99 Bottles of Salad Dressing in the Door of the Fridge…

Ok, I have nowhere near that many bottles of salad dressing in the door, but you all know exactly what I mean. Salad dressing is the kind of thing that seems to engage in spontaneous generation while the fridge is closed and the interior is dark and no one can see what’s going on.

We haven’t bought salad dressing in I-don’t-know-how-long, because having bottled salad dressing in the fridge drives me insane. The bottles take up so much room. And what happens is, you start to run low on something, and then you stop using it, because you’re all like, “Well, I’m about to run out of that one, I better save it for the right salad!” and then what you have is a bottle of dressing with, like, an ounce of dressing in it that takes up room in the fridge for two years, because no one is willing to just use the shit up. What began as a humble range of options — say, a vinaigrette, a creamy Caesar, and a balsamic-onion dressing — suddenly becomes 99 bottles of salad dressing in the door of the fridge, and you don’t have room for the things you actually want to have in the fridge, like the jar of capers, the bottle of Sriracha, and the pickled okra. All of which, by the way, are things you can use to make awesome salad dressings.

I am personally acquainted with a refrigerator where there are no bottles of salad dressing in the door, specifically, but the number of bottles is so vast that an entire shelf of the fridge is taken up with bottles of salad dressing. It amazes me because I frankly can’t imagine consuming salad enough to warrant owning that much salad dressing; it would make me ill to eat that much salad in an entire calendar year. I would be sent to a doctor, who would say, “Cut it out with the salad, okay?”

What’s more, that shelf in the fridge, that is prime refrigerator real estate, and it’s being wasted on salad dressing. It could be holding things that are important, like milk, or the leftover roast chicken, but no: the milk lives in the door of the fridge, where it’s bound to go bad faster, and the chicken carcass sits on the bottom shelf, where it gets forgotten until it begins to stink and then… into the trash. Some day, we will talk about The Refrigerator as Real Estate, and whip some sense into all of you.

To my original point: By and large, no one needs bottled salad dressing. Here’s what you need: oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. And condiments. Which are multi-purpose. If you want something a little jazzier on your salad, you add some horseradish or some mustard and whisk it in with your oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. Or add some mayonnaise. I’m all for having a jar of mayonnaise in the fridge! I’m all for condiments!

I know someone will read this and go, “jeez, what’s YOUR problem? Live and let live.” But I can’t do that. I have to be bitchy about this. Because at some level, the person who has 99 bottles of salad dressing is the person who’s thinking that they’re being all virtuous and healthy by eating salad but who in fact is just kidding themselves. Salad dressings are a frill, and an expensive-as-all-get-out frill at that. And bottled salad dressings have so many weird things added to them that God did not intend for you to have in your salad dressings; I just cannot accept the idea that Wish-Bone Creamy Caesar Salad Dressing is a healthful food item. I can accept the idea than an actual, honest-to-God, Caesar dressing is nutritious, but that bottled junk, no way*. I cannot accept that anything with that list of ingredients is, like, healthful.

I say this as someone who recently helped to organize a feeding frenzy for about 125 people. The event was a pig roast, and the sauces to be served with the pig were all to be homemade according to the very specific recipes supplied by the man roasting the pig. Bottled sauces from the store would not do. One of the other items on the menu was salad. The organizing committee spent some time discussing salad dressings. “I can pick up bottles of salad dressing,” someone offered helpfully. I said, “Nuh-uh: this is a meal where we can’t have bottled barbecue sauces, and I know the man roasting the pig and I am positive that showing up with bottled salad dressings would be a bad idea.” Everyone looked at me blankly. I took a deep breath and said, “I’ll make salad dressing.” Thinking, “Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, salad dressing for 125 people, am I out of my mind?”

But I went home and thought about it for about 36 hours, during which I read a lot of Southern cookbooks and websites about Southern cooking, and I thought about novelty food items and things that were once standard on American tables but have fallen out of fashion even though they maybe shouldn’t have, and it dawned on me that what we needed to have at the pig roast, to serve with the salad, was one basic vinaigrette, for the nervous-eater types, and then one humdinger of a dressing to really knock people on their asses. Something rich. Something a little bit trashy and a little bit elegant at the same time. Something  that no one would be expecting but that people would fall on with excitement. Preferably something with buttermilk. Maybe a Ranch dressing.

I pondered it for a while, stewing, thinking, “buttermilk dressing, buttermilk dressing.”

And I talked it over with a friend for about ten seconds and we realized the answer was Green Goddess salad dressing. Which I promptly mixed up in the food processor in batches. Two versions: one vegetarian and one not-vegetarian (it had anchovy in it, as God intended). I poured them into the biggest clamp-lid jars I own, labeled them, and packed them up with long-handled spoons to for serving. I set them out at the table near the salad bowls, and thought, “Well, here goes nothing.”
Three hours later, we were cleaning up. I noticed that there wasn’t much dressing leftover at all — most of the vinaigrette was gone, and almost all of the anchovied–Green Goddess. There were only about three cups of the vegetarian Green Goddess left. One of the women helping with clean-up asked me rather timidly, “Would it be ok with you if I poured some of that salad dressing into a bottle to take home?” I said, “Of course it’s ok! Take as much as you want!” In the end, I took home only about two cups of the vegetarian Green Goddess, which, considering how many quarts of dressing I’d made, really wasn’t much. (Under normal circumstances, I’d view two cups of salad dressing as an immense quantity, but when you’ve started out with dressing for 125, the scale of operations changes.)

Now I need to restock my mayonnaise supply, and also my olive oil supply, and we need more red wine vinegar. But, by my calculations, for about $20 worth of ingredients and in the space of maybe 30 minutes, I made all that salad dressing, and it would have cost more like…. I don’t even know how much, but for sure more than $20 to buy that much bottled salad dressing. Assuming I could even find bottled Green Goddess dressing anywhere.

Tonight we’ll be having macaroni and cheese for dinner, with salad on the side. Green Goddess dressing. I’m thinking I might whizz some anchovies in, because while it was very good without the anchovies, anyone with sense knows it’d be even better with the anchovies. I predict someone will wind up drinking it from a shot glass.

P.S.: Here’s how you make Green Goddess dressing, The Sloppy Hausfrau Way:

Get out your food processor. Wash an entire bunch of parsley (flat or curly-leaf, it does not matter one iota). Wash a bunch of scallions. Trim the ends off the parsley stems; trim the roots and any scungy bits off the scallions. Throw them in the food processor with a fat clove of garlic and maybe a tablespoon of dried tarragon and a tablespoon of salt. Whizz together, adding probably one and a half cups of mayonnaise and buttermilk until you have achieved desired consistency — some people want this very, very thick, some people want a pourable dressing. Taste as you go along.  Throw in some capers if you like capers, some anchovies if you like anchovies. Maybe you’ll want more salt, especially if you didn’t use anchovies. Whizz and whizz and whizz until you have a pale green flecked thick liquid/sauce. This is your salad dressing. Enjoy.

*Here is the list of ingredients in a bottle of Wish-Bone Creamy Caesar Dressing: NGREDIENTS: SOYBEAN OIL, WATER, DISTILLED VINEGAR, EGG YOLKS, SUGAR, PARMESAN CHEESE (MILK, CHEESE CULTURES, SALT, ENZYMES), SALT, ANCHOVIES (FISH), SOY SAUCE (WATER, WHEAT, SOYBEANS, SALT), GARLIC, SPICES, PHOSPHORIC ACID, ONION, MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE, SORBIC ACID AND SODIUM BENZOATE AND CALCIUM DISODIUM EDTA (USED TO PROTECT QUALITY), CORN SYRUP, POLYSORBATE 60, XANTHAN GUM, GARLIC POWDER, SOY FLOUR, AUTOLYZED YEAST EXTRACT, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, TAMARIND.

Yay, corn syrup. Just what I want in my Caesar salad. FFS.

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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.

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