Saturday, April 28, 2012

More Songs About Buildings and Food

Yesterday I was thinking about the poem "Onions" by William Mathews. I first heard it on Garrison Keillor's daily 5-minute public radio program, The Writer's Almanac. He ends the spot every day with a poem or portion of a poem. One day about a year ago I heard him read the first verse of Onions, and I had to look it up as soon as I got to a computer.

That verse captivated me; I loved the imagery, the rhythm, and the way it conveyed the concept of onions being the base of a dish, and thus the beginning step in a pleasurable experience. The rest of the poem is just as rewarding. On the surface it's a poem about onions and cooking, but peel back that first layer (ha!) and it's a poem about finding contentment and even joy in everyday, mundane activities. It also shows how a single, basic building block can expand in a hundred ways; those onions can become any one of an unimaginable number of dishes. A single moment of pleasure can blossom and become so much more.
How easily happiness begins by
dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter
slithers and swirls across the floor
of the sauté pan, especially if its
errant path crosses a tiny slick
of olive oil. Then a tumble of onions.
Thinking about "Onions" lead me to remembering that humorist (and fellow Vanderbilt alumnus) Roy Blount, Jr. has an entire book of food verse called Soupsongs. He also takes on alliums in "A Song to Onions"; insightful in its own way, but more playful, with rhymes!
They improve everything, pork chops to soup,
And not only that but each onion's a group.

Peel back the skin, delve into tissue
And see how an onion has been blessed with issue.

Every layer produces an ovum:
You think you've got three then you find you've got fovum.
Of course there are tons of poems about food, and poems that mention food and drink. These poems often are about sensuality and love, as well. After all, what's more sensual and conducive to romance than a plump juicy berry, the fruity musk of wine, the rich saltiness of cheese, the crusty earthiness of a good loaf?

One of the most well-known lines of verse in this vein comes from one of the translations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Going back even further, "Song of Solomon" is full of food / love / wine imagery:
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
What started me on this trip through food verse -- and the interplay of food and sensuality and love -- was a poem that's new to me. I found it by following a link in a recent "Diner's Journal" post in the Dining & Wine section of the New York Times. The first half of "The Mysterious Human Heart" by Matthew Dickman shows us a wonderful abundance of produce, glorious in its variety. Despite these wonders, though, it's "just produce" because it can't compare to what we hold inside us.
The produce in New York is really just produce, oranges
and cabbage, celery and beets, pomegranates
with their hundred seeds, carrots and honey,
walnuts and thirteen varieties of apples.
On Monday morning I will walk down
to the market with my heart inside me, mysterious,
something I will never get to hold
in my hands, something I will never understand.
The rest of the poem shows that we are complicated beings, inhabiting a world where we have desires, and rights -- including love.

If you are interested in seeing my own feeble attempt at food poetry, see the post Seasonal Eating: A Poem.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Come, thou monarch of the vine

I am not a wine connoisseur. I do not have a fine palate. I do not have a deep knowledge of grapes and methods and regions and vintages. I haven't drunk enough wines and made enough notes to have a broad go-to list. I do know what terroir and malolactic mean, even if I can't exactly taste them, though. I know a little about pairing wine and food. And, as the saying goes, I know what I like.

The Wine Cellar at Tracey Haus

My palate (and knowledge) HAS broadened over the years, though. Like many wine drinkers who don't come from wine-drinking families, I started out with rosé (because that's what my college girlfriends drank), and "graduated" to white zin when that was new and shiny and all the rage. Over time I tasted a bit more and learned a bit more, and slowly, slowly, began to prefer other things.

A few years ago I had the good sense and fortune to take the long-running wine tasting class at Sunset Grill in Hillsboro Village here in Nashville. They've been doing it for years, and it's a hoot. At the time they offered a weekly series starting with Wine 101 and followed by classes devoted to varietals or groups of varietals. It was in those classes that I learned the basic lingo, learned about pairing with food, and best of all, I tasted. It was an amazing experience. I learned first that I simply don't have the palate to discern peach and slate and grass and mango and fuzzy caterpillar like some oenophiles do. That's OK, because what also happened was that my palate expanded from where it had been, and in a matter of a few weeks -- no joke -- I lost my taste for truly sweet wines and learned to love those with more bite.

I also confirmed that I really, truly don't care for Chardonnay.

I know, too, that I'm never going to prefer reds to whites -- the heavy, chewy, tannic wines just aren't for me. I drink reds more than I used to, however. I still have ZERO patience for wine snobs who think that reds are the only wines worth drinking, and the rest is swill and for Philistines only. It's OK to have a preference -- I do, obviously -- but please spare me the guff about your "superior" palate and opinion. Some of the most knowledgeable wine people I know (or know of) love all decently-made wine, understanding when and where it's appropriate.

Thanks to these people I've actually come full circle and now know that brilliant roses exist, even if they are underappreciated in the US. In the same vein, I've long been a Riesling fan, despite its reputation with US wine farts as being "too sweet." Yeah, there's tons of swill made from Rieslings, and a lot of it is too sweet even for me. Yes, even the driest Riesling is a little sweet, but they can also be tart and/or minerally. That produces a great balance and complexity that works well with many types of food, especially spicy or rich dishes.

Tapas & Riesling I had recently at ChaChah

Luckily, appreciation for Rieslings has been on the rise on this side of the Atlantic, and they're getting a bit more respect. The wave hasn't hit Nashville full-force as I hope it will, but it's nice to see this wine get some props. For example, in today's New York Times Eric Asimov writes of a wine tasting they recently conducted specifically for 2010 German Auslese Rieslings, "Sweetness That Bites Back."

The article is a good quickie primer on German wine nomenclature, as well as having a nice explanation about why 2010 was a banner year for German Rieslings. (In short, they are both sweeter and more acidic than usual.) This article has made me want to swing by the liquor store and scoop up some. Of course, the Times often does tastings of wines far beyond my pocketbook, but the information in the articles can still be useful. I hope to find some worthy 2010s in my usual price range. If not, I may just splurge on their top pick (of the wines tasted), a Dr. Loosen. I remember sampling -- and loving -- a Dr. Loosen wine at the Sunset Grill classes, and at $28 it's a bargain compared to some of the other picks. Also, there are less expensive Dr. Loosens; the last bottle on the right in my wine rack pictured above is a $14 Dr. Loosen labeled simply "Riesling."

So, Rieslings, yay or nay? If you're in the nay camp, are you willing to give them another go?

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Weekend That Wasn't

I was sick this weekend with a mystery ailment. Saturday afternoon I started feeling just generally bad, and a little achy. Then I realized I was pretty cold ... to the point of shivering. I crawled into bed with the heat turned up and the covers pulled up to my chin, and I could not get entirely warm. Within a few hours the chills turned into a fever. My temp climbed and climbed up to about 101, and for me that's a serious fever; my normal temp runs well below 98. I felt like my skin was on fire. A hefty dose of ibuprofen and a little more time, and it finally broke. The fever and chills hung around, just at a lower intensity. It was only late today that I finally shook the last remnants. There were no other symptoms other than a little queasiness, so I don't know what I had.

Needless to say, the weekend didn't lend itself to cooking. In fact, after lunch on Saturday I didn't eat anything but some Goldfish crackers, until I had a bowl of cereal Sunday for lunch. Today I've lived on some yogurt, and finally this evening some of my carrot-ginger soup that I had in the freezer. The idea of something warm and simple and liquid appealed to me, and I knew the ginger would be good for my still-wombly tummy.

I've been making this soup for many years, usually portioning it into individual servings for freezing. It's something I just made up on the fly one day because the idea appealed to me. I usually make it based on the amount of carrots I have on hand. I've never measured any of the other ingredients; I just eyeball everything. This recipe is more of a set of guidelines than a recipe. I've found since then that there are lots of carrot-ginger soup recipes around, but I've always just made my seat-of-the-pants version.

Carrot-Ginger Soup

I start with a little slick of olive oil in a medium to medium-large sauce pan. (You could also use butter.) I add chopped onion, sliced fresh ginger, sliced garlic, a LITTLE chopped celery (if I have any on hand, which frankly I usually don't), salt & pepper. Saute until the onion is soft and translucent but not brown.

Add carrots, cut into chunks (or baby carrots), and enough low-sodium chicken stock to cover by an inch or so. (I have even used just water when I didn't have any chicken stock to hand. You could also use vegetable stock, obviously.) Bring to a boil, then simmer until the carrots are tender. Allow to cool, then use a blender or food processor to puree. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. At this point I might also add a sprinkle of nutmeg or thyme.

At this point you can freeze, or reheat to serve. You can enjoy it as is, but I usually either top with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt, OR mix in milk, half-and-half, or cream to make it "cream of" soup. If not adding the milk/cream, you can add more water or broth if the soup is too thick, which it sometimes is.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ricotta Cookies and an Old Friend

When I was in college, I found an inexpensive Sunbeam hand mixer on clearance at Target. If memory serves, it cost something like $11. Not only did it have the standard beaters, but a whisk, a paddle, and a milkshake spindle. Until a little over a year ago, it was my only mixer. I wanted a stand mixer, but never felt I could justify spending the money a good one would cost. Being limited to a hand mixer didn't hold me back much -- I've made a metric ton of cookies and cakes and the like over the years, in addition to using the other attachments for a million other things. I've also made yeast breads, but always by hand -- kneading is a great stress-reliever, if a bit messy.

Then, last December I hurt my back and was essentially in bed for 2 weeks. I spent a lot of time web surfing on my netbook, and found myself on the KitchenAid Outlet web site. Between my upcoming birthday and my bedridden state, I was vulnerable to the terrific deal on the factory refurbished, all-metal gear, 6-qt bowl, 575-Watt, onyx black, "Professional" line thing of beauty I found. After all these years the hand mixer is still going strong, but I was ready -- more than ready -- for a grown-up mixer. I wanted to do some Serious Mixing when I got back on my feet.

The New Guard watches the Old Guard make cookies
It's great to have the KitchenAid, especially one so large & powerful. I made several batches of marshmallows, for example. Those require a motor with heft & stamina; the hand mixer would never have made it through. (Most regular stand mixers wouldn't make it through.) It's great for the stiff cookie doughs I'd never try with the hand mixer. Of course the dough hook makes yeast breads much easier, too. Still, when I want to make something simple, I find myself pulling out the little Sunbeam.

This weekend I made a batch of ricotta cookies from a recipe I've used for many years. In fact, I was only going to make half a batch, so I didn't need to fire up the KitchenAid. Old Sunny would do just fine.

The cookies were part of a dessert platter I had for Sunday after lunch with my friend Matt. They were accompanied by local organic strawberries from my CSA, Fresh Harvest, as well as cool white chocolate ganache and warm dark chocolate ganache. It was fun to try different combinations of fruit, cookie, and the two chocolates. The strawberries were nice and ripe but not terribly sweet, so having the chocolate to go with them was especially welcome.

photo by Matt
Photo by Matt, who also helped eat them

The cookies themselves are a little unusual -- they are soft (but not gooey) and rise quite a bit, so that they are almost like sturdy little cakes. The flavor is subtle, rich with vanilla, and that makes them perfect to go with lots of things, from coffee to ice cream. They are also small, nice to have around when you want just a bite of something sweet. As you might guess from the featured ingredient, ricotta cookies are Italian in origin, and are often flavored with lemon juice and zest. I like them with lemon, but I thought the plan variety would be more suitable with the ganache. As is usual with basic baked goods, I also think they would be good with an addition of almond extract.

It's also a good recipe to have in your repertoire because they are drop cookies -- easy to mix, no refrigeration of the dough or rolling/cutting required. You also don't have to be terribly fussy about the way you mound the dough on the cookie sheet if you don't mind slightly irregular shapes. A cookie scoop helps form more evenly-sized, round cookies, but I just used two iced tea spoons.

Ready for the oven

The recipe below is the full recipe; I frequently make only half. I also usually serve them as is, but you'll frequently find recipes where they are iced with a confectioner's sugar glaze. You could also sprinkle with coarse sugar before baking.

Ricotta Cookies

adapted from several sources

4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese*
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

In a large mixing bowl cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula occasionally if necessary. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add the ricotta and vanilla and beat until well blended, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. With the mixer on medium low speed, gradually beat in the flour mixture until well combined, but do not overmix. 

Using a small cookie scoop or a teaspoon, drop dough 2 inches apart onto cookie sheets (preferably lined with parchment paper). Bake until the cookies start to brown on the bottom, about 11 to 13 minutes (the tops will not brown). Remove from the oven and allow the cookies to rest on the cookie sheet for 1 to 2 minutes before transferring them with a spatula to wire racks to cool completely.

*I use whole milk ricotta

Variation: If you'd like the traditional lemon flavoring, add the zest and juice of one lemon with the ricotta and vanilla.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lunch Break!

On Thursday, after a morning full of meetings, I escaped to lunch at Caffe Nonna (4427 Murphy Road) with a couple of coworkers/friends. The restaurant is in the revitalized Sylvan Park neighborhood, nestled in a row of shops and restaurants across the street from McCabe Pub, between The Local Taco and Park Cafe. There are parking spaces in front, but if those are full, there's also a small lot in the back off of Westlawn Dr.

I had been there several times before with Melissa, long-time friend and fellow Vanderbilt employee. The third in our party, Jeannette, is part of my team at work and was new to CN. We made a reservation because it's a tiny restaurant and we wanted to be sure to get a table without waiting since we were on our lunch hour. Surprisingly, they weren't busy, although we were told that the day before they had been slammed. So, a word to the wise -- for lunch or dinner, call for a reservation, just in case.

As you might guess from the name, Caffe Nonna is an Italian restaurant. The small space is cozy, and the food is comforting yet fresh and flavorful. While the menu is full of the types of dishes you'd expect from an American Italian place, it shows creativity and has a few surprises. The menu is thoughtful and has something to please most appetites without offering an overwhelming variety. Portion sizes are ample but not gut-busting like some chain Italian restaurants I could name. The food is obviously prepared with care.

Open for lunch and dinner during the week, and dinner on Saturday, CN has a nice selection of appetizers, salads, pasta, pizza, and entrees, as well as daily specials. For lunch, they also offer sandwiches. Pasta dishes are made to the customer's specification -- you choose the type of pasta, the sauce, and any additions such as a protein or vegetables. Melissa ordered one of her stand-by dishes at CN, rigatoni with bolognese and meatballs. The generous portion of fat pasta tubes and meaty sauce was served up in a thick-walled, white bowl. She proclaimed it as tasty as usual, although next time she might skip the meatballs and stick with the sauce alone.

Jeannette and I had the Italian Fried Tilapia sandwich. The fish was a nice thick slab, unusual for tilapia. The fillets had a terrific hefty coating of beer batter and had been fried to a wonderful crunch. Served on a crusty chunk of baguette with lettuce, tomato (wedges, a little odd), and onion, it was a sandwich that required two hands for eating. The tasty pesto aioli was served on the side so you could slather on as much or as little as you liked. This was one of the best fish sandwiches I've had in a while; I would definitely order it again. I was even pleased with the side, french fries. After a lifetime of eating fries, I'm over them. I rarely order them, and often if another side dish is available I'll ask for a sub. It takes a really, really fabulous fry to get my attention. These were shoestring fries, so thin and crispy they were unlike any I've had in Nashville. For the first time in ages I didn't just eat the fries, I enjoyed the fries.

We did not have dessert or wine, but I look forward to returning for a more leisurely dinner one day and sampling both.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Lunch - Sort Of

I'm a fan of seasonal eating. It never seems quite right to have crookneck squash in winter or asparagus in late summer. Still, so many foods are available year-round now it can be easy to want to make use of them if they are decent. Just because I can buy a tomato in January doesn't mean it's worth eating, but supermarket broccoli is just as good in July as in March or November.

Today I made a somewhat impromptu lunch for a friend, and it occurred to me later it was a perfect winter meal, despite the fact that it was a warm April day. It wasn't too heavy or hearty for the weather or season, but it was a combination that would fit more naturally with a crisp fall day.

I started with a butternut squash I had sitting around. Winter squashes are now ubiquitous all year. (Except for pumpkins ... I don't understand why the small cooking pumpkins are the only winter squash that are on the market for a couple of months each year.) Peeled, seeded, and cubed, the squash was roasted with a little olive oil, salt, coriander, and pepper.

The green vegetable was haricots verts -- the slender French green beans that are tender with little cooking. First I toasted some chopped pecans in a pat of butter. I set aside the toasted nuts and added a small minced shallot to the pan. After a brief saute, the beans were added with a little water. Quickly covering the pan to allow the beans to steam, I turned to start preparing the main course.

I had a couple of pork tenderloins in the fridge. I sliced one into chunks about 2 inches thick. The rounds were flattened slightly, dusted with garlic salt & a herb mixture, and sauteed in olive oil in an iron skillet. When they were done I removed them to a plate, then deglazed the pan with some water, sherry, and a couple of squirts of Dijon mustard. I let that cook down to a nice sauce, then poured it over the pork.

To finish out the meal I took the lid off the haricots verts and let the water cook away, leaving a nice glaze on the beans. Off went the heat, and the beans were finished with the toasted pecans.

It was a simple collection of dishes, easy to prepare while chatting and nibbling on Parmesan Goldfish crackers and trail mix. If we'd been hungrier we could have had bread or dessert, but it suited us fine as it was. So, we dined on pork and winter squash on my front porch, enjoying the spring sun and trees and flowers and bumble bees.

Happy Easter!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Spring - A Time of Renewal

It's Easter Weekend, and in this unseasonably warm, early spring, it's natural to think about renewal and rebirth. It's a coincidence that I'm reviving this blog this particular weekend, but there's a nice bit of serendipity about it.

So yes, I've decided to give the blog another go. The old posts are still here, and still worthwhile. New posts will appear soon. The focus of the blog will broaden a little bit -- it will include not only cooking topics but musings about restaurants and other foodie topics as well. I may even sneak in a few other random subjects.

The design of the blog is undergoing refreshing, too. I'll be playing with layout, graphics, and sidebar content over the next week or so .. patience with changes appreciated.  :)

Until the next "real" post ... bon appetit!