Monday, March 30, 2009

You turn 85 only once

The birthday girl and me, enjoying cake and ice cream, of course.

Yesterday, my family threw a big party for my grandmother's 85th birthday. In the spirit of this grand occasion, I abandoned all frugal sensibilities and went hog-wild at several different grocery stores. Shrimp! Smoked salmon! Marcona almonds! Goat cheese! Arugula! Belgian endives! Skinny asparagus! Fresh herbs, all different kinds!

Nana herself would have exercised more restraint. Even as her dementia has worsened, she has never let go of her Depression-era ways -- e.g., reusing paper towels and foil and saving the smallest scraps of food -- which people today are adopting for our current situation. But, oh, as M.F.K. Fisher writes in the section "How to Practice True Economy" in How to Cook a Wolf (1942, financially the toughest year of the war), there are occasions when it's acceptable to "throw discretion into the laundry bag, put candles on the table, and for your own good if not the pleasure of an admiring audience make one or another of the recipes in this chapter," which includes lots of luxuries like butter, booze, and cream. And one such occasion is one's grandmother's 85th birthday.

I brought smoked salmon tea sandwiches, biscotti, cabbage salad, and an improvised shrimp pasta salad, but my favorite contribution was a classy little tapas dish I discovered at Jaleo. I hunted down the recipe and found it on the Food Network site for Rachael Ray's $40 a Day -- I guess from an episode where she visits DC -- but changed the proportions significantly. It tastes of early spring, requires no cooking, and went over smashingly at the party. The birthday girl herself didn't take much notice -- these days, all she wants is dessert. And when you're 85, you can have as much as you want.

Recipe: Endive Boats with Oranges, Almonds, and Goat Cheese
Adapted from Jose Andres via the Food Network.
Makes about 40 tapas. Can be covered in plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight.

1/4 C sherry vinegar (I didn't have any, so I used red wine vinegar -- seems fine)
1/2 C olive oil
1 minced garlic clove
1 T minced shallot
dash of salt
dash of pepper
5 Belgian endives
6 small to medium oranges, peeled and cut into pieces about a half-inch long
1 C almonds, coarsely chopped (I used Marcona to be fancy, but any kind should be fine)
4 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
3 T chives, snipped
dash of salt

To make the dressing, whisk together the first five ingredients. Set aside. Cut the roots off the endives, peel off the leaves and lay them down, concave side up. (Some of the leaves might be too small to work as "boats" -- save these for a salad or some other use.) Fill each endive boat first with the oranges (about 4 or 5 pieces each), then with the almonds (about a teaspoon each), then with a sprinkle of the goat cheese and chives. Strain the dressing, keeping the liquid only (you can keep the solids for some other use -- I added them to the shrimp marinade for my shrimp pasta salad). Drizzle about a half teaspoon of the dressing over each boat.

Addendum: later in the springtime, strawberries would be a delicious substitute for the oranges. Also, feta cheese or even blue cheese would be good, and julienned basil or chopped parsley would work in place of chives.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Strangely Delicious: The PB&C

The food writer Michael Ruhlman has a great blog that teaches me how to do all kinds of things I will probably never do, like make my own duck prosciutto. It makes for interesting reading, but I prefer to leave the meat-curing to Sanders, who has made his own bacon (that's not a euphemism in this context) and is planning to build a smokehouse in our backyard.

Recently, Ruhlman introduced his readers to the peanut butter and cabbage sandwich, his go-to weekday lunch. He claims to consume "several pounds" of raw cabbage each week, and credits it for his "virile good health." I like cabbage, and I like peanut butter, and I like the idea of virile good health, so I decided to try it. Indeed, it was delicious. I added a sprinkle of red pepper flakes for some oomph. I think a bit of ginger would be good here, too. Hot pepper jelly would be perfect. Heck, you could spread the peanut-ginger dressing from my last post on two pieces of bread, slap some cabbage up in there, and throw a party in your mouth.

If you're still not convinced, think of this sandwich as a relative of celery sticks and peanut butter, only with a lot more nutrients.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Cilantroversy

It seems no herb but cilantro can provoke such strong opinions. I first witnessed this years ago, working at the Rio Grande Cafe in Bethesda. The special of the day was "Shrimp Acapulco" -- grilled shrimp served over a bed of "cilantro rice" and topped with mango salsa, if I remember correctly. I'm sure it was very thoughtfully named. Anyway, I was describing it (in more detail than what you just read -- this tactic is known as "upselling" in the restaurant world) to a middle-aged couple and their son, during a lunch shift. As soon as I said the word "cilantro," the woman shuddered, "Oh, ugh. I can't stand cilantro." What?? I had just sampled the new special earlier that morning, and I'll be damned if it weren't "out of this world" -- my favorite way to describe food to customers. Plus, I thought, cilantro makes everything better.

It turns out a lot of people hate, hate, this herb. It may just be genetics: a behavioral scientist recently took his cilantro study to the Ohio Twins Festival and found that if one identical twin hated cilantro, chances are the other twin felt the same way. Also, most cilantro-haters detect in it a soapy taste and smell, which strikes me as a genetic kind of thing -- a very scientific opinion, I know. It reminds me a little bit of the asparagus pee phenomenon; studies have shown that eating asparagus always results in an odiferous urine, but not everyone is able to smell it. I'm glad I can't, because it might ruin asparagus for me.

Anyway, cilantro. There have been a number of groups formed on Facebook dedicated to a collective detestation of this most ubiquitous of herbs. The below is a small sampling of the wall posts for the group I HATE CILANTRO, now boasting almost 2,000 members:

"We are born with something people who can tolerate cilantro don't have. It's called a soul."

"Cilantro is just plain vulgar. Its flavor lingers and repeats for at least three days. Reasturants should warn customers about every item that contains it. I HATE IT! It chould be illegal."

"Fresh coriander is an abomination.
It is surely the scent of evil, the stench of hell, the proof that the Enemy is working around us.
On his occasional meetings with the Devil around the turn of the first Millenium, it is reported that St. Julian Hospitaller could always detect the odour of fresh coriander - cilantro. It should never be consumed by human beings and restaurants should ALWAYS have a warning sign for any dishes dishes carrying this noxious weed. I certainly send my food back if they come up with pearls of culinary stupidity as a 'coriander pesto' but they only anounce it as 'pesto'."

Gentle readers, these are highlights from only Page One of the wall posts.

I'm not sure which came first, but there is also a website,, where you can read all about the evils of the herb and the people who cook with it, and order your "I HATE CILANTRO" sweatshirts, messenger bags, throw pillows, mouse pads, and beer steins. There's even a canine-sized "I HATE CILANTRO" t-shirt, for that dog of yours who becomes nauseated at the very thought.

I jest. If cilantro-hating really is a matter of genes, then I can't fault the haters. But, all this hulabaloo against an innocent herb? It's kind of hilarious. I guess I, too, have joined "hater" Facebook groups -- my favorite among them being "If you can't differentiate between your and you're, you deserve to die." But what did cilantro ever do to you? Okay, touche, what did the your/you're offenders ever do to me (besides make grading their English 101 papers extra tedious)?

Well, doggone it, I love cilantro, if you couldn't tell already. I love it so much that I take a long whiff every time I encounter it. Mmmmm! Makes everything seem so fresh! The following two recipes are cilantro-heavy, but if you happen to be a hater, you could just as well make them without the cilantro. I had my parents and two of my brothers over for dinner tonight, and served the cabbage salad as the first course and the soup as the main course, fearing the flavors of each dish were too strong to be served at the same time. Home run! Everyone loved everything (my people don't have the cilantro-hating gene, clearly). Plus, it's all pretty low-fat, and yours truly is looking to get rid of about 10 pounds.

Recipe: Peanut-Ginger Cabbage Salad
The dressing is adapted from 101Cookbooks. Serves 6 as a heavy first course.

For dressing (makes about 1.25 C):
2/3 C creamy peanut butter
1/3 C rice vinegar
1/4 C maple syrup (I was out of maple syrup, so I just used 2 T sugar)
3 T water
2 T tamari (I do not have this, so I substituted soy sauce)
1 T minced fresh ginger (or 1.5 t ground ginger)
2 cloves garlic
1.5 t toasted sesame oil (use regular sesame oil if you don't have the toasted kind)
1/4 t crushed red pepper flakes (omit these if you don't like spicy food)
1 C cilantro

For salad:
1 half of a large head of green cabbage, cut into julienne strips
2 large carrots, coarsely grated
1 red pepper, julienned
2 C broccoli florets (ends of about two broccoli)
juice of half a lime
1/4 C loosely packed mint leaves
1/4 C loosely packed cilantro

To make the dressing, grind together the first nine ingredients in the food processor or blender. Add the cilantro and pulse a few times. Add water as necessary to get a consistency you like for salad dressing. May be refrigerated for up to two days.

To make the salad, toss together all the salad ingredients. Toss with the dressing.

Addendum: Feel free to use any combination of vegetables here. Red cabbage can be substituted. Green beans would be good. A different-colored pepper. Sliced radishes, especially daikon radish. Cucumber might be a nice addition. Red onion, perhaps. Use your imagination!

Recipe: Spicy Chickpea and Tomato Stew
Inspired by Rachael Ray's Indian-Spiced Chickpea and Fire-Roasted Tomato Soup (don't hate). Serves 6.

1 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion, diced
3 15-oz. cans chickpeas, or one and a half bags of dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
3 t ground cumin
1 t garam masala
1 t ground turmeric
1/2 t cayenne pepper or two chopped, seeded dried red chiles (omit if you don't like spicy food)
2 C chickenor vegetable stock
1 C water
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 C cilantro
1.25 C plain yogurt
Pita chips (optional, recipe follows)

Heat a large pot over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the garlic and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add chickpeas and spices. Reduce heat to low-medium and cook another 5 minutes. Add chicken stock and water, increase to medium, bring to a low boil, reduce heat to low-medium, and simmer about 30 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook for another 15 minutes. Reduce heat to low. Ladle soup into bowls and give each a tablespoon or so of cilantro and a dollop of yogurt. Serve with pita chips.

Pita chips: Heat oven to 300 degrees. Take four pieces of pita bread that are about to go stale. Cut each in half crosswise (so each pita becomes two full circles). Slice into fourths. Brush each piece with olive oil on both sides. Sprinkle each side with salt. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until crispy.

Friday, March 13, 2009

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Breakfast of Champions

My new job consists of a lot of things that make me uncomfortable: asking people for work, public speaking, "networking" (I hate that word, but it's not nearly so offensive as "interfacing"), and being addressed as "young lady" by certain colleagues of an older generation. But I 've recently discovered the secret to making at least the first three things a little easier for me: homemade biscotti.

I knew this recipe was a keeper the first time I followed it. Success on the first try is rare for me, a notably absent-minded baker. But the first batch's results -- a super crispy, almond-y, tart breakfast treat, ideally dipped in coffee -- were so good that I presented them as part of a housewarming gift to my friends Brigid and John. Placed in a colander with a pound of coffee, the whole package was very well-received.

Less than a week later, I was brainstorming what kind of "leave-behinds" (another stupid term, like "interface," that I picked up when I worked for the ad agency) my company should bring to client presentations. It seems everyone has more pens, mugs, and stress balls than their desks can handle. Plus, my new company is a start-up, still deep in the red. A homemade leave-behind seemed just the thing!

And sure enough, it was a hit, to quote the client himself. To say the presentation itself was a bit rocky is an understatement. But the silver lining came when the client sent me an email later that day, raving about the biscotti and including a forwarded email from his coworker who wanted the recipe. I have a few other big client presentations lined up over the next couple weeks, and I will be sure to try to win 'em over again in the same fashion. Because it's not what you say, it's how it tastes. Or something.

Recipe: Cran-Almond Biscotti
Adapted from Bon Appetit's Dried Cranberry and White Chocolate Biscotti, via Epicurious. Makes about two and a half dozen cookies.

2.5 C flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1.5 C sugar
1 stick butter, room temperature
2 eggs
1/2 t almond extract
1 C dried cranberries (the original recipe calls for 1.5 C, but I used less for cost-saving purposes, and found the results still cranberryish enough)
1 egg white (optional, in my opinion -- but it creates a pretty, glazed look on the crust)
6 oz. white chocolate, chopped (optional: I also omitted this, and didn't miss it)
Handful of sliced almonds (not in the original recipe, but I added these the second time I made them, and I think this batch was even better than the first!)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium-sized bowl. In a large bowl, beat the sugar, butter, eggs, and almond extract till well blended. Mix in the flour mixture to form a fairly stiff dough, then fold in the cranberries (and the almonds if you are using them).

Pick up the dough and divide it into two halves. With floured hands, shape each dough ball into a log measuring 3" wide, 9.5" long, and 1" high. Transfer these to the baking sheet (you may also shape the log on the baking sheet, which I found easier and more efficient). Whisk the egg white and brush all over each log. Bake till golden brown, 35 minutes.

The "logs" before baking -- I forgot about the egg white this time, and it didn't seem to matter too much. Just a less shiny crust.

Cool completely on a rack, keeping the oven on. Transfer the logs to a cutting board and discard the parchment. Use a serrated knife to cut them on a diagonal into slices about a half-inch wide. Arrange each biscotto cut side down on the baking sheet (you will probably need to get out another baking sheet, unless you want to bake them in shifts). Bake for 10 minutes, then remove from the oven, and flip each biscotto. Bake until they are just beginning to color, 5-7 minutes. Transfer to a rack.

Optional: melt the white chocolate in a heat-proof glass bowl in the microwave in 30-second intervals, stirring in between intervals, until completely melted. Drizzle over the biscotti and let stand about 30 minutes.

Addenda: This recipe is a great template for other biscotti. You could skip the almond extract if you want and add the zest of an orange for Cran-Orange biscotti. You could also use the zest of a lemon, which I think would be great with dried blueberries. You could also add a teaspoon of anise seeds or a half teaspoon of anise extract for a licorice flavor. You could use dried currants instead of dried cranberries. You could drizzle dark chocolate instead of white chocolate. You could replace the dried cranberries with chocolate chips. You could use vanilla extract instead of almond extract. You could add dried cherries, cocoa powder (maybe a half cup? Better look this one up), and hazelnuts. You could use pistachios. Ooh! I want to try lime zest, shredded coconut, and pieces of dried mangoes for a sort of tropical biscotti. The possibilities are endless!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Take Back the Tuber

So, I was in fact too busy with the cabana boys to write anything about my road trip to Florida. Besides, a vacation is not really a vacation if it involves a computer screen. And besides that, I figure no one besides me would find my food finds that interesting. But, if you ever find yourself traveling along both coasts or cruising down Route 1 in the Keys, and you are wondering what to eat, get in touch! I did not have a single unimpressive meal -- and this was almost two whole weeks of road food. Also, and this may come as a surprise, I do sometimes do things that don't involve eating (e.g., sleeping, drinking, lying on the beach, petting stray cats), and I'd be happy to pass that related information along, too.

Me in my bathing suit, Siesta Key, February 2009

But the vacation's over, another new job has begun, and news about the economy (is there any other kind of news?) gets more depressing every day. Well, bless her little heart, Jane E. Brody has come to America's rescue by encouraging us to Take Back the Tuber. I suppose I am amplifying her potato praise a bit -- it covered only two paragraphs or so of her Science Times column on March 2. But it did have its own section heading: "Potatoes: One of the Good Guys." Can I get an Amen?!?!

J. Bro goes on to point out that potatoes, defamed in recent years as nothing but carb-heavy repositories of butter and bacon, provide 35 percent of your daily vitamin C, 20 percent of your B6, 10 percent of your niacin, iron, and copper, and 6 percent of your protein. I'll add to that list that if you eat the skin, you also get a shitload (pun intended) of fiber.

Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love the homely old tuber, any way I can get it. But there's really nothing more comforting -- or more affordable -- than a baked potato. Tonight I topped mine with a tiny bit of butter, some salt and pepper, a whole lot of steamed broccoli, and a couple sprinkles of blue cheese (so tempting, all melty and soft in the potato's heat. Methinks my next career will be the first author of tubercentric romance novels, an untapped genre). Baked potatoes are also great for using up leftovers of almost any kind -- think of them as edible landfills (yes, that makes no sense at all) for chicken salad, ground beef, roasted veg, beans, whatever. I'd like to douse a tater with my dal saag or cilantro-garlic yogurt sauce. Talk about a stimulus package!

If you are one of the poor souls who doesn't know how to bake a potato, 1) you are no friend of mine, and 2) here's how to become my friend: turn your oven on to 400 degrees; take a potato, preferably a "Baking Potato," and scrub it under running water for a few seconds; get fancy if you want and slather that wet potato skin with salt; use a knife or fork to poke a few holes in the skin; put it in the oven for about 45 minutes (longer if you are baking multiple potatoes -- maybe about an hour); take it out of the oven; cut a big slit in it lengthwise and get creative with your toppings. Or use just a little bit of butter, salt, and pepper (just salt and pepper if you're watching your figure; just pepper if you're watching your sodium; just plain if you're a self-flagellating monk).

In conclusion, if we want to "get back to our values," as everyone keeps saying, the solution is really quite simple. Buy potatoes and bake them! Really, the slogan of the United Potato Growers of America can legitimately be "Country First." Let me break it down for you:

1) When you buy potatoes, you are "buying American." You really think we are dumb enough to import potatoes from China? Okay, maybe we are. But thankfully, we don't usually do that. In fact, we are the world's fifth largest exporter of potatoes.

2) Even so, supply is outweighing demand, which has caused potato prices to drop. Right now, that's good for you (on the other hand, price drops are usually compensated by federal subsidies, so consumers don't pay much less than they did before). And if we all start buying more potatoes, it'll be good for the farmers and good for the taxpayers!

3) Because they are so cheap, potatoes keep money in your pocket, which you can then stuff under your mattress. When your mattress becomes uncomfortable, you know it's time to hit the fire sales.

4) As Jane E. Brody so wisely enumerates, potatoes, as long as they're not scalloped or turned into fries, are good for your health. Lowered health care costs, my friends! Let's think long-term.