Friday, January 28, 2011

red lentil soup with lemon

red lentil soup with lemon

I’ve always been a bit of a homebody, but only now is it becoming acceptable and even cool. I attribute this paradigm shift to age (not that I’m claiming to be old, not at all). As I get older, I enjoy puttering around my home more and more, and it’s finally become acceptable to say to friends, “We stayed in and made dinner on a Saturday night.” No one raises eye brows anymore, expecting you to regale them with a tale of an outing until four o’clock in the morning in the coolest lounge that has just opened – a lounge that doesn’t have a name or an entrance sign and has a password which you must tell to a faceless voice over the telephone nearby. Yes, we’ve all been there. I’m over it and I have been for some time.

red lentil soup with lemon

Last night, over dinner during our monthly book club meetings, one of my friends was telling us of one such night, which is now an aberration in her life. “A party,” she said, “that started at 10pm. I barely made it. I mean, I really had to remind myself that I had to go.” We all nodded because at this stage in our lives, a party that starts at ten in the evening, is indeed quite late. We’d have to be out, having a late dinner to motivate ourselves to actually attend. If we’re at home in our pajamas – forget about it. It won’t happen.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

cast iron 101

cast iron 101

Cast iron pans elicit as much fear as they do fervor. For every cook out there who swears by their cast iron skillet, there’s a cook out there who is petrified to use it. I asked a few of my friends and family what made them resist the siren call of cast iron and they all pointed to the same anxiety. They were afraid of its upkeep, which admittedly at first, can seem daunting. But with a few simple rules, you can maintain your cast iron indefinitely and even pass it on to your children or grandchildren. Personally, I’d be pretty excited to get one from either my mom or my grandmother, but I just learned, much to my horror, that their maintenance of it was incorrect (hence them having issues with it). And so, allow me to share a few tips with you about cooking in, caring for, maintaining, and reseasoning your cast iron skillets.

A properly seasoned cast iron will develop a non-stick like coating and will cook your food to perfection. That incredible heat retention and distribution will deliver magnificent results. There’s a reason that cast iron cookware has withstood the test of time. What could be simpler?

cast iron 101

1. Warm It Up, Chris*: When warming your cast iron, start with a low heat setting first and gradually increase. Don’t just place the pan on high heat, or place it in the hot oven (warm it inside the oven as it warms).

2. Cooking: When cooking in your cast iron, try not to cook foods with high acid content like tomatoes – it can damage the seasoning and also impart a metallic taste to your food. Stick to regular frying, sauteeing, and whatnot. If you want to bake with your cast iron, make sure it’s an older well-seasoned pan. New pans should be used only for frying to get more seasoned.

3. Don’t Be So Cold:After cooking, please don’t try to cool your pan by thrusting it in cold water – you can actually crack the pan that way.

cast iron 101

4. Washing: When washing your pan out – just use a stiff nylon pad or brush, never soap (as that strips the seasoning) and hot water. Wipe the pan dry. Some people choose to lightly coat the inside of theirs with a tiny bit of oil and heat to rub the oil in. Another good method, and one I use very often, is to dump a generous amount of kosher salt into the pan, and scrub with a washcloth you’re not sad to get greasy or a paper towel with a small amount of water. Rinse and dry immediately, preferably over a low flame.

5. Reseasoning: Sometimes the state of one’s cast iron pan gets to be quite dire. Not to worry – you can reseason it and it’ll be back to its great self in no time. What you want to do is to spread a thin coat of a neutral oil (like canola) on the inside and outside of the pan. However, the best oil to use is flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil, much like linseed oil used in oil painting to achieve a hard, shiny, dry finish, is a “drying oil”, except it’s edible (unlike its oil painting cousin). The process that occurs when your oil dries to a hard, shiny and not sticky finish is called “fat polymerization”. So the best oil to use for fat polymerization is a drying oil and flaxseed oil is the only edible drying oil out there.

Line the bottom of the oven with some tin foil to catch any drips, and heat your pan, upside down at 400 degrees F. I usually place my rack in the top third of the oven. After an hour, remove from the oven and let cool. Check your pan – has it blackened, or are you still looking at a few grey spots? It’s possible your cast iron could use another reseasoning session or two. Don’t be afraid of multiple sessions – just remember: you can always get the pan back to a well-seasoned shape.

6. Sticky!:There’s sticky gunk in your pan – what do you do? If the gunk is on the bottom, I have found that it’s not so bad trying to remove it if you boil some water in the pan and then try to loosen the gunk with a stiff nylon brush. On sides, a heated pan makes it easier for the gunk to come off, just be careful and not burn yourself. Always wash your pan in hot water to prevent it from cracking. Also, hot water is more effective at dissolving any stubborn sticky spots. Actually, one of the reasons I don’t coat my pan in oil after cleaning is that for some reason, I find that it always gets sticky afterward. I much rather keep the pan dry and reseason as needed.

7. Rust: Your cast iron skillet is showing some rust. You can easily remove rust by scrubbing with equal parts of oil and salt on the rusty spots. If rust is too pervasive, you can try using fine steel wool. Once done, wash the skillet, and dry it thoroughly. Reseason according to instructions above.

cast iron 101

There, I hope this has helped to clear up any mystery/confusion about cast iron pans. And I hope that those of you on the fence, afraid to give it a go, now feel excited and confident that you can maintain your cast iron in great condition. A little bit of effort with cast iron – can be extremely rewarding. It will soon become your go-to pan – you’ll see! And if you have any questions on the heels of this post, leave a comment below and I’ll answer to the best of my ability!

*(I’m about to!)

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

tuscan kale salad with pecorino

Raw Tuscan Kale Salad with Pecorino

Were I not so bleary-eyed yesterday, I might be able to express my glee about this salad. But I slept poorly, woke up early, and skipped my morning coffee and sat at my desk all day without so much as a drop of caffeine. This morning treated me to a migraine and I decided to work from home where I can be in a dark and quiet room. But this salad is a revelation (it’s basically a kale Caesar salad if you think about it), and it’s going to be on regular rotation this winter. I’ve already made it three times in the span of ten days. I would have made more, but I ran out of lacinato kale. Not to worry, more is coming this week and I plan on making loads more of this come Thursday night for our book club dinner, which I’m hosting this time. But as for you, you must make it as soon as you possibly can. It’s not at all time-consuming and you’ll be amazed that you might start craving a salad this time of year. I can’t implore you enough – go now!

lacinato kale

Right around this time of year, I face the perennial problem of how to eat more greens while most everything I see at the farmers’ market is brown. I think because it’s been so bitterly cold outside (six degrees out yesterday morning!) I’m turned off by traditional salads with crunchy lettuce and the usual out-of-season salad accouterments – the last thing I want on my place something cold. I want greens that’s chewy, almost meaty, with a strong, nutty bite and a toothsome quality. Give me something I can sink my teeth into!

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Friday, January 21, 2011

vegetable stock bag


There’s absolutely no reason why you have to go out and buy new vegetables to make stock, vegetable or otherwise. Start a “stock bag” in your freezer and place whatever odds and ends of vegetables and herbs you’ve left with after you make a meal. Carrots gone soft and mushy? Your stock bag is the answer. Celery, once firm and crunchy, now looks wilted and bleak – don’t toss it, just add it to your stock bag. When the bag gets full, you’re ready to make a pot of stock – it’s that easy! Isn’t it great putting everything in your kitchen to good use and not wasting a scrap?

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

cauliflower soup with parmesan and harissa

cauliflower soup

Maybe I got a little ahead of myself. I had intended for us to be fully unpacked and settled in five days. I thought, if we apply ourselves, we can get it all done in no time, like magic. But settling into a place doesn’t work that way. For one, you discover you need things. Things like shelves and shelf dividers and wall-mounting hooks. Things that help you organize, and if anyone from the Container Store executive team is reading this, we could really use one of your stores in our hood. Of course, the downside to that would mean that I would never, and I mean never, leave it – and Andrew have to explain to people that his girlfriend got lost somewhere between the Elfa shelving units and the kitchen stackables. It would be a sad tale of love and loss. I’d quickly become a cautionary tale, or an urban legend – or both!

Secondly, in the process of unpacking, you discover that there are things you no longer need, things you want to give away, things you want to sell. And so these things, until you find a proper place for them, sit in the middle of you living room/bedroom/hallway shamelessly staring at you as if to say, “You, you who no longer wants me, how could you do this to me? How could you just discard me?” Such is the state of things at the apartment.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

pasta with brown butter, kabocha and sage

pasta with kabocha squash, sage and brown butter

And so there was the move. It was quick and seamless (is it possible to sing praises to your movers, because I want to!) and the whole thing took less that three hours from the moment the movers got to Andrew’s place to the moment when he handed them the check and tip and we shut the door. It’s official – we can finally can call one central space home, instead of referring to our respective apartments as our “weekend place” and our “city place”. It sounds very bourgeois and fancy, but it was a major pain in the neck constantly to be living our of a bag, unsure if a particular item was here or there. Never mind the cost of New York real estate – boggles the mind.

We unpacked a bunch of boxes on the first day, and around five o’clock were so exhausted we could barely move. We ordered Thai take-out and watched taped episodes of the Daily Show. It felt like heaven, somehow, amidst the clutter and the disarray – it felt so good to be under one roof. And so for the last few days we’ve been trying to settle in – and so far, it’s been really easy and smooth. We rearranged some furniture and it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. It’ll take some time, but we’re on our way. I can finally start cooking in earnest again (hard to do with lots of travel, packing, guests, etc.) and I can’t wait. So this here little dish is from a few weeks back, when I knew I was going to be too busy to cook and develop new recipes, I tucked it away for a day like today. It was inspired by one of our neighborhood restaurants – and the dish I had there has lingered on my mind for quite some time.

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