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The best we can hope for


I would take any day over Monday. Any day. Even my seventeenth birthday, which was a very disappointing day. The only way I might be convinced to change my mind is if Mondays, as a rule, took place in a quiet room with white walls and a wood floor and muted sunlight, a large armchair, a stack of first-rate books, a fudgy brownie, and a small black-and-white dog who sits beside you in the armchair, curled up like a trussed pot roast. But that is not my Monday.

I did, however, have a good lunch today, which was a decent trade. Sometimes I think a good lunch is the best we can hope for.

What you see up there, in the wok, is green cabbage stir-fried until it caramelizes at the edges, tossed with sambal oelek and soy sauce. I call it Cabbage with Hot Sauce. It doesn’t look like much to speak of, I know, and I’m sorry about that. But if you eat it alongside some toast and cheddar, or a fried egg, one with a nice, saucy yolk, you won’t think twice. I hope.

We’ve been eating cabbage this way for a while, but it’s such a plain, off-the-cuff method - hardly even a recipe, really - that until yesterday, it never occurred to me to mention it here. I guess it’s a little like the chickpea salad that way, although more feisty in flavor. Brandon came up with the idea a few years ago, when he was still living in New York. I was visiting him, and we had bought a green cabbage for some recipe that I now can’t remember, and after making whatever it was, half of the cabbage was still sitting in the crisper drawer. So one day, for a late breakfast, Brandon fished it out, sliced it into thin ribbons, and chucked it into a hot wok with a dribble of oil, a spoonful of hot sauce, and some soy sauce for seasoning. We ate it with hummus and pita, or maybe it was cheddar and some bread. I can’t remember. But it was delicious - spicy and earthy and a little sweet from the fire under the wok - and the next day, when I flew back to Seattle, I took the leftovers in a to-go container that we found in his housemate’s cabinet, along with a bagel and cream cheese from Absolute Bagels. It sounds like an iffy combination, but somehow it was spectacular, both hot and soothing, salty and sweet, and I was both so happy and so desperately sad to leave, and sometimes, when I sit very still and let my mind go to the places where it goes when I don’t stop it, I miss those days so much.

But luckily, I did marry him, and now I can have that cabbage any time, so it’s okay. It’s also nice that he has hands that photograph well, and that he doesn’t strangle me with them when I stand up in the middle of lunch and scream, “WAIT! DON’T MOVE. Where’s my camera? I’ve got to climb up on the chair....”

Anyway, so now the cabbage is yours. That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s not dinner party material, particularly, but if you have a soft spot for cabbage, and if you have some hot sauce rolling around in your refrigerator door, it is a very fine way to put them to use. We ate it for lunch yesterday, with fried eggs from the farmers’ market, and it was so simple and right that I decided that you needed to know about it. And the leftovers today, with a couple pieces of toast and some slices of sharp white cheddar, something rich and cooling, made me feel all the more certain.

Have a good week, everyone.

Cabbage with Hot Sauce

This is more of a method than a recipe, so the quantities I’ve listed below are only approximate. Just taste as you go, and tweak to your liking. It’s hard to mess this up, as long as you get some color on the cabbage.

When choosing an oil for this, be sure to choose one with a high smoke point, the safest bet for high-heat cooking. We usually use canola oil, because I keep it around for making granola, but we have also used peanut oil and grapeseed oil. (Or, if you’re the type to have lard lying around - ooh la la - you could use that. It has a high smoke point too.) To learn more about high-temperature oils and fats, click over here or here.

½ head green cabbage, quartered and sliced into ¼-inch-thick ribbons
½ medium fennel bulb, thinly sliced (optional)
Canola oil, or another oil with a similarly high smoke point
¼ tsp. to 1 tsp. sambal oelek, to taste
Soy sauce, to taste
Salt, to taste (optional)

Place a wok over high heat. Let it heat thoroughly; it should even smell hot. Working quickly, pour in a glug of oil* and then immediately add the cabbage and the fennel, if using. Stir briefly to coat with oil, and then leave it alone for a minute or so, to allow the vegetables to begin to take on some color. Then add sambal oelek to taste, and stir again. (If you have a hood over your stove, turn on the fan! The hot sauce gives off spicy fumes.) Continue to cook until the vegetables are browned in spots and wilted. It won’t take long. Then add a glug of soy sauce, and stir well again. Taste, and season with more soy sauce or salt as needed.

Serve hot or warm.

Yield: 2-4 servings, depending on what else you’re having

* Be sure to have a lid nearby, or some baking soda, since hot oil always runs a risk of flaring up.


Calls for cake

On a Sunday afternoon in January, it is very important to bake an apple cake.

Especially if the sun is shining, which it doesn’t often do in Seattle, and if you can open the front door for an hour or two and your dog can sit on the stoop without his tiny, ridiculous Polarfleece coat, which is a minor miracle, because he is a major sissy about cold weather. And especially if the apple cake in question is this one, with a rich, buttery base that crisps lightly at the edges, a layer of fanned-out apples, and a thin cinnamon glaze that puffs ever so gently as it bakes.

Actually, now that I’m typing this, I don’t know whether to call this thing a cake or a tart. It has elements of both, but it isn’t decisively either. The recipe comes from my friend Judy Amster, and I’m not sure what she would call it. One day last November, I ran into her at the home of her son, my friend Matthew Amster-Burton, and she pressed a folded piece of paper into my hand, explaining simply that it was the recipe for an apple dessert, and that I would love it. When Judy says that kind of thing, I listen. She has not only an encyclopedic knowledge of food, but also the most enormous cookbook collection I have ever seen. She has the kind of cookbook collection that, in some people, causes spontaneous weeping. This particular recipe, she explained, came not from her bookshelves, but from a friend of a friend in Canada, who originally got it from a Canadian magazine. It was delicious, she promised. It took me two months to find the time to try it, but I listened. I listened, Judy. I know what’s good for me.

But, yes, back to its name. How about an apple tart cake? It’s a little confusing, but it’s fitting. I like it. You can call it whatever you want, frankly. The recipe Judy gave me, printed from an e-mail, had no title at all. Instead, it began matter-of-factly with the command, “use a springform cake thingo, butter and flour it.” I love that. That’s all I needed to know, really.

The ingredients for this dessert are basic pantry staples, but I’d never made a recipe quite like it before. The base - the cake-like part - is assembled in the food processor, a mixture of sugar, flour, baking powder, butter, vanilla, and egg that you pulse until it resembles cornmeal. You dump that into your buttered, floured springform cake thingo, and you spread it evenly across the bottom. Then, atop that, you arrange thin slices of apple - preferably a tart kind, like Granny Smith - in a circular pattern, like a frilly French tart. Then you bake it for a little while, during which the apples start to soften and go fragrant, and the cake-like base begins to firm. Then you pull it from the oven and spoon over it a topping of melted butter, sugar, cinnamon, and egg. It looks very runny and completely wrong, but when you return it to the oven, it slowly sets, puffing just a little bit, forming an opaque, burnished glaze on top of the apples.

We ate it last night, while we watched Jaws on DVD, and that Judy, she was so right. The base was nubbly and chewy and moist, but along the very bottom and the outer edges, it crisped like the edge of an oatmeal cookie. The apples on top were soft and juicy, and the cinnamon topping lay over it all like a thin blanket, maybe cashmere with satin trim, binding the whole thing under the warmth of cinnamon. I loved it. And today, when I had another slice after lunch, it was even better. It had mellowed overnight, relaxing its sweetness and letting the apple flavor come to the fore. I was hoping to save some for a special inauguration-watching breakfast tomorrow - a new president definitely, definitely, calls for cake - but I just ate the last pieces after dinner, so I guess that won’t be happening. Unless I get up early to bake another one. Which I might.

P.S. Hey, speaking of the inauguration, I’m looking into the possibility of going to Washington, DC, on my book tour in March, and I need your help. I need to know how many of you might come to an event there, if I did do one. It would likely be held in the evening during the week of March 16, at one of my brother’s restaurants: DC Coast, Ten Penh, Ceiba, or Acadiana. DC will probably be my only East Coast stop, so if you think you might want to come, leave a comment here, and please don’t be shy. It would be so nice to meet you.

P.P.S. The DC event has now been confirmed! You people are the greatest. Click over here for more information.

Apple Tart Cake
Adapted from Judy Amster’s friend

For this cake, it is particularly important that your oven temperature is accurate. If it runs too hot, the base of the cake could burn before the apples are fully cooked, and the topping, too, could burn before it has time to set.

Also, if your apples aren’t terribly tart, you might consider reducing the sugar in the base a little bit, down from 1 cup to maybe, say, ¾ cup.

1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
5 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into a few pieces
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and sliced very thinly

For topping:
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 350°. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan.

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade attachment, combine the sugar, flour, and baking powder. Pulse to mix. Add the butter, and pulse until no large lumps remain. Add the vanilla and the egg, and blend well, until it resembles cornmeal. Dump it into the prepared springform pan. Nudge it around with your fingertips to distribute it evenly, and then gently press it along the bottom of the pan. You’re not trying to really tamp it down; you just want to compact it a little. At the edges, let it curve up ever so slightly, like a tart shell with a very low, subtle rim. Arrange the apple slices over the base in a tight circular pattern. It may seem as though you have too many apple slices to fit, but keep going. Really squeeze them in. Slide the pan into the oven, and bake for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the topping. Combine the ingredients in a small bowl, and whisk to blend well. After the cake has baked for 45 minutes, remove it from the oven, and spoon the topping evenly over it. Bake for another 25 minutes or so, until the topping looks set. Transfer the pan to a wire rack, and cool for 20 minutes. Then run a thin knife around the edge to release any areas that may have stuck, and remove the sides of the pan. Cool completely before serving.

Note: This cake is even better on the second day. So if you can, make it a day ahead: just wrap it in plastic wrap and leave it at room temperature until you’re ready to eat it. We ate ours plain, but I think it would be great with vanilla ice cream.

Yield: about 8 servings


Squirrel it away

I’ve been thinking for days, days, about what to call this dish.

It’s not that somebody else didn’t already name it, because they did. It’s called Cream of Scallop Soup, and I found the recipe in Gourmet a month or two ago, although I can’t remember which issue it came from, exactly. (I don’t have room to save magazines in their entirety - only chosen pages - and the page that includes this recipe has no issue date.) Cream of Scallop Soup is a perfectly reasonable name, but it’s boring. Also, when I hear it, I envision, unfortunately, raw scallops and cream whirring in a blender. I probably shouldn’t have told you that, should I? Either way, this dish deserves a more special name. It deserves a name that reflects how stunningly lovely, how drop-your-spoon-in-shock delicious, it is.

So, what could we call it instead? Maybe we should try a French translation. Most things sound better in French, I think. (Except my name, which winds up sounding like Moe Lee.) How about Crème de coquilles Saint-Jacques? Or, fancier, Coquilles Saint-Jacques dans leur bouillon a la crème fraîche? Maybe too fancy. How about Poached Scallops in Crème Fraîche Broth? Or Scallops ‘n Cream? It could be like Cookies ‘n Cream. Only different.

Whatever we choose to call it, I suggest that you bookmark this recipe right now - or go tear it out of your own copy of Gourmet - and squirrel it away for a festive occasion. It might be a little bit extravagant, both flavor-wise and money-wise, for an everyday dish, especially during these post-holiday weeks, but I wanted to go ahead and write about it, because it is so, so good. And also because Olaiya and Ben, two of our friends who ate it with us on New Year’s Eve, have requested the recipe, and I mean to deliver.

Our New Year’s Eve dinner was a potluck, and this dish was my main contribution, aside from a pan of brownies for dessert. (There was also, of course, the céleri rémoulade, and a grated carrot salad, but Brandon did most of the labor on those.) Olaiya had requested seafood, and I happened to have this recipe lying at the top of my file, so I took it as a sign. I hadn’t made it before, but the list of ingredients made my mouth water: sea scallops and crème fraîche, fish stock and white wine, shallots, thyme, and egg yolks. The recipe also had a very fine pedigree, having been adapted, the magazine noted, from brothers Jean and Pierre Troisgros of the famed restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France. I don’t usually like to make dishes for the first time when there are lots of other diners involved, but the worst that could happen, I figured, was that it might turn out terribly and we would be forced to skip straight to the brownies, which would be fine with me anyway.

So I got some fish bones and made the required fish stock. It was my first go at fish stock, but it went swimmingly. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) Then I went out and splurged, since it was New Year’s Eve, on some stunningly gorgeous fresh scallops. And then we gathered the ingredients and went to Olaiya’s, where I had such a nice time with everyone and the champagne and the céleri rémoulade and the flash on my camera that, when the time came for our main course, I proceeded to cook the absolute crap out of those innocent scallops. They were tough and rubbery and so, so sad. I was even sadder. But we had to at least try the finished dish, I decided, and so I marched on, dividing them among our soup bowls and dousing them with their creamy broth, a fragrant amalgam of the stock and some crème fraîche, scented with shallot and thyme and thickened ever so slightly with egg yolk.

We sat down to eat it, and everything went silent. No one spoke for at least a minute. If you have ever experienced such a phenomenon, you will know that it can mean only one of two things: a) that your dining companions are completely speechless with ecstasy, or b) that they cannot talk because they are desperately preoccupied with finding a place to spit out the food that they are chewing. I feared the worst. But then Ben raised his head, smiled, and slowly, solemnly, pronounced my name, which, in his personal dining language, means that everything is well.

Actually, it was better than well. The overcooked scallops may have had less textural appeal than a pencil eraser, but the rest of the dish was supple, silky, completely spectacular. The broth itself was complex and aromatic, rich but not the least bit heavy, a sequence of flavors that opened with the brightness of wine and lemon and closed with the sweetness of cream. I don’t know any better way to describe it than to say that it seemed impeccably French, which is to say that it tasted harmonious and refined and very Old World fancy, as though it should be presented by a waiter in a tuxedo with flawless posture and a perfectly waxed mustache. I made it again tonight, just to be sure that it was as good as I remembered - only the best for you - and with properly(!) cooked scallops, it most certainly was. I am not a great fan of Mondays, but if they all ended this way, I might change my mind.

And speaking of great things, thank you so much for your enthusiasm about the book cover. It blew me away. Really. After two years of relatively solitary work on this book, it’s hard not to be nervous, I have to admit, about beginning to share it. Thank you for making it feel a little bit less scary, and a lot more fun.

Cream of Scallop Soup
Adapted from Gourmet and The Nouvelle Cuisine of Jean & Pierre Troisgros

Be sure to read through this entire recipe before you start. Once you begin, you’ll want to move quickly, or else the scallops will get cold. For a very sophisticated dish, it’s fairly quick and simple to pull together, especially if you make the white fish stock (which is also fairly quick and simple) ahead of time. I made my stock the day before, and when it came time to make dinner, all I had to do was retrieve it from the fridge.

Oh, and about sources: Trader Joe’s sells fantastic frozen scallops for $10.99 a pound, which is a great price. The package is labeled Wild Japanese Scallops, I believe. They were just as tasty as the more expensive ones from the Sea of Cortez that I bought on New Year’s Eve. Also, for the fish stock: to get bones, call your local fish market. If you give them a day’s notice, they should be happy to set aside some bones for you. I called my old faithful, Wild Salmon Seafood Market, and they gave me all kinds of halibut bones and scraps, free of charge.

¾ lb. sea scallops, tough ligament removed from side of each if attached
1 cup white fish stock
½ cup dry white wine
1 small shallot, chopped
1 thyme sprig
¾ cup crème fraîche
2 large egg yolks
Black pepper
2 Tbsp. finely chopped chives

Rinse the scallops, and then pat them dry. Quarter them, and season them with 1/8 tsp. salt.

In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the stock, wine, shallot, thyme, and ½ tsp. salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cover, and boil for 5 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on the solids before discarding them. Return the liquid to the saucepan. Bring it to a boil, then stir in the scallops and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until the scallops are just cooked through, about 2 minutes. (Do not overcook. If anything, leave them rare; they will continue to cook after you remove them from the heat.) Remove the scallops with a slotted spoon, and keep them warm, covered. Reserve the cooking liquid in the saucepan.

Meanwhile, put the crème fraîche in a small saucepan, and bring it to a simmer over medium-low to medium heat. Simmer until it reduces slightly, about 3 minutes. Add it to the cooking liquid in the medium saucepan, stir well, and simmer together for another 3 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, ¼ cup of the crème fraîche-cooking liquid mixture, and ¼ tsp. pepper. Add half of the remaining crème fraîche mixture to the yolk mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Then pour it all back into the medium saucepan, whisking. Cook over very low heat, whisking, until just slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Do not boil. Remove from the heat, taste for seasoning, and salt as needed.

Divide the scallops among 4 small soup bowls, and then ladle the soup on top. Sprinkle with chives. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings


What it's about

It recently occurred to me that I don’t often mention books here, which is kind of weird, since I am pretty fond of them. I’m almost as fond of them, in fact, as I am of food, which is saying quite a bit. Then again, I have an almost pathologically bad memory for plot, so I’m not sure what I would say about books anyway. The other day, I was talking with a friend about Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, which I read a few weeks ago and loved dearly, and I realized that, aside from a scene about the main character’s grandmother removing her bra and flower petals falling from its cups, I could hardly remember a thing about it. It’s sad.

So before I forget the details of my most recent read, the lovely memoir The Tenth Muse, by renowned editor Judith Jones, I wanted to be sure to tell you about it. Not only because it was lovely, and lovely really is the word for it, but because it gives a glimpse into a seminal time in cookbook publishing. (Jones helped launch the careers of Julia Child, Madhur Jaffrey, Marcella Hazan, and lots of other people whose names, go figure, I now can’t remember.) Also, it inspired me to make céleri rémoulade, which I hope I don’t forget about anytime soon. Or ever.

If you’ve been reading for a while, you may remember that I have a thing for celery root. It’s sort of the Philip Seymour Hoffman of vegetables: pale and a little scruffy, not exactly handsome by common definitions, but rippling, rippling, with integrity and talent. Vegetables can have integrity, right? And talent? I hope so, or else I’m going to have to find a new analogy, and that could take a while.

Most of the time, when I buy celery root, I use it only for soup. But for a while now, I’ve been thinking about céleri rémoulade, a salad composed of julienned celery root tossed in a mayonnaise-based dressing. It’s a fairly common, old fashioned thing in France, where it can be purchased ready-made at almost any grocery store and is often served as a starter in very traditional restaurants, alongside salads of grated carrot or cubed beets. I never felt particularly excited about it when I lived there, to tell you the truth. It always seemed sort of lifeless and fusty, like the smell of the canned green beans that my childhood babysitter Virginia used to boil into oblivion. But in recent years, ever since I started using celery root in my own kitchen, I’ve wondered often about old céleri rémoulade, and about how delicious it might be, especially if made with homemade mayonnaise. So when Judith Jones mentioned it in her memoir, even going so far as to include her recipe, I decided that it was time to try.

I apologize for not having a prettier photograph to show you, but Brandon and I made the céleri rémoulade for a New Year’s Eve dinner party at our friend Olaiya’s house, and when I took this picture, it was long past dark and I was wearing my new party dress and had had two small crab cakes and two glasses of champagne, which, in my person, is not enough food to counter the powerful effects of champagne, one of which is to make me turn on the flash and take awkward pictures of everything, including the old pair of black heels I was wearing.

Also, céleri rémoulade is not an attractive dish, so I’m not even sure that a prettier photograph was possible. Prettiness is not what it’s about. It’s about the clean, fragrant crunch of celery root, and the alchemy of mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. It is wonderfully creamy, yes, and somewhat rich, but its flavor is light, bright, even hungry-making, a perfect start to a meal. We all had second helpings, even though there was more food coming, and I cursed myself for having waited so long to try it in the first place. Don’t make the same mistake. We served ours as part of a trio of salads, along with a carrot one and a lentil one with fennel. We then moved on to a cream of scallop soup that, despite its total snore of a name, is one of the most delicious things I ate in 2008. I’ll tell you about that next week. (And no, for the record, I am not pregnant in the photograph above. Or in real life. It’s just a poof in my dress.)

And while we’re on the topic of books, I’m so happy today to show you the cover of mine! I’ve been wanting to share it with you, but I had to wait until it was 100% finalized, and that took a little while.

If you recognize the image, it’s because it appeared in this long-ago post about our honeymoon. I took it in Brentwood Bay, BC, at a sweet little spot called the Boathouse, where we stared at giant purple starfish under the dock and I tried to wrap my head around the fact that I was somehow a married woman. At the time, the book was still deep in gestation, and I had no idea that those mugs, and those glasses, and that dreamy greenish cabinet would ever go anywhere but into my camera and, possibly, onto this site. This life of mine has been very surprising.

The book comes out in less than two months now, on March 3. You can read more about it here, and you can order it, if you feel so moved, at any number of places, like this one or this one or one of these. I’m thrilled to say that I will be doing a tour, visiting a handful of cities for readings and signings and whatnot, and hopefully, I’ll get to meet(!) many of you. When the time gets a little closer and I have more details to share, I’ll let you know. I can’t wait.

Céleri Rémoulade
Adapted from The Tenth Muse, by Judith Jones

Some recipes call for grating the celery root here, but I find that grating makes for strands of celery root that aren’t quite substantial enough, or crunchy enough. I prefer to julienne mine.

1 small to medium celery root, about 10 ounces
6 Tbsp. mayonnaise, preferably homemade
1 Tbsp. plus ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp. whole-milk plain yogurt
Salt, to taste
Lemon juice, to taste
Sugar, to taste (optional)

First, prepare the celery root. To peel it, use a sharp vegetable peeler or chef’s knife to trim away the dirty outer “skin.” One end may be especially hairy-looking: you’ll want to use the knife to trim it clean.

Next, julienne the celery root. If you have a food processor with a julienne attachment – not a shredding attachment; that’s not quite right – try using that. That’s the easiest way to julienne. Or, if you have a mandoline with a julienne attachment, you can try doing it that way. However, keep in mind that celery roots are very dense and hard, which could make using the mandoline a bit dangerous. Instead, you might want to julienne by hand, with a sharp knife. To do so, cut the celery root in half. Position one half on its flat side, so that it is steady, and cut it into very thin slices. Then lay those slices flat on the cutting board, stacking them if you like, and cut them into matchsticks. Repeat with the remaining half. It’s a tedious process, to say the very least, but it’s worth it.

In a medium bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, mustard, yogurt, and a pinch of salt. Taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary. Add the julienned celery root, and toss to mix. Taste, and adjust seasoning again as necessary. We found that ours needed a little bit of lemon juice (about ¼ teaspoon) and a pinch of sugar, as well as more salt.

Chill until serving. Judith Jones recommends making this salad a few hours ahead of serving, so that the flavors can develop, but we liked it best shortly after it was made, when the celery root was at its most crisp and crunchy.

Yield: 4 servings