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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Unfamiliar Kitchens

It's a no-brainer. Someone in San Francisco offers you a six-week project...beginning in January and stretching through the worst of a Chicago winter and you say yes. Enthusiastically. Eagerly. You pack all your normal person clothes, oh and maybe a raincoat. No parkas. No long underwear. No ten-pound snow boots and big, silly-looking hats. You leave those behind. Give the husband and dog a kiss. Then zip out to the airport and get on that plane--fast. Before the next snow storm rolls in.

So there you have it. I'm in San Francisco for the next month or so. Living in a short-term rental and you all probably know what that means. Most people have experienced The Unfamiliar Kitchen at one time or another. It could be a beach house, a cabin in the woods or even the home of a friend or family member. You open drawer after drawer, hunting for utensils. You wish the cheese grater was more like the one you have at home. You use a wine glass as a measuring cup
(a trick I saw once on Naked Chef).

The kitchen here is, umm, let's say it's interesting. Kind of vintage. A linoleum floor and an old kitchen sink unit, like maybe from the 50s, with built-in metal drawers and cabinets on one side of the room. On the other, a gigantic Viking range, with an enormous hood. I can grill french toast for twelve, if I should feel the need to do so. The pots are in sad shape. The largest (missing a handle) and a smallish, sort-of-non-stick omelette pan are the ones I am using the most.

Which brings me to the sort of cooking one does in situations such as this. It requires, an adjustment. Omelettes. Yes. Pastas, yes. Salads. Yes. Easy sautes. Yes. Baking? Not gonna happen. (No mixer! No Silpats!)
Soups. Eh, I'm guessing no. Now, grilling would be a big yes, but, alas, I have no grill.

There's something freeing in a way about all this. I don't have my bookshelves full of cookbooks to cling to, so it's really about the ingredients. Eating at home has been simplified. (And for balance, I have all those amazing San Francisco restaurants out there, waiting to be experienced!)

So, the plan? Ask myself, "What do you feel like eating?" Then, cook it and embellish very little.

I feel more confident saying all this now that I stopped at Bed, Bath & Beyond last night and bought:

two Riedel "O" glasses (The wineglasses in the cupboard here bear winery logos. Call me weird, but I find this cheesy.)
a bamboo cutting board
a serrated, no-sharpening-required knife
a set of my favorite OXO tongs. (Quite possibly the most useful tool in any kitchen.)

I plan to make an egg salad one evening and I'll let you know when I do. It's an underrated meal.

Tonight, I made one of my favorite salads ever. And it's mainly because I stumbled across some pre-cooked, peeled beets at Trader Joe's. When I make this at home, I wrap fresh beets in foil, and then roast for an hour or so, before cooling and peeling and tossing with the rest of the ingredients. But here were some beets, ready to go! (Why are the Trader Joe's out here SO much better than at home? A mystery...) Combined with some crumbled goat cheese and toasted walnuts tossed with a mix of arugula and spinach in a balsamic vinaigrette-- this made me feel pretty happy after a long day. And, it was an absolute snap to put together. There's nothing like the nutty, toasty fragrance of walnuts in the oven to make one feel at home.

Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Salad
serves 1

2-3 tiny beets, sliced or diced
3 tablespoons crumbled goat cheese
1, or 2 handfuls toasted walnuts (toast in oven for 10 minutes or so at 375 degrees)
large handful of washed baby arugula
large handful of washed baby spinach

Balsamic vinaigrette--your favorite brand

Arrange greens on a plate. Sprinkle with walnuts, goat cheese and beets.
Dress with the vinaigrette.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Depths of Winter

A couple summers ago, my brother gave me a small, potted olive tree for my birthday. It was August. The tree basked in the warm breezes and bright sunshine. Olives appeared. Those gorgeous silvery-green leaves sprouted. Life was good.

Winter arrived and the tree suffered. The leaves fell off. For a plant, it looked unhappy. Instructions that came with the tree directed me to find a “sunny” spot for "Olive". Additional web browsing revealed the tree needed a minimum of six hours, (yikes!! SIX HOURS?) of direct sunshine. Listen here, people! Chicago, in January, simply cannot deliver this. Darkness prevails. An impervious, gray cloud cover stays positioned over the city and days, no weeks, can pass without a single glimpse of sun. Our retired neighbors flee…some to Mexico, some to Florida. Sitting on the bus, surrounded by weary gray people bundled to their ears, makes me feel I’m part of a Hopper painting.

Here’s the thing, though…and you can call me a freak, but, I really believe it’s not so bad. Maybe I have low light-requirement levels, but to me there’s something soothing about our dark winters. Cloudy days encourage things like wandering through the Art Institute, reading, watching an old movie on tv on a Sunday afternoon or puttering in the kitchen and filling the apartment with the wonderful smells of something sweet or savory. There’s something about this kind of weather that engages the mind, and makes it turn inward. (Is it weird to say that I also love the subtle range of winter colors? The pewter of a sky heavy with snow. The purple-y gray of the horizon as the light fades at the end of the day. The beiges and browns of the barren shrubs and trees…sigh. Ok…enough!) The world moves so fast and we all feel so strapped for time…maybe winter is a way to force a little contemplation?

This is not true for everyone, and I feel lucky that the gloom doesn’t feel oppressive to me. (I have the opposite issue: places like LA make me cranky and nervous with all that relentless sun.) Anyway, this all brings me to how much I love cooking in winter. Yes, I love meat! And, yes, I love hearty, rustic foods, but sometimes, I crave something warm and comforting, but not too heavy or rich.

Nigel to the rescue! One of the many reasons I love his cookbook, Kitchen Diaries, is the feeling of camaraderie as I read along through the year. (This is one of those cookbooks which can live on your nightstand!) January in England is similar to January here. So when Nigel talks about it being dark and gray and having only a turnip and a few potatoes in his cupboards, it’s often the same situation in my own kitchen.

One of my favorite recipes is for what he calls, “Succulent little patties”. These tasty meatballs served in hot broth are just the thing for a wintry weeknight. A fat wedge of lemon is crucial here…the spritz of citrus over this dish before serving is like a little burst of sunshine. You can use ground turkey, or ground chicken and the addition of chopped pancetta or prosciutto (I’ve even used regular bacon in a pinch) gives the little guys a beautiful smoky, salty flavor.

I remember being utterly charmed by them the first time, and since then have made a few tweaks of my own. There’s also something about meatballs, as Nigel points out, ”they have a down-to-earth friendliness to them. A meatball never says, ‘Look at me, aren’t I clever?’ It just says, ‘Eat me.’”

Here’s to a happy, and healthy 2008 and the friendly meatball cheering us through the depths of winter.

Chicken Patties with Rosemary and Pancetta
adapted from Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries

Serves 4

a medium onion, finely chopped
garlic--2 cloves, finely chopped
a thick slice of butter
4 slices of prosciutto, or a quarter-inch thick chunk of pancetta, or 4 slices of regular American smoked bacon, chopped
rosemary--three bushy sprigs
"minced" (ground) chicken, or turkey--1 lb.
vegetable oil, for frying
chicken stock--2 cups

Soften the chopped onion and garlic in the butter in a non-stick pan over medium heat, until they are golden. Stir in the chopped prosciutto/pancetta. Strip the rosemary leaves from their stalks, chop them finely, then add them to the onions, letting it all cook for a few minutes until golden.

Let the mixture cool on a large dinner plate.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the ground turkey/chicken and the onion mixture, seasoning with black pepper and the tiniest pinch of salt -- the prosciutto is already salty so you can take it easy here.

Shape the meatballs and slightly flatten them. (Nigel says to make them the size of a "digestive biscuit", which I improvise to mean the size of a round water cracker.)
If you have time, refrigerate for up to 30 minutes. I've done as little as 15 minutes, and it seems to work.

Wipe the onion pan clean and get it hot. Add a little vegetable oil and brown the patties on both sides--a few minutes on each side should do it. Transfer them to an ovenproof dish -- I use a deep, round pie dish. Deglaze those gorgeous brown bits left in the pan with a half-cup or so of the chicken stock and pour that all over the patties. Add the rest of the chicken stock and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. (Adjust baking time to how big your patties are...if you are shaping them on the larger side you may need an additional 5-10 minutes in the oven.)

Serve two to three to a person in a shallow bowl and spoon some broth over. Squeeze a nice wedge of lemon over each serving, or serve with lemon wedges.

Nigel suggests a spinach salad on the side, and I second this, along with a crusty loaf of bread.