Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Snow Day Discovery

Ok, kids, your Saturday mornings are about to get a lot better. Because I have discovered the perfect pancake recipe, and I am going to share it with you.

First, a confession: I'm not that great at making pancakes. As someone who is pretty good at making most types of foods, pancakes are often a struggle. Sometimes they come out a little rubbery. Unlike most of my cooking, I always follow a recipe when I make pancakes, and so as a result, I'm always on the search for the perfect one. I discovered this recipe from Ina Garten a few years ago, and it is excellent, but it requires sour cream, which, if you're like me, you may not have on hand. So, the search has been on for the perfect pancake.

Today, being faced with the rare but glorious situation of a North Carolina snow day, I was looking forward to making myself a big breakfast, just like on a weekend morning. I looked at a few different recipes, and settled on one...until I remembered that I have buckwheat flour. Buckwheat pancakes are a good food memory for me. I ate them as a child, but not always--rarely enough for it to be a special event. And I always loved their earthy, nutty flavor.

Thinking of that bag of buckwheat flour, I also thought: there has to be a recipe for pancakes on that flour bag. Because honestly, how often do Americans use buckwheat flour for anything other than pancakes? And really, wouldn't the people who make the flour know the best recipe for making it into pancakes? Well, it turns out, they do. And it also turns out, this recipe is one of the simplest I have ever made.

So, go out and buy yourself a bag of Hodgson Mill buckwheat flour (and if, like I do, you want buttermilk pancakes, buy some of that too). If you've done that, well, you really don't need me to give the recipe. But I'll do it anyway. Simply whisk together the dry ingredients: 1 cup buckwheat flour, 1 tsp. baking powder (+1 tsp. baking soda if using buttermilk), 2 T sugar, and a pinch of salt. Beat an egg and then whisk in 1 cup of milk or buttermilk. The bag recipe calls for 2 T of melted butter, but I just used vegetable oil to save myself the hassle of melting butter. After whisking together the wet ingredients, pour into the dry and whisk, making sure not to over mix. I cooked my pancakes in a cast iron skillet over medium-low-ish heat. I have the unfortunate situation of living in a place with an electric stove instead of gas, and figuring out how to cook well on it has been a challenge, but I hit the jackpot today. I flipped the pancakes when they started to bubble and then cooked for a minute or so on the other side. And...success.

These pancakes were, ironically, ridiculously light. I have never seen another buckwheat pancake recipe that called for only buckwheat flour, but this worked. Airy and flavorful, these are definitely my new go-to pancake. Served with bacon, fried potatoes with dill, and a Bloody Mary with dill-infused vodka. A little Scandi, and a lot delicious.

I can't wait for Saturday.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Gin Tasting

I can remember the first time I ever drank gin. I was at the home of Ferdinand and Darcy McGrath, where several us from out of town gathered that December night for an evening of feasting. After dinner, the feasting transitioned to poker. I don't remember if I actually played poker or not, but what I do remember is sitting next to David Suetterlein, who was drinking Tanqueray and tonic. I was 21, a new drinker, and at that point in my life I knew I liked beer and wine, but it never really crossed my mind to drink liquor. But I remember taking a sip of David's drink, and then another, and then another. Finally, I had to get my own.

From that night on, gin and tonic became my new drink. I loved ordering it at bars, even though some people said it was an old man drink. One night, I was out at Ceviche with my friend Katy, maybe the first time I ever went to a "cool" bar, and we both got excited when we realized that we both drank gin and tonics. It was a bonding moment. Katy ordered for us, and introduced me to Hendrick's, asking for cucumber instead of lime.

These days, I'm more likely to drink a gin martini or gin fizz than a gin and tonic. To me, making cocktails is like cooking. I think of alcohol the way I think of food--just another opportunity for exciting (and classic) flavor combinations.

Whenever I travel to different parts of the country, I'm always curious to see (and try!) what different beers are available. And now that I live in North Carolina, I went to the liquor store to see if they had any bottles I couldn't get in PA. I was pleased to see several brands of artisinal gins that I've read about but never saw in my local state store. I picked up a bottle of Death's Door gin from Washington Island, Wisconsin.

Once home, I decided to make good use of the other gins I had in stock--Hendricks and Bluecoat (from PA!)--and do a side-by-side gin tasting. The reason gin is so unique is that the liquor is infused with botanicals--juniper for sure, but then it's up to the distiller. Coriander, lavender, orris root, angelica root, licorice, fennel, caraway, cardamom, citrus peel...all of these and more make their way in various combinations into gin (The Botanist gin, from Scotland--like Hendricks--advertises the use of "22 Native Botanicals").

So, here are my tasting notes for the three different gins:
This is the gin I found most difficult to describe. I've been drinking it all summer, and a way to codify its flavors has eluded me for months. The gin is light-bodied and you can taste the juniper. There seems to be a whisper of citrus, and it tastes the most classically of gin than the other two. I like it in a gin rickey.

This gin has a lower alcohol content than others (44% compared to 47%), and you can definitely tell the difference. Hendrick's is smooth and an almost silky texture. It tastes very notably of coriander. Hendrick's is classically served with cucumber, but after noticing the strong coriander notes, I love to try it with orange.

Death's Door
When I was in Montana last summer, I found some juniper berries on a hike. I enjoyed eating them, and even brought some back with me. Death's Door tastes exactly of those wild Montana junipers. It is noticeably different from the usual juniper taste of gin--more woodsy and resinous. Death's Door advertises that they use wild Washington Island juniper berries, so maybe that makes a difference. In any case, I love this gin for the taste memory of Montana hiking.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Not My Usual

If you know anything about my cooking style, you know I love capturing traditional dishes of world cuisines. I'm talking little-known pasta shapes from rural Italy, Persian dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves), Tunisian turnip salad, or shrimp and grits from South Carolina. I don't care where in the world you're talking about, I want to make classic food from that place. I don't typically go for "fusion-food", like Korean tacos or pasta with corn (yes, I've seen a recipe). Getting even more picky, I usually don't make "American" versions of world cuisines (I never make "curry" with curry powder). Often, this applies to Italian-American food. Sure, I make pizza and pasta. But I also make polenta and risotto and porchetta and grilled zucchini and piadina and other dishes that aren't slathered with red sauce and called Italian food.

But. But. Tonight I had some eggplant that I needed to use, and wasn't in the mood for the dishes I would normally make with eggplant--green curry (Thai), tagine (Moroccan), baba ghanoush (Middle Eastern), or ratatouille (French). So I decided to make eggplant parmesan. Perhaps one of the most definitive Italian-American dishes out there.

I sliced some (skinny) eggplants lengthwise into 1/4 inch strips, salted them, and let them sweat in a colander. Meanwhile, I made an excellent red sauce by sauteing onion, a chili pepper, garlic, and oregano with crushed tomatoes. Patting the eggplant slices dry, I dredged them in flour (I added pepper and lemon zest for a fun twist--worth it), and briefly fried in olive oil, hot and fast. Then I simply layered the eggplant slices in a casserole with sauce and tons of fresh mozzerella and grated parmesan and baked on a 400 degree oven until browned. Served the classic Italian-American way with a bed of angel hair. And on a checkered tablecloth, no less.

My "normal" style be damned, this was a bloody good meal, and I encourage you to make it yourself. The eggplant gets smoky, the sauce is spicy, the cheese hugs your stomach, and the lemon brightly hums. Worth a departure from the norm.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bare Minimum

I have, in my sporadic postings over the years, written quite a bit about "cooking for one". Eating alone is a highly debate-able activity--some people think food is all about community, the bringing together of people--and this notion is certainly true. However--there is something to cooking solely for oneself that I find beautiful and important. Cooking for one allows the opportunity to make something that may not be deemed "suitable" for company, whether it's simple like noodles with Parmesan, or a composed meal of olives, cheese, and bread (a meal fit for a queen, and yet somehow, offering that, and only that, to guests feels like a cop-out). These solo meals are a chance to revel in simplicity. I know that a perfectly ripe tomato is the best food out there, but it would be a rare day that you find me serving only tomato slices to a guest.

Having recently moved (to a new town, a new state!) cooking for one is back in my repertoire. And, more than ever, I truly feel as though I'm cooking for one, given that I have no furniture, save a single folding chair. Somehow, the absence of home furnishings make me feel even more alone. My things will arrive next weekend, but until then, all I have is myself. Myself and a minimally stocked kitchen. First things first.

Today I baked a loaf of bread. It is a beautiful loaf, and it is made all the more lovely to me eating it in this sparse home. Good bread nourishes more than the body.

And to drink, I made an old-fashioned. This isn't a cocktail I usually drink, but after tonight, I am a believer. The weather here has been, I am told, unseasonable for North Carolina. Yesterday and today were grey, even a little cold. The old-fashioned fit the bill. The brightness of the orange makes it a summer drink, sunny and sweet. Yet it is still mostly bourbon, and this makes the drink boozy and warm. Perfect for a cloudy summer evening. I used Jefferson's bourbon, which is fiery yet light, making it, I think, ideal for this cocktail.

Enjoy your own kitchen.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Herb of Spring

Most people associate basil with summer, and I'd have to agree, if for no other reason than it's such a great partner for bursting ripe tomatoes. But right now it's spring, when the weather is just beginning to warm, and the days of Caprese salads and raw tomato sauce are a speck in the distance. We'll get there. And until we do, may I suggest you embrace the herb of spring: chives. Like basil, chives are a spicy herb, though in a different, more assertive way. A member of the allium family, they pack an onion-y punch. In fact, I was recently in the forest with a friend, and had absent-mindedly been munching on some chives. A few minutes later, she commented that she could smell them on my breath. So. Maybe not first date material. But I still ardently recommend chives as an assertive, yet fresh and grassy way to experience Spring cooking.

One of the most glorious things about chives, and the reason I so closely associate them with Spring, is that they literally spring up everywhere this time of year. They grow wild in the woods, but also in yards and along sidewalks. Chances are, even if you live in an urban area, a walk around the neighborhood will lead you to chives. I first noticed chives weeks ago, when we were still getting snow. These babies are relentless. So let them into your kitchen.

My favorite way to use chives is to make them into pesto. This is a labor of love; I've found the best way to make it is in a mortar and pestle, not a food processor, as the long grasses tend to not actually get chopped. What I do is snip the long strands into small pieces with scissors and then smash them up in the mortar with some salt and olive oil. I've found that using some water with the olive oil helps create a nice pesto that saves money without sacrificing flavor. A squirt of lemon juice rounds out the flavor. My favorite use for this is as a dip for French fries or roasted potatoes--salty, fresh, and divine.

Today, however, I was in pasta kind of mood, so I poured the pesto over spaghetti, adding some Parmesan cheese and crushed red pepper. The noodles were tinted green and spicy-fresh.

Simply put, chive pesto is a revelation. There is nothing quite like it. It manages to be silky and spunky at the same time. So, go for a walk. Find some chives. Eat them, and taste Spring.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Rainy Summer Night Still Life

I love eating seasonally, and summer is certainly a fun (and bountiful!) time to do so.  Tomatoes only taste good for a few months out of the year, so it's important to make the most of their fleeting presence.  Serve slices with salt, pepper, olive oil, and maybe some basil.  Eating in the summer is both refreshing and easy.  Actual cooking takes a backseat.  I eat cold salads composed of raw corn or zucchini.

But--but--that doesn't mean I don't love eating in the winter, when it's necessary to fatten up on thick stews and crusty bread.  And, I confess to maybe craving a little more wintry or autumnal fare lately.  The same way I might long for a ripe apricot in January.

The root of my craving began with wine.  After a summer of drinking a lot of beer (crisp IPAs and refreshing Pacificos) and quaff-able cocktails (margaritas and gin fizzes), I was sort-of dreaming about a rich, heavy-bodied red.  When it comes to wine, I'll cool off with a vinho verde or rose, but what I really desire is something that makes its presence known in the glass (and my mouth).  But ballsy brunellos and cabs are a little too hefty for the summertime heat. 

Then, a couple mornings ago, it rained.  Not just a light summer drizzle, but a full-blown waterfall coming out of the sky.  And that was enough to make me feel like I could do it--drink a red.  Unfortunately for my craving, it was hot and sticky come evening, so I drank a Negroni instead.  But then last night, the rain came.  I actually got caught walking home in it.  So the time for wine had come.  And the food followed.  A hearty(er) dinner of cauliflower risotto and crusty flatbread with walnuts, rosemary, and fleur de sel evolved. I baked an unbelievably rich chocolate cake.  And though you probably won't find me eating much food like that for a couple months, it was a delicious interlude.  

Food Notes:
To make the cauliflower risotto, follow a basic risotto recipe, with the following modifications: chop the cauliflower stem/core into a small dice and saute along with the onion and celery at the beginning.  Add the florets, cut small, to your stock as you keep it warm on the stove.  When the florets have softened, you begin stirring them into the rice as it cooks.  I found that including cauliflower in the risotto really emphasized the little bit of Pecorino I stirred in at the end.  The flavor and creaminess seemed heightened.  Very luscious.  Great with some crushed red pepper sprinkled on top.

To make the flatbread: mix 2 c flour, 1 tsp salt, 2 tsp yeast, 1 T olive oil, and 1-1 1/2 c water in a bowl.  Knead dough until smooth and let rise for one hour.  Flatten into a circle, about 1 cm thick and place on a pizza stone or baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal.  Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle on chopped walnuts, rosemary, and fleur de sel (or use kosher or other sea salt).  Bake at 425 until golden brown.

Wine Notes:

The wine I drank was Perdera (2009) Argiolas, an Italian red made with Monica grapes.  That means nothing to me.  I've never even heard of Monica grapes.  But I've discovered a new way to find good wine, and so far, it's worked every time.  Joe Bastianich is a crazy-successful restaurant owner in New York.  He partners with Mario Batali and everything they touch is gold.  And Joe happens to know a ton about wine.  So, what I do is go to the website for his restaurant Becco, which features a $25 wine list.  Every wine on the list is $25, which means to buy the wines in a store, they'll be under $20.  But you're getting reasonably priced wine selected by someone with a good palate.  I cross-reference the list with the PA Wine and Spirits website and figure out what's available to me.  Works a charm.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Comfort on a Tablecloth

It's been awhile.  But don't worry, I've still been eating well.

Tonight, for example.  Tonight was about two foods, both relatively new on the timeline of my life, yet somehow they have both become comfort foods.  Much like croque monsieurs, Caesar salad and tuna fish spaghetti snuck into my life in the past five years or so.  But they are here to stay and are able to feed my soul just as well as they fill my stomach.  And I think that's what comfort food means.

I can remember the first time I ordered a Caesar salad, on a whim at a local restaurant.  Some people order Caesar salad all the time, but I am not one of those people.  I don't know what made me do it, but I do know that it was good.  And so, last night, when I happened to watch this video, I started craving a Caesar once again.  As I watched, I realized that a Caesar is all about the salt.  When asked to list salty foods, I, like most people, would list potato chips and french fries, popcorn and pretzels.  I would probably even list anchovies--crucial to Caesar salad--but I would never think to list the salad itself.  But the salt is there.  It's there from the anchovies, it's there from the Parmesan cheese.  And it makes sense.  Salty foods are crunchy; in its way, Caesar salad is crunchy too, relying on the heart of a romaine lettuce.

Caesar salad, though, is not just salty and crunchy, the way snack-y foods are.  The salt (anchovies) in a Caesar are emulsified into its dressing, adding what can only be called a silky component.  All the parts of a Caesar dressing (I used chopped anchovy, garlic, mustard, Worcestershire, pepper, vinegar, and olive oil) combine as though by magic, with a spell of Parmesan cheese holding it all together..  Eating my salad tonight, I didn't taste any one ingredient.  I just tasted dressing on crisp romaine.  Concentrating, I tasted the heat of the garlic, the sharpness of the mustard, the acidity of the red wine vinegar and the ballsy richness of the anchovy.  But no one thing overwhelms another.  The Parmesan is key.  A hard grating cheese, it is still a dairy product, so it brings both saltiness and creaminess to the table, and he's the one that creates the harmony.  Delicious.

The second item on the table tonight was tuna fish spaghetti.  I actually never eat my tuna sauce over spaghetti, favoring instead penne or rigatoni, but I just think of "tuna fish spaghetti" as the name of the dish.  Strange, as I did not grow up eating this dish, but there you have it.

I first encountered the dish in a Jamie Oliver cookbook.  He makes a red sauce with canned tuna, but the key, what really makes the dish, is the addition of cinnamon.  I know--this sounds weird--but when you realize that southern Italy has strong North African influences, everything falls into its place in the grand scheme of culinary tradition.  Even if you still find the dish odd, once you hear how easy it is, you'll want to make it too.  Saute an onion in olive oil, adding a pinch of salt, some basil (stalks or leaves), and a sprinkling of cinnamon.  Add a can of tuna and canned tomato sauce  to hold it all together.  Crushed red pepper for spice.  A splash of wine or balsamic for acidity.  Let it cook together, then toss over a short, tubular pasta.  Parmesan cheese if you choose.  Basta.  The cinnamon doesn't taste sweet or even dessert-y.  What it does is add depth to the dish, adding a smoky element.

Into the equation add a candle, red wine in a juice glass and a red-and-white-checked tablecloth, and you've got one comforting Italian dinner on your hands.