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Friday, September 30, 2011

Going with the Grain: Saffron Rice Pilaf

When I moved to Alaska eleven years ago, people asked "Are there any Jews up there?"

The answer is yes, but not many.  There are two synagogues here, one reform and one conservative.  Both have rabbis who are well-liked in the community.  I belong to the reform synagogue, and admittedly I'm of the twice-a-year variety of Jew. 

The second day of Rosh Hashanah is not a major service, as demonstrated by the 35 or so of us there this morning.  There is something homey about a service with that few people, though--the rabbi made us all squash together in a few rows and take on various parts of the service.

I love Rosh Hashanah.  I love the food, the music, and the sense that for the next week anything is possible because it's a new year and we can atone for the less-than-stellar things we've done in the year before.  Religion is a wholly individual thing and I don't want to dwell on it here, other than to say that while it's been a tough week, it was nice to have time to reflect this morning.

This post is the last of the Rosh Hashanah recipes I've been testing for the last week.  It's a simple rice pilaf colored and flavored by saffron, which went great with the roast chicken with apples and onions posted last week.  It could also perk up the coloring on a simple plate of grilled fish.

I love the vivid coloring of this dish.
Saffron Rice Pilaf
Adapted from Joan Nathan's Quiches, Kugels and Couscous

1/4 tsp. saffron
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup shelled pistachios
1 cup long-grain white rice
1/4 tsp. nutmeg, freshly grated if possible
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. salt
2 cups reduced-salt chicken broth
Fresh-ground black pepper

Place the saffron in a small bowl with two tablespoons hot water, and set aside.

While saffron is ridiculously expensive, you need very little of it for this dish.
Heat all the oil in a large, heavy saucepan that has a lid.  Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until lightly browned.  Reduce the heat and add the rice. 

Stir the rice and onion to combine, and add the nutmeg, bay leaf, salt and broth.  Taste and add a little pepper--you can always add more later.  Add the saffron with its water and stir again.

I can't believe I actually had a whole nutmeg in the cupboard.  It came from a gift box I received from, my favorite source for spices.
Bring the rice mixture to a boil.  After it reaches a boil, reduce the heat and cover the pot.  Cook for approximately 15 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is the desired consistency.  In the last few minutes of cooking, add the pistachios.

Remove the bay leaf and serve.  Makes 4-6 side dish servings.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On the Road: Cleveland's West Side Market

Does Cleveland, in fact, rock?

I used to live with someone who watched The Drew Carey Show, and I would titter at the theme song, partly because the video was funny and partly because I could not imagine a world in which Cleveland rocked.

Then I married a born-and-bred Clevelander (Clevelandian?  Your guess is as good as mine.) and made several trips to the city, where my in-laws still live.

I'm not going so far as to say it rocks, at least not from my limited time there.  It's a big Midwestern city that's fallen on hard times.  It feels pretty familiar to this girl from Omaha, although Omaha has not suffered as much and I understand that it's becoming downright hip.  (Sidenote:  I cannot imagine Omaha being hip, per se, but it's always had one of the largest numbers of restaurants per capita of any American city.  Go figure.)

But I will say this about Cleveland:  it has a bright restaurant scene, one of the best-known food writers and bloggers, Michael Ruhlman, and maybe the best market I've ever seen.  The market alone might be reason to live there.

Check out the suckling pig in the background.

The West Side Market has more than a hundred vendors--bakers, butchers, cheesemongers, ethnic food stands--you name it, it's there.  It's the kind of place you can actually talk to the butcher about how to prepare a certain cut of meat, or find a baker who will remember your favorite kind of kolache.  The market is over a hundred years old, with the majority of the time of its current site. 

Can anyone identify what type of pastry this is?  I've never heard of a "monk," but I want one.

It's not fancy--it smells like fish from the many fishmongers, and there are no real amenities--but I want desperately to have it as my market.  I want to be introduced to stinky cheeses from foreign countries and be cajoled into cuts of meat that would never make it into the local supermarket.  It's a genuine throwback to a time where people had relationships with their food sellers.

Alice Waters would approve.  And it has the best felafel I've ever had.
Details:  The market is located at 1979 West 25th street and is only open four days a week:  Monday & Wednesday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday & Saturday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shana Tova (Happy New Year)

Rosh Hashanah starts tomorrow at sundown.  Shana tovas ("happy new year" in Hebrew) will be filling the synagogue tomorrow night and throughout Thursday.  So begins the Jewish high holidays, which end on October 8 with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

The holidays start happy and grow more contemplative and solemn.  The new year is an occasion for celebrating, eating sweet foods (typically honey and apples) to wish for a sweet year ahead and meeting with friends.  As we get closer to Yom Kippur, we are to make amends to those we have wronged in the past year, and as to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the next year.  It's a time for thinking about what we can do better in the year ahead.

Which brings me to today's recipe.  I have a weird deal with myself when it comes to sweets--aside from fruit, I generally don't eat them during the week.  It's a way of being disciplined, which is good, because I adore cake.  I could take or leave pie, but give me any sort of cakey fruit dessert and I'm just sold.

When I was in law school, I pounced on this recipe in Cooking Light and have been making it nearly every year since.  Although it's not written for the Jewish holidays, it combines apples, cinnamon and reduced-fat cream cheese for a nearly guiltless pleasure that works either as a coffee cake or a simple dessert.  With that said, the cake is heading off to my office tomorrow morning to, er, keep it away from me. 

If only we had Smell-O-Vision.

Rosh Hashanah Cinnamon-Apple Cake
Adapted from Cooking Light Magazine October 1997

1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
6 oz. reduced-fat cream cheese
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 large Fuji apples, cored and chopped (peel if you like--I didn't.  You can substitute another sweet-tart apple.)
Nonstick cooking spray

I don't always have everything organized beforehand, so I feel the need to show off when I do.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine 1 1/2 cups of the sugar with the butter, vanilla and cream cheese in a bowl and blend at medium speed with a mixer.  Add one egg, beat the mixture until just combined, and do the same with the other egg.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl.  Add this mixture to the butter one, beating at low speed until just combined.

Stir together the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with the cinnamon.  Combine the apple with two tablespoons of the cinnamon-sugar mixture, stir and add to the batter. 

Coat a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray and pour in the batter.  Sprinkle the remaining cinnamon sugar over the cake.

Bake for an hour and ten minutes.  You will know the cake is done when it starts to pull away from the pan.  Cool on a wire rack.  This cake is so tender that it is best cut with a serrated knife.

Kitchen Renovation Update:  The Backsplash from Hell is gone!  Even with bare walls, the kitchen looks better and our contractor found space for us to have a full size-refrigerator.  Happy new year, indeed.

Yes, the refrigerator is messy.  Don't judge.
Shana Tova!

Monday, September 26, 2011

On My Bookshelf: So you want to own a bakery...

Anthony Bourdain calls a lot of food literature "food porn."  It's wish fulfillment, often accompanied by photos of impossibly luscious food.

That may apply to cookbooks, but the food literature I love is about the adventure of food and the food industry.  It's unlikely that I will ever work in a professional kitchen, although I'd bet money that I attend culinary school later in life.  The two books I'm reviewing this time around are about women who weren't sure of their paths in life, although they knew that being around food gave them great satisfaction.

Gesine Bullock-Prado's Confections of a Closet Master Baker starts with her graduating from law school, surveying her options and deciding to run her more famous sister Sandra Bullock's production company.  Hmm.  It's nice to have connections.

After trying for a few years to get good movies made (and failing) and tiring of lunching to see and be seen (but not eating), Bullock-Prado and her husband moved to Burlington, Vermont and opened a small bakery.  The book takes them through the first year in operation and chronicles the trials of owning a small business.  Bullock-Prado peppers her chapters with recipes for cakes and pastries, but the recipes are beside the point.

I'll admit it, I was initially skeptical about this book--famous sister=book deal, right?  In reality, Sandra Bullock is a very minor character in this story, although she sure does sound like the perfect sister. 

This book is a clear-eyed look at the difficulty of opening a small business and trying to stay afloat.  For the first year, the enterprise seems one step away from disaster or going under.  Although the tone of the book is largely humorous, this is a cautionary tale as much as a cute book about Bullock-Prado pursuing her dream.  Although I would particularly recommend this to bakers, the lessons are equally applicable to anyone thinking about opening a restaurant.  By the end of the book, the bakery is succeeding in a small way, but I wonder what will happen to it.

When I logged onto Amazon to post the link to the book, I noticed that Bullock-Prado has written a follow-up.  More on that to come...

Phoebe Damrosch's Service Included:  Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, sounds salacious, although it's not.  Damrosch graduates from college and starts working in the New York restaurant scene almost by default.  She lucks into a job at Thomas Keller's soon-to-open Per Se, a pretty good gig for someone who admits that they aren't a good server. 

This book is part "what do I want to do when I grow up?" story and one part a chronicle of opening one of the most highly-anticipated restaurants in the last decade.  The second part is far better than the first, unless you want to hear about how Damrosch started dating a sommelier who was involved with someone else who worked in the restaurant.

No, the more interesting story is about how obsessively planned the restaurant was, and how much training and preparation went into its opening.  Damrosch's text is peppered with "tips" for diners, including not asking servers what their "other job" is and letting your waiter know if you plan to get up between courses so the kitchen can plan accordingly. 

Although I didn't love this book, it is a fascinating look into the world of opening a high-dollar restaurant where there is a great deal at stake.  I would recommend it to those interested in a look behind the curtains, as well as devotees of Thomas Keller.

As always, let me know if there is food literature that you're interested in seeing reviewed here!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Don't Blink...

...or you'll miss me.

A friend sent me a Facebook message today telling me that I was in the trailer for the new Drew Barrymore movie Big Miracle.  Terrible name.  The previous name of the movie was Everybody Loves Whales, which wasn't much better.  Nevertheless, it was a great experience and it's a total kick to see myself, even wearing mom jeans, even for a microsecond (at the 1:23 mark), in the trailer.  I'm hopeful that means I'll make it into the finished film, which premieres in February.

There's an astonishing amount of acting talent in Alaska.  I auditioned more or less on a dare from my friend Tamar--I'd heard about the auditions, but hadn't planned to go.  In the end, the casting agents auditioned something like two thousand actors from all over the state and cast forty speaking parts here.  We'll see if my line makes the final cut.

I'm sure that if you make a living in the film industry, this is pretty routine stuff.  For me, it was a great adventure.  I still don't know why they chose me for the movie, but I am grateful.  Here's what I can tell you:  film crew members have great senses of humor.  It is not fun to eat Swanson fried chicken for take after take.  Ken Kwapis, the director, is an incredibly nice guy.  Ted Danson doesn't look his age at all.

I'll never act for a living, but I'll also never forget the experience.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Comfort Me with Apples

My kitchen is imploding.

All right, not really, but we're starting a long-delayed minor kitchen renovation.  Although I've now grown to (mostly) love my kitchen, we almost didn't buy the house two years ago when I saw it.  First there was what I like to call the Backsplash from Hell, which started at one end of the kitchen, looped around the refrigerator and went aaalll the way around to the other side.  I like the gray-green Corian for the countertop.  For the entire decor, not so much. 

I mean, really?  It's just odd.
there were the 1980s vanilla-colored appliances, especially the less-than-standard size refrigerator (also known as the Vegetable Killer, see more on that here).

And the lack of a good vent.  I could go on.

The renovation is going to happen in pieces, as our contractor is available, but it could make cooking interesting for a while. 

Well, in all reality it's been interesting since David karate-chopped the 1980s vanilla oven closed during his birthday party, damaging one of the door hinges and resulting in the door not closing all the way.  I wish I could say that when this happened, I ran in slow motion toward the oven and flung myself on top of it screaming "NOOOO!" at the top of my lungs, but that didn't happen.  I was on the other side of the room serving up smoked gouda and caramelized onion quesadillas when I heard the squeak-thud of the unhappy oven.

I wanted to make a good dinner before the kitchen became even partially unusable.  Yesterday I started looking for recipes for Rosh Hoshanah, which is next week.  It is the start of the Jewish high holidays and has several traditional foods, including apples and honey, to signify wishes for a sweet new year. 

This recipe incorporates apples into a main course, and has several virtues:  It's healthy!  It's hearty!  It takes a total of an hour and forty minutes, of which less than twenty are active time!  Joan Nathan, you doyenne of Jewish cooking, you know how to get a frazzled cook's heart a-flutter.

If you have the advantage of more time, I would recommend salting the chicken, covering it with plastic wrap and leaving it in the refrigerator overnight.  This draws out moisture from the skin and makes for a crispier chicken.

Rosh Hoshanah Chicken with Apples and Onions
Adapted from Quiches, Kugels and Couscous by Joan Nathan

1 3.5-4 lb. chicken
1 yellow onion, peeled
3 Fuji apples, cored and cut into 6-8 pieces each
1 cup chicken stock
1 1/3 cups dry white wine
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
Kosher salt
Fresh-ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Pat the chicken dry and season it lightly with kosher salt, fresh-ground pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon.  Place it in a large baking pan--I put mine breast side down, so the white meat would stay in the marinade and not dry out during the long cooking process.

Cut the onion into large slivers and scatter it around the bottom of the pan.  Pour the chicken stock and wine on the onions and bake for 45 minutes.

While the chicken is cooking, toss the apples (I prefer leaving the skin on, but you can peel them if you wish) with the tablespoon of sugar and remaining cinnamon.

At the 45-minute mark, remove the chicken from the oven and add the apples to the pan, spooning the broth-wine mixture over them.  If the apples still look a little dry, add another bit of broth.

Cook for another 45 minutes, or until done.  The thickest part of the breast should register 165 degrees on an oven thermometer.

Allow to sit, tented with foil, for a few minutes.  The pan juices are delicious, but you could turn them into a thicker gravy if desired.

Serves 4-6 as a main course.  Spoon the pan juices over the sliced meat and serve with a side of the apples and onions.

Food/wine pairing:  You're going to be tempted to pick a sweeter wine because of the apples.  Don't do it.  This dish hails from my mother's ancestral region of Alsace-Lorraine in France.  Either a bone-dry German riesling or a French or German Pinot Blanc would be perfect.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

In the Kitchen with David: Polenta with Sausage Ragù

It was Sunday.  I had grand plans for dinner.

Then I did twenty miles of marathon training, which knocked me on my ass.  I've done five marathons , and about the same number of half-marathons, with the next race in three weeks.  Twenty miles shouldn't be any big deal, and while I was out training, it was fine:  once I came home and showered, though, I was toast.

David took over the menu I prepared for tonight, and it was utterly brilliant. 

This recipe is featured on the cover of Italian Cooking at Home, and David initially went "meh."  He changed his tune when we sat down to eat, though.  It has deep, savory flavor, and is the perfect Sunday dinner for fall/winter. 

The secret is to use really good sausage.  We have sausage made by a local market in Anchorage, and if we have good sausage made daily, I can't imagine that it's too hard to find elsewhere.  You could certainly use pork sausage, which the original recipe calls for, but David used Italian chicken sausage.  In addition, you could alter the recipe by using only dried or fresh mushrooms, although the combination of dried and fresh mushrooms gives the recipe terrific texture.

Yes, the hat makes him look like a hipster.  David just shaved his head, which is his annual birthday tradition.
Total cooking time is about an hour and a half, although a lot of it is inactive time. 

Polenta with Sausage Ragù
Adapted from CIA Italian Cooking at Home

For the ragù:
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
4 ounces fresh mushrooms, preferably crimini
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. Italian chicken sausage, either sliced or taken out of its casings and crumbled
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 leeks, white and pale green portions only, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup chopped parsley

For the polenta:
2 quarts water
Kosher salt as needed
Fresh-ground pepper as needed
2 cups cornmeal
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 cup coarsely grated Parmesan

Place the dried porcini mushrooms in a bowl and pour boiling water over them.  Allow to sit for 20 minutes, then drain, rinse and chop them into chunks.

In a large saucepan, heat the oil on medium heat for the ragù.  Add the sausage and cook until the fat is rendered, about 3 minutes.  Add the onion, leeks and porcini mushrooms, and cook for another 10 minutes.  In a separate dish, mix the water with the tomato paste and then add to the saucepan.

We cut the sausage into chunks with the casings on, which saves some time.
Stir the mixture to incorporate the tomato paste and water, then cover the pan and reduce the heat to low.  Add the fresh mushrooms and cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.  If the ragù starts to stick to the pan, add a little water or chicken broth to loosen.

While the ragù is cooking, start the polenta.  Bring the water to a simmer and add a generous pinch of kosher salt.  Add the cornmeal slowly, whisking briskly as you add it. 

Simmer the polenta on low heat for 45 minutes or until cooked to your taste.  It should be soft but not mushy.  Stir the polenta occasionally so it doesn't stick.

Take the polenta off the heat.  Taste for seasoning--a bit of fresh-ground pepper should be added, and a little salt if necessary--and add the butter and cheese, stirring it into the polenta.

Add the parsley to the ragù.  Make a bed of polenta in a warmed pasta bowl, then top with the ragù.  Top with a small amount of freshly-grated Parmesan if desired, although it doesn't need it.

Serves 4 as a main course. 

We served with a side of zucchini coins broiled with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Food/wine pairing:  This dish needs a light red wine, preferably one from northern Italy or Spain.  We served a Mencia from Bierzo, which is close to Portugal.  Alternatively, a Dolcetto or Barbera from Piedmont would be delicious.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Lend Me an Ear: Orecchiette with Arugula, Chiles and Pecorino

When you meet and marry someone on my side of thirty, it's a crapshoot whether or not you're going to like that person's friends.

I mostly got lucky.  David has some great friends, and among my favorites are his friends Warren and Diane.  Warren has an indelible quality:  he is a punster. 

His birthday was on Sunday, but he celebrated on Monday with a football-themed viewing party.  I'm not a football person despite the fact that I grew up in a football-crazy place, so I don't want to hear it when I confess I left ten minutes into the game.  Diane commissioned a Raiders-themed cake with beautifully colored fondant, but I didn't take a picture of it.  I don't want to hear it about that either.

Please note that this post has nothing to do with football or fondant.  I tell you this in explanation for the pun-ny quality of the title of the post.  It happens for a few days every time I've been around Warren, and I blame him personally.

What this post is about is damn simple weeknight pasta made with the ear-shaped orecchiette.  I think it's an underutilized pasta shape, myself.  It holds sauce beautifully and it's fun just looking at it.  There isn't much to this pasta, but it goes together in a snap and hits the slightly salty, savory target.  To make this vegetarian, omit the anchovies.

You could also substitute a different green for the arugula, such as spinach or rapini.  If you're feeling daring, I think dandelion greens would be terrific in this recipe but I know their bitterness isn't everyone's cup of tea.  If you use rapini, the sauce will take longer to cook.

Orecchiette with Arugula, Chiles and Pecorino
Adapted from A16 Food + Wine

Sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with the side of a knife
2 small dried peperoncini peppers or dried crushed red pepper
1.5 pounds argula or other zesty greens, washed thorougly and coarsely chopped
2 oil-packed anchovies, minced
1 cup water
12 ounces dried orecchiette pasta
Chunk of pecorino romano cheese

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat and add about 3 tablespoons of olive oil.  When the oil is warmed, add the garlic.  Stir occasionally to make sure it browns and doesn't scorch, about 3 minutes.

Add the anchovies, arugula, water and peppers--you might start with one and add the additional one later if you'd like more spice.  Bring these ingredients to a low simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, until the greens are very soft but not falling apart and the water is reduced. 

While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Then add the pasta, and cook for about 10 minutes.  Keep an eye on it, as this is a pasta you'll want al dente, checking at the 8-minute mark.  If the greens dry out while the pasta is cooking, add a few small spoonfuls of either pasta cooking water, vegetarian stock or chicken stock to the pan.

Drain the pasta thoroughly and return the cooked pasta to its pot.  Toss with the greens mixture and taste for seasoning.  You may want to add a dash of stock, sea salt or pepper;  when you like the seasoning, drizzle the pasta with olive oil and toss.  Serve family-style in a large warmed bowl, adding a generous dusting of fresh pecorino cheese at the table.  Serve immediately--this doesn't improve with sitting.

Serves four as a main course.

Wine pairing:  This is a fairly plain pasta dish, although it has a little bite.  Serve with a zesty white such as Vinho Verde, or a very light red like a rosesse (shown above) or Beaujolais-Villages.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bye-Bye Summer: Roasted Asparagus with Walnut Crema

Fall is in the air here.  It's been coming for a while, but last weekend there was a burst of gorgeous weather, just in time for David's birthday, my friend Sondra's baby shower and 18 miles of marathon training.  (One of these things is not like the others). 

I whine about marathon training, so let me say a few good things about it:  I burn lots of calories so I can continue to make and eat good food, and my friend Paul and I get to catch up on Project Runway and celebrity gossip.  Hey, you can't be an intellectual all the time.

When David and I started dating, I was a vegetarian, or at least the Alaska version of one--I ate fish but no meat (we call them Alaska-tarians or pescatarians).  I gave up vegetarianism in late 2005 after eyeing David's steak enviously one too many times, but I still adore vegetables, especially green ones roasted with a little olive oil and sea salt.

Is it weird to think asparagus is pretty?  Because I do.
I started making this recipe months ago, when asparagus wasn't readily available, and learned that all manner of green vegetables can be used to great effect, with a little tweaking of cooking time.  Green beans take beautifully to roasting, but need less time.  Brussels sprouts need a little longer, but the next time you get a sprouts-hater coming to dinner, try this recipe with its creamy sauce, crunchy vegetables and salty cheese.  Conversion could occur.

This recipe makes tons of crema.  You can easily triple the asparagus and you'll have enough sauce.  Don't cut the recipe, though, because the crema is brilliant on pasta and toasted bread and with raw veggies.  It also keeps for at least two weeks in a Tupperware container.

Roasted Asparagus with Walnut Crema
Adapted from A16 Food + Wine

For the crema:
Sea salt
1.5 cups walnuts
1/2 cup and 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, roughly chopped

For the asparagus:
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large bunch asparagus (can easily triple this without increasing the other ingredients)
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
Sea salt

Good parmesan or pecorino cheese for topping

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

For the crema, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the walnuts and blanch them for 8-10 minutes.  At the 8-minute mark, fish one out and see if it is slightly tender.  If so, you're done.  Drain the walnuts in a colander, reserving at least a cup of the blanching water.

While the walnuts are boiling, warm 1 tbsp. of the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat.  Add the onion and a pinch of sea salt and sauté until the onion turns golden and fragrant.  Remove the pan from the heat.

Put the onion, walnuts and reserved blanching water into the bowl of a food processor (a mini prep processor is probably big enough, depending on the size of the bowl).  Whir until creamy, and then taste.  Add a touch of salt if needed.  Then add the remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil and whir again.  It should look something like this:

Think of it as Italian hummus.  I could have processed it longer, but I liked the texture.
To make the asparagus, snap the woody ends off and place the stalks on a baking sheet.  Drizzle the asparagus with olive oil until lightly coated, and sprinkle with sea salt.  Roast the stalks in the oven for 8-10 minutes, removing when the stalks get lightly charred and are fork-tender.  Keep an eye on them, because you don't want the stalks to get overcooked.

Finally, combine the toasted walnuts, a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt in a small bowl and toss to coat the walnuts.

To assemble the platter--and you do want this on a platter because it looks spectacular--spread the crema first, then top with the asparagus.  Arrange the asparagus on the platter, and sprinkle the walnuts over--you will have extra if you are using only one bunch of asparagus, but they keep, too.  Shave a little parmesan or pecorino over the platter.

Serves 4 as a side dish.

Wine pairing:  Asparagus is notoriously not wine-friendly, but the roasting mellows it.  Dry riesling would work, as well as very light reds.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I Remember: Ten Years Later

Alaska sometimes seems like it's at the end of the world.  We are 3,370 miles from New York City.

I wasn't in Alaska, but on a flight to New York City to visit my best friend from college.

Flights from Alaska to the east coast tend to leave at weird times, usually late at night or in the small hours of the morning.  We all have stories about September 11, what we heard when, wondering if our loved ones were all right, crying for the inhumanity of the situation.  My story isn't special or tragic;  although I can't find a figure on it, I imagine there were millions of travelers stranded.  Here is what I remember:

I remember arriving in Seattle in the middle of the night.

I remember boarding the next flight just before 6 a.m.  and talking to the couple next to me, whose daughter was a set designer for Hudson Scenic in NYC.  I was studying lines for the play "Six Degrees of Separation."

I remember that the plane sat on the ground for a long time, for reasons that weren't clear. 
I remember that after sitting on the plane for 45 minutes, the crew told us that the flight had been cancelled, and that we needed to return to the terminal and pick up our tickets.

I remember that when we went into the terminal, the television monitors were off.  We all stood in line to pick up our tickets and someone received word on their cell phone that there had been a terrorist attack in New York.  I'm not sure how many of us believed it.

I remember going to a rebooking phone and asking if I could still make it to New York, and being scheduled on a flight the next day.  It was an insane thought, but I remember wanting to know if my friend was all right.  It didn't occur to me that the airports would be closed for days.

I remember someone announcing on the intercom that the airport would close in an hour.  The airport, which had been full of people, started to empty out.  It became a race to find a hotel room, because there were thousands of people stranded in Seattle.

I remember downtown Seattle shutting down in the middle of the afternoon because there were concerns that there would be an attack on the Space Needle.

I remember not knowing what to do with myself.  I couldn't concentrate long enough to read, and I didn't have the appetite to explore restaurants.  I walked around Seattle for hours, saw movies in which I otherwise would have had no interest and tried not to sit in my hotel room and cry. 

I remember trying to call my friend dozens of times that day and the next.  I gave my father her phone number so he could try her too, so one of us could reach her.  In the end, he was able to talk to her first.  She had seen the first plane hit.

I remember that flights would be scheduled and then cancelled, and it wasn't clear where I was going, or when.  By Wednesday afternoon I stopped trying to rebook for New York and started trying to get home.

I remember the people of Seattle being unfailingly kind, particularly the people who worked at the hotel. 

I remember standing in a two-hour long security line on Saturday morning, when I finally flew back to Anchorage.  No one complained.

When I rescheduled my trip and went the following spring, I remembered why it was one of my favorite places in the world.

Today we mourn the violence of September 11, 2001.  We mourn the 3,000 lives that were lost and the violence that man does against man.  We mourn the innocence that we had when we didn't contemplate such an act of international terrorism on American soil. 

New York City celebrates some of my favorite things, theatre and art and food.  It is strong enough to have survived the events of that terrible day.  Today, despite our collective sadness, I lift a glass and remember the resilience of the city of New York, and its people. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

On My Bookshelf: Michael Ruhlman and Kathleen Flinn

Hello, my name is Krista and I am a reader.

Can I get a collective "Hello, Krista"?

Thank you.  I have been doing a profane act over the last month, cleaning my cookbook shelves.  I have a handful of cookbooks I use all the time, a handful that are mostly aspirational (I'm looking at YOU, Thomas Keller.  No, not you, Ina Garten.  We're still good.  Kisses.) and some that see an occasional use.  In order to make space for newer, shinier cookbooks, I've been culling a few from the shelves.

No, the Keller cookbooks aren't going anywhere.  I still need cookbooks with pretty pictures and things I'm incapable of making.
I also have a shelf of food literature, because sometimes it's as much fun to read about food as it is to actually cook.  I mean, you can read about food at the gym or on a plane, but not so much actually cook in those places.

Cleaning and culling prompted me to re-read a couple of food literature books that are worth recommending to other foodies, Kathleen Flinn's The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry and Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef.  These books make me want to go back to Paris, go to a top-tier cooking school and never become a professional chef.  Simultaneously.

Flinn's book chronicles a year in which she is downsized from her job in London, decides not to return to her native Seattle, moves to Paris to attend Le Cordon Bleu and gets married.  Although the book was published in 2007 before the financial downturn, it rings especially true in these uncertain economic times.  What would you do if you lost your job and could do the thing that most interested you?  In her case, she is reminded by her new beau that she said she always wanted to attend Le Cordon Bleu.  She packed her bags, moved to Paris with a semester of college French and took all three parts of the school's fundamentals course.  Flinn chronicles the extreme difficulty of the coursework, her relationships with her fellow students from far-flung lands and her struggles with the language with humor and the occasional recipe.  It's a fast, fun read.

Ruhlman's book is divided into three parts, the first of which covers the Certified Master Chef examination at the Culinary Institute of America.  The second covers a chef from Ruhlman's hometown of Cleveland, Michael Symon, as he starts his restaurant Lola.  The final section covers the rise of Thomas Keller from teenager to the owner of the famed French Laundry (the book was published well before he opened his subsequent restaurants). 

Full disclosure:  I've eaten at French Laundry and while I appreciate what Keller does, it's not my favorite kind of dining experience--too fussy, and David and I felt like we had to be on our best behavior.  The dining room had a hushed atmosphere that wasn't conducive to relaxing and enjoying the food.  It just didn't feel fun, plus the tasting menu was too much food even for David, and that's saying something.  Ruhlman is downright reverential about Keller, and while I enjoyed knowing how Keller came to be one of this country's most famous chefs, I didn't feel like it merited a hundred pages.

The Michael Symon section is more interesting, if for no other reason as an example of a kitchen that is run more casually than Keller's.  What I take from this section is how hard it is to open a restaurant, please the public AND the critics and produce food that is consistently true to the chef's vision.

But the first section is easily the best.  Seven established chefs spend ten days at the CIA's Hyde Park campus taking cooking tests on specific skill sets from classical French to nutritional to Asian cuisine.  This includes multiple days where they show up, receive a basket of food and have to design and prepare a menu from it within four to five hours.  This section is intense, a real knuckle-biter:  cooking as a high-wire act, or a suspense story.  I've read this book before, but when I reread this section I literally couldn't put it down.  Several of the chefs don't make it through the entire process, but the ones that remain at the end are distinct characters.  I won't spoil the story--you'll find yourself rooting for them.

I'm always looking for more food literature--if you have suggestions, sound off in the comments section.

Not a great photo of my kitchen, and a whole section of wine and cheese books is hiding behind the dining room table.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

To Pork or Not to Pork: That Is the Question

Once again, that sounds dirty.

But really, it refers to my conundrum:  if I am going to cook through Italian cookbooks, to really learn Italian food, what is a semi-religious Jew to do?

I am a reform Jew, and a twice-a-year Jew at that:  the high holidays and Passover, although I would say that being Jewish, the ethics of being Jewish, inform my daily life.

You see the problem here:  Italian cooking inherently involves a lot of pork.

I admit, I cheat:  a little salumi here and there, but that's about it.  On Sunday, I found myself staring at the extensive pork section of A16:  what is a Jew to do?

I'm deferring that answer for another day and substituting chicken.  Fortunately, it turned out delectably, tender and toothsome with a salty-sweet relish.  To die, I tell you.

This recipe is perfect for either a weeknight dinner or, if you're feeling like you want to impress people, an appetizer for a dinner party. 

I'm deferring the inherent conflict for another day.  In the interim, this recipe is brilliant.

Chicken Spiedino with Pine Nut, Garlic and Currant Soffritto
Adapted from A16 Food + Wine

2 pounds skinless chicken thighs, cut into even chunks
Kosher salt
1/2 cup dried currants
3/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2/3 cup roughly chopped garlic cloves
2 ounces arugula
Wooden skewers

After cutting the chicken thighs into chunks, toss with aproximately 1 tablespoon salt.  Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Put the currants in a small bowl and cover with warm water to rehydrate, for at least 20 minutes.

While the currants are hydrating, put the pine nuts and all but a tablespoon of the olive oil in a small pan over low heat.  Warm to a low simmer, stirring often--this will want to stick--for about 6-7 minutes, or until the pine nuts start to brown.

Add the garlic and simmer for about 8 minutes, until the garlic turns golden.  This mixture takes some careful watching and stirring, as you don't want to scorch the garlic.

When the garlic is golden, drain the currants and add them to the pan.  Remove the pot from the heat and cool on the counter.  The soffritto can be made ahead of time.

When you are ready to cook the chicken, remove it from the refrigerator and let stand for 30 minutes.    Toss the chunks with the reserved tablespoon of olive oil.  Soak approximately 10 wooden skewers in warm water while the chicken is coming to room temperature.  20 minutes out from cooking, start a hot charcoal grill--stack all the coals on one side, so you have both direct and indirect heat.

String the chicken chunks onto the skewers, with no more than five chunks per skewer.  When the fire is ready, put the skewers on the direct-heat side of the grill for approximately a minute, until they become less pink and have grill marks.  Then transfer the skewers to the other side of the grill and cook until fully cooked, approximately 10 minutes.

In the interim, arrange a platter with a bed of the arugula.  When the chicken is done, place the skewers on the platter and drizzle with the sauce.  You will have plenty of extra sauce;  save it for future dishes, including the panino that I will share later this week.

Serves 4 as a main course;  6 as an appetizer.