Monday, April 21, 2014

A Magical Chowder

You realize you've reached another stage in life when a new dryer vent makes you really excited. Not quite as excited as, say, a new car, but pretty much right up there with the nicest of new kitchen appliances.

I am that person who always envisions the worst-case scenario. When I saw that our dryer vent had cracked and that lint was built-up inside, I was pretty sure the house would burn down in a matter of hours. (And to be honest, it's a legitimate hazard.)

Ken the Wonder Carpenter came by this weekend to help. I figured the whole thing would take 20 minutes, tops. The more realistic Clare said two hours, which ended up being closer to the truth.

The vent goes through a hole in the floor and into the farthest corner of the basement, along a narrow ledge over the concrete cistern that used to hold water for the house. You have to crawl, there's very little light, the angle was awkward, the aluminum tubing grumpy and cumbersome, and Ken's rotator cuff barely functioning and in need of immediate surgery.

You see someone labor over your house, or something as mundane as a dryer vent, and you feel terrible. I asked if I could bring him some Claramels, a glass of tequila, anything. He politely declined. Then I remembered lunch. "I was going to make fish chowder, are you hungry?" It turned out he was.

Upstairs I ran and set to work making one of my favorite simple soups. And because I have a book due this fall and should be working on it instead, I thought I'd share my soup recipe with you, thus making you complicit in my own procrastination. (Thanks, by the way.)

Haddock Chowder

Loosey goosey ingredients
Either 2 slabs bacon or 1 Tbsp butter
Nice big onion
Garlic clove (optional)
One large potato per person + 2 for the pot
Bay leaf, a dash of thyme, wee bit o'nutmeg, a soup├žon of smoked Spanish paprika at the end
Broth - can be water, chicken, clam juice, seafood, vegetable, or some combination thereof, enough to cover the potatoes
Half and half - quarter cup or thereabouts, depending on the volume of the soup itself
Medium white fish - I used about 3/4 lb beautiful haddock filets, which fed 3 people and provided leftovers

So the principle here is to make an extremely easy and flexible soup base to which you can add pretty much anything you have on hand. You begin with a few nice slabs of bacon (or skip if you don't do the bacon thing), which you cut into small pieces and fry in a soup pot until crispy. Remove them with a slotted spoon and let drain on a paper towel.

Next, get a nice big onion and dice it into little bits. Drop them all into the bacon grease (or a tablespoon of butter, if you're just starting), reduce heat, and slowly stir until the onions relax and become translucent. The act of standing over a pot of simmering onions is, in itself, bliss.

During a brief break from your onion-stirring ecstasy, take out several potatoes (I like to figure one big potato per person, with two extras for good measure), scrub, and peel (if you like your potatoes peeled). Dice into small cubes - not as small as the onions, but easily bite-sized. If you're in a hurry, dice them smaller so they'll cook faster.

When the onions are nice and relaxed, put the potatoes in the pan and add somewhere between one and two quarts of liquid. I like to add just enough liquid to cover the potatoes but still keep them visible, if you know what I mean? You don't want to have to go diving for your lunch.

What kind of liquid, you ask? It can be anything. Sometimes I do a mix of clam juice and water, other times I'll do straight chicken broth. Vegetable broth would be wonderful. Water alone can be a little sad, but if that's all you have, don't despair. Just add more onion, perhaps a crushed clove of garlic or two. I also like to add at least one bay leaf. Sometimes, if I'm feeling wild, I'll add a dash of thyme, maybe even oregano. You can also add a few grains of nutmeg, but be very sparing. It can go from charming to overbearing in no time at all.

Now, put on the lid and let everything simmer until the potatoes are soft. Once they're done, I like to crush a few of them with the back of my spoon to make the soup thicker, but it's entirely your call.

This whole cooking process should take about 18 minutes. (I say 15, Clare says 20.)

Our fish guy always tries to sell us on a pound of fish per person. For something like haddock, that's insane unless you're a competitive eater or are training for the Olympics. For three people, our two filets (probably 2/3 pound total) did the trick. Any white fish of medium constitution works well here.

Cut the fish into reasonable chunks and drop them into the soup. Push them down into the liquid, turn the heat either off completely or to the barest wisp of warmth, cover, and let the fish poach in the hot broth. Usually I grow impatient and turn the heat up a few times, just to bring the soup back to warm, but you don't really want a rolling boil here. You want a leisurely poach.

As soon as the fish has gone from translucent to white, but still has a soft, yielding texture, it's done.

For the piece de resistance, I like to drizzle a little half-and-half over the whole thing, maybe 1/4 cup maximum. Enough to bring the whole mix together into something that feels creamy and decadent. This is a deep, smoky, flavorful broth with creamy overtones and magical healing powers. Sometimes at the very end I like to dip my finger in the tin of Spanish smoked paprika, then flick it over the top of my soup for an extra smoky zing.

We enjoyed ours with a plate of sliced tomatoes. Ken the Wonder Carpenter lapped up two big bowls of it and was so refreshed, he promptly went outside and cut up the big spruce tree that had fallen in our side yard over the winter.

Now it's your turn. Go forth! Let me know what you put in yours, and how you like it.

p.s.-We had enough left over to enjoy a second bowl of soup yesterday, which is when I remembered I had a camera and actually took a picture of it. Sometimes, you need to eat first, shoot later.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hacking other people's recipes

Yesterday just had that vibe, you know? That overwhelming combination of fatigue and distraction, an inability to concentrate that makes you useless for much more than making lists and doing stupid data entry.

So I took myself out for lunch. At the next table, a woman stopped chewing just long enough to pull out her phone and call another restaurant to order nachos to go. "No sour cream, double cheese, please."

I wanted to say, "You too, huh?"

While waiting for my Vegetable Delight to arrive, I pulled out my phone and did the rounds in my bookmarks. Between my daily horoscope and Jane Brocket sits Smitten Kitchen.

I've been a bit off the food blogs lately. They all seem so packed with noise, with heaps of implausibly esoteric ingredients, vamped-up "Look at me!" shots of meals in the making, high-resolution close-ups of the stack of cookies on a dark wooden board, crumbs so artfully intermingled with, what's that I see, vintage tea towels and sprigs of lavender. It all feels much more contrived than actually lived and enjoyed.

But this time, I spotted a recipe for dark chocolate coconut macaroons. Ahoy. I've got coconut, I said to myself. I have eggs, I have cocoa powder, I have sugar, and boy oh boy do I have chocolate. (Having Somerville Chocolate for a brother has its perks.) It became clear that what this day needed was the smell of chocolate and coconut baking in the oven.

Here is the original recipe in its entirety. (Here's a question for you: Why is it ok for food bloggers to swap one tiny ingredient in a recipe and then reprint the whole thing on their blogs, with the words "adapted from," when if you even thought of doing this with a knitting pattern you'd be - and rightfully so - shut down immediately? I'm still not clear on this, which is why I'm not sharing the original recipe here. It just doesn't seem right.)

Note: This recipe works beautifully exactly as written as long as you have 400g of sweetened, flaked coconut - the kind that comes in squishy bags in the baked goods aisle. But I don't like that stuff. I prefer to get unsweetened shredded coconut from my favorite Asian grocer. You get easily twice as much coconut per ounce, with none of the sugar crap, and for half the price.

But because this coconut is dry, it weighs far less than the sweetened stuff. Which means 400g of this would be enough to stuff a pillow, and that would basically mess up the whole recipe.

I took to the Interwebs. Lo, a few clicks later I found another macaroon recipe that was nearly identical to this one, minus the chocolate. It called for approximately 5 cups of coconut. There was my number.

To compensate for the dryness of my coconut, I replaced the 2/3 cups sugar with 1/3 cup sugar and 1/3 cup Lyle's Golden Syrup. I figured the Golden Syrup would add an element of moisture along with a smoky hint of caramel (and Golden Syrup is 100% cane sugar, so you're still avoiding corn syrup).

The only other thing I tweaked was the chocolate. She has you heat half of it in a saucepan, then add the other half and let it melt. Heating chocolate directly on a stove always makes me cringe, but I didn't feel like pulling out the double boiler. I did the next best thing: I put it in a Pyrex bowl and popped it in the microwave for about a minute, until the bottom was starting to melt. Then I stirred until the top pieces were melted. This is really a minor detail, but if we're reporting tweaks to the recipe, that was mine.

They only bake for 15 minutes, and after about 10 minutes your house will already begin to smell VERY VERY GOOD. The kind of good that makes neighbors knock on your door and ask what you're making.

Finished, these aren't the prettiest things in the world. The 12-year-old boy in me would call them raccoon poop. (Not that I even know what raccoon poop looks like, and no, I'm not going to Google it.) But looks aren't the issue here. Once cooled, sink your teeth into one of these babies and you'll be transported to that magical, timeless place where everything is perfectly a-ok.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Utterly delicious maple nut granola

During my brief but illustrious career as a baker, I was tasked with building the breakfast menu. Someone else provided the toast, bagels, sweet rolls, and croissants, but everything else was up for grabs. After weeks of churning through all sorts of biscuits and muffins and scones, it suddenly hit me… woah. We haven't even thought about granola. And not your average crumbled-suet-in-a-bowl kind of granola, but a really good one.

I perused the Interwebs to figure out the basic ratios for fat/sweet/grain. Some recipes called for (gasp) corn syrup and buckets of sugary dried fruit, while others looked like a food fight erupted in the bulk foods aisle of your local co-op. Enough already.

What I came up with was a mishmash of both, a really lovely blend that honors your craving for candy and your body's need for a bit of, well, roughage.

While what you see here is my own personal definition of "perfect," it's a wonderfully flexible recipe. Not fond of peanut butter? Try almond butter or maybe even cashew butter. Want more nuts? Go for it! Sprinkle some flax seed on there while you're at it. Prefer dried cherries? Mix away.

After a brutal winter that sucked most of my mojo for just about everything, I awoke last Saturday with a clear vision of how the day needed to progress -- and it involved two trays of this granola slowly roasting in my oven. It's the perfect sweet and nutty counterpart to these brisk April mornings.

Without further ado, may I present...

Utterly Delicious Maple Nut Granola

Preheat oven to 250 degrees


7 cups whole oats (use good old-fashioned ones, not quick-cooking - they won't hold up)
1 cup shredded coconut (can be sweetened or unsweetened or grated, your call)
1 cup chopped walnuts (or any other nut you like)
1 cup sliced almonds (ditto - go wild!)
dash of cinnamon
dash of salt

Combine all dry ingredients in a nice big mixing bowl.

1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup peanut butter (chunky or smooth, your call)
3/4 cups real true maple syrup (oh yeah, you heard me right)
slosh of vanilla (about 2 teaspoons, your call)

Slowly combine all the wet ingredients with a whisk. It will become a tantalizing slurry that, despite all that oil you just saw go in there, you will want to drink. Resist the urge.

Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and mix thoroughly. I like to roll up my sleeves and dig in with my hands. The goal here is to coat every single oat, nut, and bit of coconut with some of the slurry.

Spread this mixture evenly onto two sheet trays and place in a 250-degree oven.

Now, there are two ways you can do this. You can be sloppy and just let it bake for two hours. Or, you can do the right thing and check in on your baby every 15 minutes. Pull out the trays and shuffle the granola around. Flip the clumps, give everything a good stir. You want a slow, even roast.

In about two hours, you'll be ready to stop checking on your granola - and it should have achieved a lovely golden hue and satisfying crunch.

But wait! One more step: FRUIT. You don't add these at the beginning because they'll heat too much and caramelize into little tooth-breaking bullets. Instead, you wait until now to add as many fistfuls of raisins and dried cranberries as you desire. Give it a good stir, then put everything back into the (now off) oven and forget about it. The residual heat will cause just enough caramelization for a satisfying chew without going any further.

Once the granola has completely cooled, pour it into a Mason jar and enjoy.

I can't tell you how long it keeps because mine is always gone within a week. It really is that good.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Back on the Ground

Wow. When we last left off, it was early October and I was on the cusp of hitting the road for my first-ever capital B, capital T Book Tour.

All that optimism. All those nerves. What a poignant place it turned out to be. I don't really know how to bridge the gap between then and now. So much happened that even months later I'm still putting myself back together again.

Probably the biggest surprise was how much my sense of "enough" got distorted. Having waited a lifetime for this opportunity, I scolded myself for not savoring each moment enough, not remembering enough, not being grateful and humble enough.

Each day I'd get emails from my publisher asking about the event, the number of books sold, the number of people who came, all of which prompted a whole other self-doubt about whether or not I was attracting enough people, selling enough books, making enough money for my publisher and for the bookstores that were hosting me. From here, it's a slippery slope toward re-evaluating one's entire self-worth.

I didn't give enough respect to the power of sleep deprivation and the compounded exhaustion of daily airport security checkpoints, take-offs and landings, cabs and shuttles, and empty hotel rooms, of entering a new bookstore each day, introducing myself, and hoping beyond hope that anyone would come.

I struggled with the dichotomy between what the tour looked like to the outside world and what it felt like inside, and with the feeling that even at the hardest moments, well, who was I to complain? I was lucky. Very, very lucky. Even at 4am, wheeling my carry-on down an empty hotel corridor toward the elevators.

I learned to be prepared for things to fall apart the minute I thought they were together. I learned to scan for the word "problem" in email headers. Like when, in Minneapolis, the bookstore had mistakenly cancelled its order and had no books. None. 

On the very last day of my tour, frayed at the edges and having almost missed my flight home, I made the mistake of glancing at my phone one last time to see how my book was doing on Amazon. (Yes, we do this.) That's when I discovered that someone had just given it one star. How Freudian, I thought.

BUT, and this is a very big but, alongside those low points were people. Kind knitters, readers, angels in human form, who appeared at each stop and made it all better.

Never have I realized how important friendship is, whether it was the friend who called in sick to play with me, or the one who drove out to the airport before having coffee, to meet my early flight.

At each stop, more appeared. There was Felicia, whose whole family contributed to the Yarn Whisperer good-luck tour map shown above. Lorilee, who brought me cake and almonds on my first night. Jan, whose oatmeal cookies served as that night's dinner and breakfast the following morning. Shelley, who let me scrawl "boobs are good!" on her arm in red ink. Stephanie, who understood why I needed to walk around the block one more time before going into the bookstore. And Eunny, who knew exactly where to take me when I told her I needed "a bowl of something hot."

The people are what I remember, which is as it should be. They are what humbled me the most, what kept it real. I remember their faces, their kindness, and I carry those memories with me as I contemplate throwing my hat in the ring, yet again, for another round.

I've been thinking about all of this since I saw Molly's tour announcement for her much-awaited Delancey. I could feel a clench in my chest. I wanted to yell at the screen, "Look out! Behind you! He has a chainsaw!" I wanted to sit her down with a cup of tea and give her comforting words. Be early for everything, I'd tell her. Tip often and well, drink plenty of water, get to bed early, and always, always pee first.

And for those of you with author friends? If your friend comes to town for an event, no matter how crowded you think it'll be and how little your presence there might matter, please know that it does matter. I beg of you, for the sake of all authors past, present, and future, GO. Get a babysitter, rent a car, quit your job if you must, but please, go.

I promise, there'll be cashmere and chocolate waiting for you in heaven if you do.