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.

Cardamom Jag

We once had a roommate who went on food jags. One month, he ate a thick bowl of oatmeal every day for dinner.  Another month, there were endless waffles drizzled with syrup. He was very full after the month of Hungry Man dinners, and he swore to never eat another bite of buffalo chicken anything after his month of binging on the spicy wings.

I am in the throes of my own food spree right now: I am full-on in a cardamom jag. Today I’m offering up two recipes with cardamom, next week there will be a third. I hope by then the urge to sniff and savor this woody, floral spice will be out of my system.

My affair with the green pods started innocently enough; in fact, it caught me by surprise. (Isn’t that always the way with life’s great romances, though?) Last week we went to a ginger party, where guests were invited to bring a ginger-spiced dish to share with the group. There was ginger tea, maki rolls made with pear and candied ginger, cucumbers quick-pickled with rice vinegar and ginger, and sundry ginger-flecked baked goods. I used a Ming Tsai recipe I had bookmarked a few months earlier. It was his version of a fruit cake, East/West-style, with molasses, candied ginger and an array of spices. It was decent enough. I mean, it was cake, and, as a general rule, cake is good. But it was really the whipped cream that was served atop the cake that was the best part. Freshly whipped with cardamom and brown sugar, I may have licked the entire Kitchen Aid Mixer bowl and whisk before even letting Rich know what we were bringing to the party.  (I actually just walked into the kitchen in time to see Rich flat out dipping his entire hand into the  mixer to scoop up a fist full of cream. For reals.)

The next morning I gchatted with my sister-in-law, who informed me that they were drinking the world’s best hot chocolate. The secret? Cardamom. Oh no, I argued, the world’s best hot chocolate could only be the world’s best if it was topped with the fresh cardamom whipped cream from last night. A perfect drink was born.

Some might argue that cardamom is not a cheap spice, but I beg to differ. You can pick up a hefty bag for a couple bucks at the  Armenian stores in Watertown. What you want are the black seeds inside the fibrous pods. For this dish, I slit open the pods, shook out the black seeds, and ground them up until I had the right amount.

(Today I used my spice grinder — a coffee grinder I picked up at Ocean State Job Lot for $15 last year. Ordinarily, I might have used my mortar and pestle that rests on the counter, but Rich borrowed it last week and lost the pestle. Not to worry, he finally found the pestle on Friday morning. It was in the garbage disposal. Rich owes me a new mortar and pestle.)

You can always buy cardamom already ground, but it will not last quite as long as using the seeds from the pod. It’s a good idea to have the pods on-hand if you’re interested in exploring Indian dishes. It’s cardamom you’re tasting in an Indian restaurant’s rice; a few pods tossed in while the rice is simmering is what beckons a Bombay banquet.

Cardamom Hot Chocolate

Serves one

1 1/2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa (I used Ghiradelli because that’s what I have in my cupboard. I am sure any brand will be great.)

1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar

1 cup milk

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

A sprinkle of cinnamon

Directions

Mix cocoa, sugar and spices in a small dish. Pour milk into a small pan, add the cocoa mixture and stir. Heat, while stirring, until steaming.

Top with…

Cardamom Whipped Cream with help from Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cooking with Ming Tsai

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

In a chilled bowl (I put the bowl of my mixer in the freezer for about a half hour the first time I did this recipe, the second time, I didn’t bother), combine the cream, brown sugar and cardamom until stiff peaks form.

To assemble, find the biggest mug in your kitchen — trust me, you’ll want as much of this as possible — and fill it about 3/4 of the way full with the hot chocolate. Then, fill the rest of the mug with the whipped cream.

There’s enough whipped cream for several servings. I’m not sure how many. My guess would be four or five. But the amount will correspond directly with the will-power of those assembled. I make no promises.

Souvenirs

I work in the development department at Boston University, preparing the gift officers, deans and even the president for their fundraising trips. They travel all over the world reconnecting with alumni who are interested in supporting the school. Oftentimes, when an overseas trip is taken, someone will bring back a sweet treat from abroad. In the fall, some kind soul brought back dates from Saudi Arabia. Stuffed with tahini, sometimes nuts, and sometimes toasted sesame seeds, they were so good, I would find myself stopping by that department for an after-lunch treat. At some point, the administrators got so used to seeing me for my afternoon date that they offered the entire box to me. I couldn’t say no.

Most recently, someone went abroad and brought back a box of Turkish Delight. They actually brought the box directly to my office; saving me the daily trips. I felt a little like I was in Narnia, being plied with the candy by the White Witch, but I’m not complaining. I would end my lunch with a chewy cube of rosewater and pistachios. I was in heaven.

Luckily for me, none of my co-workers shared my delight in the Turkish Delight. I overheard a conversation between a few co-workers who did not enjoy the candies and were about the toss the half-eaten box in the garbage until I jumped up from my desk and grabbed the box from their hands.

As it happens, the recipe I have here is a pantry recipe — or at least my pantry. I scored a one pound bag of pistachios for $3 at Ocean State Job Lot months ago. Rich was skeptical as to the quantity, but they are a wonderful partner to beets, and, as any fan of Turkish Delight will tell you, rosewater. If you don’t have rosewater in the house, I strongly encourage you to head down to a Middle Eastern store in your area. I purchased mine at one of the great Armenian stores on Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown. While you’re there, definitely pick up some orange blossom water and pomegranate molasses. They’ll all be on the same shelf. All three should set you back about $10, and most recipes will only call for a teaspoon or so; you’ll get at least 25 servings from each bottle.

The rosewater is soft and muted in this dish, just a little tease of a faraway land with each nutty bite.

Turkish Delight Ice Cream

With help from the Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book and Barron’s The Joy of Ice Cream by Matthew Klein, and my  $25 ice cream maker I found on Craig’s List.

Ingredients

2 large eggs

3/4 cup sugar

2 cups heavy or whipping cream

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon rosewater

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup pistachios, chilled in the freezer at least as long as ice cream is churning

Directions

Whisk the eggs in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk the sugar, a little at a time, then continue whisking until completely blended, about 1 minute more. Pour in the cream and milk and whisk to blend. Add the vanilla extract and rosewater and stir briefly.

Transfer mixture to your ice cream machine and freeze according to the manufacturer’s directions. At 20 minutes (or about 5 minutes before the ice cream is finished churning) slowly add the cup of pistachios, about a 1/4 cup at a time. Transfer the ice cream to a container and freeze for at least two hours.

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.

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.

She cooks with the fishes

Oh my. Is it possible to devour a head of lettuce?

Winter in New England is tough. But slipping on black ice or climbing over a snow drift to get to a sidewalk isn’t what frustrates me the most about this season.  It’s the fresh vegetable situation. Oh, how I long for August and its ripe tomatoes and corn straight from the cob. I’ve been hungering for salads recently, and have been contemplating persimmons and escarole. But for now, a Caesar salad will do quite nicely.

It’s been a few years since I realized I could make Caesar salad at home. The recipe base I use is from an ancient Cook’s Illustrated, but I do wander away from it after a certain point. (Eight grindings of fresh black pepper? Really?) They suggest coddling the egg, as does The New York Times Cookbook, although Zuni Cafe, which sells more Caesar salad than anything else on their menu, does not. Neither use Worcestershire sauce, although I do, and I really do think it brings it to the next level. It is not key, however.

The key to Caesar salad is anchovies. Anchovies, you might be thinking to yourself, are NOT vegetarian. But here’s the thing:I called this blog “mostly vegetarian” so I could sneak around the anchovy issue. If you’re a fish eater but are squeamish about anchovies, please give them a shot. Anchovies are the cheapest flavor packets I can think of. Ancient Romans doused everything in garum, and many Asian cuisines wouldn’t be the same without fish sauce. When I bite into something with an anchovy in it, I am always struck by all the complex layers of flavor they add.

In most scenarios, you won’t even have to touch them. If you’re cooking with them, beat them in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. You can get a can of anchovies for less than $3 at any grocery store. Ocean State Job Lot used to have glass jars of anchovies that were really special but hasn’t had them for a while. I toss the remaining anchovies, can and all, into a plastic bag in the fridge. Let them sit for a few minutes at room temperature and the oil will return to form. But please be warned: anchovies are incredibly ugly. I took numerous shots of mine and realize there was no way to make them look pretty. None.

I've gussied up these anchovies with some garlic. Not as ugly now.

Another thing that I love most about this dish is that it is a quintessential pantry recipe. You should have all these things on hand, so when you start to miss out-of-season veggies, you can whip this up in minutes.  It’s even quicker if you don’t insist on the croutons.

Caesar Salad Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated September/October 1997

Garlic Croutons

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and pressed through a garlic press

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups 1/2-inch white bread cubes (from a baguette or country loaf)

Caesar Salad

1 large egg

Juice of one lemon

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Pinch of salt

A few grindings of fresh black pepper

2 small garlic cloves, pressed

3 or 4 flat anchovy fillets, minced (I do mine in a mortar and pestle with the garlic at the same time)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium heads romaine lettuce or 2 large romaine hearts, washed, dried and torn into 1 1/2-inch pieces (about 10 cups, lightly packed)

1/3 cup grated Parmasean cheese

1. For the croutons: Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix garlic, salt and oil in a small bowl; set aside for 20 minutes. Spread bread cubes out over small baking sheet. Drizzle oil onto bread; toss to coat. Bake until golden, about 12 minutes. Cool on baking sheet to room temperature. (Croutons can be stored in airtight container for up to 1 day.)

2. For the dressing: Bring water to boil in small saucepan over high heat. Carefully lower whole egg into water; cook for 1 minute. Remove with slotted spoon. When cool enough to handle, crack egg into small bowl with all other dressing ingredients except oil; whisk until smooth. Add oil in slow, steady stream, whisking constantly until smooth. Adjust for seasoning. (Dressing may be refrigerated in airtight container for 1 day; shake before using.)

3. Place lettuce in large bowl; drizzle with half of dressing, then toss to coat lightly. Sprinkle with cheese, remaining dressing, and croutons; toss to coat well. Serve immediately.

Choppin’ Broccoli

Darn it, shoulda used extra-firm tofu.

I think Rich and I broke a holiday party record yesterday: four parties in nine hours. And the food. Oh boy, the food. Highlights include warm ricotta dip, fig and caramelized onions on parmasean tarts, Swedish meatballs, homemade marshmallows, roasted Brussels sprouts, two separate brie en croutes –all warm and melty with caramelized onions and cranberries spilling from underneath their puff pastry shells — a divine cheese platter and rich chocolate ganache cookies. I also drank some wonderful homemade merlot and was introduced to a fresh cranberry and vodka drink that needs further exploration.

So it’s no surprise that Rich and I woke up this morning still pretty full, and a little, just a little bit, grossed out by how much food we ate yesterday. So tonight I turned to my favorite dish I cook up when I think we need to hit pause on our holiday eating.

This recipe is adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Still Life With Menu Cookbook. I’ve found her original recipe to be too vinegary and lacking in soy sauce, so over time I have rejiggered it. She also calls for water chestnuts, which I never seem to have on hand, although last time I made this, I tossed in a can of baby corn. The dried black mushrooms are a pantry staple, thanks to Ocean State Job Lot. Tonight I added a block of medium firm tofu, although looking through the photos, should have been extra firm. Nonetheless, it still tasted great. The red chili flakes give it a good kick, so if you think it’s going to be too spicy for you, just use less than a teaspoon. Rich loves the extra kick and even adds Siracha sauce to his.

Broccoli and Black Mushrooms in Garlic Sauce

Adapted from Still Life with Menu Cookbook

Preparation time: 40 to 45 minutes (The actual stir-frying, once all prelimanaries are ready, takes only about 10 minutes.)

Yield: 4 main-dish-sized servings

Helpful hint: Put your rice on as you start to collect the ingredients, and it will be warm, ready and fluffy when the dish is done.

6 Chinese dried black mushrooms

2 cups boiling water

1/4 cup rice vinegar (cider vinegar will also work in a pinch)

1 1/2 cups water

1/4 cup (packed) brown sugar

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 medium-sized cloves garlic, coarsely minced

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (more or less, to taste)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons peanut or sesame oil

1 bunch broccoli (1 to 1 1/2 lbs.) stems trimmed and shaved, cut in 2-inch spears

salt, to taste

1 8 oz. can water chestnuts, drained and sliced, OR 1 can baby corn, OR 1 package extra firm tofu — the choices are really endless, and entirely up to you

1) Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl. Add boiling water, cover with a plate, and let stand at least 1/2 hour (preferably a whole hour). Drain the mushrooms, squeezing out all excess liquid. (You may wish to reserve the soaking water for soup stock.) Remove and discard mushroom stems, and slice the caps in half.

2) Combine the vinegar, 1 1/2 cups of water, brown sugar, soy sauce, salt, garlic and red pepper in a bowl.

3) Place the cornstarch in a small bowl. Add some of the sauce, whisk until dissolved, then return this mixture to the rest of the sauce. Leave the whisk in there; you’ll need it again.

4) Have all ingredients ready and within arm’s reach before starting the stir-fry. Place a medium-large wok over high heat for about a minute or two. Then add the oil. After about a minute, add the broccoli. Salt it lightly, and stir-fry for several minutes over consistently high heat, until the broccoli is bright grean.

5) Add the black mushrooms and water chestnuts, or tofu or baby corn, and stir-fry a few minutes more.

6) Whisk the sauce from the bottom of the bowl to re-integrate the cornstarch. Pour the sauce into the wok, turn the heat down just a little and keep stir-frying over the medium-high heat for another few minutes, until the sauce thickens and coats everything nicely. Serve immediately, over rice.

Tarragon, where have you bean all my life?

i’m obsessed with this bean salad.

I’ll be the first to admit that as much as I love cooking with fresh veggies and herbs, there’s tons for me to still learn. It wasn’t too many years back that my entire trivia team was stumped by the question “What herb is the basis of a bearnaise sauce?” There were actually a few “foodies” on the team, so my embarrassment was mitigated some. The star of bearnaise sauce, it turned out, was tarragon, and I chalked that up to it being one of those herbs that’s used to flavor things like chicken, eggs, fish and steak. Stuff truly out of my repertoire

This past summer however, all that changed. I was at my friend Mel’s graduation party — Ph.D. in neuroscience, no less — which was hosted by another friend, Abby. And, boy, what a spread! Platters full of salads, grilled things and cupcakes completely covered an enormous dining room table. And it was there that I came face to face with the bean salad THAT CHANGED MY LIFE.

A new day, a fresh bowl of bean salad

Seriously, I kind of sat and ate and moaned at a table in the yard. “What is this? Tell me everything!” I begged my hostess. Abby just kind of shrugged, saying it was the simplest of salads, just stuff from her pantry. “But what is it I’m tasting?” I asked when not moaning and stuffing my face.

“Just a vinaigrette with some fresh tarragon.” Tarragon, that devilish herb, my trivia team’s downfall, had come back to haunt me. And thus began my love affair — really, lust affair — with this aromatic “King of herbs.” I got hold of a bunch of tarragon and no joke, made this salad no less than nine times in a six week period. This is one of those salads that tastes great on the third day, as the anise undertones of the tarragon really seep into the beans.

Rich used the tarragon in a marinade for the trout and fennel he grilled.

The bean salad I’m obsessed with. (Abby tells me that it’s Fosters Market in Chapel Hill, NC, that really deserves the credit for this one.)

I think the thing that I love most about this salad, I mean, aside from it being so so so delicious, is that it is made of things that I always have on hand in my pantry. Some might find my own version too full of its ingredients, so I actively encourage you to experiment until you find amounts that suit your palate best.

Ingredients

One can of little white beans (Or a cup of dried beans, soaked overnight)

Half a red onion, sliced into rings and roasted*

*Abby also introduced me to another fantastic idea, which is roasting the onions to take the bite out of them. I’ve found my happy medium tossing them into my toaster oven set at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. Feel free to play with times for that as well.

Before…

… and after

Half a can of artichoke hearts

Five pepperocini

For the Tarragon Vinaigrette

Four tablespoons olive oil

Two tablespoons red wine vinegar

A clove of garlic, minced

1/8 teaspoon jarred mustard (for emulsifying)

Two heaping tablespoons tarragon

Pinch of salt

Directions

Open can of beans, pour into a colander, and give them a good rinse (or cook beans according to package — it should take about 7 minutes in a pressure cooker)

Slice the half onion and roast in oven for 10 or so minutes

Quarter the artichoke hearts

Slice up the pepperocini into rings

Toss all together in a bowl

Place all dressing ingredients in small glass jar, give it a shake, and pour it on the bean salad

I clean out jam jars and use them for dressings

Yes, that’s all.

Do you have a favorite recipe for tarragon?

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.


Butternut Basics

Butternut squash risotto: seven minutes in a pressure cooker.

As I mentioned in a previous post, work and school have been really crazy lately, and with Rich doing campaign things, sharing a meal together has become a precious commodity. I know I must sound like a broken record by now, but with my trusty pressure cooker and my well-stocked pantry, we have continued to enjoy tasty, inexpensive and quick meals.

One of my go-to dishes when I’m in a time crunch is butternut squash risotto. What?!? Impossible! you’re thinking. But I swear to you, if you buy a pressure cooker, you too can make risotto in seven minutes. Yup, that’s all it takes. Just buy a pressure cooker; most likely it will come with a recipe for risotto. (Results, and recipes, may vary by make and model, so I am not posting a full recipe here.)

In terms of ingredients, all you need is some Arborio rice (which Ocean State Job Lot will sell you for $2.99 a box), a chopped-up onion (pantry staple), a hunk of parmesan (which should just kind of hang out in your fridge’s cheese drawer) and a few cups of stock.

Now, I must admit I am spoiled by Rich who enjoys taking a few hours on his weekends to make homemade stock with leftover chicken carcasses (we keep them frozen until he has the time) and some odds and ends from my veggie drawer. Once it’s cooled off, we pour the stock into ice cube trays, freeze them, and then store the stock cubes in Ziploc bags in the freezer. But, in all seriousness, just keep a box in the pantry. As Julia Child (or Rachael Ray) would say, who’s to know if you take short cuts?

Now that that’s squared away, the only thing standing between you and a nice autumnal dish is that pesky butternut squash. Sure, you can buy it pre-cut from Trader Joe’s, or even find it in your grocer’s freezer, but the cheapest way to enjoy butternut squash is to buy it whole and clean it yourself.

I know that might sound daunting. But I promise you can do it. Here’s how:

First, take your butternut squash and cut it in half, so that you have a distinct round bottom.

Then, peel it. Yup, it’s just that simple. I have very good Kyocera ceramic peeler that my awesome brother-in-law got me for a birthday present last year which does a great job. Now, I’m not trying to sell Kyocera products (or even a specific brand of pressure cookers, for that matter) but, if you don’t think your peeler can handle peeling squash, then I would suggest purchasing a new, sturdier peeler. It should cost less than $15.

After you’ve peeled both pieces of your squash, cut the round bottom one in half, and scrape out the seeds. Then cut your squash into thirds, and then start dicing.

Yup, it’s really that simple.

Once you’ve cleaned your squash, prepare your risotto according to the instructions that came with your pressure cooker, and right before you put the lid on, dump the squash into the pot.

The squash will soften into the rice mixture and, by the time you unlatch the lid, become one with your risotto. I happened to have a rind of parmesan in my fridge which I tossed in pre-pressure, too.  In general, if you find yourself with just the rind of a piece of cheese, keep it in the fridge, and the next time you are making soup, toss it right in. It will add layers of rich flavor to your soup — or in this case, your risotto.

Latch things up, pressurize, cook according to your machine’s instructions, then blow off the steam. Here’s where you add the good stuff: butter and grated cheese. This time, I also threw in some sage from the bush out front. You could also go with goat cheese and rosemary, a la Grendel’s, if you prefer. And there you have it: a fast, simple dish made with pantry staples and one fresh veggie.