January 29, 2008

Feeling green

So I am green. That is, I am new to blogging and am learning a LOT. Like how to comment and interpret comments. And how to look at other blogs (oh there are soooo many food blogs out there!) and not get blogger envy, at least for very long. It's all part of the process. So I thought I better get up to speed with the technology and start adding more photos with each post. I get it that people want to see what you're cooking. The photos add a lot to the posts and I've seen some really beautiful ones on other people's pages, so I thought I'd give it a try. I used to be into photography in college (was the photo editor of the newspaper) but it has been a long time and digital photography is a whole new beast.  But there's my lunch above. A plain omelet with brussels sprouts. 
And above that (because I can't figure out how to move it) is my coffee break with pistachio-orange chocolate chip biscotti that I made at work today. 

And tonight, winter minestrone (top), an adaptation of Alice Waters' vegetable minestrone to which I added turnips and their greens, potatoes, and udon noodles. It was filling and nutty and the parmesan crostini were nice, though a bit much with the noodles. Next time I'll leave one out. 

Hmmmm. I think I'm getting the hang of this. 

January 26, 2008

Imperfect pear-lemon tart

Last night I was invited to a dinner party and asked to bring a dessert. My day was busy and I did not have time to think about a complicated recipe, nor did I feel right bringing a store-bought dessert as everyone at the party knows I bake for a living! (It's one of my part-time jobs). So, at 5:00 I had less than two hours to get something together and get myself ready to go. I had three d'anjou pears lying around ripening which immediately came to mind. Thinking of a pear tart, I happily discovered I had some pie dough left in the freezer from the last time I made a pie about a month ago. I pulled that out and set it on the hot stove where I had been cooking down some homemade chicken stock all afternoon. That did the job and the dough was ready to roll out in almost no time. It wasn't enough dough to use my 10 inch tart shell, so I put the unevenly shaped dough in a flat-sided springform, the smallest one I had. It came up the the sides and there was enough to fold in, gallette style,  which would have been nice, but I forgot to fold it in, and ended up with a high ringed tart resembling a queen's crown. Cute. I filled it with the pear slices and sprinkled some sugar and cinnamon over them. Then I added the lemon curd I had left in the fridge from last weekend's dinner party. Yum! I placed a few more pear slices in a fan around the top, and in a frenzy of creativity, added a cut-out piece of dough in the shape of a pear in the middle. Now I really was getting carried away. I popped it in my 400 degree oven, and waited. 45 minutes later, it came out perfectly browned on the edges and a lovely yellow and golden color on top from the cinnamon and egg wash.  (Egg wash, a pastry chef's trick, makes everything look perfectly browned).  I was so proud of my last-minute, recipe-less pear and lemon tart. Now here's where things went wrong--pride cometh before the fall. I left it on the counter to cool while I got dressed. When I came back to the kitchen my dog, Olive (you can see her cute face at the bottom of my page) was up on her hind legs her paws on the counter looking like she'd just done something very bad. I ran to the tart to find it with a hole in one side, looking more like the crumbled colisseum than the perfect golden crown it had once been. At least she didn't eat the whole thing! That was all I could think about, that and something I'd recently read in Julia Child's biography, My Life in France. My normal reaction would have been to hurl curse words at the dog, screaming at my bad luck and cursing the fates for allowing me to stupidly leave a tart unsupervised on the kitchen counter. But I remembered what Julia had written about a bad meal she once cooked for a friend. At times things would fail, she said, and a meal would not turn out well. If this happened "then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile--and learn from her mistakes." Imagine Daniel's surprise when I said nothing and walked away from my fallen masterpiece in silence. I took it to the party and instead of apologizing, made light of the imperfect "rustic" pear tart as they devoured it with pleasure and compliments.

(note: I forgot to take a picture! Next time I'll remember...) 

January 23, 2008

What makes us human?

In honor of the nineteenth-century French writer, Stendhal (whose birthday is today), a quote by him:
"One can acquire everything in solitude, except character."

No small thing, character. And, it strikes me that it is in company, particularly in sharing a meal and conversation together, that one truly becomes a social being. As Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma points out, it was Brillat-Savarin who, in The Physiology of Taste "draws a sharp distinction between the pleasures of eating--'the actual and direct sensation of a need being satisfied,' a sensation we share with animals--and the uniquely human "pleasures of the table."

I like this. Even though I hadn't yet stumbled upon these ideas, this could explain why it felt urgent to me in the last 2 weeks to start a cooking club with my friends. It will be a seasonal cooking club in which we rotate hosting once a month, and each prepare a dish to bring that is lovingly prepared using only ingredients that are in season. I am doing research to find out what is seasonal in our area (the Southeast) and then sourcing the ingredients at local area farmer's markets, natural groceries, and our newest addition to the city, Whole Foods. This brings up the issue of local versus sustainable. I am still doing the background work to try and understand the advantages and disadvantages to these two movements in the food world right now, but my instinct tells me that to eat seasonally is already a great first step. In terms of taste, it is only natural that eating things in their proper season makes them taste better. Then there are the arguments about where food comes from and our responsibility to support our local farmers so they can continue to grow food and not tobacco, like a lot of Tenn. farms, not to mention the environmental impact of eating food that is transported thousands of miles to get to us. But when faced with the decision, although it would be best to eat BOTH locally and seasonally, I think that if we can manage to do one of them, seasonal may be a little easier. And we can keep trying to eat locally too, in the hopes that our regional food chain and its choices will only improve with increased demand from people like us. So our first dinner, held last Saturday at my house, consisted of a root vegetable soup, a salad of endive, pears, arugula and candied walnuts, scallops with bacon, leeks and lentils, and dessert of fresh pears with grapefruit zabalgione and a citrus pound cake. The meal was fantastic. We learned a lot, ate a lot, and most of all, we gathered together for some good, old-fashioned "pleasures of the table." I can't wait until next month's Seasonal dinner party!

January 21, 2008

What's for dinner?

This is a question that could be perceived in a burdensome, obligatory way. As someone who does most of the cooking in my house--and I love it--sometimes I feel bored or uninspired and those nights are perfect for the taqueria down the road, or the gyro place, or even Nashville's finest: hot chicken. But when you're trying to eat healthy and cook mostly at home, there are some things that you can do that are easy, warm and tasty--and pretty healthy too. Like a soup of whatever happens to be in the fridge. Tonight it was a mire poix of carrots, onions, garlic and celery. I added some fresh ginger that needed to get used, and a lonely parsnip that got left behind, some chopped tomatoes, and a can of Health Valley canellini beans. I seasoned it with salt and pepper, a few pinches of crushed red peppers, oregano, a pinch of rosemary and a pinch of cumin, let it cook only about 20 min, took out my favorite new toy (the immersion blender!) and pureed the whole thing, added a dollop of creme fraiche I had from a recipe over the weekend, and that's it! It was delicious. With a grilled cheese sandwich on seeded bread on the side, it was the perfect last-minute winter meal. Homemade soups are the bomb. Canned soups just can't compare. And since I'm all about cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients, my conscience wouldn't let me open a can of soup. I love a hearty soup that I've made from scratch.  

New year, new blog

This is the first posting of my first blog ever. Welcome. This blog will be mostly about food and cooking, seasonal eating and sustainable methods of farming and eating, developing relationships with producers, growers, other cooks and people in the community who share these goals.  But mostly, it will be a place to chronicle my year of cooking for my friends and family and semi-professionally. This is a year that has special meaning for me. It was forecast in my chart that 2008 would be a big year for me and my career. I guess that depends on how you define 'big'. I am in the middle of a major career transition, recovering from something I had planned on doing and spent many years preparing for (teaching Italian, literature and film at the college level), earning a Ph.D., and becoming an academic. I now believe this was not the path I was supposed to take and for many reasons which are still only starting to reveal themselves to me. However, this door's closing has opened others that have been only slightly ajar but always enticing to me: writing, cooking non-stop, reading and watching and learning about food, working in a professional kitchen, and now the beginning of a personal project that may take me in many new directions. This is an exploratory year for me, a new beginning and a chance to live differently and to seek new opportunities for teaching, learning, and growing. This time I will do it in the kitchen- my own kitchen and others' kitchens, the kitchen of the restaurant where I work in Nashville, and maybe down the line, a kitchen in another country or part of the world where I will continue this pursuit of all things cultural and culinary. So, welcome to my blog, to my experiments with food and life, and to a place where community is built on gastronomic traditions and something as simple as cooking and eating together. I hope to share ideas, tips, sites, recipes, travel logs, anecdotes, and personal reflections about my year in cooking. Benvenuti e Buon appetito!