I'm sort of torn about The New York Times Magazine food page. There are times when I don't even bother to tear it out, and other times when it's among the best food writing I've read all year. I can't stand the flimsy paper - the recipes end up getting grease-soaked and dog-eared after three minutes in the kitchen - but the stories can be so whimsically interesting and utterly useful (who knew that David Halberstam - my commencement speaker, incidentally - was married to such a great cook? And that deep-fried peaches could be delicious? I'm eternally grateful to Steven Raichlen and his rice perfumed with ginger and coconut. And where, by the way, has Julia Reed gone? Has Vogue swallowed her up entirely? Does she not need to eat anymore?).
Amanda Hesser's recent piece on lemons and their desert-island qualities was one of those articles that I couldn't read just once. It was my bedtime reading a few times over. Not just because it was practical and informative (though it was) but also because it was a joy to read: "[Lemon] is the pillar of lemon-meringue pie, the sting in tabbouleh, the perfume in genoise, the zip in chicken tandoori, the structure in hollandaise, the clarity in a hot toddy and the fragrance in German hazelnut cookies." People have piled on Amanda Hesser for all sorts of reasons (I think the overarching one is jealousy), but the fact remains that her food writing is smart and lovely.
She included a recipe she'd developed by combining a recipe for hazelnut waffles from Balthazar with one for lemon-ricotta pancakes from Four Seasons, using a recipe for cottage-cheese pancakes from the Joy of Cooking as the base to work from. After the weekend in Boston celebrating my old man's birthday, I came back to New York laden down with 2 pounds of leftover ricotta (his birthday cheesecake required it), not to mention fresh sun-dried tomatoes from Apulia, salted capers, cruets of basil and lemon oil, Easter eggs of chocolate-cloaked marzipan, and pistachio paste. Yes, folks, my mother's in town. My new-found bounty has me all in a tizzy and I'm washing jam jars frenziedly to prepare them for marinated sun-dried tomatoes. But I digress! We were talking about ricotta.
In an attempt to use up some of the mounds of ricotta sitting in my fridge (any other ideas, by the way?), I decided to kill several birds with one stone: not only would I make breakfast for my mother, but I'd use up some ricotta, make a recipe for the blog, and break in my very first cast-iron pan. All of this, admittedly, was a bit much to take on a Tuesday morning. But you know me and my morning determination: nothing can get in the way of it. Thanks to the soothing explanation from Sara Kate over at The Kitchen, I seasoned my pan last night (don't think I left it in the oven long enough, though, because it was still a bit sticky when I took it out) and got to work this morning.
I started by rubbing together lemon zest and sugar (this mixture really is aphrodisiacal - if I ate more sugar, I'd be using this on everything), then stirring it with the dry ingredients that included toasted, chopped hazelnuts. In another bowl, I whisked together milk, vanilla, melted butter, eggs, and strained ricotta (though for the "straining" I had all of 4 minutes - not quite sure this is what Amanda had in mind, but it didn't seem to make a difference). I folded the wet mixture into the dry, then folded in stiff egg whites, before heating some butter in my glorious new pan and gently frying up 1/4 cup portions of pancakes.
We ate them with a fillip of creamed honey on top, though I'm not sure they even needed it (a barely-there dusting of powdered sugar would be prettier). The pancakes were light and airy from the beaten eggs, nubby and toasty from the pulverized nuts and fragrant with lemon zest and ricotta. They were absolutely delicious and delightfully light (pancakes usually sit in my belly like a lead weight) so if I were you, I'd print out this recipe and laminate it or something.
It wasn't on purpose, but this is my second Donna Deane recipe in one week. And I can think of nothing further to say about this. So! We're starting off nicely, aren't we. This doesn't bode well. The aforementioned apartment hunting, my out-of-town visitors, preparation for non-blog-related professional activities, and the lack of any and all peace and quiet threatens to render me into an inarticulate jumble of limbs, whimpering for mercy. Got a spare basement? I'd like to lock myself in there for a few hours, please.
It's a good thing I got some cooking in last weekend, because I wasn't able to concoct a single thing all week, what with demonstrating how to eat bulgogi, and going to book parties and gnawing my cuticles over wee little Sasha Cohen (I show my guests a good time, yes I do). And oh! I had a tea with the lovely Shauna. She gave me some much-needed giggles, and isn't it just great when someone you don't know but you think you do turns out to be even better than you thought she would be? Fantastic.
That wild-looking meal up there (the contrast between the white-fleshed halibut and the sanguine-colored sauce is bringing up some heretofore unexamined associations that I'm not willing to delve into here) was quite nice. I baked a few fillets of halibut that had been briefly marinated in thyme, oil, garlic and grapefruit juice. For the sauce I simmered together more grapefruit juice, blood orange juice, and sauteed shallots. When the mixture had reduced to a syrupy sauce, I whisked in a few lumps of cold butter. This classical French preparation was delicious, but far too rich for my taste. If you like buttery sauces or want a striking plate for a dinner party, this is a perfect recipe to use.
And on that note, I'm sailing off into the weekend, preparing myself for a week in which I will no longer be using Ben's camera for my blog photographs because he's going on vacation, lucky dog, and leaving me with a perfectly gorgeous substitute, but since I'll miss him and I hate change and I need sleep and did I mention the jumble of whimpering limbs I threaten to become any minute now, I'm convinced that my photos next week will be glaring eyesores that will render this blog utterly and totally unreadable. Happy travels, darling! Oh, and I'll be raising a glass to my father who turns 60. Hip hip!
Can it be? Finally, after a spate of splendiferous food, a recipe that I plan on chucking into the garbage straight after I write this post? I can scarcely believe my eyes. Okay, well, it's not like this was inedible. But what's the point of throwing a few flaxseeds into a straight-up white-bread bread? I'd rather my toasted flaxseeds could spend their days nestled into the whole-grain beauty of a whole-wheat loaf, cuddled up next to more wholesome ingredients than just white flour and honey and water.
The LA Times printed this recipe from Blue Ribbon Bakery last June in an article about artisan bread in New York City. Something about flaxseed sounded virtuous and good, so I couldn't help but print out the recipe and place it on my desk to wait patiently for months. To provide a respite from the harried apartment hunting and to have fresh bread around the house for my visitors from Berlin this week and next, I set to making this last weekend.
You make a starter with yeast (I used fresh), water, honey and bread flour and let that stand for 24 hours. I decided to halve the recipe, so after 24 hours, I weighed the fermented starter and scooped out half into a new bowl, to which I added dry yeast, toasted flaxseeds, water, bread flour, and salt. I kneaded it into a satisfyingly smooth and dry ball and let it rise until it practically rose out of my bowl. I shaped half of the dough into a loaf and the other half got plopped into a pan to rise again before being sent to the oven to bake until golden brown.
This is a workhorse bread - one you toast in bulk for breakfast or smear with mustard for utilitarian sandwiches. It provides an innocuous canvas for sprightly marmalades or sliced deli meat. But this bread...it lacks personality, it lacks soul. It doesn't taste bad, but it's not my kind of bread. And an eighth of a cup of flaxseeds doesn't exactly infuse a loaf with wholesome goodness. Instead, those few random seeds are almost like a taunt.
(And briefly, while we're on the subject of Blue Ribbon Bakery, can I just say how ridiculous I found Ed Levine's selection of a recipe to include with his large piece on the diversity of chicken soups in New York City yesterday? There he was, telling us about Sichuanese chicken soup and Momofuku's chicken soup and Sripraphai's chicken soup, and yet the only recipe he feels like printing is yet another bubbeleh's version of matzo ball soup? I can't be alone in wishing he'd been a little more adventurous with his choice.)
My dear Ben is a bit discombobulated as of late. He must, you see, find new living quarters. The era of living in style and being my neighbor in Chelsea is coming to an end, quickly. And if there's anything worse in the world than giving up your home, especially one that you love, to find a new one - one that can never really measure up, especially in New York or any of the outer boroughs - well, then you've got to tell me about it. Because as far as I'm concerned (and I think Ben agrees), this search is akin to the innermost circle of hell.
We spent most of the weekend traipsing around town, looking at places in different neighborhoods, trying our best to imagine Ben's daily walk to the subway, or what it would feel like for him to come home there at night. We saw shared lofts with no central heating, two-bedroom apartments next to (and I mean, looking out at) the BQE, and studios with peeling walls and astronomical fees. To fortify ourselves throughout these treks, we had a perfectly cooked meal of Dominican rice and beans with fried eggs and plantains at Hurricane Hopeful in Williamsburg, and our first Vietnamese sandwiches, crunchy and warm, in the East Village.
And to keep our spirits up, I cooked for comfort this weekend. Pasta with tomato sauce and peas. Cheeseburgers, with organic beef on toasted English muffins, oozing with juice and ketchup. Ben's smile as he chewed his way through one was the best part of an exhausting day. And fulfilling a longstanding desire of mine to finally use the gorgeous waffle iron my stepmother so kindly gave me last year, we also made breakfast yesterday. Of course, it wasn't all easy. Batter sticking to (nonstick, oiled nonstick, I tell you) waffle iron grids was enough to send me over the edge, but Ben calmed me down and we got through this sticky patch just fine (har). Here was my sweetheart, almost homeless, making me feel better because of a damned waffle.
Donna Deane wrote a piece in the LA Times a few years ago about Belgian waffles and how sophisticated they've become as of late. She included a few recipes, one of which just jumped straight out at me. You make a yeasted batter with buckwheat flour that ferments overnight. The waffles are barely sweet, and you serve them with honey butter and toasted sunflower seeds. (Though I skipped both and served the waffles with maple syrup and my new favorite thing: maple cream. It's maple syrup that's been cooked down and then creamed into a solid state, much like honey. It's unctuous and spreadable and tastes like what I imagine angel food tastes like. I'm in love. New Yorkers, I got it at the greenmarket in Union Square.) Whatever you can't eat, you can freeze. Which I did.
The most difficult part of the process is figuring out your waffle iron: how much batter does it take? Will it stick? How do you prevent this from happening? But this isn't exactly rocket science: you'll figure it out if you haven't already. And the waffles? They were delicious. Light and airy, crunchy outside, tender within. Each batch gave us a different texture. The last ones were, of course, the best. I love buckwheat: its wholesome, otherworldly flavor is indescribably appealing to me. It reminds me of my childhood, when my father would make buckwheat pancakes for breakfast on special mornings. I can only hope that the comfort I used to derive from them was somehow channeled into the waffles I made for Ben yesterday, making him feel that no matter where he ends up, my place is always his home away from home.
Note: I've noticed that some of the recipe links in early posts are no longer valid (curse you, LA Times archive). If you ever desire a recipe that I've linked to and that no longer appears, please tell me and I'll do my best to scrounge it up for you.
Raised Buckwheat Belgian Waffles
Serves 6 to 8
1 package yeast
1/4 cup hot water (100 to 110 degrees)
2 tablespoons plus 1/3 cup honey
2 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon oil
1 cup cake flour
1 1/4 cups buckwheat flour
1 1/8 teaspoons salt, divided
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and stir until the yeast is completely dissolved. Let it stand until bubbles begin to form. Stir in 2 tablespoons of honey, the buttermilk and the oil.
2. Combine the cake flour, buckwheat flour and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir in the yeast mixture just until blended. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
3. For the honey butter, combine the softened butter, the remaining honey and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Cover and set aside until ready to serve.
4. A half hour before cooking, remove the batter from the fridge and let it stand at room temperature. Then stir in the beaten eggs and baking soda. Combine thoroughly.
5. Heat a nonstick Belgian waffle iron and spray with cooking spray or brush with oil. Pour the recommended amount of batter onto the waffle iron. Close the lid and cook until the waffles are browned and release easily from the iron. Repeat with the remaining batter. Break or cut the waffles into sections. Spoon the honey butter over the hot waffles and eat immediately.
If you're near a computer with high-speed Internet on Saturday afternoon (or evening, depending on where you live), tune in to Tom Douglas's radio show on 710 KIRO Seattle to hear an interview I did with Tom and his friend Thierry last week.
Their show is on from 4pm to 8pm, Pacific time. My segment will be aired from 5 to 5:30pm (that's 8 to 8:30pm, Eastern time). I'll be listening with my fingers half-stuck in my ears to protect them from the horrors of hearing my own voice.
I've been a bit puzzled by the LA Times food section lately. "Breakfast" pizza with a topping that includes sour cream, eggs, sausage, and two kinds of cheese? No, thank you very much. A vegetable soup recipe that requires almost three hours of preparation? And in an article about the "pure joy" of clear soups, no less. I'm intrigued, but three hours? Really? Mme E. Sainte-Ange's creepy-looking Poularde a L'Ivoire takes less time than that (but admittedly not by much). And I've already mentioned the choice of Paula Wolfert recipes that drove me nuts.
It was a welcome relief, then, to find cookie nirvana in one of the more humble recipes to be printed in those pages in recent weeks. And from an unlikely source, at least as far as this snob is concerned. Harris Ranch, an inn and restaurant owned by California's "largest cattle feeder, fed beef processor and beef marketer" (oh yes), makes these delicious little cookies that are whipped up in less time than it takes to run a load of laundry (I know, I checked). At least in an American washing machine.
And what's even better is they're made with no butter or oil or shortening, and with no flour. They're crackly on top and chewy inside and nubby all around from the pecan bits. The pinch of salt is key - it draws out the fudgy, caramel tones in the sugar and the buttery flavor from the nuts. These drops really taste like bites of pecan pie - good pecan pie (hrmph). A nibble on these after our dinner at Suenos on Valentine's day was better than anything we could have ordered (and waited an inordinate amount of time for. And, by the way, I tried, I really did. But I still don't like Mexican food. Sigh).
I only had half the amount of pecans needed, so with a bit of trepidation, I halved the entire recipe. It worked beautifully. You briefly mix the brown sugar (it doesn't specify whether or not to pack the sugar, which bugged me, but I half-packed it, half left it loose and this seemed to work just fine), salt, vanilla and pecan pieces together, then drizzle in the egg whites (it doesn't seem like a lot of liquid, but just wait). You beat this together for 5 minutes. It will go from being lumpy and unwieldy to a gooey batter, which eventually thickens slightly.
I dolloped out portions onto my Silpat and baked the cookies until they were barely brown around the edges. The cookies turn a creamy buff color and scent of toasty sugar and nuts fills the air. Freshly baked, the cookies have a nice snap to them. Kept a day, they become softer and supremely chewy. A day beyond that? I don't know - they were gone by then. These pecan drops are cookies for the ages.
Harris Ranch's Pecan Drops
Makes 3 dozen cookies
2 1/2 cups brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 pounds coarsely chopped pecan pieces
1/2 cup egg whites (3 to 4 large egg whites)
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the brown sugar, salt, vanilla and pecan pieces. Beat on low speed to incorporate the ingredients, then drizzle in the egg whites. Increase the speed to medium-low and beat for 4 to 5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
2. Drop the dough in rounded tablespoons onto a greased baking sheet. Press each ball of dough with the back of a spoon to form a cookie 3 1/2 inches in diameter and about 1/8-inch thick.
3. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned. Remove from oven and immediately remove the cookies from the baking sheet to a cooling rack. The cookies will be soft but will firm up as they cool.
I've been on a nice run of pretty good recipes lately. There are a few here and there that haven't been exactly stellar. But it's been a while since I've thrown out the results from a night in the kitchen. And on the other hand, it's been a while since I've made something so delicious that I found myself sitting dumbstruck on the couch, staring at my plate, wondering how on earth I'd be able to find the words to describe the sensation that comes from eating such good food. That's what happened last night.
The last time I'd made one of Suzanne Goin's recipes, it had come from the NY Times' review of her latest book. Yesterday I wanted to give one of her recipes chosen for the review in the LA Times a go (either Grilled Quail with Sicilian Breadcrumbs, Pancetta and Ricotta Pudding or Olive Oil Cake with Creme Fraiche and Candied Tangerines) but neither came close to piquing my curiosity. Instead, I found myself drawn back to the NY Times recipes, specifically one for Romesco Potatoes: a dish of roasted, smashed potatoes dressed with an lushly aromatic and spicy sauce.
It was, in a word, incredible. Out of this world. The kind of food that makes you push everything else to the side of your plate so you can concentrate wholly on It. In fact, I had nothing else for dinner. Which might have been a mistake, actually. The flavors of this dish are so amazing that it's almost overwhelming. It might really be best to serve this just as a side. That way you won't have your guests falling down and begging you to scrape the rest of meal off their plate so they can run back to the stove for More Potatoes. (I had an idea, too, to serve this with a runny poached egg on top, for a one-plate meal or breakfast. If you can handle that kind of breakfast. I don't think I could. It's that good. Too good.)
Although the recipe sounds a bit fiddly, it all comes together quickly. You roast a handful of nuts before taking them out and sliding in a sheet of potatoes, bay leaves, thyme, salt and unpeeled garlic cloves to roast. You process the nuts with a slice of fried bread, more garlic, a small amount of canned tomatoes, olive oil, lemon juice, and ancho chiles (though because I am a chile idiot, I used chiles de arbol. I have no idea if this made a difference or not. I know nothing, but nothing, about chiles. Except that up until 10 months ago I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with them. Now I am sidling up to them sheepishly, eyeing them askance, wondering if I can ever start to make up for lost time).
When the potatoes are tender, you take the sheet out and crush the potatoes (I used the flat side of a spatula), put them in a hot, oiled pan with more fresh thyme on top and let them cook until crispy and browned on each side. Then you dollop in the entire bowl (all of it!) of romesco and the squeezed out bits of roasted garlic. You stir everything together and top with a handful of chopped parsley. Settle down to eat this, and stare in bewilderment at your plate as you chew. Roasted and raw garlic! Toasted nuts! Fried bread! Mellow thyme! Hot chiles! Creamy potatoes! It's an explosion of textures and sensations and flavors that left me speechless. Ben saw his opening and finished off the whole lot. Cheeky monkey.