Saturday, December 31, 2005

Poached Pears and Champagne Jelly

There is something about rotting fruit that I find inspirational.

The other day, for example, two pears sat on the brink of extinction in my fruit bowl. A half bottle of champagne was slowly losing its fizz in fridge. A quick google, and dessert was born. The original recipe was much more involved than what I produced--but it did provide the better half of my culinary inspiration. After the pears were consumed, I boiled the heck out of what was left in the pan and thereby made my first ever "jelly." The notion of champagne jelly seemed intimidating, but the process couldn't have been simpler and the result was delicious.

Poached Pears

Peel and core:
Two pears (I used Bartletts)

The best way to core the pears (while keeping the stem intact, for prettiness), is to stick a knife into the middle of the bottom of the pear and twist. If the pears are sufficiently ripe, the core will just disintegrate and fall out. Slice off the bottom of the pears so that they can sit upright. Then squeeze a little lemon juice on them to keep them from turning brown while you combine, in a saucepan big enough to hold the pears:
some champagne
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (or use a larger quantity of vanilla sugar, or even a split vanilla bean if you're feeling extravagant)
2-3 cardamom pods, slightly crushed
zest of one lemon (I used a Meyer lemon, they're sweeter and less bitter)
1 teaspoon rosewater
3 Tablespoons sugar

(These ingredients are just suggestions. Anything that seems pear-compatible and aromatic should work just fine. Cinnamon, cloves, sherry, etc.)

Bring the liquid in the pan to a boil. Lower the pears into the pan. Add water, or more champagne to cover the pears so that they cook evenly. Reduce heat and simmer until pears are soft, but not mushy; approximately 8 minutes.

Remove pears with a slotted spoon and serve warm. I served mine with chocolate ice cream because I love the combination of pear and chocolate, but it's not always a crowd pleaser. Plain creme fraiche, whipped cream, mascarpone cheese, etc. are good options as well.

Pear-ish Cardamom Champagne Jelly

While you eat dessert, turn up the heat under the pan full of leftover juices and pear bits. Let the whole mess boil down until it is thick and sludgy. Stir occasionally. The flavors that ended up dominant in my jelly were cardamom and citrus, which I loved. But you could also fish out the cardamom pods and some of the lemon zest before boiling if you prefer something a bit more subtle. When you get the consistency you want, remove from the heat and let cool. Store the jelly in the fridge and eat on toast and in PB&Js for the next few days.

(Note: The pears were large and we didn't finish them for dessert that night, so I mashed the leftover pear and tossed it into the boiling jelly pan. If you're squeamish about such lapses in strict kitchen hygiene, proceed as if you'd never heard this disgusting suggestion. But I think it added nice texture and flavor to the final product. You could do an extra pear exclusively for this purpose as well, of course.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Cauliflower of the Leisured Classes

This damn cauliflower took forever. And it was ugly.

I found it on In Praise of Sardines, and I was charmed by the plea to "be like Julia Roberts in the early nineties. Allow this Lyle Lovett to serenade your tongue." And, to be fair, there was truth-in-advertising; the recipe was labeled "Slow-Roasted Cauliflower with Pounded Anchovies" and the post itself was titled "Least popular recipe ever."

I am not a lookist when it comes to food, really I'm not. Nor do I discriminate against cauliflower, or tiny fishes of any kind--I embrace all foodstuffs. The reason this recipes is deservedly unpopular is because it required an hour and a half of cauliflower roasting with fussing and turning every ten minutes. Keep in mind that you're talking to the woman who rolled 140 meatballs for lunch this week. I am not against fiddly cooking. But this was too much. Everyone in the house grew intensely irritated at the constant beeping of the oven timer. And, though the recipe said it would only take an hour, it really was an hour and a half before the cauliflower was done.

The final result was pretty good--the toasted breadcrumbs were a nice addition and the anchovy and lemon gave it a nice kick. So, if you happen to be independently wealthy, or retired, or on vacation, go for it. Otherwise, just make aloo gobi.

Agonizingly Slow-Roasted Cauliflower with Anchovy Sauce

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the green leaves from:
1 large head of cauliflower

Slice the cauliflower "like a load of bread" by placing it stem-side down and cutting through all the layers to produce 3/4 inch slices. Coat the slices with:
3-4 Tablespoons olive oil
lots of sea salt

Spread out the cauliflower on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment paper. Bake for at least 1 hour (I needed an hour and a half), turning every 10 minutes. You can finally stop the endless cycle of turning and baking when the cauliflower is very brown and falling-apart tender. Sardines reminds us that the smaller bits may get dark brown and crunchy. Don't toss the burned bits "they are the best parts."

While the cauliflower is roasting, get out a small baking pan, and tear up:
1 slice of bread, without crusts

Toss with:
2 teaspoons olive oil
a bit of sea salt

Add the bread pan to the oven about 10-15 minutes before the cauliflower is done.

For the anchovy sauce, see the original recipe for directions on making a fancy sauce with a mortar and pestle. I just minced:
1/2 clove of garlic
2 anchovy fillets
, packed in oil for preference

1-3 teaspoons lemon juice
3 Tablespoons olive oil

I mashed everything with a fork and then left it sitting in the warm kitchen to let the flavors seep together.

Finally, assemble the whole mess by dumping the cauliflower in a bowl, drizzle on the anchovy sauce, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and chopped parsley, and eat.

Then climb into the hot tub and stare out at the ocean to recover from the annoyance of preparing this dish.

Friday, December 23, 2005

There's No Place Like Home: The "Someone Else's Kitchen" Meme

I've been tagged by Haverchuk for my first foodblogging meme. The issue at hand, as originally phrased by The Seasonal Cook, is that "cooking at someone else's house is a royal pain in the neck."

Too true. The ToastFamily is wrapping up our week in a gorgeous beach house on the Outer Banks, which boasts a gourmet kitchen. And the kitchen is quite lovely. But beneath its brushed stainless steel and elegantly mottled granite exterior lurks heartbreak. The oven heats wildly unevenly. The knives are for shit (honestly, profanity is the only way to convey the abysmal state of the cutlery here, people). There is only one mixing bowl. And there are zero rolling pins.

Since our only real goal for the week was to bake a ton of Christmas cookies, the uneven oven presented the biggest challenge. The Sister and I solved the problem by sitting on the floor and staring fixedly into the oven, like mongeese hypnotized by the gaze of a cobra, while each batch baked. We rotated trays and switched shelves as necessary. We are masters of improvisation.

The things I wish I had here, in this strange kitchen, on this strange week:
1) A decent chef's knife
2) My oven
3) A rolling pin (See below for further evidence of our mastery of improvisation.)

4) Toasted sesame oil (It makes everything taste better. Seriously. Everything.)

Obviously, oven portability is limited at best. But the rest of the stuff could easily have been tossed the suitcase, along with the spices and food coloring. For more on traveling chefs who recognize the problem of oven portability as well, check out this New York Times article: A Star Chef at Your (Expensive) Stove. Sample quote: "They rolled in crates of peekytoe crab, Colorado lamb, Maine halibut and tuna tartare, and enough fixings for a five-course feast."

Now, I wonder if I can bring my chef's knife on an airplane...

I'll tag Mumu of A Curious Mix (because I like the idea of tagging Mumu for a Meme) and J and T from DCFoodBlog.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

"Homemade" Butter Cookies

Meet the "easy-to-use battery powered cookie press that makes cookie-making fast and fun!" The box boasts, in best TV infomercial syntax, that it is "the only cookie press with 2 interchangeable barrels for making traditional OR jumbo cookies!" Its other selling points include "one-handed battery operation"--as if there are all kinds of things we might profitably be doing with that other hand while making cookies. It runs on two C batteries, which are, inevitably, not included. And the little grinding sound it makes as it extrudes each cookie is almost endearing.

The Mom purchased this monstrosity last year in a fit of post-Christmas madness. And she insisted that we were not leaving the Outer Banks until we had tried it. So today we made dozens of awful, tasteless little butter cookie turds. Crunchy, flavorless, terrible. The chocolate version was marginally better, if only because we tripled the recommended amount of cocoa.

I will say one thing for the "Battery Powered BonJour Cookie Factory and Decorating Kit": The cookies did look gratifyingly like the pictures on the box. But at what cost? We should have known better than to make to recipe from the package insert of this diabolical device. Lesson learned.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Aunt Ester's Sugar Cookies: or Why Santa Doesn't Matter

Aunt Ester's Sugar Cookies are Christmas. Santa, Baby Jesus, St. Nick--Aunt Ester could whup them all in a fair fight.

Aunt Ester's cookie legacy is more than I can ever hope to achieve. They come out of darkest Ohio, floury and dry, but incredibly soft. The frosting is tooth-numbingly sweet, and the crunch of colored sugar completes the experience.

For a still-cooking Aunt Est(h)er, click here.

The Cookies are fairly involved, so let's get down to business:

Aunt Ester's Sugar Cookies
(Makes about 6 dozen large cookies)

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup Crisco
1/2 cup butter (The recipe calls for Oleo, but we use butter nowadays. The Crisco is non-negotiable.)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Add and fully incorporate:
2 eggs

In a separate bowl, combine:
5 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Add the dry ingredients, alternating with 1 cup sour milk (made by combining one teaspoon vinegar per cup of warmish milk). The dough should be soft and sticky.

Chill overnight.

The Mom still mixes the dough and the frosting, but The Sister is in charge of the rolling and cutting of The Cookies. I'm not sure why, she just is. Someone has to be the Keeper of The Cookies in each generation, and she's it. I observed her carefully this year to pass along the recipe to you (something she had some qualms about--apparently she had some latent plans to "sell those babies.")

Roll out one third of the dough to about a quarter-inch thick. Use lots of flour, the dough will be sticky. Quickly cut shapes from the dough using cookie cutters of your choice. We use a battered set of aluminum cutters which are also non-negotiable when it come to The Cookies. Slide them onto ungreased cookie sheets (removing them from the counter with a spatula if necessary) and pop them into a 350 degree oven for about 8 minutes. They should be ever-so-slightly golden on the bottom and very soft. Repeat until you've used all the dough.

After they've cooled, slather the cookies with:
Buttercream Frosting

1 1/2 sticks of butter
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 cups of confectioner's sugar
about 1/4 cup of condensed milk (enough to get the right consistency--very thick but just spreadable on delicate cookies)

Smear it on thickly, and quickly sprinkle colored sugar onto The Cookies in artistic patterns. Use food coloring to dye a quarter cup of each color of sugar by grinding in a drop or two of each color with a fork.

Immediately consume the first cookie you decorate. Moan with delight. Christmas has arrived.

Note: These are the ideal cookies to leave out for Santa, because when the sugar soaks into the frosting if they sit out for a bit, and the crunchy carapace that forms is fantastic.

Bacon-Fat Ginger Cookies

Yes, that is bacon behind my cookies. Why? Because--as I have just recently learned--behind every truly excellent ginger cookie, there is bacon fat.

The New York Times's fashion critic, of all people, supplied this recipe. The key, she says, is to fry 1 1/2 pounds of cheap bacon and use the resulting milky bacon fat as shortening. Needless to say, I was fascinated. Being a modern cook, I don't save fat, but I know that my hypothetical praire ancestors did. I also know that they cooked with molasses a lot. So I agree with Cathy Horyn's conjecture that this recipe was probably the result of improvisation in a country kitchen. Ever wonder what 3/4 of a cup a bacon fat would look like? Well, here it is:

The article containing this recipe was headed "Season's Drippings." That's all you need to know.

Bacon-Fat Ginger Cookies
(adapted from Cathy Horyn's adaption from Nelle Branson's Trinity Episcopal Church Recipe Book)

Mix together in a large bowl:
3/4 cup bacon fat, cooled (from 1 1/2 pounds of cheap bacon)
1 cup sugar
4 Tablespoons molasses
1 large egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (I used fleur de sel, because that's what I had around)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Chill dough for a few hours in the fridge. Make youself a BLT.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. I used greased and floured cookie trays, but Horyn says to use parchment. Form the satisfyingly pliable dough into 1 Tablespoon balls, roll in sugar, and place on the cookie sheet far apart (these babies really spread out). I sprinkled a little extra sugar on the tops of mine as I flattened them with the tines of a fork. Bake for 10 minutes, until dark and ginger snappy. Cool briefly, and then enjoy bacon as you've never tasted it before.

Tomorrow: Aunt Ester's Sugar Cookies (really)

Monday, December 19, 2005

Food Lion in Winter

To put it mildly, the Food Lion on the Outer Banks in the winter is not the most well-stocked grocery store I ever seen. In the summer, the shelves overflow. Things like endives and goat cheese are available in abundance. In the winter, if you go looking for ground lamb, the closest you're going to get is something called "meatloaf mix," a blend of beef, pork, and veal. I should have guessed that the Food Lion would not lay down for the lamb.

As it happens, these little meatballs were almost as good with the mystery meat as they were the times we've made them with lamb. The real trick is to go heavy-handed with the spice. They smell delicious when they fry.

Aromatic Everything-But-Lamb Meatballs
Adapted from Nigella's Aromatic Lamb Meatballs (from Feast)

Combine in a large bowl:
1 lb ground meat (lamb preferred, meatloaf mix totally acceptable)
1/4 cup sliced scallions
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons flour (Nigella says to use semolina)
1 egg, beaten

Mush the whole mess around lightly with your hands. I don't know why, but the rule with meatballs is that you must always mix them with your hands. Cover and refrigerate for at least half an hour.

Now comes the fun part: Make a bazillion meatballs. Tiny ones, "toytown small," according to Nigella. You should get about 75 from one pound of meat. As you roll, drop them on a cookie sheet covered with wax paper or plastic wrap. If your hands get too sticky, Nigella has the helpful hint to rinse them periodically in cold water.

Heat a healthy (by which I mean unhealthy) amount of vegetable oil in the bottom of a large skillet and fry the meatballs in batches, about a minute on a side, until brown.

Eat in a pita sandwich with hummus and tzasiki (as I did), over rice, or in stew.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Lemon-Scented Tears: A Christmas Tragedy

We just went to the People's Drug for a roll of tape to finish the wrapping. When we returned, say half and hour later, we were greeted at the door by a truly horrifying smell: I'd left the lemon bars in the oven. We dragged open the door of the oven and pulled out a blackened 9x9 pan of carbonized sugar sludge. I was 14. I cried.

Lemon bars are by far the easiest of the traditional ToastPoint family Christmas cookies. This is because they are mostly made by Betty Crocker. Yes, I'd managed to ruin box cookies. I was comforted, a new box of lemon bar mix--and a new pan--were purchased, and a second effort was made.

Reader, I burned them again. This time, it was just the crust. The crust, which is supposed to bake for 10 minutes before you add the filling, was in for long enough to set off the smoke alarm. I honestly don't know how it happened. I cried again. And then I was told, gently but firmly, that I wasn't allowed to make the lemon bars anymore. And every year, along with the traditional baking of the lemon bars, the family added a traditional retelling of the story of the year Katherine burned two batches of lemon bars from a box.

This year the extended ToastPoint family has retired to the Outer Banks to avoid the pre-Chrstmas hubbub and to bake. And this year, I made mango bars. Same concept as the lemon bars, less bad karma. And I gotta tell you, they look good. Once we cut 'em I'll post a photo.

UPDATE: Here they are:
I'm not going to post a recipe because, well, they're box cookies. But stay tuned for real cookie recipes every day this week. Tomorrow: Aunt Ester's Sugar Cookies.

Also, the box of mix this year sported the best brand name ever:

Friday, December 16, 2005

Coffee Confessions: or How I Became A Coffee Goddess

A confession: Until very recently, I'd never made a cup of coffee on my own.

Horrifying, I know. When my mother-out-law (the woman responsible for the existence of the Human Vacuum) comes to town, she cannot comprehend that our otherwise perfectly normal kitchen lacks that most fundamental of appliances: the automatic coffeemaker. I honestly think she might be less shocked if we didn't have a refrigerator.

I do own some coffee, but I keep it around only for the rare occasions when I need to incorporate it into a baked good. What can I say? I'm part of the Starbucks generation--I can see one from my apartment window, and I walk by four on the way to work.

My woeful ignorance emerged at a recent neighborhood brunch, and my longest suffering grade-school friend (we'll call her "Goose") marched me over to the Hostess's coffee maker for a lesson. Goose is a serious coffee drinker herself, and knows of what she speaks. She was the first of the gang to master the art of drinking coffee black, a practice endorsed by Flaubert, who advises us to "take it without sugar--very swank: gives the impression you have lived in the East."

What Goose taught me was astounding: Making coffee is insanely easy. All these years I've been intimidated by the countless references in literature and film about the difficulty of getting a "decent cuppa joe." I was scared off by the harsh language of the 1674 Women's Petition Against Coffee: "Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water." Clearly they've never had the Starbucks Christmas Blend--or coffee made by yours truly.

If my prose is insufficiently inspiring on this subject, read Honore de Balzac on The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee. Sample quote: "Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring."

Image stolen from Lileks's Institute of Official Cheer.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Skittles, Sex, and Seven-Card Stud

We were all set to play poker when it became clear that we were chipless--none of the dozens of sets of poker chips that we have purchased throughout the years could be located. An emergency call was placed to the family contingent headed down from Annapolis for a Very Vegas family gathering: "Find something we can use to bet!" Since 2/3 of that contingent are minors, strip poker wasn't an option. The day was saved when they arrived bearing an extra jumbo bag of Skittles.

When we settled in for the game, the table was populated entirely by women. Even if you hadn't known the sex of the players, though, you would have know that there were people of the double-X chromosome persuasion at the table: We kept eating our money. No menfolk would have done such a thing. Then you might lose! But to the ladies, the lovely Skittles were just too much to resist as they clicked around on the table; we had to taste the rainbow.

In case you're wondering about mechanics, the various colors represented different denominations, as in: "I'll see your orange and raise you a purple." See below for the "recipe":

Skittles Seven-Card Stud

Relative worth of various (original) Skittles:
Grape-fifty cents

OBJECT: The best five card poker hand, out of seven cards, wins the pot.
1. Players must place an ante into the pot. (say, one orange Skittle each)
2. Each player is dealt two cards face-down (hole cards) and one card face-up (door card)
3. 1st betting round
4. Each player is dealt one card face-up (4th street)
5. 2nd betting round
6. Each player is dealt another card face-up (5th street)
7. 3rd betting round
8. Each player is dealt another card face-up (6th street)
9. 4th betting round
10. Each player is dealt a last card face-down (river)
11. Last betting round
12. Showdown (Every remaining player shows hand with bettor showing first)

Players may use any 5 of their 7 cards to make their best hand. For more detail on the rules, go here. For more detail on the Skittles, go here.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

I Feel Pretty: Salmon Avocado Toasts a la Costco

I am posting this photo out of pure vanity. Isn't that a nice looking plate o' food? Classy, if somewhat retro, I think. They have the aspect of something that might have been suggested by the Thomas' English Muffins marketing department, circa 1969, no?

But here's why I'm especially impressed with myself (this time, anyway): Everything on the plate came from Costco. The avocados came in net bag of eight. The smoked salmon was a huge slab of store brand. And the toasted English muffins, well, let's just say that I still have 15 muffins to go. The whole shebang cost somewhere in the neighborhood of two dollars.

Cheap semi-retro class--that's me, in a nutshell.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Dim Sum and Then Some: Dine and Dish #5

I started my day with dim sum at Mark's Duck House. The place is impossible to find (it's inside a strip mall, and has a tiny, illegible sign) and pleasingly filled with people of Asian descent. Since the restaurant is quite near "Little Vietnam" in Falls Church, VA, the real Hong Kong/Chinese authenticity may remain unproven. But authenticity or not, their barbecue roast pork buns are fantastic. Known as bao, these steamed buns couldn't be tastier. Seriously people, I dream about these buns. They're quite sweet, and my regular dim sum companion and I agree they remind us--more than a little--of that Southern picnic staple: pulled pork on potato rolls. We also love the gingery chicken and straw mushroom version of the bao, and the super-sweet baked version filled with pineapple custard.

Our other favorite is the dish we refer to affectionately as shrimp eyeballs. No, this isn't a bowl of painstakingly plucked crustacean peepers--although Mark's Duck House does serve a tasty dish of spiced duck tongues, so they're not above that sort of thing. These plain shrimp dumplings are so pure, so perfectly round, and the wrapper so delicately translucent, that they resemble nothing so much as four eyeballs staring out from the steamer when they are lifted from the circulating carts.

As if that weren't enough consumption to satisfy the Asian Persuasion-themed Dine and Dish hosted by The Delicious Life, I also had Chinese for dinner. I left the ordering decision up to the Human Vacuum, who came through with a great selection: Meiwah's Shredded Pork with Pickled Mustard Noodle Soup. Since mine came in unattractive takeout containers, I cribbed a picture from the Internet to give you an idea of what I ate:

The vinegary bite of the pickled vegetable contrasted with the warm meaty broth, and the surprisingly high-quality pork was a bonus. Meiwah also cooks up a mean spaghetti with meat sauce. Apparently, they take seriously the claim that spaghetti bolognese was originally conceived as spaghetti cantonese. Meiwah's version is fast becoming a takeout standby for us. Its egg noodles are springy and fresh, the sauce is spicy and dotted with sliced mushrooms. And it manages--through judicious use of cornstarch and/or MSG, we suspect--to approximate the texture of spaghetti with meat sauce quite accurately.

One word to the wise: I wholeheartedly recommend that you eat at Meiwah, but the steamed dumplings are crap--they're chewy and flavorless. Get your dumpling fix at Mark's Duck House instead.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Fennel, Apple, and Clementine Salad

I bought a bulb of fennel a while ago with no goal in mind. It was still lurking in my fridge last night, smelling suspiciously of licorice, when the Human Vacuum came up with a genius plan for dinner: Buca di Beppo takeout. He called for spaghetti and meatballs while I googled a salad. Here's what I made up, after examining numerous time-consuming alternatives for fennel preparation online:

Fennel, Apple, and Clementine Salad with Toasted Sesame Oil

Peel, core, and thinly slice:
One bulb of fennel
I'd never prepared fennel before, so I needed a little more instruction than most recipes provide. Here's what I did:
1) Cut off the celery-esque tops
2) Use a paring knife to remove the outer layer of the bulb (say, 1/4 inch all around)
3) Cut in half. There will be a dense, opaque core visible. Remove the whole thing--it's hard and bitter.
4) Thinly slice what's left and dump it into a bowl. You'll know you got all of the core out if the layers of the fennel slices fall apart on their own.

Peel, core, and dice:
One red apple
If you can't cut up an apple, you need more remedial culinary education than I am willing to provide in this recipe.

Peel and section:
3 clementines
You could substitute any orange-like product here, of course.

Combine fruit in a bowl. In a separate container, whisk together:
balsamic vinegar
olive oil

a few drops toasted sesame oil
a few drops soy sauce

Proportion the oil and vinegar to your taste, I usually go with 3 parts oil to 2 parts vinegar, for a total of about 2 tablespoons dressing.

Pour over fruit, toss, and leave to marinate while you go to pick up the best meatballs ever.