3.29.2009

sweet little bite

final dusting

When you're off to meet your brand new baby nephew, it's only natural to want to add something cute, sweet, and bite-sized to your packing list.

A recipe that Pim posted at Chez Pim last month was just the thing. While these tiny bites are nowhere near as adorable as the new little man, they are nevertheless pretty darn cute. Crunchy on the outside, rich and chewy on the inside, these cookies boast half a pound of dark chocolate, and a heaping cup of toasted hazelnuts. They may look all baby-faced with their powdery finish, but they hold their two tablespoons of rum like a sailor.

dough sugar and pan

one row

On Thursday afternoon, I dropped the cooled and sugared cookies into several glass Mason jars, and tied a spray of white and yellow ribbon around each lid. Then, we packed our bags and set out for New Jersey.

As for the kid, well, he's just perfect. He sleeps. He squeaks. He furrows his brow. He cries, he crosses his legs, and has even figured out how to grab onto his pacifier. Clearly, he's a genius. The new parents got a jar of cookies, and I got to hold this sweet, tiny person in my arms. A fair trade? These cookies are good, but I'm certain that I got the better end of the deal.

three jars and one lid

Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Bites
adapted from Chez Pim, who adapted it from David Lebovitz's Room for Dessert

These cookies are just mildly sweet. The salt against the sugar and dark chocolate is really something special.

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate (I used 70% Scharffen Berger)
3 T. butter (or, substitute dairy-free Earth Balance Buttery Sticks)
2 T. rum (next time, I'd like to try making these with Cointreau)
2 large eggs at room temperature
1/3 c. granulated sugar
1 heaping cup of hazelnuts, toasted
1/2 c. flour
1/2 t. baking powder
4-5 generous grinds of sea salt

1 heaping cup each of granulated sugar and powdered sugar for coating the cookies.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Spill the hazelnuts onto a baking sheet and toast for about 10-12 minutes, until fragrant. Allow the nuts to cool completely.

Meanwhile, chop the chocolate into small pieces, and melt together with the butter and the rum in a double boiler. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the eggs and sugar together on high speed until pale (5-8 minutes). Stir in the melted chocolate and butter.

Pour the cooled nuts and the flour into a food processor and pulse until finely ground. Add the baking powder and the salt, and pulse the mixture a few more times. Then, stir the ground nut mixture into the chocolate batter. Don't worry if the batter is runny and doesn't look like it will stand up to rolling. That's what the chilling is for.

Chill the batter until firm, 1-2 hours.

When you are ready to roll the dough into cookies, fill one small bowl with granulated sugar, and another small bowl with powdered sugar. Roll the chocolate cookie batter into 1-inch balls. I use a teaspoon to scrape off an equal amount of dough for each cookie. Roll each ball first in granulated sugar, and then in powdered sugar. Set the cookies in rows, at least 1-inch apart, on two parchment-lined baking sheets.

Bake the cookies for 12 minutes. Swap the top and bottom baking sheets about halfway through. Do not over bake. When they are done, the cookies will be slightly firm around the edges but otherwise soft. Once the cookies have cooled completely, re-dust them lightly with powdered sugar for maximum white on black effect. Store in an airtight container.

Using the 1-teaspoon of dough per cookie method, the recipe makes about 80 cookies.

plastic wrap bowl

3.26.2009

a definite pro



About this time in March four years ago, I was faced with what felt like a torturous decision. I have to laugh at myself now, or at least smirk a little when I consider what triggered my anguish: I had been admitted to my two top choice graduate programs, and I had to decide which university I would attend.

I know, bring out the violins. And then, feel free to smack me across my bratty little cheek.

Eli and I were living in Seattle at the time. Several months earlier, we had flown down to the Bay Area to scope out my west coast option. We stayed with the parents of a friend of mine and, our first morning in town, we asked where we might grab a quick breakfast.

It's always a pleasure asking folks who are in love with where they live (and in Berkeley, that's everyone) where to find a bite to eat. When they share the name of a restaurant or a beloved cafe, it is always more than just the food that they want you to taste. It's a slice of their lives they're offering up. A scoop of your host's favorite ice cream stands in for smells and sounds and a certain something in the air that he would gladly hand you on a plate, if only he could. In my experience, the question, "Where can we grab breakfast (or lunch, or dinner, or a cup of tea) around here?" is rarely met with a brief reply. There's that place on the corner if you'd like to try the best bagels in town, or the diner on the hill for out-of-this-world pancakes, or that spot with the fresh-squeezed lemonade where you can eat outdoors.

But my friend's father, a caterer, offered no such passionate litany. His marching orders were short and simple:

"Go to The Cheese Board. Have the corn cherry scone."

When a local is that decisive, you listen - especially when he still has flour on his hands from an early morning knead. That morning, Eli and I ate the first of what would amount to three corn cherry scones during our forty-eight hours in town.

Three months later, acceptance letters in hand, I sat anxiously biting my lip. With two bests before me, I hadn't a clue how to choose just one. My dad had sent me a pad of paper pre-printed with blank "Pro" and "Con" columns. Pencil in hand, I began my lists. There was the question of what kind of theoretical training each program would provide, the required coursework in each department, the library resources available, the particular expertise of the professors who would become my advisers, the competing fellowship packages, and the larger issue of east coast versus west coast to consider. As the pros for both universities spilled over onto a second page, I hastily scrawled "Corn cherry scones," at the bottom of Berkeley's cascading list.

Many of my pros and cons were based on conjecture, on what I was pretty sure I wanted to study, or how I sort of thought I wanted to go about it. But those scones? They were a definite pro. Amidst all the uncertainty, it was a relief to have a known quantity, cherry studded, dusted with sugar, and unequivocally delicious.

I soon found that the recipe for the scones had been published in The Cheese Board Collective Works. I could make them myself anytime, from either side of the continent. I wish I could tell you that with the scones no longer in play, the balance smoothly tipped in favor of Boston over Berkeley. But no, I still had some agonizing to get out of my system. Ultimately we did decide to head back east, but not without the scone recipe safely tucked away in my file. At my breakfast table in Cambridge, a corn cherry scone is still a definite pro.



Corn Cherry Scones
adapted from The Cheese Board Collective Works

Medium-grind cornmeal gives these scones a wonderful chewy-crunchy texture. If you don't have medium-grind on hand, finely ground cornmeal will do.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1 T. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
2/3 c. plus 2 T. sugar, divided
1 1/2 c. medium-grind yellow cornmeal
1 c. (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 c. dried cherries (not Bing cherries)
1 c. (plus a few splashes) buttermilk

Heat the oven to 425 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, baking soda, and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the salt, the 2/3 c. sugar, and the cornmeal to the bowl, and stir with a wooden spoon until combined.

Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or two dinner knives, or rub it into the dry ingredients with your fingers, until the butter bits are the size of small peas. (I usually use a combination of pastry cutter and fingers.)

Stir in the cherries. Make a well in the center and add the 1 c. buttermilk. Mix briefly, just until the ingredients come together. Some loose flour will remain at the bottom of the bowl.* Let the batter stand for five minutes.

Using a small ice cream scoop or a 1/4 c. measuring cup, scoop the dough from the bowl and shape into balls. Place them on the prepared pans about two inches apart.

Sprinkle the remaining 2 T. sugar on top of the scones. Place the scones on the middle rack and immediately turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the scones are golden. Transfer the scones to a wire rack and cool.

Makes 14-16 scones.

*Once I have scooped all of the usable dough from the bowl, I often splash a little bit of buttermilk onto this remaining flour and squeeze a couple of extra biscuits out of the recipe.

3.21.2009

bottle it up

It's one thing to have a husband who can cook. It's another thing entirely to have one who does. Add to that a sister who shows up at your door with a swooning bunch of daffodils, a mother-in-law who ships remarkably soft and chewy gummy bears by the bagful, and you have the makings for a perfect evening.

from kasey.  for sarit.

Friday night went something like this: Eli rubbed down a chicken with rosemary and thyme, stuck a lemon between its knees, and roasted it up with some baby red potatoes, carrots, and onions. I got some roasting in myself thanks to the heads of broccoli and cauliflower rolling around in our fridge. When the rice had soaked up the last drops of water in the pot, dinner was served.

We opened a not-very-good bottle of wine, knowing full well that it was not very good. When it's just family, you can do that sort of thing.

Eli did the dishes while Kase and I sprawled out on the green sofas and got to work on those gummy bears.

done

The night wasn't anything out of the ordinary, but it filled me up in just the right way. Who knew that family and daffodils and a roasted bird and all-done dishes and remarkably soft and chewy gummy bears could add up to such perfection? I'd like to bottle it up, that sweet and mellow evening. And, well, this little blog of mine is the closest thing I have to a bottle.

It sure is neat having a place to store the precious bits that might otherwise float away.

3.20.2009

first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is



Whew. I hardly know what to say.

I knew I'd be happy. I even suspected a few rolling tears. But I was completely unprepared for the roaring hugeness of it all. I brim and burst on a fairly regular basis, yet I've never felt anything quite like this particular brand of joy.

Early this morning, courtesy of Eli's brother and sister-in-law, a new life joined us on the planet!

It is a first for us all: first child, first grandchild, first nephew.

Last night, this life did not exist. And today it does. I am blown away.

The call came in at breakfast, and sent us dancing around the living room in our pajamas. If only we could wake up every morning to news like this, to new life, screaming its way out into the world!

On Thursday, we're off to New Jersey to meet the teeny love, and to celebrate with our newly expanded family. For now, we are rejoicing from afar, pressing our faces up close to the computer screen to see the tiny nose, the sweet lips, and perfect ears.

When I went to bed last night, I was a lot of things: a daughter, a wife, a niece, a grandchild, to name a few. Today, I am an aunt. Just like that. This new little person has bumped us all up a notch. From child to parent, from parent to grandparent. It takes my breath away.

With my hands all a tremble and my heart thumping from Boston to New Jersey and back every few seconds, I wasn't good for much this morning besides rolling a mountain of cookie dough into eighty sugar-coated balls. The last time I saw Talya, our long-laboring new Mama, she had a hankering for gingerbread. There was no molasses to be found at the local store, and so her baking plans were sadly foiled. Talya, I don't know if you ever did get your fix. If not, I'm hoping that these molasses cookies (of Super Bowl party fame) will do the trick. They are on their way, and come Thursday, we will be too!

Welcome, welcome little nephew. We are your Aunt Jess and Uncle Eli and we can't wait to know you.

Hooooo boy! Literally.

What a day.

[This post is dedicated, with love, to the new parents, Yitz and Talya. Thanks to Dad - and to Donovan - for the title.]

3.15.2009

swoop

strawberry galette and cream

In the short time that you have known my husband, Eli, he has rescued a walnut spread from premature death, roasted two fine looking birds, inspired the baking of some very special oatmeal cookies, explained away a baffling batch of flavorless baked goods and, just this morning, expertly glued together the broken handle of the rolling pin I sent crashing to the floor. What a guy. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I married a superhero. Whether it's a glass of spilled milk or an actual matter of life and death you've got on your hands, leave it to Eli to swoop in quietly and save the day.

But lest you think it's all fancy capes and leaping tall buildings around here, let me assure you that even superheros have their flaws. For Eli, it's a weakness for whopping four-pound flats of strawberries sold at remarkably low prices. If such a thing sounds too good to be true, that's because it is. This time of year, these berries hail from faraway Florida. They are gigantic. They are red as can be. With a little imagination and optimism on the part of the sniffer, they do, I admit, exude a faint strawberry scent. But once these berries pass your lips, no amount of positive thinking can make up for their obvious lack of flavor. These so-called strawberries are second-rate stand-ins for the real berries that will make their appearance later in the spring and early summer. Bizarro strawberries are Eli's kryptonite, I tell you. He is powerless against them. And that is how four pounds of the things came to nest on the bottom shelf of our refrigerator. With Eli weak and sheepishly shrugging in the direction of his sorry purchase, what were we to do?

It was my turn to do the swooping.

With a little help from Martha Stewart, that is. Specifically, it was her flawless recipe for pâte brisée that, faster than a speeding bullet, came to the rescue. Incidentally, I do believe that if every convicted felon provided the world with just one irreproachable recipe, we would be living on a very different planet. I'm guessing that there would be a whole lot more pardoning going on. But wait, where was I? Oh yes, I was swooping. Suffice it to say that tossed with a little sugar and salt the berries perked right up. Peeking out from the folds of a crusty galette, topped with a spoonful of Cointreau-spiked whipped cream, the little understudies proved up to the part. Or, I should say, up to the tart! (I couldn't resist.)

Now, if someone would please point me in the direction of the nearest phone booth, I'd really like to change out of these tights.

strawberries just placed in dough

Strawberry Galette with Cointreau Whipped Cream

For the galette:
1/2 recipe of Martha Stewart's pâte brisée (You can freeze the other half of the dough and save it for later in the season, when you can make a galette with truly glorious strawberries.)
1-2 pounds of strawberries, sliced
2 T. granulated sugar (less, if the berries are in season)
1 t. vanilla
2-3 grinds of sea salt
1 T. flour or corn meal
Powdered sugar for garnish

For the whipped cream:
2 c. heavy cream
2 T. Cointreau
1-2 T. powdered sugar (depending on how sweet you like your whipped cream)

Preheat the oven to 375.

Wash, dry (yes, dry), hull, and slice the berries. Place them in a bowl and sprinkle them with the granulated sugar, vanilla, and sea salt. Stir well. So as not to damage the berries, I use a rubber spatula. Roll out the chilled dough on a lightly floured surface. Transfer the dough to either a baking sheet, or a tart pan. For juicier fruits like berries that tend to leak if given the teeniest tiniest opportunity (in the form of a minuscule tear, for example), I go with a tart pan. When you transfer the dough to the tart pan, instead of trimming the edges, allow the extra dough to flop over onto the counter. You'll be folding these edges in around the berries momentarily.

Spread the flour or corn meal around the entire bottom of the tart to help prevent sogginess. If you're making a free form galette on a baking sheet, spread the flour or corn meal over the entire round, with the exception of a 1-2 inch border all around.

Strain the strawberries, and reserve the syrup. Place the strained strawberries in the center of the dough. You can dump them in every which way, or set them up in rows, or concentric circles. Fold the edges of the dough up and around the berries, pleating and crimping as you go.

Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the berry juices are bubbling, and the dough is golden brown.

While the galette is baking, whip the cream until stiff. With the beater running, add the powdered sugar and the Cointreau. Whip until stiffer still.

Remove the galette from the oven and brush the top with some of the reserved syrup. Allow the galette to cool, but not completely. Dust with powdered sugar, and serve with spoons of whipped cream.

Serves 6

just baked strawberry galette

3.14.2009

the best part

lemon bars on table

If you ask me, lemon meringue pie is kind of a tease.

I first made its acquaintance back in 1986, shortly after we moved from New York to Ohio. There it sat on my grandmother's kitchen table: a pie almost as regal and well-coiffed as my grandmother herself. This pie was sporting the frothiest, creamiest cap I had ever seen. I couldn't wait to sink my spoon deep into that billowy white cushion, to sweep through it with a gentle whoosh. Imagine my dismay when my spoon was met instead with a rude jiggle, and a stubborn boing.

That hovering, cloud-like froth had drawn me in. I was expecting something smooth and creamy on my tongue, but what I got was a mouthful of squeaky, spongy foam. This was highly disconcerting. Were it not for what lay a few inches beneath that disappointing surface, I may never have given lemon meringue pie a second glance. One bite of lemony curd was all it took to unfurrow my young brow. From then on, whenever lemon meringue pie would show up on Grandma's table, I knew what to do: I would roll up my sleeves and carefully amputate the meringue from the lemon before dipping into the tangy yellow. If only I had known back then that the best part of lemon meringue pie could be pumped up into its very own dessert!

lemon bar on white

Pumped up, indeed. I give you fair warning: These lemon bars are tongue curlingly tart. They mean business. I will even go so far as to say that if there's someone you've been meaning to kiss, this dessert can help get you half way there. Quite a claim, I know, but it's true. After a lick of zesty curd, you'll have no choice but to pucker up. Then, simply sit back and wait for someone to lay one on you.

And if the prospect of lemony kisses doesn't do it for you, how's this for an endorsement: Eli, our resident dessert snob, pronounced his lemon bar "One of the best things ever to come out of our kitchen." Then, for emphasis, he bellowed out a falsetto, "Eveeer!"

That's what happens, I guess, when you take the very best part of a dessert and turn it into a dessert all its own. With these lemon bars, what you see is what you get: A lacy slip of powdered sugar. A full-bodied lemon curd reclining on a bed of sweet butter and vanilla. Second to a set of warm lips on mine, I can think of no better reason to pucker up.

single lemon bar on table

Lemon Bars
Adapted from Ina Garten's The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook

These are the lemoniest lemon bars I've ever tasted. I like it that way. In fact, I cut back on the sugar, and upped the amount of zest in the filling. I also tweaked the crust just a bit; I increased the salt and added some vanilla. Before you run off to the kitchen, a brief note about baking time: I baked my bars for a mere 30 minutes, since I was aiming for a lemon custard-like consistency. If you prefer a firmer bar, simply leave them in the oven for up to an additional five minutes. There is also the question of warm versus chilled. These bars are no doubt special warm out of the oven. But I think when all is said an done, I prefer to eat mine somewhere between chilled and room temperature. A colder bar will be firmer than a less-cold bar. Oh, and one last thing (I mean it this time): These things are rich. Next time I would cut them into smaller bars.

For the crust:
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 c. flour
1/4 t. salt
1 t. vanilla

For the filling:
6 extra-large eggs (I used 7 large eggs, instead)
2 1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 heaping tablespoons grated lemon zest (4 to 6 lemons)
1 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 c. flour
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Make the crust: Cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix in the vanilla. Combine the flour and salt and, with the mixer on low, add to the butter until the dough just comes together. Using floured hands, gather the dough into a ball and scoop it into the center of the greased baking pan. Press the dough evenly into the bottom of the pan, and chill.

Bake the crust for 15-20 minutes, until very lightly browned. Let cool on a wire rack. Leave the oven on.

Make the filling: Whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and flour. Pour the filling over the cooled crust. It is important that the crust cool, somewhat, before you introduce the filling, or else little bits of the crust might flake off. Having said that, the crust need not cool all the way to room temperature. Warm, but not hot, works just fine.

Bake for 30-35 minutes (see note, above) until the filling is set.

Let cool, cut into bars or triangles, and dust with powdered sugar.

Enjoy warm, room temperature, or chilled. Prepare to pucker.

lemon bars on quilt

3.11.2009

bean by bean

From the looks of it, even the day itself wasn't too keen on getting out of bed this morning.

8am. High noon. It's all the same today. The light is sleepy and sluggish, unchanging from hour to hour. I wonder if it's because of the fog, until I realize that there is no fog. Maybe I'm the foggy one.

If, a few short months ago, you had told me that I would find refuge from such dreariness in a frozen block of lima beans, I probably wouldn't have believed you. Then again, I never knew that with just fifteen minutes of care, that frozen block could end up looking like this:

lima beans with feta from above

When I was a kid, my mom and dad never had to tell me twice to eat my vegetables. Heck, they never even had to tell me once. My parents weren't really ones to fret over things like healthy eating. But if they had been, I would not have let them down. Even as a child, I could polish off a plate of just about anything green thanks to two of my most deeply-rooted qualities. First, there's my abiding affection for vegetables. I come by it naturally. For the most part. And whatever my tongue didn't take to on its own got a little help down the hatch from unflinching quality number two: I aim to please. You might even say that I yearn to do The Right Thing. I have often wished that I could shake off this rather cumbersome piece of my personality, but at 28, I fear it might be here to stay. My kindergarten teacher said it best on my report card one semester: "Jessica has a very strong sense of right and wrong." Boy, do I. And eating one's vegetables is most certainly right. Very Right. I didn't need parents to tell me that. (Though Captain Vegetable's subtle message didn't hurt.)

Downing broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach and asparagus was easy. They were delicious. But lima beans? Eh. Not so much. Their waxy skins and dry, pasty middles - the result of too many minutes in the microwave, no doubt - kind of just turned me off. Still, intent on doing The Right Thing, I would always clean my plate, bean by bean.

Lima beans have always been my dirty little secret. Mom, Dad, Captain Vegetable, I hereby turn myself in. The Lima bean jig is up. You have at this point guessed the truth: I never much liked them.

When my mom came to visit a few months ago, she plied us with so much dreamy chicken soup that I must have missed it when she snuck a couple of frozen lima bean packages into our freezer. Because wasting food is definitely not The Right Thing to do, I knew I'd have to eat the things sooner or later. Today seemed as good a day as any to get it over with. My expectations were low. A dreary vegetable for a dreary day, I figured. But then, I don't know what came over me. While the beans thawed over a low flame, I pulled out some leftover parsley and feta. I reached for the olive oil, and soon I had a pile of beans before me that looked - dare I say it - incredibly appetizing.

lima beans with feta close up

Over the course of the afternoon, I ate the whole package, bean by bean, this time with pleasure. I then thanked my lucky stars that Mom left not one, but two frozen blocks of lima beans in our until-very-recently-lima-bean-free freezer. I will do this again. And soon.

I suppose that on a day like today, it's actually not a bad idea to take things bean by bean. In fact, when you've got a block of limas in your freezer, it's a rather tasty proposition.

Lima Beans with Feta and Parsley

1 10 oz. package frozen lima beans
1/4 c. water
1 overflowing T. olive oil
1 T. fresh parsley, chopped
1 T. crumbled feta cheese
Sea salt and ground pepper, to taste

Place frozen lima beans and 1/4 c. water in a small saucepan over a medium-low flame. Stirring occasionally, cook for 10-15 minutes, until the beans are heated through and the water has more or less evaporated. Turn off the heat, and stir in the oil. Add the parsley, feta cheese, salt, and pepper, give it a stir, and serve immediately.

3.10.2009

oh dear

Oh dear. I don't know how it happened, but it did. I made cookies that taste like nothing.

I've made my share of bad cookies: cookies with too much sugar or too little salt, burnt cookies, blobby cookies, cookies too crisp, cookies too chewy, cookies that melt themselves onto the pan and release only with a good soak and a scrape. But cookies that taste like nothing? This, dear readers, is a first.

I don't understand. There's good stuff in these cookies. Two whole sticks of butter. Toasted hazelnuts, even, rubbed clean of their silky skins. Yet these fine ingredients somehow up and sailed away during the baking process, it seems, and left mere cookie-shaped shells of themselves behind. What the heck?! Some recipes turn out greater than the sum of their parts. I guess others just turn out significantly less.

Eli took one dutiful bite, and promptly offered his own take on the problem. Riffing on the Law of Conservation of Matter, he postulated that a Law of Conservation of Flavor must also exist, whereby all flavor in the universe functions within a closed system, and remains constant. If, he reasoned, some recipes are greater than the sum of their parts, that "greater" has to come from somewhere. From my flavorless cookies, for example. According to Eli's theory, there's a dish somewhere out there boasting a toasty smack of ground hazelnuts, and a sweep of butter and vanilla across the tongue. It is a dish that, oddly enough, contains none of these ingredients, but handily snatched up the flavors from my little corner of the closed flavor system. My sorry cookies just happened to be on the losing end of the equation this time around.

Can you see why I love this guy? When cookies disappoint, it sure is nice having a sweet physics buff around to soften the blow.

The most infuriating part is that the cookies looked like this:

plate of raspberry sandwich cookies

And this:

stack of raspberry sandwich cookies

They're all flash and dazzle with their dusting of powdered sugar and raspberry jam between the cheeks. Lovely to behold. Just not so lovely to eat. If, despite my terrible review, you're interested in how these cookies tasted, just grab three spoons. Fill one with raspberry jam, another with powdered sugar, and the third with - you guessed it - nothing. Take a bite from each spoon, and there you'll have it.

So no recipe today, folks, I'm sorry to say. As soon as I get these cookies tasting as good as they look, I promise I'll let you know.

3.08.2009

yes we can

Brace yourselves, folks. I never thought I would speak these words: The best thing I ate this week came from a can. There. I said it.

roasted chickpeas

Last Sunday, my sister, Kasey, came over for dinner and a movie. In a stunning reversal of my usual modus operandi, I had movies galore selected for possible viewing, but not the slightest idea as to what we might eat. When Kasey arrived, I mumbled something about pasta, or maybe bok choy, and wandered into the kitchen. Then, I spotted it, a can of chickpeas on the top shelf. Before I knew it, the oven was hot, the chickpeas were drained, and the olive oil was flowing. I threw caution to the wind and cumin into the mixing bowl. One baking pan, a few grinds of salt, and forty-five minutes later, I found myself biting into the most delicious chickpeas I had ever tasted. Ever. And I'm not one to throw around superlatives. Okay, so there was that two-year stint in the fifth and sixth grades, when I took to reading the thesaurus and overstuffing my poetry with cringe-worthy phrases like "interminably vast blue sky" and "most elegant flutter of a new spring leaf." But those days are long gone, I swear.

Now, I know I'm not the first person on the planet to roast chickpeas, just like I'm not the first person ever to fall in love or to see a shooting star. But that doesn't make my own personal first time any less soul-stirring. If you've never roasted a chickpea, open up a can and see for yourselves. Don't let that tin-coated steel fool you. There are chickpeas in there, folks, just waiting to be roasted to crispy-crunchy-on-the-outside, velvety-smooth-on-the-inside perfection. Grab a can opener, a strainer, and get cooking. And make haste, dear ones, lest I send fifth-grade Jess after you with a thesaurus full of superlatives. I would hate to ruin your appetite on chickpea roasting day.

roasted chickpeas with lemon

Roasted Chickpeas with Cumin

1 15-oz. can of chickpeas (I prefer to use an organic, no-salt added brand, like Eden.)
2 T. olive oil, divided
1 T. cumin
5-6 generous grinds of sea salt
A few dashes of cayenne pepper, to taste
1 T. of chopped fresh parsley
Half a lemon, or one small lime

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Drain the chickpeas, and toss them with 1 T. olive oil, the cumin, sea salt, and cayenne pepper. Spill out onto a baking sheet and shake into a single layer. Roast for approximately 35-45 minutes, until the outsides of the chickpeas are crunchy and golden. About every 15 minutes, stir the chickpeas around a little.

Remove the baking pan from the oven, and slide the chickpeas into a serving bowl. Add the remaining 1 T. olive oil, juice from half a lemon or one small lime, and taste. Add a bit more salt, cumin, cayenne pepper, and/or citrus if your tongue deems it necessary. Stir in the parsley. Serve immediately. (We ate our roasted chickpeas with wild rice and sauteed Swiss chard. The second time around, I topped them with a dollop of Greek yogurt. I highly recommend it.)

Serves 2.

3.07.2009

a tasty steal

At my graduate school orientation, a security officer cautioned us to beware of bag-swiping bicyclists. Especially on dual purpose paths that cater to both cyclists and pedestrians, he warned, thieves have been known to whoosh by on wheels, and snatch bags from the shoulders of the unsuspecting. His concluding words were ominous: "It's an easy way to lose a laptop." Strapped snugly into the padded pocket of a backpack, my laptop never has much to fear. But as I trod along the path through Cambridge Common on Friday evening, the officer's words rang in my ears. I was on my way to Julia and Eitan's for dinner. Swinging from my left shoulder, seemingly oblivious to the imminent danger all around, was a canvas tote bag. Bicyclists rolled swiftly by, too close for comfort. I imagined myself the victim of a swipe. Or, rather, I imagined the perpetrator: Bike chained up for the night, filthy fingers curling with evil, the thief upends the tote on his bedroom floor. He cannot believe his darty little eyes. Instead of an overstuffed wallet, an apple tart and two braided loaves of bread, sprinkled with seeds, spill out onto the floor. I imagine him furious, at first. He tears off a hunk of bread and stuffs it into his mouth. He chews. He swallows. He... smiles. He helps himself to a slice of apple tart. I like to think that he considers this steal a tasty one, after all. Accidental cookery crookery at its best.

Is it weird that I daydream about feeding baked goods to imaginary, bike-riding villains?

3.03.2009

one-on-one

When Eli's out of town, I've been known to do crazy things. I'll sleep diagonally across the entire bed, for example, or cook up half a head of cabbage and call it dinner.

spicy sesame cabbage for dinner

With just my very own mouth and thus my very own taste buds to appease, my diet takes a sharp cruciferous turn. Cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy. One by one, one-on-one, they woo me. And, fleeting heart that I am, when I tire of greens, I trot out the oranges: I cuddle up with a winter squash, brushed with olive oil and dusted with curry, or steal off to the table with a bowl of roasted carrots and pine nuts.

squash for dinner

A varied plate has value, I'm well aware, but sometimes a girl just needs some quality time with a lone baked yam, or a single steamed artichoke. While I miss Eli something fierce while he's away, how can I not grin giddily at the thought of having our juicer all to myself? This week, our usual carrot-apple-parsley juice pours forth as the gods intended, as carrot-apple-parsley -ginger juice.

juicing with ginger

I'm the first to admit that it's hard being away from the one you love. But as my dinner plate will attest, loving the ones you're with has its perks.

Spicy Sesame Cabbage
I like to use Savoy cabbage for this dish because it slices into particularly noodle-like ribbons. A twirl of the fork, and the cabbage obligingly swirls, like pasta. This recipe serves two, but can easily be doubled.

1/2 head of Savoy cabbage
2 T. sesame oil
2 T. soy sauce
2-3 T. rice vinegar (depending on how squidgy you like your tongue. I, for one, love a good, vinegary squidge.)
Sea salt to taste
1/4 t. cayenne pepper, or more, if you like things particularly spicy
1/4 c. sesame seeds, lightly toasted (I was out of sesame seeds, so I used flax seeds.)

Slice the cabbage into fine ribbons, and heat the sesame oil in a pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes, until the cabbage is tender, but still lets out a gentle crunch when you bite in. Reduce the flame to low, and add the soy sauce and rice vinegar. Stir, and taste. Add a few grinds of sea salt, and the cayenne pepper, to taste. Stir in the toasted seeds right before serving.
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Roasted Winter Squash

1 acorn squash
2 t. curry, divided
Olive oil for brushing, approximately 1 T.
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

With a very sharp knife, cut the acorn squash in half. I also like to cut a small slice off of the pointed bottom and stemmy cap so that the squash lies flat on the baking sheet. (If you do not own a very sharp knife, ask your grocer or produce person to halve it for you. This squash is delicious, but it's not worth losing a finger over.) Scoop out the seeds.

Place the halves on a baking pan, skin side down, orange flesh side up. Brush each half with olive oil. Sprinkle 1 t. of curry over each half. Follow with a few grinds of salt and pepper.

Bake for approximately 45 minutes, until the squash is tender all the way through. (Use a fork to test it.)

Serves two.

I like to eat my half out of a big cereal bowl, and scoop the flesh out of the skin with a spoon.

If you're not so into curry or prefer something richer and sweeter, try this variation. (Mom, this is for you.) Use butter instead of olive oil, and brown sugar and cinnamon instead of the curry. Don't forgo the salt and black pepper, though.

3.01.2009

happy birthday, auntness

pecan shortbread, on wicker

I have a great-aunt who keeps KitKats tucked away in that little fold of skin above her kneecaps.

At least that's what she has always told me. Her name is Aunt Eileen, and today, dear readers, we celebrate the first anniversary of her eightieth birthday. Or, I should say, her un-birthday, which is the closest Aunt Eileen comes to her actual birthday, most years. She was, in truth, born on February 29th. It was a leap year. I always blink a few times in wonder when I consider this twenty-four hour wrinkle in time. It drifts, here-again, gone-again, through the years. It's all very scientific, of course, this leap year business. Without it, our seasons would shift, and who wants to run the risk of celebrating the Fourth of July under a foot of snow? Yet mathematical invention or not, there you have it: an extra day on the calendar, a whopping twenty-four hour bonus every four years to fill up with our lives. It's hard to deny that there's something magical in that. How very Aunt Eileen it was to be born on a such a day.

As I write this, I find myself wondering: Do people say things like, "I'm in my early 80s?" Looking at this tall, beautiful woman, it doesn't seem possible that she is in her eighth decade on this earth. Seriously, people, I've seen sixty-year-olds who look far worse for the wear. I have my suspicions that Aunt Eileen's timeless beauty has something to do with this leap year thing. She has, after all, celebrated her actual date of birth a mere twenty times.

When I was three or four years old and, to my dismay, there was no sign of a little sibling in site, I asked Aunt Eileen if she would kindly be my sister. My little sister, that is. To my delight, she obliged. Now, in case you're wondering, it is a very convenient thing having a fully grown woman as your little sister. She can do all kinds of fun stuff that typical little sisters can't, like pull you to the playground in a red wagon, and serve up big bowls of ice cream. I remember one playground outing in particular: A little boy over by the slide pointed at Aunt Eileen and asked, "Is she your mother?" "No," I shot back, as if it were obvious, "She's my sister."

When we moved to Cleveland in 1986, visits to Aunt Eileen's became blissfully routine. Kasey, my little sister in the more traditional sense, was eventually born, and took her place by my side. We would spend long afternoons at Aunt Eileen's playing cards, dreaming up stories about the blue-haired doll, Priscilla, who sat perched on Aunt Eileen's pillow, and filling up on KitKats before dinner. With gusto, Aunt Eileen sang us songs from her high-school choir. Her quavery falsetto, I now know, was mostly a put-on, but when she told me that she had taken singing lessons, I believed her. We always left Aunt Eileen's with a "prize" of our choosing: a plastic flower, perhaps, a dainty figurine, or a KitKat for the road.

Within the four walls of Aunt Eileen's home, I had some of my most unusual culinary adventures. Aunt Eileen, you see, is queen of the frozen foods. I'll never forget the feast she whipped up (or, more accurately, thawed out) when I first brought my college boyfriend home for a visit. I couldn't wait for Justin to taste my mother's chicken soup, but it was the spread at Aunt Eileen's that pleased him most of all. On a dining room table draped with a fine cloth and studded with linen napkins, sat a platter of knishes, potato pancakes, and pastry-wrapped mini-hot dogs, fresh from the cardboard freezer boxes and hot out of the oven.

Oh, Aunt Eileen, in more ways than you know, you have made my life, well, my life. It doesn't get much bigger than that. Thank you.

By the time you're reading this, I hope that a box of pecan shortbreads will have safely arrived at your doorstep. When I saw this recipe, I thought of you, because these shortbreads remind me ever so slightly of the nut cookies Bubbie used to make, the ones we both so adored. (Bubbie, by the way, my great-grandmother and Aunt Eileen's mother, is no doubt to blame for Aunt Eileen's culinary shortcomings. Bubbie was a brilliant cook, who allowed no written recipes, no measuring cups, and no helping hands in her kitchen. When Bubbie passed away, what was poor Aunt Eileen to do but acquaint herself with the frozen food aisle?)

Enjoy the shortbreads, sister of mine, and don't forget to share them with Priscilla.

pecan shortbread, cooling

I love you, Auntness. Happy Birthday.

Postscript -
Imagine my surprise when I learned, post-post (after I had posted this post, that is), that Aunt Eileen actually just missed being born on the 29th of February by a few measly hours! I could have sworn that she has always told me that she was a leap year baby. But I must be mistaken. That, or it was just one of those tall tales little sisters - even pretend ones - sometimes make up to impress big sisters. She was, in fact, born on March 1st. Aunt Eileen does, however, admit to wishing, quite hard, that she had been born on the 29th. Rather than change my story, which in spirit still rings true, I'd rather call this post like I see it: a birthday wish, granted.

Pecan Shortbread

from Ina Garten's The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, with my commentary

I have to be honest. This shortbread is a certain kind of cookie for a certain kind of cookie lover. You can't go into it expecting things like a chewy crumb and oozing chocolate. These cookies are crumbly and dry, but in a good way, and intentionally so. How else would they stand up to a proper dunking in a cup of chamomile-lavender tea? What makes this shortbread satisfying is its straightforward, buttery flavor, toasty pecans, high-quality extracts, and the all-important hint of salt. Ms. Garten suggests cutting the dough into 2 1/2 inch cookies. Because these cookies are so buttery-rich, I prefer slightly smaller rounds. I also prefer my shortbread a bit thinner than the 1/2 inch height she suggests.

3/4 pound (that's three sticks, folks!) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 c. sugar
1 t. pure vanilla extract
1 t. pure almond extract
3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 c. pecans, toasted and chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together the butter and sugar until they are just combined. Add the vanilla and almond extracts. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter-and-sugar mixture. Add the pecans and mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Dump onto a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 40 minutes.

Roll the dough 1/2 inch thick (according to Ms. Garten. I say, roll the dough a little thinner than that) and cut into 2 1/2 in squares with a plain or fluted cutter (again, according to Ms. Garten. I prefer smaller cookies, given how rich and buttery they are). Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. All to cool to room temperature and serve.