Monday, December 21, 2009

Donuts and Pickled Beets

Back in 1984, I worked with this Swedish expatriate who drove a shiny new Cadillac. If you asked him, Sven would tell you that one thing he loved about America was the big honkin' cars. Then he'd offer you a donut, because he always picked up a box for the group on his way in.

It was kind of funny preference for cars, because Sven was barely five foot, barrel shaped and balding with a pasty complexion. Being from Sweden, he'd only own something with rear wheel drive.

"Safer," he'd tell you. "If you break the wheels free that move the
car, you can still steer."

I took the bus to work on a wicked snow day. The place was quiet as a mouse, so I thought I was alone. But when I checked on some equipment in a back room that overlooked the parking lot, I had to smile.

There were only two tire tracks coming in the entrance, but it looked like 20 crazy teenagers had been out there doing donuts. Out of all that were two tire tracks that led right up to Sven's Caddy.

I wandered back to where Sven sat and waited until he looked up.

"Nice donuts," I said.

His whole head turned red as pickled beets.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Problem with Gelato

The problem with gelato: by the time you get your hands on it, it’s too late. Maybe American travelers’s love affair with gelato has more to do with the need for some icy refreshment in the Fiorentini heat than a pervasive standard of quality. We stopped at Caribe after 17,000 steps from the Duomo to the Boboli Gardens and back (with a doomed detour to Mizzica, which was closed for the holiday). I would have been happy if they had handed me a five pound block of ice and a pick. The gelato was certainly very good. I also had a wonderful strawberry granita on our way out the door, in bit of overkill. The service was perhaps the best since the girl behind the counter in Rome told the local boys who cut in front us to wait their turn. But the gelato wasn’t earth shattering. I dunno. Maybe I’ve become something of a gelato snob in the mere weeks that I’ve spent in Italy. Do I really expect the sky to open and a heavenly choir to sing every time I put a gelato spoon in my mouth?

That isn’t to say there aren’t quality stops on the Gelato Train. The aforementioned Mizzica*, also run by Sicilians, brings back wonderful memories of our 2008 trip to Florence. Lunch at Teatro del Sale had left me with only enough appetite for something. Unlike Jen, I’m not one to forego a meal, especially in Italy. But asking Lucia for “some pasta” would have created more food than was warranted. Since Luca is a genius at finding these great places for gelato in Florence, and we were going to be introduced to Mizzica, I figured that I could (or at least certainly should) get by with just the gelato. Well, what did they have behind the counter but arancini!? Maybe my first. The first I remember, in any case. The stars were torn asunder and the heavenly choir wandered down to see what I was singing about. Even the guy behind the counter noticed how happy I was. I stole my coffee granita between layers of whipped cream dessert from these guys. Luca had ordered that, and after I had a taste or three, and Jen and Lucia had their tastes, we had to order a second. Mine pales by comparison, so if you get the chance, Borgo Ognissanti 137, Firenze. You too can get an earful of the heavenly choir.

Already this year, there have been a couple of astounding places in Piacenza, Como and Verona. I think you need to have an Italian friend. Lacking that, look for lots of stylish people speaking Italian standing around. We used the other side of this idea in Verona, when we were looking for lunch. Riverside location. Nice menu, good prices. No one was eating there, so we kept walking. Follow the locals.

* 137 Borgo Ognissanti, Firenze. From the Duomo, walk to the Ponte Vecchio, turn right and walk along the Arno. At the second bridge, turn right and then take an immediate left. You’ll pass a police station. Mizzica is just across from a garage…

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Salmon ala Newman

You need to put on a fancy-esque kind of dinner, you hate prep and cleaning up*. Whadya do?

Well, my go-to fancy dish is salmon. Get a big fillet.

Make a glaze of equal parts prepared mustard and olive oil. I like to combine a couple of different kinds of mustard. Colmans prepared mustard is smooth and spicy. A dijon mustard is a nice substitute for that. To the Colmans, I add something a little grainier; my current fave is a mass market plastic barrel with a Polish-esque name. If you're really thinking ahead, finding or making a tarragon mustard would be ideal.

I'm never that organized.

Pair the quarter cup of the mustard with a similar quantity of olive oil. The recipe that I work from says to add 6 cloves of chopped garlic, a quarter teaspoon of ground red pepper, the juice of one lemon and a teaspoon of capers, along with salt to taste.

I say "the recipe that I work from" because while I almost always use all of these ingredients, I would swear that I never use the same amounts twice.

Coat the fish with the mixture (I usually just do the flesh side of the fillet), let it sit for a bit and then bake it at 375 degrees F for about 45 minutes. It's also grillable.

* although she's invited, it's unfair to always rely on Tona to go play in the sink after dinner...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Basmati Rice

Rice is pretty much the staple carbo here in our house, so I've gotten pretty used to whipping up a batch. I've been told my method is wrong, but it works for me.

Twice as much water, plus a little, as the rice. Salt to taste.

Bring to a boil, turn it back to low low low. When the water is absorbed, cut the heat. Let it rest a bit, fluff and serve.

So what do I mean by "plus a little"? It's hard to quantify. When I started cooking at Jen's, I discovered she had a handy little plastic measuring cup that has something of a flute the last quarter of an inch. I fill with rice to the bottom of the flute, then flush full with water twice.

Plus a little. Yeah. Then there's my electric stove trick. Bring it to a boil on a heavy duty burner while you have the smallest one on the lowest setting. Move the pot when it comes to a boil. Obviously, gas is easier.

Often I soak the rice. Basically, if I know I'm making rice that night, I'll measure out the ingredients in the early afternoon. Occasionally I'll rinse it, but I've been getting the Trader Joe's 2lb bag of basmati rice these days and it doesn't seem to be as bad as the rice you get in that 20lb burlap bag at your local Indian grocer. Of course, it's harder to get fresh kari leaves or papadam at TJ's, so it's a push.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Brake and Go

You know those guys. They drive slow. Brake lights for the green light. It goes yellow, they slow some more. Then at the last minute they hit the gas and go, leaving you at the red light. Dante should have created special little arc of one circle just for them.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Paige Fox is bad at math...

Just in case you were wondering about the Sunday edition of Foxtrot.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

DOB, Gender, ZIP code...

That's fairly innocuous information, right? According to Latanya Sweeney, that's enough information to uniquely identify 87.1% of persons living in the United States.

I recently ran across a website that wanted that information. It seemed innocuous, but it's clear what they want to do. The fact that they're willing to beat around the bush to figure out who I was made me even more resolved to diss them.

fwiw, February 29th, 1960 is a valid birthday. I suggest you find the leap day nearest your birthday and try to preserve a little anonymity yourself.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lazy Dog Inn

So we all wandered north last weekend stayed at the Lazy Dog Inn. It's just before the Dam Store just south of Chocura, just south of Conway. We had a great time--wonderful hosts and just enough snow left to enjoy. We also picked up some maple syrup from a local producer. 

Since I haven't posted in April yet, or posted a photo of the puppy, I thought I'd give you this one...

Here's a photo from Diana's Bath's, up beyond North Conway from Chocura... We visited a couple of waterfalls over the weekend, including Sabbaday Falls out west of Conway on the Kangamangus Highway.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

State of the Political Discussion Art

In a class I'm taking, the professor laments the absence of a centrist blogging population. The point of this is that political blogs tend to the far right or left. Everyone is preaching to the choir as it were, and there's no room for political discourse. Worse, there's no oversight of these guys, and no recourse for inaccurate or blatantly wrong material.

Walking our beagle the other day, it dawned on me that political reporters in general and bloggers in particular are lot like beagles: generally their nose is to the ground or their leg is in the air, and every once in a while they take a dump on something.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


This dish was part of the Grrls Night In dinner. I lived off of this dish one summer after finding this recipe in Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1980) Page 301.

It's really yummy and reasonably easy to make. I begin the prep for this once the salmon goes into the oven. Prep is really important to the success of this dish. There's a lot going on at the beginning, and you need to have everything set out and ready to go.

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
One head cauliflower
2 bunches of scallions
tsp black mustard seeds
2 tsp white split gram beans.
1/2 tsp tumeric
1-2 green chilis or 1/4 tsp cayenne
6-8 kari leaves
salt to taste

You will also need a splatter screen.

Separate the cauliflower into small florets. Rinse in cold water. Then trim the scallions. You'll use the entire scallion. I usually cut the white portion into 1/8" rounds and the green into half inch strips. Measure out the other ingredients into individual containers.

Heat the oil in a heavy bottom skillet or pot, large enough to hold all the ingredients. Add the mustard seeds. This is where you need the splatter screen, or a maid service. Once the popping begin to subside, add the split peas. When they start to brown, add the tumeric, chilis and salt. Saute very briefly and then add a little water to make a paste.

Add the cauliflower and stir to coat. It will turn yellow with the tumeric. Cover and reduce the heat until it starts to get tender. Then add the scallion and kari leaves. Turn the heat up to evaporate extra moisture from the pan. Cook until the scallions brighten.

My understanding is that kari leaves and cilantro are the same thing.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Battlestar Galactica

So hey. The new Battlestar Galactica has passed into canon.

A while back, when Babylon 5 was about to pass, many of us were wondering how JMS was going to get away with his plan to have a five year story arch, and not end up with an ongoing series where the story telling disintegrated into some Space Soap Opera. Many of us thought the fan base wouldn't accept that, so we started thinking he was going to just kill it in the end in some brutal way that turned off all the fans.

My favorite scenario was Lorne Greene coming in at the last minute on the Battlestar Galactica and saving the day. Of course, we saw what happened to the Galactica last Friday. So I guess that's off the table...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

This can be read:

Integral zee-squared dee-zee
from one to the cube root of three
times the cosine
of three pie over nine
equals log of the cube root of ‘e’.

Credit for this has to go to Betsy Devine and Joel E. Cohen’s book “Absolute Zero Gravity”. (Simon and Schuster, 1992) page 37. But I found it, along with some other really bad math limericks, at

Number 20 is good if you like riddles...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pi Day, 2009

So today is Pi Day. The real Pi, not some silly government mandated thing. Sheesh. January 23? 1.23? Please. 3.141592653, according to the Klein Four Group's rendition of "Mathematics Paradise".

For the love of Pi, I made a crostata. See my other post, "Life is Uncertain," for details on how to make yours.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Dickens & Ingalls

Between their two birthdays today, I think we have both Jen and Danila covered...

Monday, February 2, 2009

More Ice Cream!

I've twisted Alton Brown's recipe for a richer ice cream from the Food Network's web site and come up with the following:

2 cups heavy cream, 1 cup milk
6 egg yolks
6+ ounces of vanilla sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla

Bring the milk and cream to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then, cut the heat. While the cream is warming, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until it loses some of that yellow color.

Whisk a little of the warm cream mixture into the egg mixture thoroughly. Repeat the process until half of the cream has been added. Whisk in the remainder and then return to the sauce pan. (this is known in the trade as "tempering"...)

Put medium heat to the mixture and cook, constantly stirring, until it reaches 170 degrees Fahrenheit. (It will thicken and cover the back of a spoon such that you can swipe your finger across it and it will leave a track)

Pour into a your mixing bowl and let stand uncovered for 30 minutes. Stir in the vanilla extract and refrigerate uncovering until it is cool enough not form condensation on the lid. Then cover and chill until it reaches 40 degrees.

Then into the ice cream maker, etc, etc, yum yum blah blah blah.

If you do this the night before, and make the ice cream the morning of, it will set up nicely by dinner.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Ice Cream! Ice Cream!

Vanilla goes best, we think. This is too simple to post, but in the interests of completeness:

1 cup whole milk, 2 cups heavy cream.
3/4 cup sugar
tsp double strength vanilla

Combine, pour into ice cream freezer. Dump into plastic bowl, cover, place in freezer.

We have one of those small Cuisinart ice cream freezers. It works great! Get the one with the extra freezer bowl so you can make ice cream every day. I usually make this earlier in the day, because straight out of the ice cream freezer it's more like soft-serve. Nothing wrong with that, but for the crostata...

Also, I save the vanilla beans from the Penzeys bottles, along with any others I might use, dry them and dump them in a special jar. I have quite the collection of dry vanilla beans going now, and I keep them with sugar. After several weeks, I sieve that jar into another, and then refill the special jar with plain sugar and the dry vanilla beans in the sieve. Presto! Vanilla sugar. Great for ice cream. (or cookies, or...)

When summer gets closer, I'll tell you more about the ice cream that I cook first, and how to make chocolate or strawberry ice cream...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

hot fresh bread?

All right. I'm not sure why everyone raves about my bread. It's really nothing all that special, and I don't even work hard to make it. But it was part of that dinner that Jen's friends all wanted to know what the recipes were, so...

It's a simple set of ingredients, but again, you'll want a scale that can measure in grams. 183g of water, heaping tsp of kosher salt, tablespoon of olive oil, tablespoon of honey, 265g bread flour, heaping teaspoon of active dry yeast.

Toss those things, in that order, into your bread maker. That's right. Bread maker. And here's a trick: Take a shot glass, pour in that roughly tablespoon of oil.  Then pour the honey in on top of that. Then pour the contents of the shot glass into the bread maker.  Set it for a 1lb french loaf and let it fly. Come back right before it starts to bake, and dump it onto a floured surface.

Pop the bubbles, flatten it out, fold it over onto itself by thirds, then again the other way. Roll it until you get a foot long tube-ish thing about three inches thick. Set that on a baking sheet and let is rise another 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Make an egg wash and baste it onto the loaf, sprinkle with the sesame seeds, make three cuts across the top, on the bias, and pop it into the oven for 22 minutes. Check doneness by inserting a thermometer. You're looking for 210 degrees.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Life is Uncertain...

Make dessert first. First off, credit for this recipe goes to Danila. Wander back to wine picks and you can see Danila... You'll need a scale that can measure accurately to a gram for this recipe. A food processor helps tremendously.

400g AP flour
150g sugar
1/2 tsp "lievito per torte"*
The zest of one lemon.

200g unsalted butter.
1 egg + 1 yolk
13oz jar of your favorite preserves.

Measure out the flour and sugar and "lievito" directly into the food processor. Zest the lemon directly into the food processor. Give them a spin to combine.

Cube the butter and add it in, then use the food processor to cut it into mix. Here's a hint. 200g is roughly two sticks. I often reserve a tablespoon from one stick to lube the tart pan, and just cube the rest unmeasured.

Add the eggs and process them in as well. Sometimes it looks a little dry, but keep going. It will come together, usually caking up along the wall of the processor. Sometimes I knock the side of the FP with my hand to help it churn. If after a minute or so it still seems dry, toss in another yolk.

Once it comes together somewhat, dump it back into the bowl you used to measure the flour, form a dough ball and cover with a wet paper towel and set it in the fridge for 30+ minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius, approximately 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lube the tart pan liberally. Take the dough out of the fridge and  reserve a baseball sized chunk. Press the remaining dough into your tart pan by hand. No rolling required. You want a nice rim around the outside and a nice "bowl" to pour the preserves into. Speaking of which, pour them in.

Press or roll the remaining dough out on a sheet of parchment paper. Cut cookie shapes out and place them on top of the crostata. You can also roll little dough balls in your hand and press them into coin sized shapes to fill in some gaps. Heat a little water and honey in the micrwave and brush onto the cookie shapes and pie crust. Sprinkle with some coarse sugar. You can also just roll out strips and create a lattice.

Bake for 30-40 minutes.

* About that "lievito". It's an optional ingredient. I think it's basically baking soda and some vanilla flavoring, so you could just go with a 1/2 tsp of baking soda and 1/2 tsp of vanilla in the mix. Haven't tried that, but we have omitted the ingredient without trouble. I've included a picture of a small packet. I get two sometimes three crostate out of that. Check out your local Italian grocer. They'll probably have that or something similar.

Make sure you don't get the pizza yeast. This leavening is not yeast!

I've done this without a food porocessor. Proceed like cookie dough: Whisk the dry ingredients to combine, cream the sugar and butter, add eggs and zest, combine, then mix in the dry. In fact, I've probably botched every step of this process at one time or another. It doesn't seem to matter. Just keep churning with that food processor and it will all work out in the end.

Thanks for sharing, Danila!