Monday, September 29, 2008

kitchen nightmares

Unfortunately, I am not referring to the TV show.

Rule #1,205 of throwing a dinner party: Only invite people you really, really like. That way, when your crappy little oven suddenly stops working and throws your entire roasting-based menu for a loop, they'll still stick around, cheer you on, and eat whatever you end up cobbling together.

Last week was the first official day of fall, and it's definitely here in our neck of the woods. The weather's more grey and rainy than crisp and autumnal, but I'm already craving apples and pumpkin and roasted pork. Things that typically get roasted or baked in an oven. Which inspired this menu:

Autumnal dinner:
Sparkling ginger cocktails
Assorted sliced apples and cheese
Roasted pork loin with mustard breadcrumbs and haricots verts
Roasted gremolata potatoes
Pumpkin custard

Sounds good, right? At around 5 PM on Saturday, I whipped up the pumpkin custard (so easy--I'll post the recipe later) into my preheated oven, thinking I was such a pro and so on top of things, making dessert a whole HOUR before everyone was supposed to come over.

Except the oven wasn't hot. Or even warm. And the oh-so-scary smell of gas was starting to fill the apartment. [Commence freaking out, Googling appliance repair shops, searching for the landlord downstairs, more freaking out.]

After cursing the oven, our apartment, the poor, blameless pork loins marinating in the fridge, my menu, and the lack of appliance repair-people who will come out on a Saturday night, Dan slapped me across the face (not really, he started playing Salt-N-Pepa and dancing around the apartment, which cheered me up) and I pulled myself together. Deep breath. Plan B. I considered throwing in the towel and ordering pizza, but that wouldn't give me anything worth writing about here. So I reached for the grill pans.

I can't say that grilling individual slices of potatoes (when I should have been cleaning myself up and putting on a decent shirt) was exactly fun, but it got the job done. The grill pan gave the potatoes some char as if I had roasted them, as the recipe called for. Before dinner, I just reheated the potatoes in the microwave and tossed them with the delicious gremolata marinade (see below for recipe) I had made earlier.

The pork tenderloin was a bit of a conundrum. The original recipe called for searing the meat in a pan on the stovetop, then roasting it in the oven for about thirty minutes. The tenderloins were fairly thick and I was afraid that grilling would burn the meat on the outside and leave it raw in the center. I had to figure out a faster way to cook them, so I sliced all three tenderloins down the center, length-wise, making them thin enough to cook evenly. This produced nine strips of meat, so I used both of my grill pans (which barely fit on my sad little stovetop) to cook them all at once. This, of course, produced so much smoke, mainly from the burning bits of garlic from the marinade, that I had to strategically position fans away from the kitchen to air out the room. I heard several people coughing in the living room, so I plied them with more wine.

Somehow, miraculously, my plan worked and the pork ended up being perfectly cooked. Nice char on the outside from the grill, and slightly pink and juicy on the inside. I followed the recipe and served the pork sliced on top of some blanched green beans and showered with mustard breadcrumbs. The smoke cleared and we all dug in. The pumpkin custard could not be saved, but the Chris Rock HBO special and copious amounts of dessert brought by my thoughtful, kind, non-judgmental friends helped.

Roasted pork loin with mustard breadcrumbs and haricots verts
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin. The original recipe calls for spring onions with the haricot verts but I skipped them. This recipe looked much more labor-intensive than anything I've made lately. But the Interwebs have been all a-twitter about how good it is, and I really enjoyed eating at A.O.C., one of Suzanne Goin's restaurants in LA, so I figured I'd give it a shot. And really, it wasn't so complicated--even without an oven. It's just steps, people. You make a few simple mini recipes, then put all the components together to make one impressive dish.
(Serves 6 to 8 people)

For the pork marinade:
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. thyme, plus 3 whole sprigs
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 cloves garlic, smashed

For the roasted pork:
3 lbs. pork loin, center cut
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 sprigs rosemary, broken into 3-inch pieces
10 sage leaves, plus 3 sprigs
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the haricots verts:
1 1/2 lbs. haricots verts, topped but not tailed
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. thyme
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
10 small sage leaves
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the mustard breadcrumbs:
1 cup breadcrumbs
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. chopped parsley

Marinate the pork:
Whisk together the mustard, parsley, thyme, and 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a shallow baking dish. Stir in the garlic and slather the pork with the mustard mixture. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.

While the pork is marinating, make the breadcrumbs:
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place the breadcrumbs in a medium bowl. Heat a small sauté pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the butter and when it foams, whisk in the mustard, thyme, and parsley. Remove from heat, let the mixture cool a few minutes, then toss with the breadcrumbs, coating them well. Transfer the breadcrumbs to a baking sheet (or in a toaster oven) and toast them for 10-12 minutes, until they're golden brown and crispy. Set aside.

Roast the pork:
Take the pork out of the refrigerator one hour before cooking to bring it to room temperature. After 30 minutes, season the pork generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 3 minutes. Add 2 Tbsp. olive oil and wait a minute or two, until the pan is very hot and almost smoking. Place the pork loin in the pan and sear it on all sides until well-browned and caramelized.

Transfer the pork loin to a roasting rack. Slice the butter and place it on top of the pork. Arrange the rosemary, sage, and thyme sprigs on top. Roast the pork, basting often with the melted butter, herbs, and natural juices, 45 minutes to an hour, until a thermometer inserted into the center reads 130°F to 135°F. Remove the pork from the oven and rest at least 10 minutes.

As the pork is roasting, make your beans:
Blanch the haricots verts in a large pot of salted boiling water 2-3 minutes until tender, but still al dente. Heat a large sauté pan over medium high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl in 2 Tbsp. olive oil, 2 tsp. thyme, and the haricots verts. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook 3-4 minutes, stirring to combine and then add the butter and sage leaves. Cook a few more minutes, tossing to glaze the beans. Taste for seasoning and cover until serving so they stay warm.

How to serve it forth:
Arrange the haricots verts on a large warm platter. Thinly slice the pork about 1/4 inch thick (a serrated knife helps with this) and layer it it over the beans. Spoon some of the juices and herbs over the meat and sprinkle the mustard breadcrumbs over the top. Ta da!

Roasted gremolata potatoes
I was just going to roast some potatoes with rosemary, salt, and olive oil, but I am so glad I found this recipe instead. Adapted from Zoe restaurant via Luisa, the lovely and talented Wednesday Chef, the addition of parsley, citrus zest, thyme, garlic, and red pepper flakes elevates roasted rosemary potatoes to a whole other fragrant, savory, utterly delicious level. You could probably spread that marinade over an old shoe and it would taste divine.
(Serves 4 people, I doubled it to serve 8)

1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
5 medium Yukon gold potatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds), rinsed and dried
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Whisk together the olive oil, parsley, thyme, rosemary, zests, garlic and red pepper. Set aside for at least a half hour.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. (Or heat up your grill pan and grill each individual slice. On second thought, don't bother.) Cut each potato into 6 to 8 wedges. Toss the potatoes with the gremolata, and add salt to taste. Spread the wedges out on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake for 20 minutes. Pull out the sheet, flip the potatoes with a spatula, and then continue roasting them for another 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Sick of reading about flowers? There will be more recipes to come next week, I promise. Until then, here's some food links to tide you over:

In a story that warms my heart, The New York Times reports that power outages from Hurricane Ike have forced many Houstonites to use up perishable, often expensive food, creating impromptu post-storm dinner parties. Sounds pretty fun, except for the destruction and lack of running water, and all that. Best quote: “It just killed me to think of all those silky sauces going down the drain,” Mr. Lamb said. Me too, Mr. Lamb! [via NYT]

The Kitchn has a useful "appetizer template" of jam + cheese + pork pairings. I like the combination of fig, proscuitto, and Manchego myself. [via the Kitchn]

A tasty-sounding weeknight dinner party menu (pesto-crusted lamb chops, potato-leek mini gratins) from Domino magazine [via Domino]

A bit late (and who watched the Emmys, anyway?) but here's cocktail and snack ideas for an Emmy Party, or any party. Just ignore the cutsey TV show tie-ins. [via Food & Wine]

Also, for those of you following the Mario Batali/PBS show, Spain...On the Road Again, I am blogging about it over at newly-launched food site

Thursday, September 25, 2008

fast flowers: creative containers

To me, containers are secondary to what's inside of them. If you arrange flowers, you probably have a favorite vase (mine is a gravy boat) but I think a bouquet can look gorgeous in just about any vessel.

Like condiment or mason jars:

Or drinking glasses. The colors of this plastic cup perfectly matched this bunch of gerbera daisies:

Or any other household vessel, like my favorite gravy boat:

My point is, cool containers help, but they don't need to be expensive to show off a naturally beautiful arrangement. Use tea cups, tin cans (put a container inside to prevent rusting), cookie jars, creamers, beer bottles. I actually like a little contrast. A beat-up vase filled with elegant flowers like roses looks interesting, and draws your eye in. Likewise, displaying a rustic-looking bunch of wildflowers in a sleek, modern vase. A contrast of styles can turn an ordinary handful of flowers into something surprising and memorable.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

fast flowers: using herbs

We go through a lot of herbs at home. And by go through, I mean reaching into the vegetable bin to find a putrid, liquified bag of something that used to be green. Oops!

When stored the right way (in a glass jar, covered with a plastic bag, in the refrigerator) cut herbs can last up to a week. Sometimes I do this. But usually there are too many containers of Dan's Dannon coffee yogurt or containers of odd condiments to also fit several jars of water in our fridge. So into the vegetable bin/death chamber they go. I've also heard that you can freeze fresh herbs, which I haven't tried yet.

Another way to use them up is in arrangements. Sometimes I tuck sprigs of herbs into bouquets, creating a fragrant filler. Or, when I buy a huge bunch of basil or mint for $2 at the farmers market with ambitious plans to make big batches of pesto that fall short, I'll just make an all-herb bouquet. It makes the house smell nice and makes me feel less guilty about not using the whole bunch.

Any fresh herb will work as filler, although the larger the leaf, the easier it is to work with. Basil, cilantro, mint, oregano, and sage are all good options. Just make sure you strip off any leaves below the waterline to prevent rotting. For herbs with woody stems like rosemary, lightly crush the ends of the stems to help them soak up more water. This is a good trick for thick, woody flower stems too, especially hydrangeas.

Monday, September 22, 2008

fast flowers: what to choose

I love to cook, but I'm crazy about flowers. If I could do anything else for a living, I would be a floral designer. When I see a great bouquet, I stop in my tracks the way teenage boys rubberneck around a cute girl. Sometimes I have to reach out and physically touch (or bury my face in) an arrangement. And picking flowers off bushes--well, let's just say I've had a very hard time controlling myself since the age of three. Flowers have a certain irresistible-ness that even rivals food for me.

Although this site is about food and entertaining, I think flowers are a really important and fun part of throwing dinner parties. It doesn't matter if it's a bodega bouquet or dahlias from your garden or a dozen red roses. In a subtle way, flowers communicate that you're happy to have your friends over and that it's a special occasion. And on an everyday basis, flowers make your surroundings feel a little happier and more luxurious, even when mail is piled up on the coffee table and you're eating cereal for dinner. The next few posts are going to be about flowers and what a quick, inexpensive, uplifting addition they can be to dinner parties and your day-to-day life.

The most logical starting point is what to buy. It's easy to feel overwhelmed when faced with rows and rows of blooms, all equally gorgeous. Most people gravitate toward a certain color or type of flower they are familiar with. Which is totally fine. Flowers should be pure happiness (unless you have allergies, I suppose) so just go with what calls your name. You don't have to spend a lot of money to get something beautiful.

The farmers market is my favorite place to go flower shopping. Not only is it fun to see a variety of things you don't typically see in flower shops or grocery stores, prices are usually low and bouquets are super-fresh and generously sized. I think this stunning bouquet of dahlias ran me about $8 and lasted about a week. Because the flowers are in season and usually locally-grown, you're saving shipping costs. Most of those cheap long stemmed roses get flown in from places like Ecuador, which adds to the cost and isn't so eco-friendly. Bargains can also be found if you go the market at the end of the day. Many vendors don't want to pack up those leftover, extremely perishable flowers at the end of the day and are willing to bargain.

Don't have a farmers market nearby? Most grocery and corner stores stock plastic-wrapped bouquets that are perfectly fine for arrangements. I'm no flower snob. High-end event and floral designers make amazing things out of baby's breath and carnations all the time. It just depends on how you use them. One reliable, long-lasting flower to look for at the grocery store is the alstroemeria, AKA Peruvian lily (above). They have pretty, butterfly-like blooms, come in almost every color, and last for up to two weeks if you change the water and remove all leaves below the water line--a good tip for any arrangement.

What if you hate flowers? Or don't want to spend $5 on a bouquet? There's hope for you yet. Sometimes when I'm pressed for time or just want to brighten up a corner here or there, I'll snip leaves off my houseplants (or, um, the neighbor's plants) and put them in a small vase filled with water, like the sweet potato vine above. Easy and virtually free.

A final suggestion: don't overlook plants or flowers that might seem weird or even ugly. This silvery blue sea holly (doesn't that sound so exotic?) is kind of dangerous looking with its spiky, thistle-like flowers, but I got a big bunch of it at a bodega for under $10. Plus, unusual flowers make good conversation starters. Everyone inevitably wants to know what they are called. When in doubt, just call the flower in question sea holly.

Friday, September 19, 2008

feeling full? eat this.

After a wedding (with mac and cheese and fried chicken stations), two dinners out with friends (with very fine cocktails), and a work event involving a whole roasted pig (oy), my stomach needed a break. Other than nothing at all, what do you eat when you've had way too much to eat? Salads? Yawn. Tofu noodles? Blegh. I found the solution: chilled cucumber soup.

Yes, I know it's time for sweaters and boots and roasted chicken and root vegetables and apples and all things fall. But trust me, make this before the weather really turns. Creamy and smooth from a generous amount of yogurt, and flecked with bits of fresh dill, this beautiful green soup just as soothing as its hot counterparts. It would make an elegant first course, or can be eaten on its own—especially if you've consumed one too many of anything.

Cucumber-yogurt soup
Adapted from the fantastic Vegetarian Planet, one of my go-to cookbooks since college.
(Serves 4)

4 cucumbers, peeled and chopped (I prefer long English cucumbers for this because you don't have to seed them)
2 1/2 cups plain yogurt
1 lime, juiced
4 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill, plus extra
1 shallot, minced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper

In a blender, combine cucumbers, 2 cups yogurt, shallots, oil, lime juice, and 4 Tbsp. dill. Puree until smooth (you can do it in batches if your blender is too small). Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into bowls and garnish with an extra dollop of yogurt and a few dill sprigs.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


The Kitchn has a short article on the proper way to eat a cheese plate. Nothing too eye-opening here, except that you should only eat the bread as a palate cleanser, not with the cheese. Apparently, when you spread cheese on bread, it "breaks down the natural structure and integrity of the cheese." Huh. Is there anyone else out there who didn't know that, other than me? [via the Kitchn]

A gorgeous caramelized tomato tart from the oh-so-prolific Melissa Clark. A perfect way to use all of those end-of-summer tomatoes. [via the NYT]

10 fall recipes from Gourmet. Hello, mac and cheese souffle! [via Gourmet]

Did you know the Amateur Gourmet does not like cooking for large groups? Well, now you do.
[via the Amateur Gourmet]

Food freak: the Stramato [via Serious Eats]

Monday, September 15, 2008

last taste of summer

When someone leaves a jar of homemade peach jam on your doorstep, you know it's going to be a good day.

I was just starting to feel a little sad about the end of summer (although I'll gladly take the beautiful cooler weather we've been having) and saying goodbye to the colorful produce-laden farmers market. I know it's wrong, but I just can't motivate myself to go in the fall when there's just apples and turnips. It's so depressing and blah. Bad locavore! Bad!

And then—jam! Summer in a jar. Peaches always look all rosy and juicy from the outside, but I've had some mealy, nasty ones this season. But this jam was the essence of perfectly ripe peaches—sweet but not syrupy, with big chunks of fruit throughout. If I were a less impuslve person, I would have tucked the jar away in our cupboard and saved it for the middle of winter, when farmers market peaches seem impossibly far away. But life's short and I wanted an English muffin.

So, before all the peaches are gone until next summer, without further ado, here is my lovely neighbor Caledonia's recipe:

Caledonia's peach jam
Caledonia says her original jam recipe called for gelatin, but she didn't use it when making an earlier batch, so she skipped it again this time. Some serving suggestions: on toast (duh), on a cheese plate, to top Greek yogurt, and with pork chops.
(Makes about 4 medium-size jars)

4 large cups peeled, de-pitted, chopped peaches
Juice of 1 lemon
5 cups sugar
1 Tbsp. butter

4 medium-size canning jars with lids

Put peaches into a large pot and add the sugar, lemon juice, and butter. Bring to a boil and stir frequently. Let boil for about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from heat. Bring another large pot of water to boil. Wash the jars and lids with soap, then sterilize them in the boiling water for five minutes. (You can do them in batches if your pot is small.) Remove from the water with tongs and set aside on a clean dishtowl, but keep the water boiling. When the jars are cool enough to touch, fill them with the jam, leaving about 1/2 inch space at the top. Put the lids on tightly. Re-boil for five more minutes in the pot of water. Carefully remove the jars and let them cool before storing in the refrigerator.

Friday, September 12, 2008

feed the children

One of the best things about our apartment is that we have nice neighbors. People who collect your mail when you're away, leave jars of jam on your doorstep (more on that later), and just generally keep an eye on things. Much to our disappointment, the sweet, sweet family in the ground floor apartment is moving away, so we had a small building farewell party last weekend.

I offered to do pre-dinner snacks and cocktails in our apartment, then quickly realized there would also be a one-year-old, a three-year-old, and a nine-year-old. For the first time ever, I had to think about what kids like to eat. What do you feed them? In my babysitting days, dinner was usually left on a plastic-wrapped plate in the microwave. My childhood tastes ran toward Entenmann's chocolate-covered donuts, chicken fingers, PB&J's, and grilled cheese. Not quite cocktail party fare. (Although mini grilled cheeses could be fun.)

Although I love the children in our building, confidentially, the rest of their kind make me a little nervous. Do you talk to kids like grown ups, or like chihuahuas? What do you do when they throw a screaming fit? And more importantly, can you feed them proscuitto and melon, or do you have to break out the Kraft mac and cheese? Growing up as an only child with no cousins nearby, most of my childhood was spent around adults. Of course I had friends my own age, and later on I babysat for the neighbors' kids, but compared to most people, I haven't really spent that much time with people younger than me, especially babies. This isn't to say I haven't tried. During a summer semester home from college, I tried my hand at being a YMCA camp counselor where I corralled a bunch of five-year-olds and tried not to mix up their ADD prescriptions. After several panic attacks, my stint at the Y lasted exactly two weeks. I just couldn't deal.

Luckily, these are cool kids. Funny, frighteningly articulate, and a joy to watch run around our front stoop. The one-year-old is just starting to talk and I wish I could keep watching her grow up. But back to the matter at hand: food.

Cocktails with the kids
Wine, beer, fizzy lemonade
Hummus, with pita bread and veggies
Sausage rolls with mustard, pickled red onions, and cornichons
Smoked almonds (kept away from the three-year-old with a nut allergy)

Toys were brought downstairs (did you know there's a Brooklyn version of Monopoly?), juice boxes were drained, the toddler toddled about, parents lunged for drinks about to be spilled, and gradually, absentmindedly, the sausage rolls were consumed. No one said yuck, no one spit anything out on the rug. I quickly realized that when kids are around, food becomes nothing more than background music. No one noticed that the hummus was a little lumpy, or that I didn't refill everyone's drinks because I was too busy poking the one-year-old's soft, wiggly tummy. And I have to admit, it was kind of refreshing.

Afterward, we headed downstairs to the ground floor apartment's back garden for BBQ brisket sandwiches, potato salad, and homemade coffee and peach ice cream. In between bites, my digital camera was kidnapped (the nine-year-old is surprisingly good at taking photos), a hula hoop made an appearance, and by the time we were ready to head back upstairs, the kids had finally collapsed in a giant moving box full of crumpled paper. Although I was more than happy to decompress afterward in our quiet apartment, kids bring such a rush of fun, freewheeling energy into a room.

(But don't get your hopes up, Mom.)

Sausage rolls
A classier take on the traditional pig in a blanket that's adapted from Jamie Oliver's great book Jamie's Dinners "the essential family cookbook." Appropriate, huh?
(Serves 8 to 10 people)

1 package puff pastry (two sheets), thawed
4 medium-sized uncooked sausage links (I like sweet Italian pork sausage, but you could use chicken, lamb, or veggie sausage)
Zest of 1 lemon (or orange)
1 Tbsp. dried or fresh thyme
1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Using kitchen shears or a paring knife, slice open the sausage casings, releasing the raw ground meat into a medium-sized bowl. Throw away the casings. Add the zest and thyme and fold it into the sausage with a fork, being careful not to turn the sausage into mush. Unfold one of the puff pastry sheets. Cut it in half, lengthwise, so that there are two pieces with three horizontal sections each. Place 1/4 of the sausage mixture onto the center of the sheet and spread it out lengthwise so that you have an even "tube" of meat running down the center of the pastry. Leave 1/4 inch overhang on the left and right side. Fold over the top and bottom sections, covering the meat. Seal the fold by lightly crimping the edge and sides with a fork. Brush the folded pastry with the beaten egg. Use kitchen shears or a sharp knife to cut the tube of pastry into small bite-sized pieces. Repeat with the other piece, then repeat all the steps with the other puff pastry sheet. Place the sausage rolls on a greased cookie sheet and bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until puffed and golden. Serve with mustard, pickled red onions, and pickles.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Some mid-week links to whet your appetite:

Eggs in Purgatory, a recipe from one of my favorite Brooklyn restaurants, Franny's. [via Serious Eats]

Refreshing-looking melon bellini. [via the Kitchn]

Also from the Kitchn, here's a handy tip: if you slice a lemon lengthwise you'll get more juice.
[Via the Kitchn]

My favorite design blog, Design*Sponge, recently introduced a food column every Friday. While I don't always love the recipes, the photos are always beautifully styled and shot, like everything else on the site. Here's an intriguing-looking avocado soup in scooped-out avocado shells. [via Design*Sponge]

Monday, September 8, 2008

knife skills 101

So last week I finally learned how to use a knife. Shocking, right? How have I managed to make all these recipes without a knife?

Of course we've got tons of knives at home, but I've discovered that I've just been just dicing and chopping away with them willy-nilly, without any clue as to what I'm doing. I've never claimed to be any sort of culinary professional—that's why it says "home cook" on my bio, people—but I really had no idea how bad off I was. It's like realizing you've been wearing your pants backwards for your entire life. Or driving a car for years without knowing how to signal.

So who opened my eyes to my scary lack of skills? I'd like to call her the knife fairy, but her real name is Ro. My day job allows me to work with many wonderfully talented caterers and one of my favorites, Ro Howe of Barraud Caterers, generously offered to teach me and my editor Mark some basic knife skills. We finally took her up on it a few weeks ago and spent the evening in her roomy kitchen chopping potatoes and parsley. Our efforts were pretty bad at first (I even nicked a fingernail), but eventually we learned how to handle a chef's knife with precision and confidence. Well, slightly more than we had to begin with, anyway.

Although this is a bit off-topic for this site, I wanted to share a few tips she taught us. They might save you a finger someday!

How to hold a knife

Above, Ro demonstrates how to properly hold a chef's knife. Place your thumb and index finger around the front bolster (the part of the knife between the handle and the blade), then grip the handle with the rest of your hand. Your thumb should rest on the bolster on one side, while your index finger holds it firm on the other side. It feels weird (I'm still getting used to it) but allows for greater control when you're cutting or chopping.

How to use a chef's knife
Before we touched a single potato, we simply practiced moving our knives up and down in a circular motion. Ro emphasized how important the correct stance is when using a knife. As a chef, she understands the fatigue that comes with repetitive activities like chopping and dicing. But even if you're just a casual cook, it's important to angle your body toward the cutting board and plant your feet firmly on the ground when using a knife.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Bring the knife down (exhibit A) and up (exhibit B) in a circular motion, keeping your wrist loose and your shoulder moving in a loose circle. Each knife stroke should be a single, fluid movement from beginning to end. Lead with the tip of your knife and slice in a circular motion down, then up. It almost felt like the motion was too big and exaggerated at first, but that's because like many inexperienced knife-users, I wasn't used to using the entire knife blade.

Basic chopping skills

Here, you can see Ro's hand forming a "crab" over the potato. This is to grip the vegetable and hold it in place while still protecting her fingers from the knife blade. To do this, keep your fingers curled inward and grip the food with your fingernails, letting the blade rest against the knuckle of your middle finger (but not too close), which helps keep the blade perpendicular to the cutting board.

Then, as you slice, slowly "walk" your fingers backwards, still gripping the vegetable as you chop, but keeping your fingers away from the blade.

How to chop herbs:

When chopping fresh herbs, Ro recommends first patting your leaves dry with a paper towel. It keep your finished product dry and finely chopped and prevents the herb juices from leaking out and making a mess on your cutting board.

The next step is gathering your herbs (here, parsley) into a little ball. Keep your hands in the "crab" position to hold the ball in place and protect your fingers.

Then, use your knife to mince the pile. Once you've minced it, regather the pile and rotate it to about 3:00, and re-chop. Rotate again, to 6:00, and chop. Rotate again to 9:00, and chop. Then rotate to 12:00 and chop once more. Your herbs should be very finely minced. If you want a rougher chop, just don't rotate your pile of herbs as many times.

Other tips:
Always hand-wash knives, storing them on your counter top (not lurking at the bottom of a sink of soapy water—danger! danger!) until they are ready to be washed. Never wash knives in the dishwasher.

Anchor your cutting board to your counter with a dish towel or piece of removable closet liner. It keeps the board from rocking or sliding, which is very dangerous.

Ro says she prefers Wusthof knives, but whatever knives you have, it's very important to keep them properly sharpened because dull knives tend to slip. She recommends taking your knives to a professional instead of sharpening them at home, which can dull the blade if done improperly.

Friday, September 5, 2008

defining dip

Growing up, chips and dip were usually limited to pre-Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner snacking or maybe a Superbowl or two, along with some weenies on toothpicks. It was typically of the French onion variety, meaning pre-made from a container, or powdered soup mix blended with sour cream and maybe some fried onions sprinkled on top. There might have been potato chips on the side, my memory is hazy. But I do remember scraping that bowl clean as if a giant turkey was not mere moments away. Ah, childhood.

Point being—dip isn't fancy fare. It usually involves gooey cheese, or pureed beans, or blue cheese. You can throw fresh herbs in there, or fancify it with some crème fraîche, but it's still just a vehicle for whatever you're dipping with. You rarely find a pretentious dip. Until Gourmet came up with one. A "green relish inspired by the Yemeni cilantro sauce zhoug." Relish, huh? Zhoug, huh? I know a dip when I see one.

Of course, I had to rush home and try it. Actually, it did sound delicious—who wouldn't love a spiced yogurt dip? Creamy and tangy with a complex blend of spices and strong hit of garlic and fiery chiles, this was way better than French onion soup mix. You could eat it straight up with pita chips, as we did, but it would be lovely alongside falafel, or lamb meatballs, or grilled veggies. Dan said he wanted to rub his face in it. Which is really how you a really good dip should make you feel, right?

Spiced yogurt dip
(Serves 8 people)
This recipe, from Gourmet, requires a spice grinder, although I'm sure you could make do with a morter and pestle. I stuck to the ingredients listed, but added a squeeze of lemon at the end. That little bit of acid really brought all of the flavors together and added an extra bit of much-needed brightness.

2 green cardamom pods
1/2 tsp. caraway seeds
1/2 tsp. black peppercorns
1 cup loosely packed fresh sprigs cilantro
2 medium garlic cloves, chopped
1 (3-inch) fresh serrano chile, including seeds, chopped (I used chile flakes)
2 to 3 Tbsp. water
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 cups plain whole-milk Greek yogurt
1/2 lemon

Lightly crush the cardamom pods with your thumb, then remove the seeds and discard the husks. Toast cardamom, caraway seeds, and peppercorns in a dry small heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until fragrant and a shade darker, then cool. Grind spice mixture to a powder in grinder. Transfer spices to a food processor, then add the cilantro garlic, chile, 2 tablespoons water, and 1 tablespoon oil and purée until smooth (add remaining tablespoon water if necessary). Stir the purée into yogurt, add the lemon juice, and season with salt.

Pita chips
Make extra, you will eat them. If you prefer, skip the seasonings to make plain chips.
(Serves 4 to 6 people)

4 (6-inch) pita loaves with pockets
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted (or olive oil)
2 Tbsp. dried thyme
2 Tbsp. sesame seeds
1/4 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Split pitas to make 8 rounds and cut into quarters. Divide the cut pitas between two baking sheets. Or just drizzle the butter (or oil) over the pitas and toss with your hands to coat. Sprinkle with the thyme, sesame seeds, and salt. Bake until golden and crisp, about 10 minutes total.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

pass the Pimms

Hello again.

I am back. Not quite back in the kitchen yet, but I'm unpacked (sort of) and ready to spend some quality time with my cookbooks again. Hi there, chopping board, I really missed you.

Going on vacation is such a treat, but after ten blissful days I have a bit of restaurant fatigue. I just can't look at another menu, you know? Even a homemade dinner scraped together from random stuff from the corner bodega is a welcome comfort after being away from home for any length of time. However, it does not make for very interesting posts. So I will share with you a drink I made recently–it's perfect for the tail-end of summer.

I had my first Pimms Cup a few years ago at my good friend Casey's house. Casey's one of the most sophisticated people I know, a lover of good restaurants and owner of many sexy shoes. She's also a very, very good cook who can put together terrific dinners and make it seem totally effortless. I believe she was throwing a Superbowl party (with, like, homemade deep-fried mozzarella sticks or something equally awesome) when she pressed one of these drinks into my hand. I think I bought a bottle of Pimms No. 1 the very next day.

Pimms is a gin-based spirit with flavors of tea, spice, citrus, and hints of Dr. Pepper. Well, at least to my palate. It comes in a very dapper-looking bottle and can be mixed in all sorts of drinks, most notably, the Pimms Cup. A great drink for warm weather (it's apparently the house cocktail at Wimbeldon), Pimms Cups are like a slightly spiked soda–nice to cool down with, but not going to get you tipsy. The cucumber garnish is two-fold: it smells nice as you're taking a sip, and is a tasty snack when your drink's gone. Fun fact: at one time, Pimms No. 2 through 6 existed. Each version contained a different spirit ranging from whisky to vodka. All of which are now either phased out or produced in very limited quantities. Interesting, no?

Pimms Cup
(Serves 1)

1 part Pimms No. 1 Cup
3 parts lemon lime soda (or lemonade--I prefer soda for the fizz)
1 peeled cucumber spear
Ice cubes
optional: mint springs, orange, lemon, and/or strawberry slices

Combine Pimms and soda or lemonade in a tall glass and stir. Add ice, cucumber, and garnishes (lemon and mint for me, please).


Blog Widget by LinkWithin