Monthly Archives: October 2008

Baked Pears

By now, you’ve probably got the idea that I’m not big on sweets.   It’s true.  I really don’t think about them much — except, of course, to long for See’s candy around the holidays (especially the dark chocolate covered marzipan).  I don’t dream about cakes, or yearn to spend a Sunday baking cookies, and my mind’s palate does not waste its time tasting phantom pies.  Nope.  Definitely not a dessert person.  Oh sure,  I’ll have some ice cream now and then, and when there’s company, I’ll serve out a dish of it with a little capful of Grand Marnier spilled on top, just to dress it up a little, at not much extra hassle to the cook.  And sometimes when I’m alone, what I really want after my meal is a big piece of toasted New Sammy’s sourdough bread, slathered with butter and either honey or raspberry jam — although that probably hardly counts as a sweet to a true dessert person.

On the other contradictory hand, I have always been annoyed by recipes that say things like:  “Of course, this dish is so rich, that you should serve nothing but fresh fruit to follow.”  Oh yeah, sure, I think to myself when I read that.  Fresh fruit.  Like they’re serving that themselves.

But the truth is, I do like a little fresh fruit after a meal.  In fact, a lot of lunches get finished off with an apple or a pear sliced up and put on the table between me and the husband while we read our respective luncheon reading material.  Or a handful of cherries. Or a bowl of just washed grapes.  Or (best) a few fresh ripe figs.  I mean, if I look at it objectively, I really shouldn’t get so annoyed when I read that recommendation about fresh fruit.  I really shouldn’t think of it as just Nazi calorie policing.

I eat a lot of fruit, a lot of different ways.  Although not for the health bit.  It turns out I just like it that way.

It’s true that unadorned fresh fruit is not my idea of an after dinner treat.  But, again when I think about it, almost all my favorite home desserts are adorned fruit — one way or another.  It’s decked out fruit of one kind or another that gets passed around if I’m dining, as I often am, with loved ones and friends.  Fruit that’s been just a little bit fussed with, its tie straightened and its hair brushed for company.  No matter what my theory about what I think I like to eat, in the end, what I do proves that what I like to eat is fruit.

Like so:  Pieces of dried fruit (mango, papaya, fig, apricot, persimmon) scattered on a plate with a few chocolate chips or jagged pieces of broken up dark chocolate.  Slices of quince paste alternating with slices of full fat monterey jack cheese, to be eaten together in one luscious, squishy bite.  Fresh raspberries nestled in cream, crystal brown sugar scattered on top.  Strawberries dipped in sour cream and the same brown sugar.  Baked apples.

My favorite, though, is baked pears.  The way Martha Rose Shulman taught me how to make them, in her divine book Provençal Light, which is an example of a cookbook meant to help you eat less fat (my usually most hated form of cookbook) that turns out to help you cook simply and deliciously no matter how many calories you think you should consume.  She says she learned this method from Christine Picasso.  Another bit of art we have to thank a Picasso for, in my opinion, and, much as I admire Cubism in theory, I have to say that in the end this recipe has done more to improve my quality of life.

Of course, I’ve fiddled with it, and tamed it to where I don’t have to pay as much attention to it as perhaps Ms. Shulman or Ms. Picasso would like.  But it’s to their credit entirely that no matter how lazy I get with it, it still always comes out right.  And of course, it’s the ideal dessert for one of my favorite cooking methods:  pile everything in one oven, in different dishes at different times, and have them all come out at the same time.

The other night, I was braising an oxtail just for myself alone, in a basin of red wine and herbs, and of course you know how long an oxtail takes to submit to your will — i.e. a really long time.  I couldn’t bear to turn on the oven just for it alone; what a waste.  So I grated some carrots, put them in some cream, and shoved them in after.  Then a few potatoes to bake, on the theory that I could use them later for soup or whatever (I did, too, and the whatever was delicious).
I halved a couple of tomatoes, too, scattered some rosemary on them, and put them on the lowest shelf underneath everything else.

But there was still a little room in the oven.

Looking around the kitchen speculatively, my eye landed on my overflowing fruit bowl.  It is autumn, after all, and autumn means Indigo Ray is desperately trying to find a home for all of her apples and all of her pears, all of which seem to ripen at approximately the same time.  So I had a big haul, just sitting there, piled.  The pears were almost ripe but not quite.  And that, as a matter of fact, is the best kind of pear to use for Baked Pears.

Like so:

Take as many pears as you like and will fit into whatever baking dish you choose.  Wash them, and with a paring knife, cut a little circle out of each one’s bottom.  As you do, fill the hole with a spoonful of honey, then quickly set the pear right side up in the baking dish.  When they’re all nestled neatly, each one next to its neighbor, comfortable but not spread out, pour about an inch of water into the bottom of the dish.  Scatter a few whole cloves about.  You can sprinkle a bit of sugar on top, but I never bother.  Put into an oven at whatever temperature you’ve got everything else going at, and bake for a really long time until the pears are wizened and crackly looking, and the water/honey mixture has thickened.  This takes about 2 hours at 350°, or about an hour and a half at 400°.  Or more or less, you know, as usual.  Cook ’em till they look and smell done to you.

They’re great hot on their own or with a little cream poured over, or next to a scoop of ice cream.  They’re great the next day for breakfast with some of the syrup spooned over them, and a little full fat yoghurt on the side.  They’re a wonderful afterthought to the next night’s dinner.  And you can just keep them in their baking dish, covered, in the frig, all week, and spoon them out, one by one, at will.

Well, if it’s THAT kind of fruit.  Well then.  I definitely eat that kind of fruit for dessert, and when I do, I know I’m home.

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Simple Things to Cook

It occurs to me that an awful lot of my recipes…or, rather, not recipes, but just, let’s call it, THE WAY I COOK…are the result of wanting something good to eat, in short order, and with the ingredients I find easily to hand.  Which is not a bad philosophy of cooking, or of life either, come to think of it.

Anyway, that is how I evolved (if that is the right word…probably ‘threw together’ is a more accurate phrasing) one of my dependable suppers, especially dependable if my vegetarian husband has become tired of either too many luxury ingredients or too few.

The other night, for example, he had taken himself off for a short camping trip, and came home hot and dusty and looking like Walter Huston in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”  He was tired and happy and also sick of eating raw carrots, bread, cheese, and trail mix.  But he didn’t want anything fancy.  He mainly wanted something soothing that would, might I add, go well with cold beer.  I had a look at what I had in the house, and gave him a few suggestions…and he picked the one I secretly, myself, wanted to eat, which often happens.  So we had whole wheat noodles mixed with soy sauce and butter and a whole lot of cilantro and avocado salad.  Mind you, the salad in this recipe is mixed into the noodles at the last minute, making a tangle of savory and fresh tasting noodles.  It was easy, it was quick, it was what I had at hand, and I could mix it according to how I felt at that moment.  You just make the noodles, toss them with butter and soy sauce and a lot of chopped cilantro, diced avocado, and then at the last minute, squeeze a lime over the whole thing.  Delicious, especially with added hot sauce at the table.

We both were happy eating it, and while we did, my thoughts drifted to how odd it must seem to anyone who knows my thoughts on men and women that I have complete control of my kitchen.  I mean, no one but me cooks in my kitchen.  I gave up letting anyone else do it years ago, in college, if I remember right, when I came home late one night from work and started to make a late night meal on auto pilot, and COULDN’T FIND ANYTHING WHEN I REACHED FOR IT.  Someone else had come in and moved everything around.  That was when I realized that cooking was more for me than just cooking and eating; it was and is a form of meditation for me.  I use it as a tool to get in touch with what’s going on inside of myself, to find out what I really think, and who I really am.  In other words, I’m thinking about something else when I cook, something other than where someone else may or may not have hidden the hot sauce.  If I have to come out of that stream, it takes me awhile to get back in, and since swimming along in that stream is the most fun thing for me…well.  That was it for sharing a kitchen.

So when Alex and I got together, not only did it not bother me that his idea of a cooked meal for himself was a hunk of rabbit cheese from the cheapest part of the supermarket eaten with an unpeeled raw carrot and washed down by a microbrew, I was actually pleased.  I liked that I got to cook all the meals – all the ones I wanted to, anyway, since he never showed the slightest annoyance at reverting to his default menu if I didn’t feel up to it.  It was and is what I liked and like to do.  I like thinking about it.  I like doing it.  I like eating it.  I like to share it with someone else who enjoys eating it, too.

Now here’s my point: this is not sex specific.  It just so happens it’s what I like to do.   I’m selfish about that, in fact.  What I think though – and what I heartily support in anyone else – is that people should give deep thought to what they really like, and then they should really do it.  Mind you, this is not the same as just casually (and rather horribly, in my opinion), even desperately, deciding that some kind of superficial stimulus is going to save you from a moment of anxiety, or terror, or grief, or pain.  That’s something else altogether.  That kind of activity drives you farther and farther and farther away from yourself, till you can only see a dim, small shade resembling something you vaguely remember waving at you frantically from the horizon.

No.  I don’t mean that kind of pleasure…which is really not pleasure at all.  (Anybody done cocaine recently?  Now there is a superficial stimulus par excellence.  That and gambling.)  I mean the kind of pleasure that makes you and your loved ones quietly happy, that makes you wake up in the morning pleased to see another day.

That’s the secret of personal autonomy, discovering what that pleasure is, and acting on it.  It’s amazing to me how our culture actively works against people finding that pleasure…although a moment’s reflection on what an entire country of citizens who knew what was actually good for them without being told by a punitive government, and who ACTED on it,  a moment’s thought of what that really would be like, and you immediately see why anyone in power wouldn’t want to give that autonomy any more than the most cynical and manipulative lip service.

This is why I always say that cooking and food are political.  They are of basic importance to our bodies and, through our bodies, to our spirits, too.  They don’t just feed the body, they feed the soul.  And since most of mass media, if not all of it, is about secretly sucking your soul out of your body so it can replace the soul with a bottomless pit of need, we have a political obligation to pay attention to cooking and food in a real way.  And if you really don’t like doing it…well, that’s more important than anything I have to say about it. You know yourself and your own needs best.  There are plenty of great restaurants out there.  Try to always eat at one where they actually like what they’re doing in the kitchen would be my counsel then.  Once you start to pay attention to how you feel after a restaurant meal, you’ll start to feel the difference between a kitchen that likes what it’s doing and one that hates food, customers, and, generally, the world.  Before you do that, though, give a thought to your state of mind.  Are you maybe depressed without knowing it?  In my experience, people who don’t like cooking and eating generally are – it’s an indicator, like insomnia, that something’s gone awry.

But to get back to my selfish need to control my own kitchen.  Alex, over the years, has been very kind about that, and increasingly an enthusiastic partner in discussing what we’re going to have for any given meal.    And I have to admit that I felt a mild sense of triumph when I came home late one night, after I’d had dinner in town, to find he’d set a place for himself, and was eating, by candlelight, a beautifully composed plate of baked potato, carrots, and a salad.  So whenever I go away now, I make a list of things that I know he likes to eat, and that are dead easy to cook, and I know that he’s enjoying himself while I’m gone, communing in his own way with his likes and dislikes, even if he generously lets me deal with it the rest of the time.

One of the best things I leave for him to cook, especially in the autumn, is acorn squash.

Here’s how:

For two people (or for one, with a cold half left over for the next day’s lunch):

Buy a nice, firm, unblemished acorn squash.
Cut in half.
Scoop out the seeds.  (If you feel like it, you can rinse these in water, dry them, toss with olive oil, garlic salt, and smoked paprika, spread out on a baking sheet, and cook with the squash till they smell good.  Eat as an appetizer while you wait for your dinner.)
Put the squash halves on a foil covered baking sheet (easy cleanup that way).
Sqoosh softened butter over each half, or drizzle with mild olive oil.
Sprinkle with brown sugar (my favorite), or drizzle with maple syrup.
Bake until done.  If you’re cooking the squash by itself, put at 425° for about 45 minutes – the toaster oven’s good for this.  If cooking anything else, it can go in with them (baking potatoes and roasting tomato halves sprinkled with olive oil and chopped rosemary are good options to round out this meal), then just leave them at whatever temperature for however long it takes to cook the halves till they’re golden brown and appetizing, and a fork stuck in them tells you they’re done.   This takes awhile.  But it’s worth it, and you can use the time for some other pleasant activity.
Near the end of cooking, stick that fork in them and let the pooled melted butter sink down into the acorn squash flesh.
Add more butter if you like.  Or not if you don’t.
Whichever way, eat with great pleasure, scraping up the final bits from the inside of the shell.

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