Thursday, June 21, 2007


Battle cry or vegetable? This Swiss chard that I bought at Berkeley Hort has produced pretty evenly, though for a while I didn't cut any because I thought the leaves were supposed to get bigger. It would be nice to pick some for dinner. But I will be at the Garden of Memory during dinner, because it's the solstice, and if I can't be at the Fete de la Musique, I can at least wander the Oakland Columbarium.

Tomorrow perhaps. Eva from London will be arriving in the late afternoon, and maybe we can do something with it. I have the Daniel Boulud braising book on my desk, and it's full of delicious and weird things (sweet spaghetti squash with toasted walnuts and golden raisins), but cooking the hell out of just-picked, tender, small chard is probably not the thing for it.
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Green tomatoes

Will they be juicy? Will they burst with that tomato flavor that only comes from being on the vine during the month of July? I will tell you when I know.
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In not so very long, I will eat you

O front porch green beans, in not so very long, I will eat you.
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Monday, June 18, 2007

Fresh mint ice cream

Yesterday (Sunday), I made fresh mint ice cream with pieces of an extra-dark Scharffen Berger chocolate bar mixed in. It was a total success.

I have temporary access to a rather dazzling cookbook library, and from that library I borrowed the Chez Panisse Desserts cookbook because I love the ice cream recipes in there. The basic ice cream recipe is nearly flawless (ok, I think actually flawless, but I'd like to leave a little aspirational room, since I also borrowed a few other ice cream cookbooks and need the motivation to try recipes from elsewhere) and the ice cream flavors range from classic to unusual and even dabble in exotic and/or bizarre. I'm talking angelica, black currant tea, bourbon, elderberry, and late-harvest Riesling.

The one requirement in the ice cream recipes I'm trying is that it must have eggs in it (I still have two dozen eggs to use before they expire), and there are a surprising number of ice cream recipes that don't have eggs in them.

But not fresh mint ice cream. For it, I used the Chez Panisse vanilla ice cream recipe (on page 6 of the cookbook, total basic repertoire territory), omitted the vanilla bean, and then after I strained it (to catch any not-smooth eggy bits), I added a handful of crushed (Bruised? Hand-muddled? Or as Minty Marchmont of Posh Nosh would say, "lightly aggravated" or maybe "punished blithely") fresh mint leaves to steep.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. My natural tendency with breads and custards is to undermix. I'm not sure why, maybe it's to make up for my other natural tendency, which is to overcook meat. In both these cases, I'm trying to shake the bonds of habit or instinct or whatever it is that is standing between me and the best possible food.

So, the recipe says to "cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard coats the spoon (when you draw a finger across the custard coating the back of the spoon, your finger should leave a clear trail)." This instruction is deceptive. It seems really specific, right? That is, until you start the process and realize that dairy coats everything, even when it's not thickened. Especially when said dairy is heavy cream and half-and-half.

But I resisted the temptation to take it off of heat too soon, and after a few minutes witnessed an incredible thickening that made it a true custard. If only patience were always rewarded so lavishly.

Now for the only problem with steeping fresh mint leaves in a thick custard. When it came time to make the ice cream, I was supposed to turn the machine on and then pour the custard into the gap in the maker, I think it's called the ingredient hole or something silly like that. But I couldn't pour it directly in because I needed to get the mint out first. So I took a strainer, put it over the (ingredient) hole, and started scooping the custard towards the spinning bowl. But the mint kept deflecting the custard, channeling it to the side of the ice cream maker cover where it wouldn't reach the bowl, and thus wouldn't fulfill its destiny as that thing that I savor.

This wouldn't do.

So I turned off the ice cream maker, took off the plastic guard, and placed the strainer directly over the bowl. This way, I was able to get maximum custard into the bowl, and squeeze all the extra goodness (I was a little worried about pressing down on the leaves because I wasn't sure if fresh mint, like tea leaves, impart a bitterness if you squeeze them after they've steeped. But it wasn't a problem) from between the mint leaves.

I did all of this because I was too lazy to take the extra step of using a separate bowl in which to strain the custard before adding it to the machine. Even though it worked out, in the future I won't skip this step because I learned that the reason the ice cream maker directions tell you to turn on the ice cream maker before you put the cream-to-be-iced in the machine is because it freezes to the bottom if you scoop it in when it's not moving. And even though it worked itself out after a bit, during the first few minutes it sounded like the churning handle was driving over a bumpy road as it tried to navigate the cream that was frozen to the bottom.

O learning the hard way.

But it was not really so hard, because it came out perfectly (in part two of exercising patience, I did not decide the ice cream was done when it reached the consistency of soft-serve, but waited a few more minutes for it to turn into real ice cream) and we ate it sitting in the backyard under the umbrella after enjoying grilled chicken tacos with Kathryn and Nathan, who stopped by on their way to go camping.

Next up: More ice cream. Maybe salted caramel, maybe something from one of the new borrowed cookbooks.

The pita split!

It did! I was going to take a photo of it, but my camera's batteries ran out and by the time they were charged the pita was gone. But it split with just the right balance of tear and give, and it even made baba ganoush with too much tahini irresistible.

Friday, June 15, 2007

High(er) tech pita

The whole eggs thing is stressing me out, though I think I'm just going to make multiple batches of ice cream this weekend, which should at least make a dent in the supply.

For now, I've turned my attention to pita. It started when I didn't make the eggplant topping I was thinking about doing for pizza grilling night. I decided to just make the eggplant into baba ganoush, since it's easy and one of my favorite things to eat (I use the recipe from my trusty old Taste of Lebanon cookbook). But then I realized I didn't have anything delicious to eat the baba ganoush with.

Thus the pita idea. Since my last batch, I've gone high(er) tech in two ways. My family got me a Kitchen Aid for my birthday, which makes the kneading a lot less wrist intensive, and I suspect does a better overall kneading job. And, I finally splurged on those rubber rings (1/4" pictured above) that slide onto rolling pins and stop the thinning process once the target thickness has been reached. Which it seems I need, as I just discovered I do not have a good inate sense of this. It turns out my estimated 1/4" is actually more like 1/8". These rubber rings are saving me from myself. Maybe my pita will actually puff and pull apart the way they're supposed to this time.
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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Grilling pizza, the debriefing

Compared to the first pizza grilling experience, this time was much more successful. Ross did a great job on the dough, and it was incredibly easy to coax out into a thin round. The tricky part was getting it onto the grill in a shape that still resembled pizza and didn't have a ton of overlapping thick bits. In the first pizza grilling trial the dough was too thick and the grill too hot, so the crust actually charred before it was done all the way through. In response to that, I made these crusts very thin, too thin I think, but the happy medium will have to wait until Pizza Grill, part 3.

The photo above is of the final two pizzas (on the left, sauce and vegan cheese ["It melts!" says the package]; and on the right, mozzarella, Parmesan, red onions, yellow onions, green onions, and caramelized onions. That pizza was topped, after coming off the grill, with flat leaf parsley and marjoram). I think we hit upon something important when we divided the final pizza ball into two (to make these two smaller pizzas). Not only were they easier to handle, but they seemed to cook better and the cheese (where there was cheese) got more bubbly and delicious.

Grilling pizza is incredibly novel, and the grill (I'm sure this is even more pronounced with a charcoal grill) imparts a smoky flavor you don't get from oven-baked pizza, plus the grill lines are exciting. And though I'd certainly do this again (in the cookbook American Pie, the author assures readers that by the sixth time grilling pizza, you'll have it totally down, and based on how much better we got between time one and two, I think that's a reasonable promise), I don't think it's going to replace my love of oven-baked pizza.

A quick overview of the good and the bad:

Good: Grill marks, smoky flavor, outdoor activity, doesn't heat up the kitchen in summer

Bad: Cheese never achieves that golden brown, the cooking time is much shorter so you have to rush to add the ingredients and you don't get even coverage, difficult to get an even round onto the grill without messing up the shape.

And after pizza, another kind of pie when AJ arrived with an apricot pie. Delicious.
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Breakfast pie, an idea whose time has come?

I'll admit that sometimes (today), if there's a bit of leftover dessert (apricot pie) sitting in the fridge in the morning, I find myself coming up with reasons why that dessert would actually be a totally acceptable breakfast.

Let me clarify that I'm not thinking, "Aw, what the hell, I'll just eat pie for breakfast." No, I won't just admit that I want to eat pie, instead I have to couch it in terms of health and balance. So it's more like, "Well, I'd eat fruit for breakfast, and toast and pie crust aren't so different. Oh, and of course cereal often has a lot of sugar in it. Therefore this pie is actually healthier than breakfast."

After eating the pie (cold, perfect apricot texture, crust that really held up to a night in the fridge), I continued on my path of justification and started thinking about how maybe pie is a perfect thing for breakfast. Why can't I get pie for breakfast when I eat out? Why has this idea not caught on? And then I started thinking bigger, to savory breakfast pies. And then 1988 called and wanted their quiche back.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Grilling pizza, the preparation

Tonight I'm going to grill pizza. The quest started two weeks ago when Ross, dough aficionado and owner of a Cuisinart and a Kitchen Aid (I think), brought two bags of pizza dough sitting in olive oil to a barbeque. It was kind of a half-assed attempt though, since we rolled the dough out on paper plates and one or more of us had perhaps had a little bit too much to drink before trying to read the detailed directions for making a perfect grilled pizza.

So on to attempt two. This time, we'll be more prepared and will not begin drinking until after the pizza is done.

The resources: American Pie, by Peter Reinhart; The Cheese Board Collective Works, by, predictably, the Cheese Board Collective

The implement: A Weber Spirit two-burner gas grill

The toppings: I tend to go complicated in cooking and entertaining, I think because I often cook simply when it's just Joel and I, and I like to use other people as an excuse to experiment. But with pizza, I know that in general, the simpler, the better, with the major exception of Cheese Board pizza, which often goes in for the many-toppinged pizza and almost always does it with complete success.

So based on what I've already got in the house, what I'll buy today, and what I like to eat, and also taking into account that Ross, maker of the dough pictured above and owner of the American Pie cookbook, and his wife are vegan, my approach will be four-pronged:
  • Variation* on Tomato Pizza with lemon zest (Cheese Board)

  • Variation* on three-onion, four-herb, and four-cheese pizza (Cheese Board)

  • If I can find an eggplant that isn't too expensive, I'll make a smoked eggplant puree that Reinhart suggests for grilled pizza.

  • One page over from the smoked eggplant puree recipe is one for sweet-and-sour onion marmalade. It looks pretty easy and I like pickled onions and onions in vinegar, so if I have time I'll make that as another vegan option.
*Variation indicates that I may or may not actually follow through with the whole recipe.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What to do with three dozen eggs

So people keep going on vacation and leaving me their extra food. The latest drop-off (in addition to a dog and a cat, both strictly not for eating) was three dozen eggs. And while I enjoy many dishes that incorporate eggs, I have no idea how I'm going to get through so many. I'm not a hard-boiled egg snacker or a scramble-for-breakfast person, so these eggs are going to have to find their way into dishes.

Things you'd think would have a lot of egg in them but don't:

  • Pasta (the recipes I'm looking at seem to average about three measly eggs)
  • Quiche (The Mastering the Art of French Cooking recipes call for only two to four eggs)
  • Claufoutis (The Tartine Cookbook recipe uses three eggs)

Souffles seem promising, and like the sort of thing that's good to experiment with if you've got an excess of ingredients, but I don't have a soufflé pan, nor anything that I could substitute for it.

This is also a chance to experiment with shirred eggs. I'm not sure if it's a vague memory of the taste, the promise of cream, or simply that I like the word "shirred", but lately I've been drawn to descriptions of how to make shirred eggs. The only problem there is that I don't have the right size ramekins. Why are egg dishes so hardware intensive??

I can also use some of the eggs to make ice cream. I've been wanting to try to make honey ice cream and salted caramel ice cream, and it's getting warm enough that I think it's time to make another batch of my summer favorite, fresh mint ice cream (steeped mint leaves) with chocolate. If I wasn't hosting vegans tomorrow night I'd start the ice cream custard right now. Instead I'll wait until closer to the weekend, recruit some willing eggs-and-dairy enthusiasts, and get cooking.

You don't spell it, son, you eat it

In the movie "Sixteen Candles", the extended family sits down to eat, and exchange student Long Duk Dong asks how to spell quiche, the dish they're eating (because it's the 80s, and back then, it was either muffins or quiche). Grandpa Fred turns to him and says, "You don't spell it, son, you eat it."

My intention here is to spell it, then eat it. I write for a living, and eat to live/live to eat, but I just don't get to write about food as often as I'd like to. So here goes.