Monday, October 28, 2013

How to keep vampires away from your chocolate chip cookies

Ever since I first saw Susan Sarandon, David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger (1983), I've been a fan of the vampire legend.  If you haven't seen this moody, seductive thriller, definitely one of the cult classics, put it on your bucket list.  Catherine Deneuve is first on the list of The 20 Hottest Vampires, a list that also includes the sulky-sexy Alexander Skarsgard of HBO's True Blood and of course, Brad Pitt of Interview with the Vampire.

Catherine Deneuve as Miriam, a centuries-old Egyptian vampire in The Hunger
Photo credit:
Let's face it: vampires are sexy. 

But it wasn't always this way.  Vampires of folklore  were ghoulish, ruthless bloodsuckers (sort of like your old boyfriend) who didn't so much seduce as overpower their victims.  The myths surrounding them seem more a way of making sense of unexplained events, expressing fear of the unknown and especially fear of contagion.  How timely and appropriate is Richard Matheson's 1954 story "I Am Legend," written near the start of the Cold War?

Modern vampires, seductive, suave and oh-so-smooth are an outgrowth of the popularity of 19th c. European vampire literature and modern American media.  But the eroticism of vampires and vampire legends is undeniably powerful.  What teenage girl (or adult woman) has not swooned over (or at least is not familiar with) The Twilight Saga's lovestruck Edward Cullen? 

More importantly, would Bella have shared her chocolate chip cookies with Edward?  In Vindaloo's house, it's doubtful that chocolate of any kind would be shared, even with someone as beautiful and mysterious as Edward.  Even if someone did offer to bite my neck.

So just what would you do if you wanted to keep a vampire--even one you're hopelessly in love with--away from your chocolate? 

Why, garlic, silly.

I recently made Garlic Chocolate Chip Cookies for a garlic-themed dinner party.  I had heard of these cookies before and only gave them a cursory nod.  I love garlic but couldn't imagine what it would be like in cookies.  And even though I like to think of myself as adventurous, I can be pretty narrow-minded at times.  Who would want to ruin a perfectly good batch of chocolate chip cookies with garlic, I mused.  Then I realized that this recipe would be quite useful for keeping away vampires, pesky night-crawling creatures (and likely, other squeamish folks).

These cookies are buttery, rich and nutty-tasting; some people even think they have coconut in them (which they don't, but I suppose you could add some and still get great results).  I followed the directions closely, except for the length of time I steeped the garlic in the maple syrup.  My steeping time turned out to be about twice as long as the recipe recommended--and I don't think it hurt the cookies a bit.

So why don't you whip up a batch this week?  You've no time to waste.  Long about Thursday, vampires will be everywhere.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A family meal from my mother's larder

My family jokes that when I fly in for a visit, as soon as I am off the plane, I start cooking.  Not far from the truth.  Due to various illnesses and emergencies, there have been several holiday dinners that wouldn't have happened if another cook didn't step in.

I never resent time spent doing this.  Early on in this blog, I wrote about how meaningful it is to me to cook for friends and family.  It is my way of connecting and loving.  And I am fortunate to have friends and family who appreciate my efforts, and who will connect and return the love.

Lately, when I visit my mother's house in North Carolina, I will often do a lot of the cooking because my mother being almost 78 years old (spry though she still is), enjoys a break.  My youngest brother often likes to jump in and help while the rest of the family mills around or sits in the expansive kitchen / living room / dining room that is part of the fabulous layout of my mother's house.  We are able to talk and joke, listen to music or even watch a movie together in this well-designed Great Big Room while the cooking is going on.

Thankfully, my mother's larder (and I mean this only in the figurative sense) is still well-stocked, even though she does less cooking now that my father is feasting on heavenly victuals.  My mother is still very socially active, but it's obvious that cooking for yourself in your 70's is not as appealing as cooking for your family or life partner, who, of course, will be present to share the fruits of your labor with you.

My mother has always had a full larder.  We joke about being food hoarders (not far from the truth), or being able to feed the entire neighborhood if the power went out for an extended time (also not far from the truth).  My mother has been an adventurous cook (and an adventurous eater) all her life, perhaps not reaching quite so far for the exotic as her daughter, but I can count on her to have most of what I need when I visit.  Like most serious cooks, I will often bring the things I need with me.  But if time is short, I will flip my creativity switch on "HI" and use what's available, something I did this past weekend.

These meals are often among the most memorable.  I leave it to you to decide whether the meal I recently created was memorable in a good way:

Spice-Infused Pork Roast with Apples, Fennel, Raisins and Cider Vinegar Pan Sauce
     Serve this succulent roast with risotto and roasted asparagus.  A good, fruity, light red with a little acidity is the perfect wine to drink alongside.

3 to 4 lb. pork loin or Boston butt roast

1 tsp. peppercorns

1 tsp. coriander seed

1 tsp. fennel seed

1 tsp. dried rosemary leaves

zest of one lemon
6 cloves garlic, minced
kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil
4 to 6 slices thick bacon, optional
butcher's twine or strong, clean string
2 firm, tart apples, such as Granny Smith or Mutsu, cored and cut into eighths
2 large head fennel, trimmed and cut into 8 pieces, some fronds reserved for garnish
1 medium sweet onion, cut into bite-sized chunks (can substitute 1/2 red onion if desired)
juice of 1/2 lemon
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbs. raisins
2 Tbs. brandy
2 Tbs. water
1 Tbs. cider vinegar, or to taste
1.)  Trim excess fat from pork with a boning knife.  If using a pork loin, butterfly the roast; if using a Boston butt, score the top surface about 1/2" deep with a sharp knife.
2.)  Combine peppercorns, coriander seed, fennel seed and rosemary in a small skillet and toast over medium to medium-low heat until fragrant.
3.)  When the spices are cool, put them into a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder and grind to a coarse texture.
4.)  In a medium bowl, combine the ground spices with lemon zest, garlic, kosher salt to taste and enough olive oil to make a loose paste.
5.)  If using the butterflied roast, smear all but about 1 Tbs. of the spice paste over the surface of the meat that you have cut open.  Starting at one long end, start rolling meat up like a jelly roll, then tie roast in 3 places with butcher's twine.  Smear remaining paste over top of the tied roast, but DO NOT WASH the bowl (you will be tossing some of the remaining ingredients in it).  If using bacon, wrap it around the roast and secure with toothpicks.  Let sit at room temperature for about 1 hour, or cover and store in refrigerator until ready to cook (tossing apple mixture in spice paste bowl and storing separately), up to 8 hours.  Bring meat to room temperature before roasting.
6.)  If using scored Boston butt roast, smear the spice paste over the surface of the roast, making sure you get the seasoning into all the crevices.  DO NOT WASH the bowl (you will be tossing some of the remaining ingredients in it).  If using bacon, wrap it over the roast and secure with toothpicks.  Let sit at room temperature for about 1 hour, or cover and store in refrigerator until ready to cook (tossing apple mixture in spice paste bowl and storing separately), up to 8 hours.  Bring meat to room temperature before roasting.
7.)  Heat oven to 475 degrees. 
8.)  Combine apples, fennel,  and onion in bowl that spice paste was prepared (you can do this early, following step 9 as well if you are storing to cook roast later).
9.)  Add lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.  Toss until well-coated, adding a little extra olive oil if desired.  Set aside.
10.) Combine raisins, brandy and water in a small heat-proof container and microwave for 45 seconds to plump the raisins.  Set aside.
11.) Put pork roast in the appropriate sized baking pan and surround with apple-fennel mixture, then pour raisins and liquid over the apple-fennel mixture.
12.) Sear in preheated oven for approximately 20 minutes.  Sometimes it helps to use the broiler element to brown the cap of the roast well.
13.) Tent pork loosely with foil and reduce heat to 325 degrees.
14.) Cook pork 30 to 35 min. per lb.  If cooking a larger roast, such as the Boston butt roast, you can roast it at a temperature of 275 degrees for up t0 8 hours for a meltingly tender roast.
15.) When ready to serve, transfer roast to cutting board and let rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.  Arrange sliced pork on a platter and surround with apples, onions, fennel and raisins, wrap loosely with foil and keep warm while you make the pan sauce.
16.) To make the pan sauce, strain pan juices into a small sauce pan and bring to a boil, reducing volume by one-third.
17.) Stir in cider vinegar and taste for salt and pepper.  The sauce should just be mildly tart; add more or less cider vinegar to your taste. 
18.) Serve sauce on the side with the pork.  Garnish pork, if you wish, with reserved fennel fronds.  Serves 6 to 8 people.

This wine was a perfect foil for the richness of the pork.  It's what I call a "supermarket wine," but it stood up beautifully with the dinner, bringing a mouth full of plum and raspberry and, because of the oak, a spicy finish.  Nicely prominent tannins, inky in the glass.  A bargain at less than $12.  And best of all, I found this in a little town in North Carolina at the local supermarket.  Booyah!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

When the cat is away...

Let me first say that before he met me, my husband was fully functional.  He fed, washed and dressed himself.  He drove himself to and from his job, paid his bills and spent time with his family.  He had a social life, and enjoyed golfing frequently.  He had friends, a cell phone, a cat.  He was an adult.

He continues to be fully functional cell phone-owning, cat-loving adult, but I think I have made a huge mistake.  I've expected that, after three years of gently and gradually overhauling his eating habits, he would no longer reach for fast food pizza and the box of raisin bran (extra sugar sprinkled on top, please) as soon as his wife leaves town.

Image from Google Images

In fact, just this morning, I woke from a fretful sleep after having a nightmare of this playing on an endless loop.  It was like Groundhog Day sponsored by the high-fructose corn syrup industry.

So, perhaps the question is, why do I care?

My husband has benefited in the food and nutrition department since he's met me.  Even he admits that.  And I don't think he will ever return to a diet of frozen burritos and canned fruit, something he was living almost exclusively on when we met.  But the sugar, now that's another story...

Earlier this week, when I was making plans to be out of town for several days, I began to feel a sense of anxiety about the havoc he's capable of wreaking with sugar.  We had this conversation:

Me:  "Would you like me to make you some chili, or stew or a casserole before I leave?  You know, something you can heat up quickly when you get home at night?"

Him:  "No, thanks, babe."

Me:  "But what are you going to eat for dinner while I'm gone?"

Him:  "I'm a big boy.  There's cereal in the pantry."

Me:  "What?!  You're going to eat cereal every night while I'm gone?  With an extra cup of sugar?  And a Coke on the side?"

Him:  "What's wrong with that?  I ate a lot of cereal for dinner before I met you."

Me:  "Yeah, but now you have it with an ice cream appetizer and candy bar dessert.  I've seen you."

Him:  "So if I don't want to eat cereal, I can get a pizza or a sub."

Me:  "You're totally avoiding the issue about the sugar!  Really, let me make you some chili before I go.  I don't like that you're going to eat cereal and fast food and all that sugar while I'm out of town.  God knows you'll eat crap for lunch and no breakfast."

Him;  "So, what do you want me to do, lie to you?  Should I tell you to make chili for me so that you feel better about yourself, then I'll go ahead and eat what I want anyway?"

I have to admit, that last point shut me up.  Apparently, it never occurred to me that he wouldn't want to eat his wife's cooking.  It never crossed my mind that he might need a little haute cuisine vacation.  Especially, he might want to practice his sugar addiction in the privacy of his own home with no one around going into paroxysms over the amount of sugar he chooses to consume.

And maybe he needs a little vacation from his wife as well.  He can leave his boots where he wants, get away with not making the bed in the morning.  He can put the heat on 77 when he feels a chill in the evening and leave it blasting all night.  He can leave lights on in every room, build a rat's nest of candy wrappers next to the TV, leave half-empty Coke cans around the garage, kitchen and back yard and forget to give our elderly dog her supplements.  He can let dishes pile up in the sink--although by the sound of things, he's not planning on using many dishes.

But he'll be happy  And I'll try not to think about it while I'm gone.  He's a big boy.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A taste of Americana

I have a friend who, every so often, decides that it is time for a change.  She thinks carefully about her trip, preferring to avoid heavily-traveled interstates and other highways that are clogged with travelers.  Instead, she prefers the quiet, scenic routes.  She packs up what she can fit in her compact car, gathers her maps and then sets out on her travels with a kind of intention and care toward nourishing her soul.  This sort of journey is rarely experienced or witnessed by any of us.

She stops when and where she wishes, driving almost exclusively in silence so that she can reflect, meditate and allow the scenery to deliver its gifts to her.  She will often linger for a day in what she calls "seriously cute towns," browsing through museums when she gets the urge, and amble through antique shops.  She talks to the people she meets along the way, savoring her interactions.  She stops along the roadside to take pictures, she sends postcards from the towns and villages she's most impressed with and, what I most appreciate about her, writes beautiful posts about her trip and experiences.  She is an artist with words and paints the most heartbreakingly beautiful pictures in her narratives.  All of her friends think she should write a book.

She is a very rich woman in so many ways, and I am blessed to know her.  She savors everything, both sunny days and thunderstorms.  She allows herself to sit with fear, discomfort and to simply be in the Now.  She has taught me a lot about being present, attentive, alive.

Here is her latest picture to me from Yellow Springs, Ohio:

My traveling friend takes beautiful pictures.
Traveling through small towns evokes the pure essence of Americana, and rummaging through antique shops and flea markets, purveyors of both the distillation and the detritus of our culture, often bring a sense of wistful longing and sentimentality about what once was.  Even though our recollections aren't always accurate.

Another friend, Christian Montone, creates vivid, pigment-infused images of the architecture and objects of Americana (although he may not think of his art in that way) that he encounters in his travels and everyday experiences.  See his website, Art Skool Damage, here.  Please tell him how much you like what he sees and how he sees it.

Photo by Christian Montone, 2013

Photo by Christian Montone, 2013

Americana through Christian's eyes.

Americana is not only in the fields of sunflowers, mid-century architecture and flea market kitsch, it's in every bite of the foods we love.  It's the foundation of comfort food and the very essence of Back Home, that nostalgic place in our minds and hearts that means family, warmth, togetherness, and a deep sense of satisfaction that all is as it should be.  We each have our own Back Home, a place where the food is familiar and nourishing, made from scratch and from time-honored recipes that Grandma scrawled on the inside of her Bible, or that got passed down at family reunions.  And it seems that each region in America--often, each state--takes pride in a comforting, crowd-pleasing favorite--Texas Sheet Cake, y'all?  Utah Funeral Potatoes?  Classic Chicago Hot Dog?  Find a great tribute to and a recipe for this amazing all-American icon-on-a-bun here.

Recently, at a large dinner party, I took my guests on a brief summer road trip Back Home in the form of America's regional foods.  The two dishes that absolutely got demolished were the Oklahoma BBQ--tender, shredded beef roast slow-cooked in a delicious piquant sauce that's not too sweet and not too sour, and the Kansas City Coleslaw, which is a simple but excellent recipe that I've been using from the back of the Dole coleslaw bag for years.  The coleslaw recipe doesn't seem to be on the Dole website any longer (but it appears below), although this coleslaw recipe is also really yummy.

Serve Oklahoma BBQ on large, crusty or soft rolls or on slider buns (more fun because obviously, you can have two!), along with the coleslaw, your favorite potato salad or chips and of course, garlicky dill pickles.  Since we are still enduring enjoying warm weather in Texas, Oklahoma BBQ is a perfect bridge to cooler weather.  Start it a day ahead and finish cooking the next day for best flavor.  It makes a lot, so freeze leftovers to enjoy on a cold, blustery night in December when you're needing a bit of Americana and the comforts of being Back Home.

My photos are not nearly as good as my friends', but I might be a better cook!

Oklahoma BBQ
     A long-lost friend shared this recipe with me when I was in my early 30's.  It's been a favorite ever since.  

5-7 lbs. rump roast or other beef, such as brisket
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 large onions, minced
2 tsp. celery salt
2 Tbs. Liquid Smoke (such as Figaro, or see how to make your own here)
1 tsp. ground black pepper
2 1/2 oz. Worcestershire sauce

1.)  Put meat, fat side down, in a large Dutch oven.
2.)  Cover with ingredients listed above, wrap or cover and chill overnight.
3.)  The next day, bake for 6 hours, covered, at 275 degrees.
4.)  Meanwhile, prepare BBQ Sauce (recipe follows).
5.)  Remove from oven and cool; drain and discard liquid.
6.)  Shred the meat, discard the fat and mix with BBQ Sauce until the proper consistency is achieved.
7.)  Serve hot on rolls with you favorite sides.  Serves 12 generously, with leftovers.

BBQ Sauce

     This sauce is looser than commercially-prepared sauces, but you can decrease the amount of water to your liking.

32 oz. catsup
2 cups water (use 1/2 cup less for a thicker sauce)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. vinegar
2 or more dashes hot sauce
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. chili powder
1 Tbs. Liquid Smoke (see notes in above ingredient list)
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1 1/4 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper.

Combine all ingredients in a 4 quart pot, stir well and simmer for 30 minutes.  Makes about 6 cups.  Leftover sauce is great for other meats (such as grilled salmon) and can be frozen.

Kansas City Coleslaw

1 16 oz. bag coleslaw mix (or shred 2 generous cups cabbage and carrots)
1/2 cup good-quality mayonnaise
2 Tbs. milk
1 Tbs. cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. sugar

1.)  Put shredded cabbage and carrots in a medium-sized bowl.
2.)  Mix together well the remaining ingredients in a small bowl or mug and pour over cabbage and carrots.
3.)  Toss until well-coated.
4.)  Chill at least one hour before serving.  Serves 4.