30 October 2008

Squid Ink Fettuccine with Salmon

Here's a good example of how to put your local resources to use for good economical meals. People are always commenting on my "gourmet lunches" or what I cook, and I am convinced that I spend less on groceries than most people. Yes, I make a lot of things (like beans and bread) from scratch, but I really think that knowing how to shop, knowing my local purveyors, as well as knowing how to cook, all save me money.

In this case, there's fabulous fresh pasta at Eastern Market, and I chose the excitingly black squid ink fettucine; just $4 for 1/2 lb, enough for 2 generous servings. The salmon roe I had bought for a previous brunch, but the small container was around $8. The wine I already had and the shallots and chives were from my yard, which meant we had an exquisite meal for two for what some people spend at Starbucks. And did I mention it was ready in 15 minutes, start to finish?

This dish really is special, the squid ink fettucine has a subtle taste, not fishy but rather just a little different, sort of salty and earthy. The salmon roe make this big bright pop in your mouth, and I find they have a much more subtle flavor than other kinds of caviar, so they aren't overwhelmingly salty or briny. And there's just the cool color aspect to it all, if you're looking for something black and orange for Halloween. A visual trick and economical treat.

Squid Ink Fettuccine with Salmon
If you want a richer flavor, you could add butter or heavy cream (about a 1/4 cup) after the white wine for the sauce. Personally, I like the cleaner flavor of this simple version. Letting the pasta cool slightly before adding the roe prevents the roe from bursting or loosing its pop. Serves 2.

1/2 lb squid ink fettuccine
splash of olive oil
2 shallots, finely diced
1/2 cup white wine
salmon roe
chopped chives, for garnish

1. Set a pot of lightly salted water to boil.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized skillet, heat the olive oil and saute the shallots over medim heat until soft and translucent. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping up any brown bits from the pan.
3. Cook the pasta in the boiling water for the time indicated (should be only 2-3 minutes). When the pasta is done, use tongs to transfer the pasta to the skillet with the shallots. Toss everything to coat (if the pasta seems dry, add a little of the pasta cooking water to loosen things up).
4. Transfer pasta to serving bowls, let cool a few minutes. Sprinkle salmon roe and chives overtop. Serve immediately.

24 October 2008

Spiced Green Tomatoes

Chances are, if you grow tomatoes, you've got a bunch of green tomatoes right now- the impending first frost sent us scurrying to clean up those tired overgrown vines. And even if you don't grow them, your local market is practically giving them away. Someone in my office brought in a bagful of green tomatoes this week and I happily helped myself. An Egyptian colleague of mine, seeing me with my handful, commented, "those will be nice when they ripen up." I looked at her like she was crazy. "I'll probably fry them," I said, "or stew them as is."

Last year, when I had a bounty of hard green tomatoes, I was doing some research into Armenian cuisine. Armenians, many of whom fled to Lebanon and Syria during the Turkish genocide, have a great influence on Levantine cuisine, and many Armenians will lay claim to dishes like lahmajun (lamb pizzas) and spiced red pepper pastes that are found in Middle Eastern cuisine. And yes, I do recipe research in my spare time just for fun. Someone help me.

Anyway, I came across a recipe for green tomatoes stewed with warm cinnamon and allspice. Now, cinnamon is traditionally used in the Levant in savory applications, but I think this recipe really works because green tomatoes are very similar in flavor profile to green apples. It's true, both are firm and slightly tart and you can even find a whole trove of "mock apple pie" recipes made with green tomatoes on the internet.

This recipe was so popular with my family last year I made it repeatedly (good thing we had all those tomatoes). You can serve the tomatoes as a sauce over whole wheat noodles, but I like the tomatoes best served on their own, chunkily stewed and placed in a bowl topped with croutons and a good sprinkling of cheese. It makes the most simple peasant-like lunch, but one that's worth finding a few green tomatoes for.

Spiced Green Tomatoes with Croutons and Cheese
The stewed green tomatoes can also be made into a sauce, in that case, you'll want to chop the tomatoes more finely or pass them through a food mill before using as sauce.

1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed
about 6 firm green tomatoes, roughly chopped
2-3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon cloves
for serving: homemade croutons, cheese (I like feta or a soft goat cheese)

1. Heat a splash of olive oil in a wide deep pan or skillet. Add the onions and garlic and cook over medium heat until soft and translucent.
2. Sprinkle the sugar over and allow to melt and caramelize. Add the tomatoes, salt, and spices and bring the mixture to a simmer. Allow to simmer until tomatoes are broken down and juicy, but the sauce is still somewhat chunky. For me this takes about 20-25minutes, stirring occaisionally. Taste for seasoning.
3. Transfer stewed tomatoes to a bowl and top with croutons, then sprinkle cheese over top. Serve immediately.

20 October 2008

Apple Toffee Cake

I saw my first fall tree today. Completely orange and golden, resplendent in the late afternoon sunlight, like a beacon in a line of otherwise dull green leaves. On the next block, there was a big pile of leaves raked into a crunchy heap. I kicked them up with my sneaker, even though the adult part of me, the part that takes out the trash and sweeps my own front steps, it knows that someone worked to rake those leaves into that pile, but I couldn't resist. That dry whooshing sound. Cronch, cronch, cronch.

A friend and I went apple picking last weekend- they give you cute little hooked baskets on poles, for reaching up and garnering the apples. Big ones, tiny ones, fujis and jonagolds and galas. I bought a hunk of cheddar from my local cheese shop and had apples and cheese for lunch all week long (if I had been more industrious, I might've made an apple and cheddar pizza). And since I seemed to have barely made a dent in the apple supply, I also made an apple cake.

Adapted from a recipe I clipped from Food and Wine long ago, it includes applesauce to boost the apple flavor (and to keep the cake moist without too much oil). A buttery toffee sauce soaks the cake with extra flavor. I took this to work and it was gone before I could even snag myself a piece. Kind of like fall leaves, glowing and then gone before you know it.

Apple Toffee Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup applesauce
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3 large eggs
2 medium Granny Smith apples—peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice
for toffee glaze:
1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup whole milk
1 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform tube pan. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour with the salt and baking soda. In a large bowl, whisk the oil and applesauce with the granulated and brown sugar. Whisk in the eggs one at a time. Add the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Fold in the diced apples with a rubber spatula. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the lower third of the oven for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool slightly.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine the butter, milk, and brown sugar and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring. Remove the toffee glaze from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
3. Place the warm cake (still in its pan) on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour the hot glaze over the cake and let it seep into the cake, poking lightly with a toothpick. Let the cake cool completely, about 2 hours. Invert the cake onto a plate, and invert again onto another plate, right side up. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.

17 October 2008

Whole Wheat Flatbread from South Lebanon (Mishtah)

South Lebanon is known as Hizballah territory, a fact that has solidified as Lebanon becomes increasingly more divided- the European bastion of Beriut's Achrafiya neighborhood, the Sunni city of Tripoli, the Christian villages in the mountains. Such a tiny country, the size of New Jersey, and so much diversity. But say "south Lebanon" to many people, especially many people in Washington, and their thoughts immediately go to paramilitary gun-toting Shiites. It's not so simple.

When I lived in Beirut my roommate was a fellow student from New York, her family hailed from Bint Jbeil, a town in South Lebanon, and a Hizballah stronghold. Her uncles would come up and bring us flats of figs, my first introduction to the fruit, her aunts took us shopping for hijabs (headscarves) in Verdun. In late July, we were invited south, for the family's annual feast day. My friend counseled me on clothing choice- longsleeves please, but no headcovering necessary; her aunts fed us non-stop while showing us how to roll tiny grape leaves (wara 'ainab), the cousins pointed out the family's orchards among the rolling hills, some pock-marked by Israeli bombs, the uncles bought the best tiny lambs on offer from a local herdsman.

So when I think about south Lebanon, yes, I think of Hizballah, of the bizarre memorial at Qana, of Nasrallah posters, but I also think about that beautiful afternoon and the rolling hills and those platters of delicious food. It's a bit more nuanced.

I've been baking a lot of bread lately, and so you'll understand why a recipe for "bread from south Lebanon" caught my eye. These are very simple whole wheat flatbreads, gently spiced with anise and sesame and mahlep (the ground pit of a sour cherry, don't worry if you don't have access to it). I've substituted cracked wheat, available in most groceries, for the jareesh, a local kind of wheat normally used. They're not pita bread, just flatbreads, but they make excellent sandwiches, especially ones spread with apple-pecan butter and muenster cheese and toasted until melting. Nuance, on a plate.

Whole Wheat Flatbread from South Lebanon (Mishtah)
Don't be tempted to make the flatbreads too thin- they're better for dunking into soup or splitting for sandwiches if they're a little thicker. Adapted from Annisa Helou. Read more about mishtah here.

1/2 cup cracked wheat, soaked in warm water for 1 hour and then drained
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
3 tablespoons whole aniseseed
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground mahlep, if available
1/8 teaspoon each cinnamon, allspice, cumin
3/4 cup warm water
2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Place yeast and 1/3 cup warm water in a large bowl and allow to proof, 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the flour with the salt and spices. Add the cracked wheat to the bowl with the yeast, then add the flour mixture, stir everything together. Slowly stir with a wooden spoon while adding the remaining 3/4 cup water and the olive oil, until it forms a dough. You may need more or less water, depending on your flour.
2. Turn the bread out onto a floured surface and knead for five-ten minutes, until smooth and elastic. Wipe out the bowl and grease with olive oil. Place dough in bowl, turning to coat with oil, cover wth plastic wrap and allow to rise for about 1 hour, until doubled in volume.
3. Turn out dough and divide into 6-8 pieces. Shape into balls, place on a baking sheet, cover with a damp towel and allow to rise for 30-45 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 500F. Flatten each ball into a circle about 1/2 inch thick, place on a greased or lined baking sheet. Let rest 10 minutes. Bake 10-12 minutes, until lightly golden. Do not overbake or they will loose their suppleness. Serve warm.

14 October 2008

Thank You Christopher Columbus

Thank you Christopher Columbus for inspiring a holiday. A 3-day weekend where I'm not invited to do anything special- no obligatory Labor Day barbeque, or 4th of July fireworks, just an excuse to take an extra day. And relax. And enjoy the possibly perfect fall weather.

And go harvest grapes at a vineyard. Where I cut grapes from the vine, shaking off the lacadaisacally drunk bees, and checking for mushy overripe grapes, before adding the bunch to the basket. And then was rewarded with lunch and lasagna and plenty of wine.

And sit in my backyard with the dahlias and mums.

And eat banana cardamom pancakes.

And picnic with friends in Meridian Park, with cheap champagne and caviar sandwiches. And sit and read the entire Paris Review. And poems by Naomi Shihab Nye.

It was exactly what a day off is for.

Banana-Cardamom Pancakes
Don't be tempted to smash the bananas into the batter, these work best when the bananas are distinct within the pancakes, soft compliments to the fluffy batter.

2 large eggs
2 cups buttermilk
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon cardamom
1 cup diced bananas (2 large)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients (eggs, buttermilk, melted butter).
In a small bowl, mix the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking soda, cardamom and salt).

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, stirring until just combined — don't worry if there are a few lumps. Stir in the bananas.

Lightly grease a large sauté pan or griddle with the nonstick spray or butter. Heat the pan until hot and then spoon out 1/4 cup of batter per pancake. Cook the pancakes until the tops look dull and a few of the bubbles pop, about 3 minutes. Turn the pancakes over and cook for another minute.

10 October 2008

Coconut, Cashew, and Pineapple Tart

Until I get to those Middle Eastern recipes I keep promising you, how about I distract you with a little tart? Ah yes, sugar is a great strategy for all sorts of bribery, as parents, young single women, and chastised husbands are all likely to know. This particular tart was culled wholly from ingredients in my pantry- I have a terrible weakness for dried pineapple and papaya, a handful of them makes an excellent weeknight after-dinner nibble. However, super sweet pineapple and papaya need similarly assertive flavors to stand up to them, like coconut (lurking in my freezer), and cashews (leftover from a cocktail party) and rum (in the liquour cabinet from a party long, long ago). And there you have the inspiration (or more like uninspired economy) of a tropically-flavored tart.

The result is somewhere between a marvelous candy bar and a crunchy Caribbean version of pecan tart, which is to say, fabulous. The alcohol in the rum pretty much evaporates in the baking process, taking away the bite but leaving a smooth warm underlying flavor, and the cashews get a great toasty crunch. Didn't you always pick the cashews out of those nut mixes anyway? It's particularly good topped with a scoop of lime sherbert as well, and quite distracting enough to make you forget about whatever I promises you made just a few paragraphs ago.

Coconut, Cashew, and Pineapple Tart
The graham flour (you could also use whole wheat) in the tart dough is not an attempt at health but rather gives the tart a nubbly crust, a graham cracker crust would work nicely as well. Please make sure your cashews are unsalted, those pre-seasoned cashews are unbearably salty and would overwhelm the tart. I imagine this could be blueprint for other tarts, maybe using macadamias, or one with pistachios and dried cranberries at Christmas time.

1 recipe tart dough, made with half graham flour and half all-purpose flour

2 eggs
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/4 cup rum
1 cup dessicated coconut
3/4 cup unsalted toasted cashews
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup diced dried papaya and/or pineapple

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Prepare tart dough according to directions, fit into tart shell and chill until ready to bake. Weight tart dough with pie weights or dried beans, par-bake crust for 15 minutes, until firm but not browned.
2. Meanwhille, place dried fruit and rum in a small bowl or saucepan and heat briefly (on the stove or in the microwave), until just until warm- do not boil. Set aside to allow some of the rum seep into the fruit.
3. In a bowl, beat eggs with honey and sugar until the mixture is thick. Add the butter. Fold in the coconut and nuts, then add the fruit with the rum.
4. Pour into the prepared tart shell, place tart on a baking sheet in the center of the oven. Bake 25-35 minutes, until the filling is firm and the top is deeply golden, watch to make sure the nuts don't burn. Let cool completely before serving.

02 October 2008

Fresh Corn Spoonbread

I owe an apology to anyone who comes here regularly for Middle Eastern recipes- it's not that I haven't been cooking Middle Eastern food, I made taboule just the other day, but mainly it's just those usual staples that I've shared with you here before. Besides, I hope you don't just come here for Middle Eastern recipes, because if that's the case I probably lost you months ago.

But also I was at a conference a week ago where we were discussing the failures of recent American diplomacy in the Middle East. A well-known commentator was criticizing Karen Hughes tenure at the State Department (I should know, I worked under her then), and he described growing up in the Middle East and hearing jazz for the first time on the radio, and falling in love with American blues. He continued that French President Nicholas Sarkozy, when asked about his pro-U.S. views, also talked about hearing American jazz as a kid. The point was that the U.S. does not need to try to sell itself to a specifically Middle Eastern audience (with propaganda like Al Hurra), that we have a culture full of merits that should be selling points on their own. Yes, we need to hire people who speak Arabic and understand Middle Eastern culture, but we also need to hire people who are passionate about American music and art and history.

This got me thinking about a lot of things (like what kind of culture is the U.S. exporting today?), but also about how living in the Middle East taught me just as much about what I love about the U.S. and what I appreciate about where I came from. When I make a new Middle Eastern recipe, I approach it with an academic vigor: I research, I test, I read, I write. But when I go walk around the market on the weekends and think about what I want to cook for dinner, it's those simple-local-fresh things that I want. Not necessarily the foods I grew up with, but those that are sort of indigenous, in a way. Which is why I've got several Middle Eastern recipes in process, but there's fresh corn spoonbread on my dinner table.

Fresh Corn Spoonbread
Loosely adapted from various sources, including Boone Tavern's spoonbread recipe.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
3 cups milk
1 cup white cornmeal
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 large ear of sweet white corn, or 2 smaller ears corn
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 eggs, well beaten

1. Preheat oven 350F. Grease a 9" round souffle dish or small casserole.
2. Working over a medium-size saucepan, cut the corn from the cob into the pan, then scrape the cob with the back of the knife to get any of the corn juices. Add the milk, butter, and salt to the saucepan with the corn and bring the mixture to a gentle boil, stirring so that the butter melts. In a slow steady stream, whisk in the cornmeal. Stir vigorously to incorporate the cornmeal, until the mixture is thick and bubbling, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
3. Add the baking powder and eggs to the cornmeal mixture and stir well. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 1 to 1 1/4 hours, or until the surface is nicely browned. Serve immediately.