Sunday, March 21, 2010

Food Memoirs

Writing in the food memoir genre has burgeoned in recent years, and there are lots of interesting and amusing books to choose from—including the "Eat" section of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone and its sequel, Julia Child's posthumous My Life in France, and many others. I like this quote from Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life—which, admittedly, I have not read (yet):
When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It's also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.
What are your favorites in the food memoir genre?

Inspiration: Thomas Merton

From time to time, I'll be moving my "inspirations" to this main space, in order to make room for other stuff in the sidebar. Here's the first...

As I've already noted, the name for this project—A Common Table—was inspired by a quote by Thomas Merton, which Michael Pollan cited in a talk at UC Berkeley in the fall of 2009. Merton wrote:
From the moment you put a piece of bread in your mouth, you are part of the world. Who grew the wheat? Who made the bread? Where did it come from? You are in a relationship with all who brought it to the table. We are least separate and most in common when we eat and drink. [image source]

Like you, I sometimes come across words or other works of art that inspire me, that make me think or smile—or cry... things I want to remember but too often don't. So I had the idea to create another blog where I could gather and ponder such tidbits. I call it "Musings & Collectanea" (yeah, I know... :)  If you're interested, please feel free to take a peek.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Meal #5: Recipes

Sausage & Wild Mushroom Lasagne with Red Pepper Tomato Sauce (Epicurious)
Jenny's Notes: We made this recipe as written, with two exceptions. First, we used a mixture of dried wild mushrooms in the béchamel—not just porcini—because that's what Costco had to offer.

Second, and more importantly, we used regular noodles instead of the no-bake noodles the recipe specified. And we did
not boil them in advance. Most of the reviewers had commented on how soupy this lasagna was, but using these noodles helped with that problem to some degree. And the next day, the soupiness was completely cured. :)

One other thing: the recipe calls for either sweet or hot Italian sausage. We used sweet, in hopes of making the dish palatable to children and others who might not care for spicy food. But I suspect the lasagna would be even better if made with hot sausage.

Garlic Bread
Jenny's Notes: For the garlic butter, we mixed salted butter with crushed garlic, Dijon mustard, and tarragon.

Caesar(ish) Salad
Jenny's Notes: We made homemade croutons from a loaf of rosemary bread, and dressed the salad with Trader Joe's Caesar Romano dressing, jazzed up with fresh lemon juice, garlic, and grated parmesan cheese. 

Milk Chocolate Pudding (Epicurious)
Jenny's Notes: We made this as specified, using a couple of blocks of Belgian milk chocolate from Trader Joe's. It was easy and delicious!

Laboring over Lasagna (Meal #5)

Planning the menu for our gatherings is always an interesting puzzle. The recipes must require enough effort so that everyone can participate—which usually means plenty of vegetables to chop! But the preparation can't be so elaborate that we're overwhelmed. And the number of participants needs to be factored in... as do the tastes of the cooks (and the imagined tastes of the folks at the shelter). Plus, we need to take our limited oven/stove space into account. And then there's my own desire to experiment with new recipes. So it can all get a bit complicated!

For this meal, at Maria's prompting, I decided on lasagna as our main course. And knowing that this dish can be time-consuming to prepare, I made the rest of the menu simple:

Date: Sunday, March 7th (served at BFWC the next evening)
Host: Jenny Michael
Menu: sausage and wild mushroom lasagne with red pepper tomato sauce, caesar(ish) salad, garlic bread, milk chocolate pudding
Participants: BB Borowitz, Monica Eppinger, Bob Fagan, Larry Jensen, Maria Massolo, Dave Menninger, Jenny Michael, Deborah Pruitt, Pat Raburn, Rita Shuster. Many thanks to you all for your generous contributions of time and money to support this project. I love these days spent in your company!
Photos: Rita Shuster (whose fault it is that there are so many shots of me in this batch! :)

I returned to my old friend Epicurious for inspiration. One of my favorite kinds of lasagna is a wonderful vegetarian version with mushrooms and artichokes in a béchamel. But it's very rich, meatless, and—I thought—perhaps a bit too odd for the (imagined) tastes of the shelter residents. I wanted something more traditional for this meal. So again, I went with the raves and selected a recipe that had originally appeared in Gourmet: sausage and wild mushroom lasagne with red pepper tomato sauce. The reviewers did mention that it was pretty labor-intensive, but I figured we would have lots of hands to help out—and it sounded wonderful.

I'll not belabor the story: it was extremely labor-intensive (and also very delicious, I'm happy to report)! Preparing the sauces took several hours, even with everyone participating. And then the assembled dish took another hour to bake. We didn't eat till nearly 8 p.m. but, fortunately, the Oscars provided some distraction while we waited for dinner...

And, happily, the meal was worth the wait. At Cole's suggestion, we did not bake the casseroles destined for the shelter but sent them along uncooked—with baking instructions. So that solved the oven problem we'd experienced last time around.

So what did we learn from this experience? First, if you're going to choose a complicated recipe, it's best to read it through carefully in advance and then figure out the best way to organize the preparation. Had I planned this better, we would have made the béchamel while people were chopping the vegetables for the red sauce, instead of making it afterwards. That would have saved some time.

If you're going to make multiples of a recipe, (#2) double-check your math! I miscalculated how much cornstarch was needed for ten recipes of chocolate pudding and had to run out and buy another box, when it became clear that the pudding just wasn't going to thicken... Also, (#3) consult an experienced caterer (Cole! Michael!) about quantities, so that you don't end up with a vat of red sauce left over. I'm still not sure how that happened (see all the jars of leftover sauce in the photo, below!)—not that we couldn't figure out something to do with what remained...).

Finally (#4), cheese and red peppers and wild mushrooms and on-the-vine tomatoes (even from Costco) are expensive. Menus like this one should be scheduled only occasionally, so we don't break the bank. Veggie-focused meals are both healthier and more affordable.

Oh, and most important (#5), don't forget to be patient with the process, take a break now and then to sip some wine, and enjoy the company of your fellow cooks.