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.