06 July 2009

Nora's back...

...and she's swingin' a rutabaga in the kitchen, as the home folks say.

Orange-Scented Roasted Tilapia with Fennel, Carrots, and Arugula
serves two plus one lunch planover - easily scaled up for four or more
~one large fennel bulb, sliced very thinly (fronds reserved for couscous)
~10 to 12 small, young carrots, peeled and halved lengthwise
~1 lb. tilapia filet(s)
~zest of one orange, minced (reserve ¼ tsp. for couscous)
~1 c. baby arugula (or chopped standard arugula), loosely packed
~juice of two oranges (reserve 2 TB for couscous)
~1/3 c. of white wine (not chardonnay)
~2 TB butter, divided
~olive oil
~white and black pepper

Preheat oven to 450°F. Toss slices of fennel (reserve one slice) and carrot in olive oil.

Arrange fennel slices in one central layer on the bottom of a shallow baking dish; array carrots on either side of the fennel bed. Sprinkle with salt and orange zest. Roast for 10 minutes. During the roasting period, combine the orange juice, white wine, and single fennel slice in a shallow pan on the stove and bring to a simmer. The aim is to reduce volume by about half.

At the ten minute mark, take the vegetables out of the oven and add the tilapia filet(s) on top of the bed of fennel. Drizzle with olive oil and spoon 2 TB of the simmering wine-orange sauce over the fish and return to the oven for 10 to 15 more minutes of roasting, or until fish is cooked through. Meanwhile, when the sauce has reduced, remove the fennel slice and add salt to taste and a hint of white and black pepper. Then mount the sauce with the butter, 1 TB at a time, whisking to incorporate all the fat evenly. Remove from heat and set aside.

To plate, lay down a bed of raw arugula leaves. Dish the fish with fennel and carrots over the arugula and spoon some sauce over the lot. Serve next to couscous salad, below.

Orange-Scented Couscous with Green Olives
~2/3 c. large pearl (Israeli) couscous
~2 TB orange juice
~pinch salt
~olive oil
~1 small shallot, minced
~8-10 green olives, pitted and sliced
~minced fennel fronds
~reserved ¼ tsp. orange zest

Cook couscous until tender in however much water is required; drain excess liquid off in a colander. Return drained couscous to the empty pot and, while still warm, toss with all of the remaining ingredients. Serve warm or cold.

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We joined the local CSA in Queens and have been loving each week's delivery. The big discovery so far has been kohlrabi: looks like a Russian space droid, tastes like the blessed offspring of a mild apple, a red potato, and jicama. NOM. Another thing we've received in abundance has been arugula, which I find nearly magical as a veggie. We had rhubarb in the first week and strawberries in the first two, and only just now have we received the first cabbage of the year. Cabbage: lasts forever and seems to linger on in the fridge, as each portion you use only nibbles away at the almost self-replicating bulk of the cabbage. Oh, ugh. I might just go whole hog and make sauerkraut out of the whole stupid thing.

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Oh, my absence? Yeah. I plead lazy and unmotivated. Oh and, this being food again? I think we're going in that direction after all, especially with the weekly CSA being such a boon. I'm going to aim for a weekly kitchen session that uses the seasonal glut, so you've got some cabbage to look forward to, dear hearts...

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14 February 2009

Woah yeah, woah no!


Things began to pick up in late October, not just because of the glut of fall holidays (Halloween and Thanksgiving, my bi-fecta of awesome). The Election! Oh, the election. All of our hopes confirmed, the grand catharsis. The relief, the release of tension. The weight, almost literal, lifted. The realization that I'd felt so bad for so long and I didn't have to have that low simmer on anymore. Then, in early December, another switch flipped, and I was suddenly rushing into a new job, a new city, a new life. And, to paraphrase an album I like very much, everything that happened happened that day.

This is the short version, clearly. The long version starts on December 15 and doesn't stop until, well, not even now. On December 8 and 10, I interviewed on the phone. On December 13, I woke up in my own bed for what would be the last time for many weeks. On December 15 I interviewed in person. On December 17 I interviewed in person in New York City. On December 18, I flew almost all the way home for the winter holiday. On December 19 at 2 AM, I arrived at home in a rental carload of strangers from my cancelled final flight leg. On December 19 at 11 AM, I was offered and accepted a new job. On December 20th, I booked tickets to California for a new job work trip. On December 22, in my jammies and in front of the fireplace at my parents' house, I gave a complicated "three" weeks notice. On December 28, I flew back to Bostonland. I worked for My Now Former Big Corporate Employer for three days. I had a calm but bewildered New Year, portentious in every way: this, friends, is A Very New Year. January 1: officially on the payroll at My Moderately Sized Independent Employer. January 4: fly to California for "our" sales meeting, whereat I say things like "oh, I'm new. What day is it now? Yes, this is my second day on the job." January 10: fly home. January 12-16: my final week at My Now Former Big Corporate Employer. January 16: I take the bus to New York City, and I do not intend to leave without a lease; on Jan. 17, I have an apartment. On Jan. 19, I begin training for my new job with my new boss, who comes up to Bostonland. On Jan. 23, I rent a truck. On Jan. 24, I wake up at "home" and head for "home": we load the truck with about 1/3 of the Rocket Household possessions and move, at least a little, to New York. On Jan. 26, I start my new job, just over one month from sitting in front of the fireplace with my mom and dad and talking about how truly insane the next four weeks would have to be.

I've been working for three weeks, and I work from about 8 in the morning to around midnight. This is exceptional and will not be the norm. But, as I've proven over and over in the past two months, I am the kind of lady who Does What Has To Be Done. The rest of the Rocket Household and attendant possessions arrive Feb. 28 in a second rented truck.

So you'll understand, dear reader, if I have no idea what day it is.

Except that it's Valentine's Day. I am drinking Pinot Noir and listening to Lou Reed. Happy Valentine's Day!

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20 October 2008

Cold creeping in

Saturday night saw the first "killing frost" of the year in Bostonland, with Sunday clear and cold. Monday much the same, especially in the morning. Soup weather. This was dinner tonight, thrown together with my usual approach. I have a pressure cooker, a stovetop machine I highly recommend, and that makes this a 20 minute affair, no lie.

Velvet Potato & Cauliflower Soup with Roasted Garlic
serves two for dinner with planovers; certainly serves four for dinner with a salad or sammich
~1 TB olive oil + 1 TB butter (omit for vegans)
~medium onion, diced
~2 cloves raw garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
~3 medium white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1" dice or so
~small head of cauliflower, florets and stems, cut into medium chunks
~5-6 c. water
~vegetable bullion cube
~1/8 tsp. dried thyme
~white pepper
~salt to taste
~1 large head of roasted garlic*
~chopped chives for garnish, optional

Heat oil (and melt butter) in the bottom of your pressure cooker or soup pot. Add diced onions and cook over medium-low until very soft and translucent. Throw in raw garlic, potatoes, and cauliflower, and toss to coat in fat. Add thyme, pepper, bullion cube, and water, and...

a. ...lock the pressure cooker down. Crank the heat to high and let it be until the vent releases a strong stream of steam, then turn down to medium-low. Ensure that a modest, quiet stream of steam continues to issue from the vent and hold at pressure for 5-7 minutes. Then, remove from heat and loose the steam release valve. When all pressure is released, crack open the cooker and proceed to the next step.
b. ...bring to a boil over high heat. Then, reduce to a simmer and simmer until vegetables are completely soft, however long that takes in a soup pot. Proceed to the next step.

Remove all cloves from the roasted head of garlic and add to the hot pot, stirring in. Then, puree soup until completely smooth in batches in a blender (I have not graduated to an immersion blender, no). Return soup to the cooker/pot and bring back to steaming hot. Serve with crusty bread and a late season salad of spinach, beets, carrot, and apple.

*What, you don't just roast a ton of garlic on the weekends in the fall? That's odd. Here's how: lay a head of garlic on its side--still in its paper--and cut off the tops of all/most of the cloves, setting this cap of cloves aside. Repeat with two other heads. Place opened heads, roots down, in any shallow oven-proof receptacle (I use a glass pie dish). Drizzle slowly and liberally with olive oil, letting oil permeate and soak in. Sprinkle with salt, dried thyme, dried rosemary, black pepper. Place clove caps back on and drizzle those tops with more olive oil. Cover the receptacle with foil, tightly crimped shut at the edges. Roast at 375 degrees until the heads of garlic yield to light pressure on their sides and the cloves are caramel-colored, about 40 minutes give or take.

+ + +

I didn't mean for this to become a food blog, honest. What I'm not telling you, here, is The Disaster of the Spaetzle. Let us never speak of it again.

+ + +

Halloween is coming up. It's pretty much my favorite holiday, though in recent years I've been disappointed in my observation thereof. I am at fault entirely on this, because I have failed to actually live in Boston since we moved here: I've failed to make friends, I've declined to learn about the social life, I don't know anything about clubs, groups, venues, events, etc. So it comes Halloween and I experience a little regret. Why didn't I make a life here, so I could celebrate my favorite holiday with friends? Why wasn't I able to do like I did in Chicago, and get through the first, difficult months of reaching out and building a social circle? And there's the answer: I already did that; I built a life in Chicago and that's where my life was. And also: Boston's only been a stopover for me, drawing even now to its close and taking any shame I feel for being aloof and unsocial with it. Next stop, New York City, which is something I can say on the record now that I've made the announcement to my uppers at work. Shuh-BOOM.

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15 October 2008

Off the request line.

I owe someone a little something from a few posts ago, so this one's for you, Jacket.
That's my muscle, fools. I've been working on it.

I'm just over a year into my Going to The Gym to Get Ripped Initiative and I've hit a bit of a plateau. I worked with a trainer for my first month and a half; this was as much as I could afford (it is a swank, swank gym that I can only attend through the miracle of My Big Corporate Employer's health care plan subsidy). I'd been doing that plan--with results, no doubt--but I was starting to feel like I wasn't making more progress. So I took a preview class for a little something they call BURN. Which burns, by the way. The miniclass was 30 minutes and I was sweating like a sweaty pig--I can only guess that in the full hour class I would have been in a pile of sweaty soreness on the floor. But I felt great afterwards and, just like the trainer predicted, I find that my body is craving the increased heart rate, the sweat, and the deep breaths that I get from the cardio portion as well as the soreness and wrung out feeling from the weight work. So I've been picking up the literal pace of my workout. This fast walk/jog/run/jog/walk/run/jog/run/walk flies in the face of my prior attitude to moving at anything other than a swift walk. I have even been known to express the sentiment that I don't even run to catch a bus, if I'm late for work. But I do now, because damn if it don't feel fine.

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29 September 2008

Back on it

I have shrugged off the carelessly draped sport coat of kitchen failure tonight, I tell you. Forty-five minutes from scratch to awesome:

Roasted Butternut Squash and Rice Pilaf, with Compound Butter
serves two for dinner and planover lunch; could serve 4-6 as a side to something else
~1 medium butternut squash, unpeeled, cut in half lengthwise, with seeds and pulp scooped out
~1/2 large (or one small) white onion, diced
~1 large carrot, diced
~2 ribs celery, diced
~1/4 tsp. dried thyme
~4 whole cloves
~3/4 c. golden raisins
~3/4 to 1 c. cooked chick peas
~3/4 c. uncooked brown basmati rice
~1 1/2 c. and a splash of water
~1/4 c. toasted walnuts, chopped and divided (see below)
~salt to taste

Set oven to roast (375-400 degrees). Rub cut sides of squash with olive oil and place cut side down on an oiled rimmed baking sheet. Slip sheet into oven and ignore while you prep pilaf. Squash is done when a knife point inserted into the thick neck meets no resistance (40 min? You'll know).

In wide skillet (with a tight fitting lid) filmed with olive oil, cook onion, carrot, and celery until soft. About halfway to soft, add raisins and toss. At "soft," add thyme and cloves, stir, and cook to bloom the smells, about 1 minute. Add chick peas and rice, stir, and heat through, about 2 minutes. When the heat has come up and rice has taken up some oil from the veggies and pan, add the water and pump heat up to get to a boil. After you reach a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover with tight lid. Shake periodically to ensure that nothing sticks and that moisture moves around the pan evenly. Simmer until rice has absorbed *almost* all liquid and is cooked through (30 min? Just test it and see if it's rice or it's twigs; again, you'll know when it's done.
"Doin' it all at once" tip: This is a great time to make the compound butter). Turn off heat, add 1/2 of the toasted walnuts, fluff with spoon, salt to taste, and let sit, covered, until ready to serve.

To plate and serve: slip your knife through the squash half lengthwise to create a quarter section. Place quarter section peel side down on the plate. Dish pilaf over/next to squash, all arty-like, and top with a generous dollop (about 1 T or more) of compound butter...

Shallot-Apple-Sage-Walnut Compound Butter
Soften 6 T of unsalted butter and mix the following thoroughly into it:
~1 shallot, minced
~1/2 small tart apple, peeled, very fine dice
~10-12 fresh sage leaves, minced
~1/8 c. toasted walnuts, chopped very fine
~dash white pepper
~pinch salt

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It's got beans, rice, squash, nuts, raisin: a meal in itself, but I imagine if you swing such a way that this would just kill next to a pork chop.

Also, you all know that these recipes are just things I make up, and that substitutions are totally welcome, suggested, and occasionally required, right? I have always hated the Tyrannical Recipe idea--that one MUST have all of the components on hand before making something. There are recipes I follow to the letter, faithfully, because I can: I have a very full pantry and spice cabinet, so I have shallots, white pepper, sun dried tomatoes, miso, molasses, chipotle peppers in adobo, etc. etc. etc. etc. on hand almost all the time because stocking is a priority. But I would never not riff on a recipe if I found I was without something--better that than not making it at all. So if you don't have something, leave it out or substitute it. I find it hard to write down what I cook as dinner recipes sometimes, because I really just grab stuff and throw it in without thinking about amounts or how someone else (or myself) might re-create the dish. But I am trying to more faithfully document dinner, both for my twos and threes of readers, but for a certain true believer who wants these for an assemblage of recipes she's finding time to put together.

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27 September 2008

Big Girl Bed, or, "Mattresses I Have Known"

Mattress: now to be filed under "Things I Have Impulsively Purchased Before Thinking Completely Through How to Get Them Home," joining such illustrious and relatively smaller-ticket items as a 12-pound watermelon and 70 lbs. of cat litter.

I'd been waiting out a coworker's moving sale, holding on until the day before his departure to ask "hey, still looking for someone to take that mattress?" in a very calculated attempt to pay less money for an already bargain-priced months-old queen sized pillow top mattress and box spring set. I have a cold, cold heart. In the end, I got a definite deal, paying only slightly more than my nearly insulting lowball initial bid. But this all went down in the space of an afternoon at work. I didn't take time to clear it with my bedmate and didn't really have a plan of how, in fact, I would get the large mattress and its box spring from his second floor apartment across two towns to my second floor apartment, that very evening, all whilst still wearing my work clothes (pencil skirt, kitten heels).

A very fruitful bunch of scrambling produced the finest outcome I could have planned, had I planned. I booked a Zipcar--a pickup truck--from a location mere blocks from the mattress; my partner J just happened to be on the same train as me when I called to relay our new evening activity; the box spring turned out to be split, making it very much easier to move (split box spring! I'll never go back!); Thursday was the last non-rainy day predicted for the next four days; and it was rush hour, meaning my need to drive no more than 30 miles per hour did not make me the slowest person on the road. We trundled back in bumper-to-bumper traffic, stuffed full of pillow top mattress, making liberal use of the side mirrors. We even met a neighbor across the hall when, having firmly wedged the mattress vertically and about eight inches off the ground in the tight corner of the top of our stairs, we had to knock on her door to ask her to open up and permit us to infringe on that last crucial three inches of turn-around room her open door would provide. While giggling like maniacs. Maniacs in kitten heels.

That night, the pillow top sat on the floor in our living room, as we did not have the right sized sheets to put on it or the wherewithall to move the old full sized mattress out of the bedroom. Our living room, in scale with the rest of our modestly sized apartment, looked like a bunch of 5-year-olds were playing that game where the floor is hot lava, and you push the furniture together to avoid walking on the lava floor: from left to right as you "enter" the room, the bookcase was flush with the wall, the surplus TV (don't ask...) was next to the shelf, the mattress was flush with the shelf, the coffee table was flush with the mattress, the couch was flush with the coffee table, and the couch was, as usual, pushed up against the wall of the room. The cat thinks we bought him the World's Biggest Kitty Bed.

This is a Major Change around Chez Rocket. A months-old mattress is as close as I've ever been to a Brand New Bed, for one thing: our old bed was a busted-ass full size set handed down from J's sister when she departed Boston, and the box spring was cracked midway down the long axis of one side of the bed even then. We put it right on the floor, a throwback to the garret days of post-college graduation. The break was on my side, causing a sag that led to back pain as well as a certain mid-mattress slump that in turn led to domestic disputes about Your Side, My Side, and Stealing the Covers. Back in Chicago, we most recently had a bed frame--the brass-and-flowered-knob type--and full sized set from J's grandparent's guest room passed on to us as the result of the kind of grandparental downsizing that can happen around this time in our lives. It was serviceable, which is about all I have ever known a mattress to be. Prior to that bed, J had a second-hand set that she kept on the floor and I had a futon set permanently into "bed" mode. I remember her mattress as quite comfortable and I can say, still, that that original futon (bought while I was unemployed because I realized that I'd never get a job with the kind of sleep I was getting on my tiled floor on my inflatable camp mattress) has been more comfortable than any other mattress I've had. Up to this nearly new pilllow top queen.

So we now have the newest, biggest, fanciest, and most expensive mattress we've ever owned. The flip side is that we're now pretty much obliged to move it next time we move instead of, as has been our wont, abandoning the past mattress in favor of moving less and buying on arrival.

The other flip side (I'm employing a gaming die rather than a coin, apparently) is that we now have a bustedass full sized standard mattress on our hands, and we'd like to find it a third (maybe fourth--I don't know if J's sister bought it used) home. On the one hand, I can attest to the bedbug-free, clean, non-smoking home nature of this mattress, which gives me a leg up on some entries in the third- or fourth-hand mattress market in this college-filled town (Allston, particularly, went through some buggy times in the past few years). On the other, I also know that this mattress is uncomfortable for me and the box spring is certainly busted. So I put an add on Craigslist in the free section, employing humor to honestly portray my mattress and the things I think it can be now: basement soundproofing for your band! a prop in your production of Once Upon a Mattress! a guest bedroom bed, used only sometimes! I hope only to hand it off to someone in need of a clean free mattress.

I got five replies in 20 minutes. Still waiting for final word from my most interested party, but I hope to ditch this thing soon. I'm tired of staring at it from my Big Girl Bed, as it leans accusingly up against my bedroom wall as if to imply that I've gone soft, I've become bougie: what, you need your bed off the floor now? You require back support, weakling? You used to be cool, man. You used to travel light.

I am, however, sleeping like a baby these days.

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22 September 2008

Success; failure

This is embarrassing.

I know I put it out there like I'm some sort of kitchen demigod, at least, but I must tell you, some days it just does not come together. Tonight was one of those...days.

In the last few years, my facility in the kitchen has progressed such that I rarely fall flat on my damned face, cooking-wise. In the past, major failures have been the fault of the cookbook; the repeat offender was so consistently disappointing that we threw it away after the Nth consecutive disaster (celery soup...seriously? Seriously). But anything that goes awry now is pretty much all my fault.

I was getting fancy with some risotto this evening, and through a series of steps that I'd prefer did not enter the public record, I produced pretty much the same effect as if I'd made up a pan of Campbell's Tomato soup, cranked in a little pepper, and then made risotto in that. *shudder* It felt like the Methodist church potluck version* of some bastard risotto: "Creamy Rice Casserole with Cheese." Oh, the cheese--another in a string of shameful missteps. My laziness often allows some really excellent improvisation, if I come up short of an ingredient list, but in this case, I'll just say that Monterrey Jack cheese DOES NOT belong in risotto, even under duress. Even if you're, like, camping, do not sub in this cheese if you value your personal definition of risotto--it will so harm the definitional integrity of the concept of "risotto" that the eventual, inevitable result will be that you find yourself whipping up some "risotto" for an evening dinner party by thwumping a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom, a can of skim milk, one diced white onion, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, and a jar of mushrooms (drained) into your slo-cooker in the morning, cranking that puppy to "low," and heading off to work, whistling that delightful theme from the André Riu special that aired on the PBS last night**.

In short, this dinner sits at the top of a very slippery slope. The planovers will only remind me of my failure, so I am abandoning them to my partner, who did not find dinner nearly as offensive as I did.

+ + +

As for my success: it's been just o
ver a year since I joined the gym and I am still going. This is major, as you may recall. My results are result-y, which is good because I went in with only one explicit goal: get ripped. I'm pretty ripped, I gotta say, and it's less difficult to haul ass up the hill on my bike. I have gained and lost no weight at all, which is interesting but not at all important to me. I find, however, that it is harder to keep pushing myself to do more, to max the envelope, as it were, without the encouragement of a trainer. I had one for about eight weeks when I started and I'm thinking about signing up for a few more sessions now that I have a little more experience and focus, routine-wise. Not that my liiiiifting isn't awwwesome, dude. So go me, go gym, go triceps!

And a second success: the following represents the final payment of one of my student loans, so take THAT, University Accounting Services!


* I must assure you that I love and respect the Methodist church's tradition of the potluck, and if you do not believe me, ask me for my Tuna Noodle Casserole recipe.
** I have only one beef with violinist
André Riu: WGBH plays the stuffing out of his insufferably bland, occasionally absurd concerts during pledge drive week(s), causing me to miss things like Masterpiece Theatre or, worse, Nova. This prompts me to only half jokingly call him "that André Riu fucker." Special message to Mr. Riu: Sorry! I know it's not your fault; I should be calling them "those WGBH fuckers," but that does not trip as lightly off the tongue.

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