Sunday, February 27, 2011

Finding Joy on the Plate

Years ago, I was obsessed with the author SARK.  While a bit new-agey, she was inspiring.  Her artistic philosophy centered on drinking life up as fully as possible, imprefections be damned.  Her books are full of bright water colors, charming hand lettered text, and positive energy.   When I was a sophomore in college, someone gave me a SARK desk calendar.  You know the type of calendar that is a chunky block of pages, and you pull off a note card-sized page every day?  In this calendar, each day had it's own aphorism and a little sketch in fat purply lines of ink.  My favorite day that year had a picture of a flag that read: CRABBY and PROUD.  I loved it that that little note gave me permission to be crabby.  To literally, let my crabby flag fly.  So oftentimes we don't want to sit with our feelings and just be.  We want to manipulate them and stuff them down or to drown them by abusing alcohol or food.

But, today I'm trying to sit and be.  I've been a bit off.  My crabby flag has been wisping, nearly listlessly in the wind, against the cold, dull gray sky.  My first reaction at times like these is usually to diagnose the problem, but today I realized that I just needed openness.  I needed to let myself be open to this somewhat mysterious mood of melancholy.  It will go away soon enough.  I have faith.  I have that hope.  Like anything else, this is a phase, a rhythm.

I don't have any recipes for you today.  In fact, Kent noted my crabby flag and has been paricularly nice to me. He's making dinner now, frying brussel sprouts in garlic infused butter and they smell divine!  He also made what he's calling a "pork mummy" that is roasting in the stay tuned for a post about that soon.

What I do have to share with you, though, are food pictures that represent happiness to me.  I've frequently been a drown your sorrows in a pint of ice cream and a massive bar of dark chocolate kinda gal.  Of course that is tempting, but those foods aren't deeply joyful or nourishing, and they lead to regret.  So instead of the typical fattening comfort foods, I want to share with you pictures of foods that have made me deeply joyful.

A bright, drenched with color salad eaten at my desk for lunch.

This salad I made with a lemon hazelnut oil vinaigrette: delicious!

Lingering over a bowl of oatmeal and a good book while wearing my pajamas.

Silly black and white kittens that try to steal my coconut-apricot oatmeal.

The most gorgeous shade of magenta imaginable in a plate of shredded beets.

Unexpected beauty.

How about you?  What food moments have made you feel deeply joyous and nurtured?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Truffled Wild Rice and a Visit from the In-Laws

It's easy to get into a cooking rut.  I get stuck, but my ruts don't revolve around the food.  Instead, my ruts involve who I'm cooking for.  My problem comes when I spend day in and day out cooking for Kent and for Kent alone.  And, frankly, at this point, after being together for nearly 10 years cooking for Kent is almost like cooking for myself.  They only exception is the list of things he won't eat: green beans, kale, shrimp, and offal.  I still cook those things sometimes anyway.  I've never been the type of cook to shy away from preparing food that solely satisfies my desire--if no one else's at the table--so I suppose you can fault me that selfish, hedonistic indulgence.

This weekend, I've had a chance to stretch my culinary comfort zone a bit.  It's not that I don't like having dinner parties or cooking for other people, I really do.  But doing so requires more thought than just cooking for my family.  Suddenly, I'm wont to examine every culinary decision and over analyze it.  After all, it's what English teacher types do.

On Thursday, Kent's dad came in from out of town for a visit.  Luckily, I've eaten enough meals with his dad to know his style: Contemporary American.  Contemporary American stays true to the meat/starch/veg trinity, but using more exciting flavorings and seasonings, including fresh herbs.  This style of cooking relies on traditional techniques and is decidedly against any ethnic fusion (with the exception of French cuisine).  Wasabi powder and tahini paste need not apply.  Learning the type of food my father-in-law gravitates to reminded me of learning enough about a college professor's speech habits and lecture style to begin imitating it in term papers.  Which, but the way, always seemed to help on the grade front.

And preparing a dinner for company is really like any other rhetorical situation.  What is your purpose?   Who is your audience?   What is your focus?

My explicit purpose was given to me: cook dinner for your father-in-law, but I also wanted to hit a few other criteria.  I wanted it to be something he'd really like (audience awareness).  Sometimes I cook to show off, or cook to add adventure to my diner's experience (AMR's a great dining companion to serve chicken feet, cow tongue, and other more inaccessible ingredients to.)  But now was not one of those times.  Also, I wanted it to be relatively easy.  I'm getting lazier. I recently read about "the minimum effective dose" or MED in Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Body.  If I can get away with the minimum amount of work [dose] (throw the dinner into the oven and steam a few asparagus spears and get the same results as from a more fussy dinner, than I'm doing the minimum to still be effective.)

I had one other objective focus for this meal.  I wanted to use some of the fancy-pants pantry items Kent's dad gave me for Christmas.  Food items make great gifts, but they can also be challenging to use.  In fact, sometimes any gift can me a challenge to use.  Lenz family-lore has it that whenever Kent's grandmother came to visit, his mom rushed around the house putting out all the tacky items that she made the family as gifts.  We're talking things like plastic canvas tissue box covers and gaudy needle points.

This time, however, I relished the little extra push to use some of the items on my pantry shelf that my father-in-law gave me for Christmas.  I made Chicken Mirabella, which used up a jar of fancy olives, and then in an inspired moment went for the Christmas bottle of truffle oil in wild rice.

Truffled Wild Rice

I happen to live in area of this country where good bulk sections are non-existent.  The only wild rice I can find is Reese brand.  Although the quality is fine, it comes in an incredulously tiny box at an exorbitant price. I find it slightly ironic that in this recipe the rice is more expensive than the truffle oil. If you are in this boat, then follow the package directions for cooking.  Otherwise, cooking directions follow.

1 cup wild rice
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter
3 teaspoons black truffle oil (or more to taste)

Combine rice, water, and salt in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for 50 to 60 minutes, until rice is desired doneness.  Aim for a nice al dente.  If you overcook wild rice, the grains split and look terrible.

Drain any remaining water and immediately toss hot rice with butter and truffle oil.  Taste to adjust seasoning, adding more truffle oil if necessary.  Serve at once.

Serves about 4 as a small side.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Speculating about Causes: Cupcake Craze

While some seem to think that the cupcake craze is over and are lobbying hard for the resurgence in pie as the new (old) dessert trend, I'm still standing firm in cupcakes' staying power.  I ought to because in the past two days I made 125 cupcakes in 5 different flavors.

I went through:
4 1/2 lbs. powdered sugar
1 lb.margarine
1 lb. vegetable shortening
1/2 lb. cream cheese

And that was just for the frosting alone.

No doubt this trend is reflected in popular media--Cupcake Wars on Food Network is my favorite nod to the cupcake, but if I had to speculate the causes for the cupcake trend, here's what I'd come up with:

1. Cupcakes appeal to our desire for individuality.   With multiple flavor/ icing combinations, it's possible to pick the cupcake that most perfectly expresses yourself.

2.  Cupcakes are fun, whimsical, and appeal to our inner child.  As a culture, we seem to be fearful of growing old or admitting we are grown older, so cupcakes help us maintain the illusion that we are still young.

3. Cupcakes, unlike a layer cake or a cheesecake, do not require sharing, and thus feel extra indulgent.

4. Cupcakes allow for variety and creativity in ways not possible with larger desserts.  I see this mostly from the pastry chef's perspective.  Cupcakes are a lower risk than a 7 layer cake, and since cupcakes are cheaper, patrons are much more willing to go risky with their cupcake flavors.  Bacon Buttercream anyone?

5. Cupcakes seem like a less guilt-ridden choice because they're small and cute.  Again, this relates to our self-delusions.  It's such a tiny little cupcake, it can't have that many calories, can it?

6. Cupcakes are adaptable to special diets.  Due to their small size, cupcakes are easier to adapt to gluten free and vegan recipes without compromising texture than other larger cakes.  Plus, add this to the individuality thing, and you can easily accommodate the vegans, celiacs, and omnivores all with their own cupcake.

When my friend Andrew and I discussed having a joint 30th Birthday party (our birthdays are only 3 days, 2 hours, and 17 minutes apart.)  I was pretty neutral in the planning.  I was only adamant on one thing.  There must be cupcakes, lots of fun, frivolous, and fabulous cupcakes.  For a cocktail party, cupcakes also make sense because they can be eaten nearly as easily as a canape.  As I tend to do, I may have went a little overboard.  On the cupcake menu:

Chocolate with chocolate buttercream and chocolate sprinkles
Red Velvet with cream cheese frosting and rainbow sprinkles
Butter Pecan with cinnamon spice cream cheese frosting
White Wedding Cake with raspberry buttercream
Lemon with Lavender scented buttercream

As you may know, I don't like making cake from scratch. All of these were from box mixes.  Which was fine because cake from mixes does stay moist longer--essential for the do-ahead magnitude of making hundreds of cupcakes for one event--and they were all of good quality, save for the butter pecan.  There was definately a synthetic, nearly bitter aftertaste from the laboratory-created artificial flavoring, which I was able to cleverly disguise with spicy cream cheese frosting.  Another benefit to making mix cakes was that I had more time and effort to put into the homemade frosting.  And let's just admit it, frosting is where it's at.

My favorite combination was the lemon with lavender buttercream.  The dusky, floral kiss of the lavender was perfectly contrasted with the sharp, but sweet tang of the lemon.

Lavender Scented Buttercream Frosting

This recipe calls for margarine, and this is about the only time I EVER use margarine in my kitchen.  Here's why, the margarine gives the frosting more stability.  So the name of this recipe may be misleading, but most people can't tell the difference between a frosting made with butter and one made with margarine.  That said, I have in the past used butter in place of the frosting.  It does lend a richer, fuller flavor than margarine, but the frosting will be weepy and may melt.
If you're in the Bowling Green area, you can get culinary lavender at Calico, Sage, and Thyme. 
 If you want to duplicate the purple color of the frosting, you must use Wilson paste colors as they won't thin the consistency of the frosting.  I used christmas red and indigo blue in equal colors to get purple.
 I piped the frosting on the cupcakes using a pastry bag with a star tip to get the rippled swirl pattern.
Rarely do I measure the amount of powdered sugar that I add to the frosting.  So really, trust your instincts here.  If you add too much powdered sugar, you can always add just a tad more milk.

1/2 cup non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening
1/2 cup Imperial margarine
approximately 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
approximately 1 Tablespoon milk, soy milk, or rice milk
1 teaspoon dried culinary lavender flowers, ground finely in a mortar and pestle
Wilton paste coloring (optional)

In stand mixer, blend shortening and margarine.  Slowly add powdered sugar, half a cup at a time.  Then, add milk.  Keep adding powdered sugar until desired consistency is reached.  Add lavender and mix well.  Color with paste coloring if desired.

Makes enough frosting for about 15 cupcakes