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: Delicious.com. 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: delicious.com 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 http://delicious.com/PostCollegiateCooking. 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.