22 February 2009

Polish Nostalgia

The lovely Nicole Galpern had me over for some Polish TLC after a meeting at Food and Wine Magazine. We bonded the first year of Barnard College over shared memories of Poland and its food. She's first generation New Yorker, with the luck to have been brought up in part by her wonderful housekeeper from Bialystok who cooked us this beautiful meal. The borscht was especially good - I'm hoping to get the recipe. I make a very simple version by cooking beets, and using the resulting liquid to boil chopped potato with salt, pepper, and a splash of vinegar. Sometimes I like to add a bit of ground coriander if I don't have fresh dill. Djenkuje bardzo!

Salads of the Non-Lettuce Kind, Winter Version

Spending my early childhood in Rome meant that my craving for delicious vegetables were constant. Yet the large portion of my life spent in Poland during nineties also taught me that vegetables are a purely seasonal affair. I had been thinking of life in post-communist Poland a lot these past couple months as the vegetable offerings at my markets began looking depressed. My mom used to make us salads of cabbage when she couldn't find anymore lettuce: slice very finely, dressed with olive oil, salt, pepper, dijon mustard, minced garlic, and red wine vinegar. If she had any parsley, that would go in too.

I finally broke out of my sulk about the lack of fresh, crisp veggies this winter when I remembered a classic: fennel and orange. Both are seasonal, and it's particularly nice with the blood oranges that I've been seeing in the markets since January. It's amazingly refreshing - a palate cleanser from all of winter's heavy dishes.

- 1 fennel bulb
- 1 blood orange
- good Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
- Sherry vinegar
- Maldon salt to taste (spectacular for its huge, textured crystals if you haven't tried it yet)
- fresh ground pepper to taste

Wash the fennel bulb, save the fronds, and peel the outside layer of the fennel bulb. Slice the bulb finely. Mince the fronds to use as a garnish. Peel and slice the orange into thin wedges. Combine it all in a bowl, squeezing the orange sections with your fingers as you toss to help it release some of its juices. Drizzle well with EVOO and the sherry vinegar, and toss again with plenty of salt and pepper, to taste.

Ray of Light Beef Tacos

I have decided that Tyler Florence is the only ray of light left on the Food Network. When I first started receiving cable TV two years ago, I spent hours on end watching all of Food Network's stars and their various shows, and felt impressed by the overall quality; I learned techniques, flavor combinations, and menu ideas. These days though, I am more inclined to agree with the gourmet food establishment's verdict that Food Network isn't an interesting foodie venue. Now that I have Bravo on my lineup of channels, I too will move on to the show, Top Chef. Food Network has stumbled by bringing on new faces with no aura of expertise (Ask Aida, and all those Next Food Network Star winners), repeating too much content from their established stars (Giada's gotten downright boring), and dumbing down their content rather than moving on to new heights for their more seasoned viewers.

So why do I still like Tyler Florence's show? He cooks recipes I'd like to eat, and always arranges the show into a cohesive menu that usually involves a challenging element - whether it's an unusual ingredient, or a new technique. I enjoy watching to see how he layers flavors in particular. This weekend Marcus and I cooked his ultimate beef tacos, which turned out sublimely. We made a double batch to last all weekend. Sear a salt and pepper-seasoned shoulder of beef in garlic infused oil, caramelize with Spanish onion slices, then cook down for almost 2 hours in a mixture of canned tomato and water (just enough to cover the beef) with bay leaves, red chili flakes, paprika, cumin, coriander - whatever looks good in your spice rack, really. This served alongside homemade salsa and guacamole was perfect. We didn't do the elote asado (grilled corn with cheese, lime, and chili powder) because it didn't look fresh at the market. I'll be good and wait until summer. With all this how could we choose anything else but a Negra Modelo cerveza to drink.

This isn't the first time TF has come through with excellent inspiration either - his brined pork chops with pan apple sauce is still a staple in my repertoire, and the perfect complement to my favorite original cocktail, the Apple Crisp.

11 February 2009

Hungry in Afghanistan with No Time to Cook?

Find out what the Expats in Kabul are eating: http://easyfood.af/

Someone's making brisk trade on Westerner's time and security concerns... $10 for an Afghan kebab? Really? The menus read like a middling airport's food court offerings, which makes sense if most of the food is imported.

Our Kabul Correspondent, a.k.a. Cinnamon Jones, keeps a stiff upper lip even when faced with these unpalatable options. She subsists on my all-too-infrequent care packages of Stumptown Coffee Roaster's Hair Bender beans that I can pick up from their Chelsea Market outpost. The true gourmand that she is, she brought out her own French Press and bean grinder among her limited luggage.

Here's why she likes it so much:

"Our Hair Bender is a complex espresso blend featuring coffee components from the three major growing regions of Latin America, East Africa, and the Pacific Rim... The aroma demonstrates floral notes of jasmine while the flavor is a combination of sweet citrus, milk chocolate and caramel."

06 February 2009


What’s your greatest kitchen mishap? I’m not talking about the unfortunately ubiquitous slivered finger, but the more dramatic events. Last night, in the midst of creating an amazingly complicated dinner, I managed to make my railroad-style kitchen so hot that the plastic exterior of my electric kettle melted into a solid block. This is the second electric kettle I’ve ruined in as many months (the last one I submerged in water while attempting to clean – apparently that’s a no-no).

One of my favorite mistakes, however, was arriving home after an epic night bartending to find Marcus and Frank sitting calmly in the living room, watching TV. Their Zen-like quality could only be fully appreciated seeing the thick film of vegetable oil they had managed to spread over the entire 450 square feet of our apartment. Apparently they had wanted steak frites, but never really knew how to fry on the stovetop. For weeks afterwards we walked on crunchy kosher salt, soaking up the remains. Our hardwood floors never looked so good.

David Tanis' North African Comfort Food

On a day when I had no idea what I wanted to eat, much less cook for a dinner party, Tanis' cookbook, A Platter of Figs, solved everything and let me create one of my best meals to date. I tweaked his menu to fit what looked good at the grocery store.

spiced carrot salad
warm chickpeas
chicken tagine with butternut squash
harissa oil
and although he recommends walnut cigars, which did look wonderful, we enjoyed a fantastic chocolate cherry cream cake brought by Erin instead.

The Recipes, Basically (with a bit of my own spin)

For the chickpeas

1 pound dried chickpeas, picked over and soaked overnight. The next day, drain them, and put them in a pot with 3 quarts of water along with an onion chopped in quarters, 1 cinnamon stick, a few cloves, a splash of olive oil, and some salt. Bring to a boil, and then lower to a simmer until the chickpeas are tender, about 1 hour. If you usually use canned beans, you'll notice this method produces meatier, more flavorful beans. Leave it to cool. You'll use the cooking water for the tagine. When the tagine's almost done cooking, reheat the chickpeas in whatever liquid's still in the pot. Drain, reserving the liquid for lubricating the couscous (if you want). Dress the chickpeas to taste with butter, cinnamon, salt, lemon juice, and chopped parsley.
For the tagine

Peel a 2 lb+ buttnernut squash (or any other winter squash like pumpkin), remove seeds, and chop into large slices. Season them all with salt, pepper, and ground cumin (toast and roughly grind the seeds yourself if you can. you know when they're toasted when they fill your kitchen with fragrance). Then season 2 lb+ of chicken legs (with thighs) with salt, pepper, fresh mashed ginger, and more ground cumin. Dice 3 large onions, and sauté them in a combination of olive oil and butter (2 Tb each), seasoning with salt. When golden, turn off the heat and add a large pinch of saffron (crumble between your fingers), and 6 sliced cloves of garlic. Season to taste with red chili flakes. Spread the onions in a bottom layer in a shallow earthenware casserole (but a glass one can work too), then top with the slices of squash. Arrange the chicken, skin-side up on top. Add 3-4 cups of the chickpea cooking liquid, barely covering the chicken. Cover the casserole (tin foil works), and bake for 30 minutes at 400˚F. Uncover, and cook at 375˚F until the chicken in golden brown on top.

** It's great vegetarian too. Simply omit the chicken and take 5-10 minutes off both ends of the cooking time.

harissa oil

Toast a tablespoon each of cumin, coriander, caraway, and fennel seeds (however I only had the first 2, and augmented it with sesame seeds) over medium heat until they are fragrant. With a pestle and mortar, smash 2 garlic cloves with a tsp of salt so that it forms a paste. Add the toasted seeds and grind them up. Add 3 Tb. sweet paprika, 1 tsp red chili flakes, a bit of red wine vinegar, and up to a cup of olive oil. Stir well. This keeps in the fridge for up to a week. Spoon the oil over the tagine, couscous, and chickpeas to taste while serving. It adds the essential North African spice kick.

spiced carrot salad

Take a bunch of beautiful, peeled carrots. Using a vegetable peeler, turn all the carrots into long curls. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Add 2 cloves of finely minced garlic. Add 2 tsp. each of toasted and ground cumin and coriander seeds. Season to taste with red pepper flakes, lemon juice, olive oil, red wine vinegar, and chopped parsley. Chill in the fridge until ready to serve.


Cook couscous according to the packet instructions. Or: toast it lightly in a large pan or pot, pour an equal amount of already-boiling water in the pan and stir while the couscous boils and asorbs it. Add more water as needed until the couscous is tender and fluffly, yet still has a nice bite. You may also want to cook the couscous in any left over chickpea stock!

** We're drinking an excellent Chilean Cabernet-Sauvignon: Veramonte, a 2006 Riserva from the Colchagua Valley. It's $11 at my wine store.

Homemade Crème Fraîche

I spent the day in the Strand Bookstore's cookbook section, reveling in the many, heavy shelves of food writing. While I wanted them all, I restricted myself to 3: David Tanis' A Platter of Figs, The River Cottage Family Cookbook, and James Beard's Fish Cookery (a bargain at $1!).

Each fulfilled a different desire. I stumbled on Tanis' book in a display, attracted by the appearance of 2 quotes from Micheal Pollan and Alice Waters on the cover. While I didn't know yet that Tanis was the other creative genius behind Chez Panisse, I certainly try to get my hands on anything by Alice Waters, and I am beginning to warm up considerably to Pollan's unique point of view on food. His cookbook really sold itself, though. Divided by menus, organized by season, I felt compelled and attracted to the book. I enjoy cooking the main plats de resistance, and this bias leaves me well aware of my short comings in planning complete, multi-course meals. Tanis provides ample inspiration with what Waters calls "incomparable menus, each a little masterpiece". That he included a simple recipe for making crème fraîche at home tipped me over the edge:

  • Heat 2 cups organic heavy cream, not ultrapasteurized, to just under a boil
  • Cool to room temperature
  • Stir in 1/4 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk
  • Transfer to a glass, ceramic, or stainless steel bowl and cover with a clean towel
  • Leave at room temperature for about 12 hours, until slightly thickened. For a tarter flavor, let it stand for 24 hours.
  • Cover well and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks

I only find useful those cookbooks that instruct how to make every single component from scratch - books following Julia Child's pioneering writing. Why would I need a book to tell me how to combine pre-made components? That takes all the fun out of it!

For that same reason I fell for the River Cottage cookbook. It's beautiful, whimsical, and focuses on the origins of all the ingredients. There's actually a chapter entitled "The Magnificent Potato" with a momumental photo of the baking variety on the opposite page. It also includes one of the most practical set of instructions I've found for making bread.