Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thai Cucumber Salad

I love change. People complain about Midwestern weather: extreme heat (right now) and extreme cold. I adore when it gets so hot you can't wait for the crisp cool of autumn, you're sick of cucumbers (though never tomatoes) and anticipate fall bonfires, hooded sweatshirts, crunchy leaves under the feet and soup. Then, wonder beyond wonders, you find yourself eager to see the first dancing flakes of snow to cover the trees. You want roasts and furry boots and snow angels more than anything until it's mid-February and minus 20 and all you can think about is something green. And before you know it, there you are again, longing for summer dresses and heat so all-encompassing you can barely breathe in.

I complain halfheartedly these days about having too many cucumbers. Too many cucumbers! What a blessing. Nothing could be more appropriately cool and crisp when it's 95 degrees outside. I've been forced to get creative with salads, and as of last night, I'm fresh out of produce. It helps when there are barbecues and "family" dinners to bring salads to. With this salad, I was hoping for something akin to this cucumber relish served alongside pretty much everything in Thailand. It's not quite right. The true Thai version is more syrupy and sweet. This was salty and sour with soy sauce and lime. Still good if not quite on target. The heat sated and the buzz of cicadas dulled enough to allow us enough relief to eat al fresco to say goodbye to Casey and happy birthday to Sean (who got a new smoker!).

Thai Cucumber Salad: from Chez Pim
2 large cucumbers (or 1 American-size, ginormous cucumber you neglected to harvest for a few days too many)
3/4 pound shrimps
bunch mint
bunch cilantro
green onions

for dressing:
1/4 cup fish sauce
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar (add extra to taste)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Quarter and seed the cucumber and slice into discs. Add already cooked shrimps. Chop the cilantro and mint and toss with the cucumber and shrimp. Chop the green onions and fry in vegetable oil or sesame oil (because I'm fancy and have that) until crips but not burnt. Set aside.

To make the dressing, combine all the ingredients and whisk together. I let the dressing sit for a couple hours so the red-pepper flakes could infuse with the dressing. Then toss dressing over the salad and serve chilled.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pickle Love

Years ago, if you asked me to name my favorite food, I would have said dill pickles. I still love the sterile and jarred cucumbers quite a bit. (I was at the Old Market's La Buvette a week or so ago and ate all their pickled mini gherkins before anyone else had the chance.) In fact, it's been four years now, but my 16-year-old sister Emily and I had our biggest and only fight over a pickle.

One of her friends gave her a big jar of whole dill pickles for her twelfth birthday. Whole pickles. The good kind. We only ever got kosher spears or chips in our house, so these were quite the treat. I got hungry for a snack one day while she was at school. Surveying the fridge, I went straight for the goods, thinking she wouldn't notice, and truthfully, she didn't say anything until the moment was right.

Later, we were arguing with my mom over who should get the cell phone the next day. Never had I ever had to share something with this sister 10 years my junior until I came back from Thailand and she had hajacked my phone. (Indeed, she was erasing my address book on the drive to the airport.) I came home early from Thailand, and she, the only (and thus coolest) sixth grader with a cell phone, found herself in joint custody of the electronic.

We were debating about who needed the phone more. Me: I need it in case someone calls me for a job interview. Emily: Brian asked if he could use my phone today, and I couldn't give it to him. Mom and I probably both laughed at that response and out of desperation she cried out, "You stole one of my pickles, too!" We argued on for a moment, and as mom says, I backed her into a corner with my superior wit at which point she shouted, "I hate you!" ran upstairs, slammed her door shut and wouldn't talk to me.

I ended up buying her another jar of pickles as a peace offering, and my dad went out and got her a new cell phone (insert comment about spoiled youngest children here). And that is the argument we still talk about today.

At the moment my garden is a hot freaking mess. There are uncontrollable weeds hiding behind a wall of thorns from a rose bush gone wild. The tomato plants are falling over on top of themselves and each other and everything (including that hideous gargoyle). The cucumber plant has grown into places I can't even reach and there is fruit hidden under practically every leaf. This week will be an exercise in the creative use of the cuke. One harvesting of cucumbers produced 10 pints of beautiful vinegary, dilly, salty pickles.

These pickles are actually supposed to brine for six weeks, but after a mixup with the proportions of vinegar and water and salt, I went ahead a sampled the pickles just to make sure. Once I sampled, oh, I just couldn't stop. There's an audible crunch when biting into the chips; they just reak of freshness. And I just love the pucker of the vinegar. My mouth is starting to water just thinking about it.

Pickles: recipe thanks to my friend Caitlin O'Hare
quart jars
cucumbers (the pickling variety have thinner skin, great for soaking in the brine)
1 scant teaspoon dill weed
1 garlic clove, peeled
3/4 cup apple-cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fine kosher salt (or pickling salt)
1/8 teaspoon alum

Arrange half the cucumbers in the quart jars. Add the dill and garlic clove (I chopped them into a couple smaller pieces). Fill the jar the rest of the way with cukes. Pour in the vinegar, salt and alum, which serves to keep the cukes crispy. Fill the jar the rest of the way with cold water. Put the lid on and shake it up, making sure the salt dissolves. Brine in the fridge for six weeks (or you know, a week--I chopped mine so I figured the flavoring didn't have to go through the skin before soaking the cucumber with goodness). These pickles need to stay in the fridge because they are sealed or properly sterilized for that sort of thing.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Food Porn

It has been blazes hot lately. Fortunately, by the time you all are reading this, I'll be wearing a fleece in Juneau, Alaska. It's days followed by days followed by days like these that make me appreciative of pools and air conditioning. We didn't have the ac on in the apartment until I caved last Tuesday. I was making dinner with some friends right before Simon left to go home to Innsbruck, Austria. It had to be hotter than 100 degrees in my apartment with the stovetop fired up. Dan popped the window open as wide as it could go, I grabbed another fan and the three boys took their shirts off. Let me repeat that last part: The boys took their shirts off to reveal their sweating not-at-all-unattractive bodies. That's enough to raise the temperature a few degrees itself.

I recreated a pasta dish that my friend Amy had made for a potluck, teaching Justin some basics of cooking (like using whole, fresh garlic and salting pasta water). My pasta didn't turn out as good as Amy's, but the watermelon-tomato salad was just as good as it was last year. I have some more pictures from the evening, but it feels like I'm exploiting my friends' bodies to get attention to my blog, so I'll just post one picture. The sun was going down and we hadn't yet turned on any lights (but had flicked on the air). All I could see were dark silhouettes of glistening bodies in the glare of the sun.

Pasta with Garlic Lemon Sauce: from
1 pound penne, linguini or larger pasta (spaghetti was not the best choice)
2 cloves garlic
2 zucchinis or yellow squashes, diced
zest of a lemon
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup parmesan cheese
juice from a lemon

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to instructions. Drain.

Melt the butter in a pan on medium heat. Saute the garlic, squash and lemon zest until vegetables are softened. Add the cream, salt and pepper, and nutmeg. Reduce heat and saute until cooked through--3 to 5 minutes. Throw in the noodles and toss to coat with sauce. Add parmesan and lemon juice, stir to combine and serve.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Baguette Success

Despite all self-sabataging efforts, this baguette came out just barely shy of pefection. (This picture is bad and I couldn't get those beautiful slits in the top of the loafs--that is all.) It was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and salty. The French are genius, and apparently, I am too. I have tried my hand at making bread countless times. Countless. The only time I've ever made yeast bread that was even edible was this idiot-proof bread from Sullivan Street Bakery in New York. Other times I've burned them, but most often they refuse to rise and end up more akin to a cement block. This French baguette, my friends, is a true success. I have been trying for literally years (seriously--I used to make yeast bread weekly when I lived with my parents) to achieve this, and I can't even believe it happened because I did not follow the directions. 

They say that's the rule with baking: There are rules and they must be followed. Cooking allows much more improvisation (and room for error). But substitute olive oil for butter in a cake and you're screwed. The problem with bread is waiting. The bread has to rise (in the right climate) for a certain period of time. Well the World Cup and the rest of my social life took precedence over kneading bread after it had risen one hour. And when I did end up kneading, the dough was so gummy and gooey I thought for sure it would just melt in the oven. I obviously know nothing about proper bread making because I thought all those other times would work out, and they ended in complete and utter failure. It felt imminent this time. Certain death of good yeast. I guess I know a lot less about life and love and bread than I thought I did.

(to come)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rustic Tea Cake

List of awesome things that happened this weekend:
dancing in the park with Justin, James and Katie
watching boys climb trees and Celtic crosses
running through the sprinklers after Shakespeare on the Green
going to the farmer's market with Dan
sipping lemonade on the curb while watching a zydeco band
baking and cooking all afternoon
pool parties
yard games
sitting on the back porch
learning to lead climb
Espana gana!!!!
I barely woke up in time to make it to the farmer's market on Saturday. I hadn't planned on going, but it just felt right. Thankfully Dan agreed to go with me--it's much more fun with friends. We wandered around while I tried not to buy more vegetables than one person would be able to eat. This adorable French man was selling plums hardly larger than a grape for $3. I couldn't resist them or his accent. He threw in some chives and peppery parsley.

Dan had never tried plums--can you believe it! I love trying new things and especially introducing others to new things, but had I known it was his first I would have picked a different plum. These were more tart than usual and the skin was a touch bitter. The bitterness really came out in the tea cake I made later. Not enough to ruin things. In fact, I love the recipe for this batter. I dug through a dozen old issues of Gourmet to find the right one filed under rustic fruit desserts. The cake was really dense, almost crusty but not dry. I don't even know what to compare it to.
Stone Fruit Tea Cake: from Rustic Fruit Desserts
2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup butter
3 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups coarsely chopped stone fruit

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs and mix, one at a time. Add the vanilla, mix. Blend in the flour in two batches and mix until it is just combined. Lay out batter on a piece of plastic wrap and form into a gooey circle about 1/2 inch thick. Throw into the freezer for 30 minutes just so it's not so melty--you don't want or need it to get completely frozen.

Remove from fridge and preheat oven to 350. Divide the batter in half and press the larger half into a 9-inch fluted tart pan. Arrange the stone fruit on top of the batter. Then rip off bite-size chunks of batter from the other half and arrange on top of the stone fruit. Bake for 30 minutes until the top is golden brown and hard.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Vengence Is Sleeping

Last night I cried at a bar. In public. And I wasn't drunk.

I was with Katy and our friend Jacob. I was drilling Jacob for dating advice--he asked me about Zach and the break in and I just totally started crying, softly, quietly, endlessly. He felt pretty bad. No one wants to see a girl cry. I tried to get it together, but it took a minute and a laugh. I don't feel bad for crying. I cheered and jumped up and down when Spain won the semi-final game against Germany, and I cried myself to sleep the night before. (This girl will never be guilty of not feeling.)

It's almost been a year since the break in. I'm still getting over things, which is embarassing because I was raised to be tough.

It still makes me angry to tears that so many people got away with things and I didn't. That guy who broke into our house hasn't been caught and probably never will be. Then there's my ex-boyfriend who I naively thought would be there, then all the people who said ridiculous and insensitive things to me (i.e. my ex-boyfriend's dad, the landlord and people at this Bible study I went to), friends who tease me for the window and door alarms in the new place, people who think I'm silly for being scared. So if I make my list, almost no one is innocent. But it was actually this unknown faceless man who caused all the problems. The worst part of it is that it's been a year and it feels like I'm in the same place I was back then. I hate that.

I suppose that's not true. I physically relocated. I've got the same old friends and some new ones. I still love bicycling but now I go rock climbing too. I still do yoga at the same Benson Yoga Studio. I've been working at Home & Away for more than three and a half years (!), plus I've been writing for the Reader for three years (dining editor for a year and a half). But I feel some change on the horizon. I still love tomatoes and make the same caprese salads:
And I still try out new ways to combine the same old mozzarella, tomatoes and basil:
My garden is better this year (so far). I've made more meat dishes, which was my goal for year 26. I've been going to West Hills Church for 10-plus years. Faith is probably still the greatest committment of my life, which is good because there are moments I'm convinced it's a load of crap. Sometimes I wonder why faith is so important to me, and I think it's because I know (and I want/need to know, if that makes sense) that at the end of everything, love wins.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Oatmeal Raisin with Honey

I haven't made cookies in ages. I think summer is too hot for them. In fact, these oatmeal raisins were so soft and gooey and the weather has been equally soft and gooey that the mass of them just melted together to form one giant cookie. To eat them, you had to pull off little chunks of goodness bit by bit.

I actually made them for a friend who tuned up my bike (before I ran it over). Then that friend got hit by a drunken driver whilst on his bike, so the cookies served a dual purpose: thank you and get well soon. I don't know how much he appreciates baked goods, but I think time has told that nothing can heal broken bones, broken hearts or broken spirits much like a homemade baked good, especially those dunked in cold milk.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies: from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks softened butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup honey (Martha suggested syrup)
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 325. In a medium bowl, mix flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium until light and fluffy. Add the honey and blend again. Add the egg and vanilla, beat until combined. Add the flour mixture to the wet mixture in two batches and beat until just combined. Add the oats and raisins and mix briefly until combined. Arrange on baking sheets and bake for 15 to 20 minutes.