Apr 29 2010

What’s for Dinner

This week in our veggie box we got: a big bunch of chard, a smaller bunch of red mustard greens, three stalks of green garlic and three spring onions, two bunches of skinny new carrots, a very small bunch of radishes, two pounds of La Ratte fingerling potatoes, and a couple of kiwis.

I’m most excited by the mustard greens (love mustard greens) so tonight I want to do a traditional Southern slow-cooked mess of greens and pork and onions, with boiled potatoes and carrots to go with it.

Tomorrow I have to go out to the house to meet with our contractor, so I think dinner might be takeout, but Saturday I’ll stir-fry the snap peas and green garlic with a little beef, and maybe another vegetable like a red bell pepper. And because stir-fries are healthy and virtuous, then I’ll feel okay about making this much-less-virtuous recipe for leek and chard tart on Sunday. Except instead of the leeks, I’ll probably use the shallots left over from last week.

That will leave only the radishes for Monday, so I guess on Monday we’re having salad, and maybe pasta or fish or something. Then Tuesday will be for leftovers as usual.

Apr 23 2010

Chicken Stock Two Ways

It occurs to me that since I keep rhapsodizing about what a difference home-made stock has made to my cooking, I should maybe post a recipe for chicken stock.

I make it two different ways. When I have a roast chicken carcass on hand, I just put the whole thing in the pot along with a chopped onion, a couple of sliced carrots, a couple of sliced celery ribs, one or two peeled (but whole) cloves of garlic, 5-10 peppercorns, and sometimes a star anise. I cover it with water, bring it to a boil, and let it simmer for a couple of hours. This makes a fairly light, delicate stock that is particularly good for things like cooking rice in, or when you just need a cup or so of stock for a pasta recipe or something.

For a thicker, richer stock that is fan-freaking-tastic as a soup base, I start with raw chicken necks and backs (about four pounds) and brown them on both sides in a little cooking oil. This has to be done in batches and takes a little time, but the browning makes the final stock much more flavorful. I also sauté the onion, carrots and celery, and then return the chicken to the pot with the vegetables and let it all “sweat” over medium-low heat for twenty minutes. Towards the end I bring two quarts of water to boil in a second pot, and then add it to the first pot (this is a Cook’s Illustrated trick for cutting down the total cooking time on the stock, but obviously you could also just add cold water and bring it back up to boil). Everything boils for another twenty minutes, and then it can be strained and put in the fridge. After refrigerating overnight, all the fat will form a thick layer on top that can be easily skimmed off with a slotted spoon.

And that’s how I make chicken stock! I know there’s a great art to perfect stock, and would be interested in hearing how any of my foodie friends make theirs—any tips or tricks to share?

Apr 22 2010

Creamy Green Garlic Soup with Potatoes

This is the soup I made last night: I modified a Cook’s Illustrated recipe to use the green garlic from our veggie box. It came out really tasty! I will say up front that this is not a low-fat recipe—it calls for three tablespoons of butter and half a cup of cream. To be frank, though, in the world of creamed soups, that’s actually not too bad. I have a recipe for vichyssoise that calls for half a stick of butter, three cups of whole milk and two cups of heavy cream. Plus this is a really hearty, filling soup; a bowl of it makes a meal.

The recipe could easily be made vegetarian by substituting another garnish (such as garlic croutons or crisp-fried onions) for the bacon, and using vegetable stock instead of chicken stock. As always, home-made stock makes for infinitely better soup.

Take about a pound and a half of leeks and chop up the white and light green parts—you should have about two cups. Also chop one bunch of green garlic (the white part, discarding the tough outer peel). My “bunch” had four stalks of green garlic, but you could use more, or less. Compensate by varying the amount of regular garlic, below.

Put a Dutch oven over medium heat and add three tablespoons of butter. When the butter melts and foams, add the leeks and green garlic, and sauté until soft (about five minutes). Meanwhile, peel and mince—or put through a garlic press—three cloves of (ordinary, mature) garlic. Again, you can vary the amount of ordinary garlic to suit whatever quantity of green garlic you have on hand. Keep in mind that green garlic is milder in flavor than full-grown garlic.

When the leeks and green garlic have softened, add the garlic cloves and stir until fragrant, about a minute. Add six cups of chicken broth, two bay leaves, and a teaspoon of salt, and turn up the heat a bit to bring the soup to a boil. Meanwhile, chop two pounds of red and/or yellow potatoes into half-inch cubes. You can use russets if you want, but you’ll have to peel them, as the papery skin of russet potatoes isn’t tasty like the red and yellow potato skins are. And I think the potato skins add a nice texture and taste to the finished soup.

If the soup comes to a full boil while you’re still chopping potatoes, just turn it down and let it simmer until you’re done. Add the potatoes to the soup and cook at a low boil until the potatoes are very tender, about 20 minutes.

If you’re planning on garnishing the soup with bacon—and really, unless you are vegetarian and/or kosher, you should—you can go ahead and fry some up now. I used a strip of bacon per person, except I counted Davy as a person, and then I added an extra strip of bacon for everybody in the house who really loves bacon. Which is everybody. Your bacon may vary.

When the potatoes are cooked, turn off the heat and stir in half a cup of cream and about two teaspoons of fresh thyme, or however much of it you can be bothered to pull off the stems.

Use an immersion blender to process the soup until it’s mostly smooth. You can also do this in a blender or food processor, but you’ll have to do it in batches to avoid a face full of hot soup. An immersion blender is really a handy gadget, especially if you make a lot of soups, and they’re not super expensive: it’s only about $25 for the Cook’s Illustrated-recommended Kalorik Sunny Morning Stick Mixer. While you’re blending, don’t be anal about getting all the lumps. It’s actually nice to have a slightly irregular texture to this soup; it’s supposed to be a potage.

Taste the soup. It’s going to want a boatload of pepper and probably lots more salt (unless you are using storebought chicken stock that’s already loaded with salt), so put that in. Taste it again.

Pretty tasty, eh? Dish it into bowls, sprinkle your bacon bits (or other garnish) on top, and enjoy a nice immune-boosting meal of garlicky spring soup.

Apr 21 2010

What’s for Dinner

Today our veggie box brought us: lettuce, carrots, asparagus, red & white spring onions, two huge leeks, a bunch of green garlic, five shallots, three kiwis, and about a pound of red potatoes.

It’s another rainy day, and Sam has a stubbornly lingering cold, so I think tonight I’ll make a creamy soup out of the potatoes, leeks, and green garlic, probably with some crispy bacon for garnish. I’ll post my recipe if it comes out well. That’ll use up the chicken stock I have in the freezer, so I’ll get a chicken and roast it for tomorrow night’s dinner, and make more stock from the carcass. We’ll have a garden salad with the chicken.

Friday evening we’re driving to Martinez to buy a new couch from a lady on Craigslist, so I think we’ll probably eat out afterwards. And Saturday is gaming day. But Sunday we can have steaks and asparagus, and Monday I want to try incorporating the spring onions into a new recipe for “pasta with pork ribs”: it looks like a fairly regular tomato-based meat sauce, except with spareribs instead of ground beef. Then Tuesday will be for leftovers as usual. We’ll have the shallots left over, but those will keep. It’ll be an unusual week in that we’ll have meat every night, instead of just a few nights as we usually do, but I think Sam could use the protein to help kick this cold.

Apr 21 2010

Honoring Confederate History Month

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for The Atlantic. Since I stumbled on his blog about a year ago, it’s become one of my favorites: TNC writes with insight and verve, covering a broad range of topics, most incisively the subject of race in America. He’s also a comic book and computer game nerd, which of course I find charming.

For the past year or so he’s gone on a Civil War kick, offering stories and images from the history books he’s been reading and the tours he’s taken of the old battlefields. As a black man, his interest is especially in those who rarely got to write their own histories: the freed slaves, the black soldiers, and how their lives were woven into the societies of the time. He’s also been confronting—with impatience, but also, sometimes, with a surprising level of compassion—the ‘Lost Cause‘ mythology that persists in the South to this day.

So when the governor of Virginia recently declared April to be “Confederate History Month,” reigniting an old controversy, some were appalled and some were defiantly pleased and some, like me, just kind of winced and hoped it would all blow over soon. But TNC decided to take it very seriously, and to contribute as much as he could to the effort, as the Confederate History Month declaration put it, “to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present.”

Here’s TNC on a group of citizens whose “sacrifices…during the period of the Civil War” are beyond measure.

Here he presents a group of soldiers who laid down their lives at rates “astronomical when compared to other regiments.”

And here he finds Ulysses S. Grant writing in visionary fashion of how a Confederate History Month should be truly “honored.”

I would not have the anniversaries of our victories celebrated, nor those of our defeats made fast days and spent in humiliation and prayer; but I would like to see truthful history written. Such history will do full credit to the courage, endurance and soldierly ability of the American citizen, no matter what section of the country he hailed from, or in what ranks he fought. The justice of the cause which in the end prevailed, will, I doubt not, come to be acknowledged by every citizen of the land, in time. For the present, and so long as there are living witnesses of the great war of sections, there will be people who will not be consoled for the loss of a cause which they believed to be holy. As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.

Apr 17 2010

Third Trimester

So I guess I’ve been in the third trimester for a little while now? I’m feeling some heartburn, and my back is really achy—I don’t remember my back hurting me this much when I was pregnant with Robin, but Sam assures me that I complained about it then too. Overall, though, I feel pretty good. I’ve been sleeping fairly well and I have enough energy to get through the day, and most importantly of all, I’ve been reasonably sane. The hormone-driven mood swings are by far my least favorite part of pregnancy, but there haven’t been too many of them, and the rest of the time I’m calm and chipper.

We’re trying to prepare Robin for the arrival of his little brother, with pretty limited success. He understands that there’s a baby in my belly: he’ll give me kisses and pats on the stomach, and he often points to my tummy and says “Baby!” Unfortunately, he also seems to think there’s a baby in his belly. He often pulls up his shirt, points to his own tummy, and says, with the same beaming expression, “Baby!” So there’s some confusion there.

I really don’t think the concept of a baby brother is going to make a lot of sense to Robin until the day we bring one home for him. But he does show a lot of interest in babies on the sidewalk and at the park, and he plays nicely with kids younger than him, so I’m hopeful that he’ll be happy with Davy when the time comes.

Apr 17 2010

As Promised

Shark shirt!

Apr 16 2010

Miss Manners, T.S. Eliot, and God

So recently I’ve gotten on this random kick of reading etiquette books. Mostly the ones written by Judith Martin: my list includes Miss Manners’ Guide to Domestic Tranquility, Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children, and Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium. I’d like to range further back and read some older stuff: I know Nina has a good collection of vintage advice books, which maybe I can browse when we go out to Baltimore for our next visit. But I have to say that Judith Martin is first and foremost just a fantastic writer.

She’s enormously deft with her pen: so very, very funny that her wit almost eclipses the wisdom and humanity of her writing. But like any advice columnist, she provides little windows into the dilemmas that make up people’s real lives, and her advice builds on itself into something grander. It becomes a coherent worldview where etiquette is only another name for the great fundamental truth that sages and prophets have always taught: compassion for others is the most necessary thing in life.

In reading these books I’ve learned two things: 1) I’ve been putting the napkins on the wrong side of the cutlery all my life and 2) I have been a pretty awful person sometimes.

When I was younger I had this belief, not well-thought-out or anything, just kind of an unexamined assumption on which I operated, that any strongly felt emotion ought to be immediately expressed to those in my general vicinity. If I had ever stopped to justify this (horrible) idea it would probably have been on the grounds of honesty and authenticity, but really it was just that I had the impulse control of a two-year-old. Literally. I live with an actual two-year-old now and in some ways he controls himself about as well now as I did when I was twenty.

It’s tempting to diagnose myself, in retrospect, with some kind of brain chemistry imbalance, like mild manic-depression or something: certainly now when I experience the kind of emotional storms that made up daily existence in my adolescence and early twenties, I call it The Crazy. I am so, so grateful that my emotional landscape has evened out, and part of that is just a lucky fluke of neurology; but the thing is, back when I was a terrible drama-llama, I didn’t even try to rein it in. I don’t always succeed now, but at least I know enough to try. I’m a lot better than I was.

At the same time, though, this terrible unexamined idea that I held when I was younger seems to be pretty widespread in modern culture, maybe particularly in American culture. There are certainly plenty of people here in San Francisco who believe that the proper response to somebody accidentally jostling them on the bus is to subject everyone around them to a torrent of obscenities. And there’s a difference of scale, but not really a difference of kind, between that position and the sort that leads researchers denied tenure to unleash a hail of gunfire in the halls of their universities, or computer engineers with a grudge against the IRS to fly planes into government buildings.

It may seem dismissive to frame all these as lapses of manners. And obviously mental imbalance is at work in the larger tragedies. But I really believe that in a society where free self-expression is placed almost on a pedestal, it’s no longer obvious to everyone that self-restraint and consideration for others—the cornerstones of good manners—are not only good things and healthy things but indispensable things. Without them civilization is not possible.

Everyone in America is encouraged to express their feelings, to be open and honest, not to repress or let things fester. But every baby knows how to express its feelings! Self-restraint has to be learned. For some of us it’s very hard work and takes decades of practice. I, and I think the vast majority of my countrymen, do not need any more help in expressing our feelings. We need to be encouraged to not express them.

My favorite poem, T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, includes a passage where the speaker is a ghost. He speaks bitterly of the pains of old age, specifically:

…the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

Those lines cut like a scalpel. I’m only 33 and already I look back at times in my life when I acted in the name of passionate self-expression, and I burn with shame. With the awareness of things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue. If it’s already bad at 33, I can’t imagine how 70 is going to feel.

But the reason I love the poem is that those devastating lines are followed a bit later by an unless:

From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.

It’s almost off-handed, that last line-and-a-half: the critical unless is tossed off after a lacerating six stanzas, and there’s no elaboration afterwards. It’s just left there, the glimpse of mercy, a few words of stirring beauty and uplift to follow the meticulously constructed vision of human folly.

And while that refining fire is a spiritual reference, I think it applies just as well to the humbler practice of good manners. Over and over in her books Judith Martin will take a question, usually one that gives the details of a trivial slight and asks Miss Manners to sympathize, and she provides a devastating answer in which ego is withered to ash and all that remains is the inescapable imperative that we must be kind to each other. This is the burning core of etiquette, just as it’s the core of Christianity (the Golden Rule), Buddhism (compassion and lovingkindness), and so many other world religions. We’re allowed to choose our own company; if somebody truly wrongs us, we can exclude them from our lives. But there’s no exemption in etiquette—not one for honesty, not one for passion, not even one for extreme provocation—that allows us to be deliberately hurtful. Trying to use the rules of etiquette to put someone down or make them feel bad is the rudest possible thing to do.

And so the practice of good manners is usually one of excise rather than addition: you’ll be fine if you don’t know which fork to use (as it’s bad manners to pay attention to how others eat anyway), but if you can’t refrain from saying everything that comes into your head, you will inevitably cause offense and hurt. “Telling people what you really think of them” is pretty much never justified. To T.S. Eliot that refining fire had to do with the cleansing fires of Purgatory, but in this world the closest thing I can find are the rules of civility. They too burn away ego and self-aggrandizement and leave us with a strictly circumscribed choice of actions and speech: ones that are not, thank God, perfectly expressive of our innermost selves, but instead expressive of the better selves to which we aspire.

You must move in measure, like a dancer. What better description is there for a life lived with restraint, consideration, and care? Maybe the image of a self-controlled person should not be a pursed-mouth nofunski seething with repressed hostility, but rather somebody who dances through life, placing each step with mindfulness and joy.

This is so very far from a thing that comes naturally to me that I think those who know me well might find it very funny to hear that I now aspire to controlled restraint. But does it really come naturally to anybody? I’ve been practicing it consciously for a few years now and I have as a result a quantity of self-restraint that I can proudly describe as slightly more than none. If I keep at it, in another three decades I might be fit for polite society.

Apr 15 2010

Fashion Plate

Robin’s gone up a size, so I just bought him a batch of new clothes for summer. This is the first of the new outfits to get here, and I think it’s adorable. He likes the hoodie because there’s a tiger on it: “Meow!” he said happily when I showed it to him. Also, “Hat!” because it has a hood. After two and a half years of loathing head coverings—evidencing every willingness to fight them unto the last breath in his body—Robin’s suddenly reversed his position entirely. Now he likes hats. I don’t know, maybe it has something to do with Sir Topham Hatt.

Or maybe it just keeps the sun out of his eyes.

Tomorrow I’ll try and get a photo of his new shark t-shirt, on the assumption that Uncle Jesse will be proud.

Apr 14 2010

What’s for Dinner

Today in our veggie box we got: chard, asparagus, snap peas, radishes, a large leek, a bunch of green garlic, two bunches of spring onions, and a bag of little red potatoes.

I didn’t make the asparagus risotto I’d planned last week, so we have a leftover bunch of asparagus that’s looking pretty withered. I’ll go ahead and do the risotto tonight, incorporating the new asparagus and the bits of the old asparagus that aren’t too dessicated. I’ll also use the leek.

Tomorrow night I’m thinking boiled potatoes with butter and dill, and a salad using the snap peas and radishes. I have some green goddess dressing left over, though I’ll probably have to make another batch anyway, as there isn’t very much.

Friday night I’ll try this recipe for pasta with chard and ricotta cheese: I have some ricotta left over from the last time I made baked polenta, and I can also use the spring onions and the green garlic.

And that’ll use up all the veggies, except for the kiwis which Robin always eats. Saturday I think we’ll probably have an afternoon picnic in our new backyard (yay!), but I might just buy sandwiches and lemonade from Whole Foods. Maybe I’ll make cupcakes or something to bring along. Then Sunday I’ll do a pork roast, and Monday we can have the leftovers in sandwiches. And I’ll leave Tuesday open as usual.