Archive for November 2010

Brave New World

November 28, 2010

What’s the opposite of ambidexterity? Whatever it is, it’s got my name written all over it.  I’m the most single-mindedly right handed person I know, using my left hand only for things that take two hands, or to balance things I’m doing with my right hand. Oh, and I mouse left-handed, a habit I picked up when my right shoulder started to hurt.

And so, thanks to a tear in the rotator cuff of that shoulder, today will be the last day I’m allowed to use my right hand for the foreseeable future. Tomorrow I’m having rotator cuff surgery, after which, my whole world will change for quite some time.  With a surgery like this one, it’s good to take the long view.  Very long.  It apparently takes a year to get fully back to normal after this operation.  For me, that’s way too long a view, I can’t really fathom it.  I’ve heard that it will take six months before I can put my right hand on top of my head.  It’s a good thing my hair parts naturally, but that’s still a hard chunk of time to swallow.

It will be three months before I’m allowed to drive.  Now we’re talking  a timespan I can really imagine, and what I imagine is that I’m going to hate having to be driven everywhere like a little kid, even by a willing chauffeur like Shel. Worse, oh much worse, it will be three months before I can use my right hand to cook.  I won’t be able to hold a knife, since if I tried to do that with my left hand mayhem and bloodshed would surely ensue. No stirring the pot with one hand while sprinkling in salt with the other.  No whipping cream with a whisk and bowl. No cracking walnuts and picking out the meat.  No peeling garlic. No lifting heavy clay pots into and out of the oven, one of life’s most satisfying kitchen moments.

Not to mention sundry other indignities.  No pulling on a pullover sweater. No picking up cats as they stroll by the right hand side of my chair. No fastening my bra. No trailing my hand along the banister as I walk down the stairs.

And then there’s the six week time frame.  Right arm in a sling day and night, no using it, NO exceptions. Which means no typing with it.  Although a quick Google search reveals at least a page of instructional videos and tips for one-handed typing, so maybe I’ll acquire a new skill. No getting myself dressed, which means that even though I’ve invested in a mini-wardrobe of clothes that button and zip up the front, I’ll have to stand like a doll while Shel puts them on me.  That might sound romantic for about 30 seconds, but I imagine the thrill will wear off rather quickly. No cutting up my own food. No sleeping in our bed with Beppo curled up next to my pillow, I’ll be bedding down in a recliner only.  Stuff like that. Virtually no normal life.

Like any sensible person, I’ve been practicing doing things left handed. Want to play along? Just go into the bathroom tomorrow morning and do every single thing with only your non-dominant hand.  Some of the simplest-seeming things turn out to be extremely difficult. I won’t mention what they are, I’ll let you be surprised.

So today’s the last day for me to put up some holiday decorations, even though it’s so early.  The last day to cook up a huge pot of soup because I think that for the next week it’s going to be all pain and narcotics, and soup might be all I can manage.  The last day to go secret Christmas shopping, sew the button on my favorite green sweater, cook up some pork cheeks and lamb shanks to add to the collection of dinners banked in my freezer.  The last day to take pictures with the Nikon for I don’t know how long, although I think I might be able to manage the little Canon with just one hand. The last day to cut my toenails.  Jeepers.

And then, inevitably, tomorrow will be the first day of my new left-handed life. Possibly I’ll become a whole new person, as I use different parts of my brain for virtually every task.  Except mousing. At least that one thing will be comfortingly familiar. And I’ll be talking to you again soon. I just hope I won’t be talking out of the other side of my mouth.

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Stuffing Wars

November 20, 2010

Now comes that murky time just before Thanksgiving, when battles are silently waged. If you’re cooking for a spouse or family of choice, as opposed to your birth family, the stuffing wars are undoubtedly raging.

I grew up in a bread stuffing family.  My mother never used a recipe, so making the stuffing involved lots of tasting along the way.  Raw eggs weren’t a concern in those days, and we tasted merrily for salt, sage, pepper, and whatever exotic ingredient she had decided to add that year.  My mother was a bit of a freewheeling cook, not too far out, but she did like to add one new ingredient to the stuffing each year, just for fun.

There was always a countertop covered with drying bread for the two days before stuffing making began.  Sliced white bread, no special kind. We’d break up the dry bread into a huge bowl, add in eggs and chicken broth (from a can), plus sautéed onions and celery.  Sage was in there for sure, and lots of melted butter, and then there might be pecans one year, or water chestnuts, or regular chestnuts, or even pine nuts.  We stuffed some in the turkey and baked the rest in a pan. There was never meat of any sort in it, and we liked the the stuffing soft, moist, almost custardy.  I would eat it cold for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving and count my blessings.

Later in life I married Shel, who had a completely different notion of stuffing. His Mom’s stuffing was based on cornbread, with stuffing cubes added.  The recipe called for 1/4 teaspoon of poultry spice.   There was sautéed celery and onion, butter and broth, all in all it sounds not too different from the stuffing I had grown up with.  But it baked in a pan into a sort of firm cake-y texture, and I found it bland and dry.  Shel and Eric, however, adored it, couldn’t have Thanksgiving without it, and yes, Eric ate it for breakfast the morning after, just as I had as a kid.

So our first year together I made both kinds, each part of our blended family stubbornly clinging to tradition, while Jordan, a lifelong vegetarian, continued to scorn all stuffing equally.  As I recall there were a couple of years where I made only Shel’s Mom’s stuffing, thinking it a good excuse to eat more pie and less stuffing. I know that one year I made only my Mom’s stuffing, but the reproachful eyes of Shel and Eric over that dinner haunt me still.

And then, I started trying to find a compromise. There were several years where I anxiously scanned recipes, trying a new one each time if it looked at all like it might work in the interest of family harmony.  By then both Shel and Eric had broadened their food horizons and were willing to give it a try.  But I never settled down and stuck to one recipe, until finally, we were in France for three Thanksgivings in a row, and I had to find a real solution, using ingredients that were available there.  Also, I wanted to show our French friends, who had never tasted anything like an American stuffing, what it was all about.  I needed the mother of all stuffings, something that could pass on any table in the land.  And I think this is it. I think that Shel and I each still miss our own family stuffing, and in fact I no longer eat stuffing at all, thanks to my diabetes-induced low carb lifestyle. But this is a stuffing we can agree on, and serve proudly, and I think everyone will find something familiar in it to love.  It’s not bad for breakfast, either.

Family Harmony Stuffing*

1 lb sliced white bread, your favorite, not too sweet
4 cups coarsely crumbled cornbread ( I use the buttermilk cornbread in the recipe link below, but you can use your favorite, again, not too sweet)
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh sage
2 tsp poultry seasoning
1-2 tsp salt, to taste
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 sticks butter
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped celery
2 eggs
2 cups turkey stock or chicken broth, preferably home made
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup Madeira (optional)

The day before you plan to make the stuffing, spread the sliced bread out on a counter or table and let dry.  If you don’t have the space, you can dry it in a very low oven, but I think the texture is better when air dried, plus it makes the house look like Thanksgiving.  Crumble the cornbread and let it dry as well, either on the counter on a baking sheet, or in the oven.

When dry, place the cornbread crumbs in a large bowl.  Rip the dried bread into small pieces and add them to the bowl, along with the parsley, sage, poultry seasoning, salt, and pepper.

Put all of the butter in a large skillet and sauté the onions, celery, and garlic gently over medium low heat for about 10 minutes, until it’s tender and translucent but not browned. Let cool to room temperature.

Add the vegetables to the bread and mix well. Beat the eggs with the heavy cream and add the mixture to the bowl along with the turkey stock or chicken broth, and Madeira if you’re using that. Unless you’re worried about your eggs, taste the mixture and rectify the salt and pepper.

Butter a 9×13″ dish, a pretty one that can go on the table if possible, and add the stuffing, patting it gently into the dish  Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake at 325° for 30 minutes. Uncover and baste the top with a good squirt of turkey drippings from the bottom of the roaster. Bake for another 30-40 minutes, until the top is browned and firm.

* adapted from this recipe


A French Thanksgiving

November 17, 2010

thanksgiving-0051

This will be our first Thanksgiving in America for several years, and in looking back at some of our past French Thanksgivings, I thought that some of the newer readers would enjoy seeing how it’s done in France.  Or at least, how I did it when far from my native land in a place where cranberries don’t grow.

So have a look at our 2008 Thanksgiving as you’re making your own preparations, and next time I’ll show you the stuffing recipe I put together to show our French friends what a purely American Thanksgiving food tastes like.  And let me just say that in general the French have heard of Thanksgiving, but they have no idea what it is, why we do it, what we eat, or why we eat so much all at once!

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If I ever get tired of cooking I can always open a spa for turkeys.  But for now, all I actually have in mind is to try poaching my bird before roasting it for our belated but much anticipated Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow.  And here’s where we run into problems like “if we really and truly lived here I’d have a (insert missing item here: big enough stockpot, turkey lifter, 9×13″ pan, or whatever) but since we’re only visitors I’m trying to make do with what we’ve got.”  And we also run into the “why did I think I could have a seated dinner for 15 people in a rented house with a rock band playing in the living room?” problem, but that one’s easier to answer.  I’m nuts.

Contrary to appearances, after being subjected to several unnatural contortions, the turkey can be stuffed into the pot, albeit with ankles waving in the air and a back that will be shivering in the cold.  But since nobody really eats the ankles and the back, I’m not too worried about that.  I’m more worried about whether there will be any room in the pot for poaching liquid, and whether there will be enough meat for 15 people.  A 7 kilo turkey should feed 15 in theory, but it’s got legs as long and breasts as small as any Rockette, so I’m making lots of vegetables to flounce around it.

We do have enough tableware (thank you dear landlord), even if it doesn’t match, but what we are lacking is chairs.  In fact, after rearranging all of the furniture in the downstairs yesterday in order to a) create some combination of tables that will seat 15, and b) empty the living room so that the rock band Shel loves to play with can set up all their amps, microphones, and other gear in order to serenade the cook for a couple of hours before dinner, we still had to beg for a couple of folding chairs.  I’d have begged for a fainting couch too, but I don’t know where we’d put it.

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Once a motley assortment of tables was in place I rummaged for tablecloths and napkins.  Of course we don’t have enough matching stuff for 15, but I spent time choosing the patterns that clashed the least.  Reasonably satisfied with my selection, I went to the kitchen to oversee the toasting pecans, only to come back to the sight of Beppo and Zazou approving of our new arrangements.  It’s just like them to sprawl on the clean linen while we are under the furniture ferreting out the bits of feathers and other previously hidden evidence of their tireless hunting.  Not to mention the scorpion hibernating under a carton of wine I’d planned to serve. I must say that he had good taste, that scorpion, he chose the Chateau Calisse.

Today will be a giant puzzle.  If I make this dish ahead, I’ll have more oven space tomorrow, but there’s no room in the fridge to keep it overnight.  It’s gotten quite chilly recently, so in theory I could leave things outside to chill, but given the size of the rats that our little tablewarmers have been bringing in this week, I don’t think I’ll leave a tempting pan of corn pudding out to attract them.

Geometry was my worst subject in school, and it’s really being tested today.  And my next worst subject was typing.  Did I mention that the table formerly known as “my desk” has now become part of the meal plan?  Typing on my lap the good old fashioned way is really a chore.  I think I’d rather go peel a big heap of potatoes and start the court bouillon for the poaching pot.  But although things seem a bit desperate at the moment, I swear I’m not crying, I’m chopping onions!

A Tantalizing Tagine

November 15, 2010

Are you an eggplant lover that cooks for an eggplant hater? A cook that shies away from foreign cuisines because someone at your table doesn’t like “weird” food?  With this dish, I’ve got you covered!

Here’s a mysteriously delicious tagine, warm with spices, revealing a palette of flavors that will save you the price of a plane ticket to Marrakesh.  This is a dish that you’ll want to make again and again, and it’s exotic and familiar-tasting at the same time, which is a big plus in my book.  You can make it over a two day period if you like, and it tastes possibly even better the day after you finish preparing it, making it a busy cook’s delight.

Here’s another great thing about it: it’s your secret weapon against eggplant-shunners.  I served this to a group of eleven the other night, and unbeknownst to me, at least five of them turned out to be card carrying eggplant avoiders.  I don’t know what there is not to like about eggplant, which is one of the silkiest things you can put in your mouth and soaks up flavors like no other member of the vegetable kingdom, but lots of people claim to detest it.  However, this dish might just make converts of them all, as I proved recently, when choruses of “This is eggplant? But I don’t like eggplant!” were quickly followed by spotlessly cleaned plates and a few surreptitious second helpings.

Tagines in America are synonymous with Paula Wolfert, and this recipe is no exception.  I used a version printed in Food and Wine magazine back in 1986, adjusting it a bit to account for today’s readily-available labor saving opportunities, as well as today’s tagines.  If you don’t have a tagine already you can click here to get the one I use and love. It goes right on the stove top, and when not it use it makes a lovely bit of kitchen decor.

Click here to see the recipe on Food and Wine’s website, and read on for some ways to make this dish simpler and quicker to create.

1) Use boneless, skinless chicken thighs.  True, you’ll be missing a bit of additional flavor by not using the bones, but it will still be delicious. Also true, by not using the chicken skin, you can skip the step that involves skimming the fat from the sauce.

2) Instead of mashing the eggplant by hand, give it just 2-3 pulses in the food processor.  You want it a bit chunky, not puréed, but you can easily achieve that by using a light finger on the Pulse button.

3) Instead of fresh tomatoes, use a can of good tomatoes, like Muir Glen Organic Fire Roasted diced tomatoes. Unless you’re making this in mid-summer, the canned tomatoes are guaranteed to be riper and tastier than any you can find in the store.

4) This one is entirely optional, but since I almost never have cayenne pepper in my kitchen  I used a heaping teaspoon of harissa paste, which I imagine is more authentic anyway, but almost certainly was generally unavailable in 1986 when the recipe was published.

5)  Where the recipe specifies cooking the chicken in a flameproof dish, use a tagine.  A tagine is a clay pot (as well as the name of the food prepared in it), and so will cook it beautifully, and instead of piling the cooked ingredients into a bowl, you can just layer the eggplant over the chicken right in the tagine and bring the whole pot right to the table, which is almost guaranteed to produce a chorus of oohs and aahs. As to the mechanics of it all, I removed the chicken, let the sauce reduce in the tagine while I shredded the chicken a bit with two forks, then after mixing half the sauce into the eggplant, I mixed the chicken back into the sauce remaining in the tagine.

Go for it, it’s delicious!  And by the way, a tagine makes a beautiful holiday gift for a serious cook, so if you’re wondering what to put on your wish list, this might just be it.

Early Morning Sun Cake

November 10, 2010

I’m basically chicken: I love to get up and go to bed with the sun.  Of course, if I went to bed with the sun here during the Northwest winter, I’d be asleep before the first coming-home commuters got off the ferry. And so, when the time changes and we fall back into in the pre-winter gloom, I force myself to stay awake until a respectable hour each evening, yawning my way through the too-early twilight, and hoping for a sun-drenched breakfast.

I love breakfast, and I love the morning. I love waking up, and am almost always cheerful and chattery in the morning.  In fact, and I think it’s safe to say this after many years of keeping the secret, a long-ago boyfriend once said “waking up with you is like waking up in a girls’ dormitory.”  Needless to say, he didn’t last long. People who are grumpy in the morning invariably tire of me.

I also love baking breakfast foods, and I used to love eating them.  Now it’s Shel, not formerly a morning person but somewhat reformed by sixteen years of living with my early-bird ways, who is the delighted recipient of my morning baking and says things like “this cake is really good, it’s cakey, rather than muffiny, fluffy rather than dense, not too sweet, and the little jewels of marzipan make it just right.” He says all this while downing an enormous piece with his morning latte, and I think you can take his word on it.  Try this cake and see if your morning doesn’t improve.  If anyone can hold on to morning grumpiness in the face of this cinnamon and marzipan treat, they don’t deserve breakfast.

Early Morning Sun Cake*

1 1/4 cups sour cream
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 3/4 cups flour
1 3/4 tsp baking powder

Topping
1/2 cup toasted and chopped walnuts
1 tsp cinnamon
1/3 cup brown sugar
4 oz marzipan, cut into small dice

Preheat oven to 350°.  Butter a 9×13″ baking pan. Mix the topping ingredients together in a small bowl.

Mix the sour cream and baking soda together in a bowl or measuring cup and stir until it begins to fluff up.  Set aside.

In the stand mixer (or by hand if you insist) cream the butter, sugar, and eggs together until smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add the flour and baking powder to the butter and mix slowly until just blended.  Add the sour cream all at once, raise mixer speed a little, and beat just until smooth. Do not overbeat.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread to the edges of the pan.  Scatter the topping evenly over the surface of the batter and press lightly to partially submerge the marzipan bits.  Bake for 35-40 minutes, until the topping is browned and the center tests done with a toothpick. Eat in the sunshine, whenever possible.

* Lightly adapted from a recipe in Morning Food by Margaret  S. Fox, which is a very nice book that I recommend you look for, if you’re a breakfast person like me.

Give Thanks For Shallots

November 7, 2010

When it comes to salad, shallots are the chameleons of the allium world: raw and finely diced they impart a bright sparkle to a bowlful of mixed lettuces, roasted they lend a mellow sweetness that keeps you eating your greens, tantalizing bite after bite.

This salad dressing is a great way to start your Thanksgiving countdown. You can make it a couple of days in advance, tuck it in the fridge as you do your complicated cooking projects, then simply let it come to room temperature on the Big Day. Its flavors will blend with everything on your Thanksgiving table, and if you’re trying for a seasonal and local meal, shallots can fill the bill perfectly. This dressing is super simple to make, just peel your shallots and you’re practically done. And don’t use your zillion dollars a drop balsamic here, a good commercial one will do just fine.

Roasted Shallot Vinaigrette*

1 cup shallots, peeled and sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2/3 cup fruity olive oil
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 T soy sauce
1 T Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400°. Place the shallots, garlic, and 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a small oven-proof dish, cover tightly with foil, and bake until soft and lightly golden, about 20 minutes.  Let cool, then purée in the blender with the remaining ingredients.  It’s that simple.

*This recipe came from the San Francisco Chronicle too many years ago to remember, and it’s really stood the test of time.

Hello Darkness

November 3, 2010

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.

Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,


The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!


Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Thus spoke Percy Bysshe Shelley in Ozymandius, recounting and foretelling the rise and fall of mighty nations.  While I do think there’s still hope, after yesterday’s elections I’d say we’re well and truly on the way out.