Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hello, World! Have a pie ....have four!

Hello, World! I'm the much-alluded-to little brother. Though Neen has mentioned me here and there, she has finally convinced me to contribute something more to the blog than a grateful stomach. So here I am, the collegiate portion of the Post-Collegiate Cooking blog. You may call me ...Spuds.

If there's one thing you need to know about me, it's this: I stress-bake. When the going gets rough, I believe the rough make pastries. When I realize I am in my last year in college and have completely overcommitted my time, I need to ask myself: Cake, or Death?

Cake, clearly. With a little wine.

This past weekend was one such time. I went into it knowing that would have a manic, half-crazed cooking extravaganza. The tip-off was when I caught myself about to make some fresh bread at 4am Saturday morning. Fortunately, Neen, Do and I had gutted a few cooking magazines a few weeks back, so I didn't have to angst the night/morning away leafing through recipes. After getting some sleep, the products of my day were as follows: two raspberry-blackberry upside-down cakes, a Huguenot torte, a fresh pear pie with dried cherries and brown sugar streusel, and a ginger-spice cranberry-apple streusel pie. Oh yeah, also made some candied ginger, onion soup, and Do's creamy tomato pasta sauce. I mentioned the 'stress' part, yes?

I won't claim any credit for the upside-down cakes: I got the recipe from Giz & Psychgrad's blog, Equal Opportunity Kitchen. You can find the recipe listed under Strawberry & Blueberry Upside-down Cake. This is really the perfect cake: light, fluffy, and the berries on top seem like a divine touch in the cold autumn days. Yes, I did switch the type of berries (for the sake of experimentation), but it works for any sweet, not-tart fruit. I also like to add a little extra citrus just to give it a tad more zing, but that's a personal preference. As I said, this cake is divine.

The Huguenot torte (recipe on the New York Times website) is a bit of a curious beast. Mind-numbingly simple to throw together and requiring only the simplest of baking ingredients (plus some apples and pecans), what comes out is a sweet, coarse, and completely shapeless thing. No points for presentation, but full credit for texture. The outside is deeply-browned and slightly crispy, while in the torte, the sugar and apples have combined to create something of a viscous syrup -- the texture of which is mitigated by the pecans. As you can see from the pictures, after a few days there is almost nothing left of this one, making it the most popular item. Definitely something I'm going to have to make again.

Regarding the pies, I have to confess: I wasn't really thinking about the fillings. Don't get me wrong, they sound spectacular -- and have a taste to match -- I just wasn't particularly intrigued by what went in the pie. That was merely an excuse to experiment with pie crusts. Crusts, like breads, intimidate me. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it's a family thing. Neen makes a challah for which I would gladly sacrifice one of my limbs. Our father regularly bakes various kinds of bread, from sourdough to bagels to cinnamon rolls. And our mother! Well, let's just say there's a reason we have called her SuperMom. Like her mother before her, she can throw together virtually any miracle dish (with emphasis on its miracle taste) with less effort than I could make a bowl of oatmeal. That includes, namely, pie crusts.

So, in an effort to uphold the tradition of making baked goods better than any supermarket, I have latched on to (who else?) Mark Bittman. I like this guy. Not only does he provide cooking videos on the New York Times (with possibly the most absurd/amazing intro ever), he has the charmingly-understated audacity to have written a cookbook entitled "How to Cook Everything." In it, I found a recipe for a "Flaky Pie Crust." I have made it a few times now and have been very happy each time. Spoiled as I have been by my family's breads, that's saying something.

Mark Bittman's Flaky Pie Crust

1 cup + 2 Tbs flour (plus more for rolling)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
8 Tbs butter (cut into about 8 pieces)
3 Tbs ice water (more if necessary)

Combined the flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor, pulsing once or twice (or by hand). Add the butter and process until the mixture looks like cornmeal -- about 10sec.
Put the mixture into a bowl and add ice water. Mix with your hands until you can work the dough into a ball (be patient; you may have to work the dough for a little while. If it's really giving you trouble, add a little more water). Wrap it in plastic and freeze for 10min or refrigerate for 30min. You can keep the dough refrigerated for up to a couple of days, or frozen for a few weeks.
Sprinkle a clean counter-top with flour. Put the dough on it and sprinkle it with flour as well. Use a rolling pin to roll with light pressure from the center outwards. If it's too hard, let it rest a few minutes. If it's soggy, add some flour. If the edges develop tears, you can repair them with a touch of water and a piece of dough from elsewhere in the crust.
When the diameter of the dough is about 2 inches greater than the pie plate, drape it over your rolling pin and transfer it to the plate. Press it down firmly and refrigerate for an hour before filling (or freeze for 30min or so).
Trim the extra dough, and tuck the edges under itself, decorating them as you see fit. You can fill it now, but I recommend prebaking it first. To do so, prick it all over with a fork, cover with buttered aluminum foil, and weigh down the foil with uncooked rice, beans, pie weights, etc. Bake it for 12min at 450 degrees. Remove the weights and the foil, lower the heat to 350 degrees, and continue to bake for another 10min or so.

And after the crusts are ready, there's little left to do but fill them.

Fresh Pear Pie with dried cherries and brown sugar streusel

for the streusel:
1 cup flour
1/2 cup oats
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
8 Tbs butter

for the filling:
5-6 medium pears /* peeled, cored, and chopped */
1,1/2 Tbs lemon juice
2/3 sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
3/4 cup dried cherries /* cranberries will do in a pinch */

Make the streusel: Combine all the ingredients together, blending the butter in with your fingers.
Make the filling: Toss the pears with the lemon juice. Whisk the sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Combine the two, and add the cherries. Mound the filling into the crust, and sprinkle the top with the streusel. Bake at 350 degrees for 55-65, or until the pastry is golden-brown and the filling is bubbling viscously at the edges. Tada!

Ginger-Spice Cranberry-Appple Streusel Pie

for the streusel:
1 cup flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped, lightly-toasted walnuts
1/4 tsp salt
6 Tbs butter

for the filling:
4 tart baking apples /* peeled, cored, and chopped into rectangles */
1, 3/4 cups cranberries
1 cup sugar
3, 1/2 Tbs flour
1 Tbs finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/4 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Make the streusel: Combine all the ingredients together, blending the butter in with your fingers. Set aside.
Make the filling: In a food processor (or not), pulse the cranberries with 3/4 cup of the sugar until coarsely chopped. In a large bowl, combine the remaining sugar with the flour, ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. Toss in the apples and cranberries. Mound the filling into the crust, sprinkle on the streusel. Bake at 350 degrees for 65-75 minutes, or until the streusel is deeply browned and the filling is bubbling vigorously. Remove, cool, devour.

PS: If you didn't get the "Cake or Death?" reference, you should watch more Eddie Izzard. It's another acceptable to deal with stress.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Moroccan Pumpkin Stew: Recreating Autumn.

My least favorite thing about the Bay Area is the absence of autumn.

It's pretty pathetic compared to autumn in Chicago, or even autumn in Washington D.C. (and that's saying something). We live in the East Bay flats, where trees are pretty few and far between and most of those don't change colors. If they do, they go from green to dull brown. I mean, c'mon, I'm not feeling your enthusiasm here, trees! Where's the Glory, the Passion?? And the lack of crispness in the air, what's up with that? My hands down favorite thing about moving to the Northern Hemisphere after a childhood near the Equator was breaking out the cute sweater/mitten/scarf/hat/boots outfits, with crisp wind, red cheeks, hot cider, new textbooks for school. Hitting the pavement after summer with infectious enthusiasm about all the possibilities of a new year. Feeling driven to change the universe. Because, hey, if the trees are breaking out in the visual equivalent of Beetoven's 5th, by god I can put in my all too.

A pathetic autumn leaves me feeling lethargic, apathetic.

So I attempt to recreate fall. Kind of like when we were kids in Africa, we decorated our Christmas bush, hung our Christmas stockings on the back of couches, and ate Christmas cookies to round out the experience. Food and ritual really are critical to seasonal make-believe. To recreate fall, I haul out my boots and sweaters, glorify in my new textbooks, and cook with as many squash and apples as possible. It's not the same, but it's closer.

This pumpkin stew is from the same North African cookbook that gave us the harissa soup, the brik, and a number of other exotic dishes that we haven't posted about. Long term blog followers will remember that, as we discovered during Lent 2008, our biggest struggle with vegetarian dishes is making sure that they're flavorful enough. Hence the significant prejudice against Northern European vegetarian dishes in favor of Indian, Thai, Greek, Tunisian. When I earmarked this pumpkin stew for this week, I was imagining a heavily spiced, hearty concoction. The kind where the flavor combinations blow your mind and meat isn't necessary to provide an underlying robustness.

I should really have read the recipe more closely.

You may like this recipe, which is why I'm posting it. It wasn't what I was going for. Hearty, yes, good texture, but delicately spiced and sweet. Sweet like sweet potatoes lightly drizzled in maple syrup and baked are sweet: not a desert, but more appropriate as a side than as a main. At least to our taste. New discovery: we really far prefer savory main courses to sweet. As Do put it: "if it's sweet, there better be a big hunk of meat in there to counter-balance the flavor." It's not bland at all, but because we really wanted something savory we ended up tripling all spices and serving the stew with generous dollops of Siracha Chili sauce.

Anyways. For those of you less weird than us, enjoy!

Pumpkin Stew (Marak dar Marhzin). Serves 4-6
3 Tbs oil or butter
2 large onions, chopped
2-4 cloves garlic (N: up to 3 more if you have mediocre Harissa, or are omitting the Harissa)
1 tsp Tumeric
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 medium carrots, sliced
2 small white turnips, peeled and cut into quarters
3 cups of water (my recommendation: add a veggie or chicken bouillon cube)
1 lb butternut squash or pumpkin, peeled and cubed
1 lb sweet potato, cubed
1 tsp Harissa (N: supplement w 1 tsp Thai Siracha Chili sauce for heat)
1/3 cup raisins
3 tsp honey (N: omit if you don't like sweet main courses)
salt and pepper
cilantro for serving
couscous for seving

Chop onions, peel and cube the squash, cube the sweet potato. Now bribe someone to re-sharpen all your knives.

Melt butter in a large heavy pot. Add onion and cook gently for 5 min. Add garlic, tumeric, ginger and cinnamon, and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 min. Stir in carrots, turnips, and water (and bouillon cube if using). Bring to boil. Cover and simmer for 10 min. Add pumpkin, sweet potato, harissa, chili sauce if using, raisins, honey, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender (~20min).

Meanwhile, cook the couscous. Add couscous and boiling water to a bowl in equal amounts (1 cup couscous = 1 cup water), cover tightly for 5-10 min. Fluff with a fork to get lumps out.

Serving ideas: pile hot couscous onto a warm platter, make a crater in the middle and pile pumpkin stew into that crater. OR transfer stew to a warm bowl and serve alongside the couscous. OR prepare individual plates of couscous and stew. Don't forget to garnish with cilantro.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Best German-style Pork Chops ever.

You wouldn't tell it from this blog, but eating habits in the Do-Neen household have changed dramatically since we moved to the land of amazing produce/long growing seasons. Without really meaning to, and despite Do's meat-and-potatoes midwestern background, we're cooking predominantly vegetarian these days. The other day I even put my foot down and declared that meat is too much of a pain in the ass to prepare, takes too long to cook for my grad student schedule, and that I just don't enjoy cooking it. This may or may not have been related to a browning chicken pieces incident, for which the damn browning took longer than the rest of the recipe and the oil splatters dirtied everything within 5 feet of the pot. And then there was that amazing NYtimes article about the dangers of mass produced ground beef. Maybe Michael Pollan has put something in the water. In any case, I rarely cook meat anymore.

Which leaves it up to Do. Every so often he'll put his foot down: "I. Need. MEAT." Then a series of things will happen:
1. He'll reach for Julia Child's MTAOFC Vol 1.
2. He'll realize the dish he wants is fairly time consuming (i.e. weekend only) and/or serves 12.
3. We end up throwing a spontaneous dinner party, for the sole purpose of drafting others to help us consume the product of his labors.

This happened, almost exactly as described, a few weeks ago. It started with Do deciding that he couldn't go another week without pork chops, and ended with one of the larger dinner+board game parties that we've hosted since moving to California. The whole experience yielded some revealing insights:
  • This is why we've become closer to our meat-eating friends than to our vegetarian friends, even though we eat mostly vegetarian ourselves. We can (and do) have our meat-eating friends over at the drop of a hat -- or a couple hours after meat-related inspiration strikes Do. Vegetarian dishes are simply easier to scale and less of an event, and so less likely to prompt a last minute "We're making X, want to come over?"
  • Do loves Julia Child. This cracks me up. I think his inner scientist really appreciates how precise she is, and his inner Midwesterner hearts her meat-centric take on food.
  • Do makes effing good pork chops. I had always thought of pork chops as dry and leathery. Oh no. Not this recipe. Not this cook.
  • Always serve a Julia Child dish over noodles. Best pasta sauce EVER. And face it, what else are you going to do with all that cream?
Cotes de Porc Sauce Nenette (serves 6)
6 thick pork chops (min 1"). Can be marinated ahead of time*
3-4 Tbs cooking oil
2 Tbs butter
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup white wine or beef stock
1 1/2 c whipping cream
2 Tbs mustard
2 Tbs tomato paste
2 Tbs fresh chopped basil or parsely
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Dry the pork chops with paper towels. Heat oil until almost smoking in a large heavy-bottomed casserole. Brown the chops, 2 or 3 at a time, on each side for 3-4min. Transfer to side dish. If you didn't marinate them, season with salt, pepper, and 1/4 tsp thyme.

Add butter and garlic to casserole. Return the chops, overlapping them slightly. Baste them with the butter. Cover and heat the casserole until the meat is sizzling, then set in lower third of preheated oven for 10-15min. Turn and baste the chops once or twice.

While the pork chops are cooking, simmer the cream, 1/4 tsp salt and a pinch of pepper in a small saucepan for 8 - 10 min, or until it has reduced to one cup. Meanwhile, beat the mustard and the tomato paste together in a small bowl, then beat into the hot cream. Set aside.

Once the chops are done, remove them to a serving platter and pour the cream mixture into the casserole. Simmer 3-4 min, deglazing. Correct seasoning, stir in the basil, return the pork to the casserole and let heat.

Serve over noodles.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Neen's Roasted Yam salad

I don't invent recipes. I really don't. I'm not the type of person who walks into a Farmer's Market and designs the week's menu based on what's available, nor am I the type who has all recipes memorized. I'm the chick with the planner and the mountain of (organized) recipe index cards and one list of ingredients assigned to each person shopping. Yeah. I don't do spontaneous. I'm slowly moving away from teaspoon and tablespoon measures. Very, very slowly.

So you can imagine how impressed and dubious Do was when he came home last night and I presented him with a dish that I had invented. In the grocery store, on the fly. Yah. Who da man.

I swung by the grocery store yesterday to pick up some eggs (for challah) and a head of cauliflower (for spiced Cauliflower soup, recipe to follow). The Piedmont Groceries had just set up its fall display, with pumpkins, Indian corn, and all those cool squash. My brain went from "aaaw, I guess it is fall. Maybe I should do something fall-like for dinner." to "Oh, crap, tonight is the first night of Sukkot [Jewish harvest festival]. I should definitely do something fall-like." to "I think I have a recipe clipping at home for a roasted yam salad that sounded yummy. Ok, let's work from there."

I did end up using the recipe clipping for inspiration (Food & Wine's Roasted Yam and Apple Salad, unknown issue). It had a great method for roasting the yams: sesame oil and cumin. And, with a few tweaks to suit our preference for strong flavor, the vinaigrette was pretty damn good too. The lettuce is indispensable, both for color and because it alone adds crunch to an otherwise creamy salad. You may want to soak the lettuce ahead of time to make it extra crunchy. The tangerines add citrus, again to balance out the creamy flavor of the roast yams. Red Cabbage for color. And the rest, just because I'm the type who likes a lot of "stuff" in my salads and on my pizzas.

It was damn good: we had thirds. Really addictive. FYI, for those celebrating Thanksgiving with us, this may well occur.

Neen's Roasted Yam Salad (serves 8-10)
2 yams or sweet potatoes
1 small butternut squash (alternative: use two more yams)
1 Tbs cumin (on the plus side)
1 Tbs sesame oil (on the plus side)
vegetable oil or spray-on oil
1 cup raisins or dried cranberries
2 heads butter lettuce, torn into bite size pieces.
2 tangerines or apples
1/3 of a small purple cabbage
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 bunch of cilantro, coarsely chopped.

1/2 cup olive oil
2 1/2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 Tbs Dijon Mustard (on the plus side)
2 garlic cloves, crushed.
1 Tbs Korean Chili paste or any curry paste.
1 tsp Balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel butternut squash. Chop squash and yams into 1" cubes. Spread on a baking sheet, drizzle with the vegetable oil, the sesame oil, the cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Roast approximately 1 hour.

Meanwhile, whisk all vinaigrette ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside. Separate tangerines into sections, and cut each section into three. Put tangerines into a large salad bowl, along with the pine nuts, the raisins, the lettuce*, and the cilantro. Using a Cuisinart, shred the red cabbage and add it to the salad bowl.

Once the yams are roasted until tender, add them to the salad bowl and mix with the vinaigrette.

*ALTERNATIVE PRESENTATION: Do really liked the contrast between the crunchy lettuce and the creamy yams. One way to keep the lettuce crunchy for as long as possible is to prepare the salad as stated above without adding the lettuce, and instead to prepare a mound of lettuce on each person's plate. Then the salad can simply be heaped on top of the lettuce bed, and mixed together by each guest.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Round Challah for Rosh Hashana - aka Victory Dance

It's traditional to bake round Challah for Rosh Hashana. I mentioned to Do this morning that I was just going to bake a normal round loaf, but he (knowing the best way to get exactly what he wants) went off on a long shtick about how much he loves my Challah, and how the braiding gives it this perfect texture, without the braiding it just wouldn't be the same, yadda yadda. On top of it, I haven't baked Challah for almost a year, so he's been deprived, yadda yadda.

So I give you *drumroll* braided round Challah. The things one does for a loved one. Before a dinner party, no less.

How fucking awesome does that bread look???? I can't wait to see his face when he comes home!

Braiding Instructions are here: The challah recipe is in this blog's files.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

30min Thai Chicken Curry

Last weekend Do and I undertook the pruning of our recipe clippings collection. Our stash was pretty typical: ~50 recipes at any one time waiting to be tested, sorted into self explanatory categories like "veggies" or "chicken" or "deserts." It had simply become unwieldy and uninspiring, with clippings for recipes that may have been inspiring two years ago but no longer. So we culled and reorganized... and in the process re-discovered some very exciting dishes, like the 30min Thai curry pictured at right.

If I remember correctly, this recipe was part of an article on weeknight chef-worthy meals, published in the May 2007 issue of Food & Wine (when we were still in college -eep!). The 30minutes is overly optimistic, unless you either a) buy chicken that is very quick to prep (i.e. boneless or pre-cubed), b) recruit your favorite kitchen buddy to help, or c) all of the above. Do thinks that the sauce could stand to be reduced a little further to be a little thicker, but that's a common criticism of his. He's really happiest when everything is stew-like.

And those are really our only criticisms. It's a fast but solidly-flavored south-east Asian curry, using only commonly-available ingredients. As in, you don't have to have access to Bay-area grocery stores or be feeling particularly adventurous to enjoy this -- m... (Do quietly covers Neens mouth before she says something unforgivable). Vegetarians should have no problem substituting a firm tofu for chicken. Oh, and as we discovered, this is one of those dishes that does just fine with less-than-stellar chicken (ours had been cheap to start with and then languished unloved in the freezer for, er, a long time. Tasted great in this recipe). Definitely moving this clipping to the permanent collection.

Spicy Red Curry Chicken (Food & Wine May 2007 issue).

2/3 c unsweetened coconut milk (~half a can)
2 -3 tsp Thai red curry paste (Do: Korean Red Pepper paste is a fine substitute. Siracha Chili paste is not flavorful enough, use it just to add extra spice.)
1 Tbs Asian Fish sauce
3 Tbs vegetable oil, separated
1 1/2 lb skinless boneless chicken thighs and/or breasts, cut into 1/2" strips or 1 1/2" chunks
1/2 lb shitake mushrooms, quartered
1 Tbs grated ginger
2 large garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1/2 cup water
1 cup frozen baby peas
For serving (all optional): rice, peanuts, chopped cilantro, and lime wedges

Do the prep: cut up chicken, clean and chop mushrooms. Start making rice, if you plan to serve the curry over rice.

Shake the can of coconut milk before opening. In a small bowl, whisk the 2/3 cup of coconut milk with the red curry paste and the fish sauce until combined. Set aside.

Heat a large wok or skillet until very hot. Add 2 Tbs vegetable oil and heat until just smoking. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, and add it to the wok in a single layer. Cook over high heat, turning once, until the chicken is browned but not cooked through (~4-5min). Transfer the chicken to a plate and pour off the fat in the wok.

Add the remaining 1 Tbs vegetable oil to the wok. Add shitake caps and stir fry ovr high heat until lightly browned (~5 min). Add ginger and garlic, and saute for 1 min. Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the wok. Add the red curry mixture and the 1/2 cup water and bring to a boil. Add the frozen peas and simmer until the liquid is slightly reduced and the peas are warm (~2-3min).

To serve: transfer the chicken curry to a serving bowl and garnish with peanuts and cilantro. Serve immediately with rice and lime wedges.

And I couldn't resist: when we were putting together our menus for this upcoming week, the more mischievous of our two cats, Harissa, somehow wedged himself into the empty spot in our cookbook bookshelf. Yeah Reesie, you almost look like Julia Child. Keep working on it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

[Trying to make] Brik. Or, why Julie Powell is dangerous.

[Continuing to explore Tunisian cuisine through Tessa Mallos' North African Cooking cookbook...]

I had to leave the kitchen. I put down my implements, left the hot deep-frying oil, marched into the bathroom, and dissolved into tears. Actually, I just crumpled and the wails erupted on their on. Have you read Julie and Julia? It was much more Julie Powell than Amy Adams, complete with irrational declarations that, clearly, the universe was over. Obvi. (Image from

I had tried to make Brik. I had failed. The wrappers were brittle and were breaking, they weren't sealing around the filling, the egg yolks were bursting, the oil wasn't hot enough so the result was soggy, oily, egg-y, mess. Every single fire alarm in our apartment went off during the first minute and a half of my endeavor. Boiling oil splattered all over the clean stovetop, my clothes, my bare arms, everything. It was a DISASTER.

In one of Do's few memories of his great-grandmother, he was thirteen and visiting extended family in Paris, and his Tunisian great-grandmother made him brik. He still recounts the event with wonder and adoration. Brik are, essentially, deep-fried dough pockets filled with raw egg and a salty filling. The recipe in North African Cooking calls for anchovies and capers. About a teaspoon of the filling and a small raw egg get dumped into the center of a wonton wrapper (actual Brik dough is super time-consuming to make, my used-to-live-in-Algeria Mom informs me), the wonton wrapper seals around the filling, and the whole thing gets deep fried until barely crispy. As Do puts it: "It's salty, deep fat fried egg. What's not to like?" (The photo above is clearly not my creation. It was taken by Sheryl of the Crispy Waffle blog during her vacation in Tunisia, and can be found here.)

Fiasco. Bawling in the bathroom.

::Do Grabs The Talkie Stick ::

So, anyone that lives with a foodie knows all about managing explosions in the kitchen. I have generated a little check-list for myself.
After hearing loud shrieking/sobbing from Neen while she is cooking:
1. Check to make sure all limbs are attached. [If no - proceed to emergency first aid routine]
2. Remove any fire hazards from heat. (If something might overcook - remove that from heat too.)
3. Attend to Neen.

There were no missing limbs in this situation, but there was a fire hazards - so I turned the heat off on the oil before proceeding back to the bathroom to find out what was eating Neen. Now, it is worth mentioning that this is a VERY hard recipe, and I had known it from the start. I had tried unsuccessfully to convince her of this. So when Neen felt like she just couldn't make it work, the resulting meltdown was not completely unexpected.

[Neen: insertion] Actually, Do was trying very hard not to giggle. We had just seen Julie & Julia that afternoon, so the over-the-top explosion was just too stereotypical for words. Of course, his trying to suppress his smirk made me giggle... which was naturally followed by an especially loud wail to prove I was serious. [/Neen insertion]

Thankfully the solution to my portion of this problem was VERY easy - I just had her take bite out of one of the "failed" Brik she had just made. Fabulous - melt in in your mouth, salty, and rich. Everything Brik should be. So they weren't picture perfect, so what? Some of the wrappers didn't shut, but upon returning to the kitchen we realized that (of course) you are supposed to soak the wonton wrappers in water before using them - the recipe hadn't of course mentioned that! Once we corrected for this issue, we actually turned out some impressive-looking ones.

The happy ending to this story was a delicious meal of brik and white wine, set to candlelight. Perfection.

Neen: Yeah. Still not happening again any time soon. I'll wait to get hands-on instruction from the experts the next time we visit Do's family in Paris.

Brik bil Ancouwa (Brik with Anchovies)
a package of large spring roll wrappers
1 Tbs olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 Tbs fniely chopped canned anchovies
2 Tbs chopped parsely
3 tsp capers, drained
oil for frying
Small fresh eggs (Neen: this is critical)

Heat olive in oil in a small frying pan. Add onion and cook gently until very soft and translucent (~12-15min), stirring often. Add anchovies and mash in. Remove pan from heat, stir in parsely, capers, and add pepper to taste. Let cool.

Separate spring roll wrappers and soak ~5 or 6 in a bowl with cold water, to soften them. Add oil for shallow=-frying to a depth of 1/4" in a 10" frying pan and heat well. Open all the windows in your kitchen. Turn on air vent. Prepare your partner/brother/sister/child to handle the fire alarms if/when they go off.

Place one soft wrapped on a plate. Add ~1 Tbs anchovy filling in a heap on one side,with the edge of the filling just touching center. Make an indent in the filling and break one egg into it. Fold the wrapper over to enclose the filling and press the edges to seal. Try not to break the egg yolk, but if you do it's okay.

Slide brik immediately into the hot oil and shallow fry until golden brown and crisp, about 45 seconds on each side. Lift out and drain on paper towles. Repeat with remaining brik/filling. Serve immediately.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Harissa Soup

For years now, Do and I have grown progressively more interested in the culinary culture of the Tunisian Sephardic community, where Do's maternal side hails from. A recent family reunion, complete with spirited arguments over the proper way to make Malmoula, so fueled this interest that we picked up Tess Mallos' North African Cooking cookbook the next time we were near a good cookbook bookstore. (P.S. Culinary Institute of America in Napa has an outrageous collection of cookbooks in their shop). We have very high hopes for this book: it has all the Tunisian classics of Doran's childhood memories, there are beautiful photos of every recipe, and the dishes seem exotic yet do-able given our time/energy constraints.

So last Thursday we tried it for the first time. We made Harissa Soup.

Yes, you got the name right. Harissa, as in the super fiery hot condiment that is ubiquitous on Tunisian tables. In a soup. Yup. :) It's like saying, "oh we had Tabasco soup tonight." Even my Texas self was a little apprehensive about that one.

Let me just say, it was amazing. I had seconds, Do had thirds. This recipe is going into the regular dinner rotation, and into the "All Time Favorites" category on this blog.

Some reassurance: it was nowhere near as spicy as I was expecting. In fact, I doubled/quatrupled most of the spicy ingredients just to suit our taste, and it still was a perfectly reasonable dish to serve company. Well, maybe not our German friends, but all others. It's spicy, but more in the complex, deep, exotic way than in the fire-in-your-mouth way. It's spicy and complex the way Indian food is spicy and complex: the heat is fun but not essential and definitely not all-encompassing. And it's perfect like that; I wouldn't try to make it hotter.

The soup itself is beautiful - the color is very vibrant in a way that my camera couldn't capture in the kitchen light. Unlike most soups, this one has great texture thanks to the couscous, the potatoes, the bits of tomato, etc. Every bite is interesting, texturally.

I'd be interested in trying to replace the can of tomatoes with fresh tomatoes, especially given how fantastic our tomatoes are out here in California. Do cautions me that some Tunisian dishes, like Malmoula, just aren't as good with fresh tomatoes. I'm thinking that with fresh tomatoes, and chilled, this soup could be a (much more interesting) Algerian take on gazpacho. In the winter, the soup's heartiness could be preserved with the canned tomatoes and Kale would be a fine addition.

Oh, and it's vegan.

Chorba hara bi keskou (Harissa soup with couscous). Serves 6.

4 Tbs Olive Oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed (Neen: use more if your Harissa isn't garlicky)
1 tsp Harissa (Neen: Er, no. If not using imported Harissa, use 4-5 large dollops.)
1 Tbs Paprika (Neen: make that ~3 Tbs)
14 oz can chopped tomatoes, undrained.
6 cups water (Neen: add 3 cubes veggies bouillon cubes)
2 medium potatoes, ~12oz in total
1/2 cup instant coucous
3 Tbs finely chopped cilantro. (Neen: or more. We heart cilantro and used one bunch).

Heat oil in soup pot. Add onion and cook gently until transparent (~10min). Add garlic and cook for 1 min. Add Harissa to taste and cook gently, stirring, 1-2min. Add paprika, tomatoes in their liquid, water, and veggie bouillon cubes. Bring to Boil.

Cut potatoes into 1/2" cubes and add to soup. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender (~20min). Stir in coucous and boil gently, uncovered, until coucous has swelled and softened (~10min). Taste, add more harissa and/or salt and pepper if desired. Stir in cilantro, let stand 5 min.

Serve hot in deep soup bowls with bread.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Quick and Elegant Salmon with Israeli Coucous Salad

Major success on the cooking front last night:

1. Had an unexpectedly delicious dinner
2. Rediscovered an old cookbook
3. Made up a successful dish from scratch
4. All prep took less than 20 min.

Did I say major success?

When we were planning the weekly menu last weekend, I picked up our copy of New Kosher Cuisine. It's a community cookbook that I'd gotten back in D.C. on recommendation from a good friend. It turned out to be too practical for our cooking style back then (though the Challah recipe is still our go-to challah recipe), but our interests and time constraints have changed radically in the past year or so. Like all community cookbooks it can be hit or miss, but I've gotten better at guesstimating what a dish would taste like based on reading the recipe. And oh man, was "Company Fish" a hit.

It's supposed to be a Shabbat dinner meal, when you have company over (hence the title of the dish). I'm not sure that would work for the super observant unless they were also super prompt (the fish needs to go straight from the broiler to the table, meaning your guests must already be home from shul and/or you don't mind using your broiler after sundown), but it's otherwise perfect for inviting guests over on a weeknight. The dish is super quick: since you marinate it ahead of time, it takes literally no more than 10min to have it from the fridge to the table. It's also quite impressive: strong complex flavors infuse all of the fish, and you really can't help but make sure the last drop of sauce is consumed. And the marinade ingredients are all standard (inexpensive) pantry fare -- what's not to like? Added bonus: the flavor of the sauce and the texture of the fish are on showcase here, so it's good for folks who are apprehensive about "fishy" flavors AND you don't need to feel compelled to buy expensive cuts of fish. Fresh fish, and voila.

The other success was the impromptu salad. Again, very simple: it was all ingredients we had in the fridge, and the chopping was the longest part. But it was so full of flavor and the freshness of summer that (don't read this part Mom) we totally started digging into the serving bowl with our forks once we we'd inhaled the servings on our plates. Great showcase for those uber fresh farmer's market veggies.

Israeli Couscous Salad
, serves 4 generously

1 cup Israeli Couscous
1 cucumber
1 beautiful heirloom tomato,
4 oz feta
1 small-medium red onion
2 lemons
1/2 cup chopped mint

Toast the israeli coucous in a little bit of oil, stirring regularly. Meanwhile boil water in a kettle. Once the couscous is toasted to your taste, pour ~2 cups boiling water into the pot (slowly, and stand back, it's pretty exciting). Simmer water for ~6min, or until coucous is done. Drain couscous, put into salad bowl.

Mince 1 red onion, chop 1 cucumber, 1 tomato, and 1/2 cup of mint, and all it all to the salad bowl. Crumble 4oz of feta into the bowl. Add the juice of two lemons. Salt and Pepper very generously.

Company Fish (New Kosher Cuisine cookbook), serves 8-10.
Neen: don't bother being too precise with your measurements. And don't be afraid to cut the recipe down -- fish is always best straight out of the oven.

1/3 cup soy or tamari sauce
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs Dijon
Grated zest of two limes (Neen: or a couple tsp lime juice, if that's what you have)
1/4 cup peanut oil
1/4-1/2 cup scallions, chopped
4 lbs ocean perch or salmon, skin removed.

Combine marinade ingredients in a small bowl. Place fish in a non-aluminum dish and cover with marinade. Refrigerate for 3 to 6 hours.

Preheat broiler. Broil fish 4 to 8 min until brown. Transfer to platter and spoon sauce over fish. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Taking advantage of Tomatoes

Okay, first off: Psychgrad and R not only got married but also finished graduate school in the past month..!! I leave the foodie blog world for 12 months and it turns upside down! Do and I have felt a definite affinity for Psychgrad and R ever since we found them: they're some of the friendliest blogging folks around (along with co-blogger/MOB Giz) and their food/life/career situations seemed pretty similar to ours up until last month. Mazel Tov, you two.

Second thing: Fun new toy: So last year, we had no good way of collecting and indexing the foodie blog recipes that struck our interest. We knew what blogs to turn to for certain recommendations (Lisa for Vegetarian Indian, for example), but didn't keep a virtual set of recipe clippings anywhere. No longer: was made for people like us: it stores blog recipe links (no retyping the recipe or losing the photos), you create your own tags to organize the recipes, and you can share. So far, we're pleased and recommend it to others who collect blog recipes. And if your bored, our budding clippings collection is available at Sweet!

Back to food. It turns out that none of our stock recipes really show off local, in season summer produce to its best advantage. Fall, Winter, and Spring we're starting to get a handle on, but we've spent the past 5+ summers moving around for internships or research or jobs. It's hard to devote much attention to culinary exploration when living out of a suitcase in a hostel or while driving all one's worldly posessions across the country. So expect to see a lot of tomato, squash, and fruit recipes this month.

Monday's dinner was a tomato and rice soup from Joyce Goldtein's Sephardic Flavors cookbook. To our initial disapointment, the cookbook focuses only on a small subset of Sephardic recipes, those from the eastern Mediterranean (Greece, Turkey, etc.). This recipe is supposedly an adaption of a Ma'min Jews of Salonika.

The recipe is little more than tomatoes and chicken stock, so we set out to acquire the best tomatoes within driving distance. We went to Berkeley Bowl West for the first time. For those not part of the cult (and only those who do not live within driving distance can choose not to be), Berkeley Bowl is the single best grocery store on the face of the planet. Michael Pollan shops there. People drive from the South Bay to shop there. It's supply of fruit and veggies is shocking: common veggies like tomatoes have 8 varieties on display (including heirlooms of peak ripeness), surrounded by shelf after shelf of exotics like yucca, star fruit, cacti leaves, edible flowers, etc. The dried goods sections are just as amazing, particularly their Asian sections. Seriously, if you ever visit the SF Bay Area, even if just for a weekend, you must visit this grocery store. AND, unlike the rest of us poor souls, you can completely bypass the original downtown Berkeley Bowl with its cramped aisles and overcrowded parking. The new one has ample parking, is located in the industrial part of town near the highway, and is freakin' gi-normous. Look Below:

So we
went there to get our heirloom, peak ripeness tomatoes and Do walked out with something like 10 additional pounds of fresh fruit. Anyways, we get back to the apartment, still glowing from our first visit to Berkeley Bowl West, and I set about making the soup... and finish just minutes after Do has finished unpacking our groceries. Now, that says something about how much we bought, but it also says that this is a ridiculously easy and convenient recipe. A trait much appreciated by working grad students.

How did it taste? Refreshing. Like Perfect summer tomatoes, only better. This was no apathetic tomato juice: it had body and slight spicing coming from the chicken stock. The rice and tomato pulp added texture and heartiness. And I thought the lemon wedges were a brilliant addition: zingy, adult, and even slightly exotic to our American palate. I don't think that this recipe will work with anything but the best summer tomatoes, so take advantage and try it now!

Summer Tomato and Rice Soup

2 Tbs Olive Oil
3 lbs very ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
3-4 cups chicken stock
1/2 c white rice (add an extra 1/4 if you want an extra hearty soup)
Bold3 Tbs chopped fresh parsley or basil
Lemon wedges

Warm olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring often and smashing them down with a wooden spoon, until they break down completely into a puree (~10min).

Meanwhile, heat chicken stock to a simmer in a soup pot. Add rice and tomatoes to the pot and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until rice is tender (~15-20min).

Season with salt and pepper and stir parsley in. Ladle into bowls and pass the lemon wedges at the table.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

We're Back! (maybe, perhaps, under certain conditions...)

Well, as expected, cooking did not even come close to a priority during our first year in graduate school. Between coursework, research jobs, and cats - oh yeah, we adopted two cats from the Oakland shelter in January - there wasn't a whole lot of room for culinary creativity or exploration. We fell back on tried-and-true recipes, easy pasta dishes, salads, ramen, and eating out. Great ingredients generally, but the overall cooking experience certainly has lacked the intellectual engagement that we could afford pre-graduate school.

But! The summer holds great potential. With no coursework monopolizing our evenings, the abundance of California produce, and apparently a reader who actively uses this blog to feed himself, we're going to try to resume the hobby that is culinary exploration. Bear with us, we're a little rusty.

At some point last year, we developed a tradition of having our friend DNA (kid you not! those are his real initials!) over to dinner on Friday nights. A very casual, family sort of thing: we'd cook whatever we were going to cook anyway and play boardgames, or watch a movie, or talk till the wee hours in the morning over several bottles of wine. Last night, DNA brought a hometown friend of his over, a friendly first year grad student at UCSF. Do made cocktails and we all hung out in the kitchen while DNA and I cooked dinner.

Dinner turned out Fantastic, much to my surprise. I was throwing together a simple summer pasta dish purely in an attempt to use up a bunch of our CSA veggies before they went bad. I was concerned that it would end up tasting too... "green." I've had pizzas and stir fries turn out that way, where the dish doesn't quite come together, and the veggies acquire this bland uniform flavor that permates the whole dish. To preempt this, I threw in ~1.5 lbs of Elgin sausage that I brought back from Texas last month. For those of you not from Texas, Elgin is a po-dunk town outside Austin that produces sausage which is legendary, pilgrimage-worthy. I'm actually a bit concerned that the dish will be less spectacular without that secret ingredient. Another trick that I tried was to create a "sauce" by stirring in ricotta cheese. I'd never done this before but it worked! It added a slightly creamy coating to the pasta, making it a true "dish" and not just a bowl were pasta and veggies happened to find themselves in combination. I will definitely use that trick again. The pasta turned out really, really successful, worthy of being immemorialized on an index card in my recipe box. For those of you who know us, this is how flavorful it was: Do didn't even ask to add hot sauce or red pepper flakes.

The other success story was DNA's spinach side dish. I know very little about it, other than it comes from an Indian cookbook, he's been making it for ages, and it was divine. Also very flavorful (can you tell that that's my biggest concern with veggie-centric dishes?), and the combination with diced mozarella provides a delightful texture contrast. I would have had seconds if we hadn't scarfed it all down on the first go.

Anyways, both dishes are recommended. And maybe next time we'll start pulling out the camera.

DNA's Indian Spinach with Cheese (serves 4 as a side)
1 lb chopped spinach
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 tsp tumeric
1 tsp chopped ginger
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 cup water
0.5 lb chopped mozarella
1 tsp veg oil
1/2 tsp cumin, toasted

Put mozarella in fridge. In a heavy saucepan, mix spinach, onion, ginger, salt, tumeric, cumin, cayenne, 1/2 c water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and cook 5min or until soft. Stir in remaining water, bring to a simmer. Simmer 20-30 min till liquid is absorbed. Stir in mozarella seconds before serving, so as to preserve the differences in temperatures.

Summer Squash and Sausage pasta (serves 6 as a main)
1.5 lb Elgin sausage (or any super flavorful spicy sausage), crumbled
1/2 red onion, chopped
3/4 lb - 1 lb carrotts, chopped into matchsticks
4 summer squash (~1 lb), chopped into matchsticks
1 Gypsy pepper (or another medium spice pepper), chopped into matchsticks
3 tomatoes, chopped into bite-size pieces.
1/2 c ricotta cheese
1 lb pasta

Cook pasta per box's instructions. Set aside.
In a heavy saucepan, cook the sausage in batches. Pour off the fat in between batches, but don't throw it out. Set cooked sausage aside in a large bowl, add the tomatoes to the bowl. Use a little of the sausage fat to saute the carrots, summer squash, and gypsy pepper, add these veggies to the large bowl. Add the ricotta cheese and the pasta, stir to combine and salt&pepper to taste.