Saturday, December 29, 2012

shortbread: theme and variation

Tis the season to bake cookies, and December was a cookie-full month. Sugar and butter entered into the kitchen and left at a rapid rate, whisked and beaten and frothed and suspended into crumbly-soft morsels. They were duly dispatched to friends by good old fashioned post, delivered to family throughout the holidays, and devoured at the office by sugar-happy coworkers. I added a recipe to the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap of 2012, and on the way, experimented with several gazillion cookie recipes, finally settling on Almond Butter Cookies.  One evening, though, I had a crisis when I discovered I'd used up the last of the eggs: what's a girl to do with no eggs, no egg-substitute, no open grocery store, and a desire to bake something? Shortbread, of course. Few ingredients, flexible additions, and satisfyingly rich, the high butter-to-flour ratio provides a crumbly, lush cookie best savored in small, slow nibbles.  Shortbread is a rare creation, shining both in its simplest and more elaborate forms. Try plain shortbread, and let the richness of the flavor melt over your tongue, add chocolate chips and nuts for some spice, melt chocolate and dip shortbread in it, or experiment with your own wild flavors.

Shortbread, theme and variation

2 sticks (8 oz or 1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup of granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups of white whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2/3 chocolate chunks
2/3 chopped pecans or walnuts

1. Sift the salt and four together and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar in a separate bowl, then add vanilla (and almond extract, if using). Mix in the flour about 1/2 a cup at a time, until the dough is lightly mixed together. It will be crumbly and may not hold together very well.  If you are using the variation, add the nuts and chocolate now.

2. Form the dough into a ball, then flatten and shape into two loaves about half to three-quarters of an inch thick. Refrigerate for at least two hours and up to overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Take the molded dough and either put it on top of wax paper in a small loaf pan or on top of wax paper on a cookie sheet. Bake for 16-18 minutes, until the edges look barely browned. Let the dough cool and then slice up the cookies into large bite-sized pieces.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

blissful mistakes: inventing almond butter cookies

When a hurricane threatened the east coast last summer, I ran to the store to get staple food items, anticipating days of no electricity, but looking forward to lots of peanut butter.  Unfortunately, everyone in Philadelphia was on the same wavelength, and the peanut butter shelf blinked at me, spare and lonely.  But necessity emboldens palate adventures, and so I picked up one jar of almond butter and one of cashew. The cashew butter got eaten within a week, but the almond butter relaxed on my counter, daring me to get creative. And when I got a craving for sweets a week or two later, as I was making cookies inspired by Smitten Kitchen's lovely peanut butter cookies, I accidentally grabbed the jar of almond butter. A delectable accident, the cookies were a sweet-salty, crunchy-smooth mouthful of deliciousness. I played around with ingredients and measurements, taste tested them on family and friends, added some candied pecans for festive zing, and then sent them off for the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap of 2012.

What is this cookie swap? It is a food/writer/new friend connection tool where virtual people become "real" - each blogger sends off a dozen cookies to three recipients, and receives three dozen cookies in return. As we're sending each other cookies, we're also raising money for Cookies for Kids' Cancer, cooking for a cause.  I sent cookies to the cool women at Hearts in my Oven, Shuffling Freckles, and Life Undeveloped, and received a mouth-watering variety of goodies from the lovely ladies at Sister's Snacktime Munchies, The Way to my Family's Heart, and Meal Planning Magic.  Thanks also to Love and Olive Oil and The Little Kitchen for hosting the swap and for fostering a sense of community and realness in the virtual food world.

Almond Butter Cookies

1/2 cup or one stick of unsalted butter
1 cup of crunchy, unsalted almond butter
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon half-and-half

1 1/4 cup of white whole wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 generous cup of chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups of candied pecans

for the candied pecans:
1 1/2 cups shelled pecans
1/2 cup white sugar

Start by making the candied pecans.  Pour the 1/2 cup of sugar into a cold frying pan.  Turn the heat on, and after a few minutes, the sugar will turn brown and bubbly around the edges. Start mixing the sugar into a syrup, careful to get out all of the lumps. Once it's all mixed, turn off the heat and put the pecans in, stirring to coat the nuts completely. Let them cool on a plate for at least 30 minutes (they will coalesce into a candied-mass), and then cut them up into bite-sized pieces.  This step can be done several hours in advance.

Note: If you choose to use regular pecans, you must add extra white sugar to the dough, or the cookies will not be sweet enough.

For the cookies:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sift the dry ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.  In a separate bowl, mix the butter and almond butter into a smooth paste. Add the sugars and keep mixing.  Add the eggs and half-and-half and mix until smooth.  Combine the wet and dry ingredients, stirring until completely incorporated.  Add the chocolate chips and pecans, and try really hard not to eat all the dough right then and there.  Roll the cookie dough into balls and place on the cookie sheet.  Put cookies in the oven for 9-10 minutes (my oven takes exactly 9 minutes and 45 seconds), and let cool.  Scarf them up!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

for love of the latkes

There's no such thing as a "Chanukah bush." And yet, one is sitting in my window sill, known by it's other name as a "Christmas tree." Being the liberal Jewish girl that I am, every time I catch a glimpse of that Christmas tree in my window, I get a frisson of bemusement.  My A values verdancy and crispness come the cold snap, and so, there's a decorated European cyprus (threatening on its cute packaging to grow to 15 feet if lovingly cared for) lolling in the window. And right next to that tree are blue and gold stars, shimmering in the light of several candles, illuminating the darkness of the cold, short days.

That's how many of our holidays are, a jumble of traditions and ideas, a loose interpretation of the religious underpinnings to arrive at a moral, ethical, peaceful co-existence, with an examination of the cultural implications thrown in for good measure.  And that's how I arrived at Fried Food Night.

Fried Food Night is exactly what it sounds like - an evening of fried, crispy, bad-for-you-but-oh-so-good delicacies.  This year, the menu includes my world famous latkes (which are heavily modeled/stolen from my dad's out-of-this-world latke special), fried dumplings and egg rolls, fried donuts, fried cookies, and then wine to offset the oil and crispiness.

It started as a way to honor Chanukah, and then, in the way of the best celebrations, transformed itself into a multicultural hodgepodge of holidays and friends and tradition. We gather together to eat fried food in a semblance of remembrance of eight days of oil, but also to renew friendships, and unify our disparate tribe around the table.

a new tradition: sweet potato-apple latkes

Thursday, November 15, 2012

the one: reliable and ever-changing

My first time making risotto was years ago in a sweltering Italian kitchen.  Not with an Italian grandmother passing down the tradition, mind you, but two American girls cooking from a recipe in Oprah's magazine, in a very un-airconditioned apartment, noses over a hot, gas-lit stove and steamy pans.  So many things could have gone wrong: Oprah had measurements in the English system, our equipment measured in metric, the pots and pans were low quality, we had been warned that the gas stove (bombola, what a scrumptiously descriptive word) was finicky and we couldn't adjust the temperature. But, miracle, the risotto was delicious, and two homesick American girls fell under the spell of risotto, and started smiling.

I went back to America and made risotto, thinking of my summer. I picked different vegetables as the seasons changed, and tried different seasonings, tweaking the proportion of rice to liquid, adding more parmesan and less butter.

The next time I was in Italy, I had a cohort of helper-cooks: some who knew how to make things, some who didn't. We cooked together, and as major-general of my tiny army, risotto was a staple: someone grated the cheese, another cut onions, someone else sauteed the vegetables, and yet another set the table and did dishes. Communal cooking gave us structure and family far from home, an instant happiness.  Risotto was the reliable, requested, beloved dish, morphing through each dinner depending upon what was in the fridge, but eternally satisfying in its infinite variation.

And I came home in the fall, and missed my friends and cooking-army: risotto is so plentiful, expanding as it cooks, it's a dish that begs for multiple eaters. And then, a man I knew and had met for coffee came for dinner. And I made him risotto too. He's stayed for two years and a day, and dices the onions and zucchini just as I like them.

While the ingredients change, and new ones jump in to liven an old recipe, the essence of the dish remains an ever present reminder of friendship, community, and the sort of happiness that quietly settles over well-fed souls.

My recipe feeds four hungry people. Keep adding more rice and more chicken stock when more people come to visit, and keep the leftovers for lunch tomorrow.


1 onion, diced
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine, or juice of 1/2 a lemon
4-6 cups chicken stock
2 zucchini, diced
4 oz prosciutto, sliced
1 teaspoon and 2-3 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/3 cup parmesan cheese, and more to sprinkle on top

1. Heat up the chicken stock gently, not letting the liquid ever quite reach a boil

2. In a separate wide, flat pan, melt 1 teaspoon of butter and olive oil over medium-low heat. Once the butter bubbles lightly, add the onions, and cook for 8-10 minutes, until the onions are translucent.

3. Add the risotto and toast lightly for 1-2 minutes.

4. The first drink the thirsty rice gets is the white wine (or lemon juice, if you have no wine at hand). Pour it in and let the rice soak it up.

5. Next comes the heated chicken stock. Add about 1/2 a cup at a time, and watch the liquid slowly inflate the grains of rice. Stir occasionally so that the rice doesn't stick or scorch.

6. As the stock is being absorbed, cut up the zucchini and lightly saute in another pan with a little butter and salt. This is also the optimal time to cut up the prosciutto in to thin ribbons. Dare you not to sample as you slice.

7. After about 25-30 minutes of the adding-waiting-stirring, the consistency of the rice softens, and the liquid becomes thicker, binding the grains of rice together. Test a grain of rice with your fingernail: if it gives way easily, the rice is done, but if not, add more stock and keep cooking.

8. Once the rice achieves the right consistency, turn off the heat. Add butter and parmesan, stirring it in well. Add the zucchini and prosciutto, and salt to taste.

9. Eat with friends. You'll all be happy.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

chocolate as protection

Some people remember what they wore or what was said. I remember what I ate.

This was perfectly illustrated in an exchange with my dear A:

Me: I remember Hurricane Floyd vividly. My dad was at work, and came home with these chocolate chip muffins that I used to love because they were never too dry and always had a high chocolate to muffin batter ratio. It was so cool that regular work was suspended and we ate those muffins.

A: Wasn't that the hurricane when you broke your wrist?

Oh yes. That's right. I broke my wrist during that hurricane. I remember that too, very clearly, but it was the muffins that popped in to my mind first.

Storms have a way of focusing on the essentials: the isolation of a hurricane or blizzard sends everyone panicked and running for the store, preparing with favorite foods to hunker down and stay strong. Maybe the excitement of the out-of-the-ordinary event provokes a strong sensory and taste memory as well.

Huddled against the wind and the rain, the primal storm evokes a primal desire for warmth and comfort, and what better way to provide that comfort then filling the house with the scent of cooking? Comfort comes in different flavors, dependent, I think on both your upbringing and your own food cravings, but  as all comfort food cooks, the smell wafts and weaves a snug and warm protection against the cold rain.

My comfort food over these past days involved potatoes, roast chicken, goat cheese, kale, purple cauliflower, and lots of bread.  But the best addition to shopping list and my strongest protection against Sandy? Chocolate. Hurricanes may come and go, but chocolate is still a powerful way to weather the storm.

What foods protected you through Hurricane Sandy? Leave me a note below!

Monday, October 22, 2012

you can't make omelets without cracking eggs

I love eggs. Scrambled, sunny-side-up, omelet, frittata, you name it, I can cook it and eat it with grace and aplomb. My cooking technique, however, is not so much technique as lots of experimentation in an all-embracing conglomeration of styles and cuisines. Which makes it a funny melange of delight and frustration when I try a new-to-me but old-to-seasoned-cooks method of making an omelet - the "rolling omelet" technique as described by Julia Child - and find out that yes, there IS a better way to make an omelet, and it kicks butt. When I read about the style, I started laughing - a vigorous north-south shaking of ones omelet pan until the omelet is evenly and mostly cooked, shut off the heat, and the omelet is done.  Farcical, really. Until I tried it. And got the most beautiful looking omelet I have ever created. Taste was excellent too; a uniform, fluffy layer of eggs without any sticky bits on the pan or my spatula.

Look at the edge and flip of the omelet... oh YUM.

And so, I share my new-old technique with you: my words, but Julia's presence and expertise in every action.

Cream or Milk
Herbs (optional: for garnish)
Cheese (optional)


1. Beat the eggs in a bowl. Once they're mixed, add a dollop of cream, pinch of salt, and swirl them in.

2. Heat butter over medium-high heat in a saute pan. When the butter is melted and starts bubbling at the edges, roll the butter around the bottom of the pan to coat it completely.

3. Pour in the egg mixture. Now, let's make Julia's omelet-perfect hand gesture: give me the "thumbs-up" sign, then lay your thumb flat over the handle of your pan - your fist should be below the handle, thumb above.  Start moving the omelet pan in a "north-south" direction over the heat.  The egg mixture is going to roll laughably along, until all of the sudden, the eggs start to coalesce from liquid to solid form.  ** If you're going to add cheese or other filling, now is the time!

4. When there is still a little bit of eggy jiggle, shut off the heat, hold your omelet pan at a 45 degree angle, and let the omelet come together for two to three seconds in the low section of the pan.

5. Slide your eggs on to a plate, garnish, and serve.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

an apple a day

Apples are not just fruit.  A predominant literary and cultural symbol, apples span the distance from science to the bible, Newton to Eve, both times a conduit for human knowledge. Greek myths of Paris and Atalanta feature tempting apples, as American myths of Johnny Appleseed abound. They are also a symbol of the harvest, a late summer taste of sweetness to hold you close for the coming winter, and of health, keeping the doctors at bay when consumed daily.  The apple is on a pedestal across genres.

And picking the all-mighty apple becomes the quintessential autumn escape to paradise: fresh air, open spaces, green things, idyllic pastures, even a gentle doe at the farm, not to mention the green and red fruit itself.

Walking back to the rows and rows of apple trees, pulling a red wagon and wrapping myself against the cold, damp day, I started smiling. It's just so cool, picking an apple off a tree. And in that very "coolness" comes an essential element of eating: the aspect of seeing the origins of our food. There is nothing quite so visceral as reaching into the leaves, emerging with an apple, and taking a giant, tart bite. It feels primitive, good, and for some of us urbanites, is the closest we get to nature for a while.

Nature is not necessarily present in the grocery store, the most common purveyor of our foodstuffs. Grocery stores are awesome, bountiful places. Meat, cheese, produce, eggs, dairy, baked goods, canned goods, dry goods - the plethora of choices and food stuffs is overwhelming and delighting. It is, however, hard to distinguish where an apple comes from if it is shrink wrapped in a bag next to 5 or 6 other apples. It's hard to smell an apple's scent after it's been refrigerated and transported over a few days, hard to see the leaves and branches that produced the fruit. And the connection to the food itself is diminished by the ready availability of whatever we want, whenever we want, regardless of seasonality. The very specialness of understanding the origins of our food doesn't exist when the path is hidden from view.

So maybe this explains the ever expanding zeal for farming. A quest to reconnect to what we eat, and what our senses require for sustenance. It's empowering and awe-inspiring to see a tree at work, even though it's been doing the same exact thing for thousands of years, germinating, blossoming, and being fruitful.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

thought for food

What does it mean to be a feminist in the kitchen?

I grew up wearing blue and purple, jeans, overalls, and clothes that I could play and get messy in. Frills tickled me too much to wear on a regular basis, and I loved trains and building blocks and sandcastles. Fairies and princesses were in there too, I know, but most of the princesses I read about kicked butt and didn't wait around to be rescued: my heroines were in the habit of rescuing themselves.

As an adult I try to emulate that self-reliance, handily rescuing myself, or my coworkers, or my man, still wishing to be a heroine, sometimes successful, sometimes falling on my face.  So why, when generations of women fought to be liberated from the tyranny of the kitchen, am I running joyfully towards it? Why am I tying myself to my stock pot and boiling water canner and roasting vegetables and rising bread, staying in a hot, sweaty kitchen with the unglorious duty of fruit chopping, and not chasing dragons? 

It seems so retro and uncool to want to perfect my pie crust. Being "like a 50s housewife" is not a compliment: the epitome of servility and a smiling facade, cleaning and cooking her way through a sterile, unimaginative life of waiting on others, as her own flies by without accomplishments other than the domestic. 

But that's not my life. 

My life involves the choice to be in the kitchen. I choose to spend my time smelling, tasting, sauteeing, pureeing, and creating. My spare time, my choice. Physically laboring to create what I consume connects me to my food, my body, my sense of self. It gives me a sense of accomplishment when I create or complete complex recipes, or experiment with wild, imaginative ingredients and tastes.  My cooking is for me: my pleasure, my palate, my imagination, my sense of fulfillment. I like reading about cooking, health, and what's going in to the food I consume, and I like the control I achieve by eating thoughtfully chosen ingredients cooked in a thoughtful, interesting manner.

I think, contrary to rejecting feminism, I may have completed the circle and carried the torch forward: I am in the kitchen because I love it, not because it's a requirement of womanliness or domesticity. And in that choice, feminism has been realized: I get to choose how to spend my free time, I get to find my own bliss. 

Maybe, in a way, I am saving myself after all. I've taken it upon myself to find and revel in my own happiness.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

in a peachy jam

I made jam.

I have written and sung and emphatically pounded the table while speaking those three words over the past few days.

It's not perfect, this jam of mine.  Floating on peach-rosemary fumes, my nose couldn't criticize what my mouth later would: too much sugar, not quite the right amount of pectin. Pectin, the ingredient that brings fruit from a liquid state to a more solid state, was temperamental, clumping itself together before I expected it to.  Or maybe because I hadn't read the instructions for dry pectin as opposed to liquid pectin, that was, in some sense, responsible for the minor texture imbalance. The sugar content, sworn up and down as correct on three recipes, was a little too sweet for my taste, the rosemary a little too strong.

But somehow, the imperfectness of my creation doesn't matter in the overall picture.  In life, oftentimes, I wish I could just fast forward to the end result without the tediousness of the steady path: couldn't I just have a higher salary, a nicer house, a better brain, a healthier body, a villa in the south of France, and skip the grunt work? 

In the act of concocting food, though, I find myself taking time to revel in the boiling fruit bits. Watching the peaches go from whole fruit to simmering, succulent stew, I kept skipping around the kitchen, bearing witness to my creation as it perfumed the apartment.  Time slowed down as the fruit cooked, and I felt myself breathing slowly and fully, joyfully, even, as I watched the pot.

I think I'm a little surprised, too, by the depth of my happiness at creation. I can't stop smiling, and my jam, while admittedly not perfect, tastes so sweet not only because of its sugar content, but because of the entire creative process.  The success of creation is sometimes in the process itself, more so than in the result.

Friday, August 24, 2012

the joy of cookies

I was three years old when my little sister was born. I skipped down the hospital hall, excited to see my mom and my new sister, buoyed by a secret my dad had told me.  Hospital food, he'd said, was gross.  And that's why he had a pack of oreos hidden under his labcoat, a secret I knew, but wasn't allowed to tell, as we walked in to my mom's room.  Clutched in my little fist, the packaging on the oreos grew warm.  I showed my mom the cookies, furtive and proud, and her laughter confirmed that this was an awesome gift. We tore the packaging and shared a cookie, getting crumbs all over the bed. My perception of food transformed in that moment: it went from mundane to mystical, the cookies imbued with the joy of feeding my mom, sharing a secret with my dad, and meeting my sister.

I've never lost that joy. So happy birthday, Mom, and thank you for loving cookies.

Almond-Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches

The ingredients of my recipe are fairly standard chocolate chip cookie proportions, but the way to put them together is a little off-beat. Because the almonds are ground into flour and the chocolate chips are chopped up, the cookie texture is uniform and holds up well for sandwich cookies.

8 oz (1 cup) almonds, slivers or slices or whole
2 cups flour
1/2 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 cup softened butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 package of chocolate chips

Food processor
Baking sheet

Use a thin spread of either peanut butter, nutella, or powdered sugar mixed with water between two cookies to form a sandwich.  To make extra special cookies, use whipped cream as the filler, and freeze for 30 minutes before serving.

1. Preheat the oven to 375.

2. Put the almonds in the food processor, and pulse them until they create a coarse almond flour.
3. Empty the almond flour into a bowl, and mix in the baking soda, salt, and flour. 
4. In the now empty food processor, cream the butter.
5. Add the brown sugar, mix it in well, then add in the granuated sugar and mix again. 
6. Eggs and vanilla come next, and once it's all mixed, add in the chocolate chips. Whip them into a coarse paste, and add the dry ingredients. Mix. 
7. Grease the cookie sheet, and then add quarter-sized dollops up and down the sheet. 8 minutes in the oven for soft cookies, 9-10 minutes for crunchier ones.
8. Let the cookies cool, then spread a thin layer of your favorite filling.
9. Enjoy with your mom.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cook for Julia

When I was a kid, my mom and I used to watch Saturday afternoon cooking shows on PBS.  One afternoon, as we watched the chefs dice and saute, a funny looking lady with a funny sounding voice was making things with funny names that looked funny and delicious.  I remember watching and getting hungry, seeing the food go from raw form to finished product with enthusiasm, vigor, and laughter. That’s how Julia Child first imprinted on my brain.

With such a strong first impression, I’m hesitant to admit that before this week, I’d never cracked open Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I had a variety of feelings towards the epic tome, as I thought the recipes were finicky and precise, and I was intimidated. I love to cook, but I don’t love following recipes: I cook on sensation and taste, and get irritated when I’m told to cook in alternate fashions – my  independent streak rears its giant head. And piling on to my independent streak, my pot and pan collection is eclectic and not always sufficient (what, pray tell, is an "asbestos mat" and where would I find one?). My spice drawer and liquor cabinet are miniscule. And, icing on the cake (!), I am a twentysomething with an entry-level-job-income and all of the limitations on foodstuffs and cookware that that imposes.

But it’s Julia’s birthday. She'd have been 100 today, her image fixed in our minds as one of the first chefs to become a pop culture icon, book and television star, her hooty voice brimming with adventure and good cheer as she whipped up her creations. She is historical and contemporary, a balancing act through the decades.  Her Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a staple of aspiring chefs and great home cooks and wannabes. And what better time to celebrate an iconic chef and conquer my fear of the book than by actually hiking through a recipe or two?

So I was flipping through the recipes, trying to find something that took under 24 hours and wouldn't break the bank or overly tax my basic cookware capabilities. And then I stopped flipping, started reading the recipes, and began falling for Julia. The woman could write. The recipes were serious, poetic, witty: instructions where the warmth of a generous personality beamed through. I was smiling as I read her recipes - have you ever done that? Read an ingredients list, and grinned? It puts you in the mood to cook, like a friend in the kitchen with you, lending a helping hand when necessary, and pouring you a glass of wine when things go more seriously awry.

Saturday's dinner menu was Coq au Vin, brown braised onions, and sauteed mushrooms from Julia (green beans and roast potatoes were my own basic recipes). I overcooked the chicken, but the sauce was a revelation. I’d never made a butter-flour paste and whisked it in to a boiling wine/chicken stock/bacon bits reduction, a method that seemed too complicated. But watching the elements meld together, thickening into a burgundy richness that I wanted to consume by the bucketful, I mourned for the sauces I’d missed. And the brown braised onions? Meltingly good. As were the mushrooms, buttery, woodsy, juicy silver-brown nubbins. All from following Julia. I've been cooking mushrooms and onions for years, but these techniques, quite frankly, elevated my cooking, making me rethink my exclusively DIY modus operandi. 

Dessert was clafouti, another Julia classic. A pancake-y batter encases cherries and blueberries: simple, stunning, bursting with sweetness, in an eggy shell. 

Julia encouraged innovation and a fearless attitude, accepting mistakes and incorporating them into her cooking. And from her letters, she revealed her own mile-wide independent streak, blazing past societal barriers to create the French golden-standard cookbook.  But it’s not just the laboriously tested, glorious tasting recipes that make us return: I think it’s the can-do attitude, the idea that food can be a fulfilling creative process, imperfections and all, with room for both a template and variation. And I liked it. I liked listening to her directions, putting in my own additions when I thought it would improve a dish to my taste.  And so my resolution is thus: keep experimenting, and learn from Julia. Happy birthday, Julia Child, and bon appetit!

Friday, August 10, 2012

flower power

If we were to divide the world into edible and non-edible, into which category would flowers fall?  My eyes, grateful for their beauty and elegance, say the latter, generally speaking, but I have to make an exception for squash blossoms.  Orange, green, yellow, ephemeral and delicate, the blossoms taste like zucchini, but milder, sweeter.  They are a rarity as well; supermarkets don't sell them because they'll wilt within a few hours. This summer, I've found them at the weekend farmers' market, sold by only one vendor, so keep your eyes open for the flowers.

It's an unexpected bliss, discovering a treat like this: eaten just hours after the gathering, the flowers radiate a nuanced, delectable taste of the earth and the sun.  The blossoms can be eaten raw with a little olive oil and sea salt, baked into eggs, paired with cheese, the possibilities are endless.  A classic, however, is stuffing them with cheese and frying them, and this is my spin on the recipe.  Enjoy!

to start:
8 squash blossoms
Olive oil for frying

1/4 cup ricotta cheese (or other curd based cheese)
handful of shredded basil leaves
1/2 egg
teaspoon of melted butter
pinch of sea salt

2 generous tablespoons flour
other 1/2 of the egg
3 oz medium temperature water
small pinch of sea salt

*Note: for a heavier batter and texture, add more flour so that it has a sticky, thick consistency.  The current proportion will give a very light batter that allows the squash blossom flavor to shine through.

1. To make the filling, melt the butter. As the butter melts, crack the egg, separating about half each into two different bowls.  Put one bowl to the side, as you'll be using it for the batter.  Swirl the butter and egg together, and then add the ricotta, basil, and salt.

2. Grab the bowl you put aside.  Mix in the flour and salt, then the water.  The batter should be more liquid then sticky for a lighter taste, and stickier if you'd like a heavier batter.  Keep both bowls within arms reach.

3. Heat a generous covering of olive oil in a frying pan on the stove.

4. As the oil heats, prepare the blossoms.  Open the delicate petals, reach inside the blossom and pull out the stamen (the mini-matchstick inside the flower).

Hand model credit goes to an accommodating (ie hungry) gentleman

5.  Stuff about a teaspoon of the filling inside the blossom, put the petals back in place over the stuffing, and twist the petals together at the top so that the flower stays together.  Dip the cheese stuffed blossom in the batter, then gently place it in the now hot frying pan.

6. After about 2 minutes on one side, flip the blossom over to the other side.  Cook about 2 more minutes.

7. Drain blossoms on paper towel, and then pop directly in your mouth.

Monday, July 30, 2012

a girl, an egg, and a whisk

The first time I made mayonnaise, it was breathtaking. Creamy, fluffy, pale yellow, perfectly salted, and scarfed up within 10 minutes. I dreamed about this mayonnaise, the delicacy and deliciousness, prideful in my amateur chef-ly skill of completing a complex sauce with ease.

The next time I made mayonnaise, it was a disaster. Slimy links of yellow swirling around with olive oil that would simply not mix.  I tried to fix the broken mayonnaise, plumbing the internet for tips and tricks. Boiling water didn’t work. Neither did an extra egg yolk. I threw the sloppy mess out, glum and tummy-sad.

My personality doesn’t really allow for failure, however, so I got back on the proverbial horse and tried again a few weeks later.  Same deal.  A gross liquid that wouldn’t turn into solid no matter how hard I whisked and what sad eyes I gave it.  There was a good deal more anger this time, possibly a little foot stomp, and a minor tantrum in the egg yolk’s general direction.  I threw the sodden thing in the sink.

Everyone knows third time is the charm.  Except when it isn’t. The third time was the worst failure yet, a smelly, slimy, sloppy mess that was watered with tears of frustration. I was doomed to never make mayonnaise again, time to hang up my imaginary chef's cap.

Fast forward several weeks, and I was reading a cookbook that mentioned emulsions, an act of forcing two liquids together to form a more solid cream. Drops of oil and vinegar, substances that traditionally do not mix, are forced to co-mingle, improving one another. In mayonnaise, the egg absorbs and further improves the goodness of the mix, turning it into a creamy spread.

Understanding a thing from the molecule up lights a spark of pleasure and confidence in my gut, and in this case, it sparked me on to one more mayonnaise attempt. This time, I mixed the mustard (which is made with vinegar) and the egg yolk first, instead of adding it after I'd tried to mix egg and oil. I painstakingly poured the oil droplets as slowly as my wrist allowed, while whisking gently and steadily with my other hand, transfixing the oil and vinegar molecules into a more solid state.  And this time, the mayonnaise behaved, following the principles of science and nature and taste. Pure triumph and a happy stomach on the complete satisfaction of successful creation.

And my very simple recipe follows. 

Organic, free range eggs are the best for this recipe – the yolks are more muscular, whisk in to the olive oil much better, are a bright orange-yellow, and (in my opinion) have a richer taste.  Since you’ll be eating these raw, high quality eggs are a necessity.

The mayonnaise is very pretty with its mustard seed dotting, and I like to serve it with roasted vegetables, particularly sweet and white potatoes. Doubling the recipe is definitely possible, but the oil to yolk ratio will vary.

1/2 tablespoon whole grain mustard
Pinch of salt
Egg yolk
1/3  to 1/2 cup of olive (or canola) oil

Step 1:
Take the egg out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature, also allowing the bowl and whisk to come to room temperature.  The egg is easier to whisk if it's not super cold out of the fridge. It’s still possible to go from fridge to mayo, but to be completely foolproof, let the temperature rise a bit (approximately 45 minutes out of the fridge, depending, of course, on your kitchen's temperature).

Step 2: 
Plop the mustard, salt, and egg yolk in the bowl. Begin mixing gently. When the yolk and mustard become more solid than their original state (about 10-15 seconds), start pouring in the olive oil in a very steady, slow dripping trickle. Do not stop whisking. The amount of oil needed really does vary by egg, but once you see the solid forming, you can add a little more oil, but the egg-oil combination will become oily goop if you add too much. It should take about 1-2 minutes, depending on the moodiness of the egg, the quality of the oil, the time of day, etc. Mayonnaise is finicky. 

Two steps. That’s it. And once you've had homemade, you'll never go back! The taste, the color, the simple ingredient list, the absence of possibly harmful chemicals (google calcium disodium EDTA...) - all are good reasons to be a believer in the homemade alternative. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

the Boo Radley next door

Boo Radley lives next door.  And he gardens.

One of the selling points of my urban apartment was that our soon-to-be-bedroom overlooked the scraggly patch of grass and one sturdy tree that our real estate agent optimistically termed "the garden." It appeared untended, weeds in pots, nothing coming to fruition in the pale early May sunshine.  The back gate had a broken lock, there were remnants of trash, and I looked forward to putting up light-and-sound blocking curtains.  But when we moved in in late July, our "garden-view" was a leafy greenery of tomatoes, brave flowers, and pungent herbs, and the curtains remained in the box.

I've looked out at the garden countless times, wondering who tended it.  At first, I thought it was the realty company.  Upon further dealings with my misers-known-as-landlords, images of my landlord paying for apartment-ly improvements, such as a working buzzer or a kindly gardener, become laughable.  A tenant then, I presumed, but a tenant that I never saw.  No one had ever appeared in the garden to tend to the crops; they seemed to grow magically, rural accidents staking out their urban property.

Until today.  I still don't know his name.  I'd seen him sitting peacefully on a bench across the street from my building, smoking a pipe, arms contentedly crossed.  He'll nod to me, occasionally, as I come in after work, and after almost a year of the occasional head bob, we've progressed to shy smiles and a raise of the hand. 

I was sitting in the garden with my gent, sipping red wine and reading an intoxicating combination of The Omnivore's Dilemna and Julie and Julia.  We were getting up to leave when Boo came in, filled a watering can, and started on his crops.  I smiled tentatively, but he was engrossed in his work, coaxing leaves and fruits and flowers out of the old pots in our backyard.  

But I couldn't leave.  I'd seen Boo, seen him tending the garden unseen, and I had to thank him.  

"You make this garden, this backyard such a beautiful place."

He stared up at me, a little startled I think.  People sometimes ignore old ones, or the funnily dressed; maybe he hadn't heard a voice in a while.

"Thank you."

And with those two words, Boo came to life, piling my hands full of tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, and three kinds of basil, as much as I could carry, after I told him I loved to cook.  He told us about his life working for "Sam" (the government, we got, after a wink and a joke about working for his "uncle"), and asked timidly about ours, why we were Philadelphians and what we were doing in his city. 

Smiles and thanks and ten minutes later, I'm inside, gratefully smelling basil and so touched by this unassuming urban farmer, a man who showed us the best place to cut the herbs so that they'll keep growing, and encouraged us to come and take of the plants, as the taking will only lead to more growth.  A lesson in life, I think, as well as a lesson for my hopelessly black thumb.  Giving out what the plant will take, sharing your small wealth of smells and tastes will only multiply into more for everyone.  It's unselfish to the extreme, shyly growing sustenance for everyone in the apartment building, slipping away unnoticed and leaving behind a climbing, brimming tomato vine as the only evidence of your presence.

Thank you, Boo, for gardening the small things, tending to your quiet, green realm, and looking out for us "kids" on Spruce Street.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

come to my table

My love of food is an established fact. Look into my eyes as I'm describing homemade mayonnaise, or kohlrabi, or dark chocolate with sea salt, and you'll realize that I'm a fanatic, a taste-sensationist, an enthusiastic eater and judger of texture, flavor, composition.

Food vividly dots my memories as well, as do the experiences that coincide with them. An Oreo cookie the day my sister was born. Eating chewy alligator in South Carolina with lemonade that gave me a sore throat. Drinking a glass of whole milk after only having non-fat in the house, and thinking I'd just drunk pure, heavenly cream. Trying steak tartare just before my 23rd birthday at a swanky bar with one of my best friends, sensing I was finally a grown-up. A terrible beer on the first date with my dear man.

But it isn't just the act of masticating my food that puts a twinkle in my eye. It's the essence of the culture of the table. The simple act of eating something delicious is only the first part of the overall sensation of shared experience, connecting with food and voices as spoons dip into the bowl of berries or forks devour the chicken. 

The intimacy of breaking off a hunk of the same piece of bread, twirling pasta on to your plate, slurping the chocolate off the spoon, looking up to see a friend covered in sticky barbeque sauce. Friendship is made up of these little intimacies, verbal and non-verbal, and the table is an immediate source of closeness, of pleasure. It's a level playing field, stocked with an abundance of food, dishes, and smiling faces, an arena that satisfies our desire for sustenance of the mind and body. 

Sharing food, sharing ideas, sharing a space creates a bond, a joint memory that lasts a lifetime. I am beyond lucky in friends, in love, in family, and everyone I've ever shared a meal with. As the years before have been, I hope the years to come will be filled with gathering at the table.  Thank you all for the birthday wishes, and may we meet at the table soon!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

an abundance of squash

Sunday's farmers market was overflowing with squash.  Heaped high in wicker baskets, green and yellow beauties tumbled over each other in a gorgeous, edible-gem display one table after another.  I couldn't resist.  There were lovely yellow summer squash, an unreal shade of intense buttercup; curved gourd shapes, a paler yellow with cool green bottoms; and a basket of pattypan squash, green, yellow, and adorable.  

Besides making mouth-watering pictures, squash make mouth-watering dishes, and dinner last night featured the "pattypan" squash, stuffed with other farmers market finds.  The pattypan looks like a trippy overgrown acorn, and can be yellow or green in color, although I chose the yellow beauties. The squash has a summery taste, refreshing with a hint of sweetness when cooked. 


6 pattypan squash

2 spring onions, or 1 medium sweet onion

3 garlic scapes (pictured at right), or 2 cloves of garlic

2/3 lb ground pork, or other ground meat

2-3 sprigs rosemary
2-3 sprigs thyme

olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 

2. Wash and pat dry the squash. Cut off the top about one-third of the way down the squash so that you create a "body" and a "hat" out of the yellow beauts.

3. Scoop out the soft insides to create a squash shell cup, and reserve the flesh and seeds in a bowl. Place the squash shell in a baking dish, sprinkle with sea salt, and dot a smidgeon of butter on the bottom. Place the tops in the pan as well, dust with salt, and then into the oven they go. Set a timer for 45 minutes, and get ready to make the filling.

4. Chop up the spring onions and garlic scapes (the head through about 2/3 of the stem) into bite-sized pieces. Start a saute pan over medium low heat with a dab of butter and several drops of olive oil, adding the onion once the butter-oil combination is melted and hot. Give the onion about 5 minutes to get translucent, then add the scapes, cooking for about 5 more minutes.

5. The smells in the kitchen will be hunger-inducing at this point, so add the ground pork into your onion-scape mix, and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the pork is browned.

6. As the pork cooks, chop up about a cup of the squash innards, and throw them in the mix once the pork is brown. Add the rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper, and cook another few minutes.  Let the mixture rest as the shells cook.

7. Timer beeping? Time to take the shells out of the oven, and fill them up with the pork mixture, trying to fill the shell up to the very top, or even a little bit beyond. Turn the oven to a broil, take the tops out of the baking dish and put them onto a plate, and then stick the stuffed squash back in the oven for 10 minutes.

8. Pull the baking dish out, and let the squash cool for a few minutes.  Top the shells with their caps, and serve!

This is a good recipe for entertaining, as the built-in serving dish of squash shell is edible, scrumptious, and eye-pleasingly presentable. The squash has a mellow sweetness that absorbs the woodsy herbs and pork for a thoroughly satisfying, juicy taste.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Attack of the Kohlrabi!

It was staring up at me. A bulbous, purple root mass with thin piping attaching giant purple-flecked leaves. "What IS that?" I whispered.  The farmer's market vendor smiled and said, "Kohlrabi."  The name itself, strange and smooth, rolled around my tongue as the more pressing question burst forth: "How do you EAT that?"  The vendor shrugged, said her dad ate it raw, but I could roast it, and, intimidation setting in, I did not buy the purple things.

The next day, at my regular farmers market, kohlrabi stalked me; every stall showed its wares, purple and green, taunting me in my helpless, unknowing state.  I gave in and bought it, assuming that I could search for recipes on the internet. There were a few recipes, some pictures on Huffington Post (unfortunately posted after my kohlrabi-recipe search), and a recipe or two on foodnetwork, but nothing that grabbed my attention.

Which led me to embark on a three-week journey of kohlrabi experiments as I slowly fell for this bizarre looking plant.  The recipes below are a range from fairly simple summer salad to a more complicated stewed kohlrabi suitable for some of the unseasonably cool days we've had this June.  But most of all, the thing to love is the flavor of kohlrabi, a funky mix of radish and cabbage flavors with a smooth, crisp texture.

Kohlrabi Summer Salad


1 kohlrabi bulb
1 apple
1/2 cup walnuts or almonds
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon cinnamon
sea salt to taste

1. Slice the kohlrabi in half. Cut side down, start thinly slicing the bulb.  Once that's all sliced up, do the same to your apple.

2. Add all the ingredients, toss, and serve.

How simple is that?  Fresh, crispy, crunchy, sweet, salty, colorful... and did I mention, healthful? It doesn't get much better (or easier) than this.

Kohlrabi Wedges

1 kohlrabi bulb
1-2 sprigs of rosemary
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon paprika (or more, if you like the smoky flavor)
sea salt to taste

1. Preheat your oven to 425 farenheit.

2. Slice the kohlrabi into wedges, just like in the above salad.

3. Toss the kohlrabi with the oil, rosemary, sea salt, and paprika.

4. Lay it out on a baking sheet, and cook for 40 minutes.

The kohlrabi will be fork-tender, juicy, translucent, and surprisingly sweet. Munch these like potato wedges, but pat yourself on the back for avoiding the starchiness and calories of potatoes.

Stewed Kohlrabi

1 kohlrabi bulb
1 small onion
1/2 cup raisins
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup of chicken (or vegetable) broth
sea salt to taste

1.  Medium dice the onion and kohlrabi (pieces should be about the size and shape of a large-ish lego piece). 

2. Mid-dice, start warming up a saute pan with the olive oil and butter, and toss the onions on when you've finished chopping (keep the heat low so you don't burn the onions).

3. After the onions get fragrant and translucent, add the kohlrabi, turn the heat to medium, and cook for about 15-20 minutes, until the kohlrabi starts to get a little soft when you poke it with a knife.

4. Add the spices, stir to coat the pieces of onion and kohlrabi, and let it cook 3-4 minutes more.

5. Add the broth and raisins, cover the pot, and let the kohlrabi stew for 10 minutes, until it melts when you touch it.

This dish is a little more complex, but yields a deep, warm, satisfying flavor, especially on a cool evening. 

So when you see these futuristic vegetables, don't be scared! At $2.75 for 3-4 bulbs at the Philadelphia farmer's markets, kohlrabi is a delicious, easy-to-please steal.

What do you like to do with your kohlrabi?