Friday, April 28, 2006

Pea Soup and a Poetry Reading

While making this spring green pea soup last night, I was besieged by the memory of Edward Lear's nonsense poem, The Jumblies, who sing:

"O Timballoo! how happy we are
When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar!
And all night long, in the moonlight pale,
We sail away with a pea-green sail
In the shade of the mountains brown."

They sail'd to the Western Sea, they did,--
To a land all cover'd with trees:
And they bought an owl, and a useful cart,
And a pound of rice, and a cranberry-tart,
And a hive of silvery bees;
And they bought a pig, and some green jackdaws,
And a lovely monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton cheese...

In honor of the Jumblies, we had the soup with some bread and apricot Stilton cheese. All things being equal, I would have made a cranberry tart for dessert, but one must live in the real world, so instead there was cold chicken salad.

Jumblie Pea Soup
(stolen from Nigella's Feast)

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, warm:
1 Tablespoon olive oil

Mince or microplane:
1 clove garlic

Heat until the garlic sizzles a bit, but don't let it brown. Then add and heat through:
2 scallions, white and green bits, finely sliced

Toss in:
1 package frozen sweet peas (About 16 ounces, or 3 to 4 cups)

Dissolve in 3 cups hot water:
1 teaspoon vegetable stock base or 1 cube veggie bouillon

Add the stock to the pot, along with:
A piece of rind from a wedge of Parmesan cheese (about 1 inch by 2 inches)

Simmer for approx. 10 minutes, until peas get soft inside. Take the pan off the heat, fish out the now-gooey cheese rind, and let cool (Note: Don't ignore the "let cool" part. I did, and suffered terribly for it). Puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor until very smooth. Or, in keeping with the Jumblie spirit, strain it through a sieve.

Serve hot, with a sprinkle of grated Parmesan for looks.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Salt and Pepper Squid Salad

Yes, those are tentacles. And yes, they are purple. Don't be afraid...they're delicious.

They say (read: Mark Bittman says) squid is only good when cooked one of two ways: ''Cook it for 20 seconds or two hours.'' I doubt I'll ever get around to the slow simmer method--not when an entire dinner as good as this can be conjured in 5 minutes flat.

As is often the case Chez ToastPoint, this quick menu was created out of a fear of decay. After a trip to the store, the three ingredients bound to be past their prime soonest were salad greens, a warm baguette, and fresh squid. So, clean the greens, toss the squid in the pan for a bare minute or two, break the bread, and eat!

Salt and Pepper Squid Salad
(inspired by Mark Bittman's Squid with Black Pepper, Vietnamese Style)

Wash and tear into bite-sized pieces:
1 head soft salad lettuce

Clean and cut into rings or small pieces:
3/4 pound squid, with tentacles

Chop and set aside:
4-5 cloves garlic, or enough to produce 1 Tablespoon (I used pre-chopped garlic from a jar. Long live shortcuts!)

Warm over high heat in a large skillet:
1-2 Tablespoons oil (I used grapeseed)

When the oil is hot, scrape in the squid, and cook until just opaque and the tentacles start to curl--an entertainingly creepy sight--2 minutes, max. Add the garlic, then:
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon fish sauce (nam pla)
1 teaspoon sea salt

Stir well while cooking for another ten seconds, then tip onto the waiting bed of salad, juices and all. Squeeze over:
1 lemon

Toss and enjoy. I used hunks of bread to soak up the salty, milky juices left on my plate.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Asian Pears with Saffron Sherry Ice Cream: SHF#18

...with bonus household hint!

When I was a kid I had a love-hate relationship with Hints from Heloise. I recognized that it was banal, awful, and none-too-relevant to the life of a 7 year-old. But it was right there at the end of the Washington Post Sunday comics every week, so I read it because I didn't want the comics to be over. Now, finally, I can do Heloise proud by sharing a Hint of my own: I used to wind up throwing away half of each purchase of fresh ginger because sprouted green mold before I could use it all. Now, the Human Vacuum and I buy a huge chunk of ginger, peel it and cut it into usable pieces and store them in a sherry-filled jar. The ginger stays fresh and the sherry is a nice added flavor, compatible with sweet and savory cooking.

So, we were between batches of ginger, and I had this jar full of gingery sherry and a bunch of Asian pears. Thus was dessert born. The Asian pears stay crisp, but take on extra flavor and sweetness when poached. And the syrup that results from the poaching has the heat of ginger, a lovely saffron color, and the kick of sherry. And if you don't want to bother with the chilling-and-mixing-into-the ice-cream step, just serve the pears with vanilla ice cream and pour the warm syrup over like hot fudge.

Poached Asian Pears with Saffron Sherry Ice Cream

Peel, core, and cut into 12 slices each:
3 large Asian pears

In a pan just big enough to hold all the slices (don't put them in yet), combine:
2 cups ginger sherry (or plain sherry with 1 inch of grated fresh ginger)
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon vanilla sugar (or use plain sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
Pinch saffron threads (turmeric would be an adequate substitute, but if you can spring for saffron, do it)

Bring to a boil, then add the pears and just enough hot water to cover. Simmer until pears become translucent, about 20 to 25 minutes. Unlike normal poached pears, they won't lose their crunch.

Remove the pears and return the liquid to a boil. Reduce until you have a few syrupy tablespoons left in the bottom of the pan. Pour the syrup into a bowl, and chill. Blend the cooled syrup with vanilla ice cream, then spoon it over the warm poached Asian pear slices. The Human Vacuum and I ate this with our fingers, using the pear slices as tiny edible ice cream scoops.

Note: This recipe is a bit fiddly, what with all the poaching and reducing. Still, I hope it's in the spirit of Lick the Spoon's Sugar High Friday Theme: "Candy is Dandy, but Liquor is Quicker!"


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Egyptian Tomato Salad

Admire the gorgeous, un-photoshopped red of the tomato salad above. Would you believe, dear reader, that those tomatoes were a pale greenish-pink mere days before this photo was taken? ToastMom and I bought a crate at Costco is preparation for Easter lunch. I was unconcerned about the pathetic state of the fruit. A combination of poaching and steeping makes any tomato palatable (hell, delicious) in this, my ultimate salad standby: Egyptian tomato salad.

The recipe is quite quick and easy. Don't be put off by the poaching of the tomatoes. It's just boiling some water, which even the biggest kitchen retard can handle. And because the salad is best when it's been sitting around at room temperature for awhile, it's a great "I'll bring the salad" salad.

Egyptian Tomato Salad
(adapted from Nigella Bites*)

In a small bowl, combine and set aside:
4 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
4 scallions, white parts only, minced
1/4 medium onion, minced
2 shallots, minced (though this is what the original recipe calls for, I have never made it this way, because I have issues with shallots)
Pinch sea salt
Ground black pepper

Boil a kettle of water.

In a large bowl, place:
5 medium tomatoes (You can use any kind you like. Of course, perfect tomatoes improve the salad, but I'm not kidding when I say that this is good when made with greenish supermarket beefsteaks, too. Don't use tiny ones, though, you'll go nuts with all the peeling.)

Pour the boiling water over the tomatoes and let rest for five minutes. Drain the water, and let the tomatoes cool until you can handle them--cold water can be used to speed this process. At this point, you should be able to remove the skin from the tomatoes with your fingers. Just rub and the skin breaks and rolls away. Core and slice the now-naked, creepily fleshy, but cheerfully bright red tomatoes. I cut them into 1/4 inch disks, but do whatever works for you--skinny wedges, slightly thicker slices, haphazard massacre, etc.

Put the cut tomatoes into a serving bowl, and toss with the olive oil dressing. The beauty of this salad is that improves as it sits. I leave mine resting at room temperature for an hour or two to maximize its flavor, but refrigerate if you like. But be sure to serve at room temperature or you'll lose half the taste. As the salad sits, it generates juices. If you find them unslightly, feel free to decant to another serving dish. I usually don't. Also, the leftover juices/tomato bits make a great light dressing for spare pasta.

Right before serving, sprinkle with:
Small handful fresh basil (or other similar herb), shredded
Squeeze of lemon juice

That's it. It's simple, and offers fresh tomato tastiness, even when there are no tasty fresh tomatoes around.

*Sorry for the Nigella binge lately--there's more coming.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Ham in Coca-Cola: Try It, You'll Like It

A huge ham, boiled in two liters of Coca-Cola for hours, then studded with cloves, drizzled with molasses, sprinkled with brown sugar and mustard, and zonked in a hot oven until crisp and bubbly. You know you want it.

This is totally, completely, and utterly Nigella's recipe. I'm typing up the whole thing here only because I fear that if I just include the link you won't click through. You must make it. The boiling takes the salt out of the ham and makes it moist and falling-apart tender. The glaze is perfect--none of this gaudy pineapple and maraschino cherry tomfoolery (I'm looking at you, Martha). The recipe is marvelously trashy and will make your guests quake in fear at its wild unorthodoxy. Until the first bite. Then, they will be silenced.

And when you're done, you have the best ham stock ever. Stay tuned for its uses.

Ham in Coca-Cola
(stolen, intact, from Nigella Bites)
Click through on the recipe name for Nigella's colorful admonitions against Diet Coke and many other helpful hints. I'm just out to give the basic idea here:

Place, skin-side down, in a large pot with a lid:
4 1/4-4 1/2 pound bone-in fresh ham
(ToastMom and I found the designation "fresh ham" confusing. We decided smoked was OK, but do make sure there is nothing on the package that says "fully cooked" or "heat and serve.")

Add to the pot:
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola

Bring to a boil, reduce to a brisk simmer and cover loosely. Simmer for about 2 hours, or figure roughly an hour for every two pounds if you have a bigger ham. ToastMom and I used a 9 1/2 pounder, and it seemed quite well-boiled after a little more than 4 hours.

When the ham is getting done, preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Take the ham out of the liquid and let cool slightly. Place the ham in a roasting pan and remove the skin. Score the layer of fat below in diamond shapes and stud each diamond with a clove. This should require:
A small handful of cloves

Drizzle/smear over:
1 heaping tablespoon molasses

Mix, then sprinkle over:
2 teaspoons English mustard powder
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Pop into the very hot oven, and cook for approximately 10 minutes, or until the fat no longer looks slimy and disgusting and the glaze browns and bubbles.

Do it.

The Weekend Cookbook Challenge is Easter Breakfast and Brunch and this is my entry. Coca-Cola ham is perfect for Easter. But just because Easter is past, don't wimp out and wait until next year. Make this recipe today. Obviously, Nigella Bites isn't "a cookbook I've never used before" but this recipe is in the spirit of the event, since I've been flipping fearfully past this recipe for years, pretending like it wasn't there, but in some other, little-used cookbook instead.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Lady of Shallot: Mushroom and Shallot Pasta

Shallots are a royal pain in my ass. They're tiny little impertinent onion impersonators. Yes, they're sweet. Yes, they're tender. Yes, they're flavorful. But peeling and dicing ten little shallots seems like infinitely more work than one large sweet onion.

But when the lady at the farmers' market convinced me to buy a mix of gorgeous fresh mushrooms and described a pasta dish of mushroom and shallots sauted in butter, I was seduced. The next stall over sold shallots, a tiny box of ten perfect rose-gold skinned gems. I bit the bullet. And I'll grudgingly admit that it tasted pretty good.

Fancy Mushroom and Shallot Pasta

Start a large pot of water boiling for pasta. Meanwhile, peel and dice:
10 shallots

Melt in a wide skillet:
4 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons olive oil (to keep the butter from burning)

Saute the shallots in the butter over very low heat until soft and brown (about 15 minutes). Then increase the heat to medium high and add:
2-3 large handfuls of gourmet mushrooms (I used a mix of hen-of-the-woods, honey, enoki, button, chanterelle, and god knows what else the lady at the Dupont farmers' market gave me. As I type, there is no evidence that any of the mushrooms were hallucinogenic.)

Cook until the mushrooms are softening and starting to brown. They'll drink up a lot of the butter. Add more if you're worried about the pasta being dry. Take the mushrooms and shallots off the heat.

To the boiling water, add:
1 pound tagliatelle, linguine, papardelle, or other wide egg noodle

When the pasta is done, reserve 1 cup of cooking water and drain. Put mushrooms and shallots back on the heat and add the drained pasta. Stir to combine and add the reserved pasta water slowly to moisten. Sprinkle on:
Fresh cracked black pepper
Sea salt

Pass grated parmesan at the table.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Apricot Cardamom Muffins: More Butter!

"The richer and sweeter the muffin, the longer it stays moist. Reduced-fat muffins and muffins that contain only 4 tablespoons or less of butter or oil [will] go stale quickly."

Ah Irma Rombauer, you know how to win my heart. Her exhortation to use more butter cannot be ignored by any sensible cook (or at least one who doesn't intend to consume a whole batch of muffins in a single sitting).

I was in the mood for muffins and wanted something fancier than boring blueberry. My default thought was ginger, but I'm a bit gingered out these days. I am newly obsessed with cardamom, though. And everything is better with dried apricots.

My dream of delicious cardamom-scented muffins was briefly stymied when I realized that I couldn't very well throw whole cardamom pods into the batter. Worse, I had no ground cardamom and no spice grinder. Yankee ingenuity prevailed, however. I picked the seeds out of about 8 crushed pods, put them in a gallon-sized baggie and beat the hell out of them with the back of a huge enameled metal ladle. No problem.

UPDATE: Tigers and Strawberries is hosting a new event: The Spice is Right. April is Ancient Spices month and cardamom is, of course, a classic entry in that category. I offer instruction--unusual ways to process cardamom in a pinch--and inspiration--Indian spices in all-American buttery muffins.

Apricot Cardamom Muffins
(a fancy variation on Joy of Cooking's Basic Muffins with Cream)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Grease a 12 muffin tin, or line it with paper muffin cups.

Combine and set aside:
2 cups flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

Whisk together in another bowl, or in a standing mixer:
2 eggs
1 cup cream (if you're a pansy, use milk)
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
8 Tablespoons (1 stick) warm melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Add the flour mixture and quickly combine. Don’t overmix and don't worry about lumps.

Very gently fold in:
1/2 cup dried apricots, diced
(I used a scant half cup, but recommend that you be more generous)

Spoon batter into muffin cups and bake for 15 to 20 minutes.

Makes 12 normal-sized muffins

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Comparing Apples to (Gr)apples

I might need to reconsider my Wegmans impulse buys. After the kiwano incident, you'd think I would have learned my lesson. But no. I was initially enticed by the lovely grape-y smell emanating from the plastic four-pack of something called "grapples." I though I was having olfactory hallucinations until I saw the label, which proclaimed: "Looks like an apple. Tastes like a grape." I had to take them home with me.

But when I got home, I visited the official website, where I learned that (a) grapples will solve childhood obesity, and (b) "They are not genetically altered in any way." Damn. Turns out they just dip them in superconcentrated Concord grape flavoring. My mental picture was of a sweet, juicy lab full of crack scientists struggling to cross the apple and the grape. Exhausted and stained with grape juice, they are about to give up hope when one of them yells "eureka!" and the grapple is born.

Biting into one reveals that the tagline is slightly off. It should read: "Looks like an apple. Tastes like an apple. Smells like grape Bubblicious." Sigh.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Note on Lamb Consumption

This is a tragedy for our great nation:

"To tell the truth, Americans don't eat much lamb, let alone mutton. For all the lamb chops consumed in WASP-y households, all the legs of lamb eaten on Easter and all the lamb shanks that seem as common these days on restaurant menus as strip steaks, we consume on average only slightly more than a pound a year for each adult, compared with 50 pounds of pork and 65 pounds of beef. New Zealanders eat 40 pounds of lamb apiece every year and Greeks eat 31."

Don't let America fall behind! Eat lamb.

(Photo credit: Lamb Day Parade participants, 1984, by Richard Menzies)

Semi-Moroccan Lamb Shanks and Couscous

I've never been a fan of couscous, which is a shame because I love the things that get spooned over it--spicy Tunisian vegetable stews, tagines with dried fruit, sweet braises with meat falling of the bone. So imagine my joy when I discovered Israeli couscous, which isn't couscous at all, but tiny pearls of semolina pasta. In my ongoing campaign to evangelize the stuff to the world, I present this recipe for semi-Moroccan lamb shanks with a fantastic stew-y broth, perfect for pouring over the UnCouscous. The recipe has the added benefit of being exotic, yet non-threatening--both for cooks and diners. A few of the spices are wacky, but everything else should be sitting pantry and the technique and equipment are very basic--no scary tagines or couscoussiers.

Semi-Moroccan Lamb Shanks
(slightly adapted from Aromatic Lamb-Shank Stew in Nigella Bites)

In a large heavy-bottomed pan, heat over medium-high:
3 Tablespoons peanut oil (I added a drizzle of toasted sesame oil as well, which is virtually always an improvement)

Brown, in batches if necessary:
6 lamb shanks

While the lamb is browning, drop into your food processor and whir to a pulp (or finely chop):
2 onions, quartered
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed

When nicely browned (I'm very impatient on this step, but I do think that waiting for genuine brown crunchiness is worth it) remove shanks and set aside. Then add the onion mash to the pan, along with:
2 additonal Tablespoons peanut oil
1 pinch salt

When the onion start to brown and gets softly translucent, add:
1 Tablespoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (I'm sure freshly grated is better, but I can never manage find the whole nutmeg and the grater in my kitchen at once, so I always use pre-ground and it works out OK)
black pepper

Stir to combine the spices with the onion mash, and cook for a minute or two, until fragrant. Then add:
3 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
3 Tablespoons Marsala wine, sherry, port or whatever you've got on hand

The honey will bubble alarmingly, but when you add the soy (of all things) there will be a moment of magical kitchen alchemy when the contents of your pot suddenly smell like Moroccan stew.

Dump the lamb shanks back in and add enough cold water to the pot to barely cover the meat. Bring to boil then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until meat is very tender.

Here Nigella instrcts us to uncover the pot and add:
6 Tablespoons red lentils
And cook for 20 more minutes "until the lentils have softened into the sauce and the juices have reduced and thickened." This didn't happen in my pot, so I removed the now-tender lamb shanks from the pot and boiled the hell out of the juices for another 15 minutes until things really did start to "reduce and thicken." Then I dropped the meat back in and let the pot sit on a very low burner, uncovered, until it was time to eat. In retrospect, I'm not sure it matters much which route you take, but my way doesn't seem to have done any harm and the juices were just right for my taste.

Serve in a big vat, alongside a bowl of couscous, with little side dishes of toppings, like:
Toasted slivered almonds
Chickpea puree or hummus
Whatever else appeals to you

Buttery Israeli Couscous
(adapted from my own recent encounter with Israeli couscous)

In a large dry skillet over low heat, toast:
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup slivered almonds

When nuts are beginning to turn golden, turn up the heat to medium/medium-high and add:
4 Tablespoons butter

When the butter is melted, stir in:
3 cups Israeli couscous (also called super couscous, maftoul, or pearl couscous)
4 cardamom pods, lightly crushed

Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring, to toast the couscous, which will make little popping sounds and brown slightly.

Have ready:
6-8 cups stock, white wine, or water (I recommend using 2 cups chicken stock, and the rest water, but whatever you have will be fine)

Pour in the 2 cups of stock, and cook over medium heat until most of the liquid is absorbed. Continue to add the water slowly (about a cup at a time), allowing all the liquid be almost completely absorbed each time--think risotto.

Couscous is done when there is no floury core left, but the individual pearls still have some bite.