BLTs, Boyfriends, Books, Brains.

Today I had lunch with my friend Lexi at DJ’s on the Garden, where I had a satisfying yet unremarkable BLT that cost me precisely five dollars.  I suppose this recession has been good one for one thing, that that is the recession menu.

After having a nice little chat about boyfriends, meeting the parents and dressing up during winter, my book and I got back on the subway and headed home.  I’m not that far into M.F.K. Fisher‘s With Bold Knife and Fork, but thus far I’m enjoying it immensely; that is not a surprise, as I have enjoyed her writing immensely for a while now, but what was surprising is that (coincidentally) I read the chapter on rice and grains as I stirred my first (successful) risotto the other evening, and that today, on the ride back to my apartment, I read Ms. Fisher’s thoughts on offal and brains, the day after Keith and I had the following conversation:

K: (apropos to nothing) If we go someplace that has brains on the menu, I want you to stay away from them.
N: I’m sorry — what?
K: I just think that out of the two of us, you’ll be tempted and I don’t want you eating them.  Mad cow is still an issue.  If you got it, it would be horrible.
N: Aw, you think it would be horrible if I died?
K: Well, yes — it would be horrible if you died.  But how you would die would be horrible too.
N: But I’ve had brains.
K: Well, no more brains for you.
N: But if I become a zombie, though, can I have some brains?
K: All you can eat.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Since there are monstrous snowbanks lining the roads I now stand in the street while I wait for the bus, as opposed to waiting demurely on the curb, which is perhaps six to eight inches higher than the pavement.  When the bus arrived yesterday, stopping perfectly before me, I realized those few inches make all the difference.  The first step was at the same height as my knees.  The bus driver very graciously offered to lower the bus, but instead I gamely hoisted myself in.  I know I’m short, but this was ridiculous.  As I tapped my CharlieCard to the fare reader, the driver smiled at me and said sweetly, “My dear, next time, I would be honored to assist you onto my bus.”

Of course, I blushed.

At the post office later, I read my book until my number was called.  Then I was helped by the most cheerful postal worker I have ever met; she complimented me on my package-wrapping skills, insisting I come over in December to help her at Christmastime.  When the total on my shipping costs came to $6.66, she gasped, and insisted I purchase at least a 1¢ stamp.

“It’s bad luck,” she kept on repeating, all but wringing her hands. I couldn’t be swayed though, so she wished me good karma, told me to keep warm and sent me out into the cold.

italian-wedding-soupAs I walked amidst the commuters heading home, scarf spiraled around my neck and my fingers ensconced in too-thin gloves, I realized these two people, strangers both, wanted so very much to extend the smallest courtesies to me.  It’s in my nature to refuse aid when it’s offered (I don’t know why) yet I am one of those people who trips over her own feet — often bruising herself in the process — to help her friends.  Suddenly, I wished I could rush back to the considerate bus driver and the tenderhearted postal clerk and somehow make it all up to them.  Of course, I couldn’t — but if I could, I would express my appreciation with a bowl of soup, the sort with strong, warm arms to comfort and say, Thank you.

Italian Wedding Soup, adapted from Everyday Food
Makes six portions.

1 pound ground dark meat turkey, 93% lean
2 garlic cloves, minced (I used four, since I can never get enough garlic)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ dried breadcrumbs (I made my own, and used about ¾ a cup)
¼ cup grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 cups chicken broth
2 14.5 ounce cans diced tomatoes in juice
2 heads escarole, coarsely chopped (my local market didn’t have escarole, so I replaced it with kale)
coarse salt and ground pepper

  1. In a bowl, combine turkey, garlic, egg, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper.  Using 1 tablespoon for each, roll mixture into balls.
  2. In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat.  Cook onion, stirring occasionally until softened, 3 to 4 minutes.  Add broth, tomatoes and their juice; bring to a simmer.  Add meatballs and cook without stirring until meatballs float to the surface, about 5 minutes
  3. Add as much escarole to pot as will fit.  Cook, gradually adding remaining escarole until wilted and meatballs are cooked through, about 5 minutes.  Thin soup with water if necessary and season with salt and pepper.  Serve soup sprinkled with more Parmesan.

This Happens To All Of Us Sometimes, Doesn’t It?

From: Marcella Hammer
Date: Sun, Jan 25, 2009 at 2:39 PM
Subject: craptastic
To: Nayiri Krikorian

so i got this terrible stand mixer and tried it out today on marshmallows version 2.0.

holy god.

i almost threw it into the snow.

if my mixer was an animal, it would be a dead sloth.

if my mixer was a car, it would be a hollowed-out matchbox.

if my mixer was an article of clothing, it would be a hair-covered fleece pullover.

in conclusion, i may take the thing out into a field very soon and beat it to death with a baseball bat. yeah, you heard me. PRE-MEDITATED.

Our First Supper.

racletteHere’s a little secret: I wanted to host our first supper club not only because I desired so desperately to bust out my new raclette grill, but also because the only food prep I would have to do was slice up a four pound wedge of cheese.  It was very smelly work, but highly satisfying.

(And when I say that this was “very smelly work,” what I really mean is that this was very smelly work.  I love cheese — this is no secret, I would be so happy to have a trio of parrots named Fontina, Piave and Comté — but please know, my friends, that raclette is a stinker.  I broke a cardinal rule of cookery and went out to purchase scented candles; in my defense, I kept them away from the food.  I scattered them in every other room aside from the one we were eating in, however, and kept them burning throughout the night.)

table-setting1Oh, here’s another bit of dinner-prep that I took care of, though it didn’t include food: setting the table.  That doesn’t sound glamorous at all, I know, but as I was arranging the cutlery the night before, I decided to do something I don’t normally do when having people over for dinner, and that was make placecards.  I absolutely hate that moment when it’s time to eat and everybody stands around the table wondering where the so-called right place is to sit — so awkward.  Placecards, I thought, would eliminate that altogether… plus I did something a little sneaky and wrote ice-breakers on the inside of each card, just in case the conversation lagged a bit. They were each fill-in-the-blank sort of sentences, i.e. “If I were an article of clothing, I would be a —————”, “The room I liked best in my childhood home was —————”, and “My favorite smell makes me think of —————”.  It actually turned out to be a lot of fun, and was an interesting way to learn something we might not have otherwise about each other.

the-tableAnyway, onto dinner…!

Raclette is a Swiss cheese made of cow’s milk; traditionally it’s served melted onto steamed potatoes, caramelized onions and cornichons.  The group of us decided to stick mostly with tradition, though we added a few crusty baguettes, some sliced Gala apples tossed with lemon, and strips of red and orange peppers.  We placed the apples and peppers atop the grill to soften before smothering them with raclette — delicious.

Which is not to say the rest of our table wasn’t laden with less delicious fare, because that definitely wasn’t the case.  Personally, I couldn’t get enough potatoes onto my plate, or parsley, or pearl onions (though later, when we had consumed all but the bread, I poured my melty cheese onto a torn piece the size of my palm and chewed thoughtfully while I listened to an impromptu dinner-table debate).  That’s the best part about raclette: the mixing and matching of condiments and accompaniments.  If anything, it’s a total DIY kind of meal, and one that requires sharing, reaching over your neighbor, and a lot of talking.  In other words, it’s brilliant.

hot-chocolate-marshmallow

Another exciting part of the night was that my friend Marcella drove down from Saratoga Springs — through a snowstorm! — to join us.  She’s my closest friend, and we don’t get to spend nearly enough time together.  In spite of that, we somehow always seem to end up on the same sort of page, no matter how far apart we are.  (We’ve not only purchased identical underwear and books, but also wore and read them at the same time, in different area codes.)  That said, it wasn’t any sort of shock when we simultaneously suggested to the other that we should make marshmallows for dessert.  (I’m not kidding.  Simultaneous.)  It was surprisingly easy, making marshmallows, and unsurprisingly sticky — though it was sticky in the most beautiful way.  That night, we whisked ten ounces of melted semi-sweet chocolate into milk, and poured them into hot mugs.  Somehow, entire families of marshmallows ended up in mine.

the-morning-afterOf course, the night came to a close much too soon — but isn’t the always case any time you’re enjoying yourself a little too much?  The times that lag are only when you’re waiting in line at the post office, or staring at the clock during algebra, or tapping your fingers during a traffic jam of questionable origin.  The proof of our pleasure was in my kitchen the next morning, shining a little too brightly in the dazzling light spilling in between the horizontal blinds.

Marshmallows, from David Lebovitz

2 envelopes powdered gelatin
½ cup + 1/3 cup cold water
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
4 egg whites
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
about ½ cup powdered sugar and ½ cup cornstarch, sifted together

  1. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the ½ cup of cold water to dissolve and soften.  In a saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, mix the sugar and corn syrup with 1/3 cup of water. Place over medium-to-high heat.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, pour in the egg whites and beat on low speed until frothy. Add the pinch of salt.
  3. When the syrup reaches between 210 and 220°, increase the speed of the mixer and beat the whites until they are thick and fluffy (do not overbeat).
  4. When the syrup reaches 245°, while the mixer is whipping, pour the syrup into the whites. Pour so that the syrup does not fall on the whip, otherwise much of the syrup will splatter onto the sides of the bowl, not into the egg whites.
  5. Scrape the gelatin and water into the pan that you used for the syrup and swirl it to dissolve (it should be hot enough from the syrup to dissolve it). Pour the liquified gelatin into the whites as they are whipping. Add the vanilla and continue to whip for 5 minutes.
  6. Dust with a sifter a 11x 17 (approximately) baking sheet evenly and completely with cornstarch mixture. Use a spatula to spread the marshmallows in a layer on the pan. Allow to dry for at least 4 hours or overnight, uncovered.
  7. Use a sharp knife or scissors to cut the marshmallows into pieces and toss in the powdered sugar and cornstarch mixture. Put the marshmallows in a colander or strainer and shake off the excess cornstarch mixture.  Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Judy’s Kitchen in Bristol.

judy-1

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

judy-7

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.)

judy-12

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.
judy-2

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.)

Tea with Book Club.

Here’s how book club usually works:

  1. Amanda, Darlington, Heather, Melissa, Sarah, Stephanie and I trickle in, toting the food we’ve brought to share.
  2. We set up the food and catch up with what’s been going on with each other since we last got together.
  3. We load up our plates.
  4. We discuss the book in between snacking.
  5. Somehow, we always end up talking about strange things to say to our bedmates.
  6. We eat some more.

Last week was no different. *

innocent-traitor1We gathered at Darlington’s place in Harvard Square for what we were calling a high tea, even though it was only ten o’clock in the morning.   We chose tea rather than breakfast or brunch as  a wink to our book, the Britain-based Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir.

That this month’s book was my pick — we take turns choosing titles, the same way we alternate hosting duties — and it just so happened that Innocent Traitor climaxes at the Tower of London, where I spent a morning a few months ago. It was there that I first heard of our book’s protagonist, and where I learned of her place in English history.  Knowing how the story of the “innocent traitor” in question unfolded over four hundred and fifty years ago didn’t prevent me at all from thoroughly enjoying Weir’s work.

Something interesting is that Weir is a historian and a writer of narrative non-fiction; Innocent Traitor marks her first foray into fiction.  Here she writes a based-in-fact account of Lady Jane Grey‘s life during the sixteenth century.  Jane is portrayed as being an erudite girl and an avid student, wanting nothing more out of life than to continue her studies and live as a fervid Protestant.  Of course, Jane can’t get her way (if she didn’t face conflict, Weir wouldn’t have much of a novel).  It doesn’t help that Jane is a Tudor — the ruling family of England, Ireland and Wales  from 1485 to 1603 — and therefore has a something of a shot of wearing the a crown.  Positioned by her parents and ambitious men to be the next Queen of England after Edward VI dies of “consumption,” Jane soon finds hers incarcerated in the Tower.

book-group-1We traded opinions on both Weir and Jane while we balanced our heavy plates on our knees; I shared how I (uncharacteristically) cried cried cried earlier in the week because Weir’s Jane is like a candle underneath a glass dome: burning brighter and brighter until all the air is consumed.  Truly, even if you know the real story of Jane and her time, Innocent Traitor will take hold of your shirtsleeves and not let go until you’ve reached the end.  At that point, you may cry.  You’ve been warned.

Food-wise, we found ourselves faced with a feast, as usual.  Stephanie assembled tea sandwiches spread with cream cheese, layered with baby cucumbers and sprinkled with herbs; Heather rolled cheese and salmon into spirals wrapped in spinach-flavored tortillas; Amanda had made scones sweetened with pecans and dried fruit; and the day before I baked a cake made only of clementines, eggs, sugar, nuts and little else.  My mother used to make cakes similar to this one, and the entire house would smell sunny and warm, even on the coldest winter days, until the last slice mysteriously went missing.

For the record, my house still smells like sunshine.

Clementine Cake, from Nigella Lawson via Deb at Smitten Kitchen
Makes eight portions.

4to 5 clementines, about 1 pound total weight
6 eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/3 cups ground almonds (I used walnuts since that’s not only what I had on hand, but also because that’s what my mother uses in her citrus cakes.)
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

  1. Put the clementines in a pot with cold water to cover, bring to the boil, and cook for 2 hours. Drain and, when cool, cut each clementine in half and remove the seeds. Then finely chop the skins, pith, and fruit in a food processor or by hand.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375°; butter and line an 8-inch springform pan with parchment paper.  (I used a 9-inch, as that’s what I own, and the cake turned out fine.)
  3. Beat the eggs. Add the sugar, almonds, and baking powder. Mix well, adding the chopped clementines.  Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, when a skewer will come out clean.  If necessary, cover the cake with foil after about 40 minutes to stop the top from burning. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, in the pan on a rack. When the cake is cold, take it out of the pan.

Note:  If you do cover your cake with foil, I suggest poking a few toothpicks, skewers or similar into the top and creating a foil tent; mine stuck.

* There was a slight variation this month, as we played a game.  Amanda had a stack of cards, each depicting a portrait of one of England’s reigning monarch.  She had shuffled them and divided them amongst us; we then put them in order, lining them up chronologically across the windowpanes.  It was more fun than it sounds.  And Lady Jane, the Nine Days’ Queen, was not amongst the rulers.  She was mentioned a few times though.