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.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Noodle Bowl

Tonight it happened that I had the perfect dinner for one. I should know, I eat alone all the time and almost always enjoy it. But there was something just so singular about tonight's meal that I found myself thinking as I ate it, I want to eat this every time I eat by myself.

Tonight I made a noodle bowl. Bowl meals in general lend themselves to the cooking/eating-for-one genre. There is something cozy about a bowl. You can hold it with one hand, taking in warmth as you eat. Bowls are round and comforting. And a noodle bowl? Well, there's something exciting about getting such a variety of goodness all in one place. Noodle bowls, as their name suggests, have noodles in them. But then they have just about anything else you have on hand in them too. I was spurred on to make one tonight while looking at David Chang's wonderful cookbook Momofuku. His signature noodle bowl, Momofuku Ramen, is full of pork belly, pork shoulder, nori, scallions, fish cake, bamboo shoots, veggies, a poached egg and of course, noodles. All topped with a rich chicken/pork broth. Now, though that sounds delicious, for the average eat-alone, quick meal in, that also sounds like a lot of work.

I was aiming for something a little more...thrown together. But still delicious. What I was craving was noodles. Skinny noodles. I was craving them in broth. I was craving them with a crispy poached egg on top. What? Those of you who know me know that I rarely eat eggs. But every once in awhile I get a craving and tonight I was craving an egg I read about in Bon Appetit magazine's r.s.v.p. section and made once before. The idea is, you poach an egg. You cool the egg in an ice water bath. You roll the egg in egg whites. Then roll it in a mixture of panko, salt, pepper and crushed red pepper. And fry it in a little olive oil. The result is a soft little pillow of egg with a thin protective coating of crisp. Great little texture play going on. (If you don't make a noodle bowl, at least make yourself this egg and eat it over some wilted greens with a little soy sauce).

Anyway, I cooked some thin spaghetti and made the egg. I quick-pickled some carrots, using an extremely speedy method I read about in Momofuku--simply coat the thin slices with a mixture of salt and sugar and let sit for 10 minutes (it really works). I happened to have a little broth leftover from making Pho over the weekend, so I heat it up. This all went into a bowl, along with some cilantro and chopped green onions. That's it. So simple, and yet so much. So many things went into that bowl, and I swear it only took about 20 minutes to throw together. And the point is, you can do it your way. If you have a can of chicken broth in your cupboard, use that, and put the extra in your fridge for another use. I'm sure the quick-pickles would be even better with cucumber or radish, but I just went with what was on hand. Add some soy sauce or Sriracha. The point is to build flavor with what you have. And then eat it all by yourself.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Kitchen Rituals

In his book, The Heart of the Artichoke, David Tanis has a section of "recipes" at the beginning called "Kitchen Rituals". Each is a moment with food that would be experienced in the kitchen, alone. They range from the simple--peeling an apple--to the more complex--making chorizo. While many of us may not undertake the making of chorizo (or tripe, another of his rituals), the point is that we all have our own. We each have our little things we do when we eat alone. Though eating is traditionally a communal activity--and I love the way food and drink bring people together--sometimes food means the most in that quiet moment when eaten by yourself.

Today is New Year's Day, and though I will be eating traditional New Year's foods like hoppin' john and pork with family later today, I also needed to celebrate alone. This was my kitchen ritual, the first of 2012:
Bread dipped into olive oil w/ salt, crushed red pepper and sumac; hard Greek feta; castelvetrano olives; glass of red

Welcome to 2012, here's to a lot of good eating!

P.S.-For more on eating alone, I highly recommend Jenni Ferrari-Adler's Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone