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A lot of rhubarb

I am reliably fickle about rhubarb recipes. Every spring, I think, I am destined to fall for a different one. At this point in my life, if all goes well and life expectancy charts are accurate, I probably have about fifty springs left, which means fifty more rhubarb recipes to love. The fifty springs part is sort of depressing, but on the upside, it’s really quite a lot of rhubarb. I’m looking forward to it.

In the meantime, I am pleased to announce that this spring, my allegiance lies in a pot of roasted rhubarb with white wine and vanilla bean. Eaten cold, ideally.

This particular recipe was inspired by a series of seasonal recipe collections called Canal House Cooking, which I learned about from my friend Maria. Canal House Cooking is hard to describe, and I love that about it. Written, photographed, illustrated, and published by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, a founding editor of Saveur magazine and the former food editor of the same, respectively, it’s part magazine and part cookbook, published in three volumes a year: Summer, Fall & Holiday, and Winter & Spring. I bought a three-volume subscription when I first learned of it, and when the third volume arrived a few weeks ago, I renewed my subscription in under 24 hours. I think this makes me an official fan. I want to cook almost every recipe they print, and the books themselves are so inviting, so elegant but easygoing in tone, that I sort of want to carry one around with me everywhere, just to keep the good feeling going. I think this makes me an official creepy person.

Either way, in the most recent volume, the third one, Winter & Spring, there is a recipe for roasted rhubarb in red wine, and it caught my eye. So when I spotted some rhubarb at the farmers’ market last weekend, I bought a couple of pounds with this recipe in mind. As it happened, however, when I got home, I discovered that I didn’t have an open bottle of red wine lying around. It seemed wasteful to open a new one only to use a small portion, so I decided to use the open bottle of white wine that I did have lying around. I’m not sure how my white wine version compares to the original, and I may never find out, because now that I’ve made it this way, I feel no desire to make anything else, ever. Not before next spring. You understand.

Cooked rhubarb rarely wins beauty contests, and this recipe won’t change that record. But it’s delicious enough that I don’t care. It’s fresh rhubarb, cut into short lengths, tossed in a pot with wine and sugar and a vanilla bean, baked until it goes tender enough to slump juicily on the end of a fork. I’ve made a very similar recipe that called for water instead of wine and orange zest instead of vanilla, and it’s very good, too. But what’s outstanding about this is just that: the wine and the vanilla. Where water works fine, wine brings a flavor and fragrance of its own, an added dimension, a dose of sweetness and acidity that balance and complement the flavor of rhubarb. And though I do like rhubarb with orange in almost any incarnation, vanilla bean is subtler, able to bring out and underline the best in rhubarb without masking it. It’s not too sweet, and it’s not too tart, and though it would probably be nice with Greek yogurt or ice cream or a simple cake, I take mine straight, by which I mean straight out of the refrigerator. I don’t even need a plate.

P.S. See you out there!

Roasted Rhubarb
Inspired by Canal House Cooking, Volume 3

For the wine here, I used our house white at Delancey: Château de Pellehaut Harmonie de Gascogne, a blend of Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Gros Manseng, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. It’s bright and crisp and citrusy.

2 lb. rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 3-inch lengths
½ cup sugar
½ cup crisp white wine
1 vanilla bean, split

Set a rack in the lower third of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F.

Put the rhubarb in a Dutch oven or other deep oven-safe pot. Add the sugar, wine, and vanilla bean, and stir to mix. Bake (uncovered) for about 30 minutes, or until very tender, giving the pot a gentle stir about midway through to ensure that the rhubarb cooks evenly.

Note: I like to eat this cold, though I imagine you could also serve it warm.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings, depending on how greedy you are.


Ours now

I don’t know how this could be possible, but according to the calendar, it’s been a year since my book first came out, a whole entire year that went by in what I could swear was only 45 minutes. And today, though I do sort of want that year back, I’m happy to report that the paperback edition has just been released. It’s leaner, it’s meaner: it’s the same book, but cheaper! I dare you to say that three times fast.

Over the past year, or 45 minutes, however you look at it, many of you have written to me to say that you’ve read the book, or that you’ve cooked or baked from it, and I cannot thank you enough for that. I’ve read and reread and re-reread your letters. I keep every one. Writing a book is a strange and sometimes lonely process, so to come out on the other side and find that there are people reading it, real people who write excellent letters and like banana bread as much as I do, is a tremendous feeling. This book is ours now, not just mine. I like that very much.

I had the good luck to get to do a book tour last spring, to come meet some of you in your cities, and I feel even luckier to get to do it again this spring. I have another recipe to share here before I head out, but I wanted to go ahead and give you the list of dates and cities and whatnot. (I wish it could be longer, but it’s not really up to me.) I said this same thing a year ago, and I want to say it again: please come out and say hello, and let me shake your hand and thank you in person. I’ll be looking for you.

Seattle, WA
March 25, 7:00 pm
Talk + Booksigning
University Book Store
Free event, open to the public

Corte Madera, CA
March 29, 7:00 pm
Talk + Booksigning
Book Passage
Free event, open to the public

Los Angeles, CA
March 30, 7:30 pm
Talk + Booksigning
Skylight Books
Free event, open to the public

Tulsa, OK
April 1, 7:00 pm
Talk + Booksigning
Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma (through Book Smart Tulsa)
Free event, open to the public

Brookline, MA
April 5, 7:00 pm
Talk + Booksigning
Brookline Booksmith
Free event, open to the public

New York, NY
April 6, 7:00 pm
Talk + Booksigning
Posman Books at Chelsea Market
Free event, open to the public

Orcas Island, WA
April 12, 3:30 pm
Talk + Booksigning
Emmanuel Parish Hall
Free event, open to the public

UPDATE! Please note that the date of this event has changed:
Seattle, WA

May 10, 6:30 pm
Talk + Booksigning
Ballard Branch,
Seattle Public Library
Free event, open to the public


Not a likely love

Well, would you look at that! Yesterday was Saint Patrick’s Day, and how fitting, I’m writing about scones! Which are Irish, of course - and, well, also Scottish, and English, and generally British, but anyway, they’re Thatapproximatepartoftheworldish, at least. I should quit while I’m ahead.

When I was growing up, my elementary school was near a health food store called the Earth. It was not a large place, nor was it fancy. It was not Whole Foods. It was small and low-ceilinged, lit with fluorescent tubes and lined with vitamins in brown bottles and beeswax chapstick and sesame bars in plastic wrappers, and it smelled like lentil soup. There was a cafe at one end where they served sandwiches and baked goods, and sometimes, after my mother picked me up from school, she would take me there for a snack. It was pretty forward-thinking of her, I now realize; Oklahoma City didn’t, and still doesn’t, have a lot of places like the Earth, places where you could buy natural cheeses or soy milk or jojoba shampoo. Not that I cared so much about that stuff; what I cared about was the carob brownie they sold at the cafe, and the bottle of lemon-flavored Crystal Geyser sparkling water I was allowed to wash it down with. (This was the early 80s, and the world had only just gotten flavored sparkling water. It was a heady time.) My mother, for her part, would get something similarly fine: a whole wheat scone with dried apricots. For me, it was not a likely love - there was no carob, no sparkle, no fizz - but as I got older, I had to admit that my mother was onto something. She knew what was what. I still think about that scone today.

That’s right: I’m celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day with a health-food-store scone from central Oklahoma. Cheers!

You’re going to like them. I swear. The Earth brought them in from a place called Lovelight Bakery in the nearby town of Norman, and my mother liked them so much that she would sometimes special-order them, a dozen at a time, and stash them away in the freezer to be meted out over a number of weeks. Unlike some whole wheat pastries, they weren’t paperweights masquerading as food: they did taste delicately of wheat, but they were tender, fine-crumbed, even heading toward flaky, studded with tangy apricots. I haven’t had an Earth/Lovelight whole wheat scone in probably twenty years, but a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a meeting when I had a sudden vision of none other. (Some people get their ideas in the shower; apparently, I get mine while zoning out in meetings. In fact, the idea for this book came to me in a weekly staff meeting at my previous job. What looked like dutiful note-taking, tra la la la la, was actually a rough sketch of the table of contents.) Clearly, I needed to make a whole wheat scone. So when I got home, I e-mailed my mother to see, by chance, if she had the recipe, and when she didn’t, I decided to work up my own.

I started from the scone recipe in my book, because it’s my favorite basic scone. For my first go, I decided to replace the entirety of the recipe’s usual white flour with whole wheat pastry flour, and let me tell you, in case you ever considered such an idea, do not do that. The dough was so heavy that it could hardly rise in the oven, and texture- and flavor-wise, it was a stunning approximation of particle board. Actually, if I’d been trying to develop some sort of a mix for instant homemade particle board, it would have been a real sensation. As it was, though, when I gave one to Brandon and asked if there was anything redeeming about it, he took a single bite and, before even swallowing, mouthed, and I quote, “No.” So I tried again, and this time, I used a mixture of flours: 50% white, and 50% whole wheat pastry. I also added an additional tablespoon of sugar, because I find that the dark, savory qualities of whole wheat flour can tend to drown out sweetness. Anyway, IT WORKED! The scones are sturdy but light, biscuit-like but not as rich, and they taste just enough of whole wheat to feel hearty, warming, right. I don’t know what the Irish would say, or the Scottish, or the English, but I think it’s my new scone.

Whole Wheat Apricot Scones

I used whole wheat pastry flour in this recipe, and I love how it works. Whole wheat pastry flour is more finely ground and lower in protein than regular whole wheat flour, and it yields a product very similar in texture to my usual all-purpose flour scones. I considered using white whole wheat flour, which I’ve also used occasionally in baking, but I really do prefer whole wheat pastry flour. White whole wheat flour, while more delicate than regular whole wheat, is still too coarsely ground, and it’s tougher, less delicate.

You can make these scones with any kind of dried fruit you want, but I like them best with dried apricots. My favorites are from Trader Joe’s, labeled “California Slab Apricots, Blenheim Variety.” They’re soft and have a very true apricot flavor, sweet and also quite tart. (They’re sulfured, which some people avoid, but I prefer the flavor.)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. table salt
4 Tbsp. (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
¼ cup sugar
½ cup diced dried apricots
½ cup half-and-half, plus more for glazing
1 large egg

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, and salt. Using your hands, rub the butter into the flour mixture, squeezing and pinching with your fingertips until there are no butter lumps bigger than a large pea. Add the sugar and dried apricots, and whisk to incorporate.

Pour the half-and-half into a small bowl, and add the egg. Beat with a fork to mix well. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture, and stir (with the fork; it works fine) to just combine. The dough will look shaggy and rough, and there may be some unincorporated flour at the bottom of the bowl. Don’t worry about that. Using your hands, gently press and shape the dough, so that it holds together in a messy clump. Turn the dough and any excess flour out onto a board or countertop, and press and gather and knead it until it just comes together. Ideally, do not knead more than 12 times. As soon as the dough holds together, pat it into a rough circle about 1 ½ inches thick. Cut the circle into 8 wedges.

Put the wedges on the prepared baking sheet. Pour a splash of half-and-half into a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, brush the tops of the scones with a thin coat to glaze. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until pale golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve warm - with butter, if that’s your style. (My mother used to split the Earth/Lovelight ones in half and toast them, and then smear them with butter. Very good.)

Note: If you plan to eat them within a day or two, store the scones in an airtight container at room temperature. For longer storage, seal them in a heavy plastic bag or container, and freeze them. Before serving, bring them to room temperature. Either way, reheat them briefly in a 300°F oven. They’re best served warm.

Yield: 8 small scones


A reasonable question

I have been, for quite some time, intimidated by polenta. I don’t like saying that out loud, because it makes me sound like a total cream puff, but in the spirit of keeping it real, I’m saying it. I’m willing to own it. I will also say, however, that as of a few days ago, I am not intimidated by polenta anymore. And I have Judy Rodgers to thank for that.

I don’t know where it got its start, this idea that polenta is so tricky to make, but it’s the common line. It’s what I was always told. They say you have to sprinkle the cornmeal into boiling water in a particular way, like a rain shower, and that you have to stir constantly. Rumor has it, if you put down your spoon and step away, or if you try to do anything that is not constant stirring, your polenta will go lumpy, irretrievably lumpy, to spite you. I remember my mother making polenta once, sometime in the late 80s. She had eaten it in a restaurant, served soft with sauteed mushrooms on top, and she decided to try it at home. She studied up in all the right places, and then she did as she was told: she stood at the stove and stirred, and stirred, and stirred, for over an hour. She was intense. She was devoted. And it was beautiful: the pure flavor of corn, only softer and richer, more deeply satisfying. But I don’t remember her ever making it again.

I tried making polenta once, in college. I didn’t know that the possibility of lumps in one’s corn gruel could cause a person real anxiety, but it did for me. It’s not that making polenta is actually difficult; it’s just that, because of all the dos and don’ts that come with it, I was sure that I was doing something wrong. I felt like my dinner and I were teetering on the edge of some precipice, a precipice over an abyss of lumps, and I didn’t know if we were ultimately going to fall, or how I could tell if we were falling, or how long I was going to have to stand there, teetering, by which I mean stirring, before we were rescued. (I’m prone to nightmares.)

So I started buying polenta in tubes, a simplified situation that requires only slicing. But it was never very good, and certainly not as good as freshly cooked soft polenta. After a while, I stopped eating much polenta at all, except in restaurants. But you don’t find it much on menus anymore - or not as often as you did in the 80s, when it had its big break - so, basically, what I’m trying to say is that I have been living a life devoid of polenta for quite some time. Whether or not that counts as a life is a reasonable question.

Anyway, I’d been thinking about that a lot lately, and then I saw, in the New York Times, that Mark Bittman was writing about polenta. I decided that the time had come. I gathered up a few recipes, including Bittman’s, and I compared them: some had you fuss until Forever, some promised that it was quick and easy, and some even used an oven method that requires no human intervention at all. What I decided on was something in between, the polenta from The Zuni Café Cookbook, by Judy Rodgers.

If I haven’t made this clear, I’m going to say it now: I totally love this book. It might actually be my favorite cookbook, and those are big words to throw around. I had been ignoring its polenta recipe for reasons cited above, but I should have had more faith, because it is brilliant. BRILLIANT.

Zuni has had polenta on its menu for a long time, and it’s perfect: served soft, with Parmesan, mascarpone, or nothing. I always wondered how they made it in a restaurant setting, where each cook is working on a thousand things at once, and how they served it so quickly, without any kind of wait or delay or allowance for stirring time. The answer, it turns out, is two-fold.

First, Judy Rodgers doesn’t(!) adhere(!) to the constant stirring rule. I love her. You need to stir often enough, she says, to keep the polenta from sticking or scorching, but you don’t need to hover over it. Using a heavy-bottomed saucepan is important, and you want to keep the heat gentle, so that the polenta bubbles only occasionally, slowly, like lava. If you stir every five minutes or so, you should be fine. Second, and this is the brilliant part, brilliant brilliant brilliant: after the polenta has cooked, you hold it in a double boiler, or in some sort of contraption over simmering water, for anywhere between thirty minutes and a few hours. Judy Rodgers says that this holding period is key, that it allows the cornmeal to swell and soften even more, making it especially creamy. And it does. Not only does it make for a better, more tender, lighter polenta, but it’s also so sensible. So humane. So handy! It means that, if you want to, you can make your polenta, your brilliant polenta, a couple of hours ahead and keep it hot until you want it.

If I were you, I would make it immediately, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Whichever comes first.

Zuni Café Polenta
Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook, by Judy Rodgers

I use Bob’s Red Mill brand corn grits polenta, which is not fancy, but it works fine.

5 cups water
1 cup coarsely ground polenta
About 2 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste
Unsalted butter, to taste
Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving (optional)

Bring the water to a simmer in a 2-quart saucepan. Whisk or stir in the polenta, then stir until the water returns to a simmer. [I did this step, and the steps that follow, with a whisk.] Reduce the heat until the polenta only bubbles and sputters occasionally, and cook, uncovered, for about 1 hour, stirring as needed, until thick but still fluid. If the polenta becomes stiff, add a trickle of water. Taste. Add salt and a generous dose of butter. [I used 2 teaspoons of kosher salt and about 2 tablespoons of butter.]

Transfer the polenta to a double boiler set over simmering water. Wrap the lid tightly in plastic wrap (*see note) and cover the polenta. Allow the polenta to rest that way for at least 30 minutes – or up to a few hours, depending on your schedule. If you don’t have a double boiler, you can make a close approximation by setting the saucepan containing the polenta on a small, ovenproof ramekin centered inside a wider, deeper pot, and surrounding it with barely simmering water. Cover the pan as directed above.

Serve hot. If you want, grate some Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, though I like mine plain.

Note: The plastic wrap doesn’t seem like great idea to me, but I’m not sure. Heating plastic can cause it to release chemicals, but since this plastic wrap isn’t actually touching the food, is it safe? I followed the recipe as directed, but I wanted to raise the question. If you’re worried, maybe skip the plastic wrap? Or instead, try placing a sheet of parchment over the saucepan, under the lid?

Another note: This polenta would also be delicious with a spoonful of tomato sauce or meat sauce, or with some sliced sausage. You could also serve it with some sort of braised beef or pork. I had polenta topped with duck ragu and a fried egg at Flour + Water in San Francisco, and it was out. of. control.

The last note: If you have leftover polenta, spread it about 1 inch deep in a lightly oiled baking dish. Allow it to cool, and then refrigerate until you’re ready to roast, grill, or fry it.

Yield: 4 to 8 servings