Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What I made with what I grew

Summer may be winding down, but my container garden is in full swing. This year I planted all hot-weather plants--tomatoes, bell pepper, zucchini and eggplant--and each one is loving this August heat. The tomatoes I've harvested have been the best-tasting I've eaten in a long time; the eggplant is tender and delicate in flavor and, best of all, extremely prolific; but the zucchini hold a special place in my esteem because they found their way into one of the freshest, easiest and most delicious summer side dishes I've made.

But first things first. To set the scene, let me show you a photo of what the zucchini looks like growing on the plant:

When I harvested the first fruit, I didn't quite know what to do with it. The zucchini was small, so I didn't really want to cook it down; that would cause it to lose all its bulk. I decided, first of all, to leave it raw; I assumed that, owing to its diminutive size, it would be sweeter, in this state, than most market zucchini. When I spied a container of Greek-style yogurt in my refrigerator, I had it: a zucchini-yogurt salad. I make this dish all the time with cucumbers, adding lemon juice and salt and not much else, and I wagered that it would be even more delicious with my fresh, home-grown zucchini. But just to make sure, I took one extra step: I salted the zucchini judiciously ahead of time, then drained off the water that accumulated in the bowl. This process, traditionally used on eggplant to remove its bitter juices, accomplished the same feat with the zucchini and, moreover, rendered it a bit more pliable and "cooked"-seeming than it would have had I skipped that step. Slicked with cold, creamy yogurt and pepped up with a few slices of raw onion, plus a scant handful of chopped fresh oregano, this zucchini salad was the perfect antidote to the type of hot, sweaty summer day that (ordinarily) causes me to lose my appetite.

Zucchini Yogurt Salad

Serves 2


2 small green zucchini
Half a small white or yellow onion
1/2 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


1. Slice the zucchini into ribbons that are about 1/8" thick. Use whatever method is easiest for you: I sliced the zucchini lengthwise, creating a flat surface, then lay the halves down and sliced each portion crosswise into thin strips.
2. Place the ribbons in a bowl and then salt them generously, with about 1 tsp. kosher salt. Chill the bowl in the refrigerator until the zucchini has given off a fair amount of liquid, about 15 - 20 minutes. Remove the bowl from the fridge and drain the zucchini well. (Drain--not rinse. You'll want the remaining salt as seasoning.)
3. Slice the onion into thin half moons. Break up the strips of onion and add them to the bowl.
4. Add the yogurt to the bowl, then squeeze the lemon over. Season with pepper and, if needed, salt, add the chopped oregano, and mix well. Taste for seasoning. The salad is best served very cold; if necessary, place the bowl in the fridge for a few minutes to chill everything down.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The MTA Dining Car pulls into Bay Ridge

Last month I shared the details of the first meeting of the MTA Dining Car, a budget-minded yet adventurous eating club that I co-founded with my friend Kiera. That event took place in Woodside, Queens; this month, for our second-ever meeting, we decided to switch up the borough, casting our glances (and appetites) on Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Brooklyn's food scene has received a lot of attention of late, mostly due to the presence, here, of a disproportionately large (when compared to the other boroughs) population of young, fairly daring, eco-conscious restaurant owners and food purveyors. OK, so Brooklyn is hip, and its culinary achievements are no exception to that rule. But while Brooklyn hasn't always been viewed as hip, it has always been home to the food-obsessed: that's just what you get in a borough populated, traditionally, by Italians and Jews, two of the most food-focused cultures that I know of. So while the kitchen supply stores and chocolate shops in Williamsburg garner the media's praise, the traditional, old-school restaurants and bakeries in Bay Ridge and nearby Bensonhurst continue to provide residents with dependable, delicious food--yet they remain under the radar.

But these establishments don't escape the ever-watchful eye of the MTA Dining Car. Quite the opposite, in fact: these unassuming, neighborhood-oriented restaurants and shops are the ones we like best. Bearing those descriptors in mind, this month Kiera and I decided to bring our crew of eaters to Tanoreen, a home-style Palestinian café modest in its size but not in its culinary ambitions.

I've eaten at Tanoreen several times, and on each occasion the restaurant's offerings have blown me away. Bold, punchy flavors show up in each dish, whether in the form of a veritable mountain of chopped parsley; in the sour tang of copious amounts of lemon juice; or in the smoky char of a piece of grilled meat. The food at Tanoreen is vibrant in its presentation, too: colorful little piles of shredded red cabbage adorn most dishes, and jewel-like pomegranate seeds stud some of them, too. And so without further delay, I'll show you what I'm talking about.

Fatoush Salad
Shown next to a dish of olives and pickled beets, this refreshing salad featured lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, sumac, lemon juice and olive oil, all tossed together with crushed-up pieces of toasted pita bread. A sort of Middle Eastern Caesar salad, if you will, and a perfect start to our dinner at Tanoreen.

Lentil Pilaf
Of all the delicious things that I ate during this meal, I think that these lentils may have been my favorite. What's so exciting about lentils? you might ask, and for good reason. I don't know quite what it is about lentils, but I happen to love them. This dish allowed them to shine through in all their glory. It was incredibly complex, featuring soft yet toothsome lentils that were warmly spiced with cumin, red pepper flakes, and perhaps a touch of cinnamon, then topped with sweet, sticky caramelized onions. Though this version didn't include rice or any cooked grain, it was a close relative to the classic Middle Eastern dish mujaddara.

What is there to say about falafel? These spiced, deep-fried chickpea (or sometimes chickpea-and-fava-bean) patties are the quintessential fast food. Though they originated in Egypt, they're now popular all over the world, but especially throughout their home region of the Middle East. Though I ate a falafel sandwich a day on a short trip through Israel a few years ago, I can unequivocally state that these falafel, at Tanoreen, were the most exquisite falafel I have ever tasted. Shatteringly crisp on the outside and creamy yet textured on the inside, they were heaven piled into a wedge of pita and drizzled with tahini.

Beef Stew with Green Beans
If the falafel was my favorite dish of the night, this was my second favorite. There wasn't much to it: simply chunks of well-browned, meltingly tender beef surrounded by soft green beans in a rich, sweet tomato sauce. Served next to fluffy rice shot through with tiny pieces of crispy brown pasta, this was comfort food at its best.

Chicken Kabobs
I know what you're thinking: what's so great about chicken kabobs? because I thought the same thing when the manager at Tanoreen presented us with our menu. I like chicken OK, but it's not very exciting, and I like kabobs OK, but I make them myself with some frequency and therefore don't really need to order them when I dine out. Here's the thing, though: I've never made kabobs like this. The chicken was so juicy and tender, and moreover was completely suffused with the succulent flavor of whatever marinade the restaurant uses on the meat. These kabobs were truly exceptional.

Braised Tilapia in Pesto Sauce
This was a simple-looking dish that was anything but simple in flavor. It was a firm, perfectly cooked, flaky piece of white fish bathed in a rich parsley-and-olive-oil sauce that the restaurant called pesto, perhaps because the mere word acts as a sort of Pavlovian bell for most Americans, causing them to salivate at the very thought of eating some. Anyway, I digress. The sauce covering this fish was decidedly not pesto, but it was, decidedly, delicious. As was our whole meal. As was our whole experience. And here's the photographic evidence:

Just look at all those shiny, happy youngsters! 38 of us, in fact: we closed out the whole restaurant. This Dining Car is gathering steam, and if you want to hop on board, you'd best email us at mtadiningcar@gmail.com.

7704 Third Avenue (77th Street)
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
(718) 748-5600

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My new favorite grocery store

A little while back I had a package of ground lamb sitting in my freezer begging to be used up. I finally figured out what to do with it when I read this post alerting me to the existence of Patel Grocery, a little Indian shop located in Sunset Park not too far from my home in the South Slope. Lamb plus Indian spices? Yes, please.

Not only do I love to eat Indian food--I might even declare it my favorite cuisine if I were willing to play favorites with food, which I am not--I love to cook it, too. Preparing Indian food is one of the few exceptions I find myself making to my general no-recipes rule of cooking. Indian recipes are complex, relying on a delicate and precise art of the layering of small amounts of potent, fragrant dried spices. The end result, when it turns out right, is incredibly flavorful and completely captivating.

You can't wing this stuff--or at least I can't. So when it's time for me to cook up some Indian fare, I turn to the masters: Julie Sahni or Madhur Jaffrey, both well established and well-respected food writers and cookbook authors. On this particular occasion, I opened my well-worn copy of Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking to the chapter on meat and found my way to a recipe entitled Safaid Keema, or Ground Meat in Scented White Sauce. In the recipe, ground lamb is simmered with onions, whole milk yogurt, chunks of potatoes, and (of course) a precise blend of dried ground spices. I was sold.

With my ingredient list in hand, my friend and dining companion on this particular occasion (and countless others) Gideon and I hopped on our bikes and pedaled the ten minutes to Patel Grocery. We found ourselves in a little store teeming with vegetables, spices, lentils and several varieties of rice--and one very friendly and generous owner. Once we had what we needed for dinner (plus several other impulse buys on my part), we biked furiously back to my apartment to answer the call of our empty bellies. About an hour later, our efforts were rewarded with a big pot of rich, warming lamb and potatoes, which we served over basmati rice and a bit of sauteed eggplant. My kitchen smelled like Indian food for days--and that's a good thing.

Safaid Keema (Ground Lamb in Yogurt Sauce)
Adapted from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni
Serves 6


4 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups finely chopped onions
1 tbsp. minced garlic
2 tbsp. grated fresh ginger
1 1/2 lbs. lean ground lamb
4 medium potatoes, quartered
1 cup frozen green peas
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
2/3 cup plain whole milk yogurt
1/2 cup milk
2 tsp. kosher salt


1. Heat the oil in a large, wide pan and add the onions. Cook over medium heat until the onions turn light golden brown, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.
2. Stir in the garlic and ginger and cook for 2 minutes. Add the lamb, breaking it up in the pan with a wooden spoon. Cook until the meat loses all pink and begins to brown.
3. Add all the remaining ingredients except for the frozen peas, stir, and add 1 1/2 cups hot water. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 20 - 30 minutes. Uncover and add the peas. Simmer, uncovered, for an additional 15 - 20 minutes. When sauce is thick, shut off the heat and serve over rice or with bread such as naan or poori.