Putting Summer Away

Before I forget:  Amazon included In the Midnight Rain in an October special, so it’s .99 for the whole month. If you haven’t read it, now is a good time to grab it.

Now…on to the blog….

It’s a slightly overcast morning, and promises to be truly cold and blustery and maybe even snowy tomorrow.  I had the house cleaned thoroughly yesterday—it feels so good to have the house all in order, and the floors cleaned and the bathrooms sparkling.  I love, love, love that.  Once, it would have made me feel guilty.  Now I think about how the young woman who cleans my house has a job and I get a clean house. Good trade.

We had our first freeze on Wednesday night, and all the tomato plants fell over, despite my (half-hearted) attempts to save them with tarps.  I had to collect them all, about 20-25 pounds of green beefsteak and roma tomatoes of many sizes.  I took bags of them to each of my neighbors, and this morning put the rest on the top shelf of the greenhouse window.   They looked so beautiful that I had to run and get my camera to shoot them, finding in me that quiet, that peacefulness that comes to me through the lens of a camera for no reason I can pinpoint.  Maybe it’s the focus, the wordlessness of letting everything go to be in the moment, here, right now.  Maybe it’s the sweetness of beauty, because I do tend to shoot things I think are beautiful.  Some photographers collect gritty or grim or ugly things, but I’ve never been that person.  I love beauty, and flowers and fruits and vegetables, and looking at things closely.

I love the corn in the background, the way the light spills over the silken curves of the tomatoes, the way their shapes are repeated over and over, and the stems add prickliness.

I also like this one:


Garden/kitchen tip: green tomatoes will keep for a long time this way.  Spread a paper towel over a flat window sill and put the tomatoes on top. The last time I did this, I had tomatoes through Christmas.

Now I’ve played long enough and need to turn my focus to writing.  Last night, on the way home from a book club meeting in Woodland Park, I was tangling myself up over the story I’m writing, thinking how to do this and how to do that, and the Girls in the Basement said, “Oh, just stop it!  Just write.  Have some fun, will you?”

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to stop burdening this poor book with more and more and more expectations and weighing it down with lead bricks of time pressure and twisting and turning and all that other business- and expectation-crap and just let the story emerge as it wishes.  I like these characters!  I love them, honestly.  Lavender and Ruby and Ginny and Noah and the little barn cat and the lavender fields and the chickens.   It’s lovely and sweet and I’m just going to go write now.

What are you up to this weekend?  Is it freezing where you are? Do you know any recipes for green tomatoes?  


This morning I was scouring the internet for some new ideas for dishes to experiment with. There are a couple of events coming up and I’ll bring a dish, so it would be fun to try some new things.  Saveur always offers something fantastic, and I spent easily an hour wandering through their catalogue of recipes.  I want to try the Herbed Tomato Tart, but perhaps not until I can buy tomatoes for less than $4 a pound.  Instead, pears are readily available and easy, so maybe this Pear and Walnut Tart for one event, and this Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Sage for the vegetarian dish.  I haven’t tried gnocchi before, though I love to eat it. I wonder if it’s hard.

At one time, that would have stopped me. I would have gone on to try something a little less daunting. These days, I’ve cooked enough bad dishes that if I don’t successfully carry one off, it’s not some overwhelming disaster, but an opportunity to learn something new.  Anyone have tips for cooking gnocchi?

Also: I love this photograph, which is taken by Todd Sullivan, for Saveur Magazine. (It’s time for a new camera and the next step in lessons.  I have a lot of photos of gardens and foods coming up, and it would be fun to get a bit better at it.)  In this photo, the food looks easy and interesting and nourishing, but it’s the light that catches me, the quiet spirit of what feels like it would be a hearty simple meal.  Just off screen, I imagine, is a decanter of some pleasant table wine and a crusty loaf of bread.  A window overlooking a wild kitchen garden, dormant at the moment, but fecund in summer. What do you see?

A beautiful loaf

Jack had to have a bit of surgery this week (he’s fine, he’s fine!) and when I got home from finding out, I didn’t even take off my sweater. I gravitated to the kitchen and started pulling out flour. This is the result, a wheaty loaf, using a small amount of buckwheat in a poolish starter.

The Deconstruction of Fish & Chips

At CR’s urging, I decided to give the deconstruction of fish & chips a try.  (For background on the Top Chef deconstruction challenge, read about it here.)

My challenge was to create a dish that would deconstruct fish & chips and end up tasting like the original.  Since the only ingredients in the traditional offering are white fish (usually cod or haddock, depending on your locale), and potatoes, both fried and heavily salted, then served very hot, it wasn’t easy. But it was intriguing.


Really good fish and chips are served very hot, very greasy, and very salty. There’s a good crisp breading on the fish, and the chips (fries) are thick and tender, not like McDonalds, but like your mother’s best home fries. I decided to bake the fish, and use potatoes to create the crispy texture of the fried version of both fish and chips (fries).  I had the luxury of two days to think about it, and arbitrarily made a rule that I had to use the fish in the house, which was halibut.   The challenge in my mind was to get the simple, satisfying flavor of that very, very simple food and not add much of anything to the ingredients to try to make it upscale.  I decide to bake the fish, mash potatoes, and try two different crispy potato pancakes.

malt vinegarBy happy accident, I was in the English Home Goods store (where we buy stupidly expensive imported PG Tips for $26 for 250 bags, but trust me, if you get used to English tea, American is very pale in comparison). While I was there, I happened to spy a small bottle of malt vinegar. Eureka! Everyone knows you can’t eat fish and chips without malt vinegar!

(Note: always remember that I am at 7000 ft altitude, so shorten your cooking times if you decided to try anything I post!)

I started with Yukon Gold potatoes for the mash.  The fish was simple, 7 oz frozen halibut steaks.  The chefs on Top Chef had two hours, but that seemed excessive, so I started 90 minutes out.  Peeled and boiled the potatoes, leaving them a tiny bit undercooked so they could rest in the hot water while I readied the fish and made the two pancakes.   The fish was very simple prep: olive oil in the pan with plenty of kosher salt, in the oven at 350 for 20 minutes. 

To get ready for the pancakes, I grated two medium size potatoes and a very small onion.  (Onions are not standard here, but I just couldn’t do potato pancakes without it!)  For the first set of potato pancakes, I mashed about 1-1/2 cups of cooked potatoes with 2 tablespoons butter, enough milk to make a good paste, then blended it until the potatoes were smooth. Added 1/2 a beaten egg (save the other half), a tiny bit of grated onion, roughly 2 tablespoons of flour, and for some body, about a quarter of the grated potatoes, and salt and pepper.  Because I wanted a very thin, crispy cake, I added milk until the batter was fairly thin.

Since time would be short, I also made the second batch of potato pancakes, which were a hashbrown with a little egg to hold them together. Mixed the grated potatoes, grated onions, salt, pepper and the other half of the egg together.

I used an electric grill and poured a generous amount of canola oil on it (this was the greasy element), then added a couple of tablespoons of butter and heated it until it was medium hot.  On one side, I poured the mashed potato pancakes, on the other, the hashbrowns, and let them cook.

Meanwhile, I poured the water off the remaining boiled potatoes, put them back on the burner on low, added 4 tablespooons butter, milk (my mistake is always adding too much milk, so I do it in small amounts) and mashed the potatoes, keeping an eye on the potato pancakes at the same time, and turning them about 3 minutes in.  They were nicely brown and by this time, I was getting very hungry, so I was beginning to look forward to eating this experiment, however it turned out!

CR was in charge of setting the table, and now, the timing was critical.  I took the fish out of the oven, and on the plate I had already sprinkled with malt vinegar, the fish was settled in the middle,  it with the two different pancakes in a circle around it, and a nice mound of mashed potatoes to one side.  It was rather bland looking, all that white, so I put the lemon rounds on top of the fish, even if they are not traditional (“You’re American,” said CR. “We make allowance for you.”) 


The layering was, pancake, fish, mash, all in a single bit, with a dip in the little pool of vinegar.  We both tried it, blinked, and looked at each other in happy pleasure.  He tried one kind of pancake, I tried the other, and—it worked! 

DSCN1312 by you.

Honestly, it was wonderful, and a faithful deconstruction/recreation.  For the sake of the experiment, I thought the hashbrowns gave the layers the right greasy crispness, but CR preferred the pancake.  Both of them were delicious and very greasy and the kosher salt sprinkled on top added just the right layer of brine.

But I must admit that the malt vinegar was the crowning touch, pulling the flavors together just the way it does when you go to the chip shop.


–I would cut the fish into smaller pieces and grill it rather than bake it, just to give it some color. 
–I would layer the pancakes, fish, and mashed potatoes like a tiny lasagna

I will definitely be making those little potato cakes again.  It was fun to make this dish just to find something we liked so much.


Deconstruction Challenge, via Top Chef

Tonight, the chefs were asked to deconstruct a classic dish.   One of them was fish and chips, which happens to be one of Christopher Robin’s favorites, so I found myself trying to imagine how to do it.  As we watched, I kept tossing out ideas, and CR finally said, “Try it!”  (Subtext: please please please!)

So,  on Friday, I’ll give it a shot.  I promise to be truthful about the process, and post photos, mistakes, and…perhaps even a successfully delicious.  I’m not exactly a whiz with fish, but am very, very good with potatoes.  Wish me luck and….check back.

 (The photo is of the chip shop by CR’s mum’s house in Kent.)

In pursuit of the best raisin bread ever

(Photos from a cell phone camera.)

Last weekend, CR offered Saturday breakfast out in the world, and I sleepily pulled myself together, thinking we were going to the usual spot, The Egg and I, which is not far away.   Instead, he steered toward the highway and when I asked where we were going, gave me his mysterious little smile and said, “You’ll see.”

The MIP* features breakfasts and one of the things I’ve been in pursuit of is the perfect Cinnamon Raisin Bread.  Since I’ve been baking many loaves to find that perfect blend, he knew what was going on, and in his usual brilliantly supportive way, took me to breakfast in a place he knew had not only exquisite cinnamon raisin bread, but also cinnamon raisin bread French toast, made with slices a solid inch and a half thick.   Fantastic.

The café is The Pantry in Green Mountain Falls, which is a spit of a little town slapped down in a valley on the way up Ute Pass between Colorado Springs and Woodland Park.  It’s picturesque and quaint, with a pond and a gazebo, and trailheads close by.  There are weddings in the gazebo, and the café is madly popular.  We were there very early, so made it in ahead of the crowds, but even still there were runners in GoreTex and tights, hikers in khakis and fleece and baseball hats, a quadrant of old men who seemed as if they’d been meeting there for fifty years.

Although I was desperately tempted by the cinnmon roll French toast (the house specialty: secret recipe cinnamon rolls split, battered and grilled, served with a heap of others things, like eggs and potatoes and bacon), I stuck with the plan.  I didn’t have my big camera, so these are cell phone shots, but you get the idea.  Delicious!  I asked the waitress if the bread was a secret recipe, and she gave me a smile.  “Of course.”

Of course.  So I couldn’t have that recipe, but sampling it brought me closer to perfection. The cinnamon is mixed through the bread, and there are lots and lots and lots of raisins (which was my impulse, and I kept pulling back), and the slices are very thick.  The beauty is that there is so much flavor in the resulting French toast that you don’t need any syrup.  A dusting of powdered sugar is exactly right.   Mmmm.

If I were not a writer, that café would be my ideal life.  It would be a blast.

Here’s the question of the day:  who has absolutely brilliant recipes for cinnamon raisin bread?  Or a genuinely stunning French toast batter?

* Manuscript In Progress, or sometimes Mess In Progress and even (rarely, and only for brief, tragic seconds) Masterpiece In Progress

Kitchen insight

Ms. Glaze wrote a wonderful post about being promoted to Chef de Partie and what that means in a French kitchen.   It’s really worth reading.  Here’s a snippet:

I want to throw up. I want to toss myself into the toxic waters of the Seine or walk into a big black endless hole or just simply throw up. I’ve been given the sand swallowing promotion of Chef de Partie.

Under normal circumstances this would be very exciting. If I was back in the U.S. I would be shaking up champagne bottles. But here, in Paris, where students start careers in cooking at the age of fourteen and pass their entire lives in clastrophobic kitchens, this is like being handed ten sacks of flour and ordered to run a marathon without having trained properly.

As for me, no cooking today.  It’s an artist date and I think I might spend some of it at Adam’s Cafe, having a good lunch, then find a good bottle of wine for this evening…..

Remember to do something luxurious for yourself this weekend.  One hour reading, taking a bath, cooking something beautiful, having long lazy sex, taking a good walk, shopping for some stationary to write a real letter….  Whatever you like.

Friday artist date

Fridays, on the new, improved schedule, are for artist dates.   This gloomy, crackling cold morning (it has been well below zero at night), I am going to go to yoga class, even though my muscles are still sore from Tuesday.  Then out to find some new cooking tools: a zester, which I do not have and really want; a heavy, midsize saucepan, which I do have but want a better one; and a new grater.  I gave one away in a fit of generosity, and it was the wrong. 

Then Whole Foods.   There were alluring recipes in Oprah this month–I want to try the clear broth with kaffir lime leaves and chiles, and some gingerbread cookies that look plainly sinful. I had to scrap the developing book (a blog for another day–trust me, it was the right decision) and am puttering around while the right one brews.  Cooking seems to be absolutely required for that process somehow.

I might go see Juno, but honestly, I’m not much in the mood for passive watching. I want to DO something.

Any cooking going on in your world? Cooking up books? Artist date planned any time soon?

Red chile and pork tamales

In honor of the holidays, a beloved recipe for one of my required holiday undertakings.  Adapted from a recipe I found long ago in Martha Stewart Magazine–but I have served them proudly to anyone who loves The Real Thing and have been mightily praised, so you’ll find them authentically wonderful.

Be warned–this is a time consuming process. Start early.  It is also very difficult to do the first step without a blender.  I once used a very small coffee grinder out of desperation, but I wouldn’t recommend it.


1 package dried corn husks (6 oz)

For the filling:
6-8 dried New Mexico red chiles
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1- 1/2 cups water
1 T olive oil
1 lb pork shoulder, cut into stew size pieces
1 tsp salt

For the batter
5 oz lard
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1- 3/4 cups masa harina mixed with 1 cup + 2 T hot water, cooled to room temperature
2/3 cup fresh chicken stock

1. In a large container, place the corn husks and cover with hot water.  Put a plate or something on top, or they’ll float and won’t be reconstituted when you need them.  Soak for an hour.

2. To make the filling, break off the top of the chiles and shake out the seeds.  Tear each one into four or five pieces, and put them into the jar of a blender.  Add garlic, pepper, cumin, and water, and blend into a smooth puree. 

Sear the pork quickly in a medium sized heavy saucepot, then pour the chile mixture over it, add another 1-1/2 cups water, and salt.  Simmer until pork is tender and the sauce is thick, about an hour.  Shred the meat into the sauce and set aside.

3. While the meat is simmer, prepare the masa.  In a bowl, mix the lard, baking powder, and salt. Beat until the mixture is very light, then add half the masa harina mixture and half the chicken stock, beat well, and add the rest of masa and stock.   Beat until very fluffy.   Refrigerate until ready to use.

4.  Assemble the tamales.  It will be easiest if you have a fairly large surface to work on–if not a counter, use the kitchen table.  Before you begin, tear one or two of the corn husks into thin strips for tying the tamales.

     Line up the corn husks, masa, and filling in a row.  Traditionally, this is done by a row of women, but you can do it yourself with patience and a lot of good music on the Ipod.  (Breaks to dance are definitely good for your shoulders!)

     This is my method:

Put the corn husk on a dry cup towel with the pointed end at the bottom, and dry with another towel.  Scoop about a 1/4 cup or a little less into the center of the husk and smooth with a large spoon to a depth of about 1/4 inch, leaving about a 1/2 inch all around the edges. 

Spoon a line of meat into the center of the masa, top to bottom (if you think of the way you like to eat tamales, meat in every bite is important).

Pull the sides of the husk to the center, and let the masa meet inside, then roll the husk around the filling until it feels nicely dense but not too tight.  Fold the bottom point up and tie it in place with one of the husk strips you tore earlier.   Tie another one around the top, about an inch down.


To cook, put the tamales, open side up, into the steamer, and steam for about an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.  You’ll know they’re finished when the husk pulls away from the batter cleanly.

Makes about a dozen tamales, so feel free to double it.

Variations:  are endless.  Use your imagination.  I absolutely adore plain, simple, traditional tamales like this, but I love to play with them, too.  I’m still experimenting with vegetarian forms, and CR will slay dragons for the duck and cherry version. 

I’d love to hear of any you’ve tried!