MUSHROOM BRUSCHETTA

It always works this way.

At the end of the year, or the end of the school year, or the beginning of vacation, I have a couple of days of pure, unadulterated elation, days full of plans: a dinner of seemingly never-ending Lebanese food, cranberry scones with lemon curd for brunch, a Christmas open house with a mariachi band, an evening full of football-watching that leaves empty bottles of wine on the counter for recycling.

But then, somewhere in there, when I’ve reached the bottom of my to-do list, I find myself feeling sad. Like really, unbelievable, out-of-nowhere, sobbing-at-the-kitchen-table sad. Because my father’s still dead. And that still really sucks.

I say this only because I know I am far from the only one for whom the holidays can be really, really hard. When you’ve lost someone—no matter how long it’s been—these days of “home for the holidays” can draw that absence up to the surface, pushing and tugging and scratching the skin. The songs, the signs, the rituals, even the cheesy Christmas commercials, all of them can trigger grief.

So check in on your friends and family, especially if they are going through the “first round” of holidays without a loved one. They may not want company, but they will, I promise, appreciate the compassion.

MUSHROOM BRUSCHETTA
recipe inspired by Tom Gutting, a tall, friendly guy with a nice smile and a wine blog

You know when you eat something so good that you remember it for months afterward? And you are kind of jealous that you didn’t come up with it yourself? And every once in a while you wish you had more of it to it, right then at that very moment?

And then one day you see oyster & crimini mushrooms at the Farmers’ Market and you think “TODAY IS THE DAY! I will recreate Tom’s mushroom bruschetta!”?

No? That’s never happened to you?  Curious .

I’m not sure if I did Tom’s original version justice, but what I came up with sure did taste good.

ingredients:

3 cups chopped mushrooms, mixed variety
2 thick slices of bacon, diced (use 3 or 4 if your bacon’s more thinly sliced)
¼ cup fresh thyme, on the stem, plus a bit more for garnish
a glug (maybe 1/8 cup?) of cognac (substitute red or white wine or sherry)
knob of butter (3-4 T)

for serving: a loaf of crusty bread (a baguette or Italian loaf would work nicely)
chevre or other soft goat’s milk cheese

Cook the bacon in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Depending on the amount of fat that’s rendered, you can pour some off (but don’t pour it out!—store that good stuff in a jar in the fridge, please). Reduce the heat to medium, then throw in the butter, mushrooms, and thyme, sautéing it all until the mushrooms brown.

Add the end, pour in the cognac and deglaze the pan, letting the mixture cook down until the liquid is reduced. Turn off the heat and remove the thyme stems from the pan. Stir in some freshly ground pepper and salt to taste.

To assemble, slice and toast the bread. Spread generously with cheese, then top with mushroom mix. Sprinkle with reserved thyme leaves and serve.

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SPAGHETTI CARBONARA

This weekend I watched my best friend eulogize his sister.  I watched his sister’s widower, who is thirty-one, eulogize his wife, telling the sweet story of how they met as undergraduates at Rice, their first date an Old 97s concert, their sixth anniversary just a few months ago, just a week or so before she died in the midst of an earthquake in Haiti.

The same week that Dave flew home to begin the long vigil of waiting for news of his sister, my dear friend Wayne sat in an ICU waiting room night after night, keeping company and logging time as his mother recovered from emergency brain surgery to remove a cancerous mass.

Today I spoke to Wayne on the phone—his mother is doing well, feeling strong and working her way through chemo and radiation—but Wayne’s fiancée Elizabeth, if you can believe it, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor of her own.  It woke them both up a few nights ago, Elizabeth gripped by a seizure, her body revealing its secret.

Understanding isn’t welcome here, friends.  Answers, even if we had them, would do no good.  The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, moral indignance to the contrary be damned.  If anything, what we can cling to is our insistence on aliveness, the instantaneous dose of perspective such news brings, like my realization that most of what’s on my to-do list is useless; my list of complaints and grudges, bullshit.  I know it shouldn’t take catastrophe to get me to pause, to “what the hell” and toss out my agenda in favor of face-to-face time with the people I love, but all too often, it does.

I sat across from Dave tonight, espresso cups balanced on a rickety table between us, as we have done so many times before in our decade of friendship.  Of course, everything has changed now, inextricably and irreparably and inexplicably.  I make mix CDs and I hug him tight and try not to say anything idiotic, hope furiously that loving someone as much as I love him counts for something in this long-run weigh-in with grief.

SPAGHETTI CARBONARA

Something about this dish screams “carpe diem” to me, perhaps because it’s so decadent without being fussy, comforting and dead satisfying.  It’s the kind of thing you make when you’ve abandoned any healthy pretenses and instead decide to serve up a bowl of something unguent, tangled mess of joie de vivre.

Disclaimer: this is not a strictly authentic version of carbonara, and I know that.  It is, however, a much less cluttered version than many you’ll find out there.  To strip down further, omit the parsley and use guanciale instead of panchetta, splurge on fresh pasta.

ingredients:

1 lb. linguini or spaghetti
¼ lb. pancetta, roughly chopped
3 eggs
3 cloves garlic, crushed & minced with a little salt
¾ cup Parmesan or Pecorino Romano
¼ cup dry white wine
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
black pepper
olive oil

optional garnish: chopped flat-leaf parsley

First things first—get the pasta going.  Cook it as you normally would, but be sure to save about a ¼ cup of the cooking liquid when draining the noodles.

In the meantime, heat a little olive oil over high heat, then add the chopped pancetta and cook until it begins to brown.  When it does, turn down the heat to medium and add the garlic.  After about 5 minutes, your kitchen should be nice and fragrant.  Pour in the wine and let it cook down, another 5 minutes.

Sprinkle the red pepper flakes atop the garlic-panchetta brew.  In a separate bowl, crack and gently beat the eggs.  Add in the pasta water and beat further—this is to temper the eggs and keep them from scrambling when you add them to the hot pan, which you are about to do.

Bring everything together: remove the pan from heat, then add the drained pasta.  Pour the egg mixture over everything, tossing rapidly to coat.  Sprinkle on your cheese and grind in a generous helping of pepper, then mix again.

Serve hot, with parsley and a little extra cheese as garnish, if you wish.

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BACON SCONES: CHEDDAR/SCALLION & MAPLE/PECAN

First off, a disclaimer: if the quality of today’s pictures seems a bit wobbly to you, that’s because I took them.  Instead of the badass Sonya.

sonya at work

{Badass Sonya is going to be real mad that I’m posting this picture of her being a badass but she’ll just have to get over it.}

I’ve never, ever been a photographer or anything close.  I knew when I started this blog that I would need serious help in the picture-taking department, and luckily Sonya was up for the job.  She has, in fact, gone above and beyond what I ever imagined; I must say that the success of BJG hinges largely on her extraordinary talent.

In an effort to cultivate that talent, Sonya and I participated in a very fun food photography workshop with photography rock star Penny de los Santos.  I decided to tag along, despite my non-photographer status, because I figured I would be able to learn how I can assist Sonya is taking the quality of BJG photographs to the proverbial “next level.”

In fact, I did learn a lot about how great food photography gets made and had the pleasure of getting to meet and chat with Penny in person.  (She then so generously visited us here at BJG and even left us a comment on the “About” page!  Did I “squee” when I saw her comment?  Maybe.)  But the coolest thing that happened was: I got behind a camera myself and took some pictures!

frenchie fries

You know, as adults, we generally spend our time doing things we are good at doing.  We’ve chosen our careers that way, culled our hobbies down the ones which best suit us.  We are choosy with our time so why devote any of it to an unfamiliar endeavor?  Not to mention, it’s hella scary to try something I have no idea how to do.  I am so accustomed to being competent and on top of things, it’s such a huge function of my identity.  So I was more than just a little confronted by the act of picking up a camera and photographing some food.

Of course, as I relaxed into the afternoon and gave up the ridiculous notion that I immediately had to be a photography prodigy, I had fun.  And really came to respect just how difficult it is to do what Sonya, Penny, & other photographers do.

Don’t fret, we’ll still be featuring Sonya’s gorgeous work 98% of the time.  But every once in a while, I conjure up some out-of-the-ballpark-winner-of-a-dish and she’s not around to capture its image.  So, I’m going to try my hand at taking halfway decent photographs, for the blog and for my own pleasure.  After just a week of playing around with the camera, I’m feeling high from the exertion and joy that comes with expanding my skill set and stretching myself out of my comfort zone.

Speaking of which, sharing my answers to the Proust Questionnaire with, you know, the entire free world makes me more than a little nervous.  But you, my readers, have been beyond generous in your support and cheering on of BJG in the last five months that I just couldn’t turn down your requests.  I’m flattered by your interest and would love to see your own responses.

Last but not least: the food itself!  We’ve got some gorgeous, clear, sunny, cool days ahead of us down here in Texas and I know these scones would be a perfect addition to any weekend plans you may have.  Perfect for game-watching, either indoor or out, tailgating, sitting-out-in-the-backyard-ing, reading-in-a-chair-ing, picnicking, brunch-ing, or just general lazing about.

These scones are a riff on a recipe a friend passed along—I felt they would be a perfect “out in the field” hunting snack for Jill to take along and share with the guys.  We’ll see what they say about ‘em Sunday!

BACON SCONES: CHEDDAR/SCALLION & MAPLE/PECAN

The goodness of these scones would not be possible without the generosity and talent of two incredible individuals: Al Marcus of Grateful Bread here in Houston, who sells the most incredible maple bacon I have ever put in my mouth and Meg Maker, who has become a friend over the last few months via Twitter and is so kind-hearted that she responded to my maple-syrup lament with a care package with a giant jug of top-quality stuff.

With beautiful products like Al’s bacon and pure New Hampshire maple syrup, the scones almost cooked themselves!  Per Al’s recommendation, I cut my bacon thick, about a ½ inch, then placed the slices on a broiler pan in a cold oven.  I turned the oven to 400° and let the bacon cook up until the oven was preheated & just a few minutes longer.

baaaacon

I made a big “master bowl” of scone starter, then divided it in half to make one batch of sweet and one of savory.  If you’re only interested in one of these versions, feel free to cut the starter in half.

oven: 400°
pan: two baking sheets lined with parchment or well-greased

ingredients:

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter, cold & cut into pieces
10 T shortening
1 ½ T baking powder
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt or 1 tsp. table salt

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Cut the fat into the flour mixture until the dough resembles small-to-medium-sized pebbles.

Divide the starter evenly between two bowls.

CHEDDAR/SCALLION SCONES
: cheddar/scallion scones

ingredients:

2 slices (approx. 1 ½ oz.) bacon, cooked, cooled, & chopped
½ cup grated cheddar cheese*
¼ cup chopped scallions/green onions
½ cup buttermilk + extra for glaze.

On a floured surface, pat the dough out into a rough circle.  Cut into wedges and place on baking sheets.  Brush each scone with extra buttermilk as a glaze.

Bake 15-20 minutes, until the scones are light brown and firm to the touch.  Cool briefly before enjoying.

*I used a nice extra sharp and recommend splurging on good-quality cheese.

MAPLE/PECAN SCONES: maple/pecan scones

ingredients:

2 slices (approx. 1 ½ oz.) bacon, cooked, cooled, & chopped
1 cup pecans, chopped*
¼ cup half and half
¼ cup maple syrup + extra for glaze

Mix all ingredients into the starter, distributing add-ins evenly and being careful not to over-mix.  Dough will be very wet, so don’t freak out!

On a floured surface, pat the dough out into a rough circle.  Cut into wedges and place on baking sheets.  Brush each scone with extra maple as a glaze.

Bake 15-20 minutes, until the scones are light brown and firm to the touch.  Cool briefly before enjoying.  Serve with extra maple, butter, or jam.

*I didn’t pre-toast them and the scones were still delicious…but next time I think I will.

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