Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dr Shakshuka

I've been thinking of how to distill the insights I've acquired over these past few years of trying to teach my sons how to cook.

You know, some kind of essential truth, like: "Keep it simple, stupid."

Or, "The secret ingredient is love." (Although Marge Simpson was closer to the truth with, "The secret ingredient is salt." The secret ingredient IS salt.)

But after much consideration I've decided that the best single aphorism I can pass onto my children, the best piece of advice I can give them as far as making food is this:

"Put an egg on it."

It always works. Put an egg on top of anything, it makes it better.

Enter Shakshuka. Shakshuka, what a lovely name. I could say it all day. I could make it all day. And I could definitely eat it all day.

I found the recipe in a pretty little recipe booklet than came with my Sunday paper one week, years ago when I was living in the UK. The British Sunday papers were competing vigorously for sales, and so included all kinds of prizes with your purchase. I still have a gorgeous black and white photo print of John Lennon that came with one edition, and a DVD of Jane Campion's The Piano that came with another.

But best of all I have this:

It's an amazing tiny treasure-trove of innovative vegetarian dishes excerpted from the cookbook Plenty by the brilliant, brilliant Ottolenghi. Go buy it right now. You're welcome.

I lost this treasure for a while, and found it during my recent move. You never know what you're going to unearth when you are packing books.

Now that it is back in my hands, I plan to cook my way through it. Kind of like Julie and Julia, but with 15 recipes.

I started last weekend with Shakshuka. I was sick for the millionth time this year, and wanted to eat something restorative and spicy. I reached for Ottolenghi, and read this: "In an alley in old Jaffa is a little restaurant with shared tables outside. It's heaving at lunchtime and everybody, more or less, eats the same thing. The place is called Dr. Shakshuka, after its signature dish, a North African specialty." A tomato, pepper, and onion stew, spiced with cayenne, saffron, bay leaves and thyme. Topped with eggs.

Dr. Shakshuka. That's what I needed.

I followed the recipe very closely, and it doesn't seem right to publish it here, so follow this link to The Guardian website for a video and the recipe. If you don't have any saffron in the house, you need to get some. You might need to sell something to raise the money to buy the saffron, but do it. It's worth it.

I'm just wild about saffron.
The dish was rich and satisfying, and it didn't cure my cold but it did make me feel much better.

Thanks, Dr. Shakshuka.

Put an egg on it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mac and Cheese for 23

For the first time in my life I live in a dorm. To be more precise, I live in a beautiful, spacious apartment in a dorm, and I live in it with my partner and son, and I'll be doing work in residence that I am sincerely excited about, but still, it's in a dorm, and this is something new. The reality is starting to sink in that tomorrow three hundred college students will join us in the building. Life is getting interesting.

Before the new students arrived, we hosted our first big event as faculty-in-residence: a dinner party for the residential student staff. I had planned to order catering, but as the day approached I couldn't quell my nagging urge to set out a spread of home-cooked food, the kind they won't be getting in the dining halls.

So here's what we did: we made three huge trays of macaroni and cheese, four roasted chickens, six oversized bunches of kale, and a couple of gallons of iced tea. Before they arrived, I fretted that I'd made way, way too much food, and wondered what on earth I'd do with all the leftovers. Once they arrived, pouring into our apartment all bright, shiny, and confident, I hustled to finish everything while they drank iced tea and made themselves at home. One young man, a fellow food-lover who immediately planted himself in the kitchen, commented casually that macaroni and cheese is the hardest thing to make well. This made me fret further, thinking for a moment that not only had I made too much, but it might not even be good enough.

My fretting about potential leftovers now strikes me as hilarious, and you might be laughing too, if you've ever fed a 19-year-old person, much less twenty of them. They ate every bit of everything, even the kale, with gleeful abandon. It was deeply satisfying and incredibly fun. I have a reliable macaroni and cheese recipe, but I have to confess that it's copied almost entirely from The Grit Restaurant Cookbook. The Grit is a wonderful vegetarian restaurant in Athens, Georgia, a food oasis beloved by many, including touring musicians (like myself, in a previous life) for its array of healthy and comforting food. Macaroni and Cheese lies far on the comfort end of the spectrum, with more butter, eggs, and cheese than we should probably be eating, but what's the point of trying to health-up mac and cheese? It should be creamy and rich and make you feel like somebody cares. It felt like a bit of a risk, making homemade food for this big bunch of students (having people over to your house for dinner is aways a risk though, you could burn the food or not have enough or your guests could hate what you make), but we will be working together all year, and cooking simple homemade food for them seemed like the best way I could communicate that I care. What better way to start off this adventure?

Oh, and our food-loving young man ended the night by declaring that the macaroni and cheese was perfect. And he asked for the recipe. So he can give it to his mother.

I think we're all going to get along just fine.

Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 8 as a substantial side-dish
Multiply accordingly for big groups

1 lb macaroni
6 tablespoons butter, divided
2 large eggs, beaten
4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2 teaspoons salt
pinch black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper (try a big pinch)
6 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups panko breakcrumbs

Preheat oven to 425. Grease a 9 X 13-inch pan

Cook macaroni in a large pot, 8 minutes. Drain well and set aside.

While macaroni is cooking: whisk together in a large bowl the eggs, milk, mustard, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in the same pot, add drained pasta and stir well. Add egg/milk mixture and all the cheese. Stir constantly over medium-high heat until cheese melts and milk and eggs begin to thicken. Continue to cook and stir, at least 5 more minutes (probably more like 15), until mixture is very thick and creamy. Transfer to prepared baking dish.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in saucepan and add breadcrumbs, stirring well. Spread breadcrumb mixture evenly over the top of the macaroni and cheese and bake 10- 15 minutes. I like to broil it at the end to brown the top.

Don't expect leftovers. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

So Goodbye Yellow Linoleum Kitchen

It wasn't a fancy kitchen, or a pretty one, but for two years I cooked many many meals in it, both with my kids and without. I made a lot of pies, a lot of granola. It was a comfortable kitchen, an easy place to try things and play, to experiment and make messes. I was never afraid to go a little wild in there, never felt like I had to constrain my kids or worry that they were going to ruin anything.  I didn't stress when Henry woke up one morning and made a big batch of french toast all on his own, or Jonah came home in the wee hours and cooked himself some crazy egg and avocado concoction.

I liked the window, too - most of the best pictures that Henry has taken for this blog were of plates of food on that white window sill, with morning light streaming in, and the beautiful garden behind the building in the background.

When you move out of a place, you leave a little bit of yourself behind. I happen to know that we were one of many happy families to live in this apartment, to cook in this kitchen, to watch kids eat and grow up and move on. The place had some seriously good vibes when we moved in, and I hope we built upon those vibes for the guy and his sons who just moved in after us.

We've moved into an apartment in a residential community (okay, just say "dorm") on the Northwestern University campus to be faculty in residence. The apartment is new and deluxe, the kitchen is the nicest one I've ever had in my life, by far. You'll be seeing our marble countertops soon, and for the next three years, but I wanted to pause for a moment to say goodbye to the yellow linoleum that served the Lovesmiths so well.