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12 January 2009

essential elements of a pantry

our pantry, at the moment

This is the cleanest part of our kitchen, at the moment.

We've been cooking, nearly non-stop, for months. Dish after dish, most of them great, some of them needing work — they spilled from our kitchen like the rain-swollen rivers around Seattle this past week. There has not been a day's rest for the oven or the burners on the stove that needs cleaning. Everything needs cleaning.

After the book is done. Two more weeks, and then we can begin the other projects of our lives. Like scrubbing every inch of the kitchen and stocking our pantry again.

I'm sharing this because I want you to know this before I begin this post: tonight I'm going to write about what works for our lives. We all have such different food needs, different schedules, and mostly (it seems to me) different ideas of what meals and ingredients and budgets for food should be. I don't want to tell you how to live, how to cook. Our book doesn't do that either.

But I like to share what works for us.

I write all this cautiously because last week I read this piece by Mark Bittman, on how to stock a pantry sensibly, without spending fistfuls of money, but still make real food. I liked reading the article, even though we already do most of what he suggests. It gave me ideas. It let me see our kitchen new. I didn't agree with everything he wrote — I like good canned garbanzo beans sometimes; we buy the tomato paste in the can; dried mushrooms seem overpriced to me — but I didn't expect to agree with everything he wrote. His piece, it seemed to me, was an attempt at a reminder. He wants us to eat better. Here are some suggestions as to how.

Wow. I had no idea that piece would stir up such vituperation. Don't believe me? Go read the comments. About 1/3 of the readers call Bittman elitist, snobby, a food writer who doesn't live in the real world, stupid, and a fascist. Who knew?

Reading the nasty comments was strangely comforting for me. I receive hate mail all the time from people who insist I'm an elitist snob for advocating cooking from scratch. I don't understand it. Why are we snobs if we want to cook the way our grandmothers did?

I don't want to explore that tonight. That's a much more entangled discussion than I feel capable of conducting. I'm tired. I've been on the computer all day, writing and editing and re-writing.

But I did want to know, from you, what are the essential ingredients in your kitchen? You know, the ones you are always buying? The ones that, if they are in the refrigerator or pantry, you will have a good dinner even if there is no time to go to the store.

Here are ours, in the moment. (Don't quote me. A week from now this list will be changed.)

onions (and garlic). Humble and lovely, and always necessary. I can only think of a few recipes in our book, or really most cookbooks, that do not start by suggesting that you peel and chop an onion. I'm lumping them together, because they are best friends (to quote Jamie Oliver). One without the other doesn't make much sense. Add shallots and make it a threesome.

potatoes. Honestly, I can only think of a few days of the years we have been together that we have not eaten potatoes. The Chef doesn't know how to live without them. Even if the pantry were empty, we could have roasted potatoes.

olive oil. I don't mean the expensive brands that are good for drizzling on risotto at the end. I mean good old workaday olive oil. We use it for almost everything.

lentils and beans. Look at that photograph again (and if you click on it, you can read the notes posted on it). There are a plethora of beans from Rancho Gordo and lentils. I couldn't live without them. And yes, we do cook dried beans from scratch most of the time. Really, it just doesn't take that much time. Most of it happens when we are away from the stove.

good vinegars. It's not like we own 20 different kinds of vinegars, but I wouldn't mind. Around here, we always have champagne vinegar, rice wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, and apple cider vinegar. The rest is just fun.

stock. There has been a large stockpot gently simmering (never boiling) on the back of our stove nearly every day of these past few months. But, when we are done with the book, I think we'll go back to making stock once a week. I used to think that making stock was for chefs and food writers, not for me. I was wrong.

walnuts and sunflower seeds. I love all nuts — peanuts don't do much for me, and we're keeping them out of the kitchen until we know Little Bean is not allergic — but these are the two always in the kitchen. Give me a handful of walnuts and I'm fine for a few hours. And if I top anything we eat with sunflower seeds, the Chef loves that dish.

mustard. Good Dijon mustard, in particular, one with a bite and sharp flavors. The Chef stirs it into sauces or dollops it onto the plate before he lays down the roasted lamb. It's rarely spread on sandwiches around here. There are so many other uses.

good spices. I'm with Bittman. We buy our spices whole, when we can, and grind only what we need. It's not as expensive as you think to buy new spices. When we went to World Spice at the beginning of this book-creating process, and re-established the pantry, it cost us $22. We still haven't run out. Around here, we especially like smoked paprika, Pimenton d'Espelette, Saigon cinnamon, Madras curry powder, and wasabi powder.

our gluten-free flour combination. You can see, in the photo above, lots of little jars and tubs with flours flinging themselves against the sides. We keep many around to make sure the recipes we are testing work out. But just off to the side is a giant tub we bought at a restaurant supply store for $7, and it's filled with a combination of sorghum, potato starch, tapioca flour, and sweet rice flour. When we bake, for ourselves, we just scoop it out by the cup.

By the way, I assumed that salt and pepper were standard. I probably shouldn't assume. We have at least four different kinds of salts and two peppers in the house at all times.

What nearly made the cut: avocadoes; fresh lemons; rice of all kinds; whatever fruit is in season; popcorn; quinoa and millet; dark chocolate; muscovado sugar; good canned tomatoes; tamari sauce; dried pasta for emergencies (we make our own when we plan); all the other oils (walnut, canola, and grapeseed in particular).

And in the refrigerator (a separate list): bacon; butter; milk; cream; sour cream; greens; cheese (small wedge of good Parmesan and cheddar at all times, plus whatever is in rotation this week); eggs; good yogurt.

What about you? Link to a photograph of your kitchen, if you wish. I know we can all learn from each other. And I'd love to hear.

There will be plenty of time to comment, since I'm leaving the site for a couple of weeks. The book will be sent to the publishers on January 26th, and I'll be hunched in front of the computer until then. With plenty of time to stop and hug the Chef and Little Bean, of course.

08 January 2009

lemon-pecan biscotti, gluten-free

lemon pecan biscotti II

(We're thrilled that this recipe is being featured at's roundup of holiday recipes for 2009. For more of our featured posts, visit today.)

I made you this delicious biscotti.

(The book is due frighteningly soon. No time for a story this week. Sorry.)

lemon-pecan biscotti

LEMON-PECAN BISCOTTI, adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

A few weeks ago, these biscotti, flecked with lemon zest and crunchy from crushed pecans, made our snow days much sweeter. Stuck in the house because of icy roads and other drivers who don't know how to drive in the snow (mostly those), we wrote and played with Little Bean and worked on the book.

And made biscotti.

For breakfast on the second day, the Chef dunked a piece of biscotti in his milky coffee. He smiled at me sweetly. And then he made the sad face when I told him that he had eaten the last slice.

I made another batch.

1/2 cup almond flour
1/4 cup sorghum flour
1/4 cup tapioca flour
1/4 cup potato starch
1/4 cup sweet rice flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
zest of 1 lemon
3/4 cup crushed pecans (I put whole pecans in a bag and smashed them with a rolling pin)

Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 350°. Place a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat on a baking sheet.

Sifting and combining the flours. Sift each of the flours through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl. Sift the almond flour particularly well, pushing the last of it through the sieve with the bottom of a heavy glass. Toss in the baking powder, xanthan gum, and salt. Stir all the ingredients together. Sift the dry ingredients through the sieve again, which will make them one flour.

Creaming the butter and sugar. Place the softened butter in your stand mixer, with the paddle attachment. Start the mixer, beating the butter, and then pour in the sugar. Cream them together until they are smooth, about 3 minutes. Plop in the eggs, one at a time, and continue beating, until the mixture is lovely and fluffy. Toss in the lemon zest and mix. Reduce the mixer speed to as low as it goes.

Finishing the dough. Sift the dry ingredients into the creamed butter and sugar, 1/3 cup at a time, allowing the mixer to run in between batches. When you have finished, the dough will be soft and gathering around the paddle attachment.

Forming the biscotti log. Grab half the dough with your hands and shape it into a long, low log on the baking sheet. Aim for a rough approximation of a log, a little squat and comfortingly uneven. Form a log with the rest of the dough and place it on the baking sheet.

Baking the biscotti. Slide the baking sheet into the oven, on the middle rack. Bake the biscotti until the biscotti logs are golden and somewhat firm, but still somewhat soft, about 15 minutes. Take the baking sheet out of the oven and allow the biscotti to cool for 10 minutes. Move them to a cooling rack and turn your back on them for at least 30 minutes.

Re-baking the biscotti. When the biscotti are entirely cool to the touch, move the biscotti logs back to the baking sheet. Take a large serrated knife and make slices on the bias, all down the logs. (We like our biscotti somewhat thick, but you might want yours more narrow. Just be consistent.) Be gentle. This is a delicate operation. Stand the biscotti slices on their squat bottoms, on the baking sheet. Slide the baking sheet back into the oven. Bake the biscotti until they are unequivacobly browned and crunchy, about 15 minutes.

Cool them entirely before attempting to eat.

Makes 2 dozen biscotti.

These biscotti are even better the second day than they were on first eating. Make enough that you will have more to eat with coffee on a languorous morning. You can easily double this recipe.

Use this recipe as a template and play with the ingredients to make other biscotti. I'm thinking about cardamom and dried sour cherry biscotti....

05 January 2009



This afternoon, the doorbell rang. When the Chef opened the door, he found the Fed Ex man waiting. All day, we had been hoping for a package. Here it was.

As the Chef signed for our beauty, the Fed Ex guy leaned his nose into the house. "Wow, it sure smells good in there."
"Thanks," the Chef said. I laughed as I sat at the computer, with Little Bean in the sling, falling asleep.
"Is that barbeque you have going?" he looked in, obviously yearning.
"No, it was breakfast." (We would have given some if there had been anything left.)
"Breakfast? What did you have?" the guy asked, perplexed.
"There was chorizo involved," the Chef told him.
"Oh. Wow." He shook his head as he walked down the steps.

Oh, sausage. You make me sigh too. Plump and juicy, the best of pork condensed, you inspire me every time I smell you to run toward the kitchen. Sausage, I will never be over you.

The Chef and I have been tweaking and playing with our homemade sausage recipe for months. I love it -- I have from the first batch. But that Chef, he's persnickety. If it's going in our book, he wants it right. Oh darn, that means more sausages. Tomorrow, we're headed to Don and Joe's for another bag of creamy white fatback and fennel seeds from World Spice. We'll stuff casings and laugh about it in the evening after Little Bean goes to bed. (But even she has been in on the fun of finishing this recipe.)

Can I say, as an aside, how arduous and rewarding it is to write recipes? After years of writing them, on this site and other places, I feel as though I am just now hitting my stride. The best recipes are like stories, imagining the space before the stove and sharing it between us. Our hope is that you will feel we are standing in the kitchen beside you when you read our book. We'll be off to the side, watching you, confident that you know how, but always there to grab something from the refrigerator if you need it. That's the tough work in these last weeks before the deadline -- making the recipes sound possible.

You can do it too. You can make sausages.

Whether squeezed into sheaths or slapped into ample patties, sausages make people happy. Flecked with oregano or twitching with chiles, every sausage has a personality. I'm not done exploring yet. I bet you're not either.

So, if you eat sausages....what are your favorite kinds? And what foods do you cook with sausages?

01 January 2009

French toast for 2009

French toast with sauteed bananas

Dear 2009,

My goodness, you years do seem to leap along, don't you?

A decade ago, I read this book by Paul Monette, one of my favorite writers, and something he wrote has always stayed with me. Melancholy about the passage of time, he asked one of his older friends if every year went faster.

"Only the summers," she said.

When I was in my 20s, that seemed true already. A high school teacher at the time, I felt most free in the summers, when I had hours every day to write. The list of expectations for my accomplishments was enormous then. Those warm months flew by like mammoth jets leaving trails that disappeared within a moment. How true, I thought.

Now, however, I know better. All the year long rushes by so fast that I can't even think of a simile for it. Every day now, the Chef and I look at each other, as we lie on the bed with our kicking baby between us, and say to each other, "How did it get to be the evening already? How is it almost time for her to go to bed?"

Our friend Alison and I looked at each other today and said, "Six months? How is she going to be six months old this month? That's half a year. How did that happen?"

I don't know.

All I do know is that Little Bean's giggles, ringing out from her car seat as I walked her around the grocery store, are the best sound I have ever heard. Her kicks, this time last year, were in my belly, jiggling me. Now, she kicks against the mat on the floor and propels herself backward. We once dreamed of her as we ate our meals, and now she is spitting pureed food out of her lips and laughing at it.

2008 changed me.

Without a doubt, this past year was the best one of my life, of our lives. Little Bean was born. Everything else feels small in comparison, even the looming manuscript deadline for my second book. Once -- all of two years ago -- a book deal seemed like the biggest deal in the world. Now? I'm thrilled to be part of this book (the evocative recipes are the Chef's, the photographs tell the story in a spectacular fashion, and my writing plays only a small part). I really want to share it with you all. But I think it will be a much better book for the fact that it's really not the most important focus of my life anymore.

A little girl who rolls over and giggles with her face planted on the floor, chases light with her eyes, kisses her stuffed animals, and smiles wide as the possibilities of her life when I enter the room — that's the focus around here.

It feels so damned good to not come first in my own life anymore.

And so, 2009, as much as we love you, already you feel small. Last year, I wrote a letter to 2008, hoping for great things. (To be fair, I already knew I was pregnant and hadn't announced it yet. Much of the letter is imbued with the hope that the little one would be born.) This time last year, I had so many hopes, a lot of plans, and a list of foods I wanted to create. Some of them happened. Most of them I had forgotten until I read the piece again.

This year is different. Oh, there will be big moments: two books to complete; two surgeries to endure; the Chef's eventual return to a restaurant; possibly a move; a paperback coming out. In fact, on paper, it's another enormous year.

But here's one way 2008 has changed me: I'm not thinking too much about any of them. I'm here, today.

In the mornings, I've learned to pour myself only half a cup of coffee. That way, when Little Bean needs me, unexpectedly, and the coffee goes cold, I don't feel I've missed anything. Those expectations of accomplishments I once had for myself? They're fairly well gone. Life has never been what I planned for, anyway. I just want to welcome it all.

And the other way 2008 — the year of shattering mortality questions and big-scary-adult situations -- has changed me? I don't want to meander my way through it here. Once, I filled giant black sketchbooks with my thoughts, every sentence important. Now, I write less and live more.

I'm not much interested in the future, other than hoping that the ones I love are in it. I'm only interested in now: the sound of Little Bean's hands grabbing the plastic rings above her seat and tossing them about; the Chef sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of her, making faces; the mess on my desk that I have learned to embrace; the trees bare of leaves in the park across the street.

2009, all I want are long mornings filled with a kid with smooshed bananas on her bib and a husband with stubble who forgot to change his socks. It's not a bad way to live.

Some French toast might be nice too.


It's hard to go wrong with French toast. Sweet and milky, chewier than pancakes, love with crusts — this breakfast always makes me happy. Last week, with half a loaf of gluten-free bread left, the Chef turned to me and said, "Tomorrow, French toast."

Oh yes.

Our friend Tita taught us a trick to make the French toast puff up even more. When she told it to us, we thought she was crazy. But, as is always true, Tita was right. After you have soaked the bread in the eggy liquid, and browned one side, remove the slices from the pan and soak them again. When the bread returns to the pan, it will puff and swell pleasantly. More room for maple syrup, as far as I am concerned.

5 eggs
1/4 cup milk (soy or rice milk would be fine here)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
6 slices of gluten-free bread (we used this sandwich bread), at least 1/2 inch thick
4 tablespoons canola oil
4 tablespoons butter

Preparing to cook. Slice the bread at least 1/2 inch thick. Mix everything from the eggs to ginger together with a whisk. Bring a large sauté pan to medium heat. (Not screaming hot, says the Chef. Just enough to be nicely warm.)

Soaking the bread. Soak the bread in the liquids for 3 to 4 minutes.

Browning the bread. Put in 1 tablespoon each of butter and canola. Lay 3 pieces of the soaked bread in the pan. Brown each on one side. Put the slices on a plate, browned side down. Add more oil and butter. Brown the last 3 pieces of bread. Lay those slices, browned side down, on the plate as well.

Re-soaking the bread. Place the first 3 slices of bread in the egg mixture and let them soak for 1 more minute. Lay them down in the pan and brown on one side, and then the other. When they are lovely caramel brown and tempting enough for you to eat, place them on a clean plate. Repeat the process with the last 3 slices of French toast.

Slather with butter and maple syrup. And if you want, you can sauté some bananas with butter and brown sugar and put those on top, as we did here.

Feeds 2 or 3.

Slather with maple syrup and butter.