Redeeming Dried Figs

Monday, August 31, 2009

-Figs, brandy, and ginger? Yeah, you can totally party with these cookies.-

Dried figs aren't exactly what one would call visually appetizing. Unlike their ripe former selves that are brimming with vibrancy and compact sensuality dried figs are rather off-putting. Their shape is alien, their dull aroma is somewhat musky, and I tend to think they look a bit like small turds.

The flavor is assuredly figgish though a bit of a one note wonder. Other dried fruit usually have some kind of draw to them and are inherently stimulating with varying tastes, yet with dried figs you have to coerce the inner beauty out of them. A little bit of wine, maybe poaching them in tea, tossing them in granola. They have to be coddled. It's not a party for dried figs if they stand alone, they have to mingle and get together with other ingredients and do the hustle.

Personally, I'm much better dancer with a bit of booze in me and dried figs are no different. Plied with a bit of brandy, they get down with heap of ginger in some simple oatmeal cookies. Simple, that is, in preparation. The flavor is complex, adult - the brandy gives it a certain warmth complimented by the heavy dose of ginger creating layers of spice hiding around every corner. The brandy soaked figs present themselves as the life of the party; no longer the homely dude in the corner.

Figgy Oatmeal Cookies
Makes six dozen

1 cup of chopped dried figs
1 cup of unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of dark brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
2 tablespoons of milk
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of kosher salt (regular salt will suffice)
1 1/2 teaspoons of ground ginger
pinch of cinnamon
1 cup of rolled oats

1 Preheat the oven to 350 F. Cream the butter and sugars together on high speed for three minutes. Place the chopped figs into a bowl with brandy.

2. Add the eggs, milk, and vanilla and beat for 3 minutes, being sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure even mixing.

3. In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, ginger, and cinnamon and rolled oats. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture slowly, being sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl once or twice to ensure even mixing.

4. Fold in the figs and one tablepoon of the brandy the figs soaked in. Drop heaping teaspoonfuls onto parchment lined cookie sheets.

5. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown. Allow to set up on the cookie sheets before moving to a baking rack to cool completely.

-Cookies are an easy way to dress up dried figs and sexify them.-

Goodbyes and Truffles

Friday, August 28, 2009

-Chocolate makes the heart grow fonder.-

I’ve never been fond of goodbyes and I suppose few people are. I’ve also never been good at them which, again, I guess few people are. My reason for being so bad at them is that I consciously do my best to avoid them at all costs. Meeting a friend at the bar for a final round of sidecars is about as appealing as being given a colonoscopy by Jason Voorhees.

To begin with I’m relatively stoic with my personal feelings. Delving how happy, pissed, or sad I am on the blog is one thing, but I become nonplussed at the thought of expressing intimate feelings of any sort. Street fighting in a North Korean prison camp is the preferable option over telling someone I care about how much I appreciate them.

I could say I have some subconscious fear of rejection, but delving in psychotherapy is the easy explanation.

I’m really just selfish.

I try to avoid acknowledging the pungent vinegary truth that I may never see this person again. I hate making the joint twinkling promise to call each other once a week. Too many times life gets in the way. I forget to call. The other person forgets to e-mail. The week becomes a month, one month becomes many. Work, school, still present friends and family, and every other visible and physically tangible commitment needs my time. Eventually, communication stops altogether.

Someone once told me friendship is like making pudding, you have to give it your attention or it goes bad. I’m afraid I won’t be able to stir and sit, putting in the time and effort into a distanced relationship. Too many times have they fizzled out, becoming stagnant and dull like ancient soda left on the kitchen counter.

However, some friends, luckily, you don’t have to worry about. You don’t have to call them every day, or send them bullet point “How’s life?” e-mails with templar-like vigilance. There are people whom you’re always connected to with invisible strings, always tugging at each other and letting you know in your core “Hey you, I’m still here. Can’t wait to see you again!”

I have friends from high school I only talk to once in a blue moon, but whenever I go and visit my old home we all get together for dinner. There aren’t any real games of catch up trying to summarize the past few months or years into sentences that fail to do them justice. Instead we sit down and begin our conversations as if we had left them off in the summer after we graduated. At the end of our reunion the strings are wound tighter than before and when we part we can still feel them tugging us all back to each other. The food isn't what's important at these meetings, but it sort of helps cement the memories and experiences - past and present - together.

At work I recently had to say goodbye, sort of. My friend was being forced to move to another office. It's only 15 minutes away and given I’ll still see him every so often. It was more of a see you soon event rather than a goodbye party. Still, he was the only other food-centric person around.

He enjoys looking at pictures of how to break down a goat (friends like that are rare). He taught me how to make a good butternut curry, and showed me how to grow the lemongrass needed for it. Since he was in school at night (he for his PhD.) he understood the trials and tribulations of review panels and seventeenth drafts and would commiserate with me about them. I had grown accustomed to chatting with him every day, and now suddenly that would stop.

So being the stoic person I am, trying to find a way to ensure the string stays taut can be difficult. I find the best way to express myself in through a bit of food. Food has the ability to demonstrate through the senses the cooks emotions and can encapsulate history, personal and shared.

Truffles with a hint of spice seemed a good way to go – smooth, intriguing, complicated in its varying layers of flavor but so simple in composition. Dry (in a wine sort of way) like the humor we preferred, curry to represent all the things he showed me about food, and chocolate because damn he's a blurry lunatic when he's got sugar in him.

Dark Curried Truffles
Adapted from Truffles by Dede Wilson

7 tablespoons of heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup of coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon of curry powder, plus extra for dusting
8 ounces of 60% or 70% chocolate (chips or well chopped)
cocoa powder for rolling

1. Place heavy whipping cream, coconut milk, and curry powder in a small, heavy saucepot over medium heat and bring to just under a simmer. Take off heat.

2. Sprinkle in chocolate and cover for 5 minutes, allowing the chocolate to melt in the hot liquid. Stir gently until combined. (This is called a ganache.)

3. Pour into a bowl and cover. Refrigerate for 4 hours.

4. Using your hands dusted in cocoa powder and a teaspoon roll out balls of chocolate about 1/2-1 inch in diameter. Roll in cocoa powder and place on a plate. Store in the fridge. Dust with curry powder and bring to room temperature before serving.

*It's much easier to roll these with very cold hands. I put a jar or two of water in the freezer when the ganache is cooling. Bring them out when you are rolling. If your hands get too warm, hold the jar and chill your hands so the chocolate doesn't begin to melt.

-These truffles are dry like a good wine, very bitter with just an undercurrent of coconutty sweetness that's placated by the curry.-

Note To Self: Use Apron

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"God. Dammit." I muttered in a bitter tone through bitter chocolate.

It was my own fault really. I should have put on an apron. It only took a split second for my hand to come down and accidentally flip an entire bowl of cocoa powder all over myself.

Since I had been cooking only a bit earlier my face, wet with sweat when the incident occurred, was now muddy with chocolate. As I opened my eyes I could feel the musky powder slip off my eyelashes and onto the floor. My left cheek was completely caked, and I could taste the pungent oils on my lips.

The polo shirt I was wearing was only half-alright, the thick brown stripes perfectly matched the powder, you could barely even tell cocoa from cotton. It was the thick white stripes that I was concerned about. My pants, previously a light khaki, were now a hazy auburn. Turning to glimpse myself in the mirror I looked like I just tussled with Indiana Jones in the middle of a dessert.

A fine sifting of powder had accumulated on the floor making a delicate stencil of my feet like a pointillistic art piece. Eat Beast was already investigating this as possible snackies.

It was a Dutch processed mess of epic proportions.

I looked down. I was tired. I really wanted to finish this truffle making project. There were only a few more to roll out. Going up stairs and changing just didn't sound appealing right now. However, these clothes had to be treated now if they were ever going to be worn again. A little stain of chocolate is one thing, a volley of cocoa powder exploding into a blanketing dust could on you is another.

I turned to Eat Beast who was already diligently trying to help clean the mess feed his fat face. "To hell with this," I said to him. He looked up and meowed in agreement, then continued licking up his lucky meal.

So, right in my kitchen, I stripped off my shirt and pants, chucked them in the sink, turned on the cold water and threw in some dish soap. Opening a nearby drawer I took out my rarely used apron and put it on, being sure to secure it with a tight square knot. (It's a personal habit of mine to always put it on after I stain my clothes.)

There in my boxer briefs and apron I rolled out twenty more truffles.

The entire time I prayed my roommate would continue sleeping. I imagine that trying to explain this so it didn't sound like I was ripping off a bad sitcom would be unlikely.

I made another batch the next day; this time with apron tied.

Shrug Off Your Day With Brownies

Saturday, August 22, 2009

-Brownies with Spices and Cocoa Nibs. A perfect way to forget what's bothering you.-

When a six year old child calls you a Nazi, it's proof that there is something dreadfully wrong with the world. I'm not sure what made me a Nazi exactly. I am blonde and blue eyed. I kissed a German boy once, but it was New Years so that doesn't count. Then there's the fact that he was, you know, a boy.

I wasn't sure what to think of it really. I suppose one thought that crossed my mind was, "He's small enough. I could stomp the little gremlin into paste before he knew what hit him." I was compassionate enough to let him live, and by compassionate I mean I like my job and don't want to be fired.

I was actually a little bit pissed off. More so, I was confused. The reason for the verbal abuse was that the office I work at was out of cups for the water cooler. I just happened to be this travesty's messenger. Apparently the lack of a Dixie cup is a grave offense to children these days.

I went back to my desk, more than a bit irked. Really, I was already having a bad enough day, the last thing I needed was some action figure obsessed punk hurling insults at me over trivial things. Then I realized how silly my being pissed over the matter really was. He was a kid who didn't know better, and I doubt had any real grasp about what he was saying. I've certainly been called worse in my life. In the grand schemes of things this fell between mopping my kitchen floor and deciding if I wanted to get up and have Sunday breakfast or sleep in until Sunday lunch.

I could sit there and stew, churning in my own bile and frustration, or I could simply just shrug it off and let go. Over the years I've learned my best tool for shrugging is to go and bake something. A simple truffle to get over any trifle, and what is it about cookies that can make any problem seem so insignificant?

So I went home, got out some chocolate and shrugged off the day. I was going to make brownies.

Spiced Brownies with Cocoa Nibs
This recipe is inspired by Alice Medrich. This brownie is very moist, somewhere between a mousse, fudge, and cake. The spices added give it a nice bit of warmth. The cocoa nibs and cocoa powder add contrasting textures and flavors of chocolate. I highly suggest pairing with a bit of mint ice cream.

8 ounces of 70% cacao chocolate
6 tablespoons of unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon of cinnamon (optional)
1/2 teaspoon of ground ancho chili powder (optional)
3 eggs
1 cup of sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon of cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting
1/4 cup of cocoa nibs

1. Preheat over to 350F and line a springform pan with parchment paper (a simple 8 or 9 inch square or circle pan will be just fine). Lightly grease and dust the parchment lined pan with butter and flour.

2. Place chocolate, butter, cinnamon and chili powder over simmering water. Stir together and until melted, smooth, and warm.

3. In another bowl place eggs, sugar, salt, and vanilla together and whisk on high speed for 2 minutes. It should be thick and and light colored.

4. Add the warm chocolate to the egg mixture and whisk together.

5. Fold in the flour and cocoa powder.

6. Scrape the batter into the lined pan and bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

7. Allow to cool for 30 minutes on a wire rack. Remove springform rim. Dust with cocoa powder and serve. Great with whipped cream, mint ice cream, or chilled cream poured over it.

-Go ahead. Lick the screen. I won't tell anyone.-

Chez Panisse Fruit Cookbook Winner!

Friday, August 21, 2009

The winner of the Chez Panisse Fruit Cookbook is Brooke who when asked about her favorite fruit said, "I have to pick on favorite? Goodness...peaches in the summer are definitely at the top."

Brooke, I have to admit, I love peaches too. Grilled with a bit of brandy and brown sugar glaze, they're perfect for summer snacks. Alice put a ton of great recipes for peaches in this book like peach leaf parfait and peach shortcake. Shoot me an e-mail with your address and I'll be sure to get the book to you ASAP so you can go peach crazy. =)


Into the Bowl Muffins

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

-Muffins! A good way to use all the leftover crud in your pantry.-

What do you do with seven figs, and old asian pear, a fist-full of raisins and leftover buckwheat flour?

You make some goddamn tasty muffins. That's what you do.

If there is anything that my Ojai grandma and the poverty of college taught me it's that you don't waste food. With adults chanting this to me over the dinner table like Tuvan throat singers this basic truism drilled itself into my brain making it impossible to forget. So, when I came into work and cook/gardener/builder/co-worker Marco handed over to me a bag of produce from his garden that was on the precipice of overripe it meant I had to use them that frickin' night.

Some of the fruit, however, was over the precipice. Over, fallen, and splattered on the floor which, when it comes to figs, means they had fermented something fierce. Figs are nature's little distilleries. Quick to sloshy from sweet, it's surprising you don't see more fig brandies and liquors out there. However, I make do with just eating figs with a big glass of teeth rattling ouzo.

A few figs, sadly, did have to be tossed as they didn't pass the Eat Beast test (If even Eat Beast won't eat it, it's must be bad). Those that survived were diced up and tossed into a bowl. I took the pear - dark brown and ripe to the point it almost where the slightest bit of pressure released an eau de vie breeze - and gave it a quick chop and tossed it, skin and all, it into the bowl, as peeling it would have been impossible. Plus, I'm lazy.

I chucked in a few raisins as well; there were only a few in the box. In my house raisins live for oatmeal season and the nippy October mornings are still a ways off. These were probably six months old. Into the bowl.

Leftover buckwheat flour? Into the bowl. Ancient jar with smattering of cinnamon that was probably purchased when Ginger Spice was still a Spice Girl? Into the bowl.

Might as well clean out, right?

Into the bowl is a good way to describe the recipe. I based it off a King Arthur Flour apple muffin recipe, but I was more liberal than a PETA convention with it. The recipe that follows is mostly guesstimate, but the flours, milk, baking soda and powder are in the right proportions. I don't think you can go wrong with this as it's pretty darn foolproof.

Either way, it resulted in some damn fine muffins. The figs make these very moist with a good heavy crumb. The pears add a nice crunch and the bit of cooked brown sugar on top razzle dazzle the whole thing. A great way to use up any leftover ingredients you have lying around. It'll make grandma proud.

-Figgy goodness.-

Into the Bowl Muffins
Feel free to play with the fruit, flour and spices. You can use all all-purpose if you want and change the fruit to whatever you want. Use vanilla extract, mace, ginger, whatever rocks your socks.

1 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour
1/4 cup of buckwheat flour, or however much is at the bottom of the bag; feel free to debate this
as much salt as seems necessary
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 tablespoon of cinnamon
1 stick of butter
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of brown sugar, beat it up if it's old and rocky cause you bought it at a shady convenience store
1 cup of buttermilk, or milk with a good squeeze of lemon juice
1 egg, lightly whisked
6 or 7 figs, if they're only a teensy bit fermented use 'em anyways, kids love that stuff
1 asian pear, though two small ones could do, peel them based on how energetic you're feeling as you read this
raisins, whatever you decide is "about that much"
luck, if you have any, probably helps (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400F.

2. In a bowl mix the all-purpose flour, buckwheat flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. In another bowl mix the buttermilk and egg. Set both aside.

3. Beat butter, sugar, and 1/4 cup of brown sugar at medium speed for a few minutes. Be sure to scrape down the sides and bottom once or twice.

4. Add a bit of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat in. Then add a bit of the liquid mixture and beat. Continue this dry-wet-dry method, ending with the dry.

5. Fold in the fruit.

6. Scoop into cupcake papers. Using the leftover brown sugar, sprinkle a bit onto each muffin.

7. Bake for 14-16 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool for a moment before removing from the cupcake tray and allowing them to fully cool on a wire rack. Devour.

Cookbook Giveaway - Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters

Monday, August 17, 2009

Weeks after picking it up, I'm still cooking with Waters' book Chez Panisse Fruit. The pears you see above, once they become ripe in a few days, will be added to a salad of endives and walnuts. Something simple from the pears chapter that didn't involve poaching in wine. (Alice loves her wine. It's almost to a point that it may be prudent for someone to slip a piece of paper with the address of an AA meeting on it into her pocket.)

Booziness aside, I notice how often I reference it. This weekend I purchased far too many Sun Crest peaches. Like Hercules toiling at his labors I strained to figure out how to solve my dilemma (the burdens I bear!). Instinctively I reached for her book; like brushing my teeth in the morning or checking my e-mail it's habit now.

I didn't find a recipe that matched my mood, though I did bookmark the recipe for pickled peaches. Instead I used a recipe in the plums section and adapted it for a rustic crisp with a few drops of almond extract. The book is ripe with inspiration in its juicy prose; so much that makes your mouth and mind water over the possibilities.

When I have fruit that tastes amazing I find myself wanting to share it. Similarly, why not do the same for a book about fruit? In light of this I'll be giving away a copy of Alice Waters', Chez Panisse Fruit.

To play simply leave a comment and tell me what your favorite fruit is. On August 21 I'll reveal the winner. You must be in the United States as I have learned in the past that shipping to Johannesburg or Stokholm will break me. Please only enter once. If you don't have a blogger/gmail account and have to be Annonymous, please sign your name, otherwise how will you claim your fabulous prize if you win?

Balls (Plus a Recipe for Vanilla Bean, Lemongrass, & Ginger Tapioca)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Two people want to write this post. One is the part of me that’s a responsible food writer, eloquently describing the childhood regression I experience when eating this dish. The other is the product of that regression that wants to make jokes about balls.

It’s just an inevitable pitfall when your topic is tapioca.

Right now I’m doing my best to keep the Little Garrett at bay, but every time I get a hold on him he wriggles right out of my hands. He’s on a sugar rush. You know, from all that tapioca. His smile bubbles up with each spoonful and I scold my inner rugrat, “No, you can’t have another bowl.” He then proceeds to ignore me and begins his work on a third helping.

It's not just the taste and smell of tapioca. It's how it looks. To a child it's an alien dessert; amphibious eggs lying in the primordial ooze. (A good imagination can take tapioca a long way.)

As the inner food writer eats the tapioca his friend calls and asks what he’s doing. Before he can answer the inner child grabs the phone and gleefully giggles out that he’s busy shoving balls in his mouth. All I can do is sigh, shoo him away and apologize. Then the inner food writer can't help but laugh a little as well.

My regression is right; the balls are the fun part of tapioca. The slimy orbs slide around like rubber bumper cars. The food writer in me makes a game out of trying to pin one to the roof of my mouth with the tip of my tongue.

Hiding under your bologna sandwich, tapioca was the one part of your school lunch you never traded. The freakishly saccharin taste of vanilla. The muddled and strange texture. Tapioca was coveted kids food on the playground. As good as buried treasure, Saturday morning cartoons and swimming lessons.

The food writer, brimming with nostalgia, still covets it today. He can’t help but purr at the taste of the vanilla bean flecked custard. Served warm the scent of sprightly lemongrass lingers and what might be considered by most as far too much ginger - a concept I can’t quite wrap my head around - permeates the room.

It’s adult tapioca; a pudding that’s been doted over and cooed at while being stirred for forty minutes. No chemically faux-vanilla aftertaste and not so sweet that suddenly *poof* you’re a diabetic.

Still, my inner child and inner food writer can reconcile for this post and agree that homemade tapioca is balls to the wall good. A bit of time and attention (and maybe some inner mediation) is all that's required.

Spiced Tapioca
This is a riff on the tapioca from Heidi's blog, 101 Cookbooks.

3 cups of whole milk
1/3 cup small pearl tapioca
2 extra-large egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped (or 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract)
1 1/2 tablespoons of freshly grated ginger
1 stalk of lemongrass chopped into lengths and bruised

1. Pour 3/4 cup of the milk and the tapioca pearls into a medium-sized, thick bottomed pot and let soak for an hour.

2. Whisk in the rest of the milk, yolks, sugar, salt and vanilla bean scrapings. Add the vanilla bean husk and the lemongrass.

3. Over medium heat slowly bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. This will take about 15 minutes. When it's just about to boil turn the heat down to a mild simmer. Stir constantly for 20 minutes. (Seriously, just turn on the TV and stir. This is to keep it all from scorching, which will happen.) The tapioca pearls will become mostly translucent.

4. The tapioca will be slightly loose. Don't worry it, will thicken plenty when it cools. Furthermore, it risks developing a slightly grainy texture if you keep it on the heat too long.

5. Delicious served warm, but I prefer it chilled the next day.

Attack of the Orange Chicken (or Lasagna, We're Still Not Sure)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Oh sweet zombie Jesus!"

"What did you fi-Oh my God! Quick put it away!" Julie shouted turning her face away from the open Tupperware box I was holding.

It was my week at work to clean out the fridge and my friend Julie had offered to help as a valid excuse to leave her desk. I began my sweep after making the last call to my co-workers to come and claim any leftover food before I purged every unnamed box and bag without a date on it. Anything funky or expired along with its container went into the trash can. If you lost your container then sucks to be you.

Now every so often something dodges the weekly cleanout, or even many of them. It's bound to happen and has happened. I had seen food go plenty bad in this kitchen. Moldy cheese, fuzzy bread, chunky milk, salads so wilted and brown it looked like samples of swamp water than a well constructed Cobb.

This however was some new freakish organism.

Popping the top of the Tupperware the stench that escaped was epic. Evil saturated the air causing plants to wither, paint to peel, and children to writhe.

That was how old this Chinese food was. Or, I think it was Chinese food. Maybe is was lasagna? Who knows? At this point I wasn't sure if it someone's leftovers or a forgotten biological weapon from the Cold War.

Regardless, it was just vile. Black chunks streaked with a grotesque rainbow of growths. A spectrum of dingy colored molds spotted the sides. Actual tendrils threaded the lid like some Lovecraftian horror in an attempt to escape its orange chicken prison and wreck havoc upon the world.

Indiana Jones, the Rocketeer and the goddamn Batman all rolled into one couldn't have been prepared for this thing. What chance did we have? I slammed the lid back on, but the smell... the smell remained and made our eyes water.

"I need an old priest and a young priest," Julie quipped.

"No, we need a flamethrower. I'm afraid this will be like a scene out of Alien. In ten minutes this thing will be wrapped on my face laying eggs in me."

"Where do you think Starbucks employees come from?" said Julie.

"I thought the congealed out of the creek behind the gas station on Howe Blvd."

"Just here, toss it in the bag! Quick!" she said with disgust. I did so shoving it into the trash as deep as it would go.

We immediately wrapped it up and then took it out of the building. Though the lid was secured we had apparently broken some enchanted vacuum seal placed upon it by some ancient and holy order because the odor prevailed. The lid could no longer contain it. Needless to say the entire office smelled like King Kong's fetid butt crack on a humid day at Monster Island (assuming Monster Island is actually a giant landfill baking in the sun).

When I got home I took a shower and cleaned out my fridge. Only constant vigilance will ensure one of these don't spawn in my own home.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cravings are an electromagnetic force. A natural phenomenon that few have any hope of even fighting against. Subconscious desires which become conscious obsessions.

Cravings send all-encompassing currents to your brain and stomach, making them stand at attention like excited iron shavings. Every charged thought aligns itself towards the polar source of yearning.

A few weeks ago that force caused me to be drawn to grilled cheese. Why grilled cheese and not something like banana cream pie or roast beef, I don't know. Cravings are a random and mysterious lot, activated by the most random stimuli. I wasn't even sure what kind of grilled cheese. I just knew that I had to have that raspy sound of crunchy bread and oozy cheese seeping into the crevices between my teeth.

Eventually BF and I met my friend Kate and her husband Ken for a night of hearts. Each couple planned on making one kind of grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner. She made pears and brie on french. I made feta and white cheddar on garlic rubbed rye. Both were raspy and oozy but fell short in satisfying me.

It was only on a whim I made the grilled cheese combo that would calm my cravings. Rye bread with white cheddar adorned with a tangle of basil leaves that Ken had just brought in from his garden. The rye was a perfect scale to balance the stern and salty cheese against the perky basil.

The craving was pleased.

Like all cravings the first bite is electric. Every nerve excites with the achieved taste. A completed circuit. You can't find peace in the first bite. Cravings don't work that way. The first bite is an ignition.

The second bite and, consequently, each successive bite after that is a poultice to the cravings. They charm you into a relaxed state. Floodgates open releasing waves of smile inducing endorphins. Electricity dissipates and all you're left with is a static buzz.

The cravings hit again the other day. This time the spark was ginger. It took over my mind making me a mess at work. I'm sorry were you saying something? I was thinking about ginger. What? Is the ginger broken again? I'll call the ginger and see if they can't ginger the ginger.

By the end of the craving had consumed me. I zoomed home at the speed of ginger.

An hour later I was blissfully awash in ginger. Warm gingerbread served with a cup of ginger tea. The force of the cravings dissipated, stomach and brain were appeased.

Ginger Tea

For the gingerbread I just used my recipe for gingerbread cupcakes but poured all the batter into a buttered and floured 9X9 pan and baked it for 35 minutes. The ginger tea is beyond simple, a quick way to satisfy ginger cravings (not to mention calm upset stomach and cure colds).

Place a few slices of peeled ginger into a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil then simmer until the liquid has reduced by half. Stir in a tiny bit of honey. Serves one. Recipe can easily be doubled, tripled, etc.

Eat Beast Update #9: Where did my pancake go?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Oh, there it is.

Little bastard stole a buckwheat pancake. This time I was smart enough to catch him unashamedly devouring the evidence. Notice how he doesn't give a shit that he's been caught. He looks directly at me, then the camera, then continues snarfing it down. This is what happens when I turn around to nibble on bacon and watch Amelie.

I should note this is only hours after he stole some onions from the pan I roasted a small duck in for lunch. He was on a culinary crime spree.

At least he has good taste.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Would you like a slice of pasta?"

Hearing this phrase was a common occurrence in my dorm. During my freshman year at UC Davis I was lucky to be randomly placed in the luxury dormitory. I shared a space that held four of us in two bedrooms which connected to a common space, our own bathroom, and - faith and begorra - a kitchen.

This meant two important things: that I would never have to buy a pair of shower flip-flops, and that I was able to prepare my own food rather than go to the Dining Commons.

This wasn't to say that the food at the D.C. was bad, the variety of healthy options both nostalgic and inventive were wonderful. I relished in the visceral pleasure of working with my hands and feeding my friends.

The thing is, back in 2001, I didn't know how to cook. At all. My first Spring away from home I recall phoning my mom and asking her how to boil corn. (Fill a pot with water and add enough salt and sugar till it tastes like sweet salt water, then boil until some of the kernels show an orange tinge.)

Lucky for me on the first day of freshmen orientation I met Sarah Shannon. Currently a PhD. student at Indiana University in plant ecology and, as I write this, on a plane to Iceland for her honeymoon. Years before she was a simple first year plant biology student away from home for the first time like the rest of us. Sarah, a practicing modern Pagan with wild, nut-brown hair who nailed a broom carved out of cinnamon wood above her doorway and kept the works of Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien on her nightstand, was one of those people who understood the primal, nurturing qualities of good food at a young age. Sarah is the type who challenges her friends to meatloaf contests and can't understand why a landlord would be upset to suddenly discover a chicken coop on the property. I love that girl.

In 2001 we knew how to appreciate food. This doesn't mean we necessarily knew what to do with it. Our weekends, when not involved with studying or watching Anime (the shame) we're filled with culinary experimentation.

Saturday mornings were filled with brisk walks in cheek flushing air to the Farmers' Market where we would load up on fruit and veggies. We would always pick up two or three loaves of garlic Parmesan bread from the Village Bakery stall - a yeasty epiphany if you've ever had it - and fresh apple cider served iced into a block in summer or scalding after sitting in a hot water bath in winter.

Once home we would all sit and eat as we caught up and traded stories, flitting the hours away playing video games and reading novels or possibly, maybe, doing homework. These were the days before adulthood creeped into our lives, something I feel we're still only playacting at most of the time.

It was during these wistful hours that we would attempt to cook up a storm. While the only recipe I knew when I came to college was the one for Tollhouse cookies (still have it memorized) she knew a few tricks she could turn with our fresh produce.

Sarah would take our fresh grapes and place them in the freezer, allowing their sugars to crystallize. Come late afternoon we would break them out, now frozen and sweeter than they were before, as a way to combat the stifling Nor Cal heat. We learned to roast stone fruit for salads of fresh mixed greens of arugula and sorrel. We brewed pots of potato leek soup on sweater wrapped fall days would steam the windows. All year long Sarah would separate the supremes of a lemon and lightly salt them, eating them raw as nature's lemon drops. This was a treat she would offer to anyone around, although I don't recall a single taker in the nine years I've known her.

Has it been that long?

-Frozen grapes. A treat taught to me by Sarah.-

Still, our actual cooking skills were rudimentary. We were novices with knives. More than once did our homemade garlic bread set off the smoke alarm and a first-aid kit could be found under the sink next to the trash bags for the many injuries we incurred.

The first few times we ever made pasta the leftovers always glued themselves into one pasta mass. This would prompt us to offer any hungry friends virtual slices of pasta, cut and served with a pie knife. Nuked in the microwave we would eat it with a splash of olive oil, feta and olives. It would be almost a year before it occurred to us to lubricate the pasta when hot.

My annual Christmas peppermint cake was a joke. Sarah's first rosemary bread was a bit dense. I think we both overcooked the chicken and burnt the rice enough times to know that some nights would end with a trip to the D.C. for a hamburger.

We learned as we cooked but Sarah was always there to offer advice on which apple to pick up and why I should clean everything that the raw chicken touched. Most people talk about Alice Waters, but Sarah Shannon was the one who showed me what food really was.

Eventually we actually gained competence. Sarah's style of cooking developed into earthy sustenance, food most would pass off as hippie chow, granola, and tasteless. Her food is far from tasteless and her granola kicks ass.

You can talk how local you are all you want. Sarah is the embodiment of utilizing seasonal and local. She gets her wool local, washes it, spins it to yarn and even knits her own clothes before canning her own food.

I believe we call this HARDCORE.

Sarah now cares for her own herb and vegetable gardens and keeps chickens in her backyard. I'm reworking my peppermint cake into something more grand. She cans tomatoes. I can jam.

Nowadays I don't talk to her as much as I wish I did, and see her even less. Still, she's someone I can rely on and will always have fond memories of.

In a way she's always with me in the kitchen. To this day every time I put oil in my spaghetti I can help but ask out loud to no one in particular if they'd like a slice of pasta.

Chili Peppers. One Dollar.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

-Chilly chilies.-

I love Thai chilies. They're cute. They're colorful. They're incredibly hot, bordering on incendiary. These bad boys will LIGHT. YOU. UP.

I have a warm spot in my heart for these chilies in my cooking (or it might be due to these, either way). Since these blazing peppers are so crazy hot I only need a few each week. When I go shopping at the farmer's market, I only pick up a few for various curries and stir fries I'll make for the next seven days' worth of meals.

Now I like to take heat, but like any average white boy I burn easily in every regard. When it comes to heat from the sun sun I don't tan, but rather turn as red as a crawdad in gumbo. This is followed by lots of peeling and freckling. I then bitch about this to anyone in hearing distance.

When it comes to heat in my food I like to think I learned rather well from my mom, the Tabasco Queen. She can put peppers away like no one's business; it's a trait I've strived to pick up. Still these Thai chilies are something else and more than four or five (seeds included) is too much for me.

When I first started going to the farmers' market I always did a bulk of my shopping at the Hmong produce stall. After picking out everything I needed I would toss a few (read: six, tops) chilies into a bag and ask how much. Whoever was behind the stall would just look at me, smile, and shake their head.


While I would normally be thrilled with free produce, the way I was waved off was upsetting. I wasn't getting enough chilies to even bother being charged. There was such pity in their eyes, their voices belied sarcasm and humor. They thought I was a wuss. When it came to taking the heat both in my kitchen and food I was a failure to them. My paltry sum of peppers wasn't even worth charging.

These were pity peppers.

However, since I loved these chilies' fire and flavor I would put up with it. Soon they recognized me and my pattern. Eventually whenever I came to their stall they'd just throw in a few peppers with my bag of lemongrass and opal basil. A prize at the bottom. No charge. I was cute, I suppose. The guy who likes to cook with only a few chili peppers was to be indulged. They'd laugh as they handed me the bag and gave me my change. I'd laugh with them, a bit irked by the encounter and at the same time amused. Free chilies are free chilies, after all.

It was only recently that I picked up a good tip to remedy my embarrassment. When I was shopping with cookbook author and friend Sheng Yang, an expert in Hmong cooking, she suggested I just buy a bunch and freeze them. "It's what most people do," she said.

By god, it was so simple! I could actually pay for the peppers and maintain a bit of dignity. No more, "Free." This wasn't about saving money, this was about saving face.

The next weekend I marched right up to the Hmong produce booth. After I filled a few bags with herbs and eggplants I handed them over to be weighed. The ancient lady behind the booth smiled at me showing the smile lines in her face, a lithograph of her life's laughter. She said hello and asked how I was. "Very well," I said. Her smile widened and she reached to grab a smattering of chilies. I raised my hand and stopped her.

She cheered as I plunged my hand into the produce box of colorful capsicums. I emptied two handfuls into a plastic bag and handed it to her. Her grin widened to match the one I was giving her.

"One dollar."
-Buy in bulk, then freeze for later.-

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