Edna St. Vincent Millay Mac and Cheese

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In my real life as a writer, I am currently enrolled in a memoir class at Stanford University—a ten-week gig I hoped would kick start a project about my mother. And it has. But is has also conjured many other memories that arise like pleasant little gifts to be chewed over and savored, reflected upon and digested. When looking back with concerted effort into our lives we find ourselves embroiled in patterns and themes. One thing I recall with fondness and a hint of curiosity, is how many friends I had in which our bonds were sealed through food.

I recall Marnie, whose house I went to for weeknight studying because I knew her mother always kept fresh gallons of mint chip ice cream in the fridge. There was punk rock Roxanne whose larder was stocked with my favorite blueberry cheesecake. Dori had a freezer full of pepperoni hot pockets and Melissa’s family owned a Jewish deli. Their pantry boasted fruit roll ups, granola bars, Doritos; an array of snacks that would put a convenience store to shame. Sometimes, I sheepishly admit now, I would make the decision to visit a friend because I was secretly hungry for something in their kitchen that I didn’t have in my own.

During my sophomore year I lived for a bit in Minnesota with my father. One of my favorite friends to hang out with was Katie. She lived a few snowy blocks away from me and made the best macaroni and cheese from scratch. Having been raised on boxes of Kraft’s fossil-hard noodles with fluorescent powdered cheese, the idea of “real” mac and cheese was completely foreign. Katie and I would spend Sunday mornings trolling the used bookstore near our homes for fifty-cent copies of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets. We would spend entire gloomy white afternoons shacked up in her bed beneath covers under her ceiling with its glow in the dark stars reading things like: “She is neither pink nor pale, And she never will be all mine; She learned her hands in a fairy-tale, And her mouth on a valentine” while cradling a hot bowl of four cheese covered noodles. She had taught me her secret recipe of cooking a pot of medium shells and then grating Swiss, cheddar, mozzarella and jack with a half a stick of butter right into the pot to mix. A healthy dose of pepper was the ingredient that sealed the deal. Looking back, I realize that so much of my love for that dish had nothing to do with it being palatable—it was shined up by our love of sappy antique literature and our secret faux starlight club. But I would spend the rest of my life seeking a mac and cheese that tasted as good.

The truth is that in real life a good ramekin of macaroni and cheese is almost impossible to find let alone an exceptional one. Although the concept of our favorite al dente form of curvaceous, cavernous pasta infused with multiple, blending, melted cheeses sounds divine, there are so many things that can and typically do go wrong. First of all, after boiling pasta and then attempting to re-cook it with a bake in the oven, it almost always ends up dry and no amount of liquid, cheesy goo can disguise that fact. In fact, I am convinced that the reason there is so much cheese in mac and cheese in the first place is that some peasant women was sincerely trying to sex up her nightly pot of cheap noodles to feed her brood and realized only three pounds from the sheep was going to do it. Even when I run into pots of the dish studded with exotic ingredients like lobster chunks or chorizo or truffles, I end up feeling like the mac and cheese has somehow sullied their glory and distilled their taste. The only exception to boring comes when the Cute Gardener makes me his version pilfered from a fancy L.A. restaurant and re-imagined in his mind but refined through the use of elegant tiny elbows and a sauce that is actually a sauce and not globs of grated cheese.

Regardless, I stay hopeful on my search. You would think I would just give up but then things like Bon Appetit’s pimento version come along, teasing me with the inclusion of tangy red pepper and peppadews, hinting at a toasty panko crunch explosion in my mouth. Instead I spend hours making the dish for dinner and it is the inevitable dry noodles made wet with heart attack-inducing amounts of expensive cheeses. Unfortunately, it tastes better cold and congealed after a hike the next day.

Maybe I just need to splatter some faux comets and constellations on my kitchen ceiling and whip out the graying pages of poetry tucked away in my high school journals the next time I am compelled to try the supposedly universal comfort dish again.

A Perfect Pink Pig Raises My Curve

IMG_8376 The Cute Gardener and I tend to spend our entertainment budget money on food. While other people are spending dollars on clothes and toys and second homes and playthings, we tend to live low on the consumerist radar in lieu of once a week forays into the culinary landscape. Whether it be low brow Sonoran hot dogs on a trip to Arizona or the latest farm to table $200 gastropub to crop up in downtown L.A. our indulgences lie weekly in the adventures of tasting.

This both inspires and drives the way we cook at home. Sometimes we keep it simple, like when the Cute Gardener whips up something from his never boring oeuvre of Italian pasta or Asian stir fry dishes based on whatever vegetables are currently sprouting in the garden. And once a week, I make a meal that is like me: messy, complicated and typically soaked in French undertones. Because we eat out so much we have a high bar to gauge our cooking. The CG who’s been cooking for himself the past 25 years typically meets that bar or surpasses it, making me a spoiled girl. When it comes to me, who’s only seriously endeavored into the world of home chef-dom for the past five or six years, though, it’s hit or miss. Sometimes a dish turns out remarkably well as with a recent olive tapenade-stuffed game hen and other times it flops miserably like the time I halved the beef called for in a beef wellington recipe but didn’t adjust the cooking temp and time accordingly producing an overly dry bastardization of a high caliber filet.

So I bring humor and hope into my ambitious weekly cooking evenings and a dash of the low expectations that come when you know you are an amateur dabbling in the big leagues. When we first met the CG told me that, as much as he appreciated the loving intention that went along with a woman wanting to cook for him, I should be warned that he has eaten out way too much for anything to impress him on the home front so I shouldn’t take anything personally. In our three-year relationship, I have heard him take a bite of two distinct dinners of mine and immediately say “This is good.” I thought that was a remarkable accomplishment. Last week I finally heard the holy grail of compliments escape his lips while biting into a slab of pork loin roast I made. He said, “See, meals like this make me wonder why we go out to eat.” Of course, he wasn’t serious about us not going out to eat –in the ensuing days after that comment we enjoyed Scratch Bar’s lovely cured pig’s heads and pink and purple pickled foods followed by a dash into Barney’s Beanery for a dessert of chili cheese fries. But I have been waiting to hear those words come out of his lips for three years.

So back to my learning curve-raising roast. Dorie Greenspan has been my silent mentor as I chip my way through her “Around My French Table.” So far, she has not served me wrong as I use her book as my personal classroom. Despite the fact that I have a tough judge and coach at home, I continue to try difficult things because over time, like with anything that requires practice, I perfect subtleties that benefit my cuisine overall. I learn when my oven times should be tweaked because I know the elevation of my home is different than the recipe originator’s. I know when I can leave an ingredient out and when I can’t. I know when I can substitute a vegetable for another and when I shouldn’t because of things like water content or fiber. I learn personal golden rules like always massage olive oil into kale before using it for a salad or never cook fresh peas for more than a minute in a hot pan lest they shrivel. And I raise my own cooking curve to challenging new heights. This is why I was pleased as punch to see my chard stuffed pork loin emerge from the oven last week with sublime “just pink” flesh and a dense and juicy tenderness.

Here’s Dorie’s original recipe with my own notes added at the end.

Chard Stuffed Pork Loin Roast

1 bunch Swiss chard, about 6 stalks
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, fine dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup golden raisins
red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 1/2 pounds pork loin roast, at room temperature

Wash the chard well.  Trim the ends of the stalks, about 1/2 inch or so.  Then, cut or tear the leaves away from the center ribs.  Finely chop the ribs and tear or roughly chop the chard leaves.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven, over medium heat.  Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and starts to color, about 5 minutes. Season with salt. Add the chard ribs and cook for another 3 minutes.  Add the chard leaves in two batches, adding the second when the first wilts enough to make room for it.  Cook until the chard is tender, about 5 minutes longer.  Stir in the raisins and transfer the mixture to a medium bowl.  Add a pinch or so of the chili flakes, plus salt and pepper, to taste.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Wipe clean the pan used for the chard mixture and place the pan in the hot oven.

Crack the peppercorns and coriander using a mortar and pestle or place between two sheets of waxed paper and pound with a mallet or skillet.  Set aside.

If your butcher has not already done so, use a long, sharp knife to make a lengthwise slit in the pork roast, taking care not to cut the meat in two, about 1/2 inch from the outer edge.  Open the roast and spoon the stuffing onto the meat.  Close the meat around the stuffing and tie with kitchen twine, at intervals, replacing any stuffing that escapes as you go.

Rub the pork with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, season with salt and rub the crushed peppercorns and coriander into the meat.  Carefully remove the hot roasting pan from the oven.  Place the pork loin, fat side up, in the hot pan.  Roast uncovered and undisturbed until the thickest part of the loin, not the stuffing, reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  Check at 25 minutes but expect that it will take about 40 minutes.

Once the roast is done, remove from the oven and tent lightly with foil on a plate or cutting board.  The pork should rest for 15 minutes.

NOTES:

I did not have kitchen twine so I used two skewers through either end of the open side of the meat and they worked just fine.

My chard leaves in the garden were massive so I only used three.

I used dark raisins instead of golden and they substituted well.

I served this with a kale, dried cranberry, and crushed almond salad lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and a Parmesan polenta with parsley.

 

Sockeye Sings in Earthly Lentils

IMG_8081When I took Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table down from its place on our four-cookbook living room shelf (the other three volumes being Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook, Paul Bocuse’s Bocuse in Your Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe) last week, I was guiltily reminded of my grand intentions for cooking its entire contents for the Cute Gardener and then the slow as molasses journey I have been on to do so. A note card placed inside used as my bookmark, had a lonely four notations of recipes made over the last two years: mustard batons, tomatoes Provencal, olive-olive Cornish game hens and gougeres. I didn’t add the salad nicoise I attempted once minus the actual nicoise olives—for obvious reasons.

How pathetic, I thought! * And then went about remedying the situation immediately.

I chose a dish of Roasted Salmon with Lentils because salmon is one of the top five things I can cook as well as one of the CG’s favorite meals. His own father has told me twice on Christmas that I cook the fickle fish perfectly and I take pride in delivering new ways to adore yet not overly adorn its simple yet complex filets. Of course these days, the CG and I go the full mile in sustainable fish integrity and will only eat the approved varieties so it took a few phone calls to discover that I would have to drive the fifteen miles to another city to retrieve a slab of wild sockeye to fit the bill. But the fish karma worked in my favor regardless as it ended up being severely on sale.

The end result was deliciously earthy, grounding the delicate fish. It reminded me how much I love my lentils, especially the French version simmered slowly with classic carrot, onion, celery and bay leaf.

IMG_8080Because I wanted the dish to be the star and didn’t want to overburden the already hearty lentils with traditional cheese desserts or anything heavy, I settled on a light and tangy avocado tartare that had synchronistically arrived in my Food and Wine e-letter a few days earlier to start the meal. Served slightly below room temperature on small slices of baguette it was a perfect palate primer for the evening.

Now I have five notations on my bookmark and a renewed motivation to step up my cuisine Francaise.

IMG_8084*In my defense, it’s hard to summon the constant desire to cook when I live with a man who can throw pasta in a bowl with some leftovers and make it taste like nirvana; or, whose vegetables from the garden, even when mutant and odd like his recent batch of caulifower, taste better than most things I eat in restaurants. 

Thelonious Monk and Hens That Overdose on Olives

IMG_7323There’s something really special about cooking for my man. And no, I don’t mean the “barefoot in the kitchen” version of sublimated, antiquated femininity. I mean the, “gee, he cooks exquisite dinners from his exquisite garden on his exquisite collection of cast iron pans ninety percent of the time for me so when I get a chance (which isn’t often) to return the favor, I pull out all the stops with something extra special in his honor” version. And it’s usually French.

Last night I got the urge to roast some Cornish game hens for his supper. You see, the Cute Gardener has a thing for birds and will ravish them from wing to bone with nary a scrap of waste so I figured I would give him a whole one on a plate.

Along with some inspiration from my favorite cook of all things French — Dorie Greenspan — I decided to dress the birds with homemade olive tapenade and serve with a fresh salad and some buttered radishes. The beauty of this meal was that it was done in 30 minutes – almost unbelievable for a bird, yet producing perfect, tender, juicy and flavorful meat.

The entire dish manifested without a wrinkle and I am convinced a big part of it included: my accompanying Thelonious Monk cooking soundtrack; the decision to make a pilaf out of basmati steamed in bay leaf and olive oil simmered minced onion; the fresh arugula from the window planter that went into the spinach, walnut and pomegranate vinaigrette salad; and the way I put my heart and soul into the rare occasion ultimately arriving with something sublimely beautiful and beyond the ordinary.

IMG_7321Dorrie Greenspan’s Olive-Olive Cornish Hens

2 Cornish hens at room temperature
2 teaspoons black olive tapenade (*recipe included at end of blog)
Olive oil
Fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Oil a shallow roasting pan.

Working with one hen at a time, using a chef’s knife, cut down along both sides of the backbone to remove it. (The CG used the bones to make stock on the stove after dinner.) Turn the bird breast side up and press on the breastbone to crack it so the birds lie more flat. Gently loosen the skin from the flesh just enough to push the olive tapenade up between the skin and the flesh of the breast and the chubby thigh. Transfer the hens to the roasting pan, skin side up and give the skin a rubdown with some olive oil. Sprinkle over with some lemon juice, season with salt and pepper and put into the oven.

Roast the hens undisturbed for 25-30 minutes (mine took exactly 26) until the skin is deeply golden and crisp and the juices run clear when you prick the thighs.

*Black Olive Tapenade

½ cup pitted, oil cured black olives, chopped (I couldn’t find oil cured so used the regular can of olives in water and it worked fine)
1 anchovy, drained
Grated zest and juice of ¼ lemon
Pinch of rosemary
Pinch of thyme
Pinch of cayenne
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Put all of the ingredients in a food processor and process until pureed to your taste consistency wise. (I kept mine a little chunky.)

On a Biscuit Bender

IMG_7206In our household it isn’t uncommon to plan a week’s worth of meals around a big juicy bird or a large cut of meat. This past weekend as the weather started curling from hot to balmy, the comfort food chord struck home in our bellies and had us hankering to welcome in the fall. This meant Sunday evening was spent with a slow roasted turkey and pile of whipped potato and butternut squash; Monday night savoring a homey turkey, carrot, Chinese sausage and onion version of the Asian slow-cooked rice porridge jook; Tuesday night linguine with shredded turkey meat; and last night going on a Southern style bender complete with turkey and gravy, a decadent fried egg, crispy turkey skin cracklins, butternut cubes and the best part, homemade fluffy biscuits.

Although I haven’t had one in years, I’ve always loved biscuits—especially the way their harder exteriors melt into whatever gooey, gravy, sweet, saucy, tangy substances are placed upon them to soak, rendering their soft innards and outer crust into one big buttery sense of ooh. I was that strange kid who would cut a steaming biscuit in half and make a sandwich out of the entire contents of my plate no matter what I was eating: turkey, cranberry, mashed potatoes during the holidays or chicken, corn, peas, and cream sauce during an ordinary family dinner. Biscuits to me were always the perfect vehicle for an entire meal.

Luckily, the Cute Gardener is a dynamite baker so I was notably spoiled by a homemade version of my long lost biscuit friend. Both the CG and I are huge fans of the magazine Cook’s Illustrated because it is all about precision cooking. Nothing gets printed between its pages unless their staff of chefs have not only tried to make it in their own kitchen, but have also done everything possible to tweak and perfect each element of every dish to produce a supreme recipe. So, unlike the times when I trawl the web and fall for ideas of food to make from prettily illustrated food bloggers or the like, I know with Cook’s I am guaranteed a good result. I’ve actually stopped using recipes from anywhere other than a few trusted resources these days like Food & Wine or a few close foodie buddies or my tried and true Around Dorie’s French Table book at home. The biscuit recipe used in this meal came from the CG’s book The Best Recipe written by the editors of Cook’s.

A fluffy, soft and creamy biscuit was born and lasted me through dinner and then onto my ensuing dessert and breakfast plates heated in the toaster oven before smothered in butter, blackberry preserves and honey.

FLUFFY BISCUITS
from The Best Recipe
Makes 1 dozen (although for us it was ten)

If you are using yogurt instead of buttermilk in this recipe, note that 8 ounces of yogurt equals 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons, not 1 cup as you might expect. Make sure that your over rack is set at the center position. Baked too low, your biscuits will likely end up with burnt bottoms.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup plain cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ¼ inch cubes, plus 2 tablespoons melted for brushing tops
¾ cup cold buttermilk or ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons low-fat or whole milk plain yogurt
2-3 tablespoons additional buttermilk (or milk) if needed

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Mix or pulse flours, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt in a large bowl or the work bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade. With your fingertips, a pastry blender, 2 knives, or steel blade of the food processor, mix, cut, or process butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse meal with a few slightly larger butter lumps.

3. If making by hand, stir in buttermilk with a rubber spatula or fork until mixture forms into soft, slightly sticky ball. If dough feels firm and dry bits are not gathering into a ball, sprinkle dough clumps with additional tablespoon of buttermilk (or milk for the yogurt dough). Be careful not to overmix. If using food processor, pulse until dough gathers into moist clumps. Remove from food processor bowl and form into rough ball.

4. With lightly floured hands, divide dough into 12 equal portions. Lightly pat a portion of dough back and forth a few times between floured hands until it begins to form a ball, then pat lightly with cupped hands to form a rough ball. Repeat with remaining dough, placing formed dough rounds 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Brush dough tops with melted butter (May be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to two hours.) Bake until biscuit tops are light brown, 10-12 minutes. Serve immediately.

Dreams of Becoming a Baton Girl

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I wanted to become a baton girl. Not the leotard wearing spangled hair ribbon type from the marching band, but the uber-chic bearer of the ultimate appetizer amongst my foodie friends. It all started when I bought The Cute Gardener a copy of Dorie Greenspan’s “Around My French Table” for Christmas two years ago. My grand plan was to cook a French meal for him every so often from the book and become adept at the laissez-fare dish that begs copious amounts of wine on a lazy afternoon with bread. Upon first glance at the book, a recipe called Mustard Batons instantly struck me.

Mustard Batons are the French version of Italian breadsticks only fluffier and hinting at a savory bite from an internal swath of Dijon. Stuffed into a tall clear glass on a table with or without a meal, they are the perfect wands of carbs to go with various types of wine. I had immediate visions of serving them at dinner parties or when I would invite one of my many girlfriends over for a morning chat with tea or an afternoon gabfest with good wine.

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 Making them couldn’t be simpler. The full recipe is here but the concept is remarkably easy. Take puff pastry. Roll it out thin.

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Spread a thin layer of good Dijon mustard, grainy or smooth, across the lower half.

IMG_4707Fold the top half over the bottom and cut into one-inch strips. Brush the top with egg wash and sprinkle on some poppy seeds then bake for less than twenty minutes.

IMG_2030What comes out is the perfect bite for many occasions, looking remarkably complex for such little effort. It becomes a beautiful objet d’art, golden and dense, with flaky layers and a soft inside fancied up by the sting of mustard in the middle.

I also discovered that they are extremely versatile. I have served them in their original form to my family with a meal of chicken mushroom Marsala with leftovers in the fridge that got eaten up cold overnight by the snacking Cute Gardener. I have included them in a French dinner party with my supper club before a luscious beef Bourgogne with St. Germain and Champagne cocktails.

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I brought them to a farewell party for a girlfriend wit a bunch of Parisian gypsy themed entrees like French onion soup and we floated them on top of the broth with broiled gruyere on the top.

Recently, I decided to shake things up and experimented with some different ingredients for a lovely tea visit at my home with an artist friend.

IMG_4695I made a few with rose jelly and butter in the middle and sprinkled with French thyme on top that came out savory and strikingly good.

IMG_4697The second batch was strung on the inside with strands of sea salt caramel and drizzled honey with a topping of crushed coriander that became a sweet bite that would be great for dessert. Now I am obsessed with thinking of the endless possibilities ahead. Olive tapenade, pesto, cheese, caramelized onions, and crushed nuts … the ideas go on and on.

Now it is customary when I receive social invitations to hear, “Can you please bring those baton things to our party?”

I guess my dream of becoming a baton girl has manifested beautifully.

IMG_4711P.S. I hate to waste food and so every time I whip up an egg to brush the top of the dough while making batons, I end up with leftover egg. In typical French fashion, I throw it in a small tin into the oven, still hot from the baking, and let it set for a few minutes creating a beautiful little omelet. That becomes my after cooking treat topped with a sweet little pile of whatever I have handy in the fridge, in this case a dollop of roasted red pepper sauce.