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When Life Hands You Lemons …   Leave a comment

make lemonade popsicles.

Don’t hold me to this, but I think my desert island ingredient would be lemons. It would be more convenient if a lemon trees actually grew upon said island — then garlic would be my default ingredient. At any rate, I use lemons nearly every day.

I can’t image cooking without them. Often, when I think a dish needs salt, what it really needs is a good squeeze of lemon. This is especially true of stir fries, pesto, and many soups. Lemon also provides the much needed brightness in hummus, tapenade, and muhamarra and so many other tasty dips. How many cookies, pies, cakes, and tarts are improved by a squeeze of lemon, a bit of lemon zest, or a combination thereof? And, these days, I’ve been squeezing even more lemons than usual — lemonade popsicles are all the rage around here.

Any of these foods would be welcome on an island, deserted or not. Plus, they all stave off scurvy, which, as we all know, can be a bit of a problem for seafaring types.

Here’s a quick recipe for lemonade, whish is so ridiculously refreshing on a hot summer day. It comes from The Hot & Hot Fish Club Cookbook by Chris and Idie Hastings. For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Hot & Hot Fish Club, the venerable Birmingham, Alabama, restaurant, let me just say…”wow.” Its executive chef was nominated this year for a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast. He deserved the honor.

Last weekend, Jim, Mimi, and I enjoyed a meal there that was nothing short of spectacular (unfortunately, I forgot my camera, so no photos). The tomato salad I ordered was simple and perfect: dead ripe tomatoes — deep, dark, red and juicy as can be — layered between a kind of deconstructed succotash. The salad was surrounded by bits of fried okra, and topped with a piece of bacon. It’s a dish that could stand up next to any dish from any fine restaurant in the world. In fact, it could handily stare down any dish from any fine restaurant in the world. Assuming, of course, that plates of food can stare.

Akward metaphors aside, the food was fabulous. Jim got the wonderful quail as a very rich appetizer and then shrimp & grits, which just about knocked his socks off. The wild caught Gulf shrimp was sweet and succulent; the grits were creamy and flavorful. In addition to their justifiably famous tomato salad, I ordered the vegetable plate, which featured 5 different vegetable dishes, including a truly luscious corn salad as well as fried orka that Mimi ate like popcorn.

I was a little reluctant to share.

Like any restaurant worth its salt, H & H is interested in locally sourced ingredients and really pioneered farm to plate dining in Birmingham. I bought their cookbook back in January and have spent several pleasant hours pouring over its gorgeous pages, but the only recipe that I’ve used thus far is one for lemonade. There’s a reason for this. The recipes are organized by season, and I was so attracted to their Summer dishes that I’ve been waiting until the requisite produce was in season to try them out.

My day has come! Look for several recipes from the H&H cookbook this Summer. In the meantime, I offer the promised lemonade recipe, which is delicious both as a beverage and in frozen form. Enjoy!

The Hot & Hot Fish Club Lemonade (with very minor adjustments)

1 cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 cup cold water

1/4 tsp. vanilla

pinch of salt

Combine the lemon juice, sugar, water, vanilla and salt. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Refrigerate immediately. Serve over crushed ice or freeze in popsicle molds until frozen solid.

Posted June 14, 2010 by snpulling in Children, Drinks, Lemons, Uncategorized

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Mimi Takes Manhattan   Leave a comment

Tomorrow morning we leave for a brief weekend visit to NYC. We’re taking Mimi to see the magnificent Dan Zanes perform at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — it’s her first concert! We’re also planning to eat dinners at Lupa in the Village and Mororino in Brooklyn. And, in accordance with family tradition, we’ll pay too much money for bagels at Zabar’s.

Everything except the bathroom breaks are scheduled on this trip.

Look for some post-trip reflections next week. Until then~

Posted May 6, 2010 by snpulling in NYC, Travel, Uncategorized

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Mercenary Muffins and a Harbinger of Spring   3 comments

Muffins are one of those foods that I usually avoid. Like grocery store birthday cakes, they contain too much fat and sugar and not enough flavor. Only rarely are they worth their calorie count. I always feel like a bit of a chump when I have to pay money for one, which occurs from time to time (most often when I visit the local coffee shop and want just a little something to go with my cappuccino).

As with many other baked goods, muffins aren’t really difficult to make and call for ingredients that are usually on hand: flour, butter, milk, eggs. There are, however, a few fairly rigid rules that must be observed when making muffins: mix with a light hand to obtain a tender texture and eat them almost as soon as they come out of the oven to enjoy their fleeting splendor. A muffin turns to stone even an hour out of the oven and tastes about as appetizing.

The fact that most commercial bakers ignore these rules means that you’re really better off making your own at home, which is what I did on Sunday. I followed a recipe from my favorite muffin cookbook, The Joy of Muffins: The International Muffin Cookbook by Genevieve Farrow and Diane Dreher.

I like a lot of things about this cookbook. I like that it has a subtitle; I like that it features all kinds of muffins for all kinds of purposes: sweet, savory, breakfast, main course, dessert, and microwaveable (yikes!). I like that it features recipes that are, as the title implies, internationally inspired. I like that the authors often succumbed to whimsy when naming their muffins: “Johnny Appleseed Fudge Muffins,” “Gilroy Garlic Muffins,” “Yankee Economy Muffins,” and “Hungarian Hussar’s Muffins,” to name a few.

But the thing that I like most about the book is that you can open it to any page at random, choose a recipe, and invariably wind up with delicious muffins. This is exactly what happened on Sunday, when, after a quick flip through the book, I settled on “Hungarian Hussar’s Muffins.”

How could I not make muffins named for Austro-Hungarian mercenaries?

Well, actually, they take their name from a traditional Hungarian cookie called Huszarcsok, or Hussar’s Kisses, which are a bit like the thumprint cookies that I once made in a high school home economics class (is this course still offered as an elective in public high schools?). I like the idea of eating a muffin inspired, however indirectly, by a group of highly efficient mercenary soldiers, so if anyone asks, I’ll just pretend that I don’t know anything about the kisses.

The muffins turned out to be very worthy namesakes, every bit as impressive as their military counterparts. They were light, airy, and only a little bit sweet (the muffins, I mean). They also house a surprise — a bit of jam inside of each muffin. Of course, my jam sunk down to the muffin bottoms, but they were no less delicious for it. I adapted the recipe just a bit and included a new favorite secret ingredient, Fiori di Sicilia, which is a combination of vanilla and citrus oils and smells like the most incredible perfume you’ll ever encounter. It’s available from the King Arthur website, but be forewarned, if you like baking at all you’ll spend entirely too much time and money there.

I served the Hussars with grapefruit sent by my lovely sister-in-law for Jim’s birthday, but hastily and greedily enjoyed by all three of us. Here are all 18 of the grapefruit nestled cozily in our refrigerator on Thursday night:
I’m only a little bit embarrassed to confess that today, Monday, only 4 remain.

They provided just the right counterpart to the Hussars.

Hungarian Hussar Muffins (minimally adapted from The Joy of Muffins)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 tsp. grated lemon rind

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1 large egg, beaten

4 tbs. butter, melted

1 cup butter milk

2 tsp. lemon juice

1/4 tsp. fiori di sicilia

Cherry jam

1/4 cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a standard sized muffin pan. Mix flour, sugar, lemon rind, baking power, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In another bowl, whisk together egg, butter, buttermilk, lemon juice, and fiori di sicilia. Make a well in the dry ingredients and quickly add liquid ingredients. Fill greased muffin tins one-half full, then add 1 tsp. jam to each and cover with batter. Sprinkle tops with almonds and bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.

Finally, here’s a very welcome harbinger of Spring, a tiny daffodil picked from our friend Angie’s garden and brought home to me by my daughter. Surely, this sweet gesture deserves the gratitude of a mother as well as the kisses of a Hussar.

Posted February 22, 2010 by snpulling in Uncategorized

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A Fantasy Island   Leave a comment

When I was an undergraduate, I took a class in European geography that was interesting in many ways, but frustrating because one of the students, a guy from Greece named Stavros, anointed himself the resident expert in all things European and assumed a kind of guest-lecturer position in the class. He was tolerable at first, but quickly grew tiresome for his overly loud, opinionated, and inconsiderate ways. Worse, he never missed an opportunity to remind the class that his family owned an island in Greece. “Do you understand that we own it ourselves?” he once asked, rhetorically. Day in, day out, this guy held forth. Why the professor, didn’t stop him, I’ll never know. It was excruciating.

But some good did come of this situation. Near the end of the semester, Stavros found himself in a tense discussion with a group of fed-up classmates over the issue of, of all things, baklava. The Greek all but claimed that his own grandmother had invented the pastry, so some clever person challenged Stavros to reproduce his Granny’s masterpiece for the class, which, surprisingly, he agreed to do. It seemed unlikely that he would follow through, but on the evening of the final exam, Stavros produced not one, but two, huge pans full of obviously homemade baklava.

I turned in my exam, took a piece of it, and walked out into the night. Without expecting too much, I bit into the baklava. And then, stunned, I came to a complete stop. I’ve been stalled in that spot ever since.

Oh, Stavros, exactly where is that island of yours?

His baklava was incredible, one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. Distinctive layers of filo dough filled with a combination of crushed and whole pistachio nuts, cinnamon,and orange flower water. It was buttery without being greasy. The sugar syrup was thick and deeply caramel-colored, somehow not as relentlessly sweet as you’d expect but totally luscious. I had only one piece of it, but twenty years later, I still lie awake at night, thinking of that miraculous baklava, the unexpected crunch of it, its buttery flavor, its deep, complex sweetness.

Exactly what made Stavros’s baklava so incredible? It seemed much more than just the sum of its parts. Was it the surprise that he rose to the challenge in the first place? That such a person could be so generous? That someone so utterly objectionable could cook something that so absolutely wasn’t? That he toasted the pistachios?

Eating is such an intimate act. Nothing that we do is so intimate, in some ways, not even sex. Bite; Chew; Swallow; Digest: one must be brave to eat. Few of our activities have such unreflected upon consequences. We ingest and we become what we ingest both literally and figuratively. The literal becoming is acknowledged in the old cliché: “You are what you eat,” but I can’t think of a phrase that captures that figurative becoming. Maybe because it’s more complicated to understand.

Stavros’s baklava is a part of me now, a mental measuring tool. In bakeries and restaurants, I figuratively take out this device and measure a piece of baklava against this gold standard. And Stavros, a person I wanted only to forget, has, through cooking, become part of the landscape of my mind. It suggests something about the power of those who cook. I’m aware of that as I cook for Mimi now. What flavors will become part of her own mental landscape? What foods will she reflect upon as standards of perfection? What other factors will season the meals of her memory?

I’ve been thinking about such questions lately because I’m still suffering from the aftereffects of a cold and cannot taste very well. Oh, how I miss flavor. I miss fully participating in the intimate act of eating. I miss the satisfaction, the pleasure.

But I did have a small breakthrough recently, when Jim’s mom brought me a piece of baklava made by her hair dresser. Somehow, the taste of this little pastry penetrated through my deadened senses. It brought back the memory of the uber-baklava and then promptly sent me to the cookbook archive that I was travelling with, in search of a recipe. And, yes, there was one that looked promising, in Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. I’ll try it in a few days, when I’ve finished unpacking and when my sense of taste returns. Until then, I’ll fantasize about warm Greek islands and Stavros’s baklava, if not Stavros himself.

Posted January 9, 2010 by snpulling in Dessert, Food Obsessions, Memory, Uncategorized

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A Tower of Kitsch   1 comment

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–

Liptauer

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.

Posted December 13, 2009 by snpulling in Holidays, Jewish Food, Uncategorized

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Ancient Foods   2 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about ancient foods lately, partly because of all the chestnuts I have piled up around here, partly because I’m teaching Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma this week, and partly because of my friend Amy, who has been writing about related issues and featuring lovely photos of farro and pistachios over at The Roving Locavore.

Ancient foods are those foods that humans have been eating since we slithered out of the sea and eventually became the land-dwelling creatures with complex brains that we are (errr…some of us, anyway–Sarah Palin’s book is on the bestseller list, isn’t it?). Humans and our ancestors have been eating foods like farro, chestnuts, chick peas, lentils, beans, nuts, rice, quinoa, bulgur, fish, yogurt, and greens for many millenia. These are the foods that sustained us on our evolutionary journey, the foods that gave us our large brains, the foods around which many of the world’s culinary cultures revolve (R.I.P., Claude Lévi-Strauss).

But these foods don’t play major roles in the American diet in the year 2009, a fact that Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle, and others argue contributes to the high rates of obesity and chronic illnesses experienced by a large percentage of the American population. It should not surprise me as much as it does, since I can see it for myself, but the obesity rate in my home state is 34%, according to the most recent CDC figures. Of course, the sedentary lifestyles of my fellow citizens undoubtedly contribute to that figure, but popular local foods like chicken fingers, hot wings, and fried macaroni and cheese (I kid you not) are also likely culprits.

And while Alabama is one of the fattest states in the nation, it is by no means the exception. So many people have written about the poor American diet and the repercussions of our terrible eating habits that it seems unnecessary to do that now. Instead, my purpose here is to celebrate one these ancient wonders in the best way that I can think of: by cooking and eating it.

And, of course, by sharing the recipe for farro with roasted butternut squash. Farro may be one of the oldest foods that humans eat as well as one of the healthiest. It’s very easy to cook (just boil it until it softens, but still retains a nice, chewy texture) and also happens to taste quite good. Really very good, in fact.  Although a bit expensive and difficult to find in these parts, it can be purchased on-line from Earthy Delights.

Farro with Roasted Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese

1 cup of farro

1 large or two small butternut squashes, peeled, deseeded, and cut up into 2 inch pieces

1 tbs. olive oil

1 tsp. dried sage

1 small log of goat cheese (preferably Belle Chevre brand), crumbled

1 large handful of Italian parsley, coarsely chopped

1 large handful of fresh basil, coarsely chopped

Good quality balsamic vinegar, to drizzle over the top (optional)

Preheat over to 425 degrees. In a large sauce pan, completely cover the farro with water; bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat the low and simmer farro for 30 minutes or until slightly chewy, but cooked through.

Meanwhile, toss the squash with olive oil, sage, salt and pepper. Spread out squash in one layer on a large, rimmed cookie sheet. Roast for 35-45 minutes, until the squash cooks through and caramelized. Drain the farro and place on a large serving platter. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with the farro with the roasted squash, dot the squash with pieces of goat cheese, sprinkle with parsley and basil. Drizzle with a teaspoonful or so of good quality balsamic vinegar, if you’d like. Serve immediately. Yields 3-4 servings.

A Quick Meal and the Ocean Blue   1 comment

cauliflower1

This has been a busy week filled with birthdays, guests, illness, and car trouble. We’ve managed to eat well though by relying upon a battery of easy meals made from pantry staples.

Here’s one of my favorites: Cauliflower with Almonds, Olives, and Caramelized Onions served over Cous Cous, which I’ve adapted from a recipe by Deb at Smitten Kitchen. I’ll give my version of the recipe later on, but for the moment, I’d like to ponder the nature of adaptation.

I use recipes in a variety of ways. There are some –not very many though — that I follow to the letter. These are mostly for baked goods, where precision matters. Other recipes — that is to say most of them — I use as guides more than anything else. Still others function as inspiration for radically different uses of technique or ingredients.

I suppose all cooks work this way. My question is: when does a recipe become my own? When can I claim a recipe as my own original intellectual property? I guess it’s the same question that my students have in mind when they ask me if they should cite something like the date that Columbus sailed the “ocean blue.” (It’s the same issue at work in the Charlie Kaufman film Adaptation, except without the unexpected crocodile.)

So, what is an original recipe? Are there any — well, are there any that aren’t products of molecular gastronomy? Is there anything new under the sun or deep in the ocean blue?

The cauliflower recipe — which Deb adapted from a recipe by Michael Anthony of the Gramercy Tavern, and is, therefore, an adaptation of an adaptation — is the easiest thing in the world to make and awfully tasty at the end of a long weekday, when you feel like you’ve been drowning in the ocean. And even though my own version is quite a bit different from Deb’s, I’m not prepared to call this one original property.

Cauliflower with Almonds, Olives, and Caramelized Onions (adapted from a recipe by Deb at Smitten Kitchen)

2 large onions, cut in half and thinly sliced

3 tbs. olive oil

1 large head of cauliflower, or two small heads, cut or broken into large segments

1 tsp. ground cumin

2 tbs. Sultanas (golden raisins)

1 tbs. cider vinegar

1 tbs. water

2 tbs. pitted, sliced Kalamata olives

2 tbs. toasted almonds, chopped

1 large handful of cilantro, chopped

1 1/2 cups prepared cous cous

1 Tbs. Argan oil* (optional)

1/4 tsp. Baharat **(optional)

Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees (F). To caramelize the onions: in a large frying pan, heat 1 tbs. of the olive oil until shimmering. Add the onions and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are golden brown. Meanwhile, toss the cauliflower in the remaining olive oil and cumin. Scatter cauliflower onto a large rimmed cookie sheet, making sure that the cauliflower remains in one layer. Roast for 25 minutes or until the cauliflower turns golden brown.

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, raisins, and water. Bring to a simmer over medium high heat and cook for 2 minutes.

Cook cous cous according to the package directions.

When the cauliflower is brown and caramelized, transfer to a large, deep serving dish. Add half of the caramelized onions, toasted almonds, raisins with liquid, and olives. Toss carefully until all is combined. Scatter the remaining carmelized onions on top, along with the cilantro.

Pour the argan oil and baharat over the cous cous and gently combine with a fork. Serve cauliflower on or beside a mound of cous cous. Serves 2 adults and one three year old with a passion for olives.

cauliflower2

* Argan oil is the oil of the argan tree, which grows only in Morocco. Said to have miraculous healing properties, the oil is delicious on cous cous and in Greek yogurt. It tastes a bit like almond or hazelnut oil, both of which make adequate substitutes. I get organic argan oil from Zamouri Spices.

**Baharat is a very hot spice blend that is the traditional spice for cous cous. Use with caution. It’s available at http://www.thespicehouse.com.