Archive | January, 2011

Oodles of Noodles: Homemade Noodles, Two Italian Ways & Spicy Chinese Soba Noodle Salad with Pickled Jalapenos

31 Jan

Everyone has their weak spot; that little, vulnerable spot, right under their ribs. For some it’s LOL kittens, for others, paper-thin Alexander Wang T-shirts. It doesn’t matter how many they see or own, they need more, more, more!

My weakness is carbs. I can be bribed into almost any activity with the promise of a nice toasted everything bagel con schmear at the end of the ordeal. Or better yet, a crusty baguette overflowing with sinfully expensive French cheese. No wait: risotto. Paella with smoky chorizo! Udon noodles with miso and scallions cut on the bias! You get the picture.

Over the weekend, I joined two of my oldest girlfriends from high school, Ashling and Dina, at the Cheesecake Factory in White Plains. Don’t be alarmed: our tongues were firmly lodged in our cheeks. We were quite aware of the sociological/political implications of our provocative demagoguery. We’re crazy like that — always have been. The notion of consuming 1,750 calories worth of wasabi-crusted tuna or 2,310 calories worth of beef ribs in a giant warehouse with piped-in American Idol-approved tunes, perky families of 10 and an atmosphere of jollity approaching levels that require medication might intimidate some, but for us, it’s just part of our lifestyle of rule and convention-flouting, man.

After surviving our appetizers and main courses without visibly busting a gut or artery, we moved onto dessert. Or rather, they did. I sampled their selections (a sundae and key-lime cheesecake, both delicious), but held onto the table’s bread basket, with an iron fist. That’s all I wanted: just two loaves of surprisingly tasty whole-wheat and plain French bread with a crock of softened, salty butter. Mmm.

I would have requested a second basket if I didn’t feel that I was already pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior by hoarding and hanging onto the basket throughout dinner, and yes, dessert — a tacky and shameful move even the most unschooled, young and clueless of our fellow diners would have sniffed at.

On Sunday, instead of waking up chastened after my embarrassing behavior, I just wished I’d had the cajones to ask for more. In celebration of my lack of control, I decided to prepare a meal for Stephen and me centered around noodles. As Jeffrey Steingarten recently pointed out in Vogue, noodles are quite possibly the perfect food. Not because they’re nutritionally complete, like the boringly and ubiquitously vaunted egg, but because they’re delicious. They come in a stunning variety of textures, hues, sizes, shapes and ingredients; they can be manipulated into forming the basis of almost any dish in any cuisine. Or they can be the star.

I rolled up my sleeves, made a big batch of homemade noodles and dressed them in simple Italian garb. I also whipped out a pack of soba noodles I had stashed in the pantry and made a fun, zesty soba noodle salad. Click below for recipes and more pictures.

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Greenmarket Cook Off, Every Day: Braised Brussels Sprouts & Brined and Roasted Chicken & Pickled Winter Veg

24 Jan

The Greenmarket Cassoulet Cook Off

Cook offs, once the sad and grubby purview of repressed Republican housewives in the Midwest, are now the urbane, retro-chic terroir for the hipster, post-ironic set.

This weekend, Stephen and I attended the Third Annual Greenmarket Cassoulet Cook-Off at Jimmy’s in the East Village. Our friend Lisa entered, with a fierce, traditional, uber-artisanal dish featuring homemade sausage with duck confit, duck liver, pork shoulder, magical white beans, a spirited persillade and bread crumbs toasted in duck fat. (All sourced from heritage animals and local, organic farms, natch).

Lisa's busy, stop bothering her

I helped her cart about 20 pounds of the unctuous, lush stuff over to the back room of Jimmy’s, where we set up a makeshift warming stand and sat down to eat and chat with a few hundred fellow food nerds. A baker’s dozen worth of competitors entered the cook off, and each one was more quirkily outfitted, sweetly countenanced and offered a more aggressively artisanal and offbeat menu of fare than the last.

There’s something magical, corny, lovely and life affirming about a cook off. Much like homemade Twinkies, Jello molds and marshmallow fluff,  the cook off seems to belong to a twee-er era of American History, one in which Leave It to Beaver sounded less like a bad porn, and more like a veritable window into American suburban life.

Pre-DDT drama, pre-Silent Spring; post-Depression; post-post Industrial Revolution; a brief blink of God’s eye when the country held its breath, smiled and waited to see what would happen next.

And, yes, even a time when people gathered their food — not just in giant plastic and metal boxes where they’d buy a variety of smaller plastic and metal boxes to put in their plastic and metal driving boxes so they could rush home to unpack their small plastic and metal boxes and put the contents of those small boxes in their cold plastic and metal storage box that sits in a larger plastic and metal kitchen box in their plastic and metal housing box — but in actual, you know. … Markets.

Outside. Where it’s green and other green things grow and die, and one is reminded of the circle of life and dust to dust and that from which we come … yada, yada, Michael Pollan, yada.

At the Greenmarket Cook Off, there was no room, no time, for off-season from across the planet flown asparagus, there was only the here, the now, the warm,the homey, the rich food; the fizzy, the cold, the hoppy beer; the near, the dear, the cozily dressed good friends and fellow travelers.

After many well-spent hours, Stephen and I bid adieu to our Brooklyn-bound friends, waddled home to White Plains, full of rich meat, beans, small-batch beers, hot air.

I woke up the next day, feeling re-invigorated and newly inspired to cook and eat seasonally, take a few extra minutes in the kitchen to make each meal special, and to remember to celebrate each meal, whenever possible, with friends. Oh, and monter au buerre, darling.

This week, I made Braised Brussels Sprouts (with extra canneloni beans and an added dash of fat at the end to make it a mini meal in and of itself), Roasted and Brined Chicken (sick of the interminably rubbery and flab-ladden results I get from traditionally sauteed and roasted chickens, I decided to try brining on for size) and Pickled Winter Veg (to enliven salads, sandwiches and meats in the dull, cold nights when I can’t muster the zest for life to cook a proper meal). Click on for recipes and pictures.

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Comfort for the Cold: Potato Pierogies & Sausage, Parmesan Rind and Lentil Soup & Fried Mashed Potato Balls

17 Jan

The circumstances under which I have met most of my best friends are generally wildly inauspicious. There’s something about banding together with another being during a particularly grim moment in one’s life that bonds you — the common enemy, the shared campaign of grumpy and repressed hostility, the rugged ordeal overcome, etc., etc.

I first encountered the uniquely marvelous Lisa on a sagging, smelly couch in the stockroom of a catering company in Manhattan. We were both interviewing for a gig we weren’t particularly interested in, but we desperately needed.

It was a few years ago, squat in the middle of the economic downturn; I was fresh out of culinary school, mid-career change, my  husband was in law school, rent was high, we had a mutt to feed, times were tougher than a snaggle-toothed transvestite hooker at 2:00 am on a Wednesday morn’ after a pint of tawny; Lisa was just back from a two-year teaching stint at a highly regarded cooking school in England, she had bills up the whazoo, a zany roommate’s pug to feed and an addiction to homemade duck confit to fund.

We were there to make some fast, dirty money. The only legal way to accomplish that with a culinary degree, of course, is to become a kitchen assistant at a high-volume catering company.

We were both hired to work their hectic parties and couldn’t wait to get started (read: get paid).

Within a few months, we found ourselves regularly strapping convection ovens to our backs and waddling up five flights of stairs to a makeshift kitchen on the top floor of a Times Square nightclub to crank out bad hors d’oeuvres (think endive spears stuffed with soft cheeses, garnished with chopped chives) in a badly lit, spottily heated, shack-style wooden crate of a room. We would spend our time running about, chopping chives, rolling our eyes and getting yelled at by frazzled event planners who weren’t quite sure what the client, or their boss, or they wanted us to do at any given moment, but were quite sure they wanted it done five minutes ago.

We laughed, we cried. We sang songs of innocence; we learned songs of experience.

We bonded over our love of all things James Beard and our disdain for chives as garnish; riotous outings at downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn watering holes and grazing joints ensued. While our tenure at the company was not destined to stretch far into the horizon, our friendship has.

From the beginning, Lisa and I have operated our ambling, obsessive, ribald and exuberant circus of culinary and cultural curatorship  under a few stringent rules: the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness and nectarous bites cannot, will not, be curtailed by tiresome people, places or events.

This weekend — not for the first time — we ran into a significant obstacle, one that a few dashes of caustic wit couldn’t begin to dissolve. We met in the East Village on the corner of 12th street and 2nd avenue; our plan was simple: grab a decent beer at a warm dive bar and then find a tasty bite to eat. Before long, we were chilled to the bone marrow and, quite frankly, angry. I’m not sure why this fact is so difficult for us to accept, but it is: the search for genuine, cheap indie bars in the East Village has become as rife with drama and difficulties as the search for a genuine job that pays our intellectual and spiritual bills, as well as the paper stuff.

Life is hard!

We found plenty of bars with amazingly tasty $12 beers on tap and plenty of bars with amazingly crappy $4 beers on tap, and nothing in between. (Restaurants were a different story; ultimately, we ate several small plates at Bar Carrera, one of the bars that kicked off the current tapas craze. The food is simple, impeccably sourced, beautifully presented, intrinsically clean, deceptively complicated, lush. If you go, make sure you get the Jamon wrapped dates and the pork belly bocadillo.) Luckily, our cranky search could end when we remembered Jimmy’s No. 43. We’ve been to Jimmy’s dozens of times, but somehow our quest for an old-school dive threw us off the well-worn Jimmy trail.

Jimmy’s is like really good comfort food in the middle of a hurricane; it isn’t always the cheapest, or the fastest, or the neatest. But if you have a little time, a few extra dollars, you must go. The owner — Jimmy — is almost always there, milling around, hugging and high-fiving people, making sure everyone’s happy, buying someone (usually 10 people) a beer or two. His staff of adorable, sprightly faeries hop around with a healthy splash of punk rock attitude; the food flowing out of the kitchen is classic gastropub/green market/farm to table fare with a bacon-y, aromatic, Italian high kick; the beer selection is quirky, seasonal and gorgeous (the usual suspects like Goose Island and Left Hand share the stage with lesser known gems like Stillwater); the space is haute Bavarian rec room meets shabby chic on acid; the experience is primal, proto-dive bar, post-green eating revolution, divine.

Go there, and be inspired, as I was, to reach deep inside and ask myself: what do you really want today? I woke up with the answer — food that would nourish me through the seemingly endless winter snow blight; meals that would warm Stephen and me up while we sat under blankets on the couch with Penny watching the latest disaster-cast on Tunisia; snacks I could pop one-handed in my mouth while texting Lisa with my latest litany of complaints and laughs about life.

This is comforing, this is food. Fried mashed potatoes. Lovely on a cold Sunday.

Food synonymous with comfort. The answer? Potato Pierogies; Sausage, Parmesan and Lentil Soup; Fried Mashed Potato Balls. Life is delicious. Click on for recipes and a few more pictures.

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Globe-Trotting on My Stove: Focaccia-Pizza, Honky Hot and Sour Soup and Cauliflower Dressed in Greece

10 Jan

I am quite sure that some nice, jolly fellow is sitting — right now — by a roaring fire on the northern tippy-top of our planet, rocking in his superannuated rocking chair, stroking his long soft winter-white beard, making a list, checking it twice, sipping a mug of marshmallow-flecked caramel cocoa, and MapQuesting the most direct route to my apartment in White Plains so that he can drop off a large bundle of cash, no strings attached. Because I’m so nice.

As soon as that happens, Stephen and I will take the baggie, thank him, pack the baggie in a bag, grab the Pen, and hit the road.

Pen seems ambivalent about my plans, at best

We will start our journey in Cambodia and see where the wind takes us. You know — play it by ear, chill in countries that are cool with traveling dogs, sleep under the stars, sup on monkey brains, catch fish with our bare hands, swim naked in the moonlight. Make sure to take lots of pictures and post them on Facebook.

Until then, we are doing most of our traveling via the kitchen. We go everywhere!

Lately, we’ve been focusing on warm regions like Southern Italy and Greece — we both love the sweet and sour, agrodolce flavor profiles of their honey-and-raisin and lemon-and-olive tinged vegetable-rich recipes. Another frequent stop in our taste bud tour is the Sichuan Province of China.

Though Stephen fears the chili-flecked wrath of the country’s spiciest fare (in his mind, Dan Dan Noodles occupy the same vague, sinister and potentially intestine-melting territory as liquid bleach and molten lava), he loves the briney, saucy, vinegary verve that enlivens even their blandest block of boiled tofu.

As do I.

This week, I made Focaccia-Pizza, Honky Hot and Sour Soup and Cauliflower Dressed in Greece. All were riffs on classic fare from Italy, China and Greece, with our particular palates in mind — I degreased the focaccia a bit, while adding a zesty sauce and a mix of highly meltable, sweet and mellow American and super salty, assertively nutty Italian cheese; I added honky-approved broccoli and extra tofu to the soup; finally, I add pistachios to the lightly steamed cauliflower recipe for extra crunch and tweaked the classic sweet-sour sauce elements to pack an extra punch.

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In Praise of Peasant Food: Kimchi, Chestnut Soup and Korean Red Beans and Rice

3 Jan

Is there anything better than traditional peasant food?

In my mind, nothing beats old-school Continental, American or Asian meals invented in village kitchens several generations of cranky grandmothers ago. Access to traditional, untweaked recipes, is notoriously difficult — as lifestyles adjusted to speedier modern times, few families had time, or the inclination, to sit around and sup on  home-cooked meals together and hundreds of years worth of oral recipes were lost in the zombie-like shuffle toward TV dinners.

Before Julia Child or James Beard were out of their nappies, typical Western families were eating half of their meals out of cans and boxes.

Cue a world war or so, widespread environmental devastation, multiple economic calamities, sociopolitical revolutions too numerous to count, the obesity epidemic, a new millennium.

Suddenly, slurping down barely sauteed tripe and gnawing on pigs’ knuckles becomes the height of chic, soigne refinement. “What’s that, darling? You’ll be having the lamb kidneys steeped in a ragu of calves’ blood, camel milk and wild ramps? Excellent choice. Shall we order some Dom? The mellow grass and honeysuckle undertones will contrast ingeniously with the gaminess of your entree.”

Suddenly, sitting at one’s desk and cramming a vaguely wet, gray thing from a packet of foil into one’s mouth and calling it “lunch” has become as unforgiveably  passe and tacky as Tara Reid.

These days, every really cool girl I know has at least one offbeat apron and one Alice Waters cookbook — and failing that, a serious addiction to her BFF’s fledgling line of bite-size organic cherry pie-sicles, artisanal pickled baby peas, etc.

But it’s still tough to produce any old-school recipes. First of all, because broads were too busy feeding half their village to wax on about the process in their diaries and second of all, many of the utensils and ingredients they used a few hundred years ago are simply not widely available today.

Take chestnuts. They are, aside for my beloved green pistachios, my favorite nut. I love them alone, boiled, roasted, braised, sauteed, pureed; I like them in soups, in sauces, in pilafs, on sundaes, spread on buttered toast, in trains, on planes. They are so widely available when they descend like plump little angels from trees in Italy in the fall, locals gather them up by the bushel. It was once so in America as well — until the 19th century, when blight ripped through the East Coast, killing up to 24 miles worth of Chestnut Tree stands per year. By the 1950s, virtually every Chestnut Tree in America was dead, according to a fascinating study of the problem. Even if I could gather them up by the truckload though, would I really be able to devote five hours to scoring, roasting and shelling them, before they would even be edible?

Bagged chestnuts, for lazy ladies

 

No. I would not.

That, of course, is where my local health food store/Chinese grocer comes in. Both carry vacuum-packed bags of the stuff for a few bucks. I feel like a bit of a Sandra Lee semi-half-baked sell-out every time I flagrantly cheat on my oven like that, but there you have it.

I use chestnuts as flavorful, incredibly healthy additions or bases for soups, sauces and rice dishes. They have a similar textural profile as truffles: firm, but meaty. Your mouth will taste substance, but your gut will devour low-fat, high protein, fibrous goodness.

The three amigas: Kathleen, Beth and Amy

A recent visit from my old roommates, the glorious, beautiful vegetarian duo Amy and Beth, reminded me of our silly days in college, spent soaking beans in shallow tubs, whipping up various pickled delights and worrying, (in the innocuous, self-absorbed manner of liberal, relatively rich, white college students, who can afford to have large, sprawling pot-lucks and discuss the worldwide scarcity of food), about the children exploited to make Gap clothing and the warming Arctic circle.

Some things never change: we’re still food-obsessed loud-mouths who think we can solve the world’s problems over some kimchi and kombucha.

I’ve long been in equal parts awe and fright of fermented food, but with Amy and Beth’s long-distance help, I think I can get over it, and learn how to tame my chronic stomach ulcers and other (not life-threatening, but chronically irritating and life-hampering) health issues through the wonders of living food.

In honor of them, I made kimchi this weekend. I’m not going to post a recipe, because my terror prevented me from doing anything aside from robotically following David Lebovitz’s wonderful — not scary at all — recipe for the stuff. It was super easy and, so far, my jar hasn’t exploded or killed me.

So there’s that. Oh, and it’s also delicious by itself, on salads, with black beans, or with sticky rice and sesame oil.

A teeny batch of kimchi

 

 

 

 

 

 

In honor of the awesome broads, like my own cranky grandmother, who broke their backs caring for families big enough to fill a classroom, cooked enough to feed an army every day and never, even once, would have considered using any item adulterated by tin foil to make their family’s dinner, I made the old-school peasant classics, Chestnut Soup and Korean Red Beans and Rice.

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