Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving 101


Having just survived another gut-busting weekend of eating, now seems a good time to reflect on some rules we live by when it comes to hosting Thanksgiving.  In part, the trick to a successful Thanksgiving dinner (for us, at least) resembles the rhyme that a bride follows in dressing for her wedding.  To wit, our household adheres to these rules to host Thanksgiving by: “Something old, something new, something simple, something non-turkey.”

“Something old”
We tend to design a fairly untraditional Thanksgiving menu, so I always try to sneak in one dish that is familiar.  Last year, it was whipped sweet potato casserole.  The year before, it was candied sweet potatoes with walnuts.  Before that, it was sweet potato and pumpkin pie.  Now that I think of it, sweet potatoes feature fairly heavily on my “something old” category.  Perhaps it's because my mother-in-law is partial to sweet potatoes, or perhaps it's because they are just so tasty.  In any case, this year I skipped the traditional versions of sweet potatoes since the soup course was already going to be “Warm Sweet Potato Vichyssoise” (Hay Day Country Market Cookbook by Kim Rizk, p.89).  Instead, I settled for a traditional Bacon Cornbread Stuffing.  The salty bits of bacon played off of the caramelized dates in the parsnip dish—and was picked up nicely by the pork roast.  Also, a Thanksgiving dinner doesn't feel complete for me unless my husband Will makes his buttermilk rolls shaped in a demi-rosette…


“Something new”
For our main vegetable dish, I decided to go with a new recipe: “Sauteed Parsnips with Dates” (Food and Wine, December 2011, p.229-230).  A few years ago when we lived in England for a year, Will and I consumed prodigious amounts of parsnip once we discovered how sweetly they roast.  Since then, we roast parsnips whenever we can get our hands on them—often to make a nice fall/winter roasted root vegetable salad of beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and onions with feta cheese, toasted walnuts, and a balsamic glaze.  For this Thanksgiving, we sautéed parsnips in garlic-infused olive oil before roasting them with Medjool dates and marjoram.  The already-sweet parsnips picked up the caramel flavors of the dates while roasting, but the sweetness was nicely cut by the savory garlic-infused oil and the herbs.


“Something simple”
Perhaps a surprise hit of the evening turned out to be the very simply prepared minted peas.  As with all really good simple vegetable dishes, it’s important that you forego the frozen variety (since they get too mushy too quickly) and not even dare think about canned (and I cannot remember if I’ve ever used canned green peas).  Sure, late November is not the time when you can find fresh peas at grocery stores, but I happened to find beautiful shelled fresh English peas.  That’s when inspiration struck for the minted peas.  Again, since this is a side-dish with a minimal list of ingredients, it is crucial that you also use the best Extra Virgin Olive Oil, sea salt, fresh lemon juice, and fresh mint.  And, most of all, cook the peas only until crisp tender, with a little bite (like al dente pasta).


“Something non-turkey”
Since turkey is sacrosanct for many people, we tried a few different ways of making turkey work for us.  We tried injecting it with a Cajun spice blend (mixed with chicken broth) one year, but that felt a little too reminiscent of high school Chemistry.  Last year we tried a teriyaki lacquer, but that dried out the turkey and made it get too dark too quickly.  Besides, the essential flavorlessness of turkey (apologies to turkey lovers) seemed an inadequate base for something so overwhelming as soy sauce.  No, we’d happily substitute the turkey with chicken, duck, or capon.  Better yet, we’ve had luck with bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin or prime rib or a pork crown roast.  This year, we tried a “Fennel-Garlic Pork Roast” (Food and Wine, December 2011, p. 229).  The overnight brining made the roast very flavorful, and the fennel seed and garlic paste provided a nice bit of crunchy flavor-boost that everyone enjoyed.  I would suggest planning on longer than the 1 hour the recipe called for the cooking of a 4 lb pork loin, but otherwise the roast was lovely.


Of course, there are other important rules to cook by as well.  You should definitely make the soup course the night before if at all possible and just reheat right before serving.  Soups usually fare better with overnight blending of flavors anyway, and it really shaves an important step from your cooking on Thanksgiving Day itself. 


If a guest offers to bring something, ask for dessert.  Your oven gets a huge workout on Thanksgiving—regardless of what main course you are serving—so it frees up important oven space if you are not baking a delicate pastry along with your turkey or pork roast or prime rib.  And unlike soups which benefit by overnight melding, dessert is usually at its best on the day baked.  Our friend Debra bakes excellent pies, so she brought over a flaky traditional double-crusted apple pie.  I chose Butter Pecan ice cream for accompaniment since the nuttiness and the slight saltiness of Butter Pecan nicely complement the sweetness of an apple pie.


For extra enjoyment, ask your guest to bring a friend for your pet as well (if you have one).  Part of our Thanksgiving entertainment consisted of seeing which dog (Katie or Duchie) had more fun sniffing at the pork roast and hoping for food spills!


Friday, November 18, 2011

Making History ANONYMOUS: A (Limited) Review

                 (http://images.broadwayworld.com/upload/43336/shakespeare.jpg)

My friends think I’m entirely humorless.  Having convinced themselves that it would be fun to watch Anonymous with an English professor, they were a bit taken aback by my initial outraged rant about the movie’s complete abandonment of historical accuracy.  But there was another reason I was scowling furiously.  I was internally debating: the part of me that enjoys a good yarn thought the movie kept me entertained with its wild conjectures; the scholar of early modern British literature was dismayed that the producers of the movie decided to ride rough-shod over incontrovertible historical events.  After mulling it over a few more days, I’ve concluded that the scholar won.

It should be acknowledged, and ungrudgingly, that the movie is quite a bit of fun.  Political intrigues are multi-layered and engrossing, the cinematography is attractive, and most of the actors are eminently watchable.  Rhys Ifan as Earl of Oxford, outfitted with ink-smudged hands and what appears to be eyeliner-enhanced gaze, manages to look dignified and pretty at the same time.  As Elizabeth, Vanessa Redgrave's alternation between imperious and doddering perplexed me at times, but I still bought her portrayal. I'd always pictured Ben Jonson as smoother than the almost doltish figure that Sebastian Armesto at times depicted, but I found moving his awed reverence for the superior craft of the "real" Shakespeare's beautiful lines.

Action is brisk, and I often I found myself breathlessly awaiting what would happen next.  But then I was kicking myself for engaging with the improbable conspiracy theory that is Anonymous.  Sure, we understand the movie’s director Roland Emmerich is best known for his disaster films like Independence Day and Day after Tomorrow, and we shouldn’t have expected this movie to be radically different—that is, thoughtful, nuanced, and dare I say “realistic”?  Besides, it’s somewhat naïve of viewers to expect complete adherence to established historical narratives.  But what ultimately bothered me most was that the movie trashed history needlessly. 

Let’s take Christopher Marlowe.  With the film’s fondness for flashbacks (within flashbacks within flashbacks), one is never certain at any moment what year the movie purports to cover.  As far as we can tell though, it seems that the bulk of the action covers the period between the Earl of Oxford’s death (in 1604) and “Five Years Earlier” (thus providing two flashbacks within the movie’s first few minutes).  That means that the movie is primarily covering the years 1599-1604, give or take a year in either direction.  Can someone on the movie production roster explain what Christopher Marlowe is doing at all in this movie when he was killed in a shady bar-fight in 1593, thus cutting off a brilliant career that could possibly have surpassed Shakespeare’s? 

My guess is that the movie producers wanted to use his name: they probably bet that the audience must have heard of Christopher Marlowe, might even know that he is another candidate brought forward periodically—and incongruously—as the “real” writer of the Shakespeare plays.  It would kill two birds with one stone by making the audience feel smart recognizing Marlowe’s name, and by winking at ones aware of the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theory.  But if Anonymous is advancing the Earl of Oxford as the real playwright, then why are we bothering with resurrecting the specter of Marlowe anyway?  And it’s not like there were no Renaissance dramatists whose names they could have invoked (Tourneur, Marston, Dekker, etc. etc. etc.) all of whom died after 1604.  No, the producers wanted to have their cake and eat it too.  Marlowe, as a name and personality, was too good to pass up.  So they passed up history instead.

In many other instances, intentional inaccuracies were distracting.  (I won’t bother calling them mistakes because they could easily have been corrected with a Google search on Wikipedia.)  In a montage of scenes from Shakespeare plays put on during Elizabeth’s last years was included the iconic scene of the witches from Macbeth.  Unfortunately, this is a play that has some historical significance since the Scottish James’s ascension to the throne of England preceded, and most likely prompted, this exploration of Scottish history and witches—both subjects that James was particularly interested in.  And, as was the case with Christopher Marlowe’s character, the error was not necessary for the movie’s central claims.  Instead, these unnecessary inclusions point to over-indulging the dramatic flair at the expense of history.

That same dramatic flair comes also at the expense of narrative plausibility.  At one point in the movie, the frontman Shakespeare is challenged by his (justifiably) irate colleagues to prove himself a writer—of any sort.  When mocked to produce the letter “i,” the rascal somehow evades having to follow through (and thus having to reveal himself to be a fraud).  Suspensefully though the scene might unfold, the logic escapes me.  Will Shakespeare was not challenged to spell “antidisestablishmentarianism.”  All evidence points to the Stratford grammar school having taught proficient English and even Latin.  And, as the movie itself acknowledges that the actor Shakespeare was literate enough to read for his roles, it takes a stretch of imagination to believe that he could not have reproduced a single “i.”  The viewer almost wants to say, “Oh, come on!”  And I’ll skip discussing the unsavory claims of incest and illegitimate children of Elizabeth since they, mercifully, seem so outrageous as to flaunt their status as unfounded conjecture. 

Admittedly, the movie is entertaining.  However, it could also have salvaged its conspiracy theory appeal and historical drama creds by giving the tiniest bit of lip-service to accepted history.  Instead, rather than the movie merely being a-historical, it seems to embrace being anti-historical.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Almost Best Pumpkin Pie


Several years ago, I decided that Nancy Silverton was not full of hubris when she introduced the recipe for her “Pumpkin Pie” by saying “I don’t think there’s a better pumpkin pie out there” (Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, p. 267).  It really was an amazing pie.  However, given that her ingredient list included a vanilla bean, brandy, and white pepper (never mind the insistence on “2 medium Jewel or Garnet yams” for a pumpkin pie), her recipe is not the most economical choice.  

But let’s say that money is no object.  How about time?—and, for that matter, patience?   Do you have time during Thanksgiving craziness to roast yams, then puree them with pumpkin puree, then cook them together to evaporate the moisture before making a brown butter sauce by scraping a vanilla pod?  Hers is also one of the few pumpkin pie recipes out there which demands a blind-baked pie crust before filling it.  None of these steps—or ingredients—is outrageous on its own.  Combined, it’s a headache you don’t need when you are already doing too much.

Just when I decided that no pie is worth that much effort, my mother-in-law quashed my resolve never to bake the Silverton pie again.   The first time she ate a slice of that pie she was in her late 70s (now 85), and she clearly had a long lifetime of consuming homemade pumpkin pies.  She didn’t know that this was a particularly famous pastry chef’s recipe.  What she did know?: “This is the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever had.”  So, clearly this pie recipe is worth another look.

Now we all have our compromises and our hard lines-in-the-sand when it comes to substitutes and shortcuts.  For instance, I know that many believe that homemade mayonnaise and chicken stock are indispensable, but I’m not too ashamed to admit I’ve been known to use packaged (organic free-range chicken stock and Hellmann’s mayonnaise).  On the other hand, I suspect my mother would disown me if I ever even contemplated using that jarred chemical-smelling pre-chopped garlic.  (After all, we are Korean…) 

So, we individually need to decide on what modifications we can live with.  This is what I came up with.  You too will have to decide which steps are too onerous for you and which are worth the extra investment of time or money or energy.  It’s true that during the holiday season we usually have homemade pumpkin puree available, packed (and often frozen) in 1-cup quantities for muffins, breads, and—of course—pies.  If you don’t have that, a can of pumpkin puree usually contains 15-16 oz and is a fine substitute.  If vanilla beans are not a staple in your kitchen, you can just use vanilla extract.  But it’s worth remembering that Trader Joe’s and Costco are good places to get vanilla beans for much less than at many other stores, and those little vanilla bean specks add a lot of flavor. 

Note: Like Nancy Silverton's original recipe, this one uses less spices than most pumpkin pie recipes (though more than Silverton herself calls for).  Your primary flavor will be vanilla-butter custard.  If you like more spices, just add more ground cinnamon, cloves, ginger, etc.



Recipe:

Crust:
--Your favorite single-crust pie recipe  (Our household likes Hay Day Country Market Cookbook’s “All-Purpose Pie Pastry”—by Kim Rizk, page 272)

Filling:
2 cups pumpkin puree (preferably homemade, then strained of excess liquid.)
4 tbs unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
2 eggs
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp kosher salt

Garnishing seasoning:
1 tbs granulated sugar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg

Whipped cream for topping


Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 375.  You should have your rolled out pie crust lining a 9-inch pie plate and chilling in the refrigerator as you prepare your filling.

2. Melt butter in a small saucepan, scrape vanilla bean seeds into the butter, and then throw in the pods too for extra flavor.  Stir occasionally over medium heat for just a few minutes until the butter becomes brown (but don’t let it burn).  Remove from heat and discard vanilla bean.  Or, just lightly brown the butter by itself and mix with vanilla extract.  If you decide to use vanilla extract and canned pumpkin puree instead, you’ll sacrifice a little flavor (and having to follow Step 3).



3. Scrape entire butter mixture into a bowl that has 2 cups of pumpkin puree, combine, and then place mixture in a medium mesh colander so that the mixture can be scraped down into a mixing bowl (but leaving behind bits of vanilla pods or hard bits of puree to get discarded).

4.  (If you skipped Step 3, blend together the pumpkin puree and slightly cooled butter-and-vanilla-extract mixture.)  In another bowl, mix 2 eggs, cream, maple syrup, brown sugar, and spices for the filling.  Then whisk the cream-egg mixture with the butter and pumpkin puree mixture.

5. (If you wish, you can brush the edges of pie crust with milk or cream.)  Pour filling into the crust, then mix and sprinkle over the filling the garnishing sugar and spices.

6. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, checking to see that the crust is not browning too fast.  Once the crust is a just a little lighter than you would like for the final product, cover the crust with a pie-crust shield (cheap and easily accessible through places like Bed, Bath, and Beyond—and so very handy).  If you don’t own one of these handy shields, use strips of aluminum to cover edges.  Unlike some other cooks, I like covering the crust later in the baking process rather than at the beginning.  This way, you don’t have anything sticking to possibly wet crust, and you can control better how brown you want your crust.

7.  Bake for another 20-30 minutes until the filling is just set (no jiggles, but no cracking of center either).  Remove, cool to room temperature, and serve with whipped cream. 



Basil Pesto: An Italian Kitchen Staple


When traveling through Italy, treat your senses by entering a neighborhood deli.  These little grocery stores sell freshly prepared food—mostly made in-house—that you can take away with you.  Of course, you might prefer to enter a full-fledged large chain grocery store if you’d rather have more anonymity with limited—or non-existent—Italian.  The mom-and-pop operations are infinitely more charming, but also a bit more daunting, with the promise (or threat, depending on your Italian and social proclivities) of personal interaction. 

In either case, if you have a kitchen you can use during your travels, you can make a lovely “home-cooked” meal with a few items from these grocery stores simply and quickly prepared—or assemble a picnic with cheeses, fruits, bread, and wine.  One item that I always wished I could take back with me in vast quantities was pesto.  Not the jarred kind with oil already separated from the herbs.  Not even those “fresh” pestos we get at our grocery stores that have a plastic freshness seal on top.  No, the heavenly light-green Genoa pesto scooped up with a spoon and put into a little container for your dinner tonight—not next week or next month.



Ever since I saw a mound of pesto in a Vernazza deli (in Cinque Terre), I have tried various different pesto recipes to duplicate the fullness of flavor somehow packed into the almost mousse-like texture.  Many recipes call for adding parsley to prevent darkening of the pesto, but I found the parsley also added a little bitterness (and, besides, the pesto wouldn’t get darker if I ate it right away, right?).  Some recipes try to make me feel guilty if I don’t want to mortar-and-pestle this sauce.  But that process—no doubt authentic a hundred years ago—didn’t seem to produce the lightness of texture.  I started to suspect that contemporary grandmothers in Italy actually were not pounding away tons of pesto in their unwieldy mortar and pestle.  So, while I occasionally use a knife to “rough chop” my pesto, my preferred method is the food processor.

The recipe that best resembles the pesto I enjoyed in Vernazza and Siena is a variation on the pesto recipe from Williams-Sonoma’s Mastering Pasta, Noodles, and Dumplings. 



Recipe:

1 cup packed basil leaves
3 tbs pine nuts (Note: Pine nuts being rather expensive, you can substitute walnuts.)
2 cloves garlic
¼ tsp salt (or more to taste)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 oz. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese

1.     Place basil, nuts, garlic, and salt in the bowl of a food processor (a mini-processor is fine for this small batch of pesto).  Pulse several times to finely grind and combine.

2.     Pour a thin stream of olive oil through the lid of the processor with the motor running.  Keep processing or pulsing until the color is a fairly uniform bright green.

3.     Once the consistency and color is to your liking (a bit darker green than you’d like eventually), scrape mixture from the food processor into a medium bowl.  Add most of the grated cheese and stir to combine.  Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt and cheese.  At this point, the pesto should be a little saltier and more flavor-packed than you might expect since you will be adding pasta (and/or other ingredients) later.  In color, it should be a light but vibrant green with specks of darker green of the basil.

Note: Keep in mind that you are not “cooking” pesto the way you would a tomato sauce.  Instead, you reserve some hot pasta cooking water and add that with your pesto to the dish.  The pesto will stick to the pasta rather than being thinner, like some other sauces.  I like to serve pesto pasta with a plate of tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and balsamic glaze.  If you don’t have balsamic glaze, come back for another post on that other lovely staple for your Italian kitchen. 



Odeng (Fishcake): Ingredient Spotlight


Several years ago, a friend of mine traveled to Hong Kong to visit with a friend of his who was temporarily working and living there.  Since my friend is such a strict vegetarian that he wouldn’t even consume miso soup because it contains bonito fish flavor, I was a bit concerned that he would not be able to find anything to eat in Hong Kong.  (I tend to worry quite a bit about whether people will be able to eat enough.)  When he came back, he reported that he enjoyed Hong Kong and its food and ate a prodigious amount of fried fishcake products.  Apparently, when my hungry friend asked whether it was “vegetarian” and servers nodded assent, he decided that ignorance was bliss.

Well, I have a package of “fishcake” in front of me right now.  In addition to modified food starch, potato starch, and other sundry fillers, key ingredients for fishcake include Alaska Pollock and bonito flavoring.  In other words, the Hong Kong servers also wanted to make sure that my friend did not starve.  Despite the fillers, I myself love fishcake, especially the “tempura odeng” variety which taste vaguely fish-like—and most definitely fried.  You can get packaged frozen fishcake, but I personally like getting sheets and pieces of different tempura odeng in bulk food areas in Asian grocery stores.  They are fresher, and you can get different selections.

Tempura odeng are a godsend for quick weeknight meals.  You can take a portion you need out of the freezer before you start your other food prep, and they are usually defrosted enough to slice up by the time you actually need to cook them.  You can add them to stir fries and soups and noodle dishes, and they add a nice dimension of flavor if you enjoy a mild fish flavor—with tasting notes of onions, carrots, potatoes, and the aroma of a deep fryer.

Here are 3 quick uses for tempura odeng:

Spicy Stir-Fried Odeng
Stir fry onion in some canola oil, then add red and green pepper pieces and fry another few minutes and remove all from heat while veggies are still crisp.  To some more canola oil and some chopped garlic, add sliced odeng pieces and dried hot peppers to taste.  When odeng pieces are cooked, return veggies to the pan (and add more oil if necessary).  At this point, add soy sauce and some sugar and salt and pepper to taste.  If desired, finish off with a few drops of sesame oil.  (Always taste again for seasoning and adjust as necessary.)



Stir-Fried Udon Noodles with Odeng (and Vegetables)
In a medium bowl, combine some chicken broth, soy sauce, and some salt and pepper and set aside.  In heated canola oil, stir fry chopped garlic, onion, and an assortment of vegetables that you have around.  Aim for a good mix of color and texture (julienned carrots or snow peas, squash, zucchini, peppers, cabbage).  Then remove veggies from heat; fry up odeng slices and set aside with the veggies.  Loosen a package of fresh udon noodles in a medium heat pan with a little oil and water to soften them.  Add broth-soy sauce mixture and have noodles cook while absorbing some of the liquid.  And then add veggies and odeng to noodles and heat together.  Again, it’s a nice touch to add a few drops of good sesame oil at the end.  Serve with hot chile sauce (like sriracha).


Odeng Guk (Soup)
Boil about 4 cups of water and add a large halved peeled onion and carrot (halved or quartered).  Add eggs to hard-boil (about 15 minutes), then remove eggs and dunk them in cold water to stop the cooking.  Add bonito flavoring flakes to the simmering soup along with soy sauce and salt to taste.  Add sliced odeng pieces to the broth and bring to a boil before peeling and adding hard-boiled eggs.   Adjust seasoning, but make the soup a little less salty than you might like.  Once everything is heated through, serve in deep bowls with steamed rice and a dish of wasabi and soy sauce for dipping odeng pieces.

CSA Box Extravaganza


I am a huge fan of Community Supported Agriculture.  Usually during the dead of winter when no one is seriously thinking about fresh produce, you sign up for a subscription.  Depending on where you live, you might have a variety of choices.  Because we live in Chicago—with lots of farms within 90 minutes of us and a profusion of city-dwellers who provide a stable market for farmers—we have lots of choices.  Some offer only vegetables, but most now offer both fruits and vegetables.  Almost always, CSAs are organic (or in the arduous process of earning organic certification) and local (or try to be as long as the seasons permit). 

We have belonged to a CSA of one sort another since 2003.  The idea is that you sign up for a “share” before the farming season and then you get to share in the glory of bounteous produce with good crops and also share in the risk in cases of bad yields.  Actually, the boxes we’ve gotten have almost always been full—too full.  Our current membership is only quasi-CSA in that we are not dealing with a particular farm but a service that draws from many area farmers.  It is true that winter seasons are much less local.  Having made a New Year’s resolution one year to eat better produce, we signed up with this service in January.  Our first box included a red pepper from Israel.  Hardly local.  However, it was still good to eat all organic goods—which were local when possible—and then spring and summer made me glad I stuck with the service.

Most people belonging to CSAs will tell you that the best part of receiving their weekly boxes is turning all the goodies into dishes that you did not think you were going to be eating (kohlrabi slaw, roasted kale, sautéed sunchoke).  On the other hand, some of these boxes can be a bit overwhelming.  Each box we get typically includes 3-4 different types of fruits and 6-8 different types of vegetables or herbs.  Fruits are easy because we can just eat or juice them.  But there’s just the two of us in our household, and it’s become something of a challenge to figure out how I will use up every single vegetable in my box.   Yes, comparisons to Iron Chef are inevitably made by CSA shareholders.

Since we had a successful week with our latest box, I wanted to share with you how we got through the following items in our box: Peppers, Mini Sweet Peppers, Curly Kale, Roma Tomatoes, Parsley, Spaghetti Squash, Romaine Lettuce, Edamame.


Some tips:
1)   Make Sunday dinner a major event:
Try to plan at least one big weekend meal that will use up as much veggies as you can while they are freshest.  We typically cook a multi-component Sunday dinner, and that’s really the best time for us to make a dent in our box.  Last Sunday, we roasted on the grill a chicken (rubbed with cinnamon-cumin-cayenne garlic rub), and we sautéed some curly kale with red onions, garlic, and red chile flakes.  We cubed Yukon gold potatoes (from last week’s box) and a red pepper, and roasted them in the oven.

2)   Embrace Vegetarianism:
Understand that at least half of your work-week meals will be simple and vegetarian: no multi-course meal on a Wednesday after a long day of work.  We try to eat only 1-2 days of meats, and we studiously stick to our Meatless Monday mantra.  It helps though if no one is grilling a steak nearby.


3)   Experiment with new ways of cooking:
Many CSA-type boxes include easy recipes.  Though they are not always very specific with details (how much, how long, what heat, etc. are questions you must answer yourself), you can get some general idea about how you might cook a particular item.  Wednesday, I stuffed some Italian Frying Peppers (also from last week) with cheeses and parsley and then made a mini sweet pepper-garlic sauce.  Thursday, I roasted my first spaghetti squash parmesan.

4)    Expect to eat a lot of salads: 
By the end of the week, you are throwing everything you have together in a bowl and calling it a salad.  Thursday’s salad consisted of romaine lettuce, arugula, parsley, roma tomatoes, and radishes (from two weeks ago!).  Toss the veggies with some homemade Caesar dressing, fresh croutons, and parmesan.



5)    Go simple:
Sometimes, the simplest preparation is the best way to showcase fresh produce.  While I enjoyed everything this week, my favorite might have been the edamame that I steamed and sprinkled with large salt flakes.

As you can see, I’m not always successful with every box, and there is a good amount of carry-over to the week after.  But I consider it a challenge met when I am able to go through all the different items in the box.  Of course, it starts all over again with another box this Friday…  


Truffled Mushroom Risotto


During an old-fashioned weekend house-party, my husband and I met up with two other couples (from Ann Arbor, MI and Columbus, OH) and we convened for some catch-up time and good food.  Most of the time, I was drooling over the beautiful new home of our Columbus friends who graciously hosted all of us (six adults, four children).  The rest of the time, we were cooking or eating.  All three couples are what one might call “foodies”—interested in (and perhaps even a bit fussy about) food preparation, ingredients, restaurants, and cooking utensils.  For instance, a topic of extended conversation revolved around whether Le Creuset’s enameled cast-iron casserole pot was really that much better than the much cheaper dutch ovens produced under the Tramontina label.   What does Cooks Illustrated say about it?  Did Taunton’s agree?  Amazon.com reviewers thought so, etc.  You get the idea.

The Tramontina dutch oven in question was on the stove because one of the recipes for our dinner was an “Easy, No-Stir Risotto” which called for the use of an enameled cast-iron pot.  Because our host was busy marinating Thai chile-pepper chicken breasts (which turned out excellent and succulent!), he asked the rest of us to follow this new recipe he saw in one of his myriad cooking magazines.  I briefly glanced at the recipe and decided that it was a variation on the traditional method except that one cooked the Arborio rice as you would steam rice and then added cheese, butter, and herbs at the end for a “creamy” risotto-like texture.  I ditched the recipe and just made risotto my usual way, which others might call “Difficult, Stir Constantly Risotto.”

Home cooks often freak out about cooking risotto.  I know I did.  But once you make it a couple of times, it becomes one of the easiest dishes to prepare.  Moreover, risotto is actually very dinner-party friendly.  While one might opt for an easier no-stir option to alleviate stress during a dinner party, I find the stirring of risotto a calming and soothing act, almost an indulgent movement that reduces your tension and puts your guests at ease.  Couple of tips though: 1) You should have everything else ready to go so that you may leisurely stir to your heart’s content and serve your risotto when it is piping hot and creamy; 2) If you find your timing is off and that your risotto will finish before your guests could sit down, you should turn off the heat halfway through your cooking time and remove from heat and resume cooking only when you can be sure that you can present your risotto hot.  Otherwise, you might be presenting an unappetizing mess that is getting gummy and cold; 3) Always have extra hot broth/stock/water (whatever!) on hand so that you can incorporate more liquid if necessary.

Risotto is sort of like pasta or fried rice.  Once you get the hang of it, you can make it with any ingredients and for any season.  Experiment with varieties: Asparagus risotto for spring, Butternut squash with sage brown butter for fall and winter seasons, apple or pear with goat cheese or gorgonzola for a savory and sweet main course.  I’m giving a recipe for Truffled Wild Mushroom Risotto since it’s quite basic and can be made with refrigerator staples and pantry ingredients.


Recipe

½ cup (or more) dried wild mushrooms (porcini, chanterelle, etc.)
2 cups boiling water
Butter
Olive Oil
1 medium chopped onion
2 cloves minced garlic
1½ cups risotto rice (Arborio or Carnaroli)
¼ cup white wine or red wine
(Note: You might want to use red wine if you are using more beef broth.  If you are using more chicken or vegetable broth, you might want to opt for white wine.  In any case, don’t panic about things like this.  Go with the flow.)
2½-3 cups combination of any stocks you have, like vegetable, chicken, beef
(Note: You need to have about 4½-5 cups total of liquid, including the water that you soaked the mushrooms in.  I like my risotto only slightly al dente—not soft, not hard—but also with a little moisture too.  You might need more or less liquid depending on how you like your texture)
Grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Truffle Oil or Truffle Salt



1) Before prepping other items, place dried mushroom in a medium bowl, cover with boiling water, and make sure the mushrooms stay submerged (by placing a saucer on top of the bowl, etc.).  After about 30 minutes, remove rehydrated mushroom pieces and coarsely chop them into small pieces.  Do not worry so much if some pieces seem harder than others as they will keep rehydrating as they cook.  Bring the 2½-3 cups combined broth to a simmer, and carefully pour in broth from the dried mushrooms—but stop before you get to the gritty bits on the bottom of the bowl.   Let the liquid simmer together on the lowest heat.

2) Using either a dutch oven or other large heavy-bottomed pan, melt about 1 tbs butter with about 2 tbs olive oil over medium (to medium-high) heat until butter is slightly foaming and becoming golden.  Add chopped onion and minced garlic, and stir for a few minutes until they soften.  Add mushroom pieces and stir another minute.  Add the rice and stir another minute to coat the rice with the oil and butter.  Pour in your ¼ cup wine and let the mixture absorb the wine.

3) Now comes the fun and relaxing part (really!).  Using a ladle that holds about ¾ cup liquid, pour in a ladle of the liquid into the rice mixture and stir constantly until the liquid is almost all absorbed.  Continue a ladle at a time until the rice is to the consistency you like, but make sure that you are reserving at least a few tablespoons of broth for the finishing touch.

4) When the rice is ready, stir in 2 tbs of soft butter and 2 tbs of grated parmesan with the last few tablespoons of broth.  This last touch is essential to making the risotto complete and creamy.  Salt and pepper to your taste.

5) Once you spoon your risotto into your serving bowl or individual bowls, you may surround the rim of the bowl with truffle oil (either white or black truffle oil) or shake truffle salt on top—or both!  If you want a little extra color, you can sprinkle finely chopped parsley.  If truffle flavor is not your thing, you can certainly sprinkle sage leaves (and skip the parsley in that case). 


  

Lamb and Date Tagine (in the Pressure Cooker)


After a wet and chilly May day spent touring—and taking a myriad pictures of—the most impressive Alhambra, my husband Will and I made a trek into the Moroccan part of Granada for dinner.   I really don’t remember what my husband had for dinner because we were both so much more engrossed in my excellent choice for entrée—a lamb and date tagine. 

Salivating over its fragrance while the dish was being placed in front of me, we hardly noticed that two young Japanese women had gotten seated at the table next to us.  It didn’t take long—after all, they too had olfactory senses!—for one of the women to venture a conversational opener.  She asked me if I was Japanese—and, more to the point, did I speak any Japanese.  Alas, no, I do not speak any Japanese, but my husband can speak a little Japanese, I offered.  We are often confronted with this same situation.  We travel quite a bit, and my Korean features are often mistaken for Japanese, Chinese/Taiwanese, and (in France) also Vietnamese.   Of course, the odder part might be having a white Anglo-looking husband who happens to speak Japanese (Will having taught English in Japan after college). 

Anyway, it actually didn’t take any knowledge of Japanese to figure out that they were asking the name of the entrée I had ordered.  I tend to have enormous, and no doubt misplaced, pride in ordering the best dish at a table, and it was with some satisfaction that I announced that it was the lamb and date tagine.  They were grateful, much thanks, etc.  When the server was taking their order, I heard them ask for the lamb tagine.  “With dates or with vegetables?”  To my surprise, I heard some uncertainty and conferring, followed by . . . “Vegetable.”  Did they misunderstand or misremember?  Or did they decide that they would like more vegetables in their dish?  Should I intervene and—essentially—make them change their order?  Wouldn’t that be stepping too much over accepted boundaries of proper restaurant etiquette amongst fellow foreign travelers?  Is it bordering on culinary colonialism?  In the end, we did not say anything.  The lamb and vegetable tagine, when it arrived, did not look nearly as scrumptious as did my rapidly disappearing lamb and date tagine.  We shrugged off this experience with the agreement that we did our best.  I always wonder though if they secretly cursed me for having misled them. . . .

Now lamb and date tagine is a dish we like on a chilly Sunday evening.  For our own table, I modified Nigella Lawson’s easy recipe found on BBC Food website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/lambanddatetagine_90621) to accommodate the dish for the pressure cooker.  I find using pressure cooker for entrees like tagines and boeuf Bourguignon makes meat pieces stay better intact while still becoming incredibly moist and tender.  And, yes, it also shortens the cooking time by at least 50%.  If you combine Nigella Lawson’s recipe for this tagine with general cooking instructions from the Cuisinart Electric Pressure Cooker recipe booklet for Classic Beef Stew (http://www.cuisinart.com/recipes/entrees/750.html), you should be able to develop your very own recipe for lamb and date tagine.   Feel free to write with questions or comments about making your own modifications.  Share!


Some final notes:
You can, if you wish, dispense with gathering together all the different spices that Nigella Lawson calls for by substituting an equal total amount of a pre-mixed tagine spice concoction.  

I have tried and liked both Williams-Sonoma Traditional Tagine Spices (http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/tagine-spice-blend/) and Moroccan Spice Mix from the Spice House (http://www.thespicehouse.com/spices/moroccan-spice-mixture).  

Keep in mind that you might need to alter your seasoning a bit depending on which spice mixture you decide to use.  For instance, the mix from Spice House includes salt and curry powder while the Williams-Sonoma version includes paprika and black pepper, none of which are found in Nigella Lawson’s recipe (and missing other spices in her ingredients list).  Tagines (and cooking in general) are not supposed to be exact sciences.  Modify according to your tastes—and what’s in your spice rack.  Also, I would definitely recommend throwing on final garnishing touches of fresh cilantro and toasted almonds at the end.

Bul-go-gi (Korean "Fire Beef")


“East is East, and West is West, and Never the Twain Shall Meet”?

I have found myself strangely reluctant to try a successful local upscale Korean restaurant.  Perhaps “upscale Korean” seems like an oxymoron to me, or perhaps I fear my American husband will like the modified Korean cuisine at this trendy bistro better (and will not eat with required gusto the copious amounts of food that my mother, an excellent cook, insists on making us every time we visit!).  Or perhaps—my own assimilated ethnic identity notwithstanding—I dislike the notion that somehow fusion-cuisine equates to better cuisine.  What I do know is that this minor aversion of mine is decades old, and it might bear some scrutiny.

Many years ago, I was surprised to open our front door to see that my American best friend’s father stood at our steps alone, with no daughter in sight.  He wanted to talk to my mother.  My mother???  He hardly talked to me much, and I was flabbergasted (and, truth to tell, slightly afraid—of my mother’s irritation) that he wanted to talk to my mother, a woman who spoke very little English and who had never really even seen this man.  Having enjoyed a dish called “Korean beef” at a business lunch, he apparently found a use for the fact that his daughter had an immigrant friend.  Surely, her mother would give him the recipe for this exotic dish (which many people know now by the Korean name Bul-go-gi).  Well, that was easier said than done.  After some headscratching from my mother and attempts at translating from me, it was determined that there wasn’t a box from which my mother could draw out a 4x6 index card listing ingredients and directions.  No, there wasn’t even a cookbook! (My mother was laughing by then.)  Not to be deterred, he stood at the doorway and interrogated us: “Well, what kind of spoon?  Tablespoons or teaspoons of soy sauce?”  You get the idea.  Somehow, my mother’s “some beef, some soy sauce, some sesame oil” had to be laboriously converted to measures that he felt could respectably be called a “recipe.”

Now, decades later, as a cook of both Asian creations (most of which I just put together) and western dishes (most of which got their genesis from recipes), I understand both my mother’s amused confusion and our guest’s frustrated persistence.  Being an excellent home cook himself, my friend’s father did successfully unveil his version of “Korean beef”—except, as reported by my friend, the beef was in thin regular slices woven unto skewers and grilled like kabobs.  The dish was a big hit with the family, and occasionally I was invited to come over for dinner so that I could have his “Korean beef.”  He even contemplated sending his version into a recipe contest—with due credit to my mother, of course.  But I never did find the time to have his Korean beef, in my mind a conscious decision which I attributed to not wanting to be disloyal to my mother’s less fancy but more traditional version.

Of course, traditions and family recipes and variations have to start somewhere.  So, here I am going to give the most basic instructions that my mother gave me herself when I asked her to teach me how to make this best-known of Korean dishes.  Bear in mind though that, true to her form, I am only giving approximations.   Of course, I’ve modified this recipe since for my own cooking techniques and tastes, but I am curious to see how other reader-cooks might personalize these basic directions in this brave new age of kogi-taco trucks and Pan-Asian fine dining.  Feel free to write us with your best variations.

Bul-go-gi (My mother’s “recipe”)

1 lb beef
2 tbs sesame oil
2-3 tbs sugar
garlic
ginger
onion/green onion
3-4 tbs soy sauce
3 tbs water
black pepper

Note: I swear, this is what she told me—and even that was with pleas for more specific information.  One thing I will say though is that the beef should be in very thin slices.  You can get pre-sliced beef for such marinating needs at some Asian grocery stores (like H-Mart if you live near one), most likely labeled “sliced ribeye.”  Also, yes, you marinate the beef for a few hours, and then you grill/pan-fry and garnish to your taste.  That’s it.  Enjoy!

Peach and Berry Jam



Catching the Last Gasps of Summer
(September 2010)

My friend Laura and I were talking about what a great time of the year this is for the farmer’s market crowd.  Last vestiges of summer are still hanging on (peaches!) while the signs of early fall are unmistakable (apples!).  In fact, my husband and I picked a bushel of apples last weekend, but there isn’t much room in our refrigerator which still hasn’t expelled last week’s peaches and plums.  Embarrassing as it is to say, we even had a pint of (wrinkling) blueberries left.  So, in the spirit of making lemonade out of lemons, I made peach and berry jam out of leftover fruits.  They are now in half-pint jars (no canning necessary for these refrigerator jams), and they are safely tucked away for our future enjoyment.  Since they should last 3 months in the refrigerator, we can enjoy a taste of summer even in cold December.

First, a few words about farmer’s markets and their new cousins, CSAs.  In this more locavore-driven world, no one will admit to not knowing where and when their farmer’s market is held.  On the other hand, I was surprised to find out how many people had never heard of Community Supported Agriculture.  (I love these, called CSAs for those in the know...)  If you haven’t joined one, do a quick search for “CSA” and your town name (or the nearest major city name).  Chances are, you might be able to pick up or get delivered straight to your doorstep a box of the freshest local produce every week.  Some CSAs only offer vegetables, but others offer a combination, and still others will let you choose what you want.  Of course, the more variety and choice, higher the prices.  These (almost always) organic local produce boxes are not cheaper, but they will invariably be better tasting—and better for your health.  Winter season isn’t as fun as summer, and you’ll get pretty bored with different varieties of squashes and pumpkins soon.  But joining a CSA allows you to support your local farmers, eat more seasonally, and hopefully give you a better sense of the rhythms of the world we inhabit.

Now, if you have any leftover fruits, this is a good way of using them up.  I modified this recipe (from Food & Wine, September 2009) for our smaller household and the particular fruits we have in our refrigerator.  Let me know if you came up with other variations you found especially tasty.



Peach and Berry Jam
(I make “Peach and Blueberry” or “Peach and Raspberry” as they are available around the same time usually.)

1 ½ pounds peeled peaches cut up into small cubes (between ¼ and ½ inch pieces make a nice combination of chunky and smooth)
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice from about half of a lemon
½ pound raspberries or blueberries

1) Combine peach pieces and sugar in a stainless steel saucepan (something that won’t react to the lemon juice), stir, and let sit for at least 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

2) Squeeze lemon juice into the peach and sugar mixture and place over medium high heat.  Once all the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has come to a boil, simmer vigorously (medium to medium high) for about another 5-7 minutes.

3) Add raspberries or blueberries, and simmer over medium heat for about another 20-30 minutes until the jam is just a little thinner than the consistency you like (as it will thicken a bit as it cools).  Watch for the consistency rather than time since burner heat will vary.  As the mixture simmers, skim the whitish scum that rises (more likely with raspberries than with blueberries).

4) While it is still warm, spoon the jam into 6 to 10 oz jars (you will get 2-3 jars, depending on size), and make sure you leave some space at the top.  Once all the jars are cooled, label them (with date!) and place in the refrigerator.

These jams are slightly less sweet than the store-bought kind and are very fresh tasting.  As such, you can use them as topping for pancakes and waffles as well as using them on toast.  For a nice treat, top Greek yogurt with these compote-like jams, and sprinkle homemade granola.



Note that these are “refrigerator” jams, so you can avoid sterilizing, canning, and sealing.  They should be kept refrigerated and consumed within 3 months, but you’ll likely go through them more quickly!