"No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize." - Julia Child

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The lowly sprout, elevated to the greatest heights

Brussels sprouts! They're like tiny cabbages! They're like little gems of goodness! They are underappreciated and sometimes hated, often wrongfully so, because people cook the living bejeesus out of them and they end up tasting sulfurically of dirty socks!

I personally LOVE Brussels sprouts, and am fortunate to have a partner who also loves them, but I was woefully underfed them growing up, mostly because my nutty father likes to have everything cooked to within a mushy inch of its LIFE. (Either that, or he likes it raw. Raw or mushified--for him there's no in-between.) Anyway, I fully embrace sprouts and love to cook them. I've learned that the proper way to cook them is to take care not to OVER-cook them. As long as you keep an eye on them and remove them from whatever heat source you've got them over or in just after they become fork-tender with a nice bit of give, you won't have mushy, smelly, travesty-of-a-sprout sprouts.

A few years ago, my friend Frank made some sprouts with bacon (NUM) and apple cider vinegar. OMG HEAVEN. It was the perfect combo. So recently, when we had some sprouts, leftover bacon from a soup we'd made, and some spiced apple cider, I decided to try for my own version of Frank's magnificent dish.

Take about a pound of sprouts, clean them, remove the stems, and halve them if you wish. I like cutting them in half lengthwise because I feel like they cook faster and you can thus remove them from the heat more quickly. This also makes them easier to eat.

Put two or three thin-sliced strips of bacon in a pan and fry them up over medium heat until they're nice and crisp. Remove them from the pan and drain on a paper-toweled plate. Leave the lovely bacon fat in the pan and leave the heat on. Immediately dump in the sprouts and stir frequently, allowing them to quickly fry and heat up. Then add some apple cider to the pan and a few splashes of red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar and stir. The amount of cider you add is up to you, but I probably put in about 3/4 of a cup and just a splash of vinegar. Lower the heat and cover. Allow the sprouts to braise for a few minutes. I think I left mine in there for 7 or 8 minutes. Check the state of the sprouts with a fork and remove them when they're at your desired balance of tender and firm.

Remove the sprouts from the pan with a spoon--I stashed them in a small covered Corningware dish. Then add a bit more apple cider and another dash of vinegar to what's left in the pan and continue to cook on low, deglazing the pan. Scrape up all the lovely bits of fat that are stuck to the bottom of the pan. I cooked the liquid down until it was about half the amount it originally was, so it was slightly thickened, then I spooned it over the sprouts. I crumbled the bacon on top.

PERFECTION. DELICIOUSNESS. OMG-NESS. It was so good! The sweetness of the cider, the gentle tang of the vinegar cutting through the appleyness, the crisp bacon, the perfectly cooked sprouts. It was a good time. Of course, you can veg this one up by using butter or olive oil instead of bacon fat, but if you eat meat, trust me: Brussels sprouts and bacon are one of those deliciously satisfying combinations you don't want to miss.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A birthday cake fit for a queen

Saturday was my birthday! Not only my birthday, but my partner Jeremy's birthday as well. Yes, we share a birthday--November 21. I absolutely love the fact that we share the day together. To commemorate that fact, I decided that we deserved a cake. Not just any cake: Julia Child's Queen of Sheba cake (the first recipe I've made from MTAFC). It's made with semi-sweet chocolate melted with rum and also contains pulverized almonds. It's very rich and dense, and because you slightly underbake it, it maintains a soft moist quality that is a sheer delight. The whole thing is frosted with a delicious chocolate-rum-butter concoction. You can then press a pattern of blanched almonds into it, which I did with some of the blanched slivered almonds we used to get the pulverized quantity that goes into the cake. Here's what mine looked like:

We finally had some yesterday (Saturday night was devoted to going out to dinner and a bar with friends), and oh my goodness. This cake... this cake is amazing. AMAZING. It is so decadent, not overly sweet, chocolately scrumptious and just positively a delight in every way. The combination of ingredients that goes into it is perfect. I don't tend to like many French desserts because they are custardy or gelatinous, but this! This was perfection. This made me take back every evil thought I've ever happened to have in my head about the French. This, my friends, was probably the best cake I've had. And I'm not just saying that because I made it myself. I really do mean it.

I do believe I will be making this cake for Christmas Eve dinner, as it seems like the perfect seasonal dessert. And I do believe my family might pass out with joy when they eat it. And I will be happy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Just TEA-sing

[Note: this article is best read with the use of a monocle, a lacy hankie, a top hat, and a silly accent. Don't forget to stick out your pinkie.)

Oh tea... how I love thee. I have loved tea for a long time, ever since I was a kid and my mom and I would have it together in the afternoon, and I especially love having some on cold fall and winter afternoons and evenings. I love iced tea too. I'll drink any kind of tea (except rooibos, I find it too woody-tasting), especially green and white teas, and I also like nice herbal teas (these usually don't contain any actual tea leaves and are thus caffeine-free). Drinking chamomile has always helped when I have stomach aches, and hot lemon or licorice tea with honey is nice when you have a sore throat.

Although I usually find that loose-leaf teas are far superior in taste and quality (Adagio is my favorite loose-leaf tea company--they have a pina colada herbal that I adore and I got the cutest tea ware from them), there are some bagged teas that I really like and that are good quality as well. Stash, Tazo, and Trader Joe's all make nice bagged teas (Lipton is TERRIBLE), and Tetley and Bigelow are all right, but I've always loved Celestial Seasonings when it comes to fruity herbals. They have a scrumptious vanilla honey chamomile that I highly recommend. And their packaging is out of this world! I love the fun illustrations on their boxes and they usually print literary/inspirational quotes and fun facts on the boxes too. So imagine my delight when I read this interview with their blendmaster. How much fun would THAT job be, creating new blends of flavored teas? I'm intrigued by this Pelican Punch that is referenced throughout the article and comments section. I don't recall having it when I was a kid but how could something called that NOT be delicious? I also want to try some of this Candy Cane tea they're talking about. I like peppermint tea when it's not super minty, if that makes sense--I like a fresh, mild, almost sweet minty taste, not overpowering, clear-your-sinuses mint.

I'm sad because I currently don't have a tea kettle at home (my last two succumbed to rust, ugh), and you really can't get a good cup of tea without brewing water for it in a kettle, but I've asked for a new, rustproof model for my birthday so I should be enjoying tea again within a week. :) 

What kind of tea do people like most? How do you take your tea? I prefer not to add sugar to any of my tea--lemon or honey are it for me. What are some other recommended flavors? I also like the pomegranate white tea at Trader Joe's, and their Bedtime blend, which is almost identical to the Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea, is delicious too. I also like the CS Tension Tamer Tea.

Leggo-ing of your Eggo

Apparently there is an Eggo Waffle shortage.

Yes, there is a limited supply of Eggo Waffles and will be until the middle of next year.

The thing is: why do people care THAT much? Why does it matter that there is a shortage of a random breakfast food like Eggos? It's sort of funny to read some of the quotes by people in this article talking about rationing their supply or putting them on E-bay. What's wrong with you people? Get some oatmeal! Buy a different brand of frozen waffles! Or (gasp!) make your own waffles! It's NOT difficult, and basic waffle irons are affordable.

I just find it ridiculous that people are worked up over a food that's not an essential or a dietary staple, like milk, vegetables, or whole grain. It's not even that healthy for you! Maybe these people should switch to oatmeal, fruit, or eggs (not Eggos) for breakfast. Yes, I understand that it can be upsetting not to have a certain comfort food available, but frozen waffles, to me, seem like they should be treated more as a luxury than an essential.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How is Thanksgiving just around the corner? 101 recipes

He's done it again! My boyfriend Mark Bittman has done it again.

As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches, The Minimalist extraordinaire whips up 101 Thanksgiving dishes. I must say that some of these look positively delicious! I love his idea of making a cranberry relish with pomegranate seeds. What a great idea! I recently made some cranberry-orange relish with some cranberries a colleague shared with us from Cape Cod, but the idea of putting in pomegranate just sounds fab. (Especially since Jeremy is allergic to oranges and can't really eat my succulent creation---it's really good on chicken!)

And as a bonus, here's a green beans amandine recipe by Mollie Katzen. I tried these at a talk she gave recently here at Harvard (more on that another time) and the leek chips are what makes this so lovely. 

This year for Thanksgiving, I'll be celebrating with my beau/sous chef Jeremy and his parents at their house. His mom is a great cook, and one of my favorite things about the meal is the escarole soup, which is literally broth with escarole. But it's so DELICIOUS. I'll be bringing the same dish I made last year, roasted acorn squash with sausage stuffing. It's insanely good, and it looks really impressive! I'll try to remember to take pictures of them this year to post on here.

What do y'all do for Thanksgiving? Any traditional and delicious foods that you simply cannot be without for the holidays?

Top Chef, season 6, episode 12


I didn't make that up (and I'm not going to admit whether or not I wish I had). It was on the Bravo website this morning.

Oh Eli. Winner of the Quickfire. Loser of the elimination. I have to say, Bravo is clever, because they were really setting up that judges' table to make it seem like it was going to be Michael who went home (at least that's how it sounded to me), but really, overly fatty sausage IS an unforgiveable sin, in my book.

And yay for my BFF, chubby nerd Kevin! Although apparently the Voltaggio brothers don't think he deserves to be as showered with accolades as he is. ALTHOUGH I thought Bryan was far more diplomatic in expressing his feelings about Kevin than Michael. Bryan just seems like a calm, gentle soul, very thoughtful, solid, and deliberate. I felt bad that he ran out of time and was scrambling with his dish last night, because if not, he probably would have won. I'm getting tired of Michael, because he cops such a major attitude. There's something inherently haughty about him, and that bothers me, because the other cheftestants he's with right now are a pretty decent, modest bunch. I thought it was telling that Bryan pointed out that he wouldn't know if Michael would have given Kevin guidance on how to cook his lamb.

And yes, perhaps Kevin's meal was simpler than it should have been for such an intricate competition, but as the judges pointed out, it was the tastiest and most perfectly exceuted in terms of cooking, so good for Kevin.

I did like Eli, but I thought he was starting to be just slightly out of his element among the Voltaggios, Jennifer, and Kevin. Like he seemed a bit young and unformed still. Like he is getting close to blossoming to his full potential, but he's not completely there. Although the egg he made looked completely delicious and like something I'd LOVE to eat. Mmm. Eggs. Wrapped in bacon.

So here's to Eli, chubby nerd number 2: I hope you continue to do awesome things, I hope you never make a soup of apples and peanuts with popcorn crumbs again, I hope you and Robin don't cross paths again, because it won't be pretty, and I hope that you and I and your glorious Scotch egg can meet someday, because then my tummy would be very happy.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Top Chef, season 6, episode 11

Like whoa. It was about time that Robin disappear from Top Chef. Seriously! She's been on the chopping block for quite some time and although I wasn't part of the cult of hating Robin, I just didn't think she deserved to be there and she was long overdue for a departure.

But I have to say that I wasn't surprised to see Eli in the bottom three. His dish was 5 kinds of nasty. Peanuts and apples? In a chunky soup? Topped with ground popcorn? And a weird raspberry sauce foam type thing? WTF! How does ANY of that sound good by itself? How does combining any of those things, let alone ALL of them, make sense? YUCK! It honestly sounded too disgusting for words.

So even though I think that Eli's dish was, by far, the most epic fail of the three bottom-tier contestants, I think they were just tired of Robin being there and they sent her home. Yes, her dish was technically not as horrendous as Eli's, but the judges did point out that she fucked up something as simple and basic as a panna cotta--and this IS the umpteenth time she's been in the bottom three.

I just have to pause and point out here that I wouldn't know a good--or bad--panna cotta if it punched me in the face. This is because I tend to avoid all types of gelatinous desserts. I can handle something with the soft and creamy consistency of a pudding or mousse. I can handle something with the harder yet still melty and solidly creamy consistency of hard ice cream. But everything in between--mostly the custard family and the Jell-O family--I just can't handle it. It's something about the texture... it just grosses me out. It's moist and slippery, and you sort of have to chew it just the slightest bit because even though it's soft, it's still sort of... solid. Yugh. And Jell-O is just too disgusting for words. It reminds me of being sick (I had a lot of problems with my stomach as a child, and was even hospitalized for horrible stomach aches and bouts of vomiting that NO ONE, not even the doctors, could figure out). I ate a LOT of Jell-O as a child, and it was gross. That globby, wobbly texture in my mouth; the filmy skin on top; the slightly gritty last spoonful at the bottom of the dish that was sometimes there when the powder didn't dissolve all the way---UGH. All of it brings back horrible memories. So can you blame me if I'm not into custards and such? Which I know means I should be thrown against a wall and pelted with over-ripe fruit, because what good Cubanita doesn't eat flan--but I just can't handle it!

So yes... Robin deserved to go home. Because she just wasn't on the same level as the other chefs, because she didn't know how to make a proper panna cotta, and because she made a panna cotta at all.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"If you're born round, you never die square."

So I don't really understand why Bravo feels the need to toy with my heart so, but there was no new episode of Top Chef last week--instead there was a reunion of "fan favorite" cheftestants from past seasons (including my favorite, Carla--Hootie-Hoo!). They are really stretching this season out. And it annoys me.

Since I don't have any cheftestant fails to talk about now, I figured I'd instead briefly talk about Born Round, Frank Bruni's memoir that I recently read---and loved. Frank Bruni was, until recently, the restaurant critic for the New York Times, and I've always loved his reviews. They're so descriptive and funny. (You can check out an archive of his articles here.)

Fank's memoir was very funny, but also very honest--sometimes painfully so. He was a chubby kid who has struggled with his weight and his relationship with food all his life, from the time he was a two-year-old baby bulimic. (Really. You gotta read it to believe it.) The journey he went on to become a food critic (a position he seriously debated taking because of his food issues) is touching and I could really relate to a lot of the things he said. I've also had a lifelong struggle with food, a love-hate relationship from the time I was a child. I've done fad diets (I, like Frank, tried the Atkins diet), taken pills (sometimes with terrifying, wake-up-at-night-with-chest-pains results), gone on spurts of obsessive exercise only to get bored and give up two weeks later (and did I mention that during a lot of those obsessive exercise periods my appetite increased and I ate more?), and even did Weight Watchers, where I lost over 25 pounds, which I promptly regained when I moved to Boston and got too busy being a grad student to track how many points I was eating a day. I've dealt with years of emotional and mental abuse from a father who cannot tolerate the fact that I weight more than 130 pounds. (A weight that is actually underweight for my height, but this doesn't seem to fase the man.) I have been an emotional eater most of my life. Loneliness and boredom led to sneaking snacks, anxiety and stress led to binging, being reprimanded by my parents growing up to clean my plate created a compulsion for always being in the Clean Plate Club that I am still trying to break. I am still trying to figure out sane eating. I am still trying to figure out eating that doesn't leave me weak and bloated with remorse when I'm done. I am still trying to un-fuck myself up. 

So if you've ever had moments where you lose a staring match against a cookie, Bruni's memoir will make you laugh, perhaps tear up a little (he IS Italian, so there IS that crazy family element, complete with Italian grandma who proves her love for you by stuffing you with food like you're a turkey), and it will definitely give you something to chew on.

Jeremy's Italian grandmother apparently still to this day (she's 92) says, "You don't have to be hungry to eat," proof that food is truly the glue that binds people together in so many cultures. While I appreciate the loving element of that sentiment, it's definitely something I need to learn to make peace with. Reading about Bruni's take with the same problem made me feel a little less alone.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Top Chef, season 6, episode 10

Leeks as scallops? Really? You thought that was a good idea? On what planet does that seem like a good idea?

Oh, a vegetarian challenge! What a joy, what a delight to see the looks on everyone's faces when they realized that they were cooking a meal in a steakhouse and couldn't use any meat. It's about effing time y'all back away from the protein and get your veg on.

The TV dinner quickfire was sort of charming, mostly because I didn't grow up eating TV dinners, so to me they are a quaint, charming concept. Almost exotic. (I now think frozen meals are, as a generalization, evil, due to the inordinately terrifying amount of unpronounceable non-foodstuffs that go into them.) I think I just really like the idea of compartmentalized dishes. I have a couple of compartmentalized dishes at home from Target that I use to put snacks out for parties, and I just love them.

That Kevin. Is there a challenge he WON'T win? Are the other cheftestants sort of sick of him already? I would be, if it weren't for his thoughtful, pleasant nature and the fact that he doesn't seem to have a mean bone in that roly-poly body of his.

There was something about the Natalie Portman challenge that perplexed me though (I was recently talking about it with a friend of mine): were they ONLY allowed to use vegetables? I saw no pastas, rice, or meatless substitutes like tofu or seitan going out on dishes. Give that girl some buckwheat noodles to chaw on, for cod's sake! Maybe they just weren't readily availble in the restaurant, or maybe they weren't allowed to use them, but considering that Michael used polenta (ugh) in his dish, I don't suspect that there were any limitations on adding other non-veg elements to the dish.

(Sorry... I just can't stand polenta. It's the texture. It's grainy and creamy all at once. BLARGH. So sue me.)

Anyway. The leeks looked like a pretty bad idea to me. I'm not sure why Mike thought that he could take a leek and make it mimic a scallop, but whatever. I'm not sure why someone would WANT a leek to mimic a scallop. It got him sent home, and that's enough for me. I was NOT a Mike fan, by any stretch of the imagination (although really, maybe it was time to just get rid of Robin, because how many times has she been in the bottom now?). The weirdest part to me was when Jennifer hugged him after he was eliminated, because I sort of thought that they weren't fans of each other.

Speaking of Jennifer, my goodness, girlfriend needs to pull herself together! She is NOT doing well; the stress seems to be getting to her and it seems like she is falling apart at the seams. I hope she can pull it together, because I think she's talented and cooks good food. 

Also: as a special bonus to all the Carla lovers, HOOTIE HOO! She was, by far, my favorite cheftestant. LOVE HER.