Thursday, May 27, 2010

spring panzanella with asparagus, peas, leeks and sorrel

spring panzanella

Last night, amidst the oppressive heat and a fierce sugar craving, I stole away for some ice cream. I was lamenting to my friend Tina, online, that I wanted some ice cream, but having eaten it all, there was none in my freezer and it was too late to commence making my own. Thus, I was resolved to be wistful and unsatisfied. I might have even pouted, not that there was anyone to witness it. For the record, I pout with distinction. I’m quite excellent at it, but when no one can appreciate the pout, it is a bit of a waste. But this is the thing about friends, dear readers, is that they are great partners in crime and not twenty minutes after I issued my complaint, this friend and I were sitting in our local dessert mecca happily spooning away our desserts: me – with my simple scoop of vanilla and she with her warm brownie sundae. For awhile, neither one of us said anything – we were consumed by our dessert. It hit the spot, for certain.

fresh peas

What I was supposed to have been doing, however, was sitting at home, and writing about this panzanella – and about how you must go ahead and make it. But I’m a creature who is controlled by my food cravings, and as such, I was poking at my keyboard without much success. Who wants to write about day-old bread and asparagus and sorrel and peas and leeks no matter how delicious when a few blocks away, cold and creamy dessert awaits you? Clearly, you see my dilemma.

homemade croutons

The other thing was that I wasn’t really sure what to tell you about this panzanella other than – oh Lord, almighty, this might be one of the most lovely things to come out of the spring kitchen this season, nay period! I made enough for six people and the three of us polished off the whole thing, without nary a crouton left behind. It was a good lazy Sunday supper and we drank some excellent white wine to break the heat and usher in summer weather. This was the same Sunday supper we dug into some awesome cake, so kitchen muses smiled upon me that Sunday afternoon and allowed me to make some good, unfussy food for friends. The day before, I went to the Prospect Park farmers market and went a little crazy scooping up every possible in-season thing I could get my hands on. Asparagus – check! Leeks – check! Fresh sugar peas – also check! And sorrel – I nearly lost my mind. I’ve this soft spot for sorrel and hope that it gains wild popularity in the US. We ate a ton of it in Russia in the summer months – a sorrel soup still happens to be one of my favorite summer meals. If you’ve never had sorrel, I implore you to go and seek it out. It looks like a slightly lighter version of spinach and it’s got a nice sour bite to it.

asparagus from the farmer's market

You can cook it just like spinach too, and when it wilts – it does so beautifully and within minutes. It does turn this shade of rather unattractive brown-green, but it is as delicious as it is ugly. Serve it with some poached salmon and you’ve meal that’s fit for a king. I only see sorrel in these spring and summer months though – so make haste!

asparagus

I had no intention, when I was gathering my ingredients at the market, to make panzanella, but when I got home, splayed everything on my counter and took inventory, the idea sort of just jumped at me. I’ve eaten many a summer panzanella, with thick slices of ripe tomatoes, chunks of onion and slivers of basil strewn alongside toasted, softish bread dampened by the juices and the olive oil. And I always felt like this is the kind of salad I could eat with abandon. I never felt like it was enough. But it’s not quite summer yet, and the vegetables I did have on hand looked like the belonged together in a spring version. And so, since my sourdough bread, delicious though it may be, had lived through better days and needed some reincarnation, I decided that a spring panzanella was the right way to go.

leeks

It comes together fairly quickly, but does take a little bit of time as you cook the ingredients separately. I prefer my panzanella at room temperature with warm sorrel to bind everything together. Don’t cook the peas – they are so sweet and lovely this time of year, you want to preserve that goodness as much as possible. Texture and temperature are important here, I think. I went largely with my instinct and was proven right. A few hours later later, and an empty salad bowl as well, my only regret was that I should have made more. And perhaps that I should get a bigger salad bowl.

Continue reading spring panzanella with asparagus, peas, leeks and sorrel.

Monday, May 24, 2010

strawberry rhubarb buttermilk pudding cake

strawberry rhubarb buttermilk pudding cake

We are, believe it or not, in the full throes of spring. I know, I know, those of us living in the Northeast are still wearing sweaters and can’t leave home without our umbrellas, but spring with its bounty and harvest has certainly arrived. Just look at the offerings at your farmers markets. My eyes (and heart!) leap at mere sight of the bounty: strawberries! rhubarb! sugar snap peas! asparagus! I can’t resist putting an exclamation point behind each of these because I am so excited to finally see these guys in season. Much as I love a good curry or soup, it’s finally nice to have more than just root vegetables in season. No offense to all the turnips and parsnips out there.

strawberries at the market

So when I finally got out to the Prospect Park farmers market this past Saturday (thanks to Jennie for bringing me along!), I nearly lost my mind. The smells alone render you faint with excitement. I pretty much gathered all the produce I could get my hands on. I also bought some meat and leaf lard from these guys as well for some future delicious experiments.

You know how sometimes you read a recipe through and you realize how good it’s going to be when you make it, and then a flash of brilliance goes through your mind and you figure out a way to make it even better. And then you make the recipe, hoping, praying that it does, indeed, deliver fabulous results. Lastly, you taste, worrying that instead of what you’re hoping to be the most winning recipe ever, you have on your hands an epic fail. And then, when you finally taste your creation, you want to dance around your apartment, squealing for joy, because what you made is not only amazing, but happens to be way better than anything you could have even anticipated in your mind’s palate.

strawberries!

This is such a recipe. Words elude me, my dear readers, because this is so breathtakingly good, and so breathtakingly easy, things like this, at least in the kitchen, should be illegal. You almost feel shame, yes shame, for creating something so delicious and yet with so little fuss. In fact, and this is my favorite sentence to write of all today, the whole thing comes together without the use of a mixer. So if you’re lacking one, or want to lessen that carbon footprint, or just want something unfussy to cook for your next Sunday supper, this recipe here is for you.

rhubarb!

The cake name itself is like a great seduction song to my senses. Strawberries! Rhubarb! Buttermilk! Pudding! Cake! Now put these words together and what you get is something that is transcendent: Strawberry Rhubarb Buttermilk Pudding Cake. Like a sweet nothing, a whisper in your ear. Much like the pumpkin bread pudding souffle I keep waxing poetic about Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving (and the most requested holiday dish to date!), this is going to be filed under of “now-why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-earlier” or “I’m-going-to-have-to-make-up-for-lost-time-and-eat-lots-of-this”.

stewing the rhubarbfruit, batter, fruit

I’ll claim part genius to this recipe since the buttermilk addition is my idea. The original recipe calls for regular milk, but I had some leftover buttermilk nearing its expiration date, and thought, if anything, it was going to add to the depth of flavor to this cake. And so, I substituted the buttermilk in, and hoped and prayed that it would work. It did. And then some. And what I’ve got now is a recipe that I want to make over and over. I want to serve it straight out of the oven and pour cream over it. I want to serve it at room temperature with some coffee. I want to drop a big dollop of ice cream on top and enjoy it as an afternoon snack. But most of all, I want to share it with you, if not in the physical I’m-going-to-put-a-slice-on-your-plate way, then here, on these pages. It’s not quite as nice as having you over for a Sunday supper, but it’s the next best thing.

strawberry rhubarb buttermilk pudding cake

Continue reading strawberry rhubarb buttermilk pudding cake.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

cinnamon toasts

cinnamon toasts

Lest you think of me as a cool and hip individual, I should probably set the record straight. For a certain length of time in my childhood, H. G. Wells’ novel “Time Machine” was my favorite book in the world. I was obsessed to the point of a tantrum, refusing to admit that time travel was a thing of the fantasy world. I wanted time travel to be real. But if you asked me why, I couldn’t really tell you. I wasn’t trying to change the past or alter the future. I was just fascinated with time travel. Now, of course, I’d be glad to have a time machine on hand, if only to go back in time and tell my fifth grade self that New Kids On the Block were totally going to make a comeback. It would have quieted my weary mind.

But, I am pretty sure, I’ve discovered a time portal and its name is cinnamon toast. Cinnamon toast (I swoon as I type these words) – is magical. Really. It’s as if I’ve come full circle with it. Back to my childhood years. And all it took was one bite.

mmm... butter..

I know that I’m losing all of you now that you’re going, what, cinnamon toast? You’re writing about cinnamon toast? But I beg of you to hold on a minute and let me explain. The inspiration, the time-travel, was possible because Molly wrote about the cinnamon toast her grandmother used to make and told her readers – this is not just some toast you put sugar and cinnamon on. This is a cookie. This is special. This – is not to be missed.

Molly also warned these would be heavenly, downright addictive. Jennie tweeted they are to be dubbed “cinnamon crack”. And I was intrigued. Anything that’s covered in cinnamon and sugar is a welcome addition to my life.

cinnamon toasts

It’s funny how you read about a recipe and are instantly ignited to run to your kitchen and make it. Except you never stock any white bread and it’s eleven o’clock at night and while you’ve been known to make goulash at one o’clock in the morning, you’re not exactly running to your nearest bodega at such late an hour on a school night. So you’re forced to wait and wonder if, indeed, these are as good as the claims are, meanwhile you are reading tweets about how these little guys should be renamed as “cinnamon crack”.

And so I finally went out and bought some white bread, cut them into diagonal quarters. Melted my butter and brushed it onto the bread and dipped each side in cinnamon sugar. Which, by the way, let me tell you – it takes a strong person not to lick his fingers in between the dipping. That cinnamon sugar scent – oh my! Strangely though, even as I was going through the motions, I didn’t make the connection that this kind of cinnamon toast was a favorite snack of mine when I was growing up in Russia.

cinnamon toasts

And yet, it was not until I bit into a cooled-off toast, with a cup of tea at my side, that these toasts, like tiny little time-machines, instantly transported me to the time when I was five and lived in snowy St. Petersburg, where my mother tried just about everything to get me to eat. A finicky eater, (who isn’t one at five years old?), few things excited me food-wise. But anything covered in cinnamon and sugar was definitely something I could get behind.

And so, my mother, in a stroke of brilliance or desperation, devised to make me these cinnamon toasts. White bread in Russia came as these big loaves that look very much like Italian bread here does. She cut the loaf thinly into slices and lightly dipped each of the pieces in milk on both sides, careful not to soak the bread, and then dredged the sides in cinnamon and sugar. She then baked these shimmering toasts until they were crispy and the house smelled like sweet cinnamon heaven. I could have licked the air, it was so good.

These were promised to me as dessert, provided, of course, that I ate my dinner. Which I did. In a heartbeat. And then, I was left to my own devices with a plateful of cinnamon toasts and cups of hot tea with milk. I think those were some of my happiest moment: alone in the kitchen with my cinnamon toast and tea. I can tell you that to this day I could be made infinitely happy by a cup of tea and a simple cookie. Such as this toast.

cinnamon toasts

Now, were you to ask me, which do I prefer, the cinnamon toast of my childhood and the brainchild of my mother, or Molly’s buttery and rich cinnamon toast, I’ll tell you honestly – Molly’s. And I know that my mother, reading this, would agree. Because anything tastes better when it’s dipped in butter. It’s just that simple. But my mother’s toasts are pretty darn good too, especially if butter is the sort of thing you’re supposed to stay away from. I’m keeping both recipes within my reach because they connect my present and my past, bringing me full circle.

I might not have a real time machine on hand, but I have have this cinnamon toast. And that’s way, way better.

Continue reading cinnamon toasts.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

eggs baked in cream

eggs baked in cream

Okay, my dears. Let’s put those take-out menus away for the night. You won’t need them this evening – I’ve got something better for you. In fact, I can offer you dinner in less than half an hour, and you can sip wine while you wait for it to cook. You like that? I thought so. Ready? Okay then.

Here’s what you do. Come home hungry and preferably a bit worn out by the day. Crave something comforting and warm. And be hell-bent on making your own dinner, but not breaking a sweat. The next part should be easy. I know you can do this and I know you’ll be stellar at it.

Find a few ingredients that you probably have lying around your kitchen anyway: eggs, onions (or leeks!), cream, some herbs. Really, any herbs will do, even the dry ones, but your fresh ones will be magical here; and make yourself a baked egg. It’s the perfect eat-alone food. Really.

dramatis personae

Last week, CBS’s The Early Show came to my apartment to find out what I eat alone, as they were doing a segment based on Deborah Madison’s new book. I showed them a plate of herring and potatoes, some pelmeni and this egg baked in cream. These were some of the easy go-to dishes I make for myself. The herring and pelmeni remind me of my childhood in Russia, and this egg is the perfect one-person meal: quick, easy, healthy and comforting. Best of all, no fancy ingredients are needed – this recipe requires things that are probably already pantry staples.

topped with harissa

The thing is, that it’s so easy for us, at least here in New York, to pick up the phone and order take out. We have our favorite restaurants on speed-dial and we even know what we want without having to glance at the menu. But here’s the thing, making these eggs for dinner, you’re really taking care to nourish yourself. You know exactly what goes into this meal. It is wholesome, nourishing, warm. And it cooks in minutes. In fact, it cooks faster than take-out arrives. I think there’s comfort in making something for yourself. It’s a little bit indulgent and even somewhat meditative. Layering your leeks, spreading harissa, gently sliding the egg on top, and pouring those few spoons of cream for softer, richer flavor. Simplicity can be luxurious too.

Of course, it was my most embarrassing, dark secret (not anymore!) admission – my love of bologna sandwiches – that made the cut on the television segment, and not this glorious egg. Of course, it serves me right, being so low-brow in my guilty indulgences. I should, in my defense, add however, that the bologna I had in mind, is what the Russians refer to as Doktoraskaya bologna – which I get in Russian delis. The Russian stuff is seriously good, and once you try it, you will never go back to your old bologna again. I promise you.

eggs baked in cream

And while this dish never got mention, I think it’s something you should try your hand at. Unless you have Russian bologna on hand. In which case, I say, make yourself a sandwich. And please – invite me over.

But wait! Can’t we watch this infamous clip of your bologna love?
Ah, yes, of course! Here is the clip of me embarrassing myself on national TV!

Continue reading eggs baked in cream.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

braised chicken and rice with orange, saffron, almond, and pistachio syrup

Braised Chicken with Rice, Saffron, Orange & Pistachios

Well. That was fun. I seem to have entirely missed April. And we’re into our second week in May and somewhere in there, I turned a year older. Happy Birthday to me, indeed. I must apologize for my silence – and tell you all, that work has swallowed me whole. It’s like the dog-ate-my-homework excuse. Except the dog here is my job and the homework, in this case, is me. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about you and this little wee space. Did you miss me? I hope so. Because, I have missed you. A lot.

onions always make things betterBraised Chicken with Rice, Saffron, Orange & Pistachios

Birthday celebration aside, not much else, besides work, has been going on. At least not in the kitchen. I’ve boiled water for tea. I’ve made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. One sandwich. I’ve ordered some pad thai and some Alaska rolls and I ate them standing in my kitchen while reading the Atlantic. I also acquired a whole lot of cookbooks, from which I am dying to cook, but haven’t had any time. Books like David’s new book and Ad Hoc at Home and Paris Sweets, among a few. If I could magically pull an extra week of vacation from the vacation hat, I would spend the week alone, in my kitchen, puttering around and making food. And then I’d invite my friends over and we’d have a feast. To me, nothing sounds more lovely right now. I miss my kitchen and I miss creating in it. I am hoping that work will calm down shortly. Please hope with me.

Braised Chicken with Rice, Saffron, Orange & PistachiosBraised Chicken with Rice, Saffron, Orange & Pistachios

However, I’ve been trying to do this thing on Sundays – cook a supper, invite friends over and eat and laugh while sharing the food and a few bottles of wine. All the while their kids try to destroy my apartment, in the nicest way possible. This kid here, he loves to take dried fruit and nuts out of pantry and sometimes, he likes to sprinkle them around the floor. And the best part? I adore him so much, I don’t mind one bit. Not even a smidgen. And this one here – well, he gave me the most amazing birthday hug ever. I mean, this kid can hug. I think it might just be my favorite present this year. I know, I’m giving you all cavities right now. I’ll find my inner snark again eventually.

Braised Chicken with Rice, Saffron, Orange & PistachiosBraised Chicken with Rice, Saffron, Orange & Pistachios

So a few Sundays ago, for one of these Sunday suppers, I wanted to make this braised chicken. Afghan food speaks to me with its layers of flavors, fragrant spices, delicately cooked meat. I grew up eating a lot of Uzbek food, which my grandmother learned to make having grown up in Samarkand, and while Uzbek and Afghan food aren’t the same thing, they are closely related. It doesn’t hurt that they share a border. My childhood was full of slow-cooked fragrant plovs, Uzbek manty (which are very different from the Turkish ones – in that they are like big dumplings, they are steamed and full of marinated chopped lamb – tasting a lot like merguez) among other dishes. And this chicken dish, while not a straight-up throwback to my early years, reminded me of spending time with my grandmother, in her kitchen, while she turned out one amazing dish after another. Let me tell you – that woman could cook like no other. To this day, I’ve yet to meet a better chef. Nothing, and I mean, nothing ever went to waste. And her repertoire was seemingly endless. I’ve never seen her reference a recipe, never saw her look something up. And while she doesn’t cook much these days, her legacy lives on.

Braised Chicken with Rice, Saffron, Orange & PistachiosBraised Chicken with Rice, Saffron, Orange & Pistachios

Back to this chicken though. It is a keeper. And I mean – a keeper. I can’t tell you how good this is and how much my friends and I enjoyed it. Even this little monkey got all primitive and ran around the apartment with a drumstick in his hands. As an aside, finding pieces of chicken under my pillow – bonus! But. Oh, there’s a but. This dish here? Takes a lot more time than you’d think and is actually trickier than comes across. So my advice to you before you venture forth – take a deep breath. Also, note to yourself, out loud if need be, that this will involve many steps. This isn’t one of those, throw everything in the pot and just let it do its thing. This is a multi-step, multi-pot, sequenced affair. It requires patience and love and a strong desire to eat Afghan food that night. Oh and a sense of humor if you happen to realize that you have no idea what a “large pinch of saffron” really means. How large is large, really? Do I need a vat of it? Can I take out a second mortgage on my house? Will it take me a full month of April to cook, thereby preventing me from writing anything for four weeks straight? It’s all possible. However, I promise you, what you will wind up with is a dish that is comforting yet seductive. And while it doesn’t excuse my absence for four weeks, at least I am giving you something really worth trying out. Forgive me my silence? I promise to be better going forward.

Wait! Wait! I have an announcement! [Warning: Shameless braggery ahead!]
This upcoming Monday, May 10th, yours truly will make a small appearance on the CBS’ The Early Show about a segment on what people eat when they eat alone. In the spirit of true Russian-ness, I talk about herring, potatoes, onions and pelmeni, among other things. Tune-in and check it out!!

Braised Chicken with Rice, Saffron, Orange & PistachiosBraised Chicken with Rice, Saffron, Orange & Pistachios

*Photos of kids coming later – my wireless connection is moving at snail-pace today so I can’t upload them.

Continue reading braised chicken and rice with orange, saffron, almond, and pistachio syrup.