Archive | February, 2011

Simply Classic: Waldorf Egg Salad Sandwich, Easy Gourmet Pasta a la Lidia, Salad for Salad-Haters

28 Feb

 

Even Stephen will eat this

Like my favorite pair of straight-cut, dark, snug — but not too tight — Rock & Republic jeans, the dishes I want to have around when I’m feeling insecure, sad, rushed or frazzled are simple, utilitarian and just slightly luxe. Sitting down at home to a nice, quiet dish that I know is going to be fantastic, in my well-worn, creased jeans that I know make my butt look good, is a pure, unsullied pleasure that never fails to re-stiffen my upper lip after it has been crushed into a pleated, crumpled sneer by various insidious and grim villains.

The key to success in my go-to comfort recipes is using fresh, seasonal, organic and / or quality ingredients that can sing alone and, together, create a symphony. I am infamous for my cost-cutting ways; I was mocked mercilessly for schlepping around Queens to buy 10-pound bags of lentils when Stephen was in law school and we were broke; my bulk-buying obsession is legion and if organic butter or good oatmeal goes on sale, watch your back because I will cut you if you think for one second that you’re getting your grubby paw on that last, gleaming tub.

However: I loosen the purse strings when I’m buying dairy and proteins. Organic, well-sourced dairy and meat not only tastes better, it helps my insomnia. On my list of late-night obsessions that stymie my REM — 401(k)s vs. IRAs, spiking oil prices, Wikileaks, climate change, the relative merits of poutine vs. disco fries, whether or not Lindsay Lohan and her latest antics signal the stomach-lurching apotheosis of American society’s vertiginous downward spiral, etc, I can tick “my contribution to the death of the local, small farmer in America” off the list of sleep-slashing thoughts. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

But even the best organic, artisanal food will be a flop if you don’t know how to cook it.

Through countless, painful, gruesome recipe-testing sessions, I have gathered a few dozen killer recipes that are relatively cheap to make (even while using the best stuff available), are a snap to execute and please even the staunchest, pickiest critics. (And they’re relatively healthy.)

A few quick notes on techniques:

The best way to boil an egg: Cover egg(s) in cold water. Put over high heat. As soon as the water comes to a rolling boil, cover it, and turn the burner off. After 10 minutes, run cold water over the egg(s) and shake the pot to crack the shells a bit. Dump in a tray of ice. Leave for at least 10 minutes and peel. The ice water bath sounds fussy and annoying, but it’s essential if you don’t want to spend 10 minutes picking teensy egg shell bits off a clammy, studded egg. The swift temperature change causes the egg to contract, creating a little air pocket between the cooked egg and the shell. Easy!

The best way to coat goat cheese: Make sure the log is cold. Stick it in the freezer for five minutes before you cut it — it will be so much easier that way. Working quickly, dip it in the egg wash, then the bread crumbs, and using an offset spatula, move it to the baking sheet.

Click below for my favorite Waldorf Egg Salad Sandwich, Gourmet 20-Minute Pasta (Lidia Bastianich’s recipe!) and Salad for Salad-Haters.

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The Ex Files: Fried Chicken and Biscuits & Coconut Pancakes & Crab Rangoon

21 Feb

Bear Mountain Park in the Hudson River Valley

When you first fall in love, I mean really fall in love, dolce vita mutual love, you glow. Everything about the world seems shinier, gauzier, more effulgent, practically vibrating with Hallmark Card truisms.

Suddenly, your heart and mind are saturated with a completely unfamiliar, frightening sensation — is it sympathy? compassion? the mysterious sentiment you’ve heard about called contentment? — that makes you and the object of your affection temporarily abandon all of your previous antisocial personality disorders.

Meanwhile, you both gain about 10 pounds.

Between bouts of gazing into each others’ eyes and enumerating the manner in which you plan to shower each other in a glistening array of sparkling jewels, sustainably harvested caviar, effervescent champagne and silky soft cashmere, you spend most of your time eating, and let’s face it, drinking. You abandon your exercise routines, rationalizing that you burn off all of those crème brulee and bellini calories between the sheets – and really, who has time for the gym when you simply must rush out to yet another seven-course, 12-hour brunch?

You discover favorite foods together, gather the cajones to eat weird and freaky things you never would have considered putting in your mouth if your lover hadn’t had a mother who grew up on a farm and spent her life eating and preparing various alarmingly hued cow innards and really you must simply try these deep fried sweet breads, they’ll change your life. You create dishes at 2 am out of scraps in the pantry, and they become a part of your regular recipe rotation.

You’re creating a history together, building a culture, learning a new language: as with every civilization, its eccentricities and traditions are often most accurately and  poignantly expressed by the manner in which you break bread together, and the substance and structure of the bread itself.

And then things get ugly.

Your personality disorders bleed out from the deep dark drawer in your (and his!) brain, right into your lives together, and suddenly this chubby, ill-kempt man exhibiting sidewalk rage and wearing terry cloth trousers on a Friday night seems like a stranger to you. And his penchant for eating scrapple every Sunday while watching the game? Disgusting! (Not that your truck driver vocab and collection of bathroom hairballs is particularly charming, either).

You break up. Your civilization crumbles. Your nations are at war!

But, if you’re like Stephen and me, a few scraps of culinary history from each of your previous relationships stay on file. We’ve trotted out our databases of yumminess, always operating under rules of full disclosure when pressed on the sources of our recipes. Often, the best dishes and recipes developed in the midst of romances are shamelessly decadent, easy to make and fun to eat on the fly. Stephen and I tap into the Ex Files for recipes when we need to shake up our own rotation, and when we want something familiar, yummy and fast.

This past long weekend, we drove around Westchester and Putnam counties, getting to know our new hood a bit better. It was gorgeous, fun, inspiring, life-affirming — but exhausting and time consuming — our usual Sunday in the Kitchen became a few minutes here and there, hurry up already, we need to get going!

We woke up every morning and came home every night craving rich, homey dishes that paired perfectly with steaming cups of black coffee or frosty mugs or sudsy, hoppy ales. Instead of trying something new, we reached back into our databanks and pulled up our favorite relics from the Ex Files. In addition to the bulging set of hideous, mismatched baggage they left us with, we inherited a few kick-ass recipes, which have, do and will continue to serve us, together. Below, check out our recipes for Fried Chicken and Biscuits, Coconut Pancakes and Crab Rangoon. Thank you, exes, for the delicious leftovers!

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Valentine’s Day Tasting Menu: Pecan-Cran Couscous & Chicken Roulades & Healthy Hot Fudge Yum Cakes

12 Feb

After four-plus years of marriage, Stephen and I are very comfortable with each other. For better or for worse, I see us less and less as individuals, and more and more as some sort of amorphous, evolving, symbiotic unit.

On your average Sunday in Our Kitchen, Stephen and I will hang about, reading periodicals or splayed out on the couch watching Stephen Hawking unravel the mysteries of the universe, smacking our lips in anticipation of the Sunday Night Culinary Odyssey ahead. We’re usually dressed like 18-wheel truck drivers on their last leg of a 36-hour drive in a rig with a busted furnace. Creating a harmonious and pleasing visual expression of our inner selves with our garb doesn’t come into it. It’s just us — why dress up? Our hair resembles giant tumble weeds. I often wander about our apartment with face masks of various hues and consistencies.

This is just how we roll, ya’ll — how you doin’?

Most of the time, I embrace our homely homeyness.

On occasion though, as I gaze at Stephen through my rather dingy pair of green spectacles that are invariably slipping halfway down my unpowdered nose, I think: I used to be cute! I would primp for this man when he was coming over to my apartment to sit on the couch and order greasy Chinese take-out as assiduously as I would for an audience with the Queen Mum. That level of care, along with any observance of romantic anniversaries and holidays, has fallen away, somewhere between walking down the aisle, law school, paying the bills, working for the man, filing our TPS reports and walking the dog.

I’ve wondered lately: have we gotten into a rut? That, coupled with my lovely husband’s holiday ‘tude, my sights for Valentine’s Day were set at subdural levels. (Stephen is a notorious Grinch when it comes to anything that traditionally involves small boxes with bows and girlish frivolity.)

He has never been observant of any holiday, much less the ones that the rest of the country greets with bedazzled pageantry and buckets of incense. Valentine’s Day, much to my dismay, tops his list of holidays which should, nay must, be actively and violently spurned and derided.

Corporate marketing conspiracy, yada yada.

I accepted his nonobservance this year with such an uncharacteristically plodding, tail between the legs, head down, Eeyore-like resignation, he became alarmed and immediately sprang into action.

I came home on Friday night to a giant, hot pink Heather bush — and the wild and zany suggestion that we re-create our first date on Sunday night, Valentine’s Day Eve.

Like it or not, Stephen was going to eject us, like aesthetically challenged cannonballs, out of the rut — or pit — in which we’ve been comfortably and unattractively reclining for some time now.

I love the Heather bush, though I’m less than confident about my ability to not turn it into a dessicated bundle of bare branches. I adored the notion of helping him recreate the dinner he made for us on our first date.

It’s hard to believe it was almost seven years ago! Stephen greeted me in his most polished outfit, with a freshly mixed martini, couscous, chicken roulades and asparagus. It was the first (and last) time he ever cooked an entire meal for me and managed to do the dishes, without a pinkie’s worth of liftin’ from me. It was the first (and last) time I ever grinned, sat back, sipped a martini and watched him cook me a meal without neurotically issuing advice (commands) or trying to help (meddle).

On Sunday, we did our best to completely recreate the meal, seasonally inappropriate asparagus included — though I couldn’t resist gussying up the couscous a bit and adding a sexy dessert. Dating again for the first time was just what we needed. We’ve still got it! (Though our hair still does and forever will, resemble tumble weeds).

Below, check out our recipes for Brined Pecan and Cranberry Couscous, Chicken Roulades and Healthy Hot Fudge Yum Cakes. Pictures too!

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A Tale of Two Chilis: Texas Chili Vs. Pantry Chili

7 Feb

Pantry chili

I have never lived in Texas or Cincinnati or anywhere even remotely connected to the various seething hot beds of chili controversy across our fine country. In general, I’m a gal who enjoys going to extremes — if there’s an issue on the table, I will be able to offer a violent pro or con opinion and will welcome the prospect of verbally tussling over the subject until the boundaries of polite social discourse have been thoroughly breached, trampled upon and mashed into the ground.

I feel totally left out of the chili wars: cheated out of a visceral opinion by the capricious gods of geography, I’m left at loose ends. Which chili do I truly believe is top dog? I have no idea — I love them all. Whenever I make a pot of the stuff, I generally just fiddle around on Google until I find a recipe that doesn’t look too complicated, time-consuming or require an afternoon of shopping for esoteric ingredients hither and thither around Westchester County. Not surprisingly, my lazy, unengaged quest for a decent pot of chili has not yielded fantastic results.

As Superbowl Sunday approached, and the cold winter continued to bear down on me like a noisy, hectoring, relentlessly nosy and unavoidable office mate, Stephen and I were itching for a crock of stick-to-your-ribs chili. Our friend Benedick has made us the best Cincinnati Chili I’ve ever encountered, so I decided to leave well-enough alone and have him do the cookin’ the next time I craved the kidney bean, hot dog and cheese-studded dish. Which left Texas Chili and what I think of as Pantry Chili — a gathering of good dry beans, peppers, spices, veggies and whatever else is hanging around the fridge and pantry.

The two chilies would embody the issues highlighted by the eternal, ever-waging chili war: the meaty, simple Texas chili vs. the more whimsical, loosey-goosey and flexible Pantry Chili. Yin/yang; red state/blue state; id/superego; brawn/brains.

One chili seems designed to sucker-punch you in the gut with a cholesterol, saturated fat and artery-clogging karate chip. A chili that’ll tackle you like a fat linebacker on steroids.

The other chili is designed to cradle you heart in a warm embrace of fibrous, antioxidant and vitamin-infused vitality. It comforts you like a care-worn grandmother brimming with tea and sympathy, when the howling February winds put your soul on ice.

But which one would be more fun to eat with Superbowl snacks? (Let’s just all agree that one serving of Superbowl snacks should always contain about a day’s worth of sodium and calories; it should brim with preservatives, unpronounceable chemicals and partially hydrogenated oils. A deep fryer should be involved in the cooking process). Stephen and I would be the judge and jury in this chili cook-off. Like all good wars, this one led to a draw — and (hopefully) many juicy battles in the winters ahead of us.

I spent a great deal of time researching traditional Texas chili recipes, in addition to recipes that seemed to just through a bunch of stuff in one pot, simmer the mess for a while and serve with plenty of tasty accouterments. Through a bit of trial and error, I developed two solid recipes. The Pantry Chili takes a few days to make (the beans and tomato base must sit overnight to absorb flavors) but both recipes are boldly flavored and as distinctive  … Click on for the recipes, verdict and more photos!

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