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Posts Tagged ‘olive oil’

It’s Fall, and come Fall, I start wanting to melt stuff until it’s goopy and eat it with the shades pulled. Chocolate is a big draw, and so is cheese.* I started thinking about grilled cheese sandwiches and issued myself a challenge to come up with new combinations.

A half-hour’s trip to Whole Foods provided a beautiful crusty loaf of levain**. They bring in some of their bread from Balthazar, and this was one of them. Pullman shaped, it was perfect for sandwiches. Then I bought two kinds of cheese, and then I went to the farm and picked things.

The first sandwich! This is sliced figs (of the six hard-won ripe ones I found in the trees at my favorite farm, but worth the rain in my hair to dig for them), Canadian bacon that I crisped up in olive oil, little tiny caramelized red onions, mascarpone cheese, a little balsamic vinegar, and lots of black pepper. Cooked the whole thing in the same pan that I used to crisp the Canadian bacon. I call it ‘Pigs & Figs.’

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Second! I made Marcella Hazan’s luminous pasta arrabbiata sauce and left out the pasta. It calls for really ripe tomatoes, four cloves of garlic, red pepper flakes, and one hot stuffed cherry pepper. I toasted it up with some oozy Monterey Jack. It was a stunner, and I named it ‘Hot Stuff.’ I think I’ll make it again tomorrow for breakfast.

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One more sandwich to go, with lovely Macoun apples from the farm and more Monterey Jack. I haven’t even made it yet, but I’ve already named it ‘Applejack.’

* And sometimes chocolate and cheese together. I once reviewed a fancy-pants macaroni and cheese place that had a French-trained chef, and he made me grilled chocolate and Brie. It was completely out of control. I still dream about it.

** Not for long. With a proper counter and a dishwasher to boot, soon I’ll be rekindling my affair with the yeast stored in my freezer. It could use a spark.

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Burying my face in lilacs dripping with raindrops, getting my nose all wet and not even caring, was and is a favorite Springly pastime. Lilacs in bloom also meant school was almost over for the year. When I smell them today, decades later, they still smell like almost-summer: delicious anticipation.

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Lilacs are so insistently fragrant that I used to pick a bunch and put them in a vase on the front porch so I could enjoy them without getting overpowered.

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I once propped My Fair Lady with a teenage actor who carried silk lilacs and did not know their name. It always spooks me a little when young people don’t know the names of common flowers, but getting a chance to tell them cheers me up.

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Florence Nightingale wasn’t just a famous nurse—she was also a really talented statistician. She figured out a wild—but accurate—phenology fact: After a very specific amount of days after the last frost, lilacs bloom. I can’t find the amount of days, and it’s bugging me. But it’s been proven.

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I love seeing lilacs when travelling. Been lucky a couple of times to see them twice in a year—at home and then, in chillier climes, again abroad. Canada has a spectacular lilac arboretum which was in bloom when we visited one late spring. Deep purple, lavender, white, and even the less common pink hedges were lush and lovely for acres. In Scotland winding village roads are dotted here and there with tall hedges. They look exactly right by century-old cottages.

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One of my favorite writers, Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, tells of a great story of hope that she learned when digging up a leggy and spent lilac hedge. She said despite the fact that it was what she called ‘boots up,’ surrounding it were smaller hedges. They all led to the original plant; it was its parent. The children were all in full and healthy bloom.

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A neighbor long ago had a house decked out with lilacs—knickknacks, toiletries, even the upholstery on her couch. It’s fascinating how people can take to a flower. Was it all about the color or fragrance? Or did it remind her of someone or something, and she needed to surround herself with a tangible version of the memory?

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I used to frequent an ancient red clapboard building in a nearby farm town. There I bought jars of wonderful blackberry honey from a similarly ancient beekeeper. In the back, near the hives, were lilac bushes that towered over me. They had the biggest blossoms, the sweetest smell, and were the plummiest purple I’d ever seen. I asked the beekeeper about them and he said they had been cut from prize plants grown long ago and far away. The honey shop is gone, and likely the beekeeper as well. But every May I go back, remember the taste of his honey, and smell the lilacs.

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Last week I learned lilacs are edible and went a little lightheaded at the thought. First I made an olive oil-almond cake, and then I collected some lilacs. I found a lone lavender bush near an old gazebo at the lake; another old bush in a Methodist beach community near several century-old religious buildings; and visited the plummy purple bushes behind my honey store. Why do lilac bushes so often sit beside old buildings? It’s probably as simple as this: People long ago loved them as much as we do now. Tastes don’t really change.

I went home and made lilac syrup, stirring one cup of sugar into one cup of hot water until the sugar dissolved, then steeped the rinsed blossoms in it until the syrup cooled. The next day I poured some over a slice of my cake.

It’s overwhelming, isn’t it, that we can take in some kinds of beauty through sight and smell, while others we can truly…consume? Beauty doesn’t have to be separate from us, admired and then left behind. As long as we can make lilac syrup, we can actually, deliciously, be part lilac.

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Another day, another popover.

There’s feeding them offstage, as in cookies or brownies, in which case they’re generally very easy to please. Onstage is a different matter. Often a script will call for actors eating (what we call practical food), and in my work as a prop master, it’s my job to procure it. Sometimes I buy it; other times that’s impossible or just plain inconvenient, and I have to make it for each performance. Below I offer a menu of my most unforgettable experiences in working with actor palates.

My Fair Lady

Calls for a tea service with strawberry tarts; I also added shortbread—a proper British cookie—and iced tea stood in for hot tea. The character Pickering is supposed to eat unabashedly throughout the scene, every night, and the actor who played him quite enjoyed himself. Pickering also consumes a great deal of port in every show. Since alcohol is not something that benefits actors performing just above an orchestra pit, I provided a decanter of cranberry juice instead. And I told the actor that if he happened to have a urinary tract infection, we were about to clear it right up.

Little Women

Calls for impractical ice cream and pastries, which I made of homemade play-dough, and practical popovers, which I baked fresh every night. The character Amy loves them, but not so much the young actress who played her. She’d leave the popover in the same place on the prop table every night with one bite missing, and I’d finish it.

Arms and the Man (or was it Chekov’s Three Sisters?)

Forgive me; this was college, in 1989. There is a party scene in one of these shows for which I set a few practical pastries on a little dish, and dozens more on a platter the size of a manhole cover. Then I told the actors that the ones on the giant platter were for the show and warned them not to eat them. They ignored me and tucked in every single day. I didn’t yell. I just got there earlier one day, hit the whole platter with spray polyurethane, and didn’t tell them.

Some say of all of life’s utterances, the most rewarding to hear is ‘I love you.’ I say it’s the 1.7 seconds after an actor spits a synthetic, combustible pastry into his hand and yells, ‘God-DAMMIT.’

Does this mean I’m not a romantic?

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

The script doesn’t actually call for practical food, but one director thought it would be fun to have the character Jacob munching on something during one scene. She settled on pasta. It got a laugh, and the Italian actor who played him was all in. Every night I brought him linguine tossed in olive oil, cracked black pepper, and Parmesan. He loved it.

Shrek

Shrek offers his crush, Fiona, a traditional ogre treat: a freshly killed beastie of some sort, plus odds and ends from the forest, in a sandwich. I used raffia, moss, bark, silk leaves, and my squirrel puppet. The script calls it a s’nother; personally, I called it an RLT (roadkill, lettuce, and tomato). Shrek and Fiona had to be able to munch on something from the sandwich, so I bought them gummy worms and tucked them into the edges. Fiona was impressed.

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Because anyone can send flowers.

And my favorite:

Jesus Christ Superstar

Top of Act 2, Jesus and the apostles are gathered for the Last Supper and are supposed to share and eat bread. I feel badly for the person who actually served the original 13 (whom I will forever picture as Mel Brooks), because it was a bear trying to get all of these guys to agree on what kind of bread they’d eat without complaint. I tried everything—matzoh, of course; Wonder bread; croissants (Mon Dieu! En Israel?); rolls. The actors all gave maudlin little coughs and said, ‘I can’t eat this; I can’t sing.’ Finally I got them all to agree on something. But I’m sure I’ve relinquished my place in heaven for serving Jesus and the disciples KFC biscuits.

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Gosh, I hope you’re all braised meat fans, or I’m about to bore you. 🙂
Pulled pork for lunch was my buddy Casey’s* idea (and he’s actually prepared it umpteen times before, and has a fancy-schmancy Cuisinart slow cooker), so he took the reins on that. He rubbed the meat (pork butt, which is pork shoulder, but saying pork butt is far more appealing) with a mixture of brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, cinnamon, smoked paprika, and salt. Then he plopped it into the Cuisinart on a cozy bed, bath, and beyond of sliced yellow onions, fresh sliced garlic, and chicken broth. It dozed in there for a blissful five hours. I know they were blissful because when we sliced off the first piece of meat and tasted it, it was nearly liquid.
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Here it is, singing ‘Swanee River’, in a very happy puddle.

Wait…let’s back up to that morning. Case assigned rolls and barbecue sauce to me. Finding the sauce was easy, thanks to another buddy, Ray, who makes BBQ Buddha Memphis Mop sauce**. The rolls I wanted to make myself, so I used a recipe from my well-worn, duct-tape-spined Joy of Cooking, adding whole-wheat pastry flour in place of some of the all-purpose flour called for. I also tossed in a handful of yellow onions that I caramelized in olive oil.

Every time I make bread I forget how easy it is.

I packed up the sauce; all of the rolls in a half-opened Ziploc (because they were still cooling); my laptop (because Casey also offered to help me design a postcard); and a box of homemade Nutella truffles (to thank him for the aforementioned), and headed north.

We kibbutzed and worked on the postcard, during which it became more and more obvious that my computer skills took a decade-long sabbatical sometime in the ’90s. Then we ate.

I pulled out the fluffy underside of the top of the bun and popped it into my mouth, then I piled on the meat. This is what my sandwich looked like…for about four minutes.

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*Just as an aside: Case’s blog—part snarky, part poignant essays on modern relationships—is here.

**Local guy makes good! If you want to try this, and/or Ray’s other barbecue products, his site is here.

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It’s at the most impractical times that I feel compelled to get into the kitchen and cook something new. I’ve never made one of these but, burned out after a stressed-out week, there I was. And I very firmly told myself that first I needed to deal with the tax forms I’d spread out on the table or I’d have no room to put the recipe together. This did not stop me.

Anatomy of a Strudel

  1. Ignore two cookbooks and wealth of recipes online and wing everything, right down to setting on the oven. Set at 375 F.
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  2. Peel and chop six apples. Dismiss hunch that traditional strudel apples are minced because too tired to mince. (Actually think apple mincing, whether tired or wide awake, is refuge for the anal.)
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  3. For every three yawns, say ‘apfel strudel,’ as did Schwarzenegger when he put it on the Planet Hollywood menu like a good Austrian. (He’d visit guests with the dessert menu, saying ‘Try the apfel strudel,’ and the people would hmm and sigh and say the chocolate cake looked good, and he’d lean in menacingly and say TRY the APFEL STRUUUUDEL, faux glaring at them. They’d order it. I ordered it once myself; it was pretty great, to tell you the truth.)
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  4. Cook apples on stove top and shake in cinnamon and cardamom. Measure nothing. Grab jar of unlabeled, thickened honey that your sister got from a north Jersey farm last summer and said she’d never eat, and add in three spoonfuls.
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  5. Add about a half-cup of Trader Joe’s chopped pecans to saucepan to toast. Read label, see that this is 410 calories, blanch with panic, and pour half back into bag.
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  6. Push tax forms and last year’s receipts aside on table and set up cookie sheets, box of phyllo, olive oil, apples, and nuts. Fold phyllo sheets in half, brush with oil, sprinkle each sheet with seven miniscule pecan pieces, and envelop apples in center. Use hands instead of large serving spoon, leaving the odd appley drip to land on Industry Magazine 1099 form.
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  7. Roll up and bake strudels. Let cool, slice one, and chase down hundreds of tiny shattered pieces that fly off knife and onto tax forms like mosquitoes at a church picnic, if both mosquitoes and church picnic were same shade of slightly off-white. Start thinking was supposed to layer apples and nuts in all of the layers.
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  8. Probably.
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    Anyway. They’re pretty good, despite the heaping mouthfuls of phyllo necessary to penetrate first. I also like thinking my accountant, trying to organize the labyrinthine tax forms of a freelancer, will sniff and be blissfully transported to Austria, and not know why.

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I’m on a lemon kick, I suppose. Did you ever have a craving just clobber you upside the head? This morning I happened upon a Nigella recipe for lemon yogurt cake and that was it: I got dressed, drove to the store, and bought a lemon.

This should have been a simple cake to make—there are few ingredients, they’re all recognizable, etc.–but it wasn’t written well. The measurements she gives are fine, but the process was frustrating; she kept instructing us to use a pot of this and a pot of that instead of the very measurements she calls for above. Grateful that I’ve spent most of my life in the kitchen and knowing I could grope my way out of this, I just stopped for a second, decided this was a basic cake—wet stuff added to dry stuff, combine and bake—and ignored everything in the middle of the recipe.

While stirring this up it occurred to me that I rarely go by the letter when I cook. Instead, I edit before I start. No, this doesn’t need two cups of sugar; good Lord almighty, one teaspoon is not going to be enough for something entitled a vanilla cake. And so on. I don’t do vegetable oil, so I substituted olive oil for this cake, and it was successful. Butter would have been good, too, obviously. And it called for the zest of half a lemon, but I know myself, and I like lemon desserts to taste quite powerfully of lemon. Delicately lemony cake, cookies, bars—not for me. So I zested the whole fruit.

Took a little bite when it was cool, and the inside is lovely and tender, almost creamy, like a really good pound cake. But even that whole lemon’s zest wasn’t enough for me. I’ll add the juice to the batter next time. Maybe I’ll end up squeezing it over the whole thing tomorrow like a filet of Dover sole.

One more thing: Nigella calls for the cake to go in a tube pan, but the only one I have is a Bundt. The cake’s a tad short in stature, as you can see. I’m going to try to eat it all before I learn if it has a Napoleonic complex.

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Huber Woods, Navesink. New Jersey’s a dish, isn’t it?

Every year on Thanksgiving I make my family’s recipe for stuffing, eat it in great quantities, then go hiking. (The unfathomably good recipe is here.) This tradition does not vary, because like diamonds and a little black dress, like Valentino and the smoulder, it works. It ain’t broke.

But. I had to alter the tradition a bit this year, as I’m still nursing the effects of last month’s scratched food pipe. The stuffing starts with a loaf of crusty Italian bread. When it’s done, it’s spicy, rich, and chewy—the kind of addiction you wouldn’t mind having. And I don’t.

How it ought to look.

I was disheartened for a good week beforehand because I thought I would have to forgo this dish. But I decided to buck up, and good techie that I am, made a plan: to eat stuffing, somehow, and not have it aggravate my condition.

Instead of buying my Italian bread on Monday and letting it go stale on my dining room table until Thursday, I bought it fresh, the day before. Next I pulled the crust from the fluffy white insides—the part I was hoping I could swallow easily—and froze the two portions separately. I also prepped some homemade chicken broth.

On Thanksgiving morning I defrosted the bag of bread insides and added it to my pan with the sausage, spices, olive oil, eggs, toasted nuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I ground the dried rosemary with a mortar and pestle so it wouldn’t be too spiky going down. Then I poured broth over the whole thing to make it even more tender.

I am not going to lie and tell you that it was delicious. It was decent. The next day it was quite a bit better. But it was more important that I wasn’t uncomfortable, and I wasn’t. I made it work. This was a huge win.

Then I went hiking.

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Gradations of light and shadow, eastern meadow.

Longtime readers know about my love affair with nature—with the wildest parts especially. It is at once a source of serenity and energy for me to leave the paved walkways and cross meadows, hills, glens, groves, the untidy places, the unmanicured country. There is no grass, let alone neatly trimmed grass. The spicy fallen leaves are slippery. I get my ankles tangled in the snarls of vines that cover the rolling ground. Chipmunks, groundhogs, and squirrels dart between thistles. Once I even saw a coyote. I always hope I’ll run into him again. But I hike mostly because I love the feeling of being enveloped by something ancient and unspoiled. It’s like getting massaged on the inside. And I always try to see something I haven’t seen before.

A few Thanksgivings ago I found a hidden cemetery, with maybe 30 occupants in all. I always wish them a nice holiday.

Last year I found tiny old wooden shacks labeled with numbers—1937, 1938—and I fancied them past years, relegated silently to the woods of Navesink. I could not bring myself to look through the windows and still cannot. This year I found 1929.

And also this year, beyond the eastern meadow, I followed a deer path until I was surprised by the shadow of a horse. It stood perfectly still, so I ventured closer to investigate. It was a sculpture, perfectly to scale, and made entirely of driftwood blackened with age. Imagine coming across this with no warning.

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The afternoon light gets low pretty early these days. I watched it ride the edge of the trees and wondered if I had enough time to look just a little farther. I’d never been beyond the brook at the western end of the woods, and it was tempting. I decided it was getting too late to chance it. Coming across a coyote at nighttime is somewhat less appealing.

But here’s the thing. Being sick or injured can make a person want to withdraw and not take chances. God knows it’s happened with me, especially recently. After a month of ping-ponging between my food pipe being okay and being uncomfortable, you can believe I’ve hung back from time to time. If I’m not careful, though, that can become a new habit.

Last Thursday I wanted to go farther. I’m so glad I wanted to. It’s a good sign. There are times when I won’t be able to, like this time. But I figure as long as I always want to know what’s beyond the brook, I’m okay.

For dinner that night I ate half an Italian sausage, some caramel applesauce I stirred up on the spot (sliced apples with a little butter, brown sugar, and water), and vanilla pudding I’d made the night before. And it was okay again, and I was grateful.

The crust from that loaf of Italian bread is sitting tight in my freezer, waiting for another batch of stuffing. It’ll happen.

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