The joy of eating

My beloved few

I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.   ~ MFK Fisher

Over the last ten years, I have moved from passionate weekend flings with my kitchen to a deep and lasting relationship, built on mutual trust and – wait. My metaphor is breaking down. But my point: having a family to cook for changes things in the kitchen. It changes them in ways that are hard – keep your kids healthy, your partner happy, yourself from going crazy with the monotony of still one more chicken breast to cook. It changes them in ways that are wonderful – routines build comfort, and comfort allows for growth, and experimentation, and resiliency in the face of failure.

Fifteen years ago, more or less (can we pretend less?), is when I first read The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher.  I read it for a class about “odd men and queer women” in literature – and spent most of my energy deconstructing the chapter on boarding school and trying to decide which women might be eating oysters with having affairs with which other women. I hung on to the book though, because it resonated with me. And when I re-read it as a mom, I find myself lingering over the idea of food as a reflection or embodiment of emotional truth – something we prepare to express our love, to make manifest our desire to protect our beloved few in the face of everything out there that isn’t nourishing. Come into my kitchen: let me take care of you. Let me give you this meal, this offering, this physical embodiment of my love. Let me sustain you.

No wonder some Catholics get hooked on communion.

Anyway, I think Jacob had a flash of this emotion, of this desire to sustain someone he loves. Kyle had been traveling for a couple days for work, and the guys really missed him. Last week, Jacob overheard me and Kyle talking about sushi to-go; I mentioned that I had seen deconstructed sushi in a mason jar somewhere and thought that would be a really awesome lunch – and then 101cookbooks had a post about rice balls, which seemed like another potential way to make something transportable and healthy and delicious, and the perfect size for that soft-sided gray and orange box Kyle totes to work. And then yesterday morning, out of the blue, Jacob said he missed Daddy, and then he declared that we should make a special lunch for Daddy.

“OK Jacob, what should we make?”

“Sushi balls.”

With visions of Saturday Night Live skits and Ben & Jerry’s dancing through my head, I made a plan with my brain – and then with Jacob’s hands, we got to work.

I followed the 101cookbooks recipe for sesame almond brown rice balls really closely, so I am going to direct you over to Heidi for the ingredients and technique – basically, you make a pot of brown sushi rice, mix in some almonds, sesame seeds, and green onions, and then form it in to balls.

We took the extra step of adding filling, to make our brown rice balls in to “sushi balls” –  we used a Japanese short grain brown rice meant for sushi so it would get sticky, and we used chives from the garden instead of green onions, because that was what we had. We also went with two different colors of sesame seeds, because with Jacob it’s the little things.

For our filling, we used coconut-crusted tofu, quick-pickled carrots, and avocado cubes with a squeeze of lemon juice. Jacob loved deciding which little bits of things to put in to each sushi ball as he made it – and he especially loved making the ball-shape with the plastic wrap. You know it can’t be tricky if a three year old can do it!

We started with just over a cup of dry rice, and made a dozen golf-ball sized sushi balls, plus the one that Jacob ate as a sample (and gagged on, by the way – if you are making these with a little one, and they want to sample them, make sure that they know they can bite them and don’t need to eat the whole thing at once!). We had a few for dinner, and Kyle took the rest for lunch the next day – hopefully, eating them, he felt ‘sustained, truly, against the hungers of the world‘ – I know he felt confident that he is one of Jacob’s beloved few.

Kid food

On Sunday, Jacob and I had a little date with our friend Chloe at this awesome treehouse in Burlingame. J-man desperately wanted to stay there and “have dinner” – I think the idea of eating up in the tree sounded like happiness beyond his wildest imaginings. Jacob sees most all food as fair game, but I am willing to bet he would have eaten absolutely anything if he could have had it perched up in that Live Oak.

In this picture, Lucas is eating a homemade trail mix of raisins, granola, and pan-popped popcorn. There is probably a choking hazard note I should make here with regard to thirteen month old people and popcorn, but my point is rather that he will eat anything, as long as it is raisins. He will also generally eat anything as long as it is breakfast. By dinner time, he seems tired of eating, and (albeit cheerfully) unwilling to try new things.

Despite Lu’s raisin-centric-ness, we don’t really do ‘kid food’ at our house – they eat what we eat, and for the most part they do it happily. Two nights ago, we made a delicious riff on the mushroom tacos from Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day book. They were so good that Kyle only made one mention of how mushrooms go really well with steak, or meat, or steak, or – well, on the whole, he was content just to eat. We served them with a tangy homemade mango salsa, which we left unspicy for the kids but which is even more awesome with a little serrano tossed in.

Ever since, I have been thinking about those mushrooms, and that salsa … Since Kyle is traveling tonight, it was just me and the little guys – so I skipped the salsa, instead turning our lovely and sophisticated mushrooms into a super-kid-friendly quesadilla (it was also mom-friendly: dinner made in one pan!)

On Sunday night we used king trumpet mushrooms from Far West Fungi, the mushroom folks at our Farmer’s Market. They were fantastic! For tonight, I used a little carton of organic white mushrooms from the grocery store, and they were good – the flavor was similar actually, though the texture was different. I cooked them with some butter, some onion, some truffle salt, and some fresh oregano from our garden. Then, once they had cooked down and everything was brown, I made a couple simple quesadillas in the same pan, alongside the mushrooms.

Once the cheese was melted and both sides of the quesadilla were lightly browned, I opened it up and stuffed in some mushrooms. One for Jacob, one for me, one for Lucas – quick and easy. We ate them with a simple green salad and had some sliced strawberries with yogurt for dessert. Both guys chowed everything – even though there was not a treehouse or a raisin in sight. I missed the salsa, but the mushrooms were enough to make a super simple dinner into a mid-week treat. Score one for kid food :)

Mushrooms with Onions and Truffle Salt
(Inspired by Heidi Swanson’s Chanterelle Tacos recipe from Super Natural Every Day)

You could certainly use regular salt instead of truffle salt, but I really like the way the truffle salt tastes here – just a pinch! 

1 -2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 small white or yellow onion (or half a larger one)
12 ounces (or one carton) mushrooms – king trumpet if you can find them
generous pinch of truffle salt
3-4 sprigs fresh oregano

Heat the oil and butter in a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the onion until it is almost translucent, a couple minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring regularly, until the mushrooms brown and release their liquid, about five minutes. Sprinkle with truffle salt and stir. Pinch the leaves off the oregano sprigs, and stir them in to the mushrooms. Cook another minute, then lower heat (your pan will still be hot, but you can leave it on a low burner to make the quesadillas if you want to).

Mushroom Quesadillas

For each quesadilla, you will need one tortilla and about two tablespoons of grated cheese. We used mozzarella and a pinch of parmesan because that was what I had in the fridge – but use whatever is your favorite quesadilla cheese! Push the mushrooms to one side of the pan with your “spatu-love” (oh Jacob … ) and put a tortilla on the other side (see photo above). Fill with cheese, fold in half, and let it cook a minute. Flip, so that the other side can brown, and then check to see if your cheese is melted. Once it is melted, add a scoop of mushrooms and serve. Repeat as needed to make additional quesadillas.

Mango-Mint Salsa with shallots and serrano

One of the first things I ever made for Kyle was a fruit salsa. I think it kind of won his heart. Mango is a long-time favorite here, but the mint is a new addition – we have peppermint and spearmint in pots on the patio now that we are back in California, and I am trying to make good use of them!

1 large mango, peeled and diced
1 serrano chile, seeded and diced
1 large purple shallot, diced
Pinch of salt
Pinch of sugar
About a tablespoon of chopped mint leaves (peppermint is surprisingly nice here)
1 tablespoon orange juice
1-2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, or other mild white vinegar

Mix together the mango, chile, and shallot. Add the salt, sugar, and mint leaves, and stir to coat. Add the orange juice and vinegar and toss everything together.

This gets tastier, and the mango absorbs more chile heat, the longer it sits. It is heavenly in a warm corn tortilla with the mushroom mixture, but Kyle thinks it goes really well on most anything :)

Lemon verbena

Yesterday (March 20th) was the first day of spring – the equinox – and would have been my mom’s 62nd birthday. The last three years, I have tried to do something each March 20th to remember her – I remember her every day, of course, but something special I mean. Something to take an actual moment in honor of her, a moment that is more than just those passing thoughts of her that are with me throughout every day. I have planted lobelia with my brothers, in memory of my mom’s love of her garden. I have hiked through an old seminary in memory of my mom’s reverence for the sacred. I have walked through a sculpture garden with my husband and kids, and stumbled onto a Black Madonna sculpture by Christopher Cairns, which given her fascination with the topic of the Black Madonna felt almost eerily serendipitous.

This year, I wanted to do something again, something to make me take an extra moment with my memories of her. In our garden this year, I planted lemon verbena. I cannot look at this plant without hearing my mother’s voice – she couldn’t walk by the lemon verbena in her yard without breaking off a leaf, crushing it between her fingers, inhaling the fragrance and sighing. “Hannah, smell this. It’s lemon verbena!” she would say, delighted every time, holding it up to my nose. “I know, Mom.” For the hundredth, thousandth, millionth time.

My mom didn’t cook much, and so she didn’t actually use her herbs much. But she loved them! Oh, she loved them. She loved cutting them, drying them, and giving them away – or keeping them in jars until they disintegrated and were replaced with more of the same, or sewing them in sachets that she kept long past the point that their fragrance had faded. She loved knowing their histories, how they had been used medicinally, where they had been brought from, or – best of all – if they were native to the Bay Area. Especially in the last decade of her life, she was a big native plants person. It is in some ways, I suppose, the logical next step of the eat local movement … she was always sort of cutting edge in that way. She helped bring the city of Berkeley – Berkeley! – its first Farmer’s Market, she made her own yogurt back when it was still a counter culture food, and she maintained her commitment to organics even at times when she struggled to make her mortgage payments.

But I digress. I can remember her sighing happily and stroking the lemon verbena plant, but I cannot for the life of me remember what she ever did with it besides make me smell it. I think this recipe would have been right up her alley though – simple, sweet, and perfect for putting in to tea — which was another thing that she loved to have around, though that is a whole different story …  Suffice to say that, for her birthday, I made myself a cup of green tea with lemon verbena sugar, and when Jacob asked me what I was doing I held the little mason jar of sugar up to his nose. “Smell this. It’s lemon verbena!”

Lemon Verbena Sugar
I got this idea from one of the stands at our Farmer’s Market, which actually sells flowering plants and herbs. From time to time they also have cunning little mason jars of herb-infused sugars – apple-mint, chocolate-mint, lavender and basil. The recipe seems to be slapdash and perhaps not a recipe at all, but here you have it. Since it worked with my lemon verbena, I imagine it would work with most any herb. 

1 cup good-quality white sugar (I love brown sugars, but this is not the place!)
15-20 lemon verbena leaves (fresh, not dried)

Put the sugar and the herb in a bowl and mix gently. Then, put them in a jar together and give it a shake. Make sure the leaves are fairly evenly distributed. Every few days, give it another shake or stir.  After about three weeks, taste it to see if the flavor has infused to your liking. If it has, remove the leaves. If not, keep testing it every day or two until it gets to the flavor you are looking for, and then remove the leaves. Will keep for “quite a while”, but try to enjoy it regularly.

Happy birthday Mom! We miss you. xo

In the night kitchen

Orangette readers know that Molly recently posted her buckwheat version of Marion Cunningham’s brilliant yeasted waffle recipe.  I was only lukewarm on Marion Cunningham before this recipe, but I have now ordered her breakfast book and feel a strange, almost devotional tie to her.

But let’s start at the beginning.  We are not waffle makers at our house. In almost ten years of togetherness we have used our waffle maker (which is a delightful little Belgian that came with Kyle to our relationship and I am pretty sure dates from his youthful fondness for the As Seen On TV store) maybe three times. He can remember two times in Princeton, and I think we made them once in San Rafael, when we were feeling nesty around Jacob’s arrival. Pancakes, yes. We make pancakes every weekend, often during the week, and usually have a bag full of leftover weekend pancakes in the freezer for emergency pancake-needing situations. I have been planning to post our go-to pancake recipe, and our special-occasion pancake recipe, and our extra-healthy pancake recipe — and I will, soon I will. But this waffle.

Three times in ten years – so take it seriously when I tell you that I have made these waffles FOUR TIMES IN ONE WEEK. They are that good.

How did I discover this, when we are, as I mentioned, more of a pancake bunch? It was the overnight rise that drew me in. Why, I thought, I could make this batter the night before, while the kids are asleep, and in the morning, just whisk a couple eggs and turn on that waffle iron — where IS that waffle iron? Did that thing make it back from Princeton? Do we actually have buckwheat flour in the house? 

I was excited enough about the overnight aspect of the waffle batter that after our jaunt to the library (this was Friday, March 9th, for those keeping track) we swung by the grocery store for a little package of buckwheat flour, and that night — milk in the batter, milk in the batter, we bake (waffles) like nothing’s the matter … 

The next morning – well. It was a waffle, yes it was. But it was so much more. The buckwheat (I used a bit more than Molly, and will be curious to see Marion’s original recipe) gives a dark color, a heft and density, and combined with the yeast there is an incredible, almost beer-y aroma. The milk sours just ever so slightly from being out all night, and the crisp outside of the waffle sort of shatters against your teeth and then there is the soft, structured inside that is vaguely reminiscent of sourdough bread. Kyle and I sat stunned, chewing slowly and slightly dazed. The kids gobbled theirs down (bonus), while we stuttered and pondered – “I have never tasted anything like this,” Kyle finally said. And I had to agree.

The crispy, golden, whole-grain exterior soaks up syrup like a dry sponge, so you have not a soggy waffle but one slightly infused with maple throughout. And this waffle is so savory, and slightly sour, that it NEEDS syrup – this is not a pairing made out of indulgence or weekend-brunch excess. It feels, and tastes, like culinary magic.

So that is why, after the first run on March 10th, we made the waffles again on the 11th. The guys and I spent most of the next week down in Santa Cruz – I toted along a packet of yeast and some buckwheat, so that we could make them again on the 15th. The 17th saw more waffles. And this morning, to start our week off right, we did it again. This morning felt extra magical – Kyle had an early meeting, so we both were in the kitchen at six. The house was still, the boys asleep and dreaming, and we were drinking steaming mugs of coffee out of the Bialetti, talking quietly while waffles toasted. The sun slowly turned the dark outside our kitchen windows to gray, then blue and pink and gold, and then ‘sunshine colored’ as Jacob calls it – in and of itself a treat, after five long days of rain.

I suppose you could try making pancakes with this batter, but I am now a waffle convert — and this is a waffle recipe that will be with us for a long time to come. Thanks Molly, and Marion, for the night kitchen magic.  You can see how delightful it made our morning!

Yeasted Buckwheat Waffles
From Molly Wizenberg at Orangette (and Marion Cunningham)

I followed Molly’s recipe very closely. I switched the flour amounts, opting to use more of the whole-grain buckwheat and less regular flour. I also used a brown Muscovado sugar instead of white, although the amount of sugar in the recipe is so small it probably makes very little difference.

In the night kitchen:
1/2 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast
2 cups milk, warmed (room temperature works fine)
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Muscovado sugar (Molly uses white)
2/3 cup all-purpose flour (Molly uses 1 1/3 cups)
1 1/3 cup buckwheat flour (Molly uses 2/3 cup)

In the morning:
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ tsp. baking soda

Dissolve the yeast in the water in a large mixing bowl (batter will approximately double in volume overnight, so use your biggest bowl!). This will take a few minutes (I help it along sometimes with a quick whisk)

Then add the milk, flour, salt, sugar, and butter, making sure that if your milk is cold it doesn’t re-solidify your butter. Whisk until smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it stand overnight at room temperature. After the first time making these, I have taken to lightly oiling the plastic wrap, since the batter always seems to rise into it — I guess my biggest mixing bowl isn’t quite big enough!

In the morning, turn on your waffle maker so it can heat up. (Follow your waffle maker’s instruction manual for this – ours just plugs in and goes, but I think many waffle makers have power buttons, various settings, etc).

Just before cooking the waffles, whisk the eggs and add them with the baking soda to the yeasted batter (it will deflate – that’s fine). Stir to mix well. Pour an appropriate amount of batter into your hot waffle maker: I have found a scant half-cup per waffle on the belgian (ours makes two waffles at a time), but this amount will depend on your machine. Cook until golden and crisp (takes about five to eight minutes for us, and I can’t figure out what is causing the variation! Will let you know if we discover it).

We wind up with 18 to 20 squares (nine to ten waffle-makings in the belgian). They freeze and then re-toast well enough in the toaster, though with hungry boys and delicious waffles we usually seem to tear through them with no leftovers.