Monday, October 26, 2009

Broccoli Lovers Unite!

I used to belong to the school of thought (and by 'school' I mean 'me', because no-one else would join up) that you could stay perfectly healthy, ward off diseases and random heebie-jeebies, and cure most things if you would only include a few particular things into your every-day-life. That is, you must drink lots of water, eat broccoli and yogurt, and run. Simple enough. And that way it doesn't matter much if you inadvertently sit down and eat damn-near a whole pie ... or yet another one of those blasted Trophy Cupcakes ... or even an enormous hamburger on one of those delicious brioche buns. Because you've already done what your body really needs and wants you to do. It's all about balance.

Now, if this sounds at all crazy to you, talk to my father. It's all his fault. He brought us up to be crazy people when it comes to food and what we put into our bodies. Seriously, the man was a loon (and still is, for that matter) when it came to food and exercise when we were growing up. However, these days he seems to think that we're the ones riding the crazy train. Hmmm. I say, it takes one to know one, but that's just me. The last time I told him about my 'new strict diet regiment', he said, and I quote, 'Give me a break.' But I ask you, does it not sound ingenious to have a cup of black tea, a cup of red tea, a cup of green tea, and a cup of white tea — every day? Just imagine the benefits! Anyway, it didn't last very long on account of the fact that it was a pain (and I don't really like green tea). However, I do still try to adhere to my broccoli et al regiment, for whatever reason.

As you may or may not know, I have become quite the fan of Ottolenghi: The Cookbook as of late. It is a gorgeous cookbook that is filled with fabulous recipes. And it seems that every time I thumb through it I stop on the recipe for Chargrilled Broccoli with Chilli and Garlic — for good reason too. 'If there is a dish that's become synonymous with Ottolenghi, second only to our meringues, it is this one.' And, shocking as it may be, many people go to their London-based shops purely for this broccoli dish. That's right, broccoli. Rather impressive, one might say.

Even if you are not a broccoli lover, you should try this recipe. It is marvelous — and it will undoubtedly cure whatever it is that ails you. Just make sure to throw in some yogurt, water, and running (just not at the same time), for good measure.

Chargrilled Broccoli with Chilli and Garlic
2 heads of broccoli (about 500g)
115ml olive oil
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 mild red chillies, thinly sliced
coarse sea salt and black pepper
toasted flaked almonds or thin slices of lemon (with skin), to garnish (optional)

Wash the broccoli and separate it into florets, being sure to leave the florets on their small individual stems. Bring a large pot of water to boil and blanch the broccoli for 2 minutes. Do not be tempted to go any longer. Transfer it immediately to a bowl of ice-cold water to stop the cooking process. You may want to do this in batches, depending on the size of your pot. Drain the broccoli in a colander and let it dry thoroughly. It is important to let the broccoli dry completely. (I laid mine out on a flour-sack cloth for a while, just to make sure.)

In a mixing bowl, add 45ml olive oil and a generous amount of salt and pepper to the broccoli. Mix well.

Place a ridged grill pan over high heat and let it sit for 5 minutes or so to ensure that it is very hot. Grill the broccoli in batches because '[t]he florets musn't be cramped.' (Yes, that is my all-time favorite line in a cookbook ever.) Turn them over a few times so that they get char marks on them. Transfer to a bowl and start on the next batch.

Meanwhile, place the rest of the olive oil in a saucepan with the sliced chillies and garlic. Simmer over medium heat until they just begin to brown. Do not let them burn! And remember that they will continue to cook once the heat is off.

Once all the broccoli is all ready, pour the olive oil mixture over it and toss. Taste for salt and pepper.

Serve warm or at room temperature (although, I daresay, it would even be good cold). Garnish with the almonds or lemon. (I used a lemon because the almonds sounded like a pain in the neck, even though I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be.) (Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Ebury Press, 2008.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Magician's Elephant

Do you know that feeling when you pick up a book and your heart sinks before you even turn the first page? It's that feeling of realizing that you have picked up something beautiful — and before you know it, you will have plowed through it and it's over. Thus is The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo.

Each of Kate DiCamillo's books is amazing in its own right. I came to know her with Because of Winn Dixie (although her first was Tiger Rising). Since then I have read each of her books almost immediately upon publication. (I'm a big fan of Amazon's Pre-Order, what can I say?) DiCamillo is always a good writer, but her writing still seems to improve with each book. Her most recent book, The Magician's Elephant, published last month, takes her writing to a different level. It is almost like reading poetry, and I cannot even begin to tell you how beautiful it is. Gobsmackingly beautiful, really. Several times I found myself reading, and then re-reading, certain passages just trying to take it all in.

The story takes place in Baltese — a very cold and very dark European city. And it is about a little boy named Peter Augustus Duchene. Peter's father was killed during the war, and his mother died shortly thereafter while giving birth to Peter's little sister, who Peter believes to be dead. This is why we find Peter being raised by the old, sick, sometimes senile, military man Vilna Lutz, who wants Peter to grow up to be a soldier.

On his way to buy their meager dinner one night, Peter spots a stand belonging to a fortune-teller. After a great internal debate, he goes in and hands over the little money intended for dinner in exchange for the answer to his question: his sister is alive and he must follow the elephant. Peter is dumbfounded; not only because he was lied to all those years ago, but also because there is not, nor was there ever, an elephant in the city.

'Peter stepped out of the tent. The sky was gray and heavy with clouds,
but everywhere people talked and laughed. Vendors shouted and children
cried and a beggar with a black dog at his side stood in the center of it all
and sang a song about the darkness.'
Meanwhile, a magician has come to town. During his performance at the opera house he conjures an elephant, instead of the intended lilies, out of nowhere. The elephant falls into the lap of a noblewoman leaving her crippled. The magician then goes to jail — and so does the elephant. A day or so later, Peter hears this story of an elephant falling through the ceiling and everything begins to change.

The cast of characters that emerges in The Magician's Elephant is extraordinary. Beyond Peter and Vilna Lutz there are: Adele, Peter's sister who lives in an orphanage in the city; Leo Matienne, the police officer, and his wife Gloria; Sister Marie, from the Sisters of Perpetual Light Orphanage; Madame LaVaughn, the injured noblewoman, who can say almost nothing except: 'But perhaps you do not understand. I was crippled by an elephant! Crippled by an elephant that came through the roof!'; the beggar, who can turn anything he hears into a beautiful song, and the blind dog, who has befriended him; Bartok Whynn, the contorted and twisted man who only laughs and laughs after his terrible accident (while carving a gargoyle atop a building, he fell to what should have been his death), and now has the unfortunate job of standing behind the elephant, with a shovel, in order to keep things clean; and, last but not least, the elephant. These characters, as different as they may be, are all dependent upon each other — whether they realize it or not.

We are allowed into the thoughts of each of these characters, including the blind dog and the elephant. We are even allowed into their dreams. What the characters dream at night is immensely important (and very poignant) to the story as a whole, further illustrating how we are all so much more intertwined than we sometimes realize. And this is just one of the many messages of the book. The book is about much more than hope and dreams though. The Magician's Elephant is also about having a great deal of faith, even when the stars seem to be aligning against you. Its message is that you can achieve anything if you have enough faith. And perhaps a bit of kindness and love wouldn't hurt either.
(The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka, Candlewick Press, 2009.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Art of Cooking Omelettes by Madame Romaine de Lyon

If you happen to find yourself wandering about in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, then you will undoubtedly stumble upon Julia Child's Kitchen. And yes, it is actually her kitchen — not a replica — which she donated, in whole, several years before her death.

As you stare through the plexi-glass at Julia's pegged walls, wooden counter-tops, bon appetit! plaque, and her bookcase filled with not much more than a copy of 'Miss Joy', her own cookbooks, and the local telephone directories; you begin to notice the more museum-like features in the room. Outside of the kitchen, photographs, quotes, and various memorabilia line the walls. A television screen plays either a perpetual biography/tribute to Julia Child or an episode of The French Chef. Incidentally, if you happen to sit and watch The French Chef for a minute, you see that it is her Omelette episode. And if you actually sit and watch this episode, you are struck by how effortless and easy it appears to make an omelette. (Shall we laugh now, or shall we laugh later?)

It requires skill to make an omelette. And I have never in my life seen anyone do it as beautifully as Julia Child. As she works, she is talking and yucking it up for the camera, and all the while the viewer (me) is astounded by how she was almost able to mask the level of her skill with her funny and down-to-earth personality. The whole experience is mesmerizing. You walk away from it thinking, 'Shooot, see if I don't give that a try!' (Meanwhile, even my dried beans were flying across the kitchen...)

Toward the end of this episode Julia recommends two books on omelette making. (See, it must be hard to make an omelette if you have to read books on the subject before actually attempting to make them in your own home.) One of those is The Art of Cooking Omelettes by Madame Romaine de Lyon, originally published in 1963. Let me be the first to tell you — this book is a gem. Shocking, perhaps. But truly — this book is fabulous, and here is why.

'No one comes into the world an instinctive maker of omelettes, and I would not
have you believe that as soon as I could walk, I toddled into the kitchen,
seized an egg and a frying pan, and began at once what was to be my life's

Thus begins The Art of Cooking Omelettes. It is an extraordinarily well-written book, and I found Madame Romaine's biography to be fascinating. And at times the book is hilarious. However, I don't think that is ever the intention. Rather, I have to remind myself how very important (and serious) omelette-making can be, for goodness' sake!

The Art of Cooking Omelettes is broken down into four sections: Madame Romaine's personal journey (becoming 'the Queen of the Omelette Makers, as they sometimes call me'); instructions on how to cook an omelette; over 500 recipes for making her omelettes; and what to serve with an omelette (salad and wine), and who she has served them to. Apparently she has served many a famous face and is not afraid to let you know this.

Madame Romaine was born in Lyon and grew up working in her parents' restaurant. She learned everything from her mother who was 'an instructive cuisinère, and saw to it that I learned in proper order: first principles; then recipes; and, finally, style.' Madame Romaine lived in Lyon until she married, at a very young age, and moved to New York City with her new husband. She spoke no English whatsoever when she arrived in the US and took a bit of time building up confidence to do so. While still very young, her husband tragically suffered a heart-attack and died. Madame Romaine was then left wondering what to do and eventually opened a Salon de Thé in Manhattan. Her eventual location was at 156 East 56th Street, and I have been very curious to see what is there today. (After looking around a bit, I discovered that Madame Romaine's restaurant is now closed. Switching locations a few times after her death, the new owners were forced to close in 2003 on account of not paying taxes...)

Anyway, the instructions for making an omelette, as per Madame Romaine, are very simple. However, she acknowledges right off the bat that the only way to learn it properly is to do it over and over and over again. According to Madame Romaine, it takes exactly 2 minutes to make an omelette — not including the 25-30 seconds required for beating the eggs. She uses nothing fancy at all in her preparation and claims that 'everyone who cooks should know how to do an omelette.' I daresay she is right. And I daresay that this book is marvelous — whether you use it for a cookbook or just a good read involving many useful tips. May God bless Madame Romaine de Lyon, and of course, Julia Child. (The Art of Cooking Omelettes by Madame Romain de Lyon, Doubleday Publishing, 1963.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Basic Buttermilk Scones for Tea (or Breakfast)

I find it very comical that Julia Child has become vogue and fashionable again because of that ridiculous book Julie & Julia. I never even knew that she had become unfashionable. Shows what I know, I guess, because I have always been an ardent fan of hers. And really, how could one not be? You don't even need to cook to be a huge admirer. The woman was truly magnificent.

I suppose that, like everybody else, when you first begin to dabble with Mastering the Art of French Cooking, you make the first recipe in the book — Potage Parmentier, which is potato and leek soup. When we lived in New Jersey a million years ago, I would make this soup all the time — because not only is it simple and good for you, it is cheap to make. Considering I was in graduate school and Michael was in law school at the time, this was very helpful indeed. And if we ever got down about feeling poor, we could console ourselves with the fact that our dinner was French and therefore very fancy. Or, at least I could. Michael was typically just glad when I laid off the lentils for a bit. Incidentally, lentils are another cheap (and very healthy, mind you) soup-making ingredient.

Anyway, what I am trying to get at here (in a not very efficient way) is that many times the simplest recipes are often the best. And that is where buttermilk scones comes in.

I have long been obsessed with the idea of Afternoon Tea, or High Tea, if you will. Not only is it clearly the time of day when one can use a pick-me-up, but there is almost something ceremonious about it. And the idea of deliberately pausing from the daily chaos in order to do this is ingenious. Michael knows a federal appellate judge (who hails out of Texas) who takes High Tea every day. This judge has the right idea, too, because he refuses all phone calls and such during this time. Smart man — no wonder he's got the job he does.

So anyway, getting back to the marvelous Mrs. Child. A handful of years ago I discovered the book Baking with Julia, which was also done as a PBS series. In this, Julia works with the country's best bakers and gives myriad recipes, techniques, and what have you. It is actually a great idea — she scouted out the person who was best known for a particular baked good(s) and invited them into her kitchen to do a demonstration. And the recipe range is spectacular: from Whole Wheat Bread and Bagels, to Espresso Profiteroles and Chocolate Truffle Tartlets, to Pizza Rustica and Milanese Torta. See what I mean? Spectacular. And those are just a few of the recipes.

The recipe for Buttermilk Scones in Baking with Julia is hands-down the best scone recipe I have ever come across. They are a breeze to make, which is nice if you are serving them for afternoon tea, and even nicer if you are serving them for breakfast. Breakfast is now when they usually appear on our table. However, I have recently learned that the baked scones freeze very well. So whatever you have left from your lovely breakfast table you can put in a few layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil and put in your freezer. Then a week or so later you can pull them out in the morning and have them for your tea later. Just be sure to have lots of butter and jam on hand. I have always preferred Bonne Maman's Four Fruit Preserves, although their Strawberry or Raspberry Preserves are also very good. You can find Bonne Maman at most any grocery store, within reason.


3 cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup sugar
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1 ½ stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup (approximately) buttermilk
1 tablespoon grated orange or lemon zest
½ stick unsalted butter, melted, for brushing
¼ cup sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to 425°, and position the racks into thirds in the oven.

Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium size bowl. Add the cold butter and mix it with your hands until it resembles coarse cornmeal. (You could also use a pastry cutter, but your hands are really the best option.) It's OK if there are a few bigger pieces of butter remaining because they add to the flakiness of the scones.

Pour in the buttermilk and the zest and mix with a fork until it is just combined. Do not be tempted to mix it until it looks pretty! Gather the dough into a ball and press it gently so that everything sticks together. Place on a lightly floured surface and knead a few times. Don't go crazy here. When it comes to this dough — truly, less is more.

At this point I flatten the dough until it is about ¾ of an inch thick. Pull out the handy-dandy scone (or cookie) cutter and go to work. Place the scones on a baking sheet, lined with parchment, brush them with melted butter, and sprinkle with a little bit of sugar. Alternatively, you could form the dough into a large circle and cut into triangles, like a pie or a pizza or something. However, my favorite happens to be the rounded scone.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, until both the tops and bottoms are golden. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool slightly. Best served warm.

If you pull these from the freezer, then let them defrost as they are on the counter. When ready to serve them, take off the foil and bake for 5 minutes at 350°. (Recipe from Marion Cunningham via Baking with Julia, by Dorie Greenspan, William Morrow and Co, 1996.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

We were supposed to take Governor to church today to get him blessed, but somehow the time got away from us and we didn't. Poor guy. I suppose he will have to wait until next year. And I will just have to say extra prayers for him tonight.

If you want to see much of St. Francis of Assisi these days you need not go any further than your local gardening store. Or walk through your neighbor's back yard where they undoubtedly have a statue of St. Francis right next to the bird feeder and the hollyhocks. Today St. Francis seems to be regarded more as a hippie, being in touch with nature and having a great love for animals. While there is a certain truth to this notion, there is much more to this fascinating saint.

Francis was born to a family of cloth merchants in Assisi, Italy in 1181. His parents made a very respectable living at this trade, and Francis apparently did his best to squander it -- hanging out in the local taverns all hours of the night, boozing it up, and sharing very shady company. When the war broke out (something between the nobles and the merchant classes in Assisi and a neighboring village or so) Francis went to war. After a very brief stint he ended up a prisoner-of-war for a year, where he lived in filth and squalor and probably did not eat many enormous platefuls of pasta and chianti. Upon his release he made a mediocre attempt to return to his old ways. However, he found himself gravitating more and more to the church.

Sitting in church one afternoon Francis heard (and saw) Jesus speak directly to him. Jesus asked Francis to help rebuild this church, which was falling into tatters. He immediately jumped up, ran to his parents shop, grabbed all of the finest cloth he could, sold it, and made a rather generous donation to the church. His father found it rather annoying that his son would sell off their livelihood, unbeknownst to them, and so he sued the pants off of his son -- and won. The church readily gave the money back to Francis's parents.

Francis revolted after this incident and said that he didn't want anything that his father had ever given to him , including the clothes on his back. One day he stood in the public square and stripped down to his altogether, further illustrating this point. And this is when Francis's conversion began to really happen.

Francis embraced a form of extreme poverty. He stressed the humanity of Jesus, 'poor, abandoned, and crucified', and henceforth devoted himself to the lowest of the low, believing that he saw the face of Christ in all of them. He believed that he saw Christ in all living creatures -- from dogs, to donkeys, to earthworms. Francis wrote the Canticle of the Sun in 1224. In this song he praises all of nature and expresses his deep gratitude that we are taken care of by nature, as opposed to wealth and the many comforts that it provides. Francis was the founder of the Franciscan Order, but he never became a priest. Instead, he roamed the cities and countryside preaching God's message of love, humility, and poverty.

A few years before his death Francis developed the stigmata, which I personally hope I never get. Not only does it cause one to have to bandage their hands and feet all hours of the day, it is also terribly painful.

St. Francis died in 1226. On his deathbed he requested some sort of almond pastry, and I can happily tell you that Lady Jacoba de Settesoli brought one to him. I would love to know what this confection was exactly. Maybe next year, in honor of St. Francis, I'll try my hand at some sort of make-shift recipe. Surely there is a St. Francis almond pastry recipe to be found! And I'll make it right after we get back from bringing Governor to church for his blessing. In the meantime, he may get to hear a lovely rendition of the Canticle.

(Sources: Lives of the Saints, New Revised Edition, Catholic Book Publishing, Co., 1999. Saints Behaving Badly, Thomas J. Craughwell, Doubleday, 2006.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trophy Cupcakes are Divine

'Oi, when will this cupcake craze end?', said Michael as we walked through all the fancy-pants shops at the Bravern in Bellevue last weekend. Trophy Cupcakes has finally decided to grace the Eastside (that would be the area just east of Seattle, to those of you not in the know) with their most recent location. Anyway, I suppose that my husband may have a point, to a degree. However, one could also argue that he is missing the boat altogether.

Cupcakes are lovely. I suppose we could go on and say that they are a marvelous guilt-laden indulgence, not to mention the fact that they are cheery and make people smile, they are yummy (when done right — otherwise they are downright depressing), and they are perfectly sized (in case you are worried about portion control, or something ridiculous like that). And if you are not content with just one cupcake, then you can sample sundry flavors, which is also very nice.

I have been to Trophy Cupcakes a few times (they also have two locations in Seattle) and I can easily say that my favorite is the Red Velvet. It is divine — it is a 'traditional southern buttermilk cake with a hint of cocoa' and a marvelous cream cheese frosting. I'm not sure what possessed me to try this one because I don't think I have ever regarded red velvet cake too highly. However, in all fairness, I'm not sure I had ever had it before. It has always reminded me of the groom's cake in Steel Magnolias. You know the cake — shaped like an armadillo with grey icing... appears to be bleeding as they 'hack into this poor animal', or something like that. Anyway, it is a far cry from Trophy's version, thank goodness.

The others I have sampled are the Chocolate & Vanilla, the Vanilla & Chocolate, and the Triple Chocolate. Next time I am getting the Lemon Coconut, but I'd also like to try the Chai Cardamom. As for Emilia, she is rather partial to their balloons, or 'bmm,bmm,bmm' as she calls them.

The cupcakes do not come cheap, they are 3 bucks a pop (or more if you get a more complicated concoction), but they are well worth it. And it isn't like you need six dozen for the car-ride home or anything. I've never gotten more than three at a time, although my sister just got a dozen yesterday... (Incidentally, they would be a wonderful thing to serve at a party or something. Although I can safely say that hers were not destined for any party.)

But really, as you walk past Jimmy Choo, Hérmes Paris, Wolford, Ferragamo, and the like — it is nice to feel like you, too, can have a little bit of luxury. And strangely enough, your friends still end up just as jealous — as if you've just told them that you decided to buy a gorgeous pair of Christian Louboutin shoes or something. Well, not quite, but you get my point. I suppose that ideally I'd be sauntering about in my fancy shoes holding a pretty little box of cupcakes at the same time. But alas, no. Those shoes are stinking expensive!