Wednesday, April 14, 2010

dandelion greens with shaved fennel, celery and parsley

dandelion salad with shaved fennel, celery and parsley

There was a time when fennel made me gag. In fact, I can’t believe the 180 I’ve done here, going from unadulterated hatred of all things fennel, to actually craving it. I’ve been told these things are not uncommon, that your palate does a shift every seven years or so, and I thank mine for letting me enjoy fresh fennel, shaved thinly in salads.

The salad is deceptively simple and yet it is a bit genius – everything in it works and does so beautifully. Sometimes, I fall deeply in love with a dish and can’t stop making it. I become a bit like a broken record as I cook the same thing over and over. Such is the case with this salad. I’ve had versions of it in a few places, most recently over glasses of wine at Lela Bar in the West Village, but their version didn’t offer dandelion greens or celery. Generously doused with olive oil, lemon juice and sprinkled with sea salt, shaved fennel mixed with parsley. Elsewhere, and quite some time ago, I had something that was shaved celery and parsley with sea salt and olive oil and lemon juice. The salad was celestial, but it disappeared off the menu after a week and I never saw it again. I kept thinking about making it at home, but of course, with so many things in the Sassy Radish kitchen, we’re on a bit of a time delay. The comforting glow of office fluorescent lighting has a particular allure.

shaved fennel

I know I blame everything on work and am afraid must use my my-work-ate-all-my-free-time-and-is-keeping-me-busier-than-imaginable excuse again. I love you, dear readers, and love that you come in this little space to read my somewhat fragmented thoughts, but work, being that it allows me to pay rent and have a roof over my head and have this wee site for you and me to congregate around, takes precedence over time in the kitchen. Or writing. Le sigh.

In any case, this salad. Run, don’t walk to make it. Unless you think fennel is vile. In which case, maybe try it without fennel? But if you do like fennel, this salad is for you. Also – a word about dandelion greens. Have you ever had them? I’ve been eating them since I was a child, but they haven’t caught on in the US until fairly recently. Please try them – they’re like a chewier and more exciting version of spinach. No, I’m lying – they’re nothing like spinach – they are way, way better. I wouldn’t think of using anything else here to offset the fennel and the celery.

dandelion greens

I made a very generous portion of this for my Sunday supper, which was the same night that this cake and this chicken made an appearance. The whole dinner was a home run. It all worked. And this salad – disappeared in minutes. Nothing left. Second plates for all. I mean, who does that with salad and gets into a tizzy over a bit of green on your plate? Right? It’s got to be good to have this kind of appeal. And it is.

Now, I won’t tell you how much olive oil and lemon juice to add. That is between you and your taste buds, my lovelies. I think that more dressing is lovely, but a restrained amount can work too. Personally, I use one lemon and juice it, but you might find that too acidic and opt for half a lemon. That’s okay too. I also just pour my olive oil over it for a few seconds, add lemon juice, sprinkle some salt and then toss. The trick is to use the best olive oil you can get your hands on. And that stuff can get expensive. While normally I wouldn’t tell you to go and spend lots of money on such things, here’s where it’ll really make a difference. Good olive oil will transform your salad into something totally different so you might want to use more of it. You might want it to coat your salad a bit thicker, or not. Either way, you can’t screw this up. Unless you use bad oil. In which case, you might wonder why I’m jabbering about a plateful of greens for six paragraphs.

dandelion salad with shaved fennel, celery and parsley

I was only sad I didn’t make more of it. I mean (suppressed sob!) I only got one (one!!!) plate and let my guests have seconds. But secretly, in my own head, what I really wanted to do was grab the salad bowl and steal away into the bedroom and eat the whole thing by myself. So much for fennel and gagging.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

mascarpone-filled cake with sherried berries

buttermilk cake with mascarpone frosting and berries

I’m torn whether to write to you about my thoughts on cake or spring. Both are tempting. Both are presently on my mind. Both are worthy of discussion. And both are things I love and can’t get enough of.

pour some sugar on me...in the oven!

I mean, who doesn’t like cake or spring? Especially a well-made cake and spring that arrives after a seemingly endless and bitterly cold winter. Almost overnight flowers are blooming and trees are covered in green fuzz and I’m wearing a sun dress. And I kinda like it. I could easily get used to this. Now, cake… Cake is big in my book. People who don’t like cake, or say they don’t like cake (do they even exist?) – I have to do a double-take because, come on, really? Cake? It’s like saying you hate puppies. Or rainbows.

cooling

I think the concept of cake is a marvelous, beautiful thing. It’s the kind of thing that just sounds festive, even if it’s an everyday kind of a cake. In fact, I think the word “cake” should come with a mandatory exclamation point. Like this – cake! There, doesn’t that sound so much more celebratory and decadent? Of course, when you are dealing with things like heavy cream, mascarpone, berries and sherry – decadent is really the only way to describe it. I like to be decadent before a somber mood sets in – like a Sunday supper before Monday morning sets in and it’s business as usual.

buttermilk cake waiting to be frostedgiant dollop of frosting

I’ve been trying to do this Sunday suppers thing with a few friends, and they’re kind of getting used to it and ask what’s on the menu next week. They come over with their kids and we eat and laugh and drink wine and then the kids have a dance-off like you wouldn’t believe. I think it’s partly because they’re so hopped up on sugar and that wee-bit of sherry in the cake, but whatever it is, they have some moves, people! They even try to trash the room like rock stars!

...as does Lev

But cake, dear readers, is a thing either done right or wrong. There’s no such thing as an okay cake. It’s not worth the indulgence unless it really, truly, is fantastic. Either you take a bite and your eyes roll upwards toward the heavens in ecstasy, or you think to yourself, “Eh, cake.” Notice, how lack of the “!” just dampens the whole experience. What you want, what would change everything, of course, is taking that forkful to your mouth and mere seconds later proclaiming, “Mmmm. Cake!

ronya approves of the cake

So many things could make a potentially stunning cake a mediocre one. Either the crumb is too dense, or the frosting too sweet, there’s too much of the frosting on the cake, or something. For me, the danger almost always lies in the amount of sugar that a cake contains. I prefer my cake to be a bit restrained on sweetness. Imagine, if you will, movies that queue dramatic music at particularly poignant parts. That always makes the experience less powerful for me. Letting me figure out that critical moment of heartbreak, without a musical nudge – is where it’s at. Cake and sugar – are sort of equivalent for me analogy-wise.

Which is why I was delighted that this cake had it all – light, moist crumb; delicate and lush frosting; and a tang of berries sweet and full of juice. My friends and their kids loved it as well. And they are very picky dessert people. There was even competition for who gets to lick the mixer whisk – which, in my book, is the highest of praises – no one volunteers for this job if the frosting is bad. In the end, everyone had nothing but praise for cake – even those at the table normally skeptical about dessert. My favorite part – is how simple, unfussy, and unpretentious it is. The cake looks downright messy and that’s part of its charm. I dare anyone not to like it. Especially if flowers are blooming outside. And there are rainbows. And puppies. But even without them – how could you not? After all – it’s not just cake – it’s cake!

buttermilk cake with mascarpone frosting and berries

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

chicken in riesling

chicken in riesling

Of all the fancy kitchen terms, “braise”, I think, just might be my favorite cooking word around. And one of my favorite words in the English language. It’s a slow and lazy word, luxurious, full. To braise is to have something utterly amazing in the end that yields results far exceeding this unfussy, simple way of cooking. Braising is the antithesis to dry and boring; it is comforting and welcome no matter the season. When I see the word on a menu, I know that time has eased my food into something that falls off the bone, comes apart with a simple pull of the fork, something that’s been coaxed into a delicate state.

There’s something about braising that calms me as well. When my mind is racing and unquiet, when I am over-thinking (which is something I do a lot), braising somehow makes me slow down and take a breath. There’s something soothing about having a pot in the oven slowly applying heat to whatever it is being cooked, patiently transforming it into a dish. Time and heat and patience. And the smell that fills the house with a sense of home, as if saying “Welcome, here food is cooked with care and love. Stay awhile.” I love that feeling. If I could bottle it, I would give it out to everyone I know. There’s no feeling like it.

chicken in rieslingchicken in riesling

Could it be that making a trans-Atlantic move at the age of eleven did it? That sense of childhood home is something I can’t even recall. And moving around so much with boarding school and college and then in New York – home is something you make and create, especially in our fluid world of transient apartments, shifting jobs, career changes, or just a desire to pick up and go somewhere new. What anchors us and makes us feel safe, or at least for me, are meals we make at home. Somehow and apartment, devoid of furniture and pictures and personal mementos, becomes a home the minute you turn the stove on, the minute you set a place setting for yourself, or for others. Home is something you carry with you and the memories you make yourself.

chicken in riesling

Last Sunday, I had friends over for a Sunday supper. I like these Sunday suppers. They are our way of easing into the work-week. They let us talk and laugh and share. I wouldn’t trade these supper for the world. But in addition to the warmth and joy of these suppers, last Sunday was a meal to be remembered. In fact, the consensus was that this might have been the best thing I’ve ever fed my guests. I made twice the amount for our company and there were no left overs. Even my friends’ kids – who are ever the picky eaters, couldn’t put this chicken down.

chicken in riesling

Dear readers, this chicken is a thing of beauty. It is something that I implore you to make this weekend. Well, maybe you have Easter menus planned out, but please do it soon. This is something I’ve been meaning to cook for quite some time. And lovely Maggie and ever-so-talented Jeanette have made it and raved about it; so this was destined to be a home run. But I had absolutely no idea just how amazing this dish was. Which is why I am being so persistent in telling you to just please make it. I think you will love it. And I think you will want to make it again and again, the same way that I do. You might lick your plate clean, even if there’s company present.

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