Feelin’ all priveleged

A few months ago, we stumbled upon this site about a private supper club in Athens. It all seemed intriguing and fabulous, so we got on their mailing list; earlier this month we received an email about their next dinner. It seemed like the perfect way to celebrate with some friends who wanted to take us out for a going-away shindig, and my suggestion was received enthusiastically.

The email gave a date and time that you would be able to reserve your spot online, so I had google send me a reminder about a half-hour before the reservations opened. I got my email on the appointed day, and went to the website so I’d be primed and ready when the clock struck noon. Problem was, I got the time wrong. Reservations had opened up at 11 o’clock, just fifteen minutes prior, but there were already only 3 spots left of the original 24. I panicked. There were five of us who were supposed to go. In a moment of utter self-preservation, and in the name of last-chances, I told Tim to sign us up (as in, just the two of us). That way, I could blame him.

Lucky for us, we have forgiving and understanding friends, who are taking us out to dinner anyway, just on another night. Meanwhile, Tim and I have promised to tell them all about our dinner with The Four Coursemen, taking place tomorrow night. You know, for their future reference.

No menu has been posted yet, so I cannot commence with salivating. It’s probably best — I wouldn’t want to be too distracted from our annual gallon of strawberries, picked fresh this morning.

Freezer meal #1: Spaghetti with chicken, red peppers, green beans, and pesto cream sauce

I mentioned in a recent post that I had made a pot of split-pea soup, even amidst warm weather, all because of a hambone in my freezer that I hated to see go to waste. In the kitchen, I’ve nursed this particular OCD tendency of mine — the one where I have a hard time throwing things out — because there are very few other rooms in the house where it can actually be of use. Long story short, I have a freezer-full of stuff — and about 2 months to make use of it before we pack up and move northward.

So, to make sure that wasted frozen goods aren’t on the list of things that will keep me up at night, I’m starting a new mini-series called “Freezer Meals.” These are meals that I make from an item in my freezer that needs to get used but is perhaps not something I’d ordinarily be cooking because it is somewhat seasonally inappropriate. Seasonal, schmeezonal, right? No, of course not — I’m too invested in my obsession reader-relationship with Pollan for that. But using something up is worth it; and it’s not like I’m roasting a turkey and serving it with cranberry sauce.

The item to show up in this week’s freezer dig was a small container (about 1/4 cup) of basil pesto, made up at the very end of last summer or early fall, when I harvested my basil for the last time. I had remembered making a simple chicken fettucini with pesto cream sauce, from a back-issue of Everyday Food. I found the recipe, and tried to make it a bit more interesting (Everyday Food is often wonderfully simple, but can also be a tad boring) with some things I had on hand. Our produce box had been overwhelmingly bountiful, so I had some red bell pepper and green beans to use up. I also, per my usual habit, reached for chicken thighs rather than breasts, since they have more flavor and are much more forgiving when overcooked.

What we ended up with was so much better than the original recipe. We ate it all up the first night — and it made a good bit. A successful first freezer experiment; a keeper, worthy of a post:

Spaghetti with chicken, red peppers, green beans, and pesto cream sauce
(serves 4)

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small (or 1/2 large) red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
  • about 1/3 pound green beans, ends trimmed and cut in half if very long
  • 1/4 cup basil pesto
  • 1/4 cup (or more) heavy cream
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 pound spaghetti (or other noodle pasta)
  • parmesan, for serving

Place the green beans in a microwave-safe bowl with a lid. Add a few tablespoons of water, cover, and microwave on high for about 4 minutes, stirring halfway through. (Alternately, boil or steam the beans until crisp-tender and bright green.)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, to cook your spaghetti.

Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large (12″) skillet over med-high heat. Once oil is shimmering, add the chicken thighs and let cook, without moving, for about 4 minutes. Lower the heat if the chicken starts to burn, but try not to move the chicken, or it will promote sticking. Turn the chicken and brown on the second side for another 4 minutes. Once chicken is fully cooked through, remove it to a cutting board while you cook the vegetables.

Meanwhile, once your pot of water has come to a rolling boil, cook the pasta to al denté. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water (set aside) and drain thoroughly.

Add the peppers and green beans to the pan, reduce the heat to medium, and sauté until they are beginning to brown slightly and are tender. Season the vegetables with a little salt, then deglaze the pan by adding about 1/4 cup of water (or white wine, if you have an open bottle; I buy those little 4-packs of chardonnay or savignon blanc for this purpose) and scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Once the liquid has evaporated, add your pesto to the pan and stir, coating the vegetables. Then add the heavy cream, stirring to warm through and incorporate with the pesto.

Cut the chicken into diagonal strips, and return to the pan. Cook to heat everything through, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add your cooked pasta to the pan with the sauce, tossing to heat through and coat. Add your reserved pasta cooking water if the sauce is too thick or dry. Taste one more time for seasoning. Serve, topping individual portions with fresh-grated parmesan.

[print_link]

My own personal Juan Valdez

coffee roasting

It’s May. Which means that it is the 2-year anniversary of TFF. Yes, I’ve been rambling on, via keyboard, about food and life for 2 years. If I stop and think too hard about it, I’ll start to wonder what it is, exactly, that I do with my time. Which is precisely why I never, ever, stop to think very hard.

I thought it would be fitting to mark the occasion by bringing things full-circle. My very first post, on May 4, 2007, was about coffee. Primarily, about how much I can’t imagine life without it (well, more precisely, coffee with its yang-counterpart: half-n-half. When I had to go for 2 months without cream while nursing my dairy-allergic son, I considered therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder).

Little did I know, way back then. That, two years forward, I would be so insanely spoiled as to daily be drinking the freshest-roasted coffee possible. That my husband would get into his mind, via friends like Eric, that home-roasted coffee is both economical and delicious. Now granted — one could consider my birthday gift to him a gentle push in this direction (the necessary equipment: an old popcorn popper). But I didn’t twist his arm. Really.

So now, he purchases green coffee beans from a local roaster, and roasts coffee every week or so. He’s read a lot about it at this site, and heard the trials and errors of friends’ experiences. Once you shell out $50 for someone’s garage junk that you can now only find on ebay, you basically just put the beans in and let them roast. It doesn’t take long (about 6 minutes for a batch), but the batches have to be small (only 4 oz or so) and you have to roast outside (the smell and chaff are both a mess). I know it’s more complex than that: I’ve heard him go on about “first cracks” and other such nuances, but I see this as his thing, and employ a healthy dose of willing ignorance on the whole process. I just drink the coffee.

Man, it’s good coffee. A couple weeks ago, during our house-preparation marathon, Tim spent three days installing a brick walk in our front yard. He excavated, leveled a layer of sand, and then placed by hand about 950 bricks, cutting many to fit. The last day he worked on it, he spent the entire day bent over at the waist as he placed those bricks. He worked until the sun went down, and then came inside and said, “I’ve gotta roast coffee.” And he went out on the deck with his Westbend Poppery and some green beans, and came back in a half-hour later with a jar of lovely, dark, oily beans.

And this, friends, is why I married the man.

It’s like butter

pastured butter

I don’t really mean that to be entirely tongue-in-cheek; it’s more butter-like than butter. Kind of like pastured eggs being more egg-like than supermarket ones.

Still nursing a Pollan-high after reading In Defense of Food, I saw this at Earth Fare a few weeks ago. Eager to get my omega-3s from a naturally-occurring source, I splurged, and for about $5, brought home a half-pound of pastured butter. The package says it’s seasonal — available only May-September. Not exactly sure why; although I like to imagine the cows wintering in some far-away tropical destination, I think it has more to do with the grass, when they eat it, how it effects their milk, and so on and so forth. For butter this expensive, I’m not using it to bake chocolate-chip cookies; no, this butter is only for spreading.

It’s better. Exquisite, even. Dessert can consist of a good piece of bread, toasted, slathered with this stuff, and maybe topped with a little honey. Quite the treat.

And yes, I know that it doesn’t have to come from a mega-farm (that being Organic Valley); but so far I haven’t seen butter available from my Athens Locally Grown dairy farmers. C’mon guys — step up!

Stand facing the stove

It was my and Tim’s 8th anniversary this past Tuesday. To say it was uneventful is putting it mildly: we basically rolled out of bed, mumbled sleepy “happy anniversary” wishes, and went our separate ways for the morning. Because nothing says I love you like a morning trip to Lowe’s.

See, we’ve put our house on the market. I can’t adequately describe the work that this feat has required of us, over the last 2 weeks. It was an ambitious goal, one that even until last night, as I was painting new doors at 11pm, I wondered if we could accomplish. But it had to be today: our realtor had sent out e-vites for an ice cream open house (yes, I promised her I would supply homemade sorbet for the occasion, and no, that did not happen) to take place today at 1pm. It had to be done — and as I type I breathe a sigh of relief, because it was done.

And — just so you don’t think we have thrown any and all relationship priorities out the window — we did have a lovely night out last Saturday, as an early celebration. We had worked all day outside, the whole family — it was a wonderful spring day, and we accomplished much. We sat on the patio that evening at The National (the patio where you “can’t” reserve a table, and yet as empty tables were arranged and prepared next to us, we soon realized that exceptions are made when you are an NFL first-round drafted quarterback, having a post-graduation dinner with your family). We drank yummy-licious cocktails, ate sweetbreads for the first time, and finished it all off with a rhubarb-white chocolate blondie topped with homemade vanilla ice cream and local strawberries. A dessert that normally wouldn’t tempt me, but I’m glad it somehow did. The walk back to our car gave us time enough to realize that Athens hasn’t been a bad place to live these past 7 years.

The night of our actual anniversary, I was exhausted, and scrounged up just enough energy to walk downstairs where Tim was working to say goodnight before I flopped into bed. He asked if I had noticed anything different in the kitchen. An odd question, since I had been packing the kitchen all day. He encouraged me to take another look — so I came back upstairs, and upon close examination, saw a new cookbook on my newly-arranged (and edited) shelf. The 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking sat shiny and new in its jacket, right between my Kimball and Moosewood collections. I was surprised — I didn’t remember mentioning this cookbook in quite a while. It’s publication was a bit controversial, if I remember correctly. It was edited a great deal from the original version, keeping 4000 of the original recipes (although “updating” some) and adding 500 new ones. The cover says “4500 recipes for the way we cook now” — so you can see how that might ruffle some traditionalist feathers. And I can understand why; the original JOY was really good at explaining how to cook, so why mess with a good thing? But then I remembered that even Mastering the Art of French Cooking’s 40th Anniversary edition was edited to include the use of a food processor, among other things. So a little updating isn’t always a bad thing.

It was reassuring, though, that the authors of this edition (primarily Irma Rombauer’s grandson, Ethan Becker) seem to attempt to assume the same thing that blessed Irma did, 75 years ago: they needed to go so far as begin with the instructions to “stand facing the stove.” I love this. Because this was exactly what I needed someone to tell me to do, when I began cooking. To say that I didn’t have a friggin’ clue is being generous — so I appreciate the assumption that basic instructions need not be ignored. I used the book last night, to make split pea soup (not exactly soup weather these days, but I had a hambone in the freezer that I hated to see go to waste). It was a good, clear read, and the soup was simple and delicious.

While I appreciate and will enjoy my gift (did I mention that I managed to get Tim absolutely nothing?) I don’t see it replacing my stained, spine-broken, pencil-scrawled original edition. I get attached to things (oh, the emotional turmoil of a trip to the Goodwill dropoff!), and plus, I like the original. It taught me how to cook, and this was no small challenge. I know things about that book — like, for instance, the fact that the recipe for Brazilian Black Beans is located on page 275. A skim through that cookbook is almost like a journal of the past 10 years of life (convenient, since I don’t journal) — almost as personal as the spiral-bound notebooks that contain the past 5 years of our weekly menus.

As we spent this week in our lives looking back over what we’ve known — Athens, for 7 years, and marriage, for 8 — it’s been a comforting thing, while packing up and facing a new adventure ahead. No one gave us a book that told us where to stand when we started our lives together (again, to say we didn’t have a friggin’ clue is putting it SO VERY mildly). My five-year old told me this week that she was sad we were moving, because she was going to miss our flowers. I told her that it was ok to be sad, but that we could plant flowers at our new house, together. But I knew I was just reassuring myself, my frightened self. Everyone stands at a place similar to this, when homes are exchanged and communities shifted. Perhaps it’s best to look at it like a shiny new edition of a beloved cookbook; in 10 years, the new one will be marked-up too, with its own story to tell.

Mango lassi

mango lassi

I’ve read that this is the ideal drink to have on hand when you’re eating intensely spicy Indian food. As it turns out, it’s also a delightful pick-me-up at lunchtime after a morning full of planting, weeding, painting, sewing, corralling, and laundering. Hot and tired at noon, it was nice to be able to come into the kitchen, see a mango, and know what the first course of lunch was going to be.

Remember my predicament last month when faced with a bin full of one-dollar organic avocados at the grocery? Well, this week the bin was filled with one-dollar organic mangoes. This time I limited myself to four. My five-year old had been “cooking” on the PBSKids website, and one of her creations was a mango lassi. She was dying to try one, so we made up the first batch, poured it into her princess cup, and she pranced away to enjoy. Only to return about 10 minutes later with her glass 3/4 full, proclaiming that she decided she doesn’t really like mango lassi. It was the yogurt. She has something against yogurt drinks (the child will eat plain yogurt sweetened with just a touch of honey, but won’t touch a fruit-filled smoothie; what gives?). But no matter. I was obliged to finish hers for her.

Every time I drink one of these, I think of the nice man who owned an Indian restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi. It was the summer of ’03, and I was great with child. If you’ve ever been to Jackson in the summertime, you might understand how the adjective “hot” doesn’t really begin to describe the air of July and August. When you add a pregnant condition to this, all sorts of eternal-punishment-imagery comes to mind. I was picking up a take-out order for dinner, had paid the man, and was waiting for the server to bring it out. He took one look at me, shook his head with pity, walked in the kitchen, and came out with a to-go cup of ice-cold mango lassi. It was the first one I’d ever had, and he graciously gave it to me, with well-wishes for a good pregnancy. If my face had the look of one ready to throw in the towel when I walked into that restaurant, it had the look of thankful joy when I walked out. The man knew what a pregnant woman in the scorching Mississippi summer needed most.
You’ve gotta try this. Easy as pie:

Mango Lassi (serves 2)

  • 1 ripe mango, peeled and cut into chunks
    (see how to cut a mango here)
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 2-3 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 cup cold water

Put everything in a blender, and blend until smooth. Pour over ice, and enjoy with a straw. Optional additions include cardamom or fresh ginger.

Don’t question David

When he clearly states in a recipe that you should “use a top-quality cocoa powder; it will make a huge difference,” then you should stop what you’re doing, drive the half-mile to Earth Fare, and drop eight bucks on a box of Droste cocoa. Otherwise, the chocolate sorbet won’t have the magic. This is one time when Hershey’s just doesn’t cut it.