Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dining Out For Life. Lark.

Once a year three or four thousand restaurants in nearly sixty cities across the United States and Canada hold an event called Dining Out For Life. The day's proceeds are donated to a local AIDS group; Seattle has dozens of restaurants and cafés participating, and I am dizzy with choices. Finally, I settle on Lark, but first I head to Caffé Vita for a latté (which I rarely drink) and two pastries (which I seldom buy). I can eat one of the pastries tomorrow. Cost so far: $9. Donation: $2.70. It's a start.

By dinner time I am starving, and head down the hill towards Lark. I haven't been here in a while, over a month, and it feels like a welcoming hug. The room is nearly empty, but by the time I leave nearly every table is occupied. There are chic girls-about-town and couples of all ages, and one large party (as usual) at the far end of the room. From my seat I can see everyone. It is my favorite seat, the last one of the long line of banquettes that run beneath the windows against the north wall. (This table and the one at the other end are good for parties of five, because the bench wraps around, creating a fifth seat at the end of the table). I order a salad of tuna belly confit, and the special, a veal crépinette.

While I am waiting for my salad, I eat bread - a walnut baguette and a plain crusty white - and butter, wish I had thought to order wine. When my salad arrives I ask for a glass of rosé, which is cool and gentle, but more interesting than white wine, and it casts a pink glow across my table when the light catches at my glass. The salad has slices of soft tuna belly - all tender and white - tangled with slices of something that is a bit like the tuna version of prosciutto, and tossed with tiny leaves and herbs and knobby chunks of potato. I think I need to stretch out my meal a bit, and order soup, leek and potato, which seems more like a thick cream flavored with leek and potato.

I finish my soup in about four spoonfuls, and then my crépinette arrives. I had first had this, a lamb version, at the Whole Beast dinner last year, and have been waiting ever since for it to reappear on the menu. This is a flattish round sausage of well-seasoned veal wrapped in caul fat, which makes it juicy and flavorful, on a bed of what I overhear being described as Russian kale. Or something like that. On the side is a pool of mustard-scented aïoli. The chef seems to like aïoli, lucky me. (I could eat his saffron aïoli with a spoon).

When the dessert menu arrives, I dither until D. nudges me towards the rhubarb cobbler. While I have never really loved fruit cobblers, I do like rhubarb and ginger. It is very gently fragrant with the ginger, and served hot under a dollop of cool crême fraîche, just a bit tart against the sweet crunch of the crust. By the time I am finished the dining room is full, and K. is making her rounds. It's time to go home, though, and the walk uphill seems strangely short. Which is good. Cost, after tax: $52. Donation: $15.60. Perhaps I should have ordered another course.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cupcake heaven.

For L.'s bridal shower tomorrow I volunteered to bake dessert. I know she likes chocolate; cupcakes or cake, I asked. Either, she replied, as long as it's chocolate...the richer the better. I could do that Chocolate Overdose cake I made a few weeks back, or I could do cupcakes with a chocolate frosting. Cupcakes, I thought. All the better to have an excuse to buy pretty cupcake liners, bring out my cupcake stand made from curls of silver wire. I knew what I would use for the cake part - Amanda Hesser's Chocolate Dump-It cake, from Cooking For Mr. Latte. Her recipes are clear and concise, and have never let me down. But I was not happy with how the chocolate-sour-cream frosting worked with a cupcake, and needed to find something else. For K. I had made Ina Garten's cream cheese buttercream, but L. was all about the chocolate.

For days I searched the internet, first looking at buttercreams, then ganaches, and going back and forth. It kept me awake at nights. It weighed on my thoughts as I bought hot-pink striped cupcake paper liners and little pink sugar flowers with which to decorate my frosting, whichever one I chose. I bought corn syrup and cream of tartar and extra eggs, went over and over the different recipes, comparing steps and ingredients and finally went for the chocolate ganache frosting, with only five ingredients and a minimum of fussing. The night before I measured out my dry ingredients, chopped up enough chocolate to satisfy even the most rabid chocoholic, and went to bed.

The cupcakes were the easy part, melting butter and sugar and chocolate in a pan with some water, stirring in milk and eggs, sifting in flour and leavenings. A number-16 scoop neatly deposited (ok, so I dripped a little here and there) just the right amount of batter in each paper cup, and thirteen minutes of baking yielded perfectly moist little cakes. They humped up a little in the middle, but a bit of frosting would disguise that. This is where things got messy. I have no piping skills. My rosettes and swirls of ganache look quite - how shall I say this? - deranged. Hopefully no one will notice, or care, or at least not comment too pointedly. I placed little pink sugar flowers in the middle of each cake, and the result was too adorable for words. Then I ate one. And it was too incredible for words, each bite knocking me back with the intensity of the chocolate.

I hope L. will be pleased.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday happiness.

I woke up to pale sunlight and a breakfast of cold sliced steak and toast made from the olive bread bought yesterday. I made tea, English Breakfast from Mariage Fréres, and sat back to eat my breakfast and watch the Food Network. Then I remembered that it was the last day of an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, at the north end of Capitol Hill. It was a beautiful day; I could walk. But first, some ice cream at Molly Moon, which opened to, apparently, a line that wrapped around the block yesterday. This could be dangerous, having a Molly Moon a mere four or five blocks from my apartment. I headed down, and arrived too early. The door was open, but I was greeted with a frown and a "we don't open until noon." Whoops. I come back ten minutes later, and at last am admitted into the airy, wood-lined space.

I taste the baby beet sorbet, cool and sweet, and order a scoop of honey lavender, in a waffle cone. It makes me think of A., who thinks lavender-flavored things taste like soap, and it is delicious. I head past the playfield, towards the museum, over a mile away. The neighborhood is a spring wonderland of beautiful old houses and blooming gardens; I walk beneath cascades of cherry blossoms that line the streets, eating my ice cream, and in what seems like no time at all I find myself at Volunteer Park, which contains the Seattle Asian Art Museum, crammed with people anxious to catch the exhibition before it closes tonight. The paintings, gouache on paper, are intricate and delicate, curiously flat and extraordinarily detailed.

Heading back, I have things to pick up at Trader Joe's, frozen appetizers and baking chocolate. The cashier raises an eyebrow at my two gigantic bars (500 grams each) of chocolate and asks what the heck am I planning to do with them? Cupcakes, I tell him. I stagger home after my three-mile loop, and collapse in the living room. I have dinner to think about, though, and drag myself up to clean up the kitchen a bit so I actually have space to debone chicken thighs and slice up a head or two of broccoli. But first some brown rice goes in the cooker to steam before I get to all that. Very quickly, dinner is ready, and I sit down with my full plate and A Room With a View, which has the distinction of being both my favorite book and my favorite movie. The perfect end to a beautiful day.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Saturday Steak.

After yesterday's weird green dinner, I feel a sudden craving for beef. I head out to pick up various necessities for Tuesday's cupcakes - pink cupcake liners, sugar flowers - and find that the Whole Foods parking lot is unusually uncrowded for a Saturday afternoon. I buy scallions and potatoes and apples, a few oranges, steak and chicken and bacon, two bunches of irises. Very soon I am staggering into the elevator at home with my four heavy bags as an impossibly gorgeous, glamorous (and tall) couple sweeps past me, with my hair every which way, scruffy jeans, flip-flops. Never mind. Dinner is ahead, and I have to get started.

The steak is seasoned with salt and pepper and left out on a plate for an hour or so. I cook it in gently foaming, browning butter as instructed by Jeffrey Steingarten, and it is soon crusty and brown without, rosy and medium-rare within. I heat up last night's creamed spinach in the toaster oven until it is bubbling and browning around the edges, and dinner is ready, with a few slices of a crusty olive loaf from Macrina on the side. And a Shirley Temple. I am addicted to Shirley Temples. It is all extremely satisfying, the perfect Saturday night dinner.

Then I make a milkshake with the Thin Mint ice cream still lurking in my freezer. It was an experiment, one of those rare creations that comes out exactly as I was hoping it would, and I can't wait to make it again. After I finish this batch.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday night.

All week the bundle of asparagus I bought at the market last Sunday has reproachfully waved deep-jade tips at me from its perch, firmly wedged in between the milk and a bottle of Sauternes, each time I open the refrigerator door. Tomorrow, I say, and then before I know it Friday is here, the end of a week full of hastily thrown-together dinners cobbled from odds and ends lingering about. It happens when I don't plan my week, when things like last-minute invitations and leftovers pressed on me by generous hosts throw a wrench in the vague plans I have in my mind. At the end of a week like that I find myself with a bundle of asparagus and two onions. R. brings me eggs that she and K. got from some farm the other day, and I almost gasp out loud when I open the carton and see how beautiful they are, jumbo eggs, blue and pink and brown, and one glorious, speckled one. But somehow I don't feel like eggs tonight.

At some point in the day I found myself hit with a sudden craving for creamed spinach. I don't know why - maybe it was the chocolate chip cookies from Safeway or the two small slices of chocolate cream pie from Costco that I ate absentmindedly for breakfast and various snacks before and after lunch. I come home and find an onion rolling around in the fridge, a bag of spinach in the freezer. But first, the reproachful asparagus - I trim the stalks, wash and dry them, and toss them with a little olive oil and sea salt before spreading them out in a roasting pan, then shoving it all in the oven. While the asparagus roasts, I chop half an onion, slip it into foaming butter balanced with a slug of olive oil. When the onions are translucent but not caramelized, I sprinkle in some flour, let it cook, realize I should have used up some of the leeks as well. Whoops. Next goes in milk and half-and-half. Usually I just use milk, but the half-and-half was leftover from a recipe, and I don't drink the stuff, so in it goes.

Now I can smell the asparagus. I take it out, stir it around a bit, and put it back for a little bit. The milk is bubbling on the stove; I add the thawed and drained (basically using a towel and a colander) spinach, stir it in, let it cook away. The nutmeg grater is hiding; while I search for it I pause just long enough to take out the asparagus and sprinkle on a little more sea salt. I eat a stalk - it is wonderful, tender and slightly caramelized, salty-sweet, the tips just a bit crunchy. The spinach is almost done, and I throw in some grated Parmesan, salt, a few grinds of pepper and nutmeg. It is a weird dinner, all green, like a steakhouse meal without the steak and potato. The benefits of living alone, a plate on your lap, Doris Day in the dvd player.

I eat the cupcake I saved from yesterday, moist dark chocolate cake, vanilla buttercream frosting. The cake has a moist, fine crumb, but the frosting is too sweet. Addictive, though. Already I am thinking about how to recreate it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Variation on a theme.

By my calculations, I have made about 200 pots of fried rice in the past fifteen years. I could do it with my eyes closed. Sometimes I add the seasonings without looking. This does not always work out well. Tonight's variation: brown rice, caramelized leeks, sliced baby bok choy, scallions, bacon, and of course scrambled eggs.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Improvisation no. 2.

Actually the improvisation began the night before, or perhaps the day before that. I was at the farmer's market on Sunday, thinking about what I could make to accompany the leftover oven-fried chicken lurking in my refrigerator. It is Spring now, too warm for mashed potatoes, so I buy red-skinned potatoes for a potato salad. Then I spend the rest of the day wondering what else I could put in the potato salad, as I didn't want to bother going to the grocery store for celery or herbs or anything else. As I baked cupcakes and whipped up frosting (bittersweet-chocolate-and-sour cream, and cream-cheese) and made a mess of my kitchen and dining room table I thought about whether to use onions or scallions in my salad, or if I should just run to the supermarket for a little fresh dill.

Last night I came home and threw together a simple pasta for myself, and then thought about potato salad some more. As I ate my dinner I put the potatoes and eggs on to boil, removing the eggs after eight minutes, leaving the potatoes in until the skins split and a knife pierced the flesh easily. I have never been any good at judging the doneness of potatoes, perhaps because we rarely ate them when I was a child, except for in curry or Julia Child's potato gratin that appeared every Thanksgiving. The boiled potatoes were cut into reasonably tidy cubes, splashed with a little white wine vinegar, tossed with a sprinkle of salt, scallions sliced as finely as I know how. In went the mayonnaise with a plop, everything tossed together. I taste it, add some freshly ground black pepper. It needs something more - what? A spoonful of pickle relish. It is still too warm to taste properly; I will just leave it in the fridge and walk away.

All day I am thinking about that leftover oven-fried chicken (marinated in buttermilk with all sorts of seasonings, baked in a cast-iron skillet until crunchy all over) and that potato salad, even as I am sitting on a bench eating balsamic strawberry ice cream from Molly Moon. I come home just before dinnertime, and take a bite of potato salad, straight from the plastic tub. It is perfect. I wish I had not eaten that ice cream, but not really.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Improvisation. (Dinner for one).

Last night K. pressed leftovers upon leftovers in my hands as we cleaned up the aftermath of her party. I packed myself a sensible lunch - slices of salami, soy-sauce eggs, ginger shrimp, carefully arranging it in a plastic box. (In plastic bags I gathered the leftover vegetables, orange slices, bagel halves). I thought that I had put the remaining shrimp back in the fridge, but when I leaned into the refrigerator at work to get my lunch I noticed there were two boxes: my beautifully arranged sampler of tasty goodness, and a box full of ginger shrimp. Whoops. Now I would have to do something about all those shrimp.

I had errands to run after work, and in the car I thought about what I should do for dinner. Should I make potato salad to eat with my cold oven-fried chicken? Should I dice up the shrimp and make a pasta salad? Traffic moved along slowly, and I was alone with my thoughts, and Modest Mouse. Pasta, I thought. There were leeks from the market and farfalle in an unopened box - if I were being good, I would finish the fettuccine first, but I am a grown-up now, and I can do whatever I want - and even some leftover white wine from last night's party. I pull into the garage, tidy up the car, put things away while my mind is concentrated solely on one object: dinner.

As always, as you are probably bored of hearing by now, I think of Edouard de Pomiane, and first put a pot of water on to boil. Two slim leeks are split open and washed clean, sliced into fine slivers. I heat a little butter and olive oil in a pan, slide the leeks in, pull the tails off all the shrimp. Throw the pasta in the water, after first shaking in a healthy amount of kosher salt. The leeks are soft now, just beginning to caramelize. I add white wine, and after a moment, the shrimp. The wine cooks down, and I pour in a little cream, leftover from last week's birthday cake experiment. I add frozen peas to the pasta; when they are done, the pasta will be too. I drain them together, tip them into the pan, stir it all together.

It is not perfect - I added the shrimp too soon; they are overcooked - but I have only myself to please, and I am pleased.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cake and other stories.

I made two desserts for the April birthday lunch, rum-raisin croissant bread pudding, for M., who always loves it, and a chocolate cake for C., who does not like bread pudding. It is her birthday, too, after all, so for her I pull out all the stops. When I say chocolate cake, I mean a layered creation that has a brownie base layer, a chocolate mousse middle, a cake top layer, and a generous coating of chocolate ganache. I have been dying to try this cake since I first saw it on someone's blog, and now was my chance. The recipe read like a novel, or at least a short story, and I spent days trying to figure out how I could manage this and the bread pudding on a Monday night before a party.

Emails flew back and forth between the author of the recipe (she was thoughtful enough to give me an estimated time frame and other advice) and myself, before I finally figured out that the brownie and cake layers could be baked the night before, greatly reducing the amount of work the night before our lunch. Two things I learned this time: Non-stick sprays are not for me (next time I will use my old standby, softened butter smeared on with either a paper towel or my bare hands), and if I am going to bake two layers in two different pans, I should use pans that are the same size. Also, I should invest in precut parchment circles, because tracing and cutting is beyond me now that I am no longer in kindergarten. Still, by the time I went to bed on Sunday night I had two cooled cake layers wrapped in plastic on my dining room table, one a fudgy-chewy thin layer of brownie, one of rich chocolate cake.

Monday night my kitchen was a battlefield of chocolate smears and rum-soaked raisins. The cake layers were trimmed - more or less - and set aside as I put together the chocolate mousse filling, basically whipped cream and melted chocolate. The mousse was spread over the brownie layer, and then the cake layer was placed on top, and the whole thing chilled. I had not done a thorough job of trimming, and somehow the cake was significantly higher on one side. There was some quick fudging with leftover bits of brownie that had escaped being eaten, and soon the entire thing was reasonably level. I would cover it with ganache, as I had with my cataclysmically cracked cheesecake at the previous birthday party, and no one would know the difference.

An hour and a pint or so of ganache later it was done, my beautiful, dark chocolate cake. At lunch the ganache would prove to be impenetrable by birthday candles, and we stuck the candles in the bread pudding instead. Oh well. Next time.
Dinner for one.

I come home early and pull the steak out from its chilly drawer, find some abandoned herbs in their plastic box, a bulb of garlic tucked in a corner. The steak goes in a bag with several smashed cloves of garlic, some sprigs of thyme from a forgotten project, a splash of olive oil, another of soy sauce. I leave it on a plate and walk away. Hours pass.

Dinner time. I am hungry, and walk into the kitchen. The grill pan goes on the stove, heats while I trim and halve and quarter a handful of Brussels sprouts. I scrape off the smashed garlic, the twiggy springs of thyme, grind some pepper and sprinkle on a scattering of salt. The meat hisses and settles in the pan, and I set a timer. When it dings I flip the steak, pause to admire the neat black stripes left by the grill.

When the steak is done I remove it to a plate, dump the sprouts on the pan. Why bother washing two pans when one will do? They blacken around the edges, steam slightly when I splash in some water and cover them with a lid. When they are done, it is time to eat. The steak is crusty brown outside, pink inside with just a thin ribbon of red running through the middle; perfect against the slight bitterness, the crunch of the sprouts. Dinner for one.