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Thursday, February 28, 2008

So...About Me

I love those moments when someone you think you know pretty well, says something which surprises you. Or, maybe surprise is not the best word. Maybe it's more like...
someone you think you know pretty well, tells you something about themselves that is unexpected and charming.

Last week, my dear friend, Jane, said 'tag, you're it' in the classic meme, Eight Things About Me. In her list, she utterly delighted me with (#7) the story of a poetry submission to Seventeen magazine when she was a teenager. This confirms the feeling I have for so many people I've befriended as a grown-up...I would have loved them when I was a teen.

So, here you go:

1. I was born in the U.S., but did not learn English until my immigrant parents sent me off to pre-school. I learned Croatian first, and then they figured, I'd pick up the rest along the way. My mother says the first day she picked me up from school, the teacher mentioned that I was "painfully shy and very quiet". Uh, yeah..

2. Always, always, always, potato chips over tortilla chips or pretzels.

3. I think horoscopes are silliness, but that whole thing about certain personality traits attributed to specific astrological signs...oh, they're on to something with that.
And, I am a Leo.

4. Reading is like breathing to me. I can't imagine life without it. It's precious and magical. And, yet, my first grade teacher was an awful woman, who will remain nameless here, so obviously frustrated at the rate at which I tore through those early reading primers, that I shudder to think what could have happened if I had cared what she thought.

5. I pretty much melt into a puddle when I see a Labrador.

6. I love to think about The Perfect Meal. Mainly it should be simple:
Some hand-made salumi, an assortment of cheeses, a true baguette, and a salad dressed with good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. C'est tout.

7. Give me a British-production, period costume drama on tv any day, and I'll show you utter, rapt attention.

8. There's really nothing quite like a beautiful pair of shoes.

The bookcases in the photograph are one of the best things about home.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Just a Little Help

After too many days spent on airplanes, going here and there...listening to people sniffle, cough and sneeze all around me (eeew!) I arrived back at my little
San Francisco outpost with the quirky kitchen, ready to actually cook something. I'll admit it. I've grown a little lazy, folks. Having to think through the logistics of making a meal (for one) with limited kitchen stuff has at times overwhelmed my eagerness for home-cooking. (How did I become so Cooking High Maintenance?!) It's so easy to stand there in front of the Whole Foods prepared sushi section and think...sooo simple. No dishes. Just eat and toss the little container when you're finished. I've been weak, people!

But then my inner Italian Girl sat up and said, enough! (Well, she said 'basta'!, but you know what I mean....) It doesn't have to be complicated!

So, I went with my current strategy. Ask yourself, "what do you feel like eating?"
Umm, beans. In some kind of broth. With some veggies.
If I was in a restaurant, that's what I'd be looking for...some kind of
Tuscan Bean Soup.
Soup is a really good friend. Flexible and forgiving, comforting and comes through when you need a pat on the back or a hug. You can do the long, slow-cooked variety, or you can put together something pretty good, in a snap...with a little help. In the words of Dr. Seuss...Oh The Places You'll Go...if you have some good, canned (or boxed) chicken stock!

Orangette, one of my absolute favorite food bloggers, posted an escarole salad recipe last year, and that's when my love affair began. I would be absolutely content to eat this salad every single day, and came close to doing so for a while there. Escarole is exceptionally delicious in said salad, but equally at home giving a little kick to a bean soup which would be dull without it. But alas, my beloved is often absent from the produce section, (why?! oh, why?!) and so...I improvise. I'll admit to a pang of jealousy this week, after I couldn't find escarole, yet again, when I saw that yet another favorite food blogger, Deb at Smitten Kitchen had access to escarole for a wonderful looking soup with orzo and meatballs.

My plan the other day, was to stop by a cozy, local grocery store, Bi-Rite Market to pick up the elements for my soup. I almost strayed...Bi-Rite has perfect, smallish portions of fish and meat, marinated and vacuum-sealed in packets, ready for cooking. Pure genius...but, another time. So, of escarole. I decided to go with two handfuls of fresh baby spinach, instead. A can of white canellini beans, the previously mentioned box-o-chicken broth, a head of garlic and a loaf of ciabiatta went into the basket. On a whim, I picked up a small container of pre-made pesto. Might be nice as a garnish.

Back "at home", as the garlic and onions sizzled away in the pan, I realized how much comfort I derive from the mundane...the zen of chopping, the wonderful smells wafting through the kitchen.

The soup itself is nothing fancy, it's beans, sauteed briefly with some barely caramelized onions, and carrots, if you like, to which you add some stock. More, and it's "soupier", less and it's like a thick porridge. Right before serving, toss in your greens and stir. My garnish idea was perfect. The little teaspoon of pesto on top, melted into the soup giving it a zingy kick.
Sigh. Beats a plastic container of sushi any day.

Tuscan Bean Soup
serves two

1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 carrot, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 can cannellini, or other white beans, rinsed and drained
1 - 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 cup, or 1-2 handfuls of washed, roughly chopped escarole, or leaves of baby spinach
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon of prepared pesto, for garnish
grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Sautee onion, garlic and carrot in oil until golden and almost beginning to brown.
Add beans and cook for one or two minutes.
Add chicken stock and simmer for five minutes.
Stir in greens, until wilted...about a minute or two.
Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve garnished with pesto and grating of cheese.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Unfamiliar Kitchen Dispatch #2

Putting together a meal in a kitchen not your own has its challenges, only one of which is:
the local grocery store.

Sometimes you land in a place...maybe a beach town, and the choices are somewhat limited. I have already shared the story of the memorable seven-dollar peach on Martha's Vineyard, and yet I have very fond memories of wonderful meals prepared there over the years. Amazing local fish, simply grilled, smeared with herb butter and served alongside tossed greens from the local farm stand a short bike-ride away. I loved the stand. It was a deserted, weatherbeaten half-structure, where you selected your produce and left your money in an old fishing tackle box, taking change if you needed it. A very distinguished, very large bull sat in a meadow across the way, keeping watch over the transactions. He seemed straight out of a Disney film.

We once spent a long, autumn weekend in a small town in Door County, Wisconsin where there was a surprisingly small and not-very-well-stocked grocery store. Yet, it yielded the simple ingredients for a hearty lentil soup welcomed by a large group of very hungry people on a cold, damp evening. (No doubt the homemade cherry pie purchased from yet another farm stand helped memories of that meal.) Wandering the cramped aisles of that little grocery store, reminded me of wonderful article written by one of my favorite writers, Laurie Colwin, years ago, which prefaced a recipe by pointing out that all the ingredients could be found in even "the nastiest grocery store".

Of course, there's the other end of the spectrum as well. Cooking in a perfectly outfitted, yet tiny kitchen in a rented Paris apartment on a street where one of the best cheese purveyors in the city is a handful of storefronts down from one of the finest patissiers in the city, and around the corner from La Grande Epicerie--Le Bon Marche department store's answer to the famous Harrod's food hall. An almost overwhelming selection of incredible food to work with.

So, here in San Francisco, in the cozy neighborhood of Noe Valley, I'm finding that being flexible is key. As my friend, Jane says..."think of it as camping".

Which brings me to my hero over the course of the past few weeks: the humble egg.
I purchased a doze on my first night here, at the somewhat nasty, miniscule corner store in the neighborhood, along with some milk, a loaf of bread a tiny, outrageously expensive jar of Hellman's mayonnaise, a can of tuna and a block of orange cheddar cheese. Dinner that first night was a cheese omelette. A few nights, and a small bag of broccoli, later, there was a frittata. We know I love frittata.

This past weekend, the weather here was magnificent. After a day spent outdoors, in the bright sunshine and near-70 degree temperatures (sorry all you East Coast and Midwest people!) I didn't really feel like eating, or cooking, anything hot.
Earlier in the day, I had picked up some incredible artisan rolls from a local favorite,
Acme Bread Co. and thought: egg salad.
(May I just say, I simply can't get over how much astonishing, fantastic bread there is in this city?!)

I had that four-dollar, micro-jar of Hellman's just waiting to be opened. Garnished with some arugula for a peppery crunch, and a couple thin slices of sweet red bell pepper, which upon reflection, were a bit much.

It was homey and comforting...and didn't generate too many dishes, or unfamiliar kitchen has one more quirk--no dishwasher.

NOTE: I love to hard-boil eggs, the Cook's Illustrated way. Place eggs in pan, with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, and immediately shut off the heat, put a lid on the pan, and set timer for 12 minutes. Plunge eggs into ice water. Let cool for a few minutes, after which eggs are ready to peel.

Egg Salad
serves one

2 eggs, hard-boiled and roughly chopped
1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt & pepper to taste

OPTIONAL ADDITIONS: love love love to add chives, if you have them or can find them
also, a tiny bit of chopped Italian parsley or fresh dill

GARNISH: lettuce or arugula

1. chop eggs and mix with mayo, mustard, salt and pepper
2. spoon onto bread of your choice.

Yes, I a blessed with access to Acme Bread at the moment, but at home I like to use pumpernickel.