Sunday, July 30, 2006

a tiny, unexpected feast: part 1

When I first started cooking — around late 1999 or early 2000, suddenly and without much prior interest in it — I would find recipes that I wanted to try first and then buy all the ingredients. This led to some interesting discoveries (walnut oil is good!), and occasionally to low-grade confusion (will I really want to put Thai dried shrimp paste in anything else ever again?).

Now that I have a bit more experience — and now that I've come to love NYC greenmarkets, which turned 30 the same week I did — I tend to buy whatever looks good, and then find a recipe. Doubtlessly seasonal eating is preferable, and at this point I know which ingredients to always keep on hand (good Parmigiano-Reggiano, for example) to make a meal out of my purchases.

The only problem with this approach is that I have trouble remembering, when I shop, that I may not have any time or any need for the stuff later. This is why I ended up making a plum tart over the weekend that the entire Tiny Banquet Committee is still eating rather than cleaning my apartment.

I really wasn't planning on cooking much and there were plenty of provisions to use up at home, so I went to the Union Square greenmarket intending to buy only herbs. I bought bundles of oregano, spearmint and savory — plus some puntarelle, a leafy green I'd never tried — and with rare discipline, I did not leave the market with enough produce to feed my whole block.

I then stopped at Whole Foods for dried pasta for a recipe I want to try later this week . . . and could not leave without a box of adorable little New York State sugar plums.

Sugar Plums

So, we were going to have dessert.

This recipe had been on my mind for a while (in spite of its corny name) because I had almond paste that needed to be used up, but I didn't have puff pastry. I ate one of the plums and it was wonderfully tart, so a sweetened pastry dough would be best. I settled on the recipe for pasta frolla, a sweet Italian pie dough, from Julia Child and Dorie Greenspan's Baking with Julia. It only takes a few minutes to make in the food processor and I was pleased with the results.

pasta frolla

The pasta frolla before kneading.

Pasta Frolla

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar [I used an organic sugar with big, crunchy crystals, similar to demerara sugar]
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, or lard, cut into 8 pieces
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Pulse the dry ingredients in a food processor until blended; then add the butter and pulse until the mixture has the texture of fine cornmeal. [If this texture eludes you, it's much better to leave the dough slightly under-worked rather than over-process it]. With the machine running, add the eggs. Process until the dough forms a ball, about 1 minute.

Remove the dough and knead until smooth. [As you can see in the photo, I like to do this on a sheet of wax paper, in a futile effort to keep my kitchen clean].

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill until needed. [If less than thirty minutes, I think you can leave it out on the counter with no harm].

The recipe yields enough dough for a 9-inch pie with a lattice top; I didn't want to bother with the lattice so I lopped off one-third of the dough, wrapped it well in plastic wrap and a freezer bag, and froze it. The recipe says it will keep up to three days in the refrigerator or one month in the freezer.

It's counter-intuitive, but I find that baking often takes a lot less time and effort than other, supposedly-simple kitchen tasks. I'm pretty sure I spent less time making the tart than I did washing and chopping herbs and greens and prepping other ingredients for the fritatta I made later that day.

While the dough chilled, I sliced and pitted the plums, and snipped some lavender from Tiny Banquet Farm (i.e., the fire escape).


A typical pastoral view.

I rolled out the crust, grated 100 grams of almond paste onto it, arranged the plums on top (cut-side up), and sprinkled them with 2 tablespoons of sugar and about 1 tablespoon of chopped lavender.

grated almond paste

Grated almond paste.

plum tart before

The tart before going into the oven.

I baked the tart for about an hour at 375° F. Whoever has my round metal tart pan at their house should feel free to leave a comment thusly indicating their intention to return it soon, please! The Emile Henry dish is prettier but after using it twice now I think it significantly increases the baking time.

While the tart was baking I wanted to make some sort of salad with the one summer squash I had. I'd been meaning to try this Mario Batali recipe for a while, and it was easy enough to scale down the recipe to 1/4 of the original:

Zucchine Marinate (Marinated Zucchini in the Style of Naples)

1 medium zucchini or summer squash
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced [I used a small red onion instead, because I have a lot of them rolling around in my kitchen]
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves [I used slightly less fresh oregano]
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley leaves

Wash and dry the zucchini. Cut lengthwise into slices 1/3-inch thick. Place the zucchini slices in a colander, sprinkle with salt and set aside to drain for 2 hours. [I let my squash drain for only 20-30 minutes and the finished salad was not watery, but if making the original recipe — which calls for 1 1/2 pounds zucchini — I'd try to be patient and follow Mario's instructions].

Heat the olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat. Place the drained zucchini slices in the pan and cook gently until golden brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side, being careful not to burn the slices. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar and sugar to a boil over high heat. Add a pinch of pepper flakes and a pinch of salt.

Place the zucchini slices flat in a shallow bowl, with the garlic [or onion] slices and the herbs scattered throughout. Pour the vinegar over the zucchini slices and let marinate, covered, for at least 24 hours before serving.


Fresh oregano.

zucchini and onion marinating

The squash in its marinade.

To be continued later today!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Zucchini-Basil Muffins

mini and regular zucchini-basil muffins

These are a Tiny Banquet favorite; I've made them probably about ten times now. I made a batch yesterday morning before work because I didn't think my lemon basil from Sunday's farmers' market could survive another day in the refrigerator.

The original recipe is on Epicurious; the muffins are supposed to be used to make little radish sandwiches, but I think they're perfect on their own. I've doubled the original recipe below — if you're making regular-sized muffins you probably want at least a dozen. If you won't eat them all they're very portable and easy to share. I've also edited the instructions for clarity, and replaced the shortening (yuck!) with butter.

You can use other herbs in place of the basil; I've made these with a mix of thyme, sage, and rosemary and also with basil, marjoram, and thyme and both batches were excellent. I'm sure mint and thyme would be good too. Depending on what herbs your're using, reduce the amount to about 1/4 cup, or maybe a bit more if you're using mint.

  • 2½ cups all-purpose flour

  • 1½ teaspoons salt

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more if you need to butter your pan (I use a non-stick silicone pan)

  • 2 tablespoons sugar

  • 2 large eggs

  • ½ cup buttermilk (see note below)

  • 2 cups coarsely grated well-scrubbed zucchini (one medium-size zucchini will give you the right amount)

  • 1 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Whisk together the flour, the salt, the baking soda, the baking powder and the pepper. In another bowl cream together the butter and the sugar, then beat in the eggs and the buttermilk; continue beating until the mixture is combined well. Stir in the zucchini and the basil. Add the flour mixture to the zucchini mixture, stir the batter until it is just combined, and divide it among 12 well-buttered muffin tins. Bake the muffins in the middle of the oven for 15 to 18 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Turn the muffins out onto a rack, and let them cool.

Yield: 12 muffins.

zucchini basil muffins

Note: I almost always make these with powdered cultured buttermilk, and I think it's a fine substitute. It's good for cornbread and pancakes too.

powdered buttermilk

Monday, July 24, 2006

Tiny Banquet goes to Connecticut, makes giant pot of pink pudding

On Saturday morning Tiny Banquet packed up the car and headed to Westbrook, Connecticut to visit the Chairwoman's parents.

dumpy truck

They don't mind if I bring some dirty laundry and stuff.

It was too cloudy to go the beach so I decided to make a recipe I'd been wanting to try, an Italian watermelon pudding called Gelo di Melone from Anissa Helou's Mediterranean Street Food.

Step 1 was to find a ripe watermelon. There were none at the Saybrook farmers' market, but there was a perfect one at Walt's Market around the corner. Reportedly Saybrook resident Katharine Hepburn shopped at Walt's. It's the sort of market anyone would be lucky to have nearby, with fresh produce out front, a good-smelling meat counter running the length of the back of the store, and a small stash of Ciao Bella sorbet in the freezer case.

Walt's Market

Walt's sign 2

We didn't pick up anything besides the melon because we had reservations at Café Routier for dinner.

Step 2 was to remove the seeds from the melon. A time-consuming task, but not an unpleasant one.


watermelon close-up

After that the pudding comes together very quickly: Put about a quart of strained watermelon juice (a 5- to 6-pound melon will give you the right amount) in a pan and whisk in 1/3 cup of sugar and 2/3 cup cornstarch. When there are no lumps remaining, turn the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil. Let it boil, whisking continuously, "for a couple of minutes." (I let it boil for about 4 minutes).

Gelo di Melone cooking

Take the pan off the heat and add some jasmine water (the recipe calls for three tablespoons, to be prepared by soaking jasmine flowers in water for a few hours) or rose water (which is what I had; I used two teaspoons). Don't worry if the pudding looks thin, it will thicken as it cools. You don't want to let it cool in the pan entirely, though, because you need to be able to pour it into eight serving bowls or cups.

I didn't pour the pudding directly into serving bowls because I planned to leave half of it in Connecticut and take the other half home in my little cooler; I poured it into a couple of tupperware-type containers, and headed off to liberate a private beach from Whitey.

Grove Beach gate

We didn't bother fiddling with the gate but I'd say there's about a 95% chance the security code is
1-2-3-4 — mighty clever if you're one of the gin-and-tonic-addled locals

Grove beach

Looking east on Grove Beach.

It wasn't until Tiny Banquet got back to Manhattan and spooned some of the pudding into a dish that I realized what a mistake I'd made: If the pudding isn't poured into its serving dish before it sets, it will never be pretty. I tried to get rid of the lumps with the tiny whisk I usually use for salad dressing, but it only made the pudding lumpy + fluffy.

yuck, it's lumpy

Hellou says that chocolate chips and candied zucchini (zuccata) are the usual garnishes; the recipe lists these as optional, and calls for coarsely ground pistachios and ground cinnamon.
I used only chopped pistachios

On Monday night I decided that if the rest of the pudding was to be eaten, it would have to first be made liquid again and poured into serving dishes. I put the remaining pudding into a small saucepan and heated it over a low flame, stirring with a fork every minute or so. Gradually it melted to a semi-liquid state; I took it off the heat before it was completely liquified because I didn't want it to be overcooked. This time I poured it into serving dishes while still hot. Voila! After cooling to room temperature and then spending some time in the refrigerator, the pudding was much more presentable.

Gelo di Melone, unfugged

The pistachios really complement the delicate flavor of the pudding; I'm not sure how else to describe it other than to say that it tastes summery and pink. Both the watermelon and rose water flavors come through clearly, and the taste and texture are refreshing. It was fun to make and I don't dislike it, but I can't imagine I'll ever have a craving for it in the future.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

my new cookbooks are here!

my cookbooks are here!

And there are many. I had to have surgery recently and wanted to make sure I had plenty to read afterwards, so I ordered some really great books from Green Apple Books, a San Francisco store whose website I stumbled across. They have an interesting selection of out-of-print cookbooks and very reasonable prices. I ordered:

  • Sylvia Thompson, The Kitchen Garden Cookbook and Feasts and Friends - Recipes From a Lifetime. I had a couple of Sylvia Thompson recipes that I'd collected from various websites; after preparing one of them a few weeks ago (some herb-y biscuits) I wanted to know more about her. I'm glad I ordered both of these books because they're filled with very appealing recipes and warm, well-written anecdotes about her family (her mother is actress Gloria Stuart; her godmother is M.F.K. Fisher), her friends, and her travels.

  • Cooking with Craig Clairborne and Pierre Franey: 600 recipes from The New York Times. Last summer I spent a fair amount of time flipping through someone else's Craig Clairborne cookbooks in a rented cottage and it seemed worthwhile to have at least one of my own. This one was published in 1983 but is thankfully not full of recipes involving microwaves, sun-dried tomatoes, and/or the gratuitous use of caviar, or whatever else everyone ate in between Jazzercise, blowing rails, and the Mudd Club.

  • Corinne Griffith, Eggs I Have Known. I'd not heard of this one before but the title was irresistible.

    Eggs I Have Known cover

    After a bit of googling I discovered that Griffith was a silent film actress, real estate investor, author, and anti-income tax activist who somehow also found the time to marry and divorce four husbands.

    Corinne Griffith jacket photo

    The book is thoroughly charming, and Ms. Griffith seems to have been genuinely knowledgeable about cooking. At the beginning of each chapter is a well-chosen quote. My favorite: "The dessert should be dramatic. Unless it creates a stir of interest at its appearance there is no object in having this final course—since no one is really hungry." Louis P. de Gouy

  • Mona Bazaar, Cookbook in Solidarity With the Symbionese Liberation Army. I was very curious about what I'd find in this one. Picnic-type snacks for the getaway car? Light lunches for finicky hostages? Old Hearst family favorites? Or dreary hippie casseroles of brown rice + whatever?

    SLA cookbook cover

    Sadly, it's the latter. The SLA is justifiably not known for its gastronomy. Strangely, many of the recipes seem to have come straight from their fascist, rascist, imperialist oppressors.

    SLA book interior

    What's revolutionary about "Hamburger Potato Pie" made with ground beef, shredded cheese, and dehydrated onion? Ground beef and dehydrated anything are hallmarks of honky cuisine; all that's missing is canned soup and a crushed potato chip topping. Sigh. I probably won't be cooking anything from this book, but as a historical collectible it's invaluable. I now know that irony hadn't been invented yet back in ye olde 70's.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

I'm really trying

to use the extra bundle of thyme that Fresh Direct sent me in addition to the one I ordered. They also sent me a surprise bundle of lacinato kale, which is one of my favorite vegetables. I order from FD often and they've only messed up once before; they sent me a box of someone else's non-perishable items in addition to my complete order, and they promptly picked it up at my request. I suppose I could have kept it, but it contained a giant bottle of soda and a startling quantity of canned corn, neither of which I would ever get around to consuming. Fresh thyme and kale is a much happier mistake.

I made two things with thyme yesterday:

First, Tamasin Day-Lewis's Cheese and Thyme Scones.

Cheese and Thyme Scones no flash

I have been eyeing this recipe in my collection for a long time and I'm sorry I waited so long to try it; it's easy and fast and the scones are delicious. I made them with Wensleydale rather than cheddar; it is a cows' milk cheese with a similar texture to cheddar (somewhat crumbly and flaky). I bought half a pound of Borough Market Wensleydale and still have a nice piece left for snacking.

Second, I made something without any thyme that I have to mention because it turned out so well and only took a few minutes to make - David Lebovitz's Salt-roasted Peanuts. (Scroll down a bit for the recipe). I made these with flaky Cyprus sea salt, which Salt Traders graciously sent me as a gift after I complained about their little corks being difficult to remove. They smelled so good as they were cooking that when I closed the oven door after having stirred them, I turned around and noticed my peanut-loving little dog — who had been sleeping soundly — staring at me with an intensity that he usually reserves only for roasted chicken.

Salt-roasted Peanuts

For dinner there was Red Snapper with Angel Hair Pasta and Citrus Cream, which I made with a generous amount of thyme rather than the herbes de Provence the recipe calls for. I also used plum tomatoes that I slow-roasted with — guess what — plenty of thyme, rather than sun-dried tomatoes. I really can't bring myself to use sun-dried tomatoes and haven't used them for a couple years now; they taste good, but they are so evocative of the late-80's/early-90's for me. I wasn't cooking anything more substantial than frozen pizza in that time period, but I must have eaten too many sun-dried tomatoes in restaurants or something because I just can't deal with them now. I'm sure I'll be able to use them again one day because I've had similar phases with bell peppers and cilantro, but for now that's that.

Snapper with Citrus Cream Sauce

Other than those two substitutions — and using fresh egg pasta rather than dried, although the recipe doesn't specify, and seasoning the sauce with pinches of salt and white pepper — I followed the recipe closely. Everything tasted great but everything tasted like everything else. The fish and the pasta were excellent and so was the sauce, but mid-way through the meal it occured to me that I've never served this kind of dish, with everything on the plate flavored the same way. It's somewhat difficult to perceive that the reason the dish is unsatisfying is its monotony, because it doesn't taste monotonous; the sauce has a lovely flavor, and the contrast between the firm seared fish, crisp at the edges, and the delicate pasta is enough to further throw an unsatisfied cook off this idea. But that's the problem, and I will not again make the mistake of serving a dish in which the focus is on one taste.

(I feel like I'm overstating the "problem"; dinner was great, especially because I had incredible Valencia oranges to use in the sauce - it's just that I would have liked it better had the sauce gone only on the fish or only on the pasta, not on both).

I had two wild snapper fillets to serve two people but didn't halve the pasta or the sauce. Somehow all the pasta got eaten, but the fish and sauce did not. I specified two "6- to 8-ounce fillets" of wild snapper in my Fresh Direct order and ended up receiving two 8-ounce fillets Saturday morning, and really that's enough for four. I was able to get my guest - who went on a lengthy hike that day! - to eat another half of a fillet as a second helping but I still have a giant portion for lunch today. *And* lovely Montauk day boat scallops that I have to cook for dinner. *And* I still have a mountain of thyme.

music for dish-washing

There are so many cooking blogs - and so many really good ones! - and I find it a bit strange that I don't see anyone bitching about what a pain it is to have to wash all these dishes. Maybe this reflects my New York-iness; I haven't got a dishwasher but my apartment is rent-controlled, so I am not going to be moving to a dishwasher-equipped place anytime soon. I cook a lot and thus I have a lot of dirty dishes, and I hate to wash them.

I have three coping mechanisms to deal with this issue:

  1. Do the dishes really early in the morning, before I'm really awake. Best to have coffee brewing in the meantime, as an incentive to hurry up and finish. Best of all is to brew some of this Lebanese espresso with cardamom in it. I have a stove-top espresso pot but I brew this in the regular coffee machine. The smell and the taste will make you pleased with yourself for getting out of bed. If you live downtown you can get it at Dowel on 1st Ave. between 5th and 6th Streets; otherwise it looks like you can get it from Kalustyan's.

  2. Fancy-pants dish soap. It's a bit expensive but I would much rather smell lavender dish soap than the trashy stuff from the grocery store. They put it on sale every once in a while and it lasts forever anyhow.

  3. The right dish-washing music. I like to think that my taste in music defies categorization, but for some reason my dish-washing and apartment-cleaning music is thoroughly entrenched in the glamorous-batty-1950's-hopped-up-housewife genre. Feel free to break down the gender and generational issues in the comments. On the playlist below: Blossom Dearie, "The Riviera," from the album Give Him the Ooh-la-la; Jack Ary, "Les Tomates," from the compilation album Dou da Dou - the unlimited French lost catalogue; and Blue Stars of France, "Les Lavandieres du Portugal (The Portuguese Washerwoman)," from the album Lullaby of Birdland and Other Hits. Click on the little heart to play; I think it's about eight minutes in all -