"A" Was Once an Apple Pie

As I was approaching the stop sign at the top of Warburton I saw the sign: “Apple Pie Contest” in bright inkjet red. There are very few things that I’m competitive about; I’m basically just in to play the game. But that’s not true when it comes to the on-flight trivia games, and it’s not true when it comes to cooking. That little sign was like the school yard kid egging on the fight. I was in, and I was in to win.

I checked out the Hastings Farmer’s Market website for the rules: It had to be from scratch (including the crust), you had to list the ingredients on an index card, and you had to get it to the market by 10:00.

I decided that the best apple pie I know is the one Sour-Cream Apple Walnut pie from the Little Pie Company in New York. I was frustrated when they published their first cookbook and the recipe wasn’t in there, but I began to suspect copyright issues when I saw a recipe for Sour-Cream Apple Pie in my old dog-eared Silver Palate Cookbook.

Ahh, let us take a moment and pay homage to those fine ladies who issued that first volume; the one that introduced me to basil and cilantro. The cookbook that taught me chicken liver paté, aioli, and calamari back when I first started cooking on my own. Okay...that’s enough.

I followed the SP pie crust recipe, using ice water instead of apple cider and using my Cuisinart as Julia Child taught me in From Julia Child's Kitchen. That was a breeze and in the fridge to chill while I had afterschool snack with My Girl and then took her to a playdate.

The apples were another matter. I had some big organic Granny Smiths from Fairway, and they were crisp, tart, and a bear to peel. Then, to make the pie like the Little Pie, I sliced the apples ever so thin, about a quarter inch. That was a real time gobbler.

Then you make a sauce of sour cream (I went for the full fat because, heck, I wasn’t going to be eating it!), an egg, sugar, and vanilla. Wouldn’t you know it, I was out of vanilla. But I did find a vanilla bean tucked into a jar, so I soaked that in some boiling water and scraped out the innards. I think it worked.

After the apples bathed in the fat and sugar goop., I carefully placed each little apple slice around pie crust. Each little tiny apple slice found it’s own little place and it was about this time that I began to think that this procedure was taking a heck of a lot of time. But I convinced myself that it was this kind of painstaking attention to detail that will make the difference to the judges.

Next came the topping: white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, and walnuts (organic, and yes, they were chopped by hand).

And then came the lattice, which gave the whole pie a rather finished and professional look.

And then came the three little leaves, cut out of remaining pie dough, etched with a sharp knife to look like leaf veins, and placed in a falling leaf pattern around the center of the pie.

It baked and baked and baked, and when it was finally done, well we couldn’t do anything about it but let it cool and admire it. It wasn’t for us; it was for the glory of the contest. It was for the triumph of knowing I had done my best. It was for the win.

I got up early and carefully carried the pie to the market. I thought the two women who were running the contest were going to hug me; they were so happy to have a pie for their contest. I was feeling kind of confident, gave them my phone number so they could call when I won, and headed home to the regular Saturday errands and outings.

The sad, sad truth is that the call never came.
My pie was not the best.
I have convinced myself that it probably was the most stunning, but maybe people weren’t brave enough to go out for the sour cream thing.

I think My Girl said it best: "You went to all the trouble of making that beautiful pie, and you don’t win, and we don’t even get to eat it."

You said it, girl.


Foux De Fa Fa by Flight of the Conchords

Same video, but through YouTube. I still love it.


Shocking, but True

I’m dismayed to report this. The truth hurts. Most of the new people who come to this blog find it through a google search for “lunchables.” The evidence is overwhelming and disheartening.

For those few of you who don’t know, Lunchables are kind of like the Swanson TV dinner for the school lunch crowd, but in my opinion only worse. Like TV dinners they appeal to our sense of order, a kind of high sodium, high fat bento lunch box. Kraft says it was designed to be “gift-like.” According to their website, “Recognizing that the prepared lunch category was a relatively untapped market, Oscar Mayer set out to create a product that would revolutionize the industry, create a solution for busy moms and help to boost company sales.” I don’t like to think of my child as an “untapped market,” and I’m not so sure that helping busy moms (and dads?) really was a priority over company sales.

The people at Kraft work hard putting together combinations that kids will love. Take the combination of Pizza and Cracker Stackers: “Inside you’ll find a tasty new pizza-flavored cracker, cheese and pepperoni-flavored sausage along with a sweet treat for afterwards. With two different varieties available, with or without a Tropical Punch Kool-Aid Jammers for even more lunch yum.” Ick.

Yes, food can be “fun,” but that’s not the first word I think of when I’m putting together a meal. I don’t really need an action figure (or “brigade”) to entice me toward roast chicken. Do you?

David Kamp wrote a good piece about this in The New York Times back in May, complaining about how many restaurants and parents assume that unless kids have chicken fingers and French fries they won’t eat anything else. I don’t think the fear is that our kids will starve, but more that they will be a nuisance to our own dining experience. Kamp goes to nutritionist Marion Nestle (What to Eat) who criticizes the notion of “kids’ food.” You know the fun stuff, like lunchables. What are we teaching our kids about food when we fill our shopping carts and contort our menus with foods that entertain because of a shape or (worse) a cartoon character tie-in?

The Times recently reported on a study that showed that kids thought the food wrapped in the McDonalds brand packaging tasted better than the food that didn’t. According to the article: “Almost 77 percent, for example, thought that McDonald’s french fries served in a McDonald’s bag tasted better, compared with 13 percent who liked the fries in a plain white bag.” They go on to say that the same was true for carrots and milk; they tasted better to the kids when they came wrapped in the brand paper packaging.

So I’m with the guy who hates lunchables. I apologize to all of you who find this site and are discouraged, think me snob, or some no fun kinda gal. My mission this school year is to pack more hummus and make school lunch tables a safe place for plain carrot sticks and bean salads. And I promise to try to steer My Girl toward regular food and away from food marketed as fun for kids. I'll keep you posted.


Can't Help Myself

This has little to do with dinner... unless you think about the grocery store scene. Still...

Holy Basil

I was saved by basil tonight.

As I was driving us home from the airport at 6:30 pm, I realized that dinner had to be made as soon as I stepped foot in the house. All of us were starving not only for food but for the delight of sitting around our own table with a real meal made just for us. You see, we had been on vacation for just over two weeks, the last week or so visiting national parks in Wyoming.

We weren't roughing it by any means. We stayed in little cottages and a beautiful inn while traipsing through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. No little camp stove dehydrated meals. But we still had to reckon with cafeterias and the potential icky quality of food prepared for masses.

So the stakes were high as I cruised along the Van Wyck Expressway. I didn't want to take the time to stop at the store to buy ingredients, and I certainly did not want to eat out. And then I remembered that little planter box of basil that I planted in May.

The first graders at my school sold their little seedlings for 25 cents a pop, and I planted two of them along with some tarragon and some rosemary just outside my kitchen door. Would the basil still be okay?

Thanks to some incredibly conscientious neighbors the plants had grown about half a foot since we left. They were full of gorgeous dark green leaves just waiting to be picked. I found some pinenuts in the fridge (toasted them), chopped up in the cuisinart the last edible pieces of some parmesan, added the nuts, a bit of salt, a bit of garlic, and about 20 basil leaves. A few whirrs later with some olive oil streamed in and I had some pretty magnificent pesto.

Luckily I had a couple of half boxes of spaghetti that were all about the same size. Voilà! Pasta with Pesto.

Dinner was ready in about 20 minutes. Afterwards we watched a slideshow of our vacation photos from iphoto, and I think we were each a bit ambivilent about having left our hiking adventures behind. The memories of the cafeterias paled with the reminder of Old Faithful, the enormous moose grazing by the side of the road, and the mud pots boiling up from the earth.

Thank you basil, for being the most sublime herb of summer.
And thank you neighbors for tending after our garden while we were gone.


True Confessions

"Homemaking" was a mandatory course for all girls when I was in high school. The walls came down a few years after my spin with sewing and cooking, and boys started to take a class called "Bachelor Living" and for some girls it was okay to take shop. I missed that wave and found myself in the full estrogen laced arena of Home Ec. I was so happy in the initial class that I went on for part two.

In that class we learned about jello molds, needlepoint, and the teacher introduced us to real cheese. I was enthralled to find that there was more than Cracker Barrell and American Singles. Brie, Camembert, and Port Salut where revelations. I also completely got into nutrition. This was back in the day when Adele Davis would turn up on The Merv Griffin Show, and her Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit found it's place on my shelf. It might have been a good idea for me to study a foriegn language in high school, but learning about all that cheese set me up for real success in French.

It was during this period that the teacher handed out applications for membership to the FHA or Future Homemakers of America. I didn't know much about it, but I signed up for it anyway. I carried my card at first with pride (not realizing the shoe box my thinking could be folding myself into) then with irony, and later I either lost it or it fell apart. Now it all just makes me curious.

The term "homemaking" is out of date now and could easily be confused with architecture. [Martha uses the word "homekeeping," which makes me think of housekeeping and house work] It makes me think about what does it take to "make" a home? What are the things that each of us in a family does to create a haven, a nest, something more than a place for our stuff? I believe that making and serving dinner is part of it, but my local diner does that too.

And here's an update: The FHA is now the much more politically correct and ambiguous FCCLA or The Family Career and Community Leaders of America, Inc. Among their purposes is "#3 to encourage democracy through cooperative action in the home and in the community." I can stand for that. Above that though is "to strengthen the function of family as the basic unit of society," which I can be down with depending on how you define family. Beyond the membership card though, I don't get it.


The Best Camp in the World

Last summer my dear little one and I went scouting around Westchester looking for things to do that did not involve netflix or having tea. We fell upon a farm built by the Rockefeller's in 1930. We felt so far away from the noise and hustle of the city (and suburbs) and were transported to a bucolic wonderland of flowers, bunnies, trees, chickens, sheep, and a gorgeous barn complex made of stone. We could pretend that we were in another time, hiking in the shady hills, checking on the lambs, trying to name the flowers. "I want to go to camp here," my girl announced.

And so it is that we have been traveling to Stone Barns every day the past week. The girl is addicted to weaving lanyards, but she has also learned to make hummus, zucchini sticks, and artichoke/spinach dip! How cool is that? The campers feed pigs, collect eggs, dig for potatoes, play games, and (of course) make lanyards. I get to buy farm fresh eggs and vegetables when I go to pick her up—and have an iced coffee. Everybody's happy.

The camp is run by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and they hold workshops, have family work days (harvesting and braiding garlic!), cooking classes, and tours to promote their mission (raising public awareness about farm and food issues). They also have a highly rated restaurant (Blue Hill), which is supposed to be so popular that it's difficult to make a reservation. I haven't tried and have been happy with the iced coffee and egg salad at the cafe.


Who is This Man and Why Will I Read Anything He Writes?

Adam Gopnik has a piece in this week’s New Yorker about cooking in literature and comes up with four ways that writers use food in their novels.

First, he says, there is the “food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it.” He says that this kind of food is a step out of the action, a little down time in the busy character’s life. What’s key, he says is that there isn’t any appraisal of the food (i.e., was it good, surprising, satisfying, disappointing). I have definitely had meals like that where the point is just to have a break. It doesn’t matter what or where it is, it is so forgettable; I just need to sit down. Gopnik writes that the food, in these instances, is “interchangeable,” and I couldn’t agree more.

The next kind of food in literature is food that the author conjures up and is “served by an author to characters in order to show who they are.” This is my dinner parry food, or why else would I have ever made (or made great effort to learn to pronounce) gougère (cheese puffs), wassail, and so on. Scrooge has his bowl of gruel before the fire, Salinger’s Esmé drinks tea, and once I served up Francis Moore Lappé’s Peanut Butter Balls at an A’s game.

Gopnik goes on to say that an author “cooks for characters in order to eat with them.” That sounds so hospitable to me. These writers are à table. We get to do everything but taste it. I feel like this when I wander through Whole Foods and they have all of those prepared meals on display. I never buy the Nut-Crusted Trout, the Roast Beef with Grilled Red Onions and Bleu Cheese or the Chili Lime Basil Tofu Salad, but it’s entertaining to glide past the perfect-looking dishes with their rosemary spear garnishes.

Last is the author that cooks something up and “actually serves the reader.” These writers, according to Gopnik, invite us into the kitchen and make us feel as if we’re with the characters in real time. Think of Ma Ingalls cooking with her spider on the prairie. My mind goes to film with Stanley Tucci whipping up some eggs in Big Night. Gopnik looks at Ian McEwan’s Saturday, where the protagonist cooks up a Bouillabaisse. That’s a memorable scene for me because I love to sit around in a kitchen and watch people cook. More than that, I love to actually cook with other people. Even though I write about my attempts at getting the dinner on the table, my joy in cooking comes from the joint effort. I like chopping while my father-in-law sautés. I like to grill while someone else makes the salad. I love being in the kitchen with The Husband as we pull a meal together. And one of my biggest thrills is cooking with The Girl, who cannot only crack an egg, but knows how to measure and sift.


I "heart" gingerbread

In all modesty there are a couple things I'm good at: 1) I make The Girl call me Mrs. Parker when we're out in the car because I am so darn good at finding great parking spots. Even in Manhattan. I don't have to worry about alternate side of the street parking, but I know where the goods spaces are and when they're likely to be available. 2) I know how to use the web generally (and Google, specifically)really well. I do all kinds of crazy searches to satisfy my quest for mostly useless information.

It's the latter skill that has failed me today.

Once I had little heart-shaped baking dish: glazed inside, unglazed outside. It was just the right size for MFK Fisher's wonderful gingerbread recipe in How to Cook a Wolf. My memory is that it was made by a Marin County company called Amnion Ware, but when I google that I get all kinds of hits about amniotic fluid or pet medication.

I've looked at all kinds of heart-shaped baking dishes and none are the right size (about 6 inches tall and 2 1/2 inches deep). I'm beginning to think I made the whole thing up.

Still, it's a snow day, and what would be better after dinner than some spicy gingerbread?

Here's the recipe:

Edith's Gingerbread

1/4 C shortening
1/4 C sugar
1/2 C molasses
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. salt
3/4 C boiling water
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 1/4 C flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 beaten egg

Cream shortening and sugar. Sift in the spices and flour and baking powder together. Beat the 1/2 tsp. soda into the molasses until it is light and fluffy, and add to the shortening and sugar.

Add the 1/4 tsp soda to the boiling water, and then add it alternately with the sifted dry ingredients. Fold in the beaten egg when all is mixed well, pour into a greased and floured pan [preferably a heart-shaped pan bought in Berkeley over 20 years ago], and bake about 20 minutes at 325F. This mixture will seem much to thin to make a cake [she's absolutely right!], but do not increase the quantity of flour, as many doubting cooks have tried to do [Not I Mary Frances. I always take you at your word!]


Confessions of a Luddite

Our neighbor’s son tells me a joke: What kind of wave does Plankton surf on?

I get the necessary background info. Plankton is a character on Sponge Bob, a teeny guy who owns a bad fast-food restaurant called The Chum Bucket. I confess my ignorance, “I don’t know. What kind of wave does Plankton surf on?”

“A Micro Wave!” Laughter ensues. Except with me. I don’t get it.

“What’s a Micro Wave?”

My neighbors try to save me from my ignorance. “A microwave. You know, you cook food in it.”

Ahh, yes. The appliance I don’t have and the one that SF Mom keeps prodding me about. “Why don’t you have a microwave, Deb?" I have put her off, knowing that it would probably take even more years of therapy to figure it out, but not getting the joke jars me. It’s time to give this some thought.

1. It’s not that I’m against appliances.
I do rely upon some electrical gadgets. As noted, I recently invested in a crock-pot. I also have a blender that we bought during a cold snap in 1987 so we could make margaritas, play salsa, eat homemade tortilla chips, and pretend that we weren’t living in New York in the winter. I have a hand-held electric mixer that dates back to the ‘70’s and was bought for $10.00 at Gemco. I have a Cuisinart that is even older than that. The shredding disk broke a decade or so ago. The rest of it still works, and I use it for mixing doughs, puréeing, and chopping. We have an electric waffle iron, but I think of that as Evan's since he uses it the most.

I guess I’m not real big on appliances though since I lack not only a microwave but also some other things that people rely upon and possibly couldn’t imagine being without (a toaster, a toaster oven, a sandwich press, a coffee maker, a juicer, and so on.) There is one appliance that I do use every day: my Russell Hobbs electric tea kettle. I could do a commercial for that one.

2. I’ve been unduly influenced by the French

That is, I’ve been unduly influenced by what I perceive to be French, which means it probably came from Jacques Pepin or someone else who writes in English about French cooking. I did have the great fortune of taking cooking lessons in a French woman’s French kitchen about 20 years ago, and that experience conjured up all kinds of fantasies of what it means to cook and serve meals. Fresh ingredients, wrapped in paper not plastic; the necessity of a big table in the kitchen to cook and serve on [I don’t have one]; and that all you need is a good, sharp knife and you’re all set. Madame Jacqueline did not have a microwave. She did, however, have a cute string bag that she took to market to carry home her provisions.

I’m not sure if my French friend, C., has a microwave or not. I know that she is a more imaginative and confident cook than I am. It wouldn’t be a matter of principal with her, probably more an issue of counter space. Which leads me to…

3. Counter Space

I like to have clear counter space. You may not believe that if you walked into my kitchen, but it's true. It’s a fairly constant crusade to keep space clear in my kitchen. There is always a stack of paper, recycling containers, a storage jar that has become empty or that thing for which you just can’t find a place hanging out and hogging my precious counter.

The teakettle has a prominent spot, but I have to figure out a convenient and out of the way place for the bulky crock-pot.

4. A sign of weakness
The microwave, in my sick mind, is interpreted as a sign of my weakness, a signal that I’m not really cooking. I’m heating up. I know, I know. I can hear you saying what’s the difference of a conventional oven and a microwave? Spend an hour waiting for the squash to cook in the oven or a fraction of that time with it in the microwave. Are you against convection ovens too? Nobody’s pretending this is a rational argument; surely you’ve figured that out.

When we lived in the apartment where we bought the blender we actually had a little microwave on top of the refrigerator. It came with the apartment. I used it for heating up coffee. Maybe once I melted some chocolate, but mostly my coffee cup got zapped over and over again, and that was about it. So I defend my irrationality with the logic that I’ll never use it.

Am I afraid of the microwaves themselves? Well, it does kind of get to me that people talk about cooking with their microwaves saying their going to “nuke” some zucchini. It just sounds creepy.

For now, I’m remaining a bit of a Luddite, happy to heat up my whole house for two baked potatoes.


It's not like we haven't been eating dinner...

I'll be getting 66 essays from my students next week. You can bet I'll find time to write a blog post then.

Thanks for being patient.


The Other White Meat

Usually dinner is all planned out in my head, if not on a shopping list, by the time I get to the grocery store. Sometimes, out of necessity and panic, I get to the market without even an idea of what to cook for dinner. The pressure of the hour and my expectant family can get the synapses firing, and I’ll come up with something. It may not be inspired (grilled chicken pieces, a steak), but it will be dinner.

Once in awhile something near magic happens when I’m suddenly hit with a flash, a combination of my personal cravings and what looks good in the market. That’s what happened the other day when I stepped into Whole Foods; suddenly I knew that I wanted to braise some pork shoulder for dinner.

Pork shoulder is succulent and satisfying. As they say in Babe, “Pork is a nice sweet meat,” and a braised pork shoulder doesn’t get a chance to dry out. The only problem with my situation was that I hadn’t ever braised a pork shoulder before. I needed a recipe, and quick. I was lucky because Whole Foods is one of those schmancy markets with a shelf of cook books for sale—and not all of them were by Mollie Katzen! One was from Chez Panisse, and Alice Waters offered a recipe for 3-4 lb pork shoulder braised with tomatoes, onions, garlic, fennel seeds, fresh thyme, and olives. I decided to go for it (except for the olives), and set about making a mnemonic device to help me remember the quantities and procedures.

Here’s how I made it:

1. Preheat oven to 325.

2. Sauté 1 medium onion in a large dutch oven. Add in 2 stalks of diced celery and 2 diced carrots. Add in 4 medium tomatoes. [Note: Waters called for fresh and wouldn’t make this recipe in winter because tomatoes aren’t in season. I
used canned and would braise a pork shoulder two hours in August in New York.] Add in 1 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds and 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme.

3. Dry the roast and stud it with garlic slivers. Put it in the pot with all of the sautéed ingredients. Add more liquid to cover about 1/3 of the roast. Put the lid on the pot and put it in the oven.

4. Check it in about an hour. My automatic thermometer indicated that it was done at 145, and I will never tell you to cook your pork so low. USDA says to cook it to 160. That’s all I’m going to say about it.

5. Take the roast out of the now amazing broth and let it rest. In the meantime, pass the brothy mixture through a Mouli food mill (aka just about my favorite cooking tool). Cook the liquid down until it is pretty thick. Skim off any foam and as much fat as you can.

6. Slice the roast and serve with the sauce.

7. Wait for the next inspiration.