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Rolling Tart Dough

Nurture. What a great word. So many meanings, so much promise. Full of hope and faith in the future.

As I mentioned way back when, at the start of 2012, Matt and I have a tradition: in lieu of New Year’s resolutions, every year we choose a single word to live by. A mantra to remind ourselves what really matters. This year during our New Year’s Day hike, when I asked Matt what he thought our 2013 word should be, “nurture” was the first word out of his mouth. And it was perfect. At the time, I was about 6 months pregnant, (now only 7 weeks, yes I said weeks, left to go!), and just starting to feel the movements of a new life taking shape inside me. We had nurtured the hope of becoming parents for a long time, and now it seemed it was really going to happen.

For us, the word contained not only the obvious meaning of nurturing our child, and cultivating the types of values we want to pass along as parents, but also a reminder to nurture ourselves and each other. To steady ourselves against the all-consuming, life-changing event on the horizon.

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I found myself thinking about this promise last weekend, as I was preparing a meal to drop off for my friend Clare who just had a baby. Most of the time, nothing gives me more pleasure or satisfaction than cooking for the people I love. And going above and beyond with a few culinary details (homemade chicken stock for my soup, pie dough from scratch), especially for people who might not have the time to do it themselves, is a gift I love to give. But last weekend, as I was rolling out pie dough with my great-grandmother’s wooden rolling pin (we’ll get back to her in a moment) and rushing to get my tart in the oven, I discovered that at 8-months pregnant, standing in the kitchen for hours is not as fun as it used to be. As much as I wanted to make the meal of all meals to soothe the bodies and souls of a family with their hands full (newborn AND toddler!), what I wanted and needed even more was a nap. In my quest to nurture others, I had forgotten to nurture myself.

Gramma in the iris bed

Now back to my great-grandmother, Mary Blanche. She knew a thing or two about how to nurture. For Christmas every year, she gave us each a tin of homemade cookies and new flannel pajamas, lovingly sewn. And when I visited her as a little girl, we would make snickerdoodles and tapioca pudding, and serve it up on her finest china at tea parties for prestigious guests (my dolls, stuffed animals, and other dignitaries.) She would pull a step stool up to her kitchen counter so I could be her kitchen apprentice, kneading and mixing at her side. I loved her wrinkled hands, talcum-scented and soft as pie dough. But in addition to all the loving touches she doled out to those around her, Mary Blanche was really good at taking care of herself. Of hearty Michigan farm stock, she had a streak of independence and gumption that served her well all her life. She lived out her final days alone in her house, and as family legend has it, was making herself a pot of homemade chicken soup from scratch on the day she died, at age 96.

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When I finally arrived at Clare’s house with a basket of homemade goodies, flustered from rushing around all day, I was greeted with a very calming reality-check. The whole family–mom, dad, newborn, and toddler were settled in for a Sunday afternoon nap. Rosy-cheeked, and pleasantly tired from a hike, they greeted me in PJs and bed-head and invited me into their cozy cocoon. Invited me to slow down. Leading by example in the most nurturing way.

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I was really happy to share a lovingly prepared meal with this family, and I know they sincerely appreciated it. But I also know they would have equally appreciated a much simpler gesture. And so, after that visit, I vowed to give myself permission to simplify. And naps. More naps!

Thank you Clare and Mary Blanche for helping me remember to nurture myself.

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The meal:

Sausage & Kale Dinner Tart, recipe from Food 52, posted by My Pantry Shelf. (Whose blog My Pantry Shelf  is definitely worth checking out.)

This recipe is fantastic. I’ve made it before. This time around, I made a few minor modifications in an effort to reduce the guilt I feel about eating pie for dinner: used a lower fat turkey sausage and substituted 1/2 cup of the flour with whole wheat flour. But then again, I probably negated those efforts by adding slightly more cheese (ricotta AND goat’s milk feta) than the original recipe calls for. Oh well. Delicious either way.

Served with cauliflower soup (recipe from The French Market: More Recipes from a French Kitchenby Joanne Harris & Fran Warde) and salad greens from our garden, with a homemade Dijon vinaigrette.

At least I was “self-nurturing” enough to double the recipes so we could also enjoy the fruits of my labor!

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It was a cold and rainy January night, and my headlights cut through the fog as I headed North along winding country roads. The occasional oncoming brights seemed to flash out of nowhere, doing little to calm my nerves. I clenched the steering wheel with trepidation, knowing I’d be reporting for my first day of boot camp at the CIA before the sun came up.

Although this may sound like the opening paragraph of a bad thriller, the CIA that I’m referring to is, of course, the Culinary Institute of America. Thanks to an incredibly thoughtful gift from my husband and parents, I was headed to spend the week of my birthday in “Culinary Boot Camp: Basic Training” brushing up on my cooking skills. The course promised hands-on training in all the fundamentals from knife skills, to kitchen terminology, to basic cooking methods like roasting, grilling, poaching and braising, just to name a few. Although I’ve considered myself a pretty good cook for years, I’d never had any professional training in the basics and I liked the idea of becoming more confident in the how and why of the kitchen. Spending a whole week in a real culinary school–you might even say THE culinary school–was a dare to myself. Would I still feel passionate about this hobby under such extreme circumstances? Do I have what it takes to even allow myself to daydream of making this a career someday?

CIA Napa

Those were the questions on my mind as I pulled into the dark parking lot at 5:45 the next morning and stared up at the imposing, castle-like fortress, appropriately named “Greystone”. After a few minutes in the lobby, exchanging nervous glances with the other recruits, we were issued our uniforms: black and white checkered pants and white double-breasted jackets, and sent to the bathrooms to change. Our instructor, Rebecca greeted us in the classroom, and stifling a laugh at seeing all of our kerchiefs tied around our necks like a bunch of new boy scouts, promptly instructed us that we’d need to make “some adjustments” to our uniforms. She showed us how to tie the kerchiefs like a cravat under our jackets, and how to tuck our towels neatly into our apron strings, and before we knew it, we were well on our way to acting the part of professional chefs.

After a brief orientation to the massive kitchen and a few demonstrations on knife skills, we were split into small groups and given assignments. Day one was stocks and sauces. We made five different types of stocks from scratch, which we would use in our recipes for the rest of the week. And on my first day of boot camp, I quickly learned that I have a lot to learn. I’m no stranger to homemade stock. I grew up in a house where the smell of homemade chicken soup in winter was as constant as the sound of the furnace keeping us warm. Open my freezer at home and you’re likely to find a roasted turkey carcass being saved for a rainy day. The method that my mother taught me, and that her grandmother taught her, yields a wonderfully rich, slightly cloudy, golden brown poultry stock that’s great in soups and stews with a robust flavor. But there is so much more to the art of stock-making that was new to me. I didn’t know about the constant skimming or the blanching of bones for an end result that is clearer in color and more delicate in flavor. I didn’t know to only add the vegetables in the last hour of cooking–just long enough to render their flavor but not long enough for them to break down and cloud the texture of the stock.

These moments of enlightenment–of deeper understanding of techniques and ingredients I thought I knew–continued throughout the week. After the first day of class, I called my friend Holly and excitedly told her “everything I thought I knew about cooking was ‘wrong’!” To which she protested (as the truly supportive friend that she is), “but how can it be wrong? Your cooking has always tasted great.” And that’s why I put “wrong” in quotes. Like any creative endeavor, there’s a lot about cooking that’s subjective and intuitive. In the kitchen, the ends often justify the means. But like a jazz musician with an understanding of  the fundamentals of rhythm and melody, a cook with a deeper knowledge of the science behind the art will get more consistently satisfying results when improvising. Throughout the week as we worked our way through roasting, braising, grilling, emulsions and starches I soaked up tidbits of knowledge on everything from the shape of protein strands as meat cools, to the acids released by green vegetables when cooked. And I learned something new about even the most basic of recipes. Even mashed potatoes, which is probably one of the first things I ever ate and is practically running through my veins, yielded an “aha moment” in the CIA kitchen.

After five exhausting and exhilarating days in a professional kitchen, I had blisters on my feet, an ossobuco burn on my hand, stains all over my white jacket, and a head that was spinning with fancy french terms like concasse and veloute. But more importantly, I had a new spring in my step, a new level of confidence in the kitchen, and a hunger for more. Where this passion may lead, I still do not know, but after a week at the CIA the spark is anything but extinguished.

Since I can’t possibly share everything I learned during my week at the CIA in one or two blog posts. I thought I’d sprinkle some of my newfound knowledge throughout the next few posts as I put it into practice at home. First up: roux and bechamel sauce. Last weekend, I made the classic Greek dish, “Papoutsakia” or “Little Shoes” (aka, baked eggplant stuffed with meat sauce and bechamel), which gave me a perfect chance to practice some of my new skills.

What I learned in culinary school about roux and bechamel:

-The basic ratio of roux is 6 parts flour/4 parts fat by weight
-At the CIA, we used clarified butter  (butter with the milk solids removed) because you can cook it a higher temperature without risk of burning. I must confess, I was lazy at home and just used regular unsalted butter.
-There are four stages of roux (cooked at varying lengths) which are used to thicken different sauces: 1) white roux, only cooked for about 8 min, just until raw flour taste is removed and the texture is like wet sand. Used in white sauces like bechamel. 2) Blonde/light roux, cooked another 2-3 minutes until color is golden and it smells like shortbread cookies. Used in thinner sauces like chicken veloute or gravy. 3) Brown roux, cooked until it’s the color of brown sugar and it smells like toasted almonds. Used in sauce Espagnole (tomato-based sauce with veal stock). 4) Black roux: cooked until it’s the color of molasses. Only used in Cajun/Creole cooking.
-The longer the flour cooks, the less thickening power it has.
-Classic bechamel sauce is made by adding scalded milk to white roux. Heating the milk with an “oignon pique” (whole, peeled onion, with a bay leaf “tacked” onto it with a few cloves) adds flavor.

Papoutsakia Recipe from “Modern Greek” by Andy Harris

6 small italian eggplants (mine were about 7-8″ long and 2-3″ in diameter. You can use any kind of eggplant. The recipe called for two large eggplants, but I chose the small variety for prettier individual servings.)
2-3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups meat sauce (recipe follows)
2 cups bechamel sauce (recipe follows)
3 Tablespoons finely ground bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese
chopped parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Half eggplants length-wise. Score flesh with a knife to create a diamond pattern, and then scoop out flesh with a spoon, taking care not to break through the skin. Chop flesh into small pieces, and saute in a skillet with olive oil over medium heat until cooked through and slightly browned around edges. Add cooked eggplant to meat sauce. Place eggplant halves skin-side down on a lightly greased baking sheet. Fill each eggplant with meat sauce, then top with a generous layer of bechamel (meat should be fully covered with bechamel sauce.) Sprinkle bread crumbs and parmesan evenly over stuffed eggplants and bake for about 40 minutes, until topping is bubbly and golden brown in spots. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Meat Sauce (yields about 5 cups)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 small/medium yellow onions, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
2 pounds lean ground beef
15 oz can of diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2/3 cup red wine
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Heat oil in a large skillet and saute onions, garlic and celery over medium heat until translucent. Remove to a bowl and set aside. Brown the ground beef in skillet over medium high heat, pouring off excess liquid/fat if needed. Add sautéed onion mixture back to pan and combine with beef. Season with salt and pepper. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for about 45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Consistency of sauce should be thick and not too liquidy.

Bechamel Sauce
(yields about 4 cups)
4 cups whole milk
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon all spice berries
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup flour
8 tablespoons finely grated parmesan
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste (white pepper preferred)

Scald the milk in a saucepan with bay leaves and all spice berries, and turn heat off. Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, until melted and frothy. Add the flour all at once. Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook over low heat until the roux is a pale ivory and the consistency of wet sand. About 8 minutes. Whisk the scalded milk into the roux (pour through a strainer to remove the bay leaves and all spice berries), and increase heat slightly to bring sauce to a boil, then reduce again and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes. Sauce should be thick and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in parmesan. Add nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.The bechamel for this recipe is thicker than the standard–it should be about the consistency of pudding when it cools slightly. If it’s too paste-like, add a little more milk.

The ratios listed above will make a lot more meat sauce and bechamel sauce than you need for the papoutsakia. You can either half the quantities, or use the extra for something else. I used the leftovers in a greek-ish lasagna layered with pasta, bechamel sauce (added a little more milk to thin it out), meat sauce, diced, roasted butternut squash, with a layer of mozzarella on top. It was delicious and definitely not your typical lasagna recipe.

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I recently spent a lovely week in New York, combining business and pleasure–which for me of course, means friends + food. The October weather could not have been more perfect: crisp, sunny and heart-breakingly fall. Living in California, I really miss fall. Winter, not so much. But sunny October days on the East Coast fill me with longing and make me want to do all kinds of cliché autumn things like apple-picking and pumpkin carving (which I checked off my list during this trip with my friend’s daughter Gabbie, who is missing her two front teeth, just like the Jack-o-Lantern we carved.)

Fall also brings cravings for warm, stick-to-your-ribs meals savored leisurely over good wine and good conversation in cozy, tucked away nooks. Another item checked off my list in NYC, thanks to my friend Jenny’s excellent dinner choice: Fedora in Greenwich Village. It was one of those small little spots hiding below street level in a brownstone building on a tree-lined street, contributing to the feeling that we had discovered a great little secret. Which apparently is not so secret after all, because the place was packed and Jenny and I practically had to lean nose-to-nose over our table to hear our own conversation above the Saturday night barroom buzz. Despite the acoustic challenges, we enjoyed an immensely satisfying meal of comfort food with playful twists. I couldn’t stop thinking about my entrée: a juicy pork chop with roasted figs and crispy kale chips scattered on top. So I tried to recreate the magic at home.

After searching online for some good pork brining recipes, I stumbled upon this mouth-watering recipe for Cider Brined Pork with Calvados, Mustard and Thyme by Oui, Chef on Food52. I used this recipe as my jumping-off point and made a few modifications inspired by my meal at Fedora. I followed the brine recipe precisely (except I only brined for about 8 hours because I hadn’t planned far enough in advance for an overnight brine. It was still good, and I’m sure would only get better if allowed to bathe longer.), and then made a few modifications to the sauce and pork preparation, as detailed below.

I still have not mastered the art of food photography after the sun goes down (which makes it especially hard to get good shots in the winter), so I’ll have to leave most of this to your imagination. You’ll have to trust me that it’s a very pretty dish. Fresh figs and kale chips make lovely accessories.

Cider Brined Pork Chop with Figs and Kale Chips
Serves 2.

Oui, Chef’s Cider Brine:
2 cups apple cider
1 1/2 cup water
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
3 sprigs fresh thyme

Place all brine ingredients in a medium saucepan, and stir over low heat until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool. Place pork in a in a shallow bowl, cover fully with brine, wrap and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight. When ready to cook, remove the chops from the brine, rinse well under cold water, and dry with paper towels before continuing.

While the pork was soaking, Mr. T and I decided to take the kayaks for a little spin along the waterfront to work up an appetite. (Okay, October days in California can be pretty sweet too.)

Then back to the kitchen…

Pork Chop and Fig Sauce (Modified from Oui, Chef’s recipe):
A large 2″ thick pork chop
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup brandy
1 shallot, finely minced
6 fresh figs, stems removed, cut in half
1/3 cup apple cider
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely minced

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat oil in a heavy (preferably iron) skillet over medium-high heat. Season pork with a little salt and freshly ground pepper. Add pork to skillet and sear until nice and brown, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer pork chop to plate and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Add shallots to pan and stir with a wooden spoon for 1-2 minutes, allowing them to brown slightly. If it seems dry, or like they are starting to burn, add a splash of oil or a pat of butter. Add figs and cook for one more minute. Turn heat up slightly to medium and de-glaze the pan with the brandy, scraping the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Stir in broth and cider, then mustard, stirring well to combine. Add thyme, then return pork chop to the skillet, and place the skillet in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until center of pork chop reaches 16o degrees.

Remove skillet from oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Carve pork chop into thin slices and plate (I served it over a creamy polenta) with fig sauce spooned on top and kale chips scattered on top and around the sides. We enjoyed this meal in our backyard, with a nice bottle of wine by the fire–savoring a crisp California fall night.

Other food highlights from my trip to NYC: A great dinner at Craft with David & Gary (everything was delicious. The octopus with harissa was a revelation, hen of the woods mushrooms were to die for, and I wouldn’t mind a chance to bathe in the vermouth sauce they served with the scallops); I’m still dreaming of the chocolate caramel pignoli tart with sea salt that Julie, Sharyn and I shared (fought over?) at Recipe; and oh how I wish I had been hungrier when I stumbled upon Donna Bell’s Bake Shop in Hell’s Kitchen. I could’ve climbed into the coconut layer cake for a nap (after my vermouth butter bath, perhaps?), but alas, I only had room for some sweet tea. Just another reason to return soon.

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