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

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Playing with your food: When sushi met cupcake

Sometimes people like to make food that looks like another food. Some of the fake turkeys that are made of tofu that become available around Thanksgiving come immediately to mind. (Though really, if you've given up eating meat, wouldn't you want to be eating something that DIDN'T look at all like the meat you gave up eating?) Or think of some of the breakfast cereals out there that are supposed to be "fruit flavored" that have neon-colored fruits made of puffed grains or something. Sometimes foods that are made to look like other foods are okay. Sometimes, as in the two examples I just presented, they are terrifying.

But then there are times when they are just downright adorable. Case in point is this site (Glue and Glitter) showcasing cupcakes made to look like sushi rolls.

Oh my goodness! How adorable are THESE? Two of my favorite foods, sushi and cupcakes, coming together! But unlike turkey-shaped, turkey-flavored tofu, these cupcakes taste like cupcakes, not like raw fish wrapped in rice.

I might want to try making something like these sometime. Of course, you could always just make a sheet cake and then cut pieces out of the cake to look like the sushi. I also love the blogger's suggestion to use marzipan in place of fondant, because marzipan is delicious whereas fondant is not.

Playing with your food can really be adorable.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fusion on a saucer

Cupcakes. Bacon. Only french fries. Only grilled cheese sandwiches. Exotically flavored ice cream. Eggs in everything. Offal. Pork belly.  (Pork belly, pork belly, pork belly!) What's next, crispy pig skin? (It should be, it's GOOD.)

Food goes through trends constantly, and I don't necessarily buy into many of them. To me, a good meal with ingredients that are fresh and thoughtfully put together, cooked well and obviously presented with care and pride is better than any deconstructed, foam-embellished, truffle-oiled morsel forced into a metal ring and laid out on a bed of baby greens/grains/flower petals/somethings. I'm not saying all food trends are bad, because many are not (see: cupcakes, eggs, anything pork-related), and as a matter of fact, I am quite fond of many of the foods that become trendy. But when I'm either cooking or seeking out a good restaurant, I don't tend to pay much attention to the trend factor. I just want a place with something delicious that I want to eat.

I recently went with a friend to a restaurant that is newish to my neighborhood. This place does Asian fusion food presented on small plates. The first concept I'm not so into. The second one I love.

I understand that fusion is a way to take familiar cuisines and mix them up with elements from other cuisines in order to make something new. Sometimes it works, with astonishing, surprising, pleasing results. Sometimes it just tries too hard, putting overwrought, overthought, and bizarre combinations on the plate, which makes one wonder: what was so wrong with the way things were that someone was presumptuous enough to believe that they could make it BETTER by completely changing it?

When we ate at this particular restaurant, some of the dishes really shone. They were satisfying, flavorful, and a true success. Tiny fried sweet potatoes? Yes. A pork ragout on a bed of noodles, a perfectly poached egg nestled among them? I could have eaten a second bowl. The pork belly on soft, cloudlike Asian buns? Perfection. Like a bacon cheeseburger slider without the cheeseburger. But the smoked tofu? Mediocre at best, and lacking robust flavor. The crab and jicama salad on a bed of egg custard? Disappointing texture combination, jarring and dissonant flavors. Overall, enough of the meal was good to keep it from being a completely mediocre restaurant experience. But what I really liked was the small plates concept (or Asian-fusion tapas, as I referred to it).

This is one of the reasons I love being Spanish. The cuisine is second to none, and the tapas concept, featuring Spanish food or not, has really caught on in the States. Viva foods on toothpicks! Americans embrace what many other food cultures already know works beautifully: small plates meant to be shared, so everyone can try a variety of foods, rather than eating a massive portion of a single food. It's a fact that after the first few bites of any particular food, our taste buds relax/disengage and the food's taste is just not as intense and satisfying as it was initially. The small plates concept is brilliant because the constantly rotating repertoire of foods keeps the taste buds engaged and primed for action. Small plates encourage eating to become a social event, with everyone getting a taste of each dish. Everyone can try more, and everyone can discuss how something tastes. I find that I much prefer this style of eating, because to me, food is at its best when it is about celebration, socializing, spending time with people we love. And when we graze, eating off these small plates of variety, I feel like we eat less than when we are presented with one huge pile of food at once. Keeping the plates moving keeps the conversation going and the lag between getting each dish allows you to really feel in tune with how your stomach feels physically. Eating more slowly lets you realize when you've had enough. And if you don't like one particular food, you can wait for the next one to come around.

I found that during my meal with my friend, we talked more, spent a lot of time talking about personal things, but also talking about what we eating, saying what we liked and why. So even though everything we ate wasn't fantastic, it was still nice to both be able to try things and talk about why certain things worked more than others. Any time I've ever eaten in a small plates style, or in a way where everything is shared and passed around, I find that I've just enjoyed the meal more. So fusion? I can take it or leave it. But small plates? Keep (many of) them coming.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Recipes that go on your face rather than in it

The recipes I'm linking to might not actually be for anything to eat, but they are all made with edibles. They are DIY natural beauty treatments, like masques, scrubs, and soaks. It's common knowledge that many foods help different parts of our bodies with antioxidants, vitamins, and other healing effects when we eat them, but slathering them on ourselves is apparently another effective use for them.

Recently, I've been moving, slowly but surely, away from beauty and personal care products laden with synthetic and, quite frankly, scary chemicals toward more natural skin care, and many of these products are full of foods (and plants and minerals) with different healing and fortifying properties. Conventional skin care tends to be filled with preservatives that extend shelf life at the cost of pumping a product full of chemicals. These chemicals are absorbed by our skin and thus into our bodies. And while it does seem too soon to tell what sorts of long-term effects these products might have on us, the very fact that they might even HAVE long-term effects on us that are undesirable is enough to make me think twice about using them for the rest of my life. So I'm gradually swapping out my traditional skin care products as I finish each for natural alternatives.

It's nice to know, though, that you can make cost-effective and easy pampering products at home, because skin care can get expensive. I've certainly tried a few of these, like using honey to moisturize or cucumber slices or cold used tea bags on puffy, tired eyes. But I'll probably whip up a few of these concoctions next time I feel dehydrated or in need of a boost. One thing I learned recently is that apparently lemon juice applied to a bug bite as soon as possible after you get it helps soothe the itchiness and irritation. Plus who doesn't love the smell of lemons?

Do you find yourself feeling the same way about skin care products, or does the use of chemicals not bother you? Have you ever tried any home remedies using common kitchen ingredients that you find to be highly effective? Dish!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Less is more: learning a kitchen mantra

One of my favorite food-related phenomena is what I refer to as the Fridge Factor. This is when you're hunting around for something to eat and realize that you just so happen to have everything on hand that you need to create a favorite dish that suits your current mood. It is a happy accident, an aligning of perishables and pantry shelves that points you in the direction of the dish you didn't know you could make but are happy that you can.

This happened to me this weekend. I was in the mood for something fresh and crunchy on Saturday, and when I opened my fridge, figuring I'd make a salad, my eyes fell first on the two-pound container of strawberries I got at Trader Joe's for a bargain price and then on a box of baby arugula, my favorite salad greens. My brain spun a bit, and I remembered that I'd gotten some blue cheese for an endive salad we had earlier in the week. Then it spun some more when I remembered a bottle of vanilla fig balsamic vinegar I found in the Home Goods section of Marshall's (really!).

What a perfect combination: peppery, bitter arugula with sweet strawberries, salty-sour blue cheese, and the tangy sweetness of balsamic vinegar. Four ingredients, a simple combination, but one that made my mouth do a little happy dance.

As I started to slice my strawberries, I began having second thoughts. Perhaps my salad was TOO simple. I did, after all, have some grape tomatoes I could slice up and also add to the salad. No, I told myself, tomatoes will be too much. They will add acid that might not gel with the rest of the salad. Hold off.

But I still felt uneasy. When I went to the pantry, I still found myself in this mentality of more is better. My eyes scanned the shelves. What about some slivered almonds? How about pine nuts? I could add some olive oil.

Trust yourself, woman. Four ingredients is fine, I had to assure myself. Your first thought was your best thought. These four things are all ingredients you adore. Your instinct to put them together was right, but don't make a muddle of things by forcing more guests to the party. More is not always better. Just stick with what you have.

So I did. Arugula, strawberries, blue cheese, vinegar. I assembled the salad slowly, feeling the light, dry arugula leaves give under my hand as I piled them into the bowl, carefully cutting the berries into neat, thin, round slices. I shook out just enough of the gloriously stinky blue cheese that it looked like a snow flurry, not a blizzard, had hit the bowl. I opened the bottle of vinegar and inhaled deeply. It had that lovely, heady balsamic smell to it, with just a hint of dessert to it. I slowly drizzled it over the salad and wiped up a drop from the rim of the bottle with my finger. The vinegar was a rich brown color speckled with fig seeds. The vanilla really mellowed out the vinegar's acidic flavor. It wasn't an overwhelming addition; it just enhanced the vinegar and made it taste a little more special.

I dug in. The salad really did it for me. Everything combined in just the right way to make for a satisfying lunch. The textures, the mixture of salty and sweet and bitter and tangy flavors, combined in a way that was just right. I was so glad that I didn't go overboard and start adding ingredients just for the sake of having more on my plate. This was definitely a case of less is more.

The more I cook and learn about food, the more I realize that less is more is probably the best mantra you can recite in the kitchen. You must trust yourself. When something seems to be at just the right balance of flavors and textures, stop. Don't second guess yourself. Leave it be. Chances are, your first thought was the best thought and was correct. You don't have to add dozens of ingredients to make a wonderful and impressive dish. This is not to say that having many ingredients is a bad thing. It can be essential. I think of something like mole sauce and respect the fact that it takes a lot of ingredients and time and patience to make it perfect. But then I think of something like the humble lentil soup I make from time to time for an easy, filling dinner, and I realize just how important it is to have less rather than more. Onions, carrot, celery, and garlic cooked in some olive oil, with lentils and water, salt and pepper. It is so simple, and yet so amazingly satisfying. Every ingredient gets to be a star in this show.

By honoring technique and treating ingredients kindly, with respect, you will get amazing results no matter how few things go into your pot or bowl. Finding ways to coax pleasing flavor combinations out of seemingly ordinary foods often leads to extraordinary results. Putting browned meat into a pot with wine and a few aromatic vegetables and letting it braise slowly for hours in your oven will give you an amazingly complex, beautifully textured dish, without a long list of exotic ingredients. It is the care and attention you put into your meals that will give you the best results, not bottles of truffle oil and jars of caviar. These things are all well and good, but they are certainly not necessary for you to feel like a queen when you sit down to dinner. Knowing that you created something that will tempt and delight you will give you a satisfaction that no bottle of expensive wine ever could. This is what I learned this weekend when I made my humble yet not-so-humble simple salad of arugula, strawberries, blue cheese, and vinegar.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Easter dish that's perfect for every day of the week

Happy very-belated Easter! And what a beautiful Easter it was here in the Northeast. The temperatures were in the low 70s, there was a lot of sun, and it was breezy. It really was a lovely, pleasant weekend.

Easter has never been a very big deal in my family. We usually gather at my aunt's house for a half-hearted egg hunt in her tiny backyard, chocolate bunnies, and a dinner of meatballs and ham. I think one reason I've never been very keen on Easter is those dreadful spiral-cut hams people have on Easter. A big, pink lump studded with cloves, covered in sweet sauce, and topped with pineapples is not my idea of how to honor a beautiful ham. To me, ham should be salty, because the natural subtle sweetness of the pork will shine through the brine. To cover a ham in sugar AND cloves AND fruit AND syrupy sweet stuff is just a crime. An absolute crime! Putting a bit of sugar on ham is okay by me ONLY if you are also putting savory spices on it, like cumin and paprika, and using the mixture as a nice rub. None of this gooey sweet ham nonsense. Honor your ham and lay off the pineapples! (I despise pineapples, mostly because they make my mouth incredibly itchy, but if they're your thing, go for it. Just don't let me see you putting them on a ham.)

Jeremy and I kept it pretty casual on Easter Sunday, but because I did want to at least do something a bit Eastery, I decided to make penne with asparagus and ham. It includes a lean ham steak, which you cut into tiny bits and add in at the end. This dish is lovely and light, yet lemony and flavorful, and it's also really healthy because it's pretty low in fat. In fact, it's a dish I got from a Weight Watchers cookbook, and Jeremy and I just love it. The best part of this dish is that you can also eat it cold, like a pasta salad, something that came in handy last night when it was freakishly hot (90 degrees!) and we couldn't even muster the energy to heat our leftovers, let alone actually stand in front of the stove to cook anything.

To make this delicious meal vegetarian friendly, swap the chicken stock for vegetable stock and consider adding some tofu stir-fried in a bit of oil and garlic in place of the ham, or else add some nice sliced mushrooms.

Penne with Asparagus and Ham (depending on your portion sizes, this makes about 4-6 servings)

- 2 cups whole wheat penne OR linguini broken into 2-inch pieces
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 1 large tomato, chopped
- 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves
- 1 lb bunch of asparagus, cleaned and cut into 2-inch pieces (snap off and discard woody bottoms of stalks)
- 1 cup reduced sodium chicken broth
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 diced lean ham steak
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 3 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

Prepare pasta according to package directions and drain.

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add tomato and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomato has softened, about 5 minutes. Inhale the delicious aroma of garlic and tomatoes cooking together and wonder to yourself what you did to deserve such a treat.

Add asparagus, broth, and lemon juice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until asparagus is tender, about 3 minutes. Use a fork to poke about at the asparagus and make sure it is to your liking.

Add pasta, ham, and basil and toss to combine. Allow everything to heat for a minute or two and then serve.Top each dish with Parmesan. (You remember my rant about fresh Parmesan, right? And you're not cheating by using that stuff that comes in the green tube that shall remain nameless, correct? Okay, good. Just making sure!)