Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On the Road

We're traveling in the DC area, so I won't be able to post until the weekend. But I'm eager to tell you about some delicious lemon curd cookies I made for Christmas, plus an amazing asparagus appetizer from Thomas Keller's Bouchon cookbook. We'll be eating Burmese food tonight, and we're planning a tapas feast for New Years Day. Stay tuned . . .

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Spoonful of Ginger

When I was seven, I wrote Disney a letter requesting that they rerelease Mary Poppins. In the days before VCRs, DVDs, downloads, or even HBO (we didn’t own a television at the time), the only way to see a movie was in the theaters. To their credit, Disney wrote me back with a schedule. I only had a few months to wait. A fool for musicals and Julie Andrews, I adored the Hollywood version of Mary Poppins for its spoonfuls of sugar, but it had no familial relationship to P.L. Travers’s books, which I also loved. Sure, Disney featured a nanny named “Mary Poppins” who arrives at the Banks’s house to tend to Jane and Michael, but that’s where the resemblance ends.

In the books, Mary Poppins is not simply stern, she’s cross. She’s a plain-looking woman who never fails to admire her reflection in a shop window. No one ever knows what Mary Poppins thinks, but Jane and Michael (and the younger twins, John and Barbara) love her fiercely. She chides and scowls (like a genuine caregiver), but she’s also full of surprises. She can talk to animals, travel through time, and she knows elemental secrets of the world. The narratives sometimes feel sinister—as when spirit creatures whisk Jane and Michael to the zoo to witness a topsy-turvy night when humans get locked in cages. Mary Poppins opens the door to strange mysteries well beyond the nursery, but they're mysteries only children can perceive.

A favorite chapter describes a trip to an old and dusty bake shop to purchase heavy slabs of dark gingerbread studded with gilt stars. The proprietor, Mrs. Corry, an ancient woman who knew Alfred the Great, breaks off her fingers and feeds them to the twins—“Only Barley Sugar,” she says, laughing. Anticipating the creepy deliciousness of Willy Wonka, Mrs. Corry’s fingers change flavor everyday—sometimes they’re peppermint bars or hoarhound candy. She nibbles on them herself at night. “Good for the digestion,” she cackles. After they eat their gingerbread, Jane and Michael take the golden stars and hide them in their room. That night, Mrs. Corry, her two fat and sullen daughters, Fannie and Annie, and Mary Poppins pilfer their stars and paste them in the sky. With a brush, a pail of glue, and a ladder. It makes sense that Sylvia Plath considered Mary Poppins the fairy godmother of her childhood.

Mrs. Corry’s bony fingers picking out pieces of gingerbread for the children generates visceral Hansel and Gretel images. I held off reading Hansel and Gretel to DD for a little while; it’s not the witch that terrifies so much as the parents, who abandon their children in the woods because they can’t afford to feed them. But I believe children have fears whether we censor their stories or not. Stories with a touch of darkness, a hint of gloom, or a threat of sadness help children identify and name what’s bittersweet. Mary Poppins also conjures the dread of abandonment. The first book ends with Mary Poppins leaving, as she promised, when the wind changes. Jane and Michael sit forlornly at the window, weeping and calling her name, as she floats above the trees.

Like Mary Poppins, this gingerbread recipe feels elemental—dark, rich—primitive even. Each bite brings up ancestral memories of shadowy woods and medieval spices. Leave a trail of crumbs to find your way back home.

Gingerbread Cookies adapted from Gourmet Magazine

Makes 4 dozen cookies

2/3 cup molasses

2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 sticks of unsalted butter

1 large egg, slightly beaten

4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

Bring molasses, brown sugar, and spices to boil in 5 quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, and remove from heat. Stir in baking soda (mixture will foam up), then stir in butter, 3 tablespoons at a time, letting each addition melt before adding the next until all the butter is melted. Add egg and stir until combined, then stir in 3 1/2 cups flour and salt. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Transfer dough to lightly floured surface and knead, dusting with as much of the remaining 1/4 cup of flour as needed to prevent sticking, for about a minute. Halve dough and keep at room temperature. Roll out one half of dough at a time into 14-inch round. Cut out cookies, transfer to buttered baking sheets with spatula, about 1 inch apart. Bake two sheets at a time in lower and upper halves of over, switching positions of the sheets halfway through cooking. Bake until edges are slightly darker about 10-12 minutes total.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Garbanzo Bonanza

He was the size of a fingertip when DH named him “Chickpea.” Poring over What to Expect and feeling that brand of intense wonder that only new parents experience, we marveled at the size of our son growing in my belly. Little “Chickpea.” Baby bean boy. Our legume of love. Okay . . . I’ll stop. Parenthood makes you goofy.

At age three (if we called him doodlebug, or crunch tater, or pumpkin) he would state, with furrowed brow, “Please call me by my name.” Nicknames struck my serious son as more confusion in a confusing world. Perhaps diminutives robbed him of needed control. But he embraced “Chickpea.” I like to think he heard it in the womb.

Chickpea hasn’t eaten chickpeas yet, but hummus is a staple with Mom and Dad. Easily available at Weaver Street Market, where they make it fresh, we eat hummus at the kitchen counter after a day of work. Weaver Street batches range from smooth and lemony to nutty and thick. I imagine that the task of making hummus is assigned randomly to various cooks in the kitchen—some with more experience, some with specific preferences. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but I like it without any lumps.

In Italy they call them Ceci, and a simple ceci puree was a part of our marathon meal at La Pievina, the family owned restaurant down the road from the agriturismo we stayed at. A simple antipasti, with translucent green olive oil drizzled over the top. Once you sit down at La Pievina, they ask you one question: “Carne, pesce o vegetariano?” And then the games begin. Nine or ten antipasti, four or five primi piatti, two or three secondi piatti, five dolci, all accompanied by wine and finished with grappa and vino santo.

After the seventh antipasti, we begged for mercy, but the food kept coming. Highlights were salmon ravioli, pasta with boar ragu, almond cake, and the purreed ceci. Our hostess, an apple-cheeked older woman in a white apron and mop hat, brought out soft drinks and toys for the children. And then, four hours later, she wrapped the leftovers in paper packages adorned with cherry-laden branches from the trees out in the yard.

You’ll have to eat many bowls of this dish to feel as stuffed as we were. But it’s got those Tuscan flavors. Here’s Pasta e Ceci from Jamie’s Italy:

Pasta e ceci
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick celery, trimmed and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
A sprig of fresh rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped
2 14 oz cans of chickpeas
2 ¼ cups of chicken stock
3 ½ oz. ditalini or other small Italian “soup” pasta
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Handful of torn basil
Put the finely chopped onion, celery, and garlic in a saucepan with a little extra virgin olive oil and rosemary and cook as gently as possible, with the lid on, for 15-20 minutes, until all the vegetables are soft, without any color. Drain your chickpeas well and rinse them in cold water, then add them to the pan and cover with stock. Cook gently for half an hour then, using slotted spoon, remove half the chickpeas and put them to one side in a bowl. Puree the soup in a food processor, then pour back into a pan. Add the reserved chickpeas and the pasta, season with salt and pepper, and simmer gently until the chickpeas are tender and the pasta is cooked. Add water if the soup is too thick. Add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve drizzled with olive oil. Sprinkle with freshly torn basil or parsley.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Souped-up Salvation

In the blog world, I prize the well-crafted essay over extemporaneous confession. Not that I prefer all scripted entertainment to “reality”—give me Top Chef over CSI any day. I just don’t equate blogging with journaling. But I’m feeling candid today about my absence.

Hysteria hit on Friday night. We’d just put the kids to bed, and I promptly fell apart. Keep in my mind that I’m a temperamentally balanced person. I rarely have extreme highs and lows. But I also have limits.

Trouble began on Thursday when I got the call at work that my daughter had hurt her arm at recess, and she probably needed to see a doctor. So DH and I raced to the elementary school and then whisked her to the orthopedic clinic. Sure enough, she had broken it.

Friday, I stayed home with DD, her right arm in a cast and sling. And I received two phone calls that afternoon. The pediatric orthopedic surgeon telephoned to inform me that DD would need to go under general anesthesia on Monday to allow them to manipulate her arm back in place and put pins in it, before replacing the cast.

The second call notified me that DS had to be picked up from school. I will omit the details of the pick-up, but it’s traumatic for all involved. Anyone who knows children on the spectrum also knows how things can fall apart. He’s been suspended from school for two days for inappropriate language.

I kept it together on Friday until the kids were tucked in. And then I needed valium.

Instead, I had the next best thing. Soup. In fact, I ate soup for three days straight. It’s not just the only thing I could stomach, but it actually had a restorative effect. It takes no effort to eat: you don’t have to chew or even swallow. It’s steamy and warm. I can feel it healing my spirit and my body. On Friday, I have thick New England Clam Chowder (sweetly fetched by DH from Fresh Market), I have creamy Rosemary and Parsnip Soup on Saturday (homemade at Weaver Street Market), and once I get my head above emotional waters, I make an earthy Porcini and White Bean Stew.

DD’s operation was a success yesterday. We’ve regrouped. And tomorrow both children return to school, and I go back to work. With a lighter heart, I honor what helped me find my way back. Soup, beautiful soup. Soup of the evening, beautiful soup.

Porcini and White Bean Stew adapted from Martha Stewart’s Living

1 ¾ cups chicken stock

¾ ounce dried porcini mushrooms

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

½ teaspoon coarse salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

4 ounces fresh white mushrooms, quartered

3 small tomatoes, coarsely chopped

1 small sprig fresh rosemary, plus more for garnish

1 can (19 oz) white beans, drained and rinsed

Bring the stock and ½ cup water to boil in small pan. Add porcini. Let stand until soft, about 20 minutes. Remove porcini, coarsely chop and set aside. Strain soaking liquid and set aside. Heat oil in medium pan over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add white mushrooms; cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about five minutes. Stir in porcini, tomatoes, rosemary, soaking liquid, and beans. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer until cooked through, about 15 minutes. Remove cooked rosemary and discard. Garnish with fresh rosemary sprigs.