Slow-Food Convenience: Turkey-Ricotta Meatballs

16 Jan

Ingredients of meatballs, the colors of the Italian flag

I don’t know about you, but as much as I love to cook, there’s nothing more unappetizing than the notion of creating a warm, wholesome (read: three course, three-hour) supper for the fam after a long day at work. Yes, the idea of filling my home with the celestial scent of braising meats, roasting tomatoes and melting cheese triggers my most visceral nesting instincts, but on an average Wednesday at 7 pm after a day schvitzing over my TPS reports and grinding through a hectic commute, momma ain’t cooking a meatloaf.

Empirical data suggests I’m not alone.

Since the advent of tertiary processed food, Americans have embraced the shortcut lifestyle. After World War II, most large-scale food companies were saddled with an enormous excess of product, and they responded as all quick-witted American capitalists have: by inventing a market into which they could pour their surplus.

Suddenly, store shelves were awash with canned and frozen meals, shelf-stable powdered cakes and gravies, and we lapped up the shortcut lifestyle it afforded – and the vats of fat and sodium that came along with it.

Frowny face. Weh …. weeeeh.

In 1954, the folks at Swanson (most likely cackling with glee while guzzling martinis and stroking fat, black, purring cats), introduced the – wait for it – TV Dinner! Horrors! The first year on the market, it sold 10 million units.

And now, we’re a nation of convenience addicts. A confluence of sociopolitical factors have helped enable our addiction, of course. (More women working, our country’s perennial obsession with whiz-bang space age anything, fewer families that prioritize meal-time together, etc.)

So when I heard that Hostess was filing for bankruptcy, I was shocked – and, I admit it, greatly saddened. I wholeheartedly welcome the green food / slow food / locavore revolution that’s sweeping the country, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Twinkies, arguably Hostess’ most ubiquitous product. I associate them with the pure, unadulterated sweetness of early childhood.

Meanwhile, they’re made with flour bleached with chlorine gas, brimming with white cellulose gum and Polysorbate 60 filling, and coated with corn dextrin. But contrary to many pundits’ initial reactions, Hostess’ demise cannot be blamed on the foodie revolution, and the general public’s demand for whole grains in everything. In reality, it’s rising pension and medical costs for its 19,000 employees and the sky-rocketing prices of commodities like sugar (up 21%) wheat (up 69%) that are grounding the great, transfat-fortified Hostess blimp.

So is the potential destruction of the 82-year old candy snack (rumored to be) the most likely to survive a nuclear attack some sort of existential, metaphysical metaphor for the dangerous, self-destructive path so many of us find ourselves on when we look for cheap shortcuts in life? I don’t know.

But it did inspire me to make my own form of foodie convenience snacks this weekend: meatballs! And as far as I’m concerned, no one makes meatballs like the Italians. I cranked out a version of Turkey-Ricotta Meatballs that I can eat “on the go” – or with candlelight and proper cutlery, leisurely, with my husband, while we calmly talk about our day, find

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before taking our toast and tea.

Any meat will do. Click on for my recipe.

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Summer in January: Pollock with Caponata

8 Jan

Warm January days are ripe for backyard rambles -- you never know what you'll find in your backyard

An abandoned carriage in an abandoned barn

Hey there, global warming! Nothing like a series of 60 degrees sunny days in January to snap you right out of SAD.

While I always enjoy the post-holiday weeks of close-to-home hanging and hibernation before Spring’s inevitable Bacchanalia, I found that I’ve been craving balmy summer breezes, sunlit terraces, garden-fresh salads, icey adult drinks braced with bitter tonic and sharp squirts of lime this week.

Since I can’t dash off to Bermuda right now, I have happily settled for the uptick in the mercury (despite vague feelings of guilt about being thrilled by the effects of greenhouse gases)…. And a hint of August on my plate.

Variations on traditional agrodolce sauces, often in the form of caponata, always trick my mouth into thinking Summer. When I’m stuck in Winter’s gaping maw, wondering how I’m ever going to paw my way out, the versatile sauce gives me a lift.

Agrodolce (agro means sour, dolce means sweet), is a classic Italian recipe, by way of Arab cuisine. In its most basic form, it’s simply a reduction of vinegar and sugar, with other elements (oils, wine, vegetables) added in. It’s traditionally served with roasted meats or fish, and comes in many guises. Caponata is one of my favorite iterations of agrodolce’s magic.

The Caponata preparation hails from Sicily, by way of Spain, circa roughly 1709, according to the food historian Clifford Wright. These days, it is often served as an antipasto relish, but it may have gained popularity in the 18th century for its super-long shelf-life (thanks to the vinegar, which acts as a preservative); it was a staple on sea voyagers and for travelers. And the savory-sweet sauce, bursting with flavor and moxie, has also served as a helpful reminder of Summer’s bounty — just around the corner.

A hunter's blind in our woods; we're debating the back-woods ethics of taking it down since we don't use it, but we know other hunters (who don't have permission to hunt on our property)do. For now, it's staying.

Caponata generally stars eggplant, but in Italy (the birthplace of seasonal, local food ways), it can put anything you’ve got hanging around in the spotlight – as long as you balance the agro with the dolce.

When I saw a recipe for Caponata by Michael White, my current favorite chef, I couldn’t wait to try it. I ended up tweaking it a bit, but that’s only appropriate. Click on for both versions of the recipe.

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Eat Like It’s 1959: Mediterranean Tuna Pasta & Tuna Cakes

2 Jan

So, 2012. Hi.

Lorraine, a born hostess

Stephen and I, and a small group of our dearies said “farewell” to 2011 this weekend.

Ajla visits from DC!

It was a pretty good year. It deserved a party.

The ladies ... we're looking .... um ..... well, there's always 2013

I have a good feeling about 2012 – I think we’re going to be friends. In fact, I’m ready to tackle it like a fierce February wind, howling over the Nebraska plains. 2012: With a Vengeance.

However. I will attempt to temper my rabid enthusiasm with a dose of pecuniary medicine. First step? Finding creative recipes that are frugal, yet fab. The first frugal edible that springs to mind is canned tuna. The second thing that springs (or rather lurches) to mind is extreme boredom, with random blips of aesthetic (ugh, mayo-logged wet sandwiches) and moral revulsion (surely I’m not the only child of the 80’s who automatically associates dead dolphins with tuna fish).

Not fab.

Still … Tuna’s pros are hard to ignore:

  • The fish is a fantastic source of Omega-3’s, a fatty acid essential for our health, but something our body cannot manufacture; Omega-3’s ensure cardiovascular efficiency, stymie cholesterol, fight inflammation and combat cellular degeneration.
  • Tuna is brimming with high-quality protein and selenium, important for our overall health, energy levels and ability to detoxify. (My liver is begging for selenium after the holiday onslaught of rich desserts and extra glasses of vino.)

The cons, however, are equally compelling:

  • The high levels of nervous system-ravaging mercury make it a dicey choice for young children and pregnant moms. (The FDA says 12 ounces a week is safe, but I’d reduce it to 6 to be safe and source it from small, organic companies that carefully spell out where and how they catch their fish).
  • The worst offenders in the tuna category are solid white and chunk white – albacore and chunk light have lower levels of mercury and other toxins found in large ocean-dwellers. Albacore is more substantial and “chunky” than the chunk light, so it’s what I go for every time.
  • Then there’s the “dolphin issue”. Despite the cheerful “no dolphins harmed” label on the can, there is little guarantee that dolphins have not been injured in tuna-fishing expeditions – not to mention scores of other large fish. Since scandals in the 1980s and a widespread consumer boycott of tuna, the industry has shaped up, but there are still widespread abuses and problems in the industry, resulting in upwards of 100,000 tuna-fishing related shark, porpoise and other wildlife deaths each year, depending upon which report you’re reading. The World Trade Organization recently ruled that it is no longer legal for companies to use the “dolphin safe” label on their can. So far, the WTO ruling has not been enforced. Stay tuned.

In other words, tuna is complicated, even if America’s favorite way of eating it – the dreaded tuna salad Sammie – is anything but.

To shake things up, I revamped a few tried and true recipes starring our scandal-ridden hero, canned tuna, and also trotted out a few slightly tarted up old faves. It looks like tuna can be as delish and exciting as it is wholesome and fiscally responsible.

Here’s to a 2012 as well-rounded as Kim Kardashian’s rear! Click on for recipes for Mediterranean Tuna Pasta and Tuna Cakes, plus links to my favorite classics, kicked up a notch.

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A Christmas Story: Chocolate Bread Pudding

26 Dec

These socks are exciting!

I love Christmas. Every year, I look forward to wearing my acid green cardigan twinset and settling down to watch “A Christmas Story” and the Food Network on continuous loop, while eating chocolate confections, cracking whole nuts in my parent’s ancient nutcracker and popping plump triangles of stinky cheese into my mouth until I have to unbutton the top button of my stretch jeans.

Stephen and I invariably settle in to my parents’ house for two days and focus on helping them set their New Year’s Day goal of losing 10 pounds into motion early, by eating all of their food. The liquor cabinet, natch, also takes a beating. When we’re not eating and drinking, we’re playing Rummikub and prepping our next meal.

Our annual Christmas Eve / Christmas Day Bacchanalia is the Superbowl of our holiday season; an intense event requiring athletic, intellectual and psychological dexterity for which several months of competitive board-gaming and cheese-hoarding is required to ace.

Between the end of the year madness at work, weird and extraneous social commitments, the singular joys of last-minute shopping and the iron-clad, empirically gathered evidence that absolutely everything you buy your loved ones will be 30-60% cheaper at 12:01 am on Dec. 26th, it’s a wonder that the Air Jordan incidents were the only examples of widespread antisocial holiday activity.

This year, I didn’t have a buffer day between work and hardcore play to gently jingle me into the holiday mindset, so I decided to springboard myself into the holiday hustle via some aggressive commercial activity the morning of Christmas Eve. I’ve been trolling the Hudson Valley Craigslist since moving to the country, peering anxiously at antiques, oddball throw-offs and family heirlooms, wondering how that butter-churner would look next to our fireplace, or if Stephen would throw that fuschia Victorian fainting couch out the window if I tried to put it by the front door. Trained by watching countless hours of “Law & Order” and “Dateline” that commerce conducted over the Internet is often spearheaded by fraudulent psychopaths hell-bent on tormenting innocent members of the bargain-hunting populace, I have always been hesitant to partake in the Craigslist marketplace.

Road trip!

But I just couldn’t resist a trio of Kittinger Buffalo marble tables for (practically!) less than I’d spend on a particle board knockoff from IKEA.  So on my way to the family fun, I took a three-hour detour over rivers and streams, up hills and through hollers, all the way to Kerhonksen, New York, to buy the tables from an adorable couple of retired hippies who are moving to Santa Cruz. (They even gave me the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” and a sheet to wrap the table tops in, and then loaded them into the back of my truck).

De-Scrooging

With a bulging truck full of goodies for my family, Stephen and, now, me, I weaved my way to my parent’s house, listening to  “A Christmas Carol” on NPR and successfully wiped off all traces of Scrooge in preparation for two solid days of unrelenting ho-ho-hoing.

"What Cats Teach Us," just what my Dad wanted for Christmas this year!

We had one of our best Christmases yet – hopefully it bodes well for 2012!

Recipes for the treats we ate are far too numerous to list, but my personal favorite was the Chocolate Bread Pudding we made, courtesy of Alton Brown.

Click on for the recipe!

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New York State of Mind: Pork Stew and Orange-Butter Couscous

19 Dec

Cock-a-doodle-doo! The Red Rooster's riotously colorful market salad

In theory, nothing’s stranger than taking culinary inspiration from the lingonberry-munching, aquavit-swilling proto Viking culture of Sweden and the injera-chomping, Tej-chugging dynastic culture of Ethiopia – it’s like getting dressed with both Snooki and Greta Garbo in mind. A muddled muck of oddball spices, recherché but mutually exclusive techniques and quixotic but wildly divergent presentations is sure to result.

But that’s exactly what Marcus Samuelsson does, every day. The result: transcendent, luxurious, soothing comfort, in the best, cashmere-lined, double-stitched sense of the word comfort (in direct and violent opposition to the sloppy, homely glop that often gets churned out of restaurant kitchens around the country in the name of hominess).

On Sunday morning, I bundled up and trained it into Harlem for brunch with Lorraine, Kateri and Paula to sample Marcus’ magic at the Red Rooster. Even though it’s highly impractical, I love popping into the city for quick visits every once in a while – it recharges me to see those ladies, feel the heartbeat of the city pounding wildly all around me, breathe in that lovely polluted stank that hovers exclusively over the five boroughs and grab a great plate of fabulous food.

The herring and potato casserole, with just an, er, touch of cream

The Red Rooster in Harlem, Marcus Samuelsson’s justly hyped restaurant, is probably my favorite restaurant in New York City right now. I go there as often as I can, and not just because of the food – which, by the way, is excellent, if not exactly revolutionary. It’s the experience that really sucker-punches me. New York City prides itself on its liberal, open-armed policy. “Are you a unicorn-enamored leprechaun with a fetish for wearing hamster costumes while singing arias from Tosca?  No problem! You will always be welcome here,” New York City blares to everyone who will listen, while quietly segregating every color of the rainbow into its own personal residential zone.

Every variety of European, Asian, South American, scattered indigenous population and African has its own little plot of land in the City that is – if not officially – practically its own to call home. Within each zone, it is further subdivided into areas devoted to families and singles. Gay? That’s a whole different area of town, subdivided racially and according the familial status within itself as well. Too often, people stick to their own residential zone during feeding time, and when they do wander from the straight and narrow, they do so in lock-step and with intent, at key restaurants well-known and promoted within their demography as socially acceptable safe zones at which to stray from their usual Cinghiale Con Polenta or Stinky Tofu. (And yes, this is a mild overstatement – but only mild).

Red Rooster cuts neatly through the bull – the restaurant is aggressively, joyfully, enjoyably inclusive – without shrieking about it at every opportunity. Looking around, there were happy gay couples with children, black people, white people, yellow people, all happily hanging, drinking and eating together – sometimes even at the same table. Crazy!

We had way too many dishes for our little table – maple-laced bacon, hunks of crusty cornbread with sweet butter and tomato jam, market salads brimming with oyster mushrooms and candy-stripe beets, creamy herring and potato casseroles, cheddar cheese grits, chai lattes, black coffees, beers, mimosas, bloody mary’s, goat cheese omelets, rooster scrambled eggs, we were hungry, okay – and the room practically vibrated with the sounds of glass tinkling; the cackles and cries of waiters, cooks in the semi-open kitchen, happy guests; and sunny blasts of gorgeous melody from the gospel singer on hand, who slinked around the steaming room. The Red Rooster is the Platonic ideal of Manhattan life, realized.

The food is great, the setting grand, the company priceless. I even brought a bit of inspiration home. Stephen and I whipped up a stew of sorts inspired by Marcus Samuelsson’s strange, happy marriage of divergent cuisines. Hints of Sweden and Ethiopia simmer in our Pork Stew and Orange Butter Couscous – but it’s all New York.

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Simmer Down: Sous Vide Chicken for Dum-Dums & Coconut-ty Rice

12 Dec

People who move from Brooklyn to the country are silly; on their first Christmas, they chop the top off of a tree in their woods. They think it's going to look awesome! Sadly, they are mistaken. But they still love their Charlie Brown tree. The End.

I used to think that sous vide cooking was like space travel or balloon modeling —  something that sounded kinda neat-o, but definitely wasn’t for me and probably would be better if it were left to people not intrinsically opposed to wearing goggles and funny hats.

But I kept coming across suspiciously easy looking recipes that cherry-picked the essential elements of sous vide cooking:

1)      Low, slow cooking of carefully sealed item at a precise temperature in a water bath

2)      Proper seasoning of item before sealing

3)      Carefully sealing and protecting of item from outside moisture during the cooking process

4)      Somewhat obsessive-compulsive monitoring of cooking temperature to maintain ideal range

5)      Finishing the cooked dish with a simple, preferably fatty and indulgent, complimentary sauce

Presto, Thomas Keller-like results at home. With just a little patience and OCD flair, I, too, could render holier-than-thou healthy, but aggressively bland skinless chicken breasts into a delectable four-star culinary extravaganza. Sounds too good to be true, right? That’s why it’s taken me so long to try it.

I decided to simplify the at-home versions I found online even further, because, quite frankly, I love cooking, not laboratory experiments. Aside from eating the darn thing (the moistest, most tender and flavorful chicken I’ve had at home), the best part about the little detour to the lab — the braggin’ rights.

“Whatcha making in there?”

“Sous vide chicken.”

Silence. Husband’s head pops into kitchen, quizzical, semi-impressed, mostly horrified look on his face.

“Um. Ok. Should I order a pizza as back-up? Maybe I should make some Mac and Cheese just in case.”

Silence. Withering look issued, lands on target, sustains minor damage, husband disappears.

Silent cackling, palm-rubbing. Stack of holiday catalogs, unread magazines and a very large glass of Pinot Grigio whipped out. Blissful hour in the kitchen spent sipping, catching up and getting totally unearned credit for culinary magic while our chicken breasts cooked themselves in a pot on the stove.

Click on for my ridiculously easy version of Sous Vide Chicken – with a creamy Ivory Veloute Sauce and Coconut-ty Rice.

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For Kings and Paupers: The Gilded Gratin

5 Dec

Since Columbus sailed the ocean blue, give or take a century or two, the great white tuber has been one of – and too often, the sole – highland subsistence crop on every continent on the planet.

Every regional and national cuisine foists the potato into its culinary limelight; the manner in which it is cooked and consumed can often tell one more about a culture’s priorities and values than its current top-selling novel or chosen method of government.

The root staple is a favorite among royals — Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were feverish potato fans, with Marie Antoinette even donning potato blossoms in her hair at various balls — and the staunchly proletariat — Frederich Engels gave the potato as much credit for enabling “the people” to move forward as the development of iron-working.

The species, Solanum tuberosum, originated in the South American Andes, but, a prodigious and opportunistic breeder, it spread to the Southwestern arm of the United States, sprouting thousands of offbeat branches upon which a wild variety of colors, shapes and nutritional profiles flourished along the way.

Its rate of spoilage is insanely low, it’s cheap, easy to grow and it satisfies hunger effectively in small quantities.

Most of us only utilize a handful of tubers, but even so, the medley of dishes we create with just the russet, Yukon, fingerling, new and red could fill a shelf of recipe books. They’re the work-horses of the kitchen: we use them to bulk up skimpy dinner plates, please even the most allergy and perversity-ridden palates, thicken soups without adding fatty dairy products, provide much-needed phytochemicals, potassium, Vitamin B6, fiber and Vitamin C during the long green veggie-starved stretch of months between September and February in the Northeast.

Even in their most debased – and some would say, delicious – form, the ubiquitous fried tator provides a wide range of taste sensations. Last week alone, I had French fries, potato pancakes and roasted fingerlings (working in catering has many benefits, choosing from an abundance of fried potato treats at lunch being one of the most universally cherished).

All of the dishes involved the same basic elements — potatoes, salt, fat (in the form of butter or oil) and / or dairy products, plus plenty of salt and heat. But the results were drastically different. As any third-grader knows, one Lunch Lady’s French fries land with a groaning thud on the tray — lackluster, dull, limp yet tough, wet and waxen; yet the Lady who comes on Wednesdays produces perfect rectangular discs that shimmer in hot, crispy, salty, golden brown, perfectly puffed and whipped ebullience. Both are better with ketchup.

Cool, right?

The dark side to all of the deep fried fun has to be acknowledged too, of course. We’ve all seen the stats — French fries have become our children’s top source of vegetables, which can’t be helping their 1 in 3 chances of developing Type II Diabetes, or their rates of obesity, which have doubled in those under the age of 18 since 1980.

And then there’s the whole potato famine thing. Oy vey, that was some bad press.

As fabulous as they are, maybe we should push the fries to the back burner — at least every once in a while.

The gratin is (almost) as easy to prepare, and while it ain’t health food, it, at the very least, offers a bit more than our favorite fry. It’s just a simple, pure, (relatively) unadorned celebration of the potato’s most elevated and rustic tastes and qualities — and it’s easy enough to do on a Wednesday night after work.

When we dug into our this Sunday, I remembered how perfectly simple delicious can be. A few swipes at the mandolin and grater, some sautéed aromatics, a drizzling of cream, and in the oven. Behold, a balanced meal.

Below, check out my (current) favorite recipe for the gratin (and yes, I had to gild the lily a bit with an extra sauce. I can’t help myself).

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