Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Indian Vegetables

I can't stand the V8 ad that's been running lately.  There's a man and a woman sitting in a very nice house, at a very nice dinner table, eating a very nice meal, and they clearly love each other (no problems so far) but then just as the man is about to eat a brussels sprout, he hides it in his napkin, excuses himself to the kitchen, and chugs down some V8. Do you know the one I'm talking about? This irks me in so many ways.

What couple doesn't know their partners vegetable likes and dislikes? Maybe if you got married after a one night stand in Vegas there would be a slight learning curve, but I don't think the people in this ad fit that description. They are clearly very successful and deliberate in their choices, and I'm sure had a nice long courtship followed by a big, blow-out wedding. So, why would this woman serve her husband brussels sprouts, and expect him to delicately chew-and-swallow like a six year old girl at a tea party?

If however, she believes he adores brussels sprouts, when in fact he has been lying to her for years, filling up decorative vases in the dinning room with uneaten vegetables, what does that say about him as a husband? Why does this guy feel the need to hide the fact he doesn't like brussels sprouts? Is his wife going to beat him? She looks very nice. His self-infantilizing behavior is so two weeks ago. 

V8, I know I'm busting your balls, I get that this guy is just trying to be polite and not hurt his wife's feelings and that he also cares about his health and eating enough vegetables, but let me just put out there, drinking a processed, sodium-filled-vegetable-drink-from-a-plastic-bottle may give you your four servings of vegetables, but I have serious doubts as to whether it can really improve your health, especially if you're drinking it every day and especially if you have or think you may develop high blood pressure. Yes, you are a company just trying to make a profit in this rag-tag world we live in, and your product is not the worst thing out there. I like a V8 now and then, and it certainly beats a soda and some fries. My problem is with the way you reinforce stereotypes of male/female relationships and give whole vegetables a bad rep. Why attack the brussels sprout?! They're on your team!

Whether you are a vegetarian or not, it's always good to have a few vegetarian cookbooks around. Especially if you're not too fond of vegetables. I like steamed broccoli but not every blessed day thank you very much, and a cookbook for vegetarians is going to have plenty of variations to keep it interesting. Think outside the box please.

If everyone's daily food intake was made up of 3/4 vegetables, we would all be in better shape and maybe passing health insurance wouldn't be such a Sisyphean act. Vegetables aren't just good for you, they are the difference between developing a laundry list of diseases, ailments and cancers, and living a long healthy life.

Eat your vegetables.

Here are three Indian style vegetable dishes adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's cookbook, World of the East: Vegetarian Cooking. Chris and I had them for dinner last night, and they did not inspire any napkin spitting.

Potatoes with Onion, Garlic, and Ginger 

4 medium sized, waxy potatoes, peeled and cubed in 3/4" pieces
1 tbs. fresh, grated ginger with juices
4 garlic cloves, grated
2 tablespoons Coconut Oil (don't substitute)
1 medium size onion, minced
1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. salt

Boil the potatoes until tender and drain. Heat the oil in a medium hot pan and cook the onions until clear. Add the ginger and garlic and cook a few more minutes. Then add the turmeric and cayenne and finally the potatoes. Cook for about five minutes. Turn the heat up an continue to cook until the potatoes get slightly brown. Salt, cook another minute, and serve.

Spinach Cooked in a Bihari Style

1 1/2 lbs. spinach, washed
1 tsp. fresh grated ginger
2 cloves grated garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbs. minced cilantro
1/2 tsp. mustard oil (substitute a minced green chili)

In batches, drop the spinach into boiling water just until it wilts and turns a bright green. Remove with tongs and squeeze out any excess water, place into a bowl. Add to the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and with an immersion blender pulse until all the ingredients are combined but not completely pureed.

Yellow Squash with Onions, Tomato, and Cumin

1 medium sized onion, minced
2 yellow squash, peeled and cubed
2 tomatoes, seeded and cubed
1 tbs. coconut oil
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. salt
1/16 tsp. ground black pepper
juice of half a lemon
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
4 tbs. minced cilantro

Heat the oil in a skillet and when hot add the cumin seeds. Let them cook until they get a few shades darker and then add the onions. Cook for another two minutes. Then add the tomatoes and after a minute or two add the squash along with 1/4 cup of water, cover and cook about 10 minutes. When the vegetables have softened and the tomatoes begun to melt, add the rest of the ingredients, mix together, cook another minute or two and serve.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lamb Kebobs and Summer Squash

Summer is almost upon us and with it comes grilling, beer, and fresh air. Charring meat over an open flame becomes as restorative as a yoga class, and a back yard in Brooklyn can feel like a country retreat. Last night I did a little cooking without a kitchen at a BBQ in Williamsburg, and kebob was the word. Here are some photos of the night's events from the prep work at home, to the grill, and finally the cab ride home. The lamb marinade is an adaptation from a Food + Wine recipe, and the garlic, onions and squash were all fresh from the farmers market. Crack open a cold one to wash it all down.

Happy Father's Day Pop. I love you.

Lamb Kebobs

3 large lamb steaks, trimmed and cut into 2" pieces
1 cup greek yogurt
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. tumeric
1/2 tsp. cayenne
small pinch ghost pepper
1 tsp. salt
2 yellow onions, cut into wedges
Lemon and butter or ghee, optional

Combine the yogurt, garlic, spices and salt in a glass bowl, add the lamb and refrigerate (overnight if you like). When ready to grill alternate two pieces of lamb and one wedge of onion on skewers. Get a nice char on all sides cooking for about 3 minutes, and then continue to cook another four. If you want to get a little fancy, during the last four minutes you can brush the kebobs with a little melted butter or ghee and a squeeze of lemon.

I also made a yogurt sauce by pureeing one cup greek yogurt, salt, pepper a few mint leaves and the juice of half a lemon. Some toasted and ground cumin seeds would be a nice addition too.

Summer Squash

1 lb. summer squash, a variety is nice
1 bunch fresh tarragon
juice of half a lemon
4 garlic cloves, minced
salt + Pepper
2 tbs. olive oil

Wash and cut the summer squash into 1" pieces. In a bowl combine the squash with the rest of the ingredients, season to taste (about 1 tsp. salt and as much black pepper as you like). Let marinate until time to cook (no need to refrigerate if only made a few hours before grilling). Skewer and cook until tender trying not to char it to a crisp.

A tipsy splurge on a cab ride home over the Williamsburg Bridge, and through the lower east side.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mexican Soup

Last week as I was perusing the produce section of our local Whole Foods, I watched as an attractive and very smartly dressed woman wheeled over to the tomato section with her shopping list, carefully scanned the pallets of pasty orbs and selected a large pinkish tomato from the group. She held it up and with eyes squinted, scrutinized every surface of the fruit. If I was casting a Law and Order Episode, she would get the part. The intensity with which she checked for bruises and blemishes was Emmy worthy. With a satisfactory nasal exhalation she placed it in her basket, and carried on with the rest of her shopping. 

All I could think was, I sure am glad I'm not eating at her house tonight.

A few years ago some friends of mine and I were talking about food and the topic of tomatoes came up. We all agreed we loved them except for one woman. "Eww, I hate tomatoes!" "What? Why?" we all implored? "They taste like water and they're sour." she defended. "But have you ever had a real tomato?" we posed, we knew where this was going.

Our friend, born and raised in the Bronx, at that point, had never lived outside New York City whereas the rest of us were country girls. She was right. The tomatoes sold in Bronx supermarkets were pallid, waxy, flavorless rip-offs with a crunch. But come to think of it, that describes pretty much every tomato in every US grocery store from about October to July. When the US got its railroads, and consumers grew to expect out of season fruits and vegetables in their stores, tomatoes were bred to travel long distances, endure fluctuating temperatures and grow to a uniformly round and rosy shape. Flavor was their least concern. In my opinion, these are not real tomatoes and should be purchased with caution.

When cutting into a real tomato, such as a beefsteak or an heirloom, it should look like a bloody massacre on your cutting board. You should have to check you're fingers to make sure all digits are still intact. Real, ripe tomatoes from someone's garden or local farm are sweet, sultry and no two look alike. They should never be refrigerated and should be eaten as soon after picking as possible.

But even for those of us who know what a real tomato tastes like, why do we still expect a pale slice on a hamburger in December or crisp wedge on a salad in March? It has no flavor and I bet most people pick it off anyway. 

The other day I was back in Whole Foods shopping for my Mexican soup and I knew I wanted some tomato in there. I was determined to do better than the woman before me but the selection was grim. These tomatoes were trying really hard, the overhead lighting reflecting off all their good parts, but I was not fooled and decided to pass. Then I noticed little plastic boxes of multicolored tomatoes that read, taste the world's flavors, Gourmet Medley, Product of Canada. They were red, orange, yellow and black. What the hell I thought, it's worth a try.

At home I rinsed them off, said a prayer and popped one in my mouth. I might as well get sucker tattooed across my forehead. They were okay but not great. I used them anyway, no use wasting food but come August, I'm eating tomatoes like there's no tomorrow. I can't wait to get one on my plate, fleshy, sweet, and bloody, watch out Freddy Krueger, here I come.

This recipe is a riff on a soup I like to get at the restaurant Rice. I made enough for two and used chicken thighs but making a big pot with a whole chicken is best. Feel free to experiment.

Mexican Soup

3 to 4 chicken thighs with skin and bones, trim some of the skin
1 yellow onion, sliced into rounds
1 clove garlic
1 avocado, diced
1 large tomato or several small ones, diced
1 ear of corn, kernels cut off the ear
1 lime, juiced
1 tbs. cilantro, roughly chopped
1 cup cooked rice
salt + pepper

Wash and pat dry the chicken. Season with salt and pepper and brown in a pot or deep skillet. Add seven cups of water, the onion, garlic and a heaping teaspoon of salt and some black pepper and simmer covered for about an hour (longer if you have time) until the meat is falling off the bone. Remove the chicken and skim any scum or oil off the top. Let the chicken rest until it's cool enough to shred. Add the corn to the still simmering broth and cook for a few minutes until tender. Turn off the heat and add the chicken, tomato, avocado cilantro and lemon juice. Some finely chopped Serrano chili would be good too or more slices of onion. Adjust seasoning if you need to. I usually need to add a little more salt and pepper. Then put 1/2 cup of rice in your bowl and ladle the soup on top. A dash of tabasco would be good for a little kick.

For dessert I broiled a container of fresh cut pineapple from the store in my toaster oven just until the edges started to brown. It was a delicious end to the meal.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Chicken Enchiladas and Lemon Meringue Pie

It was spring of 1992 and time for the 6th grade, Pickering Valley Junior Bake-Off. I wanted to make something technically difficult, visually stunning and knock-your-socks-off-good. A lemon meringue pie seemed like a winner.

I recall my mother shadowing me in the kitchen offering a tip here and suggestion there but I can say, I made the pie myself and entirely from scratch. I carefully heated the lemon filling over a double boiler, squeezing fresh lemon juice, delicately adding the corn starch and watching little pats of butter melt into smooth, lemony brilliance. I measured the flour and rolled out the pastry crust by hand. Then baked the shell weighed down by hundreds of small aluminum beans. Finally I cracked and separated several eggs, beating the whites into soft, billowy peaks. For a lemon meringue pie, after you pre-bake the shell you spoon the filling in and gently layer the meringue on top, shaping little peaks with the back of your spatula, then return it to the oven for a few more minutes until golden brown.

It was a beauty. 

We let it cool, I put on a nice dress and carefully transported the pie to the school's cafeteria. The room was wall to wall baked goods; chocolate chip cookies, brownies, cup cakes, little cheesecake cups with canned cherry filling and every kind of bar you could imagine. If you didn't know this was a 6th grade baking event you would have thought is was social hour at pretty much any church in America. Each dessert had a name and number for the judges to note and we all waited patiently as our teachers put aside their textbooks and lesson plans for an afternoon to judge our offerings.

I thought I had it in the bag.

When the "critics" had tasted each and every sweet treat, they tallied the results and announced the winners. I don't recall who came in third. It didn't matter. I came in second. Monica H. won the coveted first prize. We were graduating from Elementary School at the end of the year and I had lost my chance at a bake-off glory. I guess I just didn't measure up. What could she have possibly whipped up to beat a lemon meringue pie from scratch? Chocolate Souffle? Tarte Tatin? A motorized three tiered wedding cake?

No, the teachers at my school collectively agreed that chocolate jello pudding scooped into a flower pot, sprinkled with crushed oreo cookies, and laced with gummy worms, with a silk flower stuck in the middle was blue ribbon material.

Well slap me in the face and call me Shirley. Perhaps if I had stuck a few Angels on top of my pie for a "Heavenly" theme I could have won, but that's not my style.

I have never participated in a baking contest since then but it hasn't stopped me from making a lemon meringue pie whenever I get a craving. It's one of my favorites. Chris and I stayed with my parents in Pennsylvania the other night and my mom surprised us with Diana Kennedy's Chicken Enchiladas and my second place pie.

I'd like to ask the judges for a recount because this is definitely Blue Ribbon material.

Garden Salad with Nasturtiums and Jicama
Lemon Meringue Pie

Gardenia's from the Garden


I'll post the recipes when I get back from vacation...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Chicken with Indian Spices and Corn, Squash and Beans with Jalapeno Butter

I am no stranger to a cocked eyebrow. You cook where? Really?

Most people have practical questions regarding my kitchen-less situation such as, where do you do your dishes or what do you cook with? But then there is the question of cleanliness. And for those skeptics out there, you have a good point. I would be apprehensive about eating something that came out of someone else's john too. But for what its worth, let me just say I would never cook something that I wouldn't feel okay serving to my mother. New York City is dirty and chaotic enough, I like to keep a clean house. 

But let me ask a question back, if I may, and it's one I've also been asking myself. Before your food gets to the grocery store and then home to your presumably tidy kitchen, do you know where it's been?

The more I read about food the more it resembles a bad Broadway show, a lot of smoke and mirrors. I dog-eared a few pages from books like Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Omnivore's Dilemma by Micahel Pollan, and Real Food by Nina Planck, debating whether or not to post some of the horrifying research about the lack of cleanliness, abundant use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, bleach, radiation, wax, preservatives and food dyes, to name a few, commonly found in food production in the United States, but I think I won't. This is a food blog after all with the aim to get people cooking not puking.

But it might be worth our time and health as a country to approach a factory farmed chicken or bunch of spinach with the same scrutiny we apply to a person who says they cook in their bathroom. All you need to do is open a newspaper or turn on the TV to be reminded of the latest food recall or e coli break out. Or do a little digging to uncover dirty little secrets like the fact that factory farmed salmon is actually white and they use pink dye to give it that familiar salmon glow. Or that scientists have known for years that the hydrogenated oils in margarine and processed foods cause heart disease, but were silenced so as not to jeopardize profits. 

There is some scary shit going on and I think it would be good if we all got into the habit of asking a lot of questions and cocking a lot of eyebrows when it comes to what's for dinner. The above books are an excellent place to start.

Some food for thought, and now some food for you:

Chicken with Indian Spices (adapted from the David Tanis recipe in A Platter of Figs)

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
3 cloves
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1/8 tsp. cayenne
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
salt + pepper
1 tbs. olive oil

Toast the cumin, coriander and fennel seeds in your toaster oven on medium, and then grind to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle. Split the chicken breasts in half and cut into two in square pieces. Place into a bowl along with the yogurt and spices and let marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for at least half an hour. When you are ready to cook them, heat the olive oil in a skillet on medium heat and when it's hot, but don't let it smoke, add the chicken with all the yogurt to the pan. Arrange the chicken pieces so they are all laying flat, let them brown on one side and the flip them over to brown on the other. Cook about eight minutes until they are no longer pink inside but still tender and juicy.

Corn, Squash and Beans with Jalapeno Butter (adapted from the David Tanis recipe in A Platter of Figs)

1 tbs. olive oil
2 shallots, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
kernels from 2 ears of corn
1 zucchini, medium dice
1 summer squash, medium dice
1/2 lb. green beans topped and tailed, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and minced
1/2 stick butter
1/2 lime, zest and juice 
1 tbs. cilantro leaves
salt + pepper

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat, saute the shallots until clear. Then add the garlic, corn zucchini, squash and green beans. Toss around, add 1/4 cup water, cover and steam about 5 minutes until veggies are tender but still retain their bright colors. Season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, combine the butter, lime juice and zest and jalapeno with a little salt and pepper. When the vegetables are cooked through. Turn off the heat and add the jalapeno butter, gently tossing. Serve hot garnished with some cilantro leaves.

Friday, June 4, 2010

My Tools

Cookbooks depressed me for a while. Right after moving out of my Brooklyn apartment and before I started equipping our bathroom with appliances, the cooking section of a bookstore was just a big reminder of all the things I couldn't do. What in the world would be the point of buying a $50 Thomas Keller cookbook if all I could do was steam rice and a few vegetables, food porn? No way, the internet has plenty.

Sometimes I'd fantasize about the kitchen I would one day have, and lost in a Dwell Magazine delusion, start carrying a stack of cookbooks to the register only to remember I'd forgotten to file my unemployment for that week, set them down in the fiction section, and find the nearest exit. I even caught myself wandering past all the kitchen design shops in SoHo wondering if maybe I should just go in, and see if there was a banged up floor sample in the Henry Built showroom on sale for say, $5? 

I couldn't go on like this. I needed to be able to brown a piece of chicken, damnit. I needed to cook. I started small, a cheese grater here, a vegetable peeler there, which led to a toaster oven (purchased with credit card points), a second rice cooker and finally my skillet. Then one day, I stumbled upon a used copy of Deborah Madison's, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, for $14, and thus began Cook Without a Kitchen.

While I do use a handful of electrical appliances for the actual cooking, I rely on my tools for prep work and all the mixing, stirring and flipping that goes on later. I believe that there are people out there who think they can't cook simply because their knives are too dull and they don't realize what a difference it would make to just sharpen them up. Call your local kitchen supply store, not the nearest Bed Bath and Beyond, and ask for help. The actual heating and cooking of food is a science all it's own and something you learn with time, but having the right tools and learning some basic techniques is essential to getting food to taste the way you want it to. And if you own a slap chop, contact NASA to see when the next shuttle launch is, I'm sure they'd be happy to flush it down one of their space toilets, never to be seen again.

I have far fewer tools now than I did when I had a real kitchen, but I'm finding you don't need much more than this. No, the nutmeg grater is not essential, but have you ever had fresh grated nutmeg? 

Browsing the cookbook aisles is filled with possibility now. Rack of lamb? No problem. Chocolate cake? Let me just plug in my rice cooker and blow your mind.

serrated knife, paring knife, fine cheese grater, nutmeg grater, vegetable peeler, kitchen shears, can opener, cork screw
strainer/sieve, rice paddle, wooden spoon, tongs, spatula
pastry cutter, dry measuring cups, pastry brush, whisk, measuring spoons, liquid measuring cup, rolling pin
stainless steel bowl
mortar and pestle, ginger grater
immersion blender

oven safe casserole dish with lid
Bread loaf pan, muffin tin
glass pie plate
glass containers
pot holders, pastry cloth and rolling pin cover, dish towel

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mushrooms and Egg Noodles with Watercress Salad

Last night I made a real stinker of a meal. I went shopping all over the place, spent hours getting it ready, taking photographs all along the way, and when it came time to eat, everything was done at the wrong time and tasted somewhere between eh and terrible.

My cute little $14 Amish chicken was dry after about an hour and a half in the oven, and yet still bled when pierced in the leg. The gorgeous curly garlic scapes (tops) from the farmers market were either overcooked or stringy and the green beans which didn't look great to begin with were like petrified wood by the time I got them home. The only thing that came out okay were the roasted potatoes and carrots with little caramelized garlic cloves and chicken fat.

I was disgruntled but determined. Dessert would save the day. I thought of my beloved, domestic, children's book hero, Amelia Bedilia. She was always screwing things up and I felt a certain kinship to her yesterday. When her employers asked her to dust the furniture she would take a powder puff and coat the sofa and chairs with talcum, when they asked her to draw the curtains in the afternoon she would set up an easel and do a lovely illustration and when she was asked to make a sponge cake, a stack of fresh kitchen sponges from under the sink were neatly cut and stirred into the batter. But right when the family, tearing their hair, was ready to give her the boot, she would whip out a fabulous cake or pie she happened to have thrown together earlier that day and everyone would be lulled into a sugar coma and agree, Amelia should stay.

I was hoping to do the same but my strawberry shortcakes, well, they fell short. They were dry and flavorless and I have to apologize to the strawberries and homemade whipped cream which were really quite good, I should never have spooned you on to those sad little sand dunes. 

Come dinner time tonight I was not inspired, to say the least. My mind was an empty colander, nothing sounded good and I didn't want to order out. I called Chris for a suggestion, "egg noodles and cream of mushroom soup with greens on the side." Hm.

I find most cream of mushroom soups taste like a wet dog so I didn't want to go out and shop for a can of Campbell's, but it gave me an idea. At home I had left-over heavy whipping cream, a little rose wine, some garlic and macerated strawberries. I didn't want to have to cook greens, because between the soon to be boiling pasta and a hot skillet for the mushrooms we'd blow a fuse with one more plugged in appliance, so a salad seemed like a good idea. I decided to make creamed mushrooms and egg noodles with a watercress, fennel and herb salad. For dessert, strawberries, peaches and mint with a dollop of cream. It was fresh, decadent and completely satisfying.

Yesterdays lemons, today's lemon aid. 

Mushrooms and Egg Noodles
4 fresh shitake mushrooms, sliced 1/4" wide
4 pom pom mushrooms (or porcini, chantarelle or baby bellos), sliced 1/4" wide
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup white wine (or rose)
2 tbs. butter
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tbs. chopped flat leaf parsley
salt + pepper
1/2 a 12 oz. bag of egg noodles

Boil a pot of salted water and cook the noodles until al dente. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a skillet on medium heat. Add the garlic and saute about a minute, lower the heat if garlic starts to brown. Add the mushrooms and toss around another minute. Then add the white wine, 1/4 cup of cream, a pinch of salt and few grinds of a pepper mill. Cook about 5 to 8 minutes until the mushrooms are soft adding the parsley before the last minute of cooking. Turn off the heat and add the drained pasta to the pan of mushrooms along with the last 1/4 cup of cream and stir gently, scraping up any juices from the bottom of the pan. Taste for salt and pepper, serve hot. 

I didn't measure the cream or wine while I was cooking so you may want to add a few extra tablespoons of each if it seems dry.

Watercress and Fennel Salad
1 bunch watercress
1 small bulb fennel, thinly sliced
1 tbs. chopped parsley
1 tbs. chopped mint
sherry vinegar
olive oil

Wash and tear up the watercress. Lay the fennel on top and scatter with the herbs. Splash a little vinegar and olive oil over the salad and give a turn of a pepper mill.