Archive | November, 2010

Sloppy Kathleens & Hot-To-Trot Turkey Soup & WTF Leftover Turkey and Trimmings Pie

30 Nov

Thanksgiving packs a bipolar wallop.

All of the anxiety associated with cooking for extremely judgmental and picky eaters/public speaking/creepy things like spiders/bathing suit season, combined with the joy associated with extremely quiet and giggly newborns/fluffy puppies that you aren’t personally responsible for training/unlimited top-shelf happy hours/eating with your favorite people in the world, goes into the preparation and consumption of the Thanksgiving meal.

The Harvest Festival was created for and by rugged, religion-crazed pilgrims hell-bent on carving a Puritanical life for themselves out of a hostile environment half a world away from their hometowns and everyone they know.

One must proceed with caution when walking in the footsteps of (possibly insane) giants.

I’ ve always felt that if you don’t emerge from dinner with a goofy smile on your face, in addition to a few new burns, cuts,  knife blisters and hurt feelings, you’re doing something terribly, terribly wrong.

This Thanksgiving, my husband and I headed up to my parent’s house in Connecticut to cook and break bread with my parents, three of my mother’s siblings, Stephen’s father, Stephen’s brother, our dog Penny and my parent’s dog (and Penny’s best friend), Sadie.

We arrived with a batch of my Coconut Yum Puffs, cranberries candied in a basic simple syrup (we ate them over ice cream and as garnish in drinks) and the most incredible Deep Dish Pecan Pie I have ever made or eaten. (Recipe adapted for The New York Times from The Diner in Brooklyn.) Aside from setting off a Pecan Pie-related fire alarm at 4:30 am in our White Plains apartment and forcing my non-insomniac husband out of bed at the butt-crack of dawn to casually fling open the windows that I had been ineffectually clawing at for 30 endless seconds, my morning was as smooth as a good, homemade, buttery gravy (just a few lumps here and there to give it character).

Then we arrived at my parent’s house.

A quick hello, a few hugs? No time!

My dad had to run out to buy corn for the corn pudding, Stephen had to run out to buy ice for the homemade ice cream, one aunt was napping, the other aunt was cooking sausage for stuffing, my mom was cubing toasted and herbed bread for stuffing, I was told to dry-brine the turkey, my in-laws were still on the road (and lost) and my uncle was sitting at the kitchen table giving pointers to anyone who would listen and watching Mom and me chop, laugh, plan, argue over details and wonder aloud when we could crack open a bottle of something tasty without seeming like total lushes.

Seven hours of cooking, feverish debates over degrees of done-ness for absolutely everything and a few cocktails later, we were ready to sit down to a surprisingly delicious feast of countless dishes, courses and tall tales.

Three hours later, we all left the table, stuffed, sated and sleepy.

The best part? Leftovers: the memories will last a lifetime (cue the Lifetime Holiday Movie music), but the food, not so much. The next day, my Mom and Dad weighed us down with parcel after parcel of carcasses, meaty bits, butter-logged casseroles, oil-slicked veggies and countless empty carbs.

Even when I’m throwing together the most rudimentary of meals, I feel like some sort of medieval wizardess cooking a meal from scratch. But when I’m creating dishes from cobbled together remnants of a meal made by a team of my favorite people? I feel like I’m gathering bits of their essences too — good karma to pile in the pot.

First, I conjure up a picked over carcass, some chopped veg, spices and a few gallons of water; I heat the materials I’ve gathered; I fuss; I wave my wand spoon around; I shriek and cackle; I threaten and cojole. Finally, I pour my creation into a bowl, sit down with my husband and sup.

Ta da!

Humble, paltry, bland ingredients brought to heel and transmorgified by little more than fire and a pinch of know-how. Below, a few items I threw together for a Harvest Festival Part II.

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Mediterranean Galette & a Vegetarian Roasted Tomato Soup-Dip-Thingy

23 Nov

The making of dough, in my mind, is connected with two mutually exclusive, and equally intimidating paradigmatic models of cookery.

The first model, my Grandmother. My mother’s mother grew up on, and reared her own children on, an old-fashioned farm in the Midwest. She was an Earth Mother Homesteader generations after that was considered the norm and generations before it was considered chic. She was an Earth Mother Homesteader precisely during the period of American History when it was decidedly offbeat and unglamorous. Grandma sewed clothes, killed and plucked chickens, fed pigs, threw bales of hay and made every scrap of food that went into her family’s mouths from scratch. She got up early and went to bed late; she ate a heaping spoonful of homemade peanut butter when it all became to be too much, but she never uttered a word of complaint to a soul. (Though everyone ran in the other direction when the peanut butter jar came out). Grandma died 24 years ago, but my mother and her siblings still discuss her perfectly crafted doughnuts, cakes, pies and breads in reverent tones.

My mother uses her mother’s rolling pin every time she rolls out dough; she tells me that one day, I will inherit it.

The second model, one particular croissant eaten in Paris while walking with my mom. One glorious, sun-drenched afternoon in May, we were vacationing in Paris; I was nine — I had no idea how lucky I was. As we strolled aimlessly through the streets, she pointed to a small bakery on a dusty back-corner of the Canal-Saint Martin neighborhood; I ran to the window and gawked at the financiers, petit fours, tartlettes and cakes. We went in, hemmed and hawed over the gem-like edibles. Finally, we purchased two comparably humble croissants and spent the next hour slowly flaking off layers of pastry and savoring the meltingly soft, lush, buttery carb puff. It was the best piece of amalgamated flour, fat, salt and water I’ve ever had in my life.

It was too rich to eat in large bites, too addictive to save for later, too ephemeral to not stretch the experience across as wide a temporal span as possible and too delicious to express in words. My mother and I just existed together, in that sunny hour with our croissants, strolling across the shade-and-sun patched Paris pavement.

Unlike its numerous American counterparts that I’ve greedily devoured since, the quintessential croissant isn’t dowdy with butter; every particle has soaked in the ideal amount of fat and leavening, lending it a sprightly spring and perky joie de vivre its clumsier stateside cousins can only ape. “These are prepared and shaped differently, but I swear, they taste just like the rolls Mama used to make.” I believed her then and I still do now.

I’m not afraid to tackle a souffle or a consomme, but the notion of baking something as simple as shortbread fills me with dread. I realize this is wildly irrational; not only is it probably impossible for any of my most obsessed-over doughs to approach the peerless ideal Grandma achieved as easily as breathing, no matter how split, broken, shattered, crumby or unrisen they are, she certainly wouldn’t think less of me, nor would my mother– she who consistently cranks out hideous, lopsided cakes, holey pies and misshapen loaves (delicious as they may be) can’t afford to point fingers.

But still.

This week, I swallowed my fear, prepared a Mediterranean Galette in Honor of Grandma — and a huge batch of Vegetarian Roasted Tomato Soup-Dip-Thingy just in case my worst fears were realized so Stephen and I would have something to nom on while the Eagles battled the Giants. (Go Eagles!)

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Beef Empanadas by Way of China with Korean Black Beans and Coconut Yum Puffs

16 Nov

One of my favorite things about living in White Plains is its totally unintentional, unironic, very pre-mod touchy-feely multi-culti cuteness.

Aggressively indie, DIY, greenmarket-uber-alles Brooklyn it ain’t. Just steps from my apartment, there’s an Uno’s Chicago Grill. And if I want to throw on my hiking boots, I can really hit bastions of culinary experimentation and avant garde cookery, like PF Chang’s, Legal Sea Food and The Cheesecake Factory.

But in addition to the white bread drudgery of the main thoroughfares, White Plains also has 32 separate neighborhoods, many of which are, for better or for worse, distinct ethnic enclaves. Creepy, Orwellian, dystopian, uncomfortable social implications aside, the set-up makes for excellent eats. On my jaunts through the Plains with my dog Penny, we’ve discovered little pockets of Puerto Rico, Peru, Mexico, Italy, China and Japan, with little grocery stores, delis and cafes to match, their larders stocked to the brim with food from their homelands.

Every time I turn a corner in a new neighborhood, I smell tantalizing, funky, homey, spicy foodie smells — and I’m inspired.

Whenever I wonder how one would go about making anything from traditional North African Harira, old-school Scandinavian Gravlax or homemade Thai Fish Sauce, my go-to Bible of world cookery is Mark Bittman’s “The Best Recipes in the World.”

Since moving to White Plains, I’ve found myself reaching for “The Best Recipes” more often than ever. On Sunday, I decided to take that globe-eating spirit of gustatory whimsy sparked on recent neighborhood jaunts and create a buffet of world cuisine to pick from. Our friend Benedick, a rabid Pats fan, was coming over to watch football, and he is one of my favorite fellow serious eaters. I always know who to call if I want someone to sample my Pho, or if I need a buddy who will try sauteed goat eyeballs with me. He’s one of Stephen’s oldest New York friends, and one of our first visitors from the big, bad, city.

I’m including recipes for the most successful dishes below. (Some of my attempts bombed, most notably my frighteningly beige rendition of the usually inimitably spicy, herbaceous, bracingly fresh Pudina Pulao [a.k.a. Indian Mint Rice]).

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Mediterranean Meatballs with Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

9 Nov

Garlic — packed with disease-slaying antioxidants and other magical properties that have been shown to do everything from reduce cancerous cells to help ease headaches to teach Billy how to tie his shoes to make the dullest dish on earth taste like a night in Venice, dancing under a full moon — is by far the most important component in my arsenal of vampire fighting weapons. Battling vampires, as any good Catholic / individual of Eastern European descent / viewer of the WB can tell you, is an essential, if vaguely tiresome, part of the human condition.

My husband and his people, Methodist / of German and Scandinavian descent / viewer of dull educational shows on PBS, have never been exposed to the grim and rugged reality of a full-throttled assault of the blood-sucking midnight howlers.

Stephen and his fair-skinned blond and bonny clan have merrily skipped across centuries, through fang and cape-free prairies dappled by a bright and cheery sun; fairies leaped along with them, flinging sparkling sprinkles of sugar dust in their wake.

He fails to understand, in his vast and wide-eyed innocence, why I, and my people, (who have done battle with the pallid, cackling clan of coffin thumpers since time immemorial) feel the need to load down everything we put in our mouths with mounds of the effulgent stuff: raw, roasted, sauteed, pickled; softneck, rocambole, purple stripe. We love the stink rose in all of its various forms. Stephen just thinks it stinks.

If you told me, 10 years ago, that I would marry the sort of man who didn’t buy garlic in bulk as a matter of course, never mind avoided the stuff, I would have whipped out my crucifix and doused you in a bath of holy water. I would have assumed that only a member of the dark and toothy side would dare to utter such a patently ridiculous, libelous and seditious statement.

But love is blind. In our case, it also suffers from anosmia.

Our opposing world views have led to a few serious clashes in the kitchen. One notable incident involved Stephen wrestling me to the ground in a vain attempt to prevent me from adding a fifth clove of garlic to a giant, bubbling vat of Venison Stew. (The fool! He chucked the head I had wedged protectively between my knees in our overflowing garbage can and removed the offending bag from our kitchen; but while he was gone, I merely located my back-up stash under the kale in the crisper — the last place he’d ever venture — and threw in another three cloves out of pure, unadulterated spite.)

The recipes I cranked out this Sunday were part of my over-arching aim to find common ground on the violent battle ground to which our taste buds have sent us.

Behold, the sweet/savory, herb-packed Mediterranean Meatballs and the Weird Fusion Marinated Portobello Mushrooms That Totally Work. Continue reading

Stuffed Shells and Cheese and Nut Terrine

1 Nov

On Halloween night, it finally started to feel like Autumn. I’m always loathe to relinquish the last few carefree patches of warm summer sunshine, jacket-free strolls with Penny, glove-free commutes and the refreshing sound of ice clinking around tall glasses of fizzy G&T’s sipped outside at dusk. But even I have to admit: it’s about time.

Even I — consummate craver of sun-drenched berries; sweet corn; over-ripe tomatoes and crisp, young lettuce leaves — am ready to bundle up for the farmer’s market, munch on hot apple cider donuts by the dozen, whip up warm pear tarts and drain down tongue-singing mugs of dark hot chocolate upon which fat, cascading, quivering, melting mounds of whipped cream sit like jolly sumo wrestlers awaiting battle.

This weekend, Stephen and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary by lunching at that classic Brooklyn Golden Oldie, the River Cafe, and taking one final turn around our Brooklyn Heights apartment. It was an auspicious farewell to summer and Brooklyn. (We sat next to Michael Moore! He was dressed up in his Sunday best: baseball cap, wrinkled khaki shorts, pill-plagued fleece. Fancy!)

After eating a delicious meal of scallop ceviche, perfectly cooked branzino stuffed with sausages and shrimp and topped with a thin layer of crisp, buttery toast and chocolate covered orange petit fours that reminded me of our trip to Paris, we strolled gloriously hat and glove-free to our old apartment, closed it up, collected our final grubby remnants from the cabinets, threw out some old fish sauce and headed back to Westchester like the corny suburbanites we’re becoming.

When I woke up on Sunday, the air had a definitive, thrilling chill. I decided to celebrate our national day of spookiness and the first proper evening of ectothermia by cranking out a veritable pu pu platter of cold-busting and ghost-vanquishing cheesiness.

Who could possibly shiver while consuming cheese?

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