Entertaining Rambutans

Friday, October 30, 2009

-The whimsical and slightly ridiculous rambutan.-

Aside from pictures and drawings I had never seen one before so I couldn't be sure. The plastic bag distorted the image but I could still seem to make out what they were. I leaned over the stack of baby bok choi to see if I could get a better look.

"Excuse me?" I asked the small, Asian girl behind the counter. She turned towards me as she finished her exchange. This girl's family ran one of the best Asian stalls at the Farmers' Market and often had strange varieties of basil and spinaches that one might be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

"Yes?" she asked, pushing her glasses up and moving one of the suspicious bags aside to give herself some counter space.

"What are those?" I pointed to the bag.

"Oh, these? Rambutans." She pulled out an ovaloid fruit covered in fleshy, pliable spikes. Neon red with canary yellow highlights it looked like one of Jim Henson's muppets had laid an egg.

Rambutans, popular fruits of the drupe family, weren't exactly common fair at the Farmers' Market under the freeway. I had never seen one in person and so to come across one here was surprising.

"Oh, wow, where did you find these?" I asked.

"At the other Farmers' Market. The one down the street." She referred to the what's commonly considered in Sacramento as the Asian Farmers' Market (unless you primarily shop there where it's just the regular Farmers' Market) where ingredients most may consider somewhat foreign can be found; fresh tofu, culantro, Hmong basil, purple snap peas, and melons the size of a 4 year old child could be procured easily. I would visit it every so often to pick up water spinach and herbs but had never come across rambutans there.

"I never see these when I go," I exclaimed.

"You have to get there early. Even then you have to stock up. We have six more bags of these in our car," she motioned her head behind her and in the corner of the truck sat six bags pregnant with uncountable litters of rambutan.

"Damn." Apparently, they were hard to find even if you know where and when to get them.

"Hold on," she said and quickly reached over for a bag. She untied it and plucked out five of the plumpest ovals she could find, their spines bending to massage her hands like eager servants. They rolled off her hand into a new bag in a spriteful manner which reminded me of the little puppets running around in opening credits of Fraggle Rock. "Here, try a few," she smiled and handed them towards me.

-The eventual evolution of rambutans.-

"Oh, I couldn't," I reluctantly waved my hand to protest her kindness. Sometimes I regret those good manners my parents raised me with.

"No, I insist. We have tons. We won't miss a few," she pushed the bag forward.

I happily accepted. "Wow, thank you! How much?" I asked.

"None, you're here every week. Think of it as thanks for your business," she began to prepare a bag of baby bok choi, cilantro, and lemongrass for me: my usual.

I handed her $1.20, "Thanks a ton! Can't wait to try them!"

"Let me know how you like them!" she waved, turned, and went back to work.

When I got home I quickly grabbed one of the rambutans out of the bag. It was soft and the spines felt like rubbery hairs. I quickly produced a pairing knife and cut the entire circumference lengthwise. I knew that anatomically they were like lychees so I let the stone in the center of the fruit guide the knife.

I popped the rambutan open to find an oblong, white piece of fruit; its flesh was translucent and fragrant. I bit in and was surprised how juicy it was but the flesh had a death grip both to its fluids and the stone in the middle. It tasted like a mellow lychee, not nearly as sweet and overpowering which was pleasant as I found lychees to be far to sweet for my taste. It was interesting, funky, a bit acidic and different. A taste that I wasn't going to sing praises of but not speak ill of it either. I think its a flavor you have to grow up with to really appreciate it.

I cracked open the rest and plopped them into a bowl. I brought them and a cup of chamomile tea out to the table, the steam from the tea billowing into divining swirls and producing a floral scent. I cracked open a copy of The House on Mango Street and began to enjoy my afternoon, the sweet tea and fruit perfectly complimenting each other and my reading.

I decided to just enjoy an hour or two this way. After all, how often do you have a chance to entertain rambutans in your home?

-I'm pretty sure you can hatch a fraggle from this thing.-

Persimmon Bread for Your Terrible, Awful, No Good, Very Bad Day

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

-Fuyu and Cinnamon persimmons, when hard, are the best for this recipe.-

"Chapter 4?" I thought.

And then the panic set it.

"Please don't tell me I..." I reached into my bag and grabbed out my notebook. I funbeled through the unorganized mess of handouts and papers creating a snow storm of white paper on my desk and eventually pulled out my syllabus. I read the day's assignments:

10/26 Teaching Strategies
"Remedial Writing Courses" Rose (SacCT)
"Writing and Reading as Collaborative Social Acts" Bruffee (SacCT)
Teaching Developmental Writing - Chapter 4

"Chapter 4? No. No, no, no... I read chapter 14!" My inner voice was now shrieking with such terror you'd think Norman Bates was plunging a knife into it. The class had read chapter 13 last week and in my exhaustion I misread the syllabus.

Then, like a bomb went off in my head, I realized what this meant. "I wrote my paper on the wrong chapter."

My body shuddered. The first domino in a long line had been flicked over and now my emotional and mental barrier began to reel apart. Tears welled and my I felt myself hyperventilating. I immediately crammed it all back down into the pit of my stomach making it feel dull and shocked like it had been sucker punched with a brass knuckled fist. I was going to have to try and hold back a total breakdown right then in the middle of class in front of nineteen of my peers for the next 75 minutes while simultaneously acting like a coherent human being making salient observations about the two correct readings I did finish.

I felt hollow, like a porcelain doll containing an maelstrom whose turbulent winds would at any second crack and shatter me. I noticed through my blurry vision that everyone began to move into small groups. I lifted my desk and did the same, my physical body and mind in some ambulatory fugue state. Moving without awareness, my body was powered by a sense of utter defeat.

"Are you okay?" asked my classmate, Manpreet. She was one of the people in my class who I admired; charming and intelligent, one of those naturally effervescent people who always seems to have the right words. Yet at the moment these were not the words I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear the words "chapter 14". "Are you okay?" simply pointed out a hole in the emotional brick wall I was trying to lay.

"No." I breathed. At that instant my porcelain shield cracked. "No. I'm not. I wrote on the wrong chapter. I wrote on chapter 14, and not chapter 4. I've already cut way back on all my side jobs and other sources of income and from that have willingly taken a pay cut just to try and keep up with class this semester and after that I still make a giant mess of things?! I don't do that kind of thing. I never make mistakes like these. I can't." My breathing became erratic and my voice pitched high with panic.

"It's okay. Don't freak. Someone else did the same thing last week," her eyes caught me like a snake charmer's pipe.

"Wha... what? Really?" I stuttered.

"Yes. Just talk to the professor. It'll be okay," she said in a tone so clam that it I could only assume it was a universal and unquestionable truth.

I paused, then asked, "Is anyone else feeling seriously against the wall this semester? I'm barely keeping up."

"Yes," Manpreet and the other people in our small group pronounced in unison.

After class I went up to the professor and explained my situation. After an hour and some joking the storm had abated. Now calm I was able to articulately explain my innocent mishap.

-Unlike my homework, this bread is foolproof.-

"Don't worry," said my professor, "you can turn in the right one on Wednesday. But you know your paper was supposed to be on last week's discussions right?"


"So wait, you mean had I done chapter 4 I would have done the wrong one anyways?"

It's a little known fact that on October 26th at roughly 5:50 PM time stopped for one second. I know. I felt it. Because when time stops, even for one second, it feels like years.

One no-second later time resumed, "Oh God, I did all of the responses wrong then? I did them all on the current week's reading and not the previous!" The maelstrom returned.

"No, just the last one or two. But don't worry. I only took about half a point and I noted it on the one I'll return to you next. The point is you were still thinking about the texts and engaging them and that was what was most important." She smiled at me and then turned to gather her things and was on her way out.

I went home defeated. When I walked in the door I dropped my messenger bag to the floor and made my way to the kitchen. I pulled out the persimmon bread I made the day before. Apparently, the only thing I did do right that day. As I pulled back the cling wrap I breathed in deep, the air now made heavy and sweet.

I began to cut off a piece and smear it with butter. The bread was amazing though it wasn't going to fix any of the mistakes I made or ones I was still going to make. Food can't always do that. It did however fill my empty stomach a bit and calmed some of those clouds. I no longer felt like I would shatter. I took another bite of bread letting my tongue feel out the textures of the dense bread, nibby pumpkin seeds, and chewy cranberries. I let it taste the spike of ginger, the coy cardamom, and the creamy waft of vanilla. I slumped on the couch and exhaled.

"Damn good bread," I sighed to myself.

-An in depth look at the cure for a shitty day.-

Persimmon Bread for Your Terrible, Awful, No Good, Very Bad Day
Makes one loaf, can be doubled for two - adapted from zucchini bread recipe at Simply Recipes

1 egg, beaten
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups grated fresh fuyu or cinnamon persimmon
1/3 cup melted unsalted butter
1 teaspoons baking soda
Pinch salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon of ground cardamom
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped pecans, walnuts, or pumpkin seeds (optional)
1/2 cup dried cranberries or raisins (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Mix in the grated persimmon and then the melted butter.

2. Sprinkle baking soda, salt, and spices over the mixture and mix in. Add the flour and fold in. Fold in the nuts and dried cranberries or raisins if using.

3. Divide the batter equally between 2 buttered 5 by 9 inch loaf pans. Bake for 1 hour (check for doneness at 50 minutes) or until a wooden pick inserted in to the center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Turn out onto wire racks to cool thoroughly.

-It may not fix mistakes, but it'll make you feel a lot less crappy about them.-

Mystery of the Maleficent Smell

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I looked at the ground for a moment, my attention wavering from my phone conversation. My line of sight gazed over the downed foliage that scattered the moss covered soil and cracked cement. Suddenly, it hit me. An electric current pulsed through the entirety of my brain and my eyes shot open with the speed that only comes when the patterns of the universe suddenly become transparent and understood.

It was so clear. So obvious.

I understood the cause.

I knew what it was.

"God damn, it still smells all yeasty out here. Seriously, what the hell is causing it?" I complained.

"I dunno," replied BF, "but it's still pretty strong. Lucky for me the smoke kinda covers it up." He laughed at me and took a long drag from his cigarette. I used to be on BF about his smoking but now I was innocuous to it and didn't really care one way or the other. At this point the whole smoking topic was kind of a running joke to us. He inhaled, "Mmm, tobacco. Sure you don't want one? It makes you look cool."

"When do I ever want one?" I said walking around outside and sniffing my nose in an attempt to follow the smell. The somewhat fermenting odor had been prevalent for about two weeks. It was everywhere and my roommate and I had exhausted almost every single possibility we could think of as the odious cause. Something in our yard was evil and didn't want us to leave the duplex under threat of nasty, stinky torment.

"It wasn't the fish," I mused to myself. A few days ago I walked out my front door and made my way to the beaten redwood gate. It had rained the night before and as usual the water had made the wood swell to the point that the only way to open it was with a to give it a good bash with my shoulder. As I began to brace my weight I noticed a perfectly good salmon fillet sitting in the mud (as relatively good as a salmon fillet in the mud can, of course, be). Pink, fishy, and rank it sat there under a pulsing blanket of flies.

"Who throws away a piece of salmon like that?" BF puffed.

"Maybe it was funky?" I guessed. "Still, we tossed that and it still smells here." I used the "we" liberally. BF had been the one brave enough to scoop it into the trash after the roommate and I had and our upstairs neighbors had all chosen to ignore it. Personally, I had hoped a neighborhood stray would devour it but to no such luck.

I looked at the old storage shed and wondered if something died in it. Sniffing the air again I confirmed that this wasn't the case. The stench of decay wasn't so fermented or humid. Rather, it would be pungent, heavy and lingering with that distinct death-scent. No, no... this was too rotten-sweet like old tomatoes left in the sun on a humid, Missouri day.

Days of this passed. We began to close the windows. The roommate was unable to identify the yeasty smell which persisted and search as I might, the odor was all encompassing. It came from everywhere and hung like misery stretching its foul sinewy tendrils over the yard and duplex, its grip tightening.

We were trapped.

Flash forward a week later. I picked up the phone to call my best friend Janelle. I had taken the call outside as BF was playing video games and I didn't want to be distracted. Per the usual I had forgotten Janelle's birthday again; a ritual I performed with all my family and friends and twice with myself. As I made my pleas with the utmost contrition I tried to ignore the smell.

Slip and goo suddenly threw me off balance. Friction left me. My back arched and I flailed one arm to find balance, the other arm focused on keeping my phone safe. Somewhere I found level footing preventing me from tumbling to the ground.

As I righted myself I fumed. Lifting up my foot I inspected the smashed, black, rotted flesh. There was still some pink in the middle and the seeds all had taken a sickly adobe hue. "Fucking figs..."

...Holy crap.

-Not pictured: The smell of funkified, yeasty oppression.-

I looked at the ground around me. Corpses of figs littered it. I shot my eyes up and squinted to see plenty more hanging on to the branches wet with natural booze. The figs were fermenting. They were fermenting hard.

The yeasty smell!

My answer had been all around me. I hadn't given any thought to the fig tree this year. Rising three stories high the figs were out of reach this year. A lack of pruning had left the tree to produce hundred of immature figs which never had a chance to really become ripe before they took a sleigh-ride to converting their sugar to alcohol. Alcohol which now made the yard smell like the nastiest home brew outhouse you ever did catch a whiff of.

"Oh God, that's it!" I yelled.

"What?" said the voice over the receiver.

"Nothing, nothing, I just figured something out." I went back to the conversation. There was nothing else to do. The figs on the ground were smashed in. The gardeners would take care of them Tuesday. The ones in the tree were too high for me to take care of.

We would just have to live with the maleficent smell a bit longer.

Pasta Sfoglia Cookbook Winner

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thanks everyone for entering! I loved hearing about how everyone enjoys their pasta. I have to admit, I'm kinda jonseing for some fettuccine alfredo with chicken or meatballs. I may have to give a few of your ideas a shot! Ah, but you all want to know who scored the cookbook, yes? Well, the winner of the contest is Largehearted Boy, David Gutowski, who noted his love of tagliatelle, especially homemade with a cream sauce.

David, be sure to e-mail me so I can be sure the cookbook gets to you. My sincere thanks to everyone who entered!

*expletive* cranberries *expletive*

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

-This cake harnesses the power of cranberries in order to kick ass.-

I didn't mean to swear that loudly in the store. It had just sort of slipped out in all the excitement. One guy turned away from me assuming me to be some crazy youngin' who didn't know better. The stock boy paused his task of corn stacking and raised his eyebrow at me in curious stupor. Down the aisle next to the celery a mother glared at me as her children, little girls now poisoned by my filthy mouth, were doomed to grow up into delinquents with pink hair and dog collars that matched their boyfriends' eyebrow jewelry.

Whatever. I can't help it if the first thing that comes out of my mouth when I see bags of crimson cranberries is, "Oh sweet mighty God, FUCK YES! CRANBERRIES!" Seriously, these things are only available for what, 60 days of the year? Damn right I get excited.

As Mrs. Prudy McPrude shuffled her kids away from my negative influence and devil speak I began to build up my cranberry cache. Most of these would be thrown into what would in the next few weeks can only be described as a nervous horde. A stockpile of cranberries in my freezer and fridge that might rival the larder of an apocalypse-theory obsessed nutjob's bomb shelter.

Cranberry sorbet, cranberry bread, cranberry scones, cranberry granola... Cranberries had become part of my fall and winter ritual just like busting out the good blankets from storage come the cold rains and cursing out the squirrels who dug up my potted plants. Every year I try to do something a bit new and inventive, I try my best to break out of the ruby colored mold.

This year was no different. I went and broke the mold by breaking out the springform pan: cranberry cake - a super simple one. A quick rendezvous in the kitchen resulting in a cake that everyone would fawn over in a cranberry colored haze. This cake is simple as can be: sugar, eggs, butter, flour, some salt and milk, and an entire bag of cranberries.

It's definitely something that'll make you swear out loud for cranberries too.

-Look upon this cake in all its neon red-streaked cranberry glory and weep for joy.-

Cranberry Cake
makes 1 9x13 or 1 10" springform cake

3 eggs
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon kirsch (optional)
1 teaspoon of salt
2 tablespoons of milk
2 cups flour
2 1/2 cups cranberries (1 bag)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9x13 pan or a 10" springform pan.

2. Beat eggs and sugar together for 5-7 minutes; the eggs will increase in volume quite a bit, streaming into ribbons when you lift the beaters. They will also turn pale yellow.

3. Add butter and extracts and beat for 2 minutes. Add the milk and salt and mix for another 30 seconds.

4. Stir in flour and fold in cranberries. Pour into greased pan.

5. Bake 45-50 minutes for a 9x13, or a little over an hour for the springform. You may need to tent the cake with foil in the last 15 minutes or so to keep the top from browning. Cool completely on a wire rack before serving.

Amaretti & Prunes (PLUS: A Cookbook Giveaway!)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

-A colorful and sweet risotto with a mellow wisp of parmesan and butter, and announced with a trumpeting blare of prunes and wine.-

"Okay, well right off the bat you don't want an Amarone. That'll set you back $70 on the low end and if you want to stay on budget we should find one wine for both dishes." The wine guy said this without looking at me as he searched through the racks of Italian labels in what seemed to be a futile attempt to help me. My wine knowledge isn't what one might even call mediocre, I have more know how in how to install a light fixture than knowing a rosey wine from a rosey nose. Thus, the task of meeting my seemingly impossible needs fell to him.

I was hell bent on making two dishes from my Pasta Sfoglia book, one being a gnocchi dish using the sweet potato gnocchi I made last weekend and the other being a risotto. Both dishes required prunes and amaretti, a dry Italian almond cookie. I figured this would be a great chance to try two different dishes.

However, each one also asked for a different, slightly expensive wine, one that asked for Amarone and the other a Marsala. After a bit of searching my wine guy was able to find something that kind of balanced the two though from what I understand I was basically asking for, "apples and oranges in one bottle."

-It was this one. It's a good thing you're reading this because I'm pretty sure I pronounce it so badly you'd go spontaneously deaf.-

With wine in hand I began my risotto experiment. I had never made risotto before and assumed it was just like making rice pudding. Furthermore, I had only ever tried onceone my life so I had no idea what a finished risotto really looked like. Luckily, the cookbook had pretty clear directions so as I sat and stirred and shook and mixed while I listened to Anthony Hopkins play the role of Titus on my crappy old television. Shakespeare and the smell of risotto cooking; I can't endorse this combo enough.

-Photographing something shiny and black like prunes is a total bitch. Just letting you know.-

Soon it was time to serve...

"You'll have to pardon me if the risotto is like glue. Eat it anyways and make me happy," I slid the bowls of risotto over to my guests. The risotto was striking in its hues of purple; lavender shaded rice with pitch-burgundy sauce which offset the tan crumbles of amartetti.

All my testers then looked at the food in front of them. Purple food - strikingly purple food - was not quite common for either of them. They lifted their forks, took a bite, mulled it over a bit, and then smiled and dove in for more. They weren't even faking. Go me.

The risotto was delicious, especially the sauce. (My God, the sauce!) When we had the leftover risotto again for dinner I made another batch of it and loosely swirled it in with the rice and crumbled more cookies over the top. My guests and I were in agreement that this was a better result though whether it was due to our collective sweet tooth or the fact that my risotto skills are negligible is undetermined (probably a little column A and a little column B).

The gnocchi dish was equally tasty as differing layers of sweet flavors really helped establish a choral counterpoint to the still savory gnocchi. However, it is my opinion that sweet potato gnocchi will taste perfect no matter what you do to them.

Overall, between all the gnocchi and risotto I'm totally digging the prune-amaretti combo and this cookbook (and I have yet to even try the pasta dishes). In fact I'm enjoying it so much that I'm giving away a copy of Pasta Sfoglia to one lucky reader. Even better, author Ron Suhanosky will personally be signing the copy for the winner! A big thanks to Ron, John Wiley & Sons publications, and a super big thanks to Megan Evans for helping me organize this little giveaway for you guys!

To enter just leave a comment about your favorite kind of pasta on this post before Friday the 23rd. On Friday, I'll announce the winner so be sure to check in and see if you've won. Please enter only once. All contestants must be in the continental United States. NOTE: This contest is closed.

-An awesome cookbook signed by Chef Ron Suhanosky. A perfect text for any pasta novice like myself.-

Risotto with Red Wine, Prunes, and Amaretti
Adapted from Pasta Sfoglia
Serve 4-6

2 tablespoons of oil (olive, safflower, or grape seed)
1 cup of coarsely chopped onions
2 cups of carnaroli rice
1 1/2 cups of red wine
6 cups of water
1 teaspoon of salt
ground pepper
5 tablespoons of butter
1/2 cup of grated Parmesan
2 cups chopped prunes
1/2 cup of crushed amaretti cookies

1. Add the oil and onions to a 3 quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook until translucent, about 3-4 minutes.

2. Add the rice and toast for 1-2 minutes, stirring every few seconds to avoid sticking and burning. Add 1/2 cup of the wine and cook until evaporated.

3. Begin to add the water, 2 cups at a time stirring often in order to release the starch. Continue to shake pan. When a wooden spoon dragged through the rice reveals a pathway add the next 2 cups. Add salt and pepper.

4. During the addition of the remaining 2 cups of water add 3 tablespoons of the butter and the Parmesan.

5. Begin the topping: Add the prunes, remaining wine, and remaining butter and toss into a skillet over high heat. Reduce to a syrup. About 8-10 minutes (6 on my freakish electric coil).

6. Place risotto in a bowl and top with the prune wine mixture. Garnish with amaretti cookies. Serve.

Note: On serving I highly suggest loosely mixing it all together. Way better in my opinion.

-Amaretti cookies and prunes. Who'da thunk it?-


Thursday, October 15, 2009

-Grassy and a bit zesty, these fine green zebras are the perfect food for sowing dissent amongst guests. (Taken with my iPhone.)-

"Still, there's something to be said for food that doesn't follow Slow Food's mantra. I mean, it's easy to eat the way Carlo Petrini or Alice Water's does if you're Carlo Petrini or Alice Waters."

"No, I think it's possible. You just have to be smart about it and dedicated to good food," she smiled in a way that her pursed lips turned as fine as lines drawn from a pencil. She reminded me of a Stepford wife - all pearls, soft makeup, and cashmere.

"Oh lord almighty, I think this one already drank the locally produced punch." I thought with dread.

I nodded to her comment and feigned that I was taking her words in and kneading them in my head like bread dough in an attempt to make meaning. I turned to my plate and used my knife to nudge a slice of green zebra tomato onto my bread. Pinning the fruit and bread together with my hands I sloshed it around some aged cherry balsamic vingear and dashed on a little fleur de sel. The taste was excruciatingly complex in its use of simple flavors. As others bit into zingy pineapples, winey Castulato Genoveses, and somewhat mutely rich Japanese Truffles the din of the room grew louder as people gushed and praised each and every heirloom they tried.

I had never been the biggest fan of tomatoes so going to a Slow Food event that focused on them didn't hold the greatest appeal to me at first. Still, as I was writing an entire thesis on Slow Food rhetoric I drew the conclusion I would have to immerse myself in the culture. Plus, after reading hundreds of pages of information (no exaggeration) I figured a field trip of sorts was needed. Slow Food Sacramento had put together a lecture about the history of heirloom varieties to be catered by Del Rio Farms, one of the regions premier organic farms which grew an astounding variety of, well, everything; all of it in line with Slow Food's Good-Clean-Fair mantra.

These tomatoes had single handedly changed my mind about what tomatoes can and should be. One of the best parts about my research thus far.

Sadly, the lecture only lasted two minutes which left me feeling a little stymied and a bit peeved. Yet it seemed that the history snippet was enough for most as they were primarily here to eat and in the process donate money to whatever charity was being run that night (no one seemed to know).

I was able to do some observational research though. The room was, except for three people, white. All very well off judging from the fact that a designer label bomb had apparently been detonated in the room prior to the event. Given, I was no exception in either case, but I was in attendance as a poor student and planned to write the cost of the ticket off that way come tax season. (Slow Food Sac's committee had rejected my plea to attend for free so I could just listen to the speaker and then leave when people sat down to eat. I assume due to the fact that the "lecture" was secondary to eating.)

I swallowed my bite and admired the bright, grassy finish of the green zebra. I turned back to my table, "Well, no offense but I live as a grad student who works at a non-profit. I eat well but only because I buy what's in season at the farmer's market. Furthermore, I'm only buying for one so it's affordable for me. I rarely buy meat aside from frozen chicken cutlets for easy cooking. I'm also lucky that I have friends who hunt and farm," I nodded to Hank and Holly who were also in attendance and at the table. "For the most part, living the Slow life isn't feasible if you're poor, live in a low income urban area, and in both cases means you probably aren't white."

"Well, that's why we have to encourage our economies to work the right ways," replied Stepford. I noticed her high demeanor, and statuesque presence. I wondered if she had ever reflected on this discourse and what the right ways were in detail and how they were supposed to work? I had no idea and couldn't judge - though I am good at it - so I plowed on with a different argument.

"Still, that's niether here nor there. These tomatoes are fine eating. Can't believe I used to refuse them. I think it's just the Albertson's irradiated and sprayed tomatoes. I always found them way too sweet, almost like they tasted rotten," I snarked. We all laughed in agreement.

"Certain childhood foods, likes and dislikes, you just can't let them go sometimes," said Holly.

Stepford's husband chirpped in, "I still love McDonald's french fries. Love. Them. Ate them all the time as a kid."

"Ick!" I said, "Not me. McDonald's makes me ill, though I am a fan of Jack in the Box. You know what? I still love tuna casserole with potato chips crumbled on it. I still make it once or twice a year. It's not haute food but it's nostalgia and my childhood tastes. You can't be served that in a restaurant."

"I don't see how you could eat that," Stepford noted before popping a small organic cherry tomato in her mouth as well as one can pop a cherry tomato in the primest fashion possible. I wondered if Emily Post approved of popping.

"It reminds me of home and of simpler times when I lived in the dorm staying up late to watch zombie movies with friends." I pressed on, "I'm not saying it's environmentally responsible food or crazy healthy. Just that some food doesn't have to be justified. It can just be fun and invoke memories. Every once in a while I buy Captain Crunch for the kick of it or eat frozen corndogs because I don't want to make homemade pasta or I want to sort of kick back and chill out. It's not Slow Food, but it works for me. Tuna casserole has a place in society and people's lives."

And then she rolled her eyes at me.

Let me say it again: She rolled her eyes at me.

Her lips pursed harder, almost so hard that they might have merged together forever binding the flesh and shutting her up forever. They might as well have. She refused to speak to me the rest of the event. Eventually she denied her amiable nature to Hank and Holly as well once we moved on to the topic of "How to create the most offensive dish ever!" (Answer: Bunny ears wrapped in foie gras and slathered in twinkie cream, then deep fried and served with a a variety of dipping sauces one of them being zesty ranch.)

Whatever. This was her problem. She was too entrenched in Slow Food's surface aura, unable to see their real messages about economic, environmental and nutritional change. Stepford was oblivious to how the world worked outside her bubble, or at least didn't want to hear about it. I was the graduate student who didn't know to not eat tuna casserole with potato chips.

"Oh well," I thought, "she'll make for a good subject in the thesis."

Scratch Another New Year's Resolution - Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Sunday, October 11, 2009

-This image looks pretty, but if you could see what the rest of the surrounding kitchen looked like you might actually have a stroke at the sight of the sheer mess I made.-


"Ganache? No, that's chocolate."

"Oh yeah. So, Guh-nochi?"

"Nope, but that's what I used to call it too. Truthfully, I still do sometimes. 'Guh-nochi' is more fun to say," I smiled at myself.

BF ignored my quip. "Gn-occhi?" he asked, guessing once again.

"Gnocchi. Nyo-kE," I said sounding it out.

"Gnocchi. Okay, yeah... who decided to spell it this way?"

"The Italians," I smirked.

"Ah," he gave the cookbook I was holding a look that reflected his confusion towards the messed up world of international linguistics. I smiled in a way that assured him that I agreed with his silent conclusion.

Gnocchi was one of my New Years resolutions this year. This last January first I had decided to make a mental list that I could actually follow through with, ones with resolutions I could actually scratch off. Too often had plans to learn French, teach myself to juggle, and buy flowers more often been put up on a dust covered shelf with a note pinned on, "Do later. No time." Others were simply forgotten and left in to stew in the rot of gutters of city streets.

The impetus finally came when I picked up a copy of Pasta Sfoglia by Ron and Colleen Suhanosky, the chef-owners of the Sfoglia restaurants in Nantucket and Manhattan. Now pasta, and Italian in general, is not my strong suit in cooking. I have ruined spaghetti, laid waste to perfectly good lasagnas, and ravaged raviolis until they were burnt to the bottom of my pot. Seriously, I cannot cook non-Asian food for the life of me.

However, this book however had a welcoming approach. All the recipes are unique and intriguing utilizing for the most part ingredients I can find and afford. Furthermore, it has a section on making pasta and gnocchi from scratch. I purchased it on a whim and took it home hoping the fact I had spent money I didn't have would be enough to propel me into crossing a resolution off my list.

"Sweet potato gnocchi," I read to myself. It sounded so simple, yet outrageous. A concrete recipe given new life through a modern twist. I rushed to the farmer's market for some russets then dashed over to Elise's to borrow her potato ricer (a mandatory piece of equipment needed for gnocchi that I did not have as I can't say I have a fervent need to rice potatoes very regularly) with the promise to return it before nightfall or face the wrath of Father Bauer (who apparently rices many potatoes). Since the man can fell trees with his bare hands I made sure to rush home and begin my project with the utmost speed.

A short roast and some ricing went underway; then an egg, salt, flour and a bit of maple syrup came together to form a dough. The dough was then rolled into ropes and cut into puffy pillows of burnt orange dough. Delicate and fragrant. Their rustic appearance was beyond adorable and I couldn't help but coo at them as if they were tiny little puppies - they were certainly as soft as one.

Now new processes and ventures into the world of food are rarely pretty and usually involve plenty of scrubbing. The kitchen however did not feel the same way about the process as I had. A storm of flour had coated every possible surface, and every speck of it had been somehow cemented into place by the fine layer of starch from the potatoes. Pots were stacked, some I couldn't recall what I had even used them for and I wondered if some, unhappy with how they had been so poorly washed before - I have no dishwasher - had crept back into the pile when I wasn't looking.

In the end I had made two and a half pounds of sweet potato gnocchi. Enough to make nine or ten satisfying servings as each little puff expands into a mightier, floofier puff. It was an epic undertaking. One I would be happy to do again. Just not again any time soon.

I froze the bulk of it and later gave some to Elise and Father Bauer when I returned the ricer. I threw some into some boiling water and watched intently for them to rise to the surface; the inevitable proof I had made them properly. My elated screams were met with BF's quizzical stare when I squealed, "They rose! They rose! Can you see this!? The gnocchi! They've bobbed to the surface! My happy, sweet gnocchi!" I would have cried had they not. BF simply turned his head back to playing Warcraft as by now he was used to my kitchen mood swings.

Since they were so sweet from the maple syrup and sweet potatoes I served them with a quick sauce of tomatoes, garlic, Italian sausage and capers. The dish was a fine balance of acid, brine, spice and sweet. Satisfying and amazing.

One more resolution could now be checked off my list. Canning? Done. Pancakes? Done. Buy flowers for the apartment? Done. Juggling? Hmm, next week? Make pasta or gnocchi from scratch? A resounding hells yes done. Now I just need to get to making pie dough successfully and not hard as sheet rock. I still have two and half months to go...

Clock is ticking people, better get on your own lists.

-Puffy pillows of sweet potato perfection!-

Sweet Potato Gnocchi
Adapted from Pasta Sfoglia

1 1/2 pounds of unpeeled sweet potatoes
1 1/2 pounds of unpeeled russet potatoes
2 cups of all-purpose flour
1 egg
1/4 cup of pure maple syrup (not fake!)
1 teaspoon of kosher salt

To Make Gnocchi:
1. Preheat oven to 400F. Wrap the potatoes and sweet potatoes in foil. Bake for an hour or until a tester goes in without any resistance. Let cool until you can handle them.

2. Peel and discard skins. Pass through a potato ricer into a large bowl.

3. Add the egg, salt, and maple syrup and mix. Add 1 cup of the flour and mix. Add the second and mix until well combined.

4. Turn onto a dry surface that has been lightly floured. Gently knead the dough into a 10 x8 inch log. Let rest for a few minutes.

5. Cut the log into four pieces. Lightly roll into a rope about 1 inch thick (give yourself a lot of space for this). Cut each rope into 1/2-inch gnocchi. Store on a lightly floured baking sheet in a single layer..

These can be cooked immediately. You will have tons however. Place them in the freezer in a single layer on a lightly floured sheet. When frozen you can toss them into an airtight container and keep in the freezer. Use within two weeks. When you do use them, allow them to thaw for 30-45 minutes in a single layer on a baking sheet.

To Cook Gnocchi:
Bring a pot of well salted water to a boil. Add the gnocchi. They will sink to the bottom. After the gnocchi rise to the surface, let them cook a minute more. Scoop them out with a wire mesh skimmer or what-have-you and serve immediately with a favorite sauce.

-The sweet gnocchi here are well paired with capers as most things usually are.-

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Capers, Tomatoes, and Italian Sausage
Adapted from Pasta Sfoglia - Serves 2

2 cups of sweet potato gnocchi
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 tablespoon of capers, washed
1 link of mild Italian sausage, cut into small pieces
1 cup of diced tomatoes
splash of white wine
salt and pepper
1/4 cup of pasta water

1. Add butter to skillet and melt on medium-high heat. Add garlic, sausage, and capers and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, and wine. Cook for 2 minutes. Take off heat and cover.

2. Bring a pot of well salted water to a boil. Add the gnocchi. They will sink to the bottom. After the gnocchi rise to the surface, let them cook a minute more. Scoop them out with a wire mesh skimmer or what-have-you and put on plates or bowls.

3. Add pasta water to the tomato mixture and stir. Pour over hot gnocchi and serve.

-Gnocchi, with a flourish, is scratched off the list.-

Consolation and Cookies

Thursday, October 8, 2009

-Cookies are a perfect comfort food because both words start with a "C". My reasoning is infallible here.-

Dear Tyler,

I'm not sure what to say to you. Not after what you did. I'm still angry and upset that you would lie to me like that over the last few weeks. I'm in class writing this and trying not to cry. I have to go up to the front and give a presentation but all I can thi-

Suddenly an arm covered the rest of the letter. I looked up quickly only to meet the bloodshot eyes of the letter's author. They were framed by her rumpled eyelids and brow, furrowed like sand dunes casting small shadows that seemed to make her rage towards the fact that I had trespassed upon such a private correspondence all the more intense. She stared at me coldly, my invasion had made her situation public and she was embarrassed; frustrated at the unexpected revelation.

"I... uh-I... Sorry. I was bored waiting for the class to start and my eyes just kinda started to wander around. I didn't mean to intrude on your personal stuff. It was a total accident." I began to apologize profusely stopping at just shaving my head as penance.

She looked at me, her eyes growing a bit softer and wet. She glazed her line of sight to the left and struggled in for a deep breath, the air stuttering as if filled her lungs to the point where her chest might burst. She exhaled like a gun firing a shot, echoing it in the acoustic classroom.

"It's okay. Sorry, just... Yeah. He's an asshole and it's hard just... you know..." she sighed.

"Writing it out. It's admitting to yourself and taking it in through your own senses that there are problems," I said, hoping that I was finishing her thoughts the right way assuming there was one. I realized I had probably been a bit forward in my amateur analysis and hoped I hadn't offended her more.

"Yeah." I was relieved to hear her say this. She continued, "Just it's hard after so long to just make this decision and change my life in such a way." She paused for a moment, then turned and asked, "Is it tacky to write a letter?"

"I dunno, but I think eventually you have to talk to the person. It's inevitable. Avoiding it just makes you the bad guy I think. On the other hand the guy is probably a douchebag," I gave her a smile so awkward I thought it would fall off my face. I've never been good at this kind of thing, even with friends I know well. I'm never sure what to do. Just listen? Offer advice? I'm happy to be there as support for the people in my life, yet emotional situations lose me like a thick fog. I'm just uncertain as which way to go.

"He is," she laughed. "I'm Kelly."

"Garrett," I replied. We shook hands. Then I remembered the cookies I had baked last night. In my rush to get to class in time I had thrown a few into a plastic baggie and dashed them into my messenger bag as a way to later fight off the unending drone of the professor. "Cookie? I find cookies generally make most things better. At least temporarily."

"Ooh! Yes. I dig cookies," we toasted our cookies like wine glasses, a small puff of crumbs falling to the ground between our desks.

I smiled. I wasn't sure what else I could do. Class started and we made a few jokes and smart ass one-liners to each other to cut through the dry lecture. She would go back to her letter every now and again, jotting a few words down but keeping them covered with her arm. The thoughts weren't ready to be made known to anyone but her.

I fear consolation will never be a skill of mine. All I can offer are a few kind words and some cookies. Luckily, it seems, that's all people need at times.

-Cookies should always come in neat little bundles like this.-

Chocolate Chip Cocoa Nib Cookies
Makes 4-5 dozen

1 cup of butter (2 sticks) room temperature
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 heaping teaspoon of ground coffee
3/4 cup of sugar
3/4 cup of firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of salt
2 cups of all-purpose flour
1/2 cup of whole wheat flour (substitute all-purpose if needed)
1 cup of dark or bittersweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup of cocoa nibs

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a side bowl whisk together the salt and flours.

2. Cream the butter for three minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for thirty seconds each. Add the vanilla extract and coffee and beat for another minutes. Be sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure even mixing.

3. Add the sugars and beat for two or three minutes until light and fluffy. Add the baking soda and beat for another minute. Be sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

4. Slowly mix in the flour mixture and beat until just incorporated together.

5. Stir in the chocolate chips and cocoa nibs. Spoon onto the prepared baking sheet in small spoonfuls. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until the edges are golden brown and the centers no longer pale. Let cook for a moment on the pan then move to a wire rack to finish cooling.

-"Dear Tyler, I'm eating cookies and you aren't. Suck it."-

*knead the bread*

Monday, October 5, 2009

-Smeared with butter this bread will help cure whatever is pissing you the hell off.-

Sometimes, I need to just pause from the everything I'm doing. At the moment my schedule is work from 7-3:30, class from 4:30-6:30 (or 10 on Wednesdays), get home and do homework. During the time after homework I try to also eat, blog, run errands, do chores, and try to balance in a social and love life so people don't think I died by finally hanging myself outside the CSUS library where I spend most of my weekends doing research.

Still, and by sweet zombie Jesus there is a still, I find a moment to actually get some work done in the kitchen. Work isn't necessarily the right word. I don't see cooking as work. It's play. A chance to be creative. To blow off steam.

I find bread to be one of the more productive ways to let off steam and frustration. Few other tasks encourage you to smack the snot out of something with your ring hand and work out your frustration because those damn kids across the alley have no concept of noise pollution. (Oh shit, I think I'm old now!) Yes, kneading bread is a fabulous way to just get it all out.

The whole act of aggressive pulling, pushing, and shaping acts like an edible stressing stone. The warm ball of whole wheat and buckwheat has magic in it. Wet dough sticking to your fingers sucking out all the frustrations. Yeast has therapeutic properties, not only does it convert sugar into gas, it converts negative energy into sweet smelling goodness. As every muscle in your fingers contract and release, pushing energy in and out of the dough, it absorbs the frustration and imbues you with a kind of serenity only good bread can bestow.

This last Saturday, a day that had been plagued by reading on cognitive linguistic patterns, or something like that, I was filled with angst. It swirled inside me colliding, the friction of frustration and anger generating storms and dark clouds could be seen in my eyes. It was during this that I needed to knead bread, the same way a Buddhist will meditate for inner stillness. For me, it was noms rather than ohms.

"Ugh, God, you must be vengeful if I'm still fucking alive after this week."

*knead the bread*

"I'm tired! God damn assignment making me read over 280 pages in one weekend!"

*knead the bread*

"I just want to stop. Why the hell did I take this on!? Why did I want to go back to school!? I'm burnt out already. My personal graduation deadline is coming up fast!"

*knead the bread*

"Work is driving me crazy! Why won't people leave me alone so I can get shit done for once?"

*knead the bread*

"At least I can start teaching college writing soon. Assuming there are actually jobs out there when I graduate."

*knead the bread*

"Oh crap, I have an article due for Edible Sacramento soon. I need to budget time for that somehow. Crud. Okay, deep breath."

*knead the bread*

"I think I can squeeze it in in early November? Ah well, I'm sure I'll find something great to work on."

*knead the bread*

*looks out the window*

*knead the bread*

"God, it's nice outside. I think I'll open the window."

*knead the bread*

"Mace, damn it, go away. I'm not letting you eat another yeast packet. You fart up a storm when you steal those."

*knead the bread*

"Oh hells yes, this smells good. Hmm, I wonder if I should contact that person I met at BlogHer, I bet she would be a great wealth of information for my thesis."

*knead the bread*

"I think I'll add some more dried cranberries to this. Damn, this'll be good. If baking bread was a sin, Dante would have dedicated a chapter to me."

And then I set the bread in a warm place so the little bits of yeast who have escaped Eat Beast can nourish themselves. As the bread rises, so do my spirits. All is once again good with world.

-When life gives you cranberries you make cranberry studded bread sweetened by molasses. Then thank life for giving you cranberries because that was really awesome of it to do.-

Whole Wheat Molasses Bread with Cranberries
Adapted from Gourmet

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for kneading
2 cups whole-wheat flour
2 tablespoons of buckwheat flour (optional)
2 teaspoons salt
1 (1/4-oz) package fast-acting yeast such as Fleischmann's Rapid Rise yeast
1 cup warm water
1/2 cup warm milk
1/4 cup molasses (not robust or blackstrap)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries

1. Whisk together flours, salt, and yeast in a bowl. Whisk together water, milk, molasses, and butter in another bowl until combined well, then stir into flour mixture until a wet dough forms. Stir in cranberries. You may need to add a sprinkle or two of water if the dough is initially crumbly.

2. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead, working in just enough additional flour to prevent dough from sticking, until smooth and elastic, 7 to 10 minutes. Form dough into a ball and put in an oiled bowl, turning to coat, then let rest in bowl, uncovered, in a draft-free place at warm room temperature 10 minutes.

3. Divide dough in half and form into 2 balls. Arrange about 4 inches apart on a large baking sheet. Loosely cover with oiled plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled, about 1 hour.

4. Preheat oven to 425°F with rack in lowest position. Lightly sprinkle dough with some flour and bake until golden brown and bottoms sound hollow when tapped, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

-Ruby nuggets of tarty goodness.-

Amaretti & Butternut Cupcakes

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I revamped, rewrote, and refined my very favorite of all time cupcake recipe. Enjoy!

-I think putting a cookie on top of a cupcake was one of the smartest things I ever did.-

Certain flavors are unexepectedly harmonious in ways you might never expect. Some people add curry powder to brownies, others add feta cheese to their watermelon, I combine hardy knots of winter squash with crispy amaretti.

Yet, this is not necessarily a new combination; in Italy and now in the United States it has become an increasingly popular filling for ravioli in the winter, and is often served with a nutty cream sauce. As strange as cookies in pasta sounds the flavor is spontaneous and endearing to the senses. So, when a flavor combination is this delightful, how can I not make it into a cupcake?

Crispy amaretti are hunted game in this household, their airy bodies musky with the scent of almonds make them a favorite prey for the cookie hungry. Come autumn it's also common to see my squash bowl out, an old wire basket I once picked up at an antique store that holds the obtuse produce throughout the chilly months until I end up carving, baking, pureeing and dicing them into manageable portions for whatever recipe.

Taking these two strong flavors and combining them is a task any adventurous baker should try. Two flavors that are like fall winds mixing and swirling into each other becoming one unified force with more body, more spirit than when they were apart.

Even if it's not this recipe, grind some amaretti cookies into dust and add them to pumpkin pie or bread. Go on. You'll see, I'm right. Then you'll come and thank me and want to try this cupcake recipe even more.

Amaretti Butternut Squash Cupcakes
Makes about 24 cupcakes / 350 F oven

I decided to revisit my first ever original cupcake, Butternut Squash with Sage Frosting and Allspice, and use the same base with a few little alterations. I ground up a few of the cookies into the batter in lieu of actually using almond extract in fear it would overtake the squash. The cake is fantastic.

1 large butternut squash (for 2 cups of puree)
4 large eggs, lightly beaten, room temperature
1 cup of butter, room temperature
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 cup of brown sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of baking powder
2 cups of flour
1/3 cup of finely ground amaretti cookies

What You'll Do...
1. Quarter and seed the squash. Place in a dish with 1/4 cup of water and bake for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool, scoop out (no skins!) then puree in a food processor or blender.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and crushed amaretti cookies. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together sugars, eggs, and butter. Add dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Whisk in butternut puree.

4. Divide batter evenly among liners, filling each about halfway. Bake at 350 F until tops spring back when touched, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 18-22 minutes. Rotate pans once if needed. Transfer to a wire rack to let cool.

5) Frost with buttercream and top with an amaretti cookie.

Vanilla Buttercream
What You'll Need...
1 cup butter, room temperature
4 cups of powdered sugar
1/4 cup of milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

What You'll Do...
1. Cream the butter until soft.

2. Add the sugar and then the milk and extract. Cream till soft. Spread on cool cupcakes.

This recipe also makes for a great layer cake. Just use cake pans and increase the time to 35-40 minutes.

If you don't want to use butternut puree', 2 cups of pumpkin puree' from a can also tastes great!

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