Monthly Archives: August 2014

Very French, or Nearly So

There was no dinner at the country house last night; we’d gone over the river and through the woods to have lunch with her beloved Nana, and to deliver furniture to a refinishing shop. We stopped for gas on the way home at a dairy store where she worked during college breaks. Dinner, such as it was, was a double-scoop cone for each of us. 

Brunch today, however, was another matter. Open-faced tomato and mozzarella sandwiches on really good bread, sliced hard-cooked eggs over lettuce with a mustard vinaigrette, and an apple-cider donut, sliced and grilled. She had a wide-brimmed mug of sweet, light tea; I had coffee. I discovered that a beach umbrella fit perfectly into the table on the deck and provided just enough shade.  It might not seemed authentic to a Parisian, but brunch on this late August Saturday felt very much like I remember simple meals at homes in the south of France on a trip long ago.

She broke off a big piece of romaine, wrapped half a of a mustardy hard-boiled egg in it, and mmmmmmdd contentedly after taking a bite. “When you serve meals like this, I don’t want them to end,” she said. “I can’t decide what I want the last bite to be.”

That’s compliment enough for any cook.

Some days you grab a bagel on the way out the door. When there's time for a proper breakfast, you take it.

Some days you barely grab a bagel on the way out the door. When there’s time for a proper breakfast, you take it.

Dinner and/or a Movie

Having considered the offerings at the multiplex, we decided to stay in Thursday night and watch a movie. Frozen, maybe.  About time, since friends of mine wrote the songs and I still haven’t seen it.

We go to the theatre a lot.  Plays, musicals, whatever: over 50 shows so far this year. But somehow we haven’t been to a movie theatre in 2014, and the only video we made it all the way through in one sitting last year was When Harry Met Sally. 

Could we have popcorn?

Well, of course we could.  But we had eggs and grits for brunch, and corn chips as a snack; not to be corny about it, but maybe that’s a little too much corn?  (There seemed a kernel of truth there, but that’s the last pun on the subject.)  And besides, we’ve got CSA eggplant that we don’t want to waste.

Parmigiana!

Okay, why not?  I’ve never made it, but it’s good to prove that I can follow recipes, too. I’d make the eggplant, she’d start setting up brine to pickle the cucumbers we brought home last weekend.

Dill.  We need dill.

I headed for the market.

There was some very fine eggplant. There are pickles that, I’m sure, when we open the first jar in three weeks’ time, will be amazingly fresh and dill-icious. (I didn’t promise no more puns, just no more about corn.) There was no movie. By the time the last jar was sealed and the eggplant came out of the oven, it was too late to start. And if there had been a film crew doing a documentary while we worked, it probably would have been titled In a Kitchen This Big You’d Think They Wouldn’t Trip Over Each Other So Much.

Another night, the same movie still unwatched.  Story of my (contented, well-fed) life.

Eggplant parm, served with a little leftover penne-from-the-barbecue-place. Hey, at least dinner did not consist solely of Monkey Bread.

Eggplant parm, served with a little leftover penne-from-the-barbecue-place.
Hey, at least dinner did not consist solely of Monkey Bread.

Monkeying Around

On Sunday night, we completed the process of unpacking, sorting, and deciding which kitchen possessions to keep. Many hours after the work began, he held the last item in his hands, trying to decide which of two piles to place it in — those that definitely needed a home within the kitchen, and those that would be placed in a storage bin in the garage.

“How often do you actually use a Bundt pan?”

“Not all that often. I only know one recipe that requires it.”

“When’s the last time you made it?”

“Before I started dating the one who was allergic to butter, cream, and milk chocolate.”

He tossed the avocado-green aluminum pan onto the pile intended for storage and started rearranging mixing bowls, muffin tins, cooling racks, measuring cups, and saucepans, while I described this very simple, barely-home-made dessert. Before I was half-through, he had effortlessly convinced me to bake it for him this week, while vacation left plenty of time for peeling 48 pieces of individually wrapped candies.

He’ll be home from work shortly, and will find this cooling on the stove:

Pull Apart Monkey Bread

Pull-Apart Monkey Bread — a little drier than usual, since I skimped on the butter.

My Sister’s Pull-Apart Monkey Bread

  • 2 canisters of crescent roll dough
  • 48 pieces of chocolate candy (she insists on Hershey’s Kisses, I pick through whatever happens to be in the candy dish)
  • 1/2 cup of cinnamon sugar
  • 1/2 stick of butter, melted
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Grease a Bundt pan and set it aside.
  3. Open each can of dough and roll out the pieces. Seal the perforations by dampening your fingers and pressing them together. With a pizza cutter or other sharp, smooth blade, slice each can’s worth of dough into 24 square-ish pieces (3 slices lengthwise and 5 slices widthwise).
  4. Place a piece of candy in the middle of each square of dough, and wrap the dough to surround the candy. Toss each piece in the cinnamon sugar to coat it, then place it in the Bundt pan*. Repeat until all of the candy has been wrapped in dough.
  5. Pour the melted butter over the amassed dough balls, then bake in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until crispy and cooked through.
  6. Place a heat-safe plate over the top of the Bundt pan and invert the pan so that the collected nuggets of doughy goodness drop onto the plate; scrape any loose buttery-cinnamon-sugar sauce over the top. Serve warm.

* I like to place the cinnamon-sugar in a coffee mug; tossing a dough ball into the cup, covering the top with my palm, and swirling it on the counter effectively coats the dough while minimizing mess.

When in Rome, Do as the Australians Do? Or is it the South Africans?

She and her dad left early for New York and a day of putting the City House back the way she had found it: white walls, empty rooms, and broom-clean floors. I left for a pre-work run, training for a 20K race next weekend. None of us had quite the day we expected. 

They couldn’t find parking. They needed more paint. The air conditioner wouldn’t come off its mounting. The landlord didn’t show up to collect the keys. There was a 75-minute wait to return equipment to the cable company.  One thing after another.

The complications of my day were fewer: I just got stung by a bee. On the roof of my mouth.  I mean, really. Who gets stung on the roof of the mouth? Pained but with no other symptoms, I made an appointment to see the doctor, finished my run, and went to the office. My doctor, a fellow runner, said I’d done the right thing; he prescribed ibuprofen, ice cubes, and a Benadryl at bedtime.

By the end of the day, nobody felt like cooking.  She likes the barbecue place not far from home, so I passed around the laptop–the 21st century version of a binder full of menus.  Her dad and I chose the pulled pork.  “Can I do something completely not authentic?” she asked. Reminded that she is an adult and fully capable of making her own choices, she opted for the penne pasta with vodka sauce and grilled chicken.  And a cheese quesadilla.

The girl ordered Italian and Mexican food.  From the barbecue place.

The hostess was terribly sorry that she couldn’t deliver the collard greens I’d hoped for as a side dish.  I was only sorry I couldn’t place her accent.  Australian?  South African? Second-year theatre student practicing her dialect-class homework?

The pulled pork was smoky and citrusy. The cornbread was moist and full of actual corn. The cole slaw wasn’t as good as the Colonel’s (or even the reverse-engineered version I make when there’s time), but it was fine. And, apparently, the penne and quesadilla were good, too. I’d ask, but she’s asleep on the couch.

This Dinner Brought to You by iMessage

There are dinners you plan weeks in advance, snuggled on a sofa with cookbooks all around and steaming mugs of tea nearby.  (I’m pretty sure there are such dinners, anyway; the nearest we’ve had have been conversations about Christmas and Easter meals, although I don’t remember the steaming mugs of tea, and in our case “cookbooks all around” means searching on Epicurious.)

There are dinners you plan by opening the fridge and hoping not to find new cultures of penicillin.

Most days, dinner is somewhere in between.

On Monday morning, I received an iMessage:

Car unloaded.

(She had made a trip to the storage unit to retrieve some items from a “miscellaneous” box that should have come into the house.)

Also, dinner sourced.

Oh? I replied.

Tomato and mozzarella sandwiches on bagels. With whatever other veggies we have.

After a successful workday, several hours of unpack-and-sort (cleaning products, hats and gloves were the day’s projects), and guest-room-tidying in preparation for a visit from her dad, it was dinnertime.

Lightly toasted asiago bagels were spread with a molecule-thin layer of mayo, layered with thick slices of ridiculously good tomato from the CSA and dairy-fresh mozzarella cheese, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and a few fried basil leaves, and served open-faced alongside sautéed green beans.

It’s not the sort of thing I grew up eating. I didn’t like uncooked tomato until college, and the only cheese I knew was square, pre-sliced, and wrapped in plastic. It’s a fine and glorious thing to discover things you thought you didn’t like.

Tomato and cheese sandwiches. Who knew?

Yum.

* * *

(No photos last night, particularly not of the leftover burger I offered my breakfast-and-lunch-skipping dinner companion as a protein boost alongside the bagel. It was, as predicted, considerably past well-done. Instead, here’s one of the planned-well-in-advance boeuf bourginnone she prepared for Christmas dinner last year.)

Boeuf

Thinking Outside the Boxes

I got home from work to find that she had been opening boxes. Pretty much every flat surface was covered with the contents of two kitchens about to merge.  It looked like a bit of a garage sale. I cleared the coffee table and, one category at a time, we brought all its items there and sat down to consider them. Small appliances. Mugs. Glasses. Saucepans. Skillets. Bakeware. Serving pieces. Utensils. (Dinnerware and flatware were skipped: we had already agreed which set of the former to keep; the latter had been inadvertently put in storage.) Nearly every decision was easy; there were no turf wars over paring knives, no heated debates about measuring cups. It’s a little easier because we have some extra storage space in the garage. A waffle iron can wait there, along with some Corningware and another pair of cookie sheets. If we don’t miss them by Thanksgiving, they’ll be available to fit under someone else’s Christmas tree.

But the day stretched on, as moving-days do, and we hadn’t thought much about dinner.  “Can we have boxed macaroni and cheese?” she asked mournfully.

We’ve known each other long enough for me to recognize that as international code for “I need comfort food and I need it now, or at least in about 8 minutes.” We keep a few boxes around for such emergencies–and they’re currently very easy to find, since all the kitchen cupboard doors have been removed for refinishing. I took one off its shelf and set a pot of water to boil. 

While she sorted wooden spoons and spatulas for comparison, I started making extras. I know better than to suggest mixing anything into boxed macaroni and cheese, but there are no such prohibitions against preparing bits and pieces that can go alongside. (Good thing, because unless there are other flavors nearby, I find more than a few bites of mac-and-cheese–even made from scratch–to be overkill.)

I browned a hunk of ground beef (a little less than a quarter pound), removed it, and in its drippings sautéed a small head of swiss chard and the kernels stripped from the ear of corn that had been slept through on Friday; finally, with a little olive oil, a chopped tomato was more heated than cooked. All were combined in a serving bowl and tossed with a little Worcestershire sauce, salt and fresh pepper.

By this point–the utensil decisions having been made–she prepared the deck for dinner, and returned to the kitchen to find a colander of draining macaroni, and a pot in which I had melted butter, heated milk, and was augmenting the cheese powder with a little cheddar and monterey jack. (Full disclosure: I was tempted to ignore the powder completely, but I am just wise enough not to completely mess with comfort food.) When the cheese melted and the sauce came together, the macaroni was stirred in, and served in shallow bowls–mac and cheese on one side, extras on the other.

“If you make it this way, you can make all the macaroni and cheese,” she said. Knowing I hadn’t ruined one of her favorites: well, that’s a comfort.

Outside the Box

Road Trip #1

Absent official guidelines for this journal, it was unclear whether only meals consumed in the Country House should be recorded. So, when there’s time to write and something interesting, we’ll try to include away-games, too.

* * *

The alarm rang at 4:15 AM. “Do I even like these people?” I mumbled. And then realized that, yes, indeed, I do. So this long-awaited road trip to Massachusetts was not unreasonable, even considering the painful wake-up call.

The wedding that occasioned the trip was lovely and unconventional—exactly like the couple who were celebrating their marriage, right down to the church-supper-style reception in the church hall: simple, hearty, tasty fare: vegetarian chili and brown rice; angel-hair pasta with chicken and a variety of sauces; salad and crudités so fresh they might have been harvested that morning; a beautiful, single-layer, white-frosted chocolate cake; apple-cider donuts; seltzers and juices: a rainbow of flavors served on tables clothed in the same rainbow.

Our route passed through Hartford, where another friend has recently taken a teaching position. Since the Massachusetts festivities would be concluded by early afternoon, the perfect opportunity presented itself (and Siri provided directions) for a visit.

I’ve seen Hartford mostly on foot, having run the Half Marathon there for the past couple of years. During one of those races, I saw a restaurant that looked especially interesting, and meant to try it sometime. I didn’t recognize it by name when our friend suggested dinner there, and was delighted when we pulled into its parking lot last night to meet and I realized we were at that very spot.

Tisane is like three shops in one: a tea-and-coffeehouse, a bar, and a restaurant with a small but eclectic menu. We had a comfortable outdoor table, great conversation, and quite good food. I don’t much care for chicken wings (too much skin and bone, and not enough flesh), but like the “Buffalo” flavors: the Buffalo chicken sandwich was lightly breaded breast meat, a splash of hot sauce and a blue cheese aioli, lettuce, and tomato on a ciabatta roll; served with fries sprinkled with blue cheese. (The traditional celery and carrots were missing, but I had plenty of vegetables at lunch.) She ordered an espresso-rubbed  steak and I tried not to drop my jaw at the confirmed tea drinker ordering something that involved coffee.  And ate every bite, including the spinach, mushrooms, and garlic mashed potato sides.

When the food is great and the company even better, it is not surprising when the evening stretches a little longer than expected; we left for home at the time we anticipated arriving, but such is life.  And life is good.