Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May showers bring June flowers

So, I was all set to do another wrap up post like last year's "Thoughts on 31 days of blogging," but here it is, 10:22 p.m. on 5/31, and any further thoughts I have on 31 days of blogging are not particularly coherent. Though this moment does, in fact, feel emblematic of the whole blogathon. You can have a plan, but sometimes other things get in the way, and then you need an alternative. And if you're a person who told yourself that you were going to finish the goddamn blogathon whether you liked it or not, then you're going to finish it however you can, even if you have to limp a bit across the finish line.

I don't know if I learned anything new, really, having done this 3 times now. I still know that I would have trouble keeping up with daily blogging for more than a month. But I also know that I really do like blogging, and it gives me impetus to continue. The one bit of advice I have for future blogathoners is to plan, plan, plan, and when you think you've planned ahead enough, plan some more. I felt pretty good through week two, and then I looked at my list of ideas for posts and I'd used most of them already, and the second half of the month started looking really, really long.

Thankfully, just when I was in need of a last post to get me safely into June, my flowers cooperated. I woke up this morning to discover that my oriental poppy (which, for reasons I don't understand, I seem to have planted right next to the compost pile) went from having one bloom to eight, overnight.

And while the clematis does not quite have a grasp on actually growing up the broken ladder as it's supposed to, it does seem to have mastered producing flowers for the first time, so that's something.

And with that, I wish everyone a happy June! Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Wordle

It's always fun to do a blogathon wordle. The past two years, I've done them on my own. This year, it's a sanctioned blogathon theme day! My only problem with wordles is that I find it difficult to do just one of them.

I couldn't decide which one I liked better, so I did both. What's interesting is that the wordle only seems to capture words from the past few days of blogging. Surely if I'd done this earlier, there would have been ample mentions of both rhubarb and cake, not to mention chickens. Instead, I have a Delhi metro/rickshaw-centric wordle, which is interesting in its own way.

Take two:
Click on them for the full effect. And then try a wordle of your own! The Wordle site has all the info on how to do it and all the options (there are many!).

On this Monday holiday, I have some vegetables to plant and a 9th birthday party to attend. I'll be back tomorrow with some final thoughts on this month of blogging, that is, amazingly, just about over.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

False Indigo in bloom

Just in time for the end of May and the end of the blogathon, the false indigo has bloomed. (I wrote about the false indigo first here in 2008, updated it here in 2009 and triumphantly reported its first real blooms here last year.)

Given its current state of bloom, I think I can safely say that the false indigo is here to stay:

In 2009, the year after I planted it:

In May, 2010:

May 29, 2011:

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saturday Photo: Lal Mohammed, Jaipur

After my Delhi Metro post the other day and the expression of relief that I didn't have to deal with rickshaw wallahs so much anymore, I realized that I was maybe being a little bit unfair. Every once in a while, a positive rickshaw experience occurs, and occasionally, it even gets documented.

The man in the above photo is a Jaipur rickshaw wallah named Lal Mohammed. Here is how I ended up taking his photo.

In January, 2006, I was in Jaipur, where I lived for a year in 1999-2000, to see some friends and revisit old haunts. (And, yes, to shop at the huge Anokhi store there.) Because rickshaws in Jaipur have no meters and always require haggling, I did a lot of walking. But one place I couldn't walk was to Jaimala's house. When I had lived in Jaipur, Jaimala and her mother and sister Mala had lived in the servants' quarters behind Sunil's house, where I was living. But in the years since, they had saved enough money to first buy a plot of land and then to build their own house. Two years earlier, I'd gone out with Sunil to see them and their house, which had just been completed weeks earlier. They had since added more rooms, and Jaimala invited me for lunch on my last afternoon in Jaipur.

But how to get there? The house was on the edge of Jaipur in what was becoming a new development. I had never taken the bus in Jaipur so had no idea where to start. I couldn't go home on the bus with Jaimala because it would be Sunday, and she would already be home. Jaimala and I sat in front of Sunil's house, where she still worked for his tenant, and pondered the dilemma for awhile. Until Jaimala beamed at me, and said in Hindi, "I know, Sue-didi--Lal Mohammed can bring you." "Who is Lal Mohammed," I asked, reasonably. "A rickshaw-wallah," she said, going on to say that Lal Mohammed had brought them home on occasion and knew where they lived. "But how will we find Lal Mohammed?" I asked. I thought of all the rickshaw wallahs in Jaipur and wondered how he might be found. Jaimala looked at me as if I were dim. "I have his mobile number," she said. "We'll phone him."

Now, this would seem very logical to me--it's very clear to me how much life in India is now entirely dependent on a massive number of people having mobiles. But then, I hadn't quite grasped it yet.

Jaimala called Lal Mohammed on his mobile. It turned out that he wasn't far away, so he came over in his rickshaw, and we made the arrangements. And so, two days later, I myself called Lal Mohammed's mobile phone and told him I was ready. He came to my hotel and picked me up. We drove out to Jaimala's new house together. And while Jaimala and Mala and their mother and I gossiped and ate and caught up, Lal Mohammed also ate a plate of Jaimala's excellent curry-chawal. While Jaimala and Mala and I wandered through the nearby fields, chatting with women picking peas, looking at houses in early states of construction, Lal Mohammed watched cricket on TV.

Afterwards, we all drank tea. Jaimala and Mala wanted photos of themselves in front of their house, so I took several (one is below). Mala asked if I would take one of Lal Mohammed as well, and so I did. (That's Mala and Dolly, the dog, on the right.)

Lal Mohammed got me to the train station in plenty of time, and I paid him the sum we'd agreed on. (I can no longer remember what it was, but it was not exorbitant in any way.) He bid me farewell, and I went into the station to catch my train back to Delhi.

I haven't been back to Jaipur since, but I like to think that Lal Mohammed is still driving his rickshaw and that if I needed to, I could call him on his mobile, and he could take me where I needed to go with a minimum of fuss.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Link Love

The Lyall Links:

I've been a fan of New York Times London correspondent Sarah Lyall for a long time. Her recent piece, about President Obama's visit to London this week, was as entertaining as ever. (Her piece about the royal wedding was also excellent.)

I can actually remember the piece that made me take notice of Lyall way back in 1998. It was this obituary of Sir Anthony Glyn, an author known for "spirit and diversity." It was the first time I'd been so entertained by an obit, and it led to my increasing interest in reading obituaries, especially those written by that master, the sadly departed Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. (Although he is gone, his best efforts were collected into an edition, 52 McGs.)

The Carrington Links:

This week's most fascinating obituary was that of Leonora Carrington, British surrealist painter, sculptor and writer who lived much of her long life in Mexico. Thanks to Gina Hyams for linking the extensive Guardian obit, which includes many great details, including that during WWII, Carrington's family sent her nanny to Spain in a submarine to fetch her home! There was a New York Times obit today that was also interesting though not as comprehensive (and not written by a cousin of Carrington's, as the Guardian obit is). The image above is one of Carrington's.

The Grammatical Link:

As one who is perhaps a bit too over-fond of em dashes, I had to appreciate this screed against their overuse in Slate earlier this week. I have to admit, though, that the writer's attempt to use em dashes at every opportunity to prove her point reminded me of when I was in high school. In a protest against what we considered William Faulkner's excessively long sentences, we all attempted to answer our exam essay question on Intruder in the Dust in a single sentence. It's been a long time since that happened, but I suspect we used a few too many em dashes then, along with more semi-colons than any of us have probably used in anything since!

And on that note, Happy Long Weekend!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Delhi Metro Love Updated

I've written about my love for the Delhi Metro before, in May of both 2009 and 2010, and I saw no reason not to do the same in 2011. Prior to my most recent trip to India, my love for the Delhi Metro was limited to the trips I was able to take between a few stops in central Delhi and up to the railway station. I still spent much of my time in rickshaws and taxis and occasionally buses. Being able to get around Delhi almost entirely by Metro was a fervent wish rather than a reality.

Thanks to the Commonwealth Games, though, Phase II of the Delhi Metro was complete before my arrival in January 2011, and in the 11 days I spent in Delhi, I spent A LOT of time on the Metro. My love, if anything, is even greater than it was before. I claimed--after my 50 minute, 23 rupee ($.50) ride between Gurgaon and the railway station--that if one could marry a public transit system, I'd consider it with the Delhi Metro.

The key numbers in all of this are 3 and 500. Three is the number of rickshaws I took in those 11 days in Delhi. Prior to this, I often took more than 3 rickshaws in a single day. 500 is how many rupees I put on my Metro card; when I left, there were 100 rupees remaining.

Riding the Metro was, above all, predictable. There's not much in India that I can say that about, but with the Metro, it was calmly, reassuringly, predictable. You walked down the stairs into the station. You put your bag through the scanner and let the security person run a wand over you. You followed the well-marked hallways to your platform. You looked at the electronic signs which accurately told you when the next train was coming. And then the train came when it was supposed to. Yes, of course, there was some jostling while entering the cars, especially at rush hour and at the bigger stations. But again and again, that was my experience. Amazing. The stations can be full and bustling, but they can also be empty. There's no place to sit, and security guards are visible everywhere. Even if you were inclined to either misbehave or try to camp out, you wouldn't get very far.

And then there are the ladies cars.

The first car of every train is reserved for women. Very, very occasionally I would see a man or two in the ladies compartment. Much more often, I would see men, upon realizing where they were, either leaving speedily of their own volition or being encouraged volubly to leave by the many women around them. I do understand that the ladies compartment is of less use to couples, families, and, of course, men, but for me, it was a godsend. It was usually much, much less crowded than the rest of the train, for one thing. It was crowded at rush hour, of course, and I had to stand with some regularity, but I never saw it packed to the sardine levels of the rest of the cars. It's not that I didn't see the occasional lady misbehave in the ladies compartment--there was certainly some aggressive rushing to seats and unfair saving of seats--but for the most part, it was pretty calm.

An added bonus--the people watching was great! Cameras are forbidden in the metro, and the main reason I wished I'd had a camera on my Indian cell phone was so that I could have taken some photos of the fascinating outfits I saw. The metro seemed populated by people from all strata of society. There were college students talking on the mobiles ("Mummy, can you send the driver to the Green Park station--I'm on the Metro and will be there in 10 minutes."), working women, women with children, women with bundles, women in jeans, women in saris, women in all manner of sandals, many of them wearing flesh colored toe socks beneath. (It was winter, after all.) I realized, in the Metro, that I'm not used to seeing Indian women's legs--because they're usually covered either by a sari or a kameez--but in the Metro, I saw legs, mostly jean-clad legs, every day. There were women reading and napping and many, many women talking on or looking at their mobiles. I myself read several books while on the Metro, though I never napped.

The unexpected part of taking the Metro so much was how much I walked. On the one hand, there was a Metro line that went to all of the places I go most, so I could hop on and off with ease. On the other, when I traveled farther afield--and even when I was just going back and forth from market to station--I had to walk. Once it was clear I could (mostly) get away without taking rickshaws, I didn't want to take them at all. If the choice was between haggling with yet another rickshaw-wallah or walking, I walked. One day, to my amazement, I discovered (thanks to my iPod pedometer) that I had walked 24,000 steps. No wonder my feet were so sore!

But the Metro's presence in South Delhi has led to new possibilities. At some stations, including Green Park, there is a fleet of cool battery-powered rickshaws which run between the station and nearby markets for a fixed price (15 rupees in Green Park). Plus, the drivers all wear nifty Vodafone caps.

Two brief notes on rickshaws. Sunil called me one day, very excited. He had seen a "Radio Tuk Tuk" driving by his house. In Delhi and Gurgaon, radio cabs are common. But a radio rickshaw? A totally new thing.
I only rode in a radio tuk tuk once, on my last day in Delhi, and I didn't, alas, call it ahead of time. It just happened to be going by when I was looking for a rickshaw to the station, and even though the driver was slightly hesitant about going against the rules by taking a passenger without a reservation, he eventually agreed and asked me for the same price to the Metro station I'd been hearing from regular, non-radio rickshaws (and then asked for baksheesh when we got there). But while I was in that radio tuk-tuk, en route to the metro for my last day of metroing and walking around Delhi, I spotted a rickshaw with a pink roof and lettering that matched the signs in the Metro. "Women Only," it said.

The Metro has brought more changes to Delhi than I can name, but that, certainly, is one of the more memorable ones.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rhubarb Ginger "Downside Up" Oatmeal Cake

Much to my surprise, I discovered that in today's "Good Appetite" column, Melissa Clark writes about rhubarb upside-down cake. There must be rhubarb upside-down cake vibes going around in the universe because I made a similar cake just yesterday. I'd certainly think about making Melissa's cake at some point, but that will have to happen later. First, I want to make yesterday's cake again, if only so I can have a bigger piece of it. I brought it to a work gathering and looked on a little bit sadly as wedge after wedge was eaten by my colleagues, including the ones who proclaimed not to like rhubarb. I was selfless enough to take one piece home for Alex, but I left the rest there, and when I came in this morning, it was all gone. Sigh.

I have Food 52 to blame (or, really, credit) for this one as well. When I did a search for rhubarb, the first recipe that came up was the one for rhubarb curd (shortbread). The second was for rhubarb ginger downside up oatmeal cake. I was intrigued. I clicked. I baked.

I've never made a cake quite like this before. First, I don't think I've ever made an upside down cake. And I've never made one in a cast iron frying pan. I may have made a cake with oatmeal in it at some point, but the details are fuzzy. But, having done this once, I would do it again without hesitation. This is really an excellent cake.

First, you melt some butter in a cast iron (or other ovenproof) frying pan:

Once the butter is melted, you take it off the flame and spread a cup of brown sugar across the bottom:
On top of that goes a layer of rhubarb mixed with grated fresh ginger:

And on top of that goes the cake batter:

The cake batter process was interesting in and of itself. You mix rolled oats with boiling water and butter. You mix the dry ingredients in another bowl. When the oatmeal mixture has cooled, you add an egg, some vanilla and more sugar, and then mix in the dry ingredients.

The cake one way:

And the other:

There is little I would do differently. I might think about replacing the fresh ginger with crystallized ginger (or maybe not). I did replace 1/4 cup of all purpose with whole wheat pastry flour. But there's not much else to change. The slight taste of oatmeal is lovely with the rhubarb, reminiscent of a crumble. The cake was moist and flavorful, with a little zing from the ginger, some tart from the rhubarb, mellowed out by the oatmeal and the sweet cake. It really was just all around delicious. My only regret was that I hadn't brought some vanilla ice cream to eat with it. No, I take that back. My only real regret was that I didn't get a bigger piece. I'm not sure I could give it higher praise.

Rhubarb Ginger Downside-Up Cake
from thirshfeld at Food 52

For the rhubarb::
  • 2 1/4 cups fresh rhubarb, 1/2 inch slices
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
For the oatmeal cake:
  • 1/2 cup thick cut rolled oats
  • 3/4 cups boiling water
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, 1/4 inch cubes
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  1. In a mixing bowl combine the oats with the boiling water. Add the1/4 cup of butter. Set aside to cool.

  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Gently melt the butter in a 10 inch cast iron skillet. Remove it from the heat. Spread the brown sugar evenly across the bottom. In a large bowl mix the ginger and rhubarb. Spread the rhubarb evenly across the brown sugar. Set aside.

  3. In the empty rhubarb bowl combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

  4. To the cooled oatmeal add the egg, both sugars, and vanilla. Mix to combine. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until combined.

  5. Spread the cake batter evenly across the top of the rhubarb. Place into the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes.

  6. Remove from the oven when done and let cool for 5 minutes before inverting onto a cake plate. Let cool for 20 minutes before slicing.
8-10 slices

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Spinach Revelation, and a Failed Experiment

I usually take advantage of my Mondays at home to cook for at least part of the week. Yesterday, however, I got sidetracked. First, I made granola. Then, I made cake (more about that another day). While I was making the cake, I was also making my first batch of rhubarb ginger jam. In the midst of all that, I ran errands, did some work, gardened in the drizzle, did laundry (including the caked-with-dirt-from-gardening-in-the-drizzle gardening clothes). Somehow, I forgot to make dinner. I had the fixings for a nice salad, but it was chilly and damp, not really salad weather.

What I did have, I realized as the afternoon edged toward evening, was a lot of spinach. A pound and a half, to be precise. I thought about spinach and green garlic soup; I thought about my tried and true spinach soup, but I wasn't in a soup mood. And then I remembered that Deb at Smitten Kitchen had written a few months ago about baked spinach, which she called, in fact, the "best baked spinach," and that seemed like just the ticket. The full recipe called for 3 pounds of spinach, and I only had half of that, but I figured the recipe was easy enough to halve, which I did. I'm going to send you over to Deb's post for the instructions. Suffice it to say that the spinach is, in fact, delicious. Also easy, though there are several steps (which makes sense, since the recipe is one she pieced together from several Julia Child recipes.) Once the spinach is wilted, you saute it in a bit of butter.

After it's dried out, you add a bit of flour, and once that's absorbed, some stock or cream, depending on how decadent you're feeling. (I used 1/2 asparagus stock and 1/2 1/2 and 1/2.) (I couldn't resist writing it that way.) Then you mix with some cheese, put it in a baking dish and top it with some breadcrumbs and more cheese, and you're done.

I didn't have any baked spinach to compare this too, but it was delicious, and I will absolutely make it again, this time, a full recipe. And I might not even share.

But then we come to the failed experiment.

One of Deb's suggestions was to use the spinach as a bed for a poached egg. This seemed like a fine idea to me except that I can't really make poached eggs. Alex, on the other hand, is a poached egg master, so I just cede the making of poached eggs to him. Last night, however, he wasn't there, and I was on my own if I wanted a poached egg. I thought about just making a soft-boiled egg instead, but then I remembered recently having read something about making poached eggs in the microwave and I decided to give it a try. I found what I had read--a short piece in Bon Appetit. Unfortunately, I began my experiment after I'd read the piece but before I read the comments, which suggested that it might be more complicated than it appeared on the surface. The Bon Appetit method involved putting the egg in water in a cup, covering with a saucer, and cooking on high heat for 1 minute, and voila-- a perfect poached egg was supposed to appear.

My microwave is ancient, however, and nothing cooks in one minute. My general calculation is that something that takes 1 minute in a newer microwave takes at least 3 minutes in mine. As a compromise, I set the timer for 2 minutes. But when the buzzer went off and I checked, the egg was only partly poached. I put the saucer back on and turned it on for 2 more minutes. About a minute in, there was a crash loud enough to send the cats scurrying to the basement in fear. When I opened the door, thankfully I didn't find a smashed dish and egg everywhere. I did, however, find the saucer catapulted to the side, along with some water and a bit of egg. What was left of the egg was closer to hard boiled than soft-boiled. It was rather sad looking, in fact.

Only then did I think to look at the comments, both of which said there were too many variables, and it hadn't worked. I had to agree with them.

Still, all was not lost. A piece of Hungry Ghost eight grain bread, topped with half the spinach, topped with the remains of the egg, turned out to be a delicious dinner.

Two lessons learned: The spinach is a winner.

And, at least for the moment, I will leave the poached eggs to Alex.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Meatless Monday: Vegetarian Tortilla Pie

It began with the tortillas. One of my colleagues picked up a packet of corn tortillas from a local Mexican restaurant at lunch one day and brought them back to the office. The package was hefty, so she offered me some, which I took home, put in the fridge and half forgot about. But one day, a week or so later, I was thinking about what to make for dinner, and I remembered the tortillas. I had a yen for some sort of tortilla pie or casserole, with vegetables and beans and cheese, something warm and comforting, hearty and wholesome. I looked up recipes and found all manner of variations--with meat, without meat, with tomato sauce, with large quantities of salsa, etc.-- but I didn't find exactly what I was looking for.

No matter. This is the kind of dish where improvisation works fine. After all, how wrong can you go with tortillas, vegetables, beans and cheese? On one burner of the stove, I set to sauteing some onions and garlic, to which I added 2 cans of black beans and a package of frozen corn. On the next burner, I sauteed some spinach with a bit of garlic.

Then, I made what turned out to be a crucial decision. I had a little can of chipotle chilies in adobo sauce in the house. I pureed these and added a teaspoon to the bean/corn/onion mixture, which gave it a kick without excessive heat. (This meant I didn't have to dump in a whole jar of salsa later to avoid blandness.) Once everything was cooked, I began to layer. On the bottom of the dish went a layer of tortillas (3 or 4), overlapping. I covered these with half of the bean/corn mixture. Then I added about half of the spinach. Grated cheddar followed, along with dabs of salsa.

Another layer of tortillas followed, and then the beans and corn, spinach, cheese and salsa. You could add more salsa, tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes, if you wanted the mixture to be wetter. You could put other vegetables in with the beans and corn. I'm still wondering why I didn't think to add red peppers. You can skip the spinach, if that's not your thing, but it's an easy and delicious way to get some greens in painlessly (if you (or your children) are looking for painless ways to greens consumption). Don't skimp on the cheese, which is a mistake I made the second time I made this. (It was still good, but not quite as delicious as the first time.) Finally, add one more layer of tortillas across the top, and grate more cheese to finish it off.

These top tortillas will crisp up when you bake it, and they will add some nice crunch to the dish.

This is not the loveliest or most photogenic dish, admittedly. But it's filling and tasty and very easy to make. I recommend eating it with cubes of avocado and a bit of sour cream.

Not long ago, I went to the Mexican restaurant and bought my own hefty packet of Cinco de Mayo corn tortillas ($1.75 for at least 30 tortillas that are much more substantial than supermarket tortillas). With the weather seeming to have forgotten that it's actually late May, I suspect there will still be at least a few opportunities to use them!

Vegetarian Tortilla Pie

10-12 small corn tortillas, Cinco de Mayo or other quality brand if possible
olive oil for sauteeing
2 onions, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans black beans (or 1 cup dried beans, soaked and cooked)
10 oz. frozen corn (or corn from 3-4 ears, if in season)
1 tsp. pureed chipotle chilies
1 10 oz. bag of spinach leaves, washed
4-6 oz. sharp or extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
salsa to taste
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375

Saute the onions and 2 cloves of garlic in 1 tbsp. olive oil until the onions are soft but not brown. Add the black beans and corn. When mixture is warm, stir in the pureed chipotle chili, making sure that it's spread out through the mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In a separate skillet, heat another teaspoon of olive oil and saute the third clove of garlic, briefly. Add the washed spinach and saute until spinach is wilted. Put into a colander and press to squeeze out any extra water. Chop finely.

In a casserole dish (I used an 8.5" x 12" Emile Henry lasagna pan), put a layer of tortillas across the bottom. It's fine if they overlap. Layer on half of the bean/corn mixture and half of the spinach. Add salsa to taste. Sprinkle not quite half of the cheese over the top. Repeat with another layer of tortillas, beans/corn, spinach, salsa and cheese. Top with a final layer of tortillas with the remaining cheese sprinkled on top.

Bake in 375 oven for approximately 20 minutes. Serve with chopped avocado, sour cream, more salsa, and any other garnish you wish.

Serves 4-6

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Coconut Macaroons

If you find yourself making things like rhubarb curd or the kind of ice cream that calls for custard, you will find yourself in possession of extra egg whites. Not that you were thinking of tossing them, but if that thought has ever crossed your mind, banish it immediately. Even if you are not the type to eat egg white omelets (as I am definitely not), there are many ways to use those egg whites. Put them in a little container, and if you fear that you will not use them up quickly, freeze them, with a note of how many there are.

David Lebovitz, the pastry chef, writer, blogger and author of that fabulous ice cream book, The Perfect Scoop, knows about the extra egg yolk conundrum. And on his site, he has a page called "Recipes to use up leftover egg whites." There are 15 recipes on that page, and I suspect all are wonderful, but I haven't been able to get past the first one I made--coconut macaroons. They are easy to make, delicious and addictive.

Lebovitz's original recipe calls for the macaroons to be dipped in chocolate. I am usually all for dipping things in chocolate. If there is a choice between chocolate and no chocolate, I almost always choose chocolate. However, in this case, I'm not so sure. The first time I made these, I brought them to a work gathering. Half were dipped in chocolate and the other half plain. To my surprise (because I have many chocolate loving colleagues), more people preferred the plain ones to the chocolate ones. The chocolate was distracting, almost, from the lovely coconut flavor. I've included his instructions for the chocolate dipping, but if you don't have the time or inclination (or are, heaven forfend, someone who doesn't like chocolate) know that these are fabulous just as they are.

The process is quick and easy. Basically, you dump all of the ingredients in a skillet and heat it up. Lebovitz says to cook until it begins to scorch, and I found that a little bit alarming the first time I made them, but it's pretty clear when they're done cooking. The ingredients are a sticky mass, and your kitchen will smell delightfully of coconut. At that point, once the batter is cool, you can refrigerate or freeze it to use at a later time. Otherwise, you put the batter onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat and bake.

Mine were in for exactly 18 minutes, but I didn't check on them, as I probably should have as they are a bit over brown. Still, they are chewy and coconuty and delicious, and if there is a better way to use leftover egg whites, it might be a while before I find out!

Note: This recipe calls for 1/4 cup flour. Though I am not a Passover expert, I would assume that if you replaced the flour with matzoh meal, they could be a wonderful and welcome Passover treat. (These will chase the memories of macaroons from a can out of your mind posthaste.)

Coconut Macaroons (with optional chocolate)
Adapted from David Lebovitz

4 large egg whites
1¼ cups sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon honey
2½ cups unsweetened coconut
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

In a large skillet, mix together the egg whites, sugar, salt, honey, coconut and flour.

Heat over low-to-moderate heat on the stovetop, stirring constantly, scraping the bottom as you stir.

When the mixture just begins to scorch at the bottom, remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Transfer to a bowl to cool to room temperature.

(At this point, the mixture can be chilled for up to one week, or frozen for up to two months.)

When ready to bake, line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone baking mat and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Form the dough into 1 1/2-inch mounds with your fingers evenly spaced on the baking sheet. Bake for 18-20 minutes, until deep golden brown. Cool completely.

To dip the macaroons in chocolate, melt the chocolate in a clean, dry bowl set over a pan of simmering water (or in a microwave.) Line a baking sheet with plastic wrap. Dip the bottoms of each cookie in the chocolate and set the cookies on the baking sheet. Refrigerate 5-10 minutes, until the chocolate is set.

Approx. 30 cookies

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Greedy Gardener

Because I bought blueberries and basil at the Tuesday Market in late April;

And because then I bought leeks, onions, parsley, a hot pink echinacea and three $3 perennials -- a globe thistle, a Cupid's Dart and one I can no longer remember at the Saturday Market in early May;

And because then I stopped at the Hadley Garden Center and picked up another tub of strawberries to supplement my collection as well as a few more asparagus crowns to put where last year's asparagus didn't reappear;

And because at last week's farmers market, I felt compelled to buy another cat mint and more parsley;

And because John Bator, gardener extraordinaire, kindly agreed to buy me $10 worth of plants at the annual Pascommuck Conservation Trust plant sale (which, despite the fact that it happens about 5 minutes from my house, I knew I wouldn't get to early enough to get anything good, and since John was running the sale, he'd be there in any case);

And because John was especially generous and got me 4 plants for that $10--a gaillardia, a Veronica Spicata, an anise Hyssop and one other I can no longer remember;

In short, because of this case of garden greed I've shown over the past month, is it too much to ask for the sun to stay out long enough--or, at least for the rain to stop falling long enough-- for me to plant it all?

The aerial view:

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reclaiming a bed, again: Or, a new home for my lettuce

A few years ago (2 blogathons ago, to be precise), I wrote about trying to reclaim a bed in my backyard, one below a stone wall/rocky outcropping sort of place. The bed was filled perennial weeds, and I despaired of ever planting anything there.

Alex, however, had a solution, and he told me that if I put down several layers of cardboard or newspaper and put new topsoil on top of it. I could have my bed back. Well, for the past two years I've done just that. And on the one hand, it's meant that the bed was only partly, instead of entirely, filled with weeds. On the other, no flower I planted there ever did particularly well. It's cool and damp and on the shady side, and even part-shade annuals weren't very happy.

I was fretting over this and fretting at the memory of the neighbor's cat lying down on top of my newly planted greens last year (immortalized, for eternity, in haiku form) when I had one of those AHA moments. Flowers might not like the cool and shady and damp conditions in the stone wall bed, but lettuce certainly would. Why couldn't I put the lettuce and spinach and chard in a place that the greens would like but the cat might not? I considered the fact that I might just be a genius, and then I set to planting.

Admittedly, the cool wet weather of the past few weeks is the kind of weather lettuce likes. But still, fingers crossed, the experiment seems to be working! If I see the neighbor's cat near there, though, I may have to take that back.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rhubarb Roundup 2011

Every year, I do a rhubarb recipe roundup post. This year's was prompted by, as always, the sight of my massive rhubarb plant outside my kitchen window. Then, there was an email from my colleague Nancy Eckert, she of the chicken-drawing talent, that said "Rhubarb Curd just might be my most favorite food of the moment. It is heavenly." That got me thinking about other rhubarb delights I haven't tried yet (since my experience with rhubarb curd is only a few days old). And then, there was a message in my inbox this morning from Deb at Smitten Kitchen with news of her new post on Rhubarb Streusel Muffins. And I knew that the time had come to do a rhubarb roundup (as I have done in 2009 and 2010 both). I'm going to arrange the various recipes according to type, in an attempt to be useful to those who want to use rhubarb in a particular way in addition to those who just want to make a rhubarb-something and won't know til the right recipe appears. I will also indicate those I've actually made as opposed to those I've just drooled over longingly.

The Sauce-y

First, my first, best and favorite rhubarb recipe of longstanding, the astonishingly delicious (and very easy to make) Rhubarb-Ginger Jam.

I've also had my eye on this lovely rhubarb sauce from Tea and Cookies.

Molly at Orangette recommends this rhubarb with white wine and vanilla bean.

The Cake-y

I'm very tempted by this big-crumb coffee cake, originally from Melissa Clark's column in the NYT, written up by Deb at Smitten Kitchen.

I also have my eye on this homey-looking rhubarb cake. (This blogger made--and praised--Marion Cunningham's Fresh Ginger Cake, which is how I discovered the blog.)

There's also Darina Allen's Country Rhubarb Cake, first written about in the New York Times and then adapted by Luisa at The Wednesday Chef.

These are not exactly cake, but I wasn't sure where to put them. Knowing how good everything else from Good to the Grain has been, I'm even more eager to try these rustic rhubarb tarts.

The Crumble-y

Here we have Molly at Orangette's Rhubarb Crumble.

Not to be confused with Deb at Smitten Kitchen's Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble

This tasty rhubarb cobbler was originally from Smitten Kitchen, but I made and enjoyed it last year as well, and wrote about it in last year's Rhubarb Roundup

I also made Sweet Mary's rhubarb-oatmeal bars, also delicious.

The Fancy

I haven't yet embarked on any kind of fancier recipe involving rhubarb, but should the occasion present itself, I'd certainly think about one of these.

Rhubarb Meringue Tart, from Tamasin Day-Lewis by way of Orangette

Rhubarb and Ginger Brioche Bread Puddings
, also from Tamasin Day-Lewis by way of Epicurious

One of the beauties of the month of May is that good rhubarb recipes are as plentiful as the rain drops that will not stop falling on our heads. We may be in the midst of a stretch of gray skies and wet days, but at least there is a lot of rhubarb to eat until the sun comes out again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Good Wife goes on summer vacation: or, the pleasures of watching a single show

The Good Wife concluded its second season last night, and the accolades are rolling in. There have been laudatory sum ups in the New York Times and Salon, among other places.

I'm a bit sad about the end of the season. For the past few months, I've been watching The Good Wife faithfully on Tuesday nights, and I've been reacquainting myself with the pleasure of keeping track of a single television show. I've never been a heavy TV watcher, more out of circumstance than out of intent; for 6 years in my 20s, I had no TV (or was out of the country and also had no TV). When I came back from India in 1995, I ended up with a TV from my grandparents' house but didn't get cable so that I only had access to 2 clear channels and 1 fuzzy one, if I moved the TV into the spot with the best reception. It was only 5 years later, when Emily and Liam sublet my apartment for a year and they invested in $5 a month "reception cable" (which Em told me I had to keep!), that my TV access expanded.

For a few years, $5 was an amazing deal--30 some odd channels, including a number I wasn't paying for. In the years since, it's become less and less of a deal--now I pay $14 a month and basically only get the networks, plus C-Span and the Home Shopping Network--but I still find myself resistant to paying more for real cable because the reality is that I really only have the time and energy to keep track of one show in real time. (What I watch while on the treadmill or elliptical trainer is another story!) This is Emily's influence as well--back in 2000, she told me I needed a TV show and suggested that I start watching The West Wing, which I did, very obediently, until the last season got tedious and then it ended; then, Gilmore Girls was my one show until that ended as well. I tried Grey's Anatomy until it got too soapy and silly, and since then, I've been floundering around TV show-less until I found the Good Wife, early in its second season.

I watched the first season in a pleasurable marathon over Thanksgiving break, caught up with the first episodes of season 2 mostly via iTunes and then finally, when I returned from India at the end of January, started making sure I was home Tuesdays at 10 p.m. to watch it. I know this is old-fashioned. I know I should have a DVR or access to On-Demand (which, alas, you don't get with $14 cable). But I don't. And given that it's only one show, I like the routine, the catching up, the time set aside to do this one thing, once a week.

Admittedly, all of the meaningful TV I've watched over the past few years--The Wire, Six Feet Under, Slings and Arrows, even Sex and the City--I've watched on DVD, some in sips, some in gulps. And there are ways that I prefer that immersion. (I loved this Sam Anderson piece in Slate about watching the final season of Six Feet Under on DVD months after the show had ended on HBO. I too was like a hysterical Victorian woman while watching the series finale.) But I like the ritual of a once a week show, not to mention the knowing what's going on in real time. (I still remember getting an email from my brother saying how sad he was when Nate died on Six Feet Under--and it was several years before I started watching the show!) (Apologies if that was a spoiler, but given that SFU ended almost 6 years ago, I think it's okay.) It's kind of fun to be current on one thing, at least.

There are lots of smarter and savvier people writing about why The Good Wife works. I'll just say that it's well-written, well-acted, sometimes soapy, often funny, occasionally sad, occasionally suspenseful and almost always interesting. I love seeing so many characters from The Wire pop up in guest roles, and I love the rotating cast of judges and opposing lawyers (Martha Plimpton, Mamie Gummer, even Michael J. Fox). I love Alan Cummings, I love Archie Panjabi, I love Christine Baranski and her cowboy right wing boyfriend. I think Julianna Margulies does a great job in the center of it all.

And then there are the recaps. Honestly, one of the new pleasures of TV now is the recaps. I love the recaps. This is maybe also why I can only watch one show--who has time to watch TV and read all the recaps too? My favorite is probably Jada Yuan's recap at New York Magazine (without which I wouldn't know that Kalinda is referred to as "sexy boots of justice" by a large online community), but the LA Times does a good one as well, and then there are the recaps on the blogs, too many to name, though Alan Sepinwall's is a highlight and one I can't find at the moment which counts how many gasps the recapper had per episode. A person could spend a lot of time just reading recaps (not that I know anything about that . . . )

Anyway, if you haven't yet discovered the Good Wife, I'd definitely recommend a combination DVD/re-run/iTunes viewing to get through the first two seasons and keep yourself entertained this summer. But when fall rolls around, settle down on your couch at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights* and watch it in real time. It will be worth it.

*I am of mixed feelings about the new time slot as it goes up against whatever is on Masterpiece Theater on PBS. It's not that I watch much Masterpiece, but occasionally I do. And if The Good Wife were up against the new season of Downton Abbey, I don't know what I would do!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Marion Cunningham's Fresh Ginger Cake

This cake, I realized as I was making it on Sunday, carries on my tradition of making plain cakes, those delicious though not decadent and, sad to say, not particularly attractive cakes. (Plain cake number one on this blog was this Lemon Cornmeal Cake and plain cake number two was the Blueberry Buttermilk Cake.) Plain they may be, but I think of them as plain in a stalwart, upstanding kind of way. Just because they are plain does not mean they are not delicious.

This ginger cake is actually very similar to the Fresh Ginger Muffins that Molly posted about on Orangette a few months ago. The process is exactly the same--the cake has a bit more sugar than the muffins and is supposed to have cake flour in it, but otherwise, the ingredients are the same as well. And the process is also interesting in that Cunningham uses ginger in a way I've never used it before. You take chunks of ginger, skin and all, and whirl them around in a food processor or mini chopper until they are chopped to bits. Then, you add a bit of sugar and heat it on the stove until the sugar melts, leaving you with a sticky, lovely smelling mess, to which you add lemon zest. This is what gives the cake its lovely gingery-lemony flavor.

The wonderful thing that I realized is how excellent this cake--delicious enough on its own-- would be as a base for other things. Cunningham suggests serving it with sliced mango and whipped cream. (Yum.) I made it specifically to go with the Rhubarb Curd (Double Yum.) But I can also imagine a ginger-lemon blueberry cake, to name one. (Minus the ginger, this recipe is already quite similar to the blueberry buttermilk cake linked above.) Despite the plainness of this cake, it's moist and light and very flavorful. I can already see it becoming a regular in my repertoire! Meanwhile, it might be the slightest bit more photogenic if the rhubarb curd wasn't exactly the same color, but you can't have everything!

Fresh Ginger Cake

(adapted from Marion Cunningham's The Breakfast Book)

Makes two 8" cakes

1/4 cup ginger, unpeeled, cut into large chunks
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons lemon zest with a little white pith (I used the zest from 2 1/2 lemons.)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups cake flour (I used all-purpose)
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter the cake pans.

Cut the unpeeled ginger root into large chunks. Put the ginger into a food processor and process until it is in tiny pieces; alternatively, mince by hand. Put the ginger and ¼ cup sugar in a small skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar has melted and the mixture is warm (this takes only a minute or two). Set aside to cool. Zest the lemon and add it to the cooled ginger mixture. (Cunningham says to do this in a food processor; if you have a Microplane-type grater, there's no need.)

Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer (or, a mixing bowl, if you plan to use handheld beaters or mix by hand). Beat the butter for a second or two; slowly add the remaining 3/4 cup sugar, and beat until smooth. Add the eggs, and beat well. Stir in the buttermilk, and beat until blended. Add the flour, salt, and baking soda, and beat just until smooth. Add the ginger-lemon mixture and mix well.

Spoon the batter into the buttered cake pans. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool the pans for 5 minutes, then turn out onto racks until completely cooled.