Archive | August, 2011

Stormy Weather: Shrimp Con Lentils Diablo & Thai Coconut Shrimp & Eggs, Two Ways

29 Aug

Penelope gets used to her new digs

Pathetic fallacy.

Sister Cherry spent many, many hours perched behind her battle-scarred desk, frosted pink lips pursed, glossy chestnut beehive sprayed into a vertical cone that a tornado would fail to ruffle, ankles prissily crossed, brow furrowed. She would nod emphatically now and then; each nod was a prize. Sister Cherry seemed to relish nothing more than watching her lectures make inroads into the sturm-und-drang-clogged byways of her pupils’ teenage brains.

Sister Cherry was my favorite English teacher in high school, and I wasn’t alone. Even the most literature averse among us couldn’t help but fight over her nods. Under her eccentric, obsessive tutelage, my fellow students and I learned how to gather the clues that Mary Shelley and Shakespeare scattered for their readers, in the raindrops that glistened on their characters’ lashes,  and the storms that lashed the tropical isles dotting their landscapes.

Flashes of foreboding, auspicious revelations, harsh judgments and subtle insights into character were there in black and white for us to dissect and interpret; we just had to skate across the lonely, otherworldly glaciers of Geneva with Frankenstein’s monster with our eyes open, to anticipate and bemoan his fate.

Whether it’s Sister Cherry’s continuing influence or a serious case of SAD, I can’t help but feel a thrill of delight for the day ahead when the sun peeks at me when I first open my eyes and a bone-chilling sense of foreboding when the sky is steel gray for too many days in a row.

Bombing the bugs out of the living room

The fact that Stephen and I just bought a house, a few days after a 5.8 earthquake shook the East Coast and the day before the first storm in history that managed to shut down the MTA, had me a little rattled.

The house is surrounded -- surrounded! -- by towering trees, all of which I was 100% positive were going to fall directly onto our roof during the storm

We’re moving from semi-urban White Plains after a year of camping out in a convenient, but personality-free hotel-cum-apartment-complex to a totally rural home in the sticks of the Hudson River Valley.

A superannuated boot-scraper, yeehaw!

Signing the mortgage felt like a Faustian bargain with The Bank in which I was exchanging my soul for permission to eat hot dogs and beans for the next year. Thankfully, I’ll be eating them next to Stephen and Penny in our bursting-with-personality (if not convenience) little cabin the woods.

Stephen removes an old hornets nest from the kitchen doorway after the storm

We held our breath through the storm, and the house survived. Nary a branch fell on the house, though Hurricane Irene certainly howled resolutely enough. Wherefore art though, pathetic fallacy?

We celebrated the hurricane’s leave-taking  with an appropriately cheap bottle of Prosecco and two budget shrimp recipes, with eggs. Pictures and recipes below!

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Fruity Meat: Baked Burritos & Skillet Cornbread & Salted Guinness Shakes

22 Aug

Burritos with dried fruit? Oh, yes

Adding fruit to meat still seems sacrilegious to me. Fruit and meat are glorious, lovely, delicious things that just don’t seem to go together, like Kim Kardashian and subtlety, or Iran and justice.

Growing up, I was somberly informed that eating the occasional bowl of fruit-flecked Muesli was as zany, immoderate and exorbitantly indulgent as being allowed to stay up to watch Dallas; it was a wonderful thing that could be indulged in occasionally, but it was not an example upon which a pattern of behavior should be established. Fresh fruit was to be cut up and put in pies or eaten alone, and sauces that weren’t direct descendants of stock, butter and herb-based gravies were regarded with the darkest of suspicion. Raisins were, quite clearly, grapes that had failed, and until I was of voting age, I spurned them with the same knee-jerk repulsion reserved for fat, hairy green spiders that happened to cross my path.

Sprinkling cookies, sweet sauces or even sundaes with sea salt? Preposterous! I’d be just as likely to throw on a mink coat and head out to a Greenpeace rally.

Then college happened. I lived with Amy and Beth, free-thinking ladies who systematically hypnotized and enchanted me with their bean-soaking, tofu-frying, mosh-pit of Mediterranean flavor ways. Tahini, hummus, quinoa, pomegranates, kale all began to appear in my mini-fridge. They even tricked me into liking raisin bread (I assumed the shriveled fruit husks were chocolate chips, it was dark, there may have been a few beers involved), which opened up an entirely new section of the health food market they dragged me too – dried produce! Raisins were the gateway pome, but before long I was indulging in dried blueberries, cherries, cranberries, even figs and dates when I really needed to hit the flavor motherlode.

While I still fail to subscribe to all of their vegan, yeast-harvesting, herb-pot-as-a-medicine-cabinet conventions, I no longer think it’s frothing-at-the-mouth crazy talk to serve duck with a tart little cherry sauce or to throw some dried apricots in with my braised lamb. While I still can’t help but feel like I’m somehow transgressing when I mix up my sweet and savory courses, the results are too delicious to be denied.

This weekend, Stephen and I made raisin-flecked Baked Burritos with Walnut Sauce and Skillet Cornbread, with just a touch of sugar (I know, I know – sugar and cornbread is technically a no-no, but I’ve built up a tolerance for dried fruit and I have to get my kicks somehow, see? ) We also committed another delicious sin against common culinary sense: beer milkshakes!

Dig in, below.

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Pot Luck: Short Ribs with Sweet Potato Puree & Braised Saffron Chicken Pasta

15 Aug

Penelope and Sadie politely salivate

Every time I cook, the ghosts of my grandmothers are looking over my shoulder, inspecting my work.

One – my father’s mother, a city girl – is fingering a rosary, fretting that I won’t have time to make everything, that my knife cuts aren’t as precise as they should be, quietly giving me plattering and presentation advice and politely inquiring about, when, exactly, I intended to mix her a martini.

The other – my mother’s mother, a country girl – is urging me to stop being such an obsessive nut, that pie crust is for baking and eating not plaiting and braiding, remonstrating with me for spending $16 on a pound of meat, reminding me to leave the kitchen neater than I found it, and quietly asking me if I have a drinking problem when I sneak a sip of wine from the cup destined for the pan.

I’m big city and back woods; in my head, I carry a rolodex of recipes from the alleys and sidestreets of Southside Chicago and the byways and brooks of Indiana. Most of my cooking is based on classic American recipes I learned, if not from them, then from my parents, who learned from them. And the occasional leap toward culinary transcendence, courtesy of the endless cooking classes I’ve taken.

The gap, the tension, that exists between the two poles of our reality and our desires, our duties and our dreams, that gaping maw is the place where luck and gifts live.

As I go through life cooking up various plots and pots, I listen for my grandmothers, I listen for my gut. I try to find a place in the rumbling racket for my own beat; when I hear it, I jump in and crank up the fire.

These recipes are adaptations of standard dishes most American families make — braised meat, creamy noodles — with a few fancy tweaks. Dig in below!

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Just Plummy: Tomato Tart & Pizza Pasta Salad & Plum Delicious Cobbler

8 Aug

Cooked in a super-hot oven, the cheese browns, the pastry cooks and the tomatoes caramelize in about 25 minutes

I forgot my phone at home on Saturday; I was rushing out the door at the butt-crack of dawn for a double-shoot at two restaurants in the East Village. As I sprinted to make the express train, I had a feeling it wasn’t in either of my bulging bags, but I just didn’t have time to launch a real search.

Friday night, I face-planted in bed around 10:00 pm, a Grandma-tastic record, even for me. Failing to perform my ritual bag check the night before an early call, my Saturday morning was a frenzied blur of notebook, key and wallet grabbing.

I got to the train station feeling under-caffeinated, ill-prepared for my video interviews, sweating and out of breath. But I couldn’t help but emit a little cackle of glee after searching my bags and confirming that my phone was at home, most likely under a groaning pile of other stuff I was supposed to bring that day. I was expecting calls from colleagues, family, friends and a real estate agent, but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d cashed in an 8-hour get out of jail free card. Freedom! The only people who could harass me were the ones who would be physically in front of me.

All of my colleagues on the shoots were equally ill-rested; two other producers, a camera guy and a sound guy and I loaded our gear into a cab and gunned it for Prince Street, only to find that the restaurant where we were supposed to hold the shoot wasn’t open. We finally found a subterranean entrance, and after picking our way through trash-strewn alleys, unlit hallways and a maze of concrete, we found a loud and clanging kitchen filled with more people hovering on the knife-edge of exhausted, hysterical delirium.

The shoots were inspiring; I’ve conducted hundreds of in-person, over the phone and email interviews over the years, but I’m just getting into the world of video interviews. Thankfully, the company I’m working for knows I’m green and they’re actually willing to spend time training me on how to light and frame shots, run a shoot from start to finish and wrap up shooting scripts, etc., until I’m up to speed, an increasingly rare occurrence in our hyper-fast-forward media world where if you ain’t got the skills right out of the gate, you’re never going to make it into the race.

The restaurateurs were amazing New York City and world citizens all around, but they also reminded me, yet again, of how easy it is to make tiny tweaks to my everyday life that have potentially global consequences. During our wide-ranging discussions about local food and community causes, they reminded me that shopping for cheap-o specials at the grocery store is fine (not everyone can afford to go to the greenmarket every day, least of all me) – as long as you do your research and leave the rabbit marked “Made in China” in the case, and put down the Mexican tomatoes in the middle of the summer. There are fresher, yummier ones from a small New Jersey farm, just a few feet down the aisle. Read the labels; it’s that simple.

After a phone-free work day on Saturday, Stephen and I spent a work and phone-free Sunday tooling around the kitchen. We made a delicious Tomato Tart, a whacky Pizza Pasta Salad and a truly toothsome Plum Cobbler. Dig in below!

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Eyes Wide Shut: Asian Cucumber Salad, Summer Corn and Tomato Couscous

1 Aug

Lunch lady

Sometimes, caving is delicious.

I spend most of the year treating corn products like pot holes or wads of fresh chewing gum on the street. They’re little more than unpleasant nuisances of modern existence that I feel my hard-earned tax dollars should be spent eliminating from my life, but that I’m quite sure, through a series of nefarious double deals on both sides of the aisle and inbetween, help fund their omnipresence. Corn is everywhere!

Grill a burger, top it with ketchup and a bun, eat some fries and drink a soda and you just consumed not just what was on your plate, but acres of corn, corn, corn. It’s in the high fructose syrup that sweetens our sodas and acts as the building block for our hamburger buns and sauces (like ketchup), it’s fed to the cows that produce most of the beef for our burgers (not to mention the cheese that goes on top of that burger), and the fries that we eat with that burger are fried in a vat of the corn’s oil.

In all, about half of our calories come from corn.

The crop has taken over much of America’s arable land, kicking out multi-use family farms, turning our meadows and prairies into a bland beige-yellow monoculture, stretching from sea to shining sea and eliminating and endangering dozens of adorable / delicious / environmentally essential plants and animals that eat plants other than corn to survive. Corn is the Kardashian Klan of foods; it could have been a quirky, snarky little snap of entertainment, but it went and got greedy. Its ubiquity has deleveraged the value of the brand, eliminating my appetite for it, even straight up.

Most of the time.

This summer, I’ve thrown my sociopolitical vendetta against corn in the compost heap. I ended up with a cob of it on my plate at a cookout a month ago, and I bit into it, knowing full well that it was probably flown in from a giant factory farm thousands of miles away that pollutes and uses pesticides. It wasn’t very green of me, but it was … delicious. Sweet, salty with a smear of lime-spiked mayo and some chipotle. More please! I’ve been buying it by the bushel ever since, and feeling mildly transgressive.

Is corn and corn alone okay to eat? I mean, if it’s local and / or organic and ensconced in its little green husk, nature’s wrapping paper, is eating corn still as bad as beating up blind baby seals with a mink-covered baseball bat?

I don’t know. Ask Michael Pollan.

I do know this: it tastes like America. The America I grew up loving; a slightly sweet, slightly nutty, crunchy-crisp-soft-with-a-touch-of-tough-loveliness that needs little more than a bit of elbow grease, a lick of fire and a dash of salt to whip it into prime shape. In salads, wraps, stir fries, soups and just plain.

I’ll go back to the corn ban in September. This week, I made a Summer Corn and Tomato Couscous and a Crispy Cucumber Salad. Yes, a crispy cucumber salad. The water-logged vegetable has met its match, and its soupy reign on my parade is over.

Click on for recipes and photos.

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