It's pronounced "keen-wa"

Carnivorously speaking, quinoa gets the shaft. It’s one of those “healthy” grains that meat-eaters generally lump into the domain of vegetarians, vegans, and the gluten-averse. While quinoa happens to pack boat-loads of protein, magnesium, iron, fiber, and riboflavin (and lord knows we all need more riboflavin) into every fluffy little whole-grain, its also an excellent accompaniment to meats of all kinds and therefore deserves some respect from the omnivorous among us.

Quinoa has a mild nutty flavor and a slightly crunchy texture that kind of “pops” in your mouth and it's super-easy to prepare. It definitely has blandness potential, but no more so than couscous or rice, and that actually points to its versatility. It’s fab tossed with either a fruity or herb-y vinaigrette, and served alongside burgers and hot dogs at a barbeque. I’ve served quinoa with lamb and beef, since it works really well with gravies and sauces. And most recently, I paired a veggie filled Quinoa pilaf with Sauteed Pork Medallions in a Mustard-Curry sauce with Tomato Chutney (As you can see in this lovely, poor-quality photo. I promise I'm working on upgrading my food photography skillz.)

The only reason I can imagine that it’s not the Most Popular Grain in School is that the Quinoa Growers of America aren’t springing for a Super Bowl spot or adequately financing the quinoa lobby. Or maybe they’re a bunch of gluten-averse vegans hoarding all the high-potassium goodness for themselves.

Quinoa Pilaf with Spinach & Carrots

Serves 4 as a side

1 Tbsp. olive oil
½ cup diced onion
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken stock
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup peeled baby carrots
2 cups fresh spinach, stemmed and washed or baby spinach leaves
Salt and Pepper to taste

1. Put the quinoa in a fine mesh strainer and rinse well, to remove the saponins.

2. Heat a medium saucepan and then add the olive oil. Sauté onion until translucent. Add garlic and sauté for another 30 seconds to a minute.

3. Add chicken stock, rinsed quinoa, and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until most, but not all, of the liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender, about 15 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, steam the carrots in the microwave until barely crisp-tender; put the carrots and a few tablespoons of water in a bowl, cover, and nuke for 2-3 minutes. Alternatively, you can use a vegetable steamer.

5. When there’s still a tiny bit of liquid in the quinoa, add the carrots and the spinach and toss. Replace cover and cook until spinach is wilted and carrots are tender. Add more salt, if needed, and pepper to taste.


The Roving Kitchen Reporter #1

My favorite breakfast du jour is that Fage 0% Greek Yogurt. I like it with fresh fruit and a handful of cereal, some nuts, and a healthy squirt of ketchup. Ok, I don’t actually put ketchup on my yogurt, but I do always add honey, lots and lots of honey. So, as your girl in the field, here to explore new and exciting taste sensations and report back, I decided to try some artisanal honeys and see if they were any better than the standard issue supermarket honey bear.

I want to make it clear, up front, that I have nothing against the 'ol honey bear. I have not been unhappy with his performance as a sweetener, he’s been a dutiful friend for many years. But, in the name of research, I fired up the interweb and ordered a jar each of Wild Blackberry Honey and Macadamia Blossom Honey. I almost ordered the rosemary honey and the thyme honey and the lavender honey as well, because I’m a sucker for anything herb-related, especially when available in pretty, girlie packaging, but I wanted to take it slow and be sure not to O.H. (over honey).

I’ll admit that I went into this with mixed feelings. On one hand, I don’t have one of those highly refined palates that can pick out “berry notes” or “grassy notes” or “liquorice notes” in wines (unless someone else points them out to me first), so I was skeptical that spending $12, instead of my usual $3.79, on honey was going to be worth it. On the other hand, I still can’t get past the idea that if it’s expensive, it’s therefore more gourmet and more gourmet always equals better, right?

Several days later, the fancy honey arrived, all packaged beautifully and ready for some serious yogurt action. Unfortunately, both the blackberry and macadamia honeys had completely crystallized into solid masses. This isn’t a big deal, since honey doesn’t actually go bad, and all it takes is a few seconds in the microwave or a dip in a toasty water bath for it to regain its syrupy texture. Once it was restored to the proper consistency, I began my painstaking analysis.

The blackberry honey is light amber in color, not too different from The Bear. I was really surprised when I tasted it, how fruity it actually tasted, how well the....ahem, blackberry notes stood out. Perhaps my palate is more refined that I previously thought? Or maybe these bees just got somethin' on the standard honey bear filling bees, namely access to blackberry bushes? Whatever it is, the blackberry flavor is definitely there, but its not the first thing you taste. It kind of creeps in, after the initial hit of honey sweetness fades. The Macadamia Nut Blossom Honey is a lot darker in color, with a creamy macadamia-ness in the background that slinks in as an afterthought, like the blackberry. Both honeys certainly have more complexity and depth than The Bear; I'm not sure I'd even understand the concept of "complexity" and "depth" in honey if I didn't taste them all side by side. With apologies to The Bear, they both get a solid thumbs up.

It’s been a couple of weeks since my honey frontiers were expanded. The Bear sits in the cupboard, eyeing me bitterly when I reach for his neighbors. I’ve been swapping back and forth between the blackberry and the macadamia on my morning yogurt. I’ve tried them both in tea, used the macadamia blossom in a marinade for cod, and the blackberry honey with some rosemary on a roast chicken, all with pretty tasty results. But the big question is, were they any tastier than if I’d stuck with my old friend, The Bear? I kind of think they are, but I probably just think that because they were more expensive.


Hooray for Summer!

It’s supposed to be 90 degrees in New York today. Since its Memorial Day weekend, the subway air conditioning hasn’t broken yet, and the trash hasn’t begun fermenting in the streets, everyone’s in that happy summer’s-finally-here mood. This general geniality has me happily anticipating all the fruits and veggies that come with the season, so I though I’d share one of my fave summery desserts: strawberries with balsamic vinegar. It’s super easy and the level of fabulousness it reaches really just depends on the quality of the ingredients you use.

Good balsamic vinegar is one of those things that is absolutely worth splurging on. Most supermarket balsamic is just crap; if your balsamic vinegar costs $2.89, then it’s probably just colored and sweetened wine vinegar. The real thing is, as my New Jersey cousins would say, totally awesome. The really old stuff costs a bomb, but doesn't need an ounce of embellishment; it's good enough to sip straight. This recipe calls for good balsamic, but doesn't require anything extra-fancy.

This is definitely a dinner party worthy dessert. Oh, and you cannot, as Nick suggested, get a delicious result from pouring balsamic vinaigrette over the fruit.

Balsamic Strawberries & Mint
Serves 6
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
3 pints strawberries, hulled and quartered
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped
1 pint vanilla gelato, ice cream, or frozen yogurt
Extra mint sprigs

Combine vinegar, brown sugar, and lemon juice in small saucepan. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves and boil until syrupy and reduced to 1/4 cup, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let it cool. Toss with strawberries and chopped mint. Divide ice-cream among 6 small dessert bowls, and top with the berries. Garnish with extra mint sprigs.


Must. Eat. Now.

I am not pleasant when I’m hungry. And by the time I get home from work, I am very very hungry, so you can just imagine what a barrel of laughs I must be. So dinner needs to come together quickly and I’ve learned that it’s just as easy to pull together a fabulous quick dinner, as it is to pull together an average quick dinner.

Last night, on my way home, I stopped by Union Market, one of those places where it’s a really bad idea to go if you’re hungry. I drooled over the idea of a pint of Ciao Bella for dinner, but managed to walk out only with some tomatoes, smoked mozzarella, basil, and sea scallops. I like to keep a stash of fresh pesto in the freezer, whether I’ve made it or purchased it from Fresh Direct, because it lasts for ages and has a multitude of uses.

This meal is super-easy. Rachel Ray easy. It’s really all about the quality of the ingredients you’re using, and you really can’t go wrong with fresh sea scallops, as long as you don’t over cook them. Look for dry sea scallops, which aren’t called dry because they need moisturizing; it means they haven’t been pumped full of water, to plump ‘em up and make them look more appetizing at the seafood counter.

I’ve been told many times, in different restaurants, that Italians have this thing about not putting cheese on seafood dishes; something about fish coming from the sea not going with cheese that comes from the cow. Apparently, this goes back centuries. I think it’s a load of bollocks. I’m of the if-it-tastes-good-go-with-it school, and most things are greatly improved with a hefty shower of parmeggiano reggiano.

I walked in the door and started cooking at 8:16pm. I had this all ready by 8:42, and it would have been even faster had I not included a caprese salad. Ha! 26 minutes! Eat your heart out, Rachel Ray.

Whole Wheat Linguini with Spinach, Pesto, and Scallops

Serves two
3/4lb. dry sea scallops, adductor muscle removed
1/2lb. whole-wheat linguini
Salt & Pepper
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 10oz box frozen chopped spinach
3 Tbsp. fresh pesto
1/2 lemon (but have the other half handy, in case you want to add more)
Freshly ground parmeggiano reggiano

1. Rinse and pat dry scallops. Season liberally with salt and fresh pepper.
2. Boil water and get your whole-wheat linguini going. Be sure to cook it for at least a minute or a minute and a half less than the package instructs. It’s best al dente, and you’ll finish cooking it in the sauce.
3. Heat a saute pan on high and add olive oil. Once oil is hot, gently lay scallops in it, being careful to let them stay exactly where they first hit, so you get a nice crispy, brown sear. After 3 minutes, turn the scallops, and sear on the other side for another two minutes (cooking time may be less, depending on their size). Reserve in a bowl, covered.
4. Microwave spinach, covered, for three minutes. Plunk it into a mesh strainer and press on it with a large spoon, to get all the water out. Alternatively, you can bundle it into a clean dishtowel and squeeze it.
5. Drain pasta, reserving some of the cooking water, just in case you need to thin the pasta sauce.
6. With the heat on medium, toss the pasta back into the pot, along with the pesto, the spinach, and the liquid that’s accumulated underneath the scallops. If the pasta seems too dry, add the reserved pasta cooking water, a little bit at a time, not more than ¼ cup. After a minute, remove from the heat.
7. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Taste. Add more lemon, if needed.
8. Serve with scallops on top, and lots of parmeggiano reggiano.


P.S. I'm an idiot

I’ve been reading Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. I plan to put both their Fresh Bacon and Pancetta recipes into action, once my pink salt arrives from Butcher & Packer. Until then, I am content to flip through the book, marveling at the recipes and fantasizing about how impressed my dinner party guests will be when I present them with my homemade duck prosciutto. Ruhlman & Polcyn are so passionate on the joys of curing and smoking your own meat, and I was completely smitten with the idea of doing it myself after reading a section referencing the opening scenes in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, when Pa would smoke venison inside a hollowed-out tree. Like any other girl of a certain age who fancied herself the next Melissa Gilbert, I loved the adventures of Laura and her family braving the late 1800s wilderness. And, naturally, this brought back, from the hazy abyss, the time my friend Carolyn and I attempted to recreate the maple candy that Laura and her sister Mary made.

It seemed so easy: Laura and Mary, would go out in the frigid Wisconsin winter, fill a cast iron pan with fresh snow and pour maple sap straight from the trees onto the snow. The sap would harden into a wonderful maple candy that they couldn’t get enough of. In the book, Laura and Mary were ages 4 and 6 (my memory might be a little rickety on this front, but I know they were both well under 10 during the maple candy story).

One snowy day, Carolyn and I decided to make maple candy of our own. We would be Laura and Mary, but with much more expensive shoes. We didn’t have a frigid Wisconsin winter handy, but the Brooklyn blizzard raging outside our window seemed like it would do in a pinch. We trekked outside and filled our large frying pan with fresh, untouched New York City snow. Back in the apartment, we broke out the Log Cabin and excitedly drizzled it onto the snow. In retrospect, I’m a little amazed at how disappointed we were when the syrup sunk right into the snow, instead of solidifying into the fabulous maple candy experience we were banking on.

But we were resolute. If 4- and 6-year old Laura and Mary Ingalls could do this, then 22-year old Carolyn and I could too. Naturally, we didn’t stop to think about their straight-from-the-tree sap vs. our highly refined, super-processed, extra-long shelf-life faux maple-flavored syrup-style product. It had become the late 1900s vs. the late 1800s. The city vs. the country. Us vs. the 4-year old. We had every advantage imaginable. No contest, right?

By now, we were so caught up in our determination not to be bested by a 4-year old, that piddly little things like common sense and basic science were chucked out our 2nd story window. We thought, perhaps, our Log Cabin was too thick, and decided to heat it up. Not surprisingly, the microwaved faux-syrup melted the snow and we were left with a pan of imitiation maple flavored ick.

Final score:
4-year old, 1
22-year olds, 0

Despite our keen sense of stupidity, Carolyn and I eventually did sample some real maple candy, but it was years later, on a trip to upstate New York, and it was professionally manufactured (presumably, by 4-year olds). It was disappointing, probably because we hadn’t made it ourselves, but we consoled ourselves with the fact the while Laura and Mary had homemade maple candy, we have Jacques Torres. And that’s no contest.


Let's Get Something Straight

I just realized, rereading my previous posts (all two of them), that I may possibly be creating this impression that I am some kind of infallible culinary wunderkind. And while I totally dig the idea of anyone thinking I'm such a naturally gifted cook who can produce perfectly pouffy souffles in her sleep, it just ain't so. I'm very very fallible. And sometimes, I'm just stupid.

There was the time I was making the Madeira sauce to go over a mustard crusted beef tenderloin for a little new year’s eve shin-dig. The pressure was building: I still had to change my clothes and fluff and coiff and the guests were due to arrive at any moment. I added the tomato paste to the alleged sauce, but didn’t look at quantities and plunked the entire 6oz can in, as opposed to the two tablespoons the recipe called for. I’m no Mensa candidate, but it didn’t take me long to realize that my Madeira Sauce was now Tomato Paste Sauce. Lacking any alternatives, I tried to doctor it up, pouring in the rest of the Madeira and adding more of the other ingredients, and served it anyway. No one ate it, not even me.

One slightly more gruesome kitchen fiasco happened in a class I was taking at the Institute of Culinary Education on working with Phyllo Dough. Given the task of slicing apples for the apple strudel, I went at it with the confidence and speed of a professional. And, since I am not a professional, I proceeded to hack a large chunk of finger off. It was bloody. It was painful. It was the end of any future I had as a hand model.

I’ve botched plenty of other things, from the Fresh Pasta Debacle of `01 to the Great Bread Sauce Blunder of `05. And I'm not even going to recount the legion of leaden lumps I turned out when I began making bread. But the point is that I probably wouldn’t be so proud of the successes if I didn’t know that every single one of them had real potential to be failures. I’m sure I have plenty of clunkers waiting in my comestible future (I’m about to embark on a pancetta making project. That has trouble written all over it.), but that's part of the joy of being the Casual Cook. And, frankly, the duds make for much more entertaining cocktail party conversation.



Ok, now that I’ve got this food blog thing up and running, I feel pressure to chronicle every morsel that passes between my perfectly glossed lips. Hopefully, I’ll get over that soon enough. Until that happens, though, here’s a post on last night’s dinner, which was Whatever’s in the Fridge Pasta.

There’s an art to Whatever’s In The Fridge Pasta, because you can’t really throw in whatever’s in the fridge. You’ll wind up with Orecchiete with Non-Fat Strawberry Yogurt and Leftover Pork Fried Rice in a Diet Coke reduction. Whatever’s In The Fridge Pasta (henceforth WITFP) really only works if you have some decent things in your fridge. Fortunately, I had a pound of gorgeous sugar snap peas, which have been patiently sitting in the crisper for about a week, waiting to be noticed. I sautéed a shallot and half a red bell pepper, made a sauce from some leftover white wine, a touch of cream, ½ a lemon, and threw in some cannelini beans. Sounds a little fancy pants, but these are not terribly expensive or difficult ingredients, and they’re the kinds of things that have a relatively long shelf life (not to mention a zillion uses) so I like to keep them around. This is the kind of food most restaurants would like you to believe requires years of advanced culinary training in order to attempt, so they can give it a fancy name and charge you $19.

I grated some parmeggiano reggiano on top and dinner was ready to go. It was, like, a 19-minute meal, which was good, because I was so famished that I was about to start gnawing on my own arm. That’s one of the problems of working the hours I do. I often don’t get home until 8 or 8:30 and that’s when I start cooking. And I prefer to cook than to order in, since it’s usually a tad healthier and it takes the same amount of time. But by the time the food is ready, I’m about two exits past ravenous.

But last night, I couldn’t just dive into my big, steaming bowl of WITFP, because I was all concerned about taking a picture for the blog, so everyone could be hugely impressed by my restaurant quality 19-minute meal. I grabbed my cute, li’l digital camera, but it refused to turn on. The batteries had died (probably just to spite my growling stomach). Hhmph. Fine, I thought, I’ll just use Nick’s highly sophisticated digital camera. But Nick’s highly sophisticated digital camera was nowhere to be found. I looked in every room, every closet, every drawer, every shelf and couldn’t find the stupid thing. At this point, I was so hungry that my stomach was about to start eating itself and the hunger was affecting my brain function. In my altered mental state, it seemed perfectly reasonable that Nick’s highly sophisticated digital camera was hiding at the bottom of my bowl of WITFP, so I had no choice but to start eating in order to unearth it. The food was tasty and satisfying, but the camera was, shockingly, not lying in wait at the bottom of the bowl. So, I don’t have a photo to share with you of a best bite, but I can assure it was attractive, delicious, simple, and far less than $19.

As a post-script to my story, I did eventually find Nick’s highly advanced digital camera. He had put away in the closet, where it belonged. The nerve.


What is the best bite?

When you’re eating, no matter what it is, from a carefully constructed sandwich to a thoughtfully orchestrated entree to some fabulously greasy take-out to a goopy ice cream sundae, and you manage to get the perfect balance of each flavor in the dish crammed onto your fork (or spoon or chopsticks or hands) and into your mouth at once, that’s the Best Bite. It’s when you can sample the dish the way the creator intended, and have an opportunity to learn which flavors work together and why some combinations become classic (like churros and hot chocolate, which are a stellar combination. Muchas Gracias, Espana!) When offering samples of food to friends, you want to give them a best bite, so they can experience every component of the dish together (and so you don’t have to part with another bite).

I’m writing this to share my love of, my passion for, my complete obsession with, The Best Bite. (And as much as I’d love to take credit for the genius behind it, my friend Charlie introduced me to the concept of the best bite, and it has consumed me ever since. Fortunately, I've consumed it too.)