Almond Joy

This past December, my friend Rachel and her roommate hosted a small Chanukah dinner party at their apartment. They roasted a chicken, fried latkes, tossed together a salad of mesclun and goat cheese. And then there were the green beans.

I must admit that until this point in my life, most of the green beans almondine I’d had were by way of Bird’s Eye: out of the freezer, into microwave. The foil-wrapped almonds don’t usually make it into the toaster oven and are treated as an optional addition at the table.

But the green beans almondine at this Chanukah party, wow! I may have had two servings of them, then I may have loitered in the kitchen until it was decided that there weren’t quite enough left over to dig around for a small Tupperware. And then maybe, just maybe, I greedily ate the rest of the beans and golden almonds directly from the serving dish. I can’t quite remember if I used a fork for that final mini-serving, or just gobbled them up with my fingers.

There are a few things working together for this dish. One, I think, is to toast the almonds in the saute pan at the beginning and all the way through the making of the dish, rather than separately in a toaster oven or small pan. The second is the mix of butter and olive oil. I’ve actually tried this dish with a bit more butter, making it two tablespoons or so, and it was too buttery. (No, really, there can be such a thing.) Definitely stick with just a tablespoon of each fat.  And there’s the fresh sage, a small but impactful last-minute addition that really ties the beans, nuts and garlic altogether. Finally, and please don’t cringe when I say this, remember to salt liberally every step of the way. The nuts get a little salty because of it, but the beans are just right, and let’s face it: salty nuts are delicious.

I happened to have both green beans and sage in the house this week. The slivered almonds I always have on hand; I store them in the freezer to keep them from spoiling.

Green Beans Almondine

Ingredients

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 lb. of green beans, cleaned, ends trimmed

About five cloves of garlic (yes, really) chopped

1/4 to 1/3 cup slivered almonds

Two leaves sage, julienned very thin

Salt

Water

Directions

Melt butter in a saute pan that has a lid on a medium heat. When melted, add the olive oil; it should take no more than 20 seconds for them to make friends. Add the garlic, almonds and a pinch of salt to the melted butter and oil. Stir everything together for about a minute and a half, but make sure your garlic doesn’t brown. You might want to turn the flame down a little bit to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Add the green beans and a pinch of salt. Stir everything together for another minute. Add about 3/4 cup of water, lower heat to medium low and cover pan with lid.

It should take about 20 minutes for the green beans to soften. They will no longer be the bright green they turned when you added the water, but shouldn’t look too dulled, either. About 10 minutes in, do a quality-control bite. Most likely you’ll add another pinch of salt to continue to draw out the beans’ flavor. The nuts will have turned a bit more golden. There should be enough water to steam them the rest of the way, but if you’re scared they’re going to burn, add a few more tablespoons of water. Recover pan. About 10 minutes later, do another check. Chances are the beans will be cooked all the way through. Taste them again. Do they need more salt? If the beans are now soft, stir in the fresh sage and let everything cook together for about two minutes more. If the beans aren’t yet soft enough, cover the lid and cook them for about five minutes or until soft, taste, then add the sage.

Try not to eat too many with your fingers as you cook them.

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My Favorite Food: A Riddle

In a History of Food course I once took, the instructor spent a great deal of one class trying to get us to understand what the Conquistadors saw when they arrived in the New World. As detailed in The Columbian Exchange by Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., the Spainards beheld an entirely new universe of fruits, tubers, vegetables, and animals. Could we, if asked, be able to fully describe a new food to an awaiting court?

She asked us to each think of our favorite food, and describe it to our classmates — kind of like the game show Password. I’ll be honest and admit that I couldn’t identify many of the dishes described. There was lots of fancy stuff involving parts of animals I had never sampled. I’d never heard of a crayfish, although I don’t think I’m missing much based on my classmate’s description of eating one.

Finally, it was my turn to describe my favorite food, and I managed to stump the class. Try to guess: It grows on a tree and has a pit;  it starts as one color and changes to another; it’s salty and has a bit of a twang to it; most importantly, it is only edible after adding poison to it.

The answer is the olive, and I have adored them for as long as I can remember. (The poison is lye, which is used as a curing agent.) Black or green, Spanish, Greek or French, oil- or salt-cured, if a dish of them is near me, soon enough there will be a pile of pits on a nearby plate.

I remember once, when I was in high school, sharing an olive pizza with my Oma (German for grandmother), happily popping the canned California ones into my mouth. “In France,” my Oma began, “we had olive trees.” (I guess they were next to the persimmon trees.) I looked up excitedly from my slice and asked her if they were green or black olive trees. She looked a little surprised at the question. “They all start green, and then change to black,” she said, looking for a moment a little worried that her granddaughter might be a little dim. I’ve told that story many times in the past 17 years, and I am a relieved to say every single person who has heard it has remarked that they had no idea about the color-change.

The recipe here employs both the green and black olives, and lots of them. I think we used nearly an entire jar of pitted black Kalamata olives from Trader Joe’s, plus a whole container of house-made green olives with lemon and garlic from Whole Foods — one of my favorite tastes in the world. The recipe comes from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today, a much-appreciated present from my dad for Chanukah this year. I had been looking for a good olive loaf recipe for a while, and this one is great. There are so many olives in this recipe that they bleed and streak through the dough, making it look more like a marble rye. Two pieces would make a great backdrop for a sandwich of roasted red peppers and shmear of goat cheese. But I have also enjoyed munching it plain, enjoying each salty bite.

As Rich loves baking, I enlisted his help with this recipe during one of our January snow days. Although the recipe says it will yield 5 small loaves, serving 2 to 3 each, Rich made four round loaves of three servings each.

Hanoch’s Olive Bread (From The Foods of Israel Today by Joan Nathan)

Ingredients

5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus 2 teaspoons for sprinkling

1 package dry yeast (1 scant tablespoon)

1 1/4 cups water

1 to 1 1/2 cups Mediterranean black olives, pitted and chopped

1 to 1 1/2 cups Mediterranean green olives, pitted and chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoons melted butter of pareve margarine

Directions

1. Put 4 cups of the flour into a mixing bowl and make a well in the center.

2. Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of the water and pour into the well. Incorporate the flour into the liquid, then turn the dough out onto a board and knead until smooth. Return the dough to the bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour.

3. Punch down the dough, then work in the olives, salt, oregano, 1/4 cup of water, and remaining cup flour. Knead again for a few minutes, and let rise, covered, in the same bowl for another hour.

4. Divide the dough into 5 portions and form into ovals about 6 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide (or four rounds). Using a sharp knife or razor, cut 3 slits horizontally across the tops and allow to rest, covered, for 20 minutes.

5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease 2 cookie sheets. Brush the tops with the melted butter or margarine and sprinkle with the remaining 2 teaspoons of flour. Place the loaves on the cookie sheets.

6. Bake for about 45 minutes or until the breads sound hollow when tapped. Serve warm.

Note: This bread freezes well. Remove from freezer an hour before serving and neat in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes.

What’s so threatening about Julia Child?

As most of my awesome readers know, I started Cheap Beets as a result of Rich getting laid off. What I haven’t mentioned was that he worked at our local public radio and television station, WGBH. We spent the six months leading up to the lay off with new words like “furlough” and “unpaid vacation.” WGBH is considered one of the best in the country, producing quality shows such as Frontline, American Experience and Antiques Roadshow. What you may not realize is that WGBH is the station that produced Julia Child’s pioneering food television series The French Chef. WGBH is still where I turn to enjoy quality cooking shows like Lidia’s Italy, Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie and Simply Ming.

WGBH receives nearly 8% of its budget from federal funding. Within days, Congress will vote on a proposal to eliminate all federal funding for public TV and radio. The amount involved, less than $450 million, will not do anything to balance the budget. What I know this bill will do is cut many jobs, rather than create new ones like our newly elected politicians promised during their campaigns.

Please take five minutes out of your day and contact your congressman and let them know how important Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, 321 Contact and Reading Rainbow meant to you, your parents, your children, and your grandchildren.

I promise to step off my soapbox and will post a good recipe in the next day or two.

As always, thanks for reading.

Jitterbug Risotto

“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.” — Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

I’ll admit it, the first thing that attracted me to Rich was his library. And soon enough, his Nabakov, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Pynchon were mixed in with my Tom Robbins, Philip Roth and cookbooks. And there our books sat, pretty much untouched by the other, for years. Every so often I would pick up a Foster Wallace tome, but so many words, so many footnotes. And every so often, Rich would stand in front of the bookshelf, and ask for a recommendation. And every time, whether he wanted something funny, clever, or serious, I would suggest the Tom Robbins’ epic Jitterbug Perfume. It took about six years, but a few weeks ago, Rich picked up Jitterbug, and he couldn’t put it down. Last Friday night, I turned to him and said “babe, it’s 1:30AM, it’s time for bed.” He had been captured by the best kind of hostage taker: a great book.

I had been gearing up for a beet-tinged Valentine’s Day post. Well, we don’t exactly celebrate Valentine’s Day. As it happens, we met on February 11, so we celebrate that day instead. It also makes it  easier to get a table for our romantic date. This year we went to a French restaurant which will remain nameless. It was a decent meal, but the chocolate souffle was so bad that they comped both it and Rich’s Chimay. That, plus our coupon, made for a very reasonable meal.

As I was saying, for my Valentine’s Day post, I had been thinking about the beet, with its juice that stains everything the color of love. And when I said to Rich, I’m thinking of doing a beet post this year for Valentine’s Day, he looked up from his book and said, “If you’re talking about beets, make sure to mention Jitterbug Perfume.” And he specifically mentioned this dish, which comes out a very Valentine’s Day color. He couldn’t have been more romantic if he tried.

Beet Risotto

1 large beet, or 2 small ones

Goat cheese

Arborio rice

Onion

Stock

Helpful tool: Food processor

This recipe is incredibly easy because it employs my favorite kitchen tool, the pressure cooker. Simply peel the beet and cut off its roots. Shred it in the food processor. Cook the risotto according to your pressure cooker’s instructions. After you add the rice, but before you add the stock, add the shredded beets, and continue with the recipe. When your risotto has cooked under pressure (mine takes about 7 minutes) replace the called for parmesan cheese with the same amount of goat cheese. It’s just that easy.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

I’d been meaning to post this recipe for a while but kept on forgetting. Then, this past weekend, Rich got this e-mail from his Aunt Kathy:

I guess this message is actually for  Molly… I can’t tell you how much Bob [her husband] has talked about the cabbage dish you prepared for Sheila’s [Rich’s mom] at Christmas….well  he FINALLY bought some cabbage today & is holding out for the perfect Molly recipe! Do you mind sharing it ? He really loved it.

So in honor of Aunt Kathy and Uncle Bob, here is the recipe. It’s a great example of a touch of dried fruit bringing a dish to the next level.

Braised Red Cabbage with Dried Cranberries

Ingredients

Half a 2-3 lb. red cabbage, cut into thin strips
Half a red onion, diced
Red wine vinegar
About a tablespoon and a half of dried cranberries (dried cherries, dried blueberries, or even raisins would also be lovely)
Enough oil to coat a pan

We don't actually eat cats. I promise.

Directions

Heat oil in large pan over medium heat. Add red onion and a pinch of salt to get the onions to sweat and soften. You want the onions to soften, but not brown, so stir them occasionally with a wooden spoon. It should take between 7-10 minutes.

While the onions cook, peel off the first few layers of the red cabbage, and cut it in half, lengthwise. Using a large knife, carefully cut out the white core at the bottom of the head and discard. (Although, Bob tells me he munches on the core as he preps the cabbage.) Rest the cabbage flat on its belly, and slice cabbage crosswise to form thin strips.

When the onion has softened (but not browned) add the cabbage strips to the pan, toss in another dash of salt, and give the cabbage and onions a stir. Cook the cabbage until it softens, stirring every few minutes. I’m not going to lie, it’s going to take some time — at least 20 minutes, probably closer to 30. But it’s totally worth it.

When the cabbage has softened, stir in a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and braise the cabbage for about three minutes. Give it a taste. Does it taste sour enough to your liking? If not, add another half a tablespoon and cook for another three or so minutes. Taste again. Add another half tablespoon more if it’s still not there. I use about two tablespoons red wine vinegar, but I know that might be too puckery for some.

When the flavor is right for you,  stir in the dried cranberries. Give them three minutes or so to soften and become part of the dish.

Remove from heat and enjoy!

Food-drunk at Beyond Bubbe’s Kitchen

I have a problem. I don’t know if it’s treatable, or if it’s just one of those lifelong maladies. When I am at a function — bar mitzvah, wedding, food blogger’s cocktail hour — I lose all sense of control and eat until I’m food-drunk. Literally, intoxicated. We once went to the Phantom Gourmet block party, and a few hours in, Rich found me stumbling around Landsdowne Street,  Zeppy’s bagel in my left hand, and a chunk of chocolate in my right. I still don’t remember how we got home.

This is all by way of explaining why I have no pictures to show you from Beyond Bubbe’s Kitchen on Sunday night. Oh, I brought my camera, and even the tripod. But how can I take photos of food AND eat it at the same time?

Words will have to suffice. First, there was moist brisket, crowned with onion confit and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds,  cooked by Julio de Haro of Estragon. But I had to hustle, because rumor was Erwin Ramos from Ole! was about to run out of chocolate tamales! (Not to worry, they brought strawberry tamales as a back-up — vanilla custard sauce, people!) I may have had more than one bowlful of Tony Maws’ from Craigie on Main’s kasha varnishkes with homemade pasta and duck confit. Have I mentioned Michael Leviton of Lumiere‘s sweet, yet savory, Purim-inspired poppy seed “Oreo” cookies with poppy seed filling, which were served with a Bourbon-spiked milkshake? No? Oops, because I had three.

Somehow, I managed to stay lucid enough to meet Jewish cookbook writer extraordinaire Joan Nathan. But a funny thing happens to me when I am around certain cookbook authors. They are my version of rock stars, so I get really nervous, a bit giddy, and start talking really fast. Honestly, put me in a room with any of this year’s Oscar nominees, I’d be as cool as a bourbon-spiked milk shake, but put me near a cookbook author who has a section in my cookbook collection, and I’m a puddle. God help me if I’m ever near Mollie Katzen or Deborah Madison. This fall I met Mark Bittman, and I’m still not 100% sure what I babbled at him.

The recipes I have here, homemade ricotta and pickled beet salad, are from Jeremy Sewall of the Eastern Standard — sort of. His recipes were a bit sparse — Hemingwayesque, really — so I’ve added more detailed directions.  Also, I couldn’t help but modify the beets for my favorite kitchen companion, the pressure cooker.

Homemade Ricotta

Ingredients

1 gallon whole milk

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon salt

Hardware

A large pot

Thermometer (not necessary, but helpful)

Wooden spoon

Cheesecloth — The regular grocery store on the corner sells this, I promise. If you can’t find it, just ask.

Colander

Twine

Directions

Place milk and salt in the large pot, and bring to a slow simmer, making sure it doesn’t boil or scald. It should take about 45 minutes. Every so often, stir the milk, from the bottom, with the wooden spoon, to ensure the milk doesn’t brown and get stuck to the pot. (I speak from experience.)

While the milk is heating, line the colander, which should be sitting in your sink, with a double layer of cheesecloth.

When the milk reaches 175 degrees ( a gentle simmer) add the fresh lemon juice, and stir gently with your wooden spoon. Then, the most magical thing happens: curds and whey begin to separate in the pot. This should take no more than 10 minutes.

Next, take your pot over to your colander and spoon the curds and whey into the awaiting cheesecloth. Do not pour it, as that will destroy the delicate curds. Gently fold up the corners of the cheesecloth, and tie them up with the twine. DO NOT SQUEEZE. If possible, hang the cheesecloth above the pot as the whey drains.

In two hours, cut the twine, open up the cheesecloth, and gaze at your homemade, pillowy clouds of fresh ricotta.

Quick Pickled Beets

1 large beet, peeled, washed, stem and root removed.

(I had two small beets in my fridge, just hanging out — it is Cheap Beets — so I used those.)

Equal parts sherry vinegar and water, to one-half part sugar.

(Again, I wandered away from the directions. I used about a cup of water, 3/4 cups red wine vinegar, and a half-cup sugar.)

Preheat oven to 375

Place all ingredients in a small pan that is large enough to hold the whole beet. Cover with foil and braise in oven until you can pierce through the beet with a paring knife; it should take between 60 – 80 minutes.

(I used my pressure cooker, placing all ingredients in the pot and cooking for about 20 minutes. It was perfect.)

Sewall serves his salad with segments of a blood orange. I did not have any on hand, but if you do, I am sure it would taste delicious.

Stew Tube

One of the amazing benefits of working at Boston University — besides getting to ride my bicycle to my office along the Charles River when things aren’t covered in snow — is the tuition remission. For the past several years, I have been working, slowly but surely, on a Master’s in Gastronomy and Food Studies. This isn’t a culinary degree, although the program offers one. This is a liberal arts degree, and I get to study things like the history of food and the meaning of meat. This past fall, I took a class called Food and the Visual Arts, studying the depiction of food in film, television and advertisements. (Netflix cue alert: Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman, Delicatessen, Babette’s Feast, Our Daily Bread, Food Inc. and Mostly Martha)

As often happens in humanities classes, gender emerged as a theme. We read and discussed the differences between chefs and cooks, and why it seems that men tend to be thought of as the former and women the latter. For the television part of the class, we started with the grande dame, Julia Child — ask yourself, is she a chef or just a really good home cook? — then worked our way through to the burgeoning Food Network of the mid-nineties, and finally, to the televised present. We watched Emeril bam his way through the nineties, Jamie Oliver tool around on his Vespa, and read A LOT of Rachael Ray-bashing.

The Food Network, once the ugly stepchild of cable television, is now a $1.5 billion powerhouse. And as the Food Network grew in size and power, a funny thing happened to their hosts: They went from portly male restaurant chefs to attractive women, wearing what seems like an endless supply of tight brightly-colored v-neck sweaters.

I don’t watch a lot of Food Network anymore, especially now that the prime time line up is all reality-inspired competition shows. But the one show of theirs I still watch is Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. It is a traditional how-to cooking show starring Anne Burrell, the titular restaurant chef previously best-known to viewers as Mario Batali’s amazing sous chef on Iron Chef America. Since the show is about using restaurant tricks at home, Anne has traded her kitchen whites for… brightly-colored v-neck sweaters. It’s as if the producers are trying to fit her into the Giada/Nigella mold, but it doesn’t quite take. Anne Burrell looks like she cooks for a living, and her enthusiasm for food is infectious. Most importantly, her food make me want to eat it. And cook it.

When I saw her make this cauliflower stew a few years back, I knew it was a winner. It appeals to me on several levels: It is vegan; it uses a food mill; and it’s a pantry raid: one fresh vegetable and your well-stocked pantry, and you’re good to go. Also, it tastes better the next day; in fact, I don’t even bother eating it the day I make it. The ingredients need some time to get to know each other.

Anne Burrell makes this to be served with grilled striped bass and parsley salad, which I am sure is wonderful, but I eat it as is. Here’s a cauliflower tip: If you see a few brown spots on the white florets, just use your microplane — which you’ll already have out for zesting the lemon — to rub them away. Everything underneath it is perfectly good to eat; waste not, want not. If you don’t have cauliflower, the tomato sauce alone is extremely delicious. You can stop the recipe there, maybe saute a few mushrooms or wilt some spinach, then toss it all together with some pasta and you’re done. So, so good.

Cauliflower Stew

Ingredients

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, finely diced

Kosher salt

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, passed through a food mill (If you don’t have a food mill, use a box of Pomi. Or BUY A FOOD MILL.)

Water

1 large head cauliflower, coarsely chopped

1 lemon, zested

1/4 cup slivered Gaeta or kalamata olives

1/4 cup sliced caperberries, cut into thin rounds (or one tablespoon capers)

Directions

Coat a large saucepan with olive oil. Add the onions and bring to a medium heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and a small pinch of crushed red pepper. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the onions look wilted and cooked but do not have any color. Add the garlic and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and 3/4 of a can of water, and season with salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste; it should taste good.

Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium heat and season generously with salt; it should taste like the ocean. Add the cauliflower, let the water come to a rolling boil and cook for additional 5 to 7 minutes. The cauliflower should be really soft and almost falling apart. Strain the cauliflower and add it to the tomato mixture. Cook the cauliflower in the tomato sauce until the cauliflower has completely broken up and the sauce clings to the cauliflower, about 20 to 30 minutes. Taste to see if the seasoning needs to be adjusted. Stir in the lemon zest, olives and caperberries. If you can, wait until the next day to enjoy.