Monthly Archive for March 2009
I recently realized that one of the main things lacking from my winter diet was a crunch. Think about it. So many classically winter foods are soft or creamy—either in their natural state (citrus; fresh pasta) or rendered that way by braising, roasting, mashing, simmering and pureeing. Winter cooking has a way of transforming the most rock-hard of ingredients—rutabaga; butternut; dried beans—into creamy, velvety dishes. And all that smooth, warm savoriness was lovely for the six months that are Chicago’s winter, but I’m ready to move on. Forget al dente, I want a real crunch.
And that’s where this salad comes in. It couldn’t be simpler and it involves spring vegetables—spindly carrots; magenta radishes; delicate scallions—that should be creeping into your market soon, if they haven’t already. The scallions are slivered and the carrots and radishes are sliced into disks as thin and colorful as tulip petals. These are tossed in the simplest of vinaigrettes: lime juice, excellent olive oil, kosher salt. Finally, fold in a handful of minced cilantro, allowing it to distribute throughout the salad like green confetti. Let it sit for ten minutes or so, to let the flavors mingle.
I spent a good part of Saturday engaged in that greatest of all post-winter rituals: Spring Cleaning. As always, it was necessary, cathartic, and, in the end, exhausting. I must say, I had envisioned my Spring Cleaning to be, well, a little more Spring-like. I pictured myself throwing open the windows, letting in the sounds of birds chirping (and the rumbling El train, too, of course) and a gentle breeze. Instead, given the frigid forecast, I cranked up the heat and proceeded to banish my sweaters to storage. In a cruel twist of fate, it would begin snowing that very night leaving me sweaterless and shivering on a cold Sunday morning. Hrmph.
But aside from my sweaterless-ness, I discovered the same thing I do every time I go on a cleaning binge—hidden treasure. I rediscovered a few old favorites that had been hanging in my closet, shoved to the edges, forgotten for months. I unearthed a couple gems in the kitchen too: my apron (why did I stop wearing it?); a vanilla bean tucked in the back corner of a cupboard (not exactly a gold dubloon, but close); three speckled bananas at the bottom of a bowl of fruit sitting on the counter.
Soup, I have come to realize, feeds two very different needs. The first is the need to make soup—a craving that’s strongest for me in late fall, when the weather is sliding slowly into winter. During this early winter onset, other symptoms of mine include proclivities for wool socks, turtleneck sweaters and mugs of steaming hot beverages. In these times, the act of making soup—hearing the flame flick on below the soup pot, slowly coaxing flavor out of a humble mix of ingredients, the feel of the counter against my hip as I lean and stir, lean and stir—is just what the doctor ordered.
The second need that soup feeds is perhaps more obvious: the need to eat the soup. For me, this urge is at its peak on the rainy days of spring, with their damp chill and gloomy horizons. Summer, we know, is around the corner, but it’s not here yet. We’re like a little kid at her birthday party, blowing out the candles, only to realize, with a sinking feeling, that the candles are trick candles: the candles, like winter, will disappear momentarily, only to flare back up before you know it. In my grown-up mind, I want to scream, just give me the damn cake (the summer) already! To tide myself over until it’s really-truly-warm, I like to hunch over a bowl of soup, spooning up brothy bites, letting the steam warm my face.
This recipe, I admit, is a little gimmicky. It’s reminiscent of an overplayed commercial featuring bad lighting and the latest, greatest idea: the snuggie, for instance (like a blanket, except it has armholes!), or perhaps the clapper (clap on! clap off!). This recipe, unlike those commercials, has the advantage of Martha Stewart (or at least her brand) proclaiming its virtues. And what she (or one of her magazines) says is this: like a brownie, except it’s made in a skillet!
Well, I’m sold.
I had almost forgotten what it felt like to eat dinner before dark, with the waning sunlight falling golden all around you, with the windows open, with a lazy easiness. I did just this on Saturday night with my mother sitting across the table, two twinkling tea lights and a platter of chicken marsala between us. And it was lovely, just lovely. Get this: we even went for a walk around my neighborhood after dinner. It was that warm!
My mom was in town for the weekend, while Kevin was away with his friends (on mancation, as I like to call it), which means I had her all to myself. What a treat! We took full advantage of the one-on-one time by doing all the things we both love to do (but that certain other family members, ahem, aren’t so keen on). We walked, we watched girlie television shows and movies, we went to a musical, we sipped sauvignon blanc and cava, we swapped recipes and food magazines, we ate, we cooked. While I worked on Friday, she even read the book I just finished, so we could talk about it over the weekend.
One lone vanilla bean, cased in a stopper-ed glass test tube, has been stashed in the corner of my baking cupboard for weeks. Months, maybe. You’d think it was a bottle of Dom Perignon, on reserve for a special occasion, or my last few nickels, horded away just in case, the way I’ve been holding on to it. Across the kitchen, in another cupboard, a less-than-half-full bottle of bourbon has sat sadly unsipped for long enough to gather a thin cloak of dust. And, between the two, in the depths of my freezer, the frost-bitten bowl of my ice cream maker waited patiently, killing time by serving as a kind of ice bucket for a bottle of vodka.
Now, these three things—the vanilla bean, the bourbon and the ice cream maker—might seem unconnected. And, if you’d asked me last Thursday, I’d say the same thing. But, on Friday I discovered the thread that runs between the three and, well, I’m a changed woman.
It’s come to my attention that many of you have never heard of a “hot dish.” So let’s get that issue out of the way right off the bat. A “hot dish” is this: a casserole baked in Minnesota. Simple as that. To flesh out the definition, though, I’ll let you know that hot dish also involves a 9-by-13-inch Pyrex and some Campbell’s Cream of [Fill-in-the-Blank] Soup. And the very best version is Tater Tot Hot Dish, a recipe title that jets me back to my childhood—happily so.
Now, I consider Tater Tot Hot Dish a regional dish. Like queso in Texas, barbecue along parts of the Eastern Sea Board, biscuits in the South—where every cook in the region has a recipe for the dish firmly in his recipe, every good Minnesotan has her own version of Tater Tot Hot Dish. The Tater Tot Hot Dish might not be as glamorized or hallowed as any of these other regional delicacies, but we Minnesotans take it pretty seriously. Just show up to any Lutheran church pot luck: you’ll have your pick of at least a handful of versions.
I am fanatical about time. Promptness, I was raised to believe, is next to godliness. Cleanliness is fine and dandy, but you should really, really be on time. So you could say that my college experience got off on the wrong foot, to put it mildly, when I showed up late for my orientation. An entire day late.
I had signed up for the orientation backpacking trip the school offered for incoming freshman. I had a new backpack and hiking boots and I had staunchly refused to watch the Blair Witch Project all summer: I was ready. The day before I was set to leave for Chicago, between a couple last-minute errands and packing, I got a phone call. It was Ben, the student leader of the trip calling to find out when I planned to arrive. Tomorrow, I told him, probably before noon.
Between the constant onslaught of depressing news (economy, I’m looking at you), a long work week and The Return of Winter 2009 (happens every year; why am I still stunned?), I am so ready for the weekend. I can almost taste it: mindlessness, lazing, puttering, strolling—all the luxuries that the work week dispenses with. And there’s only a mere Friday (lovely in its own right) standing between me and this weekendly luxury! It’s enough to make a girl giddy.
I’m extra excited for this weekend because we spent last weekend in Boston (photos here). It was a great trip—unexpectedly glorious weather, an excellent tour guide (Kevin’s sister, who we were visiting), wonderful co-tourists (Kevin’s parents) and a belly constantly full of delicious food—but it left me exhausted. So, I’m looking forward to more of a hunker-down kind of weekend this time around.
We don’t ask much from our dinner guests. All we request is that they scale the four, steeeep flights up to our apartment (without too much complaining). And if they can possibly manage it, I am thrilled when they have requests (this one is way harder to come by than the stair-climb). And that’s just one of the (many) reasons why I love it when our friends Alex and Gena come for dinner. Gena, you see, can always be counted on to lodge a request (after a bit of gentle prodding, of course).
For our most recent dinner, her request was simple: something, anything, she pleaded, involving cream cheese frosting—a request I happily honored. I decided the frosting would sit atop a carrot cake.