Thursday, September 30, 2010

Martha Stewart vs. Laurie Colwin

Reading Laurie Colwin's two food books, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, is like having a comfortable chat with your best friend. I read Home Cooking a few years ago and knew straight away that this was writing I liked a lot. Here was a woman who understood that grilling is a pain in the ass and that girls don't read Nancy Drew because they want a strong female role model but because they want to vicariously don sheath dresses with pumps and lunch in tea rooms.

It took me a while to get my hands on More Home Cooking because no library near me has it and I finally broke down and bought it. Like its predecessor, it's a collection of essays about food with recipes interspersed. She offers a fresh point of view--an essay about the liberation of cooking in a rented house, for example. Did you ever attempt to cook a meal in a rented house and discover that your only kitchen implements were a battered aluminum pot, two spoons, a lemon juicer, a chipped enamel strainer, a toast rack, a flour sifter with a wooden crank, and an electric griddle that was past its prime during the Eisenhower administration? And didn't you manage spectacular results? These are the things Laurie Colwin understands. She recognizes that one might thirst for elegance, but one also does not want to make a fuss. She gives a recipe for a cake that takes "four seconds" to prepare but then she tells you that making a proper chicken sandwich takes several hours. (You have to roast the chicken. You have to bake the right loaf of bread. You have to make your own mayonnaise.) She explains that the seemingly innocent turkey comes pre-stuffed with holiday angst.

Laurie Colwin presents cooking as a way to make people happy or nourish those who are suffering from a delicate condition such as jet lag. She wants food to be delicious but she doesn't want us to slave in the kitchen for it. She also shares her favorite cookbooks and I can't wait to track some of them down. I haven't yet tried any of the recipes in More Home Cooking, but if Laurie Colwin says they are delicious, I will take her word for it. Laurie Colwin is a sort of anti-Martha. She's funny, she's friendly, and if you have to substitute potatoes for parsnips or you omit the raisins because you hate them, well don't worry about it. Reading More Home Cooking is also very sad when you realize that Laurie Colwin died suddenly at the age of 48, shortly before this book was published. Its last line is: "I assure you that if you keep it simple, everything will turn out just fine."

A very different cookbook is Dinner at Home: 52 Quick Meals to Cook for Family and Friends by Martha Stewart. Martha is not very funny and not very friendly. If you think you can get away with substituting brandy for Cointreau, you can think again. Dinner at Home has several nice features. It's beautifully photographed. It's organized by season. It's presented as complete menus, a concept I find irresistible. Every menu comes with a time line, telling you what to prepare first and how to proceed. These are not the sort of meals you prepare for a family every night, but perhaps once a week when you have the day off and have time to really cook. The word "quick" in the title is deceptive. No single dish takes long to prepare, but I know from bitter experience that pulling together an entire menu takes at least an hour and a half and will use every bowl and pan you own.

The first menu I tried was the "Pancetta Cheeseburgers, Balsamic Mushrooms, Tomato, Basil, and White Bean Salad." It was only after I bought all the ingredients and started preparing this meal that I realized I was making tarted up bacon cheeseburgers. Martha's version calls for pancetta and fontina cheese. Please do not ever put pancetta on a hamburger. It is a ridiculous affectation and I can tell you with confidence that a burger topped with pancetta and fontina tastes no better than one topped with ordinary bacon and humble American cheese.

We tried several other menus and everything tasted good. My family enjoyed being served complete meals with side dishes and dessert rather than my usual dinner fare which Seamus labels generically "Casserole Surprise." (Or "Puke in a Pan" if he is feeling grumpy.) A particular hit were the cheese flautas--corn tortillas spread with a cilantro-pumpkin seed pesto, stuffed with grated cheese, rolled and fried. Since this is Martha, you have to buy "pepitas" which I assumed are pumpkin seeds, although she never enlightens you. I chose the tamari roasted pumpkin seeds from Integral Yoga and that pesto really had a zing. Almost every recipe calls for something special that you can't find at a regular supermarket.

I plan to return the book to the library today and last night we finished our spate of Martha meals with "Pasta Shards with Fresh Herbs, Poached Eggs with Brown Butter, Arugula and Avocado Salad, Tiramisu." Poached eggs and pasta, how easy is that? Not so easy, it turns out. By the time dinner was ready, my kitchen looked like I'd been conducting a cooking class for trolls. First the tiramisu, which I decided to make at the last minute, while I was at Target. Does Target carry mascarpone cheese? Does Target carry lady fingers? No and no. Martha says: "The Italian form of ladyfingers (called savoiardi) are only slightly sweet and fairly dry, so they are the best choice for this recipe." What kind of degraded society am I living in where I can't find mascarpone and savoiardi at my local Target? I decided to substitute cream cheese and little sugar cookie sticks, which worked out fine by the way--although I had dirtied a mixer bowl, a loaf pan, a casserole dish and a shallow bowl for dipping the cookies and I hadn't even started the dinner.

I had to make the brown butter which involved cooking some butter until it turned brown. ("What is that, moose saliva?" Brigid asked.) Setting the butter aside, I started a pot boiling for the pasta and another for the poached eggs. Slipping the eggs into the simmering water, I felt like I was making progress now. It became apparent that my kids had never seen poached eggs before. This was shocking to me. When I was growing up, you ate poached eggs on Sunday and that was the way it was. How could I have been so remiss in not passing this tradition on to my children? Anyway, eggs done, (Martha says, "...trim away rough edges with kitchen shears.") I transferred them to two platters lined with paper towels.

There was the problem of the pasta. For this recipe you are supposed to take lasagna noodles and break them into pieces. I only had the "no boil" variety of lasagna, and after consulting my facebook friends, decided that I had better not risk boiling it, so I went with regular ziti instead. In the photograph, the poached eggs look so lovely nestled in the lasagna bits, it killed me to use ziti. Trust Martha to invent a recipe for "pasta shards." Not unlike the shards from her stone cold heart.

Anyway, it was time to pay attention to the salad. The first step was to "combine oil and pine nuts in a medium skillet and cook over medium heat, tossing occasionally until nuts are golden brown..." Oh arse, I'd forgotten to buy the pine nuts. We could just skip the nuts. Moving on, it was now well after 7:00pm and we were starving. I tossed the arugula into a bowl, I shredded a carrot over it. I diced some red onion and threw that in too. My avocado had mysteriously frozen in the vegetable bin. I don't know, my fridge freezes vegetables sometimes. It's very annoying. I tossed the avocado in the trash. It was time to drain the pasta and then drizzle it with oil and hot pepper flakes and snip fresh herbs over it. That done, I put the finishing touch on the salad, which was to use a vegetable peeler and shave bits of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over it. I was supposed to make the dressing too, which involved the oil from the toasted pine nuts so I substituted something from a bottle.

At last, dinner was ready. All that remained was to gently reheat the poached eggs in the brown butter, only now the fragile eggs were stuck to the paper towels. I loaded each plate with pasta and salad. I coaxed the poached eggs, (not without breaking some yolks) two at a time into the brown butter and swirled them for a minute and scooped them out onto each person's pasta. My kids thought pasta and eggs was a crazy combination, but it turned out to be delicious.

The dish count:
1 mixer bowl + 1 beater + 1 spatula + 1 measuring cup
1 shallow dish, for dipping cookies into espresso, 1 espresso pot
1 loaf pan, which turned out to be the wrong size, forcing me to also use 1 small square casserole dish.
1 skillet for the brown butter
1 pan for the pasta
1 pan for the eggs + 1 slotted spoon + two small platters lined with paper towels (for 8 eggs)
1 large bowl for the salad
1 knife, 1 pair kitchen shears
1 vegetable peeler washed and used three times: to shred chocolate for the tiramisu, to shred the carrot, to shred the cheese for the salad
1 cutting board
assorted serving spoons

All for fucking pasta and eggs and salad.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Channeling my mom

I guess it's unusual to travel 500 miles to attend a bridal shower, but now that I work part time, I can do this sort of thing. And it gave me an excuse to visit Ian, who is well, although frustrated by a roommate who watches TV constantly.

Here is something that happened to Ian and me in Buffalo: We tried to get him a public library card-- something I thought would be simple and straightforward but turned out to be a process of Byzantine complexity. Oh sure, he can use the library at his school, but the Buffalo & Erie County Libraries is an excellent system. My chief amusement when we lived in Buffalo was to visit the downtown library every Saturday and stagger home with more books than I could carry. One memorable winter day when I was hugely pregnant with Grace, I was browsing in the new fiction when two-year old Brigid pointed a fat finger at a bald, bespectacled, big-nosed man and screamed, "MOMMY! MOMMY! I SEE GANDHI!"

Anyway, Ian and I presented ourselves at the circulation desk of the main library downtown with his student ID and his passport (he doesn't have a driver's license yet). The young man at the desk looked worried. He disappeared to consult his supervisor. "Student cards," he told us helpfully, "are the most complicated." We would need to provide a receipt for Ian's tuition. (Proof that we had "done business" in Erie County.) We would need to provide a copy of his current class schedule. (Proof that he really is a current student.) We would need to provide a copy of his dorm assignment. (Proof of a local address.) This is the modern age, all these documents were accessible on-line and this library doesn't require that you have a library card in order to use their computers. It took a little while to find a computer that was free and I had trouble with the printer,  and I accidentally wasted $0.10 making a photocopy of nothing, but eventually we were able to return to the circulation desk with all the proofs they required.

This time, we were called to the desk by a different employee. I said, "My son is a student at Canisius College but his permanent address is in Virginia. He would like a library card. Here is his student ID. Here is is passport. Here is proof that we paid his tuition. Here is a copy of his class schedule. Here is a copy of his dorm assignment." I laid each of these documents on the desk in front of her as I named them. She said, "Who told you that this was how you could get a library card?" I pointed to the young man who'd served us originally. "Oh, him," she said. "He's a newbie." Then she disappeared to consult her supervisor.

When she came out she said, "Is his permanent address listed on his passport?" Doh! We realized that passports do not list one's address. "But I have my driver's license," I said. "It has our current address on it. He lives with me." She said, "Is he 18?"  When I affirmed that he is, she said, "Sorry, no good." She went back to consult the supervisor again. It looked like we actually were going to be DENIED a library card.

It was clear that I needed supernatural help. I decided to channel my mom. My mother died many years ago, but when she was alive, public libraries were her personal cause. When Erie County threatened to close the branches in our town, she formed a grassroots group called "Citizens to Save the Libraries"--made up almost entirely of women-- and they did, indeed save the libraries. That was in the 1970s. If anyone could cut through all this red tape, it was her. I said a prayer to my mom. The library lady returned. She looked at us for a moment, somewhat abashed. Would she turn us away? Would we have to leave the library, defeated, $0.70 the poorer with nothing but a wasted hour and a pile of useless papers? The library lady's facial expression changed. She seemed to have come to a decision. "Well," she said, "I'm not really supposed to do this, but because I like you, I'll let you have a library card."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hair Apparent

Now I have a stealth ironer in the house. I will attempt to enter the bathroom and find all available space taken up by the fully extended ironing board, the still-warm iron attesting to an effort only recently abandoned. Which one of my family has become averse to wrinkles? Not Jon. He wears what are essentially pajamas to work every day, except Fridays when he gets to swan about in a lab coat which is permanently crumpled and stored somewhere at the hospital. When I ask the kids I get blank stares and shrugs and "I dunno." Perhaps it is one of the other random high school kids who populate my bathroom on weekday mornings, availing themselves of our hair straightener. Maybe one hair straightener is not enough and they are using my iron to straighten their hair. I should make them sign a release when they come over: THE UNDERSIGNED ACKNOWLEDGE THAT PATIENCE CRABSTICK, MR. CRABSTICK AND THEIR HEIRS ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY BURNS SUFFERED ON THE PREMISES.

Speaking of teens and hair, Seamus, my youngest, and the only "real" child in the house, is turning into an adolescent. He's eleven and in sixth grade, and has suddenly become obsessed with his appearance; his hair, in particular. He now demands "boy" shampoo. Boy shampoo, as defined by Seamus, comes in a tube rather than in a bottle. Okay, I can buy shampoo in tubes, although there seems to be a 200% markup on tubed shampoo. Whatever. Seamus even insisted that we provide boy shampoo for Ian at school, even though Ian himself shows zero interest in hair products and would wash his own hair with drano or maple syrup if that was what happened to be in the shower with him. Seamus' current hairstyling system is to mash it all down flat on his forehead with his fingers, turn his head slightly to the left and then sweep it dramatically to the right, causing his hair to swirl about his head a la Justin Bieber. No amount of haranguing will dissuade him from going for the Justin Bieber look. We had this conversation yesterday:

Seamus: Mom, Miss L doesn't like me.

Me: Who's Miss L?

Seamus: She's my English teacher! (Whoops. Bad mother for not already having my children's collective nineteen teachers' names memorized--and that doesn't include Ian's professors.)

Me: How do you know she doesn't like you?

Seamus: Because today I was doing this--demonstration of the hair-mashing, head sweeping thing--and she said, "Seamus! This is English class, not hair class!"

Me: Maybe you shouldn't mess with your hair during class.

Seamus: But we weren't even learning anything!

Monday, September 06, 2010

House, uncensored

I'm ashamed to admit that we have already expanded to fill the space that Ian vacated when he left for school. Not, of course, that he doesn't still have a home here for summers or holidays, or a post-college job hunt, but with almost indecent haste, I threw away most of the clothes he left behind (he told me I could) and listed his unwanted books for sale on Amazon. Seamus (Mr. McP) and I went to the paint store and I let him pick some new paint for his room. He chose a leafy green, a bit intense for my taste, but the color is sanctioned by pottery barn. I thoroughly cleaned the room (and found the last, sticky remnants of the moonshine mash stuck to the floor in a dark corner.) The room is now a crisp green and white and Seamus has moved into the bottom bunk until Ian returns for Christmas. (The school is too far for him to get home for Thanksgiving, so he will spend it with relatives up there.)

I miss Ian horribly, but I don't miss the tortilla chip crumbs in my desk drawer.

Speaking of cleaning, I found pictures of my house on my camera. The kids must have taken them, for whatever reason. It occurred to me that whenever I put a picture of my house on the internet I have picked up any mess so as to give the impression that I live in a clean house. Now, I give you my house, uncensored. If you dare to put up uncensored pics of your own living space, let me know.

Crap all over the floor of sun room + hideous chair that Jon dragged home from thrift shop
My unmade bed, with Jon's hideous Buddhist art thumb tacked to the wall. (I freaking HATE Buddhist "art." Jon stumbled across a Tibetan monk in Rome and now we have the distinction of having brought to America the single ugliest piece of art in all of Italy.)
The girls' unmade bed.
Ian & Seamus' room (before Ian moved out)
We are constantly dropping things over the landing and breaking the lamp that sits on the desk below. We have destroyed at least five desk lamps in this manner.

Shoe disaster.

Kitchen disaster.

Dining room disaster.

Note the classy roll of toilet paper on the computer desk--the desk that is usually full of tortilla chip crumbs.
It looks just like a Pottery Barn catalog, no?