Bean Counter

I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but a few months ago I was invited to a liquor tasting. Although I do enjoy a nice gin and tonic — Hendrick’s with a muddled cucumber, thank you very much — I am really not much of a drinker, and especially not now with the reflux. But the sound of a night of free alcohol and free appetizers was too good to turn away, so on a random Tuesday night I found myself in a function room at the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square.

I honestly don’t remember names of any of the liquors I tried: I gave my card to a woman sampling a beet infused alcohol and talked tattoos with a man from a whiskey distillery in Brooklyn.  There were lamb sliders, and chicken wings the girl next to me described as “the best” she’d ever had, and there was a great cheese platter. If memory serves, it was from Formaggio Kitchen, and it had some really nice examples of American cheeses: Humboldt Fog goat, Maytag Blue – you get the picture, good cheese. Someone accidentally forgot to put spoons in the dishes for the local honey and candied nuts that were placed on the side of the cheese – and when I told this story later to Rich, he was a little embarrassed that I’d actually asked for them to track down the spoons. I personally think it would have been a shame if the food they’d meant to serve got tossed in a wastebasket at the end of the night, but that’s just me.

Now, there are two things common at these free events: attractive women doling out samples of the free product, and lots of fun swag given away that has been labeled with the name of their good.  The Icelandic vodka company had messenger bags; I scored a salmon pashmina (yes, pashmina!) scarf from the Italian orange-flavored liqueur. (I just want to make clear that I am not not saying the names of the alcohols because I don’t advertise products on Cheap Beets, but because I honestly don’t know what I was drinking that night.)

And then there was the vanilla-tinged scotch. I was schmoozing with the beautiful woman doling out samples when a couple of people approached the table and asked if they could help themselves to free t-shirts. “Of course!” she replied. “Help yourself.” Now, I hadn’t noticed the t-shirts on the table, but what I had noticed was the display the company had her set up. I was standing in front of a glass jar brimming, and I mean brimming, with whole vanilla beans. There must have been at least 50 standing in front of me, and so I asked her if maybe I could have a few of the beans. (Yes, Rich was even more mortified by this part of the story.) She was a bit surprised by the question – I guess she was more used to getting asked for her phone number than baking ingredients – and I explained that vanilla beans are quite expensive and her bosses might not be happy if they were to disappear. She winked and said she’d look the other away; I grabbed not one but two beans and tucked them in my purse.

I actually forgot about the beans until the next day, when I was waiting for the bus and kept thinking someone was smoking a pipe nearby. The beans rested by my phone, so I had a gorgeous sniff of vanilla every time I got a call. They were still in my purse when I had my class that night. I showed my booty to my classmate the professional baker Joyce (she of the fudge cookie fame). She examined them and gave a sniff, and announced they were actually very good quality. She told me I could wrap them in foil and freeze them until I found a use for them, but she also suggested I make my own extract by sticking them in a small glass jar of vodka and forgetting about them for six months.

But what, I implored, should I bake with them? “Oh no,” Joyce shook her head, “baking with vanilla beans is a waste.” She explained that the only time vanilla beans should be used is in cold dishes. In almost every instance that a baking recipe calls for fresh vanilla beans, a teaspoon or two of extract can be used instead. “But don’t use that chemically fake stuff they sell cheap the grocery store!” she warned. “Always look for real vanilla extract from places like Madagascar and Tahiti.” Joyce said she actually buys hers by the gallon, which fluctuates wildly in price; she’s bought it for a low of $75 to a high of $124. It all depends on the hurricanes and stormy weather. The past few years have been brutal on the baking industry due to the astronomic price of vanilla extract. Who knew?

So the recipe I have for today – creamy rice pudding – can be made with a fresh vanilla bean, but why waste it on something that’s been cooked in a crock pot for hours? This recipe takes leftover rice and makes it into a sweet and creamy dessert. Quick tip: You can freeze leftover rice (or quinoa); it defrosts and heats up in a breeze. I tossed in a few cardamom pods and a scrape of nutmeg — mild spices that won’t upset the reflux. I always have dried cherries in the house from Ocean State Job Lot, but you can replace their appearance with more golden raisins. If you do still insist on using a vanilla bean for your baking, they sell whole vanilla beans in the gourmet section of Home Goods for a few dollars less than you’d pay at the store. My friend Sara takes a note from Mark Bittman and buys hers in bulk off of Amazon. But really, just use the extract.

And one last thing before I get to the recipe: I had mentioned a few posts ago I had some exciting news about a project I was working on. Well, I am pleased to announce my new column “The Four Questions” on JewishBoston.com. Each week I’ll be asking a Jew around town doing interesting things four questions (Passover joke, get it?). In the next few weeks you’ll see interviews with the Globe’s advice columnist, a politico, an ethnomusicologist and a personal chef. Please feel free to drop me a line if you know someone I should be interviewing.

Crock Pot Rice Pudding

Ingredients

2 2/3 cups milk

2 eggs, beaten

4 whole cardamom pods

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cinnamon stick

1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

½ cup white sugar

½ cup brown sugar

1/3 cup golden raisins

1/3 cup dried cherries

2 cups cooked rice

Directions

Combine all ingredients except for the dried cherries and golden raisins in crockpot. Add rice. Stir.

Cook in crockpot on high for one hour, stirring intermittently. After one hour, add the dried fruit, turn crockpot to low and cook for one more hour, continuing to stir intermittently. Enjoy!

The Silver Lining

This past June, on the way to my cousin’s baby shower, I got lost. Really, really lost. Like, call my parents on a Sunday morning slightly hysterical lost. Like, call Rich the morning after a bachelor party while he’s eating at IHOP lost. The worst part was I had a GPS, but the road I would have normally taken was being worked on, and every time I turned on the GPS to lead me north, it directed me back to the closed-off highway. By some miracle, I made it to the shower on-time, although I now know that GPS and cellphone reception between Lowell, MA, and southern New Hampshire is a bit spotty in places.

The silver lining to the story is that while I was in the car, NPR’s Weekend Edition introduced me to Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli-born chef now working in London, whose new vegetarian cookbook, Plenty, has become a smash hit this year. Vegetarian and Israeli — basically, a cookbook written for me. My friend Sara tells me that when she lived in London in 2005 she went to his restaurant all the time, but was always surprised that he had so little name recognition in the States.

As soon as I made it back from the shower, I put my name on the waiting list at the library. There were about two dozen people ahead of me, and as his recipes started popping up on blogs I read, I needed to remind myself that patience is a virtue. Last week, I received the notice that the book was waiting for me at my local branch around the corner. I was so excited. It was my turn, finally. Mine, mine, mine.

Except, not unlike the GPS debacle, the book the librarian handed me wasn’t Plenty, but his first cookbook, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, written in 2008. Well, I told myself, a top chef still has top recipes, even if they aren’t the ones I was counting on. So I decided to make lemonade out of lemons — or, in Ottolenghi’s case, preserved lemons — and dove in.

It’s always interesting reading a cookbook from another country because it’s a reminder that there’s a whole lot of world outside of my home. I knew that courgettes were zucchini and aubergines were eggplants, but I had no idea that snow peas were called mangetout, or that I actually had a swede — aka a yellow turnip, aka a rutabaga — in my crisper. I also had celeriac, (celery root) in the house as well, a cast-off from my officemate’s CSA.

The recipe I have for you today, a celery root and rutabaga slaw, is just perfect for these late autumn/almost winter months, and makes me wish these veggies were year-round produce. I’d never considered eating rutabaga raw, as I usually roast or braise them. And boy, have I been missing out! Seriously, the dish is extraordinary. Rich said it was one of the better things I’ve made lately. Not that I’ve been serving him swill; it’s just a really amazing salad.

Here’s what Ottolenghi has to say about this dish:

It is a bit like a rémoulade in its tang, but also has multilayered sweet (dried cherries) and savoury (capers) flavours to create a magnificently intense accompaniment to fish or lamb. It will also make a great addition to a vegetarian mezze.

Variations on this dish are endless. Try using kohlrabi, beetroot, turnip, carrot or cabbage, or a combination of them for this salad. Most soft herbs would suit, and don’t forget the acidity from citrus juice or vinegar to lighten it up.

I always have capers in the house, and I keep dried cherries from Ocean State Job Lot on hand in the pantry at all times, making this a great pantry recipe. I’ve made this dish twice in a five day period, and that’s without my large food processor. If you do have a food processor, this whips up in a jiff; if you don’t, I promise you it’s worth the extra effort. I didn’t have any sunflower oil on hand, so I used olive oil exclusively for the salad. I also used regular sugar in lieu of caster sugar. The slaw was still wonderful.

Don’t be scared of the ugly celery root. Give it a rinse to get some of the dirt off, and stand it up on the cutting board and cut the skin off by slicing down the sides of the bulb with a large sharp knife. You can cut the waxy skin off the rutabaga in the same manner.

The recipe is in grams, so my digital scale got quite the workout this week. I’ve converted it into ounces and cups for a more Continental-friendly audience, but the grams are the original measure and most accurate.

Sweet and sour celeriac and swede (aka Sweet and sour celery root and rutabaga) from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook

Serves 4-6

250g (9 oz., 1 1/2 cup) celeriac, peeled and thinly shredded

250g (9 oz., 1 1/2 cup) swede, peeled and thinly shredded

4 Tablespoons roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley

4 Tablespoons roughly chopped dill

50g (2 oz., 1/3 cup) capers, drained and roughly chopped

4 Tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 large lemon)

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

4 Tablespoons olive oil

4 Tablespoons sunflower oil

3 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 teaspoons caster sugar

100g (3.5 oz., 1/2 cup) dried sour cherries

Salt and black pepper

  1. Place the shredded celeriac and swede in a mixing bowl. Add all the rest of the ingredients and use your hands to mix everything together thoroughly. ‘Massaging’ the vegetables a little will help them absorb the flavors. Taste and add salt and pepper to your liking You might also want to add some extra sugar and vinegar.
  2. Allow the salad to sit for an hour so the flavors can evolve. It will keep for up to 2 days in the fridge. Add more herbs just before serving, for a fresher look.

Campaign Cookies: Why I started baking.

Cookies for volunteers.

I never considered myself much of a baker. But when I captained a phone bank in last year’s special election (don’t get me started), I thought the least I could do for my volunteers was to reward them with some good cookies. I came across this recipe and took a liking to it.

After mastering this simple recipe, I realized there was nothing stopping me from baking all sorts of things, from lemon bars to macarons to challah to apple cake.  But today, I found myself wanting to bake these cookies again.

This is a pantry recipe. It involves butter, which should just live in your freezer, so you’ll always have it at hand. You should have eggs in the fridge, and everything else you’d have on hand in your pantry. Chocolate chips and dried fruit? In your pantry. Or, you might have to store chips in your freezer if your pantry gets too warm in the summer.

I actually had a bit of trouble with some of my batches of cookies today. The recipe wasn’t off. My oven was. So the cookies in the pics you have here are not my best work. But I promise you it makes a good cookie. If you’re into chewy with lots of good bits of stuff, this recipe is for you. Side note: I actually like the way these cookies taste the next day more than a few hours out of the oven.

The recipe I like to use is from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which has the same ingredients as Toll House, but in different measurements.  They also differ on greasing the pans: Fanny is pro and Toll House is con.

The cookies in these pictures are a mixture of the newly invented Cherry Garcia, chocolate and peanut butter chips, chocolate chip and heath crunch. (I intentionally leave nuts out of my cookies when I don’t know who I’m baking for; it’s just safer that way. But if you know who you’re baking for, have fun with the nuts.)

The amount you want to pay attention to is 1 cup of chips to half a cup something else, say dried fruit or nuts. Make sure to chop up whatever that is, be it dried fruit, or nuts, or both. The Cherry Garcia cookies, for instance, were 1 cup of chips to half a cup chopped dried cherries — which Ocean State Job Lot always has on hand. The Heath Bar Chip? A cup of chips to a half cup Heath Bar bits; the Heath English Toffee Bits, “Bits O’ Brickle Toffee Bits” were actually a pantry addition by Rich and Mike.

Whatever “side” your on, if you want to help out on a campaign but feel weird about talking to strangers, you can pitch in by baking a batch of cookies for the volunteers.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook

As you can see, the recipe doubles easily

1/4 pound butter

1/2 dark brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

3/4 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup and two tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup chopped nuts or chopped dried fruit, or both

6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips (1 cup)

Preheat oven to 375 and grease some cookie sheets. Cream the butter, then gradually add the two sugars, beating until light and smooth. Beat in the egg and the vanilla. Mix the flour, salt and  baking soda and add it to the first mixture blending well. Stir in the nuts/dried fruit and the chocolate chips. Drop by teaspoonfuls* onto the cookie sheets about 1 inch apart and bake for 8-10 minutes or until lightly browned.

*Please read below for more on this cookie scoop.

Both recipes say you can make an average of 55 cookies with this recipe. It’s more like 2 dozen.

*I don’t usually complain about products, but feel I must in this case. Two weeks ago I had attempted to make cookies for the campaign, but my cookie scoop lost one of its rivets that held the sweeper in place. I couldn’t bring those to the campaign; what if someone bit on that rivet? I brought it back to Crate and Barrel, and they replaced it immediately. This is what happened during today’s baking.

This product is garbage.