Piece of Cake

I turned 34 last week. Once upon a time, that meant that I’d be ripe for a mid-life in just a year or two, but the way things are going these days, barring any terrible illness, it’s only a third of my life at this point. Heaven knows what sort of crazy discoveries they’ll make in science 50 years from now. There are flecks of grey in my hair, and the one true marker of age that my face reveals are the laugh lines that form around my mouth when I smile. Although it’s a little scary, I tell myself that laugh lines are much more becoming than wrinkles and worry lines.

We didn’t have a big party this year. A friend of mine from college baked me the same carrot cake he baked me when I turned 19; I guess we’re on a 15-year schedule, so mark your calendar for 2027. There are not one, not two, but three birthday cards depicting cats doing cute things on my mantel. One friend brought me a small piece of fancy goat cheese aged in a grape leaf. Another friend brought me gray and smoked salt caramels. And another friend brought me a large bag of farro. My mother-in-law made me a gorgeous quilt in blues and greens. My in-laws also gave me a gift card to Barnes & Noble with a note suggesting that I might want to use it to buy a new cookbook. One of my brothers-in-law gave me a gift card from Williams-Sonoma. The same brother-in-law gave me a gift card for Sur La Table for Christmas. Am I that predictable? The stores actually face each other in the mall so part of me thinks he just flips a coin to decide which shop to pick me up a gift card from. I’m not complaining.

With the last gift card he bought me, I was able to replace the mortar and pestle that Rich had lost (along with his kitchen privileges) last year. Because I now once again have a mortar and pestle, for this past Shabbat dinner, I was able to make this cucumber with smashed garlic and ginger salad from Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian masterpiece Plenty (which I received for Christmas from another brother-in-law; the third gave me a gift card to Crate and Barrel). As I wrote a few months ago, I was a bit aggravated to discover I had ordered the wrong Ottolenghi at the library, but was thrilled with the recipes. Well, now that I have this cookbook, I understand what all the fuss was about.

This cucumber salad takes a little bit of time. The red onions sit in the dressing of rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and sugar for about an hour which mellows them and removes any sort of bite. The recipe also calls for Maldon salt flakes. If you can’t find it readily available in your area, Amazon has it, although it’s actually much cheaper at Whole Foods. It doesn’t have to be Maldon; any flakey salt will do.

Finally, this salad comes with a warning: Be very careful when tasting it to make sure everything is seasoned right. I almost ate the entire dish on the counter with my fingers. It’s that kind of salad. You’ll notice that I didn’t manage to stage a shot. Getting too near this salad meant I would eat it. We ate this alongside the cabbage and baked tofu dish. It was perfect.

Cucumber Salad with Smashed Garlic and Ginger

Serves 4 – 6 as a condiment or a side salad

Ingredients

Dressing

3 tbsp rice wine vinegar

2 tsp sugar

2 tbsp sunflower oil (I use olive with no unfortunate results)

2 tsp toasted sesame oil

Salad Ingredients

1 small red onion, very thinly sliced

1 ½ inches fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

1 tsp Maldon sea salt

2 large garlic cloves, peeled

4 small (or 8 mini) cucumbers (1 ¼ lbs.) peeled

1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds

3 tbsp chopped cilantro

Directions

To make the dressing. Whisk together all the dressing ingredients in a medium mixing bowl.

Add the sliced red onion, mix well and leave aside to marinate for about an hour.

Place the ginger and salt in a mortar and pound well with a pestle. Add the garlic and continue pounding until it is also well crushed and broken into pieces (stop pounding before it disintegrates into a paste). Use a spatula to scrape the contents of the mortar into the bowl with the onion and dressing. Stir together.

Cut the cucumbers lengthwise in half, then cut each half on an angle into ¼ -inch-thick slices. Add the cucumber to the bowl, followed by the sesame seeds and cilantro. Stir well and leave to sit for 10 minutes.

Before serving, stir the salad again, tip out some of the liquid that has accumulated at the bottom of the bowl, and adjust the seasoning.

Ba-na-na-na

Last week, I bought bananas. As a general rule, I don’t buy the yellow fruit. I used to buy them for Rich so he could enjoy them with his bowl of cereal in the morning, but at some point last year he let me know that he actually doesn’t care much for them. I like them well enough, but it really does bother me to eat a piece of food that’s traveled such a long distance to get to me. You know how I am about even the delicious mango. And then there’s the socio-economic issues: low wages and heavy chemical use in the industry, to say nothing of the history monopolies, colonialism and union busting. (If you’re interested in learning more about it, Peter Chapman wrote a very good book about the history of the United Fruit Company, the largest banana supplier in the world.) And don’t even get me started on the waning Cavendish.

But last week was my mom’s birthday, and this past summer I discovered a banana bread she absolutely adores. She, like me and my sister, doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth; we’re much happier eating baba ghanoush on challah for breakfast than challah French toast. So when I took my parents to Flour bakery for a little snack after a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum over the summer, Mom ordered the banana bread, noting it was one of her favorite baked goods — sweet but not too sweet, moist and soft but still sturdy. And she loved it, proclaiming it the best banana bread she’d ever had. A perfect afternoon snack, — or, in my mom’s case, a perfect birthday cake.

So on Sunday, I bought yellow bananas. I set them on the counter until they ripened to mottled, baked-good-worthy status by Wednesday night, just in time to make the bread and mail it for Mom’s birthday on Monday.

This recipe calls for a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. I had two slightly smaller sized loaf pans, so I filled one pan about ¾ high, and baked the leftover ¼ in the other loaf pan for us to munch on. Side by side, they reminded me of the movie Twins; mom got the Arnold loaf and we kept Danny DeVito to munch on.

Although the recipe calls for two tablespoons of sour cream or crème fraîche, I used Greek yogurt instead. I toasted the nuts for about 8 minutes in my toaster oven set at 350 degrees. Keep an eye on the nuts as they go from perfectly toasted to burnt in a matter of 30 seconds.

Special note: My friend Tania tipped me off to these equal exchange bananas so I don’t have to fret about my bananas when I do buy them.

Flour’s Famous Banana Bread from Joanne Chang’sflour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe

Makes one 9-inch loaf

Ingredients

1 ½ cups (210 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons (230 grams) sugar

2 eggs

½ cup (100 grams) canola oil

3 ½ very ripe, medium bananas, peeled and mashed (1 1/3 cups mashed/about 340 grams)

2 Tablespoons crème fraîche or sour cream (I used Greek yogurt and had no ill-effects)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup (75 grams) walnut halves, toasted and chopped

Directions

Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment (or a handheld mixer), beat together the sugar and eggs on medium speed for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. (If you use a handheld mixer, this same step will take about 8 minutes.)

On a low speed, slowly drizzle in the oil. Don’t pour the oil in all at once. Add it slowly so it has time to incorporate into the eggs and doesn’t deflate the air you have just beaten into the batter. Adding it should take about 1 minute. Add the bananas, crème fraîche, and vanilla and continue to mix on low speed just until combined.

Using a rubber spatula, fold in the flour mixture and the nuts just until thoroughly combined. No flour streaks should be visible, and the nuts should be evenly distributed. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 1 to 1 ¼ hours, or until golden brown on top and the center springs back when you press it. If your finger sinks when you poke the bread, it needs to bake a little longer. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes, and then pop it out of the pan to finish cooling.

The banana bread can be stored tightly wrapped in plastic wrap at room temperature for up to 3 days. Or, it can be well wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen for up to 2 weeks; thaw overnight at room temperature for serving.

Cornucopia

Well, it’s official. Today Cheap Beets is one year old. It really has just zipped by. I remember, as I turned the kitchen calendar to March, saying worriedly to Rich, “But I didn’t even get to talk about Brussels sprouts!” And all of a sudden it was June and not a word about asparagus. “Don’t worry,” he assured me, “there’s always next year, and the year after that.”

kosher vegetarian

When I started the blog, I was on a mission: To help people eat well during the recession. We’d been through a layoff and survived it with very full, happy bellies, and I wanted to assure as many people as would listen that they could do it too. I spent a good deal of last summer worrying about what to call the blog: Rich could see the writing on the wall and suggested I call it “Double Dip” and feature two scoops of my homemade ice creams in the banner. Sigh.

Well, it’s been a year, and I’m ready to let you guys in on a very big secret; a confession, of sorts. Although I do love beets, and radishes, and green beans, and cauliflower, too, most people are shocked to find out that my favorite vegetable is corn. I mean, I know all about the corn subsidies, the evils of high fructose corn syrup and as its nasty use as a filler in animal feed. I know, my dear readers. Oh, I know.

But here’s what you don’t know: I was spoiled by the freshest corn possible when I was growing up. Literally, picked right off the field. Have you ever had it? Then you know what I’m talking about when I say it’s the sweetest, crunchiest, best taste in the world.  Growing up in Western Massachusetts, my mom bought the bulk of our vegetables at the roadside stand in nearby Enfield, Connecticut. Less than four miles from our house, the little town was still mostly farmland well into my high school years. If you wanted corn for dinner, you’d go to Johnnie’s Roadside Market and watch the corn fly down the shoot after it had been picked off the field. My six-year-old niece Becca learned this week that’s how you buy corn, too. I want THAT one, and point to yours as it flies by. And be sure to eat it as soon as you can, the longer it’s off the stalk, the tougher it becomes. When I was young, I wanted to marry a farmer so I could have an endless supply of corn every day. I don’t even need to shmear anything on it. Just plain old corn, followed by a good flossing.

For the past few weeks, we’ve received piles of corn in the CSA, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  I’ve tried to move past eating it plain, as I know not everyone is as smitten with the vegetable as I am. I’ve shmeared it with feta and squeezed lime juice on top of that. Scrumptious. And I’ve taken to making this salad, as well. It’s really just things from the CSA box. I wasn’t even going to post it, but my friend Marianne said I needed to after I brought it to veggie potluck this week.

The longest part of this recipe is the green bean prep, but if you do the Cook’s Illustrated method that I’ve talked about here before (lining a handful of tips together, giving a little cut, and then doing it to the other side), it flies by. Taking another page from the magazine – and I think Alton Brown says to do this too – dig out your Bundt pan and stick your ear of corn, upright, right in the hole. It makes kernel removal a cinch.

Fresh Corn, Green Bean and Cherry Tomato Salad

½ lb. fresh green beans, trimmed

¼ cup water

6 ears of corn, shucked, kernels removed

4 cloves of garlic, slivered

1 cup of cherry tomatoes, halved

1 heaping Tablespoon fresh basil leaves, cut in a chiffonade

1 Tablespoon olive oil

Salt

Directions

Heat olive oil in a large skillet. After 30 seconds, add the garlic, green beans, pinch of salt and the water. Cover, letting the beans steam away in the pan for about five minutes. While this is happening, shuck your corn, and remove the kernels using your Bundt pan and a large, sharp knife. Add corn to the skillet and give a stir. While the corn and green beans are cooking, rinse your tomatoes and cut those in half. Add to skillet and give another stir. Cook for about three minutes longer, then add your basil, another pinch of salt, and cook a minute or so longer. That’s all. Share with others, if you can. I’ll understand if you can’t.