Birds flying high

Why, hello, you.

You birds, sun & breeze; you fish, rivers, and trees — oh, hello world — you are so good.

It was never that I was really gone, although there were times when I could not bear being here; it was never that I ever said goodbye, although there were times when nothing was illuminated enough to even address — in short, I was in another country where time stood deep and still, dark and folded upon itself as to never let me go.  But now the sun is shining — a peculiar thing, really, remembering its existence — and I find it shining just enough to remember the contours of my body, the matter of my mind, and the luminous quiddity of things.  And it is so good to be here.

(Sleep in peace when day is done, that is what I mean.)

I think there is so much to learn; so much distance between day and done, so much to peace that we sometimes forget how much inhabits the word.  Among other things, I am learning that time is a funny thing:

Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished.  Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm … (Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! 210)

Difference and repetition, indeed : although Faulkner reminds us that happening is always a type of haunting (never once) set to an old ineradicable rhythm, so too does his novel depend, even stake its life upon the possibility of a different molecularity. (As in, let this second pool contain a different tone and temperature, as much as we acknowledge its debt — no, kinship — to the other pool.) Time is a funny thing, its very warp and woof flexible and (for)giving enough to be very full, very full indeed.  Which is to say that, at least for me,  the possibility of a new day means constantly reestablishing oneself, a process that fully acknowledges the weight of your matter across time and space (an auto-inheritance, a receiving of yourself), but also allows you to shift your weight ever so slightly as to inhabit a completely different existence.  And so, my friends, I find myself feeling good.

Speaking of different temperatures, molecularities, and tone, I’d like to introduce you to a delicious recipe for lemon curd, one that reminds us of the magic, even alchemical properties of things.  And it couldn’t be easier: whisking eggs, sugar, and lemon juice over a low flame until, by culinary grace, it transforms into a light, gorgeous, soft mass of lemony sweetness.  Add a bit of butter and lemon zest, and you’re — well, if not golden, then the most promising shade of metamorphic yellow you’ll ever have the pleasure of witnessing.

(You’ll know how I feel.)

Lemon Curd

cobbled together from “Joy of Baking,” Epicurious, and Ina Garten. 

Ingredients:

3 Eggs
¾ cup Sugar
⅓ cup Lemon Juice (~3 lemons)
1 tsp Cornstarch
small pinch Salt
4 Tbsp Butter, room temp
1 Tbsp Lemon Zest

Take a medium saucepan.  Add eggs; whisk.  Add sugar; whisk.  Add lemon juice; whisk. Add cornstarch and a pinch of salt; whisk.

Cook and whisk frequently over low heat for 5-10 minutes or until it registers 160℉ and is thickly light yellow, like Hollandaise sauce.

Take off the heat to cool, and then store in the refridgerator.  Put plastic wrap on top to prevent a skin from forming.

It is good on muffins and toast, marvelous if spooned into a sweet tart shell (already baked: no need to bake a lemon curd tart!), and to my mind, quite adequate on its own.

Project Pesto

Is there anything more delightful than a bouquet of basil?  Gather it in your hands, bring your face close, breathe deeply and just bliss out.  More precious than the most gorgeous of flowers, summer brings an abundance of aromatics into our homes, for which I offer deep, deep thanks.  To borrow from an E.E. Cummings poem: i thank You God for most this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of basil, cilantro, mint, tarragon, chives, and all the delicious things of this earth that woke up one day and thought to themselves: You know what?  When I grow up, I want to be fragrant and flavorful. And you know what?  Something tells me that wouldn’t be such a bad life choice.  Maybe I should work on that.

Little did this spirited greenly thing know, though, that making pesto is also a superb life choice, though a bit of a commitment.  Depending on how you do it, it involves mashing said green things into a pulp with a) a mortar and pestle, b) food processor, or c) blender, turning the green, delicate, organic bouquet into an equally green, pungent, delicious sauce, while turning your blissed out, herb-hippie, fresh-from-the-market moment into an hour or so of oil, garlic, sharp blades, and inevitable kitchen madness.  Which is to say, bring it on

But not as much as America’s Test Kitchen tells you to.

While I love Cook’s Illustrated with all its neurotic, scientific, anal retentiveness (God bless ’em!), at a certain point, dear readers, the show must go on!  For you it may be toasting the nuts, toasting the garlic, or stirring the Parmesan in at the end; for me, it was banging on the basil with a rolling pin while mournfully wondering what other Interesting Life Choices I could be making.  So I’ll tell you what I did do in this recipe, which I assure you turned out very well:

(Subtitle: The Cooked and the Raw.)

Classic Pesto (adapted from The New Best Recipe, from the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen, 2004)

While I love making pesto, I always triple the recipe, because if one batch is already quite an effort, why not go all out?  Pesto stores well (see below), is infinitely usable and variable (also see below), and is just so damn tasty that you’ll be right glad you did.

1/4 cup pine nuts, almonds, or walnuts

3 medium garlic cloves, unpeeled

2 cups packed fresh basil leaves

2 T (I used more, like between 3-4 T) fresh parsley leaves

5-7 T olive oil (they called for 7; I rather liked 5)

Salt (they called for 1/2 tsp, which was overwhelming.  I’d start with 1/4 tsp and adjust to taste)

1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan

Directions:

Toast nuts in skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until just golden and fragrant.  Nota bene: pine nuts burn quite easily.  Constant vigilance!

Add garlic to the empty skillet, and toast, shaking occasionally, until fragrant and the color of the cloves deepens slightly, about 7 minutes.  Let cool, then peel and chop.  (Okay….whaaa?  I like the theory behind this, which is to mellow the garlic flavor, so I did do a little roasting, but not 7 minutes worth.  Actually, I just turned off the heat and put the garlic on the pan while I washed and dried the herbs.  By the time I was ready for it, it had warmed up nicely and the skins slipped right off.)

And this is where I draw my line.  They want you to put the herbs in a plastic bag (ziplock, heavy duty) and pound with a meat pounder or rolling pin until the leaves are bruised.  I dunno.  Sounded a little too abusive for my taste, not to mention time and bag-consuming.  I just say wash, dry, and pull the leaves off your herbs.  (Done. Ta-frickin’-da, my friends.)

Place nuts, garlic, herbs, oil (5 T!) and salt (1/4 tsp!) and cheese in a food processor or blender.  Process until smooth, stopping to scrape the bowl down when needed.  (They tell you to put the pesto in a separate bowl and stir in the Parmesan; as you see, I just added the cheese to the food processor with the rest of the ingredients.)

And you’re done! Just a few more notes:

1) One great way to store pesto is to freeze it in an ice cube tray, which gives you very handy single servings that you can defrost in the microwave or stovetop.  Delightful.

2) Variations on a theme?  They suggest a mint pesto, swapping the parsley out for mint; a creamy pesto with 1/4 cup ricotta added with the parmesan; and an arugula pesto, replacing a cup of basil with a cup arugula, increasing the parsley to 1 cup packed, reducing the parm to 2 T while adding 1/3 cup ricotta.

And as you do a thorough wipe-down of your kitchen, you’ll probably never want to see, eat, or think about basil again, which for me is why pesto should always be a do-ahead, triple-the-recipe kind of project.  But don’t worry.  As you shower the lingering garlic smell from your hair, I promise you you’ll already be pesto-dreamingTomatoes.  Mozzarella.  Balsamic vinegar.  Minestrone.  Tortellini.  Eggplant sandwichesLentil salads with goat cheese.  And then maybe, just maybe–once your countertop has lost that final sheen of oil–you’ll return to your picturesque vision of pure, perfect, unproblematic basil, simple and sun-warmed as it nestles in the crook of your arm.

And this time around, you’ll probably find ways to eat it raw.

Alice Waters’ Caramel Sauce

Man.  This is so, so good.

Upon transferring posts from my old blog to the new one, I realized I have a slight obsession with sauces, or more specifically, condiments. Green goddess, mango salsa, tomato salsa, applesauce (okay, not exactly like the others, but still saucy)–there’s nothing like a good sauce to make whatever you’re eating a harmonious, delightful experience.  Although some might think they’re not as impressive as the main dish, I have since learned differently.  There’s nothing quite like a good sauce, and there’s nothing quite like making one: it’s sort of like kitchen alchemy that yields perfectly beautiful jars of pure flavor you can tuck away in your fridge, to dip into again and again until you hit the bottom of the jar.  (Ooh, and for a lovely Dorie post on the pleasures of jars and thriftiness, read her “Bottom-of-the-Bottle Mustard Vinaigrette.”) Plus you feel secretly, totally, perhaps even smugly self-sufficient.  Because without a doubt, your home-made sauce, salsa, condiment, or dressing is better than anything you could’ve bought.  (Unless it’s Brianna’s dressing, in which case I usually throw up my hands and kowtow towards its genius.  All hail.)

Recently I’ve been obsessed with Deb’s ginger-carrot dressing, especially as I have a motherlode of CSA carrots still waiting to make it into the world; I also really love this rhubarb-orange compote, which I have made again and again.  But what I’d really like to share with you today is this:

Because it is truly the most magical sauce of them all.  It’s Alice Waters’ Caramel Sauce from her The Art of Simple Food (2007), and it’s one of the easiest, most fulfilling recipes you’ll ever make, I promise.  Seriously.  Sugar, water, cream, vanilla, salt.  That’s it.  Add heat and some serious molecular shifting, and you’ve got yourself a brûléed masterpiece that’s perfect drizzled over ice cream, dolloped on yogurt for a crème caramel-like dessert, as a dip for various fruits like apples and pears, and as a flavoring for milk or drinkable yogurt, like this:

Alice Waters’ Caramel Sauce

Measure and set aside 3/4 cup heavy cream. Put in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan 1 cup sugar and 6 tablespoons water. Cook over medium heat, without stirring, until the sugar starts to caramelize.  Swirl the pan gently if it’s browning unevenly.  When the caramel is uniformly golden brown (n.b.: I like to cook mine a little longer than golden, until it’s a rich brown, almost chestnut), remove from the heat.  STAND BACK (really) and add 1/4 cup of the cream.  Stir slowly with a wooden spoon until combined, add the rest of the cream and 1/2 tsp vanilla and a pinch of salt.  Let cool and strain (I don’t), and ladle into a jar.

Variations, also from Alice: Coffee-flavored caramel sauce: add 3 tablespoons espresso and if you want, 1 tablespoon coffee liqueur.

Although the divine Alice says it keeps for up to 2 weeks in the fridge; my batches do last up to 3 if I let them.  She also says to reheat gently over simmering water before serving.

Cranberry Applesauce, or, ‘Hey you’

Although apple season is far from its peak, I find working with apples wonderfully calming and delicious at any time of year: they behave perfectly when being sliced or diced, for one, and peeling them is akin to meditation. We’re getting our share of last-gasp apples through our CSA, and while they may not be Edenic hand-to-mouth specimens, they lend themselves well to those–how shall I put it?–more saucy moments.

This is my go-to recipe for applesauce. It’s sweet (but not cloyingly so), flavorful (but not aggressively cranberry), and the bit of butter makes it almost velvety and utterly delightful. I’ve made it three times in the past few months, and am already planning a rhubarb variety once it appears on the market. See–it’s just so darn inviting, slipping effortlessly into your daily routine and calling hey you, wouldn’t it be sweet in those early morning moments where you’d like to cook something for breakfast, afternoons when you’ve got a pile of work and want a productive break, evenings when you want a quick dessert (with cream or ice cream on top), and especially–(oh, especially)–those moments you open your fruit drawer and find a handful of scraggly apples just calling for a better life. Appel-sauce, indeed. That’s my kind of interpellation.

P.S. I happen to think it’s perfect warm.
P.P.S. Did I tell you it’s pink? Bright pink? The cranberries cook down as well as the apples, to the point where they aren’t really berries as much as a sheer, gorgeous, perfect color. Yes I said yes they will yes.

Cranberry Applesauce
adapted from Epicurious

Another invitation? Gustatory variation. Rhubarb would be a great substitute for the cranberries, orange or lime peel instead of lemon, and any number of sweeteners (I recently used Trader Joe’s dark agave–only $3, fyi, not as crazy expensive as I’d thought–and it was really good.) Oh, and the texture is up to you; Epicurious has you milling it for a smoother sauce, but I rather like the apple-pie feel to leaving larger pieces unmilled. You could also smash it with a potato masher or a fork.

4 apples (about 2 pounds), peeled, cored, and chopped
1 cup fresh cranberries, picked over
1/4 cup sugar (I use 1/4, but you could use up to 1/2 a cup depending on the tartness of your apples. You could also sub agave nectar, if you’re so inclined; it’s really good.)
1/4 cup apple juice or water (Water works fine)
a 3-inch cinnamon stick
a 3-inch strip of lemon zest
2 tbsp. unsalted butter (I use 1, which is fine)

In a heavy saucepan cook the apples, the cranberries, the sugar, the apple juice or water, the cinnamon stick, and the zest over moderate heat, stirring, for 15 minutes (or less), or until the apples are very soft. Discard the cinnamon stick and the zest, force the apple mixture through the medium disk of a food mill into a bowl (optional), and stir in the butter. Serve the applesauce warm or chilled. The applesauce keeps, covered and chilled, for 1 week.

Tomato (and non-tomato) derivatives

As a tomato-hating child, I was never a huge fan of salsa or–perhaps more shockingly–its distant cousin, ketchup. In terms of salsa, I routinely found it watery, toned down and tinny, preferring my food plain rather than subject it to a demoralizing (and soggy-making) dip. Granted, this was the twist-and-pour canned variety. But even though Cook’s Illustrated assures me there’s at least one acceptable brand one can buy (Pace Chunky, I believe, at least in 2007), I for one need more convincing.

(And don’t even get me started on ketchup. Blegh. It’s where tomatoes go to die a sickly, cloying death.)

On the salsa issue, however, I duly stand corrected. First of all, I discovered how easy it is to make your own (and how delicious tomatoes are when in season!) Secondly, I realized that not all salsas have to be tomato-based. These two revelations, my friends, have made all the difference. Thus today I’d like to share with you two delicious salsas: the first, a simple tomato; the second, a cantaloupe and red onion variety. The tomato one is just gorgeous–translucent and Two very different tastes, each delightful in its own way. O salsa! I have to admit you’re growing on me.

And as for ketchup? Eh. Check back with me later.

Fresh Tomato Salsa
lightly adapted from Epicurious.com

2 lb. red and/or orange tomatoes (about 5 medium)
2 fresh chiles (I omitted this)
1/4 medium onion (white)
1/2 cup fresh cilantro sprigs
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tbsp fresh lime juice

Quarter and seed tomatoes. Cut tomatoes into 1/4-inch dice and transfer to a bowl. Wearing rubber gloves, seed and finely chop chiles if using. Finely chop onion and cilantro. Stir chiles, onion, cilantro, and garlic into tomatoes with sugar and lime juice and salt and pepper to taste. Salsa may be made 1 hour ahead and kept at cool room temperature. I like to pour off most of the excess water for a fuller texture, but salsa fiends may hotly debate that point.


Melon Salsa
from Epicurious.com

This originally was paired with a grilled flank steak (a delicious pairing), but you could also serve it alongside chicken or fish to great effect. It’s also lovely served in the hollowed out half of a used melon.

1 large cantaloupe, peeled, seeded and diced (or scooped out in large pieces)
1 medium red onion, diced
1 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
2 tbsp. white balsamic (or cider) vinegar (can also use plain balsamic)
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

Toss in bowl. (And if you want enough to serve with your dinner, hide your spoons.) Canteloupe was especially nice in terms of color and flavor, but you could also use any other variety of fleshed melon, such as honeydew.


Green Goddess Dressing Vegetable Platter

If you’re ever wondering what to bring to a dinner party, brunch, or even holiday feast, look no further. It’s a cinch to make, fun to arrange, green and fresh and delicious. Throw all the ingredients into a food processor, blanch some vegetables, and you have the makings of a simple and beautiful platter.


And the best part about green goddess dressing is that you can use any herbs you want. My version uses parsley, tarragon, and chives; I’ve also seen it done with dill, basil, and probably any combination you desire. Add a green onion and a tad vinegar, and you’re golden…oops!…green.

Green Goddess Dressing
adapted from Gourmet, March 2002

Although I’m not one for major substitutions, I took one look at the original recipe and thought surely one can substitute something for that whole cup of mayonnaise. So I tried using half a cup plain yogurt and a half cup mayo, and ended up liking it very much: it was a bit tangy, not as thick, and overall deemed a good decision. I also upped the amount of herbs, as I like my dressing intensely aromatic.

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3 anchovy fillets, minced
(optional)
1 chopped scallion

2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon tarragon (or white wine) vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste

Purée all ingredients in a food processor or blender. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and pour into a small bowl nestled amongst an array of vegetables. My favorites are asparagus, snow peas, beans, carrots, celery and cucumbers; I usually blanch* the first four.

*On blanching: Bring a pot of water to boil and liberally salt. Cook vegetables in like batches until crisp-tender, about 3-5 minutes (depending on the vegetable.) When finished, “shock” them in a bowl of ice water in order to preserve freshness and color.