Sunday, May 31, 2009

Blueberry Buttermilk Cake (aka another plain cake)

I have to admit it--I'm a blueberry hoarder. Every summer, I make sure that I go blueberry picking at least once (and usually twice), and even though I might make muffins or crumble right then, I make sure that I have several large ziplock bags full of frozen berries in my freezer shortly thereafter. And I find myself somewhat reluctant to use them in the first cooler months--I start to envision a blueberry-less February, and I don't want to do that to myself. (I know, of course, that blueberries are available in the frozen foods department of any grocery store, but I'm always more attached to the berries I've picked myself--they're tangible proof that it was summer once and therefore must be again.) By late winter and early spring, though, I'm a bit more profligate with the berries, and by this time of year, I'll bake with them weekly--blueberry season, after all, is actually in sight, if still several months away. And it's even more heartening this year to see that there are berries developing on the biggest of my three baby blueberry bushes. (I'm thinking I might put a couple more in, if I can figure out where--who needs all that lawn, anyway?)

I was thinking about making blueberry muffins today, but I wasn't in the mood for either of my usual blueberry muffin recipes. And I'd seen this recipe up on Smitten Kitchen last week, as raspberry buttermilk cake, and had noted it as something I might want to make eventually, but I didn't think too much about it. But today, I was flipping through the June issue of Gourmet and saw the recipe again, and this time, something stuck--probably it was when I realized that this would be an excellent cake with blueberries as well as raspberries.

This cake is easy, easy, easy, and it's also nice in that it's not that bad for you. It has a half stick of butter and a single egg in the whole cake. You could even, maybe, call it a somewhat virtuous cake (unless, of course, you feel compelled to eat half of it at one sitting.). And it's definitely delicious. It's not quite a one bowl cake, but it's 2 bowls, only one of which really gets dirty, and one measuring cup for the buttermilk. I was generous with the blueberries on top, and I put some lemon zest in the batter, since I'm a big fan of the lemon/blueberry combo (Exhibit A). It took all of 15 minutes (if that) to put together, and it was out of the oven and cool enough to eat in less than an hour.

As for the serving size, I want to quote Laurie Colwin, who wrote this in her chapter on "How to Make Gingerbread" in her wonderful book of food essays, Home Cooking:

"This little three-layer cake will feed six delicate, well-mannered people with small appetites who are on diets and have just had a large meal, or four fairly well-mannered people who are not terribly hungry. Two absolute pigs can devour it in one sitting--half for you and half for me--with a glass of milk and a cup of coffee and leave not a crumb for anyone else."

I won't say that that's what Alex and I did this afternoon. But I will say that there is perhaps a third of the cake left, and I know already that it's lovely with tea, so I won't guarantee it lasting past tomorrow.

Blueberry Buttermilk Cake
Adapted from Gourmet, June 2009

The original recipe called for raspberries, and I obviously used blueberries. Any type of berry seems like it would suffice. I'm also contemplating how this might work with rhubarb instead of berries. It feels like a generally flexible recipe, so I'll bet lots of variations could work.

Makes one thin 9-inch cake--see note on number of servings above.

1 cup all-purpose flour (I used 1/3 whole wheat pastry flour)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (optional)
1 large egg
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 cup fresh berries (I used 1 1/2 cups frozen blueberries.)

Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside. In a larger bowl, beat butter and 2/3 cup sugar with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about two minutes, then beat in vanilla and zest, if using. Add egg and beat well.

At low speed, mix in flour mixture in three batches, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour, and mixing until just combined.Spoon batter into cake pan, smoothing top. Scatter berries evenly over top and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar.

Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool to warm, 10 to 15 minutes more. Invert onto a plate.

(Deb and many of her commenters said their cakes baked in 20 minutes. Mine did not. At 25 minutes, the middle was still a bit jiggly, so I left it in for 5 more minutes, and it was perfect.)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reclaiming a bed: Part I

In the back of my house, separating my part of the yard from the cottage's yard above, there's a stone wall, and in one place, there's a little rock garden type thing, between two boulders. And under the rock garden type thing, there is a bed, where I would like to be able to plant annuals. Except that the ferns and the weeds also like that particular space (it's very damp, for one thing), and any annuals I try to grow get crowded out.

Here's what it looked like a little while ago:

It doesn't look like much, I realize. A few years ago, Alex instructed me in how to reclaim it, a process that involved a layer of cardboard over the bed and a lot of new topsoil over the cardboard. (The idea is that the cardboard smothers the weeds below, and the topsoil gives you something to put plants in now. Eventually, the cardboard will disintegrate, and the plants will have the full depth of the bed at their disposal.) I did that the length of the whole bed under the stone wall, to mixed success. (Some part-shade perennials and bulbs are growing in the rest of the bed, though there are a few small stretches I've given up on.) But the bed under the rock garden is especially recalcitrant, and I didn't even try to grow anything in it last year.

But it's right outside my kitchen window, and it would be nice to see flowers in it, rather than weeds and ferns, and it so happens that I have a bunch of annuals that can tolerate a bit of shade and need someplace to go, so I decided to make another attempt at reclamation.

First, I hacked away at some of the grass and ferns on the perimeter of the bed, and then I pulled out the bulk of the weeds. Then came the layer of cardboard:

And then some topsoil and some compost:

If I were more organized, I'd be able to show you the fully covered bed with the annuals planted in it, but as it is, I didn't have as much topsoil on hand as I thought I had, so the last steps will have to wait for another day.

Meanwhile, though, it does look a bit less overgrown, and I'm looking forward to a nicer view from the kitchen. (This is taken from a few feet to the right of the kitchen windows, at the back door):

Part II will come as soon as I have more topsoil in my possession, which will hopefully be in the next few days.

Friday, May 29, 2009


So, this weekend is my 20th college reunion. The complicating factor is that last year was also my 20th college reunion. I started college in the fall of 1984, a member of the class of 1988. But I took a year off between my sophomore and junior years and so graduated with the class of 1989. There's still no question in my mind that taking a year off was one of the best college decisions I made. But it leaves me betwixt and between when it comes to reunions. I know more people in the class of 1988--they were the ones I was a lost freshman with. But my closest friends, the people I'm still in regular contact with, are from 1989--it's just everyone else I don't know.

College reunions are a strange thing. I'm someone who didn't go to the 5th or the 10th reunion of either class. But in 2002, I became an employee of the Amherst College Office of Alumni and Parent Programs (a job about which I had many mixed feelings), and a big part of my job was to help organize reunions. That first year, I worked on the 40th reunion of the class of 1963, the 60th reunion of the class of 1943, the 65th reunion of the class of 1938 (a true pleasure), the very, very tiny 70th reunion of the class of 1933 (also a pleasure) and, due to someone's maternity leave, the 20th reunion of the class of 1983. The 20th reunion was my least favorite. Immediately upon meeting the reunion chairs, I was asked where their VCR was. "What VCR?" I wanted to know. The VCR they had asked my colleague on maternity leave for four or five months earlier and hadn't mentioned since. That VCR. We found them a VCR, eventually, but when they told me that they'd rented a popcorn machine for the kids, but the rental place was closed on Sunday and they were all leaving, I nearly had a fit. These were people with adult lives and professional careers--in what other circumstances would they rent a large piece of equipment and make no plans for returning it? I informed them that I drove a Honda Civic and could be no help. (Eventually, they found a local classmate to bring it back, as they should have done in the first place.) Even six years later, I have no fondness for the class of 1983.

The older fellows, on the other hand, were gallant and charming and a pleasure to work with. (Okay, there was one fellow, a distinguished historian, from the class of 1943 who had a fit when a younger class--who had been invited by his classmates--appeared in droves and made a run on the liquor supplies. He shook a finger at me and told me to make them go away. Um, okay. I had to escape to my office for a little time out after that. Thankfully, he was an exception.) Even though the college they had attended was vastly different from the one I had attended, it didn't really matter. Working with those older classes was like assisting a bevy of benevolent grandfathers, and it was hard not to be happy at their joy in rekindling decades-old friendships.

For three years, 2003, 2004, 2005, reunion weekend was the longest, busiest, most exhausting of the year. Most of the volunteers I worked with were lovely and a few were terrors. When I left that job, I was delighted that, if I ever decided to come to reunion again, it would be on my own terms, and I wouldn't have to be nice to anyone I didn't want to be nice to, a very liberating thought.

Last year, at the 20th reunion of the class of 1988, I made a brief Friday night appearance while I was still in Amherst, saw a few people it was nice to see and one person it was wonderful to see, and then I made my escape. I'm pondering doing the same thing this year, the equivalent of a drive-by. Emily says I have to come to see her, if no one else. Then again, someone I saw on the list is a woman who, at the end of senior year, dated someone I had liked junior year. By the time they dated, I had no stake in it, but somehow we cultivated a pretty serious dislike for each other. She thought I was a hairy-legged, off-campus feminist, and I thought she was a bitch. The fairy tale reunion ending would be that we end up best friends. My guess for what will actually happen is that we will studiously ignore each other. But that's the thing about reunions, the wild card that might make them worth attending--you just never know. If any of that happens, I'll report back. Otherwise, I look forward to next week, when Amherst becomes again primarily the town where I work rather than the town where I went to college 20 years ago.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Taj Mahal and Problematic Feet

The summer after I graduated from college, a few months before I left for India the first time, my friends and I cooked a big Indian dinner. The dinner was, in part, to celebrate my impending departure, and at some point during the evening, someone asked me if I was going to become “A Person Who’s Been to India.” I bristled and said, “Of course not.” I knew the kind of person she meant. I thought, immediately, of a woman in one of my college classes, a feminist lit class at Smith, where I was the only student from Amherst. While I loved the professor and the readings, I was somewhat intimidated by the whole thing. And there was a woman in the class who was a year or two ahead of me who had just come back from India. She had a tiny piercing in her nose (much less common in 1985) and exuded a certain kind of affected sophistication. I was simultaneously fascinated by her and annoyed by her. Still, I didn’t particularly want to become her.

But, all of these years later, the truth is that every single day I do something or think something or use something that reminds me that I’m a “Person Who’s Been to India.” It’s been so long now that it’s woven into the strands of my daily life. I cart back liters of Biotique Walnut Bark shampoo whenever I go since that’s the shampoo I’ve used since I discovered it in Delhi in 1994, when my usually thick hair was losing some of its heft and luster. Nearly every surface of my house is covered with an Indian printed textile, and nearly all of the framed pictures on my walls are prints from India, carefully transported home in plastic tubes. When one of my cats is being bad (or even, sometimes, when he's not), I call him a “badmaash,” which means bad guy or hooligan or naughty child in Hindi.

I was thinking about this recently when I was putting ointment on my feet, this ointment, in particular:

(I've never actually seen this ad, but I was entertained to find it online.)

I've always had bad feet--this goes back way before India, although being in India never does them any favors. One friend in college even told me he could understand why I didn't have a foot fetish, having feet that looked like mine. (I'm not sure it's the only reason, but still.) But my feet have been better for the past 7 or 8 years, thanks to a moment at the Taj Mahal.

I had gone to the Taj Mahal that first time in India, and I hadn't planned to go again. (The Taj is amazing, as is the Agra Fort, but Agra itself is a pit and an especially irritating place to be if you're a tourist.) But not quite ten years later, I found myself directing a study abroad program, and there's no way you can have a study abroad program in northern India without taking the students to the Taj Mahal. So, I went once in the fall of 1999 and once in the spring of 2000 with my two SIT groups. And then again, a fourth time, in December of 2001 with my study abroad students from Varanasi. You can forgive me for being somewhat blase about it by then.

I was sitting at the back of the Taj, overlooking the River Jamuna, leaning against this wall above, with my colleague Dale. Dale and I weren't particularly close, but I liked him, and he didn't stress me out like my female colleague who drove me up a wall. (Even now, when I read things I wrote then, I get angry all over again at her, which is not particularly productive.) Dale was a mellow bald guy from Australia who'd been coming to Varanasi and helping to run a street clinic for years. One of his claims to fame is that he always went barefoot. (Now, he is living in Sweden with his Swedish wife, and I suspect he goes barefoot less than he did than when he lived in India.) The only time I ever saw him wear shoes was when we were hiking in the mountains, and then he twisted his ankle and was very cranky about it.

We were sitting there, just chatting about nothing in particular, and Dale looked at my feet (you have to leave your shoes outside), and said, "India's been pretty hard on your feet." I agreed, and also pointed out that it didn't seem fair that he went barefoot all the time and India didn't seem to be nearly as hard on his feet. And then he spoke the magic words: "You should try Lichensa. You can get it at the chemist. It's in an orange tube." That was followed by words I hadn't expected to hear: "The lepers say that it really helps." In Varanasi, Dale spent a lot of time at the leper colony in Sankat Mochin, not far from Assi. Some of our students volunteered there as well. I'd never had anything recommended to me on that basis before, but where my feet were concerned, I was willing to try just about anything. And really, if the lepers were in favor, who was I to argue?

So, when we were back in Delhi, I went to the chemist and bought a tube of Lichensa for 30 rupees or so and put some on my feet. Within days, the cracks on my heels began to close up, and they have never been as bad since. The lepers, it turned out, were absolutely right.

Now, every time I go back to India, I make my rounds of various chemists' shops and buy up their supply of Lichensa. (It costs the equivalent of about $1 a tube.) I start to get nervous when my stash starts to dwindle, and on occasion, I've asked friends going to bring me back some (along with my walnut bark shampoo). I have no idea why it works--the only unfamiliar ingredient is called Ichthammol (apparently a form of dark sulfonated shale oil, whatever that is). All I know is that it definitely does work (and that it's definitely not available here).

But what I'm trying to get at, in all of this, is that, at this point, after 20 years, the large ways I've become "A Person who's been to India" are too numerous to count and perhaps so crucial to who I've become in my adult life that it's hard to delineate them. But even if I don't think about it specifically, I'm reminded of it constantly, when I wash my hair or make my tea or scold my cats or rub ointment on my problematic feet before I go to bed. I couldn't undo this even if I wanted to.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


In a month where one is trying to blog all 31 days, there is bound to be a day (or several) when a person just doesn't have much to say. Today, alas, that person is me. My day went as follows: morning meeting, followed by extensive secret planning for boss's retirement gift (interspersed with bits of actual work), followed by 1 1/2 hours in the gym, followed by retirement event #3 (of 4) for same boss, followed by my usual Wednesday pad thai date with Alex. None of that individually was particularly tiring, but taken all together, it was a 12 hour day, which I am out of practice at.

So, what there is today is cats. My first exclusive cat photo post in my year + of blogging. So be it.


That is Chaya (also occasionally known as Mr. Fattypants), who makes it his mission not to let any plastic bag in the house go un-inspected. He takes his task very seriously, clearly.

Occasionally I feel like I need to send proof to my little nieces that I do actually have two cats, so I need documentation of that. Chaya is very friendly with visitors and serves as the greeting committee, but Kalu (more frequently called Little Balloo) refuses to come out if there is a person under four feet tall in the house and especially if there are several. He had vanished before the girls arrived on Monday, and he didn't re-emerge until they'd been gone for a full 2 hours. (He was quite nonchalant in his reappearance, but he totally smelled like the basement.) This photo is unusual because more often what happens is that Chaya decides that wherever Kalu is sitting is the most desirable place to be, and in his alpha cat way, he goes and usurps it. That day, however, he chose only to sit on top of his brother rather than evict him entirely.


A favorite photo from several years ago, when the cats were just four or five months old. Alex had gone away for a few days, and Lino had come to stay with me. At the time, I called this photo, "Why brushing my teeth is a challenge when the kittens have a sleepover." Now, I look back in amazement that all three of them fit in/on the sink at the same time, as they now weigh in the neighborhood of 35 pounds among them (divided something like 14 for Chaya and 10.5 for both Kalu and Lino).

And that's all I have. I'm hoping to be somewhat more coherent tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Possibly the only household tip that will ever be in this blog

On my way home today, I stopped to pick up a few things at the Asian grocery store--more Desi Natural Dahi, for one, and some tamarind paste and lemons. One might think that I was going to make some tasty sauce out of the tamarind and lemons, and it is possible that at some point, I will do this. But there is a reason that the container of tamarind paste sits under the sink, with the cleaning supplies, rather than on the pantry shelves--tamarind is excellent for cleaning brass.

I am in possession of brass that needs polishing mostly due to the generosity of my friend Abby. She's an India friend who does her research in the state of Gujerat. In Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujerat, there is a huge flea market, the chor bazaar (literally thieves' market) every week, and at the chor bazaar, there is a lot of old brass for sale. During the year that I lived in Jaipur and Abby was in Ahmedabad, she got me several round brass containers, which are officially chapati tins but which I use to hold spices, and a little brass tea kettle which is one of the most used things in my kitchen, given how much tea I drink.

The problem with brass, of course, is that it gets tarnished easily. My teapot, especially, gets dull and brown over the course of a couple of months. (In the photo, it's about one month post-cleaning, and a somewhat haphazard cleaning at that.) Early on, I asked Abby about cleaning it, and she asked a friend of hers who worked in a crafts museum, and the friend said tamarind and lemon but gave no specific instructions.

So, over the years, I developed my own system that is messy, admittedly, but it's cheap and it works. (The large container of tamarind paste cost $2.99, and the smaller one is $1.79. I never have to get more than 1 or 2 small containers in a year, so I'm expecting this big one to last at least that long, even if I also use the tamarind for cooking.) At some point, for comparison sake, I bought a thing of brass cleaner, but it didn't get the brass any cleaner than the tamarind and lemon do, and it was much smellier.

The system goes as follows:
  • Smear brass container generously with tamarind paste. This will be sticky and messy both. I usually do it over the sink. You can use a paper towel or your fingers. Tamarind paste, thankfully, washes off easily. Let sit for several minutes.
  • Cut a lemon in half and rub the lemon all over the container. (I often use lemons for this that I've zested and then forgotten to juice--it's a good way to get rid of naked aging lemons, I've found. They can have some purpose before they get tossed.)
  • Alas, the tarnish will not magically disappear after this. You will need to employ a green scrubby, some warm water and some arm strength.
The process takes awhile. I usually rub more lemon over it and then scrub with the scrubby and then rinse and repeat. (One thing I read said to put salt on the lemon, which I'm going to try next time.) It's one of those meditative cleaning tasks--I find it especially useful if I'm stressed out about something and need a useful activity to keep me occupied for a little while. It's also satisfying in that concrete, visible way--the brass used to be tarnished, and now it's not. And you can admire the gleam for awhile while contemplating what yummy thing you might make with the rest of tamarind paste and the lemons.

I can probably predict that this will be the only entry in my blog under "household cleaning tips," but I figure that if I'm only going to have one, it might as well be a good one. And this one is. Test it out on your tarnished brass and report back.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Plain Cakes

I do realize this is Monday--the last Monday in May, in fact, so the last possibility for a May Meatless Monday. And I did, in fact, make a nice vegetarian lunch today for my brother, sister-in-law, nieces and Alex. However, I went with the tried and true and made two recipes I've already written about--the asparagus soup from Greens and the Chard-Onion Torta from Deborah Madison's vegetarian supper book. So, Meatless Monday is going to be postponed for another day, and instead I'm going to write about cake.

Over the years, I've come to the sad conclusion that I'm never going to be a person who makes beautiful desserts. I make really tasty desserts, usually. But they're not beautiful. I noticed this especially a few years ago when it seemed like I had lots of potluck things to go to (like wedding and baby showers) where I brought dessert, and whatever less-than-beautiful dessert I had brought would be sitting there, forlornly, amidst beautifully decorated cupcakes and perfectly frosted cakes and fancy brownies with squiggles of frosting. They'd sit there until someone would, seemingly out of politeness, take a piece of whatever it was I brought, and then the word would spread that it was really good, despite its outward appearance, and suddenly my dessert would join the popular crowd of desserts, and eventually there would only be crumbs left. (This definitely happened when I brought Karen Templer's pumpkin bars to a baby shower for someone who seemed to have an unusually high percentage of friends capable of making lovely desserts. The downside was that once my pumpkin bars were discovered, I didn't have any to take home to have with tea the next morning.)

But I really appreciate cakes that are easy to make and don't use up a lot of dishes and don't require fancy ingredients and maybe aren't the prettiest cakes ever but still taste delicious. One of these is the beloved and still dearly missed Laurie Colwin's Buttermilk Cocoa Cake, from More Home Cooking. (The last one on this page). Another possibility is the Everyday Cake that Molly wrote about in Orangette a few weeks ago. (I haven't made this yet, but one of my colleagues did and said it was great.) And a third is this lemon cornmeal cake.

I have Karen Templer to thank for this one too. She raved about it on the Readerville food thread not long ago, and I bookmarked the recipe. I hadn't actually planned to make this cake today, but after I'd made the rest of the food for lunch, I got a call that my lunch guests were going to be late. I puttered around for a bit, and then I thought, "Well, I could make something else . . . " and I remembered this cake. I got as far as melting the butter and juicing the lemon when everyone arrived. So, later in the afternoon, after we'd already had lunch and an excellent afternoon snack of ice cream from my wonderful local ice cream shop--Mt. Tom's Homemade--and, in fact, after everyone was gone, I remembered the already melted butter and decided to make the cake, despite not actually needing any more dessert.

This was not a one bowl cake, like some easy cakes--there's a dry bowl, a wet bowl and a butter bowl--but it comes together quickly.

It's just a matter of mixing wet and dry ingredients separately, mixing them together, and then pouring the batter in the pan. The glaze is about as easy as a glaze can be. The cake is not beautiful--but you wouldn't expect it to be. It has a lovely texture, from the cornmeal, and tenderness from the buttermilk. It's lightly lemony and entirely irresistible. It does its plain cake brethren proud, and I'll definitely be making it again.

Lemon Cornmeal Cake with Lemon Glaze and Crushed Blueberry Sauce

From Bon Appetit, April 2009



  • 1 1/2 cups (packed) powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons (or more) fresh lemon juice


  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon peel
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled
  • Crushed-Blueberry Sauce



  • Combine powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice in small bowl. Stir with spoon until smooth and paste-like, adding more lemon juice by 1/2 teaspoonfuls if glaze is too thick to spread. Set aside.


  • Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter 9-inch-diameter cake pan with 2-inch-high sides; line bottom with parchment. Combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt in large bowl; whisk to blend. Whisk buttermilk, eggs, lemon peel, and vanilla in small bowl. Pour buttermilk mixture and melted butter into flour mixture. Using rubber spatula, gently fold liquids into flour mixture until just blended (do not stir). Scrape batter into pan; spread evenly.
  • Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean and cake pulls away from sides of pan, about 30 minutes.
  • Immediately run knife around sides of cake. Place rack atop cake in pan. Using oven mitts, hold pan and rack firmly together and invert cake onto rack. Remove pan from cake. Place another rack on bottom of cake; invert 1 more time so that cake is top side up. Stir glaze until blended. While cake is still very hot, drop glaze by tablespoonfuls onto cake; spread to within 1/2 inch of edge (some glaze may drip down sides of cake). Cool completely. Serve with Crushed-Blueberry Sauce.
My Notes:

* I only used 1 cup of sugar for the glaze, plus about 2 tbsp. of lemon juice, and I had some left over. I'd go down to maybe 3/4 of a cup of sugar and slightly less lemon juice next time.

* I used 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour and 1 cup all purpose flour. I might also try doing half white whole wheat and half all purpose.

*I didn't make the blueberry sauce, but I'm leaving the link to the recipe in, since I know that lemons and blueberries are a fine combo.

*I only have one cooling rack so couldn't do the complicated pan-rack maneuver they suggest for getting the cake out of the pan. I turned it out onto a plate and then back right side up on the cooling rack so it could cool.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Book Recommendations

It's only been in the past few years that I've started keeping track of what I've read. I'm not sure why this is--you would think that as a Virgo, I'd have years worth of excel spreadsheets tracking every stray novel and audiobook. But no--only the last few years, and those kept in a somewhat haphazard way. I also haven't really participated in the end-of-the-year "best" lists on Readerville and other places, even though, every year, I always have some favorites.

This year, my overall list is rather paltry, and I hope to make up for that this summer. But when I look back on it, my favorites are clear.

Best (Serious) Novel--The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, a tour-de-force of a "what if" novel, whose alternate chapters proceed along the premise of what happens to the main character if she runs off with the championship snooker player she impetuously kisses on his birthday one year and what happens if she resists the temptation and stays with her long-time partner. Writing one novel is hard enough--I can't imagine having written one that contains two alternate plot trajectories. Very satisfying all the way through.

Best Short Stories--Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Admittedly, I haven't read a lot of short stories this year, but Lahiri's stories would be on my best list no matter what. I'm one who still hasn't read The Namesake (though I enjoyed the movie) and thought that her first book of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was uneven (though I loved the first story in the book, "A Temporary Matter" the first time I read it, in The New Yorker, and then again in the book). But Unaccustomed Earth is just gorgeous all around, and I really had the sense I was in the hands of someone supremely confident of her craft. I didn't like all the stories equally, but none were weak; the last three connected stories were heartbreaking. I remember reading "Year's End" in the Chennai Airport in January 2008, while en route to Sri Lanka, and I was stunned by it then. It's even better in the context of the slightly larger view she offers in those last three stories.

Notice the dual wedding ring-themed covers. I bought my copy of Unaccustomed Earth in Varanasi, so it's the Indian edition with this cover:

Best Memoir: Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. I've been a fan of Elizabeth McCracken's since The Giant's House as well as her early book of stories, Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry, and her usual humor is present here, which may seem strange because it's a book about losing her first child. It is wrenching and clear-eyed and unsentimental and without any self-pity, and sometimes it is funny. The sadness is tempered, somewhat, by the knowledge that after her first stillborn son (who never grows beyond his in-the-womb name of Pudding), she gives birth to a healthy son just over a year later. (She also now has an infant daughter, which is also heartening.) I can see how this book would be a comfort to other women who have had stillbirths, but it's worth reading even if you haven't.

And finally, the book I've been meaning to write about all along. (This was originally going to be a post just about this book, but I got distracted by my other favorites when I went back to look at my list.)

Best (Light) Novel--The Family Man by Elinor Lipman. I mentioned in my last audio book post that I've been a fan of Elinor Lipman's for more than 20 years. (She came to read at Amherst from Into Love and Out Again right when it came out in the late 80s.) I've enjoyed all of her books since then, but here she is at the height of her comic powers. The novel's main character is a 50-something gay man who gets back in touch with his long ago ex-wife (after her most recent husband's death) and then finds himself reunited with his long-lost beloved stepdaughter, who, (in one of the things that makes the plot move along) has just signed on to be the fake girlfriend of a creepy sitcom star who wants to raise his profile. Lipman's main characters, Henry and Thalia, are sweetly drawn, but the scene stealer is Henry's ex-wife and Thalia's mother, Denise. Lipman is always good at dialogue, but here it just zings, and there are many laugh out loud moments. Serious literature it is not, but sometimes I think that serious literature is overrated. Sometimes a book like this is just the thing. I'm only sorry that I finished this one so quickly.

Happy Reading!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Weekend Project

This is what 2 trips to the farmers market and 1 trip to Andrews Greenhouse have done to me:

There are the Million Bells and the Lisianthus . . .

And more miscellaneous annuals and lots of basil . . .

The last of the container plants (including even more Million Bells), plus some red onions . . .

Well, not quite the last--Million Bells in a color that's not pink or purple. As is probably obvious, I love Million Bells (formal name calibrachoa) as container plants--they're easy to take care of and bloom like crazy. I think I bought 12 or so of them this year. (In my defense, I have a lot of containers to fill.)

At Andrews yesterday, I got 2 different kinds of eggplant, 4 different kinds of peppers (all sweet) and 3 different kinds of tomatoes. (Plus a fourth kind of tomato today, plus some parsley.)

More photos to come once everything is planted. In the meantime, here's the aerial view:

Happy Saturday!

Friday, May 22, 2009

In Praise of Fresh Lime Sodas

I'm back!

I want to thank Vera Badertscher again for her post yesterday--I got lots of traffic here, and she, apparently, got lots of traffic for my post over at A Traveler's Library on William Dalrymple's book City of Djinns. It was also fun to read everyone's guest posts (including the switch that Lisa and Debi did, writing two sweet posts on the origins of their friendship).

We're in day two of our brief heat wave here, and it's making me think of fresh lime sodas. The heat wave will hopefully done by tomorrow, but in the meantime, it seems appropriate to write about a cool refreshing drink.

Fresh lime sodas saved me in India in the early years. Back then, there were not 17 different kinds of mineral water at your disposal, or Aqua-Gard water filters (now standard in many middle class homes and in restaurants as well). And there were definitely times when you needed to drink something cold that came out of a bottle. As I mentioned before, there were many fewer soda options in those pre-Coke and Pepsi days--Campa Cola, Thums Up, Orange Mirinda, Limca (which was the best of the bunch but we heard rumors about it being carcinogenic, so it was a bit scary to drink it). I'm not much of a soda drinker anyway, so there were times when having to drink soda was more of a burden than a pleasure. But what was almost always available was a fresh lime soda--a simple mix of lemon or lime juice, soda water and sugar or salt to taste. Sometimes the whole thing would come to the table pre-mixed. Sometimes, the waiter would bring a glass with the lemon/lime juice at the bottom and then ceremoniously open, then pour, the soda water in. Sometimes, you got to do that part yourself. My friend Annie--with whom I drank many, many fresh lime sodas--and I discovered the hard way that once the soda had been poured in, you could not add more sugar unless you wanted to risk the whole thing bubbling up and spilling all over the table (as happened more than once). Easier was when the sugar arrived as sugar syrup, which could be safely poured into a full glass without causing undue damage to the tableware.

I don't know why it took me so long to figure out that I could make my very own fresh lime sodas at home. It might have been that I knew but was just less inclined to make them before I had my fabulous lemon juicer. Now, in the summer, I try not to be without a little jar of lemon or lime juice (I particularly like a mix of both) and a jar of simple syrup in the fridge. (Simple syrup is truly simple--1 part sugar to 1 part water. That could be one cup of each or two cups of each or four cups of each, depending on how many drinks you'll need it for. Just dump the sugar in the water in a saucepan and heat up until the sugar is dissolved. Let cool, pour into a jar, put it in the refrigerator, and you're all set.)

If you want exact proportions, you can follow this recipe in Saveur--I was entertained that fresh lime sodas were number 35 on the "Saveur 100" list for 2008. But I'd rather be flexible--sometimes I'm in the mood for something more puckery and sometimes something sweeter. I usually use plain seltzer and then lots of ice. (I think some flavored seltzers could work too, though it wouldn't be a true fresh lime soda.)

I have to admit as well that this recent NY Times article on making homemade ginger ale has me intrigued. I don't have a juice extractor so would have to buy pre-squeezed ginger juice (who knew there was such a thing?), but the recipe sounds appealing. The other thing I wonder is whether you could just add a slight gingery flavor to a fresh lime soda by, say, putting a piece of ginger in the simple syrup when it's cooking or something along those lines. After all, when you make ginger tea, plenty of ginger flavor gets in just by putting some chunks of ginger into the tea water as it boils. It's still May, and summer is still fully ahead of us, so I think I'll have ample time to experiment. If I come up with anything brilliant, I'll be sure to let you know!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Guest Post Day: Vera Marie Badertscher of A Traveler's Library

Most days I can be found blogging about books or movies that inform and inspire travel at A Traveler's Library. That's why I was delighted when Sue invited me to guest post on a blog mostly about food. Besides my passion for travel and reading, I love to cook.

Some cookbooks go beyond just making you hungry. That, in my opinion, is something every great cookbook should do--make you drool. Give me clear instructions, a good index, and mouth-watering recipes and I'm hooked.

Aglaia Kremezi does all of that in spades with her first book, The Foods of Greece (1993). And what's more she lures you to travel to my favorite destination, Greece. When she wrote this book she lived on a different island, with a different mate, than now. Presently, she lives on a small island in the northern reaches of the Aegean--not far from Athens--called Kea.

A journalist and photographer for many years, she now also teaches cooking classes and continues to publish articles and cookbooks for Greek readers and for English readers. She has written four more books in English since I bought The Foods of Greece, the latest, Mediterranean Hot and Spicy, published just this month. Corby Kummer, who frequently writes about food for The Atlantic, says that her fourth book, Foods of the Greek Islands (2000), is "on the short list of books every cook should own."

Kummer had this to say in The Atlantic after his experience in Kremezi's cooking class on Kea: " . . . the logic of cooking vacations [is that they] put you in literal touch with another culture and make you want to try things, once you see up close how easy and sensible they are. Aglaia Kremezi and Costas Moraitis offer cooking courses . . . that are true vacations. The couple welcomes and entertains students, making them feel like friends . . . In just a few days, students come to understand Kremezi and Moraitis’s love of the island and what grows there."

Foods of Greece starts with an introduction to island life as it relates to food and a history of Greek cooking. Next we are introduced to key ingredients--olives and olive oil in all their varieties, yogurt, cheeses, tomatoes. Kremezi also talks about the essential herbs and spices and the wines and distilled liquors of Greece, like the distinctive, anise-flavored ouzo.Then the recipes, followed by hints on where to obtain hard-to-find ingredients, and a well-done index.

The photographs in the book not only show what the simple dishes should look like, the setting of each photo portrays a place you will want to visit. A meal sits on a rock overlooking the Parthenon in Athens; fish soup steams away on a terrace beside the fishing port at the island of Hydra. Several lenten dishes surrounded by gorgeous red tomatoes tempt from a cliff amongst the cliff-clinging monasteries of Meteora. Sigh!

I want to go back to see again all the Greek landscapes that I have visited, and seek out those I have not yet been to. And while I'd prefer to sip my ouzo overlooking the caldera at Santorini, or eat my lamb stew at some mountainside taverna,I can at least retreat to my kitchen with The Foods of Greece and cook up some of these fine foods in my own kitchen.

Photography by Vera Marie Badertscher. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

13 Breakfasts and Other Unwritten Memoirs

I've had this post, 13 Breakfasts, in my Blogger page for more than 4 months now, since January 11 of this year. I put it in here at Andy's suggestion, so I wouldn't forget. And I've caught glimpses of it pretty often since then, and every time, I think of Ramu, because 13 Breakfasts is his title, not mine. I'm just holding onto it for him until he needs it.

I'd gone over to Ramu's house with Andy for dinner, and after dinner, we sat around and watched TV, including "Sa Re Ga Ma Pa," which is kind of an Indian classical music version of American Idol (not to be confused with the show Indian Idol, which is different). (Sa re ga ma pa are the notes in the scale in Indian classical music.) Right before the third candidate was about to go on, the power went out, and even though Ramu had enough electricity in his inverter to keep the TV on, the cable was out. And by the time the lights came back on, it was late (and the show was over), and it seemed easier to spend the night, so I did on Ramu's second guest bed. (I didn't argue too strenously against this--okay, I didn't argue at all--because every time I saw Andy, he would mention some yummy thing that Ramu had made for breakfast, and I wanted to partake in whatever yummy thing it was that Ramu decided to make for breakfast the next day.)

The next morning, while he was making the yummy breakfast, Ramu told us a story about how when he was a kid, sometimes he used to eat 13 breakfasts. His father was a Brahmin, and there were many older women, widows, who his father took care of. Every morning, they would prepare food to offer the gods, and when the offering had been made, they would let Ramu have some. We could see him, this little curly-haired boy going from widow to widow collecting his breakfast, one after another, some fruit, some sweets, some porridge. And as he was telling us this, it was clear to me that if Ramu ever decides to write a memoir, Thirteen Breakfasts would be a perfect title. In fact, I even have the part after the colon ready for him. "Thirteen Breakfasts: Memories of a Banarsi Boyhood." I wish the title could be mine, but it is clearly his.

It got me thinking, though, about titles of things. It's been my experience all the way back to when I started writing that a title was there or it wasn't. Of all the things I've written, there have been titles I've liked--"Loving a Buddha," the name of my first published story, for one--and ones I haven't--"Mango Season," the title of my MFA thesis, which was an absolute last resort, after weeks (and months) of trying to think of something better.

And it made me remember another memoir title, that of a Fulbright friend who was doing anthropological field work in the mountains. Her memoir, she decided, would be called "Bad Hair Days in the High Himalaya: A Girl Anthropologist's Year in Kumaun." It's been almost 15 years since she came up with that title, and it's been more than 11 years since we've been in touch (a long story). But I think of her sometimes, and her hair travails and other things, and I wonder if she'll ever write her book.

I don't have any titles waiting to be used, at the moment. I wonder if I'm just the respository for other people's potential memoir titles, at least for now. I'm happy to keep collecting them, if anyone has any to offer.

Don't forget that tomorrow is the Blogathon Guest Post Day. Vera Badertscher's post will be up here, and mine will be up at A Traveler's Library.

I'll be back here on Friday! (20 days down, 11 to go, not that I'm counting.)

p.s. the photo doesn't have anything to do with anything, but I thought a Benares picture would be good, and this was one I liked.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Blustery Day Banana Bread

We've been having weather whiplash here these past few days. Saturday, it was warm enough to wear shorts, though it was a bit gray out. That night, there was lots of rain, and Sunday was cooler--long sleeve weather but not too bad. Yesterday, however, felt like early April rather than the second half of May. Oddly, it seems like it must be some kind of weird annual weather pattern because it was equally cold at this time last year. When I wrote about the mint last year, I mentioned wearing 2 layers of fleece in the garden. Yesterday would have been a 2-fleece day if I'd gone to the garden. Instead, I stayed inside and baked banana bread. Last night, we had a frost warning. I didn't have much to worry about there--I always stick to the "don't plant anything tender until Memorial Day" maxim--though I did bring inside a tray of plants I'd bought to put into containers. Today, it's back up to the 70s, and the forecast for Thursday is 90. It's hard to know what to think, not to mention what to wear or how many windows to keep open.

But back to the banana bread. The first time I saw this recipe, I was a bit dubious. I'm certainly fond of crystallized ginger in things like rhubarb jam and biscotti, but I wasn't sure what I'd think of it in banana bread. But I read an interview somewhere where Molly said that this was one of her top three recipes from all the recipes in her new book. And since just about everything I've made from Orangette has been lovely, I thought I should believe her.

Crystallized ginger, it turns out, works just fine in banana bread, especially when there's chocolate involved too. It's a nice contrast--the kick of the ginger, the moistness of the bread, the chocolate chips. I haven't had a go-to banana bread recipe for awhile,which is unfortunate, given that I like bananas a lot but only if they're not too ripe, and the minute they're too ripe, I let them sit there til they're too ripe to do anything with but bake or put into smoothies. In college and grad school, I always made the banana bread from Moosewood, but as I recall, it had black coffee in it, and now I wonder why. But I may have found my banana bread of choice. I'd like to try this basic recipe in different permutations (no chocolate, with walnuts--that sort of thing), but if those variations are as good as I suspect they'll be, then I won't have to look any farther. And in the meantime, I have a few more extra ripe bananas on my counter, a new bag of crystallized ginger in the cabinet and another bag of chocolate chips in the refrigerator. I'd been a bit distressed at how quickly this loaf has disappeared (I have been an altruistic soul and given several large chunks of it away), but I know just what I need to do to remedy that.

Guest Blogger Heads Up: Before I get to the recipe, one more thing. Thursday is the official Guest Blog Post Day for those of us participating in the blogathon. I'm swapping posts with Vera Marie Badertscher, who blogs at A Traveler's Library. Her post, on a cool-sounding Greek cookbook and cookbook author, will be here, and my post, on Delhi and William Dalrymple's City of Djinns, will be over there. I suggest, of course, that you read both!

And without further ado . . .

Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger
(from Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, *
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I used half all purpose and half white whole wheat flour, and it turned out really well.)
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups mashed banana (from 3-4 medium-sized bananas)
1/4 cup whole milk plain yogurt (I used homemade, and, of course, it was especially wonderful.)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a standard-sized loaf pan.

*In the book, Molly points out that you can melt the butter by putting it in an ovenproof bowl in the preheating oven. I think this is a stroke of genius, as I have had butter explode all over the inside of the microwave more times than I can count. This time, I put the butter in a little stainless steel bowl, kept an eye on it, and took it out perfectly melted with no explosions.)

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the chocolate chips and ginger, mix well to combine.

In a medium bowl, add the lightly beaten eggs, mashed banana, yogurt, melted butter, and vanilla and stir to mix well. Pour wet ingredients into flour mixture and gently fold in with a rubber spatula until just combined. Do not overmix. The batter will be thick and lumpy. Pour into prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake until the loaf is a deep shade of golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, at least 50 minutes. (Mine took 60-65 minutes both times I made it.) If the top seems to be browning too quickly, tent with aluminum foil. Cool the loaf in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Then let cool completely on rack, though if you can't stand to wait anymore, you can try it immediately.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Meatless Mondays: Green Garlic and Chive Souffle

In all the years I've been cooking (that would be somewhere around 23 or 24), I'd never made a souffle before last night. I'm not sure what took me so long. It's not that I was actively scared of souffles or anything. They just seemed like the kind of thing that other people made.

Now, that's going to change. Because last night I made a souffle that convinced me that I too am a person who can make souffles. It's very satisfying. Because it's green garlic season, and because I have a nice supply of chives in my garden at home, I decided to try Melissa Clark's recipe for a souffle using both of them. (When I moved into the house, there was an herb garden partly established here, but over the years, I've been ripping it out. It's not that I'm opposed to herbs by any means. But what was here didn't really feel like a functional herb garden that I would use--all that Greek oregano and creeping thyme and some dying sage. The chives are the exception to this. I was delighted to find them here, and they're the only perennial herb I reliably use. I'm planning to get a bay plant, though--somehow, I like the idea of fresh bay leaves. (And I'm going to try to resist naming it Jason, even if the Red Sox left fielder (Jason Bay, of course) keeps hitting up a storm as he's been doing this season.) )

Anyway, I'm pleased to report that this souffle behaved exactly as it was supposed to. The bechamel thickened on schedule, and the egg whites obediently rose into peaks. I had no Gruyere in the house so used Manchego instead, and that was very tasty. (I always poke around in the leftover-ends-of-cheese bin at Whole Foods (they have a nicer name for it) because I like to buy little chunks of different kinds of cheeses I might not fork out a lot of money for otherwise. If I didn't do this, I would mostly just have extra sharp cheddar and parmesan in the house, so it's nice to have some options.) And even though Alex closed the door rather heavily when he came in, which made me immediately run to the oven and turn on the light to see if the souffle had fallen, it puffed up and turned brown as promised. (And then started slumping almost immediately afterwards, but I've heard that 's just the way it is with souffles, and I didn't take it personally.) The garlicky flavor is mellow--present, but not overwhelming--and the whole thing was just very tasty. Slightly time consuming compared to, say, a frittata, but worth it.

A note about the serving size. Melissa Clark says this will give you six servings. This might be true if you're having the souffle as part of a (much) larger meal. In Alex's words, "Well, if you also had a big pile of mashed potatoes and a cheeseburger, it might serve 6." If you're only planning to eat the souffle with some toast or a salad (or even both), plan on it feeding 2-3 fairly hungry people. Seeing the 6 servings thing, I'd contemplated halving the recipe, so I was very glad I made the whole thing. And I'm even more glad that there's one remaining square for me to eat for lunch. (Alex started picking at it when we were done, and I took it away from him and gave him the container of rhubarb-ginger jam/compote instead.)

And now that I have one souffle under my (metaphorical) belt, I'm already thinking about what the next one might be--lemon? corn? chocolate--and wondering if a souffle pan should be my next kitchen purchase.

Green Garlic and Chive Soufflé With Gruyère

From Melissa Clark's "A Good Appetite" column in the New York Times, June 2008

Time: 50 minutes

5 tablespoons butter, more for pan (I used 4 tablespoons and couldn't tell the difference--I might cut this down a bit further next time.)

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan

2 fat bulbs green garlic, root and green parts trimmed, outer layer removed

1/4 cup flour

2 cups milk (I used 1%, and it was fine.)

2 sprigs thyme

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt plus a pinch

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

4 egg yolks and 6 egg whites

2/3 cup grated Gruyère (or other similar hard cheese)

1/4 cup chopped chives.

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 2-quart gratin dish and sprinkle bottom and sides with Parmesan. Using a sharp knife or food processor, mince garlic.

2. Melt butter in a saucepan and let cook for 1 minute. Add flour and cook, whisking, until mixture is pale golden, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the milk and thyme sprigs, and continue to cook, whisking constantly, until mixture is thick and smooth, about 2 minutes longer.

3. Turn off heat and whisk in salt, pepper and nutmeg. Transfer to a large bowl and whisk in egg yolks, one at a time. Whisk in minced garlic, cheese and chives.

4. In a mixer, whip egg whites with a pinch of salt until they hold soft peaks. Using a spatula, fold a third of the whites into yolk mixture to lighten it, then fold in remaining whites, taking care not to overmix. As you fold, pluck out and discard thyme sprigs.

5. Spread mixture in prepared pan and smooth top. Bake until golden brown and puffed, 20 to 25 minutes.

Yield: 6 servings. (See above.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Risotto for a Spring Sunday

One of my very favorite things about Readerville is the food thread. It's not just the always entertaining (and often annual) discussions about things like the best way to hard boil eggs and the To Brine or Not to Brine controversy. Over the years, I've discovered fabulous recipes I wouldn't have known about otherwise, even in this era of Epicurious and thousands of food blogs. (I'm thinking particularly of Karen Templer's pumpkin bars, but there are many others, including Lisa's fabulous oatmeal cookies.)

This particular recipe that I'm going to write about now was actually in the May 2009 issue of Gourmet, which has been sitting in a pile of magazines and papers in my kitchen since it arrived in mid-April. I'm behind on the New Yorker and behind on various Sunday New York Times sections, and I'm definitey behind on Gourmet (which I like but tend to read somewhat erratically). So, if it hadn't been for someone linking the recipe on Readerville, I wouldn't have discovered it til well after asparagus season was over. (What I love is that one person links it and then a whole bunch of people all over the country make it for dinner that night, and the world feels like a much smaller and friendlier place for a little while.)

The first time I made this, there was only one comment up at Epicurious. The second time, there were nearly 20. None were of the "I used brown rice instead of Arborio and Brussel sprouts instead of asparagus and texturized vegetable protein instead of shrimp, and I don't understand why it didn't turn out the way the recipe said it would," but several did say that they thought it was too bland and/or that they used a lot more asparagus and shrimp than the recipe called for.

This was one case where I thought the original recipe really worked pretty well. The first time I made it, I used leftover stock from asparagus soup, and the second time I made it, I used leftover stock from the spinach and green garlic soup, so there was no lack of flavor from that quarter. And I thought the amounts of asparagus and shrimp were just about right. I may have used a bit more than the recipe called for, but not a lot, and I thought there was plenty of asparagus and shrimp both. (The first time, I used frozen shrimp--all I could find in the closest store--and the second time I used fresh shrimp--it was fine both ways.) The first time I made it, I used the zest of two lemons because it didn't taste lemony enough initially, while the second time, one was enough. (I never bother to measure out lemon zest exactly unless it seems vital for some reason, and that wasn't the case here.) And I used an ice bath for the asparagus for the first time and discovered that it does indeed keep its color that way.

The thing with the risotto, of course, is that there's a lot of stirring involved. I listened to an audio book on my iPod, which helped. Here's the risotto in the early stages:

And then towards the end:

Even though risotto loses its texture when it sits overnight in the fridge , this was still good as leftovers. I ate it just heated up and I made it into risotto cakes as well. The first time, I just fried little patties of risotto in a bit of butter--it was very tasty but didn't hold together as cakes at all. The second time, I added a beaten egg to the leftover risotto and then dipped the cakes into panko, and they were much more cake-like--or, at least they didn't instantly fall apart.

The bottom line--definitely worth the stirring and definitely to be eaten during asparagus season, which, thanks to this cool spring, should go on for a little while longer.

Lemony Risotto with Asparagus and Shrimp

Adapted from Gourmet, May 2009

  • 3 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth (or vegetable stock or shrimp stock)
  • 2 cups water
  • 3/4 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 1/4 cups Arborio rice
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 3/4 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (the zest of one or two lemons)
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Bring broth and water to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Add asparagus and simmer, uncovered, until just tender, about 4 minutes. Transfer asparagus with a slotted spoon to an ice bath to stop cooking, then drain. Keep broth at a bare simmer, covered.

Cook onion in 2 tablespoons butter with 1/4 teaspoon salt in a 4-quart heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.

Add rice and cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute. Add wine and simmer, stirring constantly, until absorbed.

Stir in 1/2 cup broth mixture and briskly simmer, stirring frequently, until absorbed. Continue adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently and letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next, until rice is creamy and tender but still al dente (it should be the consistency of a thick soup), about 18 minutes. (There will be leftover broth mixture*.)

*(I had no leftover broth mixture either time.)

Stir in shrimp and cook until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir in asparagus, zest, remaining 2 tablespoons butter, parmesan, parsley, and pepper to taste. (Thin risotto with some of remaining broth if necessary.) (I skipped the butter here and didn't miss it.)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Garden Update

So, almost exactly 2 weeks ago, I wiggled the dead birch tree out, and that space, my new perennial bed, has been waiting for me to do something to it. I've been doing little things all along--I moved the lemon balm, for example, and I hacked away at more of the Greek oregano, though I still think there's too much there. And between yesterday and today, I bought perennials, some from the farmers market and some from Andrews Greenhouse in Amherst. (Andrews is a dangerous place to go during gardening season--they have a great selection, and their perennials are a bit pricey; so, you want to buy everything, but if you do, you'll have no money left.) I can't say I really planned it out in any kind of organized way, but I did think about colors (mostly pinks and blues) and heights and about what was already there and how things might fit in. This is how it looked a few weeks ago:

And this is how it looks now:

Five perennials went in today--2 different kinds of Campanula, a Coreopsis with pink flowers (I've never had one of those before), perennial Bachelor's Buttons and a Scabiosa (pincushion flower). You can sort of see them better here:

It's always funny to see a garden bed, especially one with flowers, in its early life, when everything is small and spaced so far apart. If I'm lucky, in a few years, it will have filled out. But some years things don't come back (my Platycodon--Balloon Flower--which I loved didn't come back this year, and so I had to put a new little one in its place), or you discover that they don't fit and need to be moved. It's always such a work-in-progress. (Or, sometimes, a work that can't progress. I bought some red bee balm as well, and I wanted to put it in next to the other bee balm, and when I started to dig, I learned that the reason that particular space is empty (and so seemed to need filling) is that there's an enormous slab of rock underneath. I wasn't up for uprooting everything in the vicinity, so I gave up pretty quickly and refilled the hole, but now I have to ponder where else the red bee balm might like to go.)

In other garden news, the False Indigo (knock wood) seems to like its new location. Last year, there was a single stalk, and this year there are three and even some flowers:

The lettuce, while tiny, is at least up:

The biggest of my three blueberry bushes is covered with blossoms; I'm still a few years away from being able to harvest any blueberries, but this gives me hope that someday I will:

You can see in the background to the right where a very large branch of my neighbor's tree fell during the winter. This is the problem with living on the edge of woods . . .

And in good community garden news, Alex spent a chunk of the afternoon over there turning over the second side, facing corn poppies and mint alike. I am very grateful (though he did suggest that I was going to wait to go back over there til he was done and then start planting things without consulting him. How he can think I might do such a thing, I can't imagine).

The one area where progress is less than stellar is in the asparagus realm. Last fall, the lovely Tibetan dug an asparagus bed for me where there had been lawn. Here's how it looked at the time:

The thing with asparagus, though, is that you have to dig trenches to put the asparagus in, trenches at least a foot deep and preferably 18 inches. I'm just a bit behind where I'd hoped to be by now . . .

I was even tempted to call him back and see if he could dig the trenches for me, but then I reminded myself that I did it myself a few years ago, so I can do it myself now. (And, realistically, I'm not going to be able to go down 18 inches, so I think a foot will have to do, and then I'll build the bed up from the top if I need to.) Hopefully, by the time I go back to work on Tuesday, the asparagus will be in. We'll see if I can swing it.

And that ends this week's garden update . . . There's supposed to be rain tonight, which is good for everything I just put in. And I am pleased with myself for managing to write this before 11 p.m. Now I can go putter some more in the garden without blogathon anxiety.

Happy Saturday.