Sunday, August 16, 2009

Cooking through other people's recipes (aka OK, I saw the movie) with a fig salad recipe

We saw Julie and Julia today and liked it a lot; no need to repeat the reviews, since they are all pretty much the same and pretty much on target (i.e. Meryl Streep is beyond amazing and Paul Tucci not bad either), though we found the Julie sections a lot less annoying than we expected.

But I wondered about the project. I am food obsessed, and my son says I have non-productive obsessive compulsive disorder (i.e. if it were productive I would be both neater and more successful), but I cannot imagine trying what Julie did. In some ways, I take exactly the opposite approach to a cookbook and I would never dream of working my way through one. (Did the 524 recipes or whatever include all the variations?) In fact, to me, a good cookbook is one with a single transformative recipe, for example the Chicken with Sumac in Lebanese Mountain Cooking by Mary Laird Hamady. It may not change the world, but it can change your life. But more on this in another post.

I realized that the closest I may ever come to doing something like what Julie Powell did is to make 4 out of the 101 summer salads that Mark Bittman published in the NYTimes last month, and I am likely to try several more before the season is out. All were easy and good -- for the record, they were #15 (cherry tomatoes with a soy, sesame oil and cilantro dressing), #17 (celery and smoked tofu with oil flavored with sichuan peppercorn and hot pepper), and #20 (shredded Napa with a peanut, cilantro and lime dressing). Do you detect a pseudo-Asian bias here? I am so past authenticity.

I also tried #25 a few times, but altered it to suit my daughter's taste. One of her favorite salads is the fig salad at Pisticci, our local and quite lovely Italian restaurant. I don't care for their version because I find it too sweet, with mangoes as well as figs and a honey-mustard vinaigrette. Here is my version, which I think combines the best of both Bittman and Pisticci:

Broiled fig salad
  1. Toast some slivered almonds in the oven or in a dry iron or nonstick skillet, being careful not to burn them.
  2. Take fresh black or white figs and halve. Spread each half with goat cheese (a little crumbly, a little creamy) and broil until lightly browned. (I used a pint container of small black figs -- the number you use depends on size and taste.....)
  3. Put tender greens (mache, mesclun, or young lettuces -- I use the prewashed greens here) in a large flat salad bowl and sprinkle with the toasted almonds.
  4. For the dressing, thin out a few spoons of creamy almond butter with water to heavy cream consistency. Add some salt. Drizzle in some sherry vinegar, a teaspoon or two, being careful not to add to much since it can be very strong. Dip a green to taste the salad. If it is too sour, or you want it sweet, add a very small amount of honey or maple syrup (I do not). Add more vinegar if it needs to be tarter.
  5. Toss the greens with the dressing, and taste for salt and add if necessary. The dressing will be a bit thick, so it needs to be tossed well.
  6. Top with the broiled figs and serve.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Is life to short to make your own preserved lemons, or is it too short not to? (Plus a recipe for Tunisian style Salade Nicoise)

This is one of life's eternal questions. Do you preserve your own lemons or not? I follow Paula Wolfert's method from Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, and while to do so is in theory not that difficult (at least she doesn't think so), but in practice always seems to take hours, between sterilizing the jar (try sterilizing a gallon-sized jar), cleaning the lemons, packing them in, and squeezing the juice to cover. And it really stings if you have the slightest cut on your hand. And then you have to wait one month, turning it upside down every day, until it is done, so it sort of rules your life. And then you have to worry about whether you've done it right or not, or introduced some deadly microorganisms. (Whether it is rational or not, I have never felt comfortable using them raw in salads.) And, because it is such a pain to make, you tend to make both too much and to hoard them for special dishes like tagines with chicken, lamb or fish with preserved lemons and olives, and not "waste" them on simpler dishes. In Wolfert's later books, she has a shortcut method which only has to sit for a week but otherwise is not much easier. It certainly doesn't do much good when you want to make a tagine on the spur of the moment, like a day or two before.

So my life changed about two years ago when jarred North African style preserved lemons from France appeared in the markets, at least at Fairway, which carries three brands. I am sure they can be found elsewhere as well. Are they as good as the homemade? Well, no. They tend to be very small so they are a bit more difficult to clean out the pulp before cooking and you have to use two or three for each homemade one. Also, I find the taste a bit musty. But, in the great scheme of things, my answer to the great question of life is to use the preserved lemons out of the jars. Ease trumps authenticity in this case.

Using store-bought preserved lemons also opens us the possibility of using them in salads, since it doesn't seem like a waste not to save them for special dishes. So, for example, I have started making Tunisian-style Salade Nicoise. What is this dish? The inspiration comes from our cousins Leslie and Peter in Montreal, who bemoan the disappearance of Pan Bagnat from the menu at Benny's, an Israeli Kosher restaurant on Queen Mary in Montreal. Pan Bagnat literally means bathed bread, and it is a crusty baguette, hollowed out and stuffed with a salade nicoise -- because of the dressing, it can get messy, hence the bagnat. It is a pretty common street food in Paris. Leslie and Peter would go on about how wonderful Benny's version was, which he made with preserved lemon. So, based on this, I came up with this:

Salade Nicoise Tunisienne (to serve 4 for lunch, 2 with leftovers for dinner)

  1. Make a harissa and preserved lemon vinaigrette: Take 3 small jarred preserved lemons, (or one to one and a half homemade) quarter and scrape out the pulp. Shred the skin and reserve. Remove the pits from the pulp (this is the only thing in this recipe that is a real pain). Chop the put finely, and put it in a small dish. Mix in a teaspoon or so of harissa (North African hot pepper paste), depending on its strength and your taste. Whisk in a few tablespoons of good olive oil, and a tablespoon or so of red or white wine vinegar. (Not balsamic!!)
  2. Boil about 1/4 pound diced green beans in well salted boiled water until a shade or two more tender than crisp. It should take 3 or 4 minutes. Scoop out, run under cold water to set the color, and put in a bowl.
  3. Add about 1/4 to 1/2 cup finely chopped shallot or red onion, to taste.
  4. Boil a few red potatoes about 1/2 -3/4 pound, cut into 3/4 inch dice with skin, in the same water, until just barely tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Put in the bowl and toss with some of the harissa vinaigrette.
  5. Add the reserved shredded lemon peel, a handful of chopped parsley, about 2 tablespoons drained and rinsed capers, and a few pitted good green or black olives (use more olives if you like it salty).
  6. Drain two 7 oz. cans of olive-oil packed tuna very well, and add the tuna to the bowl. Add
  7. Toss, add more harissa vinaigrette if needed, and taste. Add salt and pepper to taste -- since there are lots of salty ingredients, it shouldn't need much salt. Taste and add more harissa vinaigrette, or plain olive oil or vinegar.
  8. Garnish with 2 or 3 quartered hard boiled eggs.
To make pan bagnat:
Leave out the hard boiled eggs. Halve a pretty wide crusty baguette or ciabbatta. Take out some of the center, and cut into serving size portions. Toast lightly if you like, and rub the bread with garlic if you want. Smear with harissa if you like it spicy. Mound the salad in the baguette, drizzle with more vinaigrette or oil if you want and top with sliced hard boiled eggs if you want before you top with the other half of the bread. It should be a little messy.
Note on harissa: There are some good jarred harissas on the market now that are tasty and garlicky, and better than the stuff that comes in a tube. They can knock you out when you open the jar. Some are even kosher for passover.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

If my wife ever divorced me, it would be in part because I no longer make this Shrimp with Feta Cheese

"You know what I really miss? Shrimp with Feta."

Amy (my wife) married an omnivore in 1986. She knew that I had issues (of the flirtatious variety) with kashruth, but thought that we would probably never have to deal with them. Though from a Reformed background, her palate was originally much more restricted than mine. I think I once might even have told her that I couldn't imagine a woman who wouldn't eat squid getting to first base with me. (What I meant was to the huppah, but that sounds too weird.) She reassured me on a trip to Italy before we got married when she ate and liked the grilled squid offered to her by someone sitting at the next table from us (who was there for a reunion of surviving lawyers from the Nuremberg prosecution) at a trattoria near the Spanish steps in Rome. She even ordered some on her own later in the trip.

As I moved toward greater observance (don't worry, there will be more than one extensive blogpost on kashruth at some point) and gave up eating forbidden animals, she showed exceptional forbearance. Nevertheless, she sometimes sighs "I really miss the shrimp with feta." I have tried a similar preparation with a variety of kosher fish, but none is all that good -- if anyone has any ideas, I am eager to hear them, but for now, for those of you who eat shrimp, here is a recipe you may enjoy:

Shrimp with Feta Cheese (serves 2 -- easy to multiply)
  1. Shell about 3/4 pound medium/large (but not humongous) shrimp, leaving on the tail and the last segment of the shell -- this helps prevent it from curling up to much. Salt and pepper lightly and set aside. Devein if you want, but I rarely used to, even though my cousin Peter, a biologist, said that it was really crazy not to. I found that deveined shrimp always had this raggedy look.
  2. Heat 1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a nonstick skillet. Add 1/2 cup finely sliced scallion whites, salt lightly, and saute on medium heat until soft. Do not brown.
  3. Add a chopped clove or two of garlic if you want and saute another minute.
  4. Wash a small bunch of dill and flat-leaf Italian parsley well -- the sand would ruin the dish. Chop finely, and set about 1/4 to 1/2 aside. Add the rest of the herbs to the skill and saute on low for another minute.
  5. Add 1/2 cup dry white wine (following Julia Child, I tend to use vermouth here unless something appropriate is open) and a splash of cognac if you want, turn up the heat and boil down until evaporated.
  6. Add a 14 ounce can of chopped tomatoes. If I was making the dish now, I would use the chopped Italian cherry tomatoes by Valle (it even has a hecksher!) but this wasn't available when I was cooking the dish. Cook on medium-high heat stirring very occasionally until the sauce is done and the oil is starting to separate. Depending on the size of the skillet, this should take between 5 and 15 minutes. Preheat the broiler.
  7. You can make the sauce in advance, and just reheat it before you add the shrimp.
  8. Add the shrimp, stir around, and cook for a minute or two until mostly pink but not quite completely cooked. There is nothing worse than overcooked shrimp. They cook very quickly and will continue to cook in retained heat in the skillet, as well as in the oven.
  9. Transfer the shrimp to a broiler-safe shallow baking dish.
  10. Top with about 2 to 4 ounces of crumbled feta cheese (the exact amount is up to you), and broil until the cheese begins to melt and brown, about 5 minutes.
  11. Sprinkle the top with a good amount of the reserved chopped parsley and dill.
  12. Serve at once with rice.

Blogging seems not to be much about modesty, but modesty aside, this is by far the best version of this dish that I have had. It is herby, not too tomatoey, and the shrimp are juicy and overcooked. Although the recipe is for 2, it is very easy to multiply for 4 or more. I hope those of who eat shrimp will make it and think of Amy when you do. Maybe you'll even invite her over for dinner.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

IFF you get any good tomatoes this year, make this salad

As just about everyone knows by now, the Northeast is dealing with a serious tomato blight this year (this was written in 2009) , apparently caused by the same organism which caused the great Irish potato famine. Although not comparable in terms of sheer human suffering, it is still a real bummer. We usually get lots of tomatoes from our CSA by now, but haven't seen any yet and it is already August.

However, if you are lucky enough to get any good local heirloom tomatoes this year (or if you live in another region), you must make this salad. It is Neapolitan in origin, and in my opinion puts a Caprese to shame. I got the recipe from Pat, an engineer in the building where I used to work, whose family came from those parts. It can be made with almost any kind of tomato, or a variety. I like it with a combination of those dark Russian reds and the green tiger stripes, or whatever they are called, but experiment and use whatever looks best in the farmers' markets. It may be made with one kind of tomato or a variety, but they must be good fresh ripe local tomatoes that ideally have never even seen a refrigerator, let alone been inside one. It could not be easier. For four people,

  1. Dice in about 1/2 inch cubes about one medium-large tomato per person, or the equivalent in smaller or humongous ones, and put in in a serving bowl.
  2. Dice about 2 stalks of celery very fine (1/4 inch or less) and add to the bowl.
  3. Add about 1/4 to 1/2 cup red onion, shallot, or the white part of scallions, diced like the celery or smaller.
  4. Add a large pinch of crushed dried oregano. Use fresh if you want, but I kind of prefer the dried in this.
  5. Drizzle with good olive oil, and season with sea salt and a bit of pepper. No vinegar-- most tomatoes provide enough acid.
  6. Mix well and leave for about an hour if you can. Taste and correct seasonings.
This needs to sit a little bit so that the salt draws out the juices of the tomatoes, so ideally, don't leave this until the last minute. It is wonderful with a good crusty baguette to dip into it. This salad is beautiful served in a glass bowl if you have one the right size, particularly if you use a variety of different tomatoes -- light and dark red, green, orange, and yellow. Notwithstanding, what I said above in the intro paragraphs, leftovers are still OK from the fridge the next day, but not as sublime as when they are fresh.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My first roast chicken in over 30 years

Of course I have eaten roast chicken in the past three decades. The interesting thing is that I think that the last time that I made a whole roast chicken may have been in Carter administration, shortly after Marcella Hazan's second Italian cookbook came out, with the recipe for chicken stuffed with two lemons. I was underwhelmed, and besides, who could fit two lemons in a 2 1/2 pound bird? I have made plenty of baked, boiled, braised, steamed, and pan roasted chicken in my day, but it was almost always cut up or at least flattened. I would occasionally braise a whole bird for a Moroccan meal, especially because it looked so impressive after being glazed in the oven and was served sitting on top of a bed of couscous. Although a whole roast chicken is THE classic Shabbat dinner, we never made it. Roast chicken was someone else's job, especially my mother-in-law's (zichrona livracha), or the takeout market's.

Anyway, I had a large bunch of fresh thyme from our CSA from last week, and over the weekend was browsing through an Alice Waters cookbook with a simple roast chicken recipe. So, I more or less followed her directions, modified with some touches from my mother-in-law:

  1. In the morning, take a nice chicken, about 3 pounds, remove any loose fat (and the bag of organs if there is one -- some newbies forget about this) and put fresh thyme leaves and sliced garlic under the skin. Stuff the rest of the bunch of thyme and some more garlic cloves in the cavity, wrap it in wax paper, and let it sit for the day in the refrigerator.

  2. Take it out of the fridge about 2 hours before you want to cook it. I called my daughter (the one who insisted that I start this blog) in the late afternoon to tell her to do this.

  3. Put some sliced carrot, onion and celery (my mother-in-law's contribution) in a baking dish that isn't too big, and should just hold the bird. Salt it well with coarse salt,

  4. Bake breast side up for 20 minutes in a 400 degree oven. Turn breast side down for 20 minutes more, and then breast side up for the final 10-20 minutes. The juices should be clear and the leg should move easily.

  5. Broil a few minutes if the skin needs to brown more.

  6. Cover lightly with foil and let sit about 10 minutes.

  7. Cut the chicken up in the roasting pan (there will be lots of juice) with poultry shears and serve.

This goes nicely with a tossed salad with vinaigrette -- spoon some of the chicken juices over the salad for a real treat.

This is not only a dish for the temporarily unemployed. You can do the preliminary prep in 10-15 minutes in the morning, or the night before. The main difficulty is that it really cooks better if it is close to room temperature when you put it in the oven. If no one is at home to call to take the chicken out of the fridge, you can call a neighbor or your super. You can leave it out for an hour instead of two if necessary, and just roast it a little longer. It really beats take-out, and my wife was very happy. I promised her I won't wait 30 years before doing it again.

On non variety-seeking behavior in restaurants

Marketing literature talks about "variety-seeking" consumer behavior, which is generally characterized by low cost, low stakes purchases. Because of this consumers are willing to take a chance and say try a new product or unfamiliar brand. This is occasionally applied to food purchases or restaurant orders, which in the great scheme of things don't cost all that much, even if one is temporarily unemployed, so customers are willing to take chances that they might not otherwise.

In my case, this does not apply to food at all. What genius would classify a meal as low stakes? What could be more important than what you eat for dinner or lunch?

I have something of a reputation as a variety-seeker in matters gastronomic. In my former life, I used to range as freely over the animal kingdom, and animal body, as anyone who is not Cantonese. However, in recent years, I have become something of a reformed omnivore and have approached the observance of kashruth. But within constraints, I am game for almost anything.

However, there are some combinations of food, place and companion that seem to preclude variation. Whenever I go out to lunch with Kyle, a friend and former co-worker, we always go to Wu Liang Ye at 39th and Lexington. I never seem to go there with anyone but him, and when we go, we always order the same dishes: cold noodles with sesame vinaigrette (one of the best versions of sesame noodles in the city, completely ungloppy); green beans with Yibin city spice, which are dried sauteed string beans with shredded pickled vegetables for flavor (we ask them to leave out the pork), and chicken with spicy capsicum, only made with fried tofu (see picture). The main question is who orders, and whether we ask for the tofu to be extra spicy or not.

We met for lunch today, and the formula did not vary. However, he did the ordering, and we opted for somewhat less spicy tofu, since I had two informational interviews scheduled after lunch, and did not want to asphyxiate my interlocutors when I exhaled.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pizza (and much else) in Pennsylvannia

Harry, our 17 year old, towers over everyone in our family. Much to her frustration, when we order wine in restaurants, the waiters generally give him a wine glass, and not his sister, who is nearly 5 years older and a foot or so shorter.

Anyway, he is a counselor at a his sleepaway camp this summer, and on his day off this week we picked him up and spent the day with Irene and JF, friends who have a house not that far away from his camp in Pennsylvania. They have a magnificent vegetable garden which they love but also it is so much work that it sometimes seems like a cross for them to bear. (Note the photo of children of the corn above.) We spent a lot of the time stuffing ourselves, mostly with stuff from the garden. For snacks Irene made fried fennel and I did stuffed zucchini flowers (the recipes for these are below). JF them made homemade pizza of several varieties (plain Margherita, esp. for Harry whose taste for the exotic used to be very limited; one with pickled mushrooms, and another half pesto smoked mozzarella and zucchini and the other with ricotta, caramelized onions and sage). She was sort of in the flow or the zone, and didn't, or maybe couldn't stop to eat. The salads came straight from the garden to the table. One was a mixture of lettuces, herbs, and flowers -- pointless to give a recipe. The other I made from Tuscan kale -- recipe details below. Irene made homemade ice cream for dessert, which was so good that we skipped the obligatory stop at the Cow Palace when we brought Harry back to Camp.

Some recipes :

Fried Fennel

  1. Cut a large fennel bulb into slices lengthwise, sort of like cutlets.

  2. Dip into flour, beaten egg, and breadcrumbs.

  3. Fry in hot vegetable oil , nearly an inch deep, on both sides until brown and tender.

  4. Drain on paper towel, salt and serve with lemon wedges.
Even Harry, somewhat of a herbiphobe, devoured these.

Fried Zucchini Blossoms

  1. Make a flour and water batter, one part flour to one part water. The texture should be like that of melted ice cream.

  2. Unless they are pristinely clean (and coming from the garden they were not), soak in a large bowl of water, and swish around gently, to remove both dirt and uninvited guests.

  3. Remove from water and drain open side down, and pat dry well on toweling. It is also not a bad idea to let them air dry a bit, though we didn't bother.

  4. Stuff the blossoms -- I put a half teaspoon of a tapenade (that JF had made w sun dried tomatoes in the bottom), followed by a half teaspoon of ricotta -- the good Arthur Ave. stuff. You could also use diced mozzarella mixed with some chopped anchovy, but we had a vegetarian present.

  5. Dip the blossoms in the batter and place on a plate. Some of the batter will drip off and it doesn't matter.

  6. Fry in hot oil, turning, until brown.

  7. Drain on paper towels and salt. Eat as soon as possible, but be careful because sometimes there is hot oil in the cavity. It is worth the danger.

Raw Tuscan kale salad.

This was my slight adaptation of a recipe that appeared in the NYTimes 2 years ago, based on one served at Franny's in Brooklyn. Their recipe is at:

Mine is less aggressively garlicky, because rather than mashing garlic into the dressing, the bread conveys the garlic flavor into the salad. I think it is a bit easier and better and won't ruin whatever wine you happen to be drinking.

  1. Toast a slice or two of whole grain bread, and then let it dry out in the oven a bit. Rub with a clove or garlic, and then whirl in a blender or processor to make very coarse crumbs.

  2. Shred a good amount of Tuscan kale (lacinato).

  3. Put the kale in a salad bowl w the bread crumbs, a good amount of grated pecorino (I used almost a cup for about 1-2 quarts shredded greens, olive oil and lemon juice. Salt carefully, depending on the amount and saltiness of the cheese, and add some black pepper.