Failure and Redemption

So I failed New Year’s, culinarily speaking.  I had a grand Mediterranean plan for a small New Year’s eve gathering.  Well, perhaps grand is not quite the right adjective.  I was trying to stay sane and not go overboard, so perhaps “Modest Mediterranean” is a better description.  This was the menu:

Tsatsiki
Babaganoush
Home-made whole wheat pita bread
Artichoke-stuffed mushrooms
Greek-spiced baked shrimp
Baked goat cheese with olives and tomatoes
Homemade sourdough bread

I made the first three items, none of which particularly excited me, the day before New Year’s eve.  I tried a new pita bread recipe, and it was quite dense.  I’ll have to find a happy medium between this recipe and the nice light one that makes my home spell like burnt cornmeal (no mystery there).  I was quite sick on New Year’s Eve, so I didn’t get to the rest of the recipes, and stayed in bed trying to figure out how to drag myself into the kitchen to avoid disappointing myself and my guests, but I never made it.  Nor did we have the planned amaretto margaritas or pomegranate-champagne cocktails I had planned on.  But everyone seemed to have a great night nonetheless.

Tonight, however, I’m pretty sure I’m back on track!  The other day I found baby shiitake mushrooms at the grocery store, and I just couldn’t resist.  So I combined those with tofu and broccolini, and made a delicious Asian dinner.  Here’s how I did it:

1 pkg. extra firm tofu_MG_8534
1 T. honey
3 T. ponzu
1 t. crushed red pepper
1/4 c. hoisin sauce
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 c. chicken broth (substitute veggie broth to make this a vegan dish)
3 oz. baby shiitake mushrooms
1 t. sesame oil
2 t. chili oil

Drain moisture from tofu by resting entire block on paper towel for at least 20 minutes. While tofu is drying, combine all with next 7 ingredients (through mushrooms).  Cut tofu into cubes (I make 1/2-inch cubes in order to maximize my marinade-to-tofu ratio).  Marinate tofu and  mushrooms in liquid mixture for at least 24 hours.

Cut broccolini into thirds, saute in wok in sesame oil.  Remove to a bowl when cooked to your liking.  Add chili oil to wok.  When hot, add tofu and mushroom mix.  Saute for about 8 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add broccolini back in to reheat.  Serve and enjoy – hope you like it spicy!

Inspiration

If it isn’t already apparent, I am passionate about cooking.  I watch Hell’s Kitchen, Top Chef (regular and Master’s), Food Network Challenge, Ace of Cakes, Kitchen Nightmares, Iron Chef (original and America) and the occasional cooking show.  I listen to The Splendid Table podcast.  Last month I read “Julie and Julia” and am working through “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”  While I do have other interests including gardening, particularly growing my own veggies, clearly food is my passion.  Two long-standing sources of inspiration, however, are about to exit my life, and it is these two publications that I would like to honor here: Cooking Light and Gourmet.

I have been receiving Cooking Light, courtesy of my parents, for the last 11 years and Gourmet for about the last five. This fall I decided that I have outgrown Cooking Light and asked my mother not to renew my subscription. I just find that I’m a bit bored with it, and I’m seeing too many recipes reprinted over the years.  My decision to end such a long relationship was confirmed Cooking Light’s “new look” which was displayed in the very next magazine on my doorstep. What had been a somewhat scary and agonizing decision for me – ending an 11 year relationship was nothing I took lightly – became the easiest choice in the world.  I hate the new branding.  I can’t tell the ads from the once-familiar monthly features. Everything is bright and friendly and kitty-corner on the page, and it screams out to me that I am no longer their target audience. It makes me feel old.  While I appreciate the years of recipes that Cooking Light has given me, I am ready to say goodbye.

In contrast, I am not ready to give up on Gourmet.  It has been ripped from my hands all too soon, leaving me wounded and lost.  In October, Conde Nast announced that, on the advice of McKinsey and Company, they were going to stop publishing Gourmet.  I understand that for them it was a business decision, but for me it is a very emotional one.  My in-laws said they considered sending me a sympathy card, and it would not have been unappreciated.  Typically the November issues of cooking magazines are my least favorite (I don’t host Thanksgiving or have much say in preparation of anything, so the latest ideas about reinventing the traditional meal are lost on me).  This year, however, I savored every detail.  Expecting a heartfelt goodbye from editor Ruth Reichl, I was surprised to find a standard Thanksgiving and family letter.  I don’t know if Conde Nast pulled the plug so rapidly that there was no time for a goodbye or if it was a conscious decision to exclude it, but I must say that I was disappointed.  It reminds me of the last episode of the Sopranos, where the loose ends just don’t get tied up neatly.  I say that I will boycott Conde Nast products and publications for life, but the anger will likely fade.  In time.

In the meantime, I have been left magazine-less, so I must keep moving on.  I’ve decided that I’m going to start getting Saveur.  I have only read a few issues over the years, and what seemed intimidating to me early on in my culinary days is now very approachable.  It helped that the cover of the issue I picked up in the midst of this turmoil is all about lamb.  This was a hot topic around the time of my wedding, with my husband insisting that we serve it at our reception, and several others, including the inn owner, declaring that most people don’t even like lamb.  We ran out, and my husband will forever be right to call an “I told  you so” about the situation.  So the proclamation on the cover of Saveur, “Why Lamb Rules” was amusing and timely.  And I found that Saveur is not over my head.  In fact, it made me want to raise sheep and sell lamb at a farmer’s market.  Somewhere, someday.

So with the my magazine choices settled, I am ready.  Ready for new inspiration.  For reinvention.  Ready for the biggest changes in my kitchen since…well, really only since June, when we started getting the farm share.  But more change is coming to my kitchen.  So stay tuned…

The Star of the Night

A couple weeks ago we got together with our the friends we split our farm share with to celebrate a bountiful growing season. We decided to each make a dish or two, and we did little in the way of advance menu collaboration. By little, I mean none. Given how late in the season it is, we ended up with a pretty carb-heavy meal (root veggies are a late-season crop that keeps well), but we didn’t care. Ironically, as much as a reason as the food was for this soiree, it took a backseat to the enjoying each other’s company. However, as this is not a social blog, let me share a bit about the meal.

The true culinary highlight for me was the vegetable quesadillas. The very ones I briefly mentioned in a June post. While I didn’t love them when I made them, their creator, Taina, did them justice. Now I can understand why she adores them so much. Maybe it was her spectacular sous chef husband – let me tell you, these two have an impressive system for quesadilla assembly. Each time the four of us rapidly devoured (by which I mean slowly savored) one quesadilla, out would come another one perfectly cooked half-moon of deliciousness!

We made a couple other dishes, roasted potatoes and Moroccan chick pea stew, and while I don’t mean to diminish them by excluding them here, it was truly the quesadillas that stole the show.

During the evening, Taina and I also lamented a return to regular grocery shopping and meal-planning. I’m not sure it has sunk in yet. Long gone are my concerns about relinquishing control over the ingredients coming into my home and worries of too many rutabagas (we got a half of one this season). Now I can’t wait for next year’s share to start again!

And as we move on, I can’t help being so appreciative of Amanda and the team at Waltham Fields Community Farm as they put the farm to bed and are certainly already hard at work preparing for another great season of fresh local ingredients for my kitchen next year!

Food Faux Pas in France

To any regular readers out there, I apologize for the extended silence.  It has been a long travel season for me, and energy to write has been lacking.  Inspiration, however, has not.  With that, let me tell you about 3 noteworthy meals I ate in France.

1. A Surprising SaladA Surprising Salad

Upon my arrival in Paris, I dropped my bags and went on the hunt for the perfect cafe.  Arguably, every cafe in Paris has something to offer, and I can’t put my finger on what led me to my choice, but it was a good one.  Maybe it was the oh-so-charming French waiter who asked if I was Spanish.  A lovely accusation, if you ask me.  I ordered a nice light salad, the components of which I forgot as soon as the menu was out of my hands.  So when it arrived and had chevre toasts, I was tickled.  And as I got hints of sweetness in my first bites, I momentarily pondered the source.  The entire composition of the salad was just what I’d been craving after heavy (but tasty) food in Eastern Europe.  About halfway through the salad, I remembered that I had ordered a goat cheese and walnut salad with honey vinaigrette.  So my surprise and wonder at the chevre and honey was sorely misplaced.  For now, I’m blaming jet lag.

2. Tasty Tartare

In Reims, a small town in the Champagne region of France, I had another not-so-bright moment while perusing the menu at a Tartaresidewalk cafe in the town square on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  Having been in Europe for 9 days, I really can’t blame jet lag this time.  There was a tartare section of the menu, which intrigued me.  Aside from tuna tartare, I could not for the life of me figure out what all these dishes were.  I knew the term “tartare” was familiar, but what exactly would be delivered if I ordered the house tartare with garlic and sea salt?  Hmm.  I ordered it anyway.  Boy did I feel like an idiot when a plate with a giant pile of raw beef was placed before me.  Steak tartare, of course!  And I call myself a foodie!  Lots of fresh garlic and absolutely divine bovine!  The funny thing is that although I was embarrassed about my idiocy, no one ever would have known…yet here it is.  And it’s no more humiliating now than when it was only in my own head.

3. Very French, even for the French

IMG_7147Hopping on a train to a town in the French countryside I knew nothing about was a leap of faith, but choosing a restaurant in that town was a true adventure!  Since I’ve come clean about 2 other food-related faux pas, I may as well do the same here: I chose to eat in a restaurant because I liked their sign.  I thought it was quaint.  Not the best logic, I know.  Particularly because the sign was pretty worn and weather-beaten.  It was symbolic of a throw-back to earlier times, as was the restaurant within.  But I can’t go back and change my choice.  What I can do is attempt to convey just how French this restaurant is.  The decor, the waiter, and of course, the food.  French, French and French.  I had been reading “Julie and Julia” so I was ready for some classic French food!  I started with a cabbage salad with chicken gizzards.  Lots of Gizzards
Oops.  Not oops because the menu was in French and I didn’t understand what I had ordered.  Oops because I thought it would have one or two gizzards.  No problem, right?  Wrong.  This salad had TONS of gizzards on it.   WHO DOES THAT?!  Ick.  I choked down about 10 before realizing that I wouldn’t be able to keep my gag reflex in check much longer.  I did my very best to respect the chef.

And then it was onto the main course: duck.  With some feathers still intact.  Ick again.  In a heavy, strange sauce.  Ick some more.  In good news, there was a lovely little artichoke quiche side dish!  A saving grace!  Truly, this wasn’t a terrible meal; I appreciated it for what it was, but I wouldn’t repeat it anytime soon.  It was certainly memorable though!

All that Jazz

I came home this week to an overabundance of farm share goodies, and I couldn’t be happier!  By cooking as little as I anticipated he would in my absence, my husband has given me the challenge of using nearly two weeks of our farm share before anything spoils.  We are back to lots of leafy greens, but we also have plenty of peppers, eggplant and tasty husk cherries.  Here are the adventures of the last two nights:

After travelling for 16 hours and not much sleep on a redeye from Lima, yes, I was back at it in the kitchen.  Fall seems to have arrived in New England while I was away, so I was craving comfort food.  With all the title ingredients on hand from the farm, I made potato, leek and corn chowder.*  Granted, the corn wasn’t the freshest, but I deemed it soup-worthy.  _MG_7745Because of the number of ingredients and the fact that I was feeling a little foggy-headed, I prepped everything in advance.  This array of items is my “mis en place.”  Literally translated, it means “putting in place” but it’s essentially getting prepped and organized.

Despite my meticulous planning, I was not thrilled with the outcome.  My attempt to give the soup a kick with a bit of serrano pepper did nothing to help the bland flavor and starchy texture of the soup.  My husband declared it a success, but only after adding an obscene quantity of salt.  I’ll definitely attempt this again, but it will take a little brainstorming to get it right next time.  I welcome suggestions.

Last night was more successful.  I kept it simple: salad and eggplant.  I made breaded eggplant – just coated in egg white and Italian breadcrumbs and topped with some chopped provolone cheese. In the past, I’ve had this fried in a generous amount of olive oil, which makes it pretty soggy.  In an attempt to avoid this, I cooked it two ways:  1.  On the stove with so little olive oil that I needed a basting brush to spread it around the bottom of the pan (an olive oil spray would work nicely too); and 2. Baked on a cookie sheet coated with cooking spray.  Both turned out tasty, but the oven-roasted version was a teensy bit rubbery.  In the end I still preferred that over the stovetop version, which still managed to absorb more olive oil than I had hoped.

_MG_7753I also made a salad using husk cherries.  A rare ingredient for sure.  I sauteed garlic and fresh cayenne pepper in olive oil, added a little raspberry vinegar, a touch of honey and a handful of husk cherries.  Once the cherries were softened a bit, I poured the concoction over some romaine, tossed it with salt and pepper.  Voilà!  My first husk cherry dish!  I would have preferred other types of lettuce, including chicory to balance the sweetness of the dressing, but romaine (admittedly not from the farm) was most in need of immediate consumption.

On the side, I also made some more delicious refrigerator pickles.

And for those who are wondering, I did finally get a great meal on my trip.  About 3 hours before I went to the airport to fly home from Lima.  Amazing octopus and sea bass ceviche.  And, with my tail between my legs, I admit that it was in my hotel.

* My husband is “lactarded,” as he puts it, so I used rice milk in place of whole milk.

Meh.

I have been in Latin America for 10 days now.  And I don’t have much good news to report on the food front.  Before I share the lonely gem in my culinary experience, let me explain my approach to eating abroad.

When I travel, eating alone is par for the course.  Sometimes I am with friends or colleagues, but more often than not, I grab a table for one.  I say this not to garner sympathy but because it’s a fact.  And because I want to take full responsibility for my choices.

I prefer to eat in the hotel as little as possible so I usually venture out, usually avoiding any recommendations from the hotel staff, who are likely to steer me toward touristy fare.  This means that my own picks are hit or miss.  On this trip, I’m striking out.

The food I’ve eaten in Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia can, at best, be described as edible.  I am not trying to play food critic; in fact, I have lowered my expectations over the course of this trip.   But I have not had one truly good meal in over a week.  Nothing write home about.  However, there is one standout from Monterrey, Mexico that I ate last week: salsa.

I wandered  into a modest restaurant a couple blocks from my hotel.  It was decorated with nuns (not my usual taste), and there were a few other occupied tables.  After ordering from the Spanish-only menu (my Spanish is pretty sub-par so this was a bit of a challenge), I was given a bowl of salsa and chips.  The salsa looked watery, so I was dubious.  Until I tasted it.  It was spicy, smoky and had a good amount of lime in it.  It was the smokiness that hooked me.  Not overwhelming but very much the predominant flavor.  Almost immediately after the salsa arrived, so did my dinner.  I quickly learned that the “sabanitas” that I ordered is a dish consisting of a thin, dry peice of meat accompanied by salad, rice and refried beans.  The only redeeming component of the dish was the onion and green peppers (serranos, I think) on top of the meat.  They had some heat.  Otherwise, it was a dud.  So instead of forcing my main dish down, I turned my full attention to my salsa.  It was a wise decision.

By the end of my meal, I was sweating, crying, and my lips were burning.  If there had been a mirror nearby, I’m sure I could confirm that I was as red as a beet as well.  I kept going until I just couldn’t take it anymore.  And then I had some more.  Little did I know that my first taste of the trip would not be eclipsed by any other.

I love Latin food, but I truly can’t wait to get back to the backlog of farm share veggies waitng for me at home.  I understand that greens are back and leeks are in full force.  Sounds delightful!

Coming and Going

Lately I’ve been cooking in spurts.  Several dishes a day, several days without cooking.  But I think if I had to look at an average, I’d be up overall.  I’ve had some days off from work lately, which seem to have a direct correlation to the spikes in my kitchen activity.  Here are some of the recent highlights:

Tabbouleh: This was a hit on the first try, but don’t make too much.  It lasts a while in the refrigerator, but eating it daily for lunch may get a little old.  Not that I’m speaking from experience…

Hummus

I use my mother’s hummus recipe (see below, and let’s hope she approves of my generosity in sharing with the world) as a base and add things as needed.  The only amendments I made to my mom’s recipe is that her original recipe called for a TON of garlic (and that was after she cut it down from her source) and more lemon juice than I like.  I prefer that the garlic take a bit of a back seat to whatever other ingredients I add.  This recipe gives you a pretty solid base, but you’ll want to add liquid and a strong flavor to permeate it.

3/4 cup water
1/2 cup tahini
1 garlic clove
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
2 cans garbanzo beans (chick peas), rinsed and drained

The most successful add-in I have found was due to an errant purchase at the grocery store.  I  usually buy Cento brand crushed hot cherry peppers (wow, are they key on sandwiches!), but I absentmindedly purchased Pastene crushed peppers, which have a lot more liquid in them, fewer seeds, and larger pieces of peppers.  They resulted in soggy sandwiches.  But man, do they make delicious, smooth hummus.  So delicious, in fact, that my colleague declared it possibly the best hummus she’s ever had, noting the play between the citrus and spiciness.  While I consider her comment mostly flattery, I do put some stock in it, particularly since I also found it to be a successful marriage.

Banana Banana Bread: I’ve made this twice now, and it’s unreal.  I highly recommend it.

I am picking tomatoes from my garden daily, so maybe one of these days, I’ll share the family gazpacho recipe, which I made tonight with local tomatoes, though not so local that they’re from my back yard.  Those we’ll be eating as unadulterated as possible.  And I’ll report back on my first-ever attempt at pickles.  I should, however, warn those of you that aren’t close to me that I travel a lot in the fall.  That means that instead of sharing recipes in the next few months, I will be reporting back with my experiences eating food instead of preparing it.  Next stop: Monterrey, Mexico!  Stay tuned…

I’m Back and Cooking!

I’m back from a hiatus and ready to cook! For the last two weeks, no one has allowed me to lift a finger in the kitchen. The closest I came was standing next to a grill while my father tended to potatoes and a delicious pork tenderloin. Yum! But being a bystander isn’t my thing. At least not in the kitchen.

We picked up the farm share tonight, and boy have things on the farm changed in the last few weeks! Gone is the lettuce and abundance of leafy greens. Hello corn! Welcome garlic! Greetings green beans! And yellow beans. And purple beans.
I wasn’t home 5 minutes before I had the zucchini and summer squash chopped and in a bowl. I tossed them with olive oil, a dash of lemon juice, fresh parsley, salt and pepper. While that was grilling (thanks to my handy sous chef), I made some couscous. Just regular old couscous, boiling water and a small pat of butter. Nothing fancy. Tossed it with the veggies, added a touch more olive oil and some feta cheese. Voila! A delicious one-dish dinner in about 15 minutes.
A few notes on variations of this dish: 1. Great served warm, at room temperature or chilled on a sultry summer evening; 2. Adding toasted pine nuts would certainly add some complexity; 3. The grilled squashes alone would be a delightful side dish.

Not a Leaf in the House

So I know I said I had more lettuce than I know what to do with, but now there isn’t a leaf to be found in my refrigerator. As shocking as that may be, what has really surprised me is to find that Chuck enjoys salads. Very weird. But I digress…

As promised, I did make a lot of salads this week. Mostly leafy green, but some variation. I’ve put pictures and commentary of the highlights below. As always, I view recipes as a guide and never fear to deviate from the proportions, ingredients, technique, cutting shapes, lengths, styles or cooking methods. I encourage the same of cooks everywhere!

This is basically a variation on a salad I grew up with that was just for cucumbers. The radishes
were of a similar crunch, bright texture and begged to be used up from our farm share, so this
combination made sense to me. We just happened to have 4 fava beans that I didn’t know what to do with, so they made it into the salad as well. Not so simple as it sounds because they were only tossed in after being de-podded, blanched and peeled. For a few little legumes, it was a fair amount of work, but they were a welcome addition to the salad in several dimensions: color, texture and taste. The one major change I would recommend to the recipe is to chill the salad thoroughly before serving. I didn’t do that, and harkening back to childhood reminded me that this dish could have been much more refreshing.
Taco Salad
For the last few weeks we have been eating largely vegetarian, if not vegan. Certainly not an
intended dietary change, though one that makes sense when such an influx of veggies invades one’s home (yes, I admit that I am still struggling with a lack of control). I defrosted some chicken thighs from the freezer, sauteed them in canola oil and added chipotle sauce (more on that later, I promise), which was the key here. Roasted corn, cheddar cheese and salsa on a bed of crunchy lettuce, some blue and white corn chips around the dish for display and satisfying crunch. Voila! No dressing needed, and this packed a flavor punch!

Lettuce up the Wazoo

The last couple weeks have been busy and uninspiring, to say the least. I made some collard green chips, quesadillas and focaccia. Nothing was a disaster, but there were no rousing successes either. I do want to share some pictures of the products we’ve been getting. The first is of garlic scapes, and the others below are some of the beautiful greens we’ve gotten.

(Side Note: My fiance Chuck is a great photographer, and he gets credit for the fantastic food photos here. He’s also a great sous chef, and without him, I wouldn’t be half the chef I am. When I refer to “we” in my posts, it is his help I am referring to.)
After a weekend of camping, which is not conducive to cooking farm share goodies, I came home this afternoon to find that we have an overabundance of lettuce. In addition to what we got from the share, I also grow several kinds of lettuce. With all the rain we’ve been getting, it was screaming to be picked. Given this and knowing that there is much more coming our way on Tuesday, I decided that it’s time to get down to business: It’s salad time!

Tonight I followed a recipe from Cooking Light. I usually modify recipes, but we stuck pretty closely to this one. The only major change I made was to substitute bacon for prosciutto, which we don’t generally keep on hand. The arugula was all from my garden. Overall, it was a nice mix of the nutty, bitter arugula, the sweetness of the balsamic & honey drizzle, smoky sweet peaches and saltiness of the bacon. A lot for for the palette and brain to process.

After dinner I washed and packed up several heads of lettuce so be prepared for lots of salad recipes in my next post.