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Posts Tagged ‘kitchen’

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I needed to be in the kitchen today. Too much work and too much abject crazy in the world made it absolutely, crucially necessary; and thank the universe, it chilled me right out (and fed me very well at teatime today).

The above is a sausage bread. I’ve never made a stuffed bread before, and looked online for a good recipe, but all I could find were recipes that started with a tube of Pillsbury. Then it occurred to me that a stuffed bread is a lot like pizza dough with, you know, stuff in it. So I used Bon Appetit‘s recipe and added anything I thought would taste good.

First I crumbled up 12 ounces of hot Italian sausage and grated about a cup and a half of mozzarella. Then I made the dough, adding some Parmigiano-Reggiano and dried basil and rosemary. (I’ve noticed when you buy stuffed breads, the bread’s flavor itself is somewhat neglected; the focus seems to be on the filling alone.) Then I let it rise, and worked it into a ball the way I learned when I did a brief stint at a restaurant. (I was one of two people who, on weekends, rolled 250 balls of pizza dough per day. It was strange rolling just one!)

Then with a rolling pin I rolled it into a disk, loaded it up with the cheese and sausage, then treated it as I do my chocolate-cinnamon babka: I rolled it up jelly-roll style, pinched the ends, twisted it, and coiled it. It got an egg wash and I popped it into the oven, figuring 350 degrees F would do. It did. Took Julia Child’s advice and took it out when I could smell it.

I sat down with it, hot, the whole thing, at my dining room table and pulled off steaming little pieces. Nibbled and looked out the window and was soothed. Sending all of you the same wishes, with or without a sausage bread.

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I love talking about food, so consequently I love writing about food. Between tight deadlines and the odd lousy interview, it’s not all ice cream*. But I do think there’s a place for intelligent foodspeak. Granted, there’s plenty of frivolous (‘Fun with Cilantro!’) and half-baked** (‘I Went Vegan For a Week and Whined My Way Through It’) content out there, but dismissing the genre as a whole is just as frivolous and half-baked—the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So. Here’s why I write about food and why I think it’s relevant. In my case, it’s mostly about teaching. I love:

-Introducing or re-introducing people to the seasons. Years ago a co-worker told me she didn’t know watermelons grew in the summer. I can’t blame her; how could the average person know when they’re offered at Shop-Rite all year? But I’m still shaken by it. I write about food because I want to teach people when produce grows. And it’s not just because I’m an avid supporter of local agriculture, and because food will be cheaper, easier to come by, more nutritious, and tastier if purchased close to the source and in season. I want to teach them when it grows because it can help repair the disconnect between ourselves and the earth. Besides breathing, sleeping, and kvetching about politics, eating is at our fundamental core. Knowing where our food comes from can provide a deep sense of peace and balance…not to mention incentive to do right by the earth.

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Still available at farmers’ markets. Pull out the seeds, scoop the flesh into your blender, add lime juice and zest, and blitz. It’s a great thirst quencher—and has no added sugar.

Showing people that cooking isn’t beyond them. Most food shows are less about instruction than they are about entertainment, which means bravado and fancy knife work. They can be intimidating to first-time cooks or to those whose skills are rusty. I want people to know that our world’s most treasured recipes were likely made in a makeshift kitchen with crappy light, over a fire or smoky coal or wood stove, with dodgy equipment, and with leftovers. The common denominator, by a long shot, was a woman determined to feed her family. If she can do it—without All-Clad or track lighting—you can.

-Being able to share what I learn in the kitchen or in the field. I absolutely love trying new (in my case, that usually means vintage) recipes, tweaking, and tasting. And I love taking a walk and spotting something edible. It always feels like a present, and I giggle all the way home. I suppose in another life I’ll be into Christian Louboutin shoes, but this life granted me a thrill in wild discoveries. It’s a cheaper pastime, if nothing else. For what it’s worth, I hope you’re enjoying the ride with me.

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Wild peppermint, which I found down by my lake in Spring 2015.

L’shana tova tikatevu, chaverim. Hope it’s a sweet one.

 

*Ha! I slay me.

**Did it again. 😀

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Pyrex bowl from the late ’60s-early ’70s. Bought it from a vintage Pyrex vendor (both were vintage) under a very crowded 8×8 booth in Ocean Grove, NJ.

Title flagrantly swiped from food writer Laurie Colwin, God rest her salt- and butter-loving soul. She and I, kitchen sisters, subscribe to the doctrine of secondhand utensils. Think of it this way: They’ve lasted this long. How many neon-green kitchen toys at Bed, Bath & Beyond can go up against a Pyrex pan from the fifties?

Everything below is practical, long-lasting, and has a story to boot. I need as much resilience and soul as I can get in my kitchen.

Here, thus, is a family album of the kitchen equipment that I bought used, was given used, or just plain found. I will always cook this way.

First: Copper pans bought for $10 (total!)* from a parking lot tag sale in Asbury Park in 2011. The seller said she bought them in France, which may or may not be true. But they have never failed me, so the French can be proud either way.

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One of many German aluminum springform pans that I inherited when I took over making Easter bread. They are at least 45 years old, probably older, and live above my refrigerator with my Christmas china.

Vintage springform study

Two of several glass votives and a baking pan I bought at an estate sale in nearby Oakhurst, NJ, in 2010. I went into the living room, decorated straight out of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and found four long folding tables covered with vintage glass—regular, ornately cut, and Pyrex. The pan is several decades old but has no scarring. The votives I use for occasional imbibing and frequent desserting.

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Clockwise: What look like milk glass bowls, bought from a house sale in Bradley Beach, NJ. Wildly useful as prep bowls, mini snack bowls for chocolate buttons or grapes, or for a quick sip of milk. The lauan box I found at my aunt’s next door neighbor’s yard sale, in the town where I grew up. It nicely corrals my measuring cups, spoons, and a tiny spatula. The aluminum spatula has a very slim blade, and slips ever so cleanly under s’mores and brownies. I bought it in Oakhurst, at my realtor’s yard sale.

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Both from sales in my hometown. The white dish, one of two, I use as often for food styling as I do for sandwiches. If you’ve seen one of my photos of something tasty on a white dish, you’ve already met. The top dish, also one of two, is not much bigger than a saucer. It is my teatime dish—just the right size for a cookie or muffin. It belonged to my favorite aunt and her family. When I went to their garage sale, my cousins just started handing me things. This dish reminds me of the ’70s—a really good time growing up with them. One of my cousins laughed and said his mom probably bought the set from Foodtown for $1.95. And he’s probably right, but I don’t care.

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Farberware hand mixer, I think from the ’80s, that I bought circa 2006. Still going strong. From Oakhurst again (wow…that’s really the spot, isn’t it?), at my ex-boyfriend’s sister’s garage sale, $5.

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Can’t remember the yard sale for the box grater, but I like it because it’s a little smaller than typical. The salad bowls (which I use for everything) I got from my hometown as well. They’re teak and were made in Thailand. The muffin tins are from Wanamassa, NJ, and are an ideal example of something you can always find for sale on someone’s lawn. They last forever, are nearly indestructible, and thus are downright silly to buy new. I think I paid $.50 for four 6-cuppers.

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Some of my wooden-handled corn holders, purchased for something like $1.00 for a handful wrapped in a rubber band. One I accidentally rinsed down the sink—another sound argument against spending too much. The wooden bowl I bought from a yard sale in Allenhurst, NJ. The seller told me she bought it in Vermont many years ago and it was handmade, so she wouldn’t let me haggle down for the split in the side. It’s my foraging and bread-rising bowl.

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Rolling pin, which very likely has seen more decades than I. Pulled it out of a bin filled with cookie cutters at the Red Bank Antique Center.

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Massive hand carved wooden spoon, a recent hand-me-down from a friend. Still have to use it. I put a penny next to it for scale. Look at the size of it! For stirring soup, stuffing, or anything with eye of newt.

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‘Special Gelatin 50% Strength’ three-paneled vintage wooden box from the antiques store downtown. I load it with potatoes, onions, and garlic. The cashier asked what I was going to use it for and got a bang out of the answer.

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And lastly: a brick I nicked from the property of an abandoned 17th-century farmhouse near me. I think the original homeowners would be proud to hear it’s my low-tech panini maker.

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Lanterns, carried to the barn to do the milking before sunup and after sundown.

It’s one of my contentions, delusional or not, that objects can be charged with power. I’ve written before about where I will and won’t forage, and when I visited an antiques store after Hurricane Sandy. In both cases, it’s choosing a setting that’s calming and positive. (Of course that choice is totally subjective; there are those who find the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas comforting, and would find my pastures and creaking wooden floors about as appealing as watching paint dry. To each his own.)

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Enormous scale, decorated with a sprig of bittersweet.

A farm store loaded with antique tools, now—this is a place of great power for me. Native nations here in the US wore the pelt or teeth of a specific animal to take on the powers of that animal. Much in the same way, when I see and touch an old utensil, I like to think I can take on the power of its maker and owners.

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Pan, griddle, mill, and other antique heavy kitchen tools, along with the triangle that called everyone to supper.

There’s a grey dustiness to everything here, but it is all still useful. These tools weren’t meant to snap in half, lose their handles after 27 uses, and be replaced with something just as poorly made. I like to think the tools are sitting there quietly, smugly, knowing they have it over everything comparable in the Home & Bath section at Target.

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Another scale and a stuffed tenant.

Very little of the stuff in my kitchen was purchased new. Muffin tins, brownie spatulas, Pyrex bowls and pans, prep bowls, my hand mixer—all were found secondhand at antique shops or at garage sales. Sometimes they were cheaper, but that’s not why I bought them. (Not entirely, anyway.) It’s because new stuff has no power.

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Not a tool, but still way cool. Wooden cream cheese and egg boxes.

Give me the potato masher that could have fed dozens of hungry farmhands in the fifties. I want the wooden-handled cookie cutters that were used to make Christmas cookies during wartime, and cheered everyone up for a little while. I’ll pass on the brand new bowl in favor of the cracked wooden one from Vermont, the one that has proofed hundreds of loaves of bread. It can proof mine now.

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Third scale. The handwritten sign on it reads, ‘Please use very gently. I’m very old. No watermelons.”

Antique tools combine the history of our forefathers and mothers, their thrift and ingenuity, their resilience. I want all of that. Who wants to be alone in the kitchen when you can have company?

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Cast-iron food mill and grinder.

And there’s more. Recently I wrote an article that mentioned a small-town baker of 50 years who wanted to retire. He passed up the tattoo artist and all of the other retailers looking to rent his space, refused to rent it to anyone but another baker. He said, very simply and very adamantly, that he was tired of everything changing.

I feel the same way about my kitchen. I’m not insane (maybe delusional, but not insane); my suped-up Cuisinart makes very quick work of marzipan, and I can’t imagine my world without parchment paper and my Silpat. But for the most part I like the idea of filling my drawers with equipment that outlasted its owners and will last for generations more. Stability: another power.

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The cast-iron stove and more heavy tools of the housewife’s trade. She must have been ripped. Kettle at top left, with a handle that could be suspended over a fire; flatiron at top right. I love the detail on the front of the oven, and its little handle.

Now then. Out of the store, onto the grounds (of unfathomable power), and into the kitchen again. Figs in the forecast.

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Thanksgiving’s just a few weeks away. And while I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony, I am one to give credit, and thanks, where they’re due; and this seemed like the perfect time.

So. A schtickle of backstory.

I started blogging in 2011, on a lark, at the suggestion of a friend. Why? Because I just sorta decided (on another lark)* one day that I was going to be a food writer. Which makes no conceivable sense: my background is in business writing and editing, and I had precisely zero experience writing from my own point of view, let alone about food. I wrote crowd-pleasers like website copy, newsletters and fundraising appeals. Food was just something I thought about a lot and talked about a lot. Okay, a ton. But still. Write about it?

I knew very little about food blogs (still do, because I want to be sure to maintain my own voice), but I knew I didn’t want it to be just narcissistic blather, or to be cliche (how many blogs are out there with titles like ‘Fun With Cilantro’? Not that cilantro’s not fun, mind you; it’s a veritable RIOT at office potlucks, but I don’t want to oversell it, either). I also have no formal training of any kind in taking pictures; I don’t know a shutter speed from an F stop (is that the term?).

Since I’m clueless about technology, another friend set me up on WordPress. When he was done he said, ‘You’re ready.’ ‘What do I do now?’ ‘Well…you write something.’ ‘Right…yeah.’

I’d like to say I sat down and cheerfully banged out a stellar post within an hour.** I didn’t. But I did like my first post, rough as it reads to me now, which was an argument against letting outside forces dictate what you were and were not capable of creating in the kitchen.*** I’m a sociology nerd, too. I love ingredients and I love recipes, I do, you guys know I do. But I’ll always be more fascinated by how we approach food as a culture, what it means in our lives, how we shape it, and how it shapes us. Lucky for me there are so many of you out there, Eve’s Apple’s**** lovely crew of faithful readers, who like to talk about it with me.

My hat is off to friends and family who have supported me from the get-go, who read over the first few posts and offered feedback, coaching (see technology quip above), and recipes. And it’s off once more with an audacious flourish to the friends I’ve never met, most notably my LinkedIn food tribe, with whom I speak daily. I’m honored to have readers throughout the U.S. and all over the world, the collective wisdom of ranchers, retired farm wives, bankers, caretakers, artisans and many more, all of whom can discuss with me everything from why we don’t handcraft the way people did 100 years ago to the beauty of organic lard.

You trust me with your photos, your recipes, your memories, and your questions. You’re respectful of each other’s opinions and offer advice to each other. You’re willing to sift through my semi-coherent ramblings every week and encourage, counsel and make me laugh. You more often call my posts articles, or essays, not just pedestrian ‘blog posts’ (which is all they are), which is humbling. I can throw any topic out there—and goodness knows I do—and you all take it and run like slippery midnight bandits.

You want to celebrate with me the macro (farm stands versus supermarkets ), the micro (the smoke point of olive oil) and the warm underbelly (Halloweens of long ago). You get what I mean when I talk about the majesty of the simple. In my mind, you are the authorities when it comes to food, and sharing it, and I continue to be astonished at how much you have to teach me. You have made my world bigger, and have made me a more competent writer. I’m grateful to have this forum so I can keep learning.

Thank you. You’ve taught a girl typing alone at the beach so much.

*Truth be told, this one was a sparrow.

**I’d also like a pony.

***Here’s how much of a technodweeb I am: I didn’t even know you could add photos to posts. Consequently the first fat handful of posts were photo-free. Sorry about that.

****I almost called it Semisweet, but that name was taken. Not the bummer I thought it was 🙂

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Are you sick of hearing about my kitchen screw-ups? No? Awesome, because here’s another one. It’ll also be good reinforcement for those who say they can’t imagine me fouling up a recipe. Plus, it features colorful language and is therefore a shot of truth for those who don’t think I ever swear. I’m all altruism today, aren’t I?

It started with a request from an actor friend of mine. Some time ago she had posted about her love of peanut butter fudge on Facebook. I told her I had a fantastic recipe and would treat her to some during the run of our upcoming show.

The day before I planned to bring it in, I looked for said fantastic recipe and couldn’t find it in my recipe files. No worries, I thought. I’ll find it on Martha’s site. It’s hers. But it wasn’t there. She had a different one, but not MINE. My printer has been chewing up paper lately, so I wrote it out by hand. It was simple, but it did say not to overcook.*

That night I was out late with the cast, then proceeded to yammer away in the restaurant parking lot, as theatre types tend to do, until it got even later. Got up around 9 all the same, and began. I had to leave by 6 for the show and knew the candy would need to set awhile. Here’s how it went.

1) Blinked blearily into the exceedingly bright light of the fridge. Saw I had no milk for the recipe. Mumbled the first of the day’s colorful language.

2) Decided I needed to double the recipe since we had around 21 actors, who typically are hungry creatures, plus crew and staff. Doubled it. Set it into a pot that still had a good half-capacity empty space above it. It was only about a quart of goo. Harmless.**

3) Had to bring the mixture to 236 degrees. Began to worry when I hit 220 and it started to foam up like a Chow-Chow watching a Sizzler commercial. Turning down the heat to medium didn’t help. Also, turning down the heat to barely on didn’t help. More colorful language ensued.*** Brown, sticky, and continuing-to-bubble peanut butter goo erupted all over jet #1.

4) It did smell nice, though.

5)  Had just a few seconds to decide if I was going to chuck the whole sorry pan or figure out what pan I was going to switch it into. Candy is a diva; you let the temperature fluctuate just a little bit and it gets all ‘I can’t work like this.’ And I already had a strike against me lowering the heat as quickly as I did. I had a great enamelware pot that would be perfect to use, but I used it last week to make mulberry compote, and parts of the bottom still had cheerful berry-shaped burns on them. I had neglected to stir the compote as often as I should have. I also very purposely neglected to tell you about it. All I had left to use was my turkey stockpot, which could accommodate a watermelon. If you set it on end, it could also accommodate a Chevy Impala transmission.

6) Pushed aside everything on the counter and set down the oozing pan. Grabbed the step ladder and pulled the stockpot down from the shelf above me. Poured all of the goo into it, set it on jet #2, and started it up.

7) Waited for the goo to come back to temperature. Wet a dishtowel and began cleaning the melee off the stove. ‘Why’s the dishtowel smoking?’ I’m thinking. ‘Wait, what’s this jet still doing on?’ My stove is only about 2 weeks old, and the jet dials are opposite of my old one. Which meant the dishtowel was smoking for a very good reason**** , and I had turned off the heat on the candy again.

8) Turned it back on. Realized using a really deep pot means your candy thermometer will be too short to reach into the goo. Held it myself with the traumatized dishtowel in one hand, and a rag in the other to wipe off condensation so I could read the numbers.

9) Still hard to read due to the above. Hit 236. Well, 7. Okay, 8. Poured the goo into the parchmented pan, which turned out to be too big a pan. So much for doubling. Lifted the whole shebang into a smaller one. Twice. Took an extra 10 minutes trying to scrape out the remains from the godawful big, and 238-degree hot, pot.

10) Since I messed with the temperature too much, the fudge predictably Patti LuPoned, and the edges turned out as chewy as caramel.***** Chopped them off, and thanked the universe, asteroids and nebulae when I found the interior still soft. Not as creamy as it should have been, but at least I wouldn’t have to contend with any backstage lockjaw. Tasted it. It didn’t have that kick of salt that I think peanut butter needs, so I sprinkled some fleur de sel on top. Then I crashed on the sofa until my 6:30 call.

The actors loved it. One quoted the movie Big Night and told me she had to die now. The girlfriends of the actors loved it. One told me she wanted to marry it. It’s gratifying knowing my cooking can inspire drama, but then again, I was in the right place for it.

I cleaned the kitchen today. Was this close to opening my windows and asking the boys next door at the fire house to let rip the water hoses.

*Words to live by. For someone else.

**And I’m not even done.

***On the ROYGBIV rainbow scale, we’re somewhere around cadmium yellow.

****Turquoise.

*****Ebony. Oh, we’re way over the rainbow.

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Vintage Pyrex bowls.

Goodness, this was a lousy week.

Even before the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday I was overwhelmed, disheartened and in need of some peace—proper peace, the kind that soaks into the bones. The song ‘Where Are You, Christmas?’ has never been a favorite of mine, but I have to admit that lately I have been wondering the same thing. Here it was the middle of December, and I should have been happily knee-deep in the fun and joy of Christmastime. Instead, stress seemed to have formed a Plexiglas case around me, isolating me from the season I love so much, allowing me to see it but not feel it. It was as if I was watching it all on television.

By Wednesday I was stretched to maximum capacity and utterly exhausted. I crossed everything off my list for the afternoon, drove to the antique district in Red Bank and walked into the red wooden shop at Front Street and Bridge. My blood pressure went down to a simmer as soon as I opened the door of the old building, a mighty garage sale on two floors. It’s a good place to step out of yourself, out of the present, into what (at least) feels like a warmer time. The place even has a calming aroma; the mix of wood, vintage clothes, books and housewares all together in one spot is what I imagine 1958 or thereabouts smelled like.

This antiques shop relaxes me because the stuff within is not so much precious as homey. There are the odd mahogany end tables and gilded mirrors, but there are far more simple things, ones that waft good memories around me like a May wind. I love seeing the type of 1960s porcelain figurines my aunt used to display on her dresser, the ones of ladies with updos, wearing broad sweeps of black liner on their upper eyelids and real dangling earrings. I love seeing the same miniature Madame Alexander dolls I used to collect, and the kind of metal lunchbox my sister used to carry to school.

The vintage kitchen stuff soothes me most of all. The nooks and alcoves piled floor to ceiling with kitchenware are quiet places where you can step in and feel enveloped by women, long-gone, who imprinted themselves on the worn goods they left behind. Here the potato masher and wooden spoons with well-used handles, there the scratched ceramic bowl in which of hundreds of loaves of bread rose. Corningware dishes that saw countless Thursday night meatloaves, birthday-dinner chicken fricassees, heaps of peas from a carefully tended garden. Within these humble, common possessions were the spirits of generations of women who worked their whole lives to keep their families well fed and protected. I felt that spirit, decades later, and felt the safety they provided transfer to me.

Depression glasses and plates are stacked by color, and they make muted rainbows on the shadowy parts of the shelves. Utensils are in spatterware buckets and inside drawers of wooden hutches. The place is a mishmosh, granted; but there IS order, there IS a layout, and I found that comforting, too. What Holly Golightly appreciated about Tiffany, I appreciate here.

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I liked these as a kid, but my mom wouldn’t let us get them because she heard a rumor that they contained lead. Was that true?

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Jadeite vases, coffee cups and bowls.

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Rolling pins.

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Enamelware soup ladle, made to accommodate a deep stock pot.

Christmas decorations are all around the shop, too, most from 1960 and earlier. I loved peering into the cabinets full of candle choirboys, never lit so they would always stay perfect, and grinning Santas. My mom has Christmas things she loves putting on windowsills every year, and so do I. I imagined the sweet-faced angel below being someone’s mom’s favorite. And once again I felt enveloped and safe, even though it was through an image of someone I had never met, from a time before my time. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense on paper; it worked.

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Shiny Brite tree ornaments.

Many years ago I was at this very shop and fell in love with a tiny bottle brush Christmas tree. I came back a couple of days later to buy it and it was gone. Amazing how the loss of something that cost three dollars could have made my heart sink like it did, but it did.

On Wednesday I turned a corner and saw another bottle brush tree. At just two inches, it was tinier and even cuter than the one I lost all of those years ago. Three and change. Done.

I stayed for an hour and left the shop feeling much looser and calmer. Yes, the rest of my week got hairy from time to time, and I’m sure it will again. But I have my little bitty tree right here on my desk, and it helps to remind me of the joy and peace this season is supposed to have.

I’m not sure I believe in sweeping generalizations like great joy is all around us, if only we reach out and grab it. Would that it were. At times like this it seems even more implausible, and that’s coming from a pretty enthusiastic optimist. But I don’t think that’s how it works.

Instead, I think we should seek out any bright little glimmers of joy we can find. Those are all around us, and those we should grab. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmastime or any other time of year. Hang on to them and let them sink into your bones. They’ll fortify you. When necessary—before it’s necessary, really—I recommend taking a day, or an afternoon, or even an hour, to play hooky from the world.

And I figured this out: Maybe stress is best diffused just by seeking out anything or anyone that can help us to feel safe. Maybe that’s where peace comes from, too.

I hope you figure out a way to find it—all year long but especially now.

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