Sunday, December 30, 2007

brain on vacation

I'm spending winter vacation in Hong Kong. I've returned to my standing hotel kitchen apprenticeship, where I've been passing my days in the company of various root vegetables. It's rather soothing. I can pretend law school is a distant bad dream.

My parents' kitchen is one of those places where cooking goes to die, so I may not resume posting until mid-January. Best wishes for the new year to all.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

squash risotto for time-travelers

First semester is over. I made it through exams alive. I decided to celebrate by cooking for Novel Food with my friends Meg and Deby. Unfortunately, I got my deadlines mixed up, so this entry is late. Mea culpa, mea culpa.

The Time Traveler's Wife is not a food novel. It's a love story with an unconventional premise. But Audrey Niffenegger writes food scenes beautifully, and Clare and Henry are always eating delicious meals. (There's a Thanksgiving scene with a Thompson's Turkey. Need I say more?) I chose to cook a meal based on the scene when Henry meets Clare's friends for the first time.

Clare is an abominable cook. Her friends, Charisse and Gomez, aren't much better. So Henry walks into Charisse and Gomez' apartment for the first time, only to find the kitchen a disaster area.

"It's a work in progress," says Clare.
"It's an installation piece," says Charisse.
"Are we going to eat it?" asks Gomez.

I look from one to the other, and we all burst out laughing.

The merits of takeout are briefly considered, but Henry takes a look at the mess, and declares that he can make something out of the ingredients. Dinner is a success:

One hour and forty-three minutes later we are sitting around the dining room table eating Chicken Risotto Stew with Pureed Squash. Everything has lots of butter in it. We are all drunk as skunks.

I love this scene because it sounds just like the sort of meal I might improvise myself. However, I had the luxury of planning out this meal, so I played with the dish a little. I didn't have any leftover roast chicken, which is what I'd use for chicken risotto, so I decided to make squash risotto with caramelized shallots, accompanied by forty-clove garlic chicken. We may not have been drunk as skunks by the end of the evening, but we probably could have knocked out a whole coven of vampires at fifty paces with our breath.

Squash Risotto with Caramelized Shallots

(Serves four as a side or starter, or one for two days straight)

Preheat oven to 450F. Take an acorn squash (or half a small butternut squash) and hack it into small pieces with a very large cleaver. Place the pieces on a baking tray, drizzle with a little olive oil, and put the tray in the oven.

Pour three or four cups of chicken or vegetable stock (homemade or storebought) into a small pan. Add a sprig of fresh thyme, if you have it. Set the pan on a burner on low heat.

Heat a generous slice of butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over low heat. Add three or four thinly sliced shallots, and a bunch of finely chopped scallions (dark green parts discarded.) Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the shallots smell sweet and have taken on a golden color. Add one cup of arborio or carnaroli rice. Stir until the rice is warmed through. Pour two glasses of dry white wine. Add one glass of white wine to the pot, and stir. Sip the other as you cook.

When the rice has absorbed the wine, turn the heat up a little and add a ladleful of stock. Stir until it has been absorbed by the rice, then add more. Continue this process (do not stop stirring) until the rice has reached the stage where it is soft enough to bite through, but still fairly hard. Remove the pot from the burner.

Pull the pan of squash from the oven. Let the squash cool enough that you can peel the skin away from the pieces without burning yourself. Add the squash to the risotto. Put the pot back on the burner, and continue stirring and ladling in stock. If you're starting to run out of stock, dilute it with water. (It won't affect the flavor of the finished risotto.)

When the rice is al dente (cooked through, but still has some bite), turn off the heat. Grab a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a grater, and grate a generous heap of cheese. Stir it into the pot. Serve with extra cheese on the side.

Friday, December 21, 2007

cookies from a restaurant to remember

The blogosphere is in the throes of a Christmas baking frenzy, and I've been feeling rather sorry for myself because I didn't grow up with any baking traditions and thus have no recipes to contribute.

Or so I thought. I may not have any baking traditions, but I do have one recipe to share. It comes from the original Prunier's in Sydney, and I'm sharing it partially in the hopes that I'll find someone else out there who remembers the restaurant and its manager, Aldo Zuzza.* Prunier's played enough of a role in shaping my foodie identity that it merits a post or two of its own, so all I'll say is that it was my absolute favorite restaurant in Sydney, and if Aldo hadn't decided to retire to the Hunter Valley and open a vineyard, I might never have agreed to my parents' decision to relocate to Hong Kong.

These almond cookies were served with coffee or tea at the end of every meal at Prunier's. Aldo gave me this recipe on Prunier's last night in business, scribbled out on a sheet of paper torn from a waiter's notepad. He gave me just the ingredient list, so I sorted out the method on my own. The measurements have been converted from metric.

Prunier's Almond Cookies

(Makes an awful lot, but the dough freezes. Bake only as many as you want to eat.)

1 1/2 sticks butter
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup slivered almonds
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
1/2 teaspoon Grand Marnier

Cream sugar and butter together. Mix in the flour gradually. Add the slivered almonds, eggs, vanilla essence, and grand marnier. Mix gently. Shape the dough into squarish logs about one half-inch in diameter, and chill in the freezer until firm. (Dough will keep, frozen, for a month or so.)

Preheat oven to 400F. Cut the logs of dough into thin slices and arrange them on a baking tray. Bake for 5-8 min, until the cookies are golden. Cool. Serve with coffee or tea.

*Prunier's changed owners, underwent a renovation, and became an abomination that serves trendy, mediocre, overpriced food. If you'd like a dining experience akin to that of the original Prunier's, head to Darcy's in Paddington.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

education of a young glutton: recipe scrapbooks

If you were to judge by the way I cook, you'd guess that most of the dishes I prepare have only the barest acquaintance with written recipes. And you'd be absolutely right. I might go online and double-check the ingredients for something I'm making, but very rarely do I ever set out to prepare dinner with a recipe in hand.

That doesn't mean I don't keep recipes around, however. I do have a respectable collection of cookbooks. And I have recipe scrapbooks. Lots of recipe scrapbooks.

I started clipping and scrapbooking recipes at the age of twelve, when I lived at home and the closest I ever got to cooking was frying the occasional breakfast egg. I would dive for the paper on Saturday mornings, because the Saturday issue of the Sydney Morning Herald contained the Good Weekend magazine, and the Good Weekend magazine contained recipes.

In retrospect, I have no idea who the staff of the Good Weekend intended as their target audience. The recipes ranged from straightforward ("Moist Roast Chicken") to upscale ("Zucchini Flower Risotto") to exotic ("Spring Rolls with Nuoc Mam") to impossibly esoteric ("Seared Kangaroo Tenderloin with Beetroot-Onion Jam.") There was no discernible logic in the way the recipes varied: one week the issue might contain a recipe for a basic apple pie, and the next there would be a recipe for white peach sorbet that involved sugar syrup measuring 28 Baum on a saccharometer. Shopping for ingredients could be as simple as making a trip to the supermarket for pork chops, or as complicated as visiting all the specialty food shops in Sydney to hunt down a "bush chook" (emu). And this was all in the mid-90s, well before the foodie movement really began.

Whatever the intended audience, it probably never crossed the minds of the Good Weekend staff that they were participating in the culinary education of a frustrated young glutton. They introduced me to chachouka and tiramisu. I learned about techniques such as tunnel-boning a leg of lamb and baking whole fish in rock salt. Those recipes offered a world beyond Kitchen Sink Soup and spaghetti with jarred sauce, and clipping and pasting them into scrapbooks was an act of hope. I promised myself that someday, I'd cook my way through all of them.

And in a way, I have. I didn't follow the recipe exactly, but I made zucchini flower risotto regularly during my semester in Rome. I've stuffed my own pumpkin ravioli and roasted many chickens. I've learned to steam artichokes and bake flourless chocolate torte. I still turn to my recipe scrapbooks for ideas, even if I don't follow them to the letter when I cook.

I'm still adding to those scrapbooks, bit by bit. I tore this recipe from a New York Times Magazine several months ago, and baked it on a whim tonight. (I originally wanted to bake a soufflé, but I lacked a suitable baking dish.) A cross between a crepe and a Yorkshire pudding, it's incredibly easy to make, and there is something wonderfully appealing about the way it comes out of the oven, all puffy and golden.

David Eyres Pancake
This recipe appeared in a Times article by Craig Claiborne.
2 eggs
½ cup flour
½ cup milk
Pinch of ground nutmeg
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
Juice of half a lemon
Fig or blackberry jam, pear butter or any kind of marmalade, for serving (optional).
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the flour, milk and nutmeg and lightly beat until blended but still slightly lumpy.
2. Melt the butter in a 12-inch skillet with a heatproof handle over medium-high heat. When very hot but not brown, pour in the batter. Bake in the oven until the pancake is billowing on the edges and golden brown, about 15 minutes.
3. Working quickly, remove the pan from the oven and, using a fine-meshed sieve, sprinkle with the sugar. Return to the oven for 1 to 2 minutes more. Sprinkle with lemon juice and serve with jam, pear butter or marmalade. Serves 2 to 4.

Friday, December 14, 2007

mini pie revolution: chicken, fig, and mushroom pies

These pies began their existence as pastry-wrapped chicken stuffed with figs and mushrooms, an idea that came about when I was reading about Beef Wellington instead of paying attention in Criminal Law class two weeks ago. I first tested out the recipe when Matt and I had dinner with Bill, with mixed results.

I liked the dish in theory, but it didn't quite come together in practice. The fig and mushroom stuffing turned out beautifully, all dark and rich with hints of sweetness. Unfortunately, there was too much chicken, and it didn't quite work with the pastry. It needed more tinkering, so I went back to the drawing board.

I thought about puff pastry instead of plain butter pastry. I thought about pounding out the chicken thighs and rolling them with the fig and mushroom mixture. I thought about ditching the pastry entirely, and just making plain roast chicken with fig and mushroom sauce. And then I stopped thinking, and the answer presented itself.

The dish didn't want to be pastry-wrapped stuffed chicken. It wanted to be chicken, fig, and mushroom pie, and it wanted to be baked for the Mini Pie Revolution. I obliged, of course. Who am I to argue with my food, particularly when it's having an identity crisis?

(Matt gets credit for the photos, and my gratitude for sparing me another fight with the damn digital camera.)

Chicken, Fig, and Mushroom Pie

I'm providing the recipe for just the filling, because pie pastry is one of those things I am not going to attempt to give a recipe or directions for. I use a basic butter pastry recipe. I have no brilliant secrets. The Joy of Cooking will give you better instructions than I can. You can also find helpful advice at the Mini Pie Revolution Headquarters.

(Fills six single-serving pies baked in jumbo muffin pans. You can also skip the pastry, and serve this over rice.)

Melt a generous slice of butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Add a bunch of finely chopped scallions (dark green parts discarded - use them for scallion pancakes), and stir until softened and fragrant. Finely chop a container of baby bella mushrooms, add them to the pan, and turn up the heat. Scatter with dried thyme. Add a splash of sherry or dry white vermouth. Add a large handful of finely chopped figs, and bring the mixture to a bare simmer.

Cut four boneless chicken thighs into bite-size pieces and brown them in batches in a large pan over medium heat. When all the chicken has been browned, transfer it back into the pan, add the fig and mushroom mixture, and cover with chicken stock. Bring the contents of the pan to a boil, then turn the heat down to a steady simmer. Reduce until the chicken is bathed in a light sauce. If necessary, add salt to taste. Let the mixture cool. Fill your pies, and bake until the pastry is golden. These go nicely with sautéed spinach or poached leeks.

pies, postponed

Mini-pies didn't happen last night, thanks to yesterday's snowstorm and a traffic snarl that stopped my bus from running. We'll try again tonight.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

my mind? it's scone

Remember how I said there wasn't going to be any cooking until Thursday? Well, I lied. I underestimated the toll my Civil Procedure exam would take on my mental health. Instead of holing up in the law library in the company of my Con Law casebook this evening, I invaded Matt and Nathaniel's kitchen and tinkered further with my scone recipe.

This time I used a mixture of all-purpose and self-raising flour, and found the texture much improved. The scones are now more bready and less fluffy. I was short on raisins, so I added a little brown sugar for sweetness. I left out the egg because there were none in the fridge; I don't think its absence made much of a difference. I also had a happy accident: I forgot to change the oven temperature from the default setting, 350F, to 450F. The scones took longer to bake, but remained soft on top. (At 450F, the tops of the scones go rather hard.)

I haven't reached the perfect scone yet, but I'm getting closer.

Better-Though-Still-Not-Perfect Scones

(Based on a biscuit recipe from Orangette. Makes about 15 scones. They go stale quickly, so you'll want to have other people around to eat them.)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Oil a cake tin. Get out a large mixing bowl.

Dump one-and-a-half cups of self-raising flour, one-and-a-half cups of all-purpose flour, and a quarter-teaspoon of salt into the mixing bowl. Take three-quarters of a stick of chilled butter and cut it into small pieces. Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in three tablespoons of brown sugar. Mix in a half-cup of currants or raisins.

Measure out one cup of whole milk plain yogurt (I recommend Stonyfield Farms) and stir in one-and-a-quarter cups of milk. Add this to the dry ingredients, and stir until the mixture comes together in a very wet, very sticky dough.

Dump a half-cup of plain flour into another bowl. Use a quarter-cup measure or an ice-cream scoop to portion out lumps of the dough; dust them in flour, and pack them into the cake tin. Brush the tops with milk. Bake in the oven for 45-50 minutes. Serve warm with butter and jam.

Monday, December 10, 2007

prima facie burdens? I'd rather write about dim sum

It's exam period, and I am stressed. I have exams in Constitutional Law and Civil Procedure this week, which means I'm up to my eyeballs in notes about strict scrutiny, rational basis review, burden of production, summary judgment, and other weighty concepts. There won't be any cooking between now and Thursday, which is when I'll take a breather and attempt to cook for either Novel Food or the Mini-Pie Revolution.* I can't manage anything more involved than putting cheese on bread for the next few days, and to tell you the truth, even that might be pushing it. I foresee a lot of takeout in my immediate future.

Fortunately, I don't have to resort to pizza delivery or overpriced sandwiches from the law school café. Not when I can make a quick trip to the food court at Super 88, and get food from someplace like Dim Sum Chef.

A food court might not sound like a good place to get dim sum, but what Dim Sum Chef lacks in ambiance, it makes up for in freshness. With the exception of the pudding desserts, everything is made to order.

I'm particularly fond of their dumplings, both steamed and pan-fried. The shrimp and spinach dumplings have thin, chewy skins, and are plump with succulent shrimp. The Shanghai-style dumplings have a meat and vegetable filling bathed in rich, flavorful broth. And the pan-fried steamed dumplings are deliciously soft and fluffy underneath a lightly crisped exterior.

The siu mai aren't quite to my taste - they're on the large and meaty side, while I prefer them bite-size - but the pan-fried turnip cake is excellent: the squares are crusty and golden on the outside, and meltingly soft on the inside, flecked with dried shrimp and tiny cubes of salted pork. The steamed tripe is fragrant with slivers of ginger, and agreeably chewy. And while it's not a dim sum dish per se, I have a soft spot for the steamed rice with sweet Chinese sausage.

If you want the full dim sum experience, you're better off at someplace like China Pearl. But if you, like me, find that shrimp dumplings and pan-fried turnip cake are just the thing to fuel an afternoon with Marbury and Madison, Dim Sum Chef is the place to go.

*There shouldn't even be any blogging between now and Thursday, but I have to preserve my (in)sanity somehow.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

meme: who are you, and what are you doing here?

Passed along by Ann of Redacted Recipes. I've been saving this so I'd have something to post during exam period.

How long have you been blogging?
Since the end of October.

What inspired you to start a blog, and who are your mentors?
I've been reading food blogs since college. I started my own shortly after I started law school, as a way of keeping myself sane. (Or keeping myself crazy, if you prefer.)

Mentors? Food mentors? Well, I can tell you that I have a food fairy godfather named Uncle Rick, but that won't mean much until I tell the full story. (All in good time, I promise.)

Are you trying to make money online, or just doing it for fun?
Oh, I'm definitely not making any money off this. I have a regular readership of about fifteen people, and most of them are my long-suffering guinea pigs friends.

Tell me three things you LOVE about being online:
1. It's comforting to know that there's a world out there full of people who love food.
2. Seeing (and drooling over) what everyone else is cooking and eating.
3. Talking to other people who love food.

Tell me three things you STRUGGLE with in the online world:
1. Food photography is painful. Digital cameras are evil.
2. Page design is not my forte. I still need a real header, don't I?
3. I'm oh-so-slightly paranoid that my professors will find this blog and have all their suspicions confirmed.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

singing the praises of the humble beet

Take a moment to pity the beet. It's a sad, unloved vegetable, doomed to a lonely corner in the produce section next to the rutabagas and the brussel sprouts. It gets a bad rap: soggy, mushy, and flavorless, with the added bonus of creating indelible stains on fabric. The beet is also classed amongst foodstuffs that are Good For You, and as any child will tell you, "good for you" is another way of saying "tastes bad."

I like beets. Granted, I also like tripe stew and cold tongue sandwiches, so the average American might take my opinions with a grain of salt. But I imagine I can persuade you of the beet's appeal more easily than I can entice you to try offal.

Boiled, the beet is everything its detractors make it out to be: soggy, waterlogged, and thoroughly unappealing. Roasted, the beet becomes deliciously tender, with a mild, almost buttery sweetness.
It's right at home next to roast chicken, and it makes for an excellent burger topping in winter, when tomatoes are mealy and lacking in flavor.*

In the salad below, roasted beets are paired with tangy goat's cheese and toasted walnuts, and served over a tangle of greens in light vinaigrette. It's simple, but visually arresting. You could serve it with roast chicken, but it's a perfectly satisfying light lunch on its own - and heart-healthy, too.

Roasted Beet, Goat Cheese, and Walnut Salad

(Serves one. Best prepared and eaten while wearing old or dark clothing.)

Preheat the oven to 400F. Scrub and peel two medium-sized beets. Cut them both in half; cut each half into quarters. Place the beets in a cake tin and cover with foil. Roast for an hour or so, until the beets are fork-tender. Uncover, and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, toast a handful of walnuts in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat until fragrant. Season with a sprinkling of salt.

Whisk olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a dash of ground mustard together in a big bowl until well-incorporated. Toss with arugula or spring mix, or mâche (lamb's lettuce) if you can find it.

Scatter the beets, walnuts, and a handful of crumbled goat's cheese atop the greens. Grab a fork and dig in.

*Beetroot is a traditional hamburger topping in Australia, as are fried eggs. Unlike Vegemite, which I only grudgingly acknowledge as a foodstuff, I wholeheartedly embrace the "Oz burger" as an icon of Australian cuisine.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

stress kitchen: black forest tiramisu

My response to stress is to cook. I like to joke that my thesis may not have done much for my research or writing skills, but it did wonders for my baking. I spent senior year of college tinkering with scone recipes, fussing over shortbread, and experimenting with such mad inventions as salt caramel soufflé. (The idea has potential. The theory needs work.) Every time I had an upcoming deadline, I'd fetch another pound of butter from the freezer. I didn't thank Cabot or King Arthur in my acknowledgments, but it's quite possible that I should have.

Finals are looming, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that I think about food even more than usual. Matt and I had another dinner with Bill tonight, so I took the opportunity to test out an idea that I've been ruminating upon for the past few months: Black Forest tiramisu.

My problem with Black Forest torte is that there's too much cake, not enough filling, and never enough cherries. It's also far too sweet and heavy. I like the essential concept, but not its usual incarnation. I set out to fashion a tiramisu with all the flavors of a Black Forest torte instead: deliciously sour cherries, lightly sweetened mascarpone cream, and thin slices of bitter chocolate cake, liberally drenched in alcohol-spiked cherry juice.

I had a hell of a time trying to find a recipe for the sort of chocolate cake I needed, probably because I needed the sort of cake that would be considered a serious failure if judged solely upon its own merits. The cake is in this recipe for two reasons: one, it adds the bitter note that contrasts with the sweet cream and the sour cherries, and two, the alcoholic cherry juice needs something to soak into. To satisfy these requirements, the cake should not be palatable on its own. In fact, it should be damn near inedible on its own.

I found a recipe for a basic chocolate cake, bumped up the cocoa content, and slashed the sugar content by three-quarters. It wasn't as dry as I would have liked (leaving it an extra day to turn stale would probably have helped), but it worked well enough for a first attempt.

The finished product was deemed a success. (It helps that Bill loves cherries.) The cake was not quite as bitter as I wanted, but all the other elements were right: the sourness of the cherries, the sweet, almost nutty quality of the marscapone cream, and the sharpness of the cherry-rum liquid. It wasn't bad for a first attempt. I promise that the photograph below does not do it justice.

Black Forest Tiramisu*

(I will err on the side of caution and say that this is a recipe not for one. My guess is that it will freeze successfully, but I have yet to test out the theory.)

For the cake: Preheat oven to 350F. Grab a big mixing bowl, and sift together one and two-thirds of a cup of all-purpose flour, one cup bitter cocoa powder (the darker the better), one-and-a-half teaspoons of baking powder, and a half-teaspoon of salt. In a second mixing bowl, cream together one stick of butter and a quarter-cup of sugar. Beat in two eggs and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Stir in the dry ingredients, thinning the mixture with one-and-a-half cups of milk, until well-incorporated. Divide the batter between two cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Leave to cool.

For the mascarpone cream: Whip together one tub of mascarpone, one pint of heavy whipping cream, and a quarter-cup sugar until the mixture becomes thick and stiff. (You can also add a touch of sweet liqueur, if you like.)

For the sour cherry mixture: Open two fourteen-ounce cans of pitted sour cherries (griottes) in water. Drain off the liquid into a small saucepan, and reserve the cherries in the bowl. Reduce the liquid in the saucepan to half its original volume over low heat, and add two or three tablespoons of sugar, just enough to sweeten it slightly. When the mixture has cooled, add a generous splash of light rum or kirschwasser. (Austrian recipes use rum, German recipes use kirschwasser. I had rum on hand, so I used rum.) You can add a splash of rum to the cherries too, if you like.

Now we come to the fun part: assembly. Take each cake round and slice it horizontally into three layers. Don't worry if they're not even. Get a large, deep dish (glass or ceramic) and place one of the cake layers in the bottom. Drench the cake with the cherry liquid - make sure it gets really soaked through - and cover with a layer of cherries. Top with a layer of cream. Repeat the process two or three more times with the remaining cake layers, cherries, and cream. You'll probably have leftover cake, which is fine. You can freeze it and use it to make more tiramisu later. Cover the tiramisu with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for several hours. It can be left overnight, if you want to make it the day before.

To serve: Decorate with grated chocolate. Carve out portions with a big serving spoon. If you were particularly generous with the alcohol in the cherry mixture, you may want to hold off on giving seconds to anyone who's driving home.

*This could arguably be called "Black Forest trifle," but a search on Google reveals that such a designation is reserved for an abomination involving chocolate cake mix, chocolate pudding mix, and cherry pie filling from a can. Besides, it doesn't quite satisfy the definition of trifle, because it contains no custard.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

improvised noodles

When Matt and I cook together, it tends to be French or Italian-ish fare, because those are the cuisines we're most familiar with, preparation-wise. We don't do much Asian cuisine, because Matt knows very little about preparing it, and my parents, as previously mentioned, were much better at teaching me to eat other people's food. But last night, in a dramatic departure from our usual habits, we attempted to make yakisoba.

When Matt expressed a craving for noodles, the first noodle dish that came to my mind was the yakisoba I had at Wagamama a few months ago. Yakisoba are Japanese stir-fried noodles, and I know the theory of stir-frying well enough that I was willing to attempt them.

Getting the necessary ingredients was the first hurdle. I headed to Super 88 with the aim of finding udon noodles (despite the name, yakisoba are made with udon rather than soba), bean sprouts, and yakisoba sauce. The noodles and the bean sprouts were easy to find; the yakisoba sauce was trickier.

Super 88, it turns out, has an entire aisle devoted to sauces belonging to various Asian cuisines. (And some that don't... why do they sell Kraft Barbecue Sauce?) I couldn't find anything specifically for yakisoba, so I went with the closest thing - some sort of Kikkoman-brand sticky sauce - and hoped for the best.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to find out if the sauce would work or not. Somehow, the sauce didn't make it into the shopping bag with the other ingredients, and I didn't realise until it was too late to return to the supermarket.* So we improvised instead.

As I've said, we don't cook much Asian food, so we only had the barest basics to work with: soy sauce, lemon juice (we had no vinegar), and sugar. The results were surprisingly good. The sauce wasn't very sticky, and could have been more salty, but the vegetables in the dish - onions, red bell pepper, and carrot - added plenty of sweetness, and the lemon juice gave it a slightly tangy finish.

I'm afraid our success may have given Matt ideas. Watch this space. There might be more dabbling in Asian cuisine in the near future.

Not-Quite-Yakisoba Stir-Fried Noodles

You can play around with what you add to this dish, depending on the season and what you have lurking in the crisper drawer. The vegetables I've listed are just there to give you a starting point.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Ingredient check: one package udon noodles (raw or precooked), one white onion, one red bell pepper, one large carrot, a bunch of scallions, a few handfuls of bean sprouts, and depending on your dietary preferences, either tofu cubes or a piece of chicken (preferably thigh.) If you're trying to make something approaching yakisoba, you'll also want a bottle of yakisoba sauce. If you're improvising the way I did, you'll need soy sauce, brewed vinegar (or lemon juice), sugar (brown or white), and perhaps some honey.

If you're improvising the sauce, get a measuring jug and mix up a quarter cup of soy sauce, a little less than a quarter cup of vinegar or lemon juice, and enough sugar and/or honey to make the mixture somewhat sticky. Taste it. You may need to adjust the ratios a little. It should be salty-sweet and a little tangy.

Slice your onion into rings; cut the rings in half and break them up. Slice the bell pepper into strips, and julienne the carrots. Chop the scallions finely. If you're using chicken, cut it into small chunks. If your noodles are raw, cook them according to the directions on the package. If they're precooked, carry on.

Heat a generous quantity of oil in a wok or a deep pan over high heat. Toss in the onions. As soon as you can smell them, throw in the bell peppers and the carrots. Stir with a spatula or a wooden spoon. When the vegetables have softened, add the scallions, and then the tofu or chicken. Pour over some of the sauce and stir vigorously.

Add the noodles and the rest of the sauce, and stir until everything is well-coated and heated through. Toss in the bean sprouts, and mix them in. Serve immediately. Scallion pancakes are a nice accompaniment.

Note: I add the bean sprouts last because I dislike the soggy texture of fully-cooked bean sprouts. If you prefer them soft, though, throw them in as soon as the tofu or chicken has cooked through.

*I'm embarrassed to say that this isn't the first time that's happened. The people at Whole Foods were very nice about refunding my money the time I forgot an entire chicken.

scallion pancakes, and why the fire alarm is not my friend

I have a confession to make: I set off the fire alarm at least twice a month when cooking at Matt and Nathaniel's. Their kitchen suffers from the rather unfortunate combination of an extremely sensitive fire alarm and a highly ineffective exhaust fan. On the one hand, we can be certain that they'll be safe if a real fire should ever occur, but on the other, dinner often comes with a side of ear-splitting, high-pitched beeping.

Still, the risk doesn't stop me from frying things over high heat. It's almost a given that if I crash on their futon on a Friday or Saturday night, there will be something fried for breakfast the next morning. Today it was scallion pancakes.

I made scallion pancakes last night to accompany yakisoba (which merits an entry of its own), and I had enough scallions left over that it only made sense to use them up by making another batch this morning.

The scallion pancakes I'm referring to are not the dainty, anemic little pancakes served with dipping sauce in American Chinese restaurants.* Scallion pancakes (cong you bing) are a subspecies of a larger class of pancakes (bing) found in Northern Chinese and Beijing cuisine.

A scallion pancake without the scallions is a lao bing. A pancake with filling is a xiar bing. "Pancake" is really a misnomer, because they're made from dough, not batter. "Flatbread" is a more accurate description. Still, whatever you call them, they're solid and hearty, and make for quite a satisfying breakfast.

Scallion Pancakes
(cong you bing)

Depending on your dietary preferences, you can make these with vegetable oil, butter, or lard. They can be eaten plain, or served up alongside fried eggs.

(Serves one hungry person. Makes two large pancakes.)

Grab a big mixing bowl. Dump in two cups of flour and a pinch of salt. Make a well in the center, and pour in one cup of hot water. (Not cold. This is important.) Stir with chopsticks until you have a soft dough. Add a little more water if the dough seems dry. Let it rest for half an hour.

Wash and dry a bunch of scallions, and chop them finely. (Use the leftovers for soup, or maybe yakisoba.) Divide your dough into two lumps. Cover one with a damp cloth. Take the other, and roll it out very thinly on a lightly floured surface. Brush the dough lightly with the oil of your choice. Take a bunch of scallions, and scatter them over the dough.

Roll the dough up into a tube, jelly roll-style. Take the tube and shape it into a coil. Squish the coil into a disk. Cover this disk in plastic wrap, and repeat the process with the other lump of dough.

When you're ready to fry the pancakes, roll out the disks to a 1/8th-inch (4mm) thickness. Heat oil in a skillet or a heavy-bottomed pan over high heat, and drop the pancake in. Fry on one side until crisp with golden brown spots, then flip it over and do the same to the other. Remove from heat; sprinkle with salt and cut into wedges. These are best eaten standing next to the stove - that's where you'll want to be when the fire alarm goes off, anyway.

*American Chinese restaurant, n. The province of crab rangoons, chop suey, and General Tso's chicken. Not to be confused or compared with "Chinese restaurant in America."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

beef vermicelli for the law student's soul

Wednesdays are, hands down, the worst day of my week. I have four badly-spaced classes on Wednesday, and I'm usually scrambling to finish an assignment for Legal Writing during the afternoon. On the Wednesdays when memo editing leaves me stressed and miserable, I like to go to the food court at Super 88 for lunch.

I'll grant that the average food court is nothing to write home about - even if I do have something of a soft spot for them - but the one in Super 88 is not your average food court.* Super 88 is an Asian supermarket, and its food court is filled with little places that prepare all sorts of Asian cuisine. The Vietnamese place, Pho Viet, is one of my favorites.

The food at Pho Viet's is delicious, and the prices are kind to a student budget. As long as there's no seafood involved, appetizers cost around three dollars, and entrees about seven. I find that if I order one of each, I can get a second meal out of the leftovers. (That's one more meal I don't have to worry about, leaving more time to study for exams blog about food do other stuff.)

I had beef vermicelli for lunch today - warm glass noodles topped with grilled beef in lemongrass marinade, ground peanuts and green onions, and accompanied by a salad of fresh bean sprouts, cucumber, carrot, and mint. Fish sauce and chili paste are served on the side, and you season everything to taste.

I like to mix the salad right in with the vermicelli - the crunch of the carrots contrasts nicely with the softness of the noodles, and the lemongrass in the beef marinade echoes the grassy flavor of the bean sprouts. It was exactly what I needed after a morning of Contracts and Civil Procedure.

Beef vermicelli is served hot, but the leftovers are just as good cold, so I ate them for dinner along with a side order of pork spring rolls. The spring rolls taste good cold, too: somehow, their crispness becomes an agreeable softness without turning soggy. Full and satisfied, I went off to my writing class in a mood that could almost be described as good.

Wednesdays may still be awful, but food from Pho Viet's goes a long way towards making them bearable.

*I was a mall rat in my teen years. I plead boarding school. There was nothing else to do on Saturday evenings.

Monday, November 26, 2007

thankful for mashed potato sandwiches

I am ambivalent about most American holidays. I suspect you have to spend your childhood in America to fully appreciate Halloween, just as I suspect you have to be truly American to fully appreciate the Fourth of July. Thanksgiving, however, is a holiday I can fully embrace. Sure, I'm a little fuzzy on the details about what it's supposed to celebrate (pilgrims?), but what glutton doesn't love an excuse to feast?

I love being an international student when Thanksgiving comes around. I get invitations to Thanksgiving dinner from friends, classmates, and even professors. I get to participate in a different Thanksgiving every year, and no two are ever the same.

This year I spent Thanksgiving in Vermont with Bella. The Thanksgiving spread was traditional New England, right down to Bella's mother's homemade pickles. With the exception of frozen green peas, the same meal could have been served a hundred years ago. Dinner was excellent. So were the leftovers.

I'm convinced that Thanksgiving dinner exists largely as an excuse to have leftovers.* It's quite possible that I love Thanksgiving leftovers more than the dinner itself. (Granted, this might just be because I've never had to come up with new and creative ways to use up twelve pounds of leftover turkey breast.) Leftovers mean doorstop sandwiches. Messy, drippy, turkey-mashed potato-gravy sandwiches, to be precise. Turkey optional.

My favorite dish at Thanksgiving is mashed potatoes and gravy. And I love starch-on-starch sandwiches, so it makes perfect sense to combine the two.** I know most people give me odd looks when I mention mashed potato-and-gravy sandwiches, but it works beautifully: buttery potatoes, salty gravy, and a nice, dense bread - preferably rosemary- to provide chew. A slice of turkey gives added texture, but it's not essential.

Mashed potato-and-gravy sandwiches taste best at midnight. They're messy enough that they should probably be eaten with a knife and fork, which is exactly why they taste better when you use your fingers. (Just make sure you have lots of paper towels handy.) I might give the turkey a pass, but I'm thankful for mashed potato sandwiches.

* I know there are food writers out there who have written about leftovers, and done so far more cleverly or eloquently than I ever will. I know I read one article on the subject in the Sydney Morning Herald's Good Weekend magazine, sometime between 1996 and 2000. It mentioned bubble and squeak, and pain perdu, and some sort of shrimp fried rice. I believe the accompanying recipe was for some sort of fried rice too, but I could be wrong. On the off chance that there's someone from Sydney reading this blog... does anyone remember the name of this article?

**I brought potato chip and mashed banana sandwiches to school regularly as a kid. (Don't knock it until you've tried it. They're salty and sweet and the potato chips provide a pleasant crunch.) The chip butty is a thing of glory. And you have no idea how delighted I was when I went to Paris and discovered that a sandwich grec often comes with the frites in it, rather than on the side.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

I'm not dead yet!

Went to Bella's for Thanksgiving, had no internet. Will be back to write about mashed potato sandwiches tomorrow.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

from dim sum to diner, or how I ate too much today


There are reasons why going to dim sum, baking scones, and hitting a classic diner, all in the same day, might not be considered a smart idea. I'm sure the reason "That leaves very little time to do the Contracts assignment you weren't really absorbing on Friday" is one of them. But the only reason that really matters is my quietly protesting stomach: I could probably rival a Thanksgiving turkey in stuffed-ness right now.

So how did I get to this state? Well, it starts with Wing. A lot of things start with Wing, because he's one of those characters who comes up with mad ideas and then convinces people to go along with them.* Two weeks ago, he announced that he would be in town this weekend. Plans were promptly made for a dim sum lunch in Chinatown.

Dim sum are Cantonese, and Wing is originally from Hong Kong, which means he's right at home in a dim sum restaurant. My parents are from Beijing, so technically, it's not part of my "home" cuisine. However, my parents are skilled in the art of eating other people's cooking, and dim sum are one of those things they latched on to with great enthusiasm.**

When I was young, my family would go out to dim sum every Saturday for lunch. The restaurant would always be loud, chaotic, and crowded. (A quiet dim sum restaurant is either an oxymoron or a mob front.) The scene at China Pearl this morning was familiar, to say the least.

We were a party of eight - Wing, Matt, Tom (the photographer of the previous entry), myself, and four other friends whose names I won't mention because I don't yet have permission to blog about them. Of these eight, Matt and Tom had never had a real dim sum experience before, so Wing and I took it upon ourselves to educate them. Of course, Wing did most of the actual ordering. I recognise most dim sum by sight, but I only ever learned some of their names, and in a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese, no less.

We started out slowly, with the dishes that go over well with just about everyone: shrimp dumplings (ha gau), pork dumplings (siu mai), and roast pork buns (cha siu bao.) Shrimp dumplings are one of my personal favorites (something about those chewy rice skins), but most of the party professed a love for the roast pork buns. I admit, China Pearl does do them well: the buns were full and fluffy, and the filling had generous chunks of roast pork in a glossy, sticky sauce.

Matt and Tom were keeping up without a problem, so we proceeded to the next round of dishes: various types of rice noodle rolls (cheong fan), and sticky rice and chicken in lotus leaf (lo mai gai). I thought the sticky rice was particularly good, but then again, I'm somewhat biased because it's another of my favorites.

Next up: steamed meatballs (ngau yuk gau), stuffed tofu, stuffed green bell peppers, and turnip cake (lo bak gao). I was a little disappointed with the turnip cake - the squares were pan-fried to a golden crispy finish on the outside, but a little too mealy within. However, Tom particularly liked the steamed meatballs, so I considered that round a success.

We hadn't lost anyone yet, so we presented the final challenge: chicken feet and steamed tripe. Both Matt and Tom gamely tried the former, but we had to do a little prodding where the latter was involved. Matt was initially wary because he'd experienced French-style tripe (strong odor and flavor), but cheerfully joined us in egging Tom on once he discovered that the steamed tripe was quite a different dish (remarkably mild).

Tom was wary because, well, tripe is cow's stomach, and the idea created something of a mental block in his head. When he finally tried it, his reaction was mixed: taste fine, texture bad. "It's like chewing on a ginger-flavored rubber mat," he remarked. I wasn't too upset - I love tripe, and no-one else at the table was a big fan, so I had most of the dish to myself.

We finished the meal with silky tofu in syrup, and mango pudding. (We tried to get egg tarts, but every time the pastry cart came by, they were out.) The tofu wasn't bad, but the mango pudding looked and tasted like insipid Jell-O. I suspect it may have been bought ready-made, rather than prepared in-house, which was a little disappointing. Still, it was a good meal overall, and both Matt and Tom professed to enjoying themselves. Wing and I were pleased.

Late afternoon found us back at Matt and Nathaniel's, which is where I made another batch of not-scones, and we ate more than half of them as a teatime snack.

The first tentative noises about dinner plans came around seven in the evening. Somehow, in the time between dim sum and not-scones, Tom had managed to develop a craving for cheeseburgers, so we debated the merits of various pubs and burger joints before finally settling on the Deluxe Town Diner.

Wing, Matt, and Tom all ordered burgers, but I couldn't face the thought of red meat, and opted for a Cobb salad instead. Note that a Cobb salad is still not an example of dietary restraint: it contains chicken, bacon, avocado, hard-boiled egg, and blue cheese in addition to red onions, black olives, cherry tomatoes, and mixed greens. At the Deluxe Town Diner, it comes in a bowl almost large enough to serve as a bath for a small infant. It was also far tastier than any salad served in an establishment billing itself as a diner had a right to be (no iceberg lettuce or mealy tomato wedge in sight), and of course I polished off the entire thing. It's a wonder I didn't have to be carried out to the car on a stretcher.

So if anyone needs me, I'll be curled up on the sofa with a cup of peppermint tea and and my Contracts book, digesting away. I still have to make sense of that reading assignment.

*Ideas like beer-battered, deep-fried bacon. Which I'm not writing about unless I get at least three comments from the morbidly curious. You can find more of Wing's mad ideas at his blog.

**My mother, as I've mentioned, doesn't like to cook. Our usual Sunday lunch is "Kitchen Sink Soup," a concoction made by boiling noodles with a week's worth of leftovers. (Not only does it contain everything but the kitchen sink, it also looks a lot like the gunk left in the sinktrap after you've done the washing up.)

in search of the perfect scone

If at first you don't succeed, don't take up skydiving go back to the drawing board and try again. The last of yesterday's not-scones were polished off this morning, so I decided a second attempt was in order this afternoon.

If you haven't already guessed from my haphazard approach to measurements, I'm more of a cook than a baker. I'm perfectly capable of following a recipe to the letter, but prefer it when I don't have to. When I bake, "mad scientist experiment" is the description that comes to mind.

I tried to strike a compromise between the biscuit recipe and my standard scone recipe yesterday. Today I made the scones almost exactly the way I usually would, but used the biscuit technique. The results were better, though the name is still awkward.

Closer-But-Still-Not-Quite Scones

(Based on a biscuit recipe from Orangette. Makes about 15 scones. They go stale quickly, so you'll want to have other people around to eat them.)

Preheat the oven to 450F. Oil a cake tin. Get out a large mixing bowl.

Dump three cups of self-raising flour and a quarter-teaspoon of salt into the mixing bowl. Take half a stick of chilled butter and cut it into small pieces. Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in one cup of currants or raisins.

Measure out two cups of whole milk plain yogurt (I recommend Stonyfield Farms) and stir in half a cup of milk. Crack in one egg. Add this to the dry ingredients, and stir until the mixture comes together in a very wet, very sticky dough.

Dump a cup of plain flour into another bowl. Use a quarter-cup measure or an ice-cream scoop to portion out lumps of the dough; dust them in flour, and pack them into the cake tin. Brush the tops with milk. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes. Serve warm with butter and jam.

(Photo credit goes to Tom, a friend who's in town for the weekend. Tom is a Fine Arts major with an interest in photojournalism. He is capable of operating a digital camera. You can see more of his work here.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

almost, but not entirely, unlike scones

The scone is a poor, confused baked good with an identity crisis. It doesn't recognise itself when it crosses the Atlantic. There are scones ("sk-ohwns"), and then there are scones ("sk-ons"). Americans eat the former. The inhabitants of the British Isles (and other formerly British countries) eat the latter.

"Sk-ohwns" are sweet, sold at Starbucks, taste like muffins with a crumbly texture, and sometimes come slathered in frosting. "Sk-ons" are not sweet, are not sold at Starbucks, and bear more of a resemblance to biscuits than anything else in American cuisine. In a traditional Devonshire tea, they're served with jam and clotted cream. When I talk about scones, I mean "sk-ons."

The best scones I have ever eaten may be found at the Vaucluse House Tearooms in Sydney. They're light, tender, and perfect with a nice cup of tea on a chilly afternoon. Unfortunately, Sydney is a long way from New England, and so when I want scones, I have to bake them myself.

I spent a good part of my senior year in college attempting to perfect a recipe for scones. I lived in a co-op with twenty other students, so I had plenty of guinea pigs. Every Saturday, I'd get out a giant mixing bowl and whip up a double batch. They would disappear within an hour. Unfortunately, this is not so much positive proof of my baking skills as it is a reflection of the average college student's appetite. Some of my attempts turned out fairly well, but the scones were still far from perfect.

It was cold and blustery this afternoon, which made the idea of teatime very appealing. So I got out a mixing bowl, and tried to tinker with the recipe again. This time, I'm afraid I went too far.

I saw a recipe on Orangette a few days ago that promised light, tender biscuits. I thought I'd apply the technique to scones - after all, they bear a passing resemblance to each other. You can see where this is headed. I ended up with a pan of light, tender, fluffy biscuits. They were almost, but not entirely, unlike scones.

Unauthentic Biscuits That Are Also Not Scones

(Makes about 15 biscuits. They go stale quickly, so make them only if you have other people around to eat them.)

Preheat the oven to 475F. Oil a cake tin. Get out a large mixing bowl.

Dump three cups of self-raising flour and a half-teaspoon of salt into the mixing bowl. Take three-quarters of a stick of chilled butter and cut it into small pieces. Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.

Measure out two cups of whole milk plain yogurt (I recommend Stonyfield Farms) and stir in half a cup of milk. Add this to the dry ingredients, and stir until the mixture comes together in a very wet, very sticky dough.

Dump a cup of plain flour into another bowl. Use a quarter-cup measure or an ice-cream scoop to portion out lumps of the dough; dust them in flour, and pack them into the cake tin. Brush the tops with milk. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Whatever you call them, they're not bad with jam.

I like to cook with alcohol. sometimes I even add it to the food.

I'm back. I've been absent because my latest research memo swallowed my life. Now it's done, the weekend lies ahead, and I'm free to write about vodka. Penne alla vodka, to be precise.

I have been informed that in order to make my blog more interesting, I should offer details about my personal life. You may consider the following my idea of offering details about my personal life:

I was introduced to penne alla vodka by Jake. Jake is my ex from freshman year of college. He helped me become the monster serious foodie I am today.

This blog is partially Jake's fault, because not only did he understand the appeal of a culinary career, he encouraged my interest in it. The elder son of a food writer and a book editor, Jake considered enrolling in the culinary program at Johnson & Wales himself. He's now in New York, studying forensic psychology. His blog is The Daily Jimmy. It's not a food blog, but he occasionally posts about cooking and restaurants.*

Penne alla vodka was one of the first dishes Jake prepared for me. It's quite a simple dish - pasta with a tomato-cream sauce, livened up with vodka and red chili flakes - but it tastes far fancier than its preparation would suggest. Prepare it for yourself as a weekend indulgence, or make it part of a dinner party menu and impress your guests.

Penne alla Vodka

The original recipe does have measurements, but the original recipe is in a cookbook Jake still owes me, so you'll have to bear with my usual haphazard approach. You can use vodka you wouldn't really want to drink - Poland Springs comes to mind - but do make sure you have good pasta, Italian canned tomatoes, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

(Serves four as a main course, six as a starter, and one for three days straight.)

Set a large pot of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, melt about half a stick of butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan on low heat. Add a good dash of red chili flakes and a generous splash of vodka. Make sure you're not sticking your head over the pan while you do this, as the fumes will be eyewateringly awful.

Open a 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes. Drain off most of the liquid, and dice the tomatoes roughly. Check the pan. The worst of the fumes from the butter-vodka mixture should have dissipated. Add the tomatoes and a sprinkling of salt. Stir. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook until the tomatoes soften. Check for taste. It should be slightly too spicy. You're going to add cream, which will mellow the flavor.

By now, that pot of salted water should have hit a rolling boil. Throw in a pound of penne. Rigatoni will also work if you assumed you had penne when you actually didn't. (Please don't use macaroni unless the only other alternative involves bashing up sheets of lasagne.)

Get out a carton of heavy cream and pour enough into the sauce to turn it pink. Stir, check for taste, and turn down the heat. Get out the grater and a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and grate a heaping pile of it.

When the penne is cooked, turn off the heat, drain off the water, and return the pasta to the pot. Add the sauce, and stir until the pasta is well-coated. Sprinkle generously with the cheese and stir again. Serve the pasta. You can add more cheese to taste at the table.

Note: I like to add torn fresh basil leaves to this pasta, but then again, I like fresh basil in just about everything.

*Jake is attempting to make money off his blog, so he'd really appreciate it if you visit and click on his Google Ads. Of course, this shameless plug works both ways: Jake, if I don't get my cookbook by the time you and Michelle tie the knot this summer, I'm holding your wedding gift hostage.

Monday, November 12, 2007

how to feed fifty kosher vegetarian celiacs on a budget

So they weren't all vegetarian, and none of them were celiacs, but I did spend a lot of time cooking kosher food for large groups of people on a budget in college. It's something of a long story, so I think I'll save the full explanation for when I recount the time I tried to make ravioli for fifty (almost) single-handedly.

When you're trying to plan a menu and juggling multiple dietary restrictions, single recipes that do double duty are worth their weight in gold. Not only is this recipe kosher, vegan, gluten-free, and easily made in large quantities, it's also cheap, nutritious, reheats well, and freezes without protest. You can think of it as a different spin on chili.

Sweet Potato and Black Bean Stew

I think this originally came from I've scaled this recipe down so that you'll get two or three meals out of it, but you can make a big batch and have ready-made meals for weeks if you have the freezer space to spare.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

As far as produce goes, you'll need two sweet potatoes, three cloves of garlic, a hunk of fresh ginger, one white onion and a red bell pepper (on a sesame seed bun.) You'll also need a can of black beans, and remember to pick up a carton of orange juice if you're like me and don't have any in the fridge because you never drink it. Do a spice cabinet check: cumin, chili powder, and cayenne if you like heat.

Peel and dice the sweet potatoes, onion, and bell pepper. Mince the garlic and grate the ginger. Heat vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pot and sauté the onion. Season with salt. Add the garlic and ginger. Stir. Season with a generous sprinkling of cumin, chili powder, and cayenne if you're using it. I do mean generous. You should be saying "Oh, crap. I think I overdid it." (If you season too timidly, you'll have bland stew, and you can't make up for it by adding extra spice later, because spices need dry heat to release their aromas. )

When the onions start to smell really good, add the bell pepper, and keep stirring. Once the bell pepper has softened, open the can of black beans and dump them in. You can rinse them first if you like, but I find that the stew thickens up more quickly if you don't. Keep stirring.

Add the sweet potatoes, and pour in enough orange juice, or orange juice and water (I'll let you decide which you prefer) to cover everything. Stir the mixture again. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until your sweet potatoes are tender and the beans have started to break down, about forty minutes or so. Check for seasoning; salt to taste. I like this best served over fried or soft polenta, but rice works too.

Note: You can use ground ginger in place of fresh if you're short on time. On the other hand, if you have time to spare, it's worth the trouble to zest some orange rind to toss in with the garlic. It really brightens up the flavor of the sweet potatoes, and you can snack on orange segments while you're waiting for the stew to cook.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

warm, stewy things for those short on time

It's November, and the days have turned from being pleasantly brisk to bitterly cold. I've decided that autumn in New England has claws, and they come out right around the time when it starts getting dark at four in the afternoon. This is the time of year when I start wishing I could hibernate. Unfortunately, I haven't yet worked out the details, and so I do my best to console myself with warm, stewy things instead.

As much as I love slow-braised meat, or bean stews that cook for hours on the stove at a bare simmer, I don't always have the time or patience to wait that long for dinner. My favorite quick stews are tomato-based, with eggs added for protein.

During the semester I spent in Rome, I monitored in the photo lab and would often be one of the last students in the building when security came to lock up for the night.* I'd arrive home with my stomach growling, so exhausted I could barely think straight, and head straight for the kitchen. I'd make "poached eggs puttanesca" - canned Roma tomatoes stewed with garlic, anchovies, olives, and capers, and an egg or two cracked in and cooked until barely set - and eat it with grissini, because I'd inevitably be out of bread on those nights.

The following recipe is the same idea, but better. Chachouka (also shakshouka; it has multiple variant spellings) is a spicy mess of onions, peppers and tomatoes with whole eggs cooked in it at the very end. It's found all over Northern Africa, but particularly common in Tunisia and Morocco. The onions, peppers and tomatoes are the essentials, but spicing varies dramatically depending on the region.


Though you can make an attempt at authenticity and serve it over couscous with grilled merguez on the side, if you're like me, it'll be something you'll cook when you haven't had time to go grocery shopping and you're down to the very last odds and ends in your crisper drawer.

(Serves one, with possible leftovers)

First, do an ingredient check. Assuming you have eggs, at the very least, you'll also need a can of whole or diced tomatoes, two or three cloves of garlic, an onion that hasn't sprouted, and those slightly wrinkly red or green bell peppers that have been languishing in the crisper drawer for a very long time. If you don't hit all the points on the list, consider making an omelette instead.

If you have everything, proceed to the chopping stage. Dice the onion, mince the garlic, and cut your bell peppers into strips. Dice the tomatoes too, if they're whole. Heat olive oil in a a shallow, heavy-bottomed pan, and sauté the onion and garlic. When the onions are soft, add the bell peppers.

Now it's time to raid your spice cabinet. Red chili flakes add kick, paprika adds sweetness, and cumin or turmeric will add interesting depth. Use your judgement; season to taste.

When the vegetables have been seasoned and start to smell good, add your tomatoes and turn up the heat. Stir. Keep stirring. Once the tomatoes have cooked down a little, turn the heat down to a simmer. Crack your egg(s) into the stew (I recommend doing only as many as you'll want to eat in one sitting - add fresh ones if you have leftover stew), and put a lid on the pan. Cook for just a few minutes, until the white is set but the yolk is still soft. Serve with leftover rice, slightly stale bread, or any other starch you may have on hand. (No saltines unless you're truly desperate, please.)

You can eat this straight out of the pan. I promise I won't tell.

*I majored in Fine Arts with a primary concentration in art history and a secondary concentration in black-and-white film photography. This is why it's such a joke that I can't operate a digital camera. I still maintain that they're two completely different beasts.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

food to warm cold fingers: an excursion to the north end

This story begins with a pair of gloves.

I owned the same pair of black leather gloves for seven years. They were warm, they were comfortable, and the leather had reached that perfect stage of broken-in-but-not-yet-worn-out. And then they vanished sometime towards the end of winter last year. Their disappearance peeved me deeply, but the rest of the winter was mild, so I didn't replace them.

And then I forgot about not replacing them. Which was how I ended up wearing the fingerless gloves I made for a costume party (thrift store gloves with the fingers cut off) out on another excursion with Bella this morning - this time to the North End.

Though Bella had an easy time of luring me out into the cold - the magic words were, I believe, "fresh cannoli" - she had her work cut out trying to keep me there. As much as I wanted to watch butchers make hand-ground sausage and read the menus posted in the window of every single restaurant we passed, I just couldn't concentrate. By the time we reached Bova's Bakery, a favorite of Bella's, my stomach was barely a blip on my radar. Thawing out my fingers had become a far more pressing concern.

Bova's is a large bakery, and its glass cases are filled with all sorts of pastries and cookies, but nothing really jumped out at me until I glanced in the back, and saw one of the bakers arranging calzones fresh from the oven. Both my fingers and my stomach rejoiced: I could have an early lunch, and it would keep my hands warm, too.

The calzones at Bova's are enormous. The dough is wrapped in such a way that the fillings peek out temptingly: ham and spinach, meatballs in red sauce, breaded chicken and broccoli, and various others. I didn't want anything too heavy (I had to leave room for cannoli), so I decided on a calzone stuffed with asparagus spears, mozzarella, and just a thin slice of prosciutto. It came in a neat wrapping of greaseproof paper, accompanied by a small mountain of napkins.

Calzone firmly clutched in both hands, I followed Bella (she'd had a late breakfast, so she passed on the calzones) back out into the cold. With my fingers no longer a pressing concern, I turned my attention to my stomach. The calzone dough had a light, crusty exterior and an agreeably chewy interior. The asparagus spears in the filling were soft but not soggy, and their faintly sweet flavor contrasted nicely with the salt of the mozzarella and prosciutto.

Did I mention that the calzone was enormous? We took our time wandering over to the Modern Pastry Shop, and Bella still ended up having to wait as I finished up the last few bites. At least staring at the display in the window gave her a chance to anticipate pleasures to come: there were trays piled high with cannoli shells, sfogliatelle, and other delectable confections.

When we entered the shop, Bella spent some time peering into the case before deciding on a bar of torrone, an exquisitely sticky nougat made with egg white, sugar, and almonds. Though I did take a look, just to see what they had, I already had my mind made up. I wanted a cannoli, and a cannoli was exactly what I got.*

Once again, we headed out into the cold, and while Bella nibbled at her torrone, I bit into the cannoli and tried not to get powdered sugar all down my front. (I succeeded. Mostly.) The shell, crisp and flaky, gave way to a creamy, faintly lemony filling. It was rich without being too sweet - any sweetness came almost entirely from the powdered sugar - and just the right size.

Bella insisted that we make a stop at one more bakery, just to see it, before we called it a morning. Maria's has an enormous selection of traditional southern Italian cookies, and they make gorgeous marzipan fruits, too. I decided I'd had enough sugar for one day, but Bella ended up buying a small box of mixed cookies to snack on later.

And then we headed out once more into the cold. Macys-ward. I needed gloves.

*Yes, the singular is cannolo, if you're being a stickler for Italian grammar. But it's like ordering a croissant at Au Bon Pain by asking for a "qwa-son," when everyone in the store calls them "cross-onts."

Friday, November 9, 2007

dinner with Bill, and a chicken dish for those who don't like white meat

You've met Matt. Now meet his brother, Bill.

Bill is one of the few people I know who can out-talk me on the subject of food, though that might just be because he's been at it for longer. Bill is an enthusiastic amateur chef who loves to eat. He does a glorious spicy fried catfish with shrimp hollandaise, and a Caesar salad that is better than sex.* The first time I ever met Bill, we discussed the finer points of baking meringues. He didn't recognise me the next time I met him - but he did remember the conversation about meringues.

At dinner with Bill last night, the conversation followed a meandering route, beginning at ways to prepare Thanksgiving turkey, wandering through Jeffrey Steingarten's essay on the perfect bread, detouring at the wines of Bordeaux, passing through the impossibility of obtaining fresh garden peas in Boston, and finishing up somewhere around the best way to prepare lamb sweetbreads. Matt was in charge of the menu: pasta with fresh basil pesto, and - despite my initial misgivings - a dish made with boneless, skinless chicken breast.

As a rule, boneless, skinless chicken breast is not my idea of good eating. It's dry, it's bland, it's, well, unappetizing. My personal hierarchy of chicken cuts is something like the following: thighs > drumsticks > wings > breast. Dark meat is better than white, and meat on the bone is preferable to meat off the bone. Boneless, skinless chicken breast is usually something I'll eat only if the alternative is, say, tofu casserole.**

But take a boneless, skinless chicken breast, pound it translucent, sear over very high heat, and serve it with a lemon-caper sauce, and you suddenly have my full and undivided attention. The result is called chicken piccata, and it is wonderfully succulent and flavorful.

Chicken Piccata

Cheap white wine is fine for the sauce, but use fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and don't skimp on the quality of the chicken or the capers. Fussy imported French or Italian capers in white vinegar work best.

(Serves one, with leftover sauce that goes nicely on pasta with a grating of fresh parmesan.)

Take your fresh boneless, skinless chicken breast and butterfly it completely, so that you have two separate pieces of chicken. Pound out the chicken between sheets of clingwrap or greaseproof paper, whichever you have on hand. You want the pieces thin and lovely and translucent.

If you'd like your chicken with added crunch, sprinkle it with flour or fine cornmeal (both sides) and shake off the excess. Heat a small quantity of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan until barely smoking and put the chicken in. Sprinkle with salt. Cook the pieces until they start going white around the edges, then turn them over. The chicken should be an appealing shade of golden brown. Move the pieces to a plate; cover and keep warm.

Turn down the heat on the pan, and add a tablespoon of butter. (For a thicker sauce, add half a teaspoon of flour, and whisk it with the butter until smooth.) Add a splash of white wine and the juice from two lemons. Stir. Bring to a simmer, and reduce until you can no longer smell alcohol fumes when you stick your head over the pan. Add a few teaspoons of capers with their juice (exact number determined by how much you like capers), and simmer for a few minutes longer. Salt to taste.

Serve the chicken with the sauce spooned over, and a dusting of finely chopped parsley if you feel like being fancy. Spaghettini or polenta is a good accompaniment.

*Should you wish to try a Caesar salad that is better than sex, and you haven't made the personal acquaintance of Bill, you might consider an excursion to Frankie and Johnny's in Cape Neddick, Maine.

**Tofu is good, tofu is great, tofu is not a direct substitute for meat. It doesn't belong in casserole any more than cheese curds do in stir-fry.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

a recipe with a story to tell

There are two kinds of recipes in the world: those that exist to be prepared, and those that exist largely for the pleasure that comes from reading them. One is instructive, and promises that if you do as it tells you, you'll have chicken stew or chocolate torte on the table when you're done. The other makes no promises whatsoever, but does so in a way that tells you a story.

And oh, what a story it is.

The single greatest example of a storytelling recipe is Thompson's Turkey, the legendary mad creation of journalist Mort Thompson. Thompson's Turkey has been written about by everyone from Craig Claibourne to Jeffrey Steingarten. The authors of Hungry in Hogtown have an entry about their experience trying to prepare it. Depending on who you ask, Thompson's Turkey is either a work of culinary genius, or the product of a sadistic mind.

It begins with the instruction to obtain an enormous bird - "one that looks as though it gave the farmer a hard time when he did it in" - and then, to steal an expression from Julie Powell, it continues with an ingredient list longer than most divorce settlements.* Merely assembling everything you need for the stuffing probably takes longer than the cooking time for a normal roast turkey. However you look at it, this is not a recipe attempted by the sane.

Then again, a lot of recipes aren't written for those of sound mind. Therein lies the true genius of Thompson's Turkey. You can't take its hyperbole seriously, and yet you can't quite dismiss it - a turkey tender enough to fall apart when spoken to harshly, and juicy enough to gush waterfalls of liquid when pierced with a fork? It's an incredibly seductive notion.

At some point, while reading the litany of instructions for chopping and mixing and stuffing and basting the monster bird from hell, you will realise that this elaborate preparation is an utterly absurd endeavor. And yet it is this very absurdity that makes it so tempting. Preparing a Thompson's Turkey isn't just cooking - it's an adventure.

Thompson's Turkey is more than just a recipe that sends cooks out on expeditions for water chestnuts and Coleman's mustard and leaves them in tears (pun intended) while trying to figure out how to extract the juice from an onion. At its heart, Thompson's Turkey is a very funny commentary on the reasons why we cook.

*Author of Julie and Julia, but the expression is stolen from her essay, "A Menu Marathon." You can find it in Best Food Writing 2004.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Karyn over at hotpotato wrote a thought-provoking post about cooking for one, and it made me wonder how much of the "feast when partnered, famine when single" phenomenon is just an extension of the fear of dining alone.

The fear of dining alone is apparently known as solomangarephobia, and Adam Roberts (The Amateur Gourmet) expresses it best: "For many, the fear of dining alone is the same fear that causes them to marry the wrong person, to maintain destructive friendships, and to participate in group suicide." If the fear of dining alone is bad, however, the fear of dining out alone is far, far worse.

Dining out alone is not looked at as a choice, but an absolute last resort. There is an entire body of literature (I checked) on dining out alone that offers tips and coping strategies and possibly hotlines for emergency counseling services. I wouldn't be surprised if someone starts a service in NYC - because such things always begin in NYC - that matches up strangers for meals just so that they won't have to sit at tables all by their solitary selves.

Oh, wait. That's online dating. Never mind.

I can only conclude from my research that I must be part of a tiny minority, because I enjoy dining out alone. I went out for lunch at Zaftig's Deli yesterday. I sat in an alcove by the window - just me and my plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes - and had a quiet, peaceful meal.*

I grew up in a household where shouting matches were frequent, and there was no ceasefire during meals. Arguments were begun, continued, and concluded at the table. Meals were a time to refuel, not family time. We ate together simply because it was the most efficient way of doing things. When we dined out, my parents refrained from arguing, but the dynamics at the table were still strained. Sometimes, the only advantage of dining out over eating at home was the improvement in the food.

I find dining out alone to be a selfish act of the best kind. I choose the place, and I order exactly what I please. I can order dessert if I want it. (My mother doesn't approve of dessert.) And I can luxuriate in the silence. There will be no arguments if I'm dining out alone.

Some people see dining out alone as the embodiment of their greatest fears. For me, it might be one of the greatest freedoms I have.

*Good, but nothing to write home about. I think I'll try the beef tongue sandwich next time, and see how it compares with the one at Rubin's.

Monday, November 5, 2007

"Gunpowder treason? Maybe it's something you eat, like treacle toffee."

It's Guy Fawkes Day. I've never lived in Britain, but I grew up reading British children's literature, so I'm no stranger to the holiday. In fact, there's a story about Guy Fawkes Day in one of my favorite series, the Sam Pig collection by Allison Utterly.

Sam Pig lives in a cottage in the woods with his brothers and sisters and their guardian, Brock the Badger. The stories read like The Wind in the Willows with more whimsy. They were great reading for a young glutton (most British children's books are, curiously enough) because the characters are always eating the most exotic and delectable-sounding things.*

In the story about Guy Fawkes Day (it's in the book "Sam Pig and Sally," if anyone's curious), Sam Pig and his family build a bonfire, set off fireworks, and make treacle toffee. I have a fascination for burnt sugar in all its forms, and I always thought that treacle toffee must be particularly sticky and delicious.

I think it's something about the alliteration and the e's. Go ahead, try saying it. "Treacle toffee." It even sounds sticky.

I briefly considered making treacle toffee, but it appears that getting hold of treacle on short notice might be difficult in this country. The food dictionary informs me that treacle is a by-product of the sugar refining process, the sibling of golden syrup (used in golden syrup dumplings and Anzac biscuits, both much-loved favorites of Australian cuisine) and a cousin to molasses. Though a quick search on Google tells me that indeed, molasses may be substituted if treacle is not available, "molasses toffee" just doesn't have the same ring.

Treacle toffee might be better left to my imagination. I think that as far as Guy Fawkes celebrations go, I'll just re-read my Sam Pig books instead.

*I am not alone in this opinion. See this post at A Finger in Every Pie.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

of basil and lemon and pomegranates, and artichokes and queens

Though I wrote about buying produce and discovering incredible falafel at Haymarket, it occurs to me that I haven't mentioned what we cooked last night. So. Here's a question: what do you get when you leave the Basil Queen and the Popcorn Ball Princess in a kitchen with ten artichokes, eight lemons, two pomegranates, and a bushel of basil?

A. Really sour artichoke stew.
B. A regrettable attempt at trendy salad.
C. Artichoke-lemon-pomegranate-basil pesto.
D. None of the above.

The answer, fortunately, is D. We're not that crazy. We made steamed artichokes with sharp lemon hollandaise, angel hair pasta dressed with basil-almond pesto, and basil puree to freeze for the winter. The pomegranates we saved to eat plain. We were joined in our feasting by Matt, who contributed a nice Australian chardonnay to the repast.*

(Sorry, no photos. I forgot to ask Matt to bring his camera, and Bella has lost hers.)

Strictly speaking, it is not prime artichoke season. Artichokes are at their best during the beginning of spring. They are harvested in mid-autumn, however, and when you love artichokes as much as I do, you won't think twice about what you're having for dinner when you see a stall selling five for $2. The only question will be whether or not you have a pot large enough to steam ten of them at once.

I find that artichokes make for fantastic snacking - I lived in a co-op during my senior year of college, and when I wrote my honors thesis, I'd often kick off an all-nighter by getting out the steamer basket. I usually eat them plain, but I know most people like them with sauce.

If you're going to go to the trouble of making sauce for your artichokes, you might as well go the whole hog and make hollandaise. Classic hollandaise is delicate and creamy with a slight lemony flavor - and this is what you want if you're making eggs Benedict or poached sole - but for artichokes, I like something sharper.

Really Sharp Non-Classic Lemon Hollandaise

I learned to make lemon curd before I learned to make hollandaise sauce, and I tend to think of it as being a bit like lemon curd without the sugar. This is modelled directly on a lemon curd recipe from Gourmet, and effectively flips the flavor profile of classic hollandaise. Instead of "buttery, with a tang," it's "zing, tempered by butter."

(Not a recipe for one. It doesn't reheat very well. This probably makes enough for fourteen or sixteen artichokes.)

Juice enough fresh lemons to produce one third of a cup of lemon juice. Top off with enough tarragon white wine vinegar to make a half cup of liquid. Set aside. Get three-quarters of a stick of chilled butter (six tablespoons) and cut it into six pieces. Set aside.

Take two eggs and two egg yolks, and whisk them in a bowl over a pot of barely simmering water. Add the lemon-vinegar mixture bit by bit. Keep whisking, and remove the bowl from heat if it looks like you might be in danger of making scrambled eggs. Eventually, sometime after your arm has gone numb, the mixture will start to thicken. Remove from heat when the whisk leaves a trail in the sauce. Whisk in the butter one piece at a time, until fully incorporated. Add a little salt to taste.

Serve immediately with artichokes. It's also nice over grilled salmon.

*Artichokes do things to the tastebuds. Water tastes sweeter, as does wine. This is very bad for red wine, but not quite as awful for white. The wine Matt brought, an unoaked chardonnay from Wishing Tree, was pretty forgiving.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bella, the Popcorn Ball Princess, discovers falafel

Saturday is the high point of my week, because it's the one day when I can pretend that law school doesn't exist. A good Saturday usually involves a trip to an open-air market, a late lunch, and a lazy afternoon followed by an evening of cooking and eating. My partners in crime are usually Matt and Nathaniel (see previous post for more about Matt); the open-air market is the farmer's market in Waltham; and late lunch happens at the Taqueria Mexico.

But not this Saturday.

This Saturday I was dragged - despite the atrocious weather - on a mad expedition to Haymarket by my friend Bella. The child of foodie hippies from Vermont, Bella is my personal source for fresh homegrown produce. As her nickname would suggest, she makes fantastic popcorn balls: gloriously chewy, buttery, and caramelly. (In fact, if I'd known that she planned on making a batch on Tuesday, I would have written about popcorn balls rather than Tako the Octopus for Halloween.)

I've only been in Boston since late August of this year, so I didn't know about Haymarket until Bella mentioned it. The farmer's market in Waltham has good produce, but it's really a little too sedate for my taste. I discovered that Haymarket is more my style: boisterous and chaotic. It reminded me of Rome or Beijing. Had Bella warned me to keep an eye on my wallet, I would have felt completely at home.

We bought artichokes, lemons, pomegranates, and a vast quantity of basil. And then we discovered a falafel place. Not just any falafel place. It might be more accurate to describe it as THE falafel place.

My mother has an aversion to cooking, but dislikes eating in restaurants. Her standard solution to this problem is takeout, and in Sydney, which has a large Lebanese population, this often meant doner kebabs or falafel wraps. So when I saw a hole-in-the-wall Lebanese grocery advertising falafel, it seemed like a good place to get lunch – particularly when Bella confessed to never having tried it.

I had my doubts when we walked in. The prepared food area was a tiny stand with two metal folding chairs off to the side. Containers of baklava and piles of bagged flatbread stood in haphazard stacks on the counter by the cash register. In the back, I could see a plastic-wrapped platter of what looked like rice pilaf next to a tray of what appeared to be french fries. Oh great, I thought. Everything's premade and reheated.

There were a few customers in line, however, and the falafel, hot from a dip in a tiny deep-fryer, looked decent enough. I figured that Bella could try it, and I'd see how the seasoned flatbread held up. When we placed our order, though, the man at the counter smiled enthusiastically, and instead of a tray of premade or premolded falafel, he brought out a huge bowl of uncooked falafel mixture. I realized that these falafel were going to be something special, and promptly changed our order to a double.*

The man at the counter tasted the mixture, adjusted the seasoning, and then proceeded to mold the falafel by hand. Into the deep fryer they went, while he laid out pita, spread it with hummus, and added tabbouleh, onions, and tomato. Out came the falafel, golden brown and fragrant, and then the question: eat in or take out? He encouraged us to eat in, saying that he wanted to see us enjoy our food. I didn't mind staying, but Bella was ready to head home, so we chose takeout. The man at the counter must have been serious about wanting to see us enjoy the fruits of his labor, though, as he offered us a falafel each, straight from the fryer.

The first bite was almost enough to make me change my mind and settle into one of the folding chairs. The falafel were deliciously crisp on the outside, and wonderfully soft inside. They were solid without being heavy, and perfectly seasoned, too. Bella and I were silent as we ate them, and then effusive in our praise. The man at the counter seemed pleased by our reactions, and told us to come again.

There's no doubt that we will. With the Waltham farmer's market closed for the winter, but Haymarket open all year, I suspect he'll be seeing quite a lot of us in the coming months.

*Another place where you'll find exceptional falafel is "L’As du Falafel" in Paris, on Rue des Rosiers in the Marais (4th arondissement, Metro stop St. Paul. Look for the restaurant with the queue out the door.) The place does a roaring business, so the falafel are always hot and fresh. They come in a pita pocket with roasted eggplant and a deliciously drippy sauce.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

quiche alsacienne

Yesterday night, I ditched my Criminal Law reading in favor of baking quiche alsacienne. I was aided and abetted in this display of poor scholarship by my friend Matt. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he enabled it, because I used his kitchen.

Matt's apartment (he shares it with Nathaniel, who I'll introduce more fully later) has a big, beautiful kitchen with a gas stove. I share an apartment with three roommates I never see, and my kitchen - which has an electric stove - is small, dark, and depressing. Whenever I do any real cooking, it's usually at Matt and Nathaniel's place. (Incidentally, Matt and Nathaniel are the ones who dubbed me the Basil Queen.)

Matt is the youngest child of Francophile foodie parents, which makes him extremely tolerant of long conversations about food and all things food-related. He is also remarkably unflappable in the face of vast quantities of butter, bacon, cream, and eggs, so I knew he wouldn't object on dietary grounds if I proposed that we bake quiche.

Quiche alsacienne is a variation of quiche lorraine, adding onions to the basic trinity of eggs, bacon, and cream. It is incredibly bad for your arteries. Salad is strongly recommended as an accompaniment. (We tried to redeem the meal with a side of sautéed fresh spinach. Admittedly, this might have worked better had we not sautéed the spinach in the leftover bacon fat.)

Quiche lorraine and its variants are very difficult to screw up once you have the basics down. Good quiche is easily attainable. Great quiche, on the other hand, is considerably more elusive. Quiche is seasonal: a great warm-weather quiche is not the same as a great cold-weather quiche. Warm-weather quiche, which is often eaten cold, demands a firm filling. It should be frittata-like, slicing neatly into solid wedges. Cold-weather quiche should be messier.

A great cold-weather quiche is a study in textures: tender, creamy egg, punctuated by soft onion and faintly crisp bacon, encased in flaky, buttery pastry. A great cold-weather quiche is also a trick of timing: it should be served hot enough to be painful, but not hot enough to burn. If it's a truly great quiche, you'll breathe through your mouth when you take the first bite, but won't wait for it to cool before you take the second.

I didn't achieve great quiche last night. The filling wasn't quite tender enough, and I should have used less water when making the pastry. I'm pleased with the way it turned out, but not entirely satisfied. That's okay. I have the whole winter to keep trying.

Note: I am embarrassingly inept with a digital camera. I swear the quiche was more appetizing than the above photo would suggest. Now that I've made my token effort at food photography, can I please keep this blog text-only?

Quiche Alsacienne

(Serves three with hearty appetites, or one for three days straight.)

Begin with your favorite butter pastry recipe. I use one that Matt's mother gave me - I haven't asked her if I can share it, so I can't post it (yet.) Make enough pastry for a 9-inch pie dish, plus a little extra, so that you'll have an excuse to bake a fruit tart later.

Preheat the oven to 350F. While the pastry rests, get your bacon (you can use lardons if you insist on authenticity, but I find that it's not worth the trouble of hunting them down.) Cut it into small strips or dice, depending on the thickness. Fry the bacon in a heavy-bottomed pan on medium heat until it goes lightly brown on the edges. It should not be crisp. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Make a token effort to refrain from snacking. Do not dispose of the bacon fat.

Get a medium-sized onion and dice it very finely. Sweat the onions in the bacon fat over low heat until they caramelize. Transfer to another plate lined with paper towels. (If there's still bacon fat in the pan, and you really don't give a damn about your arteries, now would be the time to sauté that fresh spinach.)

Roll out your pastry and line the pie dish. Rest it further if your recipe calls for it. Prick it and bake it blind for ten or fifteen minutes - you don't want soggy, undercooked pastry on the underside of the quiche.

In the meantime, grab a large bowl, a whisk, five or six eggs and a small carton of heavy cream. Beat the eggs. Whisk in a little cream at a time, until the egg mixture is pale yellow and has lost most of its viscosity. Add a pinch of salt, and a dusting of black pepper, if you like.

To assemble, get the pie dish, and pile in the bacon and onions. Make sure they're evenly distributed. Pour the egg mixture over and let it settle before putting it in the oven. Set a timer for thirty-five minutes, and keep checking back every five minutes after that. The quiche is done when it's set but not solid. For those appetizing golden brown spots, put it under the broiler for a minute or two. (Keep a very, very close eye on it if you do.)

Let it cool just a little. Serve when it's hot enough to be painful, but not hot enough to burn.