Friday, August 03, 2007
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Everyone needs a dish they can pull out of thin air and impress strangers with. Many people have several. I have one. And I am grateful.
No. I'm not talking about the dish in the photo. Oy.
This dish has accompanied me to every potluck and every picnic I've attended in the last ten years. It's a concoction that not only tastes good, but looks good too. More to the point, it makes me look good.
No matter where I take it, invariably at least three people will approach on hands and knees, begging for the recipe. They've devoured their plate, noted that the communal plate has been consumed in the five minutes it took them to digest, and they make the assumption that this dish is a complicated, secret recipe of my own devising. If I were a more clever woman, I would play on this assumption. Except that would mean I'd be expected to follow up my bravado with a dinner party or something. And that, as readers of this blog know all too well, is a feat I can't much pull off.
So I quickly cop to the truth. Vegetable Couscous. It's a simple recipe, pulled from Jeanne Lemlin's mighty Quick Vegetarian Pleasures. It involves the chopping of an onion and two small zucchini squash, plus measuring out a few spices. Also, the making of some couscous, which in this day and age, with a Trader Joe's around the corner, is an instant, almost idiot-proof task. Yes, thank you, even I can do it. Usually with some semblance of success.
The upshot is, this is one delicious dish. Fresh-tasting yet tangy. The spices beguile. The couscous underneath lends a comforting, buttery starch, for those of you who are squeamish about lots of veggies cooked together. Just about everyone loves this one. Including avowed carnivores and my own ten-year-old daughter. Don't believe me? Take this to your next potluck and see for yourself:
2 Tbs olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion, diced (or thereabouts. Fineness doesn't really matter here)
2 tsps ground cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
2 medium zucchini squashes, cut lengthwise, then lengthwise again, and chopped into little squares
1 15-oz can of chick peas, drained and rinsed
1 16-oz can of diced tomatoes, including juice
1/2 cup raisins
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 tsp salt
1 or 2 tbsp butter
1 cup couscous
heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the garlic and onion and saute for a few minutes. Add the spices, and cook a few minutes more, stirring often.
Stir in the zucchini, chick peas, followed by the tomatoes, then the raisins. Cover the pan and lower heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the zucchini is tender.
While the vegetables are brewing, prepare the couscous. Bring the veggie stock to a boil with butter and salt (if you're using it, and I say, life's too short not to use butter whenever you can). Stir in the couscous, cover tightly and remove from heat. Let it sit 5 minutes, or however long it takes you to finish the veggies. Fluff with a fork before serving.
You can make the vegetable part of this dish a day or two before with nothing but upside flavor potential. Impress everyone by serving the couscous in an audacious Moroccan bowl with the veggie mixture mounded in the center.
A final aside: Quick Vegetarian Pleasures is one of those rare cookbooks in which almost every entree is a winner. Simple, sure. But even snobs have to enjoy good eatin'.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Quick: What's the most satisfying meal you've ever had? I bet you have several. The perfect meal is hard to pin down because they're all about context. Where are you? How hungry are you? Who are you with? Where did you just come from? What did you do just prior to this perfect meal?
Like you, I have several perfect meals. None of them are fancy. In fact, most are not even technically "meals." They're more memorable tastes. For example, whenever I go to Berkeley my first stop bar none is Gordo's Taqueria, where I sit and eat my black bean, cheese and rice burrito (with just a dollop of sour cream) in a state of complete and silent bliss.
In Santa Cruz there's a bistro called Gabriella's that serves fresh figs wrapped in prosciutto...the only possible response to which is delighted, astounded, laughter.
In North London there's a storefront restaurant with samosas that will render you mute, especially if you haven't had a bite of Indian food in eight, nine months but have spent every day of that time daydreaming about it.
The crawfish at the Cuban place in Orange. The blue fin tuna in Studio City. The egg bagel just out of the oven in New York. That salt cod and garlic dish a friend made on New Year's eve 1999. The meat and potato stew my neighbor brought over an hour after I gave birth to my son, at home. A bowl I finished in minutes and literally licked clean, while my neighbor, a big and radiant woman from Kenya, laughed all the way back to her apartment to retrieve the entire pot for me.
Here's a more recent perfect meal: A grilled cheese sandwich and a pickle. Washed down with a $14 glass of red wine. Tony and I discovered this one at Greenblatt's about a year or so ago.
Greenblatt's is a Jewish Deli on Sunset in LA. It's been there for at least 50 years. It's got much better food than the more famous Canter's Deli on Fairfax. As well as a vaunted wine collection. It's open late and we like to go after a show and slump in a booth and watch the Hollywood people come and go.
One night we were trying to decide what to eat. "Know what I really feel like?" Tony looked over his menu sheepishly.
"A grilled cheese sandwich."
My last experience with grilled cheese had something to do with a slice of American cheese between two pieces of Wonder Bread. There is a lot to choose from on the Greenblatt's menu, all of it worthy. So eyebrows were raised. But not for long.
Imagine a place that serves grilled cheese sandwiches for adults...yeah, I know. Tart up a grilled cheese and call it a panini. It's still just a grilled cheese to me -- and that can be more than OK. Tony ordered jack cheese on rye bread. Creaminess with a bite. And then there's that pickle, which is like a satisfying, final exclamation point. I don't know how we came to order the $14 glass of wine. A cab out of Napa somewhere. Our waiter, the tall and improbably-named Gide, told us it would be good. And who the hell has a decent wine with a grilled cheese? Well, exactly.
And thus a classic perfect meal was born.
There's a lot more to be written about grilled cheese sandwiches. They're popping up all over. In the Williams Sonoma catalog, in the New York Times (which irritatingly cancels its free links within days), to the food blogosphere. There are contests. All sorts of grilled cheese chatter. They've also gotten the nod from the heavens. Seems God, some ten years ago, saw fit to affix an image of the Virgin Mary into a toasted cheese sandwich. True believers have been making pilgrimages to see this holiest of grilled cheese in Florida (where else?) until recently, when it was sold at auction on Ebay for $28,000.
I could write a lot more about grilled cheese sandwiches. Even detail my pseudo-successful attempts at making them at home. But not today.
I know you have a favorite meal or two. Let's hear them.
Friday, April 27, 2007
As often happens, this so-called bright idea started with Audge.
Last time I was at my kitchen Goddess friend Audrey Smith's house, she had just a few bites of a blackberry cobbler left on her counter top. She's the kind of woman who whips up things like fruit cobblers for her family. And on weeknights. If my family gets desert at all, it's usually several squares of Ritter Sport chocolate and biscuit, and more often than not, it's usually stolen from the refrigerator by my nits without my knowledge.
She gifted me with a bite. It was, not surprisingly, delicious.
It was also, she said, "obscenely easy to make."
"For someone like you," I muttered. This is my standard refrain whenever Audge tells me how easy something is to make.
"No, no," she said. "It even says it here." She pulled out a copy of Cuisine at Home, Aug. 2005. There, on page 49, was the recipe for Summer Blackberry Cobbler with Coconut and Pecan topping. And in the intro, plain as the nose on my face, were the words, "...plus, it's obscenely easy to make."
In journalism we call the final paragraph or sentence of a piece the "kicker." You can see why here.
Call me naive. Call me gullible. Call me impressionable. But I am easily convinced, and yes, I could probably be the one convinced to buy that bridge in Brooklyn. I re-read these final words, and I looked at the picture, and I ruminated on the taste of that cobbler, seeds still in my teeth, and I thought, "This is obscenely easy to make. I can make it for my BBQ next week."
Gentle readers, I can almost hear your hand slapping your forehead. Silly girl, you're saying. Don't waste your time. Buy a pie if you must. Better yet, buy half a dozen Dove bars and call that dessert. And in any case, you're all going to be eating steaks and potatoes and drinking beer and wine and really, who's going to remember anything about any desert? And you'd be right.
Here's the recipe:
8 cups blackberries, fresh or frozen,thawed slightly if frozen. (I bought three bags of frozen.)
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup instant tapioca (good luck finding this item. I had to borrow Audrey's)
Juice of 1/2 lime
Pinch of salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed (1 stick)
Preheat oven to 375 degree F.
Toss berries with sugar, tapioca, lime juice, and salt in a bowl. Spoon into a 2-quart baking dish.
Combine flour, coconut, sugar, pecans, baking powder, and salt in a second bowl. Using your fingertips, knead in the butter until incorporated. Mixture should look like coarse sand. (this was fun, and made me feel like I knew what I was doing)
Blend in the egg. It will get very sticky, like wet Play-Do. Do your best to arrange this over the berries.
Bake cobbler for 45-50 minutes, or until topping is golden and crisp, and filling is thick and bubbly. Cool on a rack for at least 1 hour before serving. Dang. Will your kitchen smell great.
Serve with creme anglaise or ice cream. (Yeah, righto.)
A couple of problems. First, I had no lime juice, having thrown away one, withering lime about a week ago. I did have lemons, though, so I used half of that. Was this a bad idea? Probably. But isn't citrus citrus?
Secondly, I inexplicably ran out of sugar after the first cup. Since it was 11 p.m., I had no choice but to call Tamlin, the only close neighbor I knew who was still likely to be up, and beg a cup of sugar off her. Luckily, she had it. She had a good laugh at my expense, too.
By midnight I was finished. And there was no way in heck I was going to attempt no stinking creme anglaise.
I would not describe this as obscenely easy to make. If it is for you, don't mention it to me.
Thirdly. We did indeed drink and eat meat and potatoes at the BBQ the next night. And I also forgot all about the cobbler. Two days later, I pulled it out and served a chunk to my kids, who ate part of it with interest, but then said it was too cold. I ate the rest of their portion. Not bad. I could taste the coconut, which I didn't entirely care for. I put it back into the refrigerator...and forgot about it until now. I'd throw it out tonight but for the daunting task of having to wash the dish.
Sigh. It all seems a tremendous waste. I might try this again later in the summer, with fresh blackberries. And I'll halve the recipe. And use a pie tin instead of a deep dish. Oh, and I'll have a lime. And enough sugar. Maybe at that point it will have become, if not obscenely easy to make, then at least perhaps not too hard.
Audrey, meanwhile, asked for the recipe back, (hope she doesn't mind all the smudges), and has since made it again. Her husband and kids have already eaten it.
Eliza, who writes Notes from my food diary, makes a beautiful version of this. Please note that mine did not turn out this beautiful, hence the generic picture of blackberries.
Look at that cobbler. Can you blame me for trying?
Monday, April 23, 2007
I bought a daikon radish a few weeks ago at Marukai, the giant Japanese supermarket not far from where I live. It's possible to spend several hours at Marukai, perusing unfamiliar condiments and 27 different kinds of dipping noodles, and never even make it upstairs to where the furniture is. I have my Marukai game down, though. I know what I need, and I procure it quickly: Japanese snacks for the kids (Yam-Yam sticks and honey balls), noodles, dipping sauce, "fish bits" (processed fish roll that my kids, strangely, seem to love), Miso paste, fresh fish and of course, some chestnut mochi, because you know, oishi desu, ne?
And I swung by the produce section to get me some of those crispy Fuji apples. Then I spied the daikon radishes. Oooh. I was inspired suddenly to try my hand once again at the Japanese Breakfast. And didn't I need a daikon radish to make the dashi - the base for miso soup?
I bought one: a large, sturdy specimen. I brought it home. It sat on my counter for a while. I looked up the recipe for miso soup and realized I was mistaken. You don't need daikon for dashi, only kombu, a kind of seaweed, which I didn't have, and bonito flakes, which I didn't have either.
I didn't fancy another schlep to Marukai just for these items. So the daikon sat unused on my counter. I half-heartedly flipped through my Japanese cookbook for ideas on how to use it, but nothing enthused me. So the daikon radish continued to sit on my counter. My kids started referring to it as "The Radish Spirit," after the silent but heaving character in Hayao Miyazaki's fantastic animated feature, "Spirited Away."
Not long afterwards, I realized the face kind of resembled Tony's.
Seinfeld aficionados will remember the very funny episode called "Fusilli Jerry." Kramer makes a figurine of Jerry out of fusilli pasta.
I call this creation: Daikon Tony.
Daikon Tony sat on my counter for a few weeks, where he lost water and twisted and withered slowly away. I was forced to throw my creation away, for decorum's sake.
One can extrapolate from this that I will very soon, probably this week, be back at Marukai, to procure benito flakes and kombu, and probably some small pieces of salmon to fry up for a traditional Japanese breakfast. Tony - the man, not the radish - is bound by honor to try it.
Monday, April 16, 2007
Before I tell you how I rocked my own world and made almond-lemon macaroons that actually turned out, I should inform you of several Bad Home Cook standards:
Sunday morning I went to make toast for Tony and burnt black the last piece of bread in the house. Not long afterwards I forgot to watch the half and half warming on the stove for coffee, and it boiled over, making a mess of my stove top.
At least I had the sense not to try and make eggs or anything. Tony swore up and down he wasn't actually hungry, but I think he was just being smart, in the Darwinian sense.
It's my tendency to botch the simplest things that pisses me off most. That's why the Almendrados so delighted me. They've restored my faith in myself. Maybe I can be taught.
Tony, ever helpful, had sent me a link to the New York Times' food section piece about Sephardic cooking from Morocco (I wish the link were still free, it was a wonderfully-detailed article about a woman collecting old Jewish Moroccan recipes that were in danger of being lost forever). One recipe jumped out at me for some reason: Almond-lemon macaroons, or Almendrados.
Four ingredients. Three steps. The name alone had me tasting the Levant. If I closed my eyes I could almost feel the Sirocco wind on my face, smell the lemon tree outside my window and hear a distant Muezzin wailing away the appointed hour.
I opened my eyes again. There was a Santa Ana blowing debris around the yard. I could smell the Lemon Pledge underneath my sink. I listened to the distant drone of the leaf blower. And I knew I'd make these macaroons, damn it. They were calling me.
Here's the recipe, adapted from "Dulce Lo Vivas," by Ana Bensadon (Ediciones Martinez Roca)
2 cups whole blanched almonds, plus about 30 for decoration
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
zest of one lemon
The recipe calls for grinding the two cups of almonds, but that's much too difficult for someone like me, even if I did have a working food processor. I scored a bag of ground almonds from Trader Joe's and used that instead.
Mix the almonds together with 3/4 of the sugar. Add the egg and the lemon zest. Mix together until you have a cohesive dough.
Cover and chill for at least 12 hours. I chilled mine for almost 48 hours because I couldn't get around to baking any sooner than that.
Preheat oven to 350.
Pinch off dough about the size of a walnut and roll into balls. Roll the balls in the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. Place them on parchment paper on a baking sheet. Gently press the decorative almond into the center and reshape if necessary. This step made me deliriously happy for some reason. Even my son got into the game.
Bake for between 8 and 10 minutes. Don't touch them until they're cool. This makes them firm and crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. Oh. My. God. I was so impressed with myself.
I want you all to be impressed, too. Of course, they could look fancier. They could be bigger. And I probably should have used whole almonds instead of the slivered blanched I had in the back of my pantry. But one thing at a time. Besides...the taste....
Macaroons make good monsters, too.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Matzo brei is also very tasty. You learned to make it from a Nice Jewish Boy from Long Island many years ago when you were giving the other coast a whirl for a bit. It is his grandmother's recipe. You run several sheets of matzoh under the tap until they're good and wet, shake them out, then crumble them all up into a colander. Then you melt butter in a pan, and fry the damp matzo bits until lightly browned. Then you add three or four eggs, beaten with a little milk, salt and pepper. The resulting scrambled egg and matzo is then eaten, in delicious little bites, with jam and a giant cup of coffee. Your children announce that they love matzo-brei. This will make you feel like a righteous Jew.
Carrot salad with avocado and tofu sounded good (well, maybe not the tofu part necessarily), and since the gorgeous Clotilde at Chocolate & Zucchini eats it for lunch every day, you decide you should try it. You took four years of high school French. There's no reason why you should be so impressed with a dish called Carottes Rapées à l'Avocat, but you are. In any case, the recipe, in English, sounds like simplicity itself. You grate the four carrots. You dice your ripe, medium avocado. You toast your sesame seeds. Then you realize that your lemon is too big and that you probably added too much lemon juice and absolutely too much balsamic vinegar, and then, unable to stop the train wreck, you dump in your carrots before it's all mixed and you can't quite scoop it all out again to backtrack. What you're left with is balsamic-flavored vegetable slop. Good thing you opted not to use tofu in the end.
Refrigeration for a few hours doesn't fix the problem. You eat most of it anyway, because you sense that, if prepared correctly, it could be very good indeed. And at the very least it's probably healthy for you.
Eat the ginger and carrot soup you bought three boxes of from Trader Joe's, for several meals.
Make the kids a lot of hard boiled eggs. Color some and call it Easter, prompting the kids to continue eating them, along with their chocolate.
Have Tony over for more salmon.
Passover is over the next day and dream of the biggest, creamiest bowl of fettuccine Alfredo you can conjure up.Next year in Greenblatt's.