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January 30

Greetings from Book Proposal Land.

I lied. That isn’t really what Book Proposal Land looks like. Not in the winter, anyway.

(Only in the summer, from a ferry.)

It’s quiet here. The nightlife isn’t much to write home about.

Socks and slippers, mostly.

There’s not a lot of sensible eating here in Book Proposal Land. Almost no vegetables.

Just pancakes and coffee. Cereal. Girl Talk. Some John Mellencamp, when I have a sweet tooth. But last night, my friend Sam called, and then there was yellow curry and rice.

And a cocktail with Aperol, white wine, and grapefruit juice. Okay, two cocktails with Aperol, white wine, and grapefruit juice.

I’m going back in. See you in a few.


Yes, already

Well. The good news is that I’m making headway in my book proposal. I was working on it at a cafe on Saturday afternoon, and I could actually see it taking shape, right there in front of me. I love that feeling. I was absolutely elated. I lost all sense of time. I was in it up to my eyebrows. And I must have looked it, too, because as I was packing up to leave, the girl sitting next to me commented politely that I must have gotten some very good work done, because I was staring at my computer so intensely. And I decided that from now on, I should work only in the privacy of my home, so no one else has to witness that.

And that’s the good news. The bad news is, I’m tired. Did you know that I have a neighbor who, though at home all day, waits until night to do his gardening and outdoor home improvement projects? As I type this, my poor, stressed-out dog has his nose pressed to the window, watching our neighbor stroll the length of his yard, surveying the territory with a flashlight of such size and power that it could double as a fine searchlight. Living next to this is one of many things that can make a person tired.

I hope you people were serious when you said you were excited about the prospect of more breakfast recipes in 2011. Because I have another one for you. Yes, already. I’m going to try to limit it to one a month from now on, but what can you do? I woke up the other morning, realized I had the ingredients for a batch of oatmeal popovers, and the next thing I knew, they were made.

As with last week’s fresh ginger muffins, this recipe - or at least the ingredients part of it - comes to us from Ms. Marion Cunningham and The Breakfast Book. It’s a very subtle riff on a classic popover, one that includes a fistful of rolled oats that you’ve coarsely ground in the food processor. Her headnotes explain that she uses the oatmeal for additional texture, and I can attest that the result is really lovely: a little heartier, a scant degree more substantial, than an ordinary popover. But I would add that the oats bring some flavor too, which I like very much. It’s a quiet flavor, one you only notice if you look for it, but it’s there. Ordinary popovers can sometimes taste too eggy, but the oats counter that, giving the flavor some depth and grounding. It felt fiddly to haul out the food processor first thing in the morning, before I’d even put on real clothes, but I was glad I did. Actually, I might grind extra oats next time, so they’re ready whenever I want them.

I have to admit, though, that I did make some adjustments to the method. Ms. Cunningham starts her popovers in a cold oven, but that sort of terrifies me. I have an electric oven, and the only time that I tried the cold-oven popover method, the lower heating element scorched my popovers in the process of preheating. I am not a nice person when my breakfast gets ruined. Maybe it was a fluke, but I don’t use the cold-oven popover method anymore. I start my popovers in a hot oven, and I also preheat the pan before I pour in the batter, which gives them an extra boost. The method that I like best is detailed nicely in the book The New Best Recipe, and so that’s what I’ve written below. Basically, you get Marion Cunningham’s concept and ingredients, with The New Best Recipe’s method. I hope she’ll forgive me for taking such liberties.

Oatmeal Popovers
Adapted from The Breakfast Book and The New Best Recipe

I’ve made these popovers twice now, and I find that they don’t rise quite as exuberantly high as normal (oatmeal-less) popovers. But they’re still perfectly airy on the inside, and the oil in the cups of the pan make the outer edges nice and crisp.

Oh, and Marion Cunningham says that the combination of oatmeal and marmalade is very good. She’s right.

2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup rolled oats, coarsely ground in a food process or blender
½ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil, for the pan
Orange marmalade, for serving (optional)

In a large bowl – ideally one with a pour spout, if you have it – whisk the eggs and milk until well combined, about 20 seconds. Whisk the flour, oats, and salt in a separate bowl, and add to the egg mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula just until the flour is incorporated. The mixture will still be lumpy. Add the melted butter, and whisk until the batter is smooth, about 30 seconds. Set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes. (This gives the gluten time to relax and brings the chilled ingredients closer to room temperature, so that the batter isn’t quite so cold when it goes into the oven.)

While the batter rests, put ½ teaspoon oil into each cup of a popover pan. Adjust the oven rack to the lowest position, place the popover pan in the oven, and preheat to 450° F. After the batter has rested, remove the hot pan from the oven and, working quickly, distribute the batter evenly among the 6 cups of the pan. (If your bowl doesn’t have a spout, you might want to transfer it to a vessel that does; it’ll allow you to work much more quickly.) Return the pan to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes - and DO NOT open the oven door. Lower the heat to 350° F, and bake until evenly golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Remove the popovers from the pan and cool for 2 to 3 minutes before eating.

Yield: 6 popovers

Note: If you don’t have a popover pan, you can use a regular muffin tin. Don’t use all 12 cups, though; use only the 10 outer cups. You’ll need extra oil to grease them.


And try to be cheerful

Okay. This year, I’ve decided, is going to be the year of The Breakfast Book. I’m allergic to resolutions, so let’s not use that word. Let’s just say that if I do nothing else in 2011, I would like to spend more time with one of the worthiest books on my shelf, one that has never done me wrong, one authored by she of the famous yeasted waffle, the esteemed Ms. Marion Cunningham. There is no one I trust more on the matter of breakfast. There is also no one else that I know of who has managed to wedge a treatise on manners into a chapter on quick breads. Witness a selection from “Breakfast Table Civility and Deportment” (page 53):

3. Clean fingernails, please.
5. Sit up straight and try to be cheerful.
7. Because everyone is defenseless at breakfast, there should be no contentiousness or crossness.
13. And don’t answer questions in a saucy manner.

I’m hoping to master #13 within the year.

This is Marion Cunningham’s fresh ginger muffin, the best muffin I have made in memory. Possibly ever. I like muffins, but often, I wind up leaving half of the batch on the counter, uneaten, until they’re stiff and dry and I throw them away. I’m more of a scone person than a muffin person. However. I will tell you that in the less than 48 hours since I made a batch of said ginger muffins, eight of them are gone, and of those, only one was not eaten by me. If you give me another hour, a ninth might disappear.

I’ve never seen another ginger muffin, cake, cookie, or other sweet that uses the method this one does. It starts with a knob of fresh ginger root with the skin on, a perplexing and maybe even off-putting detail that, it turns out, works very well.

You mince the ginger in a food processor, and I think this is why you want that skin: without it, the ginger would probably fall apart when confronted with a whirring steel blade. The skin helps the ginger to hold its integrity, so that it reduces to small, discrete bits, not something with the consistency of a smoothie. Then you take those bits and put them in a skillet with an equal measure of sugar. The sugar melts to syrup, and warmed in that syrup, the ginger cooks just enough to lose its sting. Then you take it off the heat, add lemon zest and a little more sugar, and there it is: a lot of flavor in a small, ugly, turmeric-colored heap, ready for mixing into a bowl of batter - which, in this case, is sagely moistened with buttermilk.

The resulting muffins are tender and pale yellow and look a little like cornbread. Mine wound up with humps like madeleines, which is weird, because I’ve never been able to consistently make madeleines with humps like that. Totally unfair. Anyway, the crumb is damp and sturdy but not heavy, and if you eat them while they’re warm, you’ll find that the top has a lacy edge that gives with a crackle. That’s nice.

And then the flavor comes: that quiet, breathy, slow-building heat of fresh ginger root - more a feeling than a flavor, almost. If you eat three muffins in an afternoon, as I did yesterday, you may actually experience a burning sensation at the back of your throat, which I tell you not as a warning, but because it’s awesome. Also: I didn’t notice any obvious ginger skin as I ate, in case you wondered. I imagine it’s good fiber for the digestive tract, if you don’t mind thinking of it that way.

Having now eaten these for breakfast and dessert, I’m thinking they might make a great cupcake - maybe with lemon cream cheese frosting? If you try it, please report.

Marion Cunningham’s Fresh Ginger Muffins
Adapted from The Breakfast Book

A word of warning: before beginning, take care to wash the ginger root well, checking its crevices and wrinkles for dirt.

One (~3-ounce) piece of unpeeled ginger root
¾ cup plus 3 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. grated lemon zest
8 Tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt
¾ tsp. baking soda

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease a muffin tin.

Cut the unpeeled ginger root into large chunks. If you have a food processor, process the ginger until it is in tiny pieces; alternatively, mince by hand. Measure out ¼ cup – or a little more, if you like. It’s better to have too much than too little. Put the ginger and ¼ cup sugar in a small skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar has melted and the mixture is hot. Don’t walk away from the pan: this takes only a couple of minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon zest and 3 tablespoons of sugar. Add to the ginger mixture.

Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer (or, a mixing bowl, if you plan to use handheld beaters or mix by hand). Beat the butter for a second or two, then add the remaining ½ cup sugar, and beat until smooth. Add the eggs, and beat well. Add the buttermilk, and beat until blended. Add the flour, salt, and baking soda, and beat just until smooth. Add the ginger-lemon mixture, and beat to mix well. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Serve warm.

Yield: 12 muffins


I am celebrating

2010 didn’t exit quietly, and the last month of it was a royal mess. But my aunt is okay now - even heading back to work! The rewards of health! - and for that, we’re relieved. I’m home again and excited for a new year, for the return of plain, normal, everyday life. I love plain, normal, everyday life. The laundry, the occasional clean sheets, the morning coffee that I never brew right, the dog asleep on the couch, the arrival of the mail, the mail carrier who hates the dog, the restaurant, the work, the split pea soup.

Few things are uglier than split pea soup, but that is alright with me. I’ve been on something of a split pea binge for the past month. (Am I the first person in the world to write the words split, pea, and binge in sequence? If so, I assume I will also be the last.) I’d made split pea soup a few times in years past, and once I even made an exotic version involving miso, but until this past fall, I hadn’t found one I felt loyal to. Now that I have, I am celebrating by eating a totally immoderate amount of it. By the way, if the idea of a split pea binge doesn’t ring your bell, I can also recommend a Reese’s Peanut Butter Trees binge. ‘Tis the season, -ish. Hard to go wrong, either way.

Split pea soup is a straightforward thing, and it hardly needs a recipe. Whether it includes ham or not, the process is mostly the same: get some aromatics going in a pot, add split peas and your liquid of choice, and cook until the peas soften, soften some more, and finally settle to a pleasing mush. But I learned my recipe, or the bones of it, from my friend Winnie, and though it looks plain on paper, it really does the job.

Behold the Winnie in her natural habitat. She’s one of the finest, most intuitive cooks I know: even when she’s cooking from a recipe, she hardly looks at it. She just knows what to do. Though she lives on the other side of the continent, I was lucky enough to get to cook with her several times in 2010, and to learn a few things in the process. For instance, I learned that one should never be without a stash of Allan Benton’s country ham, the backbone of this split pea soup and, now, the newest staple of my kitchen. I would have taken a picture of it for you, but I used my last package a week ago. 2011 is off to a rough start.

Until Winnie let me in on the not-so-secret secret, I used to be daunted by the idea of trying to get a hold of proper country ham: the southern kind, slow cured and naturally smoked, fragrant and salty and thoroughly hammy. I thought you had to buy a whole leg - and maybe from some producers, you do. But Allan Benton sells his in vacuum-packed slices that are perfect for chucking into a soup pot or frying in a skillet, saucing with apple cider, and then sandwiching in a biscuit. Whatever you like. Sometimes I open the fridge, pull out a package, and just sniff at it. It’s so smoky - in the true wood-smoke way, not that trumped-up liquid smoke way - that you can smell it even through the plastic. Now you know how I spend my free time.

Winnie’s split pea soup, as she taught it to me, begins with a slice of Benton’s ham, which you fry in a soup pot with a little olive oil. When it’s golden on both sides and the bottom of the pan has a few nice, browned bits stuck to it, you add some chopped carrot and onion and sweat them for ten minutes or so, and then you add split peas and water. There’s no need for stock here; the ham flavor is so generous that it fills the pot. Then you forget about it for at least an hour, and likely two. And then you set the table, and because it’s January and dark outside and you happen to have bought some candles at the store, you light one or two or three, and dinner is ready.

Split Pea Soup with Country Ham
Inspired by Winnie Yang

Until recently, I didn’t know that the age of dried legumes made a difference in their cooking time, but it does. If your dried split peas are fairly fresh, they will take less time to cook than those that have sat on the grocery store shelf for a while. In any case, cook them until they completely break down. If yours are on the older side, you may need to start with a little more water than I call for below, since the cooking time will be on the long side.

Olive oil
1 slice (~4 ounces) Benton’s hickory smoked country ham, or similar
1 large onion or leek, finely diced
2 medium carrots, finely diced
2 cups dried split peas
8 cups water, plus more as needed
Salt, to taste
Apple cider vinegar, to taste

In a soup pot or Dutch oven, warm a little olive oil over medium high heat. Add the ham, and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Add the leek and carrot, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. (If the pan seems dry when you add the vegetables, add oil as needed.) Add the split peas and 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil; then reduce the heat and simmer gently, stirring regularly to prevent scorching, for 90 minutes to 2 hours, or until the peas have completely broken down and the soup has a creamy texture. This amount of water makes for a fairly thick soup; if you like yours thinner, add more water until it reaches your desired texture. The slice of ham should break apart as it cooks, but if necessary, use a couple of forks to tear it into smaller pieces. Taste the soup, and salt as needed. If the flavor is a little dull, add a splash or two of apple cider vinegar; you shouldn’t taste the vinegar in the soup, but it should subtly wake up the flavor.

Serve hot.

Yield: about six servings