Lucky souls

Writing about rhubarb in the middle of February feels about as kind as bragging about the bikini you’ll be wearing on that mid-winter escape to Saint Barths. In other words: not very kind. Rhubarb season is still a couple of months off which, in February time – how is it that the shortest month of the year always feels the longest? – is the equivalent of about one million years. But if you’re one of the lucky souls out there who squirreled away some rhubarb last season, and you still have a pound or so in your freezer, you’re going to want to hear about this.

Yes, you’ve seen this cake before. It’s the olive oil citrus cake from Rustic Fruit Desserts that I posted about a year ago. If you were reading back then, you know that I liked this cake a lot. What you don’t know is that it has become something of a wintertime fixation. These days, when I head into the kitchen to bake, the majority of the time it is to bake this cake. Either I am a woman obsessed (perhaps), or this is a very good cake (definitely).

I told you last year that this cake is brilliant all on its own. I stand by that statement, but that hasn’t stopped me from dressing it up from time to time. Powdered sugar, lemon sorbet, the lovely glaze from the original recipe: excellent options, one and all. (Though, for my taste, preferably not all at once.) But now, please direct your attention to the photo, and therein to the rhubarb sauce rolling down onto the plate. Of all of the toppings and accoutrements that I’ve tried, this one takes (makes?) the cake.

I remember the week when I first made this sauce. It was the first week of April last year, and suddenly, mercifully, it felt like spring. Eli came home from climbing that Thursday night with a bouquet of orange ranunculuses, and the next morning I found rhubarb at the market. Before I had even unpacked the shopping bags, the rhubarb was chopped and melting into sugar over a low flame. I had grabbed only a few stalks of rhubarb, so it was a tiny batch of sauce, just enough for a serving or so. I spent the rest of the morning writing letters, and then I spooned the sauce over a drift of fresh ricotta, and ate it with my feet up on the radiator. The sun was so bright, I remember, that I had to pull down the shade. The next day, Eli and I were walking through the park when, out of nowhere, a pillow fight broke out. A pillow fight. Feathers were flying everywhere, and I remember thinking, I thought that only happens in cartoons. A few days later, we decided it was time for our first picnic of the season, but we got home later than expected, and we had to race against the sun. By the time we were outside on the blanket, it was almost a full half-hour after the sun had officially set, but still another full half-hour before it would be truly dark. One of us, probably me, said something about the light, about how blue it was. We ate steamed artichokes, and pasta with mushrooms, lemon, and thyme. We talked about what it means to be brave, and I realized that I don’t know very many brave people, and that I am not nearly as brave as I’d like to be. Then, we lay on our backs for a while until the sky went completely black. I made a second, larger batch of rhubarb sauce that night before bed. I loved that week. It felt important, somehow.

There’s not much to this sauce, really, which is probably why I think it’s so great. (I’m a rhubarb purist.) It’s rhubarb, a few tablespoons of sugar, some vanilla, and a squeeze of lemon. I’ve tried souping it up with orange zest and liqueur, but honestly, I think simple is best here. The sauce is rosy and bright. Very un-February. Just what February needs.

Rhubarb Sauce

1¼ pounds chopped rhubarb (if frozen, do not thaw)
3 Tbsps sugar
1½ tsps vanilla
Juice of ½ a lemon (If you’re making the olive oil citrus cake, too, you can use half of the lemon that you zest for that recipe.)

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium, non-reactive saucepan. Cover and heat over a medium-low flame, until the rhubarb pieces soften and melt into each other. Stir occasionally to keep the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Taste, and add another tablespoon or two of sugar if you prefer a sweeter sauce. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.


A real talent

Anyone for pancakes? I hope so, because that’s what we’re having for breakfast this morning.

Today’s pancakes are brought to you by yesterday’s conversation about the pancakes that we’re planning on eating one week from today. Did you get that? I wrote it, and even I had to go back and read that sentence twice. Let me explain.

The first thing you need to know is that our friends, Eitan and Julia, who relocated to D.C. during the 2009 mass exodus from Cambridge, moved back to town about six weeks ago. They now live in an apartment just four blocks from ours, and if you ask me, four is a much, much nicer number than four hundred and forty-seven, the approximate number of miles between Cambridge, MA and Washington, D.C. We marked their return with pizza, champagne, and Fairytale Brownies. It was late when we left their place that night, but only eight minutes later when we walked through our own front door. I'm so glad they're back.

That our friends are not only back, but four-blocks-away back, means that we often have occasion to walk home together from wherever it is we’ve been. Yesterday, on just such a walk, my thoughts turned to pancakes, and to the shamefully long list of Oscar-nominated movies that I haven’t yet seen, but that I’d like to before the awards ceremony later this month. And so, a plan was hatched: a Sunday morning of pancakes and movies at our place with our home again friends, one week from today. It was a lovely plan. It still is. The only problem is that when you’ve got pancakes on the brain, a week is an impossibly long time to wait to have them on your plate. So we didn’t.

I like to give credit where credit is due, so I should tell you that Eli is the head pancake maker in our household. My role in the process is more like head pancake desirer. It’s my job to recognize the hunger for pancakes when it strikes, and –quick like a pancake-crazed bunny– to alert Eli to the fact that it’s time. I have a real talent for it.

Pancakes around here normally mean Molly’s oatmeal pancakes, for the simple reason that they are amazing. But it’s February, and oatmeal has been in heavy breakfast rotation for four long, cold months now, and though I never thought I’d say it, I needed a break. I asked Eli for a more traditional buttermilk pancake this time around, and boy, did he deliver.

There are three things that set this recipe apart from your standard buttermilk pancake recipe. The first is the yogurt, a whole cup of it. That sounds like a lot of yogurt, especially against a single cup of flour, but the yogurt is barely perceptible in the finished pancakes. All that remains of it is the slightest tang. I think it’s also thanks to the yogurt that these pancakes manage to be both moist and light, a rare combination in the land of buttermilk pancakes, I’ve learned. While we’re talking texture, there’s also the cornmeal, a mere two tablespoons that, if you go for the more coarsely ground stuff, adds some barely-there grit to the smooth batter. It surprised me at first, but Eli said, "Embrace it!" and I did, and then I liked it a lot. Finally, the sugar in this recipe is brown, and that does something quite nice to the flavor. It’s deeper, smoother, more grown-up. I tend to steer clear of traditional pancakes because of the inevitable post-pancake crash, a result, no doubt, of so much unmitigated flour and sugar. These pancakes though, with more buttermilk, yogurt, and egg than flour, cornmeal, and sugar, combined, picked me up and kept me up.

Next Sunday can’t come soon enough.

Buttermilk Yogurt Pancakes
Adapted from Bon Appétit, October 2004

The editors at Bon Appétit call these pancakes “Buttermilk Pancakes With Maple Syrup Apples.” If you click through, above, to the original recipe, you can read all about these maple syrup apples, which earned high praise from home cooks in the reviews. We ate our pancakes with sliced pears (yes, those are pears on that plate up there, not pickles; don't they look like pickles?) and maple syrup, instead. I’d do it again. I decided to rename the recipe “Buttermilk Yogurt Pancakes” because there’s just as much yogurt in there as buttermilk, and it’s the yogurt, I think, that makes these pancakes so special.

1 c. all purpose flour
2 Tbsps. yellow cornmeal
2 packed Tbsps. light brown sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 c. buttermilk
1 c. plain whole-milk yogurt
1 large egg
1½ Tbsps. unsalted butter, melted
Additional butter for the pan

Combine the first six ingredients in a large bowl, and whisk to blend. In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, yogurt, and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and stir until just blended, but still lumpy. Don’t over-mix the batter, or your pancakes will be heavy. Gently mix in the melted butter.

Heat a large nonstick griddle or pan over medium heat and melt just enough butter to thinly coat the entire surface. Working in batches, drop the batter by 1/3-cupfuls into the pan. The pancakes will spread slightly, so be sure to leave some space between them. Cook the pancakes for about 3 minutes, until they are golden brown on the bottom, and bubbles form on top. Turn the pancakes over and cook until the bottoms are brown and the pancakes are barely firm to the touch. Transfer to an oven-safe plate, and keep warm in a low oven until you’re ready to serve.

Repeat with the remaining batter, adding more butter to the pan, as needed.

Serves 3.


Something else, too

I have been eating anchovies for a very long time. I started cooking with them only recently. There’s something I’ve been meaning to say about that: Thank you, Luisa Weiss.

I like to think of Luisa as an air traffic controller for my kitchen. She peers up into the crowded sky of recipes, and clears only the very best of them for landing. When a recipe isn’t worthy, she tells us so, and off it sails into oblivion. I’m not sure what the air traffic controller equivalent of perfect pitch might be, but Luisa’s got it. Back in October, she posted a recipe for Marcella Hazan’s tomato anchovy sauce. Any recipe with Marcella Hazan in the cockpit and Luisa Weiss waving it down into my kitchen is a recipe worth making at once, so I got right down to it.

While I’m assigning alternate career paths to our dear Luisa, I should also tell you that she is a poet. So, when she instructed us to “melt a few anchovies in some olive oil,” I assumed that she was being, you know, poetic. Fish, as far as I knew, do not melt. Obviously, I had never cooked with anchovies before, because anchovies do melt. They do! To be fair, the technical term for what’s going on in the pan is probably something more along the lines of disintegration. But they sure do look as if they’re melting away. Luisa was just calling it like she saw it.

Marcella Hazan’s tomato anchovy sauce is about as straightforward as it gets. It’s one of those recipes that could chase even the cold-cereal-for-dinner type into the kitchen because, really, this is cooking? That’s all there is to it? Yes, that’s all. It’s foolproof. Unless you’re a total weirdo and think, hey, I like anchovies. Kind of a lot. And to avoid having to wrap up the several anchovies left in the tin, you decide to toss them all into the pan. As you’ve probably guessed, I am this weirdo. Now, I’d tell you that an entire tin of anchovies in a single dish of pasta is a lot of anchovies, but the trouble isn’t really the anchovies. It’s the salt. Anchovies packed in salt are, go figure, very, very salty. They are not meant to be eaten by the tinful, and if you don’t believe me, just ask my tongue which, a couple of bites into lunch, threatened to pack its bags and move out. Luisa, I shall never stray again.

I learned a lot that afternoon. It was a big day for me and anchovies, and I started thinking a little differently about them. In the years before anchovies ever hit the pan in my kitchen, I thought of them primarily as a topping, in the sense that lettuce, tomato, and onion top a burger, or mushrooms top a pizza. I’d drape two or three anchovies over a salad, or press a couple between the layers of a Swiss cheese, spinach, and mustard sandwich. In the days since my bungled sauce (which, un-bungled, is a very fine sauce indeed, you should know) I’ve been thinking of anchovies as something else, too: seasoning. Swap anchovies in for salt, and you get some pretty spectacular results. Because anchovies are more than seasoning, actually. They’re seasoning, plus. The “plus” is what’s there in addition to the saltiness, the flavor that you expect will taste like fish, but instead tastes like something you can’t quite pin down. The word “umami” comes to mind. Anchovies make Luisa’s sauce taste bigger; they make pasta with spicy broccoli taste like Dinner with a capital “D,” and lend this crustless quiche a surprising gravitas.

I just dubbed this specimen “crustless quiche,” but in truth, the dish comfortably straddles the frittata-quiche divide. So comfortably, in fact, that I had a hard time figuring out just what to call it. It’s flatter and less custardy than your average quiche; it looks and feels more like a frittata, but any frittata that I’ve ever met begins its life on the stovetop. This lovely concoction, on the other hand, cooks from start to finish in the oven. Like a quiche. I spun myself around in circles for a while, frittata, quiche, frittata, quiche, and then, as usual, Harold McGee set me straight. In his On Food and Cooking, McGee writes that a quiche is a “savory custard or a close relative of the omelet,” a “pie-shaped mixture of eggs and cream or milk that contains small pieces of a vegetable, meat, or cheese.” He explains that it can be baked “either alone or in a precooked crust,” and then, finally, comes the line that I’d been waiting for: “The Italian frittata and Egyptian eggah are similar preparations that omit any milk or cream.” Ah ha! So I guess it’s the milk, then, that pushes this dish into quiche territory. Thanks to you, too, Harold McGee.

It’s recipe time now, but I’m actually hoping you might trade me something for it this week, namely, an anchovy tip or two. How do you cook with them? I’d love to hear.

Kale and Onion Crustless Quiche
Inspired by Luisa Weiss's melting anchovies, Judy Rodgers's spicy broccoli, and a bunch of kale in my fridge

This quiche is great for Sunday morning company since you can do most of the prep work in advance. Toast the breadcrumbs and sauté the onions and kale the night before, and the next morning all that’s left to do is to whisk together the milk and eggs, prepare the pan, and assemble. You’ll be done even before the oven has a chance to preheat.

¼ cup breadcrumbs
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 bunch Lacinato (a.k.a. "dinosaur) kale, de-ribbed, rinsed, and not-so-thoroughly dried
5 salt-packed anchovy fillets, chopped
3-4 generous pinches dried red chili flakes
3 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
Butter for the pie dish
A couple of glugs of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Shake the breadcrumbs into a single layer on a baking pan, and toast for 5-6 minutes, until golden. Butter a 10-inch shallow(ish) glass pie dish and coat it with the breadcrumbs, and set aside.

Heat a couple of glugs of olive oil over a medium-high flame in a 12-inch skillet, and sauté the sliced onion until translucent. Add the kale, turn the heat down to medium, cover, and leave it alone for 2-3 minutes to part-sauté, part-steam. When the kale is tender and has considerably reduced, add the chopped anchovies and red chili flakes. Stir, and cook for another minute or two, until the anchovies have melted away. Then, turn off the heat and allow the vegetables to cool slightly while you prepare the egg and milk mixture.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and the whole milk. No need to add salt, since the anchovies take care of that. Transfer the spiced and anchovied kale and onions to the prepared pie dish, and pour the egg and milk mixture over top. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the quiche is just set.

Serve warm or room temperature.