Sunday, November 30, 2008

And Then We Came to the End

Long weekends are the best. I'll take a long weekend over just about any perk that an employer has to offer.*

I love the feeling that I get when I crack an eyelid open just after dawn and realize that even though I've already had two days off, the weekend is not over yet. After a little rush of giddiness, I snuggle down under the covers and snooze for another few hours, dreaming some not-quite-asleep-not-quite-awake dreams as the light gets warmer and brighter on the wall over the foot of our bed.

After all of the cookery that went on last week, I am not in the mood to mess around in the kitchen. I'm going to order sushi take-out tonight and enjoy the last dregs of my long weekend in front of the television with my husband.

Good thing that I have some homemade miso-mustard pickles in the fridge to tide me over until dinner. Hope you guys like pickles.
Miso-Mustard Pickles
Adapted from this Tia Keenan recipe in Food and Wine Magazine

These pickles are salty and savory, not sweet. I despise sweet pickles. You won't find a recipe for sweet pickles on this blog, ever.

1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon miso paste (Tia's recipe calls for white miso paste; I used dark)
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish, drained
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns (I used a pretty mix of black, white, and pink peppercorns)
2 bay leaves
1 cucumber, sliced into 10-12 spears (you may want to consider using an English cucumber, which is unwaxed. English cucumbers are the ones wrapped in plastic sleeves)

In a large saucepan, combine the red wine vinegar, water, rice vinegar, sugar, mustard, miso, horseradish, peppercorns and bay leaves and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let it cool to room temperature.

Pack the cucumber spears a quart jar. Pour the pickling liquid over to cover the cucumbers. Close the jar and refrigerate the pickles for 2 days before serving.

Makes 10-12 pickle spears

*cash bonuses not included.

The title of this post was borrowed from Joshua Ferris' 2007 bestselling novel of the same name.

Friday, November 28, 2008


My dad and I got to talking yesterday afternoon about how Thanksgiving leftovers are his favorite kind of leftovers. I agree with him that Thanksgiving gives us some terrific leftovers: mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pies, some turkey.

Dad says that he likes Thanksgiving leftovers the best because he always knows what foods to expect. Christmas dishes vary every year at our family table, with the exception of the dependable jalapeno creamed spinach. At Thanksgiving, you can count on certain family staples to be lined up on the table runner like a thread connecting every Thanksgiving that came before, and every Thanksgiving to follow.

I love Thanksgiving, too, and I have some interesting memories of Turkey Days past. Take the one with the helicopter ride. It happened on my grandmother's farm, when our friends Frank and Ruth, who owned a helicopter called Black Thunder and did the traffic for the local radio stations, landed the chopper in the side pasture. They took us for rides over the barley fields and stock tanks of Alvarado, Texas, buzzing Grammy's corrugated metal barn a time or two. I remember my stomach jumping as the helicopter nosed downward, autumn-yellow fields skating by under my little Reeboks.

A doctor from Beijing was visiting my dad's hospital that year, so he'd asked her to join us to celebrate Thanksgiving. An enthusiast for American customs, she probably will be disappointed if she has Thanksgiving anywhere else, now that she has had a helicopter ride over Texas with us.

Most of my early Thanksgivings were held out on Grammy's farm and to this day, even here in warm, humid South Florida, my mind associates Thanksgiving with cold fronts, straw bales, and Grammy's green Depression glass pitchers of iced tea. One of my earliest memories is the Thanksgiving my dad harnessed Grammy's quarterhorse, Lacy, to an ancient wooden wagon that Grammy housed in her garage. Lacy towed us around the house a few times, ears cocked back toward our boisterous group in the wagon as if to say, "I'm only putting up with this foolishness for the carrots."

A time came when I was no longer home to have Thanksgiving on Grammy's farm. I spent my junior year of college in London, studying English literature. Who knew how darn difficult it could be to find a whole turkey there in late November? My sister visited me on her Thanksgiving break from school and after combing the Sainsbury's of Westminster, we adjusted our ambitions and ultimately settled for chicken, which we knew that we were capable of baking. The two of us prepared a meal with a bunch of my British, Scottish, and American friends in the dormitory's tiny second-floor kitchen, within earshot of the Abbey's bells.

Yesterday, Steve and I drove to his parents' house, just as we have done since we were first married. I balanced my mother's cranberry-raspberry tart in my lap, and I smiled, knowing that two thousand miles away, my mother and my sister had prepared the same dishes. Merri, Steve's mother, roasted a perfect bird and as we sat down at the loaded table, we clasped hands with the people we love and said a few words of thanks, each of us welcoming to the circle those who could not be with us, each of us thinking of many Thanksgivings past.

Charlie Trotter's Shaved Fennel Apple Salad
From this recipe available at (originally published in Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home)

Need something light and fresh to go with your leftover mashed tubers and creamed whatnots? This salad can help you with that.

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup canola oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and halved
2 bulbs fennel, thinly sliced (if you own a mandolin, this is a good time to use it)

To prepare the vinaigrette: Whisk together the lemon juice, chopped tarragon, and olive and canola oils in a small bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper.

To prepare the salad: Cut the apple into thin slices and place in a medium bowl with the fennel. Toss with the vinaigrette and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serves: 8 appetizer portions

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It'll Make You Want to Sit Up and Beg

Last week, Darlene from Blazing Hot Wok asked her readers to share what they plan to put on their tables this holiday season. I mentioned that I intend to prepare a jalapeno creamed spinach dish, because without it, Christmas is not Christmas--and Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving; and for that matter, New Year's is not New Year's. Darlene asked me for the recipe, and I am more than happy to oblige.

If you've been reading Fritter for a while, you know that I grew up in Texas. This kind of heritage skews a person's palate. I look for the spicy dishes; the smoky flavors; the pickled jalapeno. A zing of cayenne is always welcome on my plate. The top tier of my wedding cake was a chocolate chili mousse that made my lips tingle. In my mind, if it's already good, it can be made even better with a little heat.

Jalapeno creamed spinach is a spicy Texas soul food dish. My mother has been preparing it for nearly twenty years and now that we are grown, my sister and I both stir up our own batches for the holidays.

The original recipe comes from Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen. If you read Gourmet during the 1980's, you may recall Colwin's humorous and endearing articles. Who could resist essays with titles like "Repulsive Dinners: a Memoir," and "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant"?

Shortly before her death in the early 1990's, Colwin published Home Cooking, a collection of her Gourmet articles. It is in this book that she describes a dinner party in a Dallas home, where she was served a creamed spinach dish with jalapeno peppers. Tasting the flavors of this dish for the first time, Colwin wrote, "It was so good it made me want to sit up and beg like a dog."

I know exactly what she meant when she wrote that. Try it, you'll see.

Jalapeno Creamed Spinach
Adapted from Laurie Colwin's recipe in Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, published in 1988.

This dish is a holiday winner in our house, not only because it is the best darn spinach you'll ever eat, but also because you can make it days ahead of time and freeze it with good results. If you plan to do things ahead of time, just prepare the dish up as described above, stopping right before you actually bake it. Freeze the spinach, then allow it to return to room temperature on the day you plan to bake it before placing it in the oven.

2 16-ounce bags of chopped and frozen spinach
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons white onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon celery seed
A few twists of fresh black pepper
6 ounces monterrey jack cheese
2 tablespoons pickled jalapenos, chopped (if you're feeding a heat-loving crowd, go ahead and bump it up by an additional tablespoon)
3 tablespoons unseasoned bread crumbs

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Using either your microwave or a large saucepan over low heat, thaw the frozen spinach until it is soft but not cooked. Let the spinach cool until it is no longer hot to the touch. Nest a colander over a large bowl to reserve the spinach liquid. Squeeze the spinach by until (or using a potato masher) until most of the liquid has drained into the bowl below and the spinach forms dry clumps. Set aside the spinach liquid for later use (make a mental note at this point not to dump it down the drain. I've done that, and I will tell you right now that your spinach won't be the same).

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Whisk in the flour briskly until smooth and continue to whisk slowly for 3 to 4 minutes until the butter is golden but not brown. Stir in the onion and garlic, then add 1 cup of the reserved spinach liquid and whisk slowly until smooth.

Increase the heat to medium, then add the heavy cream, black pepper, salt, celery seed, and monterrey jack cheese. Stir the mixture until the cheese has melted and the mixture is smooth. Add the spinach and jalapenos and stir to distribute the cheese mixture evenly throughout the spinach.

Grease a small casserole (I use a 5" x 9" loaf pan) with non-stick spray or butter, then tip the spinach into it, smoothing it out with a spatula. Sprinkle bread crumbs over the top, then bake at 400 degrees for 35-40 minutes.

Serves: 4-6

* While I love some heat, I have limits. Remember this little nightmare? That's where I draw my line on the capsaicin scale. Never again, you evil rogue poblano!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

In My Next Thirty Years

I think I'll take a moment, celebrate my age
The ending of an era and the turning of a page
Now it's time to focus in on where I go from here
Lord have mercy on my next thirty years.

In my next thirty years, I'm gonna have some fun
Try to forget about all the crazy things I've done
Maybe now I've conquered all my adolescent fears
And I'll do it better in my next thirty years.

In my next thirty years I'm gonna settle all the scores
Cry a little less, laugh a little more . . .

. . . Figure out just what I'm doing here,
In my next thirty years.

--Tim McGraw

Monday, November 17, 2008

Have a Cookie

Mondays are hard, I know. You had so much fun over the weekend. You relaxed. You watched whatever you wanted on television and hung out with your kids.

Now it's Monday and through no fault of its own, this day is totally unloved by you.

Does that seem fair? It's the start of the workweek to be sure, and therefore it is not as pleasant as Sunday. However, I think that Wednesdays are far worse than Mondays. When you wake up on Wednesday, you haven't made much progress through the week. You're dead center, is where you are.

Friday, we can all agree, is terrific, but that's only by virtue of its proximity to Saturday. In fact, some of the most irritating work issues arise on Fridays afternoons. My husband once played golf with an executive who announced that he never returned calls after noon on Friday because nothing good ever comes up on Fridays.

Regardless of what you think about that man's work ethic, you have to agreed that he has a point. Fridays carry their own special burden of being so very close to a day off that when something happens to remind you that Friday is still a work day, you feel particularly put out. At least I do.

Yet Monday is the one that gets no respect. Poor Monday.

Have a cookie to help you get through your case of the Mondays, won't you?

Pine Nut Butter Cookies
Adapted from Geoffrey Zakarian's recipe at Food and Wine

1 stick plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons pine nuts

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter with the sugar, anise seeds and salt at medium speed until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and beat until combined. Add the flour and beat just until the dough begins to come together. The dough will be quite crumbly. Scrape the cookie dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap and form it into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap and refrigerate the cookie dough until chilled, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the cookie dough into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange the cookies about 1 1/2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Press 3 or 4 pine nuts into the center of each cookie. Bake the cookies for 13 to 14 minutes, or until they are golden brown around the edges. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes: 1 dozen

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chef X

If you could hire anyone to cook for you, whom would you choose?

I ask because my husband and I had an interesting discussion about this last night. He reads The Huffington Post, which receded from politics long enough this week to cover the possible picks for the position of White House Chef by President-Elect Obama.

It's been reported that the Obamas love Frontera Grill. When questioned about the possibility that he might be a pick, however, Rick Bayless demured:
We cook this really wonderful Mexican food, I don't think that's what they want at every state dinner. Maybe every once in awhile we can be guest chefs at the White House.
'Scuse me? I personally would love to have really wonderful Mexican food at every meal.

However, my husband points out that the White House Chef must be versed in good old American-style food. I suppose that he is right; the First Chef is a culinary ambassador to visiting Heads of State. Thomas Keller or Charlie Trotter might be good picks, assuming that (a) the American taxpayers can afford their going rate and (b) they would be interested in abandoning their empires to cook for the White House.

Still, if money was no object, how I would love to have authentic, well-prepared cuitlacoche crepes whenever I so desired . . . how about you? Whom would you choose?

Honey-Roasted Pear Salad with Thyme Verjus Dressing
Available here at

The original recipe calls for a combination of butter lettuce and arugula, but butter lettuce was not available at my grocery store this week. Because I like the snappy taste of arugula, I used one bunch of that rather than trying to find a substitute for the butter lettuce.

Additionally, verjus is difficult to find, so I went with the combination of white grape juice and apple cider vinegar suggested in the original recipe.

The salad was not harmed by these improvisations and is delicious, particularly on a dark autumn night.

For the dressing
1/3 cup verjus or 3 tablespoons white grape juice and 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup grapeseed oil
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

For the salad
3 bunches fresh thyme sprigs
4 ripe but firm Bartlett pears (about 2 1/2 pounds), halved and cored
1/4 cup honey
1 bunch of arugula
6 ounces blue cheese, coarsely crumbled (I used a lovely, not-too-stinky Valdeon Blue wrapped in chestnut leaves)
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped

Whisk the ingredients for the dressing together in a small bowl. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper, and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Scatter the thyme sprigs on a rimmed baking sheet or shallow baking dish. Place the pear halves, cut side down, on a work surface. Starting 1/2 inch from stem and leaving the pear half intact, cut each pear lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide slices. Press the pear gently to fan the slices, then place atop the thyme sprigs. Drizzle the pears with honey and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper.

Bake until the pears are tender, about 15 minutes. Let the pears stand on the baking sheet at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours, until they are room temperature.

Place the arugula in a large bowl and drizzle with the dressing, tossing lightly to coat. Because arugula bruises easily, I suggest that you refrain from tossing with any utensils. Divide the salad among four plates and place the roasted pears atop the greens. Garnish the salads with the blue cheese and hazelnuts.

Serves: 4

Monday, November 10, 2008

On Plums, Dried Cherries, and a Feeling of Anticipation

The holidays are here.

What? you say, No they aren't. Thanksgiving is several weeks away and Hanukkah and Christmas haven't even poked their noses around the corner at us.

I know that, okay, but stay with me on this one. The holidays have crept upon us on little mouse-feet and I will tell you how I realized it.

Take, for example, the surplus of ruby-colored fruits in your grocery store, the apples, the plums, the pageant-pink beets. Walking through the produce section makes you want to call your mom and bake 9x13 dishes of cinnamon-spiced treats.

And then there is the uptick in social engagements. Have you noticed this? I'm finding that I'm getting "it's been ages since we got together" e-mails from friends, followed by lunches, Saturday afternoons of shopping, and cozy evening dinners. There's nary a Christmas tree in sight, but I'm telling you, it's there, just out of sight.

Then, finally, there's just that certain feeling you get when the days shorten and the nights lengthen. When there's that sharp angle to the sunshine at three o'clock in the afternoon and the air is a bit crisp in the morning. Makes you want to hang a wreath on your door.

Some people take a hard line regarding when the holidays should begin. My mother, for example, will not, will not tolerate the encroachment of Christmas upon Thanksgiving's territory. She disdains the way American commerce crams Christmas down our throats in November.* The woman has never woken up at dawn the day after Thanksgiving in order to stand in line outside the mall doors, waiting for the stores to open. For her, the day after Thanksgiving is the season-opener for eggnog and Christmas cheer, not sharp elbows and shopping-cart-games of chicken.

When my sister and I were kids, the family would spend the day after Thanksgiving decorating our house with the scent of pinon wood in the air. Now that I am grown, I look forward to that day all year, almost more than I look forward to Christmas itself. I have continued my family's tradition in my own house, hauling my ornaments out of our back closet and listening to Christmas carols as I unwind long strings of lights.

This year, I'm convinced that the holidays arrived early. I've seen the signs, even though I haven't decorated my tree yet. In spite of my conviction that we've been given a green light to be festive, I'm going to stick with family tradition and wait to buy some eggnog. Be ready, though; after we clear away the turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving day, I'll be decking the halls with my wreath and my good cheer.

Pork Tenderloin with Spiced Plum Chutney
Adapted from this recipe at

The chutney in this recipe is a harbinger of the holidays. With sweet plums, tart cherries, and a healthy dose of cinnamon, you'll be seeing dancing reindeer before you know it.

For the chutney

1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
3 cups of plums, pitted and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup (generous) chopped red onion
1/3 cup dried tart cherries

For the pork

1 trimmed pork tenderloin, weighing no more than 3/4 pound
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon olive oil
Fresh cilantro sprigs

To make the chutney
Combine the first 8 ingredients in a heavy, large Dutch oven. Bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the plums, onion and dried cherries, then increase the heat to medium-high and cook until the mixture thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Cool completely. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before using.)

To make the pork
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Rub the cumin and a pinch of salt and pepper into the tenderloin. Heat the oil in heavy oven-proof skillet over high heat. Add the tenderloin and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and brush the pork with 1/2 cup of chutney. Place the skillet in the oven and roast until a thermometer inserted into center of pork registers 155°F, brushing occasionally with another 1/2 cup of chutney, about 25 minutes. Slice the pork into medallions. Garnish with cilantro and serve with remaining chutney.

Serves: 2, with leftovers for lunch

*For those of you who haven't been to a mall this month, the holiday decorations are up, the choo-choo train is chugging, and you can all but sit on Santa's lap. My mother would not approve.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth -

that out of many, we are one;
that while we breathe, we hope,
and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

If You Get One Thing Done Today

No one wants to listen to one more person on a soapbox. Accordingly, I'll be brief.

If you do one thing today, let it be to cast your vote.

It's what we get to do here in America. All of us. We aren't frightened that someone might beat us when we leave the polls, imprison us, kidnap our children, or burn down our businesses because of our political views. We don't stay home from the polls out of dread. No. We vote and we get on with our day.

Think about that for a moment, would you?

With 305 million people in this country, we have nearly as many perspectives on how life should be lived. We have a history of struggle and persecution. In so many ways, we have little in common with each other. In spite our differences, though, we share a dogged commitment to bring about change by voting, not violence. This is what makes us American.

And what a blessing that is. To think, the most we have to worry about when it comes to voting is a long line.

I bet that you can wait in line for this chance to vote. So, please go vote today. It matters.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Because It's Not Winter Yet

Your plate has been pretty full lately. All of these pumpkin tarts, acorn squash risottos, and fried apples must be elbowing each other for more room.

Autumn is terrific, it really is. After the fresh corn and tomatoes of late summer disappear, I love scooping mouthfuls of pie and whipped heavy cream from a bowl. I love the richness of toasted pecans and roasted hard squashes. And nothing beats fresh cranberry sauce.

Love the puckery taste of cranberries. Love it.

However, I find that I tend to overindulge in these offerings during the month of October. After several weeks of filling my shopping cart with cello-shaped squashes and bright apples, I need a breather.

Perhaps you feel the same way. How about something on the lighter side for lunch today? Let's make soup.

I found this version of stracciatella in last year's December issue of Food and Wine Magazine. Have some; you'll find that you have enough room for a few bites of sweet dessert later on.

Spinach and Egg-Drop Pasta Soup
Adapted from this Tom Valenti recipe in Food and Wine Magazine

1/2 pound tubetti, ditali or other small pasta
2 quarts chicken stock
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
5 ounces baby spinach
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
Extra-virgin olive oil and lemon wedges, for drizzling

Cook the pasta in a pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain well.

In a saucepan, bring the stock to a simmer with the garlic; simmer for 3 minutes. Add the pasta and spinach and cook over moderate heat until the spinach wilts. Season with salt and pepper. Gently stir in the eggs, breaking them into long strands. Gently simmer the soup until the eggs are just firm, about 1 minute. Stir in the 1/2 cup of cheese. Ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle with olive oil and serve, passing lemon wedges and more cheese on the side.