Saturday, May 31, 2008

Café con Leche

As promised, here's my first installment of New York City cheap eats. On Tuesday night I met Becca and Emily for dinner at Café con Leche, a Puerto Rican place on Amsterdam and 80th. The restaurant has a bright and cheery interior and huge portions of food that taste a lot better than you'd expect them to for the price. We started off by sharing the mixed appetizer plate, which was piled high with warm and crispy fried delights: working clockwise from the back we have a vegetable empanada; a (barely visible) yucca patty, something I had never had before; it was sweet and deeply flavored with anise seeds; next, a huge pile of soft ripe plaintains (my personal favorite); and, lastly, some patacones, which are slices of unripe plaintains which are smashed, fried and salted (so excellent dipped in hot sauce). Not bad for $7.95:

Next Emily and I shared gambas al ajillo, shrimp in a garlicky, lemony sauce which was delicious spooned over the yellow rice and black beans the dish ($12.95) came with:

Of course we had to finish off the meal with the restaurant's namesake ($1.75):

Each of us paid $15, including tax and tip, and left stuffed. Pretty good for a midweek meal, no?

Café con Leche
424 Amsterdam Avenue (between 80th and 81st)
(212) 595-7000

Note: the restaurant has another location on Amsterdam between 95th and 96th.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Look, Ma, I baked!

Or more appropriately in this case, Look, Pa, I baked! Today is my father's 65th birthday, and I made him some currant scones to celebrate. My dad really likes to have a pastry with his morning coffee, be it a muffin or banana bread or something along those lines, and it's somewhat of a tradition that I bake him scones on his birthday. Unfortunately, I lost my favorite scone recipe, which uses lots of butter, honey and cinnamon, so earlier tonight I tried a new recipe, from The Best Recipe. True to the book's title, they came out quite well. Here they are prior to baking, brushed with an egg wash and sprinkled with sugar:

And after having emerged from the oven, burnished and smelling wonderfully, 14 minutes later:

Of course I needed to taste one for quality control purposes. Luckily, my dear friend Sophie came over to assist me in this onerous task. We chose to enjoy the scone with blackberry jam:

Soft, flaky and light, these scones were not as rich as my usual recipe, but were delicious nonetheless. It was hard to stop at just one.

Sweet Milk Scones
Adapted from The Best Recipe
Makes 8 scones

1. Preheat the oven to 450°.
2. Combine 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tsp. cream of tartar, 1/2 tsp. baking soda, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1 tbsp. sugar in a bowl and whisk together. Alternatively, combine the dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse until combined.
3. Add 4 tbsp. butter, chilled and cut into small pieces, to the dry ingredients. If using your hands, work the butter in as quickly as possible, until the mixture resembles coarse meal. If using the food processor, pulse until the mixture reaches this stage.
4. Add 3/4 whole milk and stir until just combined. If using the food processor, pulse just until the dough starts to pull away from the bowl. Transfer the dough to a mixing bowl.
5. Add 1/2 cup of desired flavoring, such as chopped nuts or dried fruit, and stir to incorporate. I used currants that I had reconstituted in hot water and a dash of Calvados (apple brandy).
6. On a floured work surface, roll out the dough into a square that is 1/2" thick. Cut into four squares, and cut each square into two triangles. Place the scones 1 1/2" apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Optional: brush the scones with an egg wash and sprinkle with sugar.
7. Bake the scones for 10-15 minutes or until they are lightly browned. They're best enjoyed hot!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Back in action

Greetings from Brooklyn, New York. I'm home for the summer after graduating from college yesterday. Allow me to brag for a second as I share that Barack Obama was my class's commencement speaker. Score!

Anyways, with higher education over and done with, I turn my attention to food (as if that's not what I was thinking about all along). I don't know how much time I'll have to cook on a daily basis this summer, so I'm going to take on a few more long-term culinary endeavors that I can focus on when I have the time. One of them is learning how to bake bread. As I noted in this post, that's not something I have much experience with, but I want to get better. At the inspiring bread-baking workshop I talk about in that same post, we were each given ball jars of sourdough starter to take home with us, and I've been diligently "feeding" mine (read: adding more flour and water) twice a week since then. Unfortunately, I left that jar of goodness in my fridge when I moved out of my apartment in Connecticut yesterday. WHOOPS. Way to go.

But that brings us to this post. I'm making another batch of starter, hopefully. And what exactly is that, you ask? Well, it's basically just a mix of flour and water that you leave out for a few days so it can become a natural bread leavener. What happens is the mixture absorbs the natural yeast in the air and gets bubbly and fermented. The starter I had at school seemed promising. It was full of air and smelled like wine, which is what you want to happen, as the starter adds that distinctive sour tang to bread you bake with it. Unfortunately, I never got to use that starter, and now it's gone (you can make lots of things with sourdough starter besides bread, like sourdough pancakes, which I plan to try).

So I mixed myself up a batch of starter just now: one cup of all-purpose flour mixed with one cup of warm water, in a wide-mouth glass jar. I used organic flour because I figured it might have more flavor, and bottled water because it's more pure:

And that's it. You leave the mixture, uncovered, at room temperature for a few days (usually 4-6), feeding it 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup flour every day, until it gets the way it should be, described above. Then you refrigerate it and can use it anytime. You keep it alive by feeding it once or twice a week. Dead simple, right? I hope so. My recent yogurt failures have shaken my do-it-yourself confidence to the core (as an aside, I finally purchased a candy thermometer, and I hope to try making yogurt again very soon). Anyway, here's what I have now:

So yeah, it looks pretty much like exactly what it is: goopy flour. But it's latent with promise! If all goes according to plan (cross your fingers for me), I'll be showing you pictures of bubbly, yeasty, full-on starter in a few days, and then, hopefully, the beautiful bread it will help produce.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Checking in

Loyal blog readers,

I feel that I've been letting you down of late. In fact, I feel that I've been letting myself down, because I honestly can't remember the last time I cooked a meal. And, after all, isn't that what I do? But between my housemate's movie, graduating college, packing up my apartment and preparing to move back home I haven't had much time for anything, least of all cooking. It's beginning to get a little sad--I've had my fill of university-provided hamburgers and late night snacks of Teddy Grahams or whatever's lying around. But I'm hoping this will all change soon. I'll be back in New York in a few days and should have some friends around who will want to cook with me (or at least enjoy the fruits of my labors), and I should also be hitting up lots of interesting cheap eats spots over the summer, as is my habit when I'm at home. So the blog might be changing in some ways--no more veggie co-op, and perhaps less cooking and more talk of what I eat out and where. Change is good, though, right? (At least that's what I've been telling myself, over and over, lately). Stay tuned and see for yourself.

Friday, May 9, 2008

A taste of California

One of my housemates is filming a movie in our kitchen, and it's a disaster in there. This means two things: one, that I'm not going to be able to take a photo of the produce I got at the last co-op pickup of the year, as most of it is stashed away in said kitchen, and secondly, that I'm temporarily forced to go to my friend Emily's house if I want to cook. This is not a bad thing, as Emily is a great cook and my habitual partner in culinary crime. It was she that conceived of the idea for our dinner last night: fish tacos. Emily also happens to be from the Bay area, where they're big on fish tacos, and together we produced a rather delicious (and rather photogenic) meal.

First, let me just tell you what I did get at the co-op (you can use your imagination to picture the beautiful array in your mind): a bag of green beans, a pint of strawberries, a peach, a bunch of red chard, red potatoes, and a pint of cherry tomatoes, which we used last night. We also used up the avocadoes from last week's pickup, which by last night were perfectly ripe.

Here's the salsa that would crown our tacos:

Basically a take on last week's salsa, only the corn was sauteed, not roasted, and (blessedly) with the addition of cilantro. Next up, shades of green on the plate of fixins: avocado, cilantro and lime wedges:

And finally, the main event. We pan-seared pre-marinated mahi-mahi, let it rest, and then flaked it. Piled some fish in warm griddled corn tortillas, added plenty of toppings, and enjoyed the tacos with some steamed broccoli doused with lime juice and a sprinkle of good sea salt:

As they say in Mexico (or Frisco, as the case may be): ¡buen provecho!

The last food column of my college career

But hopefully only one of many more to come. Click!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A bitter defeat

But not for me! I'm referring to the dandelion greens I got from the co-op last week, which I incorporated into a pasta sauce that I made with Becca and Emily on Saturday.

I do not like dandelion greens. As I imply in the title of this post, they're very bitter. Especially the large, fully-grown ones that we received at the co-op. And so on Saturday we stepped up to the task of cooking the greens in a way that would reduce their bitterness and make them delicious. I'm happy to say we succeeded.

To make the sauce, we started by sweating some diced yellow onion and minced garlic in olive oil. Then we added the washed and trimmed greens, torn into bite-size pieces. We added some vegetable stock, covered the pan, and let the greens cook down. Finally, we added some chopped fresh tomatoes, salt, and red pepper flakes. Served over whole-wheat penne and finished with a drizzle of olive oil and some parmesan:

Success! The resulting dish was nutty from the whole-wheat pasta and cheese, sweet from the tomatoes and onions, and pleasingly complex, with only a hint of bitterness. Now that's a plate of greens I can handle.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

An exercise in substitution

Isn't it annoying when you conceive of the perfect dish and then find that you can't get your hands on the neccessary ingredients, thus forcing you to alter your initial, flawless vision? Such was the case for me last night when cooking dinner with a few friends. I wanted to make salsa and something vaguely Mexican to go with it, and I wanted to use up some nice brown mushrooms that I got at the co-op last week. The idea was born: goat cheese and mushroom quesadillas. Yes! That lovely interplay between the creamy, tangy cheese and the mellow, earthy mushrooms: the dish would be the ideal balance between authentic Mexican food and Americanized fusion cuisine.

Sadly, when I sent Malcolm to the store to pick up ingredients, he called to report, in his words, what could only be described as "a minor crisis": there was no goat cheese available, nor any cilantro, so key to any salsa. Still, we soldiered on. Malcolm got jack cheese instead, and we were forced to forego any green, vibrant herb for the salsa. It was pretty tasty nonetheless.

Here's the salsa we ended up with, rather colorful anyway, and featuring roasted corn kernels:

We sauteed the mushrooms, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and layered them on top of the shredded cheese inside the quesadilla:

Placed another tortilla on top and cooked them up over low heat in ungreased skillets until golden brown on both sides, about 5-7 minutes. Voila, the finished product:

Seriously good eats, despite the last-minute alterations.

Tomato and Red Onion Salsa with Roasted Corn Kernels

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1. Oil two ears of shucked corn and season with salt. Roast in a 375° oven for 12-15 minutes, turning occasionally. Let cool, then slice kernels off cobs and place in a bowl.
2. Halve and seed 5 plum tomatoes. Finely dice them and add them to the bowl, along with half a red onion, finely diced. Finally, add 2-3 minced garlic cloves.
3. Add the juice of one lime to the salsa and season heavily with salt. If you have fresh cilantro, chop it and add a goodly amount.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Major co-op action!

Got a huge variety of fruits and vegetables at the co-op yesterday (pretty colors, right?):

Limes, kiwis, red onions, dandelion greens, plum tomatoes, a mango, a Pink Lady apple, and an avocado. Yum. I definitely see Mexican food in my future--definitely a salsa, perhaps guacamole, maybe some margaritas to take advantage of those limes. And I better get to cooking, because I still have a ton of produce left over from last week's pickup.

P.S. I'm embarassed to report another failure in my continuing endeavor to make yogurt. Dear lord! I'm going to try to get my hands on a candy thermometer this weekend and give it another go.