Friday, October 30, 2009

Pumpkin, two ways

I know it's not original, but I really do love pumpkin this time of year. I've come across all kinds of glorious recipes for pumpkin recently, including pumpkin cake, pumpkin bars, and pumpkin ice cream, all of which have my mind spinning in an orangey blur. So when an adorable Sugar Pie Pumpkin arrived in our produce box last week, I thought long and hard about what to do with it.

By the way, isn't "Sugar Pie Pumpkin" the cutest name ever? I mean, if you don't want to eat something called Sugar Pie, you need to get your head checked.

Sometimes I spend a lot of time mulling over what to do with a particular ingredient, only to use it on a whim, which is what happened to my little Sugar Pie one night recently when we found ourselves without a dinner plan. All of a sudden my agony over pumpkin whoopie pies v. pork and pumpkin stew, in honor of one of my favorite dishes at Burma Superstar, vanished into thin air. Before I knew it, I was flying around the kitchen like a little witch, chopping squash, covering the other hungry dog in a light dusting of garam masala, and rooting around for my immersion blender.

Turns out curried pumpkin soup isn't bad for a quick weeknight dinner. It's certainly not fancy, nor is it particularly photogenic, as is evidenced below, but it hits the spot on a cool night. Serve it with a dollop of sour cream and a few snipped chives, plus crispy croutons or some good bread.

I also had some canned pumpkin burning a hole in my, uh, pantry. I think we can all admit that canned pumpkin is up there with frozen spinach when we're talking about the greatest convenience foods. Someone else has done all the hard work so that all we have to do is open a can or defrost a box. Canned pumpkin lends great moisture to any baked good and can take a lot of flavors.

Normally I make pumpkin cranberry bread, but having recently made something similar, I nixed the berries, bulked up the powdered ginger, and added a hefty grating of fresh ginger root.

Gingery pumpkin bread is a nice way to start the day. It's not too sweet and has a lot of spice, and it goes well with coffee or tea. I ate it plain, just cut into thick golden slices, but I think it would be delicious cut a bit thinner, toasted, and served with an orange marmalade or quince jam.

What have you been doing with pumpkin recently, besides carving jack-o-lanterns?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The bestseller

Every cook has in their repertoire a few dishes that are surefire hits, or bestsellers, as my dad would say. These are recipes you can practically put together blindfolded, homey enough just for the family but special enough to serve to guests. You know, the ones everyone gushes over, thinking you slaved away for hours, when really you just made something you've made a hundred times before, something you put together while intermittently checking your email, playing tag with the dog (yes, we do that), and talking on the phone with your sister.

I've found that most of my recipes that fit this bill are traditional comfort food with universal appeal, like pot roast and chicken with rosemary. And then there's my ace in the hole, baked ziti.

Everyone loves this dish. I can't tell you how many times I've made it, or how many times I've given away the recipe. It's great for company, because you can assemble it ahead of time and bake it off when your guests arrive. It's also unfailingly reliable. And who can resist a bubbling tray of cheesy, tomato-y baked pasta, full of sweet Italian sausage and oregano? With a crisp salad and a bottle of wine, dinner is done.

I mentioned this dish once before, although that post was mostly a love letter to San Marzano tomatoes. And I didn't post the recipe, or any photos. Since I made it last weekend, I decided to do a proper post

I got the recipe from the Chronicle about six years ago, during the age of "The Sopranos," when TV critics and foodies (and one Soprano-obsessed Hungry Dog) were snickering about gabagool and salivating at the thought of Carmela's ricotta pie. In fact, this recipe is called Baked Ziti, Soprano-Style.

While "The Sopranos" is long over, I'll always be grateful that someone came up with this recipe and that I happened to spy it in the paper. It's a bestseller, no question about it. I've made it countless times and always with stellar results. Get past the silly name, and you'll be rewarded with a fabulous new go-to recipe to add to your collection, one that will satisfy your cravings for cold-weather comfort food while duly impressing your guests.

from the San Franciso Chronicle

1/4 c. olive oil
1 lb. Italian fennel sausage (or other sweet Italian sausage)
1 large onion, finely chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
1/3 c. dry red wine
1 (35 oz.) can canned tomatoes, chopped with their juices
1/4 c. fresh oregano OR 2 T. dried oregano
1 c. fresh ricotta
1 c. grated parmesan
1/3 c. chopped Italian parsley
1 lb ziti or penne
1/2 lb mozzarella, preferably fresh, torn or sliced

Preheat the oven to 425. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Grease a 9 x 13 baking dish with about 1 T. olive oil. Remove sausage from its casing and crumble. Set aside.

Heat remaining 3 T. oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Turn up heat to medium high and add sausage; brown for about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper. Pour off and discard most of the fat in the pan*. Add the wine and let it reduce for about 6 minutes or until it is almost gone.

Add the tomatoes and their juices and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. When the sauce begins to thicken, add the oregano and stir well. Season to taste again. Turn off heat.

Combine the ricotta, half the parmesan, and the parsley in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook pasta until al dente (do not cook completely). Drain well, reserving about 1/4 c. of the cooking water. Toss pasta with ricotta mixture. Toss again with the tomato and sausage sauce. If the mixture appears dry, add a splash of the reserved cooking water.

Pour the mixture into the baking dish, sprinkle with remaining parmesan, and dot with mozzarella. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned. (Often I'll set it under the broiler for 1-2 minutes).

Serves 4-6.
*I don’t usually have to do this, since the sausage I get is fairly lean.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Spiced persimmon chutney

Sometimes things show up in our produce box that I'm not sure what to do with. Of course, that's part of the reason why I like getting the box--to force a little creativity on myself. Over the last few years, I've conquered gaily striped carnival squash, beyond bitter dandelion greens, and a seemingly endless variety of peppers, none of which I would choose from the grocery store. But when they arrive at my doorstep, already paid for and ready to be cooked, I can rise to the occasion.

I have also had the opportunity to cook with ingredients that I like but don't often buy, like persimmons. This week, four fat little Fuyus appeared.

I knew I could just slice them and put them in a salad. But sometimes raw persimmons make my tongue feel weird and cottony. For a long time I thought I was mildly allergic to them, until I read that many people have this sensation when they eat persimmons. Something to do with tannins, although they are more pronounced in Hachiya persimmons, which are very astringent and should be cooked before consuming. Fuyus you can eat raw.
But I liked the idea of doing something more interesting with them than tossing them in a salad. I'd seen recipes for persimmon bars and persimmon cakes, but since I was already chilling dough for my apple crostata (an upcoming post) I wanted something savory.

Or at least sort of savory. I decided on a spiced persimmon chutney.

This isn't the kind of thing I normally make. I'm not crazy for chutney, and the husband isn't much for  sauces and relishes. But I decided to give it a whirl, since I had all of the ingredients on hand.

I modified the recipe based on the reader reviews--I cut the vinegar, apple, and raisins in half, and I left out the jalapeno. I also nearly wrecked it when I dumped all the ingredients in the pan after reading "Combine all ingredients" before I noticed the next two words, "except persimmons". I spent the next few minutes sorting through the pan pulling out the little orange squares.

The recipe, with my changes, turned out great. I served it alongside a roasted pork loin rubbed in ground fennel and coriander to echo the flavors of the chutney. Even the husband declared it a success.

This week I have more persimmons arriving. What shall I do with them?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cooking for the other hungry dog

Last Wednesday we woke up in the middle of the night to find the other hungry dog unable to stand or walk, shaking, panting, dizzy, sick. We rushed her to the emergency room, where we found out she had vestibular disease, similar to extreme vertigo. It goes away, but it can take days or weeks, and in the meantime, all the patient can do is endure the misery.

Poor pup stayed in the ICU for three nights. We brought her home on Saturday and since then she has made good progress. She can stand up on her own now, and walk more steadily every day. She's not yet able to take the stairs, which means the husband carries her gently each and every time. Lifting a 70-lb dog up a flight of stairs is no small thing, in physical effort, and in the love it conveys.

Once we got her home, we holed up and shut out the world, doing our very best to keep her calm and safe. To soothe our own nerves, we fussed around the house. I decided Sunday was a good day to make some comfort food.

First up was chicken stock. I do not have any special secret, but I make good stock, flavored with celery, onion, bay, and peppercorns. I love the smell of it simmering on the stove.

Once the stock was going I felt the urge to make something sweet, but not too sweet. A quick inventory of the fridge and freezer found that we had applesauce to use up as well as loads of frozen cranberries. Voila: cranberry applesauce bread.

It's not an exciting recipe, but it's a good one that I'll add to my repertoire. I baked it in my bundt pan to make it a bit more fun than a loaf; fluted edges always make something a little special, even a plain old quick bread.

In the evening I made Italian wedding soup, full of delicate, savory little meatballs and vibrant green spinach. Though we had little appetite, we both found comfort in a good bowl of soup, brimming with vegetables and tiny star pasta.

A few days have passed. The other hungry dog continues to improve. She's even begun to regain her appetite. The funny thing is, the only thing she'll eat is roast chicken. Not boiled chicken, which is what I originally cooked for her, based on the doctor's recommendation. Roasted.

She might be pulling something over on us, but I'm willing to go along with it. As anyone who loves someone deeply knows--whether it is a partner, child, friend, or animal-- seeing the object of your affection suffer is about the worst thing on the planet. Any improvement, small or slight, is heralded as a milestone and the path to recovery. And if the recovery calls for roast chicken, I'm more than willing to oblige.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Salad days

Anyone reading this blog over the last few weeks might wonder if I survive on a steady diet of cake. It would be hard to argue with the evidence. There was the delicious and melancholy applesauce cake; the ill-fated grape cake; and the ever-popular root beer cake, which I am already envisioning in cupcake form, perhaps with a cream center, an homage to the Hostess Cupcake.

Lest any of you think I'm a grown-up, female version of Augustus Gloop, tossing cakes, cookies, and anything else in my path down the hatch, let me set your worries aside. From time to time, I can show restraint. In fact, I'm quite the vegetable-eater.

The other day I composed this lovely salad with peppery arugula, apples, toasted walnuts, chives, and goat cheese.

Dressed in a bright lemon vinaigrette, it provided a much-needed contrast to the decadent sweets I've been enjoying recently. I'll always have a sweet tooth, but nearly as often I do enjoy a good crisp salad, preferably one with something crunchy and something creamy. The many varieties of apples in season right now provide the perfect sweetness and balance. For this particular salad I used Gala apples that arrived with our produce box. In addition to complementing the slightly sharp bite of the greens and the tang of the dressing, their cheery red color elevated the salad from appealing to downright pretty.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dark times, drastic measures: Goodbye, Gourmet

The news of Gourmet's demise has left me feeling pretty blue.

While the death of this iconic magazine can't be blamed entirely on the Internet--certainly there were other factors at play, including low circulation and claims that Gourmet was out of touch with the average American cook--it cannot have helped. Without a doubt, the Internet has changed the face of journalism. Although the Web is great for leveling the publishing field--without blogs, The Hungry Dog would be a series of never-seen journal entries--leveling the field isn't always the best thing. As Christopher Kimball, publisher of Cook's Illustrated, noted in this op-ed piece last week, doesn't the world need fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise? This goes for all kinds of journalism, not just food writing. Do you really want your news from any moron who can set up a blogger account?

There's been a little backlash to Kimball's piece; some food bloggers are feeling defensive. I guess my take on the whole thing is that I'd like there to be room and audience for both the old guard and the new guard. I'd like to pick and choose my information from any number of sources, including tried-and-true standbys like Gourmet as well as some of the incredible food blogs out there, whose numbers are growing by the day. 

Mostly, I feel concerned about what I see as a diminishing interest in in-depth reporting, which really is what made Gourmet not just a collection of seasonal recipes, but a series of well-researched and often excellent articles about food, politics, travel, and culture. While equalizing opportunity can provide a much-needed forum for those of us just learning how to be creative, it's sad to think that people are losing an interest in journalism with well-earned chops. I mean, how do you know that my recipe for flank steak with bok choy is any good? Most of you reading this have never met me. I could be a terrible cook and a compulsive liar. But you can assume that Gourmet's recipe would be pretty solid.

Anyway, feeling sad and hungry, I decided to make Gourmet's spiced applesauce cake with cinnamon cream cheese frosting. The cake smells like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all wrapped into one.

I served it to our friends Amy and Johann who came over for dinner on saturday. We morosely discussed the changing face of publishing while inhaling this moist, fragrant cake. Amidst the rueful sighs were furtive scrapings of forks on plates.
In case you were wondering what goes with a rich, appley cake full of brown sugar, vanilla, cloves, and ginger, the answer is dulce de leche ice cream. I suppose it's gilding the lily, what with the layer of cinnamon cream cheese frosting spread thickly over the top of the cake already, but dark times call for drastic measures. I suggest you make this cake. But don't trust me--trust Gourmet.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Flank steak with bok choy and black beans

My dad might roll over in his grave to hear me say this, but I hardly know how to cook anything Chinese. And for some reason, most of the things I have experience making are very labor intensive, like potstickers and won ton. I also once helped the extended Hungry Dog clan make sesame balls. You may be familiar with these little bits of fried dough, usually containing sweet bean paste. Well, not in our family. We make them savory, filled with roast pork, green onions, and water chestnuts.

When I asked an elderly aunt why we make them with salty pork instead of sweet beans, she looked at me in surprise. "Because we like pork better," she said. Well, then.

I do have one Chinese dinner in my repertoire that I am capable of making on any given weeknight. My dad would be pleased to know that it's actually a recipe of his that appeared in the first volume of our family cookbook: flank steak with black beans.

As might be typical with family recipes, this one is somehow both incredibly specific ("Stir-fry flank steak for 45 seconds!") and frustratingly vague ("use several slices of ginger"). But now I've made the recipe so many times I know how to do it just the way I like it.


Marinate 1 lb. thinly-sliced flank steak in 4 T. soy sauce, 2 T. dry sherry, and several slices of ginger for 20 minutes.

When done marinating, remove ginger slices. Heat 2 T. vegetable oil in a wok over very high heat. Add the flank steak, being careful not to splatter the hot oil. Cook, tossing constantly, for 1-2 minutes. Do not cook all the way through. Remove the flank steak from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Heat another 2 T. vegetable oil in the pan. Add 2 1/2 T. black beans, 2-3 minced garlic cloves, and 1-2 T. minced ginger.

A word about the black beans: I've used the old-school ones that are encased in a starchy fermented goo. These actually taste good but have a strong smell while cooking. If you use these, you should rinse them really well first.

Usually I use this, which may or may not be considered cheater-style, but works like a charm.

Cook black beans, garlic, and ginger over high heat for 2 minutes. Add one chopped red bell pepper and cook 1 minute.

Add 1 t. sugar, 1 t. salt, and chopped bok choy (or other vegetable) and toss to coat vegetables in black bean mixture.  For the vegetable, use as much as you like. I might use one head of broccoli, or several bok choys, depending on how big they are. With broccoli, I blanch it first and then add it to the stir-fry; that way it doesn't have to cook so long in the black beans and keeps its bright green color.

Add 3/4 -1 1/2 c. chicken broth. The amount varies with 1) how saucy you like your stir-fry, and 2) how much liquid your vegetable needs to cook.

If you use bok choy, it hardly needs more than a minute to cook. Broccoli will take 4-5 minutes.

Make a slurry with 1 1/2 T. corn starch and 1 1/2 T. water and add to the pan, stirring into the sauce. It will thicken very fast.

Turn off heat and add flank steak and all juices to pan. Toss, allowing the steak to finish cooking in the residual heat. Serve immediately.

I usually serve this with rice and a piece of fish (usually cod, snapper, or white basa) that I steam with salt and ginger and drizzle a little sesame oil over. Two dishes is all the Chinese cooking I can handle at a time.

I realize I haven't written out this recipe in a printer-friendly way. I guess I feel it doesn't matter too much--once you learn the method, you can adjust all the amounts and the ingredients depending on your tastes. You could use chicken or shrimp instead of beef, and any vegetable you like. The key with stir-frying, besides taking great care not to overcook any of the ingredients, is that you want everything chopped in advance. Once you start cooking this dish, it's done in 10 minutes. But you don't want things getting soggy while you're frantically trying to pull ingredients together. I get everything prepped and have it ready right by the stove before I start.

This is one of the husband's favorite dinners. I have to agree there's something incredibly satisfying about this dish; plus, it makes for impressive lunch leftovers the next day.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Spreading a little love

On Wednesday, I got the exciting news that Michelle over at One Ordinary Day had awarded me the "One Lovely Blog" award. The last time I won an award was...never. I'm a terrifically low achiever. So, I'm feeling rather pleased.

Part of the good will of this award is that once you're named, you pay it forward and give a shout-out to some blogs you really like, preferably ones you've recently discovered. You let them know they've won, and they pass it on.

I appreciate all kind of blogs, but I tend to gravitate toward writers that have a distinct, defined perspective. Although I naturally enjoy the ones written by fellow Bay Area peeps, I find myself increasingly drawn to blogs written from other coasts or continents. I don't mind if the photos aren't great (although I admire them when they are), and I don't really care if anyone posts recipes (although I've been known to bookmark a few). I'm interested in the person behind the blog and their unique view of food, and the world.

Here are a few I've been digging recently. Not all are new to me, but a few are.

Croque-Camille: An American in Paris, writing about her cooking and eating adventures abroad.
Feasting on Art: One of the coolest blogs I've seen, blending art and cooking in the most graceful way.
Jessica's Dinner Party: I recently discovered this one and was quickly impressed with the elegance of the photos as well as the writing.
Tiny Urban Kitchen: I like the way Jen writes about Boston; it really makes me want to go there.
Unfussy Fare: I love the clean, uncluttered look of this blog almost as much as love the sharp writing.

I hope you check these out if you haven't already. I think they're great.

-The Hungry Dog

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Paulette, Miette, et le chien affamé

Ever since I started looking at food blogs and writing my own, I've been impressed with the incredible skill and dedication of so many home cooks out there. I'm consistently blown away by the complicated recipes people will bravely undertake and then write about, revealing every misstep along with each success. I've read about people curing bacon, making puff pastry, and trying their hand at fresh ricotta. So many cooks seem undaunted by things I see as obstacles: candy thermometers, cooking things under bricks, yeast. As a rule, I pretty much avoid anything that requires deboning or cheesecloth.

I guess we draw lines arbitrarily. Why will I make crackers from scratch but refuse to bake bread? One can't be that much harder than the other, just a bit more time-consuming. I suppose as deep as my love for cooking may run, so runs my laziness, and it's randomly applied. There are certain things I'm just not interested in making by hand. 

While much of this can be attributed to personality, it's also a result of where I live. In San Francisco, there's no reason to make your own dim sum. That's why we have Yank Sing, and any number of alternatives in Chinatown and the Richmond. For good ramen, I can roll down my hill to Hotei in the Sunset. For excellent ramen, I can roll a little further to Tanpopo in Japantown. And then there's the matter of the little French macarons that have become so popular in the last year.

I've seen many food bloggers attempt these delightful little cookies with varying success. Every time I see a photo of a homemade macaron, I feel a surge of admiration for the person's fortitude. I know macarons can be moody little bastards, and can turn out entirely differently depending on how humid it is, whether the egg whites were properly aged, or if the almonds were ground finely enough. It seems that just looking at the little suckers the wrong way can doom you: a hopeful, beseeching glance can send these sweet, chewy mouthfuls into an angry fit, rendering them flat and gummy.

I love these cookies too. But I will never make them. I'm just not determined enough.

Also, and perhaps the more important reason, is because five blocks from our house is Boulange de Cole, where periodically I'll pick up a few macarons on the way home from work. I am particularly fond of their passionfruit ones. Or because from work I can walk to Paulette in Hayes Valley, which packs the macarons in slender, brightly-colored boxes. Buying macarons from Paulette makes me feel chic and French, like Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

And because there's Miette in the Ferry Building, where the husband stopped the other day after a few errands.

He picked up a tidy half dozen: raspberry, hazelnut, and pistachio.

We ate them after dinner, one after the other, silent little termites making our way through the bag. I'm not sure toiling over these myself could equal the pleasure I felt in opening Miette's little cellophane bag to see the delicate macarons carefully lined up so as not to crush each other, but I'm positive it could not equal the happiness I felt that the husband surprised me with them on a plain old Wednesday night.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chicken with apples and sage (and my mail-order shoes)

Who doesn't love fall? Even if you live in California, where we don't get the brilliant turning leaves of New England, the weather gets decidedly brisker and the light adopts that shadowy, golden slant. Unless you're made of stone, autumn is a beautiful, romantic time of the year.

It's also the time of year for chicken with apples and sage.

I'm sorry this picture is a little cruddy. It really doesn't illustrate the gorgeous golden-brown of the chicken and the tiny flecks of sage which make the dish so pretty. I've been meaning to order one of those staging lights to help with my photography, but recently I ordered some shoes from Amazon which fit so poorly that I only got one on before realizing I would be severely hobbled by keeping them. It was a great disappointment because they were black suede mary jane heels with a little flower on the strap. I had already begun to envision how these new ladylike shoes would start to make up for the fact that I mostly kick around the house in jeans, clogs, and a faded Billabong hoodie. Unfortunately, when you're used to wearing clogs, you're even less likely to put up with pinchy high heels.

Anyway, while it's not Amazon's fault the shoes were a bust, I'm temporarily soured on the whole mail order thing. I realize it's convenient, but that's only true if you decide to keep whatever you ordered. If you don't, it's worse than returning it to a store, because you have to find packing tape and pay for the return costs. Now I have to lug the shoes to UPS and eat the shipping charges. $7 for a pair of shoes I didn't keep! So, it's hard for me to get excited about ordering anything else right now. The light will have to wait, and in the meantime, you'll have to endure a few dimly-lit shots. As great as autumn is, the shorter days that accompany it are no friend to the photographer. Oh well. I can only assume that with the millions of great blogs out there, no one's reading this one just for the pictures.

Let me spare you any further rantings and focus on this recipe, which I have made tons of times and expect to  make for years to come. It's delicious, simple, and totally satisfying on a cool October night. The blend of apples, shallots, sage, brown sugar, and cider vinegar is divine and  versatile--you can serve this chicken with rice, buttered egg noodles, or mashed potatoes. You could even do pork chops instead of chicken.

This time, I served it with thickly-cut roasted sweet potato coins and steamed green beans. If that isn't a pre-cursor to Thanksgiving, I don't know what is.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A strange and beautiful cake

To the husband's surprise, I made a grape cake today.

Well, let me back up. He wasn't completely shocked; I'd been muttering the whole week about all of the grapes we had to use up. It's possible to eat quite a few grapes just as they are, plucking them off the bunch and popping them in your mouth as you go about your day. But it's not possible for two people to eat two big sackfuls. I knew something had to be done with them.

I'd even begun planting the idea of the grape cake. But every time I mentioned it, he repeated, "Grape cake?" in a tone somewhere between disbelief and repulsion.

You may know this, but there aren't a lot of things you can do with grapes. But I kept coming across this one recipe for grape cake, adapted from a Patricia Wells original. I figured now was the time to try it.

First I took a photo of the grapes, which were a stunning deep, dark purple.

Then I set about making the cake, which was nothing too earth-shattering, in fact quite similar to both the raspberry buttermilk cake and the hangover cake I made over the summer. When I took it out of the oven, I was struck by how beautiful and strange it looked. It reminded me of some focaccia I'd once made with black olives and sea salt.

Although the cooking time the recipe gave was off by a good 13 minutes, luckily I am the kind of cook that lives in constant fear of over-cooking and over-baking things. While sometimes this is a certain flaw (like when I realize the pork roast, instead of being dry as I feared is undercooked in the center--trichinosis, anyone?), in a case like this, it's a good trait. I nervously started checking on the cake much earlier than recommended and it was a good thing I did or it would have been hard as a dog biscuit.

The cake itself had a nice crumb, moist from olive oil and milk.

But, to my dismay, the cake was as weird as the husband had predicted. The grapes seemed both unattractively withered and freakishly large, and I couldn't help feeling reminded of Mickey Mouse's nose every time I looked at one.

Also, it turns out hot, cooked grapes don't taste good. They lose the crisp juiciness which makes a grape a grape. Instead they seem heavy and soft in a frankly stomach-turning way.

The husband really gave it a try but couldn't finish his piece.

I finished mine, but only because whenever I make something, even if I don't like it, I feel strangely haughty and protective of it. "It's really not bad," I kept saying, "if you like hot, soft grapes."

Who am I kidding? That poor cake is sitting on the counter right now, enjoying its last few minutes of life. It's compost bin-bound and it knows it. In the future, I'll take my grapes raw, thank you very much. And, of course, in a bottle of wine.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Warm potato salad with lemon-lime vinaigrette

Making the root beer cake launched a lot of conversations in our house about sodas. The husband and I discussed the ones we like (root beer and ginger ale) and those we don't (most others), how the husband's teeth hurt when he thinks about drinking a Coke, and soda brands from our childhoods.

I grew up in California in a household that did not drink a lot of sodas. Yes, there was root beer at A&W, and I remember drinking some orange Fantas over the years. But my strongest memory of soft drinks was when we'd go on camping trips with family friends, who'd always bring a cooler full of Cragmont sodas. I was always thrilled to see that cooler, which I knew to be neatly stocked with shiny cans. Of all the flavors, which included bright pink strawberry and the exotic cream soda, I often chose lemon lime.

The husband didn't have Cragmont in Kentucky, but he did have Chek, which I had never heard of. A quick search on Wikipedia informed me that this too was a cheap brand like Cragmont and boasted the same classic flavors, as well as some suspicious-sounding ones, like Red Alert, Dr. Chek, and my personal favorite, diet Freshy, a Fresca rip-off.

Anyway, after I had a good laugh about Chek, I found myself thinking about lemon lime. Lemon lime is a weird flavor for a kid to pick out, but as I'm sure is evident by now, I was a weird kid. As an adult, I still like lemons and limes together, although I prefer them in their natural forms.

So last night, as I was roasting up a pork loin, I decided to make a potato salad. These two things don't really go together; one is more fall/winter and one is more spring/summer. Pork roasts make me think of root vegetables and bitter autumn greens, while potato salad is warm-weather picnic food. But we had a lot of little Yukon Gold potatoes that needed attention, as well as a bag of limes.  I decided to make a tangy vinaigrette using the zest and juice of one lemon and two limes, along with some coarse mustard and olive oil. I poured it over warm potatoes and cold celery, with lots of fresh chives. The result was a light but strongly-flavored potato salad straddling two seasons, a perfect accompaniment to the pork loin rubbed in rosemary.

I'm glad I was reminded about lemons and limes, even if it was through a lengthy analysis of cheap 1970's sodas. It's still a great combination that can lift a ho-hum dish into something both crisp and sunny.