Wednesday, December 21, 2011

the appeal of a peel

The countdown to the big day has begun. For my holiday celebration this means hosting 25 guests for a sit down Christmas dinner on Sunday.  My little house in Queens will be bulging at the bricks. I am counting chairs and hoping for the best.

At this time of year any helpful hints are welcome. My email inbox is flooded with food related newsletters and links to food blogs and websites.  Serious Eats always has at least one or two good articles each week to check out and it is worth becoming a member of their online community to gain access to informative and often amusing articles and videos. This week's article 60+ Holiday Snacks in 20 minutes or less is definitely worth a click through if you have any entertaining to do this weekend. It offers clever, simple ideas to help keep your sanity and make you look like a pro.

Another Serious Eats article that caught my eye, this one from a few weeks ago: How to send wine back without looking like a jerk.  It is in the form of a short video and gives a reassuring strategy on how to handle what could be an uncomfortable situation. The title alone was worth a smile.

Meanwhile, I am baking and braising and boiling and even burning a few things. Some of my cookie batches stayed in the oven too long. I also burned a batch of pistachio brittle while trying out a new microwave cooking method. Next time I am returning to the tried and true stove top with candy thermometer old school approach. Burn and learn.
One fail-proof recipe I come back to, every Christmas since I first encountered it, is candied grapefruit peel. Fun to make and very pleasurable to eat these candies are part my annual gift packages. The peels are pretty and tart and you can't seem to eat just one even as you promise yourself to save a few for tomorrow.

I like to use pink grapefruits not for the skin so much, but for the ravishing color of the interiors. Choose large fruit with fleshy skin. The pink sections will make a lovely fruit salad, especially pretty if you stir in some scarlet pomegranate seeds or slices of kumquat.

To make the candy:
Cut the grapefruit skin into strips and bring to a boil starting from a pot of cold water. When the water comes to a boil let the peels boil for five minutes, then drain and repeat the process two more times. This will help get rid of some of the bitterness.

Drain the peels and weight them (my peels, from three large grapefruits, weighed just over a pound)  Put the peels in a sauce pan with an equal weight of sugar (the sugar measured about 1.5 cups. You can use this as a proportions guide if you don't have a scale without compromising the results at all). Add a little water to help the sugar melt. Bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes until the peels become transparent.
Remove peels from the syrup with a slotted spoon and allow to drain and dry a bit on a rack.
When the peels have cooled and are still tacky, roll them in more granulated sugar and serve or package to give away as gifts. Your recipients will be very grateful!

Happy Christmas every one!

Friday, December 16, 2011

let there be latkes

December roses still blooming in my front garden.
It's hard to take the winter holidays seriously when it is so warm outside. A white Christmas seems highly unlikely this year. Next week Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins its eight day run featuring dreidels, candles and a gift each day for the children who celebrate.
But it is the potato pancakes that define the eating experience of this holiday; I look forward to making a big batch every year. My family will be eating them tonight while we decorate our Christmas tree. It seems like the perfect way to enjoy the best of the holiday season!
For a very cute history of potato pancakes, or latkes, which includes the beheading of Holofernes by Judith, check out this link.

Applesauce is the traditional condiment for latkes, but I thought I would try something different this year, something fruity, but with a little more interest.

I have mean meaning to try Chef Dona Abramson's Roasted Pear-Tomatillo Salsa, a recipe that was featured in the NY Times several years ago. I pulled out the yellow clipping that has been lurking in my recipe files; now was the time to finally use it. The simple recipe took no time to prepare. It calls for whole coriander seeds that get toasted and then finely crushed. This step requires you source the whole seed, something that may not be available in every supermarket. I buy mine in the Indian stores in Jackson Heights, Queens. It is worth seeking them out, as the freshly ground seed gives off a lovely delicate perfume which really defines this salsa.
This salsa has a delicate color and a delicate flavor. The roasted pears give it a nice sweetened depth.

For a variation on potato latkes I substituted grated zucchini for the potato. These pancakes come out a bit lighter. I like to make them bite size and serve as finger food to guests, but larger sized latkes are great as part of a meal.
 A mini zucchini latke with a dollop of Pear-Tomatillo Salsa on top

To make zucchini pancakes:
•grate 1 cup of zucchini and grate one small onion • combine the grated vegetables in a bowl and add 1/4 cup flour, a beaten egg and a pinch of salt • heat cooking oil in a shallow pan • form small patties, about 1 tablespoon in size for bite sized pancakes or 3 tablespoons in size for a larger pancake, and fry in them the hot for about 3 minutes per side till crispy and golden. Drain on a paper towel to absorb any excess oil and serve immediately

Happy Hanukkah everyone!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

in praise of scallions

The tangle of long green tresses just screamed Rapunzel. I had come upon a huge, beautiful bunch of scallions at a farmers market in Florida not long ago, the roots grown together in a matted mass with dirt still clinging to them. What a nice find! I immediately wanted to throw the entire bunch onto a charcoal grill and singe those long oniony locks with grill marks.
 This is a much depleted portion of the original bunch. Most supermarkets trim the tops of scallions so they make a neater package. I love the unruliness of the wilder state.

Scallions are genius.  They hold no glamor in the culinary world, but their versatility and resiliency under just about any cooking technique make them a must have in the kitchen. Throw them in to just about any savory dish and they add a freshness with their gentle bite and bright color. Slice them thin, the perfect round shape is instant eye candy and make a cheery garnish.  Use them raw in a simple green salad to add complexity. Put a single, slender bulb into a blender with oil, vinegar and salt for a salad dressing with a touch of attitude. A scallion or two in scrambled eggs will redefine your breakfast.
Sliced scallions look great on top of just about anything, even my wobbly hand made plate.

Cook them until wilted and add to vegetables, grains, soups, anything!  I rely on scallions to bring an immediacy to meals made from pantry staples like rice and beans.  Sauteed with oil or butter, a handful of scallions will make a satisfying topping for pasta.
Scallions are inexpensive, they easily keep for upwards of two weeks when stored in the fridge and the mild oniony flavor is always welcome. Many recipes call for using only the white part of a scallion, but I use the whole thing, and actually prefer the tender green tops to the white, fleshier bottom.
A bunch of scallions will get you through a long winter and are one of my most dependable ingredients.

Over the summer I took a pottery class at Brick House ceramic art center in Long Island City, an efficiently run studio with a friendly, un-intimidating atmosphere. The knowledgeable instructors at Brick House encouraged us all to be free to create our hearts desire. I compulsively began making serving dishes and bowls featuring undulating scalloped edges. My handbuilding skills are truly rudimentary, but I got deeply engrossed in the process of shaping the wet clay between my fingers and allowing my very relaxed mind to dictate the direction of the creation. The vessels ended up looking like variations of wavy lumps, but I am hooked and can't wait to take class again next summer.
RECIPE: This is a simple combination of sauteed onions and zucchini with a handful of chickpeas and cherry tomatoes bound together with a dollop of tomato sauce (plopped into the center of one of my handmade bowls.) Simmer for a few minutes to meld the flavors and add a large dash of hot sauce and a sprinkle of sliced scallions to bring up the heat.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

contemplating nature and spice

Deborah takes a hike...
The perfect weather this Thanksgiving weekend led me out of doors to walk off some of the holiday meal.  Rockefeller State Park Preserve is touted for its scenic walking trails and it did not disappoint on Saturday when I wandered through the wooded areas taking pictures and enjoying the warm fresh air.
As I composed and shot my photos I began to think about my friend Michele Beck, a visual artist who keenly observes nature with a quiet poetry. Michele's work explores the quirky side of the human impulse to impose our physical presence, and our story telling, on the natural world. She makes these observations sometimes by discovery and sometimes by design, tapping in to spirituality, myth and creation. Her work is very contemplative and inspirational; perfect for a walk in the woods!

These photos, inspired by the work of my friend Michele Beck, were all taken on the 13 Bridges Trail at Rockefeller State Preserve, a two mile loop that was perfect for my casual stroll.

The walking of course made me hungry and it is always time to think about the next meal. A simple saute of vegetables livened up with a spice blend seemed like a good way to segue back into post holiday eating. I had been waiting to try the Moroccan spice blend Ras el Hanout that I had recently received as a gift and this seemed like a perfect occasion.

The blend has many ingredients including allspice, cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, clove and rose petals. I was excited about the rose petals but I have to admit they kind of got lost in the sauce. It seems there are many variations to this blend, not unlike curry powder.

The best way to get to know a spice blend is to use it.  I began by sauteing up some shallots in oil to create some caramelizing, then add the spices and let them simmer in the oil for a few minutes to infuse the oil with their flavor.  I like to let the vegetables cook until just tender so there is still a hint of crunch in the center.
What a shock to discover this morning that the carrot seeds I planted in the spring could actually yield something edible. So exciting!

Any number of vegetable combinations could work with this recipe. I like cauliflower cooked with assertive spices. I think it really holds up to bold flavor. The Ras el Hanout reminded me of a Jamaican jerk spice blend, very floral and woodsy. The carrots added a sweetness and the green beans bring crunch and color. The finished dish was addictive with the robust spice making this light dish really hearty and satisfying.

Mixed Vegetables Seasoned with Ras el Hanout
1 shallot minced
pinch of salt
2 Tbs. canola oil
1 teaspoon Ras el Hanout
1 cup of sliced carrots
1 cup cauliflower broken into florets
1cup of green beans chopped into two inch pieces
1/4 cup water
Juice of 1/2 lemon

•Cook the shallot with a pinch of salt, in the oil for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until the shallots are golden brown and a bit gummy.
•Add the Ras el Hanout and stir to coat the spices completely in the oil. Toast the spices in the oil for 2-3 minutes on a medium heat.
•Add the chopped vegetables and stir to coat with the spice oil. Let the vegetables sit in the hot pan without moving, to get a few brown spots, turning up the heat a bit if you need to. Stir every few minutes until most sides of the vegetables have cooked in contact with the bottom of the pan.
•Add the water, let the water come to a simmer and then cover the pan and allow to cook for 5- 8 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and cooked through. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the vegetables and serve.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Deborah gets ready for a big cooking day...
Just because Thanksgiving is at our doorstep there is no need to panic. The beauty of this cooking-centric holiday is that so much can be done ahead of time. I would like to say, this leaves you free to do other things, but I find it just leaves you free to do more cooking. Ahem.

If you are going to make pies it is worth getting the dough preparation out of the way early.  My pie crusts were made well in advance. The dough gets chilled in the fridge and after an hour can be rolled out and fitted into a pie tin, then frozen till ready to use. I put the fillings into the frozen crust and just throw it in the oven. Voila!

Brussels Sprouts with pecans and lemon zest
Brussels sprouts can be cooked in salted water till tender the night before serving. To finish them, in a large saute pan I toast some chopped pecans in olive oil, add a dash of dried coriander and the jest of a lemon and then throw the Brussels sprouts into the pan to rewarm them, tossing with the seasoned oil. Allow the sprouts to brown in spots and pour a little lemon juice over them at the end of cooking.

Cranberry Sauce is a definite do-ahead, even days in advance. I like to roast the cranberries with a quartered orange, spreading the fruit out on a flat baking sheet covered with a few tablespoons of sugar. The roasting gives an extra depth of flavor to this otherwise ordinary condiment. Roast in a 400 degree oven for about twenty minutes till the cranberries begin to brown a bit and start to pop open. I then transfer everything to a saucepan, add a little water, more sugar and a star anise, and simmer till the cranberries are total mush. Fish out the orange and the star anise before serving.

If you are planning on making a dish with leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, kale or escarole, the greens can be cooked a day in advance and then stored in the fridge till you are ready to finish the dish. I am going to make a gratin with these Swiss chard leaves that I cooked in salted boiling water for 10 minutes. I am going to prepare them using the recipe for escarole gratin in my last post.

In my family it is not Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes, a huge chore for the cook. Peel and quarter the potatoes the night before and store them covered in cold water in the fridge. The next day add some salt to the water and cook till tender. I like to put my potatoes through a food mill for a consistent texture. Lots of cream and butter make this a once a year treat for me.

Have fun this Thanksgiving, relax and enjoy. No one wants a stressed out cook. Simple is always good!

Many thanks and Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

There's something about leftovers

Deborah takes home a doggie bag...

The trees say late fall, the weather says late summer. 
Any Italian restaurant that fills their antipasto display table with vegetable dishes gets a giddy reaction out of me. I am reminded of the restaurants I have wandered into in Rome that showcase multiple tiers of cooked vegetable dishes one can choose from to start a meal Roman style. Bellisimo!

The restaurant Pesce Pasta on the upper west side of Manhattan was a place I knew nothing about, but being hungry I peeked in. When I saw the vegetable antipasto sitting out on a display table right by the front door I was sold.  Ordering a plate of sauteed greens in Italian restaurants is a must for me when I feast on pasta. This night I ordered the escarole, a leafy member of the endive family that is also used as a lettuce green. A HUGE portion arrived at the table, far more than my dining companions and I could consume, although we tried.  The remaining greens came home with me. How lucky!
Pesce Pasta's Escarole with Garlic

Whole nutmeg shown here in its shell.
This time of year as we inch towards Thanksgiving, I have gratins on my mind. They are hit-the-spot soulful preparations that can be quickly assembled and lovingly devoured hot out of the oven. This recipe for Escarole Gratin can be made from leftover sauteed greens like I had on hand or made with uncooked escarole that is blanched in boiling water for a few minutes until tender. The white sauce, or bechamel, is a classic technique that I frequently use. It is really easy to make and is a recipe worth learning as it is a good basic sauce to add a hearty richness to any vegetable preparation.

Escarole Gratin
2 Tbs. Butter
2 Tbs. flour
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
 2 cups of cooked escarole (either blanched or sauteed)
1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
Melt the butter in a small sauce pan. Add the flour and quickly whisk the two together. Pour in the milk and allow the mixture to come to a low boil. Continue to whisk to smooth out any lumps as the sauce begins to thicken. Add the nutmeg and salt and pepper. In a large bowl mix the thickened sauce with the cooked escarole and the grated cheese. Pour mixture into an oven proof dish. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the top starts to turn golden. Serve immediately.

Monday, November 7, 2011

long day's journey

Deborah runs her own mini marathon...
My poor little kitchen has been getting a real workout these days. Not quite the same kind of workout as the NYC Marathon runners this past Sunday, but somehow it feels like it.  I ran my own little endurance race on Sunday when I realized that the post-marathon party I was catering on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, situated right in the thick of the marathon route, could not be reached by car because of street closures. All the food, a buffet dinner for 50 people, would have to get there by city subway. This meant careful packing and serious lifting and carrying. I was not alone in this undertaking. One of the other cooks contributing to this party was coming from Brooklyn with a shopping cart brimming over with her food and she is five months pregnant.

NYC presents all kinds of logistic challenges to its denizens. We city dwellers are accustomed by necessity to carrying heavy bags of EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE. This may explain why so many NYC women have shapely arms and slim legs. There is a plus side to everything!

This Sunday's post-marathon party was a collaborative effort by several cooks from Wellness in the Schools to thank and honor the sponsors of our amazing marathon team who raised a very impressive amount of money for this worthy non-profit. Our culinary theme was seasonal, of course, and it had to be hearty to fill the bellies of those inspirational runners.
 This is the cake!!! Unbelievable! No way, I did not bake it.

 In addition to the spinach salad the buffet showcased the best of the season with a sprouted lentil salad, a sweet potato salad and tortellini in a porcini mushroom sauce.

My recipe for spinach salad with quinoa and walnuts is so easy to prepare. It is a light, but filling dish that could be served as a first course or as a light lunch.
The last spinach harvest will be in the farmers market about now. The salad is enlivened by a squeeze of lemon juice and the olive oil gives the walnuts a toasty warmth.
Spinach Salad with Walnuts and Quinoa
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup walnuts
16 oz baby spinach
1 cup cooked quinoa (prepare according to package directions)
juice of one lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a small sauce pan and add the walnuts. Cook on a low heat for 5-10 minutes until the walnuts begin to turn a golden color and you can smell the nutty flavor. Arrange the spinach leaves in a serving bowl and toss with the cooked quinoa. Squeeze the lemon juice and salt and pepper over the spinach and toss to combine. Pour the warm oil and walnuts over the salad, quickly toss again and serve immediately.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

nick of time

Deborah brings in the harvest...
Snow hit my garden early this year.

It is a game of chicken as the first frost looms over the garden. How long can I leave the last of the basil leaves and the few cherry tomatoes lingering on the vine before that heartless first frost abruptly claims all? I knew my days were numbered, but it always pains me to cut down the plants, a real summer finale, when I might possibly get one or two more days out of them.

This week I catered an evening event for the non-profit environmental news site Grist . The guest of honor was author Jonathan Franzen reading from his most recent novel, Freedom. The reading was followed by a lively interview of the writer conducted by the savvy and engaging Katherine Schultz, author of her own new book Being Wrong: Adventures in the margin of error.
Basil leaves "sous la neige"
Jonathan Franzen reads from his novel Freedom.
I wanted to use the last of the best from the summer growing season, so I managed to steel myself to the task of harvesting all of my variegated opal basil with the purpose of showcasing it in an hor d'oeuvre for the Grist party.
I decided to marinate bite-sized cubes of smoked mozzarella cheese in an olive oil I had infused with orange zest and red pepper flakes. The cheese is then rolled in toasted breadcrumbs, briefly warmed in the oven to get a little warm and oozy, then served on skewers wedged between cherry tomato halves and feathery basil leaves.

Fresh and light with a nod towards Spanish tapas, this simple hors d'oeuvre is perfect with wine and easy to nibble while listening, perhaps, to your favorite author talk about sex and birds.
The lovely Rachel kept the food moving.

Marinated Smoked Mozzarella Skewers
•cut a pound of smoked mozzarella into bite sized cubes

•mix 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1 Tbs. red pepper flakes and the zest of two oranges together in a small bowl and stir to combine.

•pour the olive oil mixture over the cubed mozzarella and let it marinate for at least one hour or refrigerated overnight.

•in a small, dry saute pan toast on medium heat one cup of panko breadcrumbs, stirring continuously until the breadcrumbs turn golden brown

•heat the oven to 350 degrees

•one by one, remove the mozzarella cubes form the olive oil marinade and roll each piece in the breadcrumbs to cover all sides.

• lay the coated cheese in a single layer on a baking sheet and put in the hot oven for two minutes, until the cheese begins to soften but does not melt.

•Cut 30 cherry tomatoes (red or yellow or a combination of the two) in half across the middle so you have a top half and a bottom half, and lightly salt them.

•remove the smallest basil leaves from their stems and set aside

To Assemble:
• On a small skewer thread a cherry tomato half bottom, a softened cheese cube, a few small basil leaves and then the top of the cherry tomato. Repeat with the rest of the ingredients. Serve immediately.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

a change of color

Deborah's recipes adjust to the new season...
It feels official now, this change of season. The nip in the air is here to stay for awhile. As I walk around my Queens neighborhood the autumnal colors are undeniable.
 These dahlias in my neighbors yard provide a shock of satisfying color as everything leafy begins to slowly turn golden brown.
 Rose hips.
The trees are making a big statement, their last hurrah.
A visit to the nursery on Woodhaven Boulevard gives lots of options for a decorative harvest display. My daughter and I agonized over our choice of pumpkins, weighing the merits of a perfectly round profile vs. a long curly stem. These gnarly gourds distracted us with their improbable shapes. Who would eat such things? They are to be admired for their audacity!

Dinner last night, at my favorite restaurant Danny Brown Wine Bar & Kitchen, provided inspiration for today's recipe. On their menu was a roasted Brussels sprouts salad served with figs (delicious!)
The concept of a roasted vegetable salad makes perfect sense for this transitional season. The roasting brings a warm sweetness to the vegetables and the salad dressing keeps this dish rooted in summer with its acidic brightness. Pumpkins, sweet potatoes and Bosc pears are a great combination, cubed up and roasted till golden and then dressed with a simple vinaigrette fragrant with tangerine zest and Dijon mustard. Sweet, tart, seasonal and oh so colorful!

Roast Vegetable & Pear Salad with Tangerine Vinaigrette
1 cup of peeled sweet potatoes, cut into 1 " cubes
1 cup of peeled pumpkin, cut into 1 " cubes
1 cup of un-peeled Bosc pears, cut into 1 " cubes
1 tbs. canola oil
1 Tbs. chopped chives
1/4 cup tangerine vinaigrette -see recipe below

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange cubed vegetables and pear in a single layer on a baking sheet and sprinkle with the oil. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden and tender. Remove to a bowl, toss with the chives and the vinaigrette. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Tangerine Vinaigrette
juice and zest of one tangerine
1 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
In a small bowl combine all the ingredients except the olive oil and whisk briskly to combine. Continue to whisk as you slowly add the olive oil in a continuous stream. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

stuck on Sweden

Deborah's journey continues on to Stockholm...
This beautiful Swedish city comes on like a blast of golden light after the cool grays of Paris. The warm copper hued buildings attempt to fool one into thinking Stockholm is a hot town. Well it is, if you are a club kid, as it offers up great bars, restaurants and music venues to check out all over this tiny, uber-hip city, but it's the weather that is not accurately represented by all these apricoty tones.
This is a city on the edge of the sea with stormy brooding clouds flashing past at dramatic speeds. Put on your coolest looking hiking boots, grab a sweater and scarf and hit the streets.
 Bikes are everywhere in this pedestrian friendly city.
The Swedes seem to shine in metalwork.
 At least when the weather changes you can see it coming!
Anchors and bicycles sit comfortably side by side.
There is so much charm to be found on these ancient city streets.

Östermalms saluhall
Sweden is not especially known for its cuisine, but their ingredients struck me as being especially fresh and wholesome. The butter served with our breakfast every morning was the creamiest and richest flavor I have ever had. Whole grain breads and crackers bear the Swedish imprint; they are satisfying, hearty and pure and they taste wonderful.
The Swedes seem to be more adventurous than the French when it comes to trying new cuisines. In the restaurants it was hard not to notice the latest trend: a heavy focus on sushi and Thai food.
In the famous Östermalms saluhall, the fabulous covered food market, an impressive display of prepared dishes featured traditional Swedish recipes and high-end fine ingredients from all over the world.

 The cheese stall at the slauhall. So much to chose from, so hard to decide.
Blindingly beautiful fruit!
These colorful wreaths are so festive. I wanted one bad and tried to figure out if I could dare sneak one past the custom officials back here in New York.  When we landed at JFK and got to the baggage claims area there were trained dogs sniffing every suitcase. Gulp! Glad I didn't try anything.

Stockholm got under my skin in short order. Our three day stay whetted my desire for a much longer visit. My homage to this Scandinavian city is a whole grains pilaf brightened with fruits, vegetables and lots of fresh herbs.

Tack Stockholm!

Mixed Grain Pilaf with Raisins and Dill
1 cup of *mixed grain rice
2 tbs olive oil
1 carrot chopped
1 small onion, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 cup of cabbage, chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dill, chopped

•Cook the rice in 2 cups water, simmer for 30-50 minutes till tender (according to package directions)
•Heat olive oil in a saute pan. Add the chopped vegetables and stir fry for about 8 minutes till vegetables are tender, but still a little crunchy.
•Add the raisins to the vegetables in the pan and continue to cook for one more minute
•Stir the vegetable mixture and the chopped dill into the cooked rice and serve

*Mixed Grain Rice
I buy this blend of 3 different rices and beans at the Koren supermarket H-Mart, but there are a lot of great mixed grain blends in the stores these days. Try different ones to see what you like.