Archive for September, 2008

Trendspotting

I don’t know if you remember last month’s cathartic admission that I’m an eager supporter of the magazine publishing industry, but we have a mystery addition to the stack around here: Entertainment Weekly. The funny thing about it is that we didn’t subscribe — it just inexplicably arrived in the mailbox one day almost a year ago, and has been making regular appearances ever since. No gift message, nothing.

Not that we’re disappointed by the pop-culture windfall. I’m not the most entertainment news-savvy girl in the bunch, so my weekly fifteen minutes with the magazine helps me know not only what movies are premiering but who this Lauren Conrad person is. Needless to say, I’m back running with the cool kids (Melissa from dance class, if you’re out there, can you return my junior high cheer uniform that you borrowed for Halloween that one year? It’s, um, been a while.)

But today I learned that I’m hopelessly behind. Jessica Shaw of the magazine’s much-reverenced The Shaw Report has denounced chèvre as being out. That’s right. Chèvre, quite possibly my favorite cheese of my cheese-loving days, is finished with its heyday of hip.

Pecorino is merely suffering the fate of being so-five-minutes ago, and apparently mozzarella is the new Pecorino. So there you have it. Please, adjust your menus and your cheese drawers accordingly.

If you’ve been a regular reader at all, or if you’ve ever been in my kitchen, you know that chèvre is regularly featured ‘round here. That’s because it rocks. Because it — especially the good stuff — tastes amazing and is really quite versatile.

And because it’s part of my personal history as a food lover and cook. I fell in love with chèvre in Paris. Of course I did. One can learn to like it anywhere, even come to adore it. But if you’re going to fall unabashedly in love with something, Paris is the place.

We were fresh off the plane, too young for jet lag but still famished, sitting outside in a café that overlooked the Seine (I think in the first arrondissement, but I can’t say for sure, as we didn’t have our bearings quite yet). Picture book perfect, I know. But there we were and, though I was more familiar with other things on the menu, this salade de chèvre chaud was what called out to me. Mixed greens, a simple vinaigrette, thin, crunchy slices of baguette, all crowned by a round of warm and oozy goat cheese.

I haven’t yet thrown in my hat on Croque-Camille‘s lovely meme featuring French foods, but on my list of favorites les français have brought into the world, warm chèvre salad will most certainly be tops.

While I can find a home for the cheese in many a recipe, sometimes I just like it as a spread. It’s easy: softened fresh goat cheese with the zest of one lemon, chopped herbs like thyme or basil, all stirred to smoothness with a tablespoon or so of lemon juice to taste and for consistency. I served it the other night with these flatbreads, which are fantastically easy, and some marinated eggplant. We spread and we crumbled, completely unaware that we’d become so not branchés.

Obviously, I’m unapologetic, and I’m sure the proprietor of that Paris café would feel the same way.

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Weeds

[Recipe: Apple & Quinoa Salad with Purslane]

I’d like to go on record as a weed eater.

We hit our greenmarket and picked up a couple of previously unknown-to-us specimens. There was a certain mystery item that I can’t remember the name of, but I do remember the grower told me to eat it raw or prepare it however I like zucchini. Its circumference was that of a large zucchini, in fact, but its color was exactly Honeydew. White flesh. Mild taste. Seeds that were large like watermelon seeds, but thicker, pure white and slightly chewy.

And it was a spectacle of length and form: It was so long we halved it with a market neighbor, so long that it looped around in on itself and my girls could grasp it at the same time in the center and still have ends curling up and around on either side. (I took photos to share with you — of course I did. But we had Emmie’s camera and I’m not getting my devices to play nice.)

It’s either a summer squash, or a variety of melon. How’s that for ambivalence? The word melon came into play somewhere during the conversation — I remember that much — but I don’t know at what point or why, enamored as I was of the heady experience of picking out produce in the open air.

So: who of you can enlighten me, based on my fumbled attempt at description?

And then there was this tangled curiosity. This weed. This weed that’s not only edible, but healthful, a wild mess of Omega-3s. Allow me to introduce you to purslane.

Maybe you’re more weed-savvy than I am and you’re already well acquainted. If that’s the case, I’d love to hear what you like to do with the stuff. It tastes, well, green: earthy with a leafy, chewy succulence and peppery bite. The grower recommended tossing it willy nilly into salads or sautéing it with garlic.

This time, I chose to stir it into this autumn salad (which I created for this month’s No Croutons Required, hosted by Holler at Tinned Tomates). I think it’s a concoction that would’ve made my new grower friend proud.

Apple & Quinoa Salad with Purslane

This is marvelously simple and full of Omega-3s, protein and fiber. It’s crisp and tangy, and the cinnamon gives it a touch of complexity.

For the salad:
1 C quinoa
1 med. to large apple (go for a tart variety)
2 tbsp chopped dates
¼ C coarsely chopped walnuts
A couple handfuls of purslane, leaves pulled from stems (if you don’t find purslane, throw in some baby spinach leaves or another green you like)

For the dressing:
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
½ tbsp white wine vinegar
Zest of one lemon
1/8 tsp cinnamon

Prepare quinoa according to package directions (don’t forget to rinse it first). When it’s cooked, put it into a medium bowl and allow to come to room temperature. While the quinoa cooks, mix the dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Prepare the apple by slicing thinly, cutting each slice in half width-wise, if you wish. Assemble all ingredients with the quinoa, tossing lightly. Serve immediately.

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Cry me a river

[Recipe: Crunchy Granola Bars]

The latest food-related observation that’s got me all in a snit? The way some parents shrug off responsibility for what their kids eat.

The hot button topic in Quinn’s kindergarten classroom right now is community snack. Some parents are pushing for it, because they maintain it’s too difficult to pack a snack each day for their child. They don’t want to mess with it, because it’s, you know, so inconvenient.

I repeat: Some parents are inconvenienced by the task of providing food for their offspring to eat at school.

Hold on a sec. I’m confused. I thought that was part of, you know, the whole parenting job description. Providing fuel for children’s growing bodies, for their nutritional needs. I know we’re busy — busier, busiest — but it seems like one of those things we as parents just need to make time for. (I’m guessing these are some of the same parents who fork out good money for the Subway white bread and ham sandwich and bag of chips that constitutes school lunch.)

I was relieved when the year began and the teacher announced that each child would bring his or her own individual snack. This was a departure from preschool (where, believe it or not, the snacks got more outrageously unhealthy as the year progressed, and at one point included root beer. I know! I spoke up and thankfully things improved) and also from Emmie’s kindergarten and first grade classrooms, when there was a community snack.

Community snack is supposed to work like this: parents sign up and bring a healthy snack for the entire class, about once a quarter. I have two problems with this system. For starters, I don’t want to buy a snack for thirty kids. If I buy something healthy — grapes, say, or grape tomatoes or mini cheeses — it’s going to be expensive, and I’m guessing only half the kids will actually like what I bring and it’s going to end up in the trash. Good food totally wasted is sort of a sticking point for me.

For another thing, there’s a whole contingent of parents out there who count Goldfish as health food. And invariably that’s what my kid will get — or some alternate, every school day — if the community snack system is implemented.

Of course, I’ve voted for the individual snack system, but I’m always in the minority.

High on the scent of my own indignation, and of a mind to bake off a healthy snack, I thought I’d give a go at my first homemade granola bar. It’s something I’ve wanted to try for a while but just haven’t gotten there quite yet, like sky diving or vacuuming under the couch, but much more fun.

Crunchy Granola Bars

Adapted from Cooking with Kids, by Linda Collister

Kashi’s crunchy granola bars are about the last snack-in-a-package standing in my pantry, because they’re high in fiber and protein, and easy to tote. These bars are a great stand-in. Plus, they’re the lowest-in-sugar recipe I’ve found so far.

1 C rolled oats

3 tbsp self-rising flour (the self-rising part is important, I’ve learned. If you don’t have it, you can add a smidge of baking powder — find substitution information here.)

3 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp chopped dates (I suspect raisins would work, too, but the dates were nice because they were moist and sweet)

2 tbsp finely chopped nuts or sunflower seeds

6 tbsp flaxseed meal

4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

1 tbsp honey

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch cake pan. Mix the oats, flour, sugar, dates, nuts and flax in a large bowl. Add the honey to the melted butter and add the mixture to the oat mixture. Stir well. Tip the oat mixture into the pan and spread evenly with a wooden spoon. Lightly press down, forming an even surface.

Bake for 18 to 20 minutes – the top should look light golden brown. While still hot, cut into bars. Let cool before removing from the pan.

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Research and development

[Recipe: Alice Medrich’s Very Tangy Lime Bars]

What was that I was doing on a recent Saturday night? Oh, yeah, reading a freaking cookbook.

Lamentable choice of activities, I know. But let’s consider the alternatives: I could’ve disconnected a few synapses dropping in on a showing of House Bunny; I could’ve made a dent in my Tivo-ed cache of Iron Chef; I could’ve stocked up at Target on Charmin and nail polish remover and wiled away a few good minutes wondering why they’ve started making deodorant smell like salad.

All relentlessly entertaining activities, right? So the cookbook reading turned out to be a rather unobjectionable activity, thank you.

And besides, I have this new life goal that fits right in with my choice of reading material. I’ve decided that, one of these days, I want to be in the room when a cookbook happens.

Wouldn’t that be impressive? Standing by while a trained and seasoned cook/chef/baker makes the magic happen.  And I don’t want to just be a fly on the wall. I want the equivalent of a backstage pass, with the privilege of asking questions, of taking notes. Not only do I want to learn all that goes into recipe R&D, I want to get at the people behind the recipes, and to translate their pro wisdom to my daily kitchen.

I’m an amateur, after all. A home cook with bursting curiosity and a self-sent mission. I may not have a day’s baguette’s worth of Cordon Bleu-esque experience, but I’ve got spirit.

I promise a couple of things: One, that I won’t get in the way or talk during crucial moments. And two: that all this will be for the betterment of my own cooking, not to be used in any unauthorized manner.

Right now I’m settling for the sort-of dorky habit of reading cookbooks, instead of just turning to the specific recipe I want and going at it. How else am I gonna know that Joanne Harris (“My French Kitchen”) thinks salad is beautiful, or why the heck Alice Medrich would tinker with buckwheat on behalf of cookies for “Pure Dessert”? (It’s why I fancy cooking blogs, for that matter.)

These insights into the minds behind the recipes seem important somehow. It’s no longer just about getting taste to the table. I want to be privy to the journey, even if it’s vicarious.

In a way, that’s part of the current zeitgeist as it pertains to what we eat: the move toward transparent packaging, to knowing the route something took to get into our reusable tote. The whole farm-to-table culture we’re downing dinner in the middle of.

Being in some way acquainted with the people behind our food — including recipe creators — enlivens the entire food experience. It’s why I wish I could’ve stood witness to Medrich’s experiments, her trials and errors, her breakthroughs.

Even if I wasn’t around for it all, I still get the benefit of her thought processes from the pages of her books. And when I’m done reading, I get to go to work on any number of her carefully constructed, always thoughtful recipes. And then I get to eat. That’s a perfectly acceptable Saturday night activity.

Alice Medrich’s Very Tangy Lime Bars

adapted from Pure Dessert

She’s right — these are tangy and not at all overly sweet, a perfect execution of taking lime in the direction of dessert.

For the crust:

8 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

1/4 C sugar

3/4 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/4 tsp salt

1 C all-purpose flour

For the topping:

1 C plus 2 tbsp sugar

3 tbsp all-purpose flour

3 large eggs

1 1/2 tsp finely grated lime zest

1/2 C strained fresh lime juice

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom and up the sides of an 8-in. square baking pan with foil.

Make the crust: In a medium bowl, combine the melted butter with the sugar, vanilla and salt. Add the flour and mix just until incorporated. Press the dough evenly over the bottom of the pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the crust is well browned at the edges and golden brown in the center.

While crust bakes, make the topping: Stir together the sugar and flour in a large bowl until well mixed. Whisk in the eggs. Stir in the zest and juice.

When the crust is ready, turn the oven down to 300 degrees F. Slide the rack with the pan out, then pour the filling into the hot crust. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the topping no longer jiggles in the center when the pan is tapped. Set on a rack to cool completely in pan.

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A.k.a. fairy dust

Raise your hand if you like online shopping. Oh, you bet my hand is raised. High, higher. And if your hand isn’t raised, if you’re loyal to the brick-and-mortar, we can still get along just fine because I’m devoted to that sort of shopping, too.

If you’re averse to shopping at all, things could still work out between us. You see, I could do your shopping for you, so you won’t have to. That’s how much I relish the activity.

But back to online shopping. It’s one of those blessing/curse situations, the reasons for which are ennumerated often enough. Today it was a blessing. Today, wild fennel pollen came into my life.

If you’re not yet turned on to the Zingerman’s specialty foods website, I suggest you to hightail it over there. Food by mail! What could be better than that, really? A word of disclosure, though, before you go: It’s obsession-fueling and time-consuming. Oh, and a goldmine for gifts.

Mostly, I just window shop. You know, pretend like I’m going to pick up a cultish olive oil. Make like I’m in the market for a wildly expensive — albeit authentically produced — cheese. But this time I had a coupon, along with an admonishment from a fellow food enthusiast to add fennel pollen to my spice roster.

Without an online marketplace, I’d be hard-pressed to locate nature’s little bonus gifts, novelties beyond tarragon or lemongrass. An online resource was my way into smoked paprika and grains of paradise (a hastened discovery of these ingredients was about the only worthwhile thing I got out of Amanda Hesser’s “Cooking for Mr. Latte”).

Fennel pollen, according to the fennel pollen people, is the “teeny tiny golden pollen” taken from wild fennel plants in Tuscany. Huh. All the way from Italy to fleck my late-summer risotto. Nice, it was. Gave it an other-worldly, “what is that?” extra something.

Do you have any secret ingredients up your sleeve? Do tell. I’m due for another shopping spree any day now.

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No experience necessary

[Recipe: Simplest Dal]

Do you realize what fun it is to shop for cardamom pods? Plucking what I I needed for a recipe, along with some extra for good measure, from the bin and placing them in the provided tiny plastic bag gave me none other than a little thrill. Oh, to be rescued by a recipe, by a spice, from an otherwise average existence.

It’s what I live for really. Or one of the things I live for, at least.

I’m trying my hand at this riff on Indian food. For all my claim to mostly vegetarianism (I eat fish), you’d think I’d be big on the stuff, well experienced with it. I’ve heard time and again that Indian cuisine has lovely vegetarian dishes, and though I can recount many an epiphany involving ethnic eating experiences, Indian cuisine isn’t one I’ve delved into. Yet (key word, that one).

I thought Mark Bittman’s Simplest Dal (“How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”) would be a rightful initiation, both for its technique (“largely unattended,” he describes it) and its flavors.

I can’t speak for other dals (or dhals, an alternate spelling) but this one was red lentils and spices simmered into creaminess, exuberant with flavor. We spread it on some roti I had hanging around (serendipity does strike, it would seem) and nibbled some accompanying carrots with dates and raisins, another Bittman recipe.

Up next: something with curry.

Simplest Dal

adapted from Mark Bittman

Bittman says this is the classic lentil staple of India. It was amazing served hot, and I’ve since eaten the leftovers cold, spread on a simple wrap with sliced tomatoes.

1 C dried red lentils, washed and picked over

2 tbsp minced peeled fresh ginger

1 tbsp minced garlic

4 cardamom pods

1 tbsp mustard seeds

2 cloves

1 tsp ancho chile powder

1 tsp cracked black pepper

kosher salt

chopped cilantro

Combine lentils, ginger, garlic, cardamom, mustard, cloves, chile powder and pepper in a saucepan and add water to cover by about 1 inch. Cook at a steady simmer until the lentils are very soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Salt the lentils as they soften.

Remove the cloves and cardamom pods (you can eat the cardamom pods if you want). Adjust seasoning to taste, then stir in cilantro.

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Don’t laugh

[Recipe: Snickerdoodles]

It’s the weekend, and around here we like to celebrate with cookies. Far be it from me to go too long without baking a sweet something. Those lime bars remain on the horizon, I promise. But first I need to share this old favorite with you, because I know you’ve been working far too hard.

So where does the name snickerdoodle originate, anyway? It’s one of those nit-picky things that has always made my eyes roll. Love the cookie, I do. Hate the name.

Who needs a cutesy, gimmicky name for a pastry that’s appealing not for what it’s called, but that’s delicious for its minimalism, its clean and pronounced flavors. Easy as it is to churn out, it really is kind of an elegant cookie that way. Yet someone had to go and give it a name that makes it sound like it came from the state fair.

Of course, I had to Wiki it. I doubt there’s any other space so compact — the space of a few paragraphs — that packs in so many theories, so much lore. But it’s interesting stuff, for a cookie.

Can it be attributed to German baker Paul Gramm, whose assistant sent townspeople into fitful laughter with his tricks, hence the Snicker, and who was nicknamed Doodle? A little unimaginative, don’t you think? I mean, I could have come up with that.

But if it’s true, then the snickerdoodle’s subsequent introduction to the United States was — raise your eyebrows, now — a little scandalous. Get this: the recipe was allegedly stolen from Gramm by one Brian Ullman, a Pennsylvania baker who introduced the confection stateside and dubbed it a powdered Christian cookie. His business partner exposed the theft, they had a falling out, and then they went at it, avenging each other in what was called the Cookie Wars. Dangerous times, to be sure.

Personally — and I do take these things personally — I prefer the next version. I’m a linguistics girl, so I like the Joy of Cooking‘s take: Snickerdoodle is a corruption of the German word for cinnamon-topped sweet rolls, schneckennudeln.  Another author says simply that the name originated in New England, and blames the chefs of the early 1900s for their generally kooky recipe names.

But enough faulty speculation. What follows is the best recipe for a soft, moist snickerdoodle I’ve found, no speculating about it.

Snickerdoodles

Adapted from Cooking Light

1 3/4 C all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp cream of tartar

1 C sugar

1/4 C butter, softened

1 tsp vanilla

1 large egg

3 tbsp sugar

3 tsp ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine flour, baking soda and cream of tartar, stirring with a whisk. Combine 1 cup of sugar and butter in a large bowl. Beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Add the corn syrup, vanilla and egg; beat well. Gradually add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture, beating just until combined. Cover and chill for 10 minutes, or overnight.

Combine the remaining 3 tbsp sugar with cinnamon. Shape dough into balls the size of a cookie scoop (about 2 tbsp worth — this will yield about 2 dozen balls) and roll in the sugar-cinnamon mixture. Place balls 2 inches apart onto baking sheets coated with cooking spray or covered with Silpat or parchment paper. Flatten balls slightly with the bottom of a glass. Bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes. Cookies will be soft and may appear undone, but they will set up as they cool, remaining soft. Cool on baking sheets for a few minutes, then transfer to wire racks.

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