Thursday, December 24, 2009

"The Wedding? I’m Here for the Cookies"

I loved this recent New York Times article about the "cookie tables" that are part of wedding traditions in Pittsburgh. Christmas is the one season in which I do a lot of baking. This year I tried some new cookie recipes and revived a few favorites:
  • Molasses Crinkles (see my adaptations in earlier post)
  • Chewy Chocolate Cherry Cookies
  • Pecan Shortbread (see my adaptations in earlier post)
  • Chocolate Wafers (from a more elaborate peppermint sandwich cookie recipe)
  • Almond Cookies (made by pressing balls of basic sugar cookie dough, below, into slivered almonds)
  • Cranberry-Cherry Pinwheels (made with Basic Sugar Cookie dough, below)
  • Filling:
    5 oz. (about 1 1/4 cups) dried cranberries
    1/2 cup sour cherry preserves
    2 T + 1 tsp. sugar
    Process until coarsely pureed. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring to avoid burning, until the mixture comes to a boil. Remove from heat and add 1/4 tsp almond extract. Cover and refrigerate for an hour.

    Assembly & Baking: Remove half the sugar cookie dough (see below) from the refrigerator and roll it out into a rectangle, roughly 12" x 18". Spread half the filling thinly and evenly over the dough, then roll it up into a long cylinder. Freeze until firm.  (Repeat with the rest of the dough.)

    Remove the cylinder from the freezer and slice with a sharp knife into rounds about 1/3" thick. Transfer the slices to a baking sheet, placing them about 2" apart.

    Bake at 375 degrees, one sheet at a time, for about 9-14 minutes, until the edges are just beginning to darken and firm up. Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool.
  • Basic Sugar Cookies (delicious and versatile!)
  • Mix together:
    1 1/2 sticks butter
    1 cup sugar
    1 large egg
    1/2 tsp vanilla
    (1 tsp. almond extract)
    In a separate bowl, mix:
    2 cups sifted flour
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1/2 tsp baking powder
    Stir flour mixture into butter mixture. Chill dough until firm. Form as desired and bake at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes or until edges are golden.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Meal #2: Recipes

Vegetable Chili (Sandy Cate)
1 large onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
2 large cloves garlic minced (2 tsp.)
2 tsp. vegetable oil
1 lb. very lean ground beef (or ground turkey)
1 28 oz. can tomatoes (chopped in juice, not ground; fire-roasted really nice)
2-3 tbsp. tomato paste
2 1/2 cup cooked pinto beans (original recipe calls for kidney beans
1 jalapeño
1 cup each diced green pepper, sliced carrots, diced celery
1 cup corn kernels, frozen or fresh (TJ's fire roasted? yum)
5 tsp brown sugar
5 tsp mild chili powder
1 T. cumin powder
1 T. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/8 tsp. ground clove
1/8 tsp. ground allspice
Sandy's Notes: I usually use ground turkey, which works fine and yields far less fat. I recommend adding more tomatoes, especially when doubling recipe... maybe an additional 15 oz. for a doubled amount? One can fool with the "heat" — if chili powder is mild, 1 jalapeno is fine. I have accidentally made it blisteringly hot by adding my sister's ground chili powders.
  1. Saute onion and garlic in oil. Add meat, cook until browned. Drain off fat.
  2. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and spices. Heat until bubbling, lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. Add beans and rest of vegetables except corn, simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Add corn and simmer another 10 minutes.

Cole Slaw (Christine Tolentino)
cabbage (1 large)
jalapeño (1 large)
red onions (1 large)
parsley (1 bunch)
oil (any will do)
red wine or apple cider vinegar
dijon mustard
Slice the vegetables finely. Toss with vinaigrette.
Christine's Notes: This will keep indefinitely in fridge, just be sure to toss occasionally. I use in sandwiches instead of lettuce, add to boring green salads, or as vegetable du jour.

Molasses Crinkles (Jenny Michael—from Epicurious)
Jenny's Notes: I used all butter instead of part shortening. which makes the cookies flatter and thinner. I also added 1/2 cup finely-chopped candied ginger (uncrystallized—from Trader Joe's).

Pecan Shortbread Cookies (Jenny Michael—from Epicurious)
Jenny's Notes: I like these brushed with an egg white wash and sprinkled with a little sanding sugar.

Chewy Chocolate-Cherry Cookies (Jenny Michael—adapted from Martha Stewart Living Magazine, December 2009)
1 c. dried cherries, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
3 T Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
3/4 t. baking soda
1/2 t. coarse salt
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 c. packed light-brown sugar
1/2 c. honey
6 oz. white chocolate, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (I used chips)
1/2 c. fine sanding or granulated sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Whisk together flour, cocoa, 1 t. cinnamon, baking soda and salt.
  3. Beat butter with brown sugar till pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add honey and beat till creamy.
  4. Reduce mixer speed to low. Add flour mixture and beat till combined. Mix cherries and white chocolate into dough.
  5. Whisk together remaining cinnamon and sugar. Scoop up 2 T. dough and drop into sugar mixture; roll to coat. Form into a ball and roll again in the sugar. Place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, placing cookies about 2 inches apart.
  6. Bake until just set and starting to crack—about 15 minutes. Let cool on cookies sheets.
Jenny's Notes: These are very sweet, so a few go a long way! Also, it's easy to overcook them, so keep an eye out...

A Chili Feast! (Meal #2)

Our second gathering was held at Maria Massolo's home. There was lots of cooking going on—and plenty of time to relax with a glass of wine while the chili was simmering and the cookies were baking... Dinner was delicious and cleanup efficient!

Many thanks to everyone who contributed recipes, ingredients, money... and most especially your good energy in helping this all come together! Special thanks to Bob Fagan for again being our delivery guy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cooking Dates for 2010

I've signed us up for monthly cooking dates for 2010! (I think I've managed to avoid the principal holidays). We'll be preparing the meal on each of these days for the shelter folks to enjoy the following evening.
  • Sunday, January 10
  • Sunday,  February 7
  • Sunday, March 7
  • Sunday, April 11
  • Sunday, May 16
  • Sunday, June 6
  • Sunday, July 11
  • Sunday, August 8
  • Sunday, September 12
  • Sunday, October 3
  • Sunday, November 7
  • Sunday, December 5
When you're ready to sign up for one or more dates, please drop me a line. And, again, please feel free to share this with anyone else who might be interested.

Learning to Collaborate

A few days before our first cooking date, I woke up feeling anxious, and some journal-writing soon helped me figure out the cause. The central issue was something that often plagues me when I entertain: I so want everything to be just so, to make it all "perfect," that I lose sight of the larger goal of making sure we all have a good time (!). Yes, it's a control issue. (Sigh.)

What I needed to do, I realized, was to get back in touch with my hopes and intentions for this event—and for the overall project. So what were these?
  • I especially wanted this first cooking day to go well, because it would set the tone for the project as a whole. And I wanted to be present and relaxed—and not to spend the day stressing over a thousand details.
  • I wanted the food to be delicious and sufficiently plentiful. (I wasn't sure I knew how to figure that out.)
  • I wanted us to be able to work together without feeling uncomfortably crowded. (I sometimes feel overwhelmed with lots of people in my kitchen.)
  • I wanted people to connect with one another, and for us all to have a good time while doing something for others.
  • And I want the overall project to create a flexible community, reaching out to other people who might want to get involved, and possibly even inspiring others to create similar projects. 
Remembering my goals helped me figure out how to realize them—or, at least, how to make a start in the right direction!

The practical matters proved fairly easy to resolve. I simply turned to you for help! (Seems obvious, doesn't it?) Cole and Michael helped me figure out how much we needed of the various curry ingredients, so I could be sure to buy enough. And they gave me great advice about planning for a crowd and packing food for transport, which I know will come in handy in the future. Sandy and Sara and Kevin took care of preparing certain dishes and ingredients, which meant I had fewer things to keep track of myself.

To make sure the kitchen wasn't too crowded, I moved most of the ferns and all of the stools into the sun room, cleared off an additional counter, and set up overflow workspace in the dining room. Much better! I also created a sort of worksheet, which listed each of the items on the menu and explained what needed to be done to each ingredient. The idea was that someone could show up, grab some cucumbers, say, and consult the worksheet to find out how to prepare them. This meant that people could easily jump in and work on something, without having to understand the whole structure of the recipe—and without having to consult me for instructions at every turn.

I wanted most, though, to find a way to let go of my need to control all the details. Again, I asked myself, what is my goal here? I wanted this to be our event, not my event. I wanted us all to be co-participants in this project, for us to share with and inspire one another. And once I remembered that—and remembered that all of you were going to be working on this project with me—it suddenly became easy to simply trust you to make it happen... which you did with bells on! (And not only that, you cleaned up after yourselves—what a blessing!)

This idea probably seems self-evident to many of you, but it was an "Aha!" moment for me. When I keep in mind what's really important, it's easy to let the other stuff go, to have a little more faith and a little less fear. Now, I just need to figure out how to carry this lesson into other areas of my life... :)  In the meantime, I'm grateful for the learning and growth this project is already offering me—and for being able to share this larger journey with you. Happy Thanksgiving!

Cooks' Debriefing (Meal #1)

Over our first dinner, we discussed how the day had gone and what plans we might make for the future. I'm sure I don't remember all of that conversation—and I probably remember some of it wrong!—but here's my distillation. If you have something to add or correct, please let me know.
  • The 2:00 meeting time worked well. It wasn't too early, but we had plenty of time to do all the preparation, relax and chat while the curry cooked, and still have dinner at a reasonable hour for a "school" night. Since the shelter folks wouldn't be eating our meal until the following evening, it didn't need to be delivered by a particular time, which gave us flexibility. We'll continue with this plan of cooking Sunday for Monday consumption.
  • Given the available stovetop space in a home kitchen, we agreed that it makes sense to prepare main dishes that cook mostly in the oven. We came up with several possible menu ideas, including pastel de choclo (Chilean corn and chicken casserole), lasagna, enchilada casserole, paella, chili and other stews. For December: Sandy Cate's vegetable chili!
  • Also because of limited kitchen space, we agreed that preparing baked goods separately makes the best sense. Sara Miller made and brought wonderful rolls and has expressed an interest in more bread-baking (hooray!). We also talked about cupcakes, which could be baked in advance and then decorated by the group. And I'm probably forgetting other ideas here...
  • This meal ended up being relatively inexpensive ($120 + the cost of the rolls + yogurt + persimmon cake + foil containers). I collected money from everyone who wanted to chip in (plus a couple of people who didn't attend sent contributions—thank you!), and we'll use that kitty to fund next month's groceries. Trader Joe's proved to be an inexpensive source for most of the ingredients; Costco and Lucky's also provided a few items each. The Berkeley Bowl was suggested as another option.

Feedback from the Shelter

I finally reached Cheryl Houston, manager of the San Leandro shelter, on Thursday. She was there on the Tuesday morning after our dinner was served and heard the women talking about the food. Apparently, they liked the curry, but she couldn't tell me much more. There was enough food left over so that they were able to have it for lunch the next day, as well (which I hope was a good thing!). So not a lot of feedback but the word was generally positive.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Meal #1: Recipes

Roasted Vegetable-Chicken Curry (Jenny Michael—improvisation)
Italian eggplant, peeled and sliced into thick rounds
zucchini, cut into 1/2-in dice
onion(s), finely chopped
canned diced & peeled tomatoes
garlic, peeled and finely chopped or pressed
ginger, peeled and grated
Indian-style curry powder
mustard seed
boneless, skinless chicken meat (mixture or light and dark), cut into 2" chunks
  1. Salt the eggplant slices and set in a strainer to drain for 30 minutes. Rinse off the salt and pat dry, then chop the eggplant into 1/2-inch dice.
  2. Sauté the onions in oil until they become translucent. Add the garlic and ginger, and cook for another minute. Then stir in the spices and continue to cook until they are fragrant; be careful not to burn them!
  3. Place the onion mixture with the eggplant and other vegetables in a large roasting pan. Cover tightly with foil, and roast at 450 degrees for about an hour. 
  4. In the meantime, brown the chicken in oil, in batches. Season the chicken with salt and pepper.
  5. After an hour of roasting, remove the foil from the vegetables, and mix in the chicken. Return the pan to the oven and continue to cook, uncovered, until the vegetables have "melted" into a thick sauce. 
  6. Taste the curry and adjust seasoning, as needed.
  7. Serve with rice and top with yogurt, if desired.

Jeweled Rice (Jenny Michael—improvisation)
long-grain rice (use your favorite: I like Trader Joe's brown rice medley), cooked
scallions, white and green parts, finely chopped
carrots, shredded and then chopped
golden raisins
cilantro, finely chopped (optional)
salt & pepper
  1. Sauté the carrots until they soften slightly.
  2. Combine the rice with sautéed carrots, scallions, raisins, and cilantro (if using). Mix thoroughly.
  3. Season lightly with salt and pepper, to taste.

Cucumber Salad with Yogurt Dressing (Jenny Michael—improvisation)
English cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
red bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
red onion, thinly sliced
olive oil
salt & pepper
hot sauce (optional)
  1. Combine the vegetables in a bowl.
  2. Mix together the other ingredients in a separate bowl; adjust seasoning, as needed.
  3. Toss vegetables with dressing and serve.

Cracked-Wheat Rolls (Sara Miller—from the Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates cookbook)
1 cup bulghur
1 1/4 cup boiling water
2 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
3 tbsp. brown sugar, packed
4-5 cups unbleached white bread flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. salt
1-2 tbsp. melted butter
  1. Place bulghur in a large heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Add 2 tbsp. butter, stir, and set aside to cool to room temperature
  2. Make sponge: in a small bowl, dissolve yeast in lukewarm water. When bulghur has cooled for about 15 minutes, add the yeast mixture, brown sugar, and 1 cup of flour. Beat for 100 strokes.
  3. Cover bowl with a damp towel and set aside to rise in a warm place until the mixture bubbles, about 45 minutes.
  4. Uncover the sponge and stir in the beaten egg, salt, and 2 to 2 1/2 cups of flour to make a dough stiff enough to knead. 
  5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until elastic, 8 to 10 minutes. Oil the bowl, return kneaded dough to it and turn over to coat both sides with the oil. Cover bowl with damp towel and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, 45 to 60 minutes.
  6. Lightly oil a large baking sheet.
  7. Punch down the dough and turn it onto a cutting board. Divide the dough into 16 to 18 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and place the balls about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Cover with a damp towel and let rise again for 20 minutes.
  8. Preheat the over to 400 degrees. When the rolls have risen, bake for 25 minutes, or until golden and hollow-sounding when tapped. Remove from oven and immediately brush with the melted butter.

Persimmon Pudding Cake (Sandy Cate)
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsps. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup persimmon pulp
1/2 cup milk
1 tbsp. butter, melted
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup raisins, soaked in wine.
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch square pan. 
  2. Combine all ingredients in mixing bowl and mix until well blended.
  3. Bake for 1 hour.
  4. Serve with whipped cream.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

First dinner prepared and delivered!

The smiles on our faces tell the story: we had a great time preparing this meal together! We only took a few photos as we packed up the food—documenting was not the main thing on our minds, but we'll do better next time. Notes and recipes to follow...

Above: Sandy Cate, Kevin Koczela, and Maria Massolo
Below: Cole Chabon (contemplating the bounty) and Jenny Michael (holding a pan of vegetable-chicken curry)
At the bottom: Toasting our project

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Getting started

Since sending out the initial invitation, I have been thrilled and touched by the outpouring of enthusiasm for this project. Thank you all for your generosity and passion! Please continue to spread the word to anyone you think might be interested...

Here are our first two cooking dates—along with a list of those who have already volunteered:
Date: Sunday, November 8th (to be served at BFWC the next evening)
Time: Cooks, please plan to arrive by 2:00.
Host: Jenny Michael
Menu: chicken curry, rice pilaf, cucumber salad with yogurt dressing, rolls, persimmon cake (Sandy's recipe)...
Things to bring: an apron; your favorite knife; a cutting mat or board; a container, so you can take home leftovers; money to help pay for the food, if you want to contribute in this way
Cooks: Maria Massolo, Lisa Sherman, Sandy Cate, Cole Chabon, Michael Acker, Fabio Araujo, Kevin Koczela (will bring homemade yogurt), Sara Miller (will bake and bring rolls), Bob Fagan (driver), Jenny Michael
Dinner guests: Please let me know if you want to join us—I'm hoping we'll eat around 6:30.
Date: Sunday, December 6th (to be served at BFWC the next evening)
Host: Maria Massolo
Menu ideas: vegetable chili w/turkey (Sandy's recipe), coleslaw, cornbread muffins, holiday cookies
Cooks: Maria Massolo, Monica Eppinger, Dave Menninger, Judith Bishop, Lisa Sherman, Sandy Cate, BB Borowitz, Ann Park, Jenny Michael
Dinner guests: ???
Once we see how all this works, I'll set up dates for 2010.

An invitation

Dear Friends,

I've been thinking for a while that I'd like to find a way to make a more concrete contribution to our community, and I finally decided it was time to stop musing and start doing! Because I enjoy cooking for and with other people, I did some research to figure out where I might be able to offer my services. I discovered “Building Futures with Women & Children,” an organization in the East Bay that provides shelter and other services for women and children who are homeless and/or victims of domestic abuse. This year, after Gov. Schwarzenegger cut the state's entire $16 million domestic violence budget, shelters across California are closing or cutting back on services. BFWC is looking for volunteers to prepare and deliver dinner (for about 35 people) to one of their local shelters on a regular basis.

I've decided to commit to cooking for them once a month for the coming year. Of course, I could do this all by myself, but what fun is that?!! So this is where you all come in. :) I'd like to invite you to join me in planning, preparing, and delivering a meal to the shelter—every month... or every now and then... or just once, depending on your schedule and resources and inclination. And after delivering the meal to the shelter, we'll have our own dinner together. We'll enjoy the pleasures of dreaming up a creative menu, of cooking together, of eating together and, most especially, of providing a healthy and delicious meal for women and children in need.

So that’s the plan. I don’t want to make this project too onerous a commitment for anyone, so if you’d like to help cook just one dinner, you’d be very welcome to do just that… If you wanted to do this with me every month, that would be amazing… Or if you’d like to sign up for something in-between, that would be wonderful, too! And even if you’re not so keen on joining a cooking party, you could participate in one of these other ways:
  • If you'd like to cook something separately to contribute to one of our meals (a few loaves of fresh bread? dessert for a crowd?), that would be very welcome. Just let me know, so we can factor it into our menu planning.
  • If you’d like to help out with meal planning and/or shopping, please let me know and we’ll find a time when we can do that together. I imagine we'll meet sometime the week before to get organized.
  • Do you have some great recipes that might work for this project? We'd love to try them out!
  • If you’re able to contribute to the cost of the food, that would be very welcome, as well.  (Once we get this going, I'll figure out a way to make these contributions tax-deductible...)
  • If you’d like to join us for dinner one on of these evenings, we’d love to have you!
  • If you'd like to host our gathering sometime, that would be lovely, too.
  • If you've got ideas, suggestions, and/or experience to share, we'd love to hear them! The more brains and hearts and hands helping with this project, the better!
  • If you know others who might be interested in getting involved, please spread the word.
I think my working kitchen space (including the dining room table) will reasonably accommodate 6-7 cooks (or so), besides me. But 10-12 people can sit (cozily) around my dining room table for dinner, so it would be great if we cooks invited a few others to join us for our meal each time. I’d love for this to be a joyful and festive occasion every month!

So that should get us started! Thank you in advance for your interest in this project—which, as you've probably guessed, I've decided to call "A Common Table," inspired by a quote from Thomas Merton.

I look forward to cooking with you! 

Warm regards,