One Picnic: An Example

Because it is summer and because my life involves a lot of summertime picnics, and because I recently wrote a long piece about how to assemble a decent picnic without becoming suicidal, I wanted to share with my readers how I pulled off an excellent picnic yesterday. It was going to be a hot day and my daughter and I had decided that the agenda for the day would revolve around going swimming. We packed up our swim stuff into one tote bag, and into a smaller insulated bag, I told her, we would put our picnic lunch.

I opened the fridge. From the fridge, I pulled:

One tub of leftover spaghetti sauced with tuna, white beans, parsley, and garlic; one tinfoiled package with three leftover stuffed clams in it; one plastic tub of sliced pineapple.

I cut the pineapple into smaller chunks, transferred them into an insulated travel mug, put ice cubes on top of the pineapple, and closed the mug.

Into a Ziploc bag I put two forks, two napkins, and a little package of toothpicks.

I put an ice pack into the insulated bag, the pasta and the clams on top of the ice pak, the ziplock bag with the forks and napkins and toothpicks on top of that. Closed the insulated bag. The coffee cup of pineapple I just slid into the tote bag.

I grabbed our books, my phone, and my keys, and off we went. We got to the pool and headed first to the picnic area, where my daughter immediately spread out the tablecloth. Within three minutes we were sitting there eating and chatting happily. When we were thirsty, we drank from the cup of pineapple chunks. The ice lasted until long after we got home — we ate the pineapple, drank the juice, and refilled the cup with water several times over the course of the afternoon. Always had something cold to drink. Packing up took us about ninety seconds.

We got home and unpacking took about 90 seconds.

And then it was time to start making dinner.

This Book is a Classic, Even If It Sucks: Love and Knishes, by Sara Kasdan

Some years back I bought a box of postcards that Penguin published — it was a fabulous collection of the covers of Penguin-published cookbooks from decades back. I have sent cards from this deck to many people, over time, and about half the recipients have asked me, “Where’d you get these postcards?” Well: This is the collection. Ignore the dim-witted Amazon reviews that talk about how the cards aren’t colorful enough. These images are from books published mostly during wartime or just post-WWII in England: to say that having fancy bright colors on book covers wasn’t a priority is a vast understatement. Having newly printed books at all would have been something of a miracle, and anyone who comments on how the colors aren’t bright enough is a pinhead and a schmuck and an insensitive lout.

But: moving on. Of the hundred books represented in this collection of postcards, about twenty, thirty of them are books I can remember having held in my hands. Maybe five of them are books I own or have owned; and the rest are titles that I’ve never seen in real life. One of them, a Jewish cookbook called Love and Knishes, looked like it’d be right up my alley, but strangely I never put any effort into finding a copy. I sent the postcard to a friend, she put it on her fridge, and I pretty much never thought about it again.

Recently I was in a vintage housewares store downtown. The owner of the store greeted me warmly, as she always does, and said, “I just got in a lot of books, you should poke around, there’s some cookbooks.” So I scanned the shelves. There were maybe a hundred books, mostly of dubious value in terms of content, some notable for the publisher’s cloth decorated bindings. I am, personally, a sucker for a really good cloth decorated binding, but I don’t permit myself these luxuries anymore: shelf space is too limited here at the house. However, way over to one side of the shelving there was, indeed, a small cluster of cookbooks. Mostly, it was stuff that would be a bit of a hard sell: grim massive general cookbooks that everyone’s grandmother had around, not pretty enough, not weird enough to tempt me — ok, I admit it, they’re fascinating and fun, but I don’t buy these often anymore, because I’ve been around, and I know, for me, they’re not pretty enough and not weird enough — but there were also a few oddball specialty items. One was Betty Wason’s book on German cooking, which is kind of a classic, and not always easy to find. A nice clean hardcover in a handsome dust jacket? Mine. And then I noticed Love and Knishes. “Well I’ll be damned,” I said out loud.

I pulled the book from the shelf. Nice; clean; not a first edition, but a solid hardcover copy in a really nice dust jacket. I opened the book. Tucked inside was a clipping from the cooking section of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, 1967.  I asked Carol, the shop owner, how much she wanted for the books; she told me; I said, “Sold.”

I started to read Love and Knishes while I waited for my bus back home. From the moment I started reading, I knew I’d made a good decision. The book is one of those in-the-vernacular pieces of work. The recipes are given in straightforward English with straightforward measurements and so on, but the text that makes up the real body of the work is your old bubbe talking to you about how cooking is supposed to be, how it was, and how it will be if you would just shut up and listen.

So, ok, this is not a cookbook for everybody. I will grant that. If you are looking for recipes for grits with shrimp, for example, this is not your book. And if you are not entertained by the old American-Jewish mode of speech — even as it was brought into American pop culture, I mean — this is not for you. By which I mean, it helps probably to be a fan of the Marx Brothers, the old Dick Van Dyke Show, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and early Woody Allen movies. (I can understand if you can’t stomach the Woody Allen. Let’s move on.) It’s a book that will be enjoyed by people who laugh at (and with) Hyman Kaplan.

If you are a fan of those things, in addition to being a fan of cookbooks, on the other hand, you are likely to be immediately charmed by Love and Knishes. Here is the introductory paragraph to Chapter 1, entitled “You Should Live So Long!”

One day it comes to me the idea to write a Jewish cookbook. Why? Who can say? Thousands of cooks there are with good Jewish backgrounds. They don’t need to cook from a book; they can cook from their heads. So why should I write a book? On the other hand, why not? There are plenty of cooks whose background is still ahead of them. They remember the wonderful food that mama and grandmama made and they want to make it, too. And if they don’t remember, so their husbands do, and this i even worse. Good food is to eat, not just to remember. 

Also a reason: I am the type person who likes to study human nature. 

I’m telling you: it’s like if The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N were a cookbook. Some of my readers will run out to Google Hyman Kaplan, that’s fine, or you can click on the link (apparently it’s in print, which is some kind of miracle), but my mother will just nod her head and go, “okay, I get you now.”

There is a ton of stuff in here that I would like to try my hand at (there’s a recipe for bagels that looks plausible; also, yeast-risen hamantaschen, like I need to start mucking around with new hamantaschen recipes, for god’s sake; and my husband has already protested this, saying, “But you’ve got hamantaschen DOWN! Why mess with it anymore?”). But mostly I’ve been enjoying this book for the author’s voice; sure, it’s just schtick, but it’s well-done. I love this:
So this is the story how I lived to get an electric stove. Such a stove! Three ovens. For a while I couldn’t figure out why three ovens, then it comes to me clear. The Automatic-Automatic Co. is not anti-Semitic. They’ve got an oven for milchiks (dairy dishes), an oven for flaishiks (meats), and the third? Naturally, that is for trefe (non-kosher). After all, they have gentile customers, too.” 

This is just comedy gold, but it’s also, like, totally valid anthropological observation from Mrs. Kasdan’s perspective (not sure what Levi-Strauss would say but I don’t care much, either, so, pheh*):

The story of how our narrator/teacher comes to have her first electric stove — and it’s a long story — is brilliant, I could read it three times in a row (and have). The detail in it is phenomenal, and she even writes the kind of thing that — as my husband said — was probably true not just in her house but in countless houses when the ladies of the houses got their first electric stoves: “Because it’s an old habit, I’m keeping on the stove a box of matches.” I read this to my husband, who observed, “That sounds like something my grandmother would do.” It does, too. I remember my husband’s grandmother and it’s true she was the furthest thing I can think of from a Jewish grandmother, but she would totally have kept a box of matches on the back of her electric stove, because, you know, you’re supposed to keep a box of matches on the back of the stove.

I’ve read this book cover to cover, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ve yet to cook out of it, but I certainly plan to. If even one recipe in it is worth making, then I declare it an A+ Jewish cookbook classic; if nothing I make is worth doing a second time, it’ll still be a pleasure to read and re-read, and it will be a classic in the vein of Peg Bracken — maybe not a book to cook out of, but still a book to love. Love and Knishes is a book I wish I’d read years ago. Think of all the times I could have re-read it by now, if I’d known. So, now I know.

pheh is how Mrs. Kasdan spells the word known to me my whole life as “feh.” They both work. I’m adopting Mrs. K’s spelling for the purposes of this essay, out of respect.

 

The Tenant Brought Us Eggs.

We have a new tenant in one of our apartments, a young woman from Vermont. Her folks still live up there, and after a recent visit to see them she came back to town and brought with her a gift for us, her new landlords: a half dozen eggs from her parents’ flock of chickens.

This is so unbearably adorable.

But hey, we like eggs as much as the next person, so today I hard-cooked them all and this evening I peeled two to add to the noodle salad we’ll be having for dinner. (Incidentally: we cannot make any pasta salad without saying to each other, at least once, “Good times; noodle salad,” despite the fact that none of us have seen “As Good As It Gets” in over a decade.)

I have read about how peeling fresh eggs is difficult, and how you want your eggs for hard-cooking to be on the older side of things.

I should have paid attention to the people who wrote about this, because I completely mangled these lovely eggs trying to peel them. My only consolation is that they were all going to get chopped up and thrown into a noodle salad, so it didn’t really matter how they looked. “It’s a damned good thing I’m not making devilled eggs,” I muttered to my daughter, who said, “I like devilled eggs.” “Everyone likes devilled eggs,” I said snappishly, “but that’s not the point here.”

I completed assembling the salad and stuck it in the fridge. My husband came home and I told him my story about peeling the eggs. “Eggs last a long, long time,” he said, “but they definitely lose something. A really fresh egg is a thing of beauty. The yolks are perky and bright… but old eggs…. they just….. the yolks…” He stood in the kitchen and sort of waved his hand in the air, searching for the mot juste.

“The yolks get moribund,” I said.

“YES,” he said. “Moribund. Just the word. Did you make that up?”

“The word ‘moribund’?” I asked, surprised. “No, it’s already out there.”

“Right but — in terms of yolks?”

“No, I can’t say as I can remember anyone else applying the word “moribund” to egg yolks,” I said.

A Google search for — with quotations — “moribund yolks” turns up nothing. No hits. Without quotation marks, you get a lot of hits for articles and things about chicken health issues. (No surprise there.)

Anyhow, the next time you’re seeking a description for some particularly old eggs you’re eating, there it is. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

Creamed Spinach is Our Friend

I’ve gone on public record regarding my love of creamed spinach. Here I will discuss a) how to make it, should you be so inclined, and b) why you should make a lot more of it than you think you need, because it is useful in leftover form.

Making Creamed Spinach: it is very easy. Let us presume you’re going to start with boxes of frozen spinach, though, because washing and trimming fresh spinach is a true pain in the ass. (I really don’t wanna hear from the peanut gallery about this. I have a salad spinner. I know I could use fresh spinach. But look: fresh spinach is a pain in the ass and it’s expensive, and when you’re making creamed spinach, it’s just easier and cheaper to use frozen. So, enough, ok?) Here is what you do to make a considerable quantity of the stuff, enough to serve to three hungry people at dinnertime, and have leftovers to work with later on.

Take three boxes of spinach (10 oz. boxes, I think, are what I usually see when I’m shopping) from the freezer and let them thaw on the counter while you focus on the next steps.

1. Put a pot of water on to boil — it doesn’t have to be a big stockpot, but it should be big enough to hold a cup or two of water and the contents of the spinach boxes.

2. On another burner, melt 3-4 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy pot (I use enameled cast iron).  To this add maybe 3/4 of a cup of minced yellow onion. Saute the onion until soft and translucent, and then sprinkle in three or four tablespoons of white flour. Yes, you are making what the grownup fancy people call a roux. Whatever amount of butter you used, use an equal amount of flour. Stir stir stir: you want the flour to combined with the butter, and to cook: raw flour is not tasty stuff. Your pot will seem to be filled with an uninteresting lumpy mess, but it will be ok so long as you don’t burn it. Keep the flame on medium or even medium low. When the onion and butter and flour have formed a depressing-looking paste, and before it starts to burn (this takes maybe three minutes), slowly pour in maybe 1/4 cup of milk (or cream, or half and half, whatever you have on hand; skim milk will work but look rather sad and watery; I’d go for fattier dairy products if possible). Stir the liquid into the flour and onion combination; what you’re trying to do is dissolve the lumps and create a sauce that will be mostly smooth, but for the bits of onion. Add liquid a little bit at a time, ending up with between 1 1/2 and 2 cups of dairy in the pot.

Somewhere along the line, you’ve doubtless noticed that your pot of water is boiling. Seize the moment: Cook the spinach in the boiling water for a few minutes; you don’t need to let it cook to death, just let the bricks of spinach loosen up. Drain in a colander in the sink, press excess water out of the spinach and into the sink, and add the spinach to the pot with the roux. Stir well: the contents of the pot will suddenly look like creamed spinach, and you’ll think “Hey, we’re done!” but you’re not. You’ll want this to simmer for a little while, maybe ten minutes. Now is when you add your seasonings. I like nutmeg, salt, and pepper. You might want a little cayenne or some hot sauce or something else entirely, it’s up to you.

So here’s the thing: this is a lovely dish to serve alongside chicken or beef or fish or whatever you are into: all well and good. My family will eat easily a cup and a half, per person, in a sitting. I’ve heard of people who don’t like creamed spinach and who’ll only grudgingly choke down, like, a tablespoonful if they’re out at a restaurant and it’s foisted on them next to a steak; we are not like that. If we’re gonna eat creamed spinach, we’re gonna eat creamed spinach.
But as a leftover, it’s a useful tool for gussying up something that needs a little extra oomph. For example, the night after I first made this creamed spinach last week, I used some of the leftovers, along with some shredded brisket I had around, on nachos. I know that sounds weird, but let me tell you, my husband and child snarfed those suckers down. And another trick I’ve used a lot is, creamed spinach as kind of a ready-made pasta sauce. (You have to thin it out a bit, and it wants to have lots of Parmesan cheese added, or maybe some goat cheese — but it’s good and colorful and a comforting thing to eat on a rainy night.) Creamed spinach can be added to soups; it can be whipped up with cream cheese and/or sour cream to make a dip; I’ve put it on pizzas.

I know it’s not fashionable, and I know it’s not exactly a dietetic food item. Someone with dairy issues is not crying out for a long explanation of how to make and use creamed spinach. But people who like creamed spinach — we, the silent, the unpopular people, the kitchen wallflowers — need to know that we are not alone. Don’t worry, my friend: I am with you (with about a dozen boxes of spinach in the freezer ready).

The Challah Problem

We all know I’m capable of baking challah — very good challah, even — but the reality is that I view baking challah as a real pain in the ass and so I’m usually happy to pay for store-bought challah. For many years we’ve been paying about $4.50 or $5, I think, for a loaf of challah from a company called Bread & Chocolate. They’re out in Hamden, Connecticut, and most of what they produce is Italian-style loaves (delicious ciabattas) but when they started doing challah I rejoiced. The challah is everything I want in a challah. It’s a little sweet; it doesn’t have any raisins in it; it is good to eat on its own or as French toast or to use as sandwiches, even. It’s not dry and depressing; it’s rich and perfect, every week.

So the three of us were pretty bummed out when, three weeks ago, we were sitting down to Shabbat dinner and I sliced up the challah and when we went to eat, we all discovered that something was weird about the challah. It was my daughter who noticed it first. “The challah smells funny,” she said.

I sniffed. “It does smell funny,” I said. My husband, across the table from me, held his piece of challah to his nose. It was pretty funny: we’re not in the habit of sniffing our challah every Friday night, but this challah definitely warranted it. It was a “how is this challah different from all other challahs?” moment. “It smells like cookies,” said our daughter.

“Cookies?” I said wonderingly, sniffing again. She was right — it smelled like Italian cookies.  My husband nailed it: “Anise,” he said. “It’s anise.”

Here’s the thing: we’re not anti-anise. But it’s the kind of flavor that has its time and place, and as any child — especially my child — will tell you, that time and place is not on Friday nights in our challah. We all ate those first slices of challah, but no one had seconds. And the rest of the loaf lingered in the bread box for days, which is not the norm. In the end, I threw it out, because it was so clear no one was going to eat it, and there was no point in converting it into breadcrumbs or something, because it’s not like anyone wants anise-scented meatloaf.

So the next week, Friday afternoon, we go to the store to get stuff for Shabbat dinner, and I pick up a loaf of Bread & Chocolate challah. We had talked it over and decided that probably the previous week’s challah had been baked in the same oven as a tray of cookies or some anise-flavored bread or something — that this was just a flukey thing that wouldn’t happen again. But when I picked up the bread from the rack at the grocery store, to be sure, I gave it a sniff, and damn if it did have that same anise smell. “What is going on?” I asked my daughter, and I held the bread for her to sniff. “It’s that same smell,” she said.

I carried the bread over to the cashier, a nice woman who used to work for an Orthodox family doing something or other, and who knows about Shabbat meals and keeping kosher even though she herself is not Jewish. I said, “I know I’m gonna sound crazy, but — has anyone come to you to talk about something weird with the Bread & Chocolate challah?” I held up the loaf. “I’m telling you, there’s something weird about the challah.” She looked at me, surprised. “No, no one’s said anything.” “Well, look — you know I’m not a crazy person, I’m one of your regulars — and the challah last week, it smells like those anise cookies you get in Italian bakeries, and this one does, too!” I held the challah out to her. She said, “I hate those cookies,” and then put her nose down for a sniff. “OH!” she said. “Oh, no no no.” She set the challah aside. “This happened last week too?” “Swear to God,” I said. “We threw away most of the loaf because it tasted so weird.”

“Oh jeez,” she said sympathetically. I felt bad: it’s not her fault that the challah’s gone all weird. “I don’t want to buy anise-scented challah,” I said apologetically. “I guess I’ll have to come up with a plan B.” “I’m gonna call them,” she said, also apologetic. “‘Cause I wouldn’t wanna buy that stuff either.”

We bought the rest of our groceries and headed home. “I guess we won’t do Shabbat tonight,” I said, “but I’ll bake challah next week.”

Today I set up dough for two loaves of challah, one for this week, one for next week. I mean, tomorrow I’ll go give the Bread & Chocolate challahs a sniff, but I’m not optimistic; I did email them to ask what the story is, and I haven’t heard back. It may be that no one’s read my email; it may be that someone read it and is going, “What the hell?” and it may be that someone read it and said, “Like I care” and I’ll never hear back.

In the meantime I guess I should start looking into creative challah recipes, ’cause I’m pretty sure I’ll be sick and tired of making the same loaf week after week with no variations unless I do something to rev things up a little. I’ll just make sure to avoid adding anise to the mix.

A Rainy Memorial Day

Memorial Day: it’s supposed to be about remembrance and Noble Americans — which it is — but also supposed to be about family and friends barbecuing, and people making potato salad, and celebrating the fact that you can finally wear your white shoes with impunity.

Well, folks, today it’s grey and rainy and cold. It’s like London in April out there. So we’ve spent the day at home. I would have spent the day feeling like nothing whatsoever was happening, except that I had the presence of mind, yesterday, to finally do something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time, which is prove that I can make better ice cream than my husband. Because I made the ice cream batter yesterday — you do call it batter, don’t you? — and because we always keep the ice cream maker bowl in the freezer, I was ready to go this morning. The batter churned for about twenty minutes, and got to the thickness of soft-serve, and then I spatula’ed it into three little pint containers, and now it’s in the freezer hardening up.

However, I can tell you that this stuff is good. How do I know? Well, I got to lick the spatula, and also I ate the blobs of ice cream that landed on the counter, and the little bits that were too hard to scrape out of the bowl and into the pint container. In other words, I got to eat about three tablespoons of homemade ice cream that I’d made myself, and I am quite confident that this is good, good stuff.

My husband is in the habit of making French vanilla ice cream, of which he is very, very fond. It is a product that involves a lot of egg yolks, a lot of cream, and sugar. I never really like it. I feel bad admitting this, but it’s simply true. I always feel like it just coats the inside of my mouth, greasy and heavy. I always attributed this to the cream he uses — he uses cream which has thickeners added, guar gum or something. Whatever it is, I do not like it.

A couple of years ago, during a phase when we were consuming a lot of this kind of dense, heavy ice cream, I happened to notice an article in the paper about “Philadelphia” style ice cream. I realized that for years and years, I’d been reading cookbooks where they talked about “French” ice creams and “Philadelphia” style ice creams and that I’d never really thought about it hard enough to grasp that these were really different things. I’d never thought about it because, well, I’d never made ice cream myself. Reading the article about Philadelphia ice cream made me grasp that while it may have been that my big problem was too much guar gum in the cream or whatever, the fact remained that, at heart, I was probably someone who just preferred a Philadelphia-style ice cream.

The difference comes down to eggs.

French custard ice creams have eggs; Philadelphia ice creams don’t.

I am normally someone who would say “Eggs? Custard? I am IN.” But somehow, with ice cream at home, I’ve got this idea that it’s just not my thing. Perhaps there are other issues I’m not grasping; some sources I read online suggest that perhaps the greasy mouthfeel I’m not so into could be attributed to over churning, and that the problem isn’t the eggs but the fact that we’re eating, essentially, vanilla-or-coffee-flavored butter. This could be.

But here, for the record, is what I did, and it’s resulted in some delicious, clean-tasting stuff. I considering going the adventurous route re: flavors, but for this maiden voyage I reined myself in and stuck with a simple, plain, vanilla ice cream.

In my medium-size enameled cast iron pot, I combined the following: 2 cups heavy cream (Farmer’s Cow brand — no extra crap in it); 1 cup of milk (Farmer’s Cow whole milk); just under 1 cup sugar; 2 tablespoons dry milk; 1 vanilla bean (sliced lengthwise, most of the seeds scraped into the pot); 1/2 tsp kosher salt; 1 tsp. vanilla extract (I was using Penzey’s double vanilla, which is phenomenal stuff and worth the money).

I heated these things up enough, stirring constantly, to dissolve the sugar and dry milk into the liquid. This wasn’t a mixture that had to cook, per se; but the heat made dissolving the solids much easier. I removed the vanilla bean pod from the pot and set it aside to dry (it can be used again) and covered the pot and put it in the fridge, where it stayed overnight.

The next day, I set up the Kitchen Aid ice cream attachment — ok, I had to have my husband show me how to do it, because it made no sense to me how the thing worked, even after watching three different YouTube videos on the subject, because none of the videos showed the same model of ice cream attachment gizmo that we have — and I churned the batter for about half an hour and then I took a spatula and filled my little paper pint containers. Three little tubs got filled — so we’ve got three pints of ice cream, here. If I were a good person, I would bring some over to a friend’s house and say, “Here, have some ice cream.” (And maybe I will do this yet; if my husband says he doesn’t like the ice cream, I almost certainly will, because this stuff won’t keep indefinitely (no stabilizers) and I can’t eat it all myself.)

If I feel, after eating a dish of ice cream tonight, that this is an unqualified success, then I am shortly going to branch out into chocolate ice cream, and it’s just a matter of time before I’m setting sail for the land of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and also coconut ice cream.

Last week my family ate, for the first time, a local ice cream treat called a Downside Watson. This is something that can only be purchased at Ashley’s Ice Cream, which is our gold standard for ice cream. A Downside Watson is assembled on a frisbee (which you get to keep). It’s supposed to come with bananas, but the night we were at the store, they were out of bananas, so a brownie was placed in the middle of the frisbee, to make up for the lack of fresh fruit. Atop this were piled seven scoops of ice cream and nine toppings. This sugar monster cost $26.95 plus tax, and it took us three nights to finish it. (We ate about half of it at the parlor, first night, but I had to say “OK, everyone, STOP” before we faced imminent collywobbles; and the rest was doled out after dinner two nights running).

We will always love Ashley’s more than any other ice cream parlor. Going to Ashley’s will always be a treat. But even so: if I can make my own platonic ideal mint chocolate chip ice cream, how can that be a bad thing?

But that doesn’t mean we cannot have nice things at home, too, right?

When the Meal is Astounding and There’s Almost No One Eating

On Sunday, for complicated reasons to do with cooking for an incapacitated friend and also needing to feed my own family, I found myself cooking both barbecue-sauced chicken and a whole brisket at the same time. I patted myself on the back for using the oven so very efficiently — sure, our gas bill shot up, but a lot of good food was generated, so it’s worth it. The house smelled of meat to the most astounding degree — if I have vegetarian neighbors, I hope they’ll forgive me. All I know is, at one point in the afternoon I went to sit on the balcony and I sniffed the air and I smelled…. brisket.

Monday evening, the husband of the incapacitated friend came and picked up his chicken — three or four breasts — and arrived as I was assembling our own evening meal. I was feeling a little under the weather, but was doggedly determined to do right by the brisket. I had prepared a green pea salad (green peas; capers; thinly sliced shallot, in a vinaigrette) and pimiento cheese and I was in the process of making angel biscuits when he arrived. He swooped in, took the chicken, and ran; I, feeling like I’d done my mitzvah for the day, went back to the biscuits. I baked two pans of them, one in a cast iron skillet (as many as would fit) and the rest on a regular baking pan. The oven was hot and the biscuits baked up beautifully but as I took them out of the oven and transferred them into a bowl lined with a towel, I thought, “Eh, do I even want these?” It was around then that my daughter said, “I need to go lie down” and went upstairs.

My daughter does not usually want to lie down at 5.15 in the evening. It was abundantly clear to me that she was not well. I went to check on her and she clearly had no fever; she just wasn’t feeling herself. I let her fall asleep and went back to the kitchen and considered what else there was for me to do. The answer was “not much at this point,” so I cleaned the prep dishes and put them away and sat down on the couch to read until my husband came home. I was feeling, by this point, distinctly crappy myself. It occurred to me that I might have a fever. Staring blankly past my magazine toward my feet, I noticed that the living room floor was covered in a school project my daughter had been working on very hard — a big triptych about the life of Julie Andrews. While all the parts were laid out, nothing had yet been glued to the boards. I thought about how I didn’t want this thing sitting on my living room floor all evening, and I debated disassembling it and shoving it in a corner; maybe she would do the gluing while we watched TV after dinner? But then I realized that the odds were very good that my daughter would not make it downstairs again that evening. And that the best thing for me to do would be to just do the gluing myself. The project was meant to be done entirely by her; but as ‘parents helping with projects’ go, the offense level of “gluing pieces of paper to cardboard” is pretty low. I didn’t have to think about where anything would go; there was no editorial effort involved. So I picked up the Elmer’s glue and got the project taken done. My husband came home to find me mid-gluing, and asked where our daughter was. “Upstairs, asleep,” I said. “Dinner’s ready as soon as you are.” I finished the gluing a few minutes later, propped the whole shebang up in a corner, and went to watch my husband carve the brisket. “Look at this,” he said to himself. “Meat.” I thought it smelled good, but wasn’t really hungry, and had little optimism about my daughter’s dining plans.

In the end, the poor girl did come downstairs for about six minutes. She sagged in front of her plate at the dining table, ate about ten green peas, and announced she wanted to go back to bed. I ate one biscuit with pimiento cheese and picked at a slice of brisket and a tablespoon of pea salad. Believe me when I tell you, I usually eat more than this at dinnertime. The only person who ate a normal meal that night was my husband, who said, “This is all great.” I’m glad it was so great — but it would have been greater if all of us had felt like eating. The consolation was that there was plenty, plenty, of food leftover to serve for dinner the next night, when we were all feeling more normal. Domestic efficiency: making a stupendous meal two nights in a row by accident.

How to Not Make Tuna Casserole

This one goes out to Gina.

I spent all day in the kitchen. I mean, from nine in the morning until 2.45 in the afternoon, I was cooking. Baking, to be specific. There’s a lot going on this weekend, and I have to bake for almost all of it. It’s fine. I’ve got it under control. However, the question of what to make for dinner was nagging at me, because I knew that even though I was going to be getting a Peapod delivery between four and six this afternoon, it was all very unclear how exactly I would put together a decent evening meal. I mean, obviously, I’d cook something, but — what?

The problem was simmering away in the back of my mind when I remembered that I was going to be receiving some cans of tuna, and I remembered a) the bags of frozen peas in the freezer b) the few ounces of leftover roasted red peppers I have in the fridge and c) the block of Colby-Jack cheese I also had in the fridge. “So long as I’ve got some egg noodles, I can make a tuna casserole,” I told myself around noon today, and feeling very smug I slogged on through the baking, along the way confirming my suspicion that I did in fact have egg noodles on hand.

At five o’clock this evening, the groceries all unloaded and put away, I put a pot of water on to boil and began to hotten up (as they say) some butter in a pot. I set the oven to pre-heat (375° or so). I sauteed some chopped onion in the butter, threw in the diced red peppers, and worked on making the bechamel. Flour; milk; looking good. I was feeling quite on top of things. I cooked the egg noodles, threw the peas in three minutes before the noodles were done so they could all drain together. Gina would have been proud. Scanning for cheese in the fridge I decided to not only put in the Colby-Jack, but also the last of a tub of powdered cheese I had from King Arthur Flour. It wasn’t enough to do much else with — maybe a teaspoon and a half of powdered cheese — but it wouldn’t hurt the sauce, I figured, so I dumped it in and stirred and stirred and stirred. “Gotta remember to not forget the tuna,” I said to myself as I stirred the sauce. I turned the heat down and went to drain the noodles and peas.

My husband came home from work. “How are you?” I called to the front hall.

“Tired. Hungry,” came the response.
“Tuna noona coming up soonish,” I said. He said nothing, but came into the kitchen.
“Mmmm,” he said, staring over my shoulder. “Bechamel. Casserole?”
“I said I’m making tuna noona,” I said.
“I didn’t hear you,” he said. He poured himself a drink and stood against the kitchen counter. We got to talking about the differences between Catholic churches and Episcopalian churches. “Hey,” I said, “Can you help me spoon this sauce onto the noodles? The pot’s kind of heavy.”

“Boy, this looks great,” my husband said as he took charge of the pot. The noodles and peas were spread out in a greased baking pan, and the sauce covered them beautifully. I sprinkled the top with bread crumbs and Parmesan and put the pan into the oven. “All right,” I said. “Probably fifteen minutes, we should be ready to eat.”

“Cool,” my husband said, settling himself on the couch. I went upstairs to take care of mundane matters there, and it was after I’d spent ten mundane minutes upstairs that I gasped: I’d forgotten to put the tuna into the tuna casserole.

I ran downstairs. “I forgot to put the tuna in!” I wailed.

So this is how you make a Not Tuna Casserole: you do everything you’d do if you were making a tuna casserole, and then leave out the tuna.

There was a pause, and then my husband began to guffaw.

“What am I gonna do?” I asked. It really wasn’t clear to me that there was any fixing the problem; you can’t undo the casserole once it’s been in the oven ten minutes. To stir in the tuna then would mean ruining the topping.

“Just flake the tuna in when you’re serving it,” my husband suggested reasonably.

“I can’t believe I forgot the tuna,” I said. “We got to talking, and I was making the sauce, and it looked good, but I was distracted, and I forgot the tuna.”

Just then my daughter came in from the courtyard, where she’d been playing. “You forgot the tuna? So what’s in the casserole?”

“Everything but the tuna,” I said.

In the end, we mixed the drained, flaked tuna, straight from the can, into the piles of sauced noodles on our plates, and all of us were perfectly happy. Some of us even had thirds. There’s almost none leftover.

So that’s how you make a successful not tuna casserole: proceed as for tuna casserole, but leave out the tuna. Enjoy.

The Bench Scraper. This sounds like the name of a sports movie, but this is not about sports.

As long as ten years ago, I don’t know for sure, someone gave me a bench scraper. It was a softly waved piece of white rectangular plastic, and one long side of it had a beveled-to-a-point edge and the other long side of it had a silicone or rubber strip. It was meant to be used as a tool in the kitchen for working with dough, but I found it totally useless in this context. I tried. The “sharp” side couldn’t cut through anything well, and the softer side, well, duh: it was too soft to cut anything at all.

The thing was completely useless  to me, but I kept it because I thought, “Some day, I will wish I had this thing.”

In the meantime, somewhat less then ten years ago, I acquired a metal bench scraper at a tag sale, and that thing is lethal and I use it all the time. It has one rolled edge you use as a handle and one sharp sharp sharp edge that I use to cut through dough, dividing raw dough for pizza, cutting biscuits, cooky dough, whatever. It works great and I can run it through the dishwasher without worrying about it melting. It looks kind of like this. It isn’t fancy but it does its job extraordinarily well. This is what you want in most kitchen utensils. You don’t need bells or whistles, you just want the thing to do its job. The metal bench scraper lives in the drawer where I keep the work tools I use most frequently: the Microplanes; the rolling pin; the scissors that come apart for cleaning; the can opener; the garlic press; the silicone-tipped whisk; the tongs. (You’re wondering, What about the silicone spatulas? Where do those live? Answer: they live in their own separate drawer. Yes, the silicone spatulas have their own drawer.)

The white plastic device, on the other hand, lives in a drawer where I keep things I use pretty frequently, but not as frequently as you might guess. Ready at hand in that drawer are: measuring cups; measuring spoons; ladles; a balloon whisk; biscuit cutters; and the white bench scraper. Which I’ve kept there not because I’ve used it, ever, in all these years, but just because it seemed to fit there in a categorical way: “small kitchen utensils that I don’t need a lot but when I need them I want to know where they are.”

Other stuff I keep in this drawer full of things that I hardly ever use:
1. a little plastic thing in the shape of an apple where you take off the top half of the apple and what you’re supposed to do is put your apple that you want to have for lunch in there, and then put the lid on. Supposedly this will keep your apple from getting bruised as you carry it in your bag. It may work, but I’ll never know because I’ve never purchased an apple that fit into it. However, my daughter likes it for carrying snacks now and then, so, fine;

2. All tea balls. I don’t use tea balls, but my husband does. They need to be accessible, but they don’t need to be in my way all the time. So they live in this drawer.

3. Nutcrackers and picks;

4. drinking straws;

5. salad tongs and other more elegant devices one might use to serve salad.

So you get the idea. These are all USEFUL things to be sure: but they are not everyday-on-the-table-or-countertop things, for me, personally.

Well, a few weeks ago, I was dealing with the aftermath of spending several hours working on some really messy cooking projects involving a lot of dough and fillings and frostings; the countertop was a mess. It was the kind of clean-up job where there was nothing for it but to take everything off the countertop, wash the surface down with a clean dishrag, and then wipe up the detergent. As I was contemplating the drag it would be to keep rinsing this countertop to get all the soap off, I suddenly remembered how I deal with wiping water off my shower walls (to reduce mildew growth): I squeegee the shower every day. (Shut up. Don’t laugh at me. It helps.)

But, I reasoned: I did not want to use my shower squeegee on my kitchen countertops. ‘Cause that just seemed…. gross.

On the other hand…. I suddenly remembered that I did — I do — own a thing that is, basically, a kitchen squeegee. That white bench scraper thingy: THIS is what the bendy side of it is for! 

It was a an epiphany. I pulled the white bench scraper from the drawer, got a waiting-to-be-washed bowl from the sink, and began to squeegee the countertop, letting all the scungy, soapy water run straight off the counter into the bowl. It worked like a charm. I got the counter basically clean and almost dry in about two seconds. I dumped the bowl back into the sink, and then I sprayed my usual rubbing alcohol dose on the counter and wiped it dry with a towel. Done and done. The white bench scraper no longer lives in the drawer; it now lives at the kitchen sink, with the dishrag and the bottle of Dawn, and it gets used almost daily. I use it to push water from the countertop near the sink straight into the sink (I used to just use the side of my hand, which, believe me, never worked as well as I thought it should), and I use it to clean my working countertop. And I feel like a fucking genius for doing so.

My husband, who has long been aware of this odd white object in the kitchen drawer (probably because it is near his precious tea ball collection), asked me a few days ago, “Why is this thing living next to the bottle of dishwashing liquid?” I explained, “Because after years of being a useless object, it has suddenly become a very useful object!”
“How so?” asked my ever-curious husband. Ok, he wasn’t curious exactly; he was skeptical. I could feel his skepticism oozing all over the floor (great, more for me to clean up). But I showed him. I explained how a cleaning process that, ok, wasn’t arduous, but was slightly messier and more time-consuming than I’d like, had suddenly been made simpler and easier by using this previously-useless tool. “It’s a small leap for the household,” I concluded. He nodded. “It’s like the time I changed the method for emptying the coffee grounds from the coffeepot, and my life improved exponentially,” he said.

I don’t actually agree that his method is superior to the method I use. But if it works for him, fine and dandy. In the meantime, the white bench scraper lives at the kitchen sink, it gets used, and I’m already wondering what I’ll do when I do something horrible to it by accident or through over-use and I can’t use it anymore. I guess I’ll either get used to the old counter-cleaning system again, or go spend a few bucks on another “useless” bench scraper.

Beef Stew, Born out of Desperation, Hailed as a Triumph; or, I Won’t Make This Often, but It Would be So Good if I Did

The other day I was mulling grimly the possible options for our evening dinner hour: grimly, because there was a meeting I wanted to attend that was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., which would mean that whatever I was serving for dinner, it would have to be done before I left the house, and somehow kept warm for my husband and child to eat while I was at the meeting.

Contemplating  the raw materials in the fridge, I remembered that I had a lot of carrots and some celery. “If I bought some beef, and maybe some potatoes, I could set up a beef stew in the early afternoon and just leave it in the oven to cook all afternoon. And then I could just leave — “Dinner’s in the oven!” — with a clear conscience.”

So I popped off to the butcher counter, snagged a couple of pounds of beef cubes, and grabbed a loaf of ciabatta bread and some smoked Gouda while I was at it, and trotted home feeling like I had just solved a long-standing cold case. I got home, pulled down my biggest Dutch oven, and got to work immediately. It was almost 1 p.m.

I have a lot of experience making beef stews but it occurred to me that perhaps it would be a good idea if I did a quick Google search on the matter to see if anything in terms of technique jumped out at me as something I should try. The first thing I landed on was a discussion of a Cook’s Illustrated beef stew recipe. I skimmed the list of ingredients and realized that I in fact had everything necessary on hand (or I could fudge it). The things I don’t always have around that I happened to have right there? Several cups of chicken broth (taking up a lot of space in the fridge!); anchovy; carrots. Making this recipe would not only be a good idea in culinary terms, it would also free up space I desperately needed in the refrigerator. So I decided to go with that recipe. It was simple, if a little time consuming in terms of prep, but then, any beef stew involves a lot of prep work, if you’re putting in vegetables. So I set to it. I began by preheating the oven to 250°.

The real work began after that, and I was quite busy for about forty-five minutes. The first thing I did was dry the cubes of beef with paper towels. (This is one of the very few tasks in our household where I think paper towels are called for; we use a roll of paper towels a year, they are so seldom used. But for drying meat: just the thing.) Then I browned them, in small batches, in olive oil. I think it was three or four batches of beef I had to do — it was rather a lot of meat. I set the browned meat in the upturned pot lid so that I could work on the next batch. The cats circled my legs anxiously and hopefully while I did this.

When the meat was done, I deglazed the pan a bit with some sweet vermouth — maybe a quarter of a cupful. I let it cook away, rubbing the bottom of the pot with a wooden spatula.  I threw an anchovy (from a jar of oil-packed anchovies) into the pot. I peeled several fat cloves of garlic, sliced them in half, and browned them in the vermouthy-beefy sludge. I added half a very large onion, minced, and a bay leaf. I squeezed about three tablespoons of vegetable paste (a kind of concentrated form of V-8, like Ortolina, but made by Cento) into the pot, and stirred the sludge around. The anchovy melted in with the tomato-vegetable paste, and the sludge smelled good, but in danger of burning. Working quickly, I sprinkled in about 1/4 cup of white flour, and stirred that around for a moment, again worrying about burning, moving fast so that the flour didn’t have time to form wretched clots around the vegetables. I didn’t wait long before I slowly poured the chicken stock (probably about four cups, all told) into the flour and onions. I stirred it for a few minutes until the flour dissolved and something akin to a smooth brown sauce began to form. Once I was confident that I’d passed the dangerous phase of the cooking process — if you burn  the onions and flour, the whole project is going to be disgusting; if you don’t, then you’ll be fine — I put the beef back into the pot, added a bag of frozen pearl onions, stirred the slop around, covered the pot, and opened the oven.

It was 1.30 by the time the pot went into the oven. I then ignored the pot until 4.30. The time was filled up with washing prep dishes, picking up my daughter after school, giving her a snack, helping her with homework, paying bills, and realizing that I’d done two loads of laundry but I’d forgotten to fold them and put them away.

At 4.30 I added to the stew a pound of carrots, peeled and cut into 1″ chunks, two large stalks of celery, trimmed and cut into chunks, and five red potatoes, peeled and also cut into hefty chunks. Making sure that everything was mixed in, and not just a pile of naked vegetables sitting atop the beef stew (because I didn’t think they’d cook properly if I did that), I covered the pot again and shoved it back into the oven.

There was another frenzy of domestic activity between five and six — laundry folding, cleaning the countertops where I discovered a Jackson Pollack-worthy scattering of paw prints (doubtless the cats were trying to figure out if they could get at the beef stew) — but I checked the stew just before I left the house to go to the meeting. The potatoes and carrots were nicely cooked through, the beef was tender: everything was exactly as it should be. I handed off our daughter to my husband, saying, “There’s beef stew in the oven, and a loaf of nice bread and some cheese,” and then I ran off to my meeting.

When I got home two hours later, husband and child were curled up on the couch with one of the cats. Their dinner plates were on the floor (a revolting, uncool habit we are all guilty of falling into, letting the cats lick our plates). “Was the stew good?” I asked.

The opinion passed down was unanimous: this was the best beef stew ever prepared in our house. “Huh, good,” I said as I sat down to sample it myself. I could not offer dissent. The Cook’s Illustrated recipe — which I admittedly did not follow precisely, but which I certainly followed in spirit, and relatively accurately — really was fabulous. It wasn’t quick, and beef isn’t cheap, but it isn’t hard to do, and it’s clear that the payback on the effort is tremendous. “The best thing about this,” I said, “is that there’s enough that we can have it for Shabbat dinner tomorrow, too.” Everyone seemed pleased with that arrangement; and so, happily, at this juncture in the narrative, mid-day on Friday, I don’t have to worry about cooking dinner tonight. All I have to do is buy a challah and set the table, and we’ll be ready for Shabbat tonight.

Except, I’m thinking about making a coconut cake this afternoon.