Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mint Juleps

The Kentbury Kompound will be hosting yet another outdoor (weather-permitting) fete this Saturday, and though it is principally a celebration of roommate Mike Sanders' birthday, it happens to coincide with the Kentucky Derby. No burgoo or hot browns for us -- we'll be enjoying brisket courtesy of Sanders' fancy new smoker instead -- but I'm planning to give Derby Day a nod with some refreshing mint juleps. I've been combing the internets for a good recipe and I'm happy to find that, unlike most things in life, mint juleps come pretty standard.

Recipe: Mint Juleps

Can serve as many people as necessary, depending on how much simple syrup you make and how much bourbon you have -- just keep in mind that each drink gets one tablespoon of the simple syrup, and 16 tablespoons equal a cup. If you make a simple syrup using one cup of sugar and one cup of water (obviously, the sugar dissolves in the water, so you don't end up with a full two cups of syrup), you should have enough for maybe 20 or so servings.

You make a simple syrup by boiling equal parts sugar and water together for five minutes. Then you stir in some mint leaves (for extra mintiness, grind them in with a wooden spoon) and refrigerate the simple syrup overnight. Before serving, fill each glass with ice, two shots of bourbon (we happen to have some Maker's Mark, but there are definitely cheaper ones out there), and one tablespoon of the minted simple syrup, and stir together. Garnish with extra mint leaves.

So classic, so elegant, so surprisingly economical! I sure hope the weather's nice because I already have in mind the perfect dress to go with my mint julep, ridiculous as that may sound. But, more importantly: Happy Birthday, Sandy!

UPDATE: The party was a great time, and Sanders' brisket was delicious, and we all got a kick out of Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel, but it turns out I don't even like mint juleps (even though I do like whiskey) and would advise against following my recipe. Sorry. Make mojitos instead!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A good book and a poached egg

As a hobbyist food writer, or an aspiring one, it goes with the job (or hob, short for hobby? No?) that I also read a lot about food. And in reading about food, I never cease to be amazed at how unsophisticated, how behind-the-times, and how uneducated I tend to be. The inexpensive thrill of cooking with goat meat, to illustrate. I thought I could be the first person to have something to say about it; self-satisfied and self-aggrandizing, I would post comments that linked back to my blog on a hundred other blogs, subsequently earn myself rank among the Orangettes and the Wednesday Chefs, and be known as that plucky young woman who pointed out to all Americans -- or at least all food-interested yuppies, eager for any new fad (I say this without a sneer, for I include myself among them) -- that while goat is eaten by something like 78 percent of the world, it has never occurred to about 78 percent of Americans that it's even edible. In rallying for this ruminant, I would singlehandedly turn chivo and cabrito into household names and boost the sales at ethnic markets nationwide.

Before I could even plan my next trip to Patel Brothers, on March 31 the New York Times broke (I say broke intentionally, as if it were Pulitzer-material investigative journalism) this story, "How I Learned to Love Goat Meat." It's over, I thought -- now I will have to extol the delicacy that is slow-roasted suburban squirrel, anything the established food bloggers haven't already thought of. Sure enough, Serious Eats and The Kitchn got their goat within hours. And it turns out that even the Times was behind the times -- New York magazine had already done a piece on goat meat about six months earlier.

It's the same thing with the late author Laurie Colwin and her wonderful 1988 essay collection, Home Cooking, which I'd never even heard of till I fortuitously picked up a copy at my high school's used book sale. I thought I had uncovered some lost artefact of the late 80s, but it turns out that Colwin has long been a favorite topic in the food blogosphere, despite that her untimely death in 1992, at age 48, occurred almost a decade before the word "blog" was even a part of the American lexicon. Colwin's work still gets a lot of press, and -- after devouring her first collection of food writing in just a few sittings, within the short span of a single lazy Sunday -- I understand why.

My plan for this particular Sunday was to spend it in solitude, but Home Cooking kept great company all day. It may have been less enjoyable were it not for the stick-to-your-ribs PB&C I ate while I read, since this is the type of the book that can make you painfully hungry. Luckily enough, I had the book in one hand, weird sandwich in the other. In fact, mid-bite of some crunchy cabbage and salty peanut butter sprinkled with red pepper flakes and raisins and sitting between two staling slices of wheat bread, I read this most fitting passage:

Dinner alone is one of life's pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.

But this was just one among about a thousand favorite passages (in a book of fewer than 200 pages). There is no way I could ever do Colwin's beautiful, inspiring, spare, funny, and simultaneously self-righteous and self-deprecating writing any justice here. But, I will give a few tastes, as well as a recipe, in hopes that you, too, will read this book and love it as much as I (and the rest of the food blogosphere) do. Regretfully, I don't think I can lend my copy, as I want to always be able to use it for reference.

On Fried Chicken:

As everyone knows, there is only one way to fry chicken correctly. Unfortunately, most people think their method is best, but most people are wrong. Mine is the only right way, and on this subject I feel most evangelical.

On Not Being a Picky Eater:

I will never eat fish eyeballs, and I do not want to taste anything commonly kept as a house pet, but otherwise I am a cinch to feed. My only allergy is a slight one to caviar, making me a cheap date. Furthermore, I am never on a diet regime I cannot be talked out of.

On Vegetarians:

Like Protestants, they come in a number of denominations. Lactovegetarians will eat dairy, eggs and usually fish, but some lactovegetarians will not eat fish. Vegans will not eat dairy products or eggs or fish. And some people say they are vegetarians when they mean they do not eat red meat, leading you to realize that for some people chicken is a vegetable.

On Dinner Parties:

It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.

Colwin could write about anything, and I would keep coming back for seconds and thirds (I'm eager to begin reading her novels; her day job was fiction writer, and she wrote about food for fun), but I feel especially lucky to be acquainted with such an enjoyable writer who is also a champion of cheap cooking. Colwin spends many a page analyzing and reinventing frugal classics such as chicken salad, potato salad, lentil soup, chili, and frittatas. One recipe I felt I must include and adapt for this blog comes from the book's second essay, "The Low-Tech Person's Batterie de Cuisine," and can be made by someone who owns "nothing but one knife and one pot."

Recipe: Sauteed Vegetables and Poached Egg in One Pot

Paraphrased from Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking (1988). Serves 1.

Some vegetables - Colwin suggests "a little green zucchini, a little yellow one, a few snow peas, a small sliced onion," but for springtime I might try asparagus, green beans, broccoli, some kind of bitter green, or whatever else is lying around in the crisper
Some butter and minced garlic
Black pepper
One or two eggs, "depending on how hungry you are"

Saute the vegetables in butter and minced garlic, partially covered, till soft. Remove the cover, grind on some black pepper, push the vegetables to the sides of the pot, and melt a bit more butter. Break in the egg(s) and cover till cooked.

Colwin concludes the recipe thusly: "If you are civilized, you can arrange the vegetables on a plate and put the egg on top. If you are not, you can eat it right out of the pot. If you want some grated cheese, you can scrape it with your knife."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Homo Erectus in the Kitchen

My affliction with epicureanism, no matter well how it satiates my ever-growing gut, sometimes leaves me feeling rather empty, in the metaphorical sense. It's just food! We all have to eat, I remind myself, and most people in the world don't (or can't afford to) get so precious about it. If you do treat cooking as an art, you probably have too much time and money on your hands. Shouldn't I be spending my time and money doing loftier things? Like...I don't even know, that's how shallow I am. Alright, then shouldn't I be spending my time and money doing things that need to be done, like taking my car to get new brake pads? It has needed them for at least two months. Not very economical of me to wait till the brakes potentially need to be replaced altogether.

Today's Science Times had an encouraging interview of primatologist and anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who argues -- very effectively according to this writer with no science background -- that cooking was the key to our evolution from apes to humans. I'm terrible at paraphrasing, but it's a fascinating argument, and one that certainly goes against the raw food movement: our height and brain size are the products of a healthy diet made possible only when foods are cooked. Makes pretty good sense to me, but perhaps I am just biased.

But, to return to my original predicament, can I start to think of cooking as "lofty" because the apes don't do it, because it just may be the thing that makes me a human!?! Indeed, pursuits such as music and art are considered lofty. True, sometimes monkeys make art, like if the zookeeper gives them an open can of paint or something, but the humanly desire to "Create!" does not seem to be there. On the other hand, another thing that separates us from our fellow primates is that we can stand up straight and this, to me, despite whatever literal interpretations you want to make, is not lofty, nor does it make feel particularly special.

Certainly, something that cooking gave us a lot more of, in addition to perhaps size, brains, and longevity, is free time. (Dr. Wrangham's chimpanzees "spend most of their day foraging and chewing extremely fibrous foods," some of which they'll "masticate for a full hour.") For me, cooking -- or spending more time cooking than one has to in order to survive -- is probably nothing more than an enjoyable way to use up some time and give the ol' palate a kick. If nothing else, it definitely beats gnawing on the same fibrous plant till my teeth hurt.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Family Jewels

Last night I enjoyed a picture-perfect barbecue at the home of my cousin Kate and her husband, Seth, joined by Kate's sister Liza and Liza's boyfriend, Avi. I brought along as my date a six-pack of Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre, whose brute strength left me still weak in the knees this morning. Heh. A good date, indeed.

The weather was perfect, the conversation lively, the fire pit roaring, and the food excellent. As an added bonus, I learned two important lessons from Kate and Seth's wonderful, casual, al fresco dinner:

1) Boiled potatoes with nothing but salt and pepper on them are underrated and delicious -- and a frugal eater's dream.

2) Grilled chicken need not be dry, if you follow this important step: boil it first! Kate learned this brilliant bit from her mom, my Aunt Mary. No need to boil it very long, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. This way, the chicken is already parcooked and doesn't desiccate away on the open flame.

That reminds me, I have another gem to offer, courtesy of Aunt Mary: her amazing broccoli salad, which I mentioned in my last post and served at Easter. It's been a popular fixture at the past three or four holiday functions, I think. I dare you to find a better way to eat broccoli.

Recipe: Aunt Mary's Broccoli Salad

Adapted from Richmond's Ukrop's Deli via a 1980s Washington Post recipe, which does not seem to be available on their archives. Makes 6-8 servings.

For the salad:

1.5 - 2 C finely chopped broccoli florets and/or stalks
2-3 finely chopped celery ribs
1/2 C finely chopped onion
1/2 C golden raisins [Mary's note: dark is fine]
7 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled [DEO note: omit the bacon if you want to make a vegetarian version]
6-8 large, well-shaped lettuce leaves for serving [DEO note: Mary doesn't serve the salad in lettuce leaves, and it is just fine that way.]

For the dressing:

1/2 - 2/3 C reduced calorie mayonnaise [DEO note: use full-fat mayo if that's what you already have]
1/4 C sugar
1.5 T cider vinegar
1/2 - 1 t seasoning salt
1/8 - 1/4 t freshly ground pepper

Combine all the salad ingredients, except for the bacon, in a medium-sized bowl. Combine all the dressing ingredients and spoon over the salad; stir and cover. Chill 4-8 hours before serving. Top with the bacon. Serve on lettuce leaves (optional).

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tentative Easter Menu

My parents are out of town yet again this year, so it's up to us at the Kentbury Kompound to host an Easter egg hunt and accompanying brunch/dinner. It's at 3pm. What do you call that mealtime? I don't like the portmanteau "linner" -- it doesn't sound like what it's supposed to mean; it sounds to me like a vulgar combination of "inner" and "linger," or maybe I'm the vulgar one.

Anyway, Easter was always my favorite holiday as a kid, and now that I'm older (but not wiser) I still get really excited about being surrounded by pastel colors and wearing a church-appropriate dress and, of course, all the springtime-y food involved (not to mention, egg hunts are still just as fun as they were when I was a wee one, now that I'm allowed to drink). I took a kitchen inventory, and here's what I'm thinking for the menu this year, but we'll see if I can get everything done:

-Roast leg of lamb (only because I found one sitting in my parents' freezer; I can't afford no stinkin' sheep. Not that I'm stealing, per se, only helping: this animal would continue to freeze for all eternity if I didn't use it.)

-Various quiches or frittatas that use up whatever veggies and cheese I already have or can find on the cheap. Most likely, I'll make some frittatas -- that way I don't have to bother with the crust. To make one, you simply preheat the oven to 450, heat whatever veggies or meat you are using in a cast-iron pan over the stove, add 6 or 7 beaten eggs, let them continue cooking for two minutes or so over low-medium heat, until the mixture begins to set in the pan, sprinkle some cheese on it if you want, and then transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 9 minutes or until the frittata is puffed up and brown.

-Some kind of white bean salad, since I have a whole bag of dried. I also could cook that lamb with the beans in the crockpot...the wheels are turning...

-Some kind of salad with quinoa (not a grain, as I mistakenly called it awhile back, but a seed), since I also have a whole bag of that. I'm thinking about riffing on my Sprightly Spring Couscous using quinoa; 'twould be good and good for you!

-An asparagus or green bean dish -- maybe with the veg mixed in with some roasted potatoes. Though I'm also interested to try the peas with poached eggs from today's Times article on Newark, New Jersey's Portuguese section -- where I can say I've happily eaten a few times!

-My Aunt Mary's awesome broccoli salad. I definitely need to post this recipe soon, but it deserves a whole post of its own.

-For hors d'oeuvres: I'm planning to make Almost-No-Knead bread again and toasting it for crostini. Or, if I run out of time, just serving it with some garlicky olive oil. I have a big hunk of goat cheese left over from Nana's birthday party; homemade bread with goat cheese and honey sounds very tempting right about now. If time lets me, I would like to make Dorie Greenspan's gougeres (cheese puffs), always a hit at my parties, and, conveniently, I happened to find a big bag of pre-shredded (horrors!) cheese that also needed to be rescued from my parents' black hole of a 'frigerator.

-For dessert: definitely flourless chocolate cake, an Easter tradition in the Owen family, for which I'll follow Alice Medrich's recipe again. I'd like to try a rhubarb crisp, too, since rhubarb is in season and I haven't cooked with it before. If I remember, I will also make Key Lime pie. I don't have an interesting recipe for this; we always follow the one on the back of the Key Lime juice container that you buy in the grocery store. I don't even remember the brand, but it's usually the only one of its kind. It's really good and really easy, and requires only three ingredients if I remember correctly: a frozen pie shell, a can of sweetened condensed milk, and the Key Lime juice.

-For libations: white wine sangria -- I mix together two big bottles of the cheapest white wine, a cup or so of club soda, another cup of triple sec, a bag of Trader Joe's frozen Fancy Berry Medley, some lemon or orange juice, and a quarter cup or so of sugar. It pleases a pretty big crowd. Once we run out, I guess we'll get creative with our bizarre assortment of liquors and liqueurs, or finally take care of those PBRs in the fridge.

-For the egg hunt: I'll be putting the family collection of plastic eggs to use by filling them with homemade truffles (all you do is mix together 2 cups of chocolate chips, a stick of butter cut into pieces, and a teaspoon of vanilla in a heat-proof bowl or double boiler, melt it over a pan of boiling water, stir it together, refrigerate it for an hour, form into balls, and roll in a mixture of 1/2 C cocoa powder and 1/2 C powdered sugar), which I'll wrap individually in tin foil. The eggs will probably also contain things I find around the house, such as pennies, cat toys, q-tips, used Post-It notes, barrettes, staples, and safety pins. What, you want me to go buy pastel M&M's? Times are tough, people!

So, all this seems like a lot, but nothing I'm making is very difficult and most of it just requires ingredients that I already have. The only things I will have to buy are broccoli, asparagus or green beans, some fresh rosemary, some potatoes (maybe), rhubarb, and the three Key Lime pie ingredients. Probably some more eggs for dying, too. I happen to have a pretty well-stocked kitchen, but I'm also not using any particularly expensive ingredients (with the exception of that free lamb -- score!). I'm really looking forward to it, and I hope to see you there!

And, lastly, if you'll pardon my horn-tooting, this blog was mentioned by the Chicago Sun-Times Food Section, in a feature on two of my favorite blogs, Cheap Healthy Good and Casual Kitchen, and is also listed on the Culinary School Guide's Top 100 Blogs for the Frugal Gourmet. I'm getting fatter -- and this time it's not just my waistline!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

New Uses for Old Herbs

The feast for Nana's birthday left behind some great leftovers, which sustained me for at least the first half of this past week, but it also left me with a lot of uncooked ingredients languishing in the refrigerator, their dank holding cell, where they lay wilted and guilty in anticipation of their inevitable landfill death sentences (yes, I know I should both compost and avoid metaphors that don't map very well, but now's not the time). The ingredients whose sentences I was most eager to appeal were the fresh mint, parsley, dill, and chives, all expensive and all quick to spoil.

I have heard you can freeze herbs, but, knowing my kitchen habits, the freezer would simply act as a maximum security prison to the fridge's holding cell, both leading to the same imminent death at the trash heap gallows (there I go again). I had to act quickly and, ideally, with delicious results.

While I understand that grocery stores are businesses and need to make money, the cost of fresh herbs nonetheless usually sends me into mild shock. Of course, they are also pre-packaged in such a way that one is forced to buy far more than one ever needs. I know, I should just grow my own, just as I should compost, and I intend to when the weather gets warmer. But this wouldn't necessarily solve the problem of too much herb, not enough time. In my rather limited herb-growing experience, the mint in particular spreads like the smallpox, but wipes itself out before you can say "More iced tea?"

The herbs whose fates I was now debating were too wilted at this point to pass off as a garnish for pasta, soup, or salad. However I was going to use them, I needed to fully incorporate them into the dish in attempt to mask their ages, which, mind you, were not that old, but certainly old enough. I succeeded with the following two recipes -- and have enough tasters (speak up, you guys!) to prove it.

These recipes would be handy for other aging herbs, too. Hummus, especially, is a great "canvas," to quote Sanders, for creative experimentation. In place of the mint and parsley, you could use basil, cilantro, dill, chives, scallions, lemongrass, rosemary, tarragon, and probably some others I haven't thought of. For the bread, I would avoid using the leafier herbs, which might not stand up to all that baking, and stick with the heartier ones like rosemary, thyme, and of course dill and chives. Sage also could be interesting.

The bread and hummus work wonderfully as a pair, but if you already have some antique pita bread, I suggest toasting that and making pita chips as well. The whole point here is to use up old ingredients and avoid buying new ones, so I've included lots of ideas for substitutions where appropriate.

Recipe: Orange-Mint Hummus

Most store-bought hummus is bland, but my homemade hummus is just like me: nuanced, mysterious, sophisticated, exciting, tan in color. Okay, not like me at all. Anyway, this hummus has depth. You might think, "Mint? How strange!" -- but don't worry, it does not make the hummus taste a thing like toothpaste. The mint is subtle, as is the orange juice and zest. You could definitely use lemon juice and zest, which is more traditional; I happened to have only half a lemon, but also a whole orange that had been sitting on my countertop for too long, and the orange makes this hummus even more unique.

1 can chickpeas, drained, or 1 and 1/2 C dried chickpeas, soaked overnight, simmered for about an hour and a half, and drained
1/3 C tahini
1 t salt
1/4 t soy sauce (optional -- feel free to use additional salt instead, or none if you prefer)
3 cloves garlic
1 t cumin
2 T chopped shallots (not essential - I just had half a shallot I wanted to use up)
juice and zest of one large orange (or juice of two lemons, plus zest of one lemon; leave out the next ingredient -- more lemon -- if you go this route)
juice and zest of half a lemon (I was also trying to use up half a lemon; consider this ingredient optional)
2 T water
2 T olive oil (feel free to add more to get a consistency you like)
1/4 C loosely packed mint (or use whatever amount you have, though probably no more than a quarter cup)
1/4 C loosely packed parsley

Pulse everything together in the food processor till well-blended. Makes about 3 cups.

Recipe: Dill and Chive Almost-No-Knead Bread

The basis for this recipe comes from the mad scientists of America's Test Kitchen; only they could've figured out how to improve on a Minimalist phenomenon. I first sampled it at the home of my friends Danny and Miriam (check out Miriam's fantastic blog about cooking on a grad student budget) awhile back, and Danny kindly sent me a scanned PDF of the recipe from Cook's Illustrated. I am pretty sure they added rosemary to their rendition of this bread, which we dipped it in olive oil as a delicious appetizer. It's pretty easy to make -- I don't think I even followed all the steps correctly (typical) -- but it still turned out really well, with a nice, crispy crust and a light, chewy inside. With the time allotments involved, this is definitely a bread best made on a weekend. You need a Dutch oven that can withstand 450-degree heat, and if you don't have one, consider making Cuban bread and adding the herbs before you leave the dough to rise. The advantage of Almost-No-Knead Bread is, quite obviously, that it requires minimal kneading.

3 C all-purpose flour, plus extra for work surface
1/4 t rapid-rise or instant yeast
1 t salt (I like a bit more, and next time I will add another half teaspoon)
3/4 C water, room temperature
1/2 C mild-flavored beer, room temperature (this is not in Mark Bittman's No-Knead-Bread, but is added here for extra flavor. If you do not have beer, consider following the Bittman version)
1 T white vinegar
2 T minced chives
2 T minced dill
Vegetable oil spray (I do not have this, so I lightly brushed vegetable oil over the parchment and the bread)

Whisk the flour, yeast, and salt together in a large bowl. Fold in the water, beer, vinegar, and herbs with a rubber spatula till the dough comes together and looks "shaggy" (not my word, but you will know it's ready when it begins to resemble Snuffy from Sesame Street, texturally). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for at least 8 hours, or up to 18 hours.

Lay an 18" x 12" sheet of parchment paper inside a 10-inch skillet (or 10-inch shallow bowl) and spray with vegetable oil spray (or brush with vegetable oil). Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand to form a smooth, round ball, 10 to 15 times. Shape the dough into a ball by pulling the edges into the middle with floured hands. Transfer the dough, seam-side down, to the prepared skillet.

Mist (or lightly brush) the dough with vegetable oil and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let it rise at room temperature until doubled in size and the dough barely springs back when touched, about 2 hours. About 30 minutes before baking, adjust an oven rack to the lowest position, place a large Dutch oven and heat the oven to 450 degrees (although the original recipe says to heat the oven to 500 degrees, I was nervous about my pot, and kept it at 450. The bread still turned out well.).

Lightly flour the top of the dough and score it with a knife. Carefully remove the pot from the oven and remove the lid. Pick up the parchment and the dough and lower them into the hot pot, letting any excess parchment hang over the edge. Cover the pot, and place it in the oven, reducing the heat to 425 degrees, and bake covered for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to bake until the center of the loaf registers 20 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and the crust is deep golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the bread from the pot, transfer to a wire rack, and let cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, before serving.