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.