April 30, 2012

Game-changer, Tip #4: Not Complex, Just {Compound} Butter

Growing up, I detested cold, raw, hard butter. I never buttered my bread. It was like biting into tasteless chunks of cold fat. I think my butter-loving gene went to my youngest brother, because he had a long-time love affair with butter and ate enough for the both of us. Knowing it wasn't socially acceptable to eat butter with a fork, he used bread as a vehicle to ingest butter. He piled it on his bread, gradually pecked away at it, and when none remained, spread more butter on same piece of bread and continued this process, careful never to get a mouthful of actual bread. Until someone {probably bossy older sister, aka me} yelled at him to stop from the other side of the table.

Don't worry about my brother's cholesterol or the lack of butter in my life - he grew out of that stage and I have since seen the light. To have survived a classical French culinary training, life in both France and Ireland, and come out on the other end not obsessed with butter would have been an impossible task. But butter is different in Europe. Without a doubt, it's creamier, a dose more salty and just more flavorful overall. Butter is often not refrigerated in Europe, rendering it always spreadable and never at danger of ripping your bread to shreds. The chilly temperature of the fridge is a common flavor-killer - lots of foods would be better enjoyed if taken from the fridge and allowed to warm, just slightly, enough to get rid of the chill. That way, rather than just tasting cold, you are able to enjoy the actual flavors of the food.

This is true for butter as well. Do your own experiment if you don't believe me. Take a small knob of butter out of your fridge and leave it out until it is room temperature. Spread that on a piece of room temperature bread. Taste it. Then take a cold slice of butter from your fridge and {try to} spread that on a piece of room temperature bread. Taste it. Which better highlights the flavor of the actual butter?

Allowing butter to live in a butter dish on your counter has added benefits beyond constant spreadability and better flavor. When room temperature, it is easily turned into compound butter, which is a fancy term for flavored butter. It might be an old-school technique, but making compound butter is definitely a game-changer.

Picture, if you will, a dollop of roasted garlic compound butter added to the top of a still-hot-from-the-grill steak, its melted, sweet, garlicky goodness spilling down the sides, permeating the steak for ultimate flavor. Try putting a dish of chive butter on the table next time you serve mashed or baked potatoes. What about orange butter for your Sunday morning pancakes? Take a welcomed break from the monotonous and spread cinnamon butter on your weekday morning toast. All you need is room temperature salted butter and your choice of herbs, spices or aromatics - the list of possibilities limited only by your imagination.

Recently, having gotten pretty sick of listening to myself talk about doing it, I finally decided to start growing herbs in our apartment. I have to say, beyond the obvious culinary benefits of having fresh herbs at my disposal, my mini herb garden has proven a thrifty way to decorate our place. Yesterday, I had my first "harvest" of lemon verbena, lemon balm and oregano. Since oregano and lemon are best flavor friends, I went for it and made this delectable compound butter destined for afternoon snacks and a possible roasted-chicken.

What you'll need:
Unsalted butter
Herbs, spices or aromatics
Salt and black pepper

If using herbs, mince them up. If using roasted garlic, turn it into a paste. If using raw garlic, shallots, ginger, etc, I recommend grating them directly into the butter to better disseminate the flavor throughout. If using citrus zest, use a microplaner.
In a bowl, add flavoring of choice, salt and pepper to the room temperature butter, gently folding the seasoning so as not to overwork it. You can also do this in the bowl of a stand mixer, using the ladle attachment on low speed.
Reshape by filling a ramekin or other mold and allow to chill slightly, if you'd like. Or you can try wrapping it tightly with plastic wrap or wax paper, and molding it into a long cylindrical log, like you would with cookie dough. If you allow it to chill in the freezer for a short while, you can slice the butter easily and arrange on a plate. {Remember to let it come back up to room temp before using it!}

April 27, 2012

No-Guilt Avocado Toast

Making an effort to eat locally and seasonally is often a source of debate around here. Damien devours bananas. Carrie devours avocados. We are very good at rationalizing why this is ok.

Mainly, it's fruit that causes the issue. (Yes, avocado is technically a fruit.) The honest truth is that, we're only human, and sometimes we just want to eat a mango. We still try our best to be conscientious consumers - for example, only the other day I bought bags of frozen fruit for the first time. Harvested at their peak and then frozen, they're a great way to eat berries all year round, minus the guilt.

It's not like I fill a basket with pineapples galore every time I go shopping, but, there are some fruits that I just can't quit, and for which there is no frozen solution. Enter the avocado. So unlike any other fruit or veggie out there, it's irreplaceable. Not to mention, full of the beneficial fats that we should be eating. Just like its fruit comrades, it's chock full of vitamins and fiber and other good-for-us stuff that we just shouldn't ignore. And so - I ask you - in a world where there is just so much over-processed, dubious food for sale - do we really have to give up healthy fruit too? I think no. Just be mindful.

On a birthday-breakfast jaunt this week, a dear friend took me to one of her favorite spots, Iris Cafe in Brooklyn Heights. Simple and laid-back, they are doing everything right. I had the avocado toast with a soft-boiled egg and I can tell you that it was mind-blowing and that I've been thinking about it ever since.
All I keep thinking is, why didn't I think of that? 

And so for lunch today, I had to recreate my own version. My take is very similar to the one they serve up at the cafe, except where they give the toast a schmear of dijon mayo, I substituted just dijon mustard. Straight up. It offers a welcome spicy kick that cuts through the fattiness of the avocado and runny egg yolk. It's super easy and satisfying - perfect for a lazy weekend breakfast/brunch/lunch/snack.

What you'll need:
1 avocado, ripe
1 slice of toast
1 egg
A schmear of dijon mustard
salt and cracked black pepper

Get your room temperature egg into a pot of cold water. Bring to a boil and when it simmers, turn the heat off - leaving the lid on the pot and the egg sitting in the water for 4 minutes for soft boil, 6-7 minutes for medium boil and 10-11 minutes for hard boil.

Remove and run under cold water to stop the cooking, especially important for soft boil. Peel the shell gingerly- so as not to break through the egg. {tip: peel the egg while it is submerged in cold water, it helps get the shell off}

Cut the avocado in half, removing the flesh and smashing it in a bowl to create a rough-mash. Season with salt and black pepper.

On your toast, slather with dijon mustard, and then a layer of the mashed avocado. Top with a sprinkling of salt and black pepper.

Crack open the egg on the same plate, so that the yolk runs into the avocado toast. Season.

More tips:
Its a good idea, whenever you are boiling eggs, to start them at room temp. It helps ensure that they cook evenly and they are much less likely to crack while cooking.
A ripe avocado gives slightly when you press firmly into its skin - and the bit of stem still attached comes off quite easily.

April 25, 2012

Game-changer, Tip #3: Parmesan Rinds are Flavor Gold

This tip is short and sweet. You know that wedge of Parmigiano-reggiano that you've been grating away at for the last month or so? Once it gets down to a seemingly worthless nub, don't throw it out! That little end piece still has lots to offer. Parm rinds are flavor gold and using them to boost your soups, stews and sauces is a game-changer.

The concept is quite simple - drop that rind into whatever you've got bubblin' away on the stove for an added flavor extravaganza. The same soups, stews or sauces you might think of topping with a hit of Parmesan cheese are good contenders for the rind move. It offers an earthy undertone and a subtle cheese flavor that will have you hoarding cheese rinds and shocked that you ever disposed of them.

The weather the last few days had really been getting to me. Even though yesterday was half-decent, I was just not appreciating that nip in the air. I wanted to curl up with soup. Something warming to envelop my soul and transport me from my weather (and birthday) blues. I took to the stove and concocted this white bean and potato soup with parmesan, topped with beautiful greenmarket spring onions that I crisped up along with bacon bits. It's got comfort written all over it.

You'll need:
Potatoes, 4 or 5 large, peeled and diced into large chunks
White beans (cannellini beans), 2 cups (pre-soaked)
Stock, 6 cups
Bacon, 5 or 6 slices, diced into thin strips
Parmesan rind, 1
Spring onions, 4 or 5 onions diced
Garlic cloves, 3 or 4 crushed
Fresh parsley, 1 handful
Red chili flakes, 1 or 2 pinches
Bay leaf, 1
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper

In a large stock pot, combine the beans, stock, bay leaf, chili flakes, garlic cloves and parmesan rind.
Allow to simmer on medium-low heat until the beans begin to tenderize.
Season with salt and pepper.
Add the peeled, diced potatoes and chopped fresh parsley.

In a separate nonstick pan, fry the bacon bits until brown and crispy.
Remove bacon, leaving the rendered fat in the pan. Use that same bacon fat to fry the chopped spring onions until crispy and golden.
Remove from pan with a slotted spoon and place on paper towel to drain excess fat.

Once the potatoes and beans are cooked, taste and adjust seasoning.
Remove the Parm rind and bay leaf from the pot.
Ladle soup into bowls and top with a generous sprinkling of crispy bacon and spring onions.

April 24, 2012

Cooking in the 3rd Degree - Mustard Greens

I was watching The Good Wife last night and I got to thinking that there are degrees of cooking, the same way there are degrees of crimes. I will never be accused of cooking in the 1st degree. I very rarely premeditate the execution of a dish. I almost never decide what to make by looking at a cookbook first. Recipes usually come from a sweep of the fridge or pantry and a look at what's hanging out at the market. This is my favorite way to cook. So I guess I'm usually more guilty of cooking in the 3rd degree. I cannot describe the feeling of extreme satisfaction that overcomes me when I realize that I have accidentally stockpiled ingredients that happen to be magic together, and that I can combine said ingredients in a dish that sings. 

This is a story about just such a moment. I went to the greenmarket and grabbed mustard greens because, well, I can't remember the last time I used them and because, like all leafy greens, they are just so dang good for you. They are coming to the end of their season and so I figured I'd give 'em a shot before they disappear. Plus they looked crisp and bright and ready to be eaten. I grabbed those greens without thinking about what I would do with them. I grabbed those greens in a moment of passion.

I got those greens home and thought - ok, now that I've got them in my grips, what do I do with them? This is the moment when I do sometimes get nervous. Was I too rash? Will my spur-of-the-moment purchase be more hassle than it was worth? Will I have to go back to the store to get supplementary goods in order to make this ingredient shine? I trolled the internet for a bit and found a recipe from Martha Stewart for pasta with caramelized onions and bitter greens. Ding ding ding. We had a winner. I had garlic, onions, pasta and veggie broth at my disposal. It was destiny. You know when you are paying for something and you go digging in your wallet or pocket and find that you actually have the perfect amount of change for the purchase you are making - and you feel like, wow - I was meant to buy this. Well, that's how I felt when I realized that I happened to have all of the ingredients I needed for this dish, and that I was going to be able to make good use of the pile of onions that had been patiently lying in wait on my counter for some time.

Mustard greens transform when cooked, mellowing out as they wilt. If you chew on a raw leaf you get a very spicy kick in the mouth and you rapidly realize that it is not from the wind that mustard greens get their name. Mustard greens come from the same plant as mustard seeds. Mustard seeds are used whole and crushed in curries and also to make mustard, as in, the condiment. So spice you will get, especially when they are raw. However, in some respects, this pasta dish that pairs the spicy greens with sweet caramelized onions is genius. Normally, caramelized onions, alone, would be far too sweet for pasta - but when paired with the greens, they harmonize and strike a balance. I would never have thought of this unlikely pair in a pasta dish - I truly couldn't have done better if I had planned it. And so I stand accused of cooking in the 3rd, and if a successful dish is the evidence, then I am definitely guilty.

Recipe adapted from Pasta with Caramelized Onions and Bitter Greens at Marthastewart.com 

What you'll need:
Mustard greens, one bunch
Onions, 3 large
Garlic cloves, 3 or 4 large ones
Veggie broth, 4 cups
Pasta, 1 pound
Olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of the pan
Sugar, 1 tsp.
Salt and fresh black pepper

Coat the bottom of your pan with olive oil. Do not use non-stick, if possible, because you are looking for some brown bits of oniony goodness to stick to the bottom of the pan. They are full of flavor and will add body to your sauce.
Thinly slice the onions and crush your garlic cloves, leaving the garlic almost whole. Add both the onions and the garlic to the oil in the pan to saute. 
Add the sugar to help the caramelization along. 
Really leave the onions alone in that pan - let them do their thing. The more you stir them, the longer it'll take for them to achieve the level of caramelization you're looking for. 
Boil the pasta in salted water. Do not cook it completely - cook it only for a few minutes, you will finish cooking it in the sauce.
Once the onions have gotten sufficiently brown and sweet looking, turn the heat up a bit and add your veggie stock. Scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper. 
Drain your undercooked pasta and add it to the pan with the onions and broth. Give it a mix to coat the pasta in the broth.
Add the greens and cover the pan for a couple of minutes - just to help wilt the greens.
The goal is for the pasta to finish cooking in the broth, absorbing it and helping to flavor the pasta. 
Once the pasta is al dente, the dish is done. 
Check and adjust seasoning. 

April 20, 2012


I challenge you to find a dessert more regal than Madeleines.

Their scalloped shell-shape invokes images of a crown. Their dainty size perfect for two graceful bites. Gently lifted from a stand at teatime, by fingers covered in white gloves. An elegantly classic genoise cake batter, carefully filled with air and light as a feather. It’s all very Marie Antoinette.

Except it’s not really. Apparently it was her grandfather-in-law. Their true moment of inception is debatable, there are a few legends surrounding the origins of the Madeleine. My favorite story is that in the 1700's, in Commercy, a small town in Lorraine, the Duke of Lorraine's cook needed to be replaced. Under what circumstances, I’m not too sure, but his brave maid stepped in and was told to prepare pastries for a royal banquet. Talk about trial by fire. So this maid, Madeleine, whipped up lots of these distinctive shell-shaped goodies for the guests. Everyone enjoyed them, the Duke, aka Louis XVI's grandfather, was pleased and decided to call these delights after maid Madeleine. How very generous of him. I mean - it was her recipe and handiwork after all. They soon became all the rage in Versailles and I'm sure were a delicacy eventually feasted upon by Marie Antoinette herself. She was known to indulge in a sweat treat or two.

Madeleines are baked in a unique pan lined with shell-shaped molds. This pan, dedicated only to making Madeleines, is perhaps the only piece of kitchen equipment I own that has such a singular function. It is worth the purchase, I got mine at my go-to kitchen store. The pan does all of the hard work, by virtue of its molding, which produces a pastry that seems infinitely more fancy and complicated than it is. 

The goal is for a lightly browned exterior that when bitten into reveals a pale-yellow, pillowy interior. Often dusted with icing sugar and sometimes dipped in chocolate, Madeleines are often incorrectly referred to as cookies. They are a cake. Spongy and cake-like, you know it the moment you take your first bite. 

Classically, these cakes might be flavored lightly with almond or lemon. Always living on the edge, I went with orange. But I think it would be alright to bend the rules and play with even more unconventional flavors too, like cardamom or fennel seed, which could be steeped in your melted butter to impart the essence of the spices. Or maybe even grapefruit for the citrus, or hazelnut as a play on the almond classic. Once you have the basic batter down, it's up to you how you fancy it up. 

You'll need:
eggs, 2
butter, 1/2 cup melted and cooled, plus more for greasing molds
powdered sugar, 1 cup
baking powder, 1 tsp
one orange, all of its zest and 2 Tbsp of its juice
flour, 2/3 cup, plus more for dusting molds

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.
Generously butter your molds - use your fingers to get into all the nooks and crannies. 
Lightly dust the molds with flour and shake off the excess.

In a large bowl add the eggs, sugar and orange juice. Using a hand mixer, or whisking by hand, beat on high speed for 4-5 minutes, to incorporate lots of air.
Slowly temper the batter by adding the melted butter bit by bit, while beating - this is to prevent curdling. Once all the butter is added, whisk with the hand mixer for another 3-4 minutes until the batter is thick.
Sift the flour and baking powder together in a small bowl.
Fold the flour mixture into the wet ingredients. 
Add the orange zest and mix until the batter is smooth.
Using a large tablespoon, fill the buttered and floured molds about 3/4's full.

Bake in the oven for around 8-10 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned.
Remove and allow to cool.
Dust the golden brown, scalloped side with powdered sugar.

Now that you've invited your friends around to show them off, let them eat cake.

April 17, 2012

Bringin' Jerky Back

No one is a bigger proponent of making things from scratch. But, there are some foodstuffs that will most likely never be a product of my kitchen and beef jerky is one of those things.

It's not because I have a thing against jerky. Au contraire. I like jerky a lot. It might be my salt addiction, or my respect for a snack that eats like a meal. (It's essentially slices of steak that you can bring with you - everywhere). The reason I don't make it is that sometimes things are best left to the experts. The cost-benefit ratio of producing jerky at home just wouldn't be worth it. It takes lots of time, equipment I don't have, copious amounts of beef. I would much prefer to purchase my jerky ready-made.

I know that you are probably shocked. I'm not advocating that we all go out and snap into Slim-Jims - because that unknown conglomeration of 'meat'-trimmings is a meat stick and not the jerky to which I refer. But, I am suggesting that it's time for the real beef jerky to please stand up and start commanding a bit of respect.

Like it or not, jerky is a big part of this nation's food heritage. Dehydration is a form of preservation. Think of it as canning's much older brother. The idea is age old. Once all of the moisture is removed from meat, or fruits and veggies for that matter, it's shelf-life is naturally extended. In the case of jerky, it also means the creation of a protein-filled snack that packs light and travels well. Native-Americans air-dried a variety of meats on racks, flavoring it with spice rubs. Spanish Conquistadors were doing the same thing out at sea. When they arrived here, they were calling it 'charqui.' Later-to-arrive Europeans quickly caught on and so 'jerky' was born.

When I think about the real beef jerky, I conjure up images of covered wagons, the Oregon Trail and old Clint Eastwood westerns. Jerky was the answer - high in protein, very low in fat, durable and portable. Always available - it required nothing but the fresh meat from your last hunt, any spices that happened to be on hand, the sun and the smoke from a fire. What's not to respect about that?

When I think jerky now, I think artificial preservatives, additives, flavor enhancers to make it taste like smoke, ground and reshaped "beef' from who-knows-where. It saddens me that a food with a long and strong history has had such a fall from grace. Mass-produced jerky as we know it is a no-no in my book, so I had to divorce myself from my love for jerky. It just didn't jive with my desire to eat locally and sustainably.

You can imagine my delight at Smorgasburg last weekend when I came across a Brooklyn-based, artisanal jerky producer using only locally-sourced, grass-fed beef.

Kings County Jerky Co. offers 3 flavors of artisanal jerky: Classic, Korean BBQ and Sichuan Ginger. With no artificial additives or flavorings - they are the real deal. I tasted all three and left with the Sichuan Ginger flavor, which packs a powerful punch of ginger and Sichuan spices, like star anise, tamari and sichuan peppercorns.

Thank you, Kings County Jerky Co., for bringing jerky back.

April 13, 2012

My Hero

Well, maybe it's not actually a hero - I guess it all depends on where you're from. Wedge, hoagie, hero, grinder. A rose by any other name smells as sweet. Some might argue the same is true with sandwiches. Call it what you will, but this is my hero. And here is the story of our relationship.

I spent quite a bit of my childhood growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. And 5th Avenue in Bay Ridge is the home to A&S pork store. 77th street was my home. Whenever we needed cold cuts, cheese, sausage or any meat for cooking we went to A&S. One of the few errands on which I didn't mind tagging along.

We walked through the door and across the sawdust laden floor, greeted the butchers in their white coats, took a number and waited. And I would paw my way across their display case, examining all of their wares, leaving grubby fingerprints in my trail across the glass. It was in these moments that I first clapped eyes on delicacies like rice balls, marinated and cracked Sicilian olives loaded with fennel seeds and celery, chicken rollatini, beef and pork braciole waiting to be cooked low and slow in a meat sauce. Once I hit the end of the display case, I ran into the freezers. Behind their half-steamed glass doors I glanced at boxes of ravioli and prepared tomato sauces before spinning around to grab a couple of boxes of pasta off the shelves that lined the back wall, to throw into my mom's basket.

We always walked away with the same goods. One of each, hot and sweet, dried soppressata, sliced. Butcher paper layered with almost-transparent slices of prosciutto, sliced delicately thin. One ball of fresh mozzarella, salted of course. One small container of each: vinegar peppers, cracked olives, marinated mushrooms, and stuffed cherry peppers, the ones with the bread crumbs. On top of that, there were always various orders placed for chicken and sausages and beef for dinner - but to that I paid no mind because I was waiting for my inevitable "taster-slices." Tastes of what we had just ordered. From over the counter would come first a slice of soppressata for me to chew on. This was almost certainly followed by a slice of prosciutto and then maybe an olive or a mushroom. In those moments, I was supremely important. In charge of tasting the goods to check their quality. It only left me wanting more.

Which is what I got.
Back at home, I eagerly watched my mom break into those A&S bags for our lunch. I knew it was coming - my hero. A really fresh Italian roll. Cut in half and topped with mozzarella, rounds of pepper-dotted soppressata, crunchy, tangy vinegar peppers and a slightly spicy stuffed cherry pepper sliced in half on top. I smushed it all down before taking a bite - the marinated pepper oils running down my chin and the roll's sesame seeds scattering all over the table. Maybe a glass of Orangina on the side. Nothing was better.

When we moved from Bay Ridge to White Plains, my hero still managed to show up. My mom found an A&S in Westchester. Sometimes, she even makes a trip to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. No matter where we were, my hero was never too far.

Now, in Carroll Gardens, I make two quick stops to get the goods. Both on Court Street. Caputo's is an Italian bakery that has been open for 110 years. I buy a bag of 6 rolls for $2.00. Talk about a deal. You can't even get a pack of gum for $2.00 in NYC. Then, I saunter down a block to Esposito's Pork store, open since 1922, and fill my bag with containers of vinegar peppers, soppressata and mozzarella. I no longer get any taster-slices, but I also don't make a ring with my mouth and blow air on the glass display cases either, so I guess some things do change. But my hero always remains the same.

I have to thank my dear friend, Erin Boyle, for the snaps below. You can find more of her eye-catching work over at her blog - reading my tea leaves - I highly recommend a visit.

April 12, 2012

Game-changer, Tip #2: Make your own salad dressing

Homemade salad dressing will transform your salads and your pantry. All of those seemingly fancy or difficult-to-make vinaigrettes in restaurants can be on the table at your house too. Getting in the habit of whipping up your own dressings is worth it. It's a cooking game-changer.

I know what you're thinking. Why make your own when you can grab that bottle with the attractive label that sits on the supermarket shelf and contains lots of salad dressing awaiting your consumption? The first reason is actually about 10 reasons - the ingredients listed on the back of that bottle. Depending on which brand is your go-to, that dressing with which you just doused your once-fresh-and-healthy-salad is probably loaded with sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup, amongst other various emulsifiers, additives and preservatives designed to make it last for-ev-er. Plus - isn't it kind of depressing when you peer inside your fridge and see the door lined with 15 half-used bottles of salad dressing? Take back your fridge and think of all the money you will save in the process. Money not spent on pre-made dressings can be instead used to fill your pantry with other multi-tasking ingredients, like oils and a variety of vinegars. It's greener to make your own salad dressing too - less waste in the form of empty jars and bottles. See? Good for your wallet, good for your health, good for the earth. The benefits are endless.

We live in an age ruled by convenience and buying salad dressing is nothing if not convenient. But, equipped with the right tools (read: a mason jar) and a little know-how about the basics of salad dressing science, you'll soon see endless salad dressing possibilities in your basic fridge and pantry ingredients.

Bear with me here - I promise this is as mathematical as I get. Here's the very basic equation:
1 part acid + 3 parts fat + some salt and pepper.

So for a quick lunch vinaigrette:
1 Tbsp. vinegar of choice + 3 Tbsp. olive oil + salt and pepper. Whisk it together. Boom - you've already made salad dressing.

A classic French vinaigrette uses the same ratio, but also standardly includes dijon mustard and a shallot. It's a great staple to have on hand, because like most salad dressings, they can be called on for double-duty as a meat or fish marinade. Seeing as how it's so versatile, maybe you want to make a lot of this basic French vinaigrette and have it on hand for the next week or two:
1/2 cup white wine vinegar +
1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil +
salt and pepper +
a tsp of dijon mustard +
1 minced shallot
Put it all in mason jar, shake it up, stick in the fridge. Done.

Now for the exciting part. This is where it gets fancy. Acid doesn't just mean vinegar. Why not use fresh citrus juice instead? Lemons, limes, grapefruits, oranges - all will happily oblige.

It's not just the vinegars that can be switched in and out (sherry, cider, champagne, rice wine, balsamic) there's also an endless array of oils (walnut, peanut, hazelnut, sesame) just waiting to be paired with a nice bit of acid.

Or, how about making a WARM dressing for your next spinach salad - use the bacon fat left in the pan instead of oil!

Add fresh herbs to the mix. Add minced garlic, shallot, ginger.

One of my favorites is this cider vinegar and tarragon dressing. Get a wide mouthed mason jar and throw in:
1/2 cup cider vinegar +
1 cup extra virgin olive oil +
2 cloves garlic  +
1 tsp of dijon mustard +
1 sprig of fresh tarragon, leaves only +
salt and pepper
With a little help from my trusty hand blender, I whiz it all up, right in the jar. No mess and the dressing is ready for duty. No hand blender? No worries. Here's your chance to break out that food processor that you never use. Or if you have a mortar and pestle, first smash up the chunkier ingredients, like herbs, capers, garlic and shallots and then shake it all up with the remaining ingredients in a clean jar. For all of these dressings, a basic whisk fueled by good ole' fashioned elbow grease will suffice, but it is more difficult to achieve an emulsion - which is fancy talk for getting the oil and vinegar to combine and stay that way. A bit of mustard does help the emulsion along. I like the shaking in a jar because it's fast and vigorous enough to achieve an emulsion without breaking your arm off with the whisk.

Hopefully, you get the idea. Once you become a vinaigrette aficionado you can start to experiment with your own flavors and ratios. For example, since I like acidic dressings with real bite, I tend to go easy on the oil resulting in dressings that are closer to 1 part acid + 2 parts fat.

No need to reinvent the wheel, either. Although the ingredient list on standard store-bought dressings can leave a lot to be desired, the basic flavor combinations might be on point. So it's not like you have to give up your favorite dressing - just "borrow" the flavors as inspiration. Honey and mustard. Orange with ginger. Garlic and balsamic. Oregano and feta with red wine vinegar.

So, what are you waiting for? Get experimenting! In case you need a little nudge, here's a lemon and caper vinaigrette that I like for everything from drizzling over grilled asparagus or stuffed artichokes, to dressing a simple arugula or escarole salad, to using as a quick fish marinade.
I recently read an article featuring Chef April Bloomfield's lemon-caper dressing on Food 52 - and she leaves whole lemon bits and whole capers in the dressing, which is an option too.

Lemon and caper vinaigrette:
The juice and zest of one lemon +
3 times that in extra virgin olive oil +
1 large garlic or shallot +
1 tsp dijon mustard +
salt and pepper +
1 heaping teaspoon of whole capers

Using a hand blander, puree it all together.

Using a mortar and pestle - crush up the capers and shallot/garlic and lemon zest. Add that to a jar with the remaining ingredients and shake, shake, shake.

Using a food processor - combine all of the ingredients, save the oil, in the bowl of the processor. Pulse a few times to chop - then on low to medium speed, drizzle the oil through the lid.

Using a whisk? You know the drill.

April 11, 2012

Dinner on the Cheap: Pasta e Ceci (Pasta and Chickpeas)

Pasta e ceci - it's got a great ring to it - it's so fun to say. Ceci, pronounced cheh-chee, is Italian for chickpeas, aka garbanzo beans. Such a small bean with so many names. Pasta with chickpeas is right up my alley. I cook this dish, or a derivation, at least once every couple of weeks. If I were a pasta dish, I would want to be pasta e ceci. It's got everything going for it. Rustic and simple and comforting, full of flavor and vitamins, and the icing on the cake - it gets dinner on the table, with very little effort, for less than seven or eight bucks.

With strong roots as a peasant dish in Italy and Sicily, pasta e ceci traditionally could have been made, in some regions, with broken bits of mismatched pasta shapes. The local pasta maker might sell mixed bags of pasta - a hodge-podge of whatever was left or broken. You can make your own mix by saving broken pasta or the dregs of bags that weren't completely used. Or you can just go with one type of pasta, such as ditalini or gemelli. This dish is supposed to make your life easy - so use whatever you have on hand.

I have vivid memories from when I was only a wee Brooklynite, eating a variation of this dish with lentils instead of chickpeas. I can still see my best friend's mother breaking up dried spaghetti into smaller, uneven lengths and adding the broken bits directly to the sauce. The spaghetti fragments soaking up the excess liquid, producing a risotto-like starchiness that I adored. I lived up the block from my cousins and this was a staple dish in their house. My love affair with pasta and chickpeas might very well have started at my aunt's table. I think my aunt prefers to use canned chickpeas - which is totally acceptable and, actually, will get this dish cooked in a jiffy, making it an even more perfect choice for a quick and nutritious weeknight dinner option.

At it's most basic - pasta e ceci requires four ingredients: pasta, chickpeas (dried or canned), garlic and fresh parsley. It can be progressively "complicated" if you'd like, with the inclusion of chili flakes, olive oil, onion and celery, rosemary instead of parsley, stock instead of water, even crushed tomatoes. And although this is a winner for vegetarian and Meatless Monday dinner ideas - pancetta or bacon lardons can bring a lot to the party with hints of smoke and salt, contributing even more depth.

There are infinite variations, each achieved with a different legume. Don't particularly like chickpeas, or maybe you don't have them on hand? No worries - use cannellini beans, lentils, even peas. Once you have the backbone of this recipe down, you can experiment by adding other herbs or veggies that you have in the fridge, like greens or potatoes. Add more liquid and you've made a hearty soup. Depending on how you make it, this recipe can evolve into what I call a fridge-clearer.

A forkful of this dish conjures up warm childhood memories so I stick to the basics to make sure I can relish in my moment. I do always add chili flakes though (a tendency I have) and top it all of with a nice whack of grated Parmesan cheese. The end result is filling and delightful and comforting and healthy - and the best of all, it leaves me with enough money to buy a bottle of wine and enough time to enjoy it.

What you'll need for 4 or 5 hungry eaters:
Dried chickpeas, 2 cups
Pasta, 1lb of whatever you've got
Garlic cloves, 4 or 5 big ones
Fresh parsley, a generous handful, roughly chopped
Chili flakes, a pinch or two
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper

I most often use dried beans so that I don't have to worry about the added sodium or starch, or even sometimes sugars, found in canned beans. Not to mention that dried beans are perhaps the best bang for your buck in the whole of the market. There's eating for days in one of the pre-packaged, one pound bags and they are super affordable - even more so when you buy in the bulk-bin section, which is what I try to do.

No need to fear the dried bean - just soak them in twice as much water overnight. Drain and put the soaked beans in your pot with new water - enough to cover by a few inches - and a few cloves of garlic. Let it simmer away, partially covered, for about an hour and a half, maybe two hours. Chop your parsley for later, but then you can kick up your feet.

Remember, don't add salt to either the soaking water or the cooking water. Adding salt inhibits the tenderizing process for beans and will produce a cooked bean that still feels and tastes somewhat firm and dry. I wait until my beans are about three-quarters of the way cooked before I add seasoning.

Once your beans have simmered for 90 mins to 2 hrs, use a potato masher to give the beans a good smash. This will thicken the sauce a bit and give you a moment to release some workday stress. Some folks puree the beans completely, while others leave them whole. I like to mash 'em by hand so that I retain a smattering of whole beans amongst the crushed ones.

Add half of your chopped parsley and a pinch or two of chili flakes and taste for seasoning.

At this point, there should be enough cooking liquid in the pot to comfortably cook your broken spaghetti bits, or your pasta shape of choice. If there isn't, fear not - simply add 2 more cups of water or veggie stock and bring it back up to a boil. Drop in your pasta and let it cook. The goal is for the pasta to be cooked al dente, while not having an overly dry dish. So, don't hesitate to get in there with a bit more water if the pasta isn't quite cooked, but the dish seems a bit dry.

Add some more fresh chopped parsley, taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Serve it with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan cheese if you've got it.

April 6, 2012

"Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies"

Inside at McSorley's

The other night my husband and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. We lovingly strolled around the city, looking forward to our 8:30 reservation at Gramercy Tavern. But the problem with walking around so much, pre-dinner, is that one might work up a bit of an appetite that, if not quelled, would equate to being half-starved by the time one sat down to eat. I had visions of sitting down and devouring slice of bread after slice of bread and filling my stomach with dough before I could delight in all of Chef Michael Anthony's tantalizing creations.

So, with time on our side and a slight grumble in our bellies, we stepped into McSorley's Old Ale House. I know what you're thinking. First wedding anniversary plus Gramercy Tavern should not equal pre-gaming at McSorley's. Sawdust on the floor and beer foaming over the top of mugs do not necessarily scream romance or special occasion. However, as many of you know by now, my husband is from Ireland and we lived there for some time and so spending time in pubs brimming with charm is something we are no strangers to - our relationship history is quite filled with pubs like this and we love them and so we did not bat an eye.

Anyone who has been there knows that stepping into McSorley's means stepping through a portal into old time New York. The pictures and carvings and documents on the walls, the sawdust on the floor, the bar with no stools, the choice of only 2 types of ale: dark or light. It is as though we had been transported back in time. Damien, a newly emmigrated Irishman and Carrie, his New Yorker lady, enjoying a beer in what could have been 1880. It was altogether romantic. Until it dawned on me. That never could have happened. Women were not welcome to so much as cast a shadow on the doorstep of McSorley's until 1970. And until then, one of McSorley's well known mottoes was, "Good ale, raw onions and no ladies." Well, I never.

With lots of time before dinner, we sat down for a bit of gnosh. A cheese plate - two choices of course - American or cheddar. A large plate filled with slices of standard, processed-looking, white Cheddar, topped with a slew of sliced, raw onions, was set before us along with a half-sleeve of saltine crackers. The waiter pointed to the crock of mustard already on the table, as if to say, "what more could you want," and walked away. I have to admit, at that moment, I was a wee bit confused. Raw onions? I didn't get it. In Ireland, many pubs have toasted sandwiches or "toasties" on offer - usually cheese and ham and onion. Simple, grilled sandwiches that warm and fill your belly - perfect accompaniments to good beer. Those, I could get on board with. Raw onions and sweaty cheese on a plate, not so sure. I picked up a cracker, loaded it with spicy mustard, layered on a slice of cheddar and topped it with a slice of onion and - it could have been my hunger - but it was delightful. It was crunchy and salty and spicy and peppery and creamy. And with a sip of my light ale and my number one guy next to me - I couldn't have been more satisfied.

Cheese plate at McSorley's. And beer.
Toasted cheese and onion sandwiches in Ireland. Raw onions and mustard and cheese in McSorley's. Cultures the world over know that beer, cheese and mustard are best friends, so if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Ok, so the presentation isn't great, but if you can get past that and appreciate the basic flavors and ingredients then it's further proof that simple, traditional flavors almost never disappoint. And so, instead of going to Gramercy Tavern, we sat at McSorley's and ate cheese and onions all night. Just kidding! Of course we went to Gramercy Tavern and it. was. great.

First Anniversary Grilled Cheese, inspired by Damien and McSorley's Ale House

Because this is such a simple, straightforward meal, the key is making sure you get some quality raw ingredients to start with. I used a bright red onion, instead of a white one, because I like its sharp and sweet flavor, and also because it's color adds a little somethin' somethin' to this dish. 

I picked up a sharp NY cheddar and a freshly baked, crusty country loaf from my local bakery.

You'll need:
salted butter
good cheddar (or cheese of choice)
a few thin slices of onion
a couple of slices of bread

Start by melting 1 Tbsp of salted butter in a nonstick pan over medium-low heat.
Butter one side of a slice of bread and place it in the pan - buttered side down - letting it toast.
Once it starts to turn golden, add a generous layer of sliced cheddar. I top my pan with a lid at this stage, to promote melting and keep some moisture in there to prevent burning.
After the cheese has melted a bit, add thinly sliced onions and another slice of bread.
You might have to add another knob of butter to the pan if it looks too dry.
Flip your sandwich and let the other side toast.
Remove from pan, slice it up and serve with a dollop of spicy dijon mustard. I serve it on the side because I'm a big fan of dipping into the mustard.

If it's after 5pm, enjoy with an ice cold beer of choice. (It doesn't really need to be after 5)

April 5, 2012

Game-changer, Tip #1: Roasted Garlic

Roasted garlic is manna from heaven. It is easily achieved and having it in your arsenal means you can transform a multitude of humdrum dishes into something special. Dishes with a little je ne sais quoi. It's simple and it's a cooking game-changer.

It is one of the rare treats in life for which minimal effort is required, but there is maximum payoff. After it has roasted, you will find garlic transformed - the roasting process condenses all of its natural sweetness and rids the garlic of any bite or hint of spice, leaving you with the creamy, flavor-engorged cloves that are are certain to breathe new life into your most played out dishes. One caveat to keep in mind is that even though this garlic plus roasting equation leaves you with a sweeter product, it also means that the garlic flavor becomes milder. Therefore, adding just a few cloves of roasted garlic to a dish, as you might when it's raw, does you no good. In terms of roasted garlic quantities, think more in heads than cloves - depending on what your making, one or two whole bulbs of garlic should usually suffice.

The added bonus is that while it's roasting, you can look forward to what flavors are to come, but you are instantly gratified by the aroma that wafts through your kitchen. And if you live in a NYC apartment like mine, then it'll waft through your bedroom, living room and bathroom too.

Roasted garlic seems luxurious. Maybe it's because I already hold raw garlic in such high esteem, that roasted garlic is almost too good to be true. If garlic is the princess then roasted garlic is the queen. And so I ask you, which of your friends wouldn't be impressed with a roasted garlic aioli? Or delighted to be served your homemade roasted garlic butter? You can add roasted garlic to your pizza, homemade pasta, make roasted garlic hummus, infuse a cream sauce with roasted garlic, whip up a batch of roasted garlic mashed potatoes, experiment with salad dressings, swirl it into a soup, slather it on a hunk of crusty bread, even make cookies? Well, maybe I'd draw the line at cookies, but you get the point.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Dig out a head of garlic.
Cut through the entire bulb at the tip-top, just to expose the flesh of the cloves. I use a bread knife for this step, because the serrated edges cleanly cut through the papery skin, but you can also just use a sharp knife.
Place the garlic on a piece of tin foil  and sprinkle it with salt, cracked black pepper and a smidgeon of olive oil.
Encase the garlic in the tin foil, making a tightly wrapped ball.
Place it in the middle of the oven rack.
(You're going to start smelling that garlic and that's going to make you want to open the oven - but don't do it!)
Wait at least 45 minutes, maybe an hour - depending on how large the head of garlic - and remove it from the oven.
Again, this step requires patience: DO NOT attempt to handle the garlic straight from the oven - I promise, you will burn yourself.
Once it's cool enough to handle, hold it by the root end and either squeeze the softened cloves directly into whatever dish or sauce you are infusing OR to ensure a more even distribution of flavors, I sometimes squeeze the softened cloves onto my cutting board and paste it (read: smush it all together with the back of my knife) - leaving me with silky smooth, roasted garlic paste that I can confidently mix it into my dish, knowing there won't be any lumps or uneven flavor pockets.

I had good intentions of using this roasted garlic for a pasta dish. But, alas, between the smell and my rumbling belly, I could not wait. I found myself in Mazzola bakery purchasing a loaf of olive bread, on which I slathered my roasted garlic paste and ate it all. One slice at a time.