Life in a Patty

Some generalities can always be made: about women, men, seagulls, you name it.  And then there are always the exceptions to the rule.  My exception to one such Generality About Being a Woman is that I'm a horrible multi-tasker. When I was in my twenties, I deluded myself that I was one capable of multi-tasking, and now that I'm safely thirty I have admitted to myself that I am a one-thing-at-a-time kind of person.  Your twenties are for pretending who you want to be, and your thirties are for realizing who you actually are, I've decided.  Now I can congratulate myself on my newfound maturity, and, at once, painfully wave farewell to the times gone by when I had the option of doing one thing at a time.  Really, that time ended when I had a baby.  Then I was doubly reminded that that time was over when she started walking.  And then triply when she began climbing...and you see where I'm going.  (You may also draw the logical conclusion when you see what time I posted this and every other blog post).  I see other women juggling children at the grocery store, with their coupon binder, washed hair, and unstained clothes, and marvel at them.  If you are one of these women, I salute you.

Of course, in a household with an actor, an artist, and a toddler, there's never one thing going at a time.  And not only do I try to take the best care ever of my little girl, but I also try to do some things for myself (writing here, drawing there, bathing), then I have to earn some money (freelance graphic design work, helping out my photographer friend with some shoots), and still find time to put breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the table.  It's at that time -- when the actor shows up for his far-to-short dinner break, and I realize I have no idea what to serve up, and the toddler starts getting cranky, and I realize that the day is almost gone and I've gotten maybe one thing done -- that's the time when I want to consolidate everything in my universe into a big life-shaped patty that I can eat one. mouthful. at. a. time.

Not possible, I know.  But I can make dinner into a patty, and that's what I'm going to do:

I'm starting a project called Life Burgers.  I'm going to take all my favorite (mostly meatless) meals, put them into veggie-burger format, freeze them, and serve them up when all else fails.  I'll be sharing the recipes here, of course, and I'd like you to weigh in, via the comments section, what you'd like to see in burger form.  First up will be a Punjabi Red Kidney Bean Stew gone life burger: kidney beans spiked with ginger, garlic, coriander and cumin, with bits of bright tomato and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Serve it up with a dollop of yogurt and a sprig of cilantro (you know me).  Then after that: a Southern Black-eyed Pea Life Burger with bits of bacon and ribbons of kale mixed in.  Are you getting the idea?  Stay tuned.

My Top Five Cookbooks

I have so many cookbooks, and I love all of them, despite the fact that I almost never follow recipes.  It's a carefully curated collection, most of which have been gifted to me by my mother.  Five years ago (with no baby and an employee discount at a gourmet grocery), the more complicated the recipe, the better.  The more steps and more dishes dirtied, the better.  The more obscure ingredients, the better.  Mind you, I still love cracking into a really involved dish with rare (read: pricey) ingredients, but these days, cooking has become more of a job and less of a hobby.  Money's tighter, having a kid and all, husband needs to be fed before he rushes out the door, and I have other things I should be doing.  I've even embraced leftovers.  My relationship to food has changed.

I enjoy the job of cooking, as long as I stick to my principles.  They are:
1.  We shall not eat the same thing more than two days in a row.
2.  I shall cook food from at least 3 different countries every week.
3.  We shall defy our mingy food budget by eating dazzlingly tasty food.
4.  We shall eat food that both makes us healthy and happy.  Sometimes these two things are mutually exclusive, and that's okay.  In the end, it all balances out.

Armed with my principles, here are the five cookbooks that I constantly reach for, every week, when I'm doing my menu planning/grocery list (which is the only way to stick to a food budget and also not go out of your mind at dinner time every night).  The trick to meal planning, I've found, is to pick one dish you're really excited about cooking, write down all the ingredients you need, and then base your other meals off of what you'll have left after preparing that meal.  For example, you might have half a head of cabbage left, or part of a box of chicken stock.  You get the idea.

1.  How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman: This is the book that should replace The Joy of Cooking in your cookbook library (unless you have one of the vintage versions with possum recipes inside).  My favorite thing about this book is that it's for all ability levels, it's totally straight forward, and most (if not all) recipes have several variations.  I know several people who have learned to cook from this book.  My brother, in fact, is one of these people, and he and his old house-mates used to refer to it as the gospel according to Mark.  It also comes in a vegetarian version, if that's your thing.

2.  The Italian Country Table: Homecooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens by Lynne Rossetto Kasper:  This book is totally inspired, though it's not hard to guess why, given the subject matter.  One thing I value most in a cookbook is when there are recipes for things that I can't dream up on my own.  This book has that in spades.  Also, the author really teaches you about ingredients, wine pairings, and all that kind of food nerd stuff which I love so much.  This is the book that taught me about putting veggies in with your pasta water when you make pesto.  It also contains the only cake I have ever successfully made: chocolate polenta cake, laced with orange and insanely delicious (and gluten free!).  You didn't think you could eat like this outside of Italy.  You can, and the best part is that you made it yourself.

3.  The Mediterranean Kitchen by Joyce Goldstein:  This is not a completely authentic Mediterranean cookbook, but the author skips around the rim of this flavorful region, touching on all the great dishes, putting her spin (and a healthy glug of olive oil) on them, and offering thoughtful cooking methods and years of expertise as a chef along with them.  This book will really teach you how, say, Turkish flavors differ from Spanish ones, and I've learned, as a result, how to improvise on these different cuisines.  For example, the chicken tagine dish I shared with you is a riff on her lamb tagine with lemon and olives.  Everyone loves Mediterranean food, and this is a great place to start.

4.  World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey:  Just because you love bacon doesn't mean you shouldn't own this cookbook.  We all need to be less meat-centric in our meals, and with the huge, satisfying flavors that Jaffrey offers, you won't miss the meat.  I credit this woman with teaching me how spices really work, how they work together, how much to use, how to grind, store, shop for, etc.  And once you know how spices work, literally worlds unfold in your cooking.  It might seem a little daunting and expensive to collect all those different bottles of powders and seeds, but if you do it slowly over time, and maintain a good stock, you can make most of these dishes with very inexpensive ingredients.  The chapter on beans, for example, is brilliant because each and every recipe tastes so different.  A lot of the recipes are quick to make, too, and they're all healthy, colorful, and delicious.  This cookbook helps me stick to principle number two (see above).

5.  The Food Matters Cookbook by Mark Bittman:  I really didn't want to have two books by the same author on this list, but after waffling around for ages, I've finally admitted to myself (and you) that this is a really important book to have.  As soon as I cracked it open, I was thrilled to see that basically what this book is, is the way I try to cook all the time: economically and healthily.  Instead of having to flip quickly past the giant steak recipe, wiping the drool from the pages, I get chapter after chapter of recipes I can a) afford to make, b) want to make, and c) should be making.  My refried bean recipe offers a suggestion of putting kale in your burrito.  That's from this book.  I think he actually might be able to impact how America is eating, and that would be a wonderful thing.

Honorable Mention: Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child:  I own this book, and there are some things that only Julia should teach you how to do.  But let's face it, we shouldn't be eating this way all week, as much as we might want to.  Kudos, Mrs. Child, for all you've done for cooks across America, and here's to many artery-clogging generations to come!

Adventures in an ill-equipped kitchen :: {mashed cauliflower}

Just because we're artists doesn't mean we're starving, though the way several of our kitchens have been outfitted, you'd think that were meant to be the case.  When my husband and I were dating, he lived in actor housing.  This meant he got a room with a bed (which sometimes included another person and a bed for them, and whatever strange habits they might have had), and all the actors shared a bathroom and kitchen.  Living in actor housing meant not having a lease, so that when the acting contract ended he could pack up and move at a day's notice.  One time that even happened;  one day he was here, and the next day he was in Washington DC.  Anyway, everything fit into his tiny car: clothes, big Shakespeare books, and a computer.  I'm sure had I been living the nomadic actor lifestyle (which I promptly swore to never do as soon as I met my husband) there would have been about five kitchen appliances that I would take with me, too, even if it meant I could only take one pair of pants.  But alas and alack, his affections did not that way turn, so I had to make do with the "pots," "knives," and "cutting boards" that the various theatres provided.  I'm telling you, these things must have either come from a giant doll house or from the props department, because they were definitely not designed for cooking use.  When he lived in DC, his kitchen was even worse -- a galley wide enough for a small French woman -- maybe.  I really didn't step foot in there.  I couldn't handle it.  So I would travel the three hours on the Greyhound bus to see him every weekend with trays of lasagna on my lap.

Another horrible kitchen was in our house-share in England.  We had been married a year and moved over there with clothes, big Shakespeare books, and computers.  I would have brought my Top Five kitchen things, but we were promised that the kitchen was "well-equipped."  The only thing this kitchen was, in fact, equipped for, was burning your dinner on the thinner-than-aluminum-foil pans, opening wine bottles (which helped to wash down your burnt dinner), and making tea (those supplies did, in fairness, get put to a lot of use).  One time I was making Thanksgiving dinner for all of our non-American housemates and some American friends, and I was cutting the bread to make stuffing with an awful little bendy serrated knife, and the knife slipped (since it wasn't sharp enough to grip even soggy-crusted British bread) and almost hacked a good quarter inch off of my finger.  I bled all over the place, including the bread, jumped around the kitchen in a fit, and called my husband and made him leave class early.  He arrived at home minutes later, to find me sitting in the bloody bread cube-scattered kitchen with my arm above my head and my hand wrapped in some kind of inappropriate bandage -- like a pot holder or something -- with a very injured expression on my face.  We went out the next day and bought better knives.

So here is my list of the top five kitchen things you should have at your disposal in any kitchen, whether you're going off to grad school in a foreign land or renting a house by the sea for a week's vacation.  These are most definitely listed in order of most crucial to least:

1.  A heavy flat-bottomed, straight-sided stainless steel skillet with two metal handles (so you can put it in the oven) and a lid.  You might be surprised that a sharp knife is not at the top of this list.  I thought long and hard about this, and I really think the pan wins out.  Thin, wobbly, bad pans have the power to ruin whatever you put in them, making it burn, stick, and cook unevenly.  A bad knife, wielded with great care, will still get the job done, just not as quickly, and with not nearly the amount of pleasure.

2.  A really sharp 8-inch chef's knife.  Second only to a good pan is a good knife.  I think the 8-inch chef's knife is the most versatile.  You can hack through a chicken, chop herbs, make quick work of dicing up onions and garlic, you can use the side of it like a mallet to pound meat cutlets..  Some people are really partial to Santoku knives, which are really the Asian incarnation of the chef's knife.  I like to use my Santoku knife when I make fake Asian food, because it makes me feel ironically authentic.

3.  A good, thick, heavy cutting board made from wood or bamboo.  I don't believe in plastic cutting boards.  Things slide around on them, they slide around on the counter, and after a while little bits of plastic start getting hacked up by the chopping and they get in your food.  "But what about all the Scary Bacteria?" you ask.  It's actually been proven that wood is a cleaner cutting surface; somehow wood ejects bacteria from its surface.  Obviously I do a nice hot soapy wash after raw meats, but I've never had a problem with The Germs.

4.  An immersion blender.  It's portable, and you can make food different consistencies with it!!  Of course, the ideal is to have a food processor, blender, and Kitchen Aid mixer, but I've been making do with an immersion blender for years.  Use it to make aioli, pesto, pureed soups, smoothies, milkshakes, baby food, etc.

5.  A wooden spoon.  It's the first utensil humans ever made, and for good reason.  Also, they feel nice to hold in your hand, and they're safe for your baby to chew on.

Mashed Cauliflower
I did this as an experiment and we all declared it more delicious than mashed potatoes.  I don't know if you'll agree, but you should try it just in case!  This is a time to crack out the immersion blender; you won't get the nice smooth consistency without it.  I think this was quicker to prepare than mashed potatoes, too, because there's no peeling involved.  Bonus.
Cut up one head of cauliflower and boil it until it's very tender when you poke the stem with a knife.  (You could steam it, too, if you're so inclined.).  Drain it very well.  Return it to the pot, place over very low heat, and add 2/3 brick of cream cheese and half a stick of butter.  Puree with your handy immersion blender (or food processor, or mash by hand).  If it seems too thick, thin with a bit of milk or cream.  Season to taste with salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg.

Blaming your tools :: {bearnaise sauce}

Whoever said that thing about a good craftsman never blaming their tools can't have been a craftsman.  Or if he was, he had good tools.  Anyway, I've found that sometimes one does blame one's tools, and that's perfectly respectable.

My culinary Everest for years was Bearnaise sauce, that sublime invention only the French could have conceived as a vehicle to increase your butter consumption -- something designed to make steak, which really needs nothing but salt, seem incomplete without it.  Made properly it's velvety, tangy, delicately scented, at once subtle and commanding.  A failed attempt is grainy, sharp, and nothing short of disgusting.

Perfect Bearnaise, every time, at Harry's Grill Bar.  I took this picture, and then I got to lick out the bowl.
Armed with my Christmas gift that year, a sauce cookbook book of epic proportions and heft, I felt confident that I could whip out a perfect Bearnaise, worthy of the most charming bistro in the world.  I was making this Bearnaise sauce to accompany our New Year's Eve dinner of Fondue Bourguignonne.  My brother was bringing his new girlfriend (future wife, but none of us knew that)...stakes were high, but I wasn't phased.  I imagined us all gaily laughing as we swept our perfectly sizzled bits of fillet through a perfect mound of sauce, smacking our lips, and exclaiming how perfect it all was.

You can see where this is going.  The tool I'm going to blame this time was the stove.  It was a gas stove, but the low setting was really only low if you compared it to the high setting.  It was a relative low.  The sauce broke because the heat was too high and the eggs essentially scrambled.  All this happened moments after my brother's girlfriend arrived.  I was whisking the sauce like a maniac, peering into the pot expectantly, and then suddenly I saw it beginning to seize up.  I let out a sustained, high pitched yelp, whisked even more frantically, turned from pink-faced to red, and, still yelping, flung the whisk into the ruined sauce and fled from the kitchen, through the length of the house, to the front door where I collapsed in a pile (still yelping), wrapped myself in the curtain, and summoned forth a howl with the small amount of air remaining in my lungs, "It broooooooooooooke."

My mother, who had been engaging in beautifying rituals upstairs, heard my heartbroken cries and scrambled to my rescue.  "It's all ruined.  I'm not eating.  The whole dinner is ruined," I blazoned from inside the curtain.  Somehow, like only a mother can, she managed to fix the situation, the sauce, and apparently even the poor girlfriend's opinion of our crazy family.

Fast forward a decade and several dozen more failed attempts at Bearnaise sauce and I found myself waitressing at an upscale steakhouse restaurant in England.  It was there that I learned the many secrets of a perfect, unbreakable Bearnaise, even when your tools are to blame.

Bearnaise Sauce
The secrets to unbreakable Bearnaise are: a heavy pan, low heat, clarified butter, and a whisk (not a fork -- trust me).  You can do this.
First of all, gather all your ingredients.  Don't scramble around while you make this.  Approach your sauce with confidence because it will smell your fear.
Finely chop one shallot and about a tablespoon of tarragon leaves.  Place these in the smallest saucepan you have and add 1/4 cup of white wine vinegar.  Bring this mixture to the boil and boil it until it reduces to about a tablespoon of liquid.  It needs to be good and reduced or your sauce will be runny.  Strain out the shallot and tarragon, pressing them against the sieve to extract all the flavor, and set the liquid aside.  
Melt one and a half sticks of butter in the microwave in a pitcher.  Set this aside.
Separate one egg.  You'll only need the yolk, but you can save the white to make delicious Bourbon sours which your husband might make for you while you're cooking.  Set the yolk aside.
Finely chop another tablespoon of tarragon leaves.  Set aside.
Make the sauce.  Put your egg yolk and the vinegar reduction in a sauce pan and before you even think of putting it on the burner, whisk it until it turns pale gold -- a good minute or two.  Now, put your burner on low and place the pan on the burner.  Continue to whisk for another 30 seconds or so.  Dip your finger into the egg yolk mixture and touch the bottom of your pan.  As you make this sauce, you should always be able to touch the bottom of your pan for several seconds without it burning you.  If it feels too hot, take your pan off the stove and work off the heat for a minute or so before you put it back on.  Now start to drizzle your butter into the yolk mixture.  Very very slowly.  Drop by drop, whisking constantly.  Keep checking the temperature of the bottom of your pan, dripping butter in, and whisking until you begin to see the glorious sauce thickening before your eyes.  You might not need all the butter, but it's better to have it ready (you can save the extra in the fridge for another use.  When the sauce is lovely and thick (but not as thick as mayonnaise), remove it from the heat and season it with salt (it takes quite a bit of salt) and add the reserved chopped tarragon.  Serve immediately (probably with steak and french fries, but by no means limit yourself!).
So, to recap: low heat, slow dribbling of butter, constant whisking, constant checking of the temperature of the bottom of your pan, immediate consumption.