Book Club

Book Club

Right now I’m itching to read The Library Book by Susan Orlean.  I absolutely love libraries and can’t wait to read her book about the 1986 fire that destroyed hundreds of thousands of books in the Los Angeles Public Library.

This year, I’ve been trying to read more fiction.  I’m always more interested in reading non-fiction and have to force myself to pick out novels.  But, I never regret reading fiction once I’m actually into the book.  I recently heard an interview with Gary Shteyngart that made me curious about his latest book, Lake Success.  It’s a story about a someone with a seemingly perfect life losing it all.  Here is the podcast episode, which also includes a great interview with Lisa Brennan-Jobs, daughter of Steve Jobs.

 

Cooking with My Paris Kitchen

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Some of my favorite recipes have come from David Lebovitz’s blog, but truthfully I have never cracked open one of his many books.  I love the writing on his blog, and the food is always excellent.  His Tomato Tart is my favorite way to use the best-of-summer tomatoes.  David also has great Instagram stories.  I love seeing the messy honesty of his recipe testing, antiquing, and exploring.  

I read his cookbook cover to cover, because My Paris Kitchen is much more than lists of ingredients and instructions.  His stories about traditions, dinner parties, lessons learned, and his life in France make the book worth reading, even without the recipes.  After studying French during high school and college and doing a study abroad, France has had a special place in my heart.  Lebovitz’s anecdotes about French culture brought back a lot of my special memories.  My Paris Kitchen is worth reading, even if you don’t plan on cooking any of the recipes.  

The cooking is a little advanced with a lot of specialty ingredients, but Lebovitz encourages readers to used their judgement and focus on intuition and senses rather than precisely following exact details.  Which I did, liberally.  It took me a while to pick the recipes I wanted to cook, but ultimately I ended up going for recipes that included ingredients I already had on hand to cut down on the shopping I’d have to do.  

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The Israeil Couscous has become a fast favorite for us, but I did have to make two major substitutions.  While I always have plenty of lemons on hand, I have never preserved one.  Rather than letting a lemon brine in salt for a week, I just used zest and extra salt.  I’m sure it’s not as complex of a flavor, but it was still delicious.  Next, I substituted walnuts for pistachios.  Honestly, I just wasn’t going to shell any amount of pistachios, and I already had walnuts on hand.  I am curious to try the recipe as Lebovitz intended, but I hope he would be proud of my ingenuity.  And it turned out great.  I have already made the salad again.  I like to make it on a day off and bring it to work for lunch.  

The chocolate mousse recipe has often been hailed as one of Lebovitz’s best.  He recently demonstrated the recipe on Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street.  During my time in France, I remember buying cups of Mousse au Chocolat from the grocery store.  It was stocked near the yogurt in little plastic cups.  It’s one of my favorite desserts and only takes a few ingredients.  Honestly I don’t know why I never made it before.  The hardest part is waiting for the mousse to set (it needs to sit for eight hours).  Lebovitz’s version is way better than anything found in a plastic cup. 

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I have never made dry caramel before, and it was a little nerve wrecking.  It took two tires to get it right, but the payoff was worth it.  The caramel and salted butter made the chocolate mousse so much more interesting than it would have been as just a chocolate one.  The mousse is so light in texture but extremely rich — an intense and delicious dessert.  Eating the mousse was so indulgent, it was like eating chocolate frosting.  Because it is so rich, a little goes a long way.  We divided it into six portions but should have done eight.

 

I found that the recipes in My Paris Kitchen are better suited to special occasions and weekend projects than everyday cooking.  Many of the recipes required specialty ingredients that would take some effort to hunt down.  The food is also very indulgent -lots of fat, butter, cream, meat, cheese, etc – not foods I want to eat every day.  Lebovitz tells a story with each recipe that compels the reader to try it out, no matter how complicated or expensive or caloric it might be.  

Spooky Streaming 

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When I first started going out with Rob, I had barely seen any horror movies.  We spent our first October together watching the classics: The Thing, Alien, Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Halloween, etc.  Now, every year at this time, we watch horror films new and old.  Here are some of the best ones we’ve streamed on Netflix this October. 

Continue reading “Spooky Streaming “

October Shopping List

Some of my finds for this month:

October Shopping List

Public Goods Gift Set, Emerald Top, Black Booties, Cognac Mules, Black Turtleneck, Essie Nail Polish, Amber Glass Bottles, Black Serving Utensils, Bird Tray, Hello Notecards, Cognac Leather Wallet, Black Lantern, Wooden Cutting Board, Candle, Graphic Pillow Cover, Natural Blanket, Notebook, Reusable Bag

In my closet, I’ve added a few rich seasonal colors in classic pieces.  My clothing is heavily informed by timeless classics.  I usually dress in neutrals, but buy a piece or two for the season, like this emerald top from H&M.  For fall, I think a classic black ankle boot works with everything.  I am living in these mules from Madewell, because they are easy to kick on and dress up or down.  I’m obsessed with the leather wallet from Sézane, I love the color and simple design.
Our apartment is pretty minimal and modern, but I like warming it up for the season with natural elements like the wooden cutting board and the natural throw blanket.  I also like black accents to catch the eye, like these black serving utensils and the black lantern.  The lantern reminds me of the ones I saw outside restaurants in Stockholm at night.  I think simple things like changing out toss pillows and small accents make the apartment feel seasonal, but don’t hit you over the head with it.

I decant our soap into these amber glass bottles, I love eliminating branded packaging whenever possible. I am curious to try Public Goods, an online company that offers personal care and home products in minimalist packaging.  The products are clean (environmentally friendly and non-toxic).  With a subscription to Public Goods the products are very affordable.  It’s a brand I’m curious to try.

Chicken Soup

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Every one I know seems to be under the weather right now, making it the perfect time to make a pot of chicken soup.  The beginning of fall signals the beginning of soup season in my kitchen.  A big batch of soup is easy to make and lasts all week.  This chicken soup recipe is great because feels light, but is very filling.  Soup is also very customizable and adaptable.  Some variations I’ve tried are leaving out the noodles or potatoes to cut carbs, and swapping the chicken stock for veggie stock and omitting the chicken to make it vegetarian.

I take a few short cuts to make this recipe easy.  First I pre-chip mirepoix and freeze it in advance.  Whenever I want soup, I just take some out of the freezer.  This really cuts down on the labor.  You can also purchase pre-chopped mirepoix, but it’s usually a little pricy.  I also use store bought chicken stock (I like to have a few boxes on hand in the pantry).  I have never made my own stock, but maybe someday I will.  I use a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket.  I have poached chicken breasts before for this recipe and it works really well, but rotisserie chicken is usually more cost-effective and makes for easier prep.  This recipe makes a lot of soup, which I like because it can be frozen for later or shared. Packing up some of this soup into a beautiful Weck Jar and picking up a baguette from a local bakery would be a great gesture to a sick friend.  
Chicken Soup

2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil, or 1 tablespoon of each
2 trimmed leeks (I like the package you can get at Trader Joe’s), sliced
1 bunch of fresh thyme
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
2 quarts chicken stock
4 small or 2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, cut in one-inch pieces
1/2 lb small noodles
1 rotisserie chicken or poached chicken breast, shredded
Salt and Pepper

Start by chopping and prepping all the ingredients so when it’s time to cook everything is ready.  Add the butter or olive oil to a large stock pot or dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the mirepoix (onion, celery, and carrot) and leeks to the pot and cook until soft.  Season with salt, pepper and thyme.  Once the onions are translucent and the carrots and celery give a little, add the stock, potatoes and noodles.  Bring everything to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer until the potatoes are cooked (usually takes at least 25 minutes).  Add the shredded chicken and season with additional salt, pepper and thyme.  Let the soup cool and transfer it to containers to refrigerate or freeze.  When reheating a portion of soup, I like to add 1/2 cup of water because the stock tends to get absorbed by the chicken, noodles and vegetables.  

October Book Club

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I’m currently reading Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover.  Westover grew up in rural Idaho and never attended school, but managed to end up with a Phd.  After listening to interviews with her on The New York Times Book Review Podcast and Fresh Air, I felt compelled to read her story.

Next on my list is Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.  I’ve read Jane Eyre, but never Wuthering Heights.  I though the gothic themes in the novel would be perfect for fall.  I also love reading the classics of British literature, especially at this time of year, because it reminds me of being in school.

Cooking from Magnolia Table

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On a recent trip to the library, I spotted Magnolia Table: a collection of recipes for gathering on the best-seller shelf.  The cookbook is a recent project from Joanna Gaines of HGTV’s Fixer Upper.  I love to unwind by watching a few episodes, and I am always amazed by how Joanna and her husband, Chip, spin old shacks into gold in Waco, Texas.  The couple has expanded their brand, Magnolia, beyond flipping houses.  Besides all their business ventures, they have published a few books, including Magnolia Table.

After flipping through the pages, I found that most of the food in this book is opposite to what I cook day to day.  Jo’s recipes are her takes on classic southern food. I tend to cook meals that are lighter and more vegetable-forward.  She advocates for shortcuts, like opting for store-bought pie crust and chicken stock.  The raspberry-chipotle pork tenderloin recipe simply calls for marinating the pork in Fischer & Weiser’s Raspberry Chipotle Sauce.  I was a little disappointed, hoping to find a recipe for an original sauce.

The handful of recipes that connect to Jo’s heritage surprised me the most.  She shares just a few recipes passed down from her family, and those are the ones I wanted to cook.  In her recipe for Syrian donuts, she included a photo of the original version, typed up by her grandfather before he passed away, which I thought was so sweet. 

  There were two recipes that I wanted to cook. The first recipe in the book is for buttermilk biscuits, something I happen to make regularly.  She wrote that she tweaked her biscuit recipe every Sunday until they were just right.  Her pride in this recipe made me eager to make the biscuits myself.  I also decided I’d try out her mother’s bulgogi, a type of Korean barbecue. She said that while growing up, her mom mostly cooked American food but learned traditional Korean dishes later in life. Bulgogi is something I wouldn’t have made if I saw the recipe on a website, but the story of her mom learning to cook from her Korean friends compelled me to try it.  

The bulgogi was easier to prepare than I thought.  The recipe calls for slicing, marinating, and grilling beef.  It is served on a bed of rice with a cucumber-kimchi salad on the side.  I decided to make a few adjustments to be practical.  Because I’m just cooking for two, I made about a third of what the recipe called for (it calls for 4-5 pounds of beef tenderloin). I also used a cheaper cut of meat.  The kimchi salad calls for gochugaru, a Korean chili flake (I had to google that).  While I probably could have picked some up from a Korean market (there are a few in Pittsburgh), I decided just to use regular chili flakes I had on hand.

The marinade was simple to put together, and I already had all the ingredients in the house (soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, green onions… all pretty basic).  The recipe called for three cups of sugar, and I felt a little guilty putting so much in.  When it came time to cook up the beef slices, I used a cast-iron skillet because we don’t have a grill. This worked out really well except for my first few slices, which burned because the heat was too high and all the sugar caramelized too quickly.  The flavor was excellent – sweet and salty and earthy.  The spicy and crunchy cucumber-kimchi salad paired well with the rich beef slices.  It also reheats very well and would be great for batch-cooking or meal prep.

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The biscuits, on the other hand, were not as successful as the bulgogi.  I followed the recipe to the letter, but my first batch fell flat.  They lacked the fluffy texture I expect in a biscuit.  She calls for a lot of butter and buttermilk, which I think added too much liquid to the dough. She brushes them with both egg and buttermilk, which made the biscuits taste too eggy and left a sickly yellow film on top. 

I made a second batch, omitting the egg wash and using the cubed butter method instead of the grated butter method.  I also used about 20 percent less buttermilk than the original recipe calls for.  Joanna’s dough contains an egg, giving the final product a more cake-like crumb than I want from a biscuit.  The second batch did come out better, but even after a few adjustments, I’ve made way better biscuits (specifically using the recipe from Dining In, Alison Roman’s cookbook).  I prefer a lighter, saltier biscuit with a better rise, something that looks more like a snowball than a hockey puck in shape.

 

I’m not the right audience for this cookbook.   Magnolia Table delivers crowd-pleasing dishes that make more sense for a big family than someone like me, who only ever prepares weeknight dinners for two.  While I like to have leftovers, I had to cut both the recipes I tried in half or more (most of them serve 6-8 people, and some serve more like 12-14).  It is, after all, a collection of recipes for gathering and not a collection of recipes for an urban couple. While the food didn’t click with me, I did enjoy reading about her history and how cooking has connected the generations of her family.  

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All About My Kitchen

Our Kitchen

As a passionate cook, I was really hoping for a better kitchen in our Squirrel Hill apartment, but we moved out on really short notice and had to make some compromises.  Our apartment is wonderful with a great view and lots of space. We are very comfortable.  While it isn’t much to look at, I’ve made our kitchen work for us with just a few adjustments and some organization.  It’s a work in progress, but so far I’m pretty happy with how we are using the space.  

When I’m cooking, I like to have easy access to the most important tools and ingredients. When we first moved in, I knew I wanted to use the walls to help organize and keep the kitchen user-friendly.  My favorite addition has been the Ikea peg board above the sink.  We’ve re-arranged it a lot as we get used to the space.  I have so much fun changing up what we hang on the board.  Ikea sells so many different hooks and holders, so these peg boards are infinitely customizable. 

Kitchen Peg Board
Ikea SKÅDIS Peg Board Collection, All-Clad Pans Williams Sonoma Fish Spatual, Measuring Spoons, Whisk, Peeler, Microplane, Kitchen Aid Tongs, Williams Sonoma Dish Soap Bottle, Redecker Scrub Brush and Bottle Brush, Ikea Tumbler (to hold brush), Williams Sonoma Pop-up Sponges, PUR Water Filter

Counter StorageI like to have things I use frequently on hand: Trader Joe’s Olive Oil, Maldon Sea Salt, and tasting spoons.  I used to put my blender away every time I use it, but it is so heavy I started to leave it out all the time.  The knife rack just went up this weekend. The shelves in our cabinet gave us plenty of space for our pretty extensive collection of glassware, jars and mugs.  We picked up the shelves at The Container Store, they only cost $7 a piece and made a world of difference.  In the other set of cabinets we store spices and other ingredients that I mix into smoothies.  The second shelf houses our collection of storage containers and mixing bowls.  Admittedly, this area could use a little more organization.  

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By hanging things on the walls, we opened up our drawer space.  We use the drawer closest to the sink for flatware, spoons and spatulas.  The drawer next to the oven hold more tools, things like plastic wrap, foil, and trivets. The left most drawer has cooking tools and a tin that holds all those little things that are nice to have on hand in the kitchen: a pad of paper, pens, a measuring tape, phone charger, scissors, rubber bands etc.  We use the main lower cabinets to hold most of our All-Clad collection.  I made the small cabinet into something that is really special to me: a baking cabinet.  It is pretty packed with most of my decanted baking ingredients, specialty pans and tools, and my Kitchen-Aid mixer.  

The kitchen as it stands features a lot of beige.  I wanted to make it more modern by incorporating a lot of stainless steel with the knife rack, the hanging pans, and the tea pot on the stove.  I’m looking for some sort of art or decoration to customize the kitchen and make it feel more homey.  It would be nice to use the wall in the entryway for some organization and storage for mail and keys.

The Pantry is small but we’ve made it work.  The bottom holds our garbage and recycling, and the shelves above hold dry goods.  I installed hanging baskets from Ikea for kitchen linens – pot holders, aprons, and a huge stack of my favorite Ikea kitchen towels.

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For additional storage, I bought a small sideboard for the dining room.  The cabinets and drawers hold things that aren’t used very frequently like our 12-quart stock pot and specialty things for serving.  The sideboard mostly functions as a coffee bar for my Nespresso Machine and collection of analogue coffee makers (a French press, a moka pot, and a pressure espresso maker).  We also store wine in one cabinet and can convert the sideboard to a bar or buffet for entertaining.

One of the keys to making it work in a small kitchen is making sure everything always gets put away and the counters stay clear.  I like to minimize clutter and only have what I need.  It makes the small kitchen not feel so small.

Potato Leek Galette

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What’s a reasonable way to have pie for dinner? A savory galette, naturally. Recently, I made one featuring leeks and Yukon golds. The beauty of the galette is that it really doesn’t have to be much of a beauty. The scraggly, folded edges give it somewhat of a rustic charm. A galette comes together pretty quickly and bakes for less than an hour. I was very tempted to use a store-bought pie dough, but it didn’t seem reasonable since I had all the ingredients for dough on hand. Galettes work well in a lot of places: a small wedge could be an appetizer or side dish with salad, roast chicken, or scrambled eggs. The versatility of a galette really lends itself to a lot of dishes. We had ours with a glass of White Burgundy.

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Potato Leek Galette 

Pie Crust 

1 1/4 c. Flour
1/2 tsp. Salt
1/2 c. Butter
2-3 tbl. Water

Filling 

2 Leeks
2 Large or 4-6 Small Yukon Gold Potatoes
Thyme
3 tbl. Butter
1 tbl. Grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Salt & Pepper
1 beaten egg
Assemble the pie dough by mixing the dry ingredients, cutting in the butter, and bringing together with water.  Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least an hour.  Preheat the oven to 400F.  For the filling, thinly slice the leeks and add to a pan with butter, thyme, salt, and pepper.  Cook until leeks soften.  Thinly slice potatoes (either using a mandolin, a knife, or a vegetable peeler).  Toss the potatoes with the cooked leeks.  Add the grated Parmigiano Reggiano.  Roll out the dough into a large circle.  I can’t emphasize enough that it doesn’t have to be perfect.  Add the filling to the center and fold up the dough around it.  Brush the pie dough with the beaten egg.  Bake for 45-55 minutes until crust is golden brown.

 

 

 

Field Trip: The Farnsworth House

On a quick visit home I stopped at The Farnsworth House, an architectural masterpiece designed by Mies van der Rohe in Plano, Illinois.  The 1,500 square-foot, one room weekend retreat features glass walls that showcase the adjacent Fox River.   The house was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth in the late 1940s as a place for her to get away from Chicago and enjoy nature.  When she met van der Rohe at a party and asked him to design the house she knew she was in for something special.  Berlin born van der Rohe directed The Bauhaus before bringing his designs to Chicago.  He emphasized that less is more with the simplistic design of The Farnsworth House.

 

Preserving the house as presented many challenges over the years.  Within the first few months of ownership the Fox River flooded into the home, ruining the expensive silk curtains.  The materials for the home were all very fine quality, primavera wood and Italian stone floors, but expensive to maintain and replace.  The home has flooded a few times, causing a disaster each time; the glass breaks, the wood warps, the curtains stain.

Visiting the house feels like stepping into a sculpture, a piece of art you can walk through and feel.  It’s marvelous to look at photos of the stunning house but only when experiencing it in person do you feel just how silent it is on the inside or how cool the stones feel beneath stocking-covered feet.

I love visiting a new place that offers something new to learn and experience which is why I’m starting a new section on the blog: Field Trips.  Keep checking in for more education day trips like a visit to The Farnsworth House.

To plan a visit to The Farnsworth House or make a donation, visit: https://farnsworthhouse.org