October 28, 2012

Kitchen Soup (and roast chicken) for the Expat Soul

Last week I told you that living in Zürich isn't that different. 


I wonder what planet I was on last week (hopefully one of the hot ones since it is currently snowing). Life here is different, very different, for a variety of reasons. 

There are the things that are obvious at first, but which eventually slip away and become the background noise that hums this city to life...
...like the colorful buildings and the playful way they touch the sky...
...the long tongue-twisting street names (which simply mean Justice Alley)...
...the traditional Zopf bread, which is braided and fluffy, full of milk, butter and eggs...
...the Alps, most definitely the Alps...
...the farm only a few blocks away from our apartment and the friendly sheep that I greet on my daily walk...

Hovering just above the hum of buildings and bread (and really good butter) are the quirks and ticks, steady and constant, of the people here and how they live. Initially many of the Swiss-isms ruffled me. I wanted to scream Relax! and cut an escape hole in their perfectly constructed box. But, as it tends to go, instead of the Swiss climbing out, I've found myself slowing creeping in and adjusting to life in Switzerland by becoming just a little bit Swiss around the edges (and the edges are sharp mind you).

I used to be fashionably late to parties and now I show up on time with thirty seconds to spare. It's the Swiss way; they are a punctual group, with the entire country running with the precision of a Swiss watch. The perfectly synced and scheduled network of trams, trains, busses and boats can get you anywhere you need to go and exactly on time. It's wonderful for dinner party hostesses: your guests will arrive exactly when you asked them to, if not a little early. Knowing this you can put the chicken in the oven thirty minutes before start time, which leaves half an hour for a cocktail and some gougères before you pull the beautifully crisp and golden bird out of the oven. Ta-da! Hostess-with-the-Mostess! And sober to boot because you didn't guzzle those three compulsory glasses of the-roast-is-cold-beans-are-mushy-where-are-the-damn-guests wine. So invite us over for dinner and we'll be there exactly thirty seconds before you were expecting us.
As I dine on your perfectly roasted chicken you'll notice that I'll keep the fork in my left hand during the meal. It makes for a a nice eating rhythm; fork holds, knife slices, fork lifts and tips and comes down pausing slightly before carrying on. I guess it's more of a European-ism than a Swiss-ism (kind of like changing out of your PJs to take the garbage out - yes I do it too), but I adjusted and now it feels natural.

Another Swiss-ism will strike just as we are leaving your perfectly hosted party. I'll tell you how lovely it was and how much we enjoyed the evening and then I'll proceed to kiss you on the cheek three times (trying to one up the French I suspect), and launch into a bout goodbye diarrhea - Aufweidersehen Merci Vilmal, Dankeschön, Schönes Wochenende, Bis Bald, Tschüss, Bis Morgen, Widerleurge!! Okay so maybe I won't bombard you with the Swiss goodbye at your Haus, especially if you are American, but I will - the goodbyes not the kisses - with the cashier at the grocery store, the vendors at the farmers market and the receptionist at the doctors office. I play goodbye ping-pong until I've run out of goodbye terminology and then I smile and run before it has time to start up again. Ciao Ciao!
So, yes, there are the sheep, the punctual people and the fact that I drink full fat milk and eat veal with abandon, but life is also different because I'm stuck in career limbo land. I thought I had everything figured out - my career, my path, my plan - after three years in architecture school, but then we moved here and the puzzle that I had pieced together was taken apart and the pieces put back in the box and given a good shake. I don't know how or when I'll find my way back to architecture. Everytime I'm about to open my resume.doc and start studying for a German proficiency exam I meet an architect who tells me the road will be tough, if not impossible, and that I shouldn't even bother. Oy! I'm trying not to worry or feel guilty, but that seems to be against my nature. 'What do I want to do with my life' is a question I don't have any finite answers too. I'm guessing you might know the feeling. I imagine we all find ourselves here at some point.
I don't mean to say I'm not happy, I am happy, probably the happiest I've ever been, I just find myself pondering the big weighty issues a bit more than I expected. In the midst of all the confusion though I've found a few interests that I never knew I had. I guess I'm experiencing the clichéd silver lining, a lining compete with good meals, a few trusty cameras and lots more writing than I imagined.

Life without cooking feels like so long ago, meanwhile it was less than two years ago that we lived on take out, nights out and a healthy dose of pasta. Such is the life of a graduate student I guess. Now I go to the grocery store everyday and find myself cooking something at least twice a day. It's like I'm living the real life Kitchen Soup for the Expat Soul. (If that's not one in the series it should be). I make soup and stock when I'm questioning everything because I find the simplicity and sure success of both reassuring. Soup is a cure-all: good for sniffles, but also for homesick expats. Chocolate cake on the other hand is good for calming me down. I'll make a dark and decadent flourless chocolate cake after a rigorous round of charades with Herr Rüeggi, the haus handyman who only speaks a deeply guttural Swiss German, about the broken dishwasher or sticky lock. (The dishwasher was much easier to act out and for my acting prowess I ate two slices of cake, but I also ate two slices for the lock, because that was tough and I needed a pick me up).
There's more to say - on guilt, impermanence, hope and so-on - but I've been ruminating on this post since Tuesday, trying to express everything just so, but that's turned out to be tough (I'm not sure writing will ever be easy for me), and I decided it was best to post something to get things started. And besides, this post feels miles long, are you still with me? I'll share more another time, when my thoughts are a big clearer and words easier to find.

In the meantime make and eat this roast chicken.

Roast chicken on our table is a sure sign of a life lived differently in Zürich. I'd never handled a whole chicken let alone roasted one before we moved here. Now we eat a version of roast chicken at least once a week. I can't believe I haven't shared a roast chicken recipe here yet. I think it's because it's quick and comes together when it's already too dark for photos. I have time to cook, but that doesn't mean I don't love an easy dinner, especially one that not only looks fancy but tastes damn good. I approach roast chicken like a one pot meal or a one bowl cake, I put the chicken on a baking sheet and surround it with potatoes, carrots and onions, which will all soften and flavor with the help of a little olive oil and the drippings from the chicken. It couldn't be easier.

// Roast Chicken //
note : Swiss chickens are small. The biggest I've been able to find is only about 1.5 kilos or 3.3 pounds. It's a good size for 2-4 people, but any more guests and I need to make two. It goes without saying that you should buy the best chicken you can find, even if that means spending 25chf (!!) on said organic chicken. The taste is worth it. 

Read/use this recipe with the understanding that there are as many ways to roast a chicken as there are clouds in the sky (or snow flakes on the ground in Zürich right now). This is just one way that I like because you put it in the oven and then come back an hour or so later and take it out - no basting, no flipping, no nothing. 

And in regard to how many potatoes, onions & carrots you need will totally depend on how big your baking sheet is. My baking sheet is half the size of a normal baking sheet because my oven is only about as big as the one in Barbie's dream house. If you have a big oven and a big pan feel free to load it up with veggies. Brussels sprouts also make a nice addition. 

chicken - 1.5 kg / 3.5 lbs
apple - 1 small, to shove in the cavity
rosemary - a few sprigs
thyme - a few springs
salt and pepper
olive oil
potato - as many as fit on the pan
carrot - as many as fit on the pan
onion - at least two, but more if there is room

Preheat the oven to 425ºF / 220ºC

Pat down the bird with paper towel so that it is dry. Sprinkle generously, inside and out, with freshly ground salt and black pepper. Place the rosemary and thyme in the cavity first and then follow with the whole apple (feel free to substitute an orange slice). Flip the wings so that they rest on the breast instead of under the chicken. 

Cut the potatoes into chunks, the carrots into slices and the onions into wedges (don't separate the onion wedges or the onions will dry out in the oven). Toss with 1-2 tablespoons or more if using more veggies. You want the oil to lightly coat the veggies not drown them. 

Place the chicken on the baking sheet and surround with the vegetable, taking care to place the potatoes flesh side down so they get crispy. Drizzle the bird with olive oil or smear with butter (either way, both butter and oil will help the skin get crispy). 

Put the chicken in the oven and cook for approximately 45-60 minutes. If you cut the bird you want the juice to run clear not pink. When the chicken is done place it on a cutting board and cover it with tinfoil. Let it sit for 10 minutes before cutting it. While the chicken is sitting put the vegetables back into the oven, but turn oven off, or into a warming drawer if you have one. 

Cut the chicken into leg-thigh and breast sections and serve with the vegetables and a simple salad. 

October 17, 2012

how to eat a pear

More often than not I forget that we live 3,963 miles from home. Life in Zürich really isn't that different. But of course just as I'm getting comfortable and beginning to feel like an insider WHAM the Swiss pull a fast one on me and I'm left feeling far away. The most recent culture shock incident occurred at the market yesterday when I watched as a woman ate a pear from the top down. Crazy! She might as well have been fifteen feet tall with blue skin, pointy ears, and affinity for climbing trees. 

I didn't take notice of her at first (maybe because she was only five feet tall). I was busy perusing the Nusslisalat and she was inspecting heads of Eichblatsalat. I gazed around to get someones attention and I looked over at her just in time to see her pluck the stem off of a pear and chomp off the top. 

Is it still a pear when you take away its elongated pear neck? I don't know, but I'm not sure I'll ever be the same. 

I grew up eating pears like apples - and I'm guessing you did too - where the first bite is a big one smack in the widest part of the fruit. The stem on a pear is actually quite useful; something to hold on to as you make your way around the juicy circumference. Before this recent incident I would have bet there was a universal, cross cultural, understanding that pears are eaten around the middle first. Little did I know...

It's unsettling, I know. 

And no, this woman and her pear were not an isolated incident. I asked Zach about it last night and he confirmed that his Swiss colleagues eat pears from the top-down too. 

Try it sometime, maybe when you have company - blow their minds just a little bit. Tell them it must be all the Swiss chocolate you've been eating recently. And then serve them poached pears, maybe even with chocolate sauce, to ensure that their minds keep spinning. They'll never think of pears the same again, but that's okay, this poached pear recipe is worth a mind game or two. 

I'm not sure how I decided on a poached pear recipe. I mean I know I had pears on the mind - in a big way - but I'm not sure I've ever even eaten a fresh poached pear, and certainly not a pear poached in red wine. It sound so simple, almost too easy to be so good. The simplicity is what's interesting about it actually; just a little wine, sugar, orange zest and cinnamon and you can elevate the one dimensional pear into a complex balance of flavors. The pearness of the pear remains, but the red wine makes it fruitier and the sugar makes it sweeter and the orange and cinnamon make it, well, taste like Christmas. 
I might start making poached pears just for the fragrance that dances sweetly around the apartment. To me they smell like Christmas. To you they might smell like fall. My mom has a tiny, no bigger than a coffee cup, white pot with a wooden handle that she fills with apple cider and mulling spices and leaves on the stove at Christmas time. She always adds a cinnamon stick or two to the pot and perhaps a bit of orange zest and lets it bubble and stew all afternoon and evening. The minute I caught my first whiff and taste of Glühwein - the Swiss mulled wine drink - I was immediately transported back to our Connecticut kitchen. 

Add this to your list of dinner party recipes for the smell alone. Your guests will arrive and think they've stumbled on Hansel and Gretel's cottage. It won't matter if you've burnt the meat or overcooked the rice because you'll always have the pears. 

At first I wasn't sure how I felt about dying the pears red with wine, but it turns out the deep terra-cotta hue is one of the things I like best about them. Paired with ice cream or yogurt the pinkness of the pear stands out. Until of course you cut into it and reveal the pale middle. 
// Poached Pears //
Serves 4

a note on the pears : I chose to leave the pears whole because I like how they look and I liked the idea of cutting into them to reveal the inside. Leaving them whole means you have the core and seeds still so you will need to cut around those when you eat them. You can also half or quarter the pears and remove the core/seeds before cooking. It's really up to you and your personal aesthetics.

a note on the wine: use a fruity red wine if you have one. I used a fruity Merlot. Definitely don't blow the bank on the wine since you will be cooking with it it doesn't need to be exceptional. 

4 pears, pealed (peal from top down in long strips)
2 cups red wine
1/2 cup natural cane sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
orange zest - large strips from 1/2 orange
a squeeze of orange juice

Pour the wine and sugar in a heavy bottomed pot. Add the cinnamon sticks, orange zest and orange juice and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the pears and reduce to a simmer. Cook the pears, spinning them every once and a while, for about 20-30 minutes (less if you've halved or quartered the pears). Remove them from the pot and allow them to cool to room temperature before serving. Serve with ice cream or yogurt. 

October 09, 2012

apologies for a poisonous pumpkin

No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize - Julia Child

I fully support the notion that you should never apologize for a dish that hasn't turned out as you envisioned. First of all your guests have no idea what you envisioned (always best to keep the menu to yourself) and secondly they are happy to be out of the house, away from their oven and dishwasher, and dining with friends. Melissa Clark in last Friday's Good Appetite column reiterates Julia's never apologize sentiment and offers suggestions to save dishes gone awry. If the dish is simply a lesser version of it's cookbook-self then simply rename it; braised duck turned slick with fat becomes confit de canard and undercooked brownies become molten chocolate cake (both of which in my mind sound better than the original). If the dish has failed beyond a simple renaming Clark has ideas for reinventing the meal; slumped meringues and failed pastries become trifle and overcooked veggies are born anew in a quiche. 

But what about when the meal is actually inedible? Can you apologize then? I did, over and over and over again. In this case it wasn't something I did or didn't do; it was the pumpkin, I had a scapegoat. The little green and white-stripped pumpkins tasted like they had been swimming in a bath of nail polish remover. At first we thought it might just be the skin, sprayed with something or perhaps simply inedible, but no, it was the entire gourd, flesh and all. My friend Bea was a trooper, saying it was fine and not to worry as we shoveled the toxic pumpkins to their own plate and the extra rice and stuffing to our new plates. Had I learned about the toxic pumpkins before offering them as dinner I would have renamed the dish Autumn Rice but I didn't know and once you take a bite of Toxic Stuffed Pumpkin it's impossible to go back. 
While we ate Toxic Stuffed Pumpkin Remnants we discussed the possible trajectory of said toxic pumpkins from farm to table and searched the Internet to see if I had unknowingly elected to serve a poisonous pumpkin variety. Google offered us little in the way of answers. I didn't really expect answers though because I had made the exact same dish, with the exact same pumpkins purchased from the exact same stand at the farmers market, and it was good, stellar even, ready to be written into our weekly fall menu. It's funny how quickly things can change. 
I thought about saving the toxic pumpkins and bringing them back to the stand at the farmers market and demanding an answer for why my stomach was turned into a chemical dump, but then I realized I'd  have to have the conversation in German, which made my head hurt more than my stomach. Anyway, I doubt they were aware that their Speisekürbis (food pumpkin) were in fact not food at all. And as it generally goes with me I'll just assume someone else had the same experience and did enough complaining for the two of us. 
I bet you've been wondering if the pictures here are of the poisonous pumpkin and probably why I've decided to share any pictures at all. The pumpkin featured here was one of the edible ones that I made last week. I was so excited to share it, eager for you to read about the sweet flesh stuffed with savory sausage stuffing, an autumn meal that you'll still want to make well into winter. It's also ones of those meals that is easy but impressive, great guests gathered on a chilly October night. Because I still have some faith in pumpkins as food I wanted to share the recipe with you. 

/ /  stuffed pumpkins //
be sure to ask if the pumpkins you are buying are edible and organic
feel free to add or subtract any of the veggies in the stuffing, it is just a guideline
serves 2 

2 small pumpkins

1 potato

olive oil
2 medium onions
4 carrots
1 celery stalk

salt and pepper

6 small sausage links or 2 big ones

Preheat the oven to 400ºF/200ºC

Slice the top off of the pumpkins and scoop out the seeds (you might need to cut a circle in the middle of the pumpkin first). Place the pumpkins in a dutch oven, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover and bake for about 35-45 minutes until soft and easily punctured with a fork. 

While the pumpkin is cooking prepare the stuffing. 

Peel the potato and chop into small cubes, place in to a pot of boiling water until just soft and then strain. Set aside. 

Pour a glug or two of olive oil into a pan. Chop the onion and add it to the pan, cooking over medium heat, stirring often. Add in the carrots and the celery, chopped. Continue to cook and stir. 

Chop herbs and add a little bit to start, knowing that you can add more later. Stir in the chopped potato. 

Remove the sausage from its casing and once the vegetables are soft add it to the pan, stirring to cook and brown. Taste the stuffing and adjust with more herbs and salt and pepper as desired. 

Once the pumpkins are soft fill them with the stuffing (there will be stuffing leftover) and then place the stuffed pumpkins back in the oven for about 10-15 minutes so that the flavors can cook together. 

Serve with rice, the extra stuffing and salad.