Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Cupboard was Bare

I do not like when our house is jam-packed full of new groceries.  There is simply too much good food on hand, too many options.  When we consume some of it, I feel better, as if we’ve done a worthwhile, necessary thing.  The elimination feels satisfying, not so much in the pleasure of the eating, but in the minimization of what’s available.”--Amy Rosenthal Encyclopedia of an Ordniary Life.

Last week I read Amy Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  The book is a memoir written in the format of an encyclopedia complete with cross-references.  Although some entries were the type of random musing that one might find scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin--tainted with slightly drunken hubris--many entries rang with clarity and recognition.  For instance, I, too, feel like eating foods from the pantry is a worthwhile, necessary thing.   I also find that in the frantic mess of everyday life pulling my thoughts in every direction the "minimization of what's available" is a welcome form of simplicity.

Yet, paradoxically, there is great comfort in having a house full of food.  A feeling of security.  The comfortable notion that if there's a blizzard or if I get  sudden-onset agoraphobia then I can survive quite happily with a pantry full of sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives, big bags of rice and beans, a gallon of good olive oil.  Must of my food buying habits have centered around this premise: You do NOT want to go without a good meal if you are trapped in the house for months at a time.  Perhaps part of this comes from my increasing hatred of grocery shopping.  Theoretically, if I'm that well stocked, then I shouldn't have to go to the grocery store Every. Single. Week.

Kent went to the grocery store with me the other day, and after I lost him in the produce aisle, I continued on with my shopping.  When he finally found me 23 minutes later, I had gathered a whole cart's full of groceries.  "You walk so fast.  I can't keep up.  This is not a sprint, Sarah," he said, angrily tossing the half a dozen cans of garbanzo and pinto beans I asked him to get--which he had lugged across the whole store trying to keep up with me.  I've taken to the position that the faster I get in and out of the grocery store the better.  Do not get in my way.  Last week I put off grocery shopping for almost as long as I could bear it.  Until my fridge looked like this:

A raw chicken defrosting for supper that night, a few eggs from the 'girls,' but that was about it.  Now the other benefit of letting food stuffs run so low, besides the mental clarity, is the fact that it imposed a forced creativity.  That day for lunch I made this rather odd meal:

Leftover roast, lettuces from the cold frame, and the last small bunch of asparagus.  I would have never purposely designed this meal unless there were no other options.  Yet, it was still good and satisfying in its own strange way.  It felt good to be so resourceful.  The thing that pulled these rag-tag ingredients together was my favorite and simplest homemade dressing: hazelnut-lemon vinaigrette.

I was turned onto hazelnut oil by Molly Wizenberg's recipe for Celery Root and Apple Salad with Hazelnut Vinaigrette. This salad is lovely in its own way, but the complicated vinaigrette with lemon, vinegar, Dijon mustard, and more, just isn't necessary.  I found that all the other ingredients muddied the wonderful (and expensive) flavor of the hazelnut oil.  So, I just started making a lemon juice and hazelnut oil dressing that is one of the easiest and flavor dressings I know of.  It is worth keeping a bottle of hazelnut oil in the back of your fridge for emergencies just like this.

Lemon-Hazelnut 'Vinaigrette'
Hazelnut oil can be hard to find.  Whole Foods seems to be the only place that I can locate it, but I'm also sure you can find it for sale online at Amazon.  I've been very happy with La Tourangelle brand roasted hazelnut oil.  They also make good truffle oils.  It's almost embarrassing writing out a recipe this simple, but here you go:

5 Tablespoons hazelnut oil
3 Tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
pinch of sea salt

Whisk all ingredients together.  Taste and adjust for seasoning.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Don't Fear the Bagel Making

I adore Gretchin Rubin's book The Happiness Project.  It's not really a self-help book, instead it's like listening to a friend with wit and wisdom explain in the most down-to-earth way how they're trying to live as happy of a life as possible, and how to spend a year systematically conquering that goal.  Of course it doesn't hurt that Rubin writes beautifully or that she seamlessly ties in apt and thoughtful research every step of the way.  Really, you should read this book!  Rubin also blogs The Happiness Project here.

In one section of the book, titled "Vitality," Rubin makes a list of all the things that would give her more energy.  On that list are things like: exercise better; toss, restore, organize; go to sleep earlier; act more energetic; and tackle a nagging task. 

I am happy to report that I have "tackled a nagging task" and tackled it well.  And, Rubin is right, it did make me happy.  I was practically leaping around the kitchen in stocking feet--poppy seeds and sesame seeds scattering across the floor like confetti it was so darn exhilarating.  Yesterday morning, I made bagels from scratch.  That's right with my own two hands, a little yeast, a little flour, and a little water.  In my own kitchen!  Bagels like the ones you see artfully stacked in those cute little basket cubbyholes at Panera, except that I MADE THEM--so of course they were a million times better.  The outside crusts were the perfect level of bagel chewiness and the insides were light and soft.

I've been saying that I wanted to make bagels since my New Year's Food Resolutions from 2009.  That's two years of having this slightly uncomfortable feeling that I should be doing something with this unrequited bagel baking desire yet failing to act on it.  This of course has made me think about larger and more meaningful things that we may fail to act on and why that happens.  More than anything, the thing that holds us back is fear of failure and just sheer intimidation.  We tell ourselves that we don't have the means or the time or the skill set.  In my head I was already setting myself up for failure: "I don't have any special equipment, surely, no, no surely,  it's not possible for me to make bagels.  Don't you need a special oven for that?  Won't it take hours?  I heard something about having to boil the bagels before you can bake them.  Seriously?  Do I want to hassle with that?"

The thing is though, that I have a deep, deep appreciation for sesame seed bagels.  When I lived in Boise, I used to have one toasted to medium well--to the point that the sesame seeds turned a dark brown--and their flavor turned deep and nutty--slathered with cream cheese nearly everyday.  This habit started back in college as an undergrad, when that was about the only thing I'd eat for breakfast at the cafeteria.  I'd take my bagel, wrapped in a paper napkin, to my early morning classes to eat while only half paying attention to the lecture.  When we moved to Ohio, that habit stopped because I couldn't find a decent sesame bagel anywhere.  You see, I take my sesame seed bagels seriously.

I have to admit that it was finally The Wednesday Chef that got me off my procrastinating butt and inspired me.  Luisa's wonderful post about making bagels was just what it took to wipe away any trepidation.  Interestingly enough, Luisa had been going through the same fear/intimidation process.  Like me, she had been meaning to make bagels for a long time.  What I've learned here is that like most things, just a little bit of knowledge (reading a recipe), and simply taking the first scary steps of the project are all that I really needed to tackle a nagging task.  So, if bagels is one of your nagging tasks, click over to The Wednesday Chef's bagel making post (the recipe Luisa uses, adapted from Peter Reinhart, is foolproof).  You'll be happy you did.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Greens and Guinness

I've never been a big fan of St. Patrick's Day.  I read somewhere that there are two types of people in this world: the type that go out and party on New Year's Eve and the type that stay home in pajamas.  I'm clearly a stay-at-home-in-my-pajamas type.  Big drinking holidays have never really appealed to me.  Also, after you've worked in the hospitality industry for years, and you've had to deal with drunken idiots on holidays like these, being a drunken idiot sort of loses all appeal.  However, one memorable St. Patrick's Day almost 10 years ago, I was a server at a very Irish Catholic steakhouse.  It looked like a throwback from a 70s mafia movie, and I happen to be assigned a private party.  The party was a group of about 15 elderly women and their priest celebrating St. Patrick's Day--and let me tell you--watching 70 year old women get hysterically drunk after doing shots of Jameson with their priest, at 11 am, well that's some crazy, wild living!

Today I woke up with no intentions of celebrating the luck of the Irish.  But, then the weather gave me a change of heart.  This was our first real spring day: 70 degrees and sunny.  I took a photography walk and found the most beautiful shade of green in my cold frame.

  Arugula and spinach and lettuce that overwintered just fine, snuggled under glass surrounded by straw bales.  Then as I was walking, it was apparent that my college town of Bowling Green was reveling in drunken glory.  On short walk down College St. and Wooster St., I saw dozens of undergrad party houses--partiers spilled out on the lawns playing beer pong and cornhole.  It was sort of infectious.

So, I ran to the store and on a last minute whim, grabbed a corned beef brisket.  It was the second to last one in the store.  How's that for lucky?  And I made this for dinner:

And then, magically four pints of Guinness appeared in my fridge overnight...what mischief lepruchan-like husbands get into after I've gone to bed.

So I washed it all down with this:

Not a bad St. Patty's Day for one that doesn't celebrate such things...