Thursday, April 24, 2008

No dinner tonight.

My camera's broken. It's not charging. I don't want to even think about it. Thankfully, Do has stepped in and is taking care of the situation. My hero. He's really good at telling when I'm too irrationally upset to cope with logistics. In the mean time, you may be in for a bunch of photo-less posts. Boo.

Thankfully, I won't even miss it tonight because Do is taking me on a surprise date! This was planned before the camera broke, you cynics you. From his mysterious hints, it would seem like dinner and show...?

Modern yet Comforting Matzah Ball Soup, by a first-timer

Let's do the sensual before the esoteric for once, shall we? Sort of retroactively taking up Psychgrad's suggestion to do the food before the ritual. :)

Do is now addicted to this Matzah ball soup. He has literally eaten it for three out of the last four meals, and has added it to his mental "must repeat once a month" list. Which is about as successful as a recipe can get in our house!

The soup itself is scarily easy to make (more on that later) and yet has a surprisingly deep chicken-y flavor. This is no insipid liquid that barely hints that someone may have once waved a chicken over it. This is punch-you-in-the-face chicken flavor. This may be because you add chopped roasted chicken late in the game (Thank You, local super market rotisserie!), which comes with its own set of spices and flavors that boiled chicken just doesn't have. The behind-the-scenes support staff, the veggies, are also doing more than their fair share of the work in the flavor department, I speculate because they get chopped very very finely in the food processor. As a result, more flavor leaches out of the veggies into the soup and you aren't distracted by hunks-o-veggie while eating. Oh and I speculate that my soup (above) would have been almost as clear as the Food & Wine photo (below) had I not spontaneously added chopped mushrooms to mine.

The Matzah balls, Do assures me, were also a success. They're spongy and light, yet they soak up chicken soup like a camel in the desert (Manna for my Men and Matzah ball soup for my Horses? No? No one listens to Toby Keith here? Maybe that's just Do's bad taste rubbing off on me). So it's like biting into chicken soup in solid form. I think they look kinda ugly, maybe like brains, but Do assures me that Food&Wine must have used golf balls in their photograph (see left), because no one's Matzah balls look that good. I think that this was my first attempt ever at Matzah balls, so they'll only get prettier with more attempts.

The last component, the dill-horseradish pistou, was really what took this version of the age-old classic to the next level. It was brilliant. It's essentially a pungent sauce exploding will dill and horseradish flavor. Extremely refreshing, extremely interesting, and forcefully inserts a light, fresh flavor into the otherwise heavier flavor of chicken soup. It reminded me of Scandinavian flavors. And it's beautiful. An impressively insightful modification to the classic: it takes chicken soup from the realm of the stuck-in-bed-with-the-flu and elevates it to High Holy day mode. Congratulations, Food & Wine, you really outdid yourselves on this one.

It was scary as shit to make though; at least 4 times during assembly I was convinced that it would be a total failure. The pre-cooked Matzah balls had an odd consistency and wouldn't really hold their shape. And then, I was convinced that they would stick to each other while simmering, and that I'd wind up with one giant glob-o-Matzah at the bottom of my pot. And then, I was pretty sure they looked like brains. And then, the chicken soup itself is so scary simple that I was sure it would taste just like tinned chicken stock. Let us say, it was an experience replete with adrenaline rushes.

Now for the mildly esoteric. I think it really says a lot about Judaism as (interchageably) a religion, a faith, and/or a family heritage/identity that Chicken Soup, chicken soup, is traditionally served on one of the High Holy days. It's in no way glorious, awe-inspiring, or intimidating. Instead, the focus is on a dish that is comforting and home-y, that creates the feeling that you are taking care of/being taken care of by the family and friends around you. I mean, it's soup, for goodness sake! It excels at producing warm and fuzzy feelings! How cool that it's traditional to serve a dish that brings out and prioritizes those sentiments. I dig that. I'm a-ok with religious observances that revolve around chicken soup.

(And yes, Matzah Ball Soup is traditional only among a subset of Jewish families, particularly those of Ashkenaz descent. For all I know, other Jewish cultures may serve a different dish that is equally warm and fuzzy. Me and my WASP-y preconceptions are taking this all in from a very subjective point of view. Speaking of which, if you want to read more about our intimate Monday night Seder, be my guest!)

The original version of this recipe comes from the Food & Wine magazine, but the version below represents my improvements (er, modifications).

Matzah Ball Soup with Dill-Horseradish Pistou (F&W claims that it serves 4, we found it served 6)

For the Matzo Balls:
4 large eggs, beaten
Half of 1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup seltzer or club soda
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp ground pepper
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 cups Matzo meal

For the Pistou:
1/2 cup extra-virgen olive oil
1 cup coarsely chopped dill
2 Tbs finely grated horseradish
1 garlic clove
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper (we used Lemon pepper, since we had some on hand)

For the soup:
Carrots, finely diced (I used all our leftover carrots, which was probably 1/2 pound. Allow me to recommend the food processor)
Other veggies, finely diced (F&W used a medium turnip and a celery rib; I used 4 leftover button mushrooms).
3 quarts chicken stock (F&W recommends homemade; we are lazy and used storebought)
4 cups diced chicken (3/4 inch) (we highly recommend buying a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, as it saved you time and tastes better than boiled chicken)
  • Make the Matzo Balls: In a bowl, whisk the eggs with the olive oil, salt, seltzer, pepper, and ginger. Add matzo meal and stir until moistened. Refrigerated until firm, at least two hours.
  • Line baking sheets with wax paper. Scoop the Matzo meal mcture into 1" balls (really. Keep 'em small. Unlike with cookies, bigger isn't better.). Using lightly moistened hands, roll the matzo balls until smooth. Transfer to the baking sheets and refrigerate the matzo balls briefly.
  • Meanwhile, make the pistou: In a food processor, pulse the olive oil with the dill, fresh horseradish, garlic, salt and pepper until the dill is finely chopped and a sauce has formed. (At this point, you can stop and fridge everything overnight if you wish).
  • In a large pot of boiling salted water, simmer the matzo balls over very low heat, covered, until they are plump and cooked through, 25-30 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, in another large pot, heat the stock. Add the finely diced vegetables, cook 5 min until crisp-tender. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the matzo balls to the soup; simmer for 5 more mnutes. Add the chicken and cook until heated through.
  • [You may want to let the chicken sit in the soup for a bit (10 min), to let the flavors mingle. I had to because Do was late coming home, and I think it made a big difference]
  • Serve the soul in bowls with a dollop of dill pistou.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Creating Traditions: Passover Lite and Spiced Charoset

I'm simultaneously intrigued and intimidated by Passover. Intrigued because it's such a "Family food" holiday, to quote D: at its center is the dining room table and a family-friendly set of prayers and stories and symbolic foods. It's so cool that arguably the most fundamental biblical event is commemorated within the intimacy of the family circle. I'm charmed, perhaps because I'm a sucker for all things symbolic (oops, is that my Episcopalianism showing?). But I'm also intimidated: one of the primary purposes of the holiday is to remember and reaffirm membership in the Jewish family at large. Last time I checked with my mother and my priest, I'm not Jewish. And yet this year, I was the one who assembled the Seder plate, set the table, and made dinner. Hmm. Walking the walk of an interfaith couple definitely provides food for thought.

[D Steals Talky Stick and Runs to the Corner of the Room]

Well, while Neen is not a Jew, I am. I had better clarify: I am a 30-minute Jew. If observance takes longer than 30 minutes at a sitting, it had better be Yom Kippur - for anything else, it just isn't going to happen. So when it comes to Seders, well you can imagine. As far as I can glean, a proper Seder, in my Grandfather's tradition, takes approximately 5-6 hours. It starts around sunset and food is finally served around midnight. It is amazing to me that he managed that with 4 children in the house.

I don't have the attention span for that - so when it comes time for a Passover Seder, I turn immediately to a nifty little booklet called 30 Minute Seder. Despite the cheesy main-page, the actually Seder guide is well put together, and - best of all- thin! It covers all of the most basic mitzvot with little explanations for those of us who have no clue what the bitter herbs are supposed to symbolize, or who might not realize that a hard-boiled egg is to commemorate Jewish midwives (?!). Though I admit, the absolute best on our Seder plate was the bone that represents the strong arm of God - let me just say, the little chicken thigh bone was almost hilariously puny looking. But I get ahead of myself.

The Seder itself really took only 30 minutes, a miracle considering that last year with my parents (when I used the same book!) it took us nearly two hours to get through everything - though, we had not yet discovered Neen's mad "Warp-speed Narration" talents at the time. The Seder starts with lighting the candles, an opening prayer, and a blessing over the wine. (For those of you who are on top of the ball, you will realize that I am skipping the removal of the chametz from the house - well, it just wasn't in the game plan. That would definitely take more than 30 minutes ;). After that we did all of the basic prayers... to a degree. The hiding of the afikomen (a piece of matzah that is broken off in the early portion of the seder) was executed by placing it on the window sill to our left.

By far the two highlights of the Seder were the Warp-Speed Narration of the story of Moses (performed by Neen) and the seder plate (created by Neen). It seems like an obvious question to ask, "well Do, what exactly are you good for?!" That is a fair question. Overall, probably not very much on this kind of occasion. I was going to cook a dish, but since we didn't get around to having a Seder until Monday night, when I had kendo practice, I couldn't get home in time to help with the cooking. (Yeah I know, along with being a 30-minute Jew - I am also the kind that does everything a day late, it is a brutal combination). So if I seem a little under-represented in the workload here, it is because Neen is an inter-cultural saint. Besides, in the end it worked out - the Matzah Ball Soup that Neen made was FABULOUS! I was stuffed after one large bowl, and eating anything else would have really just been a waste of stomach space. It has taken me most of the last two days to convince her that not only do I like the matzah ball soup, it is one of the best things to come out of this kitchen for a long while. Maybe it is just because I haven't had matzah ball soup in so long and this soup is fulfilling some long forgotten desire, but I can't get enough of it. It will definitely be going into the all time favorites category!

But all of that is a tangent - the matzah ball soup will be posted separately, so keep an eye out for it! What I really wanted to talk about was Neen's mad narration skillz. Thats right, skillz. There is not other way to describe her ability to decimate a story and then recombine the pieces into a short, snappy little tale that hits all of the main points in modern language (and lots of laughs). Sometimes you just wind up with a Moses the rapper, or Pharoah as played by Darth Vader. No matter what, it's funny. Not a bad thing when you are dealing with a 30-minute Jew running to the end of his attention span for rituals.

Of course, there is also the Seder plate. This is can be a very intense item to make. Neen was in charge of it, and she pulled it off perfectly. If you would like to know what everything means I recommend this wikipedia page. Our particular tray included a Charoset inspired by the Yemenite tradition (very similar to the Sephardic, which is my heritage), made with nuts, dried apricot, raisins, port, and a diverse set of spices. Very good. I was impressed because last year we made the more common apple-based Charoset, and it just didn't work for me at all, so this was a very nice change of pace. Of course, the reason this is so important is the ever famous Hillel sandwiches. (For those not in know, a Hillel sandwich is charoset, bitter herbs (i.e. horseradish) smashed between two pieces of matzah.) On this particular occasion, the Hillel sandwiches were actually really, really tasty. Neen I kept going back for more because the strong flavor of horseradish really complimented the sweet, spiced flavor of the charoset. Of course, we also need to eat through a bunch of matzah (we bought a box), and - as Neen discovered - matzah is actually a really uninteresting flavor on its own. But covered in charoset and horseradish, the matzah simply becomes a vehicle to get delicious flavors to ones mouth. Go Charoset!

[Neen, in awe of Do's flood of reactions, wrestles the talking stick away]

Wow, I guess Do had something to say! I'll be brief and just throw in my two cents:
1) Matzah is awful stuff.
2) This Charoset is addictive. It's completely different from the classic apple one because of all the spices, and I would gladly eat it any time. I highly recommend it for anyone that doesn't already have their own traditions engraved in stone.

Charoset (Inspired by Gil Marks' Yemenite Version)

Handful of slivered almonds (or other nuts)
Handful each of raisins and dried apricots (or other dried fruit, dates and figs are particularly traditional)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
large pinch of dried cardamom
large pinch of cayenne.
Cheap Port (adds great spicing, but Kosher red wine would work too).

Pulse the dried fruit and nuts in the food processor until they are very finely chopped. Add the spices and pulse again to mix. Add just enough port to moistened, pulse to mix. Voila!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The New Olympic Sport: Indoor Grilling!

(Neen proposed a couple other titles, including "Indoor Grilling: Never, EVER try this at Home" or "Men+Fire+Inside = Bad News," but it's Do's story so she'll let him tell it to you in his own words)

A couple weeks ago, we went to the DuPont farmers' market - and we have been posting about it ever since! Well, one (of the many) things we purchased at the farmers' market was a collection of different kinds of sausage.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I am holding four different packages of sausage in my hand and thinking about how to prepare them is: GRILLING! There is nothing like a charcoal grill or a wood fire for cooking up sausage. Of course, we don't own a grill. Not even one of those cute, "I can only hold one burger at a time," weber grills that inevitably wind up stuffed into some god-forsaken portion of your closet that you didn't even know existed prior to owning this particular grill (I know, my parents have one). So that got my wheels turning. It's a slow process.

What is the most basic aspect of a grill? Open fire. The second most basic aspect - a metal grid to put the meat on so that the meat cooks with those delicious hash marks. The scientific minds begins to work and I wind up with the following equation: open fire + metal grid = stove burner + oven rack. Now many of you, I expect, can already pin-point exactly what the problem is going to be, sssshhh...... don't ruin it for the rest of the class.

As soon as we get home I start trying to put my dream into action. I can already taste the slightly carbon-y flavor of the deliciously, perfectly grilled sausages that I am going to make. If only it was that easy. The first complication, of course, is the thought of clean up. I mean, sausages are going to leak grease all over the place ... so I use aluminum foil as a cover for my oven-rack to keep the juice from dripping onto the stove. So far, so good. I place the foil-coated oven rack directly above open flame, let it heat up a little and then toss on a sausage. The hiss and crack of meat on hot metal is music to my ears.

As I watch the buffalo hot dog begin to cook, I become certain of my success. I toss on a hot Italian Sausage made of pork and an lamb chorizo, thinking to my self, "Oh, this will be easy!" At first everything is perfect, the sausages begin to cook and change colors. Then they start leaking oil - oh yes, but I have my aluminum foil, aren't I clever! Of course, it is very hot aluminum foil. It is aluminum foil directly over an open flame. And grease, for those of you who don't know, has a very low flash point - that is why one gets grease fires. Oh, yeah... grease fires...

As the lamb chorizo cooks and releases oil (lots and lots of oil), the oil seeps towards the burner, and the next thing I know, the aluminum foil is on fire. This is not sparks, or little pops of flame, no it is burning right in front of my eyes. Neen took the opportunity to vocalize in no uncertain terms that grease fires are not her idea of a good time (it's amazing what she can communicate in a single syllable). Meanwhile, I turn the fire off and the flame quickly subsides (thankfully it is actually pretty hard to keep aluminum foil burning, and there was not that much grease). The picture to the right is a shot of the aluminum foil, just after I turned the fire off. You can see the holes where the aluminum foil was burned when the grease lit on fire... So ended the great indoor grilling experiment. It is just a miracle Neen didn't kill me for trying.

Thankfully, the sausage was far from ruined. I just pulled out a pan and cooked them the old fashioned way. The sausage selection we had purchased was (from left to right in the photo below): Lamb Chorizo from Virginia Lamb, American Buffalo Hot Dogs from Cibola Farms, French Taragon Sausage made of pork also from Cibola Farms, and Hot Italian Sausage (which we have polished off, so I don't know where we purchased it from). They were all really good. I was particularly impressed by the lamb chorizo since, while it had spices similar to chorizo, it really didn't taste anything like a pork based chorizo - it had a much more interesting flavor. The only down side is the amount of grease that it releases while cooking. The Buffalo hot dog, was a really, really nice hot dog. If we had hot dog buns, a grill, and some condiments, I can't think of anything better. I would stick with them over grocery store hot dogs any day of the week. They have a much more intense meat flavor than the standard all-beef hot dogs.

On the whole, if you are interested in a diversity of flavors with your sausage, the DuPont Farmers' Market is a good stop. The sausage is not significantly more expensive than a nice sausage from Giant, and they are much, much better. With the added bonus that most of them come from "Happy Animals."

Neen made a wonderful little salad to balance the all meat main-course. It was a great lunch. Of course, then I had to clean up my "indoor grill." Ah well, live and learn.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Field Trip to the Indian Grocery: Boxed Dinner and Sweets!

Have I mentioned that neither D nor I have ever put on a Seder? It's always been at his family's, or a giant dorm event or, if you go far enough back, it was simply a date on the calendar. This leaves us in the slightly intimidating position of figuring it out on our own (gasp!), with some help from the internet, cookbooks, and vague memories. This is what our breakfast table looked like Saturday morning:

You see Gil Marks' "World of Jewish Cooking" open to a page on Sephardic Roast Lamb and Ashkenaz Sweet-and-Sour Meatballs, recipe clippings from last month's Gourmet article on Passover (including Matzah ball soup), and a shopping list. You also see our not-so-nutritious (sorry Mom!) breakfast of tea and Indian sweets. After taking this picture, I realized that I have not yet shared our glorious trip to the Indian grocery store last week. So I'm putting Passover blogging on the back burner, and moving over to our Indian food finds!

In search of mustard oil to fuel his dal kick, my Dad scoped out Indian grocery stores when he was here a few weeks ago. He found a wonderful one right off Rockville Pike (12213 Nebel St., Rockville MD), owned by a lovely entrepreneurial family that has just opened a Halal meat store next door. From what we could gather, the Dad runs the grocery and the daughter serves as the butcher. I took D there for kicks and tourism last weekend and we indulged in a lot of goodies, including samosas and stuffed buns, a boxed Tandoori Chicken spice mix, and three boxes of Indian sweets. And had a lot of fun chitchatting with the gentleman behind the counter... a misleading phrase, because he promptly left the counter and followed us around the store to describe all the products and insisted on carrying our selections for us. A slightly overwhelming but charming display of pride in his own establishment.

It's not exactly clear to me what is in these Indian sweets. The silver foil covered ones in the red box contain "Kaju, Sugar, and Desi Ghee" and the Nutritional Information is reported in grams. Extremely not helpful. A quick google search for "Kaju" reveals "Kaju Katli is an Indian sweet made from cashews, sugar, cardamom powder, and ghee. Typically cut into Rhombus pieces and covered with edible silver foil Varakh."

Um, and it's addictive. For reals. The pieces are so cute and little and tiny and not overwhelming that, before D knows what is what, I've scarfed down half a layer in a sitting. (D inserts: "HALF a Layer! More like half the box!") They go especially well with tea the morning before Passover. Or eaten in bed while reading Jane Austin. Or a mid-afternoon snack.... :) We opened this box on Disasterous Dinner night (Thursday), and the photo to the left was taken on Saturday morning. This cannot be good for my arteries (I should take a photo of the ghee in my fridge sometime. It looks like jarred cholesterol), but oh man. Oh man. I'll take some of these over corn syrup-laden candy bars or mediocre American chocolate any day of the week. And, though the powers that be certainly won't agree with me, Kaju Katli is kosher for Passover! Did YOU see any yeast or flour products on that ingredient list? I think not!

[Passes the talking stick to D.]

Well, while Neen was busy eying up all of the sweets, I went shopping around for some boxed food. I know, I know, boxed food is the sign of the ultimate fall into depravity. It is one step forward and half a step back and to the right from Ramen, but when faced in the inexorable complexity of Indian food I tend to freeze. So, being a well trained Foodie, when I can't produce myself, I cheat. Besides, boxed exotic food doesn't really count as boxed food at all, right...

Well, based on the huge selection of box preparations that existed at this store, I am clearly not the only person out there who is buying boxed foods. They had a huge array of different kinds of chicken and curry dishes. I was actually very impressed with the selection. Of course, as soon as I saw a chicken dish that had that spicy red look that I associate with tandoori - well, I had to have it. Of course, it wasn't tandoori (and only a heathen as ignorant as myself would be thinking of tandoori when faced with a box of Dum Ka Chicken Masala).

The deal maker in this case was that the box contained just the spice mix I needed to marinate the meat. I purchased the chicken, cilantro, hot peppers, onions, and yogurt for cooking. They had a very simple recipe, straightforward except for having to deep-fry the onion (which I just wasn't prepared to do). The chicken had to marinate for two hours, or so the box said. I let it marinate for an hour and the flavor seemed full and balanced to me, but I won't claim to be an expert on how the dish was supposed to taste. I will claim, however, that it was delicious. Extremely spicy, but delicious. The chicken wasn't as tender as it should have been (I think this is a fault in my preparation), but the flavor was a nice balance of smoke, strong Indian spices, a little richness from yogurt, and a lot of heat.

Of course, once Neen had picked out two boxes of sweets, it seemed only fair that I should get to pick one too. The box I picked was packed full of what looked like Indian donuts. On the bottom you could see the thick layer of golden viscous fluid. I am going to pretend that it was honey and not a sweetened oil (or industrial syrup). The donuts themselves were all very good. The flavors were varied, but the texture was predominantly a thick cake-y texture, completely saturated with that viscous "honey". I loved them all. Well, not quite all. I don't really enjoy the flavor of coconut in my sweets. So there are three oblong shaped sweets that I am avoiding for the time being. I may get around to them before they go bad, or I may try to pawn them off on Neen...

[Neen grabs the talking stick back]

Okay, so D told you my secret: I did get two boxes of sweets. To SHARE. Of course. I would never, ever, hoard them or keep them to myself. Right. My second choice was the "Mixed Sweets" box (on the right), which contains a mix of disturbingly pastel-colored goodies. Most have a crumbly, grainy texture like Halva (which I far prefer to D's syrupy donuts) but without any of Halva's sesame flavor. They are sweet (very) and nutty (a little) and maybe coconut-y. Really, the coolest part was the texture: crumbly, grainy, but it dissolves in your mouth... mmm. So cool! And so not something I know how to make myself!

Okay, back to Passover, celebration. :)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Weeknight New Potatoes with a French Twist

I feel like our blog just had a "coming out" party (not that I would know, I'm not THAT Southern!). Ramona, who always has great tips about D.C. Farmers' Markets, introduced us to the Washington D.C. foodie blogosphere at large with a shout-out on I don't know if I'm more surprised by our daily hits quadrupling, or by the number of government employees who use their mid-afternoon breaks to browse food blogs. We got hits from the Senate, NIH, DOJ, USDA... I'm more than moderately amused at how easily distracted folks are on Friday afternoons (including myself, since I was clearly monitoring my blog hits!).

Just to make sure that nobody out there has any misconceptions about us being snazzy or hip or anything, I'm posting on a lazy weeknight meal from a few days ago. Last Sunday, in our excitement over the Dupont Farmers' Market's latest spring arrivals, D and I picked up both new potatoes and spring garlic.

We both really like potatoes, I mean Really. Like. Potatoes. And yet we don't cook them all that often, probably because we avoid side dishes in general. In case you haven't noticed, we tend to cook one-pot meals on weeknights, at most throwing together some rice or pasta to round out a meal. D's not a multi-tasker (it's that linear scientific mind), and my heart sinks whenever multiple pots or skillets or prep bowls get dirtied in an evening (I'm the dishwasher in the family). So we haven't really had a potato fix since leaving behind the heavy winter casseroles and stews.

The recipe is very everyday French, which means it's surprisingly simple and straightforward in both prep and flavor profile, yet the quality is very high. The potatoes were tender, slightly crisp on the outside, and slathered in enough walnut oil to be moist but not oil-y. The taste actually really caught us: I don't know if it was the nutmeg or the walnut oil, but the flavor was more sophisticated that I would have otherwise given skillet potatoes credit for. Unfortunately, I don't know spring garlic well enough to tell how much of a difference it made. On the whole, the dish was simple without being boring -- perfect for a weeknight.

AND it was vegetarian, AND I made a salad to round out the meal. Talk about getting over kitchen phobias.

We'd like to submit this post to Weekend Herb Blogging, which is being hosted this week by Susan over at The Well Seasoned Cook. If you'd like to participate, read the rules for Weekend Herb Blogging, then send your entry to Susan by 3:00 on Sunday, Utah time.

Patricia Wells' Potatoes sautéed with Garlic and Walnut Oil

2 lb small, firm, smooth skinned potatoes (We had picked up some new potatoes at the local farmer's market)
1/4 cup walnut oil (P.W. says that you can substitute Extra Virgin Olive Oil, but you'll be missing out. HER words (paraphrased), not mine!)
Freshly grated nutmeg (indispensable.)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 garlic cloves, minced (we used spring garlic, which we sautéed with the potatoes)
1 handful of parsley, minced
1 handful of chives, minced (didn't have)
  1. Peel (but only if you must) and thinly slice potatoes. Wrap in a thick towel to absorb any liquid.
  2. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the potatoes and sauté, shaking the pan from time to time until the potatoes are thoroughly cooked and browned on both sides, about 20 minutes. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste as the potatoes are being tossed.
  3. To serve, sprinkle on the garlic, parsley, and chives, and toss to blend.
Serves 4.

Friday Drinks: A Repeated Exploration

Yesterday was Friday. The entire day a single mantra was playing through my mind, "TGIF, TGIF, TGIF!" I didn't want to do work - I was burned out from the slow realization that the project I have been working on for the past 6 months might be a complete bomb. That is to say, that I might have to restart from square one. With only a short two months before I leave for California, that is not feasible. It has been a disappointing week. Oh well.

I came home early and worked from home. I was reasonably productive, but I spent more than a moderate amount of time staring at a wall trying to figure out what I will do if it turns out this project doesn't work. For those of you who are not familiar with academic science - we live and die (professionally) by our ability to publish papers. Preferably, really good papers that everyone wants to read. If this project doesn't work, well it will not be disastrous but it would be a blow to what I had hoped to accomplish this year.

So when Neen finally got home, I was ready for a drink. I didn't want anything too stiff, so I decided to continue exploring mixed drinks. Earlier this week we had tried a recipe for a Cosmopolitan that was really disappointing (from my American Bartender's Handbook). So, this time I looked to my Maran Illustrated book on Bartending to see what other recipes might be out there. Along the way I saw a recipe for something called a Bay Breeze that made use of pineapple juice, so I decided to make that for Neen when she got home and have the Cosmopolitan for myself. As it turns out, I made both when she got home, and she finished her Bay Breeze and then asked for a cosmopolitan on top of it. I was impressed. She was tipsy.

Bay Breeze:

Neen really, really liked this one. Again, it was a very light drink. It had 1 oz of vodka to 4.5 oz of fruit juice. The cranberry juice gave it just enough tart to make you really appreciate the flavor of the pineapple juice that was mixed in. It is also very easy to make since it is really just mixed together in a glass with ice.

The only problem with the drink is that it really taste like fruit juice - you don't notice the vodka until it hits you. And if you weigh as little as Neen does, well, it will hit you hard. (Especially once you have already moved onto your second drink).

1 oz vodka
2 oz pineapple juice
2 oz red cranberry juice
1 lime wedge

1. Fill glass with ice cubes.
2. Add the vodka, pineapple, and cranberry juice to the glass.
3. stir together and garnish with a wedge of lime.

Neen inserts: Hey! Just 'cause I tripped over the computer cord doesn't mean I'm a lush!

The first cosmopolitan we had tasted too strongly of the triple sec and vodka without the easing influence of cranberry juice. Both Neen and I found it too strong, with an almost sickly sweet flavor. The recipe I give below is one I found in the Marlan Illustrated book on Bartending. It has more cranberry juice and lime juice then the previous recipe, and a larger ratio of vodka to triple sec. This one I really, really enjoyed. I will be coming back to it again for a while. I found the flavors intriguing and full, without tasting so strongly of alcohol as to be unpleasant. It was, however, still a stronger drink than the Bay Breeze - so if you are a fan of the really fruity mixed drinks - try the recipe above.

1.25 oz vondka
3/4 oz triple sec
3 oz red cranberry juice
1/2 lime (juice) [this is ~1/2 oz of lime juice]
1 orange spiral (I didn't include it, but there it is in the recipe)

1. Fill shaker halfway up with ice cubes.
2. Add vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice, and lime juice to the shaker.
3. Shake vigorously for 5-10 seconds. (I usually go slightly longer because we tend to like drinks that are a little more diluted)
4. strain mixture into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an orange spiral.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Disappointing Dinner, Memes, and Other Misc. Ruminations

We had a rather disappointing dinner last night with an acquaintance from college. He's a very recent graduate (3 weeks) and it surprised me how much that affected our conversation: he couldn't relate to our stories about run-ins with the landlord or the "rhythm" of the 9-5 job; we eventually tired of his enthusiasm for his new job (after learning about the organization's history, financial status, and all of his colleagues' job descriptions and career goals...). I'm shocked that 10 months outside the Ivory Tower created such a notable gulf between us.

Not to mention that two new recipes that we tried were not particularly memorable or worth the effort. The sausage/porcini pasta dish tastes ubiquitously French (good, but I've got other recipes on hand that'll accomplish that as well if not better), and was not deserving of the expensive porcinis or Farmer's Market sausage that it used. The recipe for fried oysters was just not impressive. Which was sad: had they worked I would absolutely have submitted the recipe to the Vintage Cookbooks event hosted by the Weekend Cookbook Challenge crew.

I may write a food post at some point today but, for variety's sake, I'm going to use this post for unfinished business and miscellaneous thoughts.

-- First, Johanna asked for a picture of the new cruet that my parents got me while they were in town. It's simply a receptacle that is specifically meant to hold salad dressing, so that you don't have to make dressing every time. We used to use a jar. My parents use a tall plastic Tupperware-like cruet. I picked this one out from Crate and Barrel because a) it's not tacky or cheesy, like many others out there, b) it's got a bunch of different recipes for salad dressing written on the side of the container. Not something I'd really want I were hosting the Queen of England, but convenient for someone who is personally terrified of making salads.

-- Second, Johanna tagged me for a six word memoir. I procrastinated all week under the pretense of thinking about it. It seems rather over-the-top for me to attempt to describe myself in six words, both because, since I'm only 23, the choice of words changes almost weekly, and because most adjectives seem viable to a greater or lesser extent.

My six words would be:
exotic: I grew up in West Africa and Switzerland (French school K-12), worked in the Dominican Republic, and am tri-lingual.
affectionate: My Mom observes that I need a lot of attention, like a puppy. That's A-OK with Do!
: Fighting to capitalize on good school, good grades, good resume in a town where most young people are fervently trying to do the same.
settled: Relatively speaking. I'm the boring one among my peers: I come home every night to my partner and cook with porcinis.
nerdy: I'm a certified nerd, got the degree to prove it. You should see our bookshelves (Kant, theoretical organizational decision-making, Theological Feminist Criticism...that said, I'm currently reading Sense & Sensibility ;).
verbal: (My Mom: "She never stops talking!"). Maybe this blog is an outlet..?

[Completely unrelated: last Thanksgiving, D's family played a game to come up with "six word novels." Essentially, you have six words to communicate an entire story line. The best one was told by D's Dad: "Frodo Kills Darth Vader. Lucas Sues." LOVE IT.]

-- Finally, Passover starts tomorrow. I'm a little sad: we won't be able to fly out to celebrate with D's family and all our close D.C. friends are going home to their families, so it'll be just a small tete-a-tete Seder. That, and after the six weeks of self-imposed vegetarianism otherwise known as Lent, we're both dragging our feet at the thought of another week or so of culinary regulation. We dutifully bought Kosher-for-Passover Matzah last weekend, but have yet to decide how else we're going to approach the holiday. Ah, the culinary trials and tribulations of the interfaith liturgical calendar. It helps to know that all High Holidays between Passover and Yom Kippur will leave our kitchen alone.

-- Speaking of Lent, have you noticed how many posts are under the vegetarian tab?? Wow, we've really, unconsciously, seriously modified our diet as a result of that exercise. We now eat meat at only 50% of our meals. I'm really impressed!


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chutney: King of the Canned Tomatoes

This Chutney is a fighter.

For one, it's got enough garlic to kill a horse.

For two, I have personally witnessed this chutney submit itself to two months in a Swiss refrigerator, two months in a transatlantic storage container, and then several months in a freezer in the Dominican Republic (where the electricity isn't so dependable), and by the end it was so addictive that I would sneak into the kitchen and eat it by the spoonful in between meals.

I first made this chutney in 2003 as part of a grand Indian feast for my Dad's birthday, two months before my family moved from Switzerland to the Dominican Republic and I went off to college in the U.S. As a preserve, it can keep for many (many!) months refrigerated, and it is so potent that you need only a spoonful at a time. That said, I was pretty impressed that it not only survived but got better after completing a non-refrigerated transatlantic move. I have a hearty respect for this chutney.

Its taste blows my mind away. There's a perfect balance of sweet and sour and garlicky, concentrated. It's assertive, but doesn't usurp your ability to taste other foods like hot sauce does (a point of domestic contention, admittedly. Ask Do about his hot sauce passion/obsession sometime). The texture is definitely jam-like. And, now that I'm trying to eat seasonally more often, I appreciate that it uses canned tomatoes instead of fresh (though you can use fresh if you decide to make chutney this summer). I made a batch on Sunday and have been slipping a spoonful into my lunches all week... along with some peppermint gum so that I don't overwhelm my poor coworkers with my garlicky breath.

Who knows, if we don't finish it all by mid-June, we may submit it to our cross-country move to California. If it's anything like the last batch, the dramatic change of scenery will only make it better. :) But that's if we can resist the temptation to dip into our supply twice a day!

Despite the lack of jars in the photos (the one jar we own is currently being used, so the chutney is being temporarily stored in a very undignified Tupperware), this is a great way to keep tomatoes for MONTHS. So we're sending this over to Rosie and Pixie's Putting Up event. If you'd like to participate, send them posts on your favorite homemade jams or preserves by May 21st.

Madhur Jaffrey's Sweet Tomato Chutney.

28 oz. can whole tomatoes (M.J. claims that 2 lbs of fresh tomatoes could work if you peel them.)
1 whole head of garlic, peeled
A piece of fresh ginger, about 2" long, 1" thick, 1" wide, peeled and coarsely chopped.
1 1/2 cups wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/8 - 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 Tbs golden raisins
2 Tbs blanched slivered almonds.
  1. Put the garlic, ginger, and 1/2 cup of the vinegar into the blender and blend at high speed until smooth. In a heavy bottomed pot with nonmetallic finish, place the tomatoes and their juices, the rest of the vinegar, the sugar, salt, and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil. Add puree from blender. Lower heat and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 1.5 - 2 hours or until the chutney becomes thick. (A film should cling to a spoon dipped in it). Stir occasionally at first, and more frequently later as it thickens. You may need to lower the heat as the liquid diminishes. You should end up with about 2.5 cups of chutney, and it should be at least as thick as chutney after it cools.
  2. Add the almonds and raisins. Simmer, stirring, another 5 minutes. Turn heat off and allow to cool. Bottle. Keep refrigerated. It keeps for months.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

5 Dals, or What Neen's Dad did While She Was at Work Last Week

[From our favorite guest blogger: Neen's Dad] When Neen and D visited us in Austin, Texas, last month, I whisked them off to one of the several Indian grocery stores I had discovered in North Austin, the most rapidly growing section of town, close to the major high tech companies. Immigrants from India make up 3% of town’s immigrant population, active in services as well as in high tech, and sufficiently affluent to support not only hometown-style groceries but also regular screenings of the most recent Bollywood spectaculars, at Cinemark’s Tinseltown South.

Gandhi Enterprises is next to the allied “Curry in Hurry,” and it features everything Indian, both culinary and cultural. Ranks of DVDs and VHS cassettes occupy an impressive space near the cashier. The store is not large, but the variety of Indian food products is dazzling. Imagine a whole aisle of chutneys and relishes, and another whole aisle of prepackaged Indian meals for the housewife without the time to cook all day long. But what most attracted my amateur eye were the stacked packages of all kinds of dal, whole or split, in many colors – black, yellow, orange, green and more.

Dal are varieties of dried beans and peas. As Madhur Jaffrey explains in her “Invitation to Indian Cooking” (1973, recently reprinted in hardback by HarperCollins),

“In some form or other they are eaten daily in almost every Indian home, frequently providing the poor with their only source of protein. While people in England and America speak of making their living as earning their ‘bread and butter,’ Indians who earn a bare wage complain that they make just enough for their ‘dal roti’ (‘roti’ is bread).”

You are unlikely to load up on dal at your local Indian restaurant, since you’ll be picking and choosing among the principal dishes, but there might be a dal or two on the menu. But consider them for your own kitchen: the peas or beans become an tasty medium for Indian spicing and can play neatly against the meat, breads, and chutneys. And Neen tells me that they make fine carry-along lunches the next day.

Jaffrey lists nine common types of dal (mung/moong dal, urad dal, chana dal, arhar or toovar dal, rajma (red kidney bean), mansoor dal, kala chana, chhola or kabli chana (chickpeas/garbanzos), and lobhia (whole black-eyed peas). She kindly notes to her 1973 audience that she is including “recipes for the dals available in your supermarkets (lentils, frozen black-eyed peas, canned chickpeas) and for dishes made with ground chickpea flour. . . and ground urad dal.”

We split our Austin purchases of dal, so when Neen’s mom and I arrived for a week’s visit, I had a good idea of the possible opportunities and challenges awaiting an amateur cook with time to spare.

Some lessons learned over the course of the great dal cook-in:

- - It is indeed prudent to pick through the dry dal, spreading it a quarter of a cup or less at a time on a clean plate to assure yourself that there are no stones or sticks in the mixture. The dals from our brand-name suppliers were admirably clean, but at one point I did detect and remove a jagged little stone that could have cost someone a chipped tooth.

-- Since dals are dried, one must rehydrate them. There are different approaches to this, and the split dals will respond much more quickly than the whole ones. The recipe for mung beans called for them to simmer for 5 hours; for the “dry cook” dals in her book on vegetables and grains, Julie Sahni simply soaks split dal under two inches of water for two hours. Take the time delay into consideration. And make sure that you are preparing the full measure of dal specified in the recipe. It can be awkward to try to rectify a recipe by adding uncooked, unsoaked dal late in the process.

- - Once you are comfortable with the basic concepts (such as the inevitable flavor base of ginger, garlic and hot pepper to taste), you can treat the dal as a canvas for self-expression. The last dal below was largely my own invention, but nothing says that the equivalent might not have been produced somehow, somewhere on the subcontinent.

Kali Dal – Black Beans Cooked in a Punjabi Style

“The black beans used here are not the Central American black beans [i.e., black turtle beans] but a slightly more viscous, ancient Indian variety known in much of north India as whole urad dal with skin (and in the state of Punjab, where this recipe is from as sabut ma).” -- Madhur Jaffrey, “Climbing the Mango Trees, A Memoir of a Childhood in India” (2005, NY: Alfred A. Knopf)

2 cups whole urad dal with skin
5 good-sized garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
One 4-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper for a mild recipe; may
be increased to taste
¼ cup peanut or olive oil
¾ cup puréed tomatoes (also called strained tomatoes or passata)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)

  1. Pick over the beans and wash them in several changes of water. Drain the beans and soak them in 5 cups of water overnight. (Or, alternatively, put the washed beans and the same amount of water in a pan and bring it to a boil. Bo il for 2 minutes. Cover it and turn off the heat. Set aside for 1 hour.)
  2. Drain the beans again. Put them in a pan, add 5 cups fresh water, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low so that the beans simmer very gently, cover partially, and cook 1 ½ to 2 hours or until the beans are tender. Stir every now and then.Meanwhile, put the garlic, ginger, cayenne and ¼ cup water in a blender. Blend until you have a smooth purée. Set a small (6-inch) preferably non-stick frying pan with the oil in it over medium heat. When it is hot, add the paste from the blender. Stir and fry for 3 to 4 minutes. When the beans are tender, pour this mixture into the pan with the beans. Add the tomato purée, salt, and cream. Stir the beans and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover partially and simmer gently, stirring now and then, for 15 minutes. Stir in the butter, if desired, and serve.

Moong Dal

(“This is North India’s most popular dal, and it is eaten with equal relish by toothless toddlers, husky farmers, and effete urban snobs. The simple recipe given below can be used for the white urad dal, the salmon-colored masoor dal, and the large arhar or toovar dal as well.” - Jaffrey, “Invitation to Indian Cooking”)

1 ½ cups moong dal (hulled and split)
2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 slices peeled fresh ginger, 1 inch square and 1/8 inch thick

1 teaspoon chopped Chinese parsley (coriander greens or cilantro)

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

¼-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

1 ½ teaspoons salt

1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons vegetable oil or usli ghee (clarified butter – see comment, below)

a pinch ground asafetida or tiny lump asafetida (a resin used fo
r spicing)

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

Lemon or lime wedges
  1. Clean and wash dal thoroughly. Put dal in heavy-bottomed 3 to 4 quart pot, add 5 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Remove the froth and scum that collects at the top. Now add the garlic, ginger, parsley, turmeric and cayenne pepper. Cover, leaving the lid very slightly ajar, lower heat, and simmer gently for about 1 ½ hours. Stir occasionally. [Note: Julie Sahni’s version calls for 5 hours of cooking – which was about twice as long as necessary, in our experience.] When dal is cooked , add the salt and lemon juice (it should be thicker than pea soup, but thinner than cooked cereal).
  2. In a 4 to 6 inch skillet or small pot, heat the vegetable oil or ghee over a medium-high flame. When it is hot, add the asafetida and cumin seeds. As soon as the a safetida sizzles and expands and the cumin seeds turn dark (this will take only a few seconds), pour the oil and spices over the dal and serve. (Some people put the dal in a serving dish and then pour the oil and spices over it.)

Serving variation: You may chop two or three onions in thin rounds and sautée them until golden, then add asafetida and cumin seeds for the final moments. Serve this mixture on top of the moong dal or beside it.

Hot Chana Dal with Potatoes

(from Jaffrey’s “Invitation to Indian Cooking”)

½ cup chana dal (round, yellow grain, split; from the chickpea family), cleaned and washed [Note: we all agreed that this quantity could be doubled or tripled for this recipe]
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons vegetable oil [Note: you can purchase mustard oil at your local Indian store, but do so quickly; Mr Sani at Dani Imports in Rockville, Maryland, tells us that because of shortages, the Indian government has forbidden the export of this uniquely Indian cooking substance]
¼ teaspoon black mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon whole cumin seeds

10 fenugreek seeds
2 fresh green chilies (as an alternative, use 1/8 – ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper)
1 medium-sized onion, peeled and chopped
a piece of fresh ginger, about ¾ inch square, peeled and grated
4 new potatoes, boiled and diced into ½-inch cubes
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice or 3 tablespoons tamarind paste [Note: the tamarind gives it a special tang; tamarind paste in jars or dried tamarind ready for rehydration can be found at your Indian grocery]

  1. Put the dal to boil with 3 cups of water and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Cover, lower heat, and simmer gently for 1 hour. Drain and set aside.
  2. In a 10-inch skillet, heat the oil over a medium-high flame. When it is hot, put in the mustard, cumin and fenugreek seeds. In a few seconds, as soon as the cumin and fenugreek seeds darken and the mustard seeds begin to pop, add the green chilies. Turn them over once (this will take another second), then put in the chopped onion and grated ginger. Stir and fry the onions for 4 to 5 minutes. Now put in all the remaining ingredients – that is, the boiled dal and the diced potatoes, ½ teaspoon salt , the pepper, cayenne if you are using it, and lemon juice or tamarind paste. Mix well and cook over medium flame for 5 minutes, stirring frequently but gently.

“Dry Cooked” Sookhi Dal

(from Julie Sahni’s Indian Cooking with Vegetables and Grains)

1 cup split yellow mung beans (moong dal)
5 Tbs usli ghee (clarified butter, a staple of Indian cooking, available in Indian groceries either as an import from the subcontinent or as “Desi ghee,” produced in North America) [Note: I love cooking with butter, but I shivered with dread when I took the jar out of the fridge and saw the waxy pale yellow substance; delicious as it is, ghee has got to be 100 percent cholesterol]
1 tsp cumin seeds
3/4 cup finely minced onion
1 Tbs finely chopped fresh ginger
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp tumeric
3/4 tsp mango powder or 1 1/2 Tbs lemon juice
1 tsp coarse salt
1 cup water
2 Tbs chopped fresh coriander

  1. Pick clean the beans and wash thoroughly in several changes of water. Put beans inbowl and add enough water to cover by at least 2 inches. Let soak for 2 hours. Drain and set aside.
  2. Measure out the spices and place them right next to the stove in separate piles. Heat 2 Tbs of usli ghee in a medium-size skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat. When it is hot add the minced onion. Fry, stirring constantly, until light golden (~10min). Add ginger, cayenne, and tumeric; continue frying for an additional 2 min. Add soaked beans. Sprinkle on the mango powder and salt, and mix wel. Pour on 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook the beans partially covered for 20-25 min or until the beans are almost cooked and most of the liquid is absorbed. Cover the pan during the last 5-10 min of cooking.
  3. Stir in the remaining usli ghee and continue cooking the beans, covered, in the butter vapor, for 10min or untilt hey are fully cooked and soft. Uncover, fold in the cilantro, and serve warm.

“Firangi” Masoor Dal

(“Firangi” [foreigner] dal because I made this one up, following Sahni’s general instructions for dry-cooked dal. I love the electric salmon color of this uncooked dal; it fades a little bit during the cooking.)

two cups masoor dal
a tablespoon of cumin seeds, dry-toasted in a frying pan
garlic (as much as you like!)
ginger (ibid)
onion (ibid)
vegetable oil (mustard oil is a possibility)
three small hot green peppers (serrano type), seeded and cut lengthways into quarters
1 small can peeled tomatoes
three spring onions, choped in one-inch lengths
a generous amount of black pepper

Soak two cups masoor dal under two inches of water for two hours blended the garlic, ginger and onion in a paste and fried it up in mustard oil. Once that that was ready, I added the cumin seed and the hot green peppers, sautéed them until the peppers had gone limp, then stirred in the tomatoes (without the brine) and cooked for perhaps ten minutes. I seasoned further with black pepper after cooking was done.

Neen commented, perhaps doubtfully, that it looked Italian – but she didn’t complain about the flavor!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Kitchen Confessions: Last Night's Fiascos

I don't want this blog to be limited to eternally chirpy posts. I'm not here to sell anything, or convince anyone of my mad cooking skills. Arguably, I didn't start this blog to share great recipes, but to process and learn from our food-related adventures. What's the point of blogging only about our successes?

Can you tell that I'm trying to work myself up to publicly admitting my stupidity? :)

Fiasco 1: The Challah.
I made Challah yesterday to serve with our morels (as recommended by Gourmet) and to submit to Psychgrad and Giz's Tried, Tested and True event. I chose this recipe because a) Gourmet recommends serving the morels on Challah, b) Challah is associated with a lot of powerful memories for me, and c) because I make the recipe so damn often that I've hammered out its kinks. It fit with the whole "tested" theme.

For future reference, there are an endless number of "kinks" that can be summoned up through the powers of absent-mindedness. I knew this: last week I ruined the Challah by adding the water and oil in the wrong order (among other things). Well, my accomplishment for this week was to divide my ingredients by 4 ... until I switched and started dividing them by 3 halfway through.

ARH, so preventable! The recipe in the book (with all my "notes-to-self" written in the margins) is 4x as much as we need. I knew that I should be dividing everything by four, I've done it before, and I even had correct measurements written on this blog! Worse case scenario, the fact that I used all four of my measuring cups should have alerted me to the mix-up. Dumb!

In the end, the bread turned out mostly fine. The the ratio of water-to-flour was correct, but there was insufficient yeast and egg and oil and salt. So, while the texture of the crumb was perfect and the end result looked phenomenal, the flavor was much tamer than I remembered... less salt, less butter-flavor. I'm just kicking myself that I made such an avoidable mistake and that I submitted it to an event for "tested and true" recipes. I mean, the recipe itself is wonderful and perfect, it's just my apparent inability to follow its directions successfully. Oh the irony.

Fiasco #2: The Morels.
D was so jealous that we bought and cooked morels without him last week that he insisted that we repeat the recipe. So we bought another $20 box of morels at the Farmer's Market on Sunday.

And decided to cook them on Monday. And didn't refrigerate them.

In my defense, I had no idea that you have to refrigerate mushrooms. They're already fungi, right? But you do. Or they go bad. Very bad.

D approached me skeptically after smelling the morels on Monday evening. They smelled awful, but I was hoping that a nice wash and saute would take care of everything. Suspension of disbelief. Yeah right. To make a painful story short, D went to all the effort of making the morel recipe, and we threw it out after one bite.

Sigh. Mondays.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Foodies Favorite: Shrooms!

I have lived in Europe for six months (nothing compared to Neen's years of living abroad): the first three were during a quarter abroad to do research at a German University, and the second three were last summer when I did research at a large chemical company in Germany. During my first trip to Germany I wasn't much of a cook, so I generally just ate out or made large batches of food (stir-fry, pasta, etc.). Last summer, though, I started trying to cook for my friends. There were three of us (all guys) who were working in the same section and we would get together once a week at different houses and cook up dinner. We were a funny group - a German, a Frenchman, and an American. We tried to converse in different languages, but English was the best average language between us by a long shot - so we stuck with it after a few forays into other languages.

As to the cooking, I would always make the entree (sometimes one or two appetizers as well), while the other two made desert, sides, and other appetizers. It was a great system, and they were magnificent guinea pigs: I think Neen would have killed me if I asked her to choke down some of the food I prepared for them. But there it didn't matter if the food wasn't perfect - we were spending time together as a group, the food was more of an excuse. The experience did, however, help me learn how to cook and a few recipes I found during that time I still cook occasionally. One of them is this stewed mushrooms dish I made a few weeks ago (sorry for the lag in posting, but you guys know why it has happened).

The thing I like about these mushrooms is that they have such a pungent flavor - they remind me of the mushrooms I used to eat at the Renaissance Faire near where I grew up. That was always a first stop in my family, we entered in the gate, turned right and headed straight for the mushrooms. There is no such thing as too early in the morning! This is not a perfect mimic of that classic dish, but it is close enough to be delicious. I oscillate on whether or not to add red wine, beer, or neither. I think it depends on your taste - a red wine can make the mushrooms a little sweeter, while a stout beer can give them just a bit of tangy bitter flavor.

Now, the other great part about these mushrooms, is that they are incredibly versatile as left-overs. A couple days after making them the first time, we had an encore by mixing the mushrooms with some pasta, fresh-herbs (dill is great with mushrooms!), and a flour and butter roux. Bam - a great dinner in no time flat. It was really, really addictive. We had to force ourselves to stop eating just so we could have them for lunch the next day.

You can imagine how many other easy follow-ups there are once you have the stewed mushrooms.

Recipe for Stewed Mushrooms:
1 Pack of Mushrooms (cut - or not - to any size you like)
(I tend to use button mushrooms, but portabella definitely work, as do most others hearty mushrooms, I assume)
~10 cloves garlic (halved or quartered)
2-3 small onions (halve and cut in thick strips)
Vegetable Bouillon

Warm butter in a pot over medium-low heat. Add mushrooms and onions, then heat lightly until softened. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Measure and add water to cover. Add an appropriate amount of Bouillon for 1.5 times the amount of water added. Let simmer for at least an hour uncovered. (I think it tastes better if it sits for 2-3 hours, but it is not necessary). You can add the beer or wine, as you wish, before simmering the pot.

If the liquid level begins to get to low you can add more liquid (water, wine, beer). The mushrooms will release a lot of their own liquid when simmered, so this is often not a problem.

Tried, Tested and True: Challah

The foodie blogger community should be the subject of an anthropological study. I mean, have you noticed the ratio of women bloggers to men bloggers? Or the near uniform format of 1) Photo, 2) short blurb (1-4 paragraphs), and 3) Recipe? I thought the internet was supposed to liberate us from convention. At times, I've threatened to quit my blog all together because it feels like I've returned to high school, with a million little peons struggling to catch the attention of a few glamor queens and get social recognition. Other times, I'm really touched by the gestures of friendship extended by complete strangers, such as when Johanna of Green Gourmet Giraffe offered to help us through our self-imposed stint with Vegetarianism during Lent, or when Lisa of Lisa's Kitchen and I had exchanges over Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks.

Giz and Psychgrad of Equal Opportunity Kitchen are a mother-daughter team of foodie bloggers. It's been lovely to follow their blog since we "met" a couple weeks ago, in part to see how other duo blogs balance the two voices, in part because what woman doesn't see echoes of herself in others' mother-daughter interactions? I almost feel as though I know them, even though blogging can bring out intimate personality quirks while concealing basic identity characteristics. Giz and Psychgrad are hosting their first event, Tried, Tested, and True, and I'm bringing fresh-out-of the oven bread (so fresh that it's still in the oven as I write this) because it's the universal housewarming gift. Giz and Psychgrad, here's to warm hospitality in the virtual universe.

My hostess gift is our favorite Challah, which I've already blogged about here (after a successful baking spree) and here (after an unsuccessful one). I'm blogging about it again because it is:

Tried: Challah, though not in this particular permutation, was my first attempt at bread baking. Ever. The episode was a blatant attempt to display my domestic prowess (ahem. stop laughing) to win over my favorite Jew, Do. Who, at the time, didn't like Challah and already knew that I couldn't do basic domestic tasks if my life depended on it. :) Not one of my most rational moments. Homemade Challah is also near and dear to my heart because it made its first public appearance at the housewarming party for our first apartment, during which my priest officiated over the Episcopal "Blessing Of a New Home" rite and D led everyone in Shabbat prayers. Nothing like breaking fresh bread to mark life's big steps.

Tested: I don't even want to think about how many different Challah recipes I tried before I found this one. Joy of Cooking was unimpressive and went stale quickly, my colleague's Mom's recipe used so much flour that the end result bore distinct resemblance to a brick. Then I tried this recipe from that colleague's roommate's private school's cookbook (Not even kidding: "New Kosher Cuisines for all Seasons," a compendium of recipes from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston). Although I'm too lazy and too disorganized to bake Challah every Shabbat, this recipe does get used at least twice a month. That's a lot of repetitive testing, with both the good and the bad documented on this site.

True: This Challah recipe, 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. D literally asks me to bake it a couple times a week. As long as I follow the recipe (unlike last week, sigh), it's foolproof.

The smell is wafting from the oven. 4 minutes to go. Please excuse me while I go wait impatiently in the kitchen.

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 (on the plus side)
1 tsp salt (on the plus side)

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!)

Beef Daube: Mustard Stew?

A couple of weeks ago I was very excited about cooking a new kind of beef stew I found, Beef Daube. I was attracted to the description of a lighter, herb flavored beef stew to replace it's stronger cousin in the spring. Well, when I came home this weekend I decided it was high time to finally cook Beef Daube. After all, what says "I love you" more clearly than a big pot of stew - and after a week apart (especially given my proclivity to not use my cell-phone), it was high time I got around to giving her an extended reminder of why she puts up with me!

On Saturday night, I made the stew. It only needed to cook for a little while (~2-3 hours) so I made us some drinks and we chatted for a while, took a nap, and then watched our favorite show, Battlestar Galactica. Now, for those of you who don't watch the show, I can only say that it is the most addicting show I have ever watched. It is the first really, really intelligent sci-fi show that has managed to also be an action/adventure flick. Usually I feel like I either need to turn my brain off and just enjoy the excitement, or I just appreciate shows on an intellectual level (battle-sequences mostly being fairly corny). Battlestar Galactica really appeals on both levels. It is not perfect, but the questions it asks are almost always interesting and the answers are usually satisfying on at least some level. So, with two new episodes released since I left, it was high time to cuddle into bed and watch them - and what better time than while a stew is cooking! - It is almost like I am still doing work, right...

Well, after the two shows, which were slightly disappointing, we chomped into the new stew. The flavors were very interesting - interesting enough, that we would pause our discussion of BG long enough to comment on how particular flavors were combining. The dominant flavors of the stew were: white wine, Dijon mustard, beef, onion, herbs (thyme, bay leaf, parsley). The beef flavor was fairly localized to the pieces of beef, while the broth tasted strongly of white wine and mustard with hints of herbal flavorings. I coated the meat with a seasoned flour that gave it just a little bit of spice (which was very nice - I might be interested in adding a little more spice next time I make this). I would also add even more herbs. Neen and I always have trouble tasting thyme and bay leaf in stews, so I added nearly 4x what the recipe called for. You could really taste the herbs, but a little more flavor would have been nice. Neen commented that she had a hard time getting past the mustard flavor of the sauce, since in her mind it is connected the heavy mustard and cream sauces that are common in German cooking. I didn't have this problem, though the sauce does wind up a little on the thicker side (I made some modifications to the recipe so that it was not beef chunks with a mustard sauce, but more stew like). For me, the white wine carried the day leaving the palate with the sense of a lighter dish.

I would be interested, however, in finding a beef stew/soup that was even lighter - probably without the mustard flavor. I think in my head I am attempting to formulate a Western equivalent of a beef udon since these are often made with chicken broth - giving them a wonderfully light flavor. I will poke around and see what I can find (and suggestions are more than welcome!).

Joy of Cooking (2006) Beef Daube

2 lb boneless beef stew meat
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper and/or 1/2 tsp paprika (I added both and doubled the paprika)
Optional: 1/8 tsp ground ginger or ground nutmeg (I didn't add either).
3 Tbs olive oil
3 cups white wine (I added more to cover the Bouquet Garni)
2 Tbs Dijon Mustard
One 16 oz can plum tomatoes, with juice
3 medium onions, halved and sliced
3 garlic cloves, halved
1 Bouquet garni (parsley, bay leaf, thyme sprigs, 2 cloves, white portion of one leek)

Pat dry and cut the stew meat into 3-inch cubes. In a zip lock bag, combine the flour, salt, pepper, paprika and ginger/nutmeg (if using). Dredge the meat in the seasoned flour.

Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven over medium high heat. Add meat in batches and brown on all sides, being careful not to crowd the pot or scorch the meat. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off all but a light film of fat from the pot.

Add 3 cups of white wine, bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Reduce the heat and gently simmer, uncovered, until the wine is reduced by half (7-10min). Add the mustard and whisk to blend. Return the beef and accumulated juices to the pot, and add the rest of the ingredients. Cover and simmer over low heat until the meat is fork-tender (2-3 hours).

With a slotted spoon, remove the beef, onions, and tomatoes to a platter. Increase the heat to high and boil the sauce until slightly thickened and reduced by a third (about 10 minutes). Reduce the heat to medium, return the beef and vegetables to the sauce, and reheat gently.
Garnish with fresh thyme.

Serves 6-8.