Thursday, December 30, 2010

a sated appetite

My family is utterly boring when it comes to celebrating New Year's Eve.

Admittedly, we're boring about celebrating holidays in general, but the closest we've come to a New Year's tradition is a habit of nodding off before the New Year is actually rung in. Sometimes we watch the fireworks, but mostly, we're dead to the world when the clock ticks over. New Year's dinner is only noteworthy for its complete lack of noteworthiness: we eat a perfectly ordinary meal, or else we opt for (vaguely dissatisfying) takeout.

It's quite clear that if I'm ever going to have any New Year's traditions worth mentioning, I'm either going to have to make up my own, or appropriate someone else's. The latter is easier than the former, of course. There's no shortage of food-related traditions, so it's a question of choosing one that appeals.

Lentils and other legumes play a part in the New Year's dishes of countries all over the world because they look like coins and represent wealth. I'm not terribly intrigued by the symbolism, but I like lentils, and they are reliably available at the supermarkets here.

Which brings me to lentil stew - a simple mixture of lentils, olive oil, mirepoix, herbs and water. It may not sound like much, but when treated with care, these unassuming ingredients produce an end result that is startlingly flavorful. This year, New Year's Eve may still be boring, but at least I'll ring in the New Year with a sated appetite.

Lentil Stew

This stew is completely meat- and dairy-free, but you'd never guess it from the flavor. The key tricks: be generous with the olive oil and seasonings, and make sure the vegetables are properly browned before you add the lentils.

While this stew is perfectly good on its own, it also makes a nice side dish for pork or fish.

(Makes about four portions if eaten plain, and six portions as a side. Will freeze.)

First, the mirepoix. Start by finely chopping one large yellow onion. Rinse one celery heart. Peel two cloves of garlic. Peel three medium-sized carrots.

Heat a generous splash of olive oil in heavy-bottomed pan with lid over very low heat. Add the onion. Stir briefly with a wooden spoon.

Dice the celery. Add it to the pan. Sprinkle over a fat pinch of salt. Sprinkle over dried rosemary, thyme, basil and oregano. (A herb blend also works.) Add one bay leaf. Stir.

Mince the garlic, add it to the pan. Grind over a generous quantity of black pepper. Stir.

Dice the carrots; add them to the pan. Stir. The mixture should smell fragrant; if it doesn't, add more herbs.

Keep the pan over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables start to go dry. The pan will develop a rich brown coating on the bottom; this is exactly what you're looking for. Continue giving it an occasional stir; pay close attention once the onions have browned. When it looks as though your vegetables might scorch, add a splash of water, scraping up any stuck-on browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.

Add one pound of cooked lentils (or half a pound of soaked dried lentils). Pour over enough water to cover. Cook at a simmer, covered, until the lentils are tender, then uncover and reduce until there is only a little liquid in the pan. Check for salt and pepper; adjust to taste. Serve warm.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

this landscape in winter

In winter, Beijing is a city of street vendors.

Perhaps they are not quite so common now as they were a decade ago, before the Olympics and the city's efforts at beautification, but the roads still sport pushcarts and makeshift stalls, and their owners continue to ply their trade.

Walk along any major thoroughfare, and you'll pass vendors selling baked sweet potatoes out of big metal drums pulled on pedal bikes. Turn down a side street, and you'll find hawkers with bing tang hu lu, bamboo skewers of candied hawthorn berries sold out of pushcarts with glass cases. Stand at a street corner in an older corner of the city, and you might catch the scent of smoke and charring sugar that marks a stall selling tang chao li zi, sweet roasted chestnuts.

The chestnut sellers come out in late autumn, after the trees have shed their leaves, becoming part of the landscape in winter. Sometimes these stalls evolve to sell a variety of snacks, and then remain as permanent fixtures.

There is one such stall near my office, a small space with a counter that opens onto the street. It sells all kinds of snacking nuts by weight: whole almonds and walnuts, peanuts and sunflower seeds in the shell. The draw, however, is still the roasted chestnuts.

The chestnuts are roasted whole, tumbled with hot charcoal in big metal pans. Even when it is bitterly cold outside, queues form when a new batch is being prepared.

The vendors stir the nuts, testing them as their shells begin to turn dark. When they are judged to be ready, the vendors pour them into big mesh baskets, and weighed them out into sacks fashioned from coarse brown paper.

Shelling these chestnuts is a two-handed process, so there's no eating them out of the bag on the street. Instead, I cradle the paper sack in my hands, warming my fingers in the chilly air. Returning indoors, I place the bag on a flat surface and set to work.

Chinese chestnuts are smaller than the European varieties, with a fine, papery skin and creamy yellow flesh. The shells are thin, easily cracked by breaking open their flat sides with the edge of a thumbnail. There's a pleasure to the process, like that of eating boiled shrimp or picking over a whole crab, each chestnut its own reward.

The last time I stopped at a roast chestnut stand, I bought more chestnuts than I planned to eat and shelled the rest for use in culinary experiments. My first thought was Mont Blanc, the classic French dessert: a meringue base topped with sweet chestnut puree, decorated generously with whipped cream. Much of its charm lies in effective presentation, however, and I lack the equipment necessary to form the chestnut puree into fine threads.

Instead, I opted for a different preparation. After turning my roasted chestnuts into sweet puree, I combined them with custard and folded in gelatin and whipped cream, spooning the mixture into decorative glasses. The French call this dessert crème bavaroise (or just bavarois), and it's a lovely finish to a holiday meal.

In this city of street vendors, it might even become part of my culinary landscape.

Chestnut Bavarois

If you're not in a place where roasted chestnuts in the shell are readily available for purchase, don't drive yourself mad trying to track down fresh chestnuts to roast from scratch. Vacuum-packed, jarred, or tinned chestnuts will all work just fine - just make sure they don't have any sugar added.

(Makes a lot. It's very rich, so a little goes a long way.)

Take seven ounces of shelled chestnuts (about eight ounces in the shell) and place them in a small saucepan with two tablespoons sugar and enough water to cover. Cook, stirring frequently, over very low heat, until the chestnuts start to soften and break up easily when pressed with a spoon. (Keep an eye on them. Chestnuts are like beans, and will burn on the bottom if they catch.) Set the mixture aside to cool.

When the chestnuts have cooled to lukewarm, use a stick blender or food processor to blend them into a smooth puree. Measure out eight ounces of chestnut puree, and set aside. (Any extra is nice on toast.)

In a small bowl, cover two sheets of gelatin (four grams) with a quarter-cup of warm milk.

Separate four egg yolks into a heatproof bowl. (Save the whites for baking.)

In another saucepan, combine half a cup of milk with two tablespoons sugar and half a teaspoon of vanilla. (Optional extra: a tablespoon of brandy or rum.) Heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar dissolves.

Carefully whisk the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks, beating well to incorporate. Transfer the mixture back to the saucepan. Add a fat pinch of salt. Cook over low heat, whisking steadily, until the mixture thickens and the whisk starts to form trails. Remove from heat, and whisk in the gelatin mixture. Stir in the chestnut puree. Set aside to cool.

Beat three-quarters of a cup of heavy cream until it forms stiff peaks. Gently fold into the chestnut custard.

Spoon the mixture into glasses, and chill in the fridge overnight. Decorate with whipped cream (and marrons glaces, if you like) before serving.

Monday, December 20, 2010

the bells of st clement's

I developed a taste for many things in defiance of my mother.

My mother, as I've mentioned before, has an aversion to sugar. Butter, too, was verboten in the household where I grew up. (In the unhappier recesses of my memory, there are recollections of box mix cake made with margarine.) We ate soft, cottony bread - the sort that doesn't so much have a crust as it does a skin. And my mother held to a few other fierce and somewhat eccentric rules: no food coloring of any sort, no cinnamon, and absolutely no citrus peel.

Most recollections of teenage rebellion involve secret experimentation with drinking or smoking (or both.) The culprits in my stories are somewhat less typical: sticky cinnamon rolls, packages of unnaturally bright candy, and baguettes with crackling crusts, consumed secretly and delightedly without my mother's knowledge or permission. The sense of getting away with something forbidden, however, is much the same.

I grew up to keep sugar and butter as pantry staples. Margarine does not darken the threshold of my kitchen. And I delight in the baked goods that mark Christmas, revelling in stollen and panettone and fruitcake of the really boozy variety, in all their spiced, citrus-peel-filled goodness.

For all that I love a good baking project, however, I am not quite ambitious (or mad) enough to make my own versions of these delicacies. Instead, my oranges and lemons flavor pound cake and all a manner of cookies, joining my purchased delicacies in a selection ready for holiday nibbling.

The following chocolate orange shortbread is another of my many variations on a basic shortbread recipe. Dark with cocoa, flecked with chocolate, and perfumed with orange zest, I like this for last-minute baking - it's a quick, simple way to round out a cookie platter. I admit, too, that I enjoy it for another reason: while I'm really too old for teenage rebellion, zesting the orange still fills me with delight.

Orange Chocolate Shortbread

(Makes two dozen. Will keep for a week in an airtight container.)

Put a stick of butter in a mixing bowl and let it sit at room temperature until soft. (Not just softened, but soft.) Use a fork to cream in a quarter-cup of white sugar. Grate over the zest of one well-washed orange (preferably organic), and add half a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a quarter-teaspoon of salt.

Stir in a quarter-cup of cocoa powder until you have a smooth, dark mixture, then work in a scant cup of flour, little by little, until you have a soft dough. Stir in two or three ounces of finely chopped dark chocolate.

Turn the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper. Form into a log roughly one-and-a-half inches in diameter; wrap and chill for at least an hour.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Remove the dough from the fridge and cut discs, about quarter of an inch in thickness. Lay them on the baking trays. Transfer the trays to the oven.

Bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, switching the position of the trays halfway through. Allow to cool for five minutes on the trays, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Serve with tea or coffee.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

stewing about it

According to Shakespeare's logic, if a rose went by the name of " garbage bin," it would still smell just as sweet.

Shakespeare, though, must not have been very well-versed in cooking, because that's decidedly not the case when it comes to naming dishes. Even after figuring out ingredients and proportions and writing up a method for a recipe, there's one last, crucial step: giving it a name.

The chefs of haute cuisine had it easy; for them, it was enough to name the main ingredient, and tack on an a la So-and-So. Name the dish for a refined aristocrat, a famed beauty, or even a revered chef, and voila, an instant hit.

Not so today. Now, the trick is to be descriptive without being excessive, to be accurate without being a bore. The recipe name has to hit the sweet spot between "yes, I know what that is," and "mmm, that sounds good," preferably in under six words.

This brings me to the problem of stew.

The words "vegetable stew" are cheerfully wholesome, evocative of big bowls of rough-cut vegetables, healthy and nourishing. "Beef stew" suggests something slow-cooked with red wine and plenty of mushrooms, or maybe a hearty goulash fragrant with paprika and sour cream.

"Stewed," though, tends to have decidedly different connotations. It carries overtones of something overcooked, limp, and possibly malodorous. Stewed cabbage, however delicious, doesn't sound it. Stewed apples could be a crime against fruit. And even for someone who genuinely likes prunes, a stewed prune sounds more like a remedy for digestive issues than an appetizing dessert.

So, by rights, I shouldn't be writing about stewed fennel, or at least I shouldn't be calling it stewed fennel. Still, it's the best way of describing the low, slow cooking that turns slices of tough older bulb into softly slumping tangles, mellowing its aggressive anise flavor into something sweeter and subtler. Stewed fennel might be an exception to the usual rule.

Cooked with garlic and orange zest, and simmered in tomato sauce, it's a nice accompaniment to plain-cooked white fish. It might be even nicer, though, when spooned over homemade gnocchi. Which brings me to the final name for this dish. 

I think it sounds pretty good, even if it isn't under six words.

Potato Gnocchi with Stewed Fennel in Tomato Sauce

(Makes four to six servings, depending on your appetite. Uncooked gnocchi may be frozen. Sauce may be frozen.)

To make the gnocchi, take a pound of boiling potatoes (Yukon Golds are good), peel, cube, and cook in salted boiling water until tender. Drain and allow to cool.

Put the cooled potatoes in a mixing bowl and mash with a fork. (Or put them through a food mill, if you have one.) Beat in one egg until the mixture is thick and creamy. Stir in one cup of flour and a half-teaspoon of salt. You should have a soft dough that is still a little on the sticky side.

Put a quarter-cup or so of flour on a clean countertop. Pinch off rounded teaspoon-size lumps of dough and roll them in the flour. Press on each side with the tines of a fork to create a grooved pattern. Place the gnocchi on baking trays. Gnocchi may be frozen at this point.

To make the sauce, heat two tablespoons butter and a little olive oil over low heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with lid. Add two finely sliced cloves of garlic. Once the garlic starts to smell fragrant, add one large sliced fennel bulb (or two small.) Sprinkle over a fat pinch of salt, give everything a quick stir, and pop the lid on the pan.

Wait ten minutes, then give everything another stir. Put the lid back on the pan. Repeat this process every ten to fifteen minutes until the fennel starts to soften and take on color.

When the fennel starts to look browned around the edges, leave the lid off the pan, and grate over the zest of one orange. Add one six-ounce can of tomato paste, and enough water to thin it to a saucy consistency. Stir well to combine.

Bring the sauce to a low simmer, and put the lid back on the pan. Cook for thirty to forty minutes, giving it an occasional stir. Turn off the heat; keep warm.

To assemble, cook gnocchi in simmering salted water (not boiling water; they'll fall apart) until they float to the surface. Spoon into a bowl and cover with sauce. Serve with Parmigiano-Reggiano or Gorgonzola.

Monday, December 13, 2010

cake on its day off

I am very bad at winter.

More precisely, I never really got the hang of winter. Despite my decade in New England, I never quite learned to navigate an ice-glazed sidewalk, never quite figured out the correct combination of outerwear and underwear to withstand freezing winds, and never went a single December without wishing for the ability to hibernate.

While many of things I never got the hang of – rollerblading, the one-loop method of tying shoelaces, applying mascara without threat of injury – are entirely avoidable, or very occasional irritations, winter is a more intractable problem. My plan to move south having changed, winter is still on my calendar this year, and in much the same form. After moving several degrees in longitude, but not much in the way of latitude, there’s less ice, but more biting wind, and I still find myself wishing for the ability to hibernate.

I have grudgingly accepted that the closest I may come to hibernation is sitting in a warm kitchen, bundled up in an unflattering woolly cardigan with a very large mug of tea in hand as I wait to take something out of the oven. Of the many possibilities for that something, I have a soft spot for apple slump.

Slump is appropriately named: it's like cake on its day off, lounging at home in a fuzzy old robe and slippers. A quick assemblage of sliced fruit and basic batter, it's dished out of the baking pan rather than cut into neat slices, more like cobbler or crisp than a traditional cake. Slump is neither glamorous nor photogenic - it also goes by the name of "pan dowdy" - but it's agreeable and thoroughly comforting, an excellent winter tea treat.

This version builds on the basic idea, opting for browned butter rather than plain melted, and offering the option of brandy-soaked dried apricots to liven up the apples. It's still very much on its day off, however. Maybe it's not lounging in a fuzzy old robe and slippers, but it's sitting in a warm kitchen in an unflattering woolly cardigan, at the very least.

Apple-Apricot Brown Butter Slump

(Serves one for a few days. Leftovers will keep in the fridge; warm them up for breakfast.)

Melt three-quarters of a stick of butter (three ounces) in a nine or ten-inch ovenproof pan. Cook until butter foams and deepens in color; stop when butter is golden brown. Transfer to a mixing bowl.

To the same pan, add three or four apples, cut into eighths, plus a handful of dried apricots (soaked in Calvados or brandy, if that's your fancy.) Season with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook over low heat until the apples start to soften.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Stir a quarter-cup of sugar, three-quarters of a cup of flour, a scant teaspoon of baking powder and a pinch of salt into the melted butter. Beat in two eggs. Add enough milk to make a pourable batter (think pancake batter.)

Pour the batter over the apples. Place the pan in the oven and bake for thirty to thirty-five minutes, or until golden and faintly browned on top. Allow to cool for ten minutes before serving.

Serve warm, preferably with custard.