Monday, May 31, 2010

American as....

Ah, three-day weekends. There is something so naughty and refreshing about having a Monday all to yourself; about eating breakfast in casual nibbles and bites from the kitchen over the course of an hours-long morning. And of course it's always nice to spend Sunday afternoon cooking out and sprawled in the sunshine, but it's so much sweeter when it then tumbles into a lazy Monday, too.

For me the three-day weekend is perhaps less exciting than it is for most, given my gainful unemployment and the fact that I've been pretty much coasting on a month-long weekend since the beginning of May. So, relatively speaking, Memorial Day Weekend hasn't been that special, even if in absolute terms it's been quite special indeed. There is a certain urban energy that flows more magnanimously, more freely and happily, when everyone (not just me) gets to enjoy a free Monday.

This year, since the mere occurrence of a three-day weekend seemed less special than it has in years past, I decided to celebrate Memorial Day a little bit more than I usually do. When I decide to celebrate something, it usually involves baking, and this was no exception. Instead of the usual cookies, brownies, or chocolate bundt cake, though, I was inspired, on this particular three-day weekend, to make something unmistakably American: pie.

To be clear, I am not a pie person. In fact, I've always been puzzled by pie: why would anyone eat pie when they could have cookies, or a thick wedge of moist cake, or even a scoop or three of good ice cream? And why bother making a crumbly, sloppy pie when you could instead turn out a dainty tart with a pate sucre? I realize that many people are pie people; that their mothers and grandmothers spent years perfecting their flaky crusts, that Thanksgiving was really just a glorified pie-baking marathon, that a simple slice of homey pie was really a piece of comfort flanked by double-crust.

But not for me. My family isn't a pie family. The only pie we ever had was a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, which, given that the crust came from the freezer and the filling recipe came from the label on the can, didn't really inspire the emotional attachment that I imagine homemade pies might inspire for others. Which isn't to say that other foods we ate didn't inspire that attachment, but pie just wasn't one of those foods.

Which is probably why I'd never really been inspired to bake a pie before this weekend. To me, pie seemed to embody the unfortunate dichotomy of being incredibly fussy, what with the chilling and rolling of the dough, that only in the hands of the most skilled bakers would turn out acceptably (or so I believed based on everything I've read about pie-making), and also being decidedly homey - not particularly pretty on the plate and not particularly interesting in its combinations of flavors. In other words, a pain in the ass to make, and nothing special to taste.

I guess I'm like the Scrooge of pies. It shouldn't come as a shock that I've never been partial to the all-American fare that has recently been popularized as "comfort food," and I considered pie to be the sweet equivalent of macaroni and cheese or fried chicken: Sure, I'd love to read a good essay about it, but keep it out of my kitchen, please.

I can't say exactly what it was that created the shift in my sensibilities that resulted in me rolling out a buttery-rich crust on my kitchen table yesterday afternoon. But it certainly had to do with an utterly charming book I just read on the history of cooks and meals in the United States. Now that I've rediscovered daylight freedom, I've also rediscovered this cool thing that I had all but forgotten about called "reading books." Instead of oscillating between tabs on your web browser, alternating between "work" and sneaking peaks at blogs and other internet ephemera, you actually sit down (preferably outside, in the sunshine, on a blanket) with a book and then you devote a whole hour, maybe more or less, depending on how hungry you are or when you have to go to yoga class, to reading it. It's quite lovely.

Anyway, I read a book titled From Hardtack to Homefries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals, by Barbara Haber, that is a combination of women's history and American culinary history, and covers topics as diverse as the Puritanical food influences of Sylvester Graham and the first post-Slavery black cooks of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I'll spare you the full book report, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend it to anyone who gets a kick out of historical gastronomic voyeurism or reading recipes for gelatinous tomato soup-and-mayonnaise salads.

And wouldn't you know that among the historical recipes included in the book was a recipe for Liberation Cherry Pie, a similar version of which was handed out to American soldiers when they were liberated from internment camps in the Phillipines at the end of WWII. Since I was so smitten with the book, and since I had a patriotic three-day weekend that called for a bit of celebration, it seemed like the perfect occasion to try out a Liberation Cherry Pie. If for some reason it didn't pass muster on taste, well, at least it fit the holiday it was meant to celebrate.

As per the author's suggestion, I used two jars of Trader Joe's Morello cherries in the filling, which also included a bit of thickener (I used flour and cornstarch), sugar, and a dash of cinnamon. All-American simplicity at its best. I am very happy to report that the filling, though requisitely gooey and juicy, thickened properly and didn't create a runny mess on the plate when served. Since my more eclectic kitchen personality isn't quite ready to roll over in the face of all-Americanism, the pie crust that I made included whole wheat pastry flour (instead of white flour), and lots of butter (100% butter instead of half shortening, half butter).

The slight roughness of the whole wheat pastry flour made the dough a bit trickier to work with than it would have been if it had been made with white flour, and the all-butter factor made a quick hand pretty essential when it came to rolling the bottom crust and creating the top-crust lattice (I'll admit that this makes for an extremely attractive finished product). But, all in all, my first go at a real pie crust went pretty well, and I think the results may even have been "flaky." I suppose reading about pastry as much as I have can do in a pinch when you don't have generations of passed-down pie wisdom upon which to rely.

And the verdict on taste? Well, the pie disappeared in a flash at our Sunday barbecue, and I have to say that I was quite pleasantly surprised by its flavor and texture. It certainly did have that homey look and taste - all crumbly and sticky and nearly impossible to cut into picture-perfect slices - but it was also richly buttery and just tart enough from the cherries, and had a fruity, wholesome quality that might explain why "comfort food" seems to have some staying power.

Now that I'm more experienced (though still a novice) in the art of pie, I think that the beauty of pie lies in its homeliness. In one bite you get a sweet mouthful of fruit that bursts and squirts as you chew, and in the next you get the depth of burnished crust, complemented by an oven-hardened slick of cherry syrup. There are mouthfuls of somewhat soggy crust redeemed in the next by a crisp-crackly specimen of top lattice, and just as you finish tasting that spectrum of tastes and textures, you realize you've practically licked your plate clean.

In case you're curious, no, I don't think I've been fully converted to a pie person. But now I at least feel that I understand the institution of pie, and am happy to have made it in the name of celebration. And who knows? Perhaps my next well-deserved three-day weekend (July 4? Labor Day?) might just call for a little more all-American, crusty goodness.

The recipe for Liberation Cherry Pie can be found on p. 149 of From Hardtack to Homefries, by Barbara Haber. If you're dying to try it and don't have the book, any simple cherry pie recipe will likely do - Haber's recipe is about as simple as they get. I do, however, recommend using the Trader Joe's jars of Morello cherries (2 jars for a 9-in pie), which are sour and delicious and much better than what you'll find in a can.

Monday, May 10, 2010

New beginnings

In lieu of apologizing, how about I just tell it like it is: it's been a pretty long time since I've hung around here at Red Ramekin.

Although this space has always been a sort of creative haven for me to come and tell stories of heroic whole grains and demure spring vegetables, I decided to take a little break from blogging a few months ago, when other endeavors and changes began to take up more than their fair share of my time and mind space.

Luckily, though, my time and mind have been much freer lately, and I'm oh-so-happy to be making my triumphant (and anxiously anticipated?) return to blogging, obsessive Google reader trolling, and all of the other things that go along with telling the stories that bubble out of my wee kitchen.

But, in case you're wondering what I've been up to in the interim, here it is: I completed 200 weekend hours of yoga teacher training and became a certified yoga teacher, I started teaching/assisting two Sunday yoga classes (so much for Sunday evening cooking extravaganzas), I logged a few too many late nights at the office, I decided to quit my day job (prompted by a few too many late nights at the office), I began planning for my upcoming move to San Francisco, and I got engaged(!!) to the best sous-chef a girl could ask for. Aware of my ambivalence towards less-than-functional things like diamonds, Jonathan proposed with a pristine copper pot. Aren't you jealous?

Yes, it's been a fun ride so far, and the fun has really only just begun. In a little more than a month we'll be heading due West, copper pot in tow, to see what kinds of adventures, both food- and life-related, we can dig up. And we'll be planning a wedding to boot, which sounds like quite the adventure in and of itself as far as I can tell.

In the spirit of beginnings, how about a recipe for this carrot salad that I whipped up during some recent weekday afternoon? I made it thinking I'd spice up our regular Indian repertoire, and it's a great way to use those cute little carrots that are popping up right about now.

Feel free to use it as a fresh beginning to a nice meal, or you know, as the fresh beginning to a new life. Yes, it may just be the most versatile carrot salad I've ever eaten.

I went the extra mile here and roasted my cashews with a freshly-ground spice mixture. But then again, I don't have a job and can do stuff like that at 4pm on a Wednesday if I want. A nice alternative is to give the cashews a light toast in a skillet and just use the spice mixture to season the assembled salad to your liking.

As for the coconut, well, it's not exactly essential. It does, however, add some nice visual contrast and lightens up the overall carroty-ness of the dish. Besides, I had a bunch of fresh coconut in my fridge and what else was I supposed to do with it?

Given the Indian-inspired flavors in this salad, it pairs quite well with a homey bowl of dahl and rice, but I'm sure it would go well with more substantial proteins, as well. Enjoy!

Carrot-Coconut Salad with Spiced Cashews

4-5 large or 6-8 smaller carrots
3-inch chunk fresh, raw coconut
small handful fresh cilantro, finely chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 c. raw cashews
1 tsp. each coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and fennel seeds (or substitute 1/2 tsp. each of the powdered versions)
1/2 tsp. poppy seeds
~2 tbs. egg white
salt and pepper to taste


Make the spiced cashews: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If using the whole spices, toast all seeds in a skillet just until fragrant, about 5 min. Use a mortar and pestle to grind the spices to a powder. In a small mixing bowl, mix the cashews, egg white, and about 2 tsp. of the ground spice mixture (or use the pre-ground spices). Add a pinch of salt and pepper and stir everything until the cashews are coated with the spices. Spread the cashews on a baking sheet and roast in the oven until crunchy and fragrant, but not burned, about 8-10 min. Let cool slightly, then chop coarsely and set aside. Grate the carrots using the larger holes of a box grater or food processor grating blade. Set aside in a medium mixing bowl. Use the small holes to grate the chunk of coconut and add to the carrots. Add the chopped cilantro and cashews to the carrot mixture, and stir gently to combine. Dress with the juice of 1 lemon, and season with salt and pepper. Add some or all of the remaining ground spice mixture to taste.