Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Send a salami to your gal in the Army

Given my position as cookie-baking USO girlfriend, I'm just a tad miffed that I didn't get to chip in to Kim Severson's NYT article about soldiers' care packages, just to disprove the image that only grandmas from the Midwest bake cookies for the troops. Foxy 38-year-olds in Brooklyn do, too!

The article does contain some howlers, though, like this quote from the admirable Crystal White, a Starbucks employee who, to her credit, sent 100 lbs of coffee beans and a grinder to Bagram, the main American air base in Afghanistan. "I wanted them to have something they're used to, something from back home," said Ms. White, whose siblings have served in the military. "I wanted them to know that there's something they are fighting for." Making the world safe for Frappuccinos, one slush at a time!

Severson goes on to note that future MREs will contain chocolate-covered espresso beans. Wheee! But she also mentions that "Other new field rations include an expanded line of vegetarian dishes, including lasagna and chicken pesto pasta." Bawk! I'm going out to weed the chickens now.

It's true, though, that Girl Scout cookies are as good as money for getting favors done. According to K., there's actually no shortage of junk food out there, from Cheetos to Kit Kats, all sent by well-meaning pals, church members, and relatives.

But homemade cookies--well, there's nothing like a double chocolate mint chip to get you through a dust-ridden 120-degree day.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Arkansas awaits!

Countdown to where I'm going to be, come this Thursday...that is, if I can get these editing projects finished, clean up the apt for the subletters, pack for a month and do all the jillion accompanying tasks. Regardless, though, I've got a ticket to Eureka Springs, and when that plane takes off for Fayetteville, well dang it, I'm going to be on it! Dishwasher, double oven, back porch, and strawberry shortcake for 30 (which I'll be making for a special dinner there just a few days after arriving, eeek), here I come!

In the meantime, though, I got to pick a whole lot of lettuce from the the garden,
where it became the base of a very swell salad inspired by the salmon-and-baby-beet salad in Suzanne Goin's lovely (if relentlessly hyped) book Sunday Suppers at Lucques.

I made the salad more of a late-spring fiesta, with blanched asparagus and fava beans, arugula, feathery bits of dill, parsley, and sliced garden radishes in all shades of pink, white, and purple, the whole thing tossed in a vinaigrette of wine vinegar, lemon juice, a big spoonful of Dijon mustard, and olive oil. Since the first-run Copper River salmon at Fish Tales was $30 a pound (yikes! no Jet Blue for this fish, obviously), I topped it instead with chunks of artic char cooked by Goin's salmon method.

The long single filet was plastered on both sides with a paste of minced shallots, dill, tarragon, parsley, the grated rind of 1 lemon, salt and pepper, and a few hearty glugs of olive oil. Then it was laid in a long glass baking pan and tucked into a 250-degree (F) oven with an additional pan half-filled with water placed on the lower shelf. It cooked very slowly in the damp heat for about 20-25 minutes, coming out gently cooked and very moist. Peeled off the skin and chunked the herby fish over the salad mound.

Had I had some edible flowers to throw in, it would have been even prettier. But it was a lovely lunch for the three ladies of PQ Castle (PQ, the PQ Mother, and Aunt PQ) on a summery Sunday, accompanied by fresh croissants from Almondine (actually, the croissants got devoured first, with the night-before's strawberry-rhubarb jam, while the PQ herself was frantically washing and re-washing the garden lettuce) and followed by the fabulous, chewy (not rock-hard) almond biscotti from Court St Pastry and little bowls of fresh cantaloupe with lime.

Memorial Day

Another beautiful day in the neighborhood, and I sure wish K. was here to spend it with me, grilling hot dogs and putting suntan lotion on my back. But I'm thinking of her, and all the men and women with her overseas, because this is Memorial Day, after all, not just opening day for grilling season.

It's very easy to think of the military as a monolithic other--something other people enlist, serve in, and run. Before I met K., I didn't know a single soul in uniform. My dad was in the Pacific with the Navy in WWII; the brother of an old girlfriend did some time in the Gulf War, and came back with a bunch of those persistent but nameless aliments now lumped under Gulf War Syndrome. What little familiarity I have now (mostly being able to recognize a handful of acronyms, which the service seems to love even more than microwaved boots* is due to the past year of hanging out with K. and meeting some of her fellow servicepeople, however briefly. They are very young, mostly, and beyond that it's impossible to generalize, because it's hard to imagine a group of people more diverse, in everything from race to their reason for being there.

I don't want anyone to be at war. But if we are, as a country, going to be in conflict around the world, it's worth taking the time to step back and just listen to what the people fighting have to say about their experiences.

* In units still wearing the standard shiny black boots--rather than the softer suede-y desert boots--the guys in particular get really obsessive about boot-shining. When you don't have a car on hand to detail, presumably you work on your boots. One trick is to zap them briefly in the microwave, which somehow helps set the polish so it can be rubbed to a mirrorlike shine. This is not something the women bother with, but the guys trade boot-shining techniques like NBA scores.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

It's All Rhubarb to Moi

It's a balmy Saturday morning that finally feels like true early summer instead of endless chilly spring.

The roses are spilling over everywhere all of a sudden--lemony yellow, sunset peach, dusty maroon, lipgloss pink, mysterious greenish-white, smoky lavender, and ruffly ball-gown ivory.
The breezes are blowing the curtains around and the house is redolent with the fragrance of warm strawberries.

Big baskets of the first Jersey strawberries were on offer at the Borough Hall farmers' market on Thursday, along with the season's first garden peas and yes, more rhubarb! Since the Pie Queen Mother--a dedicated jam fancier--is coming to brunch tomorrow, it behooved PQ to pick up a couple boxes, plus a big pink bag of rhubarb, and set about making some strawberry-rhubarb jam. This seemed like a good opportunity to see what French jam star Christine Ferber had to say about the subject, in her fabulously outre book, Mes Confitures.

First, the expected: cut up all the rhubarb into little pieces, mix it with sugar and lemon juice, and let it sit overnight. Same with the strawberries.

In this fashion, you're letting the sugar do the work. Rather than having to boil the fruit for a long time to evaporate the extra water and get the mixture concentrated enough to thicken, you let the hydroscopic action of the sugar do it for you. The sugar itself draws out the excess water from the fruit, leaving you with a bunch of shrunk-down berries and a whole lot of sweetened juice. The juice gets boiled down alone, while the fruit chills out in a colander, listening to the Met opera broadcast and reading the New Republic. When the juice has reduced to a thickish syrup, you throw in the fruit and cook it for a few minutes, just until it's softened and translucent. That way, the fruit keeps its flavor, and the jam tastes like fresh-picked fruit, not cooked to death mush. You can also use less sugar this way, since you get thickness from evaporation, not sugar-concentration. The slow maceration also helps avoid that raw-sugar taste that some homemade jams can have.

So far, so good. Then the next part: dump the strawberries and their liquid into a pan, bring to a boil, then pour back into a bowl and let sit overnight again.

But now...Bring the mixture to a boil five times. Repeat this four times at 8 hour intervals. Oh, Mlle. Ferber, je suis desolee, but I am not hanging around for the next 32 hours boiling my strawberries twenty times. That's just wack. So we're going back to standard strawberry-preserve method, extended slightly for rhubarb: Let the once-boiled strawbs sit around for a while to contemplate their approaching destiny. Then, drain, set the fruit aside, and boil the syrup in one pan. Do the same to the rhubarb in a separate pan. Add the rhubarb, cook until soft, then dump in the strawberry syrup and reserved strawberries. Cook the whole thing for another few minutes until, tut, tut, it looks like jam.

That's the plan, anyway, and maybe I'll even do like Bakerina does and take step-by-step pictures. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

banana birthday pie

It's K.'s birthday today, and because she is truly the girl for me, she has requested a birthday pie instead of the usual cake. First choice was key lime, but alas, my previous source of key limes, the overpriced Garden of Eden grocery store on Montague St, has feijodas and papayas and six kinds of grapes but no key limes. Instead, I'll be whipping up her second choice, banana cream. My old pal the Red Meat Ranger was also a serious banana cream pie fancier, so I have a well-stained Joy of Cooking (1953 edition) to work with. It's so easy it barely needs a recipe--just a stovetop custard of egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch, milk, and vanilla. The only trick is judging when it's cooked enough not to be soup, but not so much that it's started to curdle. Longer than you think you can stand, but don't wander off, not for a minute, is the way I've found. Will post the recipe--and pictures!--once I've made it. And to all the other Taureans and almost Geminis out there, happy birthday!

OK, post-birthday post-mortem. The pie, well, the pie tasted great. But for some reason--i.e., it didn't occur to me to grease the pie pan--the graham cracker crust cemented itself to the pan. And then the custard, which seemed nice and thick when I first made it, transformed itself into runny soup during its stint in the fridge. So I dolloped the thing with fresh whipped cream, sprinkled it with chocolate powder, and then had to serve it with a ladle and a chisel. Oh, well. it did taste good, especially the next morning when we had the leftovers for breakfast. But I'm not posting the recipe til I get the kinks out.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

because my mother loves scones

Ginger Scones for Mother's Day

3 cups flour (I used 2 cups all-purpose and 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour)
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks or 6 oz) butter, cold and cut into cubes
1 cup golden raisins, chopped dried apricots or currants
1 tsp grated lemon rind
2 TB chopped candied (crystallized) ginger
1/2 to 3/4 cup buttermilk
Glaze: 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 TB water

Preheat oven to 400. Sift dry ingredients together. Cut in butter as if making pastry, until mixture looks like pebbly cornmeal. Toss in raisins, rind, and ginger. Drip in buttermilk, stirring and tossing with a fork until mixture is moist and will hold together without being too wet. On a lightly floured board, pat into a round about 3/4 inch thick. Cut into wedges or cut out using a sharp-edged biscuit cutter (of course, a small glass will work fine, too). Glaze with a pastry brush or your fingertips. Place on a cookie sheet and bake until golden brown, 15-20 minutes.

Serve warm with a pot of tea. Drop a slice of candied ginger into your teacup before pouring in the tea.

tuesday afternoon surprises

Have you ever seen a sight as beautiful as the face in a crowd of people that lights up just for you...

Well, I've known all these things, and the joys that they can bring
Now every morning there's a cup of coffee and I wear your ring
And I wear your ring.

-Cowboy Junkies, "Anniversary Song"

and the rich apples
once again falling.
You put them to your lips,
as you were meant to,
Enter a sweetness
the earth wants to give.

Everything loves this way,
in gold honey,
in gold mountain grass,
that carries lightly the shadow of hawks,
the shadow of clouds passing by.

And the dry grasses,
the live oaks and bays,
taste the apples' deep sweetness
because you taste it, as you were meant to,
tasting the life that is yours,

While below, the foghorns bend to
their work,
Bringing home what is coming home,
Blessing what goes.

-Jane Hirshfield, "For a Wedding on Mt. Tamalpais"
(with thanks to Shifra and Stephen)

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Brooklyn's in the house, in the shape of: a box of Jacques Torres chocolates. A bunch of lilacs and a box of laid-yesterday eggs (ah, would that we could all claim the same!) from the Borough Hall farmer's market. A pound of fresh-roasted coffee from D'Amico's. Tomorrow, bread from Mazzola's.

Because I love to stay local, but best of all, because K. should be back here in Brooklyn in time for Sunday brunch!

As the man said,

Thus though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Coffee Cake, the replay

Well, the coffee cake was a hit, especially with the toddlers, and it was worth nearly burning my thighs as I rode the number 2 train with the hot-from-the-oven pan on my lap. I told the ladies I'd brought the cake to make friends, since it was a little early to walk in with a six-pack, to which they replied, in unison, "We're stay-at-home moms! It's NEVER too early!"

Well, then. Back from Real Housewives: Park Slope, I finally got a call from K., now in Kuwait, where (no surprise) it's very hot. ETA for Brooklyn: sometime Sunday, probably late afternoon or evening. Wheeeee!

Cake for Coffee

It's a warm, damp coffeecake morning out there. Going over to a friend's knitting circle this morning, to get expert advice on my toddler poncho, and since I don't know any of these nice knitting ladies, I'm going to bring some baked goods. Always the easiest way to make friends--arrive bearing something all buttery-sugary, hot from the oven. Apple streusel coffee cake, I think. In my dreams, this would be rhubarb, but until the pink stuff comes in, the spongy storage apples will have to do.

Streusel Coffee Cake

2 1/2 cups flour (I used whole-wheat pastry flour, with surprisingly delicious results)
1 TB baking powder
pinch salt
2/3 cup sugar
1 stick (4 oz or 1/2 cup) cold butter, cut in chunks
2 eggs
2/3 cup milk
1 tsp vanila

Fruit for topping (optional): 2 or 3 peeled and sliced apples, peaches or pears, plus juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup flour
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
2 TB melted butter

Grease an 8 or 9" square pan or something similar. Preheat oven to 375 F.

To make streusel: Mix flour, cinnamon, sugar, and walnuts together. Drizzle in butter and toss with a fork until clumpy and well mixed. Add more butter if it looks too sandy-dry or not clumpy enough. Set aside.

Peel and slice fruit. Toss with lemon juice.

Sift dry ingredients. Cut in butter as if you're making pastry. Beat eggs,milk, and vanilla together in a small bowl or pitcher, then pour into flour mix. Stir gently until just mixed--batter should be very thick and clumpy, like muffin batter. Add a little more milk if you still have any dry patches.

Spread half the dough in pan. Sprinkle lightly with some of the streusel crumbs. Add rest of dough. Top with sliced apples, peaches, or pears, pressing fruit down slightly into dough. Top with rest of streusel. Bake 45 minutes, until golden brown and well puffed. Make sure to poke the center with a toothpick or cake tester to check if it's completely baked. Serve warm.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Spring is Icumen In

Really, other people's love affairs are deeply uninteresting to read about, when they're happy. Misery and breakups, sure. But not the cheerful stuff. So I'll try to spare you the tap-dancing anticipation that I'm going through right now as K. heads down to the airfield to start her very, very long journey back to Brooklyn for her 2-week leave. Suffice it to say that I'm extremely chuffed at the thought of having an actual full-time girlfriend again, rather than just someone I write to alot, and talk to at midnight when I'm mostly asleep face down in the pillow. Someone to go eat at Chestnut with! Someone to make morning coffee for, and actually kiss! This is very exciting.

And speaking of Chestnut, well, I heart Chestnut, and their extremely yummy chicken-mole enchilada, and their peachy Riesling by the glass. I want to go back there with K. to try the halibut with pea vines and black trumpet mushrooms and fava-bean puree, not to mention the chocolate budino. (That's pudding in Italian, in case you were wondering).

Other happy days--the apt is(hopefully) sublet to a couple of nice high school teachers; the lettuce is slowly but surely growing in the garden plot, and I figured out a way to keep the goddamn pigeons from nesting in my fire-escape windowboxes. Bamboo skewers! Sure, it looks a little like some kind of Viet-Cong booby trap, but it works.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Cookie Queen

Well, it was such a beautiful blue spring day yesterday, all I wanted to do was bake a strawberry-rhubarb pie. But the thing about pie is, it's something you've got to share. And not just the pie itself, but the sweet buttery-fruity smell while it's baking, and then the piece cold out of the fridge the next morning with a cup of coffee. So I stood there in the kitchen, realizing that I was out of white flour, and thought that rather than trying to round up B. and other neighborhood pals to eat this pie, I'd just wait til K. got here and we'd make that pie together. In less than a week now, depending on how long it takes before she can get a seat on the next flight out of Central Asia. It will be a long, multi-stopped trip for her, but at the end of it, she'll be here in Brooklyn with me again, and already I'm doing happy little tap dances of anticipation.

Plus, the rhubarb at the store was limp and kind of shriveled--not what you want at something like $6 a pound. Patience, patience is all. So instead I made my favorite chocolate chip cookies, the ones we used to call everything cookies when we were kids, because we used to put just about everything in the cabinet in them--raisins, chocolate chips, nuts, oatmeal, and yes, Rice Krispies.

I particularly like these cookies when they come out well-browned, thin and very crunchy--you'll get little brown crumbs all over your sheets but that browned-butter flavor is worth it. The way to make this happen is to use less flour than the usual back-of-the-Nestle-bag recipe, so the dough is very soft and spreads thin in the oven. I often worry that the dough's too soft and add more flour at the last minute, and then I get these hard little rocks. Have faith. Also, I almost never measure the add-ins--I just dump in as much as I have lying around, or what looks right. Don't be stingy--the whole point of these is to have just enough interstitial cookie to hold together all the goodies.

Everything Cookies Instead of Pie

1 stick (4 oz or 1/2 cup) butter, softened
2/3 cup raw granulated (demerara) sugar (or plain old white sugar, or, even better, 1/3 cup brown sugar and 1/3 cup white sugar)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg

3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

2/3 cup rolled oats (more or less)
1 cup chocolate chips or chunks
1/2 cup chopped nuts (or more, if you want)
1/2 cup raisins (ditto)
some Rice Krispies, if you want

Preheat oven to 350F. Cream butter and sugar(s) together. Beat in egg and vanilla. Mix dry ingredients together in a separate bowl. Stir dry into butter mix, stirring gently until just combined. Add oats, chips, nuts and raisins, stirring until mixed. Drop by spoonfuls onto lightly greased cookie sheet. Flatten each cookie and bake until golden brown, 10-15 minutes. Let cool on rack.