Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tomatoes Stuffed with Potatoes and Peas

Last night I finished eating, went into the bathroom for a glass of water and when I came out, Chris was licking my plate. "What?" he asked per my expression, "haven't you ever seen a person lick a plate before?" "Yes", I replied, "just never my plate." I must say though, I'm flattered.

A few months ago I was on the hunt for passion fruit puree and came across a spice shop called Kalustyans in the East 20's. I was able to check their stock online and they didn't have what I was looking for but I made a point of going anyway. They're supposed to be one of the best spice shops in NYC and having just purchased Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East : Vegetarian Cooking, I knew it would be a worthwhile trip.

Put simply, they have everything. Most of their inventory is geared towards Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian cooking but you can also find English, Australian, Turkish and French goods, among many others. When you walk in you are welcomed by large barrels of nuts (salted, unsalted and roasted) along the floor, glazed apricots, rose water Turkish paste, dried figs and crystallized ginger in bins above and Middle Eastern pastries, tea, chutneys and orange flower water along the walls. Towards the back are oils, vinegars and sauces, and to the left, in a rather large room are shelves and shelves of spices both whole and ground, galangal, curry leaves, garam masala, peppercorns of every variety, curries, star anise, amchoor and kaffir lime leaves to name a few. They have lentils and beans, rice noodles and dried mushrooms, frozen fruit purees and honey. And the best thing about them is they ship. So if you live in a town with no access to spices like these you can place an order and have them in a few days.

I love Indian food (and so does Chris) and having the right spices on hand means I can cook it at home. In addition to spicy foods being a pleasant break from the norm, they also have wonderful healing properties. A Costa Rican woman I know told me that making tea from dried curry leaves is a powerful tonic for high blood pressure. At night boil a cup of water and place a curry leaf in it. Cover and drink in the morning. I also find that when I cook with a lot of spices I don't need to use as much salt. Another benefit.

Last night I made Madhur Jaffrey's stuffed tomatoes and they are delicious. They're like a samosa but much lighter because instead of  being wrapped in pastry, the potatoes and peas are stuffed into a tomato and baked. I made a complete mess of the tomatoes because I didn't have a grapefruit spoon to remove the insides with but after discovering my hands were the next best thing, the scooping went just fine. It's like carving a tiny and very delicate pumpkin.

I made up a yogurt sauce of cumin, plain yogurt and salt to be drizzled on top which added a nice creaminess to the dish and served it with a salad of red leaf lettuce, lemon juice and olive oil. And because I was pressed for time I made a lot of shortcuts, errors and omissions which you can find in parentheses in the recipe below. Be sure to read the entire recipe before you plunge in and don't forget to lick your plate.

Here is Madhur Jaffrey's:

Tomatoes Stuffed with Potatoes and Peas
6 firm, flat-bottomed, medium-large tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper

4 medium sized potatoes, boiled unpeeled and cooled
4 tbs. vegetable oil
1 medium sized-onion, peeled and minced
1 cup shelled or defrosted frozen peas
1 tbs. peeled and grated fresh ginger (use a ginger grater, see photo below)
1 fresh hot green chili minced
3 tbs. finely minced chinese parsley (cilantro)
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon ground roasted cumin seeds
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 tbs. lemon juice or 1 tbs. lemon juice and 1 tbs. amchoor
1 teaspoon anardana (dried pomegranite seeds)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash and wipe the tomatoes. With a sharp, pointed knife, cut a cone-shaped cap at the stem end of the tomato, pull it out, and discard it. Keep this opening in the tomato as small as possible, just allowing yourself enough room to be able to go inside the tomato with a grapefruit spoon to scoop out all the pulp and seeds (I used my hands). As you do this, be careful not to pierce or otherwise damage the shell of the tomato (I did this many times). Sprinkle the inside of the tomato shells with a little salt and pepper and drain the tomatoes by turning them upside down for ten minute (I did not do any of this).

Peel the potatoes and dice them into roughly 1/4 inch pieces (I peeled them, then boiled them and while still hot diced them). Heat the four tablespoons oil in a 10-12 inch skillet over a medium flame (I used coconut oil and my electric skillet at 300 degrees). Put in the onion, stirring and frying until it turns a light brown color. Add the peas, the ginger the green chili, Chinese parsley (I used regular curly leaf parsley), and three tablespoons water. Cover, lower heat and simmer very gently until peas are cooked. Stir every now and then and add additional water, a tablespoon at a time, if the skillet seems to dry out. Now put in the diced potato, salt, coriander, garam masala, roasted ground cumin (I toasted it in my toaster oven with and extra tsp. of cumin for the yogurt), cayenne pepper, lemon juice (or lemon juice and amchoor), and anardana (I didn't have any). Keep heat on low and mix the spices with the potatoes. Continue cooking gently, stirring frequently, for 3 to 4 minutes. Check salt and lemon juice. Turn off heat and leave potato mixture to cool (I did not give time to cool).

Stuff the tomatoes with the potato-pea-mixture. Do not overstuff or the tomatoes will crack open. Let the stuffing protrude a little from the opening in the tomatoes and cover with small caps made out of aluminum foil. Place tomatoes on a baking tray and bake in oven 10-15 minutes or until they are just cooked through. Serve immediately.

Erica's Yogurt Sauce
1 cup plain yogurt, goat milk is good
1 tsp ground, roasted cumin
1/4 tsp. sea salt

Combine all the ingredients and stir until smooth. Serve in a bowl to be spooned on top of the tomatoes or your salad.

*a note
make sure the cumin seeds don't burn when you roast them. I put them in my toaster oven and used the medium/light toast setting. And use a ginger grater, you can find them in kitchen supply stores. They work best when you grate fast and hard and trim the stringy fibers with a knife as you go.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lemon Chicken

Chris generally gives me a hard time when I use the word great. "Is it really great" he'll say with a scrunched up, question mark face. I overuse it, yes. I think that he is right and great has lost it's meaning. Everything is great these days but in fact very little is actually great. Most things are good, pretty good or very good. Amazing is a whole other ball of wax. 

But when I say my mother is a great cook, I mean my mother's skills as a cook rise above and beyond the norm to a place of, dare I say, excellence. No Michelin guide has ever visited our dinner table and Zagat has never stopped by for lunch but I think that most people close to her would agree, that she is great. Especially Chris.

In the early evening, while my father works in his studio painting Wild Killer Rocking Horses and Demon Creatures, my mother is upstairs chopping, measuring, sauteing and boiling to the sounds of Terry Gross and All Things Considered on NPR. She has always felt that no matter how good or bad your day was, you can always come home and cook a good meal.

Some meals are simple, broiled chicken with new potatoes and garlicky spaghetti squash prepared just right, but most of the time they are small masterpieces, homemade linguine with a creamy tomato sauce, crispy scallion pancakes and vegetable stir fry, Lebanese chicken with yogurt, green enchiladas with tomatillos from the garden, Thai crispy fried tofu, flaky corn and tomato empanadas with fresh salsa, flounder baked in parchment with julienned parsnips and carrots and the list goes on and on.

Occasionally my mother takes it to the next level and has been known to make tofu from scratch, get up every three hours during the night to check on a simmering broth for a New Years Eve dinner, make a mansion sized gingerbread house with poured sugar windows and a yule log that could have been sold for several hundred dollars. I think the meringue mushrooms nearly did her in.

But of all the meals she has made over the years one of my all time favorites is lemon chicken. It is easy to make and goes with almost any vegetable or starch and when I eat it, I can faintly hear the theme song for All Things Considered in the background and I feel like I'm home. 

Lemon Chicken
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 egg
1 1/2 cups dry bread crumbs
salt + pepper
2 tbs. parsley, finely chopped
olive oil
1 lemon, sliced in half

Rub the chicken breasts with kosher salt, rinse and pat dry. To make four cutlets, lay the breasts flat on a cutting board and with a sharp knife, blade flat, slice across the breast so that you have two. This will cut down on the cooking time. Whisk the egg in one bowl and in another, combine the bread crumbs with a pinch of salt and pepper. Heat about 4-5 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. When the oil is hot, one at a time, take a piece of chicken, dip it into the egg and then let any excess drip off. Next, lay the chicken in the breadcrumbs and gently press the crumbs all over the chicken turning it once or twice until it's evenly coated. Lay in the hot pan and brown on both sides. When the chicken is browned, squeeze half the lemon over the chicken and sprinkle with parsley. Flip the chicken over and do the same on the other side. Cook a few minutes longer until the chicken is no longer pink in the middle. Serve hot with peas and buttered egg noodles. A little applesauce with nutmeg would be good with it too.

try to use breadcrumbs from a local bakery or the bakery section in your grocery store. I used whole wheat bread crumbs from whole foods yesterday, that came in a can, and they were not good.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Chicken Bouillabaisse

When I get a paycheck I immediately go out and shop for food. I don't drop several hundred dollars on truffles or expensive wine nor do I buy fifty dollar olive oil. My bills get paid on time and I'm not going broke over a choice piece of pasture raised beef. And when I see a grocery store (cough, cough Eli Zabar's) charge two dollars more for a container of yogurt than anywhere else in Manhattan, I make note. However, when it comes to the basics, even on a modest income, price is not always my main concern.

You get what you pay for. Most of the time. And because we live in a free market economy, where you spend your money sends a message.

There is a scene from Food Inc. (or perhaps it's The Future of Food) in which farmer Mark Lilly drives organic produce into a low income neighborhood by means of a 1987 diesel school bus and explains to his customers this, and I'm paraphrasing, yes these vegetables are more expensive than a bag of potato chips or bucket of KFC but this squash will feed a family of four and I'll show you how. I will teach you how to cook it and how it will improve your health but you may have to give up smoking or cable or drinking in order to afford it. If you want to change, I will help you.

It is a crime that real food is so expensive, and while there are grass roots movements trying to change that, like Mark Lilly's Farm to Family  program, the food industry is a huge, messy problem that isn't going anywhere anytime soon. 

I like to think that by shopping at farmer's markets, staying away from processed foods, especially ones that have unrecognizable ingredients, and buying what's fresh and grown with care does more than just keep my husband and me healthy, it also contributes to a conversation about the way food is grown in a positive way. Shopping like this on a budget means doing a little extra research and knowing the difference between an overpriced luxury item and a simple bottle of milk that contains all the nutrients it should and none of the hormones or chemicals it shouldn't. But money speaks, and as consumers I believe we can drive down the cost of organic and mindfully raised foods getting corporations, shareholders and government subsidizers to listen to the need for real, good food by spending a little more for a better product.

If someone living off food stamps is willing to hand over a few extra dollars to a guy in a beat up old school bus selling rutabagas and zucchini in order to change the health of their family, then so can I.

I wanted to make something special on Friday night. Something that might have been a $100 check in a New York restaurant but that I can make at home for a fraction of the cost. I modified a Chicken Bouillabaisse recipe of Ina Garten's and it came out pretty great. I also tried to recreate a creamed spinach dish Chris and I love from one of our favorite restaurants, Blaue Gans, and got pretty close.

It was pay day after all and my pockets were full.

Chicken Bouillabaisse for two (modified from Ina Garten's, Back to Basics

4 chicken thighs
1 tbs. minced fresh rosemary
salt + pepper
olive oil
1/2 large head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
1/2 tsp. saffron threads
1/2 tsp. whole fennel seeds
1 1/4 cup tomato puree
3/4 cup chicken stock
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 tbs. Pernod (optional)
4 medium yukon gold potatoes cut into 2" pieces

Rub down the chicken with kosher salt, rinse and pat dry. Brown both sides in a skillet on medium heat with two tablespoons olive oil and season with the rosemary, salt and pepper, about 7 minutes. Transfer to a glass oven-safe baking dish with a lid and set aside.

Lower the heat and add the garlic, saffron, fennel seeds, tomato puree, chicken stock, white wine, pernod and 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper. Stir and simmer for about 30-40 minutes until the garlic is tender. Add a little more white wine as you go if the sauce gets too thick. When there are only about 10 minutes of simmering left, add the potatoes and cover to steam.

Remove the potatoes after ten minutes and set aside with the chicken. With an immersion blender, blend the garlic into the sauce until smooth and pour over the chicken and potatoes. Toss lightly, add a little splash of white wine or chicken stock if you think it needs it, cover and heat in an oven or toaster oven at 400 degrees for 55 minutes.  Serve hot.

Creamed Spinach
1 bag spinach
2 tbs. butter
salt + pepper

I heated up water to a boil in my rice cooker. In batches add the spinach to the boiling water and cook for about a minute or two until bright green and tender. Remove the spinach with tongs and set aside in a bowl. When all the spinach has been cooked, keeping the liquid in the bottom of the bowl, add two tablespoons butter, a pinch of salt and grind of pepper and puree with an immersion blender until smooth. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Portobello Sandwich

I once ate wild mushrooms in an old country estate in the center of France. The house sat at the top of a hill, exposed on all four sides and filled top to bottom with old books, antiques and threadbare sofas. I was fifteen and spending a few weeks abroad with a French family who were friends of friends. This was an uncles house and everyone was coming together for a family weekend in the country.

One cloudless morning, while their daughter Emily and I swam in their mediterranean blue swimming pool, the women went into the woods to forage mushrooms. I'm not sure why we didn't go with them, perhaps the location of the mushrooms was so top secret that not even the children were invited or it may have been that swimming just sounded better to a couple of fifteen year olds. Regardless, I now wish I had gone along.

The first I saw of the mushrooms, which I believe were mostly chanterelles, was in a skillet in their rustic kitchen, being sauteed with gobs of fresh butter and garlic. There was a buzz of excitement. This was clearly something they didn't do all the time and their trip had been profitable.

We sat down in the grand dining room for a lunch of chanterelles, salad, fresh baguettes and red wine. A table cloth had been laid, there were flowers from the garden, good china and polished silverware to assist. The mushrooms made you want to die a little, in the French way, they were so good. Tender, earthy and sweet. And if I recall correctly, I washed it down with a rather large glass of red wine.

I will never forget that meal.

Mushrooms are magical and not just in the trippy way. Dr. Andrew Weil believes they grow with lunar rays rather than solar and they fall somewhere between plant and animal. And because some of them can kill its best not to forage without some serious training first.

Last night the weather was beautiful so I scrambled to make portobello sandwiches to take to the river for dinner. They were not even comparable to the chanterelles I had years ago but delicious nonetheless and a good substitute for meat if you're looking for one.

Portobello Sandwiches (for two)
2 portobello mushrooms
roasted red peppers
olive oil
salt + pepper
1 garlic clove sliced in half
pain de compagne

Brush any dirt off the mushrooms with a paper towel. Coat them each in about 1 tbs. olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place them top side up under the broiler (I used my toaster oven) for about 8 minutes or until they are cooked through turning once. If they dry out a little on top spoon a little more olive oil on top. Cut four slices of fresh bread and rub it lightly on one side with the garlic (if the bread is a day old you can toast it). Spread humus on all four slices and lay a few pieces of roasted red pepper on two. Slice the portobellos in half and lay them on top of the peppers. Sprinkle a little salt and fresh ground pepper on top and sandwich with the other slices of humus bread.

Strawberry Salad
6 leaves red leaf lettuce
6 strawberries
goat cheese
balsamic vinegar
olive oil
fresh ground pepper

Wash, dry and tear the lettuce. Put in a bowl. Slice the strawberries and crumble about two tablespoons of goat cheese on top. Give the salad a splash of balsamic and olive oil and grind some freshly ground pepper on top. Spinach would be good with this too.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Our "Table"

I got out the tape measure this morning, our "studio" is 9'x14' and the bathroom is 9'x6'. Tight. It's like living in a ship cabin. If lower Manhattan finds itself under water one of these days, we may just be okay. Cook Without a Kitchen Goes to Sea!

Actually, I think we'd be swimming pretty fast to Jersey.

When bringing furniture into such a small place, a lot of thought goes into it. How much will we use it? How much space does it take up? And can it be used for more than just one thing? 

When we thought living here would be temporary, eating out of take-out containers on the bed was fine, an adventure. But we're here and not going anywhere anytime fast which means bringing a little civility into our lives. For sanity's sake. Hold off the antipsychotics for now please.

Bringing a dining room table into this room is a joke. At my parents house in Pennsylvania, along with a basement full of wedding gifts and most of my furniture from an old Brooklyn apartment, is a beautiful, modern, solid cherry table they designed and had made when they got married. It's the table I remember eating dinner at all through my childhood and one day it will be ours. But not now. Not now. Soooo.......

Chris had a rather ingenious idea. Lets get a TV table. It's about 2" wide when folded and fits perfectly between the wardrobe and filing cabinet and when it's set up the two of us can pull our desk chairs up and have a rather dignified meal. Throw a nice cloth napkin or fancy dishtowel on it and you might as well invite Julia Child over. Sadly, that will not happen, for obvious reasons.

When I cook with our electric skillet I put it on the TV table in the bathroom since it's the only surface big enough, but this creates a bit of a scramble when it comes time to eat. There is a moment when every surface in the room is covered with dishes and plates and utensils and sauces until the contents of the skillet have been removed and our "table" can be moved from the bathroom into our room for dinner. 

I suppose the point I'd like to make is this. Sit down and eat dinner at a table, even if its just for one. No matter what kind of table it is, put on a tablecloth, buy a couple nice wine glasses, make dinner, and worry a little less about your bills or your boss or the fact that you live in a 9'x14' room.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Pink Borscht and Summer Salad

I long to give a dinner party. Some of the happiest moments of my life have been sitting around a table, eating good food with friends and family, and while I'm overcoming the challenges of not having a kitchen, I cannot will my apartment to be bigger than it is. 

My dear friend Meg and I made a date to get together and cook this past Saturday and even though she has a fully equipped and rather spacious kitchen uptown, we wound up in my "kitchen". She got to see where the magic happens. Luckily Chris was out running errands so the plan was to cook and get out before he got back. Three is a crowd at our place.

As the host of a dinner party (even if it's only for two) I want everything to be perfect, to wow the diner(s) with my presentation and culinary skills. This gets shot to hell when there is a shower in your kitchen but Meg graciously didn't mind and we got to work. 

Sometimes you just have to slap your food around a little, especially when you're pressed for time. Your goal can't be perfection, just get it done so you can enjoy your company. That's why I chose a simple menu. A summer salad recipe by M. F. K. Fisher and cold pink borscht from A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes by David Tanis.

Meg and I happily chopped and washed and steamed and seasoned, chatting the whole time, for about an hour, and when everything was ready, we loaded it up in containers and made our way to Battery Park, stopping for Brioche on our way. There was only one problem though. How to cool the borscht which was pipping hot, and, what to serve it in.

Luckily the bodega downstairs sells cups of ice in Dixi cups so when we got to the park I tossed out half the ice from each cup, poured in the borscht and stirred in the yogurt and chives. A tad watery but didn't I already say perfection took a vacation?

The weather was glorious. From the hot and crowded market at Union Square to my tiny, cramped apartment, to the shade of a tree and cool breeze from the river, Meg and I settled into our meal. 

Picnics are the only sort of dinner party I can throw at the moment. Thank goodness summer is right around the corner.


PS, Meg is a wonderful writer and has a very popular blog which you should go to now.


A Summer Salad (adapted from a recipe by M.F.K. Fisher)

6 fingerling potatoes
1/2 bunch asparagus
1 handful green beans
4 small zucchini, each four inches long
1 small jar anchovies
Chives, snipped

Wash and trim all the vegetables. Boil or steam (I used my rice cooker/steamer) the potatoes, asparagus, green beans and zucchini, one at a time, until tender, about 8 minutes each. When you remove them from the hot water, rinse under cool running water to stop the cooking. Let them drain.


2 cloves garlic
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup good quality olive oil
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice, room temperature

With a mortar and pestle mash the garlic into a paste and add the egg yolk, combining until thick. Add a pinch of salt, transfer to a larger bowl and slowly stir in the olive oil with a whisk, beating until thick. Add the lemon juice and place in the refrigerator until cool.

When you're ready to eat, arrange the vegetables and anchovies on your plate and drizzle with aioli. Sprinkle with snipped chives and fresh ground pepper. A brioche was the perfect thing to sop up the aioli with.

Cold Pink Borscht (adapted from David Tanis' recipe)

4 large beets, peeled + sliced
4 cups water
3 garlic cloves, sliced
2 large shallots, sliced
1 bay leaf
2 cloves
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tbs. sugar
2 tbs. red wine vinegar
1 tbs. olive oil
Salt + Pepper
1 cup whole milk yogurt
snipped chives

Put everything except the dill and yogurt into a saucepan and simmer for about 15 minutes (I used my other rice cooker) until the beets are tender. Taste and add more of the seasonings to bump up the flavor if needed.  With an immersion blender, puree the soup and then strain. Chill.

Just before serving stir in about 1/4 c. of yogurt into each glass and garnish with chives and freshly ground pepper. The soup should be thick.

*a note
David Tanis' recipes usually serve 8 people so I had to cut that in half. Because I chilled the soup with ice my borscht was watered down so remember to chill before serving and play around with the amount of beets and water to get a good consistency.

*another note (5/26)
I did not make the ailoi right. Well, I did but I just didn't whisk it long enough. The olive oil should be added just a little at a time and keep whisking until you get the consistency of mayonnaise. If the mixture separates stop adding olive oil and keep whisking until it's smooth again. I also watched a web video and they add the garlic last. They also added a little dijon mustard at the start with the egg yolk and I think that would be very good, it looked like about a tbs.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Linguine with Red Sauce and Broccoli Rabe

Even on our first date Chris wanted a taste of what I had ordered. I had pan seared scallops. He wished he'd ordered them too. He claims the food on my plate tastes better, so at every meal, whether we are home or out, he tries to sneak a bite.

At first I was naive. Easy. All he had to say was, "Hey look over there," and a meatball or last piece of chicken was gone forever. 

I wised up pretty quickly though, forcing Chris to change his tactics. Rather than create a diversion, he  waits for me to distract myself by going back to the "kitchen" for a forgotten sauce or piece of cutlery, and like a shark ready to attack he'll consume a huge forkful of my meal, grinning as he eats. He can't help but revel in outsmarting me and even before I look at my plate, I know when I've been duped again.

Now, not all meals are created equal. Sometimes I put a little too much on my plate and I happily let Chris finish it so as not to be wasteful. But then there are the times when a tasty piece of lamb or crust of homemade pie never leaves my eye. This is when Chris gets especially cheeky, he knows that even if a fire were to break out in the next room or an elephant were to fall from the sky, landing in our apartment, and suddenly break into song, I would not remove my eyes from my plate. 

This is war. There are times when I've had to shove an entire cookie in my mouth or literally swat Chris away and stand in the corner to finish my meal.

For some this may sound like a nightmare and totally uncivilized. But to us, it's love.

And he always does the dishes.

One of our favorite meals is pasta with red sauce and broccoli rabe. A glass of red wine can't hurt. Here is how I made it last night.

1 can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 tbs. tomato paste
1/2 large yellow onion
4 garlic cloves, minced
handful fresh basil, chopped
olive oil
1/2 package fresh linguine

Broccoli Rabe
1 bunch broccoli rabe
4 garlic cloves
olive oil
salt + pepper

Heat a large pot of salted water, in my case heat it up in the rice cooker, for the pasta. In a separate skillet or pot, saute the the onions in olive oil over medium heat until translucent, add the garlic and cook a minute more. Add the can of tomatoes and stir in the tomato paste. Let simmer. 

In my other rice cooker, or a pan, saute the rest of the garlic in olive oil, wash and chop the broccoli rabe, adding it to the garlic. Add 1 tbs. water and cover. Toss the broccoli rabe around every few minutes until it's tender. Season with salt and pepper and red chili flakes if you like.

When your pasta water is boiling add the fresh linguine and cook for about three minutes. Fresh pasta cooks in a flash so keep an eye on it. Drain.

With an immersion blender, blend the simmered pasta sauce until most of the lumps are gone. Add the fresh basil. I find the sauce doesn't need salt or pepper but add if you like.

Spoon the sauce on top of the pasta or toss it all together and serve with broccoli rabe on the side.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Vegetables and Herbs

The other day I planned to meet Chris for lunch at the Chelsea Market but a previous appointment of mine finished early and suddenly I had an hour to kill and it was freezing out. Bookstores are perfect for this sort of predicament and there happens to be a great one, 192 Books, right around the corner from where Chris works. They sell mostly art and art criticism titles but there is a small section on cooking which I went to straight away. For the most part it's a pretty classic selection, perhaps slightly more refined than a mega bookstore, but nonetheless there was Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver, The Barefoot Contessa, Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan sitting side by side. Any titles I was familiar with I breezed over and focused my attention on the small, less recognizable spines sandwiched between the heavyweights. 

I suppose you could call M.F.K. Fisher the grandmother of food writing in America, publishing over twenty books and hundreds of articles and essays in food journals and magazines from 1937 to 1992,  she was certainly no lightweight, but I had never heard of her until two days ago. The title M.F.K. Fisher among the Pots and Pans: Celebrating her Kitchens by Joan Reardon called out to me like a drippy, ripe peach on a hot July day. Not only did M.K. love the fresh and simple, she also didn't have a kitchen for most of her adult life and she wrote about it with joy and good humor. I bought the book.

I've just begun to read it, but here is a passage from the Foreword by Amanda Hesser about Fisher's first kitchen-less apartment: 

In The Gastronomical Me, she wrote fondly of cooking in her apartment in Dijon, shortly after she was married to Al Fisher: "It was the first real day-to-day meal-after-meal cooking I'd ever done, and was only a little less complicated than performing an appendectomy on a life-raft, but after I got used to hauling water and putting together three courses on a table the size of a bandanna and lighting the portable oven without blowing myself clear into the living room instead of only halfway, it was fun."

There is a lesson in this for us now: today's kitchens have become places of aspiration. They are so enormous that they occasion both infinite possibility and unattainable expectation. There is promise in a second dishwasher-the promise of large parties. And there is melancholy in it's disuse.

The other night I made a simple meal of vegetables and herbs and filled it out with bread, cheese and a little chicken liver mousse from the store. 

It was all we needed.

Vegetables and Herbs
2 carrots
1 zucchini
1 small head of cauliflower
4 small beets
1 bunch ramps
olive oil
salt + pepper

Wash, peel and cut into bite size pieces, the carrots, beets, zucchini and cauliflower. I heated water up in my rice cooker and parboiled until barely tender the carrots and cauliflower in one batch and then cooked the beets last so they wouldn't turn everything red. Drain and put aside. Chop the ramps, bulbs and leaves, as well as a good handful of the rest of the herbs. Heat up the olive oil in a skillet and add the bulb part of the ramps, saute for a minute. Then add the zucchini and toss around for a few minutes before adding the rest of the parboiled vegetables. Cook until tender and add the herbs a minute before they're done along with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with good crusty bread, raw milk cheese and some pate or chicken liver mousse.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fiddleheads and Spoon Bread

When I was a girl I went to Charlestown Day Camp in Pennsylvania which was run by Betty Stonorov, Miss Betty to us, wife of the famous architect, Oscar Stonorov. My mother attended the camp when she was a girl and my grandmother taught at Charlestown Play School so by the time I got there, Betty was in her 80's. It didn't matter though, she still rode around in a beat up old yellow jeep wearing a straw hat and denim skirts. She greeted us every morning, could be seen bumping around the fields during the day and saw us, sunburned and smiling, home in the afternoon.

The camp was on her own property, a big modern house at the top. It was filled with paintings and sculptures by famous modern artists and taxidermied animals from safari trips to Africa. It was the one place we were not allowed. Beyond the house there were woods, cow fields and a creek that divided the boys and girls sides and aside from a daily swimming lesson in Miss Betty's spring fed pool there were very few rules or schedules. We were free to roam. It was progressive in every way and those of us who attended or worked there were deeply devoted to the values of the camp.

We fished, played with knives, wandered through the woods playing make believe, rescued baby bunnies, captured unassuming turtles, swung from ropes into the creek and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the shade of our tents. We made root beer and ice cream, dream catchers and gimp bracelets and we put on wild and hilarious plays in the woods every Friday afternoon. 

We were gamblers and maniacs, princesses and fire builders, cow paddy jumpers and a generally muddy, sticky explosion of joy and childhood. I can't remember anyone ever getting in trouble and if they did, the counselors had enough sense to not let one person's mistakes take away the freedoms of everyone else.

Yesterday when I was in the grocery store, I saw a basket of bright, shiny fiddleheads and they reminded me of summer camp, fresh, young and wild, about to spring open, just like we kids back at Charlestown.

I had never had fiddleheads before so after a little research I decided to saute them in olive oil with lots of garlic and fresh herbs. They were delicious.

Chris and I were in the mood for green vegetables and beans last night so I cooked them up three ways and made Deborah Madison's recipe for spoon bread from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, with fresh farmer's market eggs and milk.

Thanks Miss Betty, this one's for you.

2 handfuls of fiddleheads 
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbs. chopped basil and parsley
1 tbs. olive oil

Saute the garlic for a minute or two in the olive oil over medium heat. Wash the fiddleheads well and rub off any brown fuzz. Add them to the garlic and toss around for about six or seven minutes until tender. Add the herbs and some salt, saute a minute longer and serve.

Green Beans
2 handfuls green beans
1 tsp. rendered bacon fat
1 shallot, minced

Wash and trim the beans cutting them in half on a bias. Saute the shallots over medium heat for a few minutes in the bacon fat until they begin to get soft. Add the beans and toss around. I like to add about a tbs. of water and cover the pan with a lid to let them steam for a minute. Remove the lid and cook a minute more until tender. 

1 bunch asparagus

Wash and snap off the bottoms of the asparagus spears. Cut into bite size pieces and steam until tender. Toss in butter and squeeze some lemon on top.

Spoon Bread by Deborah Madison
3/4 cup fine stone-ground white or yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
salt and freshly milled white pepper is savory
4 tbs. butter, cut into chunks
4 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup of milk

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a 2-quart souffle or other baking dish. Stir the cornmeal, baking powder, and 3/4 teaspoon salt together, then add the butter and pour 1 1/2 cups boiling water over all. Stir to break up any lumps, then let stand until the butter is melted. Add the eggs and milk, pour into the baking dish, and bake until puffed, golden and set, 45-50 minutes. Serve hot.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Chicken Soup and Wheat Germ Biscuits

When I lived in Paris during my junior year abroad I loved buying little pre-made bundles of vegetables and herbs for a pot au feu and making chicken soup. Traditionally, pot au feu is made with beef but back in 2001 I wasn't eating anything that mooed. In fact I haven't had beef since I was fifteen but I have a feeling that will all change this summer...

But back to the soup. In Paris the chickens are so fresh they practically walk home with you. In America the legs are cut off, feathers are plucked clean and the poor little bird is wrapped to death in cellophane. But in France, you get a little more chicken with your chicken. Which I like. Before plopping the bird in a pot of water I would remove the bundle of organs, pluck off any remaining feathers and rub it down, breast to legs, with salt, rinse with water and pat dry. And when you shop for a chicken, it's usually sitting right up, a chilled breeze against it's skin, in the big glass display case of your local butcher shop. How could you not want to buy a bird like that?

My Parisian kitchen was about the size of my current "kitchen" so in a way, yesterday felt very, je ne sais quoi, as I made chicken soup.

I used my Cuisinart electric skillet and rather than cooking a whole bird, which would have just been ridiculous, I bought some thighs with bones and skin. This is my version of skillet chicken soup for two.

Maybe I should have given AJ Burnett some before the Yankees/Red Sox game yesterday. He could have used it.

And, because you can't just have chicken soup, I made wheat germ biscuits with honey and butter, with this cool weather we're having (again) they're a winning (hear that AJ) pair.

Chicken Soup
1 bay leaf
1/2 a yellow onion, cut into three wedges
3 chicken thighs
2 carrots
1 leek
1 turnip
1 waxy potato
1/4 of a celery root
1 cup egg noodles or rice
salt + pepper

Rub the chicken down with salt, rinse and pat dry. Brown the chicken in a skillet or pot. Pour water over the chicken until it's covered and add the bay leaf, onion and salt and pepper. Simmer for about an hour or until the meat falls off the bone. Add more water if it needs it.

Meanwhile, wash, peel and chop the carrots, turnips, potatoes and celery root about an inch square. Roughly chop the parsley.

When the chicken is ready, remove it from the broth and place aside to cool. Add the chopped vegetables and egg noodles, cook until tender but not overcooked. 

Meanwhile, pick the chicken off the bone and shred. Add to the soup.

Right before you're about to serve, toss the parsley in and taste for salt and pepper.

Wheat Germ Biscuits (from the Farm Journal Bread book)

1 1/2 cup sifted flour
1 tbs. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup shortening (non-hydrogenated)
1/2 cup milk

Sift the dry ingredients together. Cut the shortening in with a pastry cutter. Add milk and knead 15-20 times. Roll out to 3/4" thick and cut into circles with a cookie cutter or a small juice glass. Bake at 450 degrees for 12-15 minutes. 

They are dry by nature so serve with butter and honey.

Red Sox Suck.