Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why I love leftovers

I've never understood people who don't like leftovers. Whatever their reasons may be--that the food they prepare will never taste as good as it did when it was made fresh, that they get sick of eating the same thing (no matter how delicious it is) two or three times in a row, that they simply don't have the refrigerator space--I don't get it. I love leftovers. Leftovers, actually, sort of define my cooking style. I don't often follow recipes, preferring to rifle through my fridge (and freezer), taking stock of what needs to be used up and how it would best be transformed into something else. Leftovers don't bore me; they inspire me.

I even like leftover food that I didn't make in the first place. Working at a food magazine and also in catering, I'm often sent home with extra food that might otherwise get thrown out. Such was the case last weekend when I worked a fancy, exclusive party on Fire Island. A ton of perfectly cooked, expertly seasoned filet mignon remained unserved at the end of the night, and I packed away two particularly succulent-looking steaks to bring on the bus ride home. They made their way onto my dinner plate a few nights later when Gideon (of Snackin' with Steinberg fame) came over to eat. While he made his excellent rendition of guacamole, I sliced the steaks thinly and laid them over a salad of soft romaine and slivers of red onion, heaped them with fresh cilantro and chopped salty peanuts, then dressed the whole with a mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and vegetable oil. And so out of distant French origins, a delicious Thai beef salad was born. You still don't want your leftovers? Pass 'em over to me.

Thai Beef Salad with Lime Dressing
Serves 2

1. Wash and dry two generous servings of romaine or red leaf lettuce, about half a large head. Tear them into large pieces and divide between two plates.
2. Thinly slice 1/2 of a large red onion and divide it between the two plates, distributing it evenly over the lettuce.
3. Thinly slice one medium to large portion of rare, seasoned steak--the cut is not that important as this is a dish to make with leftover meat--and fan the slices out over the salads.
4. Take a good handful of fresh cilantro--stems and all--and tear it up, sprinkling it over the salads.
5. Coarsely chop a large handful of roasted salted peanuts and sprinkle them over the two salads.
6. Make the dressing: in a small bowl, combine the juice of two limes with about 1 tsp. soy sauce, 1 tsp. fish sauce, 1 1/2 tsp. sugar, a pinch of salt and about 3 tbsp. vegetable oil. Whisk mixture and taste; you might need to adjust the ingredients if the dressing is too sour, too sweet or otherwise unbalanced.
7. Dress the salads, drizzling the dressing evenly to ensure that all the ingredients are well coated.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What to do with a bushel of onions

Some time ago, I had my friends Malcolm, Arianna and Jane over for dinner. Before they arrived, I wasn't sure what I was going to make, but I knew that it had to include onions, and lots of them. I often buy white or yellow onions by the bagful because they are much cheaper that way, and of course you can use onions in almost any dish you would ever want to cook. But the fact was that I hadn't been too diligent about using up this particular bag of onions. They stared me down from my refrigerator's crisper drawer (not the best place for onions--they like to be left out at room temperature), where I had placed them a few days earlier in the vain hope of warding off the increasingly more certain fate of sprouting, daring me to use them.

I knew that the most efficient and most flavorful way to cook with them would be to start by caramelizing them. Onions, as I'm sure you've noticed, are mostly water and cook down to next to nothing, so I would have to use a good many of them in order to end up with a satisfactory amount of the final product. And as the onions cooked down slowly, the loss of that moisture would mean an increase in flavor. It was the only way to go. But how would I utilize the caramelized onions? Really, I could have gone in any number of directions: sweet, moist, and yet still full of that allium flavor that is such a necessary part of most good cooking, the onions would go with almost anything. But, as I usually do, I was thinking in terms of cost. I had to feed four people, and I had to feed them generously--I'm one of those cooks who overbuys and overcooks out of the pervasive fear that my guests might leave my table hungry, and it's pretty safe to say that they never do. And so I decided to fold the sticky brown mass into a mess of pasta. I added a bit more heft to the dish by crumbling some soft goat cheese on top, and finished the whole thing with a sprinkling of chopped toasted walnuts. The smooth, tangy cheese was perfectly complemented by the sweet, yielding onions, and the crunchiness of the nuts lent some much-needed textural contrast to the finished pasta:

My guests left happy and sated, and, most importantly, my refrigerator drawer was now free to accommodate another big bag of onions.

Ziti with Caramelized Onions, Goat Cheese and Walnuts
Serves 4

1. Slice the onions: using 3 - 4 large white or yellow onions, slice the onions in half through the root end, which will hold the onion intact. Peel the onion, then lay it flat and slice it into about 1/4" thick half-moons. The slices will break up into strands in the pan. Keep in mind that the onions will shrink considerably, so don't slice them too thinly.
2. In a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pan, heat 3 - 4 tbsp. olive oil over a medium flame. Add the onions and stir them to break them up and coat them evenly with oil. Do not add salt; you want the onions to lose their moisture slowly.
3. Drop the flame to medium-low and add about 1 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme to the pan. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for about 20 - 25 minutes, until the onions have lost most of their moisture and are thick, sticky and well-caramelized.
4. Turn off the heat and stir a good amount of salt and black pepper into the onions. Set aside.
5. Set a large pot of water to boil on the stove. When water boils, add salt and about half of a 1 lb. box of shaped pasta like ziti or penne. Stir. Cook the pasta until it is al dente, about 12 - 15 minutes. Drain, reserving a small cupful of the pasta cooking water.
6. Return pasta to its pot and add all of the caramelized onions, along with a little pasta cooking water to help create a sauce--you should need about 2 - 3 tbsp. Mix well to evenly distribute the onions. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper as needed.
7. Meanwhile, toast 1/2 cup walnuts, either in a low oven or in a small pan on the stove. They're done when they smell nutty, about 6 minutes. Let them cool, then chop them into large pieces.
8. Divide the pasta between 4 plates. Top each plate with a crumbling of soft fresh goat cheese. Distribute the chopped nuts between the plates and serve.

*Note: this dish makes a very nice leftover pasta salad the next day. Dress with good balsamic vinegar and olive oil and enjoy!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

More adventures in vegetarianism with Patrick

A week or two (or three...I'm a little behind on my blogging) ago, Patrick joined me on my deck for another one of our dinner installments. Sadly our dear friend Willy couldn't join us this time, but not to worry, Willy, it's not like we mocked you in your absence or anything, not even a little, I swear it. Ahem.

It's grilling season, or at least it was a couple of weeks ago, before the heavy clouds settled on top of New York and decided to stay put for a while. And yet again, I wanted to think of something creatively vegetarian to make for Patrick and myself. First I envisioned a big platter of grilled vegetables like eggplant, zucchini and bell peppers, drizzled with tahini, sprinkled with pine nuts and some chopped fresh herbs. That would have been delicious, I'm sure, but I decided I wasn't really in the mood for tahini. The idea of grilled vegetables resonated, though, and my thoughts turned to grilled portobello mushroom caps. Kind of a cliched choice for a vegetarian dish, though, right? I felt the same way. So I tried to mix things up a little. My solution? Serve the portabello caps on toasted wheat buns, spread thickly with a creamy, herby white bean spread flavored with lemon and olive oil, and top that off with crisp, peppery arugula:

In order to take further advantage of the hot grill and of my new herb garden, I also served up a tomato salad topped with grilled corn and fresh basil:

As far as I could tell, Patrick approved:

Portobello Mushroom Burgers with Herbed White Bean Spread and Arugula
Serves 4

1. Light a gas or charcoal grill, or heat a cast iron grill pan over medium heat.
2. Wipe 4 portobello caps clean. Place them in a shallow baking dish or rimmed plate and drizzle them with about 3 tbsp. olive oil and 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, turning the mushrooms to coat them evenly. Sprinkle both sides of the mushrooms with salt and black pepper.
3. Grill the mushroom caps until they are tender and have lost a fair amount of their moisture, about 4 minutes per side. Set them aside.
4. Toast 4 whole wheat hamburger buns on the grill or grill pan. Place one mushroom cap on each bun, then top each with a generous spoonful of Herbed White Bean Spread (recipe follows). Spread to distribute.
5. Finally, top each burger with a handful of cleaned arugula or other bitter greens.

Herbed White Bean Spread

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1. Place one small (15.5 oz) can of white (cannellini) beans, rinsed and drained, in the bowl of a food processor or small electric chopper. Add 1 - 2 peeled garlic cloves, about 2 tbsp. fresh oregano leaves, 2 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves, the juice of 1 lemon, and plenty of salt and pepper. Pulse to combine.
2. Add about 2 tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil to the mixture. Pulse to combine. The spread is done when it is nearly smooth but still has a bit of texture to it.

Summer Tomato Salad with Grilled Corn and Fresh Basil
Serves 4

1. Using the reddest, ripest tomatoes you can find, slice about 4 large or 6 medium-sized tomatoes about 1/2" thick. Lay the slices on a large plate or platter.
2. Prepare the corn: lay two ears of corn, still in their husks, on a medium-low grill. Cook, covered, until tender and slightly charred, turning if necessary, about 14 - 16 minutes. Remove corn from the grill, strip off the husks, and, using a sharp knife, shave the kernels off the cobs.
3. Sprinkle the grilled corn kernels evenly over the tomatoes. Dress the salad with about 4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, 3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, and plenty of salt and pepper.
4. Finally, shred or tear a good large handful of fresh basil and sprinkle it over the salad before serving.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Edible Brooklyn

It's been too long since I've written on here, and you know what's to blame? Spring. It arrived in full force about 2 weeks ago--around the same time I made my last blog post--and I've tried to be outside as much as possible since. I'm blessed to have a deck that's about the size of my tiny apartment, effectively doubling my living space once warm weather comes to town. I'm taking full advantage of my own private urban oasis by growing a variety of flowers, herbs and vegetables in containers.

I've always enjoyed gardening. As dorky as that sounds to say, the hobby fits right in with my other domestic inclinations like cooking, baking and thrift/dollar store shopping; I guess I'm just an old Jewish grandmother at heart, huh? Anyway, when I was growing up in Brooklyn Heights my parents had a similarly beautiful and peaceful deck, and from the time I was small I loved the springtime ritual of shopping for flower seedlings and transplanting them into their summer homes with my father. My dad was the master gardener of the house and took on this task every year; he still does, and the result is without fail a lush, green, cool and colorful little corner hidden away above the hot Brooklyn pavement. And so although I would occasionally lay claim to a pot or two in which to plant my own tomatoes or herbs, I pretty much left the green thumb-ing to my dad (as did my mom, who sometimes seems to possess whatever would the opposite of a green thumb--a brown thumb?) (Hi, Mom!)

Well this spring, things have changed. Now that I have an outdoor space all my own, I've gone crazy for gardening. I've lined the deck with planters full of petunias and pansies. I've sown nasturtium, zinnia and poppy seeds, and I'm patiently waiting for the flowers to mature. But what I'm most into are the edibles that I've planted. An herb box contains fresh parsley, lavender, thyme and cilantro; next to that is a pot of basil; and finally another mini-planter that holds chives and Greek oregano. They're thriving; take a look:

Left to right: cilantro; lemon thyme; lavender; parsley


Chives, Greek oregano

I don't think I need to tell you how drastically the constant availability of fresh herbs improves my cooking, but I will. Having these plants around makes me want to make fresh, flavorful, summer-appropriate food that will showcase their bright tastes. It's easier to cook off-the-cuff, because so many of the ingredients that I previously would have had to shop for are right there for the taking. And my food tastes better because I'm layering in many more flavors than I sometimes manage to during the cold, flat winter months. It's a sweet deal all around, really. Here are just of the few of the things I've made with my bounty:


Caprese salad

Cheese ravioli dressed with a puree of olive oil, garlic, thyme, parsley and chives

(The makings of) pico de gallo

Stay tuned for updates on my garden (which also includes tomato, bell pepper, Japanese eggplant and zucchini plants not yet ready for their close-ups)--and for more of the dishes it's inspired.