Book Club Hits the Road… Again.

Bel CantoI don’t think I’m capable of putting into coherent English how pleased I was when my book club chose Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto as our latest read.  See, the novel has without a doubt been one of my favorites for years; in fact, I reread it every twelve months or so.  No lie.  Also, everyone I’ve ever suggested the book to has loved it — honestly.  Here’s the story:

Bel Canto is set in an unspecified South American country, where an elaborate party is taking place at the vice president’s mansion.  Government officials and entrepreneurs are present to celebrate the fifty-third birthday of a visiting Japanese businessman, as well as watch the performance of a celebrated opera singer.  The intimate concert is interrupted by a terrorist group, who then takes the entire house — servants, guests and opera singer — captive.  Eventually, some of the hostages are released, leaving only a handful to be guarded by the terrorists.

What unfolds in Patchett’s three hundred pages is wholly unpredictable, indescribably lovely and utterly devastating; the plot was inspired by a similar event which took place in Peru during the mid-nineties, though Patchett spins what could have been a perfectly good fact-based thriller into something leagues more heartbreaking, emboldened and new.  Even now, years after I first cracked its spine, Bel Canto still gracefully slides past my grumpy, gloomy demeanor, and gently leads me through its pages.  It also led to some fantastic conversation in New Hampshire, where we had carpooled in order to visit the Currier Museum of Art and a very special property that is part of the collection.  The book we had read previous to Bel Canto was Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, the fictionalized account of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Martha Borthwick Cheney; it seemed only fitting to travel to the only Wright home located in New England that is open to the general public.

Zimmerman House, 1The Currier’s Wright is called the Isadore J. and Lucille Zimmerman House, after the husband and wife who commissioned the architect to design them not only a home to fit their lifestyle, but also interiors, landscaping and a mailbox that also suited their needs.  In a sense, our docents informed us, the Zimmermans were Wright’s ideal clients, deferring to him in all matters related to their home.  Because of this relationship with these clients, Wright’s radical and nontraditional vision was truly able to flourish — it thrives even today, almost sixty years after the project was completed.

Zimmerman KitchenEven if you’re not like me and neither design nor architecture interests you, I’m certain that the Zimmerman house would mesmerize you conclusively.  Let’s not even talk about the clever, well-thought-out details like the wall of windows that fully capture Lucille Zimmerman’s beloved garden from each and every room or the in-floor heating that runs beneath the length of the home.  I’ll skip all that specifically to discuss this: the Zimmermans were the only people to ever live in this home.  They bequeathed the structure to the Currier, the board of which left the house exactly as Isadore and Lucille did.  Those are Lucille’s dresses hanging in the bedroom closet, Isadore’s books on the shelves, their collection of pottery catching your eye.  The slim kitchen (scanned from a postcard I purchased in the gift store; interior photography is not permitted) is stocked with their pots and pans, their coffee tins, their dishtowels.  It is also the Zimmermans’ ashes interred together in a corner of the yard underneath a memorial plaque, overlooking the home they loved.  How much more fascinating does it get than that?

Note: Visitors may tour the Zimmerman House by reservation only.  The Currier offers several different tours throughout the year.  Click on the photo of the house for a four-picture slideshow of the exterior.

Currier Museum of Art
150 Ash Street
Manchester, New Hampshire 03104
603.669.6144
currier.org

Currier Museum of Art
150 Ash Street
Manchester, New Hampshire 03104
603.669.6144
currier.org

My Kitchen in Malden.

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Where do you live?
Malden, Massachusetts.

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How often do you cook or bake?
It’s funny because I never really used to be into baking; cooking was always much more interesting to me, and frankly, baking always seemed so girly.  That said, I’ve recently taken up baking, though I don’t do it that often.  I definitely cook more, probably four to five times a week, depending on the leftovers situation.  I’ll bake when the mood strikes me, or when I’ve got a craving, which is something like twice a month.  I definitely bake more around the holidays — everyone gets cookies.  I also bake for Keith more than I bake for me.  I’m nice that way.

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What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
I’m easy, man.  It’s my wooden spoon.  I wish I had a few more of them.  I use it to mix just about anything, and I love the way it feels in my hand.  Actually, now that I’m thinking about it a bit, I think I would say my chef’s knife instead.  I’ve used some awful knives in my day, the kinds that coerce an onion apart as opposed to chop it, and having a good solid knife makes all the difference.  In fact, if you’ve got one good knife — one really good one — you don’t need any more.

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Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
Having lived in many an apartment without one, I’ve got to say my dishwasher.  You know, I used to buy glasses based solely on whether or not I could fit my hand and a sponge down its mouth?  Now I can purchase any style that catches my eye, and that feels great.  I like glasses.

I also like the area that I call “the in-between” or “the pass-through.”  It connects the kitchen to the dining room, and we have it cabinet-ed out.  The bottom portion functions as a snack pantry of sorts, as well as storage for platters and my massive stand mixer.  Half of the upper cabinetry is devoted to storing Keith’s whisky collection; the other half holds my cooking magazines and cookbooks.

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Come to think of it, this is a tricky question for me to answer; we renovated the kitchen to best suit our needs and our aesthetic (on a budget).  There are so many aspects of this room that I love, like the countertops that look like oxidized metal, the unusual color of our cabinets, the soffits, the ceiling fan, my knife strip…  It would be the equivalent of asking me to pick my favorite dog, if I had lots of dogs.  Or any dogs.  Or a dog.

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What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
I would have to say it was the dinner I made for something like sixteen people last spring; at that point, the largest crowd I had ever cooked for was closer to eight, including Keith and myself, so doubling the amount of diners was a vaguely terrifying Big Deal.  I had invited my parents not only to the meal but also for the weekend; they drove in with the dog from New York a day early to spend some more time with us.  My mother and Keith volunteered to help me chop, sauté, mix, etc.  Whenever I asked him to do something, Keith would shout, “Yes, chef!”  It caused a lot of giggly delays.  Even funnier was when my mother — very polite, proper and petite woman that she is — wasn’t able to open something (what was it?  I don’t remember) and so, said very seriously to the object in her hand, “I think you must be retarded.”

In the end, we served the following:

Hors d’œuvres

  • bocconcini that I had marinated in herbs and olive oil few days prior
  • a selection of cured meats that Keith had picked out at Formaggio Kitchen

Entrées

Sides

Desserts

The leftovers lasted for days.

Kate’s Kitchen in London.

kate-4Where do you live?
I live in a Victorian flat in North London with my boyfriend Jeremy and new favourite American friend, Darlington.

kate-8How often do you cook or bake?
I cook lunch and dinner most days and like to do some cake baking every week or two.

kate-5What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
My favourite kitchen utensil is the potato ricer. I find it a little tricky to use but am always amazed at how creamy it makes your mash.

kate-71Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
The best bit of our kitchen is the stereo (even though it is melted and does not work properly) as singing Abba and cooking is so much fun — there are so many dance moves you can incorporate!

kate-2What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
I’m not really sure what my biggest kitchen accomplishment might be — it could be best to ask someone else — however one of the most enjoyable is definitely Delia Smith‘s Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding. I’ve pasted the recipe below, however I never include the cinnamon or rum.

Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding, from The Delia Collection: Chocolate by Delia Smith
Makes six portions

9 slices, each ¼-inch thick, good-quality white bread, 1 day old, taken from a large loaf
5 ounces dark chocolate, 75 % cocoa solids
3 ounces butter
15 fluid ounces whipping cream
4 tablespoons dark rum
4 ounces caster sugar
good pinch cinnamon
3 large eggs
double cream, well chilled

  1. Begin by removing the crusts from the slices of bread, which should leave you with 9 pieces about 4 inches   square. So now cut each slice into 4 triangles. Next, place the chocolate, whipping cream, rum, sugar, butter and cinnamon in a bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, being careful not to let the bowl touch the water, then wait until the butter and chocolate have melted and the sugar has completely dissolved. Next, remove the bowl from the heat and give it a really good stir to amalgamate all the ingredients.
  2. Now in a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and then pour the chocolate mixture over them and whisk again very thoroughly to blend them together.
  3. Then spoon about a ½ inch layer of the chocolate mixture into the base of a buttered 7 x 9 inch ovenproof dish and arrange half the bread triangles over the chocolate in overlapping rows. Now, pour half the remaining chocolate mixture all over the bread as evenly as possible, then arrange the rest of the triangles over that, finishing off with a layer of chocolate. Use a fork to press the bread gently down so that it gets covered very evenly with the liquid as it cools.
  4. Cover the dish with clingfilm and allow to stand at room temperature for 2 hours before transferring it to the fridge for a minimum of 24 (but preferably 48) hours before cooking. When you’re ready to cook the pudding, pre-heat the oven to gas 350°. Remove the clingfilm and bake in the oven on a high shelf for 30-35 minutes, by which time the top will be crunchy and the inside soft and squidgy. Leave it to stand for 10 minutes before serving with well-chilled double cream poured over.

Ben’s Kitchen in LA.

Where do you live?
I live in Los Angeles, California — specifically Studio City.

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How often do you cook or bake?
Since I was laid off a month ago, I’ve been trying my hardest to conserve money and not go out for meals. So as of late: nearly every meal is a home-cooked one. (And when they’re not, I opt for the semi-cheap, entirely-delicious Hugo’s Tacos — Chicken or Al Pastor Bowl with Honey Chipotle.) As for baking? Uh, haven’t crossed that bridge yet.

What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
I’m a gadget nerd. (Latest love: the Kuhn Rikon Lid Lifter.)  But in terms of sheer practicality and overall use, I’ma go with the Pure Komachi stainless steel knife my mom gave me a couple years ago. She was at some cooking expo of some sort and I think it was given to her…  Anyway, it’s a ridiculous shade of purple but it’s incredibly sharp and lightweight. I tend to use chopped peppers and/or onions and/or garlic in about everything I make, so it’s in almost constant use.

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Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
My favorite part of my kitchen? I guess the piece of real estate to the right of my sink. There’s plenty of space to spread out supplies and room to chop & concoct and the window’s right there, so when the weather’s just right you can catch a nice cool breeze.

What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
This is a two part answer.

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A. When it comes to cooking regular meals, I’m not super adventurous. I go for maximum flavor from as few pots/dishes as humanly possible. For example, a few weeks ago  I made a really tasty soba dish from — cough — Martha Stewart. I highly recommend it.

Sautéed Chicken with Herbed Soba, from Martha Stewart

4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
1 cup fresh parsley
1 garlic clove, chopped (But as far as I’m concerned, one clove is never enough. I used two.)
1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger (Again, I think I erred on the side of a wee bit more ginger.)
¼ cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 ounces chicken cutlets
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (Oh and I didn’t have pure cayenne in the cupboard, so I used a cayenne-based spice rub that gave the chicken a really nice kick that was counterbalanced by the cool cilantro.)
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 package (8.8 ounces) soba

  1. In a food processor, finely chop scallions, cilantro, parsley, garlic, and ginger with vinegar and 1 tablespoon oil. Transfer to a bowl.
  2. In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high. Season chicken with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Working in batches, cook, turning once, until opaque throughout, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board; let cool 5 minutes, and thinly slice.
  3. Cook soba according to package instructions. Drain; toss with herb mixture. Serve chicken with soba; garnish with cilantro.

B. Here’s the real story about accomplishment that I wanted to tell. Roughly once a month, I have a bunch of friends come over for a ragtag, bourgie afternoon-into-evening of cooking, drinking, and eating. December’s dinner was based around the holidays (obvs) and nothing says the holidays like, uh, Moroccan Lamb Stew.  (To be fair we did have about 15 other courses that included more traditionally seasonal items like latkes and  Pimm’s Cup.)

Anyway, the purpose of this story: it wasn’t that the lamb stew was some impossibly difficult recipe — although none of us had ever made lamb stew — because it wasn’t. Instead, over the course of a couple of hours (and way too much alcohol) various factions and pairings would hover over the pot and finesse it, nudging it into the best stew I’ve ever had. That whole “too many cooks” maxim…? Yeah, that wasn’t in effect on that December night. So that’s our (Jill, Tim, Devereaux, and Tyler) accomplishment.

Moroccan Lamb Stew, from Bon Appétit
Makes four portions

¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
3 ½ pounds o-bone (round-bone) lamb shoulder chops, well trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces, or 2 pounds lamb stew meat
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
1 1/3 cups water
2 large blood oranges
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon honey

Mix salt, pepper, cinnamon and allspice in medium bowl. Add lamb and toss to coat with spice mixture. Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add lamb to pot and sauté until brown on all sides, about 4 minutes per batch. Return all lamb to pot. Add onion, garlic and ginger to pot and sauté 5 minutes. Add 1 1/3 cups water and bring to boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer until lamb is almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour 30 minutes.

Exactly how we veered away from this recipe is, alas, a little hazy. I do know that we chopped two big handfuls of really fresh mint and added it kind of late in the game. I also know that we amped the amount of blood orange used (plus zest) and added vegetable stock to the mix… But honestly, that’s all I remember at this late date.

Kelly’s Kitchen in Concord.

Kelly says:  Riding the Eiffel tower here I come!*

kellyWhere do you live?
Concord, Massachusetts.

How often do you cook or bake?
Pretty much every time I need to eat or feed my little family and despite my weight, believe it or not, I do eat three times a day.

What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
My N2O cartridge powdered food & cream whipper for convenience but my 8″ carving knife for being the most used item on any given day.

Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
The stove area because it’s the central spot in the kitchen.  I never feel cut off from guests or family while I’m cooking and they are enjoying a drink at the table.  I also am quite fond of the five-burner Thermador gas stove.  It really offers a lot of control while cooking and if I start burning stuff, the in-deck fan system raises up to my rescue like the Great Wall of China.

What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
Lately?  It might not sound like much but it has been taming an old, entirely manual La Pavoni espresso maker without blowing the whole house up.  These machines have an uncanny ability to ruin any espresso.  Actually I can only pull ristrettos with this machine — does it get more Italian than that?   I would say your odds are more favorable to win the lottery than to make a good espresso with these machines without either A) months of training and reading, B) hiring one of the top three World Barista Championship finalists.   Coffee is my cigarettes if you will.  I go through a lot to have one good one.  Nancy — and most everyone that has seen the ritual involved in making one cup — thinks I’m nuts.

But overall, my biggest kitchen accomplishment or at least the one I am most fond of, goes back close to thirty years.  It’s the preparation of my first “meal” on my own.  You wanted a recipe, huh?  You asked, not me.  So here we go.

Ingredients (for one person)
1 lemon
3 or 4 canned sardines
About a tablespoon of butter
French bread

Preparation time (probably an hour at the time, closer to 45 minutes these days)

Cut the top off of the lemon.  With a spoon carve out the inside.  Take the bones out of the sardines, mash them with the butter and mix in some of the lemon juice.  Stuff the lemon with the mixture.  Place back the little lemon hat on top.  Voilà!

PS: I have very supportive and wonderful parents.  Oh! What they went through…

* This is because he is French, and more than a little weird.

Judy’s Kitchen in Bristol.

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Where do you live?
St. Andrews, Bristol, UK.

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How often do you cook or bake?
I cook/bake roughly three times a week, on average.

judy-3-5What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
It’s very hard to decide on the answer to this one! Recently we purchased a salad spinner. Not very exciting you may think — but we’d wanted one for ages as we eat loads of salad and most of it comes from our organic veg box and tends to be pretty muddy. We were ending up wasting loads of kitchen roll just trying to pat it dry as we thought we did not have space for a salad spinner but then we found a really perfect small one in a fab shop in Bath called Kitchens. I am extra chuffed as it is a fetching plum colour which perfectly co-ordinates with our kitchen and it fits in our existing cupboard space.  Result.  But on the same day we bought a “proper,” good quality Parmesan grater, and that’s pretty funky too. But cheapest of all, and perhaps the most useful, was a small, simple plastic tool which prises a small gap between the lid of a jar and its side, negating the vacuum and thus rendering the jar open-able! (I was finally able to open my Dad’s pickled eggs, made over three years ago — they were, predictably, a little over-pickled.)

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Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
My favourite part of the kitchen is the left hand side wall which is lined with half-width cabinets — a fantastic use of an extremely small amount of space, it provides storage space as well as invaluable surface area upon which we keep the microwave, the food processor and various kilner jars of dried foodstuffs, the fruit bowl, the toaster, the sharp knives, the recipe book stand, the radio and various other kitchen essentials, none of which we would have room for with only our regular units.
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What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
This is an easy question to answer for me. I did A Level Home Economics which was equally concerned in those days with food chemistry, nutrition and cookery skills (now there is no practical or kitchen aspect to it at all).  We had a written exam at the end of the two years, same as all my other subjects, but in addition we had a cookery exam around the Easter time of our final A Level year. It was in two parts and incredibly stressful!

The first part was held in a regular classroom under exam conditions. We had to come up with a menu for a three course meal which incorporated at least six cookery skills considered to be A Level standard. These included, amongst other things, the ability to make choux pastry, hot water pastry (for pork pies and such), savoury or sweet roulade (flourless), roux sauce I think, possibly homemade mayonnaise.  Can’t really remember the others. There were also various other nutritional standards, and other considerations to be met in the menu (now lost to me) As well as the menu we had to come up with a schedule, listing what to do for every stage of each dish and most importantly dovetailing the preparation of all the dishes together to make a seamless, two hour plan.

The second part of the exam was held a few weeks later. We had to follow, to the letter (if not we lost marks) the plan we had come up with and actually produce this three course meal in two hours. After half an hour the cookery teacher’s daughter ran out in tears, unable to cope with the pressure. Twenty minutes later, another girl followed.  There were only six of us in the group, those of us who remained wondered if we could make it. Faces were strained and sweaty.  We moved without speaking (it was all held under exam conditions), frantically trying to keep to our schedules… I did okay I think, the food looked and tasted all right but the mayo was a little green (my recipe had called for olive oil, but I had used one that was a little too virgin!). Still, it was an experience I shall never forget!

from-judy-dorians(Note from Nayiri:  I took the above photo during my visit to England.  It’s the view from Judy’s kitchen window, which overlooks Bristol.)

Heather’s Kitchen in Ayer.

Where do you live?
Ayer, Massachusetts.
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How often do you cook or bake?
I bake infrequently (usually only for a special event or potluck), but I cook a lot.  When I say “I cook a lot” I mean to imply quantity more than frequency — my tendency is to make up a huge vat of something, based loosely or not at all on a recipe I may or may not have once glanced at in a magazine (which, if I may say so, usually turns out really well), and then subsist on that for several meals.  The organic farm share I had been receiving each week since June was been a huge motivator in getting things cooked up and socked away in the freezer for future use (lest something should — gasp — go bad and have to be composted).  It would seem to the outside world that I am preparing either for a) having a very large brood of children one day or b) Armageddon.

heather-2What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
My vintage Osterizer blender — I am constantly amazed each time I use it and it doesn’t die.  If that doesn’t count as a “utensil”, then I’d have to say my citrus reamer (also vintage, of course).  I have recently admitted to myself that freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice really does make all the difference in the world.

heather-3Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
Well, it would be silly of me not to put in a shout out for the ol’ fridge here.  When I walk into my house and see that big blue beauty, I get a smile on my face no matter how bad the day’s been.  And I have to admit I enjoy having something that makes just about everyone jealous!  Yes, Nayiri, your name is still on it for when I die.  (Nayiri’s note: For the record, while I do love Heather’s fridge, I laid claim to her mid-century modern credenza, her same-era dining table and all of the chairs in her house.)

heather-4What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?  Please feel to include a recipe.
Because I don’t bake much, I think my biggest triumph to date was a big batch of Raspberry Streusel Bars I made for a boyfriend for Valentine’s Day.  It’s actually a pretty straight-forward recipe, but I had some sort of mental block on the shortbread part, so I was really impressed with myself when it went off without a hitch (and without a pastry cutter).  I have plans for my next big accomplishment to be bread.

Raspberry Streusel Bars, from The Joy of Cooking

  1. Grease a 13×9-inch baking pan.  Sift 2 cups all-purpose flour, ¼ cup sugar and ¼ teaspoon salt together in a large bowl.  Sprinkle 12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, over the top.  Using a pastry blender, 2 knives, or your fingertips, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.  Then stir together 3 tablespoons milk and 1 teaspoon almond extract.  Sprinkle the milk mixture over the flour mixture. Lightly stir to blend.  Knead until milk is distributed and the particles begin to hold together.  If necessary, add a teaspoon or two more milk until the mixture holds together but is not wet.  Firmly press the dough into the pan to form a smooth, even layer.  Refrigerate for fifteen minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, position a rack in the center of the oven and another in the upper third.  Preheat the oven to 375ºF.  Bake the chilled dough in the center of the oven until barely firm in the center, 12 to 15 minutes.
  3. Spread 1 cup seedless raspberry jam evenly over hot crust.  To prepare the streusel, thoroughly whisk together 1¾ cups all-purpose flour, 1 cup sugar, ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon and ¼ teaspoon salt.
  4. Sprinkle 8 (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, over the top.  Using a pastry blender, 2 knives, or your fingertips, cut in the butter until mixture is well blended.  Then, using a fork, stir into the flour mixture one at a time ¾ cups sliced blanched almonds and ½ cup old-fashioned rolled oats.  Lightly beat together 1 large egg and 2 tablespoons milk; stir into the flour mixture until the streusel is moistened and forms small clumps.  If necessary, add a teaspoon or two more milk, until the mixture is just moist enough to clump.  Sprinkle the streusel evenly over the raspberry jam, breaking up any large clumps with a fork or your fingertips.  Bake in the upper third of your oven until the streusel is nicely browned and the raspberry mixture is bubbly, 25 to 30 minutes.  Remove the pan to a rack to cool completely.  Cut into bars.