Thursday, October 26, 2006

Random Thoughts in No Particular Order

The last couple weeks have been a bit crazy, and this weekend is going to be more scheduled than I'd like. All good things, but lots of places to be at specific times.

But a couple catch-up items:

Fair-Trade Chocolate: My Halloween chocolate came in, and I have two observations. First, being an American used to supersizing and all-you-can-eat buffets, I was surprised at the size of the mini chocolates. They're smaller than the Hershey's miniatures that I was assuming they would resemble. I think each kid needs a few of these. And when the two bags I ordered got here, M talked me into letting him try *just one* piece. And I tried just one piece. Which has turned into sneaking pieces when he's out of the room because I swear this is the best chocolate I've had: rich and full without being either wimpy like your drugstore milk chocolates or bitter and harsh like your gourmet variety. M wants to take some to his pre-school Halloween party. So all things considered, I just ordered four more bags, which brings our Halloween candy expenditure to somewhere around the cost of the complete Bobby Darin CD set I've been coveting but too cheap to buy.

Lemon-Basil Martinis: The limoncello is finished, and brother, it smells great. I haven't had a chance to pick up the Miller's gin or fresh basil, but I have a feeling my virgin batch of lemony basily goodness is going to be whipped up this weekend.

Lamb: My half a lamb will be ready for me to pick up this weekend, and I'm so excited. I've been trying to clear out our packed freezer over the last two weeks so we'd have room for half a lamb. I got special lamb seasoning last weekend. We are gonna eat well. The experience reminds me of the farmer's market in Brooklyn I frequented every week. Morehouse Farm, producers of the best merino wool available, were there every week, and I think I knit through their entire stock. They weren't a sentimental bunch, as they also sold lamb meat. I always felt a tad guilty around Easter: "Yeah, I'd like this Contessa Shawl lace kit and a leg of lamb."

Knitting: Speaking of which, I finished up some work knitting and started a new hat for T, which I can't wait to finish. Phil thinks it's akin to wearing holiday applique sweatshirts, but I disagree. What do you think: saucy or silly? Check out the hat here.

Tallies: In November, I'm going to start tallying up how many nights I make our family dinner at home, how many nights we go to non-chain restaurants, how many we go to chain restaurants, and how many we slap something together like the always popular weiners-in-Spaghetti-o's.

I realized that I didn't write enough about New York and Dan and Amy's. It's late, so it'll have to wait again. But one little gem: They live in an amazing circa 1920s house on Staten Island. They've done a ton of work, and the place is cozy and inviting. The big feature, though, is a bar, and I mean a real bar, down in the basement. That's where the photos on this entry were taken. The bar room has a sliding door that can close it off from the rest of the basement. Very mysterious. But perhaps not. The house was built during Prohibition by a political fundraiser who potentially liquored up and then shook down potential contributors in his secret speakeasy.

So if you're sitting in a basement filled with toys, dirty laundry, and a dusty computer airmoire, as I am right now, I leave you one last jealousy-inducing note:

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Chocolate without Guilt

The mind-numbing, euphoria-inducing selection at Dean & Deluca in Soho, shot moments before Phil was busted for taking photos in the store, which apparently is taboo.
I love chocolate. Love it. Love Halloween. Couldn't wait for the season so I could make excuses for buying bags and bags that would significantly exceed the number of trick-or-treaters we'd see. Then I learned a bit about chocolate harvesting and fair trade chocolate and how Nestle's and Hershey's and other companies aren't so into it.

Carla sent a link to a company selling fun-sized dark chocolate that is fair trade: that is, harvesters are paid a fair wage and children aren't laboring under dangerous conditions to pick the cocoa beans that get processed into our GooGoo Clusters and Mr. Goodbars. So I just ordered a bunch of fair trade, organic chocolate for Halloween. I didn't bother with the whole "Halloween" package that included "Fair Trade is Boo-tiful" posters and postcards to hand out to kids about the atrocities of mass chocolate. I want to buy candy I feel good about, but I don't want to harangue the kids or their parents or start giving speeches about the ills of capitalism. The kids just need their candy.

I love that a simple purchase choice means fewer kids and families are being exploited so that we can have cheap Reese's cups. If enough of us get together and demand fair trade choices, the big guys are going to have to listen. McDonald's execs didn't add apple dippers to the menu because they were concerned about obese kids -- they added them because they knew that parents trying to avoid having obese kids would go elsewhere if there weren't some decent choices.

There are lots of free trade choices out there. I got mine at Global Exchange. Consider doing the same this year; it really only seems right that people harvesting our luxuries should be able to earn a living wage.

Eat up!

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Old Dog Learns New Tricks

For something like 12 years now, I've been a bit of a stodge about cocktail hour. While I flirted with some others -- the Manhattan, the Rob Roy, Phil's invented drink that he named the Tammany Hall -- I always come back to the classic gin Martini. I don't like the cloyingly sweet "Martinis" that are really Kool-Aid and booze in an oversized Martini glass -- Tartinis, Chocolate Martinis, Cosmopolitans that are too heavy on the Cointreau and light on the lime juice. So imagine my surprise this weekend when I found a flavored cocktail that I believe is going to change my life.

Let me back up. This past weekend my parents drove to our house from Michigan and spent the long weekend with M & T, allowing Phil and me to see our friends Amy and Dan in New York City. Amy and Dan used to live in Brooklyn when we did (they in Carroll Gardens; we in Park Slope), and they bought a house on Staten Island a bit after we moved to Indianapolis. They're good people, and it was wonderful to see them and Sally, their five-year-old JRT. Dan is a lawyer who actually deposed Guilliani when he was just a hard-nosed mayor and not the golden hero of 9/11. Amy is a published author who often writes on food and wine. She's also one of the best home cooks I've ever met; her crab cakes of '00 are still legend in our house. To get a better feel for how restaurants function, Amy's working an unpaid internship at a restaurant that I took to be a smallish, 20-seat affair, but turned out to be the ultra-hip, New Zealand-inspired Public in Soho. She made reservations for the four of us and another couple friends for Saturday night, and I was hoping to be wowed by a carefully crafted New York meal. I wasn't disappointed.

The food was out of this world: Starters of cured wild boar and duck foie gras and grilled kangaroo (no lie) that we passed 'round the table. Entrees were equally spectacular -- for me, an amazing roast cod on edamame risotto. For dessert, we shared the sorbet sampler and a flourless chocolate cake that was too rich for even me to finish -- and I can eat a pan of brownies without batting an eye. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When we got to the restaurant, even a few minutes late with the semi-nightmare of parking a car in Soho -- nice job, Dan -- our table wasn't quite ready, so we went to the bar to wait. A woman sitting next to me was drinking a classic Martini with three olives, and I almost ordered one because it did look beautiful and I'm a creature of habit. But after looking at the drink menu -- a formality I usually shun -- I decided to get cra-ZAY and try the Lemon-Basil Martini.


I mean, just unbelievable. It was slightly sweet, but not Lik-a-Stik so. And the basil and lemon were a perfect, savory-but-sweet combination. While I've always loved lemon and basil in, say, chicken dishes, I had no idea that the combination could transfer to cocktails. But it did beautifully. Amy and I decided to share a second, and I asked the bartender if he'd mind if I watched how he made it. This is where you know you're in a classy restaurant: Not only did he let me watch him, but he pulled all the ingredients on the counter and gave me a brief tutorial on making one.

Here's how:

  1. In a shaker, do a pour (maybe a jigger?) of simple syrup and one of fresh lemon juice. The juice he used was very fresh -- thick-looking and opaque and not at all artificially colored.
  2. Now add in a smallish handful of basil and muddle the basil into the juice and syrup.
  3. Add ice, a pour of limoncello, a quick pour of vermouth (I didn't recognize his brand, but I'm sure our Noilly Prat would work), and a good-sized drink's worth of Miller's gin. This last piece the bartender seemed particularly keen on -- he said the Miller's really works well in the drink.
  4. Shake it all up and pour it into a big Martini glass; there'll be lovely little bits of basil suspended in the drink.
  5. Add a full, gorgeous basil leaf, and start sipping immediately. Pretend you're Dorothy Parker.

Seriously, I can't think of a drink I've ever had that's been this refreshing yet grown up.

When I got back to Indiana after the weekend, I looked up how to make limoncello in Frances Mayes' In Tuscany (the follow-up to her follow-up to Under the Tuscan Sun). The recipe given there, which seems pretty straightforward, has you removing the skin of eight organic lemons, leaving a bit of the white pith on the skin. Then add a quart of liquor, which I'm assuming is best as vodka. Cover this and let it sit in a coolish place for about seven days, shaking periodically. When the peels have lost their vibrant color, strain the liquor.

When the liquor is ready, make a simple syrup of 14 oz. sugar and a quart of water. To make the syrup, heat the water to not-quite boiling and simmer until the sugar crystals dissolve. Let this cool, and then add to the strained lemon liquor.

Now go get some Miller's gin and start perfecting your Lemon-Basil Martini; invite over your best friends for a night of local cheese, lovely cocktails, and great music.

I have a quart mason jar of lemon peels and vodka sitting on the counter right now, awaiting its transformation into limoncello and then just such a night.

(In other exciting news, I just got off the phone with Nikki Royer of Royer's Farm, and in a couple weeks I'll be picking up my half a lamb to tuck into this winter. Shepherd's Pie, anyone?)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Prepare to be Amazed...

Back from a long weekend with the DKG, and I've got my groove back. We went to Betsy's boss Sid's vacation home, complete with amazing landscaping, a sunny porch to knit on, and pea fowl.

Here's a little journal of the weekend; thanks, Kim, for being the official photographer, as my hands were too busy balancing my knitting, plates of goat cheese, and glasses of local wine to think of snapping photos.

Friday we get there, and Kitty and Betsy had a gorgeous lunch spread waiting: hummus, sausage, fruit, rosemary bread, too many other things to name. The six of us tucked in and then took a walk through a vineyard to Sid's plot in the community garden. The owner of the vineyard is also a physician who grows grapes as a hobby and shares his land with his neighbors. We picked some flowers (here's Katie near the cutting garden), and on the way home ran into the owner. He was sweet and funny and just magically pulled a chilled bottle of sparkling white from his truck for us to drink with dinner. Already it felt like pixie dust was sprinkled over the weekend.

Much knitting ensued -- or in Kate's case, much stitching, as she was working against deadline on a new stitching book. There was plenting of knitting and talking and laughing and listening to each other's playlists on battling iPods. For dinner, Kitty made a great Mexican spread where we built our own burritos. After dinner, there were martinis and cosmopolitans and lots lots more knitting.

Saturday morning Kitty made an omelet bar. When she first mentioned this, I thought Trouble. Having seen 1960s footage of Julia Child jerking extra-hot pans of eggs for multiple guests, and none of us being Julia, this seemed like a big undertaking that would take valuable time from our knitting and wine drinking. Was I in for a surprise. Here's what you do: Take a freezer quart-sized Ziplock bag, write your name on it in permanent marker, and crack two eggs into it. Squish it around to mix up the eggs. Then add the ingredients you want and squish it some more. Now get the air out of the bag, drop it into a pan of boiling water along with everyone else's bags, set a timer for about 12 minutes (15 or so minutes if you use three eggs), and go open the sparkling white wine the physician/farmer gave you. Get ready to toast, at which time the timer will go off. Give everyone her omelet bag, plop the omelet onto your plate, and, as the Internet instructions say, "Prepare to be amazed!" The omelets tasted fantastic, and they even come out clean enough that you could easily wash and reuse the bags, cutting down on the waste.

More knitting. Kim and I went to the grocery, and then we all walked to the Round Barn Winery for lunch. This isn't the winery I mentioned that's right across the street from Sid's house, but that one is apparently not so super. Round Barn is only a few blocks away, so it was a quick walk. After lunch, we bellied up to a tasting bar and tried a million different wines. Kim and I lugged home about four bottles each. If I spend Thanksgiving with you, expect to try Cranberry wine.

That night, Kim and I tried cooking a Julia Child dinner from a vintage, cover-falling-off copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, circa 1962. Here was the plan:

  • Garlic soup
  • Steamed artichokes
  • Chicken with mushrooms
  • Roasted fennel on the side
  • Cheese plate
  • Apple crisp (which Kitty threw together earlier in the day; thanks, Kitty!)

    We'd matched some of the wines we'd bought earlier with different courses. Some of the glasses of Artesia Spumante contained yeast crystals, which was quite beautiful.

    I feared the flaming step where we doused the chicken in cognac and set it on fire. After Kim told me horror stories of seared bangs from a French-class Bananas Flambe experiment gone bad, I steeled myself and finalized my will before setting fire. Bangs in a headband, long candle-starter in hand, stretching to the stovetop, I took the plunge:

My hair and Sid's kitchen survived. In fact, we only had two dinner mishaps. First, we forgot to turn on the oven when we went to roast the chicken, necessitating shifting courses around so that the cheese plate came first, which is what we expect in America anyway. Second, we shouldn't have served artichokes; the ones we bought were completely useless: no meat, tough leaves. I've never had such horrid artichokes. I taught Katie to prepare artichokes, though, using a technique from Two Fat Ladies. And the choke in the middle made a gorgeous still life, so I suppose it wasn't a completely lost experience:

The chicken was fantastic -- it was very simple (in spite of its need for flame), but the layers of flavor from cognac, brandy, cream, and mushroom cooking liquid was something. If you're a guest in my house any time soon, be prepared to eat it.

Sunday morning was lazy, involving Katie's mom's breakfast casserole, lots of water to counteract our wine dehydration, and too much lamenting that the magical weekend was coming to a close. I've got half a Pinup Girl sweater, Kate completed all the stitching for her book, and Betsy actually finished the adorable Vogue Knitting sweater she started seven years ago when they were in the process of adopting their first daughter.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Let Yourself Go

This snap of M and his friend B doing a ritualistic fertility dance is the cover photo for the CD I made for the girlfriends I'm seeing this weekend. Every year, DKG (the Damn Knitting Group) spends a weekend (DKW) somewhere knitting, eating, talking, and drinking too much wine. This year we're going to Betsy's former boss's country house. It's on the Indiana/Michigan border. I packed little gifts for the DKG members, some local goats-milk cheese, and some knitting. The house is right across the street from a winery, and because there are no children (and thus child-rearing responsibilities) involved in DKW, we can observe the "It's 5:00 somewhere" rule. Consequently, I brought some very simple knitting -- the Annie Modesitt Pinup Girl sweater from Stitch and Bitch, which I'm making with some kid mohair my mom found at a garage sale for about $2. Too cool.

Two months ago, after reading Julie and Julia, I convinced DKG-er Kim to make a DKW meal completely from Julia Child's watershed Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I'm a little intimidated. Wish us luck. If it turns out (or doesn't), I'll post photos of the adventure. God bless Julia Child.

So it's been a few days since I blogged, and will be a few more before I do again. Neat thing is, two different people wrote me on the same day this week and sent a recipe they thought I might want to post. So I leave you with some ideas for slowish weekend cooking as I sail into a world of local wine, kid mohair, and French culinary adventures.

First, my sister-in-law Laura sent this recipe for Apple Pork Chops. She got it from her and Phil's Uncle Joe, which worried me a bit. Joe's fantastic, but a bit quirky. And the most frugal person I've ever met in regards to food budget. "Frugal" doesn't really describe it. That gives a bad name to people who, say, wait for loss-leader sales on tuna fish and stock up or buy rice in bulk at a food co-op. Joe's many steps past that. He does things like accidentally dropping a pot of chili on a driveway and scraping it up, gravel and all, and serving it to guests so as to not waste "perfectly good" chili. Or making casseroles from the crusts of pizza people have left on their plates at church gatherings. But this recipe's actually a winner. Here it is:

What you need:

Chops for however many people you're serving (Laura uses boneless, but it really doesn't matter)
Minced garlic
Ground pepper
Apple juice or apple cider
Sour cream -- or plain yogurt if you're watching calories & fat. Laura uses about 1/2 cup or so if she's making 4 chops; you'll need more if you're serving a crowd

Here's what you do:

Rub the chops with garlic, salt, and ground pepper on both sides. Then sear them in a skillet on both sides until brown. Pour the apple juice/cider over chops until just covered and simmer until tender (generally about 15-20 minutes after juice boils). This is a
good time to get the water going for the noodles.

Once the chops are done, remove from the skillet and put them on a plate in a warm oven. Pour off about half the juice that's left in the skillet, but save it! You may want more later. Add the sour cream/yogurt to the juice in the pan and thicken with flour to make a nice gravy (stir constantly with a wire whisk to minimize lumps). This is why you want to keep that extra
juice around--you might want to make a little more gravy.

Serve the chops on noodles and cover the whole business with the gravy.
This is good served with a side of stir-fried squash and zucchini.

Says Laura, "EXCELLENT!" And no half-chewed pizza crusts or crunchy chili!

The second recipe is for Farmer's Market Soup and came from Katie, the queen of the Tuna Noodle Casserole (and a fellow DKG-er). Katie modified this from Lynne Rossetto Kasper's e-newsletter Weeknight Kitchen (sign up for it here). I have to admit I haven't made this yet, but Katie has never steered me wrong in the kitchen, and reading through it, it sounds fantastic -- especially as the farmer's markets are bursting with garden harvest right now.

Here's what you need to start:

3 Tbsp. olive oil
3 leeks (the white parts and about an inch of green), chopped
A pinch of saffron

Saute these 3 ingredients together on low heat in a large stock pot until the leeks are glossy and translucent. It'll smell so good at this point, you'll want to eat it already! Then add the following vegetables, all chopped:

3 waxy boiling potatoes
3 medium turnips
2 large, ripe tomatoes (with their juice)
3 medium zuccini or summer squash
3 medium carrots
A couple handfuls of green beans (tipped and cut into 1-inch pieces)

Cook for about 5 minutes on medium heat, then add 1-2 quarts of vegetable stock (enough to cover), 1-1/2 tsp. salt, and 2 cloves chopped garlic; simmer for another 20-30 minutes. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste, and you're ready to serve.

To serve, stir 1 Tbsp. of basil pesto into each bowl, if desired. (Katie highly recommends this step, and as I said, she's got a good kitchen sense.) You can also add pasta or beans to the finished soup.

Have a great weekend! I know I will!

My Husband the Rock Star

This weekend we got copies of Eisenhower Field Day's CD: Let's Not Tell Lies (with the bonus EP of Our Time in the Colonies). Eisenhower Field Day is Phil's band with his bandmates Noah and Holly Butler. I know I'm biased, but I love this music. From a cooking angle, it makes great dinner-prep fare -- perhaps a little too rocking for contemplative digestion, but that's an individual taste thing.

The CD is available at Luna Music in Indianapolis.

My favorite song, an oldie but goodie, continues to be "Don't Throw Away," formerly called "Babycakes." Noah, a fifth-grade teacher, wrote the song entirely from a letter he intercepted from a lovestruck boy to the object of his desire. Who can't relate to lyrics like, P.S. don't tell anybody and Emily, I'll admit I like you?

I'm personally proud of the CD because it's the first, and I'm sure last, time I'll get a music credit for taking a band photo. Or maybe this is the start of a new career...