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Appreciative Audiences

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(This has nothing to do with movies!  I’m actually writing about the rest of life for a change!)

I like to cook, and I like to bake.  This has always been the case, since my friends and I were bored as kids and our parents would suggest we make cookies.  Or I would “help” Mom with dinner.  Or maybe it was simply gluttony – in seventh grade I had a social studies class about immigration, and the teacher proposed that maybe we could have a class party where we all brought in some food from our family’s heritage.  “Oh, you like to cook?” she asked me, when she saw my face brighten.

“I do,” I said.  “I like to cook because you get to eat afterward.”

My challenge, though, has been an adult lifetime of single dining.  I had a live-in boyfriend for a couple years in my 20s, and I’ve had the occasional dinner party, but other than that I’ve been forced to cook only for myself – my roommates usually have kept radically different schedules, or are on special diets, or just are used to making their own dinners and don’t want to impose on me.  So I’ve gotten into the habit of automatically scaling down any recipe I see for “serves one” or “serves two,” or I get ready for lots of leftovers that clog up the fridge, especially when I get bored with “oh god that bean soup again I’ve been eating that for five straight days no more”.  

Desserts are the biggest challenge – I would love to have a slice of cake or a piece of pie sometime, or make a fudgy batch of brownies, but…not if I’m the only one eating it. I’ve had to toss out half-eaten cakes that went hard, or pies that went moldy.  It did force me to expand my dessert repetoire into things like créme bruleé or mousse, but sometimes you just want cake, you know?  I finally broke down and got some wee little cake pans and tart tins, and have been collecting recipes for “smash cakes” in search of “single-serving recipes”.  But I’ve missed being able to just cook with abandon.

…I have just had a roommate move in, though, that may change things somewhat.  We got on very well when he came to check out the place, and his sister and brother-in-law came to help him move in and I got on very well with them too.  And a couple days after he moved in, when he was still in the settling-in stage, I was heading into the kitchen to get something started for dinner – and paused.  “…Hmm.  If I made a double batch of what I’m making, would you eat it?”

“What are you making?”

“Just some chicken tetrazzini to use up some roast chicken I made.”

“…What’s chicken tetrazzini?”

“Chicken meat, mushrooms, peas, pasta in a cream and cheese sauce.”

“Huh.  Okay, sure.”

And – he liked it.  I mentioned my cooking-for-one woes in passing, and that this was a refreshing change.  About an hour later, he gave me a thoughtful look.  “…So you like cooking, huh?”

“…yes, why?”

“How would you feel if….okay, I used to have like movie nights at my old apartment,” he said, hesitantly.  “Just like…a bunch of people coming over and watching a DVD or something.  How about I could get that going again, with you inviting some friends too if you want of course, and if you were interested in us cooking something then – ”

“YES.” I said, grinning.  I didn’t even let him finish.

The guy doesn’t quite yet understand what he has unleashed.  But when he sees that I have whipped up an entire eight-course Thai spread or an entire dessert table, he will.


Movie Crash Course: An Update To The Syllabus…

So remember when I just said two days ago that my movie list was ending with Grand Budapest Hotel?

Hah.  Nope.  That was the last film on the list as of the 2015 edition of the Movies To See Before You Die books.  And – as I was sort of expecting – there has indeed been another edition since then, that just came out in October.  And since I am a completist, I have added the latest new entries from the 2017 edition to my list.

….All twenty of them.

Fortunately, one of the last films is the lovely Moonlight, which does indeed have a Binging With Babish recipe – the pollo ala plancha, which the main character’s best friend makes up for him during a reunion (the Binging with Babish clip below features the scene in its opening).

It’s a lovely scene, actually, and it was a delicious-sounding recipe. And there was something beautiful in the film about how the lead’s friend lovingly takes time over the meal’s preparation – he’s working as a short-order cook, but he takes the time to carefully plate everything, placing everything just so, before serving it.  The scene is supposed to acknowledge the intimacy simmering at the heart of their relationship, and illustrate one of the few sources of genuine love the lead character has ever known.

It’s a lovely scene, and even though it means that I have 20  more movies to watch now, I’m secretly a little glad that this dish has supplanted the courtesan au chocolat as the swan song.


Movie Crash Course Concessions Stand

Because honestly, lunch was one of the best parts of the day in school anyway.

Sometime a few months ago, I discovered the Youtube channel “Binging With Babish” and fell instantly in love.  Binging With Babish is run by a filmmaker and amateur chef, who got curious about what the food depicted in movies and television actually might taste like – so he started trying the food out, trying to recreate the dish as depicted wherever possible, even if it was something utterly terrible-sounding like the candy breakfast pasta from Elf.  Or, he would come up with his own creation, like with the pigeon pie in his Game of Thrones episode here.

That was actually the first of his videos I saw, and gives a good idea of his approach; he’s smart about cooking, he tries to stay true to the spirit of the original dish, and he’s funny.  I was sold, and I’ve been watching his videos a lot in between movies for the Crash Course.

And when I saw he had a cookbook just come out, it immediately went on my Amazon wish list – and arrived as one of my Christmas gifts, courtesy of an aunt and uncle (thanks, Peter and Ellen!).  I immediately started flipping through it and making notes; there are some of the recipes featured in the videos, but also some that make their inaugural appearance in the books.  Of course I wanted to play.  And then I noticed – about a dozen or so of the recipes correspond with movies from the Crash Course list, which offers the perfect excuse to play around.

And thus has the Movie Crash Course acquired a Home Ec elective.  Going forward, after I review any of the movies from the list that have a corresponding recipe from Binging with Babish – either something from the book, or something on his Youtube channel – I’ll try it out, and report back.  There are some exciting-sounding things to try out, like a French Toast recipe inspired by Kramer Vs. Kramer, a gelato inspired by Roman Holiday and crème brulee for Amelie.  Some things sound really ambitious, like the Peking Duck from A Christmas Story; although, I’m going to be spared the most labor-intensive dish, fortunately (he has a recipe for the timpano from Big Night, a movie which is not on my list), but the last recipe on the list is going to be the fussy “courtesan au chocolat” pastry  from Grand Budapest Hotel – that is three chocolate cream puffs, in three different sizes, stacked on top of each other and bedecked in Wes Anderson pastels.

And my first recipe….well, I already tried it, and was honestly hoping to have it featured here today: it’s a recipe for dinner rolls as tribute to The Gold Rush, inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s dancing-dinner-rolls schtick.  And I did try it out this weekend.

However. Much as I love this cookbook, he does assume that the reader has a standing mixer, which can knead bread dough by proxy for the cook.  I….do not have a standing mixer.  So instead of the thorough 3-minute mechanical kneading the dough should have gone through, it only got about a minute and a half of me with a bowl and a wooden spoon trying to mimic the motions of a hand mixer as well as I could before my right bicep went numb.

And then to add insult to injury, my yeast was a little on the aged side.  Still able to proof, but not quite so enthusiastically.  And I was also cooking in the middle of a flippin’ arctic weather system that has settled over New York like a glacier for the past several days, so the advice to “let the dough rise two hours in a warm place” was pretty much impossible.   I forged ahead anyway, even as far as “slashing the rolls with a sharp knife before putting them in the oven” – but all my knives were too dull.

So my rolls were….well, they were actually downright tasty.  I ate two with dinner the night I made them, and then a further three as a midnight snack the next night and brought two to work with me yesterday.  But what they weren’t was photogenic.  So I’m considering this a test run, and will be trying again on a warmer day with fresher yeast and a sharper knife for the shaping step.   And….maybe I’ll hint broadly for a stand mixer when my birthday rolls around first, as well.  I’ve actually got ample time – the next featured recipe isn’t until I get to a cocktail from Casablanca and that’s quite a ways off yet.

Prendre Plaisir

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Somewhere in my travels this weekend, I ended up at a bookstore and was browsing the sale section – and when I saw a huge, beautiful book with the title French DessertsI immediately walked to the cash register with it.  Hey – that’s two of my favorite things right there in one title.

And it really is beautifully done – the focus is on the simpler dishes that people make for themselves at home rather than the fantastical things you’d find in a patisserie.  There are cakes and tarts and such, but instead of elaborate things like a religieuse or a caneleanything where I’d have to wrestle with piping bags, they have simple fruit tarts or plain cakes or puddings.   It’s exactly the way I like to cook – just pick good ingredients and get out of their way.

And I have some extra time after work and a lot of rhubarb and strawberries, and that means I can make something for my book club tomorrow – and that something will be the strawberry-rhubarb crisp bar cookies from the Smitten Kitchen, something I discovered a year ago.  They’re almost perfect – just sweet enough to feel that you’re having a real treat, but low enough in added sugar that you can get away with telling yourself that they make an acceptable breakfast food.  (I ate my way through one batch last week all on my own.)

I also have some lemon-verbena herb-spiked sugar syrup in the fridge, from when I was trying to cut back my lemon verbena plant; it gives lemonade an extra kick.  And I’ve just finished a glass.

So, I am now about to enter my kitchen, where I will make the strawberry bars, and then make a shrimp and noodle salad to chill in the fridge while I stir up some strawberry-laced blancmange and a French take on a chocolate panna cotta.

Yes, this is as life should be.

Feeding Others

On my 25th Birthday, one of my best friends – who lives outside New York – came for an overnight visit. We planned to take a walk through Chinatown and buy up whatever unusual and fascinating food things we could find, and then come back to my apartment and cook it all; I’d put the word out to my other friends that “if you turn up in the afternoon, you will get fed”.  My then-roommate somehow forgot the date and invited his table-top gaming club over for a game that same afternoon, but when they offered to leave I told them “no, you can stay and help us eat all this!”  Ultimately, we had 20 people crammed into my tiny living room, perched on folding chairs and huddled onto the sofa, and one person even had to sit on a step stool because we ran out of anything else.  But I will never forget the sight of all 20 of us, all engaged in the same lively, cross-the-room conversation, plates balanced on all our laps and eating homemade shrimp shumai and mung bean noodles and stir-fried chicken with peppers.

My 47th Birthday was yesterday, and I sought to recreate that birthday a little. I have a bunch of friends I know from all different contexts, and have wanted to introduce them to each other to see what would happen. It’s also the weekend before Mardi Gras, so I put the word out that anyone showing up at my place that afternoon would be fed, and then I got up at about 6 in the morning and started cooking. I went Cajun rather than Chinese this time – jambalaya, corn maque choux, two kinds of red beans and rice, a huge pot of gumbo. By the time the first guest showed up, I’d made the choice to abandon the shrimp etouffe, literally because there was no more room on the buffet table.

I even mail-ordered a King Cake from Gambino’s Bakery in New Orleans, and found a silly bejewelled pair of sunglasses to give to the person who got the baby in the cake.

My friends are the sort to also ask to bring things, but knowing how much food I was making I tried to steer them into simple things, like a spare bottle of soda or a bag of chips. But – rather than getting a single bottle of Sprite, they mail-ordered things – one friend found a web site offering local Louisiana things, and shipped me half a cases’ worth of stuff, including Abita root beer and Bananas Foster soda, and another couple brought a sampler case of different flavor Zapps’ Chips.  Sue couldn’t make it herself (our lives are both a little different than they were when we were 25), but earlier in the week she’d sent me a delightfully silly gift – a five-pound Hershey bar.

I actually wasn’t completely finished cooking by the time the first guests showed up, so I threw them in the living room with the chips and a bowl of peanuts I’d seasoned with a spice blend I’d picked up at a great little shop in New Orleans. I popped out of the kitchen to make basic introductions for people who hadn’t yet met (“So, Jonathan I know from kayaking, and Ian and Gabby I know through a play I did in 2005 – and there’s E, we were on a pub quiz team in the 90s and she just got a job with the library…”) and then just stood back.

And just as I hoped, there was lots of boisterous talk around the room. Jonathan and Gabby compared notes on kayak clubs. Niki asked E for book recommendations. After an hour Ian begged us to keep him away from the peanuts because he’d just eaten half a pounds’ worth.  Colin learned several of the guests hadn’t ever been to New Orleans and made travel recommendations. We passed around shared bottles of the fig soda, but were less brave about the bananas foster soda.  Niki got the King Cake baby. Everyone left well-fed, but there was still an enormous amount of uneaten food, which E blessedly helped me pack away into the fridge before she took off.

I took a closer look at the damage this morning after sleeping late. There’s still an awful lot of the gumbo, which E had thoughtfully doled into smaller ziploc baggies so they could be frozen. It’s a basic greens gumbo, which I can easily add leftover chicken or sausage too; the okra and tomatoes will also work there.  There’s easily enough jambalaya and red beans to see me through two weeks of brown-bag lunches, and the little bags of Zapps’ are perfect for snacks as well.  I did as many of the dishes that my drying rack can hold, and then made a breakfast of shrimp grits before tucking the rest of the shrimp into the freezer too.

I’ve also spent the morning browsing for recipes that use a lot of milk chocolate – I’ll definitely eat some of that huge Hershey bar, but probably not fast enough, and will definitely need to get through some of it by baking.  After only an hour of looking, though, I was already starting to get the idea that maybe another party would be just the thing – only make it all sweets, lots of cupcakes and tarts and cookies and puddings and…and more people in the house, more of the laughter and talking.

When you feed people, I discovered, you also feed yourself.

Deep Breath and Begin

I don’t really make resolutions. I’ve accepted that if I want to make a big change in myself, I need to wait until the desire and pressure has built up to a point where I am about to bust; picking an arbitary date and declaring “I’m going to start here” never has enough motivation behind it, and I fail. Much easier to wait and act whenever the moment rises.

Still, there are a couple things that are coming to me at this moment; a couple big ways where I have seen I could be taking much better care of myself and my life overall.

Cooking and food first. I’ve fallen out of the habit of cooking much for myself – I can throw things together at the last minute, but I’m starting to sneak back into my old theater days habit where “dinner” is a bag of Cheetos and a banana or something, because that’s what’s around the house and I am too exhausted for dinner. Or I’ll go totally the other direction and get a craving for roast chicken or some specific vegetable, and make it for myself – but then I fall prey to the single New Yorker’s curse, where I’ve purchased an entire package of two pounds of beets when I only needed a half pound, and the rest of the package sits in my fridge taking up room and growing slowly mushy.

At some point this weekend, though, the thought hit me that I need to think of my kitchen as a living thing.  It takes in food, and it digests it one way or another – either through my cooking and eating it, or through rot and waste. And then there are all the things that don’t rot, but aren’t getting used and are just taking up space.

So starting this weekend, I’m putting my kitchen, not me, on a diet. I’ll be shopping with a more careful eye on what I already have, how it can be used, and how to use up the leftovers of whatever I make. I’ll be making much more frequent use of my bento and tiffin to take food to work instead of running to the pizza place downstairs. I’ll be much more likely to tuck things in the freezer instead of letting them go bad – and to also rummage in the freezer instead of shopping. I’ll also be making a lot more soup stocks in an effort to use up the herbs that are overrunning my windowsill – and also snagging some of the less-pretty cuttings for things like air fresheners or bath treatments (I made a tea of lemon verbena yesterday, and instead of just tossing the stems, I threw them into a small pot of water and had that simmering on the stove a while; it was quite effective).

Related to that – I’m going to get back into the Calendar Cookery Challenge again. I let that fall after the election, out of sheer depression; but I’ve got to get that going again. Coincidentally, this kind of use-up-what-you-have home cooking kind of fits into the French bistro style, and I’m in a particularly French mood now (a year ago I was in Paris for New Year’s Eve) so I’m going to use Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking for January.  I’ve also splurged (thanks to an Amazon gift card from my brother) on a couple of single-serve Le Creuset dishes to break this in (woot!).

And all of this is going to ultimately be more frugal in the long run – which feeds into the second resolution, to get out of the damn house more often again. I’ve never been that well off – I’ve unfortunately had three separate periods of unemployment, none of them through my own doing, but all still seriously discouraging. After three times of having a job pulled out from under you because of company cutbacks, you find yourself bracing for impact all the time, doubting whether you should go to a coffee shop or buy a book for yourself because “what if I lose my job next week, I’ll need that ten dollars”. My current job is considerably more stable than others I’ve had – but could still pay a bit better, and I end up having to dip into savings much, much more than I’d like.  That’s made me much more likely to stay home and not do much of anything, out of some weird effort to conserve subway fare/lunch  money/laundry money/what have you.

But it’s damn depressing, and it’s started to starve me as a writer. Sheer fatigue is one big reason I haven’t written much in the past several months – but the other is the feeling that I have nothing to say. And the reason I have nothing to say is entirely because I haven’t taken myself out to look at things and meet people and read other things myself. That’s one big reason I’ve started doing the Movie Crash Course, just to give myself art to look at (I’ve got the Netflix account, let’s acutally make it work).  And when it warms up a bit more I’ll be heading back out into the parks and woods around the city, hiking more and exploring more there (thanks to some gear from EMS through another gift card from the parents!).

So. My roommate Sam has been out of town all week, and I used the time to give the fridge a good and critical cleaning. I made my usual New Year’s Day black-eyed peas and greens, but the greens came from the freezer. And the frozen tomato puree next to it got turned into a marinara sauce I can use for dinners this week if I’m falling-down tired, especially when I throw in some of the extra sausage from the package I got for a soup that’s simmering in the crock pot today. That soup and the peas-and-greens will do me well for bag lunches at work this week, and some other soups still in the fridge (squash, borscht, split pea) will all be great first courses for dinners too – and for that, I got a couple cheap packs of chicken breasts and pork chops and a bag of potatoes (there are about fifteen gratin recipes in the Wells cookbook alone).  And there’s a point today at which the soup will need to be set on “simmer” for a full five hours, which will be just enough time to slip out to a matinee at a nearby movie house.

Let’s see how far these good intentions carry me.



Operation Chocolat – Pungent Spice Chocolate

(For the whole rest of the winter, I’m going to be working through a cookbook devoted to 60 different kinds of hot chocolate. Because why not.)

So, lemme state first that this kind of recipe takes work.  This is no envelope of Swiss Miss or anything, here – this involves heating milk on the stove, steeping things in it, stirring chopped chocolate into the milk and waiting some more.  And that is assuming it hasn’t boiled over or spilled or foamed up all over the stove, and it also is assuming that you have time for this.  This isn’t hot chocolate for the quick hour you have after coming in from work and changing before running out to your book club.

But that’s kind of the point.  This is meant to be slowed down over and savored.  I have still rushed this recipe (see: book club), but I managed to get it done in time to linger a bit.  Calling a cab to the club instead of going by subway will save me time. (It’s freakin’ cold, I was already planning on a cab.)

I went fairly simple first – a basic recipe, with cinnamon and cloves spiking the milk before you stir in the chocolate. There’s a lot of chocolate in this, too – a quarter pound, whisked into the steamy milk on the stove. It’s made the drink super-thick – like there’s someone gently kissing me with each sip.

But I cut corners with the cinnamon and cloves, I think, as I don’t really taste them.  The recipe said to let them simmer in the milk for ten minutes before adding the chocolate, and I halved that to five in my haste.  I can smell them, faintly – just a whisper of them there.  Enough to suggest that if I’d been more patient, waited a bit more, I’d have tasted them more.

An intriguing lesson for next time.