WE THE PEOPLE

I just got back from three jam-packed days in our nation’s capital.  Me, sixty-four eighth graders, and five other chaperones.  So this post isn’t about food, I’m afraid.  It’s about patriotism and belief.


D.C. holds a powerful chunk of nostalgia and memory for me, each visit powerful and distinct in its own right, layering my connections and attachment, building a kind of claim, piling on my own personal rituals.  Like many of my students, I encountered Washington for the first time as an eighth grader, earnest and eager and pretty well awestruck.  I cried when I heard Taps played at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; I read the speeches carved into the Lincoln Memorial aloud to myself.  I’ve done both on every subsequent visit, too. 


As a sophomore in high school, I participated in a program called Close-Up, during which I made a very good friend, Katie, whom I’ve written about before.  We were old enough then to debate about politics, to dream of and aspire to things.  Every time I’m back, I do two things for Katie: take a self-portrait picture in the Vietnam Memorial, as she taught me, and send her a postcard of the Jefferson Memorial, her favorite. 


My mom and I traveled together to D.C. just a few months later—she hadn’t been in decades, but I knew the place so well that I could show her around.  My parents elected to come to this country; it meant something to them, America.  They arrived in the late sixties, were amazed by the freedoms of speech and protest and dissent; some of my mom’s most vivid memories include listening to the Watergate hearings on their small, transistor radio and debating about politics over Howard-Johnson pistachio ice cream. 

I lived in D.C. for a very special summer in college, interning on Capitol Hill, subleasing an apartment in Columbia Heights, learning the ins and outs of the ambition and diversity that drives the District.  I ate a lot of amazing food, I went to a new museum every weekend, I learned to be less afraid and more adventurous. 


Half-a-dozen trips cannot, has not, diminished for me the power of the place that is the symbolic center of the country I love.  Our monuments, our memorials, our beliefs and our highest ideals—honored and held up as a standard by which we are to live.  Do we always reach that standard?  Of course not.  But I believe it is a real standard, a truth with aliveness and power, and I am proud to be a part of it.

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BETTER THAN EVER: BISCUITS & POPOVERS

Some things are worth revisiting.

When I started this blog almost two years ago (dang!), my friend and photographer Sonya Cuellar had only been taking pictures for a few months.  Of course, it was clear even then that she had instinctive talent and a natural eye, and if you spend any time on this blog, you know that statement has proven itself to be true in subsequent time.

Ya’ll don’t hear about Sonya very much; I’m the one who does most of the talking around here.  But there’s no way that Blue Jean Gourmet would run or even exist without her.  She manages to make what I make look good, and even more than that, she manages to capture the spirit of this kitchen, the equal parts playfulness and reverence I have for food.

Sonya’s also hilariously funny, deeply compassionate, trustworthy, and deadly competent.  She’s one of my favorite people in the world and working with her on this project for the last almost-two-years has not only been fun, it has pushed me to be a better cook and more creative writer.  Because Sonya’s so good at what she does, constantly working to improve her technique and find new ways to make pictures of food, I have to work to keep up.  And for that, I’m more grateful than I can say.

Today, a combination and revision of two old posts: biscuits & popovers.  Compare the old posts to the new, and I think you can appreciate just how far we’ve come, together.

BISCUITS

a)    Don’t knock lard until you’ve tried it (unless you’re a vegetarian or non-pork eater).  It truly makes for the most incredible biscuits.
b)    If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, you can squeeze a little lemon juice into 2% milk & let it sit for about 10 minutes.  It’ll do in a pinch.
c)    When it comes to biscuit-making, practice really does make perfect!

ingredients:

2 cups flour

1 ½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

pinch sugar

4 T shortening or lard

4 T unsalted butter

2/3 cup buttermilk

1-2 T extra butter, melted

oven: 425°
pan: heavy baking sheet, greased

Whisk together the dry ingredients in a medium-sized bowl: flour, baking powder, salt, & sugar.  Using your fingers, a pastry cutter, or a couple of forks, cut the butter and lard/shortening into the flour mix.  Continue until the mixture resembles pebbly sand.

Pour in the buttermilk and stir until the dough just comes together.  Gather and turn out onto a floured surface, then press the dough out gently into a large rectanglish shape.  Fold the dough in half twice, then press the dough out again—this will help create flaky, delicious layers.

Don’t mess with the dough anymore!  Use a biscuit cutter or the top of a water glass, dipped in flour, to cut biscuits.  Press remaining scraps together to cut more until all or nearly all the dough has been used.  Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and bake for 15-18 minutes, or until golden brown and risen.

Serve warm (of course) with your favorite biscuit accoutrement: butter, gravy, sausage, jelly, honey, etc.

POPOVERS
from Paulette’s Restaurant, as printed in The Commercial Appeal many years ago
If you’ve wanted to try your hand at popovers in the past but have felt intimidated, “DON’T BE SKEERED!” as Mani, my favorite spin class instructor of all time would say.  I don’t know why there’s so much hocus-pocus around popovers; they are truly not difficult to make!

Popovers don’t keep very well (their one flaw), so be prepared to eat the whole batch in one go.  A hardship, I know.

This recipe will yield 8-10 popovers.

ingredients:

1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ tsp. salt

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup milk

oven: 415° F
pan: muffin tin or popover pan

Cut thin pats of butter and place into the bottom of each muffin cup.  You can also grease well with vegetable oil or Pam, but why would you when you can use butter instead?  Place the muffin tin in the hot oven.

While the pan heats up, sift together the flour & salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl or measuring cup, whisk the milk and oil together.  Slowly mix the milk-oil mixture into the dry ingredients with a spoon until creamy smooth.

Add eggs one at a time; this will take some patience!  What you want to achieve are ribbons of egg in the batter.  After all the eggs have been incorporated, stir mixture for 2 additional minutes.

Carefully remove the warm muffin tin from the oven, filling each cup half- or just over half-full.  Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove the popovers while still hot or they will stick to the pan!

Perfect served with strawberry preserves & butter, or go the savory route and make a popover sandwich with sliced roast beef & horseradish sauce.

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FAT TUESDAY TREATS

From kale to cookies, this is how we do.

Baking was how I got my foothold in the kitchen, and I think it’s still where I feel most comfortable, most sure of my abilities.  People love baked goods, you know?  And even people who claim not to love baked goods always seem to make an exception for mine, which makes me feel awesome sauce (as my students would say).

I am admittedly a snob when it comes to certain things, and baked goods are one of them.  This is a recent development; I used to be an equal-opportunity sugar fiend, but now I like things that are a lot less sweet; I am very picky about the kind of chocolate I will eat or bake with, making the candy area by grocery store check-out lanes a lot less tempting.

The sweet tooth still throbs, though, the main food area in which my discipline is inconsistent.  So starting Wednesday, I’m going to be saying “adios” to baked goods for a while; no sweets (or diet sodas, which make me crave sugar like nobody’s business) for me during Lent 2011.

In past years, I’ve found that going without something (meat, alcohol, chocolate) for a little while recalibrates my relationship to that thing, hopefully making me more mindful and appreciative of whatever it may be.  Or just really cranky without my sugar fix.  We’ll find out!

FAT TUESDAY TREATS

It’s traditional to load up on whatever you’re giving up the day before your fasting starts—hence Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras and its over-the-top Epicureanism.  These two cookies might not be the most decadent, but they are sophisticated and delicious.

Both of these cookies are ever-so-slightly adapted from Alice Medrich’s Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies, which you should buy RIGHT NOW if you love sweets as much as I do.  It’s probably one of the best cookbooks I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning: an authoritative but friendly voice, lovely photographs (though I wish there were more of those), and every recipe one I can’t wait to try.

Be advised: for both of these cookies, it’s all about the butter.  I’m talking really-good-quality golden, fatty butter, the expensive kind.  Because there’s nothing better than that sensual, slide-y quality it takes on when you remember to take it out of the refrigerator at the right time instead of cheating with the microwave (we’ve all done that, right?) Seriously, buy the good stuff.  And bake with it.  And slather it on homemade bread.  Now and always.

Salted Peanut Cookies with White Chocolate

Note: this recipe includes chilling time for the dough—two hours minimum up to two days.

ingredients:

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. flaky sea salt or ¾ tsp. fine sea salt
8 T unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
¾ cup white sugar
1 cup natural peanut butter
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¾ cup white chocolate chips or chunks
½ cup unsalted peanuts, chopped

Whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, & salt.  In a separate bowl, mix the butter with both sugars until smooth and creamy.  (You can use a mixer or a wooden spoon & elbow grease for this part).  Add the egg, vanilla, and peanut butter and mix until blended.  Stir in the dry ingredients until just incorporated.  Gently mix in the peanuts and white chocolate.

Cover the dough and refrigerate as directed above.  When you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 325°.

Squeeze the dough in the palms of your hands to form 1-inch balls; the dough will be crumbly, but don’t worry.  Place the cookies two inches apart on cookies sheets lined with parchment (or greased).

Bake 15-18 minutes or until cookies are lightly colored on top and bottom.  Though I normally think it’s an unnecessarily fussy step, I do recommend rotating the pans from top to bottom halfway through baking.

The cookies will be very soft to the touch.  Cool a good while before attempting to move them around!

Chocolate-Espresso Mini-Cakes

Be warned—you may find yourself putting away handfuls of these at a time.  They are also lovely crumbled with vanilla ice cream.

ingredients:

¾ cup + 2 T all-purpose flour
2 T natural cocoa powder
¼ tsp. salt
14 T unsalted butter, cut into chunks
4 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped*
1 1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. instant espresso powder
4 eggs

special equipment: mini-cupcake/muffin pans and liners to go inside them
oven: preheat to 350°

Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt.  In a separate (glass) bowl, melt the chocolate and butter together, using a double boiler or the microwave.  (The latter is my preferred method—just take it slow, 30 second increments, stirring well in between each one).

Once the chocolate and butter are completely melted, whisk in the sugar, vanilla, & espresso powder.  Add the eggs one at a time, blending well before adding the next.  Add the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth, but do not overmix.

Spoon a little batter into each cup, filling almost to the top of the liner.  Bake 14-18 minutes or until a toothpick comes out of the center of one of the cakes with just a few crumbs.  Cool the cakes on a rack before enjoying or storing in an airtight container for up to three days.

*Medrich’s recipe calls for 70% cacao, but I used 55% and cut the sugar down to just 1 cup.

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KALE CAESAR SALAD

I know, I know, I know.  More kale.  I gotta be kidding you with all this healthy green shit, right?


Last week, when Jill received “no go for chemo” blood work results, we set about bulking up her diet, in hopes that we would boost her white blood cell and iron counts in the process.  Spinach in smoothies, tons of black beans and other legumes, a little steak sneaked in for good measure.  I bought bunches and bunches of kale.

Maybe it was all just psychosomatic; maybe a week’s worth of rest alone would have pushed her numbers back up to the “good to go” levels where they were this Monday, but one thing I find to be consistently true about life (with or without cancer) is that the little rituals, talismans, and superstitions can make more of a difference than you might think.

If you read Jill’s blog, you know that early in her treatment process, she christend her chemotherapy regime “Hurricane Kali,” after the Hindu goddess associated with death, destruction, and regeneration.  Jill shared the name on Twitter and Facebook; we put a picture of Kali, fierce and fearsome, on our refrigerator.  Our friends bought us all Kali necklaces, which we all wear daily in solidarity.

When Jill was cleared to start chemo again, we both said “Okay, Kali, do your thing.”  Amazing how a seemingly small and silly idea has taken on so much power in our lives.

I think this is a human thing—we find things to believe in, we latch on to what we can, we imbue our actions with meaning.  And sometimes, as in the case of Caesar salad dressing made from scratch, those actions are delicious.

KALE CAESAR
from Tartine Bread, one of the most beautiful cookbooks I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning

Because this recipe came out of a bread cookbook, you’re of course supposed to make the croutons from homemade bread.  I promise to do that one day, but this time I was lazy and cheated with a store-bought loaf.  I did, however, make the croutons instead of buying them, and in doing so was reminded how silly of me it is to ever pay for pre-made croutons or breadcrumbs, because it is SO EASY and much tastier to make your own.  (Unless we’re talking panko breadcrumbs, because I purchase those shamelessly by the pound).

If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, I’m betting you could make this dressing with a food processor.  You’re not going to feel like as much of a badass, though.  So really, this is the excuse you’ve been waiting for to buy yourself a really handsome mortar and pestle.  You know you want to.

Last but not least, please do not make the “ewww gross!” face about the anchovies.  You just think you don’t like them.  Anchovies are, in fact, delicious.  Like this salad.  Trust me.

for the salad:

1 bunch black kale*, stems removed and torn into pieces
2/3 cup aged Parmesan cheese, grated
croutons (see below)

In a large bowl, combine the kale and croutons.  Pour the dressing over the top, sprinkle with Parmesan, and toss to coat.

for the dressing:

2 lemons
3 cloves garlic
6 olive-oil packed anchovy fillets
1 egg yolk
salt
olive oil (1 ½- 2 cups)

Grate the zest from one of the lemons.  Cut both lemons in half.  Place the garlic, anchovies, & lemon zest in the mortar and pound with a pestle to make a paste.  Add the egg yolk, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice and stir to combine.

Continuing to stir, pour in ½ cup of the olive oil, drop by drop.  The mixture should look smooth and creamy.  Begin adding the oil in a slow stream; the dressing should thicken.  Periodically stop pour in oil to add a squeeze of lemon.  Taste the dressing for salt and lemon and adjust as necessary.  Once it’s ready, add small spoonfuls of water, stirring to thin the dressing to the consistency of heavy cream.

for the croutons:

3 slices day-old bread, sliced 1-inch thick and torn into 1 ½-inch chunks
2 T olive oil
salt
½ tsp. herbes de Provence (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400°.  Toss the torn bread with olive oil and a pinch of salt.  If you are using the herbs, add them too.  Spread the bread evenly on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown and crisp, about 15 minutes.  Midway through baking time, redistribute the croutons if they are coloring unevenly.

*also called lacinato, Tuscan kale, or dinosaur kale
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