Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on 2011

And I thought 2010 was a bad year.

Well, it was, in a number of ways that I've documented elsewhere. But this year was worse. I certainly won't be sorry to turn over a new leaf and have the opportunity to start fresh, because, in the words of my dear departed grandmother, this year was a bitch. I've spent too much time in hospitals. I've attended too many funerals. I've been forced a few too many times to confront the bleakness of the world situation, to question my self-worth, to doubt my life choices. I suppose my grandmother would add that such things make one stronger, but let me tell you, if I have been made stronger, it's been no great pleasure getting here.

And so I end this year with a great sense of loss. It's not fair, I suppose, to let that color the many happy things that happened this year, but it does. What's more, that makes it difficult to look to the future with hope. But I'm going to try to hope anyway, because what other choice do I have? I don't want to let that sense of loss define me or to deny me the ability to meet the future with resolve --- and so I won't. In the words of the balladeer: "All you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow / With smilin’ bastards lyin’ to you everywhere you go / Turn to and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain / And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again."

Happy new year, and may 2012 be the year in which we all can rise again.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

Let the annual extravaganza begin!

This year, we got fancy with the tableware and bought ourselves a set of honest-to-goodness French onion soup crocks, complete with lions' heads on the sides.

Of course, this is only a fraction of the china needed to plate this no-turkey feast:

Note the miniature onion soup crocks in front of their big brothers. We used these to serve our amuse-bouche, which was a modern twist on that quintessentially American food, popcorn:

What's the twist, you ask? We dressed the popcorn with butternut squash seed oil from The Filling Station. It's the most amazing stuff; tastes a little like roasted squash and a little like peanut butter. No joke.

From here, we transitioned to a classic first course: a salad of endives, walnuts, and Roquefort.

Salade d’Endive
walnuts, vernières frères roquefort

Yeah so we were thinking about going vegan, but, you know, Roquefort!

Our second course was inspired by the very first meal that we were served on our honeymoon in Beaune, France. (Awww.) Frankly, I think the chef didn't quite know what to do with a couple of vegetarians, so he made us what would be called in English "scrambled eggs." But, this being France, these weren't just any scrambled eggs --- they were oeufs brouillés, stirred for a long time over very low heat and incorporating what tasted like a pound of cream. The result was an astonishingly rich pile of tiny egg curds, dressed with perfectly cooked vegetables and drizzled with truffle oil.

We didn't want to make eggs for our dinner, since timing is everything in getting the right consistency, and that's a little difficult to pull off in the face of 12 hungry people. We also wanted to honor the produce that was fresh and in season. So we replaced the eggs with parsnips.

Parsnips are one of those vegetables that often get short shrift, lumped in with carrots and turnips and relegated to a secondary role in stews and soups. This is a real shame, since fresh parsnips can have quite a complex flavor, with notes of earthiness and vanilla, and a texture that can only be described as velvety. The truly amazing thing is how easy it is to get them to taste good: Boiling in water, straining, and then puréeing in a blender pretty much does the trick. No cream or butter required. Sometimes, it's the simplest things that are the best.

But since this is Thanksgiving, and we didn't want to make things too simple, we layered the parsnips with four different kinds of sautéed mushrooms.

Parsnip Brouillé
chanterelle, lobster, trompette du mort, and cremini mushrooms

Again in the sprit of expressing the best of the season, our next course featured delicata squash. We got this in our CSA box once and it's been a fall staple ever since. It's incredibly easy to prepare, since unlike other winter squashes, its skin is soft enough to eat. And it looks a bit like an overgrown yellow zucchini, so it makes beautiful crescent-moon shaped slices once it's scooped out.

Taking this as our base, we dressed it with a beet coulis (which, let's face it, is just a fancy term for "sauce"). As a bonus, the rich red of the beets made an awesome color contrast with the squash.

Because this dish is made of just vegetables, which don't bring much if any fat to the table, we wanted to dress it with some delectable nut oil, which would add both flavor and mouthfeel. We quickly settled on pistachio oil, since we were using hazelnuts elsewhere and since walnut oil is boring. It turns out that pistachio oil is the biggest pain in the ass to find. We looked everywhere in Philly with no success. Finally, we had to resort to getting Michael's parents to import it for us from the small-country-sized Whole Foods near where they live. It was worth it, though, since the oil was a delicate shade of green and complemented the squash perfectly.

Delicata Squash Moons
beet coulis, roasted pistachio oil, fleur de sel

For our main course, we decided to honor the American heritage of the holiday, so we turned to a classic Mexican sauce, pipian. The main ingredient in this sauce is roasted pumpkin seeds, which again fit well with our seasonal theme.

The mise en place:

The seeds are mixed with freshly ground spices, including cinnamon and epazote (Mexican oregano); sauteed onion; and dried and reconstituted chiles.

Then the whole mess is whizzed in the blender to the consistency of peanut butter and slowly simmered with some broth to make the right texture.

Normally, of course, pipian is served over some sort of meat dish; we used marinated seitan (wheat gluten) instead.

A lightly pickled onion relish (escabeche) rounded out the dish, providing a sharp bite to cut through the richness of the pipian.

Seitán en Pipián con Escabeche de Cebolla

After that heavy course, we included a salad as a palate cleanser. Asian pears are a favorite around here for salads, since they have a pleasant, fresh crunch and don't turn brown after being cut as apples and pears do. We tossed them with toasted hazelnuts and a dressing made with Asian plum wine.

Asian Pear & Hazelnut Salad
plum wine vinaigrette

[camera shy]

Finally, it was time for our traditional piece de resistance: French onion soup with homemade baguette croutons and Gruyere cheese.
Yes, that is over three liters of caramelized onions.
Yes, that is over a gallon of soup.
Yes, that is over five pounds of cheese.
Yes, we made those ourselves. (No, we don't mess around.)

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

Never ones to stop at that when dessert can be had, we took on a new challenge this year: chocolate truffles. Turns out that they're insanely easy to make, and a ton of fun, since shaping them allows you to literally get your hands dirty in chocolate. We rolled half in cocoa power and half in coconut. What's not to love?

Hand-rolled Truffles

Never ones to stop at that when even more dessert can be had, we supplemented the truffles with two different kinds of cupcakes from our beyond-awesome local bakery, Betty's Speakeasy: apple cider and pumpkin chocolate. We rounded things out with a traditional English farmhouse Cheddar from Neal's Yard Dairy and a Cardo from Sleight Farm.

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling kinda hungry now.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Letter to Tropical Storm Emily

Dear Tropical Storm Emily,

I hate you.

Okay, so I realize that it was kinda my fault for booking a trip to Puerto Rico during hurricane season. I do. But the thing is, Michael had a conference in San Juan, so we were going to be there anyway, and we were really hoping to squeeze in a little genuine vacation time. You know, some hiking in the rainforest, some kayaking in the bioluminescent bay, some sitting on the verandah sipping rum, that sort of thing. And then you had to come along and ruin it with your rain and your wind and your storm surge.


In all fairness, it wasn't a complete bust. We did discover some great new foods --- like sorullito, which is a deep-fried cornmeal patty stuffed with cheese, and mofongo, which is mashed plantains stuffed with veggies. So that's something. And we got to see the fort of Castillo de San Cristobal in San Juan and drink Don Q rum and hang out by the pool. I guess that part was OK.

But here's the thing. After leaving San Juan, we'd specifically picked Luquillo as a base of operations because it was close to the El Yunque rainforest and within easy driving distance of the bioluminescent bay.

View Larger Map

We had grand plans to go hiking and kayaking --- but you had other plans, didn't you,  Emily?

Turns out the rainforest was closed the entire time we were there, because all of the trails were flooded out. The entire time! I mean, really, was it too much to ask to be able to do one single hike in the whole week we were there? And the kayaking trip was canceled because of the rough surf. No, that's fine, it's not like I really wanted the magical experience of kayaking through swirling swarms of bioluminescent bacteria, sending sparks through the water with every wave of my paddle. Nope, didn't miss that at all.

We tried to make the best of it, but we basically had to spend most of the time puttering around Luquillo, which (let's face it) isn't the most interesting or populous spot. We got to do some walking on the beach, mostly to and from the line of kioskos (little restaurants) along the edge of the ocean. I wouldn't have minded so much if this weren't the only place open and serving food.

Despite the slim pickings, we found a couple of kioskos that served veggie food (such as Tapas 13, shown here). But one does get a little sick of mofongo after three nights in a row. Luckily, there was Pasta y Pueblo to mix things up a bit --- a beachside shack (literally) near the hotel with good home-cooked food. And, thanks to the local liquor store, we got to experience the joy of Medalla, essentially the Puerto Rican equivalent of Budweiser. Before you go criticizing my lowbrow taste, you have to admit there's something about drinking cold cans of beer on the balcony in 90 degree weather with 100% humidity, watching the storm roll in.

But by the fourth day, we were starting to go a bit stir-crazy. There's only so much Medalla one can drink, you know. At this point it wasn't even raining anymore, and everything was still closed! Again, your fault. So in an effort to entertain ourselves, we took some ill-advised drives down the southern coast to see the lay of the land.

Perhaps we should have considered alternate forms of transportation?

At least the local fauna didn't mind your presence that much. In a nice drive along the coast towards Piñones, we were able to explore a few beaches and a roadside boardwalk, where we spotted an array of lizards.

And there were a few moments of levity. For instance, as we were checking the Park Service's website for El Yunque to see if any of the trails were open, their Smoky the Bear indicator said that the fire danger was "moderate." WTF? The island was in the grips of a tropical storm and it had been raining for three days straight. What the hell does it take to get to "low"?

They finally did decide to re-open the park, but on the morning of the day we had to leave. Never ones to pass up an opportunity, we decided to check out of our hotel and have a quick walk around before getting on the plane.

This would have been much better if you hadn't been around, since the humidity was overwhelming --- so much so that it was actually hard to breathe. And then we had to get on the plane in our sweaty hiking clothes, which was not the nicest experience, either for us or our fellow passengers.  I never thought anything would make me appreciate August on the east coast, but I guess now I know that it could be a lot worse. I suppose I should thank you for that.

If I'm honest, we managed to make a nice trip out of it, despite your damned interference. But it would have been really nice to do some legitimate hiking and go kayaking in the bioluminescent bay. Maybe next time, Emily, you can hold off a bit and not ruin our plans so much? Maybe go hang around Cuba for a while instead, 'kay?

Thanks, girl!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Vietnamese spring rolls

IPoL is pleased to introduce my new favorite summer lunch: Vietnamese spring rolls. I've had them before from various markets in the area, but it never really occurred to me to make my own until I stumbled across the right kind of rice-paper wraps at the Asian grocery store.

Basically, these are just another variation on the endlessly adaptable culinary theme of "some protein and veg held together by a starch," aka, a sandwich. In this case, the protein in question is tofu, which was freshly made and pressed by Viet Tofu. (They also make their own silken tofu and soymilk, if you're interested, as well as deep-fried spicy cassava fritters, which are 10 different kinds of awesome.)

The first step was to cook the tofu a bit, which we did under the broiler with a light glaze of soy sauce:

The finished tofu was chopped into long matchsticks, the better to fit inside the wraps.

The rest of the ingredients included some Thai basil from our herb garden...

...rice vermicelli noodles, which we rehydrated in boiling water...


...and some carrots, coriander, and mint (also from the herb garden). The mise:

Once everything was assembled, it was time to roll. First, the rice paper wraps had to be soaked in warm water until they were translucent and pliable. This was actually quite fun. Immersing them in water made them soften up almost immediately, and when they were floating around, they felt a bit like jellyfish goo. (Note: I have no idea what jellyfish goo actually feels like. Just go with it.)

After soaking for about 30 seconds, the wrap was done, and I extracted it to the cutting board to start loading on the ingredients.

The trick to getting these guys to roll right is to pile everything in the bottom third of the wrap. This leaves plenty of room for rolling.

Once all of the ingredients were in, I folded in the sides, and then rolled it up like burrito. (Does that count as fusion cuisine?)

Done! They're best served cold and right away. Long-term storage involves wet paper towels to prevent the rice wraps from drying out and cracking. Short-term nibbling involves Thai sweet chili sauce. Yum!