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.
In addition to mascarpone sorbet, my gnudi-making debacle, which left me with pounds of semolina flour in my pantry, has led to another pleasant discovery: relatively easy and completely delicious ciabatta-like sandwich rolls.
It turns out that when one cup of the all-purpose flour in the peasant bread dough is replaced with one cup of semolina flour, the loaves transform a bit, becoming at once chewier and lighter in texture and slightly more golden in color.
And when the dough, instead of being shaped into two loaves, is portioned into roll-sized pieces and sprinkled, just like those ever-so-promising gnudi, heavily with semolina flour, and gently stretched into squares or elongated “slippers,” it bakes off into light sandwich rolls, crispy on the exterior and soft on the interior.
But when the unbaked rolls are allowed to be pampered just a bit more by an overnight rest in the fridge, they bake off even more beautifully, becoming even crispier on the exterior, more porous on the interior, feather-light in weight, gorgeously golden in color, and resembling in taste the most delectable ciabatta, so well suited for housing any number of sliced meats and cheeses, fried eggs and bacon, or slices of mozzarella and tomato.
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 Easter Sunday 2003, my sister made Nigella Lawson’s Easter Egg Nest cake, a cake that had been featured in The New York Times the Wednesday prior. Studded with flecked pastel eggs, this cake could only suit my sister better if a flock of Peeps and a colony of white chocolate bunnies were nestled among the eggs.
I’m not sure anyone in the family including my sister has made the cake since, but upon finding an old photo of Lindsey presenting her creation at the dinner table, I felt I had to make it. At the very least, I knew it would look festive on the table, the kids would find it enchanting, and my few guests would welcome a sliver of anything chocolaty.
Last summer, my sister and I escaped to NYC for 36 hours. We packed in a show, some good shopping, and a lot of good eating including breakfast at Eataly and dinner at Momofuku. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this getaway before — sorry, I don’t get out much — but after discovering that Danish pastry dough can be made in the food processor and, as a result, that cheese danishes can be whipped up in just a few hours, I found myself dreaming about other danish-like pastries, croissants in particular, ones brimming with prosciutto à la Eataly specifically.
Now, the breakfast pastries we ate at Eataly were served at room temperature and filled with slices of meat sandwich-style. And while they were delicious, I was craving something more like the pain au jambon I had read about in the Tartine cookbook, in which smoked ham and cheese are rolled and baked with the dough. So, guided by Tartine, I layered thin slices of prosciutto and batons of gruyère over my faux croissant dough, and before too long, a half dozen crackly golden pastries emerged from my oven, cheese oozing from the ridges, salty meat entwined with each flaky layer.
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?
For years, all of my favorite cookbooks have been urging me to seek out salt-packed anchovies, that I won’t be disappointed once I find them, that their superior quality is worth the effort of soaking and filleting them, that once I get my hands on them I will want to sneak them into everything from herb butters to pizza toppings to sauces and salsas.
So when I read once again in my latest cookbook purchase, April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig, about their umami properties, I decided it was time to bite the bullet on a tin. To my computer I marched, to the rescue came Amazon, to my door two days later for a grand total of $24 arrived a kilo of salt-packed Italian anchovies. It may have been the beautiful tin; it may have been the sight of something other than diapers and Desitin; it may have been the snow on the ground; but opening that package felt like Christmas in March.
The arrival of the anchovies coincided with the arrival of my parents, who would take part in the little fishies’ induction to my kitchen whether they knew it or not. Let me explain. My stepfather believes he dislikes anchovies. Because of this, I would have to be strategic, as my mother always is, about preparing them, first with the rinsing and filleting, next when adding them to the bread crumb salsa, their ultimate destination that evening. When Chip escaped for an afternoon walk, my mother, Auntie and I began scrambling. All evidence of anchovies — the tin, the backbones, the scent — had to be removed before Chip returned lest he suspect their presence and in turn ruin his dinner.