Sunday, September 28, 2008

establishing routines

It has apparently been a week since I last posted anything.


Can I claim "actually socializing with other law students" as an excuse?

Despite spending the better part of last year running as far away as possible from law school and everyone related to it, it appears that I interacted enough with a few people to spend time with them outside of class this year.

Allow me to introduce you to Kitty. She and I share two classes. We also share the same twisted sense of humor. Kitty is not much of a cook (she subsists largely on raw vegetables), but she does own a television.

Did I mention that that twisted sense of humor lends itself to an appreciation of House, M.D.?

So we've established a routine. Tuesday evenings, she comes to dinner at my place. After dinner, we go over to her place to watch House.

Thus far, it's turned out to be a good arrangement. Kitty's fondness for raw vegetables means that while she may not do much cooking, she can put together a tasty salad.

Which is just the thing to accompany a goat cheese and sundried tomato quiche.

As autumn settles in and makes itself comfortable, I start thinking about the products of high summer. Sundried tomatoes don't taste all that good when there are fresh, ripe tomatoes in abundance. But once the days grow shorter and the wind carries a chill, sundried tomatoes come into their own.

Sweet-salty and softly chewy, they add warmth and depth to dishes. And when sundried tomatoes are paired with goat's cheese and seasoned with lavender, it's like eating a slice of Provençal summer.

Not a bad way to start an evening with the world's most sarcastic doctor.

Goat's Cheese and Sundried Tomato Quiche

I've been buying goat's cheese from the Crystal Brook Farm stand at the Copley Square Market. It's worth tracking down if you're in Boston.

(Serves one, with leftovers that are good for breakfast.)

Start with your favorite butter pastry recipe. Make enough for an 8-inch tart pan.

Preheat the oven to 350F. If your tart pan is false-bottomed (outer ring with an inner disc of metal, see image) set it on a cookie sheet or other large oven tray. False-bottomed pans are finicky, and if you move them wrong when the pastry is still soft, you can create cracks that will leak when you pour in the egg mixture later.

Roll out the pastry and line the tart pan. Prick the pastry lightly with a fork, cover with parchment paper, and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Move the entire tray, pan and all, into the oven. Bake the pastry case blind until it starts to color slightly - about ten to fifteen minutes. Remove the entire tray from the oven and allow to cool.

Take a small quantity of soft goat's cheese - around three or four ounces - and crumble it into the bottom of the tart shell. Sprinkle with herbes de provence. Scatter a few sliced sundried tomatoes over the goat's cheese.

Beat three or four eggs with a little milk or cream and a sprinkling of salt until the mixture is pale yellow in color. Pour the egg mixture into the tart shell.

Carefully transfer the whole tray to the oven. Bake for thirty-five to forty minutes, or until the quiche is set and golden on top. Serve hot, with a green salad on the side.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

breaking out of my comfort zone

These are fairy tale eggplant. I discovered them at a stand at the Copley Square Farmers' Market, and I've been eating a lot of them lately.

I'm not sure why they're called fairy tale eggplant, but I do know that they are magical. Unlike your regular-sized eggplant, which tend to require a remarkable amount of peeling, roasting, and frying before they turn soft and appealing, fairy tale eggplant require almost no work at all. Cut them in half, lay them on baking trays, roast them until their skins are slightly wrinkled, and their insides turn tender and creamy. You can eat them straight with nothing more than a little olive oil and salt.

I've also been roasting them with garlic and mixing them with sauteed spinach or tomatoes, topping the whole mess with an egg and baking it in the oven, but the sign at Friday's market said that this week's eggplant were probably going to be the last of the season, so I decided to do something different.

I thought I'd give eggplant in green coconut curry a try.

You see, there's a restaurant called Thai Basil in the Pacific Place shopping complex in Hong Kong. Its prices have gone up over the years, while the portions have been steadily shrinking, but I still go there every time I'm in Hong Kong because of their lamb rack and eggplant in green coconut curry. The lamb is always cooked to medium-rare perfection, and the curried eggplant, mixed with rice, is comfort food of the very best kind.

Now, I know the theory behind Thai curry. It starts with a mortar and pestle, which you use to pound chilies and lemongrass and galangal and other things to make a sticky, aromatic curry paste. You fry this paste in oil, thin it with coconut milk, and then you add other ingredients and simmer until you have a delicious, fragrant dish.

In practice, I headed for my local supermarket and bought a tin of coconut milk and one jar of Thai Kitchen Green Curry Paste.

Given that I wouldn't dream of buying jarred pasta sauce or bechamel sauce mix, this probably sounds awfully inconsistent. But I know the history and the culture involved when I cook French or Italian cuisine. I have a context, a framework, points of reference. Not so with Thai cuisine. I would be stumbling about in the dark, cooking in the void.

One of these days, I'll go out and buy a history of Thai cuisine, a set of the proper kitchen utensils, and a great big instructional tome on Thai cooking, and you'll hear all about the comedy of errors that ensues. (It'll probably involve my running all over Boston in an effort to find fresh galangal, and possibly end in a very bad mishap involving green chilies.)

But not today. It has to begin somewhere, and a jar of pre-prepared paste is as good a point as any. Using storebought paste results in a curry that sweeter and less complex than the curry you'll find in a good Thai restaurant, but it still makes for a satisfying meal. I'm glad to report that the brave souls who came to dinner - Bella, Danny, and David - all agreed.

Roasted Fairy Tale Eggplant in Green Curry

Hardly authentic, but quick and easy and comforting. This dish has very little protein in it, so if you're vegan, you may want tofu or some other protein-rich dish on the side.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Preheat oven to 400F. Take a pound of fairy tale eggplant, rinse them, and cut off the stem ends. Slice the eggplant in half, place them cut-side down on an oiled baking tray, and roast for thirty to forty minutes, or until the skins start to wrinkle. Remove the tray from the oven.

Heat a generous quantity of vegetable oil in a big frying pan (a wok would be the correct option, but let's not be fussy) over medium heat. Add one small sliced onion, and cook until soft. Scoop in several heaped spoonfuls of Thai Kitchen Green Curry Paste. (I found that I needed a little more than half the four-ounce jar.) Cook, stirring continuously, until the paste starts to smell like something.

Pour in the contents of a fourteen-ounce can of coconut milk, and stir until you get a pale green creamy liquid. Turn down the heat, and allow it to simmer for three or four minutes.

Take your roasted eggplant, cut them in half if they're on the bigger side, and gently slide them into the curry. Stir and simmer for twenty or thirty minutes. Season to taste with salt.

Garnish with fresh basil and serve over white rice.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

the past in a twist of orange peel

“When my mother died she left the farm to my brother, Cassis, the fortune in the wine cellar to my sister, Reine-Claude, and to me, the youngest, her album and a two-litre jar containing a single black Perigord truffle, large as a tennis ball and suspended in sunflower oil, which, when uncorked, still releases the rich dank perfume of the forest floor.”

Joanne Harris has three novels that make up a "trilogy of food": Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, and Five Quarters of the Orange.

Chocolat is the most famous, but Five Quarters of the Orange is my favorite, a dark, compelling tale of war, family, and the sly ways in which the past returns to haunt the present. I've chosen it as my inspiration for the Autumn 2008 edition of Novel Food.

Five Quarters of the Orange is narrated by Framboise, the youngest daughter of Mirabelle Dartigan, who has returned to the village of Les Laveuses decades after her family abruptly departed. Framboise lives under an assumed name, runs a small but popular crêperie, and keeps to herself.

Unfortunately, history is not content to remain forgotten, and gradually, Framboise reveals the truth of the events that occurred in Les Laveuses during the summer of 1942, and how they led to tragedy the following autumn.

Mirabelle is not an affectionate mother. Her temper is quick, her tongue sharp. She humors Cassis, the eldest, and spoils Reinette, the village beauty, but she is always finding fault with nine year-old Framboise. In turn, Framboise is sullen and rebellious. She learns her mother's weaknesses and uses them against her. (The title of the story hints at one of her major weapons.) The kitchen is their only neutral ground, and cooking, the only activity they share.

“My mother marked the events of her life with recipes, dishes of her own invention or interpretations of old favourites. Food was her nostalgia, her celebration, its nurture and preparation the sole outlet for her creativity.”

Mirabelle's album is part recipe book, part diary, and various excerpts are scattered throughout Framboise's narrative, which has no shortage of recipes itself. I drew on both elements for the meal I served: a fish stew based on a meal Framboise mentions, followed by an apple-and-dried-apricot clafoutis from Mirabelle's album.

Framboise describes a stew of fish scraps with red onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and whole shallots, seasoned with garlic, herbs, and white wine. The dish is probably a version of cotriade, a stew from Mirabelle's native region of Brittany.

Something about the combination of tomatoes, fish, and potatoes didn't quite appeal to me, so borrowing from a Provençale fish stew called bourride, I left out the potatoes and substituted fennel. Bourride also uses orange peel as a flavoring agent, which worked out rather nicely - given the major role that oranges play in the plot, I thought it only fair to incorporate them somehow.

Judging by the list of flavorings - garlic, thyme, fennel and orange peel - you'd probably guess that this is a bold, aggressive stew. Surprisingly, it's not. In fact, it tastes bland when you first assemble everything, so much so that you might wonder if you did something wrong. Give it an hour over very low heat, however, and the flavors gradually develop. The end result is fish in a wonderfully subtle tomato broth, aromatic with hints of garlic, anise, and citrus.

Fish Stew with Tomatoes, Fennel, and Orange

Any firm, white-fleshed fish can be used. You can use just one kind of fish, or several different varieties.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Heat a generous quantity of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or stove-safe casserole dish over medium heat. Add one sliced small red onion. When the onion is translucent, throw in two minced cloves of garlic, several sprigs of thyme, and a generous splash of dry white wine.

When the alcohol fumes have burned off and you can smell the garlic and thyme, add two or three large ripe tomatoes, cut into rough dice, and turn down the heat. Cook until the tomatoes have started to collapse and release their liquid.

Add half a fennel bulb, cut into thin slices. If there doesn't seem to be much liquid in the pan, add a little water. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the fennel has lost its crunch. Season the mixture with salt. Don't be worried if it doesn't taste like much at this point.

Remove the lid and gently add two fillets of white fish, cut into one-inch pieces. Add a little more water if the fish isn't completely covered. Cut the zest from half an orange (you can do this with a knife if you're careful, but a grater also works) and drop it in the pot.

When the fish pieces have turned white, lower the heat to the barest simmer. You want the occasional bubble to break through the surface, but nothing more. Cook the stew for at least an hour, stirring occasionally, until the fish pieces have broken up into smaller chunks.

Remove from heat, and ladle into big bowls. Serve with rice or crusty bread, accompanied by a green salad. Clafoutis makes a good dessert to follow.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

hello, autumn

Well, there goes summer. Tomatoes and zucchini will be around for a few more weeks, but there's a definite chill in the air. Time to shift from cold salads to warmer dishes.

Autumn is the time when I switch from canned beans to dried beans. There's nothing wrong with canned beans (and I'll still use them if I'm in a hurry), but I like having a slowly simmering pot of beans on the stove when it's cold out. Particularly if it's also raining.

We had a torrential downpour yesterday afternoon, followed by steady drizzle, so I kicked off the season by putting a pound of dried cannellini beans on to cook.

Cannellini beans are a popular ingredient in vegetable stews, but I wasn't quite in the mood for soup. Instead, I decided to cook the beans until they had almost completely disintegrated, the point at which they develop a starchy, creamy texture like that of mashed potatoes.

The classic seasoning for white beans is rosemary, but I didn't have any on hand, so I cast about for an alternative. A little thyme, and given how similar the dish is to mashed potatoes - why not some roasted garlic?

(Bella visited Montreal a few weeks ago and brought me a beautiful braid of organic garlic that she picked up at a farmer's market.)

Once I had the beans sorted out, I cast about for a suitable accompaniment. I tend to associate beans with corn, so polenta seemed like a natural choice. Out came another pot, and in went the polenta.

Then I checked the freezer for something to liven up the polenta (I ended up using sundried tomatoes), and came across a package of Italian sausages. Beans and polenta make a complete meal in themselves, but Italian sausages go very nicely with both. Unfortunately, I hadn't had the foresight to separate the sausages before I froze them, and they were stuck together as one impermeable block, so I had no choice but to thaw and cook the whole package - all five of them.

Soon I had three burners going on the stove - simmering beans, thickening polenta, and a pan of sizzling sausages. Which was just about the time when I realised that I'd made so much food, I'd be eating the leftovers for a week straight.

Fortunately, Harry and Bella were nonplussed by my last-minute dinner invitations, and we had a very agreeable evening.

I think it bodes well for autumn.

(No photos. I tried, but it would have taken a very talented food stylist and photographer to make the meal look appetizing, and I am neither. Seriously. It was even worse than the oeufs en meurette.)

White Bean and Roasted Garlic Mash

Puree leftovers with olive oil, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a few leaves of rosemary for a tasty dip.

(Serves one for several meals.)

Take a pound of dried cannellini beans, put them in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, and cover them with plenty of water. You can soak your beans overnight, but it's not strictly necessary, because you'll be cooking them for a long time anyway.

Put the pot on the stove, cover, bring it to a boil, and then turn it down to a simmer. Let the beans cook, stirring occasionally, until they start to break into pieces and pop out of their skins. This will take a few hours, so it's a good time to read or do laundry. (I did laundry.)

Remove the pot from heat. Drain off the liquid, and cover the beans with fresh water or stock. Add a sprinkling of dried thyme, and return the pot to the heat.

Again, bring the beans to a boil, and then a simmer, uncovered, on very low heat. Stir occasionally, making sure the beans don't catch and burn on the bottom.

Meanwhile, take a whole head of garlic, wrap it in foil, and put it in a hot oven, 350 or 375F. Roast for forty to fifty minutes, or until the garlic is aromatic and the cloves are soft and browned. Remove from the oven. Set aside to cool.

When most of the liquid has evaporated from the beans and they have the consistency of thick puree, squeeze in the garlic cloves one by one. Add a drizzle of olive oil, then stir the beans and season to taste with salt. Wait five to ten minutes before serving. Like risotto, bean mash thickens up further after it sits.

Serve with thick polenta. Italian sausages are a nice accompaniment, but not at all necessary.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

cookie monster

I eat a lot of things I'm really not supposed to.

I don't mean things that some people wouldn't consider edible, like beef tongue and lamb kidneys. I don't mean things that would make a cardiologist cringe, like croque-monsieurs or duckfat fries. I don't even mean politically incorrect things, like Sausage and Egg McMuffins from McDonald's.*

I mean things that come marked with little asterisks on menus - the ones that lead to the disclaimer "Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness."

My parents weren't too worried by these disclaimers. As a child, I ate runny-yolked eggs, sashimi, beef sashimi, slightly pink chicken, rare steak, and beef tartare - all before the age of twelve. (Yum.)

What I didn't eat was raw cookie dough.

You see, you don't eat raw cookie dough if you don't bake cookies. And you don't bake cookies - even when you finally have a kitchen in which to do so - if you don't like them very much.

Frankly, I never found a chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookie that could hold a candle to my much-adored Tim Tams, those delectable Australian chocolate-coated biscuits that are made for dunking in tea. Most cookies wouldn't even win out over the appeal of a simple McVitie's plain digestive biscuit, let alone a chocolate one.

And so I figured I would remain cookie-free and focus my energies on trying to convince my local supermarket that they did want to import Australian biscuits for the "international aisle." (They'd be right at home next to the Violet Crumble bars.)

It wasn't to last for long.

My plans were upset at one of Bella's summer barbecues, where I encountered creations she termed lemon drop cookies. Tempting and golden, they were tangy and sweet and soft and so addictive that I ate four of them, one right after the other.

Bella gladly gave me the recipe, and I made the cookies for Jake and Michelle's housewarming party. Of course, I couldn't resist tinkering just a little: more lemon juice and less sugar, and the resulting dough smelled so fragrant and looked so gloriously yellow that I ate several spoonfuls raw, right from the bowl.

It was delicious. Of course, the cookies themselves are pretty good too.

Lemon Drop Cookies

(Makes a little over three dozen cookies, even if you nick spoonfuls of raw dough.)

If you're good, you'll start by sifting two cups of all-purpose flour, one teaspoon of baking powder, and a half-teaspoon of salt together in a big bowl. If you're bad, you won't bother with the sifting and start with the wet ingredients first.

I'm bad.

Get out a big mixing bowl and beat together one stick of softened unsalted butter, half a cup of sugar, and two eggs, until creamy and fluffy. Mix in the zest from two lemons and the juice from one lemon half. Add your sifted dry ingredients - or add the baking powder, salt, and flour, in that order, and stir until the mixture is smooth.

Chill the dough in the fridge for at least one hour. (You can write a letter to your local supermarket asking them to stock Tim Tams.)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease two or three baking trays.

Drop rounded teaspoons of dough onto the trays. (The cookies don't spread much, so you can place them fairly close together.) Bake for ten to twelve minutes, or until golden and fragrant. Serve with tea or coffee.

*I know, I know. I read Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma and I really shouldn't, but nothing tastes better when you get off a flight at six am and you've barely slept and your brain still thinks it's on the other side of the world. I think it's all the trans fats.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

eat your soup before it gets warm

I'm not myself.

Or rather, I don't think I'm really in full possession of myself.

Let me explain.

Firstly, outfitting my kitchen (nicknamed the Money Pit) has become a very expensive venture, and at last count, Bed, Bath and Beyond, T.J. Maxx, and that fancy kitchenware place on Newbury Street all had mortgages on my soul.*

(I know now why people get married: it's so that someone else can buy them mixing bowls and trivets and casserole dishes.)

Secondly, the credit card company now has a claim on one of my vital organs (I hear they're eyeing my left kidney), because I broke down and went out and bought a digital camera this weekend.

Which means that thirdly, my readership (all ten of them) will be out for my blood if I don't start adding pictures to my blog entries. Regularly.

The good news is that at least my tastebuds and digestive system are still mine, and I am the proud owner of a brand new stick blender.

Stick blenders are heralds of all sorts of good things: fruit smoothies (breakfast on the go), berry coulis to accompany murderous chocolate torte, and all kinds of pureed soups.

Like vichyssoise, which is a rather silly way of saying "chilled leek and potato soup." It's an awfully fun way of saying it, though. All those sibilants: vichyssssoisssssse.

Vichyssoise is either of French or American origin. The generally accepted story says that it was invented sometime in the early twentieth century by the French-born Louis Diat, then head chef at the Ritz-Carlton in New York. Not all culinary historians agree, however, and there's probably as much literature on the subject as there is on the homard à l'americaine/l'armoricaine debate.**

Whatever its origins, the consensus is that it contains pureed leeks, potatoes, chicken stock, and cream, and is always served chilled. This is where I commit my bit of heresy: I omit the cream. I find that it detracts from the sweet flavor of the leeks and the mildness of the potatoes. In the interests of making sure no-one else comes after any of my vital organs, however, I will refrain from calling my version vichyssoise.

Even if "chilled leek and potato soup" isn't quite so much fun to say.

Chilled Leek and Potato Soup
(Not Quite Vichysoisse, But Close)

Take careful note of the name of this soup. It is leek-and-potato, emphasis on the leek. You'll need slightly more leek than potato, or equal amounts at the very least. Use more potato than leek, and you run the very real risk of ending up with wallpaper paste.

(Serves one for several meals.)

Take two or three large leeks and two medium boiling potatoes (russets are good) and wash them clean. Leeks grow in sandy soil and are especially prone to being gritty.

Discard the green parts of the leeks, and slice the white parts finely into strips or rounds. Peel the potatoes and cut them into small cubes.

Transfer both the leeks and the potatoes to a heavy-bottomed pot. Cover with mild stock - vegetable or chicken, your choice. Put a lid on the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down the heat to a low simmer.

Cook for forty to fifty minutes, or until the leeks are tender and the potatoes fall apart easily when you poke them with a fork. Remove the pot from heat. Leave the lid off and allow the mixture to cool.

When the mixture is cool (or very slightly lukewarm), use a stick blender, regular blender, or food processor to puree the vegetables.*** Salt to taste, then add a little extra. (Cold mutes flavors, so you need to compensate.)

Once pureed, let the soup cool further as necessary, then transfer to the fridge. Chill for at least one hour before serving.

Serve with a sprinkling of fresh herbs - chives, parsley, and dill are all good - and crusty bread on the side.

Note: You can add light cream if you like, but I like this soup just fine without.

*They're going to have to fight the American Bar Association for it, but that's another matter.

**A lobster dish with an identity crisis. The Larousse Gastronomique is as good a starting point as any if you really want to see the confusion for yourself.

***The reason you don't want to put hot liquid in the blender - apart from the risk of burns from splashing liquid - is because the o-ring that provides a seal between the base and the jug isn't very heatproof. Putting hot liquid in the blender will make the o-ring disintegrate, resulting in unintentional absurdity at the dinner table when you fish in your bowl for all the little rubbery bits.