Sunday, February 26, 2012

The First Tea Klatsch

I.e. 'you need to crack a few eggs... to make oefs en cocotte'

The undertaking of a new action brings new strength.

How exciting it is to start out fresh!

This Tea Klatsch is another first, following on the heels of the Literary Tea, and I am totally jazzed about these initial successes!

Since I usually document the cooking and baking process with photos but can't do the same for the event-planning process, I will weave in the event steps here, alongside the I'm-sure-tantalizing food photos.

Who doesn't need maple-oat scones?
1) Identify the need
Having kept my ear to the ground during discussions with friends, I noticed that many of us were going through transitions, and were feeling the need to talk about it, get advice about it, vent about it, and/or hear about others' experience. So, how 'bout a party?

2) Come up with Idea to Pitch to Serve the Need
Since people are busy, and people going through transitions usually more so, I needed to come up with an idea for a gathering that would be fun and inviting, not just a happy hour or brunch in DC. Being me, I like themes, and this one was easy to see: transitions!

3) Organize and Invite
I chose to twist the traditional coffee klatsch idea to my purposes, creating a 'Tea Klatsch," and promising to bake some goodies. This turned into brunch as I let my imagination run away with me (usually a good thing). I used Google calendar for the email invitation again, even though it created some non-gmail address problems last time...

4) Prepare!
I combed my spreadsheet of waiting-list recipes the night before, honing in on the tab for breakfast, and easily landed on the Maple-Oat Scones from Smitten Kitchen. I followed her recipe almost exactly, except that I substituted an extra 1/4 cup of whole wheat flour for all-purpose, and didn't have space to roll out dough, nor a cutter to cut (plus I'm not good at this), so used the (patent-pending) ball-and-squash method for shaping.
Next I found a couple great resources online for how to plan a brunch, one at Smitten Kitchen itself, and a similarly witty one at A Dinner Party, a favorite blog. From the former I took the idea for latkes, but neglected to take her suggestion to make them ahead, since I was struggling with a cold and hoping it would go away. Oops. 
From the latter I struck on eggs for a balance of protein-- baked eggs seemed the least fussy. Found that recipe (also called 'oefs en cocotte' for those who like to get fancy) here. Didn't change anything except the cooking time, which was foiled by two late arrivals, hence 'shirred eggs' became basically hard-boiled. Ah well. Also, for those who have crappy baking pans like me: I couldn't make a bain-marie of 1 1/4 inches, so I set the timer for every 3 minutes to check if I needed to refill the water in the shallow pan so it didn't go dry. That worked out well.

The Latkes: Having gotten the idea for these from Smitten Kitchen, I was immediately drawn to making them because:
1) I never got my annual fix of latke fever last Hannukah and was still craving it
2) I had a sack of premium Dutch yellow potatoes rarin' to go (thanks, Trader Joe's)
3) they were not bread and not protein, so seemed to offer some balance to the brunch spread (if pressed, I would include them in the vegetables group)
My one hang-up? When I Googled the how-to's for latkes, starchier potatoes were recommended for crispiest results. Where the heck were Dutch yellows on the scale of starchiness? More Googling ensued. It turns out the company which produced the potatoes, Melissa's, had a recipe for latkes on their site. Bingo! I went back to following SK's approximate recipe, approximately doubling the ingredients. My ingredients included:
1.5 lbs dutch yellow potatoes, rinsed and grated (held in water-and-lemon-juice while preparing the rest)
1 large yellow onion, chopped finely
2 small fall apples, peeled and grated
the beaten egg from the scones plus another medium egg, + flour
salt and pepper
The teas chosen were again from Capital Teas, a purveyor now available in Dupont Circle: Caramel Toffee Pu-Erh, Love Affair (a rooibos), South Pacific (a flavored black tea), and Lemon Basil Oolong. No complaints, except that I need more tea strainers for this kind of thing!

The results?
 I think they speak for themselves.

Or at least the smiling faces might.

Going forward, I would:
1) do the latkes ahead of time as suggested and reheat in a medium oven
2) ditch the individual baked eggs and go for one big cheese souffle

In terms of non-food results, some of them remain to be seen, but it was oh-so-energizing to get such positive vibes and unconditional support from other gals facing their own tough decisions.
I look forward to checking in with them about the steps they are taking to reach their goals, and expect them to be checking in on me with mine as well!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Friends are best paired with food and dance

To celebrate our friend who was leaving the U.S. for 2 years to work in Beijing, we ate.

The venue was Smoke n Barrel, and it turned out to be a good bet, even as a dark horse candidate.
While there was this meat-stravaganza below to go into raptures over (as Jess did, with her high-powered camera flash), what got me was the dessert (duh): Bacon. Maple. Creme Brulee.
No photo evidence exists of this marvel because it was scarfed down so rapidly, but it was divine- salty + sweet, but also a mild creaminess contributing from both sides. Happy marriage, indeed.

A few days later, still celebrating the creme brulee, we blew the roof off of Saint-Ex, a great place for tasty cocktails, mediocre service, and a pretty good mix of tunes.
We found out that Whitney Houston had just died, but the DJ made no move of having heard the news. We danced on, unfazed. This was the last night, it had better be good!
My cast made its final appearance- here! photo evidence!- as we danced our tootsies off. Funnily enough, I came across a guy who had a mini-version of my cast on his wrist. We cast-bumped. Actually I just hope I didn't clock anybody accidentally.
We shimmied as fast as we could through the falling snow to this place, the amazing gas-station-cum-late-night-diner that Jess recommended, and boy, was she right. Fast Gourmet is its name, and way-above-average late night (read: bad for you) snack food is its game. I had the beer-battered eggplant. Yes, really. Check out the Chivito; word on the street is it rocks.

All in all, an amazing evening with great peeps.

Happy trails, Girl!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I Dream of Summer Produce

This is a post that I drafted for last summer-- I know, I know, but I can't stand to waste such good advice! lol ... And since it is supposed to snow later today, I thought a reminder of next summer wouldn't be amiss...

The first is the product of the lovely farmer's market cauliflower- purple was called "graffiti" and yellow I can't remember, but it was fun and different and delicious roasted with oil and salt, as the Brownie Points blog author recommends.

The second is also a product of the farmer's market- hey, I am not the make-your-own pasta type of gal, because I don't have the make-your-own-pasta type kitchen (i.e. it's got no counter space). But I bought the bacon sage fresh ravioli from Smith Meadows Kitchen, where the ladies were very nice and gave me some advice about making pesto substitutions, like if you're going to experiment with something non-basil, like radish greens, you need to add parsley for an herby taste, since radish greens are pretty bitter. Oh, and I didn't have nearly enough oil. I may be oil-phobic when it comes to that food processor, hmm...
but I forgot- it was a mix! The ravioli was from the market, but I added toasted pignolas and my very own radish-green pesto, since I thought a little with oil would be sweetened with the herbs inside the ravioli. I was right- very tasty!

The third photo is my came-home-wanted-something-fresh, and oh by the way, use up one of the tomatoes and the Kirby cucumber going soft! So I purposefully bought a container of white cheese at Whole Foods, going with a France import over some Easter European country for my first foray. Then I thought artichokes would go great. Then I added pignolas I already had because they seemed Mediterranean and in the right direction. Some salt and pepper (because everyone seems to do that) and then one leftover breakfast sausage (again, farmer's market!), and I had a full, fresh meal. Yum! So yum! that I had to do a remix last night, with some baked beans and toast added (on the SIDE, silly)- baked beans, very good, from Chatman's D'Vine Bakery a block away from my house, and sourdough from Atwater's Bakery at... you guessed it, the farmer's market.
I love what you do for me, Farmer's Market!
And NEXT post will be on the wintery night out on the town, I promise.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Cabbage for a Cold Night, or Not-So-Cold

A far cry from the chemistry of tea but one could still consider it a comfort food:
I recently saw Simply Recipes' post on Buttered Cabbage with Caraway Seeds, and it sounded like simple, steadfast, hearty fare- perfect for a wintry night.
Only we haven't had many nights in the way of 'wintry' out here in DC lately. It has been abnormally mild. And the one cold night we did have in the past few weeks, of course, my friends and I were out dancing, not at home behind the stove. Of course.
But the mild weather didn't stop me- there was definitely cabbage at the farmer's market and I had definitely brought some home. Cabbage and sausage are a classic combination, didn't stretch the imagination too much there. But oh, what a good-tasting classic! That doesn't always happen, you know.

So let's not forget those standbys of the food world, those humble yet straight-A students in nutrition that are easy to make, dress up, modify, and above all, eat.
Yes, very easy to eat.

Next post to take a peek at that night of dancing fun and snow!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Idea of Tea

As I sit and gingerly stretch my wrist back and forth, trying to coax motion out of very reluctant tendons, I am reflecting on my yen for tea. What is it about tea that makes me feel so comforted, soothed, and grounded?
I'm not talking about any caffeine-related scientific stimulation or suppression effects. I just mean that feeling you get when you have two hands wrapped around a warm, steaming mug of steeped liquid, whether it's white, black, green, or rooibos.

What is it?

I had an ex-boyfriend who was always annoyed when I put two hands around my cup. He thought it was weird or funny, and would tease me that one of my hands must not have been strong enough to hold the cup. What a thing to mock, right?
Here's a poem from a long-gone Bigelow tea box I keep taped to my cupboard that hints at the essence:
When your day seems topsy-turvy
And as stormy as can be
There’s nothing quite as tranquil
As a nice hot cup of tea.
While you savor this ambrosia
Your problems fade away
Its warmth will bring you comfort
And brighten up your day.
So take a private moment
There’s calmness, as you’ll see
All because you briefly stopped
To sip a cup of tea.
The reason I've held on to this poem for so long (years. several moves.) is that it holds a clue to the sanity we're all seeking in this modern age: Time Out! Stop the World- I'd like to get off! How about a moment to myself, for a change?

With all the digital connectedness we have now, it seems important to take time for our selves-- not internet-surfing, not blog-reading, and not chore-performing. Just thinking about where you are, where you're going, and how you're feeling. A cup of tea facilitates this, and the habit of tea promotes regular introspection, which is a great balance to all the demands on our time from work and social responsibilities.

Do you use tea in this way? Do you have a different tool for your reflective times? Do you feel like you need something like this? Let me know in the comments... current brew as I write: Lemon Basil Oolong from Capital Teas.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Far Better to Be Brave

Quote for Today

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
Theodore Roosevelt, speech at the Hamilton Club, Chicago (10 April 1899)

(discovered by me today through Jonathan Fields' Good Life Project pitch)

Monday, February 6, 2012

The First Literary Tea 'salon'

If you read this blog fairly regularly, you may have noticed a gap over the last month.
Not too much content.
Not so big on the typing of words.
Not even pictures for a distraction!
This may be all the more disappointing after the momentum I had built up in December. Sorry, folks, for dropping the ball. I don't think the fractured arm completely accounts for it, either. I switched gears from an external, writing-focused effusion about upcoming changes in my life to an internal and social-based incubation of projects to prepare for those upcoming changes. So the stew is still stewing, I just turned the heat down and put the lid on- ya follow me? (another metaphor?!)

So, what have I been doing with my time? Not much cooking, unfortunately. I probably could be doing more, but that would entail visualizing each step of the cooking process in advance and then arranging for someone to do the parts that I can't manage (chopping, mixing, jar-opening, etc.) ahead of time, which is just too much planning, even for moi.
I made mujaddara (found first here, before it became a celeb and was posted here), a dish long on The List, and appealing in its super-easiness. Highly recommended.
Braised Fennel with Balsamic
And then a couple of weeks ago, I had to follow through on an idea I had back in November, involving a fair amount of cooking and advance shopping. In this case, I did have to ask a friend over to chop some onions and fennel and wash some dishes... The reason I felt so committed to hosting this soiree was that its goal was to raise some funds for a non-profit that was having real difficulties financially. It was founded by a good friend of mine and three other education reformers who were looking to take stock of where we are in the U.S. and around the world, and make education systems better for all those involved (donate here if you believe in the importance of this cause!).
I had a great theme for the party too: a Literary Tea. I was reading about bygone food cultures when a tossed-out reference to Literary Teas of the 1960s caught my imagination. It described them as cocktail hours for the New York publishing world, another pushy scene where writers and agents and publishers acted out the social version of Darwinism. Ech. Not my crowd. But 'Literary Tea' had promise, and I crafted my own theme, reclaiming and repurposing the name for better use.
I had grand plans for cooking soups and baking breads and whipping up desserts, but in the end, I admitted it was not realistic to think I would make all these things for 9 people- the max that would fit in my living room!  So I did some make-ahead things (twice-baked shortbread, Saltine toffee bars) and then relied on 1) fire-under-the-feet inspiration, fueled by 2) clean-out-the-refrigerator spirit. It worked out great! The stew (main course) that resulted included the following ingredients, roughly in order of throwing in:
vegetable broth
chopped carrots
tomato paste
cooked butternut squash
microwaved sweet potato
Trader Joe's precooked lentils
hot Italian sausage (farmer's market find!)

I asked my friends to contribute what they would have spent on bringing something to the dinner party, since I was taking care of everything (and replacing wine with tea, an AWESOME idea), and they went far beyond that, which was amazing. I was proud to contribute the amount that my friends had pitched in, topping it off with my own contribution, which amounted to $355. Amazing.
Along with the food and drinks, this salon was literary-themed, meaning:
I broke the ice with softball questions about favorite books of all-time and current books being perused. That went pretty well. After that, we dove into a long, involved round of The Origin of Expressions, which I was very excited about for this group. The game requires 1) the ability to bring forth useless factoids of world history and/or 2) the ability to fool people into thinking you know what you're talking about. Perfect activity for all these friends from grad school days, where you hone both of the above skills. One round was enough because of the complex scoring process, then we were on to Boggle, which a friend had brought- several lightning rounds ensued, and in closing, I can't believe I never played the game before. Awesome.

I hope you didn't think I've been idle. I hope you knew there must have been some close-to-the-heart reason that kept me from updating this blog more closely, because there was. But my Literary Tea was a success! and soon there will be lots more where that came from.

**cast coming off in 1 week! Happy Valentine's, indeed!**