The anonymity of blogging is something I simultaneously fear and embrace. On the one hand, I like that I can talk about my deepest, darkest secrets – e.g. recipes gone wrong, generally awkward behavior, my recent addiction to Crystal Light – without everyone knowing my name and where I live. I mean, okay, pretty much everyone in my immediate family reads this blog, but I don’t care if they know these things about me. It’s strangers I worry about – especially the kinds of strangers who know my everyday Clark Kent side, and want to hire me to write newspaper stories.
On the other hand, internet anonymity often translates into mean-spirited YouTube comments. If a genie gave me three wishes, one of them would be to automatically reveal the identities – including social security numbers – of every internet troll who ever existed. The other two involve the severe retroactive limitation of genocide and capitalist exploitation – but now I’m going to talk about cooking.
The person with whom I tested the following recipe also takes his internet anonymity very seriously, so I will henceforth refer to him as “VJ” to protect his identity. VJ, who actually invented this recipe in order to satisfy a fondness for pluots, is the author of Ducks & Turtles, one of my favorite Los Angeles food and recipe blogs. I was recently included in a Ducks & Turtles blog post on Umamicatessen, a restaurant with five kitchens that serves really, really non-kosher deli food, and is also delicious. Now I’m including VJ and his recipe, which turned out really well, on the secret menu. It seems only fair.
Even if I didn’t give credit to VJ for this recipe, many of my more frequent visitors would probably recognize that I had help. First of all, it took the better part of an afternoon to make this, and that is just not how I roll. Even if time and effort would improve a recipe, I am, as a general rule, not interested. Second, this recipe involves baking and, as I’ve said in previous posts, I am definitely no baker. In fact, if you want to destroy something – a building or, say, a relationship – just let me bake it for you, and it will be in the trash bin faster than you can say “stand mixer.”
Ingredients for the pastry:
-2 cups all-purpose flour, plus a little more for rolling it out
-1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
-1 teaspoon salt
-1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons shortening or vegetable oil
-Optional: one egg, beaten with a splash of milk (for an egg wash)
Ingredients for the filling:
-5 or 6 pluots
-1/2 red onion, diced
-1 cup brown sugar
-1 cup white sugar
-1/3 cup currants or raisins
-1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
-2 large garlic cloves, crushed
-3 tbs crystalized ginger, minced
-3/4 tsp cayenne
-1 star anise
-a few cloves
-1 cinnamon stick
-salt to taste
-1 tbs corn starch (to thicken)
First, prep the dough: mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together in the food processor and pulse together. Then, with the machine running, add the 1/2 cup shortening and pulse until loosely combined. Finally, add about 1/2 cup cold water bit by bit, with the machine running, just enough for the dough to form a ball. Knead by hand until smooth, which will take about a minute, and divide into 12 evenly-sized balls. Put in a container of some kind, cover, and let ‘em refrigerate while you get cracking on the filling.
Now for the filling: chop, mince, and crush all the things that need chopping, mincing, and crushing. Toast the spices until fragrant in a pan, and then pulverize them in a spice grinder. Don’t even attempt this with a mortar and pestle, because you will have grandchildren before you get the cinnamon stick to break down. Anyway, now you’re ready for the important part. Bring the sugars and vinegar to a boil in a medium pot over medium heat. Stir in the raisins, onions, garlic, salt, ginger, and all the spices. Bring to a simmer, and then stir in the pluots. Reduce the heat and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until chutney is dark and thick. If you’re hardcore, you can do this for about 4 hours until it thickens naturally. If you’re impatient like us, you can let it simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour and then thicken it with a bit of corn starch. Be sure to let the filling cool before you attempt empanada creation.
Once the filling is room temperature, preheat the oven to 450ºF. On a well-floured surface, roll each ball of dough into a 5- or 6-inch round. Be careful, since this dough is dry and tends to fall apart. When it’s all rolled out, dab a little water around the perimeter and dollop a bit of filling in the center of each disk. Use your judgment – for you, a “spoonful” might be a tablespoon or a 1/4 cup. It depends entirely on how much of a perfectionist you are, how hungry you are, and how self-conscious you are about eating gooey foods.
Anyway, around now you should be folding your disk in half and pressing down on the edges to form a seal. If they’re already getting gooey, Ducks & Turtles recommends that you fold the edge inward a bit before pressing it down with a fork. The fork tines are how you get those nice, empanada-like impressions.
If any of the above confused you, watch this video:
Place the empanadas on an ungreased baking sheet and, if you are not concerned with the vegan-ness (veganity?) of this recipe, brush them lightly with an egg wash.
Bake them until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Serve immediately, and try not to burn your tongue.
Let’s pretend that I didn’t go on a three month hiatus to finish my dissertation/get a job/plan a wedding and get back to business, shall we? Good. Because I’m going to talk about a very important topic today: BALANCE. Some of you may remember this term from elementary school, when you learned that it is very difficult to balance on a soccer ball while wearing cotton socks. You may have only recently been re-exposed to the concept when someone – say, Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her recent article for the Atlantic – made mention of that old chestnut, “work-life balance,” which, as I think about it, is kind of a grown-up version of the soccer ball thing. All this is to say that balance has a habit of popping up in extremely annoying ways from time to time, and here it is again, in the form of what I would like to call “Food-Life balance.”
I probably don’t need to explain Food-Life balance to you. You know all about what happens when Life starts driving, pushing Food into the passenger seat and refusing to let it navigate. “Ooh! Mini soy ice cream sandwiches!” squeals Life, veering into the Fresh & Easy parking lot at 9:56 at night, and while Food would like to explain to Life that mini soy ice cream sandwiches are not an acceptable substitute for dinner, or even an acceptable way to keep one’s jaws busy for a minute and a half, Food tends to keep to itself when faced with Life’s bizarre demands and improbable logic. Under such circumstances, I’ve noticed, Food prefers to pull its fedora over its face and catch a snooze, thinking to itself, well, Life will probably come a-calling when it finally realizes why it can’t sleep, wake up, or get rid of that headache.
In April, when I let Life take over, I made a few notable sacrifices. The first was yoga, the second was Food, and the third was household cleanliness. All of these in tandem, as it turns out, add up to severely impaired health, not to mention a near total loss of sanity. And as I attempt to regain balance, I have found myself drawn to the extremes of the food pyramid: one day all I want is peanut butter and chocolate, while the next I’m jonesing for fresh vegetables and herbal tea. It’s a little like trying to balance on a soccer ball in stocking feet, overcompensating in one direction with the hips while the elbows jut back in the opposite direction – and all of this, as you might imagine, can only end in shoulder dislocation and wounded pride.
So, laying supine and feeling very much like a felled beast, I venture cautiously into balance:
Food, I don’t mean to bother you during your nap. I know I have neglected you for months and you probably don’t care to hear from me right now. But I feel awful. I have almost completely forgotten the best oven temperature for baked salmon, or how to preserve a yolk while cracking an egg. My friends don’t want to come over for dinner anymore. Help me, Food. Please help me be myself again.
And Food, peeking out from under its fedora, has one word for me: salad.
Kale and Cherry Salad with Walnuts
-2-3 cups of kale, chopped and washed thoroughly
-1/2 cup of cherries, pitted and quartered
-1/2 cup walnuts
-1/4 cup olive oil
-1 tablespoon of pomegranate molasses (agave syrup with a squeeze of lime juice also works)
-salt and pepper to taste
Put the kale in a large mixing bowl and pour in the olive oil. Make sure your hands are clean, because you are about to massage the leaves. Imagine the kale had a long day at work, and really get in there with your fingers. Press down hard, squeezing the kale firmly until it starts to soften – this takes about 3-5 minutes. When they’re ready, the leaves should only be slightly firmer than they are when they’re cooked.
Now add your pomegranate molasses, salt, and pepper. Mix well. Toss in the cherries and the walnuts and mix again. Behold a beautiful exercise in balance: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, rendered in a rainbow of colors. By the time you actually wolf this down – and you will – Food may even be climbing back into the driver’s seat, fully awake and ready to take you back to all your favorite spots, not to mention the ones you’ve been aching to visit for, well, about three months.
So you know when you’re transferring photos off a memory card that you haven’t used in a while, and you find a bunch of pictures that you completely forgot about? For most folks, I imagine this involves pictures of the really adorable but much-too-young person you had a fling with a few months ago (whoops), or a series of your own fine self draping your arms around the shoulders of people at a party that you only have hazy memories of attending (triple whoops), or maybe a really cute photo of your friend’s kid that you said you would TOTALLY send, like, tomorrow, but never actually did (whoopsy daisy), or possibly even several out-of-focus photos of a red spot on your lip that you thought might be a cold sore but wanted to send to your uncle who’s a doctor just to confirm (it’s a pimple).
In my case, I often find pictures of food that I completely forgot about cooking — this, when I’m often convinced that I haven’t cooked anything in weeks and therefore have nothing to post about. When I was downloading pictures yesterday for the sautéed shrimp recipe, I noticed that, gee, I had actually made quite a few things since January and taken quite a lot of not-so-great pictures of them. No matter. One of my unofficial new year’s “resolutions,” if they can be called that, is to put the mediocre things I make and do out into the world — even if they are really embarrassing (more on this another day). Next year’s quasi-resolution will be to do that without apologies but, in the meantime, I am truly sorry for not giving my outdoor table even a cursory wipe before taking these pictures. Alas, my secret menu muse strikes like a toddler having a temper tantrum: take a picture IMMEDIATELY and NO you may NOT wipe off the table or find a nicer dish in the garage because you need to EAT RIGHT NOW!!!!
Luckily, these eggplants are delicious. The trick with eggplant, as I’ve figured out through trial and error, is to cook it quite a bit longer than you think you need to. Squishy eggplants shall inherit the earth; chewy ones will make your tongue sting and your throat itch. So, yeah, you will need to set aside about an hour for the following recipe, but I promise it’s worth it.
Roasted Baby Eggplants with Yogurt and Mint
-4-6 baby eggplants (Indian or Japanese)
-2-3 tbs olive oil
-3-4 peeled garlic cloves, halved
-a few shakes of kosher salt
-4-6 tbs strained yogurt (lebni or full-fat Greek yogurt both work nicely)
-4-6 walnut halves, chopped (optional)
-1 tsp dried mint leaves, crushed
Preheat your oven to 450°F. Trim the eggplant stems to under 1 inch, peel the green leaves surrounding the caps, and use a fork to poke a few holes in each eggplant. Toss the eggplants and the halved garlic cloves with olive oil and a little kosher salt, and place them in a deep iron skillet or other oven-safe pan.
Roast the eggplants for about 40 minutes, until they’re very soft. You can cover them with foil if you’re worried about them losing moisture, but if you use enough oil this won’t really be a problem.
When the eggplants are done, remove them from the oven and let them cool for 5-10 minutes. Once they’ve cooled, slice each eggplant open on top and fill with a dollop of the strained yogurt. Sprinkle with dried mint and serve immediately (or, as my kitchen muse says: RIGHT NOW DO IT RIGHT NOW!!!).
For an extra bit of oomph: mix some chopped walnuts into the yogurt before you dollop.
Look, I’m not going to lie — I’ve been pretty bad this year. Not only did I fail to fully record my mileage for tax purposes, despite JM’s helpful wheedling, but I also phoned it in pretty hard with some of my grading. I’ve gone from 60 to 0 with my yoga practice, maybe getting in a studio once a month these days, and have only used my juicer a handful of times. I flirted and complained needlessly, swore like an action film hero, and only drew one or two pictures. And, perhaps worst of all, I’ve gone from updating my blog every few days to updating it every few weeks.
Sure, I could give you excuses. I’ve had something like 4 or 5 part-time jobs, usually several of them at once, and I’ve been using every spare, clutter-free minute to add a sentence or ten to my dissertation, which is now almost complete. I’ve also put a lot of effort into my relationship with JM, which is pretty much the most important thing in my life right now. I don’t regret it one bit. This year we drove around the desert together taking pictures and rummaging through the remnants of other people’s lives; we read magazines by the pool in Palm Springs and swung in creaky hammocks by moonlight; we walked along the beach in Long Island and played music with lawyers and professors emeriti in Santa Cruz; we ate lobster in Cape Cod and too much bread in New York. Best of all, we spent long evenings lounging on the living room couch and bright mornings on folding chairs in the backyard, drinking coffee and wine and fresh-squeezed juice from the grapefruit tree’s bounty, occasionally spiked with gin.
So Santa, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been sorely lacking in the goodness department, but when it comes to hard work and romance I’m not half bad. I hope that this letter in some way responds to some of the doubts you scribbled on your annual list with respect to yours truly.
Please find enclosed a recipe for butternut squash soup as a sign of good will.
the secret menu
Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup
-1 small butternut squash
-1/4-1/2 cup water
-1 tsp curry powder (I used vadouvan, but any mild curry will work)
-1-2 tsp salt
-a few cracks of pepper
-4 tbs olive oil
-1 large onion, chopped
-1 clove garlic, chopped
-2-3 cups broth (I used vegetable, but chicken stock also works)
-1 apple, peeled and diced
-1/4 cup half and half
Crank up the oven to 400 °F. Cut the squash in half (in retrospect, you might want to peel it, too — though it’s not totally necessary), scoop out the seeds and put them aside. In a shallow baking dish, put the squash cut side up and add about 1/4 cup water to the dish to keep the oven moist while the squash bakes. Sprinkle the squash with a little curry powder and salt, and put in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until a fork slides easily into the flesh.
While the squash bakes, rinse the seeds and pat them dry with a paper towel. Spread them out on a cookie sheet and pour 2 tablespoons of the oil over them, along with a healthy sprinkling of salt and pepper. Set the cookie sheet aside. Now sauté the onion and garlic with the rest of the oil in a large pan until translucent — don’t overdo it, since the magic here is that the onion and apple flavors complement each other.
Transfer the onions and garlic to a large-ish pot, and add your broth. Turn the heat on to a low simmer, stirring the liquid frequently. When the squash is done, put it aside to cool a bit. If you’ve already peeled the squash, slice it into manageable pieces and toss them into the soup pot. If not, you’ll need to wait a little longer for the squash to cool before scooping it out of its skin. In any case, you should have a simmering pot of onions, garlic, broth, and squash in front of you before too long.
Put the cookie sheet with the seeds on it in the oven — they’ll be in there for about 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, add the rest of the curry powder, salt, and a little more pepper to the soup. Stir. Pour into a large bowl, and add the apple chunks. Use your hand mixer to puree that stuff into a smooth orange pool of deliciousness. Taste it, and add salt if necessary. Stir in the half and half.
Garnish the soup with the roasted seeds and insist that only one, maybe two pictures may be taken before it is gulped down. Be sure to loosen that belt you wear over your red coat — this soup might not look like much, but it’s super filling. So much so that all you’ll need the rest of the night is some popcorn and the conviction that, yes, you will definitely put this one on the blog in the morning.
Is it just me, or has the world gone crazy? What else would have possessed me to 1) take my own photo when I have a perfectly good JM, and 2) use a vertical orientation at that? Oh yeah, and what am I doing at home when I could be Occupying something?
I’m eating lunch, that’s what I’m doing. I’m eating kale and pears and grapefruit from the supermarket, olive oil and cheese and walnuts from Trader Joe’s, and a whole lotta crow — because, really, how can I justify supporting the recent anti-corporate protests with a mouth full of corporate food?
Of course, I can’t justify it — and shouldn’t. I’m lucky enough to live in a city where farmers markets are plentiful, where access to sustainable dairy is pretty straightforward, and where most of the food I need for a balanced diet can come from within 100 miles. So if I’m still trying to stretch my meager little dollar by cutting corners with the help of agribusiness, imagine the predicament of people who live somewhere else and have even less money than I do!
You are probably waiting for me to stop being so preachy and start being funny, aren’t you? All right, you have a point. I’m no expert — I’m just a home cook doing her best to cook, eat, and joke ethically. If you want to read more about the shared concerns of the food movement and the Occupy protests, I invite you to click here, here, here, and also here. And if you want to know the secret menu’s Top Ten Best Things About Farmer’s Markets, plus get a recipe for a delicious kale salad that involves the word “massage,” read on:
Why Farmer’s Markets Are Awesome, by secret menu
10. There is invariably going to be a guy playing a bongo.
9. Toddlers like to do the toddler dance whenever they’re in the vicinity of bongos. The toddler dance involves bending both knees repeatedly, and at random, while wearing over-sized trousers.
8. Free samples!
7. You now have an excuse to talk about food with complete strangers, for hours on end if you choose.
6. You really will feel an exquisite, self-righteous pride if you bring your own produce bag. I don’t know how this works, but it really does. It’s like using the word “whom” correctly — times a thousand.
5. If you play your cards right, you can get a week’s worth of food for well under $10 a day.
4. Sometimes animal shelters set up camp outside the farmer’s market. Who doesn’t love to be greeted by a chorus of puppies?
3. “Going to the farmer’s market” is a social activity, not a chore. So when someone asks you what you did this weekend, you can say, “I went to the farmer’s market,” and they’ll nod knowingly. It doesn’t matter if you spent the rest of your days off watching sports or staring at a wall. You still win.
2. You will run into someone you know. I don’t care if you’re a total shut-in — you will run into someone you know, and the conversation will be pleasant, because people are happy when they are surrounded by food.
1. You will not walk out with a bunch of junk food that makes you feel like taking a 36-hour nap. Instead, you will walk out with a bunch of produce that you have no idea how to cook, and this will force you to be creative. This creativity will energize you and, instead of merely occupying your microwave or local fast food spot, you will truly Occupy your kitchen.
(serves one hungry Occupier)
-1/2 bunch kale, with stalks removed, sliced into bite-sized pieces
-1 small pear, quartered and sliced thin
-2 tbs olive oil
-2 tbs freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
-1/2 tsp salt
-a few cracks of pepper
-1 tbsp grated hard cheese (optional)
-1/4 cup walnuts, toasted over high heat in a pan (no oil necessary)
Once you’ve sliced your kale, put it in a small mixing bowl and drizzle in your oil. Now, little Miss/Mister I-Just-Washed-My-Hands, dig in there and start massaging. (Not sure how to massage kale? Practice first on your spouse/partner/foot — they/it will not regret it.) Kale only needs about a minute of massage before it gives up its knots and becomes a lot like cooked kale that has maintained its crisp flavor. Yum!
Add your grapefruit juice, salt and pepper, and pears, and mix. Top with the walnuts and a little cheese if you’d like. Experiment with vertically-oriented photography, and decide you can get behind it. Rant about corporations. Spend an hour updating your blog because you can’t deal with the fact that it’s Monday. And remember, you’re not crazy — it’s the world.
All right, has this ever happened to you? You and your accomplice are running some errands in and around town and you “subconsciously” find yourself on the same street as the Whaddyacallit Bakery & Cafe — you know, the one that sells the thingies that you always order when you go there — and you think to yourselves, okay, we’ll just stop in quickly and get something to go. But the Whatchamajig Bakery, because it is a total den of depravity, has one of those glass display cases with heaps of buttery doodads and flakey thingamabobs and gooey uuhhhhhhs that make you both completely lose your minds and decide to sit down for a spell and order, say, two or three things to “share” (AKA mutually attack).
One of the things you contemplate “sharing” is a phyllo pastry tart with goat cheese and figs and herbs and some viscous sauce that you know tastes like a cross between winning the World Cup and having Radiohead name a song after you. However, at that point, one of you comes to your senses and says, “No, my dear, I can’t eat that. I have already gained ten pounds in the past six months. I should probably just order coffee and cry.” And you do, albeit with a few errant stabs at your tablemate’s quiche. But to prevent you from crying into your overpriced coffee, your accomplice says, “You know, it’s just as well, because we could totally make that at home. And it would be better.”
A few months back I attempted an almond flour crust pizza that was pretty good, but so dense that you could roof a shack with it. This time around, I made the crust a bit thinner, but it was still a force to be reckoned with. I don’t know. Next time I think I might try rice flour or barley flour or email Kim Boyce repeatedly until she offers a better recommendation. It’s not that I’ve completely broken up with wheat — we’re just seeing other people.
Almond Flour Pizza with Arugula, Figs, and Gorgonzola
-1 cup almond meal
-1/4 tsp baking soda
-1/2 tsp salt
-1 clove garlic, minced
-1-2 tbs fresh rosemary, chopped
-1 cup fresh figs, sliced
-1/3 cup Gorgonzola, crumbled
-1/2 cup arugula
Preheat the oven to 325°F, and use some of the olive oil to grease a cookie sheet. Mix together the almond meal, eggs, baking soda, and salt. Use a spatula (and, when you get impatient, your greasy fingers) to spread the batter out into a flat rectangle, as close to 1/2-inch thick as you can get it. Sprinkle the garlic and rosemary over the top of the batter and place in the oven for about 5 minutes to create a firm surface for the toppings.
Once the crust is out of the oven, top with the arugula, figs, and Gorgonzola. Bake for another 10 minutes or so, and then turn on the broiler to melt the cheese a bit more (3-5 minutes).
The good news: you have just made gluten-free pizza that looks a lot like the tart from Whatsit Bakery.
The bad news: almond meal has a zillion calories.
The it’s-not-so-bad news: that means it’s delicious.
This morning’s menu was contributed by JM’s brother, who is also called JM. I know it sounds confusing from the outside, but trust me, it’s really easy to tell them apart. One of them lives pretty far north of here, and the other one lives in my house. One of them has big red hair, and the other one doesn’t. And one of them is by all accounts an amazing father and husband, while the other is an amazing plant-waterer and boyfriend. However, to make this distinction easier for the layperson, I will henceforth in this post refer to JM as JM the Younger, and JM’s brother as JM the Elder, as though they were 16th-century painters.
It turns out one important thing the JMs share is proficiency in the breakfast department. This is a meal that the M men take very seriously — and I also include Mr. M, father of the brothers JM, in this assessment. Mr. M was the original creator of baked eggs, which JM the Younger strategically employed to ensnare me when we first started seeing each other. And, as I have recently discovered, JM the Elder is also no novice when it comes to The Most Important Meal of the Day. By way of example, I offer the following menu:
Breakfast of Champions
Yogurt rocket pop (homemade)
Boule loaf w/cream cheese
What I particularly like about this curated collection is that it covers all major breakfast food groups: sweet pastry, fruit, savory pastry, egg, and aerodynamic dairy product. So, props to JM the Elder for showing us how it’s done, and for reminding me that frozen treats made of yogurt are a sanctioned breakfast indulgence. I hope to thank him in person someday for this epiphany, particularly since it is now 1000 degrees Celsius in LA (5629 degrees Fahrenheit).