Tuesday, September 29, 2009

True Crime

Dear Boo,

I'm going to make this quick, because let's face it, I'm already behind in my reading for school, and I give myself another three hours before I start nodding out from my day of chasing 6th and 7th graders through the halls, trying to quell the urge to scream like a banshee and drag them by their hair back to class.

BUT in the name of justice, I couldn't possibly let another day go by without writing to you about what the Boyfriend says might be the best thing I've ever made (frankly I'm a little hurt being that it's like the simplest thing ever and I can't take any credit for the recipe). These slow roasted tomatoes are quite simply the essence of all that is lovely about a tomato and I am totally enamored by them. They've made their way through the blogosphere (kill me if I ever use that word again), originating with an article in Bon Appetit by Molly, the author of Orangette, so I'm sure you've come across them at some point, but it is a CRIME that I haven't yet shared it here. I'm doubly guilty because I'm passing it on now, when the season of plum tomatoes is but days longer, and while the recipe claims you can use good quality canned tomatoes (which I will inevitably stoop to, since I can't possibly wait another whole YEAR before I make these again) it's really best with fresh, ripe, warm from the sun, tomatoes.
And so, I urge you, not just to absolve me somewhat of my guilt, to get thee to the farmers market, find some plum tomatoes, grab a baguette and some soft aged goat cheese, and slow roast like you've never slow roasted before. You will SO not be sorry.

Come to think of it, while you're at it you might as well do a whole farewell to summer vegetables feast (and invite me over). For the Boyfriend's recent birthday, before going to see ARETHA freakin FRANKLIN at radio city, we had a little tapas-style early dinner featuring some of the queens of summer. It made for a gorgeous celebration and lined our stomachs for the late night tacos and beer that followed.
There was: corn with feta and mint butter (I think I ate half that bowl), guacamole and chips, shrimp with homemade cocktail sauce, 'pimentos de padron' blistered in a pan with salt and lemon juice (one in ten is hot, so it's a fun game of russian roulette), a nice piece of gouda, and the onion jam I canned earlier in the summer. Oh, and a peach and blackberry cobbler. The birthday boy's gotta have something to wish on...

But, as always, it all came down to the tomatoes. So go. Now. Make these. And just try to tell me life isn't a leeeettle bit better for it. I rest my case.

Cafe Lago's/Orangette/Bon Appetit's
Pomodori Al Forno...

1 cup olive oil
2 lbs plum tomatoes halved lengthwise and seeded
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh Italian parsley (I like a little more)
1 Baguette
Aged goat cheese

Preheat oven to 250. Pour 1/2 cup oil into a 13x9x2 inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Arrange tomatoes in dish, cut side up. Drizzle with remaining 1/2 cup oil. Sprinkle with oregano, sugar, and salt. Bake 1 hour. Using tongs, turn tomatoes over. Bake 1 hour longer. Turn tomatoes over again. Bake until deep red and very tender, transferring tomatoes to plate when soft (time will vary, depending on ripeness of tomatoes), about 15 to 45 minutes longer.

Layer tomatoes in medium bowl, sprinkling garlic and parsley over each layer; reserve oil in baking dish. Drizzle tomatoes with reserved oil, adding more if necessary to cover. Let stand at room temperature 2 hours. DO AHEAD: Cover, chill up to 5 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Would also be delicious over pasta, or pizza, or chicken, or an old shoe.


The Mouse

Monday, September 21, 2009

Turnover the Season

Dear Mouse,

Happy Fall!!!

This was quite the feasting weekend. Friday and Saturday I went to TWO separate Rosh Hashanah dinners at two very food-savvy homes (my friend EKT, who did a Persian-themed menu, and our family's.) Now, while I did eat like a Queen, I feel we have already rhapsodized at length in this blog about our family's seasonal showstoppers. It's beyond the reach of my pen to describe them further. So, I will just say this: leftover cold beef brisket on a toasted English muffin spread with Nervous Nellie's tomato chutney. You're welcome.

For this post, I will instead turn to the other holiday meal that rounded out a weekend of seasonal reflection and munching: the Fall Equinox dinner that I always host at my place. It usually involves a roast chicken and something with apples. I based the dinner on that idea and on what was at the local Sunnyside Farmer's Market*.

from left: kale w/chopped bacon* & red wine vinegar, chicken baked in a bag w/mushrooms & thyme, roasted new potatoes w/pesto*, cheddar & apple* turnovers w/walnuts & dried cranberries.

Let's just revisit that last one.
from the exciting, apple-centric Fall issue of Bon Appetit
(Thanks for the subscription, Mouse!)

I am not exaggerating when I say I HAD to make them, because I read the recipe and couldn't stop thinking about them for a week. Sharp cheddar and golden delicious apples? With dried cranberries & walnuts, encased in flaky puff pastry? Also, it started a lively FaceBook debate, a first:

The Boo, via iPhone:
Is phyllo the same as puff pastry?

#1: yes :-)
#2: Yep. Just a fancy schmancy way of saying it! :)
#3: It's the Greek version.
#4:you can get some handmade premade phyllo in the freezer section of the greek bakery on 9th and 45th
#5: Actually, unfortunately that's not true. They are different recipes and different handling procedures. Puff pastry is infinitely easier and less temperamental. Phyllo dough is a nightmare to work with. But yes, you can get frozen versions of both at the supermarket.
Yeah, they're actually not the same thing at all. You can sometimes substitute one for the other, but not automatically.Both are basically ways of producing multiple layers of dough with butter in between, but that effect is achieved differently. Phyllo comes in individual paper-thin sheets, and you assemble multiple layers of it, brushing each sheet with melted butter and stacking them. Puff pastry starts as a relatively thick layer of dough topped with a layer of softened butter. These are folded (usually in threes) and then rolled out; the process is repeated and you eventually end up with multiple layers of dough and softened butter. When you buy puff pastry at the store, it is thus essentially "pre-assembled," whereas with phyllo you generally must do the layering yourself.
#5 again:
Yes, and also, Phyllo doesn't "puff", hence the naming distinction.

Thanks guys! I think we all learned something here. In the end, I spent like $11 on a fancy kind of PP at Whole Foods when I KNOW (because Ina Garten told me) that Pepperidge Farm makes it for like half that. But I had a turnover schedule to keep. It was golden delicious all right -- puffy, flaky, very, very rich. A Fall Equinox croissant in savory clothing. I'd like to try a phyllo version next and see how that goes. They are very easy and good. I will say that I like more filling than the recipe yields. It's supposedly enough for 8 turnovers, and I made four with almost all the filling. But to each his own.

The Fall Equinox is a harvest festival, known in some traditions as Second Harvest (first being Aug 1), also known as the Wine Harvest. After the 'grain harvest' of August (which is all about home-baked bread), the focus turns to the last of the fruit crops before the winter...ie, apple mania. We had some great dinner conversation about this, the idea of the Harvest in our lives. Looking back over the year, what did we gather, both good and bad? Can we be thankful for both, and use both? As a wise woman once put it, "Poo is also Fertilizer". Oh, right, that was you. :-)

I like to think we can take our, ahem, 'fertilizer' (our mistakes, our misfortunes) and from them draw richness of experience and new beginnings. Take, for example, the truly terrible quinoa salad I made last week. I didn't let it cool before mixing the black beans, corn, and lime juice dressing into it, and it was a soggy, bewildering mess. BUT it made great burrito filling!! One package of tortillas later, I had a week's lunch in my freezer.

Happy composting,

The Boo

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Gift of Food

Dear Boo,

This past Monday evening, at a meeting for my theater company, my friend, MB, greeted me with a hug, and in a conspiratorial tone, whispered, "I have a gift for you". You see, MB, a food enthusiast himself, (and proud member of the Park Slope Co-op) has taken to bringing me a small sample of produce, knowing I may be one of the few people he's met who will appreciate a fresh spring onion slipped into my purse at a bar, or a tiny, perfectly ripe, dusty-looking, mottled plum, tucked into the palm of my hand. What MB couldn't have known at that moment, on that Monday night, was just how significant, how special, how perfectly appropriate that small gift was.

It would be a grand understatement to say that the past few weeks have been challenging at best and downright rough with a capital R at worst. And while on the surface, with so much going on, food seems like an afterthought, a minor diversion to be relegated to subsistence-level in the face of bigger and heavier issues, I've found that my mind and heart keep coming back to it as a sort of touchstone. And in that moment, when a small, smooth plum was dropped into my hand, I could not think of any other gesture, large or tiny, that could have been more comforting or more perfect.

What MB didn't know was that the day before the plum, we had to say goodbye to a certain orange, fluffy, four-legged member of our family. Ollie was a gentleman among dogs, a proud, gentle, and dare I say eccentric, fellow whose silky golden plume of a tail waved as majestically as any flag. We watched as, in recent years, that tail tucked itself under him, almost immobile with arthritis, and his jaunty aristocratic gait transformed into a stiff shuffle. While the doggie diapers were cute, for a proud old guy, you could just sense the humiliation. I think I finally faced just how old our poor friend was getting when I learned that he could no longer snack on scraps from the table, little squares of cheddar, a scrambled egg yolk or two, or leftover giblets from the roast chicken, set aside just for him. I think the thought of a life deprived of anything but special dry dietary dog food sounded just too unbearably cruel.

We give gifts of food often when there are no words that will suffice. Casseroles dropped off at a home where a loved one has passed away, an ice cream cone after a tough day at fifth grade when there's no way to explain that sometimes, people are just mean, breaking bread when the argument has run its course and its better to pass the peas than say "I'm sorry" (remember that incredible last scene in Big Night when Stanley Tucci makes an omelet for his brother, and you just know they've forgiven each other without a single word?). When I started grad school a couple of weeks ago, one of my biggest fears was that I wouldn't have the time or energy to cook. But I've found myself, amidst the chaos of all that's happened in the past months and days, returning again and again to my kitchen. I spent a few minutes feeling guilty for cooking when I should have been reading, but I quickly realized how crucial it is (and will be) that I give myself this gift. A quiet moment alone in the kitchen, watching my hands create something real, something nourishing, something that doesn't require words or analysis or explanations, is more than a gift. It's a necessity.

The "elephant heart" plum. Even more gorgeous after a bite.

On my last walk with Ollie, we stopped off at the deli on the corner and bought a quarter pound of roast beef and a little tin foil pouch full of crispy bacon. There is no easy way to say goodbye to a dog who has given you unconditional love for the past 15 years. And there are certainly no words that can provide him any comfort. But there is no question that the best gift you can give, aside from love, of course, is all the bacon he can eat. As he tripped along after the scent of my greasy fingers in his stiff, loping gait, I caught a glimpse of the excited young puppy who wandered into our lives, nuzzling our laps with his big black nose, and reminding us that every morsel is a gift.


The Mouse

P.S. If you feel so inclined, give the gift of food to some needy dogs...
Click here to help people feed their pets during difficult economic times....
Every click on this website means a donation of food and shelter to animal rescue.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Ghost of Muffins Past

Or, what happens when you are preparing a 'Xmas Carol' audition and baking at the same time; A Short Play.

Dear Mouse,

With my apologies and assurances that this is the last post involving either Maine or Muffins.

Scene: a tiny cheerful kitchen in Queens. The Boo is at her computer, surrounded by baking implements and open cookbooks. She stares at the screen, clicking furiously.

A sudden flash of white light - no, a rolling, salty fog - fills the apartment.

An apparition appears in the window. It looks like, I dont know, a bag of chocolate chips holding a lobster roll.

The Boo: "Are you the spirit whose coming was foretold to me?"
Spirit: "I am."

Boo: "Well, who and what are you then? What are you doing here? And can I have some of that lobster roll?"

MP: "No. I am the Ghost of Muffins Past."

Boo: "Oo, great! So do YOU have the recipe I'm looking for? I made these amazing chocolate chip muffins one night in Maine, from a recipe in a little cookbook that was in our kitchen at the house, and I can't remember the name, it was something like "Maine Attractions", and I've been googling it and there's just nothing out there. I even took a picture of the recipe with my phone and I seem to have erased it. They were soooo good! They had this kind of crackly top and the texture was much more sturdy/substantial and cake/bready than the kind of wimpy, fluffy, 'ooh they're so tender, I just ate ten of them and I'm still not full' version so many people seem to think they like better. But EVERYone loved these. They were like the Dunkin Donuts kind, but smaller and more wholesome. Damnit. I can't believe it."

GMP: "I do not have the recipe, nor the title of the book. Sorry."

Boo: "Well, thanks a lot. On what business have you come then?"

GMP: "Business? Your welfare, your education, your kitchen cred."

Boo: "Spirit, I am too old. I cannot change. I have always worked with recipes when it comes to baking. I just can't believe I can make this work from memory."

GMP: "Shut me out at your peril! You will probably never find this cookbook again. The time has come - again - to trust your own instincts. Come and walk with me, into your past. What do you remember?"

Boo: "Well ... I remember that there were 3 eggs, which seemed like a lot ... and that we were out of regular sugar so I used a mix of Sugar in the Raw we had in the cabinet, and some brown sugar... and just hoped for the best."

GMP: "I see.. so the raw sugar was YOUR idea. And do you remember the title of this recipe?"

Boo: "Let me go, Spirit, I have seen enough!"

GMP: "The title!"

Boo: "Ah -it was - No - Yes - 'Maine Blueberry Muffins".

GMP: "Aha! So it was not even a chocolate chip muffin recipe at all! The chocolate chips were YOUR idea as well."

Boo: "What are you driving at, spirit?"

GMP: "Take heed! You need no recipe book. You remember! You can recreate it yourself! Just find a basic muffin recipe and make it with 3 eggs and raw sugar. "

Boo: "Spirit, I am not the Boo I was! I'll do it!"

GMP: "Good. Just remember to trust your senses. When your kitchen smells amazing and the muffins are brown at the edges, take them out. Don't sit there counting the minutes just because the recipe says to; you'll burn the bottoms."

Boo: "God bless us, every one. "

GMP: "So, what do I, take the 7 to get out of here ? Ok, right, bye."

The Boo's Raw-Sugar Chocolate Chip Muffins:

1 C raw sugar, or mix of raw & brown
3 eggs
2 C flour
1 C chocolate chips
2 tsp baking powder
1 stick butter (1/2 C)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 C milk.

Preheat oven to 375. Grease a muffin pan. With your hands, mash butter & sugar together in bowl til basically creamy; dont really 'cream' it. it's ok if there are some lumps, really. Add eggs one at a time and mix. (ok, you can use a spoon for that part.) In another bowl: flour, baking powder, salt. Mix with (clean) hand. Ok, NOW you can use a large spoon as you add flour mixture and milk alternately to butter/sugar bowl, mixing just enough to blend between additions. Fill each muffin cup 3/4 full. Stick in oven until kitchen smells divine, muffins are golden, puffed, and brown at edges, and fork stuck in one comes out clean. I'm gonna say 20 min but mine were done a bit faster. And the bottoms were black because I didn't believe it. Dont let this happen to you.

The Boo
10-20-09 Ok, my beautiful friend Helena ordered me the cookbook which is called Maine Ingredients, and is pretty much out of print. And it turns out that also part of the magic is in the use of half-and-half instead of milk; I'd forgotten that.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Amy's Bread vs Sarabeth's: A chocolate croissant throwdown

Dear Boo,

While I fear this isn't really a Labor Day-appropriate post, I think we can all agree that there is never an INappropriate time for a chocolate croissant. Pretty much all of life's moments are made better by a flaky, buttery, chocolatey bite of one of these.

There are a plethora of bakeries in New York from which to purchase said life-improving item, and at times the options can get overwhelming. If one is not careful, the angsting over which bakery to visit can seriously get in the way of the immediate gratification often associated with the pain au chocolat. So, the Boyfriend and I have taken some of the guesswork out of the process for you by staging a throwdown between two of the city's most venerable baking institutions. You can thank me later.

The Contenders:
In this corner on the left, we have the Manhattan Stallion, Amy's Bread! And in the right corner (?), the Butter Queen of the East, Sarabeth's!

And now for a closeup:

Note stylistic differences. Sarabeth's a neat striated package of pastry, Amy's Bread, a more freeform, double-action look. Both have two lanes of chocolate, Amy's just likes to show it off.

I appreciated the neatness of Sarabeth's but really liked seeing the chocolate right off the bat. As Ina Garten likes to remind us, it's nice to garnish a plate with one of the less visible flavors of the dish so your guests can eat with their eyes first, knowing what they're about to taste. I like surprises too, though, so I was torn. The Boyfriend was hungry.

First Bite goes to Sarabeth's:

Okay, so maybe this was a few bites in. And yes, I needed a manicure. We tried Sarabeth's first. Delicious. Chocolate was near the surface and appeared in the first taste, as it should. Pastry was more chewy than flaky, with an airy quality and not too sweet flavor. Chocolate was dark and rich. (Just how I like my men). Overall, a great product.

First bite, Amy's Bread:

Heaven. As you can see from the picture, Amy's is much, much flakier, with the top couple of crispiest bits practically separating entirely from the softer, chewier inner layers. The top and bottom also tasted much more distinctly of butter, with a nice salty hint that was a great foil to the sweet creaminess of the chocolate, which we also felt was slightly more flavorful. Amy's left that thin layer of butter grease and pastry flakes on the roof of your mouth, which is, for me, the true croissant experience.

The Verdict:
A knockout. Both the Boyfriend and I unanimously voted in favor of Amy's Bread. And yes, there was blind voting with nary a hanging, dimpled, or pregnant chad in sight (how you like that 2000 reference?). Amy's was superior in texture with the perfect balance of flaky outside, infinite layers of buttery dough, and chewy, elastic interior, whereas Sarabeth's was a bit more puffy and chewy and lacking flake. Amy's butter flavor really kicked you in the teeth, which, let's face it, aside from the chocolate, is kind of the whole point. And flavor-wise, it was rich and delicate, sweet and salty, and quite parfait, if you ask me.

Any contenders to unseat Amy's? I'm thinking Bouley Bakery might be next up, or possibly Eli's. Any others I'm missing?


The Mouse

Hungry for More? Amy's Bread just came out with a pastry and sweet-stuff cookbook so you can take some of her recipes home.