At Home with The Bickersons

Having an 8-pound dog tethered to my belt loop during his every waking hour means I am spending a lot of time in the kitchen. It seemed the logical place for us to base ourselves during Tally’s puppyhood; this is the one room in the house with a good amount of open floor space, no mouth level wires to teeth on and an easily cleaned floor. A young dog can’t get into too much trouble here. Curious, and also concerned for her place in the pack, Spy refuses to be left out of the fun so this kitchen has become extra full and extra busy, transcending its original purpose of cooking hub. It now also functions as a dog watering hole, puppy training facility, playground, relationship building arena, leash detangling salon, and  – more often than not – mediation zone. From 4 am to 8 pm, this kitchen is noisy.

Call me uneducated, but I never knew the extent of dog vocabulary. As a lone dog, Spy essentially had two voices: the semi-bray she employed when she needed some sort of attention, and the series of short but loud barks meant to alert me the letter carrier had dropped mail through our mail slot. But I am learning that dogs have a voice for every occasion and interaction, from the “Paws off that, chump” throaty growl to the “Woe is me” whimper, from the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more” stream of barking invective to a most pathetic moan of resignation, and every level of outrage and affront in between.

Chaos certainly looms but I can keep it at bay if I keep the puppy tied to me as I go about kitchen chores. He has to follow everywhere I walk, which keeps him at my feet and away from bickering with Spy. It wears him out into the bargain, a nice bonus. But for this plan to work I have to give myself lots of chores to do. So I have done exactly that. As of now, the holiday gift baking is done, the Middle Earth Farm stewing hens are on their way to becoming vats of stock, and the Thanksgiving leftovers have long been dealt with.

Save for the few times I’m on the floor putting the dogs through their paces, I haven’t been sitting much. Writing gets done, but in disjointed snatches of time, often while standing at the counter. The longest stretch of time I have to myself is breakfast, when I drink coffee and read and ignore the dogs circling my feet as they wait for their meal.

 Yes, Chef a memoir by Marcus Samuelsson has been holding my attention for those few crucial quiet moments every morning. I wish I had more time in the day to read this book, it’s that engaging. You may know Samuelsson from recent appearances on Top Chef Masters and The Next Iron Chef. Or you may have heard of him years ago when, at the age of 24, a wunderkind chef, he assumed the reins at NYC’s Aquavit and began the rise to the top of his profession. In highly readable prose that has been helped along by friend Veronica Chambers, Samuelsson tells a compelling story (from his extensive personal journals) of his roots in Ethiopia, being adopted in the 1970s by the Swedish couple, Lennart and Anne Marie Samuelsson, and the determination he had from a very young age to become the best in one of the world’s most competitive professions.

I am only halfway through the book. In the pre-Tally days, I would have finished this in a matter of hours. But slow has its advantages. Like stumbling across this passage and taking the time to let it sink in:

Up until this point, fine dining had been an abstraction, a distant summit to ascend. Now that I saw how much strategy and how many levels cooking could operate on, it was clear to me: What we did in the restaurant was not all that different from the work the museum curators did across the street. We were both, in our way, trying to engage our customers’ senses, take them out of their day-to-day lives, and every once in a while…they looked at the world in a slightly new way.

(Cooking) went from a gig – a highly coveted one, but a gig all the same – to being my laboratory, my studio, my church.

The words give me something to ponder as I work in my own kitchen – equal parts lab, studio, temple to tastiness, and now dog conditioning facility – especially as I make the dozens and dozens of cookies and breads and jams that will soon be given as handmade presents. Indeed, food should engage all the senses, and emotions, and somehow speak to people, shift their lives, even in a small way. It should be made well and presented well too. I think of my friend Robin’s face when I gave her some extra nut bars last Christmas, in a little cellophane bag because she loved them so and cared enough to tell me. A small pleasure maybe, but a warm and genuine one. I could feel it. That is part of why I find these particular chores to do in the kitchen as I occupy two bickering dogs, when I might be cleaning instead, or organizing. Or chucking kitchen work altogether to go outside instead for multiple walks.

But I ponder as well the other reasons why we cook and give food gifts, for of course there’s more to it, more to the why of doing what we do. Maybe a starving mother had to carry us 75 miles across a country in Africa to get food and medical care after a tuberculosis outbreak, so access to good food and possessing the senses we need to appreciate it really matter. Maybe we see this as our best way to express ourselves, to communicate care of and feeling for others. Perhaps we crave attention from this most visible of accomplishments: “Look at me, notice me; look what I can make.” Or maybe it’s a simple as maintaining traditions or bridging gaps between ourselves and people we miss.

As I continue to read about the chef’s journey and uncover his whys, I’m still thinking about my own. Maybe time with my two Bickersons will turn out to be time well spent.

Here is a glimpse into what’s been going on in the lab:

Here is one of those four stewing hens. At the end of CSA season, Pat up at Middle Earth broke the news that some of the farm’s hens had come to the end of their laying career. But, she added, they would become stewing hens for making stock. Such is the life cycle on a farm. Might I be interested in some when ready? she asked. I signed up for four. Old, well-treated hens make good, rich stock for soups, and I’m thrilled that we will have our own soon for winter meals. These are still thawing, bound for the pot tomorrow, subject of a future blog post.

Last week this recipe for whole wheat bread made from a soaker base of bulgur wheat and polenta grade cornmeal floated around the web. Billed as the perfect loaf, the bread promised to be less dense and leaden than some 100% whole grain loaves. I had to give it a try. The dough was gorgeous, and the finished bread was actually very delicious (so delicious I made minis to give away at Christmas). I’ve included the link to the recipe with visual instructions here.

After the wheat bread, I made a batch of these, the Bertinet Cookery School garlic and parmesan breadsticks, for our upcoming holiday party. As M. Bertinet suggested, I par-baked the breadsticks and will put them in the oven frozen to finish the baking right before serving with Curried Cauliflower Soup on our buffet.

My mother used to make an apricot bar I loved very much, so when I saw this recipe for Norwegian Apricot Bars in a recent Penzeys Spice catalog, I had to give them a try also. Unlike my mother’s they use soaked dried apricots rather than apricot jam, and this yielded a very tasty part cake-part shortbread bar. You can see the two layers and the construction of the bars in the photos below. You’ll like these bars for gifts or a cookie swap.

I have been making these brownies for years. I love the recipe – the brownies are dark and rich, but very easy to make. While at the Bertinet Cookery School in April, we students were treated to the bakery’s brownies as a mid-morning pick me up. Bertinet’s brownies were cakier than mine but  the candied nut topping they added before baking is an idea I brought home and added to my usual recipe. Either candied walnuts or pecans will make a wonderful addition to an already fabulous recipe (the original came from Food and Wine, I think, about 20 years ago).  The quantities of butter and sugar may alarm, but cut the finished product into small squares (I cut 48 squares, not the standard 24). You won’t miss anything because the flavor’s there.

The Best Brownies

  • 1 ¼ cups Dutch process cocoa
  • 1¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 3 sticks unsalted butter
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 6 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1½ cups candied walnuts (or pecans), recipe follows

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly grease a 13” by 9” baking pan and line the bottom with waxed paper or parchment.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, sift together cocoas, flour and salt, and set this aside.

In a large saucepan, melt butter over low heat.  Remove from heat source and stir in the sugar with a wooden spoon.  Add the eggs, two at a time, stirring well after each addition.

Stir in vanilla. Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture in the pot, mixing by hand until everything is just combined.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and topped with the candied walnuts.

Bake 45-50 minutes. Do not overbake; begin testing at 45 minutes.  To test for doneness, insert a toothpick or wooden skewer in the center of the brownies.  A few crumbs should stick to the tester and look moist rather than wet.

Cool completely in pan, invert onto a rack, and cut into 48 bars.

Candied Walnuts

  • 1 large egg white
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1½ cups walnut or pecan halves

Preheat oven to 300°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment and brush this lightly with melted butter.

Whisk egg white in bowl until foamy. Add sugar, cinnamon and salt. Whisk until mixture is thick. Add the nuts; stir until coated. Using a slotted spoon, transfer nuts in small batches to the baking sheet, separating them. You will have leftover egg mixture; discard.

Bake nuts until deep golden brown, about 35 minutes. Cool completely on sheet before using on the brownies.

Back on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, we had leftover roast duck, leftover gingered plum sauce, and a will to make steamed dumplings. The grocery store shelves had been ravaged, the dumpling wrappers M.I.A.,  and all that was left were wontons skins. So we made duck and scallion ravioli. After making the filling by mixing shredded duck with chopped scallions and a little of the homemade plum sauce, I steamed the ravioli in batches and then fried them on one side. They were devoured. You could try something similar with any leftover roast pork or chicken. Place a small amount of filling on one wonton wrapper, moisten the four sides, top with a second wrapper, and press to seal. Steam in your favorite steamer basket and fry in a little peanut oil. Or just serve steamed, with extra plum sauce on the side.

©2012  Jane A. Ward