Sunday, January 31, 2010

wings: honey-mustard wings & teriyaki wings

teriyaki wings

It’s hard to remember where my love for the American football began. It is an improbable love, sandwiched between my Russian heritage and my sports-apathetic family. In Russia, sports fans watched either soccer or hockey. They also read chess-match play-by-play summaries in the paper (yes, chess was considered a sport in Russia – I kid you not). My family, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. If it wasn’t opera or ballet, my father wasn’t paying attention. And if it wasn’t being broiled, fried or braised – my mother instantly would lose interest.

teriyaki marinadehoney mustard

So it begs the question why I’ve become such an avid football fan, replete with an arsenal of game-friendly foods in my repertoire. While I’ve certainly made my efforts to assimilate better, sports fanaticism is a hard one to fake. You actually have to understand what’s going on. And football comes with a lot of rules at its disposal, so it’s not a late-comer friendly game. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Bill Belichick and I share the same high school alma-mater.

Continue reading wings: honey-mustard wings & teriyaki wings.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

indian-spiced rice pudding

arborio rice pudding with Indian spices

I’ve never been much of a fancy girl. Were it up to me, I’d spend my days in jeans and tank tops. Don’t get me wrong, I clean up rather nicely, but I am at my happiest just hanging out. Getting dressed-up never feels natural. Even when I get my hair cut, I hate to have my hair blown-out, choosing instead my unruly mess of frizzy waves. My affinity for the informal is probably why I don’t yet own a single little black dress. Not one. That should soon be rectified: a wedding I’m in this year wants the bridesmaids in LBDs, so I will be shopping for one pretty soon. Anyhow, dresses are dresses and jeans are jeans and I will forever have a love affair with the latter and regard the former with a bit of annoyance. Pizza, beer, jeans, and a tanktop – and I’m one happy camper.

scraping vanilla beansarborio rice pudding with Indian spices

At least I’m consistent. As unfussy as I am about dress code, I like to apply the same to food. Comforting and soothing is something I’ll take any day over fancy and engineered. I’ve deep respect for fine, jacket-and-tie kind of dining, but were it up to me, were I running a restaurant, mine would be focused on soothing souls and nurturing the senses. I’d serve rice pudding for dessert and call it a night.

arborio rice pudding with Indian spices

I think that rice pudding is just about one of the loveliest things there is out there. Like cozy wool socks, or homemade marshmallows. It’s my go-to comfort dessert, and one that I welcome this time of year with open arms. It also makes your house smell deliciously divine: sweet, warm, wintry. I prefer my rice pudding slightly warmed, but a friend of mine recently confessed to having an unhealthy addiction to eating cold rice pudding early in the morning before work. A breakfast pudding, if you will. While she felt pangs of guilt about indulging her rice pudding yen in the morning, to me – nothing sounded better because I was reared in a type of morning rice pudding in Russia. Except in Russia we didn’t call it rice pudding – we called it “risovaya kasha” or kasha made of rice. Kasha, in Russian, denoted a porridge of sorts, usually eaten for breakfast and made with a whole grain. My arch-nemesis was something called “mannaya kasha” – which, I think, in the US is called farina. I still shudder at the thought.

bayleaf

Of course, as a kid I was an impossible-to-please-picky-eater; I gagged on practically everything that was milk-based. Grass-fed cows’ milk, folks. Cows that knew not what hormones or antibiotics were. Cows that spent their days in the pasture, calmly, thoughtfully (I like to think) chewing on grasses and mulling around. And I gagged on such a thing.

I grew up in a household that thought (rightly so!) that milk equaled health; and a healthy child was what the zenith of family goals should be. Thus various milk products were force-fed down my through as if I were a foie gras goose being readied for the plumping. Breakfast was almost always a hot grain cereal: sometimes buckwheat, sometimes cream of wheat, sometimes the overcooked, glue-like oatmeal my grandmother loved to serve. And sometimes, when I was lucky, it was rice pudding. Studded with raisins and impossibly rich. I ate that with more enthusiasm than other breakfast foods mostly because the raisins served as a good distraction.

arborio rice pudding with Indian spices

By the time I grew up, I kind of forgot about rice pudding and it was eating kheer at Indian restaurant a few years back that jolted my memory. After that, rice pudding was all I could think about. I made it over and over and over. I combined the Indian flavors with the more traditional pudding recipe. And added a bay leaf as it gave the rice a slightly woodsy, herbal fragrance. Sometimes, rice pudding tastes so candy-sweet, it’s almost overwhelming. I liked having a little earthiness to the smell and the bay leaf complements the sweetness rather nicely.

While I typically share my food with friends, I never shared rice pudding. It would vanish from my kitchen with lightning speed; faster than I could snap a photograph. Last year, I made this pudding, took pictures and then immediately forgot all about it. I do this a lot – forgetting to write about recipes I’ve cooked eons ago. I hope you can forgive me because this is seriously good. And comforting. And warm. And you can have it for breakfast too and not just for dessert. Wearing pajamas. Or jeans and tank tops. Or fancy black dresses. It’s totally up to you!

Continue reading indian-spiced rice pudding.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

pine-nut tart with rosemary

pinenut rosemary tart

TS Eliot once said April is the cruelest month, but I’d like to take his April and raise him a January. Clearly, the man hasn’t lived though a “new-year-new-you” era – he’d be singing a different tune if he had, and the prologue to his canonical work might have started out a tad differently.

pinenut rosemary tartpinenut rosemary tart
pinenut rosemary tartpinenut rosemary tart

Generally, I am no friend of January. It’s just too much pressure: the resolutions, the feeling of obligation to be better, do better, think better; the pressure of salads in a month when brown food accented with butter and a rich sauce is what I want to eat. Somehow a plate full of lettuce leaves me feeling cold and dejected. Were you to put a salad in front of me, I’d simply poke about with a fork and shove it to the side. Unless we’re talking about this salad here and that one there. But for the most part, I’m all about devouring stuffed cabbage and merguez burgers and braised short ribs. I make a terrible vegetarian in the month of January and my resolutions last about as long as it takes me to drink a cup of tea. Thus I rarely make resolutions outright. Instead, I aspire. To aspire just sounds so much more open than resolve, softer, more lenient, more forgiving. It’s not that I don’t like to set goals, but just not in January, okay? The cold is just too much for me to bear. I prefer dreaming about hibernation and fleece and flannel and soup. Or visiting sunnier cities with gracious hosts and friendly dogs. On occasion, I will daydream about walking around this cold, cloudy city, armed with a cup of coffee in my hand and a camera. But mostly, I think about palm trees and chewed up monkey toys and day hikes. I’d like more of those in my life.

pinenut rosemary tart
pinenut rosemary tart

The sheer pressure of January with its new beginnings and clean pages is so daunting, it can be overwhelming and downright depressing, right? Plus as we’re coming off the holiday season high, we might just come crashing down. There are no more festive parties, no more champagne cocktails, no festive cupcakes adorned with tiny little silver dragées. It’s back to the grind; back to reality. Work picks up almost overnight and after a 15 hour workday as you get home at 10:30 o’clock at night, you want a little indulgence and a lot more sleep. And that indulgence does not come in the form of a salad.

pinenut rosemary tart

And this is where I am not helpful. At all. I say to you, “It’s winter, indulge a bit, comfort thyself. And when spring comes around with its verdant, lush produce, then transition to salads!” Won’t that be so much more fun? Great, in-season produce when it’s warmer and you’re feeling lighter just because you’re not wearing eight layers. But for now, this tart should get you through the colder months. It’s the kind of thing you want to have company for and because this is so wonderfully rich, smaller slivers will do just fine – you won’t want a big piece on your plate. Rosemary, the quintessential herb in savory winter cooking, is the star here, with its soft fragrance accenting the caramel and pine nuts. This is very classically-Italian flavor combination here, and so perfectly wintry, you’ll feel perhaps a bit gladder it’s not summer yet.

pinenut rosemary tartpinenut rosemary tart

Gray, cold days are no time to make resolutions when our souls need comforting. Let’s make them on warmer days (if at all) and in the meantime let us have cake (or tarts) with bottomless cups of tea. It’ll pass the time quite perfectly.

pinenut rosemary tart
pinenut rosemary tart

Pine-nut Tart with Rosemary
Adapted from The Last Course, by Claudia Fleming (with Melissa Clark)

Almond Crust:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp almond flour
Pinch of salt

Pine-nut Rosemary Filling
1 cup pine nuts
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 tbsp honey
3 tbsp light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 large sprigs of fresh rosemary
Pinch of salt

Preparation:

To make the crust:

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and confectioners’ sugar until combined, about 1 minute. Beat in egg.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, almond flour and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in two batches, scraping down the sides of the bowl between additions.

3. Mix until the dough holds together, which you can test by pinching a small piece. Scrape the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, form it into a disk, and wrap well. Chill until firm, for at least 1 hour, or up to 3 days.

4. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. On a floured surface, roll the dough out to a 12-inch round. Fit it into a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Trim away any excess dough, then use a fork to prick the crust all over. Chill for 10 minutes. Bake the tart crust until it’s pale golden, 20-35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. (The tart shell can be made 8 hours ahead of frozen for up to 3 months.)

To make the filling:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread the nuts out in one layer on a baking sheet and toast them until fragrant and golden brown around the edges, about 5 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool, but keep the oven on.

2. In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter. Add the sugar, honey, and corn syrup. Stir the mixture occasionally over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to high and boil the mixture, stirring occasionally to keep the caramel from burning, until it turns a deep amber color, 12-14 minutes.

3. Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in the cream (stand back, the caramel may splatter). Place over low heat and whisk until the caramel is smooth. Turn off the heat and stir in the toasted pine nuts, vanilla, rosemary, and salt. Let the mixture infuse for 15 minutes.

4. Wrap the outside of the cooled tart shell (still in the pan) with aluminum foil. Remove the rosemary sprigs and pour the pine-nut mixture into the shell. Place on a baking sheet and bake until golden russet brown, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before serving.

Makes 8 servings.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

merguez burgers

merguez lamb burger

I’ve wanted to make these for about a year now.

coriander seeds

A whole year – which is quite a long time, if you ask me. Sometime ago in 2008 (boy, doesn’t that sound like ages ago?) I wandered into a small Soho restaurant called Salt, a little cold and very hungry. I scanned the small menu and a merguez burger just called to me: it came with a mint-yogurt sauce and a salad inside a pita. It sounded perfect, considering it was a kind of day when you needed something filling and comforting, and especially, if you have a soft spot for merguez, like I do.

toasting

I told all my friends about these burgers, dragged them to the restaurant and even co-planned an engagement brunch for my friends there. And every time, without even bothering to sample anything else, I would order the merguez burger. It was and is that good, believe me.

toasted, waiting to be groundground

And while I wanted to make them, I was kind of intimidated of what it would take to make this Moroccan specialty. Would it even taste authentic and what steps would it entail? And what if it didn’t taste just like the version I fell in love with? Typically, I’m shy and reserved and fear rejection and never had the guts to ask the chef for the recipe, so I was on my own in making it.

mixing it all together

And just as I was ready to finally take the plunge, spring and summer came and put my plans on a seasonal hiatus. I don’t know about you, but I’m not one for heavy lamb when it’s 90 degrees outside. I tend to stick to crunchy, cold things like salads and sweet, fruit-filled things like pies. Lamb in the summer – um, no thank you.

salad

But, finally, winter settled in. Or more like winter barged in with snow and wind and sub-freezing temperatures. No polite knocking on the door or anything – it simply appeared one morning and decided to stay. All this has done wonders for my motivation, as all I want to do is just put on layers and layers of fleece, drink coffee and eat soup. Oh, and also, keep making these merguez burgers. Because these taste exactly the way I had them at Salt, and I’m over the moon with this recipe, courtesy of Melissa Clark. It’s a moment of triumph when you can recreate a meal exactly the way you had it elsewhere. A small, but solid victory, a jubilant “Yesss!!” you squeal to yourself in your kitchen. I love these so much, that it pains me to write about them and not have one for dinner tonight. In fact, I reheated these for dinner and while they were lovely, my heart is so with these merguez burgers that I doubt anything will eclipse them this winter season.

merguez lamb burgers

There’s everything in perfect balance here: the spiced, fragrant lamb; the cooling freshness of the minty-cilantro yogurt sauce; the crunch of the lettuce and juice of the tomato; the heat of harissa. It’s really, truly, wonderfully perfect – comforting, filling, warm, and yet quite different from the regular, expected winter fare. Portion control with these might be a challenge, but then again, if these get you through the brutal cold then my job here is done. You can make the portion control resolutions on your own – just don’t come back blaming me.

cilantro mint yogurt dip

Continue reading merguez burgers.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

stuffed cabbage

stuffed cabbagge

No one ever tells you this, but the week after you get back from vacation is impossibly busy. For all you know, you come back, relaxed and tan, full of those lovely umbrella drinks, sand in your bag – and then wham, you get knocked down by work and life that apparently had the audacity to go on without you. You return to a full mailbox, bills to pay and laundry to do. I mean, the nerve, right? Shouldn’t the world stand still while you’re exercising your right to a bikini and a beach chair every day for a full week?

hollowing out the cabbagesteaming the cabbage
riceonions & celery

Oh and don’t get me started on the cold. The bone-numbing, soul-sucking, stop-you-in-your-tracks cold. I mean, I can’t even properly describe my dismay. Someone at work mentioned today that New York average temperatures around now were always in the mid-thirties and, well, we’ve certainly dipped below that just about every day. As luck would have it, my flight got into Newark on the same day that security breach took place and the airport was in near lock-down mode. I suggested to the pilot we turn the plane around and got back to Dominican Republic and he gave me a stare. I thought to myself, “Fine, but it’s either this, or an umbrella drink, buddy – you choose.”

stuffingall mixed
lining the potremoving the vein

We’re not even a month into this winter and already I’m whining. I swear, as the years go by the cold gets to me more and more. I complain about it bitterly, but get very little sympathy. Russians are supposed to tolerate these temperatures without so much as a shrug, I am told. But since I’ve not lived in the blustery St. Petersburg winter in over 21 years, I really can’t claim high tolerance for cold weather. Even if you do give me a vodka shot to quell the pain.

how to rollhow to roll
how to rollhow to roll

What I find myself doing, however, is craving Russian food. Badly. I like the heartiness and honesty of it; the way that it fills me up and makes me feel warm as if wrapped in a blanket. A food version of Snuggie, if you will, but far more attractive looking. And for me, in moments like this, stuffed cabbage really hits the spot.

a view from the top

In Russia, we called this dish “golubtsi”, and I’ve heard my Ukrainian friends refer to them as “holubki”. My friend Ryan took it one step further and referred to them as “pigs in blankets” and when I made fun of him and told he confused the name with another dish, quickly proved me wrong. But whatever you call them, they are amazing. In fact, they’re even better in the next few days as flavors develop more, and, if that weren’t bonus enough, they freeze beautifully too. Which is a great asset when you arrive home from the airport at 1 o’clock in the morning, starving and cold. A few minutes of defrosting in a microwave and you have a comforting, warm, soothing dinner. And if my week is busy, I can manage it, because I can have dinner ready in mere minutes, and focus on those other pesky things that took place in my absence, clearing my schedule for more important things like editing vacation photos. Clearly, more of a priority than paying bills.

stuffed cabbagge

Continue reading stuffed cabbage.