juicy pulp should be both warming and wintery, a deep, round, heartening flavor that’s delicate but deathly serious.

If I have my way, even the most hard-boiled of prune skeptics will be stewed into submission.


*Thank you, David Lebovitz, for believing in prunes.


Stewed Prunes with Citrus and Cinnamon
Adapted from Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings

When I wanted to recreate the flavor of my father’s overnight stewed prunes, I turned to a little feel-good cookbook-cum-self-help-book by Edward Espe Brown, Zen monk and author of several well-known vegetarian cookbooks. Brown treats his prunes as simply as possible, and rightly so. To my palate, prunes are the loveliest of dried fruits: they lack the shrill, high-pitched sweetness of raisins and the sticky, cloying sugar of dates, and their low, dark flavor has more depth than, say, a dried apricot. These stewed prunes get additional nuance, too, from thin slivers of citrus fruits, which go into the pot bitter peel and all. They’re delicious warm, with thick, Greek-style plain yogurt, or atop a bowl of oatmeal, dabbled over ice cream, or—as I’ve been known to do it—cold, straight off the fork, from the fridge.

1 orange, OR 2 small tangerines, OR 1 small orange and ½ a lemon
1 pound pitted prunes, preferably organic
1 cinnamon stick

Cut the citrus fruit in half vertically, and then slice it thinly, peel and all. Place the slices in a medium saucepan with the prunes and the cinnamon stick, and add water to cover. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer, and cook over medium-low heat for about 30-45 minutes, until the prunes are quite tender, the citrus slices are soft and glassy, and the liquid in the pan is caramelly. Remove the cinnamon stick and serve, or store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a week. I find that they're actually better after a little rest, so I try to make mine a day or so before I want to eat them.

10.23.2005

A state of melt

The last time I was this sick was 12 years ago, during the Christmas holidays of my freshman year of high school. Though my memories of the time are understandably—and blessedly—hazy, I do remember the key points: I spent a week lying on the couch in my family’s den; I sucked down a box or two of Comtrex; I lost eight pounds; and I got to wear my favorite green pseudo-punk bomber-jacket-inspired parka indoors. Those were the days, as they say.

There’s nothing like the first real flu of adulthood to make me look fondly upon the illnesses of my adolescence. Today, dear reader, I have two words for you: night sweats. And I’m not referring to the kind that can result in babies. I’ve been barricaded in my apartment since Thursday afternoon, with nothing to distract me but nausea, a sore throat, headaches, body aches, hot flashes, and the entire first season of America’s Next Top Model on DVD. It should be amply clear that I am not well.

But as with most things, sickness has its upsides. If nothing else, lying supine for the better part of three days does give a girl new perspective, literally and figuratively. And ever the optimist, I’ve chiseled a few gems of wisdom from the dark mineshaft of my disease.

#1: If you are sick and live alone in a city thousands of miles from both your mother and your boyfriend, crying about that fact makes things a lot better, or, at least, it frightens your mother and your boyfriend enough to make them call every two hours, which makes things a lot better.

#2: An ice-cold glass of tangerine-flavored Emer’gen-C is unspeakably delicious, especially when you have no clothes left to remove but are still sweating.

#3: A slice of buttered toast with honey is unspeakably delicious, period.

And #4: If you’re looking to expand your flu-vexed vocabulary beyond “night” and “sweat,” try cacio and pepe.


Cacio e pepe is shorthand for hot, wet spaghetti slicked with finely grated Pecorino Romano (cacio) and dusted heartily with freshly ground black pepper (pepe). Whether I am fit or frail, healthy or feeling like hell, a day that includes this elemental Roman peasant dish cannot be deemed bad. Even at my worst, salt, starch, and the dairy tang of sheep's milk cheese never fail to arouse a lusty jab from my fork.


In fact, though not normally one for exaggeration, I’d dare argue that this may be a perfect dish: round but not rich, lightly creamy but clean, laced with peppery heat, and fantastically easy to both prepare and consume with heavy eyelids and a hoarse throat. If cacio e pepe is properly made and promptly eaten, the cheese should be in a “state of melt,” according to Lynne Rossetto Kasper, as should the person eating it. It’s more satisfying than hot flashes and night sweats combined, and short of a state of wellness, I can’t think of anything more delicious.


Cacio e Pepe

Adapted from Gourmet, March 2003

I first wrote about cacio e pepe here about a year ago, but because I didn’t do it justice then—and because I’ve eaten it three times in the past three days—I feel it deserves to be revisited. And anyway, you know how I feel about anything involving cheese. This recipe serves four as a first course, although you can easily scale it down to feed one or two. It's more about method than measurement.

½ lb good-quality dried spaghetti*
2 ½ oz (¾ cup plus 2 Tbs) very finely grated good-quality Pecorino Romano, such as Sini Fulvi**
Freshly ground black pepper

Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente.

While the spaghetti is cooking, fill a large glass or ceramic bowl with hot water to warm it. Just before the pasta is ready, drain the bowl but do not dry it.

Reserve ½ cup of the pasta cooking water, and then drain the pasta quickly in a colander. Do not shake off the excess water. Dump the pasta into warm, barely wet bowl. Sprinkle ¾ cup cheese and about 3 Tbs cooking water evenly over the spaghetti, and toss it quickly but gently. If the pasta seems dry, add more cooking water. Divide the pasta among four plates, and finish it a few grinds of black pepper and a sprinkling of the remaining cheese. Serve immediately.


*Always buy pasta that has been extruded through old-fashioned bronze dies rather than Teflon ones. The slightly rough surface of the pasta will hold sauces better.

**Grate the cheese on the ragged-edged holes of a box grater; do not use the small teardrop-shaped holes you’re probably accustomed to using for a fine grate. You want to wind up with a sort of cheese powder, which makes for almost instant melting.

10.20.2005

Going steady

Every kitchen has its strong, silent staples. I’ve certainly got my stockpile of oils and vinegars, condiments, rice, pasta, beans, butter, eggs, milk, flours, salts, and sugars, some dusty, some fusty, and all standing as ready proof of my fine Depression-era homemaker instincts. But if tomorrow brings a shortage in my stock of champagne vinegar or vermicelli, my kitchen won’t suffer. I can feel plenty satisfied without, say, Dijon mustard or basmati rice. The same cannot be said, however, for another subset of pantry regulars—the standbys that aren’t really staples, but rather steadies, those with whom I set a daily date. Without my cheese and chocolate, I’d be facing a Great Depression indeed.

As of this writing, my refrigerator contains a block of Grafton two-year cheddar, a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, another of Sini Fulvi Pecorino, the dregs of a piece of five-year Gouda, a half-eaten wedge of Point Reyes Original Blue, and a small tub of fresh, hand-dipped ricotta. You won’t find me eating them all at once—greediness is very unbecoming, or so I’m told—but I find that a sliver, or two, or three, is necessary for proper functioning. I was converted to the ways of cheese by a stern but well-meaning French host mother, and you know the word on the street: French women don’t get fat,* and by god, dear reader, I too will have my daily cheese. By the same token, my cupboard’s current chocolate lineup includes Chocolove 77% “extra strong” dark, Dolfin 88% dark, Dolfin milk chocolate with “hot masala,”** a blocky bar of Valrhona for baking, and Vosges Haut-Chocolat’s Creole and Barcelona bars,*** the sexiest of my steady sweets. We end every day together, chocolate and I, and though I harbor no illusions, I think this relationship is really headed somewhere.

But where the magic really happens is in the unlikely meeting of my two pet pantry items. While I can’t recommend a joint mouthful, chocolate and blue cheeses, for example, could be united by a shared affinity for port, and I’d venture to guess that, given the right setting, a chunk of caramelly aged Gouda might welcome a chaser of dark chocolate. And certainly, cream cheese and chocolate are no strangers. But the holy union I’m really after, dear patient reader, is a double chocolate cupcake with ricotta, bourbon, and orange zest.


Deep brown with cocoa, rich and tender, each fist-sized cake holds a well of creamy ricotta sexed up with bourbon and bitter orange, with a few chocolate chips for good measure. Swirled together, the ricotta and chocolate each make the other something better: the soft dairy richness of the fresh cheese gains depth from dark chocolate, and the chocolate’s sincere, not-too-sweetness borrows intrigue from the boozy ricotta.


With a dozen of these on the counter, the kitchen fills with a complex, almost spicy warmth, enough to make the most well-endowed cabinet of rice and pasta look downright sad. Every kitchen needs its strong, silent staples, yes, but things are so much more interesting when you’re going steady.


*Thank you, très chère collègue et confidante, for wisdom and girl-talk.
**Thank you,
Michele, mille fois!
***This stuff is dangerously dreamy,
mav. Thank you!


Double Chocolate Cupcakes with Ricotta, Bourbon, and Orange Zest
Adapted from Gourmet

In addition to the chocolate and ricotta, it doesn’t hurt that this recipe features a hit of booze, which—judging by the contents of this blog—seems to be a staple on its way to steadydom. And with chilly weather settling over the land, the orange zest is a nod to winter’s promised citrus. These cupcakes are at their melty, moist, aromatic best when still slightly warm from the oven, although they are more than passable up to three days after baking, sealed in an airtight container or heavy plastic bag. I took a half-dozen day-old cupcakes to work one day, and they had all disappeared by 10 am, with plenty of swoony gratitude from my coworkers.

For ricotta mixture:
1 cup fresh whole-milk ricotta
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg white
1 Tbs good-quality bourbon
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
½ cup good-quality semisweet chocolate chips
A pinch of salt

For cupcake batter:
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup canola oil
½ cup milk (any fat content is fine)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 Tbs distilled white vinegar
1 Tbs pure vanilla extract
¼ tsp orange-flower water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 12-well muffin tin with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, whisk together all ricotta mixture ingredients. Place the mixture in the refrigerator to chill.

Place a good-sized sieve over a large bowl, and put the flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, and sugar into the sieve. Shake the sieve to filter the dry ingredients through into the bowl. Whisk to combine them thoroughly.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the oil, milk, egg, vinegar, vanilla, and orange-flower water; then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients in the large bowl, stirring to just combine. Do not overmix.

Spoon a generous heaping tablespoon of the chocolate batter into each muffin cup. Top the chocolate batter with a rounded tablespoon of the ricotta mixture, followed by another rounded tablespoon of the chocolate batter. You should have just enough chocolate batter for 12 cupcakes, although you will likely have leftover ricotta. [Sorry about that.] Holding a paring knife point-down, swirl the tip of the knife through the batter in each cup in a figure-eight pattern to marble the batter.

Bake the cupcakes in the middle of the oven until a toothpick or thin knife inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, about 30-35 minutes. Cool them in the pan on a rack; then gently unmold and serve.

Yield: 12 cupcakes

10.13.2005

Sog Story

I am, dear reader, a bread snob. I’m a harsh critic of crust and crumb, a stickler for sourdough, and very, very picky about my pain au levain. In my experience, few things trigger heartache like a cardboard baguette or a spongy, thin-skinned boule—and honey, I have known heartache.

But lately I’ve found myself feeling an unabashed affection for a type of bread that would ordinarily fall under the general category of “bad,” and that would be soggy bread. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if the title of this blog isn’t something of a misnomer. “Orangette” is apt enough, I suppose, and certainly, plenty of chocolate-dipped orange rinds have passed these lips, but given the recent output of my kitchen, “Sog Story” seems more fitting. It may seem a bit sog-centric of me, but as far as I’m concerned, first there was pappa al pomodoro; then there was panade; and then there was light.

James Baldwin once wrote, “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of that blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it” (The Fire Next Time, 1963).

Now, I’d certainly second that, but if it were up to me, I’d rephrase things a bit. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in soggy bread, in sogginess itself and to be present with all that we make soggy, from the effort of soaking to the eating of wet bread. It will be a great day for America when we begin to eat soggy bread, instead of blasphemously and tastelessly scorning it.

Indeed, I’m starting to think that if I’m to be remembered for anything, it might as well be for my unflagging advocacy of panade, a velvety, voluptuous casserole with a base of soggy bread and stewed onions. This is where stale bread goes when it’s been very, very good.


As someone who has cobbled together some of her most satisfying meals from little more than bread, cheese, and a bowl of greens, I’m prone to nothing less than fits of fork-in-air ecstasy before a steaming plate of this peasant fare, a slurp-worthy mosaic of day-old bread, coarsely grated gruyère, wilted chard, and caramelized onions, doused in chicken broth and baked until swollen and silky.


Somewhere between the full-bodied flavor of good broth, the unctuous ooze of melting gruyère, and the deep, dark sweetness of slow-cooked onions, panade becomes something infinitely greater—and wondrously richer—than the sum of its simple parts. A cross between soup and stuffing, it's an ideal accompaniment to a chilly night’s dinner of roasted chicken, lamb, or pork, but it’s also plenty satisfying on its own, with little more than a green salad alongside.

If this is what a soggy Seattle winter tastes like, there will be some serious heartache when spring rolls around.


Chard, Onion, and Gruyère Panade
Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook

If you, like me, aren’t regularly cooking for a crowd, you may be tempted to toss aside this recipe, assuming that this delicate, soupy stuff won’t make for good leftovers. Skeptical reader, I argue otherwise. Once refrigerated, the panade will soak up its extra liquid and become something like a moist Thanksgiving stuffing, but all is not lost. A quick jolt in the microwave will restore its soft unctuousness, even if its soupiness is gone. In fact, it makes for wonderful at-work lunches: easily transported in a Tupperware container, it is hearty, satisfying fuel for a day of whatever it is that you do. And if you’re into gilding the lily, Judy Rodgers, chef of the Zuni Café, also recommends pan-frying flattened scoops of leftovers. I haven’t yet tried this method, but if you do, please report back.

1 ½ lbs yellow onions, preferably a sweet variety, thinly sliced
About ½ cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, slivered
Salt
1 lb red Swiss chard, thick ribs removed, cut into 1-inch-wide ribbons
Water
10 ounces day-old chewy artisan bread, cut into rough 1-inch cubes
2 cups good-quality chicken broth
About 2 loosely packed cups good-quality Swiss gruyère

To prepare the onions:
Place the onions in a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven, and drizzle and toss with about ¼ cup olive oil. Set over medium-high heat, and shaking the pan occasionally, cook until the bottom layer of onions is golden on the edges, about 3 minutes. Stir, and repeat. Once the second layer of onions has colored, reduce the heat to low, and stir in the garlic and a few pinches of salt. Let cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are pale amber and tender but not mushy, another 20 minutes or so. If at any point the onions look as though they’re drying out, cover the pan to trap in moisture.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

To prepare the chard:
Place handfuls of chard in a large sauté pan or skillet, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with water and a few pinches of salt. Set the pan over medium heat until the bottom layer of leaves begins to cook; then reduce the heat and stir and fold the leaves until they are just wilted, 2-4 minutes. The leaves should be bright green and their white veins quite pliable. Set aside.

To prepare the bread:
Using your hands, toss and massage the cubed bread with 2 or 3 Tbs olive oil, ¼ cup of the broth, and a few pinches of salt.

To build the panade:
Using a flameproof 2-quart soufflé dish or deep, enameled cast-iron pan, assemble the panade in layers. Start with a good smear of onions, followed by a loose scattering of bread cubes, a thin layer of onions, a blanked of chard, and a handful of cheese. Repeat, continuing until all ingredients are incorporated and the dish is full. Aim for 2 to 3 layers of each component, but make sure that the top is a mosaic of all the ingredients. Don’t worry if the layers are a bit uneven, or if you have to pack them down a bit—this is meant to be rustic.

Bring the remaining 1 ¾ cups broth and 2 cups water to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Pour the warm liquid slowly, in doses, over the assembled panade, drizzling it down the sides of the dish. The liquid should come up nearly to the top of the layered ingredients.

Set the dish over low heat on the stovetop, and bring its liquid to a simmer, looking for bubbles around the edges. Cover the top of the dish with parchment paper, then very loosely cover the top again with aluminum foil. Place the panade on a baking sheet to catch drips, slide it into the oven, and bake it until hot and bubbly, about 1 to 1 ½ hours. The top should be pale golden and a bit darker on the edges.

Uncover the panade, raise the oven temperature to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and leave until for another 10-20 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Remove it from the oven, allow it to settle for a minute or two, and then serve.

Yield: About 5 main-dish servings, or 6-8 side-dish servings

10.08.2005

If it’s Friday, it must be eggs-and-beer night

It was a Friday night, and you know what that means: good Catholics won’t eat meat; Shabbat-savvy Jews won’t sow, plow, reap, grind, sift, knead, bake, spin, weave, tie, or untie; and good, savvy Seattlites won’t hesitate to crack open a beer, break a few eggs, and call it a day.

Dear reader, this may be the closest I’ll ever come to getting religion, and I owe it all to my petite, ingenious friend Jenny, her husband Thomas, and their little boy Eero. In their small but influential family unit, Friday means eggs-and-beer night, and that means I’m coming over. With my Catholic-schooled mother and a father whose ancestry adds up to 100% Polish Jew, I suppose I could try a tricky straddling of traditions, but let’s be frank: ours was a non-observant house, and when push comes to shove—or, hell, even a gentle nudge will do—my faith lies in a cold brew and a runny yolk.

Jenny is, as the best of us are, a champion cookbook collector and recipe clipper, and this evening’s find was no exception: a Turkish dish combining poached eggs, garlic-spiked yogurt and spicy, sage-scented butter. Even Eero, whose gustatory genius is no secret, lent his approval. As we simmered eggs and measured spices, he bobbed in and out of the kitchen, his wispy white-blond mini-mullet puffing over his collar and a baggie of sumac clutched in his tiny fist. Jenny warmed thick slices of baguette and wielded the bottle-opener over three beers, and on a chilly October night, we sat down at their sturdy wooden table and slipped into the weekend over plates of silky eggs.


Firm but delicate, fresh from a quick simmer and ready to spill their molten yolks with the slightest prick of the fork, the eggs sat in a bath of yogurt and were capped with a few spoonfuls of paprika-tinted, red-pepper-flecked butter with whole leaves of fresh sage.


It was a case calling for a hunk of bread and a napkin, for scooping and soaking. The butter was heady with herbs and heat, and the yogurt was cool and tangy with a fiery edge of fresh garlic, a perfect foil for the richness of buttery yolk.

For his part, Eero tucked away a poached egg, a mound of blanched peas, and a few yolk-soaked nuggets of his mother’s bread. It was a standard show for his intrepid palate, but truth be told, he’s more interested in a new gig—namely, impromptu recitations of his four favorite words*: diocese, Appaloosa, sacrifice, and Democrat. He pronounces them slowly, deliberately, precisely, looking around to be certain that all jaws are dropped and all ears tuned to his high-pitched frequency. And at the ripe age of almost-two, this performer has an uncanny sense for his audience: looking straight at me, he announced, “Democrat Molly.” Apparently, his palate isn’t the only thing that’s intrepid. I say, sign this one up for Mensa preschool, and sign me up for eggs-and-beer night.

*Jenny adds the following report: “by the way, eero has added one more word to his list of favorites: ‘placebo effect.’ but he does sometimes leave it off, because he is quite in the groove of his top four. he rattles them off to impress people, or substitutes them for hello or tacks them onto good-byes, especially ‘democrat.’ We go to Chaco Canyon a lot for juice, and when we leave, he says ‘bye democrats’ as loud as he can. one of the girls who works there now calls him her ‘favorite democrat.’ bless his liberal little heart, no?”



Turkish Poached Eggs with Yogurt and Spicy Sage Butter
Adapted from Epicurious and Bon Appétit, May 1985; not martha.org; and Jenny

This is the epitome of an easy, lightning-fast dinner, but its flavors are remarkably complex and sophisticated. It’s nobody’s plain-Jane breakfast-for-dinner. Of greatest importance is that the dish be served while the eggs are still piping hot; we dallied a bit and learned the hard way that a cool egg is not such a tasty egg. Also, for future reference, don’t make the mistake of eating the butter-frizzled sage leaves, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. Be sure to serve this with plenty of warm bread for scooping up luscious swirls of yolk, yogurt, and spicy butter, and of course, a beer never hurts. We drank Fish Tale Organic Amber Ale, but a Belgian-style ale would go down awfully nicely too.

1 cup plain yogurt, preferably full-fat
1 large garlic clove, pressed or crushed in a mortar and pestle
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter (or, if you want to experiment, try salted butter; while eating this dish, I had a premonition that salted butter might be the way to go)
12 fresh sage leaves
½ tsp paprika, or Spanish smoked paprika, if you like
¼ tsp dried crushed red pepper
Salt
1-2 Tbs white distilled vinegar
8 eggs
Bread for serving, such as warm pita or a good, chewy artisan bread


Stir the yogurt and garlic in a small bowl to blend. Season to taste with salt. Divide the mixture evenly between four plates, spreading to coat the center of the plate with a large, thin circle.

Melt the butter in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the sage, paprika, and red pepper, and stir just until the butter sizzles. Remove it from the heat, and season to taste with salt.

To poach the eggs, fill a large skillet about two-thirds full with water, to a depth of about 2 inches. Add a tablespoon or two of white vinegar, and bring it to a bare simmer over medium-high heat. There should be plenty of little bubbles along the bottom of the pan, and the surface of the water should be barely trembling. When in doubt, err on the side of hotter water. While the water is heating, fill a large bowl with very warm (but not boiling) water: you’ll hold cooked eggs here as you finish cooking the rest of them.

Now, be not afraid: in my experience, this is a pretty fool-proof method for poaching eggs, and I say that as someone who, until now, had gone through roughly two dozen eggs and her entire vocabulary of expletives trying to poach a single egg.

Crack an egg into a small, thin-lipped mug or a small custard cup. Holding the mug or custard cup upright, lower the base into the water, and then, slowly and gently, twist your wrist to turn the egg out into the water. You’re essentially twisting the mug out from under the egg. Don't hold the mug in the water for too long, or the egg will cook to the inside of the mug.

Disturb the water as little as possible, and allow the first egg to settle a bit before adding a second one. Depending on the size of your skillet, you could probably poach up to three eggs at a time.

Cook each egg for 2-4 minutes total, until the white is opaque from the edges right up to the yolk. Mine cooked for about 3 minutes. Use a plastic spatula to gently release the egg from the bottom of the pan—it may have stuck a bit—and lift it out with a slotted spoon. It should be wobbly in the center, but not runny. Slide the egg gently into the bowl of warm water; this will rinse away any vinegar residue and keep the eggs warm. Repeat with the remaining eggs, and if the butter needs to be rewarmed, put it briefly over low heat.

When you are ready to serve, remove the eggs from the water, gently shake off any water droplets, and place two eggs atop the yogurt on each of the four plates. Spoon the butter over the eggs and yogurt, and serve immediately, with bread.

Yield: 4 servings

10.03.2005

How I hit the hard-ball stage

A couple of well-meaning readers have recently inquired into the foundations of my relationship with food, or, more succinctly, the origins of this thing I call Orangette. As the following amply demonstrates, such seemingly harmless questions can be downright dangerous when combined with an afternoon of digging in the archives, both online and off. What follows comes to you straight from a tattered, sun-bleached sketchbook that holds my teenage writing—or, at least, the snippets of it that aren’t stashed in my parents’ freezer, which I once fervently believed was the only way to secure it for the ages.

Dear reader, I humbly present to you the story of how it all began, the story of how one verbose teenager in the wilds of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, found her way to the kitchen, as told in her own words.* I wrote this essay-cum-prose-poem, fittingly titled “Kitchen,” ten years ago, when I was 17 and fresh from my first edible epiphany. Please, handle with care.

*With long-overdue thanks and apologies to Frank O’Hara, Armistead Maupin, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Flannery O’Connor, in whose works I’d been thoroughly pickling myself when “Kitchen” was born.


Kitchen

Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramelized Pears
From Gourmet, February 1996

¼ cup unsulfured molasses
¼ cup sour cream
½ stick unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp grated peeled fresh gingerroot
½ teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2 medium firm-ripe pears
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 ½ teaspoons Cognac or other brandy
3 tablespoons heavy cream

Midnight, and we converge upon the kitchen: Mom for poached pears, Burg for rice pudding, and me for fresh ginger cake with caramelized pears. Lately I’ve been really identifying with the kitchen, the way it’s always warm in the pantry, its shelves lined with bottles or bags labeled “Raspberry Apple Butter” or “Cranberry Beans” or “Quaker Barley,” the way there are cookbooks laying open on the butcher-block island, the way it smells good after dinner and in the afternoon when the refrigerator is cold and full. It’s been this way since Christmas with me, eagerly thumbing through the new issue of Gourmet in search of a recipe to read about, soak in, taste without tasting. But the recipe for fresh ginger cake with caramelized pears demands immediate attention, tonight. So we go to the store after dinner and come home with a backseat full of bags: gingerroot, a dozen eggs, a bottle of molasses with a sweet-looking granny on the label, a pint of heavy cream, a tub of sour cream, and pears (firm-ripe).

We all think alike. Burg is at the stove with the double boiler, then opening the pantry for rice. Mom is at the sink, peeling pears with her new vegetable peeler, leaning over the recipe for “Pears Noir” from her California Heritage Cookbook. I am making the cake I can’t stop thinking about. Me, I want fresh ginger cake with caramelized pears at midnight with the rice pudding and the poaching pears still on the stove and the kitchen warm and the cake and caramel and pears warm and the marble tabletop cold under my elbows.

Rice pudding is fine, but it’s not for me. It is Burg’s once-a-week-or-so fun, later to be Tupperwared and tucked into the fridge for occasional spooning. The poached pears will tomorrow be coated in bittersweet chocolate and served to the guests who will sit and laugh in the dining room with my parents. But the cake is mine. Cake: I like it on my tongue, the word—not just the stuff itself—but even better in my throat, my stomach. Cake. It can only mean something good.

I never thought I would like rice pudding, anyway. Something about the dairy and the rice; they shouldn’t be together. But I’ve changed my mind. I wonder if it is my father’s rice pudding that’s done it—only three tablespoons of sugar, and amazing—or maybe my uncle’s rice. My father’s brother Arnie sends the rice from Nanuet, New York—basmati rice, straight from India, still in the little burlap sack with the handles and the big red block letters spelling out the name of a town I can’t pronounce. Arnie is fun. He calls for Burg and speaks slowly slowly and it makes me crazy if I’m in the middle of something because it seems to take hours to get him over to Burg. The word “Hello” in and of itself takes a good minute. But Arnie is fun. He looks like Burg and has a dog that’s nearly as tall as he is. So I like rice pudding because of Arnie and the rice, and after all, it is my very own father’s rice pudding, although really, I don’t think I’m biased at all.

And the poached pears; I like them too. Well, picture it: you’re lying in an overfluffed bed in the upstairs bedroom of a bed-and-breakfast in Cape Neddick, Maine, just before Christmas, and there's snow piling high on the ground outside, but it’s warm up there, under the canopy, in the bed. It’s eight o’clock. There’s a knock at the door. You roll out of bed. At your feet is a silver tray with one cup, a silver coffee pot, a cream pitcher, and a sugar bowl. You pick it up, close the door, rest the tray on your bedside table, pour yourself a cup of blacky-brown coffee, and you sink back into bed under the comforter and return to your second volume of the Tales of the City series, and it’s a good morning because on the page Mona is discovering her roots in a whorehouse in Nevada with Mother Mucca, and gynecologist Jon Fielding is wooing Michael again. And then, of course, there’s breakfast at nine. First, there will be pineapple scones, still warm from the baking sheet, and a cloth-lined tin of cinnamon muffins and apple-spice bread. Then a poached pear, buoyed by a pool of Grand Marnier crème anglaise. Then a warm plate with a small poached egg on a bed of puréed spinach, with caramelized apples and a crispy little phyllo purse filled with sausage, ricotta, and mushrooms and baked until flaky outside and melting inside. This is breakfast on this almost-Christmas of your 18th year. You sigh and decide to stay seated right where you are until tea at 4:30 (cranberry linzer tart; ready?).

So yes, I like poached pears. Because I was in Maine that Christmas, and I ate everything and then another scone an hour after breakfast because I can never get enough, it seems. Because poached pears landed squarely in the middle of the breakfast to go down in history, the breakfast that set me afire, afire with the love of the food! Aaaaah-men! And hence this midnight meeting in the kitchen, this preoccupation with cake and caramel and fragrant winter pears.

To the kitchen. This cake will be incredible—mark my word—and I will grate this ginger even if the milk that runs out from under the grater makes me feel a little queasy. It will be that good. It will be delicious, yes. In the oven, my cake makes the kitchen smell full and alive, and the pears bubble in the pan with sugar and butter and cream. Midnight, and the kitchen is clicking and burbling and whirring. Soon we all lean into the soft, brown cake cooling on the island, and we pour pears and caramel soft and all butterflow onto the cake and melt onto the floor with it on our forks and in our mouths even better than the word “cake” itself on my tongue I ever dreamed it would be. Midnight, and we melt in the kitchen and check ourselves with the candy thermometer and declare that we’ve reached the hard-ball stage, and we pour ourselves into bed.

10.02.2005

An interlude, or what happens when she digs in her archives

Last week I was tagged—not once, but twice—for the 23rd-post-5th-sentence meme, a nifty little game that would have me dig into my archives, find my 23rd post, pull out its fifth sentence, and analyze its meaning. Now, clearly, the universe wants to see me complete this task, and so, we’re off.

A bit of perusal reveals that my 23rd post is a report on the 2004 Knight family lamb roast, opening with a heated battle against a recalcitrant Parisian flan. Case in point, the fifth sentence:

“I swore like a sailor, slapped the dough shards into a pile and bullied them into a ball, and then I rolled them flat before they had a second to protest.”

On the surface, we can suss out a few things here: namely that I have quite a mouth, and that I like alliteration, am good with a rolling pin, and approach my desserts with determination.

But on another level, I’m also aware of the degree to which Orangette has been a work-in-progress. Looking back at old posts is always a daunting proposition. Orangette came into this world with a somewhat murky focus: all I knew was that I wanted to write, and to write about food. For the past fourteen or so months, I’ve written, read, reread, and thereby learned a tremendous amount about what matters to me—in food, in writing, and in the everyday stuff of life—and Orangette has, in turn, gradually taken on a clearer shape.

Most importantly, I discovered that the posts I loved most were the ones that told stories. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “I don’t care how eloquent your phrasing. Unless you’re a storyteller, you’re not a writer.” I keep this quote taped to my desk, scribbled on a scrap of yellow paper, right underneath another snippet that reads, “Let the glory out,” from an old Al Gore, Sr. speech. This is what I want to do, and what I want Orangette to be.

And on the days when I think about going back to the archives and erasing the old, rambly, journal-y posts—the proverbial ghosts of yore—I always manage to stop myself, because I suppose I was trying to tell a story then too, and maybe even wringing out some sort of little glory, just in a rambly, journal-y way. And anyway, if I’m to take a lesson from myself, blogging should be approached like baking: with lot of cussing and determination.