Friday, April 30, 2010

Kitchen of My Dreams

I hit a snag in our kitchen makeover last week. The guy came by with CaesarStone examples, and they were very impressive. They really look like stone:

But we couldn't decide which color to pick for the counters that surround our island. Should we get something light, to contrast with the dark granite we picked for the island? Or should we choose something dark, to complement the granite? Should it be splotchy, to subtly mimic the granite, or should it be plain and pattern-free, to let the granite take the star role?

We kept coming back to the only thing we knew for sure: We love the granite. The granite is what we love.

Then, last Saturday, the May 2010 issue of "House Beautiful" magazine landed in my mailbox. (a happy day: any day one of my magazines arrives is a good day!) And there, on pages 142 to 144, was our answer:

This is the Mount Kisco, New York, kitchen of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Now, there's no way my kitchen is this grand. And there's no way I'm a Kennedy groupie, hoping for a shred of Camelot to rub off on me. This could be the kitchen of a convicted money launderer; I don't care. What grabs me is how much it resembles the kitchen in my mind.

All its counter tops are the same dark color. And they look great:

Their counters are an engineered product made of 75 percent recycled content. But they look remarkably like the granite we picked out:

All its cabinets, in the island and on the surrounding walls, are light. And they look great:

The floor is medium-to-light in tone, so it bridges the darks of the counters and the lights of the cabinetry. And it looks great, too:

There's an accent wall of light green at the end of the kitchen, just like mine!:

All the appliances are stainless, which is what we have/what we are getting. When our geriatic refrigerator-freezer finally dies, we will replace it with something that looks like their fridge:

And the faucet pictured in the island is exactly what I want for my sink, with a high, arching neck and a extend-able sprayer so I can wash even my biggest pots without cussing!:

The white subway tile backsplash behind their stove is the same tile I envisioned for the backsplashes above my counters:

The Kennedy kitchen allowed me to get unstuck. For the first time, I could see, right on paper, how all our choices were going to hang together.

More important, I could show The Hubby how all our choices were going to hang together. (Like many people, he has trouble visualizing stuff that he doesn't care all that much about. I mean, the man can visualize how to pack a minivan with a week's worth of camping gear, so I'm not complaining or anything.)

We can both see that it was going to be everything good: Light and welcoming. Traditional but not stuffy. Grounded by the dark colors and happy and airy by virtue of the light ones.

Even The Boy, whom I collared and demanded that he study the magazine's pages, said it looked good. Hurrah!

The Kennedy kitchen gives me the courage to buck some trends.

It's trendy right now to have the island counter a different material than the rest of the counters: I'm not doing it. It's trendy right now to have the island cabinetry a different color than the rest of the kitchen: I don't think I'm doing that, either.

The Kennedy kitchen is my template.

So now, I'm moving forward again. Next step: find a low-VOC paint in the exact right shade of white.

Because white comes in a whole slew of shades.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Teapot Lovers...

...come in all shapes and sizes:

(I pulled this image from the FailDogs website a few days ago. The site didn't identify the photographer, so neither can I, to offer credit. The only clue is in the corner of the photo, where it says "Nothing Like" so, thank you, whoever you are, for this adorableness.)


I'm finally settled back into the school routine here in Cambridge, and I thought I'd share a bit of my travels here on T&P. Though this isn't exactly normal Teapots and Polkadots fare, oh well, I thought it would be fun. First stop, Rome, where the coffee was delicious, the streets were crowded (even more than normal, as we were there over Easter), the art and architecture were amazing, and the sense of history was overwhelming.

Ubiquitous coffee shot. Pun...intended.

Of course we hit the major highlights, like the Colosseum, which almost doesn't seem real, I think partly because you're just staring up at it going "Wow, I've seen pictures of that all my life. And here it is....this is crazy." That happened a lot, actually, and it never ceased to be strange.

We also saw the Trevi Fountain, which I loved, but so did about 8bagillion other people, I guess, because it was SO crowded!

One of my favorite parts of Rome was the Baths of Caracalla, a not-on-your-average-tourist-map site of ruins that a friend staying in Rome brought us to. The place was huge and so much of it was still in tact...

...including some amazing mosaics that just chill outside in the elements, and yet have been around since the Roman Empire!

We went in a dizzying number of churches throughout the course of this trip (with I took with two good friends from school), and they were each stunningly beautiful. Honestly, I can't even remember the name of this one, but I loved it's ceiling, and the golden light on the underside of the arches.
The art in the churches (and everywhere else, for that matter) was equally amazing. Please forgive the blurry photograph, but these are two works by Caravaggio that were on display in one of the Churches. They were in a dark apse whose lights could only be turned on by putting a coin into a machine. Italy does know how to gouge it's tourists, I will give you that! But it was worth it, to be that close to such amazing art.

There was so much amazing sculpture all over the city, but these two lovely pieces were in the Vatican Museum, where I could have spent days wandering around, if only we'd had the time!
The building itself was art--it seemed like every square inch was decorated with something-or-other. The opulence was overwhelming.
We spent an afternoon and evening walking around the Jewish Ghetto, which, while steeped in history, wasn't too much to look at. I did love the storefronts, though!
Enough Rome for now...Next stop: Florence!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lemon Sponge Pudding

Like so many others, I love almost anything chocolate for dessert. But sometimes chocolate is too heavy, too rich, for the end of a meal. And that's when lemon-y desserts deliver. My hands-down favorite lemon-based dessert is Lemon Sponge Pudding.

This dessert and I go waaaaay back. I've loved it since I was a child, when my mom made it fairly regularly. It is lemony and creamy, pudding-y smooth and souffle-y fluffy, all at the same time

As a child, I appreciated it for its yummy taste and textures.

As a cook, I appreciate it even more for the fact that it is made from the simplest of ingredients, things that almost any kitchen has on hand--milk, sugar, eggs, flour, a lemon.

So you can whip it up almost whenever the mood strikes. No trip to the grocery store needed!

I'll take you through it, step by step, and you can find the entire recipe at the end of this post.

Begin by scalding the milk. "Scalding" simply means heating up the milk in a sauce pot until it forms little bubbles around the edges and a few wisps of steam rise up from its surface:

While the milk is heating, grate the rind off one large lemon. (Hang on to that naked lemon; you're going to use the juice, too.) One large lemon yields about 1 tablespoon of rind:

Separate the whites from the egg yolks, putting the whites in a small mixing bowl and the yolks in a larger one:

Set the whites aside for a moment, and add to the yolks a mixture of flour, sugar, and salt. You can use a wooden spoon or a whisk for the task:

If you use a whisk, you may get to a point where the eggy mixture is trying to hide out, inside the wires of the whisk. Don't get annoyed! Just give the whisk a couple of raps against the insides of the bowl, and the mixture will knock out. (Don't rap the whisk, or any other utensil, on the edge of a bowl; that's the structure's weakest point, and you may end up chipping the bowl.)

There! It'll look like this when everything is incorporated:

By this time, your milk is probably scalded. Remove it from the heat and add it in a very slow trickle to the yolk mixture, stirring thoroughly as you go. You want the yolks to warm up slowly from the hot milk and not turn into scrambled eggs! Then add in lemon juice and rind. When you've stirred it all in, it will look like this:

Let the yolk-milk mixture sit for a moment; it's not going anywhere:

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry. That means when you take out the beaters, the whites retain their exact ridges:

And the beaters have peaks on them:

The whites should have a glossy, not a matte, look to them, If you're not experienced beating egg whites, it'll only take a few tries until you begin to sense when the whites are at the right consistency.

Another way to tell the whites have been beaten enough is in the next step. Transfer the whites from the smaller bowl and plop them on top of the yolk-milk mixture. The whites will slide out in a sort of soft block:

Now, here's the only tricky part of the recipe: folding the egg whites into the yolk-milk mixture. Folding isn't hard at all if you know how. And it's a terrific technique that allows you to create all sorts of airy meringues, souffles, and other very tender foods that call for whipped egg whites.

Here's how you do it:

Hold the bowl in your non-dominant hand (the one you don't write with). Tilt the bowl toward you. (I like to rest it on my hip, kind of like plopping a toddler there.) Using a plastic spatula in your dominant hand, cut down through the middle of the whites, and run the spatula along the bottom of the bowl, then up the side of the bowl closest to you, and with a twist of your wrist, plop the mixture over onto itself back into the middle of the bowl:

Cut, scrape, and plop, turning the bowl a quarter turn or so each time.

If you want to see a demonstration of this, look at this video of a gal making Belgian Waffles. For her recipe, the egg whites are supposed to be a little softer. But the technique of folding is the same.

It's going to feel like you're trying to encourage a beach ball to mate with a feather pillow at first. These two things are just NOT going to mesh into a happy, homogeneous mass. But be patient! Tenderly, slowly, keep up the cut/scrape/plop:

After only a minute or two, you will have rendered the two separate parties into one fluffy, happy marriage. If any of the chunks of white are larger than a ping-pong ball, you are almost but not quite there. Give it a few more folds. If you sense there's a pool of more liquid, less fluffy stuff at the bottom of the bowl, that's okay. It'll all cook up fine. Here's what you should have when you're finished folding:

Pour everything into an ungreased souffle dish (a casserole, usually of china or glass, with straight sides):

You'll notice as it pours into the souffle dish that there are parts that are more liquid, and others that are more poofy. That's okay.

Into your preheated oven, place a large baking pan. A 9x13 glass or ceramic casserole is ideal. Pour water into the pan about halfway up the sides. Then put the souffle dish of pudding into the water bath. Careful not to touch anything--it's hot in there!

The water bath protects the dessert from scorching on the bottom or sides as it cooks. When it's finished, it will be slightly golden on top. Unlike a classic souffle, it will not climb up he sides of the dish like. It will be slightly jiggly, but the top will feel dry to the touch:

Remove the dish from the oven, let it cool on the counter top for a bit, then put it in the refrigerator to chill thoroughly.

I love serving this dessert after a fish meal, but it is also wonderful at the end of something heartier.

In fact, it's SO wonderful, I forgot to take a picture of an individual serving. We were too intent on gobbling it up! So here's one from somebody else:

photo by Susie Middleton

Lemon Sponge Pudding
1-1/2 C. milk
3/4 C. sugar
3 Tbsp. flour
3/4 tsp. salt
3 eggs, separated
grated rind from 1 large lemon rind (about 1 Tbsp.) (note: grate lemon before juicing it)
4-1/2 Tbsp. lemon juice (that's about one large lemon's worth)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Scald milk in a sauce pot. While the milk is heating up, mix sugar, flour, and salt in a small bowl; set aside. Beat yolks in a large bowl; add the sugar mixture and combine thoroughly. Gradually add the scalded milk to the yolk mixture, a little at a time, stirring constantly. Add lemon juice and rind to the milk-yolk mixture; set aside. In a small mixing bowl, beat the whites until stiff but not dry. Fold the beaten whites into the milk-yolk mixture. Pour into an ungreased 1.5-quart souffle dish.

Set an empty 9x13 casserole into the preheated oven. Pour in enough water to fill the casserole halfway. Close the oven door and allow it to come back to 350 degrees F if it has cooled off a bit. Place the souffle dish carefully in the pan of hot water. Bake for 30 minutes.

Chill thoroughly. Serves 4.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Miniature Bag End

There are some people whose talent and drive to do something they love amazes me. When that thing turns out to be the coolest most detailed dollhouse-sized replica of Bilbo Baggins' home, then I'm just plain astounded. Seriously: go check out Mad's Hobbit Hole and prepare to be blown away.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pasta with Tomato-Mushroom Sauce

The 30th anniversary of Earth Day was a few days ago, April 22. To re-commit to Earth Day's ideals, one really easy thing people can do is to add one more meatless meal per week.

I've got a great one: Pasta with Tomato-Mushroom Sauce. I found it in a back copy of Real Simple magazine.

This is a wonderful vegetarian recipe. (In fact, if you leave off the cheese sprinkled over the top, it's vegan!) I think even most meat-eaters will love it, because the mushrooms and whole-wheat pasta add a hearty, chewy satisfying quality. And with the green escarole in the red tomato sauce, it's a visually satisfying dish, too.

Plus, a lot of this recipe can be made in steps and held for later. If you're short on time, you can dice the onions, mince the garlic, slice the mushrooms, and chop the herbs one day, then store them and assemble the sauce the next. Or do as I did, and make a double batch on the weekend, then eat half and freeze the rest for another day. That's a boon for people who work full time.

Begin by heating up olive oil in a large skillet or pot over a medium flame:

While the oil is heating, dice the onions. I like to cut off the top and bottom of each onion, slice once from the "north pole" down through to the "south pole," then lie them on their flat face, for stability. From there, it's an easy thing to create an even dice:

Speaking of stability, I usually cook with one or more dogs underfoot. They can't resist the chance to catch something yummy I may drop! It can be very dangerous, because you can trip on them. If you have the same problem, watch out! Or banish them to another room while you cook. Here's Pao at 4 months and Mu Shu at 4 years, hoping I'll drop something:

After the onions are diced...

...go on to the garlic.

Peeling garlic is really easy. Pull the cloves off the main bulb, place the flat side of a large knife on them, and give the knife a little thump. You can use the bottom of a heavy glass or a can of something if you prefer. This slight squishing releases the skin from the garlic, and it peels right off.

No need for another silly, one-purpose tool in your kitchen drawer, cluttering up things.

Cloves of garlic vary in size. Obviously, if the recipe calls for, say, six cloves and you have some honkers and some itty-bitty ones, you're fine. It's not rocket science.

Here's a kitchen tip: If you use your knife to scrape together a pile of diced food, use the back side, not the blade side. Using the blade side dulls your knife quickly.

When the oil in the pot is hot, add the onions and half the salt and pepper:

While the onions are cooking down a little, wipe off the button mushrooms and slice them up. I bought a couple of these big baking sheets for roasting vegetables and oven-baking fish, but they come in very handy to corral food that I'm prepping:

Slice the button mushrooms up. You'll have quite a pile:

Measure out your dry red wine. It doesn't have to be anything too pricey, but neither should you cook with rotgut wine, either. Crummy wine = crummy pasta sauce.

After a few minutes, the onions have softened and look a little translucent:

Toss in the sliced mushrooms and garlic, give them a stir, and let them cook together with the onions:

BTW, this is my new kitchen timer (below). I'm very hard on my timers and usually have to buy a new one every couple of months. I drop them on the floor, melt them because they're too close to a burner, drop them into boiling water. You name it; I've probably done it.

Usually I buy a small, digital one that can clip to my apron. But this time the grocery store was all out of that kind, so I got this retro-looking dude. He's kind of cute:

While the onions and mushrooms are simmering, grab your escarole, and give it a wash in a bowl of water. If you don't know what escarole is, that's okay! I usually forget and have to ask a friendly person in the produce section. This is Ms. Escarole:

After you swish it around in some clean water, pick it up and plop it on a clean tea towel:

Give it a rough chop. You can chop right on the towel, if you're careless like me. Or transfer the leaves to a proper cutting board and cut it up there. It'll look something like this after the chop:

If you don't like/can't find escarole, you could substitute rainbow chard or fresh spinach. Both would work fine.

This is the reason you want to wash your greens before adding them to the sauce. That's fine, gray grit in the water, there:

After the garlic and mushrooms have cooked for a few minutes, pour in the red wine. It gives the veggies a slight pink tinge. Not particularly appealing, but the tomatoes, which are added in a bit, correct all that:

Chop some fresh herbs up well. Here I have parsley (top pile) and oregano (bottom pile):

Plop the escarole and chopped herbs into the pot. The pot may look full to overflowing; don't panic! The escarole cooks way down in a few minutes:

Toss the remaining salt and pepper in, too:

This is what it looks like after just a few minutes more:

A superior sauce relies heavily on a superior canned tomato. Please try to use the best you can find. San Marzano probably makes the finest canned tomatoes I've ever tried. (I once opened and tasted four or five different canned tomatoes with the gals in my cooking group, and we were amazed at the variety in taste. San Marzano was the winner, hands down.):

It's a gorgeous red color. They sell whole canned tomatoes, too. This is their crushed:

Pour that big puppy in there:

The beautiful reds and greens are masked in this photo, below, by the steam rising up of the sauce. I guess if I were a true food photographer, I'd remove the sauce from the stove and let it cool so I could get a good photo of how pretty and appetizing the colors are. But I'm just a home cook, so this will have to do:

This sauce just gets better if prepared ahead of time. If you are making the sauce to serve later, allow it to cool for a bit on your counter, then remove it to the fridge. (If you put a big-a** pot of very hot sauce in your fridge, it could drop the fridge temperature down too low and compromise your other foods):

When you're ready to serve the sauce, bring it gently up to a nice, hot temperature, then add in some thinly sliced (a.k.a. julienned) basil leaves, stir them around, and pour the sauce over the cooked penne pasta. Add some freshly grated cheese (or not, if you're vegan), and you're good to go!

Pat yourself on the back for adding one more meatless day into your week. The Earth will thank you.

Pasta with Tomato-Mushroom Sauce
My comments appear [in brackets like these]--Juli.

1 pound dried whole-wheat penne pasta
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz. button mushrooms, sliced
1/3 C. dry red wine
4 C. torn escarole (optional) [or try fresh spinach or fresh chard]
3/4 C. chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley and oregano)
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 C. thinly sliced basil leaves
1/2 C. freshly grated Pecorino Romano [or Parmeggiano-Reggiano] [delete for vegan recipe]

Cook the penne according to the package directions.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saucepan or saucepot over medium heat. Add the onions, 1/2 tsp. of the salt, and 1/4 tsp. of the pepper and cook, covered, until the onions are softened, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and mushrooms and cook, covered, for 6 minutes more. Add the wine and cook, uncovered, for 3 minutes. Stir in the escarole (if using) and chopped herbs, season with the remaining sale and pepper, and cook for 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and heat through. Stir in the basil. [If making sauce ahead of time, refrigerate it without adding the basil. When you're ready to serve, heat the sauce through and then stir in the basil a moment before serving.]

Transfer the pasta to a serving dish, spoon the sauce over the top, and sprinkle with the cheese.

Real Simple offers this tip: Although Parmesan and Pecorino Romano are often used interchangeably, they're quite different. If you prefer a richer, more buttery flavor, use Parmesan; for a saltier, sharper bite, try Pecorino Romano. [I prefer Parmeggiano Reggiano, which is buttery, slightly sharp, but also has a nutty quality.--J.]

Serves 4.


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