Monday, January 25, 2010

The tuna melt of wistfullness

For my whole life, I have gone through phases with certain foods. I would fixate on one food, and make it and eat it day after day, for months or years. I just really really liked it. When I was little, and I mean, about 7 or 8, I really really liked lamb chops. I could cook them myself and day after day I fried two lamb chops in a pan with butter and salt. It seemed perfectly normal at the time, but now I wonder about the eight year old who kept asking her mother to pick up some more of those lamb chops at the store.
I don't actually think the lamb chop phase lasted that long. Not like the fried eggs, that went on for years. My favorite food, eggs fried in butter with a little salt. Are we sensing a theme? I ate these for years, sometimes on toast, sometimes on an English muffin, for a long period, in a pita pocket with more butter.
There were other obsessions, barely and I mean barely cooked brownies,maybe 10 minutes at 350. Just enough to claim that I was not eating the batter. Or ice cream, several times a day, starting with breakfast. But who doesn't eat ice cream every day. Those foods don't count.
In college, it was tuna melts. And by this point, I was branching out, experimenting. So I tried different things in the tuna salad, cucumbers, olives, carrots, mustard and mayo, maybe lemon juice. I tried different cheeses. I tried toasting and not toasting the bread. I sent my sister a collection of my favorite recipes and I think there were 4 or 5 variations on the tuna melt. And I really really liked tuna melts.
It has been years and while I might occasionally order a tuna melt at a diner, or I used to, until I learned that tuna is not a sustainable fish, I can't remember the last time I made a tuna melt.
So I decided to revisit the tuna melt. Here goes.

The tuna melt is the mainstay of many chrome diners and flights of nostalgia. But too often the sandwich arrives, soggy with grease from myriad sources, made up of lackluster tuna bound into a coagulating smear with insipid mayonnaise all topped with a waxy slab of nondescript "cheese." Sometimes there is a lettuce leaf wilted into a puddle and a pallid tomato sliced added as a gesture of goodwill. I wanted a Tuna melt
worthy of nostalgia, a Tuna melt that could take me home again.
The logical place to start was the tuna. But at this point, we aren't even supposed to eat tuna. There is so much mercury in there that the can will start to levitate if you leave it near a hot stove. And, as I said, Tuna are being fished out of existence, so a real environmental no-no too. I wasn't going to taste test a whole bunch of tuna. I mean we are all adults here, and if at this point in your life you haven't settled on a brand of tuna, well, you have bigger problems than toast or no-toast and should probably be reading someone else's blog.
Same goes for the mayo. It's Hellmans all the way, unless you live out west, where I think it might be Western Family, but do your own research.
I made two types of tuna salad, one with mayo and diced cucumber and one with mayo, mustard, lemon juice, lemon zest and capers. Olives and red onions would have been nice too, so just try to imagine that they were included. At this point, I was really creating two very differentiated salads, the one was vibrant and piquant, debauched almost in it's salty luxuriousness. The other was as familiar and comforting as the shade of an elm tree at noon.
I used whole wheat bread, toasted, and I covered the plain tuna with Camembert and the busy tuna with Havarti. As I recall, herbed Camembert was especially nice on the tuna melt, but I couldn't find any and I'm not sure they even make it any more. As it was, the Camembert I did get, came in that small wooden box and was so unripe I could barely cut it with a freshly sharpened knife. The Havarti was supermarket brand and could have been a mild cheddar or a provolone. But Havarti has a nice melt.
Once I had finalized the Tuna and the sandwiches were assembled, I tackled the issue of The Melt. The cheese has to melt completely and the tuna should be warm, but for the sandwich to maintain it's voluptuous form, the whole thing can't melt. I like a toaster oven at this stage, set to 300. Don't be tempted by the broiler, your cheese will actually crisp up and the tuna will still be chilled and the results are a disturbing mixed metaphor in your mouth.
The two sandwiches were ready and my tasters set to go. Both tasters are me, but I try very hard to be impartial and not to let one good bite turn me against the possibilities offered by the other sandwich.
I preferred the plain. The busy sandwich might do for some, and you know who you are. But I wanted to be taken back to a simpler time when tuna wasn't a death sentence in both the short and long term, when we had home made lunches, and when occasionally, on a hot summer night, a sandwich was all the dinner you needed before you walked across the street to Steve's Ice Cream and got a large vanilla with heath bars and reeses peanut butter cups mixed in.
The bread retained it's resistance, the tuna was warm and non-confrontational, the cucumbers provided a nice watery contrast to all the oil, and the Camembert melted into a an inviting blanket that framed the richness of the mayo while complementing the passivity of the tuna.
Now all I needed was some ice cream.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Go Saints!

The other day, my bf and I decided, on impulse, to go for a v early dinner at the local Mexican place. Can you say early-bird special in Spanish? Let me put it this way, I was tucking in to a 20 oz. Marguerita at a quarter to five. I managed about half of it, mostly fruit juice and melted ice don't you know, made my way through a plate of bean and cheese burritos bc no humanely raised meat or sustainable fish on the menu.
I was definitely swirly, half a Marguerita and some re-fried beans, the lights seemed excessively bright and at one point I could hear three different conversations-- the mother telling the child that re-fried was a type of bean, like pinto or black, two couples discussing the trip they took to Nashville and how awesome it was that Rodney Atkins got on the bus with them and he seemed like a genuinely nice person, and then there were two men not really talking, although I was straining to hear. It was that late afternoon looped feeling and time sped up around me. The bf drove and he had to stop at the bike shop on the way home. Thirty minutes passed in a flash as I read the slowtwitch forum on my blackberry. No recollection of what I read but not much changes there, so probably some people were discussing if Lance could beat Chrissie Wellington at Kona and others were complaining about their bike/run/swim group. By the time we were headed home, about forty five minutes post Marguerita, I was starting to feel better, more present in my body and more coherent with the rest of the world.
And I was hungry. I think this is week 2 of the baking moratorium and it hasn't gotten any easier. Once in the house, I fell onto my bowl of chocolate and finished off all of the Ghiardelli Toffee Interlude. This is my all-time favorite chocolate at the moment and with all that toffee in there I think it stretches the dark-chocolate-just-for-the antioxidants rationalization. But I don't care. I love it. I think it should be called Toffee All Day. Or Toffee Pretty Much Full Time.
When my bf came in the house a few minutes later, the chocolate bowl was empty, the wrappers were crumpled and shredded all over the counter and he said, "What, did you go berserk with the Toffee Interlude?"
As I've said, I'm struggling with the baking moratorium. I'm actually following football because if the Saints go to the superbowl, we can have a superbowl party and that means OMG brownies. I'll get to have a baking interlude.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pass the cabbage

The Supreme Court just shot 100 years of campaign finance precedent in the head by equating corporate speech with human speech and lifting all bans on corporate spending in elections. This will completely reshape campaign finance in the worst possible way. My head hurts.

self soothe

The R's took Ted Kennedy's seat and the D's lost their filibuster proof majority and if ever there was an extraordinary circumstance and a valid reason to bake, that would be it. I could use the illusion of control, the distraction, the results. I wanted some OMG brownies. But it was late and I was tired so I had sausages, (humanely raised pork bratwurst) mashed potatoes and braised cabbage. Then half a big bar of dark chocolate and some bedtime tea with several TB of really raw honey. That is the ur-comfort meal.
For the cabbage, you thinly slice the cabbage, melt a couple TB butter on low, add the cabbage, some salt and a little water, enough so that when you cover the pan and let it steam, saute, braise, the cabbage becomes meltingly soft and doesn't brown.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Idaho Lamb Shanks

I'm in Idaho and my favorite lamb shank recipe is in Seattle, tucked into a plastic notebook that I bought in 1993 when I returned from Florence and Guliano Bugiali's week-long cooking school. I went with my friend Sally to celebrate our 30th birthdays. It just so happened that the man I knew I was going to marry dumped me the day before the trip and she met the man she ultimately did marry the week before the trip. Though we were on vastly different emotional wave lengths, we had a great time, and I ultimately forgave her for abandoning me in favor of the phone booth in the lobby for hours on end. I figure the phone company got back at her for that.

I wanted to make lamb shanks and without my recipe or any of my favorite cookbooks I turned to Epicurious and found a most unusual recipe for lamb shanks with orange peel and porcini mushrooms. My favorite lamb shank pot is also in Seattle and the one here was too small, but I stuffed them in it anyway and made do. Cooked the shit out of the fucker, as Bill Buford would say, and they are goo-ood.

Serving with polenta that I learned to make at GB's in Florence. That's a recipe I can remember.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

the end of the pie as we know it

Sung to the tune of the REM song, the end of the world as we know it. Of course the chorus of that song concludes, "and I feel fine." The same can't be said for day 4 of the 2 month baking moratorium. I try to turn it over to my higher power but my higher power is having a bake sale and offers me a whoopie pie. I say, "just for today..." but I'm fooling no one. I say easy does it, and I think, Huh?
I am an erstwhile athlete, now an ersatz athlete. And it may be time for me to start training again. And if I am going to train, I need a few months off from "white carbs." White carbs make up the strychnine food group. The OA (older athlete) would rather do three hours of restorative yoga than let a white carb sully their temple. If you are going to pollute the alter of your chi with white carbs, you may as well drop your HRM in the fish tank and feed your compression tights to the dog. And baking is pretty much configuring and reconfiguring white carbs. Hence the moratorium. I chose 2 months because the baking binge lasted about that long. And my sister says that a goal without a deadline is just a dream, and an endless baking moratorium is really a nightmare, so I needed a deadline here.
There is a theory that everything we do either helps or stresses our bodies. Training, if done with any vigor or consistency, stresses the body. White carbs stress the body. I don't want to overstress the body, so just for today, I am only going to stress my body with training.
Of course, today is when it gets hard. Because while the baking moratorium started on Monday, I decided the keep and enjoy what was already baked, so I kept and enjoyed the pie. Unlike cake, pie isn't something you can both eat and have. Last night was the end of the pie as we know it, really, the end of the pie. So tonight is going to be the beginning of the white carb withdrawal. And one could argue that self denial is the greatest stress of all.
Now, I have to admit that any dt's will be largely psychological because certain foods are exempt. Honey in my tea is always allowed. Sweetened yogurt, perfectly acceptable. Dark chocolate, only after dinner and within reason, well, I need the antioxidants.
Also too,exceptions can be made for federal holidays if we recognize them, for the super bowl, and for other extraordinary circumstances. So, while I admit that I am powerless over baking and that my life has become unmanageable, there is part of me that still believes I can quit any time.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lamb and ?

I am making lamb stew today and vermouth seemed like an interesting liquid to deglaze the pan with. I thought it might cut the lamb's richness a bit. However, not being totally sure, I googled "lamb and vermouth". Here's what came up -
Lamb of God.
In that order.

pie or no one likes change

I have been composing a song, sung to the tune of "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly."

There was a sister who couldn't bake a pie
I don't know why, she couldn't bake a pie,
perhaps she'll cry.

There was a sister who couldn't make the crust,
even her mother grimaced in disgust,
she couldn't make a crust and she couldn't bake a pie,
But I didn't know why she couldn't bake a pie,
Oh Heavy sigh!

You get the idea.

Pie after pie was down right inedible. The best I could muster was passable, probably not poisonous, better than boiled tongue, but would rather have cinnamon toast for dessert.
And pecan pie is my favorite pie and I kept trying.

After the Thanksgiving pie crust debacle I gave up for a while. Then the new year and its 2 month baking moratorium was looming so I decided that I really wanted a pecan pie. The only one I ever make is the cook's illustrated. I decided that in the interest of research, something I'm coming to view as another word for misguided experimentation, I made Dorie Greenspan's pie. Dorie Greenspan is no baking Magus. Some things are wonderful and some things are too sweet or too weird. Her pecan pie was both. The crust, even though I dirtied the food processor to make it, still dripped butter in the floor of the oven and created a smoke emergency. Then I took her advice and put a cookie sheet under the pie pan. While it catches the dripping butter, this direction bewilders me. There isn't supposed to be dripping butter so I'm not sure why she does that. The bottom of the crust was raw. It was nasty and the filling has espresso powder in it, and it was also sort of opaque. The flavor was off-putting and cloying, the nuts were mealy, the crust, as I've said, raw and soggy and too hard where it wasn't raw.
I was despairing. I am the sister who can't bake a pie.
But I had a few more days and I really wanted that pecan pie. So I went back to my favorite recipe. No one likes change, least of all me.
I did the crust in the food processor. I fluted the edges so they stood tall and away from the edge of the pan, well inside the edge of the pan. I prebaked, I glazed and sealed it with an egg yolk, I warmed the filling before pouring it in the crust, I checked for doneness and took it out when it was still jiggling.
I know my sister doesn't like pecan pie. I'll let her tell you why. But this one is sublime. It is everything a pecan pie should be and it is sending me into the baking moratorium on a cloud of sticky gooey sweetness and crunch all tempered with some perfect whipped cream. And I am delighted to be the sister who mostly can't bake a pie, but every now and then produces one that makes up for all the previous disappointments.
If only all my failings came with such a silver cloud.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Stella's cake

Stella has been very lame for a week now. The first visit to the vet yielded a diagnosis of an infected nail bed and a prescription for antibiotics. When these had no effect I called the vet who suggested amputation. I suggested a second opinion.

Today’s second opinion was something of a comedy of errors. I arrived to a waiting room full of nervous dogs and their anxious companions. I think the people actually have it worse, because they feel responsible for the animals and therefore guilty of something. The vet took one look at Stella and requested x-rays. This meant a trip back across the skating rink of a parking lot to the other building. X-rays taken we slid back to the original building. Then back to the x-ray building because the tech had x-rayed the shoulder and wrist, not the paw. Finally back to the examining room again, Stella slipping and sliding on three legs across the ice.

The vet took one look at the x-ray and said the toe has to come off. She showed me the x-ray and I could clearly see that the last digit of the right-most toe was a formless mass. Where the other bones showed crisp lines, clearly delineating flesh from bone, this was a tangled ball of lines and shades. If you had zoomed in on that specific bone it would have looked like a black and white picture of a tangled pile of yarn and pudding.

This could be a result of infection or it could be a tumor. I don’t know if she said cancer, or if I heard it ringing in my head. I know she said biopsy. I know she said that she didn’t know how much of the toe they would have to take.

I know it is unlikely that this will be a serious problem. Most likely the toe will come off and she will limp for a month or so and then be fine. Most likely it is not cancer, or if it is, most likely it hasn’t spread. My last dog Sasha had one eye removed because of cancer and she lived with a marble in the socket and the eyelid stitched closed over it for many years.

But it is the first signal of what I know is to come. The first chill breeze of autumn felt as the summer sun dips behind the mountains. You can see its glow on the other hills but it no longer warms you. I know that someday she will be gone, that I won’t have her soft ears to rub, her constant presence, her eyes always following me, without raising her head. I know that someday she won’t follow me from room to room, limping up and down stairs even though I tell her not too, that I’ll be right back. I tease her about pathological devotion, and once my sister told me that it works both ways.

After crying in the car and crying in the kitchen, I reached for the KitchenAid. I made an orange cake, with grated orange rind and orange oil. As Margaret said, baking is something you can control. It requires concentration but not too much. You know how it will come out. And if it collapses it will still taste good. It made me feel a bit better.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

if it's not one thing...

Just when we get the recipe right...


any excuse to bake

I got a new non-stick bundt pan. I was tired of buttering and flouring and still the cake would stick, at least chunks of it and it seemed like a lot of work for pretty paltry outcome. So I decided that unless I can use parchment paper, it is Pam or non stick for me. I'm fascinated by the silicon pans but also a little troubled and so I haven't bought a silicone bundt pan. I got a regular non stick and I baked the Morning Apple Cake.
This is a cake that I made a hash of a few months ago, but still marked it down as my favorite apple cake.
I followed the directions. OK, I chopped the apples in the food processor instead of grating then and I substituted some brown sugar for white, but other than that, and a little extra salt, I followed the directions. And it baked, and it baked, and it baked. The recipe calls for 1 hour at 325. I went an hour and half, finally got a clean tooth pick and took it out and let it cool in the pan, as instructed.
When it was cool and I turned it out of the pan, it slid right out. A thing of beauty.
I had a piece. It was all but runny in the center. Not a moist cake, a raw cake.
The recipe required me to peel and chop 5 apples and that is time consuming, so now I was mad. Cursing Emily Luchetti and her f&%@ing Stars f!*^ing Desserts, I fell asleep composing the email I might send her, the review I'll give her book on Amazon.
The next day I tried again. And this time, as my sister would say, "I cooked the shit out that fucker!" 2 hours at 375. It was a little less easy coming out of the pan but it emerged intact and the result was a very moist cake with a marvelous apple flavor. You wouldn't serve it to company but you would be delighted to have it around. I'll hold off on reviewing Emily's book.
I wasn't sure if maybe, God Forbid, it was the new shiny slippery pan that was causing the problems. So today I made the Cake Bible pound cake. I've made that often, I know it, I like it, I trust it. The pan was too big, but other than that, it baked that cake just fine and released it when asked.
My bf asked me why I was baking a third cake in as many days and I explained it all to him. He said, "You don't really need an excuse to bake."

Saturday, January 2, 2010

expiration dates

I think a note on expiration dates might be in order.
Expiration date refers to safety; shelf life refers to quality. Something about "Shelf life is the recommendation of time that products can be stored, during which the defined quality of a specified proportion of the goods remains acceptable under expected (or specified) conditions of distribution, storage and display." That's from Wikipedia.
But I'm more interested in an individual's interpretation of those numbers.
For something that I really need to work, yeast or baking soda, I'll be pretty strict about the expiration date. Since yeast is a "live thing" I won't use it after e.d., baking soda, I might give it a year.
Anti-inflammatories, I'll go several years. Sugar, honey, chocolate? I don't know, I never reach that date.
Perishable foods, I go less. I had food poisoning once and it instilled in me an excess of caution. Which is what differentiates me from my terrier. He gives himself food poisoning at least once a month eating from the myriad of deer carcasses that hunters leave strewn about. This results in vomiting-- in my car, on my carpet, on the sofa, in my bed, and also diarrhea-- on the carpet, in my shower, on his bed, both, always in the middle of the night. At least once a year, one of those bouts of food poisoning lands him in the hospital on IV fluids. But a week later, still shaky and mournful, he will drag himself down to the now older and even more fetid and putrid carcass and have another go.
The expiration date I pay closest attention to? The date on the bottle of hydrogen peroxide I squirt in the back of his throat to induce vomiting before he can actually poison himself and ruin my night.
Many cultures believe that eating certain foods on New Year's Day brings luck throughout the year. Lentils and other legumes, which look like coins and swell when cooked, are thought to bring financial prosperity. Greens like kale, collards and spinach also symbolize financial good fortune, because of their resemblance to paper money. Pork too, because of its high fat content and richness, is thought to bring prosperity.

I am superstitious. It drives my husband crazy when I grab his hat off the bed, or insist that he put the knife down before I will pick it up. He didn’t grow up with our grandmother, whose Catholic’s belief in the supernatural was not limited to the Holy Ghost. If someone spilled the salt at dinner a snowstorm of salt flew over left shoulders all up and down her long mahogany table.

Combine my inherently superstitious nature with the last 18 months, and it seemed only prudent to begin the New Year by making a lentil soup with the Christmas ham bone, carrots, celery, onions and kale. I found a jar of yellow lentils in the pantry and went to the store for the rest. I was unsure of the exact age of the lentils, though I knew they were Old. Just that morning I threw out a box of gelatin with an expiration date of June 1993. New England thrift also runs deep in this family. How stale can lentils get? You just cook the heck out of them, and they‘ll get soft. It’s not like they taste great anyway, so you aren’t sacrificing any flavor. I didn’t buy Fresh Lentils.

I washed the Old Lentils, added them to the pot with chicken broth, water, some celery and the ham bone. Simmered for about an hour, figuring an extra 15 minutes would compensate for their age, and went to add the carrots and onions. No going. The lentils were crunchy. More simmering. Add more broth. At 8PM we ate leftover ham and broccoli, so at least we got the pork and something green which could at least be said to resemble the color of money.

More simmering. More broth. After two and half hours I added the rest of the vegetables and simmered some more. Finally at 10 o’clock, after three and a half hours of simmering, I turned it off and went to bed.

This morning I pureed the paste and it assumed the texture of quicksand - individually identifiable grains of crunchy lentil suspended in a slurry of lentils, broth and vegetables. I was too disheartened to notice how it tasted.

So my question is – if you plan a special soup to usher in prosperity for the entire year ahead but you make it with old lentils because you are too thrifty/cheap to buy new ones, and the soup sucks, what does that portend for the year ahead? And is it better to eat it or does that further solidify a mode of penuriousness? Should I toss it and start over?

A clue: this morning the realtor called to say that the person who was going to come look at our house had decided not to.

Friday, January 1, 2010

In with a Bang

2 glasses of eggnog
2 turtles