Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Soup And A Tartine

The other night I wanted to cook a light French supper that my Franco-father would be proud of, in this case a simple though elegant soup and tartine. A soup au courgettes or zucchini soup with a tartine au chevre et prosciutto or open-faced goat cheese and prosciutto sandwich to be exact. Tartine is the French equivalent of bruschetta and connotes the same general principal of loading ingredients onto toasted bread. Either way you swing it linguistically toast with cheese and luxurious toppings like cured meats, grilled vegetables, or raw produce is tasty stuff. Tartines are commonly eaten at breakfast or goûter (afternoon snack) in France where crusty baguettes are lathered with butter, melted chocolate, or nutella. Cheese tartines are more of a lunch thing oft paired with rillettes, pork products, or egg. I have increasingly used tartines to open dinner parties as either a palate warmer or first course, an easy way to both sate and wow guests. For this particular incarnation I toasted country bread slices and topped them with goat cheese, prosciutto, a drizzle of honey, and a generous crack of black pepper. It was creamy, sweet, salty, and crunchy all at once which was exactly what I was hoping for.

As good as sweet or savory tartines can be, they are rarely filling enough in and of themselves, needing a partner in crime to complete a meal. I have been on a big sustainability kick in the kitchen for the past few months and a have a freezer full of stock to show for it. There is a bag in my fridge devoted to food scraps and roughly once a week, give or take if I hosted a dinner party or two, everything is sacrificed to the stockpot. I used a couple of jars of said stock to make a big bowl of zucchini soup and round out my Gallic meal. The soup could not have been simpler and had very few ingredients. I sautéed some diced onions and garlic before adding the zucchini, a fennel bulb, and a potato for thickness then added the stock. It simmered away for fifteen minutes before I ran the whole thing through a food processor. That’s it and boy was it good. It sounds like a cliché at this point but all it takes to make a delicious meal at home is a little time, patience, and some quality ingredients. If you cook them minimally with care the ingredients you use will usually speak for themselves and make you look good in the process. The homemade vegetable stock made the dish, bringing an earthy richness and deep flavor to the otherwise minimal, and lets face it, boring soup. All and all it was an excellent night at home with a savory tartine and a bowl of zucchini soup to wash it down with, a winning French combo I highly recommend. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dinner And A Strange Movie

The mood to cook struck me mightily this morning brought on by an inspiring meal. To celebrate my spark of inspiration I invited my friend Jessica over for dinner; a big time foodie that knows her shit in the kitchen. Last night I had dinner at Gennaro, a local cash only Italian joint that serves up incredible food with a lengthy list of evening specials that rotate constantly. By the time you have fallen in love with a seasonal dish it is off the menu and replaced by something equally intriguing. The meal was, and always is, truly memorable and I thought it would be fun to replicate some of the highlights for Jessica before we sat down to a movie. The first course we had at Gennaro was a watermelon and creamy goat cheese salad; a little treat to wet the palate served with crusty bread and peppery olive oil. I basically followed the same general idea for our first course this evening, crumbling Coach Farms goat over watermelon cubes drizzled with quality olive oil, Hawaiian pink sea salt, and thyme. This is a really tasty summer salad that is a snap to prepare and even easier to eat an entire plate of.

The second dish of the three that really blew me away at dinner last night was the grilled shrimp salad, a tasty dish that blurred the lines between hot and cold appetizer. The salad had corn, bell peppers, avocado, and plump charred shrimp all tossed in a perfectly acidic vinaigrette. It really was a triumph for a relatively minimal dish and I could not wait to try it at home. I made a simple vegetable ragout by sautéing sweet corn kernels with roasted red peppers, shallots, and olive oil. Instead of grilling my shrimp they were tossed with olive oil and sea salt then flashed in a skillet. The prize ingredient in my shrimp salad was the salad itself, the micro greens harvested upstate at my mother’s own Red Hen Farm. The prized mix was baby mesclun with chive blossoms, cilantro, and curly parsley all grown organically and driven down to the city with care by my loving mother. The sweet corn, hot shrimp, and spicy salad with herbal hints throughout really made the dish spectacular, almost but not quite as good as last night. I should have added avocado, everybody loves avocado.

The third dish I used to inspire my movie night meal with Jessica was something that I have never ordered personally but always looks and sounds amazing; baby lamb chops with broccoli rabe and roasted potatoes. The side dishes I could do without but baby lamb chops are a thing of beauty. It really is the best part of the lamb although a good leg of lamb or shoulder is hard to beat. I had wanted to grill lamb chops but the price was exorbitant to say the least and quickly swayed me in favor of a boneless leg of lamb. The piece was thick enough to sear and then roast in a hot oven with a nice layer of fat surrounding it. That is exactly how I cooked it after a quick marinade in olive oil, thyme, garlic, and salt. The meat was more tender in some places than others therefore a few thin slices layered on a plate was the ideal way to serve it. Instead of broccoli rabe and potatoes, I piled the sliced lamb on a bed of wilted chard and topped the dish with a dollop of curry-mint yogurt sauce. My dinner was very good and Jessica was happy but I don’t think I hold a shade to the fine food of Gennaro. The film we watched after we stuffed our bellies was Scottish and very weird about a teenage boy that is a voracious peeping Tom and hardcore mama’s boy. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Grilled Shrimp With Sweet Potatoes And Chorizo

I have tried versions of this dish, or duo of principal ingredients actually a few times before. It sounds odd but shrimp and sweet potatoes have an affinity for one another and pair on the plate excellently. Shrimp’s texture and inherent marine flavor juxtaposes strikingly with the sweet, almost candy-like goodness of sweet potatoes. The last time I cooked the two together was for a dinner party with some college buddies late last December so it was high time to revisit the combo. I prepared a handsome rainy night dinner for myself this evening without exerting too much energy; everything I cooked had about four ingredients and required very little prep work or execution. First I mashed some roasted sweet potatoes with butter, maple syrup, and black pepper. I tasted the mash and thought for some silly reason that it needed minced cilantro which I had planned to garnish with. It made the whole thing taste of cilantro and its potent Latin-American aroma dominated the smell emanating from the plate. Heartbroken, I rendered some diced chorizo in a hot pan to draw the fat and crisp up the rust colored chunks. After draining the excess fat, I mixed the crispy chorizo pieces into the sweet potato mash for a texture contrast. The shrimp were even less work, tossed with olive oil, chili powder, and paprika then cooked on a cast-iron grill pan. They were spicy and nicely charred with firm yet tender pink flesh which complimented the sweet, albeit cilantro fueled sweet potatoes and salty crunch of the chorizo. Overall the match-up of incredibly disparate tastes thrown together on the same plate was not a total misadventure; I think it would be quite good in smaller portions as a hot appetizer or fish course in a lengthy multi-course menu. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fusilli, Mushrooms, And Radishes

The last meal I posted, inspired by the field of food anthropology and the works of Claude Levi-Strauss, lacked a pasta element with the main course. The eggplant parmesan I threw together on the fly was delicious indeed but it is traditionally eaten with some sort of carb whether crusty bread or pasta. Since I omitted a pasta sidekick in my last meal I decided to include one in this post. I got home early this evening as the whether was beginning to turn gray and dismal. It has not been much of a summer thus far with weekly thundershowers becoming routine. I wanted some good comfort food to chill and relax with, opting for some fusilli tossed with tomato sauce and mushrooms. I had some leftover tomato sauce in the fridge along with a half a ball of fresh mozzarella. The pasta was a snap needing a quick shake of the pan to sauté the sliced mushrooms and the patience to wait for the water to boil. The basil chiffonade from my very own plant outside was the highlight of the dish by far. The sauce was good and all but the fresh summery flavor of the basil, which goes excellently with anything tomato, brought a huge boost to the pasta.

The second dish was a little more experimental. I saw a menu recently, for the life of me I cannot remember where, featuring a roasted radish side dish meant to accompany grilled lamb chops. I was intrigued by the idea of cooking radishes at all, let alone roasting them, and was not entirely convinced. Radishes are a summer staple but they can get a bit boring if the only way you eat them is with butter, salt, and bread. I decided to braise the little red pebbles with shallots and lots of vinegar to both add acidity and eventually sweeten the radishes. Overall the dish was interesting to say the least, a bit strong and a bit weird. I think it would be better suited as a side dish to a substantial protein like roasted chicken or certain fish which would balance out their powerful flavor. The proposition of cooking radishes warrants further investigation and I am not ruling it out. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Le Cru Et Le Cuit

The spontaneous and imaginative aspect of cooking when the knife blade, spoon, or pot becomes an extension of your mind and hand simultaneously is what I love most about cooking. There is also an element of reverence for both the ingredients sacrificed and overall spiritual quality of cooking itself. Levi-Strauss, the mythic French cultural anthropologist, viewed the moment of transformation from raw to cooked as the symbolic act that made us human. “…The categories of the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the decayed, the moistened and the burned – can nonetheless be used as conceptual tools with which to elaborate abstract ideas…” Responsibility, nurturance, and survival are aspects of being human intertwined in the simple yet monumental act of cooking where culture takes over and allows our species to supersede the animal realm. Levi-Strauss’s canonical work was one of the pioneering pieces that got me into the anthropology of food, the academic sub-discipline I have and will continue to work under. Other motivating forces for choosing this particular trajectory, or humoring myself with a blog, is my love of food and passion for cooking. The other day I had a craving to harness one of the most fundamental cultural traits distinguishing me from my animal cousins and cook myself an epic meal.

For some reason I was feeling eggplant parmesan and set about making it using baby eggplants, fresh mozzarella, and a quick tomato sauce. It was out of this world good especially because I had grilled and then baked the eggplant rounds, not frying them breaded, which lightened the whole thing up considerably. In honor of Levi-Strauss and his contributions to the development of food anthropology I made a French bistro standard, poireaux
vinaigrette. The translation is leeks with vinaigrette; a Gallic favorite though any fibrous vegetable can be substituted like asparagus or haricots verts. Just steam the vegetable, which I find makes them moist but not overly soggy without jeopardizing their vibrant color, and top with your favorite mustard-based vinaigrette. This meal could not have been simpler and it was mighty delicious if I do say so myself. Here’s to loving food and for letting your passions guide you. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Tomato Mozzarella

Tomato mozzarella is a combination as legendary as peanut butter and jelly or macaroni and cheese, a perfect match of two relatively basic ingredients that compliment each other wonderfully. I am a big fan of insalata caprese, the textbook Italian appetizer of tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and olive oil. It is truly one of my favorite dishes that I have been eating for as long as I can remember. Both of my parents love tomato mozzarella and make it often whether entertaining company or cooking alone. Late July and August is the ideal time for eating this tasty combo though any tomato that tastes vaguely like a tomato can be substituted for the jewel-like heirlooms of summer. I wanted to contribute a dish to lunch yesterday in addition to a second batch of my Asian slaw so I threw together a slightly unorthodox tomato mozzarella using parsley instead of basil. There was already a platter of caprese at the other end of the table so the parsley variation served to mix things up and bring another flavor to the party. Tomato mozzarella rocks and if there is anybody out there that hasn’t already, I highly recommend running out and rocking this mouthwatering mélange. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Family Feast In Connecticut

I spent this past weekend in Connecticut visiting with my older siblings and the individuals that make up my close posse of extended family. Connecticut has long been a home away from home of sorts coming third after Los Angeles and Paris where I spent the majority of my childhood. Roxbury and its neighboring towns and counties are brimming with early American architecture and lush natural landscape. My brother and sister remain tapped into the local community so it is always a privilege to come to town with them and enjoy the company of their old friends. It was a busy weekend indeed rife with tasty food and lots of drink as we dashed around meeting up with their amazing friends. Saturday night I was in charge of dinner and I welcomed the opportunity to show off my talents in the kitchen. The meal was mainly prepared on the grill as we sat enjoying cold beer and wine in the back garden of the gorgeous property. The first course was a continued experiment in bruschetta, which I have been toying with a lot recently with the abundance of spring and summer produce. This particular incarnation was composed of olive bread, herbed goat cheese, and a blend of caramelized leeks and asparagus. The dish was both inventive and delicious, setting the bar high for the rest of the meal.

The main course was grilled double cut pork chops cooked over an open flame on the charcoal grill which is an indicator of summer fun if there ever was one. I rarely get the chance to grill outside because I live in Manhattan and I really enjoy it when I do. I marinated the chops in a mixture of orange juice, Dijon, olive oil, minced garlic, salt, and black pepper for about three hours in the fridge, turning once to give the flavorful marinade a chance to permeate the meat. My brother and I grilled them after the coals had settled for about 4 minutes a side which ended up being a hair too long as the meat charred up heavily and turned rather dry. After they settled for a few minutes I glazed the chops with a vinaigrette of orange juice, Dijon, and olive oil to carry the flavors of the marinade through.

I served two side dishes along with the grilled pork chops; grilled vegetables and Asian coleslaw. Virtually every time I grill or attend a barbecue function I bring a platter of seasonal vegetables sliced thinly. Grilled vegetables are a usual suspect of Italian antipasti platters accompanied with olive oil and fresh herbs which is exactly how I prepared mine. Long strips of zucchini and yellow squash were tossed in olive oil and sea salt before being grilled for less than a minute per side, just enough time to soften the vegetables and leave grill marks. I covered the finished plate with sea salt and chopped mint to bring a level of freshness to the dish. The second side dish was a variation on coleslaw which is mayonnaise free and packed with flavor. I got the recipe from Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and it is a staple in my barbecue arsenal. Everyone enjoyed the meal tremendously, complimenting the chef repeatedly and gobbling up whatever lay before them with a joyful smile on their faces which was both lovely and endearing. I look forward to many more meals with the super cool people that make up my family network and group of close friends in Connecticut and hope to cook for them again soon. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Asian Slaw
Serves 6

2 C. Savoy Cabbage
2 C. Purple Cabbage
1 C. Carrots, grated
1 Jalapeno, seeded and minced
1/2 C. Cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 Lime
1/4 C. Sesame Oil
3 Tbs. Soy Sauce
Black/Sichuan Pepper

1. Chop the cabbages into long thin strips with a sharp knife or mandolin and toss them in a large bowl. Add the grated carrots, minced jalapeno, and mix well until all the ingredients are combined.
2. Whisk together the lime juice, sesame oil, soy sauce, and pepper in a small bowl until emulsified. Taste for seasoning and make sure none of the ingredients are overpowering. Add sesame oil above all if the soy sauce is overbearing.
3. Pour the sauce over the slaw and toss well. Allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for 25-30 minutes, tossing occasionally, until it has wilted slightly and released some liquid. Serve and enjoy.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Spring Rant & Crab Cakes

Late spring is a fantastic time for foodies who love to cook by the seasons. The summer harvest is a few short weeks away and the markets are beginning to overflow with magnificent seasonal produce. May was garden month which marks planting season though many delicious things are hitting markets now like radishes, rhubarb, spinach, and strawberries. Late spring is great for other goodies like the ubiquitous spring lamb and one of my personal favorites, soft-shell crabs. These tasty little crustaceans are a difficult food to get you used to if you are a finicky or easily spooked eater, eaten whole after molting their hard shell. The blue crab is the soft-shell species primarily eaten in the United States and the Chesapeake Bay shared by Maryland and Virginia boasts the best. I have been eating a lot of the little beauties recently though never at home for some reason. In fact I have never cooked with crab which is as much of a shame as it is alarming. My mother was in town for one night on her way to the airport last Sunday, the perfect opportunity to try my shot at a dish that I crave all to frequently; crab cakes.

Three ingredients form the core of any good crab cake and serve as a springboard to your imagination; crab meat, egg, and breadcrumbs. I totally improvised these particular crab cakes using jumbo lump from Maryland and a combination of fresh breadcrumbs and panko. I threw in some fresh herbs, shallots, mayonnaise, Dijon, and hot sauce to jazz things up a bit and tossed the ingredients together carefully to keep the pieces of crab intact. I browned them under the broiler until golden and crisp, warming their rich centers while melting all the yumminess within. I then drizzled each one with some classic French remoulade; a mayonnaise based dressing that I packed with fresh tarragon. My homemade crab cakes came out well; crisp and delicate with a strong crab flavor and crunchy texture. I served them alongside some blanched asparagus dressed simply with melted butter and lemon juice to round out the meal. My mom was impressed that I had the derring-do to make crab cakes in the first place and commended me on my work, even reaching for seconds which is always a positive sign. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

You Say Risotto, I Say Risotto

Yesterday evening I was feeling mighty peckish and racked my mind and stomach to figure out what I wanted to eat. I try to make risotto a couple times a month because it is easy and affordable as well as delicious. Another plus is that risotto is incredibly versatile; you can literally throw anything you want in there with almost any liquids. Let’s face it, nowadays anyone with a suitable pot and some Italian rice can whip up a tasty risotto. It really is an uncomplicated technique to learn and master. All it takes is constant supervision coupled with a strong arm for the continuous stirring and ladling required. Aside from risotto I was similarly craving cauliflower, the oft-neglected redheaded stepchild of the vegetal realm. I happen to love its slightly bitter, milky, and nutty flavor and will gladly have it raw or cooked. After much internal negotiation in the produce aisle of the gourmet grocer I opted to cook a bacon and cauliflower risotto. The tastes of all three elementary components were superbly represented; the creamy rice just barely cooked through, the content in this case cauliflower florets, and the rich homemade vegetable stock and dry Pinot Grigio that were my liquids. The dish was exquisite, to shed my usual modesty and humble nature, full of contrasting textures and flavors that made every forkful interesting. A bite of smoky bacon here, a smooth hit of cauliflower there, with omnipresent creamy rice running the show. The spiced breadcrumb topping was the icing on the cake which provided a nice crunch and complex spice all their own. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

And Cauliflower Risotto
Serves 4

4 Strips of Bacon
2 Tsp. Olive Oil
1 Yellow Onion, chopped
2 Cloves of Garlic, minced
1 Bay Leaf
1 Large Cauliflower, stalk removed and florets separated
1 C. Carnaroli Rice
1/2 C. White Wine
2 1/2 C. Stock
2 Pieces of Stale Bread
1/4 Tsp. Paprika
1/8 Tsp. Red Chili Flakes
1/4 C. Grated Parmesan
1 Tbs. Ricotta
1 Tbs. Fresh Parsley
Salt & Pepper

1. Render the bacon over medium heat in a large pot or Dutch oven until browned. Set aside. Add a teaspoon of oil and sauté the onions until translucent. Add the minced garlic, bay leaf, and cauliflower florets. Cook for 3-4 minutes then add the rice. Cook the rice, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or so until the kernels brown slightly, shell their outer hull, and crackle in the pot. Bring the stock to a simmer in a separate pot.

2. Add the wine to deglaze and stir it into the rice. Wait for the wine to cook off and be completely absorbed. Ladle in half a cup of stock or so to the rice and wait for it to be absorbed. Add more stock and repeat the process, stirring frequently, until the rice has become tender though slightly firm or al dente.

3. While the risotto is cooking chop the bread into small pieces and pulse it several times in a food processor. Toss the breadcrumbs with a teaspoon of olive oil, paprika, and red chili flakes. Toast them for 4-5 minutes in a skillet over medium heat until they have browned but not burned. Set aside.

4. Crumble the bacon into small bits and add it to the risotto 2 minutes before it as finished cooking along with the parmesan, ricotta, and parsley. Stir in all the ingredients and adjust seasoning. Top with the spiced breadcrumb mixture and serve immediately.