Wednesday, December 30, 2009

a quick nibble

When I was growing up, we always stayed home on New Year’s Eve. My mom would drape curls of ribbon over the brass chandelier above the kitchen table, all evening long we would watch TV and nibble on crackers and dips out of a silver and crystal lazy susan that my parents must have received as a wedding present back in the sixties. I remember lots of Triscuits and Wheat Thins, and a clam dip for my dad, and a so-called “tuna pate,” some amalgam of canned tuna, cream cheese, and Worcestershire sauce that surely wouldn’t pass culinary muster today but was my absolute favorite then.

This all sounds—and is—hopelessly dorky, but my parents were pretty strict, especially when it came to mealtimes, so having nibbles instead of dinner always seemed incredibly festive and, from my childhood perspective, sophisticated.

So I'm pretty excited that this is what we'll be doing this New Year's Eve. Monkey's aunt and uncle and cousin will come over in the afternoon and we won't worry about a proper dinner, we'll just nibble on a bunch of tasty little appetizers. Sure, the party will end at 7:30 or when the girls turn into pumpkins--whichever comes first--but it's a lot better than nothing (and these days, nothing is pretty much the alternative).

Here's one of the dishes that I plan to contribute to our gathering. It doesn’t have much to do with seasonal or local fare, but I figured I’d share it because it’s dead easy—basically just goat cheese with some chipotle mashed in--and it always gets raves.

I love the flavor of chipotle chilies, but every time I open a can of chipotles en adobo they either get moldy in the fridge or freezer-burn in the freezer. I’ve recently discovered that chipotle powder plus a little tomato paste (from a tube, which lasts forever in the fridge) is a good substitute. To give the dip a bit of texture, this time I added a few chopped piquillo peppers.

The quantities in the recipe below are approximate—just add a glop of this and a squirt of that and stir it together until you’ve reached a good taste and consistency.

Chipotle-Chevre Dip or Spread

This recipe will be even easier if you remember to leave the chevre out to soften a bit before you mix everything together.

1 5-oz log chevre
1/4-1/2 tsp chipotle powder
1 tsp tomato paste
2 Tbsp sour cream or crème fraiche (I think yogurt would work too--basically, you just need something creamy to mix in and make the cheese a little more spreadable)
2 or 3 roasted piquillo peppers, finely chopped

Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. That's it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

sunday morning breakfast links: 12/27/09

  • Catching up on some food-blog reading I found that Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini had answered my plea for awesome spaghetti squash recipes before I even uttered it--here's her recipe for a spaghetti squash gratin, embedded in a post that includes a half-dozen other mouthwatering suggestions. I'll be trying at least one and probably several of these very soon.
  • From the inimitable (believe me, I've tried) New York Times science writer Natalie Angier, an article arguing that vegans aren't exempt from the ethical dilemmas involved in killing other living things for food. Okay, so her piece is tangential at best to the project of home cooking, but it's a fascinating romp (really!) through the biology of plant defense and you should click over and read it and marvel at the pageant of life on our planet.
  • From the American Prospect archives, a kind of flip side of the Hanna Rosin piece I linked to last week: Noy Thrupkaew argues that there's a kind of unarticulated anti-feminist undercurrent to some of the recent calls to revive the art of home cookery. I found myself nodding right along with this piece too.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

got dinosaur (kale)?

In its original form this recipe (from the Zuni Café Cookbook via Orangette) is a kind of simple Italian peasant supper—garlic-rubbed toast topped with kale, a fried egg, and maybe some Parmesan shavings and torn prosciutto. That sounds fantastic, and I can’t remember why I decided to take the recipe in an Asian direction—maybe I had an open package of soba noodles that I wanted to use up?—but this way is fantastic too and so I’ve stuck with it.

Both versions have in common a long simmer of kale in just enough liquid to cover (Orangette recommends homemade chicken broth, but I’ve always used water and the final dish is plenty flavorful). The greens end up—well, the best way I can think of to describe them is pillowy: soft and yielding, with the dimples in the leaves holding on to fat drops of the savory cooking liquid.

What I do next is spoon the boiled kale over soba noodles that have been dressed in a quick sauce, and slide a fried egg over the top. You end up with the bright-yellow yolk running out into a steaming, spicy broth, and oh my—it’s heavenly, and just perfect for a cold winter’s night.

Do make sure that you fry the eggs in sesame oil. Last time I made this I used olive oil, and the dish as a whole didn’t seem as stellar as I recalled. Then the next day I remembered to use sesame oil to fry up an egg to eat with some of the leftovers, and Oh. Yes. Somehow the sesame flavor mellows the slight bitterness of the soba noodles and it all comes together.

Boiled Kale with Fried Egg and Soba Noodles

Dinosaur kale is also known as Tuscan kale, cavolo nero, or lacinato kale—but let’s stick with “dinosaur” in hopes we might fool some of the little ones into eating it.

A large bunch of dinosaur kale
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion
1 tsp Sriracha, or to taste
2 large garlic cloves
3 cups water or broth
Salt to taste

8 oz soba noodles
3 tsp kecap manis (or you could use a combination of soy sauce and molasses or maple syrup)
1 1/2 Tbsp rice vinegar
A pinch of ground ginger

Sesame oil
Black sesame seeds

First, cut up the vegetables. Dice the onion, and thinly slice the garlic. Cut the tough ribs out of the center of the kale leaves (nope, you haven’t washed them yet, we’re going to do a neat trick in a minute or two), and slice the leaves crosswise around 1/2 to 1 inch thick.

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it starts to go translucent. In between stirring the onions, put the cut up kale into the basket of a salad spinner. Fill the bowl of the salad spinner with cold water and dunk the basket in and swish it around to loosen the dirt. Let it sit for a minute so that the dirt has time to settle, then lift the basket back up out of the bowl. Pour out the water and repeat the fill-swish-sit-drain process, then spin the kale leaves dry.

Add the kale, garlic, and Sriracha to the onions and toss until the kale is thoroughly wilted. Now add the water or stock, bring it to a boil, and then cover the saucepan and turn the heat down to a simmer.

You'll simmer the kale for about 30 minutes. Okay, so you have ten minutes or so before you need to start thinking about the soba noodles. This would be a good time to do a few dishes, or build a big tower of blocks with a toddler, if you happen to have one on hand.

After about ten minutes put a pan of water on to boil for the noodles (I usually just use a small saucepan here, so that affects how long the water takes to boil). You can do some more dishes or build another tower while you wait. Then put the noodles in the water, and make the sauce: in a small bowl, stir together the kecap manis, rice vinegar, and ginger.

Now start working on the eggs. One for each person is probably sufficient. Heat the sesame oil in a nonstick sauté pan and then crack the eggs in. When the whites start to set up a bit sprinkle a pinch or two of black sesame seeds over the top of the eggs (this is probably not essential, but it’s very pretty).

When the noodles are done drain them, return them to the pan, and toss them with the sauce. Keep an eye on the eggs so that they don’t overcook. (This is a tricky watchful part and I’m sorry but there’s just no way around it.) Now check the kale—it should be nice and tender by now. Add salt to taste, and don’t be shy—I use about a teaspoon full.

To serve, place a big tangle of soba noodles in the bottom of a bowl, top with some of the kale and a little bit of its cooking liquid, and finally a fried egg.

Makes 4 to 5 servings.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

sunday morning breakfast links

  • From the angry chicken archives, a “recipe cheat sheet:” a baker’s dozen essential recipes crammed onto one sheet of paper for posting on the fridge. Once I get to the point where I don’t need recipes so much as mnemonics I’m totally making one of these—or maybe one for each season.
  • At DoubleX, Hanna Rosin has a piece (with a ridiculous/over-hyped headline, but you already knew that) about the paradox of feminists resenting husbands who cook. The thing is, I’ve kind of felt this way from time to time, right down to being agog at the absurdity of my own feelings. I think this happens because when takeout and/or convenience food is an option, cooking becomes less about mere drudgery and more about identity. Or, more to the point, it’s the most interesting and creative task one can get “credit” for as contributing to the running of the household. I mean, no one fights for the privilege of cleaning the bathroom. (Or maybe you do? In which case, Marry me!)
  • I’m not likely to be dining out in New York anytime soon, but I still read the New Yorker’s Tables for Two column every week. I love the gem-like quality of reviews that brief, the way so much information and imagery are packed into such a small space, so that the best reviews almost become prose poems. Anyway, the December 7 review, of The Vanderbilt in Brooklyn, contains a description of a dish of “roasted Brussels sprouts, dressed with sriracha, lime, and honey, each bite a perfect combination of sweet, spicy, and tart.” YES. I must make this.

Friday, December 11, 2009

now that's what i'm talking about

Sometimes when I say I don't have the energy to cook what I really mean is that I don't have the energy to figure out how to make a recipe. Will I be surprised by a step that involves letting something soak or chill or simmer for two hours? Will I end up chopping vegetables into tiny dice until 8:30 pm? That's a huge part of the appeal of having an arsenal of tried-and-true favorites. Because once I've made a dish several times, I know how long it takes to make. And I can figure out little multi-tasking tricks to make it happen in the most efficient way. Think of it as Old World grandmother cooking--guided by muscle memory as much as by recipe.

So as I type up the recipes that I'll share for this project, I'm going to try to channel that Old World grandmother, and let you in on the little tricks that I've found to make a recipe come together as smoothly and quickly as possible. My ingredient list won't call for a chopped onion--instead, I'll just ask for an onion, and then I'll tell you when I chop it. That might seem silly, or overly prescriptive--and you might find your own, better tricks. But knowing that kind of detail makes a big difference in actually getting me into the kitchen. So I'll try to pass it along to you.

There are three reasons I'm starting off with the recipe below. First, I'm insanely proud of it--I made it up all on my own a while back, in a fit of farmers market inspiration. Second, in Seattle at least locally raised fennel and cauliflower are available just about year-round, so this is a dish we can enjoy pretty much anytime.

Third, it's exactly the sort of recipe that I'm looking for more of: simple ingredients, simple preparation, and crave-worthy results. You hack up some fennel and cauliflower, braise them until they're meltingly tender and mellow in flavor, and then toss them with sturdy pasta and some crumbles of sharp feta cheese. A sprinkle of zatar, a Middle Eastern spice blend featuring wild thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac, ties it all together. (Really fresh, flavorful zatar is key here. I buy mine from World Spice Merchants near Pike Place Market.)

In fact, it's more than a recipe--in our house it's almost become a recipe template. You can vary the spices or the vegetables (just about anything sturdy enough to stand up to a braise would do, I think--carrots, turnips, shallots, and so on), or substitute chevre for the feta, or even add meat if you are carnivorously inclined. Just chop the vegetables while the water heats, cook the vegetables while the pasta boils, and then toss everything together at the end. Easy.

Pasta with Braised Fennel and Cauliflower

If you can find it, orange cauliflower is gorgeous in this dish.

1 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs butter
1/2 of a large onion
3 large cloves garlic
1 large bulb fennel
1 small head cauliflower
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
2 tsp zatar
6 oz feta cheese
8 oz penne or other short, stocky pasta

Put a pan of water on to boil for the pasta.

While you wait for it to boil, slice up the onion into quarter-rings. Peel the garlic and cut the cloves into thin slices. Quarter the fennel bulb and cut each piece into 1/4-inch slices. Cut or break the cauliflower into small florets.

Now heat the butter and olive oil together in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and saute for a few minutes until the onion starts to get translucent. Add the fennel and cauliflower and stir it up. Then add the salt (don't go overboard; remember that the feta cheese you'll add later is pretty salty) and zatar, and stir again so that everything is nicely mixed together. Turn down the heat a bit, cover the saucepan, and let the vegetables do their braising thing. You might want to check them once or twice as they cook just in case they need a quick stir or a smidge of water to prevent them from sticking.

When the water boils, add the pasta. While the pasta cooks, crumble up the feta cheese. Cook the pasta until it is al dente and drain. Now check the vegetables--with any luck, they should be getting all tender and silky right about the time the pasta is done. Return the pasta to the cooking pot, dump in the vegetables and cheese, and toss to combine. You can sprinkle a little extra zatar over each serving if you like.

Makes about 4 servings.

Monday, December 7, 2009

so much for keeping it real

Well that last experiment--way back in January, was it?--went nowhere. And yet--blog, I can't quite quit you.

In recent weeks I've been thinking a lot about writing in this space again, but the truth is, feeding a two-year-old isn't always that much fun to write about. At least not my two-year-old. My monkey is a child who can spend two days mooning about how she "loooooves pizza," but, confronted with an actual piece of pizza, declares, "You don't want it." (This is also a child who hasn't quite got her personal pronouns straight.) And a child who will absolutely devour a burrito from Taco Bell (yes, Taco Bell--there, I said it), but greets a burrito made at home with a sniff and "You don't like the beans."

Very well then. Let her eat Kraft dinner.

Or carpet lint. Or some invisible nourishment drawn from the many kinds of pretend food that she mimes eating with great gusto. Whatever it is that sustains her. Because with a cute little roll of chub above each knee and extensive vocabulary and climbing abilities, she must be doing reasonably okay, right? Give her a multivitamin and let's call it even.

So I still want to write about what she likes to eat, and what we cook together (pumpkin waffles, apple muffins), but I also have a project of my own in mind. Lately when I cook for the grownups in the house I feel caught between two competing objectives. One is simply to cook--to make something with my own hands, that is, rather than heating up yet another frozen pizza--in a way that's compatible with the limited amount of time and energy I have on hand. (As I typed that last sentence it occurred to me that I've been writing this post in the evening hour that I might otherwise spend cooking--I can do this instead because we're having leftover takeout for dinner. Nothing like a little irony to whet the appetite.) And the other is to cook with seasonal ingredients--because, well, yes, I'm a stereotypical earnest coastal urbanite, but also because that's really what I like to eat best.

The first goal lends itself to the kind of weekly menu rotation that many of us grew up with--tacos on Monday, lasagna on Tuesday, and so on. The second goal lends itself to hours spent poring over the latest farmers' market cookbook and fussing over sublime preparations of lovingly hand-raised produce. What I need is some combination of the two--a kind of loose seasonal menu rotation. So I want to try to master a few fantastic recipes for a variety of seasonal vegetables--recipes that are reasonably quick, uncomplicated, and delicious enough to eat every couple of weeks.

Basically, in other words, I'm looking for some really freaking awesome things to do with spaghetti squash. Is anybody with me?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

i was much too hungry to take pictures

January 5: Baked potatoes with the vegetarian works: cheese, broccoli, sour cream, sauteed mushrooms. I made an extra one for Monkey to have the next day; she enjoyed flinging it around.

January 6: Weird dish of pasta baked with stuff that was threatening to go bad in the refrigerator: tomato and roasted red pepper soup from Trader Joe's (we did not really enjoy this as soup), about a third of a container each of cottage cheese and ricotta cheese, shredded mozarella on top. I called it "weird" but in fact my husband had seconds and Monkey absolutely loved it. I think she's sick of macaroni and cheese but she ate several good meals of this.

January 7: Takeout from our neighborhood Ethiopian place: a vegetarian combo and two veggie sambusas. When I was picking up our food I ran into one of the dads from my parents' group doing the same thing. It's an unstoppable force.

January 8: Leftover Ethiopian takeout, supplemented with some homemade red lentil and carrot wot. I think that the amount of food included in a vegetarian combo at an Ethiopian restaurant could serve as a leading economic indicator: we used to be able to get two meals out of this takeout, but in the last few months I swear the portion has gotten smaller.

Also, our favorite (stunningly gorgeous, down-to-earth, and incredibly kind) waitress doesn't seem to work at the restaurant anymore. Truly, the Good Old Days are over.

January 9: My husband convinces me to order pizza. He does not have to try very hard.

January 10: Celery and shallots (yes, really--we're cleaning out the refrigerator, here) baked with a little milk (it was supposed to be heavy cream, but the cream had developed a smell that was just very wrong) and Parmesan cheese. Potatoes roasted with garlic and herbs. In my imagination this meal was very French, you know? But in reality I was kind of underwhelmed. I blame the lack of heavy cream.

Also, it was not enough food. So later we had some bread (oh yes, I am still baking bread almost every day, because I am crazy) and cheese, and chocolate leftover from our Christmas stockings.

Monday, January 5, 2009

day by day, by day, by day...

The title of this post is a tribute to my sister, who recently managed to turn a dedication in a second-hand book into a "Meet the Parents" reference. If that's not talent, I don't know what is.

The book in question (a Christmas present from her to me) is a copy of The Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater, and it's fantastic. It's full of simple, wholesome, seasonal recipes, of course, beautifully described and lushly photographed--everything you'd expect from contemporary food writing. But what I really appreciate about the book is its honesty. Slater intersperses his original recipes with occasional descriptions of takeout dinners, an ode to the joys of frozen fish sticks, and a confession that some days he just can't be arsed (his word, of course) to cook.

Here, for example, is his entry from March 3:
In my smug haze of good housekeeping from yesterday's baking session, not to mention my arch disdain for factory-produced foods, I fail to notice there is bugger all to eat in the house. At seven thirty I dash to the corner shop, returning with a can of baked beans, a bag of frozen fries and some beers.
That sounds familiar.

The book got me thinking about food blogs--diaries of another sort--and how heavily curated they often are. Nobody talks about the night they just gave up and ordered pizza, or the bunches of Swiss chard that they intended to make into something Alice Waters-worthy but kept putting off until the greens went slimy in the back of the crisper drawer.

By "they," of course, I mean "me." So I thought it would be an interesting experiment to catalog our dinners for the month of January. I won't post every day (obv.!) but I will confess what we ate--what we actually ate, not what I intended to cook, and would have if I were a better person--each day. Hopefully this will shame me into (1) cooking; (2) blogging.

I suppose I could write about Monkey's dinners, as well, but truth be told I don't think it would be very interesting. At 17 months she eats little other than boxed macaroni and cheese (to my deep chagrin) and yogurt with lingonberry jam (to my everlasting delight), when she eats anything much at all. I doubt my blogging would shame her into expanding her repetoire--though I suppose it might help inspire me to make more of an effort with her food.

January 1: Dinner at the home of Monkey's aunt, uncle, and cousin. My sister-in-law, who supposedly does not cook, made pumpkin risotto and a kale and beet salad, with pumpkin pie for dessert. Monkey loved the risotto, and this, combined with the fact that we managed to get through the evening without her investigating the fire in the fireplace OR pulling the glass-ornament-bedecked Christmas tree down on top of her, made me wonder if she might be turning just a teeny bit civilized.

January 2: Mushroom and barley pie with mushroom gravy, leftover from our belated Christmas celebration (we were sick on the 25th, not to mention snowed in)a few days ago .

January 3: Fresh corn cakes for me, barbecued field roast sandwich for the Mr., and fries filched from Daddy's plate for Monkey--we stopped at the Elysian Brewpub after a visit to the Frye Art Museum. Occasionally we like to pretend to be hip urban parents, but we can only keep up the charade for a couple of hours at a time.

January 4: The year's first cooking. Red lentil and sweet potato soup, a variation on the first recipe in The Kitchen Diaries (I notice that Nigel managed to hit his stride right on the 1st while I didn't manage to cook anything until three days later--well, he is a professional after all).

We ate the soup with what seems like the year's umpteenth baking--a loaf of no-knead bread with 3/4 teaspoon of smoked paprika and some olives leftover from our New Year's Eve nibbles chopped up and stirred into the dough. Yes, I'm the last person in the world to jump on the no-knead bread bandwagon, but now I've officially jumped. It's fantastic stuff (I use the speedy version of the recipe--the original version is a giant pain in the ass, for bread that is not much superior), but good grief, I can't keep up. It feels like I am baking bread every day! There are worse things I suppose.

Monkey, who went to bed before the soup was ready, was offered macaroni and cheese and some sauteed mushrooms, but preferred to dine on air and a piece or two of carpet lint instead.

Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup
Adapted from Nigel Slater. The original version of the recipe called for pumpkin, but sweet potatoes were what I had on hand. I also simplified the technique a little bit.

For the soup:
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
Fresh ginger (Slater specifies "a walnut-sized knob." I don't know what that means. My soup ended up pretty ginger-y.)
1 C plus 2 T split red lentils
1 1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/4 tsp chili powder
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

For the onion topping:
2 medium onions
2 T olive oil
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

Put the onion and garlic in a medium saucepan. Peel the ginger, cut it into thin shreds, and add it to the pan. Add the lentils and 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to a simmer. Add the turmeric, chili powder, and sweet potatoes, along with some salt. Simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes or until everything is very tender.

While the soup is cooking, make the onion topping. Peel the onions and cut into thin rings. Cook them in oil in a skillet until they begin to color. Add the cayenne and garlic, and continue to cook until the onions are deeply caramelized.

Remove the lid from the soup and cook it down a bit (you can do this, per Slater's instructions by "turn[ing] up the heat, boiling hard for five minutes," or you can do it more lackadaisically, like I did). Remove from the heat and puree in small batches in a blender, pouring the pureed soup into a bowl. Check for seasoning, and serve with a spoonful of the onions on top.