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Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

Flexi Fridays: Polenta Pizza

In Home Cookin', Uncategorized on February 27, 2009 at 11:34 pm

I’m Catholic and it’s Lent, so I’ve decided to use Fridays this year as an excuse to img_04451attempt to up my game on vegetarian dishes. A great dish I have been meaning to try is a breakfast polenta pizza, as described in the NYTimes dining section a couple of weeks ago. I’m a big fan of brunch-y food and this turned out really well this morning. Essentially, its a shallow bed of simple baked polenta, topped with whatever you like. Bittman’s original recipe calls for pancetta and spinach, which sounds great, but doesn’t work for my no-meat Fridays. Instead, I quickly sauteed crimini mushrooms for that meaty texture, spinach and some leftover caramelized onions from turkey burger night. I spread that spinach mixture on top of the baked polenta, dotted it with some canned diced tomatoes from TJ’s and a little shredded mozzarella. What was amazing was how filling and flavorful it was, with very few calories and lots of nutritional value. My husband, a devoted fan of meat and eggs for breakfast, swore up and down that there must be eggs somewhere in it, because it felt so substantial in his mouth. The polenta base is firm but moist and creamy and the mix of savory items on top invites infinite experimentation based on what you’ve got hanging around. This weekend, why not give the waffle iron a rest?

Be My Valentine: Discovery

In Uncategorized on February 15, 2009 at 8:28 pm

Often, when you’re in love, you make some sort of long term commitment to the

An eager taster ignores the instructions to smell and observe each piece before devouring.

An eager taster ignores the instructions to smell and observe each piece before devouring.

object of your affection. For some, that may be moving in together or getting married or getting a pet. For others, it may be simply making plans for a trip six weeks down the road. Either way, the longer you are together, the more you learn about each other. Whether you see these “new insights” as exciting discoveries or they make you feel like you’re getting something besides what you signed up for can often determine the outcome of the relationship. But what happens when your beloved is chocolate? The thrill of discovery can lead to new roads, and may force to you leave old, treasured friends.

We went to a History of Chocolate Presentation and Tasting today at the Riverside Heritage House, delivered by law professor David Skubik. Dr. Skubik’s talk was focused on the historic origins of chocolate and the choices consumers face today in the increasingly complex world of chocolate bars. Several news sources have written articles in the past few months on the possible recession resistance of luxury chocolate bars, so I was glad to hear Dr. Skubik’s instruct the audience in discerning one expensive bar’s origins from another. I’d never heard of “blood chocolate” before, but was surprised to learn that chocolate produced in the Ivory Coast is often produced on the backs of modern day slaves, in the midst of horrific civil conflict. According to Dr. Skubik, 85% of today’s chocolate is made from Forestero type beans, which are primarily grown in West Africa. I’ve been so busy looking for the percentages of cocoa and sugar content, but will now also make an effort to look into geographic sources.

Much like the coffee industry, there is a widespread gap between how much you pay for that nice, gold foil wrapped bar and the price growers and farmworkers get paid for the beans. Another option for conscious consumers besides point of origin is to look for cooperative-farm sourced chocolates as well.

I hated chocolate for most of my life, finding the treasured Nestle Crunch, M&Ms and Kisses of our youth too sugary and sweet. Discovering dark chocolate and mole as an adult slowly brought me into the chocolate fold. However, it was clear at the lecture that several self-proclaimed chocoholics who had lifelong love affairs with the aforementioned mainstream brands were repulsed by the idea that chocolates with a higher percentage of cocoa were gaining on the popularity of their beloved Hershey bar. My own husband actually turned to me during the presentation and revealed that he loves that ultimate imposter, white chocolate. All of this is to say that, as Dr. Skubik emphasized repeatedly, the best chocolate is the one that tastes best and is most affordable to you. But, he added, you should always be willing to expand your palette and experience the thrill of discovering new facets of your favorite flavors as well.

Here are a few books that Dr. Skubik recommended for those who want to learn more:

Sophie and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 2nd Edition

Chloe Doutre-Roussel, The Chocolate Connoisseur

Mort Rosenblum, Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light

And here are the sources for the chocolates we used in the tasting:

TCHO chocolates are made from beans grown in farmer cooperatives in Peru, ethically-run farms in Ghana and other responsible sources. Their factory is in San Francisco and my favorite chocolate in the tasting was their “Fruity.”

My close second was Intentional Chocolate from Hawaii. They claim their chocolates are infused with positive “intentions” or prayers in the Buddhist tradition. I’m not an expert, but I sure do feel good when I’m eating them.

Be My Valentine: Longing

In Uncategorized on February 15, 2009 at 7:27 pm

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In my book, longing is a deep-seeded yearning type of feeling. It’s not exactly those times when you are first dating someone and counting the hours until they come pick you up for your next date. It’s more like those weekday nights when you are cooking dinner, wishing they didn’t work so late, briefly worrying about traffic on their behalf, just hoping they come home safely. Longing is not flashy, like obsession or missing someone. No, I’d say its more quiet and more constant.

I have a similar relationship to summer fruits, except peaches. Around September, when the farmer’s markets shrink a bit, and apples and pears begin to emerge, I know the days of messy, juicy fruits are over for another year. I think about them in odd moments of the day during the fall and brief winter…”it would be so much easier to have a snack right now if there were just some fresh plums,” or “I wouldn’t wolf down so much espresso gelato if I had some fresh nectarines.” I don’t drive myself crazy seeking them out in the first blush of spring, but until I get my hands on some summery fruits every year, they are always there in the back of my mind with other mundane things.

To stave off the pangs of longing, I do the frozen fruit compromise. I put away some of my own from especially abundant days at the farmer’s market, but I’m ususally too busy gobbling the juicy delights up to have the discipline to save for later. In the world of convenently commercially frozen fruits, I’ve found whole foods usually has the best and priciest selection. My best middle ground has often been Trader Joe’s Mango, Raspberry & Blueberry melange. It’s versatile, useful sized chunks actually taste pretty good when thawed out. Thawed by themselves with some fresh whipped cream or just a splash of coconut milk and raw sugar sprinkled on top is one pleasant option for those days when the world outside is gray. On nights like tonight, when we eat heavy, winter meals like coq au vin or turkey meatloaf, it’s refreshing to whip up a little instant sorbet so that you don’t taste meat in the back of your mouth all evening. Mark Bittman has a great video on this and it literally takes about 30 seconds, and three ingredients you already have. Why not? The best antidote to patient, drawn-out longing, is often the rush that only comes from instant gratification.

Mark Bittman’s Super Simple Sorbet

Be My Valentine: Second Chances

In Home Cookin' on February 10, 2009 at 4:39 am

For the second installment in our series about other ways to express “love” we img_0425come to the sometimes controversial topic of second chances. In my opinion, you can’t give someone a real, bonafide, no strings attached second chance unless you truly love them. The controversy comes in when you start trying to decide where to draw the line. For instance, if my husband were to sneak off to Vegas and gamble away our savings, I’d say no to a second chance. However, if he went to Vegas on a wife-sanctioned trip and lost $200 and smoked like a chimney, he’d probably be forgiven and given a second chance to go to Vegas.  In maybe six years.

I think the same thing goes for Giada de Laurentiis. Like many food snobs, I’ve relocated my food tv watching from the Food Network to PBS. If I never see another show about “diners, drive-ins and dives” it will be too soon. However, I can’t abandon my love for Giada. Could be the ephemeral beachside life she appears to live, could be her ability to wear incredibly low cut tops and not burn herself while cooking…I can’t be sure. I will say this; every recipe of hers that I have tried has turned out wonderfully. Tonight, for example, I had a bit of leftover grenache that I couldn’t part with and her recipe for red wine risotto came out at the top of the Google results. I’ve been meaning to try red wine risotto for a while and despite the awful purple color, it was fantastic. The risotto had a heft and depth of flavor I hadn’t achieved before, and unlike some other risotto recipes I’ve tried, wasn’t heavy handed with the parmesan. So if you’ve poo-pooed the food network and Giada in the past, I recommend giving it another go. You don’t have to actually watch the shows, but grab some recipes off the website and remember fondly those days when we were all thrilled to discover a channel that had cooking on 24/7.

Giada’s Red Wine Risotto

Be My Valentine: Comfort

In Home Cookin' on February 9, 2009 at 12:09 am

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This week, in honor of the Hallmark company’s favorite day of the year, I’m going to feature dishes that make me feel the love. Love is such an extensively analyzed and discussed emotion, it’s complementary feelings–like comfort, desire and passion–often get overlooked. This week’s dishes will explore a few of love’s overlooked brethren.
Since it’s a dreary, rainy weekend, I thought we should start with comfort. In college, my housemates always knew when someone was having a birthday or a major crisis; our roommate Lauren would fill the house with the smell of her perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies. They were her go-to gesture when a friend needed a pick-me-up or a last minute birthday surprise. I never found out the recipe, but have been pursuing her cookies’ perfect texture and melty goodness ever since. Her cookies didn’t just feel good going down, they made you feel good all over.
Hey, if you are already making chocolate chip cookies from scratch, people will love you anyway. But maybe try a few of the lessons I’ve learned in my quest for the most comforting chocolate chip cookie anyway. Couldn’t hurt.
1. PATIENCE. I’ve read in various “ultimate cookie” articles and such over the past year that you should let your cookie dough rest in the fridge for a day or so before baking it. That is pretty tough, especially when you’ve been tasting raw dough as you mix and getting excited about eating the finished product. But it’s true and totally worth it. Cover that dough really well, pop it in the fridge and you’ll have a dough the next day that doesn’t spread so much in the oven and a cookie with a delicious, buttery crumb.
2. MIX IT UP. I am not talking about m & m’s, nuts, or whatever else you have been tempted to throw in there. Rather, chocolate chip cookies are a good opportunity for cheap upgrades in the type of chocolate you use, before you start muddling the flavor with other stuff. Lots of sources say to use the best quality chocolate you can afford, but how does that compute with years of eating the back of the nestle bag recipe? My compromise is to use 2/3 ok chips (I use Trader Joe’s semisweet) and 1/3 very nice organic, 75% dark chocolate chips. The result is not too sugary or artificial tasting with a very nostalgic chocolate texture.
3. TIMING. When my Auntie Doris makes her oatmeal cookies, she puts the sheets in the oven, flicks on the interior light and squats in front of the closed door, waiting for the exact, perfect moment to take them out. I’m too obsessed with multi-tasking for that, but her cookies are damn near perfect. My strategy does require you to stay close, but lets a timer do the worrying.
Step 1: Put your first sheet (or two in the oven), set the timer for 5 minutes. Finishing nibbling raw dough and worrying about salmonella, and start cleaning up.
Step 2: When the timer goes off, rotate the sheets and switch racks to get even color and cooking. Set the timer for 4 minutes. Wash the dishes.
Step 3: When the 4 minute timer goes off, flip on the light and look at your cookies. If they look they need one more minute, take them out. If they have almost no color around the edges and look really pale in the middle, leave them in for another minute. Total time shouldn’t exceed about 10 minutes.
Step 4: Take the sheet out, leave the cookies on the hot sheet for two minutes.
Step 5: Move cookies to drying racks for at least three minutes. Pour yourself some milk, shoo away over-expectant onlookers.
Step 6: Eat those bad boys. Revel in the crispy exterior, and chewy, warm interior. Feel comforted.