Monday, March 30, 2009

Winter Tomatoes

There's nothing better than fresh summertime tomatoes from the farmers market. I am anxiously awaiting the warm weather for this reason alone. That's not to say that supermarket tomatoes found in the winter and spring should be ignored. There are some yummy ways to utilize the plum (Roma) and grape tomatoes you see on the shelves right now.

Plum or Roma tomatoes are those egg-shaped tomatoes that have few seeds, and make great sauces. Grape tomatoes are those cute little ones that usually appear in salads.

Plum tomatoes: Make a Roasted Tomato Sauce for pasta and pizza.

  • 3 lbs of plum tomatoes, halved
  • 1 medium onion, halved and sliced into half-rings
  • 2 carrots, sliced into rounds
  • 5 cloves of garlic (peeled, but left whole)
  • 1/2 tsp of dried thyme, or 1 tsp of fresh thyme
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil
  • Kosher salt and ground pepper to taste

Heat the oven to 425. On a jelly roll sheet or large roasting pan, place the tomatoes, onion, carrots, garlic and thyme. Pour the olive oil across the ingredients and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Spread out the veggies on the pan in a single layer, and make sure all the tomatoes are cut-side down. Roast for about 45 minutes - 1 hour, until veggies are tender and the tomato skin is starting to puff and blacken. Remove from the oven, and use a set of tongs to pull off the steamy tomato skins. You can just discard the skin. Transfer everything from the pan to a blender, with the little hole left open in the lid for steam to escape. Cover the hole with a tea towel and pulse until smooth, but still a little chunky. Add about a tbsp of balsamic vinegar for flavor if you want it, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Store extra sauce in the fridge or freezer.

Grape tomatoes: A Tomato Confit make for a yummy side or a topping for meat and fish.

  • One pint of grape tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • Kosher salt and crushed pepper to taste

Toss all the ingredients in a large skillet, cover, and place over medium-low heat. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have softened and the skin has come loose. Mash a little bit with the tip of a spoon, and continue to cook for about 5 more minutes, uncovered, until the tomatoes have the consistency of chutney.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

O Fortuna

"You will travel far and wide, both pleasure and business. Daily numbers: 3 2 9."

I have a lost memory from my childhood that only remains connected to my brain by a fading scent. In my mind I see nothing but a brick wall, and what lies on the other side I only imagine. I taste nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing. But I smell fresh fortune cookies being baked en masse. The smell was so delicious and powerful, and, at that time in my young life, so new, that it has followed me to present day as a small memory of one of the best smells in my tiny universe.

As a result, I love fortune cookies. I always sneak a few extra if given the opportunity, especially the good kind - the ones that don't taste and look like plastic. The golden brown ones. Not the yellow ones.

"You are heading for a land of sunshine. Daily numbers: 7 3 0."

On a sunny New York Monday afternoon (yesterday), I decided to explore Manhattan's Chinatown. As fate would have it, on my quest to find fresh fortune cookies, I found new and interesting things that my palate might otherwise have missed.

Chinatown is not an escapist adventure to the Far East. You know you're still in New York by the 10-for-$3 "I heart NY" t-shirts and the hordes of tourists in search of $25 Louis Vuitton bags. I immediately veered off Canal Street and headed South on Mulberry for respite. I ducked into Lung Moon Bakery (83 Mulberry) and crossed my fingers... nope, no fresh fortune cookie smell here. They sold them by the bag, but upon close inspection, I noticed that they were made off-site and individually pre-wrapped. Not quite what I was looking for. When I snapped out of my obsessed and focused daze, I realized I was alone in the store. Fortune cookies aside, everything around me looked fresh, good, and pleasantly oversized. I wanted one of each. When I noticed the sticky rice balls, I swallowed hard, a little frightened. My previous experience with a Chinatown sticky rice ball last November was a heartbreaking letdown that needed redemption. A young woman emerged from the back of the shop. I took a deep breath, ordered one sticky rice ball and left the store, hoping that I wouldn't regret my decision. I didn't - it was the perfect texture. Yum!

I thought about turning around and going back to fill up on all the goodies they had to offer, but upon the discovery of this wonderful place, I decided to revise my mission: snack through Chinatown, and if I happen to come across fortune, that will be up to fate to decide.

"Find release from your cares, have a good time. Daily numbers: 4 2 9."

So I let myself go. On Mott Street I discovered tasty Wonton Noodle Soup at the New Wonton Garden (56 Mott). Attracted by the kitchen at the front of the house that allowed me to watch the noodles go in and out of the pot, and by the ironically somber servers in Hawaiian shirts, the stark, hospital cafeteria-like interior was a welcome contrast to the vibrant visual stimulants of the streets. The barbie-pink bubble tea place on Bayard Street (with the big, cartoon-y vending machines, dispensing everything from Hello Kitty accessories to mini Jelly Belly dispensers) and the fish-balls-on-a-stick from the street vendors (all the Chinatown kids snack on fish balls, like, duh!) made me feel 8 years old again. The guava candy, found all over Chinatown in shiny green plastic, is my new guilty pleasure. At 25 cents for four pieces, I felt like I still had plenty of allowance and lemonade stand money left over for more peach bubble tea and a Hello Kitty necklace (but I'm saving up for the Snoopy chopsticks at Yunwong's Chopsticks on Mott Street).

My favorite snack of the day came unexpectedly while perusing the tiny (and eerily quiet, by Chinatown standards) storefronts on Elizabeth Street, North of Canal. A place called Malaysian Beef Jerky (95 Elizabeth) where you can get slabs of spicy pork jerky, pork jerky, spicy chicken jerky, chicken jerky, spicy beef jerky, and beef jerky by the pound, was the highlight of my journey. That place makes Slim Jim look like a punk.

"Stop searching forever, happiness is just next to you. Daily numbers: 3 7 0."

As the afternoon sun faded, I walked down Mott Street again. The weird thing about city streets is that you can walk one way, but switch directions or cross to the other side and you have a whole new perspective. It's as though you can't really see a whole city until you've seen it from every angle. In my earlier walk on Mott, I had totally missed a bakery called Golden Fung Wong (41 Mott). It was probably the only bakery left in Chinatown that I had not yet stalked in search of fortune cookies. When I walked in, I could see all the way into the massive ovens in the back. The front looked like most of the bakeries I had already been inside. I inhaled... nothing was being baked at the moment. I turned to leave when I saw them: a bag of fortune cookies! Not individually wrapped! I snatched the bag off the shelf and asked the woman behind the counter excitedly if they were made in-house. She had no idea what I was saying. She found someone to translate, and yes, they were baked earlier that day! "What time will you bake your next batch?" I asked the two young apron-clad translators, "I really like the smell." Sometimes I confess my inner thoughts a little too freely. They gave me a deserved look that said "you are weird," then looked at each other and shrugged. I decided that was probably my cue to pay for the cookies and go home. Fate had smiled upon me, and now I was pushing it. Perhaps I'll drop in another day and see what happens.

Photos below: (1) The noodle guy at New Wonton Garden (2) I had no idea there were so many different kinds of ginger! (3) Candy on every corner (4) At Uiui Bubble Tea, Homer Simpson greets you with a smile (5) Fish ball on a stick, $1 (6) My new favorite snacking joint!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bocconcini to the Rescue

If you haven't seen me post a blog article in more than 2-3 days (and you know that my computer is functioning properly), it probably means morale = low. This is usually due to a high-stress work week, working Saturdays and Sundays, or both. It's probably nothing that can't be cured by some cheese. Well, and maybe a little wine.

Those cute little balls of fresh mozzarella at the store called bocconcini are so tasty and handy to have around mealtime. Here are 3 things you could do with bocconcini:

1. Happy hour snack. Love fried mozzarella, hate Applebees? Me too. Roll the bocconcini in flour, coat with egg wash (egg yolk + tsp of water, beaten together), then roll in Panko breadcrumbs seasoned with salt and pepper. Fry in olive oil or vegetable oil until golden and crispy.

2. Elegant Caprese bites. Cut each mini-moz into fourths, and serve on a toothpick stacked with torn basil and a grape tomato. Season with salt and pepper, and serve with a mixture of balsamic vinegar + olive oil for dipping.

3. Pasta dinner bonus. Penne with tomato sauce is amped up by stirring in bits of bocconcini and fresh basil at the last minute.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

God vs. Bed

I gave up sleeping in past 9:00 a.m. for Lent.

I'm doing pretty good, but bed was victorious this morning by a narrow margin of mere minutes.

Bed is really on a hot streak right now.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

One Fish, Two Fish, Irish Dish

"What are you doing?"

I can imagine how it must have looked when my husband walked in the door coming home from work yesterday, and saw me with a big vodka martini in hand. "I'm celebrating St. Patrick's Day early," I said, like it should have been obvious.

In all honesty, what I really celebrate on March 17 is my Irish Grandmother. In her mind, a true Irish meal was salmon and colcannon. And even though colcannon is traditionally associated with Halloween on the Emerald Isle, we would have it on St. Patrick's Day. Vodka? She just liked to drink it any old day. So when the general St. Patty's-celebrating population goes to the pub to eat corned beef and drink green beer, I like to remember the person who connects me to my Irish side.

Fish is so easy to cook, you just have to get a good fish. A common fish with high turnover like salmon is probably okay to get at a regular grocery store, but if you can find a reliable fishmonger, that will help ease the confusion of picking out a good piece of fish. It's okay to ask what is fresh, and to ask for a smell. It should smell like a fish, but more like the sea, and not have a pungent "fishy" smell. If you can find fish with their heads still on, look into their eyes. They should be clear. Look for bright and glossy flesh, not dry and dull, especially with scallops.

For my piece of wild salmon, I rubbed it with some olive oil and seared the skin over medium heat to give it a crisp. Then I transferred my pan to the oven and let it finish under the broiler. My oven is not the best, so I let it get a little over done. In a good oven, the broiler will brown the top of the salmon (placed on the top rack) and it will only take another 5-7 minutes depending on how thick your salmon is. The middle will be just opaque. I could have also turned the fish in the skillet on the stove top and finished searing it without transferring it to the oven.

For the colcannon, follow a basic recipe for mashed potatoes, but add shreds of cabbage (the green/white stuff, not purple) to the boiling water as the potatoes cook. Drain and mash all together with butter, milk, salt and pepper. The green things on the plate in the picture below are crispy brussel sprout "chips." To make these, wash and peel off the green outer layers of brussel sprouts, and toss with olive oil and kosher salt. Spread out in a jelly roll baking sheet and roast at 400 until crisp and edges begin to brown, about 5 minutes or so. They're better than potato chips.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Good Morning, Sweetcakes

Even though Valentine's Day was over a month ago, you can still make some Sweetcakes for your Sweetcake. I made these for mine (even though we really don't celebrate) and they were delish.

Recipe for Lemon-Buttermilk Pancakes with Raspberry Butter (aka Sweetcakes):
  • 1 + 1/2 cups of flour
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 1 + 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 + 1/2 cups of buttermilk
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice

For the Raspberry Butter:

Beat together 1 tsp of raspberry jam for every 1 tbsp butter.

Heat a griddle or non-stick pan over medium heat. In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients: the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In another bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients: the buttermilk, butter, eggs, vanilla, lemon zest and lemon juice. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Stir until just combined.

I like to grease the skillet with a little bit of butter. Pour the batter on the hot skillet in small batches, to the pancake size of your liking. To make heart-shaped pancakes, place a heart-shaped cookie cutter on the skillet and spoon the batter into the middle. Wait several seconds for just the bottom of the batter to set, then pull off the cookie cutter.

When you see tiny bubbles rising in the middle of the pancake batter, it is ready to be flipped to the other side. Cook until golden, and serve hot with lots of kisses on the side. Top off the Sweetcakes with Raspberry Butter and some powdered sugar.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Breakfast vs. Bed: Rematch

Tictictictictictictictictic... That's the sound I'm listening to at this very moment, coming from my trusty ladybug-shaped kitchen timer. I got up this morning to make muffins!

Part of me feels like a little bit of a cheater, because I really didn't have to get up that early, after all it is Sunday and I don't have any pressing engagements this morning. But in this rematch of bed vs. breakfast, breakfast wins for now (unless I decide to get back in bed with my coffee and muffins - an admittedly likely scenario - then I'll call it a draw).

I'm a little nervous as I write this because, while I'm all giddy about the idea of fresh muffins, I'm not overly confident that the end result will be as good as I hope it will be. This all started a couple days ago when, in my attempts to be ultra-economical, looked in my fridge and cupboard and tried to piece ingredients together to make something substantial without making a costly visit to the store. This is how I usually survive anyways, but especially lately.

The pairing I came up with was some dried cranberries I had leftover from my salad back in January (see recipes: salad) and a tub of vanilla yogurt, combined to make a batch of muffins, which I can then eat for breakfast over the course of several days. Sounds good in theory, but I'm a little nervous about using dried fruit in muffins. We're about to find out...tictictictic...ding! The bell signals the end of the rematch. Judges?

Hmm. One look and I could tell... not nearly as sexy as my sexy fig muffins. Taste test: well, I was right about the dried cranberry. Overall, they are fine, they taste okay, but they kind of remind me of box-mix muffins. They need something... maybe a cream cheese glaze or spread to help boost the flavor. I cannot, in good conscience, give you the recipe until these are improved. Sorry for the morning tease.

My dogs seem pretty interested in helping me eat these. Maybe if they are really well-behaved, and stay off the bed...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Breakfast vs. Bed

Last night, I had every intention of getting out of bed early this morning to bake some vanilla-cranberry muffins before work.

Bed won.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Spring Forward, Braise Back

I have to put on a coat to go outside, which means it's still winter. Which means rich winter dishes will still come out of my kitchen. At the cooking class I was working at last night, the chef said she hates summertime because she doesn't cook anything. I tried to bite my tongue and not brag about my cute little outdoor space that will neatly fit a grill when we finally just buy one already.

(I also tried not to complain about how every time I walk outside, I feel like I'm getting a back-handed slap to the face by a freezing northeast cold front, that I wish would just ease up once and a while so I can walk the daily-15-blocks-to-my-destination-and-back, aka my job, in peace. But I digress.)

There is something to be said about the chill outside, and the warmth of an oven inside, circulating gentle heat and yummy smells throughout your home. I personally love summer because of the fresh tomatoes and other produce. Plus, I still sweat it out and cook anyways, so it's really the best of both worlds.

Recipe for Braised Short Ribs with Creamy Parmesan Polenta:

Braising sounds fancy but it's pretty easy. A few key things to remember, 1.) Pick a cut with a high amount of collagen, such as short ribs, because it will result in a rich and velvety sauce. If your cut does not have much collagen, throw in a pig ear or beef bone (that's normal, right?) 2.) Always brown the meats and vegetables first. Do them separately - you don't want to crowd the pan. 3.) Make sure you use a heavy pot or dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid that can go safely from stove top to oven. If you're not sure, ask me or look up the manufacturer's website 4.) Onions, carrots and celery are classic. But if the mood strikes, throw in some mushrooms, leeks, or whatever herbs and spices you have hanging around. I made mine with sage, because it's one of my favorites.

Let's say you're cooking for 2, as I often do. If cooking for 1, just half it, if cooking for 4, double it:
  • 4 beef short ribs; make sure external excess fat get trimmed, either by you or by your trusty butcher
  • 1 roughly diced onion
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 4-5 cloves chopped garlic
  • Sage (or other herb of choice - I used fresh, but dried is good, too)
  • 1 Bay leaf
  • Salt & crushed black pepper for seasoning
  • Beef stock (enough to fill up the bottom of your dutch oven about 3/4 inch)
  • Vegetable oil

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, heat your dutch oven on the stove top (or heavy pot/skillet, doesn't matter as long as it has a lid that fits and the food fits inside, AND it can go safely from stovetop to oven) over medium-high heat. Add about 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil to the bottom. Rub your short ribs with salt, pepper, and chopped sage (about 1/2 tsp sage per rib). Add the ribs to the pot, browning all sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Drain off any excess fat from the pan; you have have about the same amount that was in there prior to the beef. Turn down the heat to medium and add the chopped veggies and garlic, plus a pinch of salt, a few twists of the pepper grinder, and a pinch of sage. Cook until the veggies have colored a little (about 5-8 minutes). Add the beef stock, enough just to come up about 3/4 inch on the edge of your pan. Bring to a boil. Return the short ribs to the pot and toss in your bay leaf. Cover the pot and place in the oven. Let it hang out in there for about 1.5 hours. You'll notice the meat pulling itself off the bone. Remove the ribs and cover with foil to keep warm while you prepare the sauce. Skim off excess fat from the braising liquid (and for my dish, I also pulled out most of the veggies, but left a few onions). On the stove top over high heat, reduce the liquid until velvety. Stir in a roux (a simple flour + butter paste) if you prefer it thicker. Pour over the ribs and serve.

For the Creamy Parmesan Polenta:

  • 1 cup of cornmeal
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups of whole milk
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup of shredded parmesan cheese
  • Salt and white pepper to taste

In a small saucepan, bring your stock to a boil. Separately, mix together the cornmeal and the milk, and pour the mixture into the boiling stock in a steady stream, stirring frequently. When everything starts coming together, stop stirring and simmer for about 30 minutes until thick and creamy. Stir in the cheese and butter, and taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper if necessary.

Monday, March 9, 2009


It is so nice to finally have my beloved laptop back. Food happens every day!

Today I had leftover ribs from Dinosaur BBQ. If you are ever in Harlem, I highly recommend. They tasted even better two days later. Meat always needs time to rest, and some cuts taste better as leftovers.

Good food is worth the wait. We waited over 90 minutes to snag a highly-coveted table at the Dinosaur. I am so glad to be back to writing my blog updates. Thanks for waiting for me. I hope that I make it worth your wait.