Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Basic Biscotti

This weekend, I will once again be in the wilds of Southwestern Pennsylvania, this time at the annual family reunion. L. demands that we go, and since I have not seen my parents since my mother broke her wrist and then had a difficult time getting a doctor to agree to set it, I must venture off the beaten path. I do generally have a good time at these things, but I am forgoing tickets to see Hairspray in order to go spend the weekend in Finzel, a town that is even smaller than the tiny little town twenty minutes thence where my parents have a house. Springs is a suburb of the middle of nowhere. Finzel is a suburb of Brigadoon.

The family in question is my father's family, which means that they are mainly current or former Mennonites, which means that there will be lots of food. Most of the food is very good, if heavy, though the charm of some of it eludes me. There is, for example, a kind of trifle that is in great demand each year and that seems to be constructed mainly of graham crackers, instant butterscotch pudding, bananas and CoolWhip. I don't have any culinary WMDs quite that lethal in my arsenal, so I'll be bringing some biscotti.

I have had this particular recipe for a very long time, at least since the Gorbachev administration. I know this because the recipe comes from the Atlantic Monthly, and on the cover is a drawing of Mr. Gorbachev tied up in red tape. As far as I know, his supposed troubles had nothing to do with the biscotti from the same issue, but one can, of course, never be certain. For years and years, the magazine (because of the recipe; I didn't keep other issues of Atlantic Monthly around) went with me wherever I went, and I'm pretty sure that it's somewhere in the house right now, though for the first time in memory, I am unable to lay my hands on it. Fortunately, I have memorized the recipe.

The recipe was originally called Biscotti di Prato, after the town in Italy where the author first tasted the almond biscotti. The author was Corby Kummer, long (and perhaps still; I haven't read the magazine in ages) a contributor of food articles to Atlantic Monthly. I once saw Mr. Kummer on television, where he was a guest of Martha Stewart on one of her TV shows. It was immediately obvious that he and I have something in common other than our appreciation of biscotti. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Corby was showing Martha how to prepare some sort of coffee, and he was making it exceedingly complicated, from my point of view. Fortunately, this particular recipe, is very simple. My recipe is not exactly the one Mr. Kummer wrote, but the changes I have made are fairly minor.


1 cup unsalted whole almonds or pistachios
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
Grated zest of one orange (optional)
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and toast the nuts for eight minutes. Remove the nuts from the oven to cool and turn the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a cookie sheet or half-sheet pan.

In the bowl of your Kitchenaid, put the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. If you are using the orange zest, add it, too. Mix for thirty seconds or so at low speed.

In a bowl, combine the eggs and the vanilla and beat briefly with a fork.

With the mixer on low, pour the egg mixture onto the dry ingredients. Then add the toasted nuts. When the dough masses together, dump it out onto a lightly floured marble and knead to make sure the nuts are distributed. Cut the dough in half and roll each half into a log, about an inch-and-a-half in diameter and fifteen inches long. Transfer the two logs to the sheet pan, leaving at least five inches between them.

Bake the logs for thirty minutes. They should be starting to brown but they should still be fairly light. Remove the sheet from the oven and let cool for five minutes or so, then remove the logs from the sheets and let them cool for another fifteen minutes on a rack.

Place a log on a cutting board and cut slices at a thirty degree angle. Each slice should be approximately 3/4 inch thick. Either wash the original cookie sheet or use a clean one. In either case, do not grease. Lay the slices on their sides so that the cut side is now facing up (and down). Return them to the oven for another forty to fifty minutes, until they are dark brown.

Let the biscotti cool completely on racks, then store in a cookie tin or in plastic bags.

I tend to only use the orange zest when I am using pistachios. I made two batches this evening, one almond (no zest) and one pistachio (zested).

It is entirely possible to make this recipe by hand. Just whisk together the dry ingredients, then stir in the wet ones and knead in the nuts. For reasons that are entirely unclear to me, when I first made this recipe, years ago, it was significantly damper than it is now, and the logs spread more on the first cooking. Perhaps the measuring cups I have now are slightly larger, perhaps the eggs are slightly smaller (though what was in the refrigerator were extra large eggs), perhaps the oven is different, or perhaps I've forgotten or changed an ingredient (I am pretty sure, for example, that Mr. Kummer said to use 3/4 teaspoon of baking soda, and I can see how that might make the logs spread more when they cook, but not how it would make them more damp to begin with), though they still seem to taste the same. This is a fairly forgiving recipe, but you may have to adjust a bit in terms of how much, if any, flour you need when you're forming the logs if the dough is more or less wet than mine was.

I am not sure that there is a great deal that remains to be said about biscotti. When I first saw this recipe, relatively few people had eaten any biscotti, but they soon afterwards became very common indeed, and if they are somewhat less ubiquitous these days, they have still become part of the culinary landscape. You will often find them dipped in chocolate, and there's nothing wrong with that, either, but I prefer this very simple treatment. If you plan to dunk them in coffee (or Vin Santo, for that matter) when you eat them, do make sure that you don't shortchange the second baking. When they're properly cooked, they can be well dunked without falling apart. This will also fully restore them in the very unlikely event that they sit around long enough to get stale.

There are nowadays a zillion recipes for all sorts of biscotti (searching on "biscotti" pulls up forty-seven recipes on alone), and few of them now get by without putting butter in the dough, but I miss it not at all, and I'm a big fan of butter. This recipe seems like it calls for a lot of sugar, but the result is really not all that sweet. I will confess here and now that of late I have been wondering whether sugar and I are getting along as well as we used to, so tonight, for the first time ever, I substituted Whey Low for the granulated sugar, and I cannot taste the difference. I am still not entirely convinced that there is a difference, but people whose opinions I trust and who are fully conversant with the scientific method tell me that it's better for me than regular sugar, so why not?

Monday, July 25, 2005

Decisions of Utmost Importance

If you spend any significant amount of time on the Internet, you cannot have helped noticing the proliferation of quizzes that are intent on putting you into some meaningless category or other. Typically, you will be told that you are most like some character or other from some popular cultural phenomenon or other. A quiz recently told me, for instance, that my Myers Briggs personality type is INFJ, which makes me most like Albus Dumbledore, or at least most like Albus Dumbledore if the universe that you have to choose from is sixteen selected Harry Potter characters. Living, as I do, near Washington, DC, and attending, as I do, a Unitarian Universalist church, I have had many many occasions to hear about the Myers Briggs profile, often from people who feel that it has a great deal more validity than I will ever credit it with. Especially since, depending on when I take the test, I might just as easily be Severus Snape or Remus Lupin.

Anyway, you can find an overwhelming number of such quizzes on the Internet (I forget which emo indie rock singer I am most like, but I am, apparently, most like one). I am not aware of such quizzes that are food related, but I reckon that somewhere out there I could find a "Which Cruciferous Vegetable Are You?" quiz if I were willing to put in the effort, but do I really want to know whether I'm cauliflower or brussels sprouts? I think not.

I was thinking about this last night over dinner at Sol Azteca, one of the few reliably good restaurants in my particular suburb. V.'s schedule is a bit upended at the moment due to his having to readjust to local time after two weeks in Ethiopia. As a result, we had napped in the late afternoon and early evening, and by the time we made it to the restaurant, it was after 8:30, and the restaurant was nearly empty. Sunday nights are not the most happening of times out where I live.

I am not, generally, a big fan of menus, though I certainly have no viable alternative. In a perfect world, the host would greet you and chat with you briefly on the way to your table and then whisper a few words to your waiter and then something that fits your mood and palate perfectly would appear at the table shortly thereafter. Dr. Pangloss notwithstanding, we don't live in a perfect world, so you have to choose and live with the possibility of making the wrong choice.

The sad fact is that you only get so many meals in a lifetime. Let's say that you're going to live eighty years and that twenty of those years are going to be spent in either childhood, when you have little control over what you're served, or in some other situation that seriously impinges your ability to eat what you want. So let's say that you can choose your meals for sixty years. At three meals a day and 365.25 days a year (I don't want the leap years to feel left out), that's a mere 65,745 meals that you get to eat. When you get that few of something that important, you naturally want to make every meal count. (Obviously, this analysis doesn't apply to everyone. If you believe in reincarnation, then you get either an unlimited number of meals or at least a much, much larger number of meals. [My grasp on the particulars of the beliefs of various religions is sketchy.] So if you're in a restaurant, and you see that someone has ordered something that's not very good, you can safely assume that he or she believes in reincarnation. You may want to ask this person whether they're Hindu or some lesser known religion, as a good way to start a conversation.)

So let's say you're me (sorry about that) and you're out at Sol Azteca, and you know that the pork in bitter orange sauce is delightful, probably better than any of the choices at many of the other local restaurants. Then you can safely order that and no that you haven't burned one of your few remaining meals on this mortal coil, right?

Oh that life were ever so simple.

Because, you know, you've got that damned menu in your hand, and a couple of items down is something called something like "Lingua Portuguesa" which is described as something like "tender pieces of beef tongue in a cherry wine sauce." I'm not really sure about the whole concept of beef tongue. I'm almost certain that I've had it before, though I can't recall when. But it seems that if I were going to try beef tongue, then Sol Azteca would be as good a place as any, and cooked in a cherry wine sauce would be as good a preparation as any. It might be so-so, or it might be my next great culinary revelation.

And then still farther down the menu, there's a crispy half-duck roasted in a madeira-based sauce. I like duck; I like crispy; I like wine-based sauces: it's a triple threat!

You begin to see the insidiousness of menus. (Is "insidiousness" even a word? It seems like it should be, and I reckon I could look it up, but what if the actual noun form is something awful like "insiduity"? I regularly deplore the suffix creep that seems to infect English these days. At the same time, I'm occasionally guilty of the same transgression, and I have half a mind to just delete this parenthetical and go back and write "insidiousnessosityification," but I'm pretty sure that the spell checker would chastise me.) If there are two good choices on the menu, it's hard enough to decide whether you're going to dance with the one what brought you or take comfort in the arms of another. Once you get to three, four, or more choices, balancing the options requires some sort of combinatorial mathematics that I never learned (I got through differential equations and stopped; I have always been a slacker), and had I learned it, I would long since have forgotten it, as a matter of principle.

There are ways of attacking this problem, of course. You can limit your choices by eliminating certain entree ingredients or by setting a price level. If I'm at a restaurant like Sol Azteca, way out in the 'burbs, I don't want to go over $12 or $13 for the entree. I could certainly afford to spend an extra few dollars on the entree, so it seems likely that this particular criterion comes from a simple desire not to have to consider too many menu options. I also tend to eliminate all of the standard Tex-Mex fare (almost all of which meets the budgetary criterion) because I can get that sort of food in other places, including a couple of places near the office.

But the decision of what to order is as much a reflection of a diner's personality as it is an irresolvable tactical dilemma. I recall a time some months ago when V. and I were on our way to a concert at the Kennedy Center, and we decided to stop at a Greek restaurant somewhere in Northeast DC. The waiter gave us our menus and told us that the day's special was braised lamb shanks served in an avgolemono sauce. Thank God for specials. When you hear a good one, you don't even have to look at the menu. Or at least you don't have to look at the menu with the threat of having to make a decision hanging over your head; having already made your decision, you can enjoy the menu as a combination instructional guide, advertisement, and graphic novel. Having ordered my lamb shanks with avgolemono sauce (and they turned out to be most unusually yummy, I must say, especially in winter), I was relaxed and enjoying the ambience, and I noticed a woman at a nearby table who was telling the waiter what she was going to have and that she always had that when she ate there.

There are, of course, many contexts in which "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a perfectly acceptable guideline for behavior, but I'm not sure that eating in a restaurant is one of them. I certainly don't want to proscribe this sort of behavior. The woman in question was perhaps fifteen or twenty years my senior (and not, evidently, Hindu), and it had likely occurred to her that she had perhaps as few as 20,000 chances to have a good meal left, and she didn't want to waste a meal when there was something she knew she liked on the menu.

But in her situation, it would have occurred to me that I had only 20,000 chances (or perhaps fewer; life is an uncertain thing) left to try something new and that you could never tell whether and when the lamb shanks in avgolemono sauce would be on the menu again. "Carpe diem!" I called across the restaurant to her. "You clearly think that you only live once!"

It occurs to me (actually, it occurred to me some paragraphs back, but I was otherwise occupied) that I'm being even more circumspect than usual here. When you're trying to figure out your culinary or dining type, however, several of the questions are going to hone in on your behavior when faced with a menu. Do you always order the same thing? Do you order the first thing that looks good? Do you consider the specials first? How long do you typically linger over the menu before reaching a decision? Do you converse during the menu perusal process or do you take some dedicated time to study the menu in silence, providing the same opportunity to your companion(s)?

I must confess that last night, having taken a significant amount of time to consider both the menu and these weighty questions, I ordered the pork in bitter orange sauce. This behavior is atypical for me, but I had recently woken from a late afternoon/early evening nap, and I was still feeling a bit disoriented, as I am wont to do in that situation. Consequently, I went with the familiar, and I enjoyed it very much. I took comfort in the fact that I had eaten another very good meal and decided not to concern myself too much with the knowledge that I'd passed up a chance for adventure. There will, after all, be other opportunities, and there is nothing wrong with taking refuge in the familiar, so long as you don't do it too frequently. And now I have already done the heavy lifting for my next visit. Having pre-obsessed over my choices this time, next time, I have only to decide between the tongue and the duck. That is, of course, no small task, but it is a good deal smaller than choosing from the entire menu, and if push comes to shove, I can always flip a coin. That's what Dumbledore would do.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Using up the Limes

The last twenty-four hours have not been entirely without unfortunate occurrence in the anapestic kitchen. (Do you ever wish that I'd just write a simple declarative sentence without the bizarre syntax? I mean, I could have just said, "I've had a bad day in the kitchen." It's never going to happen, of course, so asking you whether you wished that I'd simplify my language may have been something of a tease, I suppose. I'd say that I'm sorry, but we would both know that was a big, fat lie.) We are not talking major disaster here, but I mention, for no particular reason, that if you obtain a set of measuring spoons that has a half-tablespoon measure in it, you might want to consider throwing it away. A half-tablespoon is no more and no less than a teaspoon and a half, and while you may very occasionally save yourself cleaning one spoon by using such a measure, you may also want to consider the possibility that when the measuring spoons get separated from each other, as even the closest knit of sets are wont to do, you might some day be looking for a teaspoon and decide that the half-teaspoon measure, used twice as many times, will work just as well, and by the time it occurs to you that it seems to hold an awful lot of salt for a half-teaspoon, causing you to examine the letters as carefully as you had previously examined the numbers, you might have added between twice and three times as much salt as you would have liked, depending on how many times you have used the measure before realizing your mistake. In such cases, if you have used coarse salt, then you may be able to fish some of it out of the sauce through various methods, but you will still end up with something that is overly salted. Not that it's ever happened to me, you understand.

Anyway, having made a double recipe of mole which turned out less than ideal, for reasons that I can neither confirm nor deny have anything to do with the preceding paragraph, I was anxious for today's experiment to work out as well as possible. Sadly, I was to be again disappointed, though it was a mild disappointment floating on a sea of feeling pleased with myself. But more about that another time. It's the sort of post that would really benefit from pictures, and my wireless router is still treating my downstairs computer like a redheaded stepchild.

I got as far as yesterday evening with half of my five-pound bag of limes still untouched, and as I was determined to not have a bag of limes on the table by the time V. arrived home today, I started to transform them into things that could be stored elsewhere and eventually, of course, eaten. I took my trusty zester to all of the limes that had peels that were still pretty, and then I cut all the limes, zested or not, in half and juiced them with my trusty citrus reamer.

Time was that I had a large collection of juicers of all sorts, ranging from the old glass cone on a plate juicer with no moving parts, to a variety of early and mid 20th century contraptions made of aluminum that mainly used relatively long handles to push a metal plate against another metal plate that had slits in it so that the juice would run out a spout and into a cup that you had placed beneath it. I reckon that I must have given up most of these presses in various moves, but my favorite one, which perhaps is in a box in the basement somewhere, was really quite efficient at separating half a piece of citrus from its juice. The wood citrus reamer (the sort championed by the Frugal Gourmet) works equally well at separating juice from fruit, but it is a good deal more work, particularly where there are twenty or so limes involved.

Anyway, I was left with perhaps 2/3 cups of thin strips of zest and almost exactly a quart of lime juice. The little citrus zester that I have does a very nice job, but long thin strips of lime zest are not especially useful in that form, so I made some lime sugar by putting them in the food processor and processing them with a cup of sugar until it was clear that they would get no finer. The zest did not entirely disappear into green sugar; it left little specks that were of a size so that you'd know they were there without causing any unpleasant mouth feel.

Most of the lime juice went into containers in the refrigerator (a cup of it ended up in today's double recipe of mole), but I also used a cup of it to make one of my very favorite dessert ingredients.

Lime Curd

4 whole eggs
1 cup lime juice
1.25 cups granulated sugar
1.5 sticks butter, cut into tablespoons
1/4 cup lime sugar (see note)

In a heavy saucepan, beat the eggs until light in color, then beat in the lime juice and the sugar until well blended. Put over a medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture is giving off steam and starting to thicken (if you insist on using a thermometer, cook it until it hits 160 degrees). Whisk in the butter, one tablespoon at a time, until it is incorporated, then cook, still whisking until the mixture is thick, thoroughly coating the back of a spoon.. Remove from the heat and whisk in the lime sugar. Whisk for another minute or so. Let cool somewhat and pour into jars and refrigerate. It should keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. I got about three cups of curd out of this recipe.

Note: if you aren't trying to use up a bunch of limes and so don't want to make lime sugar, you can just add an extra quarter cup of sugar earlier in the recipe when you're beating the lime juice and sugar into the eggs. Then, where the recipe calls for lime sugar, just fold in the grated zest from one or two limes. I like mine very zesty, so I would perhaps use the zest from as many limes as it took to get a cup of lime juice, but that much zest is too much for many people. But don't put too little in, either; otherwise, your partner may see you take the jar of lime curd out of the refrigerator and say, "What's that? It looks like chicken fat," and then you will have to punish him. Not that it's ever happened to me, you understand.

The lime curd is destined for some millefeuilles. This part of the post is the part that should have been another post when I got the picture problem fixed, but I find that I want to go ahead and at least lay out the recipe now. Perhaps I will post pictures and more detail in a later post.

I mentioned earlier that I was intending to come up with a list of culinary accomplishments that I want to get to and/or through in my lifetime. The list naturally includes a good many things that I have already accomplished, including the making of puff pastry (aka feuilletage), a task that I find immensely fun. I decided that another of my accomplishments should be to come up with an eponymous pastry. And now I have: pâte anapestique. Yes, I know how incredibly pretentious that sounds, and mostly I'm joking. Anyway, it's not really an entirely new recipe so much as it is a combination of demi-feuilletage rapide and pâte sablée with some orange flavor thrown in, but I don't know that many people who would think to combine those recipes in that way, so maybe I'll take credit for it after all.

Pâte Anapestique

3 sticks butter
1/4 cup superfine sugar*
the zest from one orange
1/3 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour

Cut the sticks of butter in half, lengthwise. Then cut each half into eight pieces. (I cut my butter with a metal dough scraper, which I also use when I'm rolling the dough.) Put the butter pieces into a metal bowl, cover the bowl, and put it in the freezer for at least twenty minutes. You should put the bowl to your mixer in the freezer, too, while you're at it.

If you removed the orange zest with a zester, cut it as fine as possible. (I have a great before and after photo of this that shows just how obsessive I can be with a chef's knife.) Mix the finely chopped zest into the sugar.

Beat the orange juice and egg together with a fork until the egg is fully incorporated. Put this mixture in the refrigerator or freezer.

Retrieve your mixer bowl from the freezer and put the flour in it. With the paddle attachment of your mixer, mix the sugar and zest. Get the butter out of the freezer and put it in the flour mixture. Turn on the mixer to slow, and let the butter and flour combine. You don't want to mix this for too long. Some of the butter will get mixed into the flour, but you should still have plenty of big pieces of butter left. A minute in the mixer is plenty. Maybe forty-five seconds. At slow.

Get the oj and egg out of the refrigerator and, with the mixer at slow, add it in a stream. The dough should ball up almost immediately. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured pastry marble and quickly form it into a rough square.

If you've never made puff pastry, then either read up on how it's done, or watch Julia Child do it, if you can find one of her old programs. You have to do several turns of the dough. To make a turn, you flour the marble, flour the top of the dough (don't go overboard with the flour, but don't skimp either) and roll the dough out into a rectangle that's about 8 inches by 16 inches. The exact measurements are not critical, but the dough should be about half an inch thick when you get it rolled out. Fold one-third of the dough back onto the center, then fold the opposite third of the dough on top of the third that you folded first. When you're done, it should be folded like a business letter. You've made one turn. Flour everything lightly again, turn the dough over, and do it again.

Depending on the weather and your level of comfort, you can do two or three turns before refrigerating the dough. If you're just starting out, after the second turn, fold it up in three again, wrap it well in plastic wrap, and put it in the refrigerator for twenty minutes. Then bring it out and do two more turns. After the fourth turn, fold it up again and put it back in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Take the dough out of the refrigerator, and roll it out until it is between a quarter and a third of an inch thick. You can do whatever you like with this dough. Although it is not really puff pastry because it has fewer turns, it will puff up and form layers very nicely. You can cut it into whatever size and shape you like. It does require a hot oven, and you will help yourself to a better product if, after you cut it out, you put the pieces on a heavy cookie sheet and put the cookie sheet into the freezer for a couple of minutes.

It will take about thirteen minutes for the pâte anapestique to cook. Even though the bottoms of the pieces will look very brown, do not pull it out of the oven until the tops are at least golden brown or the insides will not be fully cooked. It will still taste ok if the insides are a bit underdone, but if you cook it until it's nice and brown, the butter flavor will be spectacular, and the orange flavor will be considerably more noticeable and better.

If you happen to have some lime curd on hand, you can cut the pastry into rounds with a biscuit or cookie cutter. When they've come out of the oven and cooled, use your hands to divide them into three layers, as if they were Hungry Jack biscuits. Put the bottom layer down on a small plate, top with some of the lime curd, put the middle layer on top, then put on some more lime curd, and top with the top layer. Yum.

*I don't, by the way, buy superfine sugar, though you certainly can find it easily enough these days. I just put a cup of sugar into the food processor and turn it on for a minute. It is amazingly useful stuff for desserts and drinks alike.

Friday, July 22, 2005

An Even Shorter Rant on the Subject of Language

"Lose" and "loose" do not mean the same thing. The present participle of "lose" is "losing," NOT "loosing." The thing you can most reasonably "loose" is a dog, but only if you have an enemy upon whom to loose the dog. If you are worried about misplacing your keys, you are worried about losing them. Loosing your keys would be a horribly ineffective way of dealing with an enemy. They would just sit there and mind their own business and offer you no defense capabilities whatsoever, and you might end up losing them.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Le Mot Juste

I am no stranger to the rant. You can either take my word on that statement, or I could provide you references, but there are at least a few people floating around the Internet who will tell you that I have very strong opinions about a number of issues and that I'm not afraid to express them. You could also look down a few posts, but you won't get a true appreciation of what I'm like when I'm really worked up about something.

But I do my best to avoid that sort of post. One of the reasons that I post so much about food is because it's the passion of mine that's most easy to express in predominantly positive terms. This is in no way a reflection of any Pollyannish attitude on my part. I am certainly aware of the less pleasant aspects of life, having lived through a few (but not so many, really) of them myself. But I find that there is no shortage of coverage of negative subject matter on the Internet these days, and while I often enjoy reading the rants of others, ultimately, I feel that if your main purpose in blogging is to decry either the general idiocy that you perceive or the angst in your own life, then you're shooting fish in a barrel. And not a barrel of water with fish swimming around in it. A barrel loaded with salted or pickled fish with no empty spaces in between. (I almost wish I hadn't typed that last sentence because it puts me in mind of a particularly troubling scene from the film version of The Tin Drum, which is the most disturbing film I've seen. The scene involves eating fish from a barrel as part of a particularly horrifying and slow means of suicide. If you ever have the chance to see it in a theater, you should go, because it's a great movie, but try not to catch it when you're having a bad day or fish for dinner.) What I mean to say is that it's easy to entertain people by attacking either something/someone else or yourself; I think it's a good deal more difficult to write well when you have nothing to excoriate.

So I was a bit stern with myself earlier today when I went searching for a list I'd seen of food-related things that everyone should do before he or she dies and found that it was called "The top 50 things every foodie should do" and started to whinge about the term "foodie." I was thinking how I really didn't want to be called a foodie. Fortunately (or perhaps not), once I started to get into the list, I realized that I must not be one since I don't have much interest in most of the things that it says I (or perhaps my foodie doppelganger) must do.

There is, certainly, nothing wrong with being a foodie, the slight inelegance of the word notwithstanding. It's just that it requires both a considerable level of attention to fashion and a very large disposable income, neither of which I will ever possess. And, truthfully, if I were to win a few hundred million dollars in the lottery (decidedly unlikely in that I don't play the lottery), I would probably still not spend two thousand of those dollars on a single bottle of wine or a fistful of caviar. I have no problem with people who do spend so much on those items, but the sticker shock would mar my enjoyment, even if there were no budgetary constraints. (I think that if I somehow ended up with a $2,000 of wine gratis, I would have to donate it charity, or give it to someone who really would enjoy it.) Anyway, the foodie list was chock full of ways to spend money, but sadly short on culinary accomplishments. The fifty items did not, for example, include making feuilletage. I am, of course, going on supposition here, but I am nonetheless certain that I get a great deal more pleasure from the knowledge that I can make puff pastry than I would get from having made love in a vineyard. The person quoted in the article claims to want to make love (or perhaps even to have made love: there's room for interpretation) in each of the five premier cru Bordeau vineyards. I cannot help but think of that as a novel and noble ambition; at the same time, I don't think I'd enjoy myself.

Anyway, the existence of foodies certainly benefits me. Their ever changing tastes cause the continual introduction of new and different foodstuffs and preparations that spread beyond the foodie community, and I am free to sample, ignore, or adopt these phenomena, sometimes working them into my permanent repertoire and calling on them long after they have gone out of fashion.

But if I'm not a foodie, what am I? I am unarguably a gourmand; I suspect that many readers would be at least amazed and perhaps appalled by the amount of food that I can (and do) put away on a regular basis. But that doesn't tell the whole story. "Gourmand" carries both the meanings of enjoyment of fine food and excessive appetite, but it misses, I think, my interest in food history, and the fact that I'm a damned good cook.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. You have heard this exact same rumination countless times, but with different particulars. And the upshot is almost exactly the same. At the end, the person writing or speaking decides that he will eschew labels and launches into a stirring rendition of "I Am What I Am!" (I should some day like to see a musical comedy send up of the Bible that includes the number "I Am That I Am," but I will likely regret having said so if Bradford is still reading my blog. He will doubtless tell me that such a song has already been written and perhaps even offer to send me a .pdf of the score. Actually, "I Am That I Am" would likely be a big hit with the Unitarians, and surely Yahweh is a bass baritone, so maybe I won't regret it after all.) But I am afraid that I must disappoint. As much as it would amuse me to say "Today on a Very Special anapestic..." and talk about how I learned the valuable lesson that labels are bad and I need to just be myself, I would not be myself if I decided to just be myself.

I believe that labels are very useful things. They can be abused, certainly, and sometimes the wrong label gets applied to the wrong person, but as much as we all want to celebrate our own individuality, who has time to truly appreciate the fullness of the individuality of everyone that he meets? I don't. Let's say, for the sake of example, that you call yourself a bisexual Republican male. I would not presume to judge your moral worth nor the vastness of your experience from that label, but it would be sufficient to tell me that you and I shouldn't date, just as, presumably, my calling myself a liberal, partnered gay man should be enough to tell you the same thing. (I actually do have some bisexual Republican friends whom I consider to be fine people. Fine, totally undateable people.)

Still, having embraced the general idea of labels (which are, at the very least, tremendously useful when placed on foods in the supermarket), I have difficulty coming up with a good one for myself. I suppose I can go with "food enthusiast" as a slightly more succinct alternative to "gourmand/food intellectual/kick-ass cook," but I have a sense that it needs work. So I will continue to work on it until I get it right.

And I think that I'll also be making my own list. It is not, certainly, devoid of items that require more purchasing than food preparation chops. The one item from the Observer's list that I will hopefully cross off my own list a few weeks from now is to have a meal from an English fish & chips establishment. Mostly, though, it will probably involve things that I'm proud of having learned to cook and things that I still want to learn to cook and ingredients that I've not yet managed to find but still think that I might. Have you read To the Lighthouse? I think that I have already achieved more in the kitchen than most people ever will or want to, but there is a long way yet to go. To paraphrase Woolf, I have made it to K, and few people ever make it to K, but some very small number of people make it as far as P, and I hope to get at least to N.

I will try to post particulars of the list once I have come up with them. That could take a while, but in the interim, all suggestions are most welcome.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

One Orange, Two Limes

Every time you make dinner, especially a dinner for friends, there's an underlying theme. You may not always be able to discern it; you may, in fact, not even realize that there is a theme to be discerned. But it is there, and now that I have disabused you of the notion that meals (unlike life) are meaningless, I expect that you'll look a little bit harder.

The theme for Monday's dinner can be found in the title of this entry. Many people will tell you that it's not a good idea to carry the same flavors all the way through a meal, but as it happened, I had something in each of the parts of the meal that had citrus fruits and/or juices in the above proportions. This may not sound like much of a theme to you, but if you can further imagine me walking around singing "One orange, two limes" to the tune of "No Woman, No Cry" as if I were Bob Marley (let us charitably call this a stretch; I did actually walk around singing that, but I do not sound much like Mr. Marley), then you will see that at the very least, I had a theme song. As I have recently catalogued, I used those proportions in the dessert. And, as it happens, one orange and two limes provided just the right amount of juice for the mole.

I alluded briefly to having set out some food for my guest and myself to nibble on prior to dinner. Neither of us had eaten much throughout the day on Monday. I had skipped lunch because I needed to get out of the office around 5, and he had been flying back from Chicago and then had to go to his office and hadn't had time to eat. I could have made something a bit more labor intensive for the hors d'oeuvres, but I had already made something fairly fancy for a Monday night dinner that was just going to be two friends sitting around and talking for a couple of hours, so I cut a couple of wedges of Brie off a small wheel and put them on a plate with some whole wheat crackers and a variety of olives of the sort that one need not be embarrassed to serve. (Sadly, the olive bar, which was all the rage in the area for a couple of years, seems to have largely gone the way of the proper use of apostrophes, but a couple of the local supermarkets still sell olives that look and taste like real olives in addition to those canned abominations that my mother always served on the relish tray at Thanksgiving.)

To accompany the nibbles, I made a pitcher of sangria. I will make sangria upon the flimsiest of excuses, and summer is certainly a good deal more substantial a reason than I require. And you really can't make decent sangria without (at least) one orange and two limes.

I don't know, of course, to what extent your early culinary history corresponds to my own, but if you were taken to the same sorts of restaurants in your youth that I was taken to, every so often, you went to a suburban Chinese restaurant that had a menu of essentially two pages. Verso, there were descriptions of individual dishes in fairly small print. Recto, there was something called a family style dinner or a group dinner or perhaps (though probably not) something more exotic. It was something my family never ordered, but if you have ever heard the expression "one from column A and one from column B," then you have heard a reference at least to one of those menus. The idea was that the more people you had at your table, the more dishes you ordered. If there were two of you, I believe, you got one from each column. Add another person, get another column A dish. Add yet another person, add a column B dish. And so on.

Sangria, reader, follows what google tells me is referred to as the Chinese menu principle. The more people you have, the more sangria you need, the more kinds of fruit you put in. When we have a party here, I get out the two-gallon punch bowl and fill it to the rim (more than once) with Sangria, and in that case, I put in lemons, limes, oranges, apples, cantaloupe, honeydew, strawberries, cherries, and pretty much anything else I see that looks good. When you're making enough sangria for two (half a gallon; people drink a lot of the stuff, and you'll want some left over), you can really get away with just two fruits. Since I also had the big clamshell box of ripe red cherries, I used some of them as well, but the main fruit additions were one orange and two limes.

Sangria for a (Very) Small Crowd

One orange
Two limes
A dozen cherries
6 cups red wine
1/2 cup white rum or vodka, optional

Slice the orange and the two limes. The orange slices should be relatively thick, and the lime slices should be as thin as possible. If you have a V-slicer, you can accomplish this by flipping the guide from the thick to the thin setting between slicing the orange and slicing the limes. Put the sliced citrus fruits into a pitcher. Remove the stems from the cherries. Cut the cherries in half with a paring knife. Remove the seeds if you think that matters. Add the cherries to the pitcher, then add the wine and the liquor if you are using it. Add a quarter cup of sugar, stir well, and refrigerate.

If you make this the day before, the sangria will pick up a good deal of bitterness from the citrus rind, and you will need more sugar to balance off the bitterness. Add enough sugar to make it taste good if you did that, and enjoy the complex flavor. Drop a cherry and a slice of each of the citrus fruits into a large glass, add ice, and then pour in the sangria. It should be nice and cold when you serve it.

If you dislike using a lot of sugar, then instead of marinating the fruit in the wine overnight, you can simply juice the citrus and mix the wine with the juice. It will still be very good, and no one will know since you're putting some fruit in the glass for a garnish, anyway. If you like to quaff this the way I do, then you may want to either omit the liquor or have it less cold so that the ice melts and waters it down a bit. If you do that, add some additional citrus juice so that it doesn't taste weak. You can go as far as mixing half wine with half orange-limeade (and/or lemonade, really) without losing the good flavor of the wine. I very rarely have more than a glass of wine at dinner, and I only serve this at home, so I just go ahead and drink as much as I like, which invariably amuses my friends, who are unaccustomed to seeing me even slightly inebriated. If you're making a bowlful for a party, you can make it a bit stronger since over time, the significant amount of ice that you've dumped in will melt so that the sangria will weaken along with the inhibitions of its drinkers. On the rare occasions where I don't have guests and feel like making a batch, though, I make it very weak and with a lot of juice, as I have never understood the allure of solitary intoxication. And, no, God doesn't count.

[Note: I have been experiencing some problems with the wireless modem on the computer that I use to upload pictures. Pictures will resume when I resolve the problems.]

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Death on the Middle Palate

My kind and intelligent readers may be excused for thinking, after reading my most recent post and the title of this one right here, that I have lost my way and deviated from the one true path to culinary enlightenment. Let me hasten to assure you, however, that this post is in no way, shape, or form a whodunit. Nor were any people (or other animals, for that matter) harmed in the making of this post, except to the extent that run-on sentences kill.

When I took a leave of absence during my undergraduate education (c. 1983), I could no longer live in the on-campus dorms, so I had to leave Cambridge and find an apartment somewhere else in the Boston area. I looked at listings in the off-campus housing office and talked to a pair of math graduate students who needed another roommate for their three-bedroom apartment in Allston-Brighton. It was an entirely residential neighborhood, but there was a grocery store about half a mile away, and it was an easy bus ride to Harvard Square, where I had taken a job with the other big university in Cambridge.

The apartment was nothing to write home about, but my room was fairly large, and I really got along well with my roommates. We did our food shopping and cooking cooperatively so that I ended up making dinner perhaps forty percent of the time (I was the best cook) and at least one of my roommates was as interested in cooking and eating new things as I was. (The other roommate was a fine fellow, and he made a terrific gado gado, but there is no getting around the fact that some brilliant people are weird[er than me, even]. He would sit in his bedroom, working on his thesis in topology, reading Russian novels in the original language, and watching the Mary Tyler Moore show, all at the same time. He had some trouble with normal conversation, however.)

Rob (the slightly less brilliant one who liked to cook) was also an oenophile of the highest order, and I can remember many occasions when he and I together lugged twelve bottles of wine home from one of the local wine stores. We got the case discount that way, you see.

I did not retain all that much of what I learned about wine from Rob, though I did retain the taste for it. I do remember, however, that there was a catch-all phrase for a wine that you didn't really like but that didn't have anything specifically wrong with it: "It dies on the middle palate."

I was reminded of this phrase on Sunday night when I was tasting the dessert that I had made for last night's (Monday night's) dinner. In doing my research for the pork in bitter orange sauce, I had come across a recipe for bitter orange ice cream, written by everyone's favorite British-sex-kitten-with-a-cooking-show. (This is not a slam on Ms. Lawson, by the way. I find her food generally very good, but her ridiculous and hopeless attempts to be as sexy as Julia Child can hardly escape notice.) She was, in fact, one of the people who said that a combination of sweet orange and lime juice was an acceptable substitute for the bitter orange juice.

I don't know whether she was simply wrong about the acceptability of that particular substitution, but when I first tasted the orange-lime ice cream, I had an immediate sensation of mmmm followed by a slightly deferred sensation of hmmmm. After a splendid first taste, it died on the middle palate. Too much of my tongue was left unsatisfied. Fortunately, my unsatisfied tongue knew just what was missing and cried out (literally, as it happens) for almonds. It is possible that the addition of a bit of almond extract to the ice cream before freezing would have satisfied my tongue, but as I had already frozen the ice cream, I decided that my best bet was to make some almond tuiles (which would also add some crunch) and serve them with the ice cream.

In general, the good thing about having to make much of Monday's dinner on Sunday is that there is time to make corrections. In this particular case, however, there were -- shockingly -- no almonds in the house, so I knew that I would have to make the tuiles Monday evening. Fortunately, my own incompetence came to the rescue. I had thought that I'd invited my friend for 6:30, and when I got tied up at the office after 5 and then took too long at the supermarket and then sat in traffic for longer than usual and didn't arrive home until almost 6:15, I was nearly in a panic. Not, mind you, the sort of panic that would stop me from cooking as quickly as I could, but a panic nonetheless, for in addition to making the tuiles, I had to prepare the zucchini pancakes, cook the pork tenderloins, reheat the mole, and cook the rice. As it happens, however, I had never gotten back to him about the time, and so when he called at 6:50 to wonder when he should show up and to say that he had not yet left his office, I was elated and confident in my ability to get everything on the table not long after his arrival. (I had also put out some brie, crackers, and olives for us to nibble on while we drank our sangria and I finished cooking.)

The tuiles did not go according to plan. When I had the first batch out of the oven, they were even thinner than I wanted, and I didn't wait long enough to attempt to curve them over my rolling pin. As a result, they fell apart, but when I tasted them, they were very good, and the crumpled tuile pieces tasted a lot like praline: sweet, crunchy, and buttery. So I determined to get two roof tileish tuiles and to crumple the rest in the bottom of the bowls and serve the ice cream on top of it. All mmmm, no hmmmm.

I am not sure that ice cream is entirely the correct term for this dessert, though I suppose that it is technically accurate since the main ingredient (by weight and volume) is heavy cream, and the dessert is frozen. It is not, however, churned. It is still-frozen, which makes it, as Ms. Lawson claims, ridiculously easy to prepare. It also creates a bit of a serving challenge if you don't let it sit in the refrigerator for a sufficient amount of time after freezing and before serving, but you have been warned, so you won't have that problem.

Orange-Lime Ice Cream with Praline Tuiles

For the ice cream:

1 navel oranges
2 Persian limes
1 cup + 2 Tablespoons confectioners' sugar
2.5 cups heavy cream

For the tuiles:

6 Tablespoons butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
2/3 cup slivered blanched almonds

Zest the orange and one of the limes. Juice the orange and both limes. In the bowl of your mixer (with the whisk attachment), mix the zest, the juice, and the powdered sugar. Add the heavy cream, and beat to the soft peak stage. Pour the mixture into a shallow 2-quart container, cover with plastic wrap and freeze for at least four hours, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and thoroughly grease two cookie sheets. In the mixer (paddle attachment this time) cream the butter and sugar, then add the flour and mix until incorporated. Add the almonds and mix again.

Drop the batter by teaspoons onto one of the greased cookie sheets; press down on them lightly, with a dampened finger (preferably your own). You will batter up the second sheet while the first one is baking. The tuiles will spread out to a diameter of five or six inches, so plan accordingly. Bake for five to six minutes or until they are golden brown (they will be darker around the edges than in the middle). Remove the pan from the oven and let sit for about two minutes. Carefully remove the tuiles from the pan with a metal pancake turner or spatula and drape them over a marble rolling pin, glass bottle, or the back of a small bowl, depending on the shape you want. Do not worry if they crumble: they're just as good that way.

Forty-five minutes before you're going to serve dessert, move the ice cream from the freezer to the refrigerator. When you're ready to serve, put some crumpled tuiles in the bottom of a bowl. Dip your ice cream scoop in hot water and hope for the best. Scoop an appropriate amount into each bowl, then top (or side) with one of the whole tuiles, or more crumpled tuile, if that's what you've got.

The ice cream will quickly soften into something very creamy that you can mix with the tuile bits on your spoon.

A Short Rant on the Topic of Language

"Begging the question" means that you have already assumed that which you are setting out to prove. It is an error of logic. What I have just described is the only acceptable use of the term. If you are talking with someone about whether cherry pie is better than apple pie (and this would be a silly argument because of course it is), and he says "A good apple pie is better than a good cherry pie," (he is, by the way, clearly insane, but he may have other redeeming qualities, so please try not to suggest that he refrain from reproducing so as to avoid contamination of the gene pool) you may not say, "Well, that begs the question of what a good pie really is." (You will, no doubt, note the clumsiness of my example. I can only say that I am simultaneously attempting to relate the topic to food and to overcome my distaste at having to use the term incorrectly, even for the sake of example, and I am clearly up to neither task.)

When you are having a discussion and you require further clarification about one of the statements or a better definition of a term, you have an easy alternative. "That raises the question."

Only you can prevent the disintegration of the language. Please do your part.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Mole Matters

I went to Costco this weekend, partly, I must confess, to pick up a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I could claim that I got it for my daughter, but that would perhaps not explain the second copy. I am old enough not to have to apologize for my occasionally questionable literary tastes, and in any case, I mention the book purchase mainly to explain why I was at Costco and in the presence of so much produce that I was, evidently, unable to resist. Eight pounds of navel oranges, five pounds of Persian limes, three pounds of sweet red cherries (they also had Rainier cherries, but I had a two-pound box of those last week, and they weren't really as ripe as they might have been), and a ten-pound bag of Vidalia onions. (I passed up the three-pound box of nice ripe figs because I have never done much with fresh figs, and now I am having the opposite of buyer's remorse.)

I was, at least, very stern with myself and insisted, to myself (to whom I am remarkably unaccountable, alas), that I would allow myself these purchases, but I was going to have to find some way to put by anything that I could not consume before the rot set in. And I would have to come up with, and execute, a plan before Saturday, when V. is set to return. You will remember that my otherwise excellent partner can become somewhat overwrought when he feels that his kitchen is being overrun with my food purchases. The poor man blanches whenever he sees me with a Trader Joe's bag.

I already had a plan for at least some of the oranges and limes. As I've mentioned before, my favorite dish at one of my favorite local restaurants is pork cooked in a bitter orange sauce. I have no idea where to get bitter oranges, and I suspect that if I had some idea, I would find that they are out of season, but as a by-product of searching for a good pork-in-bitter-orange-sauce dish, I found several recipes that said that one could successfully substitute a combination of half non-bitter orange and half lime juice for the bitter orange juice. The pork at Sol Azteca is in a fairly thin sauce that is not overly complex, though it is very good. After looking at various recipes, considering my new supply of Vidalia onions, and some of what passes for deep thought at the chez anapestic, I decided that what I really wanted was to make a mole.

I already have a perfectly wonderful red mole recipe from a cookbook by one or the other of the former Silver Palate chefs, but I thought it would be fun to come up with one of my own (that recipe also takes a long time to make because there are so many ingredients that have to be fried separately). I would have preferred to use a piece of pork that requires somewhat longer cooking, but all of the pork of that description at Costco came in pieces of over ten pounds, that just struck me as ridiculous. Fortunately, they also had some very nice looking pork tenderloins. These also came in fairly large packages, but each package had two smaller packages inside it, and each of these smaller packages had two tenderloins. (In the unlikely event that you don't already know, I will mention here that a pork tenderloin -- unsurprisingly -- is a much smaller thing than a beef tenderloin. A pork tenderloin tends to be in the 1.5 - 2 pound range.) It was an easy matter to put one of the smaller packages in the freezer. I had invited a friend for dinner on Monday evening, and I figured that I would cook two of the tenderloins, with the idea that we would eat most of one for dinner, and I would have the other for leftovers on Tuesday and for dinner with L. on Wednesday, and also some for lunch, perhaps.

As is my custom, I will give here the recipe as I should have made it, rather than exactly as I did make it. I will say, however, that I pretty much knocked this one out of the park on the first swing, and the only difference is that as I actually made it, I used too much of the not-quite-finished mole as a marinade, with the result that a lot of it got left behind in the bag and eventually in the garbage rather than ending up in someone's stomach or left over in the frig for another day. Live and learn, right? I served the pork and mole with some of my zucchini pancakes and with some basmati rice that I cooked with onion, garlic, butter, olive oil, chicken stock, and a few threads of saffron.

Pork Tenderloins in Citrus-Based Mole

3 T. olive oil
1 T. annatto seeds
2 dried mulato chiles, stem and seeds removed
1 t. salt
1/2 t. freshly ground pepper
2 t. ground cumin
2.5 cups chopped Vidalia onion
3 cloves garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
1/2 c. freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 c. freshly squeezed lime juice
1/3 c. apple cider

Two pork tenderloins
salt and pepper

1 Tablespoon Honey

Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium to medium-high heat. Add the annatto seeds and cook until the oil is dark red, about three to five minutes. Remove the seeds from the oil and discard them. (Chasing the annatto seeds around the pot to get them out is the only really difficult part of this recipe, and it's not so much difficult as tedious. I suppose that you could just pour the oil and seeds through a strainer and then pour the oil back into the saucepan.)

Add the rest of the oil to the saucepan, and give it half a minute to heat back up. Add the dried chiles to the saucepan and cook for a minute on each side. Add the salt, cumin, and pepper, and cook for another minute or so. Add the onions, stir thoroughly to coat them with the oil and spices, then turn the heat down to medium-low and cover the saucepan. Cook for another five minutes, stirring once in the middle of that time. Add the garlic, stir well, and cook for two minutes more, still on medium-low. Add the orange and lime juices, stir, and turn the heat to medium-high until the mixture comes to a slow boil. Then turn the heat back to medium-low, cover the pan, and let simmer for fifteen minutes.

Add the cider, stir, and then puree the sauce, using your immersion blender. You could also put everything into a standard blender and puree it that way. Let the mole cool.

When the mole is approaching room temperature, butterfly the pork tenderloins so that they are of a more-or-less even thickness throughout. Season the tenderloins with salt and pepper, then put them in a one-gallon plastic food storage bag (or use a non-reactive bowl, if you'd rather). Dump enough of the mole to coat the tenderloins into the bag, close it, and squish the mixture around with your hands for a bit. Put the bag in the refrigerator so that the tenderloins can marinate, preferably overnight. Put the rest of the mole in a bowl in the refrigerator.

When you are about ready to cook the tenderloins, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put a skillet on the stove and preheat it to medium high. Remove the tenderloins from the marinade, leaving as much marinade as possible in the bag and not on the pork. Put some olive oil in the skillet, and cook the tenderloins for three minutes on each side so that they brown nicely. Then transfer them to a shallow pan, and put them in the oven. Put the reserved marinade and any marinade left in the skillet into a heavy saucepan, and bring it to a low boil, taking care not to scorch it. Add the honey and stir well, then taste and correct seasoning.

When the tenderloins reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees, remove them from the oven, and let them sit for fifteen minutes to regroup. Then slice them to your desired thickness. Put the sliced pork into the saucepan with the mole, stir to coat the pieces, then remove them to a platter. Serve the rest of the sauce on the side.

There are, of course, a lot of things that you could change about this recipe. To begin with, while the mole/marinade (when you say "marinade", you must pronounce it the same way the French do; the Julia Child voice is optional but extremely helpful) does a lot for the pork, the pork doesn't really add anything to the sauce, and you could certainly use the mole to equal effect with boneless, skinless chicken breasts (or the pieces from a whole chicken, though you might have to alter the cooking method slightly).

I used mulato chiles because they looked good at the supermarket. They have a complex and wonderful flavor, but they are definitely on the mild side. If you want more heat then substitute another sort of pepper. This site appears to be a pretty useful guide to the heat levels of the various dried chiles. You could also use the mulatos and add as much as you like of a second, spicier chile.

The apple cider was a last-minute addition when it became painfully obvious that there was not enough liquid in the mixture for the immersion blender to function. I did not want to add water, and I had a bottle of clear cider in the pantry. You could easily substitute another liquid (beer, perhaps), or use more of the citrus juice, though you would then likely need more honey. The honey itself, like everything, is to taste. Given the tanginess of the protomole, I had expected to use more and was pleasantly surprised when I had just enough after adding the first tablespoon, which, to be entirely candid, I did not measure exactly.

My theory with adding the honey at the end was that something more acidic would make a better marinade. I don't know whether that's true, but having more sugar on the meat when you sear it could make it burn more easily and adding it at the end certainly worked well. When I first tasted the marinade (i.e., before adding it to the pork or the honey to it), I thought that perhaps I would eventually wish that I had fried some banana into the sauce after the dried chiles but before the onions. After adding the honey on the second day, however, I think I will leave well enough alone.

After leaving too much of the marinade in the bag and cooking the rest, I ended up with only about two-thirds of a cup of mole that wasn't clinging to the pork. Fortunately, mole freezes very well, and I have a lot more Vidalia onions, oranges, and limes, so I'll likely be making a larger batch later in the week and putting it in the freezer. I had some other plans for the cherries, but it appears likely that I will just eat most of them out of hand.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Crêpes de Courgettes

As is often the case, especially in the shadow of Bastille Day, I am in something of a Vive la France! mood in the kitchen these days, which explains why I'm calling my most recent culinary innovation something other than "zucchini pancakes." And I am, gentle reader, inundated with zucchini at the moment. V.'s garden includes some indistinct number (no less than two, but perhaps four or five; it is difficult to tell) of giant zucchini plants which are now sending out giant zucchini. V. is (as I trust I have made clear, exaggerated rants about his occasional obstinacy over kitchen space notwithstanding) a terrific guy, but he is not among the world's more adventurous cooks. In fact, I believe he has only one cookbook, something called The Bontempi Cookbook which is named after an Italian woman who either had a cooking show or did a cooking segment on a show that she and her husband had sometime back in the sixties or perhaps the seventies. I really should know more about her since when V.'s old paperback copy of the book had pretty much entirely fallen apart and he was wishing that there were some way to find a new copy but "it's out of print," I devoted at least forty-five seconds of my very valuable time to tracking down a few score of copies on the Internet and ordered him one for Christmas. Anyway, V., like Mrs. Bontempi, is Italian, and he makes Italian food well, but he has a set collection of dishes which he doesn't alter much or experiment with.

So when he makes zucchini, it's always the same. He slices the zucchini a third of an inch thick, and then he puts it in a skillet with olive oil, salt and pepper. Zucchini is very good this way, of course, provided that it's young, not-too-big zucchini. "Not-too-big" is about the last term that you'd use to describe the current crop from the garden, however. This is zucchini that you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.

Still, you've got all that big zucchini sitting there, so you've got to come up with a way to use it. If I lived in the Midwest, of course, I could defer the problem by giving the zucchini away. If you live on one of the coasts, or in an inland urban area such as Chicago, you may be unfamiliar with the tradition of the zucchini gift ("zg" for short). It harkens back to an era where food was not always easy to come by and when farmers who were having a year of abundance considered it an act of communitarian good will to leave baskets of vegetables (and the odd baked good) on their neighbors doorsteps. These offerings were given under the cover of darkness so as not to embarrass either the recipients or the donors. Over time, people became either less generous or more focused, and these days the zg is part symbolic act part zucchini disposal method. This practice puts me in mind of old movies wherein destitute unwed mothers bundled babies into baskets and left them on the doorsteps of people with some means of supporting them. I am not sufficiently conversant with the ways of the zg to know whether the people who drop off the zucchini leave notes saying "Please look after these zucchini and provide a good home for them. I'm just not able," but I doubt it, especially since most of the zucchini in question are probably larger than an orphan baby, thought they are, arguably, less demanding. The entire practice is generally ineffectual anyway: you might very well dump some overgrown zucchini on your neighbors, but they're doing the same thing to you, and they might be more aggressive.

Midwestern cooks largely deal with the problem by putting zucchini into preserved relishes and by making a lot of zucchini bread, but I was looking for a solution that allowed me to retain both the zucchini's freshness and its vegetableness. Crêpes de Courgettes is what I came up with.

1.5 pounds fresh zucchini
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 Tablespoons quick-mixing flour (e.g., Wondra)
Another pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Grate the zucchini, using the largest holes of a cheese grater. Mix the zucchini with the teaspoon of salt and set the mixture in a colander. Set the colander over a bowl. The salting is necessary to remove the unpleasant flavor that larger zucchini developed while weeping bitter tears at having been left so long in the garden.

Heat a nonstick skillet to medium and add the oil and the onion. Cover the onion and sweat (the onion that is; it is not necessary that you sweat personally, though you may) for five minutes, stirring once. Turn off the heat, grate the garlic clove (using the small holes of the grater; or you can just mince or puree them to begin with) into the onions, stir, cover, and let cool.

You will use either a blender or an immersion blender for the next part of the recipe. Put the milk, egg, mustard, cumin, salt, pepper, and flour into the appropriate container and blend briefly. Then add the onions and garlic from the skillet. You do not have to scrape every bit of oil out of the skillet since you are going to cook the pancakes in it. Blend the mixture until it is smooth. If there are some small lumps of onion and garlic in the mixture, they will not hurt anything.

When the zucchini have been sitting about half an hour, take the colander out of the bowl and empty, rinse, and dry the bowl. Put the zucchini into a kitchen towel, twist the mass into a ball, and squeeze as much liquid out of the zucchini as you can (if you have ever seen Julia Child make her straw potato galette, then just do what she did with her potatoes; the difference is that squeezing the zucchini will not leave indelible stains on your kitchen towels). You are not saving this liquid for anything, so you can just squeeze it over the sink. (If you are the sort that hates to throw anything away, I don't know what to tell you. The liquid that comes out of the zucchini is rather an impressive shade of green, however, so I suppose that you could mix the liquid with some very cheap gin, call it a green apple martini, and serve it to your worst enemy. You say you don't have a worst enemy? Just wait until you've served someone this cocktail.)

Turn the stove on medium. Put the skillet back on the stove.

When you've gotten the zucchini as dry as you can, dump it into the bowl, add the liquid mixture that you blended, and mix thoroughly. I prefer to make the pancakes on the small side, about four inches in diameter, but if you like, you may make them larger and serve something else (the meat, perhaps) on top of them. To make the smaller ones, I use a heaping soup spoon (to the extent that the mixture heaps, which is really not all that much) of batter. Drop the batter into the skillet and spread it out with the back of your spoon. The crêpes can be a little bit delicate, so you will want to flip them only once, but they are not so delicate that having to flip them another time will destroy them. It will simply cause you to fret unnecessarily, and we don't want that.

The pancakes can sit around for a few minutes after they're made, but to the extent possible, you want to serve them immediately. This means that they are a good dish to serve when the other foods you're serving are a bit forgiving and don't require split-second timing. Or with something like a roast chicken that needs to be sitting for a bit after it comes out of the oven. In that case, you could make the batter while the chicken's in the oven and then hold it until you pull the chicken out and then make the crêpes while the chicken juices are redistributing themselves.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

You Must Not Overcook the Peas

The title of this post, as it turns out, is really not a good line to use more than once, which is one of several reasons that today's post does not contain a villanelle, the other major reasons being that villanelles are exceedingly difficult to write in English and my general lack of poetic talent.

I am told that the villanelle is significantly easier to write in Romance languages, where there are more rhymes. I extrapolate (perhaps wildly) from this nugget of knowledge that the form comes originally from the French. I make this leap mostly as a way to note that today is Bastille Day. No matter what you think of the French (and I think they're just fine, thanks; I went to Paris for not quite a week last year, and the only French person who was brusque with me was the Air France gate agent at the airport in Northern Virginia [the Air France agents in Paris were utterly charming and extremely helpful, though when I told them that I was flying home without my partner because he had lost his passport, they insisted on translating "copin" as "wife" when they spoke back to me in English, which gave me some good material with which to mock V. when he returned home a day after me, having found his passport in his suitcase]; nobody mocked my French; I speak French pretty well for an American, but that's about the most you can say), you have to admit that they do food well, so on their independence day, I think that we can drop all the "freedom fry" and "cheese-eating surrender monkey" nonsense and be grateful for Escoffier and his successors. And the aforementioned cheese, of course.

I recently posted about a hummos-like material made with lima beans that I refused to call hummos because it was made with lima beans while "hummos" comes from the Arabic for chick pea. I have still not come up with a suitable replacement term, but the lima bean dip was so good that I thought about other variations, and I decided that I might as well try it with plain old peas. Or petits pois as our Frankish friends might say. (Yes, I know, you think I'm laying it on pretty thick, but I have only just started.) Anyway, the green pea is pretty close to a chick pea, since they both contain the word "pea" (oh, please! None of your botanical protestations; do you really think that science trumps language? Pas de tout! I, for example, believe in the concept of rhythmic similarity, whereby nouns of the same meter are utterly interchangeable. This, of course, is the logic behind James Carville's declaration that outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is the same as Alabama. Other identical places include North Dakota, Minnesota, and San Diego.), so I feel entirely (where "entirely" means not at all, but I'm trying to put a brave face on it) comfortable calling a dip based on green peas "hummos," at least until I come up with something better. If you remain unconvinced, I shall be compelled to repeat Emerson's maxim that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds1. Nothing personal.

Anyway, green peas turn out to make a very different but, to my taste buds, very good dip. Once again, I used the microwave because by defrosting rather than cooking the little peas, one retains so much more of their sweet freshness, which helps to create the deliciously complex mix of flavors. (If you do not want to use the microwave, then leave your peas in the refrigerator overnight to defrost and just skip the microwave portion of the recipe.) As happens more often than I would like, I am compelled to give you the corrected recipe rather than the recipe that I actually used. The only difference between the two is that I was a bit optimistic when I put in the garlic. "Five cloves," thought I to myself "is surely the right amount!" Reader, I was mistaken. Mind you, I still loved the result, but I could not deny that so much uncooked garlic threw the taste somewhat out of balance. Yes, it was too much garlic even for me, which only goes to prove that one can get into one's forties and still be learning things about one's gustatory preferences.

Green Pea Hummos-Like Material2
(Hummos de Petits Pois )

3 cups frozen green peas
2 Tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup water
the juice of one lemon
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
freshly ground black pepper

Put the peas in a microwave-safe bowl. Add the olive oil, garlic, cumin, salt, and red pepper flakes. Stir well. Add the water and stir again. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave on defrost for ten minutes. Stir. The peas should be cold (you must not overcook the peas) but no longer frozen. Dump the pea mixture into your food processor and turn it on. When the mixture is reasonably well ground, add the lemon juice, cilantro, and black pepper, and process to incorporate. Taste and correct seasoning. You may need a bit of extra water to get it to a good consistency.

I believe, though I have not confirmed, that mint would be an excellent addition to or substitute for the cilantro in this recipe. Whichever herb you use, the final result will be greener than you expect and perhaps a bit greener than you're comfortable with, but you'll adjust, I promise.

1Emerson's saying is enormously flexible. What he actually said was that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." That way, when I'm insisting on consistency and someone attempts to throw Mr. Emerson's words at me, I can simply retort that the consistency in question is not foolish while casting vague aspersions about the accuser's literacy since he obviously doesn't know the entire quote. For future reference, any consistency that I eschew is foolish; those that I follow are wise.

2I am not, generally speaking, a fan of mock foods, so while I might note in passing that this dip has many of the same flavors of guacamole with only a tiny fraction of the fat, you may not call it guacamole, and if you put it out at a party and someone else calls it guacamole, you must either correct him or leave the room at once to avoid perpetrating a lie of omission. The texture is, of course, nothing like guacamole, but years of bizarre diet recipes involving ingredients such as canned asparagus (and, really, I understand the desire to find something to do with canned asparagus because who wants to eat it in any of the ways that you eat good asparagus, but I think the better answer is to either eat all the asparagus when it's in season or to use the canned asparagus as some sort of building material: stucco or wallpaper paste, perhaps) have gotten people used to accepting anything vaguely green and smooth as guacamole. In any case, this dip is perfectly good on its own and does not need to ride on the coattails of guacamole to take its proper place on the snack table.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


If you live in the DC area, and you repeat my maxim (where by "my" I mean someone else's, but in this case someone else who has moved to some godforsaken state in the Midwest [or wherever Ohio is], thereby leaving it open for me to claim) that the best ethnic food is in the suburbs, and someone disagrees with you, then the best way to win the argument once and for all is to march them over to Silver Spring and feed them dinner at Mandalay. (But make them pick up the check; it's a small price to pay for enlightenment. By the way, is it just me, or does their logo/menu cover art look like a troupe of acrobats giving the hook'em horns sign?)

Silver Spring, for those of you unfamiliar with the area, covers a whole lot of ground: it's basically anything in the southeastern part of Montgomery County that isn't something else. The Mandalay is in what people often call downtown Silver Spring, which is easily eight miles from Aspen Hill, where I lived for a little more than a year, immediately after the infamous sniper attacks, and which is also considered Silver Spring. Downtown Silver Spring is not so very suburban these days, it having been revitalized with a plan that took a long time to get going but that eventually succeeded wildly. Within a short walk of the Mandalay, you'll find both the AFI Silver Theatre and a giant multiplex, so that on any given day, you can eat before or after a terrific or ghastly movie, not necessarily respectively. You will also be within a stone's throw of any number of new condominium construction, most of which will have been fully sold at astronomical prices before ground has been broken. Anyway, even with all the new and uncompleted construction, it's a pretty cool area, and I could probably live there happily, were it not for the aforementioned astronomical price problem.

Last night, the service was attentive but relaxed, which meant that the waitress was perfectly willing to let us paw over the menus for twenty minutes trying to figure out what we wanted to try. It was a difficult decision. (Yes, I am easily distracted by shiny objects; why do you ask?) I eventually settled on the Baya Gyaw (a fritter made from yellow split peas) for an appetizer, largely because it reminds me (somewhat) of the hungry tiger kibbeh recipe, which I have made with great success on a few occasions lately. I could say that this choice was especially appropriate because Mme. Redfox was one of the people who initially recommended (glowingly: the Mandalay has an extensive selection of vegetarian dishes) the restaurant to me, but really, I just figured that the Baya Gyaw would be really good, and it was. Do not fear the phosphorescent pink sauce that accompanies appetizers. A little artificial coloring never hurt anybody.

If you eat at Mandalay, you must have the green papaya salad (SL.09 on the menu). I am not making a suggestion here; I am explaining the nature of the universe to you. Don't forget it!

I haven't ever had a bad entree at Mandalay, and I certainly didn't last night. We had the KyetThar ThaYetThee Hin (chunks of chicken thigh simmered in pickled mango chutney) and the KyarZan Gyaw (noodles stir fried with pork -- you may choose another meat if you prefer -- and vegetables) last night. When you order the entree, your server asks you whether you prefer mild, medium, or spicy. I always order medium, which is really sort of medium-mild. I could handle more spice, but it's very good at medium, and you never know when you order spicy whether the chef's going to make it humanely spicy or turn-it-up-to-eleven spicy. Medium makes my scalp sweat without abusing my taste buds, and that seems like a happy compromise.

There is a reasonable selection of beer to accompany dinner (I had Yuenling last night). There is also a wine list that I have never bothered with. If you are in a leisurely mood after polishing off the entrees, the green tea (hand picked from the Myanmar mountains!) is particularly nice. There was no room for tea last night. The portions at Mandalay are generous though not ridiculously so, and one appetizer, one order of green papaya salad, and one entree would have been plenty for the two of us. The second entree was an unnecessary extravagance, but since the bill for both of us, was well under $40, including everything, I can perhaps be forgiven if my eyes were (at least before the dinner) bigger than my stomach.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Deferred Gratification II

I have been meaning to make some preserved lemons for a very long time now. I'm sure that you've read plenty about preserved lemons already. I first heard about them from the splendid Redfox, who is only slightly less splendid in that she has gone all the way to Italy just to avoid writing an entry on stuffed grape leaves that I have been expecting lo these many years months weeks. Not that I'm bitter you understand. But my parents' grape arbor in Pennsylvania is not going to bear fruit this year, so I may as well at least get some use out of the leaves. I actually have a recipe for preserving the grape leaves themselves, and there are a great many recipes that will tell you what to fill them with once you have them, but I know that she has developed her own recipe, and she has told me that it's not like other recipes for dolmas, so naturally I must have it. (I promise that I absolutely don't mind any of my readers thinking that I'm entirely insane, so long as they remember that I'm also entirely harmless.)

Anyway, on at least two previous occasions, I purchased a bag of lemons intending to preserve them, but I never got around to it until the lemons seemed to have lost much of anything that seemed worth preserving. But when I was at Costco buying gallons of pretzels so that I might use the container for my Vin de Noix, I saw five-pound bags of nice big lemons, so I got a bag.

As I have already thoughtfully linked to the Hungry Tiger recipe for preserved lemons, I won't bother giving one here, though I will say that If you choose lemons that are big, you're going to want to choose bigger jars than I chose. In fact, I had started out with a bunch of empty jars that V. had put in the pantry, mostly so that there would be less available space so that he could complain about all the space that the stuff I bought was taking up (never mind that there are six boxes of taco shells that he has had longer than I've known him sitting on one of the lower shelves: the lack of space is ALL MY FAULT; never mind that his son works at McCormick and there is a case of dried marjoram in the main spice cupboard: the lack of space is ALL MY FAULT; not that I'm bitter, you understand) because you don't really need proper canning jars for preserved lemons, but once I'd quartered eight or so lemons and mixed them with half a cup of coarse salt (I think I used way more salt throughout the process than Redfox uses, a feat I would not have thought possible), it was clear that the jars I had washed and boiled were not going to be adequate to the task, so I drove over to Giant and got a dozen pint-sized wide-mouth canning jars, which I also boiled. My lemons were still too big for those jars, but not by as much. All the same, the next time I preserve lemons, I will likely just use one big jar so that I can pack them in more densely. I was only able to get about six to eight lemon quarters in each jar because the length of the lemons was slightly greater than the diameter of the jars. I probably could and should have cut the lemons into eighths rather than quarters, but I wanted to follow the defined process as closely as possible.

My lemons were not organic, so I washed and then scrubbed them well, and afterwards they certainly smelled very nice. As I said, I ended up using a lot of salt. I also ended up using a lot of lemon juice because of the way the lemons were packed in, but I really didn't mind. I could not bring myself to use bottled lemon juice, and because I had only cut up less than half of the lemons in the bag (and because I had some less attractive but still juicy lemons in the refrigerator), I had plenty of lemons to squeeze for the juice I needed.

I hope, gentle reader, that you're the sort of cook who plans ahead better than I do. Seeing all those lemons, it should have been entirely obvious to me that I would end up with bunches of squeezed lemon halves and that I would blanch at the notion of just throwing them away and that having already blanched, it would be a small further step to doing the three boilings in water followed by the slow cooking in syrup that one needs to candy lemon peel. Had I realized this, I would have taken the lemon peel off the lemons before I juiced them, when it is relatively easy to get them off with a sharp knife and a bit of knowledge. Alas, I was without foresight, and as a result, I had the rather less pleasant task of removing the squeezed flesh from the peels. I was at least fortunate enough not to have any cuts on my fingers, so that the job, while messy and slippery, was not literally painful. I ended up cutting the squeezed halves into squeezed quarters, which made the job a bit easier.

You can candy the peel from any number of lemons, though you will probably want to have at least half a dozen to feel that it's worth the effort. I believe that I had about ten, but I am not sure. Regardless of the number you have, when you have either removed the peel from the lemon or the lemon from the peel, then you cover the peels with cold water, bring them to a boil and let them simmer for a few minutes, then drain and repeat. And repeat. So that's three boils altogether, if you're keeping track, which you will need to do if you actually make the recipe. The reason you boil the peels, of course, is to remove much of the bitterness from the white part of the peel (aka the part of the peel that you aren't supposed to use when you use lemon zest because it's very bitter). Even if you do the full three boils, and even if the last boil/simmer lasts for half an hour because you've forgotten that you left it on the stove while you were upstairs doing your back exercises, you are not going to get all the bitterness out. When you candy orange peel, you end up with something that's not bitter at all. When you candy lemon peel, you end up with something that's bittersweet. It is still wonderful to my taste, though I can eat only small amounts of it at a time. I have not really decided how I'm going to use all of it yet, but I suspect that it would be very nice in a cocktail of some sort, and I will likely grind up a bit of it when I'm grinding up a larger amount of orange peel to put in my lebkuchen.

Anyway, when you've finished the boil-and-drains, your peel should be relatively soft and easy to cut into narrow strips. You could cut it into any size or shape that you want, of course, but I find that cutting the quarters into thin strips leaves me with especially nice pieces when I'm finished.

I ended up with four cups of julienned lemon peel, waiting to be candied. For this amount of peel, two cups of sugar and one cup of water make about the right amount of heavy syrup. I dump the two cups of sugar and then the one cup of water right into a heavy saucepan, swirl the saucepan once or twice, put the lid on, and turn the heat on high. Within five minutes or so, the syrup should be happily boiling away. At this point, turn the heat to medium, stir in the lemon peel, and bring back to a boil. Then turn the heat to low. It will take at least two hours for the peel to absorb as much of the sugar as it's going to absorb. You should check it and stir it occasionally. If you have something else you have to do, you can put it in a 200 degree (Fahrenheit) oven and ignore it for an hour or two and then put it back on the stove. Eventually, the syrup will have thickened significantly, and nearly all of it will have been absorbed. When it seems like much further cooking will start to scorch the peel (you can tell this, if you don't already know, because when you stir the bottom, there won't be any syrup left where you've stirred for a second or two, and it will make a funny sound), then turn the heat off. Dump the whole mass into a strainer set over a bowl and let it strain until the syrup has stopped running out of it.

At this point, you may carefully separate the strands and roll them in sugar so that they'll stay separate, but I just leave mine all together. It looks very pretty that way (I promise; I know that it looks like a big yellow blob in the picture, but if I were a better photographer, you would see that the pieces are transparent and shining, like edible gemstones), and I can pick out a strand and chew on it every once in a while. Sometime later today I will put it in a ziploc bag and then hide it behind the case of dried marjoram.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Paradise Displaced

L. is here with me this weekend, and I was excited today about taking her to play mini-golf. L. loves to play mini-golf just about anywhere, but her favorite course (and mine) is the one at Rocky Gorge, which is about two miles away from the home I grew up in. Probably because it's the course I've played more than any other (I am not a huge mini-golfer, but I suppose I've played at least fifty rounds during my lifetime), it's what I think of as a typical mini-golf course: there's a windmill hole, a bunch of water hazards, a clown's head, and numerous other novelty holes. On a hot day like today, the Singing Pine hole is among the best holes because you have to walk through a cave between the tee and the hole, and you get a bit of shade. Today the pine was lip-synching Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces," and how can you not love that?

I once shot a par round at this course, which has a lot of par 3 holes, so you at least have a fighting chance, and today I was four over (with two holes in one!), which is really not so bad. L. shot a much higher score, but she had a great time, and when she was taking a lot of putts to finish a hole or had one come very close to the hole only to roll down to a lower level, it allowed me to say things like, "Let this be a lesson to you. Golf is nothing but heartache!" Normally I'm just joking about things like this, but she's nine now, and today she was showing some interest in the driving range, and that sort of thing has to be nipped in the bud. I think it's a good idea to support your kids in all their endeavors, and I dutifully show up at all her ballet rehearsals as well as some of her lessons, but golf? You let something like that slide, and before you know it, your kid's voting Republican.

Anyway, while I did enjoy the mini-golf today, I was excited through the whole round because the Rocky Gorge mini-golf course is on Route 29, and about a mile south of there on Route 29 is the place where I have picked blackberries for the past few years. Attentive readers will note that barely a day ago I had said that the location was a secret, and it was, but there is sadly no longer a secret to keep. I don't guess that I've been through Burtonsville in nearly a year (my parents sold the house I grew up in a couple of years ago, so I don't have much reason to get over that way any more), but as I headed south towards it, I could see that something was horribly wrong. Route 198, which used to intersect Route 29 just a few hundred yards south of my blackberry patches was now suddenly half a mile north of the blackberry patches. Or rather, it's now north of where the blackberry patches used to be. After passing the new interchange, I thought that it was far enough away from the giant electric lines whose wide clearing had housed my blackberry patches that the blackberry patches might still be there, but when I got to where the power lines are, it was clear that a great deal of other construction had been done, including the demolition of the shopping center that used to be right next to the blackberries.

It is, no doubt, a linguistic and moral weakness on my part, but I am entirely unable to express or explain how very profound a loss I felt when it was clear that my blackberry patches were gone. It isn't just the loss of the berries themselves, though that is sad. I had already decided to take the raspberry jam recipe from
here and make it with blackberries instead, and I could just about taste the fresh blackberry pies that I would have made. Still, I was sadder about losing my patches than about losing the blackberries in them.

They weren't really mine, of course, but it feels like I should be able to call them that because I don't think that anyone else ever picked blackberries there, with the exception of my father whom I told about the patches a couple of years ago when it became clear that I had picked more than I could hope to use and there were still plenty left. I was somewhat hesitant, even then, to tell him, but I figured that I owed him something for having brought me into the world, and revealing my blackberry source paid that debt. With interest.

Traffic throughout my county is pretty bad, and I'm sure that the new interchange will help it out, at least in that area, and I certainly remember sitting at the light at the old intersection often enough before they put in the new overpass. I am not so self-centered as to think that my ability to gather large quantities of free blackberries is an unreasonable price to pay for improved traffic for hundreds or thousands of commuters.

But I'm still greatly saddened by the loss. I moped the entire half hour or so that it took us to get home. Ten years ago, if something similar had happened, I would have known another patch to go to, but all of the good patches I have known have met similar fates.

Surely the general shrinking of semi-wild places is part of what saddens me. When I was a kid, I had no shortage of woods to run through, creeks to splash in, and fields to search through for a praying mantis egg case or a bird's nest. But it's a very different area now. A few years ago, after a protracted battle from my parents' neighborhood association, the high-tension electric lines came through, and most of the woods got removed to make way for them. At least a couple of my childhood treehouses vanished in the process. I was never going to climb up into them again anyway, but I still didn't like to see them go.

I felt better, about the blackberries at least, when we got home and I did some other things in the kitchen and thought about it some more. I suppose I have a few options. I can start looking for some blackberry patches closer to where I live now. There are still some semi-wild areas around here, and there must be some blackberries, and if there are, there's not likely to be much competition for them. (The downside to this plan is that for the next few weeks I'll be looking for blackberries every time I'm out in the car, and it seems like a not-so-great excuse if I rear end somebody when my attention is distracted by potential brambles.) Or I can swallow my pride and go for the thornless blackberry bushes at the nearest pick-your-own farm.

But I think that the best plan is probably to call Dad. He now lives in Florida most of the year and Pennsylvania during the summer, so he really no longer has a proprietary interest in his own blackberry patches. As a last resort, I can ask Mom to tell me. Asking a wife to reveal her husband's blackberry sources surely violates some provision of common law, but given the immensity of my need to know (and the fact that she has been pretty much constantly pissed off at my father for the last fifty-three years) she'd probably tell me. I reckon I can worm it out of him, though. I may have to give him a couple of quarts of what I pick, but I did give him a totally kick-ass neon pink flamingo lamp for Fathers' Day, and he thought it was the best gift ever, so if I can find a way to subtly remind him of that, I imagine that he'll cough up the berries (so to speak). I just hope that the developers don't get there first.