Saturday, February 25, 2012

Breaking the rules

Ever since I was a toddler, I've enjoyed breaking the rules.  Just give my mother a call--she can tell you about all the times I pushed, tested and defied her.  She can tell you that I was definitely not the little girl she dreamed of getting, all prissified in starched crinolines, lace ankle socks, patent leather Mary Janes and banana curls that would make Shirley Temple throw a temper tantrum of titanic proportions.  I was a pip (still am).  And I loved breaking the rules (still do).  Right, Mom?

So you shouldn't be surprised to hear that I broke the rules at a recent dinner party.  "Never, never try new techniques and new recipes for the first time at a dinner party."  That is the solid, conservative advice you will hear from most experienced dinner-party-throwers (and chefs).  But I am confident (maybe overly so) and a little fearless (maybe overly so).  Never mind that for most of my dinner parties, I defy the rules and try new recipes and techniques because I usually cook for groups of very willing, very happy and very hungry guinea pigs.  Now, I am not maligning guinea pigs, I am merely repeating what my guests often call themselves when they are seated around my table.  And this party was a Voluptuous Table event, so the stakes were a little higher and the guests a little more expectant.  So I was actually cooking for very willing, very happy and very hungry cerdo iberico.

The menu wasn't something I would normally have come up with by myself.  You see, I have help.  I have lots of help in the form of my wine guys, who are always throwing suggestions at me for menus because of the wines they like to drink.  And that kind of help is good for me, since it makes me think about food in a different way.  Not just, "What wine goes with this food?"  But, "What food goes with this wine?"  This kind of thinking pushes my creativity in ways that it cannot be pushed in any other way.  So thank you, wine guys.

We started out the evening of traditional and rustic Italian cuisine with some solid and dependable appetizers: rosemary and orange roasted olives and basil-tomato bruschetta.  The appetizers were served with a bracing cocktail, Negroni Sbagliato (recipe below).  A negroni is typically sweet, bitter and herbal from its classic components of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari.  In a Negroni Sbagliato (literally, wrong negroni), the gin is replaced by asti spumante, which both lightens and softens the Campari.  Served with thin slices of blood orange and in a stylish glass on the rocks, it's a great start to a meal.

We followed appetizers and cocktails with a simple chicken broth enhanced with bay leaf, garlic, white wine and mini-farfalle pasta.  A handful of escarole, dandelion greens, arugula and spinach chiffonade floated in the aromatic broth and a generous sprinkling of Parmesano Reggiano made a simple peasant soup heavenly and rich.

Following the soup, a lovely warm grilled shrimp and grapefruit salad (which, incidentally, I broiled because it was just too darn cold outside to fire up the grill).  This salad was gorgeous on the plate (find the recipe below), and as a complement, I served Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (New Zealand), an extremely crisp, light wine that is full of citrus--notably grapefruit, Meyer lemon and key lime.  This wine is very affordable and can be found for about $10 a bottle.

The main course was an exquisite spinach and toasted walnut pesto (recipe below), which also formed the base for the spinach-walnut pesto cream sauce on which the pork, veal and mortadella meatballs (recipe below) were served, along with garlic-roasted Campari tomatoes.  Marramiero "Dama" Montipulciano d'Abruzzo 2009 (Italy) had enough acid to balance the richness, yet was silky, rich and ruby in the glass.  A rustic, robust wine that has been aged in oak for over 12 months, it echoed the richness and earthiness of the pesto and meatballs, but formed a lovely acidic counterpoint.  This wine is about $15 a bottle.

Dessert was very light and wonderfully refreshing on the palate after rich foods.  Macerated Oranges with Red Moro Oranges and Basil Syrup (recipe below) provides a stunning visual presentation and a contrast of piquant and herbal notes.   I served this dessert with an Italian prosecco called Cantine Maschio Prosecco Brut (Italy), which can be purchased for about $11 a bottle.  Light, refreshingly dry and fruit-forward with notes of white peach and orange blossoms, it was the perfect accompaniment to the fresh oranges.  Serve this prosecco as is (thoroughly chilled, of course), or do as the Italians do and drop a sugar cube in the glass before filling it with the prosecco.  I added blood orange bitters to the sugar cube as a complement to the orange dessert.

Negroni Sbagliato

1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth
1 oz. (or more) dry spumante
orange slices for garnish

Fill a rocks glass with ice.  Add Campari, vermouth and spumante, in that order.  Add orange slices for garnish and serve immediately.  Makes one drink.

Warm Grilled Shrimp and Grapefruit Salad with Grapefruit Vinaigrette

First, make 1 1/2 batches of the grapefruit vinaigrette.  Then section a grapefruit into wedges (skin on) and skewer with 4-6 shelled, deveined shrimp (I like to leave the tails on for posterity).  Allow 2 skewers per person.  This amounts to about 1 lb. of shrimp and 1 large grapefruit.  Lay the skewers flat in a large pan or container and drizzle with half the vinaigrette.  Allow shrimp and grapefruit to marinate for at least 4 and up to 8 hours.  Grill or broil about 4 to 6 inches from heat source until shrimp are pink no longer translucent.  Meanwhile, toss 1-2 cups greens per person in remaining vinaigrette and divide among individual plates.  Place grilled skewers on top of salad and serve.  Serves 8.

Spinach and Toasted Walnut Pesto

This recipe is the result of combining all the best elements of recipes I gathered from several sources.  Although I can't remember where the recipes all came from, I give credit to those who helped with the final incarnation.  I used the beautiful red walnuts you can sometimes find in better grocery stores and they yielded a soft, creamy and very buttery texture/flavor to the finished pesto.  However, after finely chopping them, their beautiful color is lost, so feel free to use regular walnuts if you wish.

1 lb. baby spinach leaves, washed and spun dry
7 oz. walnut pieces, toasted
4 large cloves garlic
1/2 cup EVOO, plus additional if desired
2 Tbs. finely grated lemon zest
1 Tbs. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 lb. warm cooked pasta of your choice (reserve 2 cups pasta water and keep warm)
a generous hunk of Pecorino Romano for grating on top of pasta

1.  Put spinach and 1 Tbs. water in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
2.  Cook, tossing constantly, until spinach is wilted, about 2 minutes.
3.  In a food processor, combine wilted spinach and its cooking liquid, walnuts, garlic, EVOO and lemon zest.
4.  Process until mixture is smooth, scraping down bowl as needed.
5.  Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired; blend well.
6.  Add more EVOO while processor is running if you prefer more of a mayonnaise texture.  Set aside about 1/2 cup pesto at this point if you plan to serve the meatballs in pesto cream sauce (recipe follows).
7.  Stir or toss warm pasta with as much pesto as desired until pasta is well coated.  Add some reserved warm pasta water if you want a sauce-like texture.
8.  Divide among 6 plates and garnish generously with freshly grated Pecorino.

Pork, Veal and Mortadella Meatballs with Pesto Cream Sauce

Rich, unctuous and lick-your-plate deliciousness.  You can make the meatballs ahead of time and freeze them if you wish.  Again, this recipe is the result of many I have collected over the years, so thanks to all who contributed.

1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. ground veal
1/2 lb. mortadella, in 1/4" dice
1 1/2  Tbs. lemon zest
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 cup white bread crumbs
2 to 4 Tbs. milk
3 eggs, beaten
3 Tbs. fresh chopped parsley
2 Tbs. finely chopped or crushed pistachios
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

1.  Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl with your hands, using the larger quantity of milk if your bread crumbs are dry.  Do not compact or overmix.
2.  Form into golf ball size meatballs and place on foil lined baking sheets.
3.  Bake at 375 degrees for about 22 to 25 minutes, or until lightly browned.  Keep warm or chill/freeze for later use.  Makes about 3 dozen.

Pesto Cream Sauce:  Use pesto that was set aside from earlier (see recipe for Spinach and Toasted Walnut Pesto, above).  Stir in about 1/2 cup heavy cream, 1 Tbs. thinly sliced basil leaves, 1/2 tsp. lemon zest and a little salt.  Blend well and heat gently.  Put a pool of pesto cream on the plate and place the meatballs on top (next to the pasta and roasted tomatoes).

Macerated Oranges with Red Moro Medallions and Basil Syrup

This recipe is basically from Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cook Book, except I couldn't leave it alone.  I had some beautifully sweet Texas oranges, but I also had Red Moro oranges, a blood orange cultivar with intense orange and raspberry flavors, which make a gorgeous visual counterpoint Basil syrup and fresh basil puts this light, refreshing dessert over the top.

4 large navel oranges or 6 medium Texas oranges
1/4 cup sugar
grated peel of one medium lemon
juice of 1/2 medium lemon
4 Red Moro oranges (you can substitute blood oranges if you wish; they will be more sour)
Basil Syrup (recipe follows)
fresh basil leaves for garnish

1.  Peel the navel oranges with a knife, removing all the white pith and make orange supremes, allowing all the juices to drip into a bowl and dropping the supremes into the bowl as they're freed from their membrane.  Take care to remove any seeds.
2.  Add the sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest.
3.  Toss the orange supremes lightly in the macerating liquid, cover and chill for at least 4 hours or as long as over night to allow flavors to blend and soften.
4.  Peel the Red Moro oranges with a knife, removing all white pith.
5.  Slice Red Moro oranges crosswise to display sections and the beautiful varigated flesh.
6.  Store Red Moro orange slices in a separate covered container and chill until ready to use.  Can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead.
7.  Make Basil Syrup by combining 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water and a handful of basil leaves.  Bring to boil over medium heat, then turn off heat, cover and let steep until mixture cools to room temperature.  Strain and chill until ready to use.

To assemble dessert:  Divide navel oranges and some of the macerating liquid between 4 chilled dessert dishes.  Divide Red Moro oranges amongst dishes, laying the slices on top.  Drizzle each dish with a generous spoonful of basil syrup, garnish with basil leaves and serve immediately.  Serves 4.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Just a little, easy, inexpensive kitchen redo

Chapter Two

    Wherein we find Vindaloo Tiramisu's husband with that sinking feeling...

The day the sink was dropped in, I wisely had plans to be away from the house.  I semi-planned this departure to give my husband (we'll call him "Poopsie") space and time to work on getting the sink in.  But I also don't like seeing my kitchen in disarray when it's not my doing.  It tends to pierce right to the heart of my control issues.  Tools, plumbing supplies, cardboard boxes and little plastic bags everywhere, like the beginning of a rat's nest.  Call me intolerant, but there it is:

  A good start for an audition on Hoarders.
 Let's get the straight poop from Poopsie:  

       "You would think that putting in a kitchen sink could be done in a reasonable amount of time and effort.  But of course, this was not the case.   The removal of the old sink went without any major hitches except for all the crud that was built up in the drain pipes as well as underneath the sink flange.  Having a weak stomach, it put me off a bit.  But I steeled my resolve, went to my Happy Place and once that mess was cleaned up, I was ready to get on with it.

"The new stainless steel sink, which is sold with absolutely no attachments whatsoever, needed to be dropped in the existing countertop hole to check for proper fit.  The old saying, 'you can't put a round peg in a square hole' comes to mind.  Let me explain: the old sink had rounded corners.  Which meant that the countertop was cut with rounded corners.  The new sink had square corners.  This proved to be the first of several challenges in my wife's little, easy, inexpensive home improvement project.

"After very carefully analyzing the situation and using my considerable problem-solving skills, I decided to bend the square corners of the new sink into round corners with a high-quality pair of Channellocks.  Now, you may be wondering, 'What the hell??'  But my philosophy is to never send a boy to do a man's job.  If you're gonna use a tool, then use a TOOL.  It's also important, especially in this case, to consider the end of the journey, not the road it took to get there.  Because all the bumps and potholes in the road (i.e., dents and modifications to the new sink) are now hidden below the surface.  And you'll be distracted by that great new countertop (and all its accumulating issues) that my wife already told you about in Chapter One.  Hey, I'm not a plumber.  And I'm not a magician.  I build elevators for a living.  So hopefully, nobody will be the wiser, including my unsuspecting wife, who has so much faith in me and all my domestic engineering skills.  Unless she reads this. 

"Somehow, I managed to get the sink to fit, but now I had to install all of the attachments that didn't come with the sink, per manufacturer's instructions.  So I removed the sink to fit the attachments separately (which is much easier than doing it after it's already installed) and got them securely fastened.  Perfectly aligned.  I then dropped the sink back in the hole, smooth as silk, and proceeded to hook up all the water hoses.  I was finally ready to install the 'drain kit.'  This is where my frustration started to ramp up.

"My wife convinced me that she wanted a deeper sink than the old enameled cast iron one that we had had.  I didn't say anything at the time, but I knew I would have to make modifications to the plumbing in order to get the new sink installed.  She also decided to totally remove the garbage disposer, something she was convinced was the result of divine communication; she claimed to have had several conversations with a plumber (whom we might construe as equal to a god, or at least a minor superhero) she had contracted previously.  Said conversation was allegedly about kitchen drains backing up  and the usefulness of the garbage disposer in combination with a septic system.  Apparently, she claims, garbage disposers that handle a lot of food and septic systems don't play nice with each other.  So it was ixnay on the garbage disposer.  Now we have a lovely compost pail.  Do you remember I said I had a weak stomach?

"It turned out, of course, that nothing was standard in this 'standard drain kit,' even though our friendly plumbing department guy at the local big box store assured us that we had everything we needed and that all drain kits were 'standard.'  We've heard this kind of story before, right?  So what this meant was that the kit didn't include several key features, including an adaptive pipe for a lack of a garbage disposer (which determined Trip Number 1 to the local hardware store), an adaptive pipe for a deeper sink (which determined Trip Number 2 to the local hardware store).  And just when I thought we were all hooked up and ready for business, the sink leaked from the drain flange because the 'standard drain kit' didn't fit properly (which determined Trip Number 3 to the local hardware store).  

And I had decided to tackle all of this on Superbowl Sunday.  Guys, some sympathy here, please.

"So let's just say that half the kit didn't work.  It had to be custom fit.  And it turns out that I purchased an additional $35 of plumbing equipment and supplies at the local hardware store (in three separate trips) to supplement the original 'standard drain kit.'  But there's a silver lining!  I now have an impressive assortment of spare plumbing parts.  And I'm now on a first-name basis with all the guys over there--they've promised me a part-time job when I retire in 2025.

"So once again, I get things situated and I'm finally ready for another test run when my wife comes through the door.  She had already called me in excess of 3 times to ask me if I wanted something to eat.  Yes, of course, I'm hungry and a footlong from Subway would be great (Call Number 1).  OK, the line at Subway is out the door and the person in front of you tells you she's ordering 4 Giant Subs.  How about barbeque? (Call Number 2).  OK, the line at the local barbeque joints are all out the door (Call Number 3).  Hell, I don't care what I eat!  I just want to eat! (Call Number 4).

"It would be an understatement to say that I was a bit testy by this time.  Frustrated, hungry, irritable, knowing that the Superbowl is going to start.  Soon.  So when my wife walked through the door, I was not ready to hear what she had to say.  I should have been.  But I was not.  I know that look, that bewilderment making its way across her face as she scans the new sink.  I wonder to myself, "What now?"  She hesitates, knowing that I've been working on this sink for many hours.  She has no food for me in her hands.  This fact does not make things better.

"She began tentatively, 'Honey?' Oh no.  Here it comes.  I stare at her, knowing that her next words are not going to make me feel much better.  'Honey, the soap dispenser needs to be on the other side of the sink.'  In a cloud hunger and fatigue, I saw the hands of the kitchen clock spinning furiously in my mind.  And then she added, meekly, 'And for that matter, all the other attachments except for the faucet need to be rearranged.'  The Super Bowl was going to be underway in less than an hour.  I saw this project stretching into infinity.  The long and winding road of plumbing repairs has many potholes and detours.

"I would have to do this 'rearranging' from underneath the sink, which I estimated to be about 8.5 times harder than my previous attempt.  So I removed everything except the faucet, as my dear wife requested, but then, somehow, I couldn't get the faucet to stabilize.  It wiggled.  A lot.  I couldn't line up the gaskets as well as I had previously.  I fiddled with it some more, but once I got the faucet stabilized, water still leaked from the drainspout and flange (this is where Trip Number 3 to the local hardware store, above, came in).

"I finally managed to change out the drain flange, sealing it with plumber's putty.  Finally, no leaks!  And more importantly, no more complaints from my wife.  And I did manage to finally get something to eat since she took pity on my situation and whipped up something for me, even managing to stay out of the kitchen briefly. 

At this point, I would like to say that I'm not planning to install any more sinks, even though I have to finish the wet bar on the patio in the back yard.  But I'm doing it my way.  No soap dispenser.  Hell, no soap.  No sprayer.  That's what garden hoses are for.  No universal temperature control.  Just straight-up, standard controls that give you cold, hard, running water.  Man water.  None of this prissy, soapy, spray-y thing.  A man sink.  For a man.

"The upside of all of this is that my wife is very happy with the new sink.  She says it looks beautiful (we all know that what you don't know won't hurt you).  She's named her sink Clarice (WHAT???) and says Clarice has a certain subtle sheen and stately elegance.  Hummph.  And she's named the faucet Caprice (Oh my everlovin' GAWD!!!) and says Caprice has a simple, clean arc that can do the job with grace and style.  I suppose my wife is right:

"So, our little, easy, inexpensive kitchen redo spanned several days and, all told, cost us about $450.  True, it was under-budget if you really want to quibble.  But after about 30 woman and man-hours and a lot of frustration, I guess you could tally it up to about an additional $1500 of labor.

"And one more thing.  If you really want to find out the nasty truth about do-it-yourself kitchen projects, check out our friend Steve's blog and his kitchen capers as he puts in his new sink.  It seems times are tough everywhere...

Friday, February 10, 2012

What it feels like to be one year old

One year ago today, I started writing The Voluptuous Table.  It would be an understatement to say that it's been a lot of fun.  I've been in both the most creative place and the most joyous place in my life that I can ever remember being in.

During the past year, I've learned a lot about blogging (that's not over yet), I've learned a lot about cooking (that's not over yet), I've learned a lot about writing about cooking (that's not over yet) and I'm starting to learn a lot about food photography (that's just begun).  I still have a lot of fear and trepidation about taking photos and posting them on the blog.  Lighting?  Angle?  Underexposed?  Overexposed?  Background?  Foreground?  You get the, ah, picture.

What's wrong with this picture?
I have a lot of people to thank for helping me get to be the ripe old age of one.  First of all, I deeply appreciate my readers.  Without them, there would have been no reason to dedicate so much time and intensity to cooking and writing.  It's been like having my own little fan club.  So thank you, thank you, thank you.  You have no idea what it's like to hear from your readers that you have changed the way they eat, the way they look at food and the kinds of food they now choose to feed their families.  That is most gratifying.

I also want to thank my wine guys at Spec's, one of which took off for Napa last fall and is now a successful permanent staff member at Spottswoode Estate Vineyard and Winery.  Mr. "I'd Rather Be Making Wine in California" first knocked my socks off with his extraordinary palate and preferences in wine, then he knocked his future employer's socks off as a temporary harvest worker.  Then he was offered a position created just for him with his own office and fabulous other perks.  We all knew he would succeed and are terribly happy for him now that he is finally in his element, but we miss him sorely.  I'm glad that he's still available to talk with me on the phone into the wee hours about food and wine.

My remaining wine guy, tied to Texas and to his extended family, continues to be a great source of information, humor and inspiration.  He writes a wonderful weekly column for his customers and has been instrumental in helping me launch The Voluptuous Table as a virtual entity.  I'm grateful for his on-the-spot advice and cheerful help with just about any idea I throw his way.  We've discussed many menus together, cooked and shared meals together, but have not tasted not nearly enough wine.  I look forward to that and think of it as my "ongoing research."

I am thankful for my blog consultant, who unfailingly gives me good advice (like "you should add pictures to break up your writing a bit") and great suggestions as to how to improve format, traffic and all things digital.  He's been wonderfully supportive and a great resource.  Since I'm practically a neo-Luddite, I think it's a near-miracle that he's been able to break through my resistance about how I think writing should be and to nudge me into the 21st century.

Can you find the lentil in this picture?

I especially want to thank my closest friends and family, who (mostly eagerly and expectantly) were the guinea pigs in my many in vivo experiments and who consistently supported me and gave me honest feedback.  And I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to my husband.  Without his love, support and encouragement, I don't think the blog, or anything relating to the The Voluptuous Table, would have been so successful.  And without his creative labor, I literally would not have a Voluptuous Table for my guests to gather around.  Thanks, honey, for all you do for me and especially for those times you put up with my "less-than-one-hour-before-guests-arrive-and-I'm-in-the-weeds" meltdowns.

Finally, I want to mention my dear friend, TXMama, who left us very suddenly at the end of last year.  My friendship with her was initiated by our mutual love of food and centered around food and cooking.  We did a lot of that together for many years.  She was a strong supporter of my blog when I first started writing and told me that she experienced a lot of joy in hearing about all things Voluptuous Table even though her health prohibited her from all her formerly favorite activities.  Although she can no longer join me in the kitchen as she had many times, she remains with me in spirit.  I'm convinced that her guardian angel status now protects me from cutting and burning myself, because I haven't done that very much since she went to that Great Dream Kitchen in the Sky where I am sure that she is at least sous chef to St. Peter.

So happy birthday, Voluptuous Table!  May your tastebuds keep dancing!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Just a little, easy, inexpensive kitchen redo

Chapter One

     Wherein we find our heroine, Vindaloo Tiramisu, in a counter-productive situation...

You've read about my dream kitchen before.  And because I am impatient and a bit of a dreamer, and I believe that one day all my dreams will come true (I obviously still need some psychoanalytic Jungian-based therapy for that), I decided to come a little closer to my Dream Kitchen by attempting to effect some change in my much-beloved but down-at-heels kitchen.  I decided to redo the countertops and put in a new sink and faucet.

I've had these brief bouts of psychosis before.  You would think that experience would have taught me something.

But nonetheless, I carefully budgeted and planned for this project.  I figured it would cost me about $500, something I could afford, since the $50,000 redo was definitely not in the budget for 2012.  Or any fiscal year in the next decade.

This is what I wanted to get rid of:

The manufacturers of Comet loved me!
So I did:

Actually, I didn't remove that pathetic enameled cast iron sink.  My husband and all of his brute force did.  Note the surrounding white laminate countertop.  It is the last time you will ever see it alive.  I am determined to have sleek, black countertops very soon.  This, you see, is part of my psychosis.

I had read a little (remember, "a little" is the operative phrase here) about a product called Rustoleum Countertop Coating.  Unfortunately, the "little" I read was only what the manufacturers of Rustoleum products wanted me to know about this product.  The good folks at Rustoleum said that it was easy to use, that it would restore my laminate countertops and that it would provide HomeShield TM AntiMicrobial Protection.  What I didn't read was the string of posts on someone else's blog from all the people who had less-than-stellar outcomes with this product.  The reviews are mixed, but there is a significant component of folks who are unhappy with the finished results.  Like moi.

I never did like doing my homework.  But since it only cost $25 for a quart-size can, plenty to cover my kitchen countertops generously in less than 4 hours, I thought I was getting a lot of bang for the buck.  Economy, beauty, efficiency.  I was sold.  Down the river like the proverbial victim of a circus huckster. 

So after the first coat, I was initially very excited.  Ladies and gentlemen, step right up!  See the transformation of old, outdated kitchen countertop for just pennies!

Wow!  Looks (almost) brand new!
When the coating first goes on, it's shiny and glossy and you think, "Gee, this is going to be great!"  But there is something that is influencing your thinking besides the temporary escape into your fantasy world of having an almost brand-new counter (for just pennies).

Fumes.  And lots of them.  This product is very potent.  If you are sensitive to respiratory distress, I would suggest you forgo using this product since it literally will assault your lungs.  It is a solvent-based epoxy and even with windows and doors open, fans going and a mask, it is very strong and will sting your eyes and throat.  I have to wonder how many brain cells I sacrificed in the name of cosmetic alteration, not to mention whatever damage may have occurred to my liver and kidneys.

To wit, the list of toxicological information starts with the chemical n-Butyl Acetate.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have compiled a nice, tidy little report about this chemical and reading it post-use makes me extremely uncomfortable, since there were eight other chemicals listed in the Rustoleum Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that were also considered toxic. I should have read this document, the MSDS for Rustoleum Countertop Coating, first.  But I did not, and when I was done applying this product, I had a raging headache and felt like a huffer who had locked himself in a closet for an extended session with a 5-gallon can of gasoline.

So then, hours later, the truth began to surface.  Instead of a beautiful, glossy finish, what I got was this:

It is what it is.

Something glossy and something nappy.  All in one!!  Apparently, this product dries so fast that your roller will begin to pick it up from the surface and make a very uneven texture.  Do you notice the texture change in the bottom middle of the picture?  It apparently takes experience and skill to get the finish to be consistent--something Rustoleum fails to mention.  Second, if you are cutting in corners and tight areas with a small foam applicator or brush as the product suggests, any coating not feathered out completely on all the edges will dry into a noticeable ridge and will be very visible under the next coat.

I'm going to file this experience in my "Live and Learn" drawer.  It's a very large drawer.

The Rustoleum Company asks that you let your countertops dry at least 3 days.  Now, what I paid attention to in my impatience for a new(er) kitchen was "3 days," not "at least 3 days."  I am here to tell you that 3 days is not enough for this product to cure.  I now have permanent marks where the feet of all my countertop appliances were placed, I have permanent fingerprints, I have permanent gouges, I have a permanent ring where a glass sat, I have a permanent ring where a hot cup of tea sat.

I am NOT happy.  Again, referring to the above picture, the greyish marks in the bottom left and upper left of the picture are from casual use.  And after more than 3 days of curing time.

My brother suggested I get a drywall sanding block and try to even out the gouges and rings, then repaint with more countertop coating, or put on a couple of coats of polyurethane.  Which, of course, is also toxic and should not come into contact with consumables.  Please note this toxicology report on the CDC website for isocyanate products--that would include polyurethane.  See the man in the white Tyvek suit and the gas mask?  See all that heavy plastic sheeting on everything?  Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about.

So, back to the sanding suggestion, which makes the surface look like this:

All the gouges, all the rings, all the excitement of the previous rendition.  And then some.  And did I mention that the house still reeks of chemicals? 

So here we are.  In Nightmare Kitchen Land.  What to do?  I'm hoping you all have some suggestions for me.  Because I'm about to cover everything with Contact Paper and call it a day.  Meanwhile, I do not let anything, I mean ANYTHING come into contact with my countertops if it's going in my mouth.  Just in case.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Lentils: the legume that needs more love

The lowly lentil.  Something that never made its way into my culinary repertoire until adulthood.   A lentil is not terribly attractive.  It's small, brown, round and almost homely next to more exciting legumes like anasazi beans, which look like miniature pinto ponies, or sleek black beans with their rich, purple undertones, or split peas with their vibrant green hue, or even chickpeas, with their little dimples.

No, lentils are something that one could easily pass by for their nondescript-ness.  Unless you can see and experience their potential.  Lentils are rather like a librarian who looks quiet and unassuming by day, but is a knock-out sex kitten when she lets her hair down.

Because I think they are so neglected, I'll go so far as to suggest that lentils are the legume that needs more love.  And love them we should, because lentils are full of protein, fiber, amino acids, vitamins and minerals and are an important part of a lot vegetarian diets.  They cook fairly quickly, in about 30 minutes, as opposed to the 2 hours or more than a lot of other legumes take to cook.  They have also been a part of the human diet since the Neolithic period.  Find more information about this unassuming little legume here.

So today I bring you Lentils Four Ways.  I'll give you four recipes, all very different in their flavor profiles,  but all very easy and delicious.  What's more?  Cooked lentils freeze beautifully.  So you can make a batch of lentils, eat your fill and store the leftovers until you're craving lentils again.  And believe me, you will crave them.  To me, nothing tastes quite as good as bowl of well-seasoned lentils on a blustery winter day.

My Friend Thrint's Favorite Lentil Soup

Thrint credits Alton Brown with this recipe.  I just made it last night for the first time and it was beautifully seasoned.  Thrint likes to use an immersion blender to make his finished soup a little smoother; I like the texture of the lentils and finely chopped vegetables.  But have it your way.  This recipe calls for an ingredient known as grains of paradise, which you can find at Central Market in Austin in the bulk foods section, or you can mail order this spice from a wonderful company I'm beginning to do business with, The Spice House.  If you can't find grains of paradise or don't want to use this spice, substitute pepper, because GOP (pardon the political reference here) is a pungent, peppery spice.

What I also did with this recipe was to roast a pan of chopped kale with plenty of EVOO, kosher salt and garlic until the kale was crispy.  Then I used the crispy kale like croutons on my soup.  It was a flavor bomb!

Lentil and Sausage Soup

I've been making this soup for years.  It's a recipe from an old Family Circle publication and it's the soup that I credit for turning me on to how delicious lentils are.  Rich and hearty, it's a great soup for supper with a salad and crusty bread.

1 cup dried lentils
6 cups water or broth
8 oz. canned tomato sauce
1/2 lb. Italian sausage, mild or hot
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 lb. fresh baby spinach or 1 10 oz. pkg. frozen chopped spinach, partially thawed
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/4 cup ditalini or other small pasta
grated Parmesan cheese for serving

1.  Wash and pick over lentils; place in a large saucepan with water or broth and tomato sauce.
2.  Bring to a boil, lower heat and let simmer while you prepare the rest of the soup.
3.  Remove casings from sausage.
4.  Heat oil in a large skillet, then saute sausage, browning well, breaking up chunks with a wooden spoon.
5.  Stir in chopped carrot, onion and celery and cook until just tender, about 10 minutes.
6.  While vegetables cook, coarsely chop spinach.  If you are using frozen spinach, cut block into small pieces.
7.   Add spinach and meat/vegetable mixture to lentils.
8.   Stir in salt and pepper; simmer for 30 minutes.
9.   Add pasta and cook, covered, 10 minutes more, or until lentils are tender.  Serve hot with grated cheese.  Serves 6.

Soupa Fakes

The tang of the red wine vinegar that finishes this soup is surprising and lovely.  This is a recipe from Sofi Konstantinides' cookbook Sofi's Aegean Kitchen, a favorite cookbook of mine, brimming with fabulous Greek food.
1 lb. dried lentils                                             2 bay leaves
6 cups water                                                    ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped                   salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 garlic cloves, minced                                    ½ cup red wine vinegar
2 large tomatoes, thickly sliced

Rinse lentils well and put them into a pot with water.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer over medium-low heat for about 45 minutes, or until lentils are almost tender. 

Add the onions, garlic, tomatoes, bay leaves, olive oil, and salt and pepper.  Simmer the soup, partly covered, over low heat for about 50 minutes, until it has thickened.  Stir in the vinegar and heat thoroughly.  Serve hot or warm.

NOTE:  I like to add a good dollop of plain Greek-style yoghurt, or a nice piece of creamy goat cheese, such as Chevre, or Montrachet.  This soup is excellent with pita bread or any crusty bread and a green salad.  Makes a lovely lunch or supper for 6.

Truly Delicious Everyday Dal

I've published this recipe from Sudha Koul's wonderful little book, Curries Without Worries, in a previous post, but want to mention it again since it is an important part of my soup repertoire.  It's easy, it's incredibly flavorful and it's Indian.  It will perfume your house and all your neighbors will line up at your door to sample it.  Truly.

May your tastebuds do the Lindy with lentils!