Saturday, June 28, 2008

Food is all around us

Well, that might be obvious. But what I'm talking about is wild food--undomesticated edible plants that are growing in green spaces all over the place, even here in New York City. I had the distinct pleasure, this morning, of participating in my first official Wesleyan alumni event. Called "Urban Edibles," it was a tour of Prospect Park led by Justin Freiberg, a former student who, since graduating in 2004, has worked on organic farms in a number of countries and is currently at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY, about 30 minutes north of the city. Justin led a group of about 20 food-interested alumni on a ramble through the park on a beautiful day, stopping every so often to point out edible plants and describe their flavors and common usages. The outing culminated in a lovely organic lunch that Justin prepared for us, which included some of the plants that we had seen and learned about in the morning. It really was a fascinating expedition, and personally inspiring for me because I'm planning on going to the American West to do some organic farming for a few months starting in September. It was a great learning experience and got me feeling very excited at the prospect of learning even more about plants and how we grow and eat them. Here are a bunch of photos I took to document the day.

First up we have dandelion (the jagged, vertical plant towards the center of the photo). One of the most common plants in New York, it's not always so good to eat--it can be very bitter--so if you're looking to harvest some, aim for the smaller, younger leaves, which are sweeter and more tender. Dandelion can be used in a number of ways in cooking; it's most commonly found in salads, but can also be sauteed and eaten, for example, over pasta:

Here we have some wood sorrell. It's fairly easy to recognize because it looks a lot like clover, and has tiny yellow flowers. Of all the greens I sampled today this was one of my favorites: eaten raw, it has a bright lemony flavor and a nice mustardy bite to it. Like a lot of the plants we found in the park, it can be eaten raw in salads or cooked into soups or stews:

The darker green, rough-edged leaves toward the center of this next photo are lamb's quarters, so named because their shape is reminiscent of, well, a lamb's quarter. The plant has a mild taste that is very similar to spinach, so you can use it in pretty much the same applications. One nice idea? Stew them together with some white beans, tomatoes, garlic and chicken broth:

Pictured next is a plant called Asian day flower. Justin said that the young leaves and shoots can be stir-fried, and that the small purple flowers can be used to garnish salads:

Here we have some sheep sorrel, so named because if you hold the leaf of the plant upside-down it sorta resembles a sheep's head with its ears. This was my favorite of the plants I sampled today: the leaves have a sharp, refreshing taste and a nice amount of moisture in them. It's recognizable by its stalks of dryish yellow flowers. A very common use for sheep sorrell, like the wood sorrell, is in soups:

This next plant is mugwort. OK, so you don't cook with mugwort, but it's notable for its medicinal purposes. Closely related to wormwood, the active ingredient in absinthe, mugwort is said to have relaxing and even mildly hallucinogenic properties when taken in a tea/infusion. Sweet!

Next up is burdock. Burdock root is commonly used in Japanese dishes, and has a flavor similar to mushrooms:

And the last of the edible plants we found, the linden tree. When its yellow flowers are in bloom, they smell strongly of honey and bees flock to them. You can dry the flowers and brew a tea out of them, or just put the fresh ones into your water bottle for a perfumed, subtly sweet drink:

So now that the educational portion of this post is concluded, let's get to the (more) fun part: the food. Justin made a truly delicious lunch for us that utilized many of the plants we had seen in the park, along with some delicacies from the green market as well as from Stone Barns. We had a complete meal: soup, sandwiches and salads. Here's a nice photo of the assembly process:

You can see the chilled soup, made from lamb's quarters, dandelion and amaranth, at the center of the blanket. And here are some closeups. The sandwiches pictured here are, on the bottom, cream cheese with smoked Long Island bluefish, wood sorrell and day lilies, and, on the top, egg salad (made from the eggs of Stone Barns chickens), sheep sorrell, and a liberal sprinkling of crisp Stone Barns bacon:

What can I say? Both sandwiches were outrageously delicious, which is a particular feat since I'm not crazy about bluefish and I don't usually care for egg salad. But how can anything covered in bacon be bad? Next up are the salads. The first has purslane, a crisp, acidic green, along with chickpeas, ricotta salata, capers and pine nuts in a lemon-honey vinagrette. Have you ever had a salad like that before?! I hadn't:

And the other salad, composed of chickweed, a green that tastes exactly like fresh, raw corn smells, in a tomato vinagrette with more ricotta salata. Corn and tomatoes in the summer? You can't go wrong:

Thanks again to Justin and all the Wes participants for one of the more memorable, and more delicious, meals that I've had in a long time.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

100% homemade

What could be better, on a hot summer morning, than a bowl of yogurt (that you made yourself) topped generously with tangy strawberry-rhubarb compote (that you made yourself)? Not much, I'm willing to say, not much. That's precisely what I enjoyed for breakfast a few days ago:

It's a pretty great combination: the smooth, creamy texture of the yogurt is complemented by the rough, chunky quality of the compote, and the yogurt's sourness --which can be sort of one-note --is happily interrupted by bits of the sweet, soft fruit. The best part about the whole deal? The recipe for the compote, if you can even call it that, is laughably simple and takes about 15 minutes from start to finish. Now that's my kind of breakfast.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote
Makes 1 1/2 cups

1. Using a damp towel, wipe clean 3 stalks of rhubarb (look for ones that are very firm and have a deep pink color). If neccessary, peel the rhubarb with your fingers--just pull back the outer, stringy layers and discard them. Chop rhubarb into 1/2" pieces.
2. Rinse 1/2 pint of strawberries, preferably the small, intensely red kind. Halve them.
3. Place all the fruit into a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan and add 1 - 2 tbsp. of water. Using a microplane or zester, zest 1/2 a lemon into the pot. Finally, add 3 - 4 tbsp. of sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Stir to combine.
4. Place the pot over medium-low heat and cook for about 8-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until fruit is soft but still has some texture. Cool and refrigerate.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A (belated) Father's Day entry

Last Sunday my brother Eric and his girlfriend Theresa came over to cook a nice dinner for Father's Day. Although he works a lot and doesn't often get a chance to cook, Eric is actually quite accomplished in the kitchen, and he and Theresa handled most of the menu: an arugula salad with warm grilled peaches, crumbled goat cheese and shreds of prosciutto; a grilled beef tenderloin coated in mustard and rolled in fresh herbs; and grilled rounds of polenta. Here, though, is my contribution to the meal: a rhubarb sponge cake with almonds, from the food blog nami-nami, sliced and served with barely-sweetened whipped cream:

I made this without altering the recipe, and it was simple and delicious: the rhubarb was tart and fresh-tasting, the cake soft and springy, and the almonds crunchy and toasty. In the future, though, I would make two changes to liven things up a bit: one, add 1/2 tsp. of vanilla extract to the batter, and two, grate a little lemon zest into the rhubarb layer. All in all, though, a light summertime dessert that I suggest you try.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A feast from the Middle East

It was a pretty cooking-heavy weekend, so get ready for a lot of photos. On Saturday night my friends Anne, Sam and Dave came over for dinner, and during the day as I thought about what to cook I was struck with the desire to make hummus and baba ghanoush from scratch, which I had never done before. To complement those dishes, I decided to make some simple grilled chicken kebabs and tabbouleh.

Making the hummus and baba ghanoush was dead simple and fun, too--I liked the process of adding small amounts of seasoning, blending, tasting, and doing it all over again to get a precise balance of flavors. I must add that having a food processor is really what makes these recipes so easy, but you could definitely chop the eggplant by hand, and, with some dedication, mash the chickpeas up in a bowl. Both the hummus and baba ghanoush rely on the same flavorings--tahini (sesame seed paste), lemon juice, garlic and olive oil--for their distinctive taste. It's just a matter of fine-tuning things and tasting over and over again to achieve that savory, nuanced flavor. I used canned chickpeas (drained and rinsed) for the hummus, and two large eggplants for the baba ghanoush. They got roasted until they looked like this:

After the eggplants cooled, I peeled them, drained the flesh in a colander for a while (it's very, very watery), then pureed it up. The finished baba ghanoush, drizzled with extra olive oil and sprinkled with fresh parsley:

The chickpeas, too, got pureed in the food processor. Here's the hummus, garnished with olive oil, toasted pine nuts and parsley:

I improvised the marinade for the chicken, and it turned out very tasty--and bright green. Very, very bright green. All I did was toss a big handful of fresh herbs (we grow a variety on my deck) into the blender, added some plain yogurt, olive oil, smashed garlic,
salt and pepper, and blended it up:

What a lovely color, huh? Well, you'd think that the green would fade somewhat after the chicken was grilled, but sadly that was not the case. No matter, really; after marinating for 5 hours, the chicken was meltingly tender and full of flavor, if not very attractive:

And finally a light and refreshing tabbouleh, which is made from bulgur, tomatoes, cucumbers, lemon juice, olive oil, and lots of fresh chopped parsley and mint. A perfect dish for the summer heat:

The only thing missing from this meal was baklava, which I neglected to buy (or, of course, make). Oh well--our improvised dessert of chocolate ice cream with salty, crunchy peanut butter spooned on top wrapped up the evening nicely.

Fresh Herb Marinade for Grilled Chicken

Combine a handful each of fresh parsley, fresh thyme, and fresh chives in a blender, along with slightly less fresh rosemary. Add 3/4 cup plain yogurt, 1/2 cup olive oil, 2 smashed garlic cloves, salt and pepper and blend until smooth. Pour over chicken and marinate for as long as possible, preferably overnight. Drain the chicken of excess marinade before cooking.

Makes 2 1/2 cups

Place 2 cans of rinsed drained chickpeas in a food processor and add 2 tbsp. tahini, the juice of 2 lemons, and 2 cloves of minced garlic. Pulse to combine. Add 1/3 - 1/2 cup of olive oil and blend hummus to desired consistency, tasting frequently to adjust seasonings. Add salt to taste. Serve drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with fresh parsley and toasted pine nuts, if desired.

Baba Ghanoush
Makes 2 1/2 cups

1. Preheat the oven to 400°.
2. Place 2 large eggplants on an oiled baking sheet and roast them until skin is charred and flesh is very soft, about 20-25 minutes. Let cool.
3. When eggplants are cool, peel them--the skin will slip right off. Drain flesh in a colander for 10-15 minutes.
4. Place the eggplant in a food processor and add 2 tbsp. tahini, the juice of 2 lemons, and 2 cloves of minced garlic. Pulse to combine. Add 1/3 - 1/2 cup of olive oil and blend baba ghanoush to desired consistency, tasting frequently to adjust seasonings. Add salt to taste. Serve drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with fresh parsley.

Makes 6 - 8 servings

1. Place 1 1/2 cups of finely-cracked bulgur in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Add 3 cups of near-boiling hot water; cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit for 20 minutes or until water is absorbed.
2. Remove plastic wrap and fluff bulgur with a fork. Add 3 finely diced plum tomatoes; 1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely diced; the juice of 1 1/2 lemons, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 cup chopped parsley and 1/2 cup chopped mint. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pizza on the barbie

For me, summer is about being outside as much as possible--even here in the city. So why should I have to stay indoors to cook a meal? The ability to make dinner outside is one of the many reasons that grilling is the perfect, consummate way to cook during the summer (besides which you don't have to heat up your kitchen, and grilled foods are quick and delicious, and grilling is fun and social, etc.)

So last night I took full advantage of my parents' nice gas grill on their nice flowering deck, as I tend to do often throughout the summer months, and had some friends over for dinner. And what did I cook? Not the usual suspects of kebabs, steak or chicken, but pizza. Yes, pizza. Grilling is one of the best ways to make really good pizza, because grills get very very hot, and pizza needs very high temperatures to get that lovely crackly crust that we all love so much. And last night's meal was extra easy because I sort of cheated, by buying the pizza dough at my local pizzeria. Most any pizzeria will sell you some of their dough, usually for about $3 for one pizza's worth. It's highly convenient, and you're guaranteed to get dough with good flavor (if you like your local pizzeria's product, that is). And although I do like to make my own pizza dough, you have to plan ahead to allow time for the dough to rise--not so well-suited to last-minute pizza cravings. So that's where the store-bought stuff comes in. This is what it looks like when you get it:

Then you punch it out into a nice pizza crust, as thin as you can get it, really, because it will puff up a lot on the grill (or in the oven). My friends and I made two kinds last night: classic margherita (simply tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil--you can't go wrong) and one fancy one with pesto, caramelized onions and goat cheese. Both the tomato sauce and the pesto were store-bought, so making the pizza was a pretty simple affair.

The key to success when grilling pizza is to work very fast. Set up any toppings outside near the grill so they're ready when the pizza crust is. Then heat the grill up to high (I have a gas grill, but charcoal would provide even better flavor), brush the crusts with olive oil on both sides, and slap them down. They only need to cook about 2-3 minutes on the first side--remember, the grill is like 550°. Flip the crusts and lay on the toppings as quickly as possible, then close the grill and allow the pizzas to cook about 3-4 minutes more--no longer. What's great about this method is that it's pretty much instant gratification--you have hot, fresh pizza in about 10 minutes. The only hard part is waiting for it to cool off enough to eat. Here's what ours looked like.

Pizza margherita:

Pizza with pesto, caramelized onions and goat cheese:

Enjoyed out on the deck in the cool night air and washed down with icy-cold beer, these pizzas weren't half-bad.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Some recent dinners

I'm a working woman now (at least for the next few months), and, like many working women, I don't really want to be in a hot kitchen for any amount of time when I get home in the evening. What this means is that I have, for the most part, been eating some low key, no fuss dinners lately--some bread, good cheese, a handful of olives and some sliced tomatoes--and maybe a glass of wine--is just about all I need these days. But there have been a few rare occasions when I've actually cooked, so I thought I'd show them to you.

First up we have a salad of mixed greens, shredded duck meat, sliced green apples, dried currants and toasted pecans, with a homemade honey-mustard dressing with fresh thyme. OK, so I didn't really cook this (my parents get the pre-cooked duck--which is tender and delicious--at Costco), but I did compose it carefully:

Here's something I actually did cook: marinated flap meat with a side of roasted bell pepper salad with olives, capers and fresh herbs, and some (purchased) spinach-feta pies:

OK, I know what you're thinking: flap meat?! What the hell is that? And you'd be right to ask that question. I don't know what flap meat is either (apparently the San Francisco Chronicle does, though: click). My parents have been buying it at Costco (I guess they get a lot of stuff there) for the past few years, but I've never seen it in any supermarket, or, god forbid, on any menu. The name is highly unappealing, but the meat is great: similar to hangar or skirt steak, it's marbled with plenty of fat and cooks up nice and juicy, with great texture. I marinated the meat in olive oil, soy sauce, and Montreal steak seasoning, which you buy at the store: it's a mixture of dried garlic and coarsely ground black pepper. Then I grilled the meat on a cast-iron pan until medium rare, about 4 minutes a side. I let it rest under tin foil for about 5 minutes (please rest your meat, people! It makes all the difference) and then sliced it up.

I roasted those peppers myself, by the way (also on a cast iron pan, for about 15 minutes or until they're wilted and the skin is thoroughly charred), then put them in a bowl covered tightly with plastic wrap to cool. At that point the skin will slip right off. After I cleaned and sliced the peppers, I tossed them with olive oil, red wine vinegar, chopped black olives, capers, salt, pepper, and minced basil, parsley and chives.

And, finally, a chicken dinner. I marinated the drumsticks in a mixture of soy sauce, whole grain mustard, honey and minced garlic, then grilled them (for about 8 minutes a side) along with some pineapple. If you've never grilled pineapple, you should--it's sweet, smoky and addictive. You don't need to grease it or season it or anything--just lay it on the grill for about 3 minutes a side (it's just as good on top of a bowl of vanilla ice cream as it is with dinner). A simple avocado and tomato salad rounded out the meal:

And that's how you do weeknight dinners.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Szechuan Gourmet

Think that midtown Manhattan is a culinary wasteland? Well, for the most part, you're right. But the exception to the rule awaits you at 21 West 39th Street. Its name is Szechuan Gourmet, and it's a temple devoted to the exaltation of humble ingredients--garlic, chile, green onions--to divine status. The flavors are bold and incredibly spicy, but also nuanced thanks to prodigious use of Szechuan peppercorns, which taste floral and--this is the only way I can describe it--"purpley." Think of the way opium (or, uh, incense) smells--that's kind of how Szechuan peppercorns taste. They also have a slightly numbing effect on the tongue and mouth which is rather pleasant.

Apparently Szechuan cuisine was really en vogue in the 60s and 70s--when I was telling my parents about how exotic-tasting I find the food at Szechuan Gourmet to be, they said that they used to eat Szechuan food all the time back in the day. The style seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor, but I can't really imagine why. Szechuan Gourmet is definitely one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Aside from the complex flavor profiles I described above, the restaurant also serves up some really interesting types of meat and fish that I never knew were used in China, such as rabbit, ox tongue, lamb, and razor clams. But let's move on to what Malcolm, Shannon and I ate when we visited on Thursday evening. To start off, we shared an order of "Szechuan Pork Dumplings with Roasted Chili Soy" ($3.95). Like most good dumplings, these are incredibly addictive--I could have eaten twenty of them. Plump, moist and porky with thin, tender skins, the dumplings are served with a rich, thick and spicy sauce:

Next up we had one of my favorite dishes on the menu, "Crispy Lamb Filets with Chili Cumin" ($14.95). The pieces of lamb are tender on the inside and crispy on the outside, coated heavily with smoky cumin, and showered with crunchy bits of garlic, red chiles and green onions. Such a perfect mix of flavors:

Providing a nice textural contrast to the lamb was "Baby Eggplant with Spicy Garlic Sauce"--a classic Chinese dish ($6.25). I'm not a big fan of Italian eggplants, at least the way they sell them in the U.S.--they're big and full of moisture and seeds and often taste bland or bitter or, somehow, both. Asian cuisines use Japanese eggplants, which are smaller, slimmer and lighter in color than their cousins. The vegetable's flesh is soft and unctuously creamy--very delicious. Slick the eggplants with a sauce shimmering with chili oil and flecked with bits of garlic and you can't go wrong:

Three generous portions of food, served with rice and green tea, set each of us back $14, including, as always, tax and tip. Cheap eats at its best.

Szechuan Gourmet
21 West 39th Street (between 5th and 6th)
(212) 921-0233

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Here comes success!

That's right, ladies and gentlemen, I finally made yogurt! Back on my A game. With the aid of a thermometer, it was really easy. I realize now that the past two times I tried this, I didn't get the milk nearly hot enough--you're supposed to bring it up to 180°, which took about 20 minutes (granted, I was heating the milk over a cautiously low flame--next time I'll probably be a little more bold). In the past, I heated the milk only for about 10 minutes. So there was my mistake. Anyway after the milk gets up to temperature, you take it off the flame and let it cool to 110°. Then you mix it into a small amount of plain storebought yogurt that you've placed in a warmed glass jar, stir well and let it sit undisturbed in a warm place for 10-12 hours. This, too, was easier now that it's summer; I just left it at room temperature. When I woke up this morning, voila! Yogurt was waiting for me:

I really enjoyed the flavor of the yogurt. It does taste different than the store-bought stuff: fresher and cleaner. The texture, too, is markedly different; the yogurt is runnier and less uniformly smooth than what you get at the store. For me, this is a good thing, as it's a reminder that there are no sweeteners, stabilizers, or other weird things (xantham gum, anyone?) in the yogurt. I'm sure it would taste even better if I had used organic or locally-bottled milk; I just got the cheap store brand. No matter; with a drizzle of maple syrup and some blueberries, the yogurt made a wholly satisfying summer breakfast:

Homemade Yogurt
From Nourishing Traditions

1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 quart milk

Gently heat the milk to 180°, stirring often. (Use a thermometer!) Set aside and let cool to 110°. When 110°, warm up a glass jar by filling it with hot water and then dumping it out. Put the plain yogurt into the bottom of the jar, add several tablespoons of milk, and stir well. Then pour the rest of the milk into the jar, stirring well to incorporate the yogurt culture throughout. Cover loosely and keep in a warm place (wrapped in a towel, in a warm room, in an oven that has been heated and then turned off) and let rest undisturbed for 10-12 hours. Transfer to the refrigerator.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Good day sunshine

What to do when you wake up inexplicably early on a Sunday morning and can't get back to sleep? Why, make sourdough pancakes*, of course! I'm happy to report that my sourdough starter is up and running; it's not worth showing a photo, so you'll just have to take my word for it. This morning I used the starter in some pancakes. What you do is place some starter in a bowl, add some flour and some milk, essentially "feeding" it one last time, and let the mixture stand for an hour or so. Then you finish the batter by adding egg, salt, sugar and leavener, and fry the pancakes up in a skillet:

Of course whenever you make pancakes you have to make some silly ones just for fun:

And finally here's my portion, enjoyed on my deck in the morning sunlight (not too shabby):

I really liked the pancakes. They were denser and less fluffy than ones I've made in the past, but had a mellow tang from the sourdough that set off the sweetness of the syrup nicely. Now that I have starter around the house, I can see these pancakes becoming a standard weekend breakfast.

Sourdough Pancakes
Adapted from How to Cook Everything
Makes 4 servings

1. In a mixing bowl, combine 1 cup sourdough starter, 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup buckwheat flour, and enough milk (1/2 - 1 cup) to make a medium-thin batter. Let sit for about an hour.
2. Preheat a griddle or large skillet over medium-low heat while you finish the batter by stirring in 1/4 tsp. salt, 1 tbsp. sugar, 1 tsp. baking powder, and 1 beaten egg. Don't overmix!
3. Grease the skillet with about 1 teaspoon of butter or oil and add the batter by the heaping tablespoon. Cook until lightly browned on both sides, flipping once, about 3-5 minutes total. Serve immediately or keep warm in a 200° oven.

*Best enjoyed with coffee and the weekend edition of the Times.