On one Mother’s Day many years ago, my sister and I ordered our mother a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Although unoriginal and basically thoughtless, the idea might have been somewhat good had we not used mom’s credit card to pay for the transaction. Oops. Let’s just say once the details of the purchase surfaced, mother was less than pleased.
“Have I taught you nothing?!” she cried. “All I want is a card! All I EVER want is a card! It’s so simple. A handmade card!”
While I likely knew all of that back then, over the years I have learned that I can’t go wrong on gift-giving occasions when I keep in mind the things that truly make our mother happy, namely said handmade card, photos, phone calls, tins of sardines, cold beer, popcorn, Jack Black, tea (preferably PG Tips served in thin-thin porcelain cups), an extra pair of scissors… simple things, really.
During the week of Passover, I received an email from one of the many food websites I subscribe to featuring the most beautiful macaroons I had ever seen. I immediately clicked on the link to read the post, examine the recipe, and check out the comments. But as I scrolled through the oohs and aahs, I came across one comment that made me pause:
“I can’t fathom why you would want sweetened coconut for anything, it’s full of preservatives and has the consistency of wet shredded Styrofoam. There’s sugar in the recipe anyway – do yourself a favor and get unsweetened coconut, it’s already sweet and delicious.”
Upon reading this, my first thought was, “I don’t like your tone Young Lady.” I didn’t — I mean, is it so hard to use our nice voices? My second thought was, “Maybe this rascal is on to something?” I have always used sweetened shredded coconut in my granola recipe, which I love, and which I haven’t thought about changing in years. But I decided to do some sleuthing even so. I pulled a bag of sweetened shredded coconut from my pantry and read the ingredient list: desiccated coconut, sugar, water, propylene glycol, salt, sodium metabisulfite (to retain color).
I googled propylene glycol to discover it is a “synthetic liquid substance that absorbs water and is used by the chemical, food, and pharmaceutical industries as an antifreeze when leakage might lead to contact with food.” Furthermore, “the Food and Drug Administration has classified propylene glycol as an additive that is ‘generally recognized as safe’ for use in food.”
Hmmm. Generally recognized as safe for use in food. I hate to be an alarmist, and perhaps the amount of propylene glycol in sweetened shredded coconut is negligible, but this phrase got me thinking. For the odd macaroon or slice of quick bread, perhaps propylene glycol is not worth losing any sleep over. But for the bowl of granola consumed nearly every morning? A substitute was worth looking into. I mean, there wasn’t even that somewhat reassuring clause — “contains 2% or less of …” — printed before the ingredient in question. And even so, I don’t want to consume anything — ever — that is only “generally recognized as safe” no matter how small the amount.
My pantry is cluttered with odd ingredients, a reflection of impulse purchases made after seeing recipes for “ultimately authentic” dishes I feel I have to make immediately. As I often don’t make these dishes immediately, I end up collecting tubs of tamarind concentrate and palm sugar (purchased for pad thai) and shrimp paste (for satay sauce) and fermented black beans (for mapo tofu).
Often these ingredients sit untouched for months (years), or they get dipped into, stashed in the fridge, forgotten, and ultimately unnecessarily re-purchased when I see that next completely authentic recipe I have to make immediately. It’s a vicious cycle.
A few unseasonably hot days last week had me craving chilled soba noodles with dashi, a favorite summer meal I first tried at Morimoto, where they make it with green tea soba noodles — SO good. After scouring my pantry and finding myself making the usual note to self — purchase bonito flakes and kombu promptly — I paused. Certainly I could make something that could satisfy this same chilled soba craving without going down my usual pantry-cluttering path.
Last week, a series of brilliant ideas led to a series of kitchen mishaps. Not only did I waste some food along the way, I also unjustly (perhaps) lashed out at my three-year old. For this, I feel it my duty to warn you about what could happen should these same brilliant ideas enter your brain, too.
So, upon deciding that it’s finally time to try your hand at making ricotta gnudi, you might decide you want to make the ricotta from scratch, because you can’t help but think homemade gnudi would be all the more delectable if you were to start with homemade ricotta.
You might even decide, once you make your ricotta, to save that whey — waste not want not! — and to make a couple of loaves of homemade bread with it, because you know that making bread is no big deal, it is adored by all, and it is so nice to have on hand.
In the meantime, you might breeze through the gnudi-assembly process pleasantly surprised to discover there’s not much to it — a little mixing, piping, snipping, and flour dusting. You might even photograph the process and with each snap of the shutter get a little more excited to share this project with a few of your friends. But you know, too, you must be patient, because gnudi require some pampering: three-days in the fridge with a quick flip every day to make sure they are nicely coated in that semolina flour.
A few weeks ago I discovered that for all the years I have been cooking quinoa I have been doing it wrong. The quinoa I have made, as a result, while edible and receptive to countless seasonings and additions, has never kept my attention for very long — after the odd week-long-quinoa binge, I’d forget about it for months.
But after posting the radish entry a few weeks ago, I received a comment from a dear old friend who managed several of the Philadelphia farmers’ markets while I lived there. Joanna pointed me to a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe for a quinoa salad with radishes, fava beans, avocado and a lemon vinaigrette she had recently made for some friends to rave reviews.
A quick google search led me to the recipe. While the ingredient list had me foaming at the mouth, it was the first few lines of the instructions that really struck me: Place the quinoa in a saucepan filled with plenty of boiling water and simmer for 9 minutes. Drain in a fine sieve, rinse under cold water and leave to dry.
PLENTY of boiling water. Simmer for NINE minutes. RINSE under cold water. Is this news to you, too? Why has every package of quinoa instructed me to cook it as if it were rice — 1 part grain to 2 parts water — in a covered pot? And to cook it for at least 15 minutes but often for as long as 20? And after the cooking process, to let it rest off the heat under its steaming lid for an additional 5 to 10 minutes?
On Wednesday we welcomed spring, the arrival of a new season’s CSA, and the first of many many many many many radishes. Can you sense my enthusiasm?
Look, I love radishes — honest, I do — and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I do have mixed feelings about the quantity I consume as a CSA subscriber. I’ve mentioned this before, so I won’t dwell, but I just find it challenging to work radishes into meals in substantial ways, in ways that make me feel I am getting more than just a yummy snack. Yes, I love eating radishes on buttered bread or simply halved and dipped in salt. Served with some canned fish and a few cheeses, I can call these preparations dinner and feel the radishes have played a significant role in the meal.
But wouldn’t it be nice if radishes could pull a little more weight at the dinner hour? As I was unloading my CSA last week, I remembered a salad — an edamame and radish salad — we used to make at Fork for Fork:etc, (the prepared food, sandwich, salad, on-the-go part of the restaurant). During the lunch hour, this salad flew out of the case. High in protein, light, colorful, satisfying — what’s not to love?
I consumed more breakfast burritos and fish tacos in my first month in California than in the remaining three years combined that I would live there. It just seemed impossible not to wake up every morning, pick up breakfast to-go and find a spot on the beach to enjoy it. Once I accepted that these little shacks weren’t going anywhere, I started exploring other spots in town and came to love one bistro in particular, Cafe Mimosa, which served the most delicious leek and goat cheese omelet.
Fernand came to the café where I waitressed in sunny CA every Sunday afternoon for the same meal: an omelet, a baguette, and a side of Dijon mustard. He ate his omelet methodically, spreading mustard over each slice of bread first, spooning bits of his creamy eggs overtop next. A mustard-slicked slice of bread accompanied every bite of omelet.
I always thought this mustard routine was a little odd. Slatherings of butter, cheese, and jam made sense to me. Mustard felt foreign. But when I read the description in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook of Madeleine’s omelet, and more specifically of the croutons that lace that omelet, I wondered if Fernand, or the French, were on to something.
Before we get to the croutons, a little background might be helpful: Madeleine is the sister of Jean and Pierre Troisgros, the brothers who ran the restaurant Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne, where Judy Rogers spent a year as a young teenager watching, tasting and recording everything that she could. During this year, too, at least twice a week, Rogers would escape to Madeleine’s home kitchen and delight in dinners of scrambled eggs filled with nutty hard cheeses and croutons or with lightly browned potatoes and bacon.
Given the generous amount of Dijon mustard and mustard seeds that dress Madeleine’s croutons, I suspect Fernand would approve of them wholeheartedly. And finding them in an omelet might just send him over the moon. Golden on the outside, chewy on the inside, mustardy throughout, these croutons are irresistible. And while they certainly are not as hard core as straight up mustard bruschetta, I should have known better than to question the eating habits of a French wine purveyor from Burgundy.
I have a confession. By the time Valentine’s Day rolled around, we had eaten the steaks, devoured the torte and made soup out of the turnips. And then, as it turned out, Ben couldn’t even be home for Valentine’s Day dinner, so we postponed the romantic occasion till the weekend, when my mother would be in town, too, and we could all cozy around the table together and enjoy a meze-style dinner with what remained of the planned Valentine’s Day menu as well as one more addition: a braised radicchio and gorgonzola tartine, another Nancy Silverton creation.
Since discovering the hard-boiled egg toasts with bagna cauda in the Nancy Silverton Sandwich Book, I’ve had my eye on a tartine topped with gorgonzola, radicchio, honey and walnuts, a series of ingredients I have seen in combination before but never with quite so much flair. When made in its entirety, slices of grilled bread are topped with sweet gorgonzola dolce and a drizzling of honey, both of which serve to offset the bitterness of the radicchio braised with balsamic vinegar and rosemary. Spicy candied walnuts provide additional sweetness as well as crunch, a nice contrast to the creaminess of the other ingredients. A few of these components never in fact made it to our table, but even in a simpler incarnation — braised radicchio topped with gorgonzola — the sweetness of the cheese alone was enough to counter the bitterness of the radicchio, and the combination was just so lovely. It was this dish that the three of just couldn’t get enough of during our romantic evening together.