Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Definition, please

When I was home in Colorado over the weekend I made a “French” potato salad to serve with sausages and green beans for an easy summer supper. The salad was simple: I boiled small red potatoes until they were tender. After they cooled a bit I quartered them, let them soak up a bit of white wine, and dressed them in a mustard vinaigrette flecked with parsley. The potatoes were good, but I don’t think it was what my father expected when he heard the words “potato salad”. He asked, “What makes it a salad?” I said, “It has a dressing.” But, honestly, I wasn't really sure. I know you can make salads with grains, hearty vegetables, and delicate greens. There is chicken salad, egg salad, and tuna salad. But what makes a salad a salad? I resolved to find out.

As usual, Mark Bittman beat me to it. His column in today’s Times food section features rice salads. His first paragraph goes:

“In all of American cooking there is probably no term less meaningful than ‘salad.’ I’m racking my brain for a way to narrow the definition, but the best I can do is a dictionary-like ‘mixture of food, usually cold or at room temperature, with some kind of dressing.’”

I’ll buy that (although I love a warm potato salad). According to my Larousse Gastronomique, a salad is a “dish of raw, cold or warm cooked foods, usually dressed and seasoned, served as an appetizer, side dish or main course.” It then focuses on green salads, plain salads, and mixed salads with three and a half pages of recipes.

A fairly broad definition, wouldn't you say? But, I think that's what I like about it. Salads can be just about anything! They're kitchen superstars - versatile, healthy, delicious and flexible.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie

The lead article in the food section in today’s Times was all about crafting the ultimate chocolate chip cookie. David Leite, of Leite’s Culinaria, talked to a who’s who of New York bakers including Maury Rubin, Dorie Greenspan, and Jacques Torres. Their advice was eminently transferable to the home cook (make the dough 24-36 hours before you bake it, sprinkle the cookies with sea salt just before baking, etc.). It’s a little more ingredient intensive (using bread flour and cake flour…although wouldn’t using all-purpose balance out the gluten levels?), but the descriptions are fabulous… Even if you won’t make the cookies it’s worth reading the article. The photo alone is worth the click.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Cocktail Hour

For Dave and me, our weekends are structured by beverages. Coffee when we wake up around 7:30. Espresso with milk (hot in winter, iced in summer) around 2 or 3 PM. And then, ever since Rosa was born, cocktail hour.

At 5 o’clock Dave will ask me if I want a drink, and I invariably say yes. I justify having a cocktail, and then maybe a small glass of wine at dinner, by the fact that we NEVER go out anymore. When we didn’t have Rosa we would go to dinner on Fridays and have a drink or two. And then sometimes on Saturdays as well. Whether this excuse holds or not, cocktail hour is a bright, happy time chez Dave and Jenna.

Usually we drink Campari and soda with orange, or gin and tonic with lime. I love both, although Campari is one of the most delightful discoveries of my adult life. Lately, though, we’ve been drinking a cocktail called Gordon’s Cup, the recipe for which I found in Bon Appetit magazine a couple of months ago. It’s a gin based drink, a little sweet, a lot sour, and a bit salty. It’s heavy on the lime and infused with the refreshing flavor of cucumber. That may sound odd, a vegetable in your cocktail. But I would challenge you to add a slice of cucumber to your ice water one day. The best way I can describe it is that it tastes clean, with a slight vegetal undercurrent. Clean, clear, and cool.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find the recipe for the drink on the Bon Appetit or Epicurious websites to link to, so I am taking the liberty of reproducing it here. According to the text it comes from Comme Ça, a Los Angeles restaurant.

Gordon’s Cup
One Serving

2/3 of one small lime, cut into six wedges
2 1/2 inch think rounds of peeled cucumber
1/4 cup gin
1 1/2 TB of simple syrup (equal amounts of sugar and water heated on the stove until the sugar dissolves)
1 cup cracked ice
pinch of sea salt

Place lime and cucumber in cocktail shaker; mash with muddler or wooden spoon until lime is juiced and cucumber is pulpy. Add gin and simply syrup, then ice. Cover; shave vigorously three times. Pour contents of shaker into rocks glass. Sprinkle with salt.

I should note that it’s Dave who’s in charge of our beverages on the weekends, from coffee on forward. For someone who spends so much time in the kitchen, it’s a cozy luxury for me to be plied so lovingly and uncomplainingly with caffeine and alcohol. It’s small, but sharing drinks is one of my favorite parts of our life together.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

No Recipe Required

Over the past five or six years I have ripped out a few hundred recipes from the various food magazines I subscribe to (or buy on the newsstand) and the New York Times Wednesday food section. Recipes for meyer lemon gnocci, open-face plum cake, and vegetarian three-bean chili, steamed pork buns, patatas bravas, and spinach salad with warm bacon dressing (to-die-for), and many, many others.

I keep them in plastic sleeves by type – shrimp, potatoes, pork, chicken, drinks etc – in a white three-ring notebook. As of last week, the notebook’s pockets were so stuffed with jagged papers I could barely open it. Some of these recipes I come back to again and again, but I’ve never even tried most of them. Many I have forgotten about. On Wednesday I decided to get organized, and I’ve spent some time every day trimming the pages, sorting through and categorizing the recipes, and deciding which ones I really want to keep. I noticed a few themes – eight recipes for spiced nuts! – and dueling recipes for blue cheese dressing and cucumber-avocado soup. I will test those and report back on the winners.

As I was sorting, I threw out some recipes that didn’t interest me anymore. I also tossed a few for dishes that I wouldn’t need a recipe for, including arugula salad with onions, pecorino, lemon juice and olive oil.

Another recipe I am throwing away is for Chickpea Salad with Provencal Herbs and Olives from the June 2005 issue of Cooking Light. The dish still sounds lovely to me – a healthy side dish and perfect for weekday lunches. But, this is definitely one of those dishes that I don’t need a recipe for, and you probably don’t either.

The trick is to follow a simple formula – beans, an herb or herbs, onion, olive oil, acid, something briny – and mix and match the ingredients that you have on hand. Here are a few of the options:

- One can cooked beans – my favorites are chickpeas or cannellini
- Onion – Scallions and red onion are the best since you’ll be eating the salad raw. Plus they add nice color.
- Chopped garlic – optional
- Something briny – Capers or olives
- Fresh herbs – parsley, sage, thyme, basil, whatever is leftover in the fridge
- Acid – lemon juice, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, for example
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper

Drain and rinse one can of beans. Put them in a medium bowl. Add chopped onions, capers/olives, and garlic if you’re using it. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil – start with a tablespoon or so – and about half as much acid. Stir gently and taste. Add more, oil, acid, or salt and pepper as needed. (I usually need to add more acid and salt at this point.) Once you’re satisfied with the flavors, stir in the chopped herbs.

To make this salad well, you need to use your eyes and tongue. Your eyes to measure proportions of ingredients. There’s no set ratio. If you love garlic add a lot; if you’re lukewarm on olives, use just a few or omit them altogether. Your tongue to balance the flavors. Start easy on the salt and acid. You can always add more. I usually need to taste and adjust the flavors two or three times.

And, of course, if you’re nervous about winging it the first couple of times, just use the Cooking Light recipe as a guide.

When I make the cannellini version of this salad, I often crush the beans with a fork and add tuna canned in olive oil, courtesy of a Gourmet recipe I saw years ago. It’s the only tuna salad I like.

For a bean salad with Mexican flavor I use black beans, lime juice, and cilantro – no olives or capers. Chopped avocado adds a creamy note.

Healthy, simple, inexpensive, delicious, and no recipe required.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

My Fancy Food Show picks

My favorites at the Fancy Food Show? It’s hard to narrow down, but a few standouts include:

- A glorious, smooth, salty chunk of mozzarella di bufala from Lioni Mozzarella. Nothing radical here, just a perfect piece of cheese.

- Italian Volcano blood orange juice. A brilliant, deep red-orange color and bright, sparkling flavor. Dave and I decided that if we served this juice in the place of regular OJ in mimosas we’d have a line out the door.

- Sunland Thai ginger and red pepper peanut butter. I love peanut butter and was delighted to try several of Sunland’s varieties including banana and chocolate peanut butter. But, the biggest revelation was its savory line, especially this one with Thai flavors. As the rep said, it’s a perfect ready-made peanut sauce. Thin it out with a bit of water and serve with vegetables or chicken.

The most revolting thing we saw? Giant likenesses of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain sculpted from…hummus. Sabra hummus to be exact. Fairly disgusting.