Sunday, January 29, 2006

Absolut Pasta: IMBB #22

I'm not sharing this pasta recipe because it is an original, or especially creative use of noodles. I am posting it because it is obscenely delicious. Also, you can get drunk by eating it.

The sauce is finished in the amount of time it takes to boil water and cook pasta--a major bonus in my book. And, as Nigella notes, it's especially good as cold leftovers, which is fortunate because it's rather rich. She also notes that this sauce is "amusingly retro--think 1960s Rome." Retro pasta that gets you drunk and can be made in minutes: What's not to love?

Penne alla Vodka
(adapted from Nigella Lawson's "Feast")

Put on a large pot of water to boil for the pasta.

In another heavy-bottomed pan, warm over medium heat:
2 Tablespoons garlic oil (or 2 Tablespoons olive oil with minced garlic)

Finely dice:
One large onion
A pinch of salt

Add to the oil and cook until soft and just beginning to caramelize, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.

2 14 ounce cans chopped tomatoes
Cook over medium-low heat for another 15-20 minutes.

2 Tablespoons heavy cream, or 1 1/2 Tablespoons creme fraiche
Stir to combine, then remove from heat.

When the water boils, add:
A pinch of salt
1 lb. penne or other similar pasta (I used rigatoni)
Cook until very al dente, then drain and return to the pan.

1/2 cup vodka
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter

I know it seems odd to add that much vodka to your pasta, but it really works. If you're squeamish, you can add the vodka to the tomato sauce to cook off the alcohol, you wimp. Stir until the pasta is coated and strangely fragrant buttery vodka fumes begin to rise enticingly from the pan. Tip in the tomato sauce and stir to combine.

Serve immediately, with grated parmesan cheese for sprinkling on top.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Unrefined Haroset: SHF#14

As I've noted before, I'm a great fan of cooking out of season (besides Aunt Ester's sugar cookies, of course) so I'm not embarrassed to admit that the recipe below is traditional Passover food.

I've been hoarding a recipe for haroset from A Finger in Every Pie since last Passover. Now seemed like a good time to break it out, because Sam at Becks&Posh is hosting Sugar High Friday, with a paradoxical challenge to make a dessert minimizing the use of refined sugar. This haroset is tooth-numbingly sweet without the help of a single grain of sugar. In the photo above, you'll see that I've served it on a leftover panna cotta. To better fit the spirit of this virtuous SHF, though, it happily stands alone in tiny quantities, or spread on (sugar-free) matzohs.

Haroset is promiscuously symbolic. It stands for all sort of different things depending on which tradition you're working from, or what the person in charge of discussing the various symbols feels like talking about. The one I like the best is that the fruit and honey are supposed to sweeten our lives, to make easier the bitter things in life, and to remind us of things that are already sweet about our existence. That's a thought worth reflecting on at the dinner table anytime, I say.

This recipe is in the Sephardic tradition. The Ashkenazi recipe seems to be simpler--apples, honey, nuts--and chunkier. My Jewish mother-out-law makes a nice version with which I would rather not compete.

Venetian Charoset or Haroset
adapted from "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" by Joan Nathan (Schocken Books)

1/2 cup chestnut paste
2 figs, chopped
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup pine nuts
Grated rind of one orange
1/4 cup chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup brandy or sherry
Honey (or, in my case, agave nectar*) to bind

Combine all the ingredients except the booze and stir. Add liquid until the mixture sticks softly together. Chill. Serve garnished with toasted white sesame seeds.

*Agave nectar is neat stuff. It's extracted from the same wonderful plant that gives us tequila (surely evidence that there is indeed a just and merciful god). It has a low glycemic index, which makes it a handy sugar substitute for diabetics. It's parve, which makes it kosher (so to speak) for the haroset. It's also 30% to 40% sweeter than sugar, so you don't have to use much, and low-calorie to boot. All of which is in keeping with the general effort at healthy alternatives to sugar that made this Sugar High (Low) Friday an interesting challenge.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Smoky Lapsang Souchong Panna Cotta S'mores

I walked home last night, squinting against the freezing January wind, and thinking about the tiny silver tin of lapsang souchong tea in my satchel. As I pondered the lovely, smoky flavor of the tea (arrived that very day from Tea Chef), I was hit by a August memory of hallucinatory intensity: S'mores. I could almost taste the marshmallow, silky within and smoked-stained on the outside, hot enough to melt two squares of chocolate, and insulated by bready sweet graham crackers.

Inspired by that warming thought, and a recent encounter with thai coffee panna cotta, I set out to capture a summer campfire dessert using that crucial mid-winter staple: tea. I wound up decanting a mound of chilled panna cotta flavored strongly with lapsang souchong and vanilla onto a mosaic of warm graham crackers and drizzling melted dark chocolate on top. The tea made the panna cotta sweetly smoky, tinted it an appealing warm brown, and cut the richness of the cream. And the s'mores experience was excitingly reversed--the creamy, smoky element was cold and soothing, while the crackers and chocolate provided heat and texture.

The results were marvelous, even if I do say so myself. I'll certainly make this again. It was easy, and would be simple to make ahead and have ready for an impressive end to a small dinner party.

I'm late in submitting this to the TeaChef contest, so it probably won't be included, but go check out the other entries for cooking with lapsang souchong anyway, and vote for your favorite. (UPDATE: It's up! Now your choice is easy--vote for me!)

Smoky Lapsang Souchong Panna Cotta S'mores

In a small bowl, combine but do not stir:
1 packet unflavored gelatine (2 1/4 teaspoons)
4 Tablespoons cold water

While that rests, combine in a saucepan over medium-high heat:
1 cup heavy cream
4 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or one vanilla bean, split)
2-3 Tablespoons lapsang souchong tea leaves

Heat gently until the mixture begins to barely simmer, then cook for 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally. The cream should take on a light brown color from the tea as it steeps. Add the bowl of gelatine and water and stir for about one minute until fully incorporated.

Strain out the tea leaves (and vanilla bean, if using) and pour the warm mixture into ramekins, tea cups, champagne bowls (that's what I used), or whatever you have around. Chill for several hours, or overnight.

To serve:
Arrange graham crackers on a plate and microwave for 15 seconds. Briefly dip the chilled panna cotta mold into very hot water (no more than 10 seconds, or the contents will become a melted puddle) and then invert over the graham crackers. Note: If you're worried about turning the molds out onto a plate, they could be served as is, in little cups for your guests to dig into.

Drizzle melted dark chocolate or hot fudge on top, and crumble 1/8 of a graham cracker for decoration. Serve immediately.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Lamb and Cilantro Redux

You might remember the lamb and cilantro pie. Well, it was an utter failure as leftovers. But since there was a healthy quantity of perfectly good lamb and potatoes inside, so I decided to have another try. Here's the dinner we wound up with after I gutted the thing and reworked its component parts: Spicy Lamb with Peas and Mint and Indian-Spiced Potato Fritters.

The resulting meal was unanimously agreed to be superior in nearly every way to the pie that gave it birth. I consider the lamb and peas dish a standby, and make it often with a package of pre-ground lamb from the supermarket. The potato fritters were a bold experiment that turned out rather well. If I had a leftover baked potato on hand, I'd certainly make them again. The final product looked nothing like the lovely, golden evenly shaped disks in the cookbook, but they were quite tasty.

Spicy Indian Lamb with Peas and Mint

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, heat:
2 Tablespoons oil (I use peanut or corn)

Gently fry until soft:
1 large onion, roughly diced
2 large carrots, finely diced

Turn the heat to high and add:
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
3 cloves garlic, finely minced or microplaned
1 inch fresh ginger, finely minced or microplaned
2 fresh green chiles, minced
1/2 teaspoon chile powder
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric

Cook for 2-3 minutes, until spices are fragrant and tomato begins to caramelize.

Reduce heat to medium and add:
2 pounds ground lamb, or precooked lamb cubes, minced

If adding uncooked ground lamb, cook for 7-10 minutes or until brown, breaking up clumps. If adding cooked lamb, just heat through.

You can pause here and wait for other dishes to catch up if need be. I used this time to fry potato cakes and wait for a pan of basmati rice to get appropriately fluffy and dry.

Right before you are ready to eat, add:
1 generous cup frozen green peas (tiny petit pois are best)
2-3 Tablespoons fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
2 Tablespoons mint chutney, or fresh mint

Heat through and serve immediately with yogurt, mint and mango chutneys, and basmati rice.

Indian-Spiced Potato Cakes

Mix together in a large bowl, preferably by squishing the ingredients together with your hands until they cohere:
2 cups cooked potato (baked, boiled, whatever you've got on hand)
2 fresh green chiles, minced
1 handful fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons honey
salt, to taste

When the mixture is well blended, form into small hockey pucks. Heat 2-3 Tablespoons oil in a skillet or griddle. Fry until golden brown, or as close as you can get. I found that turning the cakes with a pair of forks was easier than getting a spatula under them.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Lamb and Cilantro Pie

It looked so lovely when it came out of the oven after 45 minutes. The fragrant, golden crust gave flakily away when I dove in with a spoon. The scent of curry and cilantro wafted up at me through the break in the crust. It was in the midst of these visual and olfactory raptures that I discovered the potatoes were still crunchy. Damn. Back into the oven. After another half an hour, the crust was a little worse for the wear, yogurt/creme fraiche sauce was watery, and the lamb was overcooked. Edible, but no longer miraculous, my experiment with Turkish/Indian Lamb and Cilantro Pie was of limited success.

Still, three useful lessons were gleaned, and I share them with you here:
1) Unrolled Pillsbury crescent rolls make a brilliant substitute for shortcrust pastry dough in a pinch. I overlapped the triangles as if I were building a pizza, and then brushed them with egg. The guar gum and other mysterious ingredients that make Pillsbury products tasty and long-lived did their job.

2) If a recipe calls for a pie tin, use a damn pie tin. Do not, under any circumstances, double the recipe, put it in a large stoneware casserole, and then assume the cook time will remain the same.

3) Lamb gives off a lot of liquid/fat when cooked. Be aware.

The result was actually not bad tasting, but next time I'd increase the amount of cilantro (incredible, I know) and otherwise follow the directions in the original recipe more closely. The recipe below is my best guess at how to make my version of the pie more palatable and attractive.

Flawed Lamb and Cilantro Pie

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Warm a large skillet over high heat. Heat:
1 tablespoon peanut oil

Cook for 2 minutes, until toasted:
2 Tablespoons garam masala
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 inch fresh ginger, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced

Add, and sear for approximately 2 minutes on each side (in batches, if necessary):
2 cups lamb, cubed

Remove the lamb to a pie dish, and add:
2 cups fresh cilantro, finely chopped
2 cups potatoes (if you want the pie to cook more quickly, you might boil the potatoes for 10 minutes or so before you add them)
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup yogurt

Turn gently to combine, then cover with:
8 oz. shortcrust pastry, or 1 can Pillsbury crescent rolls

Crimp the edges to seal the lamb mixture inside the pan.

Brush the crust with:
1 egg, beaten

Bake for 45 minutes (or more) until potatoes are soft. To prevent burning, tent the pan with foil until the last 10-15 minutes of baking.

Serve with a green salad, lightly dressed. May your luck be better than mine.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Beware the Kiwano

What is a "kiwano"? Some mysterious creature of the deep? And alien lifeform recently discovered in the Arctic? A nickname for aboriginal people from New Zealand?

Nope. The African Horned Melon, or kiwano, is part of the cucumber family. It supposedly "tastes of cucumber and citrus." To me, it tasted rather like lime Jello made with only half the flavoring packet.

The kiwano was an impulse buy at Wegmans, and when I got home I quickly googled it to see what culinary delights awaited me. Alas, there seems to be a general consensus that kiwanos were not Mother Nature's best work. The consensus was borne out by experience. The seeds were slippery, yet chewy like immature watermelon seeds. The membrane was bitter, like the pith of an orange. The Human Vacuum remarked that the bright green fruit bore a certain uncanny resemblance to the "blood" that oozes from injured extraterrestrials on the SciFi channel.

The fruit was quite spiffy looking (inside and out), which perhaps explains its frequently mentioned "ornamental" uses. Anyway, that's what we ended up using it for: We admired the remaining half while eating bowls of vanilla ice cream for dessert instead.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Kaz Sushi Bistro: Restaurant Week, The Revenge

I love Kaz Sushi Bistro. I would gladly give chef Kazuhiro Okochi my first born son, or my life savings, or whatever he asked of me in exchange for a dinner or two. Fortunately, on Restaurant Week, all I had to give him was $30.06.

Kaz is not the best deal that restaurant week has to offer. We paid, more or less, what we would have paid for the same items a la carte. And the service and craftsmanship were perhaps a wee bit lazier than Kaz's usual high standards. Still, the meal was fantastic.

I started with the "Grilled Baby Octopus." (Again with the babies!) The dressing was zippy and satisfying--sesame, soy, miso, something in the umami category) and the octopus was flavorful. My only complaint was the size of each leggy bite. The juvenille octopi were too large for one mouthful, too chewy to gracefully bite off, and the restaurant was too authentic to offer knives to its customers. The "Spicy Broiled Green Mussels" were also lauded by my dining companions, and the "Coriander Crusted Fried Calamari" held its own.

For the main course, I chose from a decent selection to create a sushi platter. The standout was the salmon and jalapeno roll. The jalapeno was raw and added just the right amount of crunch and spicy kick to the roll. A close second was the tuna tartare roll. (Isn't tuna tartare just raw tuna? Nope. The tuna, scallion, and sesame seed combo was unique and delicious.) The crunchy eel roll was good as well. For nigiri, I ordered the salmon with mango sauce, and the tuna with olive pesto. Both were perfectly good, but I'm increasingly convinced that--unless you're going with a chef's choice, or omakase--nigiri with funky sauce is a dodgy proposition. Better to go with classics, or leave yourself completely in the hands of professionals to create sucessful taste combinations.

Which is a nice segue to say: Kaz's tasting menu/omakase is the best in Washington. I've been lucky enough to have it a few times, and each has been a roaring success. Foie gras appears on a ball of rice amidst the traditional nigiri, what seems to be fish roe turns out to be tapioca, a dynamite salmon tartare is served in a martini glass, and raw fish swim in an unfogettable cold "sashimi gazpacho." There are $45, $60, and $75 versions. The Human Vacuum and I celebrated last New Year's Eve at Kaz, where we got an extra bowl of udon and visit from the chef, who told us that long noodles symbolized long life. It's not my own longevity I'm worried about, it's the chef's--would life be worth without good sushi?

Final assesment: Eat at Kaz Sushi Bistro. Get the most expensive tasting menu that you can swing, or order a bunch of rolls and entertain yourself mightily. Disclaimer: After the Kaz menu, salad bar California rolls will seem like a crime against nature.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Finding Zen at Zengo: Restaurant Week Continues

Zengo, we're told, means "give and take" in Japanese. This means that you give your order, and they take as long as they feel like to deliver your food. You eat your food in whatever order they decide to bring it, at whatever pace the kitchen turns it out. In practice this works well enough--appetizers arrive more or less together, etc. It's supposed to be part of the hip, cool, damn-the-rules attitude of the place, but it just makes me nervous and mildly irritated. Perhaps a more Zen-like approach to restaurant patronage (not just service) was called for and would have been rewarded.

The Restaurant Week menu was pretty limited, which didn't stop our beautiful, vacuous waitress from asking if we had any questions four times. I had a very nice, tart "Rock Shrimp Ceviche, driven on by the yuzu obsession of my constant dining companion, who is a great fan of this Japanese citrus of mysterious origin. The "Pan Roasted Red Snapper" had a very nice curry-scallion sauce. The better entree, though, was the "Chipotle-Soy Glazed Short Ribs" with purple potatoes. At dinner, we pondered whether the potatoes were naturally purple. (Answer: Yes, they descend from ancient Peruvian purple potatoes.) Dessert was "Churros con Chocolate." The tiny slivers of fried dough were hot and delicious. We occupied ourselves by debating whether the white goo on top of the little shot glass of chocolate sauce was whipped cream or marshmallow, but now that I look again at the menu, I see that it was actually meringue.

The decor is snazzy and does a decent job of capturing the Latin-Asian fusion of the cuisine. The other patrons offered excellent people-watching. The air over the stairwell is filled with dozens of lumpy, potato-like objects on strings (perhaps Peruvian purple potatoes?), and the lounge banquettes are covered in some sort of white, textured space-age polymer, and girls with very long eyelashes.

Final assessment: Food was quite good, atmosphere would be great for drinks or festive weekend meal but wasn't really my Restaurant Week ideal. Yuzu and purple potatoes added rare ingredient interest of the highest order. If you're feeling adventurous, throw on some Buddhist robes and enjoy some churros.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

TenPenh and the Gin Rickshaw: Restaurant Week

Who knew that one of DC's fancier Asian-fusion places would serve their drinks with tiny plastic monkeys looped over the rim?

Ladies and gents, these are the kinds of marvelous discoveries one can make during Restaurant Week in Washington, DC. For the low, low price of $20.06 for lunch and $30.06 for dinner, fabulous three-course meals at 140 snazzy DC restaurants await. I'm making an exception to my usual recipe-heavy blog format to fill you in on what I'm eating out this week.

Our first hit was TenPenh. Since our dining companion was flying from London (ostensibly for work, but actually for Restaurant Week, I suspect), we guessed she might be bit late and so ordered diverting cocktails. The Gin Rickshaw was the best ("Minted Gin Martini with Ginger and Lime") but the Jade was excellent as well ("Malibu Coconut Rum, Swirl of Melon Liquor, Finished with Pineapple Juice"). Gary, our charming waiter, delivered the empty, garnished glasses to the table, then pulled a mini-cocktail shaker from each of the enormous pockets of his pan-Asian tunic/jacket and poured with a flourish. Adorable.

Once our food--and our Brit--arrived, I picked up my hammered Thai bronze flatware (the knife "duplicates the shape of a traditional Thai sword") and dug in. To start, I had the "Filipino Lumpia Style Pork and Shrimp Spring Rolls with a Trio of Dipping Sauces." It was a lot of food--three long thin spring rolls, nicely crisp and satisfyingly oily. The creamy, mildly spicy orange sauce was a standout; it tasted like the paste in a spicy tuna roll. The "Wok-Seared Spicy Calamari," with a few toasted cashews lurking beneath, was good as well.

Next came the "Tahitian Vanilla Scented Ahi Tuna Wasabi Mashed Potatoes, Tempura Endive, Yuzu Butter Sauce." The tuna was excellent, though not as vanilla-y as I'd hoped, but the tempura endive was brilliant, moist and vegetal on the inside, light and crisp on the outside. Again, lots of food. I can't imagine how many potatoes and horseradishes gave their lives for that mound of wasabi mashed potatoes. The Human Vacuum got escolar on a bed a squid ink risotto. He won for Best Entree Selection: The white fish was very moist, but the layers came apart nicely when we dug out forks in.

My dessert, Thai Coffee Panna Cotta, wobbled alarmingly when it arrived at the table, but delivered all the creamy sweetness of Thai iced coffee. The bitter chocolate cookie was a perfect foil for the mound of spiced, coffee-flavored cream.

Final assessment: Go to TenPenh, even on non-Restaurant Week occasions. The portions are well-calibrated, the flavor combinations are interesting without being irritatingly absorbed in the own precious uniqueness, the place feels fancy without being stuffy, and they have tiny plastic monkeys on their cocktails. What more could you want?

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Lamb Curry Is Made of Babies: Paper Chef #14

My predilection for consuming babies is well-documented, of course. So how could I resist this Paper Chef challenge? The ingredients: Quinoa, Yogurt, Cashews, and Baby Food. My final menu: Baby Curry and Quinoa Fritters with Cashew Cream.

The rundown: The curry contains baby sheep, baby spinach, Yobaby yogurt (double word score!), and actual baby food. The fritters were my first encounter with quinoa--an ingredient I've previously shunned as fodder fit only for unwashed hippies--they contain eggs, which could have been baby chickens. The curry was served with a side of baby banana. And the cashew cream, while it involves no babies, is one of the neatest science experiments I've ever done in the kitchen.

My only regret: The final plate wasn't terrible photogenic. But the Human Vacuum and our dinner guest will vouch for its tastiness. They also made an interesting observation: Apparently, contra Eddie Izzard, baby doesn't taste like chicken after all.

Baby Curry (or, if you're squeamish, Spicy Baby Sheep, Baby Spinach, and Butternut Squash Baby Food Curry)

Cut into large chunks:
3-4 pound butterflied leg of lamb, or other lamb stew meat

Combine, and set aside:
4 cloves garlic, finely minced or microplaned
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
2 heaping Tablespoons garam masala
2 teaspoons cumin
3-4 small green chile peppers, minced

Heat, on medium high, in a large, heavy-bottomed pan:
3 Tablespoons oil

Slice into the pan, and fry until soft:
1 large onion

Increase the heat to high and add the mixture of spices and:
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
2 Tablespoons butternut squash baby food

Fry for 2-3 minutes, until tomato starts to caramelize. Add the lamb chunks and brown on all sides. With the heat still on high, add:
One tub Yobaby yogurt

Add the yogurt one tablespoon at a time, and cook until each dose of yogurt is absorbed before adding the next spoonful. This tenderizes the lamb and will later thicken the sauce. When all the yogurt is cooked in, pour enough water to cover the lamb. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer and cover. Simmer for about 1 hour.

While the lamb cooks, make the quinoa fritters (below).

When the lamb is almost done, blanch in boiling water (for > 1 minute):
8 handfuls baby spinach
1 handful fresh cilantro, stems removed

Add the spinach, salt and pepper to taste, and cook for 15 more minutes.

Curried Quinoa Fritters

Heat a dry saucepan on high, add:
2/3 cup quinoa, rinsed and dried

Toast the grains, stirring constantly to prevent scorching, for 5 minutes. Then add:
1 1/3 cups water

Bring to a boil and then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, until all water is absorbed. Remove from heat and let cool.

While the quinoa cools, make the cashew cream (below).

When the quinoa is cool, add and blend thoroughly until soft and squishy:
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup grated cheese (Use something like smoked gouda)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1-2 Tablespoons hot curry powder
4 scallions, minced
1 handful fresh cilantro, minced
1 large egg
2 egg yolks (for a total of 3 unborn chickens!)

Heat in a large skillet, on high heat:
3/4 cup oil (I used peanut oil)

I'd never made fritters before (though I am expert at frittering away time), but I found that this was the easiest way to form the fritters: Put 2-3 tablespoons of dough in the palm of your hand, then close your fist and squish the mixture together. Imagine that you have one of those gel-filled stress balls. You'll feel the dough solidify. Drop each fritter into the hot oil, and fry about 45 seconds on each side. Remove to a paper-towel covered plate to absorb excess oil. When you've made the whole batch, transfer to an attractive plate and stash in a low oven to keep 'em warm while you finish the curry.

Cashew Cream

I picked up this recipe at a cooking seminar at the Four Seasons in Washington. The original use was to replace cream as a drizzle on a thick soup. It's absurdly easy: All you have to do is run the blender for a minute or two on high and, while you watch, some kind of kitchen alchemy will happen. A bunch of nuts become a lovely, warmly-spiced delight. If only I could perform some kind of similar magic on my friends.

In a high-speed blender, combine:
1/2 cup raw cashews
3 Tablespoons water
3 Tablespoon brandy or sherry
A few gratings of nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Theoretically, this might be a "healthier" alternative to cream or coconut milk. Not that I care.

To serve:
Scatter some cilantro on top of the dish of fritters. Serve the curry hot, alongside a bowl of basmati rice. Drizzle the cashew cream on the curry, or use it as a dippin' sauce for the fritters. Slice a baby banana onto each person's plate. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Red Currant, Tuna, and Chickpea Salad: A Tart Tale

The red currants looked so lovely in the grocery store, so red, so fruity, so...harmless. But those little suckers have a kick to 'em. They're pucker-inducing in the way of unripe things, but oddly delicious in the moment right before they attack the sides of your throat. I should have seen this coming, after all, even stupid birds know not to eat bright red berries--they're usually poisonous.

The only way to deal with these guys, I decided, was to respond with overwhelming force. Lots of oily, fishy flavor to fight back against the tiny tart terrors. The salad below was vaguely inspired by this recipe for Tuscan-Style White Bean, Tuna, and Red Currant Salad (from the California Raisin Marketing Board, no less). The Human Vacuum is out for the evening, so the portion below is a lovely--and very filling--meal for one hungry bird-brained blogger.

Red Currant, Tuna, and Chickpea Salad

Whisk together in a small bowl:
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 lemon, juiced (I used Meyer lemon, use less juice if you use a regular lemon--the currants will take care of the tartness component on their own, believe me.)
1 shallot, minced
2 scallions, white part only, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

In a larger bowl, combine:
1 can tuna, oil-packed for preference (if you use tuna in water, increase the amount of olive oil to compensate and perhaps consider adding an anchovy fillet to the dressing)
3/4 cup chickpeas
1/3-1/2 cup red currants, carefully plucked from their stems by hand

Pour the dressing over the salad, then shred some fresh basil on top. Mix thoroughly. Enjoy with some bread and cheese, or spooned onto greens as a very zippy starter salad.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Zesty Pasta: Meyer Lemon, Yogurt, and Parmesan Tagliatelle

This pasta is the product of Amanda Hesser's obsession. In her book, Cooking for Mr. Latte, she mentions Meyer lemons at least a half a dozen times. They're hybrids, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, of a lemon and an orange or a mandarin and are sometime called "sweet lemons" or "limettas." The rind is thinner and more orange than ordinary lemons, and you can only get them in late December and January. They're less acidic and very fragrant. I've made a few versions of this pasta--the original recipe calls for linguine, creme fraiche, and arugula--but the key is the lemons, everything else is negotiable.

Zesty Pasta
(adapted from Amanda Hesser's Linguine with Meyer Lemon Zest, Creme Fraiche and Parmesan Cheese)

Boil well-salted water for:
1 pound flat long-noodled pasta (I used tagliatelle, but linguine, pappardelle, etc. would work)

While the water boils, find a large serving bowl, and grate into it:
A handful of parmesan

Zest, into the serving bowl:
2 Meyer lemons
(Reserve the juice for later)

1 large handful of asparagus (the original recipe calls for 3 handfuls chopped arugula, I've also used fresh baby spinach to good effect. If you use leafy greens, just rinse, chop, and toss them in. The pasta will wilt the greens enough.)
Let cool slightly. Slice each asparagus lengthwise and then cut into 1 inch pieces. Add to the serving bowl.

When the pasta is cooked, reserve one cup of the pasta water, then drain. Quickly turn the pasta into the serving bowl. Add the juice of one lemon, and a splash of the reserved pasta water, then toss in:
1/2 cup yogurt (or creme fraiche, or even sour cream)

Fold the whole thing together until the cheese is melted and the flavors are evenly distributed. Add more lemon juice, if you like, more pasta water if the sauce is too sticky, and a good sprinkle of:
Freshly ground black pepper

The pasta is pictured above with a side of sauted baby squash. It's also great--in smaller doses--as accompaniment to baked chicken.