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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 saut├ęs 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.