I hear you

It’s a good thing cookies are what they are:  chewy in all the right places, crisp where they’re meant to be crisp.  A little chocolate, maybe, a few salt flakes on top.  Cookies done right are the best.  And frankly, after so much scooping and chilling or rolling and dredging, so much lifting from pan, to rack, to plate; with eight, or ten, or twelve to a sheet, and multiple sheets to bake, they’d better be.  Cookies need to be worth it and, with any luck, they are.

Still, they’re a tough sell this time of year.  There are people, I hear, who experience a certain correlation between the temperature outside and the desire to turn on their ovens.  For this set, the normal set, we’ll call them, summer is no time for cookies.  It’s one thing to fill a pie with cherries, or peaches, or berries that won’t wait for cooler climes, flip the oven door shut and retreat to the furthest and, presumably, coolest corner of your home to wait it out.  Cookies, on the other hand, like to keep you.  (See above: scooping, chilling, rolling, dredging.)  And those great gasps of heat billowing forth at each turn and switch of the pans… It’s no wonder that if cookies have a low season, summer is it.

I bake cookies year-round.  (Much to the relief of a certain cake averse cookie man whose birthday was earlier this month.)  I drink hot tea and eat hot oatmeal for breakfast year-round, too.  I don’t mind the heat.  But normal people of the world, I hear you.  And I bring you crumb bars:

These bars have a lot going for them any time of year, but especially mid-summer.  (Yes, I said mid.  Summer’s not over until September 21st.)  They’re the very definition of unfussy, requiring only a bowl, a sharp knife, and your fingers for tools.  And unlike better known bars like brownies and blondies, they’ve got fruit!  A summertime sweet if ever I’ve seen one, a cookie-like thing that you can hold in your hand, no dough scooping or other attending shenanigans required.  

The only wrinkle in this story is that today is August 31st and, as you can see from the photo, these were rhubarb bars in their original form.  It was the first week of July when I first made these, and I was going to tell you about them then, but there was that rhubarb polenta crumble we’d just discussed.  (Why a similar fear of ingredient saturation never occurs to me when I’ve got a new corn bread on my hands, I don’t know.)  And now here we are slurping our way through high stone fruit season, rhubarb but a rosy memory.  I’d tucked this recipe away for next season, but then I changed my mind and decided to trot it out today.  First of all, because this weekend I plan to swap in some thinly sliced plums or peaches – whatever looks good at the market today – in place of the rhubarb, and I thought you might want to follow suit.  But also because I found this recipe back in May on Kelly Carámbula’s site The Best Remedy (formerly known as eat make read), and I’ve got some other Kelly-related business to tell you about today.

Kelly is, to put it mildly, extremely cool.  She’s a designer, and a caterer, a mixologist extraordinaire, and the creator and editor-in-chief of Remedy Quarterly.  (Is there anything you don’t do, lady?)  The latest issue – their tenth! – is a collection of essays, photos, and recipes on the theme of discovery.  It came out last week, and if you flip to page 58, you’ll find a story about drinking vinegar that’s written by me.  It’s the first time I’ve ever seen my name in print in something like this and, whoa, what a kick!  You’ll have to get your hands on the issue to read the full story but, in short, it’s the tale of a pregnant Jess who wants nothing more than to pour vinegar down her throat until, one day, she does.  (In the form of something called shrub.)

Now, about those bars.  I say, make them with what you’ve got.  I have a feeling that this recipe is forgiving.  If you’re going the berry route, a simple swap should work.  If you opt for stone fruit, like I plan on doing this weekend, try thin, overlapping slices, no other filling ingredients required. 

Enjoy the long weekend, all.

Rhubarb-Ginger Crumb Bars
Adapted from The Best Remedy (where Kelly adapted them from Smitten Kitchen)

Kelly uses fresh ginger in her bars (2 tablespoons, finely chopped, mixed in with the rhubarb) but that's not Eli's cup of tea, so I went with ground ginger instead.  I also upped the amount of fruit by one cup.  The first time I made these, I went with a 50-50 split, half of the dough on the bottom, the other half crumbled on top, per Kelly’s instructions.  That’s what you see in the photo, above.  The next time around, I reserved only about a third of the dough for the crumb topping.  I prefer it that way, with a thicker shortbread base and a less crumby top.  Let's the fruit really shine.

For the dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
Zest of one small lemon
1 cup (2 sticks or 8 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 large egg

For the filling:
5 cups ½-inch slices of rhubarb
3 teaspoons ground ginger (see note, above)
Juice of one small lemon
½ cup sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch

Heat the oven to 375 degrees and butter a 9x13 inch pan.

Blend the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.  Stir in the lemon zest.  Add the egg and the cubed butter and work into the dry ingredients with your hands.  The dough will be crumbly.  Put 2/3 of the dough into the prepared pan and pat into place. 

In another bowl, stir together the sugar, cornstarch, ground ginger, and lemon juice.  Add the rhubarb and mix gently.  Spoon the fruit mixture in an even layer over the shortbread base.  Crumble the remaining dough over top. 

Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the crumb top is golden brown.  Cool before cutting into squares. 


Lucky number four

You very kind people, you.  I’ve been floating along on your hoorays and high-fives all week.  Thank you friends, really, just thank you so much.  Now of course, the real work begins.  Away we go!  You do know you’re coming with me, right?  A few of you were in touch to ask if I’ll be taking a break from this site while I write the book (including my mother-in-law; hi, Sarah!) and the answer is a resounding Noooooo!  It’s the dissertating and the teaching (and all of the administrative pleasantries that go along with that) that I’ll be stepping away from for the year.  This blog is where I come to practice, to try stuff out, to write and cook my heart out and unwind for heaven’s sake.  It’s my workshop.  Don’t tell my editor, but I’m not even sure I know how to write a book.  (“And, how?” might have been a more fitting way to punctuate the title of my last post.)  But I do know that kicking myself out of my own workshop is exactly how not to do it.  So there you go.  You’re stuck with me.

With loony old cornbread-loving me, who is about to fill your bellies with yet another cornbread, the fourth on this site in not even as many years.  Send help.  Or, be a good sport and send honey, and jam and, I don’t know, maybe some fresh berries.  We’ll call it a meal. 

Lucky number four is from a book called The Homemade Pantry that came out last spring.  I bet a lot of you have heard of it by now.  Or maybe you know the author, Alana Chernila, from her blog, Eating from the Ground Up.  I love Alana’s voice and what she does with it, and when she writes about fruit bowls and buzzing cells I want to reach through my screen and squeeze her.  Alana does this thing when she’s writing personally – which is pretty much always – that’s pure magic.  It’s as if she’s facing inward and outward at the same time.  Does that make sense?  Spend a few minutes with Alana’s words and I think you’ll see what I mean.  She has a daughter named Rosie who cuts her own bangs, and another named Sadie, a Lance Armstrong in-the-making (goooo, Sadie!), and a husband, and a sister, and also her parents (am I missing anyone, Alana?) all sharing one seriously inspiring kitchen.  On her blog and in her book, Alana welcomes us in and shows us around.  I forgot to mention the subtitle of the book, so here it is:  101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making.  That includes butter and hot sauce, mustard and crème fraiche; there are chapters on soup and pasta and crackers and candy (this woman makes her own fruit rollups, people!) and canned things, and frozen things – she’s covered it all.  I’d say that I didn’t know where to begin except for that, of course, I did, when I saw she had a recipe for cornbread in there.

I’ve been looking for a first-rate classic cornbread for a while which, for me, meant something deeply corny, mildly sweet, and not too cakey.  This cornbread is all of these things.  It’s sweetened with maple syrup instead of sugar, and when it came out of the oven smelling like a hot syrup-drenched pancake I worried that it would taste all wrong.  But nope, it tasted just right, like cornbread, not like a pancake at all.  The maple syrup that hovers so heavily over the bread as it cools slips quietly out the back door when no one’s looking, leaving only a faint, warm sweetness behind.  I don’t play favorites, but I will tell you that with a minimal amount of stirring and only twenty minutes in the oven, this one might be the handiest of the bunch.  No offense to breads one through three. 

Maple-Scented Cornbread
Adapted from The Homemade Pantry, by Alana Chernila

I baked this bread in a 9-inch round baking pan, but you can also use an 8-inch square one. 

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted.
1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 cup (4.75 ounces) medium-grind yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
¼ cup maple syrup

Heat the oven to 425 degrees and butter a 9-inch round baking pan.

Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. 

Beat the eggs in a medium bowl, add the buttermilk, maple syrup, and melted butter, and whisk some more until uniform.

Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients and give it a few stirs, just until the batter comes together.  Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cornbread pulls away from the sides of the pan, the top is lightly brown, and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean – or with just a crumb or two.

Cool completely in the pan.

Serves 6-8.


And how

Back in January, I told you that New Year’s Day felt like a genuine starting line this year.  I said that 2012 would be a year for working hard on things I care about.  All I can say is and how.   It’s been the workiest time, the best time.  And it’s about to get even better because today, I finally get to tell you what I’ve been working on.  It’s a four letter word that starts with a “B” and no, I don’t mean another baby.  Friends, I’m writing a book.  

You know, I’ve been wondering what it would take to make those words feel real.  Shipping off my proposal, maybe, or the meeting at Penguin in New York, or testing my first recipe last Sunday morning or – certainly, certainly – hearing from my agent on Friday that the contract is officially good to go.  But honestly, friends, getting to type those words here, just now, is what’s made me believe them.  So before I go any further, I want to thank you, for your cheers, for your every kindness, for your company in the kitchen and right here over these last weird and wonderful years.  This book would not be happening if it weren’t for you, all of you, and I mean that in the most literal sense.   

It was four years ago today that an aneurysm burst in my brain.  August 19th is my “aneur-versary,” and I love that I get to share this news with you on today of all days.  The book (my book!) is a memoir with recipes, to be published by The Penguin Group in the fall of 2014.  It’s the story of my illness and recovery and what I learned along the way, that food had something to tell me, and that it felt good to listen. It’s about cooking and baking myself back together again, fixing what’s broken, and living with what can’t be fixed.  It’s a love story.  Mine and Eli’s, yes, but also one writ large, about the people who reminded me who I was when I felt least like myself.  Above all, it’s about what it means to nourish and be nourished, to remember what it is to be hungry, to honor that hunger, and learn how to feed it.    

My manuscript is due in a year, and I’m taking a leave of absence from graduate school to write it.  You read that correctly:  I’ll be writing full-time.  I’m excited to see what that’s like. 

Some thanks are in order before I sign off today, first to three dear friends who shepherded me through the proposal writing.  (Let me tell you, I can be one unruly sheep.)  Molly, Luisa, Molly, I hardly know what to say.  You inspire the heck out of me.  This process might have felt terribly lonely, but it didn’t, and that’s because of you.  And then there’s the matter of one Eli Schleifer, the guy who reads my every word, once, twice, as many times as it takes, who makes me better, braver, and reminds me when I need reminding that once you’ve figured out what you love most to do, you don’t get not to do it.  You, my dear, are an incorrigible smarty pants.  I’m so happy you’re mine. 

Finally, because it bears repeating, another big thanks to you, friends.  You’re the ones who made me think I could do this in the first place, you know.  Thank you for that, for being here, and for making all of this so much fun.



What's what

You guys are something else.  I say, “Give me a radish recipe,” you say, “How many?”  Slaws, ceviche, butters, tartines; pickles and salads with citrus and seeds; radishes braised, radishes roasted, radishes plattered and sautéed and souped.  You people are radish geniuses!  I’ve been digging my way through your recipes for the better part of two weeks, and let me tell you, life is good on the other side of all those radishes.  I’ve got a song in my heart, and it’s thanks to you.  The current contents of my belly are also thanks to you, in particular, to a reader named Chelsea who has a thing for radishes in her potato salad.  I’ve got that thing now, too, and today, I pass it to you.

I mentioned last time that I do radishes in egg salad, and this recipe’s a close cousin – the one whose mom let her sponge paint her bedroom walls when you were kids, who pulls off bright red shoes beneath her wedding dress, and always knows what’s what, the one you want to be around all the time.  I gave the potatoes top billing in the title of this recipe, but it’s as much about the eggs, four of them, hard boiled and cut into wedges so big you can stick a fork through them without even aiming.  Instead of mayonnaise, I made a mustardy vinaigrette (a simplified, scaled down version of the one I wrote about here).  Next came the radishes and finally, pickles, an inspired addition that I picked up from my friend, Sarah, the last time I was home in Ohio.  (Happiness is handing over your babe to the nearest grandparent, pulling a cottage cheese container from the fridge, and finding Sarah’s potato salad inside.)  This potato salad is Eli approved, and that’s saying something given that the kindest descriptor of potato salad I’ve ever heard him utter is “monochromatic.”  (On the potato salad of his youth: “Why would you put that in your mouth?”)  But the guy must trust me, because when I offered him a taste on the morning I made this salad, he accepted.  Then, he ate it for breakfast.  And that’s really saying something given how seriously this man takes his consumption of cold cereal and milk on your average weekday morning.  (Very seriously.)  We have ourselves a keeper. 

Potato-Egg Salad with Pickles and Radishes

I wasn’t going to include the egg boiling in this recipe (we all have our ways, I assume) but since a friend of mine recently asked me how I get my yolks just so, I went ahead and put it in.  (This is for you, S!)  Feel free to do it your way, of course. I’ve been thinking that, in addition to parsley, some tarragon might be nice here.  But it’s great with parsley alone.

For the salad:
1 pound of small pink potatoes
4 large not-so-fresh eggs (old eggs are easier to peel)
6-8 radishes (depending on how big your radishes are; I used 8 little guys)
1 sour pickle (mine was about 4 inches in length and an inch and a half wide, from Gus’s.)
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

For the dressing:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
A pinch of salt
A few grinds of black pepper

Boil the eggs:  Put the eggs in a pot large enough so that they lie in a single layer.  Cover them with cold water by about an inch.  Bring to a boil, and when you get your very first serious bubbles – not just those little beads that float upwards to the surface – immediately remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let sit for exactly 9 minutes.  That’s how long it takes, I find, to get your yolks fully cooked but not chalky or dry.  Watch the clock and prepare an ice bath so that when your nine minutes are up, you can lift the eggs from the pot with a slotted spoon or tongs and drop them in.  Let the eggs cool completely before peeling.  This might be my imagination, but when I boil my eggs a day in advance and wait to peel them, the shells practically push themselves away from the whites.  (Except for when they don’t.  Ugly eggs are still delicious.)

Meanwhile, boil the potatoes:  Put the potatoes in a medium pot and cover with cold water.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so that the water just simmers.  Cook until the potatoes are fork-tender.  It’s not as crucial for the potatoes to stop cooking immediately, so I usually just drain them and run them under cool tap water for a minute. 

Make the dressing (while the eggs and potatoes are cooking):  Whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper in a large bowl.

Do your cutting and dicing:  Peel the eggs, and cut each one into eight pieces.  I do this by cutting the eggs in half around their middles (not lengthwise), then cutting each half into four pieces.  Quarter your potatoes.  Dice the pickle and radishes into cubes still big enough to really crunch.  I like mine the size of (square-ish) Tic Tacs

Assemble:  Give the dressing another quick whisk, then add the heartiest players, the radish and the pickle, to the bowl.  Stir to coat them in the dressing.  Add the potatoes and push them around until they are also nicely dressed.  Finally, add the chopped parsley and the eggs and gently fold them into the salad.  I use a couple of silicone spatulas for the job and give the salad just a few light tosses. 

Add salt and pepper, to taste.

Serves 4 as a main event, 6 as a side.  


For your trouble

There are certain foods out there that I sometimes think I’ve solved.  Peas, for example.  I’ve eaten them raw in salads, boiled and buttered, with mushrooms in pasta, pureed in soups, hot and cold.  I know how to eat them alongside schnitzel and fried fish, and how to press them into mashed potatoes with the back of my fork.  Sometimes I think I’ve done what can be done with them.  Of course, this is a dreadful way to think about food, as if it were a closed system with a finite number of variables and solutions to be “plugged and chugged,” as my middle school algebra teacher would say.  Food’s not like that at all.  Thank goodness for dinners out, and books, and blogs, and all of you to remind me of that, when need be.  (So, uh, anyone have a killer pea recipe to share?  I’m due for a new one, obviously.)

I also have radishes.  If peas come, batteries included, with a full color manual, radishes are more about feeling your way as you go.  At least that’s how they are, for me.  We’re all friends here, so I’m okay admitting that I’m not always sure what to do with them.  I will also admit that sometimes – only sometimes – I’m not even sure if I like them.  But all of this means that they keep me on my toes, and I do like that.  They’re pink, and crisp, and easy on the eyes, so they get points from me there.  And there are times when I really do like them so much, like in egg salad or – sparingly – in a chopped salad with sweet cucumbers and fennel.  It’s not always so clear, though.  A few summers ago, they started rolling in fast and furiously from our CSA, and soon we had a colony of radishes threatening to take over our crisper.  One night, I gathered all of them up, brushed them with olive oil, and roasted them in a very hot oven.  They wrinkled a little, and browned where they touched the pan, and mellowed in a way that was either delightful or disappointing – I couldn’t decide.  I’m equally ambivalent about radishes with butter and salt, that classic combination that, as I type this, has me salivating, yet I always end up sweating my way through them and partially relieved when they’re gone.  Shaved paper thin on a well-buttered slice of crusty bread is more my speed.  I should try to remember that.

So, radishes.  I’m still figuring them out.  What do you guys do with them, anyway?  I know I just tapped you for a pea recipe, but I hope you don’t mind my asking about radishes, too.  For the sake of fairness (and also for the sake of other important things, like your dinner plate) I can at least offer you a trade, here.  A recipe for the greens in exchange for your wisdom on what to do with the rest of the darn things – yes?  A radish leaf pesto for your trouble.

That you can whirr greens together with nuts and cheese and make a bang-up pesto isn’t news.  Still, I want to share this particular radish leaf pesto with you, because of the several recipes I’ve tried, this one gets it just right.  I usually like the nuts out front in a pesto, just a shoulder behind the greens.  But in this recipe, when the almonds all but disappear – an ounce of almonds is not very many almonds, and the ratio of almonds to cheese is 1:1 – it’s a very nice effect.  I think of the almond as one of the more distinctively flavored nuts in this world, so I was surprised by the way this pesto transforms them.  They duck behind the garlic and the lemon zest, and when they do peek out here and there, they’re practically unrecognizable.  Nutty and rich, to be sure, but mysteriously so.

The first time I made this pesto, we ate it on pasta, as people do.  A couple of nights later, it got late without us noticing, and even though it was only Monday, we were tired.  Neither of us felt like cooking, and so we poked around in the kitchen, as people also do, and came up with the remains of this pesto, a partially hardened baguette, and a small tub of marinated anchovies.  I hardly need to tell you the rest of the story.  We sawed through the baguette and slid it under the broiler; what happened next you can see for yourself in that photograph up there.  That was a few weeks ago, and the combination stuck.  The second batch of pesto we ate this way exclusively.  I’m behind it 100%.  

Radish Leaf Pesto
Adapted from Chocolate & Zucchini

I used almonds here, as I mentioned, above, but Clotilde says that you can also try pistachios or pine nuts.  She suggests avoiding walnuts, which she finds too bitter in this recipe.  She also suggests storing the pesto under a thin layer of olive oil.  It’s a great tip for keeping the pesto beautifully green.  You can pour some of it off when you’re ready to serve it, and stir the rest of it in.

2 large handfuls of radish leaves, stems removed (I used the leaves from two bunches.)
1 ounce (30 grams) Parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated
1 ounce (30 grams) almonds, pistachios, or pine nuts
1 clove garlic, cut into a few pieces
Zest from half a lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more, until you reach the consistency you like
Salt and pepper

Put all of the ingredients into a food processor and pulse into smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl, when necessary.  Add more olive oil, a little at a time, until you reach your desired consistency.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

I store this pesto in a ramekin covered in plastic.

(I forgot to measure the yield.  Both times.  Sorry!  I’ll update here the next time I make this.) (You won’t have to wait long.)