Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When Accidents Happen - Bread

Once in awhile I like to share my kitchen failures with you. It is an occasional column I like to call, “When Accidents Happen.”

I've made Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day dozens of times. It is pretty much idiot proof as long as you read the instructions. I think this last time I got cocky. As directed, I checked on the bread after 30 minutes. I thought…hmmm, just 10 more minutes. Shut the oven door and walked away. Who needs a timer? But then, I got distracted. Can you say croutons?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fall Guy

It is starting to feel a lot like fall around here. Temperatures in the mornings and evenings are much cooler and my mailbox has been packed with cooking magazines whose pages are loaded with recipes for soups, stews and Thanksgiving. Every year though, there is one event that really signals summer is over to me: a bag of corn is anonymously delivered to my doorstep.

Well, it isn’t really anonymous. I know it is our neighbor Dale that leaves a bag on our doorstep – and on the doorstep of every other house on our block – each year. He explained it once, many, many years ago. He visits a small farm in a nearby valley every September when they are harvesting the corn. I thought he was friends with the farmer, but I guess he is just a really big fan of their corn. The corn is so good and fresh that he buys a couple of boxfuls and wants to spread the love.

The corn arrived last Sunday, when we were still out of town. Our friend Maria was staying at the house and sent a text message, “Somebody dropped off a bunch of corn on your doorstep.” I called her immediately and said, “You need to cook up some corn immediately because it will never be as good as it is RIGHT NOW.” OK, that may have been a little bit of an exaggeration but I have never tasted corn as sweet and fresh as the corn that Dale brings us.

We arrived home on Tuesday and had about eight ears of corn remaining that we wanted to use up that night. The solution was simple. Fill a large stockpot with water and several spoonfuls of salt. Bring to a boil, add corn and wait 15-20 minutes. Drain water, remove the ears of corn, add butter and salt…EAT.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What Have I Become?

My first job was at a deli counter in a small gourmet grocery called Brodeens. I made $3.35 an hour. We sold lots of stinky cheeses whose names I couldn't pronounce and cured meats of all shapes and sizes. I started the summer after I turned 14 and quit just before Thanksgiving. I couldn't bare the thought of handling whole, raw turkeys. Raw chickens were bad enough.

The affluent little suburb where this grocery was located (and where I grew up) was filled with desperate housewives. The owners of the store flirted with them endlessly and those of us in the deli had to fulfill all of their very specific requests. The worst was when someone ordered Prosciutto. "I'd like it sliced VERY thin," they'd demand. I'd roll my eyes and lug the large leg of ham over to the meat slicer. I had nightmares about that fucking meat slicer. It was terrifying. Slicing the Prosciutto thinly, AND evenly, was no easy task. I never mastered that task in my brief tenure at Brodeens.

I thought my parents were pretty worldly, especially when it came to food. They were European. At least they cooked. Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s meant that most of my friends had two working parents, the microwave was a relatively new invention (and therefore a novelty that must be used AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE) and many people subsisted on frozen dinners and hamburger helper. Margarine, Velveeta and bologna were other household staples.

Although my parents cooked a lot and always grew their own veggies and fruit, their diet was limited to mostly Scandinavian food. Norwegian’s have their own version of Prosciutto, but my dad left it hanging in the garage with a knife stabbed into the flesh, ready whenever he – or any visitors – wanted a snack. There was blood sausage, liver pates, potato dumplings, and salted cod. The flavors leaned far into the mild category. I won’t say bland, because there was definitely a lot of flavor. There just wasn’t much spice. Let me just admit right here that the first time I had pizza – at about age 10 – I spit it out. It burned my tongue.

It didn’t help that I was a supremely picky eater. I loved fruit, sugar, dessert, and juice. We ate a lot of fish – a Scandinavian thing, but also a Northwest thing – and with the abundance of salmon in those days we had what you’d call an embarrassment of riches. There were many nights my brother and I would whine and complain, “Salmon…AGAIN?!” My mom cooked most things from scratch, even making homemade macaroni and cheese, even though what we really wanted was the stuff with the powdered cheese.

It wasn’t until I started traveling – on my own – that I got more adventurous with food and flavors. Visiting markets in Italy, France and Turkey opened up my palate to a lot more interesting flavors. I had an interest in cooking early on, especially baking (for the sugar, of course) and by my mid-20s I really wanted to challenge myself. If I ate a good meal in a restaurant, I wanted to try and recreate it at home. Returning from 6-8 week trips in Europe, I tried to recreate the food moments I experienced there.

On the spectrum of foo-fooo. Foood…Oh, I can’t say it. On the spectrum of food enthusiasts, I am pretty novice. I only buy Parmigiano Reggiano, extra virgin olive oil, organic milk, and try to stick to produce in season. But, I still love me some junk food. You can take the girl out of the 80s but you can’t take the 80s out of the girl. I still devour the cheese dip my mom makes with Velveeta, have bought Tang in the last five years and can’t be trusted around a can of Pringles.

So having said all of that, I have come to a point in my life, that I when I shop for food – at a Farmers’ Market, mega market or deli – I know what I want. I am undyingly loyal to my favorite brands of olive oil, dried pasta and Dijon mustard. I scrutinize wedges of cheese for freshness and pepper butchers and fish mongers with questions. But when I go to the deli counter, I always pause and think hard about what I am going to do and say.

When I step up to place my order at the deli, the young man who is generally working behind the counter recognizes me instantly, and not in a good way. I usually stop by for some sliced ham or turkey, but every few months I buy some Prosciutto and I swear he sees me coming and thinks, good Christ she’s gonna demand some thinly-sliced Prosciutto again. And you know what? He’s right.

The thing is…I now understand and appreciate the mouth-watering appeal of fresh, thinly sliced Prosciutto. The pre-sliced stuff just doesn’t compare. And, if the Prosciutto is sliced too thick or too uneven, it just isn’t the same. If you are cooking with it, you can fudge it a little bit, but for wrapping around fruit, vegetables or breadsticks…thin is the only way to go. And really, for $27 a pound I can be a little demanding can’t I?

I have had this recipe floating around my kitchen for at least a year. My friends in Copenhagen sent it to me, knowing I would love it. They were right. Eggs are obviously a staple we have in abundance. Red-ripe tomatoes (grown by my parents) have been lining my windowsill for weeks. And Prosciutto, well all I need to do is visit my favorite deli man. I’m sure he’s missed me.

Parma Bowls with Egg and Tomato
Serves 2

2 big slices Prosciutto di Parma (thinly-sliced, natch)
2 Tbsp diced tomato
2 eggs
2 Tbsp fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano (optional)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease 2 cups in a muffin tin. Line the cups with one slice of Prosciutto each, forming it into a tight little cup. Sprinkle Prosciutto with chopped tomato. Crack an egg into each cup.

Bake for 10 minutes. Pull out the tray and sprinkle with the cheese (optional). Bake another 3-6 minutes or until the eggs are set to your liking.

Gently remove the Parma bowls onto plates and sprinkle with basil.

I think the general concept of this dish could be adapted with other ingredients. A sliced meat with plenty of fat is key for making a nice crispy crusted bowl, but ham may work. If tomatoes are out of season, caramelized onions or roasted red peppers would work great. Thyme or tarragon sprinkled on top would work well too. And for the optional cheese, you can’t go wrong with Velveeta…

Friday, September 11, 2009


It's no secret that I L-O-V-E eggs. I love them soft boiled, poached, and especially in Eggs Benedict. They are so versatile. They are almost as great as the sum of their parts. The whites are miraculous in meringues and the yolks enrich a sauce like nothing else. And when you are tired, they make the simplest of suppers.

The urban chicken coop has been alive and well in the Seattle area for years. I worked with a couple of people who raised their own chickens and have seen chicken eggs at the farmers' markets for $5 a dozen. I always tried to buy the free-range, no hormone, naturally nested type eggs, but I have to admit that I had a little chicken envy.

Those chicken people were so smug though. "Oh, the eggs are so fresh," they'd exclaim. "The yolks are so bright," they'd gush. "They are almost orange in color, you wouldn't believe it!" And on, and on, and on. Oh, and Martha Stewart – that bitch – was the smuggest of them all! As she’d whisk up a Caesar dressing with raw egg yolks, she’d boast, “I don’t worry about salmonella because I get the eggs from my OWN CHICKENS.”

The thing is, for as much as I love eggs, I hate chickens. The way they wobble about, bobbing their heads and pecking the ground…is terrifying. Granted, I feel the same way about pigeons. If you walk towards them, you don’t know if they are going to fly away from your or into you. Terrifying.

Needless to say, owning chickens was out of the question. Don’t think I didn’t try. I casually mentioned it to Gavin once, probably after reading a “Build Your Own Chicken Coop This Weekend,” article in Sunset magazine. He laughed. Really LAUGHED. And teased. “Don’t you remember Kauai,” he asked.

We went to Kauai for our honeymoon (5 years ago next week) and loved it. Except for the chickens. They are everywhere on the island and have no real predators…other than motor vehicles. The story goes that Hurricane Iniki (in the early 1990s) destroyed a bunch of chicken coops and the chickens that survived are now wild and continue to breed. They weren’t at our resort, or at the lovely beach that we lounged at day in and day out…but everywhere else – chickens.

I tried to talk my parents into raising chickens a couple of times. They are great gardeners and DIYers, so it seemed natural. I tried subtlety at first, “You guys eat a lot of eggs, you know I hear raising chickens is easy.” I like to think my parents are getting forgetful enough that if I suggest something enough times, they will think they came up with the idea. Hey, it’s worked before, but that’s a story for another day. I later moved on to a direct approach. “You should raise chickens, you like to grow stuff and then you’d have fresh eggs every day.” That last attempt was met with a response just as direct from my mother, “Are you joking? Why on Earth would I want to take care of those filthy animals when I can just go to the store and buy fresh eggs?” Um. Yeah. I can see her point.

Where did that leave me? As of three months ago, that left me with eggs from the supermarket. I was buying eggs – white shells, yellow yolks, one-dimensional flavor. I had resigned myself to buying supermarket eggs until I met Lisa.

I met Lisa at our friend Maria’s 40th birthday party. I had made the birthday pies (apple) and Lisa was impressed. Our friend Michelle played matchmaker. It went something like this, “Sonja, this is Lisa and she loved your apple pie. Lisa has chickens that layfresheggseveryday. You should trade eggs for baked goods.” Ding ding ding ding ding! Done. Deal.

For the past three months, I’ve become friends with Lisa as we make our bi- or tri- weekly exchange of baked goods for eggs. I even got my parents in on the action. My dad traded some fresh halibut for his eggs.

Now that I have come to appreciate and enjoy a truly fresh egg, you know what? I have become that smug person! I had no idea how much more flavorful really fresh eggs could be! And the yolks – I can’t tell people enough about them, “So big - so plump - so flavorful! And they are SO yellow…they are almost orange.” I kid you not. I heard Gavin doing it the other day too. We have become that which we mocked!

I’ll admit it. Fresh chicken eggs – and I mean really fresh – are vastly superior to anything I’ve tasted before. The color of their shells are determined by the color of the hen's skin and in the case of Lisa’s chickens (that are grey and copper), the shells are pale blue and brown. I got to meet the chickens once and even took their picture…but from the safety of the deck.