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.