Friday, May 30, 2008

Pecans and Ambrosia

This week my grandmother Elizabeth celebrated her ninety-sixth birthday. She is a tiny bird, and though she was never the cook of the family I recall some influential food situations that surely shape the genepool. She is a Texan, and always had a major interest in plants and flowers and trees, like the pecan tree. My dad also has a deep respect and love for plants and trees of the region and pecan trees and nuts in general seem to be in the the family taste. Every Christmas without fail my grandmother cracks and packages pecans (we say pe-CAHN) in Tupperware (nothing cutesy) and mails them, and my dad makes pecan pie. I think the family members like pecans, but I am pretty sure that honoring the tree and distributing its fruit is taken as seriously as any praline.

I don't remember too much candy available at my grandparents house, but there were always jordan almonds around. I always thought these seemed promising but their hard, chalky, not-very-sweet breakup would disappoint every time. It is possible that the jar of opaque pastel almonds was present for the aesthetic quality. After all, they were placed on the countertop where my grandfather arranged sliced fruit in a geometric mosaic on top of their cereal every morning.

At holidays and family reunions, Kaypah would make ambrosia. She made it in a large stemmed cake glass, mostly while seated. It involved layer after layer of colors and shapes and I remember I loved how it looked but hated the metallic-y taste of the canned mandarin oranges and the dry coconut dyed pink from the maraschino cherries. My dad instructed me to choke it down, and pointed out that no one liked it but we all had to eat it.

Driving to see the folks we would stop in Czech towns to pick up kolaches for them, a pastry with cheese or fruit like apricot or prune. We would also stop to get Elgin sausages and barbecue. My grandmother can certainly eat barbecue, which seems pretty bad-ass to me.

At her ninetieth birthday party, I remember we had a selection of appetizers including warm brie with almonds on it. For her entree she ordered the warm brie. There was some fussing about this from her offspring, but after all the 80 pound woman was ninety and she could do whatever she wanted. She had a pink napoleon for desert and a glass of Bailey's Irish Cream. I am floored by my grandmother's longevity, which I am convinced is a product of her stubbornness. The secret couldn't possibly be the Velveeta "cheese puddle" or the Coca-Cola she drinks every day with a mouthful of original teeth.

Though she might not taste much these days or hear, or see, I salute all the faculties of my complicated Kaypah with love.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Ruby Wednesday

Satiny fiber optic stalks of rhubarb are here, and I am going to figure out what they really taste like. Back in the day, I only knew rhubarb as a word that went between "strawberry" and "pie", and I can only remember the strawberries. So rhubarb and I have a midweek date.

I just got all this fresh corn, basil, rhubarb, and yellow and red tomatoes, and I am SO happy that it is spring. I made a pasta salad with eleven ingredients. I also want to point out that this spring has been taking its time and actually acting like spring, instead of switching suddenly from winter to august.

I cut up the 'barb and made half of it into a beautiful pink simple syrup for cocktails and lemonade, and I'll make the other half into a compote tomorrow. (Just less water). Maybe I'll even do some with hardly any sugar, for application in some savory endeavor. The goal here is to teach myself the flavor of rhubarb itself (in the edible cooked form and without the poisonous leaves).

I made a cocktail with rhubarb simple syrup, soda, ice and Hendrick's Gin. It was sweet and tart and floral and interesting. Rhubarb looks like a structured straw of green tinted water coursing through a red taffeta-paper slip. It tastes like fruit, like the definition of fruit. What meets the mouth is juicy, tart, sweet and subtle, able to color syrup a bold pink, or dissolve into a soft, bashful pulp.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Still Hot

Hey, I couldn't resist...

A Cherry Clafouti I made. This was a thrilling little thing to make; sort of a puffy baked pancake with an eggy outlook and cherries that stay fresh tasting. (As opposed to that sickly strange thing I think they often do in cherry pie).

Monday, May 05, 2008

Cast Iron

I am just now discovering cast iron. I have had a cast iron pan since I my initial collection of cookware materialized suddenly on my eighteenth birthday, when I was thoughtfully given tools to accompany my somewhat awkward lurch toward adulthood. I wasn’t exactly a blossoming chef at that point with all signs pointing to food, so it must have been the adulthood thing. Either way, everyone is supposed to have one. They are icons of the kitchen and of kitchenware, appearing on greeting cards with cartoon fried eggs.

It’s odd that these objects have remained so mysterious to me for so long. I don’t remember using any heavy black pans before recently. It’s even odder that I have been collecting pieces for a few years and stacking them up, blankly staring at the heavy, unseasoned pile and quietly lugging them along when I move apartments. I like to think that I just wasn’t ready, and subconsciously knew that somewhere down the line I would be. Cast iron seems to have had some recognizable value to me, maybe because of its weight, maybe because of its myth. It seemed like even if I didn’t use it, it was still sitting in safe storage earning interest unless it became entirely rust and returned to the earth and didn’t matter anyway.

Besides that first pan, any other pieces of cast iron I have came from garage sales or from the street for free. Apparently some people can’t wait to get rid of them. I snapped them up.

So now I have seasoned. I have rubbed. I have fried and baked and I even gave one away all ready to go. They are shiny and smooth and dark. Food doesn’t stick to them, and they get as hot as I want. Some pieces are strange and exotic like the one that is squareish and has two perpendicular ridges I’m not sure about. Others are classic and deep, with symmetrical pour spouts on either side. My new favorite is shallow, slender and elegant. I’m thrilled, and I hear it gets better.