Thursday, May 7, 2009

Perfect Recipe: Ganache

Ganache is equal parts chocolate and cream melted together. From this union, all sorts of fantastic creations sprig forth. In melty liquid form, it is perfect on ice cream. Cooled, it can be scooped with a very small ice cream scoop or a tablespoon and rolled into balls and coated with cocoa powder to make truffles. But my favorite use for ganache is when it is cooled to room temperature and whipped into frosting. Basically, this is like making a very chocolately thick whipped cream. It is amazing.

Of course, the better the quality of chocolate, the better the ganache. I usually use Callebaut, but sometimes, after the holidays, I make ganache from all our leftover Fannie Mae candy from our Christmas stockings. To make ganache, heat cream to the scalding point (when little bubbles will form on the edges but not yet boiling) and stir the chocolate (cut into chunks) into the cream to melt it. Usually the heat from the cream will be enough to melt the chocolate. I measure the cream by volume and the chocolate by weight and I try to keep the proportions equal.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

White Wine Weather

Spring has returned, white wine too--
The tulips make their grand debut.
The grass is greening, sweat is beading
On my skin and glass as I sit reading.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Eggs in Purgatory

Eggs in Purgatory-- uova al purgatorio-- is an inventive and tasty dish with a very confusing name. The dish has three components: first, grilled bread (I rubbed mine with garlic while it was still hot). Second, a marinara sauce, and third, eggs which are sort of poached/fried on the hot, sizzling, simmering marinara sauce. I could not find any explanation about its name, and recipes gave only a passing reference to any sort of theological connection. Most mentioned that the marinara sauce in which the eggs cook should be very spicy. One assumes this is a culinary expression of what the cook believes about purgatory. Or maybe it's just a confusion about a fra diavolo sauce, which should be spicy because the name means "brother devil." Then again, maybe the dish was originally called uova al pomodoro (tomatoes), which would render this search for a theological connection a grand waste of time.

Purgatory is a very confusing aspect of the doctrine of eschatology. First, it is not the same as limbo, which was sort of an afterlife antechamber where the souls unbaptized babies and virtuous people who lived before Christ went after their death. The church no longer teaches that it exists. Purgatory is still a part of current church teaching. Basically, after death, the soul is separated from the body. The soul travels to be judged by God and if the person died in a state of perfection and forgiveness, then the soul goes straight to heaven. The church teaches that the saints are among this group. It requires not only having lived a very good life, but also having received absolution for all sins in the sacrament of reconciliation.

But most people do not die in a state of perfection, but do die in God's grace and friendship. These souls (i.e. everybody besides the heaven-bound saints and the hell-bound unrepentent sinners), "are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (CCC 1030). Basically, purgatory is a soul stairmaster with the pace and mileage set by God at the time of judgment. It is one-directional-- the church is very clear that all the souls in purgatory are eventually brought into heaven. The popular vocabulary used to describe purgatory is purification, maturation, and waiting, all of which remind me of long-simmered Italian food. So we're on to something here.

One last word about purgatory: the prayers of the living for the dead shorten the length of time the soul is required to stay in purgatory. So a soul can be "prayed out" of purgatory if there are enough prayers earnestly offered for him or her by those who remain on earth. And not only do our personal prayers for our relatives and friends "count" toward speeding up the stopwatch, but there are prayers for the dead offered in the liturgy of the Eucharist at every mass. My students are always comforted to know that even the loneliest, oldest person who dies with nobody to remember to pray for her is still being prayed for by the entire church every day all over the world.

Though Dante gave us the great terrifying metaphors for the hierarchy of purgatory and hell, the church hasn't explained exactly what souls can expect. Because Jesus and Saint Paul did talk about judgment but did not explain anything about purgatory, much of the theological doctrine about purgatory is vague or undeveloped. Does time or space exist there? How can the soul wait if it cannot experience time? How can the soul work if it cannot experience space? Will there be a purifying fire? Doesn't that seem like a bit of hell-- a harsh punishment for people who lived lives that have merited them eventual admission to heaven? If there is a fire, perhaps that means the sauce in uova al purgatorio should be full of chiles. But I don't think there is a purifying fire, so I think the sauce should be very mellow and smooth and simmered for a very long time.

Monday, May 4, 2009

EAT THIS NOW: Asparagus

Spring has barely arrived but already there is a bit of asparagus in the market. To celebrate the return of green to our lives and plates, I've been making Spring Panzanella, an Italian crouton salad traditionally made with tomatoes and peppers, but transformed for the season with plenty of green vegetables. It's very simple and doesn't require a real recipe. First, blanch tons of asparagus, broccoli and maybe even some peas. Then make homemade croutons, nice and crusty. Then toss the croutons with the blanched vegetables and cucumber, maybe add some basil or other herbs, and plenty of lemon vinaigrette. The croutons soak up the vinaigrette so it can't be made too far in advance, it does get soggy after about twenty minutes.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Perfect: Granola Cookies

I was recently catering a dinner for athletes and I wanted to make a dessert that was really worth the calories without being too indulgent. These cookies taste great and since they're studded with nuts, oats and fruit, they have some redemptive nutritional value. The ingredients are versatile -- use any dried fruit, any chocolate chips, or any nuts you like best.

Granola Cookies
17 ounces all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
15 ounces brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup craisins or raisins
1 cup walnuts or pecans
Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer for about five minutes, or until very light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix on high for another minute. On low speed, add the dry ingredients 1/4 cup at a time. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the chocolate, oats, fruit and nuts. Chill the dough, covered in plastic wrap, overnight. Use a very small ice cream scoop to form the cookies and arrange them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Gently pat down the center slightly. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for about ten minutes.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Frigidaire Guilt Trip

My refrigerator talks to me at night,
Here’s what she has to say:
There’s food in here you need to eat
To beat it to decay.

But if my fridge could hear me like
I can clearly hear her voice,
I’d make excuses for myself
And claim I had no choice.

I apologize about those chicken breasts
And all that guacamole.
It went brown and sour and gross
Just like the ravioli.

I forgot about that block of cheese
Hidden there in the back.
It went moldy way before
I could shred it for a snack.

So before I go to sleep I drop
To my knees to say a prayer,
To confess to all the food I’ve wasted
And left too long in there.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Backyard Sacraments

Sure, Christians do a good job spreading an impressive banquet for Christmas, Easter, Baptisms, and weddings, but in our family, that's just the beginning of the list of reasons to feast. My mother is a prolific entertainer, and her approach to hospitality is very simple: any reason is a good reason to throw a party. She taught me to pray like we celebrate and celebrate like we pray: with joy, with love, and with others. And though she does a great job with Christmas, her best parties are in the summer.

A sacrament is a sacred moment. The church gives us the sacraments to bless and consecrate life as we go along living it. But even though the Catholic Church has a swollen list of seven sacraments, it doesn't seem to cover every sacred moment in life. Though it does a good job sacramentalizing the big stuff: birth (Baptism), feasting (Eucharist), love (Matrimony), mistakes (Reconciliation), maturity (Confirmation), commitment (Holy Orders) and sickness (Anointing), I have always wondered, what is the sacrament that celebrates the intellect? A first promotion? Peace? I don't think we need more sacraments, but I think a wider understanding of sacramentality will help us, as a church, remember that God is present in all these sacred moments. Living sacramentally means living in and out of the blessing of the church, starting with the sacraments, and into a sacramental lifestyle of giving and forgiving in all we do.

How, then, does that affect our lives? A sacramental worldview affects the reasons we gather, the way we feast, the attitude with which we relate. Everyday moments can be holy. I don't think the great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner had a barbeque in the backyard of my home in the Chicago suburbs when he wrote about the sacramentality of everyday life, but his words can be applied. He explains that wherever "God becomes manifest in the concrete in the life of an individual through the church which is the basic sacrament of salvation, we call this a Christian sacrament." And by church, he does not mean the brick-and-mortar building, but "wherever there are human beings there is 'church'."

The summer party is a well-worn routine at our home, and like an old vaudeville family, we all have a role in entertaining the crowd. My mother, the leader, makes list after list and makes sure there is enough room in the fridges and ovens for everything; my stepfather, the roadie, sets up the tables and handles the lawn and garden (these parties are always outdoors and no, it never rains); my brother, the magician, polishes and presses and makes everything beautiful; my sister, the acrobat, passes food around and is generally charming; and I, the trained monkey, cook until the very last minute before guests arrive. It's quite an act.

But perhaps comparing it to vaudeville isn't quite the right metaphor. No, it's truly more like a liturgy. There are priests and deacons and altar servers who plan the feast, and when the people arrive, there is storytelling and music and food. The liturgy of our domestic church is at no time more glorious than the backyard party. Whether in celebration of one of the seven sacraments or one of the everyday sacraments like a graduation or a birthday, it is a resplendent sacred offering, a gathering of the holy people, a reminder to love one another.

Many dishes rotate onto the backyard party menus, but there is one unbreakable rule: everything must be room temperature and prepared ahead of time. A typical menu would look like this: an enormous green salad or two, some sort of starch like white beans or couscous or pesto farfalle, and loads of sliced beef tenderloin and little brioche and mustard sauce for sandwiches. For dessert, there's fruit tarts or ice cream sandwiches or homemade sorbet. We've pretty much cooked through the entirety of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. But for about five years in a row, this dish was at every single summer party, so I'll share the recipe.

Mexican Corn
2 16-ounce bags frozen corn kernels
2 15-ounce cans black beans
1 jalapeno or poblano chile, minced fine
1 red bell peppers, diced
1/2 cup cilantro, washed and torn into pieces
2-3 scallions, chopped
2 avocados, pitted and diced
1/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teasoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Fold together all ingredents and serve in a big bowl. If the corn is still frozen, it will defrost in about an hour and will keep the dish chilled until guests arrive, but it might create additional water as it defrosts, so the lime juice and olive oil should be added after the water is drained.