Friday, February 7, 2020

Good Parties Solve Problems

I have been giving parties since childhood, usually successfully, sometimes disastrously. I'll never forget the time I offered to serve a special breakfast to my visiting grandparents. Having printed out a menu, I then made each person wait while I cooked orders individually; only sheer love could account for how they choked back their rubbery eggs, cold bacon, and pancakes oozing slime. On the plus side, our household has seen a lot of joy from parties. If I had to sum up all this experience in a sentence, it would be this: Good parties solve problems

I'm not talking about the standard advice from the etiquette experts about how to handle spilled drinks, ruined furniture, and so forth. I'm talking about what happens way before that, at the planning stages. Find a need and meet it: that's the kernel, the essence, of a party with legs. Good parties solve problems. 

Years ago, I noticed that the first day of school was a problem for me, a stay-at-home mother in a new town. I'd drop my son off, go back home, and feel sad. Then I noticed (thanks, social media), that others were feeling much the same way, and it wasn't just a stay-at-home mom thing, either. What would happen, I wondered, if we got together and partied instead? The next year, a champagne brunch was born, and it was such a smash that we gathered again yearly, with some guests even taking time off from work for the occasion. Good parties solve problems.

I find that December can be a problem. There's so much going on, and many of us dread Christmas Eve and Day, wondering how we'll get through the holiday without falling apart from grief or stress. Things are considerably quieter during the rest of winter break, so if I'm going to gather people for a Christmas party, that's when I like to do it. (The season does last twelve days, after all.) We've had great success in the past with Christmas musicales held at that time, inviting guests to perform music or poetry. People don't have enough opportunity to show their talents. Good parties solve problems.

Finally, for you real loyalists who have read this far, consider bringing a meal to share with someone as your gift to them. The guests could be people in mourning, a hardworking group of colleagues, volunteers in need of thanks, and the list goes on and on. I'm especially fond of bringing lunch to church staff during Holy Week.

The world needs connection.

Good parties solve problems.















Saturday, February 3, 2018

Winner, Winner, Winter Dinner

You have no time. None of us does---and yet we must eat.

If you have a few vegetables, you can get dinner ready in under 30 minutes using the following method.

1.

Heat a pot on the stove over medium-low heat. Meanwhile, chop

1 onion (or a member of the onion family such as shallots, leeks, or garlic)

When the pot is heated, add

Oil or butter to cover the bottom

Add the onion and fry, stirring.

2.

While the onion cooks, clean and chop:

Other vegetables

When the onion is soft and beginning to brown, add them to the pot, stirring. Add

Water or broth to cover by about 1/2 inch

3.

Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer, half covered, until the vegetables are done.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. You can also add dried herbs of your choosing at this stage.

Congratulations. You now have homemade soup.

Copyright (c) 2018 Anna Bendiksen

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Anna's Top 5 Food-Shopping Tips

5. Keep a master list of favorite foods and ingredients.

You then check this list against what you have on hand. 

4. Try to avoid shopping on the weekends. 

The less my family enjoys grocery shopping, the more likely we are to spend on eating out. The best times to shop where we are include Wednesday or Thursday evenings and Friday mornings. 

3. Know what's in season.

Which is why you read this blog, right?

2. Use cash.

It is a foolproof way of sticking to a grocery budget.

(And my #1 tip for buying food is...)

1. Clean out the fridge before shopping.

Not only does this avoid duplicate purchases, but it may just yield an idea or two for dinner. This task can be done with minimal supervision by a child aged nine or ten.

Copyright (c) 2018 Anna Bendiksen

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Fruit Plate: Citrus

(c) Anna Bendiksen 2018
Ah, January. The keen scent of remorse is in the air. For my money, the best remedy to overindulgence is concentration on seasonal fruits and vegetables. Since at this time of year there is no such thing as local Connecticut fruit (unless one goes in for mealy apples, in storage since October), I rely on the products of warmer climes, such as citrus.

This can be a hazardous business. In 2015, for example, unruly weather hit the the citrus crop hard, raising the cost and making the question of how to choose them even more pressing than usual. The lessons are timeless: Citrus should be heavy for its size, indicating that it's full of juice, and the skin should be relatively free of blemishes. Many people choose citrus by the color, which is a mistake. An orange with a green spot or two may look unripe but actually be quite sweet. So forgo the color prejudice, but do assess the fruits for weight.

Navel oranges were once a great luxury, the stuff of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Christmas dreams. If you're like me, you may find yourself skipping them out of boredom. One great way to enjoy them is to sprinkle a bit of rosewater over the peeled and sliced fruit; this Middle Eastern standby is a fine end to any spicy dinner. For a variation, try topping with pomegranate seeds.

Blood oranges have rich, red, meaty flesh. You may see them marketed as "Moro" oranges as a concession to squeamish palates. When I've managed to convince skeptical friends to try blood oranges, the intense flavor, which I can only compare to oranges on steroids, has won them over.

Cara Cara oranges have pale pink flesh, like that of a grapefruit, but when ripe are sweet like navel oranges. This visual advantage is fun to use in fruit salad or plates. I like to peel and slice navel, blood, and Cara Cara oranges, then lay them in overlapping circles on a plate. (Do this as soon as possible before eating or the blood-orange juice will stain the other fruits.)

Tangerines have fantastic flavor, tons of juice, and large and annoying seeds. This makes them good candidates for use in fruit salad, since you'll be removing the seeds anyway. The Southern holiday treat of ambrosia, prepared with oranges, coconut, and bananas, is unforgettable when made with tangerines. Traditionally, ambrosia demands complete removal of any trace of white pith from the citrus. You have been warned.

Clementines have many charms: they are seedless, very sweet, easy to peel, and small enough to appeal to kids and anyone else who may be reluctant to eat fruit. They are usually sold in boxes or mesh bags, which is a shame; the quality of the packaged fruits varies from exceptional to dessicated. If you can find them sold loose, that's the way to go---choosing them, as I mentioned above, by weight and not color.

Grapefruit, the flesh of which comes in colors such as white and pink, is, of course, a wholesome breakfast treat. If you have a leftover half, turn it upside down in a bowl and place in the fridge. For ease of eating, loosen the grapefruit segments beforehand with a sharp knife and use the handy, serrated spoons called "grapefruit" or "fruit" spoons for this very purpose. They are good for digging out bits of the sweet flesh and then receiving juice squeezed from the grapefruit. I love to make broiled grapefruit for breakfast on special occasions: mix butter and brown sugar with a touch of pumpkin-pie spice or curry powder, then spread a bit of this mixture atop each prepared grapefruit and put under the broiler until just browned.

Although they're not for the fruit plate, I should also mention Meyer lemons. Smaller, smoother, sweeter, and deeper in color than the regular variety, they have a delightful and intensely floral fragrance that perks up everything from fish to pound cake to a cup of hot water. (Heat water, pour into a cup, then squeeze a Meyer lemon wedge into it---a simple, delicious infusion, with almost-zero calories and zero caffeine, for any time of day. Actually, a slice of any citrus fruit will work just as well. I find that this trick keeps me happily drinking water.)

For years I've enjoyed Meyer lemons sent by a kind relative whose garden produces so many that she actually has to resort to making lemon curd out of them. During winters here in the Northeast, Meyer lemons may or may not deign to make an appearance in the grocery store. When they do, grab them.


Copyright (c) 2018 Anna Bendiksen







Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Russian Caravan

"Twenty kilometers to Leningrad!" barked the conductor, smacking me on the side. I rubbed the sore spot, lifted my head from the pillow, and looked down. He was setting a tray of tea glasses, each encased in a fanciful metalwork holder, on the little fold-out table between our berths. A delectable fragrance was rising.

"Annushka, u nas goryachii chai!" said my Russian teacher. Anna dear, we have hot tea. 

The night train from Moscow to Leningrad (or St. Petersburg) was, of course, the scene of another Anna's awakening. Count Vronsky declared his passion for Anna Karenina when she disembarked for a bit of fresh air along the way. When Anna got to Petersburg, all she could think about was how large her husband's ears seemed to have grown since she saw him last. Perhaps if the conductor had smacked her one as the train approached the city, things might have turned out differently.

Of such incongruities is Russian life made. Russian culture seems to this outsider always to be teetering between barbarism and warm hospitality. Brutally repressive tsars also stood in their palaces for hours at Eastertime, kissing each guest---the reception lines were thousands long---three times. The cruelty of love is a literary cliche, but Russian writers also have cause to speak of the love of cruelty. When they juxtapose historical drama with private drama, the results are, of course, worthy of cable television.

Characters in Russian literature are always gathering for tea---not the abomination falsely bandied about in 1960's cookbooks as "Russian Tea," but real, freshly brewed black tea, often from a samovar. A samovar (the word means "self-boiler") is such a potent symbol of Russian hospitality that even though it is perfectly possible to make great tea without one, people cherish them, collect them, and sometimes even buy them new. That's what Diner #1 did for me one fabulous birthday. My samovar, a Beem (of German manufacture), is a great way to serve tea to a crowd: You make an extremely strong brew called "zavarka" in the top pot and dilute it with hot water to taste from the spigot.

Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen

(From time to time I've considered making up stories about a great-great-grandmother bringing this only possession, her cherished samovar, over on the boat, but the thick electric cord betrays me.)

Even in my days as a student in Moscow, tea was valued and served with great ceremony (though not often with lemon slices, since these were a rare luxury, and sugar was rationed). I often brought tins of Twinings from the hard-currency store as presents for my Russian friends. My favorites were Blackcurrant and Russian Caravan. Twinings Blackcurrant loose-leaf, in a distinctive tin of shocking magenta, was discontinued years ago. The Blackcurrant flavor is still available in tea bags through Twinings, and other companies sell a loose-leaf blackcurrant, but these alternatives don't do it for me.

Twinings Russian Caravan has also been discontinued, but blending Keemun with a bit of Lapsang Souchong does the trick. My favorite source is Adagio Tea. There is nothing like it to brighten the gloom of late winter.


How to Make Great Russian-Style Tea without a Samovar

You will need a kettle to boil water and a teapot as well as a strainer. Don't even think about heating your water in the microwave for this; you cannot keep an eye on it, which is important.

Fill the kettle with fresh, cold water and put it on to boil. When the water is very hot but not boiling, fill the teapot with it; this warms the pot. When the kettle water is almost at a boil, dump out the water in the teapot. Add to the teapot one generous spoonful of loose-leaf black tea per guest plus one for the pot.

When the water boils, bring the teapot to it and fill it. The tea will taste better if the water has not boiled for very long at this point. Some commentators who were not paying attention in chemistry class warn against "boiling out all the oxygen," but I won't. Stir the tea, cover, and allow to steep for three to five minutes. Bring it to the table, keeping the kettle hot on the stove.

The first cup is never any good, so reserve it for your garden. The second, third, and beyond, poured through the strainer into cups, are guaranteed to cure toska, the Russian word for melancholic longing. If your teatime becomes lengthy and the tea strong, do as you would with samovar tea: add a bit of the tea to a cup, then dilute it with hot water from the kettle. Offer sugar, slices of lemon, and milk. In our family, if anyone asks for the last two together, he risks being teased, "Surely you're joking, Mr. Bendiksen!"


Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen

Friday, January 22, 2016

Biscuits



One of the pleasures of cooking is that one is free to tinker and to call the results whatever one likes. In British English, of course, a "biscuit" is what speakers of American English call a "cookie," whereas an American "biscuit" is a quick bread. Ever so slightly crusty on the outside, tender on the inside, biscuits on this side of the pond are surrounded by a certain mystique. They are notorious for being the quick bread that takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.

Diner #2 has loved American biscuits since he was old enough to eat them. Once, as a toddler, he tried to negotiate his way down a flight of stairs with a biscuit in one hand. CRASH! My sister-in-law heard him screaming bloody murder and rushed to help.

"It's OK," she said. "It's going to be OK." But it wasn't.

"BIS-CUIT!" he yelled, pointing to a pile of crumbs.

Such devotion from the Diners keeps me trying to improve. Biscuits are not the first thing I ever baked, but they are the first thing that I was required to bake as a seventh-grader in home-economics class, and as such serve as a benchmark. On days when my biscuits don't come out, I can think, well, they weren't nearly this good in 1982.

Home ec in our Midwestern town was serious business in those days. Girls, and only girls, took home ec; boys, and only boys, took shop. The pristine home-ec classroom, the size of all the science classrooms combined, had multiple cooking stations, each with an oven white as a prairie blizzard. The fluorescent lights glared at our every insecurity. We learned how to sit on the ground should it become necessary, never crossing our legs but tucking them gracefully to one side. The teacher wanted our seams sewn at exactly 5/8 of an inch, no more, no less. She also wanted our biscuits perfect.

"Help, Mrs. ___, my biscuits came out funny."

"Let's see," she would say, and walk over to peer at a pan full of lumps. "Hmmm. Are you sure that you measured exactly?"

"Uhhh..."

"Girls," she would say, turning to address the gathering crowd, "you must always measure exactly, otherwise your biscuits will not come out right."

I was later to learn that this, like so much else that one is told when one is growing up, was not true. An experienced cook can, of course, make biscuits, as well as a great many other things, without always measuring exactly. Now that I think about it, it was when I stopped measuring exactly that I started finding a sense of freedom and joy in the kitchen. However, even if my teacher had been of the same opinion, it would have been unwise of her to tell us so, not only because the words "freedom" and "joy" make any self-respecting Midwesterner think of sex, but also because our biscuits would have been inedible.

During my eighth-grade year, there was a small revolution. We were informed by the principal at an all-school assembly that a change in policy was at hand. It would now be assumed that girls would take home ec and boys would take shop. However, if one (how clearly the words ring in my memory) "wished to deviate," one might do so. Boys would for the first time be allowed to take home ec. Girls would for the first time be allowed to take shop.

I was thrilled, immediately signed up, and in no time at all established for myself, the lone girl, a solid reputation as the worst student in the class. There was baffling talk of corporations, products, supply and demand. The wood shop was full of machinery even more terrifying than those spanking-clean stoves; I was so afraid of the blades that our kind and observant teacher wound up finishing my final project for me. Meanwhile, the grapevine had it that a friend of mine who had also Wished to Deviate was making delicious biscuits, behaving with courtly manners to his adoring classmates, sewing perfectly gorgeous seams, and generally knocking expectations out of the ballpark. He remains an inspiration to me to this day.

The beauty of biscuits is that they are made quickly, with common, inexpensive ingredients, and yet satisfy the need for daily bread. Having buttermilk around helps, though I've also made them successfully with what my grandmothers would have called "sweet" (i.e. regular cow's) milk. In my home-ec days, our biscuit recipe called for Crisco shortening. Today I prefer a mixture of Crisco and butter for flakiness and flavor respectively. A light kneading improves texture, and an oven at 415 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal, though if your oven doesn't allow for such precision, 400 will work too.

Biscuits are a good companion to soups, stews, or just about any breakfast. They are particularly tasty with eggs. Often I'll see the Diners exchanging a particular look on a weekend morning and I know that I am about to be asked, "Any chance of biscuits?" Having mastered, since my middle-school days, the principle of supply and demand, I know not to answer in the affirmative too often.

---

Biscuits

Sift together into a large mixing bowl:

2 and 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 T. baking powder
2 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 t. sugar

Cut in with a pastry blender or your fingers:

1/4 c. cold unsalted butter
1/4 c. Crisco

until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. At this point, the mixture may be refrigerated overnight.

Heat oven to 415 degrees Fahrenheit. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in:

about 1 c. buttermilk

Stir with a fork until just blended, adding more buttermilk if necessary.

Turn dough out onto a well-floured board and sprinkle generously with flour. Knead lightly three times. Sprinkle with flour again and roll out, then cut into rounds. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake 10-12 minutes, or until barely golden at the edges. Serve immediately.


                                                                                         Yield: 1 dozen biscuits


                                                                                                               Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen






Monday, July 20, 2015

The Fruit Plate: Peaches

 Do I dare to eat a peach?

                                                 ---T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


Peach season has begun here in the Northeast. There is a peach tree just down the street from me that blossoms profusely year after year and goes on to produce beautiful peaches. It does all this without any attention from its owners. The ripe peaches fall and are eaten by wildlife.

My own relationship with peach trees is considerably more intense. When we lived in Hamden, Connecticut, I planted a white peach tree in front of our house. I watered, fertilized, weeded, sprayed. It was happy to bear and soon was showing lots of tiny green peaches the size of marbles. I slept blissfully, dreaming of the harvest.

One morning I went out to inspect the tree and the little green peaches were gone. A few telltale leaves lay on the ground. Squirrels. The peach, I was forced to conclude, is at the pinnacle of the garden, and everyone wants a piece of the action.

Truly ripe peaches do make fantastic raw eating. The trick is in knowing how to buy them. A white peach, like a Puccini heroine, is a refined and beautiful thing that responds very poorly to the least hint of change. You move a ripe white peach a millimeter on the kitchen counter and before you know it there's a big ugly bruise crying "Signore, ascolta!" Rather than risk being accused of such cruelty, many grocery stores sell white peaches when they are rock-hard, so that the ripening happens on someone else's time. The problem with this is that peaches tend to become mealy under such conditions. If you can find white peaches with a bit of give, buy them and eat them straight away; they have an exquisite flavor, with overtones of raspberry and rose.

Yellow peaches, easy to find and to ripen at home, are even better, in my opinion, a little overripe, when the skin has begun to shrivel and the sugars beneath the skin concentrate. At this point, the weather is so hot that you don't want to fuss with complicated desserts that involve heating the oven, and you don't need to. Just slice a yellow peach into your wineglass.


Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen