Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Moving, and Spring in California

I don't know that I've mentioned before that we're moving.

Our plans at the moment run this way: at the end of May, Dana and I will pack up everything we own and fill up a truck bound for Modesto, California. There, we're going to start over. Ithaca has been amazing, and if it was always spring and summer here and we didn't have to worry about petty things like jobs or allergies or chronic asthma, we'd probably stay forever. In a way, our time in Ithaca is the first we've spent as adults. Living here has drastically affected who we are and we're going to miss it, and the friends we've made here, terribly.

That said, California does have some distinct advantages. We spent last week out there in preparation for the move--scoping out jobs and the house we'll be living in--and even in the middle of March spring was almost over. Plants all over my parents' farm had moved through the flowering stage and started the hunching toil of leafing, the sun was out and moving toward intensity, and a bit of a rainstorm halfway through our stay cleared the last of the blossoms from the almond trees. Already summer was edging in to town, the sky thinning from blue to white in the long afternoons, the smell of asphalt just the solid side of tar swirling around our shoes, everywhere we looked colors climbed into the ultraviolet. Modesto is one of the country's centers of agricultural production, a sprawling suburb--really the population of a city in the ill-fitting body of a town--penned on all sides by bubbling dairies, heavy dry orchards, and fertile fields. There, our cooking will probably change. With local produce so richly available, we'll focus on ripeness over mere availability, rediscover strawberries red and syrup sweet all the way through, peaches so tender you can hardly pick them without pushing fingers through to the pit, tomatoes grown five or ten miles away too ripe to make it through the consumer processing of supermarkets.

So look for produce here soon, color and flavour set against a very new backdrop.

Here below, please welcome our forgotten friend: spring.

More from the trip soon.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Blood Orange Gelato

When Michele and Kevin had us over for gnocchi making last weekend, our contribution to the meal was a dessert. As you do with a small task you have some considerable time to consider, we toiled over it, paging through cooking magazines, looking up recipes online. We must have changed our minds fifty times over the few weeks between making the date and buying ingredients but it was only the night before that we finally came up with the dessert we brought: a gelato made from fresh blood oranges and a honey lace cookie on top.

We'd had the blood oranges for a while by that point, bought on some trip to Wegman's when we couldn't find our favorite Cara Cara Navel Oranges in a three pound bag so, cast adrift, grabbed a bag of something, anything else in their place. The oranges we ended up with were grizzled on the outside, skins wrinkled and thick as a tangerine's, but their interiors were beautiful, a deep crimson, almost a plum color inside the membrane. They were gorgeous but tasted like crap. I'm not sure if the oranges were unripe or just not to our taste but a week after buying them we'd still peeled only two of the dozen in the bag.

I can't remember exactly when the idea for the gelato as the dessert came to me. I like to think that I sat bolt upright in bed with the taste on my lips, but it's more likely I was online or in class or something like that. But once it occurred to me, I was sold. The best recipe I found was Martha Stewart's, a recipe that's mild simplicity and amazing flavor made it so that a google search showed it copied on blogs everywhere. Martha's blood orange gelato and cake, her gelato and cookies, blood orange gelato float. Everywhere I looked, there it was. It's hard to turn down saturation like that.

The ingredients are easy: the juice from 4 or so blood oranges (mine were small so I used 6), orange zest, 2 cups milk, 1 cup cream, 3/4 cup sugar (I might use a bit less next time), and 5 egg yolks.

And the process isn't much more difficult: juice the oranges, cook the juice into a syrup and cool. Whisk milk and orange zest together over medium low heat just to a light simmer. Remove from heat and steep for 30 minutes. Later, beat egg yolks and sugar until fluffy and thick, mix in a bit of the hot milk mixture to loosen it up then pour the mixer full of ingredients into the rest of the milk. Cook lightly, stirring, until the custard comes together enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir in the cream and blood orange syrup and chill. When it's cold, transfer to the ice cream maker until thick and creamy (I've been doing around 40 minutes).

The dish that arrived was wonderfully creamy and, though it could have used a little more blood orange color, was vibrantly flavorful and definitely something I'd make again. The accompaniment we chose was also from Martha Stewart, a light honey lace cookie that was so overwhelmingly sweet it nearly overpowered my tongue but with the gelato took on a wonderful palate cleansing honeyness that provided a good counterpoint to the heavy cream flavors in the bowl.

Maybe the prettiest part of the whole gorgeous process?  The juice left on the cutting board.

Banana Muffins

When bananas brown and go mushy, there isn't a sadness as there is with other decomposing fruit. You don't have to avert your eyes in shame as you place them in the trashcan, or cry a single tear as you build their funeral pile in the woods behind your house.

What, you don't do that with fruit?

This week I decided to give the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts banana muffin recipe a try. Sadly, the only brown sugar we had in the house was in a cinderblock-like slab, but I added a bit of water to it and microwaved the brick until it was soft enough to add to the batter. This worked, for the most part, but there were still a few wet chunks of brown sugar in the muffin pan when it went into the oven.

The result? Warm, fragrant banana muffins with accidental caramel bits. This was, hands down, the happiest kitchen accident I've ever had. Much better than the carbonara incident, or the devil berries. The toasted almonds I threw in there didn't hurt, either.

Muffins and a cute new Orla Kiely tablecloth from Target. Yeah, life is good.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lessons in Gnocchi

This past Sunday, we finally got to do something we'd been looking forward to for months: we made the trek over to Michele and Kevin's house to learn how to make gnocchi--those tiny tender roasted-vegetable pastas you see dried and frozen in the Italian section of the supermarket--and then to eat said gnocchi with a bunch of different homemade and (if I even dare use this word) authentic sauces. We had originally planned this long long ago when fall was just starting to settle, but with one delay after another (some illness here, some bed and breakfast guests there, a big smattering of winter break blues), it took us until the middle of March to make it a reality. And oh what a reality it was.

Let me start from the beginning, though, just to get all of my grousing out of the way so we can just talk about the gnocchi in a sec.

First, we got lost. Mapquest apparently disagrees with your ridiculous sense of logical direction. One would imagine, sitting as one may be at the end of some silly little keyboard, that perhaps a company in the business of lefts and rights would know the small yet crucial differences between the two. This is quite obviously a waste of their time and yours. Mapquest transcends such petty annoyances. And you. It transcends you. I, and I admit that this is foolhardy, might have guessed that the optimal way to travel 500 feet north from an intersection is to go, well, north. Not so. How silly of me. No, the fastest means of traveling such a small distance north is apparently to drive many miles south in the fog, turn around when you reach a dirt road that continues toward AxeMurder NY, retrace your steps, and eventually stumble upon the location through happenstance. "Now," Mapquest says smugly from the awkwardly centered adspace on the printout on your wife's lap, "aren't you so much happier to find this place now than you would have been to find it immediately? Just think how much more exciting this has been!" "This is a better way we have found. It is! It is!" the 1/4 page ad for yahoo movies chimes in.

The moral of this story is obvious: never trust anything on the internet that isn't owned by Google. Lucky for us all, there's not much left on the internet which falls outside of those conditions.

When we finally walked in the door of Hayward House, Michele already had a couple of saute pans bubbling on the stove. There was a rich foaming syrup of browned butter in one and in the other olive oil and whole tomatoes crushed into the building blocks of a sauce the bright red of late summer. Next to them, a pot of salted boiling water chattered breaths of steam out from under its lid. On the long counter, she had spooned out three tidy piles of unbleached white flour and set bowls of roasted eggplant, winter squash, and potato at the ready. This was to be our classroom for the evening, a lively and warm kitchen in their gorgeous house cum bed & breakfast, and these pastas to become our creations and, ultimately, dinner.

Dana took command of the stainless bowl of winter squash, I the container of soupy eggplant mush, while Michele demonstrated the techniques with the soft mound of mashed potato. Under her hands, the potato and salted flour combined quickly and the mix was transformed into thumbprinted pillows within three, maybe four minutes. A pile of soft potato pasta that seemed almost untouched by human hands. Dana took a tiny bit longer with her winter squash, partially because she decided to blaze a trail and use the tines of a fork to mold her pasta into something Michele thought might more rightly be called Cavatelli. A bit larger than our host's gnocchi but still a spread of beautiful, uniform golden shapes just dimpled by pressure from the fork's flat edge.

And then there was my batch.

Perhaps I started overenthusiastically in spooning roasted eggplant into my flour pile or I simply didn't fully understand the concepts in play here, but I somehow managed to take the same general amount of ingredients and stretch the process to approximately one thousand times its normal length while accidently producing something like a triple batch of pasta. Michele and Dana each made three or four thin rolls of dough, I made so many that I started to run out of room on the counter. Their formed pasta made neat little mounds, mine could hardly be contained by the house we were standing in.

Once I finished, we washed up, boiled the gnocchi, and combined them with the sauces Kevin had prepared in the meantime. The potato went into the pan with the tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic. The winter squash was doused in the brown butter mixture and dried sage from a neighbors' farm, my eggplant went into a fresh green sauce made of roasted garlic, olive oil, and parsley.

I think it's a solid bet that gnocchi will make it into our meal rotation. They satisfy all of the requirements of a regular dinner in our household: they are cheap, they take a bit of hands on effort, they are tasty, and we're not very good at making them. How can you go wrong? It was a really fun night. We had a great time and Michele and Kevin were incredibly generous to both teach and feed us. I hope we can return the favor soon.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dana's Birthday

We celebrated Dana's birthday this week in ways that seemed fairly inauspicious at the time. Upon reflection, though, they were really inauspicious. Dana was diagnosed with another case of bronchitis last Friday and between her emphysemic wheeze, occasional fever, and hour long coughing jags she wasn't really in the mood to party. So out went our plans to catch Watchmen on IMAX, to play with clay at Cold Springs Pottery, to have a nice dinner at Willow. In came a Tuesday indoors with papers and stories to grade and nothing on TV. I did my best to keep her spirits up in the best way I know how: cooking. I spent the day before picking up ingredients at Wegmans and then whole day of her birthday making her every meal from scratch.

So here's the menu for a consumptive 26 year old's birthday:
  • Huevos Rancheros with fried corn tortillas, black beans, and fresh salsa

  • BLTs with sharp white cheddar and champagne vinegar, homemade guacamole, and blue and yellow corn chips

  • Eggplant Parmesan with homemade marinara and fresh mozzarella (which came out looking a little like we'd spread marshmallow fluff over top, strangely enough)

  • Scharffen Berger cocoa cupcakes with hazelnut frosting

The plan is to catch up with all of this stuff in the next few weeks. She's breathing better today so we've got tickets to see Watchman at the mall with Eisha and Michael, we'll hit up Willow pretty soon, and we've got plans to make up our visit to Cold Springs Pottery this coming week. So the day might not have turned out as we wanted but now the goal is to turn the month into something to cherish.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Apron Love

I've been incapacitated by yet another bout of bronchitis this past week, which has meant very little cooking on my part, and much whining and lounging on the couch. Seriously, dudes - I struggled to even put together a salad dressing earlier tonight. And yes, a sickly person using all her strength to lift a bottle of champagne vinegar, then impotently spooning dijon mustard into a cruet is just as pathetic as it sounds.

Thank goodness Flirty Aprons exist. The lemon leaf half apron with it's sweet little white pocket-bows and this ruffled frosted cupcake apron are enough to put a smile on any self-pitying, ashmatic lady baker's face. Or at least on this one's. I am definitely, definitely baking up a storm as soon as I feel human again - apron or no apron!