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Simple Pleasures of the Kitchen
Recipes, Crafts, and Comforts from the Heart of the Home
By Susannah Seton
Red Wheel / Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2005 Susannah Seton
All rights reserved.
Blest be those feasts, with simple plenty crowned, Where all the ruddy family around ...
Other People's Kitchens
I love to travel for pleasure and need to travel for work, but I've spent enough time in hotel rooms. That's why, if I plan to be in an area for a week or more, I rent a place with a kitchen. Nothing relaxes me more after a hard day's work or a long day of sightseeing than to putter around a kitchen creating a wonderful meal.
I once rented a house in Norfolk, England, because it was called "The Mustard Pot" and was shaped like a condiment container. The house was on an estate, and delightful. In addition to a large, fully equipped kitchen, there was a glassed-in porch. The estate called it "The Conservatory." No matter how rainy and dreadful the weather proved to be, there was a glorious sunset visible from that room. A small dining table and chairs enabled us to eat all our meals and drink our wine overlooking the beautiful fields as the colors changed from pastel to saturated to the velvet tones of night.
In Cornwall, the large farmhouse kitchen was a welcome refuge from traffic lanes that were little more than trails, with room for only one car at a time and hedges so tall one couldn't see past them. A simple trip to the pub or the news agent's was enough to send me scurrying back to the warmth of the large oak table and the nested metal mixing bowls. I was perfectly happy to stay in the kitchen. The long, narrow, well-equipped kitchen at Culzean Castle in Scotland gave me the view over the cliffs toward Arran and Ireland through narrow, sparkling windows while rabbits scurried and pheasants strolled under the window in the warm May sunshine. Cape Cod kitchens retained the pungent sea odors as I sautéed scallops or unwrapped fried clam strips. Suburban kitchens reeked of Lemon Pledge and Mr. Clean, while city kitchens often retained the aromas of Chinese takeout and Mexican salsa.
I venture into the kitchen at parties, offering to help prepare food. I wander in and attack the pile of dishes that accumulate in the sink. Parties are difficult for a shy person. But in the kitchen, I can participate in an activity, and it makes it easier for me to converse with strangers. "'Can you help me find the dishwashing liquid?" is easier for me to say than, "I hear Nobu is still hot."
Time spent in a kitchen makes me feel included in the life of the community. I'm a participant instead of an onlooker. I can see, smell, taste, feel, and hear the nurturing, nourishing aspects of the time and space I inhabit. That gives me an awareness and appreciation for the world around me. Kitchens make the personal universal and the universal personal. My own hearth is the heart of my home. Other people's kitchens allow me to honor their hearts and hearths.
—Christiane Van de Velde
Some people like to paint pictures, or do gardening, or build a boat in the basement. Other people get a tremendous pleasure out of the kitchen, because cooking is just as creative and imaginative an activity as drawing, or wood carving, or music.
Easy Spring Decorating
Brighten up your kitchen table with a new look—a piece of oilcloth in a bright floral pattern or a few yards of gingham, both available at fabric stores. Or try a flat single bed sheet.
Buy a flat of wheatgrass at the health food store and place it in the center of the table for a patch of green in early spring when you are despairing of winter ever ending.
Bring in a budding branch—forsythia, pussy willows, plum, even a foliage one such as locust or maple. Cut the stem on the diagonal, place in a vase of warm water, and put on the kitchen table.
Make a spring herb basket to place in a sunny kitchen window. All you need is a wicker basket, florist's foil, and some small pots of herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme, or chives. Line the basket with foil. Arrange the pots. Snip the herbs with scissors to use.
Mom's Meat Loaf
My mother was known for her meat loaf. Oh, she mastered the art of cooking gourmet dishes as well—always expanding her repertoire, always learning new recipes, she was the master of all that she attempted, and she seldom suffered a kitchen disaster. But, back in my growing-up years, she had not yet essayed the complex or esoteric dishes she learned to cook later in life. What she knew, and knew well, was how to make simple foods taste good. She never failed at any of them, from roast chicken to broiled fish.
In my mother's hands, meat loaf was a company dish. I don't know if it was her recipe or her preparation. I believe it was both. I also believe that in part it was her use of herbs, at a time (the 1950s) when herbs were not a part of every home cook's arsenal, as they are now.
My best friend, a boy (but that's another story), begged for meat loaf whenever he was invited to dinner. I begged for it pretty often myself. My dad scarfed it down whenever we were fortunate enough that my mom made meat loaf for dinner. And the mere smell of it in the oven was enough to make us salivate worse than all of Pavlov's dogs put together.
Even as an adult, when I was asked to have dinner at my mom's house, I hoped it was going to be meat loaf.
Now, here's the funny thing: I'm a pretty darn good cook myself, but darned if I can master my mother's meat loaf. I tried it following her recipe. I tried it following her method without being a slave to amounts. Only once did I come close. And that, I must admit, was a fluke. I couldn't repeat the results in a plethora of tries. I finally decided to give up, admit defeat, and look at it philosophically: My mother's meat loaf was just one more treat—beyond being in her company—to look forward to when we had dinner together at her house. And so, years ago, I gave up trying to duplicate her results.
My mother died a month ago. I don't have her meat loaf recipe, but I do know her method. And one of these days—soon!—I mean to try to make "Meat Loaf à la Mom" again. Maybe this time I can get it right. If it tastes anything like hers, I'm likely to cry as I chew. Sadness will do that to you. But born of the sadness there will be a great degree of pleasure, as well, as I remember my mother and her famous meat loaf. Everyone loved my mother's meat loaf ... and everyone loved my mother. What a tribute if I can finally learn to master that one elusive recipe I never could quite get right.
Food is the most primitive form of comfort.
Yvonne's Herbed Meat Loaf
Cynthia did figure out her mom's recipe. If doubling, she says, form two loaves rather than one huge one. "If there are any leftovers (unlikely!), this is great cold the next day for lunch."
1 slice white bread, crumbed
¾ cup tomato juice plus scant ½ cup tomato juice
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic, pressed
salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon dried basil
1 pound ground chuck
Preheat oven to 350° F. Place the fresh white bread crumbs in a bowl, and add the ¾ cup of tomato juice. Mix well. Add the garlic, salt and pepper, and four herbs, and mix well again. Now add the meat, and knead with your fingers till all is well blended. Shape into a loaf. Do not try to pack it together tightly. This is not supposed to be a dense meatloaf. Place in a loaf pan or any other suitable pan. Pour the scant ½ cup of tomato juice evenly over the top. (Some will collect around the meatloaf in the pan.) Place uncovered in the oven and bake for 1 hour. Serves 3–4.
Wild about Artichokes
On our first trip to the Greek island of Karpathos where we make our home, a stranger in the street approached us and handed us two artichokes he had just picked. He wished us Godspeed in our travels and disappeared, thus introducing us to this mar velous vegetable.
As luck would have it, our backyard is filled with artichokes growing wild. We hadn't noticed any of the strange vegetables the first time we looked at the property. The second time we saw the house, some four months later, was when we moved in. By then the backyard was a carpet of deep purple puff balls about the size of a fist. The stalks were more than a foot high and bone dry, about fifty strong. Our own artichoke field. Greece has poor soil conditions due to erosion and a shortage of trees, so the deep roots of artichoke plants play an important role in holding in the earth on hillsides.
Each year, deep green artichoke leaves show up, and the vegetable core becomes evident in February or March. Most plants have just one large artichoke, though some plants sport two smallish ones. Both the stalks and the artichokes themselves are prickly. In May we gingerly harvest this crop of ours. With little intervention on our part, our crop increases year by year. This spring we expect we'll have more than 200.
At the outset, we were unsure what to do with the buckets of artichokes we'd collected, for our experience eating this vegetable had been limited to a pizza topping.
Most of the first year's crop landed in salads. One spring day a kindly neighbor invited me into her kitchen for artichoke school. She showed me how to rub the freshly cut and peeled heads with a lemon so they wouldn't brown. (Vinegar also works.) She showed me a one-pot vegetable dish—potatoes, broad beans, and artichokes. The other important point, she told me, was to add generous amounts of sea salt and olive oil when cooking, and you can't go wrong.
We've completely given up on those artichoke salads, due to the overabundance of lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and cucumbers in our garden. Our favorite dish is artichokes simmered with lamb, carrots, and onions, but half our yield ends up in the freezer. Though we're wild about artichokes, two people can consume only so many in one season.
—Roberta Beach Jacobson
LOVE: A word properly applied to our delight in particular kinds of food; sometimes metaphorically spoken of the favorite objects of all our appetites.
Garlic will keep for up to three months if stored in a cool, dark, dry location. It's okay if the cloves sprout—the sprouts can be used for salad.
Cut parsley with scissors. Ditto chives.
Keep artichokes covered with water while cooking or the bottoms will burn. (I know from experience!)
If you don't like the odor of cooked broccoli in your kitchen, add a slice of bread to the pot when cooking.
For sweeter carrots, keep them away from apples and tomatoes. These fruits give off higher amounts of ethylene gas that can turn carrots bitter.
Tear lettuce; never cut it or the edges will turn brown faster.
To help mushrooms last longer, store unwashed and covered with a damp paper towel inside a brown paper bag until ready to use.
If you need only half of an onion, use the top. The root will stay fresh longer in the refrigerator.
Always cut tomatoes with a serrated knife to avoid squishing them.
When cooking vegetables, allow the water to boil for at least 2 minutes before adding food so that the oxygen in the water will be reduced. This ensures a higher level of vitamin C in the vegetables, since oxygen depletes vitamin C. (This is also why you should drink fruit juice as soon as it is poured—if it sits around and interacts with the air, "the vitamins will pop out," as my mother put it to me as a kid.)
The Passover holiday observed by Jewish people celebrates freedom. About 3,000 years ago, the enslaved Israelites followed Moses out of Egypt and into the Sinai Desert, where they wandered for forty years until they were prepared to enter the Promised Land.
There were no supermarkets along the way. As the story of Passover unfolds, we learn that the escape from Egypt was a very hurry-up affair. In those days people baked their own bread, and since the journey started very early in the morning, the yeast prepared bread did not have enough time to rise. The flat dough was baked in the sun and became what we know today as "matzos." Stories of the Exodus tell us that whatever the people considered necessary for survival was taken along, which included water, wine, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and animals.
When the people were finally settled in the desert after their hazardous journey, they prepared a meal and rested. This later became known as the "Seder," the first night of Passover. Passover is traditionally observed for one week, and during that week only foods kosher for Passover are eaten. This means no wheat, flour, or leavening.
Jews around the world have created recipes for Passover. Desserts are particularly challenging. Since leavening is forbidden, recipes use nuts as a medium, although some bakers use matzo meal or potato starch, which makes for a lighter cake, plus more than the usual number of eggs, which encourages the leavening process since baking powder can't be used.
I used to make a sponge cake with twelve eggs. If I was successful, and that was a big "if," I would adorn my creation with whipped cream and strawberries. Before beginning, I would make sure that I would not be disturbed for three or four hours. One hour for preparation, one hour to bake, and one hour for the cake to cool in the oven with the door partially ajar. Heaven help the person who entered the house and slammed the front door. A sponge cake is fragile, and a sudden jarring could make it sink. It is very painful to see all of your hard work collapse.
After years of experimenting, I discovered that nuts and egg whites could create a perfect cake that would not collapse. I found that if I did not overbeat the eggs, it allowed for a lighter cake. For the best results, whip the whites only until their peaks quiver and give a firm appearance, and add them to the other ingredients very slowly. I also discovered that if you don't want all the cholesterol in eggs, Egg Beaters work just fine too!
Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.
Orange Nut Cake
1 cup sliced almonds
¾ cups matzo meal
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon orange zest
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 large whole eggs
6 large egg whites
Orange Soaking Syrup
3 cups orange juice
1¼ cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons sliced almonds
Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a 9 × 13-inch baking pan. In a food processor, combine ½ cup of the almonds with the matzo meal, ½ cup of sugar, zest, and cinnamon, and pulse until the nuts are ground. Add the whole eggs to the food processor and continue to pulse until they are incorporated. Carefully transfer the almond mixture to a large bowl, and stir in the remaining ½ cup of almonds.
Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and the remaining ½ cup of sugar until they are stiff. Fold the egg whites into the almond mixture until just combined. Scrape the batter into the greased baking pan, place in the oven, and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 25 minutes.
In a medium saucepan, over high heat, combine the orange juice and sugar and bring the mixture to a boil until sugar dissolves. Set aside.
Remove cake from the oven, turn it out onto a cutting board, and cut into 24 squares. Return the squares to the pan. Pour half of the syrup over the cake squares and set them aside to soak for 10 minutes. Turn the squares over and pour the remaining syrup over them. Garnish each square with 3 almond slivers. Cover the squares and set aside at room temperature to soak for 3 hours. Serve at room temperature. Makes 24 squares.
Passover Walnut Cake
2 tablespoons margarine
3 tablespoons matzo meal
6 large eggs, separated
1 ½ cups granulated sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
2 ½ cups coarsely ground walnuts
½ teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Preheat oven to 325° F. Grease a 10-inch springform pan with the margarine; dust with the matzo meal, and shake out any excess.
Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites and salt until they are stiff. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks and 1½ cups sugar until the mixture is thick and lemon-colored. Then mix in the walnuts, zest, honey, vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves until fully incorporated. In three batches, fold the egg whites into the nut mixture.
Scrape the batter into the springform pan, and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour.
Remove the cake from the oven and set aside to cool. Unmold the cake and transfer to a cake platter. Sprinkle with the 2 tablespoons of sugar. Makes 8 servings.
Excerpted from Simple Pleasures of the Kitchen by Susannah Seton. Copyright © 2005 Susannah Seton. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel / Weiser, LLC.
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