End of Summer Denial

September 19, 2007

A quick entry because summer is fading and I, contrary to all expectations, am actually feeling pangs of regret. Though perhaps those pangs are less regret at the loss of summer and more impending terror at the imminent cold with which this Californian had a tormented relationship last winter. There was lots of cursing and nary a hole-less pair of shoes, lets just leave it there.

Never having spent a summer in New York, I entered August somewhat unfamiliar with the sensation of unrelievable weather-prompted discomfort. Air-conditioning was no substitute for an ocean breeze and generally resulted in the infuriating condition of being constantly on the verge of illness despite a mean outdoor temperature that should have left any parasite ready throw in the towel. Having neither lake, pool, nor sprinkler to throw myself into, I found myself searching for other extreme methods of warding off brain fever.

One particularly painful afternoon while trudging up my block after a fruitful but incredibly ill-advised solo trek to Red Hook, I was consumed by a desire for, of all things, an apple. But not just any apple, I wanted the COLDEST APPLE IN THE WORLD. Without any companions handy to make helpful suggestions like “why don’t you take a nice cold shower” or “let’s go stand in the freezer section of the co-op for a few minutes,” I instead stood with sweat-matted hair and sunblock-clogged pores losing my last unfried brain cells to imaginings of apples trucked in from the Siberian tundra. I briefly considered a smoothie but quickly realized that I didn’t want any sickly warm banana or even frozen yogurt to contaminate the purity of my arctic apple. Thus was born what became my go-to snack of the summer: the apple icee.

Apple Icee
2 red apples, cubed. I prefer something with a bite, Empires work well.
1/2 cup soy milk
~ 14 ice cubes, preferably smashed up a bit
dash cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract (note: I was convinced that this was a good idea and persisted in adding it to my icees. Upon reflection I realized that vanilla extract added to liquid does not result in a vanilla-flavored beverage, but still had a hard time giving up adding just a bit to the blender)
2 spoonfuls blackberry-merlot sorbet
optional: dollop honey, sugar, maple syrup
Mix ingredients in blender and pulse until well-blended. The apple icee retains its deliciousness regardless of how emphatically one punches the buttons on the blender. I prefer leaving a few apple and ice chunks but a nice frappe tastes great too.

Everything Tastes Better With Peanut Sauce

September 3, 2007

I have always been an excellent and thorough eater. The Mom professes that my first word was “eat” (although I wouldn’t put it past her to pull my leg on that front). She also reports that with the onset of mastication came exclusive and vociferous demands for cheese, grapes and baguettes. The Dad, big fan of pre-dinner nibbles, lavished paté and shot glasses of wine on my burgeoning palate. I ate the three vinegary piles of shredded beets, carrots and zucchini that accompanied the croque monsieur at my favorite childhood café, not because of a grudging acceptance of the nutritional value of veggies but rather an early-established affection for a cleaned plate. And, according to the two meal-providers of my formative years, even when I was still demanding a cup of crayons along with my appetizer I was routinely ordering the best items on the menu.

As stated, this appreciation for foods and ability to pick the doozy off of any menu did not necessarily go hand in hand with refined tastes. Case in point: at age 6, already filled to the knee socks with snobbery, I ran out of mayonnaise one bread slice into a turkey sandwich. Shortly thereafter I was spreading peanut butter on the other slice of bread, having thought no further than "what else in this kitchen is spreadable?" Peanut butter popped up before mustard, so peanut butter it was. And I kept making my sandwiches this way. For awhile. Now, peanuts have a place alongside cream and meat, but the point is that my brain went no further than mayonnaise = spreadable = peanut butter. A more recent example: A couple weeks ago (faced with a nearly empty kitchen and very empty wallet) I spread honey mustard on one side of a two-month-old spinach tortilla and cracked brown mustard on the other, evenly distributed slices of packaged provolone on the canvas, and, as an afterthought, added a spattering of sweet and tangy simmer sauce before heating the whole thing in a skillet. And I have been considering making this again.

I don't know if I'll ever hone this baffling combination of discerning and completely blind taste, and in my heart of hearts I think I'll always have these bursts of fondness for utter crap. Not "bad for you but still so good" crap like fried dough balls and jaegerschnitzel, but "who in their right mind puts those ingredients together and calls it a success" crap. Consequently, I'm going to try to be careful with what I post here and indicate if something falls into the "only appreciated by the bat-shit crazy or ageusiac" category. Now on to the recipe:

Though there will be a great deal of homaging to fromaging in the days to come, I'm going to kick off with one of my favorite non-cheese toppings to virtually any dish: peanut sauce.

I decided on this peanut sauce partly because it required me to get more Bragg's, which is always exciting, and partly because I was almost out of sesame oil so had even more reason to try a new market in Chinatown I've had on the list (which in turn allowed me to stock up on enough soba noodles to hold me until April and suspiciously took me close enough to Prosperity Dumpling that it was pure obligation that forced my foot in the door*).

But ultimately I chose this as my first recipe posting because the first time I made this sauce is my first memory as a "grown-up" of having produced something from scratch that made lots of people happy. It wasn't until I lived in a co-op my sophomore year of college that I began to really discover the kitchen. Cook crew involved 4 people preparing a meal to feed approximately 80, which was daunting but infinitely satisfying. The first time around it was purely daunting, left me all but paralyzed with anxiety, and with half an hour left to go I struck upon this recipe for peanut sauce and thought wildly "everyone likes peanut sauce! They can slather peanut sauce all over everything and all will be delicious!" The resultant 5 pitchers of sauce dogged me for the rest of the year, but the constant invocations of “that peanut sauce” were, I like to think, equal parts teasing and hope for another batch.

Spicy Peanut Sauce
(originally tweaked from a recipe in Mollie Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest)

This recipe is fail-proof and infinitely tweakable depending on your penchant for spice. Though not one who can lay claim to a spice poker face (being more prone to immediate sweating, reddening and worrisome gasping when confronted with even the slightest excess of chili dust) I like this sauce to rate a "crisp brow beading" on the spice sweat meter. While any spicing agent is acceptable, I have had the best results with crushed arbol or pequin chiles (exercise caution with the seeds!)

1 cup peanut butter (I prefer creamy unsalted)
1 cup boiling water
4 tb rice or cider vinegar
1 1/4 tsp salt
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
4 tb honey or sugar
2 tb Bragg's or soy sauce
4 tb sesame oil
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (to taste)
Place the peanut butter in a medium sized bowl.

Add boiling water and stir patiently until uniformly blended (add water gradually for more control over viscosity).

Thoroughly stir in remaining ingredients and adjust to taste.

makes approximately 3 cups and keeps in the fridge
suggested uses: top any noodle concoction, slather on bread, eat straight out of the jar

* I finally pinned down the proprietor on the mysteriously never available "stuffed sesame pancake" which is rumored to be phenomenal. And by "pin down" I mean exited with a series of cagey and vague answers that didn't leave me any more enlightened than before I put him on ice. This is a rough approximation of the interrogation:

"Do you ever have the stuffed sesame pancake?" "Sometimes."
"Do you know when you'll next have it?" "I don't know."
"Are you ever going to have it?" "I...don't know."
(desperate now)"If I come first thing, when you open, will you have it???" "...I....don't know."

Appearing to feel both guilt and embarrassment at my distress and unsightly piteousness, he followed this last "I don't know" up with "It is very hard to make....so sometimes, if someone wants it, I'll make it" accented by a shrug of the shoulders. Ah-ha, I thought, now we're getting somewhere. It seems I am not one of the hallowed few who merits a stuffed sesame pancake. Having harassed the poor man enough, I trundled away perfectly content with my usual sesame pancake with vegetables. I am however planning a friendly but determined ambush at the crack of opening and will continue the assault until I get my hands on one of those stuffed pancakes.

Beginnings and Confessions

September 2, 2007

I might be a better eater than I am a cooker.

This might not seem like that great an admission but for me it is a nearly constant source of shame and frankly one of the motivations for embarking on this exercise in the first place. I'm a decent baker, I make a mean omelet and pancake brunch double-whammy, have bent the blender to my will in the service of nut-milks and hot sauce and I have practiced a few of my childhood staples enough to be able to rattle them off without too much flop sweating. I just can't claim much in the way of kitchen intuition.

My passion for food, insatiable appetite for recipes and terminology, and the chunk of encephalon dedicated to cataloguing and cross-referencing eateries attests to my gastronomic commitment, but I need practice. As much as I probably wouldn't mind eating cheese samples three meals a day, I want to be more than the master of the cutting-board dinner. I want to reign over my kitchen without needing gimlets to bolster my spirits. I want to have all the burners and the oven going without descending into tight-lipped anxiety because my sides are congealing and fading while my mains sullenly refuse to seize their potential. I want to enhance food prep with conversation (perhaps even laughter) without risking catastrophe, and serve up heaping fragrant plates of deliciousness.

I want to be able to share my love of food with my friends.

While it might be awhile before I can invite anyone over for dinner without barricading myself in the kitchen and entertaining guests with a symphony of bitter oaths and clanging pans, in the meantime I can build towards that glorious day and still share all of my favorites (and my foibles) with you lot.

And so, while I do not profess any great culinary ingenuity as of yet, I set out with equal parts trepidation and temerity to humbly pay homage not only to fromage, but to all of the foodstuffs that have nurtured my gustatory curiosity into what now borders on a compulsion.

Roll on, wheels of gouda, as the great Earth rolls on!