Monday, October 24, 2011

Sweet (Potato) Sundaes

In case I forget to mention it later: this perfect and crazy-nutritious dinner is a tremendous hit with everyone in the family.
Have I mentioned before that I’m actually an incredibly gifted fortune teller? I know. You might not have thought. But I do it every year at the school carnival, and even though I usually start out kind of groggy and wishing I didn’t have to get up and get into multiple scarves and hoop earrings and eye shadow, wishing I didn’t have to unscrew our kitchen globe light (hello, crystal ball!) and find the Tarot cards, wishing there were more coffee and fewer kids—well, before you know it, I’m Totally Involved. For one thing, I have a killer accent that is half Yiddish, half Transylvanian, and half Brooklyn, and for another, I can’t help feeling like the kids draw these cards that end up fully revealing their personalities to me. Or maybe it’s just their faces that do all the revealing, I’m not sure. Mostly it’s preschoolers with strange and wonderful questions: “Will I get a hundred horses?” one asks, while her mother shakes her head vehemently in the background, mouthing the word no to me, in case I’m about to make vast equine promises. “I see great kheppiness,” I say, studying wands and cups. “I see many things you vant, you get,” I say. “But not khundred khorses iggzectly.” “Will I be a duck when I grow up?” another tiny girl wonders, and the cards suggest, truly, that she will not. “You still could be,” I say, “but eez unlikely.” What the cards show, in fact, is a great and consistent tendency towards helping other people, and when I tell her this, she says, “But ducks help people!” and I acknowledge that this is true.

Some grown-ups come, and older kids too—Ben and Birdy and their friends—and they usually start off with the protective armor of irony, and they usually give it up by the end of the fortune. But mostly it’s the very small kids, with the parents waiting with a baby in a little front pack. And what I’m getting to is this: that’s so not me anymore. I’m one of the parents of the big kids who are running the face paint booth themselves; I am not one of the parents with a baby and a preschooler falling into the rubber-duck pool and weeping about cotton candy, and I don’t understand how it happened, and sometimes I’m sad about it. But mostly I’m not. Because this is the face of 12:

And, not to brag, but we got to watch both Raising Arizona (“Son, you got a panty on your head.”) and Spinal Tap (“These go to eleven.”) with Ben. And when we watched the newborn videos on his birthday, I thought: everything I love most about him has changed not at all. His incredible sweetness and his smile and his sense of humor—even though back then, what made him laugh was sticking his foot into the poopy diaper. But still. I would sometimes like him to be the size of a football the better to tuck him under my arm and keep him close, sure. I would like to rock in a chair while he napped in my lap, of course. But his head smells like a baby’s head to me, like his own baby head, and his smile still inflates me with gladness, and, um, he makes us dinner.

Sweet (Potato) Sundaes
Serves: however many potatoes you make
Active time: 30 minutes; total time: 2 hours

Obviously, this is a use-what-you-like-best or use-what-you-have situation. Any kind of cheese or nuts or herbs would be great. Skip the bacon (if you’re crazy and/or a vegetarian). Other veggies would be nice too: we had roasted cabbage as a side dish, but you could add roasted veggies to your sweet potatoes, or top each one with a small handful of arugula. What if you topped them with black beans and salsa and sour cream and a crumble of tortilla chips? That would be good too, wouldn’t it?

Large, clean sweet potatoes (I like jewel yams or garnet yams best)
Crumbled feta
Diced bacon, cooked until crisp
Sliced onions, sautéed in olive oil until very browned and sweet
Snipped chives
Dried cherries
Toasted pecans

Heat the oven to 425. Prick the sweet potatoes all over with a fork, then place them on a baking sheet (I lined mine with foil in case they were going to ooze messily), and bake them until they feel very soft when you press them—1-1 ½ hours.

Meanwhile, place all the toppings in little bowls and put them on the table.

Give each person a split sweet potato for topping. Don’t forget to eat the skin, which is delicious and full of nutrients!
"Do you know why you poke them?" I asked Ben, and he said, "So they don't phhht Farmer-Boy explode right into your eye." Exactly.

Ben, paying close attention.

Ben, paying no attention at all. Um, hello? Hot pan! Stove! Grrr.

The toppings. We had some beautiful bacon ends from a friendly ex-pig, and they were perfect to cut up for this meal.

Like I always say, any meal that involves personalized composition is bound to be a hit around here.

And for Birdy, any meal that involves feta and chives is going to be a good thing.

Michael's potato is what you might call loaded.

Ocular proof of a good dinner.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Apricot-braised Pot Roast

The string makes it look like a real roast, doesn't it?

Ben said, on Saturday, “This is the kind of day, if you could bite it, it would be crunchy.” And it really was. True fall: crisp air, dazzling sun, blue skies, rolling banks of grey, sheeting rain, rolling banks of grey, blue skies, dazzling sun, pink stripes, moon. It was amazing. We spent the day with friends in that kind of wonderful one-thing-leads-to-another drifting togetherness that is the hallmark of a really good date: a child’s birthday party that turned into a post-storm bonfire that turned into hot dogs roasted on sticks that turned into mugs of hot and boozy cider under the stars. I only realized how late it had gotten when Birdy finally leaned against me and sighed, “I think I’m ready to go home.”

I am in full fall cooking mode, which may be my very favorite: roasts and stews and soups, but with fresh herbs still. It’s the best of all possible worlds for me, especially right now, when the romance between me and root vegetables is still young. I’d still pick them up at the airport, if you know what I mean. “Turnip!” I’d cry. “I missed you so much!” Not, “Oh, can't you just catch the shuttle when you get in?”

I’m re-posting a favorite fall recipe that ran on, but kind of buried (it wasn’t part of my column). I’m going to be trying to move some of that lost content over to this blog in the next few months. This is just a take on my standard pot roast (lamely, my own photo captions over there just made me laugh), but the apricots make the gravy so succulently tangy—it’s the perfect foil for the rich, falling-apart meat. Yes, it’s a long haul in the oven, but mostly you’re ignoring it while it exhales its divine aromas into your house. Plus, I know that some of you will be doing this in a Crock Pot and will thus be entirely ignoring it. Until its flight gets in, at which point you will run towards it while the swelling music plays.

Apricot-braised Pot Roast
Serves 8
Active time: 35 minutes; total time: 5 hours

This luxuriously tender sweet-and-sour roast doesn't need a lot of attention during its long braise in the oven. The dried apricots dissolve into a luscious velvety sauce that makes you want to lick your plate (and then lick it).

a 4-pound beef roast (chuck is perfect for this)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 yellow onions, sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup red wine
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup dried California apricots (Turkish are too bland for this)
1 tablespoon sugar

Heat the oven to 375.

In a Dutch oven or another heavy, lidded, ovenproof pot, heat a tablespoon of the oil for 10 minutes in the oven. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and season it well with salt and pepper, then roast it in the pot, uncovered, for half an hour.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and cook the onions, stirring, until they’re turning soft and gold, then reduce the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 20 minutes, at which point they should be deeply golden. Add the garlic, salt, and pepper, and stir for a minute or so, then add the broth, water, wine, tomato paste, apricots, and sugar, and bring to a boil.

Pour the panful of onions and and liquid over the roasted meat, then return it to the oven and cook, with its lid just barely ajar, for 4-5 hours--flipping the roast after 2--until a fork can easily pull it apart. Check it now and then to make sure the liquid hasn’t all cooked off; if it has, then stir in another cup of water every now and again.

Let the roast rest in the pan for half an hour or so, then slice it (it will fall apart) and serve it with the apricot gravy from the pan (skim off any visible fat). Or chill the roast overnight, slice it the next day, and arrange the slices in a large, shallow baking dish, then pour the gravy over it, and heat it in a 350 oven for half an hour. Serve with noodles or mashed potatoes or, shown here, kugel.

This looks so good to me, even now, when I'm full of weird Trader Joe's wasabi seaweed snacks.

Hard as it is for me to concede, it's really high time for the flash.

If there were ever any leftovers, they would doubtless be great.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Popovers (redux) and Ben's Birthday (shhh)

I rarely recommend single-task bakeware, but this popover pan I'm recommending. I love ours.

In other news, almost-12-year-old Ben wants, and is getting from us and his grandparents, an iPod. But we're balancing out high-tech with low-tech, and also giving him this:

It's a mechanical music box set, like a mini player piano, with blank papers that you can punch out yourself for whatever song you want it to play. I seriously cannot wait to give it to him. Have I mentioned before that he is some sort of musical prodigy? Maybe I was too modest to. Ben's piano playing, right here in the house where I live, is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. 

Speaking of best things, I am about to finish this book

and boy has it been fantastic. One of those novels that so perfectly captures this moment of my life: the long relationship, the school-age kids, love, and loss, and the mystery that continues to be the people living under your own roof. Sigh.

Any book news? Weekend news? Gift ideas to share? I will be posting a list of kitchen gifts for the holidays, but not yet. Not just yet, no.

Enjoy your weekend!


Wednesday, October 05, 2011

My Birthday

Was yesterday. I turned 100 years old, and it was grand. Actually, it really was grand. Can I share?

From Michael. Because I love flowers. And the color orange. And, also from Michael, this. Does he get me or what?

It's open like that because I was reading it cover to cover. Like a true mycological dork. 

Birdys' card. Each cake layer is topped by whipped cream and a cherry in two different places. Also, I am wearing a pink shirt as Birdy and I float aloft on our bunches of balloons, because I love pink.

Only if you play Agricola will you understand how brilliantly hilarious "Party even without room in your house" is. But anybody can appreciate the fact, because I'm telling you it, that Ben's drawing of our house is almost uncannily accurate. (Note: Even though it takes the better part of four years to learn, and then around 11 months to play, I cannot recommend that game highly enough.)

And this pink-hooded hoodie, from my insanely talented friend Nicole. You think I'm just taunting you with my good luck, but I'm not. Because look! She has put up a tutorial on how to make one your very own self! You might like to check out her new blog too, which she started with her co-author to support their forthcoming book, Improv Sewing. Storey Publishing asked me for a blurb on the book, and after I was all, "heartbreaking work of staggering genius" and "you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll die from the beauty and the wonder" they backed slowly away. But it is simply the most beautiful craft book I've ever seen. I'll mention it again when it comes out in the spring.

There was more, even, but I'll stop, because decorum requires it. But now, as Ben once cried the night after his, I have to wait 11 whole months for it to be my birthday again. Alas.


p.s. I forgot the whole reason I was posting today! Duh. It was to share this Kay Ryan poem with you.

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice — as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced —
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

Monday, October 03, 2011


Does a little gnome live inside there? Maybe.

Yay for chilly weather! Yay for rain and woodstove fires and soup, soup, soup, soup! Yay for fall, except for how the leaves are more just dropping and brownly rotting than doing their glamorous flaming-colors thing! We spent the weekend hiding out under lots of blankets and eating lots of popcorn and drinking lots of tea and playing lots of board games. At least the children and I did. Michael was reuning with his youth, back in St. Louis. Also, seeing his ex not-girlfriend, the one on whom he had a crush through all of junior high, and I was very jealous. She probably still looks great in her blond braids and field hockey skirt, while I have turned into a kind of solo version of Planet of the Apes. Sigh.

It is hard to take a picture of the weather, I find. It reminds me of that great book Painting the Wind.
But the kids, the cat, and I, despite missing Michael, which we did extremely much, were in what Birdy calls “cozy heaven.” It was all we could do to leave the house, but finally, just before dinner last night, we bundled up and headed out into the soggy world to see what was going on out there. And what was going on out there was mushrooms. I have a field guide from the library, and let me tell you how different poisonous mushrooms look from edible mushrooms: not at all different. I could not successfully identify one single mushroom, and it was not for lack of squatting in the sodden pine needles and flipping confusedly through my book. We saw lots of the mushrooms that Birdy calls “fairy umbrellas” (“They must be so glad to have them in all this rain!” she says with absolute seriousness.) We saw mushrooms that looked like piles of white dog poo, mushrooms that looked like coral, like a little orange turkey wattle, like a yellow penis, like decorative wood-grain shelves scaling the trunk of a tree. We saw mushrooms no bigger than dots, on stems the width of a hair, and Birdy called these “Baby fairy parasols.” Still, I could figure out nothing.

Fear not (Mom): I wasn’t actually going to eat anything. While it’s true that I do eat puffballs and morels, it’s only because they are the mushrooms that nothing else looks anything like, and because the puffballs in our back yard grow to the size of basketballs and I simply cannot say no to so much free food. But what I really want to do is go walking with a some kind of a fungal mentor who can show me the ropes. “Oooh,” I kept saying, squatting over this or that specimen. “This is probably edible. Oh, wait, unless it’s this. . .  Avenging Angel. Hm.” Birdy was very nervous, despite my reassurances that we weren’t going to have any special Omelets of Death or Straight-to-Heaven Stirfrys for dinner.

Of course not. Because it’s soup weather! Soup and popovers, a meal that I love. From the time the popover-shaped light bulb goes off over your head to the time you are pulling the pan from the oven a single half an hour will pass, which works well for me. Popovers are eggy and delicious, custardy-soft inside and buttery-crisp outside, and very, very cheap to make. They also make great scoopers for soup (for the hoop-soup-snoop group), although they’re great with jam for breakfast. The only possible tricky thing is the issue of the pan. My dear old friend Ali gave me this popover pan years ago, and much as I dislike single-function kitchen gear, I do love it. They rise up high and glorious, and they never stick. That said, I used to make them in a muffin tin, and it went okay, though they stuck sometimes. I have heard of using well-buttered custard cups, and I’m interested in that as well. Oh wait—the only other problem is that they very, very occasionally don’t puff up. “Perhaps there’s a draft in your oven,” my mother would say, Britishly, and that would seem to explain it.

A note: The enthusiasm over the last post makes me a) love you, and b) think I should call this blog “Pizza Toast.” And every week I publish the recipe for pizza toast.

Makes "12"
Active time: 5 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes (plus 10 minutes to heat the oven)

These are easy and good, and if I weren’t outvoted on this issue, I would snip fresh chives and marjoram into the batter, which is how I love them best. Annoyingly, the recipe actually usually makes only 11 popovers, no matter how stingy I think I’m being as I pour the batter.

2 eggs
1 cup milk
¾ cup flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
3 tablespoons salted butter

Begin by preheating the oven to 450, then place a nonstick 12-well muffin tin on a middle rack to heat for five or so minutes while you mix the batter. Whisk together the eggs, milk, flour, and salt until it’s all mostly mixed (a few lumps are fine). Now cut the butter into 12 slivers, pop one piece into each well of the hot muffin tin, and return the tin to the oven until the butter is melted and foamy. Fill each cup half full with batter (use all the batter), then bake for 15-20 minutes (don’t open the oven door to peek before then) until the popovers are puffed and brown. Serve immediately.

You have to admit that this is not a lot of ingredients.

And the batter is not overly attractive.

But check that out! Alchemy. Quick! Rush them to the table while they're still glorious and puffy!

Ben scoops up the 7-bean soup that I was developing for ChopChop. More on that soon. I topped it with cheese, and it was delicious, if a little bit like being a commercial for Silly String.

I haven't seen the back of her head since she got that hoodie.  Birdy Wan Kenobi.

Ah, candlelight.

I'm not sure why I took this picture. Maybe just to lure Michael back from St. Louis with my man hands.

Yes, sometimes things deflate and get soft, and it's sad, but not that big a deal, and definitely nobody's fault.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Grape Jam Winner!!!

Lisa! Number 49! A randomly generated integer! The Lisa who made a comment about Birdy's pea comment! Are you still out there? Please email me your address so I can send you a purple jar of jammy jam.

And thank you all so much for voting. We are getting frozen out of the stone-cold Birds Eye contest. But at least we tried! It's still going, so if the mood strikes, please do vote again.

xo Catherine