Monday, December 28, 2009

Spanx Salad

If you don't know what Spanx are, you are probably not a woman between the ages of 18 and 55 (beyond 55, we get into girdles). Spanx are high-tech undergarments that help to smooth out our squishy bits. Since I have been eating catered cocktail party food almost every night for the past month, and wearing form-fitting dresses on most of these occasions (I'm a salesgirl, not a callgirl, but sometimes there's not much distinction), Spanx tights have been indispensable.

I was outraged when a now-former gentleman caller of mine boneheadedly suggested it would be better to "just get rid of" the jiggly parts than hide them under Spanx. To paraphrase the great Destiny's Child, he wasn't ready for this jelly. Still, it would be nice to not feel bloated and gelatinous all the time*, so last night I created this powerhouse salad to help me recover from a month's worth of Christmas cookies, vodka tonics, bacon-wrapped canapes, and things served with Tartar sauce. It's delicious and filling, and it will make me svelte - not that I expect to get rid of my Spanx any time soon.

*Yes, I'm singing the same old song - see here, here, and probably elsewhere for more posts of this kind.

Recipe: Spanx Salad
Makes 2 hearty main course servings. Can be served warm, cold, or at room temperature. The main ingredient is quinoa, the seed with superpowers. Apparently you can subsist on a quinoa-only diet and live to be 120, it's got so many life-sustaining nutrients. With the addition of broccoli, spinach, and nuts, now you can live to forever - and look good doing it!

1 C quinoa
2 C water
1 T olive oil
1 head of broccoli, florets and stalks cut into bite-sized pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 C nuts (any kind - I had a leftover mix of almonds, walnuts, and pecans), chopped
a hearty sprinkling of red pepper flakes
2 C fresh spinach, tough stems removed
juice of half a lemon
a sprinkling of ground nutmeg (I'm thinking ginger would also be great, and turn this into a whole 'nother salad)
salt and pepper to taste
1 handful chopped fresh parsley (optional)

In a saucepan, add the quinoa and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover pot, and cook for an additional 10 or 15 minutes, or until water is mostly absorbed. Fluff quinoa with a fork and remove from heat.

While quinoa is cooking, heat olive oil in a frying pan on medium heat. Add broccoli, increase heat to medium-high, and stir-fry for five minutes (add more olive oil if the pan dries out). Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and stir-fry another few minutes. Reduce heat to low-medium and add spinach, cooking until it's wilted. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice. Mix in the quinoa, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and parsley.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Notes from Snowdown 2009

Some lessons for throwing a holiday party during the "Blizzard of the Century," or is it just "Blizzard of the Decade"? Either way, I am still trapped in a knee-deep winter wonderland, with not much to do besides write in this damn blog.

1. Obviously, make tons of food and have ample booze reserves, even if the attendance list is reduced by more than half due to inclement weather. Traipsing through two miles' worth of blizzard builds a big appetite. There were surprisingly few leftovers, and we were clean out of beer a little too early.

2. Maybe we would've had more beer left if I didn't drink about 28 Sierra Nevada Celebration Ales. Whoops. Also, try to stay awake until all your guests leave (or crash on your couch, still wearing their snowboots, as the case may be).

3. This is a no-brainer, but party guests will eat anything if it's wrapped in bacon: paper clips, lint, rubber bands, Christmas ornaments. But they will especially like devils on horseback, which is fancyspeak for bacon-wrapped, walnut-stuffed dates. (Actually, I think official devils on horseback contain pecans, not walnuts, but it really doesn't matter when there's bacon involved). Buy one package of bacon (not the thick kind), one container of pitted dates, and one bag of walnut halves. Chop the walnuts so they are thin enough to fit into the dates. The dates and walnuts will make sweet, sweet love, wrapped in a delicious bacon blanket. Gets me all hot and bothered just thinking about it. Oh, use kitchen scissors to cut the slices of bacon crosswise and roll them around the dates. Place them on a baking sheet in a 500 degree oven and bake till the bacon is crispy, about 10 minutes. Serve with toothpicks.

4. It's really easy to make a lot of varieties of crostini, and people will also go wild for these. If you don't have time/inclination to bake your own bread, buy a good quality pre-sliced crusty loaf. Cut each slice into halves or thirds. Set aside and make a couple different toppings, like caramelized onions (the fabulous Miriam aka Hungry Grad has a good recipe) or my sherry mushrooms (just slice up a bunch of mushrooms and half an onion and cook in a couple tablespoons of butter on medium-high heat; add a sprinkling of sugar to aid delicious brownedness; and splash in a good helping of sherry or red wine to make a reduction sauce). These go great spread on slices of bread with goat cheese or blue cheese, or just plain. Assemble and heat in the oven on a baking sheet a few minutes before serving, so everything is nice and warm and melty.

5. Ooh, I almost forgot! Another delicious crostini uses just two cans of white beans, drained; a few cloves of garlic, minced; a third cup or so of olive oil; the juice of half a lemon; salt and pepper; and some chopped, fresh sage and parsley. Mix it all together and dollop onto slices of bread.

6. I don't care what the food snobs say, baked brie is a timeless party classic. Don't bother buying or making puff pastry, though. Just use refrigerated crescent roll dough, a small wheel of Brie, and some kind of jam or chutney (see #7 for recipe for delicious pear chutney, below). Spread out the crescent roll dough as if making a pizza. Place the wheel of brie, rind on, on top of the dough and spread jam or chutney over the rind. Wrap up the brie in the dough as if it's a gift (it truly is!). Brush a bit of egg on top of the dough to get a golden crust. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 20-25 minutes, or till golden brown. Serve with crackers or slices of French bread.

7. Another gem from Laurie Colwin, my favorite food writer of all time: pear chutney. This stuff has many great uses, among them as a spread for baked brie or a dip for devils on horseback. In a heavy pot on the stove, cook together 3 or 4 large, firm pears (cored but not peeled, and chopped into chunks), 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 t salt, 2 t hot paprika, 2 t ground coriander, 1/2 C vinegar, 1 C raisins (I used Craisins in a pinch), and 1 T ground ginger. When the pears are tender add 1/2 C brown sugar and cook it down till "sludgy but not liquidy." This is not in Colwin's directions, but I like to grind up everything in the food processor if using as a dip.

8. See the recipe for Krunk Jewce, Inquisition Punch, or whatever you want to call this delicious sangria-esque concoction made with very well-disguised Manischewitz - also courtesy of the fabulous and clever Miriam. Truly, a breakthrough in Kosher mixology.

9. Per request, here's my recipe for these delectable little treats that are sort of a cross between chewy molasses cookies and gingersnaps, based on Shirley Corriher's "Cracked Surface Crunchy Gingersnaps" (I make them so that they are not all that crunchy). Before baking, they are rolled in regular granulated sugar, which lends them a festive, shimmery cast once they come out of the oven! They are spicy and gingery and perfect for this kind of weather. Cream 1 and 2/3 C sugar and 1.5 sticks butter, add 1/4 C molasses and blend well. Blend in egg on low speed. Set aside and whisk together 2 and 1/4 C flour, 2 t baking soda, 1/2 t salt, 1 heaping T ground ginger, 1 heaping t ground cinnamon, 1/2 t ground cloves, and 1/2 t ground nutmeg. Add the dry mixture to the wet and form a dough. Roll dough into 1.5 inch balls, then roll them in a plate full of sugar. Bake on baking sheets lined with parchment paper for 8 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Remove, and leave on the baking sheets for another minute or two before removing to a plate.

10. If setting out a vegetable platter, know that carrots are more popular than celery. Just FYI.

11. If people can't tell what something is, they are not very likely to eat it. Curse you, weird feta and red pepper dip with overly pungent briny cheese tang!

12. This is not food- or drink-related, but it is perhaps a lesson in resourcefulness. Say you want to build a fire, but you forgot to collect enough kindling wood and now all the sticks in your yard are buried under several feet of ice. If you are anything like me, about half the furniture in your house has been picked up off the side of the road. You are very likely to own a recycled, left-for-dead Ikea wicker chair that has a big hole in the seat and is pretty much unsafe for anyone but a cat to rest upon. Allow your burlier guests to destroy this chair - it will keep them occupied for at least half an hour. Then, throw the pieces to the flames! You will have the hottest, most raging pyre of all time, and your frostbitten friends will be very happy they traveled near and far to enjoy it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Fried Egg Sandwich Gets Its Due

Is there anything better than a well-made fried egg sandwich? I submit that there is not.

I finally exhausted my supply of Thanksgiving leftovers and have yet to make another trip to the grocery store; hence, many fried egg sandwiches have been consumed this week. Lest you think this post is a cop-out for a real recipe, I must stress that not all fried egg sandwiches are created equal and that it is imperative that all human beings know how to make a good one.

The fried egg sandwich has not been a very talked-about item in my lifetime, possibly because for years eggs were demonized as agents of high cholesterol. Pair them with the words "fried" and "sandwich" and you've got yourself a figurative heart attack. Eggs have made a big comeback in recent years, I think due to two things: their low cost and the faddishness of raising chickens in the city. Rarely a day goes by without me stumbling across the term "farm eggs" in some blog. I used to think the term was redundant - don't all eggs come from a farm? - but in this usage "farm" is meant to imply "happy hen haven." So, it's now very common to see hundreds of different recipes for baked eggs, poached eggs, and the newly fashionable migas, but what about the quietly delicious and not-that-bad-for-you fried egg sandwich? It demands our attention.

I've noticed at homes and roadside diners alike that some people equate frying with cooking at high heat. When it comes to eggs, nothing could be further from the truth. For, as we know, even when you hard-boil eggs, you are not actually boiling them (or at least you shouldn't). Fried eggs must be fried slowly and at low heat, whether you like yours sunny side up or over hard. Turning the burner knob any more than a quarter of the way around will produce eggs the consistency of latex gloves, and no one wants to eat that.

It does not matter whether you use white or wheat bread, but one thing is for sure: the bread must be toasted. The nice crunch of toast provides a great textural contrast to the softness of the egg. If the bread is not toasted, the sandwich lacks interest.

A piece of cheese is always encouraged, and although it can be nice to experiment with different cheeses, I find that sharp cheddar is always the best default. But I advise against white cheddar, if only for aesthetic reasons. An orange-hued cheddar against the dark yellow egg yolk evokes a beautiful sunset, and white cheddar simply does not achieve that effect.

Recipe: Fried Egg Sandwich The Right Way
Makes one sandwich. In the summertime, when there are good tomatoes, this delicious sandwich can become something sublime.

a drop of cooking oil (any kind you want)
1 egg
2 pieces of sandwich bread (any kind you want)
1 slice of sharp cheddar (Trader Joe's is the best value)
salt and pepper

Add the oil to a nonstick skillet or cast iron pan, and set it to low-medium heat. I use very little oil and just try to spread it around well, but you can use more if you want. When you cook eggs, the pan should preheat, so let the oil sit at this temperature for about five minutes, then reduce the heat to low. Break the egg directly into the pan and cook at least until it sets, about 3 minutes. Meanwhile, toast the bread. Depending on how you like your eggs, you have a number of options: remove the egg now if you like fairly runny eggs; let it cook another couple minutes without flipping if you like sunny-side up; let it cook another couple minutes and then flip and cook yet another couple minutes if you like over-easy; let it cook another few minutes, flip, and let it cook for another five to seven minutes if you like over-hard (the yokes are completely solid). Remove, set on one piece of bread, add salt and pepper to your taste, and top with the slice of cheese. Put it all together with the other piece of bread and enjoy.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hurry hurry hurry, get your money ready

QUICK! All 10-16 lb. turkeys are on sale for $5 at Safeway (and probably at other gro stos, too) for the rest of the weekend. These birds cost around $28 pre-Thanksgiving, so you will be saving like 85 percent, according my rough, English major calculations. And you can freeze it till Christmas (of 2010, if you want) if it seems too soon to start gorging on gobblers again so soon after Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Not Talkin' Turkey

Thanksgiving is only three days away, but this year I refuse to add to the Best Side Dishes and Turkey Techniques blogversation. I am still bristling over last year's stuffing episode. Bored of the perennial basic bread stuffing from Joy of Cooking, I went to the trouble of also making a sausage and cornbread stuffing. It was both completely delicious and completely untouched. (Republicans...I should've known.) Maybe your relatives are more adventuresome than mine, but if not, then I recommend you temporarily stop culling the food blogs - except for this one, of course - and stop dreaming up newfangled renditions of sweet potato casserole. Remember, it's only once a year that marshmallows get their place at the dinner table.

Better to leave the improvisation to chili (with apologies to Texans and Cincinnati residents), because chili, unlike stuffing or gravy, doesn't have to mark a special occasion. A couple weeks ago my parents came back from Savannah, Georgia, where they had serendipitously stumbled upon a chili cook-off. My dad raved about a sweet potato chili he tried and said it seemed like it could've been a "Diana Owen Original" (his words). I only wish I had thought of it myself! It sounded so good that I set to making one, and it turns out there are already about 200 sweet potato chili recipes on the internet. Mine loosely borrows from a few of these, but it is mostly a DOO (Diana Owen Original). Not to brag, but it's delicious and really good for you -- and it hits the spot when you're watching the Redskins break another little piece of your heart.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Chili
Makes about 12 servings. Like other kinds of chili, it gets better after a day or two. I've tried to make it a complete meal by adding kale for greenery. Cornbread is a welcome accompaniment, of course. I'm an enthusiastic recent convert to Alton Brown's creamed corn cornbread.

Whatever cooking oil you want, enough to cover the bottom of a large pot
2 large onions, chopped
4 large yams or 7 small sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1-inch cubes
about 6 cloves garlic, chopped (no need to mince)
2 T chili powder
1 t cumin
1 t ground coriander
1 t ground nutmeg
1 t ground ginger
1 t cayenne pepper
1/2 t chili sauce (I used homemade Mao Zedong Chili Paste)
zest and juice of one orange (sounds weird, but gives this chili a unique flavor and a great scent)
1 28-oz. can tomatoes, not drained (I used whole plum, but crushed or even diced would probably be fine)
1 can cheap beer
1 28-oz. can kidney beans, not drained
1 28-oz. can black beans, drained (so they don't turn the chili an unappetizing color)
1/2 lb. kale, coarsely chopped
1/2 C fresh cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat and add the onions. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, then add the sweet potatoes, spices, and chili sauce. Cook for another 15 minutes or so, or till the sweet potatoes begin to soften (add more oil if the pot starts to dry up). Throw in the orange zest and juice, tomatoes, and beer, bring to a boil, and reduce heat and simmer for about 40 minutes. Adjust seasonings if you want. Add the beans and kale and cook another 25 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro and salt and pepper to your taste.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Grocery Stores: A Curmudgeonly Rant with Maybe Some Practical Use

For a long time I had been meaning to write some kind of guide to area grocery stores, but I'd never felt much urgency about it until one day recently when I was shopping at the Bethesda Trader Joe's and thinking a steady diet of raw cabbage salad might help awaken my girlish figure from the dead. There wasn't any cabbage in the produce department, so I went ahead and paid for my other items. The cashier kindly asked me if I found everything I was looking for and I asked if they had any cabbages lurking in the warehouse. Her answer: "Oh, we only stock cabbage around St. Patrick's Day."

WHAT?!? It was hard to maintain my composure and I had to remind myself that these ridiculous policies are not up to the cashiers. It's unbelievable to me that any grocery store, even a self-proclaimed "unique" one like TJ's, would fail to stock such a mundane item as cabbage, one that something like 90 percent of humans consume. On the other hand, I think it probably says more about the way people cook (or don't cook, as it were) than it does about the store itself. The ideal Trader Joe's customer, I suppose, thinks it's quaint to make corned beef and cabbage for their annual St. Patty's Day drunkfest, but otherwise would never cook such a lowly vegetable with any regularity (heh, regularity and cabbage, get it?) -- or cook at all for that matter, considering the store's emphasis on pre-made foods. This might also explain why TJ's sells Orange Muscat Champagne vinegar, but you'd be SOL if all you want is plain old white vinegar to make brining solutions or Almost-No-Knead bread.

Despite my frustrations with Trader Joe's (and just about every other food purveyor I've ever visited), I still shop there almost weekly. When it comes to dairy products, TJ's prices-relative-to-quality can't be beat. Wait -- scratch that -- their milk's expiration date is often, like, tomorrow. But it is the place for cheese, butter, and eggs. Love-hate, that's how I am with every grocery store. Below, my take on where to shop (and not to shop), depending on what you're buying. Sadly, even in this age of one-stop shopping, I have yet to find a grocery store that satisfies most of my (admittedly demanding) needs.

Some caveats: This list definitely has a southern MoCo bias since I live in Bethesda and work in NoPe, not far from Silver Spring, but most of the stores I go to are major regional or national chains that don't have too much variation from store to store. I have left out Giant from this list; I personally find it's a lot more expensive than Safeway and the quality is not much better, though I know some people will vehemently disagree. I've also left out Harris Teeter -- I'm a Marylander through and through, and it's only just recently made the long trek from Virginia.

Trader Joe's

Love: Like I said a couple paragraphs ago, this is where you go to buy most stuff that comes from an udder. Just be sure to always check dates on milk, half-and-half, and cream -- you may come across some rare antiques. Cage-free eggs are also a lot cheaper here than at most grocery chains. Some other things I buy at Trader Joe's because of the price/quality correlative: coffee, olive oil, dried pasta, some jarred goods (e.g., olives, capers, pickles), granola bars (only $1.99 per box and the best store-bought variety I've tried), lemons (only $1.59 for a bag of six! That's pretty much unheard of, unless you live in Florida or California), frozen fruit and veggies, canned beans (unfortunately they don't sell dried beans, grrr), bread, jams and jellies, nuts, dried fruit, and two novelty favorites, smoked salmon pieces and mini boiling potatoes. I don't often buy meat there, mainly because I hardly ever cook meat, but I have found that their ground beef and ground turkey is reasonable.

I hate them 'cause they hate me. It's clear that Trader Joe's likes you better if you don't make anything from scratch because they make more money off all their pre-packaged stuff (a lot of which, I'll admit, is pretty good, but I'm too cheap to buy it). For example, they sell lasagna "kits" but not lasagna noodles. *Wrings hands in fury!* I also avoid most of their produce since it's usually pre-packaged and I prefer to select my own quantities. TJ's is pretty lame when it comes to baking ingredients -- some of their mixes aren't bad, but if you do a lot of baking from scratch, better stick to Safeway or Shopper's. No 5-pound bags of flour to be found. Don't bother shopping here for cleaning supplies or toiletries, unless you can justify spending $5.50 on a tube of Tom's of Maine. And finally, don't get too attached to any one particular item, because TJ's may just decide to drop it one day. I've asked employees on separate occasions about decisions to stop selling Kashi Good Friends and frozen edamame (which has since been brought back), and the reason both times was "a disagreement with the vendor." Be wary of any grocery store that hides behind a chipper nautical theme, all the while burning bridges!

In short: a great place to shop if your idea of cooking means removing from box and reheating; otherwise, stick to mainly dairy products, bread, nuts, and jarred goods.


Really, the main thing to love about Safeway is watching all the numbers drop down on the cash register screen after you've scanned your bonus card. The sales can be great, but if you don't have a bonus card, there is absolutely no point in patronizing this pit of putrescence. The produce is pathetic, the meat is....oh, right, I'm supposed to say what I love about Safeway. Okay, so not all their produce is pathetic. Root vegetables and members of the onion family are inexpensive, plus they're hardy enough that it's okay if you don't buy them brand new (trust me, you won't be doing that if you shop here). There's a good selection of baking ingredients with a good range of prices and quantities. The same goes for peanut butter, cooking oils (but not olive oil - TJ's is the best value), and some dried goods like rice, beans, and pasta. Prices on cleaning supplies, food storage items, and hygiene products are competitive, though not as good as Target's. But in all honesty, I'm just here for the cat litter -- the Arm & Hammer brand, which I've determined after rigorous testing and observation has the most effective clumping ability and therefore the lowest changing frequency and consequently the best value, is usually on sale!

Sorry, I forgot for a moment that this blog is about food. If you're still reading...

Hate: Where do I even begin? Produce is often old and overpriced relative to its quality. Most greens are pre-bagged and those that aren't are no longer very green. Citrus fruit is exorbitant, berries are moldy, etc., etc. You know how it's supposed to be best to shop the outer aisles of the grocery store? Well, the opposite is true of Safeway. Stay away from most produce, most dairy (unless, again, you are going antique shopping), most poultry (Perdue's flavorless birds rule the Safeway roost), all fish (it's expensive and already smells before you even take it home; that's a bad sign), and all bread (way overpriced compared to TJ's). So what does that leave you with? Things you should generally avoid eating, such as Chips Ahoy and Clorox.

In short: Go here for vegetables with long lifespans, baking ingredients, some dried goods, and items that are not actually food.

Shopper's Food Warehouse

If Safeway is food purgatory, then Shoppers is food hell, as many people seem to believe. I tend to disagree. Yes, their produce can be questionable, but not much more so than Safeway's, and at least it's cheaper and there's a better variety of it. The good things I've found at Shoppers are always-inexpensive generic Richfood brand items (Safeway, on the other hand, has good sales but can't always be counted upon) and huge baking and "ethnic" aisles. Seriously, I did not know Goya made so many products till I started shopping at the Rockville location. There's a lot of other legitimately ethnic stuff, too, though I do appreciate the wide variety of Goya dried beans. Meat can be hit or miss, but I did luck out one Easter with a $10 spiral cut ham that fed a whole army and happened to also be delicious.

Hate: Hate may be a strong word, for once. I am very forgiving of Shoppers' shortcomings, because at least it acknowledges them by billing itself as a warehouse. Safeway, on the other hand, does not always seem all that safe. Still, I recommend you tread carefully at Shoppers: examine produce closely and check expiration dates.

In short: Go go Goya!

H Mart

Love: H Mart is a Korean grocery chain not for the prudish of palate. If pickled pig's feet and ugly fruit are your thing, you will love it here. I sure do, but mostly for the prices, not because I buy that many exotic items. The place gets packed on weekends and it's not uncommon to hear shoppers sniping at one another in loud Korean or Vietnamese. I think this, along with the incredible variety of produce, meat (and meatlike things), and seafood, makes for one of the more interesting shopping experiences you will find in the DC area.

Hate: Locavores, stay away. Just about everything is imported. Also, though H Mart does carry non-exotic items like milk, eggs, and bread, these can be found a lot cheaper elsewhere.

In short: Go here for rice, tofu, coconut milk, soy sauce, chili sauce, basically anything with an Asian flair, and just about every kind of common fruit and vegetable, plus some very unusual ones. Oh, and don't forget the pig uterus.


Snider's, a Silver Spring institution, is old as dirt. This of course adds to its appeal, since everything else in these parts is so damn new. It's also one of few independent grocery stores left in the area, which earns it a very privileged status in teetotaling Montgomery County: yes, it sells beer and wine, too! There are some pretty good sales here, most of them organized on a shelf near the entrance of the store, or in bins toward the dairy department. The other day my roommate brought home a bunch of spices all priced around $1. Most notably, of all the grocery stores on this list, Snider's has the best value on meat and produce (ask my mother, a champion grocery shopper whose experience and expertise far outpaces my own, if you don't believe me).

Hate: Brand names and prepackaged items are pretty expensive here (and there's no generic, obv). Also, the aisles are really narrow and the parking lot is often jammed. I'm wracking my brain to think of bad things to say about Snider's. It's really a good place -- just not for everything.

In short: Stick to meat, dairy, sale items (all clearly marked in the same sections), and beer and wine, and avoid most other things.

Friday, November 6, 2009

International Potato Week 2009: Friday

I probably should be writing about potato soup instead of potato salad, given how cold it is today, but I don't think Potato Week is complete without this recipe (also, all the potato soups I've made are pretty run-of-the-mill variations on baked potato soup). However, my potato salad is the best there is, and here's why: it's not actually my potato salad but that of Ina Garten, also known as the Barefoot Contessa.

Say what you will about Ina's unabashed love of all things East Hampton, but the lady can cook. If you've ever watched her Food Network show, you may have noticed she's also really good at befriending gay Broadway producers, finding new uses for Pernod, and making eyes at her elfin husband, Jeffrey. But an economical cook she is not. She makes scrambled eggs with cream. She tops spaghetti with caviar. She fills pot pies with lobster tail. She makes cheese steaks with New York strip. And her house! Good grief, it's one of those cedar-shingled, Dutch-style, 8,000 square foot "cottages" that's practically dangling in the ocean. Oh, Ina, won't you let me spend the night? I can picture it now: the aroma of fresh-baked coffee cake and "good quality bacon" will find its way to one of the guest rooms, where I'll be slowly waking up from the best sleep of my life, on crisp, white, $400 sheets. I'll come downstairs, help myself to a Campari Orange Spritzer, and make cheerful chitchat with the two or three gay friends who've stopped by en route to Manhattan. In the afternoon, we'll set out in your gleaming silver Benz and hit the farm stand, the bakery, the butcher shop, and the fishmonger. Then we will come home, "assemble" our lunch -- I know how you favor assembling over cooking -- and carry it out to the beach in a wicker picnic basket. When the day is done, cute little Jeffrey will give me a lift to the LIRR, we'll talk about his Henry Kissinger days, and I'll be depressed the whole train ride home and probably for the next month. Oh, Ina, I want your life!

But I can't have Ina Garten's life, so I will have to live vicariously through her recipes - at least the few I can afford, such as this one for potato salad. This is not the hardboiled-egg-and-mayo-drenched version that ends up at every potluck and barbecue. That stuff is for the proles. This kind is high-class, with a punchy vinaigrette and a smattering of fresh herbs. There's a lot of ingredients, but you can definitely cut some of them out and still make a damn good potato salad. Here's Ina's recipe, with my tried-and-true suggestions for cheapening things up in parentheses.

Recipe: Aspirational Potato Salad
Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Makes 4 to 6 side dish servings.

1 lb small white boiling potatoes
1 lb new potatoes (you can make this with just one kind of potato; Ina happens to like the color)
2 T good dry white wine (I say you can use bad wine, or none at all)
2 T chicken stock (I've left this out before because I didn't have any. NP. You can also leave it out if you want to make this a vegan dish.)
3 T Champagne vinegar (who has Champagne vinegar? Use whatever vinegar want, but definitely use it.)
1/2 t dijon mustard (crucial -- I might even bump it up to a whole t)
2 t Kosher salt (or table salt if that's all you've got)
3/4 t freshly ground black pepper (non-negotiable)
10 T good olive oil (if, by "good," you mean the huge $5.49 bottle at TJ's? Then, yes, good.)
1/4 C minced scallions, white and green parts (hey, at least she's using the whole plant. I prefer to leave these in, but I've made the salad without. If you have some of the other herbs, they won't be missed too much.)
2 T minced fresh dill (Ina LOVES her dill. It definitely goes well with potatoes, but again, if you have some of the other herbs you can leave it out.)
2 T minced fresh flat-leaf parsley (ditto scallions and dill. You can also use the declasse curly parsley, if that's what you got.)
2 T julienned basil leaves (ditto scallions, dill, and parsley)

Put the potatoes in a large pot and fill with enough water to cover them by a few inches. Bring to a boil and continue boiling for 20 to 30 minutes, until they are just cooked through. Drain in a colander with a towel over it and allow them to steam for another 10 minutes. Once they are cool enough to handle, cut the potatoes into quarters (alternatively, you can cut them before boiling and then boil for a shorter time, as I prefer to do). Toss them with the wine and chicken stock (if using; if not, just set aside, or mix in the dressing if you have already made it).

To make the dressing (which you can do while the potatoes cook), whisk together the vinegar, half a teaspoon of salt, and the pepper, and slowly whisk in the olive oil to make an emulsion. Add the vinaigrette, the rest of the salt, and the herbs to the potatoes, and toss. Serve warm or at room temperature (cold is also just fine).

Above photo from Ina's column for House Beautiful

Thursday, November 5, 2009

International Potato Week 2009: Thursday

Yesterday and the day before we traveled to faraway lands, but today we're sticking close to home, specifically a kitchen that's piled high with dirty dishes and reeking of skunked beer. This potato recipe is quick and dirty, like really dirty. Perfect for those mornings when you wake up with mascara under your eyes and a buzzing in your brain. Perfect for any time, really, if you are not at all concerned about heart disease, the effects of nitrates, or your physique. Everything is cooked in bacon fat (including the bacon, of course).

Recipe: Hangover Hash Browns with Bacon and Eggs
Serves...however many can stand it, or just 2.

Okay, there's not a formal recipe for this, but here's the gist. Cook 5 or 6 strips of bacon in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, chop up a potato or two into 1/2 inch cubes. When the bacon is done, remove it from the pan, but reserve the fat, and set the bacon aside. Add the potatoes to the pan and cook in the bacon grease for 20 minutes or till crispy. If you're not too hung over to remember, season them with garlic powder, salt, pepper, and cayenne (or whatever). If the pan seems too dry, add some vegetable oil. Remove the potatoes from the pan, reduce the heat to low-medium, and add a bit of vegetable oil if most of the bacon fat has been cooked away, and break two eggs into the pan. If you like your eggs over-easy, flip them once. If you like them sunny side-up, don't flip them at all. Cook them till they are a doneness you like. Then mix everything together -- the bacon, crumbled, and the potatoes, and top with the fried eggs. Feel better soon...or go puke, I don't judge.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

International Potato Week 2009: Wednesday

Yesterday our potatoes took us to the Canary Islands; today we are off to Calcutta. Amazing how a tuber can transport you from your dingy office in doleful NoPe to a vibrant exotic locale. The following South Indian recipe is adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking, and it produces the most pleasantly piquant potatoes you will ever eat. Seriously. If you don't take my word for it, take Madhur's: "Can you imagine cubes of potato encrusted with spicy, crisply browned ginger-garlic paste? Add to that a hint of fennel, if you want it. That is what these potatoes taste like." As she suggests, they are the potatoes of your dreams.

Recipe: Sookhe aloo (dry potatoes with ginger and garlic)
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking (1983). Makes 2 servings.

If you already have the spices, this dish costs about 50 cents to make. Madhur Jaffrey's recipe has you boiling the potatoes "in their jackets," then letting them cool, peeling them, and finally frying them. If you are a purist about ethnic recipes, go ahead (all Madhur's potato recipes involve this long process), but I find it's a whole lot quicker to just peel the potatoes raw and fry them -- and the results are still delicious. I add a few glops of plain yogurt at the end, for tartness and texture. The spice paste would also be great as a marinade.

5 T vegetable oil
1 t fennel seeds (optional, but highly recommended)
2 large baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 2-inch piece of fresh ginger (or 1 t ground ginger)
1/2 t ground turmeric
1 t salt
1/2 t cayenne pepper
2 T water
A few spoonfuls of yogurt (optional)

Special equipment: mortar and pestle or food processor

Heat the oil in a nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, till they are starting to brown, about 20 minutes. While the potatoes are cooking, make the spice paste: in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle, grind together the garlic, ginger, turmeric, salt, and cayenne, and add the water a little bit at a time. Set aside. Add the fennel seeds to the pan and cook for an additional two minutes. Stir in the spice paste and cook for yet another two minutes. Remove from heat and stir in yogurt, if using. Serve warm.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

International Potato Week 2009: Tuesday

This next potato recipe comes from Jose Andres, owner of Jaleo and a few other DC-area restaurants and boisterous personality behind the PBS cooking show, Made in Spain. I always order the papas arrugas -- baby fingerling potatoes with a to-die-for cilantro and cumin mojo verde -- so I was delighted to catch the Made in Spain episode where he shows you how to make them at home. They're easy, cheap, and positively divine, or "astonishing!" as Jose would say. I do not have exact directions for the original recipe so the following is my own interpretation, and it has served me well. Also, you should definitely watch Made In Spain, even if you don't like to cook. You will find yourself talking like Jose and dreaming of Iberia.

Recipe: Papas Arrugas
Adapted from Jose Andres. Makes 4 side dish servings.

The sauce alone is a keeper. You can serve it with anything -- chicken, fish, other veg, bread. I eat it with a spoon. My stomach growls at the very thought. Baby fingerling potatoes are hard to find, but you can use any fingerling or even boiling potatoes. Right now Trader Joe's has bags of these cute little mini boiling potatoes, which I have been using.

Don't be afraid of the amount of salt you are using; it's more a part of the cooking process than the actual flavor. The salt is used to make the skin cute and crinkly -- apparently how they do it in the Canary Islands, where this dish originates.

2 lbs. fingerling or boiling potatoes
kosher or sea salt, lots of it
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bunch of cilantro, well-washed, including stems
1 t ground cumin
1 t pimenton (smoked paprika)
1/2 C olive oil
1 T sherry vinegar (optional -- but Jose adds this to everything)
salt and pepper to taste

Special equipment: mortar and pestle or food processor

Add the potatoes to a large pot, and add enough water to the pot to just barely cover them. Add about a quarter cup of salt, and cook on medium-high heat for 25 minutes, or until most of the water is evaporated and the potatoes are soft. Drain in a colander and set aside. If the potatoes have too salty a coating for your taste, you can wipe them off with a paper towel.

While the potatoes are cooking, make the sauce: with a mortar and pestle or the food processor, grind together the garlic, cilantro, cumin, and pimenton. Slowly add the olive oil, grinding all the while, till everything is fully incorporated. Add the vinegar if you're using it and salt and pepper to your taste, and serve with the potatoes.

Monday, November 2, 2009

International Potato Week 2009: Monday

There is probably already a national potato month or something like that, but I can't wait any longer. I am on a ravenous potato rampage, and I also haven't written anything in awhile (I'm sure you have been completely adrift without me). I formally declare the first week of November International Potato Week, which seems fitting since it's also right after Halloween -- potatoes are great diet food -- and coincides with the dark days of the Time Change -- potatoes are great comfort food, if you'll forgive my use of that stupid term.

I will be posting a favorite potato recipe every day, Monday through Friday. Some are invented, some are adapted, and all are unanimously believed to be delicious by those who have tried them. I wouldn't want anyone thinking I am blinded by love for the tuber (such an accusation has been brought against me before). Because it seems appropriate for the season, I may also include a recipe or two for sweet potatoes. But I have only five days, and there are about a billion things one could do to a potato, so I may end up sticking to the lighter-fleshed variety. We shall see how this exciting week unfolds!

Recipe: Olive Oil Mashed Potatoes with Feta and Roasted Broccoli
Makes about 3 main course or 5 side dish servings. Lasts up to five days and reheats well in the microwave.

This recipe's title bears the style of a food snob, but I couldn't think of anything better to call it without getting all Rachael Ray: "Cheesy Green Tater Smash'ems" or "EVOO Greeked Out Broccatoes" were options. Its main ingredients, all fairly common in most households, include potatoes, olive oil, some kind of green vegetable, and some kind of cheese -- making it essentially a deconstructed stuffed baked potato, but without the butter and sour cream. And, like the potato itself, the recipe is very versatile.

I came up with it when I found that the last few potatoes left in my 20-lb. bag from Costco had started sprouting coral reef-like growths. Most people in developed countries would throw the potatoes away at this point, but I was unfazed and just peeled them to make mashed potatoes. I also had a couple stalks of broccoli that were starting to turn, and wanted to add those to the mix. What came from these two humble old vegetables was one of the best and easiest potato dishes I have ever eaten. Of course, you do not need to wait till your potatoes and broccoli become potential health hazards to make this dish, but it is a good way to use up aging refrigerables.

While the potatoes boil, you cook the broccoli or whatever green vegetable you want to use. Spinach, chard, and other leafy greens are nice alternatives because you don't have to cook them; they just wilt in the warm potatoes. Also, the cheese does not have to be feta -- just about any cheese will be good.

3 large baking potatoes
2 stalks of broccoli
2 T olive oil, plus an additional half cup of olive oil
1 to 2 t hot or smoked paprika
2 t fresh rosemary leaves, chopped (optional)
1/4 C crumbled feta cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Peel the potatoes, cut them into chunks, and add them to a large pot filled with about 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil and continue to boil for about 25 minutes. While the potatoes are cooking, chop the broccoli stems and florets into bite sized pieces. Toss them with the 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the paprika, then spread them evenly on a baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, then set aside.

When the potatoes are soft when pierced with a fork, drain them in a colander and return to the pot, but place on a different burner that is set to low heat. Add the quarter-cup of olive oil along with the broccoli, feta, and rosemary and mash with a potato masher till you get a consistency you like. Add salt and pepper to your taste (with the feta and paprika, it might be seasoned enough for some tastes, but I add an extra teaspoon or so of salt and a vigorous grinding of pepper). Serve warm.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What to serve picky eaters

Sometimes I think, how nice it would be to have my own family to cook for. Then I quickly come to my senses when I remember that most children refuse to eat most things -- a most unattractive quality. Not to mention, children are the dead opposite of economical, unless, of course, you live on a farm. As the saying goes, if you're old enough to read, you're old enough to drive a tractor.

But back to picky eater children: I know how awful they are, because I was one. If my parents had had any sense, they would've sent me back. Instead, they put up with my nonsense for years, which meant they ate fried pork chops and instant mashed potatoes about four nights a week. Sometimes I would let my mom mix it up, literally, with some Shake 'n' Bake. But I didn't even help.

I do not blame my parents for my childhood pickiness. They tried to get me to eat a variety of foods, and my three brothers have always been agreeable eaters. The problem was me, violently obstinate in my refusal to eat, say, all vegetables. I recall one particular episode in which trying a mere morsel of baked sweet potato sent me into a fit of gags and tears. My parents knew I would simply perish if not for Hungry Jack.

Twenty years later, one night I found myself on the other side, trying to figure out what to cook for the picky kids -- specifically, my stepcousins once removed. My cousin, their stepmother, told me ahead of time what they eat, which is...pretty much nothing, or sometimes chicken. Meanwhile, my cousin is a vegetarian who eats fish, and she was going to be there, too. In my head I made a Venn diagram of things that every dinner guest would enjoy. The overlapping part of the circles was empty.

I am not so presumptuous as to think I can influence anyone's eating habits, so I was not about to force anything unusual on my persnickety-palated guests. Besides, I figure, most picky eaters eventually outgrow those palates, as I have done. But I was also not about to let anyone at my table go hungry, so I determined to make something, anything, that would sate the kids for one meal and that everyone else would be willing to eat. The only solution I could come up with was pasta. We fancy grown-ups could dress ours with shrimp and scallops, and the young'uns could enjoy some spaghetti and meatballs. It seemed easy enough.

Well. It turns out that not all children like spaghetti and meatballs. These ones like their pasta with butter and cheese only, and lots of it. Luckily, that option was available, too. Their dad, however, could not get enough of my spaghetti (well, fettucine) and meatballs, for which I was very grateful. I certainly did not make three different pasta dishes for my health.

Recipe(s): Pasta for Persnickety Palates (Pasta Three to Five Ways)

Makes about 8 servings. Basically, you make one big batch of fettucine, or whatever long pasta you prefer, and separate it into three different bowls (or more if your guests are extra particular) before serving. The tomato sauce and meatballs can be made a few days in advance.

For pasta:

A large pot filled at least halfway with cold water
One and a half boxes of fettucine (or spaghetti or capellini)
Butter or olive oil

Boil the water. Once boiling, add a couple teaspoons of salt, return to the boil, then add the pasta, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn't stick together. Drain, reserving a tablespoon or so of the pasta water, and return to the pot. If not serving immediately, toss with a bit of butter or olive oil to keep it moist.

For tomato sauce and meatballs (this should be made well in advance of the pasta, as it takes about two and a half hours in total):

1.5 lbs ground beef
2 minced garlic cloves
2 T minced shallot or onion
1 t ground fennel seeds (optional, but highly recommended)
1 piece of bread, turned into bread crumbs in the food processor
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 beaten egg
2 T milk
2 T olive oil, plus more if necessary
1 onion, cut in half
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 (28 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
1 (28 oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes
1 t dried basil
1 t dried oregano
1 t hot paprika
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste

To assemble the meatballs, mix the ground beef with the next 8 ingredients in a large bowl with your hands. Roll meatballs of about an inch in diameter (should make 30-40 meatballs). Heat the oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the meatballs, in batches if necessary, and cook till browned all around, stirring occasionally to make sure they cook evenly.

If you have guests who do not eat tomato sauce but do eat meatballs (these people do exist), or vice versa, and others who eat both, you have three options: remove enough meatballs for the anti-tomato guest to have his fill, and finish cooking them in a different pan over medium heat; or remove the meatballs that will eventually be cooked with the sauce and finish cooking the meatballs for anti-tomato guest in the original pot, then remove them and re-add the meatballs that will go into sauce; or start the tomato sauce and remaining ingredients in an entirely different pot to make a vegetarian ragu. Good grief.

Now that that issue has been taken care of, however you decided to approach it or not, add the two onion halves to the pot, plus a tablespoon or so of olive oil if the pot has dried up, and cook over medium-high heat. Once the onions are softened (after about five minutes), add the tomatoes, basil, oregano, paprika, and bay leaves. Break up the whole tomatoes a bit. Bring sauce to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and cook for two hours. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For seafood sauce:

3 T butter
1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 lb scallops
2 T cream (optional)
2 T chopped fresh parsley

Heat the butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Once melted, add the shrimp and cook for a couple minutes on each side, till both sides are pink. Remove from pan and set aside. Add scallops to pan, and cook for about a minute on each side, or till both sides are slightly browned. Remove from heat, and return shrimp to pot. Add cream, if using, and parsley.

For plain boring sauce:

4 T (half a stick) butter
1 C grated Parmesan
a sprinkling of salt

As if you need explanation: just add this to some cooked pasta.

To tie everything together for your Party of Persnickety Palates:

Make the tomato sauce and meatballs well in advance of the dinner gathering. About a half hour before guests arrive, start peeling and deveining the shrimp, grate a whole lot of Parmesan, and chop up some parsley for the shrimp and scallop sauce. About 20 minutes before guests arrive, set the water to boil, and cook the pasta. While it's boiling, reheat the tomato sauce and meatballs, and cook the shrimp and scallops. When pasta is done cooking, divide it onto at least three platters or large bowls, depending on the number of sauce varieties you make, and sprinkle all with extra Parmesan. Garlic bread and a salad are the only sides you need.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

First Catering Gig: Lessons Learned

My friend Sara was kind enough to refer me to her parents, who hired me to cater a luncheon they hosted today for a group from their church. I was, of course, disappointed in my debut, but, lucky for me, the hosts were very kind and easy-going.

I've thrown enough parties that I thought this affair, a lunch for just 14 people, would be a no-brainer, but I was wrong. Under pressure, I made a lot more mistakes than I usually do (which, in total, means a LOT of mistakes), but this time the stakes were higher. Yes, I was getting paid, which is both fantastic and completely new, but any time something goes wrong at a party I'm hosting at my house we can just drink enough to compensate, and, I presume, my friends will still like me either way (if this is not true, dear friends, please speak up in the comments section and I will find another hobby). Cooking for someone else's party, I found, was a whole 'nother animal.

I didn't make anything that difficult; even my two poached salmon were surprisingly easy -- you just make a foil pouch for each fish, fill it with chicken stock and some lemon juice, and bake it for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. But, for some reason -- I think a combination of nerves, carelessness, bad planning, and inexperience -- things didn't go as smoothly as I hoped. Some lessons:

1) It's difficult to cook and serve at the same time: I am both cheap and controlling, but it would've been well worth it to pay for a helper or two.

2) There are shortcuts I normally don't take when cooking at home that I absolutely should have taken this time; e.g., when catering a party, don't make your own chicken stock or your own bread. No one can tell the difference, or, at least, no one cares.

3) Strictly follow recipes you know to be reliable, or don't stray too far off the beaten path. I tried to get fancy with potatoes -- potatoes! my favorite and my staple -- only to find I had tried too hard. I made scalloped potatoes with feta and olives, something I've mentioned before in this blog, but, fearing that this quantity would not bake evenly, I boiled them for too long before baking them, thinking it would help the baking along. The result was waterlogged potatoes soaked in brine. Too bad, because other times I've served them they've been a huge hit.

4) There are few things worse than lukewarm soup -- I put a pot of butternut squash and roasted garlic bisque on the burner at a point that I amateurishly deemed too early, and so turned off the burner prematurely. The problem came when I started ladling the room temperature soup into bowls, complete with a garnish of homemade garlic bread croutons and fresh sage. The result of this oversight was a mad rush, and a rejuvenated appreciation for the microwave.

5) If you are serving some kind of spinach dish as the vegetable, and you have prepared it ahead of time at home, do not reheat it at the party. Just serve it at room temperature. Trust me! No one wants to eat airplane food on land.

6) With apologies to Laurie Colwin, who said the same thing in More Home Cooking, always buy more lemons than you think you need (this involved an extra trip to the store at 7:30 this morning).

7) At the same time, don't be discouraged if not everyone squeezes lemon juice onto their salmon -- even after you "plated" lemon slices as a pretty and functional garnish.

8) Though it may depend on the crowd, make a bit less than you think you need (see #6 -- there are exceptions made for particular ingredients). This goes against everything I ever learned about cooking for a party, but I fear it's true: I eat more than most people do, and my views of a serving size are skewed.

9) A good dessert can always help you redeem yourself after a mediocre meal. Try this upside-down chiffon cake, and use whatever fruit is seasonable. I used apples this time.

10) Realize that you, as the caterer, care much more about food perfection than any of the guests -- and possibly even the hosts -- do, and try not to beat yourself up over little mishaps, especially on your first try.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Recipe Redux: A Crazy Rant

Almost every time I read the "Recipe Redux" column in the New York Times magazine, I am reminded that I should have been born at least fifty years earlier. "Recipe Redux" works like this: the Times' food editors choose an archived recipe, reprint it, and create a similar, more updated version. It's the updated part that I can't come to grips with, that sometimes spirals me into the darkest of depressions.

Take, for instance, Huguenot Torte, a recipe Craig Claiborne printed in 1965 with permission from The First Ladies' Cookbook. This recipe was featured in the chapter on Mrs. Martin Van Buren - anachronistically, it turns out, since the recipe postdates President Van Buren's term by an entire century. Whatever its origins, it looks like one for the Economical Epicurean's files: a few easy steps yield a crisp crust and a custardlike filling with apples and pecans, which are likely the only ingredients you might need to go out and buy.

Fast forward to the present: Huguenot Torte 2009 is not a torte, or anything you would bake in a dish, but "Thyme-Meringue Cookies with Boozy Apple," created by a woman who wrote a book called Organic and Chic. Go figure. In my nostalgic discontentment, I created this chart to compare the two recipes:

Recipe Name Huguenot
Thyme-Meringue Cookies with Boozy Apple (2009)

Number of words
in name



Number of



Amount you
might have to
spend (in 2009)
to have a
ingredient list


$30 (Maker's Mark
is an ingredient)

Number of steps



"rotary beater"
(I think this means electric mixer),
whisk, baking

two baking sheets;
parchment paper; small, heavy-bottomed pan; food processor; standing mixer; piping bag with tip; cup for piping bag to "rest in"

Maybe you can appreciate my consternation by now? And it's not only the multitude of steps and the extensive and expensive batterie de cuisine needed to make Huguenot Torte 2009 that bring on my existential crisis. It's also the social ramifications! Let me clarify: torte is a group dessert, it's something you cut into and pass around; cookies are more often eaten alone, frequently on the fly, or sometimes while you sit at your cubicle, staring at your computer screen with dead eyes. Torte brings people together; cookies encourage isolation. And notice how these thyme-meringue-boozy cookies are piped out onto a cookie sheet: identical but spaced apart, conformist without coalescence. Cookies -- and, in particular, cupcakes, which are in essence cake for loners -- are tearing at the fabric of society!

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest. I have a flair for the melodramatic and a bad case of PMS. A cookie or four will help me feel better.

(Above photo credit:

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Sometimes we all got to swim upstream"

[If you can identify the above lyrics without googling, I will make you breakfast.]

Attention, shoppers! Trader Joe's now sells Smoked Salmon Pieces for $1.99 a pack! Now you can soak up some alpha omegas, enjoy wholesome salty deliciousness, and stay true to your Economical self.

What are Smoked Salmon Pieces? Why, they are pieces of smoked salmon, just like the kind you might buy if you were rich! The main difference, I guess, is that they are smaller than the ones normally encountered on a bagel. I think these are the leftover bits that are not big enough to sell for six or eight bucks. But, you do the math and tell me which is the better deal!

I've been buying Smoked Salmon Pieces as if the apocalypse were coming. Lately, my work-a-day lunch is crackers and cream cheese with the smoked salmon and a few capers. (To keep costs even lower, I buy generic brand cream cheese by the block - it's a lot cheaper than the kind that comes in a tub.) Last night I decided to be a bit more creative and, if I may boast, made one of the most delicious quiches I have ever eaten.

Recipe: Deconstructed Lox Bagel Quiche
Serves 8, and lasts for about a week. Great hot, cold, or at room temperature. I think it tastes better a day after you make it than it does fresh out of the oven. The custard filling is made with milk instead of heavy cream, so it's a bit lower in fat than most quiche recipes. But the consistency is still very creamy, thanks to the cream cheese (hmm, maybe it is not that much lower in fat than most quiche recipes - so much for my birthday diet). The flaky pastry crust is delicious and easy. Crust is best when the fat mixed into it is very cold, so I recommend putting the butter, after it's been cubed, and the shortening into a bowl and freezing them for about 10 minutes before mixing.

1 Basic Pastry Dough (see recipe below); a store-bought quiche crust, though not as delicious, is a time-saving alternative
about 8 or 10 dried beans for weighing down the crust during parbaking process
4 eggs
1.5 C milk
3 T flour
1/2 t ground mustard
1/2 t salt
1/2 t ground pepper
about 1/4 block of cream cheese, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 medium tomato, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
2 T capers
2 T minced shallots (optional, but recommended)
Smoked Salmon Pieces (use the whole bag if you're feeling spendy; if not, just use about half of it)
a few teaspoons of chopped fresh parsley (optional; dill would also be good if you have some)

Press the pastry dough into the bottom and sides of a pie or tart pan, making sure it's very thin and evenly spread. Poke several holes in the bottom and sides with a fork. If using a pie pan, use the fork to create decorative indentations around the edges of the crust. Chill in the fridge for a half hour. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove crust from fridge, and scatter the dried beans around the bottom to weigh it down. Bake it for 20 minutes; remove from oven, remove the beans, and bake the crust again for another ten minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a rack, keeping the oven turned on.

Meanwhile, make the custard: whisk together the eggs, milk, flour, mustard, salt, and pepper. Set aside.

Once crust has cooled down, scatter the cream cheese, tomato, capers, shallots, salmon, and parsley around as if decorating a pizza. Pour the custard over the crust, and bake for 40 to 45 minutes. The center might be a little jiggly, but not liquid. Cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Recipe: Basic Pastry Dough
Adapted from the Gourmet cookbook. Makes enough dough for 1 regular pie pan or 10-inch tart pan. There will probably be extra dough, which you can shape into muffin tins or freeze for later. This is a really good recipe for flaky pastry, and it has become my standby for quiche, tart, and pie crusts. When I use it to make a dessert, I add a tablespoon of sugar.

1.25 C flour
3/4 stick cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 T cold vegetable shortening (yes, Crisco -- don't hate, appreciate)
1/4 t salt
3 T ice water

In a medium bowl, blend together the flour, butter, shortening and salt with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs (a few lumps can be pea-sized, but the rest should be crumbly). Drizzle in the ice water evenly and continue mixing until a dough is formed. Squeeze a handful or so -- if it crumbles apart, add more water, just a tablespoon at a time, till the dough comes together. (For even less work, you may do all the aforementioned steps in a food processor -- make coarse crumbs and a few pea-sized pieces, then add the water and pulse a few times till dough is formed.)

Turn the dough onto a work surface and divide into four portions. Using the heel of your hand, push down on each portion once to distribute the fat. Roll them all together to make a single ball of dough again. Cover it in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator at least an hour.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Eat more beets

From whence this back flab and these love handles? I thought we were supposed to lose weight in the summertime.

But the summer is over, I'm about to turn 27, and I'm fatter than ever. Well, probably not fat by American standards, but heavier than appropriate for my frame. I think I'm even starting to grow jowls.

Time to stop making this and that, and stick to just vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. In particular, I must stop baking so much. Even when I bake for the sole purpose of gift-giving, I end up eating the raw dough equivalent of about 12 cookies. I also need to stop buying lunch, so that's adios to tacos con chivo and empanadas from NoPe's many fine dining establishments. And I really need to cut back on the alcohol, or at least modify my habits. By the way, did you know a frozen margarita contains roughly 700 calories? Vodka martinis from here on out, hold the vermouth and olive. Better yet, I'll just have ice water and get bored after 30 minutes at the bar. What fun my 27th year is going to be.

I can seek both consolation and a smaller waist in the crunchy deliciousness of good salads, like this one I made recently. Partially inspired by a recipe in Gourmet's September issue, it contains beets, which took me all of 27 years to learn to like. The beet was just about the only vegetable I disliked, and wrongfully so. I mean, it's a cheap root vegetable with some edible greens attached! It's like we were made for each other! In this salad the beets are chopped into cute little matchsticks, making the transition to beetlove a lot easier than it might be if you tried to boil up a bunch and eat them in one sitting. It's similar to dating: you think the guy's ill-mannered and unattractive at first -- and let's not even talk about his sweating problem and tendency to overuse "whatnot" -- but slowly, surely, you will cave, and come to appreciate that he's actually good for you and has a nice dark pinkish-purple interior. I get a little crazier with every passing year. Happy birthday to me!

Recipe: Beginner's Beet and Apple Salad

Makes 6 side dish servings. Inspired by Gourmet, whose recipe is just beets, parsley, and goat cheese. No goat cheese in my version, and it's fine without. But I still wanted it to be a fairly substantial salad, so I added some greens and an apple, which is also chopped into matchsticks like the beets. This salad is really good, really good for you, and really crunchy! To make it more filling, consider adding walnuts, sunflower seeds, or almonds. Also, unlike most dressed salads, this one actually tastes better the next day. Oh, and if you have just gotten a manicure or you are having tea with the Queen tomorrow, don't make it -- or wear gloves if you do. Beet juice stains like whoa.

2 small beets, peeled and chopped into matchstick-size pieces, plus their greens
juice of half an orange
1 apple, chopped into match-stick size pieces (squeeze a bit of lemon juice onto these -- it will keep them from browning right away)
1 quarter of a medium onion, thinly sliced
1 C loosely packed, chopped fresh parsley (I think some mint in here would also be good)
juice of one lemon (or a bit less if you want to lemonize the apple)
1/2 lb salad greens (arugula, spinach, frisee, or whatever you want)
a big drizzle of olive oil
fresh ground pepper

In a large bowl, stir the orange juice into the beets, then add the apple, onion, parsley, and lemon juice. Add the salad greens and a big drizzle of olive oil and toss everything together. Finish with some pepper.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Let them eat green goop

Awhile back I wrote about new uses for old -- or, to put it more gently, no longer very youthful -- herbs. As they say, age before beauty, though I may be the first person to apply that phrase to food. Anyway, one day I wanted to make pesto, but had neither basil, nor pine nuts, nor very much olive oil, three of pesto's most essential ingredients. Thus, I created Poor Man's Pesto, a rebellious yet delightful interpretation of the classic green goop.

Recipe: Poor Man's Pesto
Makes about 1 cup. Because I use less olive oil, it has a chunkier, more chimichurri-like consistency than commercial pesto does. You do not need to be as stubbornly spartan as I sometimes am; feel free to use all olive oil instead of my cheapskate mix of oil, vinegar, and water. I do feel strongly, however, that everyone should consider using sunflower seeds instead of pine nuts -- they taste great and cost about one-fifth as much. Also, because of the oil and water combination, the pesto will separate after refrigeration; just give it a stir and everything will be fine.

2 C loosely packed fresh herbs -- I used a mix of parsley, a bit of rosemary (don't go overboard on it), and oregano, all of which I had left over
1/3 C sunflower seeds
2 peeled garlic cloves
2 T olive oil
2 T water
1 T white vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor, pulse together the herbs, sunflower seeds, and garlic cloves a few times. Add the olive oil, water, and vinegar and pulse again till well blended. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bridal Shower Feast

My cousin Ashley's wedding shower, which I hosted last weekend, went off without a hitch, excepting a couple episodes of belligerent Pomeranians trying to murder the cats (not really the dogs' fault, but mine for neglecting my feline brood). A few people have asked me about the menu, which I'm delighted to present here:


-Bruschetta: mine's very basic -- just a few tomatoes, chopped up, with a handful of chopped basil, a few minced garlic cloves, and a tablespoon or so of olive oil, plus salt and pepper. I serve it in a bowl rather than on each individual piece of bread. Much easier for the host!

-Cheese plate with some Stilton, Raclette, and Manchego, all found at Trader Joe's -- in my experience, the only place to buy good cheese without going into foreclosure

-Almost-No-Knead Bread, sliced up for bruschetta and cheese

-Bowl of mixed olives from Shopper's Food Warehouse, which has a surprisingly good olive bar

Main course:

-Special Occasion Chicken Salad -- meat from two roasted chickens, a cup of aioli, a big chopped bell pepper, a bunch of chopped scallions, about a quarter cup of chopped tarragon, a squeeze of lemon, salt, pepper

-Poached Salmon -- thanks, Mom! (The EE ain't in no shape to buy a whole damn fish)

-White bean and tomato salad -- you soak a whole bag of cannelini beans overnight, then boil them the next day till they're soft; then you roast a bunch of cipollini onions in olive oil and a few sprigs of fresh rosemary for about 25 minutes at 300 degrees; add a couple handfuls of grape or cherry tomatoes to the onions and continue roasting for another 15 minutes; mix in with the beans; add ample salt and pepper and parsley and a squeeze of lemon, and serve.

-Delicious late summer salad -- about two pounds of mixed arugula and spinach; a half cup or so of crumbled Stilton (cut off a hunk from the cheese plate); another half cup or so of raw almonds; and two peaches, cut into half-inch chunks. Serve with the best easy dressing: 1 cup of olive oil whisked together with a heaping tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a heaping tablespoon of raspberry preserves. If dressing's too thick for your taste, thin it with a few teaspoons of water.

-Greek-style Scalloped Potatoes: my Aunt Mary had brought these to my Easter party and they were a huge hit, so I attempted to reproduce them -- with minor success. The cookbook I followed was too optimistic about cooking times, so this dish didn't come out till everyone was just about done with the main course (but, good girls they were, they piled it on their plates all the same!). Peel about 12 baking potatoes, and slice them to 1/8" thin, preferably using a mandoline to save time. Layer them in a baking sheet with about two cups of feta cheese and olives. Be sure to add lots of salt and olive oil to keep everything both tasty and moist. If you want, add fresh oregano or rosemary here and there. Bake for about an hour, or till potatoes are soft.


-Flourless Chocolate Cake

-Upside-down Nectarine Chiffon Cake

-Cupcakes (provided by the lovely Erika, one of the bride's friends)

-Vanilla ice cream


-White wine sangria: this time of year, it's one big bottle of vino cheapo (get a sweet white like Riesling), a chopped nectarine, a handful of chopped strawberries, a third-cup of sugar, and about two cups of club soda. Stir everything well, and refrigerate at least an hour before serving. Be sure to double when hosting a lingerie shower for 20 ladies.

-Lemonade: a bag of 6 lemons has been going for just $1.59 at TJ's lately, and when life hands you lemons...anyway, my ratio for making a big pitcher consists of the juice of about 9 small lemons, a cup of sugar, and 5 cups of water.

-Iced tea (provided by Mom -- she won't tolerate anyone else's iced tea)

-Iced coffee: for some reason, people get all precious about the making of iced coffee, and some even buy special iced coffee makers like the Toddy. No need for that -- just brew hot coffee, remove it from the coffee maker and put it on a trivet to cool off, and put it in the fridge to get colder. Duh.

-Cava and Prosecco (much cheaper than good Champagne, and much better than cheap Champagne)

Of course, the bride-to-be and her guests were really the focal point. Everyone seemed to have a great time, and we all wish Ashley the best!

Oh, and a HUGE THANKS to my friend Sarah, the most competent person I know, whose help I could not have done without!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Economical Epicurean Now Caters!

...Or would like to!

Although it's still just in the idea phase, I'm getting to work on opening a (very small, to start) catering business from my home, and I'm really excited about it! This is not to say I'll be quitting my day job -- for now I will keep it a weekend and occasional weeknight gig only (assuming I can get any gigs in the first place!).

Catering businesses are a dime a dozen in the DC area, and I'm sure demand has declined significantly over the past year. I'm hoping I can develop a reputation as the dirt cheap caterer who uses a lot of seasonal ingredients and brings in da funk. Okay, not dirt cheap, but I do want the privilege of continuing to call myself the Economical Epicurean. And I do want to also bring in da funk, whatever that means.

So, if you or any of your friends and associates are planning a party of any kind (well, any party with 100 guests or fewer -- not sure if my kitchen is equipped for more!), consider me! You'll save a lot of money and time and the party will be awesome! I definitely need to come up with a catchier tagline than that.

For more information, email me at Thanks!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Quick Post About Pasta

I can't remember if I've ever posted a pasta recipe, with the exception of one the first recipes I ever put on this blog. That is strange, considering how cheap pasta is and how much of it I eat (apparently in secret). More often I write about beans. The following recipe contains both beans and pasta, and produces an easy and filling dinner that segues easily into a cold or room temperature lunch the next day. The mix of flavors here is not particularly original, but there's a reason we continue to combine garlic, tomatoes, and basil: they're delicious together!

Recipe: Pasta with Chickpeas and Tomatoes
Makes 4 servings.

1 C dried chickpeas, soaked overnight; or 1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 lb. farfalle (bowtie pasta); may also use penne or rigatoni or some other pasta of similar size
1 T olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 t hot or smoked paprika (if you don't have hot paprika, mix 1 t regular paprika and a pinch of cayenne)
1/4 C loosely packed fresh basil, chopped
2 T chopped fresh parsley
1/4 C aioli; if you don't feel like making it, or if you are vegan, use about a tablespoon of minced garlic (the dish will not be as creamy, but you could add a splash of half and half or cream at the end if you want); however, I strongly recommend making aioli if you have time, as it has many uses and tastes heavenly!
salt and pepper to your taste

If using dried chickpeas, boil them in a large pot in the water you used to soak them (why waste?) for an hour or so, or until soft. Drain and set aside, rinse pot, and fill with 2 quarts of water to boil the pasta. Place on burner and set heat to high.

Once water is boiling, add a hearty sprinkling of salt and the pasta. Boil till al dente, about 10 minutes, and drain, reserving a tablespoon or so of pasta water. Add beans to pasta and reserved water.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small or medium frying pan over medium heat. If using raw garlic (not aioli), add it now and cook for two minutes. Add the tomatoes and paprika and cook for two more minutes (tomatoes should not be cooked, just heated). Remove from heat and add the herbs and aioli. Stir tomato-aioli mixture into pasta-beans, season with salt and pepper to your taste, and serve.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Making the Most of Mediocre Fruit

Much like crushed dreams and nose hair, mediocre fruit is an unfortunate fact of life. Even in the prime of summertime, even when we buy it fresh off the farm, there is no guarantee against bruises, puckering, or unpalatable tartness. Fruit, I'm inclined to believe, is vindictive - at least that's an easy way to explain why it can go from beautiful to blighted within the span of a short trip home from the market.

It's inhumane to cook a perfect peach or strawberry, but it's well known that heat gives life to lackluster fruit. Too often, though, recipes involving cooked fruit (pies, cobblers, jams) mandate massive quantities, and we economical epicureans feel left out. While we may occasionally reap the harvest of a benevolent neighbor's garden, we rarely find ourselves with, say, two quarts of blueberries or fifteen plums. But what can we do with those three bruised peaches or that pint of just-okay raspberries?

Happily, I offer two delicious solutions, and neither requires more than two cups of homely fruit.

Solution 1: Preserves

I fear canning, with all its sterilization and strange equipment. Plus, most recipes for jams and jellies assume you have an entire kitchen full of fruit ready to be heated and stored indefinitely. I am pretty convinced that, unless your backyard is an orchard, canning is not an economical option. This recipe is perfect for those who prefer not to take fruit preservation seriously.

It should work with any fruit that might be used in jam, though you may want to experiment with sugar and water quantities (if the preserves seem to be too watery as they cook, you can definitely dump out some of the water). You can also experiment by adding different liqueurs and herbs. I made blackberry preserves with Chambord, a raspberry liqueur that I probably hadn't opened since college. I added two tablespoons for extra flavor. A tablespoon or so of red wine might be good, too, especially with stone fruit (peaches, plums, cherries). Below is the basic recipe; double, triple, or half it depending on the quantities you have. It has great conventional uses (e.g., toast, English muffins, PB&J's), but I recommend using it for scones, salad dressing, and PB&C's.

Recipe: Lonesome Preserves

1 lb (2 C) berries or chopped stone fruit
1/4 C sugar
1/4 C water
optional: 1 T fruity liqueur or red wine, 1 cinnamon stick, 1/2 t ground nutmeg or cinnamon, 1/4 t hot red pepper flakes, or 2 T fresh herbs (basil, rosemary, mint, etc.)

Stir together all the ingredients in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium, keeping at a simmer, stirring frequently, for about 1 hour or till mixture is thickened and reduced by about half. Transfer to a bowl and let cool. If the mixture has a lot of solids (e.g., pits, skin, etc.), pour it into a mesh strainer and use a spoon to push all the liquid out, discarding the solids. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Solution 2: Upside-Down Cake

An upside-down cake is the perfect thing when you have only a few pieces of mediocre fruit -- and when you feel like putting in the time to make an upside-down cake. It's not something many people would make on a whim, but it is great when you're trying to impress company. That is, if you don't make the same mistakes I did the first time I attempted this recipe, which comes from Dorie Greenspan's Baking with Julia, the book that came out of Julia Child's last PBS series. (To be precise, the original recipe is Nectarine Upside-Down Chiffon Cake, but you could also use peaches, apricots, plums, apples, pears. Maybe berries? Who knows, give it a whirl and find out!) I didn't bake the cake long enough and failed to butter the springform pan, so what came out the first time looked like this (after I dumped it into a baking dish and let it cook another 20 minutes):

It was bread pudding, not an upside-down cake. Still tasted great, but not my original intent, which was this:

Got it right on the second try -- typical behavioral pattern for this clumsy baker. This upside-down cake is better than any I've ever had, thanks to a winning combination of fluffy texture, almond streusel, and lots of lemon flavor. The baked fruit is, forgive me, just the icing on the cake, so if your fruit looks good enough to eat -- and thus too good to cook -- feel free to go fruitless.

Recipe: Nectarine (or whatever you want) Upside-Down Chiffon Cake
Adapted from Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

Topping Ingredients:

1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut into 4 chunks
1 C packed brown sugar
2-3 nectarines, peaches, pears, or apples; or 3-4 plums or apricots, and sliced into eighths

Streusel Ingredients:

1/4 C almonds (can also use pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc.)
1/3 C flour
1/4 C packed brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon or nutmeg
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 stick cold unsalted butter
1/2 C quick cooking (not instant) oats

Chiffon Cake Ingredients:

1.5 C sugar
1 C flour
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
4 large eggs, separated
1/2 C vegetable oil
1/2 C fresh lemon juice (from 3 small or 2 large lemons)
2 large egg whites

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

To make the topping, melt the butter in a greased 10" springform pan over medium heat (it's okay to put a springform pan on direct heat). Once the butter is thoroughly melted, remove from heat and sprinkle in the brown sugar slowly and evenly. Press the sugar onto the bottom of the pan so it provides a nice even coating. Then arrange the fruit on top of the butter/sugar layer in an artful circle (or not artful, whatever your style). Wrap the outside of the pan in aluminum foil to keep the butter from dripping. Set aside.

To make the streusel, scatter the almonds on a baking sheet and bake for 7 minutes. Remove from oven and place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor (reserve the baking sheet for later). Once the almonds are cooled, add the remaining streusel ingredients and pulse till you get a consistency of coarse crumbs. Set aside.

To make the cake, sift together 1 cup of the sugar with the flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl. Add the salt. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, oil, and lemon juice. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the egg and oil mixture, whisking all the while. Set aside. Beat all 6 egg whites in a large bowl with an electric mixer with a whisk attachment: start at a low speed and beat the whites until they are foamy and form soft peaks. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat in the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar until whites are thick and shiny and form soft peaks. Fold about 1/3 of the whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it, then fold in the rest till everything is just blended.

Scrape about half the batter into the springform pan, then pour the streusel mixture over it. Scrape the remaining half of the batter in, and set the pan on the baking sheet. Bake for an hour or until the cake is browned and a tester comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before inverting onto a platter.