Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Journey with Pie

I've been thinking about this journey that I have taken with the blog. As well as "where should the journey be going now?" What began as documentation in 2007 turned into stories and the grandest part - evolved into friendships with bloggers. Some whom I have met - and some that I feel I have (met).

I garden a lot. In 2007, I kept plants alive. But in 2014, I garden. I've been grappling with a number for 2 years. The number is 60 - and what does that mean? (Aside from cheaper meals at places I don't usually go to.) I bird watch. Is that what 60 means - you morph into a bird-watching gardener? Do I find binoculars and a safari hat?

I'll be transplanting these babies next spring. To make room for more shrub roses. See - that's gardening. How did this city gal from Queens, NYC become someone who plans for next spring's garden? I grew up with a cement backyard! (Have the photos to prove it.)

After 4 years, we finally harvested more than three blueberries. And I was out there at sunrise, picking them, eating them and beating the early birds to their berries! Claudia "theatre person who would go to work in the eves" is out between 5:30-6 a.m. Is that what 60 is?

The raspberries are on steroids. Which is good - because the beetles seem to like them. I have been at war with the beetles for two years and quite frankly - they're winning. In addition to being a bird-nerd, gardener, and early riser - I am now a beetle warrior. (Or I've been reading to much of Game of Thrones and it has affected how I see myself.)

The thing about 60 - is Weight Watchers doesn't work anymore. I took off 28 pounds before going to Italy and never did finish the last 12.

So this winter Paul and I resorted to the apocalypse of dieting when you're Italian - low carb. Yes - little-to-no pasta, risotto, breads, polenta, dolci ... no wonder I haven't blogged! I have thrown my frustrations into plays - where I have detailed Italian food scenes. 

Everything's food. Ever notice that? Even Saint's have feast days. We feast. All the time. Then we gain weight and get criticized - 
I don't gain weight. 
No. You don't. There's something unnatural about that. You clearly are adopted. 
I actually eat all organic and watch the intake of carbs. 
How can you be Italian and watch your intake of carbs? We grew up with carbs in every shape and form. Stuffed carbs. Sauced carbs. Sauteed carbs! Braised carbs! Carbs with 
vegetables. Carbs made from semolina wheat. Carbs made from potatoes! And that's just the pasta! Don't get me started on the risotto! We celebrate with pasta. We mourn 
with pasta! We nourish, deal with stress, and end the day with carbs. We are genetically programmed to be carbed to death! No wonder I resemble a stuffed manicotti! 
Don’t forget the polenta! 
I did! How could I forget the polenta! And the breads! 

The cruelty of low-carbs - it works. Slowly - but it works. I am down 10 of the last 12 pounds and of course Paul is down twice that amount (because weight loss is sexist). 

And I've taken to baking pies. If I can't eat the carbs, I can dig my hands into them.

Bird-watcher, gardener, early riser, beetle battler and pie baker. 

The sixties are starting to scare me. 

I barely eat the pies (that carb thing). But I am compelled to bake them. Some wind up in the garbage when I'm mad at the crust (while family says, "I'll eat them"). I have a nice family.

So, I've been baking pies for two years grappling with 60. I long-ago came to terms that my inner ballerina will stay inner. And I won't be going to the Olympics except as a spectator. But I thought - I know! I could bake pies! (In 60+ years, this is the extent of my problem-solving ability - bake pies?)

You do a lot of thinking when you bake pies. I highly recommend it.  And this is easy (more and more I look at ease.... nah.... I always did - there's a slug inside of me).

Blueberry Hand-Held Pies - makes about 12 in a muffin tin
From Handheld Pies by Sarah Billingsley and Rachel Wharton

Flaky Butter Crust
1 cup cold, unsalted butter
2 cups flour (little more for dusting)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp Kosher salt
3-5 tablespoons ice water

Blueberry Filling
3 cups (340 g) fresh or frozen blueberries (if frozen, do not thaw)
1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Pinch of fresh nutmeg (optional - Ive done with and without and the nutmeg seemed to get lost)

Flaky Butter Crust (Double if you are doing a double-crust pie as I did)
1. Cut butter into 1/2 inch cubes and freeze them while you measure the dry ingredients.
2. Combine flour, sugar and salt in food processor. Pulse briefly to mix. Take butter from freezer and scatter over dry ingredients. Pulse until mixture forms pea-like clumps. Add ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time and pulse to mix - add just enough water for the dough to come together. When it does - you've added enough! (When it's humid here - I need less water. I have added to much and the crust just fell apart during baking. That's when I want to throw it out!)
3. Turn the dough onto a clean, floured work surface. Knead it a few times to smooth it out. Divide in half and press each half into a circle, square or rectangle - depending on how you will use it - I put mine in muffin tins so I form two disks - but you could also make them in the shape of pop tarts.)
4. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 3 days.

Blueberry Filling
In a bowl, combine all ingredients and gently mix. Use immediately.

1. Roll out dough on lightly-floured work surface. Flour top of dough lightly.  Roll into a circle - about 1/8 icy thick (mine were thicker). Using a round biscuit cutter or glass, cut out as many 4-5 inch circles as possible.
2. Gently life circles and press into muffin tin leaving an 1/8-1/4 overhang. Gather scraps and cut out more circles! You should have 12-14 circles.
3. Put 3-4 tablespoons of blueberry mixture into prepared muffin tin.

If doing a double crust (and you can lattice it if you like), gently lift circle and place on top of filled pies. Crimp the edges (you had an overhang) together.  If doing a single crust - just crimp your overhang. You could brush with a whisked egg and sprinkle with sugar.  Slash some little holes in the top of the crust.

Refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).

Bake for about 20-25 minutes - until the tops are browned.

Let cool on a baking rack for one hour before serving. (The pop out pretty easily - run a knife or a soup spoon under the pies after they've cooled for a little bit.)

You can go the whipped cream or ice cream route on top - but they're awfully good with a schmear of mascarpone!

My plays are taking me to more places. La Bella Cinderella was one of three plays honored by the Unpublished Play Reading Project at the American Alliance for Theatre Education.  So Paul and I followed it to Denver and then took a road trip out west. So "sixty" may not be as nerdy as I think.

Your sixties. If your lucky, it'll happen. And things are different. I write differently. I explore darkness (even with youth plays) and who-in-the-world would have guessed that "Claudia-who-is-allergic-to science" would be writing plays using physics as a portal? I visit worlds that are a touch more complicated than they used to be in my plays - with an eye to coming to grips with the time we have here on Carl Sagan's "little blue dot."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Living with Luce

I threw out a lot of butter. You know how you sometimes need to soften the butter before baking? I would put it in a covered butter dish, lay a dishtowel over it and then put bowls and pots around the edges. Then I would get distracted and return to the kitchen to see an impossibly furry tail under the dish towel and the sounds of happy lip-smacking.

I'd use my stern, Darth Vader voice, "Luuuuuuuce,,,"

And this little binky-face would look at me - whiskers all glistening from butter crumbs and a nose and lips moistened by fat.

I learned to lock up the butter in the china cabinet.

I threw out flour, sugar, cornstarch and salt. And turned the chairs around effectively keeping Luce in jail.

He enjoyed caviar.

And he never got terribly big. So you always had to check the back of the dishwasher before you closed it.

And he got away with every mischievous thing a cat can do - because he made everyone smile.

He was front and center for rehearsals in my home. And if an actor suddenly darted down - we knew that actor was rubbing Luce's tummy.

Luce learned from Pip how to lay on my laptop and become the quintessential "writer's block."

And even at 22 months - his fur and whiskers pointed in many directions giving him the appearance of Einstein.

I'm glad he had his butter and caviar escapades. My daughter posted, "You think you get years. But sometimes you get months. And in those months they become family." And if 20 months ago, I knew the outcome - if 20 months ago - I knew I would only get 20 months and then there would be pieces of my heart a bit crumbly and wobbly - I'd do it all over again. I'd bring little "wild-boy-found-in-the-woods" into our home (and hearts) because living with Luce was a confection. Living with Luce was monkeyshine and mayhem. Living with Luce was adventures in the sand - pieces of seashells from other places and other times. Living with Luce was love. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Little Hands and Weddings and Chicken and Carrots

Little hands. That's all I thought about for a week before the wedding - those little hands in mine. Holding hands as we navigated parking lots, streets - or just because.

And bike rides in the woods - the two of us singing as loudly as we could - to keep the bears away.

The flood of memories and how we got from Point A to here. And now I have another son. And was able to watch how warmly she has been welcomed into her husband's family and to know how happy we are to have him as part of ours.

I was so proud of myself. I held it together for the ceremony (officiated by a friend who sang at my wedding almost 28 years ago - how wonderful is that?). I held it together for the toasts. I even held it together when Devon and Kirsten had their first dance - all smiles and sweetness.

But then Paul and Kirsten danced to "I Saw Her First" and the floodgates opened.

And more mascara needed to be applied.

I had cousins in from NYC and the night before the wedding they were able to visit with Kirsten and Matthew. I served Chicken Marbella because it could be prepared ahead of time, is healthy (the rich foods were coming) and it is perfect for a crowd. It's Sam's recipe from My Carolina Kitchen. I have used it for many occasions and it always pleases. No leftovers!

Find the recipe here. It's an old Silver Palate recipe from the 70's and I promise you that you will use it again and again. And because it was the night before the wedding, I forgot to add the wine and brown sugar before cooking. And nobody knew. Chicken and olives and prunes... who needs sugar?

And served up some more healthy treats: Roasted Carrots from Stacey Snacks.

Find the recipe here. And because it was the night before my daughter's wedding, I forgot the avocado - and didn't tell anyone. Fresh carrots, chives, parsley and creme fraiche - who needs the avocado?

For the next two days we were tourists in our own city - reconnecting with my cousins and showing them around. I doubt they ever toured in a pick-up truck before!

Sunday eve, cousins are at airport (miss them), sister is at home and Paul and I are downstairs with sleeping cats watching Cosmos. Normal life. Sweet life.

A blessed life.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Filets Mignons with Mushroom Sauce - April Comfort

Comfort me with mushrooms. A skillet wine sauce with cremini mushrooms is right up my Italian-loving (filet mignon) meat alley. If you are wondering about the wisdom of posting comfort food in April because - your daffodils are up and you've planted your garden, I have four words for you. "How nice for you."

Here in White Bear Lake, we still have the home fires burning. Spring makes a brief appearance and then flits away singing, "Ha, ha - just teasing." No April foolery intended. Snow is expected this coming Thursday and Friday.

But the filets are not a tease. They're the real deal. Add some dried porcini for a more intense flavor. Are you grilling already? (We are grilling in the snow. I have one determined husband. He also grills in sandals. So I have one slightly-warped husband.) Grill the meats and make the pan sauce and voila - you have "An Almost-Spring Meal."

The recipe is from Saveur: The New Comfort Food - a gift from my son who knows me and my struggle with Minnesota winters all too well. And it's so easy (which is my mantra) but you don't have to tell anyone that.

Ingredients - Serves 4
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 8-oz filets mignon (salted with Kosher salt and pepper)
2 shallots minced
1 lb cremini mushrooms sliced (add some porcini - makes it even earthier)
1 cup red wine
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons sherry (I used sweet)
2 teaspoons cornstarch with 1 tablespoon of water
1 tablespoon chopped chives (garnish)
1 tablespoons chopped parsley (garnish)
I think scallions would also work as a garnish.

1. Heat oven to 500 degrees F. Heat 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet (12 inches) over high heat. Season filets with salt and pepper and add to skillet. Flip once until browned about 4-5 minutes. Transfer filets to baking sheet and roast until medium-rare - another 4-5 minutes. Transfer filets to a platter and tent to keep warm.

2. Bring skillet to medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of butter, the rest of the oil, the shallots and cook, stirring until shallots are softened - about 1 minute. Add mushrooms and cook (stirring occasionally) until softened - about 5 minutes. Add red wine and reduce heat to medium. Stir occasionally and reduce until sauce is syrupy - about 8-10 minutes. Add stock and cook until slightly reduced - an additional 4-5 minutes. Whisk in sherry and cornstarch mixture and bring to a boil. Stir continually until thickened.

Remove pan from heat. Whisk in remaining butter and then add the chives and parsley. Pour over filets. Serve. Who needs spring?

The top of the fridge has been my hiding place for appetizers and salads because someone has a "dairy habit" (Luce ferociously goes after cheese and butter.) Yesterday he figured out how to get to the top. Now what am I going to do?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Italian Cook Meets Ottolenghi

So this is where I am. But it's not an excuse for lack of posting. It's my daughter's wedding and I am mainly showing up where and when she needs me. She sometimes calls and asks questions or sends me a photo of something - which is sweet of her - but she has her own style and the day belongs to Kirsten and Devon. The gown is vintage, her bouquet consists of brooches - from family on both sides. I won't give away the music. There has been one unexpected sweetness: a friend of mine was recently ordained. She sang at my wedding. And she will be officiating for Kirsten and Devon. That's a lovely, sweet circle.

I find my cooking has been circular. Somewhere in the midst of the 4th or 5th Polar Vortex - I decided to leave my comfort zone. Try some Mid-Eastern cooking. And so I turned to Ottolenghi. I invited my urban children (and the other soon to be child) over and devised a menu. My list of ingredients went something like this:

Eggplant, pine nuts, saffron, garlic, basil, olive oil ... do you see what I am getting at? If it wasn't for the mint and the yogurt - I was back cooking Italian! But even if dinner was a mish-mosh-mash between Italy and the Mid-East, it was:
a. delicious
b. healthy (every day we are below zero, I gain a pound.... that's a lot of pounds this winter!)
c. delicious 

Marinated Turkey Breast with Lemon, Cumin, and White Wine

This lemony-herb sauce was a nice change from the Thanksgiving dinner. It was a bright and comforting addition to a winter table. Start it a day ahead - it needs to marinate for 24 hours. It is worth the time. And it couldn't be easier. (Well, if you bought everything from a store - that would be easier.)

Serves 4-6:
4 tbs mint leaves
4 tbs Italian flat parsley leaves
4 tbs cilantro leaves
1 clove garlic, peeled
4 tbs lemon juice
4 tbs olive oil
1.2 cup dry white wine
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
2-3 pound turkey breast - free range is nice

Put all the ingredients (except for the turkey!) in a food processor and process 1-2 minutes for a smooth marinade. (A blender also works.) Put the turkey in a non-metallic container and pour the marinade all over. Massage the marinade into the meat.  Immerse the turkey in the sauce. Cover and put in fridge for 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 425 F/220 C. Remove turkey from marinade (save marinade) and put it on a baking sheet. Place in oven and roast for 15 minutes. Lower the temp to 400 F/200 C and cook for 15 more minutes. Then lower again to 350 F/180 C. Cook until turkey is done - about 30-45 more minutes. I use a meat thermometer to make sure. If the skin gets too dark, cover with foil.

For the sauce: heat the marinade in a small saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes - until it is reduced by 1/2. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Remove turkey from oven and let it rest for ten minutes. Slice thinly and serve with the warm sauce.  (Can also serve cold: let meat completely cool and then slice. Serve with cold sauce on the side.)

I doubled everything to serve 6 with leftovers. Leftovers are a must.

I served this with a few sides. The eggplant was a hit and it's coming back here this week.

Roasted Eggplant with Saffron Yogurt - serves 4

Saffron Yogurt
a small pinch of saffron threads
3 tbs hot water
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 clove garlic, crushed
2-1/2 tbs lemon juice
3 tbs olive oil
coarse sea salt to taste ( a pinch is enough)

To make the sauce, infuse the saffron in a small bowl of the hot water for a few minutes. Pour the infusion into the bowl containing the yogurt, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and coarse sea salt. Whisk to get a smooth sauce. taste and adjust salt if need be. Cover and chill. This will keep for up to 3 days. This is also delicious on many roasted vegetables and potatoes!

3 medium eggplants cut into 3/4 inch wedges or slices (I peeled and sliced them)
olive oil for brushing
2 tbs toasted pine nuts (I omitted because of an allergy)
handful of pomegranate seeds
20 basil leaves
coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 475 F/220 C. Place eggplant slices on baking sheet. Brush them with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-35 minutes - until they are a lovely light brown. (I turned them over.) Remove and cool slightly. (Ottolenghi says these can be made 3 days ahead of time and brought to room temperature - but I think that is not optimum.)

To serve: arrange eggplant slices on platter, drizzle the saffron yogurt over them, sprinkle the pine nuts and the pomegranate seeds and the basil and have at it. It's part summer and part winter. It kept the Polar Vortex at bay.

Below is my own Polar Vortex. (He thinks I cannot see the tail.) I am learning how to cook with Luce. It's like cooking with babies.*

*Please note photo was snapped after the baking was done. He is not allowed near any ingredients or pots and pans during prep and cooking.

And the only way to accomplish that is to wait for Luce to go to sleep. Mind you, I'm not delighted that his tail gets into the leftover flour on the table. But one day he won't be a little sneak-face getting into everything. Right? Tell me, I'm right.