The past six months have felt a bit like a real-life “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” minus the red hat and the international intrigue. Which is to say, last week I spent four incredible days in (and just outside of) Barcelona.
It was a trip of firsts–first time in Spain, first time baking bread in a wood-burning oven, first time taking a cooking class in someone’s home, first time using AirBnB, first time using the tiny bit of Spanish I remembered from high school (which, as I learned, was only marginally helpful as all the signs are in, and many people speak, Catalan). Most significantly for me, though, it was the first trip I’ve done completely by myself, with no agenda or priorities other than my own. It was a transformative experience, one I’m still processing, but that I could not be more grateful to have had.
I’m still organizing my thoughts (and nearly 2,000 photos), but more, so much more–all the amazing people I met, the beautiful sights, the food (oh, the food!)–to come soon. Bon dia!
What dessert or sweet treat defines Paris? The internet is littered with lists, debates rage, and more often than not, the macaron is crowned king (or queen, perhaps not an enviable role given Paris’ history). I would argue the madeleine, quietly observing from the wings, deserves its moment to shine.
Delicious and beautiful and delicate as they are, macarons are also known for their fussiness and fanciness; they have a notorious reputation for tempermentality should you take on the challenge of making them yourself. Madeleines are confident in their simplicity, needing nothing more than a dusting of powdered sugar or basic sugar glaze.
Madeleines, like Paris, have a bit of je ne sais quoi about them, just enough to make things interesting, but not intimidating if approached with the right attitude. Madeleines are, in fact, very approachable and not particularly complicated–you probably have every ingredient in your cupboard or fridge.
But they require a bit of dedication and a dedicated pan (madelelines are not madeleines if they’re baked in cupcake tins), a little patience, and some home-cook magic to create their iconic little bump. Madeleines also will not wait for you; once baked, their window of perfection is short, and it’s really best to cede to their schedule for the best experience–you’ll really be glad you did.
The buttery, lemony, sweet little cakes themselves are pillow-soft but sturdy enough to stand up to a dunk in a cup of tea (memorably so, if Marcel Proust is any authority). If you look at a macaron sideways, its delicate shell might crack and crumble. The madeleines traditional shell shape is their one nod to decoration, but even that is relatively simple by necessity–too intricate and the detail is lost or they stick to the pan.
On the other hand, maybe the madeleine is best left out of the spotlight to be enjoyed by those who know what to look for. Maybe it doesn’t need a chain of ultra-high-end stores, fancy boxes, or a cult following, but just a pretty little plate and a pot of tea at a beat-up wooden table surrounded by friends and good conversation. Sounds like perfection to me.
And simply because no discussion of the madeleine would be complete without it:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
On the spectrum of grills and grilling, this is how I view things:
Charcoal grill > Any grill > No grill
A few years ago, I moved into my first apartment with a porch and my first must-do was learn how to grill. Happily, I got a little cast iron Lodge hibachi grill as a housewarming gift (you know what’s really smart? giving a person who likes to cook stuff to cook with because they will often use it to cook for you).
For four years, I used the hell out of that thing. It’s just the right size to cook for one or two people, but I easily had enough space to grill a whole pizza or a few burgers when I needed to. It was fast to heat up, holds just enough charcoal for one meal (with enough left over to melt a few marshmallows), and took briquette (the kind most grocery stores sell in summer) and lump (the kind that looks like chunks of burnt wood) charcoal. I can guarantee there were weeks in summer I did not touch my stove in favor of cooking on my porch (yes, breakfast too–do you know how good grilled bacon is?).
As much as I love that grill, it has a few drawbacks. The lack of a lid is the biggest one, making it a challenge to cook larger pieces of meat for longer periods of time. Foil or a pot lid worked to melt cheese on a burger, but not so well for cooking, say, a whole chicken, or smoking anything. A little Weber or tabletop/tailgating grill would have solved this, but I really like how the cast iron maintained heat. That’s why my housewarming gift to myself with my new place (after I made sure there were no rules about grilling, and yes, being able to grill was one of my “must-haves” when I was looking to buy) was a small ceramic grill, a Kamado Joe Jr.
I love my new baby for a lot of reasons but it came with a bit of a learning curve. The biggest selling point for me: it’s easy to get temperatures really low (180º F), really high (900º F), and everything in between and hold that temperature steady for a very long time–the whole thing is essentially a brick oven with grill grates. The lid and the steady temperatures also mean I can cook larger things like chicken; smoke salmon, or even bake (some people get excited about a pulled pork on the grill, I’m excited about baking cobbler. Ok, and the pork too.).
Compared to my cast iron grill, the ceramic needs a little more attention and takes a little longer to get the hang of. It’s slower to heat up than my cast iron, and only uses lump charcoal. Also, with the cast iron I could see my food as it cooked and so was quicker to figure out how much charcoal to use, how to set my hot and cool spots, when to turn or otherwise fuss with the food. With the ceramic, the cooking is mostly hidden under the lid, so I’ve had to learn a bit more by trial and error (and a few overdone burgers). But as I figure it out, I realize how much I will be able do–baking pizzas at near-professional pizza-oven temperatures and smoking my own bacon, for instance.
The difference between my two grills is essentially the difference between having a stovetop and having a full stove with an oven. I can cook nearly everything with just the first, but having the flexibility of the second gives me so many more options that it’s worth dealing with the learning curve.
If I had a porch big enough to have both grills out at the same time, I would, but for now I’m defaulting to my ceramic. My next place though…both grills.
First, a note–before I made this, Chicago was well on its way to spring. It was 70 degrees, my winter coats and gloves and scarves were all put away. The day this went in the oven? Four inches of snow. I don’t know if that’s an endorsement or indictment. You’ve been warned.
There’s a particular kind of meal best served out of the dish it was made in, at a table crowded with full wine glasses, ready plates, and even more ready appetites. The kind of meal that lends itself to lingering at the table long after the food is gone, though the glasses never seem to run empty.
After my trip to Paris last fall, I’ve (hardly unexpectedly) been on a French food kick and all winter, the one dish I’ve been craving, but never quite got around to making until last week, is about as French as it gets and, I think, perfectly speaks to that kind of meal–cassoulet.
If you’re not familiar with cassoulet, it’s a rib-sticking, richer-than-stew but not-really-a-casserole dish of white beans, chicken or duck, sausage, salt pork, broth, and a ton of garlic. Every person who makes it has their own recipe–which is of course the “right” way (the right way usually coinciding with the way they had it growing up–though in cassoulet’s case, it actually has a whole academie).
The dish has an intimidating reputation, even to me–see above re. L’académie Universelle du Cassoulet. There’s the duck confit (which many recipes include instructions to make yourself), a very specific type of bean, the multi-day cooking time, etc., etc. But it doesn’t need to be that complicated. I’m not advocating for a microwave version (I probably made a Frenchman roll over in his grave just by typing that), but, as with any dish borne out of using what you have and stretching it to serve a crowd, it can be–and was!–simple (and, if not exactly fast, at least doesn’t require a lot of standing-at-the-stove time).
I’ve had this recipe kicking around since October, but my favorite part isn’t the recipe itself (though it’s what I used and what I modified below), it’s the article that precedes it. It addresses perfectly the intimidation factor and how to make this the way I imagine it was made at the beginning–with ingredients you have or can pretty easily get, allowing for adjustments as needed, and to your own tastes. And pretty much however you make it, it will be amazing.
To unintentionally prove a point, I actually screwed up when I made this. In hindsight, I should have added more water while it was cooking, there should have been a bit more broth-yness to the beans by the time it was done. Ideally the crust forms from the liquid, not the beans or chicken. Not a problem–it was still delicious (and totally devoured and I basically had to stop myself from picking off all the crispy chicken skin bits) and I will make adjustments next time.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise considering how much I talk about them, but the Peterson Garden Project is hands-down one of my favorite organizations. I love their mission to teach people to grow their own food and, now that they have the Fearless Food Kitchen, to cook and eat the food they grow; I love their community involvement; I love how they align with so many of my own values. And now I’m officially part of their team!
It’s a gig that I couldn’t be more thrilled about. I’ll be helping them with communications, especially getting the word out about their new classes. There’s some great stuff coming up–I can guarantee I’ll be at this class on making your own bacon–and I can’t wait to share!
In other news, while I don’t have a recipe for you this week, last weekend was the most inspired I’ve been in the kitchen in what feels like months. It was wonderful. I will have a recipe (hopefully two) to share next week (a hint–one of the recipes is pictured below).
Almost two weeks ago, my grandpa died. I’ve been debating writing about this for a lot of reasons, but if this blog is about anything other than food, it’s about family, and he was an important part of mine. It would be selfish of me not to share what I can of him with the world.
There are many, many things that made my grandpa a great man, but they can all be distilled down to one undeniable truth–he loved people, especially his family, and people loved him. Sometimes–well, let’s be honest, often–that love, and his sense of humor, was kind of goofy, a little teasing or sarcastic, possibly, occasionally crude (though never crass or dirty; he (almost) never swore), but always unique to him–even if the joke itself wasn’t unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandma’s (lovingly) rolled her eyes at the same joke for the entire 63 years they were married.
Three weeks before he passed away was Paczki Day, Fat Tuesday. I hadn’t planned on making any, or shipping them overnight to Cleveland where there’s no shortage of good paczki to be had. Still I found myself frying up two dozen golden little donuts filled with my homemade jam that Sunday night, tucking them safely into boxes for their journey. My grandma brought one to my grandpa in the hospital, leaving instructions with his nurses to microwave it a little; paczki are better warm. She told me later that he called her that night to tell her to thank me and that it was delicious.
I was lucky enough to see him the next weekend and despite how simply not like my grandfather he looked–there’s something that twists your heart and makes you feel so old when you realize the people you always, always knew to be big and tall are not so much anymore–the eye-roll-inducing humor and good spirit remained, for which I could not be more grateful. We chatted for a bit and I asked again if he liked the paczki and he said he did, joking he gained four pounds just from one. I reminded him I could make and ship him anything he wanted, cookies, or maybe brownies. “Ooh, brownies…” My grandpa, as my mom later reminded me, loved chocolate.
Two weeks later, as I prepared for another trip to Cleveland, this time to be with my family and celebrate my grandfather’s life, his “Ooh, brownies” kept ringing in my ears. And so, again, I found myself in the kitchen mixing and baking when I should have been packing and sleeping. Somehow the brownies were more important than anything else at that moment. There’s comfort in sharing food with loved ones, especially during a hard time, but making and bringing those brownies with me was purely selfish–it was the last thing my grandpa asked me for and what kind of granddaughter with a food blog and a penchant for cooking for an army would I be if I didn’t deliver?
There isn’t enough time or space or simply the words to share my memories of him, but it’s the little things I keep thinking about and telling anyone who will listen. How he made me his specialty of bacon scrambled into eggs when I had chicken pox as a kid. How we’d always go out for Italian food when he and my grandma were in town and he’d always joke with the waiter about how he was on a fixed income before placing his usual order of veal parmesan and a glass of “white zin.” His voice in the back of my mind as my car crapped out the week he died: “You should’ve bought a GM. When’s the last time you got the oil changed? And maybe take it to the car wash once in a while.” The pride in his voice echoing through the hall as I walked across the stage to get my Master’s degree: “You go, girl!!”
My sisters and I are so lucky, not only to have had him as an incredible grandfather and for the limitless love he gave us, but for how we’ve benefited from how he and my grandma raised their first born, my mom. My aunt said in her eulogy that my grandpa raised his daughters to be independent (and, among other essential life skills, to know the power of duct tape; how to use a lawnmower and a snow blower; and to appreciate a good power tool). Through my mom, how she’s lived her life, made her own way, my grandpa’s lesson came to me. I know he was so proud of her just as he was proud of me. And I could not be prouder to be his granddaughter.
Sorry for the silence lately, the weather has gotten me a bit down and, with it, any kitchen inspiration other than egg sandwiches, take out, and freezer leftovers. But this weekend starts Daylight Savings and an extra glorious hour of light when I get home, the temperatures are slowly creeping above freezing, and I got to spend last weekend enjoying this view. I can’t complain.
You know who throw the best parties? People who love food. That pretty much explains why the Peterson Garden Project’s “Dig In!” kitchen warming and benefit for the new Fearless Food Kitchen was such a blast–an event put on by a group that helps people grown their own food in order to raise money to teach people how to cook good food. (Not to mention, it’s always fun to get a little fancy, especially for a good cause. And really, really good food.)
The party kicked off with fantastically creative cocktails (many with homemade liqueurs and infusions) and a delicious spread of cheese, fruit, and other nibbles while everyone mingled and checked out the new kitchen space (and snuck a peek of dinner being prepared in the kitchen). It was wonderful to talk with so many people excited about the space and see so many equally happy to donate towards everything from whisks and spatulas to serious kitchen hardware like mixers and ovens. My favorite part, though, was watching the inspiration wall fill up as people wrote about those who inspired them to cook and garden.
As cocktails ended, everyone moved to the dining room, long tables beautifully decorated and perfect for a community meal. And oh, the food. Delicious doesn’t begin to describe, and really should go without saying, considering the chefs for the evening were some of the best (and some of my favorites) in Chicago. It took all my willpower (and the reality of a very small purse) to keep from swiping a basket of bread from Baker Miller to take home. Two distinctly different, but equally amazing salads, started the meal: a hearty dish of creamy white beans, potatoes, and pickled vegetables from Joe Frillman (Balena)was a wonderful reminder of what can be done in mid-winter with produce put up in spring and summer; on the opposite end of the spectrum, a fresh, bright, citrusy, spicy salad of apple, mango, and tomatoes from Patty Neumson (Herb, now topping my lists of restaurants to try). I could have been happy eating just these three things for dinner.
Oh but there was more. My first taste of lamb sweetbreads (they were good!), fried and served over white beans and a salad of corn and squash from my favorites, Brad Newman & Michael Taormina (Cookies & Carnitas). Perfectly braised pork with olives and melon by Chris Pandel (Balena, The Bristol, Formento’s); a tasty and light tofu and vegetable dish from Alvin Yu (Fyusion Dining).
The main course that everyone was talking about at the end of the night though, was the short rib by Erling Wu-Bower (Nico Osteria). You could tell who took their first bite by the chorus of “oh my god”s running down the table–I didn’t even get a picture it was gone so fast. It was perfection down to the Roman gnocchi (my new favorite thing, more like polenta cakes than the traditional potato dumpling-style of gnocchi) and roasted celery root. I don’t even like celery or celery-flavored anything and this converted me. Lord, that was good.
And of course, dessert. Because what would a meal like this be without it? Cranberry upside-down cakes with a perfectly sweet and sour sour cream gelato from Amanda Rockman (Nico Osteria, who is also teaching a class on making her iconic gateau basque next month) and a chocolate chip cookie from Baker Miller that was bigger than the saucer for my coffee. I wasn’t the only one who figured out that the best combination was putting the gelato on the cookie, which tasted like what every ice cream sandwich wishes it could be. (Want to know how good that cookie was? So good I actually forgot my purse in favor of searching for a cookie to take home.)
Everyone involved in putting this dinner together did an amazing job on every detail, from the gorgeous centerpieces and the wonderfully attentive waitstaff, to the great live music, the cute garden gift bags. Extra kudos to the volunteers who came back the next day in the midst of the fifth largest snowfall in Chicago to clean up.
While digging into a great meal is always a treat, it’s almost time to dig into the soil too (I know, it’s hard to imagine the ground will ever not be frozen). PGP’s new gardener sign-up just opened this week; if you’re interested, register soon spots go fast (and don’t be afraid of the waitlist, it’s how I got in last year)!
I just renewed my little plot at “Vedgewater” and can’t wait to get back outside, tending to my tomatoes, getting dirt under my nails, trying to figure out what’s killing my cucumbers, plucking sweet peas and strawberries to eat as soon as I get home. Soon, soon!
Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.
How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).
Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.
By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.
I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).
The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.” A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.
If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!
Snow, snow, and more snow. Tis the season, I suppose, and in all fairness this has been a not-terrible winter. While I guarantee I will still whine and complain about the waiting-for-the-snow-plow-to-unbury-my-street and digging-out-my-car parts, it is nice to have a Sunday’s-worth of plans canceled in favor of a few cooking/baking projects to basically say “Take that, snow!” (after, of course, an emergency trip to the grocery store since I was out of eggs. And milk. And sugar. All set on bread though!).
After making a veritable cauldron of roasted beef stock, I was looking to put it to good use–something other than beef barley (want to guess what I forgot to put on my list for that emergency grocery run?). Beef goes well with mushrooms, and maybe…some wild rice? Sounded good to me.
One of my Christmas gifts this year was a subscription on America’s Test Kitchen online recipe archive, so I’ve been on a bit of an ATK bender since the new year. Lucky me, one of the recipes in their archives was wild rice and mushroom soup, and easy enough to use beef broth instead of chicken. And since I had a bunch of beef cooked and shredded in bits and pieces left over from making stock, it went into the soup as well.
Well, if I can’t beat the weather (I did try!), I may as well embrace it, and this soup was basically a bowl of snow day winter coziness. Stick-to-your-ribs from the wild rice, beef, and mushrooms; a little bit bright with the lemon and chives; rich and creamy (but not so rich that you can’t have a second helping–we’re embracing winter after all, right?).
Bonus–it went perfectly with that monster loaf of rye bread.