Saturday, March 6, 2010

Beware the Ides of March: Fallen Caesar Cookies

Cook ‘Em if You Got ‘Em is pleased and proud to present you, for the first time EVER, a holiday recipe well in advance of a holiday: Fallen Caesar Cookies for the Ides of March!

OK, so it’s not really a holiday, and I’m the only one who celebrates it, and the cookies usually freak people out. But still!

Here, I’ll let you in on the backstory. When I first moved to the Twin Cities, it was in the middle of a recession. I worked for a school library book publisher. A lot of the staff were, like me, Gen Xers right out of school. In college, we’d been writers, visual artists, English majors, theater minors. Now we were working for abysmal pay in a company with a World War II–era business model. We were energetic but cynical; creative but financially crippled.

Those times were an anxious mix of compliance and defiance. The myth of the American Dream was evaporating for college graduates across the country who would NOT be doing better than our parents. As well, I didn’t know anyone my age who was interested in the Baby Boomer live-to-work ethic. We didn’t want to be like the older adults around us, but we were scrambling to establish adult identities. For me and everyone I knew at Lerner, this included finding and using our creative voices as artists.

So we were constantly doing things like, say, composing haikus about our lunches. Or making Jello aquariums, complete with Swedish fish, for the company potluck. Or using decorative gourds to create dioramas of famous characters in literature.

Or commemorating the Ides of March by baking sugar cookies decorated with stab wounds and staging a recital, in a Boston accent, of Marc Antony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar. This was so much fun that I started doing it every year.

Now we’re in a much worse recession than the one in which I came of age. I look at the young adults around me and I can remember how it felt, but I can’t imagine what’s going to happen: what career paths will they have? How will the world change because of them, and how will it change them?

And THAT is why I’m putting out the call: everyone bake these cookies for March 15. Take them to work if you have a job. Or take them to school, or to church, or send a box to a distant friend. Just share them however you can. Read the funeral speech. Not for any logical reason. Just because it’s the Ides of March, and we should all beware, and tough times call for ridiculous measures.

Fallen Caesar Cookies
Use your favorite cookie dough recipe to make my traditional non sequitur response to The Man. My favorite is Rich Rolled Sugar Cookies from Joy of Cooking.

1 recipe sugar cookie dough
1 tube of red Cake Mate decorating gel
1 cookie cutter shaped like a person, i.e. gingerbread boy

Roll out the dough and cut out the shapes. Transfer shapes to a cookie sheet. Use the decorating gel to make seven marks—one for each conspirator in Caesar’s assassination—on each cookie. Use a little pressure to make a slight dent in the surface of the dough.

Bake the cookies, watching carefully. You want to bake them until they are just done, rendering as pale a cookie as possible without underbaking. This will make for more lurid contrast between the cookie and the stab wound. The decorating gel will bake into the cookie and will not brush or smear off after the cookie cools.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Beans and Sausage Belong in Soup

Honestly, you guys, I don’t set out to cook cauldrons full of undifferentiated glop. This cauldronful is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from the vat of stuff I made last post. This is bean soup, a magic soup full of protein and fiber and flavor. It will fill you up on a cold night. It will make your house smell so good.

Beth and I invented this soup because we wanted to make dinner for some friends. But we did NOT want to spend the last hour fussing in the kitchen while the friends stood about awkwardly, wondering if they should offer to help. The beauty of this soup is that it is easy to make. The secret of its deliciousness is in patience, not effort. Give it enough time on the stove for the vegetables to soften and melt a bit. The mellow bean flavor is punched up with sage and sausage*. Kale adds bright color as well as vitamins and minerals.

Add a salad and some good bread, and you’re done.

White Bean, Kale and Sausage Soup
Serves 6-8
Dry beans are more planning and monkey business than canned beans. Of course, they are correspondingly more delicious. You can soak and cook some extras, then pop them in the freezer to cut down your prep time for a future soup.

1 lb white beans: cannellini, great northern, or navy
2 bay leaves
4 peppercorns
3 carrots, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
8-12 oz sausage*: sweet Italian, hot Italian, andouille, chorizo; anything with garlic and/or chile
1 bunch kale, roughly chopped
4-6 leaves of sage
Salt to taste

*If you are a vegetarian, then instead of sausage, get some olive oil, a chopped bulb of fennel, some cayenne, and some chopped parsley.

Soak the beans overnight.

The next day, put the beans and their soaking water in a soup pot. DO NOT discard the cooking water. All the deliciousness is in it. I don’t care what your mom said about how throwing out the water will reduce bean gas. It won’t. It will only reduce my regard for you. Don’t you step to me.

Ahem. Make sure there is enough water to cover the beans. Add the bay leaves and the peppercorns. Bring them to a boil, then simmer them until they are tender.

Keep a kettle of water on the stove while you cook beans. If they need more water, bring the kettle to a boil. Adding cold water to beans makes their skins tough. Passive-aggressive little sulkers, aren’t they?

Toss the carrots, onion, and garlic cloves in the pot. Keep simmering until these soften. The garlic should break down. You can stir this into the broth, which by now should be getting thick and creamy as the beans break down, too.

About an hour before you plan to serve the soup, add the sage.

Meanwhile, brown the sausage. Or heat the olive oil and saute the fennel bulb, adding the cayenne for the last few minutes. Put the frying pan contents in the soup, reserving the cooking fat.

Sauté the kale, then pour a half cup of water in the pan and cover it tightly. Turn the heat down and steam until the kale is tender, maybe 20 to 30 minutes. (Keep an eye on it so the pan doesn’t get too dry.) Stir the kale into the pot. If you have parsley, sprinkle it on top of each bowl of soup.