Friday, December 9, 2011

Whiskey & Salt #1: Southern Comfort!

Okay. It's been almost a week, and I think I've finally recovered from Saturday's supper club marathon of cooking, cleaning and general insanity. It was pretty dicey for a few moments there - everything from malfunctioning ice cream makers to melted stove knobs to forgotten Kitchenaid mixer attachments - but I think we pulled it off pretty well! (Even if we did forget to take pictures of one of our courses. Whoops! You're just going to have to imagine that one.)

Emily and I welcomed our sixteen guests into our temporary home for the evening - the Ted and Amy Supper Club's gorgeous Fort Greene digs - and kicked things off with a cocktail hour featuring thyme-spiked gin lemonade and three little bites:

Crostini of chicken liver pate, bacon jam and diced green apple

Vinegar-spiked deviled eggs

Triscuits with cream cheese and Emily's homemade hot pepper jelly

Cocktail hour passed in a blur for us - we were cooking up the first course, greeting our guests and making sure everyone had a full glass and a bite to eat, all at the same time. It was awesome, though - I think Emily and I both had a moment when we were looking at all the folks gathered around, drinking and eating and chatting and laughing, and we thought - we're really doing this!

Soon enough, it was time for everyone to take their seats so we could serve the first course.

Photo credit: Kathy Blake, The Experimental Gourmand

When we'd designed the menu, we knew we wanted to do a shrimp and grits course, but we weren't sure exactly what kind of shrimp to serve. Something spicy? Creamy? Bacon and garlic-y? We were a little bit stumped. Then, as if by kismet, we both hit on the winning idea - New Orleans style BBQ shrimp! A little bit spicy and a whole lot of buttery, this shrimp was seriously amazing, especially together with creamy, cheesy grits cakes and spicy Cajun pickled okra.

Our second course was a last minute addition, on the advice of cupcake mogul Allison Robicelli. She suggested that we add a course that could be prepared in advance and be served to our hungry guests while they waited for our endless chicken-frying marathon to draw to a close. It was a brilliant idea - Emily and I came up with a brussel sprout slaw, tossed with pecans and a sharp, lemony vinaigrette and topped with shaved ricotta salata, and it wound up being the perfect middle course. A little bit of raw veggie, a little bit refreshing - and it bought us just enough time to finish up frying the chicken thighs!

Mmmm.... chicken thighs! After extensive testing, we settled on a regular ol' brine for the thighs with the Ad Hoc at Home recipe for the buttermilk dip and seasoned flour. Then we fried them up in some lard at 350 degrees, held them in a 200 degree oven and topped them with a generous squeeze of Mike's Hot Honey. A little sweet, a little heat and a whole lot of crunchy, meaty awesomeness. On the side? A fluffy buttermilk biscuit made from a Southern grandma's secret recipe and a mess of collard greens cooked down with lemon juice and my current obsession, Harrington's bacon.

We also served a second round of cocktails - an autumnal mixture of rye whiskey, apple cider and Emily's homemade ginger syrup. We'd originally intended to serve the cocktail in glasses rimmed with smoked sea salt, but somehow that idea got lost in the rush to get drinks into thirsty hands. Next time!

The piece de resistance? Banana pudding baked Alaska.

Oh, HELL YES. This stuff was so good, I could have eaten all of these. In one sitting. All by myself. We started with a cake made out of Nilla wafers, topped with more crushed Nilla wafers, then added a scoop of this crazy good banana ice cream from Bravetart and a big dollop of meringue. And then we added bananas. And then we torched it.

Photo credit: Kathy Blake, The Experimental Gourmand

Ohhhh, crispy creamy crunchy sweet and smooth and marshmallow-y meringue and everything good in the world contained in a little bowl of heaven. At the end of the night, I collapsed into an empty seat at the table, next to a good friend I hadn't seen in ages, and dug my spoon into this crazy banana-filled treat, and there we were, surrounded by folks with full bellies, flickering candles, empty bottles of gin and towering stacks of dishes. But we'd done it. We'd made it! This crazy idea we'd hatched one wine-soaked night in lower Manhattan had become a reality. And Emily and I couldn't be more proud.

Of course, we didn't do it alone. So many people deserve special thanks here, especially Kara of Ted and Amy, who rented us her kitchen and living room for the day and could not have been more patient, helpful or awesome. (And FYI, if you're looking for a space to hold a party, a cooking class or another similar sort of event, contact Kara through Ted and Amy Supper Club for more information on renting her gorgeous, well-stocked space for the day!)

We also couldn't have done it without our "sous chef" for the day, Eryn of Ugly Food Tastes Better, or my amazing boyfriend Ed, who not only helped me carry about 500 pounds of stuff over to Kara's but also ran back to our apartment at the very last minute to grab the extremely important Kitchenaid mixer bowl I'd left there. Allison Robicelli gave us an absolute ton of great ideas for making things extra professional, from the parsley garnish on the shrimp to keeping the collards warm without sacrificing a burner by using a slow cooker.

And finally, super duper extra special thanks to all of the folks who came to dinner with us! We loved having the opportunity to share our cooking with you. If you didn't make it this time, stay tuned for the next edition of the Whiskey & Salt Supper Club... coming (relatively) soon!

All photographs by Emily Hanhan unless otherwise noted.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Vegan PB &J cupcakes!

One of my colleagues did me a major favor at work last week. Like, major major. Totally above and beyond. There were no words to express my gratitude to her... but where words fail, baked goods speak.

Since this particular colleague is vegan, I couldn't just use any of my butter and cream-loaded standard recipes. I panicked for a few moments - without French buttercream, I'm nothing! - then sucked it up and got Googling.

These lovely little strawberry cupcakes with peanut butter frosting are what I finally came up with, and let me tell you, you really won't miss the eggs or dairy at all. The cupcakes are tender and moist, leavened with baking soda and vinegar and flavored with a cup of strawberry puree I'd tucked away in the freezer back in June. And the peanut butter frosting? Crazy good! It's made with Earth Balance shortening, gobs of peanut butter, a splash of vanilla and a few cups of powdered sugar. The recipe called for soy milk, but I'm not a big fan of the stuff and was not about to buy a whole carton of soy milk for a few tablespoons of liquid, so I just substituted water. I'd be surprised if using soy milk would actually make a major difference, flavor-wise.

The little heart decorations are just all natural strawberry fruit leather. I totally thought I had a teeny heart-shaped cookie cutter, but as it turns out, I only have a giant one, so these are freehand. And misshapen. But still kinda cute, right?

All in all, I think my first vegan baking experience was a total success. I hope my awesome colleague likes them! We'll find out tomorrow...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Soup of the evening, beautiful soup

I was starting to feel a little under the weather last weekend, so I decided to spend Saturday afternoon simmering up a restorative chicken broth. It turned out so rich and delicious that now I want to spend every Saturday making soup!

I started out by heating some olive oil in a large stockpot and searing a pound and a half of chicken backs. Once they were nice and golden brown, I added in two onions, cut in half, and half a head of celery and a large handful of carrots, roughly chopped, and let them brown up a little bit. Then I added enough water to cover everything, a couple of bay leaves and a small sprinkle of dried thyme, brought it to a boil and then turned it down to low and let it start simmering.

While the soup simmered, I roasted a whole 4 1/2 lb chicken in the oven for dinner. The other half of the celery and two more halved onions were tucked underneath the chicken. Once it was done, I removed the breasts for that night's dinner, picked the remaining meat off the carcass and set it aside, then added the chicken bones and roasted vegetables into the stock pot, adding more water to cover.

All in all, the chicken stock simmered for about six hours, until it was deeply brown and flavorful. I added a little bit of kosher salt to taste then strained the whole mess into a glass bowl, which went straight into the fridge. In the morning, I scraped the gloppy layer of fat from the top of the bowl and was left with about a gallon of lovely, rich chicken stock.

Some of it went right into this chicken and stars - and escarole! - soup. Oh man. If there's anything better than homemade chicken soup, I don't know what it is.

Once you have your homemade stock, this soup comes together super fast. Just heat up your broth and some of the reserved chicken, boil up a cup of tiny star-shaped pasta and then mix the cooked pasta into the broth. This week, we received a mystery green from the CSA - I originally thought it was lettuce and tried to make a salad out of it, then realized that it was way too thick and strongly flavored to be lettuce. Next guess? Escarole! Just the thing to shred into ribbons and mix into a boiling pot of soup for some extra flavor and nutrition. Yum!

After the soup was made, I took the rest of the chicken stock and froze it in ice cube trays, knowing how delicious it would make everything it touched. And I was right! It made this celeraic soup absolutely delightful.

This isn't just celeraic soup, actually. It's celeraic-apple-leek-potato soup, a delicious way to use up about half of this week's CSA share in one yummy, warming pureed soup. It's crazy easy, too - just peel and chop one large knob of celeraic, two apples, one potato, one clove of garlic and a bunch of leeks, saute them in a bit of oil to get some browning action going on, then cover them in chicken stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Once everything is tender, puree the soup with an immersion blender - or in batches in a traditional blender - and adjust the seasonings, if necessary. You can also stir in a few pats of butter or a splash of cream if you're feeling indulgent, but it's really not required. I served this soup with a bit of paprika and black pepper on top, but croutons would be absolutely wonderful, if you have some around.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

More often than not these days, I'm totally wiped out when I get home from work. The last thing I want to do most evenings is cook an elaborate, complicated dinner - I just want food, and I want it now! And I don't want it to come out of a box... especially not a pizza-sized box from the crappy pizzeria next door. So I've been experimenting with ways to get most of the work for dinner done ahead of time. A few weekends ago, I made a triple batch of meatballs, rolled them up and flash froze them in the raw and stacked them up in a freezer bag. It's easy as pie to come home, stick a couple of them in the oven for thirty minutes, boil up some spaghetti or slice open a hero roll and have dinner ready by the time the six o'clock news starts.

Ratatouille is another great make-ahead meal. It can safely stay in the fridge for a few days after it's prepared, and like most stews, it only gets better with age. I can also serve it in a few different, easy ways to mix things up a little bit - while I love a simple, warm bowl of ratatouille with some crusty bread for dipping, a dish of olives and a glass of wine, you could also plate it with rice, couscous or savory crepes for something different! And look how yummy it looks, all full of herbes de provence and soft, tender vegetables.

I'm going to tell you how to make my favorite version of ratatouille, but first I want to show you my inspiration for this dinner... the most beautiful bell pepper I've ever seen.

Seriously, though. Isn't that something? As soon as I saw those in our CSA selection this week, I was all, MINE! And then there were little purple eggplant in the next bucket, and I was like, HEY THESE MATCH!

And then I got them home and I was like, SO NOW WHAT? Eggplant... pepper... hey, and I have those oven-dried tomatoes still in the fridge, marinating in oil... oh! Ratatouille. Well, obviously.

For dessert, a gorgeous, perfect apple pie, made in penance for the one that I totally screwed up at my parents' house a few weekends ago. I got it right this time, starting with the Pillsbury pie crust fresh from my grocer's freezer. (I hate to admit it, but I think pie dough is one of those things that really isn't better homemade. Or at least not in my home.)

I'd intended to make Four and Twenty Blackbirds' amazing Salted Caramel Apple Pie, but when I picked up the sugar bowl to start making caramel, I realized that I was very low on sugar - and didn't want to risk the last scant cup of sugar in my house in a potentially dicey caramel-making endeavor. But I'd already sliced the apples - on a mandolin, no less - and time was running out. So I went where I always go when I need a recipe that I'm sure will be absolutely perfect: Smitten Kitchen. I used Deb's Apple Pie recipe with only a few slight changes - I added a teaspoon of vanilla and an extra tablespoon of flour and substituted a full teaspoon of fleur de sel for the quarter teaspoon of regular salt. (I also used a different kind of apple, though I've now forgotten which kind. I'm kicking myself, for real.)

This was the first time I'd ever actually followed a recipe for apple pie, and boy, was it worth it. Look at this thing!

Look at it! All browned and sugary and flaky and delicious... and look at the inside, too! LOOK!

Oh man, perfectly tender, compact layers of apple filling and thickened juices just gooey enough, scented with just enough cinnamon and vanilla... this is quite possibly the best apple pie I have ever made. I cannot stop eating it. Honestly, if there's a better apple pie in the world, I don't want to know about it. Oh, and it makes your house smell kind of amazing while it's baking, too. So... you should definitely make one. Today.

And one final dish: My lovely and talented friend Emily and I have recently announced our newest culinary venture - the Whiskey & Salt Supper Club! If my ideas are intriguing to you and you wish to subscribe to my newsletter... or if you just want to eat some delicious food, with a menu prepared and executed by Emily and I, drink some fabulous cocktails and meet some fun folks around the dinner table, head over to and sign up for our email list! We'll keep you posted on how you can attend our first event, currently scheduled for December 3rd.

the way I've always made it - three to four servings

one small-to-medium eggplant
one medium-to-large zucchini
one bell pepper (I generally use red, but obviously substituted purple here)
(optional - three oven-dried plum tomato halves)
one clove of garlic
one 14 oz can of crushed tomatoes
olive oil
herbes de provence, either a commercial mixture or a homemade one including rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano and fennel seed

Cut eggplant and zucchini into medium dice. Cut bell pepper into short, thin strips. Mince garlic. Heat a generous amount of olive oil (three to four tablespoons) in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat and saute eggplant four to five minutes, until golden and tender. Remove eggplant to a bowl and add zucchini, bell pepper and garlic to the remaining oil in the pan. (Add more olive oil if necessary.) Sprinkle lavishly with herbes de provence and cook until zucchini is tender. Add eggplant back to the pot, along with crushed tomato (and dried tomato, if using). Reduce heat to a simmer, add salt and pepper and taste for seasoning, adjusting if necessary. Cover and simmer for an hour or more, stirring occasionally and adding a small amount of water if the stew becomes too thick.

Monday, October 3, 2011

My gentleman friend and I went upstate this weekend to visit my family - including my Uncle Richard, who was in town for the weekend. Spending time with my folks is always fun, but this time, I had an ulterior motive - I wanted to get some apple picking done!

My plans were almost foiled, however, when we woke up on Saturday morning to a steady drizzle and an even more depressing forecast - rain, rain, rain! Luckily, us farm folk (and the one Brooklyn boy among us) are made of hearty stock... so we put on some sneakers and headed out to the orchard.

At Stone Ridge Orchards, the trees were bursting with fruit and the place was practically deserted. (Thanks, rain!) Ed and I picked a full bushel, pausing every now and then to munch on a crisp, sweet Empire apple, and then we headed back into Kingston for groceries - and hot apple cider doughnuts, fresh out of the fryer and thickly coated in cinnamon sugar - at Adam's.

Once home, the whole family pitched in to turn our bounty of apples into delicious treats - a thick, cinnamon-laden applesauce; an even thicker and richer slow-cooker apple butter; and an apple pie with a sadly tough and flavorless crust. (Cook's Illustrated, how could you fail me so?! Vodka pie dough sounded like such a brilliant idea, but wound up just being a waste of my mom's fancy vodka.)

But at least the first two projects turned out flawlessly! I am really loving this applesauce, which Ed and I ate for dinner tonight on top of potato pancakes (made with CSA potaters!) with a big dollop of sour cream. The apple butter is also super duper good, and crazy easy to make. You just peel and core about 20 - 25 apples and put them in a slow cooker with about two cups of sugar and any spices you're into (my mom added cinnamon, but I like my apple butter sans additional spice). Put the slow cooker on high for about an hour to break everything down, then turn it down to low and ride it out, stirring every now and then. Proper apple-butter-ization happens somewhere between the 12th and 24th hour. (If yours is particularly watery after around the 8th hour, you can balance the lid half-on, half-off the crock to allow some moisture to evaporate.)

Not all of the apples went into the sauce and butter though - I knew I wanted to bring some home for caramel apples! I'd never successfully made caramel before, though, and I knew it would be a tall order. And a tall order it was, indeed. At first, my caramel looked and smelled delicious, but wound up setting way too thick and hard. (Uh, that's what she said?) It was tooth cracking hard. Almost Werther's caramel candy hard. My apples were ruined! My beautiful apples!

Determined to make it work, I peeled the too-hard caramel coating off the dipped apples and melted it down in the microwave with a little more heavy cream. With a lot of patience and a lot of stirring, I wound up with this:

A slightly-too-sticky and loose but beautifully flavored caramel clinging to a gorgeous, fresh apple. In case you're curious, I used this caramel apple recipe from Martha Stewart Weddings. I'm not really sure exactly where I went wrong, but I suspect that the fault lies with my candy thermometer - I think it tends to read cooler than the actual mixture is. (Boring side note: when I was boiling sugar for the French buttercream in the last entry, my sugar was actually reaching the hard crack stage when the thermometer said it was in the soft ball stage. Clearly, I need a new candy thermometer.)

Finally, a kiss goodbye to tomato season. Red and yellow plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt, pepper and thyme:

And roasted at 400 degrees for 45 minutes:

I haven't figured out what to do with these yet, but I have a feeling they go pretty well with just about everything.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fall is here! (Well, more or less.)

I am so ready to say goodbye to subway station saunas, sidewalks that feel like rotisseries and sweaty bangs plastered to my forehead - and say hello to piles of crisp apples at the greenmarket, hot spiced cider with bourbon and finally getting to wear my favorite cozy gray sweater. Oh, and soup!

Like this rich, spicy corn and crab bisque, which made quick work of a ton of CSA ingredients. A bunch of onions, five ears of corn, two banana peppers, one large yellow pepper and two big cloves of garlic went into the bubbling pot of soup - and if I wasn't living with a confirmed cilantro-hater, I might have put some of our cilantro in, too.

The bisque is seriously awesome - with two cups of cream and another two of whole milk, it's definitely not health food, but it is warm and spicy and lovely - exactly what you want to come home to after a cool, rainy day. I made a few changes to the recipe for convenience - substituting chicken stock for fish stock and leaving out the crab boil and Worcestershire sauce. I also added sliced grape tomato for garnish, because while this soup tastes great, it is decidedly un-photogenic and I hoped that a garnish might distract from that. (Did it work?!)

This next photo should be a little easier on the eyes:

Hello, gorgeous! That right there is a white chocolate and raspberry cake I made for a colleague's fortieth-work-anniversary party. As usual, I was besieged by one problem after another while baking this cake - I realized (too late) the recipe I had called for three eight-inch cake pans, while I only had two nine-inch ones; one cake baked up severely lopsided; the top layer of cake basically turned into crumbs when I tried to place in on top of the buttercream-and-jam-filled layers. In the end, though, it tasted brilliant and wound up looking pretty beautiful. The French buttercream frosting was flavored with framboise (for the layers) and melted white chocolate (for the outer frosting) and layered with raspberry jam from the greenmarket. Um... yes, please.

I only rarely have the time, patience or occasion for such elaborate baking, though - which is why I'm glad for recipes like this plum crostada.

It's so easy, especially with a pre-made pie crust. (I dig Trader Joe's, since it comes in a nice flat round instead of pre-tucked into a pie plate.) Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Take about a pound of ripe plums - these are Italian prune plums - and slice them into quarters. Toss with 1/4 c. sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla and a light sprinkle of cinnamon. Lay your pie crust out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and heap the plums into the middle, leaving a two inch border of crust. Fold your crust upwards over the plums, pleating as necessary, then sprinkle crust and plums with sugar and pop your crostada into the oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until crust is golden brown and fruit looks cooked. Serve warm or cool, by itself or with some softly whipped cream.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Antipasto Salad

"What's for dinner tonight?" Ed asked this morning.

"Well, we've got that eggplant and all of those tomatoes to use," I said, "and that jar of artichokes and some leftover salami, so I thought I'd make an antipasto salad."

"JUST a SALAD?" he asked incredulously. "No meat?!"

"I said salami!" I protested. Ed looked dubious, nevertheless.

But when he saw tonight's salad piled up on his plate, he was like, "Oh. Actually that looks kind of great."

And it really was kind of great - crispy fried eggplant, soft mild mozzarella cheese, roasted red peppers, chunks of salami, artichoke hearts and super ripe tomatoes, drenched in balsamic vinegar, salt and freshly ground pepper. I wanted one last awesome salad-for-dinner before the fall arrives for real, in all of its slow-cooker stews and warm applesauce glory - and with eggplant, peppers and tomato, this salad is an awesome way to put September produce to work.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The last few weeks haven't been the best in my kitchen; a week of vacation was followed by a week of post-vacation stress and a giant hurricane. Of course, in preparation for said hurricane, I cranked up the temperature in my fridge and freezer in the hopes that if we lost power, things would stay cool for longer. I didn't anticipate the fact that this would freeze everything in my refrigerator, turning a pound of crisp, gorgeous green beans and juicy red peppers into limp, icy garbage. Sad trombone!

I do have some odds and ends to show you, though.

First up... the inaugural edition of Kathryn Brings Lunch to Work!

This is an heirloom tomato salad with mozzarella, a few slices of salami and some quick pickled onions, which are so great on salad. (Or hot dogs. Or anything, really.) To quick pickle onions, I use David Lebovitz's recipe as a guide and whatever seasonings I have on hand. This time I added bay leaf, peppercorns and some red pepper flakes. Yum!

Next up on the decks we have a carrot soup with greek yogurt and bacon-sea salt croutons from Bien Cuit.

I didn't really follow a recipe for this, which ultimately was a mistake. The soup came out thin and not very flavorful. I'd boiled a bunch of carrots in what was probably too much chicken broth with half an onion and a few cloves of garlic, then pureed it and swirled in greek yogurt. Not such a success. Next time, I'll follow an actual recipe, and I'll probably add a stronger flavor like ginger to give the soup some punch. The carrot-crouton combination, though, is a keeper. (And man, are those croutons good!)

Hurricane preparation kit, Cooking Inside the Box style. Netflix, bottled water... and a delicious swiss chard and wheatberry salad. I've been obsessed with wheatberries lately - they're one of the tastiest whole grains out there, chewy and nutty and great warm or cold - and I thought this salad would be hearty enough to stand up to a few hours sans refrigeration. Even though our power never went out, it was still a good hearty dinner for a rainy evening.

For this particular salad, I cooked down a bunch of swiss chard with a bit of onion and some olive oil, then added in two cups of cooked wheatberries, a handful of toasted pine nuts, nearly a cup of golden raisins, more olive oil, balsamic and salt and pepper. I also made another wheatberry salad last week with sauteed baby zucchini, walnuts, mint and goat cheese. Both salads were definitely keepers!

For dinner tonight, I made this corn spoonbread with my four (!!!) ears of CSA corn. I followed this recipe from Real Simple, which turned out good, but not exactly what I'd expected. I think I was looking for something a little bit sweeter - I might add a little bit of sugar next time, and leave out the thyme. It was pretty good anyway, especially alongside roasted chicken with homemade gravy and an easy salad of grape tomatoes and balsamic vinegar.

Finally, my most successful chocolate cake to date:

Two of my closest friends, B. of Sparrows & Spatulas and her husband Matt, are moving across the country, so a few of our friends decided to throw them a going away party. We did it potluck-style, all the better to show off the culinary stylings of some of our very, very talented friends. (Homemade spanakopita? Corn and basil salad? The best jerk chicken I've ever had outside of Peppa's? Yes please!) My contribution was this cake - devil's food cake soaked with salted caramel, layered with whipped chocolate ganache and frosted with a classic French buttercream.

Baking doesn't come naturally to me, but I really love my sweets, and I'd like to get to a point in my life where I make most of my own sugary treats. (Face it, as much as I love to cook, I'm less inclined to whip up a batch of cupcakes on a Wednesday night than I am to just run to the bodega for some Hostess ones.) The dangerous part of learning how to make, of course, is having the delicious results of one's lessons sitting around in one's refrigerator, tempting one out of bed in the middle of the night for just-one-more-sliver. So a party was a perfect excuse to drag out the massive Baking by James Peterson and make something rich, chocolatey and lovely. (NB to anyone using this cookbook: the professional buttercream recipe calls for 1 1/4 lbs. of butter, then tells you that this amounts to 1 1/2 cups of butter. That is not true. The recipe requires 1 1/4 pounds of butter, though if you - like me - err on the side of less butter and only add 1 1/2 cups, your frosting will be runny but fine.)

So we all gathered on our colleague's beautiful penthouse terrace, and we ate each other's food and we had a little wine, and we watched the children play and we watched the setting sun, and we said goodbye to our amazing, wonderful friends. Of course, it isn't really goodbye - it's really more like, in the immortal words of Nelson Muntz, "smell ya later." We know they'll be back to visit! How do I know?

Because, come on. No one can resist another slice of this cake!

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Pie for Mikey

This week, my fellow food blogger Jennifer Perillo's beloved husband, Mikey, died of a sudden heart attack. Word of her tragedy quickly spread throughout the food-blogosphere as her friends and fellow bloggers rushed to try to help, to sign up for a homemade food delivery rotation, to ask what they could do to help. Jennie answered that question with this blog post, saying, "For those asking what they can do to help my healing process, make a peanut butter pie this Friday and share it with someone you love. Then hug them like there's no tomorrow because today is the only guarantee we can count on."

I don't know Jennifer or her family, but - like hundreds of other people who have heard her story in the last few days - I wanted to join in the chorus of people making peanut butter pies for Mikey. Jennie's request reminds me of the Raymond Carver story, A Small Good Thing. That story has always been a sure-fire tear-jerker for me: I cry not just for the devastated, angry parents of a child who has passed away, but also for the lonely, furious baker - childless, never married, apparently without friends or loved ones of his own. He bakes the cakes for other people's celebrations - the children's birthdays he will never celebrate, the anniversaries and graduations and weddings. And though I have always known how incredibly surrounded by love and wonderful friends and family I have always been... in my loneliest and most self-pitying moments, I have felt like I was the baker. That I was somehow destined to bake the wedding cakes for other people, but never for myself.

In the end of Raymond Carver's story, they come together - the lonely baker, the grieving parents - and in a crescendo of love and forgiveness, the baker serves the couple their first meal since the death of their son. He feeds them hot sweet rolls and coffee, and he says to them, "You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this."

How very true that is. And so I make this pie in hopes that it will be a small, good thing for Jennifer and her daughters. I hope that she will find comfort in its making, and in its sharing, and in the hundreds of bloggers who are coming together today to make a peanut butter pie for Mikey.

And I will share it with my Steady Eddie, a man who not only loves a good peanut butter dessert, but has managed to transform a lonely baker into a woman who believes in love with every bit of her cynical little heart.

Edited to add: Bloggers Without Borders has established #afundforJennie - a place where you can make contributions directly to Jennie Perillo, if you wish to do so. Go to for more information and to make a donation.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Three summer salads

My appetite, like most people's, is dictated by the seasons. In the winter, I crave thick, warming stews, big chunks of meat and bowls of creamy soup. In the summer, though, I'm dreaming of salads. These three salads are all relatively quick and simple, and they make use of the season's most gorgeous produce.


Every year, I look forward to corn and tomato salad. When corn comes into season, it's every bit as juicy and sweet as a ripe tomato, and when you combine them with each other... spectacular! It's like everything that's good about August - backyard barbecues, swimming pools and fireflies at dusk... even if you're sitting in your apartment in the middle of the city. This salad can take a lot of creativity, so feel free to change it up. Use different herbs, subtract the bacon, add some cheese, throw some other veggies in... with a base this good, it's pretty hard to mess it up.

Corn and Tomato Salad
serves two

2 ears of corn on the cob, shucked
one large tomato (or two or three smaller ones)
two or three slices of bacon (I like three, cause, you know... baaacon)
fresh oregano
fresh basil
olive oil
balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

Fry bacon strips until crispy. While the bacon is cookin', bring a large pot of water to a boil and boil corn until it's done. (Four or five minutes.) Remove corn and let it cool off. While you're waiting for the corn to cool off, chop the tomato into small chunks and chiffonade the herbs. Then go ahead and cut the kernels of corn off the cob. Whisk up a quick vinaigrette in a large bowl; I go a little heavy on the vinegar for this salad, so probably a 2:1 ratio of balsamic to olive oil. Mix everything together, season with salt and pepper and voila. You made corn and tomato salad!


I had some CSA beets to use last week and I wanted to make them into a salad slightly more interesting than the classic beet-and-goat-cheese one. Using my awesome Googling powers, I came across a bunch of recipes for beet and avocado salads. Sounds good, I thought, and scurried to the grocery store to pick up an avocado. I started slicing things up for the salad on my butcher block right next to the bowl of nectarines I'd just picked up at the farmer's market, and inspiration struck. Thus, I give you:

Avocado, Beet and Nectarine Salad
serves two

two or three large beets, or an equivalent amount of smaller ones, roasted
one avocado
two nectarines
lettuce or salad greens
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 T olive oil
1 t honey

First, roast those beets in a 375-degree oven for about an hour. Then, in a medium sized bowl, combine balsamic, olive oil and honey and whisk until combined. Mix the salad greens with the balsamic vinaigrette and salt in the bowl, then distribute them to your plates. Top with sliced beets, nectarines and half an avocado. Dinner is done. This could also use some goat cheese, if that's how you roll.


And finally, the kind of salad that I always see in those fancy pants farm-to-table sorts of Brooklyn restaurants and always want to order despite knowing I could make it myself at home for like, five dollars. Sorry, Franny's, I love you dearly but... tonight I make my own small plates!

Golden Beet and Green Bean Salad
hazelnut, whipped ricotta, fried zucchini blossom
serves two

two or three large golden beets
half a pound of green beans, trimmed and cut into 2" lengths
ricotta cheese
toasted hazelnuts (you can toast them in the microwave by zapping a handful on high for a minute at a time until them smell awesome, usually less than 2 minutes total)
balsamic vinaigrette, as above
zucchini blossoms
oil for frying (vegetable oil works best, though olive oil will do... just be careful, because it gets smoky)

Roast the beets wrapped in foil at 375 degrees for about an hour. When they're done, it's time to get going - cut the beets up into chunks, then steam the green beans for five minutes or so. Mix the green beans and the beet chunks with the vinaigrette, then distribute to their respective plates. Top with a scoop of ricotta and some hazelnuts, which you should probably chop up pretty well. To fry the zucchini blossoms: heat about 1/2" of oil in a frying pan over medium to medium high heat. Then - combine about 1 c. of flour with a roughly equal amount of seltzer and mix well. You want the batter to be the consistency of pancake syrup - thick but definitely liquid. Dip the blossoms in the batter, coating well, then drop into the hot oil and fry those puppies til they're done. Drain them on a paper towel and salt them well, then arrange them on the plate with the salad. Gorgeous! Take that, $14 appetizer!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tonight's dinner: brought to you by puff pastry

With each CSA vegetable we receive, there's always a certain point where you've gotten so much of it, you feel like it's just coming out of your ears and you have no idea what to do with it anymore. That's how I felt about summer squash - until I found this recipe for a summer squash tart on a puff pastry base. Sold! I changed it up a little bit, though - adding hazelnuts and thyme, subtracting feta cheese - so I'll post my adapted recipe below. It ended up being really good - though, of course, it's pretty hard for anything on top of buttery, flaky puff pastry to be actually bad.

We ate this for dinner tonight along with a chilled yogurt and cucumber soup with shrimp from Ina Garten via Sparrows and Spatulas. Ed thought it tasted like tzatziki sauce; I thought it was more like something I'd expect to find at an IKEA summer smorgasbord. We both liked it a lot, though - it's exactly the kind of cool, refreshing supper you want to have in the sweltering evenings of July and August.

And then, dessert. I'd bought a bunch of plums at the market this morning, intending to bake them into a moist, rich almond cake. But once I got home and started looking around for recipes, I couldn't seem to find one that I was really excited about. Plum and almond tarts, on the other hand...

These couldn't be easier to make, and they taste almost as good as any fancy bakery tart I've ever had. The plums are tart and juicy, the frangipane rich and sweet and the pastry crisp and tender. A little sprinkling of powdered sugar provides the literal icing on the cake. These will be perfect for breakfast in the morning - if they survive the night, that is.

Summer Squash Tart
serves four hungry people or six people of normal appetite

1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 c. ricotta cheese
1 egg
1 small bunch of parsley
1 medium onion, sliced
2 or 3 medium sized zucchini or summer squash (I used a mix of yellow zucchini and squash)
olive oil
1 small bunch of thyme
1/4 c. hazelnuts, toasted

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg and parsley. Add salt (generously) and pepper to taste; set aside. Thinly slice the onion and cook with a splash of olive oil over medium high heat until caramelized - about eight to ten minutes. Slice squash into thin rounds. (I used the largest setting on my mandoline; slices should be less than 1/4" thick.)

Lay the puff pastry on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat and cover with ricotta mixture, leaving a 1/2" border for a crust. Add sliced squash and make a pretty pattern. Now step back and admire your work for a moment. Aww, that looks lovely! Okay, keep moving - pour a bit of olive oil into a bowl and brush it over the top of the tart until each slice of squash is just glistening. Top with stripped thyme leaves and pop it into the oven until the squash is tender and the edges of the pastry are golden-brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and top with toasted hazelnuts. Let cool slightly before serving.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The first BLT of summer...

Two slices of lightly toasted Bread Alone peasant bread. A handful of lettuce leaves from the CSA. Three slices of salty bacon, cooked crisp. A lavish swipe of mayo. And finally, the star of the show, one ugly, gnarled, oddly colored heirloom tomato, sliced thin and sprinkled with salt.

Assemble into a sandwich, cut diagonally, take a bite and go to sandwich heaven.

Repeat daily.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cherry bomb!

It was cherry season, and then it wasn't anymore.

Of course, instead of living in the now of the farmer's market, I spent the first few weeks of cherry season mourning the end of strawberry season and dwelling on all of the pints of strawberry jam I didn't get to can, and strawberry cakes I didn't get to bake, and so on and so forth until last week when I made those two awesome cherry jams. And then I was like, "wait a minute.... I love cherries!"

I spent the week plotting out the bazillions of things I would do with the tons and tons of cherries I would buy at this week's market: cherry pie, cherry ice cream, chocolate cherry preserves... and more! I would frolic in fields full of cherry trees and swim in rivers of pure red cherry juice! It would be cherry flavored heaven! So Saturday morning, I grabbed my largest bag, a ridiculous sum of money and skipped over to the farmer's market to find.....



After inquiring at all of the regular stands, I learned that cherry season was over. Finito. No mas. Oh, well, off to Whole Foods, then, where at least the sour cherries they sell are from Red Jacket Orchards - though they are crazy expensive, which swiftly squashed my dreams of cherry-flavored grandeur. Don't worry, though - I picked up enough of them for a scaled down version of Cherrypalooza 2011, starting with sour cherry sorbet!

This might be the first time that my ice cream maker actually made a frozen dessert that I would happily share with my friends. (Previous attempts have been too shamefully crappy to even discuss in public.) The sorbet was great, though. I used the proportions from Thomas Keller's Bouchon, a beautiful coffee-table cookbook full of perfectly executed bistro classics. Two pounds of fruit, one and a quarter cups of sugar and two tablespoons of lime juice, whirled in the blender, chilled and then frozen in the ice cream maker. So simple and so good. The resulting sorbet is a vibrant magenta color, fairly well-balanced if a touch too sweet, and lusciously textured. If I do this over, I think I'd reduce the sugar to a cup - though I have more of a sweet tooth than most, I crave tart more than sugary in the dog days of summer.

My next project was maraschino cherries. Though I completely adore the awful, neon-red, corn-syrup soaked maraschino cherries one finds in jars, on sundaes and at the bottom of whiskey sours, I can reluctantly agree that red dye is probably not the best thing for me to be putting into my body. (And certainly not as frequently as whiskey sours are consumed in the Cooking Inside the Box household!) So I decided to make my own, with this recipe from the New York Times.

I settled down in front of a Bridezillas marathon (heaven!) with my cherry pitter and got to work. Once I had a pound or so of pitted sour cherries collected in a half-gallon mason jar, I boiled up a cup of Luxardo maraschino liqueur and poured it over the cherries. Three days later, I had perfect cherries for a perfect cocktail.

I'd seen other recipes that called for sugar syrup, almond extract or other types of alcohol - amaretto or brandy or cherry heering - but decided to start with the classic preparation. I totally dig it! The cherries are sweet and boozy, though not cloying at all. I see a lot of extra-delicious whiskey sours in my future.

I also started a cherry bounce, following this recipe from the Runaway Spoon. Bourbon, sugar and sweet cherries - I can't wait to try it! Sadly, though, I've got to wait til Thanksgiving or so - cherry bounce apparently takes a long time to properly infuse. It'll be so cool, though, to open this stuff up in November and be able to taste the summer all over again. And with bourbon, too!

Finally, the final few sweet cherries went into a fruit crisp with those blueberries I picked up this weekend. (Despite my disappointment about the cherries, I still managed to stock up on the berry du jour.) It's deeply purple, soft and sweet, warm and comforting. I try to temper the fruity part of fruit crisp with lemon juice and only a small sprinking of sugar but I really go to town with the crispy topping: gobs of butter, showers of sugar and oats and cinnamon. This stuff is good warm out of the oven but even better the next morning on unsweetened Greek yogurt. Crisp for breakfast? Why not? It's, uh... it's local, right? So it must be healthy!

That's right. Support your local farmer - eat dessert for breakfast.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Last week's CSA bounty included a single zucchini, which I'd intended to make into Marcella Hazan's zucchini and bacon sauce for pasta. But while I was researching upstate New York restaurant menus - and dreaming of opening my own little farm to table cafe somewhere along the Hudson River - I came across a grilled zucchini, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar crostini that sounded just fantastic. It was perfect timing, too, since I'd just picked up a small bottle of really good balsamic from an Italian imports store in Providence, Rhode Island, and I was itching to try it out.

After a long day of brunching, Smorgasburg-ing and walking around Williamsburg with Emily, I came home with just enough energy left to pan fry the zucchini, smear a bit of goat cheese on a baguette and drizzle some balsamic on top of everything. Finito!

Speaking of Emily, check out this duo of cherry jams that I made! The first, balsamic cherry preserves, is a recipe that I first saw on Emily's blog. She is a jam-maker and canner extraordinaire, and as soon as I saw this, I was like, "Droooool... I have to make this!" And oh, man, am I glad I did! This jam comes out fabulous - deeply flavored and sweet with a bit of a mellow balsamic tang. And as good as it is on jam, I think this would be amazing as a sandwich spread with some savory ingredients - duck breast, maybe, or smoked turkey or a salty, smoky piece of ham.

The brighter jam on the bottom is made with the sour cherries that I'd picked up at the Smorgasburg farmer's market. (Along with this awesome cherry pitter from the Brooklyn Kitchen, which I really couldn't recommend more. It makes the tedious chore of pitting cherries into something approximating fun. Or at the very least, not un-fun.) I also got a little bit cocky and decided to follow David Lebovitz's no-recipe recipe for cherry jam. It worked out perfectly, right down to the tell-tale hot jam on a frozen plate nudge-and-wrinkle to indicate that the jelly had jelled. It is crazy good jam, too, packed full of that bright, tart cherry flavor you get in a really good country diner's cherry pie. (In fact, it was so great that I think I might just make myself a cherry pie this weekend, while cherries are still in the market!)

Finally, check it out: I managed to use my kohlrabi this time! AND my garlic scapes! I feel like I should get some kind of award or something. Kohlrabi are tough, man. Last year, at one of the early CSA pickups, Ed looked at one of those bright purple alien spaceship-looking vegetables and said, "What the hell do you do with this?"

"Mostly I throw them out, " Matt replied. I sheepishly nodded my head in agreement.

But not this time! I'd read a couple of recipes for P.F. Chang-style "Asian" chicken wraps before making my own, and a bunch of those recipes called for water chestnuts. I like the crunch and mild flavor of water chestnuts, but I didn't really want to go buy a whole can of them just to get a half cup of so to mix with the chicken. That's when it hit me - kohlrabi! It has the texture of a water chestnut with a slightly stronger - though still not dominating - flavor... it would be the perfect substitute! And sure enough, it was.

None of the recipes I'd read really called to me, so I kind of improvised my own - I sauteed the kohlrabi and a sliced garlic scape with a bit of oil, then added a pound of ground chicken and broke it up with a wooden spoon as it cooked. After the chicken was fully cooked, I added half a cup of so of a sauce that was basically equal parts rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil and sriracha with a ton of fresh grated ginger and black pepper. I let the chicken mixture bubble for another few moments, then took it off the heat and served it with romaine lettuce leaves, a little more sauce for dipping and a quick-pickled cucumber salad - made with a CSA cucumber, no less! - with rice wine vinegar, sugar, salt and water.

Yum! This was spicy and refreshing at the same time, full of ginger and sweet, cool cucumber. It does take a bit of preparation time and some toiling over a hot stove time, too, but it's still an awesome summer weeknight dinner.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Readers, I am about to tell you a very long story with a lot of digressions. Stay with me, though, because this is what you get at the end:

Our story begins with a bunch of arugula from this week's CSA pickup. Normally, salad greens like arugula are sort of a relief for me - I don't have to do anything more creative than whisk up a vinaigrette and may throw some cheese or some nuts or some other stuff on top. Boom! Dinner is served. But there's something about arugula that throws me off. I love the slightly bitter taste, but the texture... not so much. Arugula pesto makes quick work of that problem, though - once the slippery leaves are whirled around in a food processor with walnuts and pecorino cheese and a tiny bit of raw garlic and lots and lots of olive oil, they're completely transformed.

Now what to do with this pesto?

I had picked up some cheese tortellini after work on Friday, knowing that I was heading upstate to go strawberry picking on Sunday with my better half Ed, Emily of Nomnivorous and her friend Autumn. We'd all talked about packing picnic food and I thought a cold tortellini salad would be an easy way to make something sort of compact and filling and a little more interesting than a sandwich. I also thought it would be something that would be relatively easy to eat, should we find ourselves running late, needing to haul ass back to Brooklyn to get the Zipcar back on time and picnicking in a Honda Civic. (Which is, of course, exactly what happened. And yes, in case you were wondering, tortellini is very easy to eat while you're going 85 on the Thruway, especially when your partner shoves forkfuls of it into your mouth from the passenger seat.)

So anyway, we set off on this delightful fool's errand for the love of cheap strawberries. But not just strawberries, of course - we spent far more in expenses to get to our $2.75/lb strawberries than we saved, in the end. But oh, what we gained - a lovely morning drive up through the Catskill mountains, an hour and some change in the fields, getting our hands all stained with pink strawberry juice, straightening up to gaze at the ridiculously idyllic meadows and barn with a silo and pond with two geese... and then three heart-pounding, clock watching hours stuck in Sunday afternoon traffic back to New York, during which I made up all kinds of new swear words and used old ones in new ways. Sure, we could have gone to the farmer's market, picked up a few quarts of strawberries and said to the farmer, "Hey, do you mind if I pay you double for these guys?" But it wouldn't have been the same. It wouldn't have been An Experience.

You know what else is An Experience? Making strawberry jam. Don't get me wrong, I totally love the process and the result and I'm sure I'll be doing this once a year for as long as my pancreas holds out, but let me tell you. It is some hard work. I had originally intended to make a whole ton of jam and share with all of my friends and family, but after spending three hours tonight on a batch of jam that yielded three half-pint jars? Yeah, hell no. This shit is not leaving my kitchen. I didn't work this hard studying for the bar exam.

Anyway, about that pie. One thing that you may or may not know about me is that I am very into pie. I know that everyone is now into pie, and pie is the new cupcakes and all of that, but seriously, you can totally ask my mom, I have always been very into pie. Another thing that I'm really into is vintage cookbooks. I try to steal my mom's ancient seventies-era Betty Crocker cookbook every time I'm at her house, but she's learned and now she searches my luggage for purloined cookbooks on my way out. When Ed and I were in New Orleans, we stumbled across this amazing store called The Kitchen Witch or something like that, and it was full of old cookbooks and Junior League recipe binders and stuff like that, and everything was dirt cheap and I absolutely could not believe my good fortune. But I didn't want to carry stuff around so we left without buying anything and all week I was like "WE HAVE TO GO BACK THERE" but we never made it, so now we just have to go back to New Orleans. Which shouldn't be a problem because, hello, New Orleans.

Wow, I digress and we're not even halfway to the pie yet. So Jessica brought me this raspberry cream pie from Briermere Farms on Long Island the other day and it was so good, I can't even describe it. And I want to recreate it SO BAD, because Riverhead is so far away and as it turns out, Zipcars just give me mild anxiety attacks about being charged for late returns, so the likelihood of me getting another pie any time soon is very, very low. So... I Googled. And picked the recipe for berry cream pie which sounded the most like the Briermere Farms pie, though - spoiler alert! - in the end it turned out to not be much like it at all.

Here is where our story all comes together - this recipe for Strawberry Cream Pie is actually from a 1960's era Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. I found the recipe on The Cooking Photographer's blog, and the writer mentions that by the seventies, BH&G had revamped their cookbooks to include easier, quicker recipes for the working woman of that era. I can see why - after a long day at work, shoving pastry cream through a sieve and boiling down strawberries and cornstarch into a glaze - not to even mention the cutting and arranging of the strawberry petals - made me want to go back in time and give Betty Friedan a giant hug. But there's also something kind of cool about making something so labor intensive and retro and ultimately very pretty. I could totally see myself in 1959, putting on a frilly apron and heels and meeting my man at the door with this pie and a cold martini.

In 2011, though, I think I'd better just do the dishes before he gets home.