Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A lot

A lot has been going on around here, in the kingdom of Rue le Sel (and hereby referred to as such), and that’s besides the whole birth of Christ ordeal and the slurry of presents that come alongside.

So (belated) Merry Christmas to all of you, readers, I hope your stockings were stuffed to satisfaction - but really, (really), I’ve been meaning to introduce you to someone, a little man that has taken up the majority of my time and sleep for the past week and has been more than welcome to do so all along. This little man:

His name is Luke and he’s a mut just like the rest of us, loves to eat, and loves even more to sleep curled up in the nook of your lap while you sit on the couch. He will live up to being a cool hand one of these days, just as soon as he acquires some appropriate-sized legs and a bit more coordination. Just you wait.

Introductions over with, I wanted to give you a short list of some of my favorite things over the past few weeks. (Other than Luke. Sorry.) In no particular order, these things have made me very appreciative. Now you can be appreciative too:

1. High Oven Heat

I can’t recall ever having thanked an appliance for correctly doing what it is hardwired to do, but I’ve decided that all needs to change. Cranked up to four hundred, four twenty five, it turns out the most delicious vegetables, just this side of burnt, coddled into carmelization. It makes it look as though those carrots on the Christmas table were a morning-long labor, when really, the oven deserves all the credit.

2. Arizona Dreaming

The spice. It’s made by Penzeys, and if you don’t have one near you, order it online. Soon. Smoky from paprika, spicy from ancho chile, this blend is good on mostly everything, but especially good on those roasted carrots I was just talking about. Seriously, if there was one lesson learned this Christmas dinner, it’s that high heat plus Arizona dreaming plus carrots equals a recipe in itself.

3. Family Heirlooms

This may sound trite, but hear me out. I remember looking at my grandmother’s silver when I was a girl. After the Doxology was sung, I would glance at it from the kid’s table, rickety and near the hutch, at Thanksgiving. It was pretty at best, but I imagined it completely useless. Later, holding an eighteenth century sterling coffee pot - five generations old - in my hands, I realize that functionality is not the point. I imagine how it held coffee after dinner all those years ago, and how now, to have it is not to hold coffee or afternoon tea, but to hold a small piece of history on your shelf, to continue in a small, sterling silver way, some kind of family lineage.

The holidays and their meals always make this lineage clearer, a glaring, twelve-place-setting reminder to be appreciative. The carrots and the spices play their part, too, helping guide generations to the same table, if not in person, than in the song sung immediately before the meal.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mother Bear and brussels sprouts

So I got this email the other day, from Pete. It had an attached document, “motherbearmenu” - presumably a menu, presumably of a restaurant named Mother Bear. The body of the email was simple, concise:

Check it.

The menu read like a Southern gastropub, heavy on the pork. It sounded awesome. I was beginning to wonder why I had never heard of this place before, when I reached the end. *We apologize but our stereo is broken and cannot be turned down,* highlighted in bold, finished up the menu. It was a tip-off.

It’s not a real restaurant. It should be, but it’s not. Well, yet, if we’re all lucky (and hungry and in need of pork fat popcorn, which everyone, always, should be).

This is all to say that I completely forgot to tell you about something I made a few weeks ago, something that made it onto motherbearmenu: brussels sprouts, these amazing, amazing little brussels sprouts, transcendent in a way you never thought something with fish sauce could be.

They’re a Dave Chang original, altered a bit by my own lack of red Thai chiles and Indian puffed rice and shichimi togarashi. Make them now. If you wait, who knows, you could see them on a menu near you sometime in the distant future.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Adapted from Dave Chang

For brussels sprouts
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

For dressing
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons finely chopped mint
1 garlic clove, minced
1 (1 1/2-inch) fresh green chile, thinly sliced crosswise, including seeds

Preheat oven to 450°F with rack in upper third. Toss Brussels sprouts with oil, then arrange, cut sides down, in a 17- by 12-inch shallow baking pan. Roast, without turning, until outer leaves are tender and very dark brown, 25-35 minutes. Add butter and toss to coat.

While the brussels sprouts are roasting, stir together all dressing ingredients until sugar has dissolved.

Put Brussels sprouts in a serving bowl, then toss with just enough dressing to coat. Serve remaining dressing on the side.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Every mother's recipe box

Somewhere within every mother’s recipe box, or within the mind’s memorized equivalent of such, there is a recipe for split pea soup. It’s there, in the familiar repertoire, the regular rotation of recipes: split peas, onions, carrots, stock, and the unmistakable, iconic ham hock. A few things made me wary of this creation as a child, but none more than that large, meaty, bone-in piece of ham, waiting to be boiled all together in a melting pot of pale, yellow green. The name wasn’t the easiest to swallow, either: ham hocks. My horse, a loving companion and very much alive in the back yard, had hocks. This association was unsettling.

Texturally, the soup was a nightmare. Entirely too viscous (as compared to my familiar Cambell’s chicken noodle), muddy, slightly grainy. To pour it into a bowl was to make a sound vaguely similar to mud squishing beneath your feet, or moving sludge, or on a bad day, both. The color on its own, a green paled and yellowed as if with age, was never encouraging. I could never understand the particular way this soup was able to endure generations, the culinary heirloom of (in my opinion) far too many families.

I made a lentil soup the other day that bared too close a resemblance to the split pea soup of years past. You almost feel bad for the legumes; cooked up into a fragrant soup, with warm spices and coconut milk, they yield what is perhaps one of the ugliest dinners of all time. It certainly does not give the best first impression.

This soup is actually quite good, especially in cold weather, with its warm spices and a bit of heat, tempered and made creamy by a good dose of coconut milk. It’s even better with an egg on top - as most things are. It fails miserably on the beauty contest front, but if I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that you can’t, in good conscience, judge a soup by it’s color.

Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk

A few notes: the amount of red pepper flakes listed here is what I used, but it can really be to taste – if you like a little more heat, adjust what I used. Also, the recipe that this is adapted from called for French green lentils. I used red lentils, because that is all I had, and it came out great (the color just suffered a bit).

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
6 cups vegetable stock
1 ½ cups lentils, picked over for stones and other debris
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
A pinch of nutmeg
A few grinds of black pepper
1 ¼ cups coconut milk
¼ tsp. fine sea salt, plus more to taste

In a soup pot, warm the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is translucent. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the garlic, thyme, and the rest of the spices. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is lightly browned and very soft.

Add the stock and the lentils, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20-25 minutes, or until the lentils are soft and tender.

Add the coconut milk, and salt and pepper, and stir well. Cook for about 10 minutes more. Taste, and adjust the salt as necessary. Serve warm and with a fried egg (awesome but not necessary).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The whole, sentimental enchilada

Hi there. I doubt most of you are on your computers today, with things like turkeys and simmering cranberries occupying most of your free moments, but in case you are:

Happy Thanksgiving to you. May your turkeys be perfectly brined and your potatoes perfectly mashed.

I've always been a bit of an introvert when it comes to matters sentimental. Going around the table and saying what you're thankful for in perfect turn always seemed to me, as a child, akin to brute punishment.

But, since the day beckons for it, at a very fundamental level, I will say that I'm thankful for being able to cook for going on four days now. In a row. I've been eyeballs-deep in piles of mushrooms, onions, cubed and toasted bread for days, and it's been glorious.

So, then, I'm thankful for that. I'm thankful for a day devoted simply and only to food. (If you're me, you will cleverly stretch this one day over the course of a week, organizing and participating in, at minimum, three different dinners.) I'm also thankful that pictures involving ceramic dishes with potato gratin can be semi-seductive. They deserve that.

And cake. Who isn't thankful for cake? If you're in need of a last minute Thanksgiving dessert, give this one a try. It's not pie, but traditionalism is a bore anyway. I baked it last week for a friend's going away party, and it was eaten so fast I never got a picture of it. It's that good.

I apologize to those Thanksgiving purists, those of you who would have me saying I'm thankful for love, and life, and faith, and that whole, sentimental enchilada. For now, I've done my part; I've gone around the metaphorical table. Plus, I'm giving you cake.

Over and out. Have a lovely day, readers.

Spiced Pumpkin Layer Cake
Adapted from Bon Appetit

3 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ginger (I used fresh, but you could substitute ground)
1 3/4 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 large eggs
1 15 ounce can pure pumpkin
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut plus additional for garnish

1 8 ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla paste
3 cups powdered sugar

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Dust pans with flour. Sift 3 cups flour and next 7 ingredients into medium bowl.

Using electric mixer, beat both sugars and oil in large bowl until combined (mixture will look grainy). For this step, I was without my mixer, and did everything by hand. Your arms will burn, but it will work just fine.

Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition. Add pumpkin, vanilla, and orange peel; beat until well blended. Add flour mixture; beat just until incorporated. Stir in raisins and 3/4 cup coconut. Divide batter between prepared pans. Smooth tops.

Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool cakes completely in pans on rack. Run knife around cakes to loosen. Invert cakes onto racks. Turn cakes over, rounded side up. At this point, you can trim the tops of the cake with a serrated knife if you like. I left mine just the way they were, for a slightly more "rustic" cake.

Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until smooth. Beat in orange peel and vanilla. Add powdered sugar in 3 additions, beating just until frosting is smooth after each addition (do not overbeat or frosting may become too soft to spread).

The recipe calls for the frosting to be divided in two parts, and spread just in between the cake layers and on the top. I found that there was more than enough to do the sides as well, so that's what I did. This part is up to you. Sprinkle with remaining coconut and serve.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The tomato's version of black tie

This stuff is all over the internet.

I’ve been reading about it for a while. I read about it here, and then here, and then I saw it here. It’s like the internet’s version of the food world’s foam. It’s everywhere, on everything, with reckless abandon.

Up until now, I had really never intended to talk about tomato sauce on this site. My experience with the stuff was limited to quick dinners and staff meals at the restaurant where I work. Pasta with red sauce, as it is so vaguely referred to as, tasted, to me, as bland as the name suggested. It was strictly fuel, which is a tragic, tragic way to approach dinner.

Since this sauce quite literally stirred the blog world, it seemed worth a try. Even if it was reminiscent of my pre-work meal, at the very least the name – tomato sauce with onion and butter – was a vast improvement on plain red sauce. Plus, I had all of the ingredients, all three of them. So there was that.

It was, in a word, genius. Which I suppose is not news at all, since people have been reporting just that, just about everywhere for a while now.

With just three ingredients, you wouldn’t really expect much from this sauce. Its simplicity is one of its best attributes, though; the lack of spice, or much of anything else, really allows the tomatoes to sit up and sing. This sauce is canned tomatoes in their absolute best incarnation, all dressed up, the tomato's version of black tie.

The main theory proved, yet again? That butter, in all of its glory, makes everything better. Well, that half of a stick of it makes tomato sauce better. It acts to soften, round out the whole sauce, calming the tomato’s acidity while giving it a bit more depth. The kind of depth hardly worthy of a title like red sauce.

Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

Adapted from Every blog, ever.

If you haven’t been making this for years already, you should start now. Marcella Hazan, apparently, really knows her tomatoes. Also, I found that this sauce makes about enough for three servings (or four small ones); I used about ¾ of a pound of pasta.

2 cups whole, peeled, canned plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juices (about one 28-oz. can)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
Salt, to taste

Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter, and the onion halves in a medium saucepan. Add a pinch or two of salt. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer.

Cook, uncovered, at a steady simmer over medium low heat for about 45 minutes, or until some of the liquid has reduced and a nice, thickened sauce has started to form. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon. Salt as needed, and remove the onion halves, before you serve.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Radishes, and no known theme

This shall be random. Preemptive apologies.

I tried to think of a slightly cohesive way of tying together all of my thoughts this morning, but it’s just not in the cards. Not today. Or, really, this week.

This morning, I ate a handful of cereal, drank a cup of coffee. Went back for some cucumber slices. Read a few pages of The Fountainhead, jumped in the shower, washed a coffee mug, turned the sofa cushions.

You can see what I mean.

So today, you get more pictures of Europe. French breakfast radishes from the Raspail farmer’s market in Paris, some of the biggest sand dunes in Europe, Katherin. (This could be anywhere, yes, but it’s not, it’s Bordeaux. This one fits, at least in this tangent.)

You get announcements, about me, and my new job at a wine bar. This is important to you, of course, because now I’ll be able to tell you about great wines, my palate willing, and maybe even ones with more pronounced fruit, or black fruit, or red fruit, or no fruit at all. (I’m still learning.)

You also get table-building. Every night after work, I come home to something different: a new wall color in the kitchen, IKEA putting its Swedish touches on the living room, a puppy mural. Last night it was a table, built in the living room and taking up residence in the kitchen. It’s a beautiful table, beautiful and tall; it looks almost like a gangly adolescent boy, skinny and tall, still unsure of it’s legs.

In keeping with my completely unsystematic week, I went to Whole Foods the other day and ransacked their bulk aisles. I came home with a bag of what looked like bird seed deconstructed, in no particular order: red lentils, navy beans, quinoa, and what may or may not be wheat germ. Suggestions on what to do with this would be greatly appreciated. Clearly I need to get myself back on track. Arbitrarily, and with wheat germ, is no way to cook.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

On the apple uptake

I’m a bit late on the apple uptake, I know.

While I’m giving you recipes for tarte tatin, the recognizable orchard bags full of the season’s best Macouns and Empires are slowly being replaced by mounds of their less fresh, less crisp cousins.

You know the ones – they kind of disappointingly dissolve instead of that emblematic crisp on first bite, the fruit equivalent of a wet dishrag. Think the few apples you always got in your Halloween pillowcase (no one ever gave out the good ones, as if too precious to pass out to the ghost and the pirate on the front stoop), the ones that you dreaded getting and that your parents wouldn’t let you eat. Think red delicious, dining hall style.

But you can still find the good ones, you can. So let’s get on with it then, here is your tarte tatin – not fresh from the oven, but not far off – as promised.

To be perfectly honest, you could probably make this with the less-than-fresh apples that will soon take over; you’re cooking them quite a bit in this dessert, carmelizing them until they are at their very slouchiest. But try for the good apples, at least try; there’s nothing wrong with a little apple snobbery, especially this time of year.

Apple Tarte Tatin

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Note: This recipe makes you chill the butter, the flour, and the food processor blade in the freezer before you make the crust. Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I advise you to do it: I followed the directions and this was probably the best pastry I have ever made. Also, after you’ve arranged the raw apples in your pan, make sure you’re not too shy to crank the heat after you return it to the heat. If the heat isn’t high enough, your apples won’t carmelize; otherwise, they will start to disintegrate on you.

1 stick plus two tablespoons cold salted butter, cut into cubes and chilled in freezer
1 tablespoon sugar
1 ½ cup flour
3 to 6 tablespoons ice water

7 medium apples
1 stick salted butter
1 cup sugar

For the crust: Pre-mix the flour and sugar in the food processor container, and cube the butter on a plate. Then put the dry ingredients and the butter in the freezer for a while. Prepare about 1/3 cup ice water and refrigerate. Chill everything for at least 20 minutes, then add the cubes of butter to the dry ingredients and pulse until the largest pieces of butter are no bigger than tiny peas. Add the ice water a little at a time, processing just until the dough starts to come together into a mass. Be careful not to over-process it.

Turn out onto well-floured surface and pat together into a ball. Don’t handle the dough too much, or the warmth of your hands will start to melt the butter. Flour the top of the dough and use rolling pin to quickly press and roll the dough out into a 10 to 11-inch circle. You want the circle to be about the size of the pan you’re cooking the apples in. It will seem a little thick, thicker than your average pie crust. Move the crust onto a piece of parchment paper or onto a floured rimless baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

For the filling: Preheat oven to 375° F. Peel, core and quarter the apples. Don’t cut them into smaller pieces than quarters–the quarters shrink considerably during cooking.

Over low heat in a heavy, ovenproof skillet measuring 7 to 8 inches across the bottom and 10 to 11 inches across the top, melt the stick of butter. Remove from heat, add the sugar and stir until blended.

Shake the pan a bit so the butter-sugar mixture distributes evenly across the bottom. Arrange apple quarters in pan, first making a circle inside the edge of the pan. Place them on their sides and overlap them so you can fit as many as possible. Then fill the center of the pan; you may have some apple left over. Keep at least one extra apple quarter on hand–when you turn the apples over, they may have shrunk to the extent that you’ll need to cheat and fill in the space with an extra piece. This one piece won’t get quite as caramelized as the other pieces, but it will still cook through.

Return your pan to the stovetop on high heat. Let boil for 10 to 12 minutes or until the juices in the pan turn from golden in color to dark amber. Remove from heat. With the tip of a sharp knife, turn apple slices over, keeping them in their original places. If necessary, add an extra slice of apple to keep your arrangement intact. Return to the stovetop on high heat once more. Let cook another 5 minutes and then remove from heat.

Place the crust on top of the apples and brush off excess flour. Tuck edges under slightly, along the inside of the pan, being careful not to burn your fingers. Bake in oven until the top of the crust is golden-brown in color, about 25-35 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool on a rack about 30 minutes.

Run a sharp knife along the inside edge of the pan. Place a plate or other serving dish on top of the pan and quickly flip over the whole pan so the Tarte Tatin drops down onto the plate. The pan will still be hot, so be careful while doing this. It’s not as hard as you think, but you may have a few stragglers left in the pan after the tarte flips over. No worries, just put them back in their rightful tarte tatin place. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Get this thing going

Let’s get this thing going, yeah?

This is the longest I’ve left you before, I think, and it feels a bit strange. Words are a bit difficult to locate; how do I describe more than a month in Europe, living out of a backpack. How do I quantify the baguettes, the rounds of chevre, the bottles of Bordeaux. Or the days spent on trains and nights spent in hostels, the greves, courtesy of Sarkozy’s new retirement bill.

Exhausting, down to my bones. Lovely, gratifying. Absurdly picturesque. I’m between places right now, in all senses of the phrase, but those are some words that I can muster to answer the question everyone’s asking me these days: How was it?

I’ll miss France, but I’m glad to be home.

I will never take a shower for granted again. Or, as it happens, a stove. Or an orchard apple, or fall in New England. I’ve lived here all my life, but when October hit in Spain, I remember getting anxious about missing the trees, the leaves, the apples.

So, first order of business, barely unpacked and still with mounds of unfinished laundry, I made a tarte tatin.

Stay tuned for that, that’s up next. For now, these are some photos from Across the Pond.

Let’s get this thing going.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Across the pond

Hi, there.

I guess I've been so busy lately, with making granola bars and dreaming about road trips, that I've forgotten to tell you all that I have a trip of my own planned. I'm off and running, destined for good food and good wine and better company, to Europe.


...For six whole weeks.

I'll be back in November to tell you, (fingers crossed), about the culture across the pond, and about how to successfully navigate the bay of Biscay coast depending solely on vineyards as landmarks. Like I said, fingers crossed.

Until then, stay well, and stay hungry. Talk to you soon.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Until you get to wherever you're going

Every family has their vacation traditions.

There are those two weeks in late August where the old Bronco is packed up to it’s sturdy if not slightly rusted brim, trunk nearly bursting with towels and folding chairs and the stuffed animals that just can’t be left behind. Bikes are strapped precariously to the back, the cause for checking the traveled highway every hour or so, making certain there are no two-wheeled casualties.

The drive is always unthinkably long. The distances covered seem to grow exponentially to the rate at which your sibling’s hair pulling and screechy sing-alongs increase. You know the ones.

For my family, the drive was always to Maine. Interstate 495 North was, to me as a child, vaguely akin to Sunday mass: it dragged on for much too long, exhausting all potential excitement within the first few minutes. It was cramped. I always needed to stretch my legs.

My family vacations always held the promise of good snacks, though, something to make the ride a little less, well, long. We had this trail mix, called Gorp if you’re my Dad, which seemed to appear only on road trips. It almost became a Pavlovian response of a kind. Gorp: Maine. Gorp: road trip. Gorp: endless expanses of highway.

Not surprisingly, I am and always have been a firm believer in good snacks when traveling. Which is why, last week, I made a bunch of them for Katherin as she left for a two week cross-country road trip. And here I thought 495 was endless.

Once you’ve made these, it’s advisable to drive somewhere. (It is what they’re meant for, after all.) A spontaneous road trip, if you’re into that. Hopefully they’ll make the drive until you get to wherever you’re going a bit more bearable.

Road Trip Granola Bars

Note: I know I’ve given you a recipe on here for granola before, but these are different. Think of them as granola’s more convenient, travel-friendly cousin. The recipe below is also highly adaptable – feel free to substitute any nuts and dried fruit, really, maybe even crystallized ginger if you’re feeling wild.

Oh, and also, keeping these cold works best to keep them together. I stashed them in the fridge until I was ready to give them away.

2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1 cup sliced almonds
½ cup sunflower seeds
½ cup flaxseed
1/2 cup toasted wheat germ
2/3 cup honey
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ cup dried fruit, or a mix of dried fruit (I used chopped apricots, and two kinds of raisins)

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Butter an 8×12-inch baking dish and line it with parchment paper.

Toss the oatmeal, almonds, and sunflower seeds together on a sheet pan and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned. Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl and stir in the wheat germ and the flax. Reduce the oven temperature to 300°F.

While the mixture is still warm, stir in the honey, vanilla and salt until the mixture is well coated, then the dried fruit. Pour the mixture into your prepared baking dish and press it in until the mixture is packed as tightly as possible. Note: this will be annoying. And messy. And it will take a little while – just go until you feel like you can’t press anymore. The payoff will make it worth it.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until light golden brown. Cool for 2 to 3 hours before cutting into squares with a serrated knife.

Monday, August 23, 2010

On religious pretzels and lovely western Africans

Sometimes, I feel wholly justified in sleeping for eleven hours.

At the moment I’m writing this, I just crawled out of my own bed for the first time in weeks, and I’m currently yawning, confused, and desperately trying to remember how the coffee routine in my house works.

At least I’m well-rested.

I just got back from a study tour of major American cities with an international program I’ve been working for. It was two other recent college grads and I, along with twenty lovely, if not easily distracted, western Africans. Add to that a crowded Times Square and luggage issues and vans with flat tires, and you’ll start to get an idea of my logistical day-to-day.

But there was also so so much fun. And lots of Senegalese dancing from a fantastic lady named Marguerite, who could move her hips in more directions than I think even exist. And patient French lessons from beautiful Ivorian boys, particularly on the pronunciation of vegetables, particularly concumbre. And some of the best soft pretzels I have ever tasted. (That’s where you come in.)

We were in what they cleverly call the Valley of No Wires – otherwise known as Amish country in Lancaster, PA. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel blasphemous for listening to an Ipod while driving through. And for owning a phone which is, safely hidden in the confines of a bag, deviously and sacrilegiously searching for 3G. Or at the very least, it makes you feel like some kind of technological tease, much like it would feel to eat a giant slab of chocolate cake in front of someone on a diet.

But, these pretzels. They almost make you forget about religion and blasphemy and all the man-upstairs rest for a moment. That is, until the woman at the pretzel stand tells you that the three open spaces in the dough actually represent the trinity, the twist in the center, arms crossed in prayer. But they also make unbelievable ice cream, which, in addition to being either vanilla or raspberry, happens to be completely secular.

The program is over now. I’m currently down twenty friends and trying to figure out the going rate for calls into Mali, but this is one of my favorite food memories from the trip: us sitting at picnic tables smack in the middle of Amish country, alternating bites of homemade pretzel with raspberry soft serve, racing the blaring sun as it melted cones and sundaes with reckless abandon. I don’t think I could go back without them, but you should.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where I wish I could be

I have so many new things to tell you. So so many.

There are Amish pretzels, and twenty new lovely African friends, now come and gone, there are sixty five foot chartered schooners called Extrapolation. I think there's pesto somewhere in there, too, and a chana masala adaptation.

But while I'm sorting all of that out in a way that's at least slightly cogent, have a look at these. It's where I was yesterday, and where I think I wish I could be nearly every day. (Don't worry, I was at least thinking of food to tell you about, I promise.)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Foolproof formula

Have we talked about instant gratification on here yet? And how I, like most people, like it quite a bit?

Well, I do. I like it in all forms. My friend Katherin (the birthday-galette maker, remember?) and I hike this trail every so often that we have come to call Instant Gratification Hill. The name is self-explanatory, but essentially, you reach a lookout in about ten minutes. Five if you’re really trying, if ten minutes seems like too long to you.

I’ve found that sometimes, patience is just overrated. This holds true for most things (lines? USPS?), but where cooking is concerned, slow braising and rising times and starters certainly have their limits.

In the name of instant gratification, then, I bring you these cookies (bars?). They follow a pretty foolproof formula, which is to say: flour, sugar, summer fruit, copious amounts of butter. Done and done. They take about ten minutes to throw together (five if you’re really trying, if ten seems like too long to you). Here, patience is rendered completely irrelevant, which is the way I like it, preferably with one of these bars right alongside.

Blueberry Crumb Bar Cookies/Cookie Bars
(Adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

1 ½ cups white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups AP flour
1 cup cold unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 egg
¼ teaspoon salt
Zest and juice of one lemon
4 cups fresh blueberries
4 teaspoons cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9×13 inch pan.

In a medium bowl, stir together 1 cup sugar, 3 cups flour, and baking powder. Mix in salt and lemon zest. Use a fork or your fingertips to blend in the butter and egg. Dough will be crumbly, almost like scone dough before you add the buttermilk. Pat half of the dough into the prepared pan.

In another bowl, stir together the sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice. Gently mix in the blueberries. Sprinkle the blueberry mixture evenly over the crust. Crumble remaining dough over the berry layer.

Bake in preheated oven for 40 minutes, or until top is golden brown and berries and their juices are bubbling slightly on the edges. Cool completely before cutting into squares. (It also helps, but isn’t necessary, to store these in the fridge once they’re cool.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Appropriately veganesque

Veganism is something I kind of shy away from. If you know me, you are well aware of my borderline sanity-threatening obsession with cheese. I am simply not willing to give that up. We can peacefully coexist, veganism and I, it’s just not my cup of proverbial tea, much like socks with individual toes or cutting the crusts off sandwiches.

I used to live with a girl who worked at our local food co-op, and as such, her diet became appropriately veganesque. She would regularly bring home tofu, nutritional yeast, and the like. For the most part I was game to try everything; I came around to my own occasional green smoothie, I came to love kombucha. I never did get within less than a few feet of nutritional yeast.

My point is, while I’ll likely never crossover into a land of no cheese, or bacon, or anything worth its culinary salt (I kid, I kid) I certainly don’t discount the possibility that vegan and good can exist in the same sentence. It can happen, and it does happen. And actually, I’ve done it:

These vegan cookies are damn good.

The thought of cookies without butter, eggs, or flour seems a bit like baking blasphemy at first, I know. But somehow, these little guys pull it off. Bananas and olive oil serve as the liquid and fat, respectively. There are nuts, and chocolate, which always help. I don’t exactly know how the rest all works, but I don’t really care. I’ve made these twice already, have fed them to precisely zero vegans, and everyone loves them.

See? You shouldn’t judge a cookie recipe by its dietary life decisions. Try it if you don’t believe me. (These also, as an added bonus, take barely twenty minutes to throw together.) My old roommate would be proud.

Vegan Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

3 large, ripe bananas, well mashed (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups rolled oats
2/3 cup almond meal
1/3 cup coconut, finely shredded & unsweetened
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 - 7 ounces dark chocolate chips or carob chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, racks in the top third.

In a large bowl combine the bananas, vanilla extract, and olive oil. In another bowl whisk together the oats, almond meal, shredded coconut, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir until combined. Gently fold in the chocolate chips.

The dough will be a bit looser than a normal cookie dough, don’t be alarmed. This is perhaps the only setback to not having butter and flour. Drop two-teaspoon-sized balls of dough an inch apart onto a parchment or Silpat lined baking sheet. Bake for 12 - 14 minutes, making sure that the bottoms get nice and brown but just shy of burning. (If you don’t let these bake long enough, they will fall apart on you.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Things owed

I suppose I owe you pita.

I’ve never owed anyone pita before. Money, sure. Favors, yes. But never pita. I’ll have to say, it’s not the worst kind of debt to have over your head. In fact, it’s actually quite nice. I’ve been running around lately, thinking every now and then about how I need to get on here and tell you about pita, and I’ve never once felt like hiding my checkbook, feigning forgetfulness, or say, screening your calls.

Pita is in the category of things that sound more impressive than they are difficult, like homemade pasta or figure eight knots or big pot blanching. Which, lucky for us, is the perfect combination in food. The oven does most of the work, combining the high heat and the moisture to make the steam that puffs up the pita.

I am human, though, and realize that pita is most common when it comes store-bought and plastic-wrapped. Also that, so long as you’re with me out on the east coast, heat waves and five hundred degree ovens don't make the best companions. I still think you should try this, at least once. (I’ve always been stubborn.) It’s really not so hard, and you’ll have pita to eat for weeks. Plus, you can add it to your list of things accomplished. For now, I can cross it off mine of things owed.

Whole Wheat Pita

(Adapted from epicurious.com)
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon honey
1 1/4 cups warm water
2 cups bread flour or high-gluten flour, plus additional for kneading
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Cornmeal for sprinkling baking sheets

Stir together yeast, honey, and 1/2 cup warm water in a large bowl, then let stand until foamy. While yeast mixture stands, stir together flours in another bowl. Whisk 1/2 cup flour mixture into yeast mixture until smooth, then cover with plastic wrap and let stand at warm room temperature until doubled in bulk and bubbly, about 45 minutes. Stir in oil, salt, remaining 3/4 cup warm water, and remaining 2 1/2 cups flour mixture until a dough forms. (I used a stand mixer for this step.)

Turn out dough onto a floured surface and knead, working in just enough additional flour to keep dough from sticking, until dough is smooth and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes. Form dough into a ball and put in an oiled large bowl, turning to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise in draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Punch down dough and cut into 8 pieces. Form each piece into a ball. Flatten 1 ball, then roll out into a 7-inch round on floured surface with a floured rolling pin. Transfer round to 1 of 2 baking sheets lightly sprinkled with cornmeal. Roll out the rest of the dough in the same manner. Loosely cover pitas with 2 clean kitchen towels and let stand at room temperature 30 minutes.

Set oven rack in lower third of oven and remove other racks. Preheat oven to 500°F. Transfer 4 pitas, 1 at a time, directly onto oven rack. Bake until just puffed and pale golden, about 2 minutes. Turn over with tongs and bake 1 minute more. Cool pitas on a cooling rack. Bake remaining 4 pitas in same manner.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The stars aligned

I have to speed over pita, just for today. This is much better.

Yesterday was what felt like the hottest day of the summer thus far, or at the very least, the stickiest. The humidity was so heavy you practically had to move it out of the way to walk through it, a curtain of muggy, damp, summer air.

I mention this only to help explain the fact that pasta with mushroom ragu was decidedly not what the weather called for last night. Salad would have been more fitting. Perhaps no food at all would have been better, and just really cold beer and freezer packs alternated with new ones as they thawed.

But it happened, as it sometimes does, that what was in the fridge came together in a mushroom ragu kind of way, or the stars aligned, or I really didn’t mind all the pasta kneading on such a hot day.

A customer at the restaurant the other day left a note on the back of their receipt thanking the server and complimenting the food. I am tempted to borrow from their own words about our kobe beef, for lack of a better way to describe this pasta. It was, as the man that sat at table twenty this weekend would say, downright transcendental. It is a rather dramatic description, yes, perhaps a little pretentious-sounding, but this time, really just spot on.

Try this. You’ll know what I mean. Pasta can be transcendental, probably unbeknownst to Thoreau. Something about it is incredibly complex-tasting, even though you can count the ingredients on two hands. I blame it on the red wine.

Fettuccine with Mushroom Rag├╣

The eggplant in this recipe really just helped to bulk up the sauce; feel free to use more if you want the flavor to be more pronounced. Also, whatever kind of mushrooms you have on hand will more than suffice. This is my favorite kind of recipe – it is one very easily thrown together, mostly by eye.

½ a large eggplant, finely diced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped onion
8 oz mushrooms finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon black olive tapenade, or mined black olives
1/3 (or thereabouts) cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano
12 ounces fresh fettuccine

Sweat garlic and onion in olive oil until translucent. Add mushrooms and eggplant and cook over medium heat until they wilt and give up their juices. Don’t let juices evaporate. Stir in tomato paste and tapenade. Add wine, cook briefly, then season with oregano, salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add fettuccine, stir to separate strands and cook about 3 minutes. Transfer fettuccine to skillet. Add just a bit of olive oil to the noodles. Gently fold ingredients together over low heat until mushroom mixture has reheated and is evenly mixed with fettuccine. Top with grated pecorino if you’d like (you should like, it makes it much better).