The Present Rules

April 18, 2010

“Don’t buy me flowers anymore,” my mother said when I arrived at her house with a bouquet of Lilies of the Valley. It was her birthday, and I’d looked everywhere to find her favorite flower. “They’re only going to die. It’s so depressing.”

Mom’s birthday was last week; she would have been 102.  I spent the day missing her – and being grateful that I didn’t have to think up any more presents.  Because once she’d lain down the present rules, things got very complicated. What do you get for someone who:

  1. Says she has too much stuff and doesn’t want one more thing cluttering up her house.
  2. Will buy her own books, thank you very much.
  3. Never once wore anything purchased by anyone other than herself.
  4. And has very little interest in food.

Despite item number four, if you’re me, you cook.  The question is, what?

The year after the Lilly of the Valley disaster, I baked Mom a cake. It seemed like a reasonable solution; after all, she could invite people over to share it. I even brought along a few candles.

Mom called a few days later. “I’m adding cakes to my list of forbidden gifts,” she announced. “It was delicious, but it was so much work! I decided to invite a few people over for dinner, since I already had the cake. And since it was a large cake, I ended up having ten people. So please, no more of that.”

“Okay,” I said, “no cake.” The next year, after a great deal of deliberation, I decided to bake her a giant brioche. She’s always been partial to those rich buttery rolls; in fact we once had a cat named Brioche. I delivered it – and waited for the inevitable phone call.

Sure enough, brioche had joined the no-gift list.  “It was wonderful,” she said, “but do you have any idea how much weight I’ve gained?  Please don’t do that to me again.”

I spent the following year worrying over what to make Mom for her birthday. In the end I was certain that I had the perfect solution. One early April morning I showed up at her door with a gallon of homemade chicken stock, neatly packed into two-cup containers ready for the freezer.

“That,” she said the following week, “was the best present anyone has ever given me.  It’s a great comfort to know that it’s there, just sitting in my freezer. Let the storms come; now I feel ready for anything.”

Mom’s no longer eating chicken soup, but every year on her birthday, I make a memorial batch. Then I find someone to give it to; it really is the perfect present for just about any occasion.

Recipe for Chicken Stock

Cover 6 lb pounds of chicken parts with about four quarts of cold water in the tallest pot you’ve got. Add a spoonful of salt, and bring to a boil.

Skim off the froth. Add 1 whole onion, unpeeled, a rib of celery and a carrot. Toss in a handful of peppercorns, a few sprigs of parsley and a bay leaf. Let the pot come back to a simmer, turn heat down very low, and let it cook at a bare burble for about 4 hours.

Strain. If you’re fussy about clarity, strain again through damp paper towels.

Chill overnight, or until the fat has solidified into a stiff white cap on top. Remove it.

Divide into small containers. This will keep well in the freezer for a few months.
Makes about 2 quarts.

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Congee Morning

March 8, 2010

Sun pouring through the window. Lone boat on the river. Woke up to the scent of the chicken stock I made last night while we were sleeping through the Oscars. What I want is a walk along the river in the early morning wind, and a comforting bowl of congee when I return.

There is nothing easier to make than the classic Chinese breakfast. It is basically rice slowly cooked with lots of liquid. I like to use arborio rice, although it’s not traditional, and any kind of rice you happen to have on hand will do. The ratio is about 1 cup of rice to 8 cups of liquid; I think it tastes best with chicken stock, although you can certainly use plain water. Put the rice and liquid in a pot, bring it to a boil, reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pot and let it simmer for an hour. Stir it once in a while. The result is a thick, creamy porridge, a canvas for flavor. What you choose as garnish is completely up to you, but to me a julienne of ginger is essential, as is a little shot of really good soy sauce. Peanuts and scallions are nice, and shredded chicken or shiitakes are lovely too. But this morning? I’ve got some leftover chiles in black beans that will provide the jolt of electricity I need on this late winter morning.

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Snow Days and Stew

February 26, 2010

Up here on the mountain we feel utterly alone. It’s a silent white world, flakes swirling down from the sky, piling up, obliterating every edge. Snow hugs the house in a soft embrace.The cars have vanished into huge humps. The driveway is impassable; the rest of the world fallen away.

It is easy to imagine coming down, when it is all over, to discover everything changed. Ten years might have passed in the storm. Or the clock moved backward while we were sleeping. Strange how quickly we become disoriented when robbed of the familiar.

Two days ago the power failed. No internet, no oven, very little light. Too distracted to work we roamed the house, feeling fragile, worrying about frozen pipes and running out of wood. Unable to concentrate I did what I always do in a crisis: I cooked.

Nothing is so soothing as the scent of a stew in a cold house in a cold climate. I made ragu. I made toasted cheese sandwiches and enormous salads, racing to use the vegetables before they wilted in depression. I took the bones from the freezer and transformed them into stock.  But it was the boeuf bourguignon,which filled the house with the rich purple scent of wine and onions, that finally made us feel better. It was like a promise that the snow really will end. Some day.

Beef, Wine, Onion stew

Take as many onions as you feel like chopping and throw them into a casserole with a bit of butter and a couple of strips of bacon, cut into little squares. Add a couple of carrots, cut into whatever size you consider edible. Cook them together until they are fragrant and just a bit golden.  Add a few cloves of garlic, smashed, to the mix, and any herbs you happen to have on hand; thyme is nice, as is parsley, although personally I’d stay away from tarragon and rosemary. When they’ve all turned soft, add a squirt of tomato paste (it adds a touch of sweetness), stir for a minute or so and put the entire potful into a bowl to wait.

Melt a splash of oil and a pat of butter in the same pan. While it heats take a couple pounds of beef, cut up for stew, and pat it dry.  Salt and pepper the cubes, then toss them in a bag with a bit of flour and shake until they look like they’ve been dusted with snow. Cook the beef in flights – it hates being crowded in the pan – until beautifully brown, and then set aside with the onions.

When all the beef has browned, deglaze the pan with a good glug of brandy. Return the beef and vegetables to the pot, cover them with most of a bottle of decent red wine and throw in a stalk of celery and a bay leaf if you’ve got them. Simmer gently, partly covered, for three or four hours.  The aroma will fill your house and make you very happy.

Just before serving saute some mushrooms, quartered in a nice amount of butter for about ten minutes, adding salt and pepper at the end.  Toss them into the stew and taste it.  If it needs salt, pepper or more wine, add it.

I like this with simply boiled potatoes, but you could just serve it with a loaf of bread.  In my house this will feed about four people, but on a really hungry day I could eat it all by myself.

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Genuine Spongecake

February 17, 2010

I just came upon this recipe from Mrs. Lincoln, who was the first principal of The Boston Cooking School, and author of many cookbooks. She calls this "a genuine spongecake" and I find the simplicity of the recipe completely seductive. Seems the perfect project on this snowy day. 

What is remarkable about the recipe is that it contains no fat and no leavening; it's essentially a souffle with a bit of flour whisked in. In Mrs. Lincoln's day a very strong arm was required; this is an awful lot of whisking for those lacking electricity. 

This fluff of a cake has a very airy texture.  I'd guess that you could use rice flour or some combination of other flours if you wanted to make it gluten-free. And next time I'll definitely use more lemon rind. A lot more; it's a perfectly pleasant cake, but it doesn't have much character. 

Genuine Spongecake

The weight of the eggs in sugar, and half their weight in flour.This enables you to make a cake of any size you desire. The usual proportion for one loaf, by measure, is four large or five small eggs,one cup of fine granulated sugar, and one cup of sifted pastry flour, the grated rind and juice of half a lemon. Beat yolks till thick and very creamy, add sugar, and beat till light colored; add lemon. Beat whites till stiff and nearly dry, and fold them in with care, so as not to break down the bubbles, sift in the flour lightly, and fold over (not stir) till just barely covered. Bake in a moderate oven from forty to fifty minutes. You will look far to find a better sponge cake than this when properly made and baked.

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The Banana Cake I Ended Up Making

February 16, 2010

After reading dozens of banana bread and cake recipes, I decided to go back to the one I’ve been making since I was about twelve.  It’s in my first book, Mmmmm. But inspired by all the recipes I’d read, I added a few extra ingredients. 

3/4 cup dried California apricots, cut into small pieces
enough rum to cover them.

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 stick butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 white sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 very ripe bananas, mashed

3/4 cup sour cream

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Butter a loaf pan.  Put the apricots and rum into a small bowl and heat in microwave 1 minute. Cool while you mix the batter.

Whisk dry ingredients together. 

Cream the butter with the sugars and add the eggs, one at a time.  Add the vanilla and then the bananas.  Add half of the flour mixture and mix just until it becomes part of the batter. Add the sour cream, mix in, and then the rest of the flour mixture. 

Pour into the loaf pan and bake 50 minutes to an hour.  Let cool for 10 minutes before turning out on a rack to cool completely.

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