Sour Cherry Pie & In My Lunchbox

Eeeep!  Over 100 of you have liked my Facebook page!  Thanks!  If you haven't yet, go here to like Strong Coffee, and then you'll get status updates from me whenever I post something on the blog.  Sweet, right?  I thought so too.

This pie though.  Oh my goodness.  It's perfection.  If you thought the peach pie was good, this sour cherry pie is stellar-awesome-delicious-want-to-eat-the-whole-thing-right-now-om-nom good.  It was one of Lottie + Doof's first posts, via Bon Appetit, and it's no wonder he revisited it again on his site.  I could just eat a bowl full of the filling alone, with pleasantly pucker-inducing cherries slumped and bound together by a sticky-sweet sauce of sugar, lemon, and vanilla.  And then, with the crust, you get a hit of crunch and texture, with that luscious, soulful flavor only butter can provide.  Together they're magical, truly.  Every night last week I inhaled a slice for dinner, and didn't regret it one little bit (one night I even had two slices, but, errr, let's not talk about that).  My dad even proclaimed that it was the best cherry pie he's ever had, and I'm pretty sure he's tried a lot of cherry pie in his life.  So there.  What I'm saying is, get your hands on some sour cherries, and get to work.  If you're in Chicago you should go to Green City Market, they're delightful, and that's where I found mine.  I haven't seen them in a regular grocery store before.

For another picture-less In My Lunchbox entry I want to tell you about a little simple summer salad.  I know, I know, I posted about salad last time.  The thing is, I do eat a lot of salad, but it's only so I can justify my multiple snacks a day (and my pie for dinner).  I'm pretty sure I eat the most, and the most frequently, out of anyone in my office.  It may be a little sad, actually.  But when I'm munching on a handful a pretzels, oh boy am I productive.  The munching helps me concentrate, I think... Or it may just be that being full helps me concentrate.  Either way, I like to snack at work, so I end up eating several little meals a day rather than eating a couple big meals.  Especially since I'm getting into work around 7:30 in the morning, sitting in a coffee shop for a while until the office has actually become populated, working a full day there, then either taking the CTA up to the river site in Lincoln Park for sweep practice or biking up Lake Shore Drive to the lagoon site to teach the Learn to Row class, it's 9:30 or 10 at night before I can actually sit down for dinner.  At which time I should be going to sleep again.  So the 3-square-meals-a-day plan doesn't really work out for me.  Girl's gotta eat.

Anyway, so this salad.  I have to digress again for a second to talk about heirloom tomatoes.  Now, I'm not going to say that by virtue of them being heirloom and fancy (and more expensive obviously) that they're better than your average vine tomato.  But when I'm at the grocery store, the quality of the heirloom tomatoes has been consistently better in my experience than that of the little bundles of vine tomatoes, or the giant beefsteak tomatoes, which have tended to be watery-tasting.  At the farmer's market, though, the quality of those regular tomatoes is so good that I don't feel compelled to buy heirloom.  If you prefer heirloom unequivocally, then by all means.

So grab a medium-size tomato and gently dice (use a serrated knife to cut tomatoes, you won't squish them this way).  Throw it in a bowl.  Then, take half an avocado, remove it from the skin with a spoon, and slice it thinly.  Fan out the slices, placing the fanned-out stack on top of the tomatoes.  Do the same slice-then-fan process with a cooled roasted beet, skin removed, and place it over the avocado.  Douse with a glug of good olive oil, a splash of sherry vinegar, and a little freshly ground black pepper.  Shave a few slices of parmesan over the top with a vegetable peeler, then dig in.  The tomato juices will mingle with the oil and vinegar to create a luscious, slurpable dressing in the bottom of the bowl.  I suggest eating this with a hunk of crusty bread to soak up the sauce, or you can just drink it out of the bottom of the bowl like I do.  Shhh, don't tell.

Sour Cherry Pie
adapted from Lottie + Doof

2 1/2 c all purpose flour
1 c plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, divided
2 sticks really cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
5-8 tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, divided
3 tablespoons corn starch
5 cups whole pitted sour cherries
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 egg, beaten
~1 tablespoon Muscovado sugar

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 3/4 teaspoon salt.  Toss the butter in the flour mixture and work with your fingertips or a pastry cutter until the mixture is the texture of damp sand and the butter is lima bean-size.  Make a well in the center and add in 4 tablespoons of water and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, beginning to work into the flour mixture and adding more water as needed for the dough to come together.  Divide into 2 halves, then roll each into a ball, pat into a disk, and wrap with plastic wrap.  Refrigerator for 30 minutes.  Keep cold until ready to use, but let it sit out on the counter for a couple minutes before rolling to soften.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and lemon juice in a large bowl with the cherries.  In a small bowl, whisk together the 1 c sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and corn starch, then add into the cherries also.  Roll out 1 dough round into a ~12 inch circle, then transfer into a standard pie pan.  Trim the overhang to 1/2 inch, then pour in the cherry filling.  Roll out the other dough round, place it over the top of the filling, then trim the overhang to match the bottom crust.  Using your fingers or a fork, seal the top crust to the bottom.  Brush the exposed crust with the egg, then sprinkle with Muscovado sugar.  Cut a few vents in the top crust to allow the steam to escape during cooking.

Place the pie on a rimmed baking sheet, then bake for 15 minutes before turning the temperature down to 375 degrees F and cooking for ~1 hour.  If you're worried that edges will/are browning too quickly, gently cover with a thin piece of tin foil.  Cool completely before serving with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.  Or both.

Lattice Peach Pie

If you don't read The Wednesday Chef, well, you're missing out.  I haven't made many of the recipes she posts, but I enjoy her personality so much, and that she writes about what she feeds her son Hugo (he's only about a year old now).  I really love children, especially infants and toddlers, so I live a little vicariously through her posts about Hugo.  I also recently read her book My Berlin Kitchen, which makes her blog even more of a joy to read.  I feel like I know her a little better, y'know?  The book is basically a memoir with relevant, and delicious-sounding, recipes at the end of each chapter.  But it's even better than that, because her life is actually a fairy tale, with a happily-ever-after and everything... And recipes!  That's the best-sounding fairy tale I've ever heard of.  Anyway, even if you just read my blog to check up on me and you're not exactly a lover of cooking, I think you would still like the book.  It's cute and heart-warming.

After I finished that and House of Leaves I tried to get into The Omnivore's Dilemma.  I'm struggling to stay interested, which is odd, because that should totally jive with me, right?  I was expecting it to be more about food I think, and less about what's wrong with 'murican business and government.  I'm also weary of the central claim that there's a national eating disorder - i.e. an overwhelming obsession in America with healthy eating fads, due to the lack of a strong culinary culture that would guide our food choices.  This is certainly true to some extent - my impression, though, is that it's a bit of an overstatement.  I mean, there are plenty of intelligent people who take all of the hullaballoo that's stirred up by new health trends with a grain of salt, and plenty more people who just don't really care about the trends and just eat how they want to.  But this is also after only reading the introduction to and the first chapter of the book, so I should probably get through more of the content before I knock it.  At this point, I'd just make the counter argument that while this country may not have a strong, cohesive culinary culture like Italy, France, or Japan that guides the answer to the question what's for dinner, individuals and families develop personal, consistent food cultures that shape their daily food choices.  And these can be just as resistant to the stormy weather of popular opinion and trendy diets as national food cultures.

Enough talk, now for pie.  Frankie (whom you've seen here before, when he helped me make cookies during Christmas last year), made this with me.  He's my dough-mixer and lattice-weaver extraordinaire.  I almost couldn't believe my ears when, after topping the pie with the dough lattice mostly by himself, he turned to me and proclaimed wow, baking is fun.  You should've seen the smile on my face, oh my.  It was great.

Peach Pie
crust adapted from Smitten Kitchen

2 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon regular granulated sugar
1 1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt, divided
2 sticks really cold butter, cut into cubes
~1/2 c ice water
~1 tablespoon Muscovado sugar
1 egg, beaten
~3 1/2 pounds peaches (6-8 peaches), cleaned and cut into thin slices
1/3 c brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
~3 tablespoons corn starch
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, divided

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, granulated sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt.  Toss the butter cubes in the flour to coat.  Then, using your fingers or a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until the butter is lima bean size, and the mixture resembles the texture of sand.  Make a well in the center of the mixture, and pour in 1/4 c of the ice water and 1 teaspoon of vanilla.  Begin incorporating the liquid into the dry mixture, adding water as needed for the dough to form a smooth ball.  Divide the dough in half, pat each half into a disk, and wrap with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

In another medium bowl, prepare the filling.  I didn't bother peeling my peaches, since I'm lazy and I like the skin anyway, but if you prefer then you can peel them.  I sliced mine pretty thinly, into sixteenths, but if you want larger pieces feel free, you'll just have to be aware of the adjustment in cooking time.  Place all of your peach slices in the bowl, then toss gently with the 1/8 teaspoon salt, brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 1 tablespoon of corn starch.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Roll out one disk of dough into a 1/4 inch thick circle, using lots of flour to prevent sticking to the rolling pin or surface you're rolling on.  Turn the dough evenly and often to make sure it's not stuck.  Transfer gently to a standard pie tin, then trim away the dough that hangs over the side.  Sprinkle the dough on the bottom of the pie tin with the remaining 2 tablespoons of cornstarch, then pour over the peach filling.  Roll out the other dough disk to the same 1/4 inch thickness, making it more of a square shape, since you're going to trim it into a square anyway.  Once trimmed, cut the dough into 12 even strips.  Lay 6 strips, evenly spaced, over the filling.  To create the lattice, pull back every other strip (so you'll have 3 strips folded over and 3 laid out straight).  Lay another strip, perpendicular to the others you've already placed over the pie, over the 3 strips that are laid out straight.  Fold the other 3 strips back over, so it's covered by 3 strips and covering the 3 others.  Repeat with the next dough strip, this time pulling back the other 3 alternating strips.

Does that make sense?  If it doesn't just leave me a comment here and I'll edit the description.  It probably would've helped if I'd taken pictures of the steps.  But  I'm sure you'll get the hang of it - just keep interweaving the strips like this until you've used them up.  Trim away the excess dough hanging over the side, and then using a fork or your fingers, seal the lattice strips to the bottom crust.  Brush the lattice with the egg, then sprinkle with Muscovado sugar.  Bake for ~15 minutes until the lattice has begun to brown, then reduce the heat to 375 degrees F and back for another ~30 minutes.  Once the filling is bubbling hot and thick, and the crust is cooked through, remove from the oven and let cool completely.  You don't want to cut into it and create a soupy hot mess, do ya?  Once cooled, cut into slices and serve with a drizzle of cream.

Fig & Mascarpone Tart

It seems fitting that the last creation I made at home was my chocolate chip banana bread.  Frankie and I also made a nice peach pie last week (which he claimed was too sweet despite there being about a 1/3 cup of sugar in the whole pie, I think it was too tart for him but he didn't know how to express that), so I'll share that next time.  But I'm back in Chicago now, back at work.  I'm just trying to be positive, focusing on getting super strong for crew preseason in September.  Going back through the last few posts I've written, I sound pretty depressed, and that's not really what you're here to read... This blog functions as something of a diary for me, but I have to be mindful that hey, I kinda want people to read this thing, and also, that this is on the internet for everyone to see.  I don't want you to visit this site and think oh, here comes emo kid again, cue the Evanescence and dark makeup.  So I can't, or shouldn't, be too explicit about my life or feelings.  I do find it comforting, though, that a least a handful of people visit this site to see what I've been up to, and hopefully care about what's written here.  I will try to be more positive when I write for you, because this should be a happy place for both you and me to come together and think about food.  Because food is the happiest thing there is.  And evidence from neuroscience strongly suggests that humans can learn to activate the areas of our brains associated with the experience of happiness, and recover more quickly from the effects of negative emotions.

Ah, science.  You make me so hopeful.

May I digress slightly for a moment?  It is so irritating when I hear the suggestion that psychology isn't real science or hard science, and is instead basically just hogwash and a soft science.  I'd like to point out that there are several branches of psychology varying in the degree to which they employ techniques from the hard sciences like biology and chemistry, or from social sciences or the humanities.  It depends on which branch you're talking about, first of all.  Secondly, those branches which are more social science- or humanities-based aren't hogwash or non-empirical necessarily.  What is hogwash is how members of the academic community like to put down other fields to make theirs seem better, truer, more righteous, et cetera.  I'm sorry that you have to put down other people and their fields of expertise to inflate your own sense of worth and purpose.  All branches of psychology deal in facts and research.  I mean, stupid is as stupid does - a psychological study can be just as full of questionable material and conjecture as a study in any other field, but it isn't lacking in interest or intellectual merit simply because it is psychology and not pure biology or physics.

Aaaand I'm back.  I just had to get that off my chest and enlighten you as to the wonders of psychological research.  I'm not angry, just passionate.  It's funny, I hadn't considered studying psychology until this past September - I was scrolling through the course catalogue, projecting my inner monologue onto John about how I shouldn't major in Russian Civilizations because what will I do with that and linguistics is really cool but it would either be a career in linguistic research or the CIA for me and I didn't want to narrow down that much yet blahhhhh... When he suggested that psychology might be a good fit for me, take a look at the course offerings.  I realized that I was interested in most of the classes, and after I took biological psychology winter quarter last year, my mind was actually completely made up (I've been waffling on this subject since my junior year of high school).  Of course, I was also planning on double majoring with linguistics still, but have since dropped that to a minor.

In any case, what my parents thought was a whim has lasted, and I'm still totally smitten.  That doesn't mean that I really have any idea what I want to do with my future.  I'm trying to adopt John's one-day-at-a-time approach.  I'm not very good at living in the moment, either dwelling on the past or looking too far ahead, both of which are very stressful for an already antsy person.  I'm going into zen mode.  I'm sick of being stressed out about all the things I want to do but can't yet and all the things I should've done, or the things that should've (or shouldn't have) happened.  It doesn't change anything.  The question is, what am I doing right now, and what will I do later today. Of course, thinking ahead is necessary to guide the here-and-now, but only to a certain extent.  It's about finding the balance.  Well, this is what I'm telling myself right now anyway to keep me calm and to will myself into not being miserable anymore.  I am taking control of my feelings and realizing that I deserve to be happy and confident and strong.  I'm not quite at the point where I'm going to repeat you are strong and beautiful or something into the mirror every morning to remind myself, but I am so sick of letting the people in and circumstances of my world, and especially the past few months, hurt me.

It seems that in my college life this has happened several times, where I've felt wronged and wanted closure from those who have wronged me, but it's never come.  I want them to recognize that they have hurt me, experience the pain of remorse, and give me peace so I feel validated and happy once again.  When it doesn't come, though, there's a choice - I can continue to dwell on how I've been wronged, and let the negativity invade my dreams at night and my work during the day, or I can let it go.  The letting go is so hard because it feels like giving up.  It feels like I haven't stood up for myself, like I've let the people in my life walk all over me and tell them it's okay, tell them that it's really my fault.  I want to get what I deserve - closure.  I do deserve that at least right?  It doesn't work like that, though.  And so I have to make the closure I deserve for myself.  Because above deserving closure from those who've made me feel horrible, I desire and deserve happiness.  As my close friend Kathy says, I deserve the best, no exceptions.  She's right.  But you have to define what's the best, and that's the tricky part.  This time, for me, the best is owning my own sense of self-worth.  It's mine, and I can't let anyone take it from me again.

So, after that nice self-help rant, without further delay, a fig and mascarpone tart for your trouble.

Fig & Mascarpone Tart
adapted from Flourishing Foodie 

1 1/2 c all purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out the dough
2/3 c almond meal
1/4 c brown sugar
7 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes and really cold
1 egg, beaten
~1/4 c ice water
450 g mascarpone cheese
1/2 c heavy cream
1/4 c sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of 1/2 lemon
5 figs
~2 tablespoons pure honey

In a medium bowl combine the flours and brown sugar.  Quickly and gently cut the cold butter into the dry mixture, making sure to leave lima bean-size pieces of butter throughout.  Make a well in the mixture and add the egg.  Drizzle in 2 tablespoons of water with the egg and begin to combine, adding more water as needed for the dough to come together.  Once you can gather it easily into a ball, pat it down into a disk, wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  On a clean surface with plenty of flour, roll the disk out into a circle 1/4-1/2 inch thick, or so that the dough will go ~1 inch up the sides of a tart pan.  Carefully transfer the dough into the pan (I just used a regular springform pan because it's what I had, but it would be prettier in a tart shell, with high sides mind you).  Dock the dough (poke lots of holes in the bottom with a fork to make sure the steam can escape) then bake for ~15 minutes until cooked through.  Set aside to cool.

In another medium bowl, beat the mascarpone, cream, and sugar until soft peaks form.  Add the vanilla and lemon zest, then beat until there are stiff peaks.  Spoon the filling into the cooled tart shell.  Cut the figs into eighths and arrange as your heart desires.  Drizzle over as much honey as you like, then serve.

Spinach and Eggplant Steamed Buns

I have a thing for glass bottles and jars.

It's the little hipster inside of me trying to get out.  I like to drink out of mason jars, eat from old jam jars, admire my collection of milk bottles.  I like that they're not matching, but cohesive in their own way.  I like that they used to be something else.  

These are the last few days in my house.  In my town.  Cooking in my kitchen.  I've been home on vacation since July Fourth, and I go back to Chicago on the fourteenth.  Once I move into my Hyde Park apartment on September 1, that'll be my home.  It's not like my family is moving to some other east coast house that I could get used to calling home.  My dad's apartment isn't home, and the new apartment he and mom will have once she comes out to Chicago too won't be home either.  The "home is where your heart is" cliche doesn't even apply here.  My heart is in so many places.  So home is where I'll be.  I'll have all of my cooking gadgets and gear, my glass bottles and jars, my cookbooks.  I'll have my roommates and my schoolwork, and I'll have the crew team.  It's sad that my student apartment is going to be the most stable thing in my life, isn't it?  Well that, and my cookbooks.  Those aren't going anywhere, and they're not going to change.  

Isn't that the best thing about books?  You can hold them in your hands.  Feel their weight.  The pages have that peculiar paper smell that only ripens with age.  And it's funny, how it seems like the text is more lasting when it's typed up, logged away on someone's harddrive, or in the cloud.  But there's something about your access to it having an off-switch that makes it seem less real.  Like it could slip away from you at any moment.  A book, though, its pages may yellow and the binding may crack a little - but its yours, and it'll never leave you if you take care of it.

Spinach and Eggplant Steamed Buns
adapted from Love and Olive Oil

1/2 c warm water (~100 degrees F)
1 tablespoon honey
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 1/2 c all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 c milk, room temperature
~2 teaspoons canola oil

1/2 - 3/4 pound baby spinach
1 medium eggplant
~1 tablespoons canola oil
~1 teaspoon sesame oil
~1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
~1 teaspoon ginger root, minced
2 Kaffir lime leaves

In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the water and honey, then sprinkle over the yeast and let sit until very foamy, ~10 minutes.  Stir in the milk and salt, then fold in the flour.  Once the mixture has come together, knead the dough on a clean, floured surface for 4-6 minutes until smooth and still slightly sticky (we're not trying to pass the windowpane test here).  Place the dough in an oiled bowl, making sure the exposed surface of the dough has also been oiled.  Set aside in a warm place, covered with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel, for ~50 minutes until doubled in bulk.

Meanwhile, set the oven to 400 degrees F.  Cut the eggplant lengthwise into thin, flat slices (you'll have ~8 of them, depending on the eggplant).  Lay them on parchment paper without any oil or seasoning, and bake until softened (the exterior will appear to be dry, so press down lightly to see how soft the inside has become).  Flip the slices over every 10 minutes.  You're not trying to cook the eggplant completely, just until it is soft inside without having slumped.

After removing the eggplant from the oven, heat ~1 tablespoon canola oil, Kaffir lime leaves, garlic, and ginger in a medium skillet over medium-high heat.  Dice the eggplant in the meantime and set aside.  Once the aromatics have softened, add in the eggplant and saute until the flesh has become cooked all the way through and caramelized.  When they're just starting to slump, add in the soy sauce.  Remove the eggplant from the pan, then add the spinach into the hot pan in batches to wilt all of it down.  Drain off any excess liquid before chopping the cooked spinach and adding it into the eggplant.  Adjust seasoning and set aside to cool.

Now comes assembly.  Punch down the dough and move it to a floured work surface (I just used a cookie sheet with some flour dusted on it).  Pat the dough into a square, then cut it into 16 equal pieces. Roll them between your hands to make small spheres of dough, then set them aside under a clean kitchen towel to rest for 10 minutes.  Cut out 16 squares of parchment paper (about 3 1/2" across and tall) and bring a pot or wok with ~2" of water to a boil.  Working with 4 balls of dough at a time, roll each one out into a flat circle, ~1/4" thick.  Place the dough round onto your palm and cup your hand to create a little well, and spoon ~1/4 c of the filling onto the dough (don't overfill it, otherwise you won't be able to seal the bun).  Bring the edges of the dough together around the filling with your other hand, pinching tightly to seal.  Then place it on your work surface seam-side down and push on it gently.  You'll have a little knot of dough on the bottom that protrudes upward into the pocket of filling, and the whole package will be sealed nice and tightly.  Place each bun on a square of parchment paper and load a bamboo steamer with the packages.

Once you've formed all the buns and they've been placed into the steamer, set them over the pot of boiling water and cook 10-12 minutes until the dough has cooked through thoroughly.  The amount of filling I made yielded 10 buns, but I had enough dough for 16, so I just froze 6 of them for future use (they should keep for a couple months in the freezer).  Serve with Sriracha or another sauce of your choosing (they really need something spicy and saucy to go with them).

In My Lunchbox: Lox and Avocado

Lox and avocado, you say?  Sounds kinda yucky.

More for me then.

For a quick breakfast in the morning, I lay out half of a sliced avocado over two pieces of toasty pumpernickel bread, then top each one with an ounce or so of smoked salmon.  If you think about the avocado as cream cheese, this should make more sense.  But it's tastier, not to mention prettier.  Three ingredients, a couple minutes for the bread to toast, and you're good to run out the door and forget everything you meant to pack last-second (nah, I don't need my sunglasses anyway, it's not like I wanted to avoid staring straight into the sun on the drive to work).

But wait, there's more!

In my lunchbox, behold one of the most yummilicious salads of all time.  For some reason it occurred to me to call this the Big Green Fatty Salad because it's amusing and has a lot of ingredients with healthy fats.  But mostly because it's funny.  Okay, now that you've rolled your eyes, and I've had a good laugh, let's talk ingredients.

For one serving:
Couple handfuls of soft/buttery lettuce (I used a baby lettuce mix with herbs, but you could use bibb lettuce instead)
Half of an avocado, cubed
2 ounces smoked salmon, torn into bite-sized pieces
Handful green grapes (just trust me, okay?), if they're pretty large go ahead and cut in half
2-4 tablespoons shelled pistachios
Freshly ground black pepper
Squeeze of lime juice
(Drizzle of olive oil if you want, I thought it was just delightful without any extra oil though)

You may notice that I haven't included any pictures.  Turns out, I don't have my life together enough in the morning to take nice pictures of my breakfast/lunch, and the lighting isn't so great at night for pictures.  I will try to get my act together so you can have stellar visuals of my Big Green Fatty Salad (hehe, so funny, gets me every time) and other goodies.

Other meals I've made and packed for my lunch over the past couple weeks:
Udon noodle soup
Roasted beet salad
Spinach and eggplant steamed buns (post forthcoming)
Lime and soy chicken
Baked beans

Pastries I've been bringing to work so I'm not tempted to crush a pan of brownies by myself or something:
Maple cake
Fig and mascarpone tart (post forthcoming)

Otherwise, I've been bringing Amy's brand frozen meals on the days when I don't feel like toting tupperware all over Hyde Park.  The Mexican Casserole Bowls are actually scrumptious.  For the meals I do make myself, most of the prep work happens over the weekend, usually on Sunday.  That way, all I need to do is pack up what I want for the next day, rather than having to make it when I get back to the apartment at 8, pack it up, and clean the kitchen before watching another episode of The Wire and going to bed.  Whew.  It's too much.

So, for example, with the udon noodle soup, I knew I was going to make 4 portions.  I brought ~4 cups of water to a boil, added in ~4 tablespoons of white miso paste, and boom, broth done.  I set that aside to cool, then brought more water to a boil and cooked the udon noodles separately from the broth.  After draining them, they were tossed in just a smidge of canola oil and sesame oil, and also set aside to cool.  I portioned my block of soft tofu into 8 thin slabs for marinating (more surface area = more flavor).  In a long rectangular tupperware, I zested and squeezed the juice of 2-3 limes and 1 lemon, and grated in ~1 inch of fresh ginger.  I laid the tofu into the marinade, and once the udon noodles were cool, I put 1/4 of the noodles into each of 4 plastic baggies.  The miso broth was divided into 4 different tupperwares also.

All I had to do to pack my lunch at night was a) take out 2 slabs of tofu, cube them, and put them into the tupperware with the miso broth and b) stuff a handful of snow peas and spinach into the baggie with the udon noodles.  Done.  When lunch time rolled around, I heated the broth and tofu for 1 minute in the microwave, dumped in the noodles and veggies, then heated for another 2 minutes.  I even tried putting dried seaweed (wakame) in with the noodles, and they rehydrated perfectly in the microwave.  For the beet salad, I just roasted them on Sunday, peeled them (they skins come off so easily after they've been cooked, just push them off with your thumbs), and stored them in baggies to be chopped up and tossed onto some greens.  The baked beans were more of a challenge to put together - I soaked the dry beans overnight on Saturday, then boiled them and made the sauce before combining them and baking - but were readily available for a quick trip to the microwave.

So, as you can see, all you need is a little prep work to make weekday lunch-packing relatively easy.  Or just keep an avocado and some lox around, and you'll be all set.

Chocolate Mousse

Where to begin?

Two finals due tenth week, two due finals week.  A flight home, and a flight back to Chicago, with a celebration for my brother's graduation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and for our last Russian Easter in my house in between.  My parents accepted an offer on the house.  I'm 20 years old now, too.  I started my full-time position at the same place I've been working part-time since February, and began my summer rowing with Lincoln Park Boat Club.  And I made chocolate mousse.  John and I ate the whole bowl of it ourselves in one sitting - well, he ate most of it, but I helped.

Now I'm in Chicago, living in the guest bedroom at my dad's apartment.  We're out in the town of Worth, southwest of Hyde Park, in the suburbs.  There's not really much else for me to say, even though so much has happened since I last wrote.  I haven't really digested the fact that on July 19 my house won't be mine anymore, that I can now call myself a twenty-something, that I'm halfway done with my undergraduate education.  It just feels like a matter of course.  I feel like I'm floating, not like in some pleasant dream, but in a fragile, untethered way - walking in a mirage, not really sure where I'm going.  I go to work, I row, and then I go back to the apartment and watch Game of Thrones or The Wire.  I pack my lunches, I clean my room.  What else is there to do?  I'm thinking about applying for a Fulbright, to do psychology research in Russia, but other than writing that application I don't know what sense of purpose I'll have for a while.  Friends, I am restless.  Terribly restless.

Chocolate Mousse
from Bon Appetit 

3/4 c chilled heavy cream, divided
4 large egg yolks
1/4 c espresso, room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 large egg whites, room temperature

Beat 1/2 c heavy cream until stiff peaks form.  Check for stiff peaks by turning off the beaters, pulling them out of the whipped cream, and turning them upside down - the peaks of whipped cream at the ends of the beaters should stand straight up.  Cover and chill.

Set a large glass or metal bowl over a pot filled with 1 inch of simmering water.  Be sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water - the point is to cook with indirect heat.  Combine the egg yolks, espresso, salt, and 2 tablespoons sugar in the bowl.   Cook, whisking constantly, until the color of the mixture has lightened and it has almost doubled in volume.  I did this by eye, but if you want a more exact measure, the mixture should register 160 degrees Farenheit when it's done.

Remove the bowl from the pan, and whisk in the chocolate until smooth.  Set aside and let the mixture come to room temperature, whisking occasionally.

Beat the egg whites in another bowl on medium speed just until foamy.  With the beaters running, gradually beat the sugar into the whites until stiff peaks form (check the same way as with the cream).  Wait until the chocolate mixture has come to room temperature before you beat the whites, since you don't want the whites to sit once they've been whipped.

Take 1/3 of the whipped egg whites and gently fold them into the cooled chocolate mixture.  Fold with a rubber spatula by cutting a line through the center of the mixture, scraping along the bottom of the bowl to the left, folding this half of the mixture over the rest, and continuing to scrape down along the the right side of the bowl.  Fold this half of the mixture over, and repeat. Turning over the mixture gently like this will make sure the egg whites don't deflate.

Add in the remaining 2/3 of the whites and do the same thing, until only a few streaks of white remain.  Add in the whipped cream, and fold in the same way as the whites.  Cover and chill the mousse for at least 2 hours, and up to 1 day, before serving.  Serve with the remaining 1/4 c cream, whipped just before eating.

Little Bites: Thoughts on Shared Meals


I’ve eaten many pieces of Chicago, in diners and burger joints, upscale restaurants, and corner cafes.  The city offers almost endless places to eat.  As someone who enjoys food for its own sake, I’ve made lists and maps of restaurants to visit before I leave here.  Some of them are a bus ride downtown, but others are far out in the western suburbs or way up on the North Side.  I’ll explore as many as I can.  But the most important meals I’ve had haven’t been for the sake of food, but for the sake of people.  There’s something poetic about sharing a lovely meal with a loved one – I don’t have other words to describe the experience, but I’m sure you know what I mean. 
The meals I’ve written about here follow from one another as courses do, from small plates to dinner and then dessert.  I didn’t include names, because I figured anonymity would be better for the people described here, and it also may help you connect better on a personal level with the piece.  If you know me, you’ll know whom I’m talking about.  I wanted to write about these memories to reflect on how these people have shared their lives with me, and to share them with you, too.

The Purple Pig

3 Cheese Tasting with fig-grape jam and crostini
Chorizo Stuffed Olives
Peas and Bacon with spearmint
Porchetta with Salsa Verde

A long, rectangular plate slides across our table, with three cheeses and a small, curvaceous dish of fig-grape jam.  The plate and dish are a crisp white, the cheeses tinged with different muted shades of cream and beige; but the jam, at the far right of the arrangement, catches our eyes with its jewel tones.  The slumped fruits themselves seem to be a bowl of precious stones, with the figs broken open to reveal their brilliant quartz interiors, crimson-brown with veins of tope and tiny blips of yellow, the seeds, some of which have cascaded out from the fruit and studded the glistening sauce.  And the grapes are richly purple orbs, pearls that grew too large to be contained by their oyster shells. 

The imagery is broken by the way the fruits have melted and collapsed into one another at the edges, rendering the burgundy sauce surrounding them.  And so we plunge our spoons into the dish, and spread the sweet jewels over our grilled slices of bread, barely charred and brushed with olive oil.  Faint pepper and citrus notes rise up from the warmed olive oil and intertwine with the deep, caramelized flavors of the stewed fruit.  The whole bite is soft and subtle, rounded out by the toasty bread and interrupted every so often by blackened bits of crust, where the fire was burning a little too hot.  These shards of black accent the otherwise subdued bite with a welcome and surprising bitterness.
The dim, burnt lighting casts a golden glow over everything. The quadrello is pale, almost luminescent, standing in slight contrast to the pecorino noce, creamier in color from a longer period of aging.  Bluish hues from the streaks of mold in the piquant gorgonzola seem to have seeped out into the cheese itself, draining the warm milk tones from its flesh.  The cleanly cut wedge resembles a marbled stone; but the scents wafting up from the plate breach this imagery, too.  The cheeses to the left of the jam progress in pungency from the mildly sweet quadrello, to the salty pecorino noce, and end with the heady stink of the piquant gorgonzola.  The aroma is pungent, but not unpleasant – it’s like the smell of wood after a strong rain, that’s been put over a fire and begun to breathe a spicy smoke. 
I slip the knife down through the tangle of blue veins that stretch across the gorgonzola, and break off a corner.  The cheese gives way easily, and I spread the ragged knob across another crisp slice of toast.  This bite is bright and peppery, almost smoky, with the tingles of the cheese’s tang concentrated on the front of my tongue, and the olive oil’s peppery notes farther to the back.  The gorgonzola and olive oil come together and cover my palate with a smooth, almost buttery texture, only to be washed away by a sip of effervescent lemon soda.
Between bites, he and I talk about all the little pieces of our lives we’ve missed.  It’s been months since we last spoke – but we always just seem to pick up where we left off.  We’ve met here before, at The Purple Pig, as a halfway point between us.  We’re sort of regulars now.  It’s our spot, we say.  There’s a parallel between the small plates of food and these conversations we share that makes it a lovely meeting place. 
I crack the pecorino into shards and pop one into my mouth, chewing thoughtfully, listening to him describing his apartment next year.  In Evanston, he says, there’s a law that no more than three people can occupy an apartment; since at some point in the town’s history, apparently, it was full of brothels.  Thus, the law was created to abolish them – but for some reason it’s still in effect, centuries later, as a college town.  There aren’t any brothels around anymore that I know of, he jokes, and giggling with him I describe my own apartment for next year.  Five people will be living there, oh the scandal! 
We burst out laughing when our waitress is coming by with our stuffed olives.  At the same time, the bus boy whisks away our cheese plate, empty if not for scattered crumbs and sticky streaks of jam.  The two move together as continuations of one another, with one arm sweeping down to set the small cobalt bowl upon the table, and the other swiftly scooping up the plate behind her.  My eyes wander away from my friend for a moment, as I watch them both leave in unison, and then return to his face. 
We each pick up an olive with our fingertips, making sure to sweep it through the garlic aioli.  I taste the aioli first, redolent with garlic and savory olive oil, before I break through the fried crust.  I feel the crunch, then the firm olive beneath.  Its strong brininess compliments these deep, rich flavors, and is an extension in flavor of the salty chorizo inside.  The paprika and subtle spiciness of this filling creates a cohesive, delicious bite.
We went to high school together, and our friendship has grown even deeper since we came to Chicago for college.  Even though we see each other far less often than we used to, I feel like I know him better now than I did before.  We both ended up in Cambridge last summer for internships, too.  Somehow fate manages to bring us together, if only for the occasional cup of coffee or dinner.  And we talk about everything: old friendships, new enemies, personal drama, breakups, my adventures to Starbucks without him, the compliments he’s gotten on the shoes I helped him pick out the last time we were together.  We reminisce about high school, and how different Chicago is from New Hampshire, or even how different Evanston is from Hyde Park.  We gossip and joke about our classmates, our families, and ourselves.  We dream about the future, about what we want to do with our lives – or at least the things we want to do next quarter. 
It’s not hard to dream with him, or to lean on him when I need support, or to discuss the deep dark secret things with him.  That’s a wonderful, happy kind of freedom to share with another person, and the reason why we have these meals.


Agnolotti duck confit, foie gras, truffle butter
Rustic lasagna wild mushrooms, tomato, smoked mozzarella
Goat cheese cheesecake fig jam, meyer lemon, pine nuts, fresh mint gelato
Rhubarb Tiramisu mascarpone, rhubarb mousse, roasted rhubarb, candied fennel

Two white porcelain bowls are set down quietly before us.  The faint clatter of glasses against tabletops, and twittering of women’s voices a few tables away from us, sparkle in the background while we converse softly.  In the darkening grey light, floating in from the windows that stretch high above us up to the ceiling, the bowls seem to become grey themselves, and almost transparent.  The softness of the lighting renders a kind of mirage at the edges, blurring the distinctions between bowl and tablecloth, tablecloth and napkin. 
Gingerly my fingertips unfold the napkin, with its perfect creases pressed into the fabric, and lay it across my lap.  I brush the hair from my face and tuck the loose strands behind my ear, twisting one section round and round my index finger until it bounces away, and my hand falls into my lap again.  I pick up the pristine fork and pierce the first layers of the vegetable lasagna in my bowl – sauce, pasta, mushrooms, ricotta cheese – and sink the tines further into the flesh. 
Each stratum is delicate, so thin like sheets of paper, and seemingly held to its neighbors by the mere chance that some breeze would sweep them up, and nestle them together this way.  The forkful is light and lush at once, with the silken ricotta cheese whipped into ethereal clouds among the toothsome layers.  The ricotta’s simple, pure flavor of cream rounds out the tangy sweetness of the tomatoes and the deep earth tones of the mushrooms, barely caramelized at the edges and redolent with oregano and sage. 
He offers me a bite from his bowl.  I take up one of the tiny, plump pillows of agnolotti and place it carefully in my mouth.  The sauce of black truffle butter that clings to the pasta slips away and onto my tongue, with an overarching earthiness bolstered by sweet, herbaceous undertones.  My teeth tear open the pasta and plunge into the smooth filling of foie gras and duck confit.  This is the height of richness: specially fattened liver, tasting faintly like butter, folded into duck meat that’s been poached in its own fat until it falls apart under the lightest pressure.  Despite the very nature of the dish’s principle elements, my bite is impossibly light, and the flavors dynamic, not simply a single note of richness. 
I wish I had a whole big bucket of this.  He extends his arms out widely and laughs.  I’m sure that if they’d brought him a vat of these agnolotti, he would’ve eaten them all, too.  He was practically beaming – I haven’t seen him this happy about a meal in a while.  I cook for us often, and well I think, but never a dish so decadent as this.  It’s a pleasure to eat a meal that I don’t have the resources to make myself, since it takes away some of the joy of eating out. 
Still, I start to imagine how I could recreate this dish for him if I could afford all of the ingredients, how I could make a whole big bucket of them for him to munch on.  The truffle butter spurs my memory of the pretty little jar of black truffles that he bought me for my birthday last year, and how overjoyed I was.  I remember the first upscale restaurant we went to together, in Boston last summer, but I can’t recall its name.  We hadn’t been dating for very long, and being in a place like that had made me a little nervous to be impressive and funny and not to spill food all over myself.  I didn’t need to be nervous. 
I gaze at him across the table.  We hadn’t planned to eat somewhere fancy like this, so he’s wearing a grey sweatshirt and jeans.  He’s pushed the sleeves up to his elbows, which are planted against the table to support his chin that’s resting on his folded hands.  He gets lost in thought like this, and I hate myself for breaking the quiet of it – but I become curious, I want to know what’s holding his attention, and I selfishly want to know if it’s me.  Or else, I want him to share it with me. 
Tiny pricking butterflies tumble around in my stomach when he looks up at me again.  Even though we spend so much of our lives together, the butterflies still wake up sometimes like this when I look at him.  What are you thinking about?  The answer is often the same, nothing, and I often wonder if it’s true.  But I inevitably decide that it doesn’t matter, really – it’s his mind and I don’t have any right to know, and I love him anyway.

Little Goat Diner

Hash Browns shredded on the griddle, grumpy goat cheese
Reuben smoked corned beef, kimchi, kraut, cheese, special sauce, pretzel rye
Pork Belly Pancake scallion pancake, house hoisin, bok choy salad, ginger maple dressing
Blood Orange Meringue Pie

I lap up the remaining streaks of hoisin sauce and slivers of bok choy salad before leaning back and patting my tummy satisfactorily.  The dish had arrived at our booth minutes ago, with the crunchy scallion pancake flayed out across the wide plate and piled high with succulent strips of pork belly and an impressive pile of confettied salad.  The pancake was just the right thickness to add a toothsome, but not heavy, textural element, and its golden brown exterior crunched pleasantly between my teeth.  The surface was slathered with sticky-sweet hoisin that boldly balanced the fatty pork belly with its fermented tanginess, and intertwined with the bright sparkling flavor of the salad’s ginger maple vinaigrette.  Balancing the deep, rich flavors below it, the nettle of bok choy, carrots, and scallions was a cold contrast to hot pancake. 

He sliced it in half down the middle and slid my portion toward me.  We both picked up our half-moons like tacos, folding the side inward to contain the other components, and we held them down low to our plates to prevent the juices from running down our arms.  When the waiter came over to check on us, he seemed surprised that we’d eaten them this way: Wow, I’ve never seen anyone hold it like that before!  That’s a really good idea.  We chuckled with him as he whirled away from us to the next table.  How else were we supposed to eat it?
Now our forks descend upon the miniature blood orange meringue pie between us.  Its crust is a rich brown that compliments the peachy-pink curd, flushed with orange, and finished with a flourish of white meringue.  The thin edges of the cookie crumb crust crumble as I cut away a small wedge and raise it to my lips.  Its incredibly bright tartness rushes over my taste buds, my mouth puckering in surprise before the sweeter citrus tones emerge to assuage it. 
The honey notes of the crust and its crunchy texture break through the luscious, thick filling; then the springy meringue comes through, too, with a sensation of airiness.  A pleasant chewiness from the meringue creates an interesting textural effect, highlighted by its toasty peaks that attracted too much of the blowtorch’s flame.  We mutter some praise about how good the pie is as we both dig in for another bite, but we don’t talk much more until only cookie crumbs are left.

I get my weakness for dessert from him.  In the back corner of the local grocery store, next to the swinging doors marked For Employees Only, there’s a section of shelves for reduced price bakery items.  Oftentimes he’d return home from grocery shopping with one of the reduced price lemon meringue pies, or with a blueberry one if he were lucky.  I’ve never been sure why he only bought these things from the reduced price shelves – we could afford the extra dollar or whatever for a fresh one, or I could certainly make one if we got the ingredients.  Maybe it was the initial enticement of the bargain, a justification to buy the pie at all. 
Now, when I see lemon meringue pie, I think of him setting his prize out on the corner of the counter where we all could see it.  But putting it in the corner made it seem as if it were hidden, so the rest of us knew to leave it alone.  Although, I won’t say there weren’t occasional finger marks visible across the bottom of the pie tin.
It’s hard not to reminisce when we have meals like this, just the two of us.  But there’s a lot of talking about the future, too: where I should be applying for internships, the kinds of work experience I should be getting now as an undergrad, how we’re going to need to pack up the house once someone finally buys it.  I don’t particularly enjoy planning for near-future events – I like to dream about the things way off into the future, because it’s not really planning, it’s just imagining – so these kinds of conversations generally stress me out. 
So we don’t stray very far from the topic of food, the recipes I’ve made recently that I didn’t write posts about, or restaurants we should go to some other time.  While he’s more of a meat and potatoes person than I am, he’s had a pretty significant effect on my food preferences, especially comfort food-wise.  He’s also the one who taught me how to cook. 
            When I was little, I used to sit at the counter while he cooked for Russian Easter. He plucked the Joy of Cooking from our bookshelf and leafed through its pages, in which Grandma Z’s recipe cards were tucked away.  Sometimes he explained his methods to me while he cooked.  Heating the milk and butter together keeps the batter from getting lumpy. 
I nodded and furrowed my eyebrows.  Most times he didn’t say anything at all, and I would just watch him moving about the kitchen.  The blintz, crepes stuffed with a sweet cottage cheese mixture, involved the most interesting and tedious process.  The pan he makes them in, too, is something of a family heirloom, handed down from my grandmother. 
One night, he brought me over to the stove.  The first four crepes always turn out wrong.  The pan has to come to temp, and you have to get the amount of batter just right – just enough to coat the bottom, but not so thin that the crepe rips.  Make sure you have plenty of butter.
I dropped a pat of butter into the bottom.  He handed me the bowl of batter and a measuring cup, saying, Use this.  It needs a little less than a quarter cup.
I poured batter into the blintz pan.  He held my other wrist, teaching me how to tilt the handle just right.  We coated the aluminum with a thin, even layer of batter.  It’ll only take a minute or so.  You can’t walk away.   You have to watch it.  See how it doesn’t stick?  He swirled the crepe round and round.  They don’t make pans like this anymore.  He picked up a corner of the crepe and peaked at its golden brown bottom.  You have to feel when it’s done.  There’s no more loose batter, and it didn’t get too brown.  You’ll know from experience.
I’ve since taken over some Russian Easter duties, when I’m able to make it home for the celebration.  Someday, I’ll host it, when he doesn’t want to do it himself anymore.  But until then, I’ll be around to take fingerfuls of his lemon meringue pie when he’s not watching.