Friday, March 28, 2008

Deep in the Heart of Texas you find...Wine and Vineyards!

As D and I keep hinting, but have yet to really explain, we are wine people. We first realized that we were 'more than friends' while tasting Rieslings at a Rotenberg vineyard in Baden-Württemberg, Germany (just outside Stuttgart). I had a summer internship in Geneva and had taken the train up to visit D, a college acquaintance who was doing research at the Stuttgart University. One of his mentors had taken it upon himself to introduce D to classical music and to wine; D gleefully passed on his new-found appreciation as soon as I got off the train. Both he and the Rieslings totally knocked my socks off. One year later, we did a 3 week trek through Europe and brought back over 20 bottles of Wurttemberg wine in our backpacks (I have renowned packing skillz). Two years later, our wine collection topped 100 bottles, not counting the hard liquor, and dominates the central room in our apartment. And right around the three year mark, we'll be moving to the doorstep of California wine country! Life is good.

What really brought all this on is that, while waiting in the airport on Easter Monday, I picked up a copy of the oft pretentious but still delectable Food & Wine magazine. That magazine unnerves me to no end with its ridiculously elite vibe (they only do stories on multimillionaires and the food that their chefs prepare for their "casual" parties), but I find that its recipes are a lot morechallenging and sophisticated than most other food magazines on the market. In the April 2008 issue, Food & Wine did a fairly mediocre travelogue article on Texas Hill Country vineyards. I don't know if I was more indignant at the poor quality of the writing, or more pleased that Hill Country wines are finally starting to get recognized in the mainstream foodie culture.

When D and I moved into our D.C. apartment last September, my Dad gave us a bottle of 2004 "Super Texan" Sangiovese that he picked up in an Austin grocery store. He was tickled by the name and amused that Texas made wine at all -- and was hoping to pass on his appreciation of reds to two staunch white drinkers (we had expanded beyond German whites, but only grudgingly). We laughed, since "Super Texan" is a spoof on "Super Tuscan" -- the Italian term for a Tuscan wine that doesn't conform to their strict wine-making standards. We then jovially took the bottle on a picnic in the Shenandoah National Park... and were completely floored. The red was hearty, sure, not wispy and subtle, but gooood. Not overly aggressive with tannins, yet it still had some body to it unlike so many insipid California Pinot Noirs. D can do more justice to the description than I can, and I may have him edit this post to insert his own perspective. [D interjects: It had some deeper fruit flavors going on (like cherry or plum), but was still very well balanced thanks to mild acidity. It's a perfect sipping red, and yet it had enough structure that it could pair with mild to moderately robust food]. Suffice it to say, it was one of the best reds we'd ever had.

So when we visited my parents in Austin a month later, we were quite excited to go visit the Flat Creek Estate, the vineyard where this magnificent example of American craftsmanship and ingenuity was made. The trip was not disappointing. The winery and its grounds were lovely, the owner was amused by our pretentious vocabulary and our out-of-town enthusiasm (D takes notes when he goes to tastings). We learned that the Hill Country is a burgeoning wine region that is starting to climb on the national radar screen, with vineyards experimenting with different grapes and techniques to figure out what works best. They are clearly still working out the kinks: a Muscato D'Arancia was very orangey but too sweet, and their port was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. What's surprising is how quickly the vineyards are finding their sweet spots: that 2004 Super Texan that we adore was that vineyard's first harvest of Sangiovese grapes! Simultaneously, it takes a real gutsy cowboy to try wine-making in Texas. A bad drought in 2006 means that Flat Creek's Sangiovese grapes were nearly wiped out and they'll have to truck in someone else's -- so our glowing praise doesn't necessarily apply to the 2006 Super Texan!

It's really neat to watch the new emerging wine regions, like the Texas and Virginia. I mean, these regions are not in any way pompous or posh, so their baby vineyards have this real 'down-home' feel. Kind of like food markets: you feel like you're connected to something more than a conglomerate; it's an adventure, you've made a discovery.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Leftovers Pizza = Effortless Glamor

Giddy with excitement! I'm feeling really bubbly due to tonight's unexpected success. :)

What you have to realize is that I had no desire to cook. None. Our house was a pigsty, with semi-unpacked luggage and unopened mail and magazines and various electric cords and clothes all over the place. The drain in the kitchen is on the spritz, making dish washing very slow and frustrating. We're also still moderately sleep-deprived from the late Austin flight and haven't been to a grocery store for a week. Ugh. None of the above is conducive for culinary inspiration. It's Leftovers Night.

But! Leftovers....put leftovers on bread...and you get... PIZZA!! Leftovers = blah, but Homemade Pizza = sophisticated party! The very thought of it magically transformed our messy apartment into an "artistic" Yuppie loft (at least in my mind's eye). Pour some leftover cornerstore Chianti, turn on some Jazz (or better yet, some very hip bluegrass from Austin -- you have to be really in-the-know to play Texas bluegrass in your "loft" while sipping cheap chianti), and suddenly the world looks so much better. I even got inspired enough to do a load of laundry and face the evil kitchen drain, and D swiftered the hell out of the living room.

In general, I've found homemade pizza to be one of those quick, easy but fun and surprising entertaining ideas, at least when we've invited other twenty-somethings over. When you're in our age bracket, a "dinner party" means either a) order pizza and bring beer or b) feel really awkward as the host(ess) "plays grown-up" and serves poorly executed, complicated food which you eat on plastic plates. I know, I've done both. One of the most successful dinner parties we've had since moving to D.C. was when we had a couple of D's Physics graduate student friends over and made pizza dough and had everyone "design" their own pizzas. No dirty pots, didn't even have to turn on the stovetop. We just let everyone loose into the kitchen to grab a bit of this and a bit of that and design the perfect pizza. Sounds like a trick that would work with preschoolers you say? Well, I won't dwell on the comparison between preschoolers and graduate students, but it was a hellova a lot of fun and not at all pretentious. Which is a fine line to walk when you're a twenty-three year old foodie who collects wine.

Now, you can serve "homemade" pizza by picking up pizza dough from the freezer in ye local grocery store. Or, you can make reasonably yummy dough pretty easily by hand. Or, you can produce Superlative pizza dough by using the best Bread Cookbook I have ever encountered. Richard Bertinet, a French baker based out of Bath (UK), revolutionized my whole approach to bread. D received his Crust cookbook from my grandparents for Christmas, and we were so impressed with it that we immediately purchased Bertinet's first book, Dough. The former deals with sourdough and other intense breads, and the latter with doughs that require only one rising. The amazing thing about Bertinet is that he is able to teach you how to "feel" bread -- how to interpret what your senses tell you, what is going on, what are you trying to achieve, what should it look like... with very very precise, comparative photos. Kind of like the Cook's Illustrated approach, only a LOT MORE photos and explanations, and without getting into his learning process. There's even a full-page chart explaining how the weather will affect the rising.

Best of all is his technique for "kneading" the dough. Instead of the common "punch" method, which stretchs dough out, he uses a slap-and-pull technique that captures air inside the dough. Essentially, you grab a rectangle of dough from one end and slap the front end onto the counter, then take the end that you're holding and lift up and over... and grab the dough that's stuck to the counter, capturing air between the two parts of the dough rectangle. You clearly have no idea what I'm talking about, but he's got several pages of photos and a dvd is included in the books to explain the technique. The first time I used his method, it was like magic -- the dough became this vibrant, living being, unlike any other bread I had made before. Using his technique and a higher ratio of liquid to flour, I ended up with gorgeous French baguettes. Who needs Julia Child's 18 page recipe, when you can bake bread on a worknight using Richard Bertinet? If I had to throw away all but one cookbook in my collection, his would be the one that I would keep. (If I could keep two cookbooks, it would be his and something by Madhur Jaffrey; both use techniques and an understanding of ingredient proportion that I just can't replicate on my own).

Okay, enough evangelizing. Now that I'm up here on the podium, I would also like to thank my little brother, who gave me a bread stone for my 23rd birthday, without which this pizza would have been no where near as good. No question, bread stones are WORTH IT. The difference is immeasurable. I would also like to thank D's Dad, who loves to feed our kitchen fetishes, and got us our kitchen scale. Without you, none of this would have been possible.

and, for those of you keeping track, this was a 100% vegetarian meal. We used some leftover tomato sauce, parmesan, spinach, fresh tomatoes, olives, capers, dried basil, hot peppers, and more parmesan. Maybe our eating habits did change with that whole Lenten experiment.

Richard Bertinet's Pizza Dough (3 pizzas) We halved this recipe to make one big pizza for the two of us, and finished half.

1/2 oz fresh yeast
18 oz Italian white bread flour (3 3/4 - 3 7/8 cups)
2 tsp fine grain salt
5 Tbs Olive Oil
11 1/2 oz Water

  1. Rub yeast into flour with your fingertips. Ass salt, olive oil, and water, and then use Bertinet's slap and pull method (described above, or just buy the book). Let the dough rise for 1 hour or so (it always needs at least 2 hours in our house) or, to acheive a better crust and taste, rest it overnight in the fridge. By doing this, you will enable the dough to rise very slowly and it will develop a little acidity that will improve its flavor and give a texture that is crispy on the outside and slightly chewy inside. Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

  2. Gently turn the dough out onto the counter and let it rest for 10 min more. Lightly flour the counter and place the ball of dough upon the counter. Divide into three.

  3. Place the heel of your hand in the center of each piece of dough and push it away from you so that it stretches the dough out. Turn slightly and repeat. Keep stretching the dough until you have a roughly circular pizza shape of about 8-9 inches in diameter. The edge should be slightly thicker than the dough in the middle.

  4. Lift the pizza base onto a piece of parchment paper and add toppings. Put the parchment + pizza onto a peel (or cutting board or flat cookie sheet) and slide it into your oven (preferably on top of your baking stone, or a preheated baking tray as a substitute). Turn the heat down to 460 degrees and bake for 10-12 minutes until the edges become golden brown and crispy.

Guinness Beef: The Spirit of Irish Past

So, last Friday (errm.... I guess that would be Good Friday - Thank God that Shabbat takes precedent), I was overcome with a desire for Beef Stew. I had images floating in my head of big chunks of meat, coated in a thick brown sauce and they were driving me crazy (I will happily point the "blame" for these craving at a wonderful post about Beef in Guinness at Thyme for Cooking).

Well, my first hunkering was for this very interesting recipe I found in Joy of Cooking for Beef Stew with Mustard, Herbs, and White Wine (Beef Daube). Unfortunately this recipe takes 2-3 hours of simmering, and I just didn't have the time. So, instead I went back to that recipe at Thyme for Cooking and embraced my Irish ancestry (I don't know how far back you have to go to actually find the Irish in my ancestry, but we are pretty sure it is there).

So while Neen was updating the blog (after having attended a 3 hour service at the Cathedral), I was cooking up an Irish storm (paying homage to the gods of food and beer). The whole time, the bottle of Guinness was sitting on the counter giving me flash-backs from a trip to Ireland with my family during my college years. We were in Dublin for Bloomsday, 2004 (that would be the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday), and the commemoration included, of course, a traditional Irish Breakfast. And what is the most important part of this complete Irish breakfast? Guinness. A pint of Guinness! It was nine in the bleeding morning and there were these big Irish guys drinking pints of Guinness. Well, I admit to wimping out - I just couldn't bring myself to do it. My brother, on the other hand, happily drank the family supply of Guinness (I believe that brought him to 4 pints of Guinness with his breakfast - he was a source of great entertainment for the remainder of the day). It seems, somehow, appropriate to imagine these Irish guys drinking pints Guinness in the morning and then going home to a a big pot of meat cooking in Guinness. It would give a nice symmetry to their day.

However authentic this recipe might, or might not, be I was particularly pleased with the method for seasoning the meat in this recipe, which involved corn starch, paprika, salt, pepper, and some basil - okay, so I made up the basil :). This resulted in wonderfully tender pieces of meat with great seasoning. Even the uncooked chunks were delicious looking!

The end product was a wonderfully rich sauce, with a full bodied beer flavor, and generous portions of tender beef. Unlike other beef in beer recipes I have tried, this one really relishes in the flavor of the beer, making it the central point of the dishes flavor.

The only real problem I had with this recipe is that I don't like Guinness very much. (Okay, so maybe this is proof that you have to go a long way back to find the Irish). But, seriously, the bitter flavor of the Guinness was really emphasized in this sauce - giving it a very strange after-flavor. I tried a few quick tests to see if I could add something that would mask the flavor, but I had no big success there. Milk helped a little, but the added cream was a little too much for the rest of the flavors. I am not sure if there is an obvious way to fix this with Guinness, but I think if I were to make this again I would opt for a slightly lighter beer, maybe an ale.

You can find the original recipe at: Thyme for Cooking

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Help needed on Lemon Curd

Help needed! Does anyone know how to get Lemon Curd to "gel" correctly? If so, or if you have a recipe that that has worked for you in the past, please let me know!

Background: My Mom made a Lemon/Strawberry tart for Easter and, although it tastes delicious, the curd wouldn't become more solid than a liquidly jelly. We ended up having to eat the tart in bowls, which is a major no-no for my super aesthetic queen mother. This was her second time using that recipe for lemon curd; she had hoped that by whisking all the rebellion out of it that it would gel correctly this time. No such luck. Any suggestions are much appreciated!!

If I get a chance, I will probably write a long chatty post about our weekend trip to Austin, TX for Easter. However, since highlights included accidentally booking a return flight that went through Dallas AND St Louis before getting to Baltimore (seriously, should we have added Nova Scotia to the list for an additional detour?!), well, we've only barely gotten enough sleep to report for duty at work. I just gotta say, though... we broke our Lenten fast on Texas Bar-B-Q. Yee-haw!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ashkanaz Stuffed Cabbage -- Indian style

I'm not sure why I'm on an Ashkanaz cooking kick. No wait, I do. As I posited yesterday while baking Hamantaschen for Purim for the first time, Americans tend to associate "Jewish" cooking with "Eastern European Jewish" cooking because the vast majority of American Jews can trace their lineage back to that part of the world. Things like Gefilte fish, Matzo ball soup, Challah, and Kugels are, shockingly enough, not traditional fare for Mediterranean Jews or Middle Eastern Jews. The same goes for words like Chutzpa, Klutz, Kvetch, and Shmooz, which are all Yiddish words. If you set a plate of traditional Sephardi cooking in front of a typical American and introduced it by its Ladino name, he would probably associate the food with Arab or Magreb cuisine and think that you spoke Spanish quite badly. Yet it's really tough to break these tangential cultural associations.

So, being a professed victim of popular culture, I served a traditional Ashkanaz dish for Purim dinner -- Stuffed Cabbage.

According to Gil Marks, "Cabbage, one of the oldest cultivated plants, is the most important vegetable among Ashkenazim [...] The now familiar green cabbage, with a firm, mild head, evolved in Germany around the twelfth century. Stuffed Cabbage originated in the Near East as a way of using the tough outer leaves by simmering them in liquid. Thanks to the Tartars and the Turks, stuffed cabbage spread throughout eastern and central Europe in the fourteenth century."

I bet you that Polish and Russian Jews couldn't care less that Purim usually occurs during Lent.

In fact, I bet you that most didn't even know what Lent was.

(Ok, I cheated. I happen to have learned in college that most Russian and Polish Jews spoke only Yiddish and had very little contact outside their rural communities).

To get to the point, most recipes for stuffed cabbage involve meat of some sort. Crap.

Which is where the Fairy Godmother of Vegetarians (or at least, of our brief foray with vegetarianism) steps in: Madhur Jaffrey just happens to have a recipe for Cabbage Stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes (ish).

Wow. just wow. The stuffed cabbage was so incredibly satisfying that you didn't even notice enough to feel pious about the fact that it was both seasonal and vegetarian. Hearty, comfortably spiced filling, meaty texture, almost succulent. D claims that the cabbage wrapping didn't add anything, but I think it was the perfect contrast in texture, taste, and presentation to take this from a side dish to a main course. Now, admittedly, dealing with the cabbage is somewhat a pain in the arse, not really a weeknight venture (or at least, not the same weeknight that you're baking Hamantaschen and have sore muscles from your gym class). And I'm not sure that the last steps of frying and steaming the stuffed cabbage added much. But oh man, was it good. I snuck back and ate leftovers for both breakfast and a post-Good Friday service snack. So satisfying!

We enjoyed this dish so much that we're sending it over to Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging, this week hosted by Katie of Thyme for Cooking. We hope that everyone likes it as much as we did!

Madhur Jaffrey's Cabbage Leaves stuffed with Potatoes

5 medium potatoes
7 medium onions (I used 3 average supermarket ones... M.J. must have written this recipe in a pre-GM era)
Vegetable Oil
2 tsp whole fennel seeds
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp Garam Masala
Cayenne pepper (optional)
1 Tbs lemon juice
1 medium head of cabbage

For the Filling:

  1. Boil the potatoes, then cut them very small (you'll be mashing them soon)
  2. Peel the onions, cut them in half lengthwise and slice into fine half-circles.
  3. Heat 6 Tbs of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add onions and fry, stirring, separating the rings until the onions are brownish, about 7-8 min; they should not get crisp.
  4. Add the fennel and cumin and fry another 7-8 min on lower flame. The onions should look a rich reddish brown now.
  5. Add the diced boiled potatoes to the onion mixture and continue frying. As you fry, mash the potatoes with the back of a slotted spoon or potato masher.
  6. Add the garam masala, 2 1/2 tsp salt, lemon juice, and cayenne to taste. Mix and set aside
The Cabbage:

  1. Cut off the hard stem of the cabbage, remove the hard, damaged outer leaves and wash it. In a pot large enough to hold the whole cabbage, bring to boil salted water. Drop the cabbage in (water should cover at least three-quarters of it), cover, and boil 5 min. Lift cabbage out of boiling water (don't drain that hot water!), run under cold water, and carefully remove each leaf, taking care not to break them. Dry. If the inner leaves are still crisp, drop them again in the boiling water until they go limp. Remove and cool under water.
  2. Spread out one leaf at a time. Snip out the hard core of the outer leaves with a pair of kitchen shears. You can snip to about an inch into the lead, removing a kind of narrow V. Now place a tablespoon of stuffing in the center and fold the edges over. Squeeze out the extra moisture; this also helps to keep the stuffed cabbage leaves tightly closed.
  3. In a 10" skillet, heat 4 Tbs of oil over medium heat. Fry the stuffed cabbage a few pieces at a time, until each piece is browned on all sides. Take care not to let the leaves open. When all the pieces are done, lower the heat, arrange the stuffed cabbage pieces in the skillet in tight layers, add 2 Tbs of water, cover and cook on very low flame for 10-15min.
Serves 6-8. (For real. We would have leftovers for a week, except we've both been eating them at every possible occasion, including breakfast this morning! That's how good they are!)

Old Wine, Young Wine - Either Way, Don't Whine

I first learned to appreciate wine with a mentor who believed in storing wines for years. A lot of years. On my first occasion eating dinner at his house Laszlo served, in sequence, a wine from 2001, 1985, 1979, and 1974 -- the last three corresponding to the birth years of his guests (this was in 2005). So I appreciate an aged wine when it comes my way.

Last night, since it was Purim (and, as Neen mentioned earlier, this means it is mitzvot to have a festive meal), I opened a bottle of German Riesling from 1998 that I located earlier this year at a wine store around DC at fire sale prices. (Cough... maybe you see where this is going?) As soon as I opened the bottle I was concerned. One of the first things to look at when opening a bottle of wine is its cork. I know it seems pretentious to pretend you can learn anything from the cork, but seriously you can. Take this cork for example, when I first took the foil off the top of the bottle you could see the large amounts of residue that had been seeping out from the cork. Now, this is okay - its good actually, because it means that the cork is wet. This means there should be a good balance of air exchange between the bottle and the outside world. This is how a bottle ages. The problem was, when I removed the cork it was very firm. Why is that a problem? Because when a cork is "wet" it becomes slightly mushy, this is particularly true as cork ages. A ten year old piece of cork that is very firm does not have wine seeping through it, the wine is seeping around it. That is bad. Very bad.

As soon as I poured the wine, my concerns settled like a hard lump in my stomach. The dark, amber hues of the wine are the kinds one expects from a white wine that is much, much older (a wine 20+ years old can have that color) - this wine had definitely been over exposed to air. The nose of the wine, however, showed none of the sharp vinegar notes that usually accompany a corked wine. A tentative sip of the glass was shocking. The wine had over-oxidized, but it had simply lost its stronger fruit character and gained a body reminiscent of sherry. I would not call it a great wine, but it was actually quiet pleasant. Dry, with no flavor on the front of the palate, but a reasonably complex set of flavors on the mid-to-back palate. It didn't have the nutty flavor that is often associated with sherry, but it was still nice enough.

Of course, it wasn't going to pair with dinner at all. So, I still opened a second bottle. This one had been a recommendation from a staff member of a Whole Foods we frequent on occasion - it is an American Viogner, by Pepperwood Grove. It has a fairly gentle nose, but a wonder flavor. Very fruity, light, and complex. Almost more of a summer wine, but given our obsession with the warmth of Spring, it was a perfect match for pre-dinner sipping. (Neen sipped this, while I went after our Riesling sherry - of course we swapped regularly). You can see the difference in colors between the two wines in the photo. The dark colored wine on the left is the sherry Riesling, while the almost transparent wine is the Viogner.

With dinner, unfortunately, neither wine really worked. The sherry was too dry, so against the spicy potato filling of the cabbage wraps it tasted almost corrosive. The Viogner, on the other hand, was too light. It got knocked around by the power of the food. One could only barely taste the wine over the heavy spicing, and really, even then, it was just the flavor of alcohol and some of the acidic bite. Let that be a lesson to me, viogner is not Riesling, and should not be used to pair against strongly spiced food. Ah well, it is still a very nice sipping wine - I just wouldn't recommend it for a food pairing.

Hamantaschen for Good Friday... er, Purim

Thursday morning, at o'dawn o'clock, I was rolling out dough for Hamantaschen. Yup. me. Hamantaschen. For Purim. Pre-dawn.

To fully appreciate how ridiculous this situation is, you have to go back a bazillion years to when some Jewish dude wrote the book of Esther. The quick and dirty of it is that Queen Esther of Persia [Yaaay!], secretly Jewish, thwarts the evil plot of Haman [Boooo!] to have the King kill all the Jews. There's some mighty creepy epilogue, including Haman and all his sons being hanged and the Jews killing 75,000 men defending themselves against their enemies. Ya know, it's biblical. So, to celebrate escaping genocide, we have the lesser holiday of Purim, a raucous commemoration that's sort of like a Jewish version of Mardi Gras. One of the days' mitzvot is to have a "festive meal," which gets liberally interpreted to mean costumes, lots of wine, puppets, songs, etc. Purim started Thursday at sundown, and goes through until sundown on Friday.

Friday? As in, Good Friday? The most solemn day in the Christian Calendar coincides with one of the most jovial holidays in the Jewish Calendar?

Yup. Someone up there definitely has a sense of humor. I mean, if the Almighty was going to schedule St. Paddy's Day, the drunken holiday of the WASPs, during Holy Week, He might as well add Purim to the pile. The more the merrier! It kind of reminds me of that Tom Lehrer song, "Doing the Vatican Rag," with the mind-boggling mix of High Holiness and Laughing-at-oneself. Which, frankly, isn't a bad approach to religion anyway.

But back to Hamantaschen. These little pastries are either named after Haman's [tricorn] Hat or Haman's Pocket (neither one of which is mentionned in the book of Esther, but it kind of makes you think of Haman as a little Napoleon, doesn't it?). I'm told that, in Israel, the pastries are called Haman's Ears. You have to have a pretty vivid imagination to see their resemblance to ears, but a few swigs of Purim wine might just do the trick. The catch here is that Hamantaschen are an Ashkanazi tradition and are predominant in American Judaism mostly because, well, guess where most American Jews' ancestors came from?

So here I am, at o'dawn o'clock, a literal White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, trying to figure out how to make Hamantaschen for my Tunisian/French/Irish boyfriend, whose Jewish side of the family didn't even come from anywhere remotely resembling Eastern Europe! Oy! Just another step in the somewhat exciting, somewhat petrifying process of taking two distinct heritages and weaving a new set family traditions that we can share together.

Entertainingly, the closest claim we have to Hamantaschen is the spoof Great Latke-Hamantash Debate that our Alma Mater puts on every December. It's a fabulously irreverent tradition that gets great professors (Martha Nussbaum, Milton Friendman and the like) to substantiate their culinary preferences with "academic" arguments. Some of the greatest included "the roundness of the latke clearly suggests the circle of perfection (Plato's ideal form)" or "the latke increases the United States' dependence on oil." Hehe. I love nerds. Needless to say, I had no idea what either a Latke or a Hamantash was before college.

The Hamantaschen that I made yesterday, for a first try, turned out damn good. I used Gil Marks' The World of Jewish Cooking, a historical cookbook that delves into the cooking traditions of the entire Jewish diaspora. I usually take Gil Marks' recipes with a grain of salt, as he sometimes chooses historical accuracy over tastiness (and let's face it, culinary traditions of the medieval masses tend to be dubious at best in terms of tastiness). Hamantaschen used to be made predominantly with yeast dough, but our 21st century sweet-tooth has made a cookie-dough version more popular. I shouldn't have worried about insufficient yumminess: the cookie dough in this recipe is almost pastry-like in thin, flaky kind of way -- they look so cute and delicate! As D noted, they are just sweet enough not to be a biscuit. Unfortunately, the cookbook doesn't mention that the dough becomes more crumbly and more difficult to seal as it warms up; so you need to toss it in the fridge between batches.

I also made a half batch of the traditional poppy seed filling (Mohnfullung), which was enough for all but 10 cookies (those we filled with jam). The Poppy Seed filling was Outstanding. I love the flavor of poppy seeds. It had an interesting texture with the dried fruit and the nuts, yet it wasn't overwhelmingly sweet. I opted for an orange flavor, but his suggestion to use lemon juice could have produced an interesting sweet-and-sour filling. All in all, interesting and different in a way that makes for a fairly sophisticated pastry. And, as we found out this morning, they go VERY WELL with tea for breakfast! D has been dropping several not-so-subtle hints that we (read: I) should make them more often -- my response is that he should learn to bake! (His response was that, on the list of cooking skills that he needs to acquire, baking is still pretty low on the list.)

Gil Marks' Cookie Dough Hamantaschen

1/2 cup + 3 Tbs butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
3 Tbs orange juice, or sweet red wine, or a water/lemon juice combo
1 tsp vanilla extract or grated lemon zest
1/4 tsp salt
About 2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
About 1 1/2 cups Mohnfullung (see below), or prune jam, or plum preserves
  1. Beat the butter until smooth. Gradually add sugar and beat until light and fluffy (5-10 min). Beat in egg. Blend in juice (or wine, or water), vanilla (or zest), and salt. Stir in enough flour to make a soft dough. I'm not sure what this means, but I added about 2.5 cups.

  2. Wrap dough in a plastic wrap and chill until firm, 1 hour minimum. At this point, tt can be fridged for days or frozen for months. Let stand at room temperature for several minutes, until workable but not soft.

  3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

  4. For easy handling, divide the dough into 4 pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each piece 1/8" thick. Using a 3 inch glass (ish), cut out rounds. Reroll the scraps.

  5. Place 1tsp of filling in the center of each round. Pinch the bottom side of the dough round together over the filling. Fold down the top flap and pinch the two other sides together to form a triangle, leaving some filling exposed in the center. Hamantaschen can be prepared ahead to this point and frozen for several months. Defrost before baking.

  6. Place the Hamantaschen 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake until golden brown, about 13 minutes. Let cool completely.
Makes about 40 small cookies.

Gil Marks' Mohnfullung (Traditional poppy filling)

1 cup poppy seeds, crushed or ground
1/2 cup water or milk
1/2 cup sugar or honey
Pinch of salt
2 Tbs lemon or orange juice or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp grated lemon or orange zest
1/2 cup golden raisins or chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts or almonds (optional)
  1. Combine the poppy seeds, water or milk, sugar or honey, and salt in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens, about 10 min.

  2. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining ingredients. Let cool. Store in the refrigerator
Makes about 2 cups.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Festa Italiana: Pasta Arrabiata with Arugula

Now despite its name, this is not "Arab pasta" or any such thing - it is "angry" pasta. Generally prepared with penne, or another pasta that will help the eater pick up the sauce. It happens to be one of my favorite kinds of pasta sauce because it can be prepared appropriately for all seasons, it's cheap, and it's delicious. I picked up this recipe from Culinary in the Desert, and it is a wonderful balance of flavors for a winter-time version of this recipe. There is a touch of balsamic vinegar added just before the tomatoes that gives it just a little more body which is great for a cold night.

Now, most of you are probably wondering what horrendous changes I made in a "creative" effort to improve the dish. That is a fair thought, but since Joe had done such a wonderful job balancing the flavors of the dish already, I really didn't feel the need to do much of anything to it. To be fair, I did make one small change. Remember those Jamaican Peppers? Well, they found a wonderful home in this dish, along with some cayenne pepper, and extra red-pepper flakes. The additional spicing worked very well for us. The three different kinds of hot pepper actually really changed the dish for the better since it gave the spicy flavor layers and complexity. You could taste the different points on the palate where the flavor of the different peppers were coming out. Very nice.

The arugula (another of Joe's insights) were a very nice addition - it added a change of color, texture, and flavor. I over-cooked them slightly, which was unfortunate, but certainly did not ruin their effect. The noodles were not the traditional penne, but were instead a noodle called Cannolicchi (photo taken from The Los Angeles Times - click on the link to see the entire article). I had never had this kind of pasta before, but they were a really great pairing with the arrabiata sauce. Their thick turns got stuffed with the sauce, yum....

Overall, this recipe was fantastic. We both had it again for lunch the next day, and it was still spicy enough to be interesting (which so rarely happens with leftovers). The flavors were more blended, which is unfortunate, but how much can you ask out of a pasta that takes 20 minutes to cook! We've decided to add this recipe to the "Our all time Favorites" category and bring it as our contribution to the Festa Italiana Event hosted by Finding la Dolce Vita and Proud Italian Cook.

I will reproduce the recipe here for convenience, but the credit should be direct to Joe, over at Culinary in the Desert.

16 ounces whole wheat penne pasta [or anything else, like Cannolicchi]
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
28 ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
salt and fresh ground black pepper
1 cup fresh grated pecorino-romano cheese
4 cups arugula, coarsely chopped
[I would also add 1 or 2 fresh hot peppers (depending on their intensity), an extra dash of crushed red pepper and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper. This sounds like a lot, but the tomato sauce and cheese will really damp the spice so being a little over the top is called for.]

In a large pot of boiling salted water, stir in pasta and cook until al dente. Reserve a ladeleful of cooking water then drain the pasta well.

As the pasta cooks, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and crushed red pepper [here is where one can also add a jamaican hot pepper - or any other pepper of choice] - cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the vinegar. Add the tomatoes and stir to combine - season to taste with salt and black pepper. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes [here I would add the cayenne].

Add the cooked pasta and reserved cooking water to the skillet and toss mixture together for about 1 minute. Add the cheese and arugula - toss well and cook for about 1 minute.

(And you thought I was kidding about it taking 20 minutes!)

Didn't your mother ever tell you not to play with strange peppers?

Last week, I cooked a vegetarian chili that was so bad I didn't even bother posting it. The recipe, it turns out, made a mediocre, slightly spicy lentils dish. Now, in keeping with my unwillingness to not modify a recipe when I cook it, I decided to make use of fresh peppers rather than using only crushed red pepper flakes for the spicing.

I am always excited about a culinary adventure, so if you put two different kinds of peppers in front of me I will, almost always, select the pepper I don't know. Up until now that has not caused me any significant problems, because the grocery stores around us don't actually sell any peppers that are truly spicy. I have tried all of the options available at our local Giant, and a reasonable assortment of those available from Whole Foods. They are all moderately spicy peppers with slightly different kinds of spice, but roughly the same intensity. Last week, however, I did my shopping at the local grocery store (it is in a predominantly Latino neighborhood) and discovered Jamaican hot-peppers.

Cooking with them was almost comedically painful. It reminded me of those jokes, "you know a pepper is spicy when..."
1. Smelling them from close range results in a burning sensation that runs through your nostrils like wild-fire and doesn't leave for half-an-hour.
2. Their juice irritates the skin of your hands while you are cutting them.
3. After three attempts, you still cannot clean your hands of their oils. Resulting in you being unable to touch your eyes for the remainder of the night.
4. You can still taste their spice on your fingers the next day when eating a sandwich.

Well, I take it you get the picture. It was unbelievable. I have never handled anything quiet so dangerous in a kitchen setting. The next time I cooked with them - the night before last - I used a plastic bag to cover the hand I touched them with.

But man, did they ever add a nice kick to the dish!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hearty Vegetarian Curry -- Finally, a Winter Success.

For all that I bitch about post-collegiate life, there are some aspects that I'm really going to miss when grad school starts up in the fall. I mean besides the paycheck, all you cynics out there :) No, really, I underestimated how much I would enjoy the workplace camaraderie. My coworkers are awesome: we trade recipes and favorite food blogs, we go to gym class together then whine about our sore muscles the next day, and we share stories from our weekend without it becoming a confessional. I really appreciate that folks are friendly without there being some awkward sense of forced personal intimacy; in college, social interactions were much more an 'all or nothing' deal. I wonder what the social culture will be like in grad school?

Another thing I really appreciate about the working world is that guilt doesn't hover over you like an omnipresent rain cloud. Take yesterday. I left work, I came home, and I spent about an hour cooking. With comfy slippers on, D working on his laptop close by, a glass of Riesling from a bottle that my dear Brooklyn friend sent to us, I just took my time. It was so satisfying. No inner alarm button going off beeping, "You should be studying/reading/writing up that essay." No opportunity cost that is not self-assigned. It's a much more sane rhythm. I can really leave work at the door, and enjoy the evening however I damn well please... which happened to be cooking a seasonally-appropriate, vegetarian dish.

Regardless of what the blooming tree outside our bathroom window claims, it's not spring here yet. No asparagus, tomatoes, or fresh greens that aren't the prodigal children of California or Chile. As I whined in yesterday's post, this has made our self-imposed vegetarian diet somewhat uninspiring. However, Victory! Who does hearty, flavorful vegetarian dishes better than the South-East Asians? I should have spent more of this month working through my two Indian cookbooks.

This stew/curry-like dish is potato based, making it sort of like a Hindu take on St. Paddy's Day. It's hearty with a complex flavor, and managed to hit the sweet spot where we were both quite happy with the heat level. (D keeps a sizable collection of hot sauces nearby for whenever I cook!). As a warning, fenugreek is a salty spice, so be sure to taste-test before adding more salt... chef's perogative!

I also made rice as a side, just in case the two dried chili peppers turned out overwhelmingly hot. Pretty simple rice recipe from the same cookbook: heat oil, throw in some mustard seeds till they pop, add a cup of rice and stir to coat. Add 1.5 cups of broth and simmer sloooooooowly till the rice is cooked, then add frozen peas (well, you Californians can add fresh peas, but those of us less blessedare stuck with frozen). It turned out to be a really versatile, fragrant, subtle dish... interesting enough flavor to eat on it's own, but muted enough that it was still refreshing against the spicy potato curry. D foresees that this rice recipe will be a regular addition to our weeknight repertoire.

Recipe: Madhur Jaffrey's "Potatoes in Thick Sauce"

5 medium-size boiling potatoes
1 piece of fresh ginger (2"x1"x1"), peeled and coarsely chopped
1 Tbs ground coriander (I roast whole seeds and then grind)
1 tsp ground cumin (ditto)
6 Tbs tomato sauce
6 Tbs vegetable oil (less couldn't hurt)
1 tsp whole fennel seed (I didn't have any, so I used celery seed. eeh)
10 fenugreek seeds, whole (I didn't have any, so I used ground. Not recommended, since fenugreek is so salty)
1/2 tsp black onion seeds, if available
1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
1-3 whole dried hot red peppers (I used two, and it was surprisingly pleasant)
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp salt (too much. Add to taste)
1 tsp garam masala.
  1. Boil potatoes in their jackets at least 2 hours ahead and leave to cool. (I boiled, rinsed in cold water, and fridged while I did the next steps).
  2. Roast and grind coriander and cumin if necessary. Put coriander, cumin, ginger in the electric blender and vroom-vroom for a few seconds to break up the ginger. Add the tomato sauce and 3 Tbs warm water. Blend to a paste.
  3. Break each potato into 6-8 pieces. (Madhur Jaffrey peels them and breaks them up by hand. I like peels and had under boiled them, so I used a knife).
  4. Heat oil in a 10-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the fennel, fenugreek, onion, and mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds begin to pop, put in the red peppers. As they darken, put in the paste from the blender. Fry for 5 min, stirring frequently. Add the potato and fry another 3-5min, stirring constantly. Add 1 1/2 cups of water and the lemon juice. Bring to a boil, cover, lower flame, and simmer gently for 15-20 min. The sauce should be fairly thick.
  5. To serve, sprinkle with Garam Masala and stir. Serves 4 as a main with rice.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Fish Market, or Surviving Holy Week

If I contemplate another 5 days without meat, I think I'll scream.

This may be because we've reached the last week of Lent, the holiest week in the Christian calendar, during which cheating is definitely not an option. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, we've sentenced ourselves to a meat-less Lent, Sabbaths excluded)It may also have something to do with the fact that we ate every meal out this weekend, for the most part at fabulous seafood places.

Maryland Blue Crabs
Originally uploaded by .Angeli

Why on earth did we do this to ourselves? Why did we throw away our precious few meat days on fish? Well, coincidentally or not, some of D.C.'s best casual restaurants happen to be seafood joints and D's parents were visiting from the Midwest. We had sinfully good oysters and fried clams at Hank's Oyster Bar, hit up the Smithsonian (I'd forgotten that the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art is so freakin' impressive), overordered at Bistro Bis, and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the tourists at Mt. Vernon (I abhor adolescent school trips. They're too busy with their own complicated social structures and taking photos of everything to pay attention to what they're looking at). Best of all, we had Sunday morning breakfast at the D.C. Fish Market.

Originally uploaded by .Angeli

Now is time for me to wax poetical. The Fish Market is this dirty, mucky place on the wharf, buried just below a particularly hard-to-navigate piece of D.C. city planning and therefore impossible to find unless you're looking for it. On this particular morning, it was cold, wet, gray, and absolutely glorious. More fresh fish than you could shake a stick at, anything that's in season, all beauties. Crab, alive or already cooked. Whole fish, steaks, or fillets. Local fish like trout or flounder, or exotic swordfish and tuna and salmon that have been flown in. And if you're not shopping for dinner, there are hush puppies, stuffed crab, oysters shucked in front of you, and the best New England clam chowder I have ever had at Jessie's Cooked Seafood stand.

Originally uploaded by .Angeli

Okay, so that's not saying much, since my experience with clam chowder is limited. However, D's Mom assures me that it's truly amazing and I've decided that she's a credible source, given that she entitled her last vacation "The Great New England Clam Tour" and drove around tasting clam chowder morning noon and night. Jessie's wife has been making clam chowder from the same recipe for over 20 years (so claims Jessie), and uses a clam-based stock instead of ubiquitous seafood stock (so say my tastebuds). Creamy, but not too creamy, with chewy fresh clams, it tastes like the sea. It is by far the best eating-out option in D.C. And at $5 for an extra-large serving, you can go back again, and again, and again. Next time you're in D.C., go!

But back to Holy Week. With 5 weeks of meat-less eating under our belts, what have we learned? Well, for one, that our diet depends on meat a lot more than we thought. Almost all soups and sauces call for chicken or beef stock for heartiness, and many of our favorite pasta or other 'one-pot' dishes call for small quantities sausage or some other meat product for flavor/texture. There's a big difference between dishes-not-revolving-around-a-meat-main and meatless dishes, which we didn't fully appreciate when we started this.

We've also come to realize (duh) that eating vegetarian in the winter sucks. In the summer, you just throw some fresh veggies together and sprinkle some lemon on and it's the best meal you've ever had. In the winter, when you crave warm, hearty meals, mediocre imported veggies simply aren't as satisfying. We've come to depend on carbs and beans a lot. I don't want to see another lentil soup until 2009. So, this excercise brought out the worst in both the veggies and in our culinary patience. It didn't help that we're both gratuitously stringent when it comes to recipe quality -- if it's not the best, we'd rather not eat it.

Yesterday evening, when we sat down to put together the week's shopping list (yay for having the car back and being able to do a mass shop!), it was pretty depressing to realize that we couldn't find anything vegetarian that we wanted to eat. We leafed through mountains of cookbooks and recipe clippings, but nothing that was in season seemed inspiring or exciting. As noted in a hilarious post by Laura at The Kitchen Illiterate blog, hearty vegetarian recipes have an unfortunate tendency to turn out as monochromatic mush. The irony is that, within a few weeks of returning to the world of the omnivores, it'll be spring and we'll be feasting on asparagus and peas and making dishes far too light for any sort of meat addition. Kind of funny, but also kind of depressing.

So has it been worth it?
From a religious perspective, absolutely. Oh man, do I ever feel like I'm the fasting penitent, waiting with anticipation for Easter. It's been a while since I've felt this appreciative that the Almighty made creation and pronounced it edible. From the ethical standpoint, I'm still inclined to increase our consumption of "happy" meat once we get through this -- yesterday, while driving to D's parents' hotel, we finally stumbled across the Dupont Farmers' Market and man is it big! But from the diet standpoint? I don't know. Maybe once this is over, I'll be more easily satisfied with meat stock in my soup or small quantities of sausage in my pasta... or maybe I'll be so sick of eating vegetarian that I'll cook nothing but meat-based dishes for months.

In the mean time, 4 more vegetarian dinners until Shabbat.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sometimes Inspired: Asian-style Omelettes with Mushrooms and Spinach

For those of you who have read The Great Clam Massacre, you are aware of my "creative" streak when it comes to cooking. While usually this leads to... mixed results, tonight I appear to have tapped into my inner-muse of cooking. The original idea was easy enough, cook mushrooms and goat-cheese together and use it as a filling for an omelet. The idea of mushrooms and goat-cheese is something that is often recurring in our cooking, particularly when we are hosting a party (lots of finger foods can come out of that combination).

Walking to the grocery store, on my way home from work, however, I had second thoughts. Now, usually, this is where the tragedy would begin, but not today - oh no, not today. I started having visions of spinach and sesame seeds with my mushrooms. "Spinach, sesame seeds, mushrooms, and goat-cheese?" I asked my self. It didn't take me long (about the time to walk from the metro station to the grocery store) to decide that wasn't going to work. But I knew that I wanted spinach in the omelet, so I bought some along with the eggs and mushrooms. As I walked home the image of wilted spinach, with sesame seeds in an Asian-style sauce formed in my head, and I was sold.

The final recipe involved light soy sauce, sesame seed oil (we were out of sesame seeds), vegetable bouillon, spinach, onions, mushrooms, sunflower seeds, red pepper flakes, parsley, and cilantro. The mixture was folded into some fluffy omelets, and served. It was a massive success. Both Neen and I were wishing that I had made extra, not because we were hungry - it was just that good. Actually it wasn't good - it was addictive. Now, before anyone tries it, please keep in mind that we love the flavor of soy sauce and sesame seed oil. If these are not flavors that you enjoy - this is probably not the recipe for you. But, oh man was it good.

As a final comment, for anyone who likes the heat, the chili paste that Neen made for her Indian dinner was a fantastic complement to the dish. I wouldn't make it just for this, but it is a great addition. If you don't have any chili paste lying around, it might be worth using some ground cumin and a touch of lemon juice in the original dish.

Since I made this one up as I went along, the proportions are all guess work.
1.5 Tbps light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame seed oil
1.5 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 box of sliced button mushrooms (normal mushrooms)
1 small onion
"handful" of fresh chopped cilantro
"some" fresh chopped parsley (about 1/2-1/3 of the above)
1/4 of a lb of spinach
1/4 cube of vegetable bouillon
garnish with sun flower seeds (sesame seeds, maybe?)

Add the soy sauce, sesame seed oil, and vegetable oil to the pan over medium heat. Once the pan is warm, add mushrooms and onions. Allow to cook until mushrooms are soft. Add parsley, cilantro, and bouillon. Add water if needed to keep a small layer of liquid cover the very bottom of the pan. Mix as needed to get bouillon dissolved. Add spinach and cook until wilted. Top with sunflower seeds.

Add this to the inside of an omelet or anything else.

Chicken Cacciatore, for when your brain hurts

During our 4th year in college, we lived in this gorgeous, old low-rise apartment building in Chicago. Unlike our current place, the rooms were ample and always full of light, making it a great place to have people over. Our dining room table was (and is) a well-used ikea number that doubles as a two person desk during most of the day, and we had more than enough room for two couches where you could often find my little brother hammering away at his 1st year English essays or Calculus problem sets. I would let him know that something yummy was on that night's menu, and that there would be more than enough to share (being as yet unwilling to experiment with the proportions of all these 4 person recipes. Without my brother to act as an appreciative garbage disposal, we have since become very good at halving every recipe off the bat), and he would wander over sometime after afternoon class and plug himself into our wall sockets for hours on end. D would drag himself away from lab and bring a graduate student friend with him, enticed away from experiments in favor of a non-cafeteria, non-eateria dinner. It was great. I really miss it. Unfortunately, neither one of us has a brother in D.C. and we live too far away from our jobs to casually drag unsuspecting colleagues home. Ah well, hopefully when we go to grad school in the fall...

This recipe, I believe, may have been what convinced D to defer grad school and follow me out to DC for a year. It's that good. Or at least, he reacted that positively when I made it for the first time in college... in retrospect that may say more about what I'd been serving him to date, but ehh. :) Chicken Cacciatore is like pure yumminess in a bowl, slathered in hearty tomato sauce over pasta. This recipe is hearty and flavorful and classic, without being reduced to some trite Italian reference. D inserts, "It's everything you like about a classic pasta sauce, but more. More spiced, more complex, deeper." The chicken is super moist and melts off the bone. We always serve it over noodles, to lap up that great sauce and to make the dinner stretch to feed 3 hungry University boys. Best of all, it's simple enough that even I, a super inexperienced cook (at the time) and nervous hostess (still), could pull it off without thinking twice. If I had to list only three culinary successes that we got out of that year, Chicken Cacciatore would top the list.

A quick word on the source. I clearly didn't take the photo above (notice the lack of pasta and the professional lighting -- definitely not me); it's the photo that accompanies the recipe in the "Real Simple: Meals Made Easy" cookbook. I really recommend it, we've had good luck with everything we tried. Unlike with most cookbooks that are marketed as "simple" or "college-level," these recipes have all been very flavorful, well-balanced texture-wise, aesthetically pretty, crowd-pleasers, and INTERESTING. I've heard some folks complain that Rachel Ray-type recipes are more "simple," but I find these recipes very clearly written, straight-forward in terms of steps and techniques, and really not requiring a lot of stressful juggling in the kitchen. And every one can be accomplished on a weeknight. The only drawback is that some of the recipes are less inspiring to me, mostly the "empty pantry" and the "no-cook" meals. Ah well, definitely worth leafing through in a bookstore!

Chicken Cacciatore with Pasta
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
kosher salt and black pepper
1 3 1/2- to 4-pound chicken, cut into pieces
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced (eeh, optional)
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 sprigs fresh thyme (more is always better)
1 bay leaf
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes
Cayenne pepper to taste
1/3 cup dry red wine
1 lb pasta (more or less depending on how many you're feeding)
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

In a shallow bowl, combine the flour, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper. Rinse the chicken and pat it dry with paper towels. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large saucepan over medium heat. Working in batches, lightly coat the chicken in the flour mixture, shaking off any excess. Add some of the chicken to the pan, being careful not to crowd the pieces. Cook the chicken until browned, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate; set aside. Repeat with the remaining chicken.

Add the onion to the pan and cook for 2 minutes. Add the carrot, celery, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Stir the tomatoes into the vegetables, crushing them with the back of your spoon as you go along. Add the wine, and salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken, reduce heat, and cover. Simmer for 45 minutes, turning the pieces occasionally.

In the mean time, cook the pasta in boiling water. When the Chicken is ready, remove and discard the bay leaf. Serve the cacciatore on top of the pasta and sprinkle with parsley.

Serves 3-5, depending on how many starving college boys you have at your table.

Check out the Presto Pasta Nights roundup at Once Upon a Feast.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Bacon Basket: Undercover Reporting on the Foodie Blogosphere

I just have to say, this creation by blogger Not Martha is the coolest thing ever.

Disclaimer: I have not tried the recipe yet, nor did I take the above photo, but damn. Other folks have picked up this idea and run with it, putting scrambled eggs in their baskets or adding croutons to the salad to make it an innovative take on a BLT. I'm just still in awe at the coolness of the presentation factor... the texture, the colors, the possibilities! It also looks relatively easy, oven-baked bacon. Actually, my only fear would be that the salad dressing wouldn't go with the bacon... but people serve bacon on salad all the time, so a light, inoffensive, vinegrette would probably work. This may be one of the first things I try in the post-Lent world.

I just had to share.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Six-Onion Soup

I was all worried about tonight's dinner. After a weekend of glorious, unrestricted, over the top eating in NYC, I was really apprehensive about a vegetarian weeknight dinner. That sounds horribly trite. What I mean to say is that, with our car out of reach for grocery-shopping purposes (long, tedious story), none of my recipes seeming both simple and interesting flavor-wise, and my favorite fellow-diner who generally finds veggie-based stock an extremely poor substitute for meat stock, well, I was anticipating an anti-climatic meal. Inspiration was distinctly lacking.

Six-Onion Soup
Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

Well, it's after nights like tonight that I feel completely justified in owning a disproportionately huge collection of cookbooks. (Disproportionate with respect to the size of our "cute" apartment). Most of our well-used, well-perused cookbooks sport 10-30 multicolored adhesive bookmarks, evoking the image of a badly-cut mohawk. One of these bookmarks has been tenaciously flagging the Silver Palate's Six-Onion Soup for months now. Oh my gosh, what a discovery! The soup turned out to be one of the best homemade meals we've had this month. I was dubious, but you actually can taste an un-pinnable-downable complexity from all those different varieties of onion. That complexity was almost hauntingly addictive, especially with some fresh ground pepper; you wouldn't want to distract from that interesting flavor with cream and chicken stock. The texture is more hearty, pulpy, bistro-style as opposed to uber delicate and suave, goes well with a hunk o bread and an under $20 bottle of wine. Success!

There was admittedly an episode of the burning croûtons, which involved me flailing and yelping and D rapidly detaching the toaster oven from the wall and holding out our two-story window to prevent the fire alarm from going off. He later gleefully reported, "See? I'm not the only one that burns shit."

It definitely also made me happy that we finally broke out the Royal Copenhagen porcelain spoons that I swooned over and finally bought in Denmark last December. I really think that their patterns are the ultimate in sophistication, class. During a transatlantic layover, I dragged a very jet-lagged Do to their flagship in a very cold downtown Copenhagen at 9 a.m. on the Saturday before Christmas, and nearly swooned from lust. (In case you were wondering, no, Do could not comprehend my coveting the damn china). Of course, with the Euro what it is, I could only afford two spoons... but oh do I love them. My own, my precious.

Perhaps predicting that I would share my passion for these freakin' spoons and thereby terrify all our readers, D decided to serve and share with all y'all one of our tried-and-true American Rieslings. Because his passion for wine clearly makes so much more sense than my passion for the spoons. :)

Recipe from the Silver Palate Cookbook (my changes in italics)

4Tbs butter (try olive oil next time, for some semblance of healthiness)
2 cups chopped yellow onion
4 large leeks, white part only, chopped
1/2 chopped shallots
4-6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (you can bet I used 6)
4 cups Chicken stock (Use Veggie stock, Chicken might overwhelm the delicate onion complexity)
1 tsp dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Lots of salt and pepper
1 cup heavy cream (don't use, it's too rich and heavy. If you want a thickener, use a roux or cook a potato in with the onions -- it's starch will act as a thickener)
3 scallions, trimmed and diagonally cut into 1/2 inch pieces
toasted croûtons and snipped fresh chives for garnish.
  1. Melt butter in the pot, and add the onions, leeks, shallots, and garlic and cook, covered, over low heat until the vegetables are tender and lightly covered, about 25 minutes.
  2. Add the stock, thyme, and bay leaf, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer partially covered, for 20 minutes.
  3. Remove the bay leaf, and Vroom-vroom the soup. (Ok, so Silver Palate doesn't use those words. Think of it as poetic onomatopoeia.)
  4. Here's where you don't whisk in the heavy cream. Instead, add the scallions and simmer for another 5 minutes.
  5. Ladle into bowls, garnish with croûtons and chives, and Voilà!
Serves 4-6.

Kendall-Jackson Reisling 2005

Tonight, I will not be getting much in the way of work done. Not only is it already getting late, but we decided to open a bottle of wine with dinner, and after the mint julep previously, that has knocked me into the tipsy stage (not a great place to try to get real work done from).

Six Onion Soup and Kendall-Jackson Riesling
Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

The bottle, however, was well worth it. Kendall-Jackson, a common grocery-store label, really does produce a nice, balanced Riesling. I started to enjoy wine by drinking German Rieslings, so I tend towards the picky side with this varietal (okay, I tend towards the picky side with most varietals, but this one is especially bad). This bottle of KJ did not disappoint. The acidity is on the middle-palate, which is very comfortable for stand-alone drinking, but it has enough acidity that it can stand-up against reasonably robust dishes. The fruit flavors are mellow and some-what blended - I could taste green-apple and maybe melon, but nothing else really stood out. The sticker price of $12.00 places it a little high compared to some of its competition, but it is well worth the price (and much safer than most of the $8.00 Rieslings one finds - some of them are great, but it requires a lot of searching to find them).

We had this wine next to a five-onion soup, that Neen cooked. The acidity of the wine let it stand up against the cream that was used to thicken the soup stock. Since the wine is a little light on acidity for a dinner wine, the sweetness and cream of the soup made the wine taste slightly more acidic on the front palate. Overall, a nice pairing - the soup brought out the acidity that the wine needed to function as a refreshing foil to the cream.

Like Mint Tea, But Better...

Today was by far the best weather that DC has had in a long while. Warm enough to be pleasant, with clear blue skies and a gentle breeze. When I got home after work, I spent at least 30 minutes sitting on the porch outside reading a book and enjoying the wonderful weather and the smell of burning wood from a neighbor's fireplace. There are few things that say summer to me more than the flavor on mint (yeah, I know it is at best Spring, but from the perspective of Winter they both seem so similarly... pleasant).

Mint Julips
Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

A mint julep was a necessity to complete the feeling of nascent Spring. I was first introduced to a mint julep by Neen's father (Alabama born) - he showed me how to crack the ice and bruise the mint. My own mixtures tend to be a softer than his, to my palate the perfect mint julep really is related to mint tea (another favorite of mine). The sugar, far from hiding the flavor of mint, actually accents it. The ice and water make the mix a little lighter on the alcohol, taking away some of the over-powering flavor of bourbon, giving the drink a complex flavor.

This is a very easy drink to make, but it is very important that when bruising the leaves one does not break them open (this will give the drink a more astringent character).
1. Bruising: put about 1-2 Tbsp mint leaves (cleaned) into the glass. Add about a teaspoon of water. Using a sturdy spoon, press the mint leaves against the side of the glass. You just need to bruise the leaf (it should turn a slightly darker color when bruised), so don't press so hard that you break the skin of the leaf.
2. Crack ice. This can be done with a machine (if you would prefer), or one can simply crack the ice by holding the ice in one hand and hitting it with the spoon (hold the spoon at the bottom of its handle - the motion is in the wrist).
3. Add the Bourbon. (Proportions here are going to depend on the person - I tend to cover the leaves and then add about half to three-quarters as much bourbon as the volume of the covered leaves.)
4. Add sugar to taste.

Nothing says Home Again like Challah

New York City never fails to amuse/overwhelm. We saw a bank with a silver muzuzah affixed to its sliding glass door, downed sake bombs with a sushi chef on the Upper West Side, and had my umbrella ripped to shreds by a torrential downpour over the course of a three block walk. The downpour ended ubruptly about 90 seconds after we reached the theatre.

Our trip was a complete blast, but it's good to be home. As much as I love exploring snazzy restaurants and being introduced to unforgettable local dives, I always feel somewhat out of my element when I eat out for several days straight. Enough fast-paced urbanity, I'm feeling the need for some warm, homey comfort. It's been over two weeks since I made fresh bread, and I'm starting to go into withdrawal.

Close-up on Challah texture
Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

I first baked Challah on Rosh Hashanah 2006... in fact, I think that was the first time I ever baked bread. After experimenting with a bunch of different recipes with credentials spanning from Joy of Cooking to a friend's mom's, I tried this one from "New Kosher Cuisines for all Seasons," a compendium of recipes from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. This, to me, is the Platonic ideal of Challah -- light, buttery flavored crumb, not cake-y, doesn't dry out overnight, and doesn't involve 4 eggs. This is looming in my near future.

For 1 challah:

1 package dry yeast
warm water
1/4 c vegetable oil
3 1/4 c all purpose flour
1 egg, beaten
1/8 c sugar
1 tsp salt

Proof yeast in a small bowl by mixing yeast, 1/4 c warm water, and oil.
In a large bowl, mix flour, eggs, sugar, salt, and 1/3 c warm water. Add dissolved yeast mixture, mix together and knead well. Cover and let rise anywhere from 1.5 hours to 4.5 hours.
Divide into three strands, and braid. Let rise another hour. Bake for 25 min.

The loaves supposedly freeze well, and don't go stale if left out overnight (yay for Challah for breakfast!)

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Lent without Meat, loosely defined

Since we won't be cooking today, it seems a good time to hold forth on a mildly schizophrenic topic in our household, namely that of Lent.

Lent, all torturous forty days of it, is a traditional time to make winter suck even more than you thought it could. Don't get me wrong, as an Episcopalian I'm part of a long line of folks who take to such self-disciplined displays of liturgical symbolism like a pig to mud. In the past, I've engaged in such hardcore (and short-lived) forms of piety that included 30min of daily prayer and a no-solid foods diet (soups and yogurt drinks only, that year involved a lot of cheating).

The thing is, though, D is not Episcopalian. If I had to peg him down, it would be a sort of Durkheimian Jew who adamantly repudiates all things ascetic. One day of fasting for Yom Kippur is one thing, forty days of it in the dreariest part of winter is quite another. So I was completely blown away when D took my suggestion of one meatless day a week and upped it to five.

The logic was that both Judaism and Christianity frown upon Sabbath fasting, so our household should clearly not restrain itself between Friday night and Monday morning. And since it's a Christian ritual, it seems only fair that we should follow the Jewish definition of meat, which conveniently does not include seafood. (Now would not be a good time to mention that clams are strictly not kosher under any circumstances, but hey, who's checking). So here we are, making a reasonably good faith effort to not eat meat during the workweek. Three weeks down, three to go.

We, or at least I, embarked on this exercise not so much for religious reasons, really, as for intellectual and ethical ones. When designing a meal, we tend to start with the meat and work our way out from there. In our defense, so do our main sources of inspiration, namely our cookbooks and our parents. But still, how much creativity would it require to think beyond that stand-by square 1 when assembling something as mundane as weeknight dinners for six weeks. Especially in the dead of winter, when it's not like veggies are at their most glamorous. Could we get along without missing meat? Would it inspire new cooking habits, reduce our grocery bills, introduce us to new favorite dishes? Would it allow us, both financially and mentally, to splurge on "happy" meat on the rarer occasions when we did cook it? I read Omnivore's Dilemma in the fall and we visited the "beyond organic" Polyface farm with their grass-fed beef and chicken. Would we be more enlightened, or simply have another reason to cry out TGIF?

We'll keep you posted on that. So far all I can say with certainty is that it's definitely making it more difficult to work through our weekend leftovers!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Chocolate-Espresso Cake

This, my friends, is the stuff from which cravings are made. I started making this cake in response to weekend luscious chocolate cake cravings, which a store-bought slice from a coffeeshop just didn't satisfy. I'm hemmed and hawed all weekend -- neither one of us has a sweet tooth, we never finish an entire cake, it'll be an awful lot of work for just one plateful of pleasure... As usual with me, rationality prevailed for exactly 48 hours, then caved. And the photos in Ina Garten's "Barefoot Contessa at Home" looked so tempting...

Barefoot Contessa's Chocolate Cake
Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

Barefoot Contessa's Chocolate Cake
Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

I baked the cake on Monday, but didn't have confectioner's sugar for the icing and got distracted by that whole getting-admitted-to-the-grad-school-of-my-dreams thing. Then last night we got home bloated from Citronelle and with our heads full of Texas exit polls. So, today, finally, it happened. And it was glorious. The recipe can be found on page 165 of her cookbook or here.

I used espresso instead of normal coffee in the batter, simply because we have only a stovetop espresso maker. *insert snobbish comment about espresso vs. drip coffee in a foreign accent here* It was pretty intense, and D. wasn't too sure if that was a good thing for the first few bites. In the end, it adds an addictive extra layer of spice and complexity to an otherwise normal chocolate flavor. And the icing is great because it's not too sweet -- 1 1/4 cups of confectioner's icing instead of the usual entire box (okay, all you health foodies, you can stop gagging now. Just don't ask me how many sticks of butter went into the affair!). The cake layers were a little dry, but I'm sure languishing unwrapped in the fridge for a couple days will do that to the best of us.

But, for the record, icing a two layer cake is a BITCH. There's another reason to postpone kiddies. I inherited the cake pans from my mother, and I remember wondering at the time why she had so many. Answer: KIDDIE BIRTHDAY PARTIES!!!! AAUGH. I'm going to have nightmares, I know it. In the mean time, any tips on how to ice a cake?

So here we are, with a gi-normous, gorgeous, two layer chocolate-espresso cake, and we're going to NYC tomorrow. Not the most brilliant exposé of rationality ever, but then again the Royal We threw rationality into the wind when We decided to bake the damn thing in the first place. Does cake freeze? Maybe I'll send a third to D's colleagues, take a third to my own, and put another third in the freezer as an experiment? I'd hate to give it all away, it was so luscious...