Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dinner in the dark

I was expecting Aviva and Ali for dinner because, naturally, we were intending to attend a screening of "Xanadu" at the Plaza Theater up the street a little bit later in the evening. But a huge, weird storm blew in and suddenly our power went out. I went outside to meet the girls and when I came back in, Melanie was up in our apartment hanging out with Brian and the dogs. Then Ryan wandered over to our house. I made steak salad with sesame crostini in the dark kitchen and then we all played Kill Doctor Lucky (a board game pretty much exactly like Clue, but in reverse) out on the porch by sunset and candle light. We drank a couple bottles of wine, and ate gummi bears and chocolate-covered sunflower seeds, because what else should you do in an emergency situation? Eventually, lights started to come on up the block so we phoned the movie theater and thank goodness, it was opened, so we got to go to "Xanadu" after all. Lessons learned? Although I can pretty much make dinner whenever, it's not particularly good when I try to do so in the dark. But this evening was pretty great, having nothing to do with the food.

Eggplant "ratatouille"

This isn't really ratatouille at all; the list of ingredients is way too schizophrenic for that. But it is totally eggplant season and getting to be tomato season, as proven when Betsy brought two of these lovely guys over and a half pint of lovely plum tomatoes. So if you are tired of grilling your purple friends, try making this instead. The final consistency should not be as loose as a sauce yet the eggplant pieces should somewhat be falling apart into a delicious jam.

Slice 2 small farmers market eggplants into halves then dice the halves up into equal size chunks of about 1" square. Saute the eggplant chunks in 3 tablespoons olive oil heated in a large pan over medium-high. Meanwhile, mince 2 cloves of garlic and one small onion and add them to the pan. Clear a small space in the center of the pan and add the following spices, allowing them some time to heat in the oil so the flavors bloom: salt, 1 pinch red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon good curry powder, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, and 1 teaspoon chili powder. Continue to saute until all the vegetables are soft and the onion lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon Worcestershire, 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes--I used fresh farmers market plum tomatoes but canned chopped are fine too--and 1 big teaspoon tomato paste. Mix it all up well and add a drizzle of white wine, the turn down the heat and let it bubble together for about 15 minutes. Check on it and see if you like the flavor--does it need a bit more wine or salt or maybe some more tomatoes? If you like it, take it off heat, stir in 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar and serve it over couscous or dry-cooked orzo. Sliced mushrooms would be a delicious addition, included in at the same time as the eggplant. Another variation (without the mushrooms) would be a handful of golden raisins and some capers stirred in during the last 5 minutes of cooking.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cherry tarts

I bought an enormous container of cherries from Whole Foods because they looked so beautiful. I have never seen a box of cherries for sale with the leaves still attached to the stems and it totally worked on me as a marketing ploy. I brought them to my friend Rachel's house and we quickly discovered that they were sour cherries (turns out they were clearly labeled as such right there on the box but I was so taken by the pretty factor that I overlooked it). So here I am with an enormous quantity of sour cherries. The only sensible thing to do is to make tarts. Last year I had a lot of success with various savory tarts made with puff pastry so I decided to experiment with my cherries in a dessert direction.

First off, I did a lot of pitting. I got sort of bored with it, actually. I ended up pitting about 3/4 of my enormous quantity of cherries and then simply de-stemmed the remainder and froze them in a ziploc for when I could further handle the pressure of all cherries, all the time. The process of pitting did nothing to remedy the sourness however, so I macerated them in 4 tablespoons of sugar and just a teeny dash of almond extract.
As anyone will tell you, I don't really care for super-sweet desserts, so maybe you will find your sour cherries need more sweetening to suit your taste. For puff pastry I just used the Pepperidge Farm kind--it comes frozen in the grocery store and has two sheets. I also got a small container of mascarpone cheese for the base of the tart; unlike the savory versions I have made in the past, this was sweetened by mixing it with 2 tablespoons sugar and a dash of vanilla extract. To actually make the tart, I cut one sheet of pastry into a wonky looking circle. Next I mixed half my container of mascarpone cheese with the sugar and vanilla and spread it all over the middle of my pastry circle. Then I topped the cheese base with about half of my macerated cherries and proceeded to pinch the sides up and around to form an open-faced tart. I transferred it to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet (very important for cleanup as the cherries will ooze sugary goo while they bake which will never ever come off a pan) and baked at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes, or until nicely browned on top. This was greeted as a success by Jeremy and Melanie, but they might have been lightly tipsy. The next day, I still had a lot of cherries leftover, not to mention half a container of mascarpone cheese and one more sheet of puff pastry, so it only made sense to make the same thing for dessert with Ryan and Betsy. Except it wasn't exactly the same thing; this time I made 4 little individual tarts out of the sheet of pastry. I sweetened the leftover half of my container of mascarpone with honey instead of sugar for a change as well. From here it was sort of the same thing--I cut out 4 wonky little circles and topped them with the cheese base. Then the cherries, which were even more delicious as they had enjoyed an extra day of maceration in the sugar. I pinched the tarts up, took a look at them and decided they should now be cherry-almond tarts, so I chopped a handful of almonds to top them with. By the way, when you are trying to chop something like nuts or olives or anything that requires an even distribution among separate entities (like tarts!), a good strategy to ensure equal quantities is to first chop, then divide into little piles with your knife. These little tarts looked beautifully rustic and were perfectly delicious.

Seared cherry tomatoes & steak

Every time I look at the pictures, I want to make this again, it was that delicious. It's based on the cover recipe from the July issue of Gourmet magazine--all you need is a nice New York strip for however many people you're serving, a pint of perfect cherry tomatoes (mine were Sungolds from the farmers market), and a little fresh basil and thyme. Put a (preferably) cast-iron pan with 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. When it's hot, put in your steak and sear it for about 5 minutes per side, but no more than 10 minutes total. Salt and pepper each side as it is up and facing you in the pan. Remove it to the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes to cook a little more through. Remove it and let it stand for 5 minutes before serving. Meanwhile, drain off most of the olive oil, and add cherry tomatoes together with a tablespoon minced fresh thyme to the same pan over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. They're done when they are shiny and glossy but not burst from the heat. Add a handful of torn fresh basil leaves and then serve the steaks with the tomatoes poured over the top. It's completely delicious.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Roasted turnips with other root vegetables

Betsy and I bought the exact same bunches of turnips from the exact same french lady at the farmers market this past weekend, so we decided to combine them into one superpower in-season vegetable hootenanny. These turnips are tiny, sweet and perfect so they were definitely the stars of the show, although we added some other root vegetables to the roasting pan as backup singers.

Like I said, these were tiny turnips, so I simply trimmed the greens off and sliced them into quarters. They got tossed in a roasting pan with 4 tablespoons olive oil, kosher salt, pepper, paprika, a little pinch of red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon garam masala, and 1 teaspoon additional curry powder. The other vegetables that I used were 3 small yukon gold potatoes and 1 medium sized sweet potato. One of the things that I try to do when I roast root veggies is to cut the different vegetables into different shapes. It makes for a more visually interesting final dish and I think it accentuates the difference between the vegetables used; although all root vegetables will grow sweeter and more rich as they roast, it's like a visual cue to hunt for the subtleties between them. As mentioned before, the turnips were quartered with a teeny bit of green at the top left on......and I ended up cutting the yukon gold potatoes into rounds and the sweet potatoes into matchsticks. I added about 10 whole cloves of garlic as well, and stirred all the veggies together in the roasting pan to distribute the oil and spices. They roasted for about 45 minutes at 400 degrees, with frequent stirring and shaking of the pan to ensure they cooked evenly and did not burn. They were delicious alongside a spectacular steak (that I will discuss shortly) and a big green salad, tossed expertly by Betsy, who always seems to get stuck with that job somehow.

Lemon cucumber

This was just so beautiful. I saw it at the Morningside farmer's market and couldn't resist. You don't expect the clean, fresh flavor of a cucumber from this round fruity looking thing but there it is. It went into what Melanie says was the best salad yet for this summer: grilled eggplant, lemon cucumber, goat cheese, pine nuts and sungold cherry tomatoes tossed with arugula.

Fried caper & pistachio green beans

Time to top your green beans with something delicious! My mother sent me these huge salted capers from Sicily--they are like three times the size of the usual teeny caper specks you see packed up in brine. They are like the salt cured, mammoth in-bred cousins of those capers. I wanted to feature them somehow because they seemed so special, so this is what happened. The fried capers turn into little crispy salt bombs and taste completely amazing.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil to very hot in a pan, then toss in a handful of large capers. Regular, small capers will work fine too; these just look more dramatic. Drain them well on crumpled paper towels. By the way, when you need to drain something that was fried in oil, crumple up the paper first. Otherwise it won't stay crisp--it will just reabsorb the oil out of the flat paper. In whatever bowl you will be serving the beans in, mix the juice from 1 lemon with good olive oil, salt and pepper. Now mince up a tablespoon of parsley and a handful of pistachios and set them aside. Bring a pan of water to a boil and cook your green beans just a few minutes. They're done when they're bright green and still a little crisp. Or whenever they taste the way you like them. Drain the beans and add them along with the parsley to the bowl with the lemon-olive oil mixture and toss well. Then top with the fried capers and pistachios.
By the way, Ali brought a soy-based chocolate pudding over with fresh berries for dessert and many people in attendance appreciated it ("a gritty delight!"). I thought it looked really pretty.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Smashed pesto potatoes

Again with these little potatoes! Using basically the same process as the original smashed and crisped potato that I have been working on for a few weeks, I thought of a new variation. Ali and Nik were here for dinner and they're trying to eat healthier, so there was deserved suspicion about the potato crisps. What? They just roll around in a ton of butter is all. Anyway, I thought maybe a version less reliant on butter and cheese for crispy goodness might be in order, also I have just gotten a new basil plant. It's sort of different looking--not so much your typical basil with bright jade green leaves, but paler and with white stripes. But it is amazingly fragrant, so I thought I'd give it a shot, maybe mixed with some parsley for more of the bright green color.

"Pesto" really just means pounded or crushed. In of itself, it doesn't imply basil, pine nuts or any of the traditional ingredients. Pesto alla genovese is what we think of as pesto--originating from in or around the city of Genoa, Italy, and consisting of basil, salt, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and (usually) grated Parmesan. This is more-or-less the type of pesto I made for the potatoes, although I toasted my pine nuts first, which isn't typical. But pesto may be any herb-nut combination pounded together and bound with oil or cheese--or not! It's pretty flexible. Maybe I'll try making some exotic variant soon and that will be interesting. I used 3 small cloves minced garlic, a handful of pine nuts (some more toasty than others, oops), salt, a handful of my interesting new basil, chopped, a handful of standard issue flat-leaf parsley, chopped and 2 tablespoons good olive oil. I use a mortar and pestle to make my pesto, because I like using one (it's pretty!) and also because I have no food processor. Grind it all up... ...after a few minutes it is pounded or crushed into paste. Voila, pesto. Then there is a bit of parmesan shaved in at the end.Boil up however many small potatoes as you want to have for dinner until they are at that tender-firm stage, not crumbling apart when you press on them. This takes me about 10 minutes, but I check them often. Cool them to a point where you can handle them without playing hot potato, and squash the tops down with a fork to create a space for delicious pesto topping. You might want to dig them out a little bit too, to make a little pesto nesto. Melt 1 tablespoon olive oil with just a little butter in the bottom of a baking dish and brush the potatoes, then set them evenly in the dish. Spoon in a teaspoon or so of pesto per potato, eyeballing it so you equally distribute throughout. Bake them at 400 for about 10-12 minutes, checking on them to ensure they are golden brown, delicious and crispy.

A quick aside is that along with the pesto potatoes, I also made chicken with garlic. I have posted the recipe before and it is easy-peasy; however I didn't have pictures on the blog then. It is simply pieces of chicken browned, then you brown an enormous quantity of whole-clove garlic in the same pot. Then the chicken is stacked on top of the garlic, and it is all left to cook up together to fragrant perfection in a mixture of white wine and chicken stock. You can get details on the whole recipe here, but that's really all there is to it.


I love to prepare something for dinner guests for before the meal. This is partly because I'm usually still cooking when friends show up, but also because it's fun to highlight a flavor, color or ingredient that doesn't otherwise come into play during dinner. And people love snacking. Hence, I have an appreciation for preparing a plate of antipasti that goes beyond a cultural attachment. The other day, Ryan and Betsy were coming over before an outing to go see a friend's gallery opening and we knew we wouldn't be eating until later. So I made a quick easy plate of snacks, to be consumed alongside my true love, which is the box of wine that Melanie gifted me with.This was very simple--just those great sundried tomatoes, lightly drizzled with olive oil and fresh black pepper, some prosciutto (also smuggled back from Italy!) treated the same way, pecorino cheese (huh, also snuck through customs? This was some stinky luggage), and a few green olives.The only preparation involved was to briefly saute the olives in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, along with a pinch of red pepper flakes and some minced fresh rosemary for a few minutes. Don't toast them, but it's OK if they get a few brown spots. You could add some slivered garlic too, if you wanted. Olives taste different heated up--they simultaneously mellow out and get more flavorful. I also made crostini with thin slices of semolina bread. Melt 2 tablespoons butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil and coat the slices of bread in the melted olive oil-butter mixture. Combine 2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary with large kosher salt, black pepper and a tiny amount minced garlic, then top the bread with this mixture. Toast in a 375 degree oven until browned and deliciously fragrant, about 8 minutes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


This is my basic cornbread recipe that I think I've probably mentioned in here before. I make it so often though, that I thought it would bear repeating. It's easy, fast, and it elevates everything else going on at dinnertime.Take 1 1/2 cups cornmeal (I use 1 cup of JT Pollard fine white cornmeal combined with another cup of the regular grind yellow cornmeal to make my 1 1/2 cups) and mix with 1/2 cup regular flour. Add to this mixture 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar, and combine all the dry ingredients really well. In another bowl, mix 1 egg really well with 1 1/2 cups buttermilk or yogurt. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ones, just until combined without overbeating it. If for some reason it is way too dry, you can add a drizzle of milk, but really, don't overmix it or it will get tough. Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter (or bacon grease!) in a cast iron skillet in an oven preheated to 375 degrees. When the cast iron is hot and the butter is melted, pour in your cornbread batter. Bake it for 30 minutes, cut it into wedges and enjoy.Sometimes, like this last time, I add 1/4 cup of shredded pepperjack cheese (or cheddar or whatever) into the dry ingredients before I stir the wet ones in. Then I add another sprinkle of shredded cheese on top before it goes in the oven. Also delicious are diced jalapenos or other peppers, or corn kernels, or really whatever you like in your cornbread.