Tuesday, June 29, 2010

harissa-roasted chicken with chickpeas and red onion

harissa-roasted chicken

Oh, chicken! You are so maligned sometimes. You’re the thing people probably order the least in nicer restaurants. And you’re easily relegated to boring and blasé. Sometimes you are cooked into dry oblivion, upon which you, at best, taste like pressed wood chips. To make matters worse, you’re far too humble to ever speak up for yourself. Instead, you wait. You wait for a cook to realize your true potential, and elevate you to your well-earned exalted position. Just as a concept, chicken, you are bland. Commonplace, even. But there are so many way to prepare you, that you possess the versaility other meats simply to not. You can be dressed up, or down, depending on the occasion. Different version of you have legions of loyal followers. Roast chicken. Chicken braised in Riesling. Chicken braised in milk. You can take on so many roles that it is, indeed, unfair to call you boring. Chicken, you are the Meryl Streep of food! There’s no one more versatile than you! [And thus, I end my ode.]

the magical ingredientsmarinading!

Despite chicken’s apparent versatility, writing excitedly about it, does present a bit of a problem. I think what makes or breaks a chicken dish, in particular, is how you make it. I know that this rule applies to just about everything, but I like think of chicken as the true, great, blank canvas. There’s an endless range of possibilities, but chicken generally needs a bit of direction, be is just a bit of salt and pepper, and roasting; or a more elaborate cooking process. And with a few great ingedients and some gentle prodding, what you can wind up with is nothing short of a miracle.

onion

I’ve been on a harissa kick lately, so much so, that I am thinking of just biting the bullet and making my own. Luisa’s recipe has been on my mind for awhile now, but as per usual, I am slow to get things done. Work, you consume me so! I made this a few weeks ago for a very special dinner. I’ll leave it at that, but suffice to say, I was trying to impress. I was intrigued by the marriage of yogurt, spices and harissa as a marinade for the chicken – I knew, in an instant, this would be fragrant, flavorful, intense. I wanted a chicken dish that wasn’t delicate with its notes; I wanted a bold, daring dish that would hold its own against the carrot salad. And the flavors worked beautifully. The yogurt added a lovely tang that took the heat of harissa and deepened its structure, all the while softening its heat just a bit. I wanted a slightly earthy aftertaste, so I mixed some cumin into my marinade – a decision I was particularly happy about once we tasted the final product. And because there were chickpeas in the salad, I opted to skip them this time around (fearing the mighty chickpea overload), but added some extra onions to roast and flavor the chicken.

onion, scattered
harissa-roasted chicken, ready for cooking

I’m always on a lookout for a chicken recipe that will be a real stand-out in a crowd of just-so recipes. I’ve gotten quite lucky with the Riesling one, and this apricot-Sriracha one (among a few), and this will take a place alongside my keeper recipes. If you think that making chicken is a snooze-fest, I implore you not to give the bird a chance – it will play any role you want and will transform itself so much so that you might just exclaim, “This is chicken?!?” and never look back. Except, maybe, to get second helpings.

harissa-roasted chicken

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Friday, June 25, 2010

carrot and chickpea salad

spicy carrot and chickpea salad

My mother recently said to me that she isn’t the least bit surprised that cooking is such a big part of my life. She said she could see it when I was a wee little thing getting overly excited to go to the market, or picking berries, or foraging for mushrooms. She recalled that she didn’t know any kids my age who would have rather been digging in the garden for vegetables than playing with other kids. I have a hazy recollection of accompanying my grandmother to the market where I could walk among farmers and booths and be seduced by all the smells and sights. My favorite find was a stand with the red currants in hand-made newspaper cones. So much for playing with dolls and a game of tag. My heart belong to fruit and vegetables, and summer reigned as king of all seasons in my six-year-old brain.

stacked
golden brown

When I was even younger, I once ate so many carrots that I turned slightly orange. I remember looking at my palms thinking I should do the same with blueberries (unfortunately it didn’t work!). Mom likes to remember how the first thing I’d eat in chicken soup were pieces of cooked carrot, and how excited I would get to eat a fresh carrot from the farmers market, freshly dug up and cleaned. Growing up, a carrot was my favorite go-to snack, and my grandmother would hand-press for me carrot juice – a very special treat. It’s no wonder that my father used to affectionately refer to me as “rabbit”. I am, unabashedly, a fan of this humble root vegetable, and it is amazing to me that something that grows underground, sees no sunlight, and turns into something so lovely and festive-looking. You know well by now that I have quite a soft-spot for root vegetables in general. They’re totally under-appreciated and I’m on a mission to give them some love. When you pull a turnip or a carrot out of the ground, you get a rather dirty and downright unattractive vegetable, it is what’s hiding underneath, however, that is truly glorious and delicious. If you’ve never pulled out a carrot from the ground, washed it and eaten it right away, you really should – it’s quite an experience. And it’ll be the best-tasting carrot you’ve ever eaten!

the magical mix that made this salad so good

There’s been some carrot salad love shown lately when Deb of Smitten Kitchen posted a salad that made me want to get up from my office chair and immediately go home to make it. Luisa also waxed poetic about it, and I was all, “What’s taking me so long!” And then, right as I was about to make it, finally, I came upon this recipe and decided that since Deb’s salad deserved an honorable mention all its own, I wanted to give a bit of a spotlight to this one. There’s cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper in it. There’s cilantro, which I cannot resist (but those who loathe it can always sub in mint!). And because there are chickpeas and almonds in here, you have a meal in and of itself if you so desire. Or a side-dish, as I served it (though I managed to have the leftovers for breakfast (I know, right?) the very next morning.) Which brings me to a question, is it some kind of a grammar violation to have parenthesis inside a parenthesis?

spicy carrot and chickpea salad

This salad here packs some serious heat, so if you’re sensitive to it, dial down the cayenne, m’kay? Because I don’t want some of you to burn the roof of your mouth and then tell me I didn’t warn you! This is spicy, but I love my spice, so I kept the proportions the same. Also, this salad is very considerate of your time, which means this is a rather well-brought-up salad, if you ask me. If you have a picnic to attend, you can make this (even the day before) ahead of time and chill it, needing only to remember to bring this along. Translation: you should have as many picnics as this season allows, as you will miss them in the winter when you’re wearing fleece head to toe and eating tomato soup. This salad with its lemon and cilantro got this fantastic summer vibe to it, and is bound to please everyone, including your gluten-free, vegan, or low-carb friends. With a salad like this, I know that your next trip to the farmers market might be packed with as much excitement as mine are to this day. Who knew that something that has the word “salad” in it could be so exciting?

spicy carrot and chickpea salad

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Friday, June 18, 2010

asian-inspired slaw with mango

asian slaw with mango

All right, my dears. I don’t have much time, so I’ll be brief. And I’m sorry to be so hasty and short. This salad right here – please make it. It’s going to help you get through the hot and sticky days of summer. The crunch of the cabbage, the sweetness of mango, the bite of the chili pepper, the cool, sweet burst of corn. This salad here – a keeper. And transports well for things like picnics and backyard barbecues. And I hope that you plan on going to a lot of those this season.

asian slaw with mango

There are many a joke made about Russians and their love of cabbage. We are a people that loves our cabbage pickled, stuffed, stewed, in soups and in pies. Cabbage, in Russian cooking, will be the main event, not an accessory. Perhaps, outside of the potato, it is the most loved vegetable in Russia. We, Russians, take our cabbage seriously. And here, I took the beloved Russian vegetable and put an Thai-ish spin on it. I should’ve thrown some peanuts in, but I didn’t have any on hand.

asian slaw with mango

The slaw is quite a deviation from a traditional slaws that involve mayonnaise. I’m not one to knock mayo, especially if it’s homemade, but sometimes, when the summer days grow sweltering and muggy, it is not exactly a condiment you dream of. Or maybe that’s just me. On the other hand, things like lime juice and a little spice are always welcome in my kitchen, especially when it’s warm outside.

asian slaw with mango

You might think to yourself, cilantro and mint together – an herb overkill, perhaps? I thought so before, until I accidentally combined them in a similar salad once and I haven’t looked back since. Somehow, oddly, they are complementary to one another and both are summery and crisp.

asian slaw with mango

I notice that around this time of year, I want more salad on my plate and less meat. And I know we’re entering grilling season, but still, my heart (and stomach) crave vegetables. Last night, at book club, one of the girls served a lovely goat cheese and spinach tart (oh how the wheels in my head are turning), a simple cucumber salad with parsley and creme fraiche, and some rocket with a simple vinaigrette. It was simple, it was crisp and it was perfect.

And in thinking this morning about the salad here, I realized that in the summer, what we want is to feel as light and breezy as the summer breeze itself. A cinch to put together, easy take along, wonderfully uplifting. What could be a better way to greet the summer season?

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Monday, June 14, 2010

carrot cake

carrot cake

Today, I have cake for you. Not just any cake – carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. I know, it’s been all cake and sorbet and more cake around here lately, but we are entering picnic and barbecue season, and doesn’t carrot cake just makes you want to take a picnic blanket to the park along with lemonade and potato salad and slaw, and just sit under a tree for hours with friends, feasting and lounging away. My favorite weekend days is when your biggest accomplishment for the day is eating. There is nothing, and I mean, nothing wrong with that.

carrots!walnuts
dry ingredients mise

Saturday was that lovely kind of a day: my biggest accomplishment consisted of cooking some supper that involved a roast chicken, some guacamole and some pasta with tomato sauce and sausage – I know, lots of random things, but food had to be rescued and cooked. I also found excellent use for these plates – sliced kiwi looks amazing on them. When you start the day around noon, have brunch at 2pm and then for the rest of the day you resolve – no plans, no obligations – it is, I will tell you, an amazing day. Weekends like these are my favorite.

eggs

But this post isn’t so much about lazy weekends, as it’s about carrot cake. A carrot cake for my friend Bill’s birthday. The very same Bill of the mascarpone cake fame, except this time, I’m not a year behind in writing about it.

cake battercream cheese frosting

For Bill’s cake, I looked through every baking book I had (surprisingly few feature carrot cake, actually) until I came across a recipe that made me do a double-take. The recipe was called “Big Bill’s Carrot Cake” – it was as if cake fates have led me straight to it. Now, Bill isn’t particularly big per se, but the title sounded so commanding and the recipe was so perfect, that I decided then and there that this was going to be the cake. Besides, with the recipe coming from the one and only Dorie Greenspan – how could you go wrong?

carrot cakecarrot cake

If you’re like me and believe in the universe speaking to you via baked goods (because when you’re looking for a cake for your friend Bill and you find a recipe with his name in the title – is that not the universe sending you a sign?), then you will put to rest all the other recipes. Dorie knows her cakes, and after you read through any book by her, you feel like she’s your fairy godmother of baking. You know her. You trust her. You’ve had conversations with her while you baked from her books. She has never steered you in the wrong direction. She has never, ever, let you down. Her recipes are detailed, exact, certain, full of the kind of instructions you want to have in so many other books. Few baking personas are as universally adored and revered as Dorie – perhaps because she makes us all feel competent, even if a recipe looks intimidating. She whispers softly to us, “You can do it.

carrot cake
i was tempted to reverse the candle order

Well, friends – meet my new favorite cake. It even outpaces the peanut-butter chocolate one I’ve been so enamoured of. This is a cake that’s got it all – spice, nuts, raisins, a tangy cream-cheese frosting. It’s not too sweet, the frosting doesn’t overpower. It’s a perfect picnic cake, after-dinner cake, Mad Men themed birthday cake. It is, despite that long list of ingredients and preparation instructions, is manageable and unfussy. And it’s a cake that is going to be made a few times over in my kitchen this summer season – and I hope in yours as well.

bill's piece

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Friday, June 11, 2010

mango sorbet

mango sorbet

You would think that it being summertime and all, I’d have an easy time tell you about mango sorbet. That’s clearly not happening. Instead of writing about mango sorbet, what I really want to do is just extend spoonfuls of it to all of you and say, “Just try this and then tell me it’s not the most amazing thing on a hot summer day!” But being that the interwebs haven’t quite figured out how to teleport frozen dessert to each of your homes (or any kind of food, really), I am left with mere words. And words, my friends, is what isn’t enough here.

mango sorbet mise

What’s probably fair to say, however, is that there are summer days, such as what we had in New York last weekend, when sorbet is the way to go, when it trumps ice cream. Stay with me here. I can hear the gasps of horror across the information superhighway – to suggest ice cream to play second fiddle! Well, I’ll be!

I promise you, I’m not one to ever dismiss ice cream. Ice cream is very sacred in my book – I’m the kind of girl who’ll be getting ready for bed, get a massive ice cream craving and change back to go outside and meet a friend for a scoop. But there are days when all I want is something cold and refreshing that happens to be not creamy. Sometimes, dairy is just a bit too much and I reach for sorbet.

mango sorbet

When I first picked up a copy of The Perfect Scoop, this mango sorbet was the first thing I book-marked. But I quickly got distracted by watermelon sorbet and frozen yogurt (Pinkberry who???) and then of course marrying vanilla with black pepper. A couple of weeks ago when I was devising a menu for one of my Sunday suppers, I saw a clear mango theme emerge and that’s when I remembered the recipe that started it all. I don’t need to tell you that David’s recipes are tried and true and are absolutely amazing – if you don’t have this book of his and you’ve been curious about making ice cream, this is a must-have.

mango sorbet

Look, this time I don’t have a fancy story for you – no ancient memory from my childhood. In Russia, we didn’t have mangos. In fact, we didn’t even have sorbet. Sherbert – yes, but sorbet is a beast unto itself. And so, because I spent the first eleven years of my life deprived of mangos and sorbet, I would think that I have to make up for a lot of lost time. Ice cream maker – get ready, we’re going to make beautiful music sorbet together!

mango sorbet

In fact, as I was writing this last night, I kept running over to the kitchen and sneaking little spoons of sorbet as a snack, hoping, in vain, that having a few spoonfuls will inspire me to write something poetic, something that will galvanize you at once to run over to your local grocer, get two ripe mangoes, and charge forth into your kitchens intent on making sorbet. Or else. I am, however, left with just mere words. Words that aren’t nearly as delicious as this frozen goodness here. You could, of course, try to lick the screen. Let me know how that works out for ya.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

chocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frosting

chocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frosting

This cake was frosted while standing on one foot. With the other foot held in the air. Lest you think I am an acrobatic baker, let me get right to the point: I had to hold the other foot off the ground because I couldn’t put any weight on it due to two stress fractures. But I didn’t know it at the time. I was just in a lot of pain, but there was an unfrosted cake staring me in the face and a birthday party an hour away. What’s a girl to do?

chocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frostingchocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frosting

Let me make no apologies here – this is a post a year in the making. Somehow, this cake, this lovely offering of espresso, chocolate and mascarpone, got left behind and I found the pictures while organizing the digital mess on my laptop. What’s even more embarrassing, is that this cake was made for my friend Bill’s birthday last year, and guess what is rolling around in a few days? Funny how birthday return every year on the exact same day. And guess who is making Bill this year’s birthday cake? That’s right – this lady over here! I promise not to take a full year to get around to it. In fact, I already started writing about it, so there’s more cake coming your way. Thrilling stuff, I know.

chocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frosting

You might be wondering how I came to be frosting a cake with a broken foot. Well, the day of Bill’s birthday party, I ran a race. Not a huge race, mind you, but a race nonetheless – a 10k. I had baked the cake the night before, froze the layers for easier frosting and set up my frosting mise en place for the following morning, knowing that I will have to rush home after my 10k, shower, change, grab the cake and dash to make the birthday brunch. Except, I managed to injure myself in the process (did not anticipate that happening!) What I knew was this: somewhere around the third mile, my foot began to throb every time I applied any kind of pressure on it, which, if you’re running, you’re doing quite a bit. If any of you out there reading this are runners, you also know that runners possess the “must-finish-the-race-at-all-costs” mentality and also brush of whatever possible injuries might be occurring as a simple “muscle spasm”. “It’s no big deal,” I told myself, “stop being a wimp and just finish the race already!” I hobbled the rest of the race, but I finished.

chocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frosting

By the time I met up with the rest of my team, I couldn’t walk. And since no one suspected this could be a stress fracture (and I had never sustained one before) I thought this was a sprain that would dissipate in a couple of days. I decided that if I ice my foot as much as possible, and stay off it – it’s as good as problem solved. So I hobbled home, showered and changed, frosted and boxed the cake and hobbled to brunch, cake in tow. The cake was met with wild enthusiasm and I went home after to ice my foot and rest.

chocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frostingchocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frosting
chocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frostingchocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frosting

The next day, in horrible pain, I took myself to the ER where they cold me I had not one but two (!) stress fractures from overuse (I guess running those three half marathons in a month and a half was a bit much). I was told to stay off my feet as much as possible, given crutches and sent home. Being on crutches put a damper in my cooking routine, and then shortly after the injury, I moved to Brooklyn and then promptly got distracted with cooking things like ice cream and pies and meatballs and cupcakes. You know how I am by now: show me shiny and I am all distracted!

chocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frosting

Better late than never, though, right? If you like mascarpone, coffee and chocolate – a cakier version of tiramisu, so to speak, then this cake is for you. I was slightly confused by the picture that the magazine (and online link) showed. Dark, glossy frosting is not what I wound up with, and it makes sense too. When you add mascrapone to your dark chocolate, the resulting color is not dark chocolate (comments in the link reflect the same dilemma!) – but something lighter, milk-chocolate-like. So if you do make the cake and find your frosting lighter than the picture – do not despair, as you are not alone in this. But should you really want to challenge yourself, you may want to frost this cake, standing on one foot, trying to keep your balance. You can lick the spatula at the end as your reward.

chocolate espresso cake with chocolate mascarpone frosting

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