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?