Friday, June 26, 2009

pasta with stinging nettles and ramps pesto

pasta with ramps and stinging nettles pesto

It should by now not strike me as unusual that things we barely paid attention to in Russia are considered a delicacy in America. Sorrel leaves were the cheapest greens at the market. Chanterelles were considered pedestrian, no matter how delicious. Gooseberries were easily the cheapest berries you could find – and in the US they’re quite a treat. And then of course there were stinging nettles. They grew everywhere, much like weeds. Around apartment buildings, in ravines, in nearby fields. In fact, as a child, I was often covered in an itchy rash from stinging nettles. From time to time, my grandmother would go out and with a towel, pick a bunch of nettles and make them into a soup. In fact, stinging nettles was something you ate to pinch pennies, it was one of those things – delicious, yet somehow indicative of poverty. I didn’t really think about it much while I was young, but I remembered stinging nettles after we arrived to the US and couldn’t find any in the store or at farmers’ markets.

stinging nettles ramps

I suppose stinging nettles have become somewhat en vogue recently because I’ve been seeing them on menus and at green markets everywhere. Maybe it’s always been so and I haven’t been noticing, but it seems to me like suddenly, stinging nettles went from being the girl no one wanted to take to the dance to the girl pronounced them homecoming queen. Humble, unapproachable, homely stinging nettles – suddenly glamorous!

pasta with ramps and stinging nettles pesto pasta with ramps and stinging nettles pesto

I would have shared this dish with you sooner, but I thought the stinging nettles season was over and so this dish was going to go into my computer’s oubliette for a few seasons. But I heard through the bloggy-grapevine that stinging nettles were still abundant at least in Union Square market and so wanted to share this recipe with you as soon as possible.

pasta with ramps and stinging nettles pesto

I had a version of this dish at one of my favorite restaurants, Hundred Acres, on the first night of Passover of all nights. And guess what – it was in a pasta dish (I can see my parents shuddering as they read this bit) as pasta is probably the most anti-Passover food out there. But I was sad that night, because I couldn’t go home for the holiday, meanwhile my dad was sick, my grandmother – deteriorating. And here I was, feeling mopey on the eve of a family holiday, without family in the city to celebrate. Friends who know me well know that I rarely feel homesick, but on that night, I felt very lonely in a city where I feel very much at home. And to cheer myself up, I decided to take myself out to a nice dinner. I just happened to be walking past Hundred Acres – clearly I was meant to dine there that night.

ramps and stinging nettles pesto

Its simplicity and comfort of this pasta dish struck me as exactly what I needed that night. Even though it was as far away from a Passover-appropriate meal, I didn’t care. Passover is a tale of exodus, and a people’s search for home. And I, quite desperately, needed to feel a sense of home that night, at whatever cost. I wanted simple, hearty, homey – and this pasta offered it all. Not to mention as soon as I saw stinging nettles, my decision was even easier.

pasta with ramps and stinging nettles pesto

The next opportunity I had, I bought stinging nettles at Union Square market and tried to recreate this simple, yet amazing dish at home. And wanted to share it with you. Because to me, this pasta brought a little piece of home, in so many ways: the comfort and weight of fresh semolina pasta, the childhood stinging nettles, fragrant coating of olive oil, a sharp bite of grana padano. What I realized that night is that a delicacy need not be a fancy thing – it is the thing that makes you feel indulgent and wrapped in comfort, be it a common food or a fancy one.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

bourbon banana bread with maple sugar

boozy maple sugar banana bread

Ok, so I felt kind of bad on Thursday throwing a salad your way as we were about get served with some serious rain, and by we, I mean those of us in New York and whoever else is dealing with less than June-like weather. A few of you wrote comments about bad weather elsewhere and my sunny thoughts go out to you. For the last few days I felt like I threw something totally ill-timed your way. Suggesting something you clearly cannot enjoy right away, it really isn’t fair, now is it?

Since we’re on the subject of not fair, what also isn’t fair is that for my birthday, which was nearly two months ago, I bought a stunning dress. A dress that made me look past the ridiculous price tag as it whispered sweet nothings into my ear. Oh it was something all right – pretty in an effortless sort of way, which is, as you know, the best kind out there. It was white with beautiful light and dark blue stripes. And I couldn’t wait to wear it. But some sad family news spoiled my party mood so I canceled it, and then, coupled with my grandmother’s passing and now the stress fractures from running, the dress’ outing has been delayed indefinitely (much like my posting of certain recipes!) and now the dress hangs wistfully in my closet awaiting the day when I wear something other than running shoes on my feet. Because you know, party dresses and running shoes are so hot right now.

the culpritsoooh the batter

So, I am posting something I should have posted over a month ago, but as things go around here, I’m very easily distracted. I see a shiny new recipe and whoosh – there goes my attention. Which means, that I hide these recipes from you much longer than I need to. And so I’m sorry, I’m trying to change my ways and do better. And I’m trying to turn our unfair rainy situation around for our own benefit.

I bet there’s not a reader out there who’s not made banana bread. In fact, it’s one of those things that people start out baking. It’s so ubiquitous and sits in every cook’s repertoire, like a little black dress. These quick breads are easy, you need two bowls to mix it and in minutes you have batter. What makes this perfect right about now is that it’s the perfect thing to bake when the weather is not cooperating. In fact, I think it’s the perfect rainy day thing to bake.

Banana bread fills your house with a smell that can only be described as heavenly. I could eat the whole loaf in one sitting, but we’re not going to get into that here. That’s between me and some elastic waist pants. What I want to tell you though is how I managed to make something kind of everyday and pedestrian, albeit comforting, into something rather sophisticated and dare I say, sexy?

mixing the dry ingredientsdelicately mixing

I’ve written about adding bourbon to my banana bread before, so that’s nothing new. And I’ve done the cranberry bit, so that’s old too. But I raised it up a notch this time around using maple sugar in place of regular white sugar, and that my friends, flipped my banana bread-baking world upside down. Because the hints of caramel and that earthy aftertaste you have with maple syrup shows up in this banana bread. I can’t quite sum up what maple sugar does to the banana bread, but trust me – it is good. So good, in fact, that I can’t quite put it into words. I can say this much, while it won’t bring back the sunshine and it won’t make everything better, it might make you appreciate staying in and baking, filling your house with a comforting smell. And afterward, you can sit back on your couch, a cup of tea at your side, a slice of banana bread on your plate while rain pours outside. And you know something crazy – you might not even mind it that much.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

broccoli slaw

broccoli slaw

You know, I’ve a bone to pick with June. A huge, larger-than-life, we’re -no-longer-BFFs, please-take-your-rainy-self-somewhere-else bone. It’s not just the rain. They say April is the cruelest month? I think if Chaucer was witnessing June, 2009, he might reconsider his claim.

You see, on top of this weather, which would be enough to gripe about, I’ve sustained multiple stress fractures on not one, but two of my toes from running. That’s right – I’m an overachiever even when it comes to fractures. And so in the last week and a half, I’ve been limping and ambling and being generally quite annoyed with my left foot. And the bones in it. Hence lots of bones to pick with June. Get it? Bones? Fractures? Anyone? Anyone? [Deafening silence befalls.]

I know, I have a horrible sense of humor.

At least, when it comes to finding a perfect summer slaw, I can nail it. Jokes–not so much. But picnic ideas–I got that covered.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

raspberry buttermilk cake

raspberry buttermilk cake

As much as I enjoy making extravagant three-tiered cakes, despite the fact that they’ve given me some of the most stressful moments of my life, you can’t just up and make a layer cake at the drop of a hat. There’s frosting involved and a crumb coat and the whole general waiting time. With layer cakes, you must plan in advance and particularly if your schedule is as busy as mine is, you’ll have to carefully plan ahead when you will bake the cake, when you will make the frosting, and so on, so that you can run errands in between and not sit in your apartment waiting for the next step. I learned that with my first layer cake – call it a lesson learned.

raspberry buttermilk cakeraspberry buttermilk cake
raspberry buttermilk cakeraspberry buttermilk cake

So even though I don’t have an option of always having cake on hand (this is for my own good as much as being busy at work) I’m also one of those people who enjoys to have something homebaked at the drop of a hat especially when friends drop by unexpectedly. Or on occasions when you’re making a book club dinner during weeknight for a group of young ladies with discriminating palates.

raspberry buttermilk cake

So when life throws you lemons, you make lemonade, naturally. And if life prohibits you from spending your mornings and afternoons fussing over a layer cake complete with piped frosting, there are some simple quick cakes that are well within your reach and can be made in under an hour using a maximum of two bowls. Edna Lewis referred to these cakes as “busy-day cakes”, and while the name suggests just messily throwing ingredients together, there is nothing harried about these cakes at all. In fact, for me, they evoke a kind of Southern tranquility and calm. The kind where you sit in a rocking chair sipping lemonade and eating cake. Easy to make yes, but you’d never think these were sort of thrown together. They’re lovely and delicate and kind of decadent in their own way.

raspberry buttermilk cake

I made this cake for the book club ladies and this is another one that will have to be made again and again. For picnics, and hostess gifts, for potluck suppers, for random last-moment get-togethers. And have I told you how much I love baking with buttermilk? It makes cakes lighter and more delicate. And since I am a fan of adding some tart to my sweet, berries make a great addition. Here I used raspberries, but blueberries or strawberries would have been equally lovely.

raspberry buttermilk cake

Lastly, one of the most winning traits of such cakes, for me personally, is that they’re not overly sweet, and can be eaten either as dessert or as coffee cake the next morning. Their simplicity is the kind of honest, low-maintenance appeal that I love about busy night meals, when you still take the time to cook a proper supper, but manage to strike a balance between homemade and practical. As all of us with office jobs know, cooking on a weeknight can appear to be an insurmountable challenge. And the lovely thing is that – it doesn’t have to be. Here’s proof!

raspberry buttermilk cake

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

winning hearts and minds cake

winning hearts & minds cake

Let me clear here – I have never, not for a minute, in my life, planned any aspect of my future wedding, should I find that perfect guy and tie the knot. I know there are women who’ve been planning that day from the time when they were five and I think that’s lovely and wonderful. It’s just that I never did that. What I did do, as a child, was draw elaborate and to-scale plans of my dream kitchen. But then again, I was always hanging around kitchens, watching my mother and my grandmother cook – trying to get some small job, however, minuscule it was. There was this one time, my mother gave me scraps of dough and I tried to mold a little person out of it with raisins for eyes and a cinnamon mouth. I was doing well, until I decided to put a peppercorn for the nose, and was so insistent upon it that nothing my mother said made a difference. Eating it, of course, was a different matter altogether – and while certainly a curious flavor combination, six year olds rarely appreciate peppercorns in their baked goods.

winning hearts & minds cakewinning hearts & minds cake

In any case, I was never the girl who thought of the dress I’d wear to the wedding, and what the first dance song would be, or whom I’d have in my bridal party. As a child, I simply didn’t care. As an adult, I figured I’ll get to it when I really had to. But what I did think about (ok, so I guess I did think about it, I lied) was what I was going to feed people. And whenI did think about feeding my guests, I thought the most about cake. What kind of cake, what flavor and look. For awhile I wanted a pyramid of Krispy Kreme doughnuts – an idea my mother showed little enthusiasm for. Then there was the obsession with wedding cupcakes. Which I still think is cute. But ultimately, I wanted to feed people cake. Good cake at that.

winning hearts & minds cake

People, I must say that I love cake. Cake is one of those things I just don’t turn down. Ever. I don’t care that refined sugar is bad for me, I’m going to eat cake if it’s put in front of me. And if you give me a cold glass of milk to chase it down, I’m your friend forever. But despite my deep cake love, I sure am picky – I eat most cake and I’m left, well, not totally fulfilled. Either I find there is too much frosting (yes, there is such a thing), or it’s overly sweet, or the cake feels too dense, or that pesky baking soda taste dominates (by far my biggest gripe!). But sometimes, you find a cake that is just right, perfect in fact, and you wind up making it not once but twice in one week.

winning hearts & minds cake

It’s the kind of cake you make to take with you as a hostess gift for your hosts in the North Fork, or the kind of cake you make for a friend who comes over to dinner. The kind of cake, that after you send said friend home to bring a piece to her sister, makes her sister proclaim each time friend returns from my place back, “Well, do you have some cake for me?” The kind of cake that wins, hearts, minds and stomachs.

winning hearts & minds cake

And the kind of cake that makes you decide upon tasting it, that this is the cake you want to serve your guests at your future wedding, the way the original cake creator, Molly, did. All you’ve got to do now, is find the lucky guy – but clearly your biggest dilemmas are already solved. This guy part is just a technicality.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

apricot glazed sriracha ginger chicken

apricot-glazed sriracha chicken

I was going to write about roast chicken. I had it all planned and figured out. I was going to tell you of a glorious weekend on the North Fork, and wine tasting, and meeting Claudia Fleming (swoon). But all this must wait. Because I have to tell you about the chicken I made Monday night for our monthly book club. We ate it up and licked our fingers. Well, I licked my fingers, and I think the other ladies in the book club were better behaved.

It’s not often that I find a recipe I like so much that I am thinking about it non-stop and so much so that I would be willing to serve it to my guests again. I’m quite fanatical about not repeating dishes as I try to always cook something new and different and thus maybe have something new to write about, but in this case, really, this will be made over and over and over again.

apricot-glazed sriracha chickenapricot-glazed sriracha chicken

Particularly for dinner parties and more particularly for those dinner parties hosted on a weeknight, when I have roughly an hour and a half to pull dinner together. Because what comes out of your oven is, well, nothing short of stunning. I would even dare say, celestial. I know, I use superlative language here, but if you know me, and I think by now you do, I’m not prone to descriptions that don’t live up to expectation. I’m all about meeting those expectations, folks.

apricot-glazed sriracha chickenapricot-glazed sriracha chicken

And they will be met. Because a slurry of garlic, ginger, apricot jam, soy sauce and the recently written about Sriracha – does something to the chicken that makes it somewhat irresistible. You know it the second you take it out of the oven and smell it that you will be licking your fingers. And the plate, and whatever is left of the sauce. And when your guests go to get seconds and praise your cooking prowess, you might be tempted to tell you that the whole thing took mere minutes to put together. But you won’t. Because you’ll be too busy licking the sauce off your fingers to talk.

Continue reading apricot glazed sriracha ginger chicken.