10.30.2007

Baby corn makes me angry.


When I was a kid, I loved baby corn. It had nothing to do with the taste or the texture, but was really centered around the fact that it's a Lilliputian version of a standard sized vegetable. It was adorable. I'm sure the folks at Hershey would call it "fun sized" and, when I was 7, "fun-sized" was the key to complete vegetable satisfaction.

But as I've gotten older, my horizons have expanded, and taste has long bypassed cuteness on the Food Priority Scale. And I've grown to detest baby corn. Really detest it. I am vehemently anti-baby corn. I don't dislike baby corn in the way that I dislike black licorice and olives, two things that I respect and I continue to try to force myself to learn to like. I can understand why people would like olives and black licorice. Not so with baby corn.

It's not so much the taste of baby corn that I find so offensive, it's more its existence. Baby corn has no reason to be. It doesn’t taste like real corn. Its not even really known for it's taste (which is bland and pickled and wholly un-corn-like), but mostly for the texture it adds to salads and stirfries. It has no impressive nutritional value, which I think is pretty much a requirement for vegetables. Its not worthy of the corn moniker.

You don't see broccoli coming out with "baby broccoli" (broccolini is a whole 'nother vegetable) or parsnips pushing "baby parsnips." Baby carrots tried to get in on the baby action, but they're really just regular sized carrots cut small and they humbly pack a complete carrot punch. I can muster up respect for baby spinach and baby peas, because they're tasty in their own right. The only good baby corn has accomplished in it’s life is that scene in Big, where Tom Hanks nibbles the kernels row by row. And that stops being funny after you see it twice.

Baby corn has proven itself a completely superfluous vegetable. We just don't need it. It's not like normal sized corn is so unwieldy that fully-mature kernels won't fit on your plate. Granted, you can't eat the cob on a normal sized ear, but I'm not sure cob-eating should be a priority. I think deliciousness should be a priority. And baby corn just isn't pulling its weight on that front.

(Cartoon courtesy of Natalie Dee. Go admire her stuff.)

10.24.2007

This is what my childhood tastes like.


Everyone has tastes that bring back a specific time and place. I’m sure scientists have some fancy name for it, like “taste memory” or some such equally emotionless phrase that doesn’t even remotely begin to capture the shock of remembrance that eating something you haven’t had since you were knee-high to a Lego dredges up. One minute I’m an expensive-kitchen-appliance-owning-adult and then -shazam!- a bite later and I’m a 7-year old clomping around in my mother’s silver pumps, stepping on scattered Lite-Brite pegs.

This precious Noodle Kugel recipe is one of a handful of recipes that sends my tastebuds into a total timewarp. I made it recently for a friend’s daughters, thinking it would be a sure way to win them over. And I was thrilled that it worked and that they loved it, but I was even more amazed at the memories the mere scent of it baking stirred up: Rosh Hashanah dinners with my grandparents, my mother teaching me to cook, family gatherings where no one could get a word in edgewise because everyone was talking at the top of their lungs trying to be heard.

If you’re not familiar with the wonderful world of Noodle Kugel, you’re in for a real kid-pleasing treat. Although it’s sweet, it’s traditionally served as a side dish next to a roast chicken or a brisket (my family was a lot of things, but Kosher wasn’t one of them.) It’s almost a Jewish macaroni and cheese (sans le fromage.) The noodles poking out of the custardy middle get all toasty and crisp, the streusal topping adds another slight bit of crunch.

As a grown-up, I’m tempted to play with the recipe; I want to ditch the sugar and try to make it savory, maybe adding some caramelized onions and gruyere. I want to tweak and futz and play, but I can’t bring myself to change a single thing. Because then it wouldn’t be my mother’s Noodle Kugel and it wouldn’t taste like my childhood.

Mom's Noodle Kugel
Serves 8-10 as a side dish

Kugel
1 8oz. package of wide noodles
3 Tbsp. butter (her recipe never specified salted or unsalted, but I used unsalted.)
3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
2 cups milk
1 tsp. vanilla
3 Tbsp. apricot or plum preserves

Streusel
2 Tbsp. butter
1.4 cup plain bread crumbs
1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 350-degrees and grease an 8"x12" baking dish. Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook noodles until very very al dente. Drain noodles and toss with butter in a large bowl.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Stir in milk.

3. Add egg mixture to noodles and pour into the prepared baking dish. Dot with preserves and then bake for 45 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, make streusel: melt butter over low heat (I used the microwave) and stir in breadcrumbs and cinnamon. Sprinkle kugel with streusel and bake for another 15-20 minutes until the top is crisp and the custard is set.

10.21.2007

Your call is important to us. Please continue to hold.

I hate being on hold. It really gets my goat. If my call really were that important to you, then I wouldn't be sitting here waiting for some attention, while you force your e-z listening music upon my innocent little ears. But being on hold is a fact of life.

And so it is, that I've had to put you, my beloved readers on hold, while I catch up on life. I've not had a lot of time for cooking lately, let alone writing about cooking. But, to prove how important you are to me, I wanted to provide you with this delightfully brilliant link to entertain you until I can get my next piece cooked, tasted, written, and posted (hopefully later this week; this isn't like a year-long sabbatical I'm talking.)

10.15.2007

Eat these and tell me which one you like better.

It was a short sentence, only four words, so it couldn’t help but get right to the point: “blind taste test, please.”

This concise articulation was the work of Anonymous, who posted the comment on the 10/6 entry, in which I confidently waxed on about the tastier, chocolatey-er, and superior-in-every-conceivable-way brownie the expensive Scharffen Berger chocolate produced. Anonymous wasn't so sure I was right. She was skeptical. She wanted scientific proof that I wasn’t swayed by my snooty, foodie, preconceived chocolate notions in turning my schnozz up at the supermarket stuff. She had a point, I never actually did a side-by-side, blind taste test. Anonymous totally busted me.

So lets do it, let the grocery store Baker's chocolate face off, mano a mano, against the artisanal Scharffen Berger. Gloves off, blindfold on, let's find out if the pricey chocolate is worth it. Let's prove to "Anonymous", if that's her real name, that I like what I like because I really like it, not because I like the idea of it.

In one corner, we have young upstart Scharffen Berger, only on the chocolate scene since 1996 and produced in small batches by producers who keep a close eye on every single cacao bean that finagles its way into the bar.


And in the other corner, we have the widely available Baker’s, owned by Kraft. Baker's doesn’t include a single fact on its website about the quality of the chocolate or the origin of the cacao beans used, instead choosing to share relevant tidbits like: “The amount of the Baker’s Chocolate consumed in a year (lined up in squares) would span the length of the Grand Canyon nine times!” Superfluous exclamation marks really steam me.


I don’t think you have to ask who my money was on. But let the games begin.

The guidelines were simple: two batches of the same brownie recipe (Baker’s one-bowl brownies ), one using each brand of chocolate. It's a pretty good recipe, super fudgy, which made it a bit messy and difficult to cut attractively (although that could just be the fact that I'm completely lacking in food presentation skills.) All the other ingredients (butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour) would be identical. No nuts, no coffee, no other flavorings.


A friend administered the blind taste test, taking extra care that I didn't peek. I tasted one brownie. I cleansed the palate (Poland Spring). I tasted the other brownie. They were shockingly close. But I tried them both again and decided one had fruitier and caramell-ier notes than the other. It turned out to be the Scharffen Berger.

But I really was surprised at how close they tasted. I detected the subtle differences, only because I was looking for them. Could it possibly not be worth shelling out the big bucks for baking chocolate?

I decided to take the question to the masses. A random sampling of 15 coworkers happily partook of the blind taste test and chippped in their two cents. It was a mix of men and women, foodies and non-foodies. I was really surprised that 11 went for the the Baker’s as the tastier chocolate treat and only 4 opted for the Scharffen Berger. And most seemed like they could go either way. Either I'm spending too much money on chocolate, or working in advertising may be harmful to the taste buds.

The moral of the story is pretty much the same as the moral of this story:: homemade brownies are delicious. But this moral includes the addendum that you can get away with the cheap chocolate if your audience is a bunch of hungry, pre-lunch, baked-goods-starved advertising creatives. Or pretty much anyone else.

I have been duly smacked-down, Anonymous. Keep those comments a-comin'.

10.12.2007

Invisible Pudding

Fresh off my shortbread success, I thought I'd continue to rock Nick's world through my dazzling use of sugar. But once again, my pitiable photography skills lead to a less than esthetically pleasing entry. I took several pictures, I swear, but given the nature of the serving vessel, you can barely see the comestible in question, which is a deliciously creamy, refreshingly cool Coconut Mango Pudding.

I thought I'd be all elegant and class up the joint by serving it in wineglasses, instead of the recommended ramekins (plus, I don't actually own ramekins.) It looked lovely in the wineglasses, but when I took the birds-eye shot, I just got an eyeful of coconut, which was blindingly white with the flash on and exceedingly dull with the flash off. From the side, the pudding looked murky, dulled through the pretty stained-glass looking painted wineglasses my Dad made for us years ago. I took one or two snaps of a spoonful of the stuff, but they were blurry and it wasn't long before I was so overwhelmed by the pale creamy orange-colored, mango-scented deliciousness that I tossed the camera aside and greedily got to gobbling.

It was gone quickly, and I realized I had no solid proof that it ever actually existed, save for some dirty wineglasses and a mango carcass. Was this destined to be the Mr. Snuffleupagus of desserts? All I can hope is that you're awed by the simplicity of the preparation, the poetry of the ingredients, and the potentially elegant, if unphotographable, presentation.

Coconut Mango Pudding
Makes 6 Servings
adapted from Bon Appétit, June 1997

1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1 12-ounce mango, peeled, pitted, cut into chunks
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup whole milk
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup grated coconut

1. Mix citrus juices in small saucepan. Sprinkle gelatin over. Let stand 10 minutes. Stir over low heat until gelatin dissolves. Let stand until just cool but not set.

2. Combine mango, sour cream, milk, and sugar in blender (I highly recommend the hand blender for this.) Blend on high speed until smooth. Add gelatin mixture and blend well.

3. Pour into six 6-ounce soufflé dishes or custard cups. Wine glasses work really well too. Sprinkle generously with coconut and chill until firm, at least 3 hours.

10.09.2007

A Boring, Yet Beautiful, Story

Sometimes food isn't funny. Sometimes there's no ridiculous tale that inspires the meal du jour, no bungled technique resulting in gut-busting hilarity, no dramatic Man-of-La-Mancha-esque quest for elusive ingedients. Sometimes there's no sloppy plating, no blurry half-assed photo, no life-lesson learned. Sometimes food is a like a European art house film, beautiful to look at with no story to tell, just some artfully sad clowns chain-smoking unfiltered Gauloises and speaking longingly of "mon amour perdu."

Dear readers, this is the sad state of affairs we find ourselves in today. Fortunately, it is much tastier than a European art house film. These crumbly delicacies are redolent of pine-y rosemary and creamy butter that was born and raised in Denmark and came to this country seeking a better life. And all we can do, is gaze lovingly upon the fruits of our (well, my) labor, at a perfect cookie that can only be packed up and given as a gift because it's too pretty not to show off.


I wasn't even intending to write anything about this Rosemary Shortbread recipe, since it clearly has nothing to say, but I was really proud of myself for actually producing something that was as pretty as it is yummy. AND for taking a decent picture (don't get used to it.) The only change I made to the recipe was pressing the dough into a butter tart pan, which is how those semi-professional looking crimped edges magically appeared. Now, if you'll excuse me, if I don't go cook something sloppy right now, I might start applying for jobs as a professional pastry chef. And I guarantee that would be chock-full of laughs.

10.06.2007

A-HA!

I thought I found it. The ultimate brownie recipe. It was in a special holiday baking issue of Martha Stewart Living, about five years ago. It was chocolate-y, but not overly sweet. I baked them constantly and went so far as to call them Life Changing Brownies. Friends, coworkers, and loved ones agreed: this was truly an extra special brownie. I even boasted to the owner of a chain of bakeries known in four countries for his brownies, that mine were truly enviable.

But the years passed, and I realized that the Life Changing Brownies weren’t as perfect as I’d first imagined. They’re lighter and cakier than they are fudgy and dense. And sometimes a girl needs an intensely rich choco-bomb to get through a tough client meeting.

So I started to do some research and unearthed an entire universe of heated Brownie Debate: the Fudgy vs. the Cakey. The discussions were fervent and impassioned and I found so many recipes, that they all started to look the same (mostly because they're all pretty much the same.) I stocked up on chocolate and went into the lab (well, the kitchen), where I tried recipes from Scharffen Berger chocolate, Cook’s Illustrated, and Ina Garten. I assure you, this was difficult and grueling research. But the results were worth it: the different brownies varied in minor ways, but they were moist, rich, chocolate-y and delicious, across the board.

Then, I had an epiphany.

There is no world’s best brownie. Brownies, by their very intrinsic nature, are an amalgamation of the worlds most innately divine ingredients: chocolate, butter, sugar. You can’t lose. Even brownies at their worst, tough and dry or with a slight chemical undertone like those powdered mix brownies, aren’t horrible. They’re certainly better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But you have to admit that some brownies are better than others.

Then, I had another epiphany.

I graduated from the widely available grocery store Baker’s chocolate to the more high-end Scharffen Berger right around the time I discovered the Life Changing Brownie recipe. But today, I made a batch of rich, fudgy brownies for a friend’s daughters. Three kids under the age of 4 probably wouldn’t notice the subtle fruitiness of Scharffen Berger, wouldn’t appreciate its deeply layered chocolate flavor. So, I went back to Baker’s.

The brownies came out beautiful. Fudgy and rich looking, with that perfectly crisp brownie crust on top. But they taste strangely one dimensional. There are none of those subtle nutty, cinnamon-y, and caramel-y notes that brought all those other brownie recipes to the apex of brownie magnificence. The answer, my friends, lies not within the recipe, but within the chocolate.


Another Fantastic Brownie Recipe

adapted from Christopher Kimball's The Dessert Bible
Makes 16 brownies

4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
10 Tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
3 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 3/4 Cups granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/4 Cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. powdered instant espresso
1 Tsp. cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 350-degrees. Generously grease an 8"x8" pan with butter.

2. Melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave on 50% power for two minutes. Whisk together the eggs and vanilla in a medium bowl. Add the melted chocolate (mixture will thicken considerably.) Add the remaining ingredients and mix with a rubber spatula.

3. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and tap the pan pretty hard on the countertop several times to get rid of air bubbles in the batter. You need to smack it down hard enough to dislodge any bubbles, but not so hard that brownie batter gets on your ceiling.

4. Bake 40 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out with just a few fudgy crumbs attached. Check them at 35 minutes. It's important not to overbake them; you're better off underbaking them. Let cool in pan, then flip brownies onto a cutting board, where you can cut them and serve them to the drooling hordes.

10.01.2007

Job opening. Apply here.

My cousin thinks I’m certifiable. She just can’t fathom how I can toil away all day, trying to make the world a better place through advertising, and then get home at 8 o’clock at night and start chopping and dicing and roasting. I tell her that it’s stressful trying to sell people things they don't want. Cooking is relaxing.

But she got me thinking: how can I toil all day and then get home and start cooking? Advertising is stressful. I deserve someone at home, making dinner for me. The solution is clear: I need a manservant.

I'm not picky. I will accept either a Mr. French type or a scantily clad, well-oiled muscle man who can make a decent bearnaise. I prefer someone who will do light housework as well, including figuring out what to do with this box of wires, cables, and chargers from old electronics that I feel obliged to keep.

The pickings are pretty slim on Craigslist for manservants (menservant?) They're also on the meager side for butlers, house boys, valets, and serfs. But I am realizing other, more pressing issues with the MSP (manservant plan), the biggest one being that we live in 820 square feet. Nick and I like to spread out, so that doesn't leave a lot of space to keep a manservant. Plus, this manservant will probably want to be paid something and I'm not in a position to do that (Sigerson Morrison has the right of first refusal on my paycheck.)

So, it seems like the only way to get dinner on the table is to prepare it myself. No, I'm not trying to recreate some 1954 “perfect wife” fantasy. No, I'm not trying to re-enact that old Enjoli commercial. I'm just hungry. And if I'm making dinner, then it ain't gonna be the Manwich.

It will be something like the following recipe for fish glazed with a honey-soy mixture. Simple and truly delicious. I served it on a bed of sautéed sweet potatoes and Chinese cabbage (I love the sweet/salty mixture of the soy glaze with the sweet potatoes), but don’t feel like you have to get fancy. Unless your manservant is making it for you.



Perch with Honey-Soy Glaze
Serves 2

3 tablespoons honey
2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 large clove garlic, minced
6 scallions, white and light green parts trimmed to 1” pieces.
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Salt
2 6oz-8oz. fillets of perch or other firm fleshed, white fish


1. Whisk together honey, soy sauce, lime juice, and garlic in a small bowl.


2. Pat fish dry and sprinkle with a little salt. Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until very hot (but not smoking.) Add fish and cook on one side until browned, about 3-4 minutes (depending on weight of fillets.) Turn fish over and brown another minute. Add soy sauce mixture and simmer, covered, until fish is almost cooked through, about 3 more minutes. Remove fish and set aside.

3. Add scallion to sauce and boil, stirring occasionally, until glaze is thick and reduced, about 5 minutes. You should have about 1/4 cup of glaze. Perch the perch (oh, how I wanted to use that!) on your plates and drizzle with glaze.

9.25.2007

Not for the Lactose Intolerant.

I once worked with a great producer who told me about her theory of the Dairy Buffer. It's pretty simple, as far as theories go: any food is improved by adding dairy to it. For example, a burger is delicious, but a cheeseburger is a real treat. Pie is good, but pie a la mode is better. Baked potatoes are nothing without sour cream, tortilla chips are pointless without cheese, and whipped cream can do no wrong. Peas? Parkerhouse rolls? Polenta? Butter, butter, and more butter.

The Dairy Buffer theory isn’t fool proof; so far, I haven’t found the right dairy partner for sushi and spring rolls. But for the most part, it’s pretty spot on. And the type of dairy doesn't matter. Cheese, butter, sour cream, yogurt, creme fraiche, the Dairy Buffer does not discriminate.

I was thinking about the Dairy Buffer, while contemplating these gorgeous late-summer apricots that were starting to get a little wrinkly in the fridge. I wanted to turn them into some fabulous dessert, but pies and cakes and tarts all seemed too fussy. And they’re so yummy on their own, all they needed was a little something….dairy! Yes! I didn’t have any ice cream or whipping cream on hand and for once, butter wasn’t gonna cut it. But I did have some fresh goat cheese.

Fresh goat cheese isn't as...um, goat-y as aged goat cheese. It's actually pretty mild, with a slight tang. Whipped with some honey, it was an interesting counterpoint to the apricots. Naturally, by "interesting", I mean "damn good." I roasted the apricots, to concentrate their sweet apricot-ness and also to combat my frustrating stone-fruit allergy. If you’re not a fan of the goat, then sub mascarpone or ricotta. It'll definitely be good - the Dairy Buffer says so.


Roasted Apricots with Honeyed Goat Cheese
serves 4

1 lb. fresh apricots
3 Tbsp. crème de cassis
6 oz. fresh goat cheese
2 Tbsp. honey
Raspberries for garnish (highly optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350-degrees. Coat an 8”x8” baking dish with cooking spray. Halve the apricots and remove pits. Toss the apricots with the crème de cassis and lay them, cavity side up, in the baking dish. Roast for 30 minutes, until they get a little shriveled and wrinkly and seem brighter in color. The crème de cassis will get sticky and concentrated.

2. While the apricots roast, whip together the goat cheese and the honey.

3. Serve with a mini-dollop of goat cheese in each apricot. Garnish with raspberries and drizzle with the concentrated crème de cassis.

9.23.2007

Blogging is making me fat


I have been saddled with the Eastern-European, potato-eating, worry-wart peasant metabolism. My metabolism is so freaked out that I won’t be able to get through the winter, that I will waste away to nothing, that it clings desperately onto every last calorie it meets. In recent years, my metabolism has expanded it’s area of concern from just winter to encompass all the seasons.

Despite repeated assurances that there is no chance of my wasting away to nothing, my metabolism persists in it's storage efforts (on the off chance that I did actually waste away to nothing, no one would likely notice, since they’d be so preoccupied watching the pigs fly.) Blogging has sent my peasant metabolism into an over-the-moon, glorious tailspin. Always on the hunt for more to write about, I’ve been feeding it such a wealth of wonderfully delicious calories that it’s gone into hyper-storage overdrive. Which basically means my jeans are getting tight.

It is in these times of impending chunkiness that I turn to an old friend: Cooking Light.

Cooking Light
has a surfeit of excellent “lightened” recipes that actually taste like food you’d seek out when the fit of your Honeys isn’t an issue. But don't be fooled: the main reason a lot of Cooking Light’s recipes fall into the “light" category, is because the suggested serving size is miniscule, barely bite-sized. These are not the kinds of serving sizes that people who have been driven to seek “light” recipes normally abide by. If we found skimpy servings satisfying, we wouldn’t be in the market for “light” recipes, now would we?

In Cooking Light’s defense, their creations are lower in fat and calories than regular versions of the same things. And at least the presence of the nutrition information encourages me to stop and think about how much I’m packing in. This is one of my favorite Cooking Light recipes, because you could conceivably eat two of their so-called servings and still maintain a very reasonable calorie count for a satisfying dinner.

I love this recipe because it tastes a lot like the excellent chicken satay served at our local Thai place. The accompanying cucumber salad is also really tasty, and plays the perfectly cool, crisp, slightly sweet foil to the peanut sauce. Served with a side of rice-noodles, this is a excellent meal that won't convince your tastebuds that you're eating light, but it should be able to pull one over on the metabolism.


Chicken Satay
Courtesy Cooking Light, July 2005
Serves 4

Chicken:
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into 8 strips
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons ground fresh ginger (the magazine recommends bottled ginger, but I keep a knob of ginger in my freezer - it lasts for ages - and just use the microplane to take off as much as I need for a given recipe)
1 teaspoon grated lime rind
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced

Peanut Sauce:
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons natural-style, reduced-fat creamy peanut butter
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 garlic clove, minced

1. Combine chicken and next 6 ingredients (through 2 garlic cloves) in a medium bowl. Let stand 10 minutes.

2. In a separate medium bowl, combine 1 tablespoon brown sugar and the next 5 ingredients (through 1 garlic clove), stirring until sugar dissolves.

3. Thread chicken strips onto each of 8 (8-inch) skewers (I didn’t bother with the skewers). Place chicken on grill rack coated with cooking spray; grill 5 minutes on each side or until chicken is done. Serve chicken with sauce.

Nutritional Information (serving size: 2 skewers and 1 tablespoon sauce)
CALORIES 205(20% from fat); FAT 4.5g (sat 1g,mono 0.4g,poly 0.4g); PROTEIN 29.3g; CHOLESTEROL 66mg; CALCIUM 26mg; SODIUM 672mg; FIBER 0.8g; IRON 1.5mg; CARBOHYDRATE 11.2g


Cucumber Salad

Courtesy Cooking Light, July 2005

1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon minced seeded jalapeño pepper
1 teaspoon grated lime rind in a large bowl.
3 cups thinly sliced English cucumber
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Toss to coat.

9.20.2007

I’m Stuffed!

I’m not a vegetarian. I swear. I couldn’t possibly be more in favor of eating animals. Delicious, tasty animals. But when I looked back over the last four and a half month’s worth of recipes, I realized that you, my loyal readers, might be having a hard time buying my non-vegetarian-ness. Granted, there are my obsessive bacon entries, but there are also 12 entries in the “vegetables” category and only 1 or 2 in every other category. Obviously, I need to do something to reinforce my carnivorocity and convince you that this is not a blog about eating your greens. Unfortunately, this entry is not that.

It's not really my fault; my intention was to write about these gorgeous lamb steaks I picked up at the farmer's market last weekend. But the lamb guy at threw in an obscenely huge zucchini, just because he was trying to unload it. Despite Nick's well-documented disaffection for all things courgette, I couldn't not turn this 18" zucchini into something delicious. So, I did what anyone with a foot and a half long zucchini would do. I took it home and made a lot of really bad sex jokes.

Once that was out of my system, I stuffed it with quinoa, feta, and pine nuts. The original plan was to serve this with the lamb steaks, but the stuffed zucchini was a hearty enough meal in itself, alongside a tomato salad. So the steaks were set aside for another night and, alas, you’re stuck with another vegetable recipe.

To make up for yet another veggie-centric posting, I'll leave you with this, guaranteed to make any 4th grader laugh:

What’s zucchini’s favorite game? Squash.


Quinoa Stuffed Zucchini

Serves 4

1 obscenely large zucchini or 2 normal sized zucchini
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. fresh oregano, minced
3 Tbsp. pine nuts, toasted
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 cups quinoa (prepared from 1 cup dry quinoa and 2 cups water)
2 oz. Greek feta, crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 375-degrees.

2. Trim the ends and cut the zucchini in half. Using a melon baller, scoop the pulp out of the zucchini, leaving a ½” thick shell.

3. Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté onion until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for another two minutes.

4. Toss onion mixture, oregano, pine nuts, with the quinoa. Add egg and mix quickly, so the egg doesn’t scramble among the other warm ingredients. Season with salt and pepper and fold in the feta. Fill the zucchini shells to heaping with quinoa filling.

5. Bake shells for 30 minutes.

9.14.2007

Would you like something to drink?

This is one of a collection of Betty Crocker recipe cards from 1971 (you can see the entire collection here).


On the reverse is a recipe for the depicted Man-Pleasing appetizer, which is horseradish spiked beef bouillon, with a celery stalk (cleverly referred to as a “swizzle stick”.) I think if I served this libation to my man, he would not find it terribly appetizing. It might even encourage him to stop being my man. Maybe he would go be the man of someone who doesn't consider soup a beverage.

But what really bothers me about this Man-Pleasing Appetizer, is the striking resemblance it bears to this Weight Watcher’s recipe from 1974. The potable on the left is also beef bouillon served in a glass with a celery "swizzle stick" (courtesy of Candyboots):


So is bouillon a satisfying man-snack, a suitable substitution for beef jerky and buffalo wings? Or is it a thirst quenching pitstop on the road to sylphlike willowy-ness? It can't possibly be both, can it? Is the bouillon lobby playing both sides of the fence?

9.13.2007

A Letter of Apology

Dear Swiss Chard,

I am sorry for the disrespect I showed to your Vitamin-K-rich leaves recently. It was not my intention to cause you any harm, emotional or physical, or to imply that you required an excessive amount of seasoning in order to attain edibility. I hold your collection of vitamins, minerals, and fibers in the highest esteem. My bones, my colon and I are indebted to your vast nutritive properties. I have the utmost respect for your slightly bitter, slightly salty flavor and I am committed to making sure people don't confuse you with your cousin, Spinach.

I look forward to many fruitful years working together.

Best wishes,

Andrea
The Best Bite


Sauteed Chard
Serves 4, as a delicious, nutrient dense side

3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 large bunch green or rainbow chard
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium white onion, minced
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Heat a small frying pan over medium heat and toast the pine nuts until fragrant. Set aside.

2. Rinse and drain the chard. Pull the stems off the greens. Chop the stems and set aside. Cut the greens crosswise into 1-inch-wide slices and set aside.

3. In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high. Add the onion and raisins, and cook until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic, and cook until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add the chard stems and cook until they start to soften. Add the chard greens and reduce the heat to medium. Cook until the chard wilts, probably not more than 10 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and the pine nuts, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, and serve immediately.

9.10.2007

The Obligatory Tomato Recipe


Am I the only one totally sick of salad? Am I the only one dreaming of slow-cooked stews and meaty feasts? Enough with the summer produce already, produce so gorgeous and colorful and tasty that it doesn't need much more than a sprinkling of salt and olive oil to reach complete vegetal nirvana. Enough with the abundance of perfect zucchini and tomatoes and peaches and corn. Dammit, I want to actually cook when I'm cooking. I want to work with ingredients that need me, like butternut squash and ugly little celeriac.

Yes, I mourn the loss of potential beach days. Yes, I will miss wearing flip-flops to work. And yes, yes, yes, I will completely regret writing these words when I have snot frozen on the end of my nose. But I've had it up to my eyeballs with salad as of right this very second.

The tomatoes, however, are posing a problem. They’ve been just about as gorgeous as tomatoes have a right to be. Sweet and fat and properly tomato-y. It would be a crime not to give them a proper shout-out, almost disrespectful to the effort they've put into being delicious. So here is one more salad recipe, because I know that come January, this is the salad that will occupy the majority of my occipital lobe, where I file all my food fantasies.

This is my variation on the classic Greek salad. Unlike the American version of Greek salad, I prefer it lettuce-free, the way the Greek peasants traditionally went for it (I assure you, the romaine in the photo is strictly garnish.) Unlike the Greek peasants, I ditch the olives because I’m not a fan (I’ve tried. I will continue to try, but it’s just not happening.) I serve it with warm pita chips (not sure where the Greek peasants stand on those.) Maybe it's more Greek-ish than actually Greek.

If you can’t get your hands on luscious, straight-from-the-farm, end-of-summer tomatoes, then don’t bother. Order in Thai and eat it straight from the container, because that’ll be the equivalent of the kind of authentic Greek experience you’ll get if you make this with listless supermarket tomatoes. Otherwise, it's a glorious tangle of summer flavors, enough to almost love salad again.


Greek-ish Salad

Serves 6

2 lbs. extra fabulous tomatoes, cut into 1” chunks
¾ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
3 tsp. minced fresh oregano leaves
1 medium clove garlic, minced
Pinch sugar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/3 red onion, sliced as thinly as humanly possible
1 English cucumber, halved lengthwise
3 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
fresh ground black pepper to taste
4 pitas (I prefer whole wheat) toasted and sliced into sixths, so they’re sort of chip-like.

1. Toss tomatoes with ¼ tsp. of salt, and set aside. The salt will draw the water out, so it doesn’t wind up diluting your vinaigrette later.

2. Whisk together the remaining ½ tsp. salt and the next six ingredients (vinegar through olive oil). Set aside.

3. Toss the onion and cucumber together. Drain liquid from tomatoes and add those to the onion and cucumber. Drizzle with enough vinaigrette to moisten and toss, adding more vinaigrette if necessary. Season with pepper. Crumble feta over salad and serve with toasted pitas.

9.05.2007

Behold the Indian Feast!


Can two dishes plus rice be considered a feast? They can if you’re the one making it.

Indian food is a pain in the ass to cook. Most recipes have so many steps, that the prep requires a load of prep: spices need toasting, onions need chopping, tomatoes need dicing, chicken needs skinning. Those two dishes can take hours to make. But Indian food is top of my favorite cuisines list, with its exotic spices, complex flavors, fragrant sauces. Why should restaurants get to have all the fun? Which is where Suvir Saran’s “Indian Home Cooking” comes in.

Suvir Saran is a pretty well-known chef in New York, and he’s cooked stellar upscale Indian at a couple of great places, including the wonderful Devi, where I had a great meal (with wine pairings). So I was delighted and a little bit mystified when I spotted the very talented Mr. Saran manning the steam tables in our very mediocre corporate cafeteria.

Here is how I imagine this came to be, but I could totally be making it up: “Indian Home Cooking” is published and some adroit publicist has a stroke of genius: send Suvir Saran to corporate cafeterias to cook his amazing food, armed with stacks of books. It's an excellent idea, really: we corporate drones are, quite literally, a captive audience. What the adroit publicist did not bank on was the restaurant-obsessed groupie who yelled “It’s Suvir Saran!” and waved maniacally across the cafeteria.

I can’t help it. It just came out. I wasn’t expecting to see a Michelin rated chef near the sporks. His eyes got really big and he looked scared. I bought my Indian lunch, and a copy of the book to boot (hats off to you, adroit publicist!). But Suvir is a man of strength. He can handle a fan base. He recovered and graciously autographed my book. He even gave me his email address and suggested I come into Devi as his guest. Obviously, he didn't think I was that much of a freak.

I never took Suvir Saran up on the offer. Partly because I wanted to cook something from “Indian Home Cooking” before I contacted him, but mostly because I was afraid he would think I was just trying to mooch a free meal off of his goodwill (which was pretty much the plan). But I liked that I had the option. I was truly disappointed at news of Devi’s shuttering last week. Now, if I want to eat his food, I have to make it myself. So that's what I did, preparing his Lahori Chicken Curry and Chilled Smoky Eggplant with Yogurt and Cilantro in tribute.

Suvir's recipes (I feel like we're on a first name basis; he gave me his email address) are actually reasonable for a home cook. And they're even reasonable for an American home cook, who might not have "12 cardamom pods" and "9 whole cloves" just sitting around (they lose their punch quickly, so use them stat or store them in the freezer.) Yeah, there's a lot of prep just to get your mise en place set, but that's just the nature of this kind of highly spiced cuisine. The chicken was really tasty and was a brighter, less-greasy version of the chicken curry available from our local take-out joint.

But the eggplant. Oh. My. God. The. Eggplant. Creamy and silky and smoky. Rich, but still seemingly virtuous. You can take Suvir's advice and roast your whole eggplant directly on the flame of a gas burner, but if you're like me, you'll switch to the less stressful oven roasting method when the eggplant catches fire and a flame shoots up from it. (Although I had taken the batteries out of the smoke detector.) It is a little more work than usual, for what amounts to a side dish. But it's worth every bit of effort, at least until my buddy Suvir embarks on his next restaurant gig. Or comes back to our cafeteria.

Chilled Smoky Eggplant with Yogurt and Cilantro
Courtesy Suvir Saran
Serves 4-6

1 large eggplant
2 Tbsp. canola oil
1 medium red onion, diced
1 tsp. salt
2 cups plain yogurt
1" fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 fresh hot green chile, minced
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 tsp. garam masala

1. Roast the eggplant on a cookie sheet in a 500-degree oven until blackened, about 20 minutes. Let cool and peel the skin off. Cut off and discard the stem. Put the eggplant into a bowl and mash with a potato masher.

2. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large frying pan. Add the onion and salt, and saute until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.

3. Add the mashed eggplant and cook, stirring often, until the dry, about 10 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and let cool for about five minutes.

4. Whisk the yogurt until smooth in a large bowl. All the eggplant and all the remaining ingredients and stir well. Chill until cold. Taste for salt and serve cold.

9.02.2007

Whither radicchio?

Recipes are like friends; some you’re willing to go a little more out of your way for than others. Spinach Salad with Grilled Red Onion and Tahini Vinaigrette never seemed like it was going to be my BFF. It had been on my radar for a while, but it took the proper planet alignment in order to claw it’s way onto the table: a leftover jar of tahini (courtesy of Virginia T. Habeeb) happened to coincide with a fortuitous trip to the farmer’s marker (baby spinach! red onion!) and a gut-bustingly large Indian lunch. Fate had determined that a light dinner was on the cards and this was the light dinner it was meant to be.

I loved the idea: caramelized red onions and mild baby spinach tossed in a nutty tahini vinaigrette and served in bowl-like, purple radicchio leaves. But the radicchio was a problem, namely because I didn’t have any. There was none at the farmer’s market. None at the crummy grocery store 5 blocks from my apartment (hardly a shocker) and none at the overpriced-but-cute gourmet shop another two blocks beyond that.

I had to make a crucial decision: how important was the radicchio? It’s not like I was trying to make spaghetti and meatballs without meatballs. But the radicchio sounded good. My mental tastebuds imagined how the bite of the leaves would balance the sweetness of the onions. I wanted the radicchio, but I’d already been to three places and walked a mile in search of it.

Part of living the car-free life, means that the number of errands I can run or the distance I can travel in a day is limited to how far my hot-pink Pumas are willing to take me. Today, they weren’t very willing. I went home, radicchio-less.

The salad was great. The dressing is creamy, but still light (mixing it in a blender is a must) and the onions (I broiled) are fantastic. The recipe makes quite a bit of dressing, and I used the leftovers as a marinade for notoriously-bland tilapia a few days later with stellar results.

But I couldn't shake the feeling that those sweet onions and the nutty dressing could have used a bitter counterpoint. It needed radicchio. I guess I'll have to look a little harder next time.

Spinach Salad with Grilled Red Onion and Tahini Vinaigrette
Courtesy Bon Appétit, June 1996
Serves 10

1/2 cup water
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons tahini (sesame seedpaste)
2 tablespoons coarse-grained mustard
1 teaspoon honey
1 small garlic clove, minced
3/4 vegetable oil

2 large red onions

12 cups (packed) baby spinach,trimmed
10 large radicchio leaves

1. Combine first six ingredients in blender and blend well. Gradually blend in oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Cut onions lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick wedges, leaving root ends intact. Place onions in 15x10-inch glass baking dish. Pour 1 cup vinaigrette over onions, coating evenly. Let marinate 3 hours. Chill remaining dressing. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill onions.)

3. Prepare barbecue (medium-high-heat) or preheat broiler. Sprinkle onions with salt and pepper. Grill or broil onions until golden, turning occasionally, about 12 minutes. (Can be made 6 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.)

4. Place spinach in large bowl. Toss with enough vinaigrette to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Fill radicchio leaves with spinach. Top with grilled onions. Pass remaining dressing separately.

8.28.2007

Welcome to Minnesota!

Sorry for the hiatus on the posts, but I've just returned from a whirlwind weekend in food mecca Minneapolis. Seriously. I had the good fortune to eat at the truly fantastic 112 Eatery , which could not only hold it's own in New York, but it'd give some other joints the serious Smackdown Royale.

But I have to admit, as embarrassing as it may be, that the highlight of my Midwestern culinary journey was the Minnesota State Fair. I swear I'm not being facetious. First of all, it's really no wonder that there's an obesity epidemic in this country. Obesity is delicious. It is breaded and it is fried and it is on a stick.





For those as naive as I was about the cuisine of Minnesota's indigenous peoples, hotdish is a casserole. How they get the casserole to stay on the stick has undoubtedly kept our scientists busy for years. But now that the casserole is firmly on the stick, perhaps they will turn their attention towards that pesky cancer thing.

Not all the food at the Minnesota State Fair is on a stick. Some is on display:




One of the true delights was seeing the harem of winning Dairy Princesses, whose heads are carved out of 90lb. blocks of butter (it's salted; I asked.)



And finally, here's got to be the absolute best use of millet ever. This is from the crop art display. It's made up entirely of crops: corn, beans, and grains. It is a portrait of Tom Selleck. And, yes, his name is spelled wrong.



But I don't want you to think that I'm mocking the wonder that is the Minnesota State Fair. I honestly, truly, fantastically loved it. I loved the deep fried pickles (dipped in ranch dressing.) I loved the deep fried cheese curds (dipped in ketchup). I loved Minnesota's Largest Pumpkin (990 lbs.) and Minnesota's Largest Boar (1200 lbs.) A lot of it was probably the kitsch value, since I don't see too many foot-and-a-half long green-beans at the Grand Army Plaza Farmer's Market, but the whole thing was so deep-fried and so on a stick and so wonderfully American that I can't wait to go back. And I'll definitely try a stick of hotdish next time.

8.19.2007

Everything Happens for a Reason

The Pistou sat there. It was getting increasingly annoyed with me. Every time I opened the refrigerator, I could hear it practically spitting at me in a French accent: “Why do I just sit here? Why do you not use me? Am I not good enough for your ridiculous American recipes? Pah!”

The Mint Pistou was the remainder of the Ugly Soup episode, the superfluous byproduct of Gourmet’s original recipe. It was tasty, a blend of fresh-from-the-garden (someone else’s garden, of course) mint and parsley, a scallion, and some of my favorite extra-virgin olive oil, a French version of pesto. The soup didn’t need it, but the pistou didn’t deserve to sit there and rot. It didn’t ask to be born.

Fortunately, the Superfluous Pistou collided with a summertime hankering for shrimp kebobs. Could I repurpose the pistou into a marinade for the wild jumbo fresh shrimp I just shelled out $15.99 a pound for at Whole Foods? Either this was going to be a brilliant marriage of flavors or a colossal mess. After the Rainbow Chard Incident, my confidence was shaken, but thankfully not stirred.

The pistou, in it’s original state, was too thick to act sufficiently as a marinade, but some lime juice took care of that. And since cooking would dull it’s original bright flavors (even more than sitting forlornly in the fridge did) I added some shallot and garlic to punch it up. Despite the grilling, the mint flavor shone through and brought out the shrimp’s sweetness.

Voila! The Superfluous Pistou has become indispensible! I have discovered the reason for it's existence. And, to it's snooty French delight, I 'll definitely make it again.



Mint Pistou Shrimp Kebabs

Serves 4

Note: Since shrimp and vegetables tend to cook at different rates, it makes more sense to skewer them each separately and combine in a bowl, as they come off the grill.

3/4 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs
1 large scallion, chopped (1/2 cup)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 small shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 lbs. uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails on
1 medium red onion
1 medium zucchini
1/2 lb. crimini mushrooms


1. Cut onion and zucchini into 1 1/2” pieces. Wipe mushrooms with a damp paper towel and cut tips off stems.

2. Pulse mint, parsley, and scallion in a food processor until finely chopped. With motor running, add oil in a stream, then add water and salt, blending until incorporated. Whisk in lime juice, shallot, and garlic.

3. Toss the shrimp with enough pistou to generously coat. Marinate 30 minutes. Skewer on soaked wooden skewers or metal kebob skewers.

4. Toss the vegetables, in separate bowls, each with enough pistou to coat. Marinate 30 minutes. Skewer the onions, mushrooms, and zucchini on separate soaked wooden skewers or metal kebob skewers.

5. Preheat grill or grill pan to medium. Coat with cooking spray. Grill shrimp skewers until pink, turning once. Timing depends on the size of the shrimp you use, but you probably won’t need to grill for longer than 3 minutes per side for colossal sized shrimp. Brush with additional pistou before turning. Grill zucchini and onion skewers until tender and caramelized, about 5-6 minutes each side. Grill mushrooms 2-3 minutes each side. Brush all with remaining pistou. Once cooked, serve on skewers, or slide off skewers and toss together in a serving bowl.

Mind if I have a taste?


The danger with eating in restaurants, is that everyone gets something different. Which sounds like a good idea, until the food arrives, and you look around and realize you’ve made a dreadful, irreversible mistake: you’ve ordered wrong. Sometimes, you can blame the pressure; you’re overwhelmed by a bevy of inspiring choices, weighing the delights of braised shortribs vs. butter poached lobster vs. gruyere mac & cheese. But the shortribs come with spaetzle! And the lobster comes with roasted plums! And the mac & cheese comes with mac & cheese! And suddenly the waiter is looking at you expectantly and everyone else has ordered and you need to make a decision, stat, and you hear yourself blurt out something that wasn’t even in the running to begin with, like the organic roasted chicken with pan juices. The waiter retreats kitchen-ward, menus tucked tightly under his arm, leaving you feeling bamboozled by your own indecisiveness, doomed to drool over every meal but your own.

Of course sometimes food envy sneaks up on you. Your choice seems solid. That is, until the entrees arrives and absolutely everything on the table is bewitching - except for what’s in front of you. But no matter what brings food envy on, the outcome is the same: silently seethe with jealousy, hoping your dining companions will offer up a best bite. There’s always the old “does anyone want to taste this?” ploy, in an effort to inspire reciprocation, but there’s no guarantee of success. But now, there’s the Freeloader Fork, food envy’s most formidable foe yet.

With thanks to the ever-vigilent Daily Candy for spotting this gem, the Freeloader Fork has an extendable handle, up to 2’ long, letting you reach across tables, round and square, to dip into the most alluring eats, with or without the owner’s approval. Naturally, you should apply some basic subterfuge; a simple “Hey, is that Charro!?” or “Look! Posh Spice is eating a corndog!” should shift their attention long enough for you to get the Freeloader Fork in and out, undetected. After all, you don’t want to be seen as a freeloader.

It also helps count calories. Watching your girlish figure? Let your tablemates order dessert, and just use your Freeloader Fork for a little sample. After all, didn't Cathy teach us that if we didn't order it, it has no calories? But my favorite use of the Freeloader Fork, as seen in the product copy, is “poke people at a safe distance,” because clearly we don’t have enough tools for that. I was a little disappointed there wasn't a poking illustration included.

A scorching case of food envy can flare up at any moment and modern medicine has yet to find a cure. So, until the FDA approves the proper ointments or caplets or nasal sprays, all I can advise is having the proper tools on hand in order to ease the symptoms.

8.16.2007

Gee, your trash smells terrific.

Tonight, I left work at a shockingly early 5:35pm. I dashed home, thinking I’d have just enough time to whip together a gourmet meal and still make it to our 8pm co-op meeting on time. Sure, there’re yesterday's leftovers in the fridge, but I had a free hour and a bright bunch of rainbow chard! It would be churlish not to cook! Churlish, I say!

Once in the door, I diced onions and minced garlic and chiffonaded chard. I boiled water and threw in some whole-wheat pasta. I danced around the kitchen to Peter, Bjorn, and John. I readied half a cup of dry white wine and diced up some leftover roasted tomatoes.

“Maybe this one won’t be spectacular enough to blog about,” I thought, “but at least I get to use the chard. And how delighted Nick will be to not get stuck with a Lean Cuisine!” (which has become the standard co-op meeting night dinner.) I seasoned my vegetables. I seasoned my pasta water. I thought about how chefs say “seasoned” instead of “salted” and how very chef-like I was for using the proper terminology. Proud of my chef-ness, I boldly tossed everything together and added a generous blizzard of parmeggiano. And then I tasted it. Really salty. Too salty. Lip-curdling salty. It tasted like the ocean, solidified.

This meal was in critical condition, but I'm not one to panic (total lie. I am SO one to panic.) I set about doctoring, adding more wine and some lemon. But you can’t desalinate pure salt. Even if you use the word “season.” And that old wives tale about throwing in a peeled potato in to soak up salt? What a load of grade-A bunk. Who the hell are these old wives, anyway, spreading around that kind of hogwash? I want that job.

I tried everything to save my gorgeous rainbow chard and pasta, everything, but it was D.O.A. Into the trash it went, although it still smelled so delicious, so very delicious. This is the first time I've had to toss a failed cooking project. It was a blow to my ego. And Nick got stuck with a Lean Cuisine. Which was underseasoned, just so you know.

8.14.2007

Take that, Cousin Mary.

I’ve made a lot of lemonade in my time, including mint lemonade, raspberry lemonade, and lime-y lemonade. But when Carolyn admiringly mentioned that her Cousin Mary had served lemonade flavored with fresh basil, I was instantly furious.

You see, Cousin Mary doesn’t know this, but she’s my arch-nemesis. She’s one of those people who’s always making her own bread and growing her own vegetables and keeping pet ducks to teach the kids what its like to keep pet ducks. Her kids eat sushi and speak nine languages; I think the 7-year old is up for a Pultizer. Mary does all these things rather effortlessly and at the same time, she’s nice and funny. I bet she can sew. So why would someone so seemingly fabulous qualify as an arch-nemesis?

The answer is obvious: I’m insanely jealous. Mary’s daily accomplishments are so breezy and second-nature, all the duck-raising and vegetable-growing and child-rearing. I’m lucky if I use the asparagus before it rots. The Basil Lemonade put me over the top. I was slightly comforted when I googled “Basil Lemonade” and came up with a whole host of recipes, any one of which Mary could have been inspired by. But I think it’s safe to say, bitterly, that Real Simple and Gourmet got the idea from her.

I decided to go mano a mano, lemon a lemon with Cousin Mary. I wanted to one-up her lemonade. I wanted to prove to Carolyn who the undisputed lemonade champion really is and win back her thirsty heart. I wanted to give Cousin Mary the Smackdown Royale (in the nicest, most homemade way possible, of course.) But I needed stronger ammunition than lemons and basil. I had to up the ante, if I was going to return Carolyn's culinary affections to their rightful owner (me.) So I made the only move left: I added vodka.

My first try was kind of a cheat; I muddled the leaves in lemonade, but took the lazy girl's route: Crystal Light. I actually don't mind Crystal Light; it's not as good as the real thing, but it certainly does what it says on the tin. Unfortunately, the basil flavor was pretty understated and the mouthful of wet greenery that came with every sip wasn’t terribly appetizing. Steeping the basil for a few hours in cooled simple syrup produced pretty much the same, wimpy basil flavor, but with the added annoyance of having squeezed 23 lemons. Including the fresh basil in the simple syrup from the get-go was my “a-ha!” moment. Enough basil flavor to know it’s there, but not so much that you feel like you’re eating a lemonade Caprese. Plus, my ingenius combination of half bottled lemon juice (way too acidic and sharp on it's own) and fresh squeezed lemons saved some work. A shot of vodka in the glass, and a frosty Basil Lemonade Cocktail was delivered to Carolyn’s side. She was delighted and I felt triumphant.

Shall we tally the score? Cousin Mary gets a point for the Basil Lemonade concept, a point for introducing it to Carolyn, a point for squeezing every single lemon herself, and two points for making her own bread (unrelated but still impressive). I get a point for persevering to find the best method and fifty-six points for adding vodka.

Final score:
Mary: 5
Me: 57

Good game, Cousin Mary. You're a worthy adversary. I'm just praying you don't demand a rematch.

Basil Lemonade Cocktails

2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
5½ cups water
1½ cups lemon juice
Vodka (optional, but totally fabulous)

1. Combine basil, sugar, and 2 cups of the water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring once or twice until sugar dissolves. Let cool 30 minutes and then chill for 1-3 hours, so the basil flavor steeps into the syrup. Pour syrup through a strainer, pressing on basil leaves with a spoon to extract all syrup. This will make about 2½ cups of basil syrup.

2. Combine remaining 3½ cups of water and lemon juice. Add syrup, ½ cup at a time until you reach your desired sweetness (I used almost all of it). Stir and chill.

3. To serve, fill tall glasses with ice. Add 1½oz vodka to each and fill to the top with Basil Lemonade. Stir and then garnish with basil sprigs (or mint, if you run out of bail, like I did; see photos) and lemon slices.

8.13.2007

How ugly is ugly?

Silly me! I totally spaced and forgot that I employed my low-quality photographic skills while assembling Ugly Soup, so here are the snaps. First, a lovely one of the summer squash burbling happily away in the chicken stock.


And here’s the completed soup with a less-than-artful swirl of Mint Pistou, just before serving. I suppose that, in addition to my food photography, I need to work on my swirling.


Now you can see for yourself that Ugly Soup isn't frightfully grotesque, but Slightly Unattractive Soup was a far less interesting name. Besides, I think we've all seen enough Ugly Betty promos to know that beauty is only skin deep. It's all about flava.

8.10.2007

Ugly Soup


Food should be pretty. As the Italians say, “we eat with the eyes first.” Perhaps this is why unattractive dishes like this and this tend to be less popular at buffets and potlucks. Although I suspect they wouldn’t do much better in the cafeteria at the Perkins School for the Blind. But when you’re cooking and the image you have in your head of the beautiful magic the ingredients will create together bears zero resemblance to the pot-full of bleached sludge you end up with, ugly cooking is ok. Especially if you know the ingredients are fresh and delicious and you don’t have anything else in the apartment to make for dinner.

This is what happened with this soup. I started with this Gourmet recipe, but played with the quantities and ingredients, adding in a couple of extra things along the way. When I was done, it looked like grout thinned with chicken stock. But it was delectable, velvety and packed full of caramelized summer squash. Rich enough for a meal, but cream-less, so it still felt kind of virtuous. And I was delighted to have happened upon an ideal use for my crisper full of aging vegetables. It was excellent reheated the next day as well, slightly mellower and still yummy but, alas, no prettier.

I did make the Mint Pistou Gourmet recommends garnishing the soup with, but it proved too much work for too little deliciousness. If you happen to have some fresh pesto in the house, a small dollop on top of each serving will be tasty and might even add a bit of polish, but this is never going to be the supermodel of soups, so don't get your hopes up.

I’m posting a pretty flower picture of instead of the soup, because the camera broke when I took it. Ok, I’m kidding. The camera is fine, and the soup isn’t so atrociously ugly that it’s a turn off. To be perfectly honest, it's not even that ugly; I just needed a good angle for this piece. I promise you’ll enjoy it if you make it. Unless it comes out like this. Then throw it away and promise never to set foot in the kitchen again.

Ugly Soup
Serves 6

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 medium onion, diced
½ teaspoon salt
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 ½ lb yellow summer squash, halved and thinly sliced
2 carrots, thinly sliced
¾ lb. yellow-fleshed potatoes peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup corn, fresh or frozen
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Melt butter in a 6- to 8-quart heavy pot on medium-low. Add onion and salt, stirring occasionally until softened, 6-8 minutes.

2. Add squash and carrots, and let cook for another 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add potato and stock and bring to a boil. Add corn, reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, until vegetables are very tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat.

3. Puree soup with a hand-blender until smooth. Add a little water or stock to thin it, if it’s become too thick. Return to heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and serve.

8.08.2007

Meet the people who hate me!

The people of Delta flight 528 hate me: the young mother of two, the older man in a faded yellow polo, the businessman glaring at me over his Blackberry, the lady who is who is either a forty-something with bad skin or a seventy-something with great skin. I have failed to charm the flight attendant as well, probably because I’m shoveling forkfuls of General Tso’s Chicken into my mouth. The aroma is driving everyone wild with desire. This might be more effective than that pheromone perfume that came out a few years ago.

I’m not sure why. This is not a noteworthy General Tso’s chicken, cited in a foodie forum, from some amazingly-authentic-yet-obscure Atlanta Szechuan dive. This is rubbery, airport, fast food, General Tso’s. It’s soggy, overbreaded, and coated in a sickly-sweet pepper flecked sauce. The accompanying fried rice exists only for texture; bubble wrap packs more flavor per square centimeter. And the mixed vegetables swim in a gluey gravy, although they are surprisingly crisp-tender.

But you’d never guess I wasn’t relishing every bite; and doused with a hearty helping of soy sauce, I actually might be relishing every bite. I’m ravenous. It’s been a gruesomely long day of travel and meetings, with nary a moment for a meal (shameful!). And there's not a lot of stupendous food choices in Concourse A of William B. Hartsfield International Airport. Then I realize: this is the kind of thing most people eat on a regular basis. I look around at the people who hate me, wondering if they’re jealous because of hunger or genuine food envy?

Then, a stroke of luck: someone has a peanut allergy and the flight attendant informs us, in a most confidential tone, that peanuts will not be served. A cloud of irritation hangs over coach class (I’m sure first class will be allowed to roll around naked in piles of peanuts if they choose.) and the community ire shifts from me, despite the lingering scent of General Tso’s legacy.

I finish my greasy meal, hunger sated. Next time, I’ll smuggle some good Southern cooking on board: maybe some saucy barbecue ribs or biscuits and gravy or crispy, crackly fried chicken. Maybe all of it. Because if they're going to hate me, I might as well give them something worth hating me over.

8.04.2007

Sorry, Nick.

I think is starting to Nick dread my cooking. Not because I try to sneak bacon or zucchini in wherever I can. Not because he detests clean-up duty and trying to figure out where everything goes. Not even because he harbors resentment towards the space our ever-expanding collection of kitchen equipment takes up. Occasionally, he’ll shake a microplane or a pair of tongs or a dutch oven accusingly at me, demanding to know “is this really necessary?” (it is), but I know deep down he considers himself lucky to be on the receiving end of my hobby.

But the thing that’s going to put him over the top, is the smoke alarm. I can’t seem to embark on any sort of cooking project, small, medium, or large, without setting the stupid thing off. It doesn’t help that we live in a small space and it’s not far from the stove. Even the simplest, non-smoke generating sautés cause the damn thing to start its ear-splitting blare, as a mechanical voice within calmly warns “fire. fire.”
And every time I set it off, the scene is the same: Nick’s cat-like reflexes spring into action, as he whips the ladder out of the closet and springs upward to silence the cacophony. I suppose if I started timing him and telling him it was “fitness”, he’d probably really enjoy prying the smoke alarm from the ceiling, but as it is, he just mutters my name and gives me the exasperated glare. I’ve become very familiar with that glare, and this recipe isn’t helping.

This Balsamic Marinade is one of my favorites, pleasantly simple and surprisingly yummy. I usually use it on flank steak, but asparagus marinated in this one is excellent as well. If you have an outdoor grill or access to one, that’s the way to go. Since we remain grill-less, I usually broil it or use a grill pan, but both set the smoke alarm blaring and Nick clambering for the ceiling within a matter of minutes. I suppose if I were smart, I’d turn the thing off before I get cookin’, but I can never seem to remember. I hope I’m redeemed by the fact that Nick gets a tasty meal for his troubles; he could have married someone who raised ferrets for a hobby. And at least our smoke alarm works.

(It doesn't taste nearly as blurry as it looks in the photo. This is a pre-cooked shot, since by the time the smoke alarm had gone off and Nick had given me the exasperated glare and it came out of the broiler, I had completely forgotten about the camera. And, as I think we’ve previously established, I’m a shit photographer anyway.)

Flank Steak with Balsamic Marinade

serves 4-6

3/4 cup balsamic vinegar (save the aged stuff for your salad; supermarket balsamic will do just fine here)
1/4 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 heaping Tbsp. minced fresh rosemary
2lb flank steak

1. Toss all ingredients together in a large ziploc bag. Let meat marinate for an hour or two in the refrigerator, turning over once or twice.

2. Pull meat out of marinade and discard marinade. Here's where it gets tricky. Cooking times obviously vary, depending on weight and how you prefer your meat cooked. I’ve had success by broiling or grilling 3-4 minutes per side, for medium rare. Let meat rest for 10 minutes before serving, to redistribute juices.

7.31.2007

Why do peaches hate me?

I’m not sure what I did to anger peaches, but they are pissed at me. So are nectarines, cherries, and plums. They reveal their animosity whenever I nibble at their deliciously fat selves by making my lips and tongue swell up. I can handle the Barbara Hershey-in-Beaches lips, the unbearable itchiness less so.

My doctor tells me that I’m not allergic to stone fruit, per se, but to the trees they grow on. I’m not sure why this difference is even worth the breath to point it out, since the result is that in the summer months I just have to find my fruity goodness elsewhere. But when the farmer’s markets are teeming with plump stone fruit and the general public is gaily dabbing at their peach juice-dabbled chins, I am ridden with jealousy, driven crazy with desire. Must. Eat. Peaches.

Alas, all is not lost. Once cooked, I can gorge myself silly on summer’s finest. The aforementioned doctor says that cooking the fruit kills whatever enzyme I’m allergic to. So, I’m resigned to a life eating drippy peaches and cherries poached and grilled and sautéed, or in crisps and cobblers and pies. There are worse fates.

As a result, I’ve become quite the exceptional Cobbler and Crisper, if I do say so myself (bring it on Bobby Flay!). This variation was inspired by some rosemary shortbread I made last year; I was a little shocked at how amazing the rosemary + butter + sugar combo is, and adding peaches just furthered the deliciousness quotient. I find peeling the peaches unnecessary, but if you’re in the mood for excessive, useless work, then feel free to add that step. The pine-y rosemary adds a light, herbal note to the crisp, making this fabulously easy dessert kind of impressive and pretty unbeatable.

The peaches, they may be angry. But I will make them love me.

Peach Rosemary Crisp
Serves 6

8-10 ripe peaches, depending on your topping-to-fruit ratio preference
2 Tbsp. creme de cassis (optional)
5 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into bits
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup flour
1 Tbsp. fresh, minced rosemary

1. Preheat oven to 400-degrees. Cut peaches in half and remove pits (the riper they are, the easier this will be. but the firmer they are, the better they'll hold their shape.) Cut peach halves into bite-size 1" pieces.

2. Spray an 8"x8" pan with nonstick cooking spray. Toss the peaches and the creme de cassis together, in the pan, and pat them down to a relatively even layer.

3. Put the butter, brown sugar, flour, oatmeal, and rosemary into a medium bowl and, using your hands, pinch the butter into the other ingredients, until it's all evenly combined and has a crumbly texture. Top the peaches with the delicious crumbly-ness.

4. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve hot or warm, topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream or gelato.

7.23.2007

Maybe math doesn’t suck.


It’s been a rocky road for math and me. We had a tense relationship from fractions through the algebra years. Integers didn’t help and it got really ugly during my head-spinning foray into geometry. The Pythagorean theorem still makes me break out in hives. But it’s been a long time. Math and I have grown up a bit and developed a cordial truce, based pretty much on salad.

If you’re unsure of the correlation between math and salad, you obviously make as lousy and unbalanced a vinaigrette as I used to. Vinaigrette is one of those cooking cornerstones mastered on the first day of culinary school before tackling weightier subjects, like ice. But not having been to culinary school, or ever really put much thought into it, I spent years combining vinaigrette ingredients in random proportions, completely unaware of the disservice I was doing my greens.

And then math stepped in.

The basic ratio for a good vinaigrette is one part vinegar to three parts oil. If you’re using a particularly strong vinegar or something else highly acidic, like lemon juice, it’ll probably taste more balanced at one part vinegar to four parts oil. Those ratios, 1:3 and 1:4, aren't advanced math, but you can't deny their mathness.

Get your oil to acid ratio right and you can futz with flavors like shallots, herbs, garlic, and sugar. Dijon mustard is a great flavoring and it’ll help your oil and vinegar emulsify (but that’s science. My relationship with science is still a little shaky, so let’s not go there).

Once you see the math-powered light, the horizons of vinaigrette expand beyond salad greens. It's fantastic drizzled onto grilled or roasted meats, just before serving, and tossed with vegetables, beans, and grains (or any combination thereof.) As a mayo replacement, vinaigrette makes a less expected pasta or potato salad and an interesting sandwich condiment. This Basil Vinaigrette, a variation on a Bon Appetit recipe, ranks tops in the official Best Bite Kitchen, and I've used it for all of the above. It’s great tossed with sweet summer corn and tomatoes (as in the snappy photo).

Thank you, sweet, sweet math. I'm glad we stuck it out.


Basil Vinaigrette

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 scant Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. packed light brown sugar
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Blitz all ingredients through olive oil, with a hand-blender or food processor, until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste and then get your serve on.