A Cat, a Freezer, a Friendship

No, this post is not as morbid as it sounds, but I really feel that for you to understand its true scope, I have to lay it out in that order:

A Cat
In May of 2002, I got a cat. Actually, I got The Cat, which became his name since nothing else would fit. From 2002 to 2014, The Cat moved with me a total of 8 times, 6 of which were cross-country moves. He never complained. He never got revenge. He was always my fellow traveler and best bud, and when he died this year of advanced lymphoma, I was, understandably, devastated.

One of The Cat’s favorite people was Courtney, my Seattle best friend, fellow cat person, and willing conversational companion with The Cat (he was a talker). Courtney knew exactly how it felt to say goodbye to a friend like The Cat, and for Christmas this year, she commissioned this from Cincinnati-based artist (and obvious knockout talent) Dylan Speeg:

the cat painting
Which means two things:

1. She beat me at Christmas AGAIN.
2. I’m getting her back.

A Freezer
Courtney is currently knocked up and will remain that way until sometime around the first week of February. Her daughter is anticipated to be either a drummer or a soccer player, but either way she kicks like a boss and already has a terrific library at her disposal.

Because babies are notorious for keeping their parents desperately sleep-deprived and unlikely to cook decent, wholesome meals for themselves, I had planned to have an arsenal of freezer meals available to Courtney and her husband for whenever their daughter shows up.

Below is the starter list of meals to be delivered throughout January and into February. Which basically means here’s what I’ll be eating and freezing portions of for the new parents to reheat whenever they have an extra 30 minutes of lucid wakefulness:

freezer meals
A Friendship
And I’m doing this because Courtney is my best friend (also kind of because she keeps beating me at Christmas and THIS WILL NOT STAND, MOTHERFUCKERS). I’m doing this because for both of us, food — at least the kind that is delicious, nutritious, and made with care — means love. It means that someone is thinking of you. It means that someone wants you to feel warm, nourished, and thought about when you might be sitting wild-eyed in your living room after three consecutive weeks of sleeping for no more than an hour at a time, so how on earth can you be expected to purchase, prepare, and consume fresh meals?

Also because she beat me at Christmas.

Photographic Evidence

…of last night’s Feast of the Three or Four Fishes:

xmas eve dinner
You guys. Oh my god, you guys. I don’t even know how I managed to pull this off. It didn’t seem like a lot on paper (original menu or the prep list) but if my boss hadn’t let everyone leave at noon yesterday, I’m not sure I could have managed this. Namely the latkes, which I will a) do in advance next year and b) make with pre-shredded frozen potatoes because who cares if it’s cheating when your regular shredded potatoes just turn a rusty shade of brown, like, immediately.

Not that anyone complained about them. They didn’t look like the results of the Smitten Kitchen recipe that bore their existence, but I have yet to meet a decent human being who will turn down fried potatoes topped in fats and salt.

I would like it noted that I deserve all of the awards, please, for creating a Christmas Eve menu made up of items that double as superlative Christmas Day brunch items. That strata? The one with sausage, butternut squash, kale, feta, roasted red peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes? Basically just a breakfast casserole. Because I just ate it for breakfast, and I feel slightly less hungover now, at least if I don’t think about the five bottles of champagne that once lived in our refrigerator. Of those five bottles, only one exists today.

So I’ve got my protein. I ate some vegetables. I had my coffee, and then my tea (made with my fancy new infuser and my fancy new loose leaf tea). I’m hydrating. I’m planning my New Year’s Day menu, which is infinitely easier because all Hoppin’ John requires is ten hours and a slow cooker.

Feast of the Three or Four Fishes

First things first – I am not Italian. Not even in the least, most tiniest bit. I know this because I got the 23andMe test last year, and while the analysis of my DNA surprisingly revealed small parts Iberian, West African, and Middle Eastern/North African, there is 0% Italian ancestry in my genes.

What am I, though? Mostly Irish and British. Which means that when I say that something is “THE WORST,” I am always aware that my ancestors came primarily from a wet, starved rock in the Atlantic so maybe I’m just talking out of my ass.

Anyway.

I’m not at all Italian, but this doesn’t stop me from cribbing on their holiday traditions for food. This year I am borrowing from the Feast of the Seven Fishes and making it mostly un-Italian and also a little bit lazy manageable with Three to Four Fishes. Technically three, but could be four if we’re talking about format rather than actual fish species (ahem, salmon).

The menu:

– Potato latkes with crème fraiche, cured salmon, and ikura
– Roasted shrimp with artichoke-herb pesto
– Buttery crab bread pudding
– Strata with chard, roasted red peppers, butternut squash, chicken sausage, and sage
– Salami (a St. Louis tradition and Christmas present from my dad) and cheese
– Something sweet, hopefully brought by someone else because hello, I am making everything else
– Champagne. Lots of champagne.

Of all of the menus I plan during the year, Christmas Eve might be my favorite. Traditionally, the Christmas Eve meal is shared between myself and my boyfriend of 8 years, Graham. For those who don’t know Graham from my other blog, he is a professional cook who currently works as a sous chef and erstwhile pastry chef at a Seattle-area restaurant. The thing about dating a chef is a) they don’t cook at home and b) any expectation that you will get to spend weekends and/or holidays together is ludicrous and insane. So, then, getting to spend Christmas Eve together means I can go a little nuts and make the richest, most comforting, sooooometimes most expensive meal I can.

A few years ago it was shortribs braised in red wine and spooned over a gooey, creamy Parmesan polenta. Last year it was a breathtakingly pricey porchetta that I didn’t realize cost so much until I was physically handing over the money for it, effectively living out one of my recurring nightmares about buying things at mystery prices that turn out to bankrupt me (the porchetta did not actually bankrupt me, but thinking about how much it cost still makes my stomach hurt).

This year’s Feast of the Three or Four Fishes will be expensive but not prohibitively so, and we’re also sharing it with our friend Craig, who moved from St. Louis to Seattle a literal three days ago, and a couple of other friends with whom we booked an extremely fancy hotel suite last year and drank ourselves silly until six the next morning. Which, for someone who isn’t at all Italian, kind of beats having to slave over aeons of prep and homemade pastas only to have it consumed by a groaning table of hirsute gesticulators.

So we will have our busted Feast of the Seven Fishes, stolen from the Italians and infused with healthy amounts of Jewish potato presentation, Seattle seafood, and a little bit of Irish thriftiness.

Definitely nothing even approaching THE WORST.

Fridge Soup

Recently, Clotilde over at Chocolate and Zucchini – perhaps the very first food blog I ever read, something like 10 years ago – wrote a post about what she calls “Clean the Fridge Soup.” The idea is to use up vegetables and other ingredients that have gone past their prime (no glazing them in expensive butter and serving them alongside a breathtakingly expensive roast to the Queen, guys) but have not completely turned to shit (duh).

I found the post during a rare Sunday food blog scan, and was delighted to see something so relevant, as I’d already planned a sort of Clean the Fridge Soup for myself this week.

fridge soup - menu pic

My Clean the Fridge Soup was planned around a bag of carrots I got in our CSA box three weeks ago. Yep. Three weeks ago. But carrots are hardy, okay, and if they’re stored properly, they’ll keep for ages. Even so, I was getting antsy with them just sitting on the bottom shelf and decided that I was going to have to do something about them.

Luckily, I had to make chicken stock. Let me be more specific: I had to get rid of the chicken carcasses in the freezer because my boyfriend was complaining about them. Is that better? He’s right, anyway, we’re tight on room and until we drop $300 on a chest freezer, I simply cannot cram any more bones in there when we so desperately need the room for Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter ice cream, which I will now refer to exclusively as “the love of my life.” Sorry, boyfriend.

So I planned a chicken stock Sunday, and because I am resourceful, I decided to use some of the finished stock (ahem, not put it back into the freezer) to make dinner the next night, which would also take care of the carrots I needed to use, and by “use” I mean “roast.” Which is really one of the top 5 secret ingredients of all great soups, if a technique can be an ingredient. Roast what you can, develop those deep flavors and caramelized surfaces, and then just puree the shit out of them later.

Also into the roasting pan went some red bell peppers and fennel, and eventually all of that went into a pot with some mirepoix, stock, tomato paste and warm spices like paprika and cayenne, and then everything got zizzed in my food processor (which I initially filled too high, resulting in a minor mess) and then went back into the pot and finished with a little bit of heavy cream (expensive, organic and local – another one of the top 5 secret ingredients).

So it was basically a grownup version of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, which is why it made infinite sense to serve it for dinner alongside grilled cheese sandwiches (spread mayo on the outside of the bread instead of butter, YOU’RE WELCOME EVERYONE). And why, upon finishing his portion, my boyfriend stood up and said “I could eat a MOUNTAIN of that.”

And, later this week, the dregs of it will become the base for a kind of cheater romesco sauce to drizzle over a bowl of chicken sausage, roasted broccoli, and brown rice. (A still shortcut-ish but slightly realer and, frankly, outstanding romesco sauce can be found here.)

Which is exactly what I’ll need in the week before Christmas, because as I implied earlier, if it’s not easy enough to make and comforting enough for me to fold my weepy old bones around a bowl of it and feel a tiny bit better about what I’m doing with my life, I am just not fucking interested.

A Bitter Cake to Swallow

When you’re a kid and don’t like something, people tell you it’s an acquired taste. Coffee, asparagus, molasses, and, later, I hope, beer and Scotch. It’s true that these tastes are more complicated than the ones a kid normally likes – as a kid, I would have been perfectly happy eating white bread, Capn’ Crunch, and chicken noodle soup every day until I died – but mostly, the tastes you’re supposed to acquire are the bitter ones. And you never believe the people who tell you this, because when something tastes so bad, why would you ever want to put the work into acquiring it?

Except you do. Your tastes change with age. A taste that was once simply bitter has turned out to be nuanced, and if you know how to pair that taste (coffee with milk and sugar, asparagus with hollandaise, Scotch with the unending trials of adult life), you learn to appreciate that it’s bitter in the first place.

There’s a whole movement out there for bitter foods. You could buy Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor by Jennifer McLagan. You could thumb through any collection of cocktail menus in any major metropolitan area and see that amaros are the new dessert martinis. You could go to Cupcake Royale in Seattle and ask for their Burnt Sugar gelato, which they warn you about if you ask for it but it is my favorite flavor forever and ever amen. Or you could throw together some bitter tastes yourself, which is what I did when I made the Bitter Cake.

Like all ginger cakes, apparently, this one is based on (and partially copied from) David Lebovitz’s Fresh Ginger Cake. It is slightly adapted, though, because I like orange with ginger and chocolate with cake, and because I don’t have (or regularly use) ground cloves, I omitted those altogether and subbed in allspice, for which I subbed out a portion of the cinnamon, as well. It’s flavor math. I suppose it’s more of a Ginger Orange Spice Cake with Dark Chocolate Orange Ganache, although to me, Bitter Cake seems like it would look much better on a recipe card.

ginger cake - unfrosted

The end result is a tad bitter. It is a lot dark. It’s deep, complex, and very grown up, so if you’re in the mood for a gum-searingly sweet devil’s food cake (and I completely support this, especially if it’s of the slightly grainy, preservative-laden cheap supermarket variety), you should look elsewhere. Or at least try a middle-of-the-road cake like chocolate stout (I recommend this one) or red wine chocolate (I recommend this one). Want something other than chocolate? Go jump in a lake.

Of course, you could make this less bitter, you know. You could add vanilla extract. You could dust it with powdered sugar. You could serve it with cream cheese frosting or a buttery, creamy vanilla ice cream (I suggest Snoqualmie’s Danish Vanilla Bean, although I suppose plain old Haagen-Dazs will do). You could even serve it plain with a tall glass of cold milk, and since it’s not terribly sweet, it’s basically breakfast. Or you could take a leap and try it my way.

Bitter Cake

  • 4 ounces fresh ginger (about a 2-inch piece), peeled and grated
  • 1 cup molasses
  • Zest and juice of 1 medium orange, separated
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 1/2 cups AP flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature, beaten
  • 1 ½ cups dark chocolate, chopped, or good quality dark chocolate chips
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • Position the oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9 ½ inch springform pan with a circle of parchment paper.
  • Chop the grated ginger very fine with a knife, mix with the orange zest, and set aside. Mix together the molasses, sugar, and oil in one bowl, and set aside. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, allspice and black pepper.
  • Bring the water to the boil in a saucepan, and stir in the baking soda. When this is combined, pour the hot water into the molasses mixture and stir to combine. Then stir in the ginger-orange zest mixture.
  • Gradually whisk the dry ingredients into the molasses batter. Add the eggs, and continue mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for about 1 hour, until the top of the cake springs back lightly when pressed or a knife (not a toothpick! Dorie Greenspan says there’s not enough surface area plus I’m not a 70-year-old man so I don’t have toothpicks in the house) inserted into the center comes out clean.
  • Cool the cake on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before removing it from the pan. To remove it, run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it, then remove the springform collar. Peel off the parchment paper and pan bottom and continue to let the cake cool on the rack.
  • To make the ganache, simmer a 1 ½ cups of water in a saucepan, and place a bowl on top (this is better than buying a double boiler, because if you do that then you’re a huuuuge sucker). When the bottom of the bowl is hot, add half of the chocolate and begin stirring with a spatula. Once half of the chocolate is melted, add half of the cream and continue stirring. Once this mixture is combined, add half of the orange juice and stir again. Repeat this process with the remaining chocolate, cream, and orange juice until the mixture is smooth, shiny, and pourable.
  • Remove the bowl from the saucepan and pour the mixture over the top of the cake. I garnished mine with a little bit of vanilla sugar because IT’S PRETTY, OKAY.

ginger cake - frosted

Back Pocket

My Saturday morning routine goes like this:

Wake up. Either see that it’s too early and spend 45 minutes trying to go back to sleep or just get out of bed, grumbling about how my schedule sucks and it would be nice to be able to sleep until 9am for once in my life.

Go to the bathroom to pee, wash my face, and pet the cat, who for some reason loves hanging out with me in there.

Make coffee. Feed the cat while coffee is brewing. Stand in front of the coffee machine and stare at it, psychically willing it to brew faster.

Get coffee, take it upstairs to the office, and sit in front of my laptop for a couple of hours so I can check up on – in this order – Facebook, Tumblr, Apartment Therapy, The Kitchn, Food52, and Foodgawker. Once every couple of weeks, I add Smitten Kitchen, Serious Eats and Amateur Gourmet to the lineup.

It’s on Saturday mornings that I think the most about food, because that’s when I have the time to read about it, look at photos of it, and write my grocery list and weekly menus. I’ve occasionally thought about how fucked up it is that I spend the first part of my weekend like I spend all of my workweek – staring at a screen – but have decided that this is actually pretty relaxing for me, and doesn’t carry with it the Monday-Friday jaw clenching and stress-related terrible posture.

This week on Food52, there was a feature about readers’ Best Back Pocket Dinner Recipes, which they define as “favorite go-to meals for when the going gets tough.”

These are meals that are thrown together easily, with ingredients you probably already keep in your fridge or pantry, and that satisfy you in ways that belie their simplicity and, sometimes, frequency. Stir frys are common, as are pastas. Eggs appear a lot, which brought me to my #1 back pocket dinner recipe.

Can we please talk about frittatas? Specifically, can we please talk about how simple and versatile and wonderful they are, especially when your boyfriend has purchased a cast iron skillet that is just the wonderment of my kitchen universe right now?

Goddamn, I love me a frittata. I love that I don’t think about making one until I’m walking home from the bus stop, when it’s dark and raining and I don’t have work the next day so I don’t have to think about hurrying to make something that I can quickly shove down my gullet before cleaning the kitchen and struggling to get maybe 6 hours of sleep before I have to wake up the next day. I love that I already own everything I need to make one, but that I can always stop at my neighborhood bakery and pick up a perfectly crusty loaf of whatever they have. I love that even the most labor intensive version is really just a bunch of preps, and that eventually, those unlovely piles of chopped onion, garlic, bacon, potatoes, kale, and bread will become a gorgeously rustic meal for the next few days. I love that I can eat it in front of Netflix with hearty dashes of hot sauce and ketchup while wearing my comfiest fat pants.

I love that I never think about taking a frittata’s photo, because it’s either on my plate, in my mouth, or waiting to be consumed as leftovers and never in any of those places for long enough to be photographed.