January 31, 2010

Full Glass (of soup)

     "As a child, I would look at my grandfather and wonder how he could stay sane, being so close to his death. But actually, it turns out, Nature drips a little anesthetic into your veins each day that makes you think a day is as good as a year, and a year as long as a lifetime. The routines of living—the tooth-brushing and pill taking, the flossing and the water glass, the match of socks and the sorting of laundry into the proper bureau drawers—wear you down.
      I wake each morning with hurting eyeballs and with dread gnawing at my stomach—that blank drop-off at the end of the chute, that scientifically verified emptiness of the atom and the spaces between the stars. Nevertheless, I shave."
--"The Full Glass", John Updike
The daily routines of life can be wearing, but it is somewhat of a relief to remember that we, as a people, are stronger than we seem. We get up in the morning, face the blank abyss that is life - it is ours to fill - and still find it in ourselves to do whatever it is we do every day.

We all have our routines. One of my favorite ones is coming home at the end of the day and putting on a pot of soup. There's something primitively therapeutic about filling up a pot with water, setting the stove to high, and rummaging through the cupboards and refrigerator for things to turn that water into liquid deliciousness. For me, soups generally fall into three categories: tomato-based, seafood-based, and broth-based. Miso soup is next on my list. To my knowledge, no other soup has that cloudy magical quality.

Some miso pointers I'll be sure to keep in mind, garnered from both word of mouth and independent research: (1) Don't boil the miso, merely simmer it, and (2) Use roughly 3-4 tbsp. miso paste for every 4 cups of water. Everything else is up to the soup maker - tofu, noodles, seaweed, fish fillets, or just plain broth would do wonderfully, I imagine.

January 24, 2010

Millenia of our lives

"Is it possible, this nothing thinks, that one has not yet seen, recognized, and said anything real and important? Is if possible that one has had thousands of years of time to look, reflect, and write down, and that one has let the millenia pass away like a school recess in which one eats one's sandwich and an apple?"
--The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke

A bento box beats a sandwich and an apple for lunch any day, no?

Sadly, I can scarcely remember what I've learned in the past six months, let alone the past six years of my life. The days really have passed like they're millenia, and much of the time without looking at, reflecting on, or writing about anything of importance at all. How can that be? It is so easy to slip into complacency.

January 21, 2010

MMM - Midnight Meringue Munchies

Since moving to New York, I've learned to live without certain luxuries: a television, an electric beater, and even a hairbrush. As of yesterday, I can cross one of those things off that list because a lovely hand mixer has come into my possession, thanks to a coworker who's leaving the country.

Immediately I thought of chiffon cake. Angel food cake. Pavlova. Meringue kisses. Heck, even a plain loaf cake would benefit from some extra airiness. This gluttonous train of thoughts was precisely how I ended up in the kitchen at 11:30 last night (for a grandma like me, that's too late to be doing anything but sitting in front of my laptop, falling merrily asleep to a rerun of Gilmore Girls, hot beverage in reach).

What started out as a batch of meringue kisses ended up yielding a bunch of ugly largish rounds (although America's Test Kitchen is nice enough to call them "rustic" when you shape them with a spoon rather than a piping bag). Considering the 1-hour baking time, I didn't want to divide it into batches, and I'm not an artistic person. These factors ultimately determined that these "kisses" were simply fated to become globs.

However, despite all the obstacles that stood in the way - no cream of tartar, no corn starch, and no patience - I still ended up with some tasty treats...and a fine initiation for this adopted electric beater. Light as air but still chewy on the inside, these are what I call "mini pavlovas" because they're softer and chewier in the middle than meringue kisses. Gotta love that chewiness. Next time I'll try one of the suggested variations - maybe mint extract with some mini chocolate chips.

Mini Pavlovas
Adapted from The America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book
Yields about 18 2-inch-wide "globs"

4 egg whites (preferably room temperature, but mine weren't, and they still turned out fine)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp tapioca/corn starch
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 225° F. Line two baking sheets with foil. Mix the sugar, corn starch, and salt together in a small bowl. Set aside. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until foamy, about one minute on high speed. Gradually add the sugar mixture while continuing to beat for another 1-2 minutes. By now, the egg whites should look like they're becoming more "meringue-y". Yes, that's the best word I can think of to describe it. Stop mixing for a second and add the vanilla extract. Keep beating on high speed until the mixture looks glossy and forms stiff peaks, another 1-3 minutes. (This means, when you stop mixing and lift the beaters, peaks will form on the surface where the beaters were, and the peaks should stay upright, or "stiff".)

Spoon or pipe the batter into mounds (mine were about 2 inches wide, but that's a little on the large side) on your prepared baking sheets. If desired, sprinkle the mounds with slivered almonds in a decorative fashion. Bake for one hour (rotate pans halfway through). Turn off the oven and keep the pans in there either overnight or for about another hour. Store in an airtight container.

January 19, 2010

Curly, girly fries

"Grown-up women do the same sort of thing that Charlene and I did. Not counting the moles on each other's backs and comparing toe lengths, maybe. But when they meet and feel a particular sympathy with each other they also feel a need to get out the important information, the big events whether public or secret, and then go ahead to fill in all the blanks between. If they feel this warmth and eagerness it is quite impossible for them to bore each other. They will laugh at the very triviality and silliness of what they're telling, or at the revelation of some appalling selfishness, deception, meanness, sheer badness."
--Child's Play, Alice Munro
A very honest portrayal of female camaraderie. At least I think so. Reading this made me miss long road trips, counting moles to pass the time. This, for some reason, led me to crave Arby's curly fries...don't ask me why. Who really needs a reason to crave curly fries?

Alas, there is nary an Arby's in Manhattan. Oh well. At least others share my pain.

January 11, 2010

Arroz con a side of burnt, please.

There was a bit of rice left, some bacon, and a few vegetables that Isabella had brought over the day before. I improvised a dish of leftovers and waited almost thirty minutes for her to come out of the bathroom, downing almost half a bottle of wine in that time. I heard her crying with anger on the other side of the wall. When she appeared at the kitchen door her eyes were red and she looked more like a child than ever.
"I'm not sure that I'm still hungry," she murmured.
"Sit down and eat."
We sat at the small table in the middle of the kitchen. Isabella examined her plate of rice and chopped-up bits with some suspicion.
"Eat," I ordered.
She brought a tentative spoonful to her lips.
"It's good," she said.
--The Angel's Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Well, really. How could that not be good? It's the foolproof meal; just throw some leftover rice and various scraps into a pan and let it sit over a high flame until it's sizzlingly fragrant. At one time I made this so often I'd affectionately refer to it as "burnt rice" because I liked to let the rice cook until it was well done (not quite burnt, but crispy). This is the ultimate lazy man's meal. You can even walk away from the stove because it doesn't need to be stirred all that often (in fact, to form a nice crust on the rice, it's best to let it sit untouched for a good chunk of time).

It seems I am not alone in my affinity for crispy rice. Americans have Rice Krispies. The Chinese cook a rice and sausage dish in a stone-like pot; the rice ends up sticking to the pot and can be scraped off at the end as a delicious snack. I've also heard about the practice of turning up the heat at the very end of the Spanish paella cooking process, allowing the rice at the bottom of the pot to get nice and crispy. Rice and crispy? Nice and crispy. These are just several reasons why I don't feel like too much of a freak for coveting my burnt rice.

My parents make fried rice with thinly sliced leftover stems of Chinese broccoli. See above for visual reference. Resourceful and delicious.

Zafon knows it too: He conjured up a dish of leftovers as comfort food for one of the characters when she needed it most. It's a practical comfort food that transcends cultures, methinks. Like his other book, The Shadow of the Wind, this novel (a sequel of sorts) is set in Barcelona. Which leads me to wonder, would Gaudi have liked my burnt rice dish? Not to toot my own horn or anything, but it's a crowd pleaser. Try it sometime. Great for sharing. Just make sure not to literally burn the rice.

January 6, 2010

Fa la la la lasagna...

YOU can make lasagna.

I know, I know...if someone had said those very words to me even a month ago, I would have given them a skeptical look and scoffed at their optimism. But trust me! I'm a pessimist about many things and even I'm convinced...anyone can make lasagna. Or, at least, anyone can make some sort of layered pasta dish incorporating lasagna noodles. It might not be authentic lasagna, but as long as you use the ingredients you love to eat, you really can't go wrong. Plus, a dish like this can really wow people without requiring too much extra work.

It's also a hearty meal - before you know it, you'll have cooked a giant pan of deliciousness. No need to make separate entrees/side dishes for dinner - the meat, vegetables, and carbs are all right there in the same pan, layered to perfection.

Sausage, Spinach, and Mushroom Lasagna

3/4 lb. hot Italian sausage
1/4 lb. ground chicken/turkey/beef
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 box white mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
3/4 c. frozen spinach, dunked in hot water and drained
1 jar marinara sauce
1 14.5 oz. can tomato sauce
1/2 lb. (2 cups) part-skim mozzarella, grated
Approx. 12 lasagna noodles, cooked al dente & set aside in a bowl of cold water

Cook the sausage (making sure to remove the casing) and ground meat. Drain the fat. Set aside in a bowl. Heat a medium-sized pot with a little vegetable oil, and add the mushrooms, bell pepper, garlic, onion, and spinach. Cook and stir over medium heat until fragrant. Add the sauces (but reserve about 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce). Then add the cooked meat mixture.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Start spooning the reserved marinara sauce into a 9x13 in. pan. Place a layer of lasagna noodles on top, then spoon the veg/meat mixture evenly on top. Sprinkle cheese if desired. Repeat this process until you have no more noodles or filling left. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and place the entire pan into the oven to bake for 20-30 minutes. You might not even need to bake it that long because all the ingredients are essentially cooked. Just basically melt the cheese and let it bake a little longer if you like your lasagna a little drier/crunchier and less soggy.

You'll notice there is no ricotta cheese in this recipe. That's because I hate ricotta cheese. I used to have to spoon out the layers of ricotta in every lasagna I had. It felt like such a waste. Such is the beauty of making your own lasagna - you can personalize it however you wish. It might not be authentic, but hey, it's still pretty impressive. Not to mention (but yes, it must be mentioned!) mouthwatering. I loved it so much I made it again the following week. With mustard greens instead of spinach, and ground turkey instead of sausage. The variations are endless...

January 4, 2010

Lacking lacqueys

Yes. It took four men, all four ablaze with gorgeous decoration, and the Chief of them unable to exist with fewer than two gold watches in his pocket, emulative of the noble and chaste fashion set by Monseigneur, to conduct the happy chocolate to Monseigneur's lips. One lacquey carried the chocolate-pot into the sacred presence; a second, milled and frothed the chocolate with the little instrument he bore for that function; a third, presented the favoured napkin; a fourth (he of the two gold watches), poured the chocolate out. It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens. Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two.
--A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Wow, a chocolate lacquey sounds like it would've been the perfect Christmas gift, no?