Over the summer, I was browsing cookbooks at Parker & Otis here in Durham, looking for birthday gifts for various family members, and ran across a book of letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto called As Always, Julia, which I was unable to pass by without purchasing as a birthday gift for myself. I started reading it over Thanksgiving and just love it. The letters span from 1951 — when Julia Child sent Bernard DeVoto a gift of a kitchen knife (in response to an essay in Harper’s magazine about how terrible American knives were), and received a letter in return from his wife Avis, who worked as his secretary — to¬† 1961 when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published.

Reading so much detail about what went in to creating the cookbook made me think about the Julie/Julia Project and what happened when someone actually tried to make all of the recipes. Which has resulted in my own little Julie/Julia project. (Fortunately my project is much less demanding than either Julia Child’s creation of the cookbook, or Julie Powell’s execution of it. Though at the same time not likely to result in world renown as a famous chef or a book-and-movie deal for me. But my time will come. I’m sure.)

So for my project, I have read (or am in the process of reading), in addition to the Julia and Avis letters, both of Julie Powell’s books, and after much fruitless clicking and “Page Not Found” messages, I finally managed to locate the original Julie/Julia Project on the Wayback Machine, so I am reading through all 365 days of that.

One of the notable features of the project, mentioned in both the Julie and Julia book and frequently remarked upon in the blog posts, was that Julie and Eric Powell found themselves drowning in dirty dishes, pretty much all the time. Eric was the designated dishwasher and often wasn’t able to keep up. And the interesting thing is that Avis mentioned this very issue in a letter written to Julia on February 1, 1955. She said:

Also been thinking about something Louisette lighted on during the short time she was here. She wondered if Americans would bother to do cooking that meant getting every pot and pan in the kitchen dirty. Wish I’d had time to go into it with her. Because I am deeply convinced that it just is not necessary to let everything pile up to be washed. I suppose it is a sort of fixation of mine. I certainly had it drummed into me thoroughly by my old ma. And I wish you would write something about it. It is so easy to wash up as you go along — absolutely no soap needed. Everybody who reads your book will have a kitchen where the water is continually hot. All that is needed is plenty hot water coming out of the faucet, and a brush. The nylon ones stand up better, but ordinary Fuller Brush sink brushes do very well. Finish with a pan, take ONE MINUTE to stick it under the hot water faucet and brush it out. Turn it upside down to drain and it will be dry in a few minutes. No soap. I just never use soap on utensils, except the detergent that goes into the dishwasher. And it works on the very greasiest of pans, roasting pans and everything, if you do it at once. If you are dishing up, and hurrying to get things hot to the table, have a sinkful of very hot water and put your bulb baster, meat rack, thermometer, skewers and the like in and let them soak. After dinner, use the brush and the running hot water and they are done. I realize this is very hard to knock into people. My last maid was a dream, and a wonderful cook, but she would let the potato pan and the ricer and the strainers sit around and dry hard every time, and I suppose it never entered her dear little head that she spent half an hour extra in the kitchen every night as a result. Let alone wear and tear on pans. I suppose you noticed the way I snatched things from you last summer and washed them up and I hope I didn’t get on your nerves. I just cannot bear to have things pile up. I’ve only seen one article saying all this, and it was in Gourmet sometime back and written by a man who felt as strongly about it as I do, bless him.

All I could think about when I read that was that if only Eric and Julie had taken that strategy to heart when they started, things might have turned out differently.

I know that I myself am not so good about cleaning everything as I go, but I’m very good about rinsing things off before they get all dried up and hardened. And it really does save a lot of hassle.

Go Avis.

[And a side note on the subject line: I remembered reading about the dishwashing thing but knew I hadn’t marked the page. Last night when I went to see if I could find it, I started with the index, and the index for this book is fantastic! There was actually an entry for the exact thing I was looking for: DeVoto, Avis: on “clean as you go” cooking. Thank you Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and your great indexer for this book! All hope is not lost for the publishing industry.]

Alternative Holiday Treats

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

plate with granola bars and Santa

Santa Treats

If you are looking for something to give to whoever you might want to give holiday treats to — friends, neighbors, clients, coworkers, teachers, hairdressers, doormen, elevator operators (everyone needs to go read the John Cheever story “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor” when you’re done here) and of course, Santa — and you would like something other than butter-laden, chocolatey-ness to send out into the world, I am here to remind you of the delicious granola bars that smitten kitchen posted a recipe for in 2009 and that I made a few times in 2010 but never got quite right.

I came back to the recipe this year because I was looking for something I could eat in the morning shortly after getting up, on days when I had to be up and out of the house on an accelerated schedule. (The problem with not being hungry for an hour or two after you get up is that if you have to actually get up and get out of Dodge, you get really hungry right in the middle of whatever it is you had to leave early for. And then you are trapped somewhere with no access to food. And that is a bummer.)

After a few more tries with the granola bars, I am now completely in love with them. (I gave some to a friend a week or two ago and told her I was still working on the recipe but that they were pretty good, I hoped she liked them. She emailed a few days later and said she thought I could stop working on the recipe, and could I please send it to her.)

So here’s the latest version, and what I learned.

The first thing I learned is that you should definitely get quick-cooking oats; the ones I made with old-fashioned oats pulsed in the blender or food processor, as the original recipe gave as an alternative to quick-cooking oats, did not hold together. The ones with quick-cooking oats worked much better.

The second thing I learned is that you should follow the instructions and use parchment to line the pan.

I feel like every cookie or brownie recipe I see these days tells you to use parchment, which just seems like a waste of paper to me, just oil the pan like they used to do back in the olden days. But because of the falling-apart problem, I’m going with parchment, because you can pull the whole thing out of the pan and then cut it, which keeps it from falling to pieces when you try to put a spatula under individual squares and pull them out.

So after making those two changes, I ended up with actual granola bars, not granola bar crumbles. Hooray.

And in terms of ingredients, you can mix and match and put in whatever strikes your fancy.


Fruit and Nuts and Seeds

The main downside of these is that nuts are expensive, and some oils and sweeteners too. You feel like you spend a million dollars getting everything together. But if you get a bunch of different things, you don’t use that much of any of them, so you can make a whole bunch of batches with a whole bunch of different things in them. Just keep them all in the freezer until it’s time for the next round. And also you can mix in lower-cost options — sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, coconut — and that helps.

The last batch I made had coconut oil and safflower oil as the oils; honey, molasses, and agave syrup as the liquid sweeteners; dried apricots and raisins as the fruit; cashews, pecans, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and coconut flakes as the mixed nuts and seeds; and peanut butter as the nut butter. (The previous two batches had pepitas, which I missed in this last batch; I didn’t realize I’d used all of them up.) And I made it with 1/4 cup of brown sugar, instead of 1/2 cup, because the first few batches felt too sweet for breakfast.

They are much better than store-bought granola bars, and maybe even better than cookies (well, for breakfast, at least). Enjoy!

Granola Bars

1-2/3 cups quick cooking oats
1/3 cup oat flour (or oats processed into flour in a blender or food processor)
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup sugar (brown or white)
1/4 tsp cinnamon (optional)
1/4 tsp salt

1/3 cup nut butter

1 cup dried fruit
2 cups mixed nuts and seeds

6 Tbsp oil, or melted butter
6 Tbsp liquid sweetener
1 Tbsp water

In a large bowl, combine oats, oat flour, sugar, cinnamon (if using), and salt. Stir to mix.

Chop nuts and fruit into small pieces.

Over low heat, combine sweetener, oil, and water and stir to combine.

Pour combined oil and sweetener mixture over oats. Add nut butter. Stir until everything is mixed together and the oats are coated with oil and sweetener. Add nuts and seeds and stir until everything is coated and uniformly distributed.

Place a sheet of parchment in the bottom of an 8 x 8 inch pan, with enough overhang on the sides to use as handles when removing.

Spoon the mixture into the pan and, using a sheet of plastic or waxed paper between your hand and the batter, press press press until it is all packed into the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees until the top is evenly brown.

Remove from oven and let cool. When completely cooled, remove from pan using parchment overhang, peel off parchment, and cut into squares.

These keep well in a closed container (e.g., plastic storage container or cookie tin) for at least a week. I don’t know how they freeze because I’ve never been able to keep them around long enough to need to freeze them.

The Holiday Corridor

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I have to make a small confession before I start this post, which is that I am mildly addicted to reading advice columns. “Ask Beth” was a particular favorite of mine back in the day. I also used to love reading “My Problem and How I Solved It” in Good Housekeeping magazine. I don’t know why, I just dig that kind of thing.

A couple of years ago I read this pathetic letter to Carolyn Hax, proprietress of the “Tell Me About It” column (syndicated by the Washington Post and appearing twice a week in the Raleigh News & Observer, which is where I read it) from someone who had a terrible time with holidays, her immediate family was generally dysfunctional and she had no close relatives. She had tried various approaches — volunteering, inviting people from church, inviting friends of her kids — but none of them had panned out. She and her daughter had spent the most recent Thanksgiving “eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers,” and she felt that they were destined to spend the rest of their holidays that way. She wrote to Carolyn asking how she could help prepare her daughter for coping with this sad life.

Carolyn acknowledged that there were some real problems in the letter-writer’s life that she needed try to address, but also pointed out that the rest of the letter seemed to be her taking things to extremes and wallowing in self-pity.

CH’s main piece of advice was that the letter-writer simply let go of the “traditional Thanksgiving script,” and write herself a new one — that she should look at the holiday as nothing more or less than a day off from work, and take it from there.

The reason this letter struck me is not just because eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers sounds like not a bad holiday to me, but because it reminded me of how worked up people get over holidays, and how difficult it can be for people whose lives might not have turned out quite the way they had imagined, to deal with certain situations.

And I thought CH’s advice was generally good, but I would have added one other small bit of advice, which is that the first thing you need to do if, for whatever reason, you find the holiday season distressing or depressing, is to …


And possibly the radio, too.

Just take my word on this. You need to kill the commercials.

You can’t avoid all holidayness — you will have to leave the house at some point, and Christmas decorations are everywhere — but if you have the television on you are simply bombarded with it. It’s a lot easier to ignore front yards with reindeer in them and baking displays on the end caps at the local Stop and Shop than it is tune out a continuous barrage of commercials involving people giving each other expensive gifts and attending fabulous parties with a whole bunch of beautiful people who live in perfectly decorated houses and who all love each other.

That’s just all I can say. Turn off the television. I guarantee that you will feel better the instant the screen goes dark.

[Aside on living without television…
If you are at a loss as to what to do with yourself now that you cannot watch television, my suggestions would be to:

(a) read something interesting (may I recommend David Copperfield, it is 900+ pages long, that’ll keep you out of trouble for a good long while)
(b) get back to an old hobby (knitting, sewing, woodworking)
(c) acquire a new hobby (ceramics, welding, boxing)

Make holiday cards, paint your house, clean the basement, bake cookies for the neighbors, trace your genealogy, dig holes in your yard and then fill them up. Who cares.

If you like having television for background noise, see if you can substitute listening to music, or talk radio (NPR or whatever else you have access to), or even audio books. Whatever you can do that is commercial free.]

This will help you, as Carolyn advised, to “write a new script.” Because you can now think about what is important to you, and what you want to do, and not get all caught up with what you feel like you should be doing based on what you think the rest of the world is doing based on what you see on tv.

The other advice I would give, which she did touch on but didn’t emphasize quite enough, in my opinion, is …

Don’t worry about what the rest of the world is doing.

If you want to be with people, then be with people, and if you want to eat turkey in the kitchen and read newspapers then do that. You can cook and eat a big meal or go to McDonald’s and buy a Big Mac or not eat anything at all. You can spend the day with family, or with friends, or with your dogs, or by yourself. Or any combination thereof. It’s all good.

And if you’re worried about what other people will think, if they will feel sorry for you or just feel like you’re odd, if you do some nontraditional activity, I would give you the advice that someone told me the artist Laurie Anderson gave in response to a question about what other people thought about her and her art. Laurie Anderson reportedly said, “No one else really cares what you’re doing.”

And that is the truth.

No one else really cares what you’re doing. Just do what you want. All the time. But especially during the holidays.