Sunday, May 29, 2011
My neighbor is a somewhat evangelical member of a local women's gym. In addition to the usual elliptical trainers and weight machines, the gym has one feature she prizes above all else: a light room. This small tiled room, just big enough for four chairs, features a large full-spectrum light, an aromatherapy machine, and a pile of trashy magazines. On these rainy Northwest days (which we are still having), gym members love nothing more to sit and soak up a little vitamin D and tabloid gossip. The smell of eucalyptus will now be forever associated with the Kardashians.
Thanks to the magic of the Groupon, I've joined my neighbor these last few weeks. I've sweated and gasped through cardio workouts that probably wouldn't phase a ten-year-old, and ended up painfully sore from lifting teensy weights. And I've spent a good amount of time sitting in the light room. I keep meaning to bring my own reading material (my book club is now planning an unseasonable summer-long trip through Dickens' Bleak House), but why do that when I can read about the romantic lives of celebrities I've never heard of?
Last week I was leafing through one such magazine in the faux sun, which featured an article on weight-loss lifestyle tips of nutritionists to the stars. In addition to the usual strategies of not eating every appetizer at the party (a strategy I forgot to keep in mind last night), they recommended limiting your diet to a short list of approved foods. The idea wasn't just to keep you from eating unhealthful items, but to literally bore you into weight loss. If you're only allowed egg whites, chicken breasts, and blueberries, you evidently start eating less because you're tired of egg whites, chicken breasts, and blueberries. Which just seems sad.
Like most people, I crave variety in my diet. I try new foods and new preparations, get excited about unfamiliar techniques and cuisines. And I reckon to say that I'm more satisfied with a meal that packs an excitingly novel punch of flavors. I get on short-lived kicks where one particular ingredient or dish goes into heavy rotation, but for the most part I want to try to do new things in the kitchen. Except when it comes to green vegetables.
My preparation of chard, broccoli, spinach and the like looks like this:
1. heat a bit of olive oil
2. add garlic, saute until fragrant
3. add green vegetable, cook until done
4. squeeze lemon wedge and sprinkle salt over the top
Every now and then I'll throw said vegetable in the defective rice cooker that serves as our steamer basket, or turn it into a Thai curry or Indian saag, but 9 times out of 10 I run through the steps above. Other members of the household have mentioned a desire for something other than garlicky lemony greens, but I generally push these requests aside. It's a culinary rut I can't seem to break out of. But that all might change with this garlicky sesame-cured broccoli salad.
This recipe comes from the never-disappointing Melissa Clark. The broccoli is technically raw, but it gets tossed with a bit of vinegar and salt (as well as some warm garlicky oil). As the broccoli sits, the acid softens it, leaving it with an addictive crunchy-yet-yielding texture, somewhere between raw and cooked, and a beautifully bright green flavor. A bit of toasted sesame oil and some cumin seeds give it a nutty depth (and go together so well I wonder why I haven't paired them before), and a pinch of chili flakes provide heat. Variety never tasted so satisfyingly delicious.
Garlicky Sesame-Cured Broccoli Salad
adapted from Melissa Clark in The New York Times
2 tsp vinegar of your choosing (Clark recommends red wine, we used a mix of rice wine and balsamic)
1 tsp coarse salt
2 lbs broccoli crowns (~2 large heads), washed and broken into small florets
1/3 cup olive oil
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp toasted sesame oil
large pinch crushed red chile flakes
In a large bowl, mix together the vinegar and salt. Add the broccoli, and toss to combine. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and cumin seeds, and cook until fragrant (it should only take a minute). Add the sesame oil and chile flakes. Turn off the heat, and pour the hot mixture over the broccoli, tossing well so that the hot oil coats everything. Let sit for at least an hour, for the broccoli to soften and the flavors to develop. Taste before serving and adjust seasonings if needed.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Neither pistachios nor pudding get the respect they truly deserve. To whit: order a pistachio-flavored dessert, and you will invariably be served something that's almond-flavored. But colored green, see, so it's pistachio (to give props, this realization was attributed to the amazing pastry chef Shuna Lydon). And pudding -- according to a friend, in Turkey you can find entire restaurants devoted to pudding. Just pudding. It boggles the mind. Stateside, unless you count its fancy euro-sounding cousins of mousse and pot-de-creme, pudding isn't likely to make it onto the dessert menu at all. Most of the time, it's served in individually-sealed plastic snack cups, or plopped out of industrial-sized tubs onto cafeteria trays. This is all a shame, because both pistachios and pudding have a lot to offer by the way of dessert. Especially when they are combined together.
This sweet combination has all I look for in a final course. The pudding is rich, deep and smooth, with a true pistachio flavor (I was worried that the cinnamon would overpower, but it just serves to deepen the pistachio's aromatic notes). It is a bit thick from the ground nuts, so the sweet blob of whipped cream provides a welcome lightness. And then the cookies lend a delicious snap and bittersweet edge (I reduced the sugar a bit, upon advice from Smitten Kitchen), as well as their basic chocolatey goodness (which we all kinda want from a dessert anyways). It's a pudding fancypants enough to serve at your next dinner party. It's a pudding that might just redeem pudding (and pistachios) forever.
Pistachio Pudding with Chocolate cookies
pudding adapted, somewhat heavily, from Cookshop, as told to the Amateur Gourmet, cookies adapted from Retro Desserts, as flagged and adapted by Smitten Kitchen
yields ~6 portions puddings, and ~2-3 dozen cookies
For the Cookies:
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup dutched cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 sticks (10 Tbsp) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a few cookie sheets with parchment paper, or grease them well and hope for the best.
Place the flour, cocoa powder, soda, baking powder, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor or mixer. Pulse or mix a few times to combine the dry ingredients. Add the butter and egg, and pulse or mix a few times until it just comes together.
Scoop tablespoons of the mixed dough onto the prepared cookie sheets, leaving some space between cookies (these will spread). Flatten slightly, wetting your hand if needed to keep the dough from sticking. Bake for ~9 minutes, until just set. Let them cool on the sheet for a minute or two to set, then remove to a rack to cool completely.
For the Pudding:
4 cups cream, divided
2 cups milk
2 cups toasted pistachios
2 sticks cinnamon
1 cup sugar, plus more for the whipped cream
3 Tbsp cornstarch
vanilla to taste
Place 3 1/4 cups of the cream (set aside the remainder in the refrigerator), the milk, pistachios and cinnamon in saucepan. Bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat and allow to steep for 1/2 an hour. Get some cups ready for the finished pudding.
When the cream/pistachio mixture has steeped, blend it fully, and then strain it back into the saucepan (I had to sort of persuade it through the strainer with a spatula, clearing out the nutty detritus a couple of times during the process, but results may vary depending upon your blender and strainer). Whisk together the sugar and cornstarch in a bowl, and then add enough of the strained cream mixture to create a smooth paste. Whisk in the remainder, then pour it back into the pot. Heat over a medium flame, whisking, until it comes to a boil. Lower the heat until it just maintains a simmer, and simmer, whisking constantly, for 3 minutes. Pour into cups in your desired amounts, and chill.
Before serving, whip the remaining cream into soft peaks, and add sugar and vanilla to taste. Top the pudding with whipped cream, and serve with a chocolate cookie (or three).
Monday, May 16, 2011
Portland recently took a turn for the chilly. There are still asparagus and rhubarb to be had, but right now I'm not thinking of icy semifreddos or springy pizzas. I'm thinking about cabbage and beans.
I've always been a fan of Indian dals, the soupy bean dishes beloved by all protein-seeking vegetarians. They're dirt cheap, easy to make, and keep spectacularly well. I always simmer up a massive pot, thinking I'm going to stash some portions in the freezer for future lunch emergencies, and end up eating it all within a few days. I'm currently smitten with a curry-leaf version from Madhur Jaffrey's latest cookbook, which might be the most brightly flavorful dal I've ever made. But recently I'm craving something heartier and humbler. Like cabbage dal.
This recipe is ridiculously easy. The beans -- red lentils, in this case -- are lightly scented with spice (including the you-wouldn't-think-it-works-but-it-totally-does cinnamon stick), and then simmered until they break down into a creamy mess. An entire head of cabbage gets chopped and thrown into the pot, and, amazingly, melts away until you barely know it's there. The resulting dal is a great complement to a tomato-studded curry (I served it with a saucy spinach-pea-tomato concoction), or fine with just a bit of rice or naan and blob of yogurt as its companions. Add some of Patak's garlic chutney (an obsession of mine for several years), and it'll warm you right up until spring rolls around.
Red Lentil Dal with Cabbage
adapted from She Spills the Beans
1 Tbsp high heat oil, such as canola or coconut
3 Tbsp butter or coconut oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups red lentils
1 head cabbage, chopped into 1" lengths
1 stick cinnamon
4 dried chilies (adjust depending to your taste)
1 bay leaf
6 whole cloves
handful of curry leaves (optional)
1 tsp garam masala
salt to taste
Heat the butter and oil in a large pot over a medium-high flame. Add the cumin and mustard seeds, and cook for a minute, until they begin to pop (have the lid at the ready, to keep them from popping out of the pot). Add the onion, and saute until translucent, and beginning to pick up a few brown spots. Add the garlic, and stir for a minute. Add the lentils, cabbage, whole spices, and then add water to just barely cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are broken down (~1 hour, although it only gets better with time, so 2 hours is better). Season with the garam masala and salt to taste.
Sunday, May 08, 2011
Rhubarb! Rhubarb! Rhubarb! After singing the praises of seasonal produce and asparagus last week, talking about rhubarb seems a natural next step. Rhubarb's ruby stalks stick around a bit longer than asparagus, but when they first break through the sad, fruit-free depths of winter, it's no less a spring awakening. In my first-fruits rapture, I bake it into a custard tart, simmer it down into a syrup, or wait patiently (well, somewhat patiently) as it infuses into liqueur. But last week I had a rare extra carton of creme fraiche, which made me think how lovely rhubarb's tartness complements a sweet and creamy dessert. Thus the semifreddo.
For those who haven't been so lucky as to taste their creamy deliciousness, semifreddos are Italian desserts, sort of like a frozen mousse. Most recipes start with a saboyan, whipping (and sometimes heating) together a shockingly large number of egg yolks and some sugar, then lightening the whole mixture with some whipped cream and freezing it in a mold (a loaf pan is fine, which lets you cut dramatic slices). The beaten-in air lightens the mixture, giving you all of the luscious creamy lightness of ice cream without an ice cream-maker. Win!
This recipe is inspired by Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques, which pairs a rhubarb compote with a vanilla semifreddo. Goin's version is a little less yolky than most, featuring only three eggs, and folds in beaten egg whites as well for an even more light-as-air result. It's ridiculously simple for such a sophisticated dessert, doing away with the stovetop custard bases and fancy machinery, and requiring no more than a bunch of beating and folding. I cut down the cream a bit in Goin's recipe, replacing it with a small amount of cultured creme fraiche instead. It's a small enough amount that it doesn't overwhelm, adding just the merest hint of tang to offset the creamy vanilla. And then there's the rhubarb.
In Goin's original recipe, she pairs the semifreddo with a rhubarb compote, cooked down to a deliciously tangy slump. I've made compotes (both hers and others') and loved them. But since I'm still in the Holy Crap It's Spring! mindset, I wanted to show rhubarb off a little more. Instead of the jammy compote, I went with Canal House's recommendation of roasting the stalks. This recipe still features the rhubarb+sugar+vanilla+wine combination Goin favors (Canal House called for red, but I replaced it with the lighter white that Goin used -- it is Spring, after all), but bakes everything in the oven instead of stewing it on the stovetop. If you're careful enough with your gentle turning, the chunks of rhubarb soften but hold their shape, yielding a tart accompaniment to the creamy semifreddo that's beautiful as well as delicious. And if you serve it promptly (instead of waiting for it to melt, as I did in my picture below), it makes for an elegant plate. Spring dinner party, anyone?
And speaking of Spring, here's a gift for Mother's Day I wrote up for The Oregonian, on how to show love to the new moms in your life (with food, of course).
Roasted Rhubarb with Creme Fraiche Semifreddo
semifreddo adapted from Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques, roasted rhubarb adapted from Canal House Cooking, Volume 3
3 large eggs, separated
2/3 cup sugar, separated
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 vanilla bean
1/4 cup creme fraiche (can be omitted if you don't have, or increased for a more pronounced flavor, but this small amount works quite well)
1 lb rhubarb, cut in 2" lengths
1/4 cup white wine
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean (from making semifreddo)
Line a 9" loaf pan with plastic wrap or parchment (if using plastic wrap, you can try to smooth out any wrinkles that will imprint themselves on the finished semifreddo, but I usually fail at that task). Set aside.
Place the egg whites in the bowl of a large mixer, and beat, gradually increasing the speed to high and sprinkling in 1/3 cup of the sugar. Beat until stiff peaks form, then transfer to another bowl (it can be a small one) and set aside.
Add the cream to the mixing bowl, and beat on medium until stiff peaks form. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
Place the reserved egg yolks in the mixing bowl, and add the seeds scraped from the vanilla bean (reserve the pod for the roasted rhubarb), vanilla extract, and reserved sugar. Beat until the mixture has lightened in color and thickened and doubled in volume, ~3 minutes. Whisk in the creme fraiche until it is just combined.
Take the yolk mixture, and gently fold it into the bowl of whipped cream. Add the beaten egg whites, and fold in in a few additions, until there are no streaks left, taking care not to deflate the mixture. Pour it into the prepared loaf pan, and place in the freezer. Freeze until solid, at least 4 hours.
When the semifreddo is ready, prepare the roasted rhubarb.
Preheat the oven to 350. Place the rhubarb, wine, sugar, and left-over half of the vanilla bean in an oven-proof pan (I used an 8" square casserole dish, which worked perfectly). Stir to evenly distribute ingredients. Place the pan in the oven and bake for about half an hour, turning the rhubarb once (gently!), until the rhubarb is totally tender but hasn't lost its shape. Remove from the oven, and let cool slightly (or fully, depending upon your taste). Discard the vanilla bean.
To serve, cut thick slices of the semifreddo, and serve topped with the roasted rhubarb and its syrupy juices.
Sunday, May 01, 2011
I am usually not an impulsive shopper. In fact, I'm quite the opposite. I deliberate each purchase in painful detail before I part with my hard-earned money, whether it's a piece of furniture or a sandwich. To give an idea, I've been looking for a new dresser for months -- months! -- while an off-the-tracks shelf from my busted current model is sitting on the floor, displaying my ratty old t-shirts to everyone who needs to walk past to use the bathroom. But there is one purchase that I make without hardly any painful mulling at all: produce. And specifically, seasonal produce.
Here in Portland, we have a small chain of local grocery stores with insanely good produce distributors. It's like having a farmer's market just a few short blocks from my house. They routinely sample their staggeringly delicious fruits and vegetables, and chances are good that once I taste something, I can't resist (although I still held back from the sticker-shockingly $2.99/lb Golden Nugget tangerines a few weeks ago, despite them being the sweetest thing I ever tasted). Their other secret weapon against my miserly indecision is a simple plastic sign with four words: Peak of the Season.
This little sign will get me to buy anything. Anything. Sure, I may not have come to the store for (insert seasonal produce of choice here), but it's the Peak of the Season! Time is fleeting! Life is fleeting! Gather ye Golden Nugget tangerines while ye may! And don't forget the asparagus!
Asparagus is the one vegetable that might as well have "Peak of the Season" tattooed on its butt. As soon as you seem them in the store (and I'm talking about the real local deals, not the shipped-from-another-hemisphere knock-offs), the stopwatch starts ticking. You've only got a few weeks to wolf down as many as you can before they're gone, not to return until the calendar has a whole new year on it. Luckily this is not hard.
Asparagus are lovely, lovely, lovely. I eat heaps of them during their all-too-brief appearance. I roast or steam them, eating them plain or with a simple topping of vinaigrette with lemon and sieved egg. I pickle them to eat all year, or mix them with some angel hair pasta, lemon, and goat cheese (and, if I've got it, precious drizzle of truffle oil). For a while, one of my favorites was this pizza, topped with goat cheese and briny anchovies, and brightened up with a sprinkling of lemon zest. But fickle me, I have a new favorite asparagus pizza. And oh, is it wonderful.
I found this combination on the amazing craftacular blog Posie Gets Cozy. Leeks are sauteed up with butter, and mixed into creamy mascarpone. After you spread your pizza dough with this rich and savory spread, you top it with shrimp and a pile of thin spring asparagus. I'm someone who tends to insert a tangy edge into every meal, and was tempted to replace the mascarpone with cultured creme fraiche, or add a grating of citrus zest. But I'm glad I stuck to the original vision, because it's great. I'm including a recipe for two pizzas, because trust me, you want to make at least that many. After all, it is the peak of the season.
Asparagus and Shrimp Pizza with Leek and Mascarpone
adapted from Posie Gets Cozy
yields 2 pies
This recipe is simple, but a few little tweaks (which I learned between making the first and second pizzas) keep the shrimp from drying out: a quick brine in salt water, and placing them on the pizza under the asparagus.
2 balls of pizza dough, ~10 ounces each
1/2 lb shrimp, peeled (if they're very large, slice them in half lengthwise)
1 Tbsp butter
2 leeks, washed and sliced thinly
1 small tub (8 ounces) mascarpone
~3/4 lb thin asparagus, either left whole (dramatic!) or sliced into short lengths (easier to manage!), tossed with a bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt -- if you don't have thin ones, simple thinly-slice larger stalks
Preheat your oven, with a pizza stone if you have, to 500 degrees for an hour. If your pizza dough has been refrigerated, let it sit, covered, at room temperature for about the same amount of time.
In a small bowl, place a cup of water, a tablespoon or so of salt, and a splash of oil. Add the shrimp, and place back in the refrigerator while you're preparing the rest of the pizza.
Heat a saucepan over a medium flame. Melt the butter, and add the leeks. Sprinkle with a bit of salt. Saute, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are totally softened but not colored. Turn off the flame, and add the mascarpone to the warm pan of leeks, stirring as it melts. Taste and add more salt if needed.
Now assemble your first pizza: Place one ball of the pizza dough on a lightly-floured counter top, and press outward into a thick disk (leaving a 1" unpressed area along the edge as the crust). Pick up the disk and let it drape over the backs of your hands, letting gravity help you stretch it into a 12-14" circle. If the dough resists, let it relax for a few minutes, then try again. Place the stretched dough on a peel (or overturned cookie sheet or cutting board) that's lightly dusted with semolina or other type of flour.
Gently spread 1/2 of the leek/mascarpone mixture over the dough, leaving a 1" rim around the edge. Drain the brined shrimp, and scatter half of them over the pizza, then top with half of the asparagus. Slide the pizza onto the preheated stone in your oven, reduce the heat to 450, and bake ~7-10 minutes, until the crust browns and the shrimp and asparagus are cooked. Remove the pizza from the oven, let cool for a moment, and slice and serve. Repeat for your second pizza.