31 May 2009

Tiptoeing around

Beth was one of my favorite people in college, and she was killer. I mean, she was just SO COOL. She was nice, really smart, and outdoorsy. She loved her friends, loved math, loved to walk around on her tiptoes, and loved to sing her heart out, preferably in two- or three- part harmony. She had more grace and a bigger spirit than almost anyone else I know. She was also an awesome cook and loved to eat and drink well, especially in the company of family and friends.

The first year that Culinary House was open for students, she was there. One afternoon I went over to hang out, and she made the world’s best snack: spicy, simmered black beans accompanied by tortilla chips. I hadn’t ever eaten anything like it, but it quickly became a part of my snack, and dinner, repertoire.

Now I eat them as the bean component whenever I make Mexican food (though I am partial to refried pinto beans every now and then). Even though I haven’t seen my friend in a while, I still think of her every time I make black beans--sometimes I like to stand on my tiptoes and sing in harmony along to the radio. I know Beth would laugh at that, but she would certainly approve.

Spicy Simmered Black Beans, adapted from Beth Miller

1 can black beans, preferably low-salt
1 tablespoon neutral-tasting oil, such as corn or canola
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ white onion, finely diced
approximately 1 cup vegetable stock, or chicken stock, or water
½ teaspoon or so ground cumin
1 teaspoon or so hot chile flakes
1 teaspoon or so dried oregano or thyme
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

1. Drain the beans and rinse. Set them aside.

2. Heat the oil in a small to medium sauce pan, and add garlic and onion. Sauté until onion is softened; try not to let either the onion or garlic brown. Add beans and dry spices, stir to combine.

3. Add some of the stock, about 2-3 tablespoons. Turn down the heat as far as it will go on the stove, and stir. Keep the beans gently simmering for about 30 minutes, adding more stock when the beans look dry. The beans will be done when they have started to break down and look creamy and a little mushy. If you like them mushier, keep adding stock until everything reaches the correct consistency.

4. Turn off the heat and stir in cilantro. Serve.

30 May 2009

Project June

Even though nothing is official, I feel like it's time to start paring down on the amount of things that are lying around my house, busy being good-for-nothings. I mean, seriously. You live in a place for more than six months and what happens? Accumulation of stuff, that's what. And what better place to start than with the pantry?

So the pantry is going to go through the one-two: I pledge to you now to not buy anything that adds to what is already there (pasta, whole grains, etc.) until I've properly used up what I have (as in: I won't buy any more chickpeas, even if they are on sale and eyeing me flirtatiously in the store, if I have some in my pantry).

Hopefully I will be of sound enough mind to tell you about my misadventures. Here we go!

25 May 2009

Pretty darn perfect

When I was little, we used to go visit my grandparents in Florida. We would hunt for shark's teeth on the beach with a long rake apparatus, kind of like a boxy meshed basket on the end of a broom-length stick. We also made the occasional foray to Disney World/Epcot Center, which, once, ended in a legendary headache since I loved loved loved the water slide at the hotel maybe a little too much. Ask my parents. I'm sure they would be more than happy to tell you all about it.

The all-time best, though, was this place we used to eat dinner, a dimly-lit, seafood oriented restaurant called "Sharky's", where we all used to go, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and me. The most memorable item on the menu, as far as I am concerned, was its Key lime pie. In all honesty, though, I don't remember what it was like, but I remember loving it. So when we were invited to the beach this weekend, I thought that a Key lime pie would be the way to go. (See? Beach = Key lime pie. It's a good equation.)

This was pretty darn perfect. Cool and tangy, with the a hint of sweetness and raspberries. It complemented nicely fresh bluefish and brown rice and salad. It was the grace note on the end of a lovely, beachy, sunny day.

Key Lime Tart, adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook

for the Graham Cracker dough
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups graham flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons agave nectar

for the custard filling
4 large egg yolks
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
4 key limes worth zest
1/2 cup freshly squeezed Key lime juice (about 12-15 Key limes)

1 pint raspberries, or more, for decoration

1. make the crust In a medium bowl, whisk together both flours, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter, brown sugar, and agave nectar on medium speed, until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes.

2. With mixer on low, add flour mixture, and beat until just combined.

3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to fit a fluted tart pan with a removable bottom (mine is 11 inches, and it worked perfectly). Fit dough into pan, and press into edges. Using a sharp paring knife, trim dough flush with the rim. Prick the bottom of the dough all over with a fork. Chill the tart shell until firm, about 30 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line tart shell with parchment, leaving a bit of an overhang. Fill with pie weights, and bake until crust is beginning to turn golden, about 12-15 minutes. Remove parchment and weights. Return to oven; continue baking until crust is goden brown, about 12-15 minutes more. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

5. Using an electric mixer fitted with whisk attachments, beat yolks on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Add condensed milk, lime zest, lime juice, and salt, and beat to combine, about 1 minute, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

6. Pour filling into cooled crust, and bake until set, about 1o minutes. Transfer tart to a wire rack to cool. Once completely cool, loosely cover with plastic wrap; refrgerate until until well chilled, at least 1 hour and up to a day.

Just before serving, garnish with raspberries.

Sharky's on the Pier
1600 Harbor Drive South
Venice, FL 34285
(941) 488-1456

22 May 2009

Saving grace

It would appear that one of the main problems of being me is the fact that I am pretty much always hungry. I eat, and then I do whatever it is that I'm supposed to be doing, and then my belly starts whining. Take last night, for example. I ate dinner, went to bed at a reasonable hour, and then woke up two hours later only to find that I was a seriously problematic combination of discombobulated and ravenous. Ravenous! I thought of my mother's perennial advice: "Just go to sleep."

Fat chance (sorry, Mom). Part of the problem is that I'm wired like my dad, who, once his brain gets going, cannot even pretend to sleep, and thinks a lot about the sleep that he's losing because he can't sleep, amongst other things. I can't even remember what I was so worked up about. But worked up I was, and hungry to boot. Never a good combination. So this morning, getting up and realizing that there wasn't too much in the breakfast mode, I decided, foolishly, to forgo breakfast, and settle for coffee instead.

Whoops. Eleven o'clock rolls around, and what am I? Hungry, and cranky, and tired. Brilliant. Luckily, I managed to pull myself out of the slump enough to make scones. Easy, and quick. However, they didn't turn out as nice as I would have liked, which is due to the fact that I didn't add enough liquid to the dough before trying to knead them as little as possible. Which of course, led to a tougher scone, thanks to the by then more necessary kneading that they had to go through. Sorry scones. At least they turned out tasty, which is really what I needed this morning--something to uplift, and revive. Scones? Definitely my saving grace for the day.

Currant and Fennel Scones, adapted from Orangette and Delicious Days

1 1/2 cups + 1 tablespoon four
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/2 tablespoons white sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 tablespoons cold butter
1/4 cup dried currants
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
4-5 tablespoons milk, cream, or half-and-half

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt with a wooden spoon. Mix in fruit and fennel seeds.

3. Cut in butter with a pastry blender, or with two knives, until the butter looks like small peas.

4. Add milk until dough just comes together, and dump out onto a work surface. Knead 3-4 times, and pat into a round about 1 1/4-inch thick. Cut out rounds with a biscuit cutter, taking care not to twist it on the lift. Re-knead and cut out more scones as necessary.

5. Bake 13-15 minutes, until golden brown, and let cool on a wire rack.

21 May 2009

My favorite things

Does you remember The Potato Song, Cheryl Wheeler's homage to the lovely tuber? If you don't, take a look at the link above. It's great. And it will give a decent insight into the fact that I have never met a potato that I couldn't love. Mashed, baked, roasted, gratin, fries, they're all good. Even though I have a special place in my heart for hash browns, making them at home has proved more than a challenge. Latkes, fine. I've got those under control. But hash browns? I don't even know where to start. It's especially sad, too, since it's nearly impossible to find them at all in New York--every place out here has the dreaded "home fries."

Home fries? No thank you. I mean, the thing about that is, I can make them at home. And they turn out more or less fine. But nothing beats a hash brown.

Unfortunately, I've given up on them. In their place, though, I did manage to get fried potaotes down pat. I know, I know. How hard could it be? I mean, it's just fried potatoes, after all. I have memories of my mother's, sizzling away on a Saturday morning, the pan covered with some tin foil and me anxiously peeking under it, just in case they were ready and Mom hadn't realized it yet. Hers were sliced in thin rounds, and evenly browned on the bottom. In my adult life, they always turned out terribly--gray, mushy, rubbery, you name it.

BUT. Again, Alice Waters came to the rescue, giving me golden, crispy, deliciously fantastic fried potatoes. And now... I can't stop making them. I'll make them for breakfast, an afternoon snack, or even an easy-peasy dinner. It's like I'm desperately trying to make up for five years of terrible potatoes. I also like to throw in a couple of eggs at the very end, and let them fry until they are just cooked through, so that the potatoes can have a nice, easy coating of runny yolk.

I feel as though I have been initiated into the secret breakfast club. I never plan on renouncing my membership. Come on over any time.

Fried Potatoes

2 medium-sized waxy potatoes (anything but russet), peeled and diced into about 3/4-inch
2 tablespoons butter
1-2 tablespoons canola or corn oil

1. Put potatoes into a pot of salted water. Bring to a boil, and simmer until tender, about 10-15 minutes.

2. Drain the potatoes and set aside. (This step is crucial, since a bunch of the water drains off, leaving you with pretty potato specimens that will actually crisp up in the pan.)

3. In a large pan, heat oil and butter over medium to medium-high heat. Stir in the potatoes, and let them sit and sizzle for about 5 minutes. After that, gently turn them every few minutes, shaking the pan so that they don't stick, until golden and crispy. All in all this will take 15-20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Eat anytime, day or night.

16 May 2009

Like lost sheep

Sometimes, when Jeff and I feel that a simple, lovely meal is in order, we pick up a box of fresh pasta at the farmer's market. We head straight to the Knoll Crest Farm stand, which is also where we buy our eggs (which, by the way, are the best eggs ever, especially when served extremely runny over pan-fried potatoes, recipe coming soon). We also pick up some herbs and salad, and voilà! A lovely springtime meal.

It is espeically nice when compensating for the night before, if you had gone out, as we had, to eat a good deal of Italian food. A few friends and we made the long trek up to the Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx, one of the last bastions of true Italian food in New York. We were all so excited about going, until we realized that getting to Arthur Avenue itself took much longer than we had expected--about 30 minutes of wandering around like lost sheep, hoping that we were headed in the right direction.

But we did have some good pizza at Zero Otto Nove. Good thing, too, because all that walking had made us hungry. There was also excellent cannoli. I hadn't had a cannoli for such a long time, and this was just so lovely--a crispy, shattering shell, filled withe fresh ricotta and mascarpone cheese filling. KILLER, I tell you.

So that left us last night wanting something a little simpler. And as pesto season really hasn't hit yet, this preparation really does the trick. It's very light, herby, garlic-y, and spicy. Have it with a green salad, and you have exactly what you want. If you do make this, be very careful when you add the water to the oil. Stand as far back from the stove as you can, so you don't get splattered all over with hot oil. Wear an apron. And don't worry about the amount of oil used in this recipe. I promise, it's well worth it.

Fresh Fettuccini with Garlic, Olive Oil, and Red Pepper Flakes, adapted from Everyday Italian

1 pound fresh pasta (dried also works just fine)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes, plus more to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

NB: this is a very quick recipe, so be sure to know what to expect before you head into cooking. I find that I need to time this pretty carefully, since everything takes less than five minutes once the pasta gets going. Have a mise en place. Be sure to have your cooking tools at the ready.

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Don't leave out the salt, because it gives the pasta just a little more oomph than if you don't. Add the pasta and cook, stirring often, until tender but still firm to the bite (about 3 minutes for fresh pasta--it will overcook very quickly, so keep an eye on it). Drain, reserving 2 tablespoons cooking liquid. Do not rinse the spaghetti with water, you want to retain the natural starched that help the sauce adhere to the pasta.

2. MEANWHILE, in a large sauté pan, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and sauté until golden and fragrant, about 1 minute. It's important not to overcook the garlic or else it will become bitter. Using a fork, remove and discard garlic. Add the red pepper flakes and sauté for 1 minute. Carefully stir in reserved cooking liquid (keep at arm's length!) and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Immediately add drained pasta and toss for 1 minute to coat well. Turn off heat, and add the fresh herbs, toss to distribute evenly. Serve immediately, with freshly grated cheese.

Zero Otto Nove
2357 Arthur Avenue
Bronx, NY 10458
(718) 220-1027

14 May 2009

Give me a break, ConAgra!

Since when is it OK for food corporations to not take responsibility for the products that they put on the market? It is SO frightening to continually read about disease and pathogen outbreaks, caused by food. I realize that food-borne disease is nothing new. But it's scary. Think of those kids in China who were drinking milk that was knowingly contaminated by producers trying to prove how nutritious and protein-filled their milk was. Think of the peanut salmonella outbreak. The spinach salmonella outbreak. The countless recalls.

I love the title of this article: "Food Companies Try, but Can't Guarantee Safety." Basically, Big Food is shifting the responsibility of food safety to the consumer--explicit instructions as to how to cook something, and how long, and at what temperature. But isn't that contrary to the entire mission of pre-packaged foods? That they are easy and taste OK, and, oh, by the way, you can depend on them to not make you sick?

This shift is completely problematic. In no other industry is the consumer responsible for harm by a product. Think about it: baby product recalls, car recalls, electrical appliance recalls. Those companies would get hit so hard, and so fast, that it's just not worth it to them to keep them out on the market. So where does that leave us and our food? Why is food under-regulated and potentially dangerous and this is acceptable to the marketplace?

I can't answer that question. What I can do is tell you what you have probably already gathered: I believe that the less handled your food, the better. The fewer pre-packaged, pre-processed foods in your pantry and fridge, the better. That if you make your food yourself mostly from scratch, not only will things taste really, really good, but you risk less in terms of health, too. It's hard, I know. It involves foresight and organization, which takes a lot, a lot of practice. It's a tall order. But it is totally, completely worth it. I promise.

09 May 2009

Like ghosts

For reasons I can't really explain, today has been an exceptionally sleepy one. I went to bed last night at a reasonable hour (no, really), and then took my sweet time dragging myself out of bed. Breakfast of some majorly deformed pancakes and half of a mango. Then to the farmers market! And then we went to Brooklyn Flea, mostly for lunch, but also to see what there was on offer. Jeff also had an extreme craving for a chorizo hurache.

Huraches are kind of like this: Take a very very large tortilla, about 12 inches in diameter, and stuff it with refried beans in a thin layer. (I am NOT sure as to how they accomplish this. It is very impressive.) Then take the very large, bean-stuffed tortilla, shape it like a taco, and add delicious, spicy chorizo, pico de gallo, guacamole, cheese, sour cream, and two kinds of hot sauce: red and green. It is about as large as my forearm and much, much more substantial. I would have taken a picture for you, but Jeff ate the entire thing while I was still waiting in line for my own snack.

And then we both took naps. Since then, we've both been drifting around in our apartment, like ghosts--Jeff is groggy from his nap, and I can't seem to shake the feeling that I'm sleeping and yet awake. Luckily, there is the sweet aroma of fresh bread coming from the oven. Focaccia, and without a mixer! Focaccia with caramelized tomatoes and briny olives, baked into a lovely golden mass. I've been meaning to make this for months now, and today, well, I'm glad it actually happened. Maybe soon we will also have sweet basil to go with it, thanks to our lovely plants acquired today. I can't wait for tomato and basil season... so for the time being, we'll just have to do with tomatoes and olive oil and olives. I think I can handle it.

Focaccia Ai Pomodorini, adapted from Saveur

1 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
3 1/2 cups flour, plus a little more for kneading
1 tablespoon
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 pound pitted, oil-cured black olives
coarse sea salt, such as fleur de sel

1. In a small bowl, combine yeast, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1/4 cup body-temperature water (as in, when you run the tap over your hand, the water should be neither hot nor cold, just, neutral). Let mixture sit until foamy, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together flour, the remaining sugar, and salt in a large bowl; form a well in center. Pour in yeast mixture, 1 tablespoon oil, and 1 cup body-temperature water; mix into a stiff mass. Transfer dough to a floured work surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Form dough into a ball and transfer to a bowl greased with 3 tablespoons oil; cover with plastic wrap and let rise until dough has doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

2. Rub bottom and sides of a 12-inch cast iron skillet with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Transfer dough to the pan and gently flatten into the bottom of skillet with fingertips. Cover skillet with a damp kitchen towl; set aside and let rise 1 hour.

3. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

4. Gently press tomatoes and olives into dough and sprinkle with fleur de sel. Bake until golden brown and cooked through, 30-35 minutes. transfer to a rack to cool slightly before serving.

06 May 2009

Two for one, veg special

Recently I've had a thing for vegetables. I mean, it happens every year, right about the end of winter, when, of course, there are no fresh vegetables to be had. It's like tomatoes: I can't bring myself to buy them in the winter (especially after reading this article). And during the winter, I stick to the colder-weather regulars: chard, broccoli, mushrooms. Now, I do realize that these are not necessarily seasonal in the dead of winter. Or seasonal at all, for that matter. But a girl has got to eat, no two ways about it.

So now that the season's début has arrived, I'm gobbling everything that I can, vegetable-wise. Jeff and I have been making a concerted effort to eat more vegetarian dishes, for a variety of reasons. Mostly, we like vegetables, and we both firmly believe that cutting down our meat consumption is an overall positive step in our contribution to agricultural sustainability. It's hard, though, completely cutting out meat or meat products, even for a few meals per week; I make a lot of dishes that are completely veg except for chicken stock, or a slice of bacon (yes, yes, I'm aware of how un-vegetarian things made with bacon are).

In that spirit, what I have on offer for you, are two bona-fide vegetarian dishes. The orzo is surprisingly good, almost like an extremely simple risotto. I would even venture that you could do the whole dish, risotto-style, with rice and stuff. And the asparagus... it is my hands-down favorite way to prepare it. The spears become tender and sweet, and they are absolutely wonderful. We had them together last night, and it was the perfect early-spring dinner. Try them! And if you have any ideas for truly vegetarian meals, please please send them my way.

Wild Mushroom Orzo, adapted from Urban Italian

for the mushroom stock
1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 sprig fresh thyme

for the orzo
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups mixed wild mushrooms (I used a mixture of oyster and crimini), washed, dried, and chopped into 2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 1/2 cups orzo

to finish
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1. prepare the mushroom stock In a small pot, immerse the dried porcini in 4 1/2 cups of water. Add the sprig of thyme whole.

2. Bring the mushroom mixture to a boil over high heat, then remove immediately from the stove and set aside for 5 minutes.

3. prepare the orzo Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepot. Add the onions and cook over medium heat until it takes on a light golden color, about 3 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent burning.

4. Add the mixed wild mushrooms and stir well to combine. Sauté on medium-heat for 1-2 minutes, until the mushrooms are just starting to color. At this point, but not before, add the salt and pepper. Mix well to combine and continue cooking for another 30 seconds or so, until the mushrooms have started to reduce and color.

5. Add the sherry (preferably away from the heat, so that you don't catch on fire). Stir to combine and then return to the heat for just a few seconds, until the vermouth and mushroom juices form a syrupy mixture in the bottom of the pan. This will not take terribly long, so pay attention!

6. Remove the pan from the heat, add the orzo, and mix well, so the grains are covered with the pan juices.

7. Remove the thyme sprig from the porcini mixture and discard. Pour the porcinis and liquid over the orzo.

8. Return the pan to medium-high heat and bring to a low boil, stirring well to combine. Turn the heat down to low, and keep the mixture at a lazy bubble for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The orzo is done when it's swelled up and become tender but still has a slight bite. There should be a little liquid on the bottom, and the orzo mixture should be a bit wet. (Note: this instruction didn't make a lot of sense when I read it first, but it did once I saw what was happening. You'll see--trust the writing!) See, if you cook all of the liquid away, and completely absorbed, you will have a sticky mess.

9. to finish Remove pot from the heat. Add the butter and mix in well, add the cheese and continue stirring. Add the thyme and mix well, until the texture of the dish is softer and richer from the butter and cheese and all the ingredients are well combined. Serve immediately, with extra cheese grated on top.

Roast Aparagus

1/2 - 1 pound fresh asparagus, tough ends sliced off, ends peeled
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
2. On a baking sheet, pour oil over asparagus spears. Swish around to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
3. Roast in oven 15-20 minutes, or until tips start to caramelize and spears are tender.

03 May 2009

Color Scheme: Decode the Encrypted Message

I know it's a little superflouous to have two posts in one day, but I seriously enjoyed this, and maybe you will too.

Color Scheme: Decode the Encrypted Message

Posted using ShareThis

02 May 2009

Dinner in a bowl

And so we arrive at Saturday night. Jeff is out of town, so I can make whatever I want. I mean, we don't generally have too many disagreements about what we like to eat, or not eat, but Jeff doesn't seem to appreciate the finer points of one of my most favorite things: soy chicken, aka dinner in a bowl. Much like Italian sausage sauce, soy chicken is one of those things that I've grown up eating, that I eat now as an adult, and that I intend to eat until I can no longer actually eat. Growing up, it was the one thing that I wanted to eat for my birthday, and, year after year, my mother graciously complied. It also helps that my parents like it, too.

When I went to college, it was one of the few recipes stashed in my back pocket. Even my roommates liked it. I know of at least one of them who makes it for dinner, every now and then, too. There may be more, but they're not telling.

So it makes me a little sad that Jeff doesn't like it. But it does make his solo trips so much more bearable. Besides, sometimes a little alone time is good. Especially when it involves soy chicken. So for tonight, we have Garrison Keillor on the radio, rice in the rice cooker, and dinner on the way. Not so bad at all.

Soy Chicken

1 largeish chicken breast, or thighs, or whatever you like
1/2 cup good quality soy sauce (I only use San-J low-sodium Tamari, I think it tastes the best)
1/2 cup water
1 or 2 star anise(s)
1 medium-sized nob ginger, sliced thin

1. Wash the chicken off and place in a medium-sized pot. Add soy sauce and water, star anise and ginger. Bring to a boil, lower heat to low, cover, and simmer for an hour, turning chicken over at about 30 minutes.

Serve with rice, silken tofu, and steamed broccoli for the most authentic Mei kind of experience.