Monday, December 18, 2006

Tasting Club

I met Dina Cheney during the summer of 2005 just as she was beginning work on her first book. Dina is a freelance writer and chocolate tasting host, a graduate of culinary school and a charming, enthusiastic, thoroughly knowledgeable cook. This fall DK published her book Tasting Club, and since then Dina has been on the go sharing the tasting party gospel with harried hosts across the country. Instead of slaving away in the kitchen for hours preparing multiple courses before a dinner party that we will likely be too stressed to enjoy, Dina suggests we throw tasting parties centered on a specific food or drink category. Invite some people over, gather a few varieties of whatever food the party is focused on, eat, discuss and enjoy. Tasting Club is a meticulously researched primer on how to do just that. Each chapter focuses on a different tasting ingredient, from chocolate and apples to olive oil, honey, and cheese. In clear and engaging prose, Dina educates readers about the food they’re about to eat, suggests recipes for accompaniments, and offers tips on what to taste, look and smell for. The photographs are stunning and the book as a whole makes me want to throw a new tasting party every week!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Wishing on a Banana

How many times do most adults taste a new food? Probably fairly rarely. After reading the blog entry below about watching my daughter try her first “solid” food, my friend Christine emailed me to say the story reminded her of a tradition she discovered while working in Russia in her mid-20s. Before tasting a food for the first time, her Russian friends made a wish. Christine had the pleasure of watching one friend make a wish before biting into a banana for the first time.

Naturally, tasting new foods happens more frequently the younger we are. Today, I try foods prepared in unique ways as often as possible. But I can’t remember the last time I tasted an entirely new food – something to strive for.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Magazine that Changed My Life

Cooking Light changed my life. My mother gave me an issue in June 2002 to read on the airplane as I flew home from visiting my parents in Colorado. I opened the magazine as the plane taxied and hardly looked up until I had read the entire issue. The variety of featured ingredients astonished me, and the food in the photographs made my stomach rumble – not something I expected from “light” cuisine. I cornered page after page of recipes to try.

I suppose it is relevant to say here that in my pre-Cooking Light days, I didn’t cook very much and rarely tried anything new. My limited repertoire featured my mother’s (very good) chili, blueberry muffins, pancakes, chicken breasts and vegetables, and a variety of cookies and desserts. If anything, I was a more experienced baker than cook (which is not saying much, however). But I was hungry – a lot – and I lusted after good food.

The first recipe I prepared from that initial issue of Cooking Light was mango salsa, a rough assemblage of scallion, jalapeno pepper, salt, sugar, cilantro, lime and mango. Perfectly simple to prepare and utterly delicious, it was a flavor-popping marriage of sweet and savory extremes. My fate – as a food lover and food magazine fan – was sealed.

Reading the magazine and trying a recipe or two out of it, I began to believe that I could actually make good food myself, as opposed to always having to go out for it. I also evolved into a more adventurous eater, both at home and at restaurants, adding fresh figs, cilantro, and pomegranate molasses to my list of favorite ingredients. These were revelations that changed the texture of my life immeasurably – from where I travel to how I spend my spare time to how I feed my family. My day-to-day existence is simply more of a pleasure than it ever was before.

As noted in an earlier blog entry, my long-term relationship with food magazines is still going strong today. But Cooking Light was my first love. It may not be the most sophisticated of the culinary mags, but it was the one that seduced me first. For that, it will always have a special place in my heart and in my kitchen.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Recipe Roadtest: Parmesan-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon

I have a love of dates that goes back to a 10-day roadtrip through Morocco in 2000. We picked dates off a tree in Skoura and sampled several varieties from the vendors in Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna. We ate the sticky fruit in numerous dishes, and learned to appreciate the different varieties.

I have a love of parmesan cheese that definitely does not date back to my childhood when we ate grated parmesan from the green Kraft canister. My affection, nay, adoration for parmesan, is actually a love of Parmigiano. This appreciation for the genuine article was sparked by my first-generation Italian husband and his immigrant parents.

I have a love of bacon that, really, shouldn’t need to be explained.

So, when I saw the recipe for parmesan-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon in the October 2005 issue of Gourmet three of my culinary stars were aligned. I prepared these little lovelies Saturday night when our friend Nicole came over for dinner. She had looked stricken earlier in the week when I asked her if she might like these as an appetizer. She breathlessly assured me that nothing on earth could sound better. I couldn’t agree more.

We were both rewarded for our anticipation. The gooey Parmigiano oozed into the sweet, sticky dates, while the crisp bacon acted as a smoky, salty counterpoint. I waited nearly a year after seeing this recipe to make the stuffed dates, but I didn’t wait nearly that long to prepare another batch. In fact, we still had leftover ingredients after our dinner party, and the dates were a memorable addition to yesterday’s Labor Day dinner.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A First

We reached a food milestone at our home today – our daughter Rosa ate her first solid food. “Solid” is a bit misleading in this case, as her meal consisted of rice cereal thinned considerably with formula. However, she ate from a spoon, and while she seemed a little unsure about her role in the proceedings, Rosa continued to open her mouth for more after each bite.

Feeding Rosa, I thought about how this is her first step on a long journey. Every food she eats she will taste for the first time. Each flavor and texture will be new to her. She has her whole life ahead of her to be nourished by, delighted by, and obsessed with food – both positively and negatively. If she’s anything like her mother, Rosa will think about food during approximately 75% of her waking existence. Hopefully we can spare her that!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Perfect Weeknight Dinner

Take eight ingredients – and that includes salt and pepper – two pans, and 20 minutes, and for my money you can make the perfect end-of-summer weeknight dinner. I’m talking about steak in wine sauce on wilted greens, with corn on the cob on the side. I started with two thick top sirloin steaks, salted and peppered both sides and placed them in a hot, dry nonstick pan. I cooked them for eight minutes on each side, and then set them on a plate. Next, I added a teaspoon or two of olive oil to the hot pan, sautéed baby spinach for 30 seconds and then separated the greens onto two plates, topping the spinach with the steaks. Back at the stove (which in my kitchen is less than two steps away), I deglazed the pan with red wine, added less than a tablespoon of butter and voilà, had a delicious wine sauce to pour on the steak. The corn on the cob practically cooked itself and added a sweet counterpoint to the savory steak. All in all, a quick, satisfying supper for a rainy Brooklyn evening.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Recipe Roadtest - Wilted Frisée Salad w/ Beets & Manchego

Saturday night I prepared the Wilted Frisée Salad with Beets and Manchego from the September 2006 issue of Bon Appétit. This is a variation on the salade Lyonnaise I’ve grown to love, first at Artisanal, the delectable Big Apple restaurant devoted to all things fromage, and then from a cooking class I took a couple of years ago. Just thinking about a salade Lyonnaise makes my mouth water. It’s probably as far from health food as a salad can get: thick slices of bacon, crunchy croutons, and greens drenched in dressing. It’s deliciousness on a plate – with a poached egg on top. So when I saw the recipe, I decided enough time had gone by without indulging in a Lyonnaise-like salad. The addition of beets also intrigued me, since the ruby-red vegetables are a recent culinary discovery for me. Lyonnaise and beets… would it turn out to be an unexpected, yet delightful combination? Or an overwrought and ultimately futile play for novelty?

The answer: an overwrought and ultimately futile play for novelty. Now, full disclosure, I made two variations to the recipe, one of which I think ultimately served the salad and another that didn’t. Since we were eating the dish as a main course instead of an appetizer I added homemade croutons (a standard Lyonnaise ingredient that the recipe didn’t call for). It should go without saying that this is the variation that improved the salad, because, really, when don’t homemade croutons make something better? The variation that didn’t work as well was substituting romaine lettuce for the frisée, which I couldn’t find. I still wilted the romaine, but the salad’s texture, at least, certainly suffered.

But, romaine aside, the dish still had potential – bacon, eggs, dressing, croutons. Ultimately, it was the beets that did the damage. Think about it – does it seem like beets would complement a tangy, oily, crunchy, très français salad? The answer is no, and had I thought about it long enough I would have come to that conclusion.

Alas, this was one of those cases where I pondered too slowly and cooked too quickly. One good thing did come of it: I was reminded that a salade Lyonnaise is not a difficult dish to prepare and one that shouldn’t be banished from the table for too long a stretch.

I haven't tested this recipe for a classic salade Lyonnaise yet, but it looks just about right.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Recipe Roadtest - Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

I subscribe to four food magazines: Cooking Light, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and Eating Well. Each month I corner the pages of recipes I find appealing, and I try new dishes frequently – so frequently that my husband often complains we never get to eat dishes he likes twice. But it is still the case that there are significantly more recipes that catch my eye than actually make it on the dinner table. This weekend I tried to make up a little ground by preparing three new recipes – one main course, one dessert, and one cocktail. I’ll describe the dessert here and save the other two for future posts.

As soon as I saw the photo of the Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies in the February 2006 issue of Bon Appétit, I knew they would eventually make it to my table. A pair of rich-looking chocolate chip cookies sandwiching a creamy peanut butter filling – what’s not to like? But would the final result live up to the mouth-watering photo?

The cookie sandwiches were simple to prepare. The chocolate chip cookies are put together like any other chocolate chip cookie – mix the dry ingredients, whisk the wet ones, and combine – with a few variations. The recipe called for peanut butter, confectioner’s sugar instead of white sugar, and only one egg, perhaps the difference that rendered the cookies crumblier than I expected (especially by the second day). Preparing the filling couldn’t have been simpler. I heated six tablespoons of heavy cream to boiling and then poured it over chocolate, more confectioner’s sugar, and peanut butter. The end result was quite good, “decadent” was my husband’s word – just the right amount of salty peanut butter to counteract the tooth-achingly sweet milk chocolate chip cookies.

So will this recipe become one that languishes in my notebook while new sweet temptations take center stage? Or will I make my husband happy by including these sandwich cookies in my regular repertoire? I think the latter. The chocolate-peanut butter combination is too good to pass up. Next time, though, I will use semi-sweet chocolate chips in place of the milk chocolate chips. The cookie sandwiches would be even better with less sweetness to distract from the peanut butter goodness.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

In Praise of Kitchen Tools

Before I started cooking a few years ago, I didn’t realize how many recipes called for citrus zest. What I did realize, soon after trying, was how frustrating it was to grate zest on my standard box grater. Yet, I did it for nearly four years – scraping my fingers, struggling to clean the grater, and ultimately capturing very little of the flavorful zest. But standing in Bed, Bath, and Beyond with a mom eager to buy me things, I knew exactly what I wanted – a Microplane grater. Since then, my cooking life has been transformed, and I don’t say that lightly. I now look forward to zesting. It is a pleasure to watch the thin threads of peel materialize effortlessly on the grater. Cleaning the tool requires only a quick rinse, and my dishes taste better – dare I say, zestier – than ever.

So what took me so long? It wasn’t that the Microplane was expensive, ditto the salad spinner and tongs – tongs! – I finally brought home. The answer is… I don’t know. Perhaps I’m still mentally stuck in a time when I have zero disposable income. Perhaps I feel like I have enough stuff and should be able to make due without more tools taking up room in my limited kitchen drawer space. Or perhaps I’m just lazy. But, after the resounding success of the Microplane grater, I resolve to be proactive, to quickly acquire the tools that will making cooking easier and my food tastier. Next on my list is an instant-read thermometer. No more turning sadly past beef, poultry, and pork recipes that require the handy implement. I am saying “yes!” to the instant read thermometer – the next tool to rock my kitchen world.

I’m sure I’ll pick it up soon.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Meyer Lemon P.S.

Quite by accident, last night I discovered a concoction both deserving of the Meyer lemon and greatly enhanced by the fruit -- a classic gin and tonic. Not wanting to waste the last bits of the Meyer, I sliced a healthy wedge into my drink and was struck immediately at how perfect the fruit complemented it. Sweeter than my usual lime twist, but still acidic and bracing, the Meyer lemon is my new favorite garnish. Now, to convince the owners of NY bars that stocking Meyer lemons would be worth their while...

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Adventures in Ingredients -- Meyer Lemons

Since I started obsessively paging through cooking magazines like Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Saveur, and Cooking Light a few years ago, I have seen many references to Meyer lemons. Often they are suggested in lieu of the more widely available Eureka lemons; occasionally they are mandated. I have never taken the magazines up on the suggestion, nor the mandate, simply because I couldn’t find the fruit at my usual marketing haunts. But so often were the Meyers recommended that they began to take on a mythical status in my mind – an ingredient revered by recipe writers and food editors, an ingredient that would make an ordinary dish sublime.

Last week over dinner at Crispo my friend Jessica let it slip that a pal of hers in California had sent her a box of ten Meyer lemons. In fact she used a few of them in the pie she made me recently. Sadly, the lemons had all been used… or so Jessica said. As we left Crispo I spotted Balducci’s across the street and, we went in on a hunch that the renowned food emporium would carry the coveted citrus. Lo and behold, there were the Meyer lemons – my first sighting in the flesh! I was surprised by the sunny orange rind and the softness of the fruit. Jessica graciously bought two for me and I took my bounty home to contemplate what to cook.

According to Splendid Table, the Meyer lemon is a hybrid fruit – a cross between a lemon and an orange or a mandarin orange. The fruit originated in China and was brought to North America in 1908 by Frank Meyer, a plant explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today the fruit grows primarily in California with a peak season of November through January, but often extending until April.

So I got my hands on the Meyers just in the nick of time. Now, how to take advantage of the treasures? After a search on Epicurious, I chose the Meyer Lemon Buttermilk Pudding Cake, which had positive reader reviews and called for 1/3 cup Meyer lemon juice. I sliced one of the lemons horizontally, my knife easily sliding through the soft rind. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn I was about to juice an orange, for the flesh was even more orange than the rind. I smelled the fruit, and was rewarded with the frangrance of orange sherbet. A quick slurp of the juice confirmed my initial impressions. The Meyer tasted sweeter than a typical lemon – more like a sour orange or even a grapefruit. The Meyer lacked the straightforward, tangy kick of its yellow cousin, but released instead a subtler flavor that shifted in my mouth.

The Meyer Lemon Buttermilk Pudding Cake was tasty – but did it do justice to the elusive Meyer lemon? Or, put another way, did the Meyer lemon do justice to the cake? I’m not sure. I almost thought the cake would taste better with the zing of a regular lemon. But, I’m not ready to abandon Mr. Meyer’s lemon yet. Now that I know where and when to find it, I will continue to experiment with the food editors’ favorite fruit.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Conversations to Come...

People care about food for reasons as diverse as there are boxes of cereal on supermarket shelves. Some people care because it literally puts food in their mouths: they are farmers or they own restaurants, food shops, or cookware stores. Others are culinary historians, anti-hunger activists, accomplished amateur chefs, food stylists, advocates for organic produce, food writers, or professional cooks. Some people who care deeply about food are simply hungry and craving something remarkable to satisfy that hunger.

In La Noisette I will report back on my conversations with a diverse group of people who truly care about food. We will discover how their relationship with food affects their lives and how they put that passion into action – be it on a global, community, or household level.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Food as Opportunity

“In societies torn by war, food is often the one chance people have to make anything in their day remarkable.” The journalist Scott Simon wrote that line in “Conflict Cuisine”, from the April 2006 issue of Gourmet. In the article he recounts some of the memorable meals he experienced while covering wars in Eritrea, Bosnia, and Kosovo. His observation struck me hard. While the difference between the hell of war and the “hell” of jobs, commuting, and day-to-day life are worlds apart, I believe that food gives people from all walks of life the opportunity to have something special in their day. Instead of microwaving a frozen dinner, a stay-at-home mother gently rests a poached egg over steamed asparagus for her lunch. Forgoing the usual supper of popcorn the retired couple spends 20 minutes in the kitchen making tangy tacos. Preparing delicious, memorable food doesn’t have to difficult, time-consuming, or out of reach. It is a simple pleasure, one that can make anyone’s day remarkable.