29 September 2008

Blueberry Muffins

When it comes to breakfast, I'm generally of the oatmeal/toast/yogurt/granola variety. That is to say, stable, predictable, and likely to sustain me without a mid-morning sugar-crash or a rumbling stomach. Which is probably why you don't see a whole lot of breakfast recipes here, if it's something special I'm more likely to be going out for brunch. I also happen to think most muffins are really jut an excuse to eat cake for breakfast, and these days they are equally likely to be dense, sweet, and about the size of your head.

But on the other hand, a petite little muffin can be just the right amount of sweetness to your morning, and if you live life on the run, it's supremely portable. Based on the simplest wet-dry baking technique, they're also a snap to stir together, and while not the most virtuous in the nutrition aisle, you can at least make them an appropriate size. And now, with the financial markets making us cringe daily, the least you can do is add a little economical sweetness to brighten your morning.

Blueberry Muffins
I particularly like tiny Maine blueberries, defrosted from frozen. You can also substitute 1 1/4 cups buttermilk for the plain yogurt. Makes about 24 muffins, recipe can be halved.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbl baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tbl unsalted butter, melted
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 cups blueberries

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Grease or line you muffin tins.
2. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, beat the egg with the sugar until lightened in color and very thick, about 3 minutes. Drizzle in the butter. Add half the flour mixture to the egg mixture, then the yogurt, then the remaining flour mixture. Fold everything together in a few swift storkes- don't beat the hell out of the batter, some small lumps are ok. Fold in the lemon zest and blueberries
3. Pour batter into prepared cups, filling the muffin tins 3/4 full. Bake 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack.

Variations: Cinnamon Blueberry Muffins- add 1 tsp cinnamon. Gingerbread Blueberry Muffins- use brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, ginger, and 1/4 teaspoon each nutmeg and allspice. Blackberry Cardamom Muffins- use blackberries and 1/4 teaspoon cardamom. Raspberry Almond Muffins- substitute 1/2 cup flour with ground almonds and add 1/2 teaspoon almond extract.

25 September 2008

End of Summer Chopped Salad

This past week there has been enough of a pronounced chill in the air to declare that fall is officially on its way. I've been reminded how I love a good chunky scarf, and a pullover sweater on cool evenings, and being able to go for long walk without loosing half my body-weight in sweat. And I've also been reminded how much I miss New York; if D.C. has the market cornered on spring, then New York is all about fall.

I want to go for long walks on concrete nature-less streets and then appreciate the man-made beauty that is Central Park; I want to buy cheap jewelry from a stand near Astor Place and meet a friend for a stroll around the Guggenheim, to tuck into a coffee shop and then sit there for hours with a book before taking the subway home.

When I left New York, a friend made the good observation that it takes a certain amount of maturity to leave New York- it's true, I no longer have the young ambitious desire to go to the big city, and I recognize that I may well end up there again. And I like my life in D.C. now, but this week I missed New York.

The one thing I would do if I were in New York is to go wander the Greenmarket, much as I wander Eastern Market or Dupont Circle's market now. And I would probably be reminded, as I was this past weekend, that though fall may be in the air, summer produce is still on its last gasp. There's nothing like a summer tomato, an ear of sweet white corn, perfectly crunchy cucumbers, and herbs from your garden, and there's nothing like that first rush of fall air to make you gather up the last of that summer produce before it's gone for the year. So here's an end-of-summer salad, chock full of whatever you find in the market, with a little avocado and cheese to spruce it up. It's the kind of thing that should be as local possible, no matter where your local may be.

End of Summer Chopped Salad
The key to this salad, besides the best produce your market has to offer, is to get a good balance between softer items (like tomatoes, avocado) and crunchy ones (like corn, onion, and cucumber). Sauteed summer squash, sliced radishes, scallions, and other herbs would be other options to play around with.

2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 medium-size summer tomato, cut in wedges
1 ear corn, shucked and blanched
about 1/4 cup halved and sliced cucumber
2 tablespoons finely diced red onion
drizzle of olive oil, pinch of kosher salt
half a ripe avocado, diced
juice of one lime or half a lemon
goat cheese or feta
tiny basil leaves

1. Place tomatoes in the bottom of the serving bowl. Cut the corn kernels from the cob into the bowl. Sprinkle cucumber and red onion over the tomatoes. Drizzle olive oil and sprinkle salt over salad, toss together to coat. Place the diced avocado over the salad. Squeeze lime juice directly over salad (this should also keep the avocado from browning). Sprinkle cheese over top and scatter basil leaves over. Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to 4 hours.

21 September 2008

Winemaker's Grape Cake

It is known simply as the incident of the grape pie in my family. Whenever anyone asks my mother about my cooking abilities, she can always say, "well there was that grape pie she made." You see, as a kid, the very first thing I learned how to bake was pie. And I was home alone one afternoon, locked in the house while my mother gone somewhere, and making a pie seemed like a good way to pass the time. The only fruit we had in the house was a big bag of grapes, but I enterprisingly found a recipe for "grape pie" in the Joy of Cooking. So I made a homemade crust and followed the directions and baked up a homemade grape pie. With green grapes. And yes, parents, I was probably too young to be making pies unsupervised.

The pie came out looking beautiful, I remember, but it was as inedibly tart as you would imagine green grape pie to be. My mom's friend Shawn, a swim coach with the requisite eat-anything appetite, managed to struggle down a few slices, but I'm pretty sure the rest ended up in the trash. After that failure, I avowed that grapes did not belong in dessert, pair them with your cheese, add them to salads, but keep them out of the baking arena. And despite my adventurous baking nature, I stuck with this rule for years.

Until I came across a recipe for a grape cake that sounded so intriguing, and had so many positive reviews, that I just had to make it. I had a bottle of muscat wine that I had picked up on a trip to Lebanon's Chatura Vineyards, and it needed to be used up or tossed (being far past its prime for drinking), and I found this recipe. It's just the kind of cake I like, simple, only slightly sweet, and with a burst of ripe fruit. And despite my skepticism about the grapes, well, they were fabulous, just the right accent to the cake.

Don't be skeptical of the olive oil either, it works wonderfully here, just as it does in plenty of other desserts. I've made this cake many times since then, and I've even come across similar versions of the recipe elsewhere (like Patricia Wells' Winemakers' Grape Cake), which means I'm not the only one who's been enamored of the slightly unusual recipe. And so I'll amend my rule for this cake, as long as you make sure to use red grapes, and not green.

Winemaker's Grape Cake

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup Beaumes-de-Venise or other Muscat wine
1 1/2 cups red seedless grapes
for topping: 1 tablespoon butter, 2 tablespoons sugar

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush 9-inch-diameter springform pan with olive oil. Line bottom of pan with parchment; brush parchment with olive oil.
2. Sift flour and next 3 ingredients into bowl. Whisk 3/4 cup sugar, butter and olive oil in large bowl until smooth. Whisk in eggs, both peels and vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with wine in 3 additions each, whisking just until smooth after each addition. Transfer batter to prepared pan; smooth top. Sprinkle grapes over batter.
3. Bake cake until top is set, about 20 minutes. Dot top of cake with 1 tablespoon butter; sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over. Bake until golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes longer. Cool in pan on rack 20 minutes. Release pan sides. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

18 September 2008


The place we go for vacation every year, a small island 12 miles off the coast of Maine, is hard to capture in a few words. I realized this as I tried to jot down something on a postcard to a friend, I struggled out a few notes, and finally concluded, "I believe in vacation." And it's true, I do. To get to Monhegan, I have to fly two hours, drive three hours, then take an almost two hour boat ride. It's worth every second, but it's the boat ride that's essential. Each year, even though I've brought a book to read, I end up sitting on the boat and staring out over the ocean, processing all the stresses of daily life, of traffic jams and work conflicts and family foibles and troubles of the heart. And something happens out there in the middle of the ocean, so that when I step off the boat I leave all those things behind, and it's just me and more gorgeous views than you could even count.

The views make eveything on Monhegan noteworthy, having your morning coffee looking at this:

chopping onions with this view from your window:

We eat well on Monhegan, in a way that you can only there: a little bit hard-scrabble, a little bit of work, slightly hodge-podge, a few pristine ingredients, and the appreciation you can have for a meal only after a good long hike.

There's fresh-caught haddock and tiny Maine shrimp, local lobster, home-grown tomatoes, plenty of squash, and a handful of greens pillaged from an out-of-town friend's garden. A salad of stolen lettuces. You have to cook, to work a bit, and to be flexible, substituting for ingredients unavailable in a small island community. But you might end up with something wonderful, like a fish stew tossed together at the last minute. One you didn't photograph, but just sat down and ate, with good wine and family and nothing else on your mind except the sunset and the sound of wind and waves, and what you might cook tomorrow.

(More vacation pictures here)

Improvised Shrimp and Haddock Stew
I originally made this stew using leftover shrimp, and the resulting stew was successful enough that I've left the instructions that way, cooking the shrimp separately. You could also double the shrimp amount, eat it for dinner one night, then make the stew with the leftover the following night. Serves 4.

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 lb tiny Maine shrimp
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons sugar
1 lemon, juice and zest
splash of olive oil
1/2 an onion, diced
2 large ripe summer tomatoes, chopped
2 medium sized haddock fllets, about 1 lb, cut into chunks
water, salt, pepper

1. Sprinkle shrimp lightly with salt, set aside. Heat oil in a saute pan, add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, over medium heat, until softened but not at all browned. Sprinkle the sugar into the pan and allow to melt and caramelize slightly, do not let it burn. Add the shrimp and saute just until firm and 3/4 curled, only about a minute. Add the lemon juice and zest and stir everything together to combine. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. In a stock pot, heat a splash of olive oil. Add the onion and cook until softened. Add the tomato and allow to cook until broken down and bubbling. Add the fish chunks and enough water to make a soup. Bring to a simmer and cook until the fish is opaque and firm. Stir in the shrimp with its juices and simmer until heated through. Taste for seasoning, serve.

06 September 2008

Seed for Thought

"During the United States-led invasion of Iraq, in March, 2003, the looting of Iraq’s national archeological museum received considerable attention, but almost no one noted that the country’s national seed bank was destroyed. The bank, in the town of Abu Ghraib, contained seeds of ancient varieties of wheat, lentils, chickpeas, and other crops that once grew in Mesopotamia. Fortunately, several Iraqi scientists had placed samples of the country’s most important crops in a cardboard box and sent them to an international seed bank in Aleppo, Syria. There they sit, on a shelf in a cold room, waiting for a time when Iraq is stable enough to store them again.

Afghanistan’s bank, which contained rare varieties of almonds and walnuts, and also fruits including grapes, melons, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, and pears—many of which originated in the region—was destroyed in the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban. Scientists in Kabul had taken the extra precaution of hiding the national seeds in the basements of two houses in the towns of Ghazni and Jalalabad. But when they returned after the fall of the Taliban they discovered that looters had dumped the seeds on the floor. “Apparently, they were after the jars,” Fowler told me. Those randomly scattered seeds represented dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unique varieties—Afghanistan’s agricultural heritage."

~John Seabrook, Sowing for the Apocalypse

More and more I'm interested in process, how things are made and why they come out the way they do. In the kitchen, this leads me more and more to how plants grow, how livestock are raised, what bees feed on when they make honey, and questions about science and agriculture and how our ecosystem works at large. I've never thought of my cooking in such extreme terms before, but in a way that most simple desire to feed oneself leap-frogs out to an existential question of what and how things grow and come into being. Maybe that's why this piece on seed banks struck a chord with me- you can read the full article here.

I'm on vacation until the 16th, see you all soon!

02 September 2008

Buttermilk Sandwich Loaf

Quick! I have to write this recipe down before I forget just how I made it, oh, and so you have a chance to make it too. I don't know if you noticed, but we've had a rather mild summer here in the northeast. I hesitate to even mention it, because D.C. is known for its brutal humidity, but we were pretty lucky all through August, and I don't want to jinx our beautiful weather. However, the only problem is that those summer tomatoes, you know those big huge burstingly ripe ones? Well, they've been awfully late in coming this year. They just arrived in the market a few weeks go, and along comes Labor Day and September and back to school sales and pools closing, and wait, what about my summer tomatoes?!

The very first weekend a saw those Mr. Stripeys and Black Russians and Purple Cherokees sitting like overfilled waterballoons piled on picnic tables, I knew immediately what they were destined for: a summer tomato sandwich. An archetypal summer tomato sandwich is just that: good toast, a smear of mayonnaise and perhaps some pesto or basil, and those big hunky steak-like slices that only come from the biggest summer tomato.

But what about the bread? I knew it had to be homemade, but what kind, maybe a brioche loaf, or a good hearty sourdough. In the end, I cobbled together a recipe based on what I had on hand (buttermilk) and convenience. The result was wonderful, slightly tangy from the buttermilk and perfectly crumbed from a long-rising dough. I ate the bread on tomato sandwiches (probably one of the best meals I've had all summer) and in the morning for toast and even as a midnight snack. Which is all to say that you should make some bread too, before those tomatoes disappear for a whole other year, and before summer's weather slips away from us.

Buttermilk Sandwich Loaf

2 teaspoons dry active yeast
1 2/3 cups buttermilk, scalded and cooled
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1. Combine the ingredients in a bowl, cover and let rest overnight (8-10 hours, if you want it to rest longer, keep in the fridge).

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature- very soft and oozy
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt (preferably kosher/sea salt)

2. Add the remaining flour to the dough, stirring with a woodon spoon to combine. Add the soft butter and salt and work into the dough. Knead the dough in the bowl until combined a smooth, a minute or two. Cover and place in a warm place to rise until doubed in volume, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
3. Preheat the oven to 350F. Knock the dough down, give it a few kneads, then shape the dough and turn it into a greased loaf pan. Allow to rise for 30 minutes.
4. Cut several slashes in the top of the dough (optionally you could glaze the top with an egg wash). Bake 35 minutes, until golden and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. Allow to cool before slicing.