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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Potato/Pot-AH-to, Bread/Brioche

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At what point does the humble, wholesome, pleasant-tasting sweet potato reveal its inner potahto, from root vegetable to guilty pleasure?

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The obvious and correct answer is: when fried into chips. The word “fry” or “chips” may sound unhealthy, but so are desk jobs, cell phones, and breathing in certain cities, so I think we can fry up some sweet potatoes in vegetable oil, lightly salt them, and look the other way. As I enjoy the veggies of my labor, I’ll bask in food writer Michael Pollan’s assertion that  homemade chips are inevitably better for you than the store bought variety.

Sweet Potato Chips

Adapted from the potato chips recipe, Barefoot in Paris

Supplies/Ingredients
You need a heavy bottomed pot, paper towels, a big plate, a slotted spoon (or better yet, one of those wire “spiders”), either a mandolin or sharp chef’s knife + excellent knife skills, a vegetable peeler, about 3 medium sweet potatoes, your choice of oil, sea salt or kosher salt, & any herbs you want to add.

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Prep the potatoes. Set the mandolin on the thinnest blade (1/16”) and slice. Soak the slices in ice water for a few minutes. Drain the water, refill with new ice water, pat the slices dry, and soak the slices in ice water a second time. (This removes the starch, getting them nice and crispy.)

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Fill the pot with 2-3 inches of oil. Heat on medium high heat. I used vegetable oil as opposed to peanut or canola oil and it worked fine. You can tell when the oil is hot enough if the oil sizzles when you drop a potato slice in. Reduce the heat to medium, drop a batch of slices in, and then bring the heat back up to medium high. I set the timer for 3 minute increments but it took over 5 minutes per batch. Just keep your eye on it and don’t drift too far from the stove. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with sea salt and any desired herbs. (Would be great dipped in guacamole or tsaziki.)

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Bread vs Brioche?

‘Tis a slippery slope, an existential dilemma, one that Marie Antoinette reportedly provoked when she said “qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” which actually means, “let them eat bread that is characterized by inordinate quantities of butter, honey, and eggs.” Bread? Cake? Eh. You say potato, I say potAHto.

Isn’t “quick bread”  a coy term for cake, just as brioche is dessert in a loaf pan? I recently had a craving for banana bread, only to stumble across a doppelganger recipe in the form of “Banana Caramel Cake” from The Martha Stewart Baking Handbook. Ah, hah! I am onto these silly semantics — bread, cake, same dif.

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Semantics aside, I savor the idea that turning  bread into cake is the difference between a few more eggs and some extra butter + sugar. There’s a reason to celebrate.

Banana Bread? Cake?

Adapted from Banana Caramel Cake, The Martha Stewart Baking Handbook

12 T. unsalted butter, room temp, plus more for pan
1 2/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 very ripe bananas, mashed
3 T. sour cream or creme fraiche
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/2 c. + 1/3 c. sugar
2 eggs, room temp
1 c. chocolate chips (optional)

Set Up: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a round cake pan and line bottom with parchment paper. Butter the parchment paper. Alternatively, divide batter into loaf pans.

Dry Ingredients + Bananas: Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, mash the bananas and stir in sour cream + vanilla.

Mix Together: Beat butter and sugar in an electric mixer, several minutes, until light and fluffy. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add 2 eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add flour mixture in parts, with mixer on low speed, beating until just combined after each addition. Fold in the banana mixture using a spatula. Fold in chocolate chips, if using.

Pour the batter evenly into the pan, bake about 30-35 minutes until golden brown and cake tester/toothpick/fork comes out clean. Cool the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Flip over on wire rack and peel off parchment paper. Re-invert and let cool completely.

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[Photos: IITA’s Image Library Phostream, prep photo from Marie the Bee’s photostream, Katy Stoddard’s photostream, Steven Depolo’s photostream]

Paris To The Moon

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 7.50.51 PMI recently finished this book by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. It is a collection of essays reflecting on the idiosyncracies of French culture, written during the author’s expat stint with his wife and pre-school age son. Described in Le Monde as a “witty and Voltairean commentator on French life,” Gopnik has a knack for extracting the essence of French sensibility from everyday encounters…

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 12.31.52 PMIn a way, Gopnik’s writing is like an “amuse-bouche,” a French culinary term that could be liberally translated as “mouth tease,” a carefully selected hors d’oeuvre that primes the diner’s palate. His anecdotes touch on essential truths of French culture, but it’s a controlled sampling, inviting the reader to savor the details and imagine the rest.

In part, Gopnik’s Paris is so charming because it proves to be so stereotypically French. For example, Gopnik’s pursuit of a gym membership yields a comically French result. It is called Régiment Rouge, where elegantly coiffed women in red tracksuits arrange several one-on-one meetings to ensure the thorough completion of his dossier (file), throw a crèpe party to celebrate the installation of “high intensity” machines, and then grant him the right to use his membership as frequently as once a week, advertising le régiment as “‘très New Yorkais.’”

(In my experience, Non-Parisians live up to their stereotypes with equal flair –accordion players on cobblestone street corners, men in berets, baguettes in hand…  They don’t disappoint.)

Perhaps the singularity of French culture is best articulated in the last chapter of the book, preceding Gopnik’s move back to New York, with his wife, son, and now Parisian born daughter. He is standing on the Concorde Bridge with his son, Luke, watching Christmas lights on the Eiffel Tower. Luke says that the tower “‘looks like champagne,’” which gets the author thinking philosophically about the century-old, recycled symbols of France, such as champagne and the Eiffel Tower. Should he be depressed that these worn out emblems of French-ness are being incorporated into his young son’s consciousness? Is that what France is reduced to?

Then he recalls another writer’s argument that the Eiffel Tower is in fact a greater invention than Isaac Newton’s Principia, because

“‘the principles of physics have a permanent general existence outside ourselves… while the tower, in all its particulars, could have been built only in Paris at Eiffel’s moment by Eiffel…’”

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 12.45.01 PMWhether you love or hate the French, chances are that your feelings are partly directed toward this possession of a singular, idiosyncratic sensibility that is as stubbornly French as the Eiffel Tower is Eiffel’s.

From an airplane window, the Eiffel Tower looks oddly large, as if it were randomly plopped onto Paris like a mismatched toy. This sounds like France’s relationship with much of the world: surrounded by many other sprawling cultures, the French uphold their French-ness in glittering, upright, iconic glory. It’s hard to hate them too much for it — after all, we Americans understand this notion of being true to one’s character.

Besides French-ness, there is another culturally rich set of ideas running through Paris To The Moon, that is, the reality versus the fantasy of displacing yourself, of choosing to be a foreigner, of watching your young child construct his own five-year-old Parisian existence before his parents transplant him back to New York to continue growing up.

The liberation and joy that come from being a willful outsider is in a way, less interesting than the ennui that sets in at the end of the five years, prompting a move back home, the growing desire to be an American in…America. Do the same forces propelling someone to travel propel him to return home? This gets at the meaning of home, the role of the traveler in defining his destination. Gopnik quotes his wife at the beginning of their stay:

“She felt, she said, as if she had died and gone to heaven — but with the strange feeling that that dying and going to heaven mean parting, leaving, and missing the people you left behind on earth” adding that “the loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped…”

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Like the arc of many stories, the falling action of Paris To The Moon leads its characters from whence they came, across the Atlantic and back to New York, decidedly not to the moon, whatever the title suggests. Perhaps there is inherent wisdom in that.

[Photos: “Eiffel Tower On A Moonlit Night,” RejiK’s photo stream, “1st Course: Amuse Bouche,” ulterior epicure’s flickr photostream, Robyn Lee’s flickr photostream]

Midnight Pasta + American Nostalgia

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 12.37.05 PMIn Not For Bread Alone: Writers on Food, Wine, and The Art of Eating, distinguished authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Wendell Berry discuss food-related topics with the same intelligent, playful, and occasional dark voices that characterizes their literary work.

I particularly like the essay by Joyce Carol Oates, “Food Mysteries.” She sticks to her signature tone — wry and unsentimental — avoiding the nostalgia trap. Through a collection of anecdotes including her Hungarian grandmother, cafeteria food, and dinners with poets, she manages to translate ironic food observations into a genuinely compelling portrait of human nature, and its mysteriousness. One observation comments on “American nostalgia.” She writes,

“There are adults of middle age in whom the sudden acrid smells of cafeteria food (scorched macaroni-and-cheese casserole, canned spaghetti with tomato sauce, grease-encrusted french fries, ‘beef doves,’ ‘shepherd’s pie,’ ‘Texas hash,’ et al) galvanize taste buds dormant since eighth grade, with a hungry violence rarely experienced since eighth grade: but it is better not to be one of these.”

Well, ahem, I personally can speak to a fondness for grease encrusted French fries (I wish I could call it nostalgia; my enjoyment probably has more to do with the grease than nostalgic memories of my childhood) but that said, this idea of food nostalgia is  interesting… 

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 12.46.52 PMIt makes you wonder: if our childhood taste buds can be galvanized as quickly as our amygdala goes into fight-or-flight, does anyone ever grow up? It’s like the saying, “I learned everything I need to know in kindergarten.” True — but what happens when we smell French fries? Suddenly we’re four-year-olds.

Our nostalgia for certain childhood foods hits at the core of human nature. Notwithstanding our biological predisposition toward carbohydrate-rich foods, what about comfort food has us so tightly wrapped around its silver spoon? Like little else, comfort food knows that we never shed our five-year-old selves: innocent, occasionally bratty, and placated by French fries. And it lives to mock us!

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 1.01.27 PMFor this reason, I am always inspired by healthier versions of classic, calorie-rich comfort food. I love making old-fashioned  “mac-and-cheese casseroles,” but a quicker, healthier alternative are what chefs call “midnight pastas.” They are improvised using basic pantry ingredients and impart a relaxing, after-your-guests-are-gone vibe.

Here is one of my own, improvised “midnight pastas,” except that I usually make it at 6:00 p.m., and then pat myself on the back for fulfilling the day’s cooking quota, for a crowd of two 🙂

Noodles

The pasta is whatever you choose, or have on hand, cooked according to package directions. I personally think longer noodles are fun, such as linguini, angel hair, or spaghetti. I would cook about 1/2 pound of pasta so you have plenty of sauce to go around. Reserve a cup of the pasta water in case you want to dilute the sauce.

Sauce

This is a hybrid of Barefoot Contessa’s Linguini with Shrimp Scampi (sans the shrimp) and Cristina Ferrare’s Angel Hair with Olive Oil and Lemon from the cookbook, Big Bowl of Love.

Ingredients

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Kosher salt freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic (4 cloves)
1/2 lemon, zest grated
Freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 lemon)
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/4 lemon, thinly sliced in half-rounds
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh parsley leaves
Chopped fresh mint leaves
Toasted walnuts, pine nuts, or almonds

  • Optional: add sundried tomatoes, frozen peas, corn
  • Substitute chives, scallions, or basil for mint, or use a different combination of herbs
  • Substitute asiago cheese for Parmesan

Melt three tablespoons of butter and 2 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium low heat. Add garlic and sauté for one minute only. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Remove from the heat and add lemon zest, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, and slices of lemon. Grate as much parmesan cheese as desired over the sauce and stir.

Add cooked pasta to the sauce and mix gently with tongs. Add more cheese and/or dilute with reserved pasta water as needed. Garnish with herbs and toasted nuts.

[Photos: “Cafeteria ‘A,’ 1947,” Duke Yearlook’s photostream and “Homemade Pasta,” marksweb’s photostream]

 

Happy Father’s Day + Eating My Words

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I have recently been obsessed with bar cookie versions of more elaborate celebration cakes, e.g., red velvet cake bars or better yet, dulce de leche cheesecake bars. They have the cuteness factor of cupcakes, but more conveniently, they are made in one big pan.

For example, these dulce de leche cheesecake bars would have been perfect for my mentee’s birthday. What did I end up giving her? A card/hershey bar from CVS… I guess I’m holding out for her half-birthday?

Then I attended a going away party for my department head. Old habits die hard, along with my fantasy of casually elegant cheese cake bars. This time I stalked the net for something with a key lime twist. Predictably, Smitten Kitchen yielded cute eye candy, this time individual key lime cheesecakes made in cupcake tins. Eye candy it remained.

So I recycled these pecan shortbread cookies I hadn’t already eaten. (Less cute, but definitely worth making.)

Tomorrow is Father’s Day and I have now moved on to the idea of german chocolate cake bars, in honor of my dad’s favorite dessert. Oh, and the internet provides! In good faith, I even looked up how to properly package and mail homemade baked goods. Yet here I sit, typing words onto a screen, having typed grades and unit plans and e-mails onto a screen the entire day, because I’ve learned that food feels most like love when it is happily prepared, and dad, I think I hatched this idea a little too late. (My mixer has lately been erratic and I think I might end up crabby and covered in flour.)

There is a better writer than me, Adam Gopnik, author of Paris to the Moon, who describes this habit of spending inordinate mental energy imagining and planning meals, to the point that eating them is secondary. In a word, he characterizes it as French:

of all the leçons de choses I have absorbed in Paris, the most important has come from learning to cook. I cooked a bit in New York, Thanksgiving dinner and a filet mignon or two, and summers by the grill, like every American guy. But here I cook compulsively, obsessively, waking up with a plat in mind, balancing it with wine and side dishes throughout the working day (‘Do I dare pack a Brussels sprout?’) shopping, anticipating six o’ clock, waiting for the perfectly happy moment when I can begin, as one almost always does, no matter what one is cooking, by chopping onions.”

He goes on… and on… and one more time on…

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 2.17.12 PM“The beautiful part of cooking lies in the repetition, living the same principles, day after day: planning, shopping, chopping, roasting, eating, and then vowing, always, never again to start on something so ambitious again… until the dawn rises, with another dream of something else….

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 8.31.31 PM“Cooking, for middle-class, end-of-the-century people, is our only direct, not entirely debased line with the hermetic life, with Zen sitting, with just doing things without a thought. No wonder monks make good cheese…

alphabet soup kids pasta“Writing isn’t the transformation of stuff into things. It is just the transformation of symbols into other symbols, as if one read recipes out loud for dinner, changing the proportions… Writing is a business of saying things about stuff and saying things about things and then pretending that you have cooked one into the other…”

And yet, at the risk of sounding apologetic, and notwithstanding the fact that really delicious german chocolate bars trump esoteric thoughts about cooking, the words do count, I think.

Gopnik also writes about how French people have a  gift for abstraction, extrapolating on the minutiae of life and making it fodder for philosophical debate. In my mind, German chocolate cake symbolizes much more about my dad than his sweet tooth.

Favorite dessert? German chocolate cake. Career/calling? Architect. Hobby? Piano/organ. Bedtime ritual? Set out the cereal bowls for breakfast. My dad is predictable in great, very specific ways — he makes reliably tasty pancakes; he does not fancy breakfast for dinner…

But also in more abstract ways, including his stalwart qualities of being kind, insightful, upbeat, and taking a broad-minded and balanced view of all people and situations. Some people say that I am my father’s daughter. I wish my sweet tooth were more equally focused, along with a few other things, but I’ll take it 🙂

Here’s to a sweet Father’s day, in gratitude for all the world’s deserving dads.

[Photo Credits: “Cake, German Chocolate,” sea turtle’s photo stream and “Rows of Buddha,” shack’s photo stream]

Shorty, It’s Your Birthday

Screen Shot 2013-06-07 at 7.26.11 PMI recently heard Michael Pollan on “Q with Jian Ghomeshi.” Pollan is the author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and the recently published Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

Pollan champions the notion that people should re-prioritize cooking as a way of life, in contrast to our culture of processed foods and televised, “vicarious cooking.” The paradox between “celebrity chefs” and the convenience foods that fill our grocery stores is an interesting one — I suppose it’s just one more example of how technology has the power to dilute what is authentic in our lives, not unlike the ridiculous amount of sodium in a bag of potato chips. Pollan believes that this particular disconnect has a direct impact on our health.

When asked how food writing has influenced his personal habits, Pollan said that cooking has taught him to be more present, centered, and patient, describing himself as a “spiritually underdeveloped” person. Like more heroic endeavors, cooking is a step-by-step process, guided by the senses, not to be rushed. According to Pollan, the nightly ritual of cooking dinner is “essential to our sanity.”

I completely identify with this statement. Piecing together several part-time jobs that sometimes feel like full-time jobs, it is easy to feel scattered and over-worked. I feel lucky to be doing the things I love, but they involve a lot of time and energy for less reliable pay/concrete results than the conventional 9-5. Working from home can be sweet, but it can also be solitary and exhausting. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by work, I feel so grateful that I can hit the reset button in my own kitchen.

So today I’m doing that lazy baker thing, make something ridiculously simple, ridiculously slowly, with butter, flour, salt, and sugar from the freezer and the pantry, respectively. In true 21st century style, I am posting it online for others to consume in the form of words 🙂 Shortbread, allow me to celebrate your easily improvised style as I strive to keep my head on straight.

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3/4 pounds unsalted butter @ room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups small-diced pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

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In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together the butter and sugar until they are just combined. Add the vanilla and almond extracts. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter and sugar mixture. Add the pecans and mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Dump onto a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.

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Roll the dough 1/2 inch thick and cut into 2 1/2 inch squares with a plain or fluted cutter, or a cookie cutter. Place cookies on an ungreased baking sheet.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Allow to cool to room temp and serve.

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Voilà. A nutty, buttery biscuit to keep a shorty sane.

[Recipe from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.]

A Place At The Table

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.18.13 PMI recently watched A Place At The Table, a follow-up documentary to the critically acclaimed Food Inc. This next installation puts a human, American face on food insecurity, piecing together the different causes and manifestations of hunger in the United States.

Sadly, the terms food desert and food insecurity are familiar to most people now. Nonetheless, the filmmakers document the wide-ranging extent of these realities to set the scene: convenience stores are the closest thing to grocery stores in parts of West Philly and rural Mississippi. The source of tomorrow’s meal worries a single mother with a full time job and an extended family living together in rural Colorado. I was surprised to learn the extent to which federal agricultural legislation perpetuates this cycle of hunger.

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.20.54 PMThe face of hunger takes many forms: Barbie is a single mother living in Philadelphia. She is shown boiling spaghetti with her two, pre-school age children, explaining that she has recently been laid off and is supporting her family on food stamps. On public transportation, it takes Barbie a total of two hours to buy fresh groceries. She describes her own vivid memories of sphagettios and ramen noodles, and her determination to prevent these memories for her children.

Meanwhile, a mild mannered second grader named Tremonica climbs onto the examining table of a local clinic in rural Mississippi. The lack of accessible, healthy food is affecting her weight. Her teacher is later shown exhibiting “a honeydew melon,” inviting her students to call out adjectives. Tremonica is shown cautiously biting into a juicy slice.

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.21.28 PMRosie is a sixth grader living in rural Colorado. It recently came to her teacher’s attention that Rosie’s academic and behavior struggles were caused by hunger. Rosie says that she sometimes sees a banana in place of her teacher. She seems sensitive, excitable, and lonely. Members of her extended family juggle various part-time jobs; they share a messy household. She gives the cameras a tour, complaining about the clutter, then shares her getaway spot in the woods.

How did we mire ourselves in a situation where “honeydew melon” is a novelty and factory-made spaghettios are spilling off our shelves? It’s not that I have disdain for spaghettios. On the other hand, I can’t tolerate people who only eat organic, grass fed chicken.

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 5.24.29 PMEssentially, our government subsidizes food that is making us sick. By allowing packaged foods to be made very cheaply from refined, processed corn products and strong arming independent-minded farmers, the government makes really nasty, unhealthy, artificial junk available to the poor and limits the availability of fresh produce. In addition to being cheap, this food is very addictive from a biological standpoint. The corruption aspect lies in the fact that most food industry regulators started their careers as agribusiness leaders, CEOs of highly centralized, heavily subsidized farm-to-factory companies.

According to this film, the power of food and agricultural lobbyists rivals that of the NRA. Really, now? The manufacturers of food — basic sustenance — qualify as a “special interest group”?

The film shows a clear cause-and-effect relationship between money, fear, and the U.S. government’s perpetuation of food-related health issues. This is demonstrated by a grieving mother who has lobbied Congress about food safety laws ever since her son’s fatal E. Coli poisoning. After several years, her efforts have not yielded any concrete results. Bound by legal concerns, she minces words with the filmmakers, but her reticence speaks volumes about the power of agribusiness. Meanwhile, a pediatrician and a group of women activists lobby Congress for school lunch funds. Congress “does not have the funds” to spend more than $1.00 per lunch.

The filmmakers also make a compelling argument that food pantries are not a substitute for systemic change to agricultural laws. To do so, the issue needs to have more prominence during election season. In the meantime, you can donate or learn more here:

[Flickr photos by Bread for the World’s photo stream and tpmartins photostream]

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