Monday, January 29, 2007

on her way home

Yes, K. is coming home, in just a couple of days now. Unfortunately, some of the people she's spent her last year with won't be, at least not for another 4 or 5 months. It's bittersweet--we're both so happy that she's coming home after this long year, but it's also very sad to know that other people's family and friends won't be so lucky, because their kids/spouses/partners have been given orders to stay put until the summer.

Not much else to report--just wishing her luck on her 16+ hour flight home. Her warning: "I'm going to smell really bad when you see me." Mmm, sweat, diesel fuel, and a slept-in uniform....

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Dolls and custard

Any minute now--okay, next week-- my life as Lonely Girlfriend of a Faraway Soldier will be officially over. Yippee! No longer will my 12-inch camo-clad Sgt. K. doll-- um, action figure-- have to pull girlfriend duty at dinner parties.

But speaking of action figures and parties, check out the fabulous wrestlers' wedding cupcake tower, made by vegan-punker cupcake queen Isa Chandra Moskowitz. I particularly like the topless wrester dudes positioned as both cupcake guards and flower girls. A thought for our own festivities after I get back from the farm...

Not much on the baking front these days, and I was sadly remiss on National Pie Day. I did cook that day, but only a caramel custard for the ladies of book club. I tried to explain how easy this dish is to make, but pal Diana, mother of four (including 2 7-month old twins) was having none of it. Especially when I mentioned the part about infusing the milk and cream with cinnamon sticks and orange rind.

That said, it IS really, really easy, and people are very impressed, always, thanks to the groovy caramel sauce that makes itself while the custard bakes. Plus, it requires only the most basic of fridge-and-pantry ingredients--just milk, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. The infusing is fun, but it's also perfectly tasty just made with a little vanilla extract.

Super Easy Creme Caramel, Flan, Whatever

3 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup half-and-half or heavy cream
1 cup sugar, divided
2 tsp vanilla (leave out if using vanilla bean, below, or use brandy or something fun like grand marnier, instead)

Optional flavoring things: orange rind, cinnamon stick, 1/4 cup whole coffee beans, or half a vanilla bean, split

If you're going to do the flavoring-with-whole-things deal, bring the milk and cream to a bare simmer (just until little bubbles form around the edges of the pan). Add flavoring (you could combine the orange and cinnamon, or cinnamon and coffee), remove from heat, and let steep for at least 1 hour. Bring back to a bare simmer again, then strain out solids. If using vanilla bean, scrape out tiny seeds into milk, then discard bean husk.

Preheat oven to 325 F. Place a large baking dish half-filled with hot water into the oven.

In a small, heavy pot, melt 1/2 cup sugar. Swirl and stir occasionally to make sure sugar melts evenly. Watch closely, and remove from heat as soon as sugar is completely melted and copper-penny colored. Watch out --the caramel is REALLY hot and will stick to and burn your skin in a really unpleasant manner. It will also start to thicken and harden as soon as you take it off the heat. So, using hot pads, pick up the pot and immediately pour sugar into a high-sided ceramic baking dish (like a souffle dish). Swirl around so caramel splashes an inch or so up the sides. Set aside. It will get glass-hard and glossy as it cools.

Beat eggs and yolks with remaining sugar. Slowly pour in milk mixture. If not using vanilla bean, add vanilla extract. Pour mixture through a strainer (this catches any milk "skin" or random lumps of eggy gunk) into caramel lined dish. Place in baking dish--water should come halfway up the sides of the dish. (This water bath, or bain-marie, keeps the eggs from getting rubbery, as they would if you baked them by regular direct heat.)

Bake for 45 or 50 minutes, until surface is gently jiggly and a skewer poked in the middle comes out clean. Remove from water bath and cool on a rack. When close to room temp, refrigerate for several hours until well chilled. (Warm custard is disgusting, in my opinion, but if you're into it, hey, jump in.)

To unmold--this is the cool part--find a dish big enough so that you'll have room for at least a one-inch moat of sauce around the custard. Run a butter knife around the edge of the custard to loosen it from the pan. Place the dish, top side in, over the pan. Holding pan and plate together, flip the pan and plate over. Custard should fall onto the plate, with caramel sauce oozing down to form a lovely lake all around.

Fill the empty dish with hot water while you're eating dessert and all the extra cooked sugar will float right off.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Snow! Well, it's about time. Here we are, sitting around in Brooklyn while the rest of the country gets snow days and the National Guard towing their cars, thinking, hey, what are we? Chopped liver?

Just tiny little flurries right now, but it's nice to get a teeny taste of winter, at least.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


10 days and K. should be on a plane heading home! Of course, the only thing certain about the Army is that nothing's certain...and there is a lot of snow where she is these days, so it's not 100% sure that she'll be leaving on the day as planned. And it will probably take at least 2 days, maybe more, for her to get all the way back to the States once they leave. But every day crossed out on the calendar is one day closer to seeing her.

If all goes well, we'll be dividing our time (until I head out to the farm in mid-April) between Brooklyn and the little town way upstate where she'll be stationed for the next few months. Besides the bright lights of NYC, just going to the grocery store, having friends over for brunch, not being separated by a time-zone difference of 9 1/2 hours, not having to travel 6 hours+ to see each other (as we had to do before she left) on the weekends all seems very exciting... As does walking over to Chestnut or Brooklyn Fish Camp for dinner, or cooking fish, grits, and greens at home.

But right now, it's finally chilly out, and that means, cookies!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Duck Redux

So, where do the ducks -- or at least their legs-- go in January? After a mad rush to bake bread, tidy up the house, and roast the butternut squash, I hopped on the subway to the Union Square Greenmarket, all set to patronize the big stand that's always there, selling venison and pheasant and wild turkeys and yes, duck.

Except that it wasn't there. There were plenty of stands selling pastured lamb, bison, beef, and pork, but duck I had promised, and duck it would be. So back over to Brooklyn, to pop into Staubitz on Court St at 4pm, to a butcher who was not at all sure that they had any duck. Into the back he went as I eyed the rest of the meat case, thinking, well, who doesn't likes a nice roast chicken? Luckily, though, some 10 minutes later he emerged, holding aloft a package of 4 duck legs. "Just put this into a bowl of cool water, and they'll thaw out in about 40 minutes or so."

Ah, frozen duck. I hadn't counted on that. The Zuni recipe, as I remembered it, seemed to call for at least 2 1/2 hours in the oven, and I had no hors-d'oeuvres planned. Well, then. Into the kitchen and into the water with the sealed plastic packet of duck.

And into the oven with four sweet potatoes while some milk warmed on the stove, infused with a few branches of thyme and sage. As the duck thawed, I rapidly boiled down an entire bottle of cheap Chilean Merlot to 1/4 of its volume, spattering a fine purple mist all over the stove. In a big white pot on the other side of the stove was chicken stock in process--2 chicken legs, a chopped leek, a chopped carrot, some salt and another branch of thyme.

Trying to bisect a butternut squash without a huge cleaver means my knife inevitably gets stuck in the side of the squash like a bad outtake from The Sword in the Stone. Luckily, there is another option: just stick the whole thing in the oven!

Ha! Take that, sucker!

Poke it vigorously so the steam can get out, slip it onto a baking sheet (so the inner drool won't burn and smoke), and bake at 325F until soft, a long time. Remove from the oven, slash in half and let it cool. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the seeds and strings. Scrape out all the flesh and let it drain in a colander for a couple of hours. Put the chunks through a food mill to make a smooth puree. Slash your roasted sweet potatoes open and let cool, then do the same scrape and mill. Mix the purees together, then dribble in enough herb-scented milk (or cream) til you have a smooth and gently enriched puree. Add a knob of butter, salt and pepper to taste. Smooth into a baking dish and slip into the oven while the duck bakes, just enough to heat through. Of course, orange is always suitable with squash and sweet potatoes, but there was enough citrus going on in this menu, so I opted for winter herbs--thyme, sage, or rosemary--instead.

Then, the winter salad: julienned fennel, turnip, and endive, a mixture of three crunchy whites, scattered with pomegranate seeds and a handful of arugula, in a light dressing of wine wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, good green olive oil, and a drop of honey. Three bunches of collards rinsed, ribbed, rolled, and sliced into chiffonade, ready to be steam-sauteed in a ladleful of chicken stock, then tossed into hot garlicky, lemon-zested olive oil, spritzed with lemon juice just before serving.

But back to the duck. Not thawed through, but softened enough to separate, the duck legs were patted dry with paper towels, rubbed with a little salt (according to Zuni, the well-salted legs should have sitting in my fridge for two days by now, loosely covered and thinking their own thoughts, but nuts to that) and tossed, skin down, into a hot cast-iron skillet to hiss and brown on both sides.

Much fat rendered, the legs did get crisp and browned, just as promised. Then, pour off the fat into a spare coffee can (mmm, duck-fat home fries, anyone?) and swirl the boiled-down red wine into the pan. Replace the duck legs (fatty skin side up), tuck in 3 large onions, cut into wedges, a handful of whole garlic cloves, a dozen fat unpitted prunes, and a few slivers of orange peel. Add a cup of reduced chicken stock (start with 2 cups, then boil down to half its volume) over the top, then bring the whole thing to a simmer. Cover tightly, and pop into a 300-degree oven for about 40 minutes. The liquid should come halfway up the duck legs; add more chicken stock if needed.

Timing is completely dependent on your oven and the size of the duck legs. Mine were smallish, and my oven runs hot, so everything went faster than I expected. After 40 minutes or so, I uncovered the pan, flipped the legs over, and sloshed the prunes around. A little while later--maybe 30 minutes, more or less-- I uncovered the duck again, which now looked well-browned and shiny. 10 more minutes, uncovered, and the sauce reduced a bit and the duck got even better-looking. Out of the oven, onto a platter with the mostly cooked-down onion sludge and the plump prunes. The sauce went into my new gravy strainer, there to sit for a couple of minutes so all the fat could rise to the top. You definitely want to do this, gravy strainer or not, so you're not serving a sauce that's half straight-up duck fat.

So, finally, hot greens in a bowl, squash-potato puree in a dish, sauce in a pitcher, sliced polenta bread in a basket, and duck on a platter. A fine winter meal all around. And as usual, I completely forgot about the salad, until I was opening the fridge to get dessert. Whoops! So we had salad before dessert--not chocolate cake as I'd planned (too heavy and brown after the duck), but a buttery Meyer lemon pound cake, with a chilled compote of navel and blood orange slices, pomegranate seeds, a few tablespoons of Grand Marnier and a sprinkling of orange-flower water. Very good for breakfast, too.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Duck, duck, duck!

You can't really hope to impress people who've known you since you were 12. Anyone that can still remember me with feathered hair, monogrammed cardigans, and a crush on Simon LeBon and Annie Lennox--well, it would take more than a chocolate-mocha-whiskey cake to make them see me as a fancy grownup now.

But hey, give me points for trying. My old, old friends Bea and Susie (and Susie's husband and dog) are coming over for a long-overdue dinner in Brooklyn, after I've had many a fabulous meal in their houses. On the menu, then: the braised duck legs with red wine and prunes from the Zuni Cafe cookbook, butternut squash-sweet potato puree, garlicky winter greens, and yes, the clincher, chocolate-mocha-whiskey cake, from Good-Tempered Food by Tamasin Day-Lewis (yes, that Day-Lewis). Because chocolate is always good, and even if the duck runs out of the house on all four legs, no one will remember if there was plenty of nearly-flourless chocolate cake made with butter and almonds and coffee and bourbon. And perhaps, a bowlful of whipped cream made from Ronnybrook's fabulous fresh not-ultrapasteurized heavy cream, which makes for such dreamy Viennese coffee the next morning.

Not that I'll be having any, more's the pity. No, I'll just be having yet another steaming cup of hot hay and lawn clippings. After too many really unpleasant headaches during the last few months, I'm on a depressing no-caffeine regime--even though I was only ever drinking decaf coffee to begin with. No decaf coffee, no decaf black tea, just endless cups of mint and camomile, blah. I don't miss the residual caffeine a bit, but I do miss the taste, very much, and the whole coffee ritual, and real tea in the afternoon. And yes, I know chocolate has some caffeine, too, but I'm not giving up my little daily bite.

Now, off to the Greenmarket for duck legs, squash, sweet potatoes, cream, greens, and garlic. Recipes and pix to follow!

And the countdown to K.'s return continues--if the airstrips on her end aren't snowbound (as they often can be this time of year) she should be back in the States by the end of the month! Being able to walk to a warm bathroom in the middle of the night without going outside into sub-freezing weather--not to mention having a real bath, in potable water-- will take some getting used to, she says. As will wearing non-uniform clothes and not carrying an M16 everywhere she goes.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

High Summer Far Away

Late July, Norton Island

This clear-washed morning

I have become,
quite unexpectedly,

Queen of raspberries.

This Sunday I do not share
lingering along the mud-rutted weed-wracked path
bowl of blue sky above
the cup of my palm

Pleasure replaced by pleasure
no surfeit in this moment

This moment caught in fire-bright jewelweed tangled up the vines
open throats lapped with nectar and
the thrust of bees.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A toast to Manka's

The new year has begun, but the deadlines continue apace. A good thing, of course, as I need to save the cheddar for my farming tuition, but it also means new postings and happy baking stories might be a little thin on the ground in the next few days. But of course, no deadline is so pressing that gingerbread can't happen, especially the super-easy Silver Palate version, which made me feel loved just by the smell in the kitchen. It's also lucky that you can't make hoppin' john for one, since I've been living on bowls of the reheated leftovers since Monday.

Elsewhere in the news, it was sad, so sad, to get the news that Manka's Inverness Lodge, a quirky, wonderful restaurant and the rustic inn of my secret heart, was destroyed by fire right after Christmas. Not the whole place, but its heart and hearth, the nearly century-old Arts and Crafts main lodge, kitchen, and restaurant, along with four guest rooms. Luckily, no one was hurt, and owner Margaret Grade and her partner Daniel DeLong still have the annex and some surrounding buildings. They're having a dinner/wake on Friday; call them at 415-669-1034 if you want more info. The whole of Pt. Reyes and West Marin is intensely romantic, in a misty, coastal California way, and Manka's occupied a rather large place in the longings of my dreamlife north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I had hoped to take K. there for a night when we were on our whirlwind tour of SF last January, but finances (and that fact that the restaurant would have been closed then) prevailed; now, of course, the wisdom of living in the moment has proved itself yet again. I hope they can recoup, and rebuild. It won't be the same, but the spirit should prevail.

I realize this might sound a wee bit precious, to write an elegy for such a place. But Manka's was a unique expression of a particular outlook on life. Grade's dedication to local foods--long before "locavore" became a buzzword--has helped to preserve the agriculture of West Marin. The livelihoods of dozens of local farmers, fisherman, beekeepers, oystermen, poultry and dairy ranchers, and foragers were in part supported by the kitchen of Manka's, helping to preserve the agricultural heritage of West Marin. Their names went on the whimsical menus; I still have one, from the last meal I ate there in August of 2002, just before I left San Francisco on a path that would turn out to be much more heart-wrenching than I could have expected.

The menu for that meal, written like free verse,

A soup of Bolinas beets
Crowned with a cloud of sour cream
Laced with wild Inverness mint

Jim's duck seared over almond wood
Nested in fronds of local frisee
warmed with Bolinas torpedoes

Tenderloin of Bill's pork
grilled in the fireplace
propped atop lodge mashed potatoes
encircled with a natural jus
laced with just picked and sundried French plums

Local artisan cheeses
with suntoasted almonds and Rosa's moscato grapes
both from the vine
some nearly sun dried

A tart of farmers' market First Lady nectarines
and local dairy whipped dream
heightened with west Marin honey

I remember, at another, on the eve of Christmas eve, the dessert came crowned with "an ice of local dairy cream"-- a phrase that E. and I loved and used for years. For a long time, I had one of their Lenten menus up on my wall, featuring "another sole saved from the surrounding seas." The price of the meal was listed as "for your penance." Another Christmas Eve menu offered reindeer carpaccio, served on a "rooftop" of celery root and fennel.

In the dining room, loose nests of bare branches hung from the ceiling in lieu of flower arrangements, and quotes from favorite writers were stenciled on the walls. A lazy dog sprawled across the entrance as we drank our tea in front of the fireplace . Outside, in the misty winter night, a regiment of fir trees stood at attention all around the redwood-shingled building.

So, a toast and a pan of gingerbread to all the staff of Manka's, and a wish for their swift rebuilding.

Gingerbread to Warm Your Heart

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour a square 8 x 8 pan.

Sift: 1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp powdered ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves (or allspice or nutmeg, if you prefer)
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

In a separate bowl, beat:
1 egg
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup sugar

Boil: 1/2 cup water
Measure out: 1/2 cup melted butter or vegetable oil, or a combo of the two
Grate: an inch or so of fresh ginger, or dice up some candied or preserved ginger

Stir egg mixture into flour. Pour boiling water over batter, add butter or oil and candied ginger and stir until smooth. Pour into pan and bake until springy (cake tester should come out clean), 35-40 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla iced dream.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Beans, greens and (zam)pone

Happy New Year! This was the year that no one made plans...and me last of all. Luckily, my downstairs neighbor Amy and her pals knew of a party to go to, and so the four of us headed out to get a cheap (as in, not one of those $75 frilly prix-fixe deals. I don't begrudge restaurant owners the chance to make some moola, but I would add NYE to Valentine's Day as my two least-likely days to go out to eat as a result of those annoying, overpriced set menus) bite at Pete's Ale House, our Atlantic Ave chili-and-beer stalwart. Except that, at 8:30pm on New Year's Eve, they were closed. Huh? According to the guy pulling down the metal grille, they were going to be open on New Year's Day instead, presumably to pick up the more docile hair-of-the-dog/football-bowl crowd.

So instead, we hustled down to Bocca Lupa, at Henry and Warren, where there was an empty four-top table just waiting for us. On the menu was zampone, the ubiquitous New Year's dish in Bologna and Modena--a whole pig's foot deboned but skin intact, plumped out with sausage, boiled, and served with lentils. The lentils I can understand, since many cultures go with coin-shaped beans to symbolize prosperity in the new year, but I never found out the significance of the pig's foot, except that the Bolognese love their pork products dearly, and there is little of the pig that doesn't find its way onto the table in some form.

But I didn't eat zampone in Bologna, and I didn't eat it in Brooklyn either. Instead, we had tender little meatballs in tomato sauce over bread, fabulous lamb chops over grilled radicchio, panini oozing mozzarella and pesto, green salad with pomegranate seeds and pecorino cheese, a platter of affetati (cured meats), gorgeous grilled artichoke with toasted hazelnuts, a pile of fresh berries with whipped cream, and a warm Nutella-and-banana panini with a similar polar ice cap of whipped cream. And a round of prosecco bought for us by a guy at the bar because we were a cute and/or happy table, followed by another round of prosecco to toast the countdown from Times Square on the TV over the bar.

Then, over to a party in a converted garage/loft in Park Slope, where all the guests picked up brushes and snipped out old magazine pictures to add to the evolving mural/collage on the wall. Me? I painted a green and red pomegranate.

Getting a cab in the rain at 2:30am was just as much fun as you can imagine. Up in the morning on a misty, gloomy day, to shred greens, soak black-eyed peas, and sizzle up a couple spoonfuls of lard in my black cast iron skillet for cornbread. Greens for folding money, black eyed peas for coins, and cornbread for gold. Usually this is a vegetarian meal, since I never have a ham bone lying around to go in the peas, but this time I snagged a big chunk of bone-in smoked ham from the nice folks at Flying Pigs Farm. So ham, onions, celery, garlic, and bell pepper were sauteed, then the soaked peas were thrown in with some water. Too much water, as it happened, so use less than you think, since the peas don't soak up as much water as other beans. Some thyme, some sage leaves if you have them around, a couple little dried red peppers or some red cayenne pepper. It doesn't take long to simmer to tenderness. Rice can be added to the peas and cooked in the same pot (a good way to solve the extra-liquid problem) or cooked in a separate pot and the peas spooned over the rice at serving time.

However you make the peas, you have to have greens. Now, I'm definitely on lefty-progressive-California end of the greens-cooking spectrum. I'll admit it: I don't have any sentimental attachment to swampy olive-drab greens cooked to rags. I adore the minerally sweetness of good fresh greens after a frost (especially collards and bumpy lacinto/black Tuscan/dino kale), and so chez PQ they get cooked just enough so they don't chew like a plastic raincoat on your plate.

After a thorough washing, cut the tough rib out of each leaf, roll the leaves up in a cigar and chiffonade them into slim slices. Throw your big mound of greens into an inch or so of salted boiling water in a big skillet, slap on a cover and let the greens steam for five to 8 minutes, with occasional stirring, until they've collapsed and lost their rubbery texture but still retain a little bit of toothsome chew. You can eat them straight out of the pot with your fingers, as I do when I'm alone, or you can scoop them out to cool, grate up some lemon rind, saute some chopped garlic in olive oil until it's just golden, then throw the greens, lemon rind, and red pepper flakes back into the pan to heat through. Squeeze on some fresh lemon juice just before serving. The leftovers, if you have any, are good cold too, although the acidity of the lemon juice will turn them a sludgy khaki color.

Finally, of course, there is cornbread, made with straight-up stone-ground cornmeal and buttermilk and "no cookie ingredients"--that is, no sugar, no flour, but a couple tablespoons of lard from the freezer into the pan to grease it up, plus a little of the butter that melted sitting on the radiator after breakfast. A really hot, heavy pan will give you the good crust you need.

All the best for you and yours. A good year to come, this one.