Like so many other aspects of our lives, the best and worst part about cooking is the way that our success hinges on the details.  My mom has a friend who, in her free time, is an amateur/mind-blowing baker.  She once gave us a bag of chocolate cookies for Christmas.  They didn’t look like anything special, really.  Small, brown, round, bite-sized.  Nothing that would jump out from the myriad of options in any Christmas cookie tin.  Until you bit into one, that is, and then you knew something crazy was going on.  The tops of these cookies, where the oven’s heat had caused them to crisp and crack in tiny pinwheeling crevices, were sprinkled with a particular salt.  The salt, if I remember correctly, was imported from France, one of the gourmet strands of artisan salt you see popping up these days.  The salt was simultaneously delicate and complicated, and it worked with the dark chocolate, bringing out its deep, earthy tones, so that the richness of the cookie and the kick of the salt caused a little explosion in your mouth…a bit of alchemy, if you will.  In combination, the two forces become something more than they had been.

What I’m getting ready to propose here is hardly a recipe.  It’s more of a concoction.  An inspiration.  I’m using it on almost everything these days.  And, while it doesn’t really have the romantic exoticism of tiny flecks of salt from terribly far away, it does improve nearly everything it touches.  To begin with, I’d like to share a photo of my favorite purchase from the St. Paul Farmer’s Market thus far in 2010:

A nice big basil plant!  Is there anything more whimsical than a handful of fresh herbs, whenever you want?  If you’re ever feeling impoverished, I recommend investing in a healthy herb plant.  Access to herbs is so decadent, so fancy.  But it also has to be the easiest way to make your everyday a little more elegant.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Orangette, who posted this humble recipe just over two years ago.  Really, this is one of those things that I should probably just throw together, but it’s always easier to wade in with a recipe.

Basil Aioli

2 Tbsp. olive oil
¼ cup packed basil leaves
½ tsp. lemon juice
1 medium garlic clove, pressed
Pinch of salt
½ cup mayonnaise (I used Hellmann’s mayonnaise with olive oil. Maybe it’s just in my head, but I think the olive oil lightens it up a big, and gives it a rich Mediterranean taste.)

In a small food processor, combine the olive oil, basil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt.  Process until the mixture is smooth like pesto.

Scoop the mayonnaise into a small bowl.  Add the basil mixture, and stir well to mix.


It’s not much to look at, I know.  But, I swear, it’s spill-on-your-finger-just-so-you-can-lick-it-off good.  And you can serve it with almost anything– I loved it on turkey burgers, but it has so much flavor that it would work as a simple dip for raw veggies.
I hardly need to tell you that it was perfect on BLTs, the way basil is always perfect with tomatoes, bringing out the gorgeous freshness, the sunshine tang of a nice tomato.  It’s just a little accompaniment, wholly unnecessary to any main dish, which is, of course, the reason it’s so good.

I just read Old School, by Tobias Wolff.  This is a book for people who love books, an homage to writers and to the transformative power of literature, a cause close to my heart.  Early in the novel, Robert Frost makes an appearance, and he’s just as dignified and witty and remarkable as any reader of Frost would hope he would be.  Wolff has a real generosity here, and the result is a celebration of a beloved writer, one of our greatest poets, now fictionalized as a great man.

At one point, Frost is asked whether traditional forms of poetry are sufficient to express the concerns of modern consciousness, the presumption being that these modern concerns (war, politics, advertising, “the dimming of faith by science”) are more complicated than the issues facing earlier poets.  I love Frost’s response:

“Don’t tell me about science, Frost said.  I’m something of a scientist myself.  Bet you didn’t know that.  Botany.  You boys know what tropism is, it’s what makes a plant grow toward the light.  Everything aspires to the light.  We all have that instinct, that aspiration.  Science can’t– what was your word?  dim?– science can’t dim that.  All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.” (p. 52)

Last spring, I wrote a poem that echoed this point, so it felt totally serendipitious to see a similar philosophy ascribed to Frost.  Here’s my poem.  Maybe one day Tobias Wolff and I can get together to talk about turning toward the light.

An Answer, Belated
There is no moon.  There is the moon flower in its small power of accuracy, like a compass pointing to where the moon is, so they can bay towards its absence. 
          Michael Ondaatje, In The Skin of A Lion, p. 76

Your friend asks me: 
“How did you come
to know the Lord?”
and I know it’s a test.
 
I am insufficient
to the question,
sifting through metaphor
and hard-won moments of peace.

I am only a collector
of clues: the way
sunflowers silently turn
their faces to follow the light.

Or: the night I saw a tree
lit from behind by sunset,
glowing like a soul.
The truth

is that science explains
most everything
but the way my heart
bends in gratitude.

Towards whom?  This is
what you want
me to answer, I think,
but instead I’ll tell you that

the other day I saw a hawk
perched on a road sign:
One Way, only
the words were obscured

by red streamers, blood
running freely from the
dying creature in the
bird’s sharp mouth.

What are we doing here?
There are mornings when
I feel utterly a stranger to the
beauty and violence around me.

I come to know less and less.
I mean to say, I look for signs.
I catalog the evidence of a world
less threatened by silence

and I reorient myself
in the darkness.

after months and months of waiting for our first CSA delivery, we’ve been thwarted in the final hours! long story short, the pickup person forgot to grab our veggies yesterday during the assigned window.  alas, no spinach, rhubarb, or herbs for us this week! perhaps this is a sign that i should get myself to the farmer’s market tomorrow morning…

further bad news, i have a squeaky shoe, which i can’t seem to fix!   depending on how quiet our department is at any given moment, i sound like a rodent as i walk down the hall.

but here’s some good news:  it’s friday!  the world cup started! (that’s for b)  and my next post will be about muffins!  i’ll venture to guess that it will be only the first of many posts about muffins.  i have so much to say about them.  for now, i’ll just leave you with this thought:  a muffin is just an excuse to eat cake for breakfast.  and thank god for that.

I am part of a family that believes in edible displays of affection.  We bake birthday cakes and bring salads, encourage seconds, and exchange recipes.  We feed the folks we love.  So the first time I was invited to hubby’s family’s “shack” (more on that moniker in a moment), my mind instantly focused on the task before me: what to cook/bake/otherwise prepare.

At this point, hubby and I were just dating, and I hadn’t met any of the extended family.  The weekend was a turning point: I was being introduced and labeled “girlfriend” in front of grandpa, grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins, not to mention spending a notably extended period of time with my future father-and-brothers-in-law.  Meeting the extended family is a big step in any relationship.  It allows a lot of peripheral people into your relationship…it gives you an audience, for better or worse.  I felt the pressure and knew I had one shot to make a good impression.

My mission– to impress my future family by feeding them– was complicated by the fact that the shack is a one-room hovel with no running water, no refrigerator, and limited electricity.  Let’s call it rustic.  I knew we’d all be sleeping in bunk beds lined up along the walls, so that as soon as I’d roll over in the morning I’d be face to face with Grandma, or one of the four uncles whose names start with D.  I knew I wouldn’t properly brush my teeth for three days.  Oye.  I wanted to bring something homey and casual, perhaps something that showed my domestic streak, that might convince these people what a good wife I’d make, that might show them how grateful I was to be there, how happy I was to be  included and how much I loved their son/grandson/nephew.  Banana bread seemed a perfect contribution: fresh, buttery, rich banana bread, prepared with love by yours truly.

I hardly need to tell you what happened, with those kinds of expectations.  With so much riding on this loaf, I knew I couldn’t just fall back on my mom’s tried and true recipe, the one she made almost every week growing up.  The one we loved.  No, in a fit of pride, I went out of my way to read countless recipes, finally settling on one that sounded interesting and nutritious (note to self: never choose “interesting” over “love”).  I baked the night before we left.  What came out of the oven smelled like bananas and flour, it had warm brown coloring and dark edges.  I crossed my fingers and went to bed.  As anyone who bakes for public consumption has no doubt experienced, one must suffer an agonizing purgatory after the baking, because it is nearly impossible to try a bite of cake, pie, bar, or bread without notice.  Unlike salad, soup, or cookies, easily tasted and adjusted as you go, most baked goods are a one-shot deal; no going back.  Such was this. 

As I slumbered, jittery with happy anxiety and ready to head to the Northwoods with a group of relative strangers, my bread slumped.  I awoke to find a dense, squat little thing, where previously there had been something more like a small loaf.  Horrified, I shook the bread (3 good bananas in there!) out of the pan.  It looked like banana bread, just a sadder, shorter version of it.  Cut into slices, it might resemble biscotti more than anything, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t taste good…my mind raced.  It was not yet 6:00 a.m., pitch dark, we needed to be on the road immediately, and I had nothing else to bring– should I risk it?  I wrapped my brown lump in tinfoil and hoped it would seem taller by the time we got to the shack. 

The universe has little tolerance for bakers with illogical hopes (or too much whole wheat flour).  To my chagrin, the bread seemed to have sunk even further by the time we arrived at the cabin.  I faced an impossible quandary: to show up empty-handed (a grave sin in my family) or to risk offering my potentially hazardous banana bread.  I swallowed my pride and, after being introduced to a roomful of future in-laws, I reached into my bag, approached Grandma P, matriarch of this large and wonderful family, and said, “Thank you for having me.  I brought you banana bread.”  The silence was palpable.  My gift looked ridiculous, like a long, narrow brownie, some misshapen lump that no one even knew how to serve.  Finally, ashamed and embarrassed, I whispered, “It came out a little flat.”  Grandma smiled and touched my arm.  “Sometimes it’s just your baking powder, dear.  I always forget to buy a new canister until my bread comes out flat.”  With a wink, she turned away.

My banana bread sat on the table for two days.  I tried one piece: it was dry and soggy at the same time, heavy and dense and weird.  No one else tried any, and I don’t blame them.  Late in the second day I found myself alone in the shack while everyone else was outside.  I dumped my little offering into the trash, under a cereal box, praying it would be forgotten.  I sent up silent thoughts of gratitude, and I consider them again tonight:  Thank you Grandma P, for showing me that it’s good to give thankfully, but it is great to receive graciously.  Thank you for reminding me that generosity comes in many forms.

My mom and I laughed when I told her the whole humiliating story.  Later, she copied out her banana bread recipe, which is now MY banana bread recipe.  I’ve made the recipe so many times that I have my own little tweaks and secrets, and the results are always edible.  May we never stray from our mothers’ classics, especially when we’re banking our first impressions on the results.

Banana Bread

1 1/2 cups all-purpose white flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/4 cup butter, softened

2 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

2 medium ripe bananas

secret ingredient: 1/2 tsp. almond extract

1/2 cup buttermilk

Combine all dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt, soda.  Cream butter, eggs, and sugar.  Add mashed bananas.  [now, my secret ingredient]:  Add almond extract. 

Add milk alternating with flour mixture.  Bake at 350 degrees for one hour in a greased bread pan.

One day later (when you remember to take a picture) your results may resemble this:

It must be almost summer, because I can’t get enough Iced Coffee!!

All winter long, I crave the moment when I can wrap my hands around my morning mug of coffee, steamy and roasty, rich and smokey.  To tell the truth, this is sometimes what gets me out of bed in the morning, my own little Folger’s commercial playing out on especially dark mornings.  But there is something lovely (and delicious) about watching dark coffee swirl into a glass of icy milk.  This is revitalizing my coffee routine, one glass at a time!!

Did anyone else notice anything odd in the choice of advertising during Tuesday night’s episode of Glee?  In the midst of a show about high school misfits trying to be true to their identities– including their sexualities– and in an episode dedicated to the music of Lady Gaga (spokeswoman for the gays), I spied a commercial for the protection of marriage in Minnesota.  We DVR most of our shows, and gratefully fast forward through all the commercials, but I made hubby rewind for this one!  I don’t remember the organization, but it was some kind of no-gay-marriage schpiel…a pretty serious commercial in between teenage boys dressed like KISS and drama queens lip syncing Pu-Pu-Pu-Poker Face.

Now, I won’t go into the politics of this, and I’ll confess that I don’t know much about advertising.  But I’m under the impression that a TV commercial is still pretty expensive, right?  So…this is a sweeping generalization, but how many people who enjoy watching high schoolers perform musical theater versions of pop songs are also going out of their way to prevent gay marriage?  Isn’t this sort of like a Hardee’s commercial in the middle of America’s Biggest Loser? 

Thematically, Glee often returns to the idea that to be happy, you need to be true to yourself.  A pretty classic theme for any fictional representation of high school or coming-of-age narrative.  And this week’s episode directly centered on the complicated interaction between Curt, resident Gay, and his crush Finn, the hetero-football-singer-male lead.  They dealt with this relationship in a nuanced, thoughtful way, and did justice to the complicated world of teenage emotions, particularly for sexual minorities.  Anyway, I’m just sayin’.  An interesting advertising space for a platform against gay marriage.  Having just won an Emmy, and being one of television’s most talked-about shows, I would imagine that plenty of advertisers are clambering for airtime during Glee’s commercial breaks.  Was it worth it for the Marriage People?  I wonder.

the love of my life celebrates a birthday today.  i have a couple of surprises up my sleeve, and i think they’ll make him very happy!  for now, a poem.

(Tennis)

Love-Love, we say,
and today we mean it.

this may not be the most sophisticated dish in my novice repertoire, but it is quickly becoming a family classic!  it’s a quick, tasty platform for whatever semi-mexi leftovers you have on hand.  the recipe originally came from Cooking Light, but it’s so versatile that you can use almost anything in your fridge.  tonight, we used leftover salsa verde (from these quesadillas), chorizo (from last weekend’s paella- yum!), and bell peppers sauteed with gorgeous green onions from last weekend’s farmer’s market:

you start with a spicy-cheesy cornbread base.  now, i just need to warn you that this calls for a can of creamed corn…i know, i know!  you’re already having visions of your grandma’s church potluck, row after row of ceramic casserole dishes filled with varying colors of mush.  i swear this is not that hotdish.  the creamed corn just lends the base a rich flavor, and gives it this texture that is somehow creamy and crispy at the same time.  you top this savory golden cake with meat/veggies, sprinkle with cheese and bake until gooey.  add a little salsa and sour cream, then call in the mariachi band because it’s a fiesta!

Tamale Cassarole
inspired by Cooking Light

1 cup shredded Mexican cheese
1/3 cup milk
1 egg
1 tsp. cumin
1/8 tsp. ground red pepper
1 (14 3/4 oz.) can cream-style corn
1 (8.5 oz.) box corn muffin mix
1 (4 oz.) can chopped green chiles, drained
1 (10 oz.) can red or green enchilada sauce
2 cups shredded cooked chicken breast
garnish, if desired (see below)

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees

2.  Combine 1/4 cup cheese and next 7 ingredients (through chiles) in a large bowl, stirring just until moist.  Pour mixture into a greased 13 x 9 inch baking dish.

3.  Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes or until set.  Pierce surface liberally with a fork; pour enchilada sauce over top.  Top with chicken; sprinkle with remaining 3/4 cup cheese.  Bake at 400 degrees for another 15 minutes or until cheese melts.  Serve with garnishes: salsa, cilantro, avocado, or sour cream.

there are certain foods that always bring to mind a specific time of year.  pumpkin, of course, seems to be everywhere in late fall.  watermelon signifies the fourth of july and my brothers’ summer birthdays.  we eat BLTs two or three times a week during tomato season, that magical window when tomatoes taste as sweet as candy.  and rhubarb, to me, means the start of summer.  right about this time of year– mid to late may– you can get rhubarb from the farmer’s market (or in your backyard, if you’re lucky!).  here’s what i picked up yesterday:

three bunches of bright red rhubarb!  i couldn’t wait to pair this rhubarb with its most complementary partner: strawberries!  unfortunately, berries won’t be ready in the fields here for a few more weeks, so i just grabbed a quart at the grocery store.  hopefully we’ll get some with our CSA delivery; if not, it’s a great excuse to go strawberry picking.

i used a recipe from the America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook (a great basic cookbook).  as usual, the Test Kitchen folks were full of useful information for me.  they said that rhubarb can go in unpeeled as long as it is about as narrow as a piece of celery.  any bigger than that and the stalks become somewhat fibrous, and more bitter, and would do well to be peeled.  luckily, i had some celery in the fridge, so i did a quick comparison.  as you can see below, my rhubarb stalks were somewhere in the middle, so i erred on the side of caution and peeled most of them.

as a true rhubarb-lover, i adore the sharp, bright tang of the fruit.  not everyone enjoys such a tart flavor, so my friends at America’s Test Kitchen had me soak the chopped rhubarb in cold water for 20 minutes, to dissipate some of the bitterness.  next, i sauteed the rhubarb with a bit of oil and sugar, which also helped sweeten it up.  toss the rhubarb with the berries, sugar, cornstarch, a hint of vanilla and a pinch of salt, and scoop the whole sweet mess into your pie crust:

 

brush the top with egg white, pop it in the oven for a while, and you’ve got a celebration of early summer on your hands!  i recommend a scoop of vanilla ice cream with your pie, but it’s pretty stunning by itself, too.

the farmer’s market opened in st. paul a few weeks ago, but i hadn’t had a chance to go until this morning.  is there anything better than sleeping in, picking up a coffee, strolling the aisles of the farmer’s market, peering at piles of fruits and veggies, flowers and pastries?  i think not!  it’s such an inspiration for one’s kitchen, that gorgeous harvest.   it’s a reminder, too: that food has a season; that there are people behind the food we buy; that your efforts as a cook come after the efforts of others, which is one of the beautiful ways that food connects us to each other.  i know this might be over-dramatizing the issue, but it’s easy to forget that our food is grown, that it’s the result of sunshine and water, time, hard work, fresh air.  anyway, this is what i love.  and this is what i’m hoping to recall each week as i pick up my CSA deliveries!!!  my hubby and i are embarking on a new adventure– a share in a CSA (community-supported agriculture).  each week we’ll pick up whatever they collect for us, whatever is in season, and then we’ll figure out what to make with our surprise delivery.  i can’t wait to see how the summer goes.  and whatever the result– delicious or disappointing– you can bet we’ll have one thing to say:  mas vino por favor!

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