Saturday, March 28, 2009

Prose and Potatoes's First Year Anniversary

Prose and Potatoes turned one year old this week! In this past year, as a result of starting Prose and Potatoes I've cooked and written and read so much, met so many people, experienced so many new and familiar and delicious tastes. Wow! Yet, here I am, the same person, (maybe older-with a few more gray hairs- maybe wiser with the experience of some failures) but still me, nonetheless.

It seems appropriate, then to point out that March, too, is an anniversary month: one year since we've had in-season spring foods. The cyclical motion of the year has revolved again to familiarity, much like welcoming back old friends from a 12-month-long journey. Achingly sweet, seed-studded strawberries, erect stalks of asparagus, and armor-studded artichokes have arrived! How I've missed them all. How I am comforted by the same garlic-roasted asparagus I made last March and the March before and the March before that. How I remember my delight at finding this amazing sauce from Orangette for artichokes, and making it again, scrapping my teeth against the leather artichoke leaves until the surrender their exquisite flesh.

The old adage, "the more things change, the more they remain the same," echoes in my mind today. By focusing on the food that revolves around the seasons, I am able to remind myself about change and predictability simultaneously. I am able to embrace the paradox in my everyday life. I am able to live and enjoy both the moment and the history that proceeds that moment. I am able to live fully.

In the year I've been writing Prose and Potatoes, not much has changed ideologically. Here's an excerpt from my very first post, that explains how I came by the name, Prose and Potatoes:

Why potatoes? Until I moved to Idaho nearly two years ago, I really hadn't thought much of the starchy little tuber, nor did I cook much with it. The variety of potatoes amazes me. Fingerling potatoes, Yukon gold, Russet, Idaho Blues, Red, Huckleberry potatoes (which have pink flesh). Although the stereotype that Idaho is one big potato patch is unfair, I can't deny how moving from the Midwest to the Northwest [and now, surprisingly back to the Midwest] has influenced the way I look at food. I am a product of my environment, and my kitchen reflects this. The things I cook and the things I eat change and evolve with my life experience: regionally, ideologically, and historically. Prose and Potatoes will be the tool in which I can plot these evolutions and share what I've learned about food, about myself, and about my world. Another endearing thing about potatoes is their utter humility. They are plain, simple, unpretentious. If there ever was a symbol for the everydayness of eating and cooking, it would be the brown, lumpy spud. It speaks of heartiness, comfort, and familiarity. "I'm a meat-and-potatoes type," we hear people say when they proclaim their culinary down-to-earth attitude. While I wouldn't call myself a culinary simpleton by any means, I do appreciate how its simplicity is something to notice in the potato. My hope for this blog, that it causes me to reflect on simplicity, on my daily eating, cooking, and writing life.

Why Prose?
M.F.K. Fischer explained that she wrote about food because "our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others" (The Gastronomical Me). Fischer speaks with deep spiritual knowledge here, which is why this passage is so over quoted! (Please forgive me.) Likewise, I want this blog to be a chronicle of basic human need and desire to be loved, to be nourished, to be comforted. In the kitchen and around the dinner table is where the stuff of life happens.

Thanks for reading.

Here are some of the highlights from the past year of culinary experiments:

Head Cheese

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bread Baking Simplified

Sometimes I think I only like to cook the way some people garden. I'm thinking of the type of gardener that grows some rare Zimbawbian passion flower that takes 18 months to germinate, and then only blooms for 1 hour before it expires. Fussy, prima donna type things that must be coddled, and coaxed or else they flop.

Sometimes I think I'm only in it for the challenge. If it's a recipe that's so complex, so challenging, so antiquated that no one I know, no one in their right mind would make such a thing, well, then I've probably tried it. This attitude has aided and abetted me through 26 ingredient recipes, through 12 hour sourdough baguettes, through 3 trials of spun sugar in one afternoon.

The problem is, after awhile, this becomes exhausting. As my New Years' Culinary Adventure list languishes, it's not because of lack of desire. It's lack of time and of financing. Another glitch to this is that time consuming and difficult are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

So, with this skewed mentality, I sometimes scoff when I see an easy recipe. It bores me. I'm unimpressed.

This, I regretfully,admit, is what happened with Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread. I gladly made Lahey's Panettone this Christams. Going to 3 different grocery stores for candied citron, spending over an hour making handmade origami molds for the bread, rigging up a system to suspend the baked loves upside down while they cooled with chairs and broom handles--so the oh so finicky loaves wouldn't collapse on themselves. This clearly, was my type of recipe. A recipe that gives you, upon successful completion, bragging rights. (And upon unsuccessful execution crumbles of shattered panettone that leapped to their deaths from their broom handle perches, and which Henry the cat gladly ate.)

So-when proselytizers exhalted the glory of no-knead bread. (And honestly, there's been no end to the proselytizers. I feel almost guilty about writing yet another blog post on this fricking bread). However, this is a bread that has essentially no hands on time. When they said it just might be the greatest bread innovation since sliced bread...well, I was still skeptical albeit, a bit curious.

I had printed of the article and recipe from the NY times website on at least 3 different occasions, months lapsing between each. I just couldn't do it. Until my friend Diane asked me if this bread was worth the hype. She wanted to make it part of her New Year's food resolutions--and then her handsome, oh-so-handsome bulldog, Levi, got terribly sick and passed away. In those weeks, I had Diane in my thoughts, and as a result I finally tried No-Knead Bread, just so I could give a full report to a grieving friend thousands of miles away in Idaho. And, Diane, this bread is handsomely good.
This bread has even taught me about myself. I'm trying to learn how to let my life be less complicated. As I'm in the midst of starting a brand-new garden in a new place, I have to remind myself that sometimes less is more. That sometimes the easiest way is the best way (even if it's not so impressive). And that sometimes, a bread that you can make while working in the garden is quite delightful.

I started the bread the night before by mixing togehter flour, water, a tiny amount of yeast and some salt.
Then, the dough does it thing for about eighteen hours, cloacked in a layer of saran wrap. The next afternoon, I gathered the dough up into a ball, dusted it with flour and let it raise once more for 2 hours, nestled happily between two tea towels.
Meanwhile with the help of my friend, Laura, we proceeded to dig up 100 square feet of sod in my front yard:

Then after preheating the oven, and baking the loaf, we were rewarded with this:

which we promptly slathered with butter and apricot jam. As you can see, the crust is crackly, the crumb open, yet soft, simple the easiest and tastiest artisanal loaf of bread you could ever make. Find the recipe here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Score: Tied

So, I am now an accomplished cheesemaker. Delightfully, I made cow's milk ricotta following Julia Moskin's Fresh Ricotta recipe, originally adapted from “Michael Chiarello’s Casual Cooking,” and the whole experience was amazing. I had a moment of ricotta trancendence.

I've used ricotta in the past, for instance, beaten with eggs to lighten frittatas or to give lasagne that perfect creamy, but toothy texture. However, I looked at ricotta as more of a flavorless, bland filler and not something that I sought out for flavor. That has all changed.

This ricotta practically burst with fresh milk flavor. Imagine the most perfect creamy, round flavor achievable from a glass of milk and then intensify it beyond any dairy-like thing you've know before. It's that good.

Making fresh ricotta has also taught me about transcending stress and anxiety. As much as I'd like to believe I'm the type of person that loves change and craves adventure, I'm actually really set in my routine. I like predictability. I like recipes that work when you follow the directions exactly to the letter. I like that every time I mince garlic or chop an onion or peel a potato I do it exactly the same way.

So, as hard as it was to deal with being un- and under- employed for five months, it's been just as hard to switch gears to full time work. Now that I'm back in the restaurant world, my meals are sporadic, my work hours are long, and there's quite a bit of pressure I'm fronting from both diners and managers. All this has left me more stressed than I really should be, and stress for me manifests itself in the pit of my stomach. Constant, seething worry under the surface of seeming calm has been my emotional life lately.

Whenever I get stressed, and get the upset stomach to go with it, the only things I want to eat are starchy and creamy. Golden bowls of mac and cheese. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Scrambled eggs with toast slathered in marscapone. Mashed potatoes. Polenta. In my fragile state, anything more aggressive, more mature would certainly send shudders down my entire esophagus.

So, Thursday, when I got off work (a split shift from 11 am to 10pm), I was exhausted, and only wanted dairy products and carbohydrates. I made Ricotta Crostini with Fresh Thyme and Dried Oregano. It took me 10 minutes, and as Kent was at a friend's house watching, Lost. I had it all to myself. That was my entire dinner. Nothing but ricotta cheese and crostinis.

It was one of those perfect meals that happen when just the right food is consumed in just the right setting, at just the right time. After a harried day of dealing with lots and lots of was soul-gratifying to sit, and devour this simple meal.

Ricotta Crostini with Fresh Thyme starts with a batch of homeade ricotta, which is then whipped w a little milk and sea salt. Before serving it gets a sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves, a dash of dried oregano, a pit more sea salt, fresh ground black pepper, and a drizzle of richly green and fruity olive oil.

The crostini comes together just as quickly, slices of baguette brushed with olive oil and broiled. Then, the moment they come out of the oven, I rubbed them with the cut edge of a clove of garlic. The garlic really does play nicely with the woodsy pungency of thyme and oregano. The contrast of crunchy bread and creamy spread, too, is something quite delightful.

A few days after making this recipe, I was craving it again. I found myself with a three-day "weekend" on my hands, and knew I needed to cook for friends: thoughtful and funny friends who bring me gorgeous flowers, delicious bottles of not-too-grapefruity Sauvignon Blanc, and knit me warm fuzzy mittens. Ricotta Crostini is a great appetizer, the kind that is not fussy, and that my friends devoured, with wine glasses in hand, while I finished the last of the meal preparations (chicken dumpling soup, but there will be more on the chickens' dinner parties soon).

While I'm sorry I don't have any original recipes or recipe adaptations for you, my whole cheesemaking experience seemed a trial of finding just what I needed by leaning on the wisdom of other great cooks--so I urge you to click through to the recipe links, they're worth trying. And, I know that in a few months, when my garden is overflowing with fresh herbs, I'll make this recipe my own. I'm already imagining how it will be just the right thing with chervil or dill or even chives.