Sunday, December 21, 2008

Another season, another reason for makin’ whoopie (pies)

Whoopie pies are equally a New England and Pennsylvania concoction, attributed both to Mainers and the Pennsylvania Amish. Some believe the pies were introduced in Maine by the Amish themselves while others believe they were conceived in Maine. The argument behind the birth of the sweet snack runs deep, a perennial “whodunit.” Many believe the legend that Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Amish children would shout a gleeful “whoopie!” when presented with the dessert, hence the quirky name.

No matter the truth, whoopie pies are considered classic comfort food, essential to Maine’s culinary history. For the uninitiated, traditional whoopie pies consist of two disc-shaped springy cocoa-flavored cakes filled with a sweet, creamy frosting often made with a combination of vegetable shortening, confectioner’s sugar and Marshmallow Fluff.

I recently had the pleasure of getting to know the ladies who run the famous Maine-based whoopee pie establishment Cranberry Island Kitchen. I had always wondered about the origins of the dessert on which my sister and I were weaned and they helped demystify the snack, which is virtually unknown in the non-Northeastern corners of the United States.

Carol Ford, one of Cranberry Island’s proprietors, says that Mainers and Pennsylvanians indeed have varying, conflicting opinions on the creation of the cakes. She says that while historians suggest the cakes origins may lie with the Amish, created as a way to use up leftover batter, Mainers steadfastly defend their state as the source of the sweet treat.

Ms. Ford and her business partner Karen Haas use only natural ingredients for their pies, which they sell in a variety of gourmet flavors. They use only fresh homemade butter, local eggs from free range chickens, Maine spring water, unbleached flour and organic vanilla.

Personally, I love the classic, traditional whoopie pie. I have tried both butter-based and shortening-based fillings and much prefer my cakes with shortening-based frosting. I find using butter yields a cloyingly sweet product, while shortening acts as a blank canvas for the sugar and marshmallow. The following is my favorite whoopie pie recipe….ever. The cakes are moist, springy and not too sweet. The frosting is miraculously creamy, fluffy and luscious, without being saccharine.

The recipe makes a large amount of pies. Cut down to desired proportions.

3 cups sugar
1 cup butter
4 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk

1 1/2 cups shortening
3 cups confectioners' sugar
1 1/3 cups marshmallow topping
Dash salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 to 1/2 cup milk

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the sugar, butter, and eggs together until well combined. Add the oil and vanilla and beat again.
3. In a separate bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients. Add half of the dry mixture to the egg mixture and beat or stir to blend. Add 1 1/2 cups milk and beat again. Add the remaining dry mixture and beat until incorporated. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups milk and beat until blended.
3. With a large spoon, scoop out circles of batter onto a baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool. Repeat process until all the batter is used.
4. To make filling, combine all ingredients except the milk in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat well. Add just enough milk to achieve a creamy consistency. Spread filling across cooled cookie circles and place remaining circles on top to make whoopie pies.

Makes 32 pies.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding

Food is very, very important to my family. At family get-togethers, food is always the centerpiece, almost as significant as the family members who labored over the stove. You can say that food is like my sibling or cousin: we fawn over it, scrutinize it, romance it, love it, struggle with it and best of all, examine it as it changes with the generations. Like people, dishes in my family develop gray hairs, and then are reborn as shiny new babies.

As my grandmother ages, Thanksgiving has started to change. My grandmother epitomizes a top- notch home cook. Her food is fragrant, flavorful and always comforting. In the past, she has always taken on the whole kit and caboodle- the shopping, the cooking and the cleaning. The rest of us were always thrown out of the kitchen, never asked to help, and we reveled in being served by the culinary figurehead.

Times are changing, though, and new traditions are taking shape. Like some of her dishes themselves, this is a bittersweet sentiment: while she is less energetic, she has finally allowed the younger generations to enter her kitchen and make a big, giant mess.

This year, I had the honor, along with my aunt Paula, of steering the Thanksgiving ship. Paula and I have perpetuated the comfort food tradition, although our dishes were edgier and perhaps more modern. Paula made many dishes such as cheesy mashed potatoes with sage, a nutty sweet potato casserole, green beans with shiitake. My grandmother, of course, worked magic with her famous pies and the turkey centerpiece. I was in charge of a handful of dishes such as roasted Brussels sprouts with a cranberry, orange and thyme butter, a carrot and fennel soup, parsnip gratin and a mushroom bread pudding, to contrast my mom’s more traditional stuffing.

I rarely cook with mushrooms since my husband Mike hates them. I occasionally attempt to disguise them and slip them into various dishes. But they are always mushrooms and he always tastes them, always holds them in contempt and I am always forced to move on.

I take any given opportunity to cook mushroom-laden dishes since I have a forbidden romance with the fungus and rarely indulge. This bread pudding is infused with a thyme-perfumed mushroom broth, bread packed thick between layers of wild chanterelles and shiitakes. It emanates a sweet and nutty aroma and tastes rich, creamy and earthy.

Bread pudding is a special treat, whether sweet or savory. This custardy mushroom bread pudding takes the comfort food to the next level, a luxurious, warming alternative to stuffing.

Mushroom bread pudding
Adapted from The New York times
1 1/4 cups rich mushroom stock (recipe below)
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
4 eggs
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
4 cups stemmed and sliced wild mushrooms, preferably shiitakes and chanterelles (reserve stems to make mushroom broth, if desired)
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 Small loaf brioche or challah, crust removed, cut into 3/4-inch-thick slices and toasted on both sides.

1. Place the stock in a saucepan over medium heat and reduce by half. Add the heavy cream and simmer until the mixture is reduced to 1 1/2 cups. Whisk the milk, eggs and 3/4 teaspoon of the salt together in a mixing bowl. Whisk in the reduced stock mixture and set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots, garlic and thyme and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook until wilted, about 10 minutes. Season with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste.
3. Line the bottom of an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch loaf pan with a layer of bread slices. Top with half of the mushroom mixture. Repeat the layers and top with a third bread layer. Pour the egg mixture over the bread. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Unwrap the dish and press the bread down into the liquid. Cover the pan with foil and place in a roasting pan. Pour enough boiling water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Bake until the pudding is set and the top is puffed and browned, about 2 hours. The pudding can be made ahead and reheated. Cut into slices and serve warm.

Yield: Six to 8 servings.

Mushroom stock:
1 ounce dried cepes, porcini or other wild mushrooms
2 pounds white mushrooms
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 quarts cold water.

1. Combine all the ingredients in a large pot over medium low heat. Simmer for 2 hours and strain.
2. Discard the mushrooms. The broth will keep for up to one week in the refrigerator or up to two months in the freezer.

Yield: One quart.

Friday, November 21, 2008

This Little Piggy Went to Market

I have a new title to add to my resume: pig wrangler.

My working at the creamery to learn the fine art of cheesemaking has taught me an invaluable lesson, a lesson I will recall for years to come, a lesson in strength and endurance: I am much weaker and less tenacious than a farm pig!

In the midst of crisp autumn morning, one of my Fridays at the farm making cheese, a voice rang out from close range, breaking the routine of cheese churning and cheese washing….. I had to perk my ears to realize that, yes, I had just heard: “the pigs have escaped!”

Having worked on the farm for 6 months, I have befriended the cows, the goats and the resident farm cats, but had yet to see the pigs. I had no idea that these stalwart creatures each weigh in from 200-250 pounds and that I was about to I get an intimate, crash course in rodeo-style, frantic pig chasing.

I’ve been face to face with pigs before, but usually postmortem and on my plate: crisp bacon, salty pancetta, briny prosciutto, a juicy pork chop. I’ve also seen cute, diminutive pot belly pigs in pet stores at the mall. But never have I wrestled with a stubborn pig, a female Conan the Warrior in sow’s clothing.

The farm staff was able to wrangle most of the porky harem back into its pen, with the exception of one stubborn swine. The pig was unruly, zigzagging through the pastures, barreling through a maze of hay barrels, content to knock over any human that stood in its way of world domination. There were two of us to this pig: myself and the cheesemaker, Colin. In a wrestling contest, me versus the pig, there’s no question who would prevail: surely, the pig. I figured the pig was no match for me and Colin combined, a strong and confident team, but I could not have been more wrong than a horse and buggy going 90 miles-per-hour down a one way street!

This thing whipped through prickly trees, bushes, in between small spaces, until we had trailed it, fast as the dickens, down an incline into an area confined by an electric fence. Add another colleague to the mix: three against one. The situation remained unyielding, the pig dead-set on human dominance.

By now we were dripping with sweat, laughing out of control, out of breath. We had attempted to move the pig with sheer brute force, humans pressed up against the hairy body of the pig, while it stood steadfast, grazing for mushrooms and snorting. This thing had to go down, down like a misbehaving teenager, down like tonight’s pork roast dinner. We had become caricatures: lab coat wearing, hair-net donning fools, running around like blind bats in our rubber boots, wielding thick sticks, while the darn pig got the better of us. We know we looked ridiculous and yes, it was darn funny.

So, roused by my piggy encounter, here is a delicious Italian-inspired recipe for pork slow-cooked in milk. After simmering the roast in the milk with juniper berries, rosemary and sage, you get extremely tender, silken meat in a clear, clean broth: a perfect meal after a day of chasing unruly pigs.

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 (4 1/2- to 5-pound) boneless pork shoulder roast (without skin), tied
3 juniper berries, crushed
2 large rosemary sprigs
2 large sage sprigs
4 dried bay leaves
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 cups whole milk

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.

Heat oil in a wide 5- to 6-quart ovenproof heavy pot over medium heat until it shimmers, then lightly brown roast on all sides with juniper berries and herbs, 8 to 10 minutes total. Add garlic and sprinkle roast with sea salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, then cook until garlic is golden, about 1 minute. Pour wine over roast and briskly simmer until reduced by half. Pour milk over roast and bring to a bare simmer.

Cover pot and braise in oven, turning roast occasionally, until tender (milk will form curds), 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Transfer roast to a carving board and loosely cover. Strain juices through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl (discard solids), reserving pot, and skim off fat. Return juices to pot and boil until flavorful and reduced to about 2 cups. Season with sea salt and pepper. Slice roast and serve moistened with juices.

Serves 6.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cheese (Shop) of the Month: Neal’s Yard Dairy, London.

My obsession with cheese has gone international! On a recent trip to England, I made cheese an important part of my itinerary, which included stomping around town with the English faction of my family. Our schedule read something like this: Buckingham Palace, Covent Garden, Royal Albert Hall, Westminster Abbey, Neal’s Yard Dairy. You can take the girl out of her country, but you can’t take the cheese away from the girl. Although it was a tourist affair extraordinaire, I needed to recall a bit of home: I needed some cheese!

Neal’s Yard, considered London’s most venerable cheese shop, has two locations: the original in Covent Garden and their bigger location in London’s Borough Market.

Found in 1979 by Nicholas Saunders, Randolph Hodgson, an employee who acquired the shop soon after its inception, was making his own cheeses at the time. Early in their business, they began buying and selling mature cheeses. After their requisite growing pains, they grew into a haven for high quality farmstead English, Irish and Welsh cheeses.

Their staff is armed with an arsenal of knowledge and I ended up spending a huge chunk of time in their Covent Garden shop, tasting everything I could fit in my seemingly bottomless stomach. I probably tasted more cheese in-house than I actually purchased in the long-run. I was lucky to have met Martin, behind the counter, whose passion for cheese equaled my own. We talked shop and tasted together. We compared English cloth-bound cheddars and blues, and compared quince pastes to accompany my selection; we sniffed stinky cheese until I burned all the hairs from my nostrils.

To give a sense of their undeniable and almost inconceivable generosity, I was able to sample Montgomery’s Cheddar, unpasteurized cow’s cheddar from Somerset, Lincolnshire Poacher, a hard cow’s milk, unpasteurized cheddar, Crozier Blue, and Irish blue sheep’s milk cheese, Mileens Dotes, a soft cow’s milk washed-rind cheese and Ardrahan, a semi-soft pungent cheese from Cork, Ireland, among others.

Cheese is piled high, cloth bound cheddars towering over the customers like lactic skyscrapers. This shop fired me up. If I could, I’d live in Neal’s Yard Dairy. I love the smell of a ripening room, I love the ammonia it emanates. Back in the States, I am missing Neal’s Yard like Dorothy missed Kansas while trapped in Oz. There’s no place like an artisanal cheese shop.

Friday, October 24, 2008

How I came to love the anchovy

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, salty anchovies lined up in tins, these are a few of my favorite things.

Yet, as a child I hated anchovies. Ok, hate is not a strong enough word. I despised anchovies. I happened to be one of those rare (read: bizarre) children who shunned sweets in exchange for the healthy and the salty. I had no business with apple sauce, cupcakes, and other childhood favorites; I would have much rather feasted on a bright bowl of beets and an earthy side of wilted spinach. As I got older and entered my inevitable junk food phase, I preferred the crunchy, salt coated potato chip to the gooey, saccharine chocolate chip cookie.

My mom always loved salt and sweet equally and although my dad claimed to have no propensity towards eating sugar, he would sneak off with a dozen of my mom’s homemade cookies and return with a clean plate. I, however, loved everything and anything salty: everything except the anchovy. I found the tiny fish mysterious and offensive- a dubious combination of oil, fuzz, and brine. My mom would order pizzas coated end to end in these distinctive fish and I would lament the ruined pie, picking off the anchovies and then shunning the slice with the lingering, potent flavor.

As I got older, I became known as an unbridled culinary adventurer. Like Anthony Bourdain, I would put just about anything between my lips, smacking my gums and smiling, while friends reeled at the knowledge that I had consumed something wholeheartedly unsavory and often inedbile. However, I always drew the line at anchovies.

And then I discovered the cuisine of Italy. After living in Italy and consistently sampling the simple, aromatic food, I realized that anchovies were the backbone to beloved dishes such as Puttanesca. Anchovies bring out the taste of their accompanying ingredients, building round, complete flavor profiles.

Since I loved Italy’s cuisine with such an open heart (and open stomach), it was only a matter of time before I stopped hating the anchovy, starting loving it, and learned how to utilize it properly. Anchovies quickly became a member of my holy trinity of cooking, in addition to acidy lemon and aromatic garlic. I began picking up anchovy undertones in the foods I ate regularly, the salty ocean flavor dancing on my tongue. I began welcoming anchovy laden dishes into my recipe repertoire.

They say your taste changes every 5 to 7 years. Perhaps this was the case with my newfound love affair with my former fishy nemesis. I became excited to cook with anchovies, creatively slipping them into friendly foods, opening up hermetically sealed minds, convincing anchovy foes that they, too, hold a rightful place in the culinary scheme of life.

Caesar salad is a perfect example of an overwhelmingly popular food often made with anchovies. The salad, named in the 1920’s for its creator Cesar Cardini, did not originally contain anchovies. They were added later by Cesar’s brother Alex, at the Tijuana restaurant owned by Cesar. Culinary lore suggests Cesar begrudgingly added anchovies to appease his brother, thinking them unnecessary in his masterpiece. Personally, I’m on Alex’s train. The combination of salty fish, creamy parmesan, and crunchy crouton will have you saying “yes, please!” to the anchovy.

Anchovies also provide an important base flavor for a dish I recently found in my favorite publication, Gourmet Magazine. One taste of pasta with spicy anchovy sauce and dill bread crumbs will have you trying and trying to identify the subtle, hidden flavor. A quick and simple dish, I love how the fish plays up the sweet, almost caramelized onions and delicate, fresh dill. Using bucatini pasta gives it a whimsical texture. Make sure to cook the breadcrumbs until they are very, very crispy, but not burnt.

Caesar Salad

1 very large head of romaine lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
Baguette, cut into 1 inch cubes, yielding 2 cups croutons
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Cracked black pepper

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
6 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained, very finely chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 cup olive oil

Whisk all ingredients except oil in small bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Rewhisk before using.)

Makes about 1 1/3 cups.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk 1/4 cup oil and a pinch of course salt in large bowl to blend. Add bread cubes and toss to coat. Transfer croutons to baking sheet. Bake croutons until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Cool completely. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.)

Place lettuce and croutons in large bowl. Sprinkle with cheese and toss with enough dressing to coat. Serve with any remaining dressing.

Makes 6 servings.

Pasta with Spicy Anchovy Sauce and Dill Bread Crumbs

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (preferably from a baguette)
1/4 cup chopped dill
1 pound red onions, thinly sliced (3 cups)
1 (2-ounce) can flat anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
1 pound bucatini or perciatelli pasta (long tubular strands)
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, then cook bread crumbs, stirring constantly, until deep golden and crisp, 6 to 8 minutes.
Transfer bread crumbs to a bowl and toss with dill and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper.

Wipe out skillet, then cook onions with 1/4 teaspoon salt in remaining 1/2 cup oil over medium heat, stirring frequently, until very soft, 12 to 15 minutes. Add anchovies and cook, mashing anchovies into onions, until dissolved.

Meanwhile, cook bucatini in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (2 tablespoons salt for 5 quarts water) until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water, then drain pasta.

Stir red-pepper flakes and reserved water into anchovy sauce, then add pasta and toss to combine. Add about half of bread crumbs and toss to coat. Serve sprinkled with remaining bread crumbs.

Makes 6 servings.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Rancho Olivos Olive Oil

Olive oil is one of the most historically precious products, having been used for cosmetics in Ancient Egypt and in religious ceremonies in Ancient Minoa. Bygone people used it to give bright light while the modern use it to brighten their cuisine. The olive branch is a timeless symbol of peace, purity and forgiveness. Its oil has been used as currency and for fuel. It has been considered magical and medicinal. Olive oil is sacred entity with sacrosanct and pedestrian uses, fit for deities, athletes and cooks. No wonder Homer called it liquid gold.

Although Mediterranean oils are generally esteemed as the world’s finest, highly valued for their full bodied flavors, deeply rich hues and fragrant aromas, California is at the apex of quality oil production, a vital member of the industry. Spanish missionaries first brought olive trees to California towards the end of the 18th century and the modern market is thriving. American producers are giving the Greek, Spanish and Italian oil makers a run for their money, harvesting a diverse crop that yields dynamic and respected oils.

On a trip to the Santa Barbara wineries a few years ago, I made a stop at Rancho Olivos in Santa Ynez after being beckoned by a sign offering olive oil tasting. The proprietor, Shannon Casey, greeted us with warmth, hospitality, rustic bread, knowledge, and a few very friendly dogs. We were offered generous tastings of her olive oils and were thoroughly wowed by their complexity on the tongue, the intense strength of their fragrant aromas. Yet we somehow managed to leave without a purchase.

I thought of the superior oil every time I cooked so I finally contacted Ms. Casey and ordered a few bottles, which ended up being some of the most vibrant, richly flavored olive oils I have tasted. I continue to use her oils, which coax deeper flavors from ingredients and really stand out on their own, soaked up simply with bread.

At the moment, Rancho Olivos is selling three types of oils: Arbequina Extra Virgin, Italian Blend Extra Virgin and Garlic flavored. In the past, they have featured a wonderfully fruity Meyer Lemon infused olive oil.

Arbequina is a Spanish olive varietal. Rancho Olivos notes that this oil is “renown for its round buttery flavor.” They state that “Arbequina’s ability to pollinate itself allows the oil to be called by its own name”. While the Arbequina oil has a somewhat creamy flavor, the Italian blend is far more sharp, peppery and earthy. It is made from a blend of Frantoio, Leccino and Grappolo olive varieties.

Lastly, the garlic flavored oil displays the bold taste of roasted garlic. Rancho Olivos notes that since “there is no organic matter in the oil, it will keep like a regular olive oil.” The flavor is so upfront, so powerful, the garlic flavor anything but subtle. They have really captured the essence of garlic in a bottle and it is almost good enough to drink!

Rancho Olivos
2390 N. Refugio Rd.
Santa Ynez CA 93460
Phone: 686-9653
Fax: 688-6174

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Almond Ricotta Tart

What do you do when you have an exorbitant amount of fresh ricotta piled high in the fridge like fluffy snow? You get resourceful - the ricotta so fresh you resort to baking late at night in order to capture its perfection in a confection. Unless eaten bashfully naked, piled high in scoops and spoonfuls, creamy fresh ricotta must be baked into something equally perfect, worthy of its lusciousness.

I was recently given a whopping two pounds of fresh, farmstead ricotta and although I barely put a dent in the stash, I was able to transform at least a sliver of the cheese into something supremely sweet, bountifully buttery and yet, decadently delicate.

For a richly custardy tart, only a flaky cream cheese crust will do. Baked until golden brown, the crust stands on its own. Perfecting flaky crust has been the subject of dispute for years, but I find that using a simple cream cheese pastry crust exalts any pie or tart, although the baker must act hastily- overworking dough that utilizes cold butter and cream cheese will yield a sticky mess.

This tart is ad-lib pastry, an amalgamation of beloved flavors and textures, thrown together on a whim. The filling, a little bit Italian, a little bit French, makes use of ricotta and toasted almonds, baked until eggy, nutty and aromatic. Toasting the almonds yields a marzipan-like flavor and a crunchy texture, excellent contrast to the springy custard. The taste is somewhat reminiscent of resplendent French almond croissants, best when served alongside morning coffee and dusted with a sprinkling of confectioners sugar.

Almond Ricotta Tart
For the crust:
1 cup all purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 ounces cream cheese
1 stick cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

For the filling:
3 eggs
4 tablespoon butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup almond slivers, toasted until brown

In a food processor, combine the flour, salt and cream cheese. Process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 8 seconds. Add the cold butter and process in short bursts until the mixture resembles small peas, about 3 seconds. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead lightly, just until the dough holds together.

Between 2 sheets of lightly floured plastic wrap, roll out the dough into a large round, 1/8 - 1/4 inch thick. Cut out a 12 inch circle. Dust the pastry lightly with flour and fold in quarters. Place it in a 9 1/2 or 10-inch tart pan or pie pan. Open up the pastry dough and fit into the pan, folding down the excess to reinforce the sides. Press the pastry against the side of the pan, trimming off any excess dough. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. To maintain the best shape, freeze for at least 15 minutes before baking.

Preheat oven to 425°. Line the pastry with foil and fill with dried beans, making sure they are pushed up well against the sides. Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, or until the dough is almost dry. Remove the foil and beans, prick with a fork and continue baking for about 5 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.

Remove from oven and let cool for a bit while you make the filling.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks until lighter in color and fluffy. With the mixer still running, add the egg whites and continue whipping until bubbly. Add the softened butter and beat until well blended; add the sugar, vanilla and ricotta and continue to whip until, being careful not to overmix. Using a large spatula, fold in the almonds with a spatula. Spoon the ricotta custard mixture into the crust and cover the exposed edges of the crust with foil. Bake in the oven until browned and firm to the touch, about 35 minutes.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Meyer Lemon Gnocchi with Butter Poached Lobster

August has reared its head and then hastily ducked out of sight. Already the sunlight is noticeably absent from the late evening horizon. Even the air takes on a different texture and scent. Fall is just around the corner.

But before we pack up our grills and prepare to exhume our deeply buried wool sweaters, take in your surroundings, inhale a deep breath of summer air and savor the opportunity to enjoy the fading notes of summer’s iconic foods.

To me, nothing speaks of summer more than lobster- the crack of the shell, the squirt of the juice, the ceremonial dipping in drawn butter, the smell of sea-like air wafting from a giant salted pot of water. It invokes images of the rolling surf, majestic sand dunes and late-night salmon colored sunsets.

A well cooked lobster, tender and soft rather than rubbery, is the king of foods. It speaks of elegance to some and to others it suggests a relaxed backyard feast. Either way, there’s no denying the pleasure of sinking your teeth into the succulent, sweet and seductive meat of a perfectly cooked lobster.

On the other hand, gnocchi is a food I associate more with winter. Making homemade gnocchi is a labor of love and not necessarily an undertaking I crave on a warm summer’s day. It is time consuming to hand sculpt the little pillows, each with their own quirky shape and character yet uniformly light and fluffy. Tender gnocchi require respect, patience and a gentle touch and beckon one to spend quality time at the kitchen counter, rolling and cutting the dough simply to keep warm on a cold day. A little tip: if you don’t have a potato ricer, an ordinary food mill is an infallible alternative for ricing potatoes.

I love Chef Steve Corry’s Meyer lemon gnocchi. Adding the essence of fragrant Meyer lemons to the potato dumplings unequivocally gives the gnocchi a fresh, summer appeal. After boiling his pasta dumplings, he sautés them in a light butter bath to crisp them up. This adds an enticing texture dimension and provides a nice contrast between the soft center and the crispy exterior. When tossed with a rich lemon butter broth and topped off with butter poached lobster, you get a hearty, comforting and luxurious dish that’s flirty, zesty and a consummate use of summer’s finest and most symbolic ingredients.

For poached lobster:
2 lobsters, 1 1/2 pound each
1 pound butter for poaching lobster
Salt for boiling lobsters

For gnocchi:
1 pound baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
3 large egg yolks
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons, preferably Meyer lemons
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces and chilled
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Snipped chives, for garnish

To remove the lobsters from their shells, flash boiling the lobsters for 1 to 2 minutes in heavily salted water with a dash of vinegar. Remove lobster from the water and twist its tail off in one motion. Using a pair of kitchen scissors, cut from the belly towards the head and down each claw. Cut down the belly-side of the tail and spread back the shell. Pull the meat out, keeping pieces as intact as possible. Set aside in refrigerator while you make the gnocchi.

In a medium saucepan, cover the potatoes and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderately high heat until the potatoes are tender, about 8 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then return them to the pan; shake over moderately high heat until dry.

Working over a large rimmed baking sheet, rice the hot potatoes in an even layer. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the lemon zest, 1 teaspoon of olive oil and the salt and pour over the potatoes. Sprinkle the flour over the potatoes and stir gently just until a dough forms.

Gently roll the dough into four 1/2-inch-thick ropes. Using a sharp knife, cut each rope into 1/2-inch pieces. Roll each piece against the tines of a fork to make ridges. Transfer the gnocchi to the baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

In a small saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a simmer. Remove from the heat and whisk in the 1 stick of butter, a few pieces at a time, until the sauce is creamy. Warm the sauce on low heat if necessary. Stir in the lemon juice and season with salt.

In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the gnocchi until they rise to the surface, then cook them for 1 minute longer. Gently drain the gnocchi, toss with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and transfer to a baking sheet until cool.

To clarify the butter, slowly melt 1 pound of butter and remove the foam that appears with a ladle. Discard foam and reserve remaining clarified butter.

Cook lobster tail and claws in clarified butter for 4 minutes over medium heat. The butter should barely be simmering. Remove from butter and break up the lobster meat with your fingers.

In a large nonstick skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter reserved for the gnocchi. Add half of the gnocchi and cook in a single layer over high heat until browned on the bottom, 2 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and repeat with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and gnocchi.

Reheat the sauce; pour it over the gnocchi and fold gently with a rubber spatula until they are evenly coated. Transfer to a platter and garnish with the chives and the lobster meat.

Makes 8 first course servings or 4 main course servings.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jewstalgia- Touring and Exploring in NYC

A few months ago, my aunt Paula decided that we need to capture our culture’s tradition through food, bottling up as much Jewish culture in a day’s work, touring New York City’s most iconic Jewish and Russian food spots. It would be an intimate family affair and we would sacrifice our stomachs to the pickled herring of New York, we’d spew Yiddish sayings at will, we’d start an annual tradition filled with nostalgia, humor, and self-discovery. Hence, Jewstalgia was born.

June 7 was the day of our first annual Jewstalgia and the behemoth gods of hot, hot heat were upon us. The oppressive sun hit our backs like the heavy, scorching roof of a Panini press. Sweat dripped down our slick backs like flowing, living waterfalls. However, we persevered. It was the type of severe weather where the appetite is suppressed, yet we kept eating like it was our last meal(s) on earth, our tenacious minds quarrelling with our contentious bellies.

We began the day on New York’s lower east side, a part of town brimming with Jewish heritage: Houston Street, Essex Street, Grand Street, Orchard Street- all painted with vestiges of a turn of the century immigrant history. The Lower East Side was once an epicenter for American Judaism, a neighborhood where immigrants, in particular Jewish immigrants, settled and developed a new capital of Jewish culture in America.

Arriving at our first destination, Russ and Daughters, at 179 East Houston Street, our feet were already pavement-weary, our faces coated with slick and salty sweat, our mind’s questioning our day’s work. But when met with the bounty of Jewish delicacies in the shop, we quickly forgot the weather’s curse, mustered our appetites and delved in.

Russ and Daughters is a polished yet authentic Jewish specialty shop filled with the foods we’ve come to identify with being Jewish- smoked fish, herring, cured salmon, caviar, chopped liver, and only the best of everything. We sampled items such as traditional pickled herring, rolled in dainty rounds, filled with tart pickled onions, rich chopped chicken liver like your Bubby made, tangy-sweet smoked salmon tartar, and the famous “Super Heeb Sandwich”, a pillowy bagel filled with creamy whitefish salad, horseradish cream cheese and the piece d’resistance- wasabi flying fish roe.

I honestly could have quit our adventure right then and there! The entire Russ and Daughter’s staff was not only helpful and courteous, but wholeheartedly joined in on our fun, teaching us eccentric and humorous Yiddish anecdotes, surveying our printed itinerary, and even taking our photo for their upcoming blog.

Just down the street from Russ and Daughter’s is Katz’s, a kosher deli dating back to 1888, a tourist hotspot and a quintessential New York Jewish deli. Some argue that Katz’s is overrated, overcrowded and unfriendly, but it is a truly historical New York experience, and a truly Jewish one. There’s something mischievous about eating at Katz’s: the ominous, never-ending rows of tables, the World War II décor, the ever-effusive patrons, the conveyer belt efficiency of the staff.

Some argue that the service is unpleasant and even abrasive. But let’s be honest, who comes to Katz’s Deli for the Michelin star service? They come to take a bite out of truly mouth-watering, spicy, juicy brined pastrami on rye, some of the city’s best. They come for the corned beef, the hot dogs, the tongue. They come for the tart, mouth-puckering dill pickles and pickled green tomatoes. They come to remember their pasts- the boys of World War II. They come to revel in their present- the salty, juicy deli meat filling their bellies and the frothy, sublime egg creams. Little known Katz’s fact: their latkes are splendid discs of perfectly crunchy and lightly salted potato with a piping hot, soft interior; a surprising find for folks not known for their latkes. We also ordered a mandatory Kasha filled knish, a staple of the Jewish household of yore.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “did they possibly move forward, did they possibly consume more? “ Yes, we did move onward and we did eat more, although begrudgingly at this juncture. The heat of the mid-afternoon sun was becoming increasingly oppressive. On our walk to our next destination, we had to seek shelter in a hole-in-the-wall convenient store, air conditioners lovelingly blowing blusteringly cold wind onto our sun kissed backs, providing us with a fleeting moment of reprieve. Our stomachs were growling, filled with the relics of our mornings work while our lungs and hearts were working overtime, fighting nature’s torridness.

And unfortunately, our subsequent two destinations were closed for the Sabbath. It is obvious you are dealing with a secular bunch when Jewish gastronomy day is planned on the Sabbath!

Guss’s Pickles on Orchard Street is the place to go for a briny bite of Jewish history. They offer an array of pickles including garlicky kosher sour, the salty half-sour, the spicy pickle and the pickled green tomato. Just down the street, Kossar's Bialys was also resting for the Sabbath and thank goodness for small favors: could we really consume another carbohydrate?

Yes, apparently we would could. And we did. Our next stop features otherworldly carbs, like manna from heaven! Mark Isreal’s Doughnut Plant’s confections are astonishing- pillowy doughnuts so fluffy they melt in your mouth like cotton candy. We sampled the Valrhona chocolate, mango glazed and coconut cream doughnuts, although the coconut cream blasted the competition out of the sugary water with its subtle sweetness, coconut glaze sprinkled like snow on the outside of the yeasty pastry, a refined coconut cream running evenly through the perimeter of the doughnut like a silken river. Mr. Isreal makes use of only the freshest and most high quality ingredients, including fresh fruit in the glazes, high-end chocolate and homemade jelly.

Before our final and most memorable eating experience of the day, we made a required stop at the educational Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. The tour takes you deep into the past, directly into the lives of newly minted Americans and their preserved home, a tenement built in 1863. The building has been restored to display the dismal living (and in-home working) conditions of the immigrants that inhabited the building over the course of half a century.

Our night began and ended not on the Lower East Side, but in Little Odessa in Brighton Beach (Brooklyn). We stumbled into Primorski in a collective delirium, more hungry for the air conditioner and stiff seats than for the actual meal and the cruise ship-like ambiance. Our experience at Primorski was truly trippy, authentically Russian, cheesy to the max and more kitschy than Pee Wee Herman. Everything at Primorski is grandiose and over-the-top.

This is the place to go for a never-ending Russian/Georgian family style meal, all you can drink vodka, live technoesque Europop, all under dizzying disco-lights. Suffice it to say that words cannot convey the utterly hilarious and simultaneously bizarre experience of Primorski. The restaurant is a dimly lit, windowless ballroom and as the night progresses and the patrons become increasingly intoxicated, the music crescendos and frenetic dancing fills any potential void in the sprawling room. Like clockwork, the singers treated the eaters to their raspy rendition of “Happy Birthday” eleven times, complete with larger than life birthday cakes. We began to assume that we were not only the only non-Russian speakers in the room, but also the only table not celebrating a birthday.

Some of the food at Primorski was questionable, at least to our sensibilities, which was okay, since the banquet menu is essentially ceaseless. We jettisoned the seafood dishes in favor of salty meats and the plethora of carbohydrates. The menu went something like this: crab salad, chicken in jelly, Caesar salad, eel salad, seafood salad, duck salad, chicken in jelly, herring, pickled tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage, smoked fish platter which included smoked white fish, smoked salmon, smoked sturgeon, various cold cuts including tongue, galantine, smoked pork meat and other mysterious meats, crispy fried potatoes with garlic, khachapuri (Georgian bread patty filled with cheese), bilinis with red caviar, warm seafood platter, chicken Kiev, various fried meats, a fruit platter and fruit filled crepes. If you feel exhausted reading that list, try to be on the receiving end of the plethora of shameless gluttony, especially after a marathon day of excessive eating.

We ate, we drank, we conquered. Our first annual Jewstalgia was filled with great food, vivid history, bright new memories forged and yes, nostalgia.

Russ and Daughters:
179 E. Houston St.
New York, NY 10002
(212) 475-4880

Katz’s Deli
205 E Houston St
New York, NY 10002
(212) 254-2246

Guss's Pickles
87 Orchard St
New York, NY 10002
(212) 334-3616

Kossar's Bialys
367 Grand Street
New York, NY

Doughnut Plant
379 Grand St
New York, NY 10002

282 Brighton Beach Ave #B
Brooklyn, NY 11235

The Tenement Museum
97 Orchard Street

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ode to the Sandwich

I grew up writing silly poems. Some families hike, some go camping, others play board games. We wrote silly poems very often about food. Yes, we were (and still are) a quirky bunch. We threw evocative language and traditional meter to the wayside in exchange for pure sophomoric entertainment.

I continue the trend with my Ode To The Sandwich (with recipe below).

Marbled pumpernickel
Thickly toasted white
Carbohydrates aplenty, have to take a bite

Turkey, pastrami
Liverwurst and onion
A concoction hefty enough even for Paul Bunyan

Aioli and horseradish
Mustard and mayo
Or nature’s condiments- simple lettuce and tomato

Make it a Ruben
Complete with Russian dressing
A deli style sandwich is hunger’s sweet blessing

An Italian meatball hero
A steak and cheese in Philly
A Greek gyro, topped with rich tzatziki

A pickle on the side
Or potato chips with salt
A lobster BLT, in my tracks I will halt

Lamb burger on a bun
A Cuban with shredded pork
Eat it with your hands, no need for spoon and fork

Grape jelly or peaches
Buck flavor tradition
Unconventional toppings, surpass the competition

Sticky or gooey
With cheese or peanut butter
Using Marshmallow Fluff yields a fluffernutter

Call it a Monte Cristo
Or a curry chicken Panini
Work the lunch-time magic, and you’ll be a sandwich Houdini

Charcoal-Grilled Greek-Style Lamb Pita Sandwiches with Tzatziki
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, America's Test Kitchen

For Tzatziki Sauce:
1/2 cup Greek Yogurt
1/2 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced fine (about 1/2 cup)
3/8 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint

For Lamb Patties:
Vegetable oil for cooking grate
4 (8-inch) pocketless pita breads
1/2 small onion, chopped coarse (about 1/3 cup)
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano leaves
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
1 pound ground lamb

1 large tomato, sliced thin
2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
2 ounces crumbled feta cheese (about 1/2 cup)

For the Tzatziki Sauce: Combine cucumber, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and lemon juice in colander set over bowl and let stand 30 minutes. Combine thickened yogurt, drained cucumber, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, garlic, and mint in clean bowl.

For the Patties: If using charcoal- About 20 minutes before grilling, light large chimney starter filled 3/4 full with charcoal (4 1/2 quarts, or about 75 briquettes) and allow to burn until coals are fully ignited and partially covered with thin layer of ash, about 20 minutes. Build modified two-level fire by arranging all coals over half of grill, making sure they are in even layer, leaving other half empty. Position cooking grate over coals, cover grill, and heat grate until hot, about 5 minutes; scrape grate clean with grill brush. Dip wad of paper towels in vegetable oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe cooking grate. Grill is ready when side with coals is medium-hot (you can hold your hand 5 inches above grate for 3 to 4 seconds). If using propane grill- About 10 minutes before grilling, heat propane grill on medium heat. Just prior to grilling, scrape grate clean with grill brush. Dip wad of paper towels in vegetable oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe cooking grate.

Use quarter of fifth pita and tear into 1 inch pieces, and discard saving remaining part of pita for future use. (You should have about 1/4 cup pita pieces.) Process onion, lemon juice, salt, pepper, oregano, garlic, and pita bread pieces in food processor until smooth paste forms, scraping down sides of workbowl as necessary, about 30 seconds. Transfer onion mixture to large bowl; add lamb and gently mix with hands until thoroughly combined. Divide mixture into 4 equal pieces and roll into logs. Gently flatten logs into rectangular patties, about 1/2 inch thick, 2 1/2 inches wide, and 7 inches long.

Place patties on hotter side of grill. Cook, turning once using spatula, until well browned and crust forms on each side, 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer patties to plate. While patties rest, place pita in single layer on hotter side of grill. Cook, turning once, until each pita is thoroughly warmed and faint grill marks appear, 30 to 40 seconds. Remove pita from grill and wrap tightly with aluminum foil.

Spread 1/8 cup Tzatziki Sauce inside each pita. Put 1 patty in each pita and top with tomato slices, 1/2 cup shredded lettuce, and 2 tablespoons feta. Serve immediately.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Pickle Love

In my eyes, there is no food as profoundly romantic as the pickle. Like a good relationship, canning, brining and pickling require a labor of love along with a sprinkling of time and a dash of patience.

Pickles begin their journey with fresh ingredients and over time develop a completely new set of flavors, an entirely new identity. They experience a hyperbolic rebirth: subtly flavored fresh vegetables become boldly tart, intensely sour, sweetly tangy, aromatic, acidy and crisp.

Pickling began as a necessity: a way to preserve foods as preparation for cold, dark, bleak winters. Although pickling has fallen by the wayside as a means of survival, it has become a way to tap into family histories, to serve as a reminder of simpler eras or to simply capture time in a mason jar.

I’m a fan of all pickles: simple bread and butter, garlic dill, pickled watermelon rind, kimchi, tsukemono, pickled eggs. Some pickles require preservation, canning, sterilization; others are fresh and ready to eat fairly instantaneously. I made two very different types of pickles over the course of a weekend, in an attempt to capture summer’s essence in my own set of mason jars.

Southern-style pickled watermelon rind is a process, requiring jar sterilization and a kit and caboodle of appliances, such as a kettle and several pans. Since I made half the recipe, I was able to sterilize one jar at a time in my handy All-Clad asparagus cooker, which comes equipped with a removable basket insert. Ultimately, I filled a gallon jar and a pint jar with watermelon rinds. Pickling rinds requires overnight marination, though worth the effort, as the finished product is mouth-puckeringly sweet-tart.

Since I am a die-hard lover of kimchi, I wanted to try making my own, but ended up straying from an aged version and headed for the fresh cabbage patch. This fresh kimchi requires a beef broth for marination and I had luckily made a batch that morning for our evening dinner, although canned broth would do just fine. After half a day of salting and draining, the cabbage was ready to be whipped into form. I decided to jar the bold and fiery kimchi for aesthetic purposes, although it can be stored in an air-tight container.

Pickled Watermelon Rind
Adapted from Molly O’Neill, NY Times

7 cups 1-inch-cubed watermelon rind, dark green skin and all red flesh removed
1/4 cup kosher salt
4 cups sugar
2 cups white vinegar
1 thinly sliced lemon, seeds removed
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon whole allspice.

1. Place the rind in a large bowl and toss with the salt. Cover with 1 quart cold water. Refrigerate overnight.

2. Drain the watermelon. Bring a large kettle 1/4 full of water to a boil and add the rind. Cook until tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

3. Return kettle to the stove. Add sugar, vinegar, lemon, cinnamon stick, cloves, allspice and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil. Add the rind and simmer until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes.

4. Have ready 3 hot, sterilized pint (2-cup) canning jars and lids. (See pickled peppers for sterilizing instructions.) Gently pack the hot rind into the jars, leaving 1/4inch of space below the lip. Pour enough liquid into the jars to cover the rind. Wipe rims with a clean, damp towel and screw lids on securely but not too tightly.

5. Fill a large kettle fitted with a rack halfway with water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, bring a teapot full of water to a boil. Place the filled jars on the rack (do not let them touch -- work in batches if necessary) and pour in boiling water from the teapot until jar tops are covered by 2 inches. Bring to a boil and boil 10 minutes.

6. Using tongs, remove jars from the kettle. Using potholders, tighten lids. Allow to cool. Store in a cool, dark place.

Yield: 3 pint jars.

Fresh Kimchi
Adapted from Molly O’Neill, NY Times

1 2-pound head Napa cabbage
2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 cup very thinly sliced sticks of daikon
4 scallions, sliced into long, thin, strips
1 cup leaves and tender stems of watercress
3 tablespoons ground Korean hot-pepper flakes
1 cup beef broth
1 tablespoon sesame oil
4 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced.

1. Quarter the cabbage and remove the thick, white core at the base. Halve each quarter. Place the cabbage in a large strainer set inside a large bowl. Toss the cabbage with 2 tablespoons of the salt. Place another large bowl on top of the cabbage and fill it with heavy cans or other weights so that the cabbage is compressed. Set aside to drain for 5 hours.

2. Rinse the cabbage briefly under running water and wrap it in clean tea towels to remove excess water. Cut cabbage into strips and transfer to a large, clean bowl along with the daikon, scallions and watercress.

3. In a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Pour mixture over the vegetables and toss until well coated. Season with additional salt, if necessary. Serve at room temperature.
Yield: 6 cups.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Would you like fries with that?

After a recent trip to a Queens eatery for brunch with Mike and my sister Jess, I found myself thinking back to my most absurd, silly, outlandish, asinine, and confounding restaurant encounters.

We had spent a lazy Sunday morning lingering over food and beverages. Minutes turned into hours and after requesting several rounds of mimosas, tea, and coffee, after begging our server for refills on the complimentary mini-muffin basket, and after feasting on eggs Benedict AND cheese cake for dessert, our server greeted us tableside and asked “Are you ready to order?”

“Um, okay there, buddy!” We had been gorging ourselves for several hours, requested the young lad’s service almost a dozen times, and he appeared sheepish and perplexed when we shot him baffled facial expressions. That’s putting it mildly- my face was contorted into a giant question mark, complete with dotted I’s and T’s!

After he ran away, tail between legs, to pick up remnants of self-respect (and gather our check), we all burst out in uncontrollable, although uncomfortable laughter. We had developed a superficial relationship with this kid and he failed to recognize that he had already served us brunch and dessert and many, many drinks. I don't want to say we were the bain of his morning, that we were voracious, ravenous pests, horrible heathens of hedonism, every servers worst nightmare, but we were surely demanding in our hunger that morning.

We started questioning our identities, wavering between confusion and laughter and started to speculate- were we that unmemorable, faceless gluttons in a sea of hungry infidels? Or was he just having an off-day? Or perhaps he'd been hitting the mimosas! Either way, it was strange in a Twilight Zone kind of way.

I tried to recall any similar circumstances that rang out in my mind, anything as oddly humorous, as quirky, perplexing. As I surveyed past eating experiences, I conjured images of undercooked pizza crust, soggy fries, forgotten orders, misplaced meal tickets, spilled beverages. Obviously, this is one of those “you had to be there” moments, but it has become one of those things we mention in passing, just for a quick laugh. I began referring to this event as a “would you like fries with that?” moment. And yes, we would have liked fries with that, but of course, our server neglected to ask!

Do you have a similar "would you like fries with that?" tale? A tale of humor, a tale of bad service, a tale of bad food, a tale of restaurant darkness?

"Would you Like Fries with That" Salt and Pepper Oven Fries
Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine

Serves 6

3 large baking potatoes (about 2 1/3 pounds) peeled, cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide planks, each plank cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide strips
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon pepper

Place rack in top third of oven and preheat to 400°F. Place potato strips on rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil; toss to coat. Roast 25 minutes. Using spatula, turn fries over. Roast until tender and golden brown around edges, about 25 minutes longer.

Mix salt, pepper, and sugar in small bowl. Sprinkle over chips.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mango Fool

In the still, thick, sticky summer heat, sometimes the only thing that satiates the palate is a shockingly chilly frozen treat. Ice cream is so satisfying, so right, that is seems as salubrious as an icy cold cucumber. Sometimes banal summer desserts, however, can leave you wanting more, wanting something different. When ice cream seems too cloying, a popsicle too hackneyed, consider the fool, a cold and silken dessert so simple - the essence of cream and summer fruit whipped together in an instant.

Fool is an old-fashioned dessert made from pureed fruit mixed with whipped cream or custard. I admit I had never heard of this formidable classic until recently. Mark Bittman states that it is a “once commonplace dish that has all but vanished from the repertory of most home cooks.”

Popular flavors of the vintage English dessert include strawberry, raspberry, peach, traditional English gooseberry and mango, which was common in British colonial Africa.

The historical recipe recently popped up in an issue of Gourmet, too effortless a recipe to forgo. The combination of pureed mango and whipped cream yields a satiny custard and a hint of fresh lime juice gives it a refreshing, lively tang. Served over blueberries, it is a great alternative to ice cream on a hot summer’s night. There’s a true charm to this declaration of simplicity.

Mango Fool
Adapted From Gourmet Magazine
Start to finish: 10 min
Servings: Makes 6 (dessert) servings

1 1-pound ripe mango, pitted, peeled, and cut into chunks
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, or to taste
1 cup chilled heavy cream
1 1/2 cups blueberries (1/2 pound)
Grated lime zest to taste

Purée mango, sugar, lime juice, and a pinch of salt in a blender until very smooth. Add cream and blend until very thick. Blend in additional lime juice and sugar to taste.

Transfer to a bowl and fold in most of blueberries, then divide among 6 glasses. Top with remaining blueberries and zest. If desired, chill, loosely covered, 30 minutes.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cheese of the month- Hudson Valley Camembert

As much as I have unapologetically resisted a fondness for living in the Hudson Valley, my childhood dream of living on a farm has grabbed hold of my impervious soul and latched on for good. I can no longer resist the idyllic aesthetics of my surroundings. I’m hooked on local farms and their verdant, sweeping pastures. I have been romanced by the earth’s abundance and by the honest dairy.

If I can help it, I only drink Ronnybrook Farm’s milk and I love their creamy garlic infused butter, addictive yogurt, and luscious ice cream. After starting an internship at my favorite local creamery Sprout Creek Farm, I only eat local cheese (and yes, pretty much only SCF cheese….and in a somewhat unhealthy abundance!).

However, having never tried cheese from the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, I decided to branch out. After all, I am from Albany and these guys are my neighbors. Old Chatham burst onto the scene in 1994 with a small flock of sheep and went on to produce award winning sheep’s milk cheese and creamy full-fat yogurt.

Nestled in the softly undulating hills of the upper Hudson Valley, Tom and Nancy Clark, the farm’s proprietors, now house a flock of over 1000 organically-raised East Friesian crossbred sheep.

One of the few producers of sheep’s milk cheese in America, its Camembert is award-winning, a blend of their flock’s milk and from a bit of cow’s milk from neighboring Hollrock Farm in Kinderhook. At the 2001 US Cheese Championship it won the coveted Best Cheese in America prize and in both 2002 and 2006, it won World Championships in Best of Class.

In “Cheese, A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best” Max McCalman and David Gibbons state that the cheese “gives the continental double and triple crèmes a run for their money, adding an extra dimension with the inclusion of sheep’s milk.” A traditional French Camembert is made from the unpasteurized milk of Normande cattle.

The soft bloomy-rind Camembert is less mushroomy than its French counterpart, with a subtler earthy flavor. Its texture is richly buttery and sweetly creamy and the mix of sheep’s and cow’s milks yields an even, harmonious taste. The cheese is distinctly American, a neat little square packaged in breathable paper and labeled with the likeness of a sheep.

Serve this antibiotic and hormone-free cheese at room temperature and enjoy its melt-in-your-mouth goodness.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Summery Soup to Slurp- Naeng Myun

I have been consistently craving naeng myun ever since I first sampled the beautiful soup in San Diego. That was two years ago. I have since developed a mental obsession with the dish, an enlightening combination of flavors and textures that is burned in my mind like a visceral tattoo.

The day of my soup revelation, the Southern California sun was on fire and the humidity level at rare SoCal heights. It was a scorcher, the kind of day where you stave off the fiery air by seeking shelter inside overly air conditioned malls or cool, azure swimming pools.

My friend had been talking up one of her favorite local Korean BBQ joints and I was in town just for the day. I needed to try this place. Despite the heat, we braved the fierce smoke and glittering flames of the indoor grills. I was content with our selection of bulgogi and samgyeopsal, but my friend’s husband insisted we try naeng myun, one of his favorite childhood dishes, and major refreshment after the charred, spiced meats. He swore it would be just the thing to refresh our still-hungry, overheated bodies before we once again braved the torrid, dense air.

Sipping and slurping the tangy, icy soup was a revelation. The broth is so subtle, the tangy soupcon of radish brine whirled into the slightly sweet beef stock danced a gustatory pas de deux on my tongue, the elegant interplay of sweet and sour. It was that taste-moment I realized I could live the rest of my life eating nothing but naeng myun. This was my new death row meal, that meal in which I would wholeheartedly indulge on my last night on earth. Everything about the dish struck a harmonious chord and the icy, refreshing broth couldn’t have been more soul-satisfying, the liquid lovingly licking our throats, a cool tingling spreading like the flames of the grill through our bodies.

Naeng myun, which means “cold noodles” is a Korean repast made with slightly chewy buckwheat or yam noodles nested in a cold beef broth. The noodles and soup are seasoned tableside by adding tangy vinegar or spicy mustard before eating and most typically topped with an array of bite sized texture variants: tender slices of beef brisket, sliced cucumber, half a hard-boiled egg, sweet Asian pear, and a mild pickled daikon radish (and often with shaved or cubed iced). Use of Korean buckwheat noodles or arrowroot noodles yields a wonderfully chewy, springy texture and slightly sweet taste.

I started my broth in an atypical fashion. Many traditional naeng myun beef broths are conceived of brisket boiled in water with scallions and garlic. Due to my local market’s lack of brisket and a fussy looking flank steak, I went with a healthy cut of London broil and oxtails for their unctuously rich fat. I also beefed things up my using scallions, thinly sliced garlic, and a whole onion. My broth was evocative, breathtakingly flavorful, especially after adding a few tablespoons of vinegar to finish (which I utilized in place of dongchimi brine, the tangy liquid used for pickling daikon kimchi).

My version of naeng myun wasn’t entirely authentic, but it was the taste I remembered and for that, I was proud of my efforts.

Naeng Myun
Serves 4

Beef broth:
1 pound beef brisket, flank steak, or London broil
1 1/2 pounds oxtail
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 scallions, green and white parts, whole
1 medium onion, peeled, cut in quarters
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus additional to taste
1/2 teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 large daikon radish (about 7 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons white vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 small pickling cucumber
1 Asian pear
2 hardboiled eggs
1 22-ounce package Korean buckwheat noodles (made from buckwheat flour and sweet-potato starch) or arrowroot noodles

To make the broth:
Rinse meat and place in large stock pot with onion, scallions, garlic, salt and pepper. Cover with 8 to 9 cups of cold water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about an hour, or until meat is cooked through, skimming foam and fat occasionally.

Remove beef and oxtails. Discard onions and oxtails (or reserve oxtails for other use). Strain the broth until a clean pot and continue to boil broth for an additional 15 minutes. Cool broth slightly. Add sugar, vinegar and salt to taste. Chill broth in refrigerator for about 2 hours, or until broth is very cold.

To prepare garnishes:
Slice beef across the grain into very thin slices, about 1/8-inch thick, yielding about 5 slices per bowl. Reserve remaining meat for another use.

Wash, peel and slice radish into long, flat pieces (like a ribbon), about 3-inches long. Add 1 teaspoon vinegar, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt to radish. Mix well and let sit while you prepare the rest of the garnishes.

Prepare cucumber in the same manner, although do not peel.

Wash and slice 1/8-inch pieces of Asian pear.

Prepare a large pot of boiling water and cook the noodles about 2-3 minutes, until the noodles are al dente and chewy. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Drain liquid from radish and cucumber and add 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil to each.

To serve, place about a handful of noodles at the bottom of 4 large bowls. Top noodles with radish, cucumbers, meat, pears, and egg. Ladle broth around noodles. Serve accompanied by small bowls of vinegar and hot Asian mustard to garnish.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Dressing Up Your Dog for Summer

The fourth of July is just around the bend, which means it is time to brush the now-antique layer of dust off your bbq tongs and fire up your warm weather friend, your trusty grill.

Put away that Dutch Oven, used during the chilly months to braise heart-warming, stewed meats. It is the time of year when the focus shifts from the interior of the encapsulated kitchen to the open sky and fresh air, where fragrant grill smoke is free to billow overhead, languidly floating above us, filling every corner of the atmosphere, and our nostrils.

You know you can picture (and smell) the scenario. You are driving in your car across the horizon, windows down, and the smell hits you like a ton of bricks: burgers and dogs grilling, the scent permeating the air, seducing the nose with an aromatic, charred perfume.

Carnivores rejoice! It’s the dog days of summer!

Although we can trace the hot dog’s roots to the sausage, and most likely to Germany, it has become a global snack of choice in countries such as Iceland (pylsa), Mexico (perrito caliente), and France (chien chaud), to name a few.

However, we Americans like to claim the summery snack as our own, and eating your first hot dog is a veritable right of passage in America. The hot dog has become an all-American entity, a historic favorite, even appearing on a festive presidential picnic menu in 1939 (for a party thrown by the esteemed FDR to welcome King George to America).

And as diverse as our national geography, hot dog condiments and toppings vary, representing a true melting pot of regional tastes and flavors. Dodger Dog devotees and Fenway Frank fanatics opt for classic ballpark combinations: ketchup, mustard, relish, sauerkraut. Coney Island goers and Nathan’s enthusiasts (with the exception of Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut, who eat them by the dozen soaked in an unpleasant tonic of pure water) tend to love the same. Then there’s the winning Chicago combo, which sounds inherently wrong, but is innately right: mustard, onion, neon green pickle relish, tomato slices, pickled hot peppers, celery salt, and a lip-smacking dill pickle. The Texas dog involves the heartburn inducing combination of chili, cheese and jalapenos. Many Southerners enjoy sweet-tart coleslaw slathered on their dogs.

I had never tried Southern-style dogs before, so I decided to go for it, whipping up a quick slaw, as well as a homemade relish. Ultimately, in our head to head relish versus slaw showdown, the slaw dog won, and I’m a huge relish fan! It is a logical, yet little seen in the Northeast, combination of crispy, steaming hot dogs drowned with chilled, creamy slaw. I served mine on slightly toasted, buttered buns: a taste marriage made in heaven.

A great, dressed-up dog transcends ballpark fare, although there's something beautiful about the simplicity of a bare bones grilled dog: the charred, almost caramelized exterior, the audible snap of the casing, the squirt of the juicy, spiced meat.

Homemade Pickle Relish
Adapted from Bobby Flay

Makes 8 servings

1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 tablespoons sugar
8 large dill pickles (sour, not half-sour), finely diced
1 small red pepper, grilled, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 small yellow pepper, grilled, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 small white onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Bring vinegar, mustard seeds, and coriander seeds to a boil in a medium non-reactive saucepan on the grates of the grill; cook until reduced by half and slightly syrupy.

Remove from the heat, add the remaining ingredients, and gently toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

Active time: 25 min
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hr
Makes 8 servings

2 1/2 pound green cabbage, cored and cut into 3-inch chunks, then finely chopped or shredded
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 large carrot, coarsely grated
1 1/4 cups mayonnaise
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar

Toss all vegetables in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

Whisk together mayonnaise, vinegar, and sugar, then toss with slaw. Chill, covered, stirring occasionally, at least 1 hour (for vegetables to wilt and flavors to blend).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Key Lime = Summertime

*Dedicated to Gus and his bbq smoker

Key lime pie is the official state pie of the Sunshine State. The velvety and tangy dessert is to the Florida palate as Don Featherstone’s kitschy birds are to the southern state’s lawnscape.

It goes without saying that a trip to the Florida Keys is not complete without at least one slice of key lime pie (despite the fact that most Key Limes are now grown by our neighbors in Mexico). I admit, however, I’ve never been to the Keys, despite a childhood obsession with the short-lived Fox show “Key West.” I’m not a Jimmy Buffet fan and I’ve never wasted away in Margaritaville, but my summer is not complete without a ceremonial key lime pie bake-off.

Supposedly, the pie came to fruition in the Keys due to a lack of fresh cow’s milk. Innovative bakers utilized condensed milk, eggs and the juice of the local limes to fabricate a dessert that mirrors lemon-meringue. According to John Mariani, author of “Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” the birth of the key lime pie was as early as the 1850’s. He states: “The original pies were made with a pastry crust, but a crust made from graham crackers later became popular and today is a matter of preference, as is the choice between whipped cream and meringue toppings.”

Personally, I believe a key lime pie sans a graham cracker crust is criminal. I like the crunchy graininess of the slightly sweet crust in contrast with the tart, silken filling. Simply put, it works. And it works well.

In the days since its advent, recipes for key lime pie have disseminated north, east and west. This often necessitates the use of the larger Persian limes, which do not pack the punch of their smaller cousins. Although there are many decent recipes that utilize Persian limes, nothing beats the tangy, effervescent taste of fresh squeezed key limes.

I admit that the tedious process of wringing tiny amounts of juice from the Lilliputian citrus can be draining. The process will no doubt dangle you on the precipice of insanity, but one morsel of pie will surely stifle the now-faint memory of your Herculean efforts.

For an authentic pie, the filling must be a pale yellow, like the juice of the key limes themselves. Never add green food coloring, which enthusiasts and traditionalists frown upon. When the pure, acidic lime juice is combined with rich, sticky condensed milk and smooth, gelatinous egg yolks, you get a combination of flavors made in heaven- a dessert that tastes of the quintessential essence of summer.

Despite the painstaking nature of hand squeezing the limes, the pie itself is effortless to make. The tart, acidic undertones and sweet overtones meld to form a beautifully harmonious, supple, dessert.

And because I'm of the "waste not, want not" school of cooking, I whipped up a few batches of merigngues with the leftover egg whites.

Key Lime Pie (Adapted from

Active time: 20 min (not including lime juicing)
Start to finish: 10 hr (includes chilling)

Makes 8 servings.

For crust:
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs from 9 (2 1/4-inch by 4 3/4-inch) crackers
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For filling:
1 (14-oz) can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh or bottled Key lime juice (if using bottled, preferably Manhattan brand)

For topping:
1 cup chilled heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Make crust:
Preheat oven to 350°F.

Stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter in a bowl with a fork until combined well, then press mixture evenly onto bottom and up side of a 9-inch (4-cup) glass pie plate.

Bake crust in middle of oven 10 minutes and cool in pie plate on a rack. Leave oven on.

Make filling and bake pie:
Whisk together condensed milk and yolks in a bowl until combined well. Add juice and whisk until combined well (mixture will thicken slightly).

Pour filling into crust and bake in middle of oven 15 minutes. Cool pie completely on rack (filling will set as it cools), then chill, covered, at least 8 hours.

Make topping:
Just before serving, beat cream, vanilla extract and sugar in a bowl with an electric mixer until it just holds stiff peaks. Serve pie topped with cream.

*Pie, without whipped cream, can be chilled up to 1 day.


Active time: 1 hr
Start to finish: 4 hours

Makes about 50 small meringues

3 large egg whites
3/8 teaspoon salt
1 cups superfine granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 175°F.

Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Beat whites with salt in a standing electric mixer at high speed (or with a handheld mixer in 2 batches) until the eggs just hold stiff peaks. Gradually add sugar, beating at high speed until whites hold stiff, glossy peaks.

Spoon half of meringue into pastry bag and pipe 1-inch-wide “cookies” onto 1 baking sheet, about 1/2 inch apart. Pipe more onto second sheet in same manner.

Bake meringues in upper and lower thirds of oven until crisp but still white, about 2 hours.

Turn off oven and cool meringues in oven 1 hour, then cool completely on sheets on a rack.

*Meringues keep in an airtight container at room temperature 3 days.