Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pot Roast, and its progeny

Oh - this is a delinquent post. It's maybe a month old - actually, a bit more. Mea culpa. So sorry. Hopefully the entry in which I describe the events and craziness of the past few weeks won't take me so long to post. In the meantime: Congratulations to the dear friends having babies. Hugs and kisses to the dear friends who sent me lovely Christmas cards that I still haven't replied to. Thank you's and smiles of gratitudes to all who have been sending J. and I household goodies and warm clothes - especially to J's parents, who gifted me the lovely long johns that keep me warm every day and the Yak Trax that keep me standing up-right when I'm walking outside; and especially to my mother, who gifted me a ticket for my little brother to fly up and help me deal with the last - and the heaviest -- of my stuff in my old Anchorage apartment, as well as a ticket from Anchorage to here, to be our first guest, to celebrate Christmas with us, and to help J. carry that last and heaviest of stuff home from the post-office!


We had a brief warm spell. A tropical spell, actually. The temperature was up to the 30's and everyone in town was up and about, enjoying the chance to stroll about in a mere sweatshirt. But then it started to rain. And the rain, alas, churned up the snow and built ponds across the frozen lakes. And with each day of rain, the puddles and rain-ponds grew and expanded. Eventually, the temperature dipped back down again. Yesterday, for example, it was 7 below. And eventually, all those puddles and rain-ponds froze into slippery sheets of ice with alternating angles and peaks.

So, it's cold and its treachorous. Which makes it the perfect climate for comfort foods like pot-roast with a very important secondary attribute: a good pot roast will provide enough leftovers to alleviate the need to run to the grocery store.

I don't know the exact number of times I flipped past this recipe for Pot Roast. But I know it was more than several, and closer to numerous. And I know that all my reasons for so flippantly dismissing it turned out to be wrong. It is flavourful. It is not too plain. Once I had dismissed what I am now self-diagnosing as a low-grade craving for complication, I allowed myself to embark on a culinary project that reminded me of the hearty satisfaction that emanates from a cast-iron dutch oven filled with humble simplicity. Once the initial culinary project was completed, I then I embarked on a series of them, each intended to further explore that cozy art of leftovers!

Day 1: Pot Roast and Garlic Rosemary Roasted Potatoes
(a/k/a "Schultz Sunday Supper Pot Roast" in The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook)

1. Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a dutchoven over medium heat.

2. Season a 3 pound chunk of chuck roast with salt and pepper. When the oil is heated, place the roast in the pot and brown it on both sides (approximately 5 minutes on each side).

3. Add to the pot 1 onion (thinly slided) and 1 cup of boiling water.

4. Cover with a tight lid and let it simmer gently in a 325 degree oven for at least 2.5 hours.

5. Let the meat set before you slice it.

6. You can make gravy with the juices, but I preferred to serve the jus and onions without embellishment.

7. Around an hour before you want to eat, start roasting your potatoes. I like to parboil my potatoes and refridgerate them so that you can pull them into rustic hunks with your fingers (instead of chopping them uniformly with a knife). The pre-step of parboilling is my trick for achieving those roasted chunks of potatoes with crispy, almost carmelized, outsides and soft interiors that I used to order as my dinner at the little take-out, La Spada, near Piazza Santa Maria Novella in Firenze. Not everyone does this. But the basic recipe is fairly standard: toss potatoes (raw or parboiled, baker or reds) with olive oil, finely diced garlic, chopped fresh rosemary and salt and pepper; put on a roasting pan and place in the oven at approximately 350 degrees, and bake until done.

This truly is delicious. The onions and the water form the perfect broth. And the onions bake down into a sweet deliciousness that makes one want to eat them by themselves with a fork. Actually, I guess it bakes down into the perfect onion soup - needing only a bit of a toast and cheese topping to achieve that famous french onion soup entree.

Day 2: Grilled Beef Salad Sandwiches

When I hear "beef salad," I think of seared filet on a bed of arugala, sometimes with a hint of lemongrass. But this seems like the best name for a beef sandwich spread. Basically, I mixed together: chopped up leftover roast, very finely diced onions, diced celery, a little mayonnaise, a little Worcestire Sauce, a little tarragon, salt and pepper. Then, with just the most minimum of Special Reserve Tillamook Cheddar to keep the contents cohesive and with just the most minimum amount of Tillamook butter to give the bread slices that lovely crunch, we proceeded with making an embellished version of grilled cheese sandwiches: the grilled beef salad sandwich. Next time, we'll make sure to have some rye or pumpernickel bread! But it was delicious!

Day 3: Roasted Onions with a Braised Onion Risotto

I remember eating baked onions as I grew up, but I don't remember why I forgot about them once I had grown up enough to be solely responsible for my own meals. Jamie Oliver helped me to remember them, though he perhaps adds a few more steps than the hearty culinary traditions of the Willamette Valley (in those hearty, pre-Pinot Noir days). He boils them for 20 minutes, lets them cool, then scoops out the middle and stuffs them with a filling. Sounds good to me.

I boiled the onions. I let them cool. Then I scooped out the middle, chopped the scooped-out pieces into a fine dice, and used this (together with the risotto-standards of garlic, etc.) as the basis for the risotto. I think everyone has their own way of making a risotto, so I won't delve into the science of it. But I will add that I flavoured my risotto with the syruppy onions that had braised with the pot roast and, when the risotto was done, I tossed in some of the chopped beef, fresh parsley, and parmigiano. I filled the hollowed-out onions with the "french onion risotto", topped them with a sprinkle of cheese, and set them to bake until hot and bubbly.

Delicious. Fun. And, oh!, how lovely a hot stove is when it is so cold outside that there is frost on the INSIDE of your dilapidating hovel on stils heated to the luxurious temperature of 70 degrees!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Cake Love

I don't mean to plagiarize, so I must give credit for the title of this blog entry to the reformed lawyer in D.C. who traded a law career for a baking dream. He quit his job and opened up a bakery in Washington, D.C. called "Cake Love". He had no bakery experience. Just a love of baking and a cache of gumption. The best part is that the gamble worked! I hear from friends that his business is growing and expanding!

I like the name "Cake Love." Not just because I think of it as fighting words for breaking one's professional chains. I like it because cake really is a manifestation of love. Especially where, as in my current little hovel on stilts, it can take some planning to find the ingredients and there is no electronic mixer to relieve one's arms from the various stages of creaming butters, and whipping in sugars, and mixing in flours.....Under such conditions, baking a cake requires many of the same ingredients for maintaining a relationship: time, concentration, patience, tenderness, preparation, anticipation, goals, appreciation.....

Okay. That was the sentimental start. Here's the practical blog entry: After the fiasco of the hyper-sugared power-ranger-frosted-to-be-a-snowmachiner birthday cake, I decided to cake love J. with a gingered pear upside down cake.

It took a bit longer, I think, than it would have if I had a mixer handy. But it was a fine opportunity to get a little workout for the arms (without venturing out in the freezing cold to the teen center where I understand one can pay $3 to use the weights), and a fine opportunity to listen to the one radio station. And there is a lot of fine entertainment in watching the ecstactic reaction of one's boyfriend when he enters a home perfumed in the aromas of gingerbread late in the evening after having spent an entire day preparing for his first trial ever, which is scheduled (as luck would have it) in the same week as his 16 other trials.

Credits to Macrina Bakery in Seattle, for the recipe and for that post-collegiate year in Seattle when when I used to sneak out of my p.r. job to enjoy Macrina's rocket muffins and potato loaves, and to Molly, of Orangette, for inspiring me to dig out the box in which the Macrina cookbook was packed.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Celebrations and Lessons

J turned 30 on the day when it was 22 degrees below zero.

We spent the day rummaging for a bit at the Catholic Rummage Sale. Then we lingered for a bit at the VFW Auxiliaries' Christmas Craft Show. Then I spent a couple of hours trying to teach myself how to frost a cake while J. hopped on the snowmachine and ran down the river with his boss, who was trying out a new helmet that stays de-frosted by some mechanism that plugs into the snowmachine.

Although the helmet appeared to work perfectly, I wasn't such a grand instructor in the arts of cake decoration. J. returned just in time to find me covered in green frosting and lamenting that I had just spent all my money on a sugary dada-ism rendition of a snow-machiner. Fortunately he is a good supportive sport - and gave me lots of encouragement in my fervent efforts to make a power-ranger cake tin and 10 tubes of artifically-flavoured-and-colored frosting produce a likeness of him. The symbolism of my boyfriend assuring me of the value of my efforts, while he himself was "frosted" in a white layer of snow and ice (he even had icicles hanging from his eyebrows and eyelashes) and I was "frosted" in green, was not lost on me. We had some good laughs. And I was so appreciative of the good energies he swept into the house with him, that I did some frosting touches to highlight those big, strong biceps!

But I probably will not ever again spend a day decorating a cake with a battery of store-bought and artifically-flavoured-and-colored frosting. That was my first lesson of the day. I guess every thing has to be tried once - and this was my one time trying to decorate a focusing on the appearance, rather than the taste, of a dessert. Henceforth, I'm sticking to pies, tarts and the carmelized pear gingerbread that I had originally envisioned would be holding his candles.

Around 7, we shimmied into our winter gear, packed up the hyper-sugared cake and headed over to M's house, where we shimmied out of our winter gear and enjoyed a grand evening of corn and potato chowder and Texas Hold 'Em Poker. Entertainment having a prime value here, our crew of 8 made a show of singing happy birthday twice. And J. did so well at the poker, that he came home with heavy pockets brimming with Canadian coins!

Around midnight, we shimmied back into the winter gear and headed home. Just as we got to our driveway, we decided that we should drive over and see what time a store opened up in the morning. J attempted a U-turn, following almost the identical path for u-turns that he has used over-and-over every time we've left the driveway. This time, however, the truck must have been a few inches off.

We got stuck.

It was midnight and the temperature had fallen to almost 27 degrees below. The truck was stuck well - it wouldn't move forward, it wouldn't reverse. J. tried jumping on the back fender simultaneously with my efforts to reverse. We even put the big, 120 pound dog, in the back to see if a little weight would make the tires less likely to spin. (Puck was allowed out too, but after 10 minutes he fleed back to the warmth of the house.) When our efforts succeeded only in getting us more stuck, J. sent me inside, correctly noting that the symptoms of my cold were getting outrageous noticeable in the cold. He followed me in, changed into his layers of arctic gear (adding a face make to the winter attire) and grabbed a rope.

When I came out to check on the progress a half-hour later, I found J. coordinating efforts with a young girl in a big black truck and a neighbor who had decide to combine the opportunity to assist with a chance to let his dog out.

The coordinated efforts worked, and the truck was finally tugged out of the snow ditch around 1:20 a.m.

Smiles, handshakes, deeply-felt gratitude were exchanged. And a very important second lesson for the day was learned: always keep a rope in the truck.

We don't know when we'll need it, either to pull ourselves out or to pass forward the favour of two very generous and kind people who voluntarily ventured out into 27 below temperatures to help a stranger.

How many places are there where people would stay out there in a coldness so cold that it slaps to help a stranger? Especially a stranger hidden by a black face mask? Wouldn't most people just leave it? wait till the daybreak? or tell them to call a tow-truck? How many places are there where people would stay out there, and keep on trying and trying and trying? Refusing to give up until the stranger's problem was fixed?

The third lesson wasn't really a lesson. It was a good reminder.

We are lucky to live here and to have so much to learn!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Akutaq: when reality whips the romance

My grandfather, who loved French Vanilla Breyers, would sometimes wax nostalgic for the "Eskimo Ice Cream" that he and my grandmother would enjoy when they were stationed up in Alaska during World War II.

I'm not sure if he was waxing nostalgic for the Eskimo ice cream, or for the memories of courting my grandmother in a large wild territory amidst the simultaneously alert and tender days of World War II. But I do know that he was keenly appreciative of the experience of both. He and my grandmother married and were later moved to Germany, where my mother was raised. Eventually they came back to the U.S., but they settled in California. Alaska, however, never strayed far from their thoughts. Sometimes the memories popped up in the form of stories about eskimo ice cream. But more commonly, the memories popped up in stories of the bravery and ingenuity and cultural strength that so impressed my Grandfather about Alaska.

But back to eskimo ice cream....Akutaq is what this Alaskan legend is called in Yup'ik, the most predominant language in town.

Grandpa used to tell me about how, in Alaska, ice cream is made from whipping rendered seal oil into grated reindeer fat. Snow was added to make it cold. Sometimes mashed potatoes or whitefish would be added. But, always, berries would be added to sweeten it.

I have been meaning to try it. And today, while Christmas shopping at a local craft fair at the VFW hall, I finally did. Seeing a woman offering paper cups of akutaq next to the offering of seal mittens and beaver hats, it seemed like the perfect time to transform one of Grandpa's stories into a part of my own story. J. and I bought a cup to share.

But times have changed since Grandpa's day.

Halfway through our cup, we ran into a friend who has been here for 30 years and asked him to settle a debate. J. thought I was joking about ice cream being made from seal oil. He maintained that there was no seal fat in our akutaq. I maintained that there was.

Our friend had a laugh. It appears that we were both kind of right. 30 years ago, akutaq was made from whipping rendered seal oil with reindeer fat. Apparently, however, it is made today by mixing berries with Crisco.

Yes, J. and I had been eating Crisco by the spoonful.

It was delicious .... but .... I just can't help feeling that what was so memorable to my Grandpa, that icecream that kept my Grandfather waxing nostaligic for Alaska, wasn't made with Crisco. But I guess I am also glad that a seal wasn't hunted. So I really don't know where I'm left with my first introduction to Akutaq.

Perhaps my ambivalence is best described as an admiration for a culture that has thrived and survived for thousands of years in the harshest of conditions, and a sad sort of acceptance at how quickly less-admirable influences have seeped in. But I can't help but think that my recent arrival to Alaska, with no winter gear and a headful of romantic notions about living in the last frontier, isn't a bit of an allegory to Crisco itself.

Maybe I'm not going to be eating the akutaq of my grandfather's day, but I guess I'm also not the "pioneer" that he was. I do however get the benefit of my Grandfather's story, as well as my own memory of my own astonishment at realizing that I was eating Crisco by the spoonful....and enjoying it.

(this is a copy verbatim of the recipe originally published by Alice Smith in the local newspaper, the Tundra Drums, and then reprinted in Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans)

"If you use fresh seal oil you don't get the strong taste. Put a handful of Crisco in the bowl. Work it with your hand and add a little cold water. Put in the seal oil and work it more. The real Eskimo way was to make it with reindeer fat, chopped in small pieces. They put it on the stove to melt it. They never used to put sugar in. They used no sugar, just berries. Then later we used to put sugar in. Stir in the sugar. If you keep your hand working it a long time all the sugar melts, it dissolves. It will just fluffy up, now watch. You keep adding water, more water. Every time you put sugar in it will fluff more. Keep working it and you can't smell the seal oil. Then put in the salmonberries. There should be blackberries too. And then I put it up in my little freezer up there, let it coll off and eat it. If you just want to have a little spoonful now, you may."

Friday, December 02, 2005

Yoga and Leftovers

I went to a yoga class.

Three of us showed up last night at the little log cabin (as compared to the bigger log longhouse where the local band is currently setting up a dance floor for their "concert" on Saturday night), shuffled out of our boots and carhartts, and hung our coats and mittens up to dry. While we pulled our hair back into pony tails and rolled out our mats, our instructor stuffed the yoga class into the community-available dvd player.

It was the first yoga class I've ever taken that was free of charge. And it was in a log cabin, with a ceiling so low that I was prevented from doing the positions that required me to stand up too straight. Even the transportation had a first-time flavour to it. J. and I rode over together on the snowmachine - the first time we had attempted a transportation "coordination." One of those understated moments of couple-significance. He dropped me off, swung around to see if he could pick up our friend who was walking over (which he could, and did), and then spent the hour sporting about outside while M. and I tried to contortion off some off the "extra warmth" we are accumulating. When he returned to pick us up, we decided to pile three on the machine instead of dropping off M. and then returning for me. To add to the comedy, M. was given the driving honour. It was her first time on a snow-machine. So there we were, the three of us, clutching on to each other, laughing and lurching all the way home.

By the time J. and I got home, I was cold. And hungry. Quite a combination with which to enter into a kitchen. I was so cold and hungry, in fact, that I didn't even take the time to shimmy out of my carhartts and boots before I started pulling out pots and pans. I gave only a token greeting to the dogs and didn't even linger to help J. tuck the snowmachine under its cover. Rather, still dressed in full gear (which includes, lest their be doubt, a face mask) I was immediately engrossed in the task of heating up a dinner of leftover meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy.

Now I know that meatloaf (especially leftover meatloaf) has the 50's housewife reputation. It isn't something we ever had in our family growing up. In fact, I had never made it before. But I guess I have a familiarity with it that started in college. I was a hostess the summer after my first year of college at a local restaurant that specialized in meatloaf sandwiches. And, later, meatloaf was a specialty of a family that I lived with in Firenze. And, even more later, I discovered its haute potential while dining in New York. And, now, meatloaf has the kudo's of being one of my cozy favorites as well as fitting right square into my current budget of life-wealth, but monetary-poor.

Despite my appreciation for it, I hadn't really thought about "meatloaf" recently. That is, I hadn't thought about it until I went out for a brunch with J. on Sunday. My two eggs and two pieces of buttered toast cost $6. I thought that steep. But, J's heavily-nuked plate of thin slices of commercial meatloaf, heap of instant mashed potatoes, and steaming globs of powdered gravy cost $15. And I thought that was a steep travesty.

Meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy shouldn't be nuked - and it should never be whipped up from powder. That just seems......tragically unnecessary. The cozy comfort of this dish comes from the fact that it is made from humble ingredients for people with whom one has an overwhelming connection of familiarity. Not powder for strangers. I couldn't help but sit there watching this steaming plate of artificial convenience, imagining how glops of glunk had been globbed onto a plate and stuffed roughly into a high-powered commercial microwave. But it was that wide chasm between J's eager expectation and his dissapointment, more than the artificial origins or price of J's meal, that left me thinking that I should set out to see how I could incorporate meatloaf into our culinary fayre here.

And it worked! I used a base recipe from a cookbook I adore for cozy comforts. I adapted it to fit the ingredients already contained in my pantry. I filled our house with the warm welcoming perfume of a homecooked supper on one of the colder nights yet. And a few minutes of mixing produced a big hearty skillet of meatloaf - that has been feeding us dinners, and lunches, and sandwiches, and quick snacks. It was warm, hearty, perfect for leftovers and guaranteed to make us smile with cozy comforts. Where the weather gets cold, and feels even colder because you are scooting around in it on the back of a snowmachine, warm and hearty and cozy are just what is needed.

And when you are coming home from a grand evening of yoga classes in log cabins and side-splitting transportation stories, the access to warm and hearty leftovers is certainly a sign that one is enjoying la vita dolce.

We took our steaming plates of homemade convenience to the couch, plunked Lonesome Dove into the dvd player, and made an evening of it.

[Here's where I confess that I was so enamoured with the ease of eating well without stove time, that I paused the dvd for 5 minutes after we ate to jump up and make a pie plate of brownies from a Duncan Hines mix. Not all cozy comforts, I guess, have to come from scratch - at least not when time can be better spent enjoying the company of cherished ones!]

Pantry Meatloaf
adapted from The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook

a chopped onion
1 cup bread crumbs
a small handful of oatmeal (in deference to a reference from J. about his mother's recipe)
1.3 pounds of lean ground beef
a couple elk bratwursts (freed of their casings)
1 can of diced tomatoes
2 eggs
1 cup of shredded parmesan or romano cheese
some hearty glugs of worcestire sauce
seasonings (salt, pepper, rosemary, sage, basil, cumin, creole seasonings, Old Bay, whatever you have and/or feel like using)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Heat up a cast-iron skillet, and saute the chopped onion in butter until just golden (around 3 minutes).

3. Mix all of the ingredients in a big bowl. When the onions are done, toss them in too. Mix well.

4. Shape mixture like a football in the cast-iron skillet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with some olive oil. And bake until it is cooked throughout and all sizzly and crisp on the outside (around 1.5 hours).