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5.27.2010

Peas without apology

Last weekend, over the course of 24 hours, I ate almost a pound of peas. I’ve done crazier things in my life, but not many.




I would like to tell you that I bought my peas at the farmers’ market, and that I shucked each one by hand, and that it was a true, starry-eyed labor of love, pod after pod after pod after pod, because it’s spring, and people are supposed to eat fresh peas in spring. But I haven’t seen any peas at our market, and I didn’t feel like waiting, so I bought a one-pound bag in the freezer aisle at the grocery store. I totally cheated, and I am not sorry. I needed some peas.

Maybe you hate peas, or maybe you tolerate them, or maybe you like them enough to feel like crying if you don’t consume a large quantity of them between the months of March and June. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that, whoever you are, you should try a little dish called peas with prosciutto, preferably the recipe from Italian Easy, by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. Italians have a way with peas, which is to say: they cook them for a long time. Stay with me here. Go get some peas, and then cook them slowly in butter and scallions and garlic, until they go almost olive green. Then top them with prosciutto and let the whole thing hang out for five minutes or so, until the prosciutto twists and curls in the heat, letting loose its salt and fat and flavor and funk. What you’ll have then are some serious peas, some gutsy peas, peas without apology.

Until recently, I was under the impression that peas were to be cooked very little, if at all. It would have never occurred to me to use the words “pea” and “olive green” in the same sentence, except in the context of something deeply regrettable. My grandparents’ generation cooked the daylights out of its peas (and pretty much everything else), and we learned our lesson. Our peas were to be bright green, and when you closed your teeth around one, it was supposed to give way with a small, cheerful pop. But then I met my friend Francis, who has great respect for the olive green pea. He reminded me that peas are legumes. They’re like young beans, basically. When they’re newly picked, they’re filled with sugar, but as they age - which they do with great speed - those sugars turn to starch. As with other legumes, if you want them to be sweet and tender and not starchy, you’ve got to cook them until they taste sweet and tender and not starchy, and that can take a while. Francis says it a lot better that I can, but basically, unless you’ve got some very fresh specimens on your hands, you would do well to give them a thorough cooking.

That said, frozen peas are a special case. You can go either way with them. Because they’re frozen quickly after picking and processing, they’re generally fairly sweet, without a ton of starch. I’m happy to eat them pretty much any way they’re cooked, or even not cooked at all. But when I tried cooking them long and slow, longer than I ever had before, I found something totally new. At first, early on in the cooking, the peas tasted good: clean and mildly sweet, with a snappy skin and a tender center. But as they kept cooking, the flavor went deeper, into a different dimension of sweetness, one that’s lower, closer to the soil. The skin started to wrinkle, and the inside got creamy, and though there was nothing mushy about it, the whole thing sort of melted between my teeth. The key is to taste as you go, and to stop cooking at the perfect midpoint between crunch and mush. You’re not trying to cook the crap out of them, but close. It doesn’t take long – just 15 minutes or so – but it’s a lot longer than most of us are accustomed to. Your hand will probably start itching to turn off the stove around the three-minute mark, but hold steady. Be strong. Be Italian, for approximately 15 minutes. You won’t be sorry.



Peas and Prosciutto
Adapted from Italian Easy: Recipes from the London River Café, by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers

The original version of this recipe calls for fresh peas, but I used frozen instead. If you choose to use frozen, I recommend buying the kind labeled “petite peas,” which tend to be smaller and sweeter. If you think of it, try to defrost them slightly before using them here. But if not, just bang the bag around on the counter to break up any big clumps.

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
1 spring onion or 2 scallions, chopped
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1 lb. fresh or frozen peas
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
About 2 ½ ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, torn into bite-size pieces

Melt about half of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook slowly to soften. Do not allow to brown. Add the peas, stir to combine, and then add the remaining butter. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the peas are tender and sweet, about 10 minutes. Add the prosciutto, and stir to mix. Then turn off the heat, cover the skillet, and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Taste, and season as needed.

Serve warm.

Yield: about 4 side-dish servings

5.17.2010

You deserve a waffle

World, we have a winning waffle.




You people are outstanding. You really know your waffles. Thank you. I should ask you for advice more often, because together, you’re absolutely unstoppable. I’m pretty sure that, given a day or two, you could solve any problem, and if I may, I would like to suggest that you start with my pet conundrum: how to make potatoes come out of the ground already fried. I think a lot of us would like to know.

Anyway, I read your suggestions, every single one of them, and after much hemming and hawing and hand-wringing, I chose two to try. It wasn’t easy, and my thinking went something like this:

Yeasted waffles got the most votes, so I had to make at least one batch. Of the yeasted recipes mentioned, Marion Cunningham’s was cited most often, followed by Mark Bittman’s and Cook’s Illustrated’s. I looked them up, and it turns out, they’re all remarkably similar in ingredients and amounts. I probably could have tossed a coin, if coins had three faces, and been happy with whatever recipe I got. But I chose to try Marion’s, and I chose it for three reasons: 1) again, it was cited most often, 2) it calls for the type of yeast - active dry, as opposed to instant - that I usually keep on hand, and 3) it’s very simple, with no beating of egg whites or other additional steps. Also, and maybe you’ve noticed this, but that recipe has been printed and reprinted everywhere. It’s been featured in books by Rose Levy Beranbaum and Shirley Corriher. It’s also all over the Internet. Which sort of begs the question of why I didn’t make it for my mother on Mother’s Day, but oh well. I’m a slow learner.

I also wanted to make a waffle that was not yeasted, to be fair. A number of you mentioned the Joy of Cooking recipe. A number of you also pointed me toward a recipe published in and Food & Wine and Fine Cooking by cookbook author Pam Anderson, who should not be confused with Pamela Anderson, formerly of Baywatch and Tommy Lee, and I make that clarification because I was, myself, briefly confused. And there were many other suggestions as well, including several good-looking family recipes. But a lot of you also mentioned a recipe called Waffles of Insane Greatness (WIG). A name like that is very, very hard to ignore. It’s ballsy. It felt like a direct challenge, and I must admit, my interest was piqued. Also, oddly enough, I noticed that WIG has a lot in common with Pam Anderson’s recipe, which I took as a good sign. Both called for cornstarch, and their ingredient lists are almost identical, differing only - and only slightly - in the amounts of oil, sugar, and vanilla. I decided to go with one of the two, and in the end, I decided on WIG. I wanted to see if it could live up to its title.

Last - and I’ll getting to the actual tasting soon, I swear - I wanted to make a waffle with some sort of whole grain flour, because so many of you suggested it. But after much consideration, I decided that it’s a whole other can of worms, and one best opened on another day. To those of you who suggested recipes involving whole wheat flour, spelt flour, oat flour, buckwheat flour, and any other flour, thank you. I’ll get there soon! As soon as I recover from yesterday morning. We made a lot of waffles.



A meeting time of 10:00 am was set, and there were to be five of us eating - including two cooks from Delancey, Ryan and Brandi, whose palates I knew I could trust. I did not take this lightly. Crust and crumb were poked and prodded, held to the light, thoroughly examined. The smell of yeast and coffee and hot butter hovered over the table, as heavy and palpable as steam.



Much syrup was consumed. The carnage began to pile up. It was ugly. It was a great morning. I ate five waffles, and I lived to see the afternoon.



I also came away with not one keeper-quality recipe, but two. I’m not saying that to be politic. I mean it. Both recipes beat every waffle I have ever had. (Not counting gaufres de Liège; those are totally different.) Who could ask for more? I love you, blog. I love you, comments function. I love you, people.

Here’s the thing. For me, the Marion Cunningham waffle, the yeasted one, is capital-W Winner. It’s incredibly light and crisp, but the inner crumb is soft, tender, almost custardy. I can’t say enough about that texture. I wanted to eat waffle after waffle after waffle, just for the way it felt between my teeth. It isn’t particularly sweet, which I like very much, and at first appraisal, it can even seem a little salty. But as soon as you pour on some maple syrup, it makes sense: the salt and the sweetness make each other hum. That complexity, plus the complexity brought by the yeast, plus the good hit of butter in the batter, combine to make the kind of flavor that lasts, that hangs around long after the waffle itself is gone. Plus, and this is a big plus, because the yeasted batter requires an overnight rest, you do 90% of the work - which is very easy work - the night before. The morning of, you have almost nothing to do, except make some coffee and turn on the radio and feel pleased that you have almost nothing to do. It’s heaven. It’s the top. I wouldn’t change a thing.



That said, if I didn’t plan ahead, and if I woke up one morning desperately needing a waffle, I would make WIG. And I would be similarly elated. In fact, sitting around the table yesterday, we had a hard time declaring a winner, and at first, it looked as though WIG might be it. When you bite in, it’s absolutely remarkable, with a craggy, shatteringly crisp crust. I’ve never seen or eaten a waffle with so crisp an outer crust. I think the cornstarch is to be thanked for that. The waffle tastes wonderful, too: nicely toasty and caramelized, complex, sweet but not too sweet. But to me, the flavor didn’t persist the way that the flavor of the yeasted waffle did, and it didn’t have the same depth, and I don’t know. It sort of petered out halfway through. It was delicious, and had I never eaten a yeasted waffle, I would drive around all week with the windows down and a megaphone to my mouth, telling the city to make these waffles. But because I have now eaten the Marion Cunningham yeasted waffle, I don’t feel quite so moved. It’s all relative. If only I had heard of WIG earlier! Think of what might have been.

Or don’t, and instead, go make some already. If you’ve read this far, you deserve a waffle.



Marion Cunningham’s Raised Waffles
(pictured above in image #1, on the left side of image #4, and image #5)
From The Breakfast Book

This recipe uses dry yeast, which is often sold as “active dry” yeast. It’s different from instant yeast (often sold as “rapid rise”), so be careful not to confuse the two, even though the packaging often looks similar.

Most waffle recipes work in any kind of waffle maker, but I get the sense that this one is intended for use on a standard (not Belgian) waffle maker. Mine is Belgian-style, and the batter was a bit too thin to really fill it properly. It wasn’t a biggie – they still taste great, and they’re pretty on one side, at least – but just, you know, FYI.

½ cup warm water
1 package (2 ¼ tsp.) dry yeast
2 cups whole milk, warmed
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 tsp. table salt
1 tsp. sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ tsp. baking soda

Pour the water into a large mixing bowl. (The batter will rise to double its volume, so keep that in mind when you choose the bowl.) Sprinkle the yeast over the water, and let stand to dissolve for 5 minutes.

Add the milk, butter, salt, sugar, and flour, and beat until well blended and smooth. (Electric beaters do a nice job of this.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it stand overnight at room temperature.

Before cooking the waffles, preheat a waffle maker. Follow your waffle maker’s instruction manual for this, but my guess is that you’ll want to heat it on whatever setting is approximately medium-high. My waffle maker has a heat dial that runs from 1 to 7, and I turned it to 5. My waffle maker is nonstick, so I didn’t grease it, and Marion Cunningham doesn’t call for greasing it, either.

Just before cooking the waffles, add the eggs and baking soda, and stir to mix well. The batter will be very thin. Pour an appropriate amount of batter into your hot waffle maker: this amount will vary from machine to machine, and you should plan to use your first waffle as a test specimen. Cook until golden and crisp.

Yield: depends on the size and configuration of your waffle iron


***


A Great Make-the-Morning-of Waffle
(pictured above in image #2, #3, and the right side of #4)
Adapted slightly from the “Waffle of Insane Greatness” recipe

The original version of this recipe calls for 1 cup milk or buttermilk, but I split the difference and use ½ cup of each. The texture of the batter was lovely, and I liked the slight tangy quality of the waffles, so I’d recommend that you try the same course of action.

Also, this waffle works in any kind of waffle maker.

¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornstarch
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. table salt
1 ½ tsp. sugar
½ cup whole milk
½ cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil, such as canola
1 large egg, lightly beaten
¾ tsp. vanilla extract

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Whisk well. Add the milk, buttermilk, vegetable oil, egg, and vanilla extract. Whisk to blend well, so that few (if any) lumps remain. Set aside to rest for 30 minutes.

Preheat a waffle iron. Follow your waffle maker’s instruction manual for this, but my guess is that you’ll want to heat it on whatever setting is approximately medium-high. My waffle maker has a heat dial that runs from 1 to 7, and I turned it to 5. There’s no need to grease the waffle maker.

Pour an appropriate amount of batter into your hot waffle maker: this amount will vary from machine to machine, and you should plan to use your first waffle as a test specimen. Cook until golden and crisp.

Yield: depends on the size and configuration of your waffle iron

5.10.2010

A quick couple

Hi.
I wanted to say a quick couple of things.

First, a last-minute reminder for my neighbors in Ballard and the other good people of Seattle and the surrounding area: I’m giving a talk and reading tonight, May 10, at the Ballard Library. It’s free and open to the public, and it starts at 6:30 pm. (In case you’re confused, not to worry: this is the event that was originally scheduled for April 18 and had to be postponed.) Secret Garden Bookshop will be there to sell books, and miracle of miracles, I’ve even convinced Brandon to come and listen, though he has to listen to me talk every single day and it’s his night off and he would rather be sleeping. We’re going to have a great time. You’ll see.

Also, I have some exciting news to share! Not too long ago, I was asked to contribute to a book called Sundays Are For Lovers, the newest volume by Lines & Shapes. The book features some of my favorite artists in a number of different media, and I think it’s going to be beautiful. It comes out on June 15, but as of today, it’s available for pre-order at a reduced price. The book’s curator, my friend Maria, did some fancy footwork [warning: this link has music] to celebrate the occasion, and that pretty well sums up how we all feel about it.

Also, Delancey and Chuckanut Brewery are co-hosting a dinner in concert with Seattle Beer Week, and there are still a few seats left. The dinner is on May 18, and you can find more information and buy a ticket at Brown Paper Tickets. We’d love to cook for you.

Last but not least, I made some totally mediocre waffles for my mother yesterday.



Totally mediocre. It bears repeating.



The poor woman put me on this earth, and I made her iffy waffles. They tasted like nothing. I want to do better. I don’t ask you for favors often, but: do you have a favorite waffle recipe? A tried-and-true? If so, would you point me toward it? My mother and I would appreciate it.

Be right back.

5.01.2010

Her recipe box

Well. That was not at all what I planned for the month of April.
So long, April. So long, plans.

I want to get this show back on the road. I’ve missed being here, and I’ve missed you. But before we go any further, I want to offer a long overdue thank you to those who came to my readings last month. I thought I had a great time on my first tour, but somehow, I had an even better time this year, despite the fact that I was dealing with a whopping case of laryngitis and could hardly speak. I hope you could hear me, and that you enjoyed it. It made me so happy to meet you. I’ll be high on that well into next year, I think. Which is a good thing, because there won’t be any more touring until I write another book, and writing books takes a while. I’ll keep you posted.

Also, I want to thank you for your very kind comments and e-mails about my grandmother. Nanny, as we called her, passed away on April 15. She’d been slowly declining for a number of years, but the last two were particularly hard for her, and hard for us, and when she got a cold in early April, we knew she couldn’t withstand it. It’s never easy to lose someone, but in this case, to be honest, I’m relieved. She was ready. She’d wanted to go, and she was very vocal about that. If anything, I’m sad that she had to go through so much discomfort, and wait so long, before she could get her wish. I’m happy that she’s free. She’s with my grandfather now, her husband of almost fifty years, who passed away in 1992. I’ll bet they’re elated. Can you imagine? What a reunion.

After she was gone, we had to clear out her apartment, which meant dividing up her belongings. I came home with a lot of photographs. Nanny was very good about writing dates and names and any relevant notes on the back of family photographs, but she wrote only “Feb ‘51” on this one. By the date, I’m guessing that she’s holding her youngest child. I love her hair. I can’t imagine having a baby, plus six other young children running around, and having hair that good. I have only a dog, and a restaurant, if that counts, and my hair is a disaster.




That aside, I also got to keep her recipe box. I know she would like that.




It’s made of enamel, and it’s sturdy and heavy, filled with index cards and newspaper clippings separated into categories by stout green partitions. I flipped through it and was thrilled to find a few dinner party and cocktail party menus among the recipes, jotted on slips of white paper. I can now tell you that on Sunday, December 30, 1984, she and my grandfather had guests in from 3 to 6 pm, and she served:

Smoked Turkey + Rolls
Phyllis Dip
Crudite + Spinach Dip
Cookies
Candies
Chocolate Chip bread
Fruit cake.

She must have served a lot of fruit cake, because I found it listed on other menus, too. I had no idea she was so into fruit cake. I also found the following recipe in the appetizers section, and I have to type it up for you exactly as it was written, because it would be a shame not to share the wealth:

Nibbler
Bowl of peanuts + raisins
Mixed

Man, I love that. I love Nibbler.




But most crucial for our purposes, I found a recipe for something called Cinnamon Toast. I know you’re sitting there like, Riiiight. Cinnamon toast. Tell me something I haven’t heard, but bear with me, because this is different. It’s not bread that you toast and then butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. It’s bread that you cut into triangles, generously coat on both sides with melted butter, dredge in cinnamon sugar, and then bake until crisp. You can keep them in a tin on the counter, where they actually get better with a day or two of age, and you eat them like cookies. I don’t know where the recipe originally came from, but it was written in what I think is my aunt Millicent’s handwriting. My mother tells me that she also has it, and that she’s had it for years. She used to make it all the time, she says, particularly when she was having a morning meeting and wanted something to serve with coffee. I don’t remember ever eating it, and to be frank, I sort of had a hard time believing it could be worth a real, written recipe. I mean, it’s CINNAMON TOAST. But I tried it yesterday, and I was wrong. Nanny, Mom, Millicent, I was wrong. I was so wrong. Next, I’m making Nibbler.

You should try this recipe. I’ve never had anything quite like it. The premise is simple, and so are the ingredients, but it sort of defies categorization. The bread gets crisp and crunchy, and the butter gives it some richness, and the cinnamon sugar caramelizes lightly, going almost lacy at the edges. My mother says it’s “like cinnamon candy,” but to me, the overall experience is closer to a snickerdoodle cookie. Only easier, and faster, and crunchier. Which is to say, I like it even better.



Cinnamon Toasts

This recipe in its original form calls for dipping the bread in butter. On both sides. I tried it, and the bread got so saturated that it sort of terrified me. There was a LOT of butter in that little piece of bread. I found that brushing on the butter is a more moderate, palatable approach, and it still works very well. Either way, you’re going to use quite a bit of butter, and please don’t freak out about that. If it helps, keep reminding yourself that this is not breakfast; this is a cookie. Make it your mantra.

Also, the original version of the recipe calls specifically for Pepperidge Farm white bread. My grocery store didn’t have any, so I used Franz brand “Milk and Honey” bread instead. Whatever brand you use, make sure that it’s not too squishy and spongy. The quantities of butter and cinnamon sugar listed below should be pretty close to perfect for six slices of sandwich bread, but if you have extra butter or sugar, just use more bread.

1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, cubed
6 slices white sandwich bread, or more as needed
½ cup sugar
2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 325°F. If you want, line a baking sheet with parchment or aluminum foil. It makes cleanup easier.

Put the butter into a pie plate or similar baking dish. Slide the dish into the oven, and keep an eye on it. You’re looking for the butter to melt completely.

Stack the slices of bread, and then cut them diagonally into quarters. You should have 24 triangles.

In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar and cinnamon. Turn the cinnamon sugar out onto a dinner plate, or another pie plate.

When the butter is melted, remove it from the oven, and brush it onto both sides of a triangle of bread. Don’t be shy: apply the butter generously, so no spot is left uncoated. The bread should feel a little heavy in your hand. Dip the bread into the cinnamon sugar, taking care to coat both sides. Lay it on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pieces of bread.

Bake the toasts for about 25 minutes, until lightly browned. Transfer to a rack. The toasts will crisp as they cool. When cooled, store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Note: These taste best with a little age. When I tasted them on the day they were made, they were just okay, but by the next day, the flavors had come together nicely.

Yield: 24 pieces