Friday, March 27, 2009

Beverley Nichols and me

A little essay I wrote about the writer Beverley Nichols is up at the Christian Science Monitor. It's a bit bittersweet because it's the last daily print edition; starting next week, they're going to online only, with a weekly magazine. They're a nice place to sell essays to, so I'm glad they'll still be around, in some form. And I'm glad I could sneak in under the wire with one more essay in the print edition. My original title was "My Winter of Gardening Vicariously" but they changed it to "A Gardener of Wit and Passion," which makes it more about Beverley Nichols than me, which I suppose, is appropriate.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A quick plug for pizza

I love it when meals sort of just come together without too much thought.

The other night, as I wandered through the aisles of Whole Foods in the early evening, after my workout, I remembered why you're not supposed to go shopping when you're hungry. Everything I saw looked tempting. Interestingly, though, I wasn't thinking, "I want to eat this right now." I was thinking, "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to make something with this over the weekend." One thing that ended up in my cart was an on-sale ball of mozzarella from Maplebrook Farm in VT. Pizza, I thought dreamily, as I ambled down the aisles.

And on a chilly Saturday afternoon, pizza it was. In the afternoon, I made pizza dough, this white wine and honey version from Smitten Kitchen. Since pizza dough is so easy to make (I did it while talking to Alex on the phone, though my Kitchen Aid mixer did most of the kneading) and since it keeps so well in the fridge, I made a double batch, enough for 2 small to medium pizzas.

With the blessings of my basement freezer, I still have some frozen sauce made out of garden tomatoes, so I thawed a quart out and then cooked it down til it was thick. (Man, was it tasty, even all these months later. Last summer, I didn't make as much sauce as usual, so I've been guarding it protectively, but now I'm even more determined to return to my previous rate of excessive summer sauce production.)

In another moment of supermarket whimsy (and sales), I had a bag of spinach leaves in the fridge. It had been buy one-get one free, and I'd used the first bag to make a spinach frittata. I suddenly remembered the pizza recipe I've made most in the past, a deep dish spinach pizza from Jane Brody's Good Food Book (which I don't use that often but which has a few keepers that I still go back to). Usually, I make it with the thick crust and with smoked mozzarella, but I wanted to use my pizza stone, and I didn't want to use my whole batch of dough for the thick crust.

But I decided to make pizza in the spirit of that, so I sauteed the spinach with some garlic in a little bit of olive oil. After I rolled out the dough, I spooned on the sauce, then the spinach, then the grated mozzarella, then arranged some red pepper slices decoratively on top of it. There were a few panicky moments, such as when I accidentally set a dish towel on fire. (Really. It had been covering the bowl of dough, which I put on the top of the stove while I was pre-heating the oven. I guess it was a little bit too close to the flame when I turned the burner on under the spinach because all of a sudden--poof! Thankfully, there was a pot of water sitting in the sink, so I just picked up the towel by the non-burning end and dumped it into the pot. The smoke alarm didn't even go off, and the towel maybe could have been salvaged, though I dumped it.)

I'm not posting a real recipe because this was so thrown together. One thing that's fun about pizza is its improvisational possibilities. Once you've made the crust (or bought one already made from someplace) and procured some sauce (from the freezer or from a jar or from a couple of cans of tomatoes sitting on your pantry shelves) and grated some cheese, whether it's Maplebrook Farm mozzarella or not, the possibilities are endless. But Deb at Smitten Kitchen has posted multiple thorough posts about pizza, and I've found them a good resource. Search for pizza on her site for others.)

The pizza went into the oven on the pizza stone for 10 minutes, and voila. (I still don't have a pizza peel, so I'm relying on parchment paper for pizza transport but I'm now pondering pizza peel possibilities.) My kitchen was a mess, no doubt, and I was down one kitchen towel, but I was up one delicious pizza and the promise of another one in the days ahead. Nothing to complain about there.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Thai Soup, Maine Shrimp

I was going to start this post by whining about how hard it is to eat soup in Thai restaurants because of the chicken stock factor, and then I read this piece in the NYT Travel section about finding vegetarian food in Thailand, and I realized that for true vegetarians (rather than fish-eating mostly vegetarians like me) it's much harder because of the fish sauce factor. I still eat fish for many reasons but that it makes my life easier in restaurants (and countries other than India) is one of them. So, no whining.

Still, while I have no doubt that I have unknowingly consumed chicken stock more than once over the years, I won't eat it knowingly, so that rules out a lot of Asian soups. One of my favorites that I hardly ever get to eat is the Thai soup with coconut milk and lemongrass and galangal root, since it's often made with chicken. (I know it's made with prawns sometimes, but I'm never sure about the stock.) So, a year ago, when Melissa Clark published a recipe of a similar kind of soup, easily made at home without chicken stock, I was excited.

I suddenly remembered it last week, and the timing was fortuitous since we're at the end of Maine shrimp season here on the east coast. I'd never known about Maine shrimp before this year. I saw some at Whole Foods right earlier this year, and they looked very appealing--they were little but advertised as wild caught, and they were cheap (on sale for $3.99/lb, I think). It turns out that they're in season from January-March, and if you don't get them at Whole Foods, they may be even cheaper. I made Melissa Clark's roasted shrimp and broccoli with them the first time, and they seemed like just the thing for this soup.

The recipe calls for chicken stock, and originally I'd been thinking I'd use vegetable stock, but one thing about the Maine shrimp is that they come with their shells on. To get to this bowl of pretty pink shrimp, you have to spend some time and get your hands rather sticky.

And after I'd spent the time separating the shrimp from their shells, it seemed silly not to use them. I started looking up recipes for shrimp stock, and I found some that were very involved (a list of 10 ingredients and an hour on the stove) and some that were very simple (Mark Bittman said you could make it with just the shells, water and salt cooked together for 20 minutes). I opted for the middle route, and I combined the shells with some chopped up onion and celery, bay leaves and peppercorns, plus the salt and water and cooked it for a half hour or so.

Once the stock is done, the soup comes together very quickly. I already had rice vinegar and fish sauce on hand, and then it was just a matter of chopping the shallots, garlic, lemongrass and cilantro. I would like to think of a better way to use the lemongrass--I chopped it into tiny pieces, but we still ended up spitting out little bits of lemongrass as we ate the soup because it didn't soften up. I may try putting it in a food processor next time, or I may try keeping it in in larger pieces and then pulling them out before serving the soup.

Even with my minor tweaks--I couldn't find any basil, I forgot the jalapeño--the soup was still delicious--a lovely layering of flavors and just the thing for an early March night. I made a pot of jasmine rice, and we ladled the soup over that. Although he didn't want to, I made Alex leave me enough so that I could have some for lunch the next day. And just as much as the flavor, I loved the flexibility. Last year I made it with non-Maine shrimp and scallops; next time maybe I'll try fish. And whatever I do, I don't have to worry about the chicken stock. I can have my soup and eat it too. Very satisfying.

Coconut Fish Stew With Basil and Lemon Grass
adapted from Melissa Clark's "A Good Appetite" column

Time: 20 minutes (I would say it's closer to 30, not including the time it takes to shell the shrimp and make the stock, if you're making stock.)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 small garlic clove, minced

2 1/2 cups chicken stock (or shrimp stock or vegetable stock)

1 13.5-ounce can coconut milk (I used light coconut milk)

1 lemon grass stalk, finely chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, if desired, and thinly sliced

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

Finely grated zest of 1 lime

3/4 pound snapper or other firm fish (cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks), peeled shrimp, scallops or a combination

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Fresh lime juice, to taste

Cooked rice, for serving (optional).

1. Heat oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic and cook, stirring, until shallots are softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in stock, coconut milk, lemon grass, jalapeño, vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, salt and lime zest. Simmer for 10 minutes.

2. Stir in seafood and herbs. Cook 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in lime juice and serve, with rice if desired. (Note: Without rice it’s more soup than stew.)

2-3 servings, depending on how hungry you are

Monday, March 9, 2009

Couch to 5K: An Appreciation

I was interested to read Gina Kolata's article last week on women taking up running in middle age. While Kolata's piece is more about the athletic opportunities available to women now, I was more interested in the discovery, later in life, that your body could do things you hadn't thought it could do. I will never be a competitive runner, and I will never even run particularly fast. But as a person who thought, for 20+ years, that she couldn't run but somehow started at age 41, I remain amazed that I can run at all.

The short version of my non-running life is this. When I was 18, I rowed on the freshman crew team in college. Part of our training involved running hills and stairs, and eventually I got tendinitis in my knees. When I was not quite 20, I broke my ankle hiking, and the doctor told me I couldn't run. (Well, he said, "If you run, it will hurt, and if it hurts, you should stop.") Since I didn't really want to run anyway, this was not a problem.

And so, for the next 20 years, I swam and hiked and walked and biked, but I didn't run. For the past 7 or 8 years, I've also logged many, many hours on the elliptical at the gym, and I thought that that would be the closest to running I could get. On the elliptical, I could run at a decent clip, and I was satisfied.

Until I wasn't anymore. Last spring, I was bored and wanted to shake up my workout routine. (When people you don't even really know say that they expect to see you on a particular elliptical machine at the gym, that's a sign that you're in a rut.) I added in some time on the stairmaster and the bike. I returned to the dreaded treadmill, but somehow, walking uphill wasn't very satisfying. So, just for the hell of it, I ran a minute here and a minute there. My ankle didn't hurt. My knees didn't hurt. Hmm, I thought, I wonder . . .

And then I read somewhere about Couch to 5K. It's the beginners' running program put together by the Cool Running folks, and the amazing thing about it is that it works. The program sets out a schedule where you run (0r walk/run, as the case may be) 3 times a week for 9 weeks, and in very tiny increments, non-runners become runners. The first week, you're only jogging a minute at a time, the third week three minutes, the fourth week five minutes. (These jogging minutes are interspersed with walking minutes, so your total time out or on the treadmill is about 35 minutes, including the warm up and cool down.) Somehow though, amazingly, when you get to the end of week 5, and the third day's workout includes a 20 minute run without stopping, you're ready. At least I was. It did help, I will admit, that I was already in good shape when I started. But the beauty of Couch to 5K is that if you don't feel ready to move on to the next week's workouts, you don't have to. You can repeat the same week's intervals for as long as you want. It's a very forgiving program that way.

Couch to 5K is also excellent for anyone task oriented--there's even a chart to follow. And breaking anything down into tiny bits makes it seem much more manageable. I started out on the treadmill, but once the weather got nicer, I started running on the bike path near my house and around a local reservoir. What helped immensely with this were these podcasts. I didn't like most of the music, admittedly, but it was very helpful to have someone telling me when to start and stop so I didn't have to keep checking my watch.

I started in April, and by the summer, I could run for 30-35 minutes without stopping. On my birthday, in September, I ran for 45 minutes in the early evening light, and it was lovely. That may have been the highlight of my brief running life--2 1/2 weeks later, I hurt my leg, and things went downhill from there.

The flip side, though, is that having trained myself to run once meant that I didn't have to start from scratch when I started again. The fall was mostly lost to me, between the leg injury and a seemingly endless cold that also curtailed my gym time, but by late December, I was still back to running 20 minutes straight on the treadmill. Of course, what followed that was a month of little exercise (and fried food) in India and another lingering cold when I got back, but for the past month, I've been back on the treadmill a couple of days a week once again, and I'm working back up to where I was. A year ago, I wouldn't have been able to imagine this, but now, it just feels normal. I still check in with my knees and ankle to make sure nothing hurts, but mostly, it doesn't.

I can't end this without one admission: I don't, actually, like to run all that much, and I certainly can't imagine that I will ever love it the way I love to swim (though I do love that I can do it by walking down my driveway, rather than having to plan my day around the pool hours.) But the satisfaction of being able to run is huge, and that makes up for a lot. After all of those years of thinking I couldn't run, I'm happy every time I do it to realize that I can. So it probably won't ever become my favorite kind of exercise. That doesn't really matter. Thanks to Couch to 5K, I have the choice, and for now, at least, I'm choosing to run.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Brief David Foster Wallace roundup

Nearly 6 months after his death, Dave Wallace has been in the news again this week.

The New Yorker has a long and excellent piece by DT Max on Dave's life and writing, along with an excerpt from his unfinished novel, The Pale King, which will be published next year.

In the LA Times, Sara Nelson wrote an interesting article on how the decision happened to publish it. (It involved his agent, editor and widow combing through thousands of pages in the garage where he wrote.)

And Amherst magazine, the alumni magazine of our mutual alma mater, published a series of short essays about Dave under the title "David Foster Wallace at Amherst." Included is an abbreviated version of the blog post I wrote after Dave's death, now titled (not by me) "The Teacher."

My original is here.

The main page of the Amherst compilation is here.

"The Teacher" is here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Snow Day Cookies

I'm not going to point out that I'm still behind here.

I'm just going to say that, if you are currently snowed in, as much of the East Coast is, there are much worse things for you to do than to make these cookies.

I can take no credit for these cookies. The original recipe is from Silver Palate, and the tweaks are courtesy of my friend (and fabulous baker), Lisa, over at Mappa Mundi. She made them years ago, the first time I met her, I think, and she posted the recipe up in the food thread at Readerville. I copied it down and have been holding on to it ever since, but I didn't actually make the cookies until a couple of weeks ago.

A series of things happened. First, someone at my office lost a (grown) son to cancer, and we put together a basket to send to her family. I decided to make cookies and consulted with colleagues who know her better and was told that plain oatmeal raisin would be a good choice. So, I made a batch of plain oatmeal raisin cookies for inclusion in the basket. The cookies were good (and my colleague appreciated them, which is what counts), but I was left hankering for slightly jazzier oatmeal cookies.

The second thing that happened was that Monday Feb. 16 turned out to be a very bad day for Toyota Camrys. (That doesn't look right, but I have no idea what the plural of Camry should be.) Alex found out that morning that his car (with its partially rebuilt engine) was toast, and then, our hastily arranged plan, in which he borrowed my car and I borrowed Andy's while Andy was in California, was temporarily derailed because my clutch went that afternoon. For a 24 hour period, we were each marooned at our houses without cars. So what's a person to do but bake cookies? (I also figured that Andy might appreciate some for his plane ride, since I knew he wouldn't get fed nearly as much as we'd been fed on our way to and from India.)

I thought about making the other fabulous variation on the Silver Palate cookies, the ones with peanut butter and Mexican chocolate that I wrote about last summer, but I had a hankering for plainer oatmeal cookies, just not quite so plain as the first ones I'd made. I consulted various food blogs and cookbooks and couldn't find what I wanted. And then I remembered Lisa's variation, tucked away on my computer for these last 3 or 4 years. I had everything I needed, including an orange for the orange zest and a bag of dried cranberries.

I made the cookies, and they were excellent. Crisp on the outside, chewy in the middle, slightly sophisticated because of the orange zest and cranberries. They encapsulated all that was already good about oatmeal cookies but were even better. Andy got a small bag to take on the plane. My colleagues got a bigger bag (which we dubbed "car crisis cookies"). I kept a few that I parceled out sparingly over that week. And Alex, the worst sufferer in the car crisis, only ended up with what my colleagues had left, which came to all of 2 cookies.

So, for the past few weeks, I've been saying I'd make him his very own batch. The measure of how tasty these cookies are is that Deb at Smitten Kitchen had just written a post on thick, chewy oatmeal cookies, but it didn't really sway me away from the orange cranberry ones. Everything I've made from Smitten Kitchen has been delicious, and usually if Deb recommends something, I make it immediately. (Okay, maybe not when she's writing about steak or meatball sliders, as she has this week, but I've made many of her non-meaty recipes and have been very happy with them.) And under other circumstances, I would have gone ahead and made her cookies.

But the siren song of the cranberry orange ones was too strong. (That, and Alex kept saying, "Where are my cookies?") So, yesterday, pre-snowstorm, I indulged. Partly because it was a good cookie-baking kind of day and partly because I hoped that the second batch could signify (and celebrate) the end of the car crisis. (My car drives quite beautifully with the new clutch, and while Alex's new (used) car is not yet in his possession, he has at least identified it and should have it soon. )

I didn't take any photos, which I know is bad, but, well, the cookies look like oatmeal cookies. If you've ever made oatmeal cookies, you know what these look like. They're not glamorous, but they're definitely delicious. And you definitely don't have to wait til you have a car crisis (or a snow day) to make them.

Oatmeal Cranberry Orange Cookies
Basic recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook;
tweaks from Lisa Peet
(Additional commentary from me)

12 tbsps. (1-1/2 sticks) butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar (I've used both light and dark--both good, though slightly different)
1 egg
2 tbsps. water
1 tsp. vanilla extract
grated zest of one orange
2/3 cup all-purpose flour (I used 1/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour and couldn't tell the difference.)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3 cups quick-cooking oats
1-1/2 cups dried cranberries (I used 1 cup cranberries, 1/2 cup raisins, just for variety's sake.)

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Cream butter and both sugars until fluffy. Add egg and beat thoroughly. Mix in water, vanilla, and orange zest.

3. Sift together flour, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda; add to the egg mixture and mix well. Add oats and cranberries or raisins, and mix.

4. Use either greased cookie sheets or ungreased cookie sheets lined with a Silpat or parchment paper. (I only have 1 Silpat, so I do one that way and one with parchment.) Form cookies on cookie sheets. I made small-ish cookies, but you can also do giant cookies with an ice cream scoop. The recipe makes between 3 and 3 1/2 dozen small to regular cookies. Bake 12-14 minutes for smaller cookies, 14-17 minutes for giant ones. (The original recipe says 10-12 minutes for the smaller ones, but they weren't done yet at 12 minutes.)