Archive for May, 2010

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Ladies with pineapples

May 28, 2010

Earlier this week I was teaching a piano lesson to my youngest student, who is six years old and learns very quickly when she feels like it. Mostly she doesn’t feel like it, though. She was supposed to be doing a page in her theory workbook, but she thought it would be more fun to poke me, gently but repeatedly, with her pencil. I told her it wasn’t very nice to hit people with pencils. She responded, “But it’s fun hitting people with pencils. I also like hitting ladies with pineapples.” I couldn’t really argue with that.

This is relevant because I bought a pineapple this week, on the grounds that it is cheaper to buy a pineapple than an equivalent quantity of pre-cut pineapple chunks. Also on the grounds that pineapples are delicious. I amazed myself by breaking down that pineapple in record time (for such a prickly fruit they are remarkably easy to deal with), and then further amazed myself by remembering that I am ever so slightly allergic to fresh pineapple.

Well, not pineapple itself, but some kind of cross-reaction between pineapple and related pollens. Apparently it’s called oral allergy syndrome. I don’t have it that badly; it just makes my tongue tingle unpleasantly, kind of like it’s being slowly digested by enzymes, although I know that’s not actually what’s happening. I remember this feeling from when I was little, when I decided I didn’t like the taste of fresh pineapple and stuck to canned for years. I’ve since managed to separate the taste from the sensation, which is fortunate since fresh pineapple is so much more interesting, sweet and tart with hints of coconut. And it doesn’t seem to bother me the day after the pineapple is cut. But it’s hard to face a pile of glistening, fresh-cut fruit and not eat a lot of it right away.

In other news, it’s fun to say bromeliad.

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Insert wok pun here

May 26, 2010

No, seriously, I don’t think there are any new wok jokes out there. So I’m not even going to try.

Sometime in the last year or two, I adopted my parents’ wok, a big carbon-steel number with a wooden handle and a lid. My dad not only dug it out of the shed for me, discovering an unknown mouse colony in the process, but also very kindly scrubbed it as clean as he could. Lest any wok purists shudder at the idea of scrubbing a well-seasoned wok, let me assure you, this piece of cookware had been seldom if ever used. My parents had Asian coworkers who wielded chopsticks with stereotypical finesse but then went home and cooked in regular old frying pans, and my folks figured if that was good enough for their friends, it would work OK for them too.

Like parents, like daughter, I guess: I would come home hungry after hours of grad school, musical rehearsals, or other employment, and while I could muster the energy to throw together some fried rice, there was no way I was dealing with an unseasoned, untested wok on an empty stomach, not when there was a clean, convenient nonstick skillet hanging right next to the stove. I would look at the wok every so often, hunkered in its nook at the bottom of the living room hutch, and feel a little twinge of embarrassment at not having yet helped it reach its culinary potential. I would promise myself to get that wok in working order just as soon as I had the time. And then I would go back to the frying pan.

This Christmas, my mother gave me a smaller, nonstick wok she saw in a store and thought I’d enjoy. It seemed much less intimidating than the one I already had, and it made great fried rice, too; the tall, sloping sides meant I could toss ingredients around with abandon, not worrying that I’d spill everything onto the stovetop. I may have also used it for stir-fried beef and celery, which I highly recommend. It seemed less likely than ever that the big steel wok would make it into my regular arsenal.

But, well, I’ve been reading a lot of food blogs lately — it’s a bit of a slippery slope. I read this article about pad thai, which I’d made once before, from a Trader Joe’s kit containing an unfortunately sweet sauce. Sadly, I find nearly all of their Asian-in-a-box entrees too sweet, and yet I keep trying them. Sigh. But I like noodles, and I know Jacob likes Thai food; a disproportionate number of our dates have involved Thai restaurants.

And I was a little intrigued at the prospect of customizing the sauce, making it heavier on the spicy and sour and backing way off on the sweet. Intrigued enough to read this much longer post on Chez Pim, detailing the many ingredients, optional and not, that go into a traditional pad thai, as well as how to prepare the dish. And — and! — instructions on seasoning a steel wok, which, I learned, I really ought to do since a nonstick surface couldn’t handle the high heat required for a good stir-fry. I hadn’t been looking for a pad thai recipe or wok instructions, and yet there they both were, each cleverly nudging me towards the other. Clearly it was time to make a pilgrimage to the Kam Man Marketplace, just a few minutes away, to procure the necessary supplies.

Normally when I visit Asian markets, they’re a little out of my way, so I stock up on things I might eventually want but don’t have an immediate use for. They take up space in my pantry until they get knocked over and spill, or become moth-infested. (That was in the old apartment. No pantry moths here, thank goodness.) But it turns out if I go with a list, I can find a lot of perfectly normal ingredients for better prices, and sometimes in better shape, than at Shaw’s or elsewhere. A carton of firm tofu was 99 cents, a bunch of scallions 39 cents, a bag of bean sprouts, 59 cents. I grabbed a bag of baby bok choy, about a pound and a half, for less than two dollars — OK, so that wasn’t technically on my list, but I am always allowed to make vegetable impulse purchases. And later I found a package of just three small bok choy at Trader Joe’s for about the same price. So there. I couldn’t find tamarind paste or concentrate, so I had to settle for a jarred pad thai sauce, but at least it was Maesri, a Thai brand recommended by Matthew Amster-Burton in that first post. And when I got it home and opened it up, I knew that sauce would suit me fine; its spicy, tangy aroma had none of that overpowering sweetness I’d feared.

I followed Pim’s suggestions for seasoning the wok, which are pretty simple if you don’t mind creating a lot of smoke: Coat interior with lots of oil. Heat until smoking. Throw out the oil. Rub with salt and a rag or wad of paper towels. Throw out the salt. Wipe clean with a damp towel. Coat with oil again. The end. Yes, it’s a bunch of steps, and you have to not burn yourself on the hot wok. But it’s not that hard. And neither is pad thai. Best of all, it involves chopping a lot of things that you need to have prepped and handy while you cook. And that means using lots of ramekins. Which are almost as fun to use as they are to say, especially if you have them in assorted bright colors.I <3 ramekins

I don’t have much to say about making pad thai beyond the excellent instructions I’ve linked to, except that a mini food processor works great for chopping the peanuts. Oh, and it was delicious. And if you find yourself with a seasoned wok and a pound and a half of baby bok choy, you might want to cook them like this. And then you might find yourself wanting more bok choy. I know I do.

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Artichoke fail (and consolation prizes)

May 24, 2010

I am not going to show you a picture of the disaster that was me trying to steam artichokes last night. Perhaps the artichokes I purchased were inferior specimens (they were a dollar each at Trader Joe’s, and I should know better than to trust their produce, but sometimes I am weak). Perhaps it is not actually possible to steam fancy vegetables in a small metal colander balanced over a pot of boiling water — I did have a lid over them, but it wasn’t a great seal, so maybe there wasn’t enough pressure to cook them properly. Perhaps I lack patience. In any case, they came out tough, brown, and pretty much inedible, though believe me, I tried.

Perhaps this was the universe’s way of answering the following question: why are whole, untampered-with artichokes so much more expensive than canned or frozen artichoke hearts? The only answer I could come up with was that it’s easier to transport cans than large edible thistles. Now I know it’s so I can go back to eating artichokes-for-dummies, whether or not the prickly things are in season, and feel justified in having made the financially responsible choice.

Dinner was not completely ruined. I got Jacob to scramble some eggs, since his always come out better than mine. I think that’s because he uses an unholy quantity of butter, but as long as I don’t watch him, it doesn’t count, right? And thanks to my shiny new skillet (and the person who gave me the gift card with which I acquired it), we enjoyed the most photogenic home fries I’ve ever made, though probably only the second tastiest; I think I prefer Yukon Golds to the russets I used.

In other news, my friends Meghan and Tim are moving to the Netherlands this summer, and today I stopped by their house to adopt some things they can’t take along — a snazzy red lamp, a box fan, and a whole slew of spices and flours and vinegars. Highlights include a nearly-new quart jug of Vermont maple syrup and a Ziploc of Penzeys chiles de arbol.

Most of the cooking stuff is familiar, things I’d just run out of and wanted more of (cornmeal, molasses) or will need more of soon (oregano) or have never used but am excited to try (sherry vinegar, dried chickpeas). But because Meghan is an adventurous cook, not one to be dissuaded by unusual ingredients, the stash also includes barley flour, orange blossom water, and pomegranate molasses. I haven’t got a clue what to do with pomegranate molasses, except for walking around saying it aloud at every possible opportunity. Which I am doing already, thank you.

Score.

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When life gives you strawberries

May 17, 2010

If you’ve been grocery shopping in the last three or four weeks, you’ve probably noticed that strawberries are insanely cheap right now, less than $2 a pound if you know where to look. Apparently this is because abnormally cold weather made Florida’s strawberry crop arrive later than usual, at the same time as California’s, flooding the market with berries from both coasts.  Bad news for strawberry farmers, but awesome news for strawberry eaters.

I recently read through the archives of Orangette after finding Molly Wizenberg’s last couple of columns in Bon Appetit, mentioning people I was pretty sure I knew from college — I mean, it’s not like the country is bursting with percussionists named Bonnie and flutists named Gratia. So I looked up Orangette strictly as a fact-finding mission, but by the time I had learned enough to confirm my suspicions (i.e., that the author’s husband went to Oberlin the same years I did, and while I don’t believe we ever met, we clearly had some friends in common), I was also pretty much hooked on Molly’s friendly, personable writing style and the plethora of tempting recipes she offered.

So I’ve been reading Orangette pretty comprehensively, and I came across this astonishingly simple-looking jam recipe. I’d always assumed that jam-making was a) a prohibitively arduous, time-consuming process, and b) something you only attempted if you had gallons of produce about to spoil if you didn’t take drastic action. But this recipe deals in manageable quantities and calls for a measly three ingredients (fruit, sugar, lemon juice), making it something that even my mother’s kitchen-phobic cousin Joyce could, theoretically, handle.

Since I followed the recipe pretty much to the letter (well, OK, I only used 3/4 of the sugar), I see no need to retype it here, but I will offer a couple of tips about strawberry jam in particular. First, you’re going to need to hull those berries — that is, remove the leaves and any tough white flesh around them. Alton Brown recommends the star tip from a pastry bag as the ultimate hulling appliance, so if I ever make jam in the kitchen of my mother, a champion cake decorator*, I’ll know just what to use. But for those of us who lack that particular tool, I think a teaspoon works fine. Maybe a half-teaspoon if your berries are small. Second, unless you are the sort of person who likes giant globs of strawberry in your jam, you will probably want to slice the berries, perhaps with an egg slicer. I found this produced much smaller solid bits, enough to remind you that you’re eating something that came from an actual piece of fruit, but still spreadable and easy to swallow.

bubble, bubble

I ended up with two and a half 8-oz. jars of jam rather than the four to six jars advertised, so this was not as hugely economical an undertaking as I’d imagined, but maybe that’s just because strawberries aren’t as dense as some other fruits. Jacob and I polished off the half-jar alongside a batch of French toast — it was, of course, necessary to test the product before delivering a jar and some of these scones as a belated Mother’s Day gift. I am happy to report that it tastes exactly like strawberry jam.

I can’t wait for peach season so I can work on a ginger-peach version. Meanwhile, I’ve also been thinking about a strawberry salsa, essentially your normal salsa fresca or pico de gallo-type ingredients, just with strawberries instead of tomatoes. I’ll probably try that out this week, as long as the prices hold.

* I’m not kidding. When I turned 7 I had an Australia-themed birthday party, and she produced a sheet cake adorned with two kangaroos. Last year I said “Surprise me,” and she came up with a giant three-dimensional teapot, complete with blue fondant handle and spout.

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A change of heart

May 13, 2010

I have mixed feelings about fennel.

This has not always been the case; I used to just plain hate the stuff. Whenever my mother bought Italian sausages to cook in a big pot of homemade tomato sauce, I would take my sausage, scrape off the sauce, and carefully dissect it to remove any fennel seeds lurking in the surrounding meat. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve grimaced in disappointment upon biting into pizzelle, those crisp, anise-flavored cookies that look like flat golden snowflakes. And I would always carefully set aside the black licorice jellybeans in hopes that someone else would eat them. (A true friend is someone who likes the Jelly Bellies you don’t, and vice versa.)

I think the first thing that began to change my mind was my friend Jesse, whose culinary opinion I trust mainly because he introduced me to the wonder of popcorn cooked on the stove in olive oil.  Jesse told me I should really try a fennel bulb — I think he recommended slicing and sauteing it. I did not take his advice, but it stuck in my head.

Somewhere along the line I started to like those little snowball-shaped Italian cookies. Yes, they had that faint licorice taste, but they were so meltingly soft, capped with sugary frosting and maybe some rainbow sprinkles, that I couldn’t resist. And a few months ago I bravely ordered the artichoke-fennel soup at Flour, hoping my love of artichokes would smooth over any weirdness from the fennel. (It did.)

And then I started reading Orangette. The author of this blog is an avowed defender of unloved vegetables everywhere, and since I share many of her pet causes — well, Brussels sprouts, anyway — that was one last reason to give fennel another chance. And so this week when I went to Whole Foods to pick up some lip balm and one piece of unusual produce, the lucky winner was a smallish fennel bulb.

I could have sauteed or braised the thing, but being in tech week made me not so interested in concocting anything slow or remotely complicated. In short, I wanted salad. And so I rounded up all the raw veggies in my refrigerator, sliced some fennel on top, and drizzled it all with lemon vinaigrette.

It wasn’t bad. Sniffing the fennel while working with it, I was put off by the aroma and wimped out, only using half the bulb, lest its flavor spoil the rest of the salad. But when I actually tasted a slice, it was sweet, mild, crunchy, and only very faintly licorice-y. I wouldn’t say I’m a total fennel convert; I still wouldn’t knowingly touch the seeds. But I think it’s safe to say I’ll be giving the bulb a whole lot more second chances.

The following is not a recipe, so much as a list of what was in my house on Monday and what I did with it. It’s inspired by a couple of salads from Orangette, but it doesn’t share many ingredients — really just the fennel and the vinaigrette.

Second-Chance Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

2 handfuls salad greens, rinsed and torn (I used red leaf lettuce; next time I’ll try arugula)

4 large radishes, thinly sliced

1/2 bulb fennel, thinly sliced

1 celery stalk, sliced on the diagonal

1 Tbsp. fresh Italian parsley, coarsely chopped

Pecorino Romano cheese, shaved

For vinaigrette:

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 Tbsp. olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk vinaigrette ingredients in small bowl. Combine all other ingredients except cheese in large bowl, add dressing, and toss to coat. Divide salad between two plates and top with cheese.

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In pursuit of delicious

May 10, 2010

I know it’s May and I should be craving delicate baby vegetables or whatever, but sometimes my stomach has a mind of its own. Sometimes my stomach wants wide eggy noodles topped with something rich and meaty, and sometimes my refrigerator and my pantry corroborate, by containing a jumbo pack of chicken leg quarters and a bottle of red wine that’s been languishing unopened since November, when I received it as a thank-you gift from the cast of Anne of Green Gables. And then I have to go find the recipe for chicken cacciatore.

I first made this dish about two months ago, in late February. I knew it came from a magazine, probably in a wintry month, and I had a hunch it was an older issue of Food and Wine. One containing another favorite recipe, since that was how I stumbled on this one — I’d skipped right over it in the first place, remembering how I’d disliked chicken cacciatore as a child (sorry, Mom). But this recipe looked different, its flavors simpler and brighter, and it seemed worth a try. Well, suffice it to say, I liked it so much in February that now I’m hankering for it again, totally out of season.

I think I actually picked up the right issue first, the one with this pasta recipe. But in scanning the recipe index, I didn’t see anything under “chicken cacciatore,” so I moved on. After checking all the winter months of three years’ worth of Gourmet and a year of Food and Wine (plus a couple of older single issues), I gave up and Googled it. Sure enough, it was in the February 2008 Food and Wine, but listed as “Spicy Chicken Cacciatore.” Hmph. Next time I’ll check the whole magazine myself.

While out buying a bell pepper, parsley, tomatoes, and a jar of peperoncini, I also succumbed to the wiles of a fresh-baked loaf of Italian bread (on sale for $1), a log of goat cheese (not so cheap, but made in Vermont, which is practically local), and a bag of radishes. I think at least half of my impulse grocery purchases are radishes. Somehow they never make it onto my shopping list, but then I see them in the produce section, so round and cheerful-looking, and exclaim, “Oh, right! Radishes! I LOVE radishes!” Because really, who wouldn’t go nuts for a little, bright-red vegetable with a cool, peppery crunch? They’re perfect. I eat them whole, in two bites, for breakfast, with lunch, whenever. I’m eating one right now.

tasty things

Back in the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of the zinfandel to enjoy while cooking. It was tasty, nicely fruity and a little peppery (whoever picked those gifts, I salute you), but halfway through, I began to feel a bit tipsy. Jacob quite sensibly asked if I’d eaten anything recently, and in retrospect I hadn’t, not since the fried eggs and toast I’d made for a late breakfast, oh, four or five hours ago. I cut two emergency slices of the Italian bread, slathered them with the cheese, and ate them with, of course, a couple of radishes. And some peperoncini, after I opened the jar. Mmm. That fixed me up pretty quickly, so I could deal with more important things, like browning chicken parts and slicing peppers and onions.

Anyway, about this recipe: it’s from a feature where three big-name chefs who also own markets were asked to come up with a meal from ingredients they sell, for less than $30. The chicken cacciatore was Barbara Lynch’s main-dish contribution, and it calls for a totally manageable list of pretty standard ingredients.

I make a couple of minor substitutions, based more on what’s available in my local supermarkets than actual preference: she says to use 8 boneless chicken thighs, but I’ve had an easier time finding bone-in thigh-and-drumstick combos, which are probably a little more flavorful anyway. She calls for a pound of ripe plum tomatoes, but Star Market wasn’t selling those in February (boo!), and I found that a big can of crushed plum tomatoes works just fine. Or half a can, and you can save the rest to use as a base for minestrone soup. Lastly, I’m not sure exactly what kind of pickled peppers Lynch uses, but my dad recommended peperoncini. Since they’re tiny, I’ve been using 4-5 instead of the 2 originally specified, but that hasn’t been enough to convey their spicy, vinegary character. I think maybe next time I’ll try the whole (12 oz.) jar and see what happens.

Oh, and Lynch says to cook the whole thing for a mere 30 minutes once all the ingredients are in the cooking vessel. Maybe it’s because I use bone-in chicken, but I find I really want a good 60-90 minutes to get the chicken fully cooked and delectably tender. The extra time also helps the sauce components meld into a complex, flavorful whole.

Spicy Chicken Cacciatore

Adapted from Barbara Lynch in Food and Wine, February 2008. Serves 4.

2 Tb. olive oil

4 whole chicken legs (thigh and drumstick)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced (orange or yellow is OK too)

5-10 pickled hot peppers (depending on size and desired spiciness), thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves (or 4-5, if you’re me), thinly sliced

1/2 cup red wine

1 1/2 cups chicken stock

1 lb ripe plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped, -OR- some of a 28-oz. can crushed plum tomatoes

2 Tbsp. chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

1. In a deep skillet or Dutch oven, heat olive oil. Season chicken with salt and pepper and add to pan, skin side down. Cook over medium heat, turning once, until lightly browned, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. (Unless your cooking vessel is huge, you will probably need to do this in two batches.)

2. Add the onion, peppers, and garlic and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Pour in the wine and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Now is a good time to scrape up any browned chicken bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan.

3. Add chicken stock and tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Return chicken to pan, skin side up, and bring to a simmer. (If you had to brown your chicken in batches, you will probably also have to stack the chicken pieces. Just make sure the top ones don’t get too dry — I like to spoon some of the sauce over them, which makes the skin too soft to eat, but I’d rather have that than dry chicken.) Cover partially and cook over moderate heat for 60-90 minutes, until chicken is cooked (insert a knife to test for doneness) and sauce is noticeably reduced.

Serve with any wide, flat noodles — pappardelle or tagliatelle would be lovely, but plain old egg noodles are good too. Just don’t buy Shure-Fine. They have kind of a weird texture. Not that I would know.

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Adventures in Lexington

May 6, 2010

Not that anyone’s keeping track, but it’s been a few days since I’ve posted, and I’ve been feeling oddly anxious about not having the time to sit down and write anything. Thursday I was gloriously, happily busy, but Friday I wasted a lot of time quietly freaking out about a tick bite (more on that later), and Friday night through Sunday afternoon were spent almost entirely in the service of musical theater, since City of Angels closed Saturday and then I had a five-hour music rehearsal for Rent, which opens in less than two weeks. And the usual days of teaching and more rehearsals, and being grouchy about the lack of clean water (a water main burst west of Boston, leaving some 30 communities without drinkable tap water for two days). So now I’m catching up.

Thursday morning I met my friend Meghan for coffee at a new place in Lexington called ride.studio.cafe, a one-stop coffee-and-bicycle shop. So far their website is mysteriously mum on the cafe side of things, and when Meghan called to ask about their hours, she was treated to the following reponse:

“We’re not really sure yet – it varies from day to day. When were you thinking of coming in?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Oh, yeah, we’ll be open tomorrow.”

Initial appearances to the contrary, they do seem to know what they’re doing. The shop smells of bicycles tires and two-thirds of the floor space is taken up by bikes and related gear, but everything looks clean and shiny, with huge, sunny front windows overlooking Mass Ave. I ordered a pot of chai (they serve MEM teas, like parent cafe Diesel) and it was enormous, enough to fill a big, wide mug three or four times; the sturdy metal pot kept the tea piping hot without oversteeping. Meghan’s latte was capped with some very respectable-looking foam, and we shared a huge pear-cranberry scone. I didn’t notice any pear flavor, sadly, but there were plenty of tart, juicy berries.

While in Lexington, I went for a walk up Fiske Hill, which is notable in part because of its role in the Revolutionary War, but more importantly because it’s a short, easy walk with some lovely scenery. And, apparently, snakes. I nearly tripped over a garter snake, who seemed quite affronted at my clumsy approach, drawing back in dismay before he slithered haughtily off the path. I hardly blame him; I’m sure I’m a good deal larger and noisier than most of what he usually encounters.

here there be ticks

I am far from the most physically fit or active person around, but when I come across a field like this — yards and yards of space, and no one around to see me — I have only one impulse: run. And so I did, avoiding winter-brittle bushes and animal burrows. I nearly squashed another garter snake, but this one fled much more quickly than the first. I ran, arms pumping, mouth open to the wind, until my chest burned from all that cold air and I had to stop and catch my breath. It felt wonderful. I think maybe there’s still an athlete in me somewhere, but one who loves the thrill of the wild sprint too much to bother with the tedium of actual training.

Disclaimer: In the shower the next day, I found a tick. I swear I passed second grade, but it was an awfully long time ago, and I guess I forgot the part about checking yourself for tiny little carnivorous arachnids after frolicking in tall grass. Besides bearing scary diseases, ticks are pretty repulsive, and I failed to remove mine correctly, resulting in a visit to the doctor – a round, pleasant Russian woman who at first declared she didn’t know how to remove the remaining black speck, then warned me that I might not like her after she finished. She was wrong: it didn’t hurt at all, and I liked her quite a bit when she finally succeeded. Bottom line: I do not regret running in the grass. But next time I will look for ticks.

You see flowers in these weeds