Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Important cheese alert

I love to grill cheese. What is better than cheese seared to a crisp on the outside and oozy on the inside? Which is why I've been a fan for ages of the Cypriot cheese halloumi.

Grilled quickly in a hot cast iron skillet and topped with a cilantro mojo or, as Sophie and I enjoyed at a Greek festival this spring, a vinaigrette with sliced tomatoes, capers, and fresh mint, it's a great appetizer or small side dish.

The only drawback is that the brand I usually buy is sort of expensive—almost $10 a container.
But check out what I found at Trader Joe's last week:


It's not exactly the same—not as soft, perhaps a little rubbery; not quite as briny—as traditional halloumi. But at a fraction of the cost and with a good topping, I can live with this. Halloumi can go right into the heated pan; I found a light coating of olive oil on the pan surface helped this detach a little better.

Tossed with several colors of miniature tomatoes, cilantro, a little olive oil, and a few squeezes of fresh lime, this mixture was a nice alternative with chips to a traditional salsa as an appetizer for our Mexican-themed Sunday dinner.

Grilled cheese AND saved money. Does it get any better than that?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A productive illness

Sometimes it's nice to be sick. Not terribly sick, just a little sick. Sick enough that I feel compelled to stay home near the tissue box and use a day or so of the massive amount of paid sick days I have amassed. Not so sick that I cannot get a few things done around the house. So far I have

  • Read for a couple of hours in bed. I'm smack in the middle of Salman Rushie's Midnight's Children (a friend and I agreed it was sort of embarrassing that we consider ourselves literary sorts but have never read anything by Rushdie) but stopped to read the next book for the mother-daughter book group Sophie and I are in. She and I agreed we would cheat and that she would explain the plot and a few main characters and set me up with a few comments so I wouldn't have to read it, but my conscience got the better of me.
  • Done a couple loads of laundry, mopped the kitchen floor, cleaned a bathroom. My house cleaner is out of town for a couple of weeks.
  • Bottled some limoncello. Finally. It's a lengthy process. I'm looking very forward to trying Jen's limon sunrise cocktail (and you thought she was all about butter).
  • Practiced the piano for half an hour. I've been playing on my parents' piano during visits and have overcome my horror at how much worse I am than when I was fourteen enough to be enjoying it again. I brought back a bunch of music home from my parents and have been playing on the little electric keyboard (a toy, basically) that I use to play with Sophie's violin practice.
  • Watched All My Children while eating lunch. Or maybe it was One Life to Live. I can't tell the difference. Anyway, Dorian Lord is not looking good.
  • Installed these nice little holders in my laundry room for mops. You're probably wondering why a general contractor's wife would have to do something like this herself. But if you're a general contractor's wife you already know. Something about cobblers and children and shoes. Seriously, I bought these holders about six years ago.
I couldn't get the screws in all the way, but I know of no better way to send Husband into a blind panic than to call him at work to ask where he has hid the electric screwdriver. General contractors have this bizarre notion that they alone can safely operate power tools.

This is all in the way of saying that I'm well on my way to doing everything except what I should be doing today:

Completing my on-line traffic school course

which needs to be done by the end of the month. Seems I was in just a little too much of a hurry to get to the mountains last spring and was driving a wee bit too fast. Did the officer not notice the full rack of skis on top and the impatient little ripper in the backseat? He might have, but the asshole bagged me for going eight miles over the speed limit about fifty yards from the speed limit sign ahead where I would have been within the limit. I hope he dies of hemorrhoids.

The truth is I really really really do not want to waste my valuable convalescence doing on-line traffic school. I just do not think I am well enough. Instead, I'm moving on to

  • Mexican chocolate ice cream. I'll let you know how it turns out.
  • A pumpkin seed sauce for the enchiladas I'm planning for Sunday dinner.
  • Sorting through recipes and moving them into a new folder box. The old one is falling apart.

Or maybe it's time for a nap? Another chapter of Rushdie? A blog post on the best grilling sauce I've discovered this summer? A nap.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sophie needed a torte

She's suffering a strange kind of vertigo that the doctor says is probably a result of a head cold she had this past weekend and will resolve in a few days. Still, I'm worried. She swam in a pond on Saturday. What if she a brain-eating amoeba swam up her nose? A couple of years ago at her school, one of her friends dropped on the play ground and died before the next morning of a brain aneurysm. What if it's something like that? And so not only is she home from camp, but I'm home with her, asking every fifteen minutes if the dizziness is better or worse. Her headache: better or worse? Stomach?

Nothing wrong with the stomach or the appetite, so I'm loving her the way I do best: with food.

For lunch, she enjoyed a chicken salad with red grapes and pine nuts and shaved zucchini in tossed in fresh lemon and olive oil.

For an afternoon treat, I piled on some of my favorite blog boys and their plum torte.

Trevor started it. He clipped the original recipe from the the New York Times and adapted it by substituting cardamom for the cinnamon. Then Greg made it, doubling the recipe and adding a brilliant cardamom whipped cream. Greg also included a dissection of the terms cake, gateau, and torte. I call bullshit on his final theory, but it's an entertaining discussion nonetheless.

My contribution is minor: I added vanilla (I couldn't help it) and whisked together the dry ingredients before adding to the creamed butter and sugar. (Ever get a caked bit of baking powder in your bite? Not good.)

The original recipe provides instructions for freezing, defrosting, and reheating. Now tell me why anyone do something like that.

This is a great way to use summer plums and is just about the easiest dessert ever.

Plum Torte

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 eggs

1 cup unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
pinch of cardamom (just shy of 1/4 teaspoon)

6 ripe plums, halved and pitted
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
sugar for topping

Cream sugar and butter.

Whisk in a bowl flour, baking powder, cardamom, and salt. Add to butter mixture, followed by eggs. Beat well. Spoon the batter into a spring form of 8, 9 or 10 inches. Place the plum halves skin side up on top of the batter. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and lemon juice, depending on the sweetness of the fruit.

Bake one hour, approximately. Cool before removing from pan. Serve with whipped sweetened whipped cream (see Greg's recipe for the cardamom version) or vanilla ice cream.
It's not bad for breakfast either. Or so Sophie tells me.

One weekend, three weeds

Weed 1.

Is there anything more lovely than a thistle?

Camping this weekend in a friend's meadow up in Mendocino, we minced around plenty of these. So pretty, but definitely look don't touch.

We have been attending this annual multigenerational weekend party for over a decade and are usually one of the tents. This year, though, we decided to skip the set-up-break-down biz and "camp" in our restored VW Vanagon (it has a transplanted Subura engine, so it's technically called a Vanaroo).

Sleeping on a full-sized futon with our down comforter and flannel sheets hardly qualifies as roughing it, but when a thick fog rolled in during the wee hours of the morning and we heard all our tent neighbors waking up to put flies on the tents, we thought we were pretty clever.

You never know what our host will have on the spit—lamb, pig, or goat. This year it was a particularly handsome pig.

The host adds rice and green salad, and the guest potluck the rest.

At night it's music, chat, and marshmallows around a campfire. Here, Husband gets a chance to catch up with the host, my first landlord in Berkeley and the person who introduced Husband and me.

In the morning everyone is treated to amazing berry crepe. Which brings me to the next weed. So a friend and I are sitting at one of the tables set up outside chatting over coffee and crepes. We're talking about the past year, during which she has struggled with her teenager daughter's use of drugs and alcohol and the issues that naturally accompany those substances in hands controlled by developing brains. Hard stuff, particularly scary given that this girl has two parents I really consider to have their shit together. Clearly, this can happen to anyone. They're handling it though with compassion and intelligence, getting their daughter professional help and maintaining a house completely free of problem substances—the liquor cabinet is gone, and prescription drugs are under lock and key.

And so in the middle of this conversation, what do the sixty- and seventy-somethings at the other end of the table do?

Weed 2.

Why light a huge spliff, of course. I believe the technical term for this is Wake-and-Bake. It's ten o'clock in the goddamn morning. And kids are everywhere. Fortunately most of them were playing in the orchard when this occurred, but a few years ago they lit up in the living room while the kids were playing cards at the other end of the room. Boundaries, anyone? Whoever thought would come the day when the biggest stoners I know are the seniors?? Not that I really do think it is an evil weed, but a good glass of wine or well-mixed martini sounds so much better to me. I'm not totally sure how I'm going to handle the pot issue. I won't lie about past and occasionally present inhaling, but I'm planning on emphasizing that using it with good judgment (which I'm not sure many kids can do) is critical. And I'll probably need to point out that lighting up at ten in the morning is not good judgment. If she questions me, I'll instruct her to move down the table and have a conversation with one of the stoned seniors.

Weed 3.

The blackberries edging the road and surrounding the property were in full fruit.

I followed behind a pack of kids. They picked low, I picked high.

After an hour, with a few bloody fingers, I had enough for another batch of homemade Crème de mûre and some more of Jen's blackberry ice cream.

But even the blackberry has its drawbacks. The blackberry thickets have become more aggressive than the our friend who owns the property. She'll be eighty at the end of the month and admits that she no longer has the energy to work eight hours a day beating them back, tending the garden and orchard, and maintaining the house, meadow, and pond. She wants to work for maybe three hours and then rest in the shade, read a book. She's thinking of putting the property on the market. She is not an old lady. Doesn't dress like one, act like one, or look like one. When we talk, we're the same age; she's just wiser. She's not slowing down; the berries are speeding up. Goddamn weed.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Just asking

So I've been gone on a little vacation. I didn't want to put it out on the internet because some bad person might read about it and break into my house and steal some expensive cheese or one of my spotted cats. I don't think there's anything else of real value there except the house itself.

Although we're supposed to be not going anywhere this summer so we can stay home and work on our house, we slunk out of town for a few days at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, up toward Yosemite on the south fork of the Tuolumne River. It's sort of like camping for really lazy people.

An organized camp is a funny place for someone like me to go to because I like to cook on a camp stove, love my tent, and particularly abhor activities. But that's just me. Husband and Sophie are delighted to scurry off to archery, tie- dye, and basket making. What I love about this camp is that there is no pressure whatsoever to participate in any reindeer games. It is just fine that showing up to three meals a day is all the group activity they get out of me.

But that doesn't mean I am idle at camp. I'm really very busy.

I spend a lot of time reading by the river. Sometimes I sit by the swimming hole and watch people jump off a big rock, but these days I'm more inclined to take my chair down to the less-populated Lower Beach for a little quality me time: Beach, book, and beer.

I also spend a little quality time with the Husband. We took a nice long hike up to an old quarry area above camp one morning.

After lunch is quiet time, when you need to be in your tent cabin or out of camp. (This is when they clean the bathrooms.) We usually beat it up to Small Falls, up the river. No pictures past this evidence of civilization because it's where we leave clothes and swim up the rest of the way. The water was really cold.

But by far my favorite thing to do at camp is TAKE A SHOWER. For several reasons. I get really hot, sweaty, and dusty. But really, it's all about the showers themselves. We call them "the stone showers."

They're all crafted from local river rocks. I love the irregular shapes and gently tumbled edges

And the ceiling cannot be beat.

I have long been a fan of open-air showers. We have one on our back patio so we can rinse off before getting in our hot tub and can avoid steaming up our bathroom when the weather is warm. What I wondered this year is whether there is any reason I cannot have a stone shower at home. Husband is a general contractor and can build, design, or fix just about anything. He has already plumbed a hot water shower out to the back. Why can he not add a stone surround to a couple sides of it?

Can you think of

a single

just one single

reason why not?

Well, fine. So can I. In the meantime my memories will have to serve.

One time, at Camp Toulemne . . .

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

We now return to our regularly scheduled program

That's right: I'm back in my kitchen, freed at last from the social anxiety of preparing for and attending my high school reunion. Seriously. The stress from a big event like this reminds me of what a natural mole I am. Most social events I attend I could probably show up to in pajama bottoms, and while this wouldn't go unnoticed, people would probably be more interested in what I brought to eat than in why I forgot to get dressed.

But the reunion? OK, I'll tell you. It was . . . weird. But not in an entirely bad way. It was at first confusing and disorienting. Who on earth were these people?? Slowly, they started coming into focus, as my date and I recognized first one person and then another. But after thirty years, it was sort of like seeing ghosts. Ghosts of high school people—doesn't that sound scary? But they were friendly ghosts, extending a hand and sometimes even a hug, acknowledging that it was nice to see if you even if they had absolutely no idea who you were. And I was very happy to see some old childhood friends, some of whom I had known from third grade.

People generally looked great, the women faring on the whole better than the men. As my date, who looked seriously better than anyone there, pointed out, women and gay men work harder at it. Funny thing about other men who looked particularly good: Not the necessarily the ones considered the major gods in their day. Strike one for karma.

Thank goodness for my kick-ass date. Every woman should attend these events with a gorgeous, stylish, charming, and witty gay man. I was immensely flattered that several people thought he might be my husband. (My husband, who has heard just enough by now about my fabulous date, asked "So did you tell them that you have a very handsome and charming husband at home??" I did, didn't I? No? Well, I guess I forgot, just for the evening.)

There are already rumors afloat of a 35-year reunion, to which Fabulous Date and I say, "Thank you, but no." I truly would not mind seeing more of some of the people there and would like to catch up with a few I never did see that night, but anything like that needs to be at a smaller gathering for me. But I'm glad I went to this one. No regrets, aside from chickening out on photographing a pair of hotpants. We'll be kicking ourselves forever over that.

And so, really. Back to what I know.

I love a recipe with a sneaker ingredient, as in something that really enhances flavor but you would not know is there just by taste. For example, my favorite recipe for Daube Provencal (a French beef stew). Anchovies add a deep earthiness, and no one would ever guess their presence.

My favorite summer fruit salad gets its kick from cardamom, which I love but always think of as a baking spice.

The pods are crushed with a mortar and pestle and then steeped, along with lemon zest, in a reduced white wine syrup to make a gastrique, a sweet tart dressing. The natural flavors of the fruit are enhanced, and the citric acid in the lemon keeps the fruit from browning.

The recipe, originally from Cook's Illustrated, specifies adding the warm reduction to the fruit, but I usually make this in a triple batch well ahead of when I want to serve the salad and chill it, adding one portion to my salad about an hour beforehand.

The rest goes in the fridge for the next time I see fruit at my produce market that needs to be made into a salad. Fruit salad is one of our favorite summer desserts, so this doesn't last long.

My adaptation uses white wine instead of champagne (any white wine will do—especially bottles you open and do not like). I omit their raspberries from this combination. I add tiny mint leaves from my garden (not chopped mint because the edges can darken if the salad has to travel or wait a while).

White nectarine and blueberry salad with wine-cardamom reduction
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, July 2001

1 cup white wine
1/2 cup sugar
pinch table salt
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
5 cardamom pods, crushed
5 medium white nectarines, pitted and chopped
1 1/2 pint blueberries
1/4 cup small mint leaves

Simmer wine, sugar, and salt in small saucepan over medium heat until syrupy, honey-colored, and reduced to 1/4 cup, about 25 minutes.

Remove from heat and add lemon zest and juice and cardamom. Steep 5 minutes to blend flavors, and strain. Allow to cool or chill if making ahead of time.

Combine dressing, fruit, and mint. Toss gently and serve at room temperature or chill up to four hours ahead of time.