Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Simple Pleasures

Yesterday I developed what my mother always called a ‘splitting headache’ and I really felt very sorry for myself. The children had made messes in every room, Justin had failed to clean up after a most fabulous dinner* last night, and the baby wouldn’t have his nap. I was just about to have a nervous breakdown when I bethought me of the chicken broth I’d made a few days before. I’ve recently begun cutting up whole chickens rather than buying parts, and I often have small amounts of broth made from backs, necks, and wings, which is very useful. This time I had just a bit over 2 cups of broth, and happily that’s about how hungry I was. So I put the broth on to heat and inspiration hit: why not juice a lemon, whisk it with an egg, and temper this mixture into the broth? In short, why not try making an avgolemono soup? I’d seen recipes before, but instead of looking one up I cooked by instinct, and it paid off. The soup was simple, yet delicious, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Afterwards, Robin brought in the mail and amidst the bills and junk mail I found a Christmas card. The soup and the card were sufficiently healing that I was able to tidy up the downstairs while the children played upstairs. But I didn’t make dinner. Instead I gave the children leftovers and Justin and I got Chinese carryout. In which I found a bug. Seriously.

Here is how to make avgolemono:

Start with 2-3 cups of chicken broth. If you don’t have homemade, commercial is fine, but I would add a few sprigs of fresh thyme, or a teaspoon or two of dried. I happen to think thyme goes very well with lemon, but if you have another favorite herb use it instead to perk up the broth. In any case, put the broth on low heat. In a small bowl, whisk one egg with the juice of one lemon. When the soup begins to steam, add a spoonful to the egg and whisk. Add another spoonful and whisk, and yet another, whisking each time. When the egg mixture is warm, add it to the hot broth, whisking all the while, and heat until slightly thickened and steaming. Keep the heat very low indeed, and don’t let the broth quite reach a simmer or your eggs will curdle. If they do, don’t worry! Simply pour the soup through a sieve into your bowl. Or, leave them in – they’re basically just soft scrambled eggs and it’s up to you whether you enjoy their presence or not.

*the fabulous dinner was chicken cutlets with tarragon leek pan sauce, buttered papparadelle noodles, and perfectly cooked peas with shallots and mint, and it created a LOT of dirty dishes. Dinner tonight is simply pasta with spinach and parmesan, and a little dusting of nutmeg. And perhaps the tiniest splash of cream.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Barn in Garrett County, MD near our cabin

Whoa, what happened to November? Oh, yes, I remember. We spent a week in a cabin in the woods, playing games, making fires, taking walks and (not) seeing any black bears. Except for a ceramic cookie-jar one that some fiend bought right out from under me. Which was a good thing, considering it’s price, but still! Then I spent 3 weeks sorting through and thrifting old toys, clothes, books (yes, even books). Then I spent a week scrubbing, dusting, and vacuuming.

The Great Autumnal clean-up culminated in Robin’s birthday party, at which I served thyme-scented focaccia, , kalamata olive dip, feta-yogurt dip, greek-style meatballs, wheat salad, and the best chocolate cake I’ve ever made or eaten. I’m quite proud because every recipe was new to me and, aside from the chickpea fritters (about which, more in future entries), everything was delicious. The kalamata dip and greek-style meatballs were faithful renditions of Georgia Sarianides’ recipes in “Nosthimia” which belongs on everyone’s cookbook shelf.

The wheat salad was your basic tabbouleh, with rather a lot of Aleppo Pepper and perhaps more mint than is usual, and no tomatoes or cucumbers, which is why I wrote ‘wheat salad’ and not tabbouleh. I was improvising, and I only wish I’d taken the trouble to note quantities because it was well worth reproducing. The feta yogurt dip was also an improvisation; I couldn’t decide between Georgia’s feta dip or the yogurt dip from Arabesque, so I mashed up some feta with Georgia’s seasonings and a generous helping of Greek yogurt. Justin loved it and wants to have it again, and so he shall.

The focaccia was from Baking Illustrated, and I had little faith when I saw how sticky and soft the dough was but oh my gracious! Such a thin, crispy crust surrounding bread perfectly balanced between soft and chewy. Oh yummy, yummy, yummy focaccia! The cake was simply the “Old Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake” also from Baking Illustrated, with the recommended icing, a sort of chocolate ganache with some corn syrup to improve the texture. It doesn’t keep well, but since we only had one thin sliver left over, I didn’t care.

As for the chickpea fritters, the idea was from Andy Harris’ “modern GREEK” (his punctuation – I suppose his publisher thought it edgy and modern) and they didn’t turn out at all. I liked the idea of cooking dried chickpeas instead of using chickpea flour, but the batter was too thick even before I added the astonishing 1 2/3 cup of flour, so I added 2 extra eggs and some water and none of the flour. They crumbled apart when I fried them and although they tasted pretty good I couldn’t serve them because they were all crumbly and ugly. I think the chickpeas were underdone to begin with, and perhaps the flour is needed to hold them together, so I am very nobly taking the blame and I will give Andy’s recipe one more chance. Stay tuned…

Dinner tonight: bean soup with leeks (more Georgia Sarianides) and thyme-scented focaccia, this time with kalamata olives.