Monday, March 24, 2014

Books and other diversions (The "spring" edition of linkapalooza)

Do you live near Boston? I am thrilled, embarrassed, and fretful to report that my friend Suzy Becker, author of the brilliant One Good Egg and the brilliant and bestselling All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat (now in its godzillian printing), and her friend Nancy Aronie, and I are going to be in “conversation” together in May. Less important than the actual going is the buying of the tickets and the communicating to the Concord Museum folks that you’re my people, buying tickets because of me, and Suzy and Nancy aren’t the only people selling tickets.

On Writing, Life, and the Origin of Chicken Fingers
Thursday, May 15, 2014, 7PM - 9PM
Authors Nancy Aronie, Suzy Becker, and Catherine Newman invite you to join them for an evening of casual conversation. These nationally acclaimed authors will read from their own works (and each others’), share their thoughts on all manner of things, and answer questions – “theirs, yours, and some real doozies from this year’s MCAS.”  Wine and cheese at 7:00 p.m., program begins at 7:15; book signing to follow. $10 Concord Museum Members, $15 Non-members. Ticket price includes wine and cheese. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling (978) 369-9763, ext. 216. 

Phew. Other things.

I have a piece in the current issue of Brain, Child, and it’s about a hibernaculum [shudder]. (That's just a link to the "teaser," i.e. a photo of me in pasties.)

Do you remember how I mentioned Colorku at the holidays?

Well. I am reporting back that it is completely excellent. All four of us love it, and the level of challenge-feeling ranges from a kind of brain-churning competence to something like a tangled, numbing conviction that that there is something wrong with your mental processing apparatus. We work on it alone, or in pairs or clumps, and it is deeply engaging and fun and companionable. I cannot recommend it enough. Plus, the pieces are painted wood, and there is something very beautiful about them. The pastel ones remind me of Dutch mints 

to the point that I have to actively stop myself from putting one in my mouth.

Also from the holidays: my parents gave me (okay, I may have specifically asked for it) the Roz Chast collection Theories of Everything, and I cannot say how much pleasure we’ve gotten out it. Okay, maybe I can try to say. No. I can’t. Only this: every single day after school, Ben and I lie on the couch and read it together, and every single cartoon makes us laugh. Her memoir is coming out soon, and I preordered it, which is a strong indicator of my feelings, given my propensity to loiter around hoping that someone will send me a review copy of everything. (You can read what looks like an excerpt here.)

Another book recommendation, this one from Birdy: Wonder by R.J. Palacio. She devoured it in a nearly unprecedented way. When I asked her to describe it for you, she said, “Like a review or like a blurb?” Hello, child of a writer. Here’s what she gave me: "August Pullman tries to make it through 5th grade with friends, foes, and surprises. It's an amazing book that you just don't feel like putting down." This is so literally true that Birdy had to stay home from school one day last week to finish it. Hello, child of a reader. Not that her description doesn’t totally capture the plot, but, well, it kind of doesn’t totally, so here’s this from Amazon: “August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face.” Do you have any book recs for Birdy? She has also recently read and loved two of my own tween favorites: Bridge to Terabithia and The Brothers Lionheart. (Not that there were tweens back in the dark ages, when we were wringing out our menstrual rags in a bucket.)

I myself read and loved Valerie’s Martin’s latest, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, which is a historical novel about nineteenth-century ghost ship, communication with the dead, and Arthur Conan Doyle. The ship itself is, weirdly, kind of the missing center of the book, not by accident, and it makes for an engagingly disjointed read, if that makes sense. If you’ve never read anything by her before, Trespass is my favorite and is a nearly perfect novel, IMHO. (I wanted to write IHOP.)
Frank Cottrell Boyce. He was not exactly driven to writing by homeliness, if you know what I mean.

Finally, on a friend’s recommendation we have now listened to more or less everything on tape by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and we have loved every single book: Cosmic, Millions, Framed, and the short but wonderful The Unforgotten Coat. He is English and funny and deeply kind, and the books are all different, but they’re all about the kinds of awesome, quirky kids who obsessively memorize details of saints’ lives, say, or note in a huge journal every car that passes. Some of our own recent car trips, even long ones, have passed in a blur of pleasure. 

Please, share anything relevant (or irrelevant!). We are, as you know, always looking to read, listen to, and play new things. xo

Friday, March 14, 2014

Whole-Grain Cornbread

As you may know, we eat a lot of beans. A. Lot. Of. Beans. as the young people say these days. Sometimes it’s rice and beans! And sometimes it’s just beans! Perfectly cooked pintos, say. (Don’t make me get all pressure cooker on you again.) It’s always exciting. I put out chopped raw onions, a little cruet of olive oil, some feta, fresh herbs, hot sauce, flaky sea salt—and everyone gets to top their own beans. Could there be a more delightful dinner? (Don’t answer that.)
But if company is coming, I occasionally lose my nerve around the serving of Just Beans in a Bowl! I do. And in those cases, corn bread is the card up my bean-loving sleeve. Corn bread is a crowd pleaser—pleasing crowds of children and grown-ups alike. Plus, it’s basically a thirty-minute round-trip excursion: into the oven by the time the oven preheats, then baked in another 15. 
A warm slab of sweet, grainy cornbread with a melting pat of butter? I mean, come on. Even if dinner is a kind of soup that you don’t like, the corn bread will work its good-natured magic on your meal mood, and you will find yourself saying, “I didn’t think the turnips and the parsnips would taste that good together? But it’s not even terrible.” While cheerful corn crumbs spray from your pleasant expression.
This corn bread is yet another example of how, for me, roughing up a white-flour recipe into a whole-grain recipe is win-win. It’s not at all an oh, well, it’s like chewing a cardboard-flavored wedge of particleboard but at least it’s healthy situation. Instead, it’s a nutty, deeply-flavored, tender-crumbed wonder, with a just-shy-of-custardy middle (you could bake this trait out of it, if you like) and a whiff of browned butter. Cheap, easy, wholesome, delicious.
Whole-Grain Cornbread
Serves 8-12

This is a loose adaptation of Joy of Cooking’s Northern Corn Bread recipe. The spelt is me, of course, and, also of course, I am using the maximum recommended allowances of butter and sugar. They call for ½ milk and ½ buttermilk, but I love the flavor you get from using all buttermilk—also the tender, almost custardy crumb of the baked cornbread. Leftovers, toasted and buttered, are sublime.

1 ¼ cups cornmeal (IF you can get freshly ground cornmeal, you will be ruined for life)
¾ cups whole spelt flour THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE (Okay, you could actually use white flour, but why would you?)
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup sugar (feel free to use less)
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
2 eggs
3 tablespoons butter, melted and slightly cooled
More butter

Heat the oven to 425 and put a 9- or 10-inch cast iron skillet in to heat. (Alternately, grease a 9- by 9-inch baking pan or dish, or the equivalent.)

Whisk together the dry ingredients.

Whisk together the buttermilk and eggs.

Fling a knob of butter (1 tablespoon, let’s say) into the pan that’s heating. If you’re using a greased pan, don’t do anything.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, start folding, then dump in the butter and fold together until the dries just disappear.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, which should be coated with browning, sizzling butter, and bake until it’s browned and seems springy, or at least not squidgy when you press the top (or stick a toothpick into it). Start checking it at 15 minutes, which is when I usually take mine out, even though the recipe says 20-25. Maybe this is because of preheating the pan, which is not in the recipe. A cold pan will doubtless take a bit longer.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Lemony Two-Bean Penne with Butter-Fried Breadcrumbs

Between my shrewy kvetching, Ben's squeaky whatever, and this dreary photograph, I will understand if you don't sprint to the kitchen to make this. But please, take my word for it: you should.

I like to say that picky eating is a state of mind: a rigid pre-emptive contempt for the unfamiliar; a kind of cringing, inflexible certainty that things will not be to your liking; a facial expression that says, “I hate this so much that I actually kind of hate you for putting it on my plate.” Thankfully, there are no picky eaters in my family, because here’s how much tolerance I have for it: [holds up thumb and forefinger pressed together]. That said, there are turning out to be many individual dislikes in my family, and if the kids didn’t manage them with so much grace and humor, I would probably have killed myself by now.

Ben likes eggs but not if they’re hard-boiled, and not quiche or frittata or other egg dishes with “things in them” unless those things are ham or ham. Birdy doesn’t like mushrooms, though she is friendly to the idea of them, likes to see them growing in the woods, and plans to like them at some point. Ben and Michael don’t like polenta, while Birdy and I could happily lie down on the couch and never get up again, so long as there was an Ikea catalogue and a hose spraying polenta into our mouths. Michael loathes other porridges as well: oatmeal, cream of wheat, rice pudding. He also hates tea, goat cheese, olives, and hearts of palm. His dislike of Twizzlers and caramel bull’s-eyes comes up only infrequently and never inconveniences me. Ben despises raw tomatoes so profoundly that he is not sure he could eat a pint of cherry tomatoes even if you paid him fifty dollars. Ben also hates melon as a rule, but is becoming less hostile towards really good cantaloupe. Both children dislike raw celery, but with no real passion. Birdy announced recently that she doesn’t really like soup (WTF?). Ben likes guacamole but not avocado; he likes onions but not scallions; he doesn't like sesame seeds or sesame oil. Birdy dislikes barbecue sauce because the taste reminds her of meat (fair enough). Everybody but me gets the willies from tempeh. The only thing I don’t like, besides organ meats and one kind of cheese I once ate that smelled like ammonia and tasted like the smell of human pee, is under-cooked eggplant. Birdy is also, I should add, a strict vegetarian—to the point where she won’t eat even candy or marshmallows that have gelatin in them. (“So, it has a little horse hoof!” Ben likes to say, shrugging, in a parody of Jewy dismissiveness.)

And yet. And yet I very rarely experience this family as difficult to feed, and I think it’s because they happily eat around most of the things they don’t love, and also they have a cheerful outlook about food in general. I mention that because after dinner last night, I looked at Ben’s plate—and it was full of green beans. “Tell me you’re saving those for last,” I said, and he smiled sheepishly. “The pasta was so, so delicious. But I’m turning out not to really like green beans. The way they squeak in my teeth.” He shuddered. I was, I should point out, having a bad day: frustrating work interactions, frustrating marital interactions (not the sex kind), frustrating dirty house, frustrating chimney needing to be fixed for $4000. “Do I have to do every single fucking thing?” is a (rhetorical) question I actually uttered out loud at some point yesterday. Seriously. Michael should have been wearing a t-shirt with an arrow that said, “I’m with jerkhole.”
I'm so busy pissing and moaning I forgot to mention that Birdy, my baby, turned 11.
Where was I? Oh. The beans. Did I look like I was about to storm away from the table? I hope not. But if I was, Ben saved me. “I mean,” he added, tipping his peachy, grinning face, his green-bean-filled bowl, towards me, “I was saving them for you, dear Mama.”
Don’t let Ben dissuade you from making this. I know it’s a variation on a million bean-and-pasta recipes I’ve published over the years, but it’s easy, it’s wholesome, and it’s got that perfect balance of salty-citrusy-tender-crunchy-herby-rich-funky that I always crave.

Lemony Two-Bean Penne with Butter-Fried Breadcrumbs
Serves 6

If I'd had fresh herbs, I would have used them. If I'd had a mint teabag, I would have used dried mint. Instead I used this beautiful California bay leaf that I stole from Ava's family's holiday wreath. It was outrageously fragrant. Probably everybody secretly hated the flavor but me. [Sighs self-pityingly.] A secret: you could make this without the fresh beans: add another can of beans, or use 3/4 of the pasta.

3 tablespoons butter, divided use
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs (made from crumbling, blendering, or food-processing a slice of whole-wheat bread)
1 pound whole-wheat penne, or a different shape that won't echo the beans (I like Bionaturae)
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 fragrant bay leaf or ½ teaspoon dried mint (and/or ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley or mint)
1 cup vegetable broth (I like Rapunzel bouillon) or chicken broth
¾ pound green beans or haricots verts, cut at an angle into penne-sized lengths (I’ve been buying the 12-ounce bags from Trader Joe’s and they are so easy and good and cheap.)
1 (15-ounce) can pinto, pink, or white beans, drained
Juice and grated zest of 1 small lemon
½ teaspoon kosher salt (half as much table salt) or more or less to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup crumbled feta

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water (taste it—if it doesn’t taste like seawater, add more salt) to a boil while you prepare your other ingredients. Like the breadcrumbs! Melt one tablespoon of the butter in a very small pan, and fry the breadcrumbs over medium heat until they are brown and crisp, around 5 minutes. Scrape them into a bowl when they’re done, so they don’t burn in the still-hot pan.

Pop your bowls or plates in a 200-degree oven to warm. Really do this, so the pasta won’t get cold before you even pick up a fork.

Now heat the oil over low heat in a wide pan. Add the garlic, and stir it around a bit until it is fragrant but not coloring. Stir in the bay leaf or dried mint, then add the broth and green beans and turn the heat to medium.

Put your pasta in to boil.

When the green beans are half-tender (you can cover the pan for a while, if they are being slow-pokes), add the canned beans and lemon juice. Taste for salt: the feta will add some, but not enough to compensate if it is radically under-salted. Season robustly with black pepper.

When the pasta is done, reserve a cup of the cooking water, then drain it. Put the pasta back in the pot with the rest of the butter and stir it around. The green beans should be tender by now. Dump the panful of beans and their liquid into the pasta, along with the lemon zest and feta and, if you’re using them, the fresh herbs. Stir it. Add some or all of the cooking liquid and/or some more olive oil if it seems dry. Taste for salt and lemon and herbs and feta, adding more of whatever it needs.

Serve in the warmed bowls with breadcrumbs for passing.