Thursday, October 28, 2010

butternut squash lasagna

butternut squash lasagna

I woke up the other night having dreamt of butternut squash lasagna. I often dream about what I’m cooking in real life, and sometimes have dreams about what I might want to be cooking when I wake up. Even while I sleep, my world often revolves around food. Some might find it odd, others – boring, but if nothing else, this dreaming peculiarity led me to gem of a recipe and for that I am forever grateful to that odd head of mine that not only conjures up food ideas, but also offers solutions to real-life pickles I face in the kitchen.

lasagna mise

In my dream, I was sitting at my dinner table, thinking about what to make for supper. The previous night (the awake, real-life part), I had decided upon a braised chicken with Moroccan spices and dates for our Sunday supper, but at the last minute, changed my mind and promised Andrew his favorite soup, scrapping the planned-on lentil soup. That, of course, threw a wrench in the works because no one wants to eat chicken soup followed by a chicken main course. I thought that something vegetarian might be a good, sensible idea, but I couldn’t make up my mind on what that something would be. With my supper plans unresolved, I went to bed with next evening’s meal on my mind.

butternut squash lasagna butternut squash lasagna

In my dream, I was making a list of possible main courses for dinner. I normally make lots of lists and they are strewn about all over the apartment. So it makes perfect sense that I’d be doing the same in my dream, but still, that consistency in my dream struck me as pretty funny.

As I was jotting down possible options, I thought perhaps a vegetable, spinach butternut squash (eureka!) lasagna would be perfect: the autumn flavors of cooked squash, layered with béchamel, and fresh mozarella and Parmesan, sounded perfect.

In general, I prefer my lasagna sans meat, using vegetables instead to create layers of flavor. While lasagna Bolognese sounds heavenly in theory, immediately upon eating a piece, I am compelled to take a nap. For the rest of the night. Even though I adore pasta Bolognese, and could eat it by bowlfuls regularly, the lasagna Bolognese doesn’t quite do it for me. Apparently, I’m not the only one.

butternut squash lasagna butternut squash lasagna

So how did this idea, conceived in the wee hours, come out? Let’s just say that I pray for all my dreams to have such delicious results. The lasagna turned out to be even better than I originally expected. It was delicate, autumnal and felt light as a feather. The combination of the melted burrata and Parmesan gave the butternut squash that unmistakable taste of October – the kind that is accompanied by mulled cider or fabulous red wine. Sage and pistachios, finely chopped and mixed with the squash, added a nice earthy dimension and some needed texture.

butternut squash lasagna

And best of all, no one at the table complained about the absence of meat. Everyone ate their portion and then immediately demanded seconds. A tiny piece was left over at the end of the night, lonely and abandoned in its baking dish. It became part of Andrew’s lunch the next day. Had I known the lasagna was going to be such a hit, I would’ve doubled the ingredients. Unfortunately, my dream never told me to do that. Tant pis. Clearly, there’s some room for improvement with the logistical portion of the dreams, but at least it gets the meals right.

butternut squash lasagna

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

avgolemono soup

avgolemono soup

This is Andrew’s favorite soup and it took me six months to make it. You would think that as his girlfriend I’d feel compelled to rush to the kitchen to make his favorite things to woo him, but apparently I’m obstinate and run on the over-promise and under-deliver campaign. I am easily distracted and seasonal foods are the equivalent of ooh-shiny-what-were-we-talking-about-again? Andrew has been lovely and patient, acting as an obedient guinea-pig and sampling whatever dishes strike my fancy at a moment’s notice. Might it be because he knows which side his bread is buttered on? Possibly. But either way, he’s been lovely.

5 eggs

In discussing our favorite dishes, Andrew told me about this Greek diner in Boston he’d go to with family, and the diner would make this amazing Greek chicken lemon soup. I’ve heard of avgolemono soup, but I’d never had it before. The premise: chicken stock, intensely infused with lemon juice and thickened with eggs, sounded at once comforting, luxurious, and refreshing (with lemons how could it not?). But because I’ve never eaten it before, how would I know a good recipe from a dud? It’s one thing to make your boyfriend’s favorite dish that you have mastered, but a totally different one to venture into the terra incognita. You don’t want to fall flat on your face, and while you want to wow and impress, you, the you with a day job, also might not have the time to run all over New York (or wherever you happen to live) and sample avgolemono in a dozen different locations.

8 lemons

But over the past month, I have looked at many an Avgolemono recipe in preparation for Operation Boyfriend’s Favorite Soup, and realized that you can tell, by reading through a recipe, if it’s going to be a good soup. Maybe not the exact replica Andrew was used to, but a tasty bowl of soup nonetheless. After reading through over a dozen or so recipes, I could tell which version produced what. Some recipes came across as inadequately lemony (you need more than one lemon for a whole pot of soup to bear its name); some as too watery (quarter cup of rice does not exciting soup make); some as skimping on the chicken itself, if not avoiding it all together. From my research, I learned that classic avgolemono, should typically contain some rice and offer noticeable chicken presence. Since you’re eating chicken soup, it follows that you should see chicken meat in your bowl. The soup should taste rich, but not overbearingly thick or heavy. If you want your soup to be less filling, adjust your chicken accordingly, but if you prefer to have a meal instead, chicken meat should have its own spotlight.

avgolemono soup

The soup gets better the following day, as the flavors meld together and grow more intense. I had it for lunch yesterday and thought perhaps I might be unduly flattering myself. But Andrew, who also had it for lunch at work, noted the same, which makes me think that perhaps there’s something to the better-the-day-after theory. Unless, he is just flattering me and it’s some kind of a Jedi mind trick so that I make this soup soon again and not wait another six months. If it’s the latter, this is nothing short of brilliant strategery* on his part – flattery will get you everywhere.

*Yup, I went there.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

butternut squash and cider soup

butternut squash and cider soup

We got back from London, and I promptly came down with one of those post-long-plane rides colds. At first, it was kind of fun to have a sexy rock-star voice, but when it quickly deteriorated into lower octaves, I started to sound like I’ve been drinking for thirty years. The sexy was long gone, and I just wanted my regular high-pitched, I-still-sound-like-I’m-thirteen voice back. That, and the ability to finish a sentence before erupting in a coughing fit.

I don’t know about you, but when I get sick, unless I’m running a serious fever, I don’t sit still. I don’t wrap myself in blankets, make residence on the couch and watch countless Dr. Who re-runs unless I am nearly dead to the world and have resigned to Gatorade and saltines. (By the way, the new Dr. Who is just not doing it for me. Just wanted to share that.) Something about being sick coupled with a desire to be constantly moving about sets me in motion. And makes me want to make soup. And to be precise – pureed soup that tells me that autumn is here, and it’s high time for squash.

butternut squash and cider soup

This soup comes from a highly-anticipated book – The Essential New York Times Cook Book written diligently and thoughtfully over the last six years by Amanda Hesser. The Amanda Hesser of the Cooking for Mr. Latte and The Cook and the Gardener fame, among others. Years ago, when I was reading chapters of “Cooking for Mr. Latte” in the Sunday Magazine, I would imagine myself falling in love and winning over my future husband with one meal at a time. I imagined myself jettisoning my job, packing a suitcase and moving to France to attend La Varenne. The stories always sounded so lovely, and I liked to imagine myself in them. It was the ultimate romance: love through food and stories around it. So many of our memories are shaped by what we eat and who we eat with, even if a meal is just with yourself.

butternut squash and cider soup

I am so very grateful to the that same thoughtful soul (you know who you are!) who sent me the fantastic Melissa Clark and Bill Yosses book for sending me a review copy of this expansive tome. It was on my list of books to own and it is an absolute treasure. Painstakingly curated and lovingly put together, this book is encyclopedic in its scope with recipes dating back to 1880’s, comprehensive, and thorough. But beyond its offerings, it’s like a treasure trove of history – stories told through recipes of how this country has evolved in what we eat, and consequently what we might be concerned with: sustainability, health, frugality, or excess. There are dozens of recipes I’ve noted and set aside. I will be cooking from it for decades.

butternut squash and cider soup

I tweaked this soup quite a bit because I like to play with some spices in my squash, so I added some cumin, cinnamon, and cayenne. And I wanted to make the squash taste more um, should I say “squashy”, so I added a tiny bit of lemon juice just to brighten the flavor just a bit. I took out the apple garnish, adding instead some cumin-spiced sour cream, which can be swapped for crème fraîche or yogurt, if you like, and sprinkled a few cilantro leaves on top. But, darlings, the cider! The cider was bold, pronounced, and unexpected. On the one hand, there was an unmistakable taste of apples and fall, but on the other hand, the apples gave way to more savory flavors of the squash playing a supporting, rather than a leading role. It’s soup that is at once inspiring and comforting, bold and subdued, celebratory and casual. And it’s perfect for those evenings when you’ve all but lost your voice. For if you cannot exclaim out loud the admiration for the soup, your empty bowl will be declaration enough.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

brown rice with chanterelles and caramelized onions

rice with caramelized onions and chanterelles

My mother is a clever and resourceful woman, and that’s not a compliment – it’s a fact. Years of living in Russia trains you to be wired that way, and she is. I’m not sure how she does it, but no matter the season, mom is always prepared for the onslaught of visitors. Should anyone drop in unexpectedly, there is a slew of picked snacks (hello, Russian household), salads, Russian salamis and cheeses, not to mention various cookies, and chocolates, and fruit. Should you choose to show up at 2 o’clock at night, save for the some nasty glares, you’ll be sitting down to a full table in less than ten minutes. It’s that kind of Russian preparedness I have always admired.

rice with caramelized onions and chanterelles

rice with caramelized onions and chanterelles rice with caramelized onions and chanterelles

When I was visiting last month, I volunteered to cook our dinner. I wanted to play with the light in my mother’s beautifully lit kitchen as my own kitchen, lovely as it may be, lacks natural light. I quite liked the soft, diffused daylight from the cloudy day – busying myself with apple sauce, chicken with mustard, and this dish. Earlier that afternoon, I had found a bag of frozen chanterelles in my mother’s freezer and I was curious. I have a soft spot for the yellow mushroom – growing up it was my favorite, and we ate it with abandon. It’s been more difficult, and costly, to find chanterelles in the US, but according to my mother, many Russian stores now carry bags of frozen chanterelles, which is a wonderful, and affordable compromise.

rice with caramelized onions and chanterelles

I decided to throw our old mushroom-chanterelle favorite combination together with some brown rice. We were under time constraints to eat before Yom Kippur started and I needed a quick and low-maintenance side dish. While the components were cooking, I prepared the chicken for roasting, and made a simple salad on the side. And then I curled up with a book in the living room, while our family cat decided to fall asleep at my feet, but not before kneading my soles with his. Sharp claws, is all I have to say on the matter. But the cuteness and the purring totally made up for it.

rice with caramelized onions and chanterelles

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

chicken braised in milk

you'd never think this is good, oh but it is

I swear I didn’t plan this on purpose, but it’s fitting that today’s post is about chicken braised in milk – a recipe from Jamie Oliver. I made this dish awhile back in the spring, right about when temperature turned from crisp and cool to hot and sticky. We woke up one morning – and it was sweltering outside. There was no ramping up – overnight, summer arrived and it seemed ill-timed to serenade anything braised for at least a few months. I put the recipe aside, but vowed to tell you about it first chance I got. Print this recipe and tuck it away somewhere where you can easily find it. It’s going to be a staple for you this winter. I promise you.

The irony of the timing of this post isn’t lost on me either. Less than a day before we depart for vacation in England (a few days of London followed by a couple of days in the countryside), I give you a recipe by one of the country’s most celebrated chefs. I didn’t plan on posting this particular recipe right before our UK sojourn – it just soft of happened. I’ve never properly been to London, outside of business trips and whatnot, so the only way I’ve experienced London before was through the windows of a taxi – not particularly thrilling, to be honest. But this time, it’s all about seeing friends, eating amazing English food, stopping by a pub in the afternoon for a pint or two. We can’t wait. We’re very much overdue for a vacation.

the aromatics

And a word about English food. Somehow, the stereotype that English food is terrible still persists, and it makes me so mad because it’s simply not true. English food is simple, comforting and elegant – without pretense or hyperbole. It’s the kind of food you want to eat right about this time of year. It’s unfussy and welcoming. It doesn’t belabor the point. Maybe years ago, British food was terrible, in the same way American food was terrible. But that’s no longer the case, American food has had a remarkable Renaissance, thanks to chefs like Alice Waters, Dan Barber, and lots of others. Same goes for British food. To be fair, there’s lots of terrible food around us everywhere. Bad food isn’t hard to locate. You can have a terrible meal in France (it’s easier than you think!), Italy, or Spain. You can have terrible food in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, and other gastronomic centers of the country. And we all know that a lot of Europeans still think of American food as a hybrid of prepackaged foods, pizza, and McDonalds. Anyone who’s ever been to Times Square in New York knows that terrible food is all around us. Finding good food, food made carefully, lovingly, thoughtfully, with respect for the ingredients – takes some work. But it’s work that can be handsomely rewarded. Which is why after doing much research and asking some lovely folks about their recommendations, I’ve made a few reservations and I can’t wait to try them. I’ll have a full report when I’m back.

browned and ready for the braise

But more on this chicken. This recipe is sort of the recipe blogged round the world. If you’re unfamiliar with Jamie Oliver you should take the time and get to know him. You might have seen his show – Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution where he tried to get West Virginia school children to eat whole foods: including fruits and vegetables. Jamie is on a mission to get us all to eat real food. Whole ingredients. One recipe at a time. You can’t really argue with his motivation – it’s all wonderful stuff. I could go on and on about his projects, but really, you should just go and buy a book of his. Any book. You won’t be steered in the wrong direction, and my guess is you’ll return to buy a few more of his books. Jamie gives you tools to make serious food, minus the preciousness of it all. It’s food you want to take a bite out of: like this one.

braised and ready

One of Jamie’s postulates is that anyone can cook good food. Anyone. Just get a few quality ingredients, and let them stand on their own. And he does it here with this braised chicken. Simply put, you throw a few ingredients in the heavy bottomed pot, add the chicken, and let the whole thing just sort of do its thing. What I love is that left to its own devices, the chicken and the milk along with a few aromatics, fuse together to form something that while looks pretty pedestrian and earthly, yields you something elevated and ethereal. It’s a little bit of a rabbit in a hat trick, except there is no gimmick. The result of a few quality ingredients, left alone on low heat to ponder their fate, produces stunning, show-stopping results. After the first bite, I had to put my fork down and exhale – it was that kind of delicious. And I expect us to eat this well all throughout our trip – the English food I know has always been one of my favorite cuisines. We are coming hungry – London and Kent, you best be ready for us.

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Friday, October 1, 2010

beef randang – malaysian beef curry

beef randang

Today in New York is a rainy, sleepy day. The kind of day that makes me want to take a long walk in the park, wrapped in a sweater, with a scarf draped around my neck. It’s the kind of day that makes me realize that there is no place like New York, no city that actually makes the rain so welcome. Paris is lovely in the rain, but Paris is lovely in any weather. In London rain is pretty much expected and has a long tenure. But to me New York is loveliest when the skies are grey, the rain is falling, and there are puddles on the ground. The grey and rainy New York is lovelier than the sunny New York, at least to me.

beef randang beef randang

I took a walk through Central Park today en route to work, making my journey slightly longer, but much more pleasant. I looked at the runners wishing I could join them – I love to run in the drain, and while I know that sounds counter-intuitive, trust me – once you do it, you’ll be hooked for life. It’s my favorite running weather. Now, I’m not talking a deluge here – just rain and slightly cooler temperatures. It makes for a refreshing, invigorating run. I smiled at all the dogs jumping from grass to pavement and back again, sniffing roots of trees, grasses, wet leaves, greeting one another, their wet tails wagging in excitement. The mothers were pushing their babies in strollers – some were running, some were walking briskly; all had an air of contentment about them. It was the perfect fall walk.

star anise, cardamom, cinnamon

I love days like this. I love weekends like this even more. When you’re “forced” to hang out in your apartment, putting around the kitchen, wearing sweaters and leggings, drinking endless cups of tea with Ma Rainey playing in your living room. Even better if you have a record player, and can hear the scratches in Ma Rainey’s voice. Give me more of such weekends, autumn, and I will make more beef randang in your honor. Who doesn’t love a hearty, soupy, spicy curry, spooned over rice and served in a deep bowl?

beef randang

I’ve been thinking about beef randang, ever since the lovely Colleen and I went out to Laut near Union Square. I haven’t had Malaysian food in I can’t tell you how long, but I realized after our dinner, just how much I had missed it. Malaysian food is made for days like this when you want something cozy and warm, and salads just won’t do, and soup seems to be not filling enough. It’s the equivalent of a wearing a blanket, minus the actually literally wearing one. But should ever decide that blanket-wearing is a must for dinner, you are now equipped with the perfect recipe for such an occasion, where sit at your table and eat it wearing whatever you like: a blanket, flannel pajamas, fleece pants and a hoodie, or yoga pants and a sweater. Sometimes, it’s just best to stay in and dress down, don’t you agree?

beef randang

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