Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Final Braise

If I had to choose my favorite cooking technique for meat I might have to go with braising: browning the meat on the stove, adding liquid and then simmering long and slow. There are so many things to appreciate about it: the flavorful, tender meat that results after the extended cooking time, the concentrated flavors of the sauce, the largely hands-off time for the bulk of the preparation. Coq au vin and beef bourguignon, two of my favorite classic French dishes are both braised. You can braise on the stovetop, but often dishes are braised in the oven making this technique a natural for days when you want to feel cozy and warm.

So, basically, May 31 is not an ideal day for a braise, especially when it’s warm and muggy outside like it was today. And, if you ever get tempted (or suckered) into braising in the dead of summer – with the oven on 350 or 400 for an hour or two or more and sweat pouring down your spine – you may just swear off the technique forever. Do yourself a favor: no more braising until October.

But, I signed off on a high note, with a flavorful and earthy recipe from The Girl & The Fig cookbook that Danielle gave me a year or two ago. This book is one of my favorites – really one of only three or four cookbooks that I use regularly. It’s written by Sondra Bernstein, the owner of The Girl & The Fig restaurant in Sonoma, California. The book highlights the restaurant's rustic French dishes with an emphasis on some of my favorite flavors: figs (of course), fennel, shallots, dried plums, tarragon, thyme, and wine. I’ve made a few things from the book including coq au vin, basil-scented potato cakes, shrimp cakes, potato leek soup, and cauliflower gruyere soup. With some tweaking here and there they’ve all been standouts.

Tonight I tried Braised Chicken with Prunes, Olives, and Capers. The sweet plumbs and the briny capers and olives were a fantastic match with the tender chicken. I served it over mashed potatoes with a crisp green salad on the side. Had it been February the meal would have been sublime. Since it was the end of May I’ll peg it at very, very good.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Baked Pancake - the next generation

When I was a kid my mom would sometimes make a “baked pancake” for breakfast on the weekends. The recipe was simple enough that by the time I was 10 or so, I’d make it myself. Basically you melted some butter in a baking dish in the oven while mixing up a simple batter of eggs, milk, and flour. The batter went in the baking dish and cooked for 20 minutes or so. As the pancake baked the sides became puffed and golden (they fell when the pancake was removed from the oven). We served the pancake with powdered sugar and maple syrup. Looking back on it, I remember the pancake’s buttery, golden sides and the thin, almost crisp base.

I made the pancake again about a year ago and was astounded. That thing is swimming in butter! A third of a cup (six tablespoons!). It was so buttery that I could hardly eat it. Needless to say, I haven’t made the baked pancake since, and talking with my mother today, I learned that she hasn’t either.

When I first saw the recipe for the dessert Oven Crespella with Nutella Sauce in the April issue of Gourmet magazine I marked it because of the nutella. Dave loves the stuff, and I thought a nutella sauce recipe would be a handy thing to have. I realized yesterday, though, that the crespella seemed awfully similar to a baked pancake and could make a tasty breakfast treat, sans the nutella sauce of course (at least yesterday…).

Compared to the baked pancake, the crespella recipe upped the amount of flour a little, milk a lot, and added some sugar, vanilla extract, and a little salt to the batter. Most crucially, the amount of butter melted in the baking dish is only two tablespoons.

The result was completely delectable. Like the baked pancake the sides rose (and then fell) and turned golden. But the base of the pancake was also thicker and the teaspoon of vanilla extract was a heady revelation. I served the crespella with maple syrup and berries, and Rosa and I devoured it. In a few years, when she’s ready, I’ll bring out this recipe – not much more complex than the baked pancake – and she can make breakfast for us.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

No board required

My mother-in-law, Iolanda, once asked me to chop a bunch of parsley. I looked around her amazingly well-equipped kitchen for the most basic implement, save the knife: a cutting board. But there was not one to be found. It turns out Iolanda doesn't use a cutting board. She uses a small paring knife and her fingers, as you can see in the photo here where she's chopping scallions. Pretty hard-core, isn't it? Apparently this is how she learned to cook in her small Italian village.

And, no, I haven't taken up this practice when I'm at her house. Thankfully for my fingers, she managed to rustle up a small, round wooden board that I'm pretty sure is actually a serving board for cheese.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


That's the direct translation of "moyen-sanglant", a useful phrase to know if you’re eating at a French bistro in Montreal. It means "medium-rare" (although I think "medium-bloody" sounds much cooler), and I learned it last week when I ordered magret de canard (duck breast) at Leméac, a bustling restaurant on Laurier.

I know that Montreal is an exceptional restaurant city. Everyone from the New York Times to Gourmet magazine has told me so. When we visit Dave’s family there, though, we usually have the great pleasure of eating my mother-in-law Iolanda’s earthy and delicious Italian meals. But, on this trip Dave and I, along with his brother and his wife, decided to go out one night. Dave’s brother chose Leméac, and it was an excellent decision. I started with the smooth rillettes à l’ancienne de la maison, a kind of pâté that I smeared on toasted baguette slices. My duck breast was cooked perfectly, and the meal ended on a sweet note with a chocolate hazelnut mousse.

The room itself wasn’t particularly interesting, but the food and the service were top-notch. When in Montreal…

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Chicken Vera-style, Part II

A delicious and hearty one-pot meal that can incorporate virtually any vegetable (and possibly any grain or protein) that you have on hand? Fact or fiction? Myth or reality? Unicorn or horse? Ask a Macedonian and he or she would probably say yes - it's the God-honest truth.

I am here to report back on Chicken Vera-style. See Part I below which includes the recipe given to me by my colleague Rachael who’s married to a Macedonian.

I decided to make the chicken stew on Sunday when I had more time. It’s not much work at all to put together (some light chopping and then basically putting a bunch of stuff in a pot) but the hands-off cooking time won’t work for a weeknight. My plan was to use chicken thighs – cheaper than breasts – but FreshDirect had whole chickens on sale. So I bought a chicken, cut it into six pieces, leaving the thighs and legs attached, and put it in my 8-quart stockpot. I added the celery, onion, garlic, potatoes, stock, and some water to cover and brought it up to a simmer. We didn’t have a multitude of vegetables in-house so I added only some carrots. Then I noticed a half-bag of dried chickpeas in the pantry and threw those into the water, crossing my fingers that they would be tender by the time everything else was. Instead of putting the pot in the oven immediately I let it simmer on the stove for a half and hour…while I ran to the store to pick up the can of tomatoes I forgot. Tomatoes safely added I put the pan in a 375 degree oven. I upped the temperature from Rachael’s recommendation for added insurance that enough liquid would be absorbed.

And two hours later it was! (It’s funny how after cooking seriously for about five years and even going to culinary school I’m STILL genuinely pleased and a little surprised when things turn out like they’re supposed to.) The potatoes, rice, and vegetables had absorbed some of the liquid, making the dish into a thick stew. The chicken was gorgeously tender and flavorful. My chickpeas still had a little bite to them, but were definitely edible.

When I told Dave that we were going to be eating a Macedonian stew for dinner he was, shall we say, skeptical. I reminded him that Macedonia had lots of Greek and Turkish influences and that the country’s food was probably delicious. When he tasted the stew he said, “This is more like an Italian dish, if you ask me.” Coming from Dave, that’s high praise indeed.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


One of my favorite sections of the NY Times’ website is the Well blog, written by Tara Parker-Pope. She comments on all aspects of personal health, but often writes about food. I love reading the comments her readers post. More often than not they are passionate and smart. Two of her recent posts captured my attention and had me reading through all the comments:

Paying Attention to the Food We Don’t Eat references a recent Times story highlighting how much food we waste in America. Posters offered up numerous ideas for how to keep personal food waste at a minimum, basically by shopping and cooking with an eye toward using up everything in the fridge.

Finding the Best Way to Cook All Those Vegetables cites recent studies that link the healthfulness of vegetables to the method by which they were cooked (or not). Frankly, this is all a little too much for me to remember. (“Water soluble nutrients are often lost in processing”… “Fat-soluble compounds…are less likely to leach out in water.” etc.) BUT, Parker-Pope’s post wrapped up with what I consider one of my personal culinary philosophies: make healthy food taste good and people will want to eat it. According to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, by the time people are 20 years old the only factor that influences fruit and veggie consumption is taste. (Ironically enough, this was also a main theme on last week’s episode of Top Chef.)

Finally, in Lessons in Home Cooking, Parker-Pope interviews one of my favorite cooking authorities, Mark Bittman. Their conversation inspired over 100 readers to share their strategies for preparing quick, delicious home-cooked meals.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Why I love going to my in-laws

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about my mother-in-law in the post Salmon a la Iolanda. (I showed her the post today and she got a real kick out of it: "Comme je suis quelqu'une importante!" ... "Like I'm someone important!" I assured her that she is.) We're back in Montreal now, chez Iolanda, and I'm still loving the food. A couple of highlights, keeping in mind we've only been here for 24 hours:

- A glorious porcini mushroom sauce with fettucine. I wrote down the recipe as Iolanda cooked, will test it at home, and post it next week. It was rich, earthy, and perfectly balanced.

- Rapini, a.k.a. broccoli rabe, sauteed with olive oil and slivered garlic. After it's cooked the rapini is left at room temperature. It almost marinates in the olive oil and garlic and becomes rich and tender. This is an incredibly simple dish to make, and one I've done at home. But I usually eat it warm; I realize now that it's even better at room temperature.

I made broccoli rabe for my parents once, and they weren't crazy about it. It is on the bitter side (which I enjoy), but with a fruity olive oil and sharp garlic it's delicious.

There's also a simple abundance of food here. At home we might have bananas and kiwi or grapes on hand (if it's soon after Fresh Direct delivered). Here Iolanda stocks bananas, peaches, cantaloupe, sweet strawberries, apples and pears. Granted I'm sure a lot of that is for our benefit, but we take advantage. There's always fresh fruit on the counter if we need a snack. So delicious.

We're going to a big Italian/Quebecois wedding reception tonight. The bride, Dave's cousin Laetitia is passionate about food, so I'm extra excited about the dinner. I will report back soon.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Chicken Vera-style, Part I

Using up ingredients that I have on hand makes me feel like a culinary rock star. Never am I more creative, virtuous, or thrifty than when I put the quarter-bag of lentils in the pantry or the final two stalks of asparagus in the refrigerator to good, tasty use. There are certain dishes that help facilitate this soul-satisfying process, like a basic vegetable soup thickened with rice or pasta and gussied up with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of Parmigiano. Another is a recent discovery thanks to my friend and colleague Rachael.

Rachael is married to Jovan, a lovely fellow from Macedonia. Since they just had their first baby, Jovan’s mother, Vera, is staying with them for a few months, helping to take care of the little tyke and cooking and cleaning along the way. Lucky Rachael! Last week Rachael told me about one her favorite Macedonian dishes that her mother-in-law makes. She calls it Chicken Vera-style. It’s one of those amazingly flexible dishes that can accommodate – and elevate – almost whatever you have in your fridge, freezer, or pantry. Here’s the basic recipe told to me by Rachael, but none of it is set in stone:

- Chicken breasts or tenders (or even sausages)
- Two stalks celery, chopped
- One medium to large onion, chopped
- Two cloves garlic, chopped
- Two medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
- Two medium handfuls rice, white or brown
- 14 oz. can diced tomatoes with juices
- One cup chicken stock
- Fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
- Vegetables – take your pick: peas, corn, broccoli, stir-fry veggies, etc. Fresh or frozen
- Salt, pepper, oregano or Macedonian spice blend

- Simmer chicken in a stockpot or other large, oven-safe cooking vessel with celery, onion, and garlic for about five minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and enough water so everything is covered completely by the liquid. Cook in a 350 degree oven until everything is tender, about one-and-a-half to two hours.

Rachael promised that the result would be a hearty chicken stew. The potatoes and rice would absorb some of the liquid, and each component would retain its own flavor but come together in a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

But there was trouble on the homefront. My beloved husband was skeptical, shall we say, about eating a Macedonian stew...especially on a Sunday when he'd just returned from a long trip and lots of restaurant meals. Would Chicken Vera-style satisfy his craving for a flavorful, but hearty, meal? Something worth coming home to from the rigors of the Miami beach scene? We would find out.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Go for the bundt

After years of wishing I had one, about six months ago I finally bought a bundt pan. This is something of a pattern for me. I lust after a certain piece of kitchen equipment – a spice grinder or a microplane grater – something that might cost only $10 or $20. Finally I buy it and wonder what the hell took me so long. (Next on my list are Silpats.) I really can’t explain my reluctance to actually purchase these things or why they seem so unattainable. Sometimes I feel like I’m still 12 years old and saving my pennies, like I don’t have permission to actually buy something not 100% necessary. But, that’s another story…probably for some future therapist.

Anyways, back to the bundts. After finally buying the pan, these cakes have become one of my favorite new desserts. To me, they are the ultimate combination of convenience and class – the epitome of how smart choices can make cooking at home less lengthy and intimidating. Layer cakes are fantastic, truly special treats. But, they can be time-consuming and nerve-wracking (for me) to decorate. Little crumbs always get caught up in my frosting, no matter how much I brush the cakes. But in a bundt cake, the shape of the pan renders the cake automatically impressive to look at, and the deep golden color of the exterior (that just happens! without any work involved!) is nothing short of miraculous.

Yesterday I made the Classic Banana Bundt Cake from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours. The cake is sensational – deeply moist with a lush banana flavor. It took only about 15 minutes to prepare and looks gorgeous even without icing. Dave and Rosa went back for seconds; I contemplated thirds.

So when you want to get the most dessert bang for your time and effort buck, think Bundt.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Steamed Salad Days

This year, I have finally come to terms with the fact that waking up early on May Saturdays to go to the farmer’s market is pretty much a fool’s errand. The walk up to Prospect Park is nice, and I can pick up the odd potato or shallot. But there’s really not much in the way of spring produce until at least early June. All of my May and most of my June cooking magazines have arrived, though, touting the beautiful sugar snap peas, strawberries, and cherries that theoretically I should be savoring now. Patience, patience, I know.

I have enjoyed looking at the recipes in this month’s issues, and an easy one from Eating Well caught my eye: Lemon-mint Snap Peas and Lima Beans.

I ordered frozen baby lima beans and sugar snap peas from FreshDirect and got to work. It’s a simple three-step, 10 minute process: steam the vegetables, make a vinaigrette, and toss them together. Unfortunately, the phone rang while I was cooking and I over-steamed the snap peas and lima beans. Instead of a fresh, bright green the peas turned darker, a sure sign of overcooking, and really had no crispness. However, the salad was still very good – the tang of the mustard vinaigrette paired beautifully with the vegetables. It’s healthy, too, and it got me thinking about salads.

Too often I get stuck in a lettuce rut. Leafy green salads can be a perfect, light rounding out to a meal. I absolutely love the simplicity, texture, and flavor of baby arugula tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, and coarse kosher salt. In every mouthful each element is distinct, yet they complement each other extremely well. So, lettuce salads with some sort of vinaigrette dressing are a popular feature on the dinner table chez Jenna and Dave. But, frankly, sometimes they get a little boring.

So the snap pea and lima bean salad reminded me that I shouldn’t be a slave to lettuce-based salads. I can keep the dressing, but swap out the veggies and even cook them first. Of course, there’s the wonderful, classic potato salad, which I much prefer with a vinaigrette as opposed to a gloppy mayonnaise-based dressing. Other great options include sweet potatoes, broccoli, peas, green beans, and asparagus – or a combination.

As the summer progresses and roasting vegetables (my winter standby) becomes completely untenable in my stuffy, petite – to be polite – kitchen, I will remember the steamed vegetable and vinaigrette salad. I might even throw an herb into the dressing and crumble some cheese on top.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

My vote goes to homemade

I am really torn about semi-homemade. Part of me says, “Look, you want people to cook at home? Face the facts that people are busy, and the hurdle of preparing everything from scratch will keep some folks out of the kitchen altogether.” But, the other part of me responds, “But if people knew how easy it was to just make their own salsa – and how much better tasting – they wouldn’t bother with Pace!” And, as my friend Alli just pointed out, when she thinks of the number of preservatives necessary to make jarred Alfredo sauce or Velveeta shelf-stable for months, she cringes. So this would be my argument for good old-fashioned homemade, not semi: 1) better taste, 2) fewer preservatives, and 3) it’s often easier and faster than you think. See below for an easy salsa recipe.

The apparent queen of semi-homemade is Sandra Lee, she of the Food Network series and burgeoning lifestyle brand. I see on her website that she’s also getting into semi-homemade crafts and tablescapes. Now there’s a word I haven’t heard too often.

I haven’t ever made any of Sandra’s recipes, and I suppose the proper journalistic thing to do would be to prepare one. So I will and report back. BUT, I will admit that I’m wary. What kind of cook – who really cares about taste – calls specifically for Kraft parmesan cheese?

(five minutes later)

Oh, lord, I don’t think I can do it. I just went through the 15 dinner recipes she has on her website, and honestly not a one appealed to me. I thought about making Las Chalupas, basically open-faced tacos. But with a recipe list that includes Pace, store-bought guacamole, and Kraft shredded Mexican cheese blend I frankly don’t want to waste an eating opportunity (or my money) on it.

This entry may prove my mother’s contention that I’m a food snob. Maybe so. But, maybe there are some things it’s okay to be snobby (or I might say principled) about? Like campaign rhetoric, party unity, and the food we eat. I’m typing this as I watch the election returns come in from North Carolina and Indiana, and all I can say is, Mother, in this situation you are Hillary Clinton, and I am Barack Obama, and I know you’d rather be on Barack’s side!

Salsa Cruda
(serves two)

Two medium-sized tomatoes
A tablespoon or so of onions, preferably red or green
A half-teaspoon of jalapeno, or to taste
A tablespoon of cilantro
One garlic clove
Salt to taste

Chop all of the ingredients and stir them together.

You can play with this recipe as much as you like - adding or subtracting ingredients, but this is pretty much it. Fresher than Pace, better-tasting, less expensive, and you can put it all together in under 10 minutes. What's not to like?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Burgers with olives and English muffins

Sounds a little odd doesn’t it? Burgers with olives and English muffins? Perhaps. But I’m a convert. Let’s start with the olives.

In the last month I’ve come across two burger recipes that include chopped olives mixed into the ground meat. Olives and burgers didn’t seem like a natural combination to me, but it should have. The salty/briny olives provide an unexpected taste tweak to the savory meat.

First, lamb burgers with kalamata olives. Dave loves lamb; I count it as one of the foods (along with goat cheese) that I am “in training” on. So, surprise! These burgers are absolutely, drop-dead delicious. Juicy, savory, and hands-down my new favorite burger. Dave and Rosa both devoured them as well. Here’s the recipe:

- Chop two cloves of garlic and about a quarter-cup of kalamata olives.
- With your hands, mix the garlic, olives, and generous amounts of salt and pepper into a pound of ground lamb. Don’t overmix.
- Cook – either broil, fry, or grill.

Mini versions of these burgers would make great hors d’oeuvres, as well.

The second olive burger is from Eating WellSpanish Pork Burgers. The recipe is a little more complicated – incorporating chopped caramelized onions and grated manchego cheese – but not much. The seasoned mayonnaise is optional.

Here’s where the English muffins come in. I’ve always been a little flummoxed when it comes to hamburger buns. The puffy white ones sold in packs of eight at the grocery store are usually a) too big, and b) tasteless. And, I’m stuck with six extras, which I stash in the freezer and promptly forget about. I’ve also experimented with crusty dinner rolls, which have some flavor but are too, well, crusty. I don’t need my hamburger bun gouging my mouth while I’m eating. Somehow we discovered toasted English muffins – either wheat or white. They are ideal for hamburgers, the right size, a little flavor, and not too bun-ny, the perfect vehicle to get your olive burger into your mouth. Enjoy!

Friday, May 02, 2008

Crunchy Rice (not in a good way)

When Dave and I first met and started dating, he was the cook of the couple. I don’t think I even had a repertoire at that point, with the possible exception of Betty Crocker brownies and French toast. When I visited him in Toronto Dave would make a tangy homemade red sauce for pasta; crispy breaded veal cutlets; roasted chicken breasts with potatoes, sweet potatoes, and garlic; or penne with sausage and broccoli rabe. Satisfying and tasty dishes all. I would think back to when a prior boyfriend poured a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup over bland chicken breasts, opened a can of green beans, and proudly served it to me. I knew quickly that that relationship wasn’t going anywhere. Finally, with Dave, I was with a man that could cook! I was smitten, and my friends were impressed.

Over the years as I’ve begun cooking more Dave has begun cooking less, as one would expect. For a while, we split evening meals pretty much half and half, but since school I’ve been cooking virtually every night. This is by choice – there are so many dishes I want to try and practice that often I feel like seven dinners a week just isn’t enough. (Three weekend dinners DEFINITELY isn’t enough.) But, sometimes I’m busy at work or just don’t feel like cooking (it happens...occasionally). Last night was one of those nights.

Dave was game. He picked up some fat catfish fillets at Whole Foods and some ready-made broccoli rabe with garlic – an excellent start to a good weeknight meal. Unfortunately things went downhill from there. I sat down to a meal of unseasoned catfish, crunchy basmati rice, and the broccoli rabe.

The broccoli rabe was the highlight – slicked in olive oil and paired with plump pieces of roasted garlic. It’s not my first choice, but sometimes buying a healthy side dish on a weeknight isn’t a bad way to round out a meal. The catfish was well-cooked but very bland. And the rice was…crunchy, meaning not completely cooked.

My aim here is not to pick on Dave, because he is a very good cook when he tries to be. But, I thought this meal could help illustrate some of the super-simple things any cook can do to elevate his/her meals:

1. Season – Before cooking any piece of meat or fish on the stove, on the grill, or in the oven, season it with salt (and pepper if you wish) on both sides. And, don’t be shy with the quantity. You want a nice even sprinkling, preferably with coarse kosher salt. The salt will bring out the flavor of the protein.

2. Taste – I can usually tell if rice is ready by looking at it. If the centers of the grains are still opaque I know it needs a few more minutes. This may be too fine a distinction for everyone (is it?) but there is a surefire way to find out: taste it. If Dave had popped a couple grains of rice into his mouth he would have realized immediately that it wasn’t ready.

3. Pan Sauce – I mentioned pan sauces before as the busy weeknight cook’s best friend. They can be so incredibly simple. For a succulent fish sauce I remove the fish from the pan when it’s finished cooking and add some butter (a tablespoon or so…since there are two of us eating this is 50 calories each, well worth it for tasty fish), let it melt and turn a nutty brown while scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. These brown bits are pure flavor. When the butter is a hazelnut brown, pour it over the fish fillets. Mmmm.

Or, even, forget the pan sauce and spritz a little lemon on the fish.

Each of these three things – season, taste, and pan sauce – would have added less than five minutes onto the meal’s prep time, but made it considerably more pleasurable to eat.

I’m so lucky to have a husband that knows how to cook and appreciates good food. But sometimes even he needs a little reminder that with just a few basic techniques his cooking will rise above the average and, maybe, be almost be as good as mine. ;)