Monday, April 30, 2012

pot of gold

We have a chicken making a weird, wheezy snorking noise today, and while I am not broadcasting an open plea for advice, I will share a little wisdom: if you happen to suspect that a chicken of your acquaintance may have an impacted crop, do NOT do any internet research while eating lunch at your desk.  Just take me at my word on that.

I was going to write you a nice little story about the beans in my lunch, but barnyarding and other Monday managerial tasks have absorbed all the time I had for that.  So no story.  Just beans.

That is what these are--just beans.  I've said before (more than once, in fact) that in my opinion, a person who starts the week with a giant pot of beans in the fridge strides boldly forward with a spring in their step.  Beans are my pals for many reasons: they can be bought without packaging, can be made ahead in quantity, improve on standing, are nutritionally dense, easy on the wallet, will usefully marry a myriad of flavors, can be employed in numerous ways and are very appealing to my children.

And there, I just said it again.

These beans are known, in my head, as "Dominican Beans," but when I tried to reconnect to the recipe that made me call them that in the first place, it was gone, and any other recipe I have found for Dominican beans is totally different.  They employ one stupendous trick--slow cooking in the oven in a covered pot-- that has the power to influence all your future bean projects.  But beyond that, they are unassuming, slipping happily into burritos, on to nachos, into baked dinners, mashing up nicely into refritos, sliding into a bowl with cheese on top and tortillas for dipping, etc. I make more than I might need for the week, and then I freeze one-cup portions of them for my future lunchbox- or snack-panicked self, and am always glad I did.

If you don't have a stove-worthy casserole dish, you can do the initial boil of the beans in a  pot and transfer them to a covered baking dish. The kombu helps to make the beans especially tender and digestible, but is entirely optional.

basic beans

2 cups dried pinto beans, picked over and soaked either overnight or by the quick soak method
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled & whole
2 t ground cumin
1T mild pure chile powder (ancho is nice; beware of "chili powder," which often contains salt and other spices, and thanks to the salt will toughen your beans)
optionally, a strip of dried kombu seaweed 

1/2 c finely chopped cilantro
1/2 c tomato puree, or 2T tomato paste 
 salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 350.  Drain the beans, and place them in a heavy casserole.  Add the cumin and chile, the cloves of garlic, the kombu if you are using it, and enough fresh water to cover by an inch.  Bring this mixture to a boil over medium to high heat, then turn off the heat, cover, and place the pot in the oven. Turn the oven down to 275, and go on about your day.  If you are bored or concerned, check the beans in an hour and see if they need a stir or some additional water.  They probably don't.  Check them again in another hour or so.  Are they almost tender?  You want to keep them in there until they are totally tender, and undercooking is more of a cause for concern than overcooking is.  I generally forget they are in the oven until I suddenly have to dash out somewhere, and then I just leave them in the switched-off oven until I get home.  Cooking time will vary based on the age of the beans, which is unknowable.  Life lessons abound in the kitchen.  

If you are using the kombu, you can remove it after an hour or so, while it is still intact, or just let it dissolve into the beans. 

Anyway, once the beans are tender, remove them from the oven and stir in the remaining ingredients.  These are tasty right away, but they vastly improve the next day and so forth.

Friday, April 27, 2012

I melt with you


We had a friend once who had lived penuriously in solitude for years despite grand tastes and a big heart, and then found her circumstances much altered by happily finding love with a man who happened to have some cash.  She decorated a large house for the two of them to live in.  And I mean to say, she DECORATED a house.  “Rococo” does not begin to describe the gleefully over-the-top aesthetic she employed.  We went to a party there with my husband’s father not long after it was done.  He is a person of radically different tastes than those of our hostess.  As we drove home, he struggled to find the most polite way to describe what he had just experienced.  “That,” he said eventually, “Was a very densely decorated home.” 

When she gave us the house tour, our hostess had showed us the little gift presented to her by the interior decorator she had colluded with: a lily, gilded.

Which brings us directly to sauce.  It’s the end of Condimentia Week, and so naturally I am giving you dessert sauce.  Caramel sauce, to be precise.  Another essential vial in the holster of  bottles that give us our distinctive swagger through the kitchen.

For years I made a caramel sauce that I had discovered through a bread pudding I was making for a party, and I thought I had found the secret to life.  Three ingredients, five minutes, and transformative happiness.  I thought world peace could probably be achieved if only it ran out of the faucets at the UN. The sauce could be a little gritty, in truth, especially upon standing and reheating, but it tasted so good, especially when it came right out of the pan, that it was hard to object to it very energetically.  People didn't taste it and say, “oh, yes, nice--but I wish it were more X,” or slip it to their dogs under the table.  They just lapped it up. 

So I never looked further into the caramel sauce matter.  I stuck with what I had.  It’s an excellent sauce for when someone calls out “Caramel Sauce to O.R. three—STAT!”  Except the other night, we had a caramel sauce emergency on our hands and I lacked one element of the holy trinity of ingredients: brown sugar.  I could have made brown sugar, but there really wasn’t time to do the stirring that requires.  It was urgent.  So I caramelized some white sugar, which as we know is a snap to do and only sounds scary, and what do you know but I made a true, real, caramel sauce and lo, it was far and away better than the other one.

But I made it in such haste that I didn’t really pay much attention to measurements, so I had to make it again to take notes.  Three times.  My poor family.  Swimming in the stuff.  

Making it again (and again and again) brings us back around to gilding the lily.

As I said, I think it would be the rare human who would eat any homemade warm caramel sauce and long for it to possess some missing quality that they are able to name.  Their mouth is too busy.  Caramel makes people—people who like caramel, I suppose—swoon.  But if you happen to add something to it, you find that it is possible to swoon farther than you had previously imagined.  In this way, dessert is like yoga.

Smoothness is key here, in my opinion, so I didn't really want to add any kind of nubbin that would interrupt that.  Because caramelizing sugar is so much less fraught (though slightly slower) when you add some water to it, I began to eye this water with a waggly brow.  So plain, that water. Hmm.

So here are a few things you might consider infusing the water with, should you wish to gild the lily of the sauce that follows.  Infusing is not a new skill. If you have ever made a cup of tea, you have infused.
  • A roughly-torn dried chile pepper; mild, such as a guajillo, or hot, as you prefer.
  • A teaspoon of coarsely-ground or crushed black pepper.
  • A stick of cinnamon.
  • Several strips of lemon or orange zest.
  • Green tea.
  • Chai.
  • Coffee beans.
  • Saffron threads.
  • Rose petals.

Here in the R&P test kitchen, I made (L to R, above) the coffee (strong brewed coffee in place of the water), the green tea (brewing 1 t genmaicha and 1 t matcha powder in the water) and the chile versions (being sure to mix the scrapings from the inside of the guajillo pepper I used into the pot along with the soaking liquid).

In the interest of science and the vain hope of reconstructing what I made the other night (which like most things made in haste with no record-keeping was entirely perfect) I used different proportions of cream, butter, sugar and water in each batch.  Here is my conclusion: you cannot go very far wrong with butter, sugar and cream.  The differences between these three batches in terms of consistency are negligible at best, so do not sweat it if you have a little too little of one or the other ingredient.  In all likelihood, it is going to work out fine.  Adding the proposed infusions can make it slightly harder to tell how caramelized the sugar is, which I largely judge by color, but even that did not prevent all three jars from being something you would want to retreat to a corner with by yourself. Tips for achieving this outcome in your kitchen are below.

Words of caution: one, use a heavy skillet with high sides.  Two, hot sugar is way hotter than other hot things.  Be aware and careful.  Three, mise en place is your pal here.  Have everything prepped and ready, like someone is about to call "Action!" because caramelized sugar and burnt sugar are not terribly distant cousins.  Four, do not stir the sugar as it caramelizes.  This makes the caramel gritty.

All that said, this is truly not hard to do.  What kind are you going to make?

caramel sauce
makes about 2 cups

1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
2/3 cup heavy cream
4 T unsalted butter, cut in 4 chunks

If you are making the straight-up version with plain water, also include:
1 t vanilla extract or (much preferred) the inside scrapings from half a vanilla bean
a fat pinch of good salt, like fleur de sel

Have a pint jar or pitcher near the stove, and a silicone spatula.

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy, tall saucepan. Swirl to combine, and heat over medium heat.  The sugar will dissolve rather quickly, and you can keep swirling the pan (but not stirring) as it cooks, especially as it begins to color at the edges so you can keep that process uniform.  It takes about five minutes for the sugar to caramelize; if you have added color-altering ingredients, watch the clock, watch for large bubbles to form and use your sense of smell to tell you when the right degree of caramelization has occurred.  When this happens, immediately remove the pot from the heat and drop in the butter, swirl, then add the cream.  It may foam up when you do this, hence the need for a high-sided pot, and it will undoubtedly look terrible and clumpy.  Now return it to the heat and stir to your heart's content, with a wooden spoon or a whisk, until it has smoothed out and comes to a good boil, and then take it right off the heat.  If you are adding vanilla and salt, now is the time.

Pour into the waiting vessel.  It will seem thin.  It will thicken magically as it cools.  If you do not use it all up, you can refrigerate the remainder, and reheat it by warming the jar in a pot of hot water and stirring it well.

Have a lovely weekend.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

the great sauce caper

caper, n.
1.     to leap or skip about in a sprightly manner; prance; frisk; gambol.
2.     a prank or trick; harebrained escapade.
3.     a frivolous, carefree episode or activity.
4.     a spiny shrub, Capparis spinosa,  of Mediterranean regions, having roundish leaves and solitary white flowers.
5.     its flower bud which is pickled and used for garnish or seasoning.

This one is a lulu, piquant and snappy and as useful as a little black dress.  You could dip into it with a vegetable, you could smear it on anything grilled, broiled or just standing still, you could rocket a potato or chicken salad to the moon with it.

It comes from one of my favorite and most splattered cookbooks, Jerry Traunfeld’s Herbfarm Cookbook.  His polenta is my standard for polenta.  His sensibilities make my tastebuds very happy.  He avoids the traditional sprinkle of fresh herbs, tending more toward the fistful, but manages to make the results still subtle and interesting and not at all overdone.  

In case the Full Disclosure Police are reading, I should volunteer the information that I once made his lavender shortbread cookies and served them at a ladies’ function with a gooseberry fool and felt I had carried myself pretty well, until the lady to my left said they reminded her of her grandmother’s bath soap and fed them to her dog, who was under the table, handing him her dish of fool to go with it.  I don’t hang with ladies much anymore.  Very stressful.  All those manners and white gloves.

The only modification I made here was to use a chunk of preserved lemon in place of the lemon zest his recipe called for.  But I have made it his way and it totally rocks like that, too, so if you lack preserved lemons do not fret.  Heed his warning about using tender stems of parsley only, because the thicker stems have too potent a flavor here.

If your food processor has suddenly died, gasping wildly as you tried to use it and then stubbornly refusing to budge its upper grinders while grating its interior gaskets into little piles on the counter top underneath the machine (or is it just me?), then rest assured you can do this in the blender or with a hand blender—just add the oil up front so you have enough substance to make the ingredients move.  It will all emulsify fine.

green herb and caper sauce
Adapted from Jerry Traunfeld’s Herbfarm Cookbook

1 ½ cups (gently packed) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems
½ cup (gently packed) fresh mint leaves
½ cup coarsely-snipped chives or the green parts of a scallion
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 t Dijon mustard
4 anchovy filets
2 T capers, drained
a small chunk of preserved lemon, or the zest of ½ a lemon, finely grated
1 T fresh lemon juice
a few twists of fresh black pepper
6T olive oil

Process all the ingredients except the oil in a food processor until they are finely chopped.  Scrape down the sides.  With the machine running, pour in the oil in a steady stream and continue to process until the sauce is slightly creamy but not completely smooth. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

this is nuts

We are definitely edging from sauce to condiment here, and even into straight-out snack territory.  Someone gave this recipe to my sister about twelve years ago, and it says "relish" in the title, and even though that is not strictly true, at least not in terms of my understanding of the term 'relish,' I am giving it to you during Condimentia Week anyway.  It is just the very thing if you find yourself in any of these situations:
  • Bored silly by everything you make and how it all tastes the same.
  • Confounded by a few too many tricky recipes and longing for something simple that will make you feel like you should have your own show on the Food Network.
  • Heading for a potluck and wanting a boost for your self-esteem.
  • Listening to your voicemail and hearing "we would LOVE to come!  My husband's sister is in town to get an award from the Culinary Society and she'll be with us--by the way, she's vegan and on a raw food diet.  Hope that's cool with you!  See you at 7!"

There are no tricky skills to employ here, and if you do in fact have plans to entertain someone on a raw diet, or if it is just too hot to turn on even the toaster oven to toast the nuts and coconut, rest assured you can make this without getting involved with any appliance but your food processor. It's plenty tasty made with raw nuts and coconut.  A friend once made a batch each way because she was entertaining one raw foodist and a bunch of cookedetarians, and having the two versions side by side allowed us to scientifically establish that they were equally tasty in different ways.  I do recommend starting with the toasted iteration.

The only other note is on heat.  Even having heat from four sources (ginger, garlic, chile paste and jalapeño), things balance out nicely here.  If you are shy of heat, reduce each but maybe don't eliminate any.

This stuff is tasty on a cracker, a slice of vegetable, a sandwich, or, as usual, a spoon.  If you figure out (a) how to use it as a relish or (b) why it is called one, please send a cable immediately.

thai nut relish
makes about two cups

1 heaping cup cashews
1 cup unsweetened coconut

2T finely chopped fresh ginger, or one heaping T of grated ginger
up to one minced, seeded and deveined fresh jalapeño pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
2T soy sauce or tamari
1 to 2t sriracha chile paste (thai red chili paste--most groceries have it in Asian section)

1 cup chopped scallions (about one bunch)
1 cup chopped cilantro
Juice of 1 lime
2T neutral oil

Toast the cashews and coconut separately in 350 degree oven till lightly browned.  Watch closely.  It's no fun to throw away burned things.

Chop the scallions and cilantro (you can do this by hand or in the food processor.)

Put all the ingredients except scallions and cilantro in food processor and pulse to blend until chunky.

Add scallions and cilantro and pulse just a few times, until mixed. 

Add lime juice and oil and pulse to combine; then taste and adjust for salt, sour and spice.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

red all over

The technological problem of the day is the whimsical ways of the fonts in Blogger, but the internet is back up and running, so that's good.

The sauce of the day is sofrito, which I should come right out and say I am not exactly making in any kind of way that is intended to be perceived as authentic or definitive. As I learned when I tried to make a mojo sauce, there are certain foodstuffs that speak directly to the inner child-on-the-playground for people of or loyal to various nations, and sofrito has to be right up there in the top 10. Google it and you will see that it is a staple seasoning of about ninety-four different countries, and in each place it is made differently: peppers or no peppers, this kind of pepper vs. that kind, this herb or that, pork or no pork, and so on. One belief common to all is that is highly seasoned, and another is that it is very useful. It can form the flavorful backbone of cooked beans, meat, stew or rice. I am on board with both these philosophies. It’s also a useful thing to throw on top of something grilled or roasted, as you might use a chutney. This is all I propose to suggest. A useful sauce. Perhaps inspired most closely by the Puerto Rican version, but not purporting to be it.

We went to Albany over the weekend and fell into a large and gorgeous Asian market, where I was able to score a supply of another item known by many names and held dear by many nations: sawtooth herb, or culantro.

If you love cilantro, think of it as high-octane super major cilantro with a little twist. If you hate cilantro (I know who you are), prepare to not even want to be in the room with it. It is easy to find in Asian markets and often in Latin ones, too. If you want to have a little pot of it on your windowsill, you can order, for less than four dollars, a little packet of seeds from here, or head over here for some plants, or even an envelope full of fresh leaves. You can show culantro off nicely in this sauce, but you can also use plain old cilantro and manage equally well.

Here is what I have done with sofrito: throw a scoop into some browned ground turkey; glop it onto some pasta; spoon it into a sandwich (like a toasted cheese sandwich, for example); eat it from the jar. Like yesterday’s garlic sauce, it would be a major jumpstart to a potato salad or chicken salad.

If you can find a yellow chile or aji dulce, use that along with your sweet pepper. When I could find those, they gave it a mild but noticeable heat. Today I used most of a seeded jalapeño that was about three inches long. One recipe I saw called for one whole seeded jalapeno and 6 aji dulce chiles, so clearly heat is part of the intention, but it’s a pretty personal thing. What you want is something that is as hot as you like it. And do be careful chopping hot peppers. No touching the face! Trust me on that one!

sofrito, sort of

2T olive oil
1 yellow chile pepper or one jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 large red, yellow or orange sweet bell pepper, seeded and deveined and finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro, cilantro or a mixture
1 medium or large tomato, chopped
1/2 tsp finely chopped fresh oregano or thyme

Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat, and sauté the peppers, onion and garlic until soft, about 8 minutes, stirring frequently. You will need to lower the heat as you go, to prevent it from browning. When it is nice and soft, add the herbs and tomato and continue to sauté until thickened, about five more minutes; salt to taste. I used a scant half teaspoon. It's about so many things that it doesn't require much salt to make it sing.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Apologies for the fact that vacation week kind of got away from me and I vanished without notice; also apologies for the fact that our internet has been down all day and I am only getting this out now. The little gerbils who drive the wheel that makes our modem run at such blisteringly glacial speeds must have the day off. But it’s a full week, so I am posting even given the late hour.

My friend Julie has said, on occasion, that I am the only person she knows who will spend an entire day making sauces and at the end of the day have nothing for dinner. She has even coined a term for my disorder: Condimentia. I agree entirely with the diagnosis. I love sauce and relish and chutney and salsa and so on. I think a person wealthy in sauce is wealthy indeed. That person can cook for a fussy group of diners, or a toddler, or an invalid—-anyone who requires plain steamed this and that—-and still, when their turn at the table comes around, eat like a king. A king of several countries, most of them below the Equator. Persons wealthy in sauce can be so tired that all they can muster is a pot of rice or an egg, and still present a festive dinner to themselves or others. With a cracker or two or a few vegetables and their sauce arsenal, they can manifest a toothsome plate of snacks in a heartbeat, if called upon to do so. They have options. They are set.

I am highly symptomatic now. Thinking about talking sauce, sauce and nothing but sauce all week has my mind and pulse racing. How could I possibly choose just five? This could go on for a while. May have to change the name up there. Welcome to The Sauce Channel.

This one comes from Madhur Jaffrey’s weighty tome, World Vegetarian. It’s a splendid book. Almost never steers me wrong. Her recipe produces (pardon the technical terminology) a metric buttload of this sauce, which is handy for gift-giving or periods of epic sauce consumption. I have adapted it here so that you end up with a more reasonable quantity of the stuff, but if you have pals you think might appreciate a jar, go ahead and triple it back up. You will win friends and influence people.

This is a simple recipe but it's also a good time to practice a little mise en place, because you need everything in short order and it's good to have it all ready before you begin. I almost never cook like that, and yet I am always happy when I do. I feel like Julia a little, even though I have to wash all my own little wee bowls.

Jaffrey mentions that this condiment keeps unrefrigerated for several months, which I have seen to be true, and she also is careful to note that good ventilation in the kitchen is helpful for your breathing comfort when you make it. Any sinus conditions lingering from the winter weather will be cleared when you are done. A final note on the ginger, if I have not mentioned it already—my pal Amy taught me that you can peel it easily and comfortably with an ordinary teaspoon and once you try that, you never look back.

crunchy sichuan garlic relish
Makes about a cup

2/3 cup canola or peanut oil

I bunch scallions, finely sliced (white and light green parts)

About a half-inch knob of fresh ginger root, peeled and finely chopped

Cloves from three whole heads of garlic, peeled and finely chopped (you can use a food processor for this; pulse until it is all minced and remember to wash that appliance well before you make pastry)

About 15 dried hot red chiles (the kind that are about 2” long), crumbled, or one heaping tablespoon of red pepper flakes (the kind you shake on a slice of pizza)

Scant ¾ T of sea salt

1 teaspoon of soy sauce or tamari

1 T roasted sesame seeds

¼ t toasted sesame oil

Heat the oil in saucepan or frying pan until it ripples lightly. Drop in the scallions and stir and fry them, scraping all areas of the pot, untl they barely begin to take on some color. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes. Now add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir and fry for another 10 minutes or so, until everything is light golden. (they will darken and crisp more as they cool).

Stir more as time goes on, because as things brown up they tend to stick more, and keep the heat on the low side. Drop in the chiles now (remember that they will send up a mighty pepper fume) and stir for a few seconds, and then add the salt and soy sauce and stir for another minute. Turn off the heat and add the sesame seeds and oil, then let it all cool completely before scraping it into a sterilized and completely dry jar with a tight-fitting lid.

This is an excellent addition to rice, to stir-fried greens, or on top of a bowl of noodles. It was heaven to night on some braised Chinese broccoli, and I bet the same effect can be achieved with baby bok choi. Also, it's great on toast. But not everyone takes their sauce that way, I know.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

good housekeeping

Just had a romp through the women's magazines while I waited for my daughter at the pediatric dentist. I am resolved to be slimmer, make better use of my closet space, and get totally invested in date night. Also I am all about quinoa. Well, my children would tell you that is nothing new. Like the lamented chickpea, it is one of those foods that they reflexively express dislike for, even though they eat it pretty happily. But everyone else in the universe seems to be about it now, so my quiet devotion to quinoa no longer has to be a shameful thing for the family.

It looks to me from a scientific survey of the mainstream blog and magazine universes that this is the Age of Quinoa 'n' Cheese. Here it is, baked with chunks of ham. There it is, bright orange with conveniently pre-shredded colby. If it means more people eating quinoa, there probably isn't much to object to in the trend.

Also, they happen to be on to something. What suspect food is not improved with bakey crispy cheese on top? And when I saw the quinoa muffins (and wee little muffinettes) moving in herds across the Great Housewifely Plains, I decided to get a little of that women's mag action here at home.

"Don't think I am fooled by the whole muffin thing," said the Chief Quinoa Skeptic.

Fooled in what way?

"I can see that these are made of quinoa," said the CQS, but by then she had eaten it. And then she ate another. I really wasn't trying to fool anyone, I swear. But I will say I enjoyed the reduced grumbling. They come across like something between a nice, not-at-all dry muffin and an amusingly portable frittata. We ate them hot, with a big messy salad, for dinner, but they look like likely suspects for flinging into a lunch box, too, or onto a brunch table.

Like a frittata or quiche or omelette, they are kind of a blank canvas. I am not sure there is any limitation on what you could add here, so this is another non-recipe recipe. Go hog wild. Suggestions below, but feel free to ignore them.

convincing quinoa flingers
makes 12

2 1/2 cups of cooked quinoa
1 1/2 cups of coarsely grated cheddar, divided
1 c coarsely grated zucchini (about one 7" zuke)
3-4 eggs
a generous sprinkling of chopped fresh herbs, like chives or parsley
salt & pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly spray or brush a 12-cup muffin tin with olive oil.

Combine the quinoa, 1 cup of the cheddar, the zucchini, herbs and 3 of the eggs in a medium bowl and mix well. If it seems dry, add the remaining egg. You want a nice thick batter, not soupy but not a dry, clumpy situation. Add a fat pinch of salt and a few twists of pepper. Divide among the muffin cups and sprinkle the tops with the remaining cheese. Bake about 20 minutes, until nicely golden brown, and cool on a rack to ensure cheesy crispiness on the bottoms (they will sog a bit if left to cool in the pan).

Variations on that theme:

Replace the zucchini with shredded baby spinach, or finely chopped, cooked greens like chard or kale. Replace part of the cheddar with some crumbled feta.

Add some cubed & roasted sweet potatoes, drained black beans and a handful of chopped cilantro.

Roasted or sauteed red onion would be tasty with smoked cheddar or gouda, and a fat pinch of cumin.

Use mozzarella, or a smoky scamorza, and some chopped roasted or dried tomatoes, and a handful of chopped fresh basil.

Pig out: crumbled bacon, slivers of ham, cooked sausage....oh, you get the idea.

Monday, April 16, 2012

nuts to you

It is seventy degrees here, sunny as all get-out, and all three progeny are off school for the week. So you can relax in total confidence that nothing I tell you about this week will be especially complicated.

Here are the cookies I promised you on Friday. Here is what they are not, particularly: complicated, beautiful, indulgent.

Here is what they are: insanely simple, delicious, satisfying and exciting for your mouth.

The recipe comes from my friend Naomi, who got it from her friend Lina. These two women wield mighty spoons. Do not doubt them. Especially do not doubt Naomi's warnings and caveats, reproduced for you almost verbatim below from the text message she wrote me on the train where she was when she received my frantic plea for the instructions.

I cannot even really tolerate eating raw almonds; it produces the kind of itchiness that leads directly to scraffing your front teeth along your tongue repeatedly, pausing only to manifest that garchy hairball noise in the back of the throat that is so taxing on a marriage. And yet I ate the dough, and then I ate some more. When I say the recipe makes about a dozen nuggets, I mean that in the end, that is about how many you will be able to bake. If, in your haste to get the dough in the oven and away from your grabby hands, you do not heed the warning about compacting it firmly between two spoons and the cookies look a little fall-apart-ish once baked, you can smish them together a little while they are still warm. Again, this is not the sort of thing I would want anyone to know that I recommend. I am just saying it can be done.

Lina and Naomi's version requires not one iota of improvement, but for giggles there is a variation below it that seems to have worked out fine.

naomi & lina's almond cookies
makes about a dozen

Turn oven on to 300 and line a baking sheet with parchment.

1 cup raw almonds
1/4 cup maple syrup
A good fat pinch of good salt
Dash vanilla
2 cardamom pods, shells removed
2 tsp water

Chop everything up in a food processor until it looks right and kind of sticks together. Try not to eat it all when raw. (Maybe make a double batch next time, eh?)

Put small spoonfuls, well-compacted between two teaspoons, onto the parchment-lined pan. Bake about 20 minutes or until they are a nice golden color. Remove them to a cooling rack. Eat them before anybody notices and start another batch right away.....

Variation on that theme:
Replace the maple syrup with honey. Replace the cardamom with a fat pinch of red pepper flakes, add a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger root and then proceed as above, in the vain hope that the kick of spice will slow you down before you eat it all.

Friday, April 13, 2012

fish stories

I heard two things on the radio this morning that stuck to the lint trap in my head.

First, a team of scientists has established credible data that weekly consumption of fish significantly reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease later in your life, so they counsel us to fire up the broiler and get busy with the filets.

Second, stocks of jack mackerel in the South Pacific have been depleted by approximately 60 percent in the last six years, ironically the same exact six years since the three nations that fish the area most heavily (Chile, Australia and New Zealand) established a coalition to protect the fishery. Depletion is due to, well, greed mainly, and due to the huge proportion of juvenile fish in the catch, caught before they can breed and repopulate the stock. In 2008, independent review showed that more than 60% of the mackerel caught were below the agreed-upon minimum size limit, and last year that percentage had increased to more than 90%. Increased! Awesome coalition, dudes. Rock on. Sicken yourself further here, if I have not ruined your day already.

OK, let me keep trying. Who is eating all that mackerel? Salmon. Farmed salmon. Most of the mackerel are ground up to produce fish meal for salmon farms, where the conversion ratio is approximately 4 pounds of mackerel to your dinner for 4 (or one pound of salmon.) 80 to 90% of the salmon consumed in the US is farmed, by the way, with disastrous results for natural populations.

I'm as attentive to resources like Good Catch and the Monterey Bay Aquarium list of "greener" fish choices as the next self-flagellating, confused, hungry, do-good wannabe. But the lists begin to lose some of their powers of persuasion for me when I hear a back story like this one. It's all relative, and the conditions of that relativity are unknown to most of us, who see "organic eco-farmed salmon" and think that sounds like it might be an OK choice. What is it that is supposed to matter, now that I think of it here in the store with the line forming behind me? Organic means no chemicals, so that's good because I think regular salmon is colored with synthetic dye and pumped up on pharmaceuticals, or was it farmed is better, because then natural stocks are not overfished, or was it that wild-caught that was the way to go, because there's something about farming that is bad? What did I read, again? (For reference, just file away that you can freely ignore the "organic" label in the fish market; there are no standards for organic certification for fish, it is not regulated at all and is entirely at the whim of the producer to slap the label on).

The thing of it is, these are tough times for the mackerel, and the native apple, and the honeybee, and for any human trying to source their food responsibly. What is good for our geriatric brains is hell on the planet; increasingly, it seems that what's good for the planet is for all of us to lie down very quietly and try not to work up an appetite or drive anywhere.

It's tempting to respond by throwing the hands upward. Too much to attend to! Gotta eat!

In times of dietary confusion, I always roll back to two things: something I can source near me, and vegetables. Thank goodness it's spring, and those twain are getting ready to meet again. Something from the dirt close by always soothes.

No recipe today. Just some sparks, to light the fire of the first foods of spring. What's ready where you are? (Forgive me but I don't really want to hear your answer on this one if you live west of, like, Pennsylvania, OK? You folks just answer in your heads.)

Here's your sparks:

raw and sprightly asparagus, or these cooked and spicy ones, or this soup.

Make a radish salad, with slivered radishes and plenty of lemon and parsley and good coarse salt and pepper, or Indian-style, grated, with fresh grated ginger, lime juice and a spike of chile. What about a radish sandwich, using plenty of good butter and salt and dark bread? Or make radish hash browns! The rest of the world seems to be doing it.

Pickle a ramp

Have good eggs? Make ricotta (there she goes again!) and a frittata thereafter, maybe using not only the mint called for, but the first chives and lovage and greens that are poking up.

Make soup from weeds (and that whey you have in the fridge now!).

Have a great weekend. Monday is cookie day! (No fish in the cookies.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

not stoned

One of the nice things about the internet is that in a matter of seconds, you can determine that you have never had an original idea in your life. This is a process that used to take months, if not years. It doesn't matter if you think you have some wildly original idea. Even if you thought it up alone, on a mountaintop, in a lead-lined underground cave, with earmuffs on, using an abacus, one minute’s tarantella on google once you come back down will establish that a minimum of 49 other people have posted step-by-step instructions, a short YouTube video and a host of tweets regarding this item in the time it took you to take off your backpack.

This is all going to work out to your advantage, dear reader.

I used some of my milk glut from our party last weekend to make a batch of ricotta, and I had these artichoke and olive calzones to tell you about today, wherein I used the ricotta. But I kind of wasn’t going to emphasize that I made the ricotta. It still feels a little like the actions of a fringe-dweller, like the mention of it might cause some eye-rolling. Even though I made a really tasty soup with the leftover whey, and I wanted you to try that, too. Still, I was going to give it a low profile, this wacky, out-there making of cheese.

Then I saw Food52’s feature on What To Do With Your Leftover Whey.

Then I saw the New York Times Dining section was featuring Melissa Clark’s easy-peasy-this-is-so-mainstream-how-have-you-not-done-it-yet?-recipe for home-made ricotta.

Then, for poops and giggles, I did a search on the interwebs for “make ricotta.” There may still be a few fringe-dwelling activities that I engage in, but cheese-making is no longer one of them.

So I am just going to wait here a moment while you get psyched up to make a batch of ricotta. A HUGE undertaking (it will take you 30 minutes)! You need lots of exotic ingredients (milk and lemon)! Fancy equipment (pot, spoon, strainer)! Rest up, carbo-load, push fluids, off you go. Use this excellent recipe, or check out the buttermilk vs. lemon juice debate here (with links to more recipes) or try this one—zounds!—that uses the microwave and makes the process even faster.

Was that not so much fun? Snip, snap—you made cheese! You’re a cheese-maker.

Now, about that pizza dough….well, there is a world of opinion out there beyond my own slightly suspect and subjective one that making your own is not a deviant or time-consuming activity. And we all know it is sold by the knob at every grocery store, too.It's entirely up to you, of course. But if you are thinking of making your own, now that you have that golden carafe of whey to play with the time is truly ripe. Just substitute it for the water, and remember that you are best off starting it the night before you want it. Then, all the next day, no matter what you are doing, you can be thinking "I am making pizza right now. Here I sit in this meeting, and yet, I am working on dinner at the same time."

As for the calzone, the ones I produced were a homely bunch, and they detonated when I baked them. Producing them ate up most of the time I had set aside, and I had some serious doubts about posting this at all. But I bailed by using the remaining filling and remaining dough to make a white pizza, which was a snap to throw together. Your call. I know which exercise I will repeat next time....

artichoke & green olive & ricotta pizza/calzone

2# of pizza dough, home-made or store-bought

1 # fresh ricotta (about 2 cups)

6 ozs fresh mozzarella, cubed (about a cup and a half)

1/2 to 2/3 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

2 T chopped fresh basil

2 T olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

a generous handful of pitted green olives, coarsely chopped

about 8 water-packed or thawed frozen artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped

2-3 tsp finely chopped preserved lemon, or a pinch of fresh lemon zest, finely grated

fresh black pepper and sea salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees to bake the pizzas. I bake mine on a baking sheet, not a pizza stone, and the results are fine, so don't sweat the lack of a stone. I have no stone, I have no peel, and yet I produce a pizza.

Combine the cheeses and the basil in a medium bowl. (Start with the lesser amount of parmesan, and reserve the remainder).

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat, and toss in the minced garlic. Stir once or twice, then dump in the preserved lemon, stir, then the artichokes and olives. Sauté until nicely fragrant, about two minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Mix into the cheese. Taste the mixture and adjust the flavor to your liking with more parmesan, a twist of pepper, and possibly some salt if your olives are not terribly salty. I used a mondo, slightly oily and extremely salty olive from the antipasto bar at the grocery store, and between those and the remaining salty items in the mix, needed no more salt.

Roll out the dough for two pizzas. Divide the filling between the two crusts and, if you like, sprinkle any remaining parmesan on top. Bake 15 minutes or so, until the crust is nicely golden and the topping is dotted with golden spots as well. If you bake on a sheet, you can slip the baked pizza onto the oven rack directly for a minute, to completely crisp the bottom crust--but don't tell anyone that I do it, OK? It's one of those wacky workarounds that we all use privately but wouldn't want to get out.