Saturday, December 27, 2008

Saturday Lark.

For the first time since it began snowing the streets are nearly clear, and I drive down to work, tired of walking, tired of my rubber boots with the fake-fur lining, tired of the snow and ice and slip-sliding my way to work. I have dinner at Lark to look forward to, and I walk in, shedding jacket and vest and scarf and a sweater, take my seat at one of the benches that line one wall. The dining room is quiet, partly because of the early hour, partly because of the current economic gloom that seems to be everywhere these days. But the staff are as welcoming as always, telling me about the night's specials, commiserating on the week of snow and how we are just ready for it to go away. (I lived in St. Louis until I was five, and in Rochester, NY for four years of college; my first memory is of snow, and I should not be such a weenie. Seattle weather has made me soft).

I order two specials, the branzino, and the braised pork cheeks. I had been leaning towards pork belly, but could not resist the thought of softly braised cheeks over pasta. This is always my dilemma. The bread and butter arrives, and I tear into it, shedding crumbs in every direction. Then my fish arrives, the branzino all crispy-skinned over a bed of curly kale, some sort of salad, all against a blob of some unidentifable creamy puree. I think about A.'s earlier criticism, that Lark is a difficult place to go to with a large group. While the idea of small plates is rather seductive it doesn't quite work; sharing is so messy for anything more than two or three people, and they only take reservations for groups of six. For more than four people, you have to order two of everything, and then the bill mounts up alarmingly.

Leaving aside these philosophical musings I turn my attention to the braised pork cheeks, tonight replacing the lamb shoulder that is on the menu. The cheeks have a hint of orange peel, more kale - now my most frequently eaten vegetable - and sweet-tart cipollini onions, and flat round disks of croxetti, all topped with the crunch of breadcrumbs. I think they are breadcrumbs. I hope they are breadcrumbs. I mop up every drop of sauce - delicious sauce - with bread, counting on the single diner's cloak of invisibility to mask my poor table manners. It was either that or hold up my napkin so I could lick my plate. More tables have filled, but the restaurant is not completely full, and I worry about the future. (A recent anniversary party for Lark was so packed with fans and friends that it was hard to get around the room, so perhaps I should not worry yet). Then I order dessert.

Tonight I bypass the tarte tatin, the persimmon cake, the chocolate madeleines. I have, instead, the chocolate bread pudding. It is dense and rich, but not too sweet, made with what tastes like rye bread, with caraway seeds adding an unexpected crunch of flavor. I eat it slowly and eavsdrop on the conversations going on around me. A man at the table next to me - I can tell they are going to be the fun table tonight - looks at my emptying plate with an envious gleam in his eye, even as he plans his own meal (beginning with a selection of cheese, including the Silly Billy which almost everyone in the room, except for me, has ordered tonight. I think everyone just likes to say "Silly Billy"). All too soon I am done, and head home to lie down, and think about my next Saturday Lark.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas lunch.

A. emailed me a few days ago. Come to lunch, she wrote. I didn't think I would be able to drive to D.'s house, my usual Christmas destination, so I was more than happy to say yes. Christmas morning I woke to a white landscape, more snow falling, even though the main roads were clear. A white Christmas. I hum a little to myself as I head to work for a few hours. Then it's time for lunch, and I walk the long, slippery blocks downtown through empty streets piled with slushy snow. Once I am downtown the sidewalks are clear, and I arrive, slightly out of breath, with my hair every which way beneath my hat and my boots dripping with melted snow, the first to arrive. Everyone is delayed by the snow.

I have in my backpack chocolate-chunk cookies, thin and crispy around the edges, carefully stacked in plastic containers, which A. accepts graciously. It is bringing coals to Newcastle, but my upbringing makes it impossible to show up empty-handed. A.'s daughter and her husband arrive, with their daughter, who at sixteen months is at the stage where she takes off at a run as soon as her feet touch the floor. (Later I take many pictures of her, and in several she is actually running straight at the camera, running into me mere seconds after the shutter clicks). A. (jr.) hands me a bag of cookies, explaining that she only made two kinds this year, because she was too busy to do more. I try not to respond that for me, making even one kind of cookie is an effort, usually one that results in an explosion of flour and sugar and chocolate all over the countertops and floors. (Later, I look in the bag that A. (sr.) handed me, and find five different kinds of cookies. Sheesh).

The last guests arrive, and lunch begins with bread and butter and some cream cheese, smoked scallops and mussels and salmon, cold peppers, bowls of sliced cucumbers and radishes, all arranged casually on the buffet table. This is just the beginning. Next comes some white fish - Petrale sole, I think - served with what is essentially a mirepoix. Then there is braised lamb with tomatoes, a brothy sauce that goes well with the pappardelle, simply tossed with finely sliced red onions and freshly chopped herbs. There are roast poussins (or perhaps they are Cornish game hens) and some concoction involving mashed potatoes and turnips made thick with cream cheese. Afterwards there are cookies and cheeses and crackers, more sliced baguettes, soft, slurpy pears, sweet mandarin oranges in their baggy peels. We nibble away and watch the snow fall.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow day. steak frites.

Yesterday I woke to find that snow had blanketed the world outside, and my heart sank to the very toes of my fake-fur-lined rubber boots. I pulled my boots on over layers of socks and long underwear and fleece and cashmere, wrapped a scarf around my neck and a hat over my untidy head, hefted my plastic carrier stacked with cupcakes, and headed to work. Four of us made it in: two early birds who got here before the snow really piled up, and A., who like me lives within walking distance and therefore has no excuse to miss work because of a few inches of snow. All morning long we watched the white flakes falling thick and fast into the atrium, occasionally dashing outside to measure the accumulation. In between, we ate my red-velvet cupcakes, bright crimson cake topped with a drift of cream cheese frosting, as high as the snow piling up outside.

By the end of the day - a very long day - we are ready for dinner, and we head to the pub on the corner. While we wait for our meal we make our plans for the next day. J. will spend the night in my guest bedroom, K. will bunk down at the lab, and tomorrow we will go through it all over again, a skeleton crew hunkered down at work while our less fortunate - or perhaps more fortunate - co-workers stay home watching tv or building snowmen with their kids. I feel a sense of bitter injustice, but then, it was my choice to move within walking distance of work. For now I have a beer to console me. I order a pumpkin ale and the steak frites, and shed a few layers of clothing. The beer is good, with hints of spices that make me feel like I am drinking the love-child of amber ale and a pumpkin pie, and it warms my tired body like a soft blanket.

Our food arrives, burgers and fries for two of us, steak frites for the other two of us. Here, the steak frites is grilled flank steak served over a pile of fries, all topped with a creamy blue cheese sauce. The meat is a little chewy, as flank steak tends to be, but flavorful (again, as flank steak tends to be), and the fries are especially tasty when dipped in the sauce. After a long day, it is just the thing, and when we head back into the snow for the slippery, cold walk home, I feel happy again. There are cupcakes at home.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cupcakes. (red velvet).

I am not sure when or where I first ate red velvet cake, but it filled me with wonder (and red dye) and remains (mainly for the cream cheese frosting) one of my favorite cakes. I have never made it, since I am not very good with cake, but I came across a recipe for red velvet cupcakes a few weeks ago, and vowed to make it my next project. My recent jaunts into baking - the black bottom cupcakes, that bourbon-chocolate bundt cake - had given me a new confidence. And I had found these adorable dinosaur-printed cupcake liners in a small bakeware shop in Ballard. I really wanted to use them, as well as my new muffin pans. Not to mention my latest toy, a nifty two-level cupcake carrier, complete with plastic cover and a handle, which would protect each and every cupcake, preventing them from getting squashed in transit.

After work yesterday I ran down the street to the supermarket a few blocks from my apartment, list of ingredients in hand. I had butter, eggs, flour, sugar; I needed cream cheese, cocoa, red food coloring. Soon I was home, and ready to bake. This time I would use the standing mixer - making the chocolate-bourbon cake had been hell on my wrist, holding the hand mixer - and cream the butter longer. But first, I got everything else ready - the dry ingredients sifted into a bowl, the cream cheese and butter for the frosting coming to room temperature on the counter. It was hypnotic, watching the white paddle of the mixer beating away at the butter, the pale yellow getting lighter and fluffier by the minute, rising up the sides of the bowls. When it was nearly white, I poured in the sugar, and it became a fluffy cloud. In went cocoa power, vanilla, the red food dye that was shockingly blood-like. In went buttermilk, and the flour mixture, and soon I had a bright red batter ready to be scooped into the paper liners.

The scoop I use for batter is smaller than the one recommended by the author of the blog where I found the recipe, and instead of twenty-four cupcakes, I had thirty. Oops. More for me. I had to adjust the baking time for the smaller cakes, and pray that they wouldn't be overbaked. They weren't, and I did a silent dance of victory around my kitchen as the second tray of cupcakes went in the oven. But first, the frosting. A. likes frosting. So do I. I would be generous, using my smaller ice cream scoop to measure out the cream cheese frosting, but after the first two cupcakes, I realized I would need more. Time to run to the store again, three blocks away. As I dash out the front door I drop off the first two cupcakes to the doormen, calling over my shoulder that I had made too many, and needed more frosting. Ten minutes later, I was back, and the cupcakes were gone, which I felt boded well for the rest of the cupcakes. And I had only missed five minutes of Pushing Daisies.

I felt that the cakes could have been moister; I could have baked them just a minute or two less, perhaps not mixed the batter quite as long. But they were delicious all the same, soft cake, creamy frosting, not too sweet. I frosted my cupcakes while watching tv, packed them carefully in the trays of the carrier, left them by my door so I wouldn't forget them. Then I woke to snow as thick and white as cream cheese frosting, and wondered how on earth I was going to get all my cupcakes to work. Or if there would be anyone there to eat them. I got a lot of strange looks, bundled up as I was, holding a cupcake carrier while tiptoeing cautiously through the snow as various cars slipped and slid down the street. But it was worth it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cold night, hot soup.

Today I get out of work early, home by four in the afternoon, too early for dinner. Too early to laze around on the sofa until bedtime. And I need chocolate. From Claudio Corallo. I drive to Ballard (which means getting lost and driving around Fremont before I find my way back, in the most circuitous of routes) and find the shop open. A. remembers me from last time, introduces me to K., who used to (or perhaps still does) produce espresso equipment and who is the business partner and main distributor of Claudio Corallo chocolate, which has an earthy smoothness, no, smoothness is the wrong word for it, because it has too much texture for that. It is intense, the unsweetened chocolate so complex I can still taste it hours later, but without a trace of bitterness. This time I buy the chocolate with nibs, the chocolate with sugar crystals that crunch as you eat it, and the chocolate with crystallized ginger.

Tonight is the Art Walk, and there will be hot chocolates and snacks later on, they tell me. I say that I'll go for a walk, and then come back, but when I head outside the cold air numbs my face and hands, and I think perhaps I should eat a little dinner before I freeze to death. I pass the Hi-Life, which serves comfort food in an old, renovated fire station. But there is no menu posted in the window, and besides, I have one thought in my head: Pho. Thanh Brothers is just down the street. I walk another block or two, shivering, and walk inside the restaurant filled with diners slurping away. Someone waves me towards a table by the window, and comes over to take my order. I hurriedly pick something - Pho Bo, beef soup with rice noodles, the version with just about every kind of beef they offer - and sit back with a book. A glass of water arrives, along with a plate heaped with cilantro and bean sprouts and lime wedges and weirdly, a cream puff, which I will save for dessert.

Soon, a steaming bowl of noodles arrives, crammed with slices of beef brisket, flank steak, eye-round steak, soft tendon, and tripe. Oh, and noodles. The hot soup warms me from inside out, all the way to the tips of my fingers to my toes. As I slurp away I wonder how anyone could eat something so warming in the steamy heat of Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. All across Laos and in Hanoi we saw people eating pho for breakfast, sitting on low stools at sidewalk noodles stands, bent over equally low tables with their jars of condiments, their plates of sprouts and cilantro and lime wedges. It seems very far away, on a cold December night with the snow beginning to fall. I pay my bill - it is only $4.75, with tax, for a "small" bowl of noodles, a custard puff of a dessert included, the cheapest meal in town save for the $1.50 hot-dog-and-soda combo at Costco - and head back outside, no longer feeling the cold. I buy cupcake liners printed with dinosaurs at a tiny shop that is wall-to-wall cookie cutters and decorating kits and all sorts of baking accoutrements, and knee-high leather boots at a shoe store that I had never noticed before. And then I head back up the street for more chocolate.

At Claudio Corallo there is hot chocolate, made with their unsweetened chocolate and milk and sugar, stirred gently in a pot resting on one of those unnerving induction burners. L. has made snacks: some sort of chewy concoction involving dried cherries, coconut, and chocolate, caramel corn dipped in chocolate, and cacao-bean brittle. The first and last of those are tasty, if a little strange; the chocolate caramel corn is instantly addictive. Then there are two hot chocolates to try, one made with chocolate and sugar and milk, the other with chocolate and cream and a hint of chili pepper. It makes me think of the movie Chocolat, and it is so good I want more and more, but I am too full, too dizzy with good chocolate, the best chocolate I have ever had. And I have those bars of chocolate in my bag, and three truffles that are for my boss, K., and it is enough for now.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Let them eat cake.

Yesterday I woke to an email from K., my boss. She had forwarded me a recipe for Chocolate Bourbon cake, found somewhere on the internet. K. does not cook, but she is full of ideas, usually for other people to execute, usually for her own pleasure. I don't mind, except when she dislikes the results, as with the lemon cake made with Meyer lemons brought back from San Francisco. (Too dense, too pebbly). There was that avocado ice cream, not quite successful, which still languishes in the freezer, furred over with ice crystals, and a cake made with yellow cake mix, chopped walnuts, and an unholy amount of rum, which failed to rescue it from disaster. There have been successes, of course, those brownies and chocolate chip cookies that have become a staple, but we (and by we, I mean she) are always looking for something new to try. And I am not good at cake. I need practice.

I rush home to find all the ingredients at hand: cocoa powder, cake flour, eggs, and, of course, bourbon. I remember another co-worker's advice regarding butter - beat the shit out of it - and remember to keep creaming the butter and sugar together until it becomes pale and fluffy, nearly white. The bourbon is whisked with the cocoa powder and instant coffee and hot water, and then added slowly to the butter, sugar, and eggs, alternating with flour, baking soda, salt, all those necessary things that go into a cake. The smell of coffee and chocolate and bourbon fills the kitchen, spreads to every corner of my apartment, like a fog. I drink some of the bourbon, and it is good stuff, warming my throat and my belly as I slide the cake into the oven, in its fancy bundt pan found at Williams Sonoma, on sale, months ago, and left to gather dust atop a bookcase.

The smells become warmer, more intense, as the cake bakes away and I lean back on the sofa with a small snifter (actually, a teacup bought for a dollar at Pier One Imports when I was a college student) of bourbon and I try to imagine how the cake will turn out, how it will go over with the crowd at work. If it will fall cleanly from the pan, or if I have failed yet again to properly butter and flour the cake pan. I vow to buy that stuff in a spray can for next time. And then the timer buzzes, and all those doubts and thoughts go away. There is only the cake, perfect, deep brown, rising to fill its curved dome carved with a sharply incised fleur de lis pattern that I admired in the store but cursed as I tried to rub softened butter into every crevice. It falls onto the rack with a gentle thump. I brush it with more bourbon, as directed, and let it cool. Later I will sprinkle it with powdered sugar, wrap it carefully in plastic, resist taking a first slice.

The next day, I take the cake to work. It looks beautiful, dark brown, with the sharp white of powdered sugar highlighting the carved design around the sides. K. is offered the first slice. She approves, and I let out a sigh of relief, take a slice for myself. It is good cake. I will make another one, just as soon as I buy another bottle of bourbon.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Leftovers, re-imagined.

Last night, too depressed to cook dinner for myself after reading Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, I called up C. and we headed down to the Honeyhole for cheeseburgers. This is probably not what the editor of that book had in mind when she pulled together a collection of essays about cooking and dining alone, but for every writer who reveled in the pleasures of cooking for one, or dining out alone, without fear or a book to hide behind, there seemed to be another writer who took pleasure in cooking for others, but not for themselves, or had no interest in cooking at all, for themselves or anyone else. (In a beautiful gesture, the book begins with the Laurie Colwin essay whose title gives the book its own title, and ends with an essay by Colwin's daughter, some fifteen years after the writer's untimely death, and it is an almost unbearable pleasure to see that this child whom I have always thought of as "on the cusp of seven" has grown into a writer herself).

Actually, cooking for one is really just cooking for two, with leftovers. And I am someone who gets nervous in cooking for other people. I prefer cooking for myself. I don't have to take anyone else's tastes into consideration, and I am almost never disappointed. There is no pressure, no impatience, no nervousness, which is when mistakes happen, when the knife slips and slices into your thumb, when the meat is overdone and the vegetables undercooked. And I live alone, with two thousand books and lots of stuffed animals. Most of the time there is just myself to cook for. Sometimes I plan my meals even before I leave for the grocery store, and other times dinner is an improvisation based on whatever I find in the fridge. To prevent boredom, I have to transform last night's dinner into something else, adding in new ingredients to change the dish the way you might twist a scarf around your neck or pin on a brooch to change your look.

I have a couple of onions in the fridge; this is always a good way to begin. I slice half of one thinly, slip it in some olive oil that is heating in a skillet on the stove. While the onions turn translucent and then begin to brown around the edges, I slice a small piece of steak left over from earlier in the week, thin slices made easier by the cold meat. Next, I stir the steak into the golden onions, pour in a good slosh of red wine I found in the fridge. A whoosh of steam rises from the pan. Meanwhile, the french fries left over from last night's cheeseburger are warming gently in the toaster oven. The wine reduces to a glaze; it's ready, and so are the fries, newly crisp and golden. I remember that there is still a bouquet of flat-leaf parsley in a glass on my counter. The leaves are beginning to yellow around the edges. It only takes a minute to wash a sprig or two, chop the leaves and sprinkle them over the steak and onions, grind some black pepper on top.

It is steak frites re-imagined, a streamlined Beef Stroganoff of sorts, minus the mushrooms and sour cream and dill. It is better than I could have dreamed of, better than the sad little steak I ate several nights ago (it was a rib-eye, and unfortunately cooked in a manner better suited to a thick New York steak), better than the cheeseburger with fries I had for dinner last night. (The cheeseburger was good, but this was extraordinary). I will probably never make it again. This sort of improvisation is just that, a jazz riff that remains unwritten, belonging to a moment that passes. When I have cold steak in my fridge again, it will become something else; when I have cold leftover fries, I will eat them, reheated, plain or perhaps with ketchup. Just the memory will be enough, will inspire the next improvisation.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Leftovers, again. And an experiment in the kitchen.

This morning I woke up with the determination to do something about those Meyer lemons in the fridge, those lemons with that mysterious scent that was almost floral, not with the citrusy sharpness that ordinary supermarket lemons have. They have been taunting me all week, nestled in their paper sack with a handful of strawberry guavas. Just in time, a new cookbook had arrived, with an enticing recipe for Lemon Lemon Loaf*, a cake (actually, the recipe makes two loaves) made with lemon juice and zest, brushed with a lemon syrup, and drizzled with a lemon glaze. Miracle of miracles, I had all the ingredients on hand, plenty of eggs, flour, sugar, even sour cream and powdered sugar and a few back-up lemons in case the Meyers didn't yield enough juice. It seemed the perfect Saturday project.

Eggs and sugar went into the bowl of the food processor before I zested the lemons, so every microscopic drop, every little scrap, of oil and zest would be captured into the batter instead of scattered all over the counter. In went sour cream and melted butter and vanilla; flour and salt and leavening agents got sifted into another bowl. It all got gently mixed together and scraped into two buttered-and-parchment-papered pans, and then into the oven. As the two loaves baked the smell of lemons and brown butter filled the air; I made a syrup of lemon juice and sugar and set it aside, then made a glaze of more lemon juice and powdered sugar. The kitchen was a mess. Then the cakes were done, ready to be dumped out onto a rack and brushed with the warm glaze; once they were cool I poured the white glaze over their tops, and then, impatient, quickly sliced the end of one (the loaf with a crack across the top) for a taste.

Each bite of cake was a pure shock of lemon, followed by the richness of butter and eggs, more intense where the syrup had soaked in, more sweet where the glaze ran along the deep golden crust. I cut another slice. I could have eaten more, but there was dinner to think about. I had one portion of pappardelle with chanterelles to finish, and I wanted to do something different. I thought of a pasta cake we had at Palace Kitchen some months back; soft egg noodles that had been bound together with goat cheese and tomatoes and other tasty things, and fried crisp on the outside, soft and molten inside. I would do something a little different, dip the square cake of pappardelle into beaten egg, and then into grated cheese, Grana Padano, the whole thing slipped into a small frying pan shimmering with olive oil. Once it had browned on one side, I flipped it over, ground some fresh black pepper over the whole thing.

It turned out to be terrific, the cheese turning into a crisp brown crust, the noodles soft and the eggs custardy inside. Even the chanterelles had caramelized around their edges in the hot oil. It was immensely satisfying, simple - it only took about ten minutes to throw it together - and somehow luxurious - those wild mushrooms, all that cheese and olive oil - at the same time. Like last night's experiment, it was an improvement on the original, which seemed bland and uninteresting by comparison. I would do it all over again, another time.

*Lewis, Matt, and Poliafito, Renato. Baked: New Frontiers in Baking. Stewart, Tabori, & Chang. New York, 2008. pp. 41-42.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Leftovers revisited, and a blast from the past.

Last night I made black-bottom cupcakes, a surprisingly complicated endeavor that scattered flour, cocoa powder, and eggshells from one end of my kitchen to the other. They are chocolate cupcakes with a cream-cheese-and-chocolate-chip filling, the only cupcake that I would consider acceptable without frosting, a happy marriage of cake and cheesecake. These cupcakes were one of the first things I learned how to make from scratch; if I remember correctly we made them in our middle-school cooking class, taught in a tiny kitchen that overlooked the gym. It was the only thing we made in class that later became part of my culinary repertoire, but I haven't made them in over a decade. Now they come back to me, a blast from the past.

Some things are different this time around. I don't have to clean up my mess with my parents pointing out all the spots I missed. Instead of chocolate chips I have a bar of bittersweet chocolate, chopped by hand. And finally I have figured out that the larger ice cream scoop neatly deposits the appropriate amount of batter into each cupcake liner, while the smaller ice cream scoop (the same one I use for cookies) works perfectly for the cream cheese filling. I don't know why it took me so long to figure out these things. And the cupcakes are even better than I remember, the edges just a little crisp, the cheesecake filling smooth and fluffy, the chocolate chunks intensely bittersweet, the cake soft and not too sweet. I take twenty of the cupcakes to work with me; by the end of the day most of them are gone.

For dinner I have some of my chanterelle-tossed pappardelle waiting to be re-imagined into something else. Naturally, I turn to the half-bundle of kale left over in my fridge. Chopped finely and sautéed in a generous amount of olive oil, it blends in well with the wide noodles and soft slices of chanterelle mushrooms. Actually, it is better than the original version. Now there is only one portion remaining for tomorrow night, but I think I will try something different with that one. For now I have a cupcake to occupy my thoughts, black-and-white, the perfect ratio of soft chocolate cake, cream cheese, and bits of chocolate. I will have to make this again, soon.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Market dinner, take two.

On the way home I realized that it was already Thursday and I had a crisper full of vegetables from last weekend that hadn't even been touched yet. Usually at this point in the week I start getting frantic and just throw everything into a big frittata that I eat with some steamed rice (white or brown, usually brown). Tonight was no exception. I found onions, potatoes, kale, a bag of carrots. The first task was to cook the rice; it takes a while, but you can just dump everything in the rice cooker and forget about it. Only then do I start chopping vegetables, cracking eggs into a bowl, arranging ingredients next to the stove.

The carrots are little purple ones, their dark skins almost shocking against the orange flesh inside. I leave them unpeeled, loving the contrasting colors as I slice them into sticks. The kale and onions I chop fairly small, the potatoes fall away from my knife into neat half-moons, still with their pearly pink skins. I am lazy. I don't peel anything unless I absolutely have to. The onions go into the pan first, into hot olive oil flavored with a little butter. Once translucent, in go the other vegetables, kale, carrots, potatoes. C. arrives. The rice is not ready, but oh well. There are potatoes in the frittata. We'll do without rice tonight.

Actually, it is not exactly a frittata. I have not put enough eggs in, and it refuses to come together in a solid cake, spilling all over the stove when I try to flip it with a complicated maneuver involving a large dinner plate. I regret making fun of D. when she said she wanted the frittata pan from Williams-Sonoma, two interlocking frying pans that make it child's play to flip your frittate in one smooth motion. I could really use one right now. Still, I couldn't justify the expense, especially since my non-frittata is perfectly delicious in its scrambled state, all wilted greens and sweet carrots and caramelized onions and tender coins of potatoes, bound together with egg into tasty nuggets of vegetables. Another satisfying weeknight meal.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Market dinners.

When I started doing most of my grocery shopping at various farmer's markets around Seattle, I had to rethink the way I ate, the way I planned my meals. I couldn't count on finding everything I wanted, so I had to learn to think about what I wanted to eat for the next week as I browsed the stalls, instead of having a fixed idea before I left the house. Kale and chard became a staple of my diet. (I haven't gotten bored yet, fortunately). Meat became an expensive luxury. (Not that it is cheap, in any case). Slowly I found myself eating increasingly vegetarian meals, augmented with eggs and small amounts of meat, except for those two weeks when I had to figure out what to do with three pounds of Mangalitsa pork. Dinners became simple one-pot meals based on pasta or brown rice.

Part of the fun of cooking is taking a variety of ingredients and mixing them up in different ways, or taking one dish and transforming the leftovers into something else, like the stir-fried pork served over rice and then chopped up and tossed with pasta, or the cold roast turkey covered in a cheesy béchamel sauce and baked until golden and bubbly. It gets boring eating the same thing over and over again, and living alone, you can only divide a recipe so many times until the math leaves you dizzy and confused, slumped over on the kitchen floor in despair. I think my limit is three meals, possibly four, from a single dish, before boredom takes over.

Last night I browned some finely chopped onions in olive oil flavored with a little butter and lard, added sliced chanterelles, and tossed it all with handmade pappardelle (bought frozen at the Sunday market), flat-leaf parsley, and a generous handful of grated Grana Padano cheese. It was good, better than good, and would have been perfect except I felt the pasta had been rolled too thin and sliced too wide, which made it floppy and somewhat unwieldy. Tasty, though. And there were two more portions remaining, waiting to be transformed into something new.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Columbia City Bakery and Bay Area bounty.

I was so excited that there was time for a trip to the Columbia City Bakery before heading off to the airport (to pick up K.) that I forgot to deposit my paycheck. Fortunately, due to my restraint at the market on Sunday, I had enough money for a loaf of walnut levain, divided into two, a pretzel, a chocolate cupcake, a ham-and-cheese croissant, and a slice of pecan bar. I bought a small glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and curled into a chair by the window to eat my pretzel. It's been months since I was last here, maybe longer, since we sold our old house and moved all our memories and belongings across town.

Now I have new routines, new places where I head for breakfast or a quick dinner on my way home, but I miss this cozy bakery, the diner opposite, the used bookstore across the street and down a little. The cashier takes my lengthy order as patiently as ever, dividing my loaf of bread into two bags so I can share some with K., who is returning home after a week down in San Francisco. The pretzel is as good as I remember, soft and chewy and sprinkled with just enough salt. I have my little snack and watch children play all around me; one little girl isn't ready to go home yet, and dissolves into tears and tantrums, while two young brothers pack up their cards and head for home, their father tucking a fresh baguette under his arm as they leave.

Traffic has slowed me down enough so that K. has just come outside with her luggage when I pull up to the curb. Perfect. I hand her the chocolate I bought on Sunday, and immediately (well, not quite immediately; the 100% cocoa bars are wrapped in some impenetrably sealed plastic bag, so she opens the 70% with cocoa nibs bar) the aroma of chocolate fills the car. Our talk on the way back to her house is of our visits to farmer's markets in the past week, of the upcoming Christmas party, of Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and how it has changed the way we shop and think about food, of the wonderful things she has brought back in her suitcase. Soon we are home, and I am wondering what could possibly be so damn heavy as I drag a bulging suitcase towards the front door.

K. hands me several Meyer lemons, and I realize I have never had one before. It has a scent that is almost too soft to be lemon, more floral than citrus. It reminds me of the fragrance that filled our house whenever the night-blooming cereus bloomed, and I can't wait to do something with them. A handful of strawberry guavas goes into a bag, some olive oil is decanted into a jar for me to take home. I pour a little of the oil into a saucer and dip some of the walnut bread for a taste. The green-gold oil is freshly pressed, only a few weeks old, and it is spicy and peppery against the warm nuttiness of the bread. There are jars of sugar, flavored with mint and lavender, and giant persimmons, all from the San Francisco farmer's market, stuffed into K.'s suitcase amongst shoes and fleeces and socks.

I head home to a plate of pasta, really just a pause before dessert. Should I have the cupcake, all dark chocolate cake and frosting dotted with colorful sprinkles, or my pecan bar? For dessert I have my pecan bar. It has a shortbread-like base layered with chewy caramel and crunchy caramelized pecans, and with a glass of milk on the side it is absolute heaven.