Monday, June 22, 2009

Deconstructing Sushi: A Recession Tale

Dear Boo,

As I type this, you're probably sitting in an adirondack chair on a wrap-around porch overlooking the rocky shoreline with a puppy curled up at your feet and a glass of ice tea dripping cool condensation down your wrist. And here I am, holed up in my apartment, shaking my fist at the clouds that have blanketed our not-so-fair city, opening up to spit vengefully at the most inconvenient times, for 19 out of the past 22 days. I hope you feel good about yourself. One question, though: is there sushi out there on Deer Isle?

Probably. Is there a corner of this globe that sushi hasn't reached? And really, thank heavens for that, because it's pretty much a perfect food. Delicious, fun to eat, infinite variety, complex flavors and textures, totally healthy, low-calorie, and cheap! Oh wait. Except for that last one. Damn. So close to being perfect, yet so far.

I don't know if you've heard, but we're in a bit of a pickle, economically-speaking. In the bigger picture sense, we're kind of screwed. In the smaller-picture sense, I have to stop eating out so much. Namely, sushi. (insert more fist-shaking)

But I have a solution! The other night, craving sushi, but not being able to bring myself to spend the $35 I inevitably end up shelling out, I made us a deconstructed sushi dinner.

Here's what you do:

Go shopping for: a nice, thick tuna steak (or two) big enough for two folks, scallions, 1 avocado, 1 seedless (or two regular) cucumbers, wasabi paste, 1 package of nori (dried seaweed sheets), and black sesame seeds (optional).

Pull out of your pantry/fridge: white rice, soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, a lime.

Make a marinade for the tuna with whatever you like that says "sushi" to you. You know, a little soy sauce, a little ginger, a little honey, a little rice vinegar, a little sake, a little Japanese heavy metal version of the Rainbow Connection--sorry, that just reminds me of Sapporo East.

Peel and thinly slice the cucumber. Toss it with rice vinegar, sesame oil, salt and a squeeze of lime. Let it sit in the fridge for at least 10 minutes. Sprinkle with black sesame seeds before serving.

Make your rice. When it's done, sprinkle it with the rice vinegar and toss with chopped scallions, and some crumbed pieces of nori (actually, I'd wait until the rice is not so hot as the heat will make the nori soggy).

While the rice is cooking, make a dipping sauce of soy sauce, a dash of vinegar, a little ginger, maybe a drop of honey, and of course a squeeze of wasabi.

Sear the tuna in a hot pan with sesame oil. Depending on the thickness, it might take a bit longer or shorter to cook, but it should only be about 2-4 minutes per side. If it's really sushi-quality, delicious sushi, just barely touch it to the pan.

Get fancy: Scoop the rice into a cup measure and pack it down. Invert it onto the plate like you're a big shot. If it falls apart like mine did, who cares. It'll still taste good. Top it with a small sheet of nori. Top that with sliced tuna (make sure to slice against the grain), and that with sliced avocado. Serve the cucumber salad piled up next to the formidable Tower of Sushi. Spoon dipping sauce lightly over the top and serve in a small dish on the side for dipping.

Pump up the Japanese heavy metal, close your eyes, and take a bite. You might not be fooled, but your craving should be sated. Maybe not until the recession ends, but at least for the time being.

Now go mail me a lobster roll.


The Mouse

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Maine Attractions

Dear Mouse,

I'm off! After a big gig on Saturday here in NYC, I will rise bright & early and wend my way to beautiful, scenic, really-really-far Deer Isle ME with other cast members, to get my Shakespeare on. (That's the theatre, above.)

"How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak! I am not yet so low but that my nails can reach unto thine eyes !" -hermia, midsummer

Probably the most famous catfight ever! I can't wait to say that. I also can't wait to do the following:

1) Make the Maine Blueberry Oat Scones recipe which just happens to be in this months' Bon Appetit and which, yes, I have already clipped and put in my suitcase.

2) Eat lobster, but not the McLobster Roll that I have already been warned is on the menu at the local McDonalds.

3) Make and eat the Midsummer Night's Dream Fruit Salad I made up for last summer's blog.

4) Hang out, and possibly move in, here.

A report on each will follow pending the availability of internet. :-)

Back to packing,

The Boo

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Onions have Landed

Dear Boo,

I write to you from beneath an avalanche of onions. I've been living under here for a couple of weeks and have only now dug my way out of the kitchen for some fresh air. I can happily report that I have wrestled the bulbs into submission, with only a few tears shed, and emerged, ultimately, victorious.

Let me explain.

Sometime back in December, I attended a holiday benefit party for A Mac's fabulous theater company, ERS. There was drinking and snacking and music and around the room were tables with silent auction items tempting guests to bid. Amid the dresses and theater tickets and photo sessions, in a corner, tucked away, was an item that caught my eye. "Famous Sweet Jumbo Vidalia Onions" shipped to the winner by the mother of the Artistic Director, direct from Vidalia, GA, as soon as they come into season. On my second or third glass of mulled wine, I plunked my bid down. Next to me, A-Mac's dad laughed, "What the hell are you going to do with 50 POUNDS of onions?!" I looked closer. Whoops. "Winner is entitled to: Two 25-pound bags". What, Indeed.

Shortly after I was informed that I'd won the item, I got an email with the following:

"The onions are usually shipped sometime before the middle of May. The grower from whom we buy our onions does not rush his crop and they are usually really sweet. He lets them dry in the field after digging and before bagging and shipping. Hope you will be pleased."

And then I forgot entirely about them. Months passed and I received another email letting me know they had been shipped. My Super must have thought I was insane as he lugged the two 25 lb boxes upstairs, labeled "Onions". Wrapped in a bright mesh bag, marked with the official Georgia Sweet Onion Growers Association seal, direct from The McDonald Farm, standing on end the onions reached past my knees.
So what does one do when you find yourself buried under 50 lbs of sweet, milky white, voluptuous bulbs?

1) Eat one.
The first night we received the shipment, I sliced up thin rings of onion for a riff on a caprese with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. I noticed as I cut into the first one, how there was virtually no onion smell. I held the cross section up to my face, the milky juice running down my fingers, and took a breath. My eyes didn't even smart. We have a friend who used to eat onions like apples. I never understood how until I tasted one of these. They were so sweet, so crunchy, so utterly lacking in that tearful bite, that I could almost imagine packing one for breakfast.

2) Give some away, for the love of all things holy!
For the past couple of weeks, anyone who stopped by our apartment left with at least a couple. Onions are the new olive branch.

3) Pickle Some.
Great idea, Boo. I've always regarded anyone who does home pickling as somewhat of a magician, possessing skills I could never have. Turns out it's about the easiest thing in the world, made easier by this recipe for pickled onions I found from good old Martha Stewart. Despite my anxiety about having the precise alchemy, here's what I learned: Vinegar+sugar+salt+vegetable/fruit object=pickles. It's pretty simple. 48 hours later, we had lip-smacking, sour/sweet, salty onion pickles. Great on sandwiches, salads, burgers, hot dogs, or right out of the jar. (For the record, I ran out of white vinegar partway through and had to use some cider vinegar to replace it which worked just as well. I also added some pickling spice to the jars, which I didn't love. I think next time I'd just throw in a few peppercorns and be done with it.)

4) Make Jam.
Once I had bought the jars for pickling, jam seemed like the likely next step. Remember "Enjoy", the Stop and Shop label that mom found, which makes delicious balsamic onion jam that mom kept calling just "enjoy" for short--as in, "I put a couple of jars of enjoy in your suitcase," or "spread some enjoy on that cracker"? I set out to find a comparable recipe. What I found was one from your favorite, The Splendid Table. It was good, but not quite what I was looking for. More like a chutney or spread than a jam, it nevertheless would be delicious on chicken or fish, and makes for a tasty accompaniment to cheese and crackers. I'm not really a fan of the strong orange flavor the zest added, but that might have to do with the fact that I got distracted by Jeopardy and added it too late so it didn't get as much of a chance to mellow out.

5) Make Confit.
On my errand to Chelsea Market to buy some jars from the restaurant supply store, I ran into my high school friend Jake Dickson (supplier of Hamlet the Pig), whose company, Dickson's Farmstand Meats, is opening a butcher shop in the Market in the fall. In the meantime, they have a stand set up outside their future home, featuring a different farm each week. Over some steak, I told Jake about my onion conundrum, and he ventured the suggestion that I make onion confit. Basically, he said, you slice up a ton of onions, and sautee them for a reeeeally long time in a ton of butter over medium heat until it becomes a pile of caramel colored, soft sweet mess. Then you add a bottle of red wine and cook it down for a reeeeallly long time. It lasts forever, and tastes amazing on anything. Boy, was he right. The already sweet onions became practically candied with a lovely rose color and intense flavor. We had them on sausage sandwiches one night, then on the organic flatiron steaks I bought from Jake, the next night. It was incredible. The steakhouse-themed dinner I made featured onions in every dish--the Peter Luger salad of onions and tomatoes with Luger sauce, my faux-creamed spinach (with goat cheese and a splash of milk), and the hash browns.
My mouth is watering just remembering this. Lastly, yesterday I turned them into an onion dip similar to the kind you make with the lipton packet, but with confit onions, sour cream, lawry's season salt, and a dash of the Luger sauce.

6) Make Onion Soup.
As you know, we've been having awful weather. Rain every day, with temperatures ranging from low 60s, to 80s and back down to 50s at night, humid and horrid and altogether depressing. Lucky for me, this downer weather was perfect for soup. I'm sure if I were a self-respecting cook, I would have made this with homemade stock, but come on. I already had my hands full tackling an apartment full of onions. Gimme a break. Anyway, it was delicious, rivaling any diner version I've had in the late, drunken hours. I've frozen a batch for future days when the season of Vidalias is but a sweet memory.

7) Make more jam.
Emboldened by my pickle-making success, I decided it was time to take my home canning project one step further and actually attempt the whole sterilization/sealing process. There's a lot of scary stuff out there about Ph levels and botchulism that frankly I still don't fully understand, but the second bag of onions didn't seem to be getting any smaller, and though I hate to waste, I figured I could afford an experiment in my quest for homemade Enjoy (hopefully not a fatal one)...
The instructions that accompanied the two packets of pectin powder gave me shuddering flashbacks to honors chemistry. You'd think I was trying to build an atomic bomb, not make jam, for lord's sake. The result is fantastically tasty, if a tad bit shy of jam consistency. Enjoy! :) (For the record, I used 1 fewer cup of sugar because I ran out, and it was PLENTY sweet. I also used half light brown sugar for the same reason, and I substituted 1 t of dijon mustard for the ground mustard which I didn't have)

I have to say, I've done a lot of complaining, a lot of omg, please take some onions off my hands, over the past couple of weeks, but really, deep down in my heart, I've loved every second of the onion deluge. It's felt good to have a challenge, to research new recipes and techniques I might never have tried otherwise, and to come home every day, eager to get started on the next experiment. And truthfully, this is probably much like our eating and cooking life is supposed to be--cooking meals structured around the harvest, finding time-tested ways to preserve the bounty for the colder seasons, and spending quiet afternoons canning, sauces simmering on the stove, bell jars rocking gently in the boiling water, clinking against the sides of the pots, their lids sealing with a ping! from the other room.

I'll miss you, onions. Thank you for bringing some sweetness, spice, and excitement into my life. I only regret you had to travel so far to find me. But the lessons I've learned with you as my guide, I plan to bring with me next visit to the farmer's market. I see some pickled peppers, carrots, and snap peas, strawberry preserves, and fresh tomato sauce jarred for winter, in my near future. But you'll always have a special place in my recipe file.

The Mouse

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quick Fix Berries

Dear Mouse,

So, I don't have a microwave. Call me old fashioned. I've lived with them in the short term but remain unconvinced that they are necessary. However, I've come to see that they're good for a few nifty tricks.

While I was in Louisville I often made this quick, sloppy, fake-pie dessert that involved putting a bunch of fruit in a bowl with a pat of butter, some sugar and maybe a sprinkle of oatmeal and then microwaving it til it went a bit soft and warm. Some vanilla ice cream and there you have it, hold the crust.

A few days ago I went a little crazy at Trader Joe's and bought 4 POUNDS of berries because they were on sale. 2 lbs straw, 2lbs blues. I've been eating them diligently but by this morning the berries in my fridge were kind of dry and withery looking. I didn't want to eat them, but I didn't want to just throw them away and admit defeated bargain shopping.

This morning at work I noticed the office microwave. I dumped the leftover berries in a bowl and stuck them in the MW - no sugar, no nothing - on high for one minute. I was curious and didn't have much to lose.

When they came out they were plumped up, warm, and juicy, bursting on the tongue. As if they had gone to Berry Spa to be rejuvenated.

I highly recommend this technique. I also think itd be lovely over oatmeal.

The Boo

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

F*** You, Ramps

Dear Mouse,

Take a letter.

{Note: Anyone not familiar with F*** You, Penguin should go here immediately.}

Wow, Ramps. It's that time again, isn't it? Ooooooooh you have such a short season!!! I better come and get you before it's too late! I better just DROP whatever I'm doing like all the other SUCKERS and come scurrying to find you, which will give me some kind of culinary superiority over my peers when we talk about you later, and if I don't find you -- what? I'll be left with such a VOID where a TINY GREEN WEED could have been. Oh no. What if I miss the SACRED RAMP TIME? What will I do for the other 11 MONTHS of my year? Guess I'll just have to spend the time weeping on my kitchen table, now and then raising my tearstained face to ask passing waiters where you've gone. I'll haunt the farmers market, rooting through bins of leeks. I'll smuggle pickling spices and whole plates of pasta onto the subway just in case I happen to run into you. GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK. What makes you so fucking special? "Ooh, in Appalachia, they hold whole festivals in my honor!" I'm not even going to go there, Ramps. You know what else is native to North America? DIRT. "OOh... it's a scallion! No, it's garlic! No it's a chive!" Hey, ramps, we get along just fine using scallions, garlic, and chives for most of the time. Most of our LIVES, even. Sometimes when we want a sort of wild, green garlicky taste that combines the best of both scallion, leek, and garlic, we use.... gasp! SCALLION, LEEK, AND GARLIC. Sure it's not exactly the same, but at least we can keep our dignity and get on with our lives. Get down off your mighty ramp horse, it's not like ANYone even remembers you when you're not here.

The Boo

PS. This recipe and is delicious and easy. Also, may I recommend the "spring onion broth" with gruyere/ramp dumplings, currently on the menu at Savoy.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Great Outdoors

Dear Boo,

It's a well known fact that anything cooked or eaten out of doors tastes better. I'm not sure if it's the fresh air or the warm sun or the subconscious connection to our primitive roots, but whatever it is, it works.
I like to say that our family's two favorite things to talk about are food (what we're eating now and what we plan to eat next), and the quickest or shortest way to get from point A to point B. Both of these conversation points are really at a premium when you're spending any time in the Hamptons. Last weekend, we were lucky enough to get some uninterrupted time with our aunt and uncle and cousins in the relatively unspoiled splendor of East Hampton's back woods. The weather held out, the Mets won (mostly), and HO boy did we eat well.

We were greeted with cheeses, crudites and the all-american onion dip while the game played in the background and we sipped some prosecco. The grill was fired up and we bundled into our sweatshirts (it's always colder in the country, isn't it?), determined to chow down outside. Our cousin had made it clear that being the first bbq of the season, we required hamburgers and hot dogs, and I couldn't agree more. The burgers were juicy and perfect, the hot dogs charred with that satisfying snap, and the only vegetables present were covered in mayonnaise.
For dessert, s'mores on the grill and oh yeah--the aunt had a batch of cookie dough ready to go in the fridge. I stood in the kitchen and professed that I couldn't possibly eat another bite. By the time the warm cookies made it to the livingroom, I had already polished off a half.

We slept well that night. After weeks of running around, I was ready for bed by 10 and slept like a log. When I woke up the house was quiet except for our aunt, padding around in the kitchen, baking--BAKING, I TELL YOU--a black raspberry coffee cake for our breakfast. I should have known then what we were in for. Note from the Boo: It had CHOCOLATE in it, yo.

In an attempt to get food off of our minds for FIVE MINUTES, we piled into the car and headed out to the beach. It was lovely, wasn't it--lying under the blue skies, watching (but going nowhere near) the surf, smelling the salt and noodling our toes around in the hot sand? The beach was mostly empty for probably one of the last days of the impending summer before the masses descend in their marc jacobs sunglasses, malia mills bikinis, packing shrimp salad from the barefoot contessa...

There's something about the beach air that even if you've had eggs and toast and cheese and jam and coffeecake a few short hours before, makes you hungry. We had planned to hold out until dinner but after an hour on the sand our stomachs were grumbling and we just had to stop at the deli where they make the best italian hoagies this side of...wherever italian hoagies were born. We cut them up into little bite sized pieces (since everyone knows that releases the calories into the air) and nibbled out on the deck. Let me say that whoever thought to put artichokes on a roast beef sandwich is a genius and I'd like to shake his hand.
And then it was time to start dinner.
Ribs from Esposito's, perfectly done spice-rubbed chicken, all made by our uncle the Pit Master, salad with vinaigrette, roasted potatoes, and garlic bread. Oh, and one of the best blueberry crisps ever. Don't you agree?
After bagels and lox the next morning ('neath the sun, naturally), the Aunt announced we had to do SOME kind of activity lest we spend the entire weekend lying on the floor, groaning 'pass me just one more of those ribs'. So off we set to take a nature walk on a trail next to the duck pond we used to go to all the time when we were little. It took about fifteen seconds of watching the overfed birds paddle around before conversation turned to duck. As in--"How hard do you think it would be to catch that fat one over there?" and "I bet grilled duck would be good." "Peking duck is still my favorite." "I have this great recipe for duck with port sauce and sour cherries," "How about fried baby duckling? Nice and crispy...." It's an illness, Boo. And we have clearly inherited it.

Home we went to start the pizza process.

I don't want to go into too much detail since I think this deserves it's own entry in the near future, but suffice it to say that our cousin D, an honorary Italian after all the years he's spent living there, initiated a 24 hour process of dough-making and then grilling and topping like you wouldn't believe. Or you would, since you witnessed it.
There was mixing, and resting, and rising, then kneading (it's all in the wrist):
then this, to create air pockets:
Then the window pane test, to make sure the glutens have developed and the dough is elastic enough:
Then the grill was fired up and the tastebuds began to salivate. Unfortunately, we were aiming for 600 degrees but the grill refused to go above about 450. The oven might have been faster, but, as I mentioned, there's just something about cooking and eating outside, that we were willing to wait, wafting the charcoal scent, watching the sun make it's lazy arc, listening to the dog barking and the birds rustling in the trees.

A bowl of addictive corn salad, two focaccias with speck and arugula, 10--count em, TEN-- margherita pizzas with charred crispy crusts and creamy mozzarella, and a fluffy coconut cake later, fat-bellied and well-fed, we reluctantly packed up and headed for the train.

A beautiful weekend of good food, great family, fresh salt air, and precious sun. There really is nothing like it. I always laugh when I see New Yorkers, desperate for a little outdoor space, squeeze into tables under scaffolding, just feet away from idling cars and construction sites, eating their dinners. But you can't blame them for trying. Spring air makes jokes funnier, stories more exciting, your date better looking, and food, well, just BETTER.


The Mouse

Memorial Day Blueberry Crisp
(adapted from Martha Stewart by our gorgeous Aunt)

For the filling:
6 cups (3 pints) blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
1.5 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

For the topping:
(This recipe yields 3 cups, enough for 2 crisps. Good to have extra on hand to turn any fruit into a crisp.)
1-1/4 cups flour
6 Tablespoons brown sugar
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoons salt
2/3 cup ground pecans
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
12 Tablespoons chilled butter


Preheat oven to 375°. Make the filling: Mix blueberries, sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice, and salt in a bowl. Transfer to an 8-inch square baking dish.

Make the topping: Stir together flour, sugars, salt, cinnamon and pecans in a mixing bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and work into flour mixture with fingers, until crumbly.

Sprinkle topping evenly over filling. Bake until bubbling in center and brown on top, about 1 hour. Transfer to a wire rack, and let cool for 30 minutes before serving.

NOTE: If your brown sugar is hard as a rock, don't throw it out! Put in a bowl and lay a damp paper towel over the sugar. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and leave overnight. It'll soften up perfectly.