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Friday, August 31, 2012

Out of the (Mail)Box

I love a good surprise.  That's not a shocking statement, but I particularly love boxes that arrive on my doorstep promising food-related goodies selected just for little ol' me.

This was my first month participating in the Foodie Penpals program put together by the lovely Lindsay over at her blog The Lean Green Bean.  The concept is that someone spends $15.00 to put together a box of goodies and mails it to you, and you put together your own box and mail it to a different person.  On the last day of the month, the penpals post what they have received.  What's amazing is that 1,300 people in the US/Canada participate each month!

I was the lucky recipient of a box from Ashley P. of Virginia Beach--Ashley doesn't have a blog, or I would plug it here, but she apparently has a sixth sense of WAW--What Alaskans Want.

WAW is a little skewed--our local daily paper, which is about the thickness of your average leaflet left on your door trying to convince you to buy lawn services or order Chinese food--periodically does a survey asking Alaskans what stores/restaurants they think should come to town.

Target was on the list for a long time, and now they're in the Alaska market like gangbusters.  Too bad that they are nowhere near my house.

The Olive Garden was the number one for years and years.  I was recently informed that Anchorage is now the proud owner of a newish Olive Garden, in which I have not set foot and plan never to do so unless a client drags me there. 

The number one now?  It has to be Trader Joe's.  I am not exaggerating when I say that people literally take an extra bag on vacation when they are venturing to a place that has a Trader Joe's, and fill it up with food.  The dried fruit is particularly popular, since it makes for great hiking/skiing/camping snacks and is wicked expensive at grocery stores here.

So imagine my delight when I opened my box and found tons of Trader Joe's goodies, including dried bananas and green mango.  David opened the latter immediately and started popping pieces in his mouth.  Ashley also sent brown rice-marshmallow treats (think a healthier version of a Rice Krispy bar), shelf-stable gnocchi (delicious with a brown butter-Swiss chard sauce a week ago), wasabi peas (spicy and delicious), a tin of green tea-flavored mints and a packet of her very own, delicious granola. 

To check out the penpal program, which is open to both bloggers and readers, go here.  Thanks to Ashley for the wonderful treats!

My box went to Sarah--you can check out her blog Sparkly Lil' Life here.

Have a great holiday weekend!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cucina Povera

I've been getting to work really early lately.  Part of it is being super-busy, which I love, but part of it is that I love being in the office when it is so quiet.  This morning I can hear the rain pounding on the roof.

We're on a downhill slide into fall here in Anchorage.  I've been meaning to take pictures of the transformation, which include a flock of Canadian geese gathering on the mud flats near my house and the blooming of the fireweed.  Alaska legend is you can tell how long it will be until winter by when the fireweed finishing blooming and then goes to cotton.

For the first time in a couple of weeks, I was home to make dinner last night.  On Golden Pond is fully blocked and going well, but the nights we aren't in rehearsal I'm usually staying late at work or running the errands that I haven't had time to do. 

Last night I was determined to make something delicious, simple and packable to take to work for lunch.  I am fascinated by the Italian concept of cucina povera--literally, poverty kitchen--not because of the financial aspect of it (we are fortunate in that regard), but because it means you make a delicious dish from basically nothing. 

This dish is so simple that I kept wanting to do something more with it, like adding anchovies, chicken sausage or olives.  In the end, I left it proudly unadorned, the way it was meant to be.  It originated in Puglia, the single food region I most want to visit in Italy and haven't had the opportunity to--yet.

Rigatoni with Bread Crumbs and Parmesan
Adapted from Lidia's Italy by Lidia Bastianich

1 eight-inch piece of white country bread--baguette, French, ciabatta
1/3 cup olive oil
4 large cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
1 lb. dried rigatoni
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1/4 cup good-quality Parmesan, finely shredded, with more for garnish if desired
4 small dried peperoncino peppers, crumbled
Good-quality finishing olive oil
Sea salt and freshly-ground pepper

Trim the crust from the bread and then pull it into crumbs with your hands.  The crumbs should be various sizes.

Start a large pot of water to boil for the pasta, adding at least a tablespoon of salt.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil.  When it is shimmering, add the bread crumbs and garlic.  Toss the crumbs to coat them with the oil, and toss occasionally when cooking so that they brown and crisp.

When the water is ready, add the pasta and cook for about nine or ten minutes, until the pasta is al dente.  Reserve half a cup of the pasta water and drain the pasta thoroughly.  Then add it back to the pot and cover it until ready to use.

The crumbs will be ready when they are lightly golden and crispy--make sure not to scorch the garlic.

Toss the pasta with a little of the cooking water to coat it.  Add the crumbs, parsley, peperoncini and Parm to the pasta and toss thoroughly.  Season with salt and pepper, then drizzle with good-quality finishing olive oil and toss again.

Serve with another grating of Parmesan.  Makes six appetizer pasta servings or four generous main course servings.  I served this with a side of fried zucchini and a bottle of dry, minerally Gruner Veltliner.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Lost and Found

There is nothing like bringing a dish back from the brink to make you feel a sense of accomplishment.

This month's Cake Slice pick, an "ultimate lemon roll," sounded fantastic.  However, like so many of the other desserts I have made from Tish Boyle's The Cake Book, in execution it turned out to be a bit sloppier.  As in crumbling sponge cake, oozing lemon curd kind of sloppy.  Eesh.

Since I was serving this as dessert for Erika's going-away dinner, I wanted it to look presentable.  Everything tasted good, it was just too messy to put on a platter and serve for dessert.

Enter the savior of many a baker with a less-than-gorgeous cake:  frosting.  Specifically, frosting made from the remainder of the pint of heavy cream I purchased for the recipe.

As an aside, why is heavy cream not sold in containers smaller than a pint anywhere in the Municipality of Anchorage?

I whipped up that cream with a tiny bit of sugar and some vanilla, and frosted the heck out of the cake.  It covered the bumps, cracks and general lack of beauty, and gave it a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to boot.

If I made this again, I would go with a straight lemon curd filling, minus the cream.  Regular curd is thicker and therefore less likely to ooze.

In other advice, buy a lot of lemons.  I used at least five in making all the components of the cake.

The (Kinda, Sorta) Ultimate Lemon Roll
Adapted from The Cake Book by Tish Boyle

For the filling:
7 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 tbsp. lemon zest
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
Pinch of sea salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, sliced into tablespoons
1/2 cup heavy cream

For the cake:
1 1/4 cups cake flour, sifted
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
3 eggs, separated
1 tbsp. lemon zest
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tbsp. water
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 egg white
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
Powdered sugar

For the frosting:
Remainder of pint of heavy cream
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tbsp. granulated sugar

First, the lemon curd filling:

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar, then place the pan on medium heat and add the butter, lemon zest and juice and butter.  Whisk the mixture together for about ten minutes, or until it thickens.  Using a fine strainer, strain the curd into a medium bowl, preferably a metal one.  Place the metal bowl in an ice water bath and stir frequently for fifteen minutes.  The curd should be slightly chilled.

During this process, be careful not to splash water into the curd, or disaster will ensue.

Next, the cake:

Using a hand mixer, whip 1/2 cup of the heavy cream at high speed until the soft peak stage.  Fold the cream into the curd in stages, then cover and refrigerate this mixture.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and prepare a jelly roll pan for the cake.  Line the bottom of the pan with parchment and sprinkle it with powdered sugar.  In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, 1/2 cup of sugar, the baking powder and the salt.  Whisk these ingredients together.

Using the hand mixer again, beat the egg yolks, lemon zest and juice, oil, water and vanilla until just blended.  Add the flour mixture in four installments and mix again.

If you look carefully, you can see the
start of the dreaded oozing.

In another medium bowl and using clean beaters, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until the soft peak stage.  Drizzle in the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, then increase the mixer speed to high.  When the whites are very stiff, fold them into the cake batter and then spread the batter in the jelly roll pan as evenly as possible.

Bake the cake for about fifteen to eighteen minutes, until it is lightly colored and springs when touched.  Place a baking rack over the cake and invert the pan so the cake ends up on the rack.  Do this as gently as possible, because this cake wants to crack. 

Remove the parchment paper from the bottom of the cake, then roll the cake using the parchment paper--the paper will be rolled up with the cake.  Let rest on the baking rack until fully cooled.

When the cake is cool, unroll it and trim the edges on the short ends.  Spread the lemon mixture to within one inch of the cake edges, then re-roll the cake and transfer to a serving platter.  You will have leftover curd.

Finally, when the cake appears to be lost, the frosting:

When your cake doesn't look presentable, whip the remaining cream with the vanilla for the frosting, drizzling in the tablespoon of sugar.  Wipe up any lemon curd that has oozed out of the cake and onto the platter and then frost the heck out of the cake.  Cover and refrigerate immediately.

I served the cake slices with a pool of the curd mixture beneath them and garnishes of the remaining frosting on the side.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Goodbye Is the Hardest Part

We have all kinds of relationships in our lives...but a theatre director's relationship with a longtime stage manager?


For those who don't know what a stage manager does, it is the person who takes all the blocking notes, keeps the director on schedule, is the primary contact for the the designers (sound, costumes, lights, props) and, when the show opens, has the primary responsibility for making sure that it runs right and on time--and those are just the common duties.  The director hands the show over on the day it opens. 

It's a terrifying thing, or would be if I haven't been fortunate enough to have a small handful of stage managers who I also consider good friends and confidantes.

My friend Erika first stage managed for me when I directed my first professional show, Deathtrap, in 2007.  I would trust her with just about anything, and never had a second's hesitation about handing a show over to her on opening.  I've lost track of how many shows we've done together, but Sandy, the head of our local semiprofessional theatre company, calls us "the Dynamic Duo."

Eeks, it sounds like I'm eulogizing her, doesn't it?  It's not that.  Erika is heading off to a four-year program at a Russian Orthodox seminary to become a counselor.  She moves to Kodiak Island later this week.

It's a perfect fit of a profession for her, and I wish her all the best. 

David and I had Erika and Sandy over to dinner this past Sunday to say our goodbyes, or at least our "farewell for nows."  It was a lovely dinner, but of course bittersweet since we will really miss Erika.

For a first course, we served the Barefoot Contessa's salad with phyllo-wrapped goat cheese.  It's a stunning salad, even if my phyllo purses were not quite as pretty as the ones in the cookbook.  Make sure you serve the salad when the purses are fresh out of the oven.

Summer Salad with Phyllo Purses
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics by Ina Garten

8 sheets frozen phyllo dough, defrosted
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
6 oz. log goat cheese
Baby salad greens (I used a spring mix, about 2 oz. greens per person)
2 1/2 tsp. champagne vinegar
1 tsp. coarse Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more for serving
1/2 tsp. fresh-ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  To prepare the phyllo purses, unroll the dough and set aside only what you need to use.  Cover the dough with a very lightly damp dishtowel--I ruined a couple of sheets of dough by using a towel that was too damp.

Trust me, they look so much better when browned.
Spread out one sheet of phyllo on a cutting board and brush all over with the melted butter.  Repeat with the remaining sheets of phyllo--you will want four sheets stacked on top of each other.  Cut the dough stack in half crosswise.

Cut the goat cheese log into discs about 1/4 inch thick.  Place two in the center of each phyllo section, then bring the sides of the phyllo square up to wrap around it.  The Barefoot Contessa compares it to wrapping a circular gift--you'll want to crimp together the top as much as you can, and get the dough as tight as possible around the bottom of each phyllo purse.

Repeat with the remaining phyllo--you will likely have some leftover goat cheese.

Spritz a small baking sheet or cake pan with nonstick spray and place the phyllo purses on it.  Bake for about twenty minutes, or until the purses are lightly browned.

In the interim, prepare the salad dressing by whisking the vinegar, mustard, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl.  Then whisk in the olive oil in a steady stream until the dressing emulsifies.

Place the greens in a salad bowl and toss by hand with a pinch of kosher salt, preferably flaked salt.  Then toss with the dressing until the greens are evenly coated.

Plate the salad with a small amount of dressed greens on one salad and one phyllo purse on the other.

Serves four, but could be easily doubled.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Dazed and Confused

Some weeks I feel like I'm sprinting for Friday, full of energy and purpose.  This week I feel like I'm crawling.

It hasn't been a bad week, just an exhausting one.  Work has been super-busy (not that I'm complaining--better that way than the reverse), and we just blitzed through blocking twenty-four pages of On Golden Pond over the last two nights.

Somehow, David and I have no plans for the next couple of nights.  I'm kind of grateful.  I foresee a long walk in my future tonight, followed by a glass of wine and some of the good cheese here my parents schlepped from one of the Italian markets in St. Louis.

A totally random photo demonstrating what happens if one flops on the
bed in our household.  Ingrid considers you her personal chaise.
David is doing somewhat better after his rib-fracturing bike accident a couple of weeks ago, but he's not up to hiking or other outdoor activity yet, so I also foresee a solo hike in my future this weekend.

We also received the latest CSA box, which includes a bunch of one of my favorite veggies, Swiss chard.  I love the stuff but am forever trying to find new ways to prepare it.

This recipe might win over people who don't particularly like dark leafy greens--it is savory and just slightly cheesy, and it has a terrific combination of tender and crispy bits.  While the original recipe did not call for oiling the pan prior before placing the chard cakes in it, they wanted to stick without it.  I thought it sounded weird not to oil the pan, but who am I to overrule Lidia?  Learn from my mistake.

Crispy Swiss Chard Cakes
Adapted from Lidia's Italy by Lidia Bastianich

1 lb. rainbow chard
2 tbsp. good olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
3/4 tsp. sea salt
1 1/2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 tsp. fresh-ground black pepper
1 cup Parmesan cheese, finely shredded
1 egg yolk, beaten

Wash the chard and trim off the stems, then trim away the central ribs.  You won't be using these for the dish, but they are great slow-cooked with a little broth, oil and garlic.

Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat, then add the chard leaves.  Continue to let the pot boil for about twenty minutes, or until the chard is tender.  Drain and rinse the chard under cool water, and then finely chop the chard.

Here's the step I can't emphasize enough--squeeze every drop of water you can out of the chard, or the cakes will fall apart. 

Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the butter.  When it is melted, add the onion and half a teaspoon of salt.  Cook the onion until it turns lightly brown, then add the chard and remaining salt.  Cook another 7-8 minutes, until the butter has all been absorbed.  You will want the chard to be dry but not crispy.

Remove the chard from the skillet and let the skillet cool.  When it is cool enough to handle, wipe it absolutely clean. 

When the chard is lukewarm to the touch, combine it with the cheese and egg yolk.  Divide the mixture into small patties and press them together firmly.  If there seems to be too much liquid in the mixture, squeeze some out and start again.

Reheat the skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil.  When the oil is shimmering, carefully place the chard cakes in the skillet.  Cook for about three minutes per side, then drain on a paper towel.

Serve warm--should make about four large cakes or six small ones.  We served them with a grilled Florentine steak, though they would make a fantastic addition to a vegetarian meal.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bouquets of Freshly Sharpened Pencils

One chapter of this summer is closing.  My parents have just left after their annual visit to Alaska.  Another chapter is opening, though;  tomorrow I start rehearsals for On Golden Pond.  I always think of the first day of rehearsals like the first day of school:  anything can happen.  There is anticipation mixed with a little dread.  My evenings and Saturday afternoons will no longer be my own, there will be drama (hopefully mostly) onstage, but a little offstage as well.  It's inevitable.  The goal is that at the end we will have something wonderful.

The late, wonderful Nora Ephron wrote a great line that Tom Hanks writes to Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail.  He refers to the beginning of the school year in New York and says that if he could, "I would send you bouquets of freshly sharpened pencils."  I love that line.  It speaks of the same optimism with which I start the rehearsal process whenever I direct.

It's funny, but I never use pencils--except when I direct.  The notes I write for my actors, to be given at the end of rehearsals, are always in pencil.  The stage manager always writes notes in pencil in the script, so they can be changed at any time.  Theatre is a constantly evolving process, a living thing.

Tomorrow the cast will sit together for the first time and read through the script.  Several of them have never met, but they will spend much of the next ten weeks together. 

In honor of the occasion, I am bringing them these brownies.  They have great texture and a sweetness that I hope the twelve-year-old in the cast will love, but I made them with a combination of Ghirardelli and Guittard chocolates, which I hope the adults will appreciate.

The next time I make these, I will cut back the granulated sugar to 3/4 cup.  If you like a slightly less sweet brownie, I recommend this adaptation.

Rocky Road Brownies
Adapted from Fat Witch Brownies by Patricia Helding
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate (I used Ghirardelli)
1/4 semisweet chocolate chips (I used Guittard wafers, chopped)
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup mini marshmallows

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and spritz a 9 by 9 baking pan with nonstick spray with flour.

In a small saucepan, melt together the butter, unsweetened chocolate and two tablespoons of the semisweet chocolate over medium heat.  As soon as all the ingredients are melted, remove the mixture from the heat and set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat together the sugar and eggs until they are light and slightly foamy.  Add the chocolate mixture and then sift in the flour and salt.  Beat the mixture again until just combined.

Spread half the batter in the pan and bake for about 12 minutes.  While this is baking, add the butterscotch chips, marshmallows and remaining semisweet chocolate to the batter and stir together.  Remove the pan from the oven and spread the remainder of the batter over the bottom layer.  Bake for about 15-18 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.  Some of the marshmallows may burst and spread goo over the brownies;  don't worry, this just makes them tastier.

Cool the brownies for an hour on a wire rack.  Makes 12 to 16, depending on size.

Friday, August 3, 2012

I'll Have What She's Having

Today is a bit of a detour from food.  The swiss chard cakes I meant to post will wait until early next week.

Today I write an appreciation.

When I moved to Alaska, I clerked for an appellate judge for a year.  He is one of the smartest men I've ever met, but kind of shy, and a champion fiddle player to boot.  His work ethic is unparalleled.  I admire him greatly.

In addition to all of his other admirable qualities, he was happily married, with three accomplished daughters.  Earlier this summer, I learned that his wife was terminally ill.  They took a final trip together, and she died last week. 

They were married almost forty years.  His late wife was an artist and an active volunteer, in addition to working and having a happy marriage and accomplished children. 

I didn't know her, really.  I think I met her a few times when I was clerking for her husband, and then saw them during the high holy days at synagogue. 

There's a saying that you should live your life as if you knew you were dying.  But it's more than having an adventurous life:  what a satisfying thing to know that you have lived your life by doing well for others.

David and I married relatively late, in our mid-thirties.  I can only hope we will have the kind of long and happy marriage that this couple did.  I can only hope I will do as much good for others.

It's worth a try.