L’Chaim!

In the Hebrew alphabet, each letter is assigned a numeric value. Aleph is one, bet is two, and so on. All words have values too, based on the sum of their letters. One of the big words is chai, which means life, as in “L’chaim!” My Hebrew name is Chaya, which is derived from it. The two letters that spell that spell chai add up to 18, and so it’s traditional for Jews to give charity and gifts in increments of 18: 36, 54, 72 etc.

I’m telling you all this because today I turned 36. Now, for some that might mean I’m on the back end of my 30’s, only a few years from 40. But I am viewing my birthday as double chai, and I feel pretty good about that.

Riding a panda

It’s not that uncommon for my birthday to fall during Passover, which meant growing up I often didn’t have a proper birthday cake. I have many childhood memories of my mom sticking candles in a watermelon and telling me to make a wish. I honestly don’t know if I ever wished for real cake, because I’m actually a huge watermelon fan. But for a few years, a bakery that only opened during Passover (I guess we’d call it a “pop-up” these days) sold these incredible flourless chocolate brownies and an outstanding flourless chocolate cake. It was so extraordinary and beautiful the shop called it “the Robert Redford cake.” Oh, Hubbell.

I have no watermelon in the house right now, but I did have all the ingredients to make myself a flourless chocolate cake for my birthday. So I did.

As you know, I take Passover pretty seriously, so every year my beleaguered Catholic husband lugs an entire set of pots, pans, utensils and dishes up from the cellar. My Passover kitchen is a work in progress, and every year the same thing happens: I go to cook or bake something and realize that I’m missing a certain piece of kitchen equipment. This year I learned I need to buy a whisk and an offset spatula for next year.

It turns out, though, that I don’t need to buy a cake pan. I just used my go-to, glass-lidded non-stick Passover pan, which has been with me as long as I’ve been cooking on my own. It’s deep enough to cook 2 cups of quinoa, and has a metal handle that can go in the oven (ideal for fritatta making). It’s not quite the Jews wandering in the desert, but making do with only a few kitchen tools does evoke the spirit of the holiday for me.

So, whisk-less, I mixed this simple batter with a fork, poured it into my trusty pan and stuck that into the oven. Because the pan is a little larger than the 8-inch pan the recipe called for, I reduced the baking time from 25 minutes to 20 minutes. Instead of fancy chocolate, I used kosher-for-Passover chocolate chips. There was a half an orange in the fridge leftover from Lilli’s breakfast, so I had Rich zest it. (For some reason, I have a Passover zester but not a whisk. Go figure.) I don’t have a kosher-for-Passover sifter, so I just stirred the cocoa powder with a fork and carried on.

We ate this tonight with dollops of fresh whipped cream, or schlag as my German mother would call it. It now occurs to me that I could have used the hand mixer I used to whip the cream for the batter, but no matter. There’s always next year. L’chaim!

Flourless Chocolate Cake, adapted, ever so slightly, from Gourmet, November 1997

Ingredients

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened)

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

¾ cup sugar

3 large eggs

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder plus additional for sprinkling (which I did not do)

1 teaspoon fresh orange zest

Directions

Preheat oven to 375F and butter an 8-inch round baking pan. Line the bottom with a round of buttered wax paper (I used parchment paper).

Chop chocolate into small pieces. In a double boiler or metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, melt chocolate with butter, stirring until smooth. Remove top of double boiler or bowl from heat and whisk sugar into chocolate mixture. Add eggs and whisk well. Sift ½ cup cocoa powder over chocolate mixture and whisk until just combined. Stir in the orange zest.

Pour batter into pan and bake in middle of oven for 25 minutes, or until top has formed a thin crust. Cool cake in pan on a rack for 5 minutes and invert onto a serving plate.

Not necessary step: Dust cake with additional cocoa powder and serve with sorbet or whipped cream if desired. (Cake keeps, after being cooled completely, in an airtight container.)

Go Fish

When I was pregnant, a good friend of mine suggested we buy a membership to Costco, to help defray the cost of things like diapers. We snorted at the time, because we planned on using cloth. But three months of daily loads of laundry had us questioning both environmental and practical benefits of that decision.

salmon and cantaloupe

So we got a Costco membership, over Rich’s objections. He just didn’t see the point of having to pay to shop somewhere. I kept on insisting we’d find a use for it, and I like the fact that the company pays a living wage. I also like that I don’t have to make us lunch or dinner when we hit it up on a weekend because of all the free samples, and I know he likes any opportunity to eat pork, even if it’s just on the end of a toothpick. He finally relented when, after our microwave gave up the ghost, he discovered that the difference in price between a new one at Costco and elsewhere more than covered the cost of membership.

But other than the occasional small appliance, I keep going back to Costco for a relatively short list of items: bulk hazelnuts, bulk frozen fish, bulk brown rice and produce in the wintertime. I’ve never been bashful about my love of fish; that’s why I call this blog “mostly vegetarian.” And it turns out that Lilli adores salmon as much as her mommy. So I often grab a few frozen filets the night before and toss them in a bowl in the fridge to defrost during the day. I rub a little olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt on the pieces, and simply roast them in a hot toaster oven for less than 10 minutes for a quick weeknight dinner. I cook up a huge pot of brown rice in my rice cooker once a week, and enjoy that on the side.

Elton John

Fish? Did you say fish?

But when I saw this recipe for salmon with cantaloupe and fried shallots in my 2011 Food & Wine Annual Cookbook, I knew we had a keeper. Lilli not only loves salmon, but she also eats cantaloupe at nearly every meal. And when I told Rich I found a recipe that called for both salmon and cantaloupe he noted that there is a slurry of that in her bib after almost every dinner. The fact that this had a dressing of fish sauce, brown sugar and lime juice, my own favorite trinity, was icing on the cake.

I actually had everything in the house for this dish, so it is a pantry dish, at least in my world. I eliminated the horseradish from my version, simply because I despise the taste, but I’ll leave it in parenthesis in case that’s up your alley. I also left out the celery leaves because I never have celery in the house. Buttermilk seems to always linger next to the milk in our fridge.

Fried Shallots, Round 2

Fried shallots, round 2.

I would suggest zesting the lime before you juice it; I wish the printed recipe would have said that. I didn’t scoop the cantaloupe, but used the small pieces I serve Lilli, which turned out to be just about a ¼ of an inch in size.

I’d never fried shallots before and overdid the first batch. Set a timer for four minutes and don’t think they need to be any darker when the timer beeps, because they don’t.

The salmon from Costco is skinless, but I followed the directions on the recipe and it worked beautifully.

This dish is fantastic. As Rich put it, “wow, this was like eating in a fancy restaurant!” Costco, people. Costco.

Salmon with Cantaloupe and Fried Shallots from the 2011 Food & Wine Annual Cookbook

Ingredients

Vinaigrette

(2 Tablespoons freshly grated horseradish)

Juice of 1 fresh lime (remember to zest the lime first!)

1 Tablespoon Asian fish sauce

½ teaspoon light brown sugar

1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Fried Shallots

Vegetable oil, for frying

2 large shallots, thinly sliced crosswise and separated into rings

Cornstarch, for dusting

Salt

Salmon and garnishes

Four 6-ounce salmon fillets with skin (or, four pieces of frozen salmon from Costco you will have defrosted the night before)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

1/3 small cantaloupe, scooped into small balls or cut into ¼-inch dice (about 1 cup)

½ cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest

(Freshly grated horseradish)

(1/4 cup celery leaves)

Directions

  1. Make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine the horseradish if you’re using it, lime juice, fish sauce, brown sugar and olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Make the fried shallots: In a large skillet, heat ¼ inch of vegetable oil. Put the shallot rings in a colander and dust heavily with cornstarch, shaking to coat them well. Add the shallots to the hot oil in an even layer and fry over moderate heat until browned and crisp, about four minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fried shallots to paper towels to drain. Season the shallots lightly with salt.
  3. Prepare the salmon: Preheat the oven to 400F. Season the salmon with salt and pepper. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the vegetable oil until shimmering. Add the salmon skin side down and cook over high heat until the skin is browned and crisp, about three minutes. Turn the fillets and transfer the skillet to the oven. Cook for about three minutes, or until the salmon fillets are just cooked.
  4. Meanwhile, divide the cantaloupe among four shallow bowls. Drizzle with the buttermilk and season lightly with salt. Lay the salmon on the cantaloupe and spoon the vinaigrette on top. Sprinkle with the lime zest and grated horseradish. Scatter the celery leaves and fried shallots over the salmon and serve right away.

The vinaigrette and fried shallots cane be kept at room temperature for up to four hours.

 

Back Like a Lion

Well. The last time I disappeared from my blog I reappeared with a baby. No baby this time, but I do have news: I have a new job. After nearly six years at Boston University, I packed up my things and said goodbye to Kenmore Square. Tomorrow morning is my first day at The Perkins School for the Blind, just over the river from us in Watertown. And no more development research; I’m trying my hand at stewardship. The easiest way to explain it is that I will be writing donors to tell them how their gifts are being used. There will also be some proposal writing and research drawing on my past job.

But anyhow, my job search explains my absence. I spent a good portion of this past month applying, interviewing and submitting writing samples, and I’m excited that I ended up at such a great place and so close to home and daycare for Lilli. I’m sorry I was gone for so long, but if there was a month to disappear in, March is really the one to skip. Nothing really grows in March, and we’ve reached the end of cabbage and kale. Honestly, the only thing you missed was Lilli dressed as a Leprechaun for Purim this year.

Lilli the leprechaun

Consider yourselves caught up!

Now it’s practically April, which means asparagus and ramps and fiddlehead ferns. My new job is about a mile from Russo’s, which should mean there’s now time to shop for produce after work before I pick up Lilli at daycare. And while leaving BU means no more Ward’s Berry Farm CSA, we’ve already signed up for a new one at Red Fire Farm which starts in early June.

I’m sorry for disappearing, but I’m so happy to be back.

Grab A Seat

I had no idea until a few years ago that people put bacon in Brussels sprouts. Most of the time, the way we eat them is the way my Aunt Bev makes them on Thanksgiving: sautéed with leeks. Sometimes I roast them after a toss in maple syrup. Last year, during the final stretch of my pregnancy, Rich and I went on a date and I had a great Brussels sprouts salad, which I talked about for months afterwards.

Lemonade Brussels sprouts

I actually had to stop talking about the salad, and Brussels sprouts altogether, because during Sylvie’s pregnancy she developed an aversion to them, sort of like a pregnancy craving in reverse. She would basically dry heave at the mere thought of a Brussels sprout. Months after she had Leo, when someone mentioned the two worded vegetable, she had to excuse herself from the kitchen. But last week, after my friend Gayle shared an article with a bunch of really tasty-sounding Brussels sprouts recipes, I felt compelled to test the waters again with Sylvie. Fortunately, she assured me she was back in love with the vegetable.

That’s a relief, because I had a pound of them in the fridge that Rich found on sale, and I had set my sights on a recipe – Brussels sprouts with shaved parmesan and sherry vinaigrette – from The Lemonade Cookbook by Alan Jackson and Joann Cianciulli. When I told Sylvie about it, she oohed into the phone. I promised I’d get up the recipe shortly.

Sylvie’s reaction to the recipe was basically a miniature version of how I’ve been with nearly every recipe in this book. Beet, pickled onion and hazelnut vinaigrette? Tell me more. Black kale, shiitake and kumquat vinaigrette? Grab a seat. Farro, spaghetti squash and pomegranate vinaigrette? Oh? Honestly, I found myself bookmarking meat recipes because they sounded so amazing. Apparently LEMONADE is a cafeteria that specializes in Southern California comfort food that now has multiple locations, from Venice Beach to Downtown L.A. And yes, there are also actual lemonade recipes, including ones like pear basil and watermelon rosemary. I’m definitely going to be making that last one this summer, once all the snow has melted off our rosemary bush out front.

Lilli has discovered the wonders of pizza.

Lilli has discovered the wonders of pizza.

This recipe takes a little bit of time, if only because Brussels sprouts themselves take a little time to prep. After the prep, you blanche them for two minutes in salty, boiling water, toss them in a little sherry vinaigrette (which you’ll have wisely made before the blanche), and then you roast them in a hot oven. (Hotter, we’ve decided, than the 350 degrees the original recipe calls for.) Once they are room temperature, you toss them with the rest of the dressing and some shaved parmesan. When I told Rich about the blanche-and-toss-while-hot instruction, he reminded me that we’d heard Yotam Ottolenghi on America’s Test Kitchen radio show last month, who said he does the same with his vegetables.

So save your bacon for another time, and go make these Brussels sprouts.

Brussels Sprouts, Shaved Parmesan, Sherry Vinaigrette from The Lemonade Cookbook by Alan Jackson and Joann Cianciulli

Ingredients

1 ½ pounds Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed, yellow outer leaves discarded

1 cup sherry vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Coarse salt (I used kosher)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400F. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat.

Halve the Brussels sprouts lengthwise and add them to the boiling water. Par-cook for 2 minutes until softened slightly. Drain the sprouts in a colander and transfer to a mixing bowl.

While the sprouts are still warm, toss with ¼ cup of the vinaigrette to coat. Because the sprouts are still warm, they really absorb the vinaigrette and soak up the flavor.

Transfer the sprouts to large baking pan lined with parchment or foil and spread them out into a single layer. Season generously with salt and pepper. Roast the Brussels sprouts for 25 minutes, until slightly charred on the outside and tender on the inside; shake the pan from time to time to brown the sprouts evenly.

Put the sprouts into a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature. The Brussels sprouts can be easily prepared in advance, covered and refrigerated.

To the cooled Brussels sprouts, add the remaining ¾ cup of vinaigrette, cheese, and season with salt and pepper.

Makes 4 cups.

Sherry Vinaigrette

1 small shallot, minced

2 Tablespoons honey or agave nectar

3 Tablespoons sherry vinegar

2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup canola oil

1 teaspoon coarse salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground ppper

In a small mixing bowl or mason jar, combine the shallot, honey, vinegars, and oils; season with salt and pepper. Whisk or shake to blend. Keep any leftover vinaigrette covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Makes 1 cup.

Currying Favor

Dan, my world traveling, three bean salad-loving friend, is back stateside. When he came to visit, he came bearing gifts from Cambodia: a scarf for me, a T-shirt with what I assume is the Cambodian alphabet for Lilli, and some spices. Actually, I guess he only came bearing gifts for me and Lilli. “You can write an entire blog post about those spices,” he said with a slight smile.

Lilli's 1st Bday at Hebrew Play

Of course, all this happened months ago, and the curry powder and lemongrass, elaborately packaged in handmade woven sacks, remained unopened in the cupboard. Until last week, that is, when I was sent Vegan Planet by Robin Robertson from the kind people at Harvard Common Press. I know, first Rich doesn’t get a gift, and then he gets a week of vegan food. But every dish we had (and I choose dishes I thought he’d enjoy) was very good. The sesame noodles were slurped up by us and Lilli, who is turning into a carb fiend. The chocolate peanut butter brownies were good but not great (you know how picky I am about my chocolate and peanut butter). The morning mushrooms, sizzled in a pan with equal parts Tamari and maple syrup, were great, and not just in the morning.

But the best dish we’ve had so far from the book were the baked sweet potato and green pea samosas. They were terrific, actually. And I got to use the curry powder Dan brought us (see, I made the spices into a gift for all of us to enjoy) for the filling. I haven’t had a chance yet to make the sweet potato and pineapple gratin with coconut milk, but doesn’t that sound so good?

The samosas were a very hands-off dish for most of it, and they’re doubled baked and not fried. First you bake a sweet potato. It called for a large sweet potato, and I grabbed a huge one — 1.5 lbs to be exact — too big, it turns out, for the toaster oven. So after I scrubbed it (skin-on) and wrapped it in tin foil, I tossed it in a 450F oven, and walked away for about an hour. Helpful hint: Place a pan underneath the sweet potato because it will probably drip gooey innards onto the floor of your oven. Trust me on this one; I speak from experience.

The dough is simple: water, flour and a touch of oil. It’s mixed together in a bowl and left alone, covered on the counter, for a half hour. Once the sweet potato is roasted, you add it to a sauté of minced onion, garlic, ground coriander and curry powder — in my case, curry powder which was hand-delivered from Southeast Asia. The recipe calls for the addition of fresh or frozen peas, which is a natural for samosas, but I saw this as an opportunity to add edamame for a little bit of protein.

Lilli and Oma

Once you roll out the dough and add the filling and seal it with just a touch of water – remember, we’re dealing with a vegan recipe – you bake them until they’re golden brown. You can actually bake the sweet potato a few days before you get around to making the dumplings.

The results are delicious — not delicious-for-a-vegan-dish, just plain delicious. Ask Lilli, who has become very picky about her sweet potatoes. She usually drops them to the side of her high chair, but absolutely adored this spiced filling. There was more filling than fit in the samosas, so I gave it to her as a side for a few meals – minus the edamame, to avoid choking hazards.

I don’t have any photos of the samosas. In most cases, I forget to snap a photo, but in this case, Rich thought the finished product was remarkably unattractive, so I let it be. None of them turned out like the puffy triangles at Indian restaurants. But don’t let that stop you from making this dish.

Baked Sweet Potato and Green Pea Samosas from Vegan Planet by Robin Robertson

Ingredients

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

¼ cup water

1 Tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons neutral vegetable oil, plus more for brushing

1 small onion, minced

1 large sweet potato, baked until tender, peeled and diced (Note: I just scraped the flesh off the skin and plopped it into the pan of spiced onions)

½ cup fresh or frozen peas or edamame

1 garlic clove, minced

2 heaping teaspoons curry powder

½ heaping teaspoon ground coriander

¼ teaspoon salt

Directions

In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour, water, and 2 teaspoons of the oil until well blended. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 Tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, cover, and cook until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and garlic are soft and the flavors have developed, about 10 minutes. Mash the filling slightly to combine. Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Lightly oil a baking sheet and set aside. On a floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 16-inch square that is about 1/8 inch thick. Cut into sixteen 4-inch squares. Place a small amount of the filling in the center of each square. Dab a little water on the edges, and fold one corner over the filling to the opposite corner to make a triangle. Seal the edges. Place the samosas on the baking sheet and brush lightly with oil. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve hot.

Law & Order: Pregnancy Brain Unit

Well then. Now that a certain almost-one-year-old is walking, I thought I’d share another story from my pregnancy.

Whether or not pregnancy brain does exist is an argument people have been having for years. But the week I lost both my wallet (on the T, no less) and my keys, I started to become a believer. First, I should say that my wallet was brought to a manager at the T and I was able to pick it up at the end of the line. And not a dime was missing; I didn’t have to replace my monthly T pass or any of my debit cards. It’s nice to know you can still count on the kindness of strangers.

And the keys? Well, the keys were a different story. I was picking up some groceries at the local market one Sunday afternoon last fall. I usually use the self-checkout, but that day I went to a cashier aisle. I unloaded my cart, handed her my key ring with the savings card looped through it, and turned to let the bag boy know that I’d brought my own bags. I turned back around, paid my bill and walked to the car.

When I got to the car I realized the cashier hadn’t given me back my keys. I went back in and walked right up to the register. “No,” she said, “I gave you back your keys.” I honestly couldn’t remember if she had, and since I’d lost my wallet less than a week earlier, I took her at her word. But the thing is, I really didn’t remember her handing them back to me. The cashier then very dramatically passed keys back to her current customer. I knew we did not have that interaction.

slurp slurp

I went back to the car. I dug through my bag. Nothing. I went back inside. “Could you please just check around your register? I know I might have pregnancy brain, but I swear you didn’t give me back my keys.” And round and round I went.  For over fifteen minutes it was in and out, in and out, searching my bag, and hounding the cashier.

Outside the supermarket was a table of Boy Scouts selling bags of popcorn as a fundraiser for their troop. And so, every time I went in and out, these two Boy Scouts, Tommy and Nicky, would introduce themselves. They were either working on their perseverance merit badge or had some sort of short-term memory problem, because Tommy and Nicky must have reintroduced themselves to me at least five times! There was a point when the mom standing with them asked them to stop pestering me.

Finally, after several rounds with the cashier, my Law & Order training kicked in. I looked down at my receipt and went to the manager who had been watching my back and forth. “My receipt is time-stamped. I know you have cameras in here. Could you please go to the video in the back room and rewind the film to this time on the receipt and see what actually happened at this register?” DUN DUN.

He took pity on me, this sweaty, out-of-breath pregnant lady, and went to the back room doors. A few minutes later he emerged. “OK,” he said to the crowd that had formed, “here’s what happened: You gave her your keys, and then you turned to talk to the bagboy. While you were turned, she put your keys down on the counter, and the person in back of you put his wallet on top of your keys. He unloaded his cart, and picked up his wallet, and unwittingly, your keys, at the same time, and pocketed them.” DUN DUN.

Thank goodness the unintentional key snatcher came back to the store within a half hour and returned my keys to the Courtesy Desk. I finally had my keys back. And, on the way out of the store for the final, final time that day, I stopped and bought a grossly marked-up, five-pound bag of popcorn kernels from Tommy and Nicky. Their mother assured me that 70% of the sale went directly to their troop, but I still felt pretty gouged by the price, which I’m not going to bother mentioning here.

buttered popcorn cookies

So long story short, I had my keys back, but I also had a very expensive, five-pound bag of popcorn. And so what does a frazzled pregnant woman do with all that popcorn? She goes to the smitten kitchen cookbook, which had just come out at the time, and I made these Buttered Popcorn Cookies. DUN DUN.

Buttered Popcorn Cookies from the smitten kitchen cookbook

Ingredients

2 Tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil

¼ cup (45 grams) popcorn kernels

¼ teaspoon table salt

1 Tablespoon butter, melted

½ cup (115 grams or 1 stick) butter, softened

½ cup (95 grams) packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup (65 grams) granulated sugar

1 large egg

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ¼ cups (155 grams) all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

1. Make Popcorn: Pour the oil over the bottom of a large saucepan that has a lid and add the popcorn kernels, shimmying the pan around so the kernels land in one layer. Cover the pot, heat it over medium-high heat, once the kernels begin to pop, keep the saucepan moving until all of the kernels have popped, about 5 to 7 minutes total. Toss the table salt and then the melted butter over the popcorn, then transfer it to a bowl so that you can fish out any unpopped kernels. You should have about 4 to 4½ cups of popcorn. Let cool.

2. Mix Dough: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, cream together the softened butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, egg and vanilla until smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour and baking soda together. Stir the combined dry ingredients into the butter-sugar mixture. Fold in the cooled popcorn so that it is evenly distributed through the batter, which will seem like a ridiculous instruction because there is so much popcorn and so little cookie batter, but it works. Don’t worry if the popcorn breaks up a bit. The mixed-size pieces are part of the cookie’s charm.

3. Bake cookies: Scoop heaping-teaspoon-sized mounds 2 inches apart onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, until the edges are light brown. Let them sit on the hot baking sheet for a few minutes to firm up before transferring them to a rack to cool.