Yin and Yang: Homemade Crème Fraiche, with Pasta

5 Mar

The middle of nowhere, for a much-needed 12-hour break from winter and work

One of the reasons I got into the event-planning field is because I enjoy atmospheres of riotous cacophony in which unfettered bedlam is threatening to jump out of her metaphysical closet, put me in a headlock, throw me in the trunk of her rusted green Chevy Chevelle and speed off toward Bellevue.

One of the reasons Stephen got into the legal field, is that he craves order, balance and harmony; loves nothing more than stymieing undue displays of behavior that slop outside of the social contract’s definition of suitability. His idea of heaven is working in an environment of rigorously enforced professionalism in which the threat of a partner popping his or her head into his office and demanding that he review important case documents for the next 48 hours, with short breaks for the B.R. and greasy takeout food, lurks under the surface of every hastily scrawled memo.

Our life together has been a joyful bout of seesawing between our extremes, to the benefit of our mutual sanity and quality of life (interrupted by minor skirmishes over my laissez faire approach to huswifery).  A typical episode is usually set off when I unexpectedly and merrily pull the trigger de jour, after which Stephen dutifully extracts the bullet, stitches the wound and quietly makes the necessary phone calls.

The past few weekends have been whirlwinds of aggressive work (for both of us) mashed up with aggressive bouts of relaxation (my doing, mostly).  Recently, the Willcox-Repsher Yin Yang bus of bipolar fun took the form of a mini-work-and-pleasure-road-trip during which we met our friends Brenda and Jerrold, as close to halfway between our houses in the Hudson Valley and Columbus, Ohio as possible.

Stephen and I are still waiting for Pennsylvania Tastykakes to go international

In our search for geographical compromise, Brenda and I happened on the site for Blue Knob resort in Pennsylvania, we exchanged a flurry of Facebook messages, Stephen and Jerrold mapped our respective routes and the four of us gunned it … for the middle of nowhere.

Presented, without comment

A 12-hour break from reality punctuated by trips to antique stores, truck stops (they have the best fries) and live-music joints up in the Allegheny Mountains … just what we needed to snap ourselves back into the game.

Brenda meets a handsome, mysterious stranger

Oh, and bookmarking our little road trip was my experiment with “making” crème fraiche – or really, just letting it make itself. I threw some cream and buttermilk in a super-clean glass, covered it with saran wrap, then threw (for a lighter version) some half and half and buttermilk in another super-clean glass, covered it with saran wrap, left it on the stove next to our fridge for 48 hours, and let nature take its course.

Stephen, of course, bristled at the notion of consuming what is essentially spoiled dairy, but when I assured him that Julia Child and Jacques Pepin frequently made their own crème fraiche, his eyes glazed over and he stopped listening, vaguely reassured, but still doubtful.

(Just for the record, the “good” bacteria and natural enzymes in the buttermilk zap the “bad” bacteria in the cream as it sits, for anywhere from 12 to 48 hours; the colder you keep your house, the longer it will take, ergo our two-day crème fraiche recipe).

When we got home, the batches of crème fraiche – both full and slightly reduced fat – were velvety rich, gorgeously thickened and rich. Just begging to be spooned over fresh berries, piled into muffin recipes … and that night, tossed with hot, salted noodles, butter-sauteed shallots, freshly zested lemon peel, shaved Pecorino, petite peas and a generous dusting of mint.

Click on for recipes ….

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Air Heads: Crab Cakes & Devil’s Rose Cupcakes

26 Feb

My face is smiling "yes" but the invisible thought bubble above my head is screaming "NOOOOO! Send help!!"

Stephen is no longer allowed to go to grad school.

After a few masters and a Juris Doctor under his belt, I drew the line at medical school. But his quest for spending large sums of money on the pursuit of ephemeral knowledge, cannot, evidently, be quenched.

So instead of caving and agreeing to live in a dorm into my doddery, I panicked and enrolled him in flight school at Christmas.

The only catch? I had to fly along, at least for the first lesson.

We decided to take our first jaunt in Farmingdale, Long Island — far enough from home to feel like we were on a journey, but close enough to be able to avoid getting a dog-sitter.

Giddy up

Stephen, our teacher Ken and I loaded into an alarmingly Lilliputian Cessna 172 Skyhawk and …. Took flight. There were very few preparatory instructions; it was clearly a learning on the job situation, like joining a cult, or parenthood.

Fire Island

I put myself in yogini mode and folded my body up like an origami Kathleen-paper-bot, I slipped into the back seat and concentrated on concentrating on not panicking. I got about 2 square feet of space, which was just enough to focus on taking pictures with my iPhone and lock the fact that my over-caffeinated speed-demon lead-foot husband was jetting us 3,500 feet into the air and there wasn’t a barf bag in sight far, far away in a black box marked “Do Not Open!” in my skittering, jumpy little mind.

Flying in a little single-engine almost makes you want to bust out the air guitar for a little "Free Bird." Almost.

After a surprisingly smooth flight over the Atlantic Ocean, one that did not entail any unexpected appearances and / or dispersions of bodily fluids, past the Sunrise Highway, Fire Island and Robert Moses Beach, a few loops around and precipitous stomach-lurching dips on stiff Southeast crosswinds, I was ready to go again … This time with Loop-de-Loops! Unfortunately, our time was up.

So we did the mature thing …. A tequila flight over brunch.

We were flying the friendly skies all day!

By the time dinner rolled around, we were craving something easy and … wait for it … down to earth. Nothing’s easier than crab cakes and a simple green salad. Followed by a devilish dessert … Click on for recipes.

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Raiding the Royal Larder: Truffled Chicken Breasts and Simple Saffron Rice

20 Feb

Penny has clearly had enough of The New Yorker

So … Truffles.

They are totally 1980’s, am I right?

I think I would feel more comfortable, inconspicuous and socially responsible strutting down the street wearing nothing but a cone bra circa 1983 and a freshly cut ivory tusk strapped to my forehead than casually buying an … actual …. truffle.

(However, if I ever do have a spare $700 or so that I want to devote to the fruiting bodies of underground mushrooms, there seems to be a bustling market for them on Amazon.com).

Truffles are the diamond tiaras of the food world. Only certain people can afford them, and they probably all know each other. Who, even among the tippy-top of the highest ranks of the upwardly mobile, would feel like – “you know what? I’m going to just throw $600-$700 worth of fungus in this poultry dish, because that’s how I roll.”

So, while perusing one of my Alice Waters cookbooks for inspiration this week, I felt my blood pressure rev its engines and prepare to lift off and send my body rocketing into outer space. Usually, when I page through her glossy books, I’m inspired by how much she manages to do, the imagination, the innovation, the happy surprises that go into every sprig of chervil she scatters in her wake. Not this time.

I finally understood why she has so many vociferous detractors. (A few years ago, Anthony Bourdain launched a refreshingly honest dialogue about the privilege and sanctimony inherent in the local, organic food at all costs movement: “We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic …. [I] don’t know if it’s time to send out special squads to close all the McDonald’s.”)

What got my goat in her book? A casual chicken breast recipe that calls for truffles, sans any suggestions for substitutions. (To be fair, if you live in a forest in California or France with a pack of truffle dogs at the ready, I suppose truffles could arguably be locally, frugally sourced, but how many people does that apply to?)

After I stopped muttering under my breath while Penny whined and howled in sympathy, I got really hungry. I wanted truffles too!

Now if truffles are the tiaras of the food world, truffle oil and truffle butter must surely be the cubic zirconium. More flash than cash, but (almost) as much fun. Because they are created for slightly silly culinary flaneurs like myself, they’re totally overpriced, but you know what? They’re worth it. (Expect to pay $10 for a small bottle of oil or a 4 oz package of butter, but a little goes a long way).

Speaking of overpriced, but wonderfully decadent edible accoutrements … I also got a hankering for saffron this weekend. I figured, why not? If I’m going to run out like a fool to Whole Foods and buy truffle butter, why not bust into my little stash of saffron, usually saved for twice-a-year Paella?

This week, I went whole hog and made Truffled Chicken Breasts and a Simple Saffron Rice. Click on for recipes!

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Girls Weekend: Recipe for Serenity. Now.

13 Feb

For the drawing room, of course

First, let me just say this: My 30s, so far, have been wonderful. However.

They’ve also been a super-efficacious black hole into which all manner of pleasant, idle habits and rites have flown. Long, lazy brunches spent pouring over the New York Times Style section; Saturday shopping sprees; the all-important practice of sipping bad Prosecco like it’s a bottomless Big Gulp before 5 p.m.; spa sessions; sample sales.

Buh-bye.

In retrospect, my 20s were – between falling in love with my husband, career changes and the usual family and friend psychodramas — a hazy stretch of harmless self-indulgence and silliness, soul-searching and, most of all, intent navel-gazing. Somehow, I managed to gather my merrily flapping wits and gird myself for the gaping maw of responsibility, bills and workaholism that have made my 30s the over-caffeinated, hurly-gurly, but still giddy and joyful ride that they are.

Do I ever actually want to go back to my single days of running around New York City with no one to answer to, unfettered and fancy free? Hell’s no.

But I do crave the odd afternoon of unapologetic, aggressively narcissistic preening. Where to go, and who with? No contest: East Hampton and my mom – a woman in desperate need of a dose of self-centered pomposity if there ever was one.

The Innkeeper

Medics!

We blew our respective coups to celebrate her birthday and our (nominal, occasional) freedom, and hit the highway, our car pointed straight toward the biggest, baddest playground for hedonistic gourmandizing on the Eastern Seaboard.

I'll be over here

The Hamptons! With 70 miles of pristine, light beige shoreline lapped by waves from the Atlantic Ocean, the Block Island Sound, Gardiners Bay, Napeague Bay and Fort Pond Bay, where the cost of living is 168% higher than the national average, and nary a bikini or a natural tan in sight. Heaven! The coldest depths of February is the best time to go, with hotel and spa deals aplenty, the antique shops and overpriced boutiques emptied of the Botoxed, entitled, squawking summer hordes, the menu reservations at Nick & Toni’s miraculously accessible, even if you aren’t Martha Stewart, Ina Garten or a member of a major hip hop star’s crew.

One side makes you big; the other one makes you small

Aside from the jaw-dropping, semi-cheesy flash of the stores along Main Street and Newtown (Elie Tahari, Tiffany’s, John Varvatos, Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch, etc., J. Crew if you’re slumming), the endless antiques and home design stores, the gut-bustingly fab food, the inherent spirit of the place is a perfect amalgamation of the vertiginous highs and deep valleys that make up America’s landscape of spirited style.

It’s a fascinating melting pot in the Hamptons: equal parts Vegas, Miami Beach and Greenwich, CT. White-washed Scandinavian style, sharp cartoony Pop Art, Louis XVI porcelain gueridons.

The Wolffer Estate Vineyard

The Hamptons, of course, have been a strange mix of haves and have nots, of ostentation and reticence, glitzy disco, louche beauty and recherche refinement, since the first English settlers “bought” the land from Native Americans in 1640.

Jackie O. was born and bred there; Gray Gardens famously dug its Cat Lady on Quaaludes claws into its terroir (and will never leave off its downward spiral of bedazzled degeneration, despite poor Jackie’s best attempts at restitution), Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Pollock and Robert Motherwell spilled paint all over the peninsula and Lizzie Grubman led the pack of over-funded, undernourished bottle blondes dancing on table tops at the Conscience Point Inn (until … she didn’t).

We couldn’t wait to soak it in.

In vino veritas, vim, va va voom

We came back inspired, rejuvenated, buffed and shined (thank you, Naturopathica), ready to dive back into the chaos!

Touchdown: Cajun Jambalaya

6 Feb

Stir it up

How many proteins can you fit in a pot?

As images of sweaty men wrestling over a pimply pig skin are studied as if they hold the key to the universe and my husband grunts, guffaws and swears like a rickets-ridden pirate tied to a ship’s deck during a hurricane, as if his very life, sanity and liberty were at stake, I wrestle with this timeless question.

The Super Bowl! It’s one of my favorite days. Not because of the football, of course. Because of the snacks.

Honestly, I have never bothered to begin to care about organized sports – the drama of the players, the bets, the brawls, the outfits. Ffff. Bad mesh jersey just doesn’t get my pulse racing. But I do love the camaraderie, good-natured ribbing, inconsequential competition and chop-breaking that it engenders. It reminds me of Church!

Or more specifically, Church potlucks.

When I was a kid, Church potlucks were the highlight of my social calendar. For the under 10 set, what more could you possibly want?

There were sticky picnic tables to scour, sun-warmed banana boat bicycle seats to climb into, slip n’ slides to conquer, triple dog dares to vanquish, worms to throw, fathers to tackle, soda to sneak, in every direction, as far as the eye could see.

And all of the moms were distracted with gossipy laughter, powdered-sugar donuts and too much caffeine, temporarily eliminating the near-constant childhood specter of Time Out on the Stairs or suspended Scooby-Doo privileges.

Some of my favorite foods are indigenous to Church potlucks. There are the archangels and the disciples of the Potluck Pantry that we all know and love: 12-layer dip paired with fried chips, sausage and Cheez Whiz balls (they go first), groaning pots of deliciously greasy sauerbraten, strawberry pie bleeding everywhere, hot wings, burnt hot dogs, overcooked burgers. Church potlucks and Super Bowls should never be staged without all of these items on hand.

Ah, but then there’s always one more dish, the potluck wonder of potluck wonders, the crowning jewel, the boss, the guru, the most high. But it’s always a mystery — it changes form depending on who’s responsible for cooking it, the region in which it’s prepared, the time of year …. But it always features the holy trinity of flavor: protein, starch, fat.

I think that Jambalaya, a Church potluck all-star, is arguably the best American embodiment of easy, no-fuss delish. So this year, in addition to gathering and scarfing many of the Superbowl / Potluck faves, Stephen and I decided to make a call down to the bayou, for Jambalaya.

Jambalaya was originally conceived of in the early 19th century as a sort of poor relative of Spanish Paella. The Creole version originated in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and it’s prepared with tomatoes; the meat is often thrown into the pot without being browned first. It’s lovely, and comforting. Then there’s Cajun Jambalaya, which, in my mind, is the more American, and the superior, of the two. It was born in Southern Louisiana swamp country, where a variety of game and fish was readily available, but tomatoes were not. Creole predates the Cajun, but the Cajuns were obviously onto something. It always requires the browning of meat, which, let’s face it, is always more delicious (thank you, Maillard reaction).

Jambalaya is relatively easy to make, but the results are arguably as glorious as the more elevated Louisiana classics, gumbo and etouffee.

Also, it inspired a Hank Williams song, not to mention a presidential feud. (When President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that he was allergic to crawfish, and therefore could not eat the Jambalaya his friends the Richardsons of Virginia sent, their friendship was detonated).

A variety of proteins can be used, the more the better. Since I didn’t have time to go out and wrassle any gators, and I couldn’t rationalize the expenditure necessary for fresh crawfish, I settled for shrimp. Whole Foods was fresh out of ham hocks, so I settled for chicken thighs, fresh pork sausage and some sliced ham. Turkey, smoked sausage, duck, wild boar and would also be fab, depending on your mood and budget.

Click on for the recipe!

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Hudson Highlands: Three-Cheese Lasagna & Vegan Tahini Oat Puffs

29 Jan

Trail dog

Living up in the Hudson Highlands in the core of the Appalachian Mountains has put me in touch with the world at my feet in a physical and tangible way. That I expected. What’s surprised me is the odd touches of metaphysical mysticism thrown into the mix.

Until now, I lived in teeming cities as an adult, quite close to my human neighbors, but far from anything wild, untamable and furry, and I lost touch with that side of life: the mystery, the excitement, the inherent strangeness of woods and non-domesticated animals.

Here, there’s wildness at my doorstep; often, I suspect it wants to come inside with me. Sometimes, I suspect it has even more ominous plans.

For example, the 16-foot tall and 30-foot wide Rhododendron outside of our sun porch is clearly trying to eat our house. I beat it back with holy water, prayers and my sharpest shears every once in a while, but it’s like a Chia Pet Rhodo that has spent too much time in the Pet Sematary, fed by some evil subterranean source of Rhodo protein, bulging with buds even when the mercury dips below 0, quaking with supersonic leaves the size of my head even after Nor’Easters shave the green off of every other bush in our yard; it’s bad, possibly malevolent.

Luckily, there are plenty of auspicious natural delights to combat the Rhodo jujitsu.

When I get up in the morning to cook my breakfast, sparkling, pristine, diamond shards of frost coat the windows overlooking the yard in our kitchen. I scan the backyard, searching for the herd of deer that leaves trails of pellets near my compost pile, or the rabbit that Penelope almost caught on our first week here, the groundhog that lives under the big boulder halfway to the beginning of the woods, the shrews and field mice that like to jump and scamper when the sun peeks out, and most of all, the family of coyotes that welcomes me home every night with a bone-shattering series of shrieks and howls. When they howl, there isn’t room for anything else in the world. I sit in the dark in my car, and their compact, small fierceness fills the night around me. It’s beautiful, bold, otherworldly, here, at my feet.

I always thought these piles of rocks on the Appalachian Trail were some sort of hippie altar to the wood gods, but apparently, hikers just add one when they pass, for luck. I added one too: the littlest one on the top right pile.

Every time, I curse myself for forgetting to leave the porch light on. I poke my head out of my car, grab my iPhone, massive purse and run for the door, terrified I’ll run into a coyote and yearning for just a glimpse. I saw one once when I took out the garbage, but I screamed, puffed up and it ran away before I could really get a good gawk in, a patch of wildness mooning me in the Hudson Highlands night. I went inside, hugged my dog, quaked in my double-wool socks, lit a fire and waited for Stephen to get home.

Maybe it’s the closeness to the land and creatures out here, maybe it’s the winter – but my food cravings have changed drastically since living here. Instead of froofy, pretty salads, rich cheeses, flash-fried fish and sky-high chocolate mousse, I crave root vegetables braised in buttery stocks, simple farmer’s cheese, funky meat stews and cookies with a decidedly Eastern flavor.

This week, I made a super simple, but uber yummy cheese and sausage lasagna. It only takes about an hour to make, making me feel vaguely Sandra Lee-ish and lame, until we tasted it. We both love the lasagna – and the fact that there was plenty of extra free time for frolicking in the Hudson Highlands. The cookie? That was just for me. To Stephen it tasted like a digestive biscuit born in the health food aisle at the co-op – his worst granola nightmare, realized, on a plate. To me? Like a carefree run in the fields with coyotes; earthy, deep, strange, rich. Click on for recipes!

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Miso Demystified: Diving In With a Simple Miso Soup, With Shrimp

22 Jan

Miso yummy! (Boo, sorry, I know)

A nation’s borders used to contain not just its land, but its people, its culture and its products. Got a craving for Wiener Schnitzel? Get ready for a long boat ride, sweet cheeks.

These days, not so much. I have good friends from Bosnia, Mexico, France, Britain living and playing beside me in New York State; my cousins have flitted in and out of Honduras, Nicaragua and various countries in West Africa for years on various work and school adventures, and I’ve gone to and fro between Europe and America a few times myself.

Yoga, acupuncture and tofu, once the Holy Trinity of back-to-the-land hippies,  is now de rigueur for Connecticut soccer moms. (What do you mean you don’t do the Vrschiknasana as soon as you wake up? How do you expect to unclog your chakras?)

We’re a mobile, adaptive species, quick to adopt cool, shiny products that improve our lives.

But despite everyone’s exposure to … everyone and everything else, there are still certain staples in Middle Eastern, African and Asian cuisine that I can’t quite incorporate into my ho-hum average Wednesday at home diet, and I know I’m not alone. I’ll eat cassava when I go out for Nigerian food, and I could live on hummus, tahini and flatbreads, but I’m strangely unwilling to replicate classic non-Western dishes at home – probably because my few attempts to make them from scratch have been so wildly unsuccessful, not to mention expensive, since I have to buy almost every ingredient (and then watch it molder in my pantry after one use).

Premade hummus is heavenly, and dirt cheap; why go through the bother of soaking chick peas, squeezing lemons, mincing garlic and pouring in pints of oil for, what, inevitably, is never as smooth and flavorful as the $2 tub sitting in my grocery store, just waiting for me?

Am I suffering from the foodie version of NIMBY? I love going out for shrimp sushi, but make it at home? Are you mad?

And then there’s miso. A mystery ingredient if there ever was one.

Every time I see a recipe or dish involving the stuff, I’m fascinated, yet vaguely troubled. I’ve eaten miso countless times. It’s delicious, savory, slightly sweet, overpoweringly intense, waftingly subtle, a riddle rolling around the tip of my tongue… Yes, but what is it, exactly?

To be precise, miso is a fermented Japanese paste made by injecting cooked soybeans with a koji, or mold, grown in either a barley, rice or soybean base. The tweaked beans are then left to ferment for days before being ground into a concentrated, luscious, spreadable delicacy beloved the world over.

(Yum?)

Miso has the consistency of a thinned down nut butter, and its color, flavor, texture and level of sophistication is as varied and titillating as The Situation’s social calendar.

There’s the Peter Pan of miso (delicious in its own right, of course) and the MaraNatha of miso as well (hold the Ritz crackers please). But no matter how lowly or elevated, it tastes prominently of salt and butter, with a wine-y tang.

Yum!

Not surprisingly, miso is used in almost every dish that lands on the typical Japanese table, from breakfast to dessert, in soup and on nuts. But wait. Since it isn’t a typical Western staple, miso manages to be good for you, in addition to being delish. Although fairly high in sodium, it boasts sky-high levels of zinc, manganese, copper and a decent kick of protein, fiber and phosphorus. And there are only 25 calories per TBSP (nut butters have about 100 calories per TBSP).

As part of my New Year’s pledge to stretch myself and try new things, I left the grocery store with a bottle of miso paste wedged under my oatmeal, kale and chicken thighs this week. I stared at it for several days, wondering what on earth I should do with it; the miso mocked me, silently.

Finally, I decided to utilize it in its most basic, naked form: I made a simple soup starring the stuff. Warming, hearty, light, packed with nutrition. Perfect for a snowy day when your wet dog wants to sit on your lap and cuddle.

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