Archive for January, 2010

By now I am guessing that most of you have seen Julie & Julia, the movie about Julia Child and Julie Powell.  Even if you haven’t seen it, you might have seen the original episode of The French Chef where Julia Child flips some potatoes in a pan and talks about the need to have the courage of your convictions when doing something that’s just a little risky.

Last night when I was thinking about what my next blog post should be (over a wonderful dinner with S at Ned Ludd here in Portland) it came to me that a recent experience with my current knitting project had required me to invoke the courage of my convictions too.

A very dear friend is about to embark on a great adventure — heading to Thailand to provide mental health services for refugees.  Unable to think of exactly what to do to support her in this endeavor, I decided to knit her a hat to take with her.  I chose cotton yarn thinking it might be a bit warmer over there than here, dug around in my voluminous yarn stash for a bit and got started.

The pattern I chose starts at the top with only 4 stitches. After knitting a bit of I-cord, you increase to 8 stitches, move your nascent hat onto 4 double pointed needles, and start knitting around and around, increasing at the end of each needle (adding 4 stitches in every row) until the circumference is as big as you want it to be.  At that point you stop increasing and keep knitting until the hat is long enough, cast off and voila! a hat is born.

Pausing at several points along the way to check my gauge (a measure of how many stitches there are to an inch), I calculated that I would need 112 stitches to create a hat of the right size.  And so I proceeded merrily along and finished the hat after two evenings in front of the TV.  And it was WAY too big.  And not really long enough to cover even my ears.

And so here’s where the courage of my convictions part comes in (I know you were wondering about that by now).  At this point — after finishing my project (I hesitate to call it a hat) and finding it was not going to work for the person I had made it for I had a few choices.

(1)  I could throw it away.

(2) I could give it to someone else.

(3) I could rip it out and start again.

The third option was really the only courageous one, and this gets back to Julia Child and the potatoes.  Ripping out knitting is not something to be undertaken timidly.  I mean, you can carefully take out every stitch, one at a time, gently moving stitches from one needle to the other as you slip the yarn out of each stitch.  Or you can just pull your needles out of your knitting and rip courageously, confident that when you have ripped back as far as you need to go you’ll be able to slide the stitches back onto the needles and start knitting again.

And that’s what I did.  I ripped it out.  Rows and rows of stitches (well, it was only a hat, so it was not really that many rows, but it felt like a lot of rows when I was ripping).  And when I had ripped it back to almost the start, I slid the stitches back onto the needles.

And now I am knitting again.

I’ll let you know when it’s done!

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New year, new cocktail

Just before the holidays I read a book about New Orleans food called Gumbo Tales. Written by Sara Roahen, former food writer for The Gambit, the book tells the story of Sara’s experiences with food (and drink) in New Orleans before and after Katrina.

It’s a great book and I highly recommend it to any of you who like reading about food (or who are planning to visit New Orleans in the near future).  It made me long for a trip there myself.

There are a lot of chapters in the book that left an impression, but the one that has made the biggest change in my eating (or more accurately, drinking) habits is the one called simply “Sazeracs.”

Before reading this book I had never heard of a Sazerac, a drink that, according to Wikipedia (source of all accurate information), is one of the oldest known cocktails, originating in pre-Civil War New Orleans.

Always on the lookout for a new drink to test the skills of Portland’s many talented bartenders, and made truly thirsty by Roahen’s descriptions of the beverage, I started ordering them around town; and liking them.  So far I have had great versions at Toro Bravo, Clarklewis and Beaker and Flask.

Last night I decided to make my own.  I started (in the liquor store parking lot!) by reviewing a few recipes on my iPhone.  List in hand (I needed Rye or another “American Whiskey;” Absinthe, Pernod or Herbsaint; and Angostura Bitters — I had a small bottle of Peychaud’s Bitters and a lemon at home already), I made my way into the store.

The biggest dilemma was what whiskey to buy.  Despite some recipes that said NEVER to use Bourbon in a Sazerac, the Rye selection was very limited so I decided Bourbon would have to do.  I bought a bottle of Black Maple Hill Premium Small Batch Bourbon.

There was no Absinthe or Herbsaint so I ended up with Pernod, a lovely, green, anise-flavored liqueur.

The Pernod (1 scant teaspoon) is used to “rinse” a chilled glass. The other ingredients:  2 oz Rye or Bourbon, 1 tsp simple syrup, 4 dashes Peychauds bitters and 1 scant dash Angostura bitters, are mixed gently in an ice-filled cocktail shaker before being poured into the Pernod-rinsed glass.  Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

Sit back, take a sip and imagine you are in New Orleans.

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Crab cakes anyone?

My husband S and my brother T are great friends.  One of the things they love to do together is cook.  As far as I can remember, the first food they conspired on were crab cakes, and for a long time they never made them except when they could do it together.

These days, though, S sometimes makes crab cakes on his own; especially at this time of year, when Dungeness crabs are in season in the Northwest.  The dish has also become one of my stepson’s favorites, so we usually have them at least once when he is staying with us.

The recipe S and T like (after trying several) comes from the Joy of Cooking.  It’s not complicated; like most great food it depends on great ingredients rather than fancy footwork.

Crab cakes
(adapted from the Joy of Cooking)
Serves 3-4 (the recipe can easily be doubled if you need to feed more people)

1 pound fresh lump crab meat (we use Dungeness crab here in the Northwest; in Maine we used the local “peekytoe” crab)
2 Tbs butter or olive oil
¼ cup finely diced red bell pepper
½ cup finely diced scallions
1 Tbs minced garlic (or more to taste)
1 egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup mayonnaise (use homemade if you feel inspired, otherwise the kind from a jar works well)
1 Tbs Dijon mustard
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup minced parsley
2 Tbs + 2 cups Panko style bread crumbs (divided)
4 Tbs butter or olive oil (for sautéing crab cakes)

Carefully pick over the crab meat to make sure you have removed any stray bits of shell.

Heat the butter or oil in a medium saucepan until it foams.  Add the bell pepper, scallions and garlic and sauté until soft (8 – 10 minutes).  Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix the crab meat with the egg, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, salt and black pepper, cayenne, parsley and two Tbs of Panko breadcrumbs.  Add the sautéed vegetables and mix well.

Spread the remaining 2 cups of breadcrumbs on a rimmed baking pan.  Shape the crab mixture into 8 small cakes and gently coat each with the breadcrumbs.

Refrigerate the cakes, covered, for at least 30 minutes before cooking them (1-2 hours is even better, if you can manage it).

When you are ready to cook the crab cakes, heat the butter or oil in a sauté pan over medium heat.  Add the cakes to the pan 1 at a time.  Don’t crowd the pan (it’s best to cook these in small batches and keep the finished cakes warm in a low (250 F) oven while you cook the remaining cakes).

Brown the cakes on both sides, turning after about 5 minutes (these small cakes will need about 8 total minutes of cooking to be fully browned and warm throughout).

Serve hot with lemon wedges and Aioli or chipotle mayonnaise (or both, if you feel motivated).

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Sometimes I just get an urge to make gingerbread.  I love the simplicity of it, the rich, spicy flavors, the moist cake accompanied by a little bit of vanilla ice cream or softly whipped cream.  Just writing about it makes me hungry.

The other day the urge came over me.  I began my usual cookbook scan and found several recipes that sounded good.  After a few false starts (I didn’t have the exact pan called for in one recipe, I wasn’t sure if I wanted chocolate chunks in my cake) I settled on a recipe I found in Baking with Julia.

Of course, I still had to make some adjustments.  First, because I only had 1 cup of molasses (instead of the two cups called for in the recipe), I decided to substitute 1 cup of maple syrup.  I also decided to add some chopped crystallized ginger for texture and extra ginger flavor.

And then there was the glaze.  Some of the other gingerbread recipes called for glaze, Julia’s recipe didn’t.  I felt like something a little more festive, so I made a simple chocolate glaze inspired by a recipe in Dorie Greenspan’s book Baking:  From my Home to Yours.

Gingerbread Cake with Bittersweet Chocolate Glaze
(modified from the recipe for Gingerbread Baby Cakes in Baking with Julia)

For the cake
2 cups unbleached flour
¼ cup instant espresso powder
3 tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tbs ground ginger
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 ½ tbs peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger
1 cup unsulphured molasses
1 cup maple syrup
¼ cup chopped crystallized ginger

melted butter for greasing the pan

For the glaze
3 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 tbs butter
3 tbs powdered sugar

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 F.  Thoroughly butter and flour a 10 inch round cake pan.

Make the cake
Whisk together the flour, espresso powder, cocoa powder, ground ginger, baking powder, salt and black pepper in a small bowl and set aside.

Put the butter and brown sugar in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium high speed until the mixture is smooth and creamy (take your time with this, 4 – 5 minutes is about right).  Scrape the sides of the bowl frequently to make sure everything gets mixed well.

Reduce the mixer speed to medium and add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition.  It’s OK if the mixture looks curdled, it will smooth out as you continue to mix.

Beat in the fresh ginger and add the molasses and maple syrup, mixing on medium speed until smooth (1-2 minutes).

With a rubber spatula fold in the dry ingredients and the chopped crystallized ginger, mixing only until they are incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 55 minutes until the top is springy and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Cool on a rack for about ten minutes, then carefully remove the cake from the pan.

Make the glaze
Put the chopped chocolate into a heat proof glass bowl and microwave a to melt.  The best way to do this is to use short bursts of power, stirring in between.  Be careful not to burn the chocolate.

Add the butter to the warm melted chocolate and stir until it melts completely.

Sift the powered sugar over the chocolate mixture and stir to mix.

Glaze the cake
Pour all of the glaze (it should be thick) into the center of the still slightly warm cake and carefully spread it to the edges of the cake.  I don’t frost the sides, but you can if you’d like.

Serve at room temperature with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, or on its own.  It’s even better the next day (it will keep, covered, for about three days).

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Readers of this blog will probably remember my post (last September) about the knitted snake scarf I made (originally for my nephew).

That post set off a series of conversations with a friend, M, who was so taken with the scarf that she wondered if I could knit a snake big enough for an adult.

No challenge is too great for an intrepid knitter, so with some additional input from M (color, snake species, etc) I set to work.

Today I am happy to report that the new, grown-up sized snake scarf is ready to be shipped to its new home in California with M.

I added a few new wrinkles — bi-colored eyes (for fun) and an orange (instead of red) forked tongue (looked better with the green of the body, I thought).

I’m excited to hear M’s reaction (and she is an enthusiastic person, so I am sure I will hear something).

In exchange for the scarf, M (a wonderful writer) has collaborated with me on a new project, still in the development stages, but soon to be revealed.  Check this space!

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One of my favorite meals for a cold, rainy Portland winter evening is macaroni and cheese.  Not the kind from a box (though I have been known to mix up a box of Annie’s organic in a pinch), but the kind that requires a real cheese sauce and good pasta.

With that in mind, I made a quick stop on my way home last night to pick up milk and cheese.  I stopped at Food Front, a local co-op and was lucky to find Straus Family milk (the kind that comes in a glass jar and has a plug of real cream at the top, even when the milk is lowfat),

and some local (well, produced in Washington) cheese. I chose two different cheeses:  Medium Cheddar (made with cow’s milk) and Goat Milk Cheddar.

When I got home, I pulled out my favorite mac and cheese from scratch recipe:  the one in Mark Bittman’s original How to Cook Everything cookbook.  I love the aromatic flavor that infusing the milk with bay leaves provides.  Of course, I never follow a recipe exactly, so here’s my version (it serves four hungry people):

1 pound pasta
2 ½ cups milk
2 bay leaves
4 tbs + 1 tsp butter, divided
3 tbs all purpose flour
2 ½ cups grated cheese (I used a mixture of the two cheddars)
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Panko bread crumbs (approximately ¾ cup)

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Bring a large pot of salted* water to a boil.  Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes.  Drain pasta thoroughly and rinse with cold water to stop it from cooking any more.  Set cooked pasta aside.

Place the milk and bay leaves in a small pan and heat slowly over medium low heat.  When small bubbles form around the edge of the pan, turn off the heat.

Use 1 tsp of butter to grease a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Melt the remaining 4 tbs butter in a saucepan over medium heat until foamy and just beginning to brown.  Whisk in the flour.  Continue whisking for about 5 minutes until the roux is a light golden brown.

Remove the bay leaves from the warm milk and whisk about ¼ cup of the milk into the roux.  Continue slowly adding milk to the roux and whisking after each addition until all of the milk has been added and the sauce is smooth and thick.  Add the grated cheese and stir until the cheese melts completely.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Toss the cooled pasta with the cheese sauce and pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish.  Cover liberally with Panko bread crumbs.  Add a sprinkle of paprika.

Bake for 15 minutes until the sauce is bubbly and the top is lightly browned.  Serve hot.

*I have mixed feelings about salting water for pasta — some people say it’s a must, others say it adds extra, unnecessary, salt to a dish.  I’ll leave it up to you.

We ate almost all of it — must have been good!

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The perfect present

Have you ever gotten the perfect present?  The one that makes you gasp a little when you open it; amazed that the giver knows you so well?  The one that you could never have picked for yourself, but when you see it you know it is “you?”

I got one of those this year.

Before I go on I have to let you know that all of my friends and relatives regularly give me wonderful gifts.  I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by such thoughtful, loving and giving people.   I am a very lucky person.

This year, though, one of the gifts I got literally rocked me back on my heels.  It was from my niece, A, a twelve year old wonder.  She was clearly excited about it in the days leading up to Christmas, but didn’t play games with me (ask me to guess, giggle quietly to herself, or get that “I know something you don’t” look in her eyes).  Instead, she seemed calmly confident that she had made a good choice.

And she was right.

So, with all that build-up, before I let you in on the secret, I’ll remind you of an earlier post I did on one of my collections.  Even though that post was back in August, it must have made an impression.

Here’s the gift:

According to A and K (her mother) this was A’s idea completely.  She ignored suggestions given to her by others, AND she picked every button individually, with me in mind.

And every button, every single one, is perfect.

She won’t tell me where she got them (probably a good thing).  Right now I am playing with these buttons; imagining adding them to hats, scarves, mittens, socks.

And feeling good every time I look at them.

Thank you.

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