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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nothing beats free

When it comes to cookbooks, we economical epicureans often find ourselves in quite a predicament. They beckon to us, the same way red wine does, and we cannot resist. They are expensive, sometimes upward of $40, especially the pretty, famous, or encyclopedic ones, but we rationalize them as a necessary expense, or at least a sensible, self-improving one. Yet -- and this may not apply to all economical epicureans, just the capitalized Economical Epicurean -- we rarely maximize their utility. We may refer to the same four recipes again and again, neglecting the remaining four hundred. Did we really pay $40 for four recipes, we sometimes ask ourselves in horror?

Then, we realize, we are using the first person plural rather peculiarly, and so we scratch our head, think maybe it's time to seek therapy, decide it's too expensive, and revert back to "I."

Almost a year ago, I wrote about the cookbook-buying success I've had at used bookstores and book sales. Among my better finds are Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking, Pam Anderson's The Perfect Recipe and How to Cook Without a Book (ironic title, I know), and Molly Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook and Enchanted Broccoli Forest. But such successes were the result of a combination of simple luck, hawkish bargain-hunting strategy, and occasional violence. Most of the time, if a cookbook is good, its owner wants to keep it, and so the good ones seldom end up on the $5-and-under shelf.

For this same reason, the library is a great place to find cookbooks. It doesn't seem to occur to people that you even can borrow cookbooks from the library, and why would you want to anyway, many cooks might wonder. Cookbooks are reference items, and what use is a reference item if you have to return it in three weeks? Note, for example, how the reference books in the library are not in circulation. But for those of us who are promiscuous with our cookbooks -- using them a few times, then moving on to the next pretty hardcover -- checking them out at the library is the most economical way to bake our cake and eat it, too. You could also treat library cookbooks as test drives: if the thought of returning a particular cookbook sends you into depression, you might as well buy it. At least you know you are paying for something you will actually use. I, for one, have paid full price for way too many cookbooks that turned out to be lemons. If only I'd had the good sense to test-drive them first.

On recent trips to the Rockville and Kensington branches (both part of the Montgomery County system), I encountered the entire collections of just about every celebrity cookbook author whose newest release you might see propped up on a display table at Barnes and Noble. From Nigella Lawson to Mark Bittman to Rachael Ray, they were all sitting there, glitzy covers in need of a good dusting, rarely if ever reshelved. More exciting for me, one of those annoying cookbook snobs, was what I'll call the NPR collection -- cookbooks with a scholarly approach, one that is more concerned with a recipe's authenticity than its ease. (I can't believe I just wrote that.) These books can be hard to find in bookstores, but at the library they're as ubiquitous as loud cell phone conversations. By the way, since when did librarians stop enforcing the quiet rule?

Anyway, at the 'brary you'll find Claudia Roden's Arabesque and New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking, Diana Kennedy's many books on Mexican food, Peter Berley's outstanding vegetarian cookbooks, and Cecilia Chiang's recent The Seventh Daughter, with recipes from her famous Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. If you're really high-falutin', you could borrow the roughly 200-lb Larousse Gastronomique, which retails for $75. Also, just about all of the America's Test Kitchen and Best Recipe books are in circulation, so I can finally outfox that smug, bowtie-bedecked Chris Kimball, who's always hitting me up for more money.

I was most pleased to find the entire collection of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's beautiful cookbooks, based on recipes they've encountered on their years of wandering through Asia. I started with Seductions of Rice because of the sexy title. It's full of great anecdotes, gorgeous photographs, and, oh yeah, a lot of rice, which indeed is a lot more seductive than I had previously thought. I made one of the first recipes, a scorching hot chili paste based on a version that Alford and Duguid encountered in the hometown of Mao Zedong (certainly a spicy character in world history). I had every intention of using Mao Chili Paste in another Seductions recipe, the Spicy Cucumber Surprise, and tossing it with some rice and beans to make a full meal. Unfortunately, the cucumber in my fridge had turned into Fuzzy Blue Surprise. Ergo, my recipe is a full departure from Alford and Duguid's, but still uses Mao Chili Paste, and is -- if I may say so myself -- a delicious, healthy, and inexpensive dinner. I just may buy Seductions of Rice, or maybe I will just keep renewing it till the Montgomery County Libraries hunt me down.

Recipe: Mao Chili Paste
Adapted from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Hot Chile Paste from Seductions of Rice. Dried red chilis are very cheap, especially at Asian grocery stores. Alford and Duguid, who seem pretty trustworthy when it comes to the cuisines of Asia, say this is better than any store-bought chili paste they've ever tried. It's extremely hot, so if you don't like spicy food, don't even go near it. Just being in the kitchen while it's on the stove will make anyone's eyes water. I halved Alford and Duguid's recipe, and my proportions are below. Makes about a half cup.

1/2 C loosely packed dried red chilis, rinsed
1/2 C boiling water
1/2 t salt
1/2 t sugar
1/2 T peanut oil or vegetable oil
2 T minced shallots (optional)
1 t rice vinegar or cider vinegar

Place the chilis in a medium bowl, pour the boiling water over them, and use a wooden spoon to press the chilis into the water. Let soak for at least 20 minutes or up to 2 hours. Transfer the chili/water mixture to a food processor or blender and puree; add the salt and sugar and puree again. Set aside. Heat a wok or heavy skillet to medium-high heat and add the oil once the pan is very hot, then add the shallots, if you are using them, and stir fry for about until soft, 2 minutes. Add the chili mixture and stir fry for another 20 seconds, then remove from heat and stir in the vinegar. Allow it to cool, then transfer to a well-sealed container, where it will keep well in the refrigerator.

Recipe: Spicy Rice and Beans Surprise (pictured at top of post)
Inspired by Spicy Cucumber Surprise, also from Seductions of Rice. The Cucumber Surprise sounds great, so if you have a cucumber handy, just chop it up and stir fry it with all the ingredients for a couple minutes. I used red rice and chickpeas because I had some already, but you could use any rice or beans for this dish. Makes two servings.

3/4 C rice
2 C water
1 C chickpeas, soaked overnight and boiled for an hour and a half or till soft
1 T peanut oil
2 t ground ginger
1 t sugar
1 T soy sauce
1 t Mao Chili Paste (less for a milder version)
1/2 t salt
2 T chopped basil or cilantro (optional)

In a heavy medium saucepan, boil the water. Rinse the rice in a strainer and add to the boiling water; wait for it to return to a boil, then reduce the heat to low-medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, till the water is absorbed and the rice is slightly soft. Remove from heat, fluff with a fork, and let sit a few minutes. In a frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat; once it's very hot, add the garlic and stir fry for a minute. Add the beans, ginger, sugar, soy sauce, and chili paste and stir fry another minute. Remove from heat, and stir the bean mixture into the rice. Add the salt and basil or cilantro, if using.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Saying Yes to NoPe

In DC, a city with a population that changes drastically with every election, neighborhoods are constantly reinvented and renamed. One of the more irritating of these is NoMa, unimaginatively named for its location north of Massachusetts Avenue (New York, after London, has been naming neighborhoods -- SoHo, TriBeCa -- with this abbreviation style for years, seemingly seamlessly, but when DC tries to do the same thing, it just seems lame and contrived). The original name for this neighborhood -- Swampoodle -- is much closer to reality, as it's a kind of pidgin portmanteau for "swamp puddle," which describes DC's topography to a tee. But, the realtors and developers assume, a name like NoMa sounds cool and will make city newcomers forget they are living in a wasteland of railroad tracks and abandoned buildings. That is, until they step out the front doors of their sparkling but mostly-still-vacant condominiums and see a wasteland of railroad tracks and abandoned buildings.

Such is the way of DC, and I accept it. This is how I arrived at a new name for the neighborhood I work in, known to its residents as Brightwood, which is a perfectly nice name*. However, since I am a) white, b) of British ancestry, c) a saleswoman, d) a saleswoman in the construction/development industry, and e) something of a wordsmith, I decided it is my Manifest Destiny to confer upon Brightwood a name that might resonate better with other potential newcomers to the neighborhood. And so I chose NoPe, which is an abbreviation of North of Petworth, and which, conveniently, has two different pronunciations: "Nope," as in, "Nope, you don't wanna go there," and "No pay," which works pretty well given the number of boarded up buildings along this stretch of Georgia Avenue. Since Petworth has already begun to "transition" (the more sensitive among us prefer to avoid the word gentrify, as it reminds us a little too much of reality), a process that usually takes about 3 months in DC, but may be a little slower now, you know, because of the economy, it's probably time to start spreading the word about NoPe before all the other yuppies conquer it. You too can be a pioneer!

What's my point again? Oh yeah, I was going to write about NoPe cuisine for NoPe-phobes. Say Yep to:

Julia's Empanadas
What: Empanadas, which are like Hot Pockets, but delicious because they're delicious, not delicious because they're disgusting. Also, they are very filling and cost only $3.41 before tax.
Where: 6232 Georgia Ave NW
Why: You've been to the Dupont and Adams Morgan locations, now where's your sense of adventure? NoPe just opened one, and no other white people know about it yet! Jump on it!

Taqueria Distrito Federal
What: Extremely delicious and incredibly cheap Mexican/Salvadorean food
Where: 805 Kennedy St NW
Why: Maybe you've been to the Columbia Heights original after a wild night at Wonderland. Well, guess what, Wonderland is so 2006 and now you can get your tacos con chivo after a wild night at Red Derby!

Teddy's Roti Shop
What: The West Indian specialty, roti, which is kind of like a huge pita stuffed with one metric butt ton of spicy meat
Where: 7414 Georgia Ave NW
Why: Even WaPo has known about this one for years, which doesn't help your street cred. But, getting yelled at by the sassy owner lady because you can't order right makes you feel like this is an Authentic Experience. How quaint!

*For a perfectly nice residential neighborhood; the commercially zoned sections of Brightwood, though full of vacant space, offer plenty of bright spots as well. Sorry for the lame pun.

Disclaimer: The author is aware of the potential offensiveness of this blog post and hopes that readers appreciate her attempt at satire (or at least don't hate her for it). She promises to go back to writing about cooking next time.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Economical Epicurean Eats Her Way Through Eastern Europe

I feel a strong need to post pictures of Eastern European food before I reach that Statute of Limitations on Writing About Cuisine That I Sampled On a Vacation That Already Seems Like It Ended a Long Time Ago. Anyway, I returned fairly recently from an incredible trip to Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary. "What a fraud!" you might exclaim. "Surely no one who calls herself economical can afford to travel to Europe in the summertime." But, if you do exclaim that, you are wrong! My penny-pinching ways at home allow for the very occasional exotic vacation. Plus, Eastern Europe is dang cheap, airfare aside.

I did not have very high expectations for the cuisine, which I expected to include goulash, paprikash, and more goulash. I am a meat and potatoes girl in theory, but not in 90 degree heat. Lucky for me, there were so many other delicious things to sample. And it turns out goulash is pretty good in any season. Below, a sampling of the samples, in rather haphazard order (Blogger makes it difficult to move pictures around; also, I am technologically handicapped).

I am on the hunt for a recipe for these hazelnut shortbread Linzer-esque cookies, which can be found everywhere in Budapest. I wish I had written down the name, but it was probably something like ajdhfslofheifanofdiwodfal, with 4 umlauts and 3 other diacritical marks. Magyar is an impossible language.

Okay, when I said "delicious," I was being judicious. For some reason the Hungarians really like Unicum, even though it tastes worse than bathroom cleaner (I'm guessing).

I got into the amusing habit of ordering dishes with completely mysterious menu names (so mysterious that even the Hungarian-English dictionary couldn't help us out). One of these was the Slambuc Plate, above, at Al Foldi in Budapest. Now that I have internet access again, I know, thanks to Jamie Oliver, that Slambuc is a kind of Hungarian shepherd's pie. But to me, it was a delicious doppelganger for vomit. In fact, it reminded me of something I would throw together in attempt to use up some scraps of food that are about to turn. Homely home cooking, that's my style.

I loved the cold sour cherry soup, a Budapest specialty. I wish I had known about it when tart cherries were still in season here in the Mid-Atlantic!

In addition to mystery food, mystery drinks were another favorite thing to order in Budapest. This one is called "The Golden Girl," so of course I ordered it. Then I spilled the whole thing over the table. But the few sips I got to enjoy contained rum and pineapple juice.

Sausage and paprika are both serious business in Budapest -- no shame in that.

The picture didn't turn out well, but those two hanging bowls contain Hungarian fish stew, another staple, one that elevates the plebeian carp and catfish to a gourmet level. I didn't order it, but my friends who did liked it a lot. Might be worth reproducing at home, and it would be a very cheap way to enjoy fish.

Possibly my favorite dish of the whole trip -- and, no, it is not goulash. It's venison in whortleberry sauce, and I ordered it for the sole reason that I had never heard of a whortleberry (which has no relation to the mysterious googooberry). Wikipedia tells me it is more commonly called a bilberry and comes from the same genus as the blueberry. Huh! Anyway, whortleberry sauce and Bambi go very well together. And venison, when eaten in Hungary, is very good and very inexpensive.

Excellent pistachio-cream-cake-with-chocolate-base-kind-of-thing, a caprese salad, and the requisite espresso at a cafe, whose name I think was Cafe, near our apartment on the Buda side of Budapest. I must've consumed about 50 espressos on this ten-day adventure.

This menu translation at a roadside pizza joint south of Budapest was priceless. I ordered the Pizza Verhovina just so I could find out what a "scathing rationale" is. I never did find that out. Through inductive reasoning, we concluded at least that "trotters" are diced ham.

The Pizza Verhovina - tomato sauce, cheese, peppers, onions, diced ham, and a dash of scathing rationale. I'll just have to accept it's an ingredient that I am too feeble-minded to ever comprehend.

Unfortunately, this is the only picture I have of any f0od item from Croatia -- we spent just one night there, in the Istrian town of Rovinj on the Adriatic coast. Grapes seem to grow like ragweed around those parts, so you can tell it's a great area for wining and dining.

The alpine town of Radovjlica, Slovenia, is close to the Austrian border, and one order of wiener schnitzel could feed about 12 hungry yodelers. Also pictured here are potato croquettes and, to the left of the fries, the "Slovenian national dish," which is like a very bland kugel. FYI, if you order an iced coffee in Slovenia, you will get a milkshake that contains mostly ice cream and whipped cream, with some splashes of rum and espresso for good measure. Don't expect it to wake you up.

We all loved Bled, Slovenia, so much that it's a good thing our last meal there was a memorable one. Have you ever seen prosciutto and melon arranged more artfully?

For this same Last Slovenian Supper, I ordered the baby squid stuffed with sausage. Unbelievable!

The Slascicarna Smon bakery in Bled had the most delicious pastries. Everyone's favorite was this one -- a horn shaped roll stuffed with a nutty, brown sugary filling and doused in powdered sugar. Again, I wish I had written down the name!

That same bakery is better known for its cream cake, a Bled specialty consisting of two layers of flaky pastry and one metric butt ton of cream in between. I come from a family of almond cream pie fanatics (my people love it so much, it's known simply as AC Pie at home), and I hope they get to try this some day!

At the Gostilna Pri Planincu, where we celebrated Rachel's birthday, the birthday girl and I both ordered these meat patties, which we had no idea were the size of hatboxes till they arrived at the table. That oozing, buttery lump in the middle is a mascarpone-like cheese. Regarding my friend's cleavage, our saucy waiter said it's "quality, not quantity" that matters, but this statement seems at odds with Pri Planincu's serving sizes.

Also at the Gostilna Pri Planincu, I ordered some of the best cream of mushroom soup I had ever tasted. Actually, I think I liked it because was not that creamy at all. I definitely need to try to replicate this one at home.

Slovenia being so close to Italy, a lot of pizza was consumed on this leg of the trip. No "scathing rationale" in this pie, but prosciutto, asparagus, and fresh mozzarella are always delightful.

The pizza diet made me feel a little squishier than normal, so I ordered the "Fitness Plate" at a beachside lunch spot on Lake Bled. Salad greens topped with grilled chicken, toast, yogurt dressing and tomato slices -- I was a new woman!

Beautiful produce at the Saturday farmer's market in Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital

And, oh yeah, horse meat. The horse burger was the one thing I didn't have the courage to try. Maybe next time, after a night of drinking too much Slovenian wine.