Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A few lemony things

First off, I’d like to apologize. For those of you who have been checking back faithfully and have noticed that I’ve been slacking, I’m sorry. Between working all weekend, first beach trips of the season, and wedding receptions complete with 19th century bonnets, I’ve been a busy girl. But I’ve still been cooking, and I have a few things to share with you – a few lemony things.

So last week, my boyfriend Pete and I were invited to brunch where we work on a Sunday that we had off. (Read: We actually called, and subtly pleaded for an invite.) Nonetheless, there we were, happily sitting at the corner banquette table, happily munching on scallops and steak and pickled Wagyu tongue (soo good!), when the dessert arrived. We had ordered the season’s blueberry dessert; a trio of blueberry confections with a new lemon pudding that we were anxious to try. We wasted no time digging into the pudding; in fact, I might’ve even stuck my spoon into it mid-air while it was being put down. It was great, not that I expected anything else: it was creamy and tasted of buttermilk with just the slightest tang of lemon. It’s lightness also made it surprisingly refreshing; it’s something I would invite someone in for, instead of lemonade.

Pete loved it. I mean he loved it. He was having a visceral reaction to the stuff. I reminded him, delicately, of the time I made a first-rate lemon birthday cake. I asked him if he remembered how good that was, clearly digging for some compliments, and also clearly a little jealous of the effect our pastry chef had on him.

When we went home that afternoon, my mind was reeling with what kind of lemon tricks I had up my sleeve. I’m not the jealous type, but I’d be damned if I couldn’t make his taste buds swoon like that. Damned. So I set to work filtering through magazines, ultimately deciding on a lemon bread pudding. But I didn’t stop there – I made lemon curd too, the closest you can get to lemon flavor in a bowl. After an afternoon of zesting, grating, and juicing, I ended up with a couple of very lemony, very delicious desserts, and by god, I finally got my reaction out of him.

Lemon Bread Pudding
(Adapted from Gourmet)

Lucky for me, this bread pudding was in Gourmet’s last issue. I halved the recipe and just used a 1 ½ quart ceramic baking dish; I’d say it would serve 4-5 really famished people, 6 people with average appetites, or 8 people who eat like birds (but we don’t like them anyway, do we?).

3 cups thin baguette slices (Any bread will work, just cut into smaller pieces. If it is overly soft, just toast it in the oven for a few minutes – you’ll get a crispier crust.)
1 ½ whole large eggs
1 ½ large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar plus more for sprinkling
1 tablespoons grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (I doubled the amount of lemon juice and it came out great, but for a subtler flavor, use just 1 tablespoon.)
2 cups heavy cream

Preheat oven to 325° F, with a rack in the middle.

Lie bread, spaced out evenly, in ceramic baking dish. If you’re using baguette slices, you’re going to want to layer it, if you have cubes, just make sure they’re adequately spread out.

Whisk together whole eggs, yolks, and sugar in a large bowl until pale and thick, about 1 minute. Whisk in zest, lemon juice, and cream and pour over bread. Press down with your fingers, or a spatula if you’re dainty, to help bread soak up some of custard.

Lightly sprinkle with sugar and bake in a water bath until custard is barely set and edges of bread are golden, 40 to 45 minutes. (For the water bath, just place your baking dish inside a larger one, and fill the larger one with hot water about half way up the sides of your bread pudding dish.)

Turn on broiler and broil bread pudding 4 to 5 inches from heat until golden-brown in spots, 2 to 3 minutes. Cool to warm, about 30 minutes (pudding will continue to set).

The Gourmet recipe recommended serving this with whipped cream. I didn’t, just because I ran out, but it was just great without it as well. I liked this best served warm, but it was pretty great eaten right out of the fridge, too.

**For the lemon curd, I used David Lebovitz’s recipe for his lemon tart filling. You can find it here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


So baking gets me kind of down, at times, that much has been established. Well, scones get me down. And while I’ll not be jumping to try any recipes that require prolonged baking time and rising all at once, I’ll happily throw things in the oven, carelessly, recklessly even, and collect them when the timer goes off. Oven-throwing is the new baking, in case you didn’t know, or in case someone told you it meant the casual throwing of ovens. And that’s exactly what I did last week, with rhubarb. Now doesn’t that sound much better (and much more foolproof) than scones?

This is so easy it doesn’t even require a recipe. All you have to do is cut up trimmed and washed stalks of rhubarb into 2 or 3 inch-long pieces, toss with enough sugar to coat, and throw them in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes or so. Note: you must throw, or toss gently if the throwing prospect worries you – it is the throwing that lets baking know we really don’t care a lick about it, that we’re unafraid.

Try this the next chance you get: the roasted rhubarb’s tart-sweetness goes really nicely with yogurt (especially greek), and made for bang-up oatmeal the next morning.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Serving, Twelfth Night, and eggplant

I remember the first time I tasted truly divine eggplant.

It was at the restaurant where I work, shortly after I had just started. Those were what I like to refer to as the Early days, but could just as easily be renamed as the Times of Great Embarrassment, or, more generally, just a really naïve time in my life. I was a neophyte to all things food; the menu we were required to memorize was daunting, and probably should have been much more so than it seemed at the time. For some reason, I felt as though it was an exercise similar to what I used to do in 5th grade drama, particularly in The Christmas Story, or Twelfth Night, Abridged. I was too young to know who wrote the work I was performing, but I knew I needed to memorize lines, stage directions, and come off sounding the least bit convincing. Come to think of it, much of what we did in the few opening months there felt like that of a rehearsed play. We knew the lines, the movements, but had not the slightest clue as to the origins.

That, of course, would prove to be a huge problem. We were part of a restaurant that was doing new and unusual things for its area: trio and duo plates, unconventional ingredients, all grown outside the massive dining room windows. As servers, we needed to know what went into every dish in the dreadful event that a discerning diner would ask. Unfortunately, in those few beginning months, anything outside the realm of “I’ll have the duck, please” was uncharted territory.

I first felt the kind of embarrassment fine dining has the ability to land a novice in when I asked a question of my own. As I said, I knew literally nothing at this point, but I was an eager student. I remember that first menu copy they had given us to look over; mine was an ink-stained mess, all covered in notes reminding me how to describe an aioli, what farm the Kobe beef was from. I was looking over this map to my new job late one night after service, and I found a term I was unfamiliar with. Unsure whether it was a cooking technique or some rare cut of meat, I asked the chef what a haricot vert was, making sure to use the hard “t” pronunciation dictated to me in my years of English classes. I was met with laughter.

I wrote that off quickly, eventually laughing about it myself, until one day that embarrassment was trumped. After opening weekend, when people seemed too excited to have a restaurant with a liquor license in a formerly dry town, the customers started getting a lot more curious about the food. We had not rehearsed for this. I could recite my notes to the tables, yes, but when it came to the plate composition, actually seeing and identifying the food I had memorized, I was a proverbial deer in headlights. I had seen those plates twice, maybe, and even then, opening night was such a blur of memory that I could have very well gone the whole night without opening my eyes. For the most part, I navigated like the teen driver with a permit that I was: I still needed guidance, but I could usually figure out, in a stutter, which was the lobster and which was the steak. (The grace came later.)

Then someone asked me what was under the drumstick on the chicken entrée. I had no idea. I couldn’t even make something up on the fly. If they would have said, Excuse me, is this eggplant? I would have agreed thankfully, regardless of accuracy. But they gave me nothing. And I had nothing. After an embarrassing run back to the kitchen, I found out it was eggplant, and I made it my mission to taste it.

When I finally did taste the mysterious vegetable, it was sweet, coddled to caramelizaton, and was right on the edge of melting in my mouth. I loved it. Suffice it to say, my history with eggplant is long-winded (or maybe that’s just me), but I hope that you’ve made it far enough to get to the recipes I want to share. Inspired by a really cute little eggplant last weekend, I decided to try my hand in making it all these years after I found out how delicious it can be. What follows are two made-up, very adaptable blueprints for eggplant dishes. Follow what I did, or substitute to your heart’s desire. Just don’t become a server at any sort of establishment that will be serving it before you know what it looks like.

Balsamic Roasted Eggplant with Mint and Goat Cheese

(Note: I was only cooking for myself, so feel free to multiply these quantities.)

1 eggplant
Balsamic vinegar
Good quality olive oil
Handful of fresh mint, roughly chopped
Fresh goat cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400° F. Halve eggplant lengthwise, with stem still intact, and place in a liberally oiled baking dish. Sprinkle a bit more olive oil over the top, and toss to coat; make sure eggplant halves end up cut-side down in the dish. Sprinkle liberally with balsamic vinegar, and roast for 20-25 minutes, or until a knife glides effortlessly through the flesh.

Let cool (just to the point where you can handle them; this is best served warm). Cut into slices, and toss gently in a bowl with mint, salt and pepper, and a bit more vinegar. Serve sprinkled with goat cheese. (The word “sprinkle” just works for this recipe, ok?)

Mediterranean Wheatberry Salad

This is just a list of ingredients that I found work well together, especially finished
with some good olive oil and sharp feta.

(You want the ratio of wheatberries to water to be about 1:3; the water gets absorbed quite a bit.)
1 eggplant, diced
Roasted red pepper, diced
Kalamata olives, roughly chopped
Fresh cilantro
Good quality olive oil
Feta, crumbled
Salt and pepper, to taste

Start by cooking the wheatberries; they need to be boiled for about an hour, until they yield and are the slightest bit chewy when you bite them. While they’re cooking, get everything else ready: Sauté the eggplant on medium heat until deep brown and very soft, and chop everything else.

Drain wheatberries and transfer back to a bowl. Add everything but the feta and incorporate, tasting and adjusting the seasoning. Add one more good glug of olive oil. Serve topped with feta cheese.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fame and indian food

I have a few updates for you.

First, the restaurant where I work just got reviewed again (we got 4 stars!!), and I (gasp) was the server that served that table unknowingly. Luckily, I did ok - you can read here what they thought. On top of it all, they unconventionally used my full name...I'm famous!!!

Second, I made chana masala last night for dinner, and it was absolutely delicious. Very spiced, with just the right amount of heat and some yogurt to cool it off...well, I'll stop, because a flirtatious post about this very dish (along with the recipe) already exists. You should make it, immediately.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Precision and ovens and whatnot

I knew this would happen, eventually.

There I was, professing my love for all things savory, declaring I hated to bake. Then, naturally, I brought you a cake recipe. It was a birthday, true, but deep down I still slightly despised baking; all the precision and the ovens and whatnot. To wit, the cake came out wonderfully. But I promise you, it was all a lie – maybe I even got lucky with that one.

This, my friends, is why in a game of picking teams, I would leave baking until the very last, leaning against a wall, being the undependable teammate it is:

On Sunday, in my boredom, I set out to try scones. My boyfriend had brought one really delicious looking, puffy biscuit home from the local co-op and it looked deceivingly simple to recreate. So I tried. Except I only had milk instead of the called-for cream, and slivered almonds instead of the called-for currants. I did a little on-the-fly substitution, thinking that if the dough looked edible, the final product wouldn’t be too disappointing. (In cooking, of course, these maneuvers would have worked just fine; how spiteful baking is.) Boy, was I wrong. This is what I got.

I ended up with a sad, cakey, brown triangle instead of what I’d hoped for: the distinctive large crumb with a slight swirl of cinnamon, just like the scone of that morning. Well there you go, this is what I meant before – don’t let that birthday cake fool you. Baking and I just don’t mix well.

I'm going to include the recipe anyway; maybe a few of you can try it and report back on how it really is supposed to be done. Perhaps you'll get sub-par results too, and then we can dismiss this one as a bad egg. That would make me feel much better. But more likely, I just botched the whole thing.

Cinnamon and Slivered Almond (Sob) Scones
(Adapted from Epicurious.com)


1/4 cup heavy cream plus additional for brushing the scones (this is where my fatal milk mistake happened, I'm sure)
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar plus additional for sprinkling the scones
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/3 cup slivered almonds, plus more for the tops

In a small bowl whisk together 1/4 cup of the cream, the egg yolk, and the vanilla. Into a bowl sift together the flour, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, the salt, the baking powder, the baking soda, and the cinnamon, add the butter, and blend the mixture until it resembles coarse meal.

Stir in the almonds, the currants, add the cream mixture with a fork until the mixture forms a sticky but manageable dough. Knead the dough gently on a lightly floured surface for 30 seconds, pat it into a 3/4-inch-thick round, and cut it into 6 wedges. (I made 8 wedges, then adjusted the baking time; the smaller pieces bake much quicker.)

Transfer the wedges to a lightly greased baking sheet, brush them with the additional cream, and sprinkle them with the additional sugar and slivered almonds. Bake the scones in the middle of a preheated 400°F. oven for 15 to 18 minutes, or until they are golden.

Good Luck.

Note: I put this picture in sepia because sepia tone, to me, just says depression. And if these scones were anything at all, they were depressing.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Give me a baguette

Hold the phone. Or the train. Or whatever you were about to get on: I just realized that I have only said a few words about my trip. A few, sweeping, vague words about my trip are hardly worth their weight. After all, it is Europe.

I meant to make grand statements about the places, the people, and the food. I even daydreamed about what I’d write, sitting idly on the trains, thinking up perfect sentences more thoughtful than the most condensed of poems. But all of those things have been done before, and dare I tread on the heels of great writers and big thinkers; I’ll just try to tell you what I found, simply, just like the food I loved.

I once read that in order to know about food, you must eat. It doesn’t take a scholar to make that deduction, but for a time I was convinced that reading would be my main course of action: I would stuff my head so full of braising techniques and pate recipes that it would be churning them out independent from my body. Turns out, that even when you’re in what I call the Depths of College Financial Despair (as I am, and I’m sure I’m not alone), you actually need to shell out for the eating, for the cooking, that really gives you what you look for in all the books. Once you resign yourself to this fact, your foodieness increases exponentially.

Thus, I decided it would be wise to go to Europe. (I wrote it off as a Food Expense.) So, as archaeologists have digs, we have wine tasting, market-grazing, and cheese-consuming – these are our field studies, our research. I was a diligent student. And, as these things go, I developed a thesis statement: that in France, where good food pours out onto the streets, it is wisest and most budget-friendly to sample the street food, the authentic holes in the walls, and of course, the boulangeries chiefly among others. It was in those places (or at them, rather, when their only venue was a street cart) where I found the most unfussy, simply prepared food France had to offer. There was no trying too hard, there was no white asparagus, and most of all, there was no pretense; it was just really, really good, painfully good. And cheap. No one can argue with cheap.

No, but really. I went out for some nice meals, and expensive ones to boot, and they were disappointing in comparison to what we ate for lunches or when we were just walking down the street. For example, I had the absolute best falafel of my life at a tiny place in the 6th arrondisment called L’As du Falafel. (The picture even makes my mouth water.) In Spain, the tapas were the main attraction: little, cheaply priced plates that are equitable to what the US calls “snacks,” only better. I ate calamari with lime in Barcelona that made me swoon.

So those are my grand statements that actually aren’t grand at all; they are a testament to simpler, more modest food. Of course, there undoubtedly are the more upscale places to eat in France, and if you can indulge frequently in those when you go, I’m sure you won’t be terribly disappointed. But the little places that hold the regional specialties should not be forgotten. Give me a baguette and a wheel of Crottin, and I’ll be happy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Braving the cabbage patch

I never did like cabbage.

Until recently, it was the purple wormy thing stuck into pre-bagged salads to offer a shred of color, or else it was the equally wormy thing I used to pick out of everything it wandered its way into: carrot salads, green salads, the Portuguese stews my grandmother makes. Or, when I was very young, it was a place with a patch that cute dolls came from. As I have already explained, I was quite the picky eater as a child, but cabbage? I had put that in a whole other category of foods that made me shudder alongside steamed grape leaves from the back yard, say. (Yes, I was served that once, one fine evening my mother was feeling especially ambitious, but more resourceful.) The word even sounds a bit like garbage.

Needless to say, cabbage was very unwelcome on my plate for many years. I wasn’t even that excited about it yesterday, when my mom suggested some sort of Asian slaw recipe. I relented partly because it was her birthday and she could eat cabbage if she wanted to, and partly because it was slim pickings in the garden. So I agreed, bravely, and we set to making a side dish of carrots and cabbage.

It was fantastic. It was addictive even, so much so that I couldn’t stop taking a fork to it with the fridge door still ajar while it chilled. That, to me, is a mark of a great recipe. This probably isn’t news to anyone else, but bear with me while I proudly declare my own discovery: cabbage is really quite mild. Mild! Nothing to be afraid of at all, and certainly not wormy. When prepared raw, it seemed to more of a textural ingredient than a flavor one. It offered a satisfying crunch while taking on the flavor of the ingredients it was mixed with – in this case, a sweet-tart dressing of lime, ancho chile, and honey. This was a cool, crisp, summertime pile of vegetables, but better.

I’m even plotting my next slaw adventure, preferably for lunch, or maybe for dinner if I can wait long enough. Call me crazy, but I think I have a new obsession for julienned vegetables. Julienned cabbage, even. If you really can’t stop shuddering at the thought, I’ll forgive you this once, but I’ve found the key to coming around to cabbage is by pure force. So grab a bunch of the stuff and a knife, hand it to a loved one, close your eyes, and give it a try. You’ll like it, I promise.

Jicama Slaw with Lime –Ancho Dressing
(Adapted from Epicurious.com)

Note: I made all kinds of changes to this recipe. Namely, you’ll notice there is no Jicama, so it should perhaps be renamed to something more fitting. Kenzi’s Mom’s Birthday Slaw, maybe. I followed the dressing recipe exactly and it yielded more than we needed, but it would be great on a simple green salad, so we kept the leftovers. For the vegetables, I’ll just provide a list of ingredients and you can throw everything together accordingly, because that’s the best kid of recipe anyway.

For the Dressing:

½ c. fresh lime juice
2 tbs. rice vinegar
2 tbs. ancho chile powder
2 tbs. honey
½ c. mild vegetable oil, such as canola
Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk everything together but the oil in a bowl. After everything is combined, slowly whisk in the oil (in a thin stream) to emulsify. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

For the Slaw:

This is the fun part. Follow this exactly, or have a field day with mild vegetables you have in the fridge. Cucumbers would be great – I think I’ll try that next.

½ head napa cabbage, cored, shredded (the cabbage: carrot ratio should be roughly 1:1)
4ish carrots, coarsely grated
Handful of cilantro, chopped
A few scallions (green and white parts)
Small handful sesame seeds, toasted

Combine, toss, and coat well with the dressing.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I made a promise

If there is such a thing as a carb overdose, I’m sure I had it while in France.

I ate from the plentiful boulangeries as if I was preparing for a marathon, and I did it with a sense of determination. So I didn’t have 26.2 miles to run, but I did have a mission. I made a promise, people: to finally try the famous croissants of France. And once I had one, I obviously had to keep searching, just in case it wasn’t the best France had to offer. I wasn’t sure my croissant-tasting experience, nascent as it was, could bring you back a good report if I didn’t do some more research first. So I ate a lot of croissants, naturally.

I had to. It was all for you.

In fact, the first thing my friend and I did when we touched down in Paris was get croissants au chocolat. (I told you, I was determined.) We also did research with croissants buerre and Nutella (thanks to Katherin for the suggestion). The goddess of all croissants, though, was an almond one we found at Le Pain au Naturel the last day we were in Paris. To think, I almost missed it. Just buttery enough and still warm from the oven, it wasn’t overly sweet but still felt decadent. As Elise would say, it was simply divine*.

*I added the “simply” for dramatic effect and to feel a little bit like a sophisticated British woman making a fuss over tea and crumpets, but thanks Elise, for adding this word to my culinary vernacular.

One last note: It has come to my attention that I have made myself seem like I came back with a few extra pounds (seeing as though all I have talked about so far is stuffing my face, I know). I will tell all of you the same thing I said to this reader: I am blessed with a happy, working metabolism that seemed to understand perfectly that I was on vacation, and stepped up accordingly. Plus, I climbed up to a whole lot of chateaus. I believe wholeheartedly in moderation, and croissants for dinner when in Paris.