CSA 2008, Week Eight.

I can’t believe Keith and I are already on week eight of our CSA with The Food Project. It feels like it was only last week that we had such a teensy tiny box of greens, turnips and parsnip; now each week seems to bring us a veritable bounty of vegetables that I honestly feel like I’m stealing. This week, for example, our box runneth over with the following:

  • Basil
  • Chard
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Garlic
  • Green beans
  • Lettuce
  • Peppers
  • Scallions
  • Summer squash
  • Tomatoes

I’ve only the vaguest idea as to what I’m going to do with all of this fine produce, but I can tell you that I have already decided the fate of those peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and scallions. The first three I know I’ll eat raw — probably while lying prostrate on the sofa, watching Project Runway, with three fans pointing directly at me. The scallions I’ll bake into scones. I’ve been on a scone kick this year, but I think it’s high time I try my hand at some savories rather than sweets. Not to mention Keith happens to love scallions and baked goods…

Susan’s Savory Cheese & Scallion Scones, adapted from Farmgirl Fare
Makes eight large scones

2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt (you may omit this if your feta is particularly salty)
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
6 scallions, green and white parts, chopped
¾ cup half-and-half or milk
2 eggs
1 tablespoon milk

  1. Heat oven to 400˚. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add cheeses and gently mix until combined (I used my hands). Add scallions and gently mix until combined.
  2. In another bowl, beat ¾ cup half-and-half with one egg; fold into dry ingredients. Mix until soft dough forms; add up to ½ cup additional flour if dough is too sticky.
  3. On a floured surface, pat dough into a circle approximately one-inch thick. With a sharp knife coated in flour, cut circle into eight wedges; place wedges on greased or parchment-lined baking sheet.
  4. Beat together remaining egg and tablespoon of milk. Brush tops and sides of scones with egg glaze, then bake for twenty to twenty-five minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack and refrigerate in an airtight container.

Sunday Brunch with Book Club.

I’ve got to say, book club was definitely one of my better ideas. I don’t normally toot my own horn, but in this case toot toot toot. When else would I be able to get together with a bunch of chatty, intelligent women about Mormons, murders and Massachusetts poets? More importantly, however else could I possibly be able to make as good an excuse to basically bake and eat and ton of buttery, rich food?

I had agreed to host our get-together, but it was so very hot, and the idea of turning on the oven or the stove was starting to stress me out. I did cave in and do some baking the night before, after the sun had set because I knew I wanted to serve some scones — since they are both easy and delicious; I adapted a basic recipe for an orange-rhubarb as well as a chocolate-cherry. Earlier in the week, I had dug up an old issue of Gourmet, from which I had pilfered a recipe for a really simple crumb cake that I knew I could throw together with great results. To cool us down, I chopped up some citrus and mint for a refreshing salad.

This month’s choice was a piece of nonfiction from author Sarah Vowell. Called Assassination Vacation, the book follows Vowell and a few of her family and friends on a series of road trips visiting sites related to the nation’s first three presidential murders. With her distinct style, Vowell not only guides the reader back to the times of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, but also details the truly surprising thread connecting them all.

Please note: when I say “distinct voice,” I am not only referring to Vowell’s vivid style of writing; she literally has what could only be described as an extremely recognizable voice, one that can often be heard on NPR as well as in The Incredibles (she’s Violet Parr).

In the end, we all seemed to like Assasination Vacation. It’s peppered with humorous anecdotes, Vowell’s musings on history and interesting excerpts from interviews the author conducted during the course of her research. Not only that, but Vowell’s depiction of her charming group of chauffeurs is so funny; an avid non-driver, she is completely reliant upon a combination of public transit, mass transit and friends and family to help her reach to her far-flung destinations. I think our collective favorite of her travel buddies was Vowell’s then-three-year-old nephew Owen, whom she writes about quite fondly. Take this, for example:

…[My sister Amy] phoned me, saying, “I asked Owen what he wanted to do today and he said, ‘Go look at stones with Aunt Sarah.’ Do you know what he’s talking about? What these stones are?”

I do. “He means tombstones,” I told her. “When you were off parking the car at the cemetery in Cleveland, Owen and I walked around looking for John Hay’s grave. Owen climbed on top of it and hollered, ‘This is a nice Halloween park!'” (That’s what he calls cemeteries.)

Here’s another description of Owen, one I personally love:

He’s truly morbid. When he broke his collarbone by falling down some stairs he was playing on, an emergency room nurse tried to comfort him by giving him a cuddly stuffed lamb to play with. My sister, hoping to prompt a “thank you,” asked him, “What do you say, Owen?” He handed back the lamb, informing the nurse, “I like spooky stuff.”

Now that’s my kind of kid.

(Incidentally, Stephanie suggested that book club volunteer to drive Vowell around for the next topic’s researching. So, if you’re reading this, Ms. Vowell, there are six food-loving book groupies in Massachusetts willing to give you a ride.)

Jam Crumb Cake, from Gourmet
Makes six to eight portions

For the cake:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
½ cup milk
1 large egg
½ cup raspberry jam or preserves (I used half strawberry, half raspberry, since that’s what I had in the fridge.)

For the crumb topping:
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Generously butter a nine-inch square or round cake pan. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together butter, milk, and egg in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined. Pour batter into cake pan. Dollop jam all over surface, then swirl into batter with spoon.
  2. Whisk together butter, sugars, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Stir in flour, then blend with fingertips until incorporated. Sprinkle crumbs in large clumps over top of cake.
  3. Bake cake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan, about twenty-five minutes. Cool in pan on a rack five minutes.

Rhubarb Grapefruit Scones.

I’ve got several stalks of rhubarb in my fridge, and I can’t seem to find a recipe for them that strikes my fancy. Of course it doesn’t help how fickle I can be; for example, do I want savory or sweet? Do I want to bake or cook? Then I realized that I’ve got so much rhubarb that I could satisfy both cravings. Here’s a scone recipe I adapted based on what I had in the fridge; I thought I had some oranges in the fruit drawer, which I think would be fantastic with the rhubarb. If you’ve got some and feel like trying this scone recipe with them, let me know how it turns out.

Rhubarb Grapefruit Scones
Makes eight

2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup butter, plus one tablespoon
½ cup heavy cream (though I used half-and-half, since that is what I had)
1 egg
1 cup finely chopped rhubarb
zest of one grapefruit
2 tablespoons sugar for sprinkling

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease cookie sheet. Combine dry ingredients in mixing bowl. Cut butter into dry ingredients, until butter is the size of small peas. Add remaining ingredients, mixing until dry ingredients are moist.
  2. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface, gather it into a ball. Pat into a circle about ¾” thick, then cut into eight wedges. Transfer to a cookie sheet and sprinkle wedges with sugar. Bake about twenty minutes, rotating tray about halfway through, until bottoms turn golden brown and some color develops on the tops.

Art Versus Craft.

Last week, I sent my friend Ben in LA a box of cookies. I had baked a ridiculous amount of several different types: chocolate cherry chip, madeleines, hazelnut-anise, olive oil and, of course, Medz Mama’s cookies. Since I knew Ben wouldn’t mind eating my leftovers, I packed up a sampler and headed to the post office. When he got the cookies, Ben phoned to say thanks and we had a nice little chat, so I was surprised to get another call a few days later, after he had tried each one.

“Krikey,” he said, “you could sell these.”

When I heard that, I felt a thrill; what a nice compliment! Once I had thought about it more, however, my excitement quickly faded. After all, I hadn’t invented the cookie recipes, nor had I put my own twist on them. With the exception of Medz Mama’s cookies, I had pulled my miscellaneous cookbooks out of their cupboard (and in the cases of the olive oil cookies and the madeleines, I had gone to Mark Bittman and Heidi Swanson respectively) and dutifully followed the instructions to the letter. The result was an abundance of homemade cookies, to be sure. But should I have truly received the credit for making them?

(A quick deviation from the plot: I’ve made mention of my love for Top Chef in the past; what I failed to bring up is my love for Tom Colicchio. Perhaps love is a strong word; obviously I don’t know the man, only his television persona. Regardless, he is my favorite judge on the show. I appreciate his no-nonsense, straightforward demeanor, and I like how that mentality comes through in his cookbook Think Like A Chef.)

In this month’s issue of GQ, there is a short piece with Colicchio, done in Q+A format (my favorite). In it, he says the following:

If you just follow recipes, you’re not teaching yourself how to cook. Once you understand technique — how to roast something, how to braise, how to sauté properly — you won’t need recipes anymore. You can start cooking your own food.

Is Colicchio right? Can you not learn how to cook by reading and trying recipes? Obviously, you need a basic sort of understanding when it comes to the fundamentals, and I know I can thank my mother for teaching me that. That said, is what Colicchio is describing the craft of cooking, or the art?

To me, running alongside a recipe shows the understanding of the craft, while inventing a unique recipe is the sign of art. When it comes to cooking, I most certainly lack the artistry. I’ve never claimed to be a good cook; if anything, I’ve claimed to be able to follow a recipe really well. This past Easter, I served two entrées and four side dishes that I had never made before, as well as a whole string of desserts whose recipes seemed interesting; I’m pleased to report that everything ended up tasting exactly as intended. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t items that cause me to lose culinary confidence, because I’m nervous about roasting a whole bird and I find the idea of using yeast a bit terrifying. (At least I’m not alone.) But does this mean I don’t know how to cook?

This past Sunday I had book club over for brunch; at the last minute I decided to bake scones, which I hadn’t ever done before. Since I didn’t have my cookbooks handy when I made up my mind, I turned to Google and found a recipe. The result was so lovely that I baked a second batch immediately after my friends had left. Here’s a photo of the wet ingredients meeting the dry, which I snapped because the cranberries simply looked so pretty, with the white cream puddling in their little crinkly wrinkles.

If the delicious product I turned out of this bowl means that I can’t cook (or bake), then that’s fine by me.