November 30th, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink
In flawless English the waiter announced that Cafe Nova’s daily lunch special consisted of spinach-and-feta quiche, mixed greens, a multigrain roll and glass of lingonberry juice. Were it not for that tart, red fruit juice, unique to Scandinavian cuisine, I could have been dining in any Western country. I was, though, seated at an outdoor cafe in the Swedish capital of Stockholm.
Although home to such industries as Volvo, Saab, and IKEA and such entertainment icons as Ingrid Bergman, Ingmar Bergman and ABBA, Sweden offers intrepid travelers far more than cars, home furnishings and ’dancing queens.’ This beautiful, ecologically-minded nation possesses a delightful cuisine reflective of its simple, natural approach to living.
While in Sweden, my husband Sean and I had the luxury of staying and dining with a Stockholm resident. A friend from Columbia University’s J-school, Christina Anderson works as a press secretary for the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). During our stay she also served as a personal chef, translator and tour guide. After years of struggling with different languages and dialects, of fumbling through menus, and overlooking so many cultural aspects, I was delighted to have an insider’s perspective and assistance. It goes without saying that I also was overjoyed to catch up with an old friend.
Christina quickly clued us in on the exorbitant cost of food. On our first night in Stockholm the three of us went out for Italian near her neighborhood of Maria Prastgardsgatan. Three plates of cannelloni al funghi and a bottle of the cheapest house red wine set us back $140. And people complain about New York being expensive.
In spite of high prices we indulged an array of uncomplicated Swedish delicacies. At the outdoor organic cafe in Djurgarden City Park Christina and I slurped down bowls of velvety mangold soup. Similar to kale, the pureed mangold made a nutritious and savory repast. At a quaint cafe across from the Nobel Prize Museum we nibbled on open-faced shrimp sandwiches and coconut-covered chocolate balls. On the Viking island of Gotland we dined upon savory crepe-like pancakes filled with wild mushrooms and sweet dessert pancakes topped with preserves and homemade whipped cream.
Breakfasts we usually ate at Christina’s. Strongly brewed coffee lightened by warmed milk, slices of fresh, brown Danish bread and wedges of dark Norwegian cheese started our mornings. When in the ancient village of Visby on the island of Gotland, the bread and cheese were accompanied by hard boiled eggs and little blue tubes of Kaviar paste.
We could not leave Sweden without imbibing in a bit of aquavit. Similar to vodka, this Scandinavian classic is distilled from potatoes or grain then infused with spices and herbs such as caraway, fennel and coriander. It can be swigged down as a shot, nursed like a fine whisky or chased by a beer.
Likewise, we didn’t want to depart without engaging in the ultimate tourist activity — drinking at the Ice Bar. Run by Absolut and housed in the Nordic Sea Hotel in downtown Stockholm, the Ice Bar lived up to its name. The entire structure — walls, counter, tables, seats, glasses and shelves — consisted of ice. Kept at a brisk 23 degrees Fahrenheit, the bar featured an array of vodka-based cocktails mixed by parka-clad bartenders. My favorite, Absolut Wilderness, consisted of raspberry vodka, lingonberry juice and apple sour and came in a small but chunky block of ice.
On our last night in Sweden Christina presented us with a feast of traditional foods. Following family recipes, she sauteed chanterelles with parsley, salt and “a click of butter,” mixed fresh lingonberries with sugar, tossed together a salad, toasted bread and made pancakes accompanied by blueberries, Turkish yogurt and confectioner’s sugar. What a wholesome and delicious going away gift!
As a parting present, Christina slipped a jar of organic cloudberry preserves and Vilmas rosemary knackebrod, or “crispy bread,” into my backpack. In Sweden the amber-colored cloudberries frequently top waffles, ice cream or pancakes. The hand-baked, rye-laced flatbread often acts as a healthful substitute for biscuits and crackers. While cloudberry preserves can be procured online as well as at Fairway in New York, Vilmas knackebrod can only be obtained in Sweden and in select shops in Belgium and the Netherlands. For information on Vilmas, check out http://cartwright.se/.
Glogg or Yuletide Mulled Wine
Courtesy of Triberg, Ranung and Hagman and the “Very Swedish” cookbook.
Serves 4 to 6
10 cl vodka
5 sticks of cinnamon
fresh ginger, peeled and cut into slices
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ Seville orange peel
1 bottle red wine
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
In a mortar crush the cinnamon, cloves, gingers, cardamom and orange peel. Transfer to a bowl, jar or small pitcher and pour the vodka over it. Cover and let stand for 12 to 24 hours.
Strain through a sieve lined with cheese cloth or a coffee filter.
Pour the wine and two sugars into a large saucepan. Heat (do not boil) until sugars have melted. Add the vodka mixture, stir and serve.
November 30th, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink
Ever wonder how to add some excitement to a bowl of bland carrots? Oddly enough, I have. In fact, that very quandary landed me in Chef David Kamen’s flavor dynamics class at the Culinary Institute of America last weekend. Through lectures, tastings, and hands-on cooking sessions I learned the “physiology of taste and development of flavor.” I also found out how frying, grilling, roasting, sauteing and poaching can alter a food’s flavor and change my humdrum carrots into a sexy side dish.
This was neither my first food enthusiast’s class nor my first encounter with Chef Kamen. Last spring I had taken Chef Kamen’s day-long “Food Affinities” session. There the students delved into what foods and flavors complimented and paired well with one another. We also got clued into a fantastic resource, Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s “Culinary Artistry.” My secret weapon when conjuring up recipes, it devotes hundreds of pages to what foods work well together.
After a 2-hour classroom lecture, complete with tastings and discussions, our 15-member class had broken up into teams of three. Each group was assigned a food basket filled with ingredients from which it constructed several entrees. My team chose clams. Creating the recipes as we went, we whipped together grilled clams with lemon-butter, clam fritters with a dipping sauce and a salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, mint, parsley and lemon juice.
Around 1:30 we assembled our dishes for the class to eat and then streamed through the buffet line and into the basement dining room. After an eclectic lunch we returned to the kitchen to critique both the presentation and taste of each offering. A great exercise in thinking on your feet as well as accepting constructive criticism.
In last Saturday’s flavor dynamics we all worked with the same foods — chicken, carrots and mashed potatoes. What differed was how each team prepared these foods. My group roasted three whole chickens that had been seasoned with a mixture of Bell’s poultry seasoning, Old Bay and kosher salt. We also fried carrots that had been dipped in a tempura batter and infused mashed potatoes with a merlot reduction. The latter resulted in an eye-popping purple mound of potatoes. Shocking to the eye but a pleasure for the palate.
Other groups poached chicken breasts and topped them with a tarragon cream sauce, stir-fried or roasted carrots, and pureed or made mashed potatoes from baked, rather than boiled, potatoes. Sauces accompanied most dishes, such as the sauteed chicken Provencal and fried chicken with salsa cru. Herb butter enlivened the grilled chicken.
As for the carrot conundrum, my favorite method of preparation turned out to be boiling. Topped with chopped chives and a bit of butter, boiled carrots were tender and flavorful. Carrots roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper ranked a close second for me while those stir-fried with minced garlic, ginger, scallions and hot bean paste tied with our carrot tempura and another team’s steamed carrots for third.
What did I get out of this class as well as the others taken at the Culinary Institute? Along with the chance to cook in a professional kitchen, with its powerful convection ovens, stainless steel workstations and eight-burner, gas cooktops, I got to work alongside classically-trained, professional chefs, to learn first-hand what I can’t glean from a book and to stretch my skills as a home cook. That, a free apron, chef’s toque and the answer to how to turn my boring root veggies into a delicious dish. No wonder I keep going back for more!
Roasted Carrots – from Chef David Kamen’s Flavor Dynamics course
1 lb. carrots, diced
olive oil, as needed
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Toss the carrots lightly with the olive oil, salt and pepper.
Place the carrots on a sheet pan and roast in the oven until tender.
November 30th, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink
Unwittingly I have become a maven of mushrooms. In less than 18 months I have raised my own oyster and shiitake mushrooms, hosted a “feast of fungus” dinner party, penned four articles and signed up for a foraging club. All this from the person who grew up eating button mushrooms from a jar. Hardly the origins of a connoisseur.
Although my mavenhood has been a recent development, I first learned of ”better” cultivated mushrooms from my father. While home on Christmas break in the early ’90s, I joined him and my uncle for a pre-holiday dinner at Boardman, Ohio’s Springfield Grille. Always an experimental eater, my father ordered an appetizer of Portobello mushrooms. My initial reaction to his daring was “Yuck! I’m not touching that weird stuff.”
A persuasive man, he eventually convinced me to take a small bite. I still recall my astonishment over how rich and delicious edible fungus could be. Sliced then sauteed in olive oil, salt and pepper, they possessed an earthy, meaty yet wholesome taste.
Years passed. My food choices changed. Almost overnight mushrooms switched their role as a pre-dinner snack to a fundamental part of my menus. Wild mushrooms stood in for beef in an otherwise traditional stroganoff. Farmed Portobellos replaced T-bones when grilling steaks. Sweet, woodsy, wild chanterelles usurped chicken in garlic and olive oil sautes. Shiitakes formed the sauce for tender filets of sole. Versatile, flavorful and easy to procur and prepare, mushrooms became the star of the dinner table.
Perhaps it really is no wonder that I have become a fungus aficianado.
5 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
14 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned, stalks removed and cut in half
12 ounces shitake mushrooms, cleaned, stalks removed and cut in half
12 ounces portobello mushrooms, cleaned and cut into small pieces
6 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons sea salt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¾ cup tomato puree
¼ cup water
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan then add the garlic. Cook for two to three minutes, until softened but not browned.
Add the butter to the pan. After the butter melts, add the mushrooms and toss the ingredients together so that they are well mixed. Cook, stirring periodically, until the mushrooms are soft and slightly browned, approximately 15-20 minutes.
Add the salt, black and cayenne peppers, tomato puree and water. Stir well. Continue to heat on medium, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until sauce has thickened.
Transfer to a serving bowl. Sprinkle the top with Parmesan cheese and serve.
2 large white onions, skinned and cut into quarters
5 cloves of garlic, skins removed
¼ cup olive oil
14 ounces cremini mushrooms
12 ounces shitake mushrooms
12 ounces portobello mushrooms
2 ounces dried porcini
6 tablespoons butter
1 ½ teaspoons curry powder
1 ½ tablespoons paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons sea salt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
5 tablespoons dry sherry
16 ounces light sour cream
Peel and quarter the onion and garlic then place in a food processor. Process the two until they have attained a smooth, soupy consistency.
Clean and remove the stalks from the mushrooms. Slice and halve the cremini and button mushrooms. Slice and quarter the shitake. Slice and cut the portobello into small pieces.
Heat ¼ cup oil in a large sauté pan then spoon in the onion-garlic mixture. Cook over medium heat until softened but not browned.
Add the butter to the pan. After the butter melts, add the mushrooms and toss the ingredients together so that they are well mixed. Place a lid on the pan and cook, stirring periodically, until the mushrooms are soft and slightly browned, approximately 15-20 minutes.
Remove the lid and add the curry, paprika, nutmeg, salt, pepper, sherry and sour cream. Stir well. Heat on medium-low for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until stroganoff is hot and well combined. Serve over linguine, egg noodles, or rice.
November 26th, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink
Until recently, whenever someone mentioned Morocco, three images would spring to mind: Tall, lanky camels plodding across the scorching Sahara; dusty, crowded souks teeming with loud, aggressive peddlers; palm tree-lined oases springing up in an otherwise barren land. Beige would be the predominant color of the landscape. Sizzling would be the climate year-round.
Shaped by films and books such as “Casablanca” and The Sheltering Sky, my notions of the North African country were completely blown by a trip to the Moroccan port of Essaouira.
Situated on the Atlantic Coast, roughly five hours south of Casablanca by car, Essaouira resembled a Mediterranean resort town. Along with its whitewashed, blue shuttered buildings and expansive, windswept beach the city possessed a relaxed, uncomplicated atmosphere.
On Place Prince Moulay el Hassan locals and tourists alike lounged at outdoor cafes, sipped hot mint tea and tossed scraps to the town’s stray dogs and cats. At the beach football was perpetually played and onlookers were encouraged to join the games. Those who preferred to observe sat beneath beach umbrellas and watched windsurfers glide along the coastline. Host of national and international windsurfing contests, Essaouira promotes itself as “Wind City, Afrika.”
Unlike the rest of Morocco, life in this 18th century town moved at a slower pace. I spent many hours wandering through the souks, pausing to sniff jars of aromatic spices or admire brightly painted tea glasses. Not once did I feel pushed into purchasing an unwanted item. Bartering did take place in the markets but in an amiable way.
By contrast, in Marrakech’s covered Rue Souk Smarine I was shoved along by throngs of shoppers bent on finding the best deal on kilims and terra cotta tagines. In the rare instance that I could stop in front of a stall, I was hectored by vendors who barked out bargains and insisted that I not only view but also buy their wares.
Hard sell doesn’t work with me so I left Marrakech empty-handed. However, by the end of my stay in Essaouira my rental car’s trunk was filled with thuya woodcrafts, pottery and spices, all acquired at the laidback marketplace.
Also filled in Essaouira was my stomach. Once one of the largest sardine ports in the country, the town still catered to a fish-loving crowd. Grilled fish cafes lined the road just outside the port area and served freshly caught sardines and other fish. Diners ate at their delectable meals at wooden benches and tables facing the port and sea.
When I grew tired of fish, I sampled other cuisines. La Licorne, located along the woodworkers’ souk on Rue de la Skala, offered high end, traditional Moroccan and French cuisines. When I developed a hankering for pasta, I had at least three different Italian restaurants from which to choose.
Lest I forget that I was in Africa and not the Mediterranean, Essaouira afforded me the chance to ride a camel on the dunes of La Maison du Chameau. The impassive animal took me past herds of goats climbing scrubby, fruit-bearing argan trees and across the increasingly hot and desolate countryside. Camel rides could also be arranged on the beach or through the concierge at one of the town’s many hotels.
Although Essaouira had many Western-style hotels, including the upscale Sofitel chain, I ended up staying in riads, traditional Moroccan houses built around gardens or courtyards. Facing the Atlantic and town’s ramparts, the Dar Al Bahar provided spectacular ocean views. The French-run Dar Adul overlooked the Skala de la Ville, the sea bastion on the northern cliffs, and afforded visitors a quiet night’s sleep. Both riads served complimentary breakfasts of flat breads, honeycombed pancakes known as beghrirs, preserves, orange juice, coffee and tea.
Where to Stay:
Dar Adul www.daradul.com 63 Rue Touahen 061 24 52 41
Dar Al Bahar www.daralbahar.com 1 Rue Touahen 044 47 68 21
Sofitel Thalassa Mogador Boulevard Mohammed V 044 46 90 00
Where to Eat:
La Licorne 26 Rue Scala – Traditional French Moroccan cuisine
Dar Baba 2 Rue de Marrakech – Inexpensive Italian
Chalet de la Plage Boulevard Mohammed V – Seafood with a sea view
November 19th, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink
I fell in love with crepes on a cold, late December evening in Paris. Famished as well as jet-lagged, I roamed the 1st arrondissement in search of something warm, filling and quick to eat. On a sex shop-lined street near our rented apartment on Rue Saint Denise Impasse I spotted a stout, middle-aged man standing on a street corner, cooking paper thin pancakes on an oversized, portable hot plate. After flipping them once, he filled his crepes with fresh, sliced bananas, the chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella, strawberry preserves or a combination of the three. He then rolled up the griddle cakes, sprinkled them with granulated sugar, wrapped them in sheets of waxed paper and handed them out to the hungry.
Mesmerized by the honeyed fragrance and simple artfulness of his creations, I slid into line and awaited my turn for a confiture d’fraise, or strawberry jam, crepe. In less than five minutes I had in my hand a warm, otherworldly meal. Tender to the tooth and with a delicate sweet touch, they were like nothing I had ever eaten.
Prior to this night I had consumed many crepes. Yet, they had tasted nothing like these. Thicker and with a decidedly floury flavor, the ones that my friends and I had made resembled traditional pancakes.
The next morning I returned to the crepe stand for breakfast – basically, the same as my dinner but this time consumed at nine in the morning. I continued this pattern throughout my stay and on subsequent trips to the country. Quick and delicious, this treat became the epitome of French fast food for me.
Back home I scoured the East Coast for a creperie that could recreate this delicacy. My neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side failed me. Too crispy. Too sparsely filled. Too upscale or nouveau cuisine. Just too darned expensive.
Disillusioned, I tinkered around with some existing recipes and came up with my own version. While they don’t surpass those luscious French originals, these crepes rank a close second. I use a minimal amount of batter swirled out evenly on a heated, lightly buttered crepe pan. After cooking both sides, I slather them Nutella or strawberry jam, fold them into triangles, and enjoy!
Unfilled crepes can be made several hours in advance and refrigerated. Simply lay the first crepe on a plate then place a sheet of waxed paper over top of it. Lay the next crepe on top of the paper, cover it with a sheet of waxed paper and repeat. After the last crepe has been placed, cover the plate with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. The crepes can be re-heated in the crepe pan – roughly 20 seconds on each side – or served cold.
Makes 10 8-inch crepes
1 cup all purpose flour, sifted
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
pinch of salt
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 ½ cups skim milk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
butter for greasing crepe pan
granulated sugar, optional garnish
honey, optional garnish
Sift the flour, sugar and salt into a bowl.
In a separate bowl whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla and butter. Combine the liquids with the flour and whisk these ingredients together until most of the lumps have been removed. Refrigerate the batter for at least 1 hour. Strain out lumps, if necessary, before using.
Using an 8-inch crepe pan or low-sided frying pan, heat the pan then add a dab of butter. Coat the entire surface of the pan with the melted butter.
Holding the pan off the flame, pour about 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter onto the pan. Swirl the batter so that the entire surface is evenly coated with batter.
Cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the bottom is light brown and the top has set. Using either a spatula or your fingers, flip the crepe over and allow the other side to cook for 1 minute.
Place the crepe on plate and spoon jam, Nutella or fresh fruit into the center. Fold the crepe in half then into a triangle. Sprinkle sugar or drizzle honey over the top and serve.
November 13th, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink
Meatballs. Vodka. Pickled herring. Lox. Not the best of Sweden’s cuisine but what came to my friends’ minds when invited for ”a night of Swedish delights. ” Quirky and authentic were what they had learned to expect when dining with me.
In recent years this daring group has endured countless recipe testing sessions, including “Dessert Night Number One” with its soupy lime-and-mint granita and “An Evening of Three Tajines.” On that cold winter night my tajine-testing friends were transported to sunny, sandy Morocco. Zeye Mayel’s “Nass Marrakech” blared from the stereo. Hot mint tea spilled out of tall, silver teapots and into painted, filigreed glasses. A red, silk blanket, purchased at a souk in the seaside town of Essaouira, covered the dining room table.
Lined up on the green Formica kitchen counter were tagines of chicken, preserved lemons and olives, charmoula-covered cod and chickpeas and root vegetables. Prior to setting foot in my house, not one person had seen, much less heard of, these clay, conical-lidded pots. Yet, this bold quintet — Connie, Sharon, Mike, John and my husband Sean — dug into these unusual foods without any hesitation.
Recipe testing defies all rules of entertaining. Usually, when you invite people over for dinner, you serve tried and true dishes. Not so with this activity. I offer up an assortment of odd meals, most of which have been conjured up only days or hours beforehand. Many are based upon something that I ate 20 years ago in a friend’s kitchen, at a European sidewalk cafe or from a roadside stand.
Typically these meals have an international, often Mediterranean flavor. A few feature unheard of ingredients – charmoula, lingonberries, ramps and haloumi cheese. (As another nod to my recipe testers, many have grown up in East Coast suburbs where dumplings invariably contain apples and the cheese steak is king. No wonder a few raise their eyebrows at an evening of chilled foods such as ajo blanco, the Spanish garlic-almond-bread soup.)
Get past the strange ingredients and you still have to deal with the utter failure of a recipe or two. At September 2007’s “Feast of Fungus” I made a last-minute addition to the menu. Spinach-stuffed portobello mushrooms had been part of my culinary repertoire for close to a decade. Marinated in garlic, thyme, lemon juice, and olive oil and topped with spinach, chopped tomatoes and fontina cheese, they had never failed to please. That night, however, I was in a hurry. As a result, I knocked over the marinade and had to add more liquids to the mix. Guessing at the amounts, I poured in a little olive oil and a splash of concentrated, organic lemon juice. Marinade fixed, I assumed.
One bite and our mouths puckered. So much for that splash of lemon juice. What once was an earthy entree had become a piquant, lemon-saturated disaster.
Want a little danger, a little drama in the kitchen? Try forgetting to remove your frying pan from the heat before deglazing it with vodka. Not only did I catch the pan on fire but also did I cause the kitchen cabinets go up in flames. Did I mention that these were new cabinets or that we were about to put our house up for sale? You never hear about Nigella Lawson doing something as dangerous or absent-minded as this.
Craving blood or burned flesh? Consider the night where, once again, I was in a rush, trying to roast two tarragon-infused chickens before we all fell asleep at the dinner table. After removing one of the racks – preheated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit — from the oven and placing it on top of the stove, I then lowered the roasting pan so that it was closer to the heat source. Rising up, I lurched forward, bumping my forehead against, yep, the searing hot oven rack. Applications of a bag of frozen peas followed by baggies of ice cubes could not spare me from a blistered, two-days-before Thanksgiving bruise.
Perhaps this is why my brave buddies continue to sign on for these recipe testing and international cuisine-themed nights. Dinner and drama, all for free. Then again, it might just be the chance to sample the world’s cuisines.
Moroccan Tagine of Cod, Potatoes, Green Peppers, Tomatoes and Olives
This tagine can be made with red snapper, monkfish or any other firm, white fish and is seasoned with the Moroccan spice-and-herb mixture, charmoula.
Ingredients for the charmoula:
6 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered
1 ½ teaspoon crushed chili pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon paprika
generous handful of cilantro, washed and stems removed
handful of parsley, washed and stems removed
juice of 1 ½ lemons
2 ½ tablespoons olive oil
ground black pepper to taste
Using a food processor, pulse all the ingredients together until they have formed a paste. Alternately, you can use a mortar and pestle and combine the garlic with the chili and black pepper, cumin, paprika, cilantro and parsley. Add the oil and lemon juice at the end.
Ingredients for the tagine:
3 pounds of cod, trimmed and cut into small chunks
charmoula (see above)
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 green bell peppers, seeded and cut into strips
1 pint cherry tomatoes
5 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
¾ cup water
handful of kalamata olives
salt and pepper to taste
Place the chucks of fish onto a large platter. Spread the charmoula over the fish, cover, and refrigerate for an hour.
Heat the olive oil in the tagine then add the potatoes, stirring frequently so that they don’t stick or burn. Cook on medium heat until softened – roughly 10 minutes – then add the peppers. Cover and cook for another 5 minutes, frequently checking the vegetables.
Mix together the tomato paste with warm water. Pour the mixture over the potatoes and peppers. Add the cherry tomatoes, cover, and cook for another 10 minutes.
Lay the chunks of cod on top of the vegetables. Add any remaining charmoula and the salt and pepper to the pot. If the sauce appears too reduced, pour in water as needed.
Cover and cook the stew for approximately 15 minutes or until the fish appears done. Add the kalamata olives. Simmer for another 3-5 minutes then serve.
Spanish Ajo Blanco
Serves 4 to 6
7 ¼ ounces blanched almonds
4 cloves of garlic, skins removed
1 slice of stale, white bread, crusts removed
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ¼ cups ice water
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
handful of green grapes, cut in half lengthwise
dash of paprika
Place the almonds, garlic, bread, salt and olive oil in a blender or food processor and process until ingredients are finely chopped.
Leaving the food processor or blender running, slowly add the ice water. If the soup appears too thick, add more water as needed. The ultimate consistency should be creamy but not thin or runny.
Add the sherry vinegar and white pepper to the soup and pulse a few times.
Pour into a container or soup tureen and refrigerate until chilled.
Ladle the ajo blanco into bowls and delicately place several halved grapes and a sprinkle of paprika on top of each soup. Serve immediately.
November 13th, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink
When planning a global cuisine-themed party, I can think of no better land to honor than Great Britain. No doubt some will assume that I am joking, displaying a wicked sense of humor. British cuisine? Does the United Kingdom even have culinary customs beyond dry tea sandwiches, the ubiquitous fish, peas and chips and standard “meat and two veg” dinners which the previous meal so aptly represents? After five trips through the UK and more than a few meals consumed in this region, I can attest that British fine dining is alive, well and worth celebrating.
Have doubts? Recall Fergus Henderson, founder of London’s St. John restaurant and author of the seminal “Nose to Tail Eating.” An advocate of using the whole animal when cooking, the bespectacled Henderson has made consuming offal cool.
Then there are the celebrated British food writers and chefs. Elizabeth David. Delia Smith. Jamie Oliver. Nigella Lawson. Their consumer-friendly cookery books have sold millions in the UK as well as the U.S.
Let’s not forget Gordon Ramsey. Along with his riotous reality shows “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares,” and “The F-Word,” Ramsey has 3 Michelin stars to his name. Last year he took Manhattan by storm with Gordon Ramsey at the London on W. 54th.
Not sold yet? Well, you can thank the Brits each time you enjoy upscale restaurant fare at a downscale bar. Started in London in the 90′s, gastropubs featured gourmet takes on basic pub grub. The customary bangers and mash turned into venison sausage with sweet potato puree. Today at the Spotted Pig in the West Village you can get a bowl of smoked haddock chowder with homemade crackers or chargrilled burger dressed with Roquefort cheese. So much for the old pasty clam chowder and greasy cheeseburger.
Don’t forget all the fabulous, uniquely British imports. Sticky toffee pudding. Custard and fruit-filled trifles. The banana and toffee combo “banoffee pie.” Meaty Shepherd’s and cottage pies. Cornish pasties. And, England’s Indian-inspired national dish, chicken tikka masala.
So, what do famous British chefs, gastropubs and English recipes have to do with party planning in North America? Food, lots of glorious food.
At last summer’s “Best of Britain” soiree I filled chafing dishes with curry-scented chicken tikka masala, cardomom-infused basmati rice and garlic pea puree, my take on English peas. I then set out platters of crisp, thickly-cut chips (a/k/a French fries), cod filets and moist tea sandwiches of cheddar and mango chutney, cucumber and butter and smoked salmon and cream cheese. I also covered a cutting board with Stilton, Caerphilly and Huntsman cheeses. The featured cocktail was Pimm’s Cup, the spicy, citrusy English spirit mixed with lemonade, ice and mint leaves.
Guests noshed while grooving to the sounds of the Sex Pistols, Clash, Go! Team, Stones, Elvis Costello, Oasis, New Order and the Police. Best of Britain indeed.
Before serving dessert, I pitted friend against friend in a battle of wits and witticisms. “Name that British icon/event” forced contestants to think back to European history and British literature classes, old episodes of Monty Python and their days as Doc Martin-wearing, Mohawk-sporting punk rockers and come up with arcane facts about Great Britain. Winners took home such prizes as a 6-pack of Young’s, a teapot, box of Barry’s tea and bag of Bounty candy.
Game finished, the victors and vanquished dined on English breakfast tea and scones slathered with strawberry preserves, lemon curd and clotted cream. They also nibbled on miniature eclairs and cream puffs and a chocolate “Best of Britain” sheet cake.
At the end of the night everyone agreed. Fine British cuisine is definitely not the oxymoron that the uniformed think it to be.
Garlic Pea Puree
Inspired by a recipe in Nigella Lawson’s “How to Eat”
Serves 4 to 6
10 cloves of garlic, skins removed
6 cups frozen peas
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons creme fraiche
white pepper, to taste
Put the garlic in a large saucepan of water and bring to a boil, boiling for 10 minutes.
Add the peas and boil until soft.
Drain the peas and garlic then tip into the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter then process, leaving a chunky mixture.
Add the creme fraiche and process again, leaving peas nubbly-looking. Add pepper if desired and serve.
From Trudi Styler’s and Joseph Sponzo’s “The Lake House Cookbook”
1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup unsalted butter, diced
⅓ cup raisins
¼ cup superfine sugar
½ cup buttermilk
beaten egg, for glaze
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl. Using your hands, rub the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse bread crumbs.
Add the raisins and sugar and stir to combine.
Make a well in the center then stir in just enough buttermilk to form a soft dough.
On a lightly floured work surface turn out the dough and knead lightly. Roll the dough out to 1-inch thick and cut into rounds with a 2½-inch plain, round cutter. Transfer the rounds to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a Silpat mat.
Using a pastry brush, brush the tops of the scones with egg. Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake the scones for 7 to 10 minutes, until risen and golden brown on top.
November 10th, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink
Long before I wrote about food, I cooked it. Not in a pull-down-a-weekly-paycheck sense but as in stand-over-a-cutting-board-covered-with-minced-shallots-feeling-remarkably-at-peace-with-the-world way. For years cooking has served as an escape from the trials of everyday life. Consumed by the tribulations of ill family member? Stressed out over a looming deadline? Worried about upcoming exams? Pick up an onion and start chopping.
I am both calmed and rewarded by the strike of the knife blade as it bears down on my wood cutting board, the sizzle of white onions as they carmelize in a hot, olive oil-coated saute pan. Nothing — not yoga, walking, hiking, biking, reading, stroking a beloved pet or “drinking like a mad eejit” – can surpass the tranquility derived from working in a kitchen.
My fondness for cooking is not intuitive. My mother had been a serviceable but unenthusiastic cook. Her standard repertoire included many delightful dishes — beef stroganoff, braciola, chicken cacciatore, French onion soup –none of which she relished making or eating. To her, cooking was a chore, an onus taken on at marriage and borne until death.
Her lack of culinary ardor extended to my education. When asked to teach me how to poach an egg or bake a chicken, she invariably responded with this memorable mantra, “Once you learn how to do it, you’ll always be stuck in the kitchen. Best you don’t learn how to cook.”
While she abhored home cooking, both she and my father adored eating out. Savvy diners, they approached restaurant food with a critic’s eye. Waiters were beckoned. Entrees were praised or criticized. I spent countless evenings wishing that I could slide beneath the linen-draped table as my mother sent her charred filet mignon back to the kitchen or my father requested a fresh veg to replace his limpid green beans. Embarrassment aside, I learned much about what constitutes passable versus gourmet cuisine.
About 10 years ago I developed a serious interest in cooking. The impetus, in part, was yet another cancer diagnosis in my family. The disease’s prevalence made me consider not only genetics but also the environment and what we had been putting into our bodies. Out went the prepared foods, the canned soups, frozen dinners and taco kits. In came organic produce, fresh herbs, free-range chickens and healthful cookbooks. I poured over such weighty tomes as “The Joy of Cooking,” Nigella Lawson’s “How to Eat” and Deborah Madison’s ”Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” and religiously followed their recipes.
The more time I spent in the kitchen, the more I realized how pleasurable and gratifying cooking could be. With some guidance and a bit of confidence, I might just rise above family history.
Enter the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Deemed the United States’ preeminent culinary school, the CIA offers day-long ”food enthusiast” classes throughout the year. These hands-on courses cater to non-professionals and cover such useful topics as knife skills, making sauces and baking breads.
One look at my Band Aid-covered fingers told me exactly which course to take. Knife skills would be my first class at the CIA. In it I learned how to break down a whole chicken, debone a fish, slice salmon and trim rib meat. I also discovered how to mince vegetables quickly and efficiently. Most importantly, I found out how to hold my 10″ chef’s knife so that I wouldn’t slice my fingers and unintentionally add a splash of color to my dinners.
The 6-hour session transformed me from a blood-letting menace to a slicing and dicing machine. It also gave me an unshakable addiction to the adult education program at the CIA. The next course that I would take, Country French Suppers, only fed my fixation.
Potato Leek Soup
Serves 4 to 6
Based upon a recipe from Lynne Gigliotti’s Country French Suppers class at the CIA.
6 ounces leeks, cleaned and diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound Idaho or Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
4 cups chicken stock
splash of heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in small stockpot. Add leeks and sweat until transparent.
Add potatoes and cook for 5 more minutes.
Add chicken stock and bring to boil. Skim then reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
Season with salt and pepper then pour into blender and puree.
Return to stockpot. Check seasoning and add splash of cream. Stir then serve.
November 8th, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink
My interest in Turkey began, oddly enough, on a trek through Wales. While staying in Chepstow, at the First Hurdle Bed and Breakfast, I spent hours chatting with proprietors and world travelers Yvonne and Bob Westwood. Yvonne’s tales and photos of Turkey’s white-clad, whirling dervishes, mosaic-filled mosques and spiraling minarets left me wide-eyed and breathless. Photo books and essays about the Eurasian country further fueled my fascination with this exotic land.
Forget Tintern Abbey, Snowdon and Cardigan Bay. I wanted to head home and start planning my own journey to Turkey.
Since that fateful stay in Chepstow, I’ve made two trips to Turkey. In spite of its refusal to own up to the Armenian genocide and its periodically feudal attitudes toward women, I remain as enthralled as I was a decade ago on that rainy afternoon in Wales.
What initially captivated me were the breathtaking sites. Istanbul’s chaotic Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. The eerie, chimney-topped landscape of Cappadocia. The terraced, outdoor mineral pools and chalk white stalactites of Pamukkale. The mountainside Lycian sarcophogi or “rock tombs” and underwater city near Fethiye. The chimera — or flaming earth – of Olympos. Gallipoli. Antalya. Ankara. Amazing places that heretofore I had only encountered in books I now experienced firsthand.
Driving through the scorching countryside in dodgy rental cars, I also fell in love with the people of Turkey and all the wonderful foods that they made. The ubiquitous sweet tea, served by every carpet wallah and cafe owner. The strong, grounds-studded Turk kahvesi or Turkish coffee. Street food such as sesame bread rings or simits, kebabs and gozleme, a filled filo pastry.
Some dishes reminded me of foods served in other parts of the Mediterranean. Dolmades, or rice-stuffed vine leaves, the cucumber-mint-yogurt dip cacik and lamb-filled moussaka called to mind Greek specialties. Hummus popped up on every Middle Eastern or Mediterranean menu. Traditional spices and techniques were what made these dishes decidedly Turkish.
Turkish Eggplant Pilaf with Green Peppersa/k/a Patlicanli Pilav
Courtesy of Amberin Zaman, Turkish correspondent for The Economist
Serves 8 to 10 as a side dish
2 eggplants, washed and with strips of the skin removed lengthwise
2 green peppers, cut into small pieces
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 ½ cups long grain rice
3 cups water
Using a vegetable peeler, remove lengthwise strips of the eggplant’s skin so that the vegetable appears to have stripes stretching from tip to tip. Cut the eggplant into small chunks and place the pieces onto a cooling rack or stack of paper towels. Sprinkle salt over the cut eggplant and allow the pieces to drain for 15 to 30 minutes.
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or large sauté pan. Add the eggplant and pepper to the pan and sauté until tender but not overly soft or mushy.
Add the sugar, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Stir the ingredients together then cook for 1 minute.
Add the rice and stir to coat with the oil and spices.
Add the water and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat to a simmer then cover the pan and cook until almost all the liquid has been absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat. Take off the lid and put a clean dish towel over the pot. Clamp the lid back on and let the pilaf sit for approximately 20 minutes. The cloth will absorb the excess moisture and make the rice fluffier.
Remove the lid and the dish towel and fluff the pilaf with a fork. Allow the pilaf to cool to room temperature and either place in bowl or leave in the pan and refrigerate until ready to serve.
In Turkey coffee is brewed using a cevze, a small, wide-bottomed, pitcher-shaped vessel with a long handle. Although specialty coffee and cookware shops do sell cevzes or ibriks, the Greek word for the Turkish pot, a very small saucepan will suffice.
4 heaping teaspoons finely ground coffee
1 cup cold water
Combine the ground coffee and water in a small saucepan and stir until well mixed.
Place the saucepan on low heat and allow the ingredients to simmer for roughly 3 minutes until the mixture starts to rise. During this time do not stir the ingredients.
Once the liquid starts to rise and foam, remove the saucepan from the burner. Do not allow the coffee to overflow.
After a 10 to 20 second resting period return the saucepan to the burner and leave on low heat until the coffee begins to rise again. Remove from heat. Repeat these steps for a third time.
After the third rising remove the saucepan from the heat and pour the coffee into 4 demitasse cups. As the grounds will also be present in the cup, allow them to settle before consuming.
November 1st, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink
A wanderlust, I am happiest with my feet firmly planted in someone else’s land. Dump me off on a cracked tarmac, slap a stamp in my passport, shuffle me through customs and feel my pulse race. Travel clears my head, opens my eyes and enlivens my life in countless ways.
One of the biggest impacts that journeying the globe has had is in terms of cuisine. Where once I limited myself to the basic foods of my childhood, I now dabble in delicacies from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. Anything that I taste and enjoy overseas I later attempt to replicate in my kitchen.
When my husband Sean and I first discussed visiting Iceland in the spring of 2000, I assumed that I would sample such local delicacies as shark, herring and turnips. I imagined the Icelandic-themed dinner party that I would later host, one featuring the culinary highlights of the country.
Seven years later ”Icelandic Night” has yet to take place. The delay is not due to snobbery, laziness or distate. Rather it has to do with our limited experiences with the native foods of this highly productive and prosperous country.
Our trip began on the western coast in the capital of Reykjavik. This city of 117,000 afforded us the opportunity to try such local dishes as herring, the yogurt-like skyr, and the pungent hakarl. A more palatable term for “dessicated shark meat,” hakarl is shark meat that has been buried and left to decay for a minimum of two months.
Hakarl’s tradition dates back to a time when Icelanders possessed few methods of preserving and no means of refrigeration. Meats were either salted, smoked or, in the case of the shark, simply left to decompose. Without question hakarl is an acquired smell and taste, one that I am unable to recreate in either New York or Southeastern PA.
Once we left Reykjavik, we soon learned how few restaurants exist in this glacier-rich, cafe-poor country. Spirited wild horses, black lava fields, steaming thermal springs and waterfalls dot the landscape. Grocery stores or coffee shops? Try the lone gas station 200 miles down the road. The grizzled man behind the counter will grill a nice toasted cheese sandwich or two for you.
Served on styrofoam plates, toasted cheese sandwiches became the staple of our diet. What do you want for lunch? Toasted cheese sandwich. Dinner? Oh, I think I’ll indulge in another toasted cheese sandwich. Breakfast? Well, you can have some bread with a side of herring or hakarl at the hotel or drive 50 miles to a petrol shop for, yep, two pieces of toast with a slice of orange cheese squished between them.
Periodically I read of Icelandic’s culinary renaissance, of the restaurants cropping up in Reykjavik and presumably other parts of the country. Yet, when we return to Iceland, I undoubtedly will skip the new global restaurants and instead seek out the country’s backwoods gas stations and the nourishing meals that they invariably provided me.