July 31, 2004

To those of you who read Thursday’s post with trepidation, wondering if this was the wave of the future for PTMYB, please feel free to breathe deeply and relax with a beverage.  I am over what was ailing me, and while normally I am embarrassed when I commit such fits of pique, I can’t say I regret this one, simply because your comments were all so good.  To Owen and ‘mouse...guys, we’ll talk.

Snowball has asked me if it’s true:  Can beets be made palatable?  Yes, dear, it’s true, it’s true!  (I am hearing that line as delivered by Madeline Kahn.) I am one of those depraved individuals who really likes beets in all their manifestations, save for the nasty canned made-for-school-cafeterias versions that kept me from eating beets as a youngster.  I like them raw, shredded into seasoned Greek yogurt; I like them roasted and poached and braised.  I like them in borscht, hot or cold.  I like them pureed into soups.  I like them pickled, suspended in a wine vinegar and tarragon brine with hard-boiled eggs, and I love how the beet dyes the egg whites hot pink and renders the yolks an even more brilliant shade of yellow.  Most of all, though, I like them in pasta sauce, specifically this one.

The starting point of this recipe was Beets with Angel Hair Pasta from More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.  Ms. Colwin’s recipe calls for beets, cut into dice and sauteed in olive oil with garlic and hot pepper flakes until just tender; when the beets are ready, you add about 1/2 cup of chicken broth and simmer for a few minutes.  Boil your angel hair, grate some cheese, chop some parsley, turn your sauce into a bowl, drain your pasta and add it to the sauce and stir until everything is lurid pink.  Add parsley and cheese, mix them through, serve it forth.

I made this dish about 500 times over a ten-year period, sticking to “juicy, early-summer beets,” as Ms. Colwin advised.  In general, the only variation I made was to vary the chicken broth, normally relying on chicken stock from the freezer, but occasionally just picking up a pint of broth from the nice Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood.  Once, and only once, in a moment of bad planning, did I use canned chicken broth, and once, and only once, did the whole dish taste just terrible.  Eventually, though, I found myself varying the beets, the seasonings, the quantity of broth, the length of the cooking time, until I came up with something that, while not quite as easy as Ms. Colwin’s, is still pretty much a doddle, and tastes wonderful.

Of course you know I can’t just give you a recipe.  No, I have to rabbit on a bit about details…

Because this sauce is a bit more robust than Ms. Colwin’s original, I like to use something thicker than angel hair.  I am a fan of plain old spaghetti, and it works well here.

It really does make a difference to use the best chicken stock that you can find.  I have upped the quantity of stock and increased the cooking time, so the flavors of the stock will become concentrated, and if your broth is full of additives and artificial taste enhancers, they will only taste stronger in the finished sauce.  If you are a vegetarian, you can certainly use vegetable stock.  I have done it and it works nicely, although I would stir in a few tablespoons of olive oil into the sauce right before you add the pasta.  I have never tried using plain water, but if the thought of bothering with broth exhausts you, by all means, try it and see if you like it (and let me know how it works).

The common red beet is very good in this sauce, and it will be the easiest to find, but my favorite beet for this is the Chioggia striped beet, which I get at the Greenmarket.  Chioggia beets have fuchsia skins and candy-cane-colored flesh, overall white with deep pink concentric rings.  When you cook them, the color fades and dissipates, which is a shame, because they’re so pretty raw.  If you cook them in vegetable stock, the flesh turns white; in chicken stock, it turns a deep gold.  You can also use something called golden beets, which produces a sauce so brilliantly-colored that people will swear that you put a little turmeric in the mix.

Although it’s not part of Ms. Colwin’s recipe, I never make this anymore without fresh marjoram.  I don’t remember how I arrived at this conclusion, probably by just noodling around (if you’ll pardon the pun), but there is something about marjoram that just pulls this sauce together for me.  The best way to describe its aroma is a cross between citrus and dust.  It sounds weird, if not outright horrible, but honestly, it smells grand, and tastes even better.  On a whim one night I threw some extra marjoram sprigs into the boiling water for the pasta, and the resulting pasta had a depth of flavor that made me smile.

Because the sauce is rich, you may want to taste it before adding grated cheese, but if you like cheese, or if the sauce could use a little salt, then do add it in.

Enough finger-wagging.  It’s time to boil water.

Spaghetti with Beet Sauce
Serves 2

2 tablespoons olive oil
4-5 smallish beets, about 2” in diameter
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
pinch dried hot pepper flakes, or 1 dried bird chile
2-4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (If you use the smaller amount of stock, you will be braising the beets; if you use the larger, you will be boiling them.  Either way is perfectly acceptable.  The larger quantity will yield a more flavorful sauce, but it will take longer to reduce and will steam up your kitchen.  Once again, it all comes down to what works best for you.)
about 6-8 sprigs fresh marjoram
1/2 pound spaghetti
salt and pepper
grated Parmigiano, grana or Pecorino Romano cheese (optional)

Fill a pasta pot or stockpot with water and heat to boiling.

Heat a saucepan or Dutch oven (I use enameled cast iron), add the olive oil and heat through.  Add the beets and saute gently.  When the beets just begin to get tender, add the garlic and hot pepper.  If your stock is unseasoned, add a bit of salt to the vegetables.  Strip the leaves off half the marjoram stalks.  Add the stock and the marjoram leaves, bring to a boil and let reduce to about 2/3 cup.  The stock will be thick and syrupy and the beets will be shiny.

When the pasta water comes to a boil, salt it, add the pasta and throw in the other half of the marjoram sprigs.  (If you tie them together before you throw them in, you are spared the joy of picking hot marjoram sprigs out of boiling-hot spaghetti when everything is done.)

At this point, you can either serve the sauce as is, or you can puree it in a blender.  I like this pureed.  Either way, decant the sauce into a bowl, drain the pasta and add to the sauce, fish out the marjoram stalks, and stir until the pasta is evenly sauced.  Add cheese if you like it, leave it off if you don’t.

Posted by Bakerina at 06:31 PM in incoherent ravings about food • (0) Comments
July 30, 2004

Warning:  The following is a whiny, ranty little interstitial.  If you came here looking for a funny story or a nice recipe for dinner, one or both will be back in this space tomorrow, I promise.  Feel free to come back then, if whiny rants are not your cup of tea.

5:30 p.m.  I am walking down Park Avenue, headed for Grand Central and the 7 train.  Several hundred of my fellow desk monkeys are making the same trek.  Because I have lost just enough weight for my clothes to be too big, but not enough weight to take the next smaller size, I cut something of a shapeless figure.  I am also peaky and drawn, the result of a bad day at the box factory, and of a job interview that I thought would get me out of the box factory but turned out to be for a temp gig.  I am ready to be home.

Just ahead of me are two guys, another pair of midtown investment-banking hotshots, alpha dogs from the gym, target markets for luxury consumer goods, dressed expensively.  About 20 feet in front of them is a woman who, even without seeing her face, I can tell is a knockout:  dressed in a crisp lilac blouse and form-fitting tweed skirt, curvy with muscles, like a dancer, high heels, ankle bracelet, shiny hair the color of toffee pouring down her back.  If I were a straight man or a gay woman, I would probably be in paroxysms of lust, but as I am not, I can only appreciate her in a detached way:  my, how pretty.

The woman is walking briskly, with purpose, the commuters’ walk.  The guys are ambling, deep into the stories they are telling each other, the walk-to-the-pub walk.  Since I have a train to catch, I pick up my pace and thus find myself positioned between the guys and the woman. I am not aware that I have blocked their view of her, as I am still deep in thought over the various stray nonsenses of the day.

“Now *that* is a crying shame,” I hear one of the guys say.  I think that he’s describing part of the story that I missed, until I hear the other guy snort, “Dude, that’s not cool.” Naahh, it couldn’t be.  “What?,” the first guy says?  “It’s not like she can hear us.” I should keep walking, but instead I look over my shoulder at them.  They look surprised and, fleetingly, guilty for having been caught out.  I know that the proper response is either a Myrna-Loy-worthy witty riposte or a withering assessment of their alleged genitalia.  The proper response is not to hunch my shoulders and hurry off guiltily even though I haven’t done anything wrong, but that’s what I do.

I know that appearances and surfaces are misleading, that other people have problems about which I have no idea.  I shouldn’t make snap judgments about these guys, any more than they should make assumptions about me.  Nevertheless, I do.  I wonder what it feels like to be a guy like that:  a guy who moves effortlessly through life, assuming that obstacles will fall away at his whim and desire, a guy who has no problem commenting loudly and publicly about the bodies of women he doesn’t know, a guy who has never found it necessary to scurry through a crowd, slouched and apologetic, angry at himself for the apology.

Edit: Snowball and I were just discussing the following puzzle:  Why is it that when the people we love (this is the universal “we”, not just me and Snow) , be they spouses, lovers, friends or family, tell us that we’re beautiful, we practically make them sign affidavits before we’ll believe them, but when a complete stranger tells us we’re ugly, we believe them without question?  Feel free to add your insights to the comments.  Best answer wins a prize, something homemade and lovely and full of stuff from the farmers’ market.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:55 AM in anger is an energy • (4) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
July 29, 2004

As Public Image never sang, but should have, this is not a pie blog, this is not a pie blog, this is not a pie blog.  But maybe it should be, at least for the summer and the early part of fall, when apples are in season...or at least through Thanksgiving, when we can share pumpkin pie recipes...or Christmas, for the mince pies...or maybe through the winter, when I can try the white bean pie recipe that just presented itself to me...aw, hell.  Any time of the year is right for pie.

There is bad pie news this week.  The intrepid travelers, testers and writers at Want Pie Now! have shut their blog down, noting with sadness that life is too hectic for pie right now.  But there is good news, too.  I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that once-and-future-guestblogger goliard has moved pop culture ate my brain (am I the only one who hears They Might Be Giants’ “Youth Culture Killed My Dog” every time they read that title?  Don’t worry, g, it’s a compliment!) from Blogger to TypePad on the exact same week she has expanded her baking horizons to include pie crust.  I am waiting with bated breath to hear how that blueberry pie turns out.  I also have been receiving charming missives from one of my boyfriends at one of my old stomping grounds; he is hosting friends from Poland in a couple of days and wants to welcome them with a good old-fashioned cherry pie.  Considering that it is getting harder to find restaurants and diners that actually make from scratch the pies they serve, and considering that too many home cooks and bakers still fear that pie crust is beyond their ken, it’s good to find people who face that fear, look it square in the eye, and then roll up their sleeves and start mixing flour and fat, fruit and sugar and thickener.  Whenever someone tells me “oh, I can’t make pie, I have a dysfunctional relationship with pie dough!  It hates me!,” I tell them the story of the time my mother took a baking class with Carole Walter.  (Disclosure:  I know Carole through the New York Association of Culinary Professionals, formerly the New York Association of Cooking Teachers, who awarded me a scholarship when I was in culinary school.) Carole is the author of Great Cakes Great Pies and Tarts and Great Cookies, a great teacher and a class act.  Mom took Carole’s pie and tart class.  She went in feeling anxious and came out with the most perfect, beautiful apple pie I’d ever seen.  Apparently the class was full of anxious would-be pie-bakers, furrowed-browed, convinced that they had dysfunctional relationships with pie crust.  Carole took one look around the room and said, “Just remember, you have one big advantage here.  You have a brain.  Pie crust doesn’t.” Laughter all around.  Brows unfurrowed.  Pastry cloths were unfolded and dusted with flour.  Pie crusts were rolled into perfect circles.

Of course there will be pie at Chez LloydnRina’s this weekend.  I am flirting with baking another cherry pie, simply because the season is short, but I’m also flirting with refining the nectarine and basil pie I made last weekend at my parents’ house.  Shortly after arriving in Eureka, I treated myself to this shmancy aromatherapy cologne spray fragranced with basil oil and nectarine essence.  It smelled so good that it made me wonder if the combination would taste as good as it smelled.  Of course, I knew that there would be no way to bake whole basil leaves into a pie filling without spooking the heck out of anyone who would want to eat it.  I decided to take a cue from Claudia Fleming, who includes a recipe for tarragon syrup in The Last Course:  The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern.  I picked some basil leaves out of my mom’s garden, blanched them, chopped them in the Cuisinart and gradually added some concentrated sugar syrup I’d made.  Too bad I forgot to add a crystallization inhibitor like lemon juice or cream of tartar when I made the sugar syrup, because the resulting syrup turned a bit cloudy in the Cuisinart.  As if this didn’t unnerve me enough, I cut open the nectarines we bought at a farmstand; some of them were ripe, but some of them were still green-fleshed.  I did not have high hopes for this pie, but the result was quite nice:  a buttery, flaky crust, a pale pink, tart filling, a subtle flavor that suggests basil but does not overwhelm the flavor of the fruit.  It can only get better, I think, if I get my hands on some properly ripe fruit.

Of course, I could have made a pie with the four little half-pints of wild blueberries I found at the Greenmarket today.  I have been reading about wild blueberries for years, about how superior they are to the cultivated kind, even the locally-grown, seasonal, cultivated kind, but I figured I’d never have access to them.  I kept them wrapped up in the plastic bags in which the farmer tied them up, but en route home, the bags slipped on their sides, the blueberries spilled into the bags, and a few of them were crushed and releasing juices.  When I got home, I emptied everything into a big bowl, shook about 1/3 cup sugar over them, and left them to macerate (a shmancy word that translates to “shake sugar over fruit and let it sit until more juice runs out") while Lloyd and I ate our beans and cornbread.  After dinner I whipped some of the cream I brough home from the dairy near my folks’ house and folded in some of the berries and juice:  voila, instant blueberry fool.  Now I have the equivalent of a pint and a half of wild blueberries and syrup.  What shall I do with them?  More blueberry fool?  Blueberry shortcakes?  Bumbleberry pie, achieved by adding raspberries and blackberries and thickener?  Something completely different I have not even begun to consider?

And just because I can’t resist gloating:  I got my marjoram today.  There will be pasta and beet sauce after all.  A recipe will be posted, yes.  smile

Posted by Bakerina at 12:37 AM in incoherent ravings about food • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
July 28, 2004

What, more Tales Out of Eureka? you may ask.  Why?  Because, dear friends, it took all of three days for New Yorkerness to worm its way back into my bloodstream, but it was my own damn fault.  The Saturday after I’d returned home, I made my first trip to the farmers’ market, hell-bent for cherries for the Cherry Pie On Purpose.  Usually when I go to the market, I make a pass around the whole market, look at everything and then decide where to stop.  As I was making the pass, I checked out the herb farmers’ stand.  I spied a little bundle of marjoram, always a rare treat at the market. Few people grow it, and those who do sell out fast.  Yes, yes, yes, I thought.  I had $1.50 in quarters somewhere at the bottom of my bag, the bag that’s much too large to function as a purse, and yet I stubbornly insist on using it as a purse.  I could have just snagged the marjoram and then rooted around the bottom of the bag like a truffle pig for my quarters, but no, I decided to hit the ATM and then pick up my eggs before the line formed at the egg stand.  I returned to the herb stand just in time to see some wiry frenetic little line-cook-looking guy holding my marjoram, not even putting it discreetly into his backpack; no, he has to gesture with it as he casually drops the name of a hotshot chef for whom he worked at a now-defunct swanky Upper East Side restaurant.  I was *this* close to saying to him, look, whatever you want to do with that marjoram, it’s not nearly as good as the spaghetti with golden beet sauce that I’d planned to make with it, so please kindly give it up, already.

Saturday, June 19: I’ve spent a lot of non-writing time poking around Eureka.  Before I left, one of my office buddies sent me some stuff she found online about Eureka, including a list of catchy travel slogans:  “The hole in the Bible Belt where your buckle goes.” “The place where the misfits fit.” And my favorite, “America’s Largest Open-Air Asylum.” I’m sure that “asylum” is used in the context of the curative waters that bubble from the springs here, but I like the other context, too, the notion of a bunch of wacksters wandering about in the open air.  This is definitely the place you come to if you are too eccentric, too political, too gay, too angry, too anything, for the rest of Arkansas.  It is so beautiful here, so peaceful and charming and rife with its own brand of eccentricity, but I do wonder about Eureka.  I wonder what it’s like here in the off-season, especially in the deep-winter months when the town shuts down.  I wonder if the town takes on Shining-like tendencies.  I wonder how all these bed & breakfasts and antique shops and tchotchke shops and art galleries, all piled on top of each other, do enough business to survive the off-season.  I wonder how any of these businesses survive.  Do the women who run Gazebo Books, or the couple that run the hot sauce store, or the various artists, artisans and gallery owners really make enough money to keep themselves and their store alive, or is there an independent income somewhere paying the bills?  Do people work other jobs in the off-season that end up paying for their keep the rest of the year?

Some other things I’ve noticed about Eureka:  There are no stoplights anywhere.  Not even on the highway, at the 62-23 junction.  I was trying to figure out what was weird about the traffic in town, other than the fact that it crawls up and down a mountain.  Today it hit me:  no traffic lights.  I haven’t seen a traffic light since Tuesday, when I flew into XNA and proceeded through a series of winding backroads to the corporate-park behemoth built for the care and feeding of Wal-Mart business travelers.  I haven’t seen a red light since about 9:45 a.m. on Tuesday morning.  What I have seen are tourists.  I’ve been seeing them all week, of course, but today was—dare I say it?—zoolike.  This may be odd coming from someone who goes home via Grand Central Terminal every night, but I’ve become accustomed to a certain amount of tourist foot traffic during the past few days, and to suddenly see it quadruple is a surprising thing indeed.  Everyone sounds like they’re from Oklahoma or Texas.  Everyone.

Saturday afternoon weirdness:  I’m waiting for the trolley, looking at the massive massive unbelievably tall trees, taller than anything I remember from childhood, when I hear engines roaring down the road from the Crescent Hotel.  It’s a collectible car parade, drivers of collectible cars flanked by police cruisers.  Why in the world is Utah State Patrol on this parade?  I don’t know.  Drivers wave, sirens cut through the air.  One guy in what looks to be a collectible police cruiser flings hard candy and lollipops out the window, crying gleefully, “Have some candy, hee-hee!” He sounds so exuberant that I just smile back and ignore the fact that hard candy hurts like a son of a bitch when it hits you in the shins.

Tuesday, June 22: It’s nice to get back into a cooking rhythm.  I didn’t do a whole lot of cooking before I left home.  The Italian deli was my friend, as was the Greek local, as was our friend spaghetti with parmigiano and black pepper for Lloyd and spaghetti with butter and nutmeg for me.  One of the drawbacks of being a cook is that your friends tend to assume it’s an automatic love fest between you and your pots.  Admit that you are too distracted or disorganized or angry to do so much as boil an egg, and said friends look at you in shock.  “You?  You don’t want to cook?” as if I’d suggested a nice night of throwing babies off the roof.

Since I’ve been down here, though, I’ve been taking advantage of this monster kitchen, that which is bigger than my whole apartment.  Most of the other rooms have rustic setups at best and tiny hotplates at worst, so we are invited to take advantage of the main kitchen to cook.  We are also invited to write down anything we want to eat on the board on the fridge, and the staff will get it for us, but I’m still a bit shy about doing that.  Short of the stuff for the demo, the only thing I have asked them to buy for me is a 5-pound bag of all-purpose flour.  I’ve been laying in my own supplies, mostly because I just like food shopping and relish the opportunity to go somewhere new.  I am a cheap date for the Colony.

Since I am carless, a grocery trip involves a bit of a palaver.  I walk into town (or take the trolley, but today I walked), head down to the depot and wait for a blue trolley.  Ideally I would take a yellow trolley, as that’s the shortest trip to the market, but a trip on the yellow trolley involves trying to cross Highway 62 on foot, a nerve-wracking prospect when you consider that there are no stoplights anywhere in or near Eureka.  So I get on the blue trolley and settle in for a ride around the Great Passion Play.  It is easy to be lulled into the town’s oddball, vaguely hippie sensibility (with a dose of redneck-acceptable t-shirts for the tourists), so it is a bit of a shock to head up to the Passion Play, where you realize that yes, this is still the Bible Belt.  There are ads for Christian bookstores all over the highway.  There is an ad for an attraction called “Covenant Garden:  Plants of the Bible.” There is another ad for something called “The Bart Rockett Show:  Christian Entertainment for All Ages!  Ventriloquism!  Illusion!  Exotic Animals!” There are churches who wear their Baptist and Pentecostal hearts on their sleeves.  High Episcopalians, they are not.

Eventually the bookstores and Passion Play signs fall away, and we are back on Highway 62, zipping past dollar stores and barbecue pits and something called Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down (it looks to be a grange hall with proper acoustics for bluegrass music and square dancing), funky little inns and motor lodges, all taking advantage of Eureka’s status as “Switzerland of the Ozarks,” places to buy odd collections of junk, as well as ice cream and fudge.  Eventually I see the sign reading “Hart’s” and I yank on the cord.  Here is the trifecta of my grocery-shopping experience.  First stop is Bill’s Pharmacy for eggs, the eggs which sent me into such raptures last week.  I pick out two dozen.  If I hadn’t bought some stopgap eggs at Eureka Market on Saturday, after Bill’s was closed, I’d have bought three dozen.  The saleswoman and I chat about eggs.  She and her husband keep some chickens, which provide them with three eggs a day.  She can’t abide the taste of eggs, but her husband thinks she would come around if she tried their birdies’ eggs.  I know that egg loathing is a delicate thing, so I don’t press her.  From Bill’s, I walk over to Hart’s, the supermarket, for lemons to start the lemon curd experiments.  I need sugar, so I pick some up, noting with surprise that there are no 5-pound bags of sugar, like there are at home.  2-pound, check, 4-pound, 10-pound, 25-pound, yep, yep, yep, but no 5-pound.  4 will do, thanks.  I walk past a display of Bush’s Baked Beans, and the bell rings:  Beans and cornbread.  So of course I have to backtrack to dairy, to pick up a quart of buttermilk, and what’s this?  Mississippi sorghum, put up by some guy named Bobby Bryan.  What the hell.  And hey!  Black walnuts, shelled for my baking pleasure!  My bag is now so heavy that any thought of walking back to the Colony with my groceries is right out.

Since I know it will be a two-trolley ride home, I stop at Eureka Market, where I pick up some vegan margarine and a box of egg replacement for the famous vegan lemon curd experiment. I also snag the last pint of local raspberries, so perfectly formed that they almost look like candy imitations of raspberries, not the real thing.  They are the real thing, though, and I am at a loss for what to do with them.  Raspberry cake?  Raspberry fool?  Or just plain, perfect Raspberries As Is?  Enough, I tell myself on the ride back to the depot on the blue trolley, and back to the Colony on the red.  Enough with the food raptures.  This is fine, until I get inside and unpack my groceries.  The new eggs, they are Araucanas, blue-shelled, green-shelled, pinky-beige-shelled, and they practically glow with promise.



Posted by Bakerina at 12:37 AM in stuff and nonsense • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
July 26, 2004

Dear friends,

Apologies, apologies.  Tonight I had planned to share a few hundred words about my weekend pie-baking adventures, with a possible foray into something serious.  Unfortunately, I find myself being thwarted by either my ethernet cable or the port into which it goes (or both), because said cable refuses to stay connected to said port.  At one point I actually had the cable wrapped around my neck because it was the only way I could keep it in the port.

Obviously, I can’t make this a regular way of life.  (All you groundlings out there crying “Please do!  And maybe step off a bench while you’re at it!”, why, thank *you*.) So with any luck, to say nothing of an investment in an airport, I will be joining the wireless club tomorrow—or at least I hope it’s tomorrow.  Bear with me, dear friends, please.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:28 AM in anger is an energy • (3) Comments
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