Sunday, January 29, 2012

celery takes a bow

Just as soon as I adjust to the inevitable cold weather, it gets warm again. As I begin to grow comfortable with balmy winter days, it suddenly snaps back to cold. Hard to know what to expect next. A sunny cold day this weekend had me wandering through Flushing Meadow Park ruminating on what to do with celery.
I had a an unexpectedly large amount of chopped celery on my hands, an overflow from a donation I had made as part of a cooking demo for school children that I organized with Wellness in the Schools, the non-profit I work for.

Bare trees say winter. Sixty degree weather says something else.
Celery, the true work horse of the kitchen is rarely a star in its own right, more an essential supporting player. It is the lifeline of mirepoix, the aromatic vegetable combo that is the base of all great French stews. Celery would be an unthinkable omission in countless soups and salads.  But what to do with several cups of already chopped celery was my current quandary.
What would potato salad or tuna salad be with out celery?
Several years ago I came across a line in the entertaining book Julie and Julia where the author Julie Powell, after cooking one of Julia Child's recipes reported that braised celery was "a fucking revelation." This comment really stuck in my imagination. I have to admit I have never cooked a dish of braised celery. But, despite the amusing comment, what is a revelation to Ms. Powell seems like a slightly less than inspiring venture to me.

I thought back even further to a recollection from early childhood of Campbell's cream of celery soup, served on sick days by my attentive mother. It was mild flavored, creamy and salty; a pleasant happy bowl of warmth for a child seeking comfort. Curious if this old fashioned stalwart could be updated I decided to give it a try.
Inspiration strikes in Flushing Meadow Park.
It would have been easy to give my soup a shot in the arm with the addition of curry powder, but I resisted that very strong urge, to allow the flavor of the celery to speak for itself. The results were quite lovely; a subtle flavor that was both fresh and sophisticated. This would be a nice soup to serve as a first course for an elegant dinner. I could not stop myself from garnishing the soup with a good dousing of jalapeno pepper sauce and it certainly did not hurt the final result.

Give celery a chance to stand on its own. I might try braising it next time and go for the revelation.

Cream of Celery Soup -adapted from a recipe on

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 5 cups chopped celery
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 cup white cabbage cut into 1-inch pieces
  • pinch of salt and pinch of sugar
  • 1 potato, peeled, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • hot sauce, to taste
Melt butter and oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add celery and onions and cabbage, a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. Cook until very tender, stirring occasionally, about 15-20 minutes. Stir in potato, garlic and pepper. Add the broth; and simmer until all vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes.  Add cream and simmer a few more minutes stirring often. Thin with more broth if necessary. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and garnish with hot sauce if desired.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

peppers in a pot

Occasionally I find myself with a surfeit of a particular ingredient. This time I was facing the weekend with an abundance of red bell peppers, ripe and ready, but with no place to go. My first step was to roast them, to concentrate their flavor and take advantage of the natural softening of the peppers as they begin to age past the point of serving them crisp and raw.

Going at the roasting in the most direct manner possible I fired up my gas topped stove and piled the peppers in an elaborate balancing act over the open flames, turning them with tongs periodically so that all sides became blistered and black. This is a slightly messy procedure but it was fun to engage in this primitive cooking method from the comfort of my warm kitchen on an icy snow day.
Once blackened I plopped the peppers in a pot and covered them (you could use any container that holds them all) allowing them to steam to room temp, helping the skins loosen and slip off when rubbed by hand.

What to do with all the roasted peppers was the next question. Romesco sauce, a Spanish sauce featuring paprika and almonds that gets pureed in a food processor came to mind. The Romesco sauce recipe I found on the La Tienda web site did not, in fact, call for roasted peppers. I decided to use my peppers anyway, substituting them for the tomatoes in the recipe and then more or less following the rest of the instructions from there.
True to my intrepid inclinations I made a few more substitutions to La Tienda's perfectly nice recipe. I urge anyone interested to try their version straight up. But, if you decide to go off the path a bit as I did, I am here to tell you the results may be equally wonderful!
 Garlic, chilies and almonds all part of a classic Romesco sauce.

For example, the classic recipe calls for almonds and hazelnuts. I did not have hazelnuts so I doubled up on the almonds. AND not just any almonds but some spiced ones (the last of the amazing spiced almonds my brother-in-law gave me for Christmas.)
The recipe also calls for a slice of toasted bread. I decided to throw into the mix a half cup of panko bread crumbs instead.
 Romesco sauce makes a great dip for crudite.

My wayward concoction was quick to assemble once I got the peppers roasted and peeled. The flavor of the sauce came out beyond expectation. Rich, smokey, complex and very tasty, with a gentle crunch from the nuts, I will be eating this sauce on top of everything all week.

Visit LaTienda's site for their great authentic recipe and enjoy!

Monday, January 16, 2012


Celebrating my husbands birthday last week at DBGB kitchen and bar, Daniel Boulud's brasserie inspired downtown pub, I indulged in east coast oysters, a glass of sparkling wine, and a sinfully delicious duck confit served over squash risotto, garnished with caramelized cipollini onions and fried sage leaves. What a treat!

We are particularly fond of DBGBs for relaxed celebrations. The food is always top notch, the wine and beer list extensive, the service: impeccable and the interior: uncramped and comfortable, reminiscent of a first class railway dining car from some delightful old movie. I particularly love the open shelving displays of wines, dry goods and magnificent copper cooking pots, each with its own plaque naming the famous chef who donated it. My, Mr. Boulud has some generous friends!
The squash risotto I had that night was something I wanted to make at home. Boulud's version was smooth and creamy, with the squash completely melted into the liquid of the rice, like baby food. True comfort food.  Digging into my cupboard I found a package of pearl barley and recalled a recipe using the risotto style cooking technique with this grain instead of arborio rice. Aha, why not? The result is a nuttier, chewier version of classic risotto; a nice variation. This method is a great way to incorporate a different grain into your menu. I used acorn squash instead of the more expected choice of butternut squash and gave it an extra boost of flavor by roasting it before adding it to the "risotto."
Consider trying pearl barley as a substitute for arborio rice in risotto recipes.

Squash risotto seems to be the dish of the hour. I found it again on a restaurant menu last week, this time at Alobar, a charming restaurant with a bit of a Spanish flair in Long Island City. Alobar's version was a pumpkin risotto garnished with pearl onions and topped with the inspired addition of sauteed chard,  a great bitter counterpoint to the sweet creamy rice.

Whether making it at home or sampling it a restaurant, squash risottos are not to be missed. This time of year a warming dish of winter squash bathed grains will fill the belly and the satisfy the soul.

 Acorn Squash Barley "Risotto"
2 cups of acorn squash, peeled and cubed
2 Tbs olive oil
2Tbs butter
2 shallots, finely minced
1 cup of pearly barley
1 cup white wine
4 cups of water or stock, simmering in a pot on the stove
1 sprig of fresh thyme or 1 tsp. dried
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil
sage leaves- optional

•Heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the squash with one tablespoon of the olive oil and bake in a single layer for 15-20 minutes. The squash should be tender but not too browned or it will change the color of the risotto.

•Heat the remain tablespoon of oil and the butter in a saute pan. Add the shallots and cook till they are soft and begin to look translucent.

•Add the barley to the pan and stir to coat all the grains in the warm fat. Cook, stirring continuously, for about five minutes.

•Add the roasted squash to the pan of barley and mash it down with the stirring spoon to mix it thoroughly. You can continue to mash the squash as the dish cooks.

•Add the wine and the thyme and stir to combine. When the liquid has mostly cooked away begin to add the simmering water or stock, by the ladleful, stirring with each addition and letting the liquid cook away before adding the next ladleful.
I tried this Gavi in the recipe and served it with the dish.
An Italian wine with dominant citrus notes, it brought
a complimentary flavor to the sweet-ish risotto.

•The barley will absorb at least two cups of liquid before you start to notice the grains beginning to swell a bit. Be patient. Continue to cook in this manor, adding more liquid when the pan gets dry.

•Continue to stir and mash down any lumpy bits of squash as you go.

•Taste the grains periodically for done-ness. They grains will remain firm but have an al dente finish with a pleasant chewy bite.

•To serve, sprinkle the "risotto" with the grated cheese and a generous drizzle of good quality olive oil and top with the sage leaves.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

easy greens

The trees are bare. The holiday decorations are getting put away. Yes, it is time to hunker down for the winter.
All the over-indulgent eating I participated in these last few weeks has caught up with me. Craving a little purification, I am thinking green.

A recent stroll through a local Asian market this week led to a restorative assortment of leafy greens, the backbone of a healthy diet, favored so much in Eastern cultures. Asian markets are my go to place for fresh greens any time of year. Looking over several tempting varieties of baby bok choi, it was the dark Chinese broccoli with its thick stems, deep verdant color and tiny floral buds that held the most immediate attraction.
 Chinese broccoli cooks in minutes and has a mild nutty flavor.
Curious for some preparation ideas I consulted a few favorite Asian cookbooks including Kylie Kwong's Simple Chinese Cooking and the gorgeously illustrated Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid.
The opinions were unanimous: quickly blanch the broccoli (it only takes a minute or two in boiling salted water) then dress the cooked greens with an assertively seasoned oil or condiment, sesame oil or oyster sauce for example, and serve. Fast and EASY!
Lucky me, gifts made in the kitchen with love from the heart courtesy of my brother-in-law and my sister-in-law.

The condiments I had on hand were magnificent homemade creations I received as holiday gifts. My family has a tradition going back to early childhood of making gifts for Christmas. As soon as we were able to hold a crayon my siblings and I were pressed into service to paint, glue and stir our way through countless homemade projects over the years. As adults we introduced the tradition to our own young children and now it is a very firmly established part of our annual celebrations.  I have received, and over-seen the creation of, years of projects including handmade: snow globes, soaps, lotions, syrups, candles, pot holders, earrings, bottle stoppers, candies, doll clothes, napkin rings and of course cookies.
Exchanges around our Christmas tree were not all Little House on the Prairie, as jealousies emerged amongst the children when one year my young niece showed up with surprisingly professional versions of homemade shampoo, hand cream AND bubble bath for everyone. Our lumpy little clay and glitter studded candle holders seemed pathetic by comparison.

This year I scored in the receiving end with additively seasoned almonds, a slamming jalapeno sauce, and a golden citrus syrup loaded with slices of lemon and orange. In a mood to experiment I decided to jazz up my Chinese broccoli with a combination of the jalapeno sauce for heat and the orange syrup for the tart/sweet balance. The resulting combination made a fabulous sauce. Sweet syrups and hot sauces go really well together. Think about Thai dipping sauces and you get the idea.

Chinese Broccoli with Sweet and Spicy Sauce

1 bunch of Chinese Broccoli, cut into thirds
2 quarts salted water
1/4 cup orange marmalade or orange syrup
1 Tbs. sesame oil
2 Tbs. hot sauce (or to taste)

Soak the broccoli in cold water to rinse. Boil the salted water in a sauce pan. Add the broccoli and cook for about one minute till the greens are bright in color and the stems are tender. Drain and put in a serving bowl.
Heat the marmalade, sesame oil and hot sauce in a small pan and bring to a simmer. Cook for one minute so the flavors can combine and then pour the warm sauce over the cooked greens. Serve immediately.

Monday, January 2, 2012

winter classic

The breezes coming off Meadow Lake were positively balmy this New Years day as I strolled through Flushing Meadows Corona Park enjoying the surprising sunshine. It is hard not to interpret the gentle weather as a sign of good fortune for this new year. Hope and good will were buoyed about in the caressing soft gusts. Well, that is how I chose to interpret it!
Can you see the famous Unisphere, a leftover relic from the 1964 Worlds Fair, hidden in the trees?

The holidays have left me exhausted but serene. All the scheduled events went off without a hitch. Rest and restoration is now the plan. Today we are hosting friends and family for a casual, impromptu I insist, Winter Classic 2012 party. My husband is a devoted hockey fan and our beloved NY Rangers are facing off in an outdoor showdown in Philadelphia against their rivals The Flyers.

I leaped at the opportunity to cook up what is left in my fridge after all the holiday entertaining and gift exchanges. There are still cakes, candies and various goodies lurking in every cupboard and it is time to clear the decks to welcome the new year. I am making a big pot of pumpkin chowder to warm the soul and please the palates of the hockey fans scattered in front of our TV this afternoon. The soup is easy enough to make and can be prepared the day before. If you are not vegetarian, consider adding some bacon to add a little smokey flavor to the broth.
Chowders are generally thickened with chunks of vegetables in a milk or cream soup base. I Like to cube up the vegetables for a classic presentation. The body of the chowder is achieved by making a simple butter and flour paste right on top of the softened aromatic vegetables and then thinned with milk or cream. I add a hearty stock to the mixture so it does not get too creamy. The heavier root vegetables are then added in and will simmer to tenderness in less than half an hour.

Pumpkin Chowder
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion finely chopped
1 celery stalk finely chopped
1 red or green pepper finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk or heavy cream
3 cups vegetable chicken stock
2 cups pumpkin, peeled and cubed
1 cup potato, cubed
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup frozen corn
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)

In a large soup pot heat the oil. Add the onion, celery, pepper and salt and pepper to taste.
On a low flame sweat the vegetables until the onions become translucent, about five minutes.
Add the butter to the pot and let it melt down over the vegetables.
Sprinkle the flour over everything and stir to make a paste of the flour with the butter and the oil. The bottom of the pan will be a bit sludgy.
Pour in the milk or the cream and bring to a simmer stirring continuously to keep the mixture smooth. As the liquid comes up to a boil it will begin to thicken.
Slowly pour in the stock as you continue to stir, mixing thoroughly. Add the potatoes and pumpkin cubes and the dried thyme and bring liquid to a simmer again.
Continue to simmer the soup uncovered for about 20 minutes until the potato and pumpkin are tender and cooked through.
Add the corn and the Cayenne pepper and simmer the chowder for five more minutes. Taste soup to adjust seasoning. Can be made a day ahead.