Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Palin Pasta

On this, the last day of the 2008 election, and thus probably the last day the name Palin will decorate our highway medians (at least for three and a half years), I give you a final culinary thought on the election season:

No, your eyes do not deceive you. What you see above is pasta in the form of tiny spinach and egg moose. I haven't yet tried this miracle of modern pasta science, but I already know how it will taste--like bitter, bitter tears.

I recommend serving them in an abbreviated carbonara. Fry up some bacon cut into small pieces, dress the pasta with butter, and sprinkle on bacon, Parmesan cheese, and minced fresh herbs. Alternately, use this pasta in place of elbow macaroni in Kraft mac and cheese.

I suspect that Sarah would prefer the latter preparation.

This moose monstrosity was generously provided by ToastMom.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Watermelon, Feta, and Mint Salad

I've made this salad twice already this week. They serve it at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle alongside a pulled pork sandwich, but it's good with everything. Seriously. Everything.

When the Human Vacuum and I hit Costco last weekend, they were hawking seedless watermelon two-packs. What kind of gluttons manage to consume two watermelons in less that 5 days? People who know about this delicious salad.

It's a refreshing breakfast. It's a marvelous side salad. It's a fruit and cheese dessert course. It truly can be all things to all people.

Watermelon, Feta, and Mint Salad

In a large bowl, whisk together:
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Juice of one lemon (or other acid, such as rice wine or fruit vinegar)

Cut into small dice and add to dressing:
1/4 of a red onion

Cut into 1 inch dice and add to bowl:
1 seedless watermelon (or buy precut, I don't mind)

Crumble in:
1 chunk feta cheese, approximately the size of a deck of cards

Roughly chop and sprinkle on:
5-6 fresh mint leaves

Stir and begin to consume immediately, standing in the kitchen, before summer is gone.

NOTE: Delicious variations include adding toasted pine nuts, replacing feta with olives, replacing watermelon with honeydew. But the original is the best.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Gumbo, Or Possibly Jambalaya

This is sort of gumbo, and sort of jambalaya. We had okra. We had spicy sausage. We had shrimp. I had a vague idea that all of these things were involved in Cajun cooking. And I was right--they're just not traditionally all in the same dish. I never made it to New Orleans before the hurricane, so what do I know? This dish is a freaky mutant combination of the two.

It was delicious on the night-of, but the leftovers were the real reward. The soft, flavorful rice was a joy for lunch the next day after a night of soaking in the spicy, tomato-y juices. So make lots.

Gumbo, Or Possibly Jambalaya

Heat in a large heavy bottom pan or dutch oven:
3 Tablespoons oil

1-2 large onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

Cook until onion begins to soften, stirring occasionally. Add and cook until warmed through:
1/2 to 1 pound sausage, kielbasa, andouille, or even chorizo, cut into coins

Wash, remove tops and tail, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces, then turn heat to high and add:
1 pound fresh okra

When okra browns slightly, add:
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon cayenne, or more to taste
1 teaspoon oregano

Cook on high, stirring often, until tomato paste starts to darken and caramelize. Add:
1 can diced tomatoes

Give everything one more good stir, then layer on top:
1 pound uncooked shrimp, peeled

Sprinkle on top of that:
2 cups rice, long grain preferred

Add until rice is covered with liquid:
3-4 cups chicken stock, or water, or watered wine
salt and pepper

Turn heat to low, cover and cook for 30 minutes, or until rice is tender.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Toasting Spring with Pastis

It's not really spring in Boston. Far from it. But it's sunny at least, and there are birds chirping. and it's April, dammit. So I decided to break out my favorite hot weather drink: pastis.

It's the poor man's absinthe: a little sweeter, a little lower proof, and with 100 percent fewer wormwood-induced hallucinations. Mixed with cold water, it turns the color of green milk glass, and makes a mean sippin' drink.

Pastis and cold filtered water is best on a sultry August night in Paris. Failing that, it's not bad in an overheated Beantown apartment with a slice of strawberry for color. And it's delicious with one thing that's a little harder to come by in Paris: ice.

To make your own, just pour 1 ounce of pastis, such as Ricard, over ice and dilute with water to taste. I go about 2 parts water to 1 part pastis, but go with whatever appeals to you.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spaghetti Carbonara

My college roommate (of bourbon pear apple sauce fame) made the simplest, fastest version of this recipe for me the day I arrived to visit her in Paris for the first time, jetlagged and starving, farther from home than I'd ever been. She plunked a bowl down in front of me of just-boiled pasta, tossed with egg and cheese. It was a revelation--something new, yet familiar and comforting. It was precisely the right way to start off my first (semi) grown up travel in a foreign land.

As we all know, however, bacon makes everything better. This iteration of the dish, called by its right name, spaghetti carbonara, is bacon and eggs on pasta. In the spirit of my roommate, I tolerate no fripperies here. Cream? No. Red pepper flakes? No. Even pancetta is too much for me--it's better with American-style salty pig bits. Just pasta slicked in bacon grease and egg yolk. You know you love it.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Start water boiling for pasta.

In a large skillet, fry:
5 slices of bacon, cut into half inch pieces (or however many slices you have left in the package--this is flexible)
1 whole clove garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

When the bacon is very crisp, remove the pieces from the pan with a slotted spoon. I know it seems fussy, but it's totally worth it for crispy bacon at the end.

While the pan is still hot, splash in:
2 Tablespoons vermouth, white white, or similar (optional)

After the booze bubbles off, turn the heat off and leave the pan sitting on the burner.

Meanwhile, beat together:
3 eggs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or similar
lots of fresh ground black pepper
I always do this in a Pyrex measuring cup, for ease of pouring later.

Cook 1 pound of spaghetti according to the package directions. Drain. Dump the pasta into the bacon grease pan and turn until the strands are coated. Then slowly drizzle in the egg mixture, stirring vigorously to avoid clumping. The heat from the pasta will cook the egg and melt the cheese.

Sprinkle with fresh herbs for pretty if you have guests. If you don't have guests, eating leftovers for breakfast is legit: It's bacon and eggs!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Irish Potatoes?

What have we here?
Could these be the world's most precious new potatoes, plucked from the carefully-tended beds of an eccentric billionaire's winter greenhouse? Are they Idaho spuds genetically modified for dwarfism? Peel-and-eat tater tots? Could they be some kind of modern art commentary on the Irish-American immigrant experience?

Nope. They're Oh Ryan's Original Irish Potatoes (TM)! What are these taste treats made of, you ask?:
Like the hummingbird cake from earlier this week, they straddle the delicious/horrifying divide expertly. Also like the hummingbird cake, they have a certain retro feel--the green foil labeling, the playing on outdated ethnic stereotypes ("Ha ha! Those Paddys can't get enough of the 'taters!"), the weird compulsion to make food look like other foods or non-food items.

I picked up this box for something like four bucks at my friendly neighborhood Shaw's grocery store. Look for them wherever trashy, sugary seasonal foods are sold. Get your own box in time for Monday's St. Patrick's Day festivities, and line your stomach with a few Oh Ryan's Original Irish Potatoes (TM) before you start guzzling whisky and/or green beer. It's the Irish way!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Nearly No-Knead Bread

I. Made. Bread.

And not just any bread. Good bread.



Tangy, moist-crumbed bread.

There are those who must be thanked. 1) The Human Vacuum, who gave me a subscription to Cook's Illustrated this Valentine's Day, and 2) the fine people in America's Test Kitchens (where Cook's is produced), who labored mightily to improve the already miraculous No Knead Bread recipe recently popularized by the NYT's Mark Bittman, and succeeded.

If you are, like me, yeastphobic and shy of bread baking, this is the way to begin. First, watch the video of Bittman making his version of the bread, complete with a demonstration of the cool technique where you cook it in a Dutch oven. Then read the article in the Times that explains why letting the dough sit for 12-24 hours works gluten miracles.

And then listen up while I tell you about the tweaks in Cook's Illustrated: The flavor is improved by adding a little beer and a little vinegar. The texture is improved by reducing the liquid and indulging in a smidge of kneading between the first (super long) rise, and the second (shorter) rise. Just 15 quick knead. Also, Cook's offers a handy tip: when you turn out the dough, do it on a piece of parchment paper and then use the paper to lower the ball of bread dough into the already hot Dutch oven. Just leave the paper in there while it cooks and spare yourself burnt hands at all stages of the process.

Cook's Illustrated is protective of its innovations (and rightly so), so I have made a moral compromise and annotated the NYT recipe below rather than copying the Cook's recipe. But you should really subscribe.

Here's the Times recipe, with my notes on the Cook's tweaks in itals:

No Knead Bread (or in this case Nearly No Knead Bread)

Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery and Cook's Illustrated
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed. I skipped this and just used a little more flour
3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons room temperature water
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons light flavored American lager beer, like Bud
1 Tablespoon white vinegar

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water 3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons room temperature water, plus 1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons light flavored American lager beer plus 1 Tablespoon white vinegar, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal.

Knead the dough 15 times, then form into a ball. Optional: Place on a sheet of parchment paper. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 500 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Lift dough into pan on the sheet of parchment and reduce heat to 425. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hummingbird Cake

I've been hesitating over whether to post this cake for months. Because it's sort of delicious and sort of disgusting at the same time.

When the holiday season descends, some people rewatch It's a Wonderful Life, some people read The Night Before Christmas aloud en famille. And some of us--a very special sorority, to be sure--flip through the recipe boxes of their ancestors.

For some reason, I was struck this year by the fact that my granny's recipe box, a flimsy tin number painted with orange flowers, contains about a million recipes involving a can of crushed pineapple. There must have been a craze for the stuff that coincided with my granny's most prolific young-wifely recipe clipping phase.

This mad assemblage of spice cake, banana, and canned pineapple under a blanket (really more like a duvet, actually) of cream cheese frosting could not be ignored. It was ridiculously fun for the ToastWomen to make. Truly, you have not lived until you have poured one and a half cups of "salad oil" into a bowl of cake batter. Even now, an image of the Pyrex measuring cup, overflowing with oil, looms golden and horrifying in my mind's eye.

The result was headachingly sweet. One thin slice could send the vulnerable into diabetic coma. To my mind, it actually tasted retro. This one is, I think, for dedicated nostalgic cooks only. And yet...the taste sticks with you. It's "different," with all that the use of the term implies, good and bad. In fact, I wouldn't mind having a slice right now.

Hummingbird Cake
from my granny's recipe box, with granny-style directions preserved

For the cake:
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups salad oil
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 can 8 oz crushed pineapple, unstrained
2 cups chopped pecans, divided
2 cups chopped bananas

Combine dry ingredients in large mixing bow, add eggs and oil, stir
until moistened. DO NOT BEAT. Stir in vanilla, pineapple, 1 cup nuts and
bananas. Spoon batter into 3 9" greased pans/ Bake at 350 degrees for
25-30 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes.

For the frosting:
2 8 oz packages cream cheese, softened
1 cups butter, softened
2 package 16 oz each of powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla

Combine cream cheese and butter until smooth, add powdered sugar slowly
and beat until fluffy. Stir in vanilla, put nuts on top (I didn't, as you can see, because I'm not a fan of nuts in dessert).

[ToastPoint notes: Obviously, you should frost the cake, using the usual layer cake method, before putting the nuts on top. Serve on a vintage-y cake plate. Store in refrigerator, or the bananas continue to ripen in a scary way.]

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

ToastPoint Goes Dutch

ToastPoint recently had occasion to take an excursion to the Low Countries, and what did she find there? Dutch babies! No, not the offspring of Amsterdammers (though I'm sure there are some of those around): Delicious fluffy pancakes, in their bite-sized manifestation in this case. If the small American pancake is a silver dollar pancake, then I suppose these are silver guilder pancakes.

The Human Vacuum and I savored this light-yet-filling treat at an unlikely location: A tiny basement level coffeeshop/Internet cafe right next door to the Anne Frank House. After contemplating wartime privation and tragedy, nothing will cheer you up like a peek at your email and a late breakfast of sweet, eggy, buttery, sugar-dusted treats (or, oddly, a pastrami sandwich, if you prefer). The juxtaposition of the sober, modern museum facade and the cheery red canopy of the cafe is a perfect example of truth in advertising.

If you can't make it to Amsterdam, there's an appealing recipe for making your own jumbo version at Orangette.

Cucumber Tangerine Salad with Goat Cheese and Pine Nuts

The name pretty much tells you everything you need to know--this salad sounds like a crazy person assembled it. But it tastes like that crazy person was really an idiot savant de salade. It's in the same spirit as the even crazier, even more delicious dish at the longstanding D.C. Greek and Turkish tapas hotspot, Zatiniya. There, they call it "Portakal Salatasi" which the menus describes as "oranges, red onion, pine nuts, kalamata olives and feta with orange blossom dressing."

You should really go to Zantiniya (Hint: Go early so that don't have to wait with the beautiful people at the bar for an eternity. The place is very chic) and have their version. But failing that, this is a tasty, quickie at-home version that omits the olives and is therefore slightly less threatening and more of a go-along-to-get-along side salad.

Cucumber Tangerine Salad with Goat Cheese and Pine Nuts

In a dry pan, gently toast until golden:
1/4 cup pine nuts

Cut in quarters lengthwise:
1 English seedless cucumber (or a normal cuke, if that's what you have)

Peel and de-pith:
1 tangerine, mandarin, or other small orange-like fruit
Pull segments apart and cut each one in half.

Combine all of the above in a bowl, and toss with:
1 Tablespoon white vinegar (I used rice wine vinegar)
1 teaspoon rosewater or orangeflower water (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
black pepper to taste

Crumble on top:
2 Tablespoons goat cheese

Refrigerate until serving.

Indian Asparagus

I love asparagus. We here in the ToastPoint household buy asparagus nearly every time we go to the store, regardless of season (take that Michael Pollan!). But as good as basic steamed asparagus is, sometimes you want something a little more interesting. Especially in the winter when puttering around the kitchen and fussing with multiple hot pans is more appealing.

And how can you lose by adding oil, spices, yogurt, tomato, and nuts? The result is really good (if not nearly as good for you as the steamed version), and suitable for serving to foodies.

Disclosure: The fine people at The Lisa Ekus Group sent me this cookbook (for free!) umpteen months ago and I have been sitting on this recipe since then, because I am an ungrateful wretch. It's a pretty book full of pretty food, and would be good for those who have mastered the basics and are in the market for a take-it-to-the-next level Indian cookbook for dinner party recipes.

Indian Asparagus with Pistachios
on Hari Nayak and Vikas Khanna's Sweet and Sour Asparagus with Cashews from Modern Indian Cooking)

Boil for 2 minutes, plunge into cold water, and then set aside:
1 lb asparagus

In a large skillet, warm over medium high heat:
3 Tablespoons oil

Briefly fry:
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

Quickly add and cook until golden brown:
1 large onion, thinly sliced

Add and fry for one minute:
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 small chili peppers, de-seeded and minced

Stir in:
1 Tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 large tomato, chopped (I used a small can of diced tomatoes, drained)
1/4 cut yogurt

Cook for a minute or two, then add the asparagus and cook for another minute or two.

Serve garnished with pistachios (or the cashews in the original recipe)