18 May 2008

For You

I think the reason that the first crêpe always comes out poorly is so that the cook has something to nibble on while she's attentively watching over the stove, cooking the rest of the crêpe batter for the hungry masses who have suddenly gathered with big eyes around the kitchen, listening to the sound of sizzling butter and the flap! of a half-finished crêpe hitting the pan. The good crêpes are given away immediately, only to be devoured in the same amount of time, and with only that gimpy first one left for she who stands vigil over the stove.

Fortunately for me, tonight was a night flipping crêpes without the hungry masses. My crêpes got turned into a lovely cake for my seniors, who are graduating in a few weeks, but who have their last class tomorrow. We are going to have a party. I promised to cook for them. Unfortunatly, what I made looks _seriously_ unsubstantial. I may have to pick up something before class tomorrow to make up for it. Maybe some flowers.

Anyway. I made a Gâteau de Crêpes. I know that this has been covered in a few blogs, but what I was _really_ thinking about was this article, which I read a few years ago, and which has floated around in my brain ever since.

Unfortunately for me, I made a few mistakes in the construction of this cake. I was feeling a little miserly about eggs (something about me accidentally slipping one down the drain this morning when I was trying to separate them for muffins, but that's another story), and made two batches of crêpe batter, rather than the required three. What followed was a gâteau de crêpes without the impressive height of the one in the article. I also, in lieu of pastry cream (again, the egg debacle was haunting me), I made cocoa whipped cream. It is delicious. But I'm a little worried that I might get to school tomorrow and the whipped cream will have melted and then... crêpes drowned in chocolate cream. Which would be gross, as well as showcase my ineptitude at properly cooking for my students. I also chose to forgo brûléing the outside. That would have made it gorgeous.


As you can see, it really looks like a bunch of crêpes sandwiching some chocolate cream.

So cross your fingers for me! And next time, I won't skimp on the eggs. Promise.

Gâteau de Crêpes, adapted from The Joy of Cooking/The New York Times

4 tablespoons butter
2 cups whole milk
4 eggs
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
butter for the pan

2 cups heavy whipping cream
3 tablespoons confectioners sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
dash vanilla
1/2 cup crème fraîche, optional

1. In a small pan, heat the butter and milk together until the butter is melted, then set aside. In a bowl, mix together the eggs, flour, sugar and salt. Slowly mix in the milk and butter mixture, cover and refrigerate at least two hours.

2. In a large bowl, whip the cream until soft peaks form, or to a desired texture. Fold in sugar, cocoa and vanilla. Refrigerate.

3. Heat a large skillet over low-medium heat. The pan should be nice and toasty, but not hot. Otherwise, the crêpes burn before cooking all the way through. Melt a little bit of butter, and swirl it around the pan. Pour about 1/2 cup or so of the crêpe batter into the pan, swirling until it reaches a thin, even consistency. Keep over heat until the bottom browns. Flip over, and cook another minute or two.

Repeat until all crêpe batter is done.

4. When the crêpes have cooled, layer with whipped cream. Refrigerate until ready to eat.

15 May 2008

A Gem of a Pearl

Let's talk about bliss, shall we? Last night, to celebrate Jeff's completing his Masters degree, we went to Pearl Oyster Bar, which is possibly my favorite place in New York, barring (including?) my apartment. I love it. It's got seriously anti-sleek New York décor: a marble bar with a tap and 16 bar stools, bleached wood, cramped tables in the other room. Large stock pots with white-stenciled letters: STEAMED CLAMS. It's crowded, slightly uncomfortable, slightly kitschy, and I just totally love it. Their seafood is just impeccable. There is whole roasted fish. Whole steamed lobster. Lobster rolls. Crab cakes. Pie.

You have to understand: Pearl's was where we celebrated when we managed to seal the deal on our apartment. It was the place we went with my parents on that night that we had reservations elsewhere, when my dad didn't want to come out at all but did and my mom was tired from me dragging her all over the lower part of the city (or so she claims, though I maintain that it wasn't that far, really), and the four of us had a FANTASTIC time.

What I like about it is that the menu is constrained. It has it's signature small and large plates on slight, laminated menus, and then a chalkboard with the eight or so market offerings. That is what there is. Last night, we grabbed a seat at the bar, ordered beers, and poured over the menu for a good twenty minutes, munching on oyster crackers and hemming over what sounded best to eat. We went with fried oysters, bouliabaisse, and pan-roasted soft-shell crabs with spring peas sautéed in butter. And a butterscotch praline parfait, with it's amber shards of candied pralines and butterscotch sauce sandwiching vanilla ice cream to top us off. Eating good food, watching rain come down outside, getting Jeff back after weeks of finals, it was a beautiful night.

11 May 2008

A Side Habit

Not long ago, Jeff pointed out that I make mostly one-pot meals for dinner. You know, pastas, stews, soups, yummy things like that. I don't really like to make meals that are composed of meat and sides, and I really can't stand to make salads. They are so often too fussy--even the most basic ones. This, I know, isn't my worst culinary habit, but it's one of those things that I thought I would have grown out of by now, you know just eating a bowl of pasta and sauce for dinner. Or just eating chicken and mashed potatoes (and maybe a steamed green). (However, it MUST be said that mashed potatoes, especially when made with judicious amounts of whole milk and butter, ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT count as a side. Mashed potatoes could be a meal themselves. I know. I did it in college. It was a great few days.)

Also, I have a problem with vegetarian dishes. They so often seem like sides, which isn't really fair. The thing is, I know know know that it doesn't have to be like that. The smart, food-savvy, environmentally sound part of me understands perfectly well that we should eat mostly locally grown, organic vegetables (and, you know, everything else). I aspire to it. But since moving to New York, it's been really, really hard. Unlike Madison, I find that food simply isn't transparent--you don't know where it came from, and helpful, organic/free-range/grain-fed/no pesticides labels are often conspicuously missing. And if there is, by some miracle, a label to scrutinize, prices are automatically by 30% or so. I guess this wouldn't really be a problem if I had the means to shop at Whole Foods all the time, but living on means such as mine don't really leave a lot of Whole Foods budget.

To get over this vegetarian psychological barrier that I have, I have even gone so far as to invest in more than a few vegetarian cookbooks. But again, unless we're talking pasta or polenta or (if we're talking loose vegetarianism), fish, everything just seems so side dishy.

Does anyone have any suggestions? I would love to have them.

In the meantime, here is my latest, greatest soup. Vegetarian(ish), of course.

Minestrone, adapted from Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food

1 lb fresh cranberry beans (or 1 14-oz can)
1/4 c olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
2 carrots, peeled and finely diced
4 garlic cloves coarsly chopped
5 thyme sprigs, or 1 fresh rosemary sprig
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
3 c chicken or vegetable stock (or water)
1 old parmasean rind (optional--though I find it adds amazing depth)
1 small leek, diced
1/2 frozen green beans
2 medium zucchini, cut into small dice
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (or 2 whole peeled canned tomatoes, drained and chopped)
1 c. bean cooking liquid
small pasta, like ditallini or orzo

1. Prepare 1 lb fresh cranberry/borlotti beans, if available: shell the beans, then cover with water by about an inch. Simmer 20 minutes, or until creamy but not to the point of discinigration. Salt to taste. Drain beans, but keep 1 cup of the water for later on.

2. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When shimmering, add the onion and sauté for 15 minutes, or until tender. Add the garlic, herbs, bay and salt to tast, and cook for five minutes longer.

3. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the parmasean rind. Add the leek and the green beans, and cook 5 mintues more. Add the zuccini and tomatoes, and cook 15 minutes more.

4. Meanwhile cook the pasta until al dente. Let cool before adding to soup.

5. Add the reserved cup of bean cooking liquid (or water, if that's what you've got) and the pasta. Heat through and adjust seasonings. Serve drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of parmasean cheese.

08 May 2008

Lacto-Vego Throw Down

It was a challenge. It was, albeit, a challenge that was presented to me over a month ago (I know, I know, I'm cringing the shame of my laziness RIGHT NOW), and it was a big one. Jeff invited his friends from school, Sally and Dave, to dinner. It was going to be a grand time. A grand time, that is, until I realized that I would be hit with the double whammy of all my easy-as-pie comfort dishes getting thrown out the window.

First, off, know that Sally is vegetarian. Fortunately, she's the generous type of vegetarian, the kind that eats fish and cheese. In my house, vegetarian is something that I aspire to maybe three, four days a week. In my heart of hearts and in my brain of brains, I know that a grain and vegetable based diet is better for me (at least it is sometimes). I like vegetables! Also, let's please remember senior year of college, when I lived with one dedicated and two waffling vegetarians. But let us please also remember the nights when Noël would come hunting for me to have a burger eating accomplice. Fin bref, vegetarian cooking is not a huge deal.

Then there was Dave. Dave, the first time I met him, ate fries off my plate before I was finished with them. The second time I met him, I told him that under no uncertain terms was he going to do that again. Apparently, he hadn't realized that might bother me, the first time, and then proceeded to feel bad about it. We have been friends since. Also, Dave is basically omnivorous. Almost. Unfortunately, for him and for my dinner, he is lactose-intolerant.

No meat. No cheese. No butter.

I tried not to freak out.

The menu went though quite a few incarnations. I waffled. I thought about sneaking some cheese in there somewhere. And then I thought about Dave being sick all over my house, and decided to stay on the straight and narrow. It really shouldn't have been that hard. But I promise you that I wracked my brain for days, only to come up with an acceptable solution at the very last minute.

It was a meal of lentil soup, caramelized onion and roasted tomato tart, a greens, asparagus and haricots verts salad, and lemon bars.

All in all, it was an acceptable meal. I wasn't thrilled with it, but everyone else seemed happy, so that's really what counts.

The soup was definitely the star of the meal. I plucked the recipe from the New York Times a few months back, and it's just delicious. And unlike the other lentil soups I make, this one isn't bacon-laden or thick (though I do have a weakness for bacony lentil soups). But sometimes it's just so much better to have something lighter, less weighty. Especially as spring has reared but it still gets chilly enough at night for something hot. Or if you just like soup.

Red Lentil Soup, adapted from the New York Times

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
salt, pepper and chile powder or hot chile flakes, to taste
1 quart vegetable broth
1 cup red lentils
1-2 carrots, peeled and diced

1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over high heat until hot and shimmering. Add the onions and garlic, and sauté until golden.
2. Stir in tomato paste, cumin, salt, pepper and chile powder, and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes more.
3. Add broth, 2 cups water, lentils and carrot. Bring to a simmer, and then turn heat to medium low. Simmer until lentils are soft and breaking apart, about 30 minutes or so. Taste for seasonings.
4. Purée half the soup in a blender. Or, if you're luckier than I am and have an immersion blender, use that. Return purée to soup, and reheat. Your soup should not be totally smooth--chunks of carrot, onion and lentil are nice.

Serve drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice if you like. Cilantro is also a nice garnish.