Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tomato and Corn Pie with a Cheddar Biscuit Crust

As a lover of language (or, as it's also known, geek), I get ridiculously excited about learning new words. Especially those that perfectly sum up the complexities of life in just a few tidy syllables. My grandparents would routinely used the Yiddish word kvell, neatly describing the swelling of joy and pride that overflows from heart (usually due to the accomplishments, or general existence, of grandchildren). At the height of my college pretension, I was excited to learn that angst wasn’t just a general form of anxiety, but the particular existential dread that comes from choosing between infinite options in the space of our all-too-finite lives. And on a happier note of linguistic economy, we get the perfect word for this time of year from (of course) the Italians: scorpacciata.

I'd love to tell you more about it, but I must direct you to my latest article in The Oregonian. Where, in addition to finding a way to increase your word power, you'll also find a recipe for a tomato and corn pie, tucked into a cheddar cheese biscuit crust. Scorpacciata!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Summer Sesame Noodles

For someone with such an overdeveloped sense of nostalgia, I have a ridiculously piss-poor memory. When something's not in my direct line of vision, I can forget its existence entirely. Often this gets me into trouble, as I tell the same story repeatedly to my long-suffering friends. But sometimes it can be great. Recently my neighbor reduced me to hysterical laughter by telling me my very own joke that I'd made and forgotten just a few weeks prior. (Something about not trading their duplex apartment for a house after marrying, because the change in status hadn't come with a signing bonus. Although, now that I think about it, it kinda does.) And then there are these sesame noodles: a while back this was my go-to summer picnic dish, to the point where I got a little sick of it. But I managed to forget about it entirely over the years, so when it somehow percolated to the top of my brain last week, it was a deliciously welcome surprise. Hello, old friend! It's so nice to see you again!

This recipe is adaptable, and can be easily tweaked. For dinner, you can enjoy it warm, perhaps with a bunch of broccoli tossed in. But for hot summer nights, especially when you're picnicking at the local zoo listening to a great band play, you can go a little lighter. The noodles have a nutty/salty/spicy balance, with a slick of sesame oil that keeps them nice and slurpy even when chilled. In the summer, I play up the cold slurpiness even further with crunchy half-moons of cucumber, and the juicy sour-sweet burst of sungold cherry tomatoes. You can include the tofu for a shot of protein, or omit it for an even lighter salad. Usually I spark the dish up with handfuls of cilantro, but instead I used the basil left over from a corn and tomato pie (more on that next week), and I think it was even nicer. Maybe even unforgettable.

And in other news of summertime funtime (outside of the culinary realm), I direct you towards a radio story I just produced on the 20th Anniversary North American Jew's Harp Festival. Needless to say, that one will also be burned into my memory for some time to come.

Summer Sesame Noodles

serves ~4

inspired by a recipe for Skillet Szechuan Noodles included several years ago in The Splendid Table's Weeknight Kitchen mailing list, but since tweaked beyond recognition

12 ounces noodles (spaghetti or linguini are fine)
1 lb firm tofu, cut into 1/2" cubes
2 Tbsp canola or other high-heat oil
3 Tbsp sesame oil
2 Tbsp minced garlic
2 tbsp minced ginger
3 Tbsp peanut butter
3 Tbsp soy sauce, plus more for frying tofu
2 tsp fish sauce (optional)
1 Tbsp chili paste or chili oil
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar or lime juice
1/4 cup water
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded, and sliced into half moons
4 scallions, thinly-sliced
1 large handful basil leaves, chopped
~3/4 cup sungold or other cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

Cook the noodles according to the package directions, then drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Place in a large bowl and set aside.

Heat the canola oil in a skillet over a high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the cubed tofu (careful of the spitting!), and sprinkle a bit of soy sauce over the cubes. Fry, turning after a few minutes and sprinkling on a bit more soy sauce, until the tofu is browned and crispy on the edges, ~5-7 minutes. Transfer the tofu to the bowl with the noodles, lower the heat to medium, and return the skillet to the stove.

Add the sesame oil to the skillet, and when it's hot but not smoking add the ginger and garlic. Saute, stirring, until they soften and begin to brown. Add the peanut butter, soy sauce, fish sauce (if using), chili paste, sugar, vinegar or lime juice, and water. Stir or whisk until the peanut butter melts into the sauce, and it is somewhat thickened and shiny. Pour over the noodles, and toss well to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings to taste.

Allow the noodle mixture to cool slightly (just enough so that it won't cook the remaining ingredients), and add the cucumber, scallions, basil and cherry tomatoes. Toss gently to combine, and enjoy warm, cold or room temperature.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Peachy Eton Mess

This was one of the most heavenly summer desserts I've had recently. So I must apologize for the fact that it looks so wretched. It seems there's a reason they call it a mess.

Eton messes, for the uninitiated, are a sort of British trifle, swapping out broken meringues for the cake, and tossing them with whipped or clotted cream and fresh strawberries. In addition, it's also ridiculously fun to say, the sort of phrase, like "nursery sweet," that makes you feel like Nigella Lawson. And to added British icing on the British cake, it's traditional served at a cricket match!

For my inauthentic version, I replaced the strawberries with peaches, since that's where we are, seasonally (if you want, you toss them in a bit of sweetened white wine to add a boozy high note). I whipped up a batch of meringues, bolstering them with ground almonds to provide a bit of a chew and a nutty counterpoint to the sweet stone fruit. And because peaches-and-cream is something of a cliche (and because I had leftover egg yolks from the meringues), I cooked up a custard instead of the regular whipped cream. Which might make this more of a trifle after all, but I remain steadfast in my love for the name Eton mess. Just say it: Eton mess. Eeeeton messsss....

The one caveat of this recipe is that you've got to eat it quick. The sweet custard and crisp, crumbly, chewy meringues work together perfectly, but within a few minutes they combine to form a melted, syrupy sludge (which isn't quite as delicious as it sounds). If you're bringing this to an event, like I did, just pack the elements separately and assemble them on site. No time to style attractive photos! But, as with last week's offering, eating this quickly is easy work.

Peachy Eton Mess

serves 4-6

3-4 peaches, peeled if desired, and cut into chunks (if you like, you can toss them with 1/2 cup white wine and a few spoonfuls of sugar, but they're fine as is or topped with a squirt of lemon).

2 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup ground almonds

1 cup cream
2 egg yolks
1 tsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

To make the meringues: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a mixer, beat the egg whites, gradually increasing the speed to high until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, continuing to beat, until the peaks are stiff and glossy. Add the vanilla extract, beat, and then fold in the almonds.

Drop the batter, by heaping spoonfuls, onto the lined cookie sheets (the meringues will be crumbled in the finished dish, so no need to worry about being pretty). Bake until they turn golden, ~20-25 minutes. Remove to a rack and cool fully.

To make the custard: Heat the cream in a saucepan until it's just thinking about simmering. In a separate bowl, whisk together the yolks, cornstarch, sugar and vanilla. When the cream is hot, pour it into the yolky bowl, whisk whisk whisking all the while to make sure that it forms a smooth mixture without curdling. Return the mixture to the saucepan over a medium-low flame, and cook, stirring constantly, until it thickens (this will take just a few minutes). Remove from heat and set aside and cool (if you notice any curdling, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer to remove them).

To assemble the trifle: In a large bowl (or individual serving dishes), break up the meringues and layer them with the peaches and custard sauce (ideally more attractively than I did). Devour.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Celery Julep

When you're a kid, it's hard to parse out what in life is universal, and what's particular to your specific situation (be it family, region or country). Growing up in suburban New York, I had no idea that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, wasn't a national school holiday. Or that getting bussed in to a theater to see productions of weird Swiss pantomime wasn't an annual rite of childhood. Or that some people had never even heard of Cel-Ray soda.

For the uninitiated, Cel-Ray is a celery-flavored soda. And it's much better than it sounds. It's got celery's snappy vegetal notes, but tamed into a sweet fizzy drink. Cel-Ray's traditional lot in life is to serve as a perfect foil to a fatty deli sandwich, where its bite cuts through like ginger ale. And like ginger ale, it's great in a whiskey drink.

This recipe, from the Lee Brothers, differs from Cel-Ray in some substantial ways (namely that it's much more delicate and fresh-tasting, and missing the high-fructose corn syrup). But it creates a deliciously balanced cocktail. Celery stalks are blitzed and strained, along with some celery seeds, and the resulting bright-green juice is just barely heated with a scoop of sugar to create a syrup. This leaves the celery still tasting bright and clean, so it can stand up perfectly to a bit of whiskey (they favor Bourbon, but I think it's great with whatever you've got). Lifted with lemon and lightened with seltzer, it turns into a great summer cocktail. The only downside is that you've got to drink it quick -- the celery syrup tastes snappy when fresh, but slightly bitter after a day or two. Fortunately, this is not hard.

Celery Julep

adapted, very slightly, from The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern: Knockout Dishes with Down-Home Flavor
yields enough concentrate for ~5-6 drinks

4-5 large stalks celery, roughly chopped (plus additional whole stalks for garnish)
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp celery seeds
hefty pinch salt
lemon juice

Put the celery, 1 Tbsp of the sugar, celery seed and salt in a food processor. Pulse until the mixture is reduced to a puree. Pass it through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing on and discarding the solids.

Place the strained celery juice in a saucepan, along with the 1/2 cup sugar. Heat gently until it just dissolves, then cool.

To assemble the juleps, shake together 2 ounces whiskey, 1 Tbsp lemon juice, and 2 Tbsp celery syrup with ice. Pour into a glass with ice, top off with seltzer, and garnish with a celery sprig. Adjust to taste.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Fudge Popsicles

People always talk about the transformative power of smell, how it can wordlessly tug at your memory and transport you back in time. But I think this power isn't limited to scents, the smoke that wafts from fall leaf piles or summer barbecues. It can come from something you see, or a song, or the words that someone says. You're moving through time in the usual one-foot-after-another fashion, forgetting how different things used to be. And then you hear a voice just like your grandmother's, or walk up a staircase just like in your childhood home, and all of a sudden time collapses. Or not collapses, really. It's more like you step outside of it for a moment, seeing how things move and change, hugely, and how you'll only see this sliver of it (and even that slips away from you all the time), and how it's terribly sweet and terribly sad but somehow okay in the end.

It doesn't hurt that I ate this fudge popsicle on a warm summer evening, the kind that are made for stretching time. But still. It's exactly like childhood, like those pops your mom got you that you haven't slurped in a couple decades. It's really a bit of a frozen pudding, which you lick and slurp and chew off little bits of when you can't hold back any longer, and you alternate between remembering, feeling what it's like to be a kid, and just wholeheartedly appreciating how delicious it tastes. Whether you're looking for a rich-yet-light chocolate dessert, or a time machine, or just a way to cool off in summer, I can't recommend this enough.

Fudge Popsicles

adapted from Matt Armendariz's On A Stick, via Smitten Kitchen
yields 4 standard (3 ounce) popsicles

2 Tbsp semisweet chocolate chips (or chopped semisweet chocolate)
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1 1/2 Tbsp cocoa powder
pinch salt
1 1/4 cups milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 Tbsp butter (I omitted this, and all was still well)

Place the chocolate in a saucepan, and heat over a very low flame until just melted (to avoid scorching, it's easiest to just turn on the burner for a minute, then turn it off and let things sit while you gather other ingredients, by which time they should be softened). Stir in the sugar, cornstarch, cocoa powder, salt and milk, whisking until smooth. Raise the heat to medium, and cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens (~5 minutes). Remove from heat, and add the vanilla and butter. Set aside to cool slightly (if you have plastic molds, you'll want to be sure the mixture doesn't have much heat at all left).

Pour the mixture into popsicle molds. If you have the kind with stick handles attached, simply freeze until solid. Otherwise let freeze half an hour, insert popsicle sticks into the semi-frozen mixture, and freeze completely.