Wednesday, August 29, 2012

If you don't get some damn peaches you're dead to me

I love me a cold beer on a summer night (or day), but when it comes to hard alcohol, I’m a lightweight of the most pathetic sort. Which explains why, after a single slurp of my peach-vodka granita mixture (for recipe-testing purposes only), I had a very slight buzz on a Tuesday afternoon. I was quite ashamed of this, of course. But when the recipe Gods call, I must heed.

Making granita accomplished several things:
  • I got to use some hard-won peaches. My friend Rosie and I recently decided that a hot humid day in mid-August would be a good time to push toddlers in strollers up a steep, rocky, quarter-mile hill in order to pick peaches at a local farm. Our friendship was tested when I almost gave up at the top of the hill, and Rosie gave me a sweaty and breathless ultimatum: “If you don’t get some damn peaches, you’re dead to me.”
  • It allowed me to use some of the vodka that’s been taking up space in my freezer since I got it in a Yankee Swap many years ago.
  • It made me seem much fancier than I really am because doesn’t granita just sound so gourmet and fabulous?
  • It's an easy, thrown-together dessert/cocktail all rolled into one. Here's how easy it is.
Recipe: Peach-vodka granita
Serves two, but it doubles easily
  1. Wait until your peaches are very, very ripe (right around the time a well-meaning houseguest might suggest that you put them in the refrigerator instead of keeping them on the counter).
  2. Peel, pit, and blend 3 or 4 of them in the food processor, to yield about 1 ½ cups of peach puree.
  3. Add ¼ cup of vodka (add more if you like more, or just leave it out), about 10 drops of bitters (a totally non-essential ingredient, but a nice touch if you happen to have them), and 1 tablespoon of honey. Give it another swirl in the food processor until everything’s nice and smooth.
  4. Pour it into a plastic storage container, cover, and freeze it overnight.
  5. To serve, scrape it with a fork to make a kind of thick slush and mound it up all pretty in a glass.
  6. Garnish with a mint leaf (or maybe some candied ginger?) for guests or simply devour in your pajamas with the freezer door still open if you’re alone.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Recipe: Fake-meat lasagna that’s probably not fooling anyone but still tastes really good

“What’s for dinner?” Brian asked a few nights ago.

“Vegetarian lasagna!” I enthused, thinking that a loud, high-pitched, and overly excited reply would trick him into preferring fake meat.

He slunk out of the kitchen.
No matter how chipper my declaration, Brian will always prefer real meat in his lasagna, just as I will never support the sale or consumption of reduced-fat cheese, which, by my definition, flies in the face of living an enjoyable life. Why even bother getting out of bed in the morning if you routinely deny yourself the simple and profound pleasure of real cheese?
In truth, I am not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes by making faux-meat lasagna. I don’t expect anyone to be reeling in disbelief when I reveal, hidden-camera style, that what they’ve just eaten is not actually ground beef but a brilliant and beguiling imitation.
I find eating lasagna that’s made exclusively with vegetables to be a frustrating exercise in being hungry—and a little angry—ten minutes after eating. But because the faux-meat lasagna that I make employs a meat imitator rather than what is essentially hot salad squished in between noodles and sauce, it is a mighty tasty substitute for the real thing.
Making vegetarian lasagna also provides an excellent opportunity to get a knife into your child’s hands—not a phrase that usually generates excitement, I am aware. But helping out in the kitchen keeps your kid out of shenanigans while you’re trying to get dinner on the table. Plus, entrusting them with a knife makes them oddly careful and respectful of their task. Chloe is three years old and uses a butter knife to chop soft fruits and vegetables with aplomb.
The recipe gets its meaty heft from sautéed portabella mushrooms and the contents of a 9-ounce box of Veggie Patch-brand meatless meatballs (which thus should be simply referred to as “balls,” but I see the marketing problem that may pose).
Faux-meat lasagna
Adapted from the Barilla Four Layer No-boil Lasagna
You’ll need:
·         1 box of no-boil lasagna (although they spell it “lasagne” on the box, hmmm)
·         2 eggs
·         1 15-oz container of ricotta cheese
·         ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
·         1 package of veggie “meatballs” or veggie fake meat crumbles (I like Veggie Patch-brand meatless meatballs)
·         1 cup chopped portabella mushroom caps
·         2 jars marinara sauce
·         4 cups of shredded mozzarella cheese

 Here’s how to make it: 

·         Preheat oven to 375
·         Don’t boil the lasagna, but you can read, so I don’t need to tell you that
·         Put it all together
·         Beat eggs and stir in the ricotta, 2 cups of the mozzarella and all of the parmesan
·         Sautee the mushrooms in olive oil and a pinch of salt until they’re soft; remove from heat
·         Break up the fake meatballs so they’re in chunks similar to ground beef and add to the mushrooms, just to incorporate
·         Spread 1 cup of tomato sauce on bottom of 13x9 baking pan
·         Layer 4 lasagna sheets, 1/3 of ricotta mixture, half of the “meat” and mushrooms, 1 cup of mozzarella, and 1 cup of sauce
·         Layer 4 lasagna sheets, 1/3 of ricotta mixture, and 1 ½ cups of sauce
·         Layer 4 lasagna sheets, the rest of the ricotta mixture and fake meat, and 1 cup of sauce
·         Layer 4 lasagna sheets, the rest of the sauce, and the rest of the mozzarella
·         Bake 50-60 minutes or until it’s bubbling
·         Let it set up for 15 or 20 minutes so it doesn’t become a soupy, runny mess the second you cut into it

Saturday, August 11, 2012

I am not a fricken genius

In the grand tradition of my grandmother—who once dressed a fruit salad with meat marinade and served it to a crowd—I am trying to do more experimentation with food. Having been on the receiving end of my grandmother’s fruit salad, I know that it’s wise to tread carefully in this area. I have discovered that not every idea is a good idea. I have also discovered that not everything from your local farm stand is infused with whimsy and magic.

I’m on a local food high as Brian and I prepare to make my mother a birthday feast. We have in our possession farm-fresh handmade sausage, crisp dandelion greens, a bagful of corn on the cob, a pint of just-picked blueberries, and a bottle of cream from cows that live only a few towns away. We’ll bake the sausages, sauté the greens with garlic, and for dessert, whip the cream into a lovely topping for blueberries.
I’m aware that such local food orgies appear often in the pages of the glossy magazines and dreamily photographed blogs that I so admire. In those scenarios, a sprite-like child helps to shuck corn while mom sets the reclaimed wood farmhouse table with charmingly mismatched vintage plates.
So I invite Chloe to climb onto a kitchen chair and help me whip the cream. I open the bottle to see that a thick plug of cream has risen to the top—not uncommon with fresh milk that hasn’t been homogenized.
“The crème de la crème!” I declare, leaning over to smell the sweet cream. Except.
“Does this smell alright to you?” I ask my mother, tilting the bottle toward her nose. She takes a whiff and makes a face.
“It’s a little sour,” she admits.
I smell it again. Yuck. I pour it into the bowl. Chunks.
I dash out into the rain to get some cream at the convenience store next door—perhaps the antithesis of the farm stand. I come home soaking wet with a carton of light cream because the convenience store doesn't have whipping cream. No convenience store does. Which is not very convenient.
But I try to whip it anyway, assaulting the cream with an electric beater for several minutes. No whipped cream. Just a bowl full of bubbles. It occurs to me that there’s not enough butter fat in light cream for it to whip properly. Then, I have an epiphany. I’ll just replace the missing butter fat with butter! I’m a fricken genius. I can’t believe I’ve revolutionized cooking in this way. So I cut a few tablespoons of butter into the food processor, pour in the cream and a little sugar, and let her rip.
Here’s what I have learned:
  • Trying to make whipped cream out of butter and light cream will simply create wet butter.
  • I am not a fricken genius. I have not revolutionized cooking. In fact, I may have set it back slightly.
  • Convenience stores sell cans of whipped cream for a reason.
  • Your mom will love her birthday dinner even if the dessert is still-liquid cream poured over blueberries.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Jamming out

One of the hallmarks of jam makers seems to be their propensity for giving away their creations. The Ball Blue Book—the decades-old, venerable holy bible of home preserving—touts the fact that your homemade jams and relishes, when tied with a ribbon and affixed with a handwritten label, will make beautiful gifts. I am far too selfish of a person for this kind of gift giving. Jam making is hard fucking work! And unless your sweat, along with mine, dripped down your neck while these blueberries were being plucked, one by one, from their sun-beaten bush, don’t expect a jar of jam in your Christmas stocking from me.

My jam makes for a pretty finished product, but the process for getting there is anything but. That’s why I prefer to cook alone. As I’ve mentioned before, I have many things going against me when it comes to being a graceful chef. I’m disorganized. I make a mess and leave a trail. I swear a lot. I drop things and break things and hurt myself. The phrase “Mama cut her finger with a chef knife” was recently a major part of Chloe’s catching-up chit-chat with people she hadn’t seen in a while.

Maybe that’s why jam making and canning appeals to me and challenges me so much. It is precise and allows no room for error. It requires organization and exacting tools and tight choreography. It requires preparation and meticulousness. As someone who loses her keys every single day, home canning is a complete departure from my personality. It’s teaching me discipline and exactitude, which is like teaching math to a cat. But that’s exactly why—when it comes out right—it’s so very, very rewarding.
Things to do with homemade blueberry jam:
  1. Spread it on toast
  2. Make the best darn PB&J you’ve ever eaten
  3. Swirl it into yogurt for food-of-the-gods-good blueberry yogurt
  4. Warm it up a little and spoon it on top of cheesecake or vanilla ice cream
  5. Sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night and eat it straight from the jar
  6. Give it as a gift, if you’re a nicer person than me