Saturday, April 29, 2006

Cream of Chick Pea Soup

Alas, readers, my ambitious plans for today have come to naught. I have, for some time now, had something of a bee in my bonnet (and, really, how would you spell "bonnet" without one?) about stuffed grape leaves. I've been wanting to make some for at least a few years now, and while finding things to put in the grape leaves is no big deal, finding the grape leaves themselves continues to elude me. I'm sure that I could put my hands on some canned grape leaves, but I would much prefer either fresh or frozen ones, and while the Good Humor man still occasionally drives through the neighborhood offering various formulations of frozen desserts, there is no Greek Humor man driving around with feta cheese and fresh grape leaves. (One cannot, of course, help but wonder what tune the Greek Humor truck would be playing, but I am fresh out of suggestions at the moment, so you'll just have to use your own imaginations. Mine has been sufficiently active for a sufficiently long period of time.)

As it happens, my parents' summer home, in Southwestern Pennsylvania right across from the Maryland border, has a small grape arbor, and while the parents themselves are still in Florida, I have keys to the house, and I'm sure the girls would like a trip up there, and I had hoped to take them last week and perhaps make some dolmas and blanch and freeze some extra grape leaves for later. Alas, the trip did not come to fruition, and while I may take them up next weekend, the future is always uncertain.

And then I remembered that for the past several years, along one of my very favorite walks, I have noticed and tracked the development of several wild grape vines. The wild grapes themselves are always very small, and there never seem to be enough of them to do much with, and you'd have to be there at the time of maximum ripeness to pick them, so they've never been much more than an object of curiosity. But, I thought to myself, even if I'm never going to use the wild grapes, why not use the wild grape leaves?

So when V. suggested a noontime walk today, I suggested that we go over to Lake Frank and walk there and look for wild grape leaves. He was amenable (it's one of his best qualities). We rode over, he parked the car, we walked for about a mile to where I remember seeing the largest concentration of grape vines. And no grape vines. Rather, no active grape vines. Plenty of large, old grape vines from seasons past, but nothing that looked like it was going to produce grapes or even leaves in the foreseeable future. (I tried to come up with an adequate expression of grief to go here, but I can't find, without undue effort, an explanation of the original context of "O tempora! O mores!"; "Oh, the humanity" is too overused even for my tastes; and while I have just returned from a production of La Bohème, "Mimi!" [though certainly evocative of grief] just seems wrong.)

Anyway, that particular disappointment was short lived, because on the way back to the parking lot, I found a number of other wild grape vines. Sadly, however, the largest leaves on these particular vines were not much larger than a quarter, and while I could probably be persuaded to make dolminis, I don't see the point in making dolmicros. The vines have obviously not been with leaf for long, and it is to be hoped that, in a few weeks, the leaves will be of sufficient size for stuffing, but there were to be no dolmas for me today.

But I had other items on my culinary agenda. As I mentioned in my post about my trip to NYC, one thing that caught my eye was a menu, posted outside a restaurant, that had "chick pea vicchysoise" as one of its lunch items. This seemed like a pretty easy thing to make, and since I was already going to the supermarket for other reasons, I determined to pick up some leeks and a can of chick peas. The supermarket was out of canned chick peas (it just hasn't been a good day for procuring), but I was pretty sure that I had a can at home, so I went ahead and picked up the leeks.

We here at anapestic believe in guilt. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, where I was practically baptized in guilt on a daily basis. That was too much guilt, but while I did eventually manage to shake most of the guilt of my childhood, a life without guilt is a life where you never feel like you're getting away with anything, and who can live that way? Not me. You can't really feel guilty about the ingredients of this soup. There are, to be sure, a few tablespoons each of butter and cream, but in the context of a quart-and-a-half of soup, that's really very little fat. But you can go ahead and feel guilty about how incredibly easy it is to make. You can pretty much have this soup ready to go in twenty minutes from the time you started, and for most of that time, you don't have to do anything other than contemplate the nature of simmering. And I suppose that you could even skip that and fix yourself a nice drink or something.

Cream of Chick Pea Soup1

3 T. butter (salted or unsalted)
1 leek of decent size
1 medium onion
1 can chick peas, well drained
1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. smoked paprika
1 quart chicken stock or broth
3 T. heavy cream
A few chives

In a heavy four-quart saucepan, melt the butter over very low heat.

Trim the root end of the leak. Slice the leak in the light green part. Discard the dark green leaves. Make a cut down the center of the leek and wash it well to make sure there is no sand. Thinly slice the leek. Add it to the melted butter.

Dice the onion. Add it to the melted butter. Cook the leek and onion over medium-low heat for about three minutes, or until they are nice and soft.

Add the chick peas, cumin, and paprika. Stir well.

Add the chicken broth/stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, and simmer for ten minutes. Turn off the heat.

Blend the soup. Add the heavy cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. Snip in the chives. Serve.

In addition to being the kind of soup that makes Southern Baptists want to remind you that deviating from the straight and narrow is a bad idea, the soup is also extremely flexible. You could use vegetable stock instead of the chicken stock and have a vegetarian soup. You could add a second leek. If you don't have leeks, you could leave them out and use more onion. If you want a thicker soup, you could either simply add more chick peas or use a second can of chick peas and increase all the other ingredients by half. You can monkey around with the spices. You can cook some celery and/or carrots with the other vegetables or add some celery seed when you add the other spices. The chives are entirely optional. You could serve it cold. (I am not a big fan, generally, of cold vicchysoise. There is nothing wrong with it, but I don't see the point of a cold cream soup when hot cream soups are so much better. That said, I did have a small cup of this soup out of the refrigerator when I got home tonight, and it was pretty good that way. I still prefer it hot, though.) The main point is that I can almost always make some variation on this soup with what I already have in the house.

I used an immersion blender to puree the soup, and I think that's the easiest way, but you could use a regular blender or a food mill and get the same results. You could also opt for something chunkier and remove some of the chick peas before blending, blend the remainder of the soup, mash the reserved chick peas, and stir them back into the soup.

The flavors in this soup are fairly subtle. If you want bolder flavors, you could add some red pepper flakes when you add the other spices or just shake on some Tabasco when you're serving. I very much like the subtle flavor, but make sure that you do not undersalt the soup, or it will seem bland instead of subtle.

1I am not calling this soup "vicchysoise" because I would then have to live in fear that someday, somewhere, I would be talking to someone who happens to read this blog, and that person would mention my "vi-shee-swah," and I would be torn between the need to be polite and the equally compelling desire to shout, at the top of my lungs, that the correct pronunciation is "vee-shee-swahzz." The e at the end means that the final consonant is pronounced. I don't care what any ersatz French waiter or anyone else told you. Fortunately, however, I used a different name, so no one will ever be subjected to that rant.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Bistros -- Mannequin Pis

Roundups of the top 100 restaurants in the DC Metro area regularly include Mannequin Pis, a Belgian bistro unprepossessingly located in Olney, the deepest and darkest part of suburbia, and less than a mile from where we live. I have long wanted to eat there, but while we all know that in Europe a bistro is a place where you can get a three-course meal, often including wine, for less than twenty euros, when a bistro gets translated into American, you're usually talking about a nine-dollar starter, a twenty-dollar entree, and a seven-dollar dessert, which brings you thirty-six dollars before making any provision for the state government, the waiter, or your oenophilia. There are, of course, plenty of people who think nothing of dropping sixty bucks a head for a meal, and without such people, the restaurant industry at the higher end would not exist, and that would be a bad thing. But for reasons that are only partly based on affordability, I require a very special occasion to even consider such a meal. (See related rant here.)

Fortunately, yesterday was V.'s birthday, and while I'd already dropped a fair chunk of change on the trip to the Met, it seemed wrong not to take him out on the actual day (especially since I was at work and couldn't cook myself). I would normally take him to Sol Azteca, where we always get a good meal at a good price, but I decided that I would at least consider Mannequin Pis, and when I checked out their web page, and I discovered that on Mondays, they have a three-course prix fixe menu for only $20.05 ($25.05 if you pay with a credit card; it's a fairly ridiculous surcharge, and much of the non-food section of the menu seems to have been written by someone with a chip on his shoulder, but it was no big deal to stop by the ATM on the way there). So I called for a reservation for three (Monday is one of A.'s nights with us), and they had an opening at 7:45.

The Belgians generally, and Mannequin Bis particularly, are very fond of mussels, and about half of the entrees on the prix fixe menu were some variation or other of steamed mussels. Each mussel entree gives you a full kilo of mussels and is accompanied with pommes frietes, which, the extra e notwithstanding, are remarkably similar to pommes frites. I chose the mussels steamed with horseradish and beer. A. chose the pan-seared rockfish with a potato stoemp, and V. had monkfish. I don't remember exactly how the monkfish was prepared, and the restaurant was a good deal darker than is strictly necessary, so I didn't get a good look at it, but V. reported that it was very good. A. reported that her rockfish was also fine and that the stoemp was especially nice. My mussels were everything that mussels should be, and perhaps a bit more: when I got down towards the bottom of the pot, I ran into a bit of sand. Even though most of the weight of mussels is in the shell, a kilo of mussels is still a lot of edible meat, and I didn't finish mine. The pommes frietes were among the best I've ever had.

The Monday menu (there is only the prix fixe menu on Monday, and it is only available on Monday) includes four appetizers. I had boudin blanc with lentils, which was tasty. A. had a salad of baby lettuce with applewood smoked bacon, and V. had some sort of radicchio salad. Both reported that their salads were "all right." The dessert last night was an unremarkable mango sorbet.

Mannequin Pis has a decent wine list and a very impressive beer list. Belgium is rightfully proud of its breweries. V. and I shared a "grande bier" 750 ml of something called Piraat Ale (I know nothing about Belgian beers; I told the waitress we wanted a pale ale, and that's what she brought us). "Arrrrr," as A. said when I showed her the bottle. I don't know if all Belgium beer shares this characteristic, but Piraat Ale is 10.5% alcohol by volume, so while it's a pale ale, it's not to be taken lightly. It's a very good beer, though, and it gets even better with food. At $18.50 a bottle, it's also the cheapest beer of that size on the beer list. Most of the large bottles are $20, and one or two were $30, which seems like a lot of money for beer. The menu attempts to blame the prices for beer and wine on Montgomery County and says something about lack of delivery. It seems a bit disingenuous to me; on the other hand, it's tough to find a decent bottle of wine on most restaurant menus for less than that.

We very much enjoyed our dinner last night, but I find it difficult to gush about Mannequin Pis. As I explained to V. last night on the way home, the existence of such a restaurant only serves to remind me that a) we don't have home-grown equivalents at reasonable prices and b) we could probably have gotten the same meal in Belgium for a third (or more) less. The three of us ate for $105, and only two of us had beer. If I'd used a credit card, and if we'd each gotten a roll with butter (astonishingly, an extra $2.50 per person), and if A. had felt like having a soda, I'd have been up to $130. Again, I can occasionally afford such meals without feeling a pinch, and it would not be an unreasonable price when compared with other similar meals, and if I have another special occasion on a Monday, I might very well go there again. And I can certainly recommend the restaurant without hesitation.

But mostly, the experience makes me want to seek out a decent source of Belgian beer, learn to make (or buy) my own boudin blanc, and make my own lentils and stoemp.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sunday Potluck Chicken Salad

As I am sure you're all aware, one of the great scandals of the American educational system is that there are no institutions of higher learning devoted to the study of the interplay of cuisine and theology. The Culinary Institute of America is as sadly devoid of religious studies classes as is the Yale Divinity School devoid of restaurant internships. We here at anapestic are 100% behind the separation of church and state, but the idea that one can feed the body without feeding the soul (or vice versa) is ridiculous on its face, and the separation of church and kitchen has no merit. (It is true, for those keeping score, that I am officially an atheist, which may make the preceding paragraph appear somewhat inconsistent with my world view, but I assure you that there is a perfectly good explanation that makes the whole thing sensible, and I intend to lay it out for you as soon as I make it up.)

As soon as this unfortunate oversight has been set right (and I can see high ranking chefs and clerics all over the country smacking themselves in their collective forehead and asking themselves how they could have failed to realize something so fundamental) I expect that a popular topic for students of comparative religion and cuisine will be the impact of regional and denominational differences on the church potluck.

Surely, to take but one example, a Midwestern Lutheran potluck is nothing at all like a DC metro area Unitarian Universalist potluck. I have, obviously, extremely limited experience with the former, but I have been to enough of the latter to draw some conclusions.

Most obviously, there seems to be a correlation between UU inclusiveness and a fear of meat. Wherever you have a UU congregation of even moderate size, you will have a few vegetarians, and you will have a much larger group of people who are afraid either that they will offend the vegetarians if they bring meat or that the vegetarians will have nothing to eat if they don't provide it. Consequently, when you go to a UU potluck, you will see a positively dizzying array of salads and relatively few entrees (though someone who forgot about the potluck will always have rushed out at the end of the morning service to purchase a bucket of chicken from KFC).

In my experience, vegetarian UUs have no problems whatsoever with anyone else eating meat. And because they don't eat meat, they will always have brought something that they can and want to eat. The carnivores, by contrast, will find relatively few choices, and those choices will be gone before half of the line has moved by the food tables.

I noted this situation fairly on in my UU experience, and I have done what I could to rectify it. I have made meatloaves that served forty (surprisingly easy to do if one buys one's ground beef from Costco). I once made a triple recipe of Julia Child's beef paupiettes recipe, ending up with about 50 paupiettes/rouladen (depending on your linguistic preferences). I have mixed horseradish with cream cheese, spread it on thinly sliced roast beef, and wrapped the beef around marinated asparagus spears. I think I made sixty of those. There's never any of any of the meat-based dishes left over.

There was a potluck today at church, but I didn't find out about it until yesterday afternoon, so I wanted to make something easy. V. and I had tickets to the symphony last night, so I also didn't have a lot of time to spend on it. I decided on chicken salad: everyone likes it, it's easy to put together, and it's easy to do in large quantities.

I think that the best way to make this chicken salad is to prepare all the components the night before, refrigerate them (the ones that need to be refrigerated, that is) separately, and combine everything in the morning before church. Chicken salad is, of course, highly customizable. I was going for simplicity and ease of preparation, but if you want to cut up some red bell peppers and add them, by all means have at it. If you want to substitute pine nuts or peanuts or cashews for the pistachios, you have every right to do so. If you want to increase the quantity of raisins by half or add some seedless red grapes, you have my blessing.

Sunday Potluck Chicken Salad

5 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 t. salt
10 peppercorns
1 green cardamom pod

1 cup pistachios

1 cup golden raisins

1 head broccoli

1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. fennel seed
1/2 t. mustard seed
1/2 t. coriander seed
1 t. ground cumin
1 t. smoked paprika
1/4 t. ground turmeric
2 cups mayonnaise
1 T. dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a wide skillet or electric skillet, put a quart of water. Add the salt, peppercorns, and cardamom. Bring to a boil. Turn down the heat, slide the chicken breasts into the water, cover, and maintain at a simmer for half an hour. Turn off the heat and let the water and chicken breasts cool. Drain and dice the chicken breasts. Cover and refrigerate.

Toast the pistachios for six minutes at 325. Remove from the oven, cool, and reserve.

Bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil.

Cut the florets off the broccoli stalk and cut or break the florets into very small pieces. Peel the broccoli stalk and cut it into about a one-third inch dice. Parboil the broccoli for two minutes. Drain, run under cold water to stop the cooking, drain again and dry the broccoli pieces. Cover and refrigerate.

In a small skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the whole seeds and cook until fragrant. Strain out the seeds, add the grind spices, and cook until the ground spices are fragrant. Turn off heat and let cool slightly.

Put the mayonnaise in a bowl and whisk in the spiced oil. Taste and add additional seasonings as necessary. Cover and refrigerate.

When all the components (except the pistachios and the raisins) are thoroughly chilled, put the chicken, broccoli, pistachios, and raisins in a large bowl. Pour on the dressing, and toss very well to combine.

I always think that broccoli stalks are underused and that they provide a very nice crunch in this sort of salad (texture of celery; flavor of broccoli!), but if you can't be bothered to spend forty-five seconds taking the peel off a broccoli stalk with a vegetable peeler, then I suppose you can just use the florets. Make sure that they're small florets, though. And no cheating on the parboiling. You may not use raw broccoli, and you may not overcook the broccoli. Two minutes in the hot water (it will just have come back to the boil when the time is up), then immediately into the colander and then into cold water. You don't want either raw broccoli or cooked broccoli here.

How large or small you dice your chicken is an intensely personal choice. I tend to make one big cut parallel to the cutting board to divide the chicken breast into two thinner pieces and then to dice the pieces into about a 3/4" dice, but smaller dice is also very nice, especially if you are considering stuffing something with the chicken salad or making sandwiches.

Be careful when you toast the pistachios. They burn relatively easily.

An electric skillet, if you have one, is really a great help here. I was able to fit five massive chicken breasts in V.'s, and it keeps the water just below the boil very well. If the water boils after you put the breasts in it, you risk rubberiness. If you're very ambitious, you can also quarter a medium onion and put it in the poaching water and then when you're done poaching, you can boil the water down by about half to make a nice broth. I did that, but I reduced it a bit farther than that, and I haven't had a chance to taste the broth yet. I'm thinking about using it for the base of a chick pea vicchysoise. I have never had such a soup, but I saw it on one of the menus that we stopped and read while we were walking around Manhattan, and it sounds like an inspired idea.

This salad was a huge hit at today's potluck. A. asked me to make another batch so that she could take some for lunch tomorrow. I have taken her request under advisement.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Manhattan Does Anapestic

You see, in the picture above, the sort of weather that follows V. and I whenever and wherever we go on vacations. In the slightly less than three years that we've known each other, we've gone to New York City, Paris, Cornwall, London, San Francisco, Puerto Rico, and New York City (surprisingly, there is enough to do in NYC that you can spend one weekend there and go back for a second short trip two years later without getting more than mildly bored), and the weather has been gorgeous, gorgeous, beyond gorgeous, gorgeous with one day of rain when we were seeing museums anyway and what do you expect in London, way gorgeous, gorgeous, and gorgeous, respectively. If you're the director of tourism for an appealing city, and you need to guarantee good weather, then you really should be offering us a free trip.

Which is not to say that our quick trip to NYC this week was without untoward incident. I have to say that the feeling that you get when you've just finished a horrific tax season, packed your bags, dropped off your children at school, ridden most of the way to New Jersey, parked the car at Metropark, taken New Jersey Transit to Penn Station, hauled your bags the last block or so, handed the desk clerk your acknowledgment from Priceline, watched the puzzled look on his face as he fails to find your reservation, and heard him say, "I'm sorry, sir, but this reservation is for next week" is really unlike any other feeling in the world. I'm sure that I could chalk up this oversight to having worked too many late nights when I made the arrangements, but at the time, I was definitely having a too-stupid-to-be-allowed-to-live moment. The hotel, of course, was fully booked, but the very kind desk clerk gave us the phone number for another hotel, and that hotel was also booked, but that very kind desk clerk gave us the phone number for yet another hotel, and that hotel had a late cancellation of some sort and said that we could check in at 8 pm. It was then 4 pm, but we trundled off to the new location (and, no matter what counting and/or maps tell you, the distance from 34th and 8th to 35th and 10th is a lot farther than three blocks), where they allowed us to change in the lobby bathroom and then checked our bags for us. They only had the room available for one night, but it was not much more expensive (after the AAA discount) than the deeply discounted room I had booked through Priceline, and for a very reasonable $2, they let me use a computer with an Internet hookup, and I managed to find, with moderate difficulty and rather greater expense, a room for the next evening.

Anyway, when all was said and done, both rooms were just fine, and it was no big deal the next morning to take a cab from 35th and 10th to 56th and 7th. After all, one does not go to NYC to spend time in one's hotel room.

The nominal purpose of our trip was for V.'s birthday, though it was at least as much a way for me to thank him for putting up with my schedule during busy season. I had wanted to take him to see something at the Metropolitan Opera on his birthday, but his birthday is next week (though it does not coincide with the days on which I'd made the reservations; it really was just a too-stupid-to-be-allowed-to-live thing), and on his actual birthday, the Met is doing Lohengrin, and, well, no man is worth Wagner. Fortunately, two evenings ago, the Met was doing Le Nozze di Figaro, which I have never seen live, and which V. likes a great deal.

After we had changed in the lobby bathroom and checked our bags, V. called a friend of his and arranged for us to meet him for a drink in a bar in Chelsea. After a couple of beers, I was feeling a great deal more relaxed, and V. and I went off to eat dinner at Mare, a seafood restaurant that his buddy had recommended to us. It was a beautiful evening, and we ate outside. As I frequently do at seafood restaurants, I suggested that we start off with an order of fried calamari, which was delicious. For my entree, I had one of the specials: a pan-roasted cod fillet with black olives and cherry tomatoes, accompanied with green beans and mashed potatoes. That, too, was entirely delicious, though I found it somewhat oversalted. V. reported that his seafood brochette was similarly delicious and oversalted. After coffee, we grabbed the subway uptown to the Met.

I won't go into detail about the opera, except to say that it was well acted and beautifully sung. The orchestra was terrific, and, well, it's Mozart. Since it was technically part of a birthday present, I had sprung for grand tier seats, and V. was suitably appreciative.

The performance, including intermissions, ran nearly four hours, and let out just before midnight. It had been a hectic day with some fairly stressful periods, so we were all in by then and headed off to the (first night's) hotel where we slept very soundly indeed.

The next morning we woke up (eventually), dressed, packed, grabbed a cab to hotel #2, checked our bags, grabbed a quick breakfast at a corner bagel shop, and headed off to MoMA, for which I had procured 11 am tickets. MoMA, not unlike NYC itself, has an awful lot packed into a relatively small space. We decided to start off with the Munch exhibit, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to know why Tuberculosis used to be called consumption. It's a fascinating exhibit, and a very telling illustration of how life influences art. After going through the first couple of rooms, you really don't need to be told that his mother and sister died from Tuberculosis. In fact, you'd be entirely amazed if someone told you that they hadn't.

By the time we had had all the art we could stand (most of the 6th floor and bits of the 5th and 4th floors; as we were heading out, we came across Wyeth's "Christina's World," which is entirely breathtaking), it was nearly time for the TKTS booth to open, but V. figured that the lines would be shorter and there would still be plenty of tickets available later, so we took a subway across town and another one downtown to Kalustyan's.

This is a picture of most of the honey selection at Kalustyan's, a store that I had not heard of before this week when I asked Bakerina to recommend a food-related destination for our trip to NYC. It's not easy to describe Kalustyan's, but let me say this about my visit there: I have been to the promised land. And, you know, it's not really a place for mere mortals, but I did my best. Seriously, there is something more than a little overwhelming about that incredibly vast array of goods in that small space. At first, I could do nothing more than wander around, with a big smile, and look at all the stuff. After a while, though, I grabbed a basket and started shopping. Danger Will Robinson! It would have been fairly easy for me to spend the next three hours and most of my life's savings in Kalustyan's. Fortunately (I suppose), V. was with me, and he does not share my joy of food shopping. Additionally, while he didn't actually say anything about what was going into my basket, I could see him comparing it to the available space in the pantry.

Anyway, in the end, here's what I walked away from Kalustyan's with (plus a watch that I got on the street corner for five bucks; I had really wanted a fake Rolex, but I was happy with what I got, and it's still running two days later, so I figure I came out ahead). It was not easy to narrow the field down to this point. I had to put back the rose syrup and the sour cherry syrup and the dried morels and the walnut oil and a number of other items. I think that if I lived in NYC (which, alas, I think would not really suit me on a long-term basis), I would have to go there every week to browse the shelves and pick out the one item that most spoke to me on that day.

The rest of the trip was also terrific. We got tickets to see The Light in the Piazza last night, and it was splendid. We ate too much at a deli. We had some very good marinated olives (with fennel seed) and cheese sticks at a restaurant bar where we stopped for a glass of wine. We rode the subway. We walked through the park. We bought souvenirs on street corners. We exhausted ourselves, and then we came home. We had a great time.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


A warren of cookies, unaware of their impending doom.
The available evidence suggests that over the past month or so, when my awareness of the natural world has mostly been limited to my office mate saying to me, "I hear it's a gorgeous day out there today" and me replying, "I guess we'll never know" and then both of us sighing deeply until he puts Folsom Prison Blues on the CD player (We listen to it every day; the Man in Black is responsible for many a tax return. Sometimes we also listen to The Legend of Johnny Cash, and last week the office mate bet me that if he put "I Walk the Line" on repeat, I would get sick of it before he did. As if; he caved after only four times through; amateur.) that spring has arrived. I actually left the office just after noon on Saturday and picked up the girls. We headed over to our favorite miniature golf course (I shot two under par; fear me!) and then to Costco and then to Ikea. In the course of driving all over the county, mostly on back roads, I was able to take full advantage of the restorative effects of flowering trees.

I am still deeply weary (you can tell from the prose, I reckon) from tax season, and the girls, understandably, were more interested in spending time with me than in having a fancy Easter dinner, so time that in other years might have been spent cooking was spent dyeing eggs. And hiding eggs. And finding eggs. And hiding eggs again. And finding eggs again.

I did get to spend Saturday evening making bunny cookies (pictured above) for L.'s Easter basket. They were a lot of fun to make, and they were a big hit with L. For Easter dinner, I made a very simple ham steak: melt a tablespoon of butter in a skillet, put over medium high heat, plop in the ham steak, pour half a cup or so of pineapple juice over top, and cook until the pineapple juice cooks down into a glaze. I also made a wilted spinach salad, and for dessert, I made (I kid you not) Jell-O Jiggler eggs. The girls thought they were nearly the best thing ever, and they appear not to have killed anyone. You may think that I'm setting the bar a little low, but I've learned that at least half of the secret of happiness is managing expectations.

Anyway. I did want to make at least one thing that required a bit of labor and skill, so I made Bunny Potatoes. Bunny Potatoes are really nothing more than a layer of scalloped potatoes topped with a thin layer of Potatoes Anna, but they are both fun for the kids and entirely delicious, not that it's easy to go wrong with potatoes, milk, and butter. You need a bunny-shaped cookie cutter to make Bunny Potatoes, but the recipe is very flexible in that you can use any seasonally appropriate cutter to transform this dish into one appropriate for whatever holiday you happen to be celebrating at the moment. Christmas Trees for Christmas (or Arbor Day); pumpkins for Thanksgiving; stars for Independence Day; hatchets or liquor bottles for Repeal of Prohibition Day; the possibilities are nearly endless.

It is also very helpful to have a mandoline or a V-Slicer, or some other way of making very thin slices of potato. The recipe uses both thick and thin slices of potato, and with the V-Slicer, you can make the thick slices, reverse the insert, and make the thin slices. You could pretty easily make the thick slices with a knife, though.

Bunny Potatoes

Two very large baking potatoes
4 T. butter
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put a large saucepan of salted water on the stove to boil.

Cut the clove of garlic in half. Put it in a small saucepan along with the butter and set the saucepan over a very low flame. The butter should melt and cook while you're cutting the potatoes, but it should not brown.

Peel the potatoes. Cut off either end of each potato, leaving a piece (from each potato) just a bit larger than the cookie cutter you're using. Cut the remaining piece (the piece that you're going to use the cookie cutter on) in half, horizontally, so that it is no thicker than your cookie cutter.

Push the cookie cutter through the appropriate potato pieces, pulling away the bits outside the cookie cutter.

Take all of the pieces that are not bunny shaped and slice them about a quarter-inch thick. Put them in the boiling water for five minutes. Drain.

Remove the cut garlic clove from the butter and discard. In a shallow baking dish (I used a deep baking dish, which is acceptable, but the result is not as attractive as it ought to be) put about a tablespoon of the melted butter and run it around to coat the bottom. Put the thick-sliced, boiled potatoes in the baking dish and tamp them down to level them. Add the milk and then add salt and pepper.

Slice your bunny-shaped pieces of potato very thin. Put a layer of bunny slices over top the thick slices. Brush with melted butter, and add more salt and pepper. Continue layering on the bunny slices until they are all used. Brush butter and add salt and pepper to each layer. You can omit the pepper on the top layer if you think it looks better that way.

Bake at 375 for about thirty minutes, or until the bunny slices are tender. Let cool very slightly before serving.

I think that, in addition to a shallower pan, this dish would have benefited from a short sojourn under the broiler or the judicious application of a blow torch. But it was very good all the same, and it's a lot of fun. I am not sure how the vegetarians feel about eating animal-shaped potatoes, but presumably it is better than eating the rabbits themselves.

I briefly considered taking the bunny cookie cutter to the ham steak, but I forbore. A wise decision, I think.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Leftover Pie (with a Side of Ramblings)

Before baking.  The baked picture didn't come out.

Yes, friends, it has come to this. Anapestic, the man who cultivates the acquaintance of people with long noses just so that when he's finished looking down his own nose at people who use cake mixes, he can then look down his friends' noses at the same people, is cooking with leftovers. (You didn't think I had made an actual pie, with pastry and everything, and had leftovers of it, did you? As if I have time for that, and as if there's ever any pie left over in the anapestic household. Puh-leeeeze.)

But it gets worse. I wasn't even using my own leftovers! Last weekend, we had our Saturday lunch brought into the office from one of the local chicken rotisserie places. It was a very good meal, if you leave aside the pea and corn and carrot medley, which really was a waste of the color green. There were chicken quarters and chicken pieces, red-skinned mashed potatoes, pretty good bread, macaroni and cheese, and, well, I forget what else, but there was something else. My brain is a little bit fried (where "little bit fried" means my mental processes resemble those of someone who took a ride in the electric chair, which no one remembered to turn off until the next morning) right now, but you probably figured that out from the fact that I'm posting about leftovers.

Anyway, my office mate is in charge of food ordering this year, and he ordered, as he usually does, far too much food, but chicken keeps very well, and many people think that it gets better upon refrigeration, so people were eating it again for Saturday dinner and Sunday lunch and Monday lunch. But still there was more chicken! So I decided to take a bunch home, with the intention of making chicken salad. I also took some of the mashed potatoes, since they were almost gone by that point, anyway.

It's kind of a stretch to call this cooking: both the chicken and the mashed potatoes were very well seasoned, so I didn't have to do much more than assemble, but the result was very good, and it was pretty much the only kitchen activity I had all week, and, well, this is what people who were left too long in the electric chair blog about. Apparently.

Leftover Pie

Leftover rotisserie chicken, about four quarters
Leftover mashed potatoes, about three cups
2 eggs
Milk, about 1/2 cup
Cheese, grated.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

If your chicken and potatoes have been in the refrigerator for a while, you will probably want to start by putting them in the microwave, separately, for three to four minutes, each, on defrost. This will help them cook faster since they won't have to come all the way from a cold state in the oven.

While the potatoes are in the microwave, tear the chicken off the bones and put it in a pie plate. When the potatoes are done, put the chicken in the microwave and put the potatoes in a bowl. Mix in the eggs and the milk. Please, please, please don't get rid of all the lumps. Adjust the milk so that you can more or less spread the potato mixture. If you want to add something else (maybe some chopped herbs or whatever), this would be a good place to do that.

When the chicken is done in the microwave, take it out and spread the potato mixture over the chicken. Grate cheese (whatever kind you like; I used Manchego) over the top to the level of cheesiness that you prefer.

Bake for about twenty-five minutes, or until the potatoes are nicely browned. The cheese should be melted.

I didn't have any leftovers of this, by the way.

On a personal note, I would like to add that I don't think I have ever had a more grueling busy season than the one that is just now ending. I am, however, pretty much under control now, having spent most of the day explaining to various people why they owe so much in taxes. One of the accountants in the office finally got tired of this line of questioning, and after a particularly difficult client had grilled her for a quarter hour about his taxes, she finally told him that he should complain to his congressman and not to her.

Anyway, I am now looking forward to a short day tomorrow (it's not clear how any time in the office on a Saturday can be a short day, but whatever) and then to a flurry of cooking activity for Easter. L., my younger daughter, currently has some sort of palate-spreading device in her palate (good place for it, I reckon), and she is not allowed to have any candy, so I believe that I will be in search of cookie cutters in the shape of eggs and/or bunnies to make some brownies and cookies for her Easter basket. I have not seen the girls at all this week, A. having gone off with her mother to Oregon or perhaps Washington to visit a college early in the week. Then they all went somewhere else for the rest of the week. The girls and I will be dying eggs tomorrow evening, however, and then we'll all go to church on Sunday and I'll make Easter dinner for the three of us. It will probably be something simple. At this point, they would just like to spend some time with me.

I promise that the next post will be about real food and will not include the sort of maudlin reflections that extremely fatigued accountants are too quick to indulge in. I also promise to have the sense to be embarrassed about the current post when I've have some sleep, but I probably won't edit it or take it down. It's a good thing to be reminded of just how miserable things can get during busy season (and how whiny I can get; egad). Otherwise, in a few months, I'll be thinking, "Oh, it wasn't that bad. I can do that again. I only charged eighty hours in my worst week, and that means I was only at the office for ninety hours that week, and, really, people in forced-labor prison camps work longer hours than I do. Why complain?"

The other night, I opened a fortune cookie, and it told me that "Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation," and I have been most extremely discontented for the past couple of months. That may very well change in the near future, but I have been thinking that I need to make a professional change or to have some better inducement (not that the impending college costs aren't plenty) to make so much work worthwhile. More and more I feel that I want to work towards the life of Candide (after all of the really awful part that makes up most of the book, mind you) and cultivate my gardens. So, if any of you happens to stumble across a farm in the middle of, say, south central Pennsylvania (or some other remote place in a fairly reliably blue state where there is a reliably long growing season but which is not too hot when you factor in the probable continuation of global warming), and that farm is perhaps somewhat dilapidated and therefore relatively inexpensive, and that farm has a decent amount of land (the house can be small) where I can put in a small orchard and a small vineyard, and a nice vegetable garden, and maybe a henhouse, then I'd think it awfully nice of you if you'd let me know about that place so I could start thinking about buying it. I figure that I'm at least fifteen (and more likely twenty) years away from retirement, but it takes time for an orchard and a vineyard to grow.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

My New Best Friend

I'm sure that I'm extremely late to the party on this one. And not a few hours late, either; more like when you get an invitation for a party on November 6, 2004, and you show up on April 11, 2006 with a nice bottle of wine in your hands, saying "I thought it was unusual to get an invitation two years before the party, but I figure it must be worth it, after all that wait," and the people are looking at you funny because your friends, who were a bit miffed with you after you'd RSVP'd and then hadn't shown up, actually moved back in 2005 and didn't tell you where they'd gone to. True, they'd called you at the time and asked if you could give them a hand, and you'd come over and helped them pack and then load the truck, but you'd just figured that they were simplifying their lives and donating the excess goods to charity. After all, it would mean there would be more room to dance at the party.

That sort of thing does happen to you, too, doesn't it?

Anyway, the microplane grater is not exactly a new gadget. I've seen them in various places for at least a couple of years, and I think that I even saw Martha Stewart talking about hers with her mother on one of her pre-incarceration shows, so it's been around for a while. And, if memory serves, Martha said that what she used was actually a wood planing tool from the hardware store, so not long after I saw that, I dropped by the local home depot and tried to find the same thing in their tools area, but I was unsuccessful and dropped the idea. It amuses me greatly to find my cooking gear in hardware stores, and I have long wanted to have all manner of fun with PVC pipes, but I'm told that the sort of pipe cutter that my Dad used on copper pipes (and, let me tell you, that was the coolest tool ever) doesn't work on PVC tubing, and you have to just do your best with a hacksaw. My best with a hacksaw is really not all that good, so I'm still waiting to either come up with a better way of cutting the PVC tubing or to get one of those cool European can openers that completely removes the top of the can and an assortment of cans of various sizes. Or maybe both.

Anyway, the wood plane didn't pan out, and I didn't really pursue it, though I'm sure I could order all manner of woodworking tools online if I took the trouble to do so, and I just let the idea sit on a back shelf in one of the many dark warehouses of my mind, kind of like what they did with the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones movie.

After all, I had a pretty decent grater for removing citrus zest. It was, in some ways, similar to a microplane grater. I bought it maybe twenty years ago from the Crate and Barrel in Cambridge, Mass. I don't know whether that store is even still there near Harvard Square, but back in the day, it was a fairly large multi-level store with lots and lots of expensive goods. It's where we registered for our wedding. We weren't nearly wealthy enough to be part of their target demographic (think stereotypical '80s yuppie two-income professional couples), but people will more or less happily spend way too much on you for your wedding. Wedding presents aside, I only ever shopped in the gadget section, because in those days, you could usually find something pretty sweet for under two bucks, though I was once absolutely crushed to find that the heavy duty potato ricer that was in a $1.95 bin was actually going for $15.95, which was just way, way out of my budget in those days.

Anyway, I think the grater I got there set me back about a buck, and it's a terrific little grater. It's compact with small, sharp holes, and a black handle, and back in the day, I could zest a lemon with it in nothing flat. Over time, it has lost some of its sharpness, and while I would, until very recently, still use it to remove citrus zest, it wasn't doing the job that it once did.

And the job that it once did, which seemed miles ahead of my other graters, was still miles behind the microplane.

I don't remember the specific impetus that made me finally decide that I needed a microplane. I suspect, however, that I was feeling somewhat abused by tax season, and, spending a little money on a book or a gadget seems to help with that. No doubt it shouldn't, but it does.

I'm sure that it's easy enough to find this sort of grater in a decent housewares store, but I ordered mine online, and it arrived one day in a long, thin box. I didn't have a chance to use it right away, but early this past week, when I was making the bread pudding for Lindy's Something out of Nothing event, I finally got around to using it to zest a blood orange.

There is no going back. When I first started zesting the orange, I thought that perhaps nothing was happening. On any other grater, you feel a significant amount of resistance when you zest citrus. On the microplane, it just felt like I was rubbing the surface of the orange along a smooth piece of metal, but when I held the orange up, I could see that a very thin layer of zest had been perfectly removed. Best of all, what was left on the orange was still slightly orange, meaning that the grater had stopped a tiny bit short of the white part. With other graters, you have to be careful not to pick up any of the bitter pith. With the microplane, you get thin, beautiful, tiny strands of zest, that do not cling to the grater when you go to remove them. It really was a sort of culinary epiphany. It made me want to go somewhere and find bushels of citrus to zest.

I also used the microplane to grate/puree the garlic for the grits I made for my grit cakes (or whatever I called them), and it did a superb job on that, too, though my other little grater handles that task pretty well, too.

I haven't had time to try it on anything else yet, but if it's half as good with chocolate as it was on the orange, I will be a very happy man. Heck, even if it's only this good on citrus, it's well worth having. I zest a lot of citrus over the course of a year.

If you want one of these graters (or, heck, a dozen for gift purposes), they're pretty easy to find on the Internet. I got mine here (but mine has the red handle; and, in case you're wondering, I don't get any sort of kickback from you clicking that link or buying at that site; if, however, you don't already have a microplane, and you're overcome with gratitude because I told you about it, feel free to send me a duck press). I think that the cost of the grater itself was a buck less at Amazon, but when I factored in shipping, the microplane site was a better deal by about a dollar. It took them a little over a week to ship my grater, but they didn't actually charge me for the shipping, perhaps because of the delay. They didn't really say. In any case, I wasn't really looking at heavy grating use at this time of the year, so saving five dollars or so because of a week's delay was a pretty good deal for me, though you obviously shouldn't expect to get the same deal. But they're probably available for the before-shipping cost at Bed Bath and Beyond and other similar stores, so if you have time to get one that way, you're probably better off.