Tag Archives: Benziger

Tuesday Blues Strawberry Crumble

13 Apr

On the trip up to Wine Country we took for Moh’s birthday last weekend, he spotted a girl selling big boxes of bright strawberries on the side of a winding, sun-dappled road. Naturally, we whipped that rented Jeep Wrangler right over so he could yell out the side, “Are those organic??” Being Sonoma County, they were, and we were merrily back on track to Benziger Family Winery with a case of perfectly ripe fruit in plastic-topped tow.

Wine Country: open road and organics galore.

Of course by the time my Tuesday night return to reality hit (the weekend was so idyllic it took an extra day, making the sugar crash that much harder), the half of the strawberries we hadn’t devoured were beginning to look like I felt. Tired. Like they’d seen better days. But, with my new CSA-inspired waste not, want not ethos I just couldn’t bear to let them go.

Strawbs, before the fall.

Let me backtrack a bit. Though I’ve loved food since I was a wee(er) lass – seriously, ask my dad about fighting his four-year-old over the last of the pesto – my first post-college apartment boasted a charming kitchen that was essentially half of my poor roommate’s bedroom. Clearly, my first foray into “adulthood” was not so conducive to culinary exploration. As I moved on up in the world (dubious) and settled into my new apartment, which was conveniently outfitted with walls and doors and located two blustery blocks from Trader Joe’s, I came across a Mark Bittman nugget of a post: “Worry Less, Cook More.” And I embraced it.

More than a year and hundreds of dinners later, I find a nerdy joy in coming home after work to cobble together a simple meal for whomever’s around from whatever’s in the fridge. But I’ve never quite gotten there with baking. Cooking seems more forgiving, more free-form, while baking has always seemed to me like some kind of sugar-coated chemistry painstakingly performed in an apron instead of a lab coat. Tastier results, same intimidating procedure. Nevertheless, I decided to squash my domestic fears of scientific shortcomings alongside a Meyer lemon to make something with those strawberries, damnit,  using what I had on hand.

The results? Not the prettiest creation in the history of baking, and it did lack some of the depth and backbone that a mixed-berry melding would provide, but my Strawberry Crumble was sweet and comforting and I did it all by self. No recipes, no nagging fear of culinary perfection, it was a healthy dose of perspective, encouragement and sugar all in one. I suppose that’s just the way the crumble crumbles.

Who you callin' shortcake?

TUESDAY BLUES STRAWBERRY CRUMBLE

For filling:

  • Strawberries past their prime (I had three little green plastic cartons left)
  • A shot of whiskey (you could have one too, though I showed remarkable weeknight restraint)
  • Juice from a fresh lemon
  • Just a spoonful of sugar
  • Your favorite warm seasonings – I went with pumpkin pie spice and a cinnamon stick
  • A sprinkling of fresh ground pepper

For topping:

The real beauty of the crumble is that you can really use anything – cookies you have, nuts, oats, whatever. Here’s what I grabbed:

  • A stick of butter (cause why not)
  • A handful or two of rolled oats
  • A handful of cashews, or whatever nut you have, pulsed in a food processor or smashed by hand (if you’re more angry than melancholy)
  • A handful or two of flour
  • A handful of brown sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Slice 2/3 of the strawberries in half, removing any questionable bits, and line the bottom of a smallish baking dish with them. Toss with half the lemon juice.
  3. Puree the remaining strawberries in a blender.

    Strawbs with their heads cut off.

  4. Pour them into a small saucepan with the whiskey, the remaining lemon juice, sugar, seasonings/pepper. Heat on low while you whip up the topping, stirring once in a while so it doesn’t stick, until the boozy smell has evaporated. Keep it classy.
  5. Cut the butter into small squares. Mix your topping ingredients in a large bowl with your hands. It’s fun and then you have an excuse to eat it off your fingers when you’re done. Note: Mine was a little too wet to crisp properly, which I suspected would happen because it started wet – but I kind of like the doughy cookiness of it. I’d use probably more oats and flour to the other ingredients next time around. Go nuts.
  6. Take the filling puree off the heat and mix up with the strawberries. Spread topping mix as evenly as you can over the top.
  7. Bake until juicy edges are bubbling up deliciously and the topping is goldeny goodness, at least 30 minutes, probably more.
  8. Serve with Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. Or ya know, another kind, if you’re into settling 🙂

Summer Tour, Part III: Bologna, by way Caroliina.

18 Aug

What could be more a more retro-fab American way to make Monday night dinner than by playing sous-chef (or “pinche,” as my Oklahoman grandfather would call it, partially in mocking deference to his partially-Chilean wife) for your Irish/Hungarian mom while she makes her family’s favorite Italian recipe? Nothing I can think of, except maybe doing it barefoot in a bathing suit while sipping a Red Hook nestle-chilled in a personalized wedding beer koozie. In the South. Also, just owning and using several beer koozies.

Recognize that koozie, Lynne? Tim + Vanessa 2009. That one's for you!

Although my personal kitchen hero Marcella Hazan would no doubt turn up her discerning nose at the thought of serving her famed five-hour Bolognese to a soundtrack of pre-season football (sorry, ‘Cell, but the fam loves the G-Men and I had given Mark Sanchez my heart even before my roomie and I managed to use his unparalleled visage to stop a lady-cop from impounding her car), I think she’d have to approve of the spirit behind the afternoon of prep for the feast.

There is no better vacation to me than the one my family takes every year to Oak Island, North Carolina, precisely because there’s literally nothing to do but nothing. With no museums to feel guilty about not visiting because you’re secretly uninterested in “learning about local culture,” nor any social scene to feel the need to put on heels for, these precious days on the bath-water warm Atlantic are reserved for sunning, swimming and reading crappy Jane Green novels. Evenings, meanwhile, follow one mandate alone, and needless to say it’s one of my favorites: eat, drink and be merry. So, after a morning of soaking up plenty of sunburn and several men’s magazines pilfered from the office (PR: it’s good for subscriptions), Mom and I retired to the rental house kitchen together to kick off the meal that will always make me think of the seemingly effortless love and care she devotes to feeding her family.

One of my earliest, and most visceral, food memories is the familiar grumble of thrilled hunger I’d feel when I’d come into our kitchen on Wedgewood Road and peer over the red and black granite countertop of the island to find on the stovetop a pot of stewing tomato sauce. Not plain red but flecked with the tiniest curls of almost grey-bluish beef simmering amidst barely detectable slivers of onion, carrot and celery. Fascinated, I would stand on tiptoes to reach for the wooden spoon resting next to the burner to skim the layer of thick orange fat layer that gathered sedentarily between the slow, frothing bubbles.

Marcella describes it better than I can, as just reading one of her recipes paints a picture of the domineering, bourbon-swilling dame responsible for teaching American there’s more to red sauce than Ragu brand long before Mario Batali did: “the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface.” Hers was the first (new) cookbook my mom ever gave me for Christmas, and I vividly remember sitting in the backyard of my apartment in San Francisco in a stolen patch of January sunlight tuning out Jean-Claude, our French super who wears a beret and drives his three ancient whippet dogs everywhere in a van adorned on each side (roof included) with a perfectly replicated Pink Floyd album cover, while I pored over each of her directions. I could hear each one as sternly resolute as if they came straight from the mouth of the Italian grandmother I’ve never had. It’s pronouncements like these I love – Marcella, on Pasta:

“There is not the slightest justification for preferring homemade pasta to factory-made. Those who do deprive themselves of some of the most flavorful dishes in the Italian reperatory… They are seldom interchangeable, but in terms of absolute quality, they are fully equal.”

One more favorite before I tell you how to make the damn dinner. On tomatoes:

“The flavor of fresh tomatoes is livelier, less cloying than that of the canned, but fully ripened fresh tomatoes for cooking are still not a common feature of North American markets, except for the six or eight weeks during the summer when they are brought in from nearby farms. When you are unable to get good fresh tomatoes, rather than cook with watery, tasteless ones, it’s best to turn to the dependable canned variety.”

I’ll spare you her thoughts on the acceptable canned varieties. Obviously, they’re Italian.

No doubt she’ll recount the entire recipe for the Bolognese I’ve been eating my entire life far better than I can, so I’ll direct you to it: Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese Sauce, from The Essentials of Italian Cooking. But, to paraphrase, you first make a soffrito (dice about a handful of onions, celery and carrots, and heat, in that order, in oil and butter until soft).

The best way to get your veggies? Bathed in oil AND butter, clearly.

Sounds simple, right? It is. Although, not so much with Marcella over your shoulder:

“An imperfectly executed soffrito will impair the flavor of a dish no matter how carefully all of the succeeding steps are carried out. If the onion is merely stewed or incompletely sauteed, the taste of the sauce, or the risotto, or the vegetable never takes off and will remain feeble.”

So don’t eff it up.

Add ground beef and cook “until it loses its raw, red color,” S&P it, then add the two secret ingredients – milk (for which Mom took a measuring cup to the neighbors to fill because we only had skim – Americana at its best, my friends) and nutmeg (adding “warm” seasonings like allspice and cinnamon to sauces is a favorite tasty trick I got from Mom which I now suspect she plucked from Marcella herself). When the milk has evaporated, you add the same amount of white wine you added milk until that has evaporated too.

Here, Marcella left me to panic, because by this time in the recipe you have a yellow mass of liquid and it’s almost impossible to tell when exactly that magic moment is. I realized, though, that besides using the residue on the side of the pot to judge when the chalky white line has diminished to more or less where it was was before you added the wine, you can actually smell the sharpness of the alcohol until it has burned away. After that, you add the canned tomatoes, and then you wait. For hours. And hours. And more hours.

In the meantime, go finish off that sunburn. Return to the house to stir the pot every so often – like when the tingling on that awkward spot on your arm you didn’t reach makes you realize you need more SPF 30, when you feel the need to compulsively check your Blackberry despite the fact they’re certainly not paying you to do so, or if you have to use the bathroom in a manner not appropriate for the ocean. (Not that girls poo. Everybody knows we don’t. Ew.)

When it becomes four o’clock somewhere, a perfectly appropriate location being your own mind, I suggest you fix yourself a While You Wait Whiskey, my debut cocktail creation, inspired by a delicious visit to the Whiskey Kitchen in Nashville, Tennessee (thanks for gradumacating, brosef!).

Look, fruits too!! This day has ALL the food groups.

Cut up two or three strawberries into small pieces. Do what mixologists call “muddling” – mash them up how you see fit. I used the detachment from an electric mixer. Cut a lemon in half and squeeze its juice into the mix. Put ice in a glass, pour a shot of bourbon over it (if I had my way I’d of course use Bulleit), add the muddled mix, top with club soda, and stir it all up. Adjust all ingredients to taste. Garnish with a sprig of basil, if you’ve got it, and you’re fancy.

The fam unanimously approved ( After “Stawberries? And whiskey? Katie, you’re so crazy, San Francisco blah blah blah.” Sip. “Oh… that works!” Another sip). Point one, pretension.

Even Brosef, the taste purist (complicating the childhood of yours truly the budding foodie by refusing to go to any restaurants where he'd be forced to eat "fancy pizza"), went for sip 2. Admittedly, the basil was a bit much for him.

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. When it has, add spaghetti.

Note: I actually think that even if it weren’t a sensible choice by virtue of its being healthier, the nutty taste and grainier texture of whole wheat spaghetti actually makes a nicer compliment to the sauce than traditional white pasta. Sorry, ‘Cell. I will, however, concede the milk battle. Whole – which is four percent fat – just works better than two percent here. It’s vacation.

Sit while the storm clouds you desperately miss on the East Coast roll in.

Meanwhile, open a bottle of wine. It should be full enough to stand up to the meat, but light enough not to overpower the delicate nature of the sauce. We had a Benziger Signaterra “Three Blocks” Red (2006), a Sonoma Cab Sauv (68%)/Merlot blend that is structured but very smooth, with more cocoa than fruit notes. (The bottle was sent to my Mom as part of the wine membership I got her for Christmas, and on a side note for all you wine country visitors, Benziger, a family-owned and run biodynamic winery is one of the best places to to go. I’ll expound later I’m sure.)

This is a completely extraneous shot I'm including only so I can look at it whistfully whilst stranded once again in cubeland braindead zone tomorrow. Sometimes I don't think the gold diggers have it so wrong.

When the pasta is done al dente, strain, “correct the salt” in the sauce, and serve all mixed up topped with parm cheese. After you’ve worked this hard, keep it classy. Make it fresh grated. Do it for Marcella.

Sit down to enjoy it with your adorable family.

But seriously, could they BE any cuter?

And now suspended 10,000 miles in the bumpy air above the Rockies, remembering the vivid sights, smells and tastes that bring me home no matter how far away that may be, I feel incredibly lucky.  Even if it’s precisely the frustratingly fleeting nature of these moments that make them so powerful.

welcome to the good life. catch ya on the flip side.