Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Eternal Saga of the Sweet Potato

Lunchtime at Rare Bar&Grill on Bleecker Street in the West Village.

Sweet Potato Fries! O, Merciless Heaven! The Sweet Potato Fry as side-dish just makes a warm, fuzzy thing (my heart? is it love?) turn over in my chest. And by Sweet Potato Fry side-dish I mean just what you see above: a glorious, heaping mess of impossibly twisty, golden fried strands. This is how they should always come. A moutain in a cereal bowl, glowing in their own ethereal orange light. Ah, life...

Friday, December 21, 2007

Gingerbread Houses and Other Reprehensible Qualities of Children's Fairytales

Let me start you off with a little bit of false advertisting. Those cookies to the left of my text? I didn't make those. The cookies I made, as friend Siri so kindly, thoughtfully, and frequently pointed out, were not even shaped like men (thereby, I suppose, completely surpassing the rudimentary purpose and integrity of gingerbread men). But mine, as angels, sleds, and snowmen, are not equipped to hop out of the oven and drown unsuspecting foxes with a lot of demeaning chatter about "run run" and "you can't catch me" etc, I would like to point out.

So I made my offensively shaped gingerbread creatures: obtuse sleds, angels whose heads broke off, and snowmen with queer, smiling choclate chip eyes. And Siri ate the icing straight from the bowl, just like the classy dame that she is. Either way, it was a fine holiday bonanza.

After three or four glasses of warm-rummy-apple cider, I was in far too giddy, giggly of a condition to go about the serious business of making gingerbread from scratch. I copped out and used a mix. This doesn't mean I think that you should, though. Making gingergread from scratch is one of the small victories left in life; it's one of those foodstuffs that comes so regularly and acceptably preprocessed that you can practically envision gingerbread trees sprouting plump, frosted cookies that are merely plucked and packaged upon ripening. Who even really knows what goes INTO gingerbread? Well...now you will. Here's a basic gingerbread recipe (gently modified from the Joy Of Cooking), provided for your holiday task-mastering. Enjoy!

You Will Need:

3 cups flour
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmet
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 cup unsalted butter (room temp.)
1/2 cup white sguar
1 egg
2/3 cup unsulphured molasses

To Make:

In a large bowl, sift of whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and spices. Set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar in a separate bowl until light and fluffy. Add the egg and molassses and beat until well combined. Gradually add the flour mixture, beating until well mixed.

Divide the dough in half, wrap each in plastic, and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.

On a floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. (I discovered that, save an actual rolling pin, a heavily floured water glass works best for this.) Use a gingerbread cutter to cut out the cookies, and place them in an ungreased baking tray.

Bake for about 8 - 12 minutes depending on the size of the cookies. They are done when they are firm and the edges are just beginning to brown. Keep in mind they will firm up as they cool.

Siri made the kick-ass frosting, so I'll let her keep that recipe underneath highly fashionable cloak and veil. She was also the only who who could successfully make a six pointed paper snowflake. Don't you wish you were good at stuff, too?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

La-La-Love You

There's nothing worse than left-overs, right? Or isn't that at least what every ten year old kid wants you to think? Mom's Meatloaf. Capital M Capital M: two letters that, in context, are the most unwavering and tyrannical of all beasts. The twin pillars of pre-adolescent doom. For me, the first sure sign of impending adulthood was the exact moment when I looked at a tupperware full of last nights sludgy vegetables and went "panini!" instead of "eew". Since then, life has been a series of difficult relationships with all sorts of stubborn gastronomic remainders; I've become a girl in stupidly single-minded pursuit of the ultimate meal over-haul. Things have substantially improved since my first sodden attempt at a sandwich, to the point that I accept, nay—enjoy, the sometimes daunting challenge of complete culinary reconstruction. (College was particularly encouraging to my left-over management skills.)

So, I was a bit surprised when recently confronted with the seemingly hopeless: I had too many apples. Remember my fun and fancy-free applepicking excursion? Well, three or four pounds of apples later, I came to the hard-bitten realization that their continued consumption would require much more than an endless parade of sauces and pies. So I went out on a limb one morning before work, and I made an Apple Omelette. It was, no joke, delicious.

You Will Need:
1 Apple
Goat Cheese
Green Onions
A pinch rosemary
1 tbsp. olive oil

How To Make It:
Core and peel the apple, dicing it into small cubes. Dump them in a pan with olive oil over medium to low heat.
While they are gently cooking, mix the egg with the goat cheese, green onions, rosemary, and walnuts.
Once the apples have had the chance to cook down a little, dump the egg mixture into the pan.
Let the mixture cook, until the bottom of the egg looks sturdy enough to fold over and turn in the pan (making it into an omelette shape).
Once cooked through, remove from the pan and serve.

It's important to let the apples cook a little beforehand so their texture softens enough to mix well with a bite of egg. (You get enough crunch with the walnuts.) If you're a doubter, just try making it once! And tell me how it goes.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

My Pappy Was A Pistol, I'm A Son of a Gun

My father has had a lot of advice for me over the years: "If you're around trouble you're in trouble", "Everybody works until nobody works", "Do it so the next guy doesn't have to", etc. Yet, despite the best of intentions, my pops has found himself relentlessly thwarted in every last attempt to deliver me the greater wisdom of his prudent world. This isn't because I, hypothetically, am an ornery and stubborn donkey of a daugther. No. Let me explain: My dad is an extraordinary cook, fashioned into one of the finest purveyors of Mediterranean cuisine by an abundance of Greek blood running rampant in his veins. In my recollections, for better or for worse, what he has cooked has always managed to supercede what he has spoken. His advice to me has been woefully lost to the passage of time, buried in memory by innumerable layers of feta cheese, olive oils, and kalamata. Such is the great trouble of raising a daughter on only the most exquisitively prepared food, she will be able to think of little else for the rest of her life.

Spanikopita is by far the most legendary of my father's dishes. He uses a recipe that has seen generation after generation of our family, evolving most recently to suit the palate of a four person family tucked safely away in the suburbs outside of San Francisco. Prior to now, this recipe has been a carefully maintained oral tradition. My dad has not a single written copy of it. It seems reasonable, then, that he has kindly requested for me to conceal here a few of its finer points; those tricks of the trade that took him over 25 years of cooking to discover and master. It is the one suggestion, the one guiding fatherly nudge, that I will gladly accomodate. Thus what follows is a slightly modest retelling of a great family tradition of mine: Spanikopita.

You Will Need:

1 pck. filo paper
20 oz. fresh spinach
1/2 a bunch of dill
1 pck. cream cheese
1-1 1/2 lbs of feta cheese
3 eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
3 bunches of green onions
1 stick unsalted butter
6 large sized mint leaves

To Make The Filling:
It is a good idea, my father advises, to soften the cream cheese over night beforehand.
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
Dice onions and cook them down in olive oil, over low heat, until they are clarified.
In a large bowl, break down the feta with a fork before adding the oil and 2 eggs. Mix.
Add the dill and the mint to the mixture. Mix.
Add spinach. Mix.
Lastly, add the green onions so their freshly sauteed heat will slightly melt the cream cheese (which you will add to the top of the mix shortly after the onions themselves.)
Mix everything together.

To Prepare the Filo Dough:
Melt down the stick of unsalted butter, over low heat until it bubbles.
Mix a little olive oil in with the melted butter, and stir.
Spread three pastry sheets across a counter top, and use a pastry brush to lightly spread the butter and olive oil mixture across one side of the dough. My dad says that three quick brush strokes are enough.

To Make the Pastries:
Use a tablespoon to pull out large, heaping globs of the mixture.
Place a glob at the base of one sheet of filo dough.
My dad says there is a very specific way that is best for folding up the dough-roll it up and around the glob for two and a half revolutions, then fold from from right to left, before rolling up the rest of the dough into a bar-like shape.

To Prep For Baking:
Place the complete pastries on a pan with (this part is important) crumpled tin foil underneath them. According to my dad, the crinkles in the foil allow heat to get under the spanikopita as they bake, preventing all sorts of issues like under-cooking and general sogginess.
Beat the remaining egg in a dish until it is foamy, and use a pastry brush to spread it on top of each, individual spanikopita. Then, as a nice finishing touch, you can sprinkle the pastries with raw sesame seeds.

Bake the spanikopita for approximately an hour. Then remove, let cool for roughly twenty five seconds, and begin consuming ravenously!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Apples Are The Things I Give To You

Fall is my favorite season. I have a romantic obsession with it that, I am sure, has very little to do with the literal progression of its hours and days. Much more to do with a sudden change in the quality of evening light, the crispness of the air, the necessity for sweaters (depending on where you live), and—above all—a thing that neatly summarizes all of these characteristics inside a conveniently sized, attractively colored shape: Apples! Fall is the season for apples...Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Honey Crisp, Fuji, Granny Smith, Macintosh. The list goes on and spectacularly on. As I recently learned, there is no better way to bask in the sweet glow of apple variety than a trip to your local apple orchard, where pick-your-own is a standard option during peak season.

There are a lot of things people can do with freshly picked, in-season apples, apple pie being the go-to, so I decided to break from tradition and go a route that reeked of possible boredom and blandness. I cooked down my batch of apples and made applesauce. I know. However, a batch of freshly cooked, still-warm applesauce is surprisingly satisfying on a fall day. Here's how I made mine:

4-6 apples, peeled and cored
3/4 cup of water
1 tsp. ground cinnamon

It is best to cut up the peeled and cored apples into smaller chunks before cooking them down. It speeds up the process and they are easier to mash later. Once your apples are prepped, combine them with the water in a large saucepan over medium heat. (You can subsitute apple juice for water just to get the ball rolling if you want.) Cover and let simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the apples are mushy and soft enough to be easily pierced by a fork. After allowing the mixture to cool for a bit, mash it to an approriate level between smooth and extra-chunky based on your preference. This is a good time to add more cinnamon, if you're into that kind of thing (I certainly am).

As a finishing touch, I like to add a handful of graham cracker crumbles to the top. It's sort of in the same spirit as granola on yogurt.

Mmmm, good.

Know Your Gnocchi

Coming Attraction: Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Fresh Garlic and Olive Oil

(A young cook's obsession with sweet potato continues, landing her in a marvelously twisted land of uncommon quirks taken on standard fall dishes.)

pictured above: a gorgonzola/sweet potato gnocchi combination featured on cookthink.com

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Diner: The Underrated Gourmet, also known as The Greasy Spoon

There are two kinds of diners in America. There are the ones exploiting that innate nostalgic quality particular of any thorough-bred American Institution in order to overcharge on soggy fries and burgers of questionable composition, and there are the ones that are the "real deals". By "real deals" I don't mean to suggest that these venues of gratuitous, overly greasy consumption are at all equatable to the points of their origin: covered lunch wagons serving foot-sore employees of the labor industry during the late 1800s. I mean only that there are some that doggedly retain a bit of this original integrity; their stools worn with the unmistakable indentation of the over-worked, exhausted girth of the Working Class Person.

The East Village happens to be one of the few, remaining New York City strongholds of such blue-collar business practices, with bustling streets still peppered by the finger-prints of a largely working class Ukrainian population. As the money driven evolution of NYC streets continues to sweep, though, the survival of all those kosher store-fronts balances precariously on their ability to straddle the divide between Yiddish and Yaris. B&H Dairy has managed to build a singularly imaginative bridge to this effect, becoming a comfort-food joint just as easily able to attract the most boisterous and barrel-chested of working men as the slimmest slack wearing of late-night artists.

B&H boasts a room that is only wide enough for a counter and three tables, but it still provides a generous amount of elbow room to those that find themselves routinely perched atop one of its eight-or-so stools. Simple and cheap, it remains absolutely true to the spirit of the American diner while maintaining some of its original, kosher integrity. I mean that it brings something new to the table (literally). The Macaroni and Cheese ($4.10) resides comfortably alongside the Matzo Brie ($4.50) and the Pierogis (4 for $5.00). The Lasagna ($5.50) gets chummy with the Kasha Varniskas ($6.45). The real queen bees of the whole bunch are certainly the home-made soups, though, starting with Vegetable and ending at Hot Borscht ($4.00 a bowl). With coffee and tea running at 80 cents a cup, and heaping sides of challah bread served underneath or alongside most dishes...what's not to love?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Back To Basics: Quinoa

Quinoa is the classic wallflower of foods. It's a plain-jane, purely wholesome dish not flavorfully equipped for any significant amount of time in the spotlight, but like any really good girl-next-door, get her a little dressed up and she's va-va-voom delicious. Above is a plate I scrapped together with the bare, bare remainders of my refrigerator after a week spent up to my neck in finals, so forgive that lack of imagination: a half cup of cooked quinoa simmered in some stewed tomatoes with artichoke hearts, feta cheese, kalamata olives, and grilled onions.

You'll find that Quinoa goes happily with just about anything. Grilled vegetables, swiss chard and tomatoes, fish...make it into salads using apples, celery, nuts, and a little yogurt. If you're curious for more, quiona-recipes.com (yep, there really is one) has a pretty comprehensive list of other recipes.

All tastes aside, though, Quinoa packs a serious nutritional punch. It's a true superfood: a complete protien, with all 9 essential amino acids, plenty of fiber, magnesium, and iron. Considered a sacred crop to the Incas, who spent hundreds of years cultivating it in the Andes, it was referred to as the "mother of all grains" and served as the focal point of their diet until European conquest and subsequent colonialism, whereafter quinoa was scorned and oppressed as an indigenous "non-Christian" food-stuff...right. Anyhow, Quiona's back and bigger than ever.

Basic Quinoa prep goes as follows: Boil 1 cup quiona to 2 cups water (add some salt or olive oil as you see fit), then let it simmer for fifteen or so minutes until all the water is gone. voila! It's Quinoa!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Electronic Eggplant

I've never paid all that much attention to eggplants. Aside from the fact that they are unnervingly globular; a glossy, seemingly impenetrable orb of purple flesh, I've just never exactly cultivated a taste for them. Then, while meandering the Union Square farmer's market, I was caught off guard by some eggplants of a variety that I had never encountered before: miniature. I know, I know...I'm behind the times. Either way, I took them home, coddled them in my vegetable drawer for a night while I mused their fate, and eventually decided to make them into a recipe I found in Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." The recipe resides here.

The results were surprising, and by that I mean good. It's a little labor intensive with mini-eggplants (balancing onion, tomato, and cheese on each tiny half is precarious business) but worth the work. I think the little bit of nutmeg makes all the difference. Flavorful, bite-size treats. Yum.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sweet Sweet Back's Badasssss Potato

I feel as if the sweet potato might have been short-changed a bit when it became dubbed as such—"potato"—, particularly because it's far more closely related to a morning glory than a potato (or even a yam, as they are sometimes referred to in grocery stores). But ! it IS an edible root, specifically one that can even be made into delicious fries, and thus I must make the concession that it has found a deserved niche in the American psyche's many imaginings of "potato".

That said, a sweet potato is lucky enough to be blessed with such a singularly sweet (yes, i know), delicate flavor that it can be whipped into a dish treading dangerously close on dessert and still be passable dinner fare next to the green beans and turkey. For example, Sweet Potato Orange Baskets:

Sounds hard, but so easy! Imagine you need one or two decently sized sweet potatos to fill every orange basket and buy both according to how many mouths you're looking to feed. Preheat the oven to 350° while prepping the oranges, Cut a good inch off the top of each, and thoroughly spoon/scrape out the pulp. Then peel and boil the sweet potatoes. Once the sweets are ready, mash them up with butter, nutmeg, and cinnamon to taste. A dash of salt or two can't hurt, either. Then spoon the mixture into the empty orange shells and cook them for 35-40 minutes, until the tops are golden brown.

It's a nice afterthought to save the orange pulp to make fresh orange juice. Or, if you want to really overload yourself: use the juicy remains to candy any left over sweet potato with thinly sliced lemons.

Ta da! Delicoius.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I'm A Purist

I like my cheese strong and my liquor hard. I don't like dressing on my salad, cream in my coffee, or milk in my chocolate. I like everything at its darkest, strongest, and most nearly difficult to stomach. My foods must be on the verge of abrasive confrontation with my tastebuds at all times. I don't want to spoil or saturate my flavors ahead of the game by simmering them in overly salty, possibly fish-based dressings or endanger them to the bland, mediocre destiny of death by cream-sauce. I want every taste to be bold; an independent and distinct assertation of its own qualities.

In fact, now that I think about it, many of these qualities are also similar to what I find most preferable in people. Yep...those salty, fishy people.