Saturday, August 21, 2010

Jamie Oliver's Whole Baked Cauliflower

I hate to be wasteful with food.

And I think Chris hates it even more.

I just finished reading Sharks Fin Soup and Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia Dunlop and after a long love affair with chinese cuisine, towards the end of the book, she describes her growing lack of appetite for extravagantly wasteful banquets that no group of people could ever finish. A lot has changed in China since it's years of poverty and starvation during the Cultural Revolution, but Dunlop also points out, what's the difference between a lavish Shanghai feast and the mass amounts of food that get thrown out by the British and Americans every day. Why pick on China?

I cringe to write it but yesterday I threw out a whole yellow squash. I had bought three, the two best went into dinner but the third was a little spongy and past it's prime, I had peeled it already, thinking I may use it but instead I turned my cheek and tossed it into the plastic garbage sac hanging from the door nob. Then later that night I did the same with three mealy apricots. It was kind of like taking an old dog to the curb and saying, "sorry, you just don't bark like you used to, so long"!

As a child these things would have at least made it into the compost pile but I do not have a backyard and there's no way I'm starting an urban compost bin in our bathroom. I'm usually pretty good when it comes to not over-shopping, or re-arranging the contents of the mini fridge for the third time that day in order to fit the leftovers in, but sometimes I miscalculate and perfectly good food goes to waste. I can be  picky and lazy which are not qualities I'm proud to admit. I'm sure I could have done something with the squash and apricots, but I didn't. 

It is for this reason that I did not buy cauliflower for a long, long time. About a year ago I bought a gigantic head of cauliflower and I can't begin to tell you how impossible it is to fit one in a refrigerator the size of a small television. Chris and I maybe ate a third of it, and then the rest sat out, went bad and got tossed. So, when I came across Jamie Oliver's recipe where you cook the whole thing, I got excited. It's easy, delicious and a nice break from pasta. You can eat it as a side dish or like Chris and me, split it in half and down the whole thing.

For a side dish we had a little tin of octopus, with fresh lemon juice squeezed on top. I thought they were delicious but Chris couldn't seem to get over the fact they came out of a sardine tin. The purple outer layer of the octopus slid off on your tongue which he found a little weird and asked, "are you sure these are okay"? I was sure, but the more he asked, the more I wondered. At the end of dinner, there were four pieces left in the dish and we were full. With Chris' question bouncing around my head, on my way to do some dishes, I considered covering them with foil to eat for lunch the next day but instead I popped open the garbage can, slid the remaining octopus in, and the lid slammed shut.

I'm so sorry little octopus, it's not you, it' me.

Jamie Oliver's Whole Baked Cauliflower with Tomato and Olive Sauce

1 red onion, peeled and sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 large head of cauliflower, outer green leaves discarded, stalk chopped
olive oil
a good handful of black olives, pitted
4 good-quality anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained and sliced
a handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves roughly chopped, stalks finely chopped
2 14 oz. cans of chopped plum tomatoes
red wine vinegar
a pot with a lid large enough to cook a whole cauliflower in

Add the onion, garlic and chopped cauliflower stalk to some olive oil and fry for ten minutes until softened with a little color. Add the olives, anchovies and parsley stalks and fry another couple minutes. Add the tomatoes, then half fill a can with water and add to the pot along with a good swig of red wine vinegar. Stir and break up tomatoes into small bits, bring to a boil.

Gently push the cauliflower into the sauce, half in half out, drizzle with olive oil, cover and cook on low heat for 50 minutes. (I cooked it about 30 which almost seemed too much so use your judgement.) Serve and sprinkle with parsley leaves.

Monday, August 16, 2010

North Carolina and Banana Pudding

I wonder if it would one day be possible to detach Manhattan from its river beds and, like a giant cruise ship float it up and down the East Coast according to the seasons. In the fall we could coast up to Vermont for cider and maple festivals. In February, after we've had enough of winter, we could bob down to Florida for a little sun. In April we could return to New York for spring. July we set sail for Maine and enjoy cooler weather and fresh lobsters. And as I've recently discovered, August is the perfect time for North Carolina. 

I just returned from a whole week in the Outer Banks and it was bliss. We ate vegetables, grass fed beef and pork sausages from my husband's, uncle's, sister's 6th generation farm that she and her husband run in Virginia. We dripped peach and watermelon juice off our chins almost every day, became ice cream connoisseurs, searching for the best scoop until my mother in law and her husband came across a pizza and ice cream shop that makes their own, and declared it the winner. We ate fried oysters, plump scallops cooked in butter, and spicy shrimp in their shells. 

We ate till we cried out, "no more"! And then had dessert, banana pudding, peach pie, s'mores, lemon bars, and more ice cream.

One night Chris and I decided to go out, on a date, and after a little research found a place that prepared only local seafood. Just what we were looking for. If you are ever in Nags Head you must go try Basnight's Lone Cedar Cafe. They use only fresh and local seafood and produce, and organic local chickens and beef. And they make some of the best, most moist and flavorful cornbread I've ever had. First Chris and I sucked down a dozen clams and a plate of fried green tomatoes stacked with goat cheese, a little mint/pepper jelly, and garnished with a large sprig of fresh basil, followed by the broiled seafood platter (to split) of crab cakes, flounder, clams casino, shrimp, and scallops. It was refreshing to be in a setting where "local" didn't mean pretentious or elitist, and came with an unobstructed panoramic view of the sound, along with a large birds' nest housing osprey, Ricky and Lucy, who also seemed quite pleased with the ample fresh seafood and excellent view. You can't get this in Manhattan no matter how talented the chef or creative the interior designer.

The week ambled on with tomato sandwiches, putt putt, boogie boarding, and bike rides until it came time to turn in the keys and Chris and I found ourselves back on Amtrak, annoyed by the chatty ladies who should not be sitting in a quiet car. 

Why must vacations end? And why must our room feel so small and noisy upon return? We will go back to NC, I'm sure of it. But since we are back in the Big Apple, maybe it's time to go to that Tapas restaurant Chris has been talking about. Oh, and my favorite pizza place sounds so good right about now! And I think I'll make that Indian dish for dinner tonight. And by the way, what's new at the farmer's market!? I've been gone a whole week. 

Maybe New York isn't so bad after all. But if anyone out there has experience in moving giant land masses, say, the size of Manhattan, feel free to get in touch-it would be nice to float down the coast for one last hurrah before the leaves start changing and we all start thinking about pumpkin pies and stuffing.

Our first dessert of the week was banana pudding because it's the south, after all. I'd never made it before and after reading a few recipes decided to go at it my own way, which turned out to be pretty great. It's so easy and so comforting, just like a nice shady seat at the beach with a whole week of freedom ahead of you.

Banana Pudding (serves 13 people)

Make three packages of Dr. Oetickers Organic banana pudding mix with whole milk. Pour into a glass dish and cool in the refrigerator for about two hours. When cool, whisk the pudding smooth and whip two pints, unsweetened, heavy whipping cream until firm and then gently fold into the pudding until it is completely incorporated. Then, arrange one layer of Nilla wafers on the bottom of a large bowl, layer on top of that sliced bananas and then about two and a half to three inches of the banana cream. Repeat the layering process, Nilla wafers, bananas, cream, until you end with a layer of cream. Garnish any way you like, with crushed Nilla wafers or bananas or nothing. Refrigerate for about four or five hours or overnight. Yum.

my mother kindly pointed out to me that maple festivals take place in the spring in Vermont. So scratch that idea. When I was a child however, I do remember going to a big farm in the fall and eating a giant pancake breakfast on wooden picnic tables under colorful maples, and there was lots of pure maple syrup to go around. This is what I was aiming for.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Fairytale Eggplant with Summer Squash

Last night as I handed over my name and phone number to a very tall and thin host at Barrio Chino, agreeing to a one and a half hour wait for a table, maybe just two seats at the bar, I realized it has been a long time since I've "gone out" in New York.

The last time my friend Ciara and I got together we went to Don Hills, a nighttime relic of the eighties clinging to it's punk rocker history, that is now, as scenes go, dead as a doornail. Just like I like it. Ciara, her friend Brian, and I danced to British Pop on an empty dance floor drinking $3 PBR's all night. It was great. No standing in line, no strange men rubbing up against you, and everyone got their own disco ball to hop and spin to.

Yesterday was different. Normally I would never wait an hour and a half for a table but Barrio Chino came with recommendations, I was craving a good margarita, and since it was just Ciara and me, we decided to grab a drink somewhere else until the call came that we were finally worthy of a seat. The night was young.

Turning the corner onto Orchard, wondering where to go, a bright and uncharacteristically cheery glow spilled out onto the dirty sidewalk. A new tequila bar! Perfect! We sat ourselves down and ordered two margaritas on the rocks. The bartender was strangely nice and even after we'd ordered, lingered, smiling at us a little more before happily getting to his mixing and shaking. Weird. Why is a Lower East Side bartender smiling? He must have moved to New York yesterday. Whatever. The service was speedy. He brought us two large, globe-like glasses filled to the top with ice, followed by another lingering smile. Looking down at our drinks we wondered if maybe we should have ordered them neat. Hello? Any Margarita in there? Ciara and I slurped and splashed our way through this never ending slushy of ice, which actually had a decent amount of booze after all, laughing and having a good time. The clock ticked on.

An hour and a half passed without a phone call and our patience for a pretentious wait list on a Tuesday night had passed, we paid our bill and decided walk back to Barrio. If they couldn't seat us we'd move on. Tequila and lime was sloshing around in our empty bellies and the evening could go South very soon without some food. "Oh", the host said, "I was just about to call you! I have two bar seats but if you want to wait just a few more minutes a table is about to open up." 

We read the menu taped to the window from the sidewalk, and tried not to faint.

Finally seated we ordered immediately. Two more margaritas, guacamole and chips, the Cornish hen rubbed with lime, jalapeno and cilantro for Ci, and the pulled lamb with green rice for me. 

The clock ticked on but you couldn't hear it from all the noise.

Twenty minutes later our drinks arrived. They were good but not worth the wait, and then about ten minutes later the guacamole appeared. The chips were delicious, thick, freshly made and lightly salted but the guacamole was more like chopped onions with a little avocado. It was very strange. So far, in the past two hours, Ciara and I had mostly eaten ice and onions. We were cranky, hoarse, and dared them to turn out a good meal.

About forty five minutes later, nearly dead, our food finally arrived. We inspected it, poked at it, and exchanged a glance that said, "if this isn't the best meal I've ever had we're walking out of here and getting ice cream".

I have to say, it was delicious. The lamb was tender and rich, filled with spicy flavor and Ciara's Cornish Hens were succulent and perfectly cooked. We softened a little. Don't get me wrong, we would never come back here, but we would go home full and a little tipsy.

What happened next was like a scene out of a horror film. It's the moment that the hot young girl, locks herself in a bathroom with the phone, 911 on the line, thinking that she's safe, and has averted danger. It's the moment when the audience tightens, sees the flash of a knife in the medicine cabinet, and can't help but scream, "Look behind you!" 

Smiling and at last blissfully happy with my meal I put a big forkful of rice into my mouth. My eyes widened. Tears began to stream down my cheeks, drool spilled out of my mouth, and a flash of heat traveled from the top of my head to my gut in a matter of seconds clearing everything in it's path. Those little orange slivers garnishing the rice were not pickled onions. They were habaneros. I must have put four or five in my mouth at once. I couldn't speak. I just stared at Ciara, mouth agape, in disbelief, my nose running like a drunk fleeing a fire. Check please!

Eating at Barrio Chino reminds me why eating at home can be so great. There is no wait, and you never have to blast your head off unless you want to! Last week I bought some fairytale eggplants from the farmers market, because who wouldn't? And made up a dish with what I had. Some eggplant, some summer squash, brown rice and a little radicchio, which in my opinion, is the dinosaur of lettuces. They last forever in the fridge.

And as for Barrio Chino, can't say I didn't warn you.

Fairytale Eggplant with Summer Squash

20 or so fairytale eggplants (or any eggplant)
1 ripe tomato, seeded and chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 tbs. Parmesan cheese
1 cup uncooked brown rice
eight or so radicchio leaves
five or six leaves of fresh basil, chopped
salt + pepper
Olive Oil

Cook the brown rice according to the instructions on the package. Wash and remove the tops of the eggplant, slice in half, lay in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Let sit for about half and hour to draw out some of the water. Blot the eggplant dry with a paper towel. Add the garlic and shallots to a frying pan or skillet and saute over medium heat in a few tablespoons of olive oil until soft. Add the eggplant, summer squash and tomato. Cook about fifteen minutes covered, or until everything is nice and soft and cooked all the way through. Salt if needed and toss with the basil just before serving. Meanwhile, in a toaster oven, toast the pine nuts until golden. To serve, lay a few radicchio leaves down on a plate. Spoon a little brown rice in the center, about 1/2 a cup. Then lay a good amount of the eggplant and squash over the rice, sprinkle a few tablespoons of pine nuts on top and a few pinches of Parmesan cheese.