Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


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This week’s menu

  

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Creme Brulee 0.0

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A few weeks ago, my bathroom scale broke. I tried changing the batteries, but that didn’t help. Frustrated but not surprised, I resigned myself to buying a new one. The scale was almost exactly as old as my youngest child–who still lacks most of his consonant sounds, for Pete’s sake–so there was no reason it ought to give up the ghost just yet…no reason except the fact that it is, generally speaking, a piece of electronic equipment. Given the fact that the capitalist machine hasn’t yet figured out how to render bathroom scales embarrassingly obsolete by introducing a new version every 4-6 months, the only way to insure that we will regularly replace our bathroom scales is by building them not to last. (It’s a conspiracy, man!)

I’d given it up for lost anyway, so I invited my older son, who fancies himself a young engineer, to have a go at it. Up and down the stairs he went, into and out of the garage, procuring different sizes of screwdrivers and clunking around in the lower-floor bathroom until he had thoroughly splayed and dissected the thing, at which point, like a doctor seeking out next of kin, he came into the kitchen and pronounced, “Mommy, it all looks good inside to me. I think it’s just run out of memory, and there’s nothing we can do about that.”

I nodded, seriously, sagely, and considered whether to explain to him that bathroom scales are lower life forms and neither contain nor require memory. Then I said, “Well. Thank you for trying.”

Quietly, he unfolded his fingers from his palm and showed me the pair of AA batteries he had removed. “Maybe,” he said, depositing them in my hand, “you can reuse these.” Then he said, “If I were you, I’d get one that doesn’t need batteries and doesn’t have red numbers. Just the kind with a dial.” (He demonstrated the way a dial works with his index finger.) “Those work better because they have less stuff inside.”

He’s his father’s child in some ways, a Luddite by disposition, innately distrustful of electronic guts, even though, unlike his father, he finds them interesting to muck around in.

For his part, my husband said he thought I should just live without a scale, use my favorite pair of holey blue jeans to keep myself in line, stop fretting over the 1 1/2 pounds with which I grapple relentlessly. Let go of the electronic red numbers entirely. Free myself.

Isn’t that a lovely, old-fashioned notion? He’s so cute…and clueless. Let me tell you why:

I’m almost 40. I have three children, soft curves, a lean husband, and a sweet tooth. Nuff said?

Of course, I ordered a new scale–ironically, the new-and-improved version of my dearly departed one (I call it “scale 2.0”)–from Amazon. Problem solved.

Although I may not be able to commit to a life without electronic bathroom scales, I can’t argue with the concept that the best things have “less stuff inside.” This weekend, I was reminded of another great example of this principle at work. Thus I present to you–without photographic evidence because, by the time I remembered how much we love these, we had eaten every last bite–creme brulee 0.0. Unmessed around with. Unimproved. Unassailable. So technologically bereft that it doesn’t even require a blowtorch.

I’ll add some pictures next time I make it. I’m sure it won’t be long. (Update: photos added. Creme brulee eaten. Again.)

This recipe makes enough custard for his-and-hers servings:

hers & his

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

3 tablespoons white sugar

1 pinch salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 egg yolks

~4 tablespoons turbinado sugar (or white)

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My little purple candle lighter makes a mean brulee…

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees, and set your tea kettle on to boil.
  2. Meanwhile, combine cream, 3 tablespoons white sugar and salt in saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring now and then, until it has begun to steam. Do not boil.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  3. In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks and vanilla until smooth. Pour hot cream into yolks, a little at a time, stirring constantly, until all cream is incorporated. Pour mixture into your ramekins.
  4. Place ramekins in a baking dish large enough to accommodate them, and place dish on oven rack. Pour boiling water into dish to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. 
  5. Bake 45 minutes to an hour, until custard is barely set. Keep some jiggle in it.
  6. Before you refrigerate it to set the custard completely, go ahead and brulee your tops. Why not, right? You can use a blowtorch if you’re hardcore. I used my grill-lighter (which was a little slow, but not impossibly so). You can also put your oven rack at the highest level and turn your broiler onto high and then broil them. It’s your call. Whichever method you choose, begin by sprinkling liberally with turbinado sugar, enough to cover the entire surface. If you are using a candle lighter, put your flame directly against the sugar until it melts and crackles into a single big crystal. This took me about 5 minutes per dish. If you put it under the broiler, watch it carefully.
  7. Put your bruleed cremes right into the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours so that they chill and set up a little bit more.

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I topped ours with macerated fresh raspberries, but they would have been perfect naked, too. Less is more. There is a good reason creme brulee is always served in a single-serving size. There is something about that custard that seems insubstantial…but it’s an illusion. They are so round tasting. So creamy and smooth and simple and clean and just outright decadent.

I’m glad I bought a new scale, if only so I can remember not to eat these every day.


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Smoky Fideos with Chickpeas and Egg

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My ninth grade English students are writing their end-of-term papers right now–“This I Believe” essays, an assignment that is surprisingly complex when approached seriously. True: to try to distill into essay form your fundamental beliefs about the world and your place in it may be only a loftier version of the struggle to choose a bumper sticker or–heaven forbid–a tattoo…but I’ve resolutely abstained from that struggle my entire life because doing it well is far too complex to be entertaining. I can assure you both my bumper and my skin are unadorned. In fact, I’ve been wearing standard-issue blue jeans and nondescript solid-colored t-shirts ever since sixth grade precisely because I try to avoid clothing that represents anything at all. Paralyzed by the impossibility of transforming a complex identity into a single statement or symbol, I try hard to keep my material presence from saying anything at all.

I reckon that’s why it’s better to be the teacher than the student: You can make assignments you would find impossible, and when your students complain, you don’t have to care! <Insert diabolical laughter here!>

I harbor absolutely no desire to write a “This I Believe” essay–even though I love reading them and feel sure my students will learn a great deal from writing them. (Is there an emoticon for “encouraging teacher-face”?) I will, however, in a gesture of solidarity, offer this pale imitation of a “This I Believe” essay, in which I will attempt to define what I believe…about dinner.

But first, this disclaimer: I wrote these belief statements based on the recipe I’m sharing here, as I considered why we love it. I think they travel well, but I’m not about to put them on a message tee. Roger that?

Here goes:

1. I believe dinner shouldn’t take long, unless you want it to. And sometimes, I want it to. Sometimes, while the kids spin crazily outside and my husband busies himself in the chaotic garage, my house falls quiet and dinner preparation becomes a kind of meditation, one in which I lose myself entirely…sometimes even without consuming two glasses of wine on an empty stomach.

This happens maybe two days a week.

The rest of the time, I try to squeeze dinner preparation duties into the time between, on one end, the frantic re-ordering of the house in the wake of the after-school backpack explosion and, on the other end, the commencement of homework at the kitchen table.

I believe thirty to forty minutes is plenty long for a Wednesday.

2. I believe more flavor means better food. And that means I believe in salt, fat, and spices. Just ask nutritionists: It’s almost impossible to get too much salt when you prepare your own foods from whole ingredients (not condensed soups). And the Greeks supposedly consume more than 2 liters of olive oil per person per month–seriously!–while living far longer on the whole than pretty much anyone anywhere else. And spices? Their fragrance is their own apologia. What’s not to love?

3. Finally, I believe that an egg cooked over easy may be the perfect food. Inexpensive. Vibrant. Light and rich all at once. A self-saucing animal protein that arrives in nature’s own single-serve packages. We eat almost no meat during the week and no one notices because eggs fill the void perfectly.

What happens when I put these beliefs into one dish:

Easy on the eyes, right?

Smoky Fideos with Chickpeas (and Egg)

(Adapted from The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook)

8 ounces thin spaghetti

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 can fire-roasted tomatoes

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

2 3/4 cups water

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup white wine

eggs (at least one per person)

chopped parsley, lemon juice

feta cheese (optional)

1. Break your pasta in half and toss it in a large, broiler-safe skillet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Place it over medium-high heat and stir frequently until the pasta is brown and smells toasty. Remove the pasta from the pan.

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Pasta toasted in olive oil

2. To the now-empty pan, add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Then add the chopped onion and saute it until it’s softened. Add the smoked paprika, garlic, and a generous amount of salt. Stir until fragrant. Then add the can of tomatoes and stir until thick and dark.

3. Add the water and wine and stir. Bring to a simmer.

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4. Then add the toasted pasta and chickpeas. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is barely tender. Remove from the heat.

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Steamy

5. Heat the broiler to high and place the whole pan under the hot broiler until the top looks browned and slightly crisp.

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6. While the pasta rests, cook your eggs, over easy, in a separate pan.  Don’t forget to salt them like you mean it. A generous sprinkle of kosher salt is essential.

7. Serve the pasta sprinkled with feta, parsley, and lemon juice. Top with a lovely egg. Place something green alongside it for good measure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI believe your family will happily eat this dish on a very regular basis.


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Smoky Red Lentils with Fried Sweet Onions

Like everyone with any sense, I love spring. I love its almost-ness, its in-between-ness, its –ish-ness, if you follow. You know…the coolish mornings that swell into warmish afternoons before sinking back into briskish evenings. Perfect for suiting up the family and heading off on an evening walk, as the sun sinks just a smidgen more slowly than it did yesterday:

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My ladybug in her jammies and her helmet as we prepare to set off on an evening’s ride.

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And my big boy, too.

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Why didn’t I get a shot of this dude in his sleeper and tennis shoes WITH his helmet? He was a vision!

And, of course, I love its greenness, its fragrance (although my husband recently remarked that the viburnum blooming by our front door always puts him in mind of Shirley, his retired department chair, with wadded up tissues in the palms of her hands and some kind of floral mist hanging about her firmly set curls), and even its spongey quality. (Of course, I won’t claim to enjoy the mud quite as much as my children, for whom the pit they have systematically dug in our back yard functions even better than a swimming hole precisely because its slime, unlike actual water, doesn’t dry clear but rather coats them in a faintly reptilian brown glaze. Thank goodness I invented an outdoor shower, which I’ll have to share with you sometime– as soon as I give up on the dream of patenting it–so that the three of them can be restored to proper mammalian pinkness before being readmitted into the house.)

All that said, I sometimes find myself a little let down by spring because, here in the middle of the country, it takes so long after the weather starts to suggest fertility, for much of anything edible to crop up. Salad greens are an obvious exception. And onions (which you may recall I love). But no fruit. No beans. Nothing of substance, not for a good while. And yet, the blue skies are whispering about tomato sandwiches and the green shoots popping up in my garden have me dreaming about tender little potatoes, and everything around me says it’s time to shrug off the wintry manicotti and move on to greener pastures. And that’s why, if you asked me, it’s a good time to make strategic use of some dried veggies in the pantry. No, I’m not thinking of okra jerky. (Is there such a thing?) I’m thinking of these:

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Beautiful red lentils. Although more orange than red, they are certainly lovelier than their green or brown siblings. Jewel-toned, the way dried vegetables ought to be in the spring.

Of course, I make this same dish with green ones and brown ones, but it’s not quite as pretty or bright that way…and it takes a little longer to cook.

Here’s what I did with my lentils and rice:

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By the way, I think recipe slides it at about $6 for the whole pot. That’s maybe $1.25 per serving, budget-minded cooks! If you’re interested in doing it, too…

Smoky Red Lentils with Fried Sweet Onions

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 red bell pepper

1 regular old yellow onion

2 stalks of celery

2 or 3 fat cloves of garlic

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon ancho chili

salt and pepper (to taste)

1 pound dried red lentils, rinsed

4 cups vegetable broth + 2 cups water

juice of 1 fat lime

1 can fire-roasted tomatoes (or salsa-style tomatoes)

2 cups cooked rice

1 fried sweet onion (Read about that recipe here)

1. Chop your veggies.

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2. Heat your olive oil in a big pot over medium heat. Then add your chopped veggies and garlic.

3. When they are softened, add your smoked paprika and ground ancho chili. Stir well and cook until it smells toasty and delicous. Salt generously.

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4. Add your well rinsed lentils.

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Aren’t they pretty? I’m not a caviar kind of gal, but that’s what these always remind me of. Of course, they don’t stay quite so opulent, once you’ve cooked them, so enjoy their glow while they’re still in the colander.

5. Add the broth, water, and canned tomatoes, including the juices. Stir well.

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6. Simmer until the lentils are tender and just beginning to break down. That won’t take too long–maybe 15 or 20 minutes. If you’re using brown or green lentils, it will take a bit longer.

7. In the meantime, fry your onions and cook your rice. (I happened to have some left over from the previous night. If you need a good rice recipe, try Cook’s Illustrated’s method: 2 cups rice–rinsed well and shaken dry–to 3 cups water or broth. First toast the well-rinsed rice in a tablespoon of butter or oil. Add some salt, if you’re using water. Then add 3 cups of broth or water. Cover and cook for about 12-15 minutes. Then turn it off and let sit for a few minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve. It’s perfect every time.)

8. Just before you serve the lentils, add the juice of one lime. That gives it the burst of fresh you’re longing for. (It’s spring, after all, people!)

9. Top the lentils with a scoop of rice and a little leaning tower of fried onions.

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Open the windows and listen while you eat. Someone is mowing his lawn on the next street over. If your neighborhood is very fussy, someone else is blowing away the detritus of leaves from beneath his bursting hedge. And, silently, summer is stalking you. The tomatoes are setting themselves right now, under the bustling mouths of eager bees. The potatoes are sucking in last night’s rain. And anticipation tastes almost as good as fried onions. Almost 🙂