Wednesday, September 30, 2009

my life in food

This past weekend, my sister came to visit from Vermont, and brought with her possibly the most perfect housewarming gift: a copy of Judith Jones' My Life in Food and a Lodge cast iron skillet. I started the book on Sunday, and, if it weren't for a day job, I wouldn't put it down. Jones recounts her time spent in Paris in the late 40s, her first encounters with true French food and how this entire experience shaped her life and her ideas about cooking. I picked up My Life in Food shortly after re-reading "Goodbye to All That" --- Joan Didion's essay on coming to, and ultimately leaving, New York. Both of these women write about a sense of abandon, a surrender to what it is to be in your twenties, just getting by. A graceful carelessness. Either this attitude is lost on my generation, or writing about one's early twenties in a new city is inherently romantic and nostalgic. Probably a little bit of both.

In my early twenties, I find myself writing at work (with no sense of any possible consequences) and spending my eight-hour days dreaming up dinners and sauces and sides. Last week was spent planning the menu for a Saturday evening housewarming party (white bean spread on crostini, rosemary crackers, toasted pepitas), and yesterday, I brainstormed how to use up the oyster mushrooms that had been in my fridge for a few days too long. Most likely inspired by Jones' stories of rich, French food, I thought that they would be best served with shallots and potatoes in a red wine sauce. Unfortunately, I got home to find cipollinis where my shallots usually are, and an open bottle of white wine in the fridge. Not wanting to crack open the nice bottle of shiraz we'd received as a housewarming gift, I decided, like most other days, that I'd have to be adaptable. I'd make it work.

What I wound up with, while not what I necessarily had in mind, was delicious in its own right. The white wine reduction, poured over browned potatoes and onions flecked with mushrooms, pushed the dish into this rich, buttery field that I didn't even know was possible with olive oil. While a red wine sauce would have resulted in a deeper flavor, the white wine's complexity was on the surface, and it was fantastic.

Potatoes, Onions and Mushrooms in White Wine Reduction
10-15 any small, fingerling potatoes, cut into large chunks*
2 medium cipollini onions, large chunks
2 - 4 large oyster mushrooms, roughly chopped
1/4 tsp rosemary, finely diced
1/4 tsp, or less, salt
pepper to taste
1/2 cup+ white wine (I used a pretty cheap Chardonnay)
chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley to garnish

Over medium-high heat, saute the potatoes, onion and mushrooms in a good amount of olive oil. Stir frequently to prevent sticking and cook until potatoes and onions begin to brown (5-7 minutes). Once browned, add a 1/4 c water to the pan and cover, reducing to simmer. Cook until potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary (about 15 minutes). When potatoes are tender, and water has cooked off, transfer potatoes/onions/mushrooms to a plate or platter and set aside. Turn heat to high and deglaze pan with wine, scraping up all the browned bits on the bottom and sides of your skillet. Allow to reduce briefly (no more than 5 minutes). Pour sauce over potatoes, top with chopped parsley and serve.

*A note on potatoes: G. and I frequently buy a wide variety of heirloom potatoes mostly because it's fun to use different shapes, sizes and colors. Beyond noticing that a particular variety of fingerling was waxier, and retained a better shape, the taste differences between them are negligible. BUT! If you ever, ever see Adirondack Blues... get them. These were, hands down, the most buttery, melt-in-your-mouth potatoes I have ever tasted. Believe me. I didn't know that a potato could taste like butter. It can. It really, really can.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

breakfast potatoes

I have an over-zealous love for potatoes. Baked, fried, roasted, boiled, mashed, or any combination within... I could eat them every day.

There's a stand at the market that specializes in root vegetables. They have the best beets, onions, carrots, and potatoes, in every color of the rainbow, in the entire city. Every week, I fill up a bag with handfuls from each bin: La Ratte, Adirondack Blues, Austrian Crescent, Belle de Fonteney, and on Sunday morning, they become one of my most favorite and simple dishes: breakfast potatoes.

The guts of this recipe are simple: potatoes, onion, chilies, rosemary, salt, pepper and a few other spices. It holds up remarkably well to whatever you have in your spice rack or lurking in your vegetable drawer. I've thrown in kale, tomatoes, curry powder, mustard seed. Adapt away.

Sunday Brunch Potatoes
10 smaller, mixed heirloom potatoes, chopped bite-size
1 shallot (or other small onion), chopped
1 small, hot chili, finely diced
1/4 tsp (few shakes) each of chili powder, cayenne pepper, sweet hungarian paprika
sprig fresh rosemary (or dried, crushed between your fingers), diced
s/p to taste

Pour a generous amount of good olive oil in a large skillet. Add shallot, saute briefly. Add potatoes and stir until all are well covered with oil. Add chili. Stir and cook for five minutes. Add spices and rosemary, stir, and cook for another fifteen minutes. Season with s/p to taste. Cover and cook until all potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.

shopping list

Sep 19, 2009

1 bunch mixed-color carrots
1 pint sun sugar tomatoes
1 bunch red beets
1 bunch arugula
1/4 lb greens
2 baby zucchini
4 small, globe eggplants
3 honey crisp apples
3 gala apples
3 asian pears
3 nectarines

ideas for the week: roasted beets with arugula and apple, carrot ginger salad

Monday, September 21, 2009

homemade tortillas

Yesterday was spent helping a good friend chop, saute and simmer all afternoon in preparation of a dinner party. We talked about how, at least for us, cooking with a friend would either make or break the relationship, depending on each person's distinct kitchen personality and adaptability, and how recently, we've noticed a trend among our friends and other people our age to rediscover the fun of making things ourselves rather than buying them at the supermarket. Not just dinners and cereals, but pantry basics like tomato paste, cheeses, enchilada, barbeque and hot sauces. There is this rejection of outsourced processing that we've grown up with, which is exciting; this all feels like fresh and new territory, when, in reality, people were making these things in their kitchens for a hundred years before the factories took over. We are beginning to appreciate our food by hand-crafting the contents of our cupboards.

This conversation was inspired by Justine's recent purchase of a tortilla press. We were, each for the first time, going to make tortillas from scratch.

Justine had purchased masa, and the instructions were simple: mix masa with water until a firm dough forms. Form small dough balls, place between two sheets of wax paper, and press. Easy enough. Long story short, twenty tortillas later, we'd figured it out. Justine formed balls and pressed (between plastic wrap, not wax paper), and I cooked them in a hot skillet for about thirty seconds on each side. The trick, I learned, was to lay the tortilla in the skillet for about two seconds on each side, then thirty seconds on each side. I still don't know why, but the quick flip kept one side from cracking. Whatever works.

To stuff the tortillas, we made roasted potatoes with fennel and poblano peppers, grilled green beans, and fried tempeh. On the side, we had fried green tomatoes and African Tomato Peanut soup. It sounds like a lot of flavors, and it was, but they were all rooted in seasonality; this was late summer's windfall.

This soup is
incredibly easy and so delicious. I was shocked that so few ingredients could work together and create a really complex flavor.

African Tomato Peanut Soup
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 lbs roma tomatoes, skins removed
2 tbs natural peanut butter
2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp minced, dried chilies
s/p to taste
1.5 c cooked basmati rice

Saute the onion and garlic over medium heat until translucent and fragrant. Puree the tomatoes in a food processor and add to the onion and garlic. Bring to a boil. Add the peanut butter, turmeric and chilies and stir well to combine. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add water if soup has become to thick, and stir in the rice. Simmer for another 5 minutes and serve.

canning 101

Until recently, I’d never canned. Too frightened by botulism-ridden horror stories, I left the endeavor safely in the hands of those more daring than I. When a friend asked me if I’d like to learn a few weeks ago, I hesitated, expressed my fear (to which she responded, you’ll know if your food is bad), got over it and dove in. Lindsey had been canning for a few years, never lost a jar, and with her confident guidance, I felt prepared to give it a shot.

We were making tomato sauce, her own recipe, out of the pounds and pounds of tomatoes she’d harvested from her garden that day.

*Note: many canning recipes I’ve read stick to very strict measurements and pH balances, to ensure the safety of the food you’re preserving. This is much more heirloom-style canning, with techniques passed down through word-of-mouth, and shared between close friends. That in mind, though my sauce was successful and L. has never lost a jar, I cannot vouch for the safety or longevity of this method. Generally, you should not keep home-canned food for longer than a year. This time next year, tomatoes will be in season again, anyway.

What you’ll need:

*This recipe yields 2 quarts of sauce. Increase as needed.

1 very large soup pot

2 quart-sized glass jars with 2 new, clean lids and tightly fitted rings

20 (approx) tomatoes (we used romas)

3+ cloves garlic

1 white onion

1 red bell pepper

1-3 hot chili peppers

1.5 c fresh basil, tightly packed

olive oil

balsamic vinegar


Chop all tomatoes into small chunks, with skins and seeds. Set aside. Dice onion, garlic and basil very fine. (Seriously, as tiny as you can get it.) Dice the peppers, and set aside.

Saute onion, garlic and basil in your pot with about a tablespoon of oil. You don’t want to fry the onions, but you do want them to become translucent. Stir frequently to prevent sticking/burning. Allow to cook for at least five minutes, until onions and garlic are fully cooked and fragrant. Add tomatoes and stir. Allow sauce to simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add peppers, salt and pepper. Stir, and allow to simmer for another 20 minutes. Add a few rounds of balsamic and stir. Allow to cook down for about an hour, stirring occasionally.

Wash and dry two quart jars very well, and line them up next to your pot. Bring the sauce to a roaring boil. (This is important!) Hold the jar with an oven mitt or towel; it will get hot. As quickly as possible, spoon the sauce into the jar, using a funnel if you have one. You should leave approximately half an inch of room. Wipe the rim clean and screw the top on tightly. Repeat with the second jar. In about two minutes, you should hear a distinctive ping when the jar seals. In ten minutes, once the jar has cooled a little, press your fingers on the top. It should not give under pressure. (If the top still clicks, your cap hasn’t sealed and you’ll have to refrigerate it, and use the sauce within a few days, or freeze it for as long as you like.) If your lid is firm, your jar has sealed and will keep on the shelf for up to one year.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

deconstructed eggplant parmesan

I've been craving eggplant parmesan for a few weeks, but it's been too hot to turn on the oven, so I've resisted... until I picked up the most gorgeous eggplant at the market on Saturday. Weighing in at about 2.5 lbs, it was short and fat, green and striped, looking more like an heirloom tomato than anything else. Parmesan (sans-parmesan) it would be.

Still not wanting to use the oven, I opted for a deconstructed version of this dish. Each of the elements is prepared individually, then stacked on a plate and drizzled with a sweet and tangy balsamic reduction. Frankly, I think this is better than the traditional casserole style. This preparation and presentation allows each ingredient to stand on its own and coordinate with all the others, rather than absorbing a generalized flavor.

Deconstructed Eggplant Parmesan (sans parmesan)

1 medium/large eggplant (traditional, globe... anything except the long, thin japanese ones)
1 1/2 c bread crumbs
2 tbs fresh/dried parsley
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 c warm water
3 tsp potato starch (corn starch would work, too)
3 c tomato sauce (recipe to follow)
1/2 c balsamic vinegar
handful fresh basil
handful cherry tomatoes, quartered (I used sunsugars)
2 - 4 sun-dried tomatoes, oil-packed, coarsely chopped

Slice eggplant into 1/2" rounds. (I'm not an eggplant salter, but if you are, by all means...) Combine warm water with potato starch (I actually used EnerG Egg Replacer, so if you have it, it works). Stir very well, until it becomes frothy. The solution should be slightly more viscous than water. Combine bread crumbs with parsley, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes in a medium bowl. Dip eggplant in the water/starch solution, then press it firmly into the breadcrumbs. Repeat for all slices.

Heat a fair amount of olive oil in a large skillet. Fry eggplant slices until golden and crispy on each side (about four minutes). Eggplant soaks up a lot of oil, especially when it's breaded. Be prepared to use generously, or, if you prefer, you can bake the slices, drizzled with oil, on a baking sheet at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.

Heat tomato sauce in a small sauce pan.

Time for a balsamic reduction. Pour the balsamic into a small sauce pan and place it over low heat. Using a wooden spoon, stir slowly as the vinegar begins to boil. It will boil fiercely for a few minutes --- keep stirring!! --- while the water cooks off. Continue to stir (if you don't, it will stick and burn), with very low heat, until the vinegar reduces to a very thick, syrupy consistency. It should look a little like chocolate syrup and smell very sweet. Remove from heat.

Place one eggplant slice on a plate, top with a few basil leaves and a spoonful of tomato sauce. Repeat with a second layer. Top with the chopped cherry and sundried tomatoes, drizzle the balsamic glaze along the edge of the plate, and serve.

Monday, September 14, 2009

tomatillo salsa (raw salsa verde)

Having signed our lease at the end of August, we are still in the process of unpacking and procuring furniture. While the kitchen island is en-route from Boston, I've become very accustomed to preparing every meal with about 15 square inches of counter space. Particularly challenging? Last night's tomatillo salsa.

Tomatillo salsa is traditionally blended, whether it's roasted or raw. Our currently ill-equipped kitchen doesn't allow room for a food processor, but luckily, G. is a whisking/vegetable mashing extraordinaire. Black bean burgers, mashed potatoes, red velvet cupcake batter bowls all get handed off to her. She pulverized our tomatillos in about three minutes flat.

A note about tomatillos, if you've never used them before... (which I hadn't until last week). When choosing them, you're looking for a slightly sour/tangy smell and a distinct firmness. If they're soft, they've gone bad. When you get them home, peel the husks and scrub away the sticky film.

If, like me, you are without a blender or food processor, dice your tomatillos as small as possible. Then, pile them together and rock your knife back and forth over and over and over until the juices begin to release and the seeds are dislodged from the flesh. At this point, transport the tomatillos to a medium-sized mixing bowl, squeeze in the juice of half a lime, and take to the whole thing with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon. Work the tomatillos until they are soupy and no chunks remain. Then, proceed with the salsa!

Tomatillo Salsa (Raw Salsa Verde)

5 - 6 tomatillos, diced then pulverized (or, if you're luckier than me, processed in a blender)
juice of 1 lime
3 medium, firm roma tomatoes (or other smaller variety), diced
1 small red onion, fine dice
1 dried red chili, diced very fine
1 medium-sized, medium-heat chili, diced (with or without seeds, your call)
full handful cilantro, chopped well
s/p to taste

Combine all ingredients and mix well. (If you prefer a more traditional salsa verde texture, throw everything in a food processor and pulse until you reach your desired consistency.) The flavors will meld and develop the longer this is allowed to sit, and it tastes amazing the next day.

zucchini mushroom tacos

This past winter, G. and I spent two months in Los Angeles. While we’ve since readjusted to the climate and sensibilities of our home coast, there is one thing we long for on a near-daily basis: tacos. The place we stayed in for those few weeks was within walking distance of an incredible taco stand called Machos Tacos.
The above plate cost about $4.00.

Mexican food on the East coast is more complicated, somehow unbalanced and consequently less satisfying. What I appreciated most about West coast food was its straightforwardness. A taco: two tortillas, rice, refried beans, pico, lettuce and guacamole. (Even more straightforward was Best Fish Taco in Ensenada: two fried shrimp folded in a single tortilla, wrapped in foil.) I, however, am unable to exercise such restraint. What follows is one of many attempts to recapture the flavors we were introduced to in January. I added a number of vegetables because summer has ended and we’re facing the prospect of a long winter with no greens.

Zucchini, Mushroom and Potato Tacos

1 can black beans

2 bay leaves

1 tsp cumin

2 tsp chili powder

1 tsp sweet/smoked hungarian paprika

few solid shakes of black pepper

1 medium zucchini, cubed

8 - 10 mushrooms, roughly chopped (I used cremini from the market, but substitute as you like)

5 - 10 small, heirloom potatoes such as fingerlings, cubed

1/2 c broccoli florets (optional)

1 medium chili pepper, like Anaheim, diced

1 dried hot chili, like serrano, diced as small as you can get it (or sub red pepper flakes)

Juice of one lime, freshly squeezed

corn tortillas

Place black beans and bay leaves in a sauce pan over medium heat with a little water. Add cumin, chili powder, paprika and pepper. Sprinkle some cayenne if you like. Stir occasionally. (Watch to make sure they don’t stick, and add water as needed or they’ll wind up almost refried.) Cook for about 10 - 15 minutes, then turn off heat and allow the beans to sit and develop their flavor.

Dice and boil potatoes in a medium pot until tender.

Pour a fair amount of oil in a large skillet. Saute mushrooms and broccoli, if using, for about two minutes. Add zucchini and chopped chili and stir. Saute for another few minutes until zucchini begins to become tender and everything is fragrant. Drain and add potatoes. Squeeze in the juice of the lime and stir. Add the dried chili, or chili flakes. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, mash about half to three-quarters of the potatoes in the pan. Stir everything really well and allow to cook together for about ten minutes.

Heat tortillas in a medium-sized skillet, flipping twice, until flexible. Fill with beans and vegetable filling. Top with chopped cucumbers, avocado and/or tomatillo salsa (recipe to come), and serve.

shopping list

12 Sep 09: Union Square Green Market

6 tomatillos

1 red onion

1 anaheim chili

1 hot chili

1 pint sunsugar tomatoes

2 lbs various heirloom potatoes

1/2 lb sweet fingerling potatoes

1 canteloupe

1 bunch cilantro

3 gala apples

3 honey crisp apples

1 fat, heirloom eggplant

ideas for the week: tacos w/tomatillo salsa, deconstructed eggplant parmesan, weekend breakfast potatoes