Archives for posts with tag: potatoes

Do you have rice phobia?

According to a recent article in the New York Times Dining section, it’s “a thing” (actually, rice phobia is a thing according to someone quoted in the article; see “Fluffy. Tasty. Tricky. Learning to Cook a Good Pot of Rice.”).

I don’t think I have rice phobia but I don’t cook it often, either. That’s not because I am afraid of rice or even that I don’t like it. It’s just that I prefer pasta on those relatively rare occasions when I eat a big plate of carbohydrates (and, to me, potatoes fall into a different category).

When I do eat rice, it is usually a variation on risotto, a dish whose traditional preparation technique—standing by the pot, constantly stirring—suits my temperament (what can I say? I like boring and repetitious). Also, I’m pretty good at it (although most Italians would likely disagree).

On those rare occasions when I do cook standard rice (by which I mean American white, long-grain rice), I follow the “recipe” that my mother taught me many, many years ago, before I even realized I was learning to cook: one cup rice, two cups water; bring to a boil; cover and reduce to a simmer; remove from heat 20 minutes later. No rinsing the rice beforehand, no butter, no salt (my mother almost never added salt during cooking).

Prepared this way, the rice has never burned. Nor has it ended up gummy (at least, not exceedingly so; rice is by its nature somewhat gummy). Every once in a while the pot has boiled over because I didn’t reduce the heat enough but after I have corrected the gas level, the rice resumes normal cooking and comes out more or less the same.

Most likely, my rice is not the perfect rice that Kim Severson is striving for. It’s probably not even good by her standards. For me, it is good enough.

But, really, what can you expect? I grew up on Minute Rice.

We spent some time today planning our Thanksgiving meal.  The menu is based on tradition so there are not many choices to make.  Typically, our trusty-dusty recipes dominate although we will usually consider the variety of choices presented in the November food and cooking magazines.  Often, but by no means always, something new can be accommodated.

Not this year, though.  To work around work and travel schedules, we are having the main meal early—the Wednesday before—and taking it on the road.  We’re still the cooks, so everything must be made ahead.  Further—and, hey, no pressure—we’ll be joined by relatives visiting from out of town.  This is no time for experimentation.

We always start with the basics:  roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Then we add another starch, some variation of sweet potato casserole or a second stuffing (and probably, I should use the term dressing because we haven’t stuffed a turkey since 2001).  Yesterday’s New York Times Dining section (see “Essential Thanksgiving”) referred to this menu component as “something orange”, a clever characterization that they expanded to include macaroni and cheese.

(Serving mac and cheese on Thanksgiving is an interesting idea; many Italian-Americans I know include pasta as a separate course on Thanksgiving, which has always struck me as a good way to combine—or, dare I say, mash up—culinary traditions.)

We agree with the philosophy that there should be something green on the table to round out the menu both in nutrition and color.  In past years, we have prepared everything from Brussels sprouts, kale, and even an arugula fennel salad (although salads are my least favorite contributor from this group).  Most recently, we have been making green beans with walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette which is a perfect complement to the meal (the dish’s acidity refreshes the palate) and has the added advantage of being relatively easy and quick to prepare.

And then there must be dessert.  Most often, this is pie, pumpkin or pecan.  Some years, we add a second sweet, which may or may not be another pie.  This year, we decided to make a Polka Dot Cheesecake, a recipe developed by Maida Heatter and featured in an early issue of Saveur magazine.  The polka dots in the recipe are chocolate but we’ll make them pumpkin-flavored in honor of the season.  (Maybe we’re experimenting this year after all.)

I like to start the meal (while the turkey rests) with a small glass of Bourbon.  This is not my usual cocktail choice but the Bourbon and its perfect accompaniment of roasted, salted pecans are uniquely American.  Both items seem appropriate for Thanksgiving which, although not uniquely American (Canadians celebrate it in October), is in part a celebration of being American.

Another reason to eat dinner in a restaurant occasionally, besides the expertly-prepared food, quality wines and convivial atmosphere (i.e., the fun of it) is that it is a good way to glean menu ideas and learn about unfamiliar ingredients (or familiar ingredients used in unfamiliar ways).  Tonight, at The Dutch in New York City, Rachel and I enjoyed a delicious spring dinner that highlighted the season’s early vegetables and provided inspiration for future meals at home.

We started with “Stracciatella Toast, Artichoke, Broccoli Rabe” (the menu employs the trendy practice of naming dishes with a terse list of components), which was basically a version of crostini or bruschetta (I think only native Italians know the difference).  A slice of rustic bread was grilled, topped with melted mozzarella and a jumble of fresh and sautéed vegetables.  It seemed both hearty and light at the same time.

We followed that with “Snap Pea Salad, Poppy-Tarragon Dressing, Green Garbanzo”, composed of the named vegetables as well as a mixture of leafy greens.  I’ve never seen green garbanzo beans before but will have to track them down.  They were like a cross between fresh peas and fava beans and added a similar bright green color, texture and flavor to the salad.  I suspect that they would make a tasty variation on hummus.

We could easily have stopped there.  We’ve been finding lately that after starters and/or a salad, our appetite is almost sated, especially if there has been wine and a bread basket.  The main dishes (which tonight were “Skuna Bay Salmon, Pastrami Spice, Crispy Potato, Beets” and “Colorado Lamb, Farro, Asparagus, Favas, Sweet Birch”) almost become superfluous and often end up in a doggie bag (although not this time).  And forget about dessert.  If we were to recreate this meal at home—and this is likely—we would limit the menu to the crostini and salad.

Restaurants, like food magazines and the fashion industry, are a bit ahead of the actual season.  For instance, our Sugar Snap peas are only at the seedling stage.  Professional kitchens may source their vegetables from southern suppliers or, if procured locally, patronize farmers who grow crops in greenhouses.  However they do it, I can’t say I mind getting an early taste of what is coming.  It extends the season and gives us time to prepare before our homegrown vegetables are ready for harvest.

In an article in this month’s (i.e., November’s) Bon Appétit, the writer Michael Chabon describes his family’s Thanksgivings as having never been bound by geography (“Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is”).  His clan has no permanent host or default cook and each year they do something different (and non-traditional in the strictest descendents-of-the-Mayflower sense).  That got me thinking about the nature of the Thanksgiving holiday and the roles of Guest versus Host in its celebration.

Lately, I consider Thanksgiving to be a stay-at-home holiday, a day when I would need a very good reason to go someplace else.  For many years now, we have been hosts to a small number of guests and we cook a fairly traditional meal.  After much trial and error, we’ve gotten to a point where we can get several dishes on the table, most of them still hot (sliced turkey, for instance, cools off very quickly), at more-or-less the appointed hour.  It is heartwarming to be able to say that for a few of our friends and family, when they travel over the river and through the woods (quite literally), it is to our house that they go.

But this has not always been the case.  When I was a kid, hosting the Thanksgiving get-together was shared primarily by my parents and by my maternal aunt and uncle.  The venue would alternate between our house and theirs but the guest list remained fairly constant and large:  my family’s six, my aunt and uncle’s seven, and my maternal grandparents.  As my siblings and cousins got older, the crowd swelled with the addition of new spouses and—a few years afterwards—nieces, nephews and cousins once removed.

When I left home for college, I continued to be a guest at the Thanksgiving meal although when it was located at my parents’ house, I would assist in its preparation.  This remained true after I met Rachel (being at Cal at the right place and time is something I am eternally thankful for!) with each of us visiting our own family for the holiday.  (One year, Rachel celebrated with the family of her then-boyfriend, but let’s speak no more of that!).

My last year as an undergrad, though, my two roommates and I took our first stab at hosting and cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  We scheduled it for about a week before the actual holiday—when most of us would be traveling elsewhere—and planned a menu based on our collective family traditions (there was a good deal of overlap).  We gathered our recipes, made several shopping trips (we probably never had so much food in that apartment) and spent the entire day cooking.

I don’t remember where we got tables and chairs we needed to seat the eight people who joined us that night (all of whom brought a dish to add to the menu) but we managed to fit everyone in a diagonal arrangement crossing the kitchen and living room.  The meal was a huge success, everybody ate and drank until filled and all were happy they came.  We were thankful to have them.  We all ended up guests at our respective families’ formal dinners but we got a healthy taste of what hosting the event felt like.

I didn’t try hosting Thanksgiving again until a few years later when Rachel and I were living in Oberlin, Ohio (Rachel was a professor at Oberlin College).  The first year we were there, we spent Thanksgiving with her parents (it was a welcome dose of the familiar during a period that was marked for us by tremendous change, both cultural and personal).  But the next year, Rachel’s parents and brother came to us—a road trip of at least eight hours duration—and we spent the holiday and most of the weekend together.  Once again, we planned, shopped for and cooked a traditional dinner.  It was a very satisfying—even if stressful—experience.

When we moved to New York City, the following year, we spent the first few Thanksgivings with Rachel’s parents.  At first, we assisted with the meal preparation—making us both host and guest—but soon, we had commandeered the kitchen and were cooking the entire meal.  We were on our way to becoming the traditional Thanksgiving hosts even if the meal was not always completely traditional (for the several years that we ate vegetarian, our menu included everything you’d expect except a turkey).  The only thing we needed was our own home in which to do the hosting and that followed after a few years (the story of which is fodder for separate posts).

And so, fast-forwarding several years, we have become one of the more constant elements of the Thanksgiving holiday.  But we have no delusions that this is any indication of stability or a resistance to change as Michael Chabon might fear.  For one thing, while our menu is usually based on a traditional template (turkey, dressing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and something green), it is different every year.  And although we usually act as hosts, we can be enticed to experience the holiday as guests and to partake of—and be enriched by—what constitutes tradition in other families’ homes.

The only thing that is truly constant and will never change is that we are thankful for our wonderful families and friends and grateful for every opportunity we have to share a meal and a few moments of togetherness with them.

The farmers’ market in my boyhood home has become quite an elaborate affair.  It is located in the town’s Central Park, the southern half of which was a vacant lot when I was in school (my brother tells me the former Central School was located there until just after my family arrived in the early 1960s), under a large steel canopy erected solely for the market.  The structure resembles a long, open barn—such as would be found on a dairy farm, for instance—which I am sure is no coincidence.

The market runs the year ‘round (yet another advantage of the mild valley climate) and attracts many vendors.  The Saturday morning gathering, which we visited during our visit (I’m a bit out of sync here) in anticipation of a later picnic with my brother, was crowded and bustling with more stands than could fit under the canopy.  At least half a dozen stalls extended beyond the north end.  Luckily, the weather was clear and warm (also auspicious for our lunch) and no one seemed to mind being out in the sun.  The market also operates on Wednesday evenings; in the summer, local restaurants set up booths and sell picnic dinners.

Whereas the produce at our market at home is becoming limited to fall staples like squash, potatoes and hardy greens, the fruits and vegetables here are still of the spring and summer variety.  There were strawberries from Watsonville, grapes from Fresno and berries from a variety of towns I didn’t recognize (one complaint about this market is that the vendors are not restricted in the distance between here and their farms).

The grapes in particular caught our eyes both for their freshness and spectrum of vibrant colors.  This bounty also produced similarly multi-colored raisins that were delectably plump and moist.  We purchased a few bunches of grapes for our picnic as well as a bag of raisins to take back home.

Also of note were the nuts and dates.  The nuts arrived from some of the nearest farms—there are large groves of almond and walnut trees immediately to the west of town—and were probably harvested only days ago.  We bought a bag of roasted almonds (with olive oil and salt; yum) for snacking and resisted the urge to buy one of every other variety (our suitcase can only hold so much).

The dates, on the other hand, probably traveled the farthest, having been grown in the Coachella Valley in the southern end of the state (at Leja Farms).  I have no idea when they would have been harvested and only know that they take a while to ripen after picking.  After tasting a few samples, we picked out a large container of large medjool dates.  They were the largest I’d ever seen and had a smooth, velvety texture and intense sweetness.

At most, I think I could eat only one or two at a sitting (yes, that sweet) but they will be a wonderful basis for sweetbreads and milkshakes (a favorite, but maybe that’s another post) and a nice addition to salads (particularly with spinach and fennel).

As we were paying, the farmer asked where we were from and when we responded (New York), she threw in another small container of dates as a reward, I guess, for coming from so far away just to buy her dates.  It turns out that she grew up in an Amish community in northwestern New York and spent a lot of time traveling between there and other Amish enclaves in northeastern Ohio (she was growing apples at the time).  We lived in Oberlin, Ohio for a couple of years and mentioning this fact only strengthened the spontaneous (albeit temporary) bond between us.

We thanked her for her act of (near-random) kindness and vowed to pay it forward by sharing the dates when we returned home.