Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sweet Potato-Rosemary Biscuits for Year's End

Friends, this is one of those "just made it up, haven't tested it multiple times, but want to write it down before I forget what I did" recipes (so proceed with caution). Most sweet potato biscuit recipes I've seen call for blending the sweet potato until smooth with milk and adding it to replace some of the liquid. In this take, I mash it up and cut it in with the fat, yielding little specks of discernible sweet potato. I also (always) favor buttermilk over sweet milk, so I tanged it up a bit, and then threw in some rosemary for good measure--since I love rosemary with sweet potato and also love it with ham.

My dad's family gathers every New Year's Eve to play poker and bingo, chat, catch up, y-a-w-n the closer it gets to midnight, eat, and--finally--stand at 12 to hold hands and sing Auld Lang Syne.

It's potluck. This year we have lots of Petit Jean ham left over from the farm lunch earlier today, so we're taking the rest of it down to Aunt Judy and Uncle Booger's. I whipped up these little biscuits to sandwich the ham bits with some sweet mustard. Enjoy!

Sweet Potato-Rosemary Biscuits

Stir together:

3 c. flour
1 T. baking powder
3/4 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 T. sugar

Cut in:

8 T. cold, unsalted butter
1 sweet potato (baked, cooled completely, and peeled), mashed
1 1/2 t. finely chopped rosemary

Stir in:

1 1/2 c. buttermilk (start with less, add just enough to make a wet, shaggy dough)

Turn dough onto heavily floured board (it will be quite wet). Pat into rectangle (with floured hands), about 1 1/2 inch thick. Cut into 2 inch squares. Place on buttered baking sheet (don't crowd, but they can touch lightly) and bake at 400 degrees until a rich, golden brown.

Serve hot with butter or cold with sweet mustard and thin slices of salty ham.

Makes approximately 2 dozen.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

My table has rooms.

In the background, away from the light: the mailroom and the packing/unpacking room.
In the middle: the vestibule (keys, purse) and the gift wrapping room.
In the foreground, in the light: the vanitas room (practical, ego, my self to the world) and the gravitas room (spiritual, intellectual, the world to my self and back again).

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The table.

I have ordered a table.

I was at a gathering Thursday night with a similar one, and when I walked in, I exclaimed about it. It's the table I'd been searching for--the one that was expansive enough, and showed itself off without adorning paints and turns and knobs. It looked like the tree it came from, just an adaptation, really, of "tree" and forest--a flat plane now, around which to sit and eat and talk...horizontal and not vertical, but still tree-ish, still harboring nests (all of us clamoring birds, mouths open to take in food and cheep, cheep, cheep our stories).

I have ordered a table, because it's not enough to have a surface to put food on. One must lean on it, chin cradled in palm supported by crooked elbow, ear cocked toward friends.

It will be big and sturdy. The man who is making it uses reclaimed Douglas Fir, and he warns of imperfections (oh, please, let there be many. Let there be nails from house boards or holes from worms, or gouges from a Downy Woodpecker).

It seemed urgent this week, this need for a real table. I think it was the way the sunshine (finally) and apple tree flowers and ripe rhubarb (after such a long winter) bumped up against the death of my friend, Kim Ricketts (who will never sit at this table, the person who would love it as much as I, who would know what it meant).

It's been one year since I moved into this house. She's the first person who saw it (Neighbor! We're neighbors! I must bring you cake!), and the books she brought me last month when I had a cold are still lying on the piano bench, because that's how fast time goes.

And one must have a table, because there are so many stories yet to tell, and plates of cake to share, and books to discuss, and friends to greet, who--like birds--light on your shoulder for such a short time, and hop excitedly, cheeping in a squeaky voice, and then fly away before you can tell them that you love them.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Living well is the best revenge.

Two things:

1. I know I never returned to the placeholder post, that repository of memories (which had just happened, and weren't then, but are now) I had rushed to write as I was leaving Arkansas a few weeks ago.

2. My house got broken into in the interim.

No, three:

3. I spent a Sunday thinking about writing in a workshop with Crescent Dragonwagon.

What #3 taught me about #1 is that growing up in the South was formative for everything but my scholarly writing. It's the filter through which all impressions seep, regardless of my distance in time and place from my childhood. Every exercise we did in the workshop pulled up words, pictures, people, practices, feelings, fragrances, and textures...both actual ones and the texture of lived moments...from a relatively compressed period of my life.

What #1 taught me about #3 is that Crescent, for me, and unfairly perhaps, is more than a writer, teacher, and cookbook author. She is fixed in my mind as the former owner of Dairy Hollow House in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It was the first restaurant that brought together my rural Southern culinary roots and the elevation of local ingredients into visual and gustatory experiences. Things were never the same.

And what #2 taught me about #3 is that a writing practice can be felled with one brief whack of fate. I answered the phone on March 14th to hear my landlady telling me that there had been a break-in. I raced home and found my house turned up side down. In real terms, there was little damage, I didn't lose too much stuff, and I have renter's insurance. But the things that were taken--laptops and camera equipment, primarily--were my touchstones. Someone walked off with my tools for documenting, with snippets of drafts, with notes of ideas, with pictures of trips and people. They took them. And there's something so jarring about knowing that I will never have my memory jogged by looking at that scrap of a note, this placeholder for something I wanted to write.  Whatever was there is gone.

This is really about guilt over procrastination, isn't it?

Maybe. But it's also about those moments that represent breaks from complacency. After the tornado in 1998, I was like a house afire. I traveled, learned things, started voice lessons...I was in a happy panic to do all those things that the tornado had shown me could be blown away without warning.

I wish I could promise myself that having my "recorders" taken would urge me to write and publish and craft and finish. No languishing, no waiting. Daily practice, making time, all that.

But truth is, I know it won't. I have a career and friends and family. I am busy almost all of the time, mostly doing things I love. I'm going back to Arkansas very soon, where I will stack up some more impressions and the backlog of things I want to write will grow, even before I've written about my last trip.

And really, is that so bad? To walk around all the time bursting with stories?

All the thieves got was plastic and metal.

I kept my full heart.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Some write, some cut wood.

This little post is a placeholder for all the posts I want to write about last weekend in Arkansas. There's the one about Jimmy and how he "reads" the world, since he can't really read. There's the one about the phrase "to put out a washing"--which my Dad uses when he puts a load of clothes in the washer. And the one in which I plan out my future cabin. And Eliot's ashes. And Vivian, hoarder of pick-up trucks. And the non-cooks at the checkout line at the Clinton Wal-Mart. And breakfast with John and Jerry. And my inability to remember streets in Memphis, although I lived there. And why driving on back roads across Arkansas requires a different clock than driving on the streets of Seattle.

And why I've changed the name of my blog to SouthWard. Which is what I am, no matter where I reside.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On the loss of mystery.

I don't want a dissected menu.

Every source listed, the names of the farms, the growing method, the driver of the truck from farm to table.

I know all the reasons it's good to provide that information to diners, but I don't want it. I want to trust a chef to source ethically, and then be utterly surprised by my meal.

I don't want to see pictures of restaurant food before I go there. When I first got my iPhone, I was taken by the ability to make a picture of a beautiful meal and send it to a friend in real time. But even that was about a desire to share an experience with an absent friend, or to record a moment with a loved one, or even a way of responding to something lovely--not so much a cold documentation or a collected badge or a notched culinary bedpost.

Maybe it's the constant noise: the blogs, the tweets, the yelpers, the foursquares. But I can't think of the last time I went into a new restaurant and was seduced by the experience itself: no pre-knowledge, no wonderment about dishes as they appeared, no anticipation building as a chef and his or her team crafted behind closed doors. No slow closing of the eyes as I finally saw and smelled and felt and tasted something and thought:

"this. I did not expect this."

I miss mystery.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Day recipes, 2011 (Angel Biscuits, Sweet Potato Cake, Cheddar-Sausage-Chile Cornbread)

This was the first part of the note I sent: 
Friends, it's a must. In the South (and in the Southern Diaspora), one eats black-eyes peas and greens on New Year's Day. The many peas signal prosperity; the greens signal wealth. I choose to think of both categories as figurative, since God knows we are not in professions that rake in literal riches, eh?

At any rate, New Year's Day also means a ham from Petit Jean Meats in Arkansas, one of which is on its way to me. I will be throwing it in the oven on January 1, making some peas and greens, baking some angel biscuits, and whatnot. I'd hate to eat alone. 
It was a good day, this first day of the new year. In spite of the unexplained smoke pouring into my house instead of up the chimney (a conundrum, since I've had many fires in the fireplace), necessitating a last-minute moratorium on crackling fires, and defying my house's space limitations, we packed about 20 hungry souls in on a sunny, cold day in Seattle. 

The menu:

Cheddar-Cayenne Crispies
Oysters Casino (courtesy of Patrick)
Regal Ransom (a bourbon cocktail, courtesy of Marc)
Arkansas Caviar (courtesy of Leslie, who may have ascribed it to a different state)
Petit Jean Ham
Cheddar-Sausage-Chile Cornbread
Black-eyed Peas
Collard and Red Cabbage Slaw
Angel Biscuits
Sweet Potato Cake
Bourbon Balls (courtesy of Kim)
Homemade Chocolate Doughnuts (courtesy of Jeanne)
Chocolate Chunk Cookies (courtesy of Kairu)
And drinks and sweets aplenty (courtesy of all)

There were requests for a couple of recipes, so here they are:

Angel Biscuits (so-called, because of the addition of yeast. Get it? They rise).

5 c. flour
1/8 c. sugar
1 T. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 c. cold butter, cut into cubes (plus more for brushing tops of biscuits)
1 pkg. yeast
4 T. warm water
2 c. buttermilk, at room temperature

Sift dry ingredients together. Cut in butter until it resembles small peas (confession: I do this in a large food processor, and then turn out into a large bowl before continuing). Dissolve and proof yeast in warm water. Add it and buttermilk to the bowl. Fold until just combined. It will still be a wet mess, but you just want to mix until there are no piles of dry flour. Turn into a large zipper type plastic bag and refrigerate over night. Next day: Roll out on a floured surface until between 1/2 and 3/4 inch thick. Cut with a biscuit cutter, gathering and re-using scraps until all the dough is used. Place biscuits on sheet pans or cookie sheets. Let them come to room temperature (they will just start to rise). Just before baking, brush liberally with melted butter. Bake at 375 degrees until golden brown. The beauty of these biscuits is that they HAVE to be made up the night before--clearing the morning for things other than mixing bowls! Also, the addition of yeast and sugar gives them a flavor and texture that is between a biscuit and a roll. So they can be dressed up for dinner, enjoyed for breakfast, or re-heated to good effect. Makes +/- 3 dozen, depending on the size of your biscuit cutter.

Sweet Potato Cake

I found a version of this recipe in an old cookbook in my uncle's cabin in Arkansas. I tweaked it a bit (which is to say that I didn't write it down and hoped I remembered it more or less correctly), and was VERY happy with the result. This is a perfect cake to serve with tea or coffee in the afternoon: not too gooey or sweet, very fragrant and moist. 

1 1/2 c. canola oil
2 c. sugar
4 egg yolks
4 T. hot water
2 1/2 c. flour (I used White Lily; use AP otherwise)
1 T. baking powder
3/4 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. freshly ground nutmeg (fresh is crucial)
1 1/2 c. grated raw sweet potato
1 c. chopped pecans
1 t. vanilla paste (extract will do)
4 stiffly beaten egg whites

Combine oil, sugar, egg yolks, and hot water in the bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment. Beat until homogenous and fluffy. Sift together dry ingredients and add slowly to wet mixture while the mixer is on low, scraping down sides occasionally. Stir in sweet potato, pecans, and vanilla. Remove bowl and fold egg whites into batter, taking care not to completely deflate the whites. Bake in a greased and floured bundt or tube pan at 325 degrees for approximately 75 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean. Let cake cool in pan for 10 minutes before inverting onto a cooling rack. I don't think this cake needs one thing--I suppose you could dress it up with some whipped cream, but it's really lovely on its own.

Cheddar-Sausage-Chile Cornbread (Gluten-Free)

Admission: I made this recipe gluten-free only because I was expecting gluten-intolerant guests. I replaced the wheat flour with rice flour, and I LOVED it. I will make it this way from now on, since the rice flour really lightened the texture considerably.

1 1/2 lbs. southern style pork breakfast sausage
1 onion, chopped
1 can diced roasted green chilis, drained
3 cobs of corn, scraped to include all the juice (use a can of creamed corn if no fresh corn)
12 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (do not use pre-shredded)
2 c. finely ground WHITE cornmeal (Sigh. Use yellow if you must.)
1 c. rice flour
1 1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
3 eggs, beaten
1 3/4 c. buttermilk
1/4 c. canola oil
1 t. freshly ground black pepper 

Brown sausage, breaking it up as you stir it. Remove with slotted spoon into large mixing bowl. Add onion to grease in skillet, cooking until soft but not yet brown. Add to sausage using slotted spoon. When cool, add chilis, corn, and cheese. Set aside. In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients. Beat together eggs, buttermilk, oil, and pepper. Pour over dry ingredients and whisk well (bonus: rice flour has no gluten, so beat with impunity!!!). Add to sausage mixture and mix well. Pour into greased shallow baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 50-55 minutes, or until golden brown and set in the middle.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

DEGSAN: Don't Ever Get Shooked About Nothing

Over the years, one by one, my Dad and his brothers have returned to Black Hill Road. Its counterpart is Ivywood Road, both names amusing recent attempts by Van Buren County, Arkansas to give a pedigree to washboard dirt roads in the middle of nowhere in the Ozark foothills. Mamaw and Papaw raised their first kids there, before Papaw moved them away to preach elsewhere, and his people had built the house they lived in. By the time I came along, Mamaw and Papaw had returned to the area to retire, had bought a farm up the road, worked it until they died. I had spent many weekends there, sleeping on quilt pallets, trembling in fear at Papaw's fire and brimstone preaching at Old Euseba Baptist Church, churning ice cream outside, shelling purple hull peas into paper grocery sacks, watching Mamaw make fried pies and cornmeal dumplings.

After Mamaw and Papaw died, their house was sold (we bought the adjacent acreage) and there was no gathering place. "Old House"--the original homestead down the road--belonged to someone else. But as things go out there in the country, everyone knew the lineage of that house, and the fact that it sat on land another man happened to own made no difference. It was still the Ward place. The owner, too, had no reason to stand in the way of our family using the house on his investment acreage, so in the late 60s/early 70s, we all started using it again. My Uncle Joe, a contractor, fixed it up enough to make it weathertight. Cooking and heat were by fire; water was by well; bodily "business" was *cough* taken care of out of sight of people and in the presence of woodland creatures.

Even love couldn't best the passage of time, though, and eventually Old House crumbled and fell. In the meantime, my parents had gone in with Dad's younger brother Bill and his wife, Suzy, to buy 16 acres and a house on the other side of the family acreage. What started as a weekend getaway spot soon became Dad's primary residence. After he retired, he stayed there more and more. Mom goes up on weekends and they entertain there, but for all practical purposes, he lives there and she holds down the fort in the "city" apartment.

Bill and Suzy sold their share in the house and built their own cabin up the road...and another tiny one...and another one...and another one. "Cabin Village" was born. And when I was trying to raise money to buy my house in Minnesota several years ago, I sold Uncle Joe ten acres of my land, upon which he built HIS cabin.

The 3 remaining Ward boys (Bobby and Butch had already passed) now cultivate a practice of hospitality for their sisters, the rest of the family, and the many friends attached to them. Joe and Dad are writers; Bill is a photographer, and together they chronicle the old foodways and musicways and loveways of the family and the region. All tables are big. All cabins are 90% great room for eating and singing, 10% for sleeping. Fireplaces are central. Much of the traffic on Black Hill Road is the 3 brothers driving back and forth to each others' places. The rest of the family diaspora--from coast to coast, from north to south across the country--know that they can show up unannounced and be fallen upon with hugs around the neck, skillets of cornbread, extra logs thrown on the fire in the winter or a trip to the pond to fish in the summer.

The prevailing philosophy is DEGSAN: Don't Ever Get Shooked About Nothing...a phrase coined by Uncle Joe. There have been plenty of things to get "shooked" about over the years, from divorces to changing political and social arrangements to money woes to sickness and death of loved ones, but in the grand scheme of things, every one in the family knows that a visit to Black Hill Road holds the mightiest of quakes tight.

Soon I will build my own cabin there. Dad and I walked around the edge of the pond a couple of days ago and identified the ridge it would sit on. Dad is 80. His brothers are in their 70s. I feel a sense of urgency and responsibility, since the line of hospitality along Black Hill Road needs to stay unbroken.

Dad and Uncle Joe and Uncle Bill would, of course, just say "DEGSAN" to my handwringing, but this is what happens when young girls go away and grow up and only have the benefit of the mind's eye to know what a scissor-tailed flycatcher looks like on a fence wire.

In the meantime, I'm keeping my cornbread skillet seasoned.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thirsting at the full well, or...Thanksgiving

I am not a Buddhist. I've never been able to Be.Here.Now.

I've shuttled between nostalgia for the past and dreams for the future: When I Open A Southern Restaurant In Seattle; When I Build A Cabin On My Land In The Ozarks; When I Win The Lottery And Continue To Work Because I Am Just Wired Up That Way...

But I'm going to practice this "being present to the moment" business. I've known for about a month that my Dad's lymphoma had likely returned. All the symptoms from last time were there, and each sequential appointment--first with the family doctor, and then the blood labs, and then the oncologist, and then the scans, and then the biopsies--have all led, incrementally, from likely to certainly.

And over the weeks, I have gone from dread to denial to hope to sullenness to fatigue to joy many times over. Mostly I've been preparing myself to shore up my folks, and I confess that I've dwelled on the less hopeful scenarios (even though Dad's oncologist is hopeful about treatment).

But here's the deal: Dad is alive right now, and every second I spend not Being.Here.Now is a waste. It's like standing at a full well, dipping up bucket after bucket of refreshing water, even as I moan about eventual thirst. We have time yet.

Now, at Thanksgiving, I'm going to do the things my father has taught me: to love cooking and music; to lay a perfect fire in the fireplace; to have an outsized capacity for wonder; to excel at laughing; to embody pragmatism and idealism at one and the same time; to feed the birds puffed up on my frozen back deck rail; and to always, always, recognize the power of story.

I'll be home in a month. Meanwhile, there's firewood on the front porch and it's a snow day. Time to make pie and have a big glass of cool, clear water.

Giving thanks.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The night the windows steam.

Perhaps it was talking to my dad about laying in firewood for the winter. He reminded me of the way to remember to lay a good fire, which was to first remember the middle of a long poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, Snowbound, which was to remember my Uncle Joe, who quotes the poem often while laying fires.

...We piled, with care, our nightly stack
Of wood against the chimney-back, --
The oaken log, green, huge, and thick,
And on its top the stout back-stick;
The knotty forestick laid apart,
And filled between with curious art

The ragged brush; then, hovering near,
We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;
While radiant with a mimic flame
Outside the sparkling drift became,
And through the bare-boughed lilac-tree
Our own warm hearth seemed blazing free...

Read the whole poem here. 

Perhaps it was driving up to Skagit Valley in a convertible today, too chilly, shouting over the whipping wind, passing pumpkins in fields, pumpkins on country porches.

Perhaps it was the presence of five quince, left over from a "fried pie" cooking demo at the Queen Anne Farmer's Market, at which an old woman from Louisiana rewound her life to childhood in the first bite and took her granddaughter (brought to the market demo specifically to meet fried pies) with her--grasped urgently by the hand and exhorted to remember, too, the place she had never known but that lived in her blood all the same.

Whatever it was, I made a stew for a Sunday night. I should have invited friends, for the pot that causes the windows to steam that first evening in the fall deserves company--started in daylight, bubbling, liminal, to nighttime. It's not a stew that evokes my childhood, save for the comfort, the heat, the cleared sinuses, the steamy forehead by lamplight.

I had read a recipe last fall that featured quince in a lamb stew. I couldn't remember where I saw it, but it had generally northern African spices. My version is brazen in its disregard for state boundaries, and draws instead on cuisines from many of the countries that border the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. It is spicy from the chilis, tart from the quince, rich from the lamb, sweet from the honey. I hope you enjoy it, and that it will comfort you when cold and dark are outside and warmth and light are with you and your bowl.

Spicy Lamb and Quince Stew

2 lbs. lamb shoulder, cut in large chunks
6 T. olive oil
2-3 T. coriander seeds, toasted and crushed
2-3 T. cumin seeds, toasted and crushed
5-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
3-4 hot red chilis, stemmed and cut into thirds
2-3 T. sweet paprika
1 1/2 t. cayenne pepper
1/2 t. saffron threads
one cinnamon stick
2-3 onions, chopped
salt and black pepper
1 c. water
4 c. chicken stock
4 T. tomato paste
3 T. honey
5-6 quince, cored and cut into chunks (no need to peel)
1 c. Israeli couscous

Put lamb in a large bowl and add 1/2 the olive oil, the garlic, coriander, cumin, chilis, paprika, and cayenne. Stir to coat the lamb, cover, and refrigerate 24 hours.

Put the rest of the oil in a large dutch oven and brown the lamb in batches, removing to a plate to rest. Remove all but a coating of the oil. Add the water to deglaze the pot, scraping up the brown bits. Add the lamb (with juices) back to the pot, and add the saffron, cinnamon, onions, salt and pepper (start with 1 t. of each--add more salt at the very end to taste), chicken stock, and tomato paste.

Stew at low heat (just a simmer) for 1 1/2 hours or until the lamb is fork tender. Add the quince and the honey and stew for another hour. Add couscous in the last 20 minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve with cilantro leaves.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rote Grütze mit Vanillesosse (compote of red fruits with vanilla sauce)

My mom says looking at German makes her want to gargle. But listen: this dish is not at all like mouthwash. It's Berlin in the summertime, it's what's on those seasonal chalkboard menus outside of sidewalk cafés under the boulevard tree canopies. It's cold-smooth-tart-creamy-fruity-sweet. And vanilla-y. Act fast, Seattle, because it depends on red currants, available at the U-District farmer's market, and likely only a couple more weeks. Don't say I didn't warn you.

For the Grütze:

1 pint each strawberries, red cherries, raspberries, red currants (cleaned, hulled, pitted, etc.--cut cherries in half)
1-2 lemons
1/2-1 cup sugar
1-2 T. cornstarch

Put washed and prepared fruit (drained well) in a large saucepan and mash with a potato masher until much of the juice has been released. You want the fruit to stay relatively chunky, though. Depending on the sweetness of your fruit, add the juice of 1-2 lemons and 1/2-1 cup sugar. I wish I could tell you more specifically--but it just depends on that fruit. The result should be sweet, but not toothache-inducing--remember that the vanilla sauce will be sweet, too. And the lemon should brighten it, but not to the point that it screams CITRUS. Having achieved the perfect balance (for you) of sweet and tart, bring to a boil, stirring regularly, and then lower to a simmer. You are not making jam here. You want the fruit to read fresh, not preserved, so only simmer for a few minutes (skimming and removing foam from the surface). Meanwhile, dissolve 1-2 T. cornstarch* in just enough cold water to make a slurry. Pour in a steady stream into the bubbling fruit, stirring constantly. When it starts to thicken, remove from the heat and let cool (stirring occasionally to keep a skin from forming). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or at least 5-6 hours. It should be absolutely chilled. Serve topped with vanilla sauce.

*Some people add more cornstarch to get a more solid product that you can mold. I don't care for that--I really like the presentation of the thickened compote in a glass dish, with the vanilla sauce filling the irregular peaks and valleys. That is to say, the first Rote Grütze I ever had was unmolded, and that's the standard for me.


1 1/2 c. whole milk
1/2 c. (minus 2 T.) heavy cream
2 egg yolks
2 t. cornstarch
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 t. salt
scrapings of 1/2 vanilla bean (or 1 t. vanilla paste)

Bring milk, cream, vanilla slowly to a boil (stir occasionally so it doesn't scorch). While it's heating, beat egg yolks, sugar, salt, cornstarch, and 2 T. heavy cream (make sure the cream is very cold) with a whisk. Beat a few tablespoons of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolk-sugar mixture to temper it; return all the egg mixture into the milk mixture, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil, lower temperature (stirring all the while), and cook until thickened. Remove from heat. Pour through a strainer into a bowl. When cooled somewhat, cover and chill thoroughly.

Serve over Rote Grütze.

tip: I've also used the Grütze and the vanilla sauce as two components of a great trifle. Layer it with some Chambord-soaked cake and whipped cream in a trifle dish.  Yum.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

My family's barbeque sauce, tweaked.

Truth be told, the origins of this sauce lie outside my family.

Folks who lived in Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1950s and 60s will well remember The Shack. There have been various BBQ smokehouses with that name since then, and a plethora of recipes have popped up on the internet and elsewhere (one I remember in the warehouse district in Minneapolis), all claiming to be the original "Shack" recipe. But those of us who cruised up and down Markham in Little Rock in those days developed taste buds that know the difference: it has to be lip-puckeringly tart from vinegar and heavy on the black pepper. This is a savory sauce: salty, tart, spicy.

Back then, my mother's brother drove a bread truck and delivered the buns daily to The Shack. Uncle Bobby somehow got the recipe, and it became my family's sauce of choice from that point forward. But as those things go, a family of cooks and foodlovers played with it, adding this thing there and taking away this other thing, and now--except for a few Must Haves--there are nuanced versions scribbled down in each of our recipe drawers and binders.

I love this evolution of recipes. Like languages and dialects, recipes and their variants move and shift with the friends and guests and loved ones that taste them and want to recreate the experience.

I made this sauce for a BBQ today here in Seattle. It graced pork shoulder, coaxed and coddled and pulled into hickory-smoked glory by my friend, Larry, who had made another equally delicious version of apple-smoked pork.

I hope the friends who try this will inflect it with their own voice.

Serve on smoked, pulled pork shoulder. Be sure to make a creamy, tart coleslaw for the bun, too!

Barbeque Sauce

2 c. Heinz ketchup
1 c. water
1/2 c. apple cider vinegar
1 oz. salt
1 oz. black pepper (medium grind or finer)
1 oz. sugar or sorghum or cane molasses
1 oz. chile powder*

Mix all ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer 5-6 minutes. Bottle and refrigerate, preferably several days before its use. To serve, re-heat. This is ideal on pork, but does a fine job on chicken, too.

*You can use commercial chile powder, but I prefer to make my own:

1 c. crushed, dried chile pods, stems and caps removed (I used chile from Chimayo, NM--a fruity, medium-hot pepper)
2 T. sweet ground chile
1 t. whole cumin seeds
1-2 t. ground chipotle
1 t. garlic powder
1 t. oregano powder

Place crushed chile pods and cumin in a skillet. Toast until just giving off fragrance. Remove from heat and cool. Grind in a coffee grinder in batches. Stir in remaining ingredients. Keep in an airtight jar.

Monday, June 14, 2010

First cooking memory: Chocolate Meringue Pie

711 E. 17th St., Little Rock, Arkansas.

1964. Summer.

I wasn't tall enough to stand over the cooktop and stir the filling. My perspective on Nanny's pie-making was this: if I circled around, at eye level we would have the bottom of the iron skillet resting on the grate, the blue flame underneath, the yellow formica with the boomerangs. Then the bottom of Nanny's arm, her thinned-out skin sagging and undulating with the stir of the spoon. Then the tie of her apron. Behind me the open window--waves of heat washing in on the breeze--and around to the icebox, and continuing to the doorway into the living room, and finally back over the counter to the stirring and the black iron, steam rising now as the sugar and cocoa and flour and milk and a pinch of salt started to cook.

My boy cousins giggling and shrieking as they ran around and around the house, in and out of the bushes. Long, low cars passing the house, indolent, men with one arm on the steering wheel and the other stretched along the back of the passenger seat. KALO, souuuuuuuuul radio, approaching and fading with the cars.

I wanted to make that pie, and knew I could, if only I could reach it.

Nanny brought over the stepstool. It, too, was yellow, its seat a padded vinyl, and its steps ridged rubber treads. Its legs were chrome, and usually I sat on the seat as I watched her, but this time was different. She steadied me on the bottom step and walked me through: into a clean skillet went the dry ingredients (what I didn't spill on the floor). As I teetered on the step, she fetched the milk out of the icebox and a measuring cup. She poured the milk in and told me to yell "stop" when it reached that line right there, and I did. I stirred as she poured the milk in the skillet and she showed me how to keep the mixture moving along the bottom, and what it looked like when it was thick enough to take off the heat.

"It's like Moses parting the Red Sea, see there? See how the river parts and lets the Israelites cross?"

She showed me how to separate eggs, and didn't say a word when it took 7 or 8 to get the 3 clean whites and yolks into the two bowls. I beat the yolks with a fork, and spooned a bit of the hot chocolate mixture into them at her prompting (Nanny didn't use the word "temper"--I doubt if she'd ever heard it), and put them back into the skillet, my young arm already tiring from the endless stirring.  She didn't grab the spoon away when the first bubble boiled up, and stayed calm as she told me to turn the fire off.

Then the butter and vanilla, and stir, stir, stir, until that knob of butter finished its spiral trail and was all gone.

Looking back now, I'm sure Nanny must have hoisted the skillet on and off the heat and managed the flame surreptitiously, but I only recall feeling very sovereign.  I do remember her holding the skillet over the baked pie shell as I clumsily scooped (most of) the filling in, but even then she adopted the stance of handmaiden.  We beat the meringue together and spread and sculpted it on top of the chocolate filling. I wonder if she had to bite her lip to allow such a disheveled set of cowlicks and spikes to abide on the top of that pie. She didn't act like it.

A quick goldening in the oven and there it was.

My first one.

There was no fawning and cooing, no badge or ribbon.  Baking a pie in Arkansas in 1964 was just what girls learned. It was like making a bed with hospital corners or knowing how to dry your own back with a towel.

But the celebration was there nonetheless. The washing and sewing were postponed. Eggs were wasted. An extra chocolate pie was made on that day, when normally she would have made one chocolate and one lemon.

She tied the apron around me, just as solemnly as she would have set a crown on my head.

I had made my first pie.

Nanny deemed it good. I hope you like it, too.

Southern-Style Chocolate Meringue Pie

4 T. flour
Pinch salt
1 c. sugar
1/3 c. cocoa
2 c. milk (start with a small can of evaporated milk, top off with whole milk to make 2 c.)*
3 eggs, separated
1 T. vanilla
3 T. salted butter (Nanny used salted; I use unsalted, but add a bigger pinch of salt to the dry ingredients)
5 T. sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar, optional

1 pre-baked pie shell (use your favorite recipe)

In an iron skillet, blend together the dry ingredients, mashing with fork to eliminate clumps of cocoa. Turn heat to medium and add milk, stirring constantly until thick enough that the spoon leaves a trail at the bottom of the skillet. Remove from flame. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks. Add 2-3 tablespoons or so, one at a time, of the hot chocolate mixture, beating well. Return skillet to flame and add the egg yolks, stirring quickly and thoroughly to incorporate and avoid scrambling or curdling. Cook, still stirring, until quite thick. Remove from heat and add vanilla and butter. Stir until the butter is melted and blended in. Set aside to cool slightly (about 10 minutes) before pouring into pre-baked pie shell. Spread evenly and top with meringue, spreading that to cover the filling completely (you should have a seal between meringue and crust—it will shrink away slightly when it’s baked, and you don’t want the filling exposed). Bake in a 400 degree oven for 4-5 minutes, watching closely, until the meringue peaks are golden.

Meringue: beat the egg whites until very foamy. While still beating, gradually add 5 T. sugar (and cream of tartar, if using) continue to beat until the meringue holds soft peaks, but is not dry.

*When I make this pie these days, I often just use 2 c. of half-n-half, or if I’m REALLY feeling brazen, cream. Nanny would have used plain old Hershey’s cocoa, but the better cocoas really elevate the flavor. Same with vanilla. Also, this filling makes a great warm chocolate pudding, topped with whipped cream, if you don’t have time to make a pie crust.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Out with the old, in with the new.

March 8? Really? I haven't posted anything since March 8?

Here is the annotated bullet point list of why:

1. Page proofs of the book. Done. Next step, indexable proofs, and then it's really gone. The professional indexer we hired has already started working on it and finds it "fascinating" and really, if I can make a professional indexer's work more fun, I'm all for it.

2. Work. Let's just say it's busy. Really, really busy. The work will bear fruit, I think, but in the meantime...busy.

3. My friends Alex and Eric got married in Mexico and I went down for the wedding. But first: I took a little alone time in Tulum, and my daily "to do" list consisted of: wake up to the sounds of waves and birds; coffee and huevos rancheros in the open air restaurant, to which I walked through the sand, barefoot; lie under an umbrella and read a novel; lather, rinse, repeat. It was perfect.

4. I moved. I'm still in the midst of chaotic stacks of boxes, but here is what is in order: I realized I have many friends in Seattle (I can't begin to articulate my joy at this realization), without whose help I could not have managed; I live in a light-filled house with a lovely yard and a woodburning fireplace; I can walk to a farmer's market; I share walls with no one. I celebrated my insularity by banging joyfully on the piano.

5. I am poised to...I don't even know. But I love the feeling of cresting a hill in my life, not quite sure what I will see when I get to the top and can pick up speed.

In the meantime, how's by you?

Monday, March 8, 2010

It's the time of the season...

...for l-o-v-i-n-g...

Tell me you don't start singing that song by The Zombies.
Strike that. I just showed my age.

Tell me you don't like the sentiment, whether you know the song or not, then.

You can't. If you were in Seattle this weekend, you know what I mean. After months of grey sky and spittle rain and not-cold-not-hot temperatures, your heart quickened for a bit, before the weather turned its back on you today.

Oh, but for just a bit...

You opened the sunroof during errands, didn't you? You considered sandals, before you remembered that it wasn't quite pedicure season yet. You dug in the earth or walked the dog a block further or got an ice cream.

Me, I went on an impromptu photo safari with my friend, M. We were playing with our iPhone cameras and we strolled through the community garden and smelled fragrant things and saw green buds swelling, not in the merry month of May, but March. March!

And it's OK now that the chill has returned.

Because the door to spring opened ever so fleetingly, and I craned my neck and saw it.

And felt it.

It was right there on this tree, when I put my hand out and caressed the bark where the sun was shining on it.

Warm. Warm under my hand.

It's the time.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sometimes what you want is an old-fashioned layer cake.

My Aunt Judy is one of those cooks. You know the kind: does it by feel, does it well, doesn't crow about it, but would nod if asked: "So, Aunt Judy, do you think you pretty much have the banana pudding market cornered?"

At some point, I don't remember when, she started showing up at our house on my Dad's birthday, December 17, with a layered coconut cake for her big brother. We lived on E. Post Oak Drive in Conway, Arkansas, in one of those early 70s ranch-style houses. The cake always sat on the breakfast bar (just who designed that awful harvest gold-patterned formica, anyway?), with toothpicks providing the tent poles for the plastic wrap swaddling it. It never quite made it to the refrigerator, since there were 4 of us at home, and others would stop by to wish my Dad a happy birthday.  But many years later, Dad developed Type II diabetes, and that was the end of the cake delivery.

Recently I was flipping through our family cookbook, looking for something else, and I came across Aunt Judy's recipe. Although there are multiple components, each individual one is pretty easy--as are most of the recipes that come from a time and a place where fussy cooking would have been met with narrowed eyes.

A buttermilk cake, vanilla curd filling, boiled frosting (yeah, it's corn syrup. Repent with extra kale tomorrow!), and coconut. That's it. I tweaked Judy's recipe just a bit, to try to get a little more coconut flavor in, update some ingredients, and add some salt.  I also used fresh coconut (which, frankly, was a nightmare, since I couldn't find mature coconuts).

It would be a better cake if Aunt Judy had been here to help mix and stir and tell stories and laugh, and then sing alto next to me as we worked through some songs as the cake baked, but it's pretty good all the same.  Yes. I'm nodding.

Coconut Layer Cake

For the cake:
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 c. canola oil
1/2 c. coconut milk
1/2 t. salt
1 t. soda
2 t. baking powder
2 c. flour
1 c. buttermilk
3 eggs

Mix sugar, oil, and coconut milk with a whisk until smooth. Whisk in eggs and beat well (no electric mixer!). Mix dry ingredients and add alternately with buttermilk. Bake in 2 9-in layer pans at 325 until golden and a toothpick tests clean. Cool completely and split layers horizontally.

For the filling:
1/2 c. evaporated milk
1/2 c. coconut milk
1 stick butter, cut into pieces
1 t. vanilla extract or vanilla paste, or 1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
1 c. sugar
1/2 t. salt
3 egg yolks

Combine in a cold saucepan and turn on heat to medium. Stir to combine (be sure to get yolks mixed in well and get them off the bottom of the saucepan). Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until starting to thicken. Cool slightly and spread between first 3 cake layers.

For the frosting:
1 c. white corn syrup
1/4 t. salt
3 egg whites

Beat egg whites until stiff. Boil corn syrup and salt for 1 minute. Pour in steady stream into egg whites, beating constantly, until stiff and glossy.

For the topping:

Coconut, fresh or flaked (toasted either way)

Ice the filled cake with the frosting and sprinkle coconut on top (and sides, if desired).

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Kabocha Squash Ice Cream with 5-Spice and Crystallized Ginger

I made ice cream for a gathering last weekend, and I hated it. Mostly I hated that I was in a hurry, and had too many things planned, and was scrambling, which led to scrambled eggs, which led to starting over, which led to less time and more scrambling. I also just didn't particularly like the recipe--it had 10 (gasp, 10!) egg yolks per quart, and I didn't like the egginess. But I didn't like my execution, either, and all and all, I felt I had thrown down a self-to-self gauntlet over ice cream. I went home and started the week by challenging myself to a duel. I and I won.

This is the result. I was well pleased.

I took some flavors and ingredients that intrigue me, and riffed a bit off of David Lebovitz' fine pumpkin ice cream recipe. Here's the link to an online version of his recipe, so you can see what I changed:

1 1/2 c. whole milk
1 c. heavy cream
1/3 fine sugar (I use caster sugar)
1 t. ground ginger
1 rounded T. 5-spice powder (make sure it has Sichuan pepper in it)
1/2 t. kosher salt
4 large egg yolks
1/4 c. packed dark brown sugar
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1 cup kabocha squash puree (seed and roast, then puree)
3 T. minced crystallized ginger

Mix the milk, cream, caster sugar, spices, and salt in a saucepan. Warm until starting to bubble, stirring occasionally, being careful not to scorch.

Whisk the egg yolks briskly in a medium bowl until smooth and thick. To temper the eggs, add 1 cup of the warm milk mixture (in a slow, steady drizzle) to the yolks, whisking constantly.
Return the egg/milk mixture back to the saucepan and stir to combine with the remaining milk and cream. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture starts to thicken and coat the spoon, but avoid letting bubbles develop. Bubbles lead to scrambled eggs--not an appetizing ice cream confection.

Pour the mixture into an icy bowl (see below), whisk in the brown sugar, and stir until cool. Chill for several hours. When completely cold, stir in squash puree and vanilla, and pour through a fine mesh strainer into an ice cream maker. You should be able to scrape almost all of the mixture through the strainer, but it will smooth out the texture nicely. Process until you have a soft ice cream and then add the ginger. Process a couple of minutes more and remove to a freezer-appropriate container. Freeze overnight.Makes +/- one quart.

*Icy bowl: rather than make a conventional ice bath by nesting a bowl in a larger bowl of ice, I put one bowl inside another one and pour water around it. I put a bag of beans or weights into the bowl to force the water up the sides, and then I freeze the whole thing. I find it easier to deal with, since the bowls are essentially fused together by the frozen, solid ice.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Nanny, Zula, and the Cataract Surgery

Nanny was my great-grandmother. She was the sweetest woman who ever lived, and one of the sassiest. She made all my clothes, all of them, with matching outfits for my Barbie dolls. She and I quilted together. We cooked. I learned how to make pies from her, chocolate and lemon meringue. She always had stewed apricots in the refrigerator and she kept her long hair in a bun. She could break into tears-streaming-laughter at the slightest provocation, and she kept a snuff can behind her platform rocker.

She also lived to be a million (OK, close to 100), and her elder sister, Zula, lived to be even older. She was sassier--if possible--than Nanny, and lived on top of Petit Jean Mountain, way out in the country. When she was already in her 90s, it was determined that Aunt Zula's quality of life (which was still considerable) could be enhanced with the removal of her cataracts.

This would require a trip to the big city, Little Rock, and she would recover at the apartment Nanny was sharing with her daughter (my grandmother, Mommo).

So Aint (this is how it's pronounced, not "Aunt" at all) Zula showed up, went under the knife, and then prepared to spend her first night at Mommo and Nanny's widow apartment (they had lived together with their husbands, my Papaw and Daddy Gene, in a house across the river previously).

Now Mommo had the larger bedroom, with a king-sized bed. Nanny's room was smaller. So they figured that the "sick room" would be Mommo's, since both Nanny and Zula could fit in that bed, and since Nanny was going to be the caregiver, and all preparations were made. Zula, with her bandaged eyes, was helped to the bathroom, helped out of her clothes and into her nightgown, and helped into the side of the bed closest to the bathroom right there in the large master bedroom. Mommo relocated to the small bedroom and retired for the evening, and Nanny went to the foreign sleeping berth she would occupy for the night--the far side of the king-sized bed.

In their 90s, but still sisters, they giggled and told stories, and finally drifted off.

All was well.

Until Nanny woke up in the night and decided she needed to "tinkle"--in the language of my people. She carefully got up and teetered to the bathroom. However, she had never really paid attention to the layout in her daughter's bathroom, and so when she, um, sat down where she thought she was supposed to (it was the middle of the night, friends, she was groggy), it was the negative space of the bathtub and not the welcoming seat of the toilet.

She hollered for Mommo. Mommo was OUT or wearing earplugs or who knows? But she didn't wake up. Zula did. And Zula, being the sturdy Mountain Girl she was, wasn't about to be hampered by bandaged eyes. Not when her beloved sister was braying in the bathroom. She got up, staggered, arms outward for balance and to avoid walls, blind as a bat, to the bathroom. Her searching arms were too high to detect that Nanny, having fallen backwards into the tub, had stick legs protruding into her way, and so Zula promptly tripped over them and joined her sister in the tub.

Pause here for the visual.

Eventually Mommo did wake up and help the hapless girls back into bed, but not before they had peed themselves laughing and shrieking.

I miss them all. Whatever else I have gotten from the women in my family--a love of cooking, an appreciation for music, a metaphor-laden vocabulary--the thing I appreciate the very most is the embodied and spontaneous ability to pee myself laughing, even when I'm blind and tangled up in the bathtub.

Nanny is on the left. Zula is on the right. They are both laughing and wearing red, bless their hearts.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Stinging Nettle Tart with Bacon and Parmesan

It's been a crazy mild winter in Seattle. According to my friends who know such things and can school us transplants (roughly 99% of Seattle residents, from what I gather), it is a consequently crazy early stinging nettle season.

Now I'd had nettles before, in soup, mostly, and a delicious risotto, just last night, made by my friend Marc. But I'd never actually held one in my hand until last week. Let me pause and let you reflect on that: Turns out the "stinging" part of "stinging nettles" is not just a poetic embellishment--those improbably green and inviting critters STING. I bought a bag from Foraged and Found at the farmers market, and the bag split. I was just trying to close the bag somehow, and my poor hands suffered for hours. All of this is to say USE GLOVES to prepare them. I'm not kidding. I just used TWO PAIRS of latex gloves and still got a couple of stings, but it's worth it! It's green and spring and hope and delicious! Now the green blade riseth!!! [I apologize to my non-choral/hymn friends for that reference.]

As I tasted a fried nettle leaf while Marc was preparing the risotto, I had one of those evocative taste moments. It reminded me of poke sallet, which we had gathered in the Ozark woods and fields back in Arkansas in my childhood. Poke, like nettles, has a warning attached. It evidently contains some sort of unsavory component, so it has to be boiled twice: the first time one throws away the water and then starts over (conventional wisdom is that it's "poison"--but I grew up in a family of Wide-Eyed, Arm-Waving Storytellers, so I don't know if it's really true). [see below for an anecdote from my mother about poke sallet] At any rate, both poke and nettles make you work for them, and so I thought I might try to honor my bag of nettles by making a tart--riffing off a quiche my Aunt Dena used to make with Poke Sallet back during the High Quiche Years, the 70s.

I did. It was tasty. I wanted you to know.

Stinging Nettle Tart with Bacon and Parmesan

1 recipe Yeasted Tart Dough*
8 cups fresh nettles (use gloves to remove stems; wash; you should have about 6 c. of leaves)
1 T. aged Balsamic vinegar
4 thick slices bacon (I used home cured and smoked Bay and Black Pepper by my friend, Larry, and I apologize for the fact that I am not able to share it with you.)
1 shallot
3 eggs
1 c. heavy cream
1/3 c. Greek yogurt or sour cream
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
salt, freshly ground black pepper
a few scrapes of fresh nutmeg

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the washed nettle leaves (did I mention you should be wearing gloves??) and simmer for a few minutes. You don't want to cook them and mute that green, just deactivate the DEVIL in them. Drain. Pulse in a food processor until chopped, but not pureed. Drain well and squeeze all water from them. Sprinkle on the vinegar and season with salt and pepper.

Chop the bacon and brown in a large skillet. If there is more than 2 T. of grease, remove some of it. To the bacon and grease, add the shallot. Cook until just short of golden, stir in the nettles and toss around for a minute or two. Remove from heat and cool.

Beat eggs, dairy, cheese, salt and pepper to taste (how salty is your bacon? I can't say.), and a bit of nutmeg.

Press the tart dough into and up the sides of a tart pan with a removable bottom. Spread the cooled nettle and bacon mixture evenly over the tart shell.

Pour in the custard and jostle the pan a bit to even it out. Place on a sheet pan and bake at 375 degrees until puffy, set, and golden, about 30-35 minutes.  Let cool slightly before serving--this tart is more tasty if it's just warm, not blazing hot.

I think I would love to serve this to friends for an early-spring-please-let-me-believe-winter-is-over brunch, along with bowls of citrus, strong, fragrant coffee, and hours of conversation.

* Yeasted Tart Dough, adapted from Deborah Madison's classic The Greens Cookbook

1 t. active dry yeast (I used 1/2 T. fresh yeast)
1/4 c. warm water
pinch of sugar
1 egg
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 c. flour (I used more, since I was using whole wheat pastry flour)
1/2 t. salt
3 T. soft butter

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. When bubbly, stir in the egg. Add the butter and half the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon and add flour, bit by bit, until the dough is pulled together enough to turn over with your hand. Knead in the bowl by folding the dough over onto itself and adding flour if it gets too sticky. Once it is smooth and pliable, form into a ball (all in the bowl) and cover the bowl with a towel. Set aside.

This is my mother's comment about poke sallet: Re: the poke's not really "poisonous"...but, it IS strong enough to blister a one-year-old's lips and surrounding areas! Which is precisely what happened to you, Jenifer! Not knowing about poke sallet my own self, I gave you a taste of it, and you LOVED it! Scarfed it down in record time for a toddler of your age! Long story short, when your lips swelled and every place the greens touched turned beet red...I rushed you off to the pediatrician, who healed you, but voiced his "displeasure" with me. Well, I was merely a child myself...what can I say? I've learned a few lessons since then...and still love poke sallet!!! :):)

Friday, February 12, 2010

February, I'm done with you.

I'm pretty "glass half full" on most days, but I've had it.

It's mid-February, and the darkness is wearing on me, Seattle. It's grey, it's gloomy, it's damp.

I get up in the morning and it's dark. I leave work and it's dark. I plunge around in my bedroom area (it's a loft, so I just get an "area"--not a room) at crack of dawn-of-my-discontent, and look for clothes. I find myself wearing the same thing over and over, because it's easier to wash and dry things in the brightly lit bathroom than to put them away by lantern-light (hyperbole), never to find them again until springtime (more hyperbole).

See? There's me, looking for drama. And that's the problem: this winter is monotone. Daytime highs in the 50s, grey, spitty rain to chance of rain to just rained.

Bring on a gullywasher! A frog-strangler! Or blazing sunshine! Or a wind incident!

Alternately: give me time. With time, I could plan leisurely evenings, every night, with candles and hot chocolate or wine, with my friends, with music, with conversation "um Gott und die Welt" (a German phrase that means a conversation that encompasses everything--from God to the entire world), with laughter, with food.

Seattle winters, you should come packaged with time.

My glass needs filling.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The biga genealogy.

Really? This is how my matriarchy came to be?

I put a pear in some water and let some yeast develop. I fed it water and flour every day.

It grew to be strong. It gurgled and cooed, it bubbled.

At first, I gave the castings away to people I knew. Lorna and Henry, Mike and Jenise, Patricia and John, Larry and Kristen, Patrick.

Now the next generation of biga-lets is coming to be, as Patricia shares some of her castings. And maybe they will share, too.

And so on. And so on. And so on.

All from that one Seckel pear that I bought at the University District Farmer's Market in Seattle from Jerzy Boys Fruit in Chelan.

I love thinking about one pear leading to all that bread in all those homes with all those folks and all that sweat and all that heat and all that love.

May the smells be comforting and the butter be plentiful.

Rise up, little yeast children.  Feed my friends.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Ferment

On March 29 1998, my last sourdough starter died.

I was teaching at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN, and living in the director's apartment of Crossroads International House on campus. Spring break had just started and it was quiet. My cat and I were sprawled on the floor, hugging the peace left in the wake of college students scattering to beaches, to homes away. The window was open, since it was balmy for Minnesota at that time of the year.

I heard the siren, but dismissed it. It was late winter in Minnesota. It must be a test.

The phone rang and it was Campus Security telling me that it was, indeed, a bona fide tornado warning and that I should gather the remaining international students in the building and take cover. I was skeptical, but responsible, so I gathered them and we went downstairs to the lounge--there was no basement, per se, but the lounge was on the lower level of the building and had a TV. We tuned in and watched the angry red dot--a classic supercell signature--on the image head east toward us. The siren sounded again.

This time I took my cordless phone and went out back to scan the sky. It was still warm and breezy, but the sun was shining. I called a friend in Mankato and asked what it looked like there. She said it was dark and ominous. I shrugged and went back in.

The students asked if I shouldn't go upstairs and get my cat. Now, I had grown up in Arkansas, where late afternoon sirens were a regular occurrence. Still skeptical, still responsible,  I went upstairs and stuffed a complaining Eliot into his carrier and grabbed my cell phone.

The third siren sounded. I put Eliot in the lounge kitchen and went back outside. By now it was getting dark on the horizon, like a black shade being lifted from ground to sky. I didn't see a funnel (I later learned the supercell was close to a mile wide), but soon I saw debris peppering the sky, and I knew. Things went very quickly then: in one second, I turned, ran inside, screamed for the students to take cover, had the door slam behind me, felt the building shake, my ears pop, see the lights go out, acknowledge the windows shattering, feel the ceiling explode and fall over us. All the time I screamed at the students "tell me you're OK!! Keep shouting!!!"--as if their audible voices and mine would hold something at bay.

Two minutes of two years later, it was over.  St. Peter tornado

Eliot's carrier was in a different room than the one I had placed him in, covered in debris. Aside from a fervently voiced unhappiness, he was OK. The students were shaken but fine. We were eventually evacuated, and I wasn't allowed to return until 3 weeks later to try to salvage what I could. I lost a lot: art, furniture, all my contact sheets and negatives and prints, my car, my sense of invulnerabilty.

But the only thing I cried over was my sourdough starter.

When I opened the refrigerator door, the spoiled food's stench almost knocking me down, I grabbed at the crock and looked in. I knew it was dead, and I sat down on the broken glass on the floor and wept. Wept for the yeasts from Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Minnesota that had fed the starter. Wept for all the bread I had baked with and for friends and family. Wept for the one living thing I had cared for, besides Eliot, for over ten years: not a husband, not a child--my sustained relationships were with a dear cat and a crock full of the yeasts of homes and meals and friendships. And now the yeasts had been blown away.

Looking back, I think the tornado swirled away a kind of stagnation. I'm brave and brazen now, grabbing experiences by the collar and demanding that they cough up their riches.

But I never started another crock of sourdough.

Until now.

Seattle, I am starting my little batch of biga, begun last night, with you. Maybe I'll move again one day, and your yeasts will go with me. But for now I'm bubbling and alive, and you, Seattle, will make bread with me. We'll share it with people we love. One Seckel pear, bought from a local farmer at the U-District Farmer's Market, one bag of local flour, and the yeasts flying around in this apartment in early January 2010...

the ferment.

"Dude, that is so analog!"

In the digital age, this gentle rebuke refers to anything that is old-fashioned. It says less about the object or concept being described than it does about the person who is employing the old school thing. And while it is usually deployed in a harmless and joshing manner, it does point to a seeming divide between things, art, people, ideas, and processes we line up on the side of "analog" and those we put on the "digital" side. The Analogues are portrayed as threatened by the Digibots and the Digibots are claimed to scoff at the nostalgic Analogues.

But as with many divides, most of the anxieties about what a "Digital Age" means reside at the edges of the spectrum. Extreme Analogues portend the end of western civilization as we know it and decry the rush to embrace new technologies just because they are new. And extreme Digibots fiddle with their new toys in alternate realities, putting on and taking off identities as they construct new avatars and projects for themselves, ablaze with creativity, multi-tasking their way into Brave New Worlds of immediacy and excess.

And yet, most of us live and create far from these stereotyped edges of the grayscale. So-called digital natives, those born after 1980, are not as uniformly immersed in digital culture as popular media would have us believe, and even my lifelong photographer uncle--in his 70s--has a Facebook page and works with Photoshop as well as with chemicals and enlargers.

This is, of course, not the first time we have found ourselves wringing our hands over shifts in the means of production of culture. Surely the oral storytellers blanched when the first cave dweller scrawled ancient graphic novels onto walls. No doubt the first prints led to a gulp in the throat of many a Chinese artist. Johannes Gutenberg perhaps suffered a few withering glances from monastic calligraphers when he churned out Bibles with his printing press. No wonder early photographs depict grim, resigned faces, since the age of mechanical reproduction was destined to mean the end of art. Or was it?

The fact is that we still tell stories. We still paint. We still draw. We still use analog cameras. We still go to live theater. We still sing and draw bows across strings. What has changed, perhaps, is that the pace of change has accelerated to the extent that in my lifetime, I have seen tools develop and become extinct many times over. But the alteration is in the TOOLS, not the impulse to create and appreciate art, which is human and not mechanical. And just as I would choose a certain set of tools to build an adobe house and a different set to build a wooden house, my digital tools are not helpful in designing and articulating certain visions and my analog tools fail at others.

Just so, no digital experience can replicate the texture of a live performance, and analog does not serve to widen access the way digital technology can. A couple of years ago, I sat in on a final rehearsal for a dance production. It was alternately moving, playful, urgent, languid, powerful, and painful. It was in the rehearsal studio in historic Kerry Hall, intimate, and I was in the thick of it. I had to pull my legs back repeatedly, so as not to trip someone. Necklaces of sweat lashed me from more than one dancer. I smelled heat, shampoo, laundry detergent, determination. I heard the squeak of bare feet on the floor, the music, the counting, the grunts of effort, the propelling breaths. I witnessed focus and grace and I thought of the generations of feet that had leapt and been grounded on those floors. I turned to my colleague, who had choreographed one of the pieces, and whispered to him: "I can barely keep from weeping, this is so beautiful." This is the power of analog.

But just this week, I sat in the Main Gallery, where artists Paul Rucker and Hans Teuber led a group of us through terrain that spanned disciplines and bridged digital and analog production and performance. Paul had used digital technology to create graphic musical scores, which he then printed and crafted into puzzles. He placed the puzzle pieces into little containers and invited the audience to choose a puzzle and a tray, and assemble them. We placed the completed puzzles on a table in front of Paul on cello and Hans on saxophone, and they then improvised--essence of analog--on the impressions they gleaned from the snippets of image score in front of them. In the meantime, Paul and Hans and the audience were chatting back and forth and handing puzzles around, and I was snapping photos with my iPhone of the proceedings and e-mailing the images in real time to a friend of mine 15 states away.

I confess that I am an unapologetic user of digital social media; that I have bought a print from Jen Bekman's 20x200 digital arts project; that I tweet and do everything but buy flowers for my iPhone and my iMac and my tiny Lumix camera. But some of my most transcendent moments are standing in a circle with a handful of other singers working on a William Byrd Mass; I have been known to spend the better part of a paycheck on a drawing; and you will have to wrench my dog-eared copy of Rilke's Duino Elegies from my cold, dead hands.

This is what it means to live in watershed moments. Analog per se is not threatened by digital, nor will one replace the other. But digital technology does affect the way we study, create, disseminate, critique, document, and archive art in this new century. Our role as arts educators is to support our students as they navigate these ever-changing waters and to model a fascination with the questions: to challenge ourselves and them to explore the current, where it is more treacherous and yet more exhilarating than the safety of either shore. Where they swim will depend on factors beyond our knowing. But at least they will be used to the water.

Jenifer K. Ward

--published in InSight 09, the Cornish Magazine

Friday, December 25, 2009

I'm sitting at my father's desk.

To my right are photographs of his mother, his father, his grandfather.

His mom sits cross-legged on a lawn in front of a fence. The year is 1925. She's wearing a dress, but still she sits cross-legged on a lawn. I must take after her. Her head is cocked to one side, she grins, the hat is rakish.

The other photograph shows his dad and his grandfather. They are looking straight ahead, not smiling. They are wearing hunting caps and carry guns. Papaw points his gun to the ground, as he's supposed to. He was a preacher.  Great-Grandfather points his gun out the right side of the frame, reckless. He has a pipe in his mouth. He raised cotton for cash, but otherwise grew vegetables and hunted in the woods.

My father yells in from the other room: "it was a hard life."

Coffee is fragrant, I hear the fire pop--it's fat wood. 

I will go back in now and sit down and plan with my dad the oven sequence for tomorrow. The ham must go in by 6 to accomodate the stollen at 9 to be ready for the family as they arrive at 10, bearing their version of frankincense and myrrh: casserole dishes.

My life is blessed, sitting here at my father's desk, suddenly young and small.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fried Chicken

If I were to use last night's potluck as grist for a scenewriting mill, the soundtrack would be this:

my Arkansas family singing an old gospel song:

I'll meet you in the morning with a "how do you do" and we'll sit down by the river and with rapture auld acquaintance renew...

over which the laughter of friends, the snippets of conversation, and the sizzle of chicken frying could be heard.

The occasion was a "Southern" potluck, right here in Seattle. My home and my home, a gentle collision. There was a theme, represented by fried chicken, biscuits, collards, Red Velvet Cake, and the like. There were variations: the Southern classics inflected by the region in which they were being prepared; the dishes designed to make me twitch (SUGAR! in CORNBREAD!); the fanciful and joyous interpretations of what might be Southern, if that cookbook or this friend had given good direction.

What was JUST like a Southern potluck was the celebration of the simplest of fare. Beans. Greens. Cornmeal. Chicken wings. Sweet Potatoes. And what was not at all like a Southern potluck? My bottle of pepper sauce was as full as when I brought it. I swear, y'all. It would have been DOUSED on beans and greens back home. That bottle would have been empty 5 people into a line at a dinner-on-the-ground. We'll have a do-over. And next time I'll baptize each and every one of you with pepper sauce.

Here is my preparation for fried chicken. It's not crispy--more like tooth-cracking crunchy, so beware if you have dentures.

Fried Chicken

Get a butcher to break down your chicken thusly:

legs, thighs, wings, breasts cut in half, necks separated from body; backs cut in half; giblets.

Day 1, evening: prepare a brine of roughly 1 gallon of water and 1 cup of kosher salt. Bring to a boil and dissolve salt. Take from stove and throw in a lemon, halved, and a couple of bay leaves.  Let chill overnight.

Day 2, morning: put your chicken in large ziploc bags (I bag it with chicken pieces in one and giblets separate) and ladle in brine. Chill all day.

Day 2, evening: rinse off chicken and drain. In a very large bowl, stir 2-3 T. of Louisiana Hot Sauce or Sriracha (or similar) into 1/2 gallon of buttermilk. Place chicken (innards can now be reunited with the, um, outards) in the buttermilk and stir to coat. Cover and chill overnight.

Day 3, morning: turn the chicken and return to the refrigerator.

Day 3, evening: Toss chicken piece by piece in all-purpose flour and place in clean bags. Let sit for a bit--you're trying to develop almost a paste more than a "batter"--it will be sticky.

Heat fat (about 1/2 inch deep) in a large iron skillet until a speck of flour sizzles immediately in it. I use a ratio of about 60% lard, 30% peanut oil, and 10% bacon drippings. I stand by this combination of fat types, but sure, play around.

While the fat is heating up, take the chicken out and dredge it one more time, this time in White Lily® flour (or another low-gluten flour--you could use pastry flour or cornstarch in a pinch), and shake off excess flour. Lower skin side down into the fat. Watch your heat--as you're adding the chicken, you want to maintain an even fry, so you might have to increase the flame at this stage and then ratchet it back down again.  Do NOT flip the chicken again and again. Let it cook until the bottom is a deep golden brown and THEN turn it. When the other side is done, take it out and drain it skin side up on a rack, salting lightly. Fry the giblets last, and create a diversion so that you can have the gizzard before anyone else notices there is one.

If you want to make gravy, pour off almost all the fat, but keep the brown crispies in the skillet. Add an equal amount of flour and stir well (and continuously). When the flour has turned golden brown, slowly add a couple of cups of whole milk or (gasp) half-and-half or (GASP) cream. Immediately start stirring to smooth out lumps--it'll thicken up pretty quickly, so you need to work fast. Taste for salt and then add a LOT of fresh black pepper just before you pour it up into a bowl. Finally, hope that someone else has made some mashed potatoes or hot biscuits, because you will be in a lather from frying the chicken. Sit down and pass everything around and give thanks for the chickens and for the friends or family who are around your table with you. Worry about the clean-up later.



Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My Twittiquette Manifesto

Here's what I love about the Seattle intersection of Twitter and Foodlovers: there is a real, live community of warm, gifted, funny, discerning, generous, talented, ethical, hospitable, and empathetic people behind the avatars. Not all people are all of those things all of the time, but that's a pretty daunting string of qualities for any one person to embody 24/7, no?

And here's what I worry about: no one really knows yet how to negotiate the parameters and etiquette of online social networking that leads to such community in real life. 

So here's my Own Private Twittiquette Manifesto, which may be adopted or scorned by others. But it will guide my behavior:

1.  If I tweet that I'm with a group of people at a public location, say, a café, I will not be surprised or alarmed if others want to join. That's the risk I run for being public. If I make something sound enticing, who can blame people for being enticed?

2. If someone else tweets that there is a group of people at a public location, say, a café, and I really want to go, I will DM someone in that group and inquire about whether it's a private function. If I don't know anyone in the group well enough to DM them, I will stay at home and enjoy the banter of others.

3. If people are discussing a gathering at someone's home, and I'm not explicitly invited, I assume no invitation. I will accept that there is no way that everyone can go to everything; that people have limited entertainment space; and that I will go to something else at another time.

4. If I'm hosting something, I will try not to tweet about it unless I'm oriented toward openness or prepared to explain my guest policy otherwise.

5. I will never bring extra people along to something at someone's home without explicit permission from the host.

6. But I will be gracious if someone brings someone else to my home--I will not embarrass anyone.

The reality is that this is all murky. In addition to safety (I mean, it goes without saying that I will not meet someone no one's vouched for the first time by handing out my address, right?), my guiding principle is that I want to support community. I also want to be IN community. That doesn't mean I get to go to everything, it doesn't mean I want to be in exclusionary community, it doesn't mean I have enough space to host as many people as I would like.  Murky, see?

But the murkiness and risk of tripping are a small price to pay for being on this community journey, which is mostly a delicious (in every sense of the word) adventure.

For that I give thanks.

What are your thoughts? 

Saturday, November 28, 2009

the chicken back

Let me start at the end and reel backwards.

Tonight I stewed a chicken, so that I could prepare a pot of Nanny's chicken and dumplings for a gathering tomorrow evening.  A simple dish, this. It's essentially chicken and flour, which means that the chicken must be worthy of starring in a fragrant pot of broth and dough. I went with my friend Becky up to Skagit River Ranch to see about one, since she needed to pick up something anyway. Truth be told, I could have bought the chicken in a store. But it was a holiday weekend, it was a sunny day, it was a chance to spend time with a friend with a change of short, a lark. And larks are in short supply. We started our lark thusly, perfectly:

Becky: "Hi, I need coffee."
Jenifer: "Well, you know, we're going to be passing Frost Doughnuts on the way up."
Becky: "Let's go."

 Once at the Ranch, we made short work of our purchases (I got some eggs, too, and a recipe, and availed myself of the restroom--which is a story in and of itself), and then we went out to explore the land. We were accompanied by the sweetest dog on the face of the earth,

and we met some goats and a bull and chased some chickens around in the mud. It was nose-drippingly cold and beautiful and alternately misty and sunny. I thought for a moment I could live there and I remembered that as much as I love the city, I come from the country. Sometimes a visit to the touchstone is necessary.

We left the Ranch and puttered around in the Skagit Valley: a lunch at Slough Food in Edison, a GPS-less meandering in search of the Rexville Grocery (I was the optimist: "well, I-5 is to our east--worst that can happen is that we end up at the Puget Sound to our west.  Oh, look: there's the Puget Sound!").

We saw trumpeter swans and bald eagles, we sang 60s songs at the tops of our lungs, we stopped and got MORE doughnuts (oops, I probably wasn't supposed to reveal that) and all in all, it was a most Lark-Worthy Day.

But about that chicken:

As I was taking it out of the broth, it fell apart in my hands and I found myself holding the chicken back. The smell of that unctuous goodness, the steam on my face, and the back bone in my hand reminded me that Nanny never, ever ate any piece of chicken other than the back. When she fried it on Sundays, she handed around the best parts to everyone else and insisted that the back is all she wanted. And the truth is, she was not sacrificing. She was fed as surely by our appreciation of the meal as by any little bit of meat, and it's taken me a lifetime to figure that out.

I saw it Thanksgiving night as Marc fussed over us all with the most incredible spread:

I saw it Friday as Becky led me to Slough Food, where she thought we might find a delightful lunch:

I see it every time I'm invited to someone's home or taken to a new restaurant or shown a favorite book.

And I say out loud, right now, how privileged I am to share my life with people whose stance is grounded in generosity.

Thank you, friends, for giving me the shirt off your back, I mean, the chicken off your, um... just thank you. 

Chicken backs, by the way, when fried well, have the most delightful crispy bits...