Archive for December 2009
Garlicky falafel from Aya Sofia in St. Louis
Everyone around here is sick with some kind of upper respiratory virus, what the Victorians used to call a “violent cold.” Indeed. I’m on day four; I think Jim is lagging behind me by a day or two. Misery. All parts of a cold are awful, but the worst part for me might be the olfactory deprivation. It’s worth bearing in mind that much of what we think of as taste is actually smell. Colds knock out the nose and, so it seems, the ability to taste anything that lacks a truly assertive smell. These days, I can barely tell the difference between chicken and pork. Texture is the only sure thing right now.
Bad timing too, since Jim’s parents offered to babysit for us last night so that we could go out to dinner. We still went, mind you. A little illness isn’t much of a deterrent, and after all, who would reject such a kind offer? However, instead of going to Niche, the acclaimed restaurant that we’d that planned to visit, we went to Aya Sofia, a Turkish restaurant that is one of our favorite places in the city. I was afraid that the food at Niche will be too subtle and refined for our deadened senses. Besides, we both really needed to eat some garlic.
Humans have been eating garlic for something like 6,000 years. It’s often been regarded as a powerful medicine. Recent students have validated its medicinal properties, citing its ability to reduce various forms of inflammation, including inflammation of the nasal passages. Some studies indicate that it might lessen the severity and duration of common colds. It could help reduce blood pressure and improve memory. Even Nyquil can’t make that claim.
Aya Sofia is an excellent Turkish restaurant and a perfect place to get a powerful wallop of allium. I could do without the belly dancer, who shows up on weekend nights at around 9:00, but other than that, it’s a fabulous place to eat. It’s boisterious without being noisy. The waitstaff is professional and the prices are well within the stratosphere. They also have a good wine list, featuring a number of excellent Spanish wines, my current favorites.
And, of course, the food is good. Other than the tapenade, which they used to serve as a sort of amuse bouche, my favorite thing to eat there is the Imam Bayildi. It’s one of those things that is easy enough to make at home — containing only olive oil, eggplant, onion, tomato sauce, and garlic, lots and lots of garlic.
Imam Bayildi was a good choice for my condition, riffing nicely, on my general sense of wooziness. The phrase translates to “the Imam fainted,” and the story behind that unusual title goes something like this. An Imam’s new bride wanted to impress her husband with her cooking skills so she invented a recipe for eggplant that contained quite a bit of garlic. It was so delicious that the Imam apparently fainted after eating it. A rather less generous version of the story has it that the bride used an excessive amount of olive oil, which, of course, made it a rather expensive meal, and the Imam was so overwhelmed by her poor judgement that he fainted. I prefer the garlic version.
Jim and I came home last night fairly reeking of garlic, but no one seemed to mind. I was happy that the delicious food penetrated my deadend olfactory system. Perhaps the garlic is beginning to work its magic and will start to heal our dreaded colds.
Imam Biyildi is really pretty easy to make at home. It’s also a good cure for anything that might be ailing you.
Imam Bayildi, Pearl Cous Cous, and Crunchy Green Beans, Aya Sofia
6 Asian eggplants, sliced in half lengthwise
1/2 cup olive oil
10 cloves of garlic (yes, ten, trust me), very thinly sliced
1 Spanish onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
Spicy tomato sauce (recipe follows)
Place the eggplants on a rimmed cookie sheet and salt generously. Leave alone for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Rinse the eggplants well and place them in a 9×12 baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil. Scatter the garlic and onion over top and bake for 10 minutes, covered with aluminium foil. Remove from oven, top with the tomato sauce. Cover the pan again and cook for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for about 10-15 minutes more. Serve with pita bread to soak up the juices.
Spicy Tomato Sauce
2 tbs. olive oil
5 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
1 28 ounce can of whole organic tomatoes with juices
2 tbs. cider vinegar
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper (or more, if you’d like)
1 tsp. dried mint, crumbled
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1 tsp. ground cumin
In a large sauce pan, saute the garlic in the olive oil over medium high heat until fragrant. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, breaking up tomatoes. Keep at room temperature until needed.
It’s the time of year when writers succumb to an inclination to categorize and rank. Everywhere I look, there are simplified ratings of complex people, new stories, and events; omnibus remembrances of the newly dead, and articles proclaiming the best of/worst of everything. Top ten lists abound.
I, myself, can’t resist categorizing and ranking, and not only at year’s end. Throughout the year, my family sometimes plays a game that I like to call “Best & Worst.” At the end of a party, vacation, dinner, etc., one of us will ask another: “what was the best part of ____ and why?” And then, of course: “what was the worst part of ___ and why?” Round and round we go, discussing the highs and lows of the event, comparing judgments, agreeing and disagreeing until we’ve discussed things as well as we possibly can.
If we play our game for the year that was 2009, I think we’ll have to get the “worst thing” out of the way first. There were all kinds of “worst” things about the past year: the crippled economy, petty politicians, childish celebrities, a lot of embarrassingly pointless news stories (balloon boy, anyone?), and the painful, seemingly endless, healthcare reform debate, to name only a few. In fact, it might be difficult to pinpoint one particular day that was itself so terrible; let’s just say that the whole year was saturated by and enveloped in a bad, smelly fog of discontent.
In spite of this, however, I can easily isolate one best day of 2009, one that was radiant in spite of all that fog. It was, without a doubt, the 20th of January.
To celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama, I canceled all of my classes and spent the day with Mimi and Jim, watching every second of the festivities on our computer screen (we don’t have a functioning television). I even decorated the outside of our house with American flags, something entirely out of character for me. For dinner — prepared just before coverage of the inaugural balls started — I served a meal inspired by the inaugural lunch, with a few additional nods to ingredients from geographically significant places in Obama’s life. The star of the meal was ambrosia, made with fresh pineapple (from the great state of Hawaii), bananas, and coconut.
Although ambrosia is essentially just a tropical fruit salad, its name suggests that it should be so much more than that. According to wikkipedia, in Greek mythology, ambrosia is:
sometimes the food, sometimes the drink, of the gods, often depicted as conferring ageless immortality upon whoever consumes it. It was brought to the gods in Olympus by doves (Odyssey xii.62), so may have been thought of in the Homeric tradition as a kind of divine exhalation of the Earth.
I’m not suggesting anything actually divine about the inauguration of Barack Obama, but it did seem to me that on January 20, 2009, a lot of people who live on a small section of the Earth’s northern hemisphere were finally able to exhale — or sigh — in a way that felt divine, or very nearly so. Ambrosia was a fitting accompaniment to our inaugural meal.
In the quite a few parts of the US, notably the South and Midwest, ambrosia is a much more prosaic dish than its classical name implies. Sometimes called “five cup salad,” a name that is surely the antithesis of the word “ambrosia,” this modern version almost always includes one full cup of–shivers!–miniature marshmallows as well as other ignoble ingredients like mayonnaise, maraschino cherries, and canned mandarin orange and pineapple. It would be difficult to convince a dove to carry such food anywhere.
A more divine version of ambrosia includes fresh fruit and substitutes bananas for the marshmallows. And while our inaugural ambrosia salad did not, as far as as I can tell, confer ageless immortality upon anyone, it did make us all very happy.
1 cup of fresh pineapple (chopped over a bowl to catch the juice)
1 cup of fresh naval orange supremes*, (make the supremes over a bowl to catch the juice)
1 cup of banana, chopped
**1 cup of fresh cherries, pitted and chopped
1 cup of toasted coconut
1/2 cup of toasted pecans (optional)
Combine the first four ingredients in a large crystal bowl. Sprinkle the coconut and pecans over the top. Serve immediately. This probably makes enough for four as a side dish. It also makes a great dessert — just add a bit of freshly whipped, lightly sweetened cream, maybe spiked with Grand Marnier.
* To supreme a citrus fruit: With a serrated knife, cut the peel and pith from the top and bottom of the fruit so that it stands level on a cutting board. Beginning at the top of the fruit, carefully cut the peel and pitch away with long, even strokes. Next, pick up the fruit and hold it over a bowl to catch the juices. With your knife, locate the membranes that section off the fruits segments. Carefully slice the fruit in between the membranes to loosen. You wind up with lovely, peel, pith, membrane-free slices of orange, grapefruit, etc. It’s not hard to do and is absolutely worth the time and effort.
**I’m not really sure what to do about the cherries. First, cherries aren’t in season in January. Second, I confess, I sort of like maraschino cherries. Still, that red dye is spooky, isn’t it? I’ll look for a jar of morello cherries for the future. You should do whatever seems right to you here.
And one more thing: although this post implies otherwise, I actually like “Five Cup Salad,” miniature marshmallows and all. In fact, if I’d had the presence of mind to do so, I would have taken a photograph of the ambrosia salad that we had yesterday for Christmas dinner at my in-law’s. Still, I’m fairly sure that anything that contains miniature marshmallows cannot properly be considered classical “ambrosia,” and I definitely wanted something divine on January 20, 2009.
I’m a bit behind the curve on most things: I never own the newest gadget; I never know the latest gossip; I never get a joke until it’s too late to laugh. However, I usually manage to do a little better where food is concerned, which is why I was a bit taken aback by the miracle that is fennel.
It’s not as if it’s a brand new food. Humans have been eating fennel for centuries. The Romans may have been the first people to cultivate the vegetable, and they liked it so much that they planted it virtually all over their empire. Of course, I’ve heard of fennel before, seen it in stores, and encountered recipes for it, so you would think that I might have eaten it before my 42nd year of life on this earth.
Well, some things elude us. Acting on a whim, I made a salad with fennel to serve at a party that we had recently. It was the hit of the evening, I think, perfect alongside fried latkes and cheesy liptauer. It has become a family favorite.
Now that I have eaten it, I plan to eat a LOT more of it, especially since it’s in season and there are great heaps of it at my local produce market.
Fennel is crunchy and refreshing — just the kind of food to eat during the dark days of winter. Although it can be braised, sautéed, and caramelized, I think fennel might be best raw, in salads, where it retains its intensive crunch. Of course, I’ll be testing this hypothesis for as long as the fennel stock holds out.
In the meantime, here’s a salad recipe that I adapted from one archived at epicurious. com. We’ll be having this for dinner tonight as we observe our unoffical Meatless Monday.
Fennel, Radicchio, and Orange Salad
2 bulbs of fennel, trimmed, sliced in half lengthwise, and sliced
1 head of radicchio, chopped
2 navel oranges, cut off peel and pith with a sharp knife and slice the oranges into circles (cut the largest circles in half)
2-3 tbs. sherry vinegar
1 tsp. dijon mustard
salt & pepper to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
A good handful of mint leaves
Scatter the radicchio on a large serving platter. Place orange slices on top To make the dressing: whisk to combine the sherry vinegar, mustard, and salt & pepper. Continue to whisk while adding the olive oil in a slow drizzle. Toss the dressing with the fennel. Place the fennel on top of the radicchio and oranges. Scatter the mint leaves on top of everything. The salad can be made 30 minutes before eating; refrigerate if, like me, you prefer salads to be quite cold. Serves 4 as a main course.
I am a latke
And I am waiting
for Chanukah to come
I’m not sure what to say about a song written from the point of view of a latke, one who is waiting for Chanukah to come in order to be…eaten?
It’s a bold move for any song writer.
I do appreciate the inclination to sing about latkes though. Who wouldn’t want to sing about something so delicious? Grated potatoes and onions fried up and eaten with apple sauce. I think I hear a song coming on.
Frying is not a cooking technique that I perform very often for obvious reasons. The prospect of using 2 cups worth of oil is daunting, but frying food is actually quite easy. Once I get past the guilt of doing it and the fear of burning down my house, I find frying food enjoyable — relaxing, even.
Here’s my favorite recipe for latkes. For lagniappe, I’ve included a recipe for apple chutney.
What? Did you think I meant the song to be lagniappe?
4-5 large russet potatoes
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup of matzoh meal
1 tbs. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 cups olive oil
Preheat oven to 200 degrees and place a rimmed cookie sheet inside. Using a food processor, grate the potatoes. Put them in a colander in the sink and drain for about 10 minutes. You may need to press down on it with a clean kitchen towel in order to get your potatoes very, very dry.
In a very large bowl, gently mix together the grated potatoes, onion, matzoh meal, flour, egg, salt, & pepper just until you feel like the ingredients have come together. It’s usually easiest to do this with your scrupulously clean hands.
Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Measure out the potato mixture with a 1/4 cup measuring cup. Drop measures into the oil. Cook no more than 4 latkes at a time. This will take a while, but it’s very important not to overcrowd the pan (the latkes will steam, not fry and being oily, mushy, and generally unpleasant). Fry until the latkes are golden brown on one side; carefully flip them over and brown the other side. Remove from oil.
Drain latkes on a plate covered with paper towels. Transfer those golden potato pancakes to the oven until you’re ready to serve. The classic accompaniments are applesauce and sour cream. In addition to these, I like to make an apple chutney.
2 apples (Braeburns, Pink Ladies, or Honey Crisps work well), peeled cored, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 tsp. of mustard seed
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 cup apple cider
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
Bring all of the ingredients to boil in a heavy saucepan. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, uncovered, or until the apples are soft, but still retain their basic shape. Makes about 1 cup. Can be made 2 days ahead. Serve at room temperature.
Still Life with Whisk is going meatless on Mondays in 2010. I’m joining the movement led by www.meatlessmonday.com,a group that is working in conjunction with Johns Hopkins Hospital to reduce meat consumption in the U.S. by 15% as a way of addressing both environmental and health concerns.
There are very compelling reasons to reduce meat consumption. We all know the health benefits, but the environmental reasons are just as persuasive. Michael Pollan explains that if every American observed a weekly meatless day, it would be “the equivalent of taking 20 million mid-sized sedans off the road.” Doing something as simple as eating a delicious vegetarian meal is hardly a sacrifice. If only my efforts could result in removing actual mid-sized sedans from the roads–say Chrysler PT Cruisers.
We already eat two or three vegetarian meals per week, but the rhetorical power of joining a movement is hard to resist. Starting in January, I’ll post a new meatless recipe every Monday. I’m not sure how this new plan will jive with another resolution in the works –“leftover Monday” (more about that in the forthcoming “Kitchen Management” post) — but so much the better if I can manage to combine those two goals.
I’ll begin Meatless Monday unofficially today by preparing farro with sautéed red and green peppers, topped with crumbled blue cheese. There’s also a bit fennel, radicchio, and orange salad left over from the weekend.
Just doing my part, you know?
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve come across two different recipes for Pimento cheese spread, which must surely be an indication of our difficult economic times. Certainly, pimento spread has the kind of kitsch-value that might make it popular during the holiday season; namely, it’s tasty, cheap, and red. You can’t call it special though. It is, after all, made from cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and bottled red peppers. Even made well, pimento cheese spread is still reminiscent of a really bad day in the school lunchroom.
Not all cheese spreads are so pedestrian.
Liptauer — a Hungarian spread that is also tasty, cheap, and red — fills a similar culinary niche, but it’s more interesting than pimento cheese spread could ever be. Think of it as pimento cheese’s exotic second cousin — the edgy one with the old world accent, the one with international kitsch-value.
True, it does have a rather prosaic foundation: cream cheese. It really takes off from there though to include ingredients like cornichons, capers, Dijon mustard, and garlic. Some recipes even call for anchovy paste.
However, even with its more exotic flavor profile, Liptauer is, at heart, a traditional food that is best enjoyed on chunks of rustic bread, with pints of dark beer, and in the company of friends. I’m not sure that the same can be said for pimento cheese spread. So, to kick off the holiday season in the correctly kitschy way, here’s a recipe for–
2, 8 oz. packages of Philadelphia-Brand Cream Cheese, room temperature
8-10 cornichons, chopped finely
5 tablespoons capers, rinsed, drained, and chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
2 teaspoons caraway seeds, toasted and crushed with the back of a large, heavy knife (or in a mortar & pestle)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tsp. anchovy paste or one filleted anchovy, chopped finely (optional)
Salt & Pepper to taste
Olive oil, for drizzling
It’s not traditional, but a sprinkle of Spanish smoked paprika tastes and looks great on top
In a large bowl, use a rubber spatula to thoroughly combine the cream cheese through the salt and pepper. Transfer to a small bowl with a tight-fitting lid. Chill thoroughly. Can be made three days in advance. To serve: Remove liptauer from the refrigerator and leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Just before serving, stir and adjust the seasonings; transfer to a serving dish (if necessary); drizzle with olive oil and garnish with smoked paprika. Liptauer tastes best on chunks of rye bread.