Archive for May, 2008

For approval’s sake

[Recipe: Cod Cakes with Raspberry Salsa]

So Quinn ate an artichoke. Really. I swear, I would not joke about something like this. I know, I was every bit as astonished – awestruck, astounded, amazed, pick your own alliterative synonym – as you. See, Quinn eating an artichoke seemed about as likely as an artichoke eating Quinn.

I was not expecting her to eat the artichoke, even though I’d stuffed it with goat cheese; I can’t say I even expected her to so much as poke it. I expected skeptical raising of eyebrows, the way only a five-year-old can do. I expected disdainful sniffs and shakes of the head, but not eating. But dig in she did and – get this – not only did she declare loving feelings toward the artichoke, she even asked if I would make it again! And, as if my head couldn’t have swelled any larger, she thanked me for dinner. That’s right, my little darling, my almost kindergartner, expressed gratitude for a meal (she does say thank you with frequency, just not for dinner).

Now a couple of weeks have passed since my artichoke hurrah, and Quinn has done her job of dashing my hopes with scattered refusals to eat dinner and a generally less effusive manner than that one fine evening.

But last night, she did it again. This time, she ate cod cakes. We eat a lot of fish, and I’ve become more or less well versed in the preparation of it, but rarely – if ever – do I give it a good hacking in a food processor, along with an egg, sautéed onion and cilantro stems and form the mélange into patties. It just isn’t done. Fish is supposed to be simple, light, a swift-to-the-table protein that’s taken a quick turn on the grill or in the poaching liquid or under the broiler. But even though this cod-cake making is tactile stuff, it’s admittedly non-fussy. This go-round, the girls weren’t in on the cooking, but I’ll ask them to join me next time, because what kid doesn’t enjoy smushing raw fish between their palms and fingers, huh? Show me a kid who wouldn’t be all over such a sloppy process.

But even though the kids didn’t make them, they did most certainly consume them. I don’t know how much credit I owe to Lauren Child, but something about incanting, “Fish cakes, fish cakes!” in Lola’s gooey voice made my little deeds of protein perfectly palatable to an often reluctant table of wee diners. Yes, both Quinn and Emmie (who has almost always been the adventurous and good eater) seemed quite accomplished in the practice of fork-to-mouth when it came to these cakes.

Still, I have to wonder: why, oh why, does Quinn continue to tease me this way? Does she know what it does to me? And if she did, would she even care? Knowing her, she’d probably just snicker.

Cod Cakes with Raspberry Salsa

Topped with the raspberry salsa we scored in Portsmouth, NH, at the Stonewall Kitchen shop, these made for the perfect hot weather evening meal. I’ve now vowed to tinker with raspberry salsa recipes of my very own. Stay tuned…

1 medium red onion

½ bunch cilantro

4 tbsp canola oil

1 ½ lbs cod fillet

1 egg

1 ½ tsp kosher salt

¼ tsp black pepper

1 cup finely crushed tortilla chips (in an effort to bolster the healthfulness, I used Trader’s Joe’s Soy & Flaxseed Tortilla Chips)

1 jar raspberry or other salsa

Finely chop onion, measuring out ¾ cup and reserving the rest. Finely chop enough cilantro stems to measure roughly one tablespoon. Chop cilantro leaves to measure two tablespoons and set aside with reserved onion. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat, then add the ¾ cup of onion and cilantro stems and cook until softened. Pulse the cod, egg, salt, pepper and onion mixture in a food processor until combined (but not pureed). Form 8 cod cakes, coating each cake with crushed chips.

Heat a griddle (yes, the one you made pancakes on this morning and haven’t had a chance to wash yet is fine) to 350 degrees (or just use the skillet you sautéed the onion in). Coat with cooking spray or canola oil. Add cakes and cook until golden brown and cooked through,about 5 minutes on each side (break into one gently with a fork — it should be opaque and look “flaky,” which in this context that’s a good thing). Place cod cakes on individual plates and top with chopped cilantro leaves and red onion. Serve with salsa.

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That’s showbiz

Recipe: Whole-wheat crepes

It wasn’t my picture I wanted, plastered across a magazine spread, my very likeness rinsing leafy greens and clumsily hacking at an unrelenting onion in an unsatisfactory attempt to look as though I’m possessed of knife skills. I only wanted to write about doing these things, to illustrate with words my kitchen affinities.

And write I did, but images and words, these things go hand in hand when splayed out in the glossies, and those editors and design directors, well, they know what they want. So a photographer (the veritable and trained kind, not a hack like me) was dispatched to the house for my latest story to take photos of me and my pots and my parsley, along with various other specially selected food items.

Now food makes for a glorious photography subject: the colors, the textures, the suggestion of scent and flavor (not to mention that it doesn’t wiggle, unless it’s Jell-O, and who’s photographing gelatinous mass anyhow? Nor does it change its expression by the time the shutter engages, the way kids are forever doing, darn it).

But me as glorious – or glamorous, or even the tiniest bit willing – photography subject? Not so much. When it came up in conversation how I’d be spending my Friday evening, the response was, invariably, “How fun!” “Fun” being an obvious euphemism for awkward, for nerve-inducing, because having to look contemplative or amused while preparing food seemed rather akin to getting fitted for a retainer or cradling a bundle of dynamite.

Other than the infrequent family photo and that one passport photo that I kind of liked, I’ve never been the preening object of the camera’s affection. I let Brian take my picture with the kids when we’re on vacation so that, just in case I die an early death, they’ll know I was there; there will be something for the Today show to put up on the screen again and again in the event of an untimely, sensational demise (is this tempting fate too much? Ok, now I’m scared. But I do frighten easily).

This was the first time my kitchen had seen the likes of light kits and synched flashes, so I tried to glean some food photography tips while I tucked my spatula under delicate crêpe edges and attempted to simultaneously heed the photographer’s direction to keep my chin lifted. The experience brought up a whole host of questions previously unknown to my kitchen that were more vain than the practical: What do I wear? What ensemble would match my kitchen and complement the likes of lemons and Pecorino Romano? Do I need a tan? To accessorize or not to accessorize? (Yes, for the record, this constitutes over-thinking.)

Here’s what I learned (other than the fact that the whole thing did turn out to be kind of fun):

  • Get as much light into the room as possible – Even with the addition of all his fancy-pants pro lighting, the photographer still had me turn on the light over my range.
  • Use a tripod – You’ll have better control and get more angles (I actually have a tripod, and now I need to get on with using the thing).
  • Repeat, then do it again – I poured milk into a liquid measure and back into the gallon jug at least a dozen times while the photographer took different shots (we were going for blur). Ditto for picking up an egg from a bowl. “Pick it up, ok, put it back.” Click. “Pick it up…put it back…” I thought I had a bad habit of taking zillions of photos of a single plate of pasta, but the pro put my numbers to shame.
  • Photographers really do say “Work it” – Luckily, he was only joking.

Whole-Wheat Crêpes

I made these for the photo shoot. This recipe is from a friend of mine who hails from Paris and who’s devoted to biologique (organic) and using whole grains. This is the easiest crêpe recipe I’ve ever used, and I love that you can take it the direction of savory or sweet. (We devoured this last batch with sliced strawberries, bananas, plain yogurt and a drizzle of honey. We also tried them with a spread of the aforementioned kumquat marmalade, slices of banana and plain yogurt – oh, delish!)

2 cups milk (I used fat-free, no problem)

1 cup water

2 cups whole wheat flour (go the white whole wheat route, if you like)

2 eggs

1-2 tsp vanilla (use if you’re stuffing them with fruit or otherwise sweet toppings)

1 tbsp honey (optional)

Mix all ingredients in blender. Heat a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat (or if you have a crêpe pan, just go for it – you probably know the drill). When pan is hot, add a swipe of butter. Bake crêpes by swirling ¼ cup of batter into the pan while simultaneously lifting the pan from the heat and swirling it so that the batter covers the surface. Cook until edges just lift and the bottom is golden brown but the top of the crêpe is still soft. Eat them plain or fill the center with all kinds of good things, then fold the crêpe into thirds.

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Not much trouble at all

Recipe: Kumquat Marmalade

Reason 786 to cook: The little triumphs. It can be difficult to feel triumphant on a regular basis, what with prices on everything taking skyward leaps and kids (my Quinn, specifically) getting ticked at you for pouring too little milk and the world in general just feeling all in shambles if you look at it just right. But triumphant is exactly what I felt after attempting and succeeding in the making of my very own, very first marmalade.

I love marmalade’s tart-sweet quality. I love it mixed in eggs (seriously, it’s tops) and spread atop thick, crusty slices of whole wheat English muffin bread. I love looking at it, thick with sugar, bright with color, strips of candied rind suspended in the jelly. I love being privy to a process, to knowing how something (marmalade!) all comes together. And to say that I made it, little me, with the cheesecloth and the stirring and the boiling and the jarring. Who knew?

I’d never thought to make such a thing before, but then came the call from Pixie and Rosie and their “Putting Up” blogging event, and I had an almost-pound of kumquats sitting in the fridge. Deserted, those little gems of citrus were, potentially destined for the place where unwanted produce goes to waste because none of us could quite chew on them – this particular container of kumquats was an especially sour bunch. So I enlisted Emmie, and the two of us gave the kumquats their due. You could say that food blogging saved the kumquats, and for that we are all grateful.

Kumquat Marmalade

Adapted from The Produce Bible, by Leanne Kitchen

Makes 7 cups

2 lbs (7 cups) kumquats

5 cups water

¼ cup lemon juice

5 2/3 cups sugar, warmed

4-inch square of cheesecloth

Scrub the kumquats under running water to remove any wax. Cut the fruit in half lengthwise, reserving any seeds, then slice thinly. Place in a large nonmetal bowl with the water. Tie seeds in the cheesecloth and add to the bowl. Cover and leave overnight.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Put a small plate in the freezer. Place kumquats, water, lemon juice and cheesecloth bag in a large saucepan. Bring slowly to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 30 to 45 minutes or until fruit is tender. While fruit is simmering, warm sugar by spreading in a baking dish and putting in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until warmed through.

When fruit is tender, add the warmed sugar and stir over low heat, without boiling, until dissolved, about 5 minutes. Return to a boil and boil rapidly, stirring often for 20 minutes. When the syrup falls from a wooden spoon in thick sheets, remove from heat and test for setting point by putting a tablespoon of marmalade onto one of the cold plates. Put the plate with the marmalade in the freezer for 30 seconds. A skin should form on the surface and the marmalade will wrinkle when pushed with your finger. If not set, return the plate to the freezer. Return the marmalade to the heat and retest a few minutes later. Discard the cheesecloth bag.

Carefully ladle into hot sterilized jars and seal. Allow to cool, then label and date each jar. Store in a cool, dark place for 6 to 12 months. Refrigerate after opening for up to 6 weeks.

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Pretty, shiny things

I’m going to be preoccupied with basil for a while. Take a peak:

Allow me to introduce you, dear friends, to my buddy, my kitchen cohort-du-jour, Basil. It’s that time of year again, when Trader Joe’s is the proprietor of fresh, potted basil, a plant that will feed my culinary imaginings for weeks to come. Brian picked it up for me on Mother’s Day, rather than flowers (does this man know me or what?) and I’ve been admiring it all week. I’m enamored of its gracious leafiness, of its silky sheen that convinces any who look upon it that I more or less know what I’m doing.

Fresh herbs are my ace in the hole, my sure thing. My raison d’être, even, because if it weren’t for fresh herbs, I may not be here at all, culinarily speaking. My cooking got a whole lot better once I learned that if you throw in some chopped of this and a few leaves of that – at the right times and in all the right places – you effect that sensation we know as flavor.

One of the items on my life list is to grow an herb garden, and I swear I’ll do it, some future day (just trying to keep it real, to project myself through a dreamy portal just east of pragmatic – an herb garden being a far more realistic goal for me to achieve than, say, growing summer squash or green beans). I’ve made a number of efforts to sprout things in pots, and it always comes down to a severe talent deficit, an almost unjust lack of intuition. That, and I’m hard pressed to find appropriate light in my house, and the poor shoots, when I get any, whither and fade if I place them outside in our miserable heat, even in the early morning. But as I understand it, basil is supposed to enjoy heat, leaving me to conclude, then, that the problem can only be me.

If anyone out there (anyone? anyone?) would care to enlighten me, to instruct me somewhat in the care and growing of herbs, I’d be grateful. And in the meantime, I’ll share my favorite hot weather things to do with basil. What are yours?

  • Chopped and mixed in a cold salad of just-tender peas, crumbled chèvre and mint
  •  Scattered over a pasta salad with lemon zest and shrimp
  •  Stirred into couscous just before serving
  •  Whole leaves in panini with fat slices of tomato and buffalo mozzarella
  •  Sprinkled into a frittata
  •  Boiled in a simple syrup and swirled into lemonade
  •  Sliced, chiffonade-style, and then spread over a grilled pizza topped with roasted corn and tomatoes
  •  In a vinaigrette with orange zest, orange and lemon juices and walnut oil (this was last night’s concoction, drizzled over sautéed scallops atop baby greens, avocado and orange segments)

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A tale of two

Recipe: Banana Oat Nut Bread

I recently brought my radio into my kitchen. It was part experiment, part research for a magazine story assignment: Cook while listening to public radio (could I accomplish the dual mental exercise of actively listening and following a recipe?). Does anyone else do that?

I’m an ardent fan of public radio programming, and I often listen to snatches of mostly National Public Radio shows in the car. But working on my article, I found what a pleasant, productive pairing listening and cooking can be.

As part of my research, I got to have a conversation with Nikki Silva of NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters, to get her take on the confluence of cooking and listening. “When I’m cooking I just love to listen,” she says. “I feel a little like I’m on a vacation anyway with either of those activities. It’s very relaxing to me, it’s being transported.”

Silva shared her dad’s banana bread recipe with me, which is found in the pages of “Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More from NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters.” It’s not listed in the table of contents or even the index. Instead it’s almost buried as an illustrative element, so you might miss it if you don’t know what to look for: a photocopy of a scratched out by hand recipe, with instructions that are casual and implied, the way handed-down recipes usually are. I’m running that one in the magazine, but it made me want to rifle through my files for my own banana bread recipe, because it’s been way too long.

I made Silva’s father’s version the same afternoon I made mine, and the two contain roughly the same amounts of banana and sugar, but diverge there. I’m partial to banana bread (or any bread for that matter) that’s nutty and hearty with whole wheat and flax. Silva’s is not quite so self-conscious. It’s the kind you’d bake and then walk over to the neighbors’, cradled in the loose wrapping of a tea towel, still hot and moist, a prime afternoon snack.

 

Banana Oat Nut Bread

I decided this would be the perfect banana bread recipe for Not Quite Nigella’s Banana Bread Bake-Off! It’s a great breakfast banana bread, sweet but with staying power. We enjoy it the day after baking lightly toasted with a smear of peanut butter.

1 cup packed brown sugar

6 tbsp canola oil

¼ cup whole ground flaxseed meal

3 eggs

1 ½ cups mashed ripe banana (about 3 large)

1 cup regular oats

½ cup plain yogurt

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup white whole wheat flour

1 cup stone ground whole wheat flour

1 tbsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

½ tsp cinnamon

¼ cup chopped walnuts

Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the first 4 ingredients in a large bowl; beat well with a mixer at medium speed. Add banana, oats, yogurt and vanilla to sugar mixture; beat well. Lightly spoon flour into measuring cups and level with a knife. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon; stir with a whisk. Add flour mixture to sugar and banana mixture; beat just until moist. Spoon batter into a large loaf pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan on a wire rack; remove from pan and cool completely.

 

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Learning to play nice

Recipe: Chickpea and Tomato Sauce

Cooks (and particularly cooks who blog – you know who you are) are lousy with confessions, and here is one of mine: I’m horrible at sharing my kitchen. If you’re one of those chummy folk who consider the kitchen a communal space, a little oasis of gathering and working together, well, I’m sure there’s a musical out there for you somewhere.

My kitchen does fit the particular cliché that says it’s the room where everyone tends to congregate, even though the really comfy seats are just steps away. But it’s not having other people close by that gets in the way; it’s people cooking with me when I’m trying to cook. When it comes to divvying up kitchen responsibilities, I’m kind of stingy.

It’s enough for me to attempt to wrap my head around a recipe, to figure out what it is I’m supposed to be doing to the salmon, let alone to try and delegate. I’m a little too accomplished at grumbling at Brian when he shows up and tries, graciously, to help get dinner on the table (imagine grumbling at your husband under those circumstances! What kind of ingrate am I? I’m trying to mend my ways).

I have my excuses. For one, my kitchen isn’t exactly designed for more than a single cook at work. It’s not galley small, it’s suburban moderate, but the layout isn’t really conducive to two people standing side by side snapping the ends off the asparagus. And then I suppose my aversion stems also from the kitchen-as-sanctuary concept I hold so dear. But, I’m trying to do better at handing off the chopping knife to other, willing individuals, because, honestly, I’m not that sacrificial, and besides, cooking with another person is supposed to be a bonding experience, right?

Case in point: My sister came to visit last week – my sister who loves cooking every bit as much as I and who is therefore worthy to hold court in the kitchen right alongside me. So I had to let her in the kitchen, just had to. I couldn’t very well keep her out, couldn’t pretend to be cleaning the tile grout or some such thing when all over my very counters was evidence that I was indeed engaging in the act of preparing food.

So I decided I would suck it up and share, the way sisters are supposed to do. I’ve never had a problem sharing with her in other areas. Skirts and flip flops and my 90s music collection have all been fair game, and she has reciprocated, letting me borrow a hoodie when I visited her and forgot to pack a sweater, or making me countless copies of mp3s. Not to mention that she always cedes her bedroom to me and Brian and our overwhelming suitcases.

Gracious attitude at the ready, I planned a menu of recipes we could prepare together: handmade pasta (our first time! See? Bonding at work here!) with chickpea sauce (which we both found absurdly tasty – more bonding!); an improvised black bean spread with cilantro and lime for a Southwestern-style pizza; chicken and chutney lettuce wraps. And then there were the cookies we threw together from our elementary school cookbook. All told, she was here for a week, offering me a week’s worth of meals in reform. I don’t think I elbowed her once.

Chickpea and Tomato Sauce

Adapted from Gourmet

This sauce is hearty and versatile. We ate it with homemade orechiette, which cradled the chickpeas perfectly. There were tons of leftovers, which I tossed with some cooked bulgur and a handful of torn basil leaves a couple of nights later.

1 15-oz can chickpeas

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

3 medium carrots, finely chopped

¼ to ½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

Kosher salt

1 28-ounce can chopped or diced tomatoes

1 cup water

1/3 cup finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

Heat oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, carrots and red pepper flakes (red pepper can be omitted and added later at the table if you are feeding heat-sensitive people) and ½ teaspoon salt and cook until softened, stirring occasionally. Add chickpeas, tomatoes, water and ½ teaspoon and simmer, uncovered, until carrots are tender and sauce is slightly thickened, about five minutes. Stir in parsley and salt to taste.

Serve over small pasta, such as shells or orechiette, or stir into cooked grains.

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Tending the pot

You know the thing about there being two types of people: energy givers and energy suckers? The idea is that you want to spend your time with energy givers, people who have the ability to make you feel revitalized, enthusiastic about life (those energy suckers, on the other hand, sometimes just have to get kicked to the curb).

That’s more or less my approach to cooking. I’m all about the recipes that are energy givers, not the ones that make you feel like a stove slave. And I mean this on a couple of levels. For one thing, I’m into recipes that provide energy because they’re nutritionally solid. But I’m also into preparing dishes where the very preparation makes me feel refreshed and rejuvenated. This dish I made the other night – Pearled Barley with Peas & Mint, Risotto Style – fits that bill exactly.

I haven’t had the chance here yet to wax lovingly about risotto, to tell you how very much I adore the dish. I think it just might be my favorite food in all the world. At the very least, it’s way up there on the list. And it just might be my favorite food in the world to make.

It’s a soothing, comforting preparation that makes me feel like a real cook, and like I’m tending to my family at the same time I’m doing something for me. It’s standing, feet planted firmly in front of the stove, deliberately but gently coaxing hot broth into smooth grains of Arborio, urging them toward their creamy potential with soft, counter-clockwise strokes of the spoon. It’s giving those grains your undivided attention, knowing they’ll reward you for your vigilance (a little like raising kids, don’t you think?).

I know, it sounds like an energy sucker, but, for me at least, it’s the other way around. Making risotto is a cinch, but it does require almost constant tending of the pot. There’s something about the process, about being required to focus on the rice, that dials it all back for me, puts my cares into perspective, allows reflection on the day. And the whole time I’m making dinner.

But while making it does wonders for my mental health, risotto is otherwise not the healthiest of choices. I’m kind of a stickler for whole grains, and those Arborio grains are pretty little things, shiny and pearl-like – which means they’ve been pretty well stripped of all their good-for-you properties.

So, inspired by a long-ago post from Heidi on pearled barley “risotto,” and using one of my favorite risotto recipes from Giada De Laurentiis, I came up with this version. The grains I used still had a brown mottled look to them, meaning they hadn’t been polished too much, and so perhaps retain more nutritional qualities. I also just discovered First Blush juices, and wanted to try them as a wine substitute (I know, I’m breaking rules all over the place here). I was impressed by their nuanced, dry taste. And the resulting risotto-style dish was, while not as creamy and indulgent as the traditional stuff, extremely satisfying in its own right – both in the making, and the eating.

Pearled Barley with Peas & Mint, Risotto Style

Serves 4

6 cups low-sodium chicken stock

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 medium finely chopped onion

1 ½ cups pearled barley

½ cup First Blush Cabernet juice or dry red wine

1 cup frozen peas, thawed

½ cup freshly grated parmesan

¼ cup each chopped fresh mint and Italian parsley

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring the broth to a simmer over medium-high heat; don’t allow it to boil. Keep warm and softly simmering at just under medium heat.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Saute the onion until soft and translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add barley to pan and stir, toasting until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add juice or wine, stirring until liquid is absorbed. Add two ladlefuls of hot stock, stirring continually until absorbed (it’s ok to step away momentarily step away to pour your kid a glass of milk or something — just not too long or the barley will stick and potentially burn). Add another ladleful of stock, stirring continually until liquid is absorbed. Repeat this process two or three more times, then check barley for doneness. Add peas, then continue to add stock until barley is just tender, but not mushy (you may have leftover broth).

Stir in parmesan, mint, parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Add more parmesan for a creamier consistency. Serve immediately.

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