Complex flavors

It’s been a couple years now since I resolved to start keeping some of my journal on-line as a blog, and I really haven’t done too well with that, but like cooking, gardening, and keeping house, writing has wormed its way back into my daily routines this summer as I have unwound a little bit.  One of the things I have started to notice as I unwind is a desire for more complex flavors in my food.  When I’m really on a roll during the school year, I (mostly) cheerfully consider a Clif bar or a Snickers and a diet Coke to be a meal.   Then in the summer I typically don’t much feel like heating up the kitchen up by really cooking.  Last night the hankering for complexity won out.

The result: a dahl with radish and a Bengali-inspired curry of eggplant and greens over short-grain brown rice followed by a modification of Cardinal Peaches.  It really hit the spot.  Easy and simple are good, but I was no longer in the mood for salads, grilled meat and vegetable, and other minimally-prepared stuff.  I was seeking food that takes more time, trouble, and ingredients.  Last night’s meal wasn’t a huge, trash-the-kitchen affair, but it took on-and-off effort much of the day, and was worth the effort.

The day before I had made custard the “look, Ma, no hands” way (without cornstarch) from my grandmother’s 1920 Fannie Farmer cookbook.  I had let it go just a couple of seconds too long so it was ever so slightly grainy and not quite firmly-enough set.  Nevertheless, I had persevered and made Peach Pudding with it, substituting almond macaroons for cake and using almond flavoring instead of vanilla.  For last night’s dessert, I made Cardinal Peaches just as Delia Smith says to, but then pureed a left-over serving of the peach pudding, complete with peaches, macaroons, and custard to use as pouring custard over the peaches.  That was really good.

Because I’m not allowed spicy foods at the moment, I had to tinker a bit with the Baigan Sak recipe.  In the end all I did to reduce the heat was to use orange bell pepper in place of the chile peppers.  Instead of a package of frozen spinach, I tossed in a big box of baby cooking greens, which gave the whole thing more variety.  It was attractive, and still complex and tasty.  Even with a reduced heat-quotient, the dahl was a excellent complement.

If only I could keep this momentum up during the school year…


How to Face the Holidays

Laurie Colwin is one of my very favorite food writers.  Her column was for me a highlight of Gourmet magazine until her death in 1992 at the age of 48.  Without the battered photocopy of her December 1991 column, ‘How to Face the Holidays,’ in my recipe file, I don’t know how I would get through this season each year.  The two recipes in that column have become staples without which it would not be Christmas in our house.

In 2003 Jonathan Yardley wrote a moving piece about Laurie Colwin in his ‘Second Reading’ column in The Washington Post.  He had been a friend of this remarkable woman, and the review he writes is almost more of a remembrance of her a decade after her death.  She was a prolific writer of short stories and novels, but my favorite works of hers are those most explicitly about food, especially Home Cooking (1988).

There are other food writers that I turn to in certain moods–Wendell Berry, Robert Farrar Capon, Sylvia Thompson, Michael Pollan–but when I’m feeling overwhelmed and in need of inspiration, Laurie Colwin’s work comes through for me.

I have my own views about ‘How to Make Gingerbread’ (Gourmet, December, 1987), but her 1991 ‘Country Christmas Cake’ and ‘Spiced Beef’ epitomize the season.  She is not exaggerating when she writes, “These two delicacies have that profound, original, homemade taste that cannot be replicated, no matter what you spend.  They make the person who made them feel ennobled.”  They take some forethought, however: the cake needs at least a month to mellow, and the beef spends twelve days soaking up its spices before you even get around to the cooking and pressing of it.  Two weeks before you want to eat it is the time to start.  For this Christmas, that’s now.

So today I will hunt down a very lean, grass-fed 5- or 6-pound piece of bottom round.  I will find a pot that just fits it, rub it all over with a half-cup of dark brown sugar, and set it in the fridge.  At first I will remember to turn it over and rub it with the sugary goop the way you’re supposed to for the first two days.  Then I will crush up the spices, add them to rub, and try to remember to turn and re-distribute it all every day for ten more days.  The spice mix always requires an emergency shopping trip, because it’s got things in it that I only use once a year but yet run out of regularly: one cup of coarse salt and one-third cup each of juniper berries, allspice berries, and black pepper.

When the appointed time has come, I will put the meat, minus most of its spices, in a crock pot or a really slow oven with a cup of water and a tight lid, and let it cook for a long time (5 hours in the oven, or until I remember it in the crock pot).  Next will come the tricky part: after letting it cool in its juice, I’ll have to reinvent my meat-pressing technique as I seem to do every year.  Perhaps it is so tricky because every piece of meat is a different shape.  The idea is to wrap the meat in wax paper and press it overnight between two boards with about five pounds of weight on it, refrigerated.  If I do it right, it will, as Laurie Colwin promises, pack down so that “it can be sliced thin enough to see through.”  It will last just through New Year’s, and when it is gone, we will be thinking about putting the trappings of Christmas away.