Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Stir Fry

A few years back I was discussing the television show The Wire with a friend, talking about its gritty depiction of drugs, police and poverty in Baltimore. My friend observed that it was this amazing, compelling window into a world that she just never, ever, ever wanted to visit. To a limited extent, I feel that way when I read certain blogs.

Like many blog readers, I have a mild obsession with The Pioneer Woman. I linger dreamily over her descriptions of life on a ranch, of storybook romance, of the grown-up fantasy of Little House on the Prairie meets a Viking range and high speed internet (and without the smallpox and scarlet fever). But the recipes? I generally am not going to go there.

As a produce-loving vegetarian (well, fishatarian), it's understandable that I wouldn't find too much to drool over coming out of a cattle ranch kitchen. Sure, I share the love of butter. But not as a fundamental food group building block. And while there are the occasional forays into what she jokingly calls "cowgirl food," the bulk of the entries are steak, chicken, steak again, etc. So generally after reading and loving the witty introductions and descriptions of daily Oklahoma life, I tend to skip the actual recipes. Until I saw this summer stir fry.

This recipe is great. It's just a whole pile of sweet corn and zucchini, studded with briny-sweet shrimp. I've tweaked it a bit to suit my taste and incorporate elements of other recipes I've loved, adding a hit of lime juice, a sprinkling of summer basil, and buttery chunks of avocado. The result is somewhere between a stir-fry and a salad, all light and summer and vegetable, but surprisingly satisfying. I could eat this three days a week.

And in other news of surprising culinary cultural exchanges, here's a recent radio story I produced about the past and present of food cart fusion cuisine. Perhaps Korean tacos will be next on the menu.

Summer Stir Fry

inspired by The Pioneer Woman
serves ~3-4

1-2 Tbsp butter or olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3/4 lb shrimp
2 zucchinis, thinly sliced
3 ears of corn, kernels sliced off (if you have a bundt pan, jamming the ear into the center ring and slicing so that kernels fall into the pan works brilliantly)
juice of 1/2 lime
1 handful basil, thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 avocado, cubed

Heat a large skillet over a medium-high flame. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter or oil, and then the garlic and saute until just beginning to turn golden. Add the shrimp, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are just barely cooked through. Pour the shrimp and garlic out into a large bowl, and set aside.

Add the zucchini to the pan, with additional butter or oil if needed. Sautee until softened and beginning to color. Remove from the pan (you can just add it to the same bowl as the shrimp and garlic).

Add the corn to the skillet, and cook just a minute or two until it turns a darker color but is still crisp. Turn off the flame, and add the corn to the shrimp and zucchini. Season the mixture with the lime juice, basil, and salt and pepper. Mix well, and adjust seasonings as needed. Add the cubed avocado, and stir gently to mix. This is great warm from the skillet, or cold from the fridge.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Syrniki (Russian Cottage Cheese Pancakes)

Like most cooks, I tend to taste my way through a recipe. I pop cubes of raw vegetables in my mouth after I dice them, and grab a couple bites along the way to gauge whether they're cooked through. And then how can you season to taste if you don't taste? By the time the meal is served, I've already eaten my first course.

But with syrniki, I have taken the snack-and-simmer approach to new heights (or depths?). These Russian cottage cheese pancakes are just so amazingly delicious that I could not stop eating them directly from the pan. They're moist from the dairy (farmer cheese or cottage cheese, if you don't have access to the Russian dry curd cheese tvorog), fresh-tasting and barely sweet. And the pan-frying in melted butter probably doesn't hurt. Often they're studded with raisins, but in the summer they're lovely with cold sour cream and some sweet berries or compote (though I ate a good third out of hand, before they even hit the plate, and that might have been the best of all).

Unlike heavier American flapjacks, these light syrniki make for a sweet dessert. But they're equally good as a small meal in and of themselves, especially on summer days where you don't want to turn on the oven. Provided you have better self-control than I do, and can manage to actually save some for your dinner guests. You can find the details, along with stories and recipes for several other Russian dishes, over at NPR's Kitchen Window.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sour Cherry Tart

When I see a fruit pie, even a home-made one, I must shamefully admit that my first reaction isn't generally excitement or anticipation. It's a small twinge of disappointment -- Why did you do that to perfectly good fruit? I feel like the old woman, looking at her granddaughter's new eyebrow ring, who wistfully tells her that you had such a pretty face. I know, I'm so much fun, right? But summer fruit, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, is so lovely. And most pies just don't do it justice.

Pies faults are usually small, but they do add up. Crusts are tough, cardboardy, a vehicle that's often pushed aside (especially after a stint in the refrigerator). Fillings are over-set into a sludgy gel, where the starch overwhelms the fruit. And the fruit itself can be over- or under-cooked, with dull, un-summery flavors. It's no wonder that I used the think I didn't like pie.

But as it turns out, I do like pie. I like it a whole lot. It just has to be made well. Which, thankfully, isn't all that hard. Make your own crust, and make it with butter and a light hand (or, instead go with a nice pre-made all-butter puff pastry). Give your fruit just a little bit of sweetness and thickener, and let the flavor shine through. The fruit isn't the same as fresh -- cooked fruit is sort of a different animal -- but if done well, it can be something better.

Yesterday I picked a whole mess of sour cherries from a neighbor's tree (with a good amount of help), in exchange for a jar of the jam I was making. We ended up with 5 lbs or so, which would make a whole lot of preserves. So I jammed up half of them, and reserved the other half for this tart. I mixed up a batch of my favorite fail-safe crust recipe (swapping in a little whole wheat flour, as is my wont), and layered it with just a bit of ground almonds and sugar to add a subtle nutty, goo-absorbing layer to the bottom. Then I tossed the cherries with nothing more than sugar and tapioca starch (my favorite pie thickener) and a few dots of butter to keep things lovely, then topped the whole affair with a bit of lattice and an overly-generous sanding of coarse sugar. The result is amazing. The cherries aren't so much sour as just flavorful, more punchy than puckery. They soften in the oven, their juices mixing with the starch to become a syrupy filling. The crust isn't an afterthought at all, but a flaky, delicate pastry that complements the soft fruit, with the coarse sugar as a delightfully crunchy counterpoint. I realize that my description is a bit over-the-top and swoony, but really, it's totally warranted. This is pie as it's meant to be.

Sour Cherry Tart

filling adapted from several sources, including The New York Times, though I recommend this crust instead

1 double crust, unbaked (I made a 3/4 batch of this excellent recipe, then used 2/3 for the bottom crust and 1/3 for the lattice, which worked perfectly for a loose lattice)
1/2 +2 Tbsp sugar, divided
1/4 cup ground almonds
2 lbs pitted sour cherries (~5 cups)
3 Tbsp tapioca starch
1 Tbsp butter, cut into bits
1 egg, beaten with a bit of water or cream
coarse sugar for sprinkling

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Mix together the 2 Tbsp of sugar with the ground almonds, and set aside. Toss together the cherries. remaining 1/2 cup sugar, and tapioca starch, and set aside.

Roll out the bottom crust and place it in the tart pan, crimping the edges. Roll out and cut strips for the lattice. Sprinkle the almond-sugar mixture evenly over the bottom, then give the cherries a stir and pour them on top, dotting with the butter. Weave your lattice strips gently over the cherries, tucking the ends in against the crust wall. Brush the lattice strips and crust with the egg wash, and sprinkle generously with the coarse sugar (this is a fairly tart pie, so be ridiculously generous to have lots of crunchy sugar to offset). Place in the oven, and bake until the crust is well browned and the juices are bubbling and thickening, ~1 hour (start checking before that). Allow to cool for 2 hours before cutting and devouring. If there are any leftovers, leave them, covered, at room temperature for up to a day or so.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Fresh Pasta

Before I finally succumbed to Book Club Failure and set aside Bleak House, I came across the following exchange, when the character Richard gets back a sum of money that he hadn't expected to:

'My prudent Mother Hubbard, why not?' he said to me, when he wanted, without the least consideration, to bestow five pounds on the brickmaker. 'I made ten pounds, clear, out of the Coavinses' business.'
'How was that?' said I.
Why, I got rid of ten pounds which I was quite content to get rid of, and never expected to see any more. You don't deny that?'

'No,' said I.

'Very well! then I came into possession of ten pounds-'

'The same ten pounds,' I hinted.

'That has nothing to do with it!' returned Richard. 'I have got ten pounds more than I expected to have, and consequently I can afford to spend it without being particular.'

After Richard is talked out of giving the brickmaker those five pounds, he then adds that sum to his perceived credit as well. The narrator is frustrated, but I totally understand -- much of my life involves such ridiculous calculations, quantifying the world according to an entirely subjective mental math. You don't treat yourself to the massage you considered getting, and suddenly you have 'saved' money! Thus if you spend half the cost of a massage on, say, a nice dinner out, you haven't spent money at all! You've been a thrifty saver! These sorts of indefensible calculations and categorizations define much of how I financially interact with the outside world.

Perhaps the best illustration is what I like to call the Standard Burrito Unit (a concept developed in partnership with my burrito-making neighbor). To whit: burritos from the taco truck near my house are cheap. Ridiculously cheap. For $4.50, you get a hefty tortilla-wrapped handful of rice, beans, cheese, tomato, cilantro, onions, lettuce, and avocado. Avocado! For $4.50! And thus, $4.50 has become the new standard.

Sometimes, when I'm sweating over a home-cooked meal, I stop to ask myself: is this cheaper than a burrito? Other times, I'll pick up a dress at the thrift shop, amazed that it doesn't cost more than a couple of burritos. It's a hard habit to drop.

And thus, when I was at the farmer's market and saw someone selling Oregon black truffles, I was shocked to find that a single, stinky-ripe truffle, that emblem of luxury, cost the same price as a burrito. A single Standard Burrito Unit. I bought it.

But then there was the question of what to do with it. Usually truffles are enjoyed in basic creamy preparations, which serves as an unobtrusively rich backdrop for the truffle funk. Softly set eggs or cheesy risotto both work perfectly. But to serve to the dairy-free diner, I had to find something else. Pasta seemed a good fit, but how could I waste a luxurious truffle (though still the same price as a burrito!) on plain supermarket pasta! So I made my own.

For the most part, my feelings about making pasta by hand mirror my feelings about sewing a quilt. I've made both of these things, and I've been inordinately proud of the end results (which are miles beyond the commercially-produced option). But once the task is done, I'm content to not do it again for another year or so. Except that the fusty aroma of the truffle convinced me to break out the past machine. And it wasn't as bad as I remembered -- in fact, the whole meal came together in just over an hour.

Pasta-making is definitely a bit tedious, and requires a pasta maker (unless you're much more skilled/patient/Italian than I am), but it's also an amazing transformation of humble ingredients. I went with a particularly yolk-rich version, and white flour instead of semolina (because that's what I had). After a quick mix, a rest, and a whole lot of cranking, eggs and flour turn into noodles that manage to be both rich and delicate in the same bite. Add a glug of olive oil and a grating of Oregon black truffles, and you've got a showstoppingly good meal. For less than the cost of a burrito.

Fresh Pasta (with or without truffle)
serves ~4

2 cups flour
hefty pinch salt
2 eggs
4 egg yolks

In a large bowl, sift together the flour and salt. Make a well in the center, and add the eggs and yolks. Mix, from the center outward, and knead until the dough comes together and is smooth and elastic (truth told, I often resort to the dough hook for this stage). You can add more flour or egg yolk as needed to create a firm yet pliable dough. When the dough has been well-kneaded, cover with a towel or overturned bowl, and allow to rest for half an hour.

After half an hour, set a bowl of salted water to boil. Roll and cut the dough on a pasta machine, according to the directions (my lazy cook's trick: pinch of lumps of dough that are double the walnut size recommended -- you can get several turns through the machine with one portion, then just divide it in half when it gets too large and unwieldy, making sure to cover the unused portion so that it doesn't dry out). Toss cut noodles with additional flour so that they don't stick together. When your pasta has been rolled and cut, simmer in the salted water until done (it'll take less time than you'd think), then drain and toss with olive oil. Serve with your favorite sauce (or truffles).