Got Started A Little Early.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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Five Things About Me: 66 67 68 69 70.

66. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself craving salty things rather than sweet.  Right now, for example, I would kill for a bag of chips.

67. I hate the way I look in photographs, but I always begrudgingly let people take my picture with the hopes that I’ll somehow end up with a shot I like.

68. Lysol wipes might just be my favorite cleaning product ever.  I just wish they smelled better.

69. I can’t get “Civilization” out of my head.  Thanks, Fallout 3.

70. One of my favorite way to spend a rainy or cold day is curled up on the sofa with a quilt, my cookbooks and a pad of mini Post-Its so I can flag each recipe I want to try or have tried.

On Ditching Books.

Over the course of several months this past year, Keith and I got rid of something like five hundred books.  We still have several hundred left but these, we have decided, are keepers.  It took days to determine which titles got to stay, warm and cozy on their shelves, and which would get packed up into extra-strong cardboard boxes and toted to a book donation spot, but I’m surprised to say that I haven’t longed for a single banished book.

2009 was also the year I rediscovered the library — and, even better, the network of libraries that I can request books from — thereby giving me a means to reacquaint myself with any book I sent out the door, as well as the opportunity to test-drive new writers without spending who-knows-how-many dollars on who-knows-how-many books.  Some authors’ works I’ll always buy and never be able to part with (like Ann Patchett, Lois Lowry and Steve Almond) but others’ I’m more than happy to visit at the bookstore.  I’m all for supporting artists — which good writers are, without a doubt — but Keith and I’ve also got an apartment-hold to support, and we come first.  Right now, anyway.  Ask me again after I trip over a bag of no-strings-attached money.

At any rate, turns out the Times has been pondering the same thing — regarding tossing books, that is.  They even used their clout to ask a few writers and Fred Bass, co-owner of the Strand Bookstore, to share their thoughts on the matter.  I found myself most agreeing with what David Matthews (no, not Dave Matthews) had to say — “If I’m being honest, some of it is on my shelf because I like the idea of it being on my shelf” — which is exactly why I got rid of all my Roland Barthes and, like Matthews, our copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.  And you know what?  I haven’t missed them for a second.  Neither have my bookcases, whose shelves are now sagging out of relief instead of with weight.

This Might Be Why I Am Fat.

I know that after the holidays you’re supposed to feel the need to diet, eat healthily, work out and abstain from things like carbs and bacon and cheese, but I woke up yesterday morning craving pasta, which is why I decided to make spaghetti carbonara for dinner in spite of my leftover-laden fridge.  For the record, I did eat the remaining Brussels sprouts from Christmas Eve dinner for lunch, along with some of my dad’s herb-marinated olives and a clementine, so I didn’t feel as guilty as I could’ve for giving in to the demands of my stomach.

Actually, come to think of it, I didn’t feel guilty at all, which may be why I am fat.

Anyway.

Spaghetti carbonara has a tyrannical iron grip on my heart, and I’m rendered as helpless as a baby bunny when faced with a bowl of it.  The first time I ever ate carbonara was when I was fourteen, at a restaurant in, of all places, my mother’s hometown of Cagayan de Oro, and I loved the creamy thick sauce coating each strand of pasta so much that I convinced my mother to take me back the next day for another mound of it.  Both days I resolutely put my head down and didn’t come back up for air until I was finished, barely restraining myself from swiping my tongue across my empty plate.  My mother’s evil eye might have had something to do with that though.

Ruth Reichl‘s recipe is just as good as the carbonara of my memory, and dead simple.  Something interesting to note is that there’s no cream in the ingredients list; the eggs do all the work, magically transforming themselves into a rich and smooth sauce.

Spaghetti Carbonara, from Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
Makes three portions

1 pound spaghetti
¼ to ½ pound thickly-sliced bacon
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 large eggs
Black pepper
½ cup grated Parmigiano cheese, plus extra for the table

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When it is boiling, throw the spaghetti in. Most dried spaghetti takes 9 to 10 minutes to cook, and you can make the sauce in that time.
  2. Cut the bacon crosswise into, pieces about ½ inch wide. Put them in a skillet and cook for 2 minutes, until fat begins to render.  Add the whole cloves of garlic and cook another 5 minutes until the edges of the bacon just begin to get crisp. Do not overcook; if they get too crisp, the bacon won’t meld with the pasta.
  3. Meanwhile, break the eggs into the bowl you will serve the pasta in, and beat them with a fork. Add some grindings of pepper.
  4. Remove the garlic from the bacon pan.  If it looks like too much fat to you, discard some, but you’re going to toss the bacon with most of its fat into the pasta.
  5. When it is cooked, drain the pasta and immediately throw it into the beaten eggs. Mix thoroughly. The heat of spaghetti will cook the eggs and turn them into a sauce. Add the bacon with its fat, toss again, add cheese and serve.

A Post-Christmas Post.

Well, I survived Christmas Eve, you might be happy to hear.  Making dinner for eleven (plus one toddler, one newborn and one dog) wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be — and I promise you I’m not saying this in some sort of sad attempt to show you how cool and “together” I am, because had you seen me that morning, shrilly demanding that Keith vacuum and sweep*, you would know exactly how uncool and not “together” I am.

I’ll discuss what we served in a bit, but first I just want to say that a big part of why dinner was so successful is because Stephanie suggested I borrow a crockpot and because Marcella reminded me of an excellent baked fish recipe.  See, I knew I wanted to have a soup course but was worried about stove-space — at one point, I did in fact have all four burners going at once — which is why the crockpot was so helpful.  I just poured my soup in there earlier in the afternoon and plugged it in to keep warm.  And since I was concerned about what I would be able to cook on the stove, an oven-roasted fish was perfect.  And so stress-relieving; once I slid its tray in the oven, I was free to walk away, drink a glass of wine and have a little chat with guests.

So here’s what we had for dinner, from the top:  purée of onion soup (not pictured), potato galette, holiday rice (which my mother made for Keith specifically), salmon roasted in crème fraîche, beef tenderloin with basil-curry mayonnaise (in the ramekins), cream-braised Brussels sprouts and more holiday rice.

For dessert, which I did not photograph, I made an apple galette, chocolate mousse and two different types of caramels (more about these another day).  I also emptied a box of clementines into a bowl, though I can’t take credit for making them.

Now, here’s why preparing this dinner was so easy: almost everything could be done ahead of time. Honestly.  It’s as simple as that.

The caramels I had made a few days earlier, and sat hardening in my fridge until it was time for dessert.  The night before, I not only cleaned and split my Brussels sprouts but also made pâte brisée.  On Christmas Eve morning I sliced potatoes and apples for my savory and sweet galettes, which then went straight into the oven; they’re served at room temperature, so baking them and getting them out of the way was perfect.  As the soup’s onions sweated in a covered pan, I made and refrigerated the mousse.  After I puréed the onions with some vegetable stock and a splash of cream, it all went into the crockpot, leaving me plenty of time to make the rub and the mayonnaise for the beef tenderloin, as well as braise my sprouts.  I purposely waited until the last minute to stick the beef in the oven; everyone snacked from Keith’s cheese plate while it roasted and, as the tenderloin rested, the salmon had its turn in the oven.  And then we sat down to eat.

I’ve got to say, cooking for this crowd went much more smoothly than I could have ever hoped, mostly because I tried to choose recipes that could be made prior to dinner.  Something else that helped was preparing simple recipes that had high-impact results, like the salmon, beef, Brussels sprouts and soup.

Before I get to the recipes, here’s a shot of my parents’ fifteen-year-old English setter Winston partaking in his culture’s Christmas tradition: wearing the crown from a Christmas cracker.  Adorable, no?

Potato Galette, from Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pépin by Jacques Pépin
Makes eight to twelve portions

½ recipe pâte brisée
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into very thin slices, washed and dried
½ cup heavy cream

  1. Roll out dough 1/8 to 1/16 thick, in a shape that fits roughly a cookie sheet — approximately 16 x 14 inches.  If the dough is not thin enough after you lay it on the cookie sheet, roll it some more, directly on the sheet.
  2. Melt the butter in a skillet and add the oil.  Add the potato slices and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes on high until the slices start to look transparent and a few are slightly browned.  Let cool a few minutes and spread the potatoes on the dough.  Bring up the border of the dough and fold it over the potatoes.
  3. Bake in a 400° oven for approximately 45 minutes, until it’s lightly browned.  Spread the cream on top and bake for another 15 minutes.  Serve lukewarm in wedges.

Purée of Onion Soup, from Think Like a Chef by Tom Colicchio
Makes four portions

2 tablespoons peanut oil
6 onions, peeled and sliced (about 12 cups)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 cup chicken stock (I used vegetable, as one of our guests is a pescatarian)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and pepper

  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until it slides easily across the pan.  Add the onions, garlic, salt and pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, about 20 minutes.
  2. Add the stock and 1 cup water and simmer for 10 minutes more.  Purée the soup, then press it through a fine strainer.
  3. Just before serving, reheat the soup, whisk in the butter and adjust seasoning.

Crème Fraîche-Roasted Salmon, from Molly Wizenberg for Bon Appétit
Makes four to six portions

1 2-pound center-cut wild salmon fillet with skin, about 1 ¼ inches thick
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup crème fraîche

  1. Preheat oven to 425°. Line rimmed baking sheet with foil.
  2. Place salmon, skin side down, on baking sheet; sprinkle with salt and pepper. (I also sprinkled it with chopped chives, then zested a lemon over it all.)  Spread crème fraîche over salmon.
  3. Roast salmon until opaque in center, about 12 to 14 minutes. To test for doneness, cut small slit in thickest part of fillet; all but center of fillet should be opaque (salmon will continue to cook after fillet is removed from oven).
  4. Using spatula, transfer to platter.  (I served mine on the baking sheet.)

Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Basil-Curry Mayonnaise, from Giada De Laurentiis
Makes six to eight portions

for the beef:
Vegetable oil cooking spray
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
3 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon kosher salt, plus 2 teaspoons
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 (3 ½ to 4-pound) beef tenderloin, trimmed

for the mayonnaise:
1 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup mascarpone cheese, at room temperature (I used cream cheese, since I had it)
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Arrange an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°. Spray a heavy baking sheet with vegetable oil cooking spray. Set aside.
  2. In a mortar and pestle, or spice grinder, finely grind the cumin seeds and coriander seeds. Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add the spices and cook for a few seconds until aromatic and toasted. Put the spices in a small bowl. Chop the garlic on a cutting board and sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt. Holding a chef’s knife at a 45 degrees angle, scrape the garlic and salt together to form a paste. Add the garlic paste to the bowl with the spices. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, black pepper, and oil and stir until smooth.  (I did all of this in my mini food processor.  It came out just fine.)  Put the meat on the prepared baking sheet and rub with the spice mixture. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 125°, for medium-rare. Remove from the oven and transfer the meat to a cutting board. Cover the meat loosely with foil and let rest for 20 minutes.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, mascarpone cheese, basil, curry powder, and paprika until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

To serve: Slice the meat into ¼-inch thick slices and arrange on a platter. Spoon the mayonnaise mixture into a small serving bowl and serve alongside the sliced meat.

A Letter From Me To You.

Dear Readers:

I haven’t forgotten about you, I promise.  We’re doing Christmas Eve dinner at my apartment this year, even though I’m busy getting things ready for eleven diners, two houseguests, two (visiting) babies and one dog, there’s so much I want to share with you — like the beautiful and sad novel I recently read, and recipes for candy I’ve tried out, and my thoughts on vanilla, and how I’m searching for the perfect salt cellar — but I can’t promise I’ll have even a moment to sit down and give you all the time and attention you deserve until after Christmas.  Good thing I have to run out the door and catch the bus, otherwise I’d probably sit here apologizing for about three more paragraphs.  So.  I hope I have a chance to have a proper chat with you soon, but in case I don’t, happy holidays, and I hope you all sit down to at least one fantastic meal during these last crazy and hectic days of 2009.

xxoo N

Five Things About Me: 61 62 63 64 65.

61. This is my dearest fantasy.

62. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I cannot imagine a day without cheese.  Last week I thought I had skipped a day, and I practically had a heart attack.  I went straight home and ate most of a fat wedge of Comté.  I immediately felt better.

63. There’s something I find extremely soothing about getting an eyebrow wax.  I’m not a masochist or anything.  I just like a nice arch.

64. I love how seagulls have to find the highest point possible upon which to perch and survey the ground below.  I love how much of the time, the points they choose are the tops of highway street lights.

65.  Holiday mania — particularly Christmas mania — really freaks me out and totally turns me off on celebrating altogether.  That said, I really like this.