Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Lee Bros. at BookPeople

I stopped by BookPeople last week to hear what Matt and Ted Lee had to say about their new cookbook, "Simple Fresh Southern," then went right home and roasted a sweet potato. It was the least I could do after hearing their elaborate descriptions of grated sweet potato and okra fritters dipped in garlic and buttermilk sauce and a dessert of mint julep panna cotta.

Decorously known as the Lee Bros., these guys take buttermilk and cheese and biscuits very seriously, with heavy emphasis on the buttermilk. But they're out to promote the idea that fresh peas and greens and fruits and seafood can be just as tasty — and just as traditionally Southern — unadorned by extra fat and out of the midcentury mold of a casserole dish.

Thoughtful about what matters to them and full of brotherly banter, the pair seem much more hip than they appear on the khakis-on-the-front-porch cover of "The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook" and — best of all — they're utterly quotable...

On following instructions: "Recipes are just a starting point. We call them suggestive architecture."

On conceiving the idea to make a pimento cheese potato gratin: "Now that's the kind of fun I like."

On support for "Simple Fresh Southern": "It's the first book ever to have an endorsement from Alice Waters and Paula Deen and Amy Sedaris. If you think about it too much, you might self-immolate."

Audience Q: "Why is all the buttermilk you see in the grocery store low-fat?"
A: "Yeah, that kind of sticks in our craw, too."

On handy packaging: "The coolest buttermilk innovation I've seen is a half-pint carton. I mean, eureka. That was Twitterable."

On lard: "It's no worse for you than butter, and it might be better. You want the fresh product. If you touch it, it's like Nivea. Or something very luxurious. We're very lard-positive."

On sharing author duties: "Whoever's the least depressed starts off the writing."

On Thanksgiving: "I cooked my turkey in the toaster oven."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Oh right, about those pies...

Well, I did it. I made two Thanksgiving pies lined with real crust transformed from flour and butter entirely by me, with the Pillsbury Doughboy nowhere in sight. I had a few fraught moments of calling out, "I'm facing a fear here!" and "AHHH! What if I'm overworking the dough?!" The pies, however, exited the oven and sat cooling on the rack with poise, as if they'd never doubted their perfection.

One was made with a M.Martinez-recommended recipe for pecan pie without corn syrup, and the other recipe came right off the back of a can of pumpkin puree, a filling so healthy someone made these graphics to prove it.

Besides my uncertainty over making dough, I felt another pang of alarm when I ran out of nuts for the top of the pecan pie. Because it lacked the usual solid topping, the filling puffed up in the gaps between pecan halves when baked and ended up looking sort of like meringue. I'm pretty sure that's what lead to this unnerving moment of dialogue on Thanksgiving Day:

"What kind of pie is this one with pecans?"

"It's pecan."

That didn't do much to help my pie-related fears, which took root about five years ago, the first time I'd tried my hand at pie-making. I'd eaten a slice of pecan pie with Jack Daniel's and chocolate chips at the Gristmill in Gruene, and it was so good that I recreated it at home — unwisely from a sketchy Web site of restaurant copycat recipes — and invited a bunch of folks over. My friends were too kind to say it, but forks were of no use with that gloppy mess. Since then, I've referred to that disaster as the Swamp In A Dish.

On the other hand, my panic over creating pie dough came from lack of experience. I'd never witnessed that moment when dry ingredients plus fat plus water spring to life as pastry; I was afraid I wouldn't know when it was ready. Making this kind of dough seems to have lots of variables ("It says the butter should be pebbly. Is this pebbly? Because I'd say it's more like large gravel."), and everything has to stay cold, then there's that period of adding water by the spoonful, which takes a bit of instinct. I didn't have that instinct going in. My mom's dessert-making involved dipping mini Ritz peanut butter sandwiches or gelled orange candies into melted chocolate, and people on cooking shows always seem to use a food processor. I was starting from scratch. (Har har.)

But, as it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. It wasn't so hard, and they turned out tasting great. It's just that I was overly anxious about 16 people trying my very first all-homemade pies on a holiday that might as well be called Everyone Expects Good Pie Day. Now that I've done it, I'm thinking that should be every day.

Pate brisee (pie dough)

Pep talk from The Awl, with real measurements from Martha Stewart

Makes one double-crust or two single-crust 9- to 10-inch pies.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water

Combine flour, salt and sugar. Add butter and smush with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse meal or just butter blobs held together by paste. That worked for me. Add a 1/4 cup of ice water and do some more smushing. Timidly add more cold water one tablespoon at a time until the dough no longer crumbles. It should hold together without being wet or sticky. Divide dough into two equal balls. Flatten each ball into a disc and wrap in plastic. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill at least one hour. Dough may be stored, frozen, up to one month.

Sprinkle a heavy dusting of flour onto your table and the rolling pin (owned by boyfriend who doesn't cook much, but uses it to make killer tortillas when so inclined). Roll the dough into an odd unknown-continent shape until it's large enough to fit in a pie plate. Unstick it from the table and roll it like a scroll around the rolling pin to transfer it to the buttered pie plate. Yell out with glee. You did it!

Corn-syrup-free pecan pie

From someone named Elaine at allrecipes.com via BAKIN' LOVE

1 cup light brown sugar

1/4 cup white sugar

1/2 cup butter, melted

2 eggs

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup chopped pecans

More pecan halves for decorating.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Butter pie plate and fill it with dough, as outlined above.

In a large bowl, beat eggs until foamy and stir in melted butter. Stir in the brown sugar, white sugar and the flour; mix well. Add the milk, vanilla and chopped pecans.

Pour into an unbaked 9-inch pie shell. Place pecan halves on top in whatever type of pattern you can manage. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until done.

Friday, December 4, 2009

40 degrees feels very cold

Northeasterly wind, temperatures near freezing and precipitation from someplace or other came together this morning to create perfect conditions for snow in Austin: meaning I saw about 18 flakes hit my windshield. Then they disappeared and left us all with just a plain cold day, one without the rare and exciting prospect of real snowfall.

This is Austin, though, so a few schools did close for a snow day. We here are fanatical in our fear of weather that's cold and wet at the same time.

Flurries or not, the chill was enough to make me want something hot for lunch. So I went home and made this French-style warm lentil salad from Orangette, proving that it is possible to make something other than quesadillas during an hourlong lunch break. Of course, that's provided you live a barely plural 1.1 miles from work (as I do) and are willing to take some recipe shortcuts. If you chew quickly, you might even have a second to spare for a photo. Another time saver: I never even took my coat off. Conditions are just that arctic.

Lentils for lunch

Very loosely adapted from Orangette for the sake of speed

½ cup French green lentils

• 1½ cups water

• 1 bay leaf (Mine was Mediterranean, not Turkish, as called for. This was OK.)

• salt

• a dab of oil

• half of a fat shallot, minced as small as you have time for

• leftover cucumber end (about a quarter of a largish one)

• what's left of a 10-ounce bag of carrot "matchstix." (But hey, the package also says "French-cut cooking carrots." Very fancy.)

• 1 clove garlic, chopped smallish

• sprinkling of dried thyme

• Drew's All Natural Rosemary Balsamic dressing, or whatever ready-made vinaigrette you have

Drive home, walk into the house and immediately put lentils, water and bay leaf into a pot and turn the heat to medium-high. Bring them to a boil. Do some slapdash but reasonably careful chopping. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until almost tender, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle in some salt, then simmer, covered, for another 3 to 5 minutes, until tender. My lentils needed slightly longer, so make sure to taste them for doneness.

About halfway through the lentil cooking time, warm the oil in a skillet over medium-low and heat the shallot, carrots, cucumber, garlic, thyme and some salt. Stir every now and then for the next 7 to 9 minutes. Drain the lentils in a sieve and pick out the bay leaf. Dump the lentils into the skillet with the vegetables, add the vinaigrette and stir to combine everything.

You could relocate things to a new bowl, but you're in a hurry and no one else is around, so don't worry about this step too much. (I did, and all it got me was another dish to wash.) Pack up and rush back to work, thinking about how you'll come home to a disorderly kitchen, but eating something warm and homemade on a cold day was worth it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Here are the tools you will need: NONE.

I once made what seemed like a multitude of these little individual Oreo-like icebox cakes. They weren't difficult, just sort of time-consuming. Which I really don't mind. In fact, I'd like more of my time to be consumed this way. I baked a tiramisu cake the same day.

Another time, I made ravioli from scratch. They turned out a little lumpy, but fine overall.

The point is, I'm willing to put time and effort into all kinds of edible things. But never pie crust.

Why does it seem so far out of reach? Like don't-even-bother, cross-it-off-the-list impossible. Just forget about it and buy a ready one at the store.

All this is to say that I've been inspired/guilted by this post to bring something to Thanksgiving dinner that's baked into a real pie crust made by me. Stay tuned.

[My fear of turkey-cooking lives on.]

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pears and chocolate

I'm home from a weeklong bop around Europe full of good eating and sight-seeing with Melissa — and lots of time on trains/planes/buses/feet. First report: the discovery of an Italian duo I want to explore to its full extent.

You know how you hear some little tidbit for the first time, then evidence of it suddenly appears everywhere? You wonder how you'd missed it for so long. In the past few weeks, the pairing of chocolate and pears has worked that way. And let me tell you, they make a great couple.

Before I left, the torta di pere from Smitten Kitchen was first on my radar. It's a bittersweet chocolate and pear cake, and it's among the best I've made. There's lots of fine chopping and a good deal of time spent beating eggs, but it's fun in that it's very science project-y to bake. You spread the batter in the pan, then scatter all the chocolate and pear bits on top. The thing is, while it's in the oven, that batter envelops the fruit and chocolate. And it doesn't just let them sink in; the batter swells like a big marshmallow blob around the sides until it flows over the top and meets in the middle to seal everything in. I know because I spent much of the 40 minutes of baking time watching in fascination with the oven light on.

When I mention to Melissa that this fruit-and-chocolate combo somehow tastes very Italian to me, she acts like this is nothing new. All the Italians are doing it. That, and wearing purple. And two months into living on an Italian hilltop, she knows. In fact, just the night before, she'd had scoops of pear gelato and dark chocolate gelato sharing space in un piccolo cono.

Then on Friday, I got to Perugia myself. Even though I'd seen pictures, I don't think I believed until then that people really do live on this beautiful cobblestoned hilltop stocked with pizza, gelato and beer. And views! Melissa's gelato man was out of pear, so I settled for a Nutella/stracciatella cone.

But then! We got panini at a little market off the city center and, at the last second, she picked up a Perugina chocolate bar for me with pear. So perfect. I've been eating it square by square over the past few days and wondering if I'll be able to find this type of bar in Austin.

Until then, I'm imagining the pear-and-chocolate combinations I can cook up in my kitchen. Maybe adding chocolate to poached pears? Maybe together in a cheesecake? Maybe a tart, with ginger figuring in somehow? Any other ideas? I'm ready to put them to the test.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Servantless, but not without helpful and hungry friends

This is my final Julia Child-related post, I swear. But I have to say, you know you've made a successful dinner when people clean their plates and even go back for seconds while sitting at a table in the same room as an oven that's been blazing at 350 degrees for more than two hours.

And the air conditioner can't catch up because the temperature outside has been over 100 all afternoon.

And sweat is running down the backs of knees and necks.

Still, we reached for more. More boiled potatoes topped with rib-sticking boeuf bourguignon made from "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." More caesar salad. More roasted green beans. More gâteau reine de saba (Queen of Sheba cake!). It was that good.

The secret, as we found, is a team of three who know their way around a kitchen. Our team:

Sara — An epicure whose 10 years in France afforded us proper pronunciations of the food before us.

Melissa — Another world traveler with a keen ability for pastry creation and frosting.

Me — Well, it was my kitchen. Someone had to point to where the tongs are kept.

Being servantless, and also otherwise engaged during business hours, we baked the cake the night before. Along the way, we discovered that what they say about beating egg whites in a completely dry, clean bowl is absolutely true. Do not try to get around this. The egg whites can tell, and they will refuse to become foamy or peaked and certainly not stiff.

I don't know about the rest of our dinner party of five, but my favorite part of the boeuf bourguignon by far was the onions. A little extra love before dumping them in with the rest of the stew really paid off.

And speaking of love, we coddled the egg for the caesar dressing as called for by the recipe and as called for by our own understanding of coddling. This additional step was crucial to its flavor, I'm sure.

After all this affection and effort for our dinner in an overheated kitchen/dining room, there was nothing to do but leave the house and hope for a breeze as we walked down the block to 7-Eleven for Slurpees. Then, of course, we were ready for cake.

Reine de Saba
Adapted from Julia Child's "The Way to Cook" as reprinted in The Boston Globe, who you'd expect to spell "Sheba" correctly


3 ounces sweet baking chocolate, chopped
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons strong coffee
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened
1/2 cup sugar
3 large egg yolks
3 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup blanched almonds pulverized with 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup plain bleached cake flour, in a sifter set on wax paper

Set the oven at 325 degrees. Set the rack in the lower middle level. Butter and flour an 8-inch by 1 1/2-inch round cake pan.
In a double boiler or bowl set over a pan of 2 or 3 inches of water, combine the sweet and unsweetened chocolates with the coffee. Bring water to a simmer, cover and let chocolate melt, stirring until smooth. Turn off the heat.
In a 3-quart mixing bowl, use a hand-held electric mixer to cream the butter until soft and fluffy, then add the 1/2 cup sugar. Beat 1 minute, then beat in the yolks.
In another mixing bowl, beat the whites until foaming, beat in the cream of tartar and salt and continue beating until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the 2 tablespoons of sugar and continue beating until stiff, shining peaks form.
Blend the warm melted chocolate into the yolk mixture, then blend in the almonds and almond extract. Stir a quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate to lighten it. Scoop the rest of the whites over the chocolate and, alternating with sprinkles of the flour, rapidly and delicately fold in the whites.
Immediately turn the batter into the prepared pan, tilting it in all directions to run it up to the rim, and set it in the oven.
Bake for 25 minutes or until the cake has puffed to the top of the pan and a toothpick plunged into it 2 and 3 inches from the edges comes out clean. (The center should move slightly when the pan is gently shaken.)
Remove the pan to a rack and let it cool for 15 minutes, then unmold onto the rack. Let it cool completely, at least 2 hours, before storing or icing.


2 ounces sweet chocolate, chopped
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons rum or strong coffee
Pinch of salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

In a double boiler or bowl set over a pan of 2 or 3 inches of water, combine both chocolates with the rum or coffee, bring water to a simmer, cover and let chocolate melt, stirring until smooth. Turn off the heat.
Using an electric hand mixer, beat the salt into the melted chocolate, then beat in the butter 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue beating over cold water until icing is firm enough to spread. Turn the icing onto the top of the cake and spread it evenly over the top and sides.
Adorn with toasted sliced almonds.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Barbacoa-powered menu planning

I can't recall if I've ever paid to see the same movie twice in the theater. And I know I've never sat in the dark to see the same movie three times. Until yesterday, when I saw "Julie & Julia" again — but each time I've gone with new companions, so I think they each count as totally different experiences. Right? After three viewings, I have to say some scenes are irrefutable winners, and they tend to be Julia's, not Julie's — like an enraptured description of beurre blanc or a pair of very tall sisters commenting in front of a mirror, "Pretty good. But not great."

Scenes like these often upstage the food — even screen-dominating shots of sole meunière and boeuf bourguignon — as I think they should. But the one dish I couldn't get out of my head was a chocolate cake with sliced almonds layered like shingles all around the sides. Into the kitchen! But first, I'd need a recipe.

My friend Sara reports that during a visit to Alabama last week she couldn't find a single copy of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." And I just got off the phone with someone at BookPeople, where they have only four copies, but they're all on hold. I could put my name on a list, the guy said, but I'd be ordering the movie tie-in version, not the one with the more classic cover.

So, off to start googling. Sara and I might even turn this into an entire French feast. But even recipe searching and meal planning requires sustenance. Mine came from El Taquito, a spot so in demand it's closed for only two hours overnight on the weekends. When buying barbacoa by the pound, I think it's a good idea to go with the place where someone — a late-night customer, I'm guessing — has scratched "100% mexicano" into a tabletop.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Bon appétit!"

I wish I'd had a camera with me to capture the spirited, and even the gory, impersonations delivered at the Alamo Drafthouse's Julia Child lookalike contest tonight. Before an early (and free!) screening of "Julie and Julia," one guy bounded down from his seat — frilly apron and all — to warble about bashing a chicken against a wall and drinking its blood. "And save the giblets — the giblets!"

But the burly guards and airport-level security at these pre-release showings ensure that no devices are sneaked inside to record such moments. Oh, or the movie.

In the film, the stories of two butter devotees run closely parallel, down to their identical Flame Le Creuset pots. Amy Adams is adorable as blogger and former Austinite Julie Powell, and Meryl Streep is winningly expressive as the woman who translated French cooking for Americans. But you could have guessed that. Maybe I can do better: There's McCarthyism, a great use of a Talking Heads song in the soundtrack and a cameo by former New York Times editor Amanda Hesser (who was my favorite part of the last Texas Book Festival).

So maybe those aren't the juiciest spoilers. But it's a well designed, at times subtle and very satisfying movie. I'll pay to be charmed by it again. And I found it's best seen with a friend who will whisper that she prefers dutch ovens in Dune, one who will run through the rain to get there and another who'll remark about Meryl's striped dresses. Plus one more who will fearlessly take the spotlight in competition to imitate Julia, then aim to use all of her $25 Whole Foods gift card winnings on gelato.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Frito pie in the Hill Country

Looks like I'm straying from my theme pretty quickly. I won't even try to stretch a connection between building community through food in Austin and eating a snack on my own in Luckenbach. But it's worth mentioning because it was my first Frito pie served in the chip bag.

I've never met a Frito pie I didn't love. I've made it with super salty canned chili in lean times (though there's nothing lean about it) and I've recreated Spiderhouse's vegetarian Frito pie at home since it's been demoted to an infrequent menu special. I've also cleaned my plate of the fancypants version with goat cheese at Lambert's. But it wasn't until I traveled to the Hill Country for a freelance assignment this weekend that I had it in its authentic form, Little League-style. It completely hit the spot.

The town of Luckenbach (pop. 3) is a creekside spot with a dancehall, a rickety general store/post office/bar, a stage and a dirt parking lot filled with trucks. Things move slowly here. Oak trees and crops of cactus grow side by side, looking a bit like the visiting city folks sharing picnic tables with old ranchers you just know have sipped Lone Star there every weekend for decades. While I stirred my bag of cheesy, corny goodness with a plastic fork, this guy walked by:

Just as I saw him, I heard a mom hollering from the next picnic table over: "Your daddy didn't spend $6 on that so you could feed it to a damn rooster!"

So maybe there is a story of community here — little girls communing with roosters by sharing their fried mozzarella sticks. Really though, it's not hard to squint past the motorcycle dudes and the ATM machine and feel connected with old-time, backroads Texas and all the folks who have come here looking for a place to slow down and take a spin on the dance floor.

It would be a real shame to drive down U.S. 290 in June and not stop for roadside peaches, which are absolutely everywhere right now. Everywhere, that is, except the stand I stopped at that had already sold out of their Fredericksburg beauties. So I got some blackberries and moved on down the road to a place that sold me about a dozen juicy plums for one dollar. And I got my peaches. The plums I'm eating straight, but some of the blackberries and peaches have a different fate.

Peach ice cream

about 4 large peaches
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
a few drops freshly squeezed lemon juice

Peel the peaches, slice them in half and remove the pits. Cut the peaches into chunks and cook them with the water in a medium, nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, covered, stirring once or twice, until soft and cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat, stir in the sugar, then cool to room temperature.
Puree the cooked peaches and their liquid in a blender or food processor with the sour cream, heavy cream, vanilla and lemon juice until almost smooth but slightly chunky.
Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker.