Wednesday, October 31, 2007

going (hazel)nuts

I'm sitting in Contracts class, drinking hazelnut coffee spiked with Frangelico. If I were a good law student, I'd be thinking about contracts of adhesion. But I'm a very bad law student, so I'm daydreaming about hazelnuts instead.

Hazelnuts are, hands down, my favorite kind of nut. I love their deep, almost-burnt flavor. I love their mouthfeel, the way they're buttery without being oily. And I love the way they combine with the three C's of dessert: coffee, chocolate, and caramel.

Nowhere is friendlier to the hazelnut lover than Italy. During the semester I spent in Rome, my art history class took a day trip to Caprarola, in Umbria. The region is a big producer of hazelnuts - Nutella* has suppliers in the area - and hazelnut pasta appeared on the menu at lunch. Slicked with sage and brown butter sauce, it was faintly sweet, slightly herbal, and deliciously fragrant. Only good manners stopped me from licking the plate.

Hazelnut is also my favorite flavor of gelato, and the best I found in Rome was at the Gelateria "Old Bridge," near the Vatican on Via dei Bastioni. Granted, I don't think you can find bad gelato in Rome, but the portions at Old Bridge are huge, and the gelato is gloriously creamy. (If you're ever in Rome, make a stop at Old Bridge before you visit the Vatican. It'll make standing in the queue a lot more pleasant.)

My favorite way of eating hazelnuts is still the simplest, however: toasted lightly and sprinkled with salt. They're delicious in a salad with pears and gorgonzola, but as we've already established, I have a habit of eating the individual components of a salad before they're fully assembled.

Hmm. When class is over, I think a trip to Whole Foods may be in order.

*I have nothing to say about Nutella, because it's all been said already by Mort Rosenblum, in his brilliant article, "Where's the Nutella?" You can find it in Best Food Writing 2005.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

how much damage can an octopus do with an unlimited supply of kitchen artillery?

Tomorrow is Halloween, which is another of those things I didn't grow up with. I have no Halloween-friendly recipes, so I'll direct you to someone else's. Let me introduce you to my favorite cooking show: Deep Fried Live!

Deep Fried Live! is hosted by Tako the Octopus, an accident-prone cephalopod with a neurotic mother. He loves nutmeg as much as I love basil. Episode 6, "Curse of the Pumpkin Queen," is Halloween-themed and provides a nice recipe for pumpkin flan. (Though Episode 7, "Fleeb Cooks an Earth Cow," is still my favorite.)

comfort me with apples

I spent most of yesterday evening avoiding my reading. At eleven pm, with my Civ Pro reading still untouched, I decided that a snack was in order. A truly excellent apple and a hunk of Danish blue cheese vastly improved my mood.

I didn't discover the delights of a truly excellent apple until fairly recently. I did not grow up in apple country. Sydney's climate is subtropical. The usual backyard suspects are mulberry trees and passionfruit vines. Apple trees are unusual. The apples I knew as a child were the standard supermarket offerings: Red Delicious and Granny Smith. I never cared for Red Delicious (too sweet and mushy), though I liked Granny Smiths well enough on sandwiches with cheddar cheese. When I discovered the delights of stinky, oozy cheese, I preferred to eat it with grapes. Apples were fruit eaten for the sake of eating fruit, not a fruit to be anticipated, like mangoes or cherries.

New England, with its apple culture, came as something of a shock. I was underwhelmed by real American apple pie, but I think I drank about half a gallon of cider in one sitting the first time they had it at the dining hall in high school. And the apples themselves were a revelation. I discovered apples that could be eaten with the peel on, because they hadn't been polished with wax. Little apples that actually fit in the hand, instead of freakish giants that could probably concuss the unwary when they fell off the tree. Apples that tasted good enough that I could - and would - eat them down to the stem and pips. I learned to anticipate apple season, and be sorry when it ended.

I still prefer grapes as an accompaniment to stinky, oozy cheese, but I love the combination of a crisp, tart apple with a nice Danish blue. Sometimes I even try to make a salad of it, with candied walnuts and maybe some leftover roast chicken. I say "try," because I have a habit of eating the individual components before it ever gets fully assembled.

Apple, Blue Cheese, and Candied Walnut Salad

(Serves one. All recipes serve one. It's just a question of how long they'll serve one.)

Melt a dab of butter in a heavy saucepan and add a generous handful of walnuts. Do this over medium heat if you're cautious, and high heat if you're not. (Keep a very close eye on the walnuts if you choose the latter option - they'll go from toasted to burnt as soon as your back is turned.) Toast the walnuts until fragrant, then sprinkle generously with brown sugar and salt. Shake the pan. Don't stop shaking the pan until the sugar has caramelized and the walnuts look glossy. Turn the walnuts onto a plate or a sheet of baking paper to cool. Try not to burn your fingers or tongue when you start snacking on them.

While you're waiting for the walnuts to cool, get your apples. Two if they're small, three if you're hungry. Any variety is fine, as long as it's crisp and tart. I like Macouns and Cortlands myself. Dice the apples and mix in a bowl with a small handful of crumbled blue cheese. Any blue cheese is fine, as long as it's not too soft. Add the walnuts once they're cool. Grab a fork. Dig in.

You can serve this on a bed of baby spinach or mixed greens if you'd like more of a light meal than a snack. Leftover roast chicken is also a nice addition, and celery provides extra crunch. Just don't go overboard on the extra ingredients. There's a reason why I don't call this Crisper Drawer Salad.

Note: You can either assemble the salad and then candy the walnuts, or candy the walnuts and then assemble the salad. If you're like me, you'll reason that if you assemble the rest of the salad first and then candy the walnuts, you'll never actually bother to candy the walnuts, and settle for merely toasting them. (Which is still delicious, but not the same.) But if you're like me, and you candy the walnuts first, they'll never make it into the salad because you'll eat them all, straight from the pan, while they're still warm. I’ll let you decide which option you prefer.

ground rules

  1. This is not a blog about law school, though I might make references in passing.
  2. All posts will be food-related, but that's the only common theme I can guarantee.
  3. I am not detailing my life history, but read along, and you'll get all the pieces eventually.