Friday, October 31, 2008

Eels, Squids and Crabs... Oh My!

I'm definitely not in Missouri anymore. My first trip to a Chinatown market yesterday yielded much more to my visual palate than the Chinese black vinegar I had gone in search of.

Gigantic, dried squids, near the packaged soups - a popular item.

Would you like your fish pre-dead and gutted? Or alive and kickin'?

Yes - that cooler, on the ground, is filled with slithering live eels. Happy Halloween!

The crabs were my favorite. They are kind of cute, I think.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Master the Tater

Tater tip 1: Store your potatoes in a cool, dark place, like the pantry. But don't store onions with your potatoes - they can cause the taters to sprout.

Tater tip 2: Potatoes generously seasoned with fresh herbs taste great!

Recipe for Herb-a-licious Twice Baked Taters (for 2):
  • 1 russet potato
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp cream cheese (or sour cream - unless you're cheese-obsessed, like me)
  • Fresh chopped chives (about 1 tsp)
  • Fresh chopped rosemary (about 1 tsp)
  • Fresh chopped parsley (about 1 tsp)
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • Good salt, to taste
  • Cheese topping of choice (try blue cheese! Roquefort! yum!)

Prepare the tater by scrubbing and poking a few holes in the skin. I like to rub the skin with some extra butter. Bake the potato until done - a 350 degree oven for about an hour will do the trick. Cut the tater in half the long way, and scoop out the insides into a mixing bowl, leaving the skins intact. Add all the ingredients (besides the cheese for topping) to the potato insides, mashing and mixing until smooth. Fill the skins with the mixture, and top with your cheese of choice. Bake the tater halves until the cheese topping is bubbly and melted, about 15-20 more minutes.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Heirlooms are a Girl's Best Friend

Yesterday, while trolling the market shelves on the lookout for nothing in particular, I came across a most gorgeous and precious gem. The biggest, richest jewel-toned, and juiciest-feeling heirloom tomato I'd ever seen. It was lust at first sight. It's incredible how tomatoes have this enchanting effect on me. Perhaps it's the siren redness, or the aphrodisiac quality of something with so many varieties, all subtly different in flavor - a forbidden fruit that was once assumed dangerously toxic upon its introduction to European cultures.

I know that I have not always succumbed to the tomato's suggestive invitations. I distinctly remember being 16 years old, on a youth pilgrimage to the Middle East, and finding it so strange that tomatoes were an elemental, central part of breakfast each day. I remember thinking, "What? No Cherrios? Donuts? Muffins?" I'll never forget those breakfasts, but I wish I had the foresight to keep a better journal of my trip. I always hated journaling, and my parents made me do it while I traveled. I wrote three entries, and not once did I recall the food.

We went to Bethlehem today. It was pretty cool. We practically had to crawl through the door of the Church of the Nativity. Some guy wanted to buy me and another girl for 81 camels. Weird. Camels?? Oh well. I miss my friends.

Back to the heirloom. I wonder if I'm worth 81 heirlooms? Certainly not if they are like the one I found. It was the size of a softball, and its weight in my basket caused me to 'switch arms' several times. Heirloom tomatoes are expensive, but they represent (in my mind, at least) how a tomato should really taste. And you can't put a price on that.

Monday, October 27, 2008

W8ing 4 pie; trying 2 connect...

That's the headline I wrote last night, clumsily tapping my little iPhone screen with my fat thumb, after many fruitless attempts to connect my laptop to the internet. Hoping to write instead one tap at a time, I soon discovered that I wasn't able to access what I needed via iPhone, and gave up, frustrated, but at least I had some pie to ease my disappointment. The iPhone is a wonderful piece of technology, but despite what I once suspected, it cannot do everything.

Reunited with my kitchen at last, I decided to celebrate by baking a hearty apple pie. I love making (and eating) pie. Anne Cori at Kitchen Conservatory makes the best pies, and before my last day working there, she gave me a much-treasured lesson on pie perfection. I love that pie dough can be challenging, but also forgiving. My pies never look like beauty queens; I patch them together and they always taste great.

I was surprised to see an issue of Everyday Food in my mailbox yesterday - I thought my subscription had expired long ago. As it was their November "Thanksgiving" issue, of course there was a section attributed to pie-making. I flipped through, curious to see what Martha had to say on the subject. I haven't yet seen any other recipes that compare to the one I was taught. Most recipes call for butter. Some do call for shortening. Anne uses an equal combination of butter and shortening - for an equal one-two punch of tenderness and flakiness - which is how I also make my chocolate chip cookies. In Martha's recipe, I saw the word "food processor" and nearly dropped the magazine.

Anne frequently teaches classes on pie-making, which I highly recommend. But if you are unable to make the trip to St. Louis, here are a some pie tips:
  • Use a pastry blender to be sure you are still leaving dime-sized chunks of butter in your dough. You should be able to see it.
  • Only drizzle as much ice water that will allow the dough to just come together. Don't knead or over mix.
  • Chill dough for at least 1/2 hour. Cold dough + hot oven = good pie. I also like to chill the pie plate for when I piece my pie together later. I am a s l o w p o k e.
  • Only roll out the dough once. Mine is never perfect, and I always end up patching it together.
  • Dust the extra flour off the dough. It won't cook, and won't add any flavor. I do this with my pizza dough, too.
  • Try using potato starch for your filling. The flavor is more neutral than corn starch, and will allow your fruit to shine.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Issues

One of the issues I have with traveling is, of course, the lack of access to my kitchen. Another is the lack of access to the internet, both of which I consider to be lifelines. After a long week of traveling, I can't wait to go home. On a positive note, the issue of boredom during air travel is an issue that I happen to look forward to overcoming. I love browsing the airport newsstands for the newest issues of my favorite magazines. So when I noticed that the October issue of Saveur is "The Breakfast Issue," of course I had to snatch it up.

A celebration of the wonderful morning meals that start our day, it highlights recipes from around the world. There are so many I can't wait to cook up at home. Also to my delight, there is a special section devoted to breakfast cocktails such as the ones featured on this week's poll. Here is one that I'm curious to try:

Recipe for Henry C. Ramos's Gin Fizz (courtesy of Saveur magazine):

Combine 2 tsp fresh lime juice, 1 tsp fresh lemon juice, and 1 tbsp sugar in a cocktail shaker and stir to dissolve. Add 1 + 1/2 oz gin, 1 oz heavy cream, 1/4 tsp orange flower water, and 1 egg white. Cover and shake vigorously for 10 seconds. The longer you shake, the frothier the cocktail will get. Add 2 cups of ice, cover, and shake again for about 45 more seconds. Strain into a chilled glass and add 1 oz cold seltzer.

The orange flower water sounds interesting. It could be fun to experiment with in other dishes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Holy Guacamole

Trying to find time to post blog articles this week has been a challenge - I'm in St. Louis for a youth leadership conference, and we are barely allotted time to sleep, let alone time for our minds to wander into the food realm. And I have no access to a kitchen! I almost begged one of the hotel staff to let me back there so I could just chop an onion for them or something, but I'm pretty sure that kind of outright obsessive behavior would warrant psychiatric intervention.

Since I am not in a position to practice new recipes, I thought I'd share a tried-and-true favorite. It is one that has already gone through countless rounds of testing, and is often requested by my friends.

Recipe for Nathan's Favorite Guacamole:
  • 3 ripe avocados
  • 1 small ripe tomato (I like any kind except Roma/plum for this), diced
  • 1/2 of a medium-sized yellow onion, diced in small bits
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 clove garlic, roasted
  • about 3 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 5 dashes green Tabasco sauce
  • 1 pinch of cumin
  • Kosher salt (or your favorite good salt) to taste
Roast the clove of garlic until fragrant. Don't forget: "head" is the whole thing of garlic, made up of individual cloves. Not the other way around. I've actually mixed that up in a recipe before. My dish had so much garlic in it, I didn't get any kisses for, like, a week.

To pick out a good avocado, I like to grab the ones that are black in color and soft, but not so soft that they almost feel hollow. They should give just a little bit. They don't need to be refrigerated, but I like to stick them in the fridge before I make the guac so it's nice and cool.

Mash the avocados with the lime juice - the citrus in the lime will keep your avocados from turning brown. Mash the soft roasted garlic and add to the avocados. Mix in the remaining ingredients and serve. Purists might argue that I need a jalapeno or roasted poblano in there, but I really like my guac this way - I think it has a cool, fresh quality, and the touch of cumin and Worcestershire add a surprising little smoky flavor.

The best way to make guacamole is to keep experimenting and customize your very own favorite!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Peep Show

I typed the word "voyeur" into my google search engine, hoping to just get a wikipedia definition or a quick reference, and instead ended up with a list that's, well, let's just say, don't try it while you're at work. It's a good thing I am in the privacy of me, myself, and my computer, who all happen to know what I am really looking for at this late hour on Saturday night.

My thoughts on voyeurism go far beyond its inherent sexual connotations. To me, it is all about viewing without being viewed in return, regardless of what it is that's being viewed. While some possess the urge to spy on a neighbor's bedroom behavior, others may want to innocently check out a neighbor's taste in bedroom decor. I am a voyeur when it comes to food. Fly on the wall, mouse in the corner, call it what you will - I love to spy on kitchens. And I suspect I am not alone. The popularity of the Food Network and other food-based reality shows can bear witness to that.

I was walking down Broadway the other day when I suddenly found myself outside of Gotham Hall, eye-level with a window featuring the scene captured in the photo below. I snapped that quick picture and then watched with snooping pleasure as the men in the white coats scurried about to finish each dish just so. Despite my proximity to the plate, I have no idea what it was - it looked like a crispy, noodley nest filled with salad and veggies. I was envisioning myself dressed in Chanel, strutting through Gotham Hall, taking my place at a table beneath the tall and gorgeous domed ceiling at a glamorous gala. Oh, and there are paparazzi, too. They are snapping pictures of me with fork in hand, poised and posed, ready to explore my crispy, noodley, nest sculpture.

I finally snap out of it. One of the white coat-guys is waving at me, and this voyeur is totally busted. I rush off, flushed and a little embarrassed, but hey, I'm not hurting anyone with my fantasizing. At least that's what we voyeurs tell ourselves.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I just started reading the book, Insatiable, by New York magazine columnist Gael Greene. For 30 years, she provided the voice for "The Insatiable Critic" and has also penned many novels such as Blue Skies, No Candy and Doctor Love. The premise of Insatiable is her multitude of "tales from a life of delicious excess." Ms. Greene asserts that she was born hungry - hungry for love and attention, and hungry for taste and variety in her food. Feasting and fornicating intertwine in each chapter. The quote on the back cover, "For me, the two greatest discoveries of the twentieth century were the Cuisinart and the clitoris," pretty much sums it up.

I want to find this book interesting, and it is very intriguing so far, on some levels. Ms. Greene is an excellent writer with a vocabulary like I've never seen. Unfortunately, her very first chapter left me so dubious that it nearly tainted my curiosity for the rest of the book. Cleverly titled The Fried Egg and I, she describes how, in her younger years, she finagled a meeting with Elvis, had sex with him in his hotel room, and afterwards he asked her to call room service and order him a fried egg sandwich.

The dubious part is not the egg sandwich. Who doesn't love a good fried egg sandwich? It's the fact that Ms. Greene can seem to remember many precise details from over 60 years ago, such as what she was wearing that day, down to the white gloves. She can remember "Lamar" the security guard, and how she flirtatiously tickled his elbow in an attempt to meet The King. She describes the comic-reading, coke-sipping atmosphere of the 24th floor hotel suite. But she does not recall any details about the sex. With Elvis. I'm not asking for little (or "big") details, just some recollection. It seems there is none. Back in my day as a film studio publicist (a whopping three years ago) when I worked a premiere with Lindsay Lohan, I escorted her around, and was at the hotel when she snuck out at 3 a.m. for a White Castle crave-call. But that does not mean we had sex. And if we had, I think I would have been aware that if anyone is to believe me, I should probably remember something about it.

Ms. Greene, I have the utmost respect for you and your work, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your book. But for now I have to call "bull" on your claim to bedding Elvis until I get some lip-curling, pelvis-y information to refute my suspicions.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Parlez-Vous Béarnaise?

My husband is a "meat and potatoes" kind of guy, so I thought it was extra sweet of him to take me out to eat sushi last night for my birthday. After a sub-par meal with sub-sub-par service, I kind of feel like I owe him one (Actually, is there really such thing as sub-par sushi? I'm sorry, but if it's not good, it's bad!).

Plus, I still want to celebrate. I think one birthday a year is not enough, and I also accepted a job offer today (Don't worry, I'll still update my blog. Writing about food is my "fun" job.) so I think a big, fat steak is in order. I'm going to surprise my husband - um, unless he's reading this (surprise!) - with a yummy Paris bistro-style meal tonight. And I just realized I haven't used my instant-read thermometer once since I moved to New York, so it's about time for some beef.

Recipe for New York Strip with Béarnaise Sauce and Quacked-out Pommes Frites:

You need:
  • Some good strip steaks
  • Good salt and cracked pepper
  • Garlic (one or two cloves)
  • Russet potatoes
  • Duck fat

For a traditional béarnaise sauce:

  • Clarified butter (but I just use regular unsalted butter)
  • Eggs (yolk only)
  • Vinegar
  • White wine
  • Shallots
  • Tarragon

Heat oven to 425. Cut the potatoes into strips and spread out on a roasting pan. Brush with the duck fat, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until golden.

In a skillet over a medium-high flame, heat a small amount of olive oil, and rub a crushed garlic clove or two around the bottom of the pan. Season the steaks with salt and pepper and sear the steaks on each side and cook until you reach your desired temperature with an instant-read thermometer. For beef, rare is 120-130 degrees, medium-rare is 130-140, medium is 140-150, and if you want it cooked more than that, you should not be eating expensive New York strip steaks.

Béarnaise is an emulsified sauce closely related to hollandaise. To make béarnaise, first make a reduction with equal parts vinegar and wine, fresh tarragon, minced shallot and a little salt and pepper. Reduce until nearly all of the liquid is absorbed. Set aside. Whisk the yolks in a stainless steel bowl set over, but not in, simmering water (or use a double boiler) until creamy and pale, and then whisk in butter one tbsp at a time. Finally, whisk in the tarragon-vinegar reduction. Try different variations based on what you have. Tonight, I have dry white wine in the fridge, and red wine vinegar on hand, so I'll try those. Sometimes I have white wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar.

Now all I need is a view of the Eiffel tower and a sexy French accent.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It's a Good Day

Today is my birthday!

It is also:

National Chocolate Covered Insect Day (mmm...)

1834 - Henry Blair received a patent for a corn planter, becoming the first African-American to be granted a patent

1926 - The book, Winnie-the-Pooh (beloved honey-hungry bear) was published

2008 - Veronica eats nothing but birthday cake all day

Monday, October 13, 2008

Taken by Pomegranate

I was playing around with a pomegranate the other day, mostly because I was curious, partly because they were on sale. Pomegranates are famous in our modern culture for their antioxidant power and their flavor punch to trendy vodka martinis. But being the Roman and Greek history nerd that I am, when I think of pomegranates I cannot help but think about Persephone, goddess of the underworld. The myth (in short) goes something like this: Hades, god of the underworld, falls in love with Persephone, daughter of Zeus and overprotective mother Demeter. One day, while Persephone is minding her business picking flowers with her friends, she is abducted by Hades and brought to the underworld to live with him as his wife. Demeter, goddess of the harvest, is so distraught, she stops agricultural production to find her daughter. Once she gets the scoop from Helios, god of the sun who sees everything, Zeus flexes his lightning bolts and demands that Hades return Persephone at once so that winter can pass. But before Persephone is returned to her mother, Hades tricks her into eating four pomegranate seeds, which means she must return each year and spend four months with Hades in the underworld. And during that time, Demeter is mourning and nothing can grow. After four months, Persephone is returned to her mother, and Demeter rejoices by allowing spring to come. Many Greek mythology enthusiasts feel that what Persephone represents as a deity is life-death-rebirth.

Life-death-rebirth was heavy on my mind when I picked up the pomegranate. I looked at it in my cupped hand and thought, "life." I thought about the tree it came from, bearing this life and others. I thought about the seeds. I thought about the sun. When I cut it open, what came next was clear - death. Knife in hand, I plucked out the seeds that clung to the inside of the fruit as if they were trapped in there by Hades. My shirt and arms were splattered in red. Juice pooled on the counter top and dripped down to the floor. It looked like a crime of passion had occurred in my kitchen. Then finally, rebirth. I pressed out as much juice as I could from the seeds and made a delicious pomegranate-balsamic reduction sauce.

If you think about it, that's really what cooking is all about - rebirth. Food transforming from it's original state to share nourishment to our bodies. Whether I believe the myth or not, I am so thankful for the earth that allows us good food, and equally thankful that winter is only temporary.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Death by Sweet

This past weekend hosted the annual New York City Wine and Food Festival, and the concentration of culinary happenings was so overwhelming that I badly needed clones of myself to tackle it all. Last night I attended an event aptly called "SWEET," preceded and followed by the names of several party sponsors. The gathering was graced by the presence of dessert and pastry chefs from some of the best restaurants in New York (some of the best, arguably, in the world), bestowing upon us gifts of their creations. It was a blur of confections, ganache, little French opera cakes, and absinthe. "Kid in a candy store" and all the clichés in the world don't even begin to cover how I felt. I could barely function, paralyzed by decadence. It was like the first time I saw "Willy Wonka" and his garden of sweets, his river of chocolate. That is probably the only way I can describe it because that's where I had landed. I remember wondering at one point if I had actually died and gone to heaven. I came to the conclusion that while crossing the street earlier in the day, distracted as usual by the sights, sounds and smells of the city, I was hit by a speeding cab and then delivered to a West Chelsea warehouse by beautiful little green absinthe fairies.

Also deliciously interesting was the party taking place nine floors above. One of the benefits of a spouse who works for a posh company is the posh company-sponsored VIP parties. I boarded the industrial freight elevator, reluctant to prematurely leave the goodness I was experiencing, yet excited by the anticipation of something equally tantalizing. When we finally ascended to the aforementioned destination, thumping music and crimson lights took over my consciousness. Complimentary champagne and tiny pastries floated by as I began to take in the scene. Attractive people in their stylish garments sipped and nibbled and laughed and mingled around me. I tried my very best not to stare, and I really tried to wish myself invisible, so I could stare freely, but obviously that didn't work.

I couldn't help myself - there were just too many interesting things going on in the room. The entire Food Network prime time lineup was making it extremely difficult for me to feign an aura of cool. Giada De Laurentiis was looking adorable of course, flocked by male admirers, and taller in person than I thought she was. Bobby Flay was fist-pumping on the dance floor to the beats of Justin Timberlake, and Tyler Florence was darting to the men's room. It was an open bar, after all.

By the end of the night, I knew I was not in heaven. Despite the amazing desserts and fascinating people, my fancy-shoed feet soon grew weary and sore, and I desperately longed for my bed. I wanted quiet. I wanted down pillows. I wanted to silence that secret, nagging feeling that I am way too far out of my league at such glamorous gatherings. It was a fabulous night. But I relaxed in my fabulous bed this morning with an even better picture of it in my memory.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bringing Sexy Back

Figs don't last very long. I still have 5 in my fridge left over from the other night, and time is running out. I don't want my lovely figs to die in vain. Think, tic toc, think, tic toc, think. What is a blog titled Breakfast and Bed if I don't start making some breakfast? And then, Sexy Fig Muffins were born.

Recipe for Sexy Fig Muffins (makes 6 big muffs):
  • 5 Black Mission figs, cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 2 tbsp goat cheese (softened)
  • 2 tbsp cream cheese (softened)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 + 1/2 cup flour
  • 6 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of good salt
  • 6 tbsp cold butter, cut into 1/2" pieces

Preheat oven to 375. Line your muffin pan with individual paper cups, or grease with butter. In a small bowl, beat together the milk, goat cheese, cream cheese, egg and vanilla. The cheese is what gives these muffins their sexy melt-in-your-mouth texture. In another bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Scatter the pieces of butter over the top of the dry ingredients and mix with a pastry blender (or the paddle attachment on a stand mixer) until the butter is incorporated but you can still see small chunks throughout. Add the cheese mixture and beat until the batter comes together. Fold the fig pieces in to the batter using a spoon or spatula, then spoon the batter into the muffin cups, filling them to the top.

Bake for 30 minutes. After 25 minutes, brush the muffin tops with honey butter. Bake for the remaining 5 minutes until golden. Let cool for 10 minutes, and serve with the extra honey butter.

Feed one to your honey in bed, with a french vanilla latte, and your sexy muffin will turn into a sexy morning.

Bad Jokes and Good Chicken

The other day I made a terrible joke, "cross your chicken fingers." When the teasing subsided, I decided I was in the mood for some crispy chicken fingers. After taking stock of what I had on hand to experiment with, I ended up with a pretty deliciously simple meal.

Recipe for Pretzel-Crusted Chicken Fingers with Chipotle Mashed Potatoes (for 2):
  • Boneless, skinless chicken breast pieces, cut into 8 strips
  • 2 cups salted pretzels
  • 3 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tbsp butter and 3 tbsp olive oil for frying

For the potatoes:

  • 4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp chipotle powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Bring salted water to a boil and cook the potatoes until soft. Meanwhile, heat the 2 tbsp butter and 3 tbsp oil in a large skillet over medium heat. In a small bowl, mix the equal parts dijon and honey to make a tangy honey-mustard sauce. Using a mortar and pestle if you have it, or a hammer and plastic bag, crush the pretzels into a fine breading. Dredge the chicken pieces in flour, then using a basting brush, paint the chicken pieces with honey-mustard, and then roll around in the pretzel until coated. Fry the chicken in the skillet over medium heat, about 4-5 minutes per side, until golden and just firm.

For the potatoes, once they are cooked through so that they easily pierced with a fork, drain the water and return to the stove with the heat off. Add the butter, milk, chipotle powder, salt and pepper, and mash until everything is incorporated and you reach your desired texture.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Go Figure

It all started with a hunk of cheese.

Trying to decide what to make for dinner last night, I kept coming back to the wedge of parmesan in my fridge. In a weak and rushed moment, I accidentally bought "parmesan" on my last trip to the store, rather than my beloved parmigiano-reggiano - the good stuff - the real thing, baby. I wanted to make use of it, and in all honesty, I didn't have much else to go on. You know those nights, right? The nights when the fridge is looking so desolate, that you wonder desperately if ketchup and old carrots might go well together? (They do not, by the way)

I haphazardly dashed around my neighborhood with the 3 dollars I had, and wondered if it was too late in the season to buy some figs. They are generally harvested in May, and then again in late August. After October, they are not likely to be found at the market until the next spring. My hunk needed a leading lady, and figs and cheese have magical chemistry... surely I could piece together a whole meal on the foundation of figs and a parmesan wedge. I found some Black Mission Figs (which figures, since that varietal travels well and is therefore the most common), checked ripeness with my thumb, and parted ways with my Washingtons.

In ancient times, figs were considered sacred. Not surprising; their taste is surpassed only by their luxurious texture and tempting beauty. Figs are alluringly sexy.

The vision that I had for my muse du jour was a starring role in a creamy parmesan-risotto. My working title was, "Honey-Roasted Fig Risotto with Crispy Prosciutto." I started by preheating the oven, and preparing the figs and prosciutto for roasting. Risotto done right takes about an hour (in my humble, slow-cooking opinion. Most recipes will tell you 20-30 minutes is sufficient). It is definitely a labor of love and patience, but I always find the end result to be worth it. Not only that, but I also find the process itself very soothing. Risotto must be stirred constantly. Pushing around those grains of Arborio rice for 60 whole minutes can seem like a daunting chore, but from my point of view, the process can also seem like meditating in a personal zen garden. Instead of raking sand, I'm making dinner. Some nice classical music helps, too.

The ending is a very anti-climactic one. The experience of selecting and preparing the figs, and the calming zen of the risotto preparation was a much greater sensual experience than the consumption of the final dish. It wasn't bad by any means, but it didn't wow me, either. If you would like the recipe in greater detail, I am happy to provide it to you at your request. I would love to incorporate any suggestions. For now, I leave you with sexy fig photos.

Update: Better yet, take a risotto class to learn the technique. I like to add my stock about 1/3 cup at a time, but the best way to find your perfect risotto is to practice!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Key Lime-Ginger Soufflé Thing Revisited

I tried again with the key limes, and it turned out pretty good this time. I'm actually never quite satisfied with a recipe until I've tried mixing up every variable, approaching it from every angle. But that's just the insatiable perfectionist in me (who is constantly butting heads with the non-perfectionist in me that despises pesky little details, like measuring ingredients).

Channeling the mindset of Emily Luchetti, dessert guru, and Anne Cori, my boss from working at Kitchen Conservatory who taught me about the art of soufflés, I decided to hold my breath and dive in.

Recipe for Key Lime-Ginger Soufflés:

  • Zest of key limes (about 1 tbsp)
  • 2 tbsp + 1 tsp key lime juice
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Ginger (potent stuff - go with about 1/4 tsp)
  • Pinch of salt
  • Ginger snap cookies (homemade, or store-bought in my case... I'm such a cheater)

You also need:

  • Individual ramekins (I have 6 oz because like dessert, but 4 oz is common).
  • A shallow roasting or cake pan filled with about 1/4" of water.
  • Tools to whip. Whisks are key. Handheld mixer is nice. Stand mixer = you rule the whites and your whipping-arm loves you.
  • Bowls to hold whippings.

Start by preheating the oven to 400 and bringing a small pot of water to a gentle low simmer on the stove. Butter the inside bottom of your ramekins, and sprinkle a very thin layer of finely crumbled gingersnap cookie so that the bottom is just covered. In a bowl, hovering over the simmering water, whisk the yolks, then add most of the sugar, the ginger, and the key lime zest and juice, and whip until thick and pale yellow in color. Be careful not to scramble the egg - if it starts to thicken too fast or curdle, whip it off the heat. When the yolk falls off your whisk in smooth ribbons, remove it from heat. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks have formed, then add the remainder of the sugar and pinch of salt. Continue to beat the egg whites until stiff peaks hold their own, but the whites still look glossy. Gradually fold the yolk mixture into the whites, and pour into the ramekins, filling up almost to the top. Place the soufflés onto the pan, and adjust accordingly so that the water bath comes about 1/2-1" up the side of the ramekins. Bake at 400 for about 20 minutes, or until the soufflés are puffy and golden. You can peek, it's ok. Serve with the ginger cookies.

When I started whipping the green zest with the pale yellow beaten egg yolks, I thought out loud, "Wow, this is looking really ugly." I whipped on, undaunted. Hungry. Despite the evidence to the contrary, the finished product looked quite nice. It could have passed for any other citrus-flavored souffle, up until the moment I took a bite. The lime was tart and the ginger made it interesting. It really does need to be served and eaten right away. I couldn't even snap a decent picture before my lovely puff started to fall. I stuck a ginger cookie in the top and tried to make it pretty. As Anne Cori says, quoting the French, "The soufflé waits for no one."

Update: I probably should make a quick disclaimer (thanks Anne, for pointing this out! As I mentioned, she does know her stuff on soufflés). You typically do not need a water bath when baking soufflés. I used one because I was having trouble getting the bottoms of my test soufflés to cook, which I think is due to my not having a convection oven. Convection allows the heat to evenly distribute.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Really Churns Me On

It's getting cold outside, and my herb garden is looking a little sad. I'm sad too - I need to make the most of the little time we have left together. One of my favorite things to do with excess fresh herbs is make compound butters. You can use just about any herb to make a flavorful butter spread or sauce. When it comes to butter, the possibilities are endless. One of my very favorite butter compounds is a simple honey butter, served on toast. Paired with English Breakfast tea (in bed of course), it is a typical start to my day.

Tarragon, chives and rosemary are what I need to bring inside from the garden. Tarragon butter is especially delicious - I often make it when I have guests, and serve with warm crusty bread. I always have unsalted butter on hand, and my own favorite salt (Maldon Sea Salt) and black pepper (I like Tellicherry) to add.

How to take care of your herbs, once they are on the way to the fridge:
  • Wash thoroughly with cool water.
  • Be sure to handle gently, so they don't break or bruise.
  • Dry and roll up (again, gently) in a dry paper towel.
  • Place in an airtight, sealed, labeled ziplock bag. Oxygen is the enemy.
  • Try to enjoy right away, and avoid storage for more than a few days. But this will help them keep longer.

Tools that are very helpful in making compound butters:

  • Tart tamper
  • Mojito muddler (this is what I use)
  • Mortar and pestle
  • Any one of these helps immensely. If none are around, a fork or spatula can suffice, but it makes for very hard work with cold butter.

Recipes and ideas for serving:

2 tbsp chopped tarragon + 4 tbsp butter + salt + cracked pepper = tarragon butter (serve with crusty bread, on steak, grilled chicken or fish, veggies... good with leeks)

2 tbsp honey + 4 tbsp butter = honey butter (fantastic on toast, pancakes, popovers, sandwiches)

2 tbsp chopped chives + 1 tbsp dry white wine + 4 tbsp butter = chive butter (baked potato, corn)

2 tbsp chopped rosemary + 4 tbsp butter + salt + cracked pepper = rosemary butter (lamb, steak, pork tenderloin, mashed potatoes)

2 tbsp chopped parsley + 1 tbsp lemon juice + 4 tbsp butter + salt + cracked pepper = lemon parsley butter (steak, fish, veggies)

Mash ingredients together in a bowl. Store leftover butter creation in the fridge. Once you get the hang of it, get inspired and try new combinations. Lime-cilantro-chipotle butter. Orange-anise butter. Besides, what dish is not improved with a little more butter?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

That's Cool

The farm-to-table movement that has been happening in the world of restaurants is pretty cool. In my home, I try to buy local and seasonal when possible, and always take the time to read labels to learn as much as I can about what I'm putting into my body. When it comes to our food, I believe that the more informed we are, the better.

That's why I think it's also pretty cool that as of October 1, all food labels will require that the country of origin be noted. Check out the story here.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hey Sweetheart, What are Those Green Things you got There?

Public transportation is great. I would almost go so far as to say I prefer trains and busses to personal automobiles. Except when I'm feeling nauseous and I need to go get something from the other side of town.

The constant stop and go of the train is not unlike being stuck in traffic, except that in a car you typically don't have three dozen strangers up in your very personal space. Also, interaction with commuters is different. On the highway, "Hey lady, move it!" is muted by a separation of at least 10 feet and your two automobiles. On the train, "Hey gorgeous, give me a smile" or, "Hey, I've got HIV, give me some money" is 10 inches from your face (10 if you're lucky) and probably grazing (just grazing, if you're lucky) some part of your body. The Midwesterner in me is inclined to grin nervously and make a donation. But since I'm a New Yorker now, I try to force a furrowed brow and shake my head like I don't comprende. And when I'm feeling nauseous, I try not to throw up.

Point being - as much as I am a proponent of the train, if I'm going to take it during rush hour for one little errand while I'm feeling queasy, I better be able to find what I'm looking for on the other side. It's green tomato time of year, and I was seriously in need of some fried green tomatoes. September is usually when they turn up, but they had been surprisingly scarce on my recent outings. Green tomato season is such a big tradition in my family, and once a year we feast. I was starting to get worried I would miss their window.

Thankfully I didn't, and had a satisfying green tomato dinner last night. Here's how my family taught me to make the perfect fried green tomato:

Recipe for Veronica's family Fried Green Tomatoes:
  • Green tomatoes
  • Italian-style bread crumbs
  • Grated parmesan cheese
  • Egg yolks + water for egg wash
  • Flour
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and cracked pepper

Slice the green tomatoes to about 1/2 inch thick. Prepare bread crumbs: if you use fresh bread crumbs, be sure to season generously with oregano, basil, parsley... any dried Italian-style herbs you've got. Season bread crumbs with salt and pepper; if I have fresh parsley I'll snip some and throw it in, and usually I'll add some additional dried basil and oregano. Finely grate a generous amount of cheese and mix in with the bread crumbs.

Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet (not non-stick). Dredge each side of the tomato in flour, then egg wash (about 2 tsp water per yolk; more water if it gets too thick), then the bread crumb mix. Fry tomato slices in the skillet over low heat, about 20 minutes per side. The key is to fry very, very slowly, and to a golden (not too brown) color. The trick is to do it low and slow. Of course these pair nicely with a big steak, but I can eat them for a whole meal.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Not to be Truffled With

For the most part, Manhattan is easy to navigate. Much of the area is laid out on a neat and tidy, East-to-West North-to-South numbered grid, and if you can count to 100, you can find your way around. But find yourself below 14th, and the terrain begins to gradually shift under your feet, and you realize there are many more than 13 blocks of the island still south of you. Soon you discover that the neat and tidy grid has transformed into a mess of crisscrossed zigzag side streets with unmemorable names that don't indicate where you've been or where you're going. Each block looks similar yet different to the one before, and you try to remember which way you came in so you can find your way out.

After a much needed haircut yesterday in Soho on the corner of Vandam and Varick, I decided to fall down the rabbit hole and explore the neighborhood in depth. I'd been to Soho before, but never really ventured too much off the beaten path. I felt like a hunter in an urban jungle. I wasn't sure what I was hunting, but I knew there had to be hidden treasure in this area dense with warehouse space, tiny boutiques and cobblestone confusion. Chanel, Dolce and Gabana, and Barney's Co-op loomed overhead, distracting from my search for the clandestine. Through tiny doorways of small storefronts, there are some interesting treats to be found. A few are so inconspicuous from the outside, I nearly passed them up. But once inside, many of these spaces are decorated in proper trendy Soho boutique fashion.

One such space was
Vosges "Haut Chocolat." Haut(e) indeed it was - an oversized, sparkling chandelier hung from the entryway ceiling, and the tiny space was garnished with visual candy. Scripty, purple words. Stylish graphics. Decadent gift packages. From the moment I stepped inside I was so drawn in by the marketing of the Vosges part, that I almost forgot about the Haut Chocolat part. In fact, the sustenence was hard to spot; I wasn't even sure they if they sold chocolate truffles or pretty little purple boxes. In all honesty, I appreciate fancy marketing. It generally keeps me employed during the day, and, a good meal being the exception, there is nothing I appreciate more than the graphic works of a creative mind. But when it comes to my tastebuds, I am a substance-over-style kinda gal. I was definitely interested in what their truffles had to offer my palate. The selections sounded promising, but I had to know: the work of a clever writer? Or the real deal? Heeding the advice of the staff, I selected the Balsamico: 12-year aged Modena Balsamic Vinegar + 65% Dark Chocolate + Sicilian Hazelnuts, and the Field Song: Milk Chocolate + Roasted Yams + Maple Syrup + African Grains of Paradise. Sounds good, right? The six of you who read my blog who voted for chocolate in this week's poll, your mouths are watering, correct? Verdict: the truffles were good, yes. Paradise? No. The taste was not as unique as I had hoped. Like a mall truffle I've had before. Quick flavor explosion in the mouth, then gone. No lingering sensations. The good-on-paper variety. Sigh.

To my good fortune, I turned the corner at Obscure (aka Thompson) and Spring Street and saw it - a small green awning with small white type that simply said
Kee's Chocolates. Since I have marketing on my mind at this point, it was hard not to notice that the typeface on the awning is comic sans. I might have just kept walking, but since I was on a mission, and just had a disappointing experience with a truffle called Field Song, I was in no position to judge. I really have nothing against comic sans, but ask any graphic designer and they will tell you it's the "hey baby what's your sign" of the typography world. It's corny, unimaginative, borderline offensive, and you generally just don't use it and don't ask questions, because you probably won't like the results.

Tragic font choice aside, entering Kee's was like visiting a holy site. First of all, it's an act of faith to simply go inside. It is quiet and minimal, and there is nothing to pretend to browse besides the small truffle case altar. It can be intimidating, but once you get past the mental barriers, it is the perfect place for chocolate zealots to worship. I selected the White Chocolate Green Tea, Dark Chocolate Smoked Salt, and Dark Chocolate Lemon Basil truffles and the Dark Chocolate Blood Orange Macaroon. Without going into too much detail, let me just say each was unique, surprising, and audible-sigh-inducing. And not the same kind of sigh that followed my Vosges experience. The take-me-dancing-and-then-to-bed sigh. I'm not sure if the herbal aroma of my freshly salon-shampooed hair fused with the taste of the Lemon Basil to create some sort of super sensation, or if it was really just that good, but that truffle in particular nearly sent me to my knees.

I know I'm not the first person to discover the gem that is Kee and her creations. One click on "press" on her website and that is made clear. But I still feel like I stumbled upon a hidden treasure, and I'm suddenly in on the same secret as other great explorers before me.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I'll Have What She's Having

Every day when I check my mailbox, I stick my key in and struggle with the little door, and once a month the struggle will be slightly greater than the day prior, and I know that the new issue of Gourmet magazine has been stuffed inside. I feel giddy anticipation, and the bills and junk that accompany my prize will have to wait. As much as I enjoy Gourmet, it reminds me what a food novice I am. It seems there is nothing that Gourmet does not know about food and dining of the world. Gourmet is the expert, the authority for gourmets everywhere. Something to aspire to, but also in the meantime, to not-so-gently remind me why I do not work there.

I was excited when the new October issue arrived the other day and contained this captivating article by Francis Lam. The most interesting writers, in my mind, are the ones who simply speak the truth. Sounds so easy, yet so difficult to truly execute. Lam gives a frank and emotional description of a recent dining experience at Grant Achatz's restaurant Alinea in Chicago. I had heard about Chef Achatz last year when he first was diagnosed, and I am so glad to read he is doing well. Like Lam, mostly glad for him and his well-being, but also glad I might have the opportunity to someday try his food. After reading Lam's description, how can you not long to be there?

One of the quotes from a fellow diner caught my attention, because it sums up so precisely what my blog is all about, the feeling that I seek out and celebrate. After an amazing meal that Lam describes as "stunning" and "life-changing," a woman in the restaurant within earshot "sighs a perfect sigh" and says, "I don't know if I want to go out dancing or go straight to bed." Amen, sister.