Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Life Lessons in the Kitchen

Last night we had friends over to redeem their wedding gift certificate: a his-n-hers cooking lesson. They're two of the busiest people I know, so I wanted to teach them how to make dishes that are simpler than they seem and that they'd want to make again. Italian's always a winner, so that was our cuisine.

I feel like I learned more than I taught.

I learned that it's okay to strip down the agenda. Casey and Missi were just returning from four days of camping, so they were tired when they got here, and it was a little late when we started. Instead of teaching them to do everything on the menu, I went beyond prepping and made some of the simpler things myself in advance. I selected two items to focus on teaching them: pasta and tiramisu.

A pasta machine can be an intimidating contraption, but once you give it a go, you realize it's not so difficult. And once you've had fresh, homemade pasta, you never want the dried-stuff-in-a-box again. So I talked them through making and rolling dough, cutting fettuccine and assembling ravioli.

Ravioli: Hide the yummy filling between a couple of pieces of dough and glue 'em together with a painting of egg.

Fresh fettuccine: Putting those Play-Doh skills to practical use. This is waaaay more fun--and tastier, too! They were impressed with the pasta maker and pleased to know that it doesn't cost a gazillion dollars. I see more fresh pasta in their future.

I learned that in this setting, you don't have to sweat too much technique. After all, this isn't for a grade. The tiramisu wasn't quite as voluminous as it could have been, but I figured it was more important to demystify the dish than to get into the minutiae of folding the yolk mixture with the whipped egg whites just-so for maximum volume. The results tasted great.

Divide and conquer: Missi combined the yolks and sugar,
while Casey focused on frothing up the egg whites.

And I learned that it's okay to set something on fire--within reason. And that you don't have to panic if it happens. While I was busy explaining how to broil the bruschetta without setting it on fire, IT CAUGHT FIRE! (There's a humility lesson in there, too.) But a quick dousing in the sink took care of that, and, after laughing our butts off and taking pictures with the cremated bread, we moved on to make the pasta while Andy produced some relatively carbon-free bruschetta. The bruschetta was supposed to be a starter, but we had it later with the pasta and enjoyed the tomato-bread salad as a starter. No problem!

Which wine pairs best with charcoal?

Essentially, it's all about having a good time, so if everything isn't explained to the n'th degree, that's okay. We had fun and enjoyed each other's company, and the food wasn't half bad either.

Most importantly, we made memories. That's a gift we all received, one that doesn't need exchanging, can't break and won't gather dust.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Beans: Getting Reacquainted With an Old Friend

Beans seem to be everywhere nowadays, quite fashionable in these times of fiscal restraint. I've never been a fan of dried beans, probably because the ones I have always tried to cook were simply too old. But I finally came to understand: Just because you buy a bag of dried beans, that doesn't mean you can save them for nuclear winter. But how do you know which bag of hard-as-rocks pellets on the shelf will cook up into something desirable?

Enter Steve Sando and Rancho Gordo. I first met Steve and enjoyed his remarks at a blogging workshop during the International Association of Culinary Professionals annual conference a couple of years ago (in fact, it was Steve and Pim of Chez Pim who helped me conquer my reservations--or cancel my reservations?--and get a food blog going. Thanks, you two!). In addition to the entrée on blogging, I learned about Steve's lovely heirloom beans and decided I really should give dried beans a second chance (what's all this about "give peas a chance" anyway?)

I mulled over which ones to fix first (I got crazy and bought three bags at Cube in L.A. last week). Borlotti? ooh, love that sexy Italian name. Yellow Indian Woman? They look good, but the name suggests confused and perhaps politically incorrect associations. Yellow Eye? Well, that's a symptom of jaundice, but, what the hey? I think the Yellow Eyes could use a little love today.

Into the cast iron pot went the Yellow Eyes, along with onion, carrot, celery, chicken stock, a few herbs from the garden and a fresh bay leaf from my new bay laurel tree (woo-hoo!). I included some chopped leek, since it makes everything it goes into velvety and lush, and I figured leeks certainly couldn't diminish a pot of beans. And I tossed in a hunk of hog jowl I'd stuffed into my suitcase when I returned from Memphis after Christmas.

Because they were not bagged in the Eisenhower era, Steve's beans cooked up beautifully, without having to be soaked. (That has always been one of my problems with dried beans--you had to have the forethought to put them in to soak the night before you wanted to eat them; then you had to be able to put together a future-dinner early the next day, so it could cook while you were at work. Dried beans were never a food I could enjoy on a whim.). The Yellow Eyes came out tender, with none of the mealiness that characterizes my usual best efforts at cooking any dried legume. And they were flavorful, thanks to both the freshness of the beans (I think dried beans that are past their prime get a little stingy with their flavor) and the addition of smoky pork product, which makes everything better.

I guess the lesson then is "Know your bean." Knowing the source of the beans certainly helped.

Speaking of beans, congrats to Ken Albala for snagging yet another award, this one the Cordon d'Or in Food Literature/History, for his book, Beans: A History, which remains partially read on my bed stand (there's quite a stack there--I read a few pages of each every night, so it takes me forever to finish a book). Reading Beans is almost as much fun as listening to Ken wax poetic and geeky over a beer about a subject he knows well and is clearly passionate about. Who knew beans could be such a fascinating topic? or that they could be tied so tightly to both the life and the death of Pythagoras? Before the word "vegetarian" came into use, non-meat eaters were called Pythagoreans. Fancy that...

I'd have to say I don't really know beans about beans, but with the help of Steve and Ken, I'm learning. Thanks, guys!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sometimes It's Best Not To Ask Why

I have no idea why I did this, why I created it, why I took a picture of it
or why I decided to put it on my blog.