Let the girls eat cake

I served my favorite cake in the world last night to 20 of my favorite gal-pals at the Nieman Foundation. It was a loud, raucous night, and not a little bit naughty. We toasted the end of our school year with several pitchers of Joana Henriques’ killer mojitos. She spent a full hour making them the Portugese way, the secret being to juice all those limes by hand — smashing them with ice, sugar and the back of a wooden spoon.  The barbecue was courtesy of our favorite Canadian foodie, Jana Juginovic, who really should have her own reality cooking show.

My Italian Cream Cake was for dessert. It’s a recipe I wheedled out of the folks who ran the Angler’s Cafe long ago. My friend Evelyn had loved the cake so much that she couldn’t stop speculating about its mystery ingredient. The answer is always: Buttermilk. And coconut. And cream-cheese frosting.

While I can’t divulge the contents of the after-dinner storytelling — it was soooo off the record — I can give you the secret recipe for this wonderful cake, with thanks to Mary Stuart VanMetre’s Mom, Nancy Barbour, who slipped it to me via her pre-school grandson long ago. Thanks, too, to Evelyn, for making me realize, finally, that dessert doesn’t always have to be a chocolate-delivery vehicle.

As someone who used to turn her nose up at cake in favorite of its crusty and more artful (or so I thought) brethren, pie — this cake was a revelation.


The Angler’s Italian Cream Cake

1 stick margarine

1/2 cup Crisco

2 cups sugar

2 cups flour

1 tsp. vanilla

5 egg whites, stiffly beaten

5 egg yolks

1 tsp. baking soda

1 cup buttermilk

4 ounces sweetened coconut

Beat egg whites in a medium-sized bowl and set aside, reserving yolks. Into a large bowl: beat margarine, Crisco and sugar. Add egg yolks and beat. Add flour and soda alternately with buttermilk, beating. Stir in vanilla. Fold in coconut and egg whites with spoon.

Grease and flour three cake pans. Add waxed paper cut to fit. Pour in equal amounts of batter and bake at 350 for 30 minutes. To flatten humpy layers: When out of oven a few minutes, lay towel across pan and press. (Flat layers stack better for icing.) Cool completely before icing.

For icing to layer and cover all three layers: 1 stick margarine, 8 ounces cream cheese, 1 box confectioner’s sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla. A topping of chopped walnuts on top is optional but yummy.

On silence, jumpy herons and knead-free bread

WHITE STONE — Hope Reese works as an events assistant for the Nieman Foundation.  I can say without certainty after spending five months hanging around the place: She’s the glue of the organization — the person all the fellows go to when they need help with anything, including recommendations for the Three B’s: bands, bars and bargains. She’s enthusiastic and generous, and she gets more done in a day than most of us do in a week.

So when the opportunity arose recently for me to pay her back for the few thousand favors I already owe her, I leapt. She wanted to visit Williamsburg, Va., where her grandmother and namesake worked as a journalist for The Virginia Gazette in the ’70s and ’80s. Her grandmother Hope passed away when Hope was just 10, long before her interested in journalism was sparked, so Hope Junior wanted to do find out about Hope Senior’s career and the influence she’d had on young journalists of her day.

I happen to have an uncle Frosty with a beautiful (and, happily for us, available) river house in White Stone, Va., an hour or so away from Williamsburg, and so I also jumped at the chance to have some quiet writing time here while Hope was off doing her thing. A bargain-hunter extraordinaire — she’s addicted to a Web site called Groupon, such that she’s even achieved “Groupie” status — Hope even found us a cheap flight on Air Tran to Newport News ($59 each way), where we rented a shiny red tin can (Nissan Versa) for four days.

I’ve never been to the river in winter before, so I’m glad I’ve finally had the chance — even if it did take forever to get to sleep last night in Frosty’s spooky, creaky 200-year-old house all by my lonesome. (Hope was away at a friend’s house in Williamsburg for the night.)

It was too cold to go kayaking today — not sure I can get used to seeing snow on the beach! — but after six hours of writing I managed a 40-minute walk along the Rappahannock, which is lovely this time of year and easier to navigate somehow without running into marshland or other people’s piers, as is usually the case. Somehow, some way, and don’t ask me to explain it, but the shoreline has thickened up, allowing a wider berth for beach-walking than usual. I was able to walk most of the way to Windmill Pointe, where I scared a heron perched in the marsh — and it definitely scared me.

By the time I returned, the miracle knead-free bread that Hope had started before she left — it requires a first rising of 18 hours! — was ready to bake. A sublime creation, it has a perfectly crunchy/chewy crust, thanks to the cornmeal and the cast-iron skillet I baked it in. (Ideally, you’d bake it in a cast-iron Le Creuset, a Dutch oven. But you gotta deal with the cookware you’re dealt.) A Mark Bittman recipe (you can watch his New York Times video here), it’s holey and wondrous — perfect for the pooling of butter — not unlike ciabatta, only without much effort.

Hope’s Miracle Bread

3 cups flour

Teaspoon or so of salt

Half-packet of yeast

1 5/8 cup of water

In a glass mixing bowl, combine ingredients and stir, but don’t overwork. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 18 hours.

Sprinkle a little more flour on top, then lay down a tea towel on the counter and sprinkle it with a liberal handful of cornmeal. Place the dough on top of the cornmeal-topped towel and put plastic wrap over top for 15 minutes.

After 2 1/2 hours, preheat the oven with the cast-iron Dutch oven inside for 30 minutes. (Hope said not to oil the pan, but I didn’t believe her and did it anyway.)

Being careful not to burn yourself, pull out the oven rack, remove the lid and then carefully nudge the dough from the tea towel into the pot. Shake dough around ever-so-slightly so that it evens out a bit. Return lid and bake at 450 for a half-hour, then remove the lid, and bake a half-hour more.

When the bread-making wunderkind texts (or is it textes?) you to make sure you’ve done everything according to her strict instruction, tell her: Yeah, you got it. And save her a piece or two.

Oh, and check out Hope’s new blog here for updates on her namesake project.

Tina Rolen, 1949-2009

The last time I saw her, in June, she took me to lunch to celebrate my fellowship. She was in stage four of the non-smoker kind of lung cancer that would soon steal her life. Her eyelashes were singed from the treatments. She walked slowly, stopping every few steps to catch her breath. She joked that finally she had lost that 15 pounds she’d been trying for years to shed, but dammit: Food no longer tasted good.

We knew it would probably be our last visit, but she didn’t make a fuss. A big hug at the end, some awkward words from me and that glorious eye-twinkling smile of hers, letting me knowing that, yes, this did seriously suck — but she had made peace with it. Now all she had to do was convince her loved ones they’d be OK too.

She worried about her daughter, Sarah, whom she’d raised on her own through the rough times and the good and who always — no matter how dicey things got — would make her beam, shake her head and say, “Yep, that’s my girl!” She had the closest sibling relationship with her sister, Susan, that I have ever seen. Her best friends were her ministers, Bob and Dusty. Her secretary Carolyn loved her so much she would have taken the cancer for her if she could.

As friends go, we could go months without e-mailing or visiting, and pick up right where we left off. We were lunch buddies — sometimes quarterly, sometimes twice a year. She liked that Italian place on Route 11 just north of Hollins that doubled as a gas station, especially on spaghetti day.

She was the kind of person you could cry in front of, and she wouldn’t turn it into some big dramatic deal. She was full of kid-rearing advice that wasn’t exactly out of the parenting books. It was the kind of stuff you could actually follow, like let your kid be who he’s meant to be and, if you can help it, try not to freak out. If he’s four years old and wants to wear ruby slippers to preschool, break out the glue gun and sequins. She accepted people with a full heart and reveled in their quirks. At the end of every lunch, I invited her to bill me for the free therapy.

She could do amazing things with a canister of crescent rolls and a block of cream cheese. Her white-bean chicken chili was simple and crockpot-ready, meaning she wasn’t above throwing in a can of cream-of-chicken soup and calling it a day. When Heironimus closed its doors a few years back, she stopped by to thank the hair-netted ladies at the cafe, all of whom she knew by name. She swore they made the best chicken salad in the world.

She had a gift for language that was Flannery O’Connor meets “Fried Green Tomatoes” meets Quentin Tarantino and by that I mean, she was a Southern lady through and through and she could cuss and talk about sex, though sometimes she whispered when she did. At Hollins University, where she ran the career center and led a course called “life planning,” she taught god-knows-how-many students of a “nontraditional” age that, yes, they could go to college and, yes, they could get better jobs and, hell yes, they could make it on their own because, if she could do it, they could too.

To my knowledge, she never left her condo without a careful application of lipstick and tissues in her purse. Not once did she fail to ask to see a picture of my kids.

Tina Rolen died Friday at the age of 60, leaving behind a lot of people who aren’t going to know what to do. Her friend Jan, the Hollins chaplain, told me she saw Tina the night before she died; that she was peaceful, awake and semi-alert but that she seemed to be looking somewhere else, at a different horizon.

Tina always did know where she was going, and she never minded the journey, not even the occasional detour or flat tire. She usually came back with a funny story and a tip about some great new food she’d tried and, before you knew it, you’d be laughing so hard you were crying and making plans to meet there for lunch.

Kale on the brain

By Sam Dean, Dec. 4, 2008

It’s been a while since I’ve food-blogged. The truth is, I haven’t been cooking much. But yesterday I made an inspiring kale dish (if I say so myself), based on a recipe in the Boston Globe.

A kale Caesar salad sounds oddly bland at first — unless, that is, you’ve been schooled on the nuanced techniques of slivered greens by chef Carlos Amaral, owner of Carlos’ Brazilian Restaurant in Roanoke. He’s the eccentric, near-deaf chef who likes to say, “I have 1,000 foods in my brain.”

It was Carlos who turned me on to sautéed collards greens and kale back in my food-columnist days. The trick is to remove the super-thick parts of the stalk, then roll the leaves up and cut them into slivers before flash-sautéing in garlic, olive oil and crushed red pepper. (Served best with rice and black beans — and Carlos’s fire-hot drizzling oil, if you have it.)

The Kale Caesar is different, though, since it’s not cooked. But if you let it sit overnight in the dressing, as I did with my leftovers, it’s even better the next day. Unlike lettuce, kale can stand up to the pressure of being shlepped in dressing overnight without wilting. You see, kale has backbone; kale can party all night without looking rode hard and put up wet.

Kale also reminds me of my favorite Franklin County farmer, Jack Ferguson. It was a year ago this month that I had the privilege of writing about his friendship with Kris Peckman, the downsized banker and kale lover who volunteered to help octogenarian Jack out on his farm because Jack’s ill wife was no longer up to the task. Not only did Kris enable Jack to keep farming. But in keeping him going, she in effect kept him alive.

I’ll never forget Sam Dean’s beautiful photograph (above) of the two of them, with Kris driving the old tractor and Jack balancing himself expertly on the hitch, holding on to flimsy reflectors for support. Oh, and did I mention that he’s 88? And that when we scaled a steep hill to look at his favorite tree, he left me in the dust?

By Sam Dean, Dec. 4, 2008

Dear kale lovers, check out the recipe below. And dear Roanoke friends, remember that you can still buy Jack and Kris’s kale at the Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op.

I’ll be talking about my story on this farming duo on Sunday. The Harvard Crimson editors have asked me to talk to their writers about how to work narrative details into quick-hit features.

So kale, as you can see, has definitely been on my brain.

Kale Caesar

5 anchovy fillets, rinsed and patted drive (I bought a tin of them and froze the leftovers in a small baggie for the next salad)

2 cloves garlic (double the garlic, that should go without saying!)

1 T lemon juice (double that too)

1 T red wine vinegar

3/4 cup olive oil (I used about a half cup)

1 tsp. black pepper

1/3 cup grated Parmesan

3 cups diced bread (I used good sourdough, about 1/3 of a loaf)

Salt, to taste (I use Ezera Wertz’s homemade sea salt blend — it can’t be beat, available at his Brambleton Avenue store and a great Christmas gift – hint hint)

1 pound kale, sliced into quarter-inch ribbons

1.   In a food processor, blend the anchovies and 2 cloves of garlic. Add the lemon juice and vinegar. With the motor running, add 1/2 cup of olive oil in a thin steady stream. Add pepper and Parmesan. (Throw in some red pepper flakes if you’re inclined.)

2.   In a large skillet over medium heat, put a slathering of oil oil down. Add some more crushed garlic and the bread cubes. Stir a lot, for 5 or so minutes until crisp and golden. Toss with more of Ezera’s salt.

3.   In a big salad bowl, combine the kale and enough dressing to coat it liberally. Add croutons and stir, and maybe even a bit more Parmesan.

Tom and I ate this creation for lunch with an over-easy egg that made the croutons just perfect for sopping.

Thanks to Jill Santopietro of The Globe for this recipe.


Kamikaze cooking

 Inspired by Mark Bittman’s recent column on 101 great salads, I’ve set out to do some Fridge-cleaning-out before our move North. I hope to employ a system my chef-friend Michelle calls Kamikaze cooking.

 That is, I’m trying my hardest to create some edible meals from the food that’s been lingering near the back of my shelves and in my freezer . . . without, in theory, buying more.

The process is humbling — a reminder of how much we want and waste.

Does a family of four really need five cans of canellini beans? Three half-bags of lentils? Five stalks of rhubarb (but no companion strawberries)?

Fish sauce and flax-seed oil? Really?

 I know I’m being my mother’s daughter when I insist on freezing little baggies full of recipe surplus ingredients — partial cans of adobo sauce, tomato paste and coconut milk. Did I really think I would remember, five months later, what that crap actually is? 

 But back to Bittman, the New York Times blogger/columnist who presumed to know “How to Cook Everything” in his bestselling cookbook. I’ve been a fan ever since I made his crazy-simple cabbage salad. Bittman focuses on simple, seasonal and fresh — not the stuff of year-old lentils.

Nonetheless, his ability to take disparate ingredients and turn them into something you crave for weeks on end is amazing. That blueberry/carrot/sunflower-seed salad, for instance. And that tomato/basil combo where you take a crusty grilled cheese sandwich, cube it and let it pinch-hit for the croutons. And that peach-tomato-red onion number. I haven’t tried these latest Bittman creations yet — they definitely require another trip to the store — but, seriously, I can’t wait.

 Tonight’s dinner involved a salmon I scored two of during a half-price sale at Kroger last month, baking one and freezing one for later. I placed the fillet in a Pam-sprayed baking dish, slathered a healthy layer of brown mustard and then honey, mixing the condiments together with the back of a spoon. I topped the fish with a healthy sprinkling of Panko (Japanese bread crumbs), which had been sitting in the pantry so long I don’t even remember why I bought it.

 I got Tom to peel the potatoes, which is my wifely right, in preparation for my favorite mashed potatoes, which used up most of an already opened block of cream cheese and was heavy on the horseradish.

 For salad, I pulled a handful of cherry tomatoes and a cucumber from the garden, added some walnuts and a huge handful of blueberries picked by my husband, his mom and sister yesterday at Crow’s Nest Farm in Blacksburg.

I used up my last 4 cloves of garlic for the dressing, which I’ve adapted from a recipe in an old Junior League of Colorado cookbook: Boil cloves in water for 10 minutes, squeeze the soft garlic into the food processer. To that, add: the juice of 1 lemon, a tsp. or so each of mustard and Worcestershire. As you whir, stream in olive oil (1/2 cup or so), which will net you the world’s most fantastic lemon-garlic vinaigrette — enough dressing to last you the next two suppers. (Just don’t let your husband mistakenly toss those dressing leftovers down the sink when he does the dishes. . . which, seriously, since you cooked, I hope he does.)

 With just three weeks to go till the moving truck arrives, I don’t want to throw this stuff away, I definitely don’t want to move it and let’s face it: I’m cheap. So. . . 

 Favorite canellini bean recipe anyone? Ideas for the bat-sized yellow squash Dan insisted I bring home from his garden? Where are Ian’s lovely eggplants when you need them (roasted, in Amy’s Moroccan chicken stew recipe)? Is there a good home out there willing to adopt a $15 bottle of organic flax-seed oil?

 I’ll throw in the fish oil as a bonus, for free. Maybe even the smidge of red curry paste from my short-lived love affair  with Korean chicken noodle soup. Come to think of it, there’s a pack of rice noodles in it for you, too.

 

No butter? No milk? No problem. I used vegetable oil and orange juice as substitutions in this recipe for peach muffins this morning.

No butter? No milk? No problem. I used the last bit of vegetable oil in my pantry and orange juice as substitutions in this recipe for peach muffins this morning.

Why I love Roanoke — and not just for the eggplant-gouda rolls at Isaacs


 Today, I should’ve been packing. The boxes were assembled, the mandate clear: Pack away our winter stuff first, things we won’t need until the Massachusetts chill settles into our wimpy Southern bones.

Instead, while Tom and Max made their first foray to Boston to get the lay of our soon-to-be homeland, I stayed home in Roanoke and I cooked. 

 Inspired by our recent houseguest, Jes Gearing, who writes a kick-butt vegan food blog called Cupcake Punk, I decided to try something new, an eggplant-gouda appetizer dish I’d sampled at The Isaacs Mediterranean Restaurant last week and absolutely loved. It didn’t hurt that our restaurant manager-friend, Nicole, used to be one of our babysitters, so when I stopped by yesterday and begged to know how they made it, she happily spilled the bones of the recipe.

 I used the nonstick griddle on my newish gas range — something I wasn’t appreciating fully until Jes, our soon-to-be tenant, gushed about all the great food she was going to make on it, complete with a spiffy looking picture of our kitchen that she posted on her blog.

 Funny how it’s hard to appreciate things until someone else points out the wonders of them to you. I think of that a lot these days as I go about my daily routines — hiking through the near-ripe wineberry patches with Tom and Lucky in the mornings, tending my zinnia cut-flower bed that always makes me think of my sweet pal Frances, yacking at uncle Frosty at his poolside (even though he really should be indoors resting after his radiation treatments — having cancer seems to make him even more hard-headed than before.)

 These are the things I’ll miss most about my adopted home of 20 years, a place where you can’t stand in the checkout at Kroger without running into at least one person you know. Or ride your bike up Mill Mountain. Or walk down to Grandin Road, where the new Saturday farmer’s market is hopping. (Foodies, check out the softball-sized shitaakes trucked down from Floyd. And Ashley Donahue’s brownies. And the Amherst County goat cheese. . . . )

 It doesn’t matter that I don’t see my favorite reporter-mentor and friend, Mary Bishop, but every couple of weeks. I’m going to miss knowing she’s only five minutes away if I need her. (Who’s gonna bring us sweet-and-sour soup the next time we catch a cold?)

 When I first came to Roanoke as a single 25-year-old, I thought I’d be here two years, three years tops. But leaving it has never felt quite right.

 Sure, there were bigger and better newspapers I could have tried to work for – though whether I’d still be gainfully employed at them is another issue, never mind being allowed to do the enterprise journalism I’m blessed to do here.

 Sure, there were more exciting cities and cooler mid-sized places. Towns with universities and bigger greenway systems and better schools and places where you can get Dogfish Head 60 Minutes IPA on tap. (People at Isaacs, please, listen up! )

 But leaving never felt right, especially since Tom’s parents moved here last year, supplying Will with a steady supply of homemade cookies that he picks up daily on his way home from school.

 I’m looking forward to my new home in Cambridge — a bike ride away from Trader Joe’s (sorry, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s the truth) — just as Jes is already planning out the meals she’ll make in my kitchen. But when the year ends, I know I’ll be itching to get back to more than my stovetop griddle here in the ‘Noke, which is a lot more than my adopted hometown. It’s home.

 

 Eggplant-gouda appetizer rolls

(Inspired by a recent special at The Issacs Restaurant and a conversation with its lovely manager, Nicole Coleman. Note: I added the Kalamata paste because I’ve been addicted to it ever since we started the Flat Belly Diet. Sorry, Nicole — if you’re an olive junkie, I think it’s even better this way.)

 

1 eggplant, peeled, sliced longways and sweated (salted and left to sit for 30 minutes or so, until the water oozes out) and patted dry

Half pound or so chunk of gouda cheese

Olive oil for copious brushing

Kosher salt

Pepper

Kalamata olive paste (pitted and pureed with garlic, to taste — I use about a half cup olives to 2 cloves garlic)

 

1.    On your oventop griddle — or lacking that, a good nonstick skillet will do — brush on olive oil and then pan-fry slices of eggplant, grilling on medium-high heat and turning over and reapplying olive oil as needed. I did it in batches, flipping every minute or so, until they were pliable and slightly browned (see photo below).

2.    Remove from griddle, let cool on a plate.

3.    When cool, slather a tablespoon or so of olive paste on larger end of eggplant strip, then place a chunk (about a tablespoon-sized piece: picture a quarter that’s three times its depth) of cheese on top. Wrap the eggplant up into a roll.

4.    Place on oiled cookie sheet and broil for 3 minutes until the cheese is nicely melted but not so much that it’s spilled out all over the pan. (I used my “Low Broil” setting.)

5.    Serve immediately, with salt and pepper to taste — and a Dogfish, if you have one, on the side.

 

Eggplant frying on the griddle

Eggplant frying on the griddle.

 

Finished rollups, after low-broiling.

Finished rollups, after low-broiling.